I gave Season One of Orphan Black a B+, but I also singled out star Tatiana Maslany, giving her personally an A. If you managed to miss Orphan Black over the past four years, it's about a group of clones, with the trick being all of them are played by Maslany. I wrote:
There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently....
It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.
I gave Season Two an A-, but I didn't like it as much. The plot became convoluted in ways that made me realize I mostly didn't care. But Maslany was so good, I couldn't get enough. Eventually, she got her Emmy ... the year she won, she beat out an impressive list of actresses (Claire Danes, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Keri Russell, and Robin Wright).
Orphan Black lasted five seasons, ending this past weekend. While I lost interest in the overall plot arc, I never quit watching the show, and for those who did get into the mythology of the clones, I suspect five seasons was just right. The finale itself was satisfying. Many worse shows have run for far more than five seasons ... kudos to Orphan Black both for making it through five years and for quitting while they were ahead.
Over the years, my obsession with Maslany's performance only grew. Everyone joked about how she should have won an Emmy for every clone she played (I think the number was 7 at the time). And it was impressive, especially when a combination of special effects trickery and the judicious use of doubles for Maslany allowed for more than one clone on the screen at the same time.
But what was truly remarkable was the way in which, as we got to know the various clones of the years, as they became clear individuals, Maslany's skills disappeared. People would say they forgot she was playing multiple roles, but it was bigger than that sounds. I have a tendency to wonder about the heights of actors, and I look it up while I'm watching. So I know that this actress is 5'7" and that actor is 5'10". I also know that Tatiana Maslany is 5'4". But I lost count of the number of times I'd see, say, Maslany-as-Sarah interacting with Maslany-as-Cosima and want to look up who was taller, the actress playing Sarah or the actress playing Cosima. I said Maslany's skills disappeared, but that's not quite accurate. What happened was she was so perfect in creating these various characters that you really did forget they were all her.
I imagine everyone had their favorite clone. Mine was Helena:
While looking back at Orphan Black, I can't help but think of another series I obsess about even more, Sense8. In Orphan Black, you have sisters connected by their clone status. The sensates of Sense8 are different, though. Their connection is psychic, for lack of a better word. And perhaps because they are all played by different actors, their scenes together are emotionally powerful in ways the "tricky" scenes of multiple Maslanys are not. It's mostly apples and oranges, though.
Ultimately, I think I had it right from the beginning. Grade for series: B+. Grade for Tatiana Maslany: A.
Nelsan Ellis died. Probably best known for his turn as Lafayette in True Blood, Ellis always captured the attention of the audience, and based on the outpouring of sentiment, he was a beloved co-worker as well. My sister posted, "I don't watch True Blood, but I really enjoyed him in Elementary." Her phrasing interested me. True Blood ended its 7-season run on HBO three years ago. The retired English professor in me thought, "you should have written 'I didn't watch True Blood'", because the series now exists only in the past.
But I'm wrong. In the world of streaming, no series exists only in the past. If, for instance, you wanted to watch all 80 episodes of True Blood for the first time, you could do that.
Tim Goodman, who over the years has become perhaps our best writer on the business of television, wrote recently about a "staycation" where he did little besides catching up on the TV series he had gotten behind on. Peak TV has assured that viewers will always be behind, because there is so much good stuff to watch. More and more, even TV critics, who are paid to watch stuff, are always behind. There is too much good stuff. Goodman called it "the critic's conundrum ... adjusting to a world where it was frustratingly impossible to watch every (scripted) thing after being able to do just that several seasons prior".
He came to this conclusion:
[W]riting about television in this new world order has an evergreen aspect to it. Yes, there will still be post-mortems from series creators posted right after the finales are over. People who are caught up can read those. And they will still be there, searchable, for whenever everybody else finishes ...
[T]hat opens up an opportunity for change — for a mixture of coverage that is there if you finished on time but will also be there — fresh for you — not because you had to search for it a couple weeks later, but because more critics will be writing and revisiting series on a delayed basis, perhaps writing something more meaningful because they've actually had time to think about it.
This business is changing across the board. As for criticism, I think it's an exciting time to be more thoughtful, brought about by an industry-wide inability to be up to date on everything. And I think there's a huge audience for that, composed of people equally delayed in their viewing because they've been overwhelmed and otherwise busy.
