Posts Tagged ‘TV reviews’
That’s the beauty of The Young Pope: Like all truly great television shows, it trusts its audience enough to risk alienating us. What will people make of this episode’s most bizarre scene, in which Pius supernaturally soothes a savage … kangaroo? It’s so truly, madly, deeply odd, and showrunner Paolo Sorrentino has no interest in softening the blow. You make your peace with an exquisitely campy series about a chain-smoking homophobic tyrant who looks to the band behind “Get Lucky” and “One More Time” for stylistic inspiration; who was raised by a nun who thinks he’s a saint but wears a t-shirt reading “I’m a Virgin, but This Is an Old Shirt” to bed; and who can calm rogue Australian wildlife like, as Voiello puts it in his thick Italian accent, “Saint Francis of-a Sydney.” Or you don’t. If the meme-able moments make it all sound silly, well, remember when an O.J. Simpson show from the creator of Glee starring John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. sounded silly, too? We rest our case.
Hey, remember when The Affair wasn’t The Noah Solloway Show? Believe it or not, there was such a time not so long ago. Noah’s story — his stint in prison, his torment at the hands of sadistic guard John Gunther, his post-release trysts with Alison and Helen and (sorta) his new romantic interest Irène, his attempted murder, his infection and addiction, his hallucinations, his secret origin as his mother’s euthanasia provider — have come to dominate the show so totally that I’d all but forgotten what it was like to truly see things through other eyes. Not just his own, I mean, but those people who have something other than Noah Solloway on their minds.
This week, that’s what we got. If episode seven was a return to The Affair’s old format — two tightly overlapping points of view on the same events — episode eight is a return to The Affair’s old setting, both physically and psychologically. Taking place almost entirely in Montauk, as beautifully shot as ever, this Alison/Cole installment focuses squarely on the issues that drove their stories since the show’s inception: grief, loss, infidelity, and the sense of being connected by something deeper than love — tragedy.
“I think people see what they want to see in other people:” I reviewed last night’s episode of The Affair for Decider.
“We have forgotten to masturbate!”
So proclaims Pope Pius XIII to the adoring throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the first homily of his papacy. Yet when it comes to the jaw-dropping moments in the premiere episode of The Young Pope, the Holy Father’s ode to onanism barely even makes the Top 10.
Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off his highly anticipated series with the surreal dream-image of the new pope emerging from a literal mountain of dead and dying babies. He follows it up with not one but two shots of the pontiff’s bare ass before we’re five minutes in. The smug religious leader then slo-mo struts through a teeming crowd of priests, nuns and cardinals whose multi-colored garb looks might like something out of Game of Thrones‘ – if they weren’t, you know, what Catholic clergy really wear. He has a split-second flashback to seeing a topless woman in his youth. He looks up and hey, there’s a water cooler lit like it’s a visitor from God. His adoring underlings form stunning tableaux in shot after shot, like something out of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video. He glides to the balcony to give his speech as if attached to the camera, like Harvey Keitel when he gets loaded in Mean Streets. A graphic overlay of black bars slowly spread across the screen, emblazoned with the series’ title. His lunatic grin is the only thing that’s visible.
Pius XIII takes the proverbial stage to the screams of thousands, arms outstretched like a rock star, grinning and gesticulating like his name was Monsignor Mussolini. Rain clouds are parted with a wave of his hands, and out comes the sun. Then, with a gorgeously old-fashioned zoom-in and drum buildup, he drops that masturbation line, the first explosion in a carpet-bombing campaign of unorthodoxy: Why not have extramarital sex, gay marriage, nuns saying mass? In reaction, shocked prelates collapse backwards in unison like they’re in the final panel of a gag cartoon. Panicked priests run through the Vatican halls, screaming for help. Only the intervention of his second-in-command, summarily firing him from the papacy, tips the show’s hand that this was just a dream.
But when this young Pope, a 47-year-old American named Lenny Belardo and played by Jude Law, wakes up from his nightmare, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. On the contrary, the twist works like a charm, because everything here – from the writing to the cinematography, the score to the performances – is honest-to-God dreamy. The show does the same thing its title character is supposed to do as the leader of the Catholic Church: It provides a breath of madcap fresh air in a dreary, homogeneous TV season.
