REVIEW: Black Jesus Laughs With, More Than At, Its Son of God

Adult Swim

In John 20:29, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This was an issue with Doubting Thomas; it is not the problem that Black Jesus (premiering Thursday, Aug. 7) has. Like many shows with controversial concepts, the Adult Swim sitcom from Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder has no lack of detractors who have not yet seen it, yet still believe it is blasphemy.

Granted, Adult Swim has already given them fodder, in the form of ads and trailers. And the bullet-point highlights of the first two episodes probably won’t do much to quiet the outcry among Christian groups who argue that it mocks their savior and their faith. The show puts the Son of God in modern-day Compton, where he curses, hangs out with drug dealers, changes bottled water into cognac, and smokes blunts.

Black Jesus is not the first comedy to reimagine Jesus Christ for laughs: Monty Python’s Life of Brian did that, and so did Saturday Night Live last year with its “Djesus Uncrossed” sketch. It’s not the first fiction to imagine Jesus returning: South Park did that from the beginning. (So did Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, albeit with fewer jokes.) It’s not even the first TV show with a “Black Jesus”: Family Guy got there years ago. (Even a pot-smoking Jesus has already been introduced, weirdly, by a Seattle restaurant ad last spring.)

Offense is subjective–I can’t tell someone whether to feel disrespected by Black Jesus, and as a nonbeliever I’d be a hypocrite to try. There’s an argument that the fact that someone makes a religious spoof, knowing believers might be offended, is de facto disrespectful of those believers. And there’s the counterargument by Christian author Jay Parini that, like Black Jesus, the Biblical Jesus was also criticized for hanging out with sinners, partiers and prostitutes (not to mention tax collectors).

Either way, there’s a difference between mockery of Jesus and mockery with Jesus, and Black Jesus is ultimately about the second. It’s often funny, but it’s not infallible. A lot of the first episode plays like a sketch-show bit that drags on too long, tees up giant stereotypes and goes for easy “Wouldn’t it be funny if Jesus did ____” gags. The Hallelujah Chorus plays as Black Jesus (Gerald “Slink” Johnson) walks down the street, has his van ticketed and gets in an argument with a homeless guy who wants the Son of God to tell him the day’s Lotto numbers. (“You smell like ass and crackers!” he snaps after first offering the guy some “kindness, compassion and love for all mankind” instead.)

You might expect McGruder, given his Boondocks history, to be out for pointed religious satire, but Black Jesus is really more of a stoner hangout comedy with a heart. In the pilot, Jesus chills with his well-meaning slacker friends, who bust his chops for smoking weed he never pays for and ask him to give them a ride to a business deal (also weed-related), plus “a miracle, just in case we need it–which we won’t!”

But the joke here is not really on Jesus so much as people who don’t want to hear the modern version of his message. Johnson, despite his Sunday-School-pageant getup, plays Jesus as an expansive, wide-armed fountain of love, who exudes goodness even when he gets pissed off, because that’s who he is: “I still love your bitch ass! By default, too!” It’s the unbelievers who get laughed at, like cynical landlord Vic (Charlie Murphy), who believes Jesus is a hustler and a fake. (The series, by the way, is pretty clear that Jesus is the real deal–at least, we see him read minds and heal by touch, though he insists, “I ain’t in charge of miracles. That’s Pops!”) Black Jesus may be crude and irreverent, but it’s most interested in mocking a world in which Jesus’ message perpetually won’t fly.

The second episode has some of the same flaws (including some badly caricatured Latino gang-bangers), but it also develops a running storyline that’s earnestly New Testament-ish in the show’s own weird way. Black Jesus gets his friends to reclaim a vacant lot as a community garden (with the enticement that they can grow marijuana tucked in with the onions and tomatoes). This sets off several conflicts, the comic targets of which are not the church or Jesus–Black or otherwise–but the crooks and self-dealers who care less about the community than their own community of one.

To recap: that’s Jesus and a crew of disciples, preaching a message of community, beset by cynics and unbelievers… in a garden. There are at least two ways Black Jesus can go from here. It could be a rowdy, funny, even powerful updating of the love-thy-neighbor message–verily, a parable. Or it could be a string of “Son of God N the Hood” jokes. McGruder could just convert a few doubters, if he can lead Black Jesus not into that temptation.


REVIEW: Outlander Is Many Kinds of Show, All in One Kilt

Outlander 2014
Ed Miller / Sony Pictures Television

Time travel, history and Scottie hotties come together in an intriguingly unusual supernatural-romance mashup.

The first hour of Outlander (Starz, Saturdays, 9 p.m. ET) may have viewers who haven’t read the source material wondering exactly what kind of story it is–which can be a danger sign, or, as in this case, a good one.

Is it a supernatural story, because Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) finds herself spirited from 1945 to 1743 Scotland after coming across a druidic henge while on her second honeymoon? Is it historical fiction, because she finds herself taken captive by a Scottish clan at war with brutal English occupiers? Is it a romance, because Claire finds herself captivated by Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a soulful, roguish Scottie hottie who may do more to bring back the kilt than any TV love interest since Sex and the City‘s Trey MacDougal?

It turns out it’s all of these things, which makes Outlander—whose premiere is already online if you can’t wait for Saturday—an unusual combo even in an era of pop-culture genre mashups. But Claire herself suggests yet another description: it’s a story, in a way, about traveling to another planet. “It was like landing on an alien world you’d only glimpsed through a telescope,” she says, finding herself a 20th-century woman navigating a past she knows only from history books.

Certain things don’t change, however. Claire is whisked not just from one Scotland to an earlier one, but from the aftermath of one war to the midst of another. During WWII, we learn in flashback, Claire worked as a front-lines British army nurse while her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies, currently in The Honorable Woman), a soft-spoken academic, was in British Intelligence. The two “outlanders”–as the Scottish term the English–are vacationing up north to prepare to begin a family, and to try to find their way back to normal after years of horror.

