TIME Music

Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz Is Miley as You’ve Never Heard Her Before

The album cover of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz on SoundCloud.

Some first impressions of the singer's new surprise album, which she announced during her closing performance at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards

Miley Cyrus is used to forcing her way to the center of attention. At the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, she upstaged much-hyped, dueling performances from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry with the twerk heard ’round the world. Two years later, returning to the program as a host, Cyrus may have stolen the show from Kanye West (whose acceptance speech was a masterclass in slightly stoned trolling) or at least Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj (who performed together after a high-profile Twitter spat) by closing out the ceremony and announcing—oh yeah—that she was releasing an album for free online that very evening.

Yet what stands out about that album, titled Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, is how much she’s not at the center of it all—at least at first. Her head is elsewhere: “Yeah, I smoke pot/ Yeah, I love peace,” she cries on the twitchy opening number “Doo it!,” which she debuted at Sunday’s awards show in a sea of drag queen contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race. These 23 tracks are meant for lighting up and pondering the universe, if they’re not about indulging in those activities explicitly. More than half of them top four minutes in length, and several approach five or six. Being in the moment, at least in this dimension, is hardly the goal.

It isn’t just subject matter that accounts for Cyrus’ low-key presence, however. The songs themselves push her voice deep into the mix behind fuzzy guitars and ethereal keyboards she dreamed up with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who lends his psychedelic touch to several songs. (In particular, his fingerprints are all over the “Yoshimi”-esque “Karen Don’t Be Sad.”) The tracks resemble leaked demos more than they do songs from Cyrus’ last album, 2013’s flashy Bangerz. There is a rough, homemade quality to the these sketches, even though master beatsmith and Bangerz architect Mike WiLL Made-It returned to the boards to produce a few songs. With a little self-editing and polish, some of the strongest ideas here could be transformed into more recognizable and digestible pop songs, but doing so would be beside the point.

Dead Petz is a collection of unhurried, un-airbrushed stoner-pop; it’s not a conventional Miley Cyrus album, and it can’t really be judged as one. It reportedly cost a fraction of what Bangerz did to make, it does not count toward her multi-album contract with RCA Records and Cyrus only presented the album to her label after it was complete. Because of that last fact, though, it feels more representative of Cyrus than anything else she’s done. “When I made Bangerz, it was as true to me then as this record is now,” she said in a recent New York Times interview about the making of the album. “It just happened naturally in my head. It’s like anything—styles just change.” She claims sole writing credits on 10 of 23 songs, and while some of those are more like interludes than complete compositions, others rank among the album’s best material (“Space Boots,” “Fweaky,” “Lighter”). All that negative space observed earlier, it turns out, is by her very design.

When Cyrus returns to earth, she proves to be a captivating performer. Dead Petz is Cyrus as we’ve never heard her before: her husky voice croaks, squeals and makes the kind of noises even the most adventurous pop singers try and avoid, but it’s that color and character that make her adept at channeling whatever pain she’s feeling into her music. This won’t come as a surprise to listeners who’ve kept close tabs on her evolution from Hannah Montana to headline fixture. Her 2013 guest appearance on Snoop Lion’s “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” the first real taste of her hip-hop makeover that year, was a surprisingly poignant gut-punch about staving off darkness and creeping isolation. Some of Dead Petz, evident from the project’s name, was inspired by the death of her dog Floyd, and if the album’s songs about loss and depression don’t make you feel something, you might be patient zero in a real-life Fear the Walking Dead situation. (The way Cyrus shuts down a partner’s lovey-dovey PDA on “BB Talk” suggests she hasn’t lost her sense of humor, either.)

Because Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is one of the most prominent surprise releases to drop since Beyoncé first turned her name into a verb in 2013, it’s hard not to think of its predecessor. If Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album,” arriving with 17 exquisite music videos, represented the full, unbridled execution of Beyoncé’s singular vision, Cyrus’ record is the promising formation of one. Here is one of the boldest young pop stars identifying what she stands for, questioning everything from drugs and sexual politics to the business of the music industry and the limits of her sound. The VMAs performance in which Cyrus announced her surprise album was as garish as one might expect from artist whose adult-career philosophy could be summed up with the words, “Look at me!” But with her Dead Petz project, Cyrus does the musical equivalent of pivoting away from the cameras’ gaze in search of something more fulfilling. The songs may not satisfy listeners the same way, but the process behind them is fascinating to watch. Even when Cyrus isn’t demanding our attention, she manages to hold it anyway.

