Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

TV Reviews Archive

Monday

11

October 2021

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‘You’ Season Three Review: The Suburbs Are a Welcome Change of Pace

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The more things change, the more things stay the same. You centers its narrative around a deeply damaged man, unable to completely wrestle control of his life from the trauma that’s acted like an anchor throughout his existence. Joe Goldberg is not a good person, but Penn Badgley plays him with such a purposeful sense of glee that it’s hard not to be captivated by his world.

Season three presents an opportunity for Joe and Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) to move on from their murderous ways. Happily married with a baby and a nice house in Madre Linda, a quiet generic suburb full of athleisure-adorned people constantly checking their gluten intake, the two have a seemingly picturesque life, one that makes it easy to forget how close one of them was to murdering the other last season. You makes a welcome pivot away from Joe’s stalkerish inclinations, but the delectable psychological thriller wouldn’t be the same without some fresh bodies to hide.

The change in scenery works wonders for the show. Gone are the cliched publishing characters and the unintentionally realistic predatory comedians who dragged down the show’s strong writing. Madre Linda is hardly a bastion of originality as a location, ripped straight from a Lululemon fever dream, but the town is populated with grounded, three-dimensional characters. Season three has by far the show’s strongest supporting cast.

As local librarian Marienne, Tati Gabrielle delivers the strongest performance of all the newcomers, one of the few characters who actually feels like a real person and not a walking cliché. The more superficial characters work pretty well too. Neighbors Sherry (Shalita Grant), Cary (Travis Van Winkle) and Matthew (Scott Speedman) break through their superficial introductions. Madre Linda often feels like a Foucaldian panopticon, the depth of the characters giving the town a lived-in quality that conveys its suffocating nature.

Season three works best when Joe and Love are on the same page. Badgley and Pedretti have wonderful chemistry, making it so easy to root for a relationship that should not exist. Even putting the attempted murder aside, the two are not a good fit, but the show sells it so well that you believe in them.

Of course, You is not the story of balanced people looking to put in the hard work toward building a happy future together. Conflict is inevitable for couples, especially within the confines of a television season that needs drama to fuel the narrative. The show has a lot of fun exploring the pitfalls of picturesque lives, demonstrating the challenges of engineering a happy life even when all the pieces seemingly fit together.

The ten-episode season does hit some pacing snags, particularly in the back half, at least two episodes longer than it needs to be. Few shows do a better job answering any plot questions their audience might have. There are several times across the season where the story takes a head-scratching turn, only for the show to confront this dynamic an episode later. You might be the most self-aware show on television, perpetually nimble in addressing its own narrative shortcomings.

There’s a lot of natural goodwill that stems from the show’s ability to gauge its own perception. You may not always agree with the way You structures itself, but it’s the kind of production that clearly values the intelligence of its audience, with a few exceptions. Joe and Love’s marriage in particular is a vulnerable dynamic, relying a bit too hard on the confines of the traditional family structure when there are bumps in the road.

There is another point where Love vents about the burdens placed on young mothers to remain sexually desirable for her husband while also juggling a career and a newborn child. Trouble is, the baby is little more than a prop for either Love or Joe. The bakery that Love opens early on the season is an outlandishly low priority, a new business with few customers and seemingly no overhead. Money is only a problem when You wants it to be, which is to say, rarely.

You occasionally struggles with putting forth a case for why Joe and Love should be together, a lie that countless people have told themselves while in unhappy marriages. The show doesn’t want them to be blissfully in love, for obvious reasons. “Stay together for the kids” isn’t widely regarded as good advice, but it might be for Joe and Love as murderous parents. Season three doesn’t spend enough time exploring this reality, too much else on its mind.

While other shows have avoided mentions of the pandemic, You plots an interesting course. Covid isn’t completely outside the show’s peripheral vision, a forgivably moving target that a massive television production would naturally struggle to adapt. There are some puzzling moments, but it’s admirable to see the show attempt to provide some commentary on this peculiar moment in our collective history.

Backed by strong writing and excellent performances, You isn’t showing any signs of aging in its third season. The story isn’t a perfect fit for the confines of a ten-episode season, but the cast makes up for any lulls along the way. The suburbs are a place where people go to settle down, a calmer form of life than what’s offered in big cities. You finds some of its most creative work smack dab in the environment where creativity is thought to die, where the young go to grow old. This show still has plenty of life left.

The entire ten-episode season was screened for review. Season three drops on Netflix October 15th.

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Friday

6

August 2021

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Season Three Is Titans’ Best Yet

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Few shows in the streaming era fire on all cylinders quite like Titans. Through a bit uneven at times through its first two seasons, there is much to appreciate in the way that the series took more after its DC siblings on The CW in emphasizing episodic storytelling rather than the slow burn dynamic deployed by costumed heroes on other premium services. Titans has never been afraid to bite off more than it can chew, a refreshingly ambitious show that manages to pay homage to seemingly every single Teen Titans era through its nearly sixty-year history.

