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Published: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 09:06:13 -0400


Harlots Doesn’t Sell Out When Detailing Lives of 18th Century British Hookers

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Harlots. Hulu. Available March 29. Somewhere in the vast terrain between the hooker-as-fairytale-princess fantasy of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and the prim, grim Victorian sociology of Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Woman of the Streets lies Harlots, Hulu's odd but engrossing new drama about life inside an 18th-century London brothel. Screenwriter Moira Buffini, one of the five British women who produce, write, and direct Harlots, said in unveiling the project that the goal was "everything from the whore's-eye view." The result is that the women in Harlots are neither glamorous courtesans nor broken flowers, and their depiction is never erotic. There's plenty of nudity, of both sexes, but you've seen commercials for bladder medication that were sexier. The Harlots hookers don't make much money, but it's a living—and they regard the cops and and do-gooder moralists trying to close their house less as saviors than as a circling wolfpack. When a judge who's been asked to close the bordello as a public nuisance haughtily declares that "I grieve for the desperate women I have seen today who, faced with starvation, have sold their flesh," the prostitutes in the courtroom exchange looks laden with the unspoken question: "So you think we'll be better off in jail?" Harlots opens in 1763 with a prologue that claims a fifth of the women in London were hookers. That runs far ahead of police estimates of the day, but there's little doubt prostitution was a major industry. One of the show's early scenes, in which the women amuse themselves by reading their own notices in a Consumer Reports-style guide to the various local hookers and their skill sets ("one of the finest, fattest figures as fully finished for fun and frolick as fertile fancy ever formed...") is drawn from documented history. The brothel at the heart of Harlots is operated by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton, nominated for an Oscar in 2002 as the troubled young immigrant mother of In America), a veteran of the trade whose virginity was bartered away for a pair of shoes at age 10 by her own mother. Margaret, buffeted by high rent and increasing graft demands by cops, hopes to get a much higher price for the maidenhead of her teenaged daughter Lucy (British TV actress Eloise Smyth). And she's playing the even more lucrative long game with slightly older but much more reluctant daughter Charlotte, who she's trying to place as an indentured consort to a wealthy nobleman. But her plans must be dangerously accelerated when cops raid her house, putting her out of business at least temporarily, and a rival madame (Lesley Manville of the British version of Law & Order) starts raiding her corps of whores. It turns out these two events are not coincidental. In a classic example of the regulatory-economics parable known as Baptists and Bootleggers, the other madame has been funding a decency group to attack Margaret's brothel and clear away the competition. That plot description sounds bleak, which is not entirely fair. Harlots burbles with the bawdy workplace humor of the hookers, from their theories about the sexual ontology of the reformers (the blind leader of the decency group, they speculate, lost her eyesight after putting her eyes out upon seeing her first penis on her wedding night) to, tart—heh-heh—remarks about job training. Told she must undergo instruction in cultural refinements, one of the women inquires, wide-eyed: "So, you will teach my cunny French?" The humor extends to the casting of Charlotte, the steely daughter resisting indenturement. She's played (quite well) by Jessica Brown Findlay, that sweet and gentle Lady Sibyl of Downton Abbey, whose death in childbirth so unhinged PBS cultists that the Washington Post ran a medical story explaining preeclampsia, the obscure condition that killed her, demanding an explanation of her inadequate treatment: "If Lord Grantham had listened to the country doc and sent his daughter to the hospital for a Caesarean section, would she have lived?" I'll buy a drink for the first one to write the Post asking if the preeclamp[...]