TIME Smartphones

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 5

Samsung's latest devices go head-to-head

There’s a lot riding on Samsung’s latest smartphones, the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5. Ever since the South Korean company hit a bit of a rough patch early this year it’s been looking for ways to improve its bottom line. Meanwhile, profits at the company have declined for seven straight quarters, forcing it to cut prices for its Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.

Samsung is in dire need of a hit device to put the company back on a path towards rising profits, which is hopefully where the Note 5 and S6 Edge+ can help. For the past week I’ve tested both devices, using them non-stop to snap photos, capture videos, and do all the things you’d normally do on a smartphone. And you know what? These devices just might be what Samsung’s looking for.

Design

As noted in a previous story, the company will no longer offer smartphones equipped with microSD card slots and removable batteries and instead offer devices made from svelte aluminum and glass; much to the chagrin of its most faithful of users.

The S6 Edge+ and Note 5 were each crafted with a different type of consumer in mind. The S6 Edge+ is for those who like to watch videos and play games thanks to the immersive experience its curved display lends itself to. Meanwhile, the Note 5, as its lineage dictates, is aimed directly at those who want a productivity device, complete with a stylus for jotting notes and sketching ideas.

Storage options are limited to 32- or 64-gigabytes for both devices, again, with no option to add storage via a memory card. The lack of storage is a confusing omission when looking at the Note 5, a device that’s made a name for itself as a productivity-first device.

Is one device better than the other? It depends on how you plan on using it. I suspect the majority of users will opt for the S6 Edge+ due to its curved design. The S6 Edge+ is lighter and thinner than the Note 5, and overall just feels easier to hold.

The Note 5 was more to difficult hold on, an issue that’s undoubtedly a byproduct of it’s 5.7-inch, but also an unfortunate side effect of its design (and despite the fact the back of the Note 5 is curved in a similar fashion to that of the screen on the S6 Edge+).

The S6 Edge+ is equipped with the same screen size as the Note, and is .7 millimeters thinner on the spec sheet.

Performance

Both devices are equipped with Samsung’s 2.1 GHz Exynos 7420 64-bit octa-core processor, which translates into a fast experience. Apps were always fast to open and close, with no discernible delay. Even after a full day’s use of installing, loading, and customizing over 50 applications, neither device showed signs of slowing down.

The only time I briefly experienced a slight slowdown was when using Samsung’s multi window feature, which allows two apps to run at the same time in a split-screen orientation.

Software

When Samsung launched both devices at its Unpacked event it failed to include one word: TouchWiz. The term refers to Samsung’s divisive proprietary software that runs atop Google’s Android platform, adding features and customization options.

Unfortunately, the omission wasn’t an indication the company had decided to walk away from the interface. The software is still present, for better or worse, and still a hindrance.

For example, S Voice is the company’s digital assistant, much like Apple’s Siri, and responds to voice commands. After summoning your personal assistant, you can ask it for weather updates or to set reminders.

The setup process for S Voice requires you to set your own activation phrase, repeating it several times to train your device. In my case, I opted for “Hey Edge” to beckon its attention. Only, I rarely was able to activate it on first try. Unfortunately, many times the device had no reaction. How did I figure out if I needed an umbrella? I asked Google instead, and it responded nearly every single time.

Compounding the frustrating experience, S Voice would randomly turn on. I can only assume the device thought that it heard my personalized “Hey Edge” command from something on TV or radio, and that whatever it heard did a better job at sounding like me than I did.

Inconsistent experiences such as what I experienced with S Voice are found on both devices’ software. Thankfully, however, most of it can be disabled.

Camera

Samsung put the same 16 megapixel sensor from its previous generation phones in its Note 5 and S6 Edge+.The result means performance is the same, but the larger screens make it easier to frame and setup photos.

Samsung offers different camera modes designed for specific situations, such as sporting events or, yes, even food pics.

