The Americans (Season 6) / *****

ob_e88e75_unnamedWriting about the final season of a show can be difficult. It’s all too easy to let an overview of the season become a post-mortem on the finale. That goes doubly in a case like FX’s brilliant series The Americans, where the finale was so incredible – and stuck the landing so well – that it threatens to overshadow just how good this final season was.

And that’s a shame, really, because the final season of The Americans may well go down as one of the all-time great final seasons of a show. After what would easily be the show’s weakest season, which felt like all set-up and repetition (with a purpose, I think, but repetition nonetheless), the sixth season had no small amount of work ahead of it. Not only did it have to justify the (intentionally) wearying, exhausting grind of the fifth season, but it had to find an ending worthy of this compelling, tense series – one that balanced the show’s complex portrait of a fraught marriage with the labyrinthine spy work that gave the show its hook. Not exactly a small task, and that’s not even counting all of the loose plot threads that needed to be tied up.

But somehow, The Americans pulled it off, making clear something that’s been evident for some time: that for all of the show’s joy in depicting spywork and craft, this has always been a show about a marriage – about parenting, about working together, about the secrets that a marriage evolves to accommodate, and so much more. That’s not to shortchange the show’s commitment to the world of espionage, of course; after all, this season dove into the cultivation of Russian assets, the slow tightening of the noose that comes when an investigation finally cracks open, the tension that comes in an interrogation, and the difficulties when you as a spy begin to suspect that those commanding you are playing you as just another piece in their own games. Indeed, in some ways, this was the best season of the show in terms of its spycraft, with long-term infiltrations mixed with desperate extractions, with slow-burn investigations sharing time with hunches and unease. And by bringing all of that to the foreground, the show was given a tension and uncertainty even more extreme than what it’s always had (an extremity no doubt influenced by our knowledge that this was the final season and the end was coming soon).

More importantly, though, the final season focused in on the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth, as the two of them found themselves on opposite sides of a rapidly growing divide that took a toll on both their marriage and their emotions. It was a brutal season at times, one that never forgot that partners in a marriage are more capable of inflicting pain on each other than anyone else in the world. So as Philip and Elizabeth fought over the children, each other’s priorities, and the goals of their marriage, we saw how that internal fighting distracted them from the tightening noose around their necks, and wore them down more even than the other tensions in their lives.

It was a choice of focus that became most explicitly clear during the second half of the finale, as the show became about the fate of the Jennings family. Would Paige and Henry be okay? Will that marriage survive? Would there be happiness after everything else?

That last question was maybe the most important, because few shows since The Sopranos have focused more on the devastation left behind by our nominal protagonists. Over the course of the final season, especially during the finale, and even more during three all-time great scenes (a garage confrontation, a family phone call, and a gutpunch of a moment on a train), The Americans made clear that our “heroes” left trauma behind them, and that whatever they told themselves about their jobs, they weren’t the good guys they wanted to be. What was remarkable, though, was that the show wasn’t always about the lives taken or the injuries doled out – it was about the emotional pain and wounds that would never heal.

It all added up to a brilliant ending to a superb final season to a truly great television show. Like the best shows of its era, The Americans gave us a great hook – what if an all-American family was really a Soviet sleeper cell? – and used to simultaneously tell a tense, riveting spy story and to explore the inner tensions and difficulties of a marriage. Anchored by two incredible performances (that neither Matthew Rhys nor Keri Russell has been awarded for their work is absurd, and that doesn’t even get into Holly Taylor or Noah Emmerich’s incredible work this season), written intelligently and carefully, and impeccably crafted, it ends as it lived: unexpectedly but brilliantly, approaching its subject matter with thought and depth that sneaks up on you.


