Category Archives: Television

Offer Cara Dune on “The Mandalorian” to Her Stunt Performer: Amy Sturdivant

Words have consequences. That’s what happened when Gina Carano was fired from “The Mandalorian” in 2021. She had compared “hating someone for their political views” to the treatment of Jewish people that preceded the Holocaust. It’s part and parcel to the narrative that disagreeing with a Republican victimizes them so much that their suffering can only be compared to a genocide.

Before this, Carano had pushed election conspiracy theories and supported voter suppression efforts. Needless to say, Disney got tired of its hit series shouldering the criticism of a supporting actress who had appeared in fewer than half its episodes. Why cover for her and risk a serious hit to the reputation of a cornerstone franchise? Carano was fired in February 2021 and Disney stated that she wouldn’t appear in any future “Star Wars” projects.

Since then, Carano has been associated with film projects by The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s media company, and “My Son Hunter”, a film based on Rudy Giuliani’s 2020 election conspiracy propaganda that centers on President Joe Biden’s son Hunter. It’s by the makers of “The ObamaGate Movie” starring Dean Cain. What, they couldn’t get Kevin Sorbo?

Carano more recently argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing but a conspiracy to distract from the U.S. government “losing control of the covid narrative”. She’s also said that the COVID-19 vaccines are most similar to the AIDS epidemic. Not that the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the AIDS epidemic, but that the vaccines are. She lamented being “stripped of everything” due to the firing. You know, aside from her $4 million net worth and contracts that came pouring in from Republican outlets.

Point is – and I meant to make it more briefly than this, but the examples really keep on coming – that Carano is exceptionally toxic and can’t return to the franchise. Yet why let her take a character with her? Marshall Cara Dune of “The Mandalorian” is a character others wrote, directed, choreographed, and even performed in certain moments. A character is always the creation of many, not just one person.

Recasting should always be a well-considered conversation. It can be easily abused to minimize actors’ creative input, or to keep them from revealing a toxic set. Here, however, it was Carano who was the toxic and hateful one. She was the one creating the problem. Franchises constantly update characters to toss out the elements that don’t work. If Carano’s the element that doesn’t work, problem solved.

Would recasting Cara Dune ruin our immersion? Did it ruin our immersion when War Machine was recast from Terrence Howard in “Iron Man” to Don Cheadle in “Iron Man 2”? Those two actors look nothing alike and act nothing alike – their portrayals of the character were completely different. We embraced Cheadle anyway.

Was our immersion ruined when “Batman Begins” recast love interest Rachel Dawes from a solid Katie Holmes performance over to an even better Maggie Gyllenhaal? No, it was the right move.

We’ve got a couple of Spider-Men and Batfolk and Commissioners Gordon bouncing around, no one’s making the argument that shifting back and forth between their actors ruins immersion.

“The Mandalorian” purposefully doesn’t cast dynamic supporting actors. It casts supporting roles with actors who play directly into type so that Pedro Pascal can stand out as exceptional even when he’s unable to show his face 95% of the time. If the supporting actors were our best character actors, Pascal would become lost. This isn’t a criticism of the show’s actors – type actors aren’t lesser than character actors, they just perform a different storytelling role. It’s how you can make the faceless role the most dynamic one among actors who all get to show their faces. You cast the ensemble for earnest portrayals, not complex ones, and it works beautifully.

I say this as someone who used to be a fan of Carano’s. When she was competing in MMA, she was my favorite fighter. She was a stand-up fighter who tried to win fights with a minimum of going to the ground. That reflected what I was taught in taekwondo and kickboxing growing up, and I appreciated that there was a fighter who made that philosophy work in a sport that tends to prioritize grappling. I tracked down a lot of her early films before streaming was as widespread because I wanted to see the fight choreography. Even then, I knew she wasn’t a good actress. Maybe she’d become one, but I watched her the way I watch some early Schwarzenegger movies – because I appreciated what they were doing on-screen even if the acting was questionable.

Carano is eminently replaceable as an actor. Even if she weren’t, she says a lot of harmful, dangerous shit. Anyone who’s pushing hatred and conspiracies shouldn’t be given a platform, and pushing hatred doesn’t give someone a magical right to someone else’s platform. I’m glad Carano’s fired, and I hope the conservative rumor mill that regularly insists she’ll be rehired remains nothing more than clickbait gossip.

Of course, the easiest way to not rehire her is to recast the role and move on. It also enables all those other people who helped create the character to keep on doing so.

If you keep Cara Dune, though, who plays her? Fan recasting efforts centered around Lucy Lawless, but I don’t know that she’d communicate the same character. She also has a habit of outshining her costars, which works in her projects – but is the exact opposite of what “The Mandalorian” needs from its supporting actors. Lawless is also an order of magnitude more expensive than what they were paying Carano. Even hit series have to keep to budget.

Why not just cast the woman who’s already played Cara Dune? No, not Carano. Amy Sturdivant has been Cara Dune’s stunt performer on the show. She was also Taskmaster’s stunt performer in “Black Widow”, and appeared as a stunt actor in “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Captain Marvel”. Here’s a short fight film of hers:

Despite how much they contribute to creating characters, down to how they move through a scene, stunt actors rarely have paths into acting in Western film. The film industries of many Asian countries regularly look for talent among stunt performers to promote into acting – Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Tony Jaa are some of the most famous.

As the American film industry has embraced more martial arts fight choreography, though, it’s lagged behind in creating this stunt-to-acting pipeline. This is one reason why American fight scenes still lack the complexity, scope, and length of Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Thai fight scenes.

The mold needs to be broken. We’ll stick singers, dancers, streamers, Instagram stars, and celebrities-of-the-moment all into our movies and series with no acting experience, and give them every resource to succeed, but stunt performers who have eaten and breathed their lives on set for their entire career still don’t have that pipeline. Stunt performers who’ve taken physical risks and suffered injuries portraying characters with barely any credit still don’t have that pipeline. Hell, Carano had no acting training before she shifted from MMA to Hollywood. Why should it stop a stunt performer who’s already been on sets for 10 years?

Amy Sturdivant has already performed Cara Dune in some of her most harrowing moments. I’m not making the argument she’s a great actor. She could be, who knows? I’ve watched some of her short films and choreography sessions in researching this article. She seems solid, and has enough charisma to deliver Cara Dune. More to the point, she’s already done the hardest, most taxing parts of portraying that character capably. I’m just saying let her do it 100% of the time. What do you have to lose? A side character in a few episodes who’s otherwise written out of the series?

But angry Republican fans will…do what? They’re already angry at you, they’ve already said the things they’re going to say, the few who’d stop watching have already done so.

The fans who are sticking with the series, the ones who wanted Carano to go, would be happy to see her recast with someone less toxic and hateful. A lot of people would be pleased to find out it’s someone who’s been involved with the character from the start.

What you have to gain is keeping intact a character who’s already established. What you have to gain is testing a stunt-to-actor pipeline that could give you returns for years in franchises that need actors who boast these kinds of skillsets. What you have to gain is a new source of potential actors, and a new actor in particular who could succeed in a popular role.

It’s the easiest recasting in the world in terms of finding your replacement – Sturdivant doesn’t just already work on the series, she already works on that character’s performance. Given the nature of “The Mandalorian”, Sturdivant’s already helped shape the Cara Dune we’ve seen. Why not let her keep on doing it in a way that’s more visible?

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“Ms. Marvel” and the Order of the Fainting Couch

Let’s talk about conservatives, how we measure viewership, and “Ms. Marvel”…by talking about an extinct creature that once roamed the earth: the newspaper. For a long time, newspapers followed a rule. You needed regular features to keep your subscribers happy, and you needed fresh headlines to accumulate rack sales – people buying at newstands and in checkout lines. As print media has faded, you might say that this guideline no longer matters – and what could it possibly have to do with the MCU? Well, look around.

Do you read news online? You probably have a few regular sites you frequent, but you’ll still click on big headlines – sometimes even before checking the source. 24-hour news networks balance regular features and weekly programs with breaking news and specials. Even something like ESPN has their daily shows – usually all talking about the same few stories over and over again – balanced against unique documentaries and timely interviews that will speak to narrower bands of their audience.

That’s all legacy media, though. OK, the biggest streamers run regular, familiar content at the same time each week, but create and jump on other special events. Many devote time to playing one game they’re working through one day each week, and then leave other days up to new games and IRL content. YouTubers balance recurring features on a regular, predictable basis (usually weekly or monthly) with forays into new content to see what material hooks (and can eventually become the next regular weekly content).

Why should the MCU be any different? Reaction to “Ms. Marvel” has been both wonderful and horrible. Many viewers love it, and my Muslim friends have been speaking out about mainstream representation in a way they’ve rarely been able to discuss in the U.S. At the same time, reviews are being brigaded by racists pulling scores down and complaining about woke casting shoving diversity down their throats.

Let’s be real: Islam accounts for 25% of the world’s population. We’ve had 28 films and 18 series in the MCU. “Ms. Marvel” means that one of them has centered on a Muslim character. That’s about 2% of all MCU films and series. Two-percent to represent 25%, and this is somehow overrepresentation? It’s too much for you? Are you a Great Gatsby character – you need a fainting couch and some pearls to clutch? The only amount of representation that is less than one out of 46 is zero out of 46: complete erasure.

Let’s be clear what that argument really is. The complaint isn’t about overrepresentation, it’s about hate. It’s about being angry a group of people has been made barely visible. It’s about fearing that they are happy and feel represented, when before you could enjoy some small emulation of self-importance making them feel unseen. One out of 46 and your shit has been lost because some people feel seen.