Low-light performance was a weak spot, as it is with most smartphone cameras. Instead of grainy photos, however, both devices struggled with capturing the proper white balance. In comparison, the iPhone 6 offered up grainy photos with better balance.

Battery life

The Note 5 and S6 Edge+ are each equipped with a 3,000 milliamp-hour battery. The size may be a disappointment to some, given the battery is smaller than the Note 4 and no longer removable, meaning users can’t simply replace a dead battery with a fully charged spare when needed.

Unlike my experience with Samsung’s smaller flagship devices, the battery life on the Note 5 or S6 Edge+ was a non-issue. I failed to completely deplete either battery throughout the day, in spite of heavy use.

At one point I forgot to place the Note 5 on its charger before bed, and when I woke the battery was at 16%. Normally when this happens—and I think we’ve all been there—you charge your device while you get ready for the work day, and leave the house with a half-charged battery.

However, I plugged the Note 5 in and 15 minutes later the battery had an extra 25%; another 15 minutes later I was nearing 60%. Samsung’s integration of Qualcomm, a quick-charging technology for devices, is an invaluable feature.

Samsung Pay

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test Samsung Pay on either device during the review period, but the beta is scheduled for launch this month.

Both devices are equipped with the required hardware and—according to Samsung—already contain the software needed to use the mobile payment service once it’s available (users will still need to download the Samsung Pay app to enable it, rather than wait for a software update as is the case for S6 and S6 Edge owners).

If Pay works as advertised, it has the potential to be one of the increasingly rare features capable of changing smartphone use through its ability to work with both standard credit and debit card terminals and NFC readers.

Pricing

Both devices are available starting August 21 across all four major U.S. carriers, plus U.S. Cellular. Pricing is carrier dependent, but most are offering the device at $700 for the 32GB Note 5. Full retail pricing of the 32GB S6 Edge+ is in the neighborhood of $770. Though some carriers such at AT&T still provide the option to sign a two-year contract, putting the cost below $300 for either device.

Samsung’s latest devices carry a steep price tag in a market that’s increasingly seeing quality Android devices hit the market at cheaper prices, and with the added benefit of no contract or monthly payments. For example, the OnePlus 2’s most expensive model is $390, while Motorola’s $399 Moto X will soon be available.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 vs. S6 Edge+

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ are the best Android smartphones I’ve ever used. Their large, vibrant displays were a joy to look at. I even began to appreciate the curved screen of the S6 Edge+, a departure from the my feelings after using the S6 Edge.

The fingerprint reader is fast, and most importantly, reliable. The camera is one of the best I’ve ever used on a smartphone, giving me pause each time I pulled out my iPhone to snap a photo. The battery offered enough power to get me through an entire day of heavy use.

If I was asked to pick between the S6 Edge+ or the Note 5, I’d be inclined to pick the former. The curved display doesn’t offer any true advantage other than making the device easier to grip, and the Note 5’s biggest differentiator (and only feature worth nothing) is its stylus. Outside of that, both devices offer the same software and hardware experience.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Books

Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Examines Wealth and Identity

Purity Tyler, the hero of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, has a very contemporary problem: she owes $130,000 in college loans. Purity, who hates her name and goes by Pip, grew up with her eccentric mother in a 500-square-foot cabin outside Santa Cruz. She knows nothing of her father—her mother obstinately refuses to reveal his identity—but her debt sends her on a quest to discover his name and, crucially, whether he can chip in on her monthly payments.

Along the way, she meets a very contemporary character: Andreas Wolf, professional leaker, lady-killer and fierce rival of Julian Assange. From his camp in Bolivia, Wolf, an East German dissident turned political fugitive, runs an operation called the Sunlight Project, whose mission is to air the world’s dirty laundry. Pip cares little for such grandeur, but she thinks the project’s powerful servers might help her locate her missing father. When an internship with Wolf drops into her lap, she heads for South America, starting a series of revelations that result in a confession of murder, a suicide and the unlikely reunion of her parents.

