Category Archives: Television

The Best Series of 2021

The most important thing to understand about lists like this is that they’ll always exclude something. No critic can watch everything out there that’s worth watching. The choices a critic makes in what they prioritize can help you understand how a list like this can be useful.

For instance, even though many of my friends have raved about it, I just can’t bring myself to watch “Succession”. Perhaps it belongs on this list. Satire though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much time invested in which billionaire gets to make more billions while others go home super sad about only possessing the billions they already have. I’m sure it’s good. I’m sure I’d also feel a deep pit in my stomach even touching it.

As viewers, the feelings we have like that are legitimate, and every good critic is ultimately a viewer who has a desire to connect with and share what they love with others. There are times when we push our comfort, for good and bad reasons, and there are times where we realize we can do more or better work in other places.

It was a priority for me to watch series from different countries. It’s great that South Korean series “Squid Game” is breaking through, and it’s on my list. Yet if we were really being inclusive in our viewing choices, South Korea’s television industry is so overbrimming it should be getting best-of entries every year.

When “Squid Game” is a breakthrough rather than part of a norm, it means that critics are following audiences rather than shining a light on what’s next. If “Squid Game” hadn’t set viewing records, would it have made so many critics’ year-end lists? Probably not, because there’s a well of other Korean series of equal quality in this year and years past.

Is “Squid Game” the only entry on a list from somewhere outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.? Then you know something about that critic’s scope. Don’t get me wrong – watching more international series means that I’ve sacrificed watching a few U.S. ones. My point isn’t that one is inherently better than the other; my point is that this information gives you a perspective on what different lists can tell you.

What other priorities inform this list? I tend to lean toward series that buck tradition and try something risky or ambitious. If there’s an element of absurdism, abstraction, or magical realism that’s pulled off well, I tend to like it even if it asks me to do that much more work as a viewer. I like empathy, not just on the part of a series, but also in being asked as a viewer to stretch and view perspectives I might not have sought out in the past.

I don’t mind if a series occasionally shortcuts a plot point with the mutual understanding viewers have seen it a thousand times before and can assume the A-to-B of it. I think world-building doesn’t matter that much for the world you’re creating; I need to see how it’s shaped the lives, understandings, and relationships of the characters who live in that world.

I don’t mind a little bit of melodrama. Where the U.S. tends to incorporate theatrical and even melodramatic performances told within a “gritty”, verite-heavy filmmaking approach, a lot of the rest of the world prefers more understated, verite performances told within a melodramatic filmmaking delivery. We all secretly like melodrama; the only difference is where we place it.

Oh, and some of the best series of recent years have been canceled prematurely. If you’re looking at committing to a series, it helps to know if it’s self-contained or will get to continue, rather than simply being canceled. I’ll mention on each whether it’s been renewed. On with the list:

10. What We Do in the Shadows

The series adaptation of the 2014 mockumentary follows a trio of vampires and their familiar living together on Staten Island. In season three, they’ve just been named leaders of their local vampiric council. It seems like a success, but it’s really the beginning of the group fracturing apart.

Past seasons have been funny, skewering horror movies, bureaucracy, and the “Office” style mockumentary format itself. This season turns into something else, though. Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, and Kayvan Novak all feel like they have rangier roles to play, while still allowing room for now-regular Kristen Schaal to hit the ground running. It’s Matt Berry, in all his skill at overblown bluster, who ultimately reveals the deep heart the show’s built upon.

Without losing its humor, “What We Do in the Shadows” turns into a moving consideration of how found family unites and bonds – and also drifts apart. Questions about feeling lost in the world and wanting meaning abound in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and loaded with ennui. It feels like “What We Do in the Shadows” has taken on a much larger mantle than it has before, one that feels more immediate, relevant, and invested in the humanity of its inhuman characters.

Platform: FX on Hulu, Fubo TV

Is “What We Do in the Shadows” renewed? Yes. A fourth season will premiere in 2022.

9. Squid Game

“Squid Game” exquisitely describes the world we live in. Gambling addict Gi-hun is roped into a get-rich quick scheme. Go play some children’s games for a few days, and make millions. Effectively estranged from his daughter, he sees it as his only chance at making amends. The others who show up to play are similarly hard up – they owe money to the government, loan sharks, gangs, you name it. Even when it becomes apparent the losers of the games are all killed, the realities of the world outside make it clear that they have about as much chance in the games as they do in the corrupt, abusive world of late-stage capitalism.

There are wrinkles that I won’t divulge. Like any large organization, the place isn’t exactly run terribly well. Players cheat, employees cheat, all to make an extra buck. There’s as much tension in whether the games will continue as in who wins them. At the point where we as an audience are anticipating the next game and hoping it goes on, what does that say about us?

Lee Jung-jae gives an incredible performance as Gi-hun. He creates one of the most complex characters of the year. He’s at once deeply charming and hopeful, someone at his best when helping others, yet he’s also manipulative and constantly seeking enablement. It’s a delicate balance to still make us like and hope for him.

Oh Yeong-su captured every viewer’s heart as the elderly Oh Il-nam. Lost in some of the conversation is Jung Hoyeon, playing a North Korean escapee who wants the money to help her family leave that country. She’s asked once whether the outside is better, as she weighs the value of her own life against someone else’s for money. She doesn’t answer.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Squid Game” renewed? It seems to be, but they’re going to take their time with it. If I had to bet, I’d guess we won’t see a Season 2 until 2023 at the earliest.

8. The Club

This Turkish drama is lavish, intricate, and deeply felt, with a melodramatic flourish that reflects the 1955 nightclub at its center. Matilda is freshly released from prison after serving time for murder. She has a nearly grown daughter, Rasel, but Matilda doesn’t want to see her. She simply plans to leave for Israel. This is derailed when Rasel steals from the club and Matilda agrees to work off a blank debt.

The drama of “The Club” rises from defining Turkish cultural conflicts. The East and West meld and clash. As Matilda is Jewish, the shadow of the Varlik Vergisi weighs heavily on her past. This was a 1942 tax on non-Muslims that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth based on religion and ethnicity, and the forced internment of those who couldn’t pay

Characters in “The Club” don’t serve as metaphors for these events and influences, but they have lived through them. These shape characters’ histories, biases, hopes, and fears. The cast is roundly superb. Gokce Bahadir stands out as Matilda, as does Salih Bademci’s visionary but self-sabotaging singer Selim Songur. Firat Tanis is exceptional as the club’s corrupt, abusive manger Celebi. He has a connection to Matilda’s past she hasn’t figured out.

If you can feel at ease with a few melodramatic fluorishes, such as a swelling music cue here or there, “The Club” has an underlying magic that’s difficult to define. It transports in the way the best period pieces do, and the characters feel a genuine part of that lived-in history. It has that sweeping, yearning sense that comes from depicting a place through both the details of its world, and the conflicting emotional realities of those who live within it.

Platform: Netflix

Is “The Club” renewed? Part 2’s already been filmed and premieres very soon, on January 6, 2022.

7. Only Murders in the Building

Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short star in a comedy mystery. A man’s been murdered in their New York apartment building, and they take it upon themselves to solve what the police have deemed a suicide. They’re bumbling at best, and on top of it all, decide to make a podcast about it. “Only Murders in the Building” speaks to our true crime media addiction, one that seems to prioritize narrative over truth. Luckily, these three veer wildly enough to occasionally dig up some morsel of a clue.

Martin and Short are 80s comedy legends, so it might surprise that it’s Gomez who most solidly anchors the story. Between this, “Spring Breakers”, and “The Dead Don’t Die”, she’s delivered three exceptional performances and should be thought of more seriously. The supporting cast includes Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch, and Sting, toying relentlessly with the idea that the famous guest star must be guilty.

What “Only Murders in the Building” is really about is loneliness, though. Each of the three leads deals with loneliness, isolation, trauma, and regret in very different ways. Gomez’s Mabel is self-sufficient and deliberate in her actions, Martin’s Charles is locked in an unthinking, melancholic routine, and Short’s Oliver reaches out constantly to those he’s already disappointed or betrayed. That “Only Murders in the Building” works as a caring, empathetic examination of loneliness, and a wildly successful comedy is a uniquely disarming pairing.

Platform: Hulu

Is “Only Murders in the Building” renewed? Yes. The first season leaves a cliffhanger for a Season 2 that was picked up quickly and is currently filming. Expect it sometime in 2022.

6. My Name

You could pick any number of Korean series for this list and have a strong argument. “My Name” was the one that captured me the most. The premise of a woman joining the police to track down a killer within their ranks reflects a number of other undercover gangster projects: particularly “The Departed” and its inspiration “Infernal Affairs”.

“My Name” mixes together a number of familiar elements from John Woo action films to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy and Michael Mann projects like “Heat” and “Miami Vice”. I’d even say it does so better than its more well-known progenitors. It also avoids creating a false nobility for the gangs the way so many highly regarded U.S. projects have done in the past. What’s here is brief, brutal, and feels far more grounded than flights of golden era Mafia-worshiping.

“My Name” pitches to a fever intensity by the second episode that it refuses to let go until the series’ end. Han So-hee carries nearly every minute of the show. She delivers one of the top performances this year.

The action scenes feature creative fight choreography with a lot of moving pieces. There’s an evocative editing that reflects the single-minded drive of the show’s lead, while also pushing the emotions she can’t allow herself to feel. One interesting decision in the show is to lean heavily on a single song, repeating in different circumstances. It reflects how Ji-woo (undercover as police officer Hye-jin) has honed herself to just be one thing, to have a singular intent no matter the circumstance. In many ways the show is edited and scored to feel what its lead has compartmentalized away. “My Name” is one of the best revenge sagas of recent memory.

Platform: Netflix

Is “My Name” renewed? Like many Korean series, “My Name” is designed as a fully self-contained season. It’s not designed to be renewed, so it’s unlikely.

5. Evil

“Evil” follows a team that assesses mysteries for the Catholic Church. These range from suspected demonic possessions to investigating a potential sainthood. What makes the show work so well is that only one member of the team of three is Catholic – a priest in training named David. The psychologist Kristen and debunker Ben are both Atheist, though from different backgrounds. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic and Ben was raised Muslim.

The discussions they have in trying to figure out the mysteries are extremely well-written, and range from the personal to the philosophical. They add significant weight and meaning to the best horror show on TV right now.

Usually, I don’t go in for Catholic horror. It’s all so inconsistently codified it gets a bit silly to me. “Evil” doesn’t try to hide or explain away those inconsistencies, or avoid criticisms of the Catholic Church. Those inconsistencies and criticisms confuse and divide the characters, too. Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, and Christine Lahti make up my favorite ensemble of the year.

