Posts Tagged ‘TV reviews’

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode 12: “The Number of the Beast Is 666″

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Whatever its pleasures as a hobby and legitimate value as a means for its mostly young, mostly female practitioners to explore sexual taboos, fanfic has a worrying tendency to collapse the incredible range of potential adult relationships in fiction into a romantic singularity, distorting the totality of human experience just as surely as a black hole warps light. This act of emotional reduction—and reduction’s the right word for it, as both the fannish truncation of “relationships” into the neologism “shipping” and the pruning of the pair names into the portmanteau “Hannigram” semiotically symbolize—hits the possibility of non-romantic male friendship, cooperation, or even enmity especially hard. Is there truly no other way to process the bizarre mind meld between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham than as their bloody valentine?

The answer, of course, is that maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but either way the question is irrelevant. This is the way Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s creator and visionary, is processing that relationship. It may not be the story I expected—not any more than I expected Will Graham to slip into murderous darkness throughout the show’s run rather than remain squarely on the side of the angels—but it’s the story Fuller has chosen to tell, and it’s that story, and no other, that must be engaged by the audience. At its worst, the partisanship of shipping represents a willful refusal of art’s transcendent potential, in which rather than step outside oneself and inhabit the mind of the artist, its adherents force her ideas into a template of their own mentally provincial devising. What better way to atone for its excesses than to go along for Hannibal’s ride, no matter how many left turns it takes?

I reviewed this week’s magisterially gruesome Hannibal, with some thoughts on #Hannigram and fanfic, for Decider.


“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Given that it’s the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead can pass quite easily for one of the New Golden Age of TV’s crown jewels. The reality, however, is a lot closer to costume jewelry. Despite a grim tone typical of many iconic shows and proximity to masterpieces of the medium like Mad Men and Breaking Bad via their shared network, AMC, the blockbuster adaptation of the surprise-hit comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is striking for has so little else in common it has with its antihero-and-auteur-driven era that it gives us a whole lot to chew on.

For starters, there’s no auteur to speak of. Developer and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont departed unceremoniously after disputes with the network, and his successor Glen Mazzara lasted only two seasons until parting ways with the show in another impasse before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple took over. And while creator Kirkman remains actively involved, the show departed so radically from his source material almost immediately—another marked contrast from contemporaries like Game of Thrones—that the closest thing it has to a consistent creative vision is that of zombie-makeup guru Greg Nicotero. Though this lack of a singular voice is not necessarily an inherent evil—Darabont’s mawkish sub-Spielbergian sentimentality, to say nothing of his penchant for Wang Chung music cues, is certainly no great loss. But the difference from Davids Lynch, Chase, Milch, and Simon, and their heirs, from Louis C.K. to Shonda Rhimes, is tangible.

More importantly, and alarmingly, TWD’s approach to its own bloody bleakness too often takes the “anti” out of “antihero.” Even the most uninspired post-Sopranos series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For The Walking Dead, killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. Seriously: When The Wire veteran Chad Coleman’s pacifistic Tyrese finally offed someone, the crew congratulated him like he’d just been bar mitzvah’d.

Normally I’m first in line to blast critics for equating the depiction of atrocity with either the exploitation or outright endorsement thereof. But in TWD’s case, the frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.

I reviewed the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, and the Walking Dead phenomenon generally, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season, which should be interesting.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Ten: “And the Woman Clothed in Sun”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

TMI time: As a TV critic, you see enough sex scenes to get desensitized. Whether it’s the pneumatically thrusting buttocks of a pay-cable drama or the “let’s show them getting all breathy and frantic as they start tearing at each other’s shirts because that’s basically all we can show” approach of your average commercial-network affair, the stuff just hits a point of diminishing returns after a while. For me, at least, it takes something special to elicit that telltale sign of effective televised sexmanship: a long, low murmur of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge,” but, you know, not actually the word “fudge.”

So, yeah, the bit where Rutina Wesley’s Reba McClane reenacts holding her face to the power and heat of the sleeping tiger on the lap Richard Armitage’s Francis Dolarhyde instead? Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge.

