Santa Clarita Diet Sean 3 Review: Netflix’s Zombie Comedy Gets Even Weirder

Few shows excel at being so unabashedly weird as Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, and fewer still manage to blend the inherent weirdness of something like, say, a suburban zombie sitcom, with humor that functions outside the immediate predicament of Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) Hammond — the suburban couple dealing with matters of the undead. For two seasons, the gory comedy has been constructing a surprisingly rich (albeit absurd) mythology around its unique take on zombies, turning the usually brainless shambling corpses into surprisingly lived-in characters, who nonetheless still have an endless appetite for human flesh. 

Aside from being a sharply written, well acted, and consistently witty comedy, Santa Clarita Diet deserves praise for its decompressed storytelling, which has allowed creator and showrunner Victor Fresco to spend 30 episodes telling only the first month or so of the Hammondses’ first-hand experience with that whole zombie thing. To be fair, the series isn’t plot driven so much as it’s characters are driven by self preservation and the need to find solutions to a seemingly never-ending cascade of obstacles and challenges, many of which arise as a consequence to the most recent solution found by Sheila, Joel, their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) and neighbor Eric (series MVP, Skyler Gisondo). 

More: What We Do In The Shadows Review: Maybe The Funniest Show On TV Right Now

In a sense, Santa Clarita Diet season 3 becomes inadvertently meta-textual as the series is faced with a number of casting dilemmas presumably caused by members of the supporting cast — namely, Nathan Fillion, Natalie Morales, and Zachary Knighton — moving on to other projects (The Rookie, Abby’s, and Magnum P.I.). But Santa Clarita Diet is nothing if not game to have a little fun at its own expense, explaining Fillion’s absence by way of the ongoing deterioration of what’s left of Gary’s body. Similarly, Knighton’s Knight of Serbia, Paul, asks his sharpshooting brother (Ethan Suplee) to take his place, so he can move to Hawaii. Thankfully, Morales is able to stick around for a little while longer, as her character, Anne Garcia, overcommits to Shiela after being convinced her undead-ness is actually a sign from God. 

Unlike Anne, Santa Clarita Diet doesn’t overcommit to any of its plot threads. The majority wind up resolved thanks in large part to Shiela and Joel’s moxie, Abby’s fear-inducing stubbornness, or Eric’s clumsy charm. Some, though, get resolved off screen; a character in question might just disappear and no one seems to notice because they’re too busy (the audience included) dealing with the next big thing threatening to expose Sheila’s secret and put the Hammonds away for a good long time. The constant influx of new obstacles and challenges helps keep the show moving at an incredibly fast pace, a feature that not only helps justify what might be thought of as an attention deficit, but it also prevents the season’s 10 half-hour episodes from sagging in the middle like so many other streaming shows. 

That’s not to say Santa Clarita Diet is aimless, by any means. In fact, with each passing season it’s managed to progress its story in steady increments, like introducing the Order of the Knights of Serbia, the bad clams that caused Sheila’s undead condition, and the mysterious spidery meatballs the zombies puke up when they’re first turned. Season 3 is light on firm answers to what it all means in the grand scheme of things, but that turns out to be for the best. The series is better suited to telling a small story told on a micro scale, as opposed to delivering on the macro-narrative elements being revealed piecemeal with each new season. 

As such, season 3 is largely concerned with the question of how long Sheila, Joel, Abby, and Eric can keep this up. With law enforcement bearing down on them, the neighbors and fellow Realtors (played by Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson) growing increasingly suspicious of their odd behavior, and the promise of stranger more absurd individuals and adversaries popping up out of the woodwork, it’s beginning to feel like the Hammondses’ days are numbered. Despite the overwhelming threats to her safety, Sheila comes to the conclusion that she’s essentially immortal. That realization creates no small amount of friction between her and Joel as the question of whether or not she’ll spend the next thousand years or so alone or with her husband ultimately takes precedent in a busy, sometimes overstuffed season of undead comedy. 

Though the season introduces plenty of new characters, played by the aforementioned Ethan Suplee, as well as Goran Visnjic (Timeless), and Linda Lavin (The Good Wife), all of whom add to the laundry list of obstacles facing the lead characters, the main story boils down to a pair of will they or won’t they scenarios involving Sheila and Joel, as well as Abby and Eric. To its credit, Santa Clarita Diet has done such a remarkable job with its characters that these questions actually feel bigger and more pressing than anything involving the undead, the Knights of Serbia, or whatever else the show throws at them. 

At this point, considering how many more high-profile shows are dropping like flies on the streaming service, Santa Clarita Diet feels like an unlikely success story for Netflix. And given how things resolve themselves (or don’t) at the end of the season, that apparent success will ultimately determine whether or not audiences get to follow Sheila and Joel to the end of their story, or if Santa Clarita Diet ends up like so many supporting characters this season. 

Next: Happy! Season 2 Review: SYFY’s Over-The-Top Series Starts Off Slow But Steady

Santa Clarita Diet season 3 will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, March 29.

2019-03-28 03:03:10

Kevin Yeoman

Hanna Review: Not Enough New Ideas To Completely Warrant A Television Series

When Amazon announced plans to turn Joe Wright’s 2011 film Hanna into a television series, there were many reasons to be skeptical. Though it amassed a terrific cast, reuniting The Killing stars Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman — in the roles originally played by Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana — and relative newcomer Esme Creed-Miles as the title character Hanna (who was originally played by future Academy Award winner Saoirse Ronan), it was unclear what, exactly, series creator David Farr (co-writer on the original film) had in mind when it came to porting the property from stylized action-thriller blockbuster to high-end streaming Peak TV entry. First, and perhaps most importantly, would it be a continuation of the original film or would viewers be treated to a rehash of that story, stretched out over eight hour-long episodes?