“Evil” reflects earlier unexplained investigation shows like “The X-Files” and “Fringe”, but it does a much better job than either of giving you multiple explanations. Some of its mysteries are debunked, others aren’t. When something is explained, is that simply the path something demonic took to achieve it? In some episodes, they don’t even know which religion’s demons are in question. Many situations are solved without being fully fixed, which feels realistic. By sometimes denying us the closure of consequence, “Evil” feels that much more consequential. The writing makes it reasonable that the believer still believes, that the Atheists don’t, and that they can all identify a common trust and productive purpose that pushes them forward as a team.

“Evil” also has a wicked, occasionally fourth-wall breaking sense of humor. Demons troll visions from God with meme gifs. A nearly dialogue-free episode at a silent monastery has way too much fun with subtitled inner thoughts. The pop-up book used to introduce episodes to the audience in the second season becomes real to the characters midway through.

Perhaps the biggest strength of “Evil” is one that it could be a little rough getting down in its first season: it incorporates elements of kitsch, camp, and meme culture in quiet, understated ways that subvert our expectations, unravel our explanations, and unnerve us with the very things that usually feel a refuge.

Platform: Paramount Plus

Is “Evil” renewed? Yes. A third season was announced halfway through season two, reflecting a strong showing. Expect it sometime in 2022.

4. Reservation Dogs

Four indigenous teens try to make sense of reservation life after losing their friend. They steal in order to save enough money to leave, some reconnecting with their families and some drifting further away. The series features all indigenous writers and directors, and a mostly indigenous cast. The amount of talent working here, that other studios and platforms have routinely overlooked, is staggering: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Lil Mike and Funny Bone, Elva Guerra, each of them could probably lead their own shows.

It shows in the final result, with even small scenes taking on emotional weight and stellar comic timing. “Reservation Dogs” hearkens back to 90s indie comedy, particularly in its small-scale, sometimes aimless tone. Yet 90s indie comedy could also spark of a lot of privilege; “Reservation Dogs” uses the form to critique and highlight life without it. It has a way of building that the genre never had, of revealing moments that are far more real and relevant.

One thing I really appreciate here is that the comedy isn’t directed at me. It’s created to make indigenous people laugh. As a viewer, there are expectations of me to broaden my understanding of comedy staples and the truths they can evoke. “Reservation Dogs” doesn’t come with every reference explained, but that can help me see what an episode is doing in a way I wouldn’t if the explanation was catered to me.

There are absolute gems of episodes here: “NDN Clinic” turns an aimless, meandering day into a perfect memory, “Come and Get Your Love” connects the importance of legend to who we become, “Hunting” is a stunning, haunting, and funny reflection on loss, and “California Dreamin’” is a chance for Jacobs to demonstrate just how phenomenal an actor she is.

Platform: FX on Hulu

Is “Reservation Dogs” renewed? Yes. A second season has been announced for 2022.

3. Sonny Boy

An entire high school shifts out of reality, into a dimension of nothingness. The adults are nowhere to be found. The students organize, trying to make the best of the situation. As they shift through more dimensions, they realize some students have powers. Imbalances develop. The group splits, looks for people to blame, re-organizes. The dimensions they investigate each have their own rules, often born of metaphor, as if designed.

Magical realism and metaphor can struggle to work together in balance. One or the other usually takes over as a story’s focus, regardless of the medium. That’s fine, but “Sonny Boy” takes a difficult path in balancing the two elegantly. The series is exceptionally abstract: complex, disjointed, full of time skips, dimensions that only half-explain themselves, powers that equip the students with magical tools that look like toys, rulesets within rulesets.

The result is a series that would become too confusing to grasp if it wasn’t so well-guided by meaning. We make sense of the meaning first, and then the logic comes around and fills in some gaps, often hitting in a Kafka-esque way that can hurt. “Sonny Boy” begins to feel like an impressionist landscape of relationships, joys, anxieties, dreams, regrets. Moments can feel like a gut punch, yet never because of something over-emotive. Instead, it’s because we make sense of why a meaning is shaped the way it is. Why is a world designed just so? Why does a character leave something unspoken? What disaffection in the powerful shapes a society? What part of ourselves do we leave behind in order to adapt? What loss means enough to still be guided by the one we lost, or to even repeat that loss?

“Sonny Boy” can feel like an expression of helplessness, or the determination to work against that lack of hope. It manages to be both sides at once, to show the dual natures within us that feel forlorn at trying to change the world, and that will do our best to try anyway. No other show this year captures what it is to grow up, to put our past selves away even as we keep parts of them alive, to pair the joyful with the bittersweet, to choose the difficult because it’s at least a choice, to do the thankless because it’s right. No other show this year is so deeply, relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly human.

Platform: Hulu, Funimation

Is “Sonny Boy” renewed? “Sonny Boy” seems expressly designed as a single, self-contained season. It’s original, not based on a manga or other source material, so there’s no outside indication to think it would continue. Its ending is perfect in what it says, so in many ways I hope this season is it.

2. Made for Love

Hazel is trapped with everything she could ever want. She’s married to billionaire Byron Gogol, and lives in a holographic mansion with access to anything and anywhere. She’s desperate to either kill herself, or escape. She does the latter, only to discover he’s implanted a chip in her head that’s designed to fuse their minds together as one.

The high-concept premise works as both an extremely dark comedy, and as a cyberpunk allegory. Both center on our interconnected world, where who we are is whoever we portray, regardless of its reality, and where that portrayal itself becomes our source of fulfillment.

I’ve worked with people who’ve been stalked, and I’ve been stalked myself. Scenes of this in “Made for Love” are as close as I’ve seen to the horror of feeling like someone else controls where you can even feel safe, and what your choices are. Cristin Milioti is getting wildly overlooked for her role as Hazel.

The comedy here can range pretty far afield. Hazel’s refuge and ear for fundamentally feminist issues is her estranged father (Ray Romano), who turns out to now be in a relationship with a sex doll. Investigators on both sides are regularly distracted or incompetent. These things always come back to reflect on the core, though: the horror of who we are being controlled by who someone else wants us to be. When who we are and what we’re fulfilled by is a portrayal we project, and someone else gains control of it, then who the hell are we anymore?

Platform: HBO Max

Is “Made for Love” renewed? Yes. Season 2 is likely to drop in 2022.

1. Arcane

An overwhelmed technocrat stands before a warlord. It’s the technocrat’s city, but this doesn’t feel like his space. He is in uniform. She is naked in a bath, getting a massage. Between them in the frame stands the mural of an army. They face him, spears descending row by row until they come to point at him. He is out of his element. She is biding her time.

The rain in Caitlyn’s life always slides down surfaces in fits and starts. You can’t keep track of the lines it traces. It gives an impression of movement as she stays still, grasping to make a decision before others make it for her. She always meets the consequences head on, but she’s never able to track the cause and effect well enough to get ahead of them.

Two men stop each other on a ledge at different points in their lives. One meets the moment with closed eyes, the other open. They both offer support in ways they may not fully realize.

The voices of those lost are scratches on the film. The memories are drawn over like a child scratching out a word. She hides their expectations for her, their criticisms of her. Jinx destroys the reality of the story itself, even as we’ve seen it. She erases what we’ve witnessed so that she can rewrite her story as she pleases.

“Arcane” follows so much – twin cities that are breaking apart through inequality, an abusive police force, generations of characters whose accomplishments and mistakes echo in government, magic, and war for decades to follow. It follows young idealists who concede in order to realize ideals now poisoned. It follows a fight for freedom and self-determination. It follows a woman who’ll stop at nothing to save her abandoned sister, a…terrorist? A freedom fighter? It portrays the best romance of the year, a lesbian relationship that develops in fits and starts because of the overwhelming nature of the life-or-death decisions happening around them.

Crafted by French studio Fortiche, “Arcane” is one of the best pieces of fantasy put to screen. It’s an incredible leap forward in animation, fusing 3D and 2D approaches into something genuinely new. It’s the best piece of western animation since I was five. It’s the best piece of steampunk on film or TV. Its world-building is on par with something like “The Golden Compass”. It released as three acts, three episodes apiece, and if you wanted to call each act a film, then I’d call it the best film trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. Forget the modifiers; it’s thus far one of the best shows ever made. Even when I write these things, it feels like I’m understating just how emotional, artistic, and impactful “Arcane” really is.

“Arcane” is the show I always dreamed about because I knew it could never be made. I’m not talking about the source material, with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I mean what it becomes as a series. There’s not an episode I didn’t shed tears at – sure, because some parts are so human and empathetic, and sure, because it’s unique and overwhelming in its beauty. Yet there’s something deeper, something more artistically fundamental at play. It’s because when you’re in the rhythm of a phrase, when the poet or the painter needs you to yearn or smile or break, there’s a giving up at play. There’s a loosing of control that’s utterly rare, that requires so high a trust be given over.

Maybe it happens for a moment, when a word pierces our guard, when the twist of an idea is pushed home. That’s the thing – you expect it to happen for a moment before your guard returns. You don’t expect it to be down for hours at a time. You don’t expect to trust that much. What an impossible space that would be. What a relief in a world that batters us so much.

This is what “Arcane” creates so well. It’s a harrowing story, complexly told, beautifully depicted, it’s an advanced course in French art history, but above all it manages that impossible thing – it delivers that magic of becoming a place so beautifully, it feels safe to relinquish your burdens while you’re there. You’re in a storyteller’s hands, and what they’ve made is crafted with such exceptional, seemingly unprecedented care, you can feel the whole thing without guard.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Arcane” renewed? Yes. The first season took six years to make, and while a second season certainly wouldn’t take that long, it’s unlikely to premiere before 2023.

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

A Devastation in Pink — “AlRawabi School for Girls”

“AlRawabi School for Girls” is a Jordanian series that follows a “Count of Monte Cristo” plot. Mariam is a bookish student who becomes the target of three popular girls. They beat her, leading to a school investigation. In what might be the most stomach-turning scene this year, the most popular girl convinces the entire student body that they saw something they didn’t, something which casts Mariam as the aggressor instead of their victim. On top of her injuries and trauma, this shatters Mariam’s home and school life, so she decides she’ll take them down one by one.

What “AlRawabi School for Girls” gets so right is its feeling of hideousness. There are acts of bullying here that other shows often treat as plot impetus, instead of focusing in on character. Here, it feels world-ending, which is exactly how it feels to children enduring it.

The scene where Mariam’s bully Layan convinces everyone to swap their roles is particularly stark. We tend to think this rewriting of reality is something complex. After people like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, there’s a temptation to imagine it requires a vast power struggle at the highest levels to pull off. That’s a comforting thought in the face of their horror because it pretends things like this only happen beyond our ability to control or influence. Yet this single scene in “AlRawabi School for Girls” shows how ordinary it really is. It just takes a little bit of privilege to exert, which most of us can find somewhere in our lives. That means any of us is capable of it, and that we all have a responsibility against it.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” focuses on how girls are disempowered. Some of this is specific to Arab and Islamic culture. One episode revolves around trying to get an image of a girl without her hijab. Even though most of the girls don’t wear one, the fact that Roqayya does means that removing it to flirt is scandalous and would embarrass her family. It’s not difficult to see how this plays out in other cultures as well – such as how many evangelicals police the clothing of girls and persecute them based on double-standards.

