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.

IMDb

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.

IMDb

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.

IMDb

The Americans (Season 5) / *** ½

americans_ver14_xlgIt’s become clear over the course of the fifth (and penultimate) season of The Americans that this was a season about pushing Philip and Elizabeth to their breaking points. They were running half a dozen operations; their reliable contacts became less reliable; their son was changing without them realizing it, while the pressures of protecting Paige from their lives were piling on. And that didn’t even get into the operations that went bad, or the lives that were lost – or all the things going on outside of their knowledge.

No, that’s definitely a good idea for a season, and especially for the penultimate season of this show. And as I think back on the season, yeah, actually, a lot more happened than I remembered. So why on earth did it feel so dull? How does one of the most riveting, tense, psychologically complicated shows on television deliver such a fizzle of a season, one that ultimately didn’t even feel like place-setting for what was to come so much as it felt like a placeholder?

The fault can’t be laid at the feet of Matthew Rhys, or Keri Russell, or Holly Taylor, or really any of the show’s regular cast, all of whom continued to bring their A-game every week, delivering powerful performances even as non-events continued to pile up. And while there were issues with the supporting cast (more on that later), you can’t really fault the performances, nor the technical craft of the series.

(Spoilers for the season, such as they are, follow.)

Continue reading “The Americans (Season 5) / *** ½”

Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.

IMDb

Of Bad Adaptations and Awesomely Bad Films

As I mentioned in my earlier reading-themed post, the month of May can be an overwhelming one, cutting down on my (already somewhat pared-down) viewing habits. In fact, of the three things I’ve seen in the past few weeks, two of them were re-watches, and the other was a TV show. More to the point, though, all three were pretty terrible, to different degrees – it’s just that one of them was awesomely terrible, and is impossible not to enjoy.

61yjcg3hj-lBut let’s get the bad ones out of the way. Maybe the biggest disappointment was the second season of Hap and Leonard, which took everything good about the first season, largely lost it, and turned what was left into an absolute mess. I’ve been pretty vocal about my love of Joe Lansdale’s Texas noir series and its glorious heroes; with its great dialogue, memorable characters, and simple plots that pack a wallop, the series is a genuine treat, and the first season showed a lot of promise that they’d manage to capture the books’ spirit. Even better, the second season is based off of the second book of the series, Mucho Mojo, and that book was undeniably better than its predecessor; the story was fresher and richer, the themes darker and yet more resonant, and the dialogue snappier. Sadly, little of that makes its way to the series, which even manages to squander the great rapport between James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams by keeping them apart for large stretches of time. Worse still, the series overcomplicates the story to an absurd degree; while the book focuses on a series of missing black children, and finds the time to dig into the depths and pain of that story, the series tosses in a corrupt judge, an origin tale for Hap and Leonard, a carnival, and even some wrongful suspicions on Leonard, despite none of it really fitting in or making sense. There are still scattered moments that show what could have been – an early parade of mothers with missing children is quietly devastating, and any scene with Irma P. Hall as the neighborhood matriarch is a joy. But in general, this feels like people who misunderstood much of what made the books good, and couldn’t figure out what to focus on – in other words, prime ingredients for a bad adaptation. What a letdown. Rating: ** 

harry-potter-and-the-goblet-of-fire-11171While we’re talking bad adaptations, let’s talk about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I re-watched for the first time since its theatrical run, having just recently finished the book with my kids. Now, to be fair, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Potter films; they’re adequate, to me, but never great films; with the possible exception of Azkaban, they’ve always felt like elaborately performed books on film, with little effort made to bring any cinematic skill or imagination to bear. And yet, even by that standard, Goblet of Fire is surprisingly awful, destroying any sense of pacing or coherence in favor of a slew of disconnected scenes that feel all over the place. (That apparently I liked this movie upon a first watch is a bit embarrassing now.) It’s not so much the fact that Goblet removes so much from the book that’s a problem; it’s the fact that the scar tissue left behind is massively distracting, the resulting plot holes bewildering, and the pacing absolutely unforgivable. For instance, while it makes sense from a time perspective to not show the Quidditch World Cup, the choice to build up to the match and abruptly cut away is maddening, resulting in a whiplash moment that’s more distracting than helpful. But that’s emblematic of the film’s problems, given how it lurches unevenly from bit to bit, taking the book literally without ever considering whether or not it would make for an interesting – or even coherent – film. It doesn’t help either that so many of the performances are so out of sync with each other; while I love Brendan Gleason pretty whole-heartedly, and he has at least one fantastic sequence (the unforgivable curses lesson), he’s often playing to the rafters, and he’s not alone. The whole thing is a frustrating mess, and maybe the lowest point of the series apart from Chamber of Secrets – maybe even worse. Rating: * ½