On this week’s episode of The Affair, disaster struck. It’s just not clear who, or how hard, it hit.
As of this premiere, Tom Hardy himself is the best thing about Taboo. He’d better be, since he’s pretty much the only thing about Taboo. Everyone and everything else on the show simply reacts to his menacing presence.
What a presence it is, though. Your mileage may vary regarding Hardy’s mumble-mouthed machismo, but I find the way he carries himself a delight to watch. As Delaney, Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away. Call it “brute casual,” a trait that he’s got it in spades, and Taboo allows him to dole it out by the shovelful.
Taboo suffers from the dull, expensive look that’s endemic to prestige TV generally and its period-piece iteration specifically. Director Kristoffer Nyholm, late of the original Danish version of The Killing, captures a few magical moments on the muddy, sun-streaked London riverbank, but beyond that, you could swap entire sets and shots with Penny Dreadful or The Knick or Peaky Blinders and only students of historical fashion would be the wiser. Moreover, the show shares its rich yet sickly “realistic” lighting and color palette with everything from The Night Of to any scene involving gangsters on Marvel’s Netflix shows; you get the sense it looks this way simply because this is how TV shows look now. (I’m no fan of The OA, but how refreshing was it to watch a drama that was brightly lit?) There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Hey look, it’s my first review for Vulture! I’m talkin’ Tom Hardy and the series premiere of Taboo, which I’ll be covering for Vulture all season. (I’m exceedingly proud of that “Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away” bit.)
The irony is that Noah’s now vastly more complicated backstory feels as though it were developed to answer complaints about the character. Without knowing how long ago showrunner Sarah Treem planned these plot elements this is all sheer speculation, but for viewers who wondered why Noah would destroy his seemingly happy family for a shot at spontaneity, or why he’d sacrifice himself and go to jail to protect Helen and Alison when it was quite possible all of them could have gotten away with it, or why his relationships with women seem both sincerely intense and self-sabotaging, or why he swung from the supremely self-possessed Helen to the deeply damaged Alison — well, Noah convincing himself he’s somehow culpable for killing his mother after being the only person left to take care of her and then failing to kill himself in turn threads the needle quite nicely.
Is it all a bit radioactive-spider origin story for a behavior pattern that’s not really that difficult to contextualize? Perhaps. But then again anyone who’s been in therapy for long enough can attest to those “holy shit, it was because of what happened at my cousin’s confirmation when I was in fourth grade!!!!” moments. Giving Noah these dark secrets doesn’t take away his agency or explain away his good and bad qualities, nor do they singlehandedly make those things possible. They’re simply the building blocks out of which he constructed the rest of his life.
2016 was a nightmarish year, less for all the horrific things that happened than for the promise, the promise, of still worse things to come. And what were our guides through the blood and the shit? “Make America Great Again” on one hand and “America Is Already Great” on the other. Horace and Pete is by no means a good show, when all is said and done. But in a TV-critical environment with an insatiable, anesthetizing hunger for affirmation and uplift, it stood with Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones and not a whole lot of other shows at all and said “Fuck that.” History, provided we get one, will look favorably upon this. Is there a better, truer image for the year to end on than Horace and Pete‘s last line: a woman collapsed in on herself in grief, sobbing uncontrollably, screaming “Oh God”?
Unfortunately, the finale that led to this point was an utter catastrophe. If Louis C.K. had deliberately set out to make the worst possible Horace and Pete episode, he’d have been hard pressed to beat this turkey.
It’s really a shame. Laurie Metcalf, Rick Shapiro, Lucy Taylor, John Sharian, Tom Noonan, and occasionally Steve Buscemi were given moving material and worked wonders with it. Somewhere buried in this overwrought experiment is a quiet, thoughtful show about alcoholism, mental illness, loneliness, and failure. But that isn’t what we got at all.
