TIME Gadgets

Are 4K Televisions Worth Buying Yet?

Sony Corp. Unveils New Bravia TVs
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images An attendant walks past Sony Corp. Bravia 4K liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions displayed at a launch event in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.

They may be cheaper, but where's the content?

Over the past holiday season, 4K televisions were among the hottest gadgets to fly off the shelves. But here we are, nearly six months later, and you have to wonder if some consumers have buyer’s remorse. There’s no arguing that the screens on these living room fixtures are great, but are they really four times better than the 1080p televisions many of us already have?

“When you go 4K, you’re getting four times the resolution, four times the pixel data that you would typically get with a 1080p television,” says Jeff Park, a senior manager of product marketing and technology evangelism with HDMI Licensing. While many experts might be biased about whether 4K televisions are worthwhile buys or not, HDMI is the universally accepted cable that delivers video from devices as varied as decade-old DVD players and gaming consoles to 20-inch computer monitors and 108-inch 4K digital projectors. As a result, Park is a great authority on the emerging technology, because no matter what kind of TV you buy, you’ll be using his cables anyway. “It’s four times better, in terms of the number of pixels,” he says.

But be sure to take note of the caveat above, because pixels aren’t everything when it comes to a great television experience. First, before you buy, consider the setup in your TV room. This exhaustive but excellent breakdown by Rtings shows the relationship between viewing distance and pixel density. It can help you decide if a 4K television is even worth it for your space.

Another thing to keep in mind is that larger televisions are not only becoming less expensive, but also more mainstream. For instance, as the chart below shows, of all the televisions currently on the market, the 60-inch and larger size is the most popular among manufacturers (and, likely, consumers). So if you’re planning on getting one of these big boys — and if your couch is less than eight feet from your TV — it might be wise to go with 4K.

But that assumes there’s content available to take advantage of all these new pixels — and at this point, that’s a very big assumption. Like any piece of digital media — be it a music download, a photo snapped with your phone, or a television show streamed via Hulu — videos must have been initially created with equipment designed to capture enough pixels to make your screen pop. Today’s digital video cameras have those chops, but the gear they used to shoot your favorite 90’s sitcoms didn’t. And right now there’s only a handful of studios shooting their television shows in 4K, a standard that’s also called “Ultra HD.”

One reason for this is that the U.S. has a big problem with delivering these beefy files. As Park notes, 4K has four times the number of pixels of 1080p, high definition television. That means there’s four times as much data involved in rendering the same (albeit much richer) imagery. In the past, physical media hardwired to televisions (via HDMI) like DVDs and Blu-Rays drove the demand for better television sets. But with the demise of physical video rental locations (with all due respect to Redbox) and the rise of streaming video, it’s been an uphill battle to apply this magic formula to 4K television sets.

Last week, however, a final Ultra HD Blu-Ray specification was unveiled that may give movie buffs something to cheer about. “When people purchase new TVs, they’ll typically also purchase sources — that’s what they’re accustomed to,” says Park. “We expect that the Ultra HD BluRay release, and many content releases that will be coming this fall, to really drive content and maybe even adoption of these 4K-enabled products.”

But if consumers eschew Ultra HD Blu-Rays, it may be because digital downloads have gone mainstream. From Amazon Prime to Apple TV, more people are renting and streaming movies online, though by and large none of these downloads are close to 4K quality. Netflix has some shows, like House of Cards, that were filmed in 4K, but every step along the pipeline has to be able to handle 4K video for its rich detail to make it to your screen. For instance, if you subscribe to Netflix’s 4K service (which, by the way, costs more) and you’re watching House of Cards on your Roku 3, then you’re not getting it in all its ultra high-definition glory. To do that, you’ll need to use the Netflix app on select 4K smart televisions or connected Blu-Ray players. Also, as CNET points out, you’ll probably need a 4K compatible receiver too. (Ouch.)

While it would be natural to assume streaming 4K video is the answer, there’s the issue of having enough Internet bandwidth to deliver files that large. Unless you happen to be one of very few Google Fiber customers, the U.S. broadband infrastructure isn’t ready for you and your neighbors to watch downloads in 4K resolution. Forget Kim Kardashian—you’re going to be the one who breaks the Internet.

Meanwhile, you might think the new wave of next-generation video game consoles have capitalized on 4K’s breathtaking resolution. Think again. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are only high-definition. 4K versions are rumored, but not available yet.

All this heartbreaking news aside, there still are good reasons to choose a 4K television set over a high-definition one. “As with any technology’s introduction, it’s not in a vacuum,” says Park. “Resolution is not the only thing that improves over the years. The panel itself is much better. The color rendition is much better.” Other features, such as the eye-popping hyper dynamic range and faster frame rates, — “technologies that are the unsung hero of the TV world,” says Parks — make these sets worth splurging for. And maybe, just maybe, 4K programming will arrive someday soon, too.

TIME Television

Recap: Mad Men Watch: Om Sweet Om

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
Michael Yarish/AMC

Have a Coke and a smile: a rambling finale leads to either TV's saddest happy ending or its happiest sad ending.

Spoilers for the season finale of Mad Men below:

“There’s more to life than work.” –Stan Rizzo

Is there? The entire finale of Mad Men seemed to be making that point, or at least, it found the series’ central characters wrestling with the issue. Peggy Olson found love at work–no mortal can resist Stan’s suede and turquoise for long–while also finding a calling there. Joan found that her work cost her a relationship, as Richard’s supportive talk turned out to be all talk–yet when we last saw her, she seemed to have managed to integrate her work with her life. Even Roger Sterling ends his story out of the office, ordering champagne happily with Marie.

And then of course there was Don, whose hobo journey led him at the end away from the office, by way of the Bonneville Salt Flats, to a meditation center in California, where, stripped of everything–job, home, car, power suits, connection with family and friends and even hippie pseudo-niece Stephanie–he gives in to the vibe, breaks down in encounter group and shows up to meditate and greet Mother Sun. He closes his eyes. He gives himself over. He chants, “Om.” He smiles. His skin relaxes, his nostrils flare. He seems at peace. And we hear a bell, a chime of clarity.

Or is it just an idea lightbulb? A moment later, we hear the lines of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” the famous Coca-Cola world-peace-through-carbonation anthem from 1971. (Kudos, by the way to Vox and Uproxx for nailing the final-song prediction.)

