Posts Tagged ‘TV’
I’ve been hard on Preacher, and that’s never been harder on me than this week. By any objective measure last night’s episode, “Finish the Song,” ended with the sort of sheer convention-shredding narrative audacity every TV critic worth their salt would commit at least a misdemeanor offense to see more often. It’s actually heartbreaking to how far the show is willing to go, and how hard it works to get there, only to watch it fall short again.
Preacher made one of the boldest storytelling decisions I’ve ever seen on TV, and it still didn’t work. I tried really hard to unpack why in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Observer.
I’m similarly baffled by their insistence on what I referred to last week as uncommunicatively artsy framing. I actually lost count of the number of close-ups of the rear of someone’s head as they 3/4-cheated their faces away from the camera. What idea or mood or character insight is this intended to convey? Why cut yourself off from the ability to capture the nuances of the human face unless you’ve got a damn good reason? I’m stumped.
The technique reaches its nadir during Naz’s bizarre scene with the jail’s resident kingpin, Freddy (a thoroughly wasted Michael K. Williams, naturally introduced with a series of closeups of seemingly every inanimate object in his room, beginning with — rimshot! — a wire). A prizefighter turned druglord turned unofficial lord of Rikers, he’s bribing the male guards, fucking the female ones, and intimidating everyone else into line. For some reason he’s taken an interest in Naz, and he offers him protection after a strange Luciferian monologue in which he tells the kid, “Close your eyes, give me your hand,” like he’s singing the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” and makes him feel a handful of veal. As he makes his offer, in the stilted language a vampire might use when demanding to be invited into someone’s home, the scene is shot from the back of Naz’s head, with Freddy completely out of focus. Maybe you can make the sophomore-year film-student argument that the latter choice conveys the man’s inscrutability to Naz. But why obscure Naz, too? Why hide his face, when it’s all we have to go on?
I reviewed last night’s The Night Of for Decider. I don’t think it’s what it’s cracked up to be.
Tonight, after over a season of portraying a character with bug-eyed, lock-jawed, pharmaceutical-numbed restraint, Rami Malek cut loose.
To the pseudo-orchestral strains of “Lovely Allen” (a mid-’00s music-blog hit by a band with a name not fit to print), Elliot Alderson goes on a sleep-deprived tear of Adderall-induced optimism and excitement. He’s filmed in fast forward, or with multiple versions of himself walking one behind the other, as if a single body’s not enough to contain his manic good cheer. When he climbs stairs, they light up beneath his feet. When he washes the dishes, the sun gleams off a plate like the sparkle of a cartoon character’s smile. When his pal Leon talks to him about “Seinfeld,” he starts screaming things like “It’s classic George, am I right?” in response. (“I don’t like this, bro,” Leon deadpans in return, a fine and funny moment from the M.C. turned actor Joey Bada$$.)
The freakout concludes at the basketball court as the hacker genius turned paranoid recluse sounds his barbaric yawp: “WOOOOOOOO, SLAAAAAAAM DUNNNKKK!!!” It’s a thing of goofily cathartic beauty …and it’s almost immediately cut off at the knees when he turns to us and his narration says, with weary resignation, “You’re not buying any of this either.”
This week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” takes great pleasure in these moments of unexpected, self-effacing humor. Given that the main rap against the show is its grim tone — as if seriousness and self-seriousness are conterminous phenomena — it’s a useful tool for the series to have in its arsenal. On a surface level, this installment is concerned with some of the bleakest events in the story to date: the discovery of the old-school phone hacker Romero’s corpse by his confederate Mobley, the latter’s increasing conviction that their group has been marked for death by the fearsome organization the Dark Army, Elliot’s desperate attempts to overdose himself out of his Mr. Robot persona’s clutches, his garrulous new pal Ray’s tragic and violent back story. But the writing, the performances, and the filmmaking make it seem like all involved are having the time of their lives, off-camera anyway.
Faced with the challenge of explaining why something is or is not “hard-core pornography,” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart punted, famously. In the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Potter wrote “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” In attempting to evaluate “Subtle Beast,” the second episode of The Night Of, I find myself returning to the good justice’s words. By many external markers — classy cinematography, gritty subject matter, a cast drawn from basically every noteworthy HBO drama and crime show of the past 20 years — this is a good show. But I know good shows when I see them, and the program involved in this case is not that.
Let’s focus on the cinematography at first, since I think that’s the biggest headfake at play here. Characters are situated low in the frame, or off to one side. Scene transitions are marked with close-ups of individual objects in the environment, abstracted and imbued with significance by their sudden centrality to what’s on screen. Fade-transition shots of the murder scene are overlaid with the sounds of the events leading up to the murder. New York City is depicted as an overcast hellscape. Lots and lots and lots of characters are shot stylishly smoking with their backs to alley walls. Twenty seconds of people walking are shot as an upside-down reflection in a puddle…just because.
