Posts Tagged ‘TV reviews’
Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times and it’s a pattern: On the strength of the third excellent “Empire” episode in a row, it’s now safe to declare the show on a hot streak.
We’ve reached the center of the Maze. It’s not a physical location, a place in the park where the safety catch comes off and the guests can play for keeps. It’s a metaphor for consciousness, the inward journey required for an android to become truly alive. In the case of Dolores, it’s also the downward spiral to her buried identity, i.e. Wyatt, the genocidal maniac destined to create a new robot-friendly world from the human blood of the old.
But tonight’s movie-length season finale – “The Bicameral Mind” – proves that the Maze isn’t such a bad image for the show itself. For all its faults, Westworld‘s first season wasn’t an affront or a disaster. There’s enough entertainment value in each episode, particularly if you just so happen to enjoy sci-fi thrillers, no matter how skeptical you are of their overall philosophical or dramatic merit. But the journey from the starting point to the center of it all reveals just how distant “enjoyable” can be from, you know, good. Right up to the end, the show’s inaugural season was watchable – and ultimately dismissible.
I reviewed last night’s season finale of Westworld for Rolling Stone. Like I said, it was never a show I dreaded watching — I was never like “oh god, here we go, time to watch another fucking Westworld,” you know? I actually kind of looked forward to it each time. I just never looked backward to it afterwards.
Anyway, as I try to explain in the review, the show succeeded best as a straightforward genre thriller and foundered in its attempts to be more than that. In terms of the twists and revelations, the problem was less their existence and more the simultaneously slovenly and byzantine way in which the storylines that led to them unfolded. Basic structural stuff.
Mixed in with all this, importantly, is Juliette’s revelation to Noah that she’s a) married to a b) older man whom she met when she was his student. The cycle of sleaze perpetuates itself, right? Ah, but things are never that simple on this show. When Juliette facetimes with her cuckolded husband back in France, we discover he’s not just older but elderly, and suffering from Alzheimer’s-induced memory loss and dementia. Suddenly the skeevy, predatory student-teacher sexual relationship the past several scenes have conjured in our minds is complicated by this picture of how such a romance can evolve through the years into something not merely mature but shot through with devastating sadness and loss. Juliette’s tears during her “conversation” with her husband and his nurse come laden with any number of possible regrets: mourning the man she used to know, remembering the heat of the forbidden they once shared but which is now barely recognizable, grieving over how much he’s suffering, regretting her infidelity, regretting that her ongoing marriage forces any sexual component of her life to be infidelity, wishing she’d slept with Noah and not Mike as part of that infidelity, wishing that her husband could still experience those same pleasures and desires…not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s more that’s of genuine human interest and experience going on in this single scene than Westworld can muster in any five-episode stretch.
I reviewed last night’s excellent episode of The Affair for Decider. This show’s capacity to surprise, delight, and fascinate just keeps growing.
You might want to sit down before you read this oh-so-shocking revelation: When “Empire” put Cookie Lyon at the center of an episode, it got the best episode of its third season so far. Largely pushing Lucious and the constant conflicts he engenders between his sons to the side, this week’s focus was squarely on the queen as she attempted to bring her scatterbrained family together to impress the family of her once-again boyfriend, the New York City mayoral candidate Angelo DuBois. Taraji P. Henson’s unerring ability to find the core of Cookie’s every interaction and mine it for all it’s worth is the show’s greatest renewable resource.
The truly amazing thing about the episode is just how much life it can fit into this rubric. When you think about it, despite the proscriptive narrowness of its title, The Affair has encompassed an enormous panoply of emotions and experiences. Estrangement between parents and children of all generations and ages. The loss of a child. The end of multiple marriages. The allure of sex. The keeping of a horrible, life-ending secret. Poverty and wealth. The life of a small summer resort and the divide between townies and tourists. Writing, publishing, teaching. Booze, weed, and cutting as self-medication. That left-field storyline about the Lockharts’ murderer grandfather. The freaking restaurant business. That none of it feels forced, that all of it seems to emerge organically from the titular affair rather than being grafted on to it in order to flesh out multiple seasons of TV, is close to a miracle.