[Incidentally, it’s true that the finale did not make explicit, in so many words, that Don wrote the Coke ad; it’s possible, I suppose, that it could have been Peggy, though then I’m not sure its connection to Don’s ending meditation. In that way, the ending was more Sopranos-like–open to endless interpretation–than I would have expected. But that’s my operating theory for now. I am glad to hear arguments to the contrary!]

So last things first: that ending. As a tag on Don’s story it was both incredibly clever and emotionally underwhelming–the opposite, really, of what I might have expected from Mad Men‘s finale. It does a brilliant, instantaneous double-twist, suggesting in one moment that Don has finally, through being stripped down, reached a moment of spiritual growth–and then that, really, he’s simply seen it as all b.s. and come up with one more way to sell product. He has looked into the eye of eternity and seen a Clio.

Ingenious? Yes. But it’s also, at first blush, much more bleak and cynical about Don’s ability to change and grow–much more Sopranos-like, in other words–than you would expect from a series that gave us the moving end moments of “In Care of” at the end of season 6. If that’s what happened in that instant, Mad Men has given TV its most cheerful, upbeat, miserable ending in the history of finales.

Because think about what it’s saying. Don has lost pretty much every human connection. He’s essentially accepted that the best thing for his children is to surrender their care to another man after the death of their mother. He’s unable to accept the love or encouragement of his protegé Peggy over the phone. He’s become the lonely, cold bottle on the refrigerator shelf in poor Leonard’s dream. And that has, apparently, made him a better ad man than ever: made him able, in fact, to come up with one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the 1970s (which, symmetrical with the pilot, is I believe the show’s first use of a real advertising campaign/slogan since Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”).

Intellectually, I can accept that as both an example of how advertising co-opts ideals and as a statement of Don accepting that he is who he is–Don Draper, ad man, not Dick Whitman, spirit-questing, California-dreaming wanderer. It’s a satisfying idea to wrestle with. But this isn’t all about ideas. It’s about, as Don said to Peggy in season 2: “You, feeling something.” And where I’m sitting, early morning after the end of Mad Men, I wanted its last minutes to make me feel more.

Part of the issue here, I think, was the structure of the episode–finales always being a tough thing, especially in a show like Mad Men that’s not driven by a singular plot goal. Don spent the entire episode separated from the rest of the central characters, except by phone. And the problem is, we care about him mainly in relation to them. When Don realizes that this is it for Betty, his face crumples, and he says, “Birdie”: devastating. Don in the company of a bunch of hippies somewhere in the vicinity of Big Sur? Not so much. (Some of Mad Men‘s weaker segments historically have been around the counterculture–that’s where its seams start to show–and this was no exception.)

“Person to Person,” meanwhile, was very busy back at home on the East Coast, too busy, as it tried to give many characters final moments with each other. (And yes: if it hadn’t, fans would have complained about that. Again, finales are hard!) At times, it seemed to sacrifice consistency for fan service. It felt great to see Joan offer Peggy a partnership in her production company–offering her the chance to “burn the place down” together–but it felt sudden considering how strained their relationship often was. Peggy and Stan’s hookup was a wish fulfilled–and the show had been pointing at it forever–but the sudden, blurting I-love-you over the phone felt very convenient and not very Mad Men.

On the other hand, if you’ve seen Sally Draper as the secret protagonist of Mad Men, “Person to Person” delivered. Kiernan Shipka was absolutely riveting as Sally essentially took the parental role in her family, giving her father the mature argument that he needed to step back and let his sons have continuity with Henry, then coming home to have the honest talk with Bobby that Betty couldn’t. This was a dramatic personal change, but in a way that felt earned and convincing. Don told Sally earlier this season that she was indeed like her mother and father; but who would have guessed, after that childhood, that she might mature into a better version of both?

Sally’s storyline was probably the most conventionally satisfying of the finale’s shambling first hour (and let’s not forget January Jones, who got to go a long way to redeem a sometimes-misused character in these final episodes). As a conventional finale, Mad Men’s was not one of TV’s best, and there have been far better hours of the series over its run.

And yet right now, around 1 in the morning, it’s the weird, not-conventionally-satisfying last ten minutes of the episode that I’m still wrestling with. And that’s testament to Mad Men‘s determination to be weird, to challenge, to irritate and prod and engage.

I mean, look again at the last ten minutes or so. Don, the protagonist of the series, says almost nothing in his final act. He exchanges a few depressed words–“I can’t move”–with a group leader whose name we don’t know and we don’t care to. He goes to a seminar with her, has an opening to speak, and… doesn’t. The man of words, the guy whom we could always count on to deliver a tour de force, epiphanic pitch speech, instead sits back and lets the show’s final story–Don’s story, for all intents and purposes–be told through some guy named Leonard.

And it’s devastating. Because it’s not a pitch. It’s the realization of an actual feeling human who feels that his life has come to nothing, that he doesn’t have love, or worse, that he has it and is simply incapable of accepting or recognizing it.

And Don? Don has no clever speech. After having turned the full force of this character on us for seven season through the power of language. Jon Hamm is left to give us his final moments through action only. His eyes watering as he absorbs his own situation through Leonard’s. Through a desperate hug, sobbing. And finally, by turning to us, full faced–not giving us the back of his head as in the show’s credits–and letting his face, finally, relax.

No words. No story. Only: “Om.” Don’s story ends with a Coke and a smile.

Is this TV’s saddest happy ending ever or it’s happiest sad ending ever? Has Don changed, or has he come 3000 miles to find what he’s always found in a conference room? Has the man who said love was invented by guys like him to sell nylons found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work? Or has he, devoid of love and connection and family, become a kind of advertising bodhisattva, slipping the bonds of earthly relationships the better to tap America’s Coke-buying chakras?

This is where I’m supposed to bluff my way through Don Draper-style and tell you I know. I don’t. And maybe after seven seasons we should be left with a better sense of whether Don’s final change is genuine or not. But the way Mad Men left me wrestling with those last moments–and may leave me wrestling with them for days or weeks–is testament to what a challenging, inventive show this series has been.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don posed a question: “Do you know what happiness is?” Then he listed a bunch of comforts–the smell of a new car and so on–that had little to do with happiness but rather with the appearance of happiness as sold through advertising. This was happiness to him: an agreed-on construct that he was paid to invent.

Don Draper went through Mad Men‘s run as a man of mystery. He left us with one more, sponsored by Coke: Has he, after years of selling fake happiness, found The Real Thing?