That question was more or less answered when Amazon offered the series premiere early to Prime Video subscribers (for 24 hours only, mind you) following Super Bowl LIII. The premiere hewed extremely close to the original film, switching up a few details here and there, mostly to afford the series a chance to explore more of the connection between Kinnaman’s Erik and Creed-Miles’s Hanna, a father-daughter relationship that’s tested by the latter’s increasing curiosity about the world beyond the forrest in which she lives and her burgeoning sense of teenage rebellion. 

More: What We Do In The Shadows Review: Maybe The Funniest Show On TV Right Now

Although the decision to stick close to the original film is understandable in terms of establishing the characters and the stakes of the story, turning the initial episodes into a retelling of the first half of the film ultimately does the series a disservice, forcing an unfair comparison between film and television show, while not offering enough immediate differences to make the series stand out, much less stand on its own.

There are some highlights, to be sure. Kinnaman continues to be the best thing in a television series that doesn’t quite do enough to deserve him. Like Altered Carbon or even The Killing before this, Kinnaman shows an impressive emotional range, switching from hardened mentor and cold-hearted instructor to caring and concerned father in the blink of an eye. He’s also one of the best unsung action heroes on television today, using his impressive and intimidating stature as a weapon unto itself. About midway through the first season, Hanna aims to take advantage of Kinnaman’s action-hero bona fides, giving him (and the series) an opportunity to shine in the action arena by delivering a few gripping set pieces. Enos, meanwhile, is entrusted with imbuing Marissa with enough venom to be a threat to both Erik and Hanna, but to also show a glimmer of humanity — one hinted at through a mysterious past she shares with her adversary — that places her more firmly in the same moral gray area as the characters she’s pursuing. 

As compelling as both Kinnaman and Enos are, this is ultimately Creed-Miles’s show. Unfortunately, Hanna is a complete (and deliberate) blank slate, a killing machine who’s loaded with factual information but no real personality or sense of self-awareness. She has no immediate wants other than to react to the situation in which she finds herself, which is to kill anyone standing in her way until she can rendezvous with her father. The character’s naiveté played well into the dreamlike storybook component Wright built into the film’s narrative. But Hanna the series doesn’t incorporate the same visual aesthetic or thematic element to its main character’s journey, and the result finds the teenaged living weapon at an even greater emotional distance from the more fleshed out characters who surround her. 

Farr takes steps to counter this, but mostly with familiar scenarios from the film. Case in point, after escaping from the desert compound she was taken to in the aftermath of the raid on her and Erik’s home, Hanna meets up with a British family vacationing in Morocco. Hanna makes the acquaintance of Sophie (Rhianne Barreto) and her parents and younger brother. Perhaps inadvertently, the family’s problems (Sophie’s parents are on the verge of a divorce) almost completely overshadow Hanna’s plight, largely because the characters, even though they were just introduced, feel more like real people — actual lived-in characters — especially when compared to the young woman experiencing the world for the first time. 

While the crux of Hanna’s journey is that the audience gets to accompany her as she steps free from the isolation of her childhood, learns to make her own decisions (and mistakes), and, naturally, puts all those ass-kicking skills to good use, an eight-hour television series isn’t able to sustain interest in a character like that in the same way a two-hour film can. As a result, Hanna must fall back on its supporting characters at a certain point, focusing more of its attention on Erik and Marissa, as they work to protect or apprehend the exceptional young woman. This works in the show’s favor, as Hanna’s origins and unique DNA are part of a larger mystery and growing conspiracy that will reshape the way the audience sees both Erik and Marissa, and, perhaps, even Hanna herself. 

Where the show most frequently runs into trouble, though, is in figuring out how to balance the drama, character development, action, and mystery in a way that will not only keep audiences watching, but also distinguish the show in a memorable way. At the end of season 1, the series never quite manages to infuse itself with the sort of new ideas that would more readily warrant its transition from feature film to (potentially) ongoing television series. 

Next: Happy! Season 2 Review: SYFY’s Over-The-Top Series Starts Off Slow But Steady

Hanna season 1 premieres Friday, March 29 on Amazon Prime Video.

2019-03-28 02:03:21

Kevin Yeoman

Happy! Season 2 Review: SYFY’s Over-The-Top Series Starts Off Slow But Steady

The notion of continuing SYFY’s Happy! after what turned out to be a highly stylized, hyper-violent, and always over-the-top first season seems like a difficult task. After all, the story of Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni) racing through the streets of New York City to find his kidnapped daughter Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo) from a deranged Santa, all while a corrupt children’s entertainer, Sonny Shine (Christopher Fitzgerald), made the world a creepier, less festive place, seemed, like the comic of the same name from Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson on which it was based, destined to be a one-and-done series. Instead, SYFY and series showrunner Brian Taylor have seen fit to get the gang back together for a spring-themed second season, one that, unfortunately, has to follow in the footsteps of its unhinged predecessor. 

The self-destructive nature of Happy! is a large part of its initial appeal — well, that and the talking animated horse voiced by Patton Oswalt. But really, naive imaginary creatures aside, Happy! season 1 got a lot of mileage out of, well, driving like it was headed off a cliff. That pervasive recklessness, the sense that the series — like its characters — were perpetually on the verge of going off the rails, was, in essence, not just the source of its puerile charm (if you want to call it that) but also the element that enticed viewers to keep watching. Happy! sold itself on being the Peak TV version of a car wreck in progress. Soon enough the whole thing would end up a smoldering pile of mostly resolved plot threads. 

Because of how the first season ended, though, the season 2 premiere, ‘The War on Easter,’ finds itself in a tricky situation of juggling the edgelord-y elements that made it work in the first place, with the responsibilities of longform storytelling. In other words, though Happy! happily walked its main character right up to the edge of oblivion in its first season, its been forced to walk Nick back more than a few steps as season 2 gets underway. 

