Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

They Are ‘Legion’: Tracking the Superhero Show’s Key Horror References

March 30, 2017

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While Lynch gets the “Legion”-related headlines, another director named David seems to have left an even deeper mark. That would be David Cronenberg, who made a name for himself with a series of body-horror films that depicted the disturbing interplay between mind and matter, often with a conspiratorial backdrop of sinister secret agencies or killer corporations out to harness psychic power for their own ends.

“Legion” paints in shades of Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” with its pulsating inanimate objects; “Shivers,” with its parasite imagery; “The Brood,” with its story of a powerful telepath under the care of a manipulative therapist (played by Oliver Reed, who may have lent both his name and his machismo to the guru figure Oliver Bird); and most especially “Scanners,” with its all-out war between rival psychic factions and a protagonist who’s telepathically tormented by the voices in his head. (“Scanners” also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a very familiar-looking deep sea diver suit).

I wrote about David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Legion’s other major horror influences for the New York Times. I have my beefs with Legion, but it’s porting its horror references into a whole different genre, as opposed to Stranger Things, which is just reheating them in the microwave and trying to pass of leftovers as a fresh-cooked dish.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 11: “Defiance”

March 29, 2017

But all the business-y bullshit that everyone has to go through to get to any of these points — all the car rides and hallway lurkings and door knockings and arguments on the threshold — it’s just pure wasted space. As a practical matter it makes next to no sense in a world where phones exist. But more importantly, it posits a world in which human beings only interact with one each other for reasons of righteous indignation or naked duplicity. You go to someone’s house, you bully them or bullshit them, and you leave. It’s a lot like Eddie’s silly blindfolded needle-threading exercise — the focus is on getting everything where the story needs it to be rather than asking why it’s going there in the first place. For a show that’s ostensibly about the deep truths of human existence…well, I kinda want to pop into the writers’ room and tell them what’s going wrong.

I counted damn near a dozen Seinfeld-style “pop-ins” used to advance the plot of this week’s episode of The Path, which I reviewed for Decider. This is no way to write a show, man.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

March 29, 2017

I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.

I reviewed this week’s oddly worrying episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Indian Four”

March 29, 2017

Isn’t it nice to have a show that can legitimately outsmart you—not just bury some easter-egg clues in a storyline and wait for you to find them, but convincingly construct characters whose intellect, talent, and emotional acumen keep them several steps ahead of your own?

I had a lot to say about this week’s Billions in my review for the New York Observer, but this pretty much sums it up.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

March 24, 2017

Fortunately for David, diagnosis is nine-tenths of the cure. Now that he knows the source of his sickness, he’s able to shake it off and break through the barriers of his mind. With a little help from his mutant friends, he shuts down the hospital hallucination they’ve all been experiencing, seizes control of his own body, subdues the Shadow King, stops the bullets fired at him and Syd mid-flight and lives to fight government mutant-hunters another day. Simple, really!

No, seriously. The real secret of “Legion” is that it is a simple story, when all is said and done. Unlike, say, “Westworld,” none of the show’s countless Easter eggs, deliberate details and plot-twist trickery are essential to understanding the story. They’re aesthetic elements, not narrative ones; they exist not to convert the show into a puzzle-box but to make it an objet d’art, successfully or not. The simplicity of David’s origin and of his nemesis, as revealed in this episode, should make that clear. (Even a passing knowledge of the Marvel comics upon which the show is based — in which the writer Chris Claremont established the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, as David’s father and cocreated Farouk as one of their most powerful enemies — would have made it clear to a sizable chunk of the audience already.)

But while this simplicity allows “Legion” to cut through the Gordian knot of needlessly byzantine plotting that has plagued other genre shows of recent vintage, the blade is double-edged. Lacking narrative necessity, the show’s stylistic flourishes are free to sink or swim on their own. By that standard, they too often hit bottom.

The climax of tonight’s episode is a case in point. It’s an all-roads-converge kind of deal, in which Syd and Kerry’s battle with Farouk’s alter ego Lenny in the hospital simulation; Cary, Melanie and Oliver’s struggle to shield Syd’s and David’s bodies from the bullets in the time-frozen real world; and David’s attempt to psychically shatter the doors of his mind-prison all sync up successfully at the last second, saving their skins and stopping the bad guys simultaneously.

