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The Path Season One

One of Hulu’s first forays into original programming, The Path is a compelling journey. Tackling issues of what faith means to different individuals, and how perception shapes reality, The Path ends up being more than a showcase for peak television actors. While it stumbles a bit in the hazy details, and often has more ideas in its head than on screen, it still remains a complex Spring binge with more than a few tricks up its sleeve.

A show like The Path requires convincing world-building. We have to buy in to whatever its characters are buying into, otherwise everything falls apart. Luckily, The Path is provocative from the get-go, asking questions you may not get answers to at the end of each episode. Airing weekly instead of using the binge model proves to be beneficial for this series, from creator Jessica Goldberg and executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood).

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The show introduces us to the fictional religion of Meyerism. With its own lexicon and terminology, The Path wastes no time getting us acquainted with climbing “The Ladder,” as its called, to enlightenment. Its followers gather at a compound for worship and spiritual development led by the charismatic leader Cal (Hugh Dancy). Its easy to see why Meyerism’s followers are drawn to Cal – he’s appealling and enigmatic. Dancy’s performance draws you in, and you’ll fall for him and his words, but we quickly learn that Cal isn’t all that he seems.

Most of the conflict is mined from the characters of Eddie (Aaron Paul) and Sarah (Michelle Monaghan). Sarah has a tight relationship with leader Cal and is a powerful leader in The Movement in her own right. Her husband Eddie, while on a retreat in Peru completing another step of The Ladder, suffers a crisis of faith and begins to question the fundamental beliefs of Meyerism. His questioning is the catalyst for his psychological unraveling as Eddie’s relationships begin to crumble, with Paul channeling significant angst in a brilliant post-Bad role. He seeks out a Meyerism defector and this sets the stage for a spiritual brawl. The couple’s son, Hawk, ends up being more than just a teen-angst vehicle as well, as he completes the steps to become an adult in The Movement and take his vows. Like Eddie, he suffers a religious crisis of his own after he develops feeling for a girl at his school who wants nothing to do with The Movement.

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While its supporting characters are not nearly as convincing as its leads, they still add much to the world-building and character of the not-a-cult Meyerism. Mary (Emma Greenwell), a recovering addict, is our entrypoint into Meyerism as she is “saved” in a rescue effort and becomes devoted to The Movement. Greenwell is game and gives Mary many different shades as her character explores blossoming spiritual attraction as well as romantic attraction. Meanwhile, FBI agent Abe (Rockmund Dunbar) is investigating The Movement after their suspicious activity following a natural disaster in which they welcomed victims into their compound. Most of this conflict is external, as Abe gets closer and closer to the truth, but it remains the least compelling piece of the puzzle. We know the investigation won’t really lead anywhere, and seeing Abe stumble and face personal faith crises of his own grows repetitive and a tad inconsequential.

The Path accomplishes what it sets out to do, and more. It explores faith in a variety of different avenues – Sarah’s faith to both Eddie and Cal, Mary’s newfound faith, Hawk’s faith to his family and Ashley – and does so without feeling preachy or ostentatious. It remains a well-acted and beautifully produced show, leaving me anxious for its second season.

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Posted by on May 26, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Girls Season Five

Comeback seasons are difficult, yet Girls pulls it off in season five. If season four felt like the natural deconstruction of the main friend group, season five brings them back together in an assortment of different circumstances. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna have all matured in some capacity, and season five sets them on new paths as the show careens into its final season next year with heads held high.

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Season five saw the gang going in many different directions as they navigate careers, relationships, and hedonistic ambitions. Beginning with Marnie’s wedding in the season premiere, which we knew was doomed to fail, the first half of the season sees Hannah grow frustrated with her relationship with Fran (Jake Lacy). Hannah Horvath, possibly TV’s most detested protagonist, spends this season flashing her principal and satisfying Ray in a coffee truck, all while attempting to deal with her friend Jessa beginning a relationship with her ex Adam. And that’s not the worst that she does. I’ve always remained fond of Hannah despite her frustrating decisions and failure to learn from them. In season five, she does plenty of soul searching as she learns that Fran, the “nice guy” (despite his own misgivings), is not for her. She also grows as a writer, and delivers a knockout monologue in episode ten, a three-minute take that will leave you breathless. As the season closes, it ends with Hannah freed from Adam and Frankie Valli’s “I Love You Baby,” the “baby,” in this case, being herself.