I let this slip through the cracks last week, but I reviewed the out-of-control hot tenth episode of Hannibal season three for Decider.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode 11: “…And the Beast From the Sea”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

If a lifetime of gorehoundsmanship has taught me anything, it’s that horror is a genre in perpetual conversation with itself. By that standard, “…And the Beast From the Sea,” this week’s Hannibal, is a chattier episode than most. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re going to bring one of the most iconic monsters in horror history to the small screen, why not cannibalize some of that history in the process?

So take a look at Francis Dolarhyde’s raid on Will, Molly, and Walter Graham’s family homestead. His mesh mask echoes the pantyhose disguise of an earlier incarnation of the Red Dragon, Tom Noonan’s in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Molly & Wally’s daring through-the-window in-a-bathrobe escape echoes Wendy & Danny Torrance’s flight from Jack Nicholson and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The way they burst from the trees into the road to be saved by an African-American motorist passing by feels a whole lot like the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while that motorist’s death so that they might live is reminiscent of one of the shootouts in No Country for Old Men. You don’t needto know any of these reference points; hell, they don’t even need to be things the show is deliberately referring to. They’re just part of the narrative and visual vocabulary of terror available to any astute horror filmmaker. And that’s long before we get to the Tooth Fairy’s Tyler Durden impression.

I reviewed this week’s Hannibal, which I was actually less crazy about than usual despite the above, for Decider.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Two Scents”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Virginia Johnson wants to be courted, as in a good old-fashioned courtship. Dating, dining, dancing, you name it. What Liz Phair referred to as “all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas” in “Fuck and Run.” Granted, this desire was awakened by an oily perfume magnate who invested in her sex-research clinic so he could employ her to measure the vaginal lubrication of women exposed to the smell of pit sweat, making his motives transparent and her reaction incoherent, but for the sake of argument let’s ignore that, since the show sure did. Let’s focus instead on how she pitches this to Bill Masters, her partner. “We hooked ourselves up to wires while we talked each other through the stages of arousal,” she reminds him, and us. But don’t let your memories of when Masters of Sex was actually, you know,sexy cause your vaginal-lubrication sensors to redline just yet—Gini’s got a different idea in mind. “Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if we had met differently?” I believe I speak for the group when I say no!

No, no, no, no, no, I don’t wonder what it would have been like had Bill and Virginia been merely star-crossed colleagues pursuing a forbidden romance instead of exhibitionistic/voyeuristic weirdo geniuses verbally informing one another of the onset of orgasm as they fucked with a bank of electronic equipment rigged to their junk. I don’t wonder about how the co-author of Human Sexual Response would have fared as peewee-league football coach. I don’t wonder about how the woman who upended the entire medical establishment’s approach to sexuality got along with her mother and daughter. I don’t wonder what Masters of Sex would have been like if it were a dime-a-dozen workplace/relationship/family drama. But in “Two Scents,” this week’s episode, that’s once again what we’re getting.

I reviewed this week’s typically frustrating Masters of Sex for the New York Observer.


What Went Wrong with True Detective Season 2?

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

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.

What Went Wrong With ‘True Detective’ Season 2? I tried to answer the question in a postmortem analysis for Rolling Stone.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “III-A”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

At this point, I believe the experiment Masters of Sex is dedicated to chronicling is not the scientific measurement of human sexual response, but rather how to make sixty minutes of television feel like a six-month community-service sentence. I genuinely do not know how else to explain the bulk of the show’s third season so far, up to and including “III-A,” tonight’s episode. By any reasonable standard, a show which spends an entire scene showing Allison Janney putting in just the tip of the D should be entertaining, if nothing else. Instead it was an endurance test, where looking at the timestamp and seeing, say, 47 minutes to go felt like a personal attack. All I want is to watch people watch people fuck while covered in EKG sensors. Is that too much to ask?

I reviewed last night’s Masters of Sex, which made True Detective look good, for the New York Observer.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Omega Station”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

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.

I reviewed the disappointing True Detective season finale for Rolling Stone.