But all that action should be enough to stand on its own without the cutesy context the filmmakers provide. What is gained by having the fight play out like a silent movie, shot in black and white with dialogue printed as intertitles and Lenny gussied up in Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp meets Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands drag? Why is the musical accompaniment an EDM version of Ravel’s “Boléro”? Irony has its place in the frequently too portentous superhero subgenre, but here it undercuts the tension and terror without providing much compensatory value.

I reviewed this week’s penultimate episode of Legion for the New York Times. This show isn’t the worst thing on TV or anything like that, but at this point I am truly stunned that anyone thinks it’s great and am starting to mistrust critics who allege that it is.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Restitution”

March 24, 2017

This week on The Path, it’s Meyerist Yom Kippur. After meditating on their transgressions over the past year, the members of Doc’s movement write those they wish to relinquish down on a piece of paper and place in in a tiny wooden coffin they build and decorate for the occasion. They then take these coffins to the edge of an unnamed body of water and toss them in, as if consigning their sins to the depths.

Unfortunately, if you toss tiny floating wooden boxes into the shallow water of a lakeside beach, you’re not really gonna get rid of anything. So after the bulk of the group departs, a handful of Meyerists stay behind to—god, I feel stupider just typing this out—to fish the little coffins back out of the water and set them on fire. Which, again, is not a form of destruction to which they’d be amenable, since they’re made of wood that’s been soaking in a lake for a few hours.

Be that as it may! The real purpose of the sequence, and presumably the reason writer-creator Jessica Goldberg concocted the cockamamie “We cleanse our transgress so we can burn the sins of last year” two-phase ritual in the first place, is so Richard can get his hands on Sarah’s little coffin, open it, and uncover her transgression to use against her—which he does by providing it to Eddie, so he can learn she’s trying to stop feeling guilty for getting together with his rival Cal.

Again, I’d imagine that tiny pieces of paper folded up and placed inside a non-waterproof wooden container before getting chucked into the fishpond or whatever are not the most reliable sources of intel. But Eddie had to find out about Cal and Sarah somehow, so by god, the ritual is going to involve throwing dark secrets into the water and then retrieving them just to destroy them—except, in this particular case, just to save them instead.

Every so often a show provides you with a perfect encapsulation of all its strengths or all its faults; this needlessly convoluted and rickety ritual is The Path writ small. Like those little coffins, the show’s characters get tossed in one direction before getting yanked back in the other, then get pried open for big emotional revelations that make little sense.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Path for Decider. This show, man.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three: “The Midges”

March 24, 2017

“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.

I reviewed this week’s typically strong episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Currency”

March 20, 2017

We open with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, as Mike “Wags” Wagner, the most Billions character on Billions, pours his heart out to his liege lord Bobby Axelrod and getting screamed at in response. No, wait—a “48 HOURS EARLIER” chyron reveals that we’re opening, with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, in South Korea, where some poor schmoe involved in the manufacture of some obviously faulty smartphone takes a header out his hotel window, cutting off the music and setting off a soft “thud” and the sounds of screeching cars and screaming pedestrians below. We cut to Mafee, one of Axe Captial’s mid-rung hedgebros, running headlong into Bobby’s office only to find him absent. We cut to where Bobby is: at a racetrack with his kid and Frenchy from Goodfellas, where he’s tring to get a line on the locale of an upstate New York casino that’s in the works until word about the smartphone debacle reaches him. And from there, it really is off to the races.