The henge, however, has other ideas, and Outlander phase-shifts late in its first hour from a PBS-like production into a different kind of costume drama. After a dangerous run-in with a vicious Redcoat officer–who happens to look exactly like Frank (and is also played by Menzies)–she’s saved, but also made the prisoner (or “guest”) of the Scottish Clan MacKenzie. Her hosts/captors suspect she may be a spy, this curious Englishwoman with puzzling clothing (“What kind of corset is that?” a Scotswoman asks when seeing Claire’s 1940s bra) and an un-18th-century assertiveness–not to mention her knowledge of futuristic medical concepts like bacterial infection.

Claire is an outlander in more than one sense: an Englishwoman in a suspicious Scots clan, and a spirited woman in a patriarchal society. The show is based on a book series (which I haven’t read) by Diana Gabaldon and produced by Ronald D. Moore, who carries a sci-fi pedigree from Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t fuss much with the why-and-how of Claire’s time travel. Instead it settles into Claire’s involuntary exploration of the past–and Balfe makes a wry, infectiously engaging guide.

The result is the most promising show in years for Starz, which since Party Down’s glory days has focused on blood-heavy spectacles like Spartacus and Black Sails or morose antihero dramas like Boss and Magic City. But it’s also something different in the larger universe of pay-cable drama: an epic drama told from the standpoint of an optimistic, resourceful woman rather than brooding, demon-chasing men.

That changes a lot, starting with the sex. Like Game of Thrones, Outlander is conscious of rape as a weapon of war, but it’s neither graphic nor gratuitous in portraying it. (In general, there seems to be more of a safety net as to how far Outlander will go in depicting the worst in human behavior–sexual or otherwise–not that there aren’t some brutal scenes.)

But there’s also the consensual sex–beginning with the fact that it exists, and not just for the enjoyment of male characters (and viewers). A tryst between Claire and Frank in the first episode, in which he kneels eagerly to pleasure her first, feels like a declaration of sexual principles. And then we have Claire’s 18th-century hall pass Jamie, of the strapping arms and roughly scarred torso–sexposition, meet pecs-position!–who establishes his guy-who-gets-it bona fides when Claire finds him wrangling a feisty horse. “She’s just a girl with spirit is all,” he says. “That’s always a good thing.” (Philosophical question: can you cheat on a husband who hasn’t been born yet?)

All this has raised the issue of whether men–or for that matter, women who are not already fans of the romance genre–will watch. Last week, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson raised the hackles of some book fans by writing that Outlander’s credits, previewed in advance online, might scare off that audience with Bear McCreary’s plaintive highland-air theme song and the gauzy visuals of Stevie-Nicks-twirling druidesses.

I doubt Starz cares very much; the economics of cable mean a premium channel can do much better by targeting specific, underserved fans than trying to make something for everyone. The real problem with those credits is that they suggest a series way more misty and demure than Outlander actually is. This is a very writerly TV show–unfortunately, there’s so much voiceover narration that it’s sometimes like its own audiobook–but Claire is no starry-eyed poetic sap. She’s direct, clear-eyed, and unafraid to tell off her gruff Scotsman captors with an exasperated “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!,” my new expletive phrase of choice.

Good thing Claire is such good company, because after the enchanting first episode, the series wanders. Claire’s early focus is returning to “the stones” in hopes of returning home, but there’s no particular urgency. The series spends a lot of time luxuriating in the scenery and atmosphere, as if it’s meant to be binge-watched over a pot of tea on a rainy weekend at a bed and breakfast.

But once you accept, with Claire, that we may be sticking around for a while, Outlander becomes an intriguing kind of social drama, a study of a people under siege whose bristliness comes with a deep sense of honor. And the sixth episode, in which Claire again encounters Frank’s Redcoat doppelgänger, snaps the show into gear as it drives home the brutality of the occupation and the motivations of the rebelling clansfolk: it’s easily the series’ best episode yet.

It was also the last episode Starz offered for review. I haven’t read the source books, so I can offer no spoilers, though there are hints that Outlander is not nearly finished with its time-jumping convolutions. To a non-reader, it’s not necessarily clear, half a dozen episodes in, what kind(s) of story Outlander will turn out to be. But there’s enough to enjoy that you may not mind Claire taking her time and figuring it out.

TIME Television

The Knick Is a Period Piece That’s Vitally Present


Steven Soderbergh's bloody--and bloody fascinating--medical drama is about the past, but it feels as new as anything on TV.

The Knick (Cinemax, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET) is a show about the future. It just happens to take place in 1900.

The medical drama, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and produced and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is emphatically a period piece, meticulously produced, capturing turn-of-that-century New York City in all its grimy, typhoid-infected squalor. But this ain’t Downton Abbey, and no crumpets shall be served. The Knick doesn’t hold the past at a remove; it feels as immediate as any series set in 2014. It’s a period drama that never forgets that its characters are on the cusp of their own dizzying future of scientific and cultural change, and it presents them like people who are living in their own present, not someone else’s past.

As we arrive in the halls of Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Hospital, they’re humming with newly wired (and unreliable) electricity. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the brilliant and bristly new head of surgery, is aggressively exploring experimental treatments, fueled by ambition and surreptitious injections of cocaine. At “The Knick,” people suffer the same things they might at Seattle Grace on Grey’s Anatomy–aneurysms, complications of pregnancy, hernias–but saving them involves much more risk, and a lot of blood and guts, which The Knick apparently orders by the barrel from the same wholesale warehouse as The Strain.