Director Steven Zaillian checks off item after item from the “how to make your crime film look fancy” playbook, but it’s all resolutely uncommunicative in its artsiness. Now here’s where we get into “I know it when I see it” territory, but here goes: Shows like Better Call Saul, Hannibal, and Mr. Robot use unconventional framing not just to class up their potboiler plots, but to externalize the emotions of the characters, to present a visually cohesive worldview, to emphasize isolation and mental illness. They’re expressionist TV.The Night Of, by contrast, takes a pointlessly pointillist approach to a vision of Noo Yawk we’ve all seen a million times. These shots do little but pad out the running time.
If you want an object lesson in how Preacher is just about half a head shy of being an actual good show, you could do worse than to look at this week’s episode. ‘El Valero’ could be considered a climactic installment, insofar as Odin Quincannon’s forces succeed in taking back the church from Jesse Custer, while the angels fail in removing Genesis. But nearly everything that happens hints at greatness, or at least damn goodness, that goes frustratingly unrealized.
Take Odin Quincannon. This episode begins with a flashback to what amounts to his origin story: He lost his entire immediate and extended family to a ski-lift collapse while he was stuck at home working, then went slightly mad and disemboweled both a cow and his daughter’s corpse to “prove” that the idea of a human soul is bullshit. Yes, the Quincannon family’s totally-‘80s wardrobe and hairstyles are played for laughs, and yes, Odin’s over-the-top reaction is there for the gross-out factor. But at least once it becomes clear that this wasn’t a murder he orchestrated — i.e. an attempt by the show to demonstrate just what a badass bastard he is — but a genuine, tragic accident that cost children their lives and broke a man’s spirit with survivor’s guilt, the performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the grief-stricken, mad-at-god meat magnate thrums with real sadness and anger and hate. His reversion to type throughout the rest of the episode — barking sarcastic orders at his men like the opening scene had never happened — cuts the impact off at the knees. (Or shoots off its dick, as the show would likely have it.)
Our special interview series returns at last! This episode, Sean & Stefan are pleased to welcome Jason DeMarco, Senior Vice President/Creative Director for Adult Swim On-Air. Jason’s worn many hats at the venerable nighttime animation/live-action/surrealist powerhouse: He’s the co-creator of its anime/action block Toonami, the person responsible for the network’s distinctive promos, and the unofficial “musical director” for both Adult Swim’s on-air sound and the albums and singles it’s released from a variety of hip-hop, electronic, and rock acts. He’s also a longtime fan of both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Jason joined us for a wide-ranging discussion of the books, the show, the network, the seismic changes television has seen during his 20-year career, the connections between animation and comics, how those fields are viewed in America, Japan, and Europe respectively, the difference between European-American fantasy and its Japanese-genre counterpart, and much more. Cue up your Run the Jewels records and listen in!
Though I studied film in college, I came to TV criticism through comics criticism. In comics, everything on the page is intentional. Character design, line weight, color, panel size and arrangement, backgrounds, lettering: A human being set all those things to paper. Every aspect of the image is considered, deliberate. (Obviously personal style is not entirely within an artist’s control, but that’s basically how it works.)
So when I started writing about television, I realized my writing was informed by this not just in terms of how I talked about cinematography, editing, and the like, but with regards to the actors. The look of a face, the sound of a voice, the size and movement of the body, physical comportment: I discuss these as the equivalent of line, design, and so on in comics. This has played a major role in how I’ve processed any number of shows; for several (Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey) it may well have been the central thrust of my writing on them. I’m happy with the writing I’ve done driven by this rubric, but the larger point I’d like to make regards thinking about actors visually. Since television and film are visual media, I think this is valid and vital and, if anything, underdone. But there’s a way to do it without objectifying actors, either sexually or as “other,” as several recent high-profile essays on women actors have done.
If you’re a straight man, for example, write about the physicality of men, to whom you’re not sexually attracted. See how it shapes what you say. How Jon Hamm looks, how James Gandolfini sounds when he breathes: These are important aspects of Mad Men and The Sopranos respectively, but not of your sex fantasies. When you write about women actors, you can talk about how they function physically on-screen in the same way—observing, not objectifying. Do this in the context of their work, not how they look eating lunch. Don’t lead with it. If sex/sexuality is part of the role, fine, but try not to sound like you’re sexting or seducing, and talk about their male partners too. Fold your discussion of actors’ physicality into the show or film’s physicality as a whole—wardrobe, set design, sound design, good old-fashioned shot composition.