I often write about television, just as I often write about movies. Many/most of those movies are older (7 of the last 10 are from the 20th century). I don't worry that no one is interested in my take on these old films ... I have no illusions about the size of the audience for this blog, but I don't mind if that limited audience is forced to read what I have to say about a movie from the 1950s. Yet when I have written about television, I feel the need to be current. Who wants to read what I'm thinking about an old TV series?
It's not just old, retired series, either. It's the new ones. If I'm not completely caught up, I don't want to write about them. But if I don't get to them until long past their original showing, I assume no one cares what I write.
There is also the hope that if I like something, if I praise something, it might convince a reader to give it a try. But in my old-school mind, this means getting them to watch each episode as it airs. And no one watches TV like that any more.
What I take from Goodman's piece is that I need to get over it. If I'm going to write about Stalag 17 (1953), then there is no reason I can't write about a TV series that recently ended a season.
And so ... GLOW. GLOW is a Netflix series, which says something right from the start. The day the first episode premieres, all of the season's episodes become available. If you have five hours to spare, you can watch the entire first season of GLOW in one day. I am not much of a binger, so I'm more likely to finish a season in ten days than in one day. In this case, it took me about two weeks, by which time there were all sorts of online reviews of the whole season. It feels too late to add my two cents worth. But what the heck.
GLOW comes to us from Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who worked together on Nurse Jackie. Mensch also worked on Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, series from Jenji Kohan. Kohan is an executive producer for GLOW, and it has a real Orange flavor to it: big, diverse cast of women, with lesser-known actors (the biggest names are Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron), and a setup that seems to invite cheese (women's prisons, women's rassling).
I think the achievements of GLOW in its first season might be missed. Yes, it is cheesy. But over the course of ten episodes and five hours, we get a decent idea of who all of those women are. Brie is the "star", but the series doesn't revolve around her ... it revolves around the group. And if you think that group won't grow on you, think again. It's actually a fairly standard concept for sports movies and series, the coming together of a bunch of castoffs into a coherent group whose characters begin to bond and identify with each other. But standard or not, GLOW pulls it off ... it's very entertaining and often funny, but it also works as a character study.
And as we watch the first live GLOW wrestling card at the end of the season, we realize that we care, just as we might in a movie where Mickey and Judy put on a show. We care about the characters ... even more surprising, we care about what happens in the ring.
GLOW is not perfect. It deals with stereotypes ... it's a wrestling show, based on an actual show, set in the mid-80s and featuring women who, no matter their backgrounds, become simpler caricatures in the ring: Liberty Belle (all-American), Machu Picchu (pseudo-Mexican), Beirut the Mad Bomber, the black woman who wrestles as The Welfare Queen, the Cambodian immigrant who becomes Fortune Cookie. Brie, who plays a barely-employed actress, works out her own character: Zoya the Destroya from the Soviet Union, who feuds with Liberty Belle. Brie's Russian accent is hilariously bad, as it is supposed to be. Anyway, GLOW walks the thin line between making a point about stereotypes and exploiting those stereotypes, and it doesn't always fall on the right side.
I was surprised at how emotional I got at the end of the season. I look forward to more.
In the first scene of The Leftovers, a busy mom’s baby disappears from its car seat. A young boy’s dad disappears while pushing a shopping cart. A speeding car (driverless?) crashes into another car. We hear a cacophony of voices on the 911 line. Then silence, and on the screen we read “THREE YEARS LATER”.
From the beginning, a few things were apparent, if not quite clear. As the title suggested, The Leftovers wasn’t going to be a series about the people who were taken in a rapture-like event (2% of the world’s population, it is later explained). Instead, it would be about the 98% of the people who were left behind. Also, while it wasn’t clear from what was on the screen, the series’ co-creator, Damon Lindelof (working with Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the show is based), made sure to tell anyone who would listen that this new series wasn’t going to be a guessing game about what happened that day three years ago. Lindelof was co-creator of Lost, a series that spent six seasons making us guess what the hell was going on and then in the end didn’t answer the question clearly enough for many viewers. At the end of three seasons of The Leftovers, it’s possible to claim that the Departure was just a MacGuffin.
