Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

TV Reviews Archive

Saturday

21

November 2020

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The Mandalorian Season Two Recap: Chapter Twelve

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Nevarro is not a very interesting planet, too much of a Tatooine clone in a way that’s only exacerbated by the existence of Jakku. There are seemingly countless planets for The Mandalorian to explore, but so far the show has followed the Star Trek model of prioritizing places that piles of rocks. Piles of rocks make for easy reusable set pieces.

The Mandalorian has very few recurring characters, let alone ones who are friendly to Mando and Baby Yoda. Greef Karga and Cara Dune are about it among the living. By practically every measure of conventional television storytelling, it makes sense that they’d pop up in season two, even if the plot might be better off with heading into new territory.

Mando’s arrival to Nevarro was a bit awkward, featuring some pretty wooden dialogue between Mando, Cara, and Greef. The Mandalorian has never been much for exposition, but a scene or two with Mando laying out the stakes of the season felt needed in this briskly paced episode. It’s always fun to see Carl Weathers again, who also directed this episode, but the writing hardly did his character any favors this time around.

As often happens with The Mandalorian, the action sequences are used to cover up the rushed exposition and clunky dialogue. The return of the unnamed Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) who Mando first captured in the show’s very first episode was a fun callback, though Greef and Cara’s unnecessary meanness toward him in the Imperial base was a bit much. Yelling at a guy to hurry up the second he started pushing buttons on a control system is hardly proper manners!

The first half of the episode made no effort to present the mission to blow up the Imperials as anything more than filler. Things took a completely unexpected turnaround when the team discovered that Moff Gideon had been using the base for genetic experiments. Putting aside the sly reference to midichlorians, the whole sequence served to give this detour real stakes in the show’s lore.

The action sequences were unsurprisingly spectacular. To some extent, the Stormtrooper cannon fodder is getting a little stale, but the sets are so fun to look at that it’s hard to care. The Trexler Marauder ship battle between the speeder bikes and the Tie Fighters was one of the highlights of the whole series, something that could have easily been showcased in a feature film.

One of the big questions I had heading into the season was how hard the show would try and capitalize on Baby Yoda’s status as one of the cutest fictional characters in the world. Baby Yoda being dropped in a classroom only to steal a student’s blue macarons is the kind of sequence that pretty much solely exists for memes. The little fella has a one-track mind when it comes to food, and it’s pretty much the most adorable thing in Star Wars history. He may not be a very good ship engineer, but he’s got a career waiting for him on The Food Network when this is all over.

The return of Captain Carson Teva, last seen leaving the ice planet in his X-wing instead of helping Mando fix his ship, hints at a broader role for the New Republic. The Outer Rim has historically been a problematic area for both Imperial and Republic control, though Greef and Cara seem to be keeping Nevarro in relatively good shape. As a series, The Mandalorian hasn’t spent a ton of time trying to bridge the gap between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

 It seems unlikely that Mando will want to be a part of any broader conflict between the remnants of the Empire and the New Republic, exacerbated by the show’s fairly slow pace. The show does a good job presenting its adventures as existing in the larger canon without getting anyone’s expectations up. The Empire is tracking the Razor Crest, hinting that perhaps the broader New Republic will get involved after all.

Chapter 12 recovered nicely after a bumpy first act, putting forth some of the series’ best action scenes. One could be forgiven for an eye-roll at the return to Nevarro given how much this season has dragged its feet already. With four episodes left to go, hopefully the show will stop taking detours. For now, it’s still some of the best entertainment television has to offer.

Be sure to listen to Estradiol Illusions’ Mandalorian recaps!

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Friday

20

November 2020

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The Crown returns to form on the coattails of its most celebrated Princess

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There is perhaps no greater moment of excitement for fans of The Crown than the arrival of Princess Diana. Four seasons in to a planned six-season run (briefly reduced to five before returning to its original course), Diana represents a turning point for the series, where period drama increasingly encroaches upon our modern era. As the Royal Family today endures controversies surrounding Megxit and Prince Andrew’s choice of friends, Diana’s popularity endures.

Surrounded by an exceptional cast including Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Tobias Menzies, Emma Corrin captivates as the young Princess of Wales. Corrin’s performance illustrates the complexities of Diana’s position both as an outsider to the Royal Family and as a figure who became a global sensation. Diana is a singular figure in modern culture. Corrin handles that immensely daunting task with nuance and grace.

