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.


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


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.


Legion (Season 1) / *****

15590692_10154747020132488_2201604669235057392_oNoah Hawley has a truly unique niche at this point in TV: taking projects that have no reason to be even good, and turning them into something great. There was no reason, for example, that there needed to be an anthology series based off of the Coen brothers’ superb masterpiece Fargo. And when it came out that the show was more of a spiritual successor than a true tie-in, I wondered what the point was. And yet, Fargo the series turned out to be a masterpiece, a twisty, idiosyncratic, amazing exploration of morality, violence, and goodness in a universe that defies easy categorization.

All of which goes to show, I shouldn’t have doubted Hawley when he announced that he’d be doing a TV series called Legion, based off of a somewhat obscure character from the X-Men universe. But I was, and you can hardly blame me. With the cookie-cutter, bland world of the Marvel films, and the seemingly overbearing need to tie everything together into one narrative, the idea of forcing someone as talented as Hawley into that world seemed silly. And that wasn’t even getting into whether you could hang a series on the odd comic book character of David Haller, an astonishingly  powerful telepath/telekinetic whose powers have driven him into madness.

But I shouldn’t have doubted. Not at all. Because Legion turned out to be a true joy, a mindbending, surreal, genre-defying, truly weird (in the best way) show that I loved, refusing to cave in to the demands of the Marvelverse and instead making its own defiant stand for its own weirdness. More than that, it worked as great television, telling a story that was part character study, part superhero origin tale, part tale of good vs. evil…but more than any of that, it was wildly unclassifiable. What other show could feature Bollywood-style musical numbers, silent film interludes, exposition delivered by a character educating himself in a literal classroom – oh, and also feature some of the most unsettling, horrifying scenes I’ve seen in a television series this side of Twin Peaks?

Yes, of course much of that quality comes thanks to Hawley’s confident hand, and his decision to approach Legion with confidence and style, trusting that his audience will keep up and follow his twisting road. And given how surreal Legion‘s story is – given that its protagonist and point of view may be insane, may be a mutant, or may be both, and everything we see is filtered through his fractured brain – that takes guts, both on the parts of Hawley and of the network. Indeed, at any given point, Legion is both trying to understand the deeply damaged brain of its titular hero, expanding the strange corner of the world it’s created, and telling a whole other story that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the season. That it manages to do all three of these simultaneously, and do them all well, is no small thing.

But it undeniably helps that Hawley is assisted by his spectacular cast. It’s hard to find a weak link here; Dan Stevens, as David Haller, has to do much of the heavy lifting, but holds up beautifully underneath it all, following David through his highs and lows, his hopeless time in the asylum and his newfound purpose – all of it. But he’s backed up by a fantastic supporting cast, including Jean Smart as a matriarch-type figure who’s running a mutant organization attempting to help David and those like him; Rachel Keller as love interest, teammate, and heroine Syd Barrett (and how great is the in-joke of that name?); Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder as a uniquely connected pair of mutants, and so many more, including a fantastic small role by one of my favorite comedic presences. But the undeniable MVP is Aubrey Plaza, who plays Dan’s best friend (and fellow asylum patient) Lenny. Without getting into spoiler territory, Plaza gets a chance to shine in this role, which constantly evolves and shifts over the course of the series, letting her show more than her comedic chops, and delivering everything from unease to sex appeal, from unchecked power to seething anger. Plaza owns every moment of the show she’s in – and given how great the show is, that’s no small feat either.

But more than anything, Legion is a show that’s best watched and experienced, coming to life thanks to its style and its execution. From the incredible “Bolero” sequence (which may be the best sequence I’ve seen in a TV show in years) to that silent film stretch, from that nightmarish presence in a dark hotel room to an incredible use of soundtrack, it’s television for those who love their media with style, confidence, and storytelling prowess. And if you’re worried that this is just more Marvel material, rest assured, Legion works not because it’s a Marvel show, but in spite of it.


Ash vs. Evil Dead (Season 2) / N/A

cqj3_suviaaxghsI said this back when I finished watching the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, but really, there was no reason to have high hopes for this show. And yet, despite all expectations, it worked, delivering a show that was equal parts genuinely scary, genuinely funny, and genuinely gory. It was splattery, comical, really creepy, and just plain fun. And so, there was no way I wasn’t going to watch season two of the show, period.

And for 9 episodes, I had a blast. For most of the second season, Ash vs. Evil Dead was on a par with the first, and maybe even better. It made better use of its cast, letting Lucy Lawless occupy a more interesting morally gray zone, giving Dana DeLorenzo more chances to shine and bring Kelly to life as more than just the girl sidekick, and letting Bruce Campbell and Ray Santiago just talk back and forth and joke. More than that, the show started really enjoying itself in, playing around in the backstory of the movies and getting to cut loose a little more. We went back to Ash’s hometown, where, as you might imagine, he’s not viewed as a hero so much as “that guy who went out to a cabin with friends and came back alone”. We met his dad, which answered all kinds of questions about how Ash turned out the way he did. And, more than that, in the final few episodes, we started to literally dive back into the films themselves, as the timeline got awfully trippy and fun.

Not enough for you? The show’s not dumb, and it delivered on its promises of gore, horror, and comedy, mixing them together effortlessly and delivering some truly memorable sequences. There’s a car accident that is a brilliant moment of pitch-black comedy, a long ongoing duel with an unexpected cast member from all three films that just made me laugh, and a fight in a morgue that goes to some unspeakably gross places. So, yeah – it’s everything you’d hope for.