Which leaves the question, what, if anything, was The Leftovers about? For all of the surprises the narrative showed us, the answer isn’t found in a list of “what happened next”. I was reminded of Battlestar Galactica, a genre show with a simple basic storyline (humans create robots to serve them, robots rebel). Sure, BSG was “about” the battle between humans and cylons. But its reach was so great, so ambitious, that a mere description of the storyline was inadequate. The series was about what it means to be human, it was about the role of the military in a time of crisis, it was about politics, it was about religion, and yes, it was also a space opera. Similarly, The Leftovers is about our place in the universe, our relationship to religion/god, and, over everything, about grief.
The plot was often so loopy you needed a notepad to keep up. Maureen Ryan, who had some of the best writing on the series (including one piece I’ll get to later), began a review of one episode as follows:
For my own amusement, I sometimes imagine describing individual episodes of “The Leftovers” to people who’ve never seen the show.
Let’s try it with this installment, shall we?
“A former sheriff from a small town in New York is in Australia, where his father has become convinced of the existence of a song that will stop the planet from being engulfed in a world-ending flood. The father drowns his son, and the son, Kevin, travels to an alternate realm that he has visited before, where he met God, did karaoke, and killed a woman who had been appearing to him in his ‘real’ life. When Kevin enters this realm again, he is both an assassin (as he was the first time he went there), and also the President of the United States, who was elected on a platform of wearing all-white clothes, ending marriage and engaging in the total destruction of basically everything.
“The woman he met and killed the first time through is there; she is the Secretary of Defense and she wants him to launch the nukes that will kill everyone. Another person he knew from his ‘real’ life is there — she’s the Vice President — and she tries to stop the launch from happening, and the VP also helps him find the room that will allow him to communicate with the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister, Christopher Sunday, may know the crucial song Kevin needs, and despite the fact that she helps him, Kevin kills the Vice President.
“By the way, the ‘real’ Kevin can occupy the body of either Kevin — the President or the assassin — and he switches back and forth between them by looking at reflective surfaces. Eventually there’s a showdown between the Kevins, with the Secretary of Defense urging Kevin to launch the nukes, and he does that after killing one of his selves. Oh, and God is giving Kevin instructions part of the time, and a romance novel one of the Kevins wrote — which was hidden behind a White House portrait of Millard Fillmore — ends up figuring pretty prominently in the whole thing.”
It was fun to watch stuff like this. But the crucial moment in the episode came from the simple act of Kevin nuking the world. For he had used his ... what, ability? ... ability to move back and forth between realms (by dying in the “real” world) to avoid dealing with the complications of life (in the “real” world). It is an enormous step for Kevin to finally cut off access to the “other world” to which he would escape.
You could get hung up on how all of this works ... Ryan gets a lot of humor out of a simple plot description. But you can also avoid the MacGuffin. It’s not about trips to alternate worlds, it’s about a troubled, depressed man trying to access his place in the world, trying to figure out if it is possible for him to be a part of that world, to live.
If this all sounds too depressing to watch, well, most people think the first season was too depressing, but that things changed after that. To be honest, I thought they were exaggerating how Season One came across, but then I looked at what I’d written at the time: “The Leftovers is one of the most relentlessly depressing shows ever made.”
All of which might help you understand how surprised I was in a good way that the series offered what could be perceived as a happy ending. Not a happy ending that explained the Departure, or made everything turn out great for everyone, but an ending with two survivors finally understanding each other, with a life they will now live together.
After Season Two, I wrote, “What makes it so good? The way it looks so closely at how events affect the various characters ... this is part of why it is an uncomfortable series, pain and guilt and depression aren’t comfortable. It has just enough magical elements to keep us on our toes. And there are so many actors doing such great jobs.” This pretty much describes Season Three as well, but where before, I singled out Justin Theroux, now it’s time to give Carrie Coon her due.
Before The Leftovers, I had never heard of Carrie Coon. Now, she’s everywhere (currently starring in Fargo). And she is so amazing, it’s almost impossible to believe we didn’t already know her. Coon, and her character Nora Durst, goes on arguably the greatest journey of everyone. Nora sneaks up on us ... you wouldn’t know in the first episodes that she was a particularly important character (she is the anti-MacGuffin). She is noteworthy mainly because while everyone seems to have lost someone, she has lost her entire family. She would seem to have more reason to grieve than others. But she is stoic. Then, in an episode in the middle of Season One, she hires a prostitute to shoot her while Nora wears a bulletproof vest. She is alive only when she feels pain.