Purity comes five years after Freedom and 14 years after The Corrections. Both earlier novels were called masterpieces of American fiction; to say the same of Purity might be true but misses the point. Magisterial sweep is now just what Franzen does, and his new novel appears not as explosion of literary talent (The Corrections) nor as glorious confirmation of it (Freedom) but as a simple, enjoyable reminder of his sharp-eyed presence. Near the end of Purity, Wolf muses on his use of the word totalitarian to describe life in the digital age:

Younger interviewers, to whom the word meant total surveillance, total mind control, gray armies in parade with ­medium-range missiles, had understood him to be saying something unfair about the Internet. In fact, he simply meant a system that was impossible to opt out of. The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it.

One might say the same of Franzen’s role in the culture. Perhaps it’s a bit rich for a writer to offer home truths about the Internet when (as he revealed in a 2010 TIME cover profile) he keeps it at bay by gluing shut his Ethernet port. But Purity assures us that, oppose Franzen’s truths or not, we readers can’t escape them. And they’re only coming faster.

Franzen’s world, like any teeming ecosystem, has its irritants. In Purity, people engage in toxic relationships, parents are either overbearing or absentee, and self-righteousness rises to the level of performance art (the performance being either masturbation or media appearance). Pip suffers from a common plague of coming-of-age heroes: she lacks a sense of self. Early on, she doesn’t act so much as flail. For a scene or two, she doesn’t seem worth our time.

But she has a sharp tongue, and gradually, over the 550-odd pages that bear her name, she begins to assert herself. She says no. She says it to powerful people and to the people who mean the most to her. Amid the frenetic ­subplots—backstories of Stasi-­surveilled East Germany and the agribusiness conglomerates of the American Midwest—it’s bit of a throwback miracle to discern as through line the voice of a young woman discovering her authority.

And Purity, in its loose and self-­assured way, gestures openly toward narratives past. Franzen excels at being timely—the post-financial-crisis vernacular, the Snowden name checks, the journalists funded by angel ­investors—but nobody christens a character Pip without courting comparison to Dickens’ orphan. The idea behind Great Expectations is that wealth, however well intentioned, is not separable from its origins: Dickens’ Pip cannot accept money from a convict, and the novelist as moralist makes sure of that. Much of Purity, likewise, is devoted to the scrutiny of money and motive, the aspiration (as the title suggests) to clear from a good life’s pursuits the shame of any ill-gotten gains.

But Franzen chases a different resolution. Bankruptcy, poverty, crippling debt: if these social scourges trace back at least in part to the deep financial dealings of institutions beyond our control, then perhaps even the most morally suspect fortune can be used to negate them. Or as Pip pragmatically puts it, “There’s got to be at least $3 million you can take in good conscience.”

Our very contemporary problems, then, bring us past idealism to compromise. And Franzen, even in a novel that flirts hard with Dickensesque coincidence, cements his place in the ranks of the realists. Maybe it’s because the fortune in Purity is so absurdly big, and the needs it can alleviate so relatively small, but the idea of a troubled inheritance suddenly seems like a playful thing, a route to contentment instead of a roadblock. This is still Franzenland: Purity closes on a profane shouting match between two adults who really ought to know better. But Purity is calm and quiet, having said what she needed to say.

TIME Television

Review: Housing Drama Show Me a Hero Hits Us Where We Live

HBO

David Simon's miniseries makes an absorbing, and surprisingly hopeful, drama out of urban policy.

I’m going to tell you about David Simon’s absorbing new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero (premieres Aug. 16), but first I need you to work with me. Suspend, if you can, the belief that a period TV drama about a battle over housing policy is going to be boring.

As countless HGTV shows know, there are few things in the average life more fraught with stress, emotion and psychic investment than obtaining and keeping shelter. A home is not just four walls. It’s physical and financial security, a repository of self-image, a vessel of hopes and fears.

It’s certainly not boring to the white homeowners of east Yonkers, N.Y., circa 1987, who at the beginning of Hero are frothing in rage over a judge’s order that the midsized city desegregate its public housing by building units on their side of town. It’s not boring to Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), elected the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city, whom we meet chugging Maalox from the bottle like a protein shake. And it’s certainly not boring to the housing-project residents Hero introduces one by one, for whom four walls in a more peaceful neighborhood could mean a second chance at life.