Titans second season often struggled with the intense balancing act between the current Titans, the seemingly retired first generation, the new heroes, Bruce Wayne, and the Wilson family tree, a tall order that even Trigon would struggle with. The early episodes of season three demonstrate immense progress on this front, giving the series its strongest sense of focus since it first premiered. The pacing kinks have been thoroughly ironed out.

Season three takes a fast yet methodical approach to its narrative. As the titles of the first two episodes, “Barbara Gordon” and “Red Hood,” suggest, there’s a natural emphasis on Gotham, the home that Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) can never seem to leave behind. There are some who might roll their eyes at the heightened role of the “Bat Fam,” but the change of scenery works quite well for the narrative, while still managing to include the characters whose superhero lineage doesn’t trace through the Dark Knight.

Newcomer Barbara Gordon (Savannah Welch) is an early standout. Longtime fans of the Birds of Prey comic or of Babs’ time mentoring Stephanie Brown in Batgirl vol. 3 will find much to love in Welch’s portrayal of the character. Welch hones in on Barbara’s duel tutelage from Batman and her father, a woman trying her best to put the skills from her two worlds to good use.

The inclusion of Dr. Jonathan Crane (Vincent Kartheiser) is a bit more of a mixed bag. Kartheiser puts forth a thought-provoking take on Crane, one of the meatier villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, but the framing of the character in the narrative feels more than a bit derivative of another famous villain from outside the world of comic books. For a show as steeped in DC lore as Titans is, Crane is a peculiar miss.

Season three’s biggest triumph is the way that the team really does feel like a family. There’s less pressure on Dick to be the glue that holds everything together. Interpersonal conflict exists without constantly carrying the notion that this group is one blow-up away from implosion.

The cast is probably still a bit too big for a thirteen-episode season, but season three does a much better job of sharing the spotlight. Gar (Ryan Potter) and Conner (Joshua Orpin) have a natural sibling-like chemistry that boosts every scene they’re in. As Starfire, Anna Diop remains one of the show’s best weapons, her acting elevating one of the season’s more lackluster plotlines. Hank (Alan Ritchson) and Dawn (Minka Kelly) continue to shine as elder statesmen on the team.

As a show, Titans constantly makes it easy for the audience to forgive its narrative shortcomings that bump against the confines of its television medium. Evident in practically every character is the show’s deep commitment to the long game, building on foundations established in earlier seasons. This is perhaps most evident in Jason Todd (Curran Walters), a character whose entire series arc has been building toward this particular storyline. Titans pays homage to decades’ worth of Gotham history while also paving its own course through these streets.

As a character, Jason Todd is a pretty singular figure in the Batman family. Controversially killed off in 1988, the second character to assume the role of Robin was the rare superhero who actually stayed dead for an extended period of time. Resurrected in 2005 during the “Under the Red Hood” storyline, a byproduct of the events of the multiverse-restoring “Infinite Crisis,” Jason returned, with an understandable vengeance.

The story of Jason Todd is a tragedy, destined to play second fiddle not only to his predecessor, but to the Robins who came after him. Jason’s status as the least-loved among Bruce’s children is practically a running joke throughout the source material. Though more than a bit melodramatic at times, Jason is not necessarily wrong to have a chip on his shoulder.

Titans doesn’t have the luxury of twenty years to build this sense of natural tension that flows so easily on the comic book pages, but the show manages to put forth a pretty masterful study of the character on screen. Walters captures the essence of Jason beautifully, eliciting a sense of empathy that might not come easy given the character’s abrasive nature. Certain plot choices are bound to rile some hardcore fans, but the results make for quite compelling television.

The real world has changed quite a bit since Titans first debuted, putting immense strain on practically every show currently in production. There are probably fewer on-location scenes than earlier seasons, but the crew pulled off a rather miraculous feat of crafting a product that doesn’t look like it was negatively impacted by the pandemic. Few covid-era shows provide top-notch escapism on Titans’ level.

Season three features Titans’ strongest storytelling, a confident narrative that juggles its many pieces with deep reverence for the source material. There are a few bumps along the way and storylines bound to elicit a few eye-rolls, but the show has clearly learned from some of season two’s shortcomings. Titans moves with a brisk pace, the kind of narrative that would probably be better off with an episode count similar to its CW siblings.

It’s hard to define what constitutes a “normal” run for a show in the streaming era, with shorter three or four-season arcs becoming more common. Titans could in theory last for as many seasons as Arrow or The Flash, but precedent doesn’t suggest that’s likely. With that in mind, it’s reassuring to see the show pursue its big ambitions, even knowing that not everything is going to land perfectly. The streaming landscape would look a lot better if more shows followed Titans lead and tried to leave everything on the field.

The first five episodes of the season were screened for review. Season three of Titans premieres on HBO Max on August 12th.

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Monday

7

June 2021

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Strong performances buoy Physical through its narrative shortcomings

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The 1980s carry a certain mystique that only grows as time moves further and further on from the era. Beyond the sheer absurdity of the aerobics craze, where ridiculously slim people jazzercised in unison while decked out in thong leotards and neon leggings, lies a natural sense of intrigue to understand the zeitgeist of it all. “What the hell were they thinking,” exists not as a rhetorical question, but a legitimate point of entry for aerobics scholarship.

