Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Terence Winter is coming

Monday, September 29th, 2014
I interviewed Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter about the end of the series — and the start of his new one with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Bobby Cannavale — for the TV Issue of Rolling Stone, on stands now. Says so right there on the cover and everything. I hope you like it!

I interviewed Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter about the end of the series — and the start of his new one with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Bobby Cannavale — for the TV Issue of Rolling Stone, on stands now. Says so right there on the cover and everything. I hope you like it!


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four: “Cuanto”

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Power is a performance. It’s a matter of knowing your audience, picking up on whether you should be funny or scary, when to play to the cheap seats or act with awards-caliber subtlety. Isn’t this the obstacle faced by Steve Buscemi in the minds of many viewers? His quiet, hangdog intensity as Nucky Thompson is an outlier in an era of volcanic, Byronic TV antiheroes. But that’s the point: For all his successes before and after Prohibition, Thompson’s decision to become more than “half a gangster” has forced him into a role he can’t quite master. As Boardwalk Empire hits the halfway mark of its final season in tonight’s episode — “Cuanto” — it examines the nature of that performance, and those of other characters who’ve found themselves shoved onto stage.

As a boy, the future chairman of the boardwalk is brought before the Commodore, who offers the young Nucky a glimpse of his grand plans for the Jersey shore (and an unwitting peek at his collection of photos of sexualized young girls), grinning when the kid notes that this is Atlantic City “as you wish it to be.” That wish includes everything from a stronger transportation infrastructure to segregated housing. But Nucky’s ability to follow along does nothing to placate his boss. “You think you’re a smart boy.” “If I say yes, you’ll think I’m boasting. If I say no you’ll think I’m lying.” “Don’t try to parse me.” The boy is trying his best, but this command performance is unscripted, in front of the toughest crowd in town.

So he’s naturally flabbergasted when he and his brother Eli are rewarded for going off-book. After catching them breaking into the Commodore’s hotel for a taste of the good life (read: indoor plumbing), Sheriff Lindsay takes the Thompson boys to his own house for a home-cooked meal with his kind, politically minded wife and smart, friendly family. They eat good food, they tell corny jokes, they negotiate a role for the patriarch in Mrs. Lindsay’s temperance crusade, over which the Sheriff conspiratorially shares a nod and a wink with Nucky. It’s too much for the kid, who breaks down crying at his first glimpse of a life that’s emotionally rewarding — a life where he can simply be himself. Cut to an hour later, when he’s asking the Sheriff to assassinate his own father. The terms with which Lindsay demurs are revealing: “Don’t go where you don’t belong. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t pass your burdens on to others. Don’t make me do my job — because I will.” Know your role, Deputy Sheriff Thompson.

The rest of my review of tonight’s Boardwalk Empire for Rolling Stone continues along these lines.


“Lost,” A to Z

Monday, September 22nd, 2014


L:
Locke

The quintessential fan favorite, Locke was a role-of-a-lifetime situation for actor Terry O’Quinn, the equivalent of Ian McShane’s Al Swearingen on Deadwood or Bryan Cranston’ss Walter White on Breaking Bad. The revelation of his paralysis — magically cured by the Island — in the standout fourth episode “Walkabout” hooked many viewers on the show permanently, and his twinkle-eyed charisma and ferocious drive to master the Island’s mysteries were perpetual series highlights. Though he helped cause the destruction of the Hatch in Season Two, Locke ultimately failed as the Island’s would-be guardian, murdered by Ben Linus in a seedy hotel and never returning in the flesh. He was the avatar of Lost‘s great secret theme: that some people get lost and never quite find themselves again.

M: Monster
Unseen for what felt like ages, the Monster was slowly revealed first to be an amorphous black cloud, then a shapeshifter that could take on the appearance of dead figures from the castaways’ past, then as a Locke impostor determined to destroy the castaways — and then as the immortal Man in Black, Jacob’s brother and opposite number. In this last, true form, the Monster became the show’s true Lucifer figure, as the Man in Black’s escape from the Island would supposedly mean the end of the world. But it was arguably better suited to the show as a protean, shadowy figure of menace, transforming itself according to the expectations of its viewers — just like Lost itself.

