TIME Television

Homeland Got Better By Getting Smaller

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 4, Episode 09). - Photo:  David Bloomer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  Homeland_409_0484.R
David Bloomer/SHOWTIME 2014

Like an arena-rock band stepping back to play club gigs, the show is stripping down to basics. So far, it's working.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

A couple weeks ago, when Carrie Mathison–high on the crazy pills slipped her by the weaselly Dennis Boyd–hallucinated herself in the arms of a resurrected Nicholas Brody, I thought: Oh God, please do not let this be real.

I don’t know if this was the reaction that the producers meant me to have, but it sums up my relationship with Homeland after four years. By midseason, it has recovered and remade itself well enough as a compelling intelligence thriller that I don’t need or want it to return to the whiplash-y narratives of the hero-turned-terrorist-turned-congressman-turned-fugitive-turned-junkie-turned-hero. But I’ve also been burned often enough that don’t yet trust it not to.

The opening of the season didn’t look promising. The early episodes focused on Carrie and Quinn’s trauma, as crystallized by having Carrie on the verge of drowning her own baby in the bathtub. As I wrote then, the problem with the scene wasn’t that depressed new mothers never have this impulse, but that it expressed Homeland‘s worst tendencies: 1) not trusting that a character moment was enough in itself without going over the top to shock the audience and 2) using “Carrie is craaaaazy!” as a catchall excuse to do that, whether her behavior was consistent or not.

This time I should have had more faith, because, so far anyway, Homeland has kept both the baby and the bathwater. Those first episodes weren’t so much a continuation of the Brody-era nuttiness as a goodbye to it. No one is still going to mistake Homeland for a documentary, but its run of Pakistan-focused episodes found it going back to its basics, like an arena-rock band going back to play stripped-down club gigs. Here’s what’s worked:

It’s focused on its best relationship. And that’s always been, Brody or no Brody, and whatever comes along down the road, Carrie and Saul. Homeland at best has been an action show about what kind of people it takes to fight covert war for years and what kind of warriors covert war produces. Carrie and Saul have a bond that goes beyond mentor and apprentice, parent and child–they’re just about the only people to know what it’s like to be each other. (The one person who would have understood Carrie’s order for the drone strike on Saul, for instance, was probably Saul.) Putting them on the two sides of Saul’s hostage-taking, showing both their love and hardheaded practicality, has given the show an earned emotional power.

Carrie’s still flawed, but she’s competent again. Too often before, Homeland has satisfied its need for story twists by making Carrie erratic and irresponsible, going rogue over and over with near-disastrous results, until it became hard to believe she would be entrusted with searching for someone’s car keys, much less terrorists. Season 4 Carrie can be ruthless and callous, she can go too far and rationalize it, but we never lose the sense that she knows what she’s doing. When she threatens Dennis in interrogation–“I am authorized to kill US citizens on the battlefield, motherfucker”–she’s terrifying and believable, simultaneously in and out of control. If she makes bad choices, it seems driven less by the need to keep the story exciting then by the fact that, as she says in what may be this season’s motto, there are only bad choices.

It picked interesting enemies. In particular, the decision to focus on the real-world frenemy relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI has been productively subtle. We’ve seen so many ruthless terrorist supergeniuses that they’ve lost their effectiveness; much more interesting are the confounding betrayals of a bureaucratic organization that’s an ally, until it isn’t.

The season is about ideas. That doesn’t just mean that it’s timely, though the focus on drone strikes and their consequences certainly is. But rooting the show in the complicated politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and what 14 years of war has accomplished or not, is much more rich and productive than throwing a toolbox worth of wrenches into the Brody story. Homeland has always been a show about tough choices and realpolitik; what’s changed this year is that it’s started believing that in itself is enough for engaging drama.

I write all this knowing that I have no idea who, or what, or what kind of show, is going to emerge from the smoldering wreckage of Carrie and Saul’s motorcade two weeks from now. My track record with Homeland is that as soon as I decide it’s one thing, it turns into something else. I declared season 2 great just after Carrie’s brutal interrogation of Brody–and then it took the exit to crazytown. I was optimistic about the beginning of season 3, which hopscotched down a trail of absurd twists and manipulations (though it gave Brody a nice sendoff). I didn’t like season 4’s opening, and that was the show’s cue to get better and better.

So I guess you can mark this on your calendar as the first sign that Homeland was about to start to suck again, and I will fully accept the blame.

But for all our sakes, as insurance, I’m not going to get carried away here. It’s easy to get excited when a show makes a turnaround like this, but I wouldn’t call Homeland great. Instead, it’s simply tried to be good, and that’s been the show’s smartest choice of all.

TIME movies

Back to the Future II Turns 25 — Or, in Future Years, -1

'Back To The Future Part II'
'Back To The Future Part II' Universal Pictures

Read TIME's 1989 review of the futuristic favorite

When the first Back to the Future movie came out in 1985, it didn’t receive a review in TIME — but on the occasion of its release 25 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1989, Back to the Future, Part II provided a convincing argument for the magazine to want to go back in time and correct that oversight.