There’s some humor in this, as Nick has mostly given up his vices — drinking, drugs, and killing lots of people — and has replaced them with relatively (for him, anyway) wholesome activities like spending time with his daughter, attending to basic bodily hygiene, driving a cab, and dealing with the fact that Hailey’s former imaginary friend has now latched onto him in a more permanent way. Of course, this being Happy!, things aren’t quite so cut and dry, with “dry” being the operative word here as Nick is hitting breath spray and cough syrup harder than the mafia types who were out to get him last season. 

Most of the premiere is spent getting caught up with the new Nick (mostly the same as the old Nick), and understanding that while his experiences from last season have put him on a different path (otherwise known as not-quite the straight and narrow), his daughter, former partner Meredith (Lili Mirojnick), and ex Amanda (Medina Senghore), aren’t equipped with the same coping mechanisms as he is. In other words, their behavior is more like that of a normal human being who has been through a traumatic experience. That being said, much of what ‘The War on Easter’ attempts to do in its first hour is strike a compelling balance between the aftermath of the first season’s storyline, and trying its darnedest to drum up some interest in a fittingly blasphemous Easter-themed storyline wherein Sonny Shine is selling “MEGA” (Make Easter Great Again) to the Vatican, while a crazed lunatic with a pink eye dressed in Easter Bunny bondage gear is blowing up nuns and abducting not-so-wholesome charity organizers for likely nefarious purposes. 

In other words, it is and it is not the Happy! viewers have come to expect. But whereas things get off to a somewhat slow start in the story department, the show still has plenty of attitude and willingness to show off Taylor’s signature style with one very bloody hyperactive action sequence that seems designed to mitigate concerns that the show has somehow lost its edge or its juvenile sense of humor. What seems missing from the sequence, though, is any sense that it’s connected to the larger story. From the way in which it’s resolved (spoiler: Nick kills everyone), it would seem he’s inadvertently stumbled on some run-of-the-mill wrongdoing and only stepped in because one of his sex-worker friends got wrapped up in said wrongdoing because of him.

To that end, much of ‘The War on Easter’ unfortunately feels like Happy! is spinning its wheels. That might be because the show has two more hours to fill this season, an addition that may have thrown the usual kinetic pacing off somewhat. It also has to do with the show’s intentions with regard to its characters, like Patrick Fischler’s Smoothie and especially Ritchie Coster’s now incarcerated and demonically possessed Francisco ‘Mr. Blue’ Scaramucci. The latter seems destined to play a significant part in some larger story that Happy! is building toward, while the former is revealed to be much more a part of the show’s current goings-on. 

In all, Taylor has clearly focused the show’s energies on the idea of change and rebirth and renewal. Like season 1, Happy! is happy to wear its thematic elements on its sleeve, and always ready to turn any potential subtext into text. It’s part and parcel of what makes the show tick, and while it doesn’t get off to as roaring a start as season 1, there’s plenty evidence to suggest Happy! will be back to its old ways soon enough. 

Next: What We Do In The Shadows Review: Maybe The Funniest Show On TV Right Now

Happy! continues next Wednesday with ‘Tallahassee’ @10pm on SYFY.

2019-03-27 04:03:52

Kevin Yeoman

Into The Badlands Season 3B Review: The Series Sets Up An Epic Endgame

At the start of its final run of episodes, AMC’s Into the Badlands wastes no time in setting up the series’s endgame: a conflict between Sunny (Daniel Wu) and Pilgrim (Babou Ceesay), whose growing army of “gifted” warriors promises a future that is sure to be far worse than any under the thumb of the various Barons who’ve been largely scattered to the wind over the course of two and a half seasons. As far as conflicts go, Sunny’s upcoming battle with Pilgrim certainly raises the stakes of the series, putting the already dubious future of humankind into a sort of supernatural peril, one where unimaginable power must be wrested from the hands of a group operating with a staggering level of conviction seen only in the most extreme zealots. 

Unfortunately for the world of Into the Badlands, Pilgrim’s zealotry is backed up by a very real display of power, one that’s not only impossible to deny, but any attempt to combat it seems hopeless. Despite the increased emphasis on supernatural powers — which actually works quite well with the show’s wuxia-style brand of marital arts — the threat of Pilgrim, Cressida (Lorraine Toussaint), and their devotees — which includes MK (Aramis Knight) and Nix (Ella-Rae Smith) — isn’t too far removed from what the series seemed to be about when it first began. The world of blood-thirsty Barons and their highly skilled warriors may have been supplanted by an almost absurdly powerful force, but somehow Into the Badlands doesn’t feel as though it’s lost sight of the kind of series it wanted to be when it first began. 

If anything, this current storyline — or, the final storyline — is more in keeping with the spirit of the show and its highly stylized aesthetic and creative fight choreography — which affords viewers the amazing sight of Nick Frost engaged in balletic martial arts battles complete with high-flying wire work — as it lets the series be as weird and outlandish as it pleases. But it also has paired the overarching narrative down to three main threads, that of Sunny, Pilgrim, and the Widow (Emily Beecham), though the latter is somewhat distanced from the other at the start of the season. That culling of characters and plot threads makes things far more manageable as the show’s writers steer into what will be the series finale. And while Sunny’s arc of trained killer on a quest to redeem himself — complete with a retro engineered backstory that benefitted from the character’s memories having been toyed with — pits him against a man with whom he shares a complicated history, the Widow finds herself in a much more overt battle between the light and darkness within herself. 

Like Sunny, the Widow’s story seems to have been re-engineered somewhat in order to better complement the needs of the story — thematic and otherwise — but it works in large part because the character still functions as a reminder of what the show was built on before MK and the other “gifted” characters (the Widow included) began to dominate and redefine the larger narrative of Into the Badlands. That’s particularly evident in the first two episodes of season 3B, ‘Chamber of the Scorpion’ and ‘Raven’s Feather, Phoenix Blood,’ which will air on consecutive nights as the series moves to its regular Monday night time slot on AMC. 

