Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘UnREAL

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.

Inception

And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

Keeping us in suspense

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The Red Wedding

At last night’s presidential debate, when moderator Chris Wallace asked if he would accept the outcome of the election, Donald Trump replied: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” It was an extraordinary moment that immediately dominated the headlines, and not just because it was an unprecedented repudiation of a crucial cornerstone of the democratic process. Trump’s statement—it seems inaccurate to call it a “gaffe,” since it clearly reflects his actual views—was perhaps the most damaging remark anyone could have made in that setting, and it reveals a curious degree of indifference, or incompetence, in a candidate who has long taken pride in his understanding of the media. It was a short, unforgettable sound bite that could instantly be brought to members of both parties for comment. And it wasn’t an arcane matter of policy or an irrelevant personal issue, but an instantly graspable attack on assumptions shared by every democratically elected official in America, and presumably by the vast majority of voters. Even if Trump had won the rest of the debate, which he didn’t, those six words would have erased whatever gains he might have made. Not only was it politically and philosophically indefensible, but it was a ludicrous tactical mistake, an unforced error in response to a question that he and his advisors knew was going to be asked. As Julia Azari put it during the live chat on FiveThirtyEight: “The American presidency is not the latest Tana French novel—leaders can’t keep the people in suspense.”

But the phrase that he used tells us a lot about Trump. I’m speaking as someone who has devoted my fair share of thought to suspense itself: I’ve written a trilogy of thrillers and blogged here about the topic at length. When I think about the subject, I often start with what John Updike wrote in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, which is that it “never really awakens to its condition as a novel, its obligation to generate suspense.” What Updike meant is that stories are supposed to make us wonder about what’s going to happen next, and it’s that state of pleasurable anticipation that keeps us reading. It can be an end in itself, but it can also be a literary tool for sustaining the reader’s interest while the writer tackles other goals. As Kurt Vonnegut once said of plot, it isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of life, but a way to keep readers turning pages. Over time, the techniques of suspense have developed to the point where you can simulate it using purely mechanical tricks. If you watch enough reality television, you start to notice how the grammar of the editing repeats itself, whether you’re talking about Top Chef or Project Runway or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The delay before the judges deliver their decision, the closeups of the faces of the contestants, the way in which an editor pads out the moment by inserting cutaways between every word that Padma Lakshmi says—these are all practical tools that can give a routine stretch of footage the weight of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. You can rely on them when you can’t rely on the events of the show itself.

Donald Trump

And the best trick of all is to have a host who keeps things moving whenever the contestants or guests start to drag. That’s where someone like Trump comes in. He’s an embarrassment, but he’s far from untalented, at least within the narrow range of competence in which he used to operate. When I spent a season watching The Celebrity Apprentice—my friend’s older sister was on it—I was struck by how little Trump had to do: he was only onscreen for a few minutes in each episode. But he was good at his job, and he was also the obedient instrument of his producers. He has approached the campaign with the same mindset, but with few of the resources that are at an actual reality show’s disposal. Trump’s strategy has been built around the idea that he doesn’t need to spend money on advertising or a ground game, as long as the media provides him with free coverage. It’s an interesting experiment, but there’s a limit to how effective it can be. In practice, Trump is less like the producer or the host than a contestant, which reduces him to acting like a reality star who wants to maximize his screen time: say alarming things, pick fights, act unpredictably, and generate the footage that the show needs, while never realizing that the incentives of the contestants and producers are fundamentally misaligned. (He should have just watched the first season of UnREAL.) When he says that he’ll keep us in suspense about accepting the results of the election, he’s just following the reality show playbook, which is to milk such climactic moments for all they’re worth.

Yet this approach has backfired, and television provides us with some important clues as to why. I once believed that the best analogy to Trump’s campaign was the rake gag made famous by The Simpsons. As producer Al Jean described it: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” Trump performed a rake gag in public for months. First we were offended when he made fun of John McCain’s military service; then he said so many offensive things that we became numb to it; and then it passed a tipping point, and we got really offended. I still think that’s true. But there’s an even better analogy from television, which is the practice of keeping the audience awake by killing off major characters without warning. As I’ve said here before, it’s a narrative trick that used to seem daring, but now it’s a form of laziness: it’s easier to deliver shocking death scenes than to tell interesting stories about the characters who are still alive. In Trump’s case, the victims are ideas, or key constituents of the electorate: minorities, immigrants, women. When Trump turned on Paul Ryan, it was the equivalent of one of those moments, like the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones, when you’re supposed to gasp and realize that nobody is safe. His attack on a basic principle of democracy might seem like more of the same, but there’s a difference. The strategy might work for a few seasons, but there comes a point at which the show cuts itself too deeply, and there aren’t any characters left that we care about. This is where Trump is now. And by telling us that he’s going to keep us in suspense, he may have just made the ending a lot less suspenseful.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2016 at 8:08 am

The air of unreality

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Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer on UnREAL

I’ve often said that a work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation, and that seems especially true of the Lifetime series UnREAL. Reviewing its uneven but compelling first season, which followed a pair of ruthless reality show producers as they manipulated their contestants, their coworkers, and themselves, I wrote:

UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses…The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick…The plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience…By making [its fictional reality series] into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted.

