Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
Like the castaways of Oceanic Flight 815 themselves, no one involved in the making of Lost had any idea how the journey they were about to take would change everything. Under the watchful eye of ABC executive Lloyd Braun (who was fired before his instant smash even reached the screen), hotshot director-producer J.J. Abrams, up-and-coming writer Damon Lindelof, and TV veteran Carlton Cuse crafted an endlessly unfolding puzzle box of sci-fi-inflected mystery, mayhem, sex appeal, and smoke monsters — set on a deserted island that became a character in and of itself. More than the often ridiculous theories fans generated to explain the show, it was the pulp thrills, the strong, diverse cast, and the fantasy of leaving your bad old life behind no matter the cost that made this show a pop-culture phenomenon. People are still debating the show’s loose ends, red herrings and divisive finale today.
How fast does Empire move? So fast that it has to cleave the screen in half just to keep up. After a season premiere that proved the show hadn’t missed a step, Fox’s raucous ratings juggernaut maintained the pace, opening with a split-screen montage of the ousted members of the Lyon clan — Cookie, Hakeem, Andre, Rhonda, and sometimes Anika — making plans for a rival label on their phones without breaking stride. Part Pillow Talk, part Brian De Palma potboiler and all batshit crazy, it was visually audacious, narratively appropriate, and fun as all hell.
I reviewed this week’s Empire for Rolling Stone. You know it. And you know it. And I know it. You know I know it.
Empire’s first season thrilled its gargantuan audience because it solved many of the problems endemic to catfight-filled melodramas without jettisoning the genre’s pulpy pleasures. The New Golden Age of TV has seen its share of “prestige” soaps, most notably Downton Abbey and Mad Men, but those shows dressed the suds up in respectable period drag. Meanwhile, more gleefully trashy fare like True Blood, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl had a tendency to get stretched thin by overextended casts and peripheral storylines so pointless that you could barely remember the details after the cliffhangers and commercial breaks.
From the beginning, Empire did things differently. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken keep the focus almost entirely on the nuclear (meltdown) family of musical genius/magnate Lucious Lyon and his formerly incarcerated but equally astute ex-wife Cookie; you could count the scenes in which either they or one of their three children (bipolar businessman Andre, semi-closeted singer-songwriter Jamal, and ambitious m.c. Hakeem) failed to appear on two hands with fingers to spare. No worries about superfluous scenes here.
Meanwhile, calling the series fast-paced would be like calling Usain Bolt a champion jogger. This is a show in which a minor character once shot a guy, got arrested, went to jail, and had people complaining “I can’t believe he’s still locked up” in the space of 12 seconds. (We counted.) There’s never a sense that we’re stuck a holding pattern of boring bullshit to kill time until the next big moment — it’s all big moments, one after another, with only the genuinely catchy original musical numbers for a breather.
It’s game time, bitches: I’m covering Empire Season Two, starting with tonight’s premiere, for Rolling Stone.
Best Actress in a Drama, 2015
The Lineup: Claire Danes (Homeland), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Tatiana Malsany (Orphan Black), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Robin Wright (House of Cards)
Is this the strongest year for actresses in Emmy history? We say yes. The range of genres and tones represented by 2015’s nominees is crazy wide, with prestige dramas, smash-hit soaps, political potboilers, sci-fi imports, and postcards from Shondaland standing shoulder to shoulder. The performances are equally varied, equally strong, and virtually indispensable for their shows: Can you imagine an Empire without Henson, a Homeland without Danes, or an Orphan Black without Malsany? Even if you could, why would you? For women actors on television, this really is a New Golden Age.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Mad Men (AMC)
Orange Is the New Black (Showtime)
WILL WIN: A failure to award Matt Weiner’s masterpiece Mad Men one more time before it heads off to the big Coke commercial in the sky would be almost willfully perverse. If its most direct points of comparison — Weiner’s alma mater show The Sopranos and its AMC brother-in-arms Breaking Bad — could pull off the final-season win, the house that Don Draper built can do it too.
