Posts Tagged ‘TV’
Speaking of the Wall, it’s there where Jon Snow, alone among his surviving siblings, may still have a way to retain his humanity. Arya has entered the House of Black and White, a training temple for elite assassins. Sansa has embraced her position as the apprentice of Littlefinger, rejecting the help of the increasingly unhappyBrienne of Tarth in the process. Bran is off-screen learning to become a psychic sorcerer, and Rickon is god knows where doing god knows what. So when Stannis Baratheon offers to make Jon the new Lord Stark of Winterfell, the offer’s not just hard to resist — it’s likely to work.
But there’s a different road ahead for Lord Snow. Led by good-hearted bookworm Samwell Tarly and ancient Maester Aemon, the brothers of the Night’s Watch vote him their new Lord Commander in one of the only democractic processes Westeros has left. Instead of seizing power by force or gaining it by decree, he’s earned it through hard work, kindness, trust, and sacrifice. He’s got a chance to start a new cycle, right at the place where it counts the most: humanity’s last line of defense against the cold to come. We’ll see how that works out.
…at every opportunity, the show takes the low road, populating the trial with one-dimensional enemies and mindless hordes fit only for the audience’s contempt. The judges and prosecutor are straight out of Old Fashioned Asshole central casting. Laoghaire MacKenzie, the star witness, enters the courtroom to the sound of an ominous gong, just in case you wondered if she was a bad guy. But if you missed that bit because you were in the bathroom or something, don’t worry: Later, she actually tells Claire “I shall dance upon your ashes.” If she had a mustache, she’d twirl the shit out of it. Then there’s the fanatical priest, who fakes a change of heart about Claire so complete that everyone’s convinced it was witchcraft—instead of what it was, which is an unnecessarily complicated plot twist with a whopping 15-second payoff. The guy looks and sounds like the parish’s personal Pinhead. There are no surprises here, no nuances, so sense that anyone’s doing anything for any reason other than “this is this kind of story, and that’s what that kind of person does in this kind of story.”
[Vanessa] solves a dispiriting problem faced by contemporary TV: A lot of people who watch antihero shows hate the women on them. Just ask someone who plays one! Because they present an obstacle of doubt, derision, or suspicion in the path of the larger-than-life men in their lives, viewers who live vicariously through those men want those obstacles taken out with extreme prejudice. This is almost never the fault of the shows or the characters — Skyler White, Carmela Soprano, and Betty Draper, to name three commonly cited examples, are as complex and engaging as Walter, Tony, and Don. But if you’re looking to hack the structural security of New Golden Age TV Dramas, it’s an easy entry point to exploit.
The courtship of Kingpin and Vanessa breaks this mold in several ways. We meet them not years into a long-term relationship, but as they’re first getting to know each other. It’s a wonderfully oddball way to introduce your series’ main villain, yeah, but it also cuts through the Gordian Knot of the so-called “wife problem”: Vanessa is going into this with her eyes wide open.
I reviewed episode five of Daredevil for Decider, and got them to run my favorite gif of Ayelet Zurer three times, because that’s what being a hero means.
“People love hearing how right they are.”—Agent Stan Beeman, The Americans
Last year on Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei. At least that’s what he did in the scene I saw. Statements on the matter by actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey and director Alex Gravestalked about two people in a deeply dysfunctional relationship having sex they knew they shouldn’t be having, not that one person was refusing to have at all. Co-writer and showrunner David Benioff appeared to disagree in an interview taped prior to the episode’s airing, before adopting total radio silence on the issue. The show’s subsequent handling of the characters, author George R.R. Martin’s comparison of the scene to its equivalent in his original books, and further discussion by the actors provided still more complicated and confounding context. We could perhaps conclude that either through communication breakdowns between the players or a failure of execution to mirror intent, the scene — rooted in complex and destructive sexual dynamics between two habitually secretive and duplicitous characters and interpreted by half a dozen artists each with their own ideas about the event — simply got away from them.