Over the course of the series, Nora as a character takes on more importance, and much of this is thanks to Coon. You can imagine the people behind the show thinking, “This woman is incredible, we have to give her more to do.” She never fails. For this reason among many, it is only appropriate that she gives the long monologue that closes the series. The close-ups are so powerful (props to Mimi Leder, who directed the finale and many other episodes).
The crucial lines are “I believe you” and “I’m here”. It’s not a case of what is true, of whether Nora is “explaining” the Departure. It’s a case of finding someone willing to believe that your world as you experience it is real. And for all of the metaphysical aspects of The Leftovers, it ends with something concrete: “I’m here.”
Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning one of the great pieces of criticism I have ever read. Check that ... great pieces of writing. Mo Ryan, one of our most reliably excellent TV critics, wrote a long and very personal essay.
Whatever our damage, we all just want to be known, to be seen unflinchingly — and maybe even compassionately — no matter how many worlds we inhabit or places we hide. Human beings can find those bonds — those momentary, subatomic collisions — in the most unlikely places: At the bottom of a well, at a dinner table, on a bridge in Texas, on a Tasmanian sex boat.
If we’re lucky, our shaggy, spectacular, evolving, terrible selves are recognized in this life, once in a while. Maybe even all at once — the dream is for all of our quantum locations to be spotted. What if, for the briefest span of time, an observer could pause the hurtling energy of the universe and pin down every single place and time in which we exist? Everything seen, mapped, understood.
I have had some moments like that. More than a few courtesy of an HBO drama featuring an orgy. (I know.)
Those flashes of recognition are not just enough. They are everything.
I wish I didn’t identify with Nora Durst so much, some days. Because Carrie Coon is such a great actress, and because this show is working on such an enormously accomplished level, Nora’s heroic effort to seem normal slays me. It’s perfect, it’s wrenchingly real, it’s a meteor screaming across the sky, one that I can see from every plane of existence.
In flashes, in small moments, Carrie shows you just how monumentally difficult it has always been for Nora to go through the motions, to get through the day, to tell herself that everything is more or less OK. She’s got this.
No one sees the strain, the gears working at capacity, the levers and pistons giving off steam, the boiler close to exploding. But it’s in her eyes; even when she’s silent, she crackles with ropey, alert energy. It’s so much damn work to live, much less to care. Nora can’t stop, she won’t stop, she’s afraid to stop. She can’t afford to know what happens if she does.
For years after the Departure, she kept going, because she didn’t have a choice. Did she?
Actually, for a long time, she chose a lie. I get it.
What monster would deny Nora her lies? That she loves (loved?) Kevin, that she could survive losing her family, that she could find a new career and reasons to keep living, and that it would be OK. Sometimes you fake it ’til you make it, and who’s to say she wouldn’t have made it, if she believed hard enough, if she tried hard enough, if she just endured?
I’ve had people tell me they like when I assign grades to shows. I’m not sure why I often resist this ... I have no problem attaching number rankings to movies. In the case of The Leftovers, the question of ranking is surprising, beyond the fact that rankings are silly. Well, I gave Season One of The Leftovers an A. I gave Season Two of The Leftovers an A, and gave the season finale an A+. And now I’m repeating myself: grade for Season Three, A, grade for series finale, A+. Grade for series? If every season is an A, and the season finales are A+, then it’s safe to say, we’re talking about a really good series. I’m not prepared to say anything beyond that. But I am as surprised as anyone that over the course of three seasons, The Leftovers became a legitimate candidate for what Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz call “The Inner Circle”.
I didn’t expect this post. I didn’t expect that Sense8 would already belong in the “Throwback” category.
The first time I wrote about Sense8, I connected it to the feeling I got experiencing Pink in concert performing “What’s Up?” I quoted from an earlier post about Pink:
No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts ... So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.
When I see the characters in Sense8 merging, I experience the most beautiful community of them all, one that results from the blending of the eight into one. It is as if my long-ago dreams are manifested on my television screen.
When I wrote those words about Pink, I was reeling from the news that Sleater-Kinney was going on “indefinite hiatus”. As the years approached a decade, “indefinite” seemed like a tease.