“Like its predecessor, Back to the Future, Part II does not merely warp time; it twists it, shakes it and stands it on its ear,” wrote critic Richard Schickel. “But as before, the film’s technical brilliance is the least of its appeals. Satirically acute, intricately structured and deftly paced, it is at heart stout, good and untainted by easy sentiment.”

In fact, he went on, in some ways Part II one-upped its predecessor: “…when [Marty] is reinserted into this moment in time and starts to meet himself and the situations of the previous movie, Back to the Future II ceases to be a sequel. It becomes instead a kind of fugue, brilliantly varying and expanding on previously stated themes.”

It also became known as the source of the world’s wish for a working hover board. In TIME’s original review of the movie, the accompanying photo is of Marty McFly in the year 2015 riding said mode of transport — which makes the movie’s 25th birthday a particularly exciting one. The year 2015 is fast approaching, no time machine required, and sure enough, here it is: a real-life hover board is featured on our annual list of the 25 best inventions of the year.

Read the full 1989 review, here in the TIME Vault: More Travels With Marty

TIME Television

REVIEW: An Amazon Kids’ Show Far Better Than Normal

Justice, Siegel and Boettcher in Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street. Amazon

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street brings back the magic to older-kids' TV.

The rise of streaming TV has been a gift for fans of ambitious scripted shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. Still, it’s odd that this new video medium has got the most attention for giving us more of what we already have a lot of–comedies, dramas and dramedies for adults.

TV, of course, is a lot more than that–and, in fact, people who use streaming services use them for a lot more. Families, for instance, use the archives of classic TV shows and movies to fill in the gaps of new entertainment. (In my house, we’ve been having a mini film festival of ’70s and ’80s flicks like Breaking Away, which are simultaneously adult and kid-accessible, without being saccharine, in a way that doesn’t exist as much now.) And kids, who’ve grown up accustomed to a grazer’s buffet bar of media, are naturals for streaming: they watch what they want on their schedule, while their parents don’t need to worry what they’ll come across flipping channels. “Flipping channels,” really, is one of those experiences–like searching for a pay phone–that my children only encounter now when watching the aforementioned ’70s and ’80s movies.

Amazon Prime Video has been the streamer that’s most focused on original kids’ shows, including the delightful, science-and-tech focused Annedroids, which premiered this summer and was quietly radical for advancing the idea that girls could get excited about robots. It also earlier this year debuted the preschool-focused Creative Galaxy and Tumble Leaf. Each of those shows was winsome in its own way, but they didn’t fill a dire need; there’s a surfeit of sharp TV for younger kids both on commercial and public TV. It’s when kids get a little older that the quality choices dry up, the Disney Channel sitcoms multiply, and you find yourself searching for reruns of Malcolm in the Middle.

But Amazon’s newest debut finally aims at that niche of original, non-obnoxious TV for tweens that used to be filled by series like Nickelodeon’s Adventures of Pete and Pete, back in my younger days when nickels used to have bumblebees on them.

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, premiering its first season Nov. 21, is a kind of off-kilter, magic-realist hangout comedy. Amazon says it’s aimed at children 6 to 11–which, in kids’ aspirational math, means the lead characters are around 13–but this adult found himself gobbling the four episodes Amazon sent as if I were raiding my kids’ Halloween candy.

The title character (Sloane Morgan Siegel) and his two best friends, Mel (Ashley Boettcher) and Ranger (Drew Justice) live in a neighborhood that is both totally boring and unpredictably enchanted. The summer days drag slowly, the fall days are a string of school projects–and then they’re interrupted by the discovery of a mysterious pencil that has the power to erase memories or a menacing toad that has apparently placed a curse on an elderly neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan). Well-meaning Gortimer, brainy Mel and overenthusiastic Ranger throw themselves into the mysteries thrust upon them with the spirit of early teenagers, for whom the discovery that the world is profoundly weird is entirely unsurprising.

Normal Street‘s like a pleasant throwback, both in its attitude and its style. The stories, many of which involve eccentric but sympathetic adults, call back to a time when kid and adult culture wasn’t so strictly segregated (as in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, recently re-released on home video). The humor is sophisticated, but with kid’s-eye detail; describing a favorite luridly colored frozen treat, Gortimer remarks in a voiceover: “It’s said that the peculiar sounds that the machine makes when birthing an Arctic Sludgie are the laws of physics screaming in protest.” There’s also a kind of indie-film gestalt to the show, down to the soundtrack music, which recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

The dream of the ’90s is truly alive on Normal Street, and yes, that does make me wonder a little if this is a series designed to appeal more to nostalgic former kids like me than actual kids of the moment. But I have to believe there’s a cross-generational appeal to the quirky stories from creator (and preschool teacher) David Anaxagoras as well as the instantly appealing characters.

The first episode, available on Amazon before the series premiere, is charming but a little sluggishly paced, but the following episodes only get better. A particular standout centers on Mel, the high-strung daughter of successful parents, who builds an artificially intelligent robot for a school science contest and finds her high-strung competitive attitude transferring to the machine. The story is far-fetched; the theme of early-onset stress is real. But above all it’s inventive and funny, as when the robot shows up for the science fair dressed in a T-shirt that reads Wiñata: “A person or thing,” the machine explains with deadpan cockiness, “that is stuffed so full of win that if hit with a stick it would spill win all over the floor.”