‘The Walter White of Comedy’: James Urbaniak on ‘Review’ and Rise of Funny Antiheroes

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

At first glance, Review appears to be comedy in which someone makes a major production of doing basic things in a very stiff, social-anthropology, insider-playing-at-outsider way — Sasha Baron Cohen in khakis. This is indeed the basic approach. But the show’s genius is that instead of treating each review as a separate, self-contained event, mined for jokes then never referred to again, there’s continuity between all of them. The magical comedy reset button you’d expect them to hit after Forrest, say, gets addicted to cocaine, overdoses, and goes to rehab, never gets hit. The experiences build one on top of another.

That’s the angle that stands out to actor James Urbaniak, who plays Forrest’s amoral producer/enabler Grant. “There’s an element of it being a satire of reality TV,” he says. “In reality TV, you make decisions that have an emotional effect on people but are restricted by the parameters of the game or the competition. Review “is breaking down those parameters, so he’s making very big decisions, like getting divorced, that affect his whole life.”

“Affect” is an understatement. Even though the only time he acknowledges it before the first season finale is in one brief fit of self-pity while eating an enormous stack of pancakes (don’t ask), Review shows Forrest slowly but surely destroying his life and the lives of everyone around him. His marriage ends. Multiple people get killed. All under the rubric of this preposterous high-concept mockumentary show.

In other words, Review is a satire not just of reality shows, but of New Golden Age of Television antihero dramas, hiding in plain sight. It takes the basic “man ruins all he cares about in the name of something that makes him nominally freer and more powerful” structure of the genre and plays it for deliberate laughs. Instead of a meth empire or a mafia family or a double life, he commits his bad acts in the name of the television show that chronicles them. He’s Walter White, but without the sense that there’s anything tragic about him — he’s just an oblivious faux-smart buffoon. It’s a satire of the middle-class middle-aged white-male entitlement and privilege that all the big dramas treat as the stuff of life.

“He is like Walter White,” Urbaniak says. “I never really thought about it that way, but I like it, and I’m buying it. He’s a guy who’s made, at a certain age, decisions that simultaneously give him some power but also upend his reality and the reality of those around him. Andy, in his comedy before the show, has always explored the disturbing depths within unassuming guys. He’s from New Jersey, but he has a quintessentially midwestern quality. He just seems like a quintessential nice, pleasant-looking, affable American guy; then it’s all about the depths that this guy’s capable of getting himself into, very much on his own. That sort of is like Don Draper and Walter White and those other guys. I dunno—maybe there’s some zeitgeisty thing going on about middle-aged white guys.”

Is Andy Daly’s Review secretly the prestige-tv antihero satire you’ve been waiting for? I talked to actor James Urbaniak about it for the New York Observer.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Heaven Is a Place”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

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.

I reviewed the excellent season finale of Halt and Catch Fire’s excellent second season for Rolling Stone.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

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.


“Masters of Sex” thought, Season Three, Episode Four: “Undue Influence”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

At the top of the list is the return of Allison Janney’s Margaret Scully, now divorced from her secretly gay husband Barton (who’s come to work at Masters & Johnson’s clinic) for three years and semi-happily ensconced in a three-way relationship, as we discover at the episode’s end. The “semi” caveat stems from the fact that Graham, her bawdy but seemingly good-hearted boyfriend and the male corner of this very ‘60s triangle, now cums too quickly for them to have the kind of sex she finds so fulfilling after a lifetime of going without.

Aside from the obvious “whoa” factor of the storyline, it draws a lot of strength from its key performer. Janney has been perfectly cast from the start; her big eyes can alternate between baleful and intense at will, giving her sexual reawakening real heat. It’s entirely believable that she’d leap from decades of disengagement to a longterm ménage à trois in which the pursuit of simultaneous orgasms has not just physical but emotional and even “spiritual” importance, and equally convincing that she’s forward-thinking enough to take the sight of her boyfriend and his other girlfriend in bed more or less in stride, yet still be traditional enough to be concerned that her ex-husband isn’t getting enough to eat. Her plight takes on added pathos when she reveals just why the physical aspect of her relationship is so central to her sense of well-being: She begs Barton for permission to tell his secret to her boyfriend, so that he can understand the history that led her to a place where, in her words, “sex is the only way I know that he loves me.” And she desperately wants him to tell the woman he’s been seeing under false pretenses as well, so that he doesn’t do to her (and to himself) what he did to Margaret and their marriage all those years. She has just about as much going on as a human heart can handle, and the balance of emotions is perfectly weighted by the writing.