Based on a nonfiction book by the New York Times‘ Lisa Belkin and cowritten by Simon’s former Baltimore Sun colleague William F. Zorzi, the six-part Hero works journalistically from the inside out, starting in City Hall. Everyone in Yonkers government knows the city faces bankruptcy from fines if it doesn’t comply with the court order. They also have every political incentive to resist anyway. Wasicsko himself rides to office on a tide of civic rage because he supported a court appeal that the pragmatic previous mayor (Jim Belushi) knew was pointless.

But even as he campaigns, he’s unsettled by the ugly forces carrying him–“That Jew judge ain’t gonna build that garbage nohow!” one voter yells–and once he’s elected and has to implement the order anyway, the tide washes back over him in the form of his constituents’ spit. As dated as the late ’80s fashions are here, the small-scale racial politics are sadly current. Isaac, wearing Wasicsko’s soup-strainer mustache like a 50-pound weight, masterfully shows his youthful energy and optimism curdling into gallows humor and bitterness. (Between Isaac and True Detective‘s Colin Farrell, 2015 is becoming The Year of the Sad Mustache.)

Meanwhile, Hero dips in and out of the stories of the black and Hispanic residents of the west side projects–single mothers, mostly, trying to hold families together in a place of concentrated dysfunction. Hero, directed by Paul Haggis, has an acute sociological eye for how the projects alter the smallest human interaction: a flirty moment between two young lovers is chilled by a two officers giving them the stink-eye from a passing Yonkers P.D. cruiser.

Show Me a Hero is to Simon’s The Wire as The Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings: pure uncut wonkery, without the genre trappings of a cop story. This is a show that will build a scene around housing expert Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), explaining his “defensible space” theory–that small, discrete homes, like the planned townhouses, promote a sense of investment–and actually knows how to dramatize it. The themes are a natural evolution of Simon’s urban oeuvre (also including The Corner and Treme) which contrasts personal stories with the greater power of impersonal forces.

Haggis, known for Crash–the Oscar-winning 2004 ballpeen hammer of race-and-class-consciousness–proves a good fit for the material, roving across Yonkers to capture a postindustrial city divided by color and politics but united by economic fear of falling. (The soundtrack is almost exclusively music by Bruce Springsteen, official troubadour of East Coast decline.)

Contrary to its title (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”), there aren’t unambiguous heroes here. Wasicsko eventually becomes a champion of the housing, at great cost to him and his young wife Nay (Carla Quevado), but it’s as much out of pragmatism and spite as principle. The opposition is less well-drawn. Alfred Molina blusters and mercilessly sucks an omnipresent toothpick as a race-baiting councilman. The main entree to the “I’m not a racist, but…” white homeowners is Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), a townhouse opponent who becomes turned off by the blatant racism of some of her neighbors; she’s a key link between the sides, but more a device than a character.

But the plot advances, slowly and inexorably as the gears of bureaucracy, and Hero‘s emotional power builds as it focuses on the townhouses’ new residents and the initiative’s power to change their lives. Lives and careers are destroyed along the way, and the triumphs are small, like the sight of a young boy running in circles in a tiny yard, on a patch of grass that’s his own.

Show Me a Hero ends poignantly yet–considering that Simon’s worldview is so bleak he calls his blog The Audacity of Despair–hopefully. It’s just a distinctly David Simon brand of hope: the kind that says the victories we can hope for in this life are modest, and not unlike keeping a home, they involve a hell of a lot of hard work and maintenance.

TIME review

Here’s What It’s Like to Shop With Amazon’s New Rival

Jet
Jet Jet

Amazon and Costco competitor Jet took flight last week. Was it ready?

Like many busy parents, shopping can simultaneously be my favorite and least favorite thing to do. When you need to escape from a screaming, fussy child, running off to the market alone can’t be beat — you feel momentarily independent again, and you come back home as a provider. “I have returned triumphant…with animal crackers!” But of all the ways you could spend your time, schlepping produce, pop, and Pampers from cart to car to cupboard is near the bottom of the list.

One possible savior when you’re too busy to visit the store yourself is Jet, a new e-commerce megastore that’s looking to rival Amazon and Costco. But can the upstart Jet win a dogfight against its bigger, more established rivals?