N: The Numbers
Hurley’s winning lottery ticket. The Hatch’s serial number. Rousseau’s broadcast. A bunch of soccer players’ jerseys in the airport. Wherever “4 8 15 16 23 42” appeared, which was pretty much everywhere, fans took notice. Their actual meaning? They were how Jacob labeled the “candidates” among the castaways for his position as the Island’s protector, and took on a sort of universal mystical significance because of that. But that was just a McGuffin. The sense that everything was somehow connected — that was the point.

O: The Others
The sinister figures whose appearances were terrifying (and seemingly supernatural) in the early seasons, the Others were slowly revealed to be quasi-suburbanites whose misguided fanaticism about the Island led them to commit any number of atrocities, including the slaughter of the utopian science hippies called the Dharma Initiative. The show’s writers were never more inventive than when they peeled back a new layer off the Others to reveal some strange new wrinkle to their strange cult. Bonus: the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are called “The Others” in the original A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but Lost‘s shadow was long enough for the name to be dropped for the small-screen adaptation.

P: ”Pilot”
Lost‘s first episode — half of the two-part series premiere, the most expensive pilot ever produced by a network at the time — is as close to a perfect hour of television as you’re likely to find. Its opening sequence masterfully adds one disorienting element to another: an opening eye, a lush bamboo forest, a wounded man in a tattered suit, a dog, a bottle of airplane liquor, an empty sneaker, unidentifiable mechanical and human noises. It all climaxes with Jack Shephard’s emergence on to a beautiful beach and straight into a chaotic crash site. In a country still raw with post-9/11 trauma, the pilot’s air-crash imagery and hints at terrorism (remember when Sawyer viewed Sayid as a suspect?) dealt directly with our collective fear, as genre art is often uniquely suited to do. “Guys…where are we?” asked Charlie in the pilot’s final line. Millions of viewers stuck around to find out.

Here’s the L-M-N-O-P from the Lost A to Z feature I wrote for Rolling Stone in honor of the show’s 10th anniversary. Lost is the first show I ever wrote about for a paying gig, back in my Wizard days, and the responses I’d get to my posts about it at this very blog all those years ago are what encouraged me to pursue writing about television any further at all, o my relationship with it is one I value a great deal. I hope you dig the piece!


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three: “What Jesus Said”

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Ironically, the underworld is the one place where our antihero’s real-life inspiration — Nucky Johnson — made a legacy that lasted. As the host of the 1929 Atlantic City Conference, a multiethnic gathering of crime bosses from across the country whose ranks included such Boardwalk Empire characters as Meyer Lansky, Charlie Luciano, John Torrio, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, Jake Guzik, and Owney Madden, Johnson was a pivotal player in the organization of the criminal network known as the National Crime Syndicate. This in turn was a crucial step on the road to the establishment of New York’s “Five Families” and the nationwide governing body called the Commission by Luciano and Torrio several years later, following the bloody resolution of the war between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.

But the Atlantic City Conference – like Arnold Rothstein’s murder in 1928, like the stock market crash and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 – falls in Boardwalk‘s seven-year gap between its fourth and fifth seasons. Generally, Boardwalk‘s storytelling instincts are sound, particularly in building to big climaxes, so that’s a decision worth trusting. Lining up the end of the show with (presumably) the final consolidation of power by Luciano and Lansky makes sense — and hey, nothing’s stopping us from deciding that Nelson Van Alden and Eli Thompson were Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day triggermen on our own. But given the fictional Nucky’s envy of Joe Kennedy’s legacy, cutting the real Nucky’s single greatest contribution to American history is a curious choice. However, Nucky’s conversation with Lansky in Havana, in which it’s revealed they haven’t seen each other since 1928, means the Conference never even took place in the Boardwalk universe — so it’s possible that the show’s simply playing with the timeline.