It’s not pretty, and it’s only occasionally happy. Patients often die on the operating table, and those of you squeamish about gore will have a chance early to decide if this is the show for you. (If you make it past that, you’ll be treated to some horrifying yet fascinating depictions of period medicine, like a repair to a damaged nose that involves grafting skin from the arm–which limb must remain sutured to the patient’s nose for weeks. In Thackery’s anatomy, the arm bone is not connected merely to the hand bone.) This is the New York not of Edith Wharton and Henry James–though we glimpse plenty of opulence–but of Jacob Riis and Luc Sante, full of ethnic bigotry and rat-baiting contests.

The Knick shoots history through a grimy lens–it’s Deadwood, extra dead–and Thackery is shooting at demons with that coke-and-opium needle. (His method of choice is an injection between his toes, which he then laces up in a gorgeous pair of shoes that will probably launch a run on white leather.) But beyond that premium-cable darkness, this is also a series about the rush of scientific discovery–like, but different from, Manhattan, Halt and Catch Fire and Masters of Sex. The new magic humankind is harnessing can do more than light hallways, though the use of electricity in surgery still has some bugs, as Thackery’s staff discover when testing new equipment, with sizzling results, on a pig cadaver. (“It does smell pleasantly like breakfast.”)

It’s not simply medicine that’s changing in 1900, but the mechanics of human existence and achievement. As The Knickerbocker acquires its first X-ray machine, for instance, it leads a character to note that the new technology has implications beyond medicine alone. Once, great fortunes were made from material resources: lumber, ore, land. “The next great fortunes,” he says, “will be a result of the immaterial, the unseen wealth buzzing all around us like electricity and x-rays.”

The old fortunes, meanwhile, are more powerful than ever, in the latter days of the Gilded Age, and institutions like The Knick owe their existence to the competitive philanthropy that’s remaking American society. (The fictional patron of Knickerbocker Hospital, Capt. August Robertson, chafes every time he reads about John D. Rockefeller in the New York Times.)

New York City itself is changing, swollen with immigrants whose crowded conditions breed disease, and The Knick–the only major hospital left serving immigrant-heavy downtown as others chase rich patients uptown–is increasingly cash-strapped. And Robertson’s support comes with strings attached. His daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), a progressive crusader, keeps close tabs on Thackery and his staff. And the family orders the hiring of African American Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a brilliant, Harvard-and-Europe-trained surgeon and researcher who finds Thackery and his staff not nearly as progressive socially as they are medically.

The setup gives The Knick a foot in every stratum of turn-of-the-century society: rich and poor, white and black, Mayflower or Ellis Island, everyone gets sick. It depicts the hustler economy of the city, from mobsters down to the ambulance drivers who make a living collecting commissions for every “body delivered alive” to a hospital (and who violently defend their turf). It follows Edwards from The Knick to the distinct subculture of the African American boarding house where he, though a gainfully employed professional, lives with working-class roomers who see him as an elitist snob.

And it discovers fascinating characters, like Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), a nun with un-dogmatic views on family planning, and Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), a nurse from Kentucky who proves more open-minded than her greenhorn first impression suggests. (Thackery, though Owen plays him expertly as an arrogant cuss, is one of the more overfamiliar figures in the show: we’ve already seen enough dedicated-but–flawed doctors to staff an entire hospital wing.)

It’s the kind of rich picture of the urban past that BBC America’s Copper tried less successfully a couple of years ago, but it also has plenty to say about today. In many ways today’s political debates–over the Tea Party, limits on campaign donations, corporations as people, &c–are really an argument over whether the 20th century was a good idea, with its safety nets and curbs on private power. It may be a coincidence that this show and Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts in September, which begins with Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism, are revisiting this period at the same time. But it’s happening while a not-insignificant number of free-marketeers want to revisit it too, one way or another.

Soderbergh–“retired” from feature film as of last year– directs each episode, and he’s given the show a look that’s not only distinctive for a period drama but that serves the show’s themes. Like other big-ticket TV re-creations of history–HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, say–The Knick is painstaking in its details and the brownstone Brooklyn locations that stand-in for gaslight-era Manhattan. But it looks distinctively like a show shot in 2014.

There are few sepia clichés, no effort to give the scenes that kind of stately composure that TV uses as easy shorthand for the past. Instead, there’s handheld camera that races to catch up with characters at the edge of the frame; there’s garish surgical light in the operating-room scenes. For us, this is the past, yes, but for Thackery and his fellow Knickerbockers it is the (literally) bleeding edge of another era, and Soderbergh gives it a dreamlike, jittery immediacy. And the images are buttressed by the secret star of The Knick, Cliff Martinez’s gorgeous score–not tinkly ragtime piano but spare, haunting, ambient electronica. It’s anachronistic, but to a point, and it’s damned effective.

In ambition and execution The Knick is miles ahead of anything else from Cinemax, which has specialized in just-smart-enough entertainments like Strike Back and Banshee–if you’d missed the credits, you’d assume that it was on its sister HBO, and it could give its network the same artistic upgrade that the Deadwood generation of dramas gave that channel. It doesn’t have the distinctive voice and language that David Milch gave Deadwood, though, and the writing isn’t always up to the distinctive direction and performances. (At one point, it triple-underlines a ripped-from-history plot about a typhoid outbreak being traced back to the kitchen worker Mary Mallon by having a character wonder aloud, “Where are you, Typhoid Mary?”)

The show grows on you, though, or it did on me; Cinemax sent seven episodes and though I squirmed early on, I found myself happily bingeing them. As if you’re walking into a dimly lit brownstone, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust–but when they do, you see not just gore but a wrestling with the mechanics of life, not just grimness but an odd, vital kind of hope.

As Soderbergh directs it, The Knick has a lot to say with and about illumination, from the dank interiors of overfilled tenements to the blinding cyberpunk glare of the operating room. But it all seems to come down to a larger story, one that’s not only about darkness, but about humankind struggling, blinking, toward the light.

