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The Best TV Shows of 2019 (So Far…)

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As the dawn of the Second Streaming Wars between Disney+, Netflix, and the hundreds of other streaming services, networks, and cable channels approaches, television finds itself in a strange place, an increasingly influential – and overcrowded – medium of art, one facing the end of an era with the conclusion of cultural touchstones like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory.

It’s still been a wonderful time for television, though – a time for wildly creative auteurs, some memorable performances – and of course, the final season of HBO’s iconic tale of dragons & boobs. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites from the strange, weird half year it’s been – here’s Goomba Stomp’s Best TV of 2019 (So Far):

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Barry

Barry‘s first season felt like a well-contained story; like many shows in the current era of television, it felt like less might be more for Bill Hader and Alex Berg’s black comedy about a lonely hitman trying to convince himself to live a clean life. Boy, did they prove me wrong: Barry‘s second season quietly transformed itself into one of the best, most devastating character studies on television, catapulting itself into the highest echelon of television with episodes like “rony/lilly” and “berkman > block” (both directed by Hader, who firmly establishes himself as one of the best directors working in the medium).

After an uneven premiere, it appeared Barry was going bigger in its second season: while it certainly has that feel in an external sense (at least, in the show’s wandering first few hours), Barry‘s second and third acts doubles down on its central theme of honesty, and just how it easy it is for people to lie to themselves. The fallout of this self-deception plays out in a number of powerful ways, from Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from Fuches and his bullshit, to Sally’s beautifully layered arc of trying to capture her truth as an artist (the show’s most marked improvement of the season).  With it, Barry found a way to refine its mix of violent comedy, industry satire, and deep character study into something much sharper, and wildly more satisfying. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV 20198

Big Little Lies

Adapted from the book of the same name from Liane Moriarty by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sharp Objects), the first season of Big Little Lies was a huge hit for HBO. It received 16 Emmy Award nominations and won eight, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting awards for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern. The trio also won Golden Globe Awards in addition to a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film win for the series. Kidman and Skarsgård also received Screen Actors Guild Awards for their performances. So, of course, there was going to be another season of a closed-ended story starring one of the most talented ensemble casts on television ever. And this time around, gifted filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) has taken over direction from Vallée, with Meryl Streep joining the cast as Mary Louise Wright, the grieving mother in pursuit of the killer(s) of her beloved son. After the critically acclaimed first season, the biggest question going into this new installment was can it live up to the tension of the first season? The answer is yes!

This time around, the central question commanding the series isn’t who murdered who, but rather how the Monterey Five deal with the aftermath of Perry’s death. Season two raises the stakes for all five women at the center of the show and it doubles down on the dark humor while also giving its cast even more juicy drama to chew on. Needless to say, if you like season one, you’ll love season two but if there is one reason to watch, it is for the performance from Laura Dern who breathes dragon fire into Renata Klein — she’s by far the most fascinating character on television this year. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019

Black Mirror

For years Black Mirror has been turning our latest technological advances into our newest fears and anxieties. From social media to smartphones, Black Mirror has found surprisingly inventive ways to turn our modern conveniences into nightmare fodder.

The fifth season continues this trend with three new tales about online gaming, social media addiction and holographic performers. While it may not be the best season of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series, Black Mirror still packs a punch in its latest effort. The middle episode, “Smithereens” (focusing on the kidnapping of an intern for a social media conglomerate, and the international incident which follows) is particularly involving.

With Nine Inch Nails, Miley Cyrus, and other talented performers behind the fifth season of Black Mirror, the show still succeeds in being entertaining, even when it’s not at its best. (Mike Worby)

Broad City

Broad City

The end of Broad City feels like the end of a specific generation of late-millennial comedy, a quarter-life-crisis series grounded in one of the most nuanced, unabashedly honest portrayals of female friendship (and New York City, in all its disgusting, adventurous glory). And after a couple of seasons of resting on its comedic laurels, Broad City‘s final ten episodes are a surprisingly emotional ride, prying the two protagonists away from each other as they contemplate the next personal, and professional, steps in their lives.

Broad City‘s final season is basically a breakup story disguised as a Linklater-esque coming of age comedy: it’s equally nostalgic and hopeful, packed with callbacks to earlier seasons, but with the haunting realizations that things for Abby and Ilana are changing, and the adventures of their mid-20’s are far behind them. Neatly divided into two distinctly individual arcs, Broad City finds its genius in the earnest growth it offers both its leading ladies, culminating in the show’s impressive final four episodes, perhaps the most emotionally satisfying arc of the series.

Yes, there’s still drug-addled adventures, plenty of Jewish jokes, and failed romances for both Abbi and Ilana – this is still Broad City we’re talking about, after all. But there’s a different tenor to the show’s unwavering honesty, isolating Abbi and Ilana as they fumble to figure out who they are going to be, in a marked shift from the show’s previous, often lighthearted approach to life’s most pressing questions. Equally sentimental and unforgiving, Broad City‘s ruminations on friendship and identity makes for surprisingly powerful material, cementing the show’s legacy as one of this generation’s defining comedies. (Randy Dankievitch)

Chernobyl

Chernobyl

It’s been a quiet year for horror series during the first half of 2019 – until Chernobyl arrived in the spring, with the terrifying reminder that nobody is safe from the unseen terror of radiation, the toxic, silent killer at the heart of HBO’s harrowing, moving (and most terrifyingly, historical) account of the Soviet nuclear disaster. Centered around the doctors, scientists, and politicians ensnared by the government to “fix” the un-fixable, Chernobyl is a moving account of the mistakes, guesses, and half-truths that, over time, transformed bad calculus into an international disaster with an immeasurable human cost.

Perhaps the most cogent terror of Chernobyl is not the big explosions and uncertainty of early episodes: it is the creeping realization of how close we are to this happening a (third) time, and how unprepared the bureaucracies of the civilized world are prepared to handle it. Chernobyl is a powerful reflection on human persistence, and what a dangerous double-edged sword it is for the world, and particularly its most powerful men, to wield.

Led by a trio of powerful performances from Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, Chernobyl is an intoxicating mix of terrifying images and anxiety-inducing foreshadowing, a damning account of the lives lost at the expense of playing politics (or in the case of a young