Fellow season four newcomer Gillian Anderson takes on a similarly daunting task as Margaret Thatcher, in many ways the inverse of Diana for the purposes of The Crown. Thatcher is among the most hated politicians of the modern era, posing difficulties for a fictional depiction that’s bound to try and humanize the Iron Lady. Anderson is wonderful, occasionally bringing out those moments in the viewer where one’s emotions are tied up in an uncomfortable display of sympathy toward a figure known for her absence of humanity.

Season three often suffered from a lack of urgency to make the most of its ten episodes. Season four by comparison often has too much to do. Diana’s rise takes up much of the early episodes, intertwined with the Queen’s relationship with Thatcher. The Crown has always emphasized episodic storytelling within its broader narrative, but season four simply has better stories to tell. There’s nothing comparable to last year, when a whole episode was wasted on Prince Philip being fascinated with the moon.

Ten episodes is not a lot of time to spend on a group of individuals as complex and fascinating as the Royal Family. Prince Philip and Princesses Anne and Margaret see their roles greatly diminished, a necessary decision made in service to the season’s more compelling narratives. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) continues to be woefully ignored, a fascinating figure done a great disservice by The Crown.

Colman is finally given a chance to shine. Season three often sidelined the Queen in favor of the actions around her. Between conflicts with Thatcher and her responsibilities as a mother, the Queen has plenty to do this time around.

In many ways, Prince Charles is the true antagonist of the season, more so than Thatcher. Josh O’Connor does a fabulous job as the dour Prince of Wales, perpetually sulking over his marital problems and jealous of Diana’s enormous popularity. The Crown is hardly fair to the future King of England, who is depicted as fairly lazy and selfish. Stories need heroes and villains.

The Crown is not a documentary. Biopics almost always take large creative liberties with their subjects. Many articles are popping up over the inaccuracies of the events depicted, a fair correction of the record. One might feel a natural degree of sympathy toward how someone like the Duchess of Cornwall might feel at being seen as a vicious adulterer uncaring toward the mental wellbeing of a national icon. As bleak as it sounds, that shouldn’t really override the primary objective of The Crown, to produce compelling television.

Diana’s arrival gives The Crown a chance to recapture the magic of spectacle. Few series evoke a sense of awe and wonder quite like Morgan’s Royal Family fantasies. Historians can balk at the creative liberties all they want, but this is one of the most exciting shows on television. Truth need not be as important.

 

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Saturday

14

November 2020

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The Mandalorian Season Two Recap: Chapter Eleven

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Would Mando be better off simply traveling to various planets asking locals in their bars for help finding Jedi? Maybe he should stand on a table holding Baby Yoda up, yelling, “Does anyone know where this kid came from?” That’s basically where we’re at.

Last episode saw the Razor Crest almost destroyed because Mando needed to travel at sub-light to protect Frog Lady’s eggs. The reason beyond this dangerous missions was supposed to be that Frog Lady’s husband had valuable information as to where Mando could find other helmet-wearers like him. Mando will likely spend the rest of his days picking spider webs out of his ship in service to this vital step in his journey.

Upon arriving at the water-heavy planet Trask, almost destroying what’s left of the ship in the process, Mr. Frog Lady does have a big reveal. He points at a bar. That’s it. That’s the information Mando almost died for. A glorified chowder recommendation.

Mando would have been much better off simply asking the X-wing pilots if they knew of any Jedi. They probably do. None of this is nitpicking. This season has yet to supply a reason for its broader quest to find other Mandalorians.

Mando finds some leads while Baby Yoda chows down on octopus chowder. Mr. Frog Lady didn’t exactly give the best intel, as the Quarren fishing boat was less interested in helping Mando than acquiring his armor. Baby Yoda’s floating bassinet apparently doesn’t float over water.

Part of the beauty of The Mandalorian is that it’s clearly crafted by people who love Star Wars. The series isn’t constructed in a way that forces anyone to watch animated shows like The Clone Wars or Rebels, while rewarding those that do. Seeing Bo-Katan in live-action is amazing, especially with Katee Sackoff reprising her role from the animated series.

Unlike Mando, Bo-Katan and her buddies are free to remove their helmets. While fitting in line with their animated appearances, seeing helmet-less Mandalorians is also valuable for the audience. People like to see faces and the expressions worn on them. This dynamic also allows the show to explore Mando’s core belief, one that would naturally sound pretty radical to any casual viewer.

