TIME Television

Review: The Haunting Rectify Explores the Zone Between Guilty and Exonerated

Aden Young - in the SundanceTV original series "Rectify" - Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden
Daniel McFadden/Sundance Aden Young in Rectify

Sundance's terrific slow-burn drama explores how, solved or unsolved, a murder case never truly ends.

The typical murder drama would be maddening if it spent years without revealing who done it. (See the backlash when The Killing didn’t wrap up its murder case at the end of its first season.) There’s a murder at the root of the wonderfully atypical Rectify (whose third season begins July 9 on Sundance), yet it might threaten what’s special about the show if it did solve the crime.

For those of you who have not yet watched Rectify–the first two seasons are on Amazon, iTunes and Netflix–an introduction: Daniel Holden (Aden Young) spent 19 years on the row for the murder of a teenage girl, when he was very young himself. He was freed by DNA evidence and returned to his family in their small Georgia hometown.

But free is not the same as exonerated. He returns home to whispers, suspicion, resentment, expressed both emotionally and with violence. And even as a free man, Daniel carries the prison with him–the isolation, the fear of death, the brutalization.

In a striking scene from Rectify‘s first season, the simple act of walking into a Walmart–a massive store full of products and nearly endless choice–overwhelms him. Something as simple as doing laundry means acquiring a new skill set. And even now, when Daniel sits on a park bench with a book, he feels compelled to apologize–essentially, for his existence–when a woman approaches the playground with her daughter. Young’s performance is wonderfully deliberate; Daniel, he shows in his manner and bearing, carries his body like a weapon that he must assure the world constantly is unloaded.

Truth be told, we don’t know if that’s really the case. Daniel has confessed to the killing twice now, the second time at the end of season two, but under intense pressure and coercion. Rectify carefully leaves his guilt or innocence open; as his lawyer says of him in season two, it’s possible that–after the trauma, the stress and two decades’ incarceration–Daniel may not know himself.

The Daniel we meet, soft–spoken and tentative, might be an innocent man adjusting after 19 years of prison brutality. (A few locals connected to the case become nervous once Daniel is released.) He might be guilty, or guilty in part, but repentant. He might be a quiet enigma with a dormant monster within. At the end of the first season, he snaps during an argument with his stepbrother and knocks him out with a sleeper hold, leaving him to regain consciousness with his pants pulled down, a dominance move Daniel learned in prison. “It wasn’t rape,” he later confesses, “but it was violent and unhinged.”

Season three, for those of you already on board, picks up with the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s confession deal at the end of the second season, as he faces probation and possible exile from his hometown, which, for all his problems there, is the one thing he knows outside jail. The investigation into the killing continues, but, like this introspective series, it grinds slowly. In a way, the show is both complement and antithesis to the true-crime phenomena The Jinx and Serial; rather than attempt closure and a solution, it cares far more about how people live with the unknown.

So Rectify is most concerned with what we do know: that a murder case never truly ends, solved or not. Daniel’s family is roiled once again by his release: the sister (Abigail Spencer) who fiercely defends him and feels betrayed by his plea deal; the stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) who resents him; the mother (J. Smith–Cameron) straining to reconnect after two decades; the sister-in-law (Adelaide Clemens, in a transfixing performance) who reaches out to Daniel from Christian charity, then finds herself fighting romantic feelings toward him. (Among other things, this is one of the most thoughtful dramas now on TV about applied Christianity.)

The series is called Rectify, but it’s not just Daniel who’s struggling to get right. Everyone in this story is in an impossible situation; none, no matter how angry or spiteful, is painted as a villain. Creator Ray McKinnon has written a generous story, sweetened by luminous direction and Gabriel Mann’s hypnotic score. (Lest I make the series sound too somber, though, the new episodes also show that Rectify can be dryly funny, as when Daniel recognizes an old childhood friend he last saw before prison. “How are your turtles?” Daniel asks, to make conversation. “Well, they’re dead,” his friend says, adding: “I mean, they lived a good life.”)

The continuing murder case provides some plot drive, but Rectify’s main investigation is spiritual: into forgiveness, grace, the holiness of moments in a finite life. As Daniel says to the mother at the playground: “I’m nobody to be worried about. I mean, I came here to read. That’s why I’m here. Just to read. Never really read outside underneath the big blue sky. It’s almost too much.”

For Rectify, that little bit is just enough.

TIME Television

What Did The Dukes of Hazzard Really Say About the South?

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Fotos International/Hulton Archive/Getty Images From left to right: John Schneider, Tom Wopat and Ben Jones as Bo Duke, Luke Duke and Cooter, respectively, in the TV series 'The Dukes of Hazzard', circa 1983.

Yes, it was a dumb car-chase show. And it was a mythmaking story about traditionalists recasting themselves as rebels.

“Someday the mountain might get ’em / But the law never will.” –Waylon Jennings

In the end, it was neither the law nor the mountain that got them Duke Boys. It was TV Land, which pulled reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard–whose muscle car the General Lee was emblazoned with the Confederate flag–amid the controversy after the racist massacre in Charleston whose perpetrator had posed with the banner. (The network hasn’t given a reason, but the timing is tough to overlook.) The move prompted an outraged reaction from costar John Schneider: “The Dukes of Hazzard was and is no more a show seated in racism than Breaking Bad was a show seated in reality.”

From many other folks, I expect, the reaction was more like: “Someone was rerunning The Dukes of Hazzard“? If you grew up with the show as I did, your memories probably mostly involve jean shorts, cars jumping over ponds and “Enos, you dipstick!” Was there really anything else to it?