TIME Television

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing: Why Halt and Catch Fire Mattered


The computer drama's imperfect first season may have been its last. But here's hoping it means more series that find the excitement in creation rather than destruction.

One major problem with Halt and Catch Fire‘s first, and possibly last, season was what I’d call “Yeah… so?” syndrome. It asked us to invest in the struggles of its characters, frustrated in one way or another by the computer business, to create something of their own. That something, however, was just a fast, cheap IBM clone. Yeah, they’re putting everything on the line, but all they’re doing is making a knockoff. So why the hell should we care?

Halt didn’t solve all its problems over the course of 10 episodes. (The greatest was putting so much weight on Joe Macmillan’s tortured-man-with-a-secret character.) But with the finale, “1984,” and the few episodes that came before it, Halt showed that its “Yeah… so?” issue was, as they say, not a bug but a feature. It was hard to cheer for the Cardiff team releasing their knockoff because, in fact, it wasn’t something worth cheering for. And the season, closing with this episode, was about the characters’ realizing this: what they thought was the future really wasn’t.

That’s why the reveal of the Macintosh computer at the end of the penultimate episode–despite the goofy, candlelit geek-seance setting–was such a daring trick for a series to pull. It’s as if the first season of 24 had involved Jack Bauer chasing terrorists only to find in the last hour that he was beaten to his target by another, stronger Jack Bauer with laser vision and a jet pack. The Cardiff team risked their careers, relationships and freedom, and it turns out that the future of computing was already on its way–and it could speak. And it came heralded, as I noted in my initial review of the show’s pilot, by a Super Bowl ad featuring a rebel who looks a lot like Cameron:

It’s a risky thing to ask an audience to invest in a season that is largely about its chief characters embarking on a quest that’s, well, wrong–probably too risky, judging by the ratings. But it’s a shame, because Halt ended up being a revealing, if imperfect, story about creation, ambition and the costs of pursuing dreams.

In Gordon, for instance, it found a complex character whose ambition was both sympathetic and alienating; the heartbreak of failing with his and Donna’s first computer, the Symphonic, has curdled in him. For a while, the push to bring the Giant to life revives his idealistic drive to make something great. But idealism is hard, it’s tiring, and eventually it becomes more important above all that he simply not lose one more time–even if winning this time just means making a widget slightly better and quicker than the other guy’s widget.

Donna, meanwhile, initially seems like another wet-blanket wife smothering her husband’s dreams–but it turns out that they were her dreams too, that losing them cost her at least as much, on top of which she has the energy-draining responsibility of managing Gordon. For all that, their marriage still works, in the complicated, imperfect way that long-term marriages do: they still have not just a romantic spark but a creative and intellectual one. (Sue me, but Gordon’s giving her the cipher ring that they made together was pure nerd romance.) And it’s fitting in the end that she–the musician who was able to hear the melody in machine language–should be the one who signs on for Cameron’s early vision of what would be the actual future of computing that we know. The two women, dismissed and ignored by a male-dominated business, have hit on the next next thing, leapfrogging not just the IBM clones but the desktop itself, realizing that computers will be not just place-bound machines but a medium of travel.

Looking back, the series set all this up in its pilot episode. Most blatantly, there was the very first scene in Joe’s classroom, in which he asks the students to envision computing in 10 years: Cameron is the only one who guesses that it will involve connected computing over data networks. But it’s also in the much-quoted line that Joe delivers to Gordon: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

You could say that about Joe’s character himself: the idea of an angsty, manipulative antihero spinning webs and lighting fires while crying inside has been cloned many times in cable drama. Joe was just not an interesting take on that character, and he left the usually capable Lee Pace to spend the series posturing and preening in a way that made Joe seem not devilishly charismatic but transparently full of b.s. And yet, maybe he was also necessary: maybe, without a familiar hook like Joe’s story, AMC might never have picked up Halt and viewers might never have even given it a first look. With that entrée, the series took a stab at a story about the beginnings of a cultural era, about technology as a metaphor for art–and maybe as a kind of art in itself.

Halt‘s first season is over. With what it’s set up, I’d like to see a second, but I can understand if that doesn’t happen. I do hope, though, that we’ll see more dramas about creation rather than destruction, about the magic and pain involved in trying to build and dream and resist the easy out of cynicism. This attempt may have been a noble failure, like the Apple Newton, an early attempt at something that will later reinvent its field. Maybe Halt and Catch Fire, in the end, wasn’t the thing. But it can be the thing that gets us to the thing.

TIME Television

REVIEW: The Honorable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal - in the SundanceTV original series "The Honorable Woman" - Photo Credit: Des Willie

Maggie Gyllenhaal is captivating in a twisty Middle East espionage thriller with timely--and timeless--themes.

They say that timing is everything in comedy. Turns it out it matters in drama as well.

Premiering July 31 on Sundance TV, The Honorable Woman would be an absorbing espionage thriller any time it aired. But given the current headlines, it’s hard not to notice the subject matter: a story of crime and betrayal rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s not eerily prescient or ripped from the headlines: rather, its themes of suspicion, deceit and frustrated good intentions allow it to tell a story that’s both topical and eternal.

The title character is Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the British daughter of an Anglo-Jewish family whose father–a businessman who dealt weapons to Israel–was murdered before her eyes when she was a little girl. She’s grown to inherit the family business, but despite or because of her history of loss (much of her family died in the Holocaust), she’s turned its efforts toward peace–specifically, bringing fiber-optic wiring to Gaza to promote economic growth and fight the poverty in which terrorism thrives. As the miniseries begin, she has been rewarded for her efforts by being named a baroness, with a seat in the House of Lords.

