TIME Television

Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Seems Like Old Times

WHAS-6310.CR2
Saeed Adyani/Netflix Poehler and Cooper, back for the first day of camp.

They keep getting older, but their characters are slightly younger--and just as weirdly funny.

Even by the standards of today’s reboot/remake/remodel culture, there are enough layers of nostalgia in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (premieres on Netflix July 31) to rend the fabric of space-time. It’s a 2015 prequel to a 2001 movie, set in 1981. To watch this reunion-cum-origin-story, with its middle-aged original cast putting on teenage drag again, is to feel a tug of memory for the aughts and the ’90s heyday of MTV’s The State (which gave us co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain) and the ’70s and ’80s camp comedies like Meatballs it lovingly spoofs. If this eight-episode series were any more dense with resonances across time, it would be directed by Terrence Malick and have a prologue involving dinosaurs.

Fortunately, as reminders of one’s inexorable mortality go, First Day of Camp is good fun. Like the original (set on the last day of summer camp), it’s a machine constructed of pop parodies and well-curated period references (“He’s a total fox, like a young Larry Wilcox!”) that conceals an actual beating heart. On top of the goofs of the movie–which mashed up sex farces and hijinks with a plot involving the crash of Skylab and a montage of a wild afternoon that ended in heroin abuse–it adds the absurdity of showing us the “history” of characters whom, after all, we last saw only one short camp season later.

Sometimes that means putting the denizens of Camp Firewood through far-fetched changes (as when we learn how H. Jon Benjamin came to voice a talking can of vegetables). Sometimes it means characters living through essentially the same plots they did in the movie. Hapless romantic Cooperberg (Showalter, donning an ’80s-kid hair helmet at age 45) is led on by another female counselor (this time played by Lake Bell); Molly Shannon’s Gail confides her grown-up love problems to precociously wise campers; Ken Marino’s secret virgin Kulak is still fronting as a Romeo. But at eight episodes (I’ve seen six), Wain and Showalter have the chance to layer in more outlandish subplots involving toxic waste, President Reagan and ’80s rock journalism. It’s an imitation of the film, but at least it’s not a pale one.

Like Netflix’s ur-revival, Arrested Development, First Day of Camp reunites nearly all of the original cast. (Reportedly, the reunions involved creative scheduling and some use of greenscreen, but the interactions among the characters don’t suffer much for it.) And it doesn’t stop there: Josh Charles, Rich Sommer and Kristen Wiig ham it up as toffs at the rich camp across the lake; John Slattery owns the screen as a bigshot theater director; and the many, many additional guests include Michael Cera, Jordan Peele and Jon Hamm. If you are an actor known for playing cameos in oddball comedies and you are not in First Day of Camp, you need a new agent or you are dead.

Reboots often run into an existential crisis: why this, why again, why now? But the original Wet Hot American Summer was an absurd lark to begin with, which makes “Because we can, and enough people had free days on their calendars” reason enough to justify the prequel. It’s possible for a project like this to substitute cameos for creativity (think of Will Ferrell and Wiig’s Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption, whose chief attraction was that Ferrell and Wiig were in a Lifetime movie), and sometimes First Day of Camp is more knowing than funny. But the heart of its appeal is the oldest and most effective form of nostalgia: seeing how old pals have changed after all these years. Look, there’s Bradley Cooper–he’s a big movie star now! There’s Amy Poehler–she’s a comedy icon!

A little like Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, they all keep getting older, but their characters stay the same age. (The exception, of course, is Paul Rudd, who will remain unmarked by time long after the sun has flared into a red giant.) But rather than seeming tired or sad, the age dissonance–which was already built into the original movie–is all part of the fun. You could imagine the crew presenting a new, age-idealized version of themselves every few years, like a goofier 7 Up series, or like your Facebook feed.

At one point, for instance, we learn that a certain character, played by a 41-year-old actress who was 27 when the original movie was released, is actually a 24-year-old impersonating a teenager. I won’t spoil who or why, but when she’s told that there’s no way she can pull off the ruse, she responds by simply turning around and mussing up her hair. She looks no different, and everyone acts like it’s a remarkable transformation.

That’s the hopeful, silly, sweet spirit of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp–you’re only as old as you say you are.

TIME Television

Review: Sharknado 3, Bigger, Hungrier and More Commercial

Sharknado 3 - Season 2015
Gene Page/Syfy Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard .

This franchise can still be gross, surprising fun. But first, you have to swim past all the product placements.

Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (Wednesday, July 22, on Syfy) is, of course, a disaster movie: sharks are swept up into storms, hurtle through the air eating humans on the fly, you know the drill. But even before a chainsaw is raised or a single extra goes torso-first into a great white’s gullet, it hints that Earth was struck by an earlier, unmentioned apocalypse: one that destroyed nearly everyone and everything not owned by Comcast Corporation.

Last year’s Sharknado 2, sequel to the 2013 social-media-rubbernecking sensation, already showed that the franchise was willing to use every part of the fish carcass to cross-promote Syfy’s siblings in Comcast-owned NBC Universal, giving prominent roles to Matt Lauer and Al Roker of NBC’s Today show. But that was merely tip of the dorsal fin compared with the feeding frenzy of placement in the third installment.

This time, as Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) prepares to battle a toothy superstorm, we get saturation coverage from a full Today team, right down to wine-hoisting Kathie Lee and Hoda; cameos from Kim Richards and Reza Farahan of Bravo and Maria Menounos of E!; and repeat appearances of the Comcast Xfinity logo, which whips past us on a race car in Daytona.

Above all, we get lavish, loving, not-even-pretending-to-be-uncommercial shots of Comcast-owned Universal Orlando Resort, the setting for the greater part of the sequel’s carnage–because when man-eating sharks vacation, they Vacation Like They Mean It™. The Universal globe is more prominent than the black monolith in 2001. Characters casually-not-casually name-drop the Cabana Bay Resort. There are loving, languorous pans over the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and Twister… Ride It Out rides. The movie is so overtly promotional, I suspect you can show your Tivo recording pass at the Harry Potter Three Broomsticks restaurant for 20% off a butterbeer.

But at least a theme park is an appropriate tie-in for Sharknado, because this franchise is really a series of rides, each of which has to somehow be faster and more vertiginous than the last. And there Sharknado 3 delivers, especially in the beginning (which destroys a major American city before the opening titles even roll) and the climactic ending, which after all the insanity of the first two movies somehow manages to boldly go where no shark has gone before.

We begin in Washington D.C., where Fin, wearing a tux and his trademark stomach-cramps grimace, is receiving a medal for valor from President Mark Cuban and Vice President Ann Coulter. The movie doesn’t waste time; essentially there are a few raindrops and soon hammerheads are flying through the halls of the White House (which, somehow, Comcast neglected to purchase naming rights to). Meanwhile, Fin’s pregnant wife April (Tara Reid) is visiting her mother May (Bo Derek) in Orlando, giving Fin a reason to race to the resort after D.C. is saved/decimated: a massive “sharknado wall” is bearing down on the East Coast, and Washington was merely an amuse-bouche.

The middle of the movie delivers the expected Sharknado-isms–stiff line delivery, brazen pseudoscience, lines like “Biometeorology is not really an exact science yet.” Tornadoes seem to appear out of blue sky (as do the emotional subplots), characters survive a plane crash that leaves them conveniently half-naked.

But it’s all buried in a cameo-nado of celebrity guest appearances: I won’t spoil your fun or cramp my fingers by listing them all, but they include the bipartisan appearances of both Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann, who prove that in today’s media climate a politician can both jump the shark and later costar with it. The slog of guest casting and product placements only underscores that Sharknado has become a big, bloated seafood platter, and everyone and their agent wants a bite.

But for all that, Sharknado 3 keeps its own self-aware sense of humor and it can still deliver a gorily surprising action setpiece. The best sequence by far is the movie’s climax, which involves almost no cameos, plugs or in-jokes; manages to both wink at and outdo the original movie’s chainsaw coup de grace; and ends with what is simultaneously one of the most disgusting, laughable yet weirdly beautiful visuals I’ve seen on TV this year.

In the end, Sharknado 3–like the CGI monsters that are its true stars–is the beast that it is: single-minded, greedy and ravenous. But for all that, it can still be a lovely creature.

TIME Television

Review: An Extraordinary, Ordinary Girlhood in TLC’s I Am Jazz

A reality show about growing up transgender--and simply being a teenage girl--in the suburbs.

It’s only coincidence that I Am Jazz (premieres July 15) is coming to TLC shortly after 19 Kids and Counting was forced off the same channel. But it feels like a change of era.

