Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
You never forget where you were when it happened. They say it’s true of all tragedies, and they may be right. The Leftovers, it turns out, is not going to take any chances. Tonight’s thoroughly harrowing episode — titled, with cruel irony, “The Garveys at Their Best” — is an hour-long flashback covering approximately one 24-hour period in October, three years ago: from the morning of the day before the Sudden Departure to the first moments after it happens. And as an act of storytelling, it’s tear-down-the-sky shit. We never actually watch anyone Depart – the camera is always pointed elsewhere – but that is the show’s sole nod to modesty. From the moment you hear Nora Durst’s children say “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” to our discovery of just how catastrophically the Departure hit Kevin and Laurie Garvey, every ounce of grief, fear and sadness will be left exposed.
But it’s not just the actual life-or-death stakes of Patti’s plight that [director Michelle] MacLaren wrings for every ounce of tension and pathos. Jill Garvey grilling Nora Durst about her gun over dinner. Meg needling Laurie while breaking her vow of silence. Jill and her friend Aimee getting meaner and meaner to each other in a game of emotional chicken that Aimee eventually loses. The wordless sequences in which the Guilty Remnant prepare their big Memorial Day stunt. The climactic moment where Jill reunites with her mother in order to join her cult. “Cairo” was all about turning the screw until someone, anyone yelled “Jesus Christ, enough!”
Which is to say, yeah, it’s a pretty grim hour of television. A woman gives a lengthy monologue about how love has to be left behind, then slits her own throat – how could it not be dark? But it’s by no means a humorless, bleakness-über-alles episode. The twin bros played by Max and Charlie Carver remain 2014’s great casting coup; everything you need to know about them you could learn from the way the one dude finds a bulletproof vest and says “Jackpot!” Little moments of worldbuilding also break the tension, like the increasingly obvious fact that in the post-Departure universe, marijuana is legal enough to smoke in a public park full of frolicking kids. Even Patti gets in a few good one-liners, like the one where she responds to Dean’s pompous proclamation that he’s a “guardian angel” with “Well, shit, I think I just heard a bell ring.”
It’s also pretty profoundly insightful about how people process pain, or don’t. The after-dinner exchange Kevin and Nora have about Jill (“It’ll get better.” “How?” “I don’t know. But it will.”) is basically the mantra of anyone clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that things are shitty, but optimistic enough to believe they won’t stay that way forever. Later, Aimee takes this philosophy and weaponizes it, taunting her sad-sack, soon-to-be former friend by sarcastically saying “Just so you know, it is possible for some people to be okay.”
Elsewhere, if Meg’s berserk reaction to his flyers about her late mother wasn’t already indication enough, Reverend Matt clearly has her number. “Her grief was hijacked,” he says, and that’s a good way to understand the Guilty Remnant: If the Sudden Departure stole everyone’s ability to really focus their pain, they’re stealing it back. “I think about it every fucking waking moment,” Patti says of humanity’s greatest trauma. “I mean, come on. What else is there to think about.” The GR are forcing everyone to think about it, as directly and obnoxiously as possible. It’s trolling as religion.
The Leftovers has gotten consistent and creative, and last night’s episode was no exception. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.
Most of the action-figure/kids’-cartoon juggernauts of the Eighties were developed the old-fashioned way: by corporations. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began in the design department of toy behemoth Mattel. Its rival Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to revive its old G.I. Joe concept, this time making its toy soldiers the same size as the smash-hit Star Wars action figures to which Mattel had passed up the rights several years earlier, with their “Real American Hero” relaunch. The Hasbro/Marvel team-up found similar success when it rebranded several lines of robot toys Hasbro had licensed from Japanese toy company Takara as the Transformers.
By contrast, the Turtles literally started out as a joke. Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were comic-artist wannabes when they spent a November 1983 evening doodling the masked, weaponized reptiles to entertain themselves. Each adjective in Turtles‘ title represented a hot superhero-comic trend at the time — mutants were the stars of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men; DC’s New Teen Titans had teenage protagonists; and future Sin City impresario Frank Miller had stuffed his groundbreaking run on Daredevil full of ninjas. By throwing it all together atop a funny-animal framework — which, from Carl Barks’ Donald Duck to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, had long been a route to comic-book gold — Eastman and Laird simply obeyed the Spinal Tap doctrine of cranking it to eleven.