The show’s no longer on TV Land, but you can watch the pilot free on Amazon (where subsequent episodes are $1.99 a pop). So I did.

It is still as gloriously shiny and empty as a collectors’ metal lunchbox, a Southern-fried cartoon (which later became an actual cartoon) jacked up with ’70s T&A. The plot involves the Dukes hijacking a shipment of illicit slot machines from Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane in order to save an orphanage; there’s a climatic prison escape involving a blow-up doll. The dialogue includes Luke’s immortal line, “Bo, you drive like my Aunt Fanny whips apple butter!” (Sidebar: They’re cousins. Isn’t it our Aunt Fanny?) There are some notable performances–Sorrell Booke’s gluttinously avaricious Boss Hogg, especially, is like Big Daddy filtered through John Waters–but the sensibility is more Tennessee Ernie Ford than Tennessee Williams.

But Dukes is also a fascinating document of its time in history–both TV and American. Dukes premiered in 1979, at the height of jiggle TV (Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels) and the Carter-era pop fascination with Southern good-ole-boy stories (Convoy, Smokey and the Bandit). It was still firmly the post-Watergate era, in which the suspicion of The Man became mainstream, and some of the most popular screen heroes were charming rogues whose broke laws enforced by corrupt authorities (Han Solo, say, or many of Burt Reynolds’ ’70s roles). But the Reagan revolution, and its embrace of America’s past, was just a year away.

So the first messages you get from Waylon Jennings’ theme song are also the most essential: Bo and Luke were “good ol’ boys” but they were also “fightin’ the system.” They were traditionalists, but they were also rebels. The Duke boys weren’t political, but they were at least small-c conservative–they stood for old ways and ancient traditions.

And the show came along at a time when conservatism was figuring out a different way to present itself, not as the establishment but as the underdogs, the outsiders–essentially repurposing the hippie ideas of the people vs. the power into the little folks vs. the big government. (First Blood, which came out a few years later, cast Reagan-era icon Rambo as a solder betrayed by the powers-that-be–including, like the Duke Boys, a venal Southern sheriff.) Even the little things, like the Dukes’ bow-hunting, are about anti-government individualism: poor folks need food, and “Jesse don’t take kindly to no government assistance. He’d rather starve.”

This isn’t William F. Buckley’s elitist conservatism, standing athwart history and yelling “Stop!” It’s leaning out the window of a Dodge Charger and yelling “YEEEEHAWWWW!”

So about that rebel flag. The Dukes pilot doesn’t talk about it directly, but it does allude to the Civil War, in a scene that explains why Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle) gave up the 200-year-old family moonshine business to save his nephews from jail: “They fought everybody from the British to the Confederacy to the U.S. government to stay in it.” On the one hand, the Duke boys’ car is the General Lee; on the other hand, their ultimate enemy–Jefferson Davis Hogg–is named for the president of the CSA.

There’s nothing about slavery or states’ rights in there, but the mythmaking is familiar enough. The Dukes fly the Confederate flag, the setup assures us, but they’re outside any negative ideas you have about the Confederacy. They’re just little guys going up against a succession of big guys. Just’a good old boys! There’s nothing overt there about the flag–and the series didn’t dwell on it after that–but it’s very much part of the “history not hate” message that led, by now, to a majority of American whites seeing the flag as a symbol of pride while most black Americans see it as one of racism, according to a CNN poll.

Of course, Ben Jones–the former Georgia congressman who played the Dukes’ coconspirator Cooter and now owns a chain of Hazzard-themed museums–recently insisted, “in Hazzard County there was never any racism.” More accurately, there just wasn’t much race. The black characters in the pilot are limited to a construction worker with no lines in the first chase scene, and a small part for the Dukes’ friend Brodie–played by Champ Laidler, credited with two episodes in total. (Later, there would be a minor recurring role for the African American sheriff of a neighboring county.)

That’s not to say The Dukes of Hazzard was some kind of diabolical historical whitewash so much as it was a network TV series in 1979, trying to pull in viewers nationwide for a story about the South without touching anything that inflamed people a decade or a century before.

So Northerners get a funny story of backwoods tricks played on backwoods hicks, loaded up with getaway music and casual stereotypes. (“If you weren’t my cousin, I’d marry you,” Bo tells Daisy in the pilot. “When did that ever stop anyone in this family before?” she asks him.) Southerners get a populist version of pride and rebellion without baggage. The kids get car chases with CB radios. The grown-ups get Daisy on a roadside in a bikini and/or Bo and Luke with their shirts unbuttoned to the waist. (There are more ’70s hormones floating around Hazzard County than during happy hour at the Regal Beagle.)

It may be right to say that no one ever tried to write politics into The Dukes of Hazzard, racial or otherwise. (Though there was a lot more politics in the pilot than I would have thought: there’s an election going on for Sheriff, and Coltrane went crooked when he lost his pension after a local bond initiative got voted down.) But that doesn’t mean it isn’t about them all the same. You can’t feature the flag of Dixie and not be about the South and race, like it or not, even if only by passively feeding into the argument that the flag is only about family pride, good ol’ boys and good ol’ times.

Does that mean the show should have been pulled off the air? I am a white man from the North: there may be no opinion on the Confederate flag less relevant than mine. But as someone who believes that pop-culture history is important history all the same, I agree with the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, who argued for reading and watching Gone with the Wind despite and because of its race problems, as “a valuable document of the way the Lost Cause curdled into a regional religion.” The Dukes of Hazzard–like any TV in our past–is part of us, whether we watch it or not.