These characters have all been so developed over the past four seasons, and it’s exciting to watch them grow and fail even more. The strength of Girls has always lied in the writing. Creator Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner know how to mine significant character development out of major life crises in their characters’ mid-twenties. Take Shoshanna, for example, who spends the first half of the season working abroad in Japan. While I would have loved to see her in Japan for the entire season, budget restrictions notwithstanding, sending her back to New York has forced her to put her always-bubbly personality to use. She breaks off a relationship and dives into Ray’s coffee shop with fresh ideas and a new work ethic and appreciation gained from immersing herself in Japanese culture. The third episode, “Japan,” is one of the series’ highlights, and Shosh will never be the same.

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Marnie, on the other hand, has always been the selfish one, yet this season that all changes. Marrying Desi may have seemed like a dream come true, yet it all falls apart in the brilliant “Panic in Central Park,” when Marnie spends a day with her ex Charlie, and ends with a dissolution of her marriage. Brilliant camera work and cinematography bring to life Marnie’s day of self-discovery, and it might be the best episode of the series to date. Following her breakup, she remains Desi’s music partner, and I’m excited the most to see how her journey comes to a close in season six.

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And then we come to Jessa and Adam. Jessa has always been the more carefree wild card of the group, but since she’s been seeing Adam, we see her struggle with reconciling her friendship with Hannah while dating her ex. Jessa is obviously aware of what Adam meant to Hannah, and while putting the two together might not make much sense in the scope of the show (there isn’t much chemistry at all) and we aren’t quite sure of what drew the two together, Konner and Dunham make significant strides in adding shades to Jessa while letting Adam remain relevant as Driver moves onto bigger and better things. I never particular cared for Jessa, but I’ve definitely come around following season five. A recurring theme of Girls has always been that the girls will always remain friends no matter where they are or what goes on between them. Jessa’s devotion to Hannah is significant because despite their nasty fights in ice cream shops, at the end of the day they’re still best friends.

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The big takeaway from season five of Girls, then, would be that creative renaissances can come at the most unexpected times. I’ve always thought of the show as under appreciated, as I’ve enjoyed the series’ take on femininity in a post-SATC TV world. Season five saw all the women growing from unexpected developments, whether its from a change in scenery in Shosh’s case or a more reflective change, such as Elijah’s refusal to be mistreated by his new beau Gil (Corey Stoll). As a show, Girls has matured significantly as have its performers, and the final season should wrap up the show neatly, wherever these girls end up.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Blending true crime within the anthology framework, season one of American Crime Story is riveting. It’s the best show of 2016 so far, with standout performances and a tight script throughout its ten solid episodes. Focusing on such a well-known media event as the O.J. Simpson trial allows Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to throw creative curveballs into a story in which we already know the outcome. The result is a staggering series that hits modern issues of race, sexism, and the American legal system.

We all know the story of the O.J. murders, so American Crime Story doesn’t waste time filling you in. The first two episodes, as thrilling as they are, serve to introduce you to the key players in what became the trial of the century. O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), acclaimed football hall of famer is accused of murdering his ex Nicole and her boyfriend Ronald. Family friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and litigator Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) step up to the plate to defend him, while Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) prosecutes Simpson on two counts of murder. We see the facts of the case, but there is so much underneath that is waiting to explode as the season progresses.

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Key to these explosive moments are the performances, standouts being Paulson but also Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who takes over as defense lawyer on the “dream team.” Vance is simply phenomenal, and he brings Cochran to life as a villain but also one within reason, never making him outlandish. I thought many times throughout the trial if Cochran actually believed O.J. was innocent, but that’s beside the point. He had a job, which was to convince the jury and the public that O.J. did not commit the crimes, and he damn well did it. The way he speaks to the jury, with his over-dramatic and flagrant ego, is less about convincing them of O.J’s innocence, and more about creating a discussion about race relations and police brutality.

As the trial gets more and more complex, witnesses include ex-cop Mark Fuhrman, who reportedly used the n-word in recordings, sparking the prosecution to turn the jury against the LAPD in general. Another pivotal scene involves Simpson placing the iconic black glove onto his hand to see if it fits. Another involves the prosecution and defense cherry-picking their jurors to stack the deck. All of these scenes serve a larger purpose, and are directed and acted with precision.