This here is a snippet from the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I wrote for Rolling Stone. The gist is that the Turtles began as a literal joke shared by creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and came to prominence as a comic that existed halfway between Frank Miller parody and Frank Miller homage; it was only when Eastman & Laird hooked up with a toy company that hooked up with an animation studio — i.e. the same basic process that birthed He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers — that it became the durable pop-culture phenomenon it is today.
I got to work in all kinds of fun factoids — the “black-and-white boom” that followed TMNT’s success in comic shops, the bonafide alternative-comics ventures funded by Eastman (Tundra) and Laird (the Xeric Grant) with their Turtle fortunes, “Turtle Power” going to the top of the pop charts in the UK. I hope you enjoy it!
Putting prurient interests aside, the now-physical relationship between Chief Kevin Garvey and local survivor-celebrity Nora Durst deserves top billing. After all, it’s the softest plot thread in the show’s narrative tapestry, a rare display of human connection and kindness that’s not undermined by grief and guilt, or corrupted by attempts to harness those emotions to some grand ideological purpose. You want these two crazy mixed-up kids to fall for each other, because after what they’ve been through, they deserve it.
The show fuels our attachment to their attachment several times. Nora’s given the episode’s most purely cathartic moment when she turns the garden hose on the Guilty Remnant, in particular Liv Tyler’s sanctimonious new convert Meg. (Meg is rejected a second time when she narcs on the tryst to Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, who seems just as turned off by her nosing around as we are.) And after an episode spent hiding or denying his mental deterioration, Kevin reveals his fear that he’s following in his schizophrenic father’s footsteps as part of pillow talk. Their actual sex may have been edited in an arrhythmic fashion that suggested Kevin viewed it as some kind of out-of-body experience, but afterwards, he’s comfortable enough with Nora to share his darkest secret. Forget Kevin Sr.’s cryptic messages – that intimacy and ability to connect with someone once more is the sign Kevin Jr. should pay attention to.
I really like good sex scenes on TV dramas; watching beautiful people do convincingly hot things with each other is one of the medium’s great pleasures. I wrote about that and a lot of other little things that made last night’s episode of The Leftovers pretty good for Rolling Stone.
The final Halt and Catch Fire of Season One begins with the show’s single most likeable sequence: Things are tense in the Clark household, where Gordon and Donna have evidently not recovered from the COMDEX debacle. Dishes are washed, beers are drunk, TV is watched, all joylessly, silently. Finally, Gordon attempts to settle in on the couch where he’s been sleeping – but Donna has had enough. “Get in there!” she demands, directing Gordon to the bedroom she insists she’ll be sharing with him tonight. “I’m still very mad at you,” he replies, pointing at her, and surrendering. She giggles. They walk off to bed, Gordon stomping and swinging in faux-fury. The two of them have decided that their fight about Donna’s borderline infidelity and Gordon’s job-related neglect was about real issues – ones that pale in comparison to the even realer love and respect they share. As Donna puts it in code later in the episode, when Gordon presents her with the engagement-slash-decoder ring he promised her nine years back, “I darf you very gerp.”
The Gordon-Donna scenes in this late-blooming show’s season finale — ‘1984” — aren’t just the show’s most human moments to date. They echo the legendary Apple Super Bowl ad that gives the episode its title, and like the Cameron lookalike who smashes the oppressive IBM machine in that commercial, they represent the triumph of imagination, emotion, and empathy over cold hard calculation. Gone is the Halt that forced its characters into empty confrontations week in and week out to drum up drama on the cheap – the equivalent of the Cardiff Giant’s faster-cheaper computing model. In its place? A handsome, clean-shaven, confident, self-actualized Gordon, now head of the company where he was once just another face in the crowd. But more importantly, he’s a Gordon we actually give a shit about.
Much to my surprise, Halt and Catch Fire wound up being a pleasurable, emotionally sticky show — and it’s the rare prestige drama in which the women are happier and more fulfilled than the men. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone.