While much of the focus is on Sunny and Bajie (Frost) escaping from Pilgrim’s compound with Sunny’s child (now free from the gift, apparently), the episode is also concerned with the Master (Chipo Chung) reconnecting with the Widow and forcing her to choose which side of her own psyche will rule her moving forward. It’s a bit like watching Christopher Reeve battle himself in a junkyard in Superman III, but because the show doesn’t dwell on the choice she has to make — and because it’s so evidently a part of the actual text of the episodes — the outcome puts the series on firmer ground as it careens toward the finale. 

For the most part, finding its footing and being unambiguous about where things are headed is the goal for the first two episodes. In a sense, it feels as though Into the Badlands is doing a lot of table setting, and, frankly, it is. But it’s the sort of table setting that’s necessary in light of the show coming to an end. Alternatively, it’s easy to forgive the deliberate arrangement narrative details on account of how many lengthy action sequences the show manages to pack into a single hour, and still find time to move the story forward in a way that seems meaningful to the characters’ ongoing development and potential for finding closure when the series actually does come to an end. 

Although it has quite a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to get itself on a path toward finding that closure, the start of Into the Badlands season 3B begins with an assured confidence that not only does it know where it’s going, but that it won’t loose sight of what makes this series special as it journeys down that particular path. 

Next: The Act Review: Hulu’s True-Crime Series Is Anchored By Strong Lead Performances

Into the Badlands continues Monday, March 25 with ‘Raven’s Feather, Phoenix Blood’ @9pm on AMC.

2019-03-24 06:03:54

Kevin Yeoman

Billions Season 4 Review: Professional Setbacks Make For An Exciting New Beginning

At about the midway point of season 3, Billions threw its audience and its characters a curve ball, setting aside the near blood feud between Paul Giamatti’s Chuck “Where We’re Going We Need Rhoades” Rhoades and Damian Lewis’s Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod. The moment was naturally facilitated by Maggie Skiff’s Wendy Rhoades, who has long been a consigliere of sorts for both sides of the vendetta between the two men. The trio arranged a scheme that would be beneficial for all involved, and it would make their enemies even more determined to take them down. Though it felt revolutionary and reinvigorating at the time, it wasn’t so much a reinvention of the series as it was an incredibly smart move by co-creators and showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who understood what the show needed wasn’t more Chuck vs. Axe, but rather Chuck and Axe vs. the world. 

The scope of Koppelman and Levien’s plan wasn’t fully revealed until the season 3 finale, which dealt Chuck and Axe a series of defeats the likes of which they’d only delivered unto one another. In other words, the season 3 finale, ‘Elmsley Count,’ drew a line in the sand, one that had Chuck, Axe (and all of Axe Capital), and Wendy on one side, and on the other were Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) (and their nascent rival hedge fund that includes Mafee), Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), Waylan ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), and Kate Sacker (Colonda Rashad).

Those refocused priorities — i.e., all-consuming vendettas — help fashion the season 4 premiere, ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game,’ into one where the audience isn’t quite sure what’s going to happen because the balance of power has shifted so drastically. Seeing Axe and Chuck on their heels to this degree comes as an unexpected breath of fresh air to a series that didn’t necessarily need to open the windows in the first place. That the shift in Billions’s narrative priorities didn’t absolutely need to happen — who wouldn’t have been fine with watching Chuck and Axe throw caution to the wind for a few more seasons just to put the screws to one another? — makes the change all the more fulfilling. Moreover, it gives major players like Taylor and Grigor a chance to strut their stuff in a way that is directly responsible for much of the conflict that will drive Axe’s storyline for the first part of season 4. 

But as much as Billions is pressing the idea that Taylor and Grigor are opponents unlike any that Axe has ever faced before, the premiere isn’t titled ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game’ because Chuck Rhoades spends it sitting on the bench. While Axe is busy handling the disappearance of Mike ‘Wags’ Wagner (David Costabile) after meeting with Farhad (Amir Arison), the point man for some potential Middle Eastern investors, Chuck is tasked with procuring a concealed carry permit for a friend of his father’s (the always great Jeffry DeMunn). Chuck initially attacks the problem with a seemingly worthless ace up his sleeve — a park anywhere permit — that no one wants. Koppelman and Levien have a lot of fun, initially at Chuck’s expense, as he has to re-learn how quid pro quo works now that he no longer has the power of the office of the U.S. Attorney behind him. 

It’s an entertaining way to spend the hour, watching Giamatti’s face become a mask of incredulity as his presumed golden ticket is repeatedly looked upon as though he’s just pulled a turd from his jacket pocket. But it also effectively establishes just how far back Chuck is from his usual starting point. Billions rightly treats Chuck’s pitiable situation as a source of humor, particularly when Chuck Sr and Ira (Ben Shenkman) arrive to excoriate the former U.S. Attorney for his inability (or unwillingness) to procure a concealed carry permit. Chuck’s unwillingness doesn’t stem from some political belief so much as idleness — a byproduct of his time spent in a position power — and as such much of the episode revolves around Chuck learning to flex certain muscles that’ve atrophied over time. By the end of it, Chuck’s no longer groveling at the feet of men more powerful than he is. Instead, he’s made an ally out of Police Commissioner Richie Sansome (Michael Rispoli) and even put his newfound friendship with Axe to good use. 

Though ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game’ functions as a solid season premiere, it just as easily could have been a midseason episode. It’s a flex on behalf of the showrunners and the cast that demonstrates just how well Billions knows what it is and what it’s doing. That’s never more apparent than by the sheer amount of pop culture references dropped in the episode, as is the case with Glenn Flesher’s Orrin Bach, who seems to stop by just to compare an NDA to AC/DC in ’78. But as seamlessly as the dialogue opens the door for those references, it also seamlessly opens the door for Taylor’s new consigliere Sara Hammon (Samantha Mathis), who struts around Taylor’s new company like she’s been on the show the whole time. 