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street is exploding with treasures like that line. And regardless of your age, I defy you to take a crack at it and not end up getting win all over yourself.

TIME Television

Suffer the Children: Saying “No Thanks” to TV’s Child-in-Peril Stories

The Missing 2014
James Nesbitt, Oliver Hunt, and Frances O'Connor in The Missing. Liam Daniel

There's nothing wrong with a good story portraying terrible things. But there's no obligation to watch it over and over, either.

Early in the first episode of the Starz miniseries The Missing (premieres Nov. 15), the worst happens, as it does so often on TV these days.

Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) are on holiday in a rural French town in 2006 when their five-year-old son, Oliver (Oliver Hunt), disappears in a crowd. He is, apparently, abducted; as the story flashes forward to 2014, they have never seen him again.

In between, they’ve lived eight years of agony. After the investigation goes cold, they’re left to torment themselves, wondering if Oliver is dead, and if so how, and if not–what might their baby have gone through for eight years, what might he be going through now? It’s hard to say which would be the mercy, but in their present, mercy is a remote concept.

I’ve watched the five episodes that Starz sent me of The Missing (there will be eight in total), and it’s very good, a swift-moving crime thriller that also takes the time to measure the effects of the crime on Tony and Emily’s marriage, their state of mind, and the lives of the French townspeople who were drawn into the investigation and may be again. Tony, who’s become a walking open wound, aching and refusing comfort, has returned to France, chasing another in a series of leads he’s been obsessively pursuing for eight years–only this one seems to pan out.

As he joins with Julien, the now-retired investigator on the original case (Tchéky Karyo), they begin to unravel a timeline and a chain of secrets, drawing closer, but to what, exactly? As the revelations mount, you itch for an answer, and dread it. We’ve trod this grim ground in a lot of British and European crime series lately, but The Missing is adept at showing the wear on the Hugheses and the disorienting nightmare of searching for a lost child in a foreign country. The Missing isn’t great, entirely original, or indispensible, but–I want to be clear and fair here–it’s very good.

And yet. Would I have watched it if it weren’t my job? Hell no.

This is not The Missing‘s fault so much as it is mine. We all have our not-for-me markers with fiction: mine is kids in peril. It’s not that I can’t appreciate, even enjoy a series based on it; Broadchurch, about the aftermath of a child’s murder, was one of the best things I saw on TV last year. But when I’m off the TV-critic clock, these shows need to clear a much higher bar for me. (Which is why I didn’t continue with Broadchurch‘s perfectly decent adaption Gracepoint; once was enough.)

It’s easy to say this and sound sanctimonious. But this isn’t a moral judgment. My squeamishness doesn’t make me a more sensitive soul or a kinder person or a better parent than anyone else. And though I hate shows that use the child-in-peril for easy dramatic stakes, this isn’t a moral judgment on The Missing. This show isn’t cheaply exploitative; just the opposite, it’s highly conscious of what losing a child does to a parent, how it never stops doing damage, even after years. The Missing is well aware of the consequences of its central crime, which is the right thing for the story but all the tougher to take.

In the grand scheme, TV is more authentic, not to mention compelling, when you know that there’s no artificial safety net around topics like endangering children. But Jesus–lately, TV has practically replaced the safety net with a trap door. For a bad crime show, killing or harming a kid can be a lazy way to show that you’re willing to “go there.” But even very good series are now going there, over and over and over.

Kids were collateral damage in Breaking Bad. True Detective led to a ghastly story of ritual child abuse, and it was haunted by the long-ago death of Rust Cohle’s toddler daughter. In Netflix’s excellent British import Happy Valley, the protagonist, who has never recovered from the rape and suicide of her daughter, investigates a grim case that puts other people’s children in mortal danger. In Showtime’s The Affair, not only is Ruth Wilson’s Alison mourning her child, who drowned as a toddler, but in the pilot Dominic West’s Noah witnesses his son’s (simulated) suicide and his daughter’s near-death by choking (which we see twice). Game of Thrones chucked a child out a window in its first episode. The Walking Dead–if you don’t know, don’t ask.

Harming children in a story is never a gentle nudge. It pushes an audience to extreme reactions. The death of a child upends a sense of natural order, it makes the world feel broken. The rage and helplessness it causes makes you want to find someone to blame–the creators who protray the violence, the audiences who enjoy the show. I could probably get more attention for this essay, and plenty of likes, if I gave it one of those finger-wagging headlines that social media loves: “Hey TV, Stop Killing Kids!” or “Sorry, Fans, the Death of a Child is Not Entertainment.”

TV doesn’t owe me that, though. It’s one of fiction’s jobs to face the worst of experience, not to leave an unexplained hole in place of terrible crimes, illnesses and accidents that–would that it were otherwise–do happen. Stories that handle the material with respect and awareness of its lasting consequence do a service; beyond the general role of art to reflect human experience, they provide a kind of emotional disaster preparedness.