SHOULD WIN: Never mind the naysayers: Mad Men is an all-time top-five television show and deserves the trophy for its melancholy, valedictory suite of final episodes. That said, no series on TV thinks bigger or strikes harder than Game of Thrones, though it will take the departure of both itsBad/Mad rivals for it to finally take home the gold.
ROBBED: The biggest drama here may well be the shows that didn’t make the cut. Showtime’s uncompromising psychodrama The Affair took home the Golden Globe but didn’t even manage a nomination. FX’s political thriller The Americans gets better and better seemingly with every episode but has yet to garner a nod, even as its weaker counterparts Homeland and House of Cards keep racking them up. Fox’s ratings behemoth Empire was a way more entertaining soap than Downton Abbey’s sagging fourth season, while Boardwalk Empire’s morally merciless final episodes trumped it in the period-piece department. The Marvel/Netflix joint Daredevil was the best live-action superhero-comic adaptation since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 (eat it, Chris Nolan). And NBC’s violent visual fantasia Hannibal made almost everything else on TV look like a public-access show.
I wrote up my Emmy predictions for Rolling Stone, though my favorite part of the assignment was writing about all the deserving actors and shows who were robbed of nominations to begin with. So much good TV out there, people.
Best Actor in a Drama, 2013
Whether you were in the market for sirloin stake or a big fat ham sandwich, there was plenty on the menu to choose from this year. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston did their usual phenomenal work on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Damian Lewis elevated sometimes shaky material as triple-agent Marine-turned-terrorist-turned-informant Nicholas Brody on Homeland, a role for which he’d won the previous year. But the victory of Jeff Daniels as The Newsroom‘s bloviator-in-chief Will McAvoy was all the more bizarre because of the slightly less top-shelf alternatives available to voters, if that’s what they really wanted. Why not, say, go for Kevin Spacey, who gave great hambone and drawled his way through House of Cards? And if it was fusty and blustery but ultimately good-hearted you wanted, Hugh Bonneville’s take on that template as Downton Abbey‘s Lord Grantham was altogether more appealing.
I wrote about the biggest surprises in recent Emmy history for Rolling Stone. Spoiler alert: 2007 was crazy, man.
For all that, the season still exerted a strange sort of magnetism. The endless overhead shots gliding over L.A.’s knotted freeways, the many quiet closeups of its main characters as they did nothing but sit and smolder, the sinister thrum of the electronic score overseen by T Bone Burnett – put it together and you get a rhythm and vibe unlike much else on TV right now. Even at its most frustrating, TD often felt like a show smoking a slow-burning cigarette under a streetlight at 3 a.m., a momentary oasis of chemical calm with nothing but trouble and turmoil on either side. Many series that are much better in every other respect would kill for that kind of palpable atmosphere.
But atmosphere alone isn’t enough to save a show; it can just as easily smother it like smog. Many of the season’s visual and sonic strong points gave off an air of impending doom, but when doomsday arrived the payoff couldn’t justify all that time spent sitting around waiting for it. So you’re left with flyover glimpses of roads that didn’t lead anywhere, or portraits of people so visibly exhausted and immiserated by their lives that the feeling becomes contagious. When you’re dealing with a mystery as murky as this one was, that’s just not enough fuel to power you through.
The score was 10-1 in favor of the Staten Island Direwolves by the time he grabbed the mic and took the field, but George R.R. Martin was there to warn the boys of summer that winter could still be coming. “If they can only hold on for another couple innings,” the man behind the Game of Thronesphenomenon said, “I won’t have to kill another Stark.” The crowd roared. And when the live arctic wolf accompanying him took a dump near the third base line a few seconds later, they roared again.
