Nelson "Nelly" Rowe (Lennie James) is a popular self-styled womaniser living on a Deptford council estate in London, whose life is turned upside down when he is arrested on suspicion of kidnapping his thirteen-year-old daughter Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), whom he hasn't seen in ten years. After convincing the police of his innocence, and frustrated with the way the case is progressing, Nelly decides to take matters into his own hands and try to track down Jody himself.
Picking up eighteen months after the end of the first season, the second season, dubbed Save Me Too, also starts with slow early episodes which almost imperceptibly ramp up the tension, and once again, the last two episodes are exceptional. With this season's directorial duties split evenly between Jim Loach (son of Ken) and Coky Giedroyc, the show's aesthetic becomes slightly more adventurous (the second episode, for example, is primarily a flashback, whilst other episodes place us more directly in Nelly's head, with a more noticeable sense of subjectivity), but not to the point of distracting from what remains the core of the story – realistic characterisation.
Just as with the first season, the second is far more interested in characters than plot, and once again, James and Stephen Graham are exceptional. James goes all-in on Nelly's bull-in-a-china-shop mentality, making the character, if anything, less attractive than he was in the first season. He's still got the twinkle in the eye, but the events of the last year and a half have definitely had an impact on him. Never the most tactful character, his tendency to shout first and ask questions the next day after he's calmed down is even more apparent than before. And although characters such as Clair and Barry drop into the background a little, others come to the fore and help to expand the milieu; there's Tam (Jason Flemyng), Nelly's kind-hearted cross-dressing friend; Bernie (Alice May Feetham), Melon's conflicted wife; Stace (Susan Lynch, who may or may not be in love with Nelly; Zita (Camilla Beeput, Nelly's girlfriend; and, especially, Grace (an exceptional and emotionally devastating performance from Olive Gray), who was once held by the same people who took Jody.
Exceptional in every way; thematically rich, aesthetically breathtaking, and emotionally devastating.
Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1986) is well-known for its deconstruction of the superhero genre, dismantling and interrogating virtually every generic trope so as to question the very purpose of such stories. At the same time, its depiction of Cold War paranoia and condemnation of right-wing idolatry are front and centre without ever seeming forced. Created by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of Lost and The Leftovers), the most significant thing about this adaptation is that it isn't an adaptation; it's an original story set 33 years after the events of the comic. And is it any good? It's not as good as The Leftovers (what is?), but it is an exceptional piece of work. The acting is immense, the writing is challenging, the aesthetic is stunning. All in all, Watchmen is that rarest of beasts – a show which lives up to the hype.
Familiarity with the plot of the original isn't a requirement so as to appreciate the sequel, as you're given all the world-building back-info you need, but it can certainly help you get the most out of Lindelof's intricate narrative and thematic tapestry, especially in the earlier episodes. The world of Watchmen is a slightly different version of our world, in which the 1930s saw the rise of "costumed adventurers"; ordinary people who took to the streets to fight crime. The show is set in Tulsa, OK in 2018. White supremacist groups have been on the rise, and police are now allowed to wear masks and remain anonymous. In essence, the story follows the fallout from a murder, which is soon discovered to be much more complex than originally thought.
Lindelof has stated that he wanted to tackle whatever socio-political issue that was to 2019 as the Cold War was to 1985, and to him, it "felt like it was undeniably race and policing". Politically then, the show does much the same thing as the comic did – it deploys a real-world socio-political problem in a not quite 1:1 fictional milieu. In Reagan's America, it was apocalyptic Cold War paranoia, whereas in Trump's Divided States, it's the rise of right-wing extremism.
The theme of white and black comes up time and again throughout the series. For example, in "An Almost Religious Awe", a member of the KKK offshoot, Seventh Kavalry, asserts that "white men in masks are heroes. Black men in masks are scary," whilst in "See How They Fly", another member of the group proclaims, "it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now". In the same episode, speaking of the President, who has introduced a system of reparations, it's stated, "first he took our guns. And then he made us say sorry. Over and over again. Sorry. Sorry for the alleged sins of those who died decades before we were born. Sorry for the colour of our skin."
Another major theme is how racial tensions are manifested in law enforcement. As the show begins, we're watching Trust in the Law, a 1921 Oscar Micheaux film about Deputy Bass Reeves, aka The Black Marshal (Bass Reeves was a real marshal and Micheaux was a real director, although Trust in the Law is not a real film). Here, the bad guy wears white (and is white) and the good guy wears black (and is black), thus inverting assumptions. The first scene set in 2018 does something similar as a menacing black cop pulls over a nervous white driver. These two scenes form a beautiful bit of visual story-telling, establishing the centrality of racial tensions, conveying that such things are often more complex than they appear.
The show's aesthetic, especially, the cinematography and editing, is also worthy of praise. "This Extraordinary Being", for example, is shot primarily in black and white, and takes place in the 30s and 40s, with the cinematography employing the odd bit of colour here and there within the black and white photography to focus our attention on particular objects. As for "A God Walks Into Abar", if you're interested in learning about editing, watch this episode. Cut by Henk Van Eeghan, it essentially tries to give a visual representation of how Doctor Manhattan experiences time – with every moment in his existence happening all at once, so he can 'remember' things that haven't happened yet. It's a spellbinding exercise in stylistic control, with flawless time jumps that fold organically into one another to form a single cohesive template.
Watchmen is an exceptionally good show. There will be fans of the comic who'll dislike it on principle. There will also be those who accuse it of pandering to a liberal PC agenda, and there'll be those who simply don't like the idea of a Watchman TV show with a black woman at its centre. Make no mistake, however, this show has been put together by people who know, appreciate, love, and understand the comic. Thematically complex, aesthetically breathtaking, brilliantly acted, Watchmen is an exceptional piece of television.
The funniest season yet, and the best since Asylum
A pitch-perfect homage to summer-camp slasher movies, AHS/1984 is, for me, the best season of American Horror Story since Asylum. However, it's divisive, and AHS purists probably won't be overly impressed that it's a dark and camp comedy before it's a thriller or a horror. However, it's consistently hilarious, it doesn't take itself seriously, and it elicits quite a bit of empathy for several of the characters. And the soundtrack, wardrobe, and hairstyles have more '80s cheese than you could ever imagine.
LA, 1984. Montana (Billie Lourd), Xavier (Cody Fern), Chet (Gus Kenworthy), and Ray (DeRon Horton) are heading to work as counsellors at newly reopened Camp Redwood. When Brooke (Emma Roberts) is attacked by Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker (Zack Villa), she decides to join the others. At Redwood, they meet Margaret (Leslie Grossman), who survived a massacre there in 1970 and who now owns the camp; Rita (Angelica Ross), the nurse; Bertie (Tara Karsian), the chef; and Trevor (Matthew Morrison), the activities director. Meanwhile, Benjamin Richter, aka Mr Jingles (John Carroll Lynch), former groundskeeper at Redwood and perpetrator of the 1970 massacre, escapes from a nearby mental facility with murder on his mind.