The series also poses how this struggle for limited agency within the bounds of a private school – already dangerous and traumatizing – is dwarfed by the denial of the girls’ agency outside the school. One of the tensest scenes I saw this year was brief but overwhelming, when an old man tries to sexually assault one of the girls in a swimming pool.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” never shows too much – it doesn’t glorify these moments or turn them into set pieces as if they’re somehow an exception. By sitting us with the experience in a more realistic, everyday way, the idea’s commonality is what becomes horrific.

The point of this hideousness isn’t shock. It’s to make you understand how it’s licensed – how it’s made so normal. In every instance, the adults blame the wrong person. Every time, the one at fault is a girl without agency because this is how our societies have organized themselves to license and excuse predatory behavior. The show’s ultimately about girls taking out their lack of agency on each other. They desperately need to rebel against this lack of agency, but their only lesson in control and confidence is to emulate their abusers by harming those lower on the social ladder. Their only chance to exercise agency as girls is to take it away from the other girls.

The three students who first abuse and discredit Mariam are in turn pursued by Mariam so she can abuse and discredit them, in a cycle that ensures nothing in the patriarchal system that holds all of them down is challenged. In a difference from how we investigate this genre in the U.S., this isn’t a matter of complex mystery plots pulled off by teenagers. Mariam may have a conspiracy wall in her closet, but the reality is that her plot for vengeance boils down to pretty simple steps: get a certain picture, report a girl for sneaking out, that sort of thing.

It’s the consequences – the abusive control these girls’ families exert over them – that are escalated. Even the hacking in the show, while spiced up a little when we see it on a character’s laptop, is narrow and realistic in its capabilities and goals.

Andria Tayeh’s Mariam is well conveyed. There are long stretches where she’s alone in a sea of people, but she recruits two friends to help and it’s in these dialogue scenes where she shines. We see Mariam’s quest for justice morph into a control over her friends that starts to look a lot like Layan’s. These friends are Yara Mustafa’s Dina, a rich girl often lost in her own world, and Rakeen Saad’s Noaf, the aforementioned hacker who balances a desire for change against just wanting to keep her head down.

Noor Taher’s Layan, Salsabiela A’s Roqayya, and Joanna Arida’s Rania round out the cast as the three popular girls who make everyone’s life hell. This is absolutely an ensemble effort. The core cast is good, but some of the surrounding players can be a little hit or miss.

I do want to single out Arida’s Rania as a character who shifts from publicly carefree to privately aggressive at the drop of a hat. She balances that cycle from abused to abusive well, and the more we get to know her, the more we see how much of her attitude is a front.

Saad’s Noaf becomes a standout performance later in the show, as she’s given an overwhelming amount to react to and pinned as the character with the most complex moral and philosophical choices.

At times, “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel too broad. Its portrayal of power dynamics, privilege, and agency are all pinpoint, but its slice-of-life elements can feel glossed over. Characters occasionally talk about everyday events in ways that relate more to the plot than to each other. There’s foreshadowing here that’s used beautifully, but there’s some initial suspension of disbelief that’s asked of the viewer in terms of who these people are. Everyone except Mariam starts off as an archetype.

This does get filled in, and there is a strength to this approach, too. We get to know the characters best as they’re radically changing who they are. This escalates our sense of consequence as the show progresses, and creates a lot of space where we’re genuinely unsure how a character will respond. Are they still the archetype we were introduced to, or the conflicted person we’ve gotten to know?

Showrunner, director, and co-writer Tima Shomali has a stunning expertise at handling scenes with large-scale crowds. There’s a bad habit in filming coming-of-age or school-based dramas where the leads are off on their own. This cuts on costs for supporting actors and extras. Here, though, characters are constantly coming in and out of rooms. Time outside isn’t just a few leads against the wall with ambient shouting in the background and a handful of cutaway shots. The school is populated; dozens of students exist in every space. This goes a long way to exacerbating that sense of social anxiety and trauma. There’s literally nowhere here you can escape. Even hiding in a bathroom stall out of shame turns into being cornered before long.

Shomali drives many of the bullying and revenge moments forward in these large-scale crowd scenes. That would already be impressive, but these scenes become some of the most personal in the whole show. She establishes a towering sense of apprehension for how things will play out both plotwise and for each character’s development. There’s a sense of the social experience inside that crowd. It’s remarkably easy as viewers to cheer on revenge that’s just another form of bullying, to become a part of that crowd one minute, and then sit as a viewer and feel empathy the next. It’s a rare balance.

Some aspects of the show may not play out the way we’re used to seeing. There’s a sense for how these girls are often awkward in their own skin. Take a moment where a character becomes excited and betrays how they otherwise want to present themselves. We’d tend to play that for laughs that tread into satire, schadenfreude, or manic pixie dream girl territory. Here, it’s just played as uncomfortable. That’s a lot more realistic, but because our series in the U.S. are made with character acting, banter, and big, anchoring moments in scenes, a more patient and subdued intent can read as less realistic for us. There’s a shift in sensibilities that a viewer has to make with this. It’s not particularly difficult, but it may be noticeable for some.

I mean – let’s be real. When we make coming-of-age shows about this premise in the U.S., it’s either a comedy or a conspiracy thriller. Both absolutely have their value, and some of them are among my favorite shows, but we also tend to provide abusers with redemptive story arcs that misrepresent the impact of their abuse and excuse their responsibility for it. And let’s not get into being adrift in shows about sexy murder high schools that we pretend aren’t a creepy trend in our storytelling culture that we should at least talk about more.

My point is that the shift into a series like “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel clunky in places, but I think that has a lot to do with our training as viewers. Its dramatic moments exist more to communicate experience and empathy than to provide the direct catharsis, satire, or schadenfreude we expect from U.S. versions of this show.

What’s being told here is very universal. If you can make that shift and appreciate the show’s sensibilities, there’s a specific story about how Jordanian culture denies girls agency, and a broader portrayal that mirrors how all our cultures practice and reinforce this denial. We expect girls to take that disempowerment and objectification out on each other, to practice it and get good at moving within it, to fight each other for limited agency rather than challenging us for the power and control over their lives they should have in the first place. (And we certainly struggle as men to imagine we should give more than words to supporting such a challenge.)

Perhaps there’s no catharsis for that because there’s been none. There’s no satire for it because our real world is a satire of it. There’s no schadenfreude because laughing at it is propagating it. “AlRawabi School for Girls” leaves us with more questions than answers because none of its questions have been answered in the real world. When I say it captures hideousness, it’s not because of any moment where you have to turn away from the screen. It captures what we turn away from every day – the hideousness we all know but like to forget or put out of mind because its systemic, that we all like to pretend happens beyond our ability to control or influence. What’s hideous is that it’s ordinary, that we overwhelmingly pretend we can’t change it, and that we allow the aggressive punishment of the next generation until they get good at repeating it.

You can watch “AlRawabi School for Girls” on Netflix.

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

Big, Cozy Fantasy Blanket — “The Wheel of Time”

One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.

I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.

When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.

Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.

One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.

The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.

These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.

I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.

“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.

The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.

The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.

I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.

To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.

The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.

It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.

There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.

There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.

By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?

The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.

There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.

Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.

The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.

I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.

You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.

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

Stripped and Sold for Parts — “Cowboy Bebop”

Netflix’s live-action “Cowboy Bebop” proves that camp filmmaking isn’t easy. Why the contemplative, atmosphere-drenched sci-fi anime has been turned into a campy hodge-podge of kitsch is anyone’s guess. It’s not the adaptation I’d want to see, but I’m game for the concept. The problem is this: if you’re going to carve out the soul of a source material and transplant another one in, you’d better have a firm grasp on what you’re replacing it with and why.

“Cowboy Bebop” follows Spike, Jet, and Faye, bounty hunters in a post-Earth solar system. They’re constantly scraping by while jumping from planet to planet for their next target. These targets often embroil them in local politics and vendettas. They do their best to stay clear of these with varying degrees of success. Spike and Faye both hold secrets about their former lives, while Jet abides and gives them the benefit of the doubt even when they let him down.

John Cho’s Spike, Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and Daniella Pineda’s Faye are the best thing about this show. There are changes from the anime, but the biggest ones have less to do with how the characters act, and more to do with their stories.

This is where I want to tackle “Cowboy Bebop” from two angles. I firmly believe that an adaptation doesn’t have to be too accurate when it comes to the details. Story changes are fine, so long as they maintain the broader intentions and themes of the original.

I have issues with “Cowboy Bebop” as its own entity, and as an adaptation. I want to split those two things apart. Let’s start with:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS ITS OWN THING…

For some reason, “Cowboy Bebop” wants to be camp. The anime it’s based on wasn’t, but adaptations should feel free to change things like this. The problem is that showrunner Andre Nemec seems to think that camp is just one thing. The tone shifts from 60s fumetti adaptations (take “Barbarella” as an English example) to 70s exploitation films, into 90s Hercules/Xena modes, and through Robert Rodriguez territory. There are a lot of situations in which that breadth of campiness would be incredible. There’s no problem with doing all of the above, but there is a problem if you don’t understand the difference between these forms of camp and what each requires from its filmmakers.

Let’s take stilted line delivery as an example to show you what I mean: Fumetti adaptations were 60s and 70s adaptations of European comics, often in Italian and French. Their awkwardness and aggressive absurdity served as a contrast to the French New Wave movement they also drew from. Less studio-bound, raw filmmaking techniques that emulated the real world sat next to ridiculous situations, dialogue, and line readings to create a dissonant viewing experience. The quality of actors speaking in languages they didn’t know or being covered by underfunded dubbing only served to accentuate this dissonance.

By contrast, exploitation films ranged from blaxploitation to Troma and at their best encapsulated a subversive, insurgent activism. Isolated line readings served to call attention to those lines with sleek delivery within a relaxed editing rhythm, creating cinematic icons where they hadn’t existed. Exploitation could build on the outsider narratives of noir to then critique the voluntary helplessness to which noir – and its viewers – often succumb. These line readings were intentionally highlighted as a way of dismissing challenges from those that this new iconography made uncomfortable. These would in large part be bastardized into the one-liners of 80s movies.

“Hercules” and “Xena” in the 90s faced stiff budgetary constraints. By calling attention to their own shortcomings, they invited the audience to join in the play of it all, to feel like a partner alongside the actors in the same campy sandbox. These series also served as a hotbed for low-budget cinematography and technical experiments that laid foundation to the New Zealand filmmaking renaissance that would follow.