“Currency,” the fifth episode of Billions’ shockingly good second season, is as ruthlessly efficient a storytelling machine as its predecessors. There’s not a plot beat that doesn’t reveal character, and there’s not a character revelation that doesn’t advance the plot. Guest stars—from the aforementioned Mike “Frenchy” Starr, to Dennis Boutsikaris, Danny Strong, and Jerry O’Connell as recurring rival hedge fund gurus turned potential allies, to Ritchie Coster of True Detective Season Two doing a sort of Mayor Chessani redux as a gambling-industry hotshot, to Mad Men villain Allan “Lou Avery” Havey as the boss of Christopher Denham’s superlative rat-squad investigator Oliver Dake—shine. Leading players get some of their strongest moments, from Bobby ripping up Lara’s ambitions out of pique to Chuck admitting to Wendy that he’s always felt like she was out of his league—a confession she was utterly flummoxed to hear, which illustrates how strained their relationship really was. Jokes hit hard as well: cf. Bobby asking his hapless underling Mafee, who has a major tipoff but is afraid to divulge it, “Are you transmitting the details to me telepathically?”; Chuck asking his more competent subordinate Kate if she’s ever gone hunting and her replying “No—I’m black”; Chuck asking Go enthusiast Bryan Connerty if he takes a vow of celibacy to adhere to the game’s ancient roots and Bryan responding “No, that’s just the end result”; brash psychotherapist Dr. Gus barking at his boss Bobby to “Let me into that kitchen!”

All of this is in service to some of the tightest plotting on television.

Billions is so good right now. I reviewed last night’s super-taut episode for the New York Observer. Pay special attention to the structural sharp left turn it makes near the end of the episode — that’s damn strong writing.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six

March 20, 2017

Yet for all its intelligent design, the episode still feels as stuck in limbo as its characters. At no point are we in any doubt as to the nature of the situation: The devil with the yellow eyes has used David’s telepathic brain to construct a mental prison for him and his friends. We know they’re not crazy. We know their therapist is really their captor. We know the asylum in which they’ve been stowed is a simulacrum of the one David escaped in the pilot. We even know some of the dialogue they’re speaking, since it’s a deliberate repeat from scenes in that first episode. The only mystery is how they’ll break free, and since there are two episodes to go, that they will break free is a given. So it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off — and for the same weightless unreality that a dimly cognizant Syd complains to Dr. Busker about to begin taking hold of the viewer as well. Given the momentum the show had built as David gained control of his powers and then had them violently seized by his nemesis, devoting a full episode to this sense of stasis is a real shame.

It could be worse, however, at least if the ways in which the show really cuts loose in this episode are any indication. In a gravely miscalculated musical interlude, the devil-Lenny cavorts around David’s memories in a leotard and fishnets to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The song’s recent fate as a weight-loss jingle was bad enough, but to see it reduced to the soundtrack for a psychic parasite’s bump-and-grind — occasionally shot in silhouette against monochromatic red, like a James Bond title sequence — is somehow even more dispiriting, doubly so given the showrunner Noah Hawley’s impeccable use of found music in his other FX vehicle, “Fargo.” Like the easy allegory of the entire asylum-limbo story line, it’s a case of infatuation with form impeding function.

I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. More on this show soon.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Oz”

March 15, 2017

Now we’re talkin’! “Oz,” this week’s episode of The Path, is named for L. Frank Baum’s book — its use of the fraudulent “man behind the curtain” serving as a neat metaphor for cult life according to the deprogrammer who has her sights set on poor pregnant Mary and her husband Sean. But there’s some real wizardry involved in this episode, and I’m not just talking about Eddie’s mystical visions and paranormal bleeding. In the space of an hour, Eddie accepts his commission as the the true Guardian of the Light, joins forces with old-school Meyerists Richard and Felicia, resumes his ascent up Doc Meyer’s Ladder, and announces his intention to depose Cal and take over the movement. His estranged wife Sarah blackmails her more wayward followers into coughing up enough cash to save the movement, then helps both herself and Cal shake off their pain, guilt, and failures by embracing one another, figuratively and literally. His investigation momentarily stymied by the Meyerists’ new cash infusion, Abe quickly uncovers the extortion that made it possible. And the divided loyalties of Sarah’s family members—father Hank, mother Gab, sister-in-law Nicole, and son Hawk—seem ready to pay dividends like never before. I dunno about the Garden, but for this show, we’re in a whole new world for sure.

I reviewed this week’s pretty darn good episode of The Path for Decider. As I explain in the review, a lot of the strong plot elements listed above would have packed a more powerful punch had the writing for this season been more consistent and concise, but still.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two: “Pests”

March 15, 2017

When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.