Not quite a post-modernist reimagining of the slasher genre, the season could stand as a respectable slasher in its own right, and in this sense, the tone is pitch-perfect. Take the opening credits. Whereas previous sequences have been unnerving, the opening to 1984 is a thing of tacky '80s beauty – shot on VHS in 1.33:1 (complete with tracking lines), the credits are made up of shots of aerobics, tape decks, gaudy fashion, dodgy '80s video graphics, VCRs, Ronald Reagan, and roller skates. Meanwhile, the unsettling AHS theme music is here reproduced on a synth. It's horrible, cheesy, about as unthreatening as you can imagine, and awesome.
The show hits classic genre markers such the campfire scene used to provide exposition, the chase scene where the girl being pursued keeps tripping, the characters continually splitting up for various (dubious) reasons, and the plethora of pseudo-POV shots from behind trees. Having said all that, however, there are certainly elements of postmodern deconstruction; the girl with the huge breasts becomes the guy with the huge penis, the black characters survive beyond the opening act, the quintessential shower scene upon which someone is spying involves not women but men, and there's a pseudo-meta defamiliarisation of the notion that serial killers in slasher films are notoriously difficult to kill.
A vital element of any season of AHS is humour, and 1984 is no different. Usually, the best laughs come from the earnestness of the characters, who are blissfully unaware of how ridiculous they sound. So, when Brooke meets Xavier, he tells her, dead-pan, "I trained with Stella Adler. I'm method". Later on, he discusses the dangers of being in a coma by referencing the song, "Coma Chameleon". After one of the characters is badly burned, an argument breaks out and when someone tells this character to breathe, they proclaim, "I have breathed the fire of a thousand white-hot suns". Discussing Billy Idol, a character points out, "You can't sing "Rebel Yell" and not be a rebel".
Thematically, the most obvious issue is media commodification of serial killers. Whether it be by making a movie or putting their face on a magazine, serial killers and mass murderers sell, and there's something inherently wrong about that. As with previous AHS seasons, we also look at gender issues. Here we see a critique of the notion that female victims of male serial killers are celebrated as "feminist heroes", and there's a nicely written reformulation of the serial killer trope whereby women are often not believed as they fight male monsters.
In terms of problems, on the one hand, there is too much time spent on explaining things the audience already knows. On the other, there is a disorienting and not entirely successful time jump between the penultimate and last episode, and it feels almost like there was an episode skipped between the two, especially as the finale ill-advisedly introduces a new character. Some viewers will also undoubtedly find the humour too camp and too frequent, whilst some will find the references nothing more than pastiche, intertextuality for its own sake.
All in all, I enjoyed this season of American Horror Story. It's not the most thrilling or unnerving, but it is the funniest. Strong characters, tremendous acting, and some genuinely heartfelt moments combine with great costumes, foolish hair, and a great soundtrack to produce a season that might mean little to those born post-1989, but to the rest of us is an ode to the achingly familiar.
An engaging if not especially convincing series
Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice focuses on the Smiley Face Murder Theory as developed by retired NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon, Anthony Duarte, and Mike Donovan, and criminal justice professor Dr. Lee Gilbertson. In essence, they believe that over 40 men found dead in bodies of water across the American Midwest from the late 1990s to the present did not accidentally drown, as ruled by law enforcement, but were the victims of a group of serial killers operating in cells and co-ordinating their activities via the dark web. In every case, the victim is a Caucasian male in his early 20s. A common element across 22 of the cases is graffiti depicting a smiley face near locations where the bodies may have been dumped into the water. Hunt for Justice examines six such cases, and although it does a very good job of arguing that these deaths were homicides, it's weak when it comes to connecting them all to the same killer(s).
The show is at its strongest when examining why these six cases were not accidental, turning up all kinds of evidence. So, for example, Dakota James (23) shows little to no decomposition despite supposedly being in the water for 40 days. Luke Homan (21) supposedly got into an altercation the night he disappeared. Police checked the other man's van and a cadaver dog gave a positive ID for blood, but police let the van go, and never followed up. Will Hurley (24) showed evidence of blunt impact to the head and lower extremities. Brian Welzien (21) was also shown to have very little alcohol in his system, but was seen on security footage throwing up multiple times. Tommy Booth (24) was found in a creek behind the bar from which he disappeared despite it being searched just 24 hours prior. Todd Geib (22) was found upright in the water and several days after his funeral, a smiley face sticker was placed on his headstone.
It's all very well presented, both fascinating and intriguing, and for the most part, pretty convincing. But if that's where the show is at its strongest, however, it's at its weakest when attempting to prove that a group of serial killers are behind these six deaths. It fails to address the three biggest problems with the theory – 1) smiley face graffiti is some of the most common, and can be found almost anywhere where there's significant graffiti, 2) none of the smiley faces look anything like any of the others; they're painted in different styles, different sizes, using different paints and different colours, and 3) the lack of specificity in terms of the smiley faces being found "near" where the body may have entered the water is compounded by the fact that the identification of these locations in the first place is based on nothing other than speculation.
All things considered, although Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice makes a very strong case that these six men were murdered, that they were all murdered by the same killers is a theory for which it provides zero evidence. It's provocative, and as a call to reopen cases that should never have been closed, it's compelling. But as evidence of a group of serial killers, it lacks anything substantial.
A lot of confirmation bias on both sides and a lot of info left out, but the central thesis is convincing
On July 13, 2011, Coronado PD received a phone call from a man named Adam Shacknai, who had found the body of a woman hanging from a balcony. She was identified as 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, girlfriend of millionaire pharmaceutical tycoon (and Adam's brother) Jonah Shacknai. As well as the rope around her neck, her hands were bound behind her back. Her feet were tied. Her mouth was gagged. A nonsensical suicide note was scrawled on a door in handwriting that didn't resemble hers. The nine-foot drop from the balcony should have caused extensive damage, yet her wounds were more consistent with manual chocking. A knife lay on the floor of her bedroom, the handle of which was encased with her menstrual blood. And she was naked.
Police ruled her death a suicide.
Death at the Mansion: Rebecca Zahau follows the efforts of former LA prosecutor Loni Coombs, investigative journalist Billy Jensen, and forensic criminologist Paul Holes as they try to uncover enough evidence to convince the San Diego Sheriff's Department to declare Zahau's death "undetermined" and re-open the case. It's compelling stuff, but as a TV show, much of the four hours feel padded. This is especially frustrating when one considers just how much information is left out; information one can learn by watching Rebecca Zahau: An ID Murder Mystery (2019), or by listening to Dr. Phil McGraw's five-episode podcast, "Mansion of Secrets: The Mysterious Death of Rebecca Zahau" (2019). The trio at the centre of Death at the Mansion talk about the confirmation bias of the police, apparently unaware that their own bias is clear to see.
