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.

TIME Television

Review: Catastrophe Is Knocked Up, Grown Up

Catastrophe
Ed Miller—Amazon Studios Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan star in Catastrophe

In Amazon's raunchy, honest new comedy, a sudden pregnancy comes with complications.

In the opening moments of Amazon’s Catastrophe, Rob (Rob Delaney), an American businessman in London, meets up with teacher Sharon (Sharon Hogan), in a bar. They hit it off famously, which is to say they have a metric ton of sex, much of it unprotected, in the week before he heads back to Boston. Weeks later, he gets a call: she’s pregnant. “You just don’t think that stuff like this will happen,” he says, after flying back to think things through with her. “What?” she asks. “That repeated sexual intercourse between two healthy adults will do the exact thing it’s supposed to do?”

It’s a delicious line, crisply delivered, and in a way it sums up what’s special about Catastrophe (premieres on Amazon June 19; the pilot is on Facebook through June 17). The premise is nothing revolutionary: she’s knocked up, he moves to London to be with her, they develop a relationship while adjusting to the idea of parenthood. But the six-episode comedy is distinctive for taking this setup and dealing with the messy complications that naturally occur, but that romantic comedies generally try not to think about.

For starters, Catastrophe is one of the best extended TV treatments I’ve seen of the simple, practical, physical facts of pregnancy. Sharon and Rob are immediately thrown into a gauntlet of exams and consultations, each with its own casual terrors: Down Syndrome, for instance (Sharon is told she’s at higher risk because she’s in her 40s), and a “precancer”–a condition the doctor tries to downplay as nothing, the assurance undercut by her using the word “cancer” about a million times in the consultation.

At the same time, Catastrophe is a charming story about love between two grown-ups that doesn’t heighten its drama with a lot of artificial roadblocks. Rob and Sharon seem compatible from the start and–here’s a twist!–they are, sharing a ribald and irreverent sense of humor. Preparing to have a baby gives them a challenge to adjust to, but not in the typical way, where the clueless guy learns to grow up and his uptight girlfriend learns to trust him and they become responsible adults together. Horgan is likably acerbic, and comedian Delaney is laid-back in the kind of role comics will often play as antic and freaked-out.

The episodes (cowritten by Delaney and Horgan) have fun with the characters’ differing backgrounds (we meet her very Irish-Catholic family, we meet his eccentric mother, played by Carrie Fisher) and their need to leapfrog years of dating to become middle-aged-ish new parents. But refreshingly, they dive in as partners, not misfits yoked together by an umbilical cord. There’s little getting-to-know you wackiness, maybe because Rob and Sharon are already mature enough to know themselves.

Instead, the stakes, and the comedy, come from the already considerable pressures of suddenly getting ready to birth a small human and keep it alive. That’s enough in itself, as Sharon says when Rob suggests they might want to keep the baby’s sex a “surprise” instead of learning it after a scan: “For the moment,” she says, “I would like a whisper of certainty in my life. Not even in my life: in my body.”

Racy, amiable and honest, Catastrophe doesn’t feel the need to amp up its story with surprises either. It just does the exact thing it’s supposed to.

TIME Music

Review: Hilary Duff’s Breathe In. Breathe Out. Is Mindless Pop Fun

Hilary Duff, Breathe In. Breathe Out.

The actress-singer's fifth LP will satisfy listeners who don’t know the meaning of “guilty pleasure”

If you’re still wrapping your head around the idea of Hilary Duff as a pop star—why else hasn’t her flirty new single (and shameless Tinder ad) “Sparks” lit up the Hot 100?—you’re about one decade and 15 million sold records behind the times.

It’s been eight years since Duff released the underrated Dignity, which completed her metamorphosis from Disney star to grown-up diva and presciently signaled America’s incoming love-affair with dance music. Don’t sweat it if you stopped paying attention once you outgrew Lizzie McGuire, though—the 27-year-old with not one but two greatest-hits compilations to her name picks up wherever you left her on her new album. Breathe In. Breathe Out, her fifth LP, splits the difference between contemporary club-bangers and mid-2000s pop that’s aged better than Duff or anybody else could have imagined. (“Come Clean” is so not so yesterday, as she recently demonstrated.) A few days after another famous Hillary kicked off her campaign to take over America, Duff is getting ready to do something, too: try and win the support of the masses with unabashed, least-common-denominator pop that won’t take no for an answer.