Now for a last hail of bullets:

* So much turquoise in this episode. So. Much. Turquoise.

* The series ended, evidently, in November 1970, which didn’t give us the chance for many 1970s cultural moments. But there was at least a guest appearance from our old pal cocaine!

* You might have recognized the naked encounter-group guy as Brett Gelman, who played a therapy-group member in Matthew Perry’s short-lived Go On. Who’d have thought that, after all these years, Mad Men would end with a tribute to Go On?

* One of the best exit lines of the episode went to, of all people, Meredith: “I hope he’s in a better place.” “He’s not dead.” “There are a lot of better places than here.”

* Seriously, whoever had “Stephanie is a major character in the finale” on your office pool, you are doing all my Emmy ballots from now on.

* Whatever issues I had with the sudden romcom resolution to Stan and Peggy’s love story, Elisabeth Moss’ read of her reaction–“What?”–was priceless.

* In the interest of kicking off discussion and not pulling an all-nighter–unlike Joan, I have nothing to sniff off my fingernail–I decided to err on the side of finishing this review sooner. Which means I probably erred on some other sides too, and I certainly didn’t cover every last scene in the episode. I may write more later, and I apologize in advance for any omissions, errors or brain farts. (As Ginsberg once said, my couch is full of them.)

* On a personal note: this one goes out to Richard Corliss, the late TIME film critic and occasional Mad Men recapper, who I wish I could talk over tonight’s finale with.

* Above all, it’s been a pleasure getting to dig into this richly rewarding show for the past eight years, and to have a community of sharp-eyed readers to do it with. I reviewed (nearly) every episode of this series for the first four seasons, and wrote about the show recurringly over the final three. Few series reward the kind of analysis (or overanalysis) that this has–and few shows have attracted the kind of close-reading fanbase that I’ve found in the comments here and on social media. For me, a great part of the experience of watching and dissecting Mad Men has been what you’ve brought to it. Thanks for riding in the time machine with me.

TIME Television

Review: Wayward Pines Lays a Twisty Trail

WAYWARD PINES:  Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, R) meets Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard, L).  @2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Ed Araquel/FOX
Ed Araquel/FOX

Fox's summer miniseries is a little familiar and a lot ridiculous, but at least it keeps busy.

There is a type of series that, for lack of a better name, I’ll call a “dome show”: a sci-fi-flavored mystery, a la CBS’s Under the Dome, in which characters find themselves trapped or stranded in a mysterious, menacing location. The show may recall various TV predecessors, depending on whether the setting is homey (Twin Peaks), mythology-laden (Lost) or totalitarian (The Prisoner). What is this place? Why are they there? And how angry will the explanations, or lack thereof, make us?

As domes go, Fox’s miniseries Wayward Pines (premieres May 14) is well-furnished and nicely populated, if familiar. It doesn’t waste time: Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), on a search for two missing agents, gets in a car crash and comes to in a picturesque Idaho town, where people check in but don’t check out.

Burke recovers and finds he has no cell phone, no money, and no option of leaving. To his home office and his family, he’s disappeared with no trace. The locals are friendly but secretive. They’re to give him housing free of charge, but if he asks too many questions, things get uncomfortable with his keepers: menacingly smiling Sheriff Pope (Empire‘s Terrence Howard) and efficient but terrifying Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo). He finds an ally in fellow newcomer/prisoner Beverly (Juliette Lewis)–and disturbingly, one of the agents he was looking for (Carla Gugino), who has gone native.

The series doesn’t waste much time, plunging ahead with unremarkable dialogue but effective plotting, and establishing quickly that no one is safe and you should take little for granted. Seeming holes in the plot–like why Ethan gets away with giving his captors so much guff–end up becoming pieces of the puzzle.

And a puzzle the show is, first and foremost. Fox describes the show as a “psychological thriller,” but there’s not much psychology here so much as mind games, and only enough character development to establish mood. (The show scatters in Twin Peaksian “creepy Americana” quirks and folksy affects, like giving Howard’s creepy sheriff a sweet tooth for rum raisin ice cream. Character-wise, the owls are pretty much what they seem.) Ethan is haunted by the most generic action-hero demons, but Dillon gives him a committed performance.

Wayward Pines is based on a series of novels by Blake Crouch (haven’t read, can’t vouch for the faithfulness), and produced by M. Night Shymalan, whose let’s-twist-and-twist again breed of storytelling fits TV thrillers of the post-Lost era. And twist the show does, so often and dramatically that I can’t talk about much beyond the pilot. (I’ve seen five episodes of ten.)

But if you’re a viewer who watches dome shows with a “Give me the answers, dammit!” mindset, I can reassure you: Wayward Pines explains itself (obligatory “…or does it?”) thoroughly and relatively soon (compared with, say Under the Dome), in a mammoth info-dump of an episode.

I can’t promise you’ll find it convincing–personally, I laughed at the revelations a lot more than I bet the makers intended–but you can’t accuse the show of playing it vague. Wayward Pines is not groundbreaking TV, but it has small pleasures (like seeing Hope Davis play a scary schoolteacher). For a certain fan of a certain kind of summer diversion, it will feel like coming dome.

TIME Television

Review: In Grace and Frankie, Life Starts (Over) at 70

GF_EP103_MM_082914_0385.CR2
Melissa Moseley/Netflix

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are a pleasure, but Netflix's elder-singles sitcom wavers between the new and the dated.

Next week, the major networks will hold their upfronts, which are important to you because that’s when they announce next season’s shows, but are important to the networks because it’s when they start to sell ads. Because advertisers pay more to reach young viewers, the networks will tout their ratings among under-35s, under-50s, under-55s. The key word is “under,” which is why you see fewer characters in the “over” age demos. (And whyseemingly 75% of TV parents had their children before age 22.)

For that reason alone, Netflix’s new comedy Grace and Frankie (premieres May 8) would be unusual even before you consider its premise: two women form an unlikely bond after their husbands announce that they are (1) gay and (2) leaving them for each other. Its quartet of stars—Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston—are all actors in their 70s playing characters in their 70s. Even on non-ad-supported outlets like HBO and Showtime–where senior citizens’ subscription dollars are as good as the grandkids’–those are rare. (More so, in fact, than gay characters: the gay men in HBO’s late Looking and Logo’s Cucumber, say, range all the way up to the ancient 40s or 50s.)