We also see Nora reject a number of possible paths to closure when she heads to Manhattan for a conference on Departure-related industries. This begins when a bro-tastic bereavement specialist — the one who works for the company that makes “Loved Ones” simulacra of departed family members for burials or cremations — comes on to her. She enjoys his hospitality suite and his attentions, admitting he’s not the soulless creep he might seem, and still chooses to make out with his real-doll doppelganger rather than the genuine douchebag article. Watching Nora writhe atop the mannequin is the series’ sexiest moment to date, and no wonder – here’s a person deriving an erotic charge from the very concept of closure, making a public show of pleasure out of something intended to be a private totem of grief.
Next, she blows up the spot of the activist/conspiracy theorist who impersonates her at the convention, and appears to blow off her warnings about the Department of Sudden Departures. That’s harder for the audience to do, of course; when she warns that the DSD’s “questionnaires are sent to incinerators outside of Tallahassee, Florida,” we know that the government’s burning much worse things than that. But she’s even harder on Patrick Johansen, the conference’s star attraction and author of What Comes Next, a self-help book for “legacies” of the Departed. Calling him a fraud who’s faking his grief, she drunkenly screams at him “What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!”
It’s this nihilism that attracts Holy Wayne’s acolyte to Nora. He knows she’s right about Johansen, because the writer didn’t work through his grief at all – he had it magically sucked out of him. And when Wayne meets Nora, the healer recognizes that she’s not rejecting happiness out of hopelessness, but because she does have hope — and she wants to get rid of it. “If [your pain] starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you?” he asks her, knowing the answer is yes. “Hope. It’s your weakness. You want it gone because you don’t deserve it.” There’s a certain strain of depression that internalizes and personifies misfortune, that sees it as the natural state of things, that sees happiness as fraudulent in the face of the shortcomings the depressed person knows better than anyone. This is as accurate an encapsulation of that kind of depression as a TV show is likely to deliver.
4. Watching sharks attack annoying celebrities isn’t as much fun as you’d think.
When the first shark soars through the aisle of an airplane and bites off Kelly Osbourne’s head, it’s funny. When another one chows down on nerd-media icon Wil Wheaton, it’s amusing. By the time Perez Hilton shows up on a subway platform, you’re just counting down the seconds till an unconvincing splash of CGI bloodspray signals his departure from your TV screen. Hell, several of the most irritating d-listers who show up – Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus, Subway’s Jared – don’t even give us the satisfaction of dying.
5. Watching sharks attack actually pretty cool celebrities isn’t that much fun either.
Shot on a shoestring and intended to be just another widget cranked out by the Syfy Originals schlock factory, the first Sharknado had a cast to match its ambition. When the dust settled and the sharks landed, it’s not like the careers of Ian Ziering and Tara Reid were gonna take a huge hit — only Sopranos and Home Alone veteran John Heard was gonna have to answer to his god for appearing in that thing. This time around? Comedians-slash-character-actors Richard Kind, Judd Hirsch, and Robert Klein all get fake shark blood on their hands, as do bona fide hip-hop legends Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Biz Markie. (Stick with Yo Gabba Gabba!, Biz.) If you’ve ever wanted to watch Robert Klein make stage chatter with WWE Superstar Kurt Angle while they play the Mayor of New York and the Chief of the FDNY respectively, or see Pepa get squashed by a whale shark while riding a Citibike, this is your big day, you weirdo.
6. The Today Show is awkward even when it’s being attacked by sharks.
Ukraine, Gaza, ebola, sharknado. In these troubled times, we turn to trusted news anchors like Matt Lauer, who has almost as much Sharknado 2 screentime as Tara Reid. At one point, he and genial weather guru Al Roker have a weirdly passive-aggressive back and forth about whether to call them “shark storms” or “sharknados,” arguably the most uncomfortable morning-TV moment since Lauer asked Anne Hathaway about her wardrobe malfunction. Later, the pair stab a shark to death live on camera, handling its exit just slightly better than Ann Curry’s.