For nine episodes.

But the season ran ten, and it’s the finale that keeps me from being able to rate this season in any meaningful way.

If you weren’t aware that there was drama behind the scenes of the show, or that the showrunner quit while making the finale, well, you sure would be after watching the finale, which scrapped just about every major thread of storytelling the season had been setting up, delivered a bizarre, off-kilter final conflict, and wrapped everything up in a way that felt more baffling than cohesive. And sure enough, within the next day, departing showrunner Craig DiGregorio gave a blistering, name-naming interview that made his case for why the show was going down the wrong path, and explaining what he had planned for that finale.

Now, you can argue all you want about that interview – that DiGregorio is being unprofessional (probably true, though I admire his honesty), or that we’re only seeing one side of the story (true), or that he’s being a bit of a diva (probably true). And yet, none of those (valid) points detract from the fact that the finale is a complete letdown, a fizzle that feels out of step from the rest of the series, the story DiGregorio had been spinning, and the general tenor of the series. It’s doubly disappointing, because the finale for season 1 was absolutely perfect, and clinched my love for the series; more than that, DiGregorio’s plan for the finale sounds fascinating, and would definitely have intrigued me about where we were going from there.

Whatever the case, what we ended up with is a bizarre, odd season, something that was so, so good until it wasn’t, and left me wondering what kind of show I’m going to get in the next season. Will a season without conflict behind the scenes be more coherent and focused? Will the new showrunner have a vision that’s as good as DiGregorio’s was, or was the weak finale a sign of things to come? I don’t know, but I’d be lying if I was completely optimistic. And that’s a shame, because up until that finale, this was one of the most purely enjoyable series around right now, especially as a horror fan.


The Night Of / **** ½

the-night-of-season-1_poster_goldposter_com_10o_0l_300w_70qIt’s only now that The Night Of is over, I think, that we have a sense of what exactly this show is. At times, The Night Of felt like someone gave an episode of Law and Order to a novelist, as the show tracked the arrest and trial of a young man for a horrific murder. It ticked all of the procedural boxes, gave us a satisfying and intriguing plot, but did so while letting the characters breathe and come to life in a way that network television often can’t. And yet, every time you started to feel the formula of the show, there were details or choices that let you realize that this was more in the line of David Simon’s The Wire than your typical procedural – in other words, it was a show that used its premise not as an end, but as a means of exploring something deeper and richer.

Once you realize that – that The Night Of is a novelist using a procedural as a framework for something richer and deeper – so many of the show’s choices make more sense. There’s no denying, for instance, that many people were baffled by and/or loathed the show’s odd focus on John Turturro’s eczema-ridden feet, and to be fair, in most shows, it’s a meaningless detail. But once you view it through the lens that novelist (and great writer) Richard Price views it with, it makes far more sense, even if you set aside the obvious symbolism of a man becoming comfortable (or uncomfortable, at times) in his own skin. It’s a detail that humanizes Turturro’s weary public defender, making him a specific character and not just another stock element of the drama. And that holds true for each and every character all the way down, all of whom are given odd moments or character beats that make them specific people, not just figureheads.

It’s also something that holds true for the show’s plot, which begins in a conventional – if incredibly well-executed – way. (Indeed, the intensity of the show’s pilot is absolutely unbelievable, as we watch this young man slowly tighten the noose around his own neck at every new moment, all without knowing what’s coming.) But by the halfway point of The Night Of, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a show about an innocent young man being persecuted by a judicial system out for blood. Indeed, in an incredibly rare choice, The Night Of holds true to its ambiguity, and it’s one of the first procedurals I’ve ever seen where the guilt or innocence of our “protagonist” is in serious question. And more to the point, there’s the secondary question, and what Price seems to be most fixated on: is the version of Naz that emerges after his time spent in prison awaiting trial some destroyed, ruined version of him, and just another bright young future ruined by a justice system that could care less about innocence…or are we seeing the truest version of him shining through, and the justice system is just letting us see it?

Price isn’t interested in answering that question; indeed, without giving anything away, The Night Of commits to its ambiguity, and leaves us with any number of questions that it has no interest in answering. That results in a finale that may feel disappointing at first, but only resonates more deeply as I get further and further from it. A conventional answer isn’t what The Night Of is interested in; instead, by revelling in its ambiguities, the show leaves us questioning things. What can we learn from Naz’s time in prison, and the changes we see wrought in him? What do we take away from a brutally frank admission by a prosecutor given new information? What of the closing arguments by the defense attorney, which give us a sense of how the world should work, but leaves us wondering if it does? Price and company aren’t interested in giving us those answers, and leave us debating them among ourselves.

For all of that greatness, The Night Of isn’t without its flaws, most notably in its handling of Chandra, a young lawyer who loses her interesting presence (and good performance) to some absurd plot machinations that squander everything good about her role. Add to that some odd dead ends and an element in the finale that feels, at best, out of nowhere, and there’s some definite bumps and issues with the show. And yet, for all of that, there’s something about the moral complexity and social observation of the show that makes it haunt you. There are countless great performances – although Turturro has rarely, if ever, been better, Riz Ahmed is amazing as the complex Naz, and I can’t overstate how good Bill Camp is as the quiet, effective Detective Box. Yes, some elements are rough, and bits of the destination are less satisfying than the journey to get there. But none of it detracts from the greatness and richness of that journey, or the countless thoughtful, impactful moments along the way – or the haunting, perfect final few images of that final episode.