From top to bottom, Saturday’s “Meet George R.R. Martin Night” at the Staten Island Yankees’ scenic Richmond County Bank Ballpark was a weird, wild event. With the Lower Manhattan skyline shining in the distance, a record crowd of 7,529 turned out to watch the minor league team, renamed the Direwolves for one night only, take on the Hudson Valley Renegades while wearing custom House Stark and House Lannister uniforms. Direwolf swag and autographs from the A Song of Ice and Fire author himself were available on a first-come, first-served basis. It was a star turn for the author, who’s been catapulted to celebrity status by the success of the HBO series based on his novels.
But for Martin himself, it was a time for wolves. His appearance was a fundraiser for New Mexico’s Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a non-profit rescue facility for the animals at the heart of his epic-fantasy saga – hence the beast who befouled the infield. The team cut the charity a surprise $10,000 check and launched a benefit auction of the custom jerseys. In the process, they enabled fever-dream sentences like “George R.R. Martin attends a Yankees farm team’s Game of Thrones-themed ballgame on Staten Island to raise money for wolves” to actually make sense…more or less.
Strange shit, but Martin’s seen stranger. “It’s pretty weird,” he told Rolling Stone, “but it’s only like a seven on the weirdness scale. That company that came out with leggings with my face on them? That’s up to a ten.”
The moment the phrase “90-minute season finale” flashed on screen last week, it was all over for True Detective but the shooting. A shoddy second season had by then partially redeemed itself with a pair of tight, tense episodes that made up in muscle what they lacked in depth. But just when it seemed like the series was putting together the pieces and cranking up the pace after weeks of floundering, boom — a movie-length meditation on failure. “Omega Station,” the eighth and final installment of TD 2.0, could not have more effectively shut down the show’s progress if it dressed up like a cholo, drove it out to the desert, stabbed it, and left if for dead.
They made up their mind to make a new start, they’re going to California with an achin’ in their hearts. Halt and Catch Fire ended tonight’s season finale by packing up and heading west, abandoning the Lone Star state for the Golden one. But from Joe and Sara MacMillan’s scuttled plans for relocation to Gordon Clark’s disastrous dalliance with a west-coast lady, the characters have walked through the shadow of the Valley of Silicon all season long. The results were not promising, which signals that the hard reboot Donna Clark, Cameron Howe and company are hoping for most likely won’t work.
The irony is that this parable about the illusory nature of second chances was told by a show that proved it was the exception to that rule. Written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Sopranos, Mad Men, and Daredevil veteran Phil Abraham, “Heaven Is a Place” caps one of the most remarkable rebirths for a series in recent memory. Its freshman-year jitters are now as obsolete as the Cardiff Giant — Halt came out of its sophomore season as smart, savvy top-shelf TV, full stop.
So why wasn’t it this tightly wound all along? Most murder mysteries operate along a linear progression of false starts, red herrings, leads, revelations, and the final whodunit. The approach that True Detective took was a revisionist one in a way, and perfectly valid in theory. Instead of piecing together clues one after another, Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank just kinda kept pouring more and more info into a big swirling morass that remained incomprehensible until the moment it all became clear, like a cloudy pool of water finally settling down enough for you to see your reflection in the surface. That daring Metal Gear Solid action sequence aside, it’s probably a little bit closer to how solving major crimes works in real life.
The problem is that the show offered so little firm ground to walk on as it traveled through the murk. Compelling dialogue? Not so much; the pitch-black noir aphorisms that sounded magical in the mouth of Matthew McConaughey last season gave us a bad case of blueballs of the ear this go-round. Engaging characters? Not until they hit their respective rock bottoms over the past two episodes did the Drab Four feel like people you could empathize with, much less enjoy as reasons to tune in week to week. Intimidating antagonists? With the possible exception of creepy-ass Dr. Rick Springfield, no one in the semi-anonymous gaggle of corrupt police, politicians, land barons, and ethnically diverse gangsters giving our heroes trouble will be joining Reggie LeDoux or the Yellow King in the annals of memorable villainy anytime soon. Before this week, it’s unlikely much of the audience even knew their names. If you’re gonna make the mystery a mess until just before the end, fine, but there has to be something to make getting there at least half the fun.
