Posts Tagged ‘TV’
“And so we ran on, into Summerland, and the place they said did not exist. And all the while, wolves were at our heels. Black masks, boots, and the one they call the Eye. We had come to do the work that must be done. To strip ourselves of the fog of the Life Before.” The second episode of “Legion” opens less with narration than with an incantation — prose calculated to conjure up a sense of wonder and terror straight out of a Galadriel speech in “The Lord of the Rings.”
To a limited degree, the show is capable of wonder and terror alike. Thanks in large part to the quiet and confident performances of Jean Smart and Jeremie Harris as Melanie Bird and Ptonomy Wallace, David Haller’s sojourn in the mutant refuge called Summerland does have that adept-in-training vibe vital to the origin stories of so many heroes, from Bruce Wayne to Arya Stark. And the continued presence of “the devil with the yellow eyes,” the corpulent demon who growls and grins at the periphery of the narrative, indicates that this is a series that could scare the pants off us if it so desired.
Yet there’s something that feels gimmicky, even chintzy, about the show’s manipulation of space, time, audio and video — the very stylistic innovations that seemed to set it apart from the superhero pack.
A quick cut during a flashback to one of David’s therapy sessions, for example, seems at first like just a way to represent his jitteriness. But later in the episode we learn it’s “real” — an actual glitch in his memory, a time jump created by his brain to hide something disturbing. We’re meant to get a little intellectual jolt out of this — “Ohhh, so that’s what that was!” — and we do … but it’s ultimately as insubstantial as a sugar rush.
I reviewed the second episode of Legion for the New York Times. It’s early and I’m in the liking-things business so I’m ready to be wrong about this, but this doesn’t feel like a terribly promising show to me at this point.
STEP ONE: GIVE US A VILLAIN
It’s well past time for The Path to give up all this vacillating back-and-forth with jittery cult leader Cal Roberts and have him commit to being the Meyerists’ David Miscavige. His slow, two-steps-forward one-step-back zig-zag approach to that point has not been half as interesting as the writers likely hoped; just end it and make him the crimelord already. Don’t worry, you can still show his inner conflict without jerking him all over the map. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and endless other shows with (to put it mildly) deeply flawed men in positions of leadership.
STEP TWO: GIVE HIM A FOIL
In theory, Cal already has this in the form of Sarah, his co-leader. But his herky-jerky character arc has brought her along for the ride, making either his conscience or an even more cut-throat customer depending on the needs of the moment. If you slide Cal comfortably into the no-one-man-should-have-all-that-power slot, you can locate the true moral dilemma in Sarah rather than in him. To put it in terms fans of this show will likely appreciate, you can make her the Jesse to his Walt, in other words.
A charming, charismatic, incredibly handsome, young fundamentalist takes control of his religious denomination and makes a series of personal, professional, and philosophical decisions that imperil everything he cares about. Not a bad idea for a show, huh? Well, sure, if you’re The Young Pope. The Path, on the other hand…well, let’s just say that when Cardinal Spencer told Pius XIII, “You’ll be a terrible pope! The worst!”, he’d clearly never met Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy). The pontiff of the Meyerist movement can’t go five minutes without doing precisely the worst possible thing he could do. And unfortunately for the show, his never-ending screw-ups have yet to yield the dramatic dividends his counterpart over in Vatican City enjoyed.
I reviewed this week’s The Path for Decider. A few steps in the right direction, but not enough.
Skulking, spying, smuggling, sabotaging, and slaying: These are James Keziah Delaney’s stock in trade, and tonight’s episode of Taboo is all about his tradecraft. As the rogue’s plan to secure a lucrative trading route out from under the rival English, American, and East India Company factions moves forward, the show’s portrayal of his dirty deeds has gotten much clearer and tighter than it used to be, and more entertaining as a result….Unfortunately, many of Taboo’s old troubles — the workmanlike plotting, the half-baked supporting cast, the overreliance on James’s alleged magnetism — are still hanging around.