Duff makes her ambition known a few ways. First, she ditched the folkier sounds of her first few comeback attempts in favor of more on-trend electro-pop. (R.I.P. “All About You,” now relegated to special-edition bonus track.) Second, she logged studio time with “Habits (Stay High”) singer Tove Lo, one of Sweden’s sharpest songwriters, who co-penned three tracks here. The only way Duff’s hunger could have been more obvious is if she booked sessions with the now-ubiquitous Sia, but she probably knows those massive anthems are starting to get a little tired; also, nobody really wants those from Duff, anyway. If the high-energy, ballad-free Breathe In. Breathe Out is going to get anybody hyperventilating, it’ll be the pop nuts who don’t know the meaning of “guilty pleasure”—the same listeners who worship at the altar of Kylie Minogue.

The tunes themselves are as binge-able as her charming new TV show Younger, but they’re also the equivalent of empty calories. After you’ve downed them all, you might look back and think, what did I just do? These songs don’t break any musical ground, and they require a few listens to crystallize: “My Kind” takes a page from Gwen Stefani’s solo comeback, while the way “Confetti” quotes Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” will only hasten the Carly Rae Jepsen comparisons.

The album doesn’t hide Duff’s vocal limitations, either, but Breathe In. Breathe Out. does poke holes in the notion that she’s just a vessel for corporate robo-pop. Duff’s at her best when she takes her own advice and slows it down just enough to catch her breath. Picture her taking one step closer to the listener for the half-whispered “Arms Around a Memory,” or suppressing a smirk on the deserving title track, a modern “I Will Survive” that more than makes up for its pesky punctuation. Sure, these could be anyone else’s songs. But when Duff hits her stride, you won’t be thinking about anybody else.

TIME Television

Review: In Deutschland 83, East Meets West Germany

"Deutschland!"
Laura Deschner/UFA Fiction/RTL Nay, in Deutschland 83, a Sundance coproduction with German television.

Another nostalgic spy thriller, this time as a gripping--and surprisingly entertaining--coming-of-age story.

Deutschland 83 begins precisely where the latest season of The Americans left off. Or more accurately, precisely when. A woman is watching television with alarm as President Ronald Reagan delivers his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech, in which he cast the Cold War struggle against communism in absolute, stark moral terms. She picks up a telephone and calls a colleague: “It’s me. Turn on the TV.”

But the language this time is not English or Russian but German. (A coproduction with German TV, the series is subtitled in English.) Like The Americans, Deutschland 83 (premieres June 17 on SundanceTV) transports us to the other side of the Cold War rivalry, but this time much closer to the Iron Curtain, in East Germany. It’s a trip worth taking.

Convinced the Americans are planning a pre-emptive war, GDR espionage agent Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) hits on the idea of planting a young East German on a West German military base to spy on NATO plans to deploy Pershing missiles, and she has just the candidate in mind: her 24-year-old nephew, Martin (Jonas Nay). He’s unwilling–he has a girlfriend at home, for starters–but she coerces him with the promise of getting his ailing mother (her own sister) on a list for an operation, if and only if he cooperates.

Is her ruse a betrayal or patriotism? As in The Americans, this spy business is a family matter, intimate and fraught, and the mission tense. Martin is whisked off to Bonn and told he’s being planted as the aide-de-camp to a West German general. He gets a crash course in tradecraft, West German idioms and the life story of Moritz Stamm, the actual young man whose identity he’s assuming. (What happened to him? Martin is told not to ask, and you probably know the answer.)

Martin is a quick study, but he has no particular appetite for the job to match his aptitude for it. He’s as patriotic as the next young East German; asked if he would die for his country, he answers that of course he would, in such a way that you can tell he never deeply considered it. He’s idealistic, in his way, but not zealous. He’s less like Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, or Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, and more like a talented, hapless local one of them might recruit.

Nay is fantastic and immediately likeable as a young man wound up like a watchspring, doing professional spywork under open observation, his every step risking his freedom, his mother’s health and his chances of ever seeing his girlfriend again. The slightest slip-up–say, mentioning that the once befriended some Cubans–endangers everything. It’s as if he’s suddenly landed the world’s most dangerous and thankless postgraduate internship.