I concluded: “At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.” And I was especially curious to see how it would handle the transition to its second season.

Having watched the first couple of episodes of its current run, I’m still not sure. But I have the feeling that the show’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, would agree with many of the criticisms I mentioned above. Here are a few excerpts from the remarkably candid profile of Shapiro by D.T. Max that was published last week in The New Yorker:

Executives at Lifetime offered to buy the idea [of UnREAL] immediately. Afterward, Shapiro had second thoughts worthy of a victorious Bachelor contestant: “I was calling 411, asking, ‘Do you have the main number for HBO?’” She couldn’t reach any executives there—this is her story, anyway—and she proceeded with Lifetime…

The studio also asked the writers to expand the role of Jeremy…He fit the aesthetic of Lifetime movies but was not Shapiro’s type…Jeremy, she told me, was “conceived as a one-season character.” Later, she e-mailed me: “I could not get on board with the idea of Jeremy being Rachel’s ‘Mr. Big’ (which was brought up).” Still, the studio had pushed for Josh Kelly to return. “They can ask you to do it, but they can’t make you,” she told me. Like Rachel, Shapiro frequently has to decide whether she is a bomb-thrower or an inside player with misgivings. In this case, she decided to play nice.

Which all leads up to a vivid moment when Carol Barbee, the showrunner, enters the writers’ room and says: “Come on. Let’s put on our big-boy pants and make a story for Jeremy.”

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Reading this, I found myself wondering how Josh Kelly, the actor who plays Jeremy, would respond—or the executives at Lifetime itself. (Elsewhere in the article, Shaprio says of Kelly: “All I can say is we employ a veteran, and he’s a good person.” She continues: “Integrating Jeremy was a small price to pay for having a black bachelor and letting Quinn and Rachel go all the way to darkness.”) Every television show, it seems safe to assume, is the product of similar compromises, but it’s rare to see them discussed in public for a series that hasn’t even aired two full seasons yet, and which hasn’t exactly been an invulnerable ratings juggernaut. A hint of backstage conflict doesn’t necessarily tarnish the brand of UNReal, which is explicitly about the tussles behind the scenes of a troubled series, and if anything, it adds an intriguing layer of subtext. Shaprio says of Rachel, her fictional alter ego: “It’s really about ‘I’m savvy enough and smart enough that I know I have to give the network all the frosting and the froufrou and all the titties that they need, and in the process I’m going to slip them this super-important thing.’” Yet if I were Shaprio, I’d be a little uncomfortable with how the article portrayed my relationship with the collaborators who have enabled this show to exist. This includes co-creator Marti Noxon, who says of her partnership with Shapiro: “I don’t think I’ve had as contentious and fruitful a collaboration since I worked with Matt Weiner on Mad Men.”

That quote, in itself, is a small masterpiece of spin, pairing “contentious” with “fruitful” to imply that one leads to the other, and cleverly dropping the name of the one show that ought to silence any concerns we might have about disquiet on the set. But the comparison also works against the series itself. Matthew Weiner, a notorious perfectionist, had contentious interactions with his cast, his crew, and his network, but the result was a show that was staggeringly consistent in tone and quality. You can’t say this about UnREAL, in which the strain of its competing forces is clearly visible: the new season, especially, has struggled to top the delicious toxicity of its debut while keeping the plot wheels turning, and it sometimes verges on shrill. Thanks to the glimpse that we’ve been given of its travails, I’ll be watching the series with even greater interest than before—although I also run the risk of excusing its flaws because of what we now know about its internal tensions. Such justifications are tempting, but flimsy. Every television show in history has suffered from conflict among its collaborators, network interference, competing incentives, and characters whom the show’s writing staff would prefer to forget. When a series is working, you don’t see any of it, as you so often do with UnREAL. Shapiro knows as well as anyone how much of television is an illusion, and most of the fun of this show lies in how it picks the medium apart. But the result would be even more persuasive if it were better about creating those illusions on its own.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2016 at 9:16 am

Quantico and the pilot problem

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Priyanka Chopra on Quantico

Note: Spoilers follow for Quantico.