But you’re also not a killjoy if you watch it, get a kick out of it–and yet are weirded out by the awesome stunt car flying the flag of slavery. The Duke boys, like Waylon told us, wouldn’t change if they could. But the times, they change anyway.

TIME Television

We Have to Go Back: Hope, Disappointment and Re-Watching Lost With My Kids

JOSH HOLLOWAY, TERRY O'QUINN, L. SCOTT CALDWELL, DANIEL DAE KIM, YUN JIN KIM, NAVEEN ANDREWS, DOMINIC MONAGHAN, MALCOLM DAVID KELLEY, HAROLD PERRINEAU, MATTHEW FOX, EVANGELINE LILLY, JORGE GARCIA, MAGGIE GRACE, EMILE DE RAVIN, IAN SOMERHALDER
Bob D'Amico—ABC The cast of the first season of Lost

I know the show might let them down in the end. That's all the more reason to watch.

The following article references plot points from Lost, so you may want to skip it if you haven’t watched yet. Though, come on, you’ve had five years now.

My two sons have heard my wife and I talk about Lost almost as long as they’ve been alive. It’s what we have in our house instead of religion. They knew the general premise; they had an ambient awareness of who Sawyer and Hurley are, like talked-about distant cousins they’d never met in person. But the show itself would have to wait until they were old enough.

This summer, we decided they’re old enough. We started a family binge of the show on Netflix–we’re still in season 1–and because I’m a glutton for public questioning of my parenting and aesthetic choices, I tweeted about it. Five years after it ended, mentioning Lost on social media is still like poking a stick at the smoke monster, and soon enough the (mostly good-natured) snark rolled in–more than one response along the lines of: “First five seasons only, or I’m calling Child Protective Services.”

Ha ha, and OK, I asked for it. But I’ll be honest: the thought, “But what about the ending?” did occur to me. I loved the finale, though I thought most of season 6 went, well, sideways with digressions and blind alleys. But regardless, I’m well aware that many Lost fans were, shall we say, not as pleased with the ending. (My wife was one of them; when we finally finish the series, the kids will have to choose a favorite parent once and for all.)

Was I being responsible? Wasn’t I, a professional TV-watcher who reviewed the show weekly for almost its entire run, supposed to look out for them? Despite one of the best pilots ever made, despite “Not Penny’s Boat” and the hatch and “The Constant,” was I leading them to be blindsided? Was I setting my kids up for bitterness, disappointment, betrayal?

I decided, of course, that I wanted to share Lost with them even though they might hate the ending. More to the point, I wanted to share it with them because they might hate the ending.

I’m not interested in relitigating the debate over that last scene in the chapel. (You can read my original review if you want; it more or less still reflects how I feel.) But I think there were really two arguments going on over the Lost finale. Only one was about whether it was glorious or terrible.The other was really about how art and stories work.

That argument went: Is the finale to a series its ending or its answer? Does a bad ending to a story retroactively overwrite the good? Is it possible for the end of a thing to be so terrible and heartbreaking that it would be better never to have experienced any of the joy and pleasure that led up to it?

I don’t really care how my kids come down on Lost‘s ending–but how they come down on that last question, I care about very much.

I get that finales carry a lot of weight: we have so many wishes and rooting interests hanging on them. They need to answer questions and provide closure, to move you and thrill you and ratify your view of the story and your notions of justice. They need to “stick the landing,” a phrase I sincerely wish no one had ever applied to a series finale, not just because it misrepresents art but because it misuses the metaphor. A gymnastics routine, after all, is scored on every element; a wobbly landing makes a 10 into a 9.9, not a 0.

That urge to hold up the “0” card once disappointed by a finale–screw you, Battlestar Galactica! go to hell, Sopranos!–feels like a philosophy of life, and a depressing, defensive one. It says: I will not be made a sucker. I will not be made to waste my time. I will not risk giving myself over to a story to find out, in the end, that I was “wrong.”

That’s no way to watch; it’s no way to live. Life is a succession of extended, serial experiences that start with a lot of promise but can always end badly. Marriages. Careers. A major league sports season ends with every team losing but one. Life itself is a multi-episode series that will eventually lead to a finale that you may find drawn out and unpleasant.

You can protect yourself from a lot of disappointments by not investing, but you lose a lot too. Some of my favorite shows ended on notes I found nigh-perfect (Friday Night Lights). Others, not so much (How I Met Your Mother). Plenty are in-between (I’m still sorting out my feelings about Mad Men‘s finale). But none of that negates a single thrill, laugh or wave of emotion I felt on the way there. None of that makes any of the experience that came before it any less worth having.

And Lost? Yeah, the sideways universe was a mess and the Drive Shaft / classical-piano concert in the finale is one of the goofiest things the show has ever done. But I’m putting my kids on the road to it anyway. Because I got to watch them see the show kick into mysterious gear with Locke’s healing at the end of “Walkabout.” I’ll get to share with them Desmond in the Hatch and every creepy Ben Linus-ism; “We have to go back!” and Desmond’s phone call to Penny; Hurley driving the VW microbus and Sawyer in a Dharma jumpsuit in the 1970s. They’ll get to experience every thrill and mind-twist that I did, they’ll get to pore over details and spin theories, and if they hate where it ends up–well, they’ll still have experienced it.