Robert Rodriguez makes his camp deliberate, both existing in and commenting on the genres it uses. He dials up stylistic elements in order to see how much he can squeeze out of a budget. Every line is an opportunity for a character to show off. Regardless of how well it serves the story, Rodriguez wants his performances to offer a high melodramatic return-on-investment. Get the most out of a line, worry about how well it fits later.

They’re all camp, but each approach does something completely different, and is built on a different shot selection and editing pace. The writing and filmmaking priorities for each is completely different. If you don’t know the difference between these, then you don’t know what each needs to be successful, and this is just talking about what one element of camp needs to work.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” plays with the mistimed acting cues of fumetti that “Barbarella” made such successful comedy of, with the Dutch angles and intentional tableau of Rodriguez, with the inviting meta and budget-limited middle distance creativity of “Hercules” and “Xena”, with the isolated line as cool character moment, but none of them are housed within the styles or technical elements that give each of these things a foundation.

The isolated, cool line reading of exploitation cinema does not work within the mistimed cue of a fumetto adaptation. The wide range of exacting tableau Rodriguez delivers doesn’t work when every tableau is filmed as a middle distance two-shot. Dutch angles highlight the artificial nature of a shot in order to evoke something uncomfortable in pushing us away; they work directly against a moment of meta humor that invites us to feel alongside the actors.

The live-action “Cowboy Bebop” seems to believe camp is easy just because it’s silly, but this misses the very things that help camp create coherent alternate realities of storytelling that drive home its themes. Camp filmmaking here is understood as a quirky monolith, but just these four foundations of camp come from four different eras, four different places (Europe, the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico), and they speak to four different storytelling cultures – and these four are hardly the only anchor points in the history of camp filmmaking.

This might seem like: who cares, this is delving way too far into something that’s just silly. I could just say “Cowboy Bebop” is a muddled pastiche that can’t settle on a style and be done with it. The truth is, though, that “Cowboy Bebop” has settled on a style, and that style smacks of appropriating what came before without understanding any of it. It evokes someone showing up and acting like they know how to do something without having done the work to understand how and why it functioned time after time before they even got there.

Those line readings are just one example that describe so many more. This misapplication of camp permeates every element of the show. There has to be a knowledge of what kind of camp you’re aiming for, why that works for this scene, and what else has to be there to support it.

Camp is about irony. If you don’t know which approach to use because you treat them all the same, then you don’t know how you’re being ironic. Everyone can tell what you’re being ironic about, that’s the easy part. Congratulations, you just made “Family Guy”. But if you don’t know how you’re being ironic, then your audience sure as hell doesn’t either. It’s like cutting to the punchline of a joke without telling the setup. You told the most important part, sure, but that hardly means it works.

If comparing “Cowboy Bebop” to “Undercover Brother”, the 2000 “Charlie’s Angels”, “Hercules”, “Xena”, or “G vs E” finds it outclassed every time, something’s gone really wrong. Hell, last year’s “Vagrant Queen” didn’t do a lot right, but the things “Cowboy Bebop” does wrong are almost entirely what “Vagrant Queen” did get right.

None of this is the fault of the actors, and “Cowboy Bebop” is ultimately saved to some extent on the sheer charisma and talent of its three leads. Cho, Shakir, and Pineda do great work when the filmmakers get out of their way long enough for them to do it.

I’ve wanted to review “Cowboy Bebop” on its own facets before addressing how it does as an adaptation. The decision to make this camp is one that could have worked much better. What bothers me before even thinking about this as an adaptation is that this is a bad representation of camp, the points it can make, and the stories it can tell.

That sense of someone showing up and thinking they can do better with something they don’t understand only gets worse when you consider:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS AN ADAPTATION…

Setting those problems aside, how is this as an adaptation of the anime “Cowboy Bebop”? Its success depends on what you want out of it.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” is a disaster, trying to cram in so many nods and Easter Eggs from the show that it feels like one of those pages from “Ready Player One” that lists a bunch of popular items in the hope it can convince you bulk recognition is the same thing as nostalgia. The show does improve markedly after this, but it’s an uphill climb in the hope of getting back to sea level.

Let’s get into those three leads. The casting is perfect, but these aren’t 1-to-1 portrayals, either. Each takes their character and makes it their own. This means some changes in traits and tone; that’s going to come with any adaptation.

Their stories are often substantially rewritten, and many of these changes seem needless. I’m fine with an adaptation making changes like these so long as there’s a good reason and they don’t betray core meanings – I think it can be argued that Jet’s, Faye’s, and especially Julia’s stories are changed to the point of violating core meanings.

Is there a good reason for these changes? That’s very arguable. Do we need Jet to be an absentee father, chasing after a doll for half the season? Is “Cowboy Bebop” the most apt place to be retelling “Jingle All the Way”?

No, that’s just filler. The show is rife with writing that takes complex relationships of partial trust and different views on moral quandaries and reduces them to Odd Couple sitcom dynamics. This sitcom-style rewriting has its ups and downs, and sometimes it’s even well done. Cho, Shakir, and especially Pineda bring a ton of energy to it. What they’re doing in “Cowboy Bebop” I have no idea, but these sitcom elements are the most watchable part of the show, and writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to take a shower.

In other cases, the adaptation changes major character plotlines so that it can fill in its own explanations. The original anime was content to keep a lot in the dark, just as the characters were from each other. When you explain what’s mysterious, though, you lose the mystery. Yes, that might be the single most obvious sentence I’ve ever had to write, but it seems to be the philosophy behind this adaptation. And again, that’s fine if you’ve got something to replace it.

What made the original “Cowboy Bebop” so enticing was that mystique. We didn’t know these characters as well as we wanted, and we filled in what we didn’t know with hope for them that they may not have had for themselves. That was compelling, and it brought out what was human in the viewer. It made us catch our empathy in our throats. It brought out the stark divide of watching their universe even as ours grows to look more and more like it. The criminals Spike, Jet, and Faye brought in for bounties were often the only ones fighting the corporatism, corruption, and exploitation that had ruined each of their lives, that was ruining lives every place they went.

In researching their bounties and trying to understand who they hunted, the trio would often commiserate and identify with their quarry’s motives, even if their target had long ago lost the thread or become corrupt. The show was a scream from inside a broken system, a warning of what’s to come in a world with no future.

Its adaptation carries no such complexity. This “Cowboy Bebop” gives passing reference to these contemplations and hand waves them away in favor of kooky bounty hunting antics. Its plot explanations lose the existential, mistaking what was once anxious, absurd, and alienating for comedy quirk.

Even when a story is expanded with a good reason, such as Julia’s, it runs directly against the biggest throughline “Cowboy Bebop” had. Julia deserves her own agency and story, something the original never found the time to offer. This “Cowboy Bebop” focuses heavily on her story, but in so doing doesn’t find the same message as the anime. Instead, it seems to say that empowerment can be found within the same corporatist system that “Cowboy Bebop” was created to warn against. Julia should have an awesome expanded story. It shouldn’t be one that finds the empowerment everyone else lacks in the very system that first allowed her to be abused and threatened, and that removes power from everyone else.

So much of what made the anime great was this idea that Spike, Jet, and Faye were functioning as cogs within a corrupt system just to make it by, while resenting that system for taking away their lives and making everyone’s future bleak. How do they marry this idea of helping the system to continue while constantly running up against those who’ve decided to resist? It’s a concept that has only grown more and more relevant today. For the live-action adaptation to suggest a character’s escape from that system is simply to become the one running it and abusing others is a devastating betrayal of the original’s message. It’s a misunderstanding not just of the anime’s social value, but of how that fight exists in people’s lives today. Within the context of an adaptation, it’s at best a misunderstanding of empowerment and at worst a lie about it.

This adaptation is – in every way it can be – the epitome of someone walking in and thinking they can do better with something they haven’t even done the work to understand at its most basic level.

I went in with tempered expectations because the anime is a masterpiece. You can’t compare an adaptation to a masterpiece. Yet if the adaptation turns its back on the ethos of the source itself, that’s difficult to overcome or justify. The style, the ethos, the message, all of it is gone, replaced with a camp approach that could still work as its own thing but fails to understand how and why camp is used.

And maybe it’s not the worst of these issues, but the best way I have to sum up the adaptation is this: the stillness of the original is gone. The anime “Cowboy Bebop” was centered on jazz and blues. Every viewing was a syncopation, a calm before a chaos. Each character represented a moral viewpoint that had been transgressed, yet was desperately held to. Tension was created in which would win out: The transgression or the moral? The chaos or the calm? The hunter or the bounty? The system or the motive that resists it?

The anime was jazz, in the truest sense of the word. Here, the jazz is just the soundtrack to an asset strip.

You can watch “Cowboy Bebop” on Netflix.

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

“Arcane” is a Staggering Animation and Adaptation

We’ve waited for the first great adaptation of a video game. I mean the first honest-to-goodness, heart-in-throat kind of artistry that stands toe-to-toe with more traditional entries. The first three episodes of “Arcane” are out, and I think it’s safe to say that moment is finally here. We have an artistically stunning series adaptation of a video game that proves it can be done.

People who don’t play video games or who aren’t familiar with the source material might already be starting to zone out, so let me say this first. I’m not familiar with the lore of “League of Legends”, on which “Arcane” is based. It’s still a brilliant series. Have you ever seen a great movie without having read the book? It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter if you’ve played the game or not. Great storytelling is great storytelling.

“Arcane” tells a tale of two sisters growing up in the neglected undercity of a shining steampunk metropolis. Vi and Powder lost their parents in an act of resistance years ago, and have taken up as thieves. “Arcane” shifts back and forth between the haves and the have-nots. The slightest provocation will send Piltover’s militarized police force flooding into the undercity; the slightest resistance is met with police brutality en masse.

Of course, the first job we see Vi and Powder pull off with their crew goes wrong, and sends Piltover combing through the undercity for them. “Arcane” is an action series, but it earns its action. The tension of watching police escalate a violent, occupying force is all too relevant today.

The storytelling here is phenomenal. Some elements in its universe will feel familiar, but the presentation feels genuinely new. How often do you get to say something feels new in a series? “Arcane” uses a gorgeously evocative presentation that feels like watching oil paintings move. More traditional elements of animation are used for the world itself, such as a sudden burst of dust, or drops of rain cascading down an umbrella at a lower frame rate.

The mixture of those familiar animated visual markers and that oil painting style gives “Arcane” a jaw-dropping range. Piltover is defined by its sun, pastels, and straight lines, while the undercity is a mass of neon colors, jumbled angles, and gradiated shadows. “Arcane” uses its quiet moments to staggering effect, relying on the atmosphere, blocking, and slowly developed visual metaphor to describe its characters’ internal lives.