If the idea of a Cold War series produced from the vantage of a divided country leads you expect a dour, grim story of the conflict’s costs, Deutschland 83 will be a pleasant surprise. It’s serious and it can be stark, but it’s also funny and brisk, a coming-of-age story with a sense of adventure. Martin ends up entangled in the personal drama of his boss’s family–which includes a rebellious daughter, a peacenik-sympathizing son and an eccentric aunt who comes to suspect Martin. And the customs of capitalist society prove more difficult to master than a microfilm camera: when a waitress in a hotel restaurant asks him his room number to charge the meal, he thinks she’s coming on to him.

Though Deutschland 83, co-created by wife and husband Anna and Joerg Winger, is an engrossing enough spy thriller, its real distinction is Martin’s experience in this alien land just a short drive away from his home. His first day in Bonn, he runs off and dashes into a supermarket, where he’s framed strikingly by a panoramic expanse of brightly colored, fully stocked shelves. He stops dead, overawed.

Then he returns to his mission, but the point is made. Martin has been hijacked to West Germany in an effort to stave off the end of the world for the communist East. Little does he know that, whether he succeeds or fails, he’s already witnessed it.

TIME Television

In Game of Thrones, Even the Consequences Have Consequences

Spoilers for Game of Thrones follow, of course:

The second episode of Game of Thrones season 5 began with Arya Stark coming to Braavos and reciting a list. “Cersei, Walder Frey, The Mountain, Meryn Trant.” In “Mother’s Mercy,” the season 5 finale, her list got one name shorter, as she mastered the game of faces well enough to stab Syrio Forel’s killer Trant to death.

Cross another off the list. Write a few more down. Does payback feel good? And does the feeling last?

Everyone else has a list too–other characters and those of us watching the show–and those lists only got longer in season 5, as atrocities multiplied and injustices mounted. And though the finale left us with a higher-than-usual number of cliffhangers (or Wall-hangers, as the case may be), it was also run though with characters facing consequences. But they didn’t offer clear, unambiguous satisfaction. Because as “Mother’s Mercy” demonstrated, consequences may come, but not necessarily for the right reasons, or to the right people, or for their worst sins.

Let’s start in the North, with Stannis Baratheon in the snow. For all the million times we’ve heard Stannis described as Westeros’ greatest military strategist, we’ve mostly seen him losing–except against an overpowered Wildling army–and in the end we saw him swallowed up, in a sweeping overhead shot, by the Bolton cavalry as he commanded an army not big enough to besiege a snow fort.

Stannis’ last mistake was not one of strategy so much as morality and emotional intelligence. He saw his sacrifice of daughter Shireen as necessary to win the North and achieve his destiny, but it looked to most of us like a dealbreaker. Turns out soldiers aren’t crazy about following a filicidal, monomaniacal religious fanatic into battle, either: consequences! He’s left to slump against a tree (a kingly moment of stoic desolation as rendered by Stephen Dillane) and await the death blow from Brienne of Tarth. We never see the blow land, though, and it’s retribution not for Shireen at all but for his brother Renly.

And it gets more complicated, because Stannis had been set up both as deserving of consequences and as an agent of consequences we wanted to see–he was marching to war, after all, against Ramsay Bolton. Badass as Brienne may be, she’s not likely to overthrow the Boltons singlehanded, which left Theon and Sansa to take a leap of faith off the wall of the castle. (Again, if we don’t see someone land in a bloody spray a la Myranda, I’m going to assume they’re alive until proven otherwise.) Consequences are satisfying–until they have consequences of their own.

We saw more imperfect consequences in the episode’s most harrowing and effective storyline, the punishment of Cersei Lannister. Who among us hasn’t wanted to see Cersei punished for something–the persecution of the Starks, the effective coup against King Robert, the unjust downfall of Tyrion, for starters? Sleeping with her cousin Lancel, however, was probably not high on any of those lists.

Yet that was the crime she was done in for–and, really, for the crime of being a woman, the target of a religious reformation that is populist, concerned for the poor, but also deeply misogynistic. It’s not a stretch to call her punishment a slut-shaming. (The commoners yelling “Slut!” while a septa chanted “Shame!” is your tipoff.)

Fine, you might say: and they got Capone for tax evasion. Should it matter that Cersei suffered consequences, but in the wrong way for the wrong thing? It matters morally–I would bet even Cersei-haters felt sympathy with her by the end of that march–but it also matters practically. The last we see her, she’s cradled in the arms of Ser Robert Strong, the Frankenguard whom Qyburn promises will vanquish all her enemies. Now we have a committer of legitimate wrongs herself legitimately wronged, motivated and empowered to strike out in kind. (And this before she knows that the poisoned body of her only daughter is sailing home to her.) Does anyone think only the High Sparrow will suffer for it?