The Good Place (Season 2) / *****

Note: There’s absolutely no way to talk about season 2 of The Good Place without discussing the end of the first season. So, if you haven’t seen the first season of the show, go do so, and then come back. Trust me – you’re going to love it. And season two is worth the wait.  Continue reading “The Good Place (Season 2) / *****”

My Brother, My Brother, and Me (Season 1) / *****

my_brother_my_brother_and_meI’ve made no secret of my deep and abiding love for the McElroy brothers in general, and not even on this blog. One of the few non-book and movie review posts I ever made was a review of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone, a podcast in which the brothers and their dad play Dungeons and Dragon and created something truly incredible out of it. And then there’s their primary podcast, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, which is theoretically an advice show but really just a vehicle for their anarchic silliness. But more than any of that, I love the McElroys not only because they’re funny and hilarious, but because they’re warm and positive in a way that’s never treacly, but always makes me feel better about the world – something that’s been very welcome in the past couple of years.

So, look, it’s no surprise that I really loved the TV series the brothers got to make. I’m predisposed towards the brothers, so I can’t tell you if you’ll like it knowing nothing about them. But what I can tell you is that the show is every bit as funny and ridiculous and silly as the podcast, with the added joy that I get from watching utterly silly people being given a budget and using it in the most absurd ways possible – and that’s something I am always for.

I don’t know what it was like to be (the now defunct) Seeso and give the brothers money, only to find them using it for parades in honor of cockroaches, or killer boxes of clowns, or weird secret societies that meet at skating rinks. And I certainly don’t know what it was like to live in the brothers’ hometown of Huntington, Virginia, and have this insanity and silliness unleashed. But as a viewer, I was often in tears at the absurdity of it all, and how much the show seemed so often to be anchored in the sheer joy of three brothers making each other laugh. (There may be no better example of this than the “Safety Town” sequence, which begins with the brothers establishing control over a police-sponsored playground for children, and slowly escalating to Mad Max/The Warriors style mayhem until they’re asked to leave.)

But even apart from their gleeful silliness, what I really love about the McElroys – and what truly comes through in their TV series – is the deep affection they have not only for one another, but for the world in general. On the rare occasions that the McElroys ever make fun of someone, it’s pretty much themselves, as they do here when they make an effort to relate to teens in the most uncomfortably “hip” way possible. But more often, there’s an undercurrent of love and positivity to them; their humor is about silliness and absurdity, yes, but look at how Travis is encouraging the teens he’s mentoring, even in his ridiculous way, or how the boys always find time to talk to their dad as part of the show. Look at the genuine apology that comes after Justin and Griffin end up getting Travis so mad he hits one of them, and most of all, look at the truly genuine moment between Justin and his brothers, where he comments that even if it took a TV series to do it, at least he got to do something with his brothers for a while, and got them back home for a long time. That’s a sweet, human moment, and it’s always something the McElroys can be counted on to bring out in the world.

Of course, this is first and foremost a comedy, and it’s a deliriously funny one. From attempts to bust ghosts to efforts to seize control of their town (sidebar: each and every scene with the mayor of Huntington is an absolute treat, with his effort to provide the straight man to the brothers’ cackling insanity), from absurd secret societies to a surprise attack of Christmas spirit, the show is infused with ridiculous moments too wonderful to spoil, and anchored by the McElroys’ sense of glee that they’re getting away with any of this. It’s a wonderful slice of ridiculous fun, and even if another season never happens, at least we got this one out of it.


Snow Week: Family Viewings

As mentioned in my last post, we had an unexpected week break from school and work around here, and when you’re trapped in a house with children, you don’t always get the chance to watch the movies and shows you might really be wanting to see. Luckily, we got to watch some good movies and shows anyhow, even given the family restrictions. Once again, in the interest of time, I kept the reviews shorter than usual.