“You can only take these characters so far before it gets ridiculous,” Gunn admits. “Honestly, some of the latest superhero movies take themselves so seriously, they feel like a joke. This desperate, angsty need for ‘coolness’ is sort of pathetic. Guardians is a big reaction against that.” Will the grim-and-gritty-loving fanboys go along? Gunn laughs. “Who the hell knows?”
“I don’t understand your faith,” the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. “But I understand commitment, and I respect it.” His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: “But we are all of us, no matter how we’ve suffered, still alive.” As if they didn’t know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they’ve cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they’ve chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?
The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorienting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison’s claim that the GR are “already dead” and preemptively calls bullshit.
But it’s not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr’s unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom’s emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it’s faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that’s the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they’re willing to die for it as a demonstration.
That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it’s a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you’re right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.
“Enjoy” is a weird word to use about tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, but it made me think hard about hard things, and I enjoyed it. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.
In a rare move for, well, pretty much any drama on television, Halt gave its characters a complex personal, professional, and perhaps even moral choice to make in which neither outcome was the clear-cut “right thing to do.” When Gordon guts Cameron’s forward-thinking, interactive OS to cut costs and increase speed, what should Joe do? Siding with Cameron would honor her genuine vision, preserve the one thing that made the Giant unique, keep the hope of an eventual reward for their cutting-edge tech alive, and maintain the romantic relationship that clearly matters a lot to both of them. But it would cost them the only competitive edges – speed and cost – that matter in the face of the Slingshot knockoff’s debut earlier that day, which in turn would cost them the entirety of Cardiff Electric. Fiction in general (and prestige TV dramas in particular) conditions us to root for the maverick, the underdog, and the visionary, so our initial inclination is to pull for Cameron. But Joe’s face as the elevator doors close on her speaks volumes. He knows that her computer would be better. But her better computer likely will never get the chance to exist unless they act now. And the sacrifice their love requires is too steep.
When we see the results of Joe’s decision play out on the convention floor, the issues remain just as complex. His speech about the reprogrammed Giant joylessly champions all-business values, at times echoing Alec Baldwin’s legendary Glengarry Glenn Ross monologue (“Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”) in its cynicism and intensity. Finding Cameron’s ketchup stain on his notes would normally be a sign he’s about to have a change of heart; watching him power past his qualms, then quietly close the notes away in his briefcase undermines all the expectations a moment like that naturally raises.
Yet there’s genuine fervor in the speech – a chance for Joe’s skill as a salesman to shine, which is his art as much as coding is Cameron’s or engineering is Gordon’s and Donna’s. The presentation is a hit, scoring the Giant a big order with a major retailer. There are even personal victories to echo the loss of Cameron – a loss which, importantly, Joe and Gordon honor during their presentation. Joe’s decision may have cost him Cameron, but it made possible the rapprochement between Gordon and Donna, who at last is credited with her role in the computer’s creation. It also drove a stake through the heart of Hunt and Brian’s sleazy Slingshot project – which is a bit rich, given the similarly unscrupulous way Joe and the gang have gone about everything, but is no less satisfying for it.
In the end, Halt still sends signals that Joe made the wrong choice, if for the right reasons. He and the Clarks share the world’s saddest champagne toast, with the camera lingering on the popped bottle long after such shots normally cut away, transforming its celebratory effervescence into just a spill to be cleaned up. Gordon and Donna are back together, but the events of the day make their demeanor seem miles away from their sweetly sexed-up chemistry of the night before.
Tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire told a morally and emotionally sophisticated story with actual sophistication. I was really impressed. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.
It turns out that “recovery from a mild psychotic break” is a good look for Gordon Clark. For the first time all season, his hair’s groomed and his beard’s neat; he looks comfortable in his clothes instead of like a living mannequin for Short-Sleeved Dress Shirts Warehouse. Actor Scoot McNairy is a handsome guy, after all; now we can see that beneath the beard and the big glasses and the flop sweat, Gordon had something to offer Donna back in the day besides their shared love of electrical engineering.