After 23 episodes, 16 cities and 13 countries, the story of the Sense8 cluster is coming to an end ... It is everything we and the fans dreamed it would be: bold, emotional, stunning, kick ass, and outright unforgettable. Never has there been a more truly global show with an equally diverse and international cast and crew, which is only mirrored by the connected community of deeply passionate fans all around the world.
I am not one to indulge in direct public revelations about my life. My “memoirs” as represented on this blog consist largely of my thoughts on movies and television and music. I purposely don’t spend much time exposing my “inner self”. This is, perhaps, a character flaw. Certainly, I have a tendency to look away from the problems of others. I am too alienated from the world to make the proper connections to my fellow humans.
My wife had a tough day at work, and she asked if we could go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, which we did. Donald Trump did something stupid ... I can’t say what, in fact as I type this I don’t know what he did today that was different from the stupid thing he did the day before. Some of my friends are doing well, but others are struggling.
But, if I am being honest, the only thing that really mattered to me was that The 100 would be airing their Season Four finale.
In too many ways to count, the characters on TV shows and in movies are more real to me, more important to me, than the human beings I know. I know this isn’t right, but there it is.
There is room for both our interaction with the world and our experience of works of art. But I’m aware that there is an imbalance for me, that I’m more intensely involved with the art than I am with the real.
And so, as I watched the extremely tense season finale of The 100, I cared, deeply, about what might happen to the characters and their world. If you are unfamiliar with The 100, it takes place around 100 years after a nuclear apocalypse. Season Four has focused on an impending second nuclear apocalypse, and the attempts of the remaining survivors to cope with that situation. There was excitement in watching our heroes and heroines showing their strength in the face of the potential end of the human race. It must be said that part of the excitement came from knowing that the people behind The 100 have never been shy about killing off popular, important characters, so that no one’s survival was guaranteed. (This is not quite true ... there is one character, arguably two, that won’t be dying any time soon.) In fact, death on a major scale is an integral part of the series. Of course, the built-in premise is that only a few people survived the initial apocalypse. But as the show progressed, characters were forced to make decisions with no good answers that often meant pulling the plug on hundreds of people. This video, made after only two seasons had aired, shows how the main character, Clarke, has been responsible for the deaths of more than 900:
I am deeply invested in Clarke, and the other characters on the show, especially her relationship with Lexa ... although I am nowhere near as invested in that relationship as some fans:
OK, I lied. I was right there with those fans.
I don’t quite understand it. There are better shows than The 100 ... The Leftovers is probably the best of what is currently running, or The Americans. But none of those other shows connect with me the way The 100 does. More to the point of this post, nothing in real life affects me the way The 100 does.
I dropped Hulu when Criterion moved their collection to FilmStruck. Thought I wouldn’t miss it, since I mostly used it for the Criterions, but today, the Hulu series Casual began its third season. Given that my wife was kind of hoping I’d re-up with Hulu so we could watch The Handmaid’s Tale, I gave in.
Based on the first episode of the new season, I am still not sure why I’m watching Casual, or even writing about it. I had a couple of things to say, but then I looked at earlier posts and saw I’d said it already:
There are television shows (and movies, for that matter) that my wife tends to avoid because they have no characters to “root for”. It’s not about a contest, it’s just that she likes to have a least one person who has some chance of becoming a good person, if they aren’t there already....
Casual, a Hulu series which just finished its second season, is about a woman who is breaking up with her husband and moves, with their daughter, into her brother’s home. Once we meet the siblings’ parents, we understand why they are having such trouble as adults ... they had a rough childhood in a psychological sense. And over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them.
Except ... the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. He tramples on the lives of others, always thinking that he is the one who is suffering (in fairness, he often is). I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that, using my wife’s criteria, he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas.
Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.
That first episode of the new season gave me no reason to change my mind. Yet here I am, back for another round.
In the early years of our marriage, I had the idea that we should buy a large table for the kitchen, so we could invite groups of our friends for dinner parties. We’d get six or eight folks, eat, and have great and friendly conversation. It was a vision of community that may have grown from the utopian dreams of hippiedom I had as a teenager.
The reality was, and is, that I’m riddled with anxiety and paranoia, such that I rarely even have six or eight people who I’d invite into my home. I know many more people than that, fine people, but my hermit-like existence no longer has room for those idealistic visions.