But it’s also not anyone’s job as a viewer, or as a human, to face the worst in fiction, much less repeatedly. Again, I get why someone might make this argument. Like real-life violence–see the debate over watching terrorist beheading videos–the outrage that a fictional atrocity provokes makes people want to react morally one way or another. Either it must be a violation to portray this thing, and to watch it; or it must be an obligation, a mark of bravery, to bear witness. The counter-moralizing response to the one I talked about above is: you owe it to others–to real people who suffer and die–to confront this stuff. If you avoid certain kinds of dark material, you’re avoiding life, you’re in denial, you’re a wimp.

I have to side with the wimps here. Earlier this year, after watching a run of particularly unsettling stuff–maybe murders, maybe rapes, who can keep track now–I tweeted, “I watch a lot of disturbing TV. But I totally get ‘I’m tired of [unpleasant thing TK]. TV’s not a chili-pepper-eating contest.” There is no shame in saying: you know what, tonight I think I’ll just have the ice cream.

As for The Missing: if you’re up for an emotionally raw crime story that never lets its thrills hide its emotional repercussions, I can recommend it. And I hope you’re satisfied with the ending, which I will probably not stick around for. Every once in a while, I have to decide that my own nightmares are enough without borrowing someone else’s.

TIME National Security

Hagel to Order Nuke-Force Overhaul to Fix Failures

Chuck Hagel
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to a question during a briefing at the Pentagon on Oct. 30, 2014 Susan Walsh—AP

The AP documented numerous missteps over the past two years, including misbehavior by ICBM force leaders, lapses in training, violations of security rules and exam cheating

(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has concluded that problems in the nation’s nuclear forces are rooted in a lack of investment, inattention by high-level leaders and sagging morale, and is ordering top-to-bottom changes, vowing to invest billions of dollars to fix the management of the world’s most deadly weapons, two senior defense officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Hagel ordered two lengthy reviews of the nuclear force after a series of stories by the AP revealed numerous problems in management, morale, security and safety, leading to several firings, demotions and other disciplinary actions against a range of Air Force personnel from generals to airmen.

Hagel’s moves, while not dramatic, are designed to get at the core of the problem, the officials said.

The senior defense officials discussed the reviews and Hagel’s response to them on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be cited by name.

Hagel was expected to announce his decisions at a morning news conference Friday and then fly to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, home of a Minuteman 3 missile unit whose recent setbacks are emblematic of the trouble dogging the broader force.

The Air Force has been hit hardest by the problems, particularly its Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile force based in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. The AP documented numerous missteps over the past two years, including misbehavior by ICBM force leaders, lapses in training, violations of security rules and exam cheating.

The Navy, which operates nuclear-armed submarines, had its own exam-cheating scandal this year and has suffered from a shortage of personnel.

Hagel’s reviews concluded that the structure of U.S. nuclear forces is so incoherent that it cannot be properly managed in its current form, and that this problem explains why top-level officials often are unaware of trouble below them.

The reviews also found that a combination of problems amount to fundamental flaws, rather than random or period slip-ups that can easily be fixed, the defense officials said. They said the nuclear forces are currently meeting the demands of the mission but are finding it increasingly hard to cope.

To illustrate the degree of decay in the ICBM force, the review found that maintenance crews had access to only one tool set required to tighten bolts on the warhead end of the Minuteman 3 missile, and that this single tool set was being used by crews at all three ICBM bases. They had to share it via Federal Express delivery, the defense officials said. The crews now have one at each of the three bases.

When he ordered the two reviews in February, shortly after the Air Force announced it was investigating an exam-cheating ring at one ICBM base and a related drug investigation implicating missile crew members, Hagel was said to be flabbergasted that such misbehavior could be infecting the force.

“He said, ‘What is going on here?'” one of the senior defense officials recalled.

Among his more significant moves, Hagel authorized the Air Force to put a four-star general in charge of its nuclear forces, the two senior defense officials said.

The top Air Force nuclear commander currently is a three-star. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson is responsible not only for the 450 Minuteman ICBMs but also the nuclear bomber force. Hagel has concluded that a four-star would be able to exert more influence within the Air Force, the defense officials said.

Hagel also OK’d a proposal to upgrade the top nuclear force official at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon from a two-star general to a three-star, the officials said.

The review’s authors, retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch and retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., found fault with one of the unique features of life in the nuclear forces. It is called the Personnel Reliability Program, designed to monitor the mental fitness of people to be entrusted with the world’s deadliest weapons.

Over time, that program has devolved into a burdensome administrative exercise that detracts from the mission, the authors found, according to the senior defense officials. Hagel ordered that it be overhauled.

Hagel concluded that despite tight Pentagon budgets, billions of dollars more will be needed over the next five years to upgrade equipment. That will include a proposal to replace the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter fleet that is part of the security forces at ICBM bases. The Air Force declared them out of date years ago but put available resources into other priorities.

The defense officials said Hagel would propose an amount between $1 billion and $10 billion in additional investment. An exact amount had not yet been determined.