All that led to the episode’s stunner of a conclusion, in which Jon Snow suffered a consequence none of us asked for–but that the episode invited us to see from the standpoint of the vengeful as well. To us, of course, Jon is among the closest to a legitimate hero Game of Thrones has, self-sacrificing, principled, able to risk body and soul for a larger good. But to Olly? He’s the man who took in the very people who butchered his parents before his eyes–a loss no better to him, after all, than the sacrifice of Shireen was to us. Think how badly you wanted payback against Stannis: then make yourself an orphan boy, with your new Night’s Watch brothers echoing that Jon is a traitor–and put a knife in your hand.

So good intentions and payback and the certitude of righteousness end, with Jon’s eyes going dim as he bleeds out into the snow. (Dead? Actually dead? As a reader of the source books, I know no more than you do of Jon’s fate, but I guess the fact that I’m mentioning his death, or “death,” this far down in the review is evidence of how permanent I think it is, no matter what Kit Harington says for now.) It’s the biggest, but by no means only, “To Be Continued” Benioff and Weiss stuck on the end of this season, as Arya went blind, Dany met the Dothraki again, and Daario and Jorah went hunting after her a la Aragon, Gimli and Legolas in The Lord of the Rings. (Though, of course, this time the search party left the dwarf behind.)

Jon aside, I’m guessing more of these characters make it through than we suspect, lest the only ones left playing the game of thrones by series’ end will be Olenna Tyrell and Hot Pie. So what to make of season 5? More than even more serial dramas, Game of Thrones really is telling a single story–which means that, to me, the series always seems greater as a whole than it does in any individual year.

That said, we can assess separate storylines. Dorne turned out to be a viper holding a giant goose egg in its teeth. On the other hand, the season did a particularly good job bringing together the disparate storylines in the North with emotional power, though it involved the most changes from the books and the biggest controversies. (Whether you felt Sansa should have been sent off with Ramsay in the first place, the show took the repercussions of her rape seriously, and allowed her to build strength even through being terrorized.)

Meereen was a mixed bag but at least efficiently handled, while–though this may partly be recency bias from the powerful Cersei scene–the political and religious machinations in King’s Landing paid off better than I expected. Meanwhile, the season did an elegant job building its world and mythology, in sequences like Jorah and Tyrion’s awe-inspiring journey through Valyria. (And Braavos? Let’s be honest, I’d be grateful for Arya scenes even if she’d spent the whole season learning to shuck oysters.)

But it wasn’t pretty, and as I wrote earlier, I can entirely understand anyone who decides it’s too relentlessly punishing for them. Because it’s a single story, Game of Thrones is not the kind of series that can end a season with triumphs for the good guys, before introducing new challenges for them the next year.

You know the saying about three-act drama, where you get your characters into a tree in the first act, throw rocks at them in the second, then get them down in the third? In Game of Thrones‘ seven acts (or eight or however many it takes), it gets them in a tree, throws rocks, then throws anvils and wildfire and death icicles, and then the tree comes to life and eats some of them. (Unless a character is lucky enough to become a tree.)

But I would distinguish between Game of Thrones‘ being a dark series and its being a hopeless one. And I saw cause for hope in the season’s best episode, “Hardhome,” though ironically it ended in the defeat and rout of a mission led by a character who is now (allegedly) dead. In that standoff with the Night’s King and his undead army, we saw the reminder that there is an actual greater good–and a greater bad that threatens all life, Lannister, Targaryen and Stark alike. There is something more to the story than hoping that the lesser evil ends up living in the Red Keep.

So I believe, or I hope, anyway, there there is a bigger game afoot, something more in the end than unsatisfying vengeance against terrible people by compromised people–something more than monsters fighting worse monsters. (That’s why, though it seems like a potential digression, I’m intrigued by the idea of Tyrion and Varys running Meereen, seeing if the answer for the beleaguered city is not dragons or harpies but simple competent governance.) I can’t know that–at this point, nearly every character’s story has ended where the books now are, or passed it–but not knowing, strangely, makes me more optimistic.