In May, TLC suspended the reality show about the fecund fundamentalist Duggar family–whose matriarch Michelle once warned that transgender people were child predators–after revelations that one of the Duggars’ sons had molested girls, including his sisters, when he was a teen. The network’s newest family-reality series introduces viewers—who didn’t already know her from her YouTube videos, writing, fundraising and activism—to Jazz Jennings, a soccer-loving South Florida 14-year-old who was assigned male at birth but has identified as female since she could speak. (Or, as she puts it in a children’s book she wrote: “I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!”)

I Am Jazz may be overshadowed by E!’s I Am Cait (debuting July 26), about Caitlyn Jenner, which had the booster-rocket launch of a primetime Diane Sawyer interview, not to mention the media-bait combo of an Olympian decathlete transitioning amid reality’s royal family on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (Jazz, at least, had dibs on the title locution; I Am Jazz was also the title of an OWN special on her aired in 2011.) But I Am Jazz may be most radical for how ordinary it is.

It’s not that Jazz’s gender identity is incidental here. The hour-length premiere especially focuses on it; her mother Jeanette remembers two-year-old Jazz asking, “When is the good fairy going to come and change my penis into a vagina?” Her family, including a college-aged sister and twin older brothers, are universally supportive; her grandmother, well-meaning but unsure on the nomenclature, asks at one point if “tranny” is an offensive term. (It is.) And while I Am Jazz is conscious of the trap of obsessing on transgender people’s biology over all else (the first thing most people ask, Jeanette says, is “Has she had the surgery?”), it’s an unavoidable issue for a teen taking hormones to avoid forestall male puberty–and yes, weighing the eventual possibility of what her doctor calls “bottom surgery” (as distinguished from cosmetic surgery above the waist).

But like many of TLC’s family series–Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Our Little Family, Sister WivesI Am Jazz is about the extraordinary amidst the mundane. This is at heart a show about being a teen in the ‘burbs–changing schools, gossiping with friends, shopping, having trivial family arguments about money and curfews. It all just happens to be heightened: when a group of boys don’t show up for a bowling date with Jazz and her friends, they have to wonder if it’s typical social weirdness or transphobia. Jazz’s parents are protective–when a passer-by calls Jazz a “tranny freak” while the two are eating out, it’s Jazz who has to calm her mother down–but it’s combined with typical parental anxiety about a youngest child growing up.

Jazz is an appealing guide to her own life, confident but with a kid’s awkwardness and dorky sense of humor. She’s remarkably self-possessed for a 14-year-old, likely a product of having grown up in the media. Besides her video series, she cowrote a children’s book and was one of TIME’s Most Influential Teens of 2014. But it’s not until the fifth episode, as Jazz gives a book reading, that the series presents her as “the leader of the trans kids’ movement”–in her coauthor’s words–rather than as she first describes herself in the premiere: “I am a teenage girl.”

Overall I Am Jazz plays less like advocacy and more like the approachable, if stagey, family-reality hybrids cable has made a staple. Reality shows like these, for all their sensationalism or sleight-of-hand, increasingly do what sitcoms like The Cosby Show (also recently fallen to controversy) used to. On the one hand, they offer a sense of possibility to an audience—here, trans kids—that had never seen itself on-screen. On the other, they introduce the rest of the audience to virtual neighbors many of them don’t have in real life, be they transgender, rural and poor (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), rural and rich (Duck Dynasty), Muslim (All-American Muslim), blended (Kardashians) or devout (19 Kids). Amazon’s Transparent, the best show of 2014, dealt elegantly with gender transition in a family, but Jazz and Cait—as well as ABC Family’s current docuseries Becoming Us—may have a reach beyond that show’s indie-TV audience.

I Am Jazz allows that audience plenty of surrogates beyond the Jenningses, choosing to teach to the curious rather than preach to the converted. In a later episode, Jazz’s twin brothers argue with a friend who believes that being transgender is a “choice”–literally, “I thought when she was born they gave her a choice, do you want to be a boy or do you want to be a girl?”

The show could easily have given him a villain edit. Instead the brothers explain that Jazz identified as a girl from her earliest memories. He feels badly for making the assumption, we move on, and the show is better for giving him, and by extension audience members, the room to make a mistake and grow. I Am Jazz is an engaging story of a teen girl who has transitioned. But it is also the story of everyone else, transitioning.

TIME Television

Review: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll Delivers Rock of the Aged

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll - "Don't Wanna Die Anonymous" -- Ep 101 (Airs Thursday, July 16, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (l-r) John Corbett as Flash, Denis Leary as Johnny Rock, John Ales as Rehab. CR. Patrick Harbron/FX
FX

Denis Leary's sendup of a classic-rock has-been suffers from a datedness of its own.