lego_ninjago_movie_ver2_xlgThe Lego Ninjago Movie is undeniably the weakest of the Lego films so far, but, then again, when your basis for comparison is the amazing The Lego Movie and the surprisingly great The Lego Batman Movie, is falling short of that bar that surprising? What’s more disappointing, though, is that it lacks the rich emotional hooks of its predecessors. Yes, there’s an interesting story about a father who abandoned his child, but The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t really invest in that story the way The Lego Movie was about growing up, or how The Lego Batman Movie found resonance in isolation. Moreover, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t use its great cast all that well, essentially wasting a number of great voices (including Kumail Nanjiani, a favorite of mine, as well as Jackie Chan and numerous others). And yet, for all of that, I had a blast watching it, simply because, whatever it lacks in depth and emotion, it makes up for in silliness and absurdity. There’s a reveal early on in the film about an “ultimate weapon” that had me in tears not only the first time, but every time it was brought back. And then there’s Justin Theroux as the film’s ostensible villain and deadbeat dad, swaggering through everything with a cocky voice, impeccable comic timing, and all the best lines. Is The Lego Ninjago Movie anywhere near as good as the movies that came before it? Not even close. But did I laugh really hard throughout it? Oh, god, yes. Rating: *** ½

mv5bmtuxmjizodi0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk3oti2mdi-_v1_uy1200_cr10706301200_al_I’m a huge fan ofLemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, a gleefully dark and Gothic children’s series that dabbles in literary allusions, rich symbolism, postmodernism, and black comedy in equal measures, all while spinning a complex story about coming to terms with a lack of answers in the modern world. That may sound pretentious, but it’s hard to convey just how rich and fascinating the series is, all while still being laugh out loud funny, clever, and just a joy. All of which is to say, I wasn’t sure that it would be easy for an adaptation of the works to capture all of that tone and magic. And yet, somehow, Netflix’s take on A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a treat, through and through, capturing the tone of the books perfectly while also diving into the series complicated plotting and weird postmodern touches. There’s little way to talk about the series without talking about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as Count Olaf (and numerous variations of that character), and rightfully so – Harris makes Olaf menacing while also bringing out the absurdity and comedy of the show, turning an incredibly complicated role into a treat that works. (It’s a fine line to walk, making Olaf’s disguises convincing enough to work while also remaining obvious to us, and Harris straddles that line effortlessly.) For my money, though, Patrick Warburton is the show’s secret weapon, playing Lemony Snicket himself as a wandering Greek chorus and delivering Snicket’s gleefully dark narration in a dry monotone that makes it all the funnier. Add to that a trio of strong performances by the Baudelaires, and the involvement of Daniel Handler (the author behind the Snicket pen name) to adapt the story and his mythology into something manageable (as well as possibly correcting some repetitiveness that cropped up in the first few books in the series), and what you get is a blast. It’s wonderfully silly while keeping the dark themes and worries of the book, captures that sense of hopelessness while keeping everything tongue in cheek, and giving us a visual feast of Gothic touches that brings this bizarre universe to life. I couldn’t be happier with the adaptation (with the possible exception of some slow patches that are as much due to the books we’re covering and less with the adaptation itself) and am already excited as could be for season two (coming in March!). Rating: **** ½

100395A few years ago, I went to see Paddington after hearing that, yes, despite how dire it looked, how bad it seemed, it was truly a charming, wonderful little film – a verdict I wholeheartedly agreed with. Now comes Paddington 2, which may be even better than the first – it’s funny, it’s charming, but more than that, it’s a welcome tonic of positivity, hope, and humanity at a time when we all seem to be rejecting those things. Like the first, Paddington 2 is a gentle, earnest affair; there’s no snark, no winking double entendres going over the head of kids, no pop culture references to keep people on their toes. (The only movie reference in all of Paddington 2 is to a Charlie Chaplin film, and that’s the kind of thing I can get behind.) Instead, it’s the story of a young bear who thinks that we should be kind and appreciative toward people, and that if we look for the best in people, we will usually find it. Indeed, most of the plot of Paddington 2 revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy, who raised him from a cub. Mind you, that storyline ends up with Paddington in prison after taking the fall for a cunning thief (played by Hugh Grant in a wonderfully ridiculous performance), where he deals with the surliest of cooks (Brendan Gleeson, predictably great). Once again, director Paul King manages to make his film earnest and positive without ever being simplistic or overly sappy, letting his message come through without ever turning it into a “lesson” film. How? Much of it comes from his command of the tone, which is winningly silly throughout (with a lot of inspiration from silent comedy); what’s more, King once again brings more visual flair and imagination than you’d expect, drawing on Wes Anderson at times to turn a tour of London into a trip through a pop-up book, or a dazzling montage of days of cooking into one continuous shot. The result is pure joy throughout – it’s very funny, very sweet, and absolutely works, no matter your age; there’s something wonderful about a children’s film that wants to be about human experiences and kindness, and that goes doubly at a time when such qualities are in short supply. (That the film is set in post-Brexit Britain and features such a casually diverse cast and numerous comments about immigrants bettering themselves is, I’m sure, no accident.) In short, it’s a true treat, and a movie that genuinely made me feel a little better about a world that could produce it. Rating: *****