Few of us did. Fans of the books lambasted the scene as yet another horrendous, story-destroying decision by Benioff and his creative partner Dan Weiss, two people frequent treated as singularly unsuited to the task of adaptation. Admirers of Jaime bemoaned the damage done to him by the event at least as much as his sister, the victim. Critics saw the scene as a romanticization of rape, using the show’s long and contentious history with female nudity, sex, and sexual assault to support the argument. And while the wider world focused in the latter of these three critiques, the former two were no less self-assured or severe in their respective corners of the critical firmament.
On one level, the reaction to what happened between the Siblings Lannister in the Great Sept of Baelor is just a standout example of the golden rule of arguing on the Internet: interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force. But that rule applies to discussions of everything from politics to fly fishing. In terms of art and art criticism, something else is going on—a phenomenon of which the social-justice framework for criticism is just the most well-publicized, hotly debated embodiment.
The past decade-plus has been a time of dispiriting uncertainty and powerlessness: an era of endless war, economic erosion, class disconnection, and political disillusion. At the same time, our approach to art and entertainment has become all the more unequivocal in its assertions about content and quality. We pore over TV shows for clues about their outcome, which we present with power-point precision. We treat all art like editorial cartoons, interpreting it the way we would a drawing of a fatcat politician holding bulging moneybags in each hand, and accept or reject the story accordingly. We treat the comics and novels that form the basis for our blockbusters as holy writ, we insist that fiction hew inerrantly to the facts that inspired it, and we punish those who stray from the path. We elevate our favorite characters and relationships to the point where the stories they inhabit are mere vehicles to get them to the place we’d like to see them go.
In all four cases—the Theorists, the Activists, the Purists, and the Partisans—we’re treating the inherently subjective fields of art and art criticism as things we can be objectively right about. We’re taking work that’s complex and capable of conveying multiple contradictory meanings and reducing it to a simple either/or, yes/no proposition.
In other words, we’re fucking up.
As Fisk, Vincent D’Onofrio leans into his ogreish physique in a way he probably hasn’t since Private Pyle went Section Eight in Full Metal Jacket. But by introducing him to us via his night out with art-gallery owner Vanessa (played by the sort of preposterously sexy Ayelet Zurer), the show uses his bulk to make him look soft, even awkward. It’s the same endearing alchemy James Gandolfini employed as Tony Soprano, whose size made him simultaneously convincing as a big lug from the suburbs and a terrifying rageaholic.
Which is a side of Fisk we certainly get to see.
Let me see if I have this straight. The heroes of Daredevil so far are two criminal defense attorneys (one of whom has a disability), a corporate whistleblower, a Latina health care worker, and a crusading African-American newspaper reporter who can’t afford medical coverage. The villain is a faceless conglomerate that’s exploiting economic instability to earn lucrative contracts and threatening leaks with criminal prosecution (and worse). Is this Marvel’s Daredevil, or Howard Zinn’s?
I kid, but only slightly. So far, Daredevil is an antidote to years of superhero movies about billionaires and black-ops supersoldiers saving us from ourselves. It’s a street-level show not just in the subgenre sense—“street-level superheroes” steer clear of intergalactic/extradimensional menaces in favor of the villains next door—but because these people look like us, live like us, and (with the exception of the occasional Russian mafia assassin) have the same enemies as us.
Daredevil is the People’s Superhero.
Only two episodes in and it’s already official: Daredevil has the best fight scenes in the history of live-action superheroes. Honestly, it’s not even close, which is both a compliment to the show and an insult to its genre. After all, fights are to superhero stories what singing is to opera: the part where all the characters’ emotional energy takes physical form and, ideally, knocks your socks off. Yet some 15 years into the modern superhero-movie era, we’re still saddled with either weightless CGI-enhanced acrobatics or blurry quick-cut Christopher Nolan Batman bullshit. So when that final five-and-a-half-minute spectacular of a slobberknocker finally ended, all I could think was this: It’s about time.
I reviewed episode two of Daredevil for Decider. God that fight is fantastic.