Either way, Nucky’s empire as it currently stands has narrow boundaries, and establishing them cost him everything. His sister and parents, including his abusive father, are dead. His brother Eli is in hiding. His surrogate father and son — the Commodore and Jimmy Darmody, respectively — both turned on him, and both died for it. His closest companion for years, Eddie, killed himself. He lost his first wife, Mabel, in childbirth and his second, Margaret, when she could no longer stand him. His relationship with his nephew Willie is cordial enough, sure, but as Kennedy notes, that’s a very thin reed to hang a life on.

It’s only in talking to Sally Wheat – long-distance love interest, business partner, and the closest thing he’s had to a friend in the entire series – that Nucky feels truly at home. In moment so sweet it’s shocking for a show like this, the two of them listen to “Happy Days Are Here Again” together over the phone. Suddenly a relationship between two Prohibition Era bootleggers becomes recognizable to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a favorite song with a loved one over videochat.

Well, I used my knowledge of mafia lore and close reading of film to try to predict the end of Boardwalk Empire AND compare a very sweet plot point to using Google+ Hangouts in my review of tonight’s episode, so I’ve probably peaked.


HuffPost Live redux

Monday, September 15th, 2014

I’ll be on HuffPost Live again at 5pm today, talking Boardwalk Empire and the 10th anniversary of Lost. Tune in here!


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two: “The Good Listener”

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Elsewhere, Gretchen Mol demonstrates why she may be Boardwalk‘s MVP as Gillian Darmody. This has always been a show that’s had a hard time with its women, even more so than many of its macho peers. Margaret has often felt tangential to the action (remember that sex-ed subplot?). Angela Darmody’s entire story depended on her not being able to do anything she actually wanted to do. Nucky’s string of showgirl girlfriends (beginning with the delightfully batshit Paz De La Huerta) had little to do but be frivolous and naked. The two women around whom Chalky’s storyline centered last season, his daughter Maitland and singer Maybelle White, were both fascinating — and were each gone by the finale.

Gillian is different. As a character, she’s required to get naked on command as much as anyone — it used to be her job as a showgirl, and her route to continued influence over the Commodore; now, in an insane asylum following her unwitting confession to a murder last season, it’s a condition of her imprisonment. But her nudity has a terrible energy to it, informed by her rape when she was a girl, and her subsequent determination to turn that victimization to her advantage. Here, that energy is reflected in the freakish image of a room full of mental patients erupting out of strait-jacketed bathtubs like aliens from chest cavities. When Gillian herself finally emerges, slowly and deliberately instead of in a panicked fit, her naked body is both a come-hither and a middle finger all at once. That’s part of what made the shaggy-dog-joke nature of her caged-heat storyline in this episode so satisfying. No, her female warden isn’t the queer-predator cliché she seems; she’s just one woman bargaining for a taste of the good life with another woman who fought tooth and nail to taste it herself.

I reviewed last night’s Boardwalk Empire for Rolling Stone.


Spoiler Alert

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Here I am talking about The Leftovers, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex with Ricky Camilleri, Drew Grant, and Matthew Jacobs on the debut episode of Spoiler Alert, HuffPost Live’s new talk show about TV. Hooray!


STC on HuffPost Live

Monday, September 8th, 2014

I’ll be talking The LeftoversBoardwalk Empire, and so forth on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert show, tonight at 5:30pm. This link will take you right to the show when it airs. Hope to be seen by you then!


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

Monday, September 8th, 2014

“I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization,” Nora Durst writes as she prepares to leave everyone she’s ever known. “I want to believe that it’s still possible to get close to someone.” But even if it’s possible, she’s chosen not to try. The pain is too much to bear, as actor Carrie Coon’s almost unwatchable silent scream upon being confronted with grotesque simulations of her vanished family made clear. Here in the real world, with uncanny echoes of The Leftovers‘ breathtakingly paced season finale — “The Prodigal Son” — all around us, it’s easy to agree with her.