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A standout episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” turns the tables and focuses primarily on Marcia Clark, who was probably affected the most by the trial overall. Her evidence is sound, but public opinion toward her is not. As she walks in the courtroom with a fresh haircut following intense media scrutiny against her gender and allegations from her ex-husband, Paulson turns Clark into more than just a hard-ass prosecutor going through a divorce. She makes her a statement for women in the workplace everywhere, as the trial consumes her life and her family. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and Paulson nails the key moments whether she’s drilling Simpson on the stand or flirting with fellow attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling Brown).

There’s so much to talk about around American Crime Story. I glossed over Cuba Gooding Jr’s performance, as surprisingly he’s not the true star of the show, but he handles Simpson brilliantly, and it’s a career comeback of sorts. While Schwimmer and Travolta are difficult to remove from their most famous roles, they still handle the dialogue that can get a bit over-the-top and Ryan Murphy-esque at times. Production-wise, everything nails it, from the period music selection to the direction inside and outside the courtroom, it’s a marvel. I’m highly anticipating season two, which reportedly will focus on Hurricane Katrina, as American Crime Story expertly weaves a web out of historical events that shocked the nation.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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American Crime

Who would have thought that ABC’s American Crime would emerge as the best show of the year so far in its second season? The low ratings for the good, but not great season one would have spelled “cancel” at any other network, yet ABC stuck with its John Ridley-produced anthology series, and season two is simply outstanding. Covering a sexual assault at a prestigious high school, the second season of American Crime looks at sexuality, race, and class through the perspectives of many different characters.

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American Crime doesn’t hold back from the gritty reality, and it emerges as a bleak tale with a lot of truth behind it. There’s no sugar-coating the content here, because it is dark stuff, surprisingly for a network series. After Taylor (Connor Jessup) is the victim of a rape at a high school basketball team party, events are set into motion as members of the team are accused, and the school comes under fire as headmaster Leslie (Felicity Huffman) must salvage the school’s reputation. Meanwhile, team captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is facing pressure at home as allegations against their family threaten his mother Terri (Regina King) and father Michael (Andre Benjamin). Additionally, Eric (Joey Pollari) struggles with his sexuality and accusations against him as coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) tries to rally the team after this horrific event.

If this sounds like a lot, and it is, don’t fret because American Crime manages to keep all the balls in the air and only manages to drop a few. Everything is linked together, and one of the show’s most potent themes is the chain reaction of events that one big incident can have. The series examines how the sexual assault affects the small town, the elite private school, the small lower-income school that Taylor transfers to, and every family and individual in between. A few plots are quickly resolved, which is a shame, including a messy strand towards the end involving a comic hacker threatening to expose the school feels a bit out of place amid the more grounded elements. But on the whole the plot is cohesive and brilliantly linked like a web.

What I love about American Crime is that the show does not throw any value judgments towards any of its characters. Any other series would have a clear protagonist and clear antagonist, but American Crime manages to avoid that by giving its characters so many facets to their personality. They become real individuals, and I got very invested in their stories, particular Taylor’s and Eric’s. These multi-dimensional characters are refreshing to watch as they make mistakes but learn from them, avoiding the traditional “likable” or “unlikable” categories. I grew frustrated with coach Dan’s failure to admit that his team did wrong, but I appreciated his treatment towards his daughter Becca, whose drug-dealing gets Taylor into even more trouble. Leslie, in particular, was always riveting to watch as she tries to please the school’s board and uses media-friendly terminology in describing the incident. The well-developed characters make the stakes of American Crime feel real, and boy they certainly are.

So American Crime features a stand-out cast (young actors Jessup and Pollari are particularly excellent), a riveting story with a great pace of just ten episodes, and plenty of complex characters, so what? Luckily, the direction takes it a step further to make the heavy moments have the impact they need. I rarely notice direction on television series, but American Crime really stood out. Just watch the rape kit scene in episode two. The camera focuses entirely on Taylor and his face, while a nurse explains to him the procedure off-screen. We see every reaction, every small nuance in Jessup’s performance, and the moment sticks. Other scenes, as well, quick dialogue’s between Taylor’s mother (Lili Taylor) and headmaster Leslie, moments between Eric and his divorced parents, are elevated simply because of Ridley or his team’s direction. It makes the heartbreaking scenes all the more heartbreaking, and some of it becomes tough to watch.