Until the return of Tom Noonan as the bar’s towering, beret-wearing, piano-playing regular. After a Match.com date between a New Yorker staffer and a guy whose dad was an astronaut devolves into repeated, mutual screams of “YOU’RE NOT NICE! FUCK YOU!” (long story and not worth going into, though it should be noted this is the least worst of the show’s awkward-date asides), the gang at the bar explains why such dates never work out. Online dating services, Kurt and others argue, set people up according to shared interests, when what really connects couples is chemistry, up to and including the opposites-attract sort. But seeking out opposites doesn’t work either, because this kind of chemistry can’t be forced.
“That’s why they call it ‘falling’ in love,” Tom chimes in. “You can’t fall on purpose.” With a smile on his face, he tells the story of how he used to be an actor, and in one acting class he was trying to learn how to fall on cue without making it look like he was falling on cue. For him at least, this was impossible. “So I quit being an actor.” The little smile is still there, but its relationship to his emotions is now distressingly unclear. Tom’s point is this: “Well, you just accept…just accept the fact that love is rare and it probably won’t happen to you, ever.” “Is that what you do?” asks the New Yorker writer. “You just accept it?”
“No,” Tom replies, the smile flitting in and out of existence as he talks. “No, I…I walk around brokenhearted. And I, I get drunk and…I mean, I hate being alone. And…” Here the smile returns, as sad as fresh-dug grave. “And someday it’ll kill me.” I’ve now watched this scene twice, and each time I exhale sharply afterwards, like something really difficult to endure just happened to me. The contrast Noonan’s gentle bearing and his blunt despair is that powerful.
A low-key, simply structured episode despite the bombshell revelation at its center, Horace and Pete Episode 8 is the closest the show has come to finding a comfortable rhythm. Better late than never, I guess? Like Episode 7 before it, this installment doesn’t swing for the fences with “let’s cut the bullshit and get real” sociopolitical pontificating, nor does it artificially ratchet up the baseless interpersonal hostility it mistakes for drama. (For the most part, anyway: The pivotal doctor’s office scene begins with Horace and Pete sparring like grumpy children for no apparent reason.) It has some funny moments, some sad moments, some humane moments, Kurt Metzger’s hyperthyroidal ranting, and Paul Simon’s theme music. If this were what the show were like all the time it wouldn’t be half bad, though my sinking suspicion is that it’s the extravagant miserablism that suckered people into thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But to paraphrase the song, hell no, I can’t complain about their problems.
Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.
There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.
I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.
Remember the drunk cancer fetishist who tries to pick up Sylvia? When she blows him off, he delivers a monologue in a halting half-stutter about how he’s used to being treated like he doesn’t exist. “I’m a person,” he insists. “I have a story.” His story is that he was forced to raise his kid brother, just two years his junior, when his parents left one night and never came back. Now his brother doesn’t even talk to him. “I struggle, so I appear weak,” the man says. “People don’t wanna look at the weak because it reminds them of their own weakness. But they don’t get is that when you see someone who’s struggling, they’re strong. Because the weak don’t struggle—they just die. Whatever you think of me, I’m alive. I’m alive.” I’m sorry, but this is fucking beautiful, beautiful writing, humane and empathetic like nothing else on the show save the Metcalf episode, and it cuts to the heart of Horace and Pete‘s alcoholic demimonde like nothing else has. Comedian Rick Shapiro’s brief, brilliant performance here is one of the things I’ll take from this show alongside Metcalf’s star turn and Paul Simon’s theme song, and I don’t expect to take much else.
The episode, and arguably the series thus far, reaches its nadir during its second half. (Once again, no “Intermission” title card marks the obvious separation; apparently consistency is the hobgoblin of better TV shows.) For some unfathomable reason, Pete invites Jenny to dinner a family with Horace and Sylvia in the apartment they now share above the bar. Despite the psychosis for which he takes daily medication, Pete has nonetheless been shown to be a better judge, and exemplar, of character than either of his siblings (or as Sylvia would insist, “siblings”); he and Jenny are both well aware of their relationship’s problematic optics under the best of circumstances. Why on earth would he subject this woman to these two irredeemably unpleasant people, other than lousy writing forcing his hand?