Apple TV+’s new series Physical follows the rise of Shelia (Rose Byrne), from misanthropic housewife to aerobics star. Stuck in a dead-end marriage with a burnout college professor Danny (Rory Scovel), Shelia initially copes with her monotonous existence by blowing off steam at ballet class, typically followed by a binge-eating & purge session of fast-food burgers in a hotel room.

It’s not until Danny decides to run for state assembly, no easy task for a socialist hippie in the Reagan-loving San Diego suburbs, that Shelia’s hotel bills start putting a strain on their already-shaky finances. Seeking a workout outlet following the closure of her ballet studio, Shelia discovers the aerobics studio run by Bunny (Della Saba) and her surfer bum boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). Needing money, Shelia quickly dominates Bunny’s orbit, occasionally also taking advantage of Greta (Dierde Friel), whose children attend the same preschool.

Byrne is mesmerizing in the lead role, her performance adding a much-needed layer of depth to Shelia’s fairly superficial personality. The first few episodes focus almost solely on Shelia, a dynamic that Byrne sells well with her cool approach to her character’s toxic home life. What works best about the early episodes is the way the show makes no apologies for its anti-hero who is severely lacking in the empathy department. Shelia is rotten in the way few women leads are ever allowed to be, making excellent television along the way.

The show does struggle with where to focus its attentions. The aerobics narrative often plays second fiddle to Danny’s campaign, an unfortunate allotment of screentime for the show’s worst character. Danny grows increasingly insufferable with the early-season addition of Jerry (Geoffrey Arend), a college buddy turned campaign manager. Though Shelia refers to Danny as the most brilliant man she’s ever met, Byrne puts no effort into selling the idea that her character ever looked at him with any degree of serious affection.

Likewise, the show hardly puts any effort into making Danny into anything resembling a sympathetic character. Shelia hides her aerobics interest from Danny, as well as the state of their dire finances, but the secrecy doesn’t really build toward any substantive narrative payoff. The show commits early on to Danny being an airheaded deadbeat, which sucks most of the air out of their slowly deteriorating relationship.

Pacing is a big problem for the second half of the ten-episode season. While the first few episodes are framed almost exclusively from Shelia’s point of view, the show gradually gives more focus to the supporting cast. Bunny and Greta see compelling storylines shortchanged at the expense of Danny. Working with limited screen time, Pucci quickly endears the audience to Tyler, an airhead with a heart of gold who works well opposite Shelia and Bunny.

More puzzling is the sudden emphasis midseason on John Breem (Paul Sparks), a real-estate developer/Republican mainstay who mostly acts as the face of Reagan conservatism in opposition to Danny’s dirtbag left aspirations. Sparks gives a predictably strong performance that’s essentially a riff on other prestige TV characters he’s played on shows like House of Cards and The Girlfriend Experience. Breem is much more compelling than Danny, but the show never really justifies why the character needed his own scenes with so much else going on.

Show creator Annie Weisman seems to struggle with how to frame Shelia’s attitude toward her family. Shelia goes from hardcore apathetic toward her husband and daughter early on, only to shift gears later on with little explanation. The show’s efforts to explore Shelia’s backstory fall a bit flat, coupled with the broader pacing problems of the second half of the season.

As a period piece, Physical is only mildly interested in exploring the politics and culture of the 1980s. There’s an early gaffe in the pilot where Danny remarks that Reagan had “just” been elected president, though the 1986 settings place the narrative 75% through his time in office. There is occasionally some interesting commentary on the nature of consumerism, but one might expect a bit more insight from a show that chose to place its political plotline at the center of the narrative.

Most disappointing is the show’s middling interest in what’s presented as its premise. Physical doesn’t have much to say about aerobics or what it is that drew people to such a seemingly absurd form of exercise. Weisman does highlight how the exercise could cater to body-obsessed people like Shelia, but the layers of spandex are hardly peeled back by the conclusion of the first season.

Byrne’s electric performance carries the show through its uneven pacing and sloppy narrative that spends way too much time highlighting the show’s worst character. Physical has the pieces of a great show. It’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted for the most part. It is hard to shake the reality that the show that highlights a woman’s meteoric rise to aerobics fame was ill-advised to place such a heavy emphasis on the loser husband she was trying to get away from.

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Tuesday

6

April 2021

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Revisiting The Wire’s Finale “-30-“

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Season five of The Wire was always going to be a tall order under the best of circumstances. HBO’s finest series to date had its final season order slashed by three episodes, putting immense strain on its ever-expanding cast. The inclusion of the Baltimore Sun newsroom fit the series’ habit of shining a spotlight on new elements of the city’s culture each year, albeit with a cast of characters inevitably destined to pale in comparison to the schoolchildren who carried season four.

Television has no shortage of terrible series finales. Some play too hard for shock value, betraying their core ethos in the process. Others simply leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Any finale that doesn’t make one recoil with disgust should be considered a win.

As far as finales go, “-30-” is hardly one for the ages, not exactly a sentiment one may want to be attached to one of TV’s crowning achievements. The final episode of The Wire deserves a lot of credit for being among the more effective finales in the television medium, providing closure for much of its massive cast while reminding viewers why they fell in love with the show in the first place.