“Yes…but is it art?” This age-old question has generally targeted the avant-garde, but its application to advertising can be equally apt. The best work by Sterling Cooper’s resident creative geniuses Don Draper and Peggy Olson—the Carousel, Burger Chef—transcends its mercenary origins to articulate hidden yet widespread fears and desires, in the stealthily symbolic way that’s normally the province of painters and poets. But for an ad to be truly effective, the reverse must also be true: Greed and guile are gussied up in artsy drag, its surface sophistication used to exploit the anxieties the product for sale is designed to salve.
Photographer Pima Ryan embodies this Madison Avenue manicheanism. Played by guest star Mimi Rogers, her talent has made her a legend among SC&P’s creative staff, for good and for ill. Peggy’s thrilled to bring Pima aboard the campaign for Cinzano vermouth, and her onscreen debut takes place in a blinding white soundstage that evokes the iconic artistry of late-season Mad Men go-to reference point Stanley Kubrick. But Peggy’s friend and sidekick Stan Rizzo is equal parts irritated and intimidated by this hired gun. At first he mocks her work, on set and to her face. But when challenged by her directly to show her his best stuff, he comes up short. “You should see what she does,” he tells his girlfriend Elaine, awestruck and petulant in equal measure. “It’s so sensual.” Instinctively, Elaine strips down and volunteers to serve as Stan’s model for an impromptu shoot, in hopes that their real, relationship-based sexual chemistry is enough to rival the simulacrum seen in Pima’s photos. Perhaps life, they hope, can imitate art.
I reviewed this week’s Mad Men for Wired, through the lens of the ad campaigns the characters work on as always.
The hero behind Marvel’s first Netflix Original wasn’t always so super.
When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko birthed the Marvel Universe in a Beatles-level burst of creativity back in the ‘60s, Daredevil—blind lawyer by day, vigilante with radar senses by night—was the runt of the litter. Co-created by Lee and artist Bill Everett (with a key design assist from Kirby) as a riff on “justice is blind,” DD came across like a store-brand Spider-Man, without ever hitting the more famous NYC superhero’s heights.
But in the long run, staying out of the spotlight made the character a star. Taking advantage of Daredevil’s low profile, off-kilter creators from future superstar Frank Miller in the ‘80s to Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev in the ‘00s used him to put their own stamp on superheroes—and sparked creative renaissances in the process.Which leads to the big question facing Daredevil’s Netflix incarnation. Is this just another superhero show, or will it follow in the footsteps of the comics that put DD on the map, allowing developer Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus) to put forth a genuine creative vision (no pun intended) of their own? Let the battle begin!
I’m covering Daredevil for Decider! I’ll be posting a review of one episode per day until I’m done with the first season. Here’s my review of the pilot, which was quite good.
It feels weird to complain that a TV show is too violent the day after the new Game of Thrones season premiere was eagerly consumed by thousands (some of them legally, even). But since neither Batman nor Tyrion Lannister got where they were by playing by the rules, neither will we. “Beasts of Prey,” the aptly named episode that marks Gotham’s return to the airwaves after a number of weeks off, is a boringly brutal affair. It’s stuffed with bloodletting that wastes time on characters we’ve got no attachment to and, in the process, tarnishes those we do.
A partial inventory of things that made me say “This is exactly why the good Lord gave us pay-cable period pieces” on tonight’s episode of Outlander:
- Opening the episode with a full minute and a half of simulated cunnilingus
- Fart jokes
- Half-naked pagan sex-magic rituals
- Morbid Game of Thrones–style magic baby abandonment
- A duel at ten paces devolving into a bloody swordfight over “yo mama” jokes
- Simon Callow in stockings
If it’s entertainment value you’re after, you could do a whole lot worse than “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” this week’s installment in the ongoing unstuck-in-time adventures of Claire Beecham. Let’s start with the sexy stuff, because hey, if the show can do it, why can’t we? Unmoored from the overhyped wedding-night episode and the baffling tone-deafness of last week’s sex-and-violence cocktail, Jaime and Claire’s chemistry is at last free to just kind of establish itself as its own thing. And from Claire’s high-pitched sighs of pleasure, to Jaime’s refusal to answer the door until they’re finished, to the non-TV-standard positioning of their bodies at the beginning of the scene, that chemistry burns hot. But once you’ve finished fanning yourself, you realize it communicated character, too. Jaime goes down on Claire with the same earnest eagerness and insistence with which he does pretty much everything in life; Claire is relaxed and languid on the receiving end, comfortable and confident in her own skin, just as she is in virtually every situation she encounters. By all means, Outlander, keep ripping those bodices if you’re gonna find that kind of quiet insight underneath.