Look back, if you can stomach it, at the long horrendous summer we just suffered through. A berserk and benighted subset of the video game community targeted prominent women critics and creators with a campaign of trolling, harassment, and threats so severe that one victim had to flee her home. An apparent ring of hackers specializing in stealing female celebrities’ nude selfies began releasing them to the public en masse. Police in Ferguson, Missouri responded to citizen protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown – his body exposed in the street for four hours – by essentially staging a days-long blue riot, aiming loaded weapons at civilians, arresting journalists, and firing teargas and rubber bullets seemingly indiscriminately.

Now look at The Leftovers. Trolling-as-religion is one of its central plot points, with two separate denominations – the Guilty Remnant, with their callous performance art, and Rev. Matt, with his muckraking flyers – deliberately being assholes to make a point. Stealing photographs in order to turn private moments into a public spectacle was a core component of the cult’s master plan involving replicas of Departure victims. And law-enforcement complicity, even participation, in violence against the civilian population has been a constant: the Heroes Day riot, the brutal assault on Holy Wayne’s compound, the Feds’ black-ops methodology in destroying cults and incinerating members’ bodies, Kevin’s assault and kidnapping of Patti, and, tonight, the Mapleton P.D.’s half-assed efforts to stop the townsfolk from retaliating against the G.R. The show’s sociopolitical prescience is almost freakish.

Here’s the beginning of my review of the season finale of The Leftovers for Rolling Stone, which ultimately makes the case that as impressive as the show’s resonance with current events may be, it actually goes even deeper, laying out the cost of living when life is fundamentally meaningless and the struggle by which can attempt to eke some kind of purpose out of it anyway. This was really, really good television and I’m glad I was paid to stick with it to the end or I’d have missed it.


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “Golden Days for Boys and Girls”

Monday, September 8th, 2014

As its final eight-episode season begins, with tonight’s ironically titled premiere “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” it’s time to be honest about Boardwalk Empire. Appropriately enough given the attention the show has paid to family traumas, HBO’s sprawling gangster epic has long suffered in the shadow of its siblings. It lacks the seismic influence of The Sopranos, where creator Terrence Winter previously worked; the acclaim and tonal versatility of Mad Men, helmed by fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner; the relentless suspense and narrative arc of Breaking Bad, the era’s biggest crime show; and the epic-fantasy scope and pop-culture cachet of Game of Thrones, the network’s other big costume drama about bloody power struggles.

What it does better than 99% of its competitors, however, is mount pure sensual spectacle. No other show on television says so much about its world through sight and sound alone – via meticulously composed frames, thoughtfully arranged sequences, colors, voices, tics of performance, and, yes, gore, all designed to communicate the violent tragedy at the heart of Nucky Thompson’s story directly to the heart. Tonight’s season premiere offered ample evidence of this — as well as suggesting that Boardwalk Empire might very well be the New Golden Age of Television’s secret masterpiece.

I’m so excited to be covering the final season of Boardwalk Empire, a show I love and admire tremendously, for Rolling Stone. Here’s my review of the season premiere.


The 20 Best TV Shows About School

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
8. ‘The Wonder Years’

Put aside the Boomer nostalgia that erupts the second Joe Cocker starts singing during the opening credits. Yes, The Wonder Years is a period piece — and a fun one at that. (Remember the make-out party soundtracked by “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”?) But it’s also as good as it gets at depicting how your childhood relationships with best friends (Paul Pfeiffer) and crushes (Winnie Cooper, swoon) shape your experience of school with far more strength than almost anything in the curriculum or anyone on the faculty. The Sixties soundtrack, wardrobe, and pop-political references are cool and all, but all you need are your buddies.