It’s not the content that’s to blame for the episode’s shortcomings, but the delivery mechanism. From start to finish, the hour’s events move in fits and starts, with the herky-jerky rhythm of a malfunctioning host. How else could it work, when nearly all its focal-point characters are constantly moving in and out of awareness? Teddy wakes up from being shot with an arrow, then is promptly killed again. The Man in Black watches all of this smugly, until he gets knocked out; the next morning he realizes he’s about to get hanged from a tree courtesy of a noose and a skittish horse. He narrowly escapes, but only to have his narrative stopped in its tracks once again by a visit from Charlotte Hale, one of his fellow members of the park’s board of directors. Logan torments his estranged brother-in-law-to-be and Dolores until the latter escapes and the former pretends to forgive him. Cue the smirking asshole waking up the next morning with all his robotic Confederado comrades massacred and the born-again-hard William firmly in charge.
The self-aware hosts go through even more fake-outs and double-backs. Dolores shifts back and forth between locations, time periods, and states of consciousness so frequently that it’s impossible to keep track of – deliberately so, but that doesn’t prevent it from undercutting the emotional impact of her discovery that she murdered her maker. And poor Bernard splits his time between getting switched on and off by Maeve and Ford on the one hand, and being jolted in and out of his robotic consciousness and memories. Many of said memories involve killing other characters, like Theresa and Elsie, just to add to the staccato storyline. Sometimes he’s not Bernard at all, but Arnold … or at least Dolores’s deep-rooted memory of him. His Doctor-ordered suicide at the end of the episode comes as sweet relief after the mindfucks he’s been through. When the storyline that suffers the fewest interruptions of this sort (i.e. Maeve’s rebellious arc) involves our heroine breaking down a fellow robot’s mind before deliberately burning them both to death en flagrante delecto, you know things have gotten way too complicated.
Add it all up and it’s like watching a version of The Usual Suspects in which both Chazz Palmintieri and Kevin Spacey’s characters are constantly getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. (And are then forced to try and pick up the story where they left off hours later.) There’s just no way for it to sustain momentum, tension, or suspense – let alone make its plot twists and shocking revelations work properly – when every character is so busy just trying to stay sentient and upright.
This is an exceptionally smartly shot show, even when the seaside vistas of Montauk aren’t there to provide production value. Look at this trio of shots in which we slowly fade into Noah’s world, first at the start of the episode, then graveside after the funeral for Noah’s father, then the following morning. It’s a restrained but unmistakable way to show us that our presence here, our view of what’s happening, is tied directly to Noah; his presence literally clears things up. It also offers a tantalizing hint that reality may be hazier than it first appears.
The episode is less persuasive when it shifts its gaze from the robot mind to the human one. Before Ford wipes his secret android minion Bernard’s memories of his murder of, and relationship with, Theresa Cullen, the perplexed ‘bot asks his maker what separates his pain and experiences from that of a normal person. If all of this stuff ultimately exists in the brain and nowhere else, who’s to say where the line is drawn between the stuff of life and the merely “lifelike”? Noting that his old frenemy Arnold was tormented by the same question, the Doctor dismisses it. There is no difference, he says, because human consciousness is just as much an illusion as that of the hosts. We too are locked in loops and routines, rarely challenging our drives and desires, perfectly happy to follow orders. The only difference between machine and man is that the latter can at least be aware of his plight, and holds the remote control over the former.
Which is true, so far as it goes, but that’s not very far at all. The question of “what makes us truly human” has always been one of the least interesting ones science fiction asks because the answer is all around us. Love, happiness, suffering, memory, anticipation – even if they’re all just part of our brains’ core code, it’s the only code we have. It’s not as if we’re living a lie when we experience these things, since there’s no way to access any other deeper “truth” about reality. False or not, our consciousness is inescapable. No matter how much Ford sneers about it as he uses his iPad or whatever to reprogram his Frankenstein’s monster, it doesn’t give him, or us, an escape route.
As its initial installments this season have made plain, Fox’s hit show “Empire” has been losing a two-front war. On a meta level, can a show that draws much of its heat from tapping the pop-cultural and political zeitgeist keep pace with the chaos of 2016? And in terms of plot, can it keep the soap suds bubbling by simply pitting the members of the Lyon family against each other — and against Lucious, in particular — again and again?
So far, notwithstanding its persistently strong performances (and ratings), the answer to both questions has been no.
Until this week. Like the cold shower that jolts the troubled son Jamal back to consciousness after he pops one too many pain pills, Episode 6 is a welcome shock to the show’s system. It centers on a cybersecurity story line that’s all too resonant with real-life events. And in the person of the hack’s surprising architect, the story line offers a way out of the endless cycle of alignment and realignment among the sparring Lyons, presenting Lucious with a worthy adversary for what may be the first time in the show’s history.