A noblewoman, with noble intentions. But it becomes clear that it’s hard to carry them out without compromise, and being compromised; the process of cutting deals means alienating powerful people in the region and working against–and with–untrustworthy characters. Very quickly, she finds herself enmeshed in blowback: the suspect death of a business associate sets off a twisty plot, involving MI5 (Stephen Rea and Janet McTeer are excellent as agents and antagonists), suggesting threats lurking in every shadow, and revealing that Nessa herself hides secrets that make her deeply vulnerable.

Though the deliberate pace and cool tone recall classic British spy fiction (the series is a coproduction with the BBC), Honorable Woman is also very much in the mold of modern paranoid TV thrillers, where twists and reversals are interlaced like patterns in a carpet. But it prefers tension to explosions. Writer-director Hugo Blick deals out story relentlessly but makes time for conversations and silences that allow the excellent cast to reveal that their characters are more than they seem at first. Gyllenhaal is remarkable, playing Nessa as both person and persona, an accomplished woman who’s learned to keep a room-temperature face even when she’s melting down internally; only gradually do we learn how much of herself she’s lost in the interest of her cause. But the show has a vast bench: Igal Naor as a wily family counsel; Andrew Buchan as Nephra’s brother Ephra, hiding his own secrets; Lubna Azabal as Nessa’s nanny and friend, who shares crucial history with her.

Though the lavish production jumps between settings and countries (and the script skips nimbly through time), this is still a Middle Eastern story told from a distinctly British standpoint. But this remove ultimately helps it. What works about The Honorable Woman is how well its particular story and larger themes echo each other: trust and mistrust, hope and disappointment, resentment and revenge, repeating for generations.

I’m being cagey about the particulars of this story–who does what to whom and for what reasons–because this is a thriller, and discovering that is the thrill. But what makes The Honorable Woman more than a yarn is how, through these surprises, it tells you what you unfortunately already know, and are reminded whenever you turn on the news. In the first episode, an interviewer sparring with Nessa about her peace efforts on a radio show cuts down her lofty goals thus: “When it comes to the history of the Middle East, it never ends well for idealists, does it?” Timing, my friends, timing.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Tom Petty’s New Album Hypnotic Eye Stays Red, White and Blue

Hypnotic Eye
Warner Bros.

The veteran's latest critiques modern America while embracing the heartland rock of their early years

This post is in partnership with NME.

For almost 40 years, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have been channeling the red blood and blue collars of the USA into their radio rock. Yet Petty has rarely come across more overtly American than on this, his 13th studio album. Through the gritty rumble of opener “American Dream Plan B,” the honky-tonk blues of “Burnt Out Town” and the vigorous “Full Grown Boy” and “Shadow People” especially, these 11 songs see Petty harness the grand ol’ USA more than ever before. It’s not patriotic, though. Rather, this album critiques modern America while embracing the heartland rock of Petty’s early years. It won’t convert the unconvinced, but Petty sounds as inspired as ever.

More from NME: Sex Pistols bassist reveals he hasn’t spoken to John Lydon in five years

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TIME Television

Punch-Drunk Love: Masters of Sex Moves Up a Weight Class

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 2, episode 3) - Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_SG_203_0003

In "Fight," the series' best episode yet, Bill and Virginia watch a boxing match and compare old battle scars.

“There’s really not an interesting story here, Virginia, I promise you!” –Bill Masters

Is there anything better for a TV fan than discovering a brand-new great show? Maybe: there’s seeing an existing series leap to another level, delivering on its early hints of promise. That was Parks and Recreation after its muddled first episodes; it was Breaking Bad after its strike-shortened first season; earlier this year, it was The Americans donning the mighty wig of a top-tier TV drama.

Now it’s the second season of Masters of Sex that’s hit the narrative G-spot. And “Fight,” the show’s finest episode yet and one of the year’s best, is a confident hour that announces this show fully knows what it’s doing and why.

I assume any critic–and anyone who’s watched Mad Men–will compare “Fight” to “The Suitcase,” possibly that series’ best episode, which also used a famous boxing match as the backdrop for a story about the relationship between two central characters. That episode took Don and Peggy over a long, drunken night on the town and in the office, underscoring the similarities between the boss and his protege; it found a kind of platonic connection within their professional relationship. “Fight,” on the other hand, took the already intimate physical relationship between Bill and Virginia, colleague-lovers very different in personality and outlook, and tried to find the frequencies on which they resonate.

Though the episode began before their hotel room assignation and ended after it, it felt in some ways like an idyll that existed outside normal reality. Time is distended in it, for instance: in the span of an an 11-round boxing match, there was time for Bill and Virginia to have sex, order and eat dinner, talk about their pasts, have a boxing lesson, get a haircut, have more sex, dress and check out. It’s just a dramatic liberty, but it also gives the episode a slightly magical feeling, as if the hotel room is the portal to another, purgatorial dimension.

And how mesmerizing Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are in purging their characters. The part of the reserved, suffering genius can be tedious, but it’s transfixing to see him peer out from behind the ice wall he’s built since childhood, and to see Virginia chip away at it. Any actor could play Bill as a man who doesn’t want to share his secrets; Sheen lets you see the hints that a part of him does want to. And as Virginia draws him out, pulling from him the story of being his father’s real-life punching bag, their conversation is as intimate, probing, sexual, as their sex. (Though the sex is nothing to sneeze at either. The scene in which the screen cuts to the boxing match to the sound of Virginia’s breath as she “makes herself feel good”? TKO.)

It’s fitting that the episode is structured around a fight, because it’s really Bill and Virginia comparing scars and bruises. And Caplan shows the subtlety with which she won a deserved Emmy nomination as she shows how she adapted in her own way to heartbreak. Where Bill became guarded and private, she became adventurous and outward-focused–but to a point: “Sex–fine, enjoy it if and when you can. It’s a biological function. But be safe, keep your heart out of it.” In the back-and-forth between them, you see how they make such effective lab partners: where he’s driven to look inward and analyze, she’s compelled to engage with the world, ask questions and explore. The difference comes down even to their hotel-register aliases: Bill wants to hide by making their story as bland and forgettable, Virginia by making it outlandishly fanciful.

