(The Binge is a series of posts designed to reflect and review television seasons, or miniseries, as a whole, highlighting the qualities of this current state of peak television)
Once I’ve finally made my way through all of the films from a previous year that I’ve been meaning to see, I always begin to feel a little burnt out on film narratives for a while. Thankfully, the early months of the year are typically packed with unique and daring television as cinematic approaches to material become more and more accessible to us from the comfort of our own homes on a weekly episodic basis. The small screen has been blown larger than ever before, as all networks, platforms, and streaming services seem more than willing to indulge visionary contemporary showrunners in some of their best, and sometimes worst, creative impulses. Two particular networks, HBO and FX, are among the current leaders in compelling narratives and superior craftsmanship, and both provided some worthy additions to my weeknight viewing these past few months.
THE YOUNG POPE, Season One (HBO)
“Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.” – Pablo Neruda
Though its premise initially took the internet by storm with countless memes and jokes, Paolo Sorrentino’s series does have countless moments of humor and irony, but it’s far from a joke. Originally airing overseas last fall, this singular masterpiece of auteur television finds Sorrentino adapting his signature style to the longer format with ease, one could even argue significant improvement. Following the election of the fictional Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), the Roman Catholic Church’s first American Pope, you might guess it borders on the HOUSE OF CARDS formula of internal intrigue and corruption. There’s a touch of that in the early episodes, but it gives way quickly to a deep, rich, and complex character study, as well as many challenging and thought provoking philosophical and theological questions.
As if a strange companion piece to Scorsese’s SILENCE, it bathes deeply in the contradictions of its characters and the world they inhabit. Jude Law has turned in many remarkable performances over the years, but this feels almost revelatory beyond that, as he relishes in Pius’ harsh candor and commanding presence, yet finds all of the right moments to highlight the insecurities and pain of the vulnerable, wounded child dwelling within. Certain to be a highlight of his career, it’s a portrayal that is at turns funny, charming, off-putting, disturbing, haunting, and heartbreaking. It’s an exceptional cast beyond him as well including James Cromwell, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, and Javier Camara, among others. Frequent Sorrentino cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is behind the camera, creating stupidly beautiful images every five seconds that hammer home ideas and relationships visually. The lavish style may not match everyone’s taste, but it takes a unique, bold artist to perfectly match LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” with one sequence, and then reach transcendent heights with a simple, silent shot from the outside of a cottage in the next. Also, its hard to think of a greater opening credits sequence in recent memory than slo-motion meteor antics underscored by a thumping instrumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower”.
What elevates THE YOUNG POPE from opulent eye-candy to a masterwork of storytelling isn’t its painterly compositions but its dedication to shining a light on the humanity of the faith leaders at its core. The men and women at the height of power in Vatican City and abroad share the same doubts, same passions, same flaws, same weaknesses as we all do, and the reflections Sorrentino provides are unflinching and enlightening. What does it mean to lead a global religious community yet question the existence of a higher power? How do the effects of abandonment as a child ripple through one’s life so that they close themselves off from any true connection fearing future disappointment and hurt? When it comes to love, is it easier for us to embrace one that is unwavering rather than uncertain? What shapes a tyrant, and how can they change, grow, and learn? What is the nature of miracles? How does our relationship with a potential higher power influence our relationship with others, and vice versa? Sorrentino has packed Pius’ story with all of these difficult questions and many more, reaching out to touch our hearts and minds in equal measure. The conclusion of its first season is an immensely moving and powerful moment, and I personally cannot wait to see where the journey goes from here.
Best Episode(s): Episode 9, Episode 5
TABOO, Season One (FX)
“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I
Finding you can’t get enough of Tom Hardy’s grumbly, grunting expressiveness? Are you obsessed with long black coats and the way they billow behind the wearer as they walk through muddy streets? Or maybe you just haven’t been able to fill that East India Company shaped hole in your queue since PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN? All of that and more is present in spades in this dark and mysterious series that is perhaps a touch too enigmatic and inscrutable for its own good, but is nevertheless entertaining for those willing to wade through its murkiness. Created by Steven Knight, writer/director of 2014’s LOCKE amongst other things, Tom Hardy himself, and Tom’s own father Edward “Chips” Hardy, and partially produced by Ridley and Tony Scott’s production company Scott Free, it’s a brutal, often violent, and quite frequently supernatural period piece with spilled guts and whispered arcane incantations aplenty. The story of James Delaney (Hardy), a man seemingly returned from the grave to reclaim what is rightfully his after his father’s death in 1814, it stumbles to find its focus until halfway through, then blazes forth to a gripping finale.