And if that’s so, then I hope they even learn something: the bad things in your life don’t negate the good ones. As Pixar’s Inside Out beautifully expressed, happiness is more than the avoidance of sadness. Your life is not an average of its heights and its disappointments; it is each of them, in themselves. It’s like Christian says in the finale: “All of this matters.” If they can come away with that, I don’t need them to agree with me about Lost.

Unless they end up ‘shipping Kate and Jack over Sawyer and Juliet. Then I’m writing them out of the will.

TIME Television

Review: How Nurse Jackie Taught a Clinic in Antiheroism

Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton in Nurse Jackie (Season 7, Episode 12). - Photo:  David M. Russell/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  nursjackie_712_3113.R
David M. Russell/SHOWTIME Jackie, like Don Draper, ended her finale with a Namaste moment.

In the end, was Edie Falco's pill-popping nurse good? The finale answered, true to form: it's complicated.

Brief spoilers for the series finale of Nurse Jackie follow:

“Make me good.”

Before Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco was already familiar to viewers from The Sopranos, the morally gray antihero show that set the model for dozens to follow. Nurse Jackie–which I watched beginning to end over seven seasons–had its ups and downs, and it probably won’t be remembered as an all-time pantheon classic of its era. But in many ways, Falco’s Jackie Peyton out-antiheroed TV’s other antiheroes by so thoroughly interrogating what exactly “good” means.

A recidivist prescription-painkiller addict empowered by professional knowledge and personal cunning, Jackie was often far from a good person morally. (Your mileage may vary, but I lost any remaining interest in seeing her escape trouble in the last season, as she expertly took advantage of Zoey’s friendship and conscience to manipulate her.)

Yet her badness was never as simple as Tony Soprano’s. There was no particular upside to Tony’s more effectively running the North Jersey mob, save that some even worse mobsters might die, or a more sympathetic character might escape being collateral damage. Even in Mad Men–which Nurse Jackie joined in the 2015 trend of ending series finales with yoga–the end result of Don’s movingly earned peace was a better Coca-Cola ad. But Jackie, while far from morally good in her relationships with people and pills, was good in other ways that had substantial value: she was exceptionally good at her job, on which lives depended, and she could be a sincerely and selflessly good mother and friend, especially if you weren’t standing between her and what she wanted.

You might say that Jackie’s antiheroism was more similar to Vic Mackey’s on The Shield, where Michael Chiklis played a despicably corrupt cop who was, nonetheless, undeniably good at catching criminals when it suited him. But there was another element to Nurse Jackie at its best that complicated it further. In a way, Jackie’s badness–her weakness, her failings and her awareness of them–sometimes made her better: more understanding, more perceptive, able to deal with and accept the failings in others because she saw them in herself. (This is, maybe, a complication of antihero stories that a comedy-drama is better suited to handle than a straight drama.)

In its last season, Nurse Jackie lost the thread of some of its stories and characters, and the finale reflected that: like the whole season before it, it didn’t feel necessary, momentous or final (except for the hospital itself). Not to take anything away from Tony Shalhoub as an actor, but I simply wasn’t able to invest in latecomer Dr. Bernard Prince, enough to justify the time the season and finale gave him. And Gloria Akalitis in particular felt like an afterthought in this finale, after having so much been the tough-love heart of the show for seven seasons. (If you spent any part of this season praying that things would work out for Jackie and sleazeball Eddie–aw, those crazy kids!–you have the empathy of a saint. Or of All Saints.) Arguably the strongest scene of the finale didn’t involve Jackie at all, but reunited Zoey with Dr. O’Hara to commiserate about the burden of being Jackie’s friend and caretaker.

(If there is any justice in TV, by the way, Merritt Wever is currently sifting through two dozen pilot scripts in which she would play the lead.)

In moments like that, the finale at least recalled the show at ts best, even if the show has its best seasons behind it. And one thing that didn’t change, beginning to end, was Falco’s layered portrayal of Jackie–open yet guarded, self-deceiving yet hyperalert–through Jackie’s final collapse, which showed that her worst enemy all along has been her own sense of invincibility.

It looks like it didn’t kill her this time; we saw her eyes open as Zoey repeated, “You’re good”–one more riff on the multiple meanings of that word. Jackie may be good in the sense of having a few more heartbeats and chances left. But Nurse Jackie always avoided neat resolutions to a problem, addiction, than tends to be an open-ended struggle. To the final question of whether Jackie is indeed good, it left us with the same answer it always offered: depends what you mean.

TIME Media

Why Politics Trump Is Ruining Things for TV Trump

Donald Trump the Presidential candidate could be a disaster for Donald Trump the entertainer.

There is Politics Donald Trump, and then there is TV Donald Trump. For a long time, it was pretty clear who worked for whom. Politics Trump would grab the occasional headline–tweet something inflammatory, question the President’s birthplace, flirt with running for office–but in the end all he did was generate there’s-no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity for TV Trump, a real estate tycoon who was now largely in the entertainment business.

But when TV Trump let Politics Trump off the chain and actually declare a run for the Republican presidential nomination, the balance shifted. Politics Trump became a reality–a crochety, fear-stoking reality raving at a podium about the Chinese and the Mexicans. And he’s starting to create problems for the Trump who pays their bills.

Univision, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster and one of the biggest U.S. networks, severed its relationship with the Miss Universe Organization, partly owned by Trump, because of Trump’s argument that illegal immigration from Mexico means that “they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (“And some, I assume, are good people,” he added. You’re welcome, Mexico!) The network will not broadcast the July 12 Miss USA pageant, whose Spanish-language-simulcast cohosts also dropped out in protest.