A Teen Train Robbery Movie for the Whole Family

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:05:00 -0400

Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. Available now on Netflix. Sydney Freeland's well-regarded but seldom-seen 2014 directorial debut, Drunktown's Finest, was a somber look at American Indian identity issues that intertwined the stories of three Navajos: a young guy about to wash out of boot camp, a promiscuous transgendered woman, and a girl raised by white adoptive parents. She's finally made a follow-up for Netflix, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, and it seems to have come from the opposite side of the universe. Imagine a scruffy teenage version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made for the Disney Channel—funny with a streak of poignance, the violence appropriately muffled, and, of course, a happy ending, and you'll be close to the mark. This is not said with derision or condescension or any of the other qualities dearest to the TV critic's heart. Deidra & Laney won't remake the world, but it's a fun 90 minutes of television. The girls of the title are teenage sisters who (along with a much younger brother) find themselves on their own when their mother, Goldie, snaps during her shift at a big-box electronics store, hurling big-screen TVs into the parking lot while shrieking, "This is who I am!" There's no money for bail and, worse yet, Goldie doesn't want any; relieved to be free of the hassles of single-momdom, she's embracing the penal lifestyle. "A salad with every single meal!" she happily proclaims to the nonplussed kids. Yet life without parental supervision turns out to be anything but an endless slumber party. Bills come in, even though money doesn't, and prospects are few for a teenagers living on the ass-end of a hardscrabble little Idaho town. (And literally on the wrong side of the tracks, too—trains rumble past, just a few feet from their back yard, at all hours of the day or night.) And their long-absent father is no help, though he'll be happy to take credit for whatever solution they come up with. "I was a mess when you were little," he boasts. "That helped you to learn for yourself." Deidra, an honors student whose ability to launch an impromptu disquisition on free will vs. determinism has won the awe of her teachers if mostly the baffled contempt of her inbred classmates, tries selling homework, but there's not enough money in it. And nobody will take the girls seriously at the more traditional after-school job of peddling weed. With Child Protective Services making ominous noises about foster care, which would divide the kids into separate homes, Deidra and Laney decide to attempt something they've seen on TV—hopping the freight trains that run by their home and breaking into cargo containers. For the most part, Deidra & Laney takes a light, Robin-Hoodish tone, its grim scenario leavened with wisecrack black humor, as when the school guidance counselor promises Deidra any help she needs with college applications because it will boost the counselor's dreams of transferring to "an inner school that's much nicer than this one." Watching the girls drawing up train-robbing checklists from do-it-yourself YouTube videos is hilarious. And, interestingly, there's no trace of the identity politics that fueled Drunktown's Finest; if the fact that Deidra and Laney are biracial prompts the other kids' animus toward them, it goes unmentioned, unlike the fact that they're dirt poor and have a wastrel dad and a nutcase/jailbird mom. When a dark undertone does occasionally break through Deidra & Laney, it has to do not with ethnicity, gender or any other identity hot buttons, but battered kids paying the price for their parents' lousy DNA and worse choices. As Laney broods after being mousetrapped yet again by some old parental scandal, "I'm nobody because I'm meant to be nobody, and there's no point in trying." Replies Deidra: "You are not 'nobody.' You're a bad-ass who robs trains." The redemptive power of felonies may be a dubious proposition, but Deidra & Laney gets an enormous boost in selling it from the two little-known actresses in the title roles. Ashleigh Murray, who plays Deidr[...]

Feud Offers Delicious Fun Deflating Hollywood Glamour

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Making History. Fox. Sunday, March 5, 8:30 p.m. Time After Time. ABC. Sunday, March 5, 9-11 p.m. Feud: Bette & Joan. FX. Sunday, March 5, 10 p.m. Last month, as the Oscars approached, Camille Paglia took to the pages of the Hollywood Reporter to mourn the loss of "the mythic grandeur of old Hollywood and its pantheon of celestial stars." Fortunately, their viciously overweening ambition, viperish appetite (and aptitude!) for malice and general capacity for epic bitchery is still with us in FX's Feud: Bette and Joan, producer Ryan Murphy's loving miniseries homage to Hollywood harridans. Bette and Joan, of course, are Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who for more than four decades were the Hatfields and McCoys of Hollywood, squabbling over men, money, roles and awards. Their scorched-earth war came to an end only with Crawford's death in 1977 and Davis' parting shot: "You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. ... Joan Crawford is dead. Good." Murphy, who's sliced and diced American culture in everything from the teenage twee of Glee to the racial Rashomon of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, is an aficionado of old Hollywood, particularly its divas. (He once decorated his Laguna Beach mansion to resemble the infamous murder-scene beach house in Crawford's 1945 melodrama Mildred Pierce.) And he uses his note-for-bitchy-note recreation of the Crawford-Davis rivalry to construct a raunchy elegy to the milieu from which they came, in which the glamour that nostalgistas like Paglia celebrate was a facade covering a ulcerated mess of raging egos and rampaging ids, venal ambition, and whimpering neuroses. Feud's launching pad is the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 Grand Guignol tale of two aging and half-mad actresses whose careers were cut by an auto accident in which one (played by Davis) was driving and the other (played by Crawford) was left a paraplegic. It was the only film in which the two actresses ever worked together, and it happened only out of raw survival instinct. Davis and Crawford, though they had three Oscars between them, were well into middle age and could no longer find work in a Hollywood that was increasingly wielding youthful sexuality as a weapon against the relentless incursion of television. Crawford, financially battered by the death of her Pepsi-Cola executive husband, had been reduced to making a string of failed TV pilots; Davis was trying to launch a stage career, to harsh critical reaction. Despite misgivings all around, they teamed with a director whose own career was floundering. Robert Aldrich had developed a reputation as box office poison in the wake of his disastrous The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (which among other problems had none of the lasciviousness the title suggested). Their vehicle: a macabre horror novel, the one genre that television, still held on a tight leash by the FCC, wouldn't touch. Just how dementedly awful things would get on the set was apparent even before shooting got underway. At a staged photo opp where Davis and Crawford were to sign their contracts, they pushed and shoved one another, each trying to grab the position on the left side of the table so her name would be first in the caption. From there, matters quickly descended into Crawford strapping a 50-pound weight beneath her clothes for a scene in which Davis had to drag her unconscious body from a room, Davis "accidentally" kicking Crawford's head as they shot a fight, and on into circles of Hell that Dante could never have imagined. Eventually the malice was so apparent that their attempts to play nice when reporters were around weren't fooling anybody. In one scene of Feud, studio mogul Jack Warner, who would distribute Baby Jane, snorts as he listens to their florid pledges of mutual love and respect at a damage-control press conference. "I haven't seen this much shit since my last bowel movement," he cracks, to which the dour Aldrich retorts: "What year was that?" It's Feud's contention that Warner and Aldrich were eggin[...]