What’s more, this is a case where you can judge a book by its cover. Now Gordon is able to turn on the charm, bantering effortlessly with Joe, Cameron, and Bosworth as they plan for the big COMDEX computer convention before the bank-hacking bust that drives the episode. Even the camera seems captivated: As he reminisces about the party scene the last time he and Donna attended the big show, grinning ear to ear, the camera doesn’t cut away for a second.
Yes, he freaks when he finds out Joe is not taking him, but lots of people would. Plus, he quickly recovers – Gordon has the presence of mind to steal key components of the computer they’ve officially christened “The Giant” when the feds swoop in. He’s also got the vision to keep the project going anyway, the balls to break into the office and steal the rest of the computer, and the charisma to convince both Cameron and Joe to come along for the ride. Pay attention to the way he reassembles the team. It doesn’t just mean good things for Cardiff Electric — it means good things for tonight’s episode, “The 214s,” and for the series itself.
I thought tonight’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire was the best so far, by far. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. Special shout-out to actor Toby Huss, who’s doing phenomenal work in this show as John Bosworth.
Aiming for genuine mystery, tonight’s episode — “Two Boats and a Helicopter” — feels instead like an extended Mad-Lib. Key information is repeatedly withheld just for the sake of making people scratch their head, only to be filled in later in the most predictable way possible. It mistakes intricacy for insight, sleight-of-hand for magic. It makes you jump through a series of knee-level hoops to arrive at nowhere special at all. And because it relies so heavily on a structure that showrunner/co-creator/co-writer Damon Lindelof honed during his work on Lost, it’s a worrisome indication that perhaps he’s learned precious little since that show’s conclusion.
The episode resembles nothing so much as a flashback segment from Lost‘s earlier seasons, filling you in on the life of one of the mysterious island’s many castaways before the plane crash that put them there. Only Matt, and all of the other characters, have no magic, monster-stalked tropical paradise to return to every few minutes. When those cuts happened on Lost, they revealed compelling contrasts between the people the castaways used to be – generally damaged in surprising ways – and the people the Island was enabling them to become by forcing them to confront their past. The cuts also told us something thrilling or chilling or both about the science-fantasy nature of the Island itself, showing us that crippled men could walk or that seeming strangers were connected by fate rather than coincidence.
But if you’re gonna tell your story as a series of unlockable riddles instead of as, you know, a story, you’d better have a damn good reason. We know from the start that The Leftovers takes place after the unexplained disappearance of millions of people, and that it follows survivors who struggle to move on and find meaning in their lives. There’s no real mystery about the plight facing Matt – it’s the same plight facing literally everyone else. So what’s the point of this Easter Egg hunt through his life? What does revealing the truth about his wife, his philosophy, his relationship to the four-times-bereaved Nora, his experience on the day of the Sudden Departure in this backwards, clue-finding, code-cracking way actually communicate? Does it advance the themes of the story? Does it show us something about Matt and his world we couldn’t learn in some other, more straightforward way – a way that could actually allow us to dive deep, instead of skimming along the surface until the end of the episode?
Certainly very little else in the episode is any of those things. Of course the church where Matt gave his impassioned sermon about his cancer-stricken youth and the comatose little girl that reminded him of it was gonna be near-empty. Of course the church’s mystery buyers (the show made a big point out of the banker not knowing exactly who they were) were gonna turn out to be the Guilty Remnant. Of course Matt’s wife’s coma was gonna be caused by a Departure-related accident, launching his vendetta against the sanctification of the Departed. Of course the drunken dirtbags who shouldered into Matt’s roulette hot streak were gonna jack him for the cash in the parking lot. Just in case you couldn’t see it coming – which anyone, especially that casino’s abysmally lax security team, should have been able to do – the camera spent a pointlessly long time just staring at Matt in his car, building up a pointless calm before the predictable storm. Like the rest of it, it’s a failed attempt to wring shock and suspense out of a foregone conclusion.
We don’t wanna jinx it, but…has Halt and Catch Fire started to become an interesting show?