Bo-Katan suggests that Mando is a Child of the Watch, essentially a Mando-extremist cult that broke off from the rest of Mandalore’s society. Mando doesn’t have a ton of time to process this information before the rest of the 35-minute episode’s action scenes need to take place, but this is a valuable question for the show to explore over the course of its run. Ideally, we the viewer may like to envision a scenario where Mando settles down, able to look at his adopted son with his own eyes.

Speaking of Baby Yoda, thankfully the little guy didn’t eat any more of Frog Lady’s eggs. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mando would ask her to babysit considering his snacking habits last episode, but it’s not like he has a ton of friends, on Trask or elsewhere. Kuiil would have been a great traveling babysitter. I miss him.

The action scenes aboard the Gozanti-class Imperial cruiser were great. It was super fun to see TV veteran Titus Welliver as the ship captain, who sadly died before he got a chance to have some tea. Obviously the other Mandalorians weren’t interested in raiding the ship for blasters, or other weapons.

Great to see the return of Moff Gideon. Giancarlo Esposito is fabulous in everything he’s in. Darksaber is one of the big questions of this season, one that I suspect the show won’t be in too big of a rush to address. Fun episodes like this make the destination less important than the journey.

Mando’s quest to find other Mandos did prove fruitful. After quoting Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan from her 2016 campaign, Bo-Katan tells Mando to head to Calodan to find Ahsoka Tano, another fan favorite. He probably could have stumbled upon that tidbit without having to travel by sublight to Trask, but here we are.

“The Heiress” demonstrates the show’s keen ability to simultaneously satisfy casual fans and Star Wars diehards. The Mandalorian rarely suffers when it drags its feet, but this episode moved the plot forward in a way that’s been lacking from this season’s first two installments. We’re almost at the halfway marker, as much as it feels like things just got started. Boba Fett may not come back until the end of the season, if at all. For now, that hardly seems to matter.

For more of Ian’s Mandalorian analysis, be sure to check out Estradiol Illusion’s weekly recaps

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Wednesday

11

November 2020

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Seduced breaks down the complexities of NXIVM’s vast web

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The saga of NXIVM is endlessly fascinating, a web of mostly detestable figures running a pyramid scheme in Albany, New York. Occasionally lost in the jokes about Keith Raniere’s bullshit is the trail of victims he left in his wake. There are the Mark Vicente’s and the Sarah Edmonson’s of the story, whose own culpability remains a puzzling question. The India Oxenberg’s of the story are perhaps even more complex, women who were indoctrinated at young ages to become sex slaves and cogs in the scheme’s vast machine.

Much of HBO’s The Vow was filmed in real time as former NXIVM members worked to take Raniere down, culminating in his 2018 arrest alongside several other key figures. A major storyline of The Vow centered around actress Catherine Oxenberg’s efforts to save her daughter India from the cult’s clutches. STARZ’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult picks up where season one of The Vow left off, presenting India’s story in her own words for the first time.

Seduced offers a superb primer into the world of cults, expertly breaking down the mechanics behind Raniere’s long grift. Several expert psychologists provide simple explanations for the ways that Raniere was able to build such a vast empire while mostly recycling nonsense from self-help gurus and Scientology. Like its bizarre name, NXIVM can be pretty confusing at first, but Seduced peels back the layers of the bullshit.

Raniere ruined countless people, both psychologically and financially. Part of NXIVM’s effectiveness was the way in which the organization was able to entrap its members by making many culpable themselves. The lines between victim and perpetrator can be blurred. India was a sex slave to Smallville actress Allison Mack, but India herself had slaves of her own. By including interviews with some of the prosecutors, Seduced works to clean up what will always be a messy picture. There are no easy answers here.

Seduced is a succinct series, presented over four episodes. The show is ostensibly India’s narrative, while including accounts from other DOS victims that help provide a clearer picture of the destruction Raniere caused. There is some slight overlap with content explored in The Vow, but Raniere’s insistence on recording practically every interaction ensures that there’s plenty of new material here.

India’s interviews are often challenging to watch. Persistent is the sense that she’s still clearly working through all of this. Maybe Seduced would be better off waiting for a bit longer to present her story, but maybe India simply wants to get on with her life. The brief amount of time between Raniere’s arrest and the arrival of NXIVM-related content is perhaps too short a period for much introspection, a dynamic exacerbated by the fact that many of the subjects only narrowly avoided prosecution. This is messy stuff.