The ambiguous-genitalia subplot, meanwhile, demonstrates how Masters of Sex has figured out how to use medicine and sex science to serve its themes: understanding sexuality, here as in last week’s “nymphomania” case, is important not just because it’s sexy or interesting, but because ignorance ruins people’s lives. And Bill’s ultimately unsuccessful showdown with the baby’s boorish father cuts directly to his childhood. For much of the first season, Bill’s abusive father seemed like backstory in search of a reason, but “Fight” links it directly to his work: one thing that drives his ambition is anger, the urge to fight bullies and the misinformation that empowers them. But knowledge can only take him so far: he’s more confident in cutting down the brutish dad with contempt–“You’re going to thank me for protecting you from your own poor judgment”–but in the end, he still ends up begging, fruitlessly, the self-satisfied jerk who says about his own baby, “A hole’s easier than a pole.”

What a set of performances; what an episode; what a show. And though Bill’s efforts to save a baby boy from gender confusion fail, “Fight” ends on an understatedly hopeful note. We don’t see, but hear over the final credits, the last seconds of the boxing match, in which Archie Moore–the aging underdog Bill identifies with–pulls out a historic 11th-round knockout. And Virginia has the last word, “I want to see how it ends,” as if to say that–for her and the other men and especially women who stand to gain from learning about sex–this fight is not nearly over.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Common Speaks to Chicago on New Album Nobody’s Smiling

Def Jam

The rapper continues to act as the voice of his city

This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

Chicago is rap’s cultural hub in 2014. The city is the home of the genre’s biggest megastar (Kanye), a sage-like voice of reason (Common), and it is abuzz with young upstarts making their presence felt in a plethora of unique ways. Regardless of the method of self-expression you consult, whether it’s the brash, raucous street garble of Keef or the stringy, often cautious stream-of-consciousness of Chance, there is always a larger, sociopolitical elephant in the room. Wherever Chicago and rap are concerned, the subtext permeating every hanging word is unmistakable: Violence plagues its inhabitants. Common has taken it upon himself to address it, being no stranger to the cause. His 10th studio album, Nobody’s Smiling, operates with Chicago’s astronomically high crime rate at its epicenter, and Common once again stands as the leading proponent for change, delivering wordplay lined with context — but this time his supporting cast plays just as important a role in crafting his chilling epic.

It’s fitting that the prominent voices opening Common’s dark opus bridge three different gaps of heavy Chicago soundspace. “The Neighborhood” is a bleak introduction to one of America’s most dangerous cities told by figures from its past, present, and future. Curtis Mayfield’s piercing pitch soundtracked a blacksploitation film while he pushed social consciousness at the height of the civil rights era. A sample of his “Other Side of Town” lays the foundation. Lil Herb embodies the gritty and aggressive new voice of the metropolis; a standout from the homegrown drill subgenre, Herb thoroughly documents the city’s widespread bloodshed first-hand, like the lead in a crime drama. He is deft enough to express what it’s like to exist in Chicago’s cyclical gang culture in real time.

Common is the link between the two, a “conscious” rapper that has spent over half his life peddling gems about the perils of urban life over looped soul. He has recounted civic regression in three different decades now, but this time it’s far more direct; this is a plea to Chicago itself, the “concrete matrix” as he calls it. The backbone that brings the generations together is fellow Chicagoan No I.D., who mentored Kanye and produced Common’s first three LPs. They link again on Nobody’s Smiling after collaborating in full on Common’s previous effort, the underappreciated The Dreamer/The Believer, and together they create a tale of inner city turmoil with Common’s personal narrative as a backstory. Nobody’s Smiling is a testament to how deep-rooted urban struggle is.

Nobody’s Smiling is most profound at its most melancholy. It’s draped in an ominous, gray cloud of sonic energy, an overcast atmosphere that seemingly exemplifies Chicago at its bleakest. There isn’t a hopeful tone; the LP is about Chicago as it is, not as it could be. On the title track, a brooding, sinister cut, Common spits, “I’m from Chicago, nobody’s smiling/ Niggas wylin on Stony Island/ Where the chief and the president come from/ Pop out, pop pills, pop guns.” Geographically speaking, he raps like he’s standing on every street corner in the city, reporting live from the scene like an eyewitness news team. Nobody’s Smiling works as sharp commentary because it balances Common’s perception with secondary insight from others heavily influenced by gang violence.

Common makes a point of shifting the focus onto the young surveyors of urban violence, both in Chicago and abroad, to help tell the tale. He does so not with the intent of making the message more palatable for younger audiences, but with the sole purpose of showcasing the savagery with renewed perspective. Vince Staples, perhaps the most levelheaded street rapper not named Freddie Gibbs, fuels Common’s narrative with self-aware vitriol on “Kingdom”, spewing with great disdain for the street lifestyle forced upon him. But there’s also an innate understanding of its necessity and its consequences. “Sweet Lord Jesus, tell the polices to let a nigga breathe/ My sinning father see, got a shipment by the seas/ See my niggas tryna eat, eat whatever’s on your plate/ Save some for me/ The worst things in life come sitting six feet,” he raps, and it’s clear he views brutality as his only means of survival. Common could never accurately communicate that on his own. On “The Neighborhood”, Herb nearly gets emotional rapping about perpetually being in close proximity with death: “I’ve been out there three days, and I got shot at three times/ Felt like every bullet hit me when they flew out each nine/ I be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind.” It’s a stunning look into the mind of a teenager surrounded by violence. Whether it’s Dreezy or James Fauntleroy, every act brings a layer of context and an added dimension to the portrait of inner city life.