We need more film/TV writing that’s about more than plot, dialogue, line readings, showbiz talk, and political subtext. Actors are a part of that. We need to write about the appearance of actors, women and men, without it devolving into Penthouse Letters. It can be done!
“Why this mask? It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?” The opening lines of the second season of “Mr. Robot” may emerge from the mouth of corporate creep turned America’s most-wanted missing person Tyrell Wellick, but the man speaks for many of us. Despite having joined forces with the show’s mentally unstable main character Elliot Alderson and his hacker confederacy fsociety, Wellick is not above questioning the group’s corny iconography. The Anonymous-indebted disguises, the snide sobriquet, the “Fight Club” posturing: Is there really a method to this madness, Wellick wonders, or is it all a cheesy cover for adolescent anarchism that won’t change a thing in the long run? That’s the question “Mr. Robot” is apparently trying to answer — and so far, that answer is a surprisingly grim one.
The Night Of is being hailed as a truly great drama, perhaps the first HBO has aired in half a decade that isn’t set in Westeros. It’s being compared to all manner of acclaimed crime stories, even documentaries, from Making a Murderer to Serial to O.J.: Made in America to The Jinx to American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson toFargo and on and on and on. And who knows? To extent that the critics making these comparisons have seen the whole shebang, they may well be proved right. But as of “The Beach,” the series premiere, I’m about as optimistic about this series becoming one for the ages as poor wrongfully accused Nasir Khan is about getting released on his own recognizance. One overlong episode in, The Night Of is a deeply okay show.
Which comes as something of a shock even if you don’t factor in its rapturous reception. For a series with such a writerly pedigree — Price is an acclaimed novelist in addition to his work writing for The Wire; Zaillian is an A-list screenwriter with credits like Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo under his belt — what’s on offer here is surprisingly, disappointingly rote. The biggest problem is Andrea Cornish, the murder victim. A sort of manic-depressive pixie dream girl, she waltzes into Naz’s purloined cab mouthing vague, poetic, patently unrealistic dialogue: proclaiming “I can’t be alone tonight,” citing her destination as simply “the beach,” and so on. You know, like you do when you’re a woman hopping alone into a complete stranger’s car in the middle of the night.
As the night goes on she becomes even more of a magical mystery tour in female form — dispensing drugs, inviting him back to her sumptuously appointed apartment, lending a sympathetic ear when he’s mocked by an Islamophobic passer-by, dispensing more drugs, indulging in a bit of erotic mumbletypeg with Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust” cooing in the background, and finally fucking him. As far as the show’s concerned, she died as she lived: a glamorous cipher for the advancement of the male protagonist’s plot.
Jesse Custer’s in a really bad mood. Accidentally sending a teenager to Hell will do that to you, of course. The fascinating thing about “He’s Gone,” this week’s episode of Preacher and the first I’ve felt has anything more on its mind than what you might find in a college sophomore’s bathroom reading material, is the complex manner in which that bad mood is manifested. This was the first hour I’ve spent in Jesse’s company that left me wondering what he might do next — not in an “oh shit anything can happen on Preacher…and usually does!!!” way, which is as predictable as anything, but in a “human beings are complicated, difficult creatures and we probe their mysteries at our peril” way, which is the hallmark of television worth watching.
On the overcast May morning when I meet Esmail at a Bed-Stuy basketball court where Mr. Robot is shooting, he seems very real indeed. At 6’ 4″, Esmail stands a head higher than star Rami Malek or cinematographer Tod Campbell. Until the basketball-playing extras show up, he’s the tallest person in the playground — his black-rimmed glasses and air of stubbly, slightly artsy dishevelment make him look like an overgrown film student. He wears a Canada Goose coat far bulkier than anything else being sported on the temperate late-spring morning, which adds to his imposing figure as he buzzes around the location. “He’s a presence,” says a network rep watching him work in the same awestruck tone I’d heard from the cast.
When he speaks loudly, his voice turns into a booming baritone. “LET’S DO THAT ONE MORE TIME,” he bellows from the director’s chair halfway across the playground, as Malek, Christian Slater, and newcomer Craig Robinson — plus a canine co-star who’s proving somewhat difficult to wrangle — run their lines. “GREAT!” Esmail says after the take is completed, before he grins and adds “I’M TALKING TO THE DOG.”