President Oprah?

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 11:55:00 -0500

In a Bloomberg interview posted this morning, Oprah Winfrey allegedly hinted that she might run for president:

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I say "allegedly" because it's easy to read that as just a joke about the person presently in office. But it's not the categorical no that she was giving to the idea two months ago, and so Twitter is aflutter, as it so often is. Not that I'm complaining. If we absolutely must start speculating about 2020 this early, we might as well go weird.

Besides, it makes a poetic sort of sense. If I were prone to grand Hegelian theories of history, of thesis and antithesis synthesizing before our eyes, I'd expect an Oprah presidency. Her TV and business background would make her an outsider in the sense that Trump was, only more so; her race and gender would make her an outsider in the sense that Obama was, only more so. She even combines Obama's center-left politics with Trump's positive-thinking theology. If politics were poetry, it would be inevitable: In four years President O will be ordering drone strikes from the Oval Office couch. Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as The Celebrity Apprentice, the second time as an in-depth interview with Rhonda Byrne.

Either that or the Dems will nominate Al Franken, and Trump will get to battle Saturday Night Live in an actual election. Can't discount that possibility. If there's one thing that's clear in this surrealist soap opera we're stuck in, it's that the boys in the writer's room love cheap irony.

Postscript: Ha! Later in the interview Winfrey trots out that categorical no again. The Franken campaign breathes a sigh of relief.

I Spy Another Pair of Snoop-Focused Dramas

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Patriot. Available now on Taken. NBC. Monday, February 27, 10 p.m. One of the axioms of the intelligence business is that moles can usually be found in pairs, lending one another support. Whether that's actually true in real life (since the Brits ferreted out Kim Philby and his buddies in the early 1950s, most spies uncovered in the West have been singletons), it seems ironclad in television: If you find a Homeland or a Man From U.N.C.L.E., then The Americans or Mission: Impossible will surely be lurking nearby. So it is that another pair of spy shows debut this week. Amazon's Patriot is a droll farce, an espionage version of Fargo. And NBC's Taken is what you might guess, a bloodless 17th-generation clone of the Liam Neeson films about a vengeful CIA veteran, "bloodless" of course being a metaphorical description of the show's spirit and certainly not its special effects. There's much that's odd about Patriot, starting with the fact that Amazon aired the pilot episode in 2015 and is only just now getting around to adding the other nine episodes. Add to that false start the utter disdain for punchlines by creator-writer-director Steve Conrad (He wrote the screenplay for the Will Smith comedy-drama The Pursuit Of Happyness), and the decision to cast the show with mostly unknowns, the single exception being Terry O'Quinn of Lost. Add that all up and it's a wonder that Patriot ever made it to the screen. Happily, it did. Patriot follows the misadventures of a family of CIA spies that's trying to buy an election in Iran; the CIA has feared the leading candidate since he ruthlessly trampled American competitors in Battleship tournaments as a teenager. The lead operative is family scion John Tavner (Australian television star Michael Dorman), who specializes in spying while working as a businessman rather than as a diplomat, a practice known as non-official cover, or NOC. But after a rough year during which, among other things, he shot a hotel maid he mistook for a foreign agent, John's approaching terminal burnout. He's taken to performing folk songs about his intelligence missions at coffee houses—imagine Burl Ives singing about overthrowing the government of Guatemala—and his skills have dulled. He can barely pronounce some of the jargon he must use while posing as a petroleum engineer, much less understand them, and his approaches to both friends and enemies lack a certain finesse. His recruiting pitch to a potential agent, standing in front of a urinal, starts out, "Can you not pee for a moment?" John's family is loyally supporting him in hopes his melancholy will lift. Dad Tom (O'Quinn), the head of the CIA, pushes for more tasteful decoration of the safe houses his son must use, while amiable if mildly cloddish brother Ed (Michael Chernus, Orange Is the New Black), a newbie congressman who still dabbles in the spy game, dispenses helpful career tips. "Keep it safe," he advises as he hands John a suitcase full of money to buy the election. "We can't just send more bags. It's not the 1980s." Banter and repartee are almost completely absent from the relentlessly deadpan Patriot, and to the extent that it has punchlines at all, they're usually delivered by a camera rather than a character. A tense scene that starts with a character's eyes intently studying a video pulls back to reveal it's a YouTube do-it-yourself clip on how to fashion a hangman's noose with which to kill yourself. A panning shot of the homicide bullpen of the Luxembourg police department, which has been tasked with investigating some of John's murders, shows desks filled with nothing but women—it's the dumping ground for affirmative-action female hires, because nobody ever gets murdered in Luxembourg. There are laughs aplenty in Patriot, but they're delivered at the mellifluous pace of old whiskey rather than the slam-bang of a Belushian beer can crushed against the forehead. There's plenty of slam-bang in Taken, NBC's distant pr[...]