IMDb: The Lego Ninjago Movie | A Series of Unfortunate Events | Paddington 2

Fargo (Season 3) / ****

fargo-s3-key-art-1For two seasons, Noah Hawley’s Fargo has blown me away. What seemed like an absurd idea – a TV series inspired by a great Coen brothers movie but having only the most tenuous of connections beyond the tone – became something great, giving us first a season of good vs. evil on a massive scale, and then a second season about the change in the American landscape from small, family-run business to something bigger and less personal. That it managed these while telling tight, tense crime stories is only part of what made the show so magnificent; what was even better was the great character work, giving us not only phenomenal performances, but characters like Lorne Malvo, Mike Milligan, Molly (and Lou) Solverson, and so many others. It all added up to truly amazing television that I absolutely loved, and ranked among the best shows out there.

So, when I talk about how disappointing this season of Fargo was, it should be noted that, in no small way, that comes partially in comparison to the incredible first two seasons. While the first two seasons each felt fresh and novel and unique, there was a sense in Fargo‘s third season of going through the motions, that the team couldn’t quite bring the novelty and unique approach for a third time. Yes, there was the careful blend of black comedy and violence; yes, there were foolhardy, greedy men getting swept up in affairs out of their control; yes, there were forces of good and anarchic forces of evil. But we’d seen all of that before, and especially in the early going, there was little sense of anything…well, new to be had here.

Making things worse, though, is that season 3 gave us little investment in the characters. Sure, Ewan McGregor was fine as the Stussy brothers…but there was little substance to either Emmit or Ray, and little that made us feel one way or the other to them, apart from the plot. Even the season’s best work, done by Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango, never really lived and breathed as much as they should have. Coon was fantastic in the Marge Gunderson/Molly Solverson role, but there wasn’t as much there to Gloria as there was to those two women. And while Swango ended up becoming a great and enjoyable part of the show, there wasn’t much substance to her either, apart from a desire for payback.

The one big exception to this was David Thewlis’s bizarre, verbose villain, V.M. Varga, a man with an uncanny ability to talk his way into…well, anything. Varga’s verbal digressions were fascinating, yes, but they were also a subtle, strange new threat, one in which he would simply deny the reality of what was happening, and enforce his own worldview onto a situation. And it was in that that the season truly came to life thematically. Because while Fargo has always been a show interested in morality and justice, this season, written and filmed at a particularly bleak and frustrating time for America, reflects a cynicism that hasn’t always been in this show before. Both the film and the series – until now – have believed in a moral rule to the universe, a sense that enough light and kindness can overcome, even if people at their core are greedy and selfish and dumb. But in the face of Varga – or people like Gloria’s ineffective new supervisor – and those who simply deny the reality of what they are faced with, and impose their own words and control the situation by doing so…well, how can we ever succeed?