To find out, I decided to kick the tires, testing it out against my usual grocery, Costco and Amazon purchases. My results were mixed, but for perspective’s sake, I’m compelled to lead off with this: According to the company’s tally, my $254 Jet order was $86.81 less than it would be if I shopped elsewhere on the web. That in itself is very impressive.

Ordering Away

I went into this exercise with three goals: trim my grocery bill, curtail my Costco run, and cut my regular Amazon Prime order. Overall, Jet helped me accomplish all three of these things to varying degrees. But what I may have saved in money and effort, I might have lost in time. So it’s worth considering which factor is most valuable to you before trying this yourself.

I began by evaluating how Jet can take the sting out of my regular grocery bill. This was difficult because we tend to eat a lot of fresh and frozen food. As I wrote previously, Jet doesn’t sell refrigerated goods. So I turned my eyes towards non-perishable products, like bar soap, laundry detergent, Gatorade, and even my favorite brand of chips.

On these grocery-type items, Jet says I saved $9.56 over the web’s best prices. But I typically grocery shop at Winco, a cost-conscious chain in the Pacific Northwest, not on the web. Based on my receipts from Winco, I estimate I saved closer to $5. But I admit that I likely also bought higher quality products (or bigger sizes) than I might have in the store.

Next I tried cutting out my monthly Costco run. As much as I love free samples and $1.25 hot dogs, the double-wide carts, slowly plodding shoppers, and long check-out lines sour my Saturdays — and that’s not to mention what impulse buys can do to my budget. To combat this, I ordered tissues, paper towels, diapers, baby wipes, and Diaper Genie refills from Jet. According to Jet, I saved $31.18 over the lowest price available online for these products. But it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison with my typical Costco haul, because Jet only offers brand name products instead of the Kirkland-branded goods that the warehouse store stocks. That said, my estimates agree with Jet’s — the new online service likely saved around $30 from my real-world shopping experience.

But we also tend to get frozen meat at Costco, a staple my household needs to keep everyone fed. Instead of going without, my wife made a quick run to the mega-store just for these items. The entire shopping experience took 12 minutes, from car door to returning the cart. Because we didn’t have to wind through the aisles, the time savings alone made Jet a worthwhile addition to our Costco routine.

And then it came time to challenge our Amazon Prime purchases. I tend to buy odds (a 15-foot HDMI cable) and ends (vitamins) through Amazon, so this was interesting on multiple levels. Jet’s vitamins were $3.58 less than Amazon’s already bargain-basement prices, and the cable was $7 less than an equivalent there. Since these savings were so unexpected, I decided to search Jet for a deck box for my patio (so much for negating the impulse buys). In doing so, I found the best deal I saw all summer on a box larger than I had ever considered. Not only that, but Jet offered me a huge discount on the box if I added it to my shopping cart. The site was making a hard sell.

Figuring Out the Financials

This is where I encountered a problem with Jet’s savings engine. Each time you add an item to your shopping cart, the company’s algorithms crank away at a bunch of variables (such as shipping efficiencies, warehouse locations, and other factors), endeavoring to save its customers as much money as possible. Jet can do that because it makes money on its $50 membership fee, not on profits generated by sales.

When I was evaluating the deck box, Jet offered to take $18.07 off my order if I added the item to my shopping cart — so I did. But then I got cold feet and pulled it back out. Upon doing that, the site removed $15.20 from my Total Savings figure. In theory, it seemed like I was making $2.87 in the hiccup, but upon further inspection I realized that I had never gotten the full $18.07 to begin with.

Confused, I reached out to the company, which confirmed that I had encountered a bug, since fixed, that had plagued fewer than 1% of its orders (nine people overall) and caused the savings to miscalculate. The problem occurred on orders of 10 items or more, and Jet has identified all the affected users, proactively applying a credit to their account for the missing savings. Since I brought it up prior to completing my purchase, the company offered me a $20 credit to make up for the difference in savings and a change in the item’s pricing. (In the interest of transparency, I did not accept the credit.)

But frankly, it felt funny asking for the $2.87 in savings I had been promised, since I was already getting such a fantastic deal on the item even when I was shorted. But instead, this entire experience reveals a troublesome problem with the debit card era. As much as we swipe, few people take the time to balance their checking accounts anymore, let alone add up the totals from a multi-product online purchase. What if the company’s math was wrong? In this case, it actually was.