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said Thursday that while he had not seen the Hagel reviews or heard what actions Hagel was ordering, he was skeptical that it would make much difference.

“Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come,” Kristensen said.

A cascade of embarrassments befell the Air Force over the past two years, beginning with an AP story in May 2013 revealing one missile officer’s lament of “rot” inside the force. Another AP story in November disclosed that an independent assessment for the Air Force found signs of “burnout” and elevated levels of personal misconduct among missile launch crews and missile security forces.

The AP also disclosed last year that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined for violating security rules by opening the blast door to their underground command post while one crew member was asleep.

Just last week the AP disclosed that the Air Force fired two nuclear commanders and disciplined a third, providing evidence that leadership lapses are continuing even as top Air Force officials attempt to bring stability to the ICBM force.

The most senior officer to be relieved Nov. 3 was Col. Carl Jones, vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming. He had been investigated for inappropriate behavior, including alleged cruelty toward a subordinate.

TIME streaming

REVIEW: High Maintenance Deserves Its Buzz

Blichfeld and Sinclair, creators of High Maintenance. Janky Clown Productions

This gemlike anthology, about a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients, is one of the best things you can watch online.

When you tell people the subject of High Maintenance–the stories of a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients–they can get the wrong impression. This fantastic online series, debuting three new episodes on Vimeo Nov. 11, is a comedy involving pot, but it’s not a pot comedy. It’s not stoner humor, like Harold and Kumar or even its closer analog, the choom-heavy Broad City. The stories tangentially involve marijuana, but marijuana is rarely the story itself.

Instead, the gemlike little tales anthologized in High Maintenance are about the reasons a character might smoke pot, which are myriad. Stress. Boredom. Illness. A date. Sadness. Celebration. Loneliness. Too much togetherness.

Or, let’s say, the end of the world. In the first episode of the new season–is “batch” the better word? “stash”? “crop”?–a young couple are going through the typical motions of white-collar urban life (work, barbecues with friends, lots of web surfing in their Fort Greene apartment) when one of them develops an obsession with survivalism. Maybe it’s the aftermath of Sandy, maybe it’s the zeitgeist, maybe it’s a way of feeling in control in his life. But one way or another, meal rations are purchased, survivalism lessons are taken, nerves are eventually frayed, and the couple decide to place a call to The Guy.

The Guy–the small-time pot dealer played by Ben Sinclair–is the one constant between High Maintenance episodes. Sinclair plays him with deceptively chill goofiness, but he also has a sneaky emotional intelligence that allows him to serve as kind of low-key confidante/bartender/therapist to his clients. (Sinclair writes, directs and edits each episode together with his wife, Katja Blichfeld, in an appropriately small-batch DIY artisanal enterprise. About which: the new videos are on demand for $1.99 each, or $7.99 for a bundle that will include three more earlier next year. Like The Guy, High Maintenance prefers to distribute in small quantities.)

Beyond that setup, every episode of High Maintenance can be what it needs to: there’s a new story each episode, which vary from six or seven minutes to around nineteen. (You can find older episodes, made before the show’s on-demand deal, for free on Vimeo.) A few characters recur, others disappear, but there is always The Guy, summoned on speed-dial, to help them maintain their high–or simply to help them maintain.

You’re probably sick of hearing about how a new show is “unlike anything else,” but the only close comparison to High Maintenance in series TV is Louie–whose “Fat Girl” monologue gets an on-point shoutout in the second episode–at least, in Louie’s self-contained, short-film-like segments. Like Louie, this is a series in sardonic love with New York City, but a different one: brownstone Brooklyn, which it shoots in vibrant color, and the freelancers and thought-industry workers who fill it, like Portlandia characters taken more seriously.

Despite the brief running time, each episode has a leisurely, languorous feel, which echoes the unhurried lives of its characters. They’re young and relatively unburdened, or older and unattached, working odd hours, adults with time to adopt intense hobbies (magic, birdwatching), watch TV online and nurse neuroses. (Emphasis on the latter; these people are, adjectivally, high-maintenance.) If High Maintenance were a person, it would be hanging out at Gorilla Coffee on a weekday afternoon, and if its characters were real people, they would watch High Maintenance. Their conversation topics are demographically GPS-precise–arguments about Vice News and Scandal, comparing vacation notes on Tulum, Mexico.

I don’t want to spoil too much story in the new episodes, partly because there’s less than an hour’s worth of them, partly because (again like Louie) their pleasure derives from how they amble along flâneur-like, taking side trips and conversational detours, until a plot develops almost without your noticing it. And yet each episode is tightly, often ingeniously plotted; they range from sweet romance to urban satire to comedies of manners, and each delivers more depth of character than TV episodes three times as long.

To blow one tiny detail, the third episode opens with a woman in a self-defense class, fighting off an “attacker” in a padded armor suit. She’s foregrounded, you can see the potential for a story developing about security and the city–why is she taking the class?–until the scene changes and you realize the episode is, in fact, not about her but about the guy in the padded suit.