One of the main problems with the show is that everyone who is interviewed (with the exception of a lone police officer) believes that Zahau was murdered. Fair enough, the show is about trying to uncover enough evidence to convince the police that there was foul play, but nevertheless, there's no balance; it's so one-sided as to be distracting. The central trio believe that confirmation bias played a role in the investigation, and they may be correct, but their own bias is just as big a problem.
Another problem is what the show leaves out. A big example is Max's fall. According to Zahau, she performed CPR on Max, but when doctors examined him, they found no evidence of CPR. Additionally, Zahau said that when she reached him, Max asked for the family dog, but according to Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist hired by Max's mother Nina, Max's injuries would have made it impossible for him to say anything. Melinek also found that the thickness of the carpet on the second floor would have made it impossible for Max to have gotten up enough speed to go over the baluster.
Death at the Mansion: Rebecca Zahau is a flawed documentary about a suicide that was almost certainly a murder. Although many of its central points are convincing, it does itself no favours by limiting its interviewees to people who already support its conclusions, nor does it address the very real confirmation bias of the hosts. As an introduction to the case, it's decent, and its main theories are convincing, but I wouldn't recommend it as a final word, and would suggest you check out some other resources.
A powerful examination of mental illness, murder, a broken judicial system, a sensationalist media, and the rotten, apathetic core of white picket fence America
In Clemmons, North Carolina, Pazuzu Illah Algarad (born John Alexander Lawson) is a mentally-ill young man who worships Satan, sacrifices animals, and claims he can control the weather. And he murdered at least three people.
Although The Devil You Know, directed for Vice by Patricia Gillespie, is an excellent overview of the Pazuzu Algarad case, its real focus is the efforts of local journalist Chad Nance to get beyond the sensationalist media headlines of cannibalism and witchcraft, and get to the issues which gave rise to someone like Pazuzu. Through Nance, the show branches off to examine issues such as addiction, law enforcement, societal apathy, and directionless youth.
For Nance, Pazuzu's story isn't about Satanism or animal sacrifices – it's about a broken mental healthcare system that allowed an ill young man to fall through the cracks, it's about an indifferent law enforcement agency that allowed him to act without repercussions for years, it's about the tragedy of one of his victims, Josh Wetzler, and the concomitant pain of Wetzler's wife, Stacey Carter. In this sense, the first episode, "There's a Satanist in the Suburbs", goes into Wetzler's background to a far greater degree than Pazuzu's, which is unexpected – how many documentaries dealing with murder spend more time telling us about a victim than about the killer?
A major theme is addiction, with the show being remarkably open about the heroin usage of Nate and his girlfriend Jenna (two of Pazuzu's followers), showing them openly shooting up on-camera. Indeed, directionless youth, in general, is an important theme, as it was this kind of societal alienation that brought so many impressionable young people into Pazuzu's circle. This theme is also touched on in relation to Matt Flowers, an Iraqi War vet and John Lawson's friend before he became Pazuzu, and who was pivotal in Pazuzu's arrest in 2014. What's really extraordinary about how the show presents this part of the story is how guilt-ridden Flowers is at turning Pazuzu in. That he turned on his best friend haunts him deeply, and the heartbreaking self-destructive behaviour with which we see him engage in the fourth episode, "Another Dead Boy", is difficult to watch.
It's in the fourth and fifth episode that the show really steps outside the mould of multi-episode crime documentaries and becomes something else – an examination of despair, an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of suburbia. And it's within this general theme where we find the darkest and most heartbreaking moment. During the fourth episode, Nance reveals that his son has started to mess around with drugs, and there's a scene where he describes working late one night when he looked up and saw his son in the doorway – sweating, pale, shaking, his eyes bloodshot. Nance describes, or tries to describe, the emotion of seeing this person who is his son, but who isn't his son. It's his son's body, but it's not his son's soul. It's deeply upsetting and thought-provoking, and it's not somewhere I was expecting to end up with a documentary about a murderer. So hats off to the filmmakers for having the courage to go that far and yet never for one second have it feel manipulative or irrelevant.
A difficult-to-watch examination of grooming and the psychological scars of abuse
Leaving Neverland is not about Michael Jackson, Wade Robson, or James Safechuck. It's about how paedophiles groom not just their victims, but their victims' families. It's about the relationship that victims can form with their abusers. It's about the reasons that can conspire to prevent victims from coming forward. It's about how the effects of childhood sexual abuse linger into adulthood. Undoubtedly, it's unbalanced in favour of the accusers, with director Dan Reed omitting anything on their ongoing lawsuits against the Jackson estate. Irrespective of this, however, it's a hugely important document on grooming and the psychological effects of abuse.
The film tells the similar but separate stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, each of whom met Jackson in 1987, when Wade was five and James was ten, and both of whom claim Jackson abused them for much of the following decade. Despite the 240-minute runtime, the only interviewees are Wade, his mother Joy, sister Chantal, brother Shane, grandmother Lorraine Jean Cullen, and wife Amanda, and James, mother Stephanie, and wife Laura.
Aesthetically, the film is as plain as possible. Whereas Wade and James's accounts are graphic, they're never sensationalised, with Reed allowing their words to speak for themselves – there's no cutaways to experts telling us what to think, no montages to suture us into the timeframe. Indeed, at times, Reed waits patiently as an interviewee formulates their thoughts – a kind of "dead air" that one doesn't find in most documentaries.
This tendency to leave the stories unadorned ties into the small pool of interviewees – this is Wade and James's story, and anyone which can't speak to that specific rubric isn't featured. For example, there's no attempt to portray Jackson as less culpable because he didn't have a childhood. In fact, it makes no attempt to portray him at all. Again, this is Wade and James's story only.
Within that, it's as much about the complex relationships that victims can develop with their abusers as it is with the abuse itself. This speaks to why both Wade and James lied for so long (each man defended Jackson when he was accused of molestation in 1993, and Wade again defended him against similar accusations in 2005) – they weren't just lying to other people, they were lying to themselves. And ultimately, the film suggests that rather than being indicative of fabrication, such falsehoods are an understandable reaction to sustained abuse.
A major theme is the manipulative nature inherent to grooming. As much as it is about the manipulation of the boys, so too is it about the non-sexual manipulation of the families - Joy and Stephanie were both talked into granting permission for a man they didn't really know to take their child into his bed, and the two are working today as much to forgive themselves as they are to atone to their children.
Of course, there are problems. The imbalance for example. I understand why Reed confined his interviews to just Wade, James, and their families, but by doing so, he has opened himself and the film up to a not illegitimate form of attack. And because this makes the film easier to critique, it makes it easier to dismiss, and thus easier to ignore, which is pretty much the opposite of what you want to happen as a documentarian.
Another problem is that it doesn't need to be four-hours long. There are several lengthy narrative digressions that, although they help to flesh out the home lives of Wade and James, do very little to inform the allegations against Jackson. Reed also tends to overuse drone shots of LA, which act like paragraph breaks. It's an interesting idea, but there are far too many, becoming repetitive and, eventually, irritating. And then, of course, there are the omissions, which have proven to be a red flag to a bull for Jackson fans. For example, that Wade is suing the Jackson estate is mentioned once, very briefly, and never alluded to again. That James is also suing the estate is never mentioned.