India’s time in Albany gave her a much better front row seat to the actions of key players such as Nancy Salzman, Mack, and Raniere than The Vow was able to present. The web is complex, hardly the subject than any series would be able to tackle in only a handful of episodes. Seduced clearly has the better claim to casual viewers, supplying the broad details of what makes NXIVM so captivating while limiting the time spent down the various rabbit holes.

NXIVM is among the weirder true crime stories in recent memory, involving numerous Hollywood figures, ginger ale heiresses, and the Dalai Lama among countless others. It’s not hard to see why this saga is so fascinating to many. India is a young woman who went through the trauma of a lifetime in her early twenties. Seduced presents her story in a way that horrifies while also providing some hope that this unfortunate mess won’t define the rest of her life. NXIVM’s victims deserve a chance to turn the page.

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Saturday

7

November 2020

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The Mandalorian Season Two Review: Chapter Ten

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Big reveals like last episode’s Boba Fett cameo naturally create a sense of anticipation that The Mandalorian is obviously not in any rush to address. For the most part the show does a pretty good job with episodic storytelling, delivering quality television in a way that makes you okay with the fact that the big questions aren’t going to be answered any time soon. Elaborate action sequences and short episode runtimes don’t leave a ton of time for narrative.

Episode Two, “The Passenger,” does not care about story. The pieces of this episode feel like puzzle pieces that were jammed together out of place, reverse engineered to justify a giant spider sequence. This is by far the clunkiest narrative of The Mandalorian thus far. Frog Lady (literally the name listed on the show’s IMDB) is nothing more than a plot device.

The episode starts off with a fairly impressive action sequence on the outskirts of Tatooine, involving a failed attempt to ransom Baby Yoda for Mando’s jet pack. Baby Yoda’s cutest moment in the episode came early, delivering a sly glance of approval toward his adopted dad’s antics. Obviously the bandits were not going to get away with stealing Mando’s toys.

We run into Peli Motto at the famed Mos Eisley cantina, playing sabacc with a giant ant, a not-so-subtle nod to episode director Peyton Reed, who helmed both Ant-Man movies. Peli’s scenes last episode were fairly rushed and perfunctory. Here, Amy Sedaris works her charm with a bit more screen time, albeit in an exposition-heavy sequence that almost immediately got right to the chase.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mando’s early conversations with Greef Karga. Carl Weathers was given plenty of time to make his character shine, providing a valuable ally for Mando to interact with. This show doesn’t have a ton of recurring characters.

Peli is given a fraction of the time that Greef received, while essentially aiming to serve in a similar function. Peli got a few lines of rushed banter in before neatly advancing the plot, the kind of fast pacing you’d see on an episode of Law & Order. Can’t she have a moment to breathe?

The bigger issue with this whole dynamic is that the show has yet to make a case for why the audience should care about Mando’s quest to find other Mandalorians. The mission feels like an obligatory plot device, a notion in line with the amount of time it’s received these past few episodes. The show doesn’t need to solve this narrative right away, but it would be nice if The Mandalorian at least made an attempt to explain the importance of this season’s broader arc.

Detours can be fun. Seeing New Republic x-wings is fun. This episode had excellent action sequences, but time and time again it failed miserably on the narrative front. The sub-light travel mandate was only sort of convincingly explained, a slight step up from Frog Lady using pieces of the mercenary droid Q9-0 from last year’s sixth episode to communicate.

The weakest scene by far involved Frog Lady trying to guilt Mando into saving her eggs while the Razor Crest sat on an unstable pile of ice chunks with a giant hole in its hull. Are we really supposed to care about these eggs when Baby Yoda has been repeatedly chomping on them? Did Frog Lady notice what the little guy was doing, even after she’d saved his life?

Baby Yoda is cute and all, but the show too often tried to play it both ways with the eggs, using them for humor but also as an emotional anchor propelling Mando to care about Frog Lady. The spider sequence was fun to watch if you don’t think too hard about why it took Mando so long to use his flamethrower. Assuming these spiders fear fire like most arachnids, Mando could’ve easily kept them away from the ship.