I reviewed last night’s True Detective for Rolling Stone. I thought it was solid, which helped me understand why until last week, the rest of the season was not.
Even weirder, the big orgy that ends the episode is also a move forward for the series’ handling of women, sex, and nudity. When Ani Bezzerides goes undercover to get the inside scoop on the prostitution ring’s high-powered clientele, she’s dosed with Molly that’s potent enough to trigger post-traumatic flashbacks to her molestation as a child; cue visually distorted nightmare. So instead of the sleazy parade of pay-cable hardbodies you might have expected, everything you see is blurry, shaky, and decidedly un-sexy — as it should be at a party in which leering old men buy their way into sex with women who are prohibited from saying no.
The sequence’s most striking break from the norm, though, was aural rather than visual. The show’s usual score, an ominous, electronic throb, is suddenly replaced by an orchestra of swirling strings. It makes Bezzerides’ journey into the party mansion feel like the heroine of a dark fairy tale getting trapped inside the evil queen’s castle, lending a sense of urgency, even adventure, to her attempt to rescue the woman she spots from her old missing person’s case. When Ani, Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh crested the hill in the dark as they ran away, you half-expected the Ringwraiths to be chasing them instead of gun-toting goons. Tossing the series’ usual tonal palette out the window worked beautifully. When was the last time True Detective made you say that? Fingers crossed that the final two installments make us say it again.
In the Big Eighties New Wave soundtrack wars, Joy Division is a weapon best used sparingly. Like a proto-Cobain, the heavily mythologized tragedy of lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide hangs heavy over every note, threatening to overwhelm the song’s value as signifiers of either the time period or a character’s psychological state. So when a Raveonettes/Trentemøller cover of the band’s “She’s Lost Control” shuddered its way through the air as Cameron Howe crashed the system of the company that stole her life’s work, it’s time to sit up — or in her case, lie down — and take notice.
But has she lost control, really? Was “Kali,” tonight’s penultimate episode of Halt and Catch Fire Season Two, a portrait of a woman falling apart? If you’ll pardon the Clintonian doublespeak, it depends upon what the meaning of the word “control” is.
If it means using her intelligence and talent to shape her own future, Cameron has got that in spades. In the space of a few days, she devised a brand new business plan, successfully sold their most innovative game, designed the interface for Mutiny 2.0, and hacked Jacob Wheeler’s new network — all under the worst professional circumstances she’s ever faced. You can read it in her eyes, actor Mackenzie Davis’ most expressive asset, when she lies on the grass as her dirty deed goes down: She is in full command.
Tonight’s episode was absolutely stuffed with plot points, pretzel-like twists and some seriously overripe, laugh-out-loud lines. More often than not, it felt like a parody of prestige drama rather than the real thing. No character got away clean: Not Ani, who suffers her way from the most one-dimensionally grotesque sex-harassment workshop ever before revving her fellow offenders’ engines with (presumably) sarcastic talk about big dicks. Not Paul and his ridiculous cliché of a mother, who scream and weep their lungs out when he finds out she stole his hidden loot from Afghanistan like they were in a bad telenovela. (Apparently someone in the writers’ room thinks “poisoned cooze” is an insult a human being would use in the year of our Lord 2015.) Not Ray, who records a monologue about suffering for his son — “Pain is inexhaustible. It’s only people that get exhausted” — like he’s auditioning for the role of Rust Cohle in the school play. (Runner up: his big cliffhanger-ending “You and me need to talk.” No shit!) Not Frank and his wife Jordan, who stammer their way through a fight about his return to the gangster lifestyle and her inability to have children centered on sentences like “Crime exists contingent on human desire.”