“Interesting show” is about as far as it goes, mind you. If each episode weren’t still stuffed with predictable plotting, semi-cringeworthy dialogue, endless hostility, and scenes as joylessly functional as the boring beige box containing Cardiff’s portable PC, “good show” might roll more easily off the tongue. But there’s enough in tonight’s wildly emotional episode — “Giant” — to indicate that last week’s stormy spectacle wasn’t a one-off fluke. The performances are improving. The relationships are deepening. And the likelihood that Halt will show us something we haven’t seen before is growing.
Halt and Catch Fire is still full of time-wasting drama-by-numbers shit, but it’s at least getting emotionally sticky. I reviewed tonight’s episode for Rolling Stone.
Perhaps it’s perverse, then, to claim the show itself got real in the very episode where it laid on the artifice the thickest. After all, one of its standout sequences was a dream, and the other was an unexpected visual-effects hurricane freakout that would look at home in Game of Thrones‘ Westeros. But both Gordon’s nightmare about a flower growing in his precious circuitry and his real-world run-in with the storm gave heft and flair to his same-old struggles with work, family, and white-collar frustration.
They were surprising and funny, for starters. The sight of a man in glasses staring at the tiny flower amid all the electronics recalled similar moments of tiny untameable elements driving the obsessive Walter White entertainingly batshit in Breaking Bad; meanwhile, the escalating fury of the weather and the soundtrack alike hilariously highlighted the absurdity Gordon’s standoff with the Cabbage Patch Kid display window. The latter was almost Sopranos-esque in how it turned the stuff of suburban life into the stuff of quixotic vision quests.
And they were simply beautiful to look at, too. Who needs Gordon’s umpteenth harried conversation with Donna when we can watch him grasping for a flower growing just out of reach? Who needs another shot of Joe in his underwear silhouetted against his window when you can watch for several seemingly endless seconds as Gordon steps into the middle of the street to see the full electric-gray majesty of nature at its most malevolent? Even as good as Joe’s revelation wound up being, doesn’t the wordless sight of a father, dolls clutched in his arm, coming face to face with an electrocuted corpse communicate just as much about the frailty of family? Don’t forget how Gordon’s dream ended: His finger touched the machine’s innards, and he electrocuted himself awake.
Over at Rolling Stone I explain why I liked tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire, which was visually inventive and featured a stronger than usual performance from the heretofore disappointing Lee Pace.
Despite its fundamentally supernatural premise, The Leftovers posits a world in which it’s precisely this proof of powers-that-be that renders human life finally and fundamentally meaningless. Whatever’s responsible for the Sudden Departure, it’s not answering our phone calls. Things still just happen, and no one’s responsible. But when you’re a writer, the opposite is true. Everything you put on the page got there because you decided it belonged. You’ve got the power to take any stock character who serves a purpose, any rote plot point that exists to get you from A to B, and twist it into some new shape before soldering it into place. Meg’s indoctrination could be unique. Holy Wayne could be a kind of cult leader we haven’t seen before. Kevin Sr. could have simply been crazy, instead of the umpteenth potential prophet-in-disguise. But Lindelof and series writer/source-material author Tom Perrotta didn’t bother. Where were the Guilty Remnant and their protest placards when we needed them?
Over at Rolling Stone I explain why I didn’t like tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which suddenly started doing stuff we’ve all seen a million times before. You never have to do that.
No, The Leftovers is not easy viewing. But nor is it callous or thoughtless in how it ladles out the misery, or in how it asks you to view the misanthropes. Unlike so many of its recent prestige-TV competitors, the story is not about its protagonists’ greed, but their grieving. Shot with handheld-camera immediacy and enlivened by visual details that are creepy, moving, even darkly funny – sometimes all at once – the show keeps its focus on those who feel pain, not those who cause it, and is much the better for it.
Set three years after the sudden, unexplained disappearance of two percent of the world’s population on October 14 – a date that lives in 9/11-style infamy in the show’s just-slightly-science-fictional America – the pilot further distinguishes itself by avoiding the usual themes of post-apocalyptic fiction. The society that the New York suburb of Mapleton represents has not disintegrated: school’s in session, reality-TV dating shows are still a hot topic of conversation, people sing along to oldies on the radio. This, it seems, is exactly what’s making everyone so miserable. When you’ve lost so much and the world doesn’t end, it’s almost insulting to be forced to go on.