The other way Grace and Frankie departs from what you might expect is in the title. This is not mainly the story of Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston), law partners bringing their affair into the open after 20 years, but of Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), the wives left behind.

No-nonsense Grace and earth-mother Frankie are far from friends, but when their settlements leave them with the California beach house the couples co-owned, they become roommates. For their exes, if anything, the halo of coming out at their age makes things easier: people are so eager to be supportive, the script deftly notes, that within a week they’re having dinner with their adult children. Had their dads dumped their mothers for women, says Robert and Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael), “There wouldn’t be cake. There would be blood.” (Speaking of which, the opening titles, with a wedding cake collapsing over a cover of “Stuck in the Middle With You,” are instantly among the best on TV.)

Grace and Frankie, meanwhile, are left assessing the lot of newly single septuagenarian women, a class so invisible in society they have to scream to get service from a young male store clerk. (On the plus side, Frankie notes, that makes it easy to shoplift.) Frankie’s hippie om-centricity drives Grace nuts, Grace’s devotion to rules and order harshes Frankie’s mellow. Yet they stay together. There’s an ostensible reason: crazy as they make each other, they’re all they have left. But it mainly feels forced by a meta-reason: the show exists to give the 9 to 5 co-stars a chance to play off each other again. (As I wrote last week, Netflix’s programming strategy seems to be patterning shows on things people already like to stream on Netflix.)

The setup–from Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Howard J. Morris (According to Jim)–could either be the stuff of on old-fashioned odd-couple sitcom or of a Showtime-style dramedy. The hitch with the first six episodes of Grace and Frankie screened for critics is that it tries, jarringly, to be both at once.

The two stars are a delight together, especially Tomlin, who bear-hugs her role and has not lost a comic step. (Or a physical one, as when Frankie pep-talks herself by doing a vigorous power squat, crowing, “My joints are supple!”) But they play like sitcom characters plopped down in a cable-dramedy world, delivering dialogue is full of one-liners that feel like they’re setting up studio audience laughter that never comes.

Sheen and Waterston–though their pairing makes the Aaron Sorkin-protagonist slashfic you’ve always dreamed of–have the less compelling material. Robert and Sol are are also opposites (reserved and emotive, respectively), but they’ve already settled into gently bickering old-couplehood. Their biggest challenge is whether to call each other “partner” or “soulmate.” (“No!” Robert says. “I don’t even like that one when straight people use it.”) They’re most interesting in relation to their exes, each finding in his own way that, happy as he is now, there’s a part of him that mourns his longtime marriage. All this plays off the idea that the transition is easier for the men, but there’s no real spark or character development.

The comparison with Amazon’s Transparent–last year’s best series, also about a senior citizen trying to live her true sexual identity–may be unfair, but it’s glaring. That series emerged fully formed, embracing the messiness and ambiguity in its characters, and its humor and heartbreak flowed from that. Grace and Frankie is cardboardy in comparison; it feels trapped between being the show it could be in 2015 and being the show it would have been if it were made in in 1995.

Still, there’s potential. If for no other reason than that most TV is terrified of elderly characters, the show has fresh material to play with. (For instance, the introduction of seniors to both social media and sex-performance drugs, and the resulting rise in STDs.) The stars are good company to be in, and by the last of six episodes I saw in advance, its tone felt a little more consistent. All of which leaves hope that Grace and Frankie, like its title characters, is still young enough to figure out what it wants to be.

TIME Music

Review: Ciara Stays in Her Lane on Jackie—And That’s A Good Thing

Jackie by Ciara
Epic Records Jackie by Ciara.

The singer plays to her strengths on her sixth album, out now

If pop stardom is a high school—Beyoncé the straight-A valedictorian, Katy Perry the cheerleader, Lady Gaga the theater geek—then Ciara is the track star. It’s not just because of her athleticism, though her superhuman thighs and gravity-defying back-bends make for must-see videos and should probably be studied by scientists. And it’s not just because Ciara seems to play in a whole other league from the aforementioned artists, kept in the same breath as those women thanks more to the fervor of her fans—her die-hards’ devotion earned a New York Times mention—than record sales. (Though that may not be entirely her fault.)

No, it’s because, over the course of her 12-year-career, Ciara has developed a very specific set of skills, limited in breadth but impressive in their singularity. Like the best Olympic runners, watching her do her thing never gets old, even when you realize she’s technically running around in circles. If you made a drinking game around every time Ciara has asked you to “turn it up” in her career (“it” being the volume, the energy, your sex life), your night would go south very quickly, but to be mad about that would be to misunderstand the whole point of Ciara. Once billed as the first lady of Crunk&B, she’s become one of the most reliable suppliers of frothy, light-on-its-feet party music, mixing the freshest parts of R&B and hip-hop with the drum-machine beats of decades past. Yet though we typically demand two club-banger singles from our divas before a ballad ever hits radio, Ciara also routinely launches album campaigns on the strength of her breathy slow jams. Favoring friskiness over filthiness, they make the club feel like the bedroom and the bedroom feel like the club. She’s basically the closest thing millennials have to their own Janet Jackson.

Ciara’s sixth album, Jackie, named in tribute to her mother after Ciara welcomed a son with ex-fiancé Future last May, continues to hone those skills and then some. The singer’s best album will probably be the greatest hits album she has yet to release, but at least Jackie rivals 2013’s self-titled quasi-comeback as Ciara’s most consistent and self-assured record to date. That record opened with “I’m Out,” a single-ladies anthem that captured the messiness of break-ups in the Instagram age and contained one of Nicki Minaj’s finest guest verses. The new record, too, bursts out of its starting blocks with “Jackie (B.M.F.),” which aspires to expand our hashtag vernacular (picture #bmf — bad motherf-cker — alongside #flawless and #feelingmyself) while also featuring her most adventurous production since linking up with Danja (Britney Spears’ Blackout) on 2009’s Fantasy Ride. Wisely, Ciara keeps the alterations to her training regimen to a minimum.

In fact, nearly every song on the record feels like a companion to at least one other proven track in her back catalog. If slinky, synth-driven Ciara is your preferred event, “That’s How I’m Feelin’,” redeems its Pitbull contribution with a rare (if unremarkable) anchor leg from Missy Elliott. If her EDM workouts make you sweat, “Give Me Love” keeps up the pace of Ciara highlight “Overdose.” And if you’re making room on your calendar for upcoming body parties, save the date for second single “Dance Like We’re Making Love,” a minimal Doctor Luke production that sensually draws out its lo-o-uh-uh-o-ove hook without sounding too pornographic.