It begins in the mud. A girl who would be queen trudges through the muck toward a witch who sucks her blood and sees her future — and if you want to tap that kind of magic, you’ve gotta get your hands, (and your feet) dirty. By the sound of things, young Cersei Lannister is used to having her way. But she has no idea that getting exactly what you want can be the worst thing in the world.
Cersei will be queen alright, the witch named Maggy tells her, but she’ll marry a loutish philanderer to get there. Her reign will only last until another queen, “younger and more beautiful,” sweeps her aside. And her three royal children? “Gold will be their crowns,” the witch coos, before adding her cackling kicker: “and gold their shrouds.” She’ll get to the top, but the royal won’t like what she finds there.
Like all of Game of Thrones’ season premieres, this episode — titled “The Wars to Come” — is a largely utilitarian affair, showing us who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s on top, and who’s on the lam. But Cersei’s flashback (the first in the show’s history) both sets the tone and provides the theme for the big Season Five kickoff. Once you’ve seized the power you’ve spent a lifetime fighting for, what do you do with it — and what does it do to you?
I reviewed the Game of Thrones season premiere for Rolling Stone. Back on the beat, baby!
Agent Frank Gaad is making a list, and with the help of Stan Beeman, he’s checking it twice. He knows there were times he discussed highly sensitive information in his office, when such conversations are supposed to be held in the Vault, a soundproof, bugproof room designed for just that purpose. His office may have felt like a sanctum sanctorum, but the security provided by its closed door was just an illusion, shattered by a microphone hidden in his pen. So now he’s in the Vault, (un-bugged) pen and paper in hand, writing down everything he remembers about everything he shouldn’t have said outside its confines.
To Stan’s surprise, his boss isn’t doing this at the behest of the inscrutable internal security officer Walter Taffet, but out of his own guilt and desire to reform. To put it another way, he’s taking the fourth step for any counterintelligence workaholic and making a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself. “I coulda been more careful, a lotta times,” he explains. “Well, you assume you’re okay in there, we all do,” Stan reassures him. “Yeah, well,” Gaad retorts, “that’s why we’ve got rules. They built us a vault for it.”
It’s a striking line, and an ironic one: a paean to secrecy that reveals so much about this show. The concept of the Vault is the key that unlocks “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,” tonight’s predictably great episode of The Americans, and many other episodes besides. It cracks the code of how many scenes in the series are shot and staged to emphasize the structures, literal and metaphorical, people employ to keep others out, and their secrets in. Breach them at your peril.
I reviewed tonight’s preposterously good episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. That was one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever seen on TV, by the way.
The shit didn’t hit the fan. It just slid through the sunroof.
Nothing shocking happened during Better Call Saul‘s season finale. No one was murdered and no one was betrayed; no one poisoned a kid, caused an aircraft collision, or blew a drug lord’s face off. The show’s inaugural go-round ended not with a bang but a guitar riff, as Jimmy McGill sped away from the square life and toward “Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law,” singing “Smoke on the Water” all the while. Ironically, this refusal to be daring is the most daring thing the show could have done. Written and directed by Peter Gould, the co-creator of both the character and his solo series, tonight’s episode — “Marco” — played out with the confidence that we didn’t need to see fireworks to enjoy the show. And you know what? That’s probably right.