There was one time in my life when I participated in a communal enterprise. I took part in a journal called Bad Subjects, “Political Education for Everyday Life”. I wrote my first piece for them in 1992, and soon after joined the production team, on which I worked until approximately 2001. In that year, I wrote “Feel Like Going Home: Notes on Self-Marginalization”. Although it’s 16 years old, some of it still resonates for me.
Eight years haven't done as much for me as I'd hoped. Bad Subjects was kind enough to take me in. There was room then, and in fact there has always been room, in Bad Subjects for marginal folks. All we had to do was commit to the attempt, and we were accepted into the community. The beautiful utopian vision of Bad Community has made a difference in the lives of all who have participated in it, myself included. But I've been fooling others and myself; I've been posing, I haven't been a true believer. I thought it would happen, but so far I've fallen short. At times, I've misrepresented myself, but for the most part, I think it has been clear where I come from. The anti-utopian in a group of utopians, the non-believer in the midst of faith, the loner in the middle of the community. It's a sign of the magnificence of the Bad Community that there has always been a place for miscreants like me, and always will be. But Lord, I feel like going home.
I’m reminded of this because of a recent series of posts on Facebook, which began with a fellow Bad Subject from Australia saying that her memory of those times was jogged when she saw Ana Marie Cox on TV. (Cox had spent a year with Bad Subjects in the mid-90s.) While the journal had its start in Berkeley, once it went online its community became international, and an email list lasted for some time that featured lively debate amongst like-minded folks. Our Australian friend got the attention of others, and a new Facebook group was quickly formed so we could talk amongst ourselves once more. It is good to see that old communal spirit rise again.
But, I still feel like going home. As Pee-wee says,
Which leads me to Sense8. It’s hard to explain the series. Heck, I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about everything except Sense8, and when I wrote about Season One, I spent the first half talking about Pink and Linda Perry, as if I can only come close to the show’s essence if I work in the shadows. In Sense8, eight people from across the globe share a connection that is odd enough to place the series in the sci-fi genre. They are “sensates”, linked to the others in their cluster emotionally and mentally. One way the connection works, that goes unexplained, is that they seem to be able to be there for each other in a physical sense. So if one sensate is about to be overpowered by a few bad guys, the sensate that knows martial arts will take over and kick some ass, without ever actually leaving her jail cell.
In a recent review of Season Two, Tim Goodman wrote, “For Netflix's ambitious drama Sense8, the path to entry – and the ability to truly appreciate what comes after – is deceptively simple. You have to give in to it. You have to go with it. ... Sense8 is probably better described as a series you experience more than understand”. It shares some of this with the recent Legion, another show where the pleasures did not come from “figuring it out” but by letting it wash over you.
What entrances me about Sense8 grows out of that unexplained connection among the cluster. I spent my earlier years wishing for community. I spent some time later dipping my toes in the river of community, but not making it to the other side. And now, I’m old and a hermit.
But when I see the characters in Sense8 merging, I experience the most beautiful community of them all, one that results from the blending of the eight into one. It is as if my long-ago dreams are manifested on my television screen.
And they do the impossible, taking the cliché song choice and making it new again:
To get the basics out of the way (and if you are reading this, you know the basics, so this isn’t really a spoiler), 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high-school student and recent suicide who left behind a box of cassette tapes that she recorded just before she killed herself. Each side consists of Hannah singling out someone who is in some way one of the 13 reasons. There are seven tapes ... the B-side of the seventh tape is blank, because she only needs 13 sides to tell the story. The subject of the first tape gets the box of tapes and listens to them all, after which they give the box to the subject of the second tape, who etc etc until all thirteen subjects have heard all of the tapes. The person who has the box throughout the series is Clay Jensen, and as he listens to the tapes (one per episode ... yes, there are 13 episodes to the series), we get flashbacks to the events on the tapes.
The performances are solid from top to bottom, but two actors are most important. Dylan Minnette plays Clay, and he is equal measures sympathetic and irritating, which is entirely appropriate for the part. The should-be-star-making role of Hannah goes to a newcomer from Australia, Katherine Langford, and she is the best thing about the show.