The Wire is not an optimistic show, constantly shining a light on government incompetence and corruption. Good rarely triumphs over evil, not where apathy and bureaucracy can wear down even people with the best intentions. Lester Freamon and Bubbles spent much of season five on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to this dynamic, one fed up with the nonsense getting in the way of his investigative prowess, while the other struggled to rise above a world that had kicked him while he was done so many times.

“-30-” understands its duty to wrap up a series, not necessarily the ideas it put forward. Baltimore may not change, but the characters who made the series so special carry with them concrete senses of growth. Perhaps none more than Cedric Daniels, constantly forced to balance his no-nonsense attitude toward police work with the politics associated with his ambition. Seeing Daniels survive all of McNulty’s crap to become police chief would’ve made for a happy ending. Perhaps too happy.

Instead, The Wire split the difference. Daniels leaves the department with his dignity intact, forgoing the top job in service to his own sanity. Returning to criminal litigation, Daniels emerges from the events of the series a better man, allowing swamp creature Stan Valchek to enjoy the perks of doing the mayor’s dirty work.

As a whole, season five buckled under the weight of the series’ ambitions, delivering the show’s silliest casework for what was left of the Major Crimes Unit. McNulty’s serial killer story was bound to end poorly, but the show struggled to paint this outcome as anything other than inevitable. For all his careful concern toward policework, Freamon never had a reasonable endgame.

­­­-30- puts this all in perspective, to an extent. Marlo Stanfield walked because the Baltimore Police Department wasn’t willing to put the basic resources together to catch him. Dozens of bodies left in his wake, the bureaucracy lets him walk free, instead merely nabbing his lieutenants. That’s not justice in any sense of the word, but The Wire wasn’t really about that.

Catching Marlo would leave the impression that detectives could actually succeed in pushing the never-ending boulder up the hill to bring about real change. There’s a reason arrests were few and far between after the triumphs of season one’s wiretap. Real change isn’t easily boxed into the sense of dramatic payoff that finales are expected to produce.

Characters like Stringer Bell, Prop Joe, and Bunny Colvin tried to change the rules of the game, but the game pushed back at every turn. Strong-willed people are no match for systemic rot. Those who try and cheat the system for noble purposes like McNulty fare no better. Only the shamelessly selfish like Tommy Carcetti, Clay Davis, and Maurice Levy get ahead. American capitalism at work. The game is the game.

-30- leaves us with little hope at the end, but David Simon deserves a lot of credit for his compassionate approach toward the audience. Hearts may break at the sight of Duquan shooting heroin, emulating an earlier Bubbles, or Michael morphing from quiet introvert to the heir to Omar’s throne, but the show let up a little bit, giving Namond a chance to shine in a late-season five cameo. Bubbles, the heart and soul of the show, ends the narrative with hope for perhaps the first time.

Simon also takes the chance to honor the characters who made the show so special. McNulty’s destructive behavior had gotten a little tiresome by season five, exacerbated by his sincere rehabilitation efforts the previous year. The “wake” held in his honor doubles as an opportunity to eulogize a show that was often the best thing on television.

The Wire wasn’t afraid to be gentle while laying out a bleaker truth for its viewers, delivering one of the more satisfying finales in television history. It shouldn’t be satisfying. The world that The Wire shined a light on is so infuriating and hopeless.

There are lingering thoughts brought about by the truncated final season, which followed two straight seasons of top-notch television. Some characters, like Kima Greggs, definitely get the short end of the stick as a result. -30­- isn’t a hopeless finale, instead putting the past five years in perspective in a way that manages to bookend a series that grew far bigger than itself. As far as TV endings go, it’s hard to think of a better note that The Wire could’ve realistically ended on.

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Thursday

4

March 2021

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Allen v. Farrow captures society’s ugly tolerance for bad behavior from talented artists

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Woody Allen is one of the greatest film directors of all time, a man without peers in terms of his creative output and artistic genius. Allen’s films provide unparalleled perspectives on his often-neurotic subjects and their cities, most frequently New York, a sensation unlike any other in the craft. One could rave and rave about his talent for hours, reverence that masks the more painful reality that he is also a credibly accused child molester.

For years and years, the entertainment industry cared little for his victim, his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. Instead, Allen’s lawyers and PR machines cast dispersion on the accusations, instead pointing the finger at Mia Farrow, a woman acting out revenge through her seven-year-old child. It worked, at least until the #MeToo movement weighed down Allen’s cultural capital.

The new documentary Allen v. Farrow reexamines the case, giving Dylan Farrow a chance to set the record straight. Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering offer a damning portrait of the climate that cast the accusations aside to continue idolizing a powerful director. With extensive interviews from Dylan, Mia, several other members of the Farrow family, and prosecutors involved with the case, the series recreates the horrific incident and its ugly aftermath.

