Posts Tagged ‘TV reviews’

Spoiler Alert: The Mad Men Series Finale

Monday, May 18th, 2015

I discussed the Mad Men finale with the New York Observer’s Drew Grant, the Guardian’s Brian Moylan, and the Huffington Post’s Ricky Camilleri on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert today. It’s a contentious and productive discussion.


“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 14: “Person to Person”

Monday, May 18th, 2015

I remain agnostic about whether Don made the ad, as I believe the show intends. At any rate, it’s largely immaterial. We’ve spent seven seasons watching Don grow, shrink, succeed, fail, move forward, stagger back, and generally struggle with his inability to fill the void inside him with things pulled in from outside, whether that’s money, sex, love, wanderlust, creativity, or industrial quantities of alcohol. There’s no reason, really, to assume the struggle would end when the show does — that Don’s grin marks, for certain, the beginning of a more grounded, more centered new life completely separate from the old one.

What’s more, an uncomfortable overlap between his current self and his ad-man past would in no way wipe out the losses and gains he experiences here. Don’s grief over Betty’s diagnosis and his subsequent realization that his absence from his children’s life is, to them, “normal life” is real. So is his litany of unforgivable sins, recited in the sardonic lilt that should be familiar to anyone who’s taken a similar vebal inventory of their failings and found the results to be a crippling psychological wound: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Don once told Peggy that despite seemingly having it all, he’s still gripped with a terrible worry: “That I’ve never did anything, and I don’t have anyone.” Crumpled by the payphone at the retreat, he’s realized his worry has come true. I envy anyone who doesn’t find this story, this show, completely devastating.

But it’s not just his collapse that remains real, but his catharsis as well. Sitting in the encounter group, he listens to a man named Leonard, a square in every respect, describe a life that’s very much like the ideal all-American one Don himself had at first tried to create before going on to constantly undermine and eventually destroy it. This, Leonard hasn’t done; it doesn’t matter. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody,” he says. “I work in an office—people walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids—you know, they don’t look up when I sit down. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” He describes a dream that sounds like an ad, about living in a refrigerator, thrilling to the smiling faces he sees when people open its door and the light switches on until he realizes they’re not looking for him at all and the door swings shut. At this, Don stands, walks over, kneels down, and embraces the man, a total stranger, as they cry. In this moment he realizes there are many ways to Have It All, and that so long as you see this as your goal, they all leave you with nothing.

I reviewed the finale of Mad Men for Wired. This was a show, folks. This was a show.


“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken”

Monday, May 18th, 2015
“Game of Thrones” Recap: Stark Reality

Few of these developments hold a candle to the episode’s most upsetting and controversial development: the wedding night of Sansa and Ramsay. In the books, Lady Stark’s place in this storyline is held instead by a childhood friend, groomed to impersonate Arya and dupe the Northern lords into believing House Bolton has wed itself into Winterfell’s ancient line. What befalls her is no less awful than what happens to Sansa, but because she’s a comparatively minor player in the saga rather than one of its most prominent and beloved figures, the events hit even harder here. The groom’s sadistic grin, the bride’s look of resigned and mounting agony (so reminiscent of Daenerys on her first night with Khal Drogo all those full moons ago), the tears of Theon Greyjoy as he’s forced to watch —  these faces will be hard to forget.

So yes, Sansa’s rape by Ramsay is of the show’s own devising, and it feels every bit the violation it is. But by involving a multidimensional main character instead of one introduced primarily to suffer, the series has a chance to grant this story the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The novels present this material through Theon’s eyes, relegating Bolton’s bride to a supporting role in a man’s story. Sansa has a story of her own, of which this is now an admittedly excruciating chapter — but she, not Theon, is the real victim here, and it remains her story nonetheless. The next chapters will be hers alone to write.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones.


“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 15: “Wentworth Prison”

Monday, May 18th, 2015

There’s a quote attributed to Star Wars impresario George Lucas via his ex-wife, Oscar-winning editor Marcia, that speaks directly to what you and I and everyone who watched Outlander this week subjected ourselves to. As Peter Biskind tells it in his classic history of American cinema in the ‘70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Emotionally involving the audience is easy,” George is said to have remarked. “Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” No kittens, I’m happy to report, were harmed in the making of “Wentworth Prison,” this week’s installment. But what happened was just as lopsidedly sadistic and nakedly manipulative, the only difference being that the target wasn’t a housecat, but a character with all the three-dimensionality and disposition of one. Like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys directed by Hostel auteur Eli Roth, “Wentworth Prison,” tonight’s installment of Outlander, is an experiment designed to see how badly cheese can bleed.