The pièce de résistance, of course, is Frank’s grand declaration of frustration to Ray. “The enemy won’t reveal itself, Raymond,” he says, like a summer-stock Pacino in Godfather III. “Stymies my retribution. It’s like, uh, blue balls in your heart.” Blue balls in your heart, people. Blue. Balls. In. Your. Heart. Look, a simile makes connections in order to uncover meaning, not overwhelm it; “blue balls in your heart” does nothing to explain the unique rage of delayed revenge except bury it under a mountain of “Wait…what the hell did he just say?” It’s enough to give you, uh, jock itch in your brain.
The discovery leaves Joe in the unenviable position of transitioning from chemically induced bliss to pure panic. Instead of fucking his bonnie bride amid his beloved mainframes while rolling on MDMA after a lengthy, lushly shot nightclub sequence, he’s not only forced to sober up; the man has to reenter the enemy territory. Dressed head-to-toe in white like Don Johnson after an all-night Miami Vice cast party, MacMillan staggers into Mutiny HQ and desperately attempt to convince everyone that he had nothing to do with destroying their life’s work. The result is the rare moment where no one’s buying what our resident mover-and-shaker is selling.
It’s hard to believe, given the swaggering alpha-male asshole we remember from Season One, but it’s a crushingly sad moment. Here’s a guy who really has become a better man…and it doesn’t matter. Jacob’s swindle is as convincing a copy of Joe’s old tactics as his bogus new network is of Mutiny’s proprietary code, so none of his former coworkers believe MacMillan is innocent for a second. That’s a tremendous demonstration of how hard it can be to break the mold you’ve made for yourself. It’s always there to shape how others see you.
Structurally, tonight’s big bang comes at the exact same end-of-Episode-Four point as the single-take shootout from Season One. But that was a deep-cover diversion, a consequence of Rust Cohle getting dragged along for a drug heist while posing as a white-supremacist biker. This week’s rampage, by contrast, took place as part of the search for the actual suspect in Ben Caspere’s killing, a figure in the Mexican mob whose prints were on the dead man’s pawned watch.
As such, it potentially corresponds not to the aforementioned seven-minute sequence, but to Marty and Rust’s raid on Reggie Ledoux’s compound in the following episode. That was when the original Detective duo murdered numerous shady men while the real killer went free for another decade. This time around, Ray knows for sure that the Vinci P.D. wants the case closed, and he suspects the state is in for the opportunity to shake down his crooked town for extra cash. With that in mind, it’s likely there will be pressure to act like they’ve gotten their man, however improbably that may be. Only ganglord Frank, who knows better than to believe that a guy hard up enough to pawn jewelry could be behind all his ruined plans, will want to keep up the hunt until the actual culprit is found. In other words, the criminal has been the true detective all along. Congrats if you had him in your office pool!
The dramas of TV’s New Golden Age excel at presenting their characters with a choice of evils. Should Walter White attempt to take down a more powerful druglord, or turn his family’s life upside down by fleeing? Should Daenerys Targaryen let the slaves she freed take vengeance against their former masters, or punish their payback attempts with still more violence? Should Don Draper sell out, or give up? For many shows, the central conflict involves a question with seemingly no right answers.
But what if there are no wrong answers? What if the choice is hard to make because the benefits of either option are too difficult to turn down? In the right hands, that’s an even deeper dilemma — and “Working for the Clampdown,” tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire, proves this is a series with the tools and the talent to navigate this demanding kind of drama.
There’s no surer sign that a show is doing something very right than when even its most plot-heavy episodes leave you thinking not about what happened, but how it happened. Sure, you can recount where Mad Men‘s final episode left all its leading players — but the real magic lies in the way Don Draper’s climactic breakdown and breakthrough is presented. (You’re craving a Coke right…about…now.) Game of Thrones‘ Season Five finale similarly stranded nearly all its major characters in the direst of straits, but weeks later it’s the sound of the crowd surrounding Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame that sticks in your mind.