If white replacement theory is scandalized by the notion that the quarter of the world that is Muslim is represented two-percent of the time, then I can’t imagine any way of thinking that’s smaller, more fragile, or more cowardly.

Ah, but the news about viewership proves them right, right? Full steam to the S.S. Fainting Couch, bowtied conservolads! “Ms. Marvel” is the least viewed MCU debut on Disney+. While Disney+ doesn’t release numbers itself, TV analytics companies assess a viewership range based on a lot of other data. According to SambaTV, “Ms. Marvel” only got 0.8 million viewers compared to the next least-watched of the Disney+ MCU shows: the 1.5 million of “Hawkeye”. Of course, those other shows are being produced at $25 million an episode – I’d be shocked if this were the case for a YA series like “Ms. Marvel”.

Oh look, I’m on the defensive already! I’m making excuses! You’ll steal my fainting couch for yourselves yet! So let’s talk about subscription vs. rack sales in terms of the MCU.

Chris Hemsworth is 38. Sebastian Stan is 39. Tom Hiddleston is 41. Chris Pratt is 42. Oscar Isaac is 43. Anthony Mackie is 43. Benedict Cumberbatch is 45. Paul Bettany is 51. Paul Rudd is 53 going on 30. Jeremy Renner is 51 going on 140. Hemsworth, Stan, and Hiddleston could be doing this another decade, but if Robert Downey Jr. was getting too old for this at 54 when most of his action scenes were being done through CGI, then how long are some of those actors going to be able to keep playing these roles?

And as much as we’d like to think that Brie Larson at 32, Elizabeth Olsen at 33, and Evangeline Lilly at 42 have plenty of time left, the franchise was willing to cut bait with Scarlett Johansson – the biggest star left in the franchise – when she was 36. It’d be great if the MCU sees women heroes return into their 50s the way it lets men, and it’s something we should insist on seeing, but what we’re fighting is a long precedent for major franchises retiring women a lot younger than they retire men.

The MCU needs more than Tom Holland, Simu Liu, and Hailee Steinfeld. It’s got the subscribers – Gen X and Millennials. We’re hooked in, by fandom or by sunk cost fallacy. If we’ve devoted this many hours of our lives to the MCU, I guess we’ve got to see what happens next. Sure, “Spider-people vs. Lokis” is just going to be 25 stunt-castings of each re-enacting the battle royale from “Anchorman”, but what else is a Millennial like me going to watch? A “Game of Thrones” spin-off? “Halo” season 2? I’m 20 movies and a dozen series deep into the MCU, I’ve got to see how Rob Schneider-man fights off Kevin Hart’s Loki #5.

The point is that the rack sales don’t make up the core of your audience. They won’t match the spending or numbers of your subscribers – but a subscriber base that never adds new subscribers will dwindle and fade. It can only be kept up so long. It’s those rack sales that convert new audience into subscribers. To convert them into subscribers, you’ve got to give them new reasons to show up.

The MCU isn’t going to get much more penetration into white America than it already has. It’s not going to get more Gen X and Millennial viewers, especially in terms of topping out its male viewership. It’s hit the point of diminishing returns on both.

SamboTV is saying “Ms. Marvel” doesn’t have the audience of the other Disney+ shows. So? The other thing they’re saying – that gets conveniently left out of The Fainting Couch Report – is that its audience is very different from those other Disney+ shows, with a much higher rate of Gen Z viewers and viewers of color. That’s new audience. That’s the group that’ll keep the MCU viable over the next decade-plus. That’s the audience you need to start showing up reliably in the way Gen X and Millennials have if you still want an MCU at this scale in a decade.

Some defenses rightly cite that there’s resistance by viewers who won’t watch a Muslim superhero. I’m sure that impacts the viewership numbers and needs to be talked about, but it’s not some proof that’s going to make a point to Disney. Disney isn’t sitting there saying, “Oh boy, our profit margin on ‘Ms. Marvel’ really depends on racists liking it!”

Others say that MCU shows on Disney+ weren’t released at the same time as a new Star Wars show, as “Ms. Marvel” is debuting opposite “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. I’m not sure that defense is accurate. Disney+ may see a spike in subscribers at this time, and the streaming service’s paid subscribers had already grown 33% year-over-year by early May – before either show debuted. More to the point, I’m not sure this defense is needed.

Here’s what I think is more relevant. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man has the 21st and 25th highest ranking movies in the MCU. Both films combined don’t reach the box office of 7th ranked “Captain Marvel”, but I don’t hear anyone arguing it’s proof Paul Rudd shouldn’t be part of the MCU.

Chris Hemsworth’s three Thor films rank 16th, 22nd, and 24th in the MCU. Why aren’t the review brigading fans insisting this is proof he shouldn’t be included?

Rudd and Hemsworth are by far the two worst-performing leads remaining in the MCU, unless you want to include mid-pandemic debuts. But they’re fan favorites. Odd how that works.

Rack sales convert into subscriptions, and you can’t make rack sales to an audience that’s already subscribed. You need new viewers. You need new types of viewers. You can’t produce either out of old viewers.

The MCU’s been going for 14 years, since “Iron Man” came out in 2008. I’m sure it wants to keep going for another 14. Are they going to trot out Benedict Cumberbatch at 59? Paul Rudd, vampirishly young as he stays, at 65? Are we going to be watching 55 year-old Tom Hiddleston re-unite with a 52-year old Chris Hemsworth? Some of them may still exist in the franchise, but I have my doubts most will be leading films or series. Are we going to stick with a 40 year-old Peter Parker? Will those actors even still want to play those roles at that age? And as great of a decision as it would be – as needed as it would be – if the MCU is groundbreaking enough to center movies on a woman superhero in her 50s, I will eat some kind of hat.

“Ms. Marvel” lead Iman Vellani is 19, making her the youngest superhero lead in the MCU by five years. A more diverse, younger audience is more important to the next 14 years of the MCU than a bunch of Millennials who’ll be in our 40s and 50s come 2036. The show has half the audience of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, but I guarantee you that the MCU isn’t banking on Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, or their primary audience 14 years from now. It’s not even banking on Holland or Steinfeld at that point. It’s banking on actors like Vellani and a number of people we haven’t even heard of yet. It’s banking on characters they’ll need to build up before they judge the current ensemble has aged out. It’s banking on a broader range of viewers so that it doesn’t need to rely on pleasing a narrower range. The more aggressive and demanding that narrow range of viewers is, the more it just proves how quickly the MCU needs to diversify its viewership.

“Ms. Marvel” is good, too, by the way. I’m enjoying it a lot more than some of the MCU series and movies that’ve preceded it and that just keep on doing the same things. A “Where’s Waldo” of Spider-men may engage me now, but new perspectives, new voices, and new storytelling will contribute much more to keeping me interested over the next decade. The MCU is one of the few things that plan that far ahead, and that’s how its series and films should be measured. They’ve got countless projects to slow down current viewers from leaving – maybe too many. If you wonder why they’re making series like “Ms. Marvel” and the upcoming “Echo”, it’s because they need to start getting new audiences in quickly if they hope to convert them into diehard MCU fans a decade from now.

You can watch “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. I highly recommend it.

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My Favorite Performances of the Year (So Far)

The more content we have, the more our “to watch” lists rack up shows that we may never get to touch. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to have more than we can find time to watch than too little, but it’s important to share those series and performances that move us. Sometimes we find these where we don’t expect.

I’m not a big TV comedy watcher, in part because I prefer shows that are willing to tread into the absurd. That hasn’t been the style the last decade. When we’ve standardized even the mockumentary format, we need to find new approaches before it’s tired out. Yet this year has shown a tendency to do just that, not just navigating into far more absurd and satirical waters, but also changing formats and genres on the fly without worrying about whether each half hour forms a complete thematic arc.

There are so many other performances this year that don’t make a list like this. When you highlight the individual, you can overlook the ensemble, and “Abbott Elementary” boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. (I know I just complained about standardized mockumentaries, but this one shines through the format.)

Similarly, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has no weak spot in the cast. Anson Mount may be trying to make himself my new favorite captain in the franchise, but as “Star Trek” often is, the show is a resounding group effort.

I didn’t really dive deep into voice acting, but I do have to highlight Rie Murakawa’s work as the gender-expansive Osana Najimi on “Komi Can’t Communicate”. Few convey the balance of care for others with the pure, willful chaos that she does.

There are also those performances that might not ask their actors to stretch too far because that’s not what the show needs from them in that moment. They’re examples of perfect casting nonetheless. I think of Hazal Kaya’s charismatic light mystery turn as Esra in the Turkish “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian and Jordan L. Jones’s Jazz on “Bel-Air”, and Alan Ritchson’s Jack Reacher on “Reacher”.

There are several performances I want to highlight even more than these:

Emmy Rossum, “Angelyne

You could dismiss Emmy Rossum’s performance in “Angelyne” as that of playing a ditz, but this would overlook an incredibly complex role. The story of an 80s celebrity famous for being famous is described through various conflicting recollections. These different perceptions, including Angelyne’s own, each change who she is and her path to celebrity.

There’s a scene where Angelyne sits down with Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. He’s surrounded by an entourage of women, and Angelyne counters with her own entourage of men – both retinues are only there for show. He wants her to pose nude, but it quickly becomes clear he’s outclassed. He’s part of an old-fashioned misogyny that trades fame for ownership and exploitation. She’s pioneered the trade of exploiting celebrity itself, without the need to answer to someone like him. It’s here that her ability for negotiation, cutthroat attitude, and business acumen all bite, where her airhead presentation gives way to a keen understanding of Hollywood and how to beat men at their own game.