[...]

There’s no sense in pulling punches here: It’s infuriating to be asked to suffer through the extended torture and humiliation of characters who, at every other juncture save perhaps their creatively choreographed sex scenes, are trotted around like action figures and posed like romance-novel covers. Outlander’s insistence that Jamie Fraser as a character, or Sam Heughan as the actor playing him, possesses the smoldering and unpredictable charisma required for him to make sense as the anchor of a crazy centuries-spanning love is as wholly unsupported by the on-screen evidence as the show’s claim that he has red hair. (It’s brown! We can all see it!) The man doing the humiliating and torturing has no shades of grey (ironically), no characteristics that make him feel human, or even just interesting as a complete black-hat villain. The less said about the legion of interchangeable dudes in beards and kilts, the better. Only Claire herself stands out, which makes watching her cry for this cipher a surefire way to undermine her power, and a genuinely maddening act of “emotionally involving the audience” by the Lucas definition. Dump her into a pile of corpses, make a mute goon sexually assault her, subject her to whatever indignity you can come up with in lieu of creating characters who equal her depth — it’s not going to suddenly make the show worth taking seriously. Quite the opposite! Calling Outlander soft porn has never been a fair critique. Now it’s torture porn, too, though. And it’ll leave you limp.

I reviewed this week’s Outlander for the New York Observer. Turns out torture and sexual violence aren’t a shortcut to seriousness.


End Game: TV’s Best and Worst Series Finales

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Best: ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Divine intervention, voluntary space-fleet destruction, the incredible disappearing Starbuck — the decisions made in the final episode of this politically charged sci-fi reboot baffled viewers at the time. Hindsight, however, has been extremely kind to Commander Adama and his crew. The show’s long-simmering supernatural elements paid off with the daring idea of a deity whose actions are just as unpredictable and unfathomable as humanity’s. And the joint human-Cylon decision to jettison their ships and live out their days planet-side — in what turns out to be our own Earth’s pre-history — bucked a core tenet of post-apocalyptic SF, arguing that individual lives are more important than the preservation of a culture at all costs. Risky? You bet. Rewarding? So say we all.

I wrote about Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Dexter, Lost, Roseanne, and The Sopranos for Rolling Stone’s list of the best and worst series finales. But which are which? The answer may surprise you!


“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 13: “The Milk and Honey Route”

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Pete Campbell not looking for a new job, but there’s one heading toward him at jet speed. Drunk, desperate Duck Philips has headhunted him into an ersatz interview with an executive at Learjet, the private aviation firm that heretofore had a reputation for providing playthings to Hollywood stars. But there are no stars in Pete’s eyes when—with the same clarity of vision that helped him predict the rise of the youth and African-American markets, and which helped him secure wayward clients Burger Chef and Avon for his new bosses at McCann—he proposes a different clientele. “Corporate executives should be your core business,” he tells the impressed exec, explaining that the company’s best bet is to market its service as “a tool, not a frivolous extravagance.” Giving people what they want is well and good. Giving people what they need? That’s something else entirely.

Providing high-priced jets to high-powered suits seems miles away from the emotional abattoir that is “The Milk and Honey Route,” Mad Men’s penultimate episode. It was an hour of television haunted by death and graced with unexpected rebirth, in which the characters barely set foot in their agency’s office—Don has officially quit, walking away from millions in the process, and Pete is about to follow suit. But while the Learjet material seems incidental, the course of action Campbell plots for his future employer also maps the path of the characters. Pete, Betty, and Don all reject glamorous illusion for journeys of necessity.

I reviewed last night’s incredible Mad Men for Wired.


“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Five: “Kill the Boy”

Monday, May 11th, 2015

They say “Winter is coming,” but for readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novels upon which Game of Thrones is based, it’s already here. Written by series mainstay Bryan Cogman, tonight’s episode — “Kill the Boy” — is the first in which every single storyline has been altered so substantially from the books that it may as well be brand new. Sansa Stark’s stint in Winterfell, Brienne’s quest to save her, Ramsay Bolton’s girl trouble, Jon Snow’s mission to the wildling village of Hardhome, Princess Shireen’s ride south to war with her father Stannis, Daenerys’ execution-by-dragon and shotgun betrothal to her aristocratic adviser Hizdahr, the death of Barristan Selmy, the romance between Grey Worm and Missandei, the dragon and Stone Men–haunted journey of Tyrion and Jorah: None of it happened in author George R.R. Martin’s original texts. Like the exile knight and fugitive Lannister, readers and newcomers alike are now all in the same boat.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.