It’s hard to keep sight of the bigger picture here all the time, though, what with all the injuries and atrocities. They put us in the position of the list-makers, rooting for payback and defining characters’ worth and utility in terms of what they can do to the bad guys. But maybe–call me as naive as Jon Snow–there will be a role in Game of Thrones for characters who can prove themselves not through what they do to others, but what they do for others.

TIME Television

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Brings the Old-Time Magic

BBC America Carvel and Marsan as Strange and Norrell.

The BBC America miniseries pares down Susanna Clarke's alternative fantasy-history tome into smart fun.

“He looks like a banker.”

Indeed, as one observer puts it, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) isn’t the figure you imagine when you hear the word magician. Yet it is he, a pinch-faced, powder-wigged 19th century gentleman scholar from Yorkshire, who revives the practice of magic, gives the crown victory over Napoleon and becomes the chief, and only, magician in Britain. For now.

BBC America’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (premieres June 13), is, a bit like HBO’s Game of Thrones, set in a postmagical world, or rather one that believes that magic is no more. This time, however, it’s a version of our own, one where magic used to be practiced but pulled a disappearing act about 300 years ago. Now, in early-1800s Britain, the only people calling themselves “magicians” are street hucksters and stuffy academics, who study magic’s history without casting a single spell. (“You don’t expect an astronomer to create stars!” scoffs the head of the scholarly society The Friends of English Magic.)

Norrell, who has quietly amassed a monopoly on ancient spellbooks, changes all this with a public demonstration in which he brings the stone statues of a cathedral to life. Under the guidance of his imposing right-hand man Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), the reticent Norrell catches the attention of London society and politicians, who enlist him to create illusions to confound the French enemy.

England’s new hero–mild-mannered but inwardly vain and controlling–decides that the best way to keep magic “respectable” is to keep it to himself. This doesn’t last for long: at the same time, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), the flighty, ne’er-do-well son of an upperclass family, begins to teach himself magic without the benefit of Norrell’s library. When the autodidact appears out of nowhere and shows amazing talent, Norrell takes him as an apprentice, the better to keep a potential enemy close.

This begins a captivating seven-part miniseries (I’ve seen two episodes), based on Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, which combines high fantasy and historical fiction, a chilling tale of the supernatural and a subtle story of academic and social rivalry. As they delve into their studies and the war effort, Strange and Norrell become both partners and competitors, in equal earnest.

Norrell clearly feels threatened by the prodigy (though he hides it well) and Strange increasingly feels handcuffed by his master, yet there are moments when they’re carried away by their mutual admiration and excitement for the mystic art they’re restoring. They’re bound to conflict, and yet they’re the only two men in Britain who can really understand each other.

Strange and Norrell are not just opposite personalities but opposing ideas of Britain. Strange’s magic is wild and Celtic, drawing on ancient myths–in particular, the history of The Raven King, an ancient magician who harnessed the powers of nature and an extraworldly faerie kingdom. Norrell’s is staid and English; he wants to tame, deny and civilize that–to make it into a tidy English garden–but his hubris unleashes frightening forces. The restoration of magic is a bit like the Industrial Revolution and splitting the atom all in one, and it proves too much for Norrell to control—especially when, after encountering the limits of his own magic, he strikes a bargain with a wild-haired, David Bowie-esque faerie that leaves him and others in hock to some dangerous sprites.

The tone of this absorbing tale is a little eerie and a little quirky, somewhere between Westeros and Hogwarts. The adaption was inevitably going to lose some of the effect of Clarke’s novel, heavily footnoted and written in the style of 19th-century literature, giving it the unsettling feel of an unearthed occult document. BBC America’s miniseries is more whimsical and comic–sometimes a little too much in the now-familiar British TV mold of eccentric-genius stories like Sherlock and Doctor Who. (Carvel’s excitable Strange especially recalls both series, director Toby Haynes is a veteran of both, and writer Peter Harness worked on the latter.)

On the other hand, the plot-forward strategy necessitated by TV makes the series smart fun from the start, managing impressive spectacle even if it doesn’t have the visual firepower of the most epic Thrones episodes. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a fleet, entertaining transfiguration that keeps Clarke’s big ideas while pulling a few tricks from its own sleeve.