13 Reasons Why does a great job of showing the endless trauma of attending high school, where awful big things happen occasionally, but where mostly awful little things happen every single day. If you aren’t one of the cool kids, you’re screwed. Many of us got through high school by becoming part of a subculture of non-cool kids. But there are always those who are both non-cool and friendless ... it barely matters if the kid is actually cool and actually has friends, if they don’t recognize those facts ... and their high school lives are abysmal. Hannah is new to the school, and almost immediately she gets slut-shamed, from which she never regains a positive status among her peers. She has some friends, but she tends to push them away, usually because those friends are unthinking and do things that hurt Hannah (these things being the focus of each individual tape recording). 13 Reasons Why shows how cliques work in high school, and how reputations are made. It does this is a mostly realistic way.
Knowing how the story ends creates an ever-growing tension as we watch the episodes. Hannah’s life is crumbling before our eyes, but in the flashbacks, the kids don’t realize their part in how Hannah’s life ends ... to them, it’s just high school. Eventually, events shatter the composure of some of the kids ... auto accidents, physical assaults, things that can’t be ignored. But only Hannah, the author of her story as she records the tapes, takes in the accumulation that threatens to ruin her.
The implication is that Hannah commits suicide for the 13 reasons, and in the context of the series, this is believable. Some have criticized the show, though, for blaming events, when many suicides come from a place of deep depression that might be chemical rather than social. Hannah is increasingly disturbed, and she becomes crucially sensitive to how others treat her, but there is never a suggestion that she might have a chemical imbalance that could be alleviated via drug therapy. No, Hannah’s suicide grows entirely out of those 13 reasons, all of which are about how she is treated by others. (This also leads to a final “message” that we all just need to treat each other with more kind attention.)
The decision of how to show the most horrible events in the story are powerful, and I don’t think there’s any reason to dismiss the approach the show takes, although some will find it too hard to watch these scenes (which is partly the point). There are two rapes, and while the first is mostly in the dark, the second is much more visible. Director Jessica Yu (she did two episodes ... other directors include Tom McCarthy, Helen Shaver, Gregg Araki, and Carl Franklin) shows just enough visual context that we know what is happening, but she spends almost the entire scene on the girl’s face. We see the trauma, and we see on her face the terrible way she becomes an empty shell. Far from being exploitive, the scene is sickening and upsetting.
Hannah’s suicide is also unbearable. In that episode (directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez), we see the final hours of Hannah’s life, and then we watch the final minutes. Many have complained that the actual suicide (via slit wrists) is so graphic it could serve as a how-to for troubled viewers. But the people behind 13 Reasons Why specifically wanted to avoid the usual presentation where we see the suicidal person about to commit the act, then cut to someone discovering the act after the fact. They wanted to show the ugliness of suicide. They insisted that the audience was repulsed. I have seen a few comments claiming that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide. Well, the actual suicide is the least-romantic act imaginable.
There is, in fact, very little romanticizing being done throughout the series. We are always aware of the effect of the accumulation of events on Hannah’s psyche, and at no time do we think, gee, I wish I was Hannah.
While the series is on Netflix, I strongly advise against binge watching it. It would be emotionally overwhelming, for one thing, and each episode deserves processing before moving on to the next. The series is too long, and at times it is repetitive, but it’s a bit like the way Clay listens to every tape from start to finish. You’ll want to do the same with 13 Reasons Why.
I want to single out a couple of actors. Justin Prentice does such a great job of playing a rich, privileged jock that you always want to slap the smirk off his face when he shows up. And then there is Wilson Cruz, who first came to our attention in My So-Called Life as Rickie Vasquez. Cruz appears as a lawyer in a handful of episodes in 13 Reasons Why, and between the ever-lasting love his fans have for Cruz, and the obvious connections between his first series and this one, it is delightful to see him. (His character is named “Vasquez”, which has led some to imagine it’s just Rickie, grown up with a new first name.)
Finally, I have read a few people saying 13 Reasons Why promotes revenge. This supposedly even makes suicide more appealing, since Hannah gets “revenge” by exposing everyone in her tapes. Again, there is nothing in this show that makes me wish I had led Hannah’s deeply sad life. (People looking for a revenge drama might check out the fine vigilante show, Sweet/Vicious.)