Adaptations of video games into movies or series often fail because studios feel gamers want constant action. Yet gameplay is often defined by large moments of quiet that highlight those sudden moments where muscle memory kicks in and decisions have to be made instinctively. In MOBA games like “League of Legends”, a large amount of the gameplay relies on strategy, speculation, and team communication that can veer from orderly to panicked at a moment’s notice. Conflicts are chosen, and when they’re not, running away is often the wiser choice.

What makes games unique as a medium is the amount of player agency to explore spaces and gameplay loops however the player wants. The most memorable parts of even the most action-heavy FPS games tend to be quiet moments, the atmosphere that defines a game, or action where the player is forced to come up with a creative alternate plan after their first doesn’t work.

Some might pale at a player being proud when they rack up kills, but it’s no different from a chess player being proud when they amass material by knocking off the opposition’s pieces. The pride in either isn’t that of the bloodshed it represents. It’s pride at getting knowledgeable enough about a gameplay system that you understand it faster and translate that understanding into creative play.

Movie adaptations of video games often think they’re adapting the bloodshed or the violence. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a player’s experience. What’s being adapted is the creative experience that results from the player agency that video games as a medium uniquely provide.

Adapting games to films and series needs to reflect these experiences. “Arcane” takes its time showing you a space, how it moves, and how its characters move through, see, and hear it – the same thing players directly connect with when they play a game. That echoes the agency to explore space. Its characters bicker about teammates’ capabilities and what role they can play, echoing the same MOBA element. Initial conflicts are told through sacrifice or running away, reflecting the strategic nature of engagement in a game like “League of Legends”.

When video games are adapted to films or series, they don’t need to be faster or more brutal or anything like that. They need to be like “Arcane”, focused on how characters each understand and move through a space, and by extension how different characters each come to understand the larger world that opens.

I don’t come to “League of Legends” with any knowledge of its lore. I do know it features more than 140 characters, each with their own backstories, each of which threads through the backstories of multiple other characters. That paints an intricate world full of conflicting motivations. The days of dismissing video games as narratively simple are over when many paint some of the most detailed worlds in any medium. You can feel “Arcane” take all these things seriously, as a real adaptation of a complex world told through various perspectives. There’s a genuine care in how this story is told, the kind of care we’re used to seeing when a cherished novel is adapted.

We’ve seen enough bad adaptations of video games to know by now that the same care, effort, and precision that makes any other kind of adaptation good is also needed here. In the first three episodes of “Arcane” that are now available, we finally get to see what that approach delivers, and it’s staggeringly beautiful.

The first three hourlong episodes of “Arcane” are available on Netflix. The second three will arrive on Saturday, November 13, and the final three on Saturday, November 20.

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

Comedy Care — “Only Murders in the Building”

“Only Murders in the Building” is a love letter to New York that translates even to people who loathe New York. It’s a multi-faceted comedy that features two greats from the 80s who have evolved with the times: Steve Martin and Martin Short. It anchors Selena Gomez as an exceptional actor. It features one of the best ensembles in recent memory. It’s a mystery that’s more successful and intriguing than most of what passes for a mystery.

Steve Martin plays Charles, the former TV star of a terrible detective show. Martin Short is Oliver, a has-been Broadway producer who’s heavily in debt. Selena Gomez is Mabel, a woman who’s recently moved into the same expensive apartment complex. The three exist in separate worlds until one day they enter the same elevator as a man who’s minutes away from being murdered.

Their sudden discovery of loving the same true crime podcast (“All is Not OK in Oklahoma”) sends them barreling down the road of producing their own. After all, they have a murder in their building. One of them’s a producer, one an actor, and Mabel turns out to be a natural investigator. They can be first on the scene for any developments. The police suspect it’s a suicide, but three random New Yorkers with nothing else to do know better, right?

The show starts out with each episode considering a different suspect, but quickly gets more complex. The supporting cast is ridiculous: Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch. Even Sting makes an appearance. It plays with the idea that it’s usually the famous guest star who’s guilty on a show. If half the supporting cast is famous, that assumption’s out the window.

“Only Murders in the Building” remembers the art of the red herring, the false clue that leads our investigators down the wrong path. The episodes sometimes mirror their podcast’s episodes, toying cleverly with ideas of filler and overdramatization.

What really makes “Only Murders in the Building” special is its understanding of being surrounded by people and yet being lonely. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are each painfully lonely in unique ways, and each of them responds differently.

Charles follows daily routines that anesthetize him to the world. Their structure creates a space where he can’t get hurt, or feel much of anything. He’d rather perform an emotion than let someone witness a real one. What we can forget about Steve Martin’s comedy is how melancholic it can be, how aching he can make a moment, how he can share shame and embarrassment in a way that’s universal.

Oliver keeps on reaching out, garrulous, friendly, charming in an often desperate way. His isolation isn’t a finely-tuned discipline like Charles’s, but rather chaotic and uncontrolled. Too many productions of his flopped. Too many people have loaned him money. No one trusts him anymore, and the minute they let him back into their lives, he’s asking for something. Martin Short walks the fine line of someone who’s honest but doesn’t know when to stop, who’s sure the next idea will be the one to save him instead of dig him deeper.

Mabel is determined. Her loneliness is created out of trauma and loss, though it takes us time to understand it. She’s still figuring out who she wants to be. Her concern is keeping people at a distance for their own safety. If everyone around her suffers tragedy, why would she keep anyone around her? Charles and Oliver are in many ways safe because they’re set in their ways. She may hide things from them, but she doesn’t imagine she can influence their decisions.

Selena Gomez is the standout here. That shouldn’t be a surprise by now, even when paired with generational actors. It might be easy to dismiss her as a pop star, but she’s had a few awards-worthy performances over the past decade. She’s the dramatic core, and matches Steve Martin’s acerbic wit while often carrying the show.

So everyone’s lonely and tragic. Sounds like a hoot, right? Yet “Only Murders in the Building” is one of the funniest shows of the year. It humanizes these things rather than exploiting them. It finds the identifiable and empathetic in them. That’s where the comedy comes out. These three people can understand each others’ loneliness. Because they understand it, they can poke fun at it as a way of drawing closer and building trust. They can communicate out of it. It’s a private grammar they understand and the rest of the world doesn’t. The situational and physical comedy, the mystery and true crime parodies – these all work because of our fundamental empathy for these characters. They speak to parts of us on a level not many things do.

I love a parody that can poke fun at its genre, but when it houses itself in that genre, believes in it, and understands how that genre captures us, even manipulates us – then it can exist both inside that genre and as a comment on it, it can create its own world with its own comedic logic that we’re willing to follow because its humanity feels more transparent and honest. When it gets abstract or shifts into performance art, or has a celebrity play themselves, there’s a trust that’s been earned that many other shows couldn’t even imagine is a possibility.

“Only Murders in the Building” is about a murder mystery, the true crime industry, dry wit and pratfalls, sure. What it really speaks to is our desperate need to build community around whatever we can get our hands on in a world that evokes more loneliness by the day. Making a joke of that has to be done a certain way – to disarm it rather than exacerbate it. “Only Murders in the Building” helps us feel in on that joke, helps us feel seen, gives us moments where we can have power over that lonely part of ourselves, even if only for 10 episodes.

You can watch “Only Murders in the Building” on Hulu. It has been renewed for a second season.

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

Beckinsale Elevates an Unsteady but Ambitious “Guilty Party”

“Guilty Party” stars Kate Beckinsale as a tenacious journalist trying to prove a Black woman innocent of murdering her husband. A year off winning Colorado’s most prestigious investigative journalist award, Beckinsale’s Beth Burgess is now discredited. She once worked for a major newspaper. Now she toils away in a clickbait factory.

The ideas that create tension in “Guilty Party” are good ones. When she was successful and admired, Beth could count on her husband as supportive. Now that the power dynamic has shifted in their relationship, he’s pressuring her to have children she doesn’t want. He also wants to move to Wyoming, which would essentially end her career – and that’s the point. If she had no career left, she’d have to do something else. Say…raise a family.

At the same time, Beth starts out doing a shoddy job at her one opportunity for redemption. When she meets with the imprisoned Toni, convicted years prior for the shooting murder of her husband, Beth hasn’t bothered to do her research. She leans instead on her privilege, something Toni immediately recognizes and calls out.

Most series do one or the other when it comes to privilege. They don’t try to take on the complexity of someone who has privilege in one way and lacks it in another. This is the appeal of “Guilty Party”. Beth is someone who gives the right answers when questioned about her intentions: she wants to help a Black woman prove her innocence in a justice system that’s railroaded her. Yet she primarily treats the opportunity as a path to return to the limelight. It’s not Toni’s redemption story; it’s her own. It’s not someone proving that Toni is innocent. Beth doesn’t even seem to care if she is. It’s about Beth specifically owning the story and proving that she’s still relevant.

It’s a shockingly good set-up to show how a person who lacks privilege in one area will feed on their privilege in another just to stay afloat. As a premise, it immediately demonstrates how patriarchal systems make those without power re-enact oppression against others. Nobody’s fighting for space against systems of white and male privilege when they’re fighting each other for what little space they’ve retained.

Does such a good idea make “Guilty Party” a good series?

The problem is that “Guilty Party” has to land this, and it’s difficult to tell if its focused enough to do so. The first two episodes are all over the map. Beth’s relationship to Toni is manipulative, and our trust in Beth as an audience is very conditional. We don’t have a consistent tone to rely on, and we have an intentionally inconsistent lead. New episodes drop weekly, so we just don’t know yet how the series intends to engage this conversation more fully.

Let’s approach that tone issue. “Guilty Party” is a black comedy first and foremost. Before COVID, Isla Fisher was cast to star in the series. You can see how well it’s designed for an actor like her, complete with zany departures and some physical comedy. Fisher withdrew due to the pandemic, and Kate Beckinsale replaced her. Does this work? Yes and no.

Beckinsale is clearly playing against type, but she’s always been a strong actress in her action and horror career. She tends to elevate material and make it more compelling than it would be otherwise. She’s also kept up in smaller, dramatic films.

Beckinsale brings a pathos and desperation to Beth that may’ve been played a little too much for comedy in Fisher’s hands. Beckinsale adds a heft to “Guilty Party” that it badly needs. She also inhabits the role in a way that sells the physical comedy better than you might expect.

The writing has its bright spots, including some incredibly quotable lines. The dialogue is clever, with a host of effective, observational one-liners.

That said, there are absolutely places where you can see a gap, and this is primarily the writing’s fault. In one scene, Beth confronts a gun-runner who’s stalking her and goes off on a justifiably angry monologue. Because it’s written to be a comedic moment, it’s where Fisher would have shined. She’d have jumped through the monologue with a lightness and rhythm that could’ve fused the angry to the comic.

Beckinsale powers through it, without letting that pathos up. There’s an extra gear of idiosyncrasy that she can’t shift into, the exact space that tends to be Fisher’s bread and butter. Beckinsale can elevate the central themes and stakes of the show in a way Fisher might not have, but she also bumps into situational premises that were expressly designed for an actor who specializes in comedy.