When Denis Leary hit it big in the early ‘90s, he was as much rock star as comedian. He ranted about videos and R.E.M. in a leather jacket on his MTV interstitial clips; he took the stage with a guitarist and a pack of smokes, belting out his single “A**hole” in his standup special No Cure for Cancer.

So it makes sense that in his FX comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (premieres July 16), he plays a rock star who hit big in the early ‘90s. But the effect is less comeback tour than dad-band performance.

Here, the acerbic Rescue Me star plays Johnny Rock, once lead singer of The Heathens, who were legendary for about five minutes on the New York City music scene in the early Nirvana era and broke up the day their breakout album was released after he cuckolded his guitarist Flash (John Corbett). Now he’s a has-been, snorting anything powdered and seriously considering a job with a Jon Bon Jovi tribute band.

His luck changes, sort of, when a young woman he hits on at a bar turns out to be Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter he didn’t know he had. She’s come to town with the idea, and the cash, to reunite the band—but with herself as lead singer and Johnny as her mentor. But that means luring back Flash–now a well-paid sideman for Lady Gaga–and it means Johnny checking his still-arena-sized ego.

The self-destructive egotist is a riff Leary can play with his guitar behind his neck. In The Job and especially Rescue Me, the mashup of comedy and pathos was erratic, but when it worked it was raw and bracing in a way more self-serious antihero series couldn’t achieve. But the old-man-meets-millennial comedy that Sex&Drugs sets up feels cranky and creaky. Gigi, you see, wants Johnny to teach her the ways of authentic rock: “I’m not shooting fireworks out of my tits. I want to sing real songs with real musicians.”

Sex&Drugs can be laceratingly funny about Johnny as aging rocker in denial (he’s still huge in Belgium!), but it shares his grumpy attitude that authenticity died with Kurt Cobain, his Manichean view (and Gigi’s) that music is a battle of real vs. phony, analog vs. digital, Joe Perry vs. Katy Perry. And if it’s not male vs. female, the women—like Johnny’s girlfriend Ava (Elaine Hendrix)—sing backup, unless, like Gigi, they prove their balls. (“Dad,” she says when Johnny writes a sensitive ballad, “that song sounded like something that Sting would write if he was living inside Sarah McLachlan’s vagina.”)

Johnny’s dinosaur act may be intentional; but the show’s references and rockumentary clichés are just fossilized. Besides Sting, there are jabs at David Bowie and Radiohead, making this the edgiest rock satire of 1993. There is a set piece about rock bands’ over-the-top greenroom requests (“Twelve filet mignons in a box, like meat donuts”), not to mention an actual “Did I just say that out loud?” joke.

In a show that has so much to say about authenticity, the details simply feel off. The Heathens were meant to have been edgy in the early ’90s–in an opening mockumentary, The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli describes them as “If The Who f*cked The Clash and they had four kids”–but sound like a bar band. (Leary wrote much of the series’ original music.) And while the snide, lizardy Johnny comes effortlessly to Leary, Corbett, a comfy jean-jacket of an actor, is unconvincing as a difficult rock god. (It doesn’t help that the character names–“Johnny Rock,” “Flash,” the drummer “Bam Bam,” played by Louie’s Robert Kelly–sound like something from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.)

For all that, the return to more straight-ahead comedy feels liberating to Leary, and at times the show hits on a real, productive conflict. In the third episode, Johnny watches Gigi nails a new song that he wrote, and he’s both moved and unsettled to see that his music may be better through her than through him. For a minute, Johnny the father overtakes Johnny the rocker–but when he gets a chance to steal the spotlight back, he takes it.

There’s potential here for a sharp sitcom about a man who’s kept aging but stopped growing. But too often Sex&Drugs shares Johnny’s arrested development, at the expense of both relevance and comedy. In one of his School of Rock sessions with Gigi, Johnny holds forth on how Keith Richards wrote “Satisfaction” while high, and he sees himself as the same kind of grizzled rock lion. But the refrain Sex&Drugs keeps singing is: “Hey! You! Get off of my lawn.”

TIME Television

Review: We Don’t Yet Know Why? with Hannibal Buress

COMEDY CENTRAL

The comic's idiosyncratic gifts need a more distinctive showcase.