It’s not a storyline without its problems, though. One is the underutilization of Beau Bridges, a veteran actor of deceptive depth who is too often asked by Masters to do little more than force an avuncular smile and lie to someone’s face about how fine he’s feeling. Another is the series’ habit of repeatedly trotting out new sexual issues and kinks, from oedipal complexes to impotence to incest, but using the same characters to demonstrate them: a hypersexed cad one week only likes older women the next, say, or a character introduced as someone’s mistress is later revealed to be unable to have sex at all. If Masters wants to explore polyamory and premature ejaculation, hey, by all means. But why do it at the same time, and using the same character they’d previously utilized to examine anorgasmia and sexless marriage to a closeted gay man? It’s like if the ‘60s Batman TV show still did the villain-of-the-week thing but had Cesar Romero play not just the Joker but the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman too.

I reviewed last night’s Masters of Sex for the New York Observer.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “…And the Woman Clothed with the Sun”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

‘Hannibal’ Recap: With a Little Help from My Friends

The decision to reintroduce Abigail Hobbs, the dead daughter of the killer who was killed during Hannibal and Will’s very first case, via flashback, in the middle of a story arc as self-contained and separate from the past as Red Dragon, is a baffling one. Don’t get me wrong — the character brings out a level of paternal perversity from the show that’s awesome to behold. I mean, get a load of the scene in which Hannibal recruits her to help him fake her own death. Her acquiescence is hard to swallow (no pun intended, Will) at first, given her terror of Lecter and her warm feelings toward Graham. But it’s not difficult to imagine the severe Stockholm Syndrome that would kick in when the daughter of a serial killer who forced her to help him find victims is told by another serial killer she’s about to die, but then spared at the last second as part of some grand plan.

This leads to what can only be described as the most erotic faked murder ever filmed. (Move over, Gone Girl, I guess?) Her glee about participating is Oedipally delicious: “Can I push the button?” she asks, referring to the device Hannibal will use to shoot her blood across the room in mimicry of arterial spray, with a tone of voice that would make Humbert Humbert blush. After a langourous bloodletting, during which Hannibal tenderly brushes Abigail’s brown hair back from the ear he will soon slice off and force-feed to his friend, the girl slips off the kitchen counter and into the arms of her murder-daddy. He manipulates her body like a cellist playing his instrument until the moment of release: a slow-motion shot of her blood being expelled from a tube like a vampire ejaculating.

I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider, which is another way to say I was paid to write the phrase “like a vampire ejaculating.”


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Great Red Dragon”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

More impressive still is Richard Armitage’s instant-classic work as Francis Dolarhyde — aka the Tooth Fairy, aka the Great Red Dragon — whom he doesn’t so much play as inhabit. In a recent interview, Armitage said he patterned his (so far entirely wordless) performance on Mica Levi’s avant-garde score for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house horror masterpiece Under the Skin. That a main character on a network television show would be based not a performance but the music from one of the most difficult and surreal horror films ever made is remarkable in and of itself. But beyond that, the connection makes perfect sense. Like Under the SkinRed Dragon concerns an individual in the process of becoming: making, and perhaps unmaking, themselves into a creature driven to commit monstrous crimes. Armitage’s Dolarhyde stares at his own hands as if only now realizing not just their potential but their existence, and mouths formless syllables as if trying to construct not just speech but the meaning behind it. It’s both easy and instructive to see the parallels with Scarlett Johannson’s nameless predator, another beast slouching toward mayhem to be born.