“Fighting is your family’s way of life,” Councilman Angelo Dubois tells Cookie Lyon. “It’s like it’s in your blood.” Normally a statement like this would be considered an insult. Angelo, however, means it as a heartfelt insight, if not an outright compliment. After witnessing the latest public throw-down involving Cookie’s kin, he’s become enlightened about her needs: He’s going to fight on her behalf just as ferociously as the members of her family fight among themselves.
The councilman’s attempt to make virtue out of vice serves as a neat little mission statement for this week’s episode. As the still-young third season of “Empire” has made abundantly clear, the Lyons are locked in an endless cycle of conflict, with various members of the family forging and breaking alliances as readily as Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia do in the George Orwell novel “1984.” (You practically need a flowchart to keep track of Hakeem’s allegiances in this episode alone, for example.) True, Lucious Lyon is nearly always the source of that conflict, and all that pot-stirring has rendered his character inert. But he’s obviously not going anywhere. So if “Empire” is to remain at the pinnacle of prime-time soap, it has to keep the fighting fresh and vital.
But that’s just it: Soul feels in short supply on “Empire” these days. The performances remain engaging — Taraji P. Henson’s star as Cookie grows brighter with each episode, and Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray continue to do warm and nuanced work as Jamal and Hakeem, the family’s reluctant Cain and Abel — and individual scenes can be a lot of fun. But how many times can we watch the same five characters argue over the same set of issues? If any of the alignments lasted for longer than a few episodes at a time — if, say, Hakeem spent most of the season as a peacenik before snapping instead of making the reversal in the space of a couple of commercial breaks — the battles might feel worth waging.
As it stands, “Empire” is full of sound and fury; and while it’s probably taking it too far to paraphrase Shakespeare, the show’s patron saint, and say that the show signifies nothing, it is hard to hear a heartbeat above all the noise.
For sheer entertainment value, the biggest shift isn’t in Bernard, but his creator. Nearly a quarter-century after his star turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs — a role he revisited twice, to diminishing returns, amid a virtual buffet of ham-based entries on his IMDB page — it’s easy to forget just how menacingly minimal Anthony Hopkins can be. The “I ate his liver” speech and the face-peeling shenanigans have the biggest pop-culture footprint, of course. But his Hannibal was at his most ominous when he was standing still, the ghost of a smile on his face and fire in his eyes, quietly tearing people to mental shreds with just his words.
The brilliance of his take on that iconic killer is visible in Ford’s full-fledged heel turn. Gone is the cryptic old-man-of-the-mesa routine, dispensing wit and wisdom in a bemused British accent. In his place is a stone-cold lunatic, and if Bernard’s very existence is any indication, he’s been mad as a hatter for literally decades. Staring into that face — which is positioned almost, but not quite, to look directly into the camera, a la Lambs‘ Lecter v. Clarice conversations — you can feel hope evaporate in the heat of his squinty glare. This guy’s too smart, to prepared, too ruthless, and too insanely dedicated to his mad project to possibly be beaten in the basement of his own sanctum sanctorum. It takes Ms. Cullen longer to realize this than it takes us, and the Doctor has no patience with it: The look of combined boredom, impatience, and condescension as he watches her try to call for help is a thing of dark delight. The brutal murder that follows is almost an afterthought; you could see her death reflected in his eyes long before he gave his robotic right-hand man the order. You wanted an “adversary”? You’ve got one.
Maeve’s walk through the Westworld theme park’s behind-the-scenes house of horrors is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the instant in which one of Westworld’s unfortunate, unwitting robots receives undeniable, unforgettable confirmation that their life is a lie. It’s a crushing concept all on its own, and the guided-tour-of-hell structure of the scene adds to the pathos. By rights it should stand alone as one of the series’ most powerful moments.
And yet, Westworld’s treatment of it falls flat. Like park technicians fiddling with a host’s intelligence or empathy on their control panels, the show’s filmmakers artificially increase the sequence’s tear-jerking levels by soundtracking it with a chamber-music version of the closing track on one of the most acclaimed albums of all time: “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the achingly sad conclusion of Radiohead’s electronic-music breakthrough Kid A. It’s not the first time the hyperactively overscored series has relied on the band, having previously gone to the Radiohead well with their suburban-ennui anthem “No Surprises.” Hell, it’s not the first time it did so in this episode, which opens with a similarly heavy-handed accompaniment by a player-piano version of the band’s ode to falseness, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But it is the show’s most egregious example yet of using a song with preexisting cultural clout to do its emotional work — a syndrome we’re seeing, or hearing, with increasing frequency as Peak TV prestige dramas attempt to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, or listeners, by the heartstrings.