Trump, suddenly encountering the reality that the “Universe” in “Miss Universe” includes, well, the rest of the world, lashed out, threatening a lawsuit and claiming that Univision was acting on the orders of the Mexican government. But that’s not his only TV problem. NBC–which has long had an ignore-it-and-hope-it-goes-away approach to the Apprentice host’s foibles–issued a rare public repudiation: “We do not agree with his positions on a number of issues, including his recent comments on immigration.” (The network didn’t take any action, though it said it will “re-evaluate” Celebrity Apprentice, because of equal-time regulations, if it would go into production while Trump is still a candidate.)

Maybe nobody else gets to tell Donald J. Trump Jr. what he can and can’t say. But this would normally be about the time that TV Trump would sit Politics Trump down and tell him to pull it together. Plenty of GOP politicians, apparently, would like that too, as they’re beginning to worry about the first primary debates turning into Thanksgiving dinner with Angry Uncle Donald.

But in the wood-paneled boardroom beneath Trump’s grand mop of hair, there has evidently been a corporate coup. Politics Trump is running things now, and with some recent polls showing him in second place both in New Hampshire and nationally, he probably thinks he’s doing just fine–even if he is going to leave a huge mess for TV Trump after he’s had his fun in the primary.

I do not pretend to be able to know why Trump says what he says and does what he does. Maybe, with TV Trump not commanding the ratings he did at The Apprentice‘s peak, merely teasing at running for President was not enough this time. Perhaps Trump holds many sincere beliefs, and one of them is even that he will someday be the President.

But he is most likely not going to be the President, and the reasons for that explain the difference between TV and politics. Yes, Trump is in the low double digits in some polls, which is a good share in a race with over a dozen contenders. But he also handsomely leads the category of “would not vote for under any circumstances.”

Politics Trump, in other words, is a niche product. He’s appealing to voters who are cynical about traditional politicians or anxious about them damn furriners. He’s a turnoff to everyone else. In a fragmented TV business, that’s great. If your “Yes” number is high enough, the size of your “No way in hell” number doesn’t much matter. The Apprentice isn’t for everyone. Casinos aren’t for everyone. Beauty pageants aren’t for everyone.

But actually winning a primary, and then a general election, means being for enough of everyone to command a healthy plurality, at least as long as we have an Electoral College. Short of a mass-amnesia event, this will not happen for Donald Trump. Being polarizing is good business for reality TV, for Fox News commentators, for the early stages of a primary. It’s the Palin business, basically. But ask Sarah Palin, recently cut loose by Fox News: that business does not last forever.

Which means that at some point, Politics Trump is going to need TV Trump to fall back on. If he enjoys a brief, early-primary run, declares moral victory and retreats to Twitter and the Boardroom, that may still work out. But we’re looking at the possibility that Politics Trump could do just well enough, just long enough that TV Trump will not be able to go back to show business as usual.

TIME Television

Review: Humans is a Robot Chiller for the Smartphone Era

Humans
Des Willie/Kudos Gemma Chan as Anita in Humans

AMC's sci-fi drama leaves us wondering whether to be more scared of the androids or their masters.

Pop-culture robots come in a couple different models. There’s the Helper–the Wall*Es and R2-D2s who exist to serve. And there’s the Enemy–the malevolent, sentient killing machines like the Cylons and the Terminator. What distinguishes AMC’s Humans (premieres June 28) is that we don’t quite know whether its robots are the first kind or the second.

In the alternative present-day of Britain of Humans (a co-production with the UK’s Channel 4 and Kudos), the latest must-have gadgets are “synths,” synthetic humans exactly like us except they have metallic irises and are far hotter. We first encounter a group of them warehoused in a storage room, standing, inert and naked except for briefs (a concession more to the universe of basic cable than their own, it seems). There’s not an Apple logo to be seen on their flawless, multiethnic forms, but like the iPhone, synths have become ubiquitous in a few short years after their invention, in the workplace, medicine, and the home.

Home is where Anita (Gemma Chan) is headed, when harried family man Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) picks her up, in a transaction more reminiscent of buying an upscale used car than Uncle Owen haggling with the Jawas–she’s a bargain, slightly used, with a 30-day return policy. (“What if she’s not pretty?” asks his youngest daughter Sophie [Pixie Davies]. “Can we change her if she’s not pretty?”) A tap under the chin, and she comes to life with a sound not unlike a Macbook booting up.

Anita’s meant to be a surprise–Joe and his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) work and have three kids to manage–but in the manner of these stories, not an entirely pleasant one. Laura, returning from a business trip, is upset that Joe went behind her back and feels the purchase implicates her as a “shit mother.” (As in our universe, labor-saving tech comes with implicit judgment of working women pre-installed.) Teen daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) is tech-savvy but sees synths as stealing her future; why train to be a doctor, or anything else, when a few OS upgrades from now machines will do the work far better? Sophie loves Anita too well–she’s protective, friendly, always available to read a story–but doesn’t understand the distinction between synth and human. And teen son Toby (Theo Stevenson) becomes attached to her–well, precisely the way you’d expect a teen boy would.