The four part series covers quite a bit of ground, from Allen’s broader career, the Farrow family’s home life, and the ways the media helped kicked dirt over the accusations to move on with the show. Dick and Ziering produce some previously unexplored material, but their greater strength as filmmakers comes from the ways they refute the tactics used in Allen’s defense, particularly the handling of Dylan’s examination by the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The New York Department of Social Services also received a fair share of criticism for the ways they stifled their own investigation.

Staunch Allen defenders will find little to like here. There are no interviews with Allen-friendly subjects, though the interviewees acknowledge Allen’s creative genius and merits as a father. Accounts from the Farrow children come across as surprisingly cordial toward a man who married one sibling, Soon-Yi Previn, and stands accused of molesting another. Dick and Ziering hardly go out of their way to paint Allen as a monster.

Allen, Previn, and Moses Farrow, who has defended his father in the past, all declined to be an interview. Instead, Dick and Ziering present Allen’s side of the story through archival recorded phone calls between Mia Farrow and Allen, and audiobook excerpts from Allen’s 2020 Apropos of Nothing. Whereas Dylan is specific and thoughtful with regard to her account of what happened, Allen comes across as flippant and dismissive.

Dick and Ziering force their audience to confront the spin that’s been applied to this case over the decades, revealing a deep obfuscation of truth. Woody Allen is practically synonymous with the city of New York. Those who defend his actions throughout the case do so with a willingness to cast aside the many derelictions of duty. Whether you believe Dylan or not, it’s hard to deny the ways that those in power sought to defend Allen at every turn.

For her part, Allen v. Farrow frequently comes across as Dylan’s effort to turn the page. The series examines the sins of the past with a hopeful eye toward the future. There can’t really be justice in any meaningful sense for the decades of willful ignorance by many in the mainstream media, but Dylan reinforces the gains of the #MeToo movement through her willingness to grapple with the industry’s long-unanswered sin.

While Dylan expresses gratitude to the many actors who have expressed solidarity over the past few years, this area is perhaps one where Dick and Ziering may have benefited from a bit of distance between their work and their subject. Part of the series exposes the power of Hollywood publicists to frame narratives on behalf of their clients. Allen’s defense required a fair degree of media complicity over the years, namely in service to his ability to produce Oscar-caliber films.

Dick and Ziering largely decline to pursue the obvious opportunism to be found in the timing of Hollywood’s eventual reckoning with Woody Allen. While critical of Allen defenders over the years including Adrien Brody, Scarlett Johannsson, and Javier Bardem, the series gives a somewhat undeserved pass to the actors who recently expressed regret for working with the man. There’s little bravery to be found in the renunciation of Allen after it became blatantly clear that starring in his films would no longer automatically thrust one into award contention.

How one chooses to engage with the Allen accusations largely reflects one’s willingness to engage with basic reality. Dick and Ziering understand this basic truth quite well, acknowledging humanity’s difficulty with relinquishing trust when can one simply choose not to. People chose to ignore Dylan out of a weird reverence for Allen and his brilliance. The media made it very easy to cast the accusations aside so that the show could go on.

Allen v. Farrow is Dylan’s story, but it’s also an illuminating case study for how society deals with problematic artists. One can accept and acknowledge Allen’s sheer force of nature within the film industry without turning a blind eye to the ugliness of his character. One can enjoy his work while still acknowledging that he is at the very least, a pretty morally bankrupt individual.

Bad people can make great art. Our culture as a whole hardly benefits from ignoring such quandaries. We lose a bit of ourselves when we defend the indefensible.

The entire four-episode series was screened for review

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Thursday

25

February 2021

1

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Devil May Care finds humor and heart in the depths of hell

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The past year has had a tendency to make one rethink the literal visualization of hell of earth. If hell was meant to evoke fear, the idea of a warm place larger than one’s living space might instead bring about some envy from a reasonably-minded individual. The hell crafted in SyFy’s new animated series Devil May Care looks like a pretty cool place to be.

The series follows Beans (Asif Ali), a millennial facing eternal damnation in a rosy-colored interpretation of hell. Beans finds work as the social media manager for Devil (Alan Tudyk), ever concerned with the public relations branch of his fire and brimstone empire. Beans’ coworkers in Devil’s office include Head Demon Gloria (Stephanie Beatriz) and President McKinley (Fred Tatasciore), who acts much like Devil’s personal valet.

Created by Robot Chicken head writer Douglas Goldstein, Devil May Care essentially functions as part workplace comedy, part social satire on modern America. There’s a lot of humor centered around social media’s effects on our psyche and Devil’s efforts to make his kingdom more hospitable for his constituents. Ali and Tudyk have great chemistry, elevating Beans beyond the function of the straight man at the heart of the narrative.

Goldstein pulls off an impressive feat for comedies with eleven-minute runtimes, a format that generally puts a fair bit of strain on the balance between jokes and character developments. The world-building is welcoming, a space where you want to spend time with the characters rather than merely laugh nonstop until the credits roll. There’s a relatable sense of found family to be had in this merry bunch of misfits.

Much of that dynamic is thanks to Devil, a heartfelt character with a lot of depth, perpetually enhanced by Tudyk’s range as a performer, delivering each line with a sinister sense of delight. The hell of Devil May Care isn’t for the evil, but rather the flawed and imperfect. The sinners aren’t just more fun than the saints, they’re the people you’d rather spend your time with.