The lead narrator of Nobody’s Smiling is still Common, despite so many voices in the periphery, but its unsung champion is No I.D. The producer, who is also the Executive A&R for Def Jam Recordings, litters the signees of his ARTium imprint throughout the project (Elijah Blake, Jhene Aiko, and Snoh Aalegra), and his impact is felt in each moment. “No Fear” sounds just like the sonic effigy of a concrete jungle, and Common matches its energy with raps on the primal instincts instilled in street dwellers. The closer, “Rewind That”, a song about turning back the clock and uniting with producers from Common’s past (particularly the late J Dilla), is the only record that doesn’t fit the central theme, but its expert chop of Eleanore Mills’ “Telegram” and its honest storytelling make it a standout. “Diamonds” feels out of place sonically, but it’s the closest thing the album has to an anthem. The “Hypnotize”-sampling “Speak My Piece” rings and tremors like an earthquake shaking a metal structure, and Common releases one of his more fluid flows. “My time, the streets is watching like a Rollie/ Do it for the hometown and the homies,” he raps, and his devotion is apparent.

The whole album was created in response to Chicago’s violence epidemic; together, Common and No I.D. create a formidable PSA that addresses the social issues without beating the listener over the head with them. Nobody’s Smiling is a well-rounded discourse on gang violence and inner city plight in Chicago that translates to almost every urban city in America. It is a triumph for conscious rap in a city that could use more self-awareness. Common continues to act as the voice of his city, further opening the dialogue on the problems that scourge it. Nobody’s Smiling is a warning. Hopefully, it wont be a eulogy.

Essential Tracks: “The Neighborhood” (feat. Lil Herb), “Speak My Piece”, and “Kingdom” (feat. Vince Staples)

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TIME Television

Is TV Drama Finally Getting Out of Its Murder Rut?

Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan Greg Peters / WGN

Manhattan, Masters of Sex and several upcoming shows are finding drama in subjects other than scowling tough guys stabbing people.

Manhattan, premiering Sunday night on WGN America, is about a point in history when the balance of power in war tilted from brawn to brains. In 1943, millions of soldiers were fighting and dying around the world, fighting on ships and in the air and in close combat in a global war. Yet the outcome of WWII–and the global dynamic for decades to come–would be determined largely by scientists holed up in a secret government-run community in Los Alamos, N.M., racing to develop the atomic bomb.

WGN’s second new drama after the goofy spookshow Salem, Manhattan is a big improvement for the network–not an instant game-changer like Mad Men for AMC, but promising enough to make it worth finding out what channel WGN is on in your cable lineup. (Brooklyn Time Warner Cable customers, I just found it myself–it’s channel 126!)

Creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) have made a mature, thoughtful drama that explores how the pressure of the A-bomb race combines with military and professional politics to create workplace drama with stakes that are (literally) explosive. John Benjamin Hickey–whom you may know as The Good Wife‘s ChumHum chief–is especially striking as Frank Winter, a head researcher driven not just by patriotic urgency but fierce personal pride. (The Manhattan Project scientists were racing not just Hitler but other U.S. atomic scientists, competing with them for resources and glory.) The first two episodes build slowly, but there’s the stuff of a compelling drama about scientists and their families, exiled to what amounts to the nation’s most remote, highest-stress research campus. (“Harvard with sand,” one character jokes.)

But what’s most interesting about Manhattan at the get-go is how it’s another example of how, in TV as in WWII, brains may be starting to supersede brawn, at least a little. That is: several series this summer and fall are investing in the radical idea that there can be drama in things other than people getting horribly killed.

The last season of The Good Wife featured a running gag about a parodically grim cable drama that Alicia Florrick watched in which brooding cops did terrible things and gave even more terrible speeches about the nature of evil. (It was, basically, Low Winter Sun, veiled with Saran Wrap.) The joke was maybe a little self-serving–a (justified) complaint that lesser dramas got more credit and praise than the fantastic Good Wife because they were on cable and relentlessly bleak and violent. But it also pointed out the fact that in the Breaking Bad / Game of Thrones / Walking Dead era, it had become almost a requirement that serious new TV dramas had to be physically brutal, that their dramatic stakes had to be pointy.

The first half of 2014 brought more crime-and-violence-driven shows willing to take up Heisenberg’s black hat. And it was fine: True Detective gave us a murder case as Southern Gothic existentialism class, Fargo kept winter coming with its distinctive dark comedy. But it didn’t do much to change the impression that, these days, all TV drama flows out of the barrel of a gun.

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe in Halt and Catch Fire. / AMC

But this summer and fall, new (and relatively new) dramas are striving to give Alicia some alternative viewing choices. Besides Manhattan, Showtime’s Masters of Sex–currently better than ever in its second season–draws its dramatic thrust (ahem) not just from eroticism but from the emotional and intellectual charge of scientific discovery: it’s about how research gives its characters’ lives purpose, and how their findings about sexuality and its myths have the potential to change the way their patients live. HBO’s The Leftovers deals with a global cataclysm’s emotional toll, not its body count. Debuting in August, Cinemax’s The Knick (from director Steven Soderbergh) explores fledgling surgical science in the New York City of 1900; Showtime’s The Affair–the best drama pilot I’ve yet seen for fall–is about the aftermath of infidelity. (And that’s not even considering channels like ABC Family, which has a number of entries in the not-murdering-people genre.)

I’ve loved a lot of bloody, brutal shows, but you get tired of so much red meat. Which is one reason why I’ve stuck with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, about the computer business in the early 1980s, for all its imperfections. The show has been knocked as a kludgy Mad Men clone, and with some reason: Lee Pace’s angsty Don Draper-esque man of mystery, is maybe the show’s fifth most interesting character. But the ensemble surrounding him are people you don’t see every day: in particular, the complicated marriage between programmers Donna (the terrific Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is a nuanced exploration of entrepreneurial dreams smashing into reality. It’s become a good show–not nearly a great one, but one that’s refreshing for showing that the simple drive to create a thing of your own can power a story.