Despite the dramatic changes in her personal life—motherhood, a high-profile split with Future that inspired the bittersweet (and controversial) lead single “I Bet”—the album’s most significant evolutions aren’t so obvious. For an artist who dodged using profanity for years, the sheer quantity of F-bombs she drops in the the title track signals more confidence and attitude than ever. That Ciara includes a song called “One Woman Army,” presumably the years-old title track to the scrapped project of that name, shows some artistic conviction, even if its robo-military march is too busy for its own good. Her stabs at more straight-forward pop—”Only One” and the Diane Warren-penned “I Got You”—are fairly conventional. But when a common Ciara criticism holds that tracks can swallow her voice’s personality whole, the fact that she sounds like she could break down and cry while singing about doing so? Now that feels like a step forward.

Staying in your lane doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as Jackie proves. Watching Ciara compete with herself is the more entertaining race to watch.

TIME Apple watch

7 Most Surprising Things About Owning an Apple Watch

Apple Inc.'s Apple Watch Unboxed As Device Goes On Sale
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Apple's latest gadget comes with more than a few surprises

I’ve had an Apple Watch for a little over a week now. The most common question people ask you when you’ve got Apple’s wearable computer on your wrist is, “Has it changed your life?” Which is an odd question to ask about a gadget that starts at $349 and is, in large part, an accessory to your phone.

But the question points to the peculiar state Apple and its customers find themselves in at the moment. Anticipation and chatter about the Watch is high, but few people have actually seen one in the wild. The Watch’s rollout is unique compared to previous Apple products in that customers can, for the most part, only order it online and that initial supply appears to be extremely limited.

So has the Apple Watch changed my life? No. But it is an incredibly well-designed, compelling product. (I’m wearing a 38-millimeter stainless-steel model, which retails for $949 with a matching link bracelet.) A full review is coming—once the blush of newness has worn off—but in the meantime, here are the most surprising things about using an Apple Watch:

The battery life is very good.

One of the most prevalent initial concerns about the Watch was how long its battery would last. Presenting the device, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he personally recharged his every night, suggesting about a day’s worth of charge. And yet, many were skeptical.

Happily, this quasi-promise turns out to have been on the conservative side. I’ve been wearing the Watch during fairly long days (7AM-10PM) and have yet to have it flip into reserve power mode, which limits some functions while preserving time-telling. Most days, even ones that include a half an hour to an hour of exercise, the Watch has had about 20% battery left when I pop it into its charging cradle in the evenings.

MORE The Odd Thing Apple Banned from the Apple Watch

This is all the more impressive since I’ve been poking and prodding it more than I might once I’ve worn it for a few months. There is a caveat, several days of charge would allow sleep-monitoring, something many dedicated fitness trackers now do by default.

It’s gorgeous.

This may seem obvious, but I find the design to be one of the Watch’s chief virtues. All of Apple’s products are deeply thought-through and finely milled. But the Watch isn’t just a gadget, it’s fashion. It’s just a nice looking object. And much of the time, that’s all it is since the screen automatically turns off to preserve power.

Siri works really well.

The Watch doesn’t have a built-in keyboard. Which makes sense since typing on it would be difficult, if not impossible. If you want to search for a location in Maps, send a text message, or set an alarm or timer, you can dictate using a version of Siri, Apple’s digital personal assistant. This works incredibly well. I routinely find myself lifting my wrist and saying “Hey Siri,” which launches the Siri app. From there, using Siri is very much the same as on an iPhone or iPad (though, the Watch implementation doesn’t talk back).

People don’t notice it (much).

Aside from a few Apple diehards who honed onto my wrist like heat-guided missiles, few people seem to notice I’m wearing a smartwatch. This is comforting since, I’ll admit, I was a little worried about making a statement. This may owe to a preference for long-sleeve shirts or to having the smaller version. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to not have to have a conversation about the Watch unless I choose to, say, by obnoxiously and grandiosely offering to tell a coworker the time even though she never asked.

There are lots of apps.

And some of them are pretty good. Apple is initially limiting how much access app developers have to the Watch’s underlying hardware, like the heart rate monitor for instance. That limits some of their functions, but also likely helps preserve battery life and minimize software conflicts. That also means, in practice, a lot of third-party apps are limited. My favorite so far: Nike+ for running, taxi-hailing service Uber, Hue to control my apartment’s smart lighting, Instagram, and one more I’ll get into below.

MORE The New Apple Ad Will Break Your Heart into a Million Tiny Pieces

The bands matter.

Apple loaned me a link bracelet and a white sport band. Switching the bands is extremely easy—and addictive. I’ve been swapping them out depending on whether I plan to exercise or not, but I could see having a range of bands depending on what I’m wearing, et cetera. Much like accessories for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad before it, I anticipate the secondary market for Watch bands becoming considerable in scope.

And an obvious bonus: TIME looks great on it.

Not a surprise, really. And I’m clearly biased, but if you have an Apple Watch, make sure to check out our app. More details here.

Read next: Why Tattoos Might Be a Huge Problem for the Apple Watch

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME innovations

Are Smartphone-Controlled Locks Worth Putting On Your House?

Kwikset Kevo
Kwikset Kwikset Kevo

It should be easier to unlock the full potential of Kwikset's Kevo smart lock

I’m no handyman, and I’m certainly not a locksmith. But as a newish homeowner — and one who delights in tinkering with smart home gear of all stripes — I’ve gotten pretty adept at some things around the house. One of which is changing out locks.

In fact, the first thing I did when the previous owners handed us the keys was toss them in the trash. Then I pulled out a Phillips head screwdriver and installed some Kwikset SmartKey locks, so one key would open all my various entries.

The Kwikset Kevo smart door lock also has SmartKey cylinders (it would be pretty dumb if it didn’t), but the Bluetooth-connected device goes a step further, eliminating keys altogether in favor of smartphone connectivity. I Installed the Kevo and gave it a whirl, and while I was initially excited about the product, in the end, it turned out to be less of a turnkey solution than I would have liked.

Design Challenges

I installed the Kevo on my side door, a deliberate choice based on a couple of factors. First, that’s the door I use the most. Second, Kevo makes sounds when used and has a bright LED ring around the keyhole. I didn’t want these obvious signals to broadcast my lock’s status to the sidewalk and beyond. Later, however, I discovered that disabling these indicators is as easy as flipping a switch. I only wish the rest of my experience with this lock went this easily.