I reviewed this week’s Taboo for Vulture. Better than it started, still not as good as you’d hope.
A pat conversion of Pius XIII the dashing fundamentalist dictator into Pope Lenny the Kinder Gentler Catholic would be a lie; it would say, falsely, that only art about people who reflect our values can itself reflect our values, or that only art about empathetic people can have an empathetic message. Better to grapple with contradictions and flaws, with the hard-to-swallow and the tough-to-bear….The Pope is still the same smug bastard he started as. He could well be crazy. But in his presence, characters feel God’s presence. Couldn’t he be a madman and a mystic, a sociopath and a saint all rolled into one?
As the Holy Father himself puts it, “Goodness, unless it’s combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.” The Young Pope trusts our imagination – our ability to handle its narrative leaps, cinematic risks and characters with views far different from our own – and has faith that we’ll see the goodness all the clearer for it. That’s where its greatness lies.
The Young Pope is/was a masterpiece. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone. The aspect of the show discussed above is very important to me.
Mincing words is the last thing Pope Pius XIII would want us to do here, so we’ll say it plain: Tonight’s episode of The Young Pope is absolutely magnificent. It juggles the climaxes of two major storylines, either of which could command an entire hour on their own, as effortlessly as the Holy Father juggles oranges. Whether it’s Cardinal Gutierrez trying to bring down the abusive Archbishop Kurtwell or Pius making peace with the dying Cardinal Spencer, every image feels deeply considered. Every character is full and fleshed out. Not a moment is wasted. Not an emotional punch is pulled.
Take one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises. Combine it with one of the breakout auteurs of the Peak TV era. Drop it in the middle of a very crowded, yet largely undistinguished, field of competitors. “Legion,” the stylistically bold new X-Men spinoff from the “Fargo” showrunner, Noah Hawley, is designed to cause a sensation. Given the superhero genre’s odd combination of cultural omnipresence and cinematic anemia, it’s hard for it not to.
For all their reliance on feats of derring-do, superhero films and TV shows are, creatively speaking, a risk-averse lot. Since director Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film inaugurated the genre’s pop-culture hegemony nearly 17 years ago, precious little variety in tone or technique has been permitted by the major spandex factories.
Marvel, home of The Avengers, relies on a house style that coasts on the charisma of its attractive casts but has all the visual and sonic flair of an ibuprofen commercial. Its rival, DC, switched from making sometimes dull movies for smart teenagers (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to often dull movies for dumb ones (Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman films and the egregious “Suicide Squad”). On television, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and especially producer Greg Berlanti’s various DC properties have some zip, but no more genuine ambition than a syndicated ’90s action series. Marvel’s Netflix series are a step in the right direction. “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” take relative risks with their moody visual palettes and their pairings of strong leads with idiosyncratic enemies who function like coprotagonists.
So there’s some precedent for “Legion,” the new superhero-ish series tangentially tied to the X-Men franchise from the writer, director and showrunner Noah Hawley. But for its true antecedents you have to search further back in the superhero timeline, to Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s stylish and self-aware “Batman” series from the late ‘60s. Or you could simply look at Hawley’s previous act of televised alchemy: “Fargo,” an anthology series in which the Coen Brothers’ Midwestern-noir classic is used as a springboard for a bold, bloody, often beautiful homage to their entire oeuvre. Perhaps in a desire to transform Hawley into an auteur-impresario in the style of Ryan Murphy or Louis C.K., FX, their shared network, tapped him to guide their all-important first foray into pop culture’s most lucrative zone.
In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.
I reviewed last week’s premiere of Legion for the New York Times, where I’ll be covering the show all season. Visually and tonally it was sharp; script-wise it was creaky as heck.