The Hawkinses, like everyone else in this fictional world, have been handed life-changing technology with a few simple setup instructions, but no emotional or social manual. How much is appropriate to ask of a machine that is, from all outward appearances, essentially a human slave? What are your obligations to it? (Is it an it, or a she, or a he?) Do you treat a synth more like a member of the family or a Roomba? Chan’s performance–composed, warm-ish, but just mechanical enough to be uncanny–goes a long way toward heightening the conflict. (The creepiest scene in the pilot comes when the family explains a joke to Anita and she laughs–and laughs, and laughs, until she’s commanded to stop.)

Like the dystopian British anthology Black Mirror, Humans is a sci-fi premise smartly reimagined for our own age of tech outsourcing. The synths combine our reliance on devices with the app-enabled cheapening of service labor: they are Amazon drones and Über (yes, they can drive) cheerfully embodied.

It’s not entirely a reimagining, though; the themes of hubris, morality and human obsolescence are cobbled together from the Asimovian stock parts of robot stories past. Humans struggles with a problem of much dystopian sci-fi: it asks the audience to accept that the fictional world has embraced this technology as a panacea, even as nearly every character has a foreboding sense that it’s a terrible mistake.

And indeed, there is synth-trouble big and small outside the Hawkins house. A melancholy subplot follows Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a scientist from the original synth project who’s in the early stages of dementia, desperately trying to keep his ancient outmoded home-health-aide synth running because it retains memories of his late wife. The larger arc, meanwhile, concerns a small band of synths–to whom Anita is apparently connected–who have become sentient, and a network of humans hunting them, in fear that this will lead to the Singularity: self-aware machines begin replicating and perfecting themselves, and it’s goodbye Rosie the Robot, hello Skynet.

Intriguingly, though, Humans is not clear whether these smart robots are a threat at all, at least in the two episodes screened for critics. For the series’ real concerns, read the title: it’s us, the end users, and how access to artificial, programmable humanity, stripped of even the nominal obligations society shows to minimum-wage workers, can enable our worst tendencies. The synths are characterized less in terms of what they might do than how they reflect problems we already have, be it loneliness, sexual predation (of course there are synth whorehouses), anxieties about gender and spousal roles. They’re problematic in the way that the technology we already have is; they’re just more efficient at it.

Humans’ programming runs toward melodrama at times, especially in Hurt’s subplot, but it’s mostly restrained and chilling. It doesn’t threaten and scare but hums enigmatically in power-saving mode. The human characters too are effectively grounded. Laura’s worry about being replaced is more immediately sympathetic. (When she insists on reading Sophie a story instead of Anita, her daughter protests, “But she doesn’t rush!” Ouch.) But Joe isn’t cast as a Stepford husband so much as a bit naive and at the end of his rope. The Hawkinses have entirely human problems that predate Anita–Laura has been increasingly, mysteriously absent–and he bought the machine, he says, “To give us time.”

And isn’t that, in the end, what any technology promises to give us–the watch meant to liberate you from the smartphone meant to liberate you from your desktop? The real potential of Humans is in examining the stressors that our inventions are meant to relieve, the ones they create and the ones they pass along down the social scale.

In a way, after all, the most far-fetched aspect of Humans’ premise is not so much that people would invent robo-humans but that consumers would pay so much money for their labor, aid and companionship when we already have Taskrabbit, Grubhub and Tinder a finger-swipe away. (A scene of synths picking fruit in a greenhouse raises the cynical but inevitable question of whether they’re more cost-effective than exploited farm workers.) This sci-fi tale for the modern service economy purports to ask how dangerous it would be if apps took human form. But just as much, it’s asking us to reflect on a world in which we’ve made humans into apps.

TIME Television

Here Are the Best TV Shows of 2015 So Far

In a television market more crowded than ever, these were the shows that kept me watching

Every year, I keep a running list of shows that amuse me, amaze me, impress me or depress me (in a good way). At the end of the year, I whittle that list down to 10, and I have my best-TV-of-the-year list. But it’s tough. I have to leave out a lot of really good stuff. And why should arguing over subjective choices come only once a year?

In that spirit, I give you my very provisional list of The Best TV of 2015 (So Far). But first, a few notes:

  • This list is only in alphabetical order, because I hate ranking lists and no one forced me to.
  • I kept this list to 12 items, because it seemed like a good place to stop. It could have easily been a different 12. There are a few shows I came very close to including, and I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s the road to madness.
  • One show I did rule out, for the same reason I did last year, is Orange Is the New Black. I saw six episodes in advance for review (and loved them), but I haven’t yet seen the entire season, which is already online, and didn’t want to give the impression that I was assessing episodes I haven’t watched.
  • I reserve the right to put shows on my year-end list that I omitted here, because I changed my mind / considered new arguments / saw later episodes / suffered a blow to the head.
  • As always, there is one show that is obviously the best thing on TV now, maybe ever, and I just left it off because I am a biased idiot who should be fired: [Your Favorite Show Here]. Please, tell us about it in the comments!
  • The Americans

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    FX

    The Cold War came home on TV’s most intimate spy drama, as Soviet moles Philip and Elizabeth Jennings struggled with how to handle teen daughter—and potential KGB recruit—Paige, all while carrying out enough morally compromising missions to make any agent flip his or her wig.

  • Better Call Saul

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Ben Leuner—AMC

    What could have been a glorified <i>Breaking Bad</i> DVD extra evolved into its own thing, the picaresque story of James “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill—the future Saul Goodman—trying to hustle his way into the Albuquerque law game.

  • Broad City

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Comedy Central

    Lightning struck twice for Comedy Central’s best new show of 2014, as the second season built on its confidence and surreal humor. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson make the kind of uninhibited comedy that dances like it’s alone in its apartment naked.