Remix Culture Meets the Scolds

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 09:30:00 -0500

(image) These days the internet is littered with political remix videos, but they were still novel when Don Was made "Read My Lips" in 1992. So PBS aired the item—which dinged President George H.W. Bush for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, among other complaints—and then invited a pair of eminences to discuss this strange new thing they'd just witnessed.

The video itself is only mildly interesting—it may be an early political remix, but it wasn't the first and it's far from the best. But the roundtable is pretty amazing to watch today. Bill Moyers opens, in his TV-for-people-who-say-they-hate-TV way, by asking what "happens to the political sensibilities of young people watching a political discourse like that." The publisher of The Hotline replies that the video "debases the process"; the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication calls it an "invitation to cynicism that I think is very unhealthy." And they both go on from there, condemning in advance the entire media landscape of 2017. I'm not sure 1992 has ever felt as distant as it does while I'm watching this:

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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacke[...]

ShondaLand-style Drama Comes to CBS with Doubt

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

(image) Doubt. CBS. Wednesday, February 15, 10 p.m.

Now that Shonda Rimes' production company ShondaLand has completely engulfed and devoured ABC, the rest of television has been waiting to see who would be the next hapless, helpless mouse in the python's ruthless jaws. Now we know: ShondaLand will soon be sucking the video marrow from the crushed bones of CBS as the ghosts of Walter Cronkite and Jed Clampett shriek from their basement refuge.

Sure, technically speaking, CBS' new legal drama Doubt is not a ShondaLand production. But series co-creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, between them, have logged 14 years on the ShondaLand juggernaut Grey's Anatomy, and star Katherine Heigl is its prodigal daughter, returned to TV after frittering away her Grey's stardom in the whorish, un-Shondaized world of film. So go ahead, CBS, keep shouting that it's not Shonda until the only thing we can see of you is your toes frantically wiggling as they slide down the python's gullet.

That all said, you can do a lot worse in television than ShondaLand, as CBS has spent decades proving with its endless parade of CSI and NCIS clones. Doubt has its interesting moments, and Heigl, despite her recent run of box-office disasters (seriously, excluding people who accidentally walked into the wrong theater, is there anybody who saw One for the Money?) remains a capable and appealing actress.

Format-wise, Doubt doesn't differ much from any legal drama made since the days of L.A. Law. You've got a nobly idealistic transgender lawyer (transgender actress Laverne Cox, Orange Is The New Black), a quirky lawyer who got his degree while in prison (Kobi Libii, Madame Secretary), a cold-bloodedly pragmatic lawyer (Dule Hill, Psych), and an ambitious young lawyer (Dreama Walker, Gossip Girl).

The firm is bookended by Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould), an aging '60s radical who still gets jailed for contempt a couple of times a week for screaming "Fascist!" at judges, and Heigl as Sadie Ellis, whose impressive legal skills do not include keeping her emotions in check.

The relationship between Isaiah and Sadie is much more complicated than it first appears. And it's complicated by the fact that she's falling for a client (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me)—a do-gooder pediatric surgeon accused of killing his college girlfriend 24 years ago when they were teenagers—despite growing evidence that he might be guilty. Sadie's blithe confidence that nice people don't do bad things worries Isaiah, whose political commitment led him into a similar mistake with another client several decades ago, at great and continuing cost.