It’s rich fare for a show’s theme, and one that came to a magnificent head in the season’s final scene, which I truly loved. And yet, for all of that, Fargo‘s third season still doesn’t work as well as I wish it did. The early stretch is too flat for too long, taking until nearly 6 episodes (out of ten) to truly get going and do anything interesting. And while the last three episodes are all genuinely great, there’s a sense that Hawley was throwing things at the wall without a sense of what mattered to the series. For instance, I loved the strange, surreal sequence at a bowling alley overseen by the reliably amazing Ray Wise…but it seemed like a fluke, one that had no keeping with a season about truth and lies. The same for the California-set episode, and the same for so many digressions of the season.

But worst of all, there’s the fact that Hawley’s ideas, for the first time, have overstepped his characters. Yes, I love that final scene of the season, and I love the ideas at play. But in the end, Gloria and Varga feel less like human beings, and more like representations of ideas – and that holds true for too much of this season. Did I enjoy a lot of it? Sure. Was it still imaginatively filmed, occasionally great, and wonderfully tense? Often. But was it ever even close to the greatness of those first two seasons? Not even in the same ballpark.


Better Call Saul (Season 3) / *****

dimsBy this point, it’s become unnecessary to say that Better Call Saul is better than I ever expected. What started life as a somewhat questionable idea – was anyone really that interested in how Saul Goodman got there? – has become maybe my favorite show on television, one that explores many of the same ideas and themes of its parent series, and yet does so in a very different way than Breaking Bad ever did, eschewing the pulp operatics in favor of a more low-key, character-driven approach.

And yet, season 3 proved that this is still much of the same crew that gave us Walter White, as characters were pushed further and further, nearly every one of them hitting a breaking point and being powerless to stop it. What’s more fascinating still, for many of those stories, rather than climaxing at the season’s end, that point came just over halfway – which meant that we saw the fallout in every one of their lives.

Mind you, this is still a show primarily about how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, and this season followed through on that, as Jimmy turned darker and nastier than we’ve ever seen him before, and started showing signs of becoming the cold, pragmatic, selfish figure he would become. But one of the best things about Better Call Saul is that it invests equal emotional time and plot in its fantastic supporting cast. Rhea Seehorn’s Kim faces a test not only of her commitment to Jimmy, but a reckoning with how she handles her own work and life. Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin has to come to terms with what’s best for the firm he’s worked so hard to help create. And most fascinating of all, perhaps, is Michael McKean’s hateable and yet deeply broken Chuck, a man who is generally right in nearly every point he makes, and yet may be one of the most odious characters in recent memory. There’s not a bad performance in the batch; every actor brings their A-game to every single scene, and as the show hurls them against each other and sparks fly, we realize that is the rare show without an easy villain – even Chuck, cruel though he can be, is generally right, which is an amazing thing for a show to pull off. What that gives us is a deeply complex show, morally speaking, and an even more tragic one than Breaking Bad, since the dense dramatic irony constantly reminds us where we’ll end up.

Mind you, there’s another half to Better Call Saul, one that follows Jonathan Banks’s Mike as he becomes involved with Gus Fring and the drug trade. That show, luckily, remains riveting, with Banks once again proving that his physical performance – so often done without a single word of dialogue – is among my favorite things on television. Whether he’s disassembling a car or digging holes, Banks brings a methodical intelligence to the role, conveying everything through his expressive face and physical bearing. Of course, it’s been fantastic to have Giancarlo Esposito back on the show as Fring, reminding me what a rich presence he could be, but the best – and most surprising – part of this half of the show is Michael Nando as Nacho, who seems to have been taking lessons from Banks in how to convey a story wordlessly. As a character whose doubts are never allowed to be expressed clearly, Nando has made Nacho a phenomenal character, one whose role is becoming more and more complicated and less easily categorized – just like everything else on this show.

That Better Call Saul can manage all of this while still being the most engaging, fast-paced, funny, tense show on television is testament to the entire cast and crew, who work together to tell a simple story beautifully. It’s a fall from grace, a tale of two brothers, a love story, and a complex meditation on morality – and it’s entertaining as hell while it does it. I’m so glad it’s on, and I wish the seasons never had to end.


The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.