Ultimately, “Guilty Party” is a show that needs elevation from its lead on both fronts. It’s watchable, and more so if you like Beckinsale. With Fisher, it might’ve been funnier. With Beckinsale, it has added edge. I tend to think the latter is the better route for “Guilty Party” because of the themes it wants to engage. It’s funny enough either way, but Beth needs to be someone we both like and dislike, trust and distrust, in order to evoke how her privilege and lack of privilege intersect. Whether the show can do this successfully is still up in the air. Beckinsale gives it a withering perspective that provides initial space for us to trust the show and see where it goes.

My first reaction was that I wish they’d have been able to land an actor who could’ve tackled both. I can’t help think of Zoey Deutch’s performance in “Buffaloed”, but she’d also have to be 20 years older for this role. She also had the benefit of a great script, Tanya Wexler’s direction, and supporting actors like Judy Greer in that film.

That makes me realize my first reaction is absolutely wrong. Isla Fisher, Kate Beckinsale…either one is wildly successful casting for a series. That the show shifted its lead from one to the other provides an opportunity to highlight the series’ design and what works and doesn’t. That’s where the comparison should stop. Beckinsale isn’t failing here; she’s squarely lifting the show up.

While Beckinsale’s approach to the dialogue might mean a zany bit here or there doesn’t work as well as it could, her shaded irreverence deepens the themes and questions at the core of the show. There’s both an idealism and vindictiveness to Beth that stretch beyond comedy and into the drama that “Guilty Party” needs to fuse its disparate parts together.

That Beckinsale does this nine times out of 10 instead of all 10 is hardly a criticism of her. That she needs to do this so often to lift the show around her is the fault of the show around her. She’s being asked to make up too much ground. That she almost does is incredibly impressive.

The truth is that “Guilty Party” needs to be more focused and edited. There are more than a few scenes that are bad ideas. For instance, at one point Beth shows up to the women’s prison on a day when visitors aren’t allowed. There’s no time pressure involved, but she antagonizes the guards trying to see Toni, stages a short-lived protest where she refuses to leave, and then tries to bribe the gate guard.

I can buy her showing up on the wrong day. It’s something reporters know to check, but Beth is a year out-of-practice and it’s hardly the first mistake she makes out of desperation. Yet a reporter who’s supposed to be as exceptional and experienced as she is wouldn’t take those next actions without a directly achievable goal. She’d simply know they wouldn’t work, that they’d risk jeopardizing her ability to return at any point in the future, and she’d come back a day later. (I’ve worked as a reporter; this is pretty straightforward).

The scene exists because it’s an opportunity for a zany comedy sequence, but it doesn’t work in the more consequential world “Guilty Party” wants to inhabit. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s that it directly undercuts everything else we’ve been told about who Beth is. Trust her or not, in a space of privilege or not, the one thing we know about her is that she’s skilled and experienced. Here, she’s completely incompetent for the sake of a bit.

You can have a bit that makes no sense. “Guilty Party” makes other absurdist elements work. A wannabe Tiger King character named Wyatt who’s inches away from being a David Spade sketch helps create a sequence that’s both tense and funny. What you can’t do is stick a bit in that so thoroughly undercuts the most foundational piece of who Beth is, especially when that’s the only piece of an unreliable protagonist that anchors us to her. Beth’s attempted prison bribe is a situational premise that could have been pulled off by a Rebel Wilson or Will Ferrell in the kinds of comedies they’re best known for making. That doesn’t mean it fits here. “Guilty Party” wants to have a consistent, consequential world, so when it does something like the prison bribe scene, the comedy has zero chance of working because it doesn’t fit the world, the show, or the character.

I really do think Beckinsale saves the series, and gives a performance worth watching. That said, I have a hard time seeing “Guilty Party” work with most actors in the lead because of the show around it. The ensemble is fine – especially Jules Latimer’s imprisoned Toni, Madeleine Arthur’s editor Amber, Andre Hyland’s Wyatt, and coworkers played by Djouliet Amara and Tiya Sircar. It’s the writing that too often stumbles.

For the discussions about privilege it wants to have, it stretches too far into comedic scenes that undercut its foundation. There’s still a good comedy here without those scenes, and probably a much more pointed one. If you expand social criticism into the entire show, then the comedy needs to be a lot more precise than this is. “Guilty Party” has these themes embodied in its characters; it should trust this more and bring the comedy closer to them.

I plan to keep watching. There’s enough interesting possibility for where “Guilty Party” could go, and Beckinsale is doing a superb job of making the series work better than it should.

Enough of the dialogue and Beckinsale’s physical comedy works to still sell the comedic elements. Where Beckinsale really excels is by pinpointing the themes of the show and giving us a character who zig-zags around them so much that we won’t be surprised if she serves them or opposes them. This could be a redemptive tale about two women wronged by very different systems, a black comedy “House of Cards” about someone who plays the victim brilliantly, or half of each. Beth could be innocent and idealistic, or manipulative and egotistical. Or all of the above. This takes what would otherwise be a very watchable but unremarkable series and turns it into something genuinely intriguing.

Just like I don’t know what to think of Beth, I can’t tell whether “Guilty Party” is going to land where it wants. I won’t be surprised if it begins zeroing in on its social critiques much more effectively. I also won’t be surprised if it screws up the conversations it wants to have. I won’t be surprised if it gets more cohesive and gels around the irreverent, manipulative performance Beckinsale is giving. I won’t be surprised if it continues to undercut its themes and that performance trying to out-comedy the parts of it that are already pointed and funny.

I’m pretty sure “Guilty Party” knows what it wants to be thematically. Hiding what this is behind an unreliable protagonist doesn’t change that, but it does require some patience. That it’s so imprecise about what it wants to be tonally does give me some pause about how effective it will be about landing those thematic reveals.

I plan to keep watching, but consider it a light recommendation.

It’s a watch if that sounds intriguing, and you’re willing to let a series into your life that needs leeway before showing you what it is. It’s a watch if you’re a Beckinsale fan – it’s refreshing to see her flex her acting chops this way.

Alternately, it’s not a watch if you can’t place that kind of trust or time in a series before knowing if it’s worth it. If you couldn’t care less about Beckinsale, this is unlikely to change that.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive every Thursday.

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

“Maid” is Compelling, Precise, and Inconsistent

“Maid” is a series I like, but that I feel I should love. Its strengths easily outnumber its weaknesses, but a few things hold it back. It’s anchored by Margaret Qualley as Alex, who takes her daughter Maddy and leaves her abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night. She has no plan or place to go. Since her boyfriend essentially controls her money, she has less than $20 to spend. It’s a desperate situation, handled at times with a realistic and horrifying tension.

Alex doesn’t have anyone to trust. All her friends knew her boyfriend first; he hasn’t let her lead her own life. Alex’s own mother has schizophrenia, struggles with untrustworthy boyfriends, and regularly forgets feeding and caring for Maddy when babysitting. Alex is alienated from her father, a cost sacrificed for him to make things work with his new family.

At its heart, “Maid” is a unique intersection of custody procedural, family drama, and what I like to call wallet horror. The first episode even keeps a running tab of the little money Alex has, subtracting bit by excruciating bit in the upper-right as she tries to find a job, feeds her daughter, and pays for gas a few dollars at a time. Anyone who’s ever lived in debt, close to zero balance, or paycheck to paycheck will recognize that awful running tally. The right-side of the screen it takes up may seem heavy-handed, but it is nothing compared to the amount of space it truly takes up in your head.

To its credit, “Maid” is careful to journey around the pitfalls of poverty porn. It avoids the exploitative eye that objectifies people in poverty simply to generate cheap catharsis for viewers. Qualley is given space to act, not as an icon or object of pity, but as a full, complex person.

“Maid” also treats emotional abuse seriously. While her boyfriend hasn’t hit her, he’s screamed at her, controlled her, and hit objects near her. It even takes Alex a few conversations to understand this is a form of domestic violence, even if the state she lives in doesn’t.

In its very best moments, “Maid” focuses on the horror of procedure. The systems in place to help domestic violence victims and people in poverty have been routinely gutted, sabotaged, and under-resourced. At a custody hearing, the dialogue between the commissioner and her boyfriend’s lawyer simply turns into the two saying “Legal legal legal” back and forth to each other. When a question Alex can recognize is asked of her, she’s already lost.

As she thumbs through a stack of documents she needs to fill out for that custody hearing, their official titles turn into “You’re a bad mom” and “Go fuck yourself”. There’s a stark truth to this experience, where so many fail without a chance just because they’ve missed a line on a form or didn’t get a signature. Alex takes the failures of the systems that are supposed to help and serve her, and internalizes them as her own failures.

She has to ready herself for a custody battle, apply for benefits, and work a job she has no car to drive to, sometimes all in the same hour. If she’s late to one, it’s held against her, despite those demands being physically impossible. She’s awash in catch-22s. She has to have a job to prove she needs the transitional housing that enables her to get a job. She has to spend more than she’ll make in a three-hour tryout for a job in order to stand a chance of getting it.

In its overwhelming horror of procedure and a host of metaphorical cutaways (she’s surrounded by a flurry of papers, she sees her daughter receding on a beach), “Maid” is powerful in both content and composition.

Let me be clear before I say this. For me, “Maid” is on the border between good and great. My criticisms aren’t about whether the series is good or bad. They’re about an element in “Maid” that’s noticeable and can be frustrating to some viewers:

What can sometimes unseat you from its rhythm are regular tonal inconsistencies. The first episode shovels a lot of happenstance onto the already-numbing horror Alex faces. It doesn’t really need it. The premise is already compelling, but then more happens. The series is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. I have no clue whether extra events are added or not, or whether their time frame is condensed. Yet just like so many fictional stories can be made to feel natural, a real story can sometimes present details in a way that feels contrived.

There are so many tense moments in the first episode, “Dollar Store”. That wallet ticking down a few dollars at a time is a piece of existential dread. An impromptu job interview where Alex is essentially steamrolled is a beautiful example of the cost those in poverty can face to even get a few hours of work. A scene where Alex has to set foot in her boyfriend’s trailer again, his initially kind exterior slipping toward extracting guilt from her…there’s a sickening artistry in its unflinching precision.

This constant encroachment of tensions is where “Maid” excels. It evokes a sense of witnessing both physical and emotional realities, but in a hands-off way. Instead of telling you how to feel, it simply relies on your empathy to do the work as you watch.

This is all done superbly. Where’s the inconsistency come from? The problem is “Maid” also includes more dramatic moments and situational set-ups. Sitting right next to that deft storytelling that relies on your reaction are moments that feel like they visit from a much more dramatic adaptation.