“He’ll definitely yell at us all the time,” Doubleday tells me. “You’ll hear a resounding ‘CARLY!’ or ‘PORTIA!’ or ‘NO, RAMI!’” But the actor insists he’s neither a dictator nor a disciplinarian. “He just knows us so well,” says Doubleday. “He’s said so many times, ‘You guys know these characters better than I do. I don’t know if you’ll have a better idea than me, so bring it to the table and we’ll see if it works.’ If he likes it, it sticks. If he doesn’t, then I trust that it wasn’t right for the moment, because he’s seeing the entire world.”
I profiled Sam Esmail and his show Mr. Robot for my debut at The Verge. A lot of work went into this one on all sides and really I hope you enjoy it.
The fight scene’s what will get most of the attention, but my vote for the best moment in which Preacher gets physical this week is when Jesse and Cassidy stand around in their underwear. With their clothes in the wash after a knock-down-drag-out brawl with the angels that left an entire motel room looking like Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton were staying in the adjoining suite, the two men (well, one man with an angel-demon hybrid inside him and one vampire) kick back with a morning beer and talk about their tattoos. Why? Because when you’ve got two guys in your cast with the physiques of Dominic Cooper and Joe Gilgun, why not? Preacher has been a show about spectacle and sensation from the start, and you don’t get more sensational than that.
So if there’s a problem with “Sundowner,” it’s not that heaping helping of eye candy, any more than the show’s bold stylization and blood ’n’ guts violence have been a problem as a whole. The generic Texas-shithole setting aside, Preacher has always been a heck of a thing to look at. The issue is what lies beneath, or more accurately what doesn’t. The glitzy surface conceals lapses in logic and a hollow heart that would easily have felled a less audacious and accomplished show by now.
5. What’s up with Euron Greyjoy?
“I am the storm, brother. The first storm and the last.” Tough talk from a guy whose first act as King of the Iron Islands, after murdering his older brother Balon for the title, is to have his fleet stolen from him by his niece and nephew. But in George R.R. Martin’s source novels, Euron is a true menace — a maniacal nihilist pirate who dabbles in sorcery and revels in cruelty, like a seafaring Ramsay Bolton with magic powers. And note the similarity between how he describes himself and how Jon Snow describes the White Walkers: “I promise you, friend, the true enemy won’t wait out the storm. He brings the storm.” Is Greyjoy a human agent of the Night King? Is he simply crazy enough to wreak havoc regardless of the consequences? Will his new fleet attack Daenerys or invade Westeros? Whatever his destination, it sure seems like he’s being groomed to be the next big bad guy now that the Boltons and Sparrows are out of the way.
In the last (sniff) of my annual Game of Thrones traditions, I wrote up seven big questions I’ve got for next season now that this one’s wrapped up over at Rolling Stone. None of them are “How did Varys get back to Meereen that fast?”
The most direct contrast between this season and its direct predecessor is the relative position of its leaders. By the end of Season Five, Cersei had been imprisoned, beaten, publicly humiliated, and placed under house arrest. Daenerys lost control of the city of Meereen and got dropped by her dragon in the middle of hostile Dothraki territory. Sansa endured unbearable sexual violence until she and Theon managed to run for their lives while their tormenter Ramsay was busy defeating Stannis. And most strikingly, Jon Snow was freaking dead.
Where are they now? In a much stronger place, though whether that’s for better or for worse depends on the rulers involved. Cersei vaporized all her enemies, from the High Sparrow to Margaery Baratheon, in a Night of the Long Knives–style act of score settling. It cost her the life of her beloved son Tommen, who killed himself when he heard the news, but that cleared the path for her to take the Iron Throne herself. After taking down the Dothraki khals, Dany retook Meereen with their men; now she appears poised to do the same to Westeros at the head of a massive all-star alliance. Like her former running buddy Theon, who helped broker his sister’s alliance with the Khaleesi, Sansa played an integral part in defeating the Boltons and securing her half-brother Jon’s claim on the Winterfell (perhaps to her own chagrin).
Then there’s Lord Snow himself, who by the way is no longer dead (!). In the most dramatic turnaround of all, considering where he started the season (i.e. as a corpse), he has been crowned the new King in the North. The so-called “White Wolf” is now the undisputed leader of his region’s great houses, the knights of the Vale, and his wildling allies; no doubt whatever’s left of the Night’s Watch would follow his lead as well. And now that we know via Bran’s psychic flashback that Jon’s DNA contains both wolf and dragon strains — he’s actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Dany’s older brother Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, who died before she was born — he has a decent claim on being ruler of a whole lot more than just his native land.
Like Arya Stark joining the kitchen staff at the Twins, we’re just gonna get right down to business here: This episode, Sean & Stefan discuss the just-concluded sixth season of Game of Thrones, from the finale on down, for a full (boiled leather audio) hour. As a special bonus made possible by our Patreon subscribers, Stefan’s got a new mic, which means this ep sounds better than we ever have before. Enjoy!