Don’t get me wrong – Angelyne comes off in many other situations as a narcissist and manipulator, but not because she’s a sociopath. She ditches who she once was and embraces a celebrity persona as an escape from abuse, itself a re-enactment of generational trauma. Her performance serves as both a critique of New Age commercialism and the influencer culture that evolved from it, and an understanding of the desperation that drives people to chase it as a survival mechanism. That Rossum’s performance utilizes camp as well as drama lends a stunning flexibility to the series. Rather than portraying someone who’s conflicted, she portrays someone who conflicts us: she’s deserving of our horror and judgment as well as our empathy and admiration.

Jabari Banks, “Bel-Air”

The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is good, and it does the difficult, thought-out work of adaptation well. Do we need a second take on “Fresh Prince”? How could it not ruin what came before? Won’t it complicate my nostalgic understanding of the character to have a completely different actor play him? I lament this difficult question so much I can barely pay attention to movies containing anywhere between three and seven Spider-folk.

“Bel-Air” updates many things that wouldn’t be said on TV in the early 90s, advancing conversations about racism into today’s media and political climate. At the show’s heart is Jabari Banks’s performance of a young man who’s torn between versions of who he wants to be, who both admires and resents the wealth that suddenly surrounds him and is wary of the self-hate that social acceptance in white circles demands of him.

Banks captures so many of the tics and nuances in the actor Will Smith’s original performance, while still giving his interpretation of the character Will Smith. You can emulate someone else’s performance with nods to their movement, but Banks encodes it into his performance in a way that feels much more natural and internal than an acting nod. The characters don’t just act similarly, they think similarly. “Bel-Air” leans on a strong cast with a number of good performances, but Banks’s is a captivating interpretation that drives the show.

Barbara Liberek, “Cracow Monsters

Barbara Liberek in "Cracow Monsters".

“Cracow Monsters” is a Polish horror series that’s more fantastique than fantasy. Based on Polish folklore, the series hearkens back to the moodiest and most atmospheric habits of 90s horror with quick and harrowing bursts of action. Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who fears the onset of schizophrenia and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She’s revealed to have a power that can help hunt otherworldly creatures, and grudgingly works with a group of similar students.

Alex’s curiosity, earnestness, and frustration are balanced against a tendency for self-destruction and isolation. She wants to survive, but is so afraid that she’s on the cusp of repeating her mother’s mental illness and suicide that she also wants to destroy herself in what time is left to still control her own fate.

Liberek realizes a character who’s dreaming yet terrified her dream is doomed, rushing against the clock to become a doctor before the onset of schizophrenia. She takes care of others, yet aggressively rejects anyone attempting to aid her, lest they get invested. She couldn’t care less about helping anyone hunt demons until her curiosity drives her enough to tolerate having to work with other people. Alex is the kind of standoffish, matter-of-fact, justifiably resentful noir character that women rarely get to play, but Liberek realizes her in both humanizing and iconic ways.

Claudia O’Doherty, “Killing It”

Claudia O’Doherty possesses that rare Madeline Kahn ability to exist in the show’s story so completely that she’s naive to it, while at the same time sitting outside of it and pointedly commenting on it. It’s one of the toughest demands in comedy because it asks the actor to simultaneously portray two extremes that each comment on the middle ground where all the other characters live.

O’Doherty achieves both the character and the meta extremes, whether it’s fulfilling a dead man’s last wish by eating his identifying information, or dragging a bag full of dead snakes through a convention hall where the wealthy con their worshippers. She delivers an outsized portion of the absurdism in “Killing It”, while existing inside of it as someone who’s completely normalized to it.

One of the midseason episodes, “The Task Rabbit” involves O’Doherty’s Jillian housesitting in a mansion, and coached by Zoom call to pretend she’s rich and cutthroat for a wealthy date. It’s an acidic take on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that becomes a half-hour of modern science-fiction as pointed as anything I’ve seen this year. It entirely relies on O’Doherty’s ability to comment on the story even as she suffers it.

You may also recognize O’Doherty as Stede Bonnett’s wife Mary in “Our Flag Means Death”.

Kheng Hua Tan, “Kung Fu”

“Kung Fu” is an important show, but not necessarily a great one. It’s the kind of CW fare where you can drop in on an episode and know everything that’s going on in the first three minutes, chiefly because all the characters repeat it over and over again. Nonetheless, I love it, in large part because its cast is so incredibly charming.

As their kids run around having adventures, it’s the parents played by veteran actors Kheng Hua Tan and Tzi Ma who anchor often-poignant B-plots. The main plot about artifact trails, all-too-convenient clues, and insta-hacking can get very silly, but they often serve as an opportunity to open up points about Chinese history in the U.S., racism, and fighting gentrification.

Preserving one’s culture in a society determined to assimilate and re-purpose it hides traumas both historical and personal. Where Tzi Ma’s emotionally open Jin abides and understands, Kheng Hua Tan’s Mei-Li is more intense and guarded. Those scenes when she opens up enough to speak about her own history provide some of the clearest and most resonant moments happening on TV.

Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death

“Our Flag Means Death” lets director and Oscar-winning writer Taika Waititi stretch his legs as an actor. His improv and comic timing are impeccable. On the surface, his character of Blackbeard is a man for whom nothing is a challenge anymore. He’s grown numb to life, and wants to retire and enjoy his wealth. Yet this numbness hides something else – a growing attraction to the incompetent gentleman-pirate Stede Bonnett.

Paired with Rhys Darby’s Bonnet, Waititi’s Blackbeard offers a lens on two ways that men are taught to deny their homosexuality. In Stede’s case, it’s trying to fit into a suffocating heterosexual lifestyle – acting the part in regards to wife, children, place in society.

In Blackbeard’s case, the metaphor is that of suppressing who he is through a psychological self-mutilation, an inwardly turned hate and cruelty that bubbles to the surface and has to find other targets beyond himself – thus reinforcing the expectations of who he should be and how he should act.

Stede is an escape from that, but both struggle to escape the cages of expectation they’ve lived in most of their lives. They’re each expected to act a certain way, and do massive harm to themselves and those around them just to keep up the facade. To find each other and accept who they are is a kindness for both of them and their communities. That this is presented so well in the storytelling of a satirical sitcom is remarkable. Waititi is surrounded by an excellent cast, but it’s his performance that gives the series its pace and rhythm.

Minha Kim & Youn Yuh-jung, “Pachinko

Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung play young and elderly versions of Sunja, in a story that follows her family across half a century. “Pachinko” uses this family as an opportunity to look at the Korean diaspora, some of which fled Korea during a brutal occupation only to suffer more hate and racism in Japan and the U.S.

Kim and Youn (along with child actor Yuna) realize the same woman across half a century, keeping and evolving mannerisms, showing how physicality changes without losing what makes that physicality unique. The way each glances, considers a silence or speaks before thinking, the way each enters a space, looks out for someone else or forgets to…it’s all the same person. It’s all the same character in a way that goes beyond two actors finding something shared. There’s an essence on-screen, something that we talk about when we think of movie magic, that these two actresses evoke.

There’s no suspension of disbelief needed. They’re the same person. In the emotional, gut reaction we have as viewers, there’s an instinct in me that would sooner believe they’re the same person across decades than that this could possibly be a character played by different actresses. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever felt that before.

Alan Tudyk, “Resident Alien

“Resident Alien” might be the best thing SyFy’s managed in years and years. The comedy about an alien who’s crash-landed and has to live among the humans he was sent to destroy had a strong first season last year. This year’s been a little more up and down, but Tudyk’s performance continues to be a comedic goldmine.

The evolved-octopus-out-of-water story asks Tudyk to be doing outlandish physical comedy constantly, and the man hasn’t hit a wrong note. The series is edited for a sense of irony, and this only helps. It’s the kind of show where it would be very easy to chase a joke that doesn’t work. Very occasionally, it will do that for some of the other characters. The series centers on Tudyk’s Harry first and foremost, though, and a live-action series anchoring itself to this much physical comedy is nearly unheard of today. That’s because it needs someone with Tudyk’s skill to pull it off.

Bridget Everett & Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere

The way these two characters appreciate and speak to each others’ unique way of looking at the world – and their anxiety at not finding a place in it – helps them find a joy that’s otherwise blocked.

Stuck in small town Kansas, and struggling with a rural environment that often feels claustrophobic, Jeff Hiller’s Joel is the only person around who treats Bridget Everett’s Sam as if she’s somebody admirable and worthy of notice. It’s not a romance. Joel is gay and he has a boyfriend, though the rest of the town is so willfully blind to this fact that they all just assume it’s a “corrective” romance for both.

Their friendship opens up a level of acceptance and self-acceptance that both have trouble finding elsewhere. It enables them both to not just help each other up, but to foster the beginnings of community within a community where they’ve rarely fit.

Andrew Garfield, “Under the Banner of Heaven

I opened my “Under the Banner of Heaven” review by calling Andrew Garfield a beautiful performer. The crime scene that opens the show is horrific – you just don’t ever see much of it. We see its corners and edges, but we never leave Garfield’s Detective Pyre. It’s his reaction, the plaintive eyes that he can’t disguise, the bodily shudder, the beginning of erosion in someone’s beliefs played out in his carriage…it tells me so much more about the effect of that crime scene than the goriest image ever could.