While other connected door lock solutions are retrofits that slip on over the existing lock hardware (and admittedly, I have not reviewed them yet), Kwikset Kevo replaces the lock entirely, all the way down to the deadbolt. On one hand, you’d think that would make for a much more sturdy piece of hardware — and where it comes to the actual lock mechanism, it’s as smooth as anything on the market — but the overall casing is bulky, unwieldy, and has to be affixed to the door with a bracket.

In some ways, this is to be expected. But in others, it’s very disappointing. From the outside (other than the glowing LED ring) the lock looks like an everyday deadbolt. But on the interior side, the casing is tall and bulky because it has to accommodate not only the mechanisms to detect a Bluetooth-connected phone (or a fob, for use by those without smartphones) but also a battery pack big enough to hold four AA batteries. But in addition to that, there’s a lot of air in the device’s chassis. And in that air sits two wires. And in those two wires, I discovered one problem.

Installation Woes

Typically when reviewing a product, I don’t mention if the device brakes, so long as the manufacturer provides a replacement that works. Gadgets break all the time, and stores exchange the busted products just as affably as publicists do. But Kevo’s problems are the result of a design flaw, in my opinion, and as a result, I have to mention the fact that it took me two Kevos to make this lock work.

The problem begins with the fact that my side door has a nine-panel window, a common fixture for an entrance. This is worth noting because the Kevo’s large footprint on the door’s interior size made the lock extremely difficult to install. In particular, the lock is so wide that it ran into the molding around my window. And the device is constructed such that you have to slide a cover on and off in a very rough fashion to change the battery, pair the lock with new phone, or change the alert settings. The best comparison I can make is that sliding this cover on or off is like opening the battery panel on a children’s toy. With grooves on each side, the cover is designed to slide into place, but it’s not an inviting piece of hardware to open up.

In addition, the bracket that holds the lock hardware and battery casing to the door has a surprising amount of give. So much so that the entire device can swivel five degrees in either direction, even though its installed and working properly. This astounded me for a lock made by Kwikset, though I don’t believe it affected the overall security of the bolt or cylinder.

And finally, the biggest problem has to do with the two wires referenced above. Stretching from the lock’s exterior piece, into the door hole, through the bracket, and connecting to the battery and brain of the device, these wires are more-or-less loose, and installers (consumers, basically) should be very careful around them. Despite the installation instructions showing otherwise, one wire is taped down. I un-taped the wire on the first lock I had (thinking that I should because the instructions don’t show it to be fastened down), and it quickly and easily became detached from the lock’s circuitry. That’s why I had to send it back. The second time around, I was much more careful with this wire, and ultimately successful in installing the Kevo unit.

Everyday Use

Once I got Kevo up and running, everything operated without a hitch. The device connected with my iPhone 6 and my wife’s iPhone 5 perfectly. The only complaint that I had was going to be about Kevo’s pay-per-key eKey program, but it turns out I was wrong. A July 2014 update to the app and the lock’s firmware made the feature available to Kevo owners for free — a smart move because competing smart locks were also offering free keys for houseguests.

But I also made sure to physically set up my home’s house key with the SmartKey lock, just in case it managed to fail me sometime. And truth be told, I refuse to leave home without my keys, though arriving home and simply touching the lock with my phone in my pocket was a glorious convenience, especially with a baby in my arms or a leashed dog tugging me in all directions.

Still, something to note is that Kevo will not improve your home’s security. Crooks can still kick in your door, pick your deadbolt, or break your window. Actually they’ll be much less likely to hack your Bluetooth-connected lock than do any of these things, because its simply easier to use brute force than technological know-how to enter into a home. And not to be alarmist, but there’s no lock — connected or otherwise — that’s going to make you safer. These products don’t change the fundamental truth that locks only keep honest people out.

TIME Smartphones

The LG G4 Could Be One of the Nicest Android Phones Out There

LG has fitted the G4 with a host of high-end new features

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LG G4: First Impressions

The LG G4 is the latest flagship phone from the Korean manufacturer and a device that has a lot to live up to. Not only have the likes of the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 raised the smartphone stakes over the past 12 months, but it’s predecessor, the LG G3, was crowned TrustedReviews 2014 Phone of the Year.

Looking to continue this rise to smartphone supremacy, LG has fitted the G4 with a host of high-end new features – I’m talking an improved QHD display and a 16-megapixel OIS-enhanced camera here. What’s more, this festival of top-notch components has been wrapped in a new leather-bodied design that really works.

I had a play at the phone’s London launch to see if G4 is the answer to the industry’s current leading players.

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LG G4: Design

I don’t conform to the belief that the all metal bodied phones look and feel the part and plastic handsets are cheap. There are exceptions to the rules in every field. The G3, however, would have benefited some, more ‘premium’ materials, being used.

Now, instead of following industry trends, LG has gone left-field, cladding the G4 with leather. Before you shirk at the thought of a phone made out of the same stuff as your dress shoes or sofa, bear with me. This is no Samsung Galaxy Note 3 echoing faux leather-plastic-hybrid. The G4 looks and feels great.

The genuine leather back is soft and supple, without feeling out of place on a phone. Its natural full grain gives the device a comforting amount of grip that handsets such as the iPhone 6 and Huawei P8 severely lack.

The stitching which runs down the centre of the device’s rear is a pleasing addition too. As well as breaking up the solid look of the device, it acts as a guide to LG’s now trademark rear-mounted physical buttons. How the genuine leather finish will stand up to daily wear remains to be seen, however.

If you’re not a fan of the cowhide, or a vegan, LG has also created a selection of plastic-bodied G4 options, although I found these to lack the charms of their leather-bound counterparts.

It’s not all about the materials either. The G4 features a gentle curve in its design. It’s a long way from the sizable bend on its sibling, the LG G Flex 2. The G4’s ‘slim arc’ design features just enough curve to conform to the natural shape of your hand.

LG has claimed that this subtle curve makes the phone 20 per cent less likely to be damaged if dropped. As you can expect, this is something I’ve, as yet, been unable to test. The phone is a comfortable 9.8mm thick and 155g in weight. This is beefy by some standards, but I found the handset to be well balanced and comfortable to hold.