In all, it’s a solid start to the new season, one that offers up a welcome change to the show’s power structure without sacrificing what makes Billons so watchable in the first place. Giamatti and Lewis are at the top of their game as usual, but shifting the characters’ ire to competent (and in the case of Grigor, frightening) adversaries injects a new energy into the proceedings. That change marks a new beginning of sorts, one that opens a window after willfully closing a door in season 3. 

Next: The OA Part 2 Review: An Improved Season Delivers An Even Weirder Ride

Billions continues next Sunday with ‘Arousal Template’ @9pm on Showtime.

2019-03-17 04:03:43

Kevin Yeoman

The OA Part 2 Review: An Improved Season Delivers An Even Weirder Ride

Part II of Netflix’s bizarre but ambitious pseudo-existential sci-fi series The OA offers up a compelling continuation of its main story, one that gets even weirder than the weirdest moments from season 1, but it also proves the show can be a lot of fun, if you let yourself go along for the ride. 

The brainchild of writer-star Brit Marling and co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij, The OA seemed to epitomize the potential and the potential pitfalls of what Netflix could offer those with a solid pitch for a new series. The story of a missing blind woman, Prairie Johnson (Marling), who returns after seven years in captivity, with her sight restored and an outlandish tale of a deranged scientist, Dr. Hunter Aloysius ‘Hap’ Percy (Jason Isaacs), who kidnapped a group of people who’d all gone through near death experiences and seen another dimension, must have been one hell of a pitch meeting. Add to that the use of interpretive dance as a means of accessing parallel dimensions, a group of wayward teens eager to believe Prairie’s story, and an ill-advised and completely unearned season 1 finale that revolved around a school shooting, and you have a recipe for one of the biggest mixed bags on television in recent memory. 

It’s been quite a while since The OA first debuted on Netflix, and its second coming — titled The OA: Part II — is even more ambitious, ostentatious, and downright bizarre than what came before. It’s also more focused and, often, more compelling than the first season, as Marling and Batmanglij — along with their writers’ room and fellow directors like Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete) — have constructed an almost alarmingly expansive three-pronged narrative structure that not only continues the events set in motion last season, bringing back the teens played by Ian Alexander, Patrick Gibson, Chloë Levine, Brendan Meyer, and Brandon Perea (as well as The Office’s Phyllis Smith) but also creates two entirely new scenarios set in an alternate dimension. 

The central new storyline features Kingsley Ben-Adir as Karim Washington, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who is searching for a missing girl and winds up discovering a clandestine operation tied to Dr. Percy and fellow newcomer  Pierre Ruskin, a Russian entrepreneur played by Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser. Saying more would give away too much of what the series has up its sleeve, as The OA, like Marling and Batmanglij’s film efforts Sound of My Voice and, to a lesser extent, The East, tend to function first and foremost as J.J. Abrams-like puzzle boxes — though with a less blockbuster-y, more pseudo-intellectual vibe that helps distinguish them, for better and for worse. 

While the puzzle box-ness of it all worked to hamstring the story and climax of season 1 (excuse me, Part I), it’s clear early on in Part II that Marling and Batmanglij are keen to offer up at least a few answers to many of the biggest questions left dangling from 2016 — namely what happened to Prairie after she’d been shot in the chest and carried off by an ambulance, but also what happened to Dr. Percy and the others held captive in his underground research facility. But a willingness to be more forthcoming about what’s going on doesn’t mean the show has tamped down its offbeat storytelling ambitions. If anything, The OA Part II is even more offbeat and ambitious than the season that preceded it. That will no doubt be cause for concern by those who were left largely unimpressed by season 1 (this reviewer included), in particular how it felt as though the show wasn’t going anywhere, and couldn’t quite articulate what, if anything, it was trying to say about life, death, and the human condition. But even as it sometimes becomes far weirder than anything seen in Part I (just wait until you see what happens with an octopus), it also feels as though, finally, the series has a greater purpose beyond smashing a bunch of philosophical questions and quantum theories into one another to see what happens. 

Some of that newfound purpose comes from a more focused episode-by-episode structure. While The OA Part II continues to tell a largely serialized story, one that now covers three distinct plot threads, and gives a surprising amount of time to Karim’s investigation into a missing girl, nearly every episode takes pains to deliver a complete beginning, middle, and end. Making use of a more episodic structure helps make Part II more captivating (if still occasionally overlong), particularly when it works to devote its storytelling energies to the perspective of a single character. This gives the show greater freedom to explore enormous ideas it’s working with, while also working to ground them within the context of the story more, so as to limit the dorm-room philosophizing of it all. 

That’s not to say The OA Part II isn’t just as high on its own supply as it was in Part I. If anything, the show’s creators seem to have spent the last few years doing just that. The upside, though, is that Marling, Batmanglij, and everyone else involved in front of and behind the camera have returned more earnestly committed than ever before. And perhaps that’s what ultimately makes this show work in its own strangely endearing tinfoil hat-wearing way. There are no winks to the audience, subtle or otherwise — though nothing The OA does is ever subtle. Instead what’s on screen is the product of a group’s wholehearted dedication not only to something that is utterly ridiculous most of the time, but also to the fact that the very thing to which they are so dedicated must be ridiculous in order to even work. As ambitious series go, there’s really nothing quite like The OA, and while your mileage will certainly vary, it’s hard not to appreciate the grand scale of what Marling and Batmanglij are attempting to do, even if it’s difficult at times to discern what, exactly, that’s supposed to be. 

Next: Catastrophe Series Finale Review: Saying Goodbye As Only This Show Can

The OA Part II begins streaming on Friday, March 22, 2019 only on Netflix.

2019-03-15 05:03:30

Kevin Yeoman

Now Apocalypse Review: A Charming, Wild, And Surreal Comedy

There’s more than a touch of apocalyptic portent in the new Starz comedy Now Apocalypse. It undercuts the series’ otherwise navel gazing narrative about a group of twenty-somethings in Los Angeles, trapped in a kind of perpetual state of pre-adulthood, as dreams of fame and success still dominate much of their lives, even though a painful, disheartening reality is more or less knocking on the door. But the series isn’t about squashing the dreams of young, attractive people for whom life is a seemingly endless parade of coffee shop writing sessions, midday froyo binges, and late-night dating app hookups; it’s really a coming-of-age story for a new generation — one where the coming age in question seems to be pushed back further and further. 