It shook me from the beginning. Pyre’s caring but insistent manner is ideal in a detective, and arises from his faith even as it readies to be ripped to shreds by the realizations he’ll make about the brutal, misogynist Mormon fundamentalism he investigates. Pyre’s a walking emotional and spiritual sacrifice, and there are points where even he knows this. Yet he’s played with a care and gentleness that’s more admirable and capable than the blunt, desensitized cops that are worshiped on so many other shows. (The only flaw I find in his performance is how much he looks like Jimmy Carr in this hairstyle.)

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

“Angelyne” and the Pursuit of Painless Existence

“Angelyne” tells the story of someone who’s famous for being famous. Yet she created that fame from nothing, by transforming herself into an icon. She drafted a community that she could relentlessly take advantage of, but one that argues it gets more back than it puts in. Telling its story according to a roster of unreliable narrators, the series is exciting because it confronts how one woman can repaint reality, and how those around her repaint it once more. Layer after layer of misrepresentation offers very few truths, but rather the shape of something we can begin to grasp.

Emmy Rossum plays Angelyne, a real-life figure who popped up on billboards in L.A. during the 80s and 90s. She had a small band, but they weren’t her path to fame. The mystery of who this person is, why she’s suddenly everywhere – that created the fame. It wasn’t an outside marketing push either; she convinced a billboard company to start posting her picture all over the city.

“Angelyne” tells her story – and the story of those around her – in a faux documentary format. I avoid the term mockumentary because it’s not as straightforward as that genre’s premise. Interviews shape each episode, shifting from one set of characters to another in order to introduce possible frameworks of truth. The bulk of each episode happens in those flashbacks, but there’s no solid omniscient or filmmaker’s perspective here.

The genius of Rossum’s performance isn’t that she’s playing a character well, it’s that she’s playing a character well who’s playing Angelyne – sometimes well, sometimes unevenly, sometimes learning how to play Angelyne better. Angelyne as a celebrity icon is as much a place to hide as anything else, a shield from engaging the world on its own, often unfair terms. Early on, Angelyne talks about living a “painless existence”. She sees her own story as malleable, her own past as unimportant. Details take the shine off the mystery. If who she is needs to be constantly mutable, then details are antithetical to Angelyne existing in the first place.

The best parts of “Angelyne” center on the clashing truths of its bevy of untrustworthy narrators. An early scene features Angelyne’s boyfriend Cory describing their breakup. She’s jealous that his single is getting radio play, that he has a billboard before she does, that he has some fame rather than acting as a stepping stone to her own. In the middle of her temper tantrum, she coldly stops to point out this isn’t how it went. She literally drags Cory onto another set, where he grudgingly takes his place in her version of the scene – in bed with another woman. Based on the performances and some logic, we can take away that her version of the scene is likely the real one, but it’s not always quite this clear.

Even our understanding of Angelyne – as narcissist, a manipulator of others, obsessed with her own fame, renegotiating others into corners – is founded upon a reaction to intergenerational trauma, loss, child abuse, Hollywood misogyny. There’s a complex well of truths to draw from, and no compass for how and where each is relevant.

Angelyne is a cultish narcissist who saps others of years of their lives, who redirects their dreams so hers can feed on them. Angelyne is a feminist reaction to the 1980s and the role women were expected to play, someone who only ever played the game exactly as the men in Hollywood do. Angelyne is a beautiful self-expression of someone realizing who they want to be; Angelyne is a survival mechanism that shelters someone who never had a chance to discover who she wanted to be. All of these things are true, especially the parts that don’t agree.

It sells the mystery of the show: who is Angelyne? That’s a feat when my initial thought would be why should I care about a forgotten 80s icon who was famous simply for being famous? But there’s something in the heart of Rossum’s portrayal that communicates a woman haunted by something, trying to erase her past while using those around her to Positive Think her way into a new reality where none of it matters. What that pain is, why it needs running away from, that’s what makes Angelyne matter.

If Angelyne is the shelter from it all that she lives inside, how does that speak to others who also face something they have to escape? Is that her appeal? Is she a safe space not just for herself, but for fans who recognize they need a similar shelter? And how does this interact with her manipulation and harm of those closest to her?

This is what makes Angelyne’s determination to control her narrative compelling, even if that means lying about the facts as that narrative is told. There are good and bad reasons, and every other unreliable narrator disagrees how the scale tips between them.

The series also takes its most dramatic moments and transforms them. Drama is uninteresting to “Angelyne” because it conveys trauma rather than escaping from it. Camp and kitsch are far more interesting, because these are visual expressions and celebrations of that escape. The moments where Angelyne escapes, or helps someone else feel like they’ve escaped their burdens, are sometimes literal flights of fancy. Camp gives us emotional answers while being uninterested in the precise, logical ones.

There’s one scene where a reporter talks about Angelyne showing him who she really is. They enter a mansion’s front hall – which also happens to be space featuring a surreal, kitschy dance number. It makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it’s an emotionally complete answer.

At times, “Angelyne” is genius. Yet as it gets more precise and reveals more about her past, the camp stops fitting as well. It’s hard to say if this is a shift from Lucy Tcherniak to Matt Spicer as director, or simply the script having to describe lawsuits and the harder details of Angelyne’s past. The show gets to an incredibly high plateau midway through, and finishes very solidly, but its strength rests in those moments where Angelyne fights over the narrative and reality.

As we’re told more single truths, instead of trying to figure out what truth is from a morass of elements, the show gets heavier and more dramatic. What could earlier be fused to camp underpinnings doesn’t fit cleanly anymore. Perhaps this is necessary and inevitable, but as a show there’s an alchemy it reaches that starts to fall a little out of balance. It’s not enough to ruin anything – the show’s still extremely good. There’s just some really heightened storytelling in this that I wish could have pushed through that last step.

It’s one of the best shows of the year, with one of the best performances of the year. Expect a biopic or drama and you’ll be disappointed. If you like metaphor through camp and kitsch, it offers a complex portrayal with some stunning moments.

You can watch “Angelyne” on Peacock.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” Makes the Silliest 60s Villain Terrifying

There are very few villains that send a chill up my spine. “Star Trek” as a franchise has had three. Those original flavor Borg with their singular objective and minimalist score still thrill me every time I scroll past a rerun of “The Best of Both Worlds”. They may represent the hallmark moment of franchise villainy precisely because they can’t be circumvented through diplomacy or logic. Their single-minded objective is a straight line from “we need to assimilate you” to “you’re assimilated”. There’s no wiggle room for negotiation within that.

Of course, later iterations of the Borg would reveal hive structures, hierarchies, a queen – elements that may make them more interesting, but that also open them up to the power of negotiation and compromise. We all know if a Starfleet crew can negotiate with someone, they don’t have to beat them or survive them any longer, they just need to solve the mystery of getting to the same table together.

This was one of the most exciting ideas that premised “Star Trek: Discovery”. The Klingons recognized the negotiation table was inevitable, that Federation diplomacy was too influential to overcome, and the only way to stave it off was a state of ever-present war. But the Klingons aren’t really terrifying when their most famous character is the big, cuddly grumpikins that is Worf.

The second terrifying villain in “Star Trek” came from “Voyager”. This came in the form of the Vidiians, whose species were dying to a disease known as the Phage. The Vidiians themselves were tremendously empathetic, but what the Phage forced them to do meant that there was once again no room for a diplomatic or logical solution. The Vidiians use other species to replenish the degraded organs of their own, hunting living transplant candidates. Simply put, you can’t negotiate with a disease, and their single-minded desperation was something anyone could be driven to. This also gave us the greatest of the Janeway monologues:

Perhaps “Deep Space Nine” should count – not for the Dominion but for the more realistic, religiously manipulative, systemic villainy of Kai Winn and the casual, self-justifying embodiment of genocide in Gul Dukat. But DS9 dealt more in grasping its large concepts, in looking at what should be terrifying and understanding the banality of it, and in so doing knowing better how to recognize and resist it. Where the other shows in the franchise offer hope, DS9 engages the practical work that builds it (except for O’Brien, who is forever destined to get screwed). Where various iterations of the Enterprise would tell the alien of the week, “This is where the real work for your people begins” before flying off to the next adventure, DS9 just tucked into the work. It couldn’t really fly anywhere. There’s a place for both, but there’s a reason DS9 is heads above the other shows for me.

And there are villains who are just fun. Jeffrey Combs is 32 flavors and then some of Weyoun, Romulans drag the party down with that Cold War energy but have by far the coolest ships, Q borders right on that line between fun and annoying, and Ricardo Montalban’s Khan – perhaps the greatest Star Trek villain of all – is so successful a foil to Captain Kirk that he actually grounds William Shatner’s acting for a whole movie.

There are also one-off horror episodes, something “The Next Generation” was particularly good at with “Night Terrors”, “Schisms”, and “Identity Crisis”, but occasionally missed on with “Conspiracy” or the fun but ludicrous “Genesis”. Yet these didn’t offer villains who promised to return so much as mysteries that could be solved then and there. Certainly, there was no one who made a promise to return an undeniable threat that you couldn’t begin solving.

Enter “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”. The series is wildly successful out of the gate, drawing from all eras of Star Trek and firmly planting its stake as one of the best series of the year. It retains the quickfire, in-the-moment nature of “Star Trek: Discovery” while framing standalone episodes along the lines of “The Next Generation” or “Voyager”. It returns the franchise’s sense of weekly moral quandaries with stellar casting that includes Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck, Christina Chong, and Melissa Navia, just to name a few.