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American Crime doesn’t lose steam towards the end of its run, but I did feel that the climax came too soon. Episode seven and eight are a doozy, eight in particular, as a shooting rocks the school to its core. The decision to feature Colombine teachers and victims in a sort of documentary break from the drama in episode eight is extremely risky, but it works. These individuals give an element of humanity to the already-very real plot, and we’re reminded of situations like these that do occur. The ambiguous ending may leave some viewers frustrated, but American Crime‘s refusal to wrap up storylines with a bow is refreshing instead of rushing to resolve everything. The final scene is absolutely brilliant, and while you’ll be left questioning the story and its characters, you’ll also question how you think and how your privilege informs these judgments. That’s the mark of great television, the ability to have an impact beyond the screen.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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House of Cards Season Four

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The fourth run of Netflix’s baby is a full-on comeback season. With season three earning vocal detractors, many thought the acclaimed political drama’s best days were behind it. That all changed however, as season four of House of Cards is the series’ best since it began. The layered political schemings coupled with an impeccable cast of old and new faces makes a case that we should definitely still be considering House of Cards in the upper tier of peak TV.

Season three ended with Frank and Claire’s marriage coming to a close, amidst sketchy dealings with Russian president Petrov and scandal and corruption threatening the Underwoods at all sides. Season four, then, begins with small victories. Claire coerces an older black congresswoman (Cicely Tyson) into vacating her congressional seat, while Frank tries to gain ground in key primary states during the election year. Chapter 43 throws a wrench into the mix as an old character seeks reparation for past sins, and Frank finds himself stuck in a rock and a hard place. The back half of the season is the best, as Frank and Claire teams up against common foes, including new Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), and scandal finds its way to the press through Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), among others.

Season four is at its best when it’s Frank and Claire against the world. While I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made season three so lackluster, I’ve decided that when the two have a common enemy (in this case, many), the series sings. This season, in addition to being during a timely election year, Frank and Claire are at the top of the game as they join forces and run for president and vice president, respectively. The election stuff makes for the most viewer-friendly but also pulse-pounding entertainment. Classic backdoor schemes, bribes and favors make for a riveting plot. Chapter 49 might be one of the tightest House of Cards episodes ever produced, in which an open Democratic convention leads to Frank and Claire betraying old friends while making new ones. As the votes are tallied and things could change any second, I was on the edge of my seat.

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New characters also shake things up a bit, and season four finds many, chief among them Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), political advisor for Claire and later campaign manager for the Underwoods. Like other Underwood employees Seth (Derek Cecil) and Meechum (Nathan Darrow), Leann learns not to get too close to the Underwoods yet to give them what they want. Despite her manipulation in what I thought the weakest plot of the season involving search engine optimization, Leann is another formidable addition to the growing cast. Will Conway, GOP candidate and “big bad” against Frank, is also an interesting character along with his wife and child. Their lust for the spotlight and positive media attention makes them great foils for the Underwoods, and Conway learns a thing or two from Frank in politics 101.

The writing in House of Cards has always been its own brand of cheesy, yet rooted in political reality. Showrunner Beau Willamon and his team of writers have a knack for making the silliest things sound terrifying coming from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who both deliver awards-worthy performances once again, especially Wright. Watch how her character changes with the flip of a switch whether she’s dealing with her judgmental mother (the brilliant Ellen Burstyn) or her new flame/speechwriter Tom (Paul Sparks). Towards the end of the season, Claire must interrogate an imprisoned terrorist in order to free hostages taken by ICO (sound familiar?), and Wright does her best work. The fourth-wall breaks are also intermittent this season, and while none have the same “holy shit” effect as they did in seasons one and two, season four ends on one that will send shivers up your spine. While none of the main plots are resolved by season’s end – frustrating, to be sure, but necessary – season five looks to be all kinds of the messy fun we’ve come to expect at this point from House of Cards.

 

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Homeland Season 5

While season 5 of Homeland may not always bring the thrills like the very consistent season 4, it’s still a mildly entertaining political thriller miles ahead of traditional television fare. This season abandoned much of the terror and intensity that made previous seasons so enthralling, in favor of a plot of conspiracies, of the new world order. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) adjusted to her new life with her daughter and her new job, but finds herself being hunted and uncovers a deeply-embedded web of lies within the Berlin government. Not everything was harmonious, with a string of dragged-out side plots and a b-plot with everyone’s favorite Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) lacking major focus, but when it works, season 5 was Homeland firing on all cylinders.