  • Empire

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Chuck Hodes—Fox

    Rising to number one with a bullet–multiple bullets, actually–Fox’s hip-hip family soap built a watercooler colossus out of insane story twists delivered with authentic passion. May its chaotic, infectious energy never drip-drippity-drop.

  • Game of Thrones

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    HBO

    HBO’s sprawling fantasy drama plunged over the edges of its vast map this season as it surpassed the storyline of its source books and headed into the unknown. Often harrowing, always spectacular, TV’s biggest entertainment is also one of its most thoughtful shows about morality and power.

  • Jane the Virgin

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Aaron Epstein—The CW

    The series began with Jane (Gina Rodriguez) pregnant, but it was born fully formed: playful, big-hearted and refreshing. Unlike some soaps, this comic telenovela never let its plot twists overwhelm its characters and their distinctive voices (not least among them the most delightful narrator in TV).

  • The Jinx

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    HBO

    You really couldn’t make this up: an artful, insightful documentary series, investigating an accused multiple murderer, that drew a character portrait rivaling TV’s best dramas and created actual news, as Robert Durst spilled his own beans on camera and was arrested in real life in time for the finale.

  • Justified

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Prashant Gupta—FX

    Like Harlan County, Kentucky, this Elmore Leonard-inspired series had seen its ups and downs. But the final run, focusing on the long-running, intimate rivalry between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, inspired some of this show’s best hours and finest barrel-aged dialogue.

  • Louie

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    FX

    The biggest flaw of Louis CK’s slice-of-his-life series was that there wasn’t more of it. But even a half-sized season—pulling back from last year’s formal experiments to deliver more flat-out laughs—was painfully funny and hilarious real enough to last us another year.

  • Mad Men

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    AMC

    Arguably the dominant TV drama of its time, the series deposited its characters in 1970, a decade older and maybe even a little wiser. Its final moments—juxtaposing Don Draper’s long-earned moment of Zen with Coca Cola’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” jingle—showed us a man who lived a lie for years coming to his own version of The Real Thing.

  • Silicon Valley

    John P. Johnson—HBO

    This sophomore comedy built out its satire of tech culture, the egos it feeds with cash and the wired culture it enables. Exquisitely cast (T.J. Miller weaves obscenity into gold like an R-rated Rumplestiltskin), it’s a consistently hilarious picture of the coders who carry the modern world on their scrawny shoulders.

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Netflix

    It’s alive, dammit! TV’s greatest miracle of 2015 so far was Netflix’s rescue of this oddball Tina Fey comedy from NBC. The first season shared the frenetic, joke-dense structure of 30 Rock, but with a twist: it was a dark sitcom about survivorhood, illuminated with optimism by human glow stick Ellie Kemper.

TIME Television

Review: Ballers Throws a Flag on the Playboys

HBO

The HBO football dramedy sometimes overcomes its ESPN-Entourage tendencies. But nuclear comedy The Brink is just a bomb.

When HBO announced Ballers, I expected–well, look at the title. Even before the Entourage movie landed in theaters, the last thing HBO needed creatively was another big swinging swing at dudes in a glamor career–here, pro football–the hot chicks who pose and grind around them, and how generally awesome it is to be awesome. That the show was set in flesh-friendly, booty-popping Miami rather than, say, Green Bay, seemed a statement of intent.

And yeah, often times Ballers (premieres June 21) delivers exactly that show. Take the third episode, in which former Dolphin linebacker turned financial manager Spence (action star / living marble statue Dwayne Johnson) throws a party on his boss’ yacht to lure in current players as clients. There are players (of both kinds), cosmetically enhanced babes in and quickly out of bikinis, expensive liquor and more expensive mishaps. In the second episode, a player treats himself to a flaming orange McLaren, the precise douchemobile, down to the color, owned by billionaire boor Russ Hanneman in Silicon Valley. In these moments, Ballers looks like the love child created if Entourage hooked up with First and Ten and each assumed the other was using protection.

But just when you think you have Ballers pegged, it reveals that there are warning lights on the expensive dashboard, sharks circling in the hot tub. The tipoff is Spence’s job: his firm wants him to “monetize his relationships,” i.e., signing up hot players to manage the money gushers that will dry up while they are still young. (As happened to Spence: we soon learn that, while he’s putting on a shiny front to drum up business, he’s near-broke.)

It’s a timely focus: a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study found nearly 16% of players went bankrupt within 12 years of retirement–which retirement, of course, could come from an injury on any play. That’s not the only current NFL woe here. Spence, like many former players, is showing possible signs of concussive syndrome; he’s in denial, but chomps painkillers like corn nuts and keeps having PTSD-like flashbacks to a brutal hit he delivered against an unfortunate quarterback. The league’s domestic-abuse troubles haven’t arisen yet–HBO sent out the first four episodes–but off-field violence has.

The history of portraying the dark side of the NFL on TV is not a proud one, if you recall the quashing of ESPN’s Playmakers under pressure from the league. Ballers is hardly that dark, but, HBO says, the network is making the series without the league’s involvement or consent.

Like Starz’s impressive Survivor’s Remorse–also about athletes, largely African American and many who grew up with little–Ballers is a swaggery comedy that nonetheless has plenty of drama. (The series was created by Stephen Levinson of Entourage and Boardwalk Empire, but producers include Peter Berg, who explored the highs and lows of football in Friday Night Lights–and has a recurring role as a coach here.)