The series comes from writer-director Gregg Araki, who made his name with similarly wild, surreal, gonzo comedies about a lost generation in the ‘90s with the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” of films, Totally F*cked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere. He also adapted earned acclaim for his adaptation of Mysterious Skin, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt. Now Apocalypse is also co-written by sex columnist Karley Sciortino, who writes for Vogue and created and hosts Slutever on Viceland. The result is kind of a grab bag of a show, but one that is nevertheless refreshingly upbeat, surreal, and sex positive. 

Technically an ensemble comedy that stars Avan Jogia (Tut) as Ulysses, Kelli Burglund (Lab Rats) as his friend and cam girl/aspiring actor Carly, and Beau Mirchoff as Ford (Awkward, Flatliners), the affable rich boy hunk and would-be screenwriter who is also Ulysses’s best friend and crush. Outside the trio of friends is Severine (Roxane Mesquida, Gossip Girl), a scientist and Ford’s sort-of girlfriend in their newly open relationship. It’s a charmingly motley crew of characters, all of whom get mostly equal time to develop their own arcs. But it’s Ulysses who ultimately drives the larger narrative of the show and who introduces its more ominous thematic elements via a recurring premonitory nightmare that involves a giant lizard man engaged in what appears to be non-consensual sex with a homeless man played by frequent Araki collaborator James Duval. 

With that it’s clear the audience’s mileage on Now Apocalypse is going to vary, especially as, after the first episode, ‘This is the Beginning of the End,’ it’s not entirely clear what, exactly, this show aims to be about. That’s actually fine, for the most part. No small part of the appeal of Now Apocalypse is the idea of just languidly hanging out with these characters and watching them learn to navigate the ups and downs of life, just as its possibilities are beginning to take shape for them. With a name like Ulysses, it’s clear that the series isn’t exactly shy when it comes to making overt references to other works or making certain thematic connections as obvious as possible. While this might be a hacky no-no for a self-described “prestige drama,” Araki’s comedy has no such pretensions. It’s not so much that the show is unwilling to rise above such unsubtle allusions, as it just whole-heartedly enjoys making them. For example, scene near the end of the premiere has Ulysses on a long-postponed date with the elusive (re: flakey) Gabriel (Tyler Posey, Teen Wolf) results in a not-so secretive back alley tryst that ends in fireworks. 

Yet, through it all, Araki, who directs all 10 episodes of the first season, maintains a fascinating balance between all the various ingredients he’s thrown into this strange stew. Regardless of the situation — Ulysses’s date with Gabriel, Ford having his screenplay solicited by a random stranger in a coffee shop, Carly’s boredom during her cam sessions, or Severine’s job at a super secret lab (which seems to purposely look like the sort of thing you’d see in a soft-core porn) — there’s equal parts comedy and portent. This feeling continues to grow until the entirety of the series itself becomes like a waking dream, where every interaction or circumstance feels dubious to a certain degree. That can be a tricky proposition for some shows to handle, but Now Apocalypse isn’t just dabbling in the stuff, it seems born of it. 

Next: American Gods Season 2 Review: A Dizzying Premiere Is Almost Worth The Wait

Now Apocalypse continues next Sunday with ‘Where Is My Mind?’ @9pm on Starz.

2019-03-10 07:03:44

Kevin Yeoman

gen:LOCK Season 1 Finale Review: An Extended Battle Sequence Offers A Necessary Punch

The season 1 finale of gen:Lock, the Rooster Teeth anime featuring an impressive cast of voice talent that includes Michael B. Jordan, Maisie Williams, Asia Kate Dillon, Dakota Fanning, and David Tennant, essentially boils down to one massive, extended battle sequence. The decision to focus on spectacle is ultimately a smart move for the animated series, as the central storyline of gen:LOCK has been thin to from the start. And although there have been some surprising developments, like the discover that Jordan’s Julian Chase is also literally his own worst enemy, the show’s skill set lies almost entirely in providing cool visuals of giant robots defying the laws of physics and pummeling one another into the ground. 

The season has mostly been building to this point, with the Vanguard crew of gen:LOCK mech pilots discovering that no matter how powerful their robot avatars might be on their own, there’s no substitute for a team effort. It’s as fragile a conceit as the one the rest of the series is based on — a war between a mostly faceless authoritarian regime and the brave soldiers fighting what was a losing war against them — but the show makes the message work in its own plucky way. gen:LOCK also relies on some equally fragile concepts, like the team coming together to share a single mind in order to overcome the seemingly insurmountable force that is Nemesis (i.e., Julian Chase) and his nano-based super robot thingy. 

There have been not-so subtle hints of Ghost in the Shell and other popular series, like Gundam and Voltron, floating around the narrative for the past seven episodes, but, for what it’s worth, gen:LOCK has tried to make its mech-based, technologically advanced world into something all its own. By the end of ‘Identity Crisis,’ it’s not quite there, but there are signs that, if the series were to continue, the show might be able to develop its characters and its world into something that isn’t as two-dimensional as its animation. 

Much of that has to do with the way the season finale forces Julian to make a choice, one that fundamentally alters who he is as he gives up his only (tentative) physical link to what he believes is his humanity. By breaking the rules of the procedure that allows him and his teammates to embody the giant mechs, Julian ostensibly abandons his already broken body, a move that pushes him closer to becoming the very thing he’s fighting. There is, admittedly, something interesting in the idea, that he is willfully flirting with disaster and courting the same scenario that drove his other self mad and turned him into, well… the team’s nemesis. With less than a half an hour with which to work, it’s understandable that gen:LOCK tends to put an emphasis on action rather than the flimsy existential nature of Julian’s dilemma and, ultimately, his choice, but it’s also possible that the final battle could have been cut short to better explore the nature of the changes Julian was about to undergo. 