Halfway through the series premiere of Quantico, the new drama being sold to viewers as Homeland meets Gray’s Anatomy, it occurred to me that they had filmed the pitch for the show without bothering to write an actual episode. A second later, I realized that this is exactly what a network pilot is supposed to be. If democracy, as Churchill is supposed to have said, is the worst form of government except for all the others, the process by which shows are picked up on the basis of standalone pilots is the worst possible way to get good television, except that nobody has managed to come up with anything better. A pilot is less the proper opening for an ongoing series than a commercial for what the show could become, and if the industry were smart about it, it would treat those two objectives as totally separate: the network could be sold on the premise with a highlight reel alone, or, maybe better, with an extended trailer followed by the real thing. Instead, we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that these two functions are really the same, which means that nearly every series starts off with an overstuffed, vaguely desperate advertisement for itself. And in a television environment in which the pilot may be all a show ever gets, it’s no wonder that so many series—especially dramas—burn themselves out within the first couple of installments.

It’s too early to write off Quantico entirely, but the omens aren’t particularly promising, as much as I enjoyed a lot of what aired on Sunday. The series certainly has a nice, juicy premise: it’s a soapy look at a class at the FBI Academy, intercut with a flashforward that reveals that one of the trainees—we don’t know which one—is a sleeper agent who will later be responsible for a devastating terrorist attack at Grand Central Station. We can set aside, for now, the issue of how blithely the show trades on images of terrorism in New York mostly as an engine to drive a show in which pretty people sleep with one another: viewers, including me, are ready to forgive almost anything if the result is slick and entertaining. But the show hits all of its beats with such robotic precision that it’s almost unsettling. It isn’t particularly curious about what it would actually be like to be an FBI trainee, or really about anything except how to keep its own plot in motion: within a few minutes, it’s clear that the vision it presents of the academy itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. This isn’t to say that the result can’t be watchable on its own terms, and there’s plenty to like here, particularly in the primary cast. In the leading role of Alex Parrish, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra more than lives up to the hype. I was pleased to see more of Johanna Braddy, who made such a strong impression on UnREAL. And it might be a lot of fun to see these characters collide.

Johanna Braddy on Quantico

What’s less fun is how impatient the show feels: it wants to do everything at once, rather than let the story unfold at its own pace. Every network drama these days starts out with a series bible, a document that outlines the premise and characters in enough detail that the writers can draw on a consistent body of material. One of the unwritten rules of these bibles is that every important character has a secret that will only be exposed later on. Quantico, hilariously, discloses all those secrets in the pilot in the most guileless way imaginable: the trainees are told to investigate one another to find out their secrets, which are then laid out for us in a series of mock interrogation scenes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more surprises coming, or that the ones we see here won’t reveal additional wrinkles later on—at least one of the trainees, after all, is allegedly a terrorist. But having the characters essentially deliver their secrets to the camera is such a blatant narrative shortcut that it almost starts to feel inspired. I’m not even mad; I’m just impressed. Still, it gets old pretty quickly. At one point, there’s a conversation between two supporting players in which one all but says to the other: “Hey, remember how we used to date?” That kind of bald exposition is standard for any pilot, and we’ve learned to accept it. But nearly every scene serves the same kind of double duty. It’s like a briefing on the show that we could be watching, but aren’t.

That said, the pilot is full of punchy moments—a trainee who commits suicide out of fear that his past will be exposed, the reveal that one of the characters is actually a pair of identical twins—that have an undeniable impact. But they’d be much more interesting if we’d spent more than ten minutes with these characters beforehand. The showrunner, Joshua Safran, is clearly an intelligent guy, and he presumably knows that a character’s death is more powerful if we’ve gotten to know him over the course of a few episodes, or that it’s more fun to produce a set of twins if the series has managed to mislead us for most of the season. But he doesn’t have the time to do it properly, or he’s afraid that he won’t get it. Quantico is like a shaggy dog story that repeatedly tells us the punchline before the joke is even finished, out of fear that we’ll stop listening before it’s over. It shows us a twist as if describing the episode to somebody who hadn’t seen it, and then invites us to admire how great it would have been if it had been allowed to unfold for real. It’s possible that it has more up its sleeve, but precedents here aren’t encouraging: shows that make a point of burning through ideas rarely have enough to sustain a whole season, let alone an extended run. (Even The Vampire Diaries started to run out of steam after its third year.) But it’s exactly the kind of show the pilot system was designed to create. And until somebody comes up with a better way, it’s the best we can expect.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2015 at 8:52 am