I worry that the first episode of Why? with Hannibal Buress was a setup to get critics to make the same hack joke about the title. But I am not too proud to do it. Because while it’s hard to argue with the show’s who (searingly deadpan comic Buress), what (getting his own show), where (on Comedy Central), when (weekly) and how (with his notoriety as a standup, a killer guest on others’ shows and Bill Cosby’s comedic assassin), the premiere left the “Why?“–that is, the show’s purpose and point of view–unanswered.

My standard caveat is that you can’t fully judge a late-night show off its first episode, but ideally the kickoff gives you a context for what comes after, a mission statement. The first Colbert Report included his segment on “truthiness,” which put a name to the kind of gut-over-head demagoguery the show would satirize. Key and Peele from the outset riffed on the stars’ biraciality, which would inform the sketch comedy’s it’s-complicated approach not just to race but identity and assumptions in general. Inside Amy Schumer, from the title, told us it would focus close-up on sex and gender and would make it personal.

Why? with Hannibal Buress, on the other hand, so far is simply a lot of elements you’d find in other Comedy Central shows, with Hannibal Buress in them, because he’s a funny guy. (Contrary to the expectations of people who know him only from the news, it’s not like Buress is going to dethrone a different beloved sitcom dad every week. Tim Allen, you’re safe for now.)

So there was an awkwardly funny cold open with Conan O’Brien. There was standup, some topical (Greece, the home of Socrates, went broke “like all philosophy majors”), some not (like a riff on his discomfort with male hotel housekeepers, which included a quick reference to Cosby). The strongest sketch was a bit with guest Amy Schumer as a Twitter troll, which made the most of a much-used scenario; the weakest, a stage piece belatedly celebrating the “8th of July,” did indeed seem four days long.

One problem may actually have to do with Buress’ strength. He has a track record of being one of the best things on other people’s shows–Broad City, High Maintenance, The Eric André Show–in part because of his hilariously chill nonreaction reactions. His zen unflappability–being a “squinty ____,” as Troll Schumer put it–is the special sauce that cuts the acid note running under much of his comedy.

That’s what makes Hannibal Hannibal, but I can see how it would be hard to translate to a show in which his job is proactive. Occasionally, Why? captured it. Another taped sketch, with unarmed Buress being shot at by a white cop, was overshadowed by a better one on the Key and Peele season premiere before it. But the funniest thing about it was Buress’ tossed-off reaction from the stage, pointing out what a terrible shot the cop was from point-blank range.

Buress was at his best when he was able to do that kind of meta comedy–reacting, essentially, to his own show even as he was making it. I don’t know precisely what kind of series would best harness that skill, but I suspect it would be (a la Eric André, which he co-hosts) more surreal and experimental than the largely conventional formats the premiere mixed together.

It’s fine for Why?, like any comedy show, to figure that out as it goes. But what it needs to do first is to decide what it exists to say, what it is doing on air because nobody but the talented Buress could do it. As it stands, the only answer so far to Why? with Hannibal Buress is: because.

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

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 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

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

Review: More Angst, Less Poetry in a Lesser True Detective

LACEY_TERRELL/HBO

HBO's noir drama relocates from Carcosa to California, losing some strengths and keeping its weaknesses.

The Yellow King is gone. Matthew McConaughey and his Nietzschean monologues are gone. The Louisiana backwoods setting is gone, as is director Cary Fukunaga, who wove a haunting nightmarescape out of the bayou steam. What’s left, in True Detective season 2 (premieres June 21 on HBO) is creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto telling another hard-boiled—now twice-boiled—story of hard men, broken men and angry women (well, one woman, anyway).

The new season deposits us in tiny Vinci, Calif., less a town than a scam, a haven for sweatshop owners and a goldmine for corrupt city officials. Its symbol is Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a whiskey-brined cop whose mustache droops like a flag of surrender. His decline started years ago when his wife was raped; his thirst for vengeance ended his marriage (he’s now fighting for custody of a son who may not be his biological child) and put him in hock to mob-tied businessman Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). When a bureaucrat working to grease a high-speed-rail contract for Frank is found grotesquely murdered, Ray’s bosses and his patron want him to handle the case–though not necessarily to solve it.

But competing jurisdictions saddle Ray with unwanted partners: Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a scrupulous sheriff’s detective with anger issues from her hippie childhood, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a highway motorcycle cop with anger issues from a stint as a mercenary in Iraq. She’s anguished, he’s anguished—there’s so much showy pain here that Pizzolatto seems to be re-creating Darkness at Noon, the grim-cable-drama parody from The Good Wife.