Rather than let the power of the scene emerge on its own, Westworld leans on a preexisting work of art to doing the heavy lifting for it. It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance. That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show. Even if you don’t rate Radiohead, substitute the gut-wrenching classic-album closer of your choice — “Purple Rain” or “Little Earthquakes” or, to cite an artist Westworld’s already employed to dubious effect in that over-the-top orgy scene last week, “Hurt”— and you’ll get the point.
Over at Vulture, I went long on how shows like Westworld, Stranger Things, and even The Americans have used preexisting pop music as a cheat code to score emotional points they haven’t earned. I also talked about shows that have done pop music cues right, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Lost to Halt and Catch Fire and The People v. O.J. Simpson. It’s basically a prose version of what Chris Ott and I talked about on his Shallow Rewards podcast a few weeks ago. I quite liked writing this piece and I hope you enjoy it.
Westworld is a show about androids, but the titular theme park’s biggest problem is – let’s face it – its H.R. department. Delos, the corporation behind the theme resort, has based its staffing structure around a system of checks and balances – though in practice it’s more like Republican and Democrat zero-sum party politics, or a Hobbesian war of all against all. The boffin-y behavioral scientists, the temperamental artists who craft storylines, the hardcases who handle security, the grunts in the basement chop shop: They work against each other far, far more than they work together. According to Theresa, who breaks up with Bernard because the conflict of interest their relationship represents, that’s by design.
Okay, fine. After all, this might explain the constant backbiting and infighting we were complaining about last week. (Explain, mind you, not excuse: Just because it has an in-story reason for happening doesn’t make non-stop conflict any less boring to watch.) But in this week’s installment – “The Adversary” – this policy winds up raising more questions than it answers. In a theme park this paranoid, how the hell can so many people get away with breaking the rules?
Obviously, science fiction requires suspensions of disbelief – otherwise it’d just be “science” – and few stories of any kind are so flawless that there are no plot holes to overlook. In that light, all this nitpicking about lousy stop-loss practices by park staff could be seen as just that: nitpicking. But logical gaps are easier to cross when we’re given enough material of value to build bridges, and that’s where Westworld fails time and again.
There’s nothing wrong with the Westworld theme park a few security cameras couldn’t fix, and other observations: I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone.
10. The Kiss on the Wall
Season 3, Episode 6: “The Climb”
To paraphrase David Bowie, let’s remember Jon Snow and Ygritte standing on the Wall, where they kissed as though nothing could fall. The star-crossed couple’s big moment came after a pulse-pounding sequence in which their raiding party scaled the treacherous icy obstacle, nearly dying in the process, so their mere survival was cathartic enough. But the future Lord Commander and his wildling lover seized the moment – and the stunning, sunlit view – and locked lips in the series’ single most romantic shot to date. Game of Thrones so rarely gives us reasons to simply be happy; these two crazy kids never got one again.
I ranked and wrote about the 25 Greatest Game of Thrones Moments for Rolling Stone. If you like my writing about this show at all, I think what you like about it probably comes through very strongly in the nature, order, and explanation of my selections. I hope you enjoy them.
Granted, Logan has no redeeming qualities in any capacity, so his behavior toward his colleague shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it speaks to the fundamental misapprehension Westworld has about what makes a compelling workplace drama. You need tension and conflict and even the occasional full-fledged feud. But neither the show nor the fictional business it portrays will come together if that’s all you’re getting. Both Mad Men and Sterling Cooper would have collapsed had Don Draper not been a charming companion and a surprisingly good mentor in addition to everything else. The Wire would have had no story if McNulty and Daniels, or Stringer and Avon, had always been at each other’s throats. Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s little-watched but much-admired series about the dawn of the Internet age, spent an entire season with its main characters screaming at each other, before realizing show would seem less grating if they worked together.
Unless and until Westworld realizes the same thing, it’s always going to feel like a fraction of the series it could be. Yes, you get your requisite gory violence and copious nudity, including HBO’s second clinical close-up of a black man’s penis this year after The Night Of (and a ridiculous robot orgy soundtracked by a chamber-music version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have”). You get all the guessing games about multiple time frames and hidden programming, the doppelgangers of Dolores and Lawrence, and the truth about the late great Arnold. All of this will only get you so far. To quote George Costanza, “We live in a society!” even if the employees’ role in it is to create a lawless version thereof. People need to work together, at least sometimes, for that society to function. The humans on the show need to acting like humans for us humans on the other side of the screen to truly care.