I reviewed this week’s paranoiac episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. By the way, I have a crazy theory about where it’s all headed: Paige kills Stan.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “The Oath”

March 15, 2017

There’s this bit toward the end of Road House—the 1989 cult classic in which, and I promise I’m not kidding, Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot play world-famous bouncers trying to defend a small town from Ben Gazzara, the ruthless owner of the local JC Penney—which requires the main character, Dalton, to go to the titular bar twice in quick succession. Director (again, I am in no way kidding) Rowdy Herrington sets up both scenes with prolonged shots of Swayze pulling up to the bar, parking his car in its dirt lot, getting out of the car, trotting up the stairs, and entering the establishment. Suffice it to say that this film is not some vérité experiment; it depicts the parking of a car twice in a row because it’s slovenly, not thoughtful. Don’t get me wrong, Road House is a marvelous time at the movies, but not because of what the Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans at RiffTrax refer to as “ah yes, the famous Parking Scene.”

Friends, a whole of shows these days are stuck with Dalton in that goddamn parking lot. From infamous victims of Netflix Bloat like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to prestige (or prestige-adjacent) projects like Taboo and The Path, just to name a few, too many series pad out their running times and flatten out their editing rhythms with meaningless transition shots. WATCH as Tom Hardy walks down an alley to look for someone who isn’t there? THRILL as Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter stroll through a semi-reasonably realistic version of New York! SWOON as Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan drive places while looking anxious! Again, we’re not talking about shows that artfully force us to confront the slow passage of time for some aesthetic or moral purpose, like The Americans—we’re just talking doughy, underbaked filmmaking.

Billions, I’m pleased to report, is not that kind of show. Not by a long shot. “The Oath,” its stellar second season’s fourth episode, is a strict machine, a marvel of efficiency, in which scenes are pared down to their bare essentials for both plot and character. The ep is helmed by Noah Emmerich, the great Stan Beeman on The Americans,—the latest in the season’s motley crew of distinctive directors, including The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano, indie-film team Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, and, remarkably, Going Clear documentarian Alex Gibney last week. Remarkably, every one of them takes the same “all killer, no filler” approach.

Which is nuts, considering all the crazy shit being flung at the wall; if you hadn’t watched a moment of this season and just heard it described, you’d assume the show was floundering. How else to explain this episode’s cameos by The Americans’ Richard Thomas as a billionaire philanthropist with a Deadwood-level flair for articulate obscenities, Mad Men’s James “Not great, Bob!” Wolk as an Elon Musk-esque aerospace entrepreneur, and actual literal Mark Cuban as himself?

Yet another crackerjack episode of Billions this week; I reviewed it for the New York Observer, and got some digs in on my least favorite trend in TV in the process.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five

March 9, 2017

Like the personalities inside the mind of David Haller, the superhero and horror genres coexist in a way that’s difficult to untangle. Superman, the ur-superhero invented by the Jewish-American creative team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has often been linked by scholars (though never by Siegel and Shuster themselves) to the myth of the golem. (“Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley is said to have been inspired by golem as well, although she never said so herself.) The mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner turns into a raging behemoth as the Incredible Hulk, an echo of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some heroes have powers that are outright demonic in nature, from Etrigan the Demon to the flaming-skull cyclist, Ghost Rider. “Blade,” the 1998 film about a vampiric hunter of the undead was the key precursor to the modern era of superheroic pop-culture hegemony.

And we haven’t even begun counting the villains, a rogues’ gallery of grotesques who evoke virtually every monster and murderer from myths and movies alike. None, of course, is more prominent than the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, whose permanent grin was drawn directly from the expressionist silent horror film “The Man Who Laughs.”

In other words, the swashbuckling and world-saving are nice and all, but sometimes a good superhero story just wants to scare the pants off you.