road_house

Of course, sometimes you can’t judge a film solely based on little things like “quality,” “writing,” “dialogue,” or “logic.” If you did, how could you enjoy a film like Road House, which has to be among the dumbest films ever made, a fact that has no bearing whatsoever on how much fun it is to watch. From a tai chi-practicing bouncer – excuse me, a “cooler” – played by Patrick Swayze to a mustache-twirling villain played by Ben Gazzara in a gloriously hammy performance. (Doesn’t hurt that, as far as I can tell, Gazzara’s main motivation in the film is “be a jerk”.) Oh, and did I mention Sam Elliott, who cruises into the film just to hang out and be Sam Elliott (nothing wrong with that)? Look, Road House is, to put it mildly, absolutely ludicrous, but that’s where the joy comes from – no other film could mix in monster trucks, throat tearing, polar bear taxidermy, homoerotic martial art trainings, and an absolute boatload of 80’s excesses, and come up with anything half this entertaining. Road House is, by any standard, “bad,” what with characters going off in catchphrases, absurd set-pieces, and a tenuous, at best, grasp on reality. But it’s also laugh-out-loud funny throughout, gloriously entertaining, and absolutely stupidly awesome, and I’m pretty sure everyone involved knew it and went for it anyways, without ever winking. It’s a good way to wrap up a stressful work week, and a wonderful thing to see with an enthusiastic crowd. Rating: Awesome

IMDb: Hap and Leonard | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire | Road House

Review (Season 3)

review“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”

So begins every episode of Review, Andy Daly’s nightmarishly dark comedy, which follows professional reviewer Forrest MacNeil as he reviews different life experiences. From this basic premise, Andy Daly and his team have assembled one of the most darkly, viciously funny comedies in years, following Forrest as he’s reviewed everything from prejudice to religious cults, from madness to…well, all sorts of horrible things.

But more than that, what made Review so incredible was the choice to make the series more or less a running, coherent story, as Forrest’s desire to review experiences results in the constant destruction of his own life. It’s a choice that the show made early in season one (in a justly acclaimed and praised episode), and has never backed away from since. And so, unlike so many comedies, it felt right that Review actually got to come to an ending, giving Forrest the chance to make the choice between his life and his “calling”.

For all of that, Review‘s final season was frustratingly brief, lasting only three episodes. It’s not that they were bad episodes – far from it. But Review is a show that excelled in the escalation of things, letting things start dark and just going further and further from there. And with barely an hour of show time this season, the show never got to push things quite as far as I would have enjoyed seeing it go. Worst, it felt like the show ended just as it was starting to get into its usual rhythm of madness.

Again, not to say that the final season was bad. Indeed, it felt like the show getting to play with some ideas that it had been holding off on for some time, ranging from a day in the life of Forrest’s co-host to some reviews that forced Forrest to come to terms with some of his actions over the previous two seasons. And mixed in with those were the usual Review insanity, including a review of pet euthanasia, what it was like to be Helen Keller, and more. Even in its short run, Review remained hilarious, committing utterly to its choices and never backing down, and anchored by Daly’s ever positive, enthusiastic performance.

And as for the ending, it’s the perfect ending for Review, following the show and its characters to a satisfying conclusion that feels right for the show. Comedy Central’s efforts to keep the number of episodes under wraps is an odd one, considering that the final episode is even funnier and more surprising if you know that it’s the final one (given that it’s frequently unclear which way the episode will go as it ends). But the final choice feels right – it feels like the way the show should have ended, and for a comedy that’s as dark as Review to get the right ending is an unexpected treat.

So, as a season, the final season of Review was fine. Not great, not the best, but still gleefully demented and hilarious, and only really hampered by the lack of episodes and the short length. But as a final cap on the series, it’s a great ending, even if it’s a sad reminder that we won’t be getting any more of this great show.

IMDb