“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” delivers the most chilling moment in the franchise since “The Best of Both Worlds” and that chilling Borg synth score. It comes from the most unlikely place, a species long known for its rubber suit and slow, memeable fighting in “The Original Series”. I hope you’re ready to log-in to YouTube so they can make sure you’re old enough to watch this mature, violent content:

But “Strange New Worlds” takes that single 60s villain (and its brief CGI entry in mirror-universe “Enterprise”) and turns the Gorn into a force of nature, an unseen pack hunter seeking live prey to transport to the planets where they raise their young, like a cat bringing a mouse back to its kittens so they can train for killing. “Memento Mori” immediately becomes the most thrillingly frightening Star Trek entry in nearly three decades, and it returns me to that place where I was a 90s kid enraptured by what I saw on screen.

Sure, the episode’s a ‘submarine’ episode, a franchise staple of ships hiding from each other in space since “Balance of Terror” in 1966. It doesn’t just emulate, though, it translates the concept into the remarkable pace and energy of “Strange New Worlds”. In a franchise that enjoys characters sitting down to problem solve, the Gorn’s single-minded relentlessness – much like the Borg’s – is what makes them most terrifying. You can’t problem-solve relentlessness, you just have to hope you can mitigate the damage of each new corner you’re pressed into as you try to outlast it.

In its first three episodes, the series has already shown us it can pull off first contact, space mystery, and medical emergency plotlines. Now it’s shown us it can land a space action/horror episode with cinematic elegance. Next we get a comedy episode.

Look, this article’s an excuse to geek out about Star Trek memories, sure – but really it’s a way of highlighting just how impressive “Strange New Worlds” is. I could go on and on, and might in the future. There’s so much to talk about in Captain Pike’s soft-spoken, inclusive, patient, and trusting style of leadership, an expression of healthy masculinity realized by Anson Mount that’s still rarely seen in film or TV. It speaks volumes in a franchise where Kirk would bite, Picard would go full rulebook, Saru’s still learning, and Archer would ask for suggestions as an excuse to dump his passive-aggression on whoever he could corner.

(Sisko and Janeway are cool, though. How best captain boils down to Picard and Kirk instead is beyond me. Maybe if you Tuvixed them into Pikirk or Kircard. That fanfic’s gotta be out there.)

Right, the point is that “Strange New Worlds” is a phenomenal show, and it’s the strongest, most polished “Star Trek” straight out of the gate. I say this as someone who loves the new and old shows. For instance, “Discovery” gets a lot of flak, but it takes some of the silliest legacy concepts in Star Trek and creates captivating, meaningful story arcs around two of the best leads the franchise has ever had (Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham and Doug Jones’s Saru). And of course, “Strange New Worlds” got a bit of a try-out across season 2 of “Discovery” itself.

“Strange New Worlds” builds on the divergent modern trio of “Discovery”, “Lower Decks” (more than you’d think), and “Picard” in some very smart ways, but it also takes big parts from what made the more strictly shaped 90s trio so successful. It reinterprets retro design and ideas from “TOS” and “Enterprise”, and mixes and matches special effects elements with CGI in a way that hasn’t been realized quite this thoroughly in the franchise before.

Four episodes in, and “Strange New Worlds” has announced that it’s eager to try anything and everything Star Trek, with the talent and development in place to succeed on every count. That it’s delivered terror in a way we haven’t had since original flavor Borg is just one way of saying it’s delivering Star Trek in a way we haven’t seen since the 90s – thankfully not the exact same way, and certainly with 30 years more social progress. In terms of result, it feels like the bridge between the 90s and today, episodically self-contained but with a faster, modern cinematic approach replacing the stagy elements of the 60s/90s/00s era. (If you forced me to choose the most similar entry, I’d go straight to the last of the 90s shows and the previous best bridge of the eras, “Voyager”.)

“Strange New Worlds” easily stands on its own, but if you like “Star Trek”, you’ll recognize a mountain of elements and influences drawn from across the franchise’s history. What’s more impressive is what you won’t recognize until you think about it later. “Strange New Worlds” does an incredible job of absorbing and learning from what’s come before in a way that feels seamless and incredibly natural as you’re watching.

You can watch “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” on Paramount+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

The Fashion Faux Pas of “Halo”

Flapper space wife is back. She says some sensible stuff that’s largely ignored, and totally won’t come back to bite her husband. This is the burden of Flapper Space Wife. But first!

I ended last week’s rundown by saying “Halo” had found its true voice, centering itself on Natascha McElhone’s brilliant portrayal of Natascha McElhone as she smirks vengeance at anyone who dares turn her monologue into a dialogue.

I even said: “What about Kwan Ha, Soren, and their rebellion against the Rhyming Dictator? The show may have realized it had no clue where its B-plot was going and cut it out. We see them fleetingly in episode 5 before they disappear completely in ep 6. Buuut, it’s “Halo”, so I’m sure the next episode will be entirely about them”.

Yeah sure, betting on horse racing is legal, but there’s no betting market for future “Halo” plotlines. That’s my calling. I coulda been someone. I could’ve gone on that midnight edition of Sportscenter that’s all about gambling and tolerated Scott Van Pelt long enough to explain the betting ins and outs of calling future “Halo” episodic arcs. But that’s too ridiculous! Let’s just stick to reasonable things, like betting on which horse can tolerate the largest amount of drugs the longest. And you wonder why I keep watching “Halo” instead.

We open with a flashback to when Kwan Ha was younger. It shows us that she was once angry at her dad for leading the rebellion that she now wants to lead. The only thing this makes us understand better is how “Halo” isn’t capable of portraying character development. It just gives you flashbacks where the characters were totally different in order to make you go, “Huh, I guess they must’ve learned and changed in a more interesting episode I didn’t get to see”.

Cut to Soren, Kwan Ha’s erstwhile chaperone. He’s having a party with his flapper space wife and their flapper space family. Naturally, this must be a flashback as well – the last we saw of him his double-cross of Kwan Ha was double-crossed and he was stranded unconscious in the desert without a ship. The show wouldn’t steal from us the tale of how he managed to escape a desert planet with no money or transport, would it yesitwould.

Soren’s just suddenly back home with no explanation for how he got there. But there is talk of how he came back without his ship, his valuable bounty, or his payment. What is that talk? Will it tell us how he made it back to his asteroid colony faster than it’s taking Kwan Ha to drive 100 miles? It’s not that sort of talk. It’s more like an amorphous, non-specific talk that fades into an incoherent mumbling, like the showrunners trying to explain where the fucking budget went, or a Bob Dylan lyric.

It’s enough talk to set up an incoming plot point, but not so much as to explain the several that just got skipped.

In front of Soren’s entire party, his business partner Squirrel is all like, “Have you heard the talk? It’s a-mumbling”. Why’s his name Squirrel? Who knows anymore.

Soren takes offense at this. He asks Squirrel if he thinks Soren’s lost a step. Squirrel is kind of frenetic in an anxious way – maybe that’s why he’s named Squirrel. Anyway, he backs off and Flapper Space Wife ™ collects Soren, but not before he lays this line down. Check it out, this is why you watch seven episodes deep: “Looks like Squirrel found his nuts”. Oh shit! That’s why he’s named Squirrel! For that line. So the writers could put that line in the dialogue! Emmys here we come!

Later, Soren regrets leaving Kwan Ha on Madrigal. Flapper Space Wife tells him she knows that Kwan Ha’s still alive cause Vinsher just tripled the bounty on her.

What about that rhyming dictator? Vinsher’s more into free verse now, OK? He rides around the desert in a black SUV spamming lines that want to be like Shakespeare at a driver who probably doesn’t get paid enough for this shit.

And folks? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen his trenchcoat made entirely from backpack mesh pockets. Oh, you think I’m kidding:

A tremendous loss of backpacks supplies Burn Gorman's Vinsher coat in "Halo".

This guy’s awesome. Those pockets were on every backpack made in the 90s and 2000s. He must’ve hunted every single one of them down to have that coat made, Cruella de Vil style. Of course, he’s a dictator, so I’m sure it’s bulletproof, like every backpack made in the 2020s.

So he’s being driven around, wearing his backpack coat EVERYWHERE, and spitting free verse like the only way to save the old student center is to beat Anne Waldman one-on-one in a Poetry Battle at Bennington Parents Weekend, and he only just learned what poetry is from his drunk roommate last night.

Meanwhile, Kwan Ha’s located the desert witches who can prophesy her fate. It’s refreshing to see such an original plot point in sci-fi for once. Their religion seems to be based around wearing extremely fake white wigs. The head desert witch, Desiderata (I shit you not) is all like, “I don’t know, you’re too angry. The only way you can prove yourself is to drink this juice I just made from fire”.

PSA: This is an example of peer pressure. If someone ever makes you hand flame juice, don’t drink that shit. Kwan Ha does, and the vision she has is actually kind of cool. She has to fight Master Chief, who unmasks even in her dream, but of course she can’t even dent him. It’s only when she realizes she doesn’t have to fight Master Chief in her vision and they can just hold hands that he remembers his stage directions and Carlos Castanedas her over to her father.

