TIME Television

REVIEW: Khan Job: Netflix’s Ludicrous Marco Polo

Phil Bray / Netflix

This tour of the Mongol Empire is a sprawling mess.

If there is an equivalent in today’s TV business to the Mongol horde and its cavalry, it may well be Netflix and its algorithms. Not only has the streaming service’s recommendation engine threatened long-standing TV empires and conquered our video habits by sending us from binge-watch to binge-watch–“If you like this, you might like this”–but also, so the company says, it has allowed Netflix to use its copious data to precision-target an audience for its original shows.

Marco Polo (first season debuts online Friday), the lush drama set in the 13th-century court of Kublai Khan, feels less like precision targeting than a flurry of wildly fired arrows, the scattershot, overstuffed result of a “You Might Like…” algorithm run amok. If you like Game of Thrones, and historical drama, and pay-cable softcore, and martial arts movies (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, whose sequel Netflix is also making)–and you want them crammed together, narrative sense be damned–you might like this gorgeous but ludicrous saga.

But you might also wish Netflix and creator John Fusco had anticipated that you “might like” credible dialogue and characters as well.

The series begins with Italian explorer Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) being left by his merchant father as a gift/servant/hostage for the Khan (Benedict Wong), in hopes of winning access to the Silk Road. Kublai rules a massive empire, but still has unfinished business: the holdout remnants of the Chinese Song dynasty, as well as fellow warlords who fear that conquest has softened the Mongol out of Genghis’ grandson. The Khan sees the quick-witted “Latin” Marco as a useful scout and spy, dispatching him on reconnaissance missions among enemies and frenemies.

Marco is the protagonist only in name; Richelmy is too bland to be more than the handsome camera through which we explore the empire. The imposing Wong, on the other hand, could be the show’s compelling star–a Mongol Al Swearengen–if the series didn’t make him such a growling B-movie tyrant. Early, he’s challenged as to whether he wants to be a Mongol or Chinese ruler. “Emperor of Mongolia, Emperor of China,” he roars, “I will be Emperor of the world!“–and impales a map with his sword. It’s a mission statement for the series, if that mission is to make you laugh unintentionally.

Mission accomplished, repeatedly. Mind you, this is no amateur production. Filmed in Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Venice, Marco Polo looks like it took the riches of east and west to make. (Reports put the season’s price tag at $90 million.) The vistas are stupendous, the sets and costumes gorgeous (and purportedly researched in detail). This would be a great show to watch on a new giant-screen TV you’re getting for Christmas.

And even more so if the sound doesn’t work. Marco Polo quickly becomes a travelogue of pulp clichés: the oily Song chancellor intoning proverbs about “the strike of the mantis break[ing] the back of the cricket”; the concubine-spy (Olivia Cheng) who leaps up fully nude in slo-mo to take down two armored soldiers in her bedchamber, as if in a Rated-Adults-Only video game; and Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) the sightless martial-arts master who trains Marco with a stream of listen-carefully-grasshopper nuggets–“Untrue by an inch, untrue by a mile” and “Of the yin and the yang, you have an abundance of yang.”

The series’ problem, too, is how badly it balances its contrasts. Making Marco Polo dumb fun would be just as legitimate as making it weighty historical realism. But the show tries to be both (sort of, though producers freely admit to playing with facts and the timeline), lurching between modes without warning. Sometimes it’s a study of court intrigue, as when we see the Song leaders riven between diehards who want to fight the Khan and those who would sue for peace. Other times, it’s like someone watched the most caricatured Dothraki scenes in the first season of Game of Thrones and asked, “Could we have a show of just this?” Then there’s the obligatory sex, worked in a gracefully as pop-up ads; an orgy montage in the pilot, which intercuts naked, red-lit courtesans with images of Hundred Eyes kung-fu-posing with a cobra, is Orientalist hoohah as pure as the spun silk of distant Cathay.

You can’t say Marco Polo isn’t committed to spectacle and popcorn entertainment, and that may make it a hit worth its price tag. But it reminds me of the Simpsons episode in which Homer gets to design a car that has every feature he wants, and ends up with an expensive monstrosity that includes bubble domes, multiple horns and shag carpeting. It may be that Netflix really knows just what we want. With Marco Polo, it’s giving it to us good and hard.

TIME Television

Sons of Anarchy: The Long Goodbye

FX

The series died as it lived, as an emotional, excessive--and sometimes seemingly endless--classic-rock jam.

Spoilers for the series finale of Sons of Anarchy follow:

Did you know how Sons of Anarchy was going to end? If you’ve watched the show for any length of time, I bet you did. Maybe you didn’t know that Jax would arrange his exit from the club and from Charming, that he would die and that he would give himself up to death by crashing into a truck riven by Michael Chiklis’ Milo, a nod to Chiklis’ The Shield, which SoA creator Kurt Sutter once worked on. (See Melissa Locker’s recap for more details.)