Back in King’s Landing…
In the words of Ser Paulie Walnuts, bannerman to House Soprano, it’s fuckin’ mayham out there. King Joffrey is dead, courtesy of a conspiracy between Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell, leaving his kid brother Tommen to take the crown and his uncle Tyrion Lannister to take the rap. Tyrion nearly escaped his death sentence when he tapped Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell to take his side in a trial by combat — a resident the Southern kingdom of Dorne who, you’ll remember, had come to the capital seeking vengeance against the Lannisters. (His previous go-to guy, Bronn, was bought off with the promise of a castle and a lordship of his own.) Oberyn mortally wounded his opponent, the towering murder machine Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane — but the big man ended up squashing the Viper’s skull.
In the aftermath, Oberyn’s girlfriend Ellaria Sand fled to her native city. (Which is where, you might recall, Tyrion sent his niece Myrcella as a goodwill gesture.) Queen Cersei handed the dying Gregor over to her creepy new pal, the Mengele-like ex-maester Qyburn, for experimentation. And the Imp himself was saved from execution by his brother Jaime, who ordered the spymaster Varys to help his fugitive sibling get the fuck outta Dodge. Unfortunately, Tyrion made a pit stop on the way, murdering his ex-girlfriend Shae and his all-powerful father Tywin Lannister for their involvement in his conviction. He and Varys were last seen aboard a ship, secretly sailing to parts unknown. That means no one’s left to keep Cersei and her son’s bride-to-be, ambitious beauty Margaery Tyrell, from each other’s throats.
The annual tradition continues: I wrote a Game of Thrones Cheat Sheet for Rolling Stone, perfect for anyone who wants to catch up or brush up before Season Five starts this Sunday.
Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment; joy…a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” It offers an obsolete definition as well: “good fortune; prosperity.” Here it draws close to the definition articulated by Don Draper—Draper’s Dictionary, so to speak—back in Mad Men‘s very first episode. “Advertising,” he tells his clients, “is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” Whatever else a life of safety, comfort, and new cars involves, good fortune and prosperity are certainly key ingredients.
But this is itself an obsolete definition. In Season Five, the revised edition of Draper’s Dictionary presented a more up-to-date version, aimed at skeptical DuPont executives who didn’t understand why they’d hire Don to blow up their marketing strategy when they’re on top of the market. Don’s answer? “Because even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten…. You’re happy because you’re successful—for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The goal can never be reached, because it is, by definition, unreachable. A moment of happiness is just that: a moment. When it ends—and it always ends—the hunt begins again.
I reviewed the final Mad Men season premiere for Wired, once again viewing the show through the ad campaigns the characters are working on. This show is a feast, and I’ll be sorry when it ends.
Bad as “The Reckoning” was — and it was bad, alright — this episode merely illustrated problems Outlander has displayed for most of its first surprise-hit season. And many of those weaknesses lie precisely where supporters of the show locate its strengths. This makes for a hugely frustrating, even confusing viewing experience. How can a show that supposedly gets so much right go so wrong?
Granted, not everything’s a misfire. It genuinely is pretty great that Claire’s enthusiasm for sex is depicted as, you know, fun. In the immortal words of Maude Lebowski, sex can be a natural, zesty enterprise, but too often highly sexed people are depicted only as sluts, freaks, addicts, or predators. Don Draper, Theon Greyjoy, and Elizabeth Jennings are all well and good, but characters like Claire Beecham, Ilana Wexler on Broad City, and Martha Hanson on The Americans treat sex as a central and important part of their lives not out of compulsion or self-destruction, but due to the simple fact that fucking is a fucking awesome way to spend your time, like reading or brunch. Just as some people use their library cards or drink mimosas more often than others, there are folks who build perfectly normal, happy lives around frequent orgasm opportunities, and there shouldn’t be shame in that.
Similarly, there’s nothing inherently wrong, or even odd, about BDSM, an integral part of the make-up sex Claire and her Scottish husband Jamie have after that horrible long day finally ends. You don’t need dress up, lash out, or invest millions of dollars in a private playpen called the Red Room of Pain to employ power dynamics and extreme sensations in your sex life. Nor does emotional, psychological, or sexual trauma of any kind necessarily preclude you from exploring this aspect of sexuality. On the contrary, consensual and safe sadomasochism can help its practitioners take difficult, destructive parts of their lives and harness their power in a positive way. As a very wise person once told me, we think about these things, we talk about these things — why can’t we fuck about these things? Think of it as psychosexual judo, where you’re using the weight and momentum of your opponent — in this case, your own bad experiences and emotions — to win. BDSM can help people earn a black belt against their own suffering.