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On first impressions that LG G4’s design has left me hugely impressed. I found the phone to look and feel every bit a flagship device – one of the G3’s few areas of weakness.

While the tan leather is a personal favorite, there are enough color options to meet a variety of tastes. The G4 will also be offered up in black, blue, burgundy, grey and yellow leather schemes, with the plastic-backed offering to debut in black, white and gold hues.

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LG G4: Screen

Like the G3, the LG G4’s screen is a 5.5-inch QHD offering with a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution. The reworked IPS Quantum panel bestowed on the G4, however, is 25 per cent brighter than its predecessor’s screen. This isn’t where the differences end either. A 20 per cent wider color range is paired with a contrast ratio that has been improved 50 per cent.

The results, on first impressions at least, are stunning. The G4’s screen is exceptionally bright and detailed. Colors are vibrant and punchy, blacks are deep and subtly varied, text is crisp and sharp and video playback fluid and engaging. During my brief time with the phone I found the G4’s screen hard to fault. When we get our full review sample in I’m believe it could rival the Galaxy S6 for the mantle of our most fancied phone panel.

It’s not all about the looks either. The G4’s screen benefits from Advanced In-Cell Touch (AIT) which boosts the panel’s touch sensitivity. From first use, it was hard to discern the difference between this and a standard display, but it handled all the multi-finger commands I could throw its way without fuss or fanfare.

Despite the phone not being water-resistant, LG has claimed this tech will allow the G4’s screen to function even when doused in the wet stuff. Given my limited time with the device in a formal environment, however, I’ve as yet been unable to test this claim.

LG G4: Features

The G4’s surprise feature is its processor. With the 64-bit Snapdragon 810 chip already powering a number of its big rivals – including the HTC One M9 – the G4 has eschewed the headline processor in favor of its hexa-core sibling, the Snapdragon 808.

Avoiding talk of the 810’s ongoing overheating concerns, LG has claimed the 808 enables a number of the G4’s key features (read camera capabilities) without hammering the sizable 3,000mAh battery.

Whatever the reasoning behind its inclusion, on first use this chipset appears more than capable of keeping the G4 swift and suitably powered. During early tests, the phone handled everything I could throw at it with consummate ease. There was no app launch delays or multitasking woes here, just a smooth, effortless experience.

Given my limited time with the device, however, I have been unable to really put the phone’s processor through its paces or test its gaming prowess. A full test will be conducted ahead of our full LG G4 review, coming soon.

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The Snapdragon 808 chip might be grabbing headlines, but it is far from the phone’s only core feature. Packing 3GB of RAM and dedicated graphic RAM, the phone also features 32GB of internal storage, expandable via microSD. As an added bonus, all G4 owners will be handed a complimentary 100GB of Google Drive storage – handy.

Android 5.1 runs the show on the G4, with the latest iteration of Lollipop skinned with a reworked take of LG’s custom UI. LG’s UX 4.0 is a low-key update. At least on the surface.

Visually the skin is very similar to past offerings, and this is a little disappointing. LG has long filled its phones with great software features – you’re looking at the creators of the Knock Code here – but styling has often been a shortcoming.

Further testing of the UI’s ins-and-outs is required before final judgement can be passed, however.

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LG G4: Camera

2015 is already shaping up as the year smartphone cameras kicked on to new levels. Here, the LG G4 has run with the crowd, offering significant (on paper) improvements over its predecessor. The phone features a 16-megapixel primary camera and a secondary, 8-megapixel shooter for the selfie lovers amongst you.

This isn’t just any 16-megapixel snapper though. The G4’s camera is enhanced by industry-leading optical image stabilization, laser-assisted focus and a color spectrum sensor for more natural tones in resulting shots.

Again, early impressions are strong. Resulting images in limited testing conditions were positive. Colors are detailed and accurate, focus quick and on-point, and the general user experience has few peers.

For me, however, the true highlight of the G4’s mass of new camera features is the phone’s Manual shooting mode. Giving you the opportunity to tweak all manner of settings – from white balance and focus length to ISO and shutter speed – the mode is a dream for nay half-keen amateur photographer.

After a quick play, I was left overjoyed by it. It is a simple, intuitive addition with intricate levels of customization. I can’t wait for a more through use in more suitable shooting settings.

It’s too early for me to pass judgement on the G4’s overall imaging abilities, but on first use, the outlook is strong.

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Early Verdict

LG has taken the strong foundations of the LG G3 and improved on every aspect. The LG G4 is a device that looks, feels and acts the part. I can’t wait to use it again.

This post is in partnership with Trusted Reviews. The article above was originally published at TrustedReviews.com.

TIME Television

Review: In The Casual Vacancy, All Politics Is Local

Steffan Hill/HBO Lawrie, in her screen debut in The Casual Vacancy.

A few strong performances, but little magic, in an adaption of J.K. Rowling's novel.

It’s quickly obvious that The Casual Vacancy (April 29 and 30), despite being based on a J.K. Rowling novel, has little to do with the world of Harry Potter. But HBO makes plain that this acidic story of English small-town politics is not exactly like the novel, either; in order to cut down Rowling’s 500 pages into three hours of TV, the network says, writer Sarah Phelps “was given free rein to reshape the story,” whittling down some storylines, expanding others. Readers of the original (disclosure: I’m not one of them) should expect to find vacancies themselves.

What makes it to screen here is a grim-minded, class-conscious story of greed and self-interest amid a real-estate gold rush. In town of Pagford–the kind of bucolic hamlet whose green fields are biologically engineered to hide hypocrisy and decay–the local parish council is riven with controversy over a proposal to convert Sweetlove, a community center for the poor, into a swanky spa. Proponents Howard and Shirley Mollison (Michael Gambon and Julie McKenzie) argue the development will benefit the whole town; the council’s progressive wing, led by weary-but-dedicated Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), sees a move to cash in and segregate the poor.

But Barry suddenly dies, the first sounding of the series’ hammering theme that, in a get-rich era, the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best are S.O.L. His passing leaves a “casual vacancy” for the council’s swing vote on Sweetlove. In the ensuing election, the Mollisons put up their timid son Miles (Rufus Jones) while the anti-development crowd pushes forward nervous headmaster Colin (Simon McBurney), and the two reluctant candidates become the attack cushions in a parochial pillow fight. Meanwhile, Barry’s brutish half-brother Simon (Richard Glover) seeks to use the chaos for his own enrichment.