But you knew it would end with a montage.

The montage would be long (around seven and a half minutes, scored to the original “Come Join the Murder” by house band The Forest Rangers). It would be mournful. It would intercut the series’ final actions with resolutions and goodbyes to cops and club members and family members, zipped up body bags and California landscapes, a presidential motorcade of police vehicles and a heavenly/hellish murder of crows flying an aerial salute to Jax before he raised his arms in a crucifixion pose and drifted into the path of Milo. (Who yelled, correctly, “Jesus!”)

If it was not a great ending, it was a fitting ending for Sons of Anarchy, which, for better and worse, was always an extended classic-rock song of a show. It was unedited and undisciplined, a colossal anthem taking up a whole vinyl album side, with cowbell and extended drum solos and a dozen guitarists lined up on stage to get a turn to riff over the coda. If it felt an emotion, it primal-screamed it. It threw in intrigues and complications like a jam band throwing in bridges and time changes. At its best it was “Sweet Child o’ Mine”; at its worst, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

This was the reason I drifted out of the show’s lane over the last few seasons, though I was a fan early on. There was a strong story at the core of it: J.T.’s legacy, Jax’s conflicts with Gemma and Clay and the question of whether Jax could change the club and himself. But as the show sustained itself over seven seasons, that became buried under a vast amount of gang wars and investigations and bloody machinations with the Irish and the neo-Nazis and black and brown and yellow and for all I know purple.

As the show got more and more popular, the complications only multiplied. It became clear that Sons of Anarchy the show was not going to give up its violent entanglements any more than Jax was going to get SAMCRO the club to do so: too many people were too invested in keeping the mayhem going. And at the same time, the show took an approach to storytelling that was emblemized by those montages and its growing episode run times. It left everything in: to SoA, everything was important, but that undercut the sense that anything was particularly important.

For all that, there were moments in the last few episodes that still hit me, as a longtime viewer. Katey Sagal’s final moments in the garden as Gemma were genuinely affecting as she accepted, even invited, her fate. In the finale Jax’s recognition that his only hope for his kids was that they grow up hating him was a simple, powerful admission. Both characters’ ends returned to the show’s tragic theme: these people knew they couldn’t really change their fates or their selves. But it was also diluted by the long, long walk of goodbyes and tying up loose ends.

Sutter, of course, was not interested in making a show for people who wanted less, and I assume he made the maximalist finale he wanted. There was enough talent and thoughtful provocation in SoA‘s best moments that I’ll watch with interest what he does next. But I’m hoping it’s a little more punk rock.

TIME Television

Listen Here, Internet Girl: The Newsroom Rapesplains It All

HBO

The show's latest episode couldn't have been much better timed, or much worse made.

Spoilers for the latest episode of The Newsroom below:

The timing of the second-to-last episode of The Newsroom ever, “Oh Shenandoah,” was perfect. It included a subplot about campus rape and the ethics of reporting rape accusations, which have been everywhere in the news–from the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape investigation (which the magazine just embarrassingly walked back) to the re-emerging Woody Allen and Bill Cosby rape accusations. (And that’s even before you get to the parallels between ACN’s new tech-zillionaire “disrupter” owner Lucas Pruit and The New Republic’s Chris Hughes.)

But the timing of “Oh Shenandoah” was also terrible, because “Oh Shenandoah” was terrible.

Its arguments about whom to “believe” in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible. Its cranky obsession with the evils of the Internet was terrible. And it added up—in a final season that began with the promise of the series becoming better and subtler in the end—as a terrible episode even by the standards of the series’ earlier, most terrible ones.

Let’s begin with Don’s visit to Mary, the rape accuser. Mary–and credit to Sorkin for resonance with current events–says that she was raped, that she reported it to college authorities and the police, and that none of them did anything about it. So she’s set up a website through which women can anonymously report rapes. This unsettles Don; he’s worried about the potential for a guy’s career to be ruined by a false accusation. Mary answers that he seems a lot more concerned about that than the statistically far more likely possibility that a woman will get raped and her attacker will get off scot-free. It’s a canned dialogue and more than a little mansplain-y on Don’s part, but it is, at least, an actual discussion going on in the news today.

Then we get into the issue of “belief” and he-said-she-said, and it gets worse. So much worse. Asked who he believes, Don, with visible discomfort, says that she’s credible and has no reason to lie; the student she’s accusing seems sketchy and has every reason to lie. But, he says, morality tells him that “I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy.”