The blasé manner in which characters react to the extraordinary events befalling them is endemic to the school of comics in which Preacher’s source material, the DC/Vertigo series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is squarely located. Playing it cool around vampires, angels, demonic possession, and the wrath of God Himself has long been a way for writers of a certain vintage to mark their protagonists as either erudite sophisticates familiar to the point of boredom with the ways of the multiverse (“The Elder Gods do have a tendency to make one frightfully late for tea”) or hardcore badasses whose busy schedule of drinkin’, fightin’, and fuckin’ leave them no time to be wowed by the world beyond (“What’s the matter? Never seen the infernal legions before, new guy? Hurry the fuck up and shoot ‘em — I got a date with three strippers tonight and I’ll be damned if Beelzebub’s gonna cost me my nut”). With nerd culture’s Orwellian oligarchical takeover it was only a matter of time to see it so directly translated to the small screen, but that doesn’t make it any less joy-killing now that it’s happened.
7. “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)
Rarely, if ever, have the stakes of “the great game” been as clear as they are in this year’s season finale. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister eliminates all of her political enemies in one fell swoop and becomes undisputed Queen of the Seven Kingdoms — but loses her son Tommen to suicide in the bargain. In the Riverlands, Walder Frey toasts to victory over his enemies — then gets killed by Arya Stark after she serves him his own sons for dinner. In Winterfell, Jon Snow is crowned King in the North by his grateful lords — and though Sansa Stark bears a more direct claim, they may well be right anyway, since he’s secretly the blood of the Dragon. And in the East, Daenerys sets sail for the Seven Kingdoms at the head of a massive alliance between the Dothraki, the Unsullied, the Ironborn, the Dornish, and the Tyrells — and, of course, her dragons. Rulers rise, rulers fall, and winter is officially here.
it’s the silence of the opening minutes that stays with you. Composer Ramin Djawaid’s score pulls a delicate, melancholy piano suite from out of nowhere as the major players in Cersei’s trial — the Queen Mother, Tommen, Margaery, the High Sparrow, Loras Tyrell — wordlessly prepare for what’s to come. Then, when it’s over — Loras mutilated and humiliated, the King blocked by his mom’s mountainous bodyguard, Lancel Lannister failing to stop the enormous stockpile of wildfire beneath the Sept from detonating — there’s the silence of the young ruler’s room. He watches the city burn, realizes who and what he’s lost, steps away to take off his crown while the camera still lingers on the empty sky through his window. Then he returns and quietly leaps from the ledge. It’s the most devastating sequence in the episode, as sad as Samwell Tarly’s trip to the massive library in the maesters’ Citadel is uplifting. Both moments would have been just effective if you’d had your TV on mute.
I reviewed tonight’s excellent season finale of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. I cried about Tommen.
Which brings us to the Red Wedding. A pop-culture touchstone the instant it took place, this bloody on-screen slaughter of House Stark’s leadership — most notably King Robb, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and their unborn child — was payback by crusty old Walder Frey for the insult he suffered when the Young Wolf broke his promise to marry a Frey daughter. It was the ultimate revenge killing, for the pettiest of reasons. But more importantly, it represented as great a shock to the storyline as Ned’s death did. Before that fateful night, we’d assumed that while Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers would wind up moving to center stage at some point, the Stark/Lannister conflict would serve as a series throughline. Wrong. When Cat’s throat was cut, our understanding of what the show was about went with her. Suddenly the Lions were in charge, becoming the show’s ersatz protagonists simply by virtue of survival. A change that big required a massacre this graphic.
The same logic underlies the show’s most controversial and upsetting acts of violence: those against women and children. On this show, kings have ordered the murder of infants. Children have been sacrificed to White Walkers and the Red God. Peasant kids have been skinned, hanged, and burned just as a ruse, or devoured by the dragons their mother hoped would be humanity’s saviors. Young slaves have been crucified to send a message, young prisoners executed out of rage or simply for convenience. And from monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to schemers like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton to ostensible heroes like Tyrion, women are treated like cattle: bargained for, bred with, and slaughtered at will.
It’s these deaths, whether they involve major players or minor characters, that are toughest to endure and most important to think about. Violence, like water, flows downhill, and inevitably drowns those most vulnerable to it. Depicting it in any other way would betray Game of Thrones’ central contention that however you dress it up, power is seized by the sword, with all the carnage that entails.
This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a “character arc”? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there’s more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon’s performance — how he made the Bastard’s demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros’ class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there’s the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We’re glad the bastard’s gone, but it’s good we got to know him.