“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 14: “The Search”

Monday, May 11th, 2015

If I’m spending more time on plot recap than usual, it’s because the plot here is this episode’s distinguishing feature, for better and for worse. Outlander is built on a herky-jerky rhythm of reveals and reversals — people are captured and freed, threats are made and rescinded, people fight and make up, over and over and over. Since those plot points so rarely rise above the level of cliché, a storyline that takes things this far in the direction of the unusual and unexpected deserves spotlighting, if not outright praise. The problem is that only on a show this frustrating would a raunchy 18th-century rewrite of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” be seen as a bold storytelling maneuver, instead of what its in-world performers intend it to be: a novelty act.

I reviewed this weekend’s odd episode of Outlander for the New York Observer.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 22: “All Happy Families Are Alike”

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Try to imagine the endgame for this series. Seven, eight seasons, at 22 episodes apiece, of half-assed references to various Bat-villains before Bruce finally puts on the cape and cowl? Gotham needed to do a lot more than it did this year to justify that kind of investment. Some shows just want to watch the world burn.

I reviewed the season finale of Gotham, which was awful, for Rolling Stone.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 21: “The Anvil or the Hammer”

Monday, May 11th, 2015

At least Harvey Bullock gets to dress up nice for his ignominious adventure tonight. The grizzled vet un-grizzles himself for a visit to the Foxglove, a supposedly swanky sex club that plays Suicide songs about Marvel Comics characters on its sound system — thank God it wasn’t “Frankie Teardrop,” or things would have gotten really weird — for the entertainment of a clientele decked out in fetish gear to a hilariously explicit degree. (When Harvey finally placed everyone under arrest, here’s hoping he started with whatever Foley artist decided to add the squealing pig to the mix.) Looking around this Eyes Wide Shut meets the Gimp hellscape, it’s hard not to wonder who the target audience is — perverts who thought Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was too intellectual, maybe? Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Forgot to link this at the time, but I reviewed the penultimate Gotham episode for Rolling Stone.


“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 12: “Lost Horizon”

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Joan has an even harder time accepting her reduced status as more pluribus than unum at the new office, though things seem fine, even fun, at first. She’s welcomed to work by Libby and Karen, two copywriters who specialize in campaigns targeting women—“If it’s in it, near it, or makes you think about it, we’re on it”—and whose approach to gender politics is connected women’s lib only by the coincidence of one of their names. “It’s not women’s lib, just a bitch session,” says Karen of the weekly girls’ night out to which they invite the newcomer. “We are strictly consciousness-lowering,” Libby jokes, and Joan’s smile practically radiates “I’m gonna like it here.” But by the end of the episode, the boys’-club condescension and harassment she’s subjected to by McCann execs like Dennis and Ferg Donnelly is such that she threatens to sic feminist icon Betty Friedan on the company unless they either put the kibosh on the creeps or cough up the cash she’s owed.

Being seen as part of a fundamentally faceless female horde is awful when it subjects you to undercutting, backstabbing, and grab-assing, but it’s a useful tool to strike fear in the hearts of men who watched said horde march through the streets of New York some 50,000 strong fighting for equal rights and respect—the political equivalent of the muscle her developer boyfriend tells her he’s hired from time to time when dealing with difficult individuals. Unfortunately for Joan, though, she’s fighting fanatics, and she’s forced to accept a buyout rather than endure a potentially ruinous legal battle. The system’s strength lies not just in who it allows to win, but how it permits different losers to lose.

I reviewed last night’s great Mad Men for Wired.


“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four: “Sons of the Harpy”

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Widescreen battles on one hand, intimate one-on-one dialogues on the other: Game of Thrones has long excelled at balancing the macro with the micro, the grand and sweeping with the up close and personal. Tonight’s very strong episode, “Sons of the Harpy,” is a case in point. Even as major political plotlines start bloodily barreling forward, simple scenes of odd couples in conversation more than hold their own amid the melées.

Let’s start by focusing on the High Sparrow, who’s as adorable as his fanatical followers’ actions are appalling. It’s his clout, not his cuddliness, that Cersei is counting on. With the Tyrell patriarch Mace on his way to bargain with the Iron Bank in Braavos — and the Queen Mother’s brutal kingsguard lackey Meryn Trant riding shotgun — nothing’s stopping her from making her move on her rival Margaery. Our lady of Lannister is a shrewd enough operator to do it indirectly, tipping the religious leader off to the homosexual leanings of Marge’s brother and letting intolerance take its course. Sure enough, King Tommen’s inability to bring his brother-in-law home drives the first serious wedge into his marriage.