OK, what the hell? Don’s not saying that he can’t know whom to believe yet. He’s not saying that he doesn’t have hard proof. He’s not saying, “We don’t know enough to say.” He’s saying that, lacking proof, he has to affirmatively believe the story of one of his subjects–a less credible one–over the other. Forget journalists–many men’s rights movement advocates don’t even go that far.

The journalistic-ethics part of his argument is even more confused. Don is ostensibly worried about Mary’s website and the danger of anonymous accusations. So he wants Mary to turn down the ACN interview–in which she’s not only not making an anonymous accusation but in which the accused will have the chance to defend himself. This is literally the opposite of the criticism of the Rolling Stone story–that the magazine’s reporter did not speak to any of the accused gang-rapists, or attempt to track them down, or even explain what it did or did not do about them. ACN has done all that, and Don wants to scuttle the story anyway, because he doesn’t like the website. Because “there’s no way” some woman won’t use it to make a false rape accusation. Because think of the theoretical Stanford Medical School applications!

For this “Oh Shenandoah” makes him a hero.

And that gets to the larger problem of the episode, and The Newsroom in general. The Newsroom is a didactic show, by which I mean, when it presents an argument, it hints pretty clearly which side it believes is right. It works in heroic, not antiheroic mode. This is a trait of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows, and it’s not automatically bad. The Wire is the greatest drama in TV history, and it was plainly didactic about its argument against the war on drugs.

But when you make an episode as didactic, as righteous, as sanctimonious as this, you own what it preaches. Its rape subplot is not saying, “Here are a couple sides of a difficult issue. What do you make of it?” Like most such Newsroom parables, it gives you obvious clues–tone, cadence, music, camera angles, who gets the better speeches–to lead you to the path of virtuous and true thinking. And although Mary is sympathetic too, what dominates the story is how committed Don is, how terrible he knows the situation is, how damn hard it is for him (he spends most of it with his eyes watering), but how he has to make this call anyway, even if it breaks his heart, even if it gets him fired, because right is right, dammit.

And the rape story is only the most attention-getting subplot in an episode loaded with awful sermons. Except for Jim and Maggie’s romance on the Snowden Express, every storyline here is a screed about how the Internet and wrongheaded populism are threatening truth, privacy, justice, journalism and civil society.

It’s ironic that the Internet is the one topic that reliably makes Sorkin reach for the CAPS LOCK button like a blog commenter. Combine that with a woman character and it’s a perfect storm, something foreshadowed in real life during the first season when Sorkin dismissed a female reporter with, “Listen here, Internet girl.” In The Newsroom the Internet is silly, gossipy–and thus, in its view, feminine, not unlike reality TV, which Will said in season one turns us into “old ladies with hair dryers on our heads.” (See also everything this season involving Hallie, who first gets fired from ACN for a tasteless tweet about the Boston Marathon bombing, then lands a job with a website that gets her to write a personal essay dishing about a fight with her boyfriend Jim.)

So Mary’s story is an extension of The Newsroom‘s woman problem. But it’s also is of a piece with all the other storylines in the episode, crying that digital culture, its anonymity, its renegade Redditors, its insistence that passion equals truth, and its ability to bypass the filter of expert judgment, has bought us all a ticket on the Acela straight to hell.

Mary–who at least gets in some potent arguments–is arguably the most generously treated antagonist in the episode. Elsewhere, Jailhouse Will argues about Eastern establishment elitism with his cellmate, an imaginary stand-in for his abusive dad, who gets in a few good points–except he’s a wife-beater who hates the Jews, so there’s that. Sloan vivisects the tech guy who’s created a celebrity-stalking app (a practice even Gawker has dropped), a gross, smug troll given only a few limp clichés (“They signed up for this!”) to defend himself with. And Pruit turns out to be exactly the crass, bullying philistine everyone was afraid he’d be, raving and threatening to fire the entire office for breaking his beautiful surveillance app. This is all too much for Charlie–for some reason he’s spent most of the episode as fiercely carrying out Pruit’s philosophy as he earlier fought it–who, under the strain of holding it all together, actually drops dead.

That’s right, folks: The Internet killed Charlie Skinner! And you did, and I did, all of us with our shallow obsessions and demands for cheaper, faster, more gossipy news! Are you happy now, are you?

The most baldly offensive thing in “Oh Shenandoah” was watching Don mansplain rape to a woman. But to focus only on that would be to diminish the sheer, monumental, top-to-bottom -splaininess of this episode. Will McAvoy is so good a mansplainer he can even mansplain to another man. Then Sloan Sloansplained privacy and the rights of celebrities. And Charlie, in the climax of The Newsroom‘s worst episode ever, finally and unanswerably deathsplained the demise of journalism.

RIP, Charlie. At least you got out.