In the end, the lack of balance is a significant problem, but not to the extent that it undermines the way Reed presents the accusations, the way he teases out the process of grooming, the way he unflinchingly presents the abuse itself, the way he comes to focus on the years after the abuse ended – the film's cumulative effect is startlingly raw and generally persuasive. It looks at the process by which Jackson manoeuvred himself into a position to abuse the boys as much as at the abuse itself and at the psychological effects of telling the lie for so long as much as at the lie itself. In this sense, this is a hugely valuable document, not necessarily in terms of the specifics of Wade and James's stories, but in relation to the broader issues of child sexual abuse, and the misconceptions that permeate the zeitgeist.
Complex, intelligent, and sobering; superb television
Based on Lawrence Wright's 2006 book, The Looming Tower tells the story of how the 9/11 attacks were made possible by the internecine squabbling between the CIA and FBI. However, whereas the majority of the book deals with al-Qaeda, the series focuses almost exclusively on the American perspective. Certainly, there are depictions of some of the terrorists; but this is an American story. And although the binary of CIA=bad/FBI=good is too neat, this is sobering TV, at its best as it depicts how easily these events could have been prevented.
Although framed by the 9/11 Commission in 2004, the story begins in 1998, with both the CIA and FBI each having a dedicated "bin Laden unit". The CIA's Alec Station is run by Martin Schmidt (a pretentious and reptilian Peter Sarsgaard playing a thinly-fictionalised Michael Scheuer), whilst the FBI's I-49 is run by John O'Neill (a boisterous and foul-mouthed Jeff Daniels). Each unit is required to share intelligence with the other, but, in reality, they don't share much of anything except insults, whilst in between the two is Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg), National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism. As the show begins, bin Laden (referred to primarily as UBL) is interviewed for ABC News, promising a grand statement unless the US pull out of the Middle East. The majority of Americans, however, are more interested in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Developed for TV by Wright, Dan Futterman, and Alex Gibney, an element to which the show returns time and again is the underestimation of UBL. This is initially touched on in "Now It Begins...", with Ali Soufan (Tahar Ramin), a young Lebanese-born FBI agent, telling O'Neill, "he used the interview to appear strong by threatening the United States as he looked an American directly in the eye." In "Mercury", Soufan explains, "killing Bin Laden is only going to secure his legend and inspire more martyrs." Later in this episode, O'Neill tells Schmidt, "this isn't a war about one man. Bin Laden is an ideologue, not some plutocrat running a banana republic. His people actually believe. It's bin Laden-ism we're up against, not just bin Laden."
This underestimation is even more pronounced under the Bush presidency, leading to some of the show's best scenes. For example, in "A Very in Relationship", newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Eisa Davis) interrupts Clarke as he's giving a presentation on al-Qaeda, telling him he's being too long-winded. A later scene in the same episode has O'Neill stunned when Rice doesn't know who he is. An extraordinarily well-written scene, it's the only time we see O'Neill lost for words.
Another major theme is faith, especially the lapsed faith of O'Neill and Soufan. O'Neill was raised a catholic, but no longer practices, which troubles Liz (Annie Parisse), one of his two mistresses, who believes him (incorrectly) to be divorced. Soufan no longer practises Islam, but the faith-based nature of al-Qaeda troubles him ("when people use my religion to justify this s**t, it affects me"). Indeed, one of the most welcome elements of the show is the depiction of Muslims in general, challenging the notion that all Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists. Important here is Hoda al-Hada (July Namir), wife of one of the hijackers. She doesn't subscribe in any way to her husband's belief in UBL and is more concerned with her children knowing their father than the otherworldly blessings of Allah.
When it comes to the acting, Bill Camp (playing Robert Chesney, one of O'Neill's most reliable agents) and Michael Stuhlbarg are the standouts. Camp is given an amazing eight-minute scene in "Mistakes Were Made" where he is quiet and calm, fondly remembering his military service, before exploding at the right moment. Stuhlbarg plays Clarke as perennially frustrated, and although he never lets Clarke's quiet politeness slip, on several occasions, he hovers tantalisingly close, in what is an exceptionally subtle and nuanced performance.
In terms of problems, there's nothing on al-Qaeda's background, hugely important context that was one of Wright's main themes. The various romantic subplots feel rote, generic, and emotionally inauthentic; elements forced into the story so as to counter the testosterone-soaked main narrative. Another issue is the rigid binary distinction between the FBI and CIA (and between O'Neill and Schmidt), which never feels completely authentic.
Nevertheless, The Looming Tower is taut and complex. The story is streamlined, but it hasn't been drained of moral complexity, serving as a reminder of something with great importance today – with UBL literally telling the US he was going to attack, everyone was more focused on a semen-stained dress. And living, as we do, in an era where the American media is routinely distracted by irrelevancies, it seems the lessons of history have not been heeded.
Thematically interesting and brilliantly acted, but painfully slow and far too long
Although Sharp Objects has been advertised as a murder-mystery, it's really interested not in who's behind a pair of murders in a Missouri town, but in how those murders affect a trio of women caught up in the investigation. Feminine in design rather than feminist, the show is a portrait of tainted motherhood and corrupted sisterhood, and focuses on internecine inter-generational conflict, matrilineal dysfunction, and the difficulty of escaping past trauma. But whilst the acting is exceptional, and the show is well edited, it left me unengaged, uninterested, and bored.
Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) is a barely-functioning alcoholic who works as a reporter in St. Louis, and who is sent to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the murder of two young girls. Her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), looks down on her with barely-concealed disappointment, and Camille is especially haunted by the memory of her younger sister Marian, who died when they were children. In the years since, Adora re-married and had another child, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), who fascinates Camille with her dual personality – dutiful daughter who plays with a doll's house, and roller-blading lollypop sucking teenage temptress.
Based on the 2006 Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects was written primarily by showrunner Marti Noxon and Flynn herself, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who was also lead editor. This is important insofar as the editing is the show's calling card, attempting to draw us into Camille's psyche via fleeting snippets of childhood memories. So, for example, adult Camille lies in bed and stares at a crack on the ceiling and when we cut back to the bed, she's a child looking at that same crack; adult Camille is shown opening a door, and child Camille enters a room. This inculcates us into Camille's mind, also hinting at her trauma, without ever being too revealing. Vallée overuses the technique, neutering it of its potency, but that notwithstanding, it's a good example of "show, don't tell", and of content generating form and form giving rise to content; the memories are tied to Camille's fragmented psychology, with the brief cuts acting like splinters in her mind.