Her dad tells her that their family are the protectors of a portal. To where? He won’t tell her, but I’m totes mega sure it won’t have anything to do with the Halo ringworld that Master Chief and Makee had a vision of last week. I’m sure it’s a portal to the nowhere else that’s been mentioned in the show so far instead.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Soren and Squirrel are stealing a super-engine from the UNSC that’s going to make their ships extremely fast and it’s…like smaller than a car engine. In the universe that’s made a point of still using AK-47s 500 years from now. Sure. Soren catches Squirrel in a trap that relies on Squirrel putting his foot under a loaded shipping pallet so Soren can drop it on his toes cause there’s no way anyone can foresee Day One fucking OSHA training. How bout those nuts, Squirrel? Almonds and acorns, and I like cashews, those are good, pecan pie’s my favorite, are macademias overrated, I don’t know where I’m going with this, I’m clearly not the writer these “Halo” guys are.

I want to take a moment to highlight that their pirate crew is dressed like they’re characters from “Unreal Tournament 2004”, i.e. Cliff Bleszinski’s BDSM-tinged vision of corporate space future that’s also arguably the best multiplayer FPS ever made.

Unreal tournament 2004 Juggernauts character roster.

Come to think of it, Flapper Space Wife is more like Ska Emo Space Wife in this one, like if Gwen Stefani had gone club goth instead of marrying Gavin Rossdale. That’s probably the good timeline.

Soren gets back to Madrigal in the time it takes Kwan Ha to drive to a place the Desert Witches can clearly fucking see from their camp. So that’s Soren out of Madrigal and back to it in the space of a scene when earlier in the series they made it abundantly clear what an incredible and expensive pain it was for him to get there. Maybe he used the new carburetor he stole from the UNSC; we’ll never know.

Soren joins Kwan Ha as Vinsher descends on her, and Vinsher’s troops – all wearing trench coats in the desert – wander straight into a deuterium fuel field. Needless to say, they’re surprised when they’re blown up, Vinsher’s caught in the blast, and I’m totally sure his backpack mesh pocket coat didn’t save him and he won’t be back in a future episode with the make-up team going overboard on scars and burn texture. Seriously, let me bet on this nonsense.

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I do think this was one of the better episodes of “Halo”. It’s certainly the best of the Kwan Ha plot so far, because she’s actually written to do something now. It works. I’m not sure what show it works for, but it works.

What about Natascha McElhone, Master Chief, and Cortana? The show may have realized it had no clue where its A-plot was going and cut it out. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Because I can’t.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount Plus, but only if you’ve finished your OSHA training.

Help me reach my dream of one day having a backpack mesh pocket coat.

A Timely Hideousness — “Under the Banner of Heaven”

Andrew Garfield is a beautiful performer. “Under the Banner of Heaven” has one of the most impactful depictions of a crime scene I’ve seen in recent memory, without even showing much of it. Instead, the camera stays on Garfield’s Detective Pyre. We see just the edges of the rooms he walks through, but every twitch and tic in his face and eyes. It’s a captivating sequence that describes the scene’s horror far better than if we’d been shown the murder victims in graphic detail.

There’s a restraint and empathy when it comes to the individuals in “Under the Banner of Heaven” that’s balanced out in the other hand by an exacting and coldly logic fury at the organized abuse within the Mormon Church. It takes a poetic sense of capturing both history and myth in one net, to see which boils into justifications for abuse when placed against fact.

Pyre investigates the murder of a woman and child in 1984, arresting the blood-covered husband but quickly opening up deeper questions about a politically influential fundamentalist family. It quickly becomes clear that the situation has arms that reach into every facet of the Mormon Church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church, has been at the heart of investigations into systematically covering over child abuse, domestic violence, even statutory rape. Dozens of women detailed how the church threatened them with the loss of eternal salvation if they left violent partners. It even used a victims’ hotline as a resource to hide sexual abuse claims.

This is the question at the heart of “Under the Banner of Heaven”, in which fanatics insist their war against “socialism”, “haughty women”, taxes, and outsiders is justification enough to take out their anger on the women who do the silent work of “building their kingdom”. With no credit but all the blame, the minute a man fucks up it’s the woman’s fault, and should a woman have aspirations or thoughts of her own, well we see the result of men’s childish anger and vengeance painted in Pyre’s eyes in that opening scene.

At times, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is edited like a storm of impressions that combine interrogation, flashback, and Mormon myth, all containing questionable motives and tableau that repeat in Pyre’s own life. These are visual expressions of Pyre’s identification with victims and suspects alike, and that identity carries with it doubt. It creates a screen reality that isn’t sustainable, in which Pyre himself can’t spiritually or emotionally survive.

What “Under the Banner of Heaven” is at its heart is a deconstruction of the LDS Church’s history of abuse of women, down to its most buried bones. It argues that its systemic abuses against women are infused into its DNA and trace back to its creation; that its creation wouldn’t have been possible without both the work of women and the abuse of the women who did that work.

In its way, “Under the Banner of Heaven” gnashes teeth. This isn’t just a series that presents a mystery without judgment of larger systems. It stares wide-eyed and carves the LDS Church apart in action and in history. It wrangles the type of system of horror against women we treat as too big to comprehend, let alone fail, and renders each element with clarity. Much like Pyre separates his suspects and jumps between interrogations to ferret out information, the series isolates elements of LDS misogyny and abuse so that they can’t inter-rely to cloud the issue. It builds a case as Pyre does, of an organized religious system built top-to-bottom to suppress women, victimize them, and – if needed – spit them out with varying degrees of damage if they can’t be taught a learned helplessness.

It’s a timely hideousness that “Under the Banner of Heaven” comes out just as the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade was leaked. The LDS Church, after all, effectively provides two U.S. senators at all times to oppose women’s rights, including the right to an abortion.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t just a self-contained mystery, it’s a direct prosecution of the LDS Church’s treatment of women, and a larger condemnation of many religious organizations that act similarly.

If there’s one criticism I have of the series, it’s that in the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s told mostly through male eyes. Pyre engages in complex discussions with suspects about the nature of the LDS Church, allowing the series to jump across time as arguments throughout the church’s history are evoked. These conversations allow him to corner his suspects, but sometimes trap him when his own doubt overwhelms. He lives with a wife, daughters, and his elderly mother, so the repercussions of what his first suspect suggest about the church echo louder and louder in his own mind.

The only lens into a woman’s direct experience that we’ve gotten is through the story of Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Brenda, the murdered wife. This is housed as flashback by her surviving husband as he’s interrogated, but it doesn’t obey the rules of flashback – it tells pieces of the story that he wouldn’t have directly witnessed. It works, in large part because we need to see her story through her perspective, and not just through the limitations of her husband’s recollections. His interrogation serves more as a bridge into an omniscient narrative, rather than as second-hand recitation.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t an easy watch, as beautifully painted and detailed as it is. It’s intended to be a difficult one. I appreciate that it creates its tension as a mystery through dialogue and a changing landscape of information. It has a brief chase and scenes with guns, but these are treated with realism and honestly aren’t as tense as those interrogation dialogues that sweep between the details of a crime and the abusive history of the LDS Church.

That the series comes within a week of the leaked Supreme Court decision draft on Roe v. Wade makes it even harder to watch – perhaps more important to watch as well, but certainly more difficult. What I appreciate about it is that its fury is cold, clear-eyed, sourced. The arguments that would resist its own aren’t avoided, but rather engaged, deconstructed, dissected.

It’s all based on a real case, specifically as examined in Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith”. Showrun by Dustin Lance Black, writer of “Milk” and “Big Love”, the ways in which larger, more philosophical conversations around the LDS Church’s abuse of women are turned into dialogue and morphed into tableau and crescendoing montage are…they’re exquisite from a storytelling standpoint. That’s what makes them so hideous from any human one.

You can watch “Under the Banner of Heaven” on FX or Hulu. The first two episodes are available now, with a new one arriving every Thursday.

If you find articles like this useful, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Natascha McElhone’s Space Witch 2552

I once ruined my father’s sourdough starter by leaving it out in the heat for too long. Now, maybe it was still good – heat wasn’t supposed to bother it. But the temperatures were soaring and it smelled rancid. Perhaps it could still be baked. Maybe all the wacky bacteria in it would taste delicious. But it might also send us to the hospital. Ultimately, the choice was made to throw it out. You can always make a new sourdough starter, and doing so is both easier and cheaper than having your stomach pumped. This brings me to “Halo”.

The TV series has some bad ingredients, but it’s now committed its most upsetting act yet. It’s gone and thrown it in the oven anyway by getting a capable director who can make a passable episode. I’m of conflicting minds on this because I was ready to give up and move on…but the combination of solid directing with writing that’s as terrible as ever is something that’s both new and familiar. It’s exciting without being too risk-averse. I’m already prepared for the failures it’s going to make, but perhaps it can change for the better.

Jonathan Liebesman comes on board as director for the last half of season one. This may not seem all that exciting. He helmed the 2014 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Wrath of the Titans”, both of which felt like wastes of a concept. What he did before that, however, was direct “Battle Los Angeles”.

“But Gabe”, you say, “’Battle Los Angeles’ only has a 5.7 on IMDB. It has a 37% on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Slant Magazine even said, ‘The film blows thick smoke up our ass and calls it charity’”. I’m not entirely sure what that means as a concept, but it sounds suspiciously similar to something my crystal-hawking hot yoga studio kept trying to sell me when I lived in Portland.

The point is that they’re wrong. “Battle Los Angeles” is one long firefight made for a generation raised for better or worse on “Tom Clancy” and “Call of Duty” video games. It imagined an utterly silly sci-fi concept as something that should be shot with the weighty chaos of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers” – which is exactly what fans wanted the “Halo” series to be.