I reviewed the worst episode of Horace and Pete yet for Decider. Poor Steve Buscemi.
Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’
Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he’d recognize Hamlet’s description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit’s first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford’s highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself?
The rest of the wake is characterized by needless cruelty. Marsha is mean to everyone. Everyone is, in turn, mean to Marsha, who no longer has any real tie to the family, but sticks around long enough for a story about the history of her alcoholism and tweenage promiscuity, because no one on this show has ever had a happy moment in their lives. Sylvia, whose zeal to sell the bar derives at least in part from a desire to drive a stake through the heart of the intra-family misery it’s caused, is almost abusively vicious to her distraught daughter Brenda, who’s terrified of the cancer afflicting her mother. Horace’s daughter follows her cousin out the door, basically kissing the family goodbye until the next funeral. In an argument about selling the bar, Sylvia talks about splitting its likely $6 million sale price two ways, between her and Horace, instead of three ways, between her and Horace and Pete, despite having spent literally her entire life until a few weeks ago believing Pete was her brother. (Even if you’re willing to accept anyone being so shitty a person that they’d use the shock revelation of his true paternity as an excuse to cut him out of his life’s legacy, keep in mind the show already had Sylvia talking about a two-way split before said revelation. That’s plain bad writing.) “Anyone who gets through their forties without at least ten people hating them is an asshole,” Sylvia says to Horace while she convalesces from chemo in his apartment later on. “People hating you means you look out for yourself.” Whatever you say!
It was fun while it lasted. After the unexpected marvel of its Laurie Metcalf–anchored third episode, Horace and Pete returns to its strident and unfunny form, as if the stupid sexist joke with which that previous episode was needlessly wrapped up was where its heart was all along.
I won’t mince words: With the exception of a single, pivotal line (stay tuned), Horace and Pete‘s third episode is brilliant. Much—but surprisingly, not all—of the credit goes to Laurie Metcalf, guest starring as Horace’s ex-wife Sarah. Her presence here is fitting, in a way, as Roseanne, the blue-collar sitcom in which she co-starred as the title character’s singleton sister Jackie, is one of Horace and Pete‘s obvious tonal antecedents; her dual background in television comedy and down-and-dirty theater (she’s a Steppenwolf alum) makes her a natural choice for this hybrid project. And good God, she is quite simply brilliant. Indeed, the episode begins with a continuous nine-minute closeup on the actor as she tells a then-unseen interlocutor who turns out to be Horace the story of her second marriage to a younger widower and its slow crumbling in the face of her sexual desire for the man’s 84-year-old father. Honestly, there’s almost no amount of superlatives you can heap on her work here that would overstate the case. In an episode that’s (almost—again, stay tuned) a two-hander, her presence and power elevate the proceedings to a level I couldn’t see coming.
The phrase “midseason finale” is television’s most egregious neologism. Essentially marketing-speak for “the last episode of the year before we take a few weeks off around the holidays, because we’re not just airing the whole season in a row the way cable shows do,” it carries with it an oxymoronic promise of finality. But this week’s “Empire” is the rare (sigh) midseason finale that lives up to the moniker. An effective wrap-up of a half season’s worth of story lines, it sets up the show to start anew next year, bigger and better.
I’m pleased to say Empire appears to have sidestepped the soap doldrums with its last few episodes; I reviewed this week’s, the last of the year, for the New York Times.
I’ll say this for Horace and Pete: It’s a show that has time for neither “Make America Great Again” nor “America Is Already Great.” This realization sunk in sometime around when Sylvia, Horace’s sister, began unsubtly guilting him into selling the family bar for the millions it could potentially net in the “air rights” to the vertical space above it in the skyscraping, skyrocketing Brooklyn real-estate market—all the better to offset the sky-high costs of the treatment she’ll have to undergo for her just-diagnosed breast cancer. “I feel like you’re using me,” he protests, and she agrees. “You’re my brother. Please let me use you, so that I don’t die, because cancer is fucking expensive.” America: land of the free, home of the people whose only hope to afford life-saving health care is gentrification and upward wealth redistribution. Horace and Pete theme-songwriter Paul Simon might have something to say about this, but perhaps his fellow New York Metro Area musician Lou Reed had it best: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor—I’ll piss on ’em.”