Which isn’t to say that Devil May Care spends its time grappling with morality or life’s heavy questions. It is first and foremost a late-night comedy that exists to make you laugh. On that front, it succeeds quite well.

Laughter isn’t the only escape hatch that entertainment can seek to provide. There’s a sense of community sorely missing for too many this past year. It is easy to feel like we are living in hell, albeit a landscape that looks quite different than the palette put forth by Devil May Care. Created before the pandemic, the show rises up to a challenge that it wasn’t expected to face in providing a sense of relief to people who have had to lean on comedy quite a bit lately to give comfort where it cannot be found anywhere else.

Hilarious and thought-provoking, Devil May Care packs quite a punch with each episode. Night and day from Goldstein’s work on Robot Chicken, the show doesn’t necessarily swing for the fences with each line like the iconic Adult Swim staple, but each episode constantly challenges the confines of storytelling within the short-form medium. It might be a better binge than a week-to-week series, but animated comedy fans will find plenty to enjoy in this warm series.

Devil May Care airs 12:00 am Saturday nights/Sunday mornings as part of SYFY’s TZGZ block. 

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Wednesday

27

January 2021

1

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The Lady and the Dale provides a riveting perspective of a trans pioneer

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Trans people often have to deal with people claiming that the trans identity is some sort of “new” phenomenon, despite all the history to the contrary. The life of G. Elizabeth Carmichael is a pretty wild story even before you take her gender identity into consideration. The new HBO four-part documentary The Lady and the Dale offers a wide-ranging portrait of a colorful American life.

True to its title, the series largely splits its attention between Carmichael and the Dale, a three-wheel automobile designed to be the flagship offering for Carmichael’s Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, which fizzled out in the late 1970s amid criminal fraud charges for Carmichael. The life of Carmichael and the Dale itself would make for fascinating documentaries in their own right, though co-directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker do an excellent job weaving the many strands of their story through the four episodes.

Carmichael, a skilled con artist from an early age, makes for a fascinating subject. Though Liz died in 2004, interviews with her family, as well as archival audio tapes provide a thorough examination of her as a person. Carmichael is a complicated figure, a loving mother and a force of nature in the business world, flying a bit too close to the sun with some of her ambitions.

The series uses extensive cut-out animation to liven up some of the archival footage. This approach makes the experience a bit more colorful, while also adding to the emotional resonance of the material. The pacing is quite exceptional, a highly-bingeable experience that leaves you hungry for more at the end of each episode.

Trans people are frequently accused of deception by our very existence. For Liz, a trans woman, this dynamic is complicated by the fact that she was a literal con artist. Her story, especially her prosecution, exposes some of the ways that marginalized people are treated differently both by the justice system and the public at large. Cammilleri and Drucker spend a lot of time on the media reception to the case, including some fascinating interviews with some of the newscasters who worked on the story.

Popular culture is filled with con artists like Jordan Belfort, celebrated by many for their bombastic greed. Shows like Billions and Succession revel in their protagonists’ abilities to game the system. People like Liz Carmichael get treated differently, not necessarily because of the particulars of their crimes, but because of who they are as people.

Which isn’t to say that Liz Carmichael was actually a hero or that she didn’t deserve to be prosecuted for violating securities law among plenty of other offenses. Liz Carmichael did bad things, but The Lady and the Dale isn’t concerned with judgement, providing testimony from her relatives and former employees that paint a much fuller picture of the woman.

In her own way, Liz was a trailblazer. Trans people still face rampant employment discrimination. To see a woman like her take on the big auto companies can give inspiration to anyone looking to carve out their own mark on the world. For too long, women have been told we can’t succeed in a men’s world. Much of Liz’s problems were her of her own making, but she had some impressive achievements. Above all else, Liz lived her life on her own terms.

The Lady and the Dale thoroughly explores a complicated figure in trans history, a fascinating glimpse at a rebel who dared to dream big. One may not necessarily aspire to be like Liz, except in the courage she exhibited to live her truth and ask for more. Being out can be hard enough sometimes. To remove the weights of discrimination will hopefully create a world where more trans people can wield the power that Liz held, if only for a moment.

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Monday

25

January 2021

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WandaVision isn’t designed to meet expectations

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

WandaVision ushers in a new era for the MCU on the small screen. While Marvel Television only delivered peanuts on its promises of a shared continuity, Marvel Studios has brought the gravitas required to create a real sense of connectivity to its storytelling, largely in the form of its two leads. The Scarlet Witch and Vision hardly got much of a chance to shine across a handful of films that had many other heroes to entertain itself with.

The series largely succeeds on the chemistry of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, perpetually eager to act out WandaVision’s many tributes to classic American sitcoms. There are smiles to be had on everyone’s faces, though the audience knows the idyllic suburb is hardly what it seems. Sparking nodes of Marvel Comics, “House of M” and “Decimation” arcs, the show offers a slow burn that gradually hints at what lies ahead in the MCU’s post-Avengers: Endgame world.