Episode 101
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in The Affair. Craig Blankenhorn / Showtime

It’s not as if these shows have taken a vow of pacifism. There’s a dramatic act of violence in the early episodes of Manhattan (and in a larger sense, of course, the show is about the eventual killing of far more people than Walter White ever took out). The Knick is extremely gory, but it’s medical gore, in a story about the bloody trial and error of an emerging science. The Leftovers incidents of violence are sparing, but they’re shocking. WeTV’s The Divide, a social-minded death-penalty drama, is rooted in a murder, albeit one dealt with as past history. Starz’s time-traveling Outlander, premiering in August, involves some hearty Scottish violence, but it’s secondary to the sci-fi-romance, culture-clash storyline.

It may be that TV audiences don’t want an alternative to violent franchises at all: see the healthy ratings for Fargo and The Strain. But if you’ve been hoping that TV drama’s subject matter could become as diverse as it’s become ambitious, the latter half of this year is looking promising. Big murder and mayhem premises will never stop being the stuff of many, many dramas. But as the Manhattan Project taught us, it’s also possible to harness incredible power from teensy, tiny things.

TIME Smartphones

OnePlus One Review: Phone of Dreams

oneplus one
The OnePlus One smartphone features a 5.5-inch screen Jared Newman for TIME

It's hard to imagine a better phone for Android geeks. Too bad you can't get one.

As I walked around Google’s I/O conference last month, my phone seemed to have a mythical status among the Android faithful.

“Is that the OnePlus One?” they’d ask. “How’d you get it? Can I see?” But it wasn’t the phone’s capabilities that made them so curious. It was the fact that the OnePlus One is nearly impossible to buy.

Right now, the only way to purchase a OnePlus One is through an invitation from another owner. And because OnePlus only seeded the phone to a small batch of original owners through a contest and other promotions, there aren’t a lot of Ones to go around. (Mine came direct from the OnePlus PR department, with no invites attached.)

It’s easy to see why Android geeks are clamoring for the OnePlus One. It has all the hallmarks of a high-end Android phone, including a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor, 3 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel front camera.

But at $350 unlocked, it’s roughly half the price of an unlocked iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5. While you can get subsidized phones for cheaper, an unsubsidized plan from AT&T or T-Mobile would save a lot of money in the long run when paired with a OnePlus One.

Besides, the OnePlus One is a standout phone even without the cost savings.

The funny thing is that when I show this phone to regular people, it draws an entirely different reaction. There’s nothing outwardly impressive or even noteworthy about it, save for the black backing that’s as grippy as ultra-fine sandpaper. (A 16 GB white model has a ground cashew backing that’s supposed to feel like baby skin. I found someone at I/O with this version, and while it felt pretty smooth, I didn’t have my test baby on hand for comparison.)

Still, much of the OnePlus One’s appeal comes from what it doesn’t do. In contrast to so many other Android phones, the One is devoid of questionable gimmicks and flare for flare’s sake. The front of the phone is unadorned with tacky brand names or logos, and there are no dual-lens cameras, finicky fingerprint readers or problematic curved glass. When the screen is off, it’s nothing but a thin silver frame surrounding a panel of black glass. The simplicity is striking.

Jared Newman for TIME

Start it up, and you’ll find something very close to stock Android 4.4, with hardly any unnecessary bloatware. The handful of tweaks that do exist come courtesy of CyanogenMod, a modification of stock Android that many enthusiasts install on their phones anyway. There’s a quick settings bar that appears above your notifications, a set of audio equalizer controls and a store for themes that alter the phone’s look and feel. But none of these additions feel intrusive, and most of them can be modified or removed.

Because the system is unburdened by junk and excessive visual flourishes, the OnePlus One always feels fast. The phone never left me hanging as I switched apps, swiped through homescreens and opened the camera. That’s not always the case with the latest mainstream Android phones.

The camera also lacks frilly features, but it’s dependable all around. Its f/2.0 aperture means it can handle low-light photography about as well as the HTC One (no relation), and while it’s not quite as good as HTC’s phone at fending off shaky hands, it’s capable of snapping much more detailed photos. I had no major issues with responsiveness either, as the phone takes about a second to establish focus and snaps photos instantly thereafter. My sole complaint is that you can’t hold the shutter button down for burst mode like you can on the HTC One and iPhone 5s. (There is a separate burst mode option, but that defeats the purpose when you’re trying to capture the perfect moment.)

Jared Newman for TIME

The other thing you only appreciate with time is the OnePlus One’s battery. I tend to charge my phone every night, but after most days I had well over 50 percent battery life in the tank. That includes days when I was constantly using the phone’s mobile hotspot or watching lots of video. It was nice having a phone where battery life was not a concern at all.

My only problems with the OnePlus One tended not to rise above nitpick status. The display, while clear and crisp enough at 1080p, can be a bit hard to read outdoors on sunny days, and its auto-brightness setting doesn’t always hit the appropriate level. I could also do without some of the software tweaks that OnePlus has added, such as the settings shortcuts that are redundant with Android’s own quick settings panel, and the gesture-based shortcuts that I always seemed to enter accidentally. But as I said above, OnePlus allows you to switch these off.

Most of the time, the OnePlus One just did what it was supposed to do. And outside the geekier climes of Google I/O, it never drew attention to itself by causing headaches or getting in the way, and never felt like it was anything less than a high-end handset.

That’s exactly how a smartphone should be, and it’s sad that so many Android vendors feel the need to distract with flips and cartwheels instead. If OnePlus can actually distribute this phone more broadly–and I’m told an actual pre-order system is coming eventually–its ability to excite people without glitz and gimmickry will be its greatest trick.

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