I reviewed last night’s Legion, a frustratingly mixed bag that only partially makes good on its horror-movie approach, for the New York Times.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Return”

March 9, 2017

The truly frustrating thing — okay, one of the truly frustrating things — about the episode, the season’s eighth, is that nothing happens in it that couldn’t have happened in episode two. Sarah’s exposure to the dark side, Cal’s piss-poor leadership, Eddie’s messianic secret, Kodiak and Richard’s suspicions of Cal and Eddie alike, the movement’s financial woes, even Hawk’s emergence as a natural leader in his own right: It was all right there already. The Path does not need to be such a long and winding road if it’s just going to wind up a few steps from where it started.

Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith guest star in both this week’s episode of The Path and my review of it for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “Amber Waves”

March 9, 2017

The Americans likes to let it linger. Ever since the show hit its stride toward the end of its second season—before then it was a perfectly fine spy thriller with sexy leads and a killer soundtrack rather than the prolonged moral autopsy of patriotism it became—it has specialized in letting both storylines and individual scenes simmer, or perhaps fester, for longer than most would dare. On a macro level, the revelation of undercover KGB agent Philip Jennings’s true identity to his duped “wife” Martha and her reaction to it spooled out over the better part of two seasons. Last year, his real wife Elizabeth maintained a friendship with her charming South Korean immigrant target Young Hee for episode after episode before the series revealed her intentions. And on a micro level, the show has specialized in rubbing its viewers’ faces in the horrifying nature of the Jennings’ trade for minutes on end. Think of Philip shattering the bones in the nude corpse of his informant and lover so that he and her killer could stuff her body in a suitcase. Think of Elizabeth having a heart to heart with the kindly older woman who ran a repair shop she’d infiltrated, both of them knowing all the while that death was on the way. Think of the necklacing of the apartheid-era South African enemy agent they helped capture, of how he screamed and sizzled during his seemingly endless immolation.

“Amber Waves,” The Americans’ fifth season premiere, closes with another case in point.

I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering it all season. Let’s just say that contra some other takes you might have read, it doesn’t make me pine for the so-called simpler times of the Cold War.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Optimal Play”

March 5, 2017

Billions Season Two does a lot of things very well, but it may do new characters best of all. Sure, the old faves are better than ever (just by way of a for instance, I’m still laughing at how David Costabile’s Wags responds to someone telling him “Well, have fun” with a mischievous “How could I not?). But when you’ve got newcomers like gender-nonbinary genius Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and madman therapist Dr. Gus (Mark Kudisch) on the roster, you’d be insane not to put them head to head.

So you go into Taylor and Dr. Gus’s therapy(?) session expecting fireworks, and you get them—up to a point. Taylor deadpans that they’ve had over 900 hours of therapy; Dr. Gus claps his hands in their face and barks “One: This isn’t therapy. Two: I’ve had more fuckin’ therapy than you have.” He culminates with the closest thing to an actual insight he’s given anyone yet, dubious though it may be: “Three: Every time you step away from doing something that makes you feel great, even if it makes you feel sad, something inside of you dies. When you feel emotionally messy, take yourself someplace where the boundaries are clean.” This is exactly advanced-level variation of “if it feels good, do it” this dude would dole out, and in Taylor’s case it might even be helpful.

But while the old Billions would have emptied both barrels into a faceoff between these two very different but (I stress this) very awesome characters as recently as the Axe vs. Rhoades mano a mano that gave the Season One finale “The Conversation” its title (well, that and its flagrant swipes from Francis Ford Coppola’s espionage masterpiece), there’s a new Billions now. This one cuts the scene short after a couple of minutes, content to give us a taste of the pairing without making us choke on it. The restraint is delicious.

I reviewed tonight’s marvelous episode of Billions for the New York Observer. It’s just insane how much fun this show has become. It took me days to write this review, simply because I’ve yet to crack the code of how to write about a version of Billions that’s just a total blast.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Providence”

March 2, 2017

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The circumstances of the kidnapping itself are straight-up frightening: the deja vu of the Beach Boys song and the dead tree, a black van parked by the side of the road, the “uh-oh” moment when Eddie looks inside and sees Richard waiting for him, the sudden appearance of Kodiak behind Eddie as he knocks him unconscious, the sleeping child left to fend for himself in a locked car in the middle of nowhere. It’s the first time where The Path’s nightmare imagery has actually felt nightmarish.