Despite some of the surface-level problems of the story, gen:LOCK nevertheless managed to take some bold steps in its first season. Those mainly had to do with the twist of who Nemesis really was, and the fact that David Tennant’s Dr. Rufus Weller didn’t survive the late-season attack that nearly crippled the Vanguard. Those sort of moves generate a certain amount of intrigue, and can give the series what seems like very high stakes — which is useful in a world where characters can survive certain death by a variety of means (as Julian proves). But it’s also a technique that is sure to experience diminishing returns if that’s all it relies on. (Just look at the difference between Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead for a good example of how a show needs to have more than just the idea that anyone can die at any time to be successful in the long run.)

gen:LOCK ends its first season by looking to the future, and by hinting at a greater emphasis on the individual characters of the main team, even as they will inevitably toy more with the idea of literally becoming one in order to overcome their greatest obstacles. If the series can strike the right balance between the two, it might also overcome its storytelling obstacles to become something far more compelling. 

Next: The Widow Review: A Slow-Burn Mystery Squanders A Great Kate Beckinsale

gen:LOCK season 1 is available in its entirety on Rooster Teeth.

2019-03-09 11:03:02

Kevin Yeoman

American Gods Season 2 Review: A Dizzying Premiere Is Almost Worth The Wait

It’s been nearly two years since the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was on TV, and in that time there’ve been some dramatic changes behind the scenes. Those changes are, first and foremost, due to the rumored-to-be tumultuous departure of season 1 co-showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and the hiring of Jesse Alexander as the show’s new head writer. The loss of Fuller and Green, not to mention Gillian Anderson in the role of the new god Media, is such that the lengthy delay between seasons 1 and 2 might actually work in the show’s favor, as, unless you were one of the subscribers who partook in the late 2018 season 1 marathon, chances are the differences between Fuller’s style — particularly his penchant for surrealist visuals and heavy dream logic — and that of Alexanders won’t be quite so jarring. If not, well, then the show will certainly feel a bit different when it picks back up with Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon, and the rest of the motley crew of Old Gods on their way to the House on the Rock in the season 2 premiere. 

Part of the appeal of American Gods season 1 wasn’t just the chance to see Gaiman’s novel come to life; it was also the way in which the series so often resorted to using a purely visual storytelling language in order to convey the otherworldly nature of the story it was in the process of telling. That meant extended sequences that defied logic and infused the series with an otherworldly sensibility that not only perfectly suited the idea of Odin (Ian McShane) traveling cross-country with his bodyguard — a newly widowed (but not really) ex-con named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) — but also occasionally elevated it to an experience unlike anything else on television. That way of thinking also led the series to get mired in its own visual excess from time to time, like the multi-episode arc that concerned Shadow playing a game of checkers with Peter Stormare’s hammer-wielding Czernobog, with literal life-and-death stakes. 

Alexander’s approach, then, is a little like an attempt to fine tune Fuller and Green’s vision for the series, to make it a little more palatable and grounded, while still remaining committed to the bit. The bit being, of course, that American Gods takes place in a strange, violent, sometimes beautiful, and phantasmagorical world where anything can and does happen. Despite Fuller and Green’s seemingly singular visual storytelling approach to season 1, the series proves malleable enough that, although their absence is immediately noticeable, it’s not long before the series settles into this new(ish) way of doing things and gets to the business at hand. 

That business is the pending war between Mr. Wednesday’s Old Gods and the New Gods in league with Crispin Glover’s Mr. World. The season 2 premiere, ‘House on the Rock,’ makes that abundantly clear with a cold open that sees Mr. World and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) licking their wounds in the aftermath of Odin baring his teeth so to speak in the season 1 finale. Despite Glover and Langley’s performances, the scene is stilted and awkward; it’s a rough example of the sort of necessary housecleaning serialized television shows sometimes have to undertake in order to set the table from one season to the next. To Alexander’s credit, he does try to get through the opening as quickly as possible, literally having Mr. World spell out the circumstances of the plot to his vaping underling, and pointing out how important (New) Media is to his plan. 

The effect of this opening is that American Gods tends to feel more grounded, and as a result, less dreamlike and more ordinary or run of the mill. There are hints that the show’s illusory nature is still present, as Mr. Wednesday and his fellow Old Gods — which now includes Sakina Jaffrey (Timeless) as Mama-Ji — explore the actual House on the Rock and turn an enormous carousel into a gateway into Wednesday’s mind. Here, the show makes use of what seems to be more conventional visuals, as the Old Gods’ true forms are revealed to Shadow and the audience, giving them an admittedly impressive VFX sheen that makes them seem a little more magical than before, albeit in a way that’s almost purely surface-level. 

While season 2 of American Gods seems intent on giving the audience a Godly war that’s showy in a way that’s is perhaps more accessible or less prone to certain flights of visual fancy, the show’s real ace in the hole is the fraught domestic drama between Shadow and his “dead” wife Laura (Emily Browning). While Shadow remains a cipher for the most part, a mostly nothing character who is carried along by the whims of others, Laura is quickly turning into one of the most compelling aspects of the entire series. Her drive — to protect and possibly reconcile with her husband — couples well with the supernatural circumstances that find her a super-powerful rotting corpse with little regard for Wednesday’s war or his supposed authority. As much as Shadow is meant to represent the audience, to be the one saying how strange and unbelievable this all is, Laura’s dogged devotion and irreverent attitude toward all gods (Old and New) makes her the series’ unlikely MVP. 