“Making sense” appears to be low on the show’s list of priorities at the moment. Take Eddie’s storyline, which finds him in the hospital recuperating from…well, it’s not entirely clear what. Alcohol poisoning? Alcohol allergies? Getting coldcocked? Having some kind of PTSD episode? All of the above? Whatever’s ailing him, it somehow nets him a room of his own and an overnight stay instead of a few hours of tedium and half-assed care behind a curtain in an overcrowded ER. It also lands him a hospital doctor who takes off his restraints the moment she’s asked — I guess no one’s pressing charges over the fight he instigated with casino security? — and who has plenty of time to spare talking Eddie through the reentry process after leaving a cult. She also rains prescriptions down on him like she’s Drake throwing money on stage at King of Diamonds, which makes it official: It’s easier for an ex-cult victim hospitalized for drunken violence to get an Ambien scrip than it is for me, dammit.
What’s more, he has the doting attention of not one but two comically beautiful women who literally leave their children someplace to take care of him instead: Sarah, his ex, and Chloe, his current girlfriend. Sarah begs Eddie to return to Meyerism to be with his family and get the only treatment she feels can help him. Chloe stays at his bedside and then takes him home, instructing him on how to take his pills like she’s his mom. All this despite the fact that Eddie’s vocabulary has basically been reduced to variations on “Yeah, I, uh, um, I just don’t/can’t…” Eddie theorizes that Chloe is trying to save him because she couldn’t save his brother, which is as good an explanation for her devotion as any; god knows she’s not getting any romance or affection in return, any more than Sarah’s getting a decent partner and father.
The Path is in serious trouble. I reviewed this week’s episode for Decider.
Look out, London: There’s a new man in charge. No, not James Keziah Delaney — he’s pretty much doing the same things he always does. I mean behind the camera. Here at the halfway mark of Taboo’s eight-episode run, director Anders Engström takes the reins from Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed the show’s first four installments. It’s not exactly a whole new ballgame, but now it’s much more tempting to stay through the final few innings to see how Taboo ends.
Although he retains cinematographer Mark Patten, who shot all eight episodes, Engström nevertheless brings a new crispness and clarity to the show’s look. Nyholm relied on alternating muddy realism with nightmarish surrealism; the result was a murky mess that offered little in the way of arresting imagery no matter which side of the divide a given scene or shot landed. By contrast, Engstrom makes the muck a little brighter and more fantastical, and gives the dreamlike sequences more solidity, improving the power of both.
Take the early scene in which Delaney returns home from his duel. He and Lorna Bow decide to take their egg breakfast outside, and eat it while sitting on heaps of driftwood, rock, and rotted dockworks covered in lush green moss. A few episodes ago, we’d have seen nothing but mud out there; now everything’s as emerald as a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur. The color palette really makes Lorna’s red dress pop — a scarlet slash across the screen that befits her wild-card spirit and status. A later shot of Delaney riding his white horse across a verdant green landscape takes a similarly striking approach.
Tonight, Taboo lives up to its name. To a fault. As if adhering to some arcane contract it had signed with the East India Company — “Taboo may show all the ultraviolence and sexual assault it desires, but only beginning with episode four” — the show suddenly let loose with an awful torrent of torture, rape, attempted rape, murder, and disembowelment. It’s a bloodbath in a world where no one bathes.
That’s not all: The episode’s nonviolent but otherwise quite eye-melting events include gratuitous sex scenes, gratuitous oral sex scenes, incestuous invisible sex scenes, the large-scale smuggling of prostitute urine, horny aristocrats on nitrous oxide, and a guy who eats not one but two different kinds of animal feces. Peak TV, baby!
Forgot to link to it at the time, but I reviewed last week’s Taboo for Vulture as well. It wasn’t good, which made this week’s somewhat better episode a mildly pleasant surprise.
It was the best of Popes, it was the worst of Popes. Tonight’s episode contained both individual shots and lengthy segments that are as successful as anything the HBO show has put on screen so far – but it’s also the first installment of the series that feels like a substantial failure. It’s oddly appropriate: The storyline, in which Pope Pius XIII exits his comfort zone by leaves the cozy confines of his papal palaces and travels abroad to meet his public, is the one in which co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino wanders off course himself.
“Betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” This was the incredulous question Jesus posed to Judas in the garden of Gesthemane, the night His follower-slash-frenemy ratted him out with a telltale smooch. After tonight’s episode of The Young Pope, we’ve got a feeling Pope Pius XIII knows how the Good Lord felt. No, Sister Mary didn’t lock lips with her former ward – even for a show this Oedipally fixated, that would be a bridge too far. But her desperate attempt to end his disastrous reign was no less intimate.
Using a piece of the tobacco pipe that the elder deadbeat Belardo left with his son Lenny on the day the boy was deserted at her orphanage, the nun hired actors to impersonate the Holy Father’s mom and pop. Her hope was that the fulfillment of his lifelong dream of reuniting with his parents would leave him so shaken that he could be bamboozled by his cardinals into resigning his office. O she of little faith! As we learn throughout the hour, Lenny was already well on his way to arriving at that decision all on his own.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the critics-of-the-critics are right, and politics should be left out of the 24: Legacy discussion. Fine with me: Put aside the Islamophobia, the xenophobia, the misogyny, the fear-mongering, and the glorification of the all-powerful security state … and there’s still so, so much dislike.
Following hot on the heels of its post-Super Bowl premiere, tonight’s episode offers evidence aplenty. The worst offense is the doughy, first-draft dialogue. Whether they’re spouting tech jargon, spilling their guts, or trying to make someone see we don’t have enough time!!!, every character speaks in boilerplate. Some examples:
• “Let me out of here!” “I can’t do that. Not until I know that I can trust you.”
• “Killing the Rangers is only the beginning. These people are planning attacks against our country.”
• “Will you be able to find the leak or not?” “Yes, but I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
• “We’re here to finish what my father started.”
• “I don’t expect you to believe me, but if I don’t get that money, a lot of people are gonna die.”
Sure, we could talk about the characters who uttered each line, but why bother? You’ve seen those characters and heard those lines in dozens of movies and series. Nothing here distinguishes them, complicates them, makes them clever or unexpected.
Just for fun, I spent most of my second 24: Legacy review for Vulture focusing on the show’s many artistic failures, as opposed to its political ones. But don’t worry, I kick the shit out of its politics too.
The climax of Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers takes place on Super Bowl Sunday. Wayne Gale, the tabloid-TV sleazeball played by Robert Downey Jr., has booked an interview with Woody Harrelson’s mass-murdering media sensation Mickey Knox, airing live from prison immediately after the Big Game. The killer’s Zen-nihilism ramblings and the host’s how-dare-you-sir platitudes are interrupted with soft-drink ads and shots of happy families watching at home. When the show cuts to commercial, the inmates riot. Mickey slaughters his guards, rescues his wife, and escapes, leaving literally hundreds dead, including the host of the interview. All of it is broadcast live to viewers nationwide.
This is only a slightly less responsible programming decision than the one Fox made when it chose to put 24: Legacy on the air.
I reviewed the absolutely abhorrent pilot episode of 24: Legacy for Vulture. This show features a teenage Muslim girl who immigrated to the United States for the express purpose of blowing up a high school. Ghastly, irresponsible, dangerous television.
The Light may or may not be real, Doc Meyers may or may not be a fraud, the Meyerist Movement may or may not be a gigantic scam, but one thing’s for sure: Eddie Lane’s life would be a lot easier if he could control THE VOLUME OF HIS VOICE! The third episode of The Path’s second season (“The Father and the Son”) is like an object lesson in the the evils of shouting. Eddie shouts at his son Hawk. Eddie shouts at his ex-wife Sarah. Eddie shouts at his rival Cal. Eddie shouts at his new girlfriend Chloe about the man who’s stalking him. Eddie shouts at the man who’s stalking him. Apparently, none of the Ladder’s 13 Rungs teach that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, because Eddie’s ladling that shit out by the spoonful, and no one’s swallowing it.