Johnson is the show’s MVP–he’s suave and charming as hell as Spence, a trained predator on the field rechanneling his energies into savvy sweet talk. (Given The Rock’s recent ubiquity in Furious Seven and San Andreas, this is a little like HBO’s lucky timing with Matthew McConaughey last year.) The ensemble around him represents the cycle of pro life: Vernon (Donovan Carter), a red-hot rookie getting bled by his hangers-on; Ricky (John David Washington), a troubled receiver looking for another chance in Miami; and retired Charles (Omar Miller), scrambling to find a day job. (As Spence’s coworker, Rob Corddry has a comic-relief role that’s not as strictly comic as you might guess.)

Ballers is hardly a must-watch yet, and the early episodes rely on a lot of familiar problems-of-fame stories. But it has potential, and its timing just might be right. Ballers shares some of Entourage‘s wish-fulfillment, it’s-all-good ethos. But Ballers is also constantly aware that it could go all bad on any given Sunday.

HBO

In TV as in sports, you have your Cinderella franchises that turn scrappy unknowns into winners. And then you have the teams that sign an who’s-who of famous names and have nothing to show for it. That’s HBO’s insipid geopolitical comedy The Brink (also premieres June 21), which enlists Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Aasif Mandvi, Pablo Schreiber and supporting players including Carla Gugino and John Larroquette in a doomed suicide mission to spoof America’s entanglements in Pakistan.

I’d say “satirize” instead of “spoof,” but even bad satires have something to say. The Brink, built around a doomsday crisis involving a ruthless Pakistani general, the country’s nuclear arsenal, a drugged-out fighter pilot and various venal American diplomats and politicians, has no point of view beyond, “Damn, people are crazy”: it’s the geocomedy equivalent of a shruggie symbol with dick and barf jokes. You can build a political-comedy engine fueled on nothing more than cynicism–Veep pulls it off every season–but you need prime material, not broad, caricatured, warmed-over Dr. Strangelove with more full-frontal.

Maybe the show’s mad-mad-world-war style is meant to be a throwback, down to the title-credits art, which features a finger on a Cold War-vintage button. But The Brink is far more likely to trigger a hasty finger on your TV remote.

TIME Television

Why Brian Williams Lost His Job, and Why He Has a New One

Williams will serve as a breaking news anchor for MSNBC—which sends an odd mixed message in the wake of his much-publicized scandal

Brian Williams lost his job as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for perpetuating one fiction, and for failing to perpetuate another.

The first fiction you’re probably familiar with. Last winter, Williams was caught for having repeated a tall tale about his experiences embedded with U.S. troops on a helicopter in the 2003 Iraq War. NBC removed him from the newscast and conducted an internal investigation; according to the announcement, the network found other (unspecified) examples of Williams’ “inaccurate statements,” most of them not on NBC News but “on late-night programs and during public appearances.”

The second fiction, connected to the first, is built into the evening news format itself: that a news anchor is reporting you the news, rather than reading it to you. Williams’ lies were a failure of character or memory or both. But they weren’t evidence that he was going to sit behind the desk and concoct Onion-like stories about the Iran nuclear talks. The vast NBC News division sends out reporters, produces a product and gives it to an anchor to present to you, like the headwaiter at a restaurant.

That’s not to diminish anchors: you have to work your way into those jobs, and they usually come with significant managing-editor responsibilities. But it’s not as if there are many opportunities for Williams’ weird personal mythmaking to make their way into the newscast on a regular basis–it would actually be a bigger concern if he were still out in the field reporting. Objectively, there was less reason to trust Brian Williams as a person, but practically, there was no real reason to trust NBC’s news any more or less.

Still, that was the deal, Williams violated it and in strictly professional terms, his punishment was fair. Live by the myth of the anchor, die by the myth of the anchor. If Williams earned his position and his big salary through an unspoken agreement between news networks and their audiences–that anchors are monumental figures whose level of “trust” and “authority” is essential to the credibility of the networks’ reporting–then he’s got no place to complain after he threw his value out the door of a chopper.

But Williams’ demotion/life preserver–a new job as breaking news anchor for MSNBC–sends an odd mixed message. He’s not credible enough to anchor one NBC network, but he’s just fine for the other? You could make a perfectly defensible argument that, look, anchors are newsreaders, and while Williams told a lie, he’s no less suited for the job. And you can make a perfectly credible argument that anchors bear a public trust, which trust is shattered when they tell lies, on the newscast or off. This move, however, sort of says… both?

It also sends a message that MSNBC is NBC News’ purgatory, and at exactly the moment when the mothership is trying to revive the cable networks’ ratings. Not to mention that, per NBC, Williams will anchor NBC special reports when Holt is unavailable. It is, I suppose, an effort to do something other than give Williams the professional death penalty, but it could also look like Williams, aiming in the words of his apology to “earn back [viewers’] trust,” is also trying to earn his way back into Holt’s chair.

Once again, NBC News is trying–maybe thanklessly–to work its way out of internal drama in a way that risks generating other drama. The first test of that will come Friday, when a Matt Lauer interview with Williams airs on Today and Nightly News. If Lauer gives his colleague a softball platform like he did Rachel Dolezal this week, it’ll seem like public-relations theater. If the interview is legit, but Williams’ answers are evasive or lack introspection, the whole thing could just reignite the controversy.

Maybe that’s an impossible position for NBC, but as with Williams, the game of TV appearances and the performance of credibility is what they signed up for. They got into this through their anchor’s stories. Now they need to find the narrative that gets them out.

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