The conflict between idealism and reality runs through Doubt like a bright thread, sometimes restated in explicitly political terms. Sometimes the firm's lawyers seem to be giving their clients short shrift in deference to dubious leftist shibboleths about community. Is "snitching" really the word for testifying against a gang-banger murderer?

That piquant political dilemma, coupled with the increasingly jagged story line of Sadie's dubious romance, keep Doubt more watchable than it probably has a right to be. And what's the use of arguing, anyway? Forget it, Jake, it's ShondaLand.

Legion Breaks from Its Comic Book Roots with Hallucinogenic Weirdness

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

APB. Fox. Monday, February 6, 9 p.m. Legion. FX. Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m. No television network rolls the dice with more abandon than FX. Originally conceived as a way to wring a few last nickels out of Fox's massive library of old action movies and television series, FX went rogue early the new millenium, offering up a steady stream of envelope-shredding programming that was as unhinged as it was excellent. Killer cops as heroes! Enema slapstick! Self-fellatio! So when FX announced it was embracing television's obsession with comic-book super heroes, you knew there'd be a catch. And Legion is a big one, in every sense of the word, a rollicking psychedelic trip of a show that washes over you like a vat of Ken Kesey Kool Aid. Splashy, free-associative and generally as nuts as its schizophrenic characters, Legion is as delirious and dazzling as television gets. Legion is based oh-so-loosely on the Marvel Comics character David Haller, a minor character in the X-Men comic-book family, so tangential that Marvel's studio gladly licensed him away rather than hanging on to him for one of its own films. And, on paper, you can see why. Dogged by hallucinations and fearfully violent temper tantrums since early childhood, Haller has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life. His latest stay (in an institution with the suggestive name Clockworks) has lasted five years and shows no sign of ending, and Haller is increasingly resigned to a life of over-medication and locked rooms. That is, until a new inmate, pretty blonde Syd Barrett (the TV series Fargo), shows up. Though Syd's particular neurosis (she can't stand to be touched, even slightly) is not exactly conducive to romance, they quickly become a couple. Syd, however, is frustrated by Haller's acceptance that he belongs inside the hospital. "What if your problems aren't in your head? What if they aren't even problems?" she challenges him. What if "that's what makes you, you"? It's difficult to explain in any detail what happens after that without major spoilage of surprises that writer-director Noah Hawley has gone to extraordinary lengths to create. Suffice it to say that Haller does have some extraordinary powers, though it remains unclear whether they're the cause or the result of his derangement. Whichever is the case, they make him the object of multiple conspiracies, at least one of them lethally hostile, and the action rolls along at a quickening pace. There's another very good reason to not explain too much: There's a good chance I'd be wrong. Even more than the delusional cybervigilante Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot, Haller is an unreliable narrator. The lurid, paranoid hallucinations that frequently detour or derail his train of thought make it nearly impossible to be certain what's real or true at any given moment. When a crowd of milling mental patients suddenly assembles into a Bollywood dance number, is that a schizophrenic's symbolic speech? A religious epiphany? Or just unglued synapses firing off in random patterns? Haller's disordered mind is interwoven into nearly every frame of Legion; hazy memory fragments dissolve into delusions and then dreams. Voices speed up, slow down; things break and crash; memories unspool, then abruptly rewind. Entire characters may be hallucinations. Watching Legion is fascinating, and at times, enervating. Hawley's liquid camera work and stutter-step editing effortlessly track the course of Haller's meandering thoughts; a wall turns into the top of a ping-pong table into another character. And everything from the show's wardrobe to its vehicles to its soundtrack is full of purposeful anachronisms that lend an almost subliminal sense that everything is flying apart, that the center of Legion's world cannot hold. All of Hawley's magnificent visual skills would be for naught, though, if Dan Stevens, the c[...]

Thomas Pynchon, Sitcom Star

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:10:00 -0500

(image) Now that television is a certified High Art and Americans binge-watch densely woven intertextual narratives for fun, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me tomorrow that Netflix is releasing a 30-part adaptation of Gravity's Rainbow with an option for a second season. But when I settled in one Tuesday evening in 1993 to watch The John Larroquette Show, a short-lived sitcom about a recovering alcoholic managing a St. Louis bus depot, TV was a medium with more modest ambitions. So I was kind of surprised when, a couple minutes into the episode, it launched into an extended Thomas Pynchon joke. There were places I expected to see references to Pynchon's paranoid postmodern novels, but this was not one of them.