Browning is at her best when opposite Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney, as the two make for an entertaining odd couple — always at odds with one another, but with a grudging respect for the other — as they’re both marginalized members of Wednesday’s core group. That might spell trouble for Laura and Shadow’s interactions in the long run, but for the time being American Gods has found a successful formula in the pairing. The same is true of Jones’s Mr. Nancy being given a larger role in the first two episodes, seeing him paired with McShane, mostly to comedic effect. 

‘House on the Rock’ is largely a housecleaning episode of the series, one that’s tasked with getting the show acclimated to the potentially disastrous behind-the-scenes changes that happened between seasons, while also working to maintain some semblance of forward momentum in the story. The end result is a mixed bag overall, something that’s almost worth the extraordinarily long wait for American Gods season 2.

Next: gen:LOCK Season 1 Finale Review: An Extended Battle Sequence Offers A Necessary Punch

American Gods continues next Sunday with ‘The Beguiling Man’ @8pm on Starz.

2019-03-09 05:03:22

Kevin Yeoman

Informer Review: Amazon’s UK Series Offers A Smart, Captivating Crime Thriller

Complexity in crime dramas too often devolves into dreary complication, making for a narrative where the sheer amount of stuff happening is meant to make up for the two-dimensional characters at its core. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Amazon’s UK import Informer, a crime thriller that, despite not being a six-episode adaptation of the hit ‘90s song of the same name from Canadian rapper Snow, delivers a smart, captivating series that’s worthy of a binge-watch. 

The series is the latest in a string of solid UK crime dramas making their way to the US via one streaming service or another. Informer is in the same category as the Agatha Christie adaptations on Prime Video, the upcoming The ABC Murders and last year’s Ordeal By Innocence, as well as Netflix’s Bodyguard and Collateral. And while this drama is mostly akin to the likes of Collateral, particularly its politically-tinged procedural narrative, it also bears some thematic resemblance to HBO’s Emmy-winning miniseries The Night Of, in terms of its depiction of how institutions like the law can so easily take advantage of people who find themselves on the margins of society because of the color of their skin. 

More: Exclusive Berlin Station Clip: Retired Spies Want To Infiltrate The Russian Elite

The series follows Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan), a British-Pakistani man who winds up in legal trouble after being picked up for drug possession when he brings a young woman suffering an overdose to the emergency room. Writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani don’t attempt to moralize Raza’s dalliance with party drugs, and nor do they attempt to obfuscate the reasons why good deeds don’t go unpunished. The premiere episode, ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ avoids holding the audience’s hand, allowing viewers to figure out for themselves whether or not a cop would have frisked Raza in the hospital had he been white.

Nabhaan Rizwan and Roger Jean Nsengiyumva in Informer Amazon

What follows is a morally complex story about the lengths those charged with keeping their country safe from terrorism will go to get the job done, and how often those efforts conflict with a person’s civil rights. As such, Informer takes an interesting approach to its story, dealing with several narrative threads at once as Raza is recruited (i.e., coerced) to become an informant by Gabe Waters (Paddy Considine), a former undercover cop who is now working for the Counter Terrorism Unit in London, and Holly Morten (Bel Powley), an ambitious newcomer to the squad who soon discovers aspects of her partner’s dark past may not be wholly forgotten. 

The series is deliberate without being slow, taking its time to weave its entertaining procedural elements in with some worthwhile and fascinating explorations of its main characters inner lives. Throw in a flash forward that involves Gabe’s wife, Emily (Jessica Raine), as a potential victim of a mass shooting (that’s largely hinted to be connected to Gabe’s endeavors with one or more of his confidential informants) and you’ve got an engrossing thriller that doesn’t play down to its genre trappings. 

It’s hard to say who’s the star of the show, as Informer is well-acted from top to bottom, with each character wholly owning the scenes they’re in. Rizwan is striking in his debut, playing Raza with a welcome sense of ease, even as character begins to feel the walls closing in around him. Powley portrays Holly with an interesting sort of detachment, which is a little confounding at first, but helps make for a memorable dinner with Gabe and Emily. 

Paddy Considine and Bel Powley in Informer Amazon

Considine unsurprisingly plays well against whomever his scene partner is, but particularly when he’s offering a brusque but knowing bit of advice to Holly. At times he seems like a time bomb waiting to go off, and others he’s strangely empathetic, especially to his CI’s, whom he informs Holly are never “you’re friend,” only to later tell her their role necessitates them becoming their informant’s only friend. Those kinds of exchanges add to the show’s rich and layered world, one that also includes a terrific performance from Roger Jean Nsengiyumva as Dadir Hassan, the drug-dealing brother of one of Gabe’s informants who turns up murdered because he might have information on a potential terrorist plot in London. Raza strikes up a friendship with Dadir while spending the night in jail, and it’s that relationship that engenders him to the audience, while also endangering him as soon as he becomes an asset for Gabe. 

What Informer does well is to know when to go all-in on its central plot and when to put it on the back burner. Hour-long episodes move back and forth between traditional cop stuff — following CCTV cameras, interrogating suspects, and the occasional bit of undercover work — but it also finds time to just sit back and watch as Gabe and Emily’s marriage threatens to fall apart, largely because neither can let go of the past, no matter how badly they want to put it behind them. That Gabe may be hiding a dark secret — his chest and back are still emblazoned with fascist tattoos from his time undercover — would normally be a sign the show has bitten off more than it can chew, but Informer demonstrates a commitment to both plot and character so early on that this potentially serious wrinkle in who the audience thinks Gabe is becomes an absorbing point of interest. 

At just six hours long, Informer can be a slightly long binge-watch or something you’ll want to dole out over a few days. It will likely work better as the latter, as each episode is fairly dense and has no problem approaching 60-minute mark. But even at that length, the episodes never feel overlong or tedious. Instead, the series just continues to ratchet up the tension on both sides of the law, to make for a truly smart, captivating thriller. 

Next: You’re The Worst Review: Ready To Win Back Some Love In Its Final Season

Informer streams on Amazon Prime Video starting Friday, January 11, 2019.

Source link
2019-01-10 07:01:11