Moreover, I’m even open to the idea that Outlander, as a romantic fantasy, can get away with behavior we wouldn’t accept in real life. Such an acknowledgement always seemed strangely absent from the great debate about 50 Shades of Grey. Discussing issues of consent, abuse, and stalking as if Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were real people instead of characters in a work of pornography doesn’t make sense. In fantasies, we can think about and get off on doing things, and having things done to us, that we’d never want to actually experience. 50 Shades is just such a fantasy. Safewords and restraining orders are as out of place there as a physics lesson in a flying dream.
So the problem with Outlander isn’t in addressing these complex, adult issues. Rather it’s in wedging them into a show that otherwise displays all the sophistication of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. (Posh medical expert journeys to the frontier and falls for a long-haired he-man? The parallels are seriously uncanny.) Quick: Name a difficult or demanding moral or ideological topic the show addresses when the characters have their clothes on. Ye ken as well as I that there’s no such animal, sassenach. And no, “Black Jack Randall is really fucked up” doesn’t count; tone down the gore and the gleeful sociopathy and he’s just one of those Army guys who chased the A-Team. A show with ideas as wafer-thin as Outlander’s simply can’t handle heavier fare.
Spanks but no spanks: I reviewed the return of Outlander, which is not good, for the New York Observer. Covering the show this season is going to be…interesting.
You’re just about to hit the end of the story that George R.R. Martin has published so far. Did you see this coming?
Well, I think, in the first couple of years, it was really just about getting each season right and hoping people would watch. By the time we got to planning out and shooting Seasons Three and Four, David & Dan started really thinking about the overall shape of the series, since we knew we were going to be able to see this thing through. In the end, the show has to go at its own pace and George has to write the books at his own pace. He and D&D are obviously in close communication the whole time about both. But the show is its own thing, as it has to be.
There’s a segment of the fandom that’s freaking out about this, saying that the TV series will “spoil” the remaining two volumes of the book series. Is that a concern the show shares?
I think we just have to make the best Season Five, Season Six, and beyond that we can. Not sure I’m at liberty to comment more specifically than that.
“New” material aside, it also seems from trailers and casting and locations and so forth that this season will change some existing storylines sort of dramatically. When you do stuff that’s not in the books, for whatever reason, what’s the vibe, creatively? Is it a “with great power comes great responsibility” thing, or “woo-hoo, we’re goin’ off-book!”
Well, I think at this point, we do have great responsibility to the viewing audience, whether they’ve read the books or not, to try to produce 10 hours of outstanding television. All sorts of factors go into why a particular subplot, character, story beat, etc. might differ from the books. Again, it’s all tackled and debated on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, it always has to come down to what David & Dan feel is best for the show.
In tonight’s episode, there’s a moment after Jim brings Kimmy home drunk from a frat party where he tells her, “unlike your friends, you’re very real.” You get the sense that as much as anything else, she’s just desperate for someone to talk to who will listen.
Absolutely. He’s kind of the only one, it seems to her, who’s paying attention. That’s huge, especially for someone who’s 15 years old. They’re not a kid, but they’re not an adult, they’re at a really weird age. She’s like, “he’s giving me what I want, and I’m feeling satisfied. It’s the attention that I want someone to give me.” It’s not even attention, it’s care. It’s being acknowledged. If a person feels like “they’re not acknowledging me” … That’s a very important feeling in life, even if it’s not romantic. She doesn’t get that acknowledgment at home.
…at this stage in its evolution, The Americans is a show that can not only sustain but reward a close reading of its formal technique — never empty formalism, always a method of revealing character and articulating the unspoken, occulted moral and emotional meaning of a scene. From my notes: “god this is good”; “keeeeee-rist”; “these fades are killing me dog”; “jesus that was harrowing.” I’m talking about camera movements, not chase scenes. This show excels at both.