WandaVision embraces MCU mastermind Kevin Feige’s key strategy of gradual plotting, having fun in the present while rarely losing sight of what’s eventually to come. Supporting players Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Harris and David Payton help paint the portrait of a world that sparks curiosity that its twenty-two minute episode runtimes can hardly satisfy.

To some extent, it’s a good thing that WandaVision leaves the audience wanting more by the time the credits roll. There is also the reality that this is the first meaningful new piece of MCU content since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (not counting Marvel Television’s Helstrom, which served as an uninspired curtain call for the company), the longest stretch in franchise history. It’s a burden that shouldn’t be WandaVision’s to bear, the first glimpse of how the future will look for Marvel on Disney+.

The reliance on humor based in nostalgia for sitcoms that aired more than fifty years ago is bound to rub some people the wrong way. As a company, Disney has increasingly relied on nostalgia as a selling point for much of its cinematic portfolio, including their live action remakes and the Star Wars sequels, which often felt like remakes themselves. People are starved for new Marvel content, only to be presented with references to pieces of Americana that their grandparents grew up with.

Television is a medium that tends to save its biggest bangs for its premieres and finales. WandaVision is presented as event television, only to mostly spend its time mirroring more conventional entries in the form. This formula would almost certainly play better if the audience was treated to a traditional twenty-two episode season that used to be the norm. The fact that most of the audience has waited years to learn the fate of Vision after his Avengers: Infinity War demise doesn’t exactly do much to temper expectations.

WandaVision is solid television, albeit not the kind of fare that’s well designed to live up to unsustainable hype. The Mandalorian is really, really good at producing cinematic-quality storytelling in practically every episode. WandaVision sits in the same category as a standard-bearer for a top-tier streaming service, lacking the sense of mandate to be the MCU’s flagship television offering.

Whether that’s fair or not is kind of beside the point. Olsen and Bettany are fun to watch no matter the circumstances or the state of the MCU’s broader portfolio. There’s a natural sense of urgency to want something to happen, but it’s hard to dwell on that too long when the present put in front us manages to put a smile on one’s face each and every week. Maybe WandaVision will overstay its welcome down the road, but for now, the show is still a delight.

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Tuesday

5

January 2021

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The Mandalorian Season 2 Review

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

Season two of The Mandalorian began with a fairly daunting task. The show built an enormous amount of goodwill during its freshman effort for crafting a narrative that carried the aura of being far-removed from the rest of Star Wars lore, even if the constant, subtle Easter Eggs tended to suggest otherwise. As the sequel series faltered, The Mandalorian suggested that the future of the franchise rested in standalone storytelling.

All the recent announcements of close to a dozen new Star Wars series throw a wrench in this whole thesis, but it’s clear that The Mandalorian had been inching toward this destination for a long time. The chance to feature series favorites such as Bo-Katan, Boba Fett, and Ahsoka Tano transformed what was once predominantly an episodic meme-factory for the hijinks of an adorable puppet and his adopted father. Season two will be defined as the point where The Mandalorian stopped explicitly being “The Baby Yoda Show,” and not just strictly because the cute little fella finally got a proper name.

The perfectly executed season finale should rightfully spark melancholic feelings toward the change in status quo for The Mandalorian, which now finds itself firmly entrenched in Skywalker lore. Season two featured plenty of episodes defined by their self-contained adventures, from the slaying of a Krayt dragon to the head-scratching detour to ice-spider planet. Individual victories from episode to episode are bound to take a backseat to big mic-drop moments.

The Mandalorian built an enormous amount of goodwill for moments crafted by its own characters. For a man who rarely shows his face, Pedro Pascal brought an impressive depth of emotional range to Din Djarin, subtly setting up the tear-jerking departure of the final episode, where he bucked his traditions and removed his helmet. Those are the kind of set-ups that The Mandalorian excels at, but it’s harder to recreate that dynamic when the complications of decades of fan-nostalgia begin to occupy the same space.

Season two benefited from an untapped reservoir of guest stars, rewarding longtime fans for their dedication in following the animated series, comics, and broader Expanded Universe. Soon there will be other places to find those highs, including The Book of Boba, which will air at the end of this year. The Mandalorian will hardly be the only game in town.

Show creator Jon Favreau improved upon season one in practically every way imaginable. The episodes felt more vital, even as they relied upon their own self-contained adventures. The show eased up on its love of rocky desert planets. Grogu didn’t lean too hard into his status as a walking meme, aside from perhaps the moment where he decided he’d practice the Force by swiping blue macarons. For all the moments in season one that felt like the show was dragging its feet, season two moved the ball forward in practically every episode.

Season two built on the strong foundation of the first while expanding the narrative to define The Mandalorian’s place in Star Wars lore. Favreau accomplished all of this while not losing sight of his two heroes that made all the magic in the first place. A cameo from Star Wars’ original hero may be the most noteworthy thing to come out of the show, but The Mandalorian ensured that the franchise won’t be defined by its first family.

It is weird think that The Mandalorian may have already established its legacy two seasons in. The streaming world it helped established will look very different when the show returns, presumably in 2022. It may be a bit overblown to say that The Mandalorian “saved” Star Wars, a billion dollar entity that can absorb some lackluster installments.