Hardy’s hulking, brooding presence and searing intensity has been a trademark of his performances since perhaps 2008’s BRONSON, and now more widely known due to his laconic work in 2015’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE REVENANT. With a taciturn temperament, Hardy’s portrayal of Delaney as a haunted, figuratively and literally, man whose dangerous unpredictability betrays a scarred soul is enough to keep patient viewers riveted through some of the show’s more ambling phases. Of course, it always helps when you’ve assembled a cast made up of ensemble members from the best of peak television, including the likes of Oona Chaplin, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Graham, Michael Kelly, and Jonathan Pryce, just to name a few. Also, the production elements are notable on every level. The weathered, muddied, and beaten accoutrements that bedeck the players assist the grungy feel of early 19th century England. And relative newcomer Mark Patten’s compositions provide some of the years most arresting images on television this year. Splitting the eight episode season in half between two directors is also a nice choice, yet one wonders if it is the writing or the direction that truly hinders some of the earlier moments.
Perhaps what makes TABOO difficult to digest is how it seems a bit lost in its own trappings, clearly influenced by an assortment of styles but wholly original, yet uncertain where it’s going or what it’s trying to say. Is it just purely entertaining because of its rising tension and occasional weirdness, or are there complicated ideas it’s trying to get across? There’s material within that has the possibility to further examine issues of the time, for example the plight of women and minorities, and while there are a few notable moments, they get lost amidst the constant shuffling of gunpowder and allegiances. It seems content to dwell in its weird mesh of genre, and I suppose that’s a perfectly fine choice. Still, what makes the back half so promising and intriguing is a real sense of forward motion, a direction for these characters to move in, and maybe that will provide for more complexity of character and theme rather than constantly shifting pieces we struggle to keep up with. If anything, what’s most exciting about TABOO is its potential. Having waded through its first season, it can now take to the high seas with more confidence, assurance, and daring.
Best Episode(s): Episode 8
LEGION, Season One (FX)
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
It wasn’t too long ago a friend and I were discussing the recent influx in stories in the superhero genre, and he mentioned how in the future we might look back on it just as we do the genre of the Western. With the market almost oversaturated with protagonists wielding supernatural abilities, it’s hard not to feel the comparison is merited. I’ve personally become increasingly dampened to their charms, off put by the constant stream of never-ending sequels, spinoffs, and reboots that feel assembled to meet a certain quota. It’s a rarity that a company of Marvel Entertainment’s standing would allow for a daring and masterful storyteller like Noah Hawley, responsible for FX’s remarkable FARGO, to run wild with a strange Kaufman/Lynch/Malick/Kubrick hybrid approach to one of its properties. As a result, LEGION arrives in a league of its own, connected to the X-men franchise, yet with its vision and artistic voice completely, and boldly, intact. Based on the comic book character Legion, one reviewer noted it might be the weirdest thing on television since TWIN PEAKS, and while that’s a lofty comparison, it’s hard not to agree.
In 2015, Hawley stretched his aesthetic muscles with the spectacular second year of FARGO, and, in doing so, created one of the greatest seasons of self-contained television I can think of. Here, he’s completely untethered, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. And, to be honest, not everything works perfectly, and there are moments of convention that stick out, but they are few and far between. There’s no other show I can think of that would risk an unexplained Bollywood dance number or Jemaine Clement reciting beat poetry encased inside a giant ice cube. And seeing as the protagonist’s struggle takes place largely within the confines of his mind, it gives Hawley the freedom to indulge every whim and try every idea. As David Haller, the man who would be Legion, Dan Stevens is a fantastic choice, shifting easily to play each new style or mental state, though perhaps occasionally more unhinged than necessary. There are some great carry-overs from Hawley’s Minnesota series such as Jean Smart and Rachel Keller, and some other wonderful performers across the board like Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, and Hamish Linklater. That’s not to say it’s uniformly perfect, as there are brief stumbles in the writing and some lackluster performances, but it’s never anything less than completely engaging. With shifting frames and Kubrickian one-point visuals, it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the mind.