Let’s start with what didn’t work, and most of that is concentrated in the middle third of the season. Allison Carr (Miranda Otto) is totally believable as a villain, but some of her motivations were hazy. When Carrie’s name appears in Quinn’s kill box in “The Tradition of Hospitality,” Allison’s name is rightfully thrown around, and Carrie eventually uncovers her conspiring with her former handler to carry out terrorist attacks in Berlin. Miranda Otto is a competent performer, and has the presence of a woman with conviction hardened by her lengthly career as an agent, yet the show doesn’t seem interested in finding out why or where that conviction came from. A few flashbacks in 5.08 “All About Allison” don’t do her story justice, as we learn her backstory with Carrie in 2005. If she had been introduced a few seasons back, and we had gotten more acquainted with her, we might not have been having this discussion. In a similar vein, her romantic relationship with Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) only serves to put Saul in opposition and at a crossroads for the majority of the season. While this leads to some thrilling moments in which Saul is trying to figure out what the hell exactly is going on, the dramatic irony is lost almost immediately. A few “a-ha” moments like the one at the end of “All About Allison” barely save this story from going under.

Another part of the season that didn’t quite go as planned is the background plot involving the German government bypassing their country’s privacy laws by hiring the CIA to report on suspected terrorists in Berlin. This is where the timely material comes into play, something Homeland has always been good at, yet this story feels like two ends of a sloppy book. It starts out brilliantly, and sets the stage for the majority of the rest of the season’s dramatics. Hacker Numan (Atheer Adel) is the perfect 21st century ‘villain,’ or ‘hero’ depending on how you see him. The whistleblowing tactics resonate in a world where nothing is certain, where the enemies are individuals hiding behind a keyboard. Numan works just fine as a representation of those ideas, but his partner in the spotlight, the overbearing American Laura Sutton (Sarah Soklovic) lacks that well-drawn characterization. Almost everything she spews is nonsense, and Soklovic neither looks up for the part nor convinces you of her views. It’s a waste of a character and almost an insult, because her conviction is sound, it’s just how she goes about it that isn’t.

A theme in the last two paragraphs was that when the focus is off of Carrie, things being to fall apart. Nowhere is that more evident than in the side plot involving Peter Quinn. He starts out as a solitary man, and props to Rupert Friend for giving an on-point and brilliant speech about the state of U.S. foreign policy in the premiere, “Separation Anxiety” (Emmy reel, please). Yet when Quinn gets injured and wanders away(?), he gets captured by Syrian jihadists with ties to the main plot mentioned above. This was the most contrived plot, one that went one for far too long as he got to know their leader Bibi (Rene Ifrah). Quinn was not on top of his game since the premiere, and it’s disappointing to see him in this state, as he becomes their guinea pig for a saran gas experiment. His relationship with Carrie is unorthodox, to be sure, and the show hasn’t completely dismissed their feelings for each other, so at least there are stakes here, even if they are centered on romance like Allison’s. Whatever Quinn’s fate at the end of the finale (and it didn’t look pretty), he’ll always be remembered as the rogue badass with a soft side.

Luckily, Homeland has and always will be the Carrie Mathison show. Since season three, the show has remained self-contained in little seasonal arcs, and this allows the focus to be mainly on Carrie herself, with Saul, Quinn, Dar Adal in the background. This season found Carrie struggling with atonement, as she learns that she can’t control everything. Claire Danes has never been better, and although she doesn’t have as many scenes where she can really dig into Carrie’s psyche (see: Carrie off her meds in “Super Powers”), she still brings her A-game the whole season. Her rocky relationship with Saul, something that still hasn’t been clarified yet assumedly happened after she sabotaged his bid for the CIA directorship, led to some tense and well-acted moments between the pair who go way back. Carrie’s a free agent now, done seeing Saul as a mentor, yet he still remains in a position of authority for her. Carrie’s surrogate for that relationship, her new boss Otto During (Sebastian Koch), fails to offer the same warmth and respect that Saul used to offer her. I like Otto as a character, and the finale sets him up to appear in season six (already given a green light), so I hope we see more from him.

When Homeland, like Carrie, goes off its meds, it can lead to some good stuff. The brilliant episode two, “The Tradition of Hospitality,” brought us back to season two-level Homeland, with an outstanding sequence with Carrie and her boss in a refugee camp in Beirut. This mostly self-contained episode reminds us that Homeland might not be prettiest in its plotting, but it certainly knows how to hold your attention. The direction from showrunner Lesli Linka Glatter draws inspiration from Kathryn Bigelow, and the action scenes (when they come) are thrilling, just look at “Our Man in Damascus.” I could’ve done, however, without the treading water of episodes five through about eight, which serve as mainly catch-up episodes for viewers and characters. Both Homeland and The Affair could benefit from shorter seasons, as the momentum is lost when episode after episode is simply stalling.