Not sure how to tag this ... Wainwright made it for the BBC and it aired in the States on PBS, but it’s a film, not a series. She works in television, having given us the excellent series Happy Valley. As is often the case, To Walk Invisible has one person I’ve heard of (Jonathan Pryce) and a cast of excellent actors who are unknown to me (although a few of them were also in Happy Valley). One other similarity to that earlier series: To Walk Invisible takes place in Yorkshire, as did the series, and I can barely understand what people are saying (friends from South England once told me they needed subtitles to understand Happy Valley).
To Walk Invisible tells the story of the Brontë family in the late 1840s, when the sisters first published novels under male pseudonyms. (Pryce played their father.) Their tormented addict brother Branwell is also an important part of the story, although given the time constraints (it lasts two hours), he takes up perhaps too much time. In fact, To Walk Invisible might have benefitted from at least one more episode, as events feel rushed throughout.
The focus is almost entirely on the sisters’ lives. You’re left to fill in the narratives for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on your own, which may be for the best, since I imagine anyone who wants to watch a story of the sisters will have already read the novels. To some extent, the novels come out of nowhere in To Walk Invisible, at least as specific individual works. The film shows how the sisters had to fight the sentiments of the time, reflected most clearly in their use of pseudonyms to hide their gender. And we are led to believe that they are excellent writers, especially Charlotte. But while their skills are made evident, and while their struggles to be recognized are a central theme of the movie, there is little reference to the fact that these weren’t just any novels, but were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
In one respect, this is a good thing, because To Walk Invisible avoids the common fault of biographical stories that “explain” a book like Jane Eyre by showing examples of the author’s life that supposedly informed their creation, as if they lacked the imagination to come up with the work on their own. So we don’t get a scene of Charlotte seeing a woman in an attic. But it does seem odd that Charlotte could have been writing any old novel, given the lack of interest shown in the actual book she produced.
To Walk Invisible looks great, and sounds great if you can handle the accents. The acting is top-notch. There’s too much Branwell, and it’s too short overall. But as is, it’s a worthy accomplishment. 8/10.
On the one hand, it’s easy to describe Legion. It takes part in the Marvel X-Men universe, and is something of an origin story for “Legion”, a lesser-known X-Men character who is the son of Professor X. Legion, known as David Haller, was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was young, and his actions do little to dissuade us from that diagnosis. But it turns out he has mutant powers, which, since no one really understands them, leaves him extremely confused.
So far, this is simple. The cast is an interesting blend of people you know from various projects. Dan Stevens, who plays David, was Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. There’s Rachel Keller, who made a name for herself on the second season of Fargo, which, like Legion, comes from Noah Hawley. Jean Smart, who has been around for a long time, agreed to join the cast without knowing anything about it, because she loved working on Fargo so much. Aubrey Plaza is Aubrey Plaza, but there are so many parts to her character that she expands the definition of an Aubrey Plaza character. (And since I love Aubrey Plaza without ever actually watching her in anything other than talk shows, I’m glad she’s finally in something I like.) There’s Bill Irwin, who founded the Pickle Family Circus, and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.
All of this sounds quirky, but it doesn’t prepare you for what turns up on the screen. Because Hawley spends much of his time inside the head of David Haller, who, it is safe to say, is the ultimate in Unreliable Narrator, since he isn’t ever sure what’s happening in his head, or if it’s actually outside of his head. He can’t be reliable even if he wants to. Hawley dumps us in the middle of this ... he doesn’t really explain what’s going on with any clarity until the next-to-last episode of the season, which means we spend six episodes asking each other, “what the fuck?” Legion is as trippy as any show you’ve ever seen, and while there are good reasons for that, you have to allow yourself to be confused.
There is a lot of strong acting on the show ... if you’re expecting Matthew Crawley 2.0, you’re in for a surprise. And the look of the show perfectly matches the themes and the “reality” of this alternate world. It’s a pleasure to watch, even if/when you are clueless about what you are watching. And maybe it’s because I love Fargo the TV series so much, but I spent the entire season of Legion assuming that Noah Hawley knew what he was doing, so instead of my usual frustration at obscurity, I gave myself over to his vision.
I am nowhere near fluent in the X-Men universe, so I can say with confidence that such knowledge is not required to enjoy Legion. And if you don't like superhero sagas, trust me, this isn't like the ones you're familiar with. If you think the world has gone downhill since the 60s, when trippy visuals were the norm, you will love Legion. Just be warned that there are few shows as weird as this one. A-.