It could have gone either way, I’m sure. (Indeed, some of the new episodes involve peripheral characters from previous seasons.) Part of the beauty of High Maintenance’s richness of detail and its specific sense of even the smallest character is that it makes you believe that any character in any scene could be the star of the story.

After all, as far as each of us is concerned, we’re all protagonists. Each of us has something we’re trying to escape, which ultimately is what The Guy sells. The genius of this show is how it uses its high-concept–so to speak–premise to get at something universal. If High Maintenance is aware of one thing, it’s this: The high is easy. It’s maintaining that’s tough.

TIME Television

The Simpsons-Futurama Crossover: Not a Classic, But Beats Family Guy

THE SIMPSONS Meets ÒFuturamaÓ in a Special Crossover Episode!

A weird half-hour celebrates the Matt Groening shows' shared DNA.

Spoilers for last night’s episode of The Simpsons follow:

Back in the distant past, in another technological era, another century–that is, in 1999–Futurama was supposed to be the next Simpsons. It too was created by Matt Groening; it had Simpsons talent aboard (including producer David X. Cohen); it had a vast cast of characters and a satirical edge. The TV world and animation fans donned their shades on the launchpad and waited for Fox’s next big comedy to take off like a Planet Express rocket.

But Futurama was not the next Simpsons. Fox’s next big animated hit–eventually, after cancellation–would be Family Guy, which also premiered in 1999. It wasn’t the next Simpsons in quality (dear God, no), but it was the more direct, slavish imitation, building itself around a boorish fat guy and his family while cranking up the speed of its non sequitur jokes.

Futurama, on the other hand, was more obviously its own thing. It was a workplace comedy, but it was also, in its weird way, legitimately well-constructed sci-fi. It had The Simpsons’ cynicism about consumer culture–it saw the future as one big drink of Slurm–but it had a darker, less sentimental spirit. If it borrowed anything from The Simpsons, it was the tone of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, with their inspired grotesqueness, free from fealty to Earthbound realism.

Earlier this season, Family Guy aired a crossover episode with The Simpsons–or really, a Family Guy episode with Simpsons characters in it, but with Family Guy-style beats and gags. The whole exercise had an off-putting, “Dad, why don’t you love me!” feel to it, with Seth MacFarlane’s crew expressing sincere affection for the older show, but also seeming to try a little too hard to show they were cool with being a successful franchise that never got Simpsons-sized respect.

It says something, then, that the “Simpsorama,” the Simpsons-Futurama crossover, took place on The Simpsons‘ own air, in its own time slot. Of course, it’s not like there was another option; Futurama finally ended for good (or for now) last year, on its second home Comedy Central. But The Simpsons didn’t just let its spiritual heir crash at its house; it gave it the keys, producing an episode that was much like an episode of Futurama than The Simpsons.

Not a great episode of Futurama, to be totally honest. Compared with Futurama‘s regular-run episodes, which is their own goofy way were built on strict sci-fi plotting logic, dropping Bart’s DNA into a pool of radioactive sludge was a bit of a something-gets-hit-by-lightning crutch. (It was a stretch by The Simpsons‘ latter-year standards of disregarding its own rules of cartoon reality. This really might have worked better as a Treehouse of Horror episode–it even included Kang and Kodos.) And the resulting Homer-Simpson-must-die story was little more than an excuse to put the characters together and take a tour of Futurama‘s greatest hits.

But great hits they were, and for a fan of both shows, “Simpsorama” was at least a way to show how the two series–to borrow the episode’s metaphor–shared DNA but manifest it in different ways. Bender may look like metal Homer with an antenna, but his mercenary trickster personality is distinctly his own. (I could imagine him happily fleecing Moe for free drinks for the rest of his days.) The Simpsons aspects of this Simpsons half-hour mostly receded into the background, allowing a parade of favorite Futurama bits and characters (Lrrr and Ndnd, the Nibblonians, the Hypnotoad, Hedonism Bot–twice!–and a cameo by earlier Groening creation Binky from his comic Life in Hell.)

It wasn’t a classic episode, but–by imagining an alt-universe in which Futurama still shared Fox airtime with The Simpsons–it was a generous one. Toward the end of the episode, as the devil-bunny-Barts were slingshotted into space, Bart said, “You realize you’re cheering the deaths of millions of my children.” Really, “Simpsorama” simply celebrated the life of one of them.

TIME Television

The Newsroom Has One More Chance to Get Its Story Straight


In its last, short season, Aaron Sorkin's media romance is still flawed, but it might finally turn from an editorial into a drama.

The fans of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom may not be legion–though it had enough to carry it to its third, abbreviated and final season–but they are ardent. Over the previous two years, as I’ve criticized the series, there’s been a common refrain in their defense of it: Sorkin’s cable-news drama may not be at the level of his past series, but it and its messages are needed on TV.

Beware the show whose fans or makers believe it to be “needed.” Because there is almost always a corollary to that “needed”: “…by other people, besides me.” By the TV newspeople who are failing America. By voters led astray, through sensationalism and demagoguery, to make poor, uniformed choices in their leaders. If only these messages got out to them, if only they were made to be exposed to reason, then by God they would finally see, and we could begin unmaking the mess we, which is to say they, have made of the world.