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This season really conflicted me, a long time Homeland fan. It’s nowhere near the awfulness of season three, but I wish it took more risks in its storytelling this time around. I’m grateful for the focus on Carrie, and she can keep the show afloat, but the supporting cast needs to be rounded out, as one-off characters each season might not be the best route to take. I’m not saying get rid of Saul (the exact opposite, more please!), but rather remember why we fell in love with Homeland in the first place. Allison, like Martha from season four, isn’t the compelling black-and-white antagonist we’re accustomed to, and the series’s broad strokes and lack of convincing supporting characters of color only serve to show how behind Homeland really is in geopolitics, no matter how relevant its themes may be. Still though, Showtime’s Homeland more than belongs in the category of “Peak TV” for its ability to portray a complex character like Carrie Mathison without ever going over the top.

 

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Casual

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From the mind of Jason Reitman and Zander Lehmann, Casual is the best new show to come out of the fall, and it came to us from none other than Hulu, who has really stepped up in the original programming department. While it might seem coated in the indie dramedy gloss, Casual goes deeper than you might expect, with multifaceted characters that feel like such a tight-knit group by the end of the 10-episode season.

Casual introduces us to Valerie (Michaela Watkins), fresh out of a divorce from her husband Drew (Zak Orth), who moves in with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey) along with her daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr). She’s the principal player in what is mostly a three-person cast. In the prime of her middle-aged years and working as a therapist, Valerie is looking for an escape. Her brother Alex, seems like he might have it figured out, running a semi-successful online dating site, but he’s just as lost as she is. Even the precocious Laura is stuck at a crossroads after developing feelings for her photography teacher (Patrick Heusinger).

So the stage is set for indie shenanigans, and although initially the series might seem to draw from other dysfunctional dramedies such as Transparent or Master of None, but Casual truly belongs in a league of its own. What sets it apart is its quick dialogue and the introspective moments into these characters, all while having something to say about modern romance and the generational divide when it comes to sex and dating.

The series draws excellent development from Valerie’s newfound romantic life, as her desire for casual relationships gets her into some not-so-ideal situations. Meanwhile, while Alex’s virtual life on dating sites might seem the stuff of late-night comedy quips, he might be the one who grows the most. His relationship with Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, the standout), Valerie’s one-night stand, evolves into one of the deepest male friendships this side of Chandler and Joey. When Alex gets more than he bargained for in an open relationship with Emmy (Eliza Coupe), he manages to keep an open mind even when he might not be the most comfortable. The series’s sex-positivity is refreshing, and it’s wonderful to see a series that explores polyamory and casual sex without judgment.

The performances here are excellent, especially from Watkins and Barr. SNL alum Watkins has been previously relegated to supporting roles, but putting her in the spotlight here was a brilliant move. She gives Valerie so many different sides that we see depending on who she is with, and her performance is tremendous. Just look at her moment in the elevator in episode four, it’s Emmy-worthy. Tommy Dewey also grew on me as the series went on. At first childish and overbearing, he brings Alex to life and never keeps him locked in the “man-child” trope for too long.

Casual has an absolutely brilliant string of five episodes in its middle, but it does falter a bit towards the end. The introduction of Alex and Valerie’s divorced parents, played by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed, is a slight misstep, as their characters only serve to antagonize and put our leads in a bad mood. This isn’t the fault of the performers, and Conroy in particular is great in a Thanksgiving dinner scene, but rather the script which doesn’t give these characters much to do. Alex and Valerie’s father comes across as a villain for the sake of being one, and hopefully we don’t see much of him in the future. The sobering finale is probably the weakest episode, as it quickly rushes to wrap everything up in an awkward confrontation scene. This is fine except that it feels too staged and unnatural, with characters saying what they feel simply to move the plot, an indie trope that the series had previously done so well at repressing.

Apart from the finale, however, Casual is a breath of fresh air for the comedy-drama genre. Examining themes of modern dating and casual sex, the series features a trio of standout performances and cinematography that emphasizes the most tragic but also the most hilarious moments. White colors abound, especially in their modern California abode, and director Reitman along with Max Winkler and Tricia Brock, keep the focus tight on our leads, making what could have been another indie tragicom into a deeper character study.

 

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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