Thematically, the show focuses on female experience, specifically motherhood/daughterhood. Adora is a woefully bad mother who made little secret of the fact that she preferred Marian to Camille, telling her, "you can't get close. That's your father. And it's why I think I never loved you. You were born to it, that cold nature". Later she admits that what she wanted from Camille was the one thing Camille couldn't give – she wanted Camille to need her. The show also deals with how women respond to familial trauma, arguing that the pain experienced by abused women is just as valid as that experienced by abused men, the manifestations of trauma just as catastrophic, and the anger engendered just as self-destructive. We're used to seeing stories focused on damaged, hard-drinking male characters with dark backgrounds, but Sharp Objects is about the female equivalent. Indeed, in Wind Gap women are locked into the virgin/slut binary; it's a place where a woman's worth correlates with her femininity, her maternal instincts, and her acceptance of her place in androcentric societal structures.
However, I just couldn't get into it. The biggest problem is the pace. I understand it's a character drama, not a plot-heavy murder-mystery, but as episode after episode ended flatly, I just stopped caring. Almost nothing happens. And that's not hyperbole, I mean it literally. Tied to this is that the show is far, far too long. The novel is 254 pages, but the show runs 385 minutes, with the characters not interesting enough to take up the slack. Elsewhere, the flashback editing is used so often that it loses its potency and starts to feel like Vallée is using it arbitrarily rather than in the service of character. Additionally, the show abounds in clichés – the alcoholic hard-as-nails journalist, the incompetent local police, the out of town detective to whom nobody listens, the gossiping women. Vallée also has a tendency to overuse certain images, thus robbing them of their effectiveness – Amma and her friends roller-blading around town, Amma playing silently with her dollhouse, shots of Camille filling a water bottle with vodka.
There's a lot to admire in Sharp Objects, but precious little to like. Not exactly a work of post-#MeToo fempowerment, it certainly has a female-centric perspective, and its examination of issues usually associated with men is interesting. The performances are top-notch and the editing is decent if overused, but the show did little for me. I understand it's designed holistically rather than cumulatively, and I have no problem with that. But the pace is enervating and the characters just aren't interesting enough to fill the runtime.
More of a conventional documentary than advertised, but it provides a good overview
In many ways, Ted Bundy is the archetypal serial killer, embodying many of the characteristics we associate with such criminals. Most significantly he was the first celebrity serial killer, and remains the best-known example (Charles Manson wasn't a serial killer). He also embodies media and cultural fixation with killers, almost always at the expense of their victims. And although Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes certainly has merit, and is well-made, it's also guilty of focusing on the killer whilst giving little time over to the victims. Written and directed by Joe Berlinger, one gets the distinct impression that Bundy himself would have been immensely happy with it.
Conversations is derived from over 100 hours of audio recordings of Bundy being interviewed by Stephen G. Michaud, the transcripts of which have been available online for years, but which have never actually been heard before. One of the most important aspects of the series, is that Bundy would not discuss the murders, and so, to trick him into talking about them, Michaud asked him to act as a kind of consultant and to speculate as to the killer's motives. Not recognising that Michaud was exploiting his narcissism, Bundy immediately began to talk about the murderer in the third person.
However, Conversations is more of a conventional documentary than you might expect. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the biographical material, whilst never original, is interesting and well put together; his involvement with the Vietnam Anti-war Movement, his work for a Suicide Hotline, his work as Assistant Director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission (where he wrote a pamphlet for women on rape prevention).
An equally fascinating aspect of the series, but one which is under-explored, is how Bundy's white privilege factored into his murders. As a well-educated, well-dressed, humorous, respectable middle-class white man, obviously intelligent, and seemingly charming, he was able to hide in plain sight, because no one could conceive of a man like him being a sadistic murderer.
The problem, however, is that the show falls into the same trap; Bundy's wit and charm appears to win Berlinger over, as he seems to be just as fascinated with Bundy's antics as the media and public were. To be fair, the show doesn't glorify him; Berlinger ensures the audience knows he was a monster. However, the question is raised of when does documenting a violent narcissist transition into giving them a platform?
With this in mind, the victims receive relatively little attention. Some, like his youngest victim, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, are focuses upon,, but others are lumped together, and Berlinger makes no real effort to characterise them. Instead of giving us a vivid illustration of who they were by interviewing family and friends, Berlinger gives us a rough pencil sketch made up of contemporary news reports.
Aside from the side-lining of victims, the most obvious issue with Conversations is that it's a far more conventional piece than a deep dive into previously untapped reservoirs of Bundy's psyche. Part of the reason for this is the dearth of actual audio material, as from the 100 hours available, Berlinger uses about 20 minutes all told. Pretty much everything else is standard bio material, nothing that anyone familiar with the case won't already know.
There are also some very strange aesthetic choices. For example, as Bundy discusses his relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, a montage of contemporaneous footage depicts exactly what he's talking about (when me mentions eating dinner, there's a shot of a family sitting around the dinner table; when he mentions being nervous, we see someone biting their nails). It's a spectacularly on-the-nose montage that accomplishes nothing. A similar moment sees Bundy discussing sexuality, and Berlinger shows us a rapid montage of hardcore S&M porn, which is not only distasteful, it's ideologically reductionist. The worst example is when Carol DaRonch, one of five victims to survive Bundy, mentions that her life flashed before her, Berlinger inserts a montage of quaint home movie footage.
If all that sounds very negative, however, let me be clear, I did enjoy Conversations, I was just a little disappointed in it. People already familiar with the case won't learn anything new, and those looking for a unique entry-point into the mind of a killer will be left wanting. Nevertheless, this is the story of a sociopathic narcissist that comments not just on societal privilege, but which also interrogates our own ghoulish fascination with such monsters. And yes, Berlinger seems unaware of the glaring irony here, but that doesn't change the fact that he has fashioned the ramblings of a mad man into a fascinating piece of work.
Overlong, but the acting is immense
As far back as the late 80s/early 90s, long before "long-form narrative" would become the dominant mode of television storytelling, I was a fan of what would then have been called "non-episodic storytelling", the best-known examples of which would have been Michael Mann's Crime Story (1986-1987) and David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks (1990-1991). So, with that in mind, in an era where long-form narrative has become the norm, I should be in my element. And I am. Except for one thing - "Netflix bloat"; essentially, the phenomenon of shows stretching their stories too thin across too many episodes.
And so we have the otherwise excellent Escape at Dannemora, a four or five-hour story elongated to eight hours. Ostensibly a prison break drama, the series is more interested in the psychology of the people involved. Excellently directed and beautifully shot, with a quartet of astounding performances at its centre, the show tells a fascinating story, but it moves at a glacial pace that requires serious patience.
Written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, and directed by Ben Stiller, the series tells the story of the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape, when Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) escaped the maximum security prison with the aid of civilian prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), who was involved in a sexual relationship with both men.