You cannot make a great story starting from that posture. There is too little oxygen on that pinnacle. And for all its other faults (thinly drawn characters, its women in particular) and flashes of twinkle-tongued brilliance, that has been The Newsroom‘s founding flaw: to imagine itself less as a work of art than as a repair manual for civic society. The most quintessentially Newsroom tableau is a group of characters looking up (see photo above)–toward a monitor, maybe, or toward Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) making an impassioned speech, but really, their eyes are elevated Heavenward, as if gazing on better angels that only they can perceive. “Wake up, sheeple!” is not a dramatic principle.

To The Newsroom‘s credit, its second season seemed to acknowledge some of the problems with the first. Rather than positioning McAvoy and his ACN crew as the Gallant to the mainstream media’s Goofus on one true-life story after another, it built a story arc around the fallout from the network’s running with a bombshell military exposé that turned out to be a hoax. It was a less bad season, but also a less remarkable one.

But The Newsroom does have one asset going for it, one that runs through the rest of Sorkin’s TV work from Sports Night on: the belief that there can be hope even in a failed cause. And in the first three episodes of its six-episode final season (premieres Nov. 9), there are signs that The Newsroom could end its run as its best self.

Not at first, though, as suggested by the title of the first new episode: “Boston.” Oy gevalt. It’s become a parlor game to play “Next season of The Newsroom” whenever the media commit some screw up that Sorkin could later show ACN getting right, even if their principles cost them ratings. Sure enough, the first hour centers on the Boston marathon bombing, when major media outlets erroneously reported arrests and passed along the Reddit-posse “identifications” of suspects who weren’t. ACN, still reeling from last season’s Genoa fiasco, plays it careful, even if their principles–well, you see where this is going.

But at the same time, Sorkin starts building a final, fictional news-story arc that, like Genoa last season, serves the show better than its ripping-on-the-headlines approach has. Without giving away too much, the story does–again, as you might have guessed in 2013–borrow from the Edward Snowden NSA leaks (with Dev Patel’s Neal Sampat in the Glenn Greenwald role). But it uses that story as a jumping-off point rather than op-ed material, heading in different directions and imagining the ethical and legal peril for a news outlet trying to report on a secrecy-obsessed administration, and trying to balance its news responsibility with legitimate security concerns.

By the third hour, I can’t say I was in love with The Newsroom at last. But I felt like I was finally seeing the better version of itself that it could have been. I wasn’t watching a lecture–though several small ones still creep into the first hour–but simply the work of a sharp, intellectually engaged screenwriter taking a scenario ripe with conflict and seeing where it took him.

The same characters are here–albeit with fewer of the daffy moments that have plagued female characters like Mac–and they’re still operating in Sorkin’s preferred flawed-heroic mode. (Chris Messina’s corporate scion Reese sums up the philosophy well: “I’m a douche on the side of the angels!”) But it’s more compelling watching them when Sorkin has simply put them under plausible pressures–a potential hostile takeover of ACN on one hand, a federal investigation on the other–and lets them feel their way to an answer without instructing us on the way. This isn’t an editorial, it’s just drama with ideas built in. How do you run a business that has goals beyond just making money? How can a media outlet defend its independence against an ever-more-powerful security state–and how should it?

The Newsroom in the end will not, to paraphrase its Coldplay quote of the first season, fix America. But give it another few hours, and it might at least fix itself.

TIME Television

How The Comeback Nails the Double Bind for Actresses


Coming along in the season of Renée Zellweger and J-Law, Lisa Kudrow's Hollywood satire is more relevant than ever.

My review of the comeback of HBO’s The Comeback is in the new print issue of TIME. I wish I could share it with you here, because I like the review and I like the show, but I also like having a paid job, and the column is for subscribers only. (Thirty bucks gets you a year’s worth of TIME! Cheaper than HBO!)

What I particularly like about the new season is that it de-emphasizes what I thought was worst about the original–the shooting-fish-in-an-aquarium reality-TV satire–and builds on what was best: Lisa Kudrow’s microcalibrated performance, and its cringe-making yet sympathetic depiction of an actress, now around 50, trying to make it in an industry that stamps a sell-by date on women:

I watched the five episodes HBO sent around the time that Renée Zellweger, 45, tripped the Internet chatter alarm over her “unrecognizable” face, which was not long after the summer’s doxing of stolen nude photos of young actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, 24. Valerie may be grasping and desperate, but she’s no dummy: she knows how actresses enter this cattle chute as hotties and exit as jokes.

One thing that’s compelling about Valerie is that she’s aware of this dynamic but has no illusions about her ability to change it. Early in the season, when she scores a career coup–she’s cast in an HBO series about the series made in the first season of The Comeback–she’s flabbergasted to discover that it starts shooting almost immediately. She won’t have time to “prepare,” she protests–where “prepare” means to set up and recover from plastic surgery.