The follow up scene with the New Republic pilots similarly fell flat. Maybe they had time to learn Mando’s noble history while flying around looking for the Razor Crest enough to not want to arrest him, though it’s unclear why they wouldn’t help him fix his ship. That hole looked pretty bad, though maybe not as big an issue as when the Jawas stripped his whole ship in the second episode of last season.

The stellar action sequences weren’t enough to make up for the cringeworthy nature of practically every scene involving dialogue. A strong contender for worst episode of the whole show. Bad Mandalorian is still fun Mandalorian, but this show is capable of better than this clunky plotting and bad writing. It’s hard to give filler a pass when it is this poorly assembled.

Be sure to check out Estradiol Illusions’ Mandalorian podcast recaps!

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Saturday

31

October 2020

2

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The Mandalorian Season Two Review: Chapter Nine

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As The Mandalorian progressed through its first season, the question of narrative constantly presented itself. The show has existed in the fairly uncommon middle-ground between serialization and episodic, most often preferring the advantages of self-contained storytelling over a broader long-game. The season one finale suggested a turning of the page of sorts for the series, with the titular character embarking on a specific quest to reunite the beloved Baby Yoda with his own kind.

That held true for about ten minutes into the episode, until Mando found reason to return, yet again, to Tatooine. For all the endless possibilities out there in the galaxy, this same pile of rocks seems to be the only place that matters. Tatooine certainly does matter, for throwback references such as the return of A New Hope’s R5-D4 and his bad motivator. Between Tatooine, Nevarro, and Jakku, Star Wars certainly loves its shades of the same desert aesthetic.

Episode one is essentially a retread of season one’s fourth episode, both centering on villages coming together to defeat a giant big-bad. The Krayt dragon is another figure of franchise lore, the figure who Obi-Wan impersonated with a loud shriek to scare off the Tusken Raiders back in the first movie. The Mandalorian brought to life an abstract idea that has existed in fan theories for decades.

The CGI-crafted menace was pretty impressive, putting aside the obvious Dune comparisons. Tatooine has always been compared to Dune, but Tatooine didn’t have its own sandworm before (Sarlacc doesn’t really count since they stay in their pits). Dune comparisons surfaced again with talk of water feuds between the village of Mos Pelgo and the Sand People. At least there wasn’t any talk of the spice!

As the Marshal, Timothy Olyphant was pretty perfect, channeling his roles in Deadwood and Justified. Show creator Jon Favreau, pulling writing and directing duties on the episode, also threw in a nice touch with fellow Deadwood alum W. Earl Brown turning up as the Weequay barkeep, giving Mos Pelgo the feel of a frontier mining town. Olyphant was a bit more Raylan Givens than Seth Bullock, his obvious joy radiating in every scene.

Olyphant’s exuberant performance as book creation Cobb Vanth was enough to carry the episode, otherwise relatively light on its cutest asset. Seeing Vanth in the Boba Fett armor practically overshadowed the episode’s biggest reveal at the end, with Temuera Morrison returning to the franchise, portraying the adult Boba without his helmet for the first time. In theory, Morrison could be playing one of thousands of Jango Fett clones, but it’d be pretty shocking if it wasn’t the most famous wearer of Mandalorian armor.

Neither Boba nor Jango are actually Mandalorians themselves, a point of great fan interest over the years which should make for a pretty interesting showdown later on in the series. As far as Mando’s primary quest this episode goes, it’s a little weak to have him roaming around looking for others of his kind. Especially if that quest continues to take Mando and Baby Yoda back to familiar territory.

One aspect of the episode that didn’t really work was the return of Amy Sedaris as Peli Motto. Sedaris brought a lot of comedic charm last season, but her interactions in this episode felt rushed and perfunctory. For a nostalgia-heavy episode, I’m not sure we needed much nostalgia for last year. The writing simply didn’t give Sedaris anywhere to go.

The action scenes were extremely solid, if not a bit obligatory. There’s plenty to love watching Mando slay a dragon alongside Timothy Olyphant and celebrating with a big cut of Krayt steak for Baby Yoda to eat when he’s not chowing down on nuggies. I’m sure we all could’ve used a few more adorable moments from the little fella who took a backseat role this episode, the perfect antidote to 2020.

Olyphant’s exuberant performance carried an episode that was otherwise a bit too comfortable in familiar territory. Maybe the nostalgia will run out at some point, though the return of Boba Fett suggests that probably won’t be for a while. Endless callbacks didn’t exactly turn out so well for The Rise of Skywalker, but The Mandalorian has faired much better in this regard.