The full episode, called "Newcomer," doesn't seem to be online. (Or rather, it's online only in that cropped-and-slowed-down format that YouTubers use to avoid the copyright police.) But you can see that scene, and a follow-up sequence near the end of the episode, in the clip below. Pynchon himself signed off on the dialogue (which is a little "racially charged," as they say), and there are rumors that the famously camera-shy writer slipped onscreen as an extra. Probably false rumors, but don't let that stop you from searching for him as you enjoy a TV moment so strange that for years I thought I might have dreamed it:

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Bonus links: Pynchon later had two cameos on The Simpsons. Watch 'em here and here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

Homeschooling Then and Now

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 16:05:00 -0500

(image) When the modern homeschooling movement started to emerge in the 1970s, many jurisdictions considered it a crime to teach your children at home. Today homeschooling is lawful in every state, albeit with different degrees of restrictions. That's one of the great victories for educational choice, and its impact is only increasing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled children has grown from 850,000 in 1999, when the center started to count them, to 1,770,000 in 2011, the last year for which it has done a tally.

We're long past the days when the stereotypical homeschooler was a hippie or a fundamentalist. They're still there, but they've been joined by many members of the American mainstream.

Here's an artifact from the days when homeschooling still seemed novel and strange. It's a 1981 episode of Donahue, and the guests include two homeschooling families and John Holt, a fervent critic of institutional education. Back then, if Holt's estimate on the show is accurate, there were only about 10,000 homeschooling families in the U.S. (That's families, not students. But even if each of those families had a dozen kids, it would still be a big jump from there to 1999's numbers.)

The audience greets the guests with a mixture of interest, skepticism, and sheer fascination. (One woman accuses one of the families of operating a commune.) Phil Donahue, as always, has a ball hopping around and playing devil's advocate. And the video includes the ads from when the program first aired, so you'll also get to see spots for everything from The Muppet Show to the Barnum & Bailey circus (RIP):

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Bonus links: John Holt's one article for Reason, from way back in 1971, is here. The left/right alliance that legalized homeschooling is described here. And past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.


National School Choice Week runs from January 24 through January 28 and features over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states. Go here for more information about events and for data about how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans.

As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason is publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices about learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice."

Stage and Screen Adaptations Launch in Lightweight Week of Television

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Superior Donuts. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Powerless. NBC. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Training Day. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 10 p.m. In honor of your New Year's resolution to lose weight, the broadcast networks are rolling out a whole night's menu of Television Lite this week, fluffy spinoffs and remakes with minimal caloric intake. It may not be great TV, but it's arguably the best news for dieters since the FDA backed down from its threat to ban saccharine, The best of the bunch is probably CBS' sitcom Superior Donuts, an adaptation of the Tracy Letts stage play about a tattered old donut shop fighting to survive the gentrification of its uptown Chicago neighborhood. Judd Hirsch plays Arthur, the 70-something owner of the shop, which is so frozen in time that its jukebox plays vinyl records—or would, if it hadn't broken down a few decades back. When the gentrification threat hits Defcon 5 with the arrival of a Starbucks down the street, Arthur reluctantly hires his first employee: a street-smart black kid from the neighborhood named Franco (Jermaine Fowler, part of the troupe on TruTV's sketch-comedy Friends of the People). Franco promises that with a little guerrilla marketing, he can "help you bring this place into the 20th century." "You mean the 21st," corrects Arthur. Snaps Franco: "No I don't." Critics who thought the stage production of Superior Donuts was a little too sweet for its own good—and there were a lot of them—are likely to go into insulin shock at this one. In the play, Arthur was an ex-'60s radical whose occasional nostalgic musings about the age of Woodstock sometimes struck a bittersweet note of self-examination about why the world didn't get saved. But if Hirsch's character has any such wild card in his background, it's not on display in the pilot; passion, such as he has, is reserved for rants against the cronut, the macchiato and other modern debasements of the donut trade. Even the quirks of the small group of squirrely customers who keep the shop (barely) alive seem to have been bled out; a guy who carries around a portable fax machine needs aspirin, not Thorazine. Yet Superior Donuts is far from unwatchable. The snappy repartee between the crusty old white owner and his hustling young black employee may not quite draw the blood that the thematically similar Chico and the Man did, but it's not without its chuckles. And Fowler brings a madly exuberant charm to his role that marks him for future stardom. NBC's Powerless is a welcome lampoon of the comic-book superhero genre that may still develop some muscle, though for now it mostly should be called Punchless. It stars Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers) as Emily Locke, the new director of research and development at Wayne Security, a not-very-profitable cog in the ubermachinery of Wayne Enterprises, which is owned by you-know-who. (If you don't know who, Powerless is definitely not the show for you.) Wayne Security's business is selling products that minimize the collateral damage of the various super heroes (all of them from the pages of DC Comics, which licensed the show; don't expect cameos from Spider-Man or Sailor Moon) rampaging around America, knocking down bridges and tossing trains over their shoulders in their brawls with the bad guys. But as Locke learns on her first day on the job, Wayne Security hasn't had a hit since sales of Joker Anti-Venom began lagging a couple of years ago, sending employee morale into a death spiral. Four of her predecessors as R&D chief have already been fired this year. "We'll do whatever you want until No. 6 comes along," says one employee in a tepid vote of confidence that's somewhat undercut when she learns her staff is working on an alarm that will warn them of her approach. Powerless[...]