Unfortunately, the affection I have for this aspect of the show feels more like the result of my own personal fanfic remake of Roseanne with Edie Falco in the title role than something earned by the show itself.
Is the scene between a college kid and an “older” woman (she’s clearly south of 40) he swiped right on Tinder just to have emotionless sex with really strong enough to justify its incongruity and running time? Does a subplot involving Marsha and her GoodFellas extra of a beau, a successful tire-store magnate who blanches at her alcoholic attachment to this particular watering hole over all the other attractions Brooklyn has to offer, offer anything other than the same flavor of misery in a different regional accident? Does Pete’s Tourette’s-afflicted hospital acquaintance represent a serious attempt to empathetically portray this particular illness, or is it just an excuse to shout racial slurs and curse words? When Uncle Pete makes fun of Horace for wetting his pants as a kid, or his daughter (Aidy Bryant, making the best of a thankless role) for being overweight, is he doing anything other than indulging a thirst for “oh no he didn’t/oh yes he did” cruelty? When Horace has a long mental conversation with a fantasy version of Marsha in which he justifies his most outré masturbatory fantasies, is this more than an author with a dubious reputation’s attempt to let himself off the hook?
“We can boil fascist ethics down to one word: Dominate,” says professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has taught about the show as well as written about it for the academic journal Horror Studies. “It’s true that fascist aesthetics anchor many shows and films, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And of course violence is nothing new; it’s the norm in American media. Other shows out there are hitting similar themes, and that shouldn’t surprise us given the anxieties of our times. But so many of those other shows demonstrate the consequences for violence or debate the ethical complexities of living with others who are different, or show the moral turmoil of people who enact or suffer violence. The Walking Dead is the only show that actively courts, rather than critiques, fascist ethics, and suggest that it’s the only viable solution to perceived threat.”
What do those ethics entail? “In fascist mentalities, kindness, empathy, and sympathy are seen as weaknesses, critical self-reflection is seen as a danger to security, and discussion and negotiation is seen as failure,” Gencarella says. “Existence is a tragic struggle to be won or lost.” This mentality can be traced back to the fascist Ur-text, The Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten for Benito Mussolini by his Minister of Education Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine is clear that perpetual war is the preferred mode of existing with others who are different, and especially to crush the weak in order to demonstrate that one is strong,” Gencarella says. “Fascists want the apocalypse. And the history of actual fascist movements has always been cemented by the kind of storytelling that TWD valorizes and perpetuates.” It’s this perspective, and the political doctrines likely to be appealing to those who respond to it, that the Trump campaign seemingly recognized when targeting the show’s viewers. “Watching Trump and Negan on television at the same time makes perfect sense,” Gencarella says. “I don’t say that because I think all Trump supporters are fascists. But it’s also telling that the campaign thought The Walking Dead viewers would readily equate immigration with an apocalypse for which violence is the only solution.”
I wrote about the fascism of The Walking Dead for Vulture. This is a longstanding bugbear of mine as you know, and this is the first standalone piece I’ve written about it.
And while this is a relatively minor problem, given how few of the dramatic fireworks it’s his responsibility to set off, Louis C.K.’s limitations as an actor are absolutely an obstacle. I know that he’s built up a formidable critical reputation with his all-but-DIY Louie, but try as I might, I’ve remained as immune to his charms as a performer as a woman in a hotel room. From where I’m sitting he has two facial expressions cum emotional poles, exhausted and bewildered; since every person and situation he encounters is exhausting and/or bewildering, he shuffles back and forth seemingly at random. C.K. is quite famously far from the first comedian-auteur to have a relatively restricted range of expression as an actor, but watching him here is like seeing Jerry Seinfeld try to write, direct, and star alongside the finest actors of his generation in Death of a Salesman. “What is the deal with despair?” My sinking suspicion is that a show this plodding and strident will not have the answer.