In fairness to Jet, the savings were dizzying as I put together my cart. With each product I ordered, it introduced additional discounts on millions of products. On one hand, I’m not surprised Jet got the discount wrong, but on the other, it’s Jet’s job to get it right. According to Liza Landsman, Jet’s chief customer officer, the company’s first week also caught the company off guard. On Jet’s first day, the site did over $1 million in sales, it amassed more than 200,000 users in the first two days, and 115,000 people downloaded Jet’s apps in the first week.

“One of the things that has been great – given the tremendous volume we have this week — has been lots of great feedback,” Landsman says. “We’ve been able to rapidly cycle through making user experience enhancements on the site, and some of the things we’ll even be rolling out in the next week or two.” These include new savings calculators, dropdown menus, and other ways for consumers to better understand their savings. These sound great, but if I had a suggestion, it would be that Jet only process one sale per order, instead of breaking it up into several smaller sales, which is they did on my order. My checking account lists seven different purchases through Jet (and you bet I checked to see that they add up to my $254 order total).

Delivering the Goods

Overall, I ordered 18 items, 13 of which were due to arrive in one-to-two-business days, while the other five were scheduled for between two and five business days. As I write this on day five, eight items were on time, seven arrived a day late, and three are still outstanding.

If Jet’s business model is all about maximizing efficiencies, the magic driving it has been lost on me. The company pulls together orders by pairing its own warehouses stock with the inventory from a network of “trusted” partners. In my case, the majority of my order came directly from Jet. These items arrived in two footlocker-sized boxes that were more than half full of air pillow packaging. One box arrived on time, the other a day late. Both were delivered by OnTrac, a FedEx and UPS competitor that also carries Amazon Prime packages in western states and has gotten poor marks from customers for how they treat packages. In my case, OnTrac dropped both giant boxes on the doorstep without even ringing the bell. My wife and I were home both times.

In addition, as a Jet shopper, you have no idea where these items are coming from until they’re on their way. One box that arrived was from Walmart, a company with which my family prefers not to do business. Had we known that we were purchasing products from it, we would have opted for higher-priced alternatives. But this is the dark side of discount shopping with Jet. If Jet makes a deal with Walmart in the name of lower prices, you become an unknowing accessory to that pact. But to Walmart’s credit, it delivered the goods much faster than I was expecting.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting on a bottle of Tide laundry detergent, which should have arrived within one-to-two business days, and some printer ink cartridges that were due by the day of my writing this. The Tide is actually coming from a Jet warehouse — or so an email told me — and the printer cartridges are coming from a third party. According to tracking numbers, the cartridges have been sitting around in a UPS location on the east coast for a week. Who do I blame for that: Jet, UPS, or the third party? The Tide, meanwhile, is somewhere in Iowa right now, en route to my Washington State home also from New Jersey. I’m not a logistics expert like the people running Jet, but I find it impossible to believe that there wasn’t another bottle nearby that would’ve been cheaper. But that’s what Jet is asking its customers to do: take it on blind faith that it knows what it’s doing.

I’m not convinced that they do, yet. Still, I’m sold by the savings — $86 is nothing to sneeze at — so I’ll likely shop with Jet again. Only as long as I’m buying items I’m not in a rush to receive.

TIME Television

Halt and Catch Fire Became the Next Mad Men When It Stopped Trying to Be

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Richard DuCree/AMC
Richard DuCree/AMC

AMC's computer-business drama just finished one of the year's best TV seasons. It deserves another one.

One problem with the first season of Halt and Catch Fire was that it seemed, intentionally or not, like AMC was trying to make another version of Mad Men. There was a period setting (the 1980s), an office environment (the early personal computer business) and above all, a tortured mystery man with a secret, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). It was as unsatisfying a substitution as replacing your martini with a New Coke.

But by the end of the first season, HACF found itself. It ditched the storyline about launching an IBM PC clone, it ditched the Jobs/Wozniak dynamic between Joe and hardware wiz Gordon (Scoot McNairy). It became a story about the thrill and costs of creation, shifting attention to the marriage of Gordon and Donna (Kerry Bishé)–herself a visionary shackled to a pay-the-bills job at Texas Instruments–and to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), the spiky-haired programmer who wanted to foresaw computers as something people connect with, not simply log on to.