I was pretty happy with this week’s episode of The Path, which I reviewed for Decider.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four

March 2, 2017

The director Larysa Kondracki knows how to open an episode of television. On “Fifi,” the stellar late-season episode of “Better Call Saul” she helmed last year, she started of with a continuous shot of a smuggler’s truck weaving its way across the border that lasted over four minutes. This was just the start of a tour-de-force hour, in which Kondracki framed actor Rhea Seehorn’s starry-eyed attorney Kim Wexler like an ecstatic saint and Jonathan Banks’s sad-eyed killer Mike Ehrmantraut like the subject of a chiaroscuro portrait by a Dutch master. She seemed to intuit and internalize the already impressive visual palette established by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, then surpass it.

In that respect, lightning just struck twice. On this week’s episode of “Legion,” Kondracki used her considerable talents to fulfill the promise of creator Noah Hawley’s iconoclastic but inconsistent pilot episode and its subsequent installments. Funnily enough, she did so with another multiminute opening shot. But instead of a swooping drone-cam drive-along with a drug-runner’s 18-wheeler, it was a woozy in-and-out close-up of a paunchy middle-aged mutant in a leisure suit, staring into the camera and breaking the fourth wall.

The mutant in question is Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement, half of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords), the comatose husband of the mutant underground leader, Melanie (Jean Smart). Looking right into our eyes, he stumbles his way through a monologue about the two kinds of stories parents tell their children: fairy tales designed to uplift them with empathy, and cautionary tales meant to cow them with fear. “Good evening,” he says. “We are here tonight to talk about violence, or maybe human nature … ” He then backtracks. “We are here to talk about human nature.” Later, he overrules himself. “We are the root of all our problems,” he says, adding loftily, “Violence, in other words, is ignorance.” He then promises a five-act play (there are five episodes of “Legion” remaining) in which our hero, David Haller, will discover just what kind of story he’s in.

Whether it’s Oliver’s very ’70s leisure suit, his direct address to the audience, or an overall sense that suddenly this show, y’know, knows what it’s doing, this episode is the first time “Legion” has felt in the same league as the magisterial second season of Hawley’s “Fargo.” That period-piece gang-war epic was television at its most cinematic, a blend of operatically high dramatic stakes and equally operatic visual and sonic spectacle. In this case, the throwback references — jazz and the Kinks on the soundtrack, antiquated vinyl and reel-to-reel playback technology depicted with fetishistic reverence — are just the tip of the iceberg. (Semi-literally, given the frozen purgatory in which Oliver and David find themselves imprisoned.) Now, with Kondracki’s steady hand at the tiller, Hawley’s new series finally feels as substantial and assured as its predecessor.

I reviewed last night’s Legion for the New York Times. Kondracki’s a hell of a talent. She makes it look not just easy but logical.

“Taboo” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

March 1, 2017

Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.

Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.

Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” Chichester gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.

James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.

I did not care for the season finale of Taboo, which I reviewed for Vulture. I did not care for Taboo period, really.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Dead Cat Bounce”

February 27, 2017

Suddenly, Billions is one of the most delightful fucking things on TV. Hey, don’t ask me, I just work here! But after two episodes including tonight’s rip-roarin’ “Dead Cat Bounce,” the show’s second season has turned the first outing’s (very) occasional flashes of wit and heat into a strobe light designed to trigger the pleasure center of your brain into some kind of awesome epilepsy. The schemes and plots are dizzying but perfectly constructed, the main characters are holding their own, the supporting players bring down the house, and the whole thing feels like almost a brand new show. It’s too soon to tell if this will be as big a turnaround as series like Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers experienced, and that may be an apples-to-oranges comparison anyway—they’re far more serious dramas, for one thing, and for another they were already on the upswing by their first season finales, while Billions stumbled through that particular finish line. But I’m enjoying pretty much every second of screentime, and it’s one of the young year’s most pleasant televised surprises (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway notwithstanding).

Billions rules now and I’m just as surprised as you are. I reviewed last night’s episode for the New York Observer.