Don’t get me wrong, “Battle Los Angeles” gets pretty shaky when anyone’s asked to act, but most of it is a moving firefight against aliens in L.A. It does a great job of conveying the tactics and topography of that ever-shifting firefight. It’s exceptionally easy to keep track of without losing its in-the-moment feel.

Knowing Liebesman would be coming on board is the only thing that made me sit down and give Episode 5 a chance. And oh what a difference a director makes.

I’m not calling “Halo” good. The ingredients of the first four episodes were rancid. But what if that bakes out? Or what if they only make you kind of sick but taste good at the same time? Is it worth it? Can it be covered over with enough jam?

It helps that this fifth episode, “Reckoning”, has a nice, long 10-minute action scene at the end. Let me remind you that we haven’t seen an action sequence in this action series since the first 15 minutes of the very first episode. But I know what side my bread is buttered on, so first the nonsense:

Natascha McElhone’s Dr. Halsey develops some real chemistry with the best scene partner she’s had yet – a large alien artifact. She wants Master Chief to stay away from it, but when he finally touches it, it reveals to him all the lies she’s told him over the years. He asks his Captain to check out McElhone’s story, his Captain is like, “Yeah, sure, I’m totally not in on it, too”, and then the Covenant attack.

The action is…actually not that great. It works, but they’re going in on big gestures at the sacrifice of the moment-to-moment choreography. Many of the Covenant carry energy shields that they don’t use to block incoming fire or bash anyone else. They just sort of carry them in the same position most of the time as if the animator in charge of it was out that day. Maybe they had some bad sourdough. Master Chief must have practiced how to be invisible because one alien runs up to him without raising their gun or shield, just so they can clothesline themselves on MC’s arm.

The Spartans are badass at driving a car in a straight line until it does an aerial, Master Chief chooses saving people instead of stopping the Covenant from stealing the artifact, and Kai – the other Spartan who yanked out her emotion suppressor – completely forgets how to fight and curls up in a ball.

I want to be really specific about this. Master Chief pulls out his emotion suppressor and if anything, it makes him braver, angrier, he chooses to save lives instead of sacrifice them…what a hero. Kai pulls out her emotion suppressor, is overwhelmed by her emotions, curls up in a ball in the middle of the firefight, and is the primary human life Master Chief chooses to save that costs him the larger artifact. Le sigh.

The most impressive thing about “Reckoning” is that it manages not to overstay its welcome. It feels so much shorter than the other episodes. How do they achieve this? By making it 15 minutes shorter than the other episodes. The relief when the credits roll early is like waking up thinking it’s going to be a tough day at work but then realizing it’s a long weekend. It should be no surprise that this is the series’ highest rated episode so far. It turns out in the end, the…more judiciously “Halo” is edited, the better.

“Reckoning” ends with the UNSC realizing they still have the smaller artifact back home, so they pull stakes, and – oh, what’s this, an escape pod launches from the Covenant cruiser before it leaves! It’s Makee, and she’s doing her whole poor-little-me, I-just-escaped-the-Covenant shtick. Last time she did this, her carnivorous worms got treats.

But the UNSC is very wise. They clearly don’t trust her, so they put her right down the hall from the smaller artifact. Sorry, let me try that again. They clearly don’t trust her, so they put her right down the hall from the smaller artifor fuck’s sake.

Episode Six is “Solace” and it begins with Master Chief telling Cortana about an architect’s dream of designing everything in the UNSC. But that architect screwed up when he designed the lab on their ship, which gives him the opportunity to irradiate the lying McElhone. He stops this at the last second – it was all a trick to test whether Cortana could override his brain or not. Turns out she can only shut him down, not control his every action. But the joke’s on Master Chief. The lab was made from scenery; McElhone could have chewed her way out in a heartbeat.

The fellow…admirals…administrators…senate oversight committee members, I don’t know, it doesn’t really explain who they are, they’re there to pressure Admiral Parangosky into handing control of the Spartans over to them. You see, they’re upset that in the last episode, Master Chief chose saving lives over preventing the Covenant from getting a powerful artifact. They’re threatening to shut McElhone’s entire operation down because there’s no proof the Covenant wants the artifact…that the Covenant just stole, for which Master Chief is in trouble for not preventing, so they’re threatening to shut McElhone’s entire operation down because there’s no proof the Covenant wants the artifact they just stooh shit, not this again.

Who is paid to write this? Who is how the money? Who edits it? Who is fucking reading the words that are on the do they type pages do they improv this shit is this all a Second City skit, like does an audience member just shout out, “Now the Covenant doesn’t want it and it’s raining” and Jeff Hiller walks in and says, “But I left my car windows open” and it turns out this is all a sketch at the open mic from “Somebody Somewhere”? I am down if Natascha McElhone’s going to break into “Wuthering Heights”, otherwise the whole thing just feels like a bit of a kick inside.

Let’s get back to the man with the child in his eyes, Master Chief himself, as he continues seeing visions of himself as a kid, but also sees visions of the kid he was replaced with I don’t know, just go with it. He talks to McElhone about her kidnapping him as a child and she admits everything. He was replaced with a clone who died to give his parents closure, and she kidnapped hundreds of children this way.

Of course, this confession is being listened in on by the Admiral and the Captain, who are using the utmost in undetectable covert technology to spy on the pair when – whoops, they forgot to lock the door or post a guard and now Dr. Keyes (McElhone and the Captain’s daughter, remember) is all like, “Ooh, I’ll put on that spy tech and sit next to you” cause nobody bothers to edit a script. It’s a lazy way of having Keyes learn about her mother’s awfulness without coming up with actual dialogue to take care of it.

Where this all leads is with McElhone under house arrest as she manipulates everyone anyway into giving her what she wants. This is where the heart of the series rests – not with Master Chief or any of the characters whose stories we followed for the first four episodes before the show gave up on them. This series is about a motherfucking Space Witch who kidnaps children, probably eats a couple, I don’t know if that’s canon, whatever, makes the rest into supersoldiers, and then bullshits everybody into doing what she wants cause she’s a goddamned Space Witch. When McElhone acts as if someone else is testing her patience by daring to be in her series that’s about her and no one else, it’s great.

What about Kwan Ha, Soren, and their rebellion against the Rhyming Dictator? The show may have realized it had no clue where its B-plot was going and cut it out. We see them fleetingly in episode 5 before they disappear completely in ep 6. Buuut, it’s “Halo”, so I’m sure the next episode will be entirely about them. And look, those actors are doing fine, they’re certainly putting more into it than most of the UNSC actors. It’s just that their plot is a bunch of reverses on reverses that results in a flurry of movement with no progress made. At least the main plot floats a bunch of threads in McElhone’s cauldron. The B-plot just meanders half-heartedly.

We’re left with Master Chief connecting to the small artifact again, forcing the imprisoned Makee into a sympathetic vision with him. It’s here he gets his first glimpse of the beautiful ringworld that is Halo, and you can see why the Covenant desires it so: it looks exactly like an Irish Spring commercial.

Credit to Paramount who was kind enough to provide this live footage from the Halo ring:

What “Halo” is accomplishing now is a nominal level of competency. It may not seem that exciting, but imagine being offered kitty litter to eat for four weeks and then being offered a Totino’s Pizza Roll. It still may not be food, but it’s such a step up that you think it’s delicious. Throw in some rad 90s advertising with kids asking their mom if the pizza rolls are ready, and she’s like not yet, and they’re like, “Mom, what are you good for then”? and she laughs and serves them and you realize, hey, maybe the 90s weren’t actually as liberal as we like to remember them.

What I’m getting at is that I went into these episodes of “Halo” thinking I didn’t want to watch it any more and came out thinking, “Cheeseburger flavor?!? I gotta try that”. I know it won’t be good, but I haven’t had that flavor of knowing it won’t be good yet and I am pretty curious what it’s like.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount Plus, but I highly recommend catching up on the history of Irish Spring commercials first. It’ll make a lot more sense.

That way madness lies.

New Shows + Movies by Women — April 29, 2022

We’re covering the last two weeks since I had a brief break last week. It’s a really strong moment for new series by women covering several different platforms – but with a trio premiering on Showtime. Let’s get straight in since there’s a lot. New shows come from France, the UK, and the U.S., while new movies come from France, Germany, and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Shining Girls (Apple TV+)
showrunner Silka Luisa

Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman who’s shifted between realities since an attack years before. She learns about a murder that’s linked to that assault, and partners with a reporter to investigate it.

Showrunner Silka Luisa also wrote and produced on “Strange Angel”.

You can watch “Shining Girls” on Apple TV+.

The 7 Lives of Lea (Netflix)
showrunner Charlotte Sanson

A woman discovers the body of a teenager who went missing 30 years ago. This triggers her to wake up in 1991, every day in the body of a different person as she tries to stop his murder.

Showrunner Charlotte Sanson is a fairly new voice. The French series is her first as showrunner.

You can watch “The 7 Lives of Lea” on Netflix.

The First Lady (Showtime)
directed by Susanne Bier

Viola Davis stars as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in a series that leaps between time frames to reveal the influence of three former First Ladies. The series also stars Dakota Fanning, O-T Fagbenle, Aaron Eckhart, Kiefer Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Jackie Earle Haley, and Kate Mulgrew, just to name a few.

Director Susanne Bier won an Oscar for Best International Film (at the time Best Foreign Language Film) in 2011, for the Danish “Haevnen”.