All those building tensions are enough to send our mind reeling. By the time a car crash is added in, it doesn’t ratchet up the drama – it detracts from it. Maybe this is what really happened to Stephanie Land, in which case I’m not saying to change it. It’s not that the event doesn’t belong. The problem is that it’s handled in a way that redirects the slow and steady creep of becoming overwhelmed into something more recognizably cinematic and even melodramatic.

There are times when “Maid” presents a dramatic situation in a way that presses pause on its sense of subtlety, realism, and texture. It’s played more broadly and its sense of direction suddenly feels much more intentional. “Maid” handles the small moments like an understated character study, and some big moments like a 90s drama where characters enter and act to the nines.

Neither is done badly, and both approaches have their place. They’re just difficult to fuse together tonally. In these broader moments, there’s a loss of that very precise, nuanced, and intimately personal experience that “Maid” takes such care in building. It gets swept away, and because it’s a tone that is built scene upon scene, it can take some time to build back up to where we already were.

In those more personal spaces, we recognize how a little detail can break a person, how a frustration that might be ordinary on any other day presses on trauma because of what a person is going through. We’re witnesses of something in Alex she doesn’t let others see, that people in the world rarely let others see. You can’t just hop back into that sense right away; it does take time to build into again.

Nowhere is this more present than with Alex’s mother Paula. She’s played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell. The relationship between the two is difficult, and one of the most intentionally frustrating elements of the show is how little Alex is heard by her mother. Her relationship to Paula is chiefly one of exchanges and leverage. Qualley and MacDowell’s ability to play off each other in a way that feels real and fraught is exceptional.

MacDowell has spoken about the role’s similarity to her relationship to her own mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dealt with alcoholism. MacDowell does an incredible job, but at times it can feel like one that doesn’t sync up with the rest of “Maid”. She sweeps in from another genre, a 90s drama where everyone’s playing it big and MacDowell’s sure to be on an awards shortlist. This is no less true a portrayal; it’s just tailored to a different era of presentation.

Nor is this the only departure. Alex is required to go to a class where a man lectures women – many of whom are escaping domestic violence – about the stability of a two-parent home. It’s a searing point that’s an example of the systemic gaslighting of women, and this should easily hold on its own just like so many other points “Maid” makes straight-faced. Instead, he’s played like an “SNL” character. While this may add to our ability to laugh at him and it could be a moment of disempowering him in the face of a godawful act, it’s a gigantic tonal shift from everything else the series does.

I won’t get into it because it intersects with important plot points, but this sense of being thrust out of the show’s tone and reality holds most true for a subplot about stealing someone’s dog.

When these moments occur, they strain “Maid” in two different tonal directions. Sure, there are ways to use that strain in a metaphorical way, but “Maid” isn’t pursuing that kind of storytelling. It’s not some Charlie Kaufman directorial vehicle using genre dissonance-as-absurdism to step us out of the story itself. The strengths of “Maid” rely on precision within the story, a keen eye for detail, and translating criticism of systemic misogynist oppression into natural dialogue about lived experiences. “Maid” has a deep sense of its own earned knowledge and emotional realities, so when its tone suddenly shifts away from that reality into more traditional drama, it can require some conscious redirection and re-commitment on the part of the viewer.

This isn’t difficult, but it is noticeable. Moments like these don’t lack power. They don’t undermine “Maid”. They do feel consciously, intentionally situational on a series that’s fine-tuned for building tension, character, and emotional rhythm as one big flow state. When that flow state is interrupted, it’s not a big deal, but you do worry about whether you’ll sync back into it. It’s less a criticism of quality and more one of presence. “Maid” is exceptional and I absolutely recommend it. It just gets interrupted every once in a while. The interruptions are OK, but because the flow of what happened before was so precise, it’s difficult not to be especially conscious that those interruptions are there in the first place.

It’s the difference between a really good series and a great one. I’m not so sure that difference matters much, particularly when either assessment recognizes “Maid” is vitally important. Just be aware that viewers are going to fall on both sides of that good/great line, and a large part of that will be how well you take these tonal shifts in stride. This all makes “Maid” a strong choice if it’s on your radar, provided you’re in a safe and comfortable place to deal with its subject matter.

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

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

You Really Should Be Watching “Nancy Drew”

Every time I saw an ad for the “Nancy Drew” TV series, I thought its aesthetic looked superb. The ongoing CW adaptation of the children’s mystery series takes the concept sideways into horror with an adult Nancy Drew. After the death of her mother, Drew’s put off going to college and works at a diner. One night, a socialite is murdered in the parking lot. This makes her and her coworkers suspects in what starts as a smart distillation of late 90s teen horror. More importantly, it sparks a series of hauntings in their town.

The idea that it couldn’t be very good got stuck in my head before I’d seen it, I’m not sure why. “Supernatural” was a lot of fun, but it rarely delivered on the horror promise of its pilot episode. “Riverdale” and Netflix’s closely related “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can have some clever episodes, but the horror backdrop of these is regularly sabotaged in favor of unwieldy, badly paced, season-long arcs. I do like those shows, but they all have a certain navel-gazing element that can wear a viewer down quickly.

Still, I’m a sucker for an intriguing aesthetic. At long last, I started watching “Nancy Drew” and it’s delivering in all the ways those other shows failed.

Let’s back up a second – what exactly am I looking for out of a show like this? When I talk about “Supernatural”, “Riverdale”, or “Sabrina”, I’m not saying I dislike them. I’m saying they all promised horror, showed a capability for it, and then chased something else. “Supernatural” initially promised a focus on horror and solving mysteries, but it very quickly became a meta action-comedy centered on world-saving heroes who moonlighted as pest control for ghosts and whatnot. Horror trappings were still there, but more as homages and scenery to recognize along the way. It was always interesting and often funny, but being frightening was a rare exception.

“Riverdale” and “Sabrina” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a rare talent for tapping into both the unsettling and reassuring elements within horror kitsch. He’s trailblazed a uniquely cinematic, unnervingly timeless style across both shows. There are standalone episodes in both series that belong among the best of the genre. Unfortunately, these are ultimately made to feel like diversions, trod under by larger plot arcs that feel uneven and unsupported. The superb world-building that establishes these universes is often undone by their larger arcs, where it turns out the hero knows everyone past and future already and the vast, mysterious, unpredictable world we were promised all turns out to be within walking distance.

I want one of these shows that plays with the kitsch and genre elements of horror to be frightening as well. I’d say “Evil” gets there, but as charming as the cast may be, it draws from a dire, harrowing, misanthropic side of horror that reflects a world decaying toward entropy. It’s an uncomfortable mirror that I highly recommend, but I’m not exactly going to describe it as a thrill ride.

That brings me back around to “Nancy Drew”, the show I’m disappointed “Supernatural” never became. There isn’t a shootout to be seen. Although both are filmed in British Columbia, gone is the Vancouver warehouse chic. Much like “Riverdale” and “Sabrina”, every location feels partly like an intentional set trapped in amber, but unlike those shows, they don’t feel like museum displays. It actually feels like people live here. There’s a distinct Stephen King vibe that’s appropriate for its coastal Maine setting, one that’s natural and precious, but also distinctly fragile.

“Nancy Drew” features very few murders for this type of show. Others are discovered along the way, but the first season of “Nancy Drew” focuses on the connection between only two murders. That’s even more focused of a season-long arc than any of the other shows I just criticized for their season-long arcs, but I don’t have a problem with that kind of storytelling. What I have a problem with is that kind of storytelling just being chucked into an A-plot/B-plot rotation. What I have a problem with is characters saying there’s no time to waste when the arc is an A-plot in one episode, and then wasting all their time when it’s a B-plot in the next. That rotation between standalone and arc cannot bleed into characters’ decision-making.

It’s a big part of why Kennedy McMann’s portrayal of Nancy Drew has become one of my favorite characters. If anything, the characters around her are regularly frustrated that she won’t let go of the plot arc. It needs to be solved, and she constantly excuses herself from life, work, expectations, and other cases in order to investigate. When a standalone element takes over, it’s because someone was kidnapped or there’s another impending murder to stop – delays that make sense.

One early sticking point is her boyfriend Nick wanting to prove a different murder case, but one that gets in the way of investigating the one she’s been after. There’s a right thing to do here, and she chooses wrongly. It’s intriguing and complex because there’s no easy out. Like any of these shows, the writing can occasionally deliver a revelation conveniently, but what’s unique to “Nancy Drew” is the interest in these no-win scenarios. It often becomes a show about not losing ground, mitigating damage, keeping an opportunity alive, or finding whatever the best trade-off is even if it isn’t fair. That can sound discouraging, but for all its affectations, that sense of getting through the moment so you can hit the ground running again feels very real and relevant.

It also clarifies Nancy’s laser focus not as a kind of exceptionalism, but rather as a survival mechanism. Her nose for mysteries led her to witnessing trauma as a child, she lost her mother, and she hasn’t trusted her father in a long time. Her character’s greatest strength as a tenacious investigator is never diminished or portrayed as a weakness, but there’s a surprising amount that underlies it and that the show seeks to understand.

The mystery writing here is also some of the best going. It’s difficult to stretch a mystery over the course of an entire season. Most shows end up forcing something to fit even if it’s obvious to an audience that it shouldn’t. Here, Nancy cycles through a different suspect each episode, gathering information until complications mount and the show can start unspooling more chaotic horror elements. There’s a sense of Nancy establishing a rhythm within the show that is repeatedly challenged and interrupted. As a storytelling pace, it serves as a perfect reflection of what her character is going through emotionally.

As the initially skeptical Nancy and her crew find out, hauntings usually arrive with a purpose. The ghost haunting Nancy is a murdered town parade queen from 20 years prior, Lucy Sable. The horror scenes often serve to isolate a moment when a clue is found or connected to another piece of information. This is a clever way to sear those clues into our heads and make us remember them as important, because these are the moments when we’re most attentive and our senses are heightened. That said, it would only work if the horror was done this well.

We’re not talking “The Ring” or “It Follows” level of feeling your blood suck into your core as if it’s trying to hide from your skin. Instead, it’s where I want this kind of series to land – an exciting chill of dread up your spine. Hitting that mark effectively and unexpectedly once or twice an episode and letting it sit there patiently is more than most horror shows seem to manage. Moreover, “Nancy Drew” isn’t about confronting these things aggressively; it’s about understanding why they’re there in the first place.

It’s great when you can shoot it and douse it in rock salt, but that makes ghosts about as scary as a henchman with sodium deficiency. What goes bump in the night is far more terrifying when you have to manage its escalation and risk your safety episode after episode, clawing your way slowly toward understanding why it’s acting out.