TIME

Review: The Image-Conscious Uncoupling of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce

Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce - Season 1
Garofalo, Garrett and Edelstein in the first episode of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce. Carole Segal/Bravo

The glammed-up L.A. dramedy seems to have learned, maybe too well, from Bravo's upscale reality shows.

Bravo has been promoting Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET) as the channel’s “first original scripted series.” It is and it isn’t. In 2004 Bravo aired the short-lived relationship comedy Significant Others, though you could argue it doesn’t count as “scripted” because the dialogue was improvised. And in 2002 it had the cable-news drama Breaking News, though maybe because the series was developed for TNT, which never aired the show, it wasn’t considered “original.”

But I get what Bravo means. Girlfriends’ Guide is the first scripted series from the Bravo network as we know it: that is, the onetime arts channel that remade itself over the past decade as the home of conspicuous-consumption reality. Judged by that measure, the tart, stylized Girlfriends’ Guide, from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer Marti Noxon, is–as they say in the biz–thoroughly “on-brand.” It’s the Bravo reality ethos distilled into the format of an upscale breakup dramedy.

Like The Millionaire Matchmaker or Vanderpump Rules, it’s about a successful woman: Abby McCarthy (Lisa Edelstein), the author of a series of love-and-parenting self-help books. Like Million-Dollar Listing or Shahs of Sunset, it’s aspirational, letting the viewer lookie-loo a gilded L.A. of plastic surgery, publicity and parties involving Gwyneth Paltrow. Above all, like the Real Housewives empire, it’s about the lengths people go to to put up a perfect facade, to stage their lives like high-end lofts for sale–and the dirt you see when you look behind the window dressing and strategically placed furniture.

As we meet Abby, she’s doing promotions for her latest book (she hits the Kathie Lee and Hoda portion of NBC’s Today show, which seems now to exist mainly to appear in other NBC Universal properties), but concealing a secret. She and her husband Jake (Paul Adelstein)–an aspiring director in theory, unemployed househusband in practice–have been all but separated for some time now. They keep up appearances, partly for the kids and partly for her image, until their act falls apart in an excruciatingly public way, threatening to take her career with it.

As dramatic as the material sounds, in many ways Girlfriends’ Guide is as escapist as any of Bravo’s reality shows. Abby has her own girlfriends to guide her: Lyla (Janeane Garofalo), an attorney going through her own ugly split with a financially dependent husband who developed a thing for a dominatrix, and Phoebe (Beau Garrett), a former model and serial entrepreneur. The breakups can be wrenching but the practical consequences are not dire. If anyone is in free fall in Girlfriends’ Guide‘s binge-and-cleanse L.A. (played capably by Vancouver), there’s always a cushion of money at the bottom of that pit. If anything, Abby and Jake’s split is a kind of equal-opportunity midlife crisis, as he shacks up with a 25-year-old CW actress and she has “the younger man experience” with a hot bar manager.

Abby’s vocational irony is thundering–self-helper, help thyself!–but it nicely complicates the show as it moves into the weeds of Abby and Jake’s divorce process. Abby has made a living from helping build the myth of a perfect life and marriage. Now she finds there’s a whole other set of myths and pressures, crystallized by Gwyneth’s “conscious uncoupling,” to have the “good divorce.” (In the second episode, she meets a vulpine lawyer, played by Necar Zadegan, who argues there’s no such thing: “There’s one person who’s getting fleeced because they feel bad.”)

In Abby’s divorce, at least, there is no good and bad guy–she, we learn, had an emotional affair before he had his physical one–and Edelstein’s sympathetic performance grounds a show that often otherwise plays like young-adult fiction for actual adults. For every raw, bitter moment, there are many Hollywood caricatures and swank party scenes to make the cocktail go down easier. And for a show with an empowerment spirit, there’s a retro gender note to the divorce stories, in which wives who earn more are “not natural” (in the divorce lawyer’s words) and husbands who earn less are not really men. (There are more references to balls and ball-lessness in the first two episodes than on a typical NFL Sunday.)

In Girlfriends’ Guide, where every set looks like the lounge of a boutique hotel, there’s none of the scuffing that Jill Soloway brought to Transparent‘s affluent L.A.; if marital strife in Showtime’s The Affair is rife with guilt and criminal potential, here it’s a kind of rejuvenating, exfoliating spa-cum-rehab experience. The writing is often funny and richly observed, as when Abby and Jake, for instance, fall into an argument over the kids’ Jewish upbringing, even though neither has much cared about it before. (“Why don’t you read something from the Torah about fidelity?” “I’m not the one who’s shtupping an actress who thinks 27 Dresses is a classic!”) But there’s one lesson Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce has (over)learned from its Bravo peers: that there’s no reality so compelling that it can’t be sweetened with a little Photoshop.

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 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!
FOX

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.

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