Now that our long national nightmare of a summer is over, I wrote a list of the 20 best tv shows about school for Rolling Stone. It was fun!


“The Leftovers” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “The Garveys at Their Best”

Monday, August 25th, 2014

You never forget where you were when it happened. They say it’s true of all tragedies, and they may be right. The Leftovers, it turns out, is not going to take any chances. Tonight’s thoroughly harrowing episode — titled, with cruel irony, “The Garveys at Their Best” — is an hour-long flashback covering approximately one 24-hour period in October, three years ago: from the morning of the day before the Sudden Departure to the first moments after it happens. And as an act of storytelling, it’s tear-down-the-sky shit. We never actually watch anyone Depart – the camera is always pointed elsewhere – but that is the show’s sole nod to modesty. From the moment you hear Nora Durst’s children say “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” to our discovery of just how catastrophically the Departure hit Kevin and Laurie Garvey, every ounce of grief, fear and sadness will be left exposed.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Leftovers, which was very sad and lowkey contained the scariest scene I’ve seen on TV all year, for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Cairo”

Monday, August 18th, 2014

But it’s not just the actual life-or-death stakes of Patti’s plight that [director Michelle] MacLaren wrings for every ounce of tension and pathos. Jill Garvey grilling Nora Durst about her gun over dinner. Meg needling Laurie while breaking her vow of silence. Jill and her friend Aimee getting meaner and meaner to each other in a game of emotional chicken that Aimee eventually loses. The wordless sequences in which the Guilty Remnant prepare their big Memorial Day stunt. The climactic moment where Jill reunites with her mother in order to join her cult. “Cairo” was all about turning the screw until someone, anyone yelled “Jesus Christ, enough!”

Which is to say, yeah, it’s a pretty grim hour of television. A woman gives a lengthy monologue about how love has to be left behind, then slits her own throat – how could it not be dark? But it’s by no means a humorless, bleakness-über-alles episode. The twin bros played by Max and Charlie Carver remain 2014’s great casting coup; everything you need to know about them you could learn from the way the one dude finds a bulletproof vest and says “Jackpot!” Little moments of worldbuilding also break the tension, like the increasingly obvious fact that in the post-Departure universe, marijuana is legal enough to smoke in a public park full of frolicking kids. Even Patti gets in a few good one-liners, like the one where she responds to Dean’s pompous proclamation that he’s a “guardian angel” with “Well, shit, I think I just heard a bell ring.”

It’s also pretty profoundly insightful about how people process pain, or don’t. The after-dinner exchange Kevin and Nora have about Jill (“It’ll get better.” “How?” “I don’t know. But it will.”) is basically the mantra of anyone clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that things are shitty, but optimistic enough to believe they won’t stay that way forever. Later, Aimee takes this philosophy and weaponizes it, taunting her sad-sack, soon-to-be former friend by sarcastically saying “Just so you know, it is possible for some people to be okay.”

Elsewhere, if Meg’s berserk reaction to his flyers about her late mother wasn’t already indication enough, Reverend Matt clearly has her number. “Her grief was hijacked,” he says, and that’s a good way to understand the Guilty Remnant: If the Sudden Departure stole everyone’s ability to really focus their pain, they’re stealing it back. “I think about it every fucking waking moment,” Patti says of humanity’s greatest trauma. “I mean, come on. What else is there to think about.” The GR are forcing everyone to think about it, as directly and obnoxiously as possible. It’s trolling as religion.

The Leftovers has gotten consistent and creative, and last night’s episode was no exception. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Solace for Tired Feet”

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Putting prurient interests aside, the now-physical relationship between Chief Kevin Garvey and local survivor-celebrity Nora Durst deserves top billing. After all, it’s the softest plot thread in the show’s narrative tapestry, a rare display of human connection and kindness that’s not undermined by grief and guilt, or corrupted by attempts to harness those emotions to some grand ideological purpose. You want these two crazy mixed-up kids to fall for each other, because after what they’ve been through, they deserve it.