The urge to reach that conclusion comes from a fairly natural point. There may come a day when the show loses itself in endless callbacks, a fate suffered by the sequel trilogy. The Mandalorian is great TV. That’s pretty much the only thing that needs to matter.

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Saturday

19

December 2020

2

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The Mandalorian Season 2 Review: Chapter 16

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

As a franchise, there’s little Star Wars loves more than the past. Two of the three entries in the sequel series existed primarily as shrines to nostalgia, while its middle installment sparked endless controversy for daring to engage the idea that maybe we should, “let the past die.” The Mandalorian has mostly charted its own course, albeit carrying plenty of crowd-pleasing Easter eggs along the way.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a current work possessing deep reverence for its broader lore, as the season two finale proved. Great storytelling can be powerfully enhanced by interweaving the present in with the characters fans have grown to love. Luke Skywalker never looked more powerful than when he was mowing down Terminator-esque Dark troopers one by one, delivering on a wish fans have clamored for since Return of the Jedi.

This episode combined all the best elements of the show, a near perfect finale. The show’s supporting bench was mostly all-hands on deck to rescue Grogu from Moff Gideon’s light cruiser. Dr. Pershing is a fairly compelling tertiary character, though his quick defection to Team Mando seemed a bit rushed.

The stand-off on the Imperial Shuttle was perhaps the episode’s lone clunky bit of fan service, a back-and-forth over the ethics of blowing up Death Stars ripped straight out of Clerks. A chief complaint of the Skywalker Saga as a whole has been how small the galaxy seems with everyone knowing every else. Between the shuttle and Bo-Katan’s instant familiarity with Boba Fett, it felt like this episode was crafting an intimate family drama rather than a giant space epic.

The action sequences were predictably phenomenal, giving the female members of the team plenty of chances to shine while only just barely dipping into the cringey “girl power” energy that Avengers: Endgame consumed to excess. The Dark troopers were appropriately menacing, even in scenarios where they didn’t really get a chance to wield their full power. Mando destroying one with his flamethrower might suggest that they’re easier to beat than the show lets on, but it’s understandable that none of Mando’s crew didn’t want to test this theory too much.

Moff Gideon has been a pretty menacing figure despite only making sporadic appearances. Giancarlo Esposito has a gift for playing characters who display a transactional sense of villainy. For a second, he really makes you believe that he’s simply okay letting Mando and Grogu walk away, before swinging the Darksaber right at Mando’s back.

The fight itself was pretty solid, though the sight of an old man parrying with an armored bounty hunter, albeit one who was recently bashed in the head, ran the risk of carrying on past the point of plausibility. Gideon seemed like a likely candidate to not make it past the episode, though Chapter 16 opted not to add to the show’s body count. All hands are still on deck for an eventual war on Mandalore, as the show is increasingly hinting will be its focus for next season.

Luke’s entire sequence was perfect, a moving tribute to the franchise’s most beloved hero. The use of body-double Max Lloyd-Jones mostly worked, though the dialogue portion was a bit clunky. The sight of R2-D2 brought tears to my eyes, a beloved character who was woefully neglected by the sequel trilogy.

Luke never got a chance to bask in the limelight after beating the Empire. Regardless of how you feel about his well-crafted arc in The Last Jedi, it is a shame that Star Wars turned the page on Jedi Master Skywalker without giving Hamill a chance to enjoy Luke in his prime. This episode was a great tribute for those of us who lament the end of the Expanded Universe.

The most impressive thing about the last ten minutes of the episode was the way it managed to give simultaneously both Mando and Luke their tearjerker moments. Mando taking his helmet off to say goodbye to his adopted son had been hinted at, but it played so powerfully here. Grogu not wanting to leave was perfectly complemented by R2’s exuberance at seeing the young child.

The whole scene worked on so many levels, combining Star Wars’ vast lore with the affection we’ve built for our current cast of characters. The franchise finally used nostalgia not as a crutch, but as a seasoning for its carefully curated buffet of emotion. It’s hard to think that The Mandalorian will sideline its breakout character for very long, but the show succeeded in presenting that as a possibility.

“The Rescue” represented the finest chapter in the Star Wars saga since The Empire Strikes Back. The episode utilized every single moment to its advantage, both in the present and with regard to planning for next season. Both Mando and Grogu will have their hands full with new adventures next year, giving comfort to those who might still be sobbing over the idea of their separation. It’s hard to think of a better way to end this era of The Mandalorian.

If that wasn’t enough, we were treated to an excellent post-credits scene where Boba Fett and Fennec paid a visit to Fett’s old friend Bib Fortuna at Jabba’s Palace. Fett hasn’t had nearly enough chances to shine since his introduction, playing bit roles in the past two episodes. Looks like a spin-off is on the horizon, along with all the other Star Wars projects in development.

Quick programming note. We will return with a review of the season as a whole. Be sure to check out Estradiol Illusions’ weekly podcast recaps. Thank you so much for following along with us every week! Happy Life Day.

 

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