But there are few parallels, if any, between Dolarhyde’s brutality and that of the series’ title character. After a half-season immersion in Hannibal’s world of refined and decadent Old Europe evil, the blunt force of this new killer could not be more striking. Frederic Chilton, who as played by Raul Esparza could quite convincingly pass himself off as Armitage/Dolarhyde’s twin brother, makes a joke out of the contrast (to say nothing of Hannibal’s ratings woes). “He has a much wider demographic than you do,” he tells Lecter. “You, with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal. But this fellow…there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families, and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four-quadrant killer.”

Indeed, Dolarhyde kills with an urgent simplicity that’s more viscerally frightening than the elaborate installation-art, performance-piece slayings that have been the stock in trade of both Hannibal and his several serial-killing rivals throughout the series’ run. The Tooth Fairy uses a gun to commit most of his murders; he needs to end lives as quickly as possible. While he does stage his victims’ bodies in gruesome tableaux, posing them together as one big happy family with the shards of broken mirrors over their eyes and mouths (and in the mothers’ genitals), he actually puts the corpses back afterwards. He has no interest in advertising himself to the world, proclaiming his sick genius; what he does, he does for himself alone.  If Lecter is a vampire, Dolarhyde is a werewolf. He is an exclamation point to Hannibal’s ellipsis. All of this is communicated by the show through killing; this is its design. And if it is the punctuation that must end the series, so be it.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Hannibal for Decider. This show is astonishing.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Church in Ruins”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

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.

I reviewed last night’s True Detective, far and away the best episode of the season, for Rolling Stone.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Kali”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

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.

I reviewed the latest episode of Halt and Catch Fire, which has been an absolute delight all season long, for Rolling Stone.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “The Excitement of Release”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

While out for drinks with friends the other day, Masters of Sex came up, as it is wont to do. (Perhaps the most practically useful thing about being a TV critic in this, the New Golden Age of Television, is that you can make at least a half hour of conversation with anybody, guaranteed, because everybody watches TV now.) “What do you think of it?” an acquaintance who’d just started Season One asked me. “Well, as far as the first season goes,” I replied, “I think those sex scenes for the sex study are super fucking hot.” “Yes!” she agreed, with both unbridled enthusiasm and obvious sincerity. Indeed, she went on to reveal that she waits until her husband isn’t home to watch the show, so that his wisecracks don’t interrupt the, y’know, mood. We concluded that the genius of that first season was the creation of an intelligent, genuinely adult drama around sexually explicit “adult situations” that would put any Skinemax show to shame. Imagine The Red Shoe Diaries with a shot at the Best Drama Emmy and you’re basically there. Whether you’re a fan of prestige TV, fucking, or both — preferably both — this was cause for celebration.

So it was my grim duty to inform her by the time she reaches the current season, the hot stuff has been well and truly cold-showered. For evidence, look no further than tonight’s ironically titled episode, “The Excitement of Release,” a grim slog through domestic drama, bad business meetings, and perfunctory sexual-assault-as-plot-placeholder. Où sont les petites morts d’antan?

I reviewed yet another Masters of Sex that has entirely lost the plot for the New York Observer.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “Digestivo”

Monday, July 20th, 2015

It’s been a long, long time since a path to Hannibal Lecter’s capture was clear. The rules of narrative, to say nothing of Thomas Harris’s source material, dictate that Will Graham would be the man to take the Chesapeake Ripper down. But he and Hannibal had become so emotionally intertwined that it made the profiler’s triumph over the killer increasingly unlikely, at least in terms of it resembling a good old-fashioned arrest.

At the end of Season Two, as we learned for certain a few episodes ago, Will had a chance to stop Hannibal but instead hoped to join him on the run. More recently, he was on the verge of stabbing the doctor to death in the the streets of Florence before fate, in the form of one of Chiyoh’s deus-ex-sniper-rifle bullets, intervened. Either way, Graham was morally compromised in a way that would give any defeat of Lecter a bitter aftertaste (no pun intended). As Will himself puts it during their final conversation, “When it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.”