In the long run, though, Tommen may have worse problems to face than sleeping on the couch thanks to his mother’s meddling. Sure, arming religious fanatics to fight your own cold-war enemy seems like a good idea at the time, but ask the CIA how they feel now about giving the Afghan mujahideen Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet aircraft. A mass religious movement with a charismatic true-believer leader has just been empowered to assault and arrest the brother of the queen. Think they’ll stop there? This is not your father’s Faith of the Seven — it’s the ISIS of Westeros.

I reviewed last night’s excellent Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.


“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 13: “The Watch”

Monday, May 4th, 2015

There are only three sure things in this world: you’re born, you die, and somewhere in between you’re betrayed by an Irishman. It’s the circle of life, and it’s what “The Watch,” this week’s episode of Outlander, is all about. And as is too often the case when universal themes are addressed, the specifics wind up mattering very little. If you’ve seen a complicated labor, a botched raid, or feckless Fenian in any TV show or movie before, nothing done with them here will cover new ground.

The birth storyline is the most perfunctory of the three. The moment Jamie’s very pregnant sister Jenny cries out in pain, you know you can kiss at least fifteen minutes of screentime devoted to a woman screaming, another woman saying “push!”, a baby crying, and a mother weeping tears of joy goodbye. To the show’s credit, a couple of scenes in the otherwise standard sequence stand out: The closeup of Claire’s hands on Jenny’s belly as she attempts to palpate the baby out of breech position provides a tactile, physical link between the Miracle Of Birth and the flesh that produces it, while Jenny’s speech about how it feels to be pregnant — featuring a lengthy comparison to the sensation of vaginal intercourse and delivered with her body’s curves silhouetted through her translucent gown — directly connects conception and delivery. But there are no surprises otherwise — certainly not the biggest potential surprise of all: an easy, happy labor, which remains all but unseen on television — and the crosscutting between Claire and Jenny during the birth and their husbands Jamie and Ian en route to an appointment with a redcoat ambush is a shopworn cliché.

I reviewed this week’s Outlander for the New York Observer.


“Daredevil” thoughts, Season One, Episode 13: “Daredevil”

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Can a random vigilante change the system? No. Can he do some damage to one asshole who embodies it? You bet your bald ass, Wilson. This is the basic logical substitution that all superhero stories ask us to make in exchange for the enjoyment they provide, but few, if any, cinematic examples of the genre have ever examined it more thoughtfully, morally, or, frankly, beautifully. Fantastic fight scenes, luscious cinematography, a host of very human performances, a refreshingly honest take on the violence that underpins it all: Daredevil Season One is the best live-action superhero story since Tim Burton’s first Batman movie. That’s a pretty heroic achievement.

I reviewed the season finale of Daredevil, which was an excellent series, for Decider.


“Daredevil” thoughts, Season One, Episode 12: “The Ones We Leave Behind”

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

It’s not Gao’s abilities that horrify Matt Murdock, though — it’s her brutality. After tracking her operation back to its warehouse base with an impressive rooftop-parkour sequence, he infiltrates the building, only to find a small army of blind workers toiling away on behalf of her evil empire. Gao attributes their voluntary blindings to “faith…in something beyond the distractions of your world.” To Matt, though, there’s nothing mystical about it — this is humanity at its worst. If you want an image of Daredevil’s fatalist streak, you can’t do much better than a mob of men and women swarming the superhero on Gao’s orders. They are a people who don’t want to be saved.

Even this morbid spectacle contains a sliver of hope, though. In the end, Matt evacuates the building, which has caught on fire during his fracas with Gao and her guards, with the help of one of the druglord’s enforcers. This was the episode’s most affecting moment, a sign that even the nameless thugs Daredevil’s constantly beating up have human, humane cores that can be tapped at times of great need.

I reviewed Daredevil‘s genuinely surprising penultimate episode for Decider.


“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 12: “Lallybroch”

Monday, April 27th, 2015

With so much story that’s either rote or nonsensical, the early exchange in which Claire explains airplanes to her awestruck husband stands out, for all the right reasons. What would a time traveller from 200 years into the future tell the man she loves about the world to come? Here’s the thing: I have no idea! That’s an exciting feeling! Stories should head into the great unknown wherever possible. Instead of a boring family feud and superfluous Black Jack flashbacks, we could have had an episode in which the two of them talk about electricity, The Wizard of Oz, indoor plumbing—or on a far more serious note, the World Wars, the atom bomb, the endless struggles and successes and setbacks that the oppressed will experience long after the Jacobite Rising is a distant memory. If only Outlander were as interested in pushing the envelope in its main characters’ heads as it has been in their beds.

I reviewed the latest dire episode of Outlander for the New York Observer.