As such, his behavior in this episode — culminating in a fistfight, a forcible ejection from a casino pool, and an allergic reaction to booze — is a solid demonstration of what the show is doing wrong at this point. Like Sarah nonsensically barking at Cal to dig up the body of the man he murdered in the premiere even though she’d long suspected him of the crime, and like Cal picking a fight with all his rich potential donors before slugging one of them in the stomach during the second episode, Eddie spends this hour needlessly ratcheting up the conflict in his life, to diminishing returns with each subsequent confrontation. The Path is hardly the first prestige-TV project to mistake raw hostility for drama — Halt and Catch Fire Season One springs to mind, as do the later seasons of Masters of Sex — but the sheer repetitiveness of Eddie’s fights with other characters in this installment makes this mistake stand out all the more. Forget the Light and the Ladder and all that shit — my dude needs good old-fashioned anger management.
Thinking back, all four main characters’ stories end in a place of relative equilibrium, so much so that it seems likely this episode was set up to serve as a series finale if need be. Noah has found peace, if not a purpose. Helen has come clean and her family has remained intact despite it all. Cole has decided to remain unhappily married to Luisa. Alison has her daughter and a new career and the self-knowledge, if not necessarily the desire or ability, to make a fresh go of things. The murder mystery and the attempted murder mystery have both been wrapped up. “Where we goin’, buddy?” I don’t know, but I’ll be there next season to find out.
Send cardinals, nuns, and money – the shit has hit the fan.
Nine months after Pope Pius XIII announced his intention to rule the Catholic Church with an iron fist (wearing a red velvet glove covered in gold rings, natch), the effects of his fundamentalist fervor are being felt far and wide. August officials are dropping dead in the cafeteria. Renegade mystics are disappearing. Church pews are quite literally collapsing. Police are investigating and the priesthood is being purged. Jimmy crack corn, and the Young Pope doesn’t care.
…the high point is the address to the College of Cardinals, an act of absolutely unsurpassed arrogance and imperial menace. To the visible and audible shock of the assembly, the Pope is carried into the Sistine Chapel on a throne, carried on the shoulders of a dozen priests. Fan-bearers flank him like an actual Roman emperor. His costumery is so ornate and massive that he’s all but immobile in it, his head pivoting and malevolent eyes twinkling amid the mountain of cloth and gold like a character out of Alice in Wonderland.
His speech is a dictatorial masterpiece: an outright call to his brother cardinals to purge the Church of all but its most fanatical followers, to act as aloof and above the unfaithful masses as God Himself. It’s one of the greatest speeches in TV history, placed at the apex of the best television episode of the year. And it ends with a display of outright dominance: Pius extends his foot, and one by one, his mentor Cardinal Spencer, his best friend Cardinal Dussolier, and his defeated nemesis Cardinal Voiello come forward to kiss it. He is the Young Pope. Bow down.
I reviewed Sunday’s The Young Pope, the best episode of television I’ve seen in months, for Rolling Stone. I literally cried tears of joy and delight watching this thing.
The second installment of our subscriber-only mini-podcast series is here! In this episode we’re answering a popular reader question about our personal histories with A Song of Ice and Fire—when we started reading the books, how we got involved in the fandom, and so on. We also attempt to predict what will become of all this once the book series is finished. Click here to listen, or to subscribe for the low low introductory rate of just $1 a month!
It may be about a religion, but The Path has become business-y. I don’t mean that in the sense of Cal, Sarah, and company pursuing the financial expansion of the Meyerist movement. I mean the business each character is required to go through to fill up an episode. Think of it this way: You’ve got X number of storylines, and Y number of characters, and you need to do something with all of them, right? A good show makes this look easy and effortless even when the painstaking care involved is readily apparent. The characters’ interests, hopes, drives, and fears feel like they emerged from within a recognizable and cohesive personality. Their interactions have a continuity with previous interactions. They do things because they need to do them, not because the show needs them to do them to run out the clock. When those elements erode, you wind up with a show that feels like everyone’s doing busywork — moving from place to place and person to person, picking fights and patching things up, changing and re-changing their minds about important topics just to have something to do. It gets business-y. And that’s where The Path has led.