I mentioned Vancouver warehouse chic earlier and it wasn’t just a passing shot. I get it, TV in the 2000s had an unbridled passion for empty warehouses, but the reason I bring it up is because “Nancy Drew” doesn’t shift characters into “empty factory” or “abandoned hospital” or “the woods but with a blue filter” to represent other realms. Instead, it turns the sets we already know in on themselves, morphing a familiar house into a dream-horror web of stairs, or turning an apartment into a sinking ship. A lot of this is smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally), but there’s a real focus on ambitious and beautifully realized set design, practical effects, and those moments where a detail can speak volumes. Showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor makes sure there’s nearly always something there for the actors to interact with in terms of being unsettled and displaced.

“Nancy Drew” also has some of the best staging and blocking in a series. It might seem inconsequential, but the most important hidden element in the direction of a show is good blocking. You could watch an entire episode on mute and still understand perfectly how the power dynamics between characters shift within each scene. Where characters stand in relation to each other, how they move through a scene, and how their relationship is visually depicted within a scene all feed into blocking. The shot choice in “Nancy Drew” feels built around how characters move through a space rather than that movement being built around the shot choice.

This lends a more organic feel for a show that balances layer upon layer of deceit and reveal, effective horror, a superbly written mystery, a character study, some well-implemented social commentary, and a healthy bit of kitsch and cheese. That’s too much to convey in a way that feels natural. The blocking and staging keeps the characters grounded in a way nothing else in the show does, and that gives each actor room to play off each other instead of just saying the lines on a mark.

This leads to characters moving a lot within scenes, which feels more cinematic and engaging, but also reflects the shifting power dynamics and the constant evolution of the mysteries themselves. Beyond that, every room and building seems to get an unnerving 12 hours a day of magic hour – seeing the characters move around as if they’re utterly familiar with these spaces makes them feel lived-in. That staves off the artificial, diorama effect certain other highly stylized shows in the same vein have suffered. This may all be happening in a small town with a lot of links, but it doesn’t feel as restrictive or suffocating to the viewer. Instead of worlds of possibility being limited to walking distance, the world of the small town they live in instead seems to constantly expand and encompass more possibility.

I won’t say it’s a perfect show – one or two brief ideas clunk – but it’s an intriguing, fun, and surprisingly complex one. “Nancy Drew” is the horror mystery I feel like I’ve been promised over and over again yet never turns up. It evokes that “just one more episode” feeling of needing to see what happens next and a love for how its characters react to it.

You can watch “Nancy Drew” on the CW app (which is free) or HBO Max.

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

How “Leverage: Redemption” Dismantles the Original’s Leadership Mythology

“Leverage: Redemption” is a continuation of a 2008 series that followed a group of Robin Hood-esque criminals. Sick of causing harm, they band together in order to return what’s been stolen to the disempowered.

Both “Leverage: Redemption” and the original “Leverage” tell breezy heist stories that highlight real-world abuses and corruption. While they don’t go too in-depth into the mechanics of that corruption, they do often give a brief crash course on its impact. Usually this is done through a prior victim of that corruption seeking the Leverage team out.

If you’ve seen either iteration of “Leverage”, none of this is news. “Leverage: Redemption” picks up years after the original show with its cast mostly intact. Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf (having the time of her life) all return. So does Aldis Hodge as hacker Hardison, though he gives way to Aleyse Shannon playing his replacement Breanna. (Hodge’s film career has been taking off, most recently playing Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami”.) Noah Wyle joins as a new criminal-in-training, a lawyer who’s spent his lift protecting abusive corporations and people.

Not returning is Timothy Hutton, who played the former mastermind of the group – Hutton was accused in 2020 of raping a 14-year old in 1983. Hutton was 22 at the time. While the British Columbia Crown Counsel decided not to press charges last month, the initial report from BuzzFeed News included the statements of a woman who was with the victim that evening, and five people who confirmed the victim told them about the assault at that time. While there is no statute of limitations for this crime in Canada, the age of consent there at the time was 14. This means that statutory rape can’t legally apply. Instead, the case becomes about whether consent was given.

For one of the few series this deeply concerned with ethics and the abuses of power, Hutton had to be cast off. Frustratingly, Hutton’s last major project before this was reported was Julie Taymor’s biopic of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, “The Glorias”. His first major project afterward is ABC’s “Women of the Movement” centered on the activism of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. If only cancel culture really possessed the repercussions conservatives like to complain about.

“Leverage: Redemption” simply starts by acknowledging Hutton’s character Nathan Ford is no more. Since we last saw him, he died. Oh darn. His widow is Gina Bellman’s grifter Sophie. To shake her out of her funk, she’s offered the run of the Leverage team. Run a few cons, bring a few people to justice. What’s beautiful about “Leverage: Redemption” is that this is a world where it really is that simple, that straightforward. What’s apparent is that even in the “Leverage” world where it is that simple, it’s still getting worse and worse. Justice falls further and further behind.

“Leverage: Redemption” can’t cast off only Hutton’s Ford. It also has to cast off what Ford represented. The character was a genius, manipulating not just the corrupt people who were the team’s marks, but the members of his own team as well. He was often abusive, but this was excused because of his genius. The team wanted to impress him because they wanted his approval. That was a core part of the original “Leverage”.

You can’t simply replace him and act like that’s enough. The original “Leverage” concluded in 2012. The allegation against Hutton surfaced in 2020. There’s no way the cast and crew could have known about it while the original show was being made. Yet accountability isn’t just about intent. It’s also about impact. If “Leverage: Redemption” wants to be a show that genuinely embodies the ethic of the justice it pursues, it has to refute the meaning of Hutton’s place in “Leverage” as well. You have to refute that style of leadership entirely. So they do.

“Leverage” has always been about each member of the group presenting and combining ideas, but before it was under the direction of Hutton’s Nate Ford. It was a positive environment at times, but he would still quickly shut down someone’s idea. He would lie to his own team. He would play them off each other. He would keep everyone in losing positions in relation to him – he was the only one who knew the whole picture, often because he made it that way.

Now, Sophie is in charge of the cons. Wait a minute, though – at the end of “Leverage”, wasn’t Parker the one left in charge of the group? Didn’t they make a big deal in the last season about who would take over as the new mastermind? Well, Parker’s also still in charge here.

How does this work if both Sophie and Parker are in charge? Parker runs the Leverage organization, which now has teams doing this work around the world. She has final say on who’s in or out of the group, and what kind of chance they’ll have to prove themselves. Sophie is in charge of the team itself, running each con. These boundaries can obviously overlap in places, but Parker and Sophie check in with each other constantly.

Parker was one of the earliest positive representations of an autistic person in TV or film. She’s still one of the only ones. Rather than anyone trying to fix her, she’s not treated as broken in the first place. She’s supported and respected. She becomes the unquestioned leader of the team. It would’ve been horrible to retcon that. Instead, not only is her team successful, she’s grown the idea across the world and trained other teams.

This approach also avoids the only-one-woman-at-a-time trope. We have long approached women leaders, celebrities, politicians, and artists through a media lens of only one qualifying. If two women are successful in the same sphere, the media and critical industry often pit them against each other. If one is successful, the others measured against her must not be. Success can only be achieved by someone new once she topples an already successful woman.

This trope has been used to sustain a dangerous cultural norm. If there’s only one seat at the table for women, and they’re made to compete and drag each other down for it, then the only challenges taking place are for that seat. There are no challenges – and there is no focus – that there should be more seats at the table to start. It is clear here, especially coming off the original “Leverage”, that Parker and Sophie each have a seat and they each legitimize this for the other.

There’s a pretty famous corollary to this in the real world. Just look at The Squad. Largely, the group of congresspeople is most recognized as Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayana Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Working together since 2019 has allowed them to each platform and legitimize the others’ voices. Pitting them against each other in media narratives hasn’t gained any traction because they constantly legitimize each others’ voices and positions. Even when they disagree, they argue for why each others’ positions are qualified and well-reasoned. (Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush joined The Squad this year as congresspeople who assumed office in 2021.)

Leadership in “Leverage: Redemption” follows intersectional feminist theories of leadership that prioritize collaboration, the sharing of decision-making, and the importance of understanding the perspectives of everyone involved. There’s no mastermind now; there are several qualified people who each bring strengths and weaknesses.

Far more than the original show, “Leverage: Redemption” asks team members to understand a place where they’re biased or making a risky decision. Other team members walk them through an aspect of what they aren’t seeing, and offer alternatives that rely less on the area where they’re biased or unqualified.

The original “Leverage” had those episodes where a team member was too close to a con, or identified too much with a victim – episodes where they lost perspective. Hell, significant arcs revolved around Ford’s own alcohol abuse and need for vengeance. Team members who weren’t Ford were expected to overcome their emotional involvement and get the job done. They were chastised for the occasional mistake, or frozen out as a punishment. In “Leverage: Redemption”, they’re expected to talk about it and listen to someone with different experiences. They’re expected to do the work of understanding how they came to their mistake in the first place.

When someone makes a mistake or fails, they’re not snapped at or made to feel disappointed in themselves. They’re told how others around them have failed in the past, asked to understand the nature of their mistake, and given an expectation not to repeat it. One is being scolded into fear of making a mistake, the other is a community giving you support by teaching you how to avoid it.

In the last episode of this first season of “Leverage: Redemption”, Ford’s leadership style is confronted. Don’t worry; Hutton is not brought back in any way. The way it’s done both respects the character’s place in series lore, while also making clear that his leadership could have a scarring effect. We already see a better, healthier alternative for it displayed by Parker and Sophie.

None of “Leverage” or “Leverage: Redemption” is particularly believable in terms of how a heist plays out. The show is built on cons that escalate into parallel action, wacky hijinks, and flashback reveals. “Leverage: Redemption” chooses to be fun above all else. A fun show can still make a point. A fun show still has responsibilities. There’s no magic of exceptionalism here, where one super genius can play his team like puppets when he wants. Instead, there are people who communicate, who share leadership, and who build a community.

The original “Leverage” was about a team against the world, just trying to do the right thing, but its form of leadership through exceptionalism mythology is such a large part of what feeds the world being so hijacked by corruption in the first place. Understanding this, both in our world and through Hutton’s involvement in the prior series, “Leverage: Redemption” does the work of understanding how it got here. It’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen re-craft itself around accountability for something that – while out of its control – still had an impact.

“Leverage: Redemption” is about a team trying to change the world so that it does the right thing, which isn’t all that different…but its form of leadership offers a part of the solution that was never present in the original “Leverage”. It dismisses exceptionalism mythology and again and again offers examples of community – that lessons and expectations are built from storytelling, communicating and experience. It describes that leadership can’t truly be practiced from one perspective in the way “Leverage” was built around Ford. Leadership can only see from multiple perspectives when it’s shared and accountable. It recognizes that the very notion of a hero is itself an iconography that helps no one when anyone can make a difference, and that the primary way to empower a community is to reinforce and expand what enables it to be a community in the first place. Leaders are vessels for a community, not masterminds.

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