The show fuels our attachment to their attachment several times. Nora’s given the episode’s most purely cathartic moment when she turns the garden hose on the Guilty Remnant, in particular Liv Tyler’s sanctimonious new convert Meg. (Meg is rejected a second time when she narcs on the tryst to Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, who seems just as turned off by her nosing around as we are.) And after an episode spent hiding or denying his mental deterioration, Kevin reveals his fear that he’s following in his schizophrenic father’s footsteps as part of pillow talk. Their actual sex may have been edited in an arrhythmic fashion that suggested Kevin viewed it as some kind of out-of-body experience, but afterwards, he’s comfortable enough with Nora to share his darkest secret. Forget Kevin Sr.’s cryptic messages – that intimacy and ability to connect with someone once more is the sign Kevin Jr. should pay attention to.

I really like good sex scenes on TV dramas; watching beautiful people do convincingly hot things with each other is one of the medium’s great pleasures. I wrote about that and a lot of other little things that made last night’s episode of The Leftovers pretty good for Rolling Stone.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “1984″

Monday, August 4th, 2014

The final Halt and Catch Fire of Season One begins with the show’s single most likeable sequence: Things are tense in the Clark household, where Gordon and Donna have evidently not recovered from the COMDEX debacle. Dishes are washed, beers are drunk, TV is watched, all joylessly, silently. Finally, Gordon attempts to settle in on the couch where he’s been sleeping – but Donna has had enough. “Get in there!” she demands, directing Gordon to the bedroom she insists she’ll be sharing with him tonight. “I’m still very mad at you,” he replies, pointing at her, and surrendering. She giggles. They walk off to bed, Gordon stomping and swinging in faux-fury. The two of them have decided that their fight about Donna’s borderline infidelity and Gordon’s job-related neglect was about real issues – ones that pale in comparison to the even realer love and respect they share. As Donna puts it in code later in the episode, when Gordon presents her with the engagement-slash-decoder ring he promised her nine years back, “I darf you very gerp.”

The Gordon-Donna scenes in this late-blooming show’s season finale — ‘1984” — aren’t just the show’s most human moments to date. They echo the legendary Apple Super Bowl ad that gives the episode its title, and like the Cameron lookalike who smashes the oppressive IBM machine in that commercial, they represent the triumph of imagination, emotion, and empathy over cold hard calculation. Gone is the Halt that forced its characters into empty confrontations week in and week out to drum up drama on the cheap – the equivalent of the Cardiff Giant’s faster-cheaper computing model. In its place? A handsome, clean-shaven, confident, self-actualized Gordon, now head of the company where he was once just another face in the crowd. But more importantly, he’s a Gordon we actually give a shit about.

Much to my surprise, Halt and Catch Fire wound up being a pleasurable, emotionally sticky show — and it’s the rare prestige drama in which the women are happier and more fulfilled than the men. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Guest”

Monday, August 4th, 2014

We also see Nora reject a number of possible paths to closure when she heads to Manhattan for a conference on Departure-related industries. This begins when a bro-tastic bereavement specialist — the one who works for the company that makes “Loved Ones” simulacra of departed family members for burials or cremations — comes on to her. She enjoys his hospitality suite and his attentions, admitting he’s not the soulless creep he might seem, and still chooses to make out with his real-doll doppelganger rather than the genuine douchebag article. Watching Nora writhe atop the mannequin is the series’ sexiest moment to date, and no wonder – here’s a person deriving an erotic charge from the very concept of closure, making a public show of pleasure out of something intended to be a private totem of grief.

Next, she blows up the spot of the activist/conspiracy theorist who impersonates her at the convention, and appears to blow off her warnings about the Department of Sudden Departures. That’s harder for the audience to do, of course; when she warns that the DSD’s “questionnaires are sent to incinerators outside of Tallahassee, Florida,” we know that the government’s burning much worse things than that. But she’s even harder on Patrick Johansen, the conference’s star attraction and author of What Comes Next, a self-help book for “legacies” of the Departed. Calling him a fraud who’s faking his grief, she drunkenly screams at him “What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!”