The way our culture deals with its Valerie Cherishes is to make fun of them for being “phony”–for putting on false faces figuratively or, in the case of plastic surgery, literally. But that’s the easiest kind of sanctimony, to define actresses’ worth by their hotness and then blame and mock them for it when they accept the terms. Stay young forever! But never be fake!

The beauty of The Comeback is that it can be painfully funny dealing with Valerie, and yet it’s never unsympathetic–it’s conscious of why she is the way she is, and that’s the much tougher and ultimately more rewarding laugh. If I like the new season even better than the original so far, one reason may simply be that Valerie is nine years older, and by the simple harsh math of Hollywood, the stakes are that much more real.

And coming so soon after the mass Zellweger freakout, it feels all the more relevant. It’s easy to feel superior to celebrities willing to do anything to maintain their image, whether it’s landing a reality TV show or going under the knife. What Kudrow and The Comeback never forget is: there are a whole lot of us with our fingerprints on that scalpel.

TIME Television

Why MasterChef Jr. Is the Best Cooking Show on TV

MASTERCHEF: Contestant Josh prepares his meal during the Field Challenge on the “Junior Edition: The Next Generation” Season Premiere episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, Nov. 4 (8:00-9:00PM ET/PT) on FOX.
Greg Gayne / Fox

Kids can't really go to Hogwarts. But with sharp knives and an optimism that life has not yet beaten out of them, they can make magic.

One of the first things I thought when I first heard about MasterChef Jr. last year was: Why would so many kids, as young as 8 years old, want so badly to work in the kitchen? (Corollary question: And how do I get my own kids to do it?)

The question, really, is: Why wouldn’t they? It appeals to nearly every desire a kid could have. Forget the simple fact that food is delicious. Cooking allows a kid competency and power on the same level as adults–really, if you look at our country’s meal habits, well beyond that of your average adult.

If you’re an adult, even if you don’t do it for a living, you probably regard cooking as a job. But what is it really? It’s science. It’s the study of the transformation of matter. You heat an egg and it becomes solid. You use a whisk to direct force onto cream and it whips into a cloud. You apply blazing heat to a meringue and it caramelizes into a luscious crust. You combine eggs and flour and water in one way and you get a spongy cake. You combine them a somewhat different way, and you get a dense, chewy pasta.

It’s also art: you add this flavor to this flavor to this flavor–there are no rules, you decide–and you get this other thing, a flavor that did not exist before. And it’s power. You are given control of a giant furnace. There are electric machines. There are knives. There is fire.

You put together science and power and art and what do you get? As a child, you cannot actually go to Hogwarts, but in the kitchen, you can perform something close to wizardry.

MasterChef Jr., which returns to Fox Nov. 4, is the most delightful, cathartic reality competition on TV because it lets you see contestants taking unsullied pleasure in what they can do. I mean, let’s be honest: these kids are not seasoned professional chefs. The dishes they put together in the first two episodes of the new season often look terrific and are probably beyond the ability of most of the grown audience, but they’re not, generally, at the level of difficulty or complexity you might encounter on the adult version of MasterChef or Top Chef.

(Deliciousness, that’s another matter. On the season premiere, a kid turns in a plate of simple but gorgeous glazed chicken wings, and judge Joe Bastianich praises him for “turning $1 worth of chicken into a $20 plate,” one of the purest distillations of the restaurant business I’ve heard on a reality show.)

But here are some other things you don’t have on MasterChef Jr. that you do on adult cooking competitions. Viciousness. Spite. Desperation.

Even on the most fun adult cooking competitions, there’s often a subtext of sadness and dire stakes, of the clock ticking: this person really needs to jump start a stalled career, that person has got to have that prize money to start a restaurant or it might be the end of the road.

That’s not necessarily the fault of the shows. That’s adulthood: a time when your life starts to get defined by what you’re good at and not, what you chose and did not choose, what you no longer have time to do. The things that you have to do start to encroach on the things you love to do. The premise of competition shows–that there is room only for so much success, and therefore others must fail–is just a heightened extension of all that.

MasterChef Jr., on the other hand, is about believing you can do a thing because you love it. There are broken hearts and tears; a young cook’s face collapses when she realizes that she served judge Gordon Ramsay a piece of undercooked chicken. Yet what happens next is wonderful: the kitchen full of competitors swarm around her, hugging and consoling and trying to convince her that, don’t worry, most of the dish was really good. (I am not the hardest TV watcher to make cry, I’ll admit, but MasterChef Jr. is the current reigning Daddy’s Cry Time show in my household; I misted up just typing that.)

OK, this is a reality show; I know it’s edited and dressed up to elicit a reaction. Am I romanticizing childhood in my old age? Sure. I have been to enough soccer games and had enough dodgeballs thrown at me to know how fiercely kids like to win. Maybe the show is sweetened a little, as it were, and maybe the judges’ praise is too, in comparison with their tough judgments on the adult version. Maybe everyone here–producers, judges, kids, the audience–is invested in creating a show where the young competitors look good and we feel good, and maybe we’re all working a little bit to make that happen.

But so what? Sue all of us. Because as the amazing kids in MasterChef Jr.‘s kitchen show us every week, putting in effort to create delight isn’t really work. It’s magic.

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