This is the enviable position in which Halt and Catch Fire finds itself with the latest installment in its season-long hot streak: “10BROAD36.” It’s an episode that bursting with big story beats: the Mutiny crew found out about Cameron and Tom’s romance; Donna hid both her pregnancy and abortion from her husband Gordon, who was busy cheating on her half a continent away; and Joe MacMillan used his “simple” plan to provide server space to Cam’s company as an entry point for taking it over entirely. (Bad Joe is back!) But it’s how these characters interacted, and how everything was shot and staged, that made for a fantastic hour of television.
…this isn’t the first time True Detective has lacked the courage of its convictions. Rust Cohle spent the first season spouting the bleakest arguments about life and death ever advanced by a primetime drama, only to see the light and put his pessimism aside in its final minutes. The show could have broken important ground, depicting a person who believes the worst about the world yet still does good in it, with neither feature canceling out the other. (Faith in humanity is not required to be a decent human being.) Instead, Rust played the hero and got a hero’s reward, psychologically anyway.
Reviving Ray leaves similarly challenging and exciting territory unexplored. The idea of a good-cop/bad-cop narrative forced to live on past the death of its bad cop is an intriguing one indeed. For starters, it would have shaken up the story’s seen-it-all-before structure. It could also have been an opportunity for Pizzolatto and company to examine the toxic masculinity the show alternately (and perhaps unwittingly) critiques and embodies. Dodging an entire seasons’ worth of comparisons between the Harrelson/McConaughey and Farrell/Vaughn stunt castings wouldn’t have hurt, either.
And while we’re playing the What If game: If Velcoro were gone, maybe there’d be room to signify the psychological hang-ups of the other characters outside of bedroom-related problems. Take the trio that rounds out the core cast: Ani Bezzerides’ sexual assertiveness, Frank Semyon’s failure to perform at the fertility clinic, and Paul Woodrugh’s physical rejection of a romantic overture are used to advertise their overall dysfunction like a neon sign. Pimps and prostitutes are everywhere, each one a more leering stereotype than the last. Hollywood types talk about risqué parties like middle-schoolers who just looked up the word “orgy” on wiktionary.com for the first time. The evil mayor has a house full of hustlers and harlots, including his son and wife. The murder victim himself is a garden-variety perv. Factor in Marty Hart’s philandering, his teen daughter’s promiscuity, and his wife’s weaponized seduction of Rust back in Season One, and it’s as if True Detective believes anything short of having seamless, zipless sexual experiences is a signal that your life is about to fall apart.
Halt’s got many strengths besides its characters, of course; its period pop-culture reference game has rarely if ever been as on point as it was tonight. Cameron and Tom’s rental of The Terminator, for example, takes on any number of roles within the narrative. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice gives them funny accents to flirt in. Renting the video provides Tom with a convenient excuse for one of his many sudden “I gotta go”s, which seems to suggest a secret at home. The film’s totally-Eighties nightclub-massacre scene is beautifully recreated in Gordon’s own visit to the local hotspot, with a zonked-out computer engineer substituting for the gun-toting cyborg. The Mutiny crew watches the scene featuring the famous line “And it will not stop, ever, until you are dead,” which echoes Clark’s understanding of his disease. And the first-person shooter the company wants to develop will, in all likelihood, owe a lot to the visceral violence and implacable antagonists of James Cameron’s classic.
Ditto the just-imported Nintendo Entertainment System that Gordon’s kids can’t wait to play. Like the Macintosh that appeared at the end of last season like one of 2001‘s monoliths, the NES will create a massive cultural explosion that Cameron and company will have to deal with. The children’s prophetically passionate response shows how important the characters’ family lives can be to their professional ones, if only they pay attention. The bemused way Donna’s mother describes the game they’re playing (“A bunch of little men fighting turtles”) illustrates how easy it is to ignore a Super Mario Bros–sized forest for the trees. It also indicates the weird alchemy required to create a world that gamers will want to immerse themselves in again and again, which is Cameron’s current quest for her theoretical online multiplayer game. Maybe it’s a coincidence that so many shots in this episode showed characters as small figures against big backgrounds, Mario-style — but if so it’s a coincidence that counts.