LEGION succeeds by creating a narrative that is alternately an origin story and an examination of issues of mental illness. By using David’s psychology as the core of the series, we the audience are taken on a journey where we may question the reality of this fictional world with each passing moment. The chaotic turmoil of his inner being is an evocative depiction of the haunting marks left by the traumatic experiences of his childhood, an abstracted and morphed fun-house mirror that shows us the ways in which we combat the darkness within ourselves. And there’s significant depth at play amidst the flashing lights and trippy visuals, as Hawley and his team find new, unorthodox ways to examine how we connect and relate to each other as human beings. Mostly, LEGION is a refreshingly original genre exercise, one that flies high above its contemporaries, both on large and small screens, and appeals to enthusiasts and newcomers alike. With a knockout start and two cliff-hanging endings, it looks like FX and Hawley might have another long-term winner on their hands.
Best Episode(s): Chapter 4, Chapter 5
BIG LITTLE LIES, Miniseries (HBO)
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” – Charlotte Brontë,
When one thinks of significant filmmakers who have made the transition to television with complete directorial power of a series as a whole, Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t immediately come to mind. While notable for two Oscar-nominated films, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD, the Canadian director lacks the identifiable cinematic voice of Cary Fukunaga, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, or Jane Campion. Still, there must have been something HBO saw in Vallée, as they have another series coming sometime this year with Amy Adams where he also helms every episode. To be fair, Vallée has always managed to pull out exceptional performances, and being behind the camera on all of BIG LITTLE LIES, based on the fictional novel by Liane Moriarty about a murder in Monterey at a public school trivia night, he feels more at home and purposeful, having more control and focus, and perhaps a little more fun. What could have sank under the weight of some of its melodramatic plotting rises to become an addictive and satisfying murder mystery meets character study.
The real triumph here is almost entirely the main cast, a group of five excellent actresses who portray these women with stunning honesty and captivating power. As Madeline Mackenzie and Renata Klein, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are both previous collaborators from Vallée’s WILD, and they bring countless layers to these two mothers whose aggression towards each other appears initially to be juvenile, only for their relationship and identity to become richer and more complex as the story unfolds. Up and comers Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz are excellent as well. Woodley carries a large amount of the story as a primary focus and haunted figure with assurance and subtlety, and Kravitz is far more impressive here than anything else she’s done prior. But perhaps the true tour-de-force performance comes from Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright. Though seemingly more of a supporting player in the earlier episodes, Celeste’s tumultuous and abusive marriage with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and her journey to break free from her relationship and escape find Kidman at her most jaw-droppingly truthful and heart-breaking, emerging as almost the center of the drama itself. Her scenes opposite her therapist will have your eyes glued to the screen while she reaches in and rips out your heart. It’s a performance for the ages.
Vallée takes his time setting up each individual conflict and seeing it to its eventual breaking point, and, from the beginning, employs a framing device that sets up its central crime while keeping us constantly guessing about its perpetrator and victim. It’s all brought together in a dazzling final episode that puts all of the players in one spot together, forcing you to the edge of your seat as the minutes tick by. But what starts and ends as a murder mystery finds a fair amount of time in between to breathe life into its characters, to give its performers a chance to astound, and to allow the viewer to empathize with each of them. These women gaze out of their elegant beachside properties, framed by enormous glass windows, but they’re always looking outward, as if stuck, unable to exit the life they feel trapped in, and the roaring waves below express the conflicts swirling inside each of them that they keep buried deep within. Our judgements fall away as they see the see the commonalities amongst them, leading to moments empowering and communal. And while it may not reach the lofty heights of recent miniseries such as THE NIGHT OF or SHOW ME A HERO, it’s a worthy addition to the HBO pantheon, and a binge-worthy exercise that provides more than just thrills.
Best Episode(s): You Get What You Need
That’s it for this first entry in The Binge. Most likely future entries will be solely about one show in particular, but this feels like a good starting point. Be on the lookout for more, as well as other new categories. And, as always, thanks for reading!