To my surprise, I thought the pilot of The Leftovers was very good. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone and also talked quite a bit about co-creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof’s last show, I dunno, maybe you watched it.
Moments of cooperation and admiration are vital in workplace dramas, no matter how contentious things get. Breaking Bad‘s spectacular middle seasons would have failed if Walt, Jesse, Gus, and Mike had always been at each other’s throats without ever establishing the well-oiled machine that made their empire hum. Mad Men wouldn’t work if Peggy and Pete didn’t genuinely respect Don’s talent, or if Don didn’t overcome his selfishness to support his protégés. People make animated GIF sets out of the moments Don and Peggy have held hands for a reason, you know?
The human resources file on this episode is gonna be a doozy, folks.
The good men and women of Cardiff Electronics are working overtime to create the fastest, most portable PC on the market. What does this entail? Project manager Joe MacMillan steals whiz-kid programmer Cameron Chase‘s back-up files, fries her computer, gives her a panic attack, and convinces her and everyone else that all the work is lost. Engineer Gordon Clark physically assaults Cameron in response. Joe, his boss John Bosworth, and a reporter from the Wall Street Quarterly repeatedly threaten each other (off the record) over the contents of the reporter’s eventual article. Cameron responds to being insulted by Gordon and his data-retrieval expert wife Donna by teaching their kids how to make a homemade flamethrower, breaking into their home, and preparing to trash the place. She’s interrupted only by her former coworker, Brian — who’s also broken into the house and is wielding a shotgun. Finally, Bosworth has Joe pulled over, beaten, and arrested by friendly cops to teach him a lesson.
When that Wall Street Quarterly reporter writes his eventual tell-all book Cardiff: The Little Computer Company That Could and the Sociopaths Responsible, this single day will require a whole chapter, and no one will believe it anyway.
And frankly, neither should we. The pointless and instantaneous hostility between the characters has been one of Halt and Catch Fire‘s biggest flaws since the pilot. In “Close to the Metal,” the show uses the company’s dire straits and high-stakes visit by the press as an excuse to ratchet that hostility up even higher. The question they don’t ask: Who cares?
I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone. I feel like this show is what the people who complain about Game of Thrones being a relentless downer think Game of Thrones is, only, you know, no one gets stabbed in the mouth.
Like the superheroes of a post-Christopher Nolan world, fantasy in the era of Game of Thrones could too easily become a genre where “dark and realistic” is automatically equated with quality. Thank goodness this show realizes that when you make an epic fantasy, you sometimes need to hack “realistic” to pieces with a small army of sword-wielding reanimated skeletons. The final obstacle in Bran Stark’s vision quest, the skeletons — like the giants, the mammoth, the 50-foot ice scythe, the dragons, the direwolves, the White Walkers, and the Wall itself — was a reminder that fantasy can speak to us with pure spectacle, the way great music conveys something that just reading a song’s lyric sheet can’t touch.
I listed the best moments from Game of Thrones Season Four for Rolling Stone, trying to capture a range of moments and moods.
Cameron’s joyless episode-ending booty call to Joe is yet another example of Halt‘s dire depiction of sex solely as a means of marking territory or venting aggression. Ditto Joe’s left-field tryst with Travis, the closeted arm candy for the would-be investor played by Jean Smart: What seemed at first like both a revealing character development and a refreshing fuck-you to the relentless heterosexuality of TV antiheroes was quickly revealed to be just another business maneuver.
While displays of dominance and lack of emotional investment are inexplicably popular drivers of TV sex scenes, they have almost no bearing on sexual relationships (however brief) in the real world, which result from a complex cocktail of emotional compulsion. To make a comparison invited by AMC itself: From its very first episode, Mad Men made its sex scenes sexy by using them to show its alpha males at their most vulnerable. Even at the apex of his ladies’-man days, Don Draper still looked flushed and moony-eyed every time he made a move, not like some kind of dead-eyed sex shark. Sex is everybody’s weakness. If you turn it into armor every time, you lose a chance to reach your characters where they really live.
Halt and Catch Fire got not-so-good again this past weekend; I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.