“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 11: “Time and Life”

Monday, April 27th, 2015

The next day, Roger and Don attempt to put a positive spin on the merger at a companywide meeting, but their employees see right through it; they don’t even stay long enough to hear the end of the spiel. That’s the second time Don’s failed to sell his most important product: the agency built on his genius. He and the other partners are left alone in the crowd, losers in the proverbial battle royale. His lover, his furniture, his apartment, now his company: Mad Men’s final episodes are stripping Don down piece by piece. You can’t take your ball and go home if you’ve got no home to go to.

I reviewed last night’s very good Mad Men for Wired.


“Daredevil” thoughts, Season One, Episode 11: “The Path of Righteousness”

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Director Nick Gomez put together Daredevil’s best-looking episode since the pilot, and one of the best-looking episodes of anything I’ve seen in forever — just gorgeous shots from start to finish. Dig the sequence when Karen visits Matt at his apartment for the first time since his “accident” (aka getting beaten like a red-headed stepchild by Wilson Fisk and a freaking ninja). As she enters, the shot is split bicamerally, with her and the man who’s lying to her in separate rooms on separate sides of the frame.

As they continue to talk, Matt’s two gigantic windows emphasize their separation:

Until she breaks out of her box and approaches him, touching him for the first time in episodes. Sure, if you’ve read the comics you know this is the first of many touches to come, but the staging tells you everything you need to know.

I reviewed the eleventh episode of Daredevil, the best and most beautiful of the bunch, for Decider.


“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three: “The High Sparrow”

Monday, April 27th, 2015

The episode starts on the spiritual side, as Arya Stark’s old “friend” Jaqen H’ghar takes her inside the House of Black and White, home to the fearsome Faceless Men. With apologies to the Wu-Tang Clan, these residents appear to be an order of killer priests, worshipping death as a single god that wears different faces depending on your denomination. (The show doesn’t aim for your inner middle-school fantasy nerd very often, but it sure hits the D&D/Frank Frazetta paperback-cover bullseye here.)

Equally appealing to your seventh-grade psyche, albeit in a completely different way: the wedding of King Tommen and Queen Margaery. Or more accurately, the wedding night, a wet dream come true in which a kind, beautiful older woman teaches an eager but innocent young lad exactly why the Gods gave him man parts. It’s hard to pull this off [ahem] without seeming creepy, but that’s part of the fun, and actors Natalie Dormer and Dean-Charles Chapman handle the material with charm and humor as well as heat.

None of this sits well with Tommen’s mom. The Small Council may be firmly under Cersei’s control, but her son is slipping through her fingers and right into Margaery’s…uh, let’s go with fingers here as well. Even a “friendly visit” (#airquotes) to her daughter-in-law earns her veiled insults (“I wish we had some wine for you — it’s a bit early in the day for us”) and tales of ribaldry about her baby boy’s bedroom antics  So when the Queen Mother sees an opportunity to acquire influence over church as well as state, she grabs it with both hands.

But in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, “How can you catch the sparrow?” As indicated by his casting alone — Jonathan Pryce is the biggest name to join the show since Sean Bean, or at the very least, Diana Rigg  — the High Sparrow may prove a more slippery customer. Sure, the holy man makes self-effacing jokes about his unusual alias: “Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Like Lord Duckling, or King Turtle.” Yet he’s presiding over a bona fide fundamentalist movement, one capable of marching the High Septon naked through the streets and converting the Lannisters’ lanky lord cousin Lancel into a true believer. Humiliating some pampered bastard who stages perverted rituals with prostitutes (it’s sacrelicious!) is all well and good, but does Cersei strike you as someone who’s sinless enough to avoid incurring the judgment of her pious new BFF for long? The High Sparrow could be every bit as dangerous as the undead monstrosity that the Queen’s crony Qyburn is keeping under wraps in his lab.

I reviewed last night’s fabulous Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.


“Daredevil” thoughts, Season One, Episode 10: “Nelson v. Murdock”

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

…it’s a big episode for actor Elden Henson, whose had previously been the weak link in a very strong ensemble. With the bad jokes on mute, his Foggy loses the comic-relief baggage and emerges as the kind of basically happy, basically decent, basically successful young guy you simply don’t see on prestige dramas that often. When he questions Matt for going outside the law, or attacks him for lying to him for years, or cries because he’s been so badly betrayed by someone he trusted, it feels all the more real because it comes from a character who’s not accustomed to these kinds of personal traumas. This is, quite convincingly, the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.

I reviewed the tenth episode of Daredevil, and extensively quoted “What About Your Friends” by TLC, for Decider.