It’s this nihilism that attracts Holy Wayne’s acolyte to Nora. He knows she’s right about Johansen, because the writer didn’t work through his grief at all – he had it magically sucked out of him. And when Wayne meets Nora, the healer recognizes that she’s not rejecting happiness out of hopelessness, but because she does have hope — and she wants to get rid of it. “If [your pain] starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you?” he asks her, knowing the answer is yes. “Hope. It’s your weakness. You want it gone because you don’t deserve it.” There’s a certain strain of depression that internalizes and personifies misfortune, that sees it as the natural state of things, that sees happiness as fraudulent in the face of the shortcomings the depressed person knows better than anyone. This is as accurate an encapsulation of that kind of depression as a TV show is likely to deliver.

Last night’s The Leftovers was smart about sex, depression, guilt, and grief — plus, tons of Carrie Coon as Nora Durst. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Gladys”

Monday, July 28th, 2014

“I don’t understand your faith,” the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. “But I understand commitment, and I respect it.” His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: “But we are all of us, no matter how we’ve suffered, still alive.” As if they didn’t know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they’ve cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they’ve chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?

The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorienting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison’s claim that the GR are “already dead” and preemptively calls bullshit.

But it’s not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr’s unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom’s emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it’s faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that’s the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they’re willing to die for it as a demonstration.

That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it’s a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you’re right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.

“Enjoy” is a weird word to use about tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, but it made me think hard about hard things, and I enjoyed it. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Up Helly Aa”

Monday, July 28th, 2014

In a rare move for, well, pretty much any drama on television, Halt gave its characters a complex personal, professional, and perhaps even moral choice to make in which neither outcome was the clear-cut “right thing to do.” When Gordon guts Cameron’s forward-thinking, interactive OS to cut costs and increase speed, what should Joe do? Siding with Cameron would honor her genuine vision, preserve the one thing that made the Giant unique, keep the hope of an eventual reward for their cutting-edge tech alive, and maintain the romantic relationship that clearly matters a lot to both of them. But it would cost them the only competitive edges – speed and cost – that matter in the face of the Slingshot knockoff’s debut earlier that day, which in turn would cost them the entirety of Cardiff Electric. Fiction in general (and prestige TV dramas in particular) conditions us to root for the maverick, the underdog, and the visionary, so our initial inclination is to pull for Cameron. But Joe’s face as the elevator doors close on her speaks volumes. He knows that her computer would be better. But her better computer likely will never get the chance to exist unless they act now. And the sacrifice their love requires is too steep.

When we see the results of Joe’s decision play out on the convention floor, the issues remain just as complex. His speech about the reprogrammed Giant joylessly champions all-business values, at times echoing Alec Baldwin’s legendary Glengarry Glenn Ross monologue (“Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”) in its cynicism and intensity. Finding Cameron’s ketchup stain on his notes would normally be a sign he’s about to have a change of heart; watching him power past his qualms, then quietly close the notes away in his briefcase undermines all the expectations a moment like that naturally raises.

Yet there’s genuine fervor in the speech – a chance for Joe’s skill as a salesman to shine, which is his art as much as coding is Cameron’s or engineering is Gordon’s and Donna’s. The presentation is a hit, scoring the Giant a big order with a major retailer. There are even personal victories to echo the loss of Cameron – a loss which, importantly, Joe and Gordon honor during their presentation. Joe’s decision may have cost him Cameron, but it made possible the rapprochement between Gordon and Donna, who at last is credited with her role in the computer’s creation. It also drove a stake through the heart of Hunt and Brian’s sleazy Slingshot project – which is a bit rich, given the similarly unscrupulous way Joe and the gang have gone about everything, but is no less satisfying for it.