The UnREAL world

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Shiri Appleby on UnREAL

Few television shows in recent memory have broken out as spectacularly as UnREAL, Lifetime’s toxically amusing scripted drama about the making of a fictional reality series. After reading Emily Nussbaum’s rave review in The New Yorker, I was inspired to check it out, and my wife and I have shotgunned the entire first season over the last two weeks. It isn’t perfect, but it’s fantastically watchable, and it’s all anchored by Shiri Appleby’s work as troubled producer Rachel Goldberg, which is nothing less than the richest, most purely enjoyable performance I’ve seen this year from any television actor, male or female. The writing on Rachel isn’t particularly subtle—she’s often introduced in a scene while stuffing food into her face, and a moment of heartbreak late in the season leaves her stalking through the set like a wraith from The Ring—but Appleby nimbly navigates an insanely difficult range of emotional notes. Rachel is called upon to be calculating, vulnerable, sexy, bedraggled, guilt-ridden, opportunistic, and borderline sociopathic, often all at the same time, and Appleby pulls it off by the skin of her teeth. Combine that with Constance Zimmer’s sour-apple charisma as Quinn, Rachel’s mentor and occasional nemesis, and you have a drama anchored by nothing less than the relationship between a pair of complicated female antiheroes. That’s a noteworthy achievement in itself, and the show isn’t above calling attention to it in the dialogue: “No one wants to watch a show about women working.”

That said, UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses. Despite some promising efforts early on, it never turns its fictional show’s contestants into compelling characters, and they’re rarely treated as anything more than easily manipulated pawns in Quinn and Rachel’s game. (It doesn’t help that the most intriguing contestant, Anna, as played by the striking Johanna Braddy, inexplicably disappears for a good chunk of the season, only to return for the final stretch.) Like Orange is the New Black, another uncategorizable show that has extended the range of tones and stories we’ve seen for women on television, it has trouble with its male characters. Adam, the bachelor at the center of the reality show Everlasting, starts as a caricature, inches toward complexity, and circles back around to being an idiot again as soon as the plot demands it. The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick. Only Chet, the show’s creator, ever really comes into focus, with Craig Bierko, an old pro, sinking his teeth into every line of an otherwise underwritten part. And the plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience, with Rachel pulling the strings of everyone around her with an ease that puts Frank Underwood to shame. Still, every hour moves like clockwork, and it manages to create an entire world—and really two—over the course of only ten episodes.

Freddie Stroma and Johanna Braddy on UnREAL

What makes UnREAL so fun, and ultimately somewhat frustrating, is that it’s essentially a roman à clef in which the names that have been changed aren’t those of specific celebrities, but of an entire category of television. Its fictional reality show, Everlasting, is interesting precisely to the extent that it reminds us of The Bachelor. (One of the show’s many pleasures is how perfectly it replicates the glossy look of the programs it’s skewering: when intercut with the narrative taking place behind the scenes, which is shot in a rougher, grab-and-go camera style, the contrasting textures give each episode surprising visual heft.) And the closer it sticks to its obvious inspirations, the more engaging it becomes. That why it feels like a strategic mistake when the show veers toward genuine tragedy halfway through the season, with a plot development—involving the unexpected departure of one of the contestants—that would have resulted in any show in the real world going on hiatus at once. It’s a grabby episode, but it subtly undermines the rest of the season. When we watch a story like this, we want to feel like flies on the wall, and to believe that we’d find similar backstabbing and manipulation behind the scenes of any reality show, no matter how innocuous or mundane. What we don’t necessarily want to see is a cartoonish list of the worst things that could possibly happen on a reality series. Everlasting starts off as a careful knockoff of The Bachelor, but it mutates into a show that strains all belief, which weakens the exposé that the overarching series offers up backstage.

And it’s a curious misstep, because this show is otherwise so shrewd about what a good reality series does best: the queasy creation of empathy. By the time I’m done with a run of a show like Top Chef, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know many of the people involved, and UnREAL is very clever at showing us how so much of it is created out of smoke, mirrors, and convenient cutaways. But even if what a reality show presents is a fantasy, it has to ground itself in experiences and personalities to which the audience can unthinkingly relate. Rachel and Quinn understand this, but the creators of UnREAL itself seem to occasionally forget it. In a roman à clef, it’s paradoxically more effective if the stakes aren’t too high: we want to think that we’re glimpsing the sordid underbelly of something that plays placidly in the background of our living rooms. This may seem to undercut conventional wisdom about raising the stakes, but really, it’s about knowing where that pressure is best applied. By making Everlasting into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted. At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2015 at 9:39 am

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