Will Donald Trump Cut Public Broadcasting Loose, Or Will He Decide He's the Man to Make It Great Again?

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 17:25:00 -0500

The press is aflutter with talk that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be headed for the chopping block. More specifically, The Hill informs us that Trump staffers have been "discussing" the "privatization" of the CPB. In other words, we don't actually know what's happening. "Discussing" means the administration hasn't settled on a plan; "privatization" could take many forms. Nor do we know how any particular proposal will play out politically. Usually I roll my eyes during these debates, knowing that for all the apocalyptic rhetoric they inspire they have invariably ended with the CPB still in the budget. Occasionally it gets a funding cut, but even those tend to be erased within a few years. But as you may have noticed, our new president is unpredictable. Given all the allegedly impossible things that have happened lately, you can't just assume past will be prologue, even if the forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are still at work. That said: The forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are quite definitely still at work. Back in 2011, when congressional Republicans were threatening to cut off NPR's money because it had fired Juan Williams, I offered a brief tour through the history of the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show. The Williams spat, I wrote, was a more exciting hook for the drama than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when presidential pique at the Eastern liberals who dominated PBS spurred him to propose a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac." Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, providing an opportunity to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.") And the exclusive focus on NPR this time around means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994, when Speaker-elect Gingrich started musing that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget. A decade later, a House subcommittee heightened the dramatic tension by voting to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) altogether. That element of danger was a suspenseful touch. While there are Republicans who honestly think the government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing public broadcasters, there are more Republicans—or, at least, more powerful Republicans—who just think the government should be subsidizing a slightly different group of public broadcasters. As I wrote in 2011, "The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight under George W. Bush took place against the backdrop of a conservative CPB chief crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR." (*) These exercises may not cut public broadcasters loose, but they do whip them into line. Needless to say, it would be completely in character for Trump to try a trick like that. (Sample scenario: He ruminates about funding cuts, PBS adds a MAGA voice or two to its lineup, and then the president declares public t[...]

Slenderman Documentary Unpacks Disturbing Teen Murder Attempt

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 15:15:00 -0500

Beware the Slenderman. HBO. Monday, January 23, 10 p.m. Riverdale. The CW. Thursday, January 26, 9 p.m. Kids these days! Remember the good old days when the worst trouble a mischievous child could get into was maybe joining a killer sex cult or blowing herself up in a Greenwich Village bomb factory? Well, television this week is full of evidence that Dennis the Menace has left the building, probably armed with a hatchet and a pocket full of strap-ons. Actually, HBO's documentary Beware the Slenderman doesn't deserve such a flippant introduction. It's a serious—and seriously disturbing—piece of work about a pair of 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who, inspired by a creepy internet meme, lured a friend into the woods after a birthday party and stabbed her 19 times. That she survived was no fault of theirs. The news of that 2014 attack on 12-year-old Payton Leutner by her supposed friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier was, for most American grown-ups, the first word they'd heard of Slenderman, a lanky, faceless character who for the past five years had been haunting Internet chatboards and campfire-story sites. In the beginning, Slenderman was nothing more than a shadowy and curiously disquieting image, digitally inserted into the periphery of family snapshots, usually eyeing or surrounded by children. But as he grew into a fad, inspiring fan fiction, homemade video games and a slew of "found-footage" videos modeled after The Blair Witch Project, the Slenderman myth acquired its own canon. He was said to abduct and murder little children in ominously unspecified ways. The victims were often unloved or neglected kids, giving the killings a somehow even more chilling penumbra of mercy. Slenderman was able to multiply his damage many times over by acquiring proxies, cult members to do his work. And practically anybody might be swept up in his machinations, as victim, proxy or both. "The moment you know about him, he knows about you," explains one Slenderman expert interviewed in Beware. Like millions of other kids, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier became fascinated by all things Slenderman. But unlike all the rest, they had trouble comprehending that he was imaginary. Perhaps social isolation was part of it; neither girl had many friends. (Though that begs the question, why turn on one of their few schoolmates who was a pal.) In any event, they plotted to qualify as proxies by murdering Peyton and fleeing to Slenderman's hidden kingdom in a nearby national park. In harrowingly matter-of-fact confessions to police later, they described how they first tried to convince their victim to go to sleep to avoid unnecessary confusion and noise. ("I don't like screaming," Anissa primly declared to the cops. "That's one thing I can't handle.") When that didn't work, they banged her head against the wall of a park restroom in an attempt to knock her unconscious. Finally they jumped her from behind ("like lionesses chasing down a zebra," bragged Anissa) and Morgan stabbed her 19 times. "I trusted you," murmured Peyton as they dragged her into the bushes to die. Which, miraculously, she didn't. Despite its title, Beware the Slenderman is not a call to moral panic. Writer-director Irene Taylor Brodsky, a CBS News producer before she turned to documentaries a decade ago, steers clear of both tabloid shrieking and babble. Neither the internet nor horror culture is demonized as an assassin of juvenile morality. Morgan's mother, noting that at the same age she was a big fan of Stephen King's It, a novel in which a group of children is terrorized by a killer clown, says she was aware of her daughter's fascination with Slenderman but thought nothing of it: "We never thought for a moment that she coul[...]