To some extent, one might want to expect a bit more out of a show that was nominated for the Emmy’s top prize. The Mandalorian is often better described as great entertainment rather than prestige drama, not the kind of fare that traditionally competes for Best Drama. As long as the show keeps putting out enjoyable episodes like this premiere, the long-game and serialization questions won’t matter all that much. We’ve seen this story before, but it’s a pretty good story.

Programming note: Estradiol Illusions will be featuring weekly podcast reviews for the show. Episodes will release either Saturday or Sunday after each new show. Thank you for reading!

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Wednesday

14

October 2020

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The Vow peels back the murky, deeply unsettling world of NXIVM

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Everything about NXIVM and its “vanguard” Keith Raniere screams “cult.” From the bizarre sashes, to the late-night volleyball games, to the endless money-suck of classes for their “Executive Success Programs,” the red flags seem pretty damn obvious to any reasonable outsider. Over the course of nine episodes, HBO’s docuseries The Vow peels back the layers to explain how this con took hold of so many lives over the course of nearly twenty years.

NXIVM (pronounced “nex-e-um”) is a complex organization, a notion perhaps best represented by its confusing name. Its surface level operations focus on courses in the vein of “awareness training,” the kind of stuff that appeals to those who fuel the billion-dollar self-help industry. For those seeking community, NXIVM functioned in essentially the same role as a church. Deep beneath NXIVM’s surface are its subgroups, including DOS, which blackmailed and branded women, the primary driver that led to Raniere’s 2017 arrest.

The Vow succinctly explains the “how” and the “why” behind NXIVM’s success, an organization largely bankrolled by Seagram’s heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman. Dissenters were frequently met with various legal threats, providing extensive cover for Raniere’s various cons. As loathsome as Raniere appears, a scraggly looking figure whose sense of style doesn’t appear to evolved past his freshman year of college, it is easy to see the appeal of his snake oil strategy to unsuspecting souls.

Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujam do an excellent job balancing the many pieces of NXIVM. The “sex cult” allegations are by far the most salacious and interesting to see on screen, but the saga of this Albany clique with outposts in Mexico and Canada goes far deeper than that. It is perhaps impossible to calculate the damage caused by NXIVM, from the financial ruin to the emotional turmoil. The series paints with a broad brush, translating the complex theories in an easily digestible manner.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Vow draws its protagonists from the crop of people involved in the film industry who were lured into NXIVM’s orbit. Former members Mark Vicente, a filmmaker, and Sarah Edmondson, an actress, provide invaluable first-person perspectives. Amer and Noujam center much of their narrative on Catherine Oxenberg of Dynasty fame, whose daughter India was deeply involved in DOS right up to Raniere’s arrest.

Part of what makes The Vow so compelling is its use of extensive archival footage from NXIVM’s history, much of it shot by Vicente before he turned on the group. Raniere’s obsession with recording his entire existence backfired in this regard, allowing him to be featured extensively without the agency of his own intentions. One gets the impression that the mere existence of the series must be driving Raniere insane as he currently awaits sentencing after guilty verdicts on multiple charges.

The participation of Vicente and Edmondson, the latter of whom ran the Vancouver branch and describes herself as a former top “earner” within NXIVM, creates an interesting moral quandary that the filmmakers approach with delicate hands. Occupying leadership positions for so long within the company produces a natural sense of responsibility. It is fair to wonder just how guilty either are, an issue that The Vow nuzzles up toward without ever really confronting head on.

Maybe it didn’t need to. Largely shot before Raniere’s arrest in 2017, it is fair to acknowledge the lack of distance between the subjects and their traumatizing events. The series takes a hands-off approach as Vicente grapples with his own guilt, a moving display of emotion that communicates the sense that this is something he’ll never truly recover from.

The same holds true for Edmondson, branded for life with this initials of Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack. How much of her victimhood is negated by her leadership role, which encouraged countless people to spend their life-savings on junk courses taught by sexual predators? The Vow has no idea how to gauge this question, perhaps only faltering a bit in choosing to celebrate its leads as heroes. There are no easy answers here. It’s tempting to write off chunks as PR reclamation projects, but perhaps that action isn’t wholly unwarranted either.