Turns out he’s wrong about that. Brain Hannibal with the butt of your handgun, plumb the depths of his backfat with a knife, brand him with red-hot iron, truss him up in a pigpen while preparing to eat him alive, and he makes nary a peep. Hurt his feelings, though? Then he’ll voluntarily give up his entire criminal career, so long as it’s Will doing the hurting. “I miss my dogs,” Graham says to his nemesis as they sit together in his cozy country house for yet another heart-to-heart chat. But then he sticks the knife in: “I’m not gonna missyou. I’m not going to find you. I’m not going to look for you. I don’t want know where you are or what you do. I don’t want to think about you anymore.”

Smug until the last, Hannibal tries to tell Will what he’s really feeling: “You delight in wickedness, and then berate yourself for the delight.” That’s the final strike. “You delight,” Will replies. “I tolerate. I don’t have your appetite.” Then comes the kiss-off: “Goodbye, Hannibal.” No more cat and mouse, and no more folie à deux either — Will’s done with the devil for good.

Earlier in the episode, Hannibal told Alana that she never could have understood him. Now it’s his turn to experience that kind of ignorance. Will’s superhuman empathy, the quality that enables him to understand Hannibal through and through, is the exact quality that renders him ultimately impenetrable to Hannibal in turn. Simply knowing that the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend has thoroughly rejected him, even as an enemy, for reasons he will never be fully capable of understanding, is enough to make Lecter give up, if only to ensure their continued connection. Will Graham caught Hannibal Lecter by letting him go.

I reviewed last week’s Hannibal, perhaps the most insane thing ever to air on network television, for Decider. You really need to see the gifs.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Three’s a Crowd”

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Precious little about the storyline that dominated tonight’s episode either plays to the show’s preexisting strengths or breaks new ground in going offroad. Finding out that she’s pregnant with a third child by ex-husband George causes problems for Virginia at work? You don’t say! It makes Bill, who’s jealous of their relationship and worried about appearances for his life’s work, uncomfortable, and Libby, who knows her husband will be fingered as the father by the public at large, even more so? Get out of town! There’s a plot point where it looks like she’ll get an abortion but the show, ahem, I mean she changes her mind at the last minute? Stop the press! Her newly troubled teenage daughter Tessa tells Virginia that her bad decisions disqualify her from delivering moralistic lectures by saying, in literally so many words, “You’re the last person who gets to lecture me on anything”? Well, I guess it’s a step forward from “You’re the worst mom ever,” an actual honest-to-god line from earlier in the episode! The birth is a screaming crying sweaty mess like every other birth that’s ever been shown on television? I could have a heart attack and die from not-surprise! It’s difficult to overstate how rote and uninteresting every aspect of the idea and the execution wound up being. The most you can say for it is that it only ate up one week of screentime.

And would you believe this was completely the writers’ choice? In reality, there was no narrowly avoided scandal that threatened to overshadow the release of Human Sexual Response, no shotgun re-marriage to George,  no third Johnson baby at all. Even on a show that plays so fast and loose with the facts in its historical fiction that it requires a disclaimer at the end of each episode stating that the child characters bear no resemblance to their real-life inspirations, the invention of a child out of whole cloth is something else. Masters has now done it not once but twice: Both Bill & Libby’s and Virginia & George’s third kids are completely made up, brought into this world by showrunner Michelle Ashford rather than the people the show is ostensibly about. Nothing Masters has done with these wholly optional additions so far has justified the investment.

Indeed, both the bogus baby boom and the sudden swerve into teen-drama territory have steered the series away from its primary points of appeal. Gini and Bill’s used to have chemistry to burn; now it’s tough to remember the last time a scene between them was enough to get any viewer hot and bothered. The labcoat eroticism of their sex study itself was, in the show’s early episodes, a long-overdue payoff on pay-cable’s potential to parlay Nudity and Strong Sexual Content into something as smart as it was smutty; now that element is completely absent. I dunno, maybe there are people out there who’d rather watch a show about hysterical women getting coached through contractions or arguing with their daughters about the borrowing the car, but Growing Pains is available on Amazon for just $1.99 an episode.

Masters of Sex was bad tonight too. I reviewed it for the New York Observer.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Other Lives”

Monday, July 20th, 2015

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.

I don’t even know what to say, folks. I reviewed tonight’s True Detective for Rolling Stone.