Aesthetically, Dannemora is exceptional, with director of photography Jessica Lee Gagne's work especially laudable. In the opening scene of the fifth episode, for example, there's a nine-minute single shot following Sweat from his cell to the manhole which they will use to escape. The unedited format really sells the distance they have to travel and the extraordinary effort it took to get out. Also worth noting is that the series is shot in CinemaScope (2.40:1). This format is almost never used on TV, where everything tends to be shot 1.78:1 (Master of None is an exception), but Stiller and Gagne use the format magnificently, with the narrow frame confining the characters. Combined with shooting through windows and having the characters stand in doorways, the compositions visually signify that these people are fundamentally trapped, existentially if not literally.
From an acting perspective, Arquette is extraordinary. Yes, the physical transformation is laudable, but this is more than an impersonation. She plays Tilly as in a perpetual state of rage and resentment, a woman who feels she's entitled to more than she has. When we first meet her, her frustration levels with her husband Lyle (Eric Lange) are at breaking point, but in the sixth episode, which flashes back to formative moments from the characters' pasts, we learn that Lyle himself was once the same kind of escape hatch for Tilly that Matt and Sweat are in 2015. This episode also demonstrates her cruelty; something which has been on the fringes of the character thus far. Arquette emphasises Tilly's naivete, leaning into her childlike quality; seen in the tendency for her voice to become shrill and nasally, and to start crying whenever challenged. However, she never lets us forget that Tilly is hateful, disillusioned, and dangerous.
Del Toro plays Matt as a classic sociopath; externally calm, but inherently volatile, and in the flashback episode, we see the extent of his sociopathy. Dano focuses on Sweat's brilliant mind, playing him as calm and thoughtful, but prone to anger when things don't go his way. Lange plays Lyle as blinded by ignorance and loyalty, convinced that Tilly still loves him, and he can weather the current storm. Lange leans into Lyle's inability to see just how much he's being manipulated, abused, and ridiculed, with his adoration for Tilly never wavering. The show unquestionably depicts him as a simpleton, but Lange finds more depth in the part.
The problem with all of this, is the runtime, which is two or three hours too long. Yes, the deep dive into the characters' psychologies and backstory is fascinating, and the flashback episode is superb, but we didn't need five hours of context to get there, and at times, the plot seems to cease all forward momentum. It's never boring, but so much of it lacks urgency or tension.
Ultimately, Escape at Dannemora is a brilliant piece of direction, with awe-inspiring performances. Although it gives us a lot of detail about the mechanics of the escape, it's far more interested in the mechanics of people. And in that sense, it's always interesting. It's also good evidence that just because you can use eight or more hours to tell a story, doesn't necessarily mean that you should. As a five hour piece, this could have been sensational. As is, it's above average, saved by its cast and Stiller's fine direction, but it remains always a slog.
Much better than recent seasons
Less a stand-alone narrative than a sequel to Murder House, Coven, and Hotel, American Horror Story: Apocalypse makes explicit what fans have implicitly known since the end of Freak Show - each season takes place in a shared universe. In recent years, the show has unquestionably stumbled, first with the poorly constructed meta-narrative of Roanoke, then with the horrendous Cult, leaving a fanbase yearning for a return to the brilliance of Murder House and Asylum. Apocalypse is nowhere near that as good, but it's a damn sight better than the last two seasons.
When a nuclear conflagration wipes out most of mankind in 2019, a group of survivors find refuge in Outpost 3, one of multiple fallout shelters constructed by an organisation known as The Cooperative, tickets for which cost $100m per person. After eighteen months, however, the inhabitants are on the edge of madness. Enter Michael Langdon (Cody Fern). A representative of The Cooperative, he is to interview the Outpost 3 residents to determine who will be taken to The Sanctuary, an unimpenetrable fortress. Langdon, of course, is the murderous baby from the end of Murder House, and only Cordelia Goode (Sarah Paulson) and her coven can stand against him.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about Apocalypse is the structure, with the majority of the season taking place prior to the Apocalypse. About ten minutes into the fourth episode, "Could It Be... Satan?", the show cuts to three years earlier, telling the story of how Langdon went from being a baby in 2011 to a man in his 20s in 2021, how he came to be involved with The Cooperative, and how he came into conflict with Cordelia and the witches. The "present" is then not picked up about mid-way through the finale.
As with every previous season of the show, the acting is exemplary. This season sees Paulson pulling triple duty, whilst also directing the sixth episode - "Return to Murder House". Evan Peters does her one better, playing four characters. And to nobody's surprise, Jessica Lange is superb as Constance, despite having only two scenes. However, the stand-out performance is Cody Fern. He is especially good in the scenes which show him still living with Constance, where he plays Langdon as a confused and moody teenager, a performance diametrically opposed to his 2021 Langdon, who is poised, confident, and quietly dangerous.
Thematically, the show has always been hit and miss. On one hand, Murder House told a story about a middle-class family turning on itself, Asylum was a parable about clinical repression and religious cruelty, Coven dealt with the conflict between tradition and modernity, and Freak Show was a plea for acceptance and tolerance. On the other, Hotel, Roanoke and Cult were thematically weak. Reading between the lines of Apocalypse, it's partly about how centuries of male leadership has led the world to the brink of destruction, something which can only be avoided by the intervention of a group of women. Indeed, one of the major plot strands sees a group of warlocks teaching Langdon how to harness his magical abilities in the hopes he may become the first male Supreme. Although Myrtle reminds them that testosterone is an inhibitor, the warlocks are so determined to overthrow the matriarchy that most of them ignore the signs that Langdon is dangerous. In this milieu, the dynamic between the witches and the warlocks is an inverse of traditional gender roles, with men forced to justify their behaviour to women in positions of power.
However, there are problems. For example, the first episode, "The End", features a scene where a character speaks in voice over, suggesting he is to be the focal character. However, not only is this not the case, but no one ever speaks in voice over again, making this scene stand out like a sore thumb. A later episode also features a truly random and poorly thought-out diversion to Russia in 1918, which serves very little purpose. The show's Satanists are also ridiculous, so camp and cliched they didn't work even as parodies. Additionally, the way the story resolves itself is a little too easy, whilst some viewers will object to the conclusion insofar as what it means for the ghostly inhabitants of Murder House.
All in all though, I enjoyed Apocalypse. The cross-over is well handled, and the fact that so many actors are playing more than one character (occasionally in the same episode), really lets you see just how talented a group of performers they are. Better than Freak Show, Roanoke, and Cult, it's probably on a par with Hotel, but is nowhere near as good as Murder House, Asylum, or Coven.
Brilliantly acted; equal parts hilarious and harrowing
Directed by Edward Berger, and written for the screen by David Nicholls, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick, this five-part miniseries is based on the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn. Published between 1992 and 2011, the five novels were essentially part of St Aubyn's rehabilitation, as he battled a crippling series of addictions stemming from sexual abuse at the hands of his father when he was a child. The series has its flaws, but his portrayal of the various stages of addiction and recovery is good enough to paper over the cracks.