In the end, Halt still sends signals that Joe made the wrong choice, if for the right reasons. He and the Clarks share the world’s saddest champagne toast, with the camera lingering on the popped bottle long after such shots normally cut away, transforming its celebratory effervescence into just a spill to be cleaned up. Gordon and Donna are back together, but the events of the day make their demeanor seem miles away from their sweetly sexed-up chemistry of the night before.

Tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire told a morally and emotionally sophisticated story with actual sophistication. I was really impressed. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “B.J. and the A.C.”

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Then there’s the Chief, who when he’s not busy hunting down Jesus gets the best stuff this episode has to offer. His confrontation with GR leader Patti featured the darkly funny line “If you come, I’m not gonna protect you. It’s the holidays.” (This is The Leftovers‘ answer to Dr. Strangelove‘s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”) Meanwhile, a new romance was a given for the show’s leading man, and the obvious sexual chemistry between Justin Theroux’s Kevin and Carrie Coon’s Nora was a very pleasant surprise. Props to directors Carl Franklin (One False Move) and Lesli Linka Glatter, who as a veteran of Mad Men knows her way around hot romance between damaged people. The staging in particular was terrific, with Kevin standing resplendent in his uniform while Nora lounges languidly against a high-school locker, suggesting intimacy and authority and innocence and experience all at once.


To get to that point, though, he had to endure an excruciating “conversation” with his estranged wife Laurie. Sworn to silence by the Guilty Remnant, she brings along a rookie as a ringer, having Meg read Kevin her big Dear John divorce letter so she won’t have to. In the show’s best single exploration of post-Departure relationships to date, Kevin and Laurie are the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object. Amy Brenneman radiates both exhaustion and conviction through Laurie’s face and body language; her eyes say the only thing that could hurt her more than doing this to Kevin is not doing it, and pretending nothing’s changed. But of course this behavior is completely infuriating, and Theroux funnels that fury into a ferocious performance, first barking at Meg to shut the fuck up, then demanding Laurie speak for herself. It’s multifaceted, empathetic writing, all beautifully acted. And though I wouldn’t wanna live there, it made Mapleton a nice place to visit.

I (mostly) dug tonight’s The Leftovers; Theroux’s scenes with Carrie Coon and Brenneman/Tyler were dynamite. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “The 214s”

Monday, July 21st, 2014

It turns out that “recovery from a mild psychotic break” is a good look for Gordon Clark. For the first time all season, his hair’s groomed and his beard’s neat; he looks comfortable in his clothes instead of like a living mannequin for Short-Sleeved Dress Shirts Warehouse. Actor Scoot McNairy is a handsome guy, after all; now we can see that beneath the beard and the big glasses and the flop sweat, Gordon had something to offer Donna back in the day besides their shared love of electrical engineering.

What’s more, this is a case where you can judge a book by its cover. Now Gordon is able to turn on the charm, bantering effortlessly with  JoeCameron, and Bosworth as they plan for the big COMDEX computer convention before the bank-hacking bust that drives the episode. Even the camera seems captivated: As he reminisces about the party scene the last time he and Donna attended the big show, grinning ear to ear, the camera doesn’t cut away for a second.

Yes, he freaks when he finds out Joe is not taking him, but lots of people would. Plus, he quickly recovers – Gordon has the presence of mind to steal key components of the computer they’ve officially christened “The Giant” when the feds swoop in. He’s also got the vision to keep the project going anyway, the balls to break into the office and steal the rest of the computer, and the charisma to convince both Cameron and Joe to come along for the ride. Pay attention to the way he reassembles the team. It doesn’t just mean good things for Cardiff Electric — it means good things for tonight’s episode, “The 214s,” and for the series itself.

I thought tonight’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire was the best so far, by far. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. Special shout-out to actor Toby Huss, who’s doing phenomenal work in this show as John Bosworth.