You can watch “The First Lady” on Showtime.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Showtime)
co-showrunner Jenny Lumet

Based on the 1963 novel, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” follows an alien with a mission to become human and seek out someone who can save his species. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, Bill Nighy, and Kate Mulgrew star. Ejiofor stars as the alien Faraday, but the series may also serve as something of a sequel to the 1976 film starring David Bowie: Nighy plays the alien that Bowie once did.

Jenny Lumet showruns with Alex Kurtzman. Lumet has written and produced on “Star Trek: Discovery”, “Star Trek: Picard”, and “Clarice”.

You can watch “The Man Who Fell to Earth” on Showtime.

The Offer (Paramount Plus)
showrunner Nikki Toscano

This behind-the-scenes drama follows the production of “The Godfather”. Miles Teller, Matthew Goode, Juno Temple, and Giovanni Ribisi star.

Showrunner Nikki Toscano has written and produced on “Revenge” and “Bates Motel”.

You can watch “The Offer” on Paramount Plus.

I Love That For You (Showtime)
showrunner Jessi Klein

Vanessa Bayer stars as Joanna, an aspiring home shopping host who lies about the return of childhood cancer in order to keep her job. Molly Shannon also stars.

Showrunner Jessi Klein has produced on “Dead to Me” and “Big Mouth”.

You can watch “I Love That For You” on Showtime.

NEW MOVIES

Crush (Hulu)
directed by Sammi Cohen

A student grudgingly joins her high school track team. It’s not all bad, though. She’s had a crush on one of her teammates for a long time…though training draws her closer to another.

The cast here is remarkably strong, with “Girl Meets World” and “Snowpiercer” actress Rowan Blanchard, Auli’i Cravalho (the voice of Moana), and Isabella Ferreira, who stole scenes as the lead’s cynical younger sister in “Love, Victor”.

“Crush” director Sammi Cohen is a longtime College Humor director and editor.

You can watch “Crush” on Hulu.

Rumspringa (Netflix)
directed by Mira Thiel

An Amish man goes to Berlin to discover his roots and face a choice about what kind of life he wants to lead moving forward. Can’t find a translated trailer on this one, but the film itself has a subtitled option.

The German comedy is directed by Mira Thiel, whose career has bridged fiction series and documentaries.

You can watch “Rumspringa” on Netflix.

The Aviary (VOD)
co-directed by Jennifer Raite

Two women flee a cult. They escape into the New Mexican desert, but their supplies run out and they can’t trust their own perceptions as reality bends in on itself.

Jennifer Raite writes and directs with Chris Cullari.

See where you can watch “The Aviary”.

A Mouthful of Air (Starz)
directed by Amy Koppelman

Amanda Seyfried stars as Julie, a children’s book author who suppresses her own past trauma. After her daughter is born, postpartum depression opens the door for it all to come flooding back.

This is Amy Koppelman’s first film as screenwriter or director.

You can watch “A Mouthful of Air” on Starz.

I Love America (Amazon)
directed by Lisa Azuelos

Sophie Marceau stars as a Parisian who uproots her life for Los Angeles in a film that blends French and English.

Director Lisa Azuelos previously helmed “LOL” and “A Chance Encounter”.

You can watch “I Love America” on Amazon.

Unplugging (VOD)
directed by Debra Neil-Fisher

A couple detox from all things digital in a remote town, but things quickly devolve into chaos.

This is the first film Debra Neil-Fisher directs, but you’ve almost surely seen her work before. A sought-after comedy editor, she edited the first two “Austin Powers” movies, all three “The Hangover” films, the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog”, and “Coming 2 America”.

You can rent “Unplugging” on Redbox.

9 Bullets (VOD)
directed by Gigi Gaston

Lena Headey stars as a burlesque dancer who attempts to protect a boy who’s being stalked by her ex.

Writer-director Gigi Gaston is a former Olympic Equestrian show jumper who shifted into music videos and later film directing.

See where you can watch “9 Bullets”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Hilarious, Furious, Tender — “Killing It”

In its best moments, “Killing It” is a heart of raging tenderness. The show would have you believe it’s a kooky comedy about two python hunters in Florida. It’s so much more. It’s a hideous vision of the U.S. under late-stage capitalism, where everyone’s trying to get one over on everybody else. A few good people try to do what’s right in a landscape that con artists strip for parts and sell. But “Killing It” never laughs at the people in need. It treats laughter as a scalpel to cut out the absurdity they witness, that we live with.

Craig has a dream. All it needs is $20,000, and for him to be on time for a meeting in the Florida swamp. He meets Jillian when he calls an Uber. She arrives towing a small billboard behind her car. It doubles as her tiny apartment. She pulls over mid-trip to kill a python, an invasive species she can get paid for by the foot. She also gets paid to film herself eating bananas, and there’s a nightmarish episode where she housesits for a rich woman who wants Jillian to pose as her for tax purposes.

Craig had a car of his own, so why’s he need an Uber? He got fired from his job as a security guard at the bank that turned him down for a business loan. He accidentally burned down his truck grilling breakfast in it after spending the night there because he’s renting out his apartment to what turns out to be a porn shoot.

They’re both scraping by doing anything they can, at any risk and often at a greater cost than what they make. But that one meeting, the dream, that loan – it could get Craig the money he needs to buy swampland for a saw palmetto farm.

“Killing It” blends the realism of desperation with the idealism of hope and the greater absurdity of what we allow to kill that hope. It reflects a nation of con artists in the looming shadow of 2016, the few people concerned about doing right caught in traps of morality baited by thieves who run a broken system. Craig and Jillian team up for a python hunting contest – the one remaining chance either of them have.

There’s a sense of profound othering within “Killing It”: to strive in a culture that abuses those who give their all until they’re burnt through, that there’s no such thing as time off, that to be successful you have to be a brand assessed as valuable even if that means sacrificing anything of value or substance. Content must be constant, not substant. “Killing It” is a haunting, absurdist, often Kafka-esque commentary on the world falling apart around us. It’s also the funniest series to premiere this year.

“Killing It” attacks comedy with the storytelling sensibility of a horror movie. The jokes highlight economic despair, sadness, panic, voter suppression, deportation, its characters live in a little tow-around billboard or a 24-hour gym, but they are never the target. Every joke punches up with fury. It’s as close as comedy comes to a howling scream, of facing the tightrope between being fed up and not taking it anymore vs. giving up. This show wants to break something. Anything. Everything.

Craig Robinson is beautiful in communicating the modern state of desperation and idealism, the difficulty in life at the boundary of hope and hopelessness. He’s witnessing what we thought the world could be as it’s hoarded away piece by piece, thinking success is to become one of the hoarders despite knowing he clearly isn’t made to victimize others.

Claudia O’Doherty is…unparalleled. You may know her already as Stede Bonnet’s jilted wife Mary from “Our Flag Means Death”. She’s at the height of her powers as Jillian. She’s an absolutely rare comedy voice who nails every line she has. Lines that weren’t jokes suddenly are. But there’s something even more magical in her performance. She has a remarkable ability to take any line of comedy and twist its conclusion, to take what we’re laughing at mid-stream and turn it desperate, angry, or hopeful. She takes you in the middle of what’s opening you up and puts a point on it. She takes your safe laughter and appends it as it happens, turns it transgressive and subversive. She performs comedy as alchemy.

If the description of this series comes across sounding depressing or haunting, understand that its humor isn’t helpless. It’s vengeful. It’s goddamn pissed because the whole point of its characters doing right is that they’re usually too kind to be that angry on their own behalf. The show has to be angry for them. “Killing It” points at the kind as they face injustice, and the harmful as they do damage, and stares straight at who in that system gets punished and rewarded. It’s a show that loses its shit with utter precision.

Even the title refers less to its characters work-every-minute mantras or their shambles of a python-hunting effort. What we witness being killed is all of our chances, our futures, our ability to provide.

The pace of the series can vary as it leans into later episodes that center on individual characters. That takes some getting used to. Jillian’s episode housesitting could exist as its own short story, a hilarious and hideous foray into our modern cyberpunk through a humanity-by-proxy take on “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

The episode after follows Craig as he waits in an unmoving 2016 election line with his ex-wife and daughter, all waiting for their chance to stand in the next unmoving line as Craig battles wits with an insurance investigator.

The cast is great. Aside from Robinson and O’Doherty, Craig’s ex-wife Camille is played by Stephanie Nogueras. Both character and actress are deaf, and it’s refreshing to see sign language rolled into the comedy without filmmakers editing around the performance. Nogueras’s timing is as good as anybody’s and it’s crucial that she’s entrusted to show it.

Rell Battle plays Craig’s brother Isaiah, who’s rejected Craig’s morals and pursues a life of small-time con artistry. Then there’s Trump-esque figure Rodney Lamonca, whose entire family sells access to nothing at a premium his fans are happy to pay. Scott MacArthur’s competing snake hunter Brock is willfully lost in overcompensatory masculinity.

As the series rotates through giving time to each, you might feel like a particular episode isn’t as strong depending on your feelings about a character. As a whole, however, “Killing It” wields absurdism in comedy like few shows can.

Be aware it’s not a family watch. Nudity is used, usually out of left field and hilariously, and there’s some graphic violence. Also swearing.

It’s been an especially strong year for comedies in just these four short months. As I highlighted in my review for “Somebody Somewhere”, we seem to be in a surge of empathetic comedies. Few marry empathy to anger, but part of feeling for someone needs to be anger at the injustices and inequalities they face. “Killing It” finds that groove and runs with it.

You can watch “Killing It” on Peacock. All 10 episodes are available.

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