Although the show's first episode does initially present Patrick's drug-addled behaviour as (relatively) funny (the scene where the Quaaludes kick in is especially hilarious), as the narrative settles into a darker vibe, most of the comedy is scaled back. Indeed, this well-balanced duality carries across all five episodes. Patrick knows the damage drugs are doing to him, yet he never loses his sense of caustic sarcasm about who he is. On the other hand, the show never strays into outright comedy at the expense of narrative believability - no matter how funny an individual moment may be, the totality, we are never allowed to forget, is rather bleak. Patrick is a fun character, articulate, intelligent, self-aware, but he is also a mess, and both his acerbic wit and his chemical dependency are at their height in this first episode. With that in mind, it is both the funniest and the darkest of the five; both a genuinely humorous physical comedy about the foibles of drug addiction and a horrifying descent into drug-induced psychosis.
Each episode is grounded in a different genre, adopting the appropriate tone for that genre, and featuring a different colour palette from the others. "Bad News" is a yuppie version of Trainspotting, a dark night of the soul awash in non-diegetic purples and greens; "Never Mind" is a lurid, lazy summer retreat, similar in design to something like Call Me By Your Name, with a preponderance of deep yellows and reds; "Some Hope" is an Upstairs, Downstairs/Gosford Park-style comedy of manners, examining the ludicrousness of the class system, limiting the palette to mainly binary colours such as white and black; "Mother's Milk" is partly a fish-out-of-water story and partly a psychosexual intellectual drama; and "At Last" is a cold postmodern tragedy full of angst and unlooked-for self-discovery, dominated by metallics, greys, and blues. What Berger pulls off across these five hours is to force this compendium of different styles, themes, and tones into something resembling a cohesive artistic statement.
The show employs a number of stylistic devices to draw us into Patrick's interiority - dialogue only Patrick and the audience can hear, unnatural lighting changes corresponding to his mood, glitches in the actual picture of the show itself in sync with his psychotic breaks, the bleeding of the past into the present (a room in the present will remind him of a room in the past, and suddenly he'll be there; a lizard walking on the wall when he was first raped by David is a recurring motif throughout the show; he opens a door in 1982, and we cut to him standing in an open doorway in 1967).
Perhaps the show's most salient theme is the idea that when you deeply hurt a child, when you do something to damage a child's very soul, the effects will continue to be felt by any who come into contact with that child for many years after the fact. As is alluded to throughout the first episode, and as becomes painfully clear in the second, when he was a child, Patrick was completely at the mercy of an utter monster. After David calls young Patrick to his room, there is a shot of the perfectly-made bed. After Patrick leaves, however, there is a shot of the bed in disarray. We never see what happens, because we don't need to. This is as well-directed a bit of cinematic shorthand as you're likely to see.
Another important theme is a mockery of the aristocracy, who are shown to be humourless, vainglorious prigs. The show depicts a decadent, toxic, emotionally calcified, and morally bankrupt class of people belonging to another age, that has somehow lingered into modernity and is desperately holding on to its outdated traditions.
Of course, this also raises perhaps one of the most obvious objections to the show - "why should we care?" Well, in part, we shouldn't. Essentially, this is the story of a spoiled rich kid. It's the very definition of white male privilege, which isn't exactly a very sympathetic theme at the moment. And it never really manages to shake that identifying characteristic. But there is more to it than that. For the themes, for the humour, for what it says about the British peerage, and, especially, for Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, this is certainly worth checking out, as it remains always compelling - brilliantly acted, and with a lot to say about a myriad of issues.
One of the finest documentaries ever made
Described by the show's official website as "an immersive 360-degree narrative," The Vietnam War is a behemoth in every sense of the word; written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by celebrated documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the series cost $30 million to make, and was in production for over ten years, with the ten episodes running to a gargantuan eighteen hours. Assembled from over 24,000 photos and 1,500 hours of archive footage, the show features interviews with 79 people, including analysts, bureaucrats, journalists, artists, anti-war protestors, draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, deserters, Gold Star family members, and American, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese troops. Deliberately eschewing interviews with historians and major polarising figures such as Jane Fonda, John Kerry, or Oliver Stone, the series features what Burns and Novick define as a "ground up" approach; concentrating almost exclusively on the experiences of ordinary people and soldiers from every side.
Beginning with the French invasion of Indochina in 1858 and concluding with the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 (although some brief postscript material goes up to President Barak Obama's visit to Vietnam in 2016), the series hits all the beats you'd expect within this timeframe, but where the show excels is not in trying to present an all-inclusive summary of everything that happened in the war, but in its mixture of the macro and the micro - intercut into the larger framework of political analysis and military assessment are more relatable and personalised interviews, which serve to reinforce what the war was like for the people who actually fought it and their families back home. These human stories serve as Burns and Novick's "ground up" material, helping to contextualise the less personal socio-political canvas against which they are set.
A major theme throughout the series is the effect the war had on the American psyche. Whilst the first episode outlines how the US emerged from World War II as world leaders, convinced of its own irrefutable morality, and proud of its self-appointed role as global law enforcer, later episodes detail how all of this changed during the war. Fought in a country few Americans had even heard of, and fewer still knew anything about, the war was a conflict whose ultimate futility at so great a cost was unlike anything any living American had seen. The stain of the war lingered for decades, and lingers still. As the documentary lays bare, Vietnam fundamentally redefined the notion of American patriotism, altered the American zeitgeist, and undermined American exceptionalism.
Another vital theme, but one which is left for the viewer to provide the connective tissue, is how the domestic events of the war are mirrored in contemporary American society. Undoubtedly, the war was the most divisive period in the US since the Civil War. However, the most divisive period since the war is right now; the US is currently in the seventeenth year of a war begun under dubious circumstances; there are accusations of foreign collusion in a US election; the president has threatened to use force against an Asian nation; there are mass demonstrations across the country; the White House is obsessed with leaks, with three different presidents attempting to undermine the media in a manner not dissimilar to Trump's catchphrase of "fake news."
However, the series is not perfect. The most obvious criticism is that despite their claims that all sides are represented equally, there is an imbalance between the anti-war movement (represented by three interviewees and dozens of vets), and those who supported the war (represented by a few comments here and there from people who admit they were conflicted). This imbalance is also present in the number of North Vietnamese combatants (14) weighed against the number of South Vietnamese combatants (7). There are also some notable, and oftentimes bizarre, omissions. For example, there is no mention whatsoever of Maj Gen Edward Lansdale, LTC John Paul Vannor LÃª Van Vien (aka Bay Vien).
Nevertheless, The Vietnam War is an undeniably epic achievement. Burns and Novick have distilled down a massively complex canvas, whilst at the same time refusing to placate either side. This refusal leaves the series open to criticism from both sides, but it may also be the show's greatest strength. Rather than submitting to partisan politics, the series follows its own path, irrespective of how it appears to those with preconceived notions. Harrowing and insightful, informative and disturbing, conciliatory rather than condemnatory, The Vietnam War is a masterpiece.