Nobody sets out to join a cult, a notion presented many times over the course of the series. The Vow provides an illuminating front row seat to the unimaginable, navigating the murky waters of a cult with dignity toward its subjects. Maybe there aren’t any real heroes here besides Oxenberg, who’s quest to save her daughter provides The Vow’s most emotionally rewarding journey.

Several subjects point out that there was good in NXIVM, even in its monster of a founder. One should not be faulted for not wishing to bother thinking about whether or not Raniere did any good in his life. The sum of his existence will always lie in the red. For the rest, redemption is a long road, one started by the actions displayed in the series. It is important to believe in redemption, the kind of saving grace that affords good people an opportunity for another chapter.

There is tremendous value in hearing Vicente and Edmondson’s story, even if you remain a bit unsure what to think of them after the dust starts to settle. The recent nature of the whole NXIVM saga suggests the story is far from over. For now, The Vow encourages its audience to see the complexity in the humanity presented on screen.

The entire nine-episode series was screened for review.

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Wednesday

5

August 2020

0

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Stargirl sets itself apart from the DC TV canon

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The historic nature of the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover that celebrated the vast lore of DC Comics’ time on television, while consolidating the worlds its network offerings inhabit, presents a bit of a headscratcher when it comes to Stargirl. Initially envisioned at a DC Universe solo venture, The CW quickly partnered with DCU for next-day airings before ultimately assuming full-control of the show for its second season (it remains to be seen if DCU will even still be around by then).

With its young cast and high school setting, Stargirl is the kind of offering that feels at home on The CW, even if its tone, production values, and overall aesthetics paint a stark contrast with the broader Arrowverse. Set on Earth-2, Stargirl can comfortably inhabit a world far removed from the conventions of broadcast television’s preferred format of episodic storytelling. The show’s first season is one of the more impressive freshman efforts to come out of DC Comics.

Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger) is a wide-eyed high school student looking to find her place at Blue Valley High. An accidental discovery of the “Cosmic Staff” leads her to take up the mantle of Stargirl, alongside her stepfather and Starman’s sidekick Pat/S.T.R.I.P.E. (Luke Wilson), affectionately referred to as Stripsey. Much of the first season revolves around Courtney’s efforts to reform the Justice Society of America to battle Icicle (Neil Jackson) and the appropriately named Injustice Society of America.

Though Starman, Stripsey, and the J.S.A. have been around for close to a century, Stargirl follows the more recent work of series creator Geoff Johns’ 1999 comic Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. The blend of retro and contemporary works well for the series, paying homage to DC’s vast lore while keeping plenty of distance from the franchise’s heaviest hitters. Though the series received a nod in the closing minutes of Crisis, it’s rather refreshing to see a series removed from the temptations of crossovers.

The acting is absolutely superb. Bassinger brings so much enthusiasm to the lead role, an eager protagonist who’s easy to love even when she’s not making the best decisions. Bassinger’s chemistry with Wilson is a highlight of the series. The formation of the new J.S.A. is a little silly, a notion acknowledged by the show, but Stargirl works mostly through its consistent ability to sell itself to the audience.

Johns paces the series well, never lingering too much on introductory exposition. Superhero teams aren’t built in a day, but it can be quite tedious to spend a whole season watching the construction of a group, only to be expected to wait another year for all the fun to begin. Stargirl knows how to have fun right from the start.

Streaming services often force an unnecessary mandate for their shows to be serious, particularly within the superhero genre. Stargirl is definitely darker than the bulk of the Arrowverse, but it doesn’t sink to Titans’ level of self-loathing either. Filmed mostly on location in Atlanta, the production looks visually quite different from Stargirl’s DC peers, allowing the show to full adopt its own distinct tone.

Stargirl occupies a singular niche among DC’s TV canon, a prestige production that isn’t afraid to show off its emotional range. Courtney Whitmore may be a name more familiar to comic book fans, but the show is easy to pick up even if you’ve never read a comic book. The Arrowverse is great for many reasons, but the homogenized storytelling across its shows can get a little tired. With Stargirl, you’re never quite sure what each episode will bring.

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May 2020

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Dead Still Is a Well-Crafted Period Drama with Plenty of Humor

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

Pictures carry a degree of disposability in the modern era. Selfies on Instagram or Snapchat can disappear into the void not long after they’re taken. Set in Ireland during the 1880s, Acorn TV’s new drama Dead Still captures an era back when photographs were still a valuable commodity, a luxury that few could afford.