Director Jonny Campbell sets a suitably English-nostalgic tone for this story of a changing era. (Though Vacancy is set around the present, the ambient soundtrack is full of Thatcher-era New Wave: ABC, Captain Sensible, Kim Wilde.) This version of Vacancy means well, but its well-meaning turns subtle-as-a-bludger, hammering on the death of empathy and charity in a world of venality and new money. The Fair Brother is gone, and Sweet Love is in danger! Worst of all is the misuse of Gambon and McKenzie, left to play cartoon grotesques of posh, piggy villainy.

The strength of The Casual Vacancy comes in the stories spinning around the political one, especially that of Krystal (Abigail Lawrie), the troubled teen daughter of a meth-addicted single mother. It’s Lawrie’s first role ever, but you wouldn’t believe it; she’s arresting, commanding the screen, her face prematurely guarded and pinched but betraying a secret lively mind.

The decision to build out Krystal’s story is one of the best choices of this adaption, giving depth and shading to a story that more often swings from sourness to melodrama. The Casual Vacancy has deeply felt things to say about a society whose human ties have been corroded by greed on the one hand, ineffectuality on the other and a whole lot of apathy in the middle. But the cure for apathy is giving people reasons to care, and that’s where this miniseries, like the local pols at its center, falls short.

TIME Theater

Finding Neverland and The Visit: Two Broadway Musicals to Savor

"Finding Neverland" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals & Curtain Call
Getty Images (2) Left: The cast of Finding Neverland takes a bow on April 15, 2015 in New York City. Right: The cast of The Visit takes a bow on April 23, 2015 in New York City.

After long, troubled voyages to Broadway, both shows have provided a happy ending to the season

The troubled history of Finding Neverland, the new Broadway musical about author J.M. Barrie and the writing of Peter Pan, is one of those juicy backstage stories that theater insiders love. Producer Harvey Weinstein, the independent film mogul overseeing his first Broadway musical, scrapped one earlier version of the show, replaced the entire creative team, complained about the critics and fought with his own publicists — all before the show finally opened on Broadway two weeks ago.

But is it possible to ignore the backstage soap opera and actually look at what’s onstage? Audiences apparently can, since they’ve been flocking to the show in near sellout numbers. As for the critics? Not so much. The mostly negative reviews seem to be more a judgment on Weinstein and his shenanigans than on the musical itself. Because what I saw onstage, at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontane Theater, is a surprisingly enjoyable show.

To appreciate the sheer craft involved in pulling it off, you need to compare it to the rather treacly, Oscar-nominated 2004 movie on which it’s based. Rare for one of these screen-to-stage transfers, the musical improves on the movie in almost every way. Matthew Morrison, recently of the TV show Glee, is more convincing and relatable as Barrie than the moony and mercurial Johnny Depp in the film. Kelsey Grammer has a firmer fix on the character of Barrie’s gruff producer (and better comic timing) than Dustin Hoffman. The stage version is less saccharine and less dragged out; we’re spared all those endless shots of Kate Winslet gazing beatifically at Barrie and her boys, whose game-playing supposedly inspired him to create the famous children’s story. It strikes me as the very model of a modern family musical: briskly told, brightly staged, with a score (by British rocker Gary Barlow) as tuneful as one could expect from a show set in turn-of-the-century London that’s not by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Much credit goes to James Graham’s script, which is witty, efficient and mostly dry-eyed. Director Diane Paulus’s staging is slick and inventive, but never over the top. As Barrie watches the boys bounce on a bed, they are borne aloft by stagehands in dreamy slow-motion (no tacky wires here). A stuffy dinner party, attended by Barrie and the boys, suddenly breaks into a spirited fantasy interlude, a production number that captures the kid-at-heart awakening of Barrie better than anything in the movie. Mia Michaels’ choreography avoids traditional Broadway chorus lines, acrobatics and ballet pretensions for clever, tightly synchronized, character-driven group movement, and it is winning.

Yes, the story still inspires some qualms (a brief bit of dialogue raises intimations of pedophilia), and there’s some heavy-handed comedy business involving the huffy stage actors who are forced to play kids and dogs in Barrie’s new children’s play. (Plus one offhand, out-of-character reference to Grammer’s old TV series Cheers that has been treated by the guardians of Broadway purity as if it were grounds for federal prosecution.) But these are trivial flaws in a show that displays a lot of poise and professionalism, and deserves a long run.

The Visit, a musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s great 1956 play, is another show that arrives on Broadway with plenty of backstage baggage. One of the last collaborations between songwriters John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), the show was originally staged in Chicago in 2001, has been tinkered with and restaged several times, and has survived to make its Broadway debut thanks largely to one salutary constant: its star, 82-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera.

She plays Clare Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, who returns to her impoverished home town with a strange retinue: a tuxedoed butler, two blind eunuchs and an empty coffin. She has come back to see the lover (Roger Rees) who once jilted her, and to calmly offer the town a way out of its economic misery: she will pay $10 billion if they will murder him.

Clearly, we are not in Oklahoma! territory here. Durrenmatt’s play is a product of the postwar experimental European theater tradition — an allegorical, anti-realistic style, a touch of absurdism and a bleak, unsentimental view of the human predicament. The play is a parable of greed and revenge and conformity — and perhaps Nazi Germany too. (Durrenmatt was a Swiss who wrote in German.) Though embellished by Kander and Ebb’s sweet, deceptively simple, oom-pah-pah songs, it is the darkest musical I think I have ever seen on Broadway.

But it is a stunner. Terrence McNally’s clear, spare adaptation is almost as good as his musical masterpiece, Ragtime. Director John Doyle has pared down the version I saw in 2008 at Virginia’s Signature Theater, perhaps skimping a bit too much on the town’s evolving reaction to Clare’s shocking proposal. But he gives the show an intensity you rarely see in a Broadway musical. Set in a decrepit railway station, relentlessly gray except for the dabs of yellow as the townspeople begin to eye their possible riches, the show hits a peak in the unsettling anti-production number “Yellow Shoes,” as bright and chilling as a blast of winter ice.

Rivera is commanding as Clare, looking regal (“That’s not beauty,” says one of the townspeople; “that’s money”), her throaty voice still strong, betraying no fragility despite using a cane (the character has an artificial leg, along with other replacement body parts). She deserves the raves she is winning, but that shouldn’t obscure the achievement of this brave, uncompromising slice of Broadway misanthropy.

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