Does what it aims to do
Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, and made by Will Smith's production company (Smith is also the presenter), One Strange Rock is essentially about the experiences of eight astronauts, and how their time in space led them to see Earth with new eyes. That, in turn, is used as a jumping off point to examine several different branches of Earth Science, with each episode focusing on a specific astronaut and dealing with a specific topic; the planet's respiratory system, the Theia Impact theory, how the planet protects us from the sun, the origin of life, the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the possibility of colonising another planet, how life has both transformed the Earth and been transformed by it, the evolution from single celled microbes to complex organisms, the development of the human brain, and the concept of Earth as home.
Along the way, the show throws up a litany of hard to believe facts. To give just a sampling; the Amazon produces twenty times more oxygen than all of humanity could use, but none of it leaves the Amazon Basin, as it is used by the animals living there; the magnetic field generated by the planet's core stretches for 400,000 miles into space in every direction; every strand of DNA in the world contains billions of carbon atoms to bind it together; the human body has 37 trillion cells (more than the stars in the galaxy); tropical islands are composed of up to 70% parrot fish excrement; photosynthesis generates 100 terawatts of energy per year, six times more than humanity could use; the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe; 95% of all animals that have ever existed are extinct. Easily my favourite take from the show, however, is that it's 250,000 miles to the moon, 700 million miles to Saturn, 9 trillion miles to the edge of the solar system, 24 trillion miles to the nearest star (with our current technology, it would take 17,000 years to get there), and 25,000 light years (150,000 trillion miles) to the edge of the galaxy. That's a whole lotta miles!
Very enjoyable stuff. My one complaint would be that most of the episodes feel a little padded, with each one containing two or three diversionary stories only tangentially related to the core theme. But it's still well worth watching; terrific visuals, great sound, experts who know what they're talking about, and mind blowing information, if the goal was to make the viewer look at Earth in a new manner, they certainly succeeded with me.
A show of two halves
Directed by Richard Clark, Innocent is a four-part whodunit that is half by-the-book, paint-by-numbers, nothing-you-haven't-seen-before, and half superbly realised and expansive family drama. The show begins with David Collins (Lee Ingleby) being acquitted for the murder of his wife, having already spent seven years in jail for the crime. Viewers are never left in any doubt as to Collins's innocence, which does have the unfortunate side-effect of making the characters who are convinced of his guilt seem either naive or antagonistic-by-default. Collins's quest to uncover the truth and learn why people he trusted lied during his trial is never especially gripping, with no real urgency, no major twists, and a decided sense of "is that it?"
Where the show really succeeds, however, is in the depth of Matthew Arlidge and Chris Lang's depiction of the secondary characters whose lives are changed irreparably as the effects of Collins's release ripple outward; his brother Phil (Daniel Ryan), with whom he moves in; his sister-in-law Alice Moffat (Hermione Norris), whose testimony that he beat his wife was an important factor in his conviction; her amiable husband Rob (Adrian Rawlins); DCI William Beech (Nigel Lindsay), the original lead investigator, who may (or may not) have suppressed evidence; DI Cathy Hudson (Angel Coulby), the new lead investigator, and Beech's girlfriend; Collins's children, Jack (Fionn O'Shea) and Rosie (Eloise Webb), who were adopted by Alice and Rob after the trial; Tom Wilson (Elliot Cowan), Collins's former best friend, whose failure to provide him an alibi led to his conviction; Melissa (Hannah Britland), Tom's wife, who suspects he knows more than he's letting on; and Louise (Christine Cole), Tom's ex-wife, who left him after she discovered his affair with Melissa. Each of these characters are given a fair amount of dialogue, screen time, and character development as the show lets the whodunit plot fade somewhat into the background, and it's here where the narrative is at its most enjoyable. It's not going to change your life, but it's worth a look.
Created by Julia Willoughby-Nason, Jenner Furst, and Nick Sandow, directed by Furst, and with Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Harvey Weinstein serving as executive producers, this six-part documentary tells the almost unbearably tragic story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. With his family unable to afford the $900 bail, Browder spent 1,111 days in Rikers, despite never being convicted of a crime. Turning down nine plea deals, Browder refused to admit to something he didn't do just so he could go home. With his case brought to court and delayed multiple times, Browder spent over 800 days in solitary confinement, where his mental health rapidly deteriorated. Indeed, the episodes dealing with his time in Rikers, and the experience and effects of long-term solitary confinement, are almost too horrific to bear.
Were this fiction, the litany of abuses he suffers, and the details of how the system failed him, would be rejected as ridiculous, with his nightmare continuing even upon his release; in two separate incidents, he was shot and stabbed, and was later sectioned, as he became increasingly paranoid and unstable. Telling the parallel story of the anguish of his doting mother, if I had one criticism, it would be that the narrative is stretched too thin. Much like The Keepers, there isn't enough material here to warrant this many episodes, and it does lapse into repetition at times. Nevertheless, this is harrowing stuff; highly recommended.
Decent, but not a patch on the previous season
Telling the story of the murder of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) at the hands of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), what's especially interesting about this season of American Crime Story is the narrative structure. The opening scene of the first episode sees the murder, and the show then goes backwards, with each episode set earlier than the previous one, an achronological structure that unifies form and content; this isn't about a murder, it's about how Cunanan became a serial killer.
Within this, the show deals with two interrelated issues; 1) the concept that one must work hard to be successful, and 2) the desire to be remembered. Cunanan is obsessed with the second, but unwilling to acknowledge the first, despite his conviction of his own greatness. His attitude is nicely critiqued by Versace himself ("Life isn't about convincing people you can do great things. It's about doing them"), and the last shot masterfully encapsulates much of Cunanan's deepest existential fears. For all that, however, the season is good, but not great. The last two episodes are far and away the strongest, especially Jon Jon Briones's appearance as Modesto, Cunanan's detestable father, but, overall, it isn't a patch on 'The People v. O.J. Simpson'.
Unadventurous but enjoyable
When Anthony Sullivan (Michael Riendeau) disappears on his tenth birthday, his family is devastated. However, as more and more time passes without the police being able to locate him, long-buried family secrets are dragged to the surface, turning the Sullivan family against one another.
A journeyman show, The Disappearance is very much paint-by-numbers stuff, with nothing you haven't before seen in half-a-dozen similar narratives, with writers Normand Daneau and Genevieve Simard taking no real risks. Having said that, however, it's a well-made piece of television. Confidently directed by Peter Stebbings, the material may offer nothing revelatory, but what it does offer is enjoyable enough on its own terms. An excellent Peter Coyote dominates the show as Anthony's grandfather, Henry, a retired judge with a strained relationship (to say the least) with his son, Luke (Aden Young), Anthony's father. As the veneer of civility slowly erodes, the fissures running beneath the family dynamic begin to erupt, with blame and recrimination becoming the central tenets of familial interaction. You may guess half-way through who the kidnapper is, and yes, they're one of those Hollywood kidnappers who leave cryptic clues everywhere, but this remains a well-made, if unadventurous, show.