The first True Detective had flaws—thinly drawn rural and female supporting characters, for instance—but its verbal confidence and visual audacity made it unmissable.It was a literary experiment pretending to be a crime drama, an attempt to gene-splice Faulkner, Chandler and Lovecraft into a beast that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga then loosed into the wilderness. The creature got away from them at times, and in the end its trail led to a finale that was half-sentimental, half-freakshow, but the hunt was surprising and exhilarating. True Detective might not have been much of a detective story per se, but that was all right as long as Pizzolatto–like Paul Auster and others before him–used the noir genre to smuggle an existentialist investigation of being onto his story.

Season 2 (HBO screened three episodes for critics) loses the novelty of the show’s first outing and highlights the weaknesses. A crew of new directors create a more intimate but more TV-conventional look, as Pizzolatto leads his cops past a parade of vacant sex workers, greasy pimps and blowsy dames. And where Louisiana made fertile and unusual ground for a noir story, both the setting and the dialogue this time around feel much more familiar. The original’s road-trip bull sessions and cat-and-mouse interrogations are replaced with clipped lines that play like poster copy: “I welcome judgment.” “Never do anything out of hunger.” “Everybody gets touched.”

The first season of True Detective was criticized deservedly for its female characters; its best defense–that everyone except Rust and Marty was two-dimensional, including its male villains and hypocritical holy rollers–was true but insufficient. Season two makes some cosmetic changes: the opening credits retain their silhouette design, but lose the “closeups of female asses” that Emily Nussbaum targeted in her New Yorker takedown of the show in favor of landscapes and abstractions. (There’s also a new theme song, Leonard Cohen’s deadpan “Never Mind.”) And in a kind of answer to Marty and Rust’s long roadtrip dialogues, Ray and Ani discuss why she carries knives. “The fundamental difference between the sexes,” she says, “is one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. A man of any size lays hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.”

“Well, so you know,” he answers, “I support feminism. Mostly by having body image issues.”

But we’re still seeing a lot of women characterized through sex: hookers, horny girlfriends and kept women; a Hollywood starlet who offers Paul quid pro quo to get out of a traffic stop; Ani’s sister, a webcam performer whose workplace Ani busts in an attempt to rescue her (though she doesn’t want rescuing). In fairness, True Detective was, and is, about broken people, both male and female. But it has distinct, stereotypical ideas about the different ways that men and women break.

Arguably, these are stereotypes meant to show men in the worse light–“A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies,” Frank says (and he has an enabling wife to prove it)–but they’re stereotypes all the same. For True Detective‘s women, femininity is a burden and a weapon. (At one point Ani’s female superior tells her to use her sexuality to get leverage over Ray: “He’s a man, for chrissake. I’m not saying f*ck him, but maybe let him think you might f*ck him.”) For the show’s raging bulls, masculinity is an ideal and a diagnosis.

The season’s lengthy casting search does pay off, mostly. Farrell—functionally the show’s lead even if it’s presented as an ensemble—lets slip the hint of a better man under his sheath of bitterness and hair grease. His scenes with his insecure, bullied son are especially terrific. Ray’s love is so febrile that it boils over, even as he knows that he’s making things worse for everyone. He’s painfully aware of his failings as a husband, father, cop–”I’ve never been Columbo”–but he doesn’t know any other way than to steer into the skid.

McAdams is intense but less well-written for, in a role defined mainly by being “angry at the entire world, and men in particular,” as her guru father (David Morse) tells her. Vaughn, though, can’t sell his semi-made man, coming off peevish instead of raging. As for Kitsch, he does his best in a role that, early on, largely asks him to seethe under the burden of a deep inner secrets–I won’t spoil, but the hints start dropping quickly–while carrying an un-turn-offable lady magnet in his pants.

This could have been better, and might be yet. (Though three episodes is a substantial taste, the three-act structure of the first series showed that True Detective reserved the right to change without warning.) The setup of three cops with three agendas investigating the same case has strong possibilities, and there’s a Chinatown potential in the premise of turning California infrastructure into gold, if the series could transmute its leaden angst.

Season two captures that idea—of the massive, inhuman networks mankind creates for commerce—in the signature visual of the season, its aerial establishing shots of California freeways, with their vast curlicued interchanges. But that image also feels symbolic. For season one’s Rust Cohle, time was a flat circle. Season two thus far looks more like a tangle, going nowhere interesting.

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