TIME Music

Review: Tove Styrke’s Kiddo Is a Feminist Pop Triumph

Tove Styrke, Kiddo

Smashing the patriarchy sounds like a blast on the Swedish singer's new album

Call it the curious case of Tove Styrke. While plenty of former teen pop stars grow up by getting blonder, flashing more skin and proclaiming their newfound maturity (a sign of changing tastes, sure, but also savvy marketing), this Swedish singer-songwriter is doing it Benjamin Button-style on her new album Kiddo, her first LP in five years and her debut U.S. full-length. The 22-year-old looks much younger on its cover than she did in the years following her breakthrough on Swedish Idol as a 16-year-old. No longer is she rocking platinum locks, strutting across stages relatively pantsless or begging a lover to “f-ck my brains out” in a song that’d give the raunchier Tove Lo a run for her money. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find her, as she was at a recent New York City show, performing in oversized red basketball shorts and a matching baseball cap, singing spunky, island-inflected songs a world apart from the weapons-grade electropop she’s left behind. (May “Call My Name” rest in peace alongside Sky Ferreira’s similarly stellar yet disowned “One.”)

Maybe that unusual career trajectory is just because she’s from another country, distanced from whatever forces transform Miley Cyrus from Hannah Montana into a twerking, tongue-wagging avatar of American cultural anxiety and construction-site menace. The more likely scenario? There’s nothing accidental about the way Styrke presents herself this time around. From the pop-culture references and winks at famous divas that pepper the record, you get the sense Styrke has less in common with the artists being consumed and more with the audiences doing the consuming—and she prefers it this way.

Take for instance “Snaren,” a clever curtain call for dudes cramping your personal space that quotes Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and moments later shouts-out Queen Bey herself. It’s a more telling introduction than the seesawing power-tool thump of album opener “Ain’t Got No…,” as Kiddo may be the most explicitly feminist pop album to emerge since Beyoncé broke down the concept on her 2013 surprise opus. Beyoncé’s music makes big, bold statements from the top about girl power, relationships and income inequality, but Styrke’s focus is more personal, chronicling with the enthusiasm of a sociology major what it’s like to find your voice as a woman when the deck is stacked against you. For her, growing up isn’t about updating your brand. It’s like surviving a war zone.

Her self-described protest song “Borderline” is literally about burning down the patriarchy (and one of five songs here returning from last fall’s Borderline EP). In a an adopted patois over clanging reggae guitars, Styrke describes waking up from society’s brainwashing and rebelling against the men of the “empire” that try to put her in a box. “I’m borderline happy and I’m borderline sad, I’m borderline good and I’m borderline bad,” she sings. It’s an appropriate summary for the record: part of what makes Kiddo a rich coming of age album is the way it’s brimming with personality, with Styrke alternatingly sarcastic, pensive, angry, elated, cocky and cheeky over songs as musically diverse as their emotions. That idea of how a woman “should” be (and who gets to decide) is also one she revisits on the punchy “Walking a Line,” one of a few of occasions on Kiddo where Styrke laughs sexism in the face with a little ironic misandry.

It’s no secret that Sweden makes the best pop music—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But unlike her peers, Styrke forgoes the club for something more playful, drawing on a palette of global sounds and occasionally busting out some juvenile, rap-like rhymes instead of traditional melodies. Sometimes there’s no larger message: “Ego” is Kiddo’s most straightforward pop song as well as its most infectious, though her relaxed high notes in the chorus betray just how forceful a hook she’s written. (One consequence of eschewing powerhouse dance tracks is that she doesn’t always sink her teeth into a song the way you wish she would.) Other times her message gets lost as she distills her ideas down to a pop-song format, like the twinkling closer “Brag,” which doesn’t read as the social media commentary she intended. Still, more often than not this approach lets her sneak big ideas into her music.

“I know you feel that pop doesn’t really have a clue,” she shouts on the convulsive “Even If I’m Loud It Doesn’t Mean I’m Talking to You,” which is sort of like if Gwen Stefani’s high-school fantasy “Hollaback Girl” was done by a foreign exchange student who just discovered 5-Hour Energy. But the song, which Styrke explains is both “a shocking pink f-ck-you to all the people who think their penis bands are automatically more talented than one twenty-something girl on stage” and a call to claim male-dominated spaces, proves her transgressor wrong in barely three minutes. Rockism, male privilege, double standards—that’s a hell of a lot to work into an already chaotically busy pop song without sounding heavy-handed. But the most refreshing thing about Kiddo is its reminder that there needn’t be a choice between earworms and and a message. She may not be talking to you with the latter, but you’d be wise to listen anyway.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com