The second season improved logarithmically, as if through some TV-business version of Moore’s Law. It made Donna and Cameron into the show’s leads as they launched Mutiny, an early online gaming company. Focusing on two women launching a startup in the ’80s wasn’t just refreshing–Bechdel Test, meet Turing Test–it also simply made for a more interesting dynamic than Joe and Gordon’s Don-Draper-meets-Walter-White dynamic did. HACF found a truly vital story in ’80s computing–Donna seeing the value in chatrooms, the early iteration of the virtual lives we all lead today. In the process, it stopped trying to be Mad Men and learned how to be itself.

Yet, when I watched “Heaven Is a Place,” the excellent season two finale, I realized something: HACF has, in fact, kind of become the next Mad Men, but in the best possible way.

I’m not saying that simply because “Heaven” ended with nearly the entire cast boarding a plane for California, planning to reboot Mutiny (and God willing continue the show) in the location that so many of Mad Men‘s characters saw as a place for rebirth, reinvention, chasing the future and escaping the past. And HACF doesn’t resemble Mad Men in most surface aspects. It doesn’t have delectable fashions and furnishings (this is the ’80s). It doesn’t have a vast group of urbane characters dropping bon mots. It has a truly awful title. As a result, it doesn’t have even the sizeable cult audience that Mad Men did, and its fate is uncertain even though it’s become one of the best shows on TV.

But philosophically, HACF is doing precisely what Mad Men did: it’s showing how work, and the products of that work, express character. Season one had various problems to work through, but a basic one was simply that hardware is not as artistically interesting as software. Imagine if Mad Men were set at Kodak rather than among the folks trying to sell the Carousel.

Halt and Catch Fire is chronicling a time when computer software was moving from becoming mainly a tool to run calculations and solve problems to being a means for externalizing the self. It would become a place for play, for discovery, for friendship, for sex. Now that’s interesting. It’s the story of us, of people beginning to imagine the world where many of us now live half our lives.

But that’s still just an idea. What has made HACF a terrific story is that it used that premise to develop rich characters with complicated relationships. It’s realized, essentially, that software is its answer to advertising: it’s a device whose purpose is to tap into human needs or fears or desires, and thus it can reflect those in its own characters. (Think Don selling a Hawaiian hotel as a place to disappear, or Peggy drawing on her troubled Catholic background to sell Popsicles as communion.) It is more than a product. As a certain Korean War veteran used to say, the product is you, feeling something.

Thus it’s Cameron, who resists being subject to others’ restrictions and control, who insists on pushing the immersive aspects of Mutiny’s games: it’s not enough that Mutiny be fun, it needs to be a place to can disappear into, a place that feels without boundary, where you can replace your face with a skull because it’s badass and you can. Thus it’s Donna, who has had to hold together a family, manage an erratic husband, ride herd on a stubborn business partner, who sees that the real long-term play at Mutiny is Community–enabling connections among people.

Thus it’s Joe, who has learned suspicion as the only useful strategy for life, who sees an opening in the virus-protection market: “Real security is trusting no one.” (Yeah, he hits the metaphor a little hard, but sometimes Mad Men did that too.) And thus it’s Gordon, the hardware guy in an increasingly software world, who has been adrift this season despite the freedom that cashing in on his company would seem to have afforded him. He has a neurological condition–his wiring is failing him–and he ends the season realizing he needs to put Donna’s career first: he needs, literally, to put his faith in Community.

What began seeming like a misfire is now easily one of the few best dramas of the year. It may not be a lucrative decision for AMC to pick up another season, but that’s what Fear the Walking Dead is for. If a reputation for supporting quality still matters to AMC’s brand, it will order a third season.

The first version of Halt and Catch Fire had a shelf-life shorter than a PC the day before the new Macintosh came out. But the show’s strong casting and writing now has purpose and a worthy premise: complicated people trying to create a new world. A place where your essence, your you, is abstracted from your physical shell and can roam free. Today, we call that sort of place the Internet. People used to call it Heaven.

TIME Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Television

Review: Sharknado 3, Bigger, Hungrier and More Commercial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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