The Young Pope: Entertaining but Incoherent

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Young Pope. HBO. Sunday, January 15, 9 p.m. Television's last excursion into papal politics—Showtime's The Borgias, in which Renaissance bad boys Alexander VI (better known to history by his birth name, Rodrigo Borgia) and Guiliano della Rovere (the future Julius II, the guy who bullied Michaelangelo over painting the Sistine Chapel) boinked and butchered their way across Europe—was debauched. The newest one, HBO's The Young Pope, is merely dazed: stylistically, narratively, theologically. Part soap opera, part jeremiad, and part dark comedy, its various incarnations don't always mesh very well. It strives for epic magnificence and falls well short of coherence. And yet it's kind of entertaining. In short, it's the 2016 of TV series. Watch it, enjoy it, but don't be surprised if you wake up with a hangover that feels like a Vladimir Putin lobotomy. An Italian-British-American co-production, The Young Pope has already aired in Rome with big ratings, though that doesn't necessarily mean much in a country driven to distraction by even the most mildly tittilatory material about the Vatican. Work has already begun on a second season, though HBO continues to bill it as a miniseries ("limited series," in current jargon), which suggests the network isn't convinced Americans will be quite as unhinged to see that the pope actually takes his shirt off at night. The title character is 47-year-old Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope since the 11th century, and the first American. (Naturally, he's played by a Brit, Jude Law.) Belardo's election was an upset managed by the Vatican's secretary of state, the sinister Cardinal Voiello (Italian film veteran Silvio Orlando), who wanted a charismatic but pliant pope—a "telegenic puppet," in the words of one church cynic—to carry out his agenda. Belardo predictably follows Hollywood rules about unpredictable proteges, kicking his sponsors in their holy butts. He puts Voiello to work making his coffee while choosing as his senior adviser a maternal nun (Diane Keaton, looking about as comfortable as a nun as Mary Tyler Moore did in Change of Habit) from the orphanage where he was dumped by hippie parents. And he alarms the Vatican's powerful marketing arm by forbidding the use of his image to sell trinkets—even firing the official Vatican photographer and demanding that all his public appearances be made in a carefully shadowed environment where his face can't be seen. But if The Young Pope's title and set-up had you expecting a warm parable about a quirky kid dumping stodgy church doctrine in favor of a warmly liberal new Catholicism that embraces Cuban peasant cooperatives and Code Pink, you're taking communion with the wrong show. Belardo's first act after sacking the Vatican photographer is to bring back the papal tiara, an act of flamboyance that hints his reticence about his image is less about abnegation of human ego than a fear of being recognized in connection with some past transgression. He upbraids and demotes a senior member of the curia for being gay and reams the papal cook for overfamiliarity. ("I do not appreciate friendly relationships. I'm a great fan of formal ones.") Even his chosen regnal name, Pius XIII, has dubious connotations; it's a provocative reminder of Piuses XI and XII, who played footsie with Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s. Certainly Belardo's ideas on spirituality would impress Mussolini in their style, if not content: Belardo wants the members of his church worshiping "24 hours a day, your hearts and minds full of God. And no room for free will. No room for liberty. No room for emancipation." Running a youthful reformer type, by itself, would have made The Young Pope a chal[...]