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone, ignoring the clues and theories in favor of talking about a far more fundamental problem. We’re all free to do this kind of thing! Nothing says we have to “solve” a show constructed as a puzzle box.
The point is this: Given what happens to every character who tries to solve the puzzle, perhaps it’s best to just enjoy things as they unfold, if you can indeed “enjoy” a story this grim.
Unfortunately, the majority of the show isn’t making this easy. While the horror elements pack a jolt and the “conversations” between robots remain enthralling, everything else is shooting blanks. The human characters are still a major flaw: Aside from Ford and his lunatic zeal, everyone who works at the park is utterly joyless and unpleasant. When Bernard and Theresa smile at each other in his bedroom, it almost feels like a continuity glitch.
In particular, the loathsome black-hat Logan is all but unwatchable in his clichéd obnoxiousness; “You’re gonna grow to love me, I promise,” he says to his dully good-hearted companion William, but we have our doubts. In some clunky exposition, he also raises the idea that the two of them are part of the family that owns the park, which means they’ll be even more important to the story as it progresses. Great.
Perhaps to compensate for the undercooked dialogue, the score is omnipresent and obnoxious, telegraphing every emotion we’re supposed to have during every scene: ominous hums in the production facility, lugubrious strings during Dolores’ touching moments with the menfolk, jangly Mexicana when the bad guys and bandits are on the scene, the ironic use of “La Habanera” for a slow-mo massacre. Hey, Westworld: Have some faith in your players – ahem, viewers. We can figure this out ourselves.
I reviewed last weekend’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. Amazingly, Ramin Djawadi does the music for this show, and the difference in quality between the theme and score here and that of Game of Thrones is just night and day.
Three episodes deep into Westworld, it’s become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They’ve lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can’t be switched off with a command. Their bodies can’t heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They’re people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. The human characters are faltering while the robot “characters” are fascinating.
The most striking thing so far about Season 3 of “Empire” is just how insufferable Lucious has become, not just to Cookie but to everyone else. In this episode he shows up at Tiana’s performance solely to bust the chops of his family. First he goes after Cookie for dating Angelo. Seconds later he taunts Jamal for falling for a ruse Lucious concocted involving Freda Gatz. Is there a single character on the show who wouldn’t be better off if Lucious were dead? The “anti” in his antiheroic persona has been cranked up too high for story lines involving him to work; you know he’ll undermine his family to get what he wants every time, which makes him pretty uninteresting.
“I’m so sick of hearing about the future,” says Cameron Howe-Rendon. “What isthat? The future is just another crappy version of the present. It’s some…it’s some bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want.”
“This future can be different,” Joe MacMillan.
For Halt and Catch Fire, the future is now. Leaping forward into the ‘90s for the final two episodes of its masterful third season, “NIM” and “NeXT,” Halt pulled the time jump from the prestige-TV toolkit and utilized it as well as any show since Battlestar Galactica and Lost, the two series that pioneered the practice, and Mad Men, its direct precursor and the show to which it has more than earned direct comparison this season. Mad Men incorporated time jumps directly into its architecture, with the time frame of each new season and the status-quo shifts that took place between every finale and premiere becoming one of its main attractions and driving concerns. Halt took a different, more unpredictable tact: It fast-forwarded into the era of the World Wide Web in the middle of its most tumultuous, dramatically engaging, and all-around excellent episodes to date. The move makes sense for audience engagement, sure: “www,” “http,” and “html” are far more recognizable tech terms than anything on which the show had been focused so far. But it could easily have backfired in every other conceivable way — cutting off the mounting tension between the characters at the knees, setting them adrift and forcing us to find them again at a moment when they’d never been quite so individualized, so recognizable, so real. That the time jump not only worked, but worked spectacularly, is a testament to what showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers and their cast and crew have accomplished together this season. We may have skipped forward into a new decade, a new age, a new period in the lives of our heroes, a new alignment of the relationships between them. But they remain the people we’ve come to know, and their story remains the one we’ve come to eagerly anticipate each week as among the very best being told on television today.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes 11, 12, and 13: “Now You’re Mine,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” and “You Know My Steez”October 12, 2016
You could cut fully five hours of fat from Luke Cage without losing a single story beat or worthwhile idiosyncrasy. Seriously, it’d be possible to preserve every major plot point and every successful bit of local color, every musical performance and every smackdown, yet still delete enough dead air, aimless conversation, redundant dialogue, over-scored soundtracking, and endless scenes of people walking from place to place to create a version of the show that’s essentially as-is, but tighter and quicker and, frankly, better.