The show follows Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), a memorial photographer who makes his living taking pictures of the recently deceased. A practitioner of the daguerreotype process, which uses steel plates to capture photographs, Blennerhasset finds himself in an era that is rapidly evolving, with cheaper and easier methods hitting the market. Accompanied by his niece, Nancy Vickers (Eileen O’Higgins), and gravedigger-turned-assistant, Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), Brock goes about his business as a broader conspiracy involving the illicit photograph trade begins to ensnare him.

Dead Still owes its success to the delightful chemistry between Smiley, O’Higgins, and Logan. The three are absolutely marvelous to watch, elevating each other in practically every scene. Smiley brings an understated dry wit to Blennerhasset that’s well complemented by the more affectionate Nancy and Conall. The show makes a compelling case for why they’re drawn to each other, outcasts who find community in their rather peculiar line of work.

O’Higgins often sets the tone for the narrative, working wonders as the show’s sole primary female character. Nancy is maybe a bit more modern than period drama purists might like, but O’Higgins exudes such emotion in each scene that it’s practically impossible not to like the character. Dead Still looks like the kind of show that’s a lot of fun to work on, with a sense of joy that permeates through the screen.

The show finds a good balance between drama and comedy, frequently using humor to lighten the dark aesthetics. Blennerhasset’s coachman Cecil (Jimmy Smallhorne) is quite amusing, though Smallhorne brings a surprising amount of depth to the character. Dead Still makes great use of the Irish landscape, frequently giving the eyes plenty to feast on with its emphasis on old architecture.

The six-episode season mostly utilizes serialized storytelling, though the front half is a bit more self-contained. The narrative bites off a bit more than it can reasonably chew in six episodes, emphasizing world-building and character development over pacing of the narrative. This approach works pretty well, endearing the characters to the audience while leaving plenty of hunger for more. The season could’ve easily gone on for another four episodes.

Dead Still is way more fun than you’d expect from a period drama about photographing the recently deceased. The acting is superb and the production values are top notch. Acorn TV has a gem on its hands, hopefully one that has a second season in the works.

The entire six episode first season was screened for review.

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May 2020

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Dummy Is a Self-Indulgent Slog That’s Never as Funny as It Wants to Be

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

There are countless shows about people who make shows. Hollywood’s longstanding fascination with itself occasionally produces a gem, but the self-indulgence often comes at a cost. For a show like Quibi’s Dummy, based on creator Cody Heller’s real-life relationship with Dan Harmon, narrative is often substituted for an endless parade of winks at its audience.

Dummy follows the adventures of a fictionalized Heller, played by Anna Kendrick, as she develops a budding friendship with Harmon’s (Donal Logue) sex doll, voiced by Meredith Hagner. The sex doll, which Cody names Barbara, serves as a kind of motivational force for her middling career as a writer. Most of the shortform episodes center around the rapport between Cody and Barbara, functioning kind of like a buddy comedy.

The humor is pretty lazy. There are a few scattered laughs to be had from listening to Barbara’s vulgar antics, but the routine wears thin after the first couple of episodes. Heller writes plenty of surface-level jokes about feminism and the MeToo movement that play too hard for shock value. Absent is any sense of deeper truths uncovered from this line of thinking.

Heller displays a weird fascination with the Bechdel test, producing several painfully pedantic takes on the concept. It’s fairly unclear what she’s trying to say about any of this other than the rather obvious point that women can in fact be bad feminists. These revelations are neither insightful nor amusing.

The Quibi format hardly does Dummy any favors. The first few episodes contain way too many conversations that feel like they’re playing at 1.5 times the normal speed. This might be more forgivable if it wasn’t an artificial mandate for a show that could in theory be as long as it wanted. The back half of the season does mostly rectify this problem.

The episode runtimes don’t exactly provide much time for character development. Kendrick does a satisfactory job as a foil to the zany sex doll, but Heller as a character lacks any sense of depth. She’s an unmotivated writer in LA who never loses sight of the good fortune that’s been handed to her as a result of her romantic partner. It is unclear why anyone would think that this is a good formula for a protagonist.

Dummy grinds its superficial meta humor into the ground, a shallow inside joke packaged as a television series. Even for devoted Harmon fans, it’s unclear who the target demographic for this show really is, besides maybe their extended families. The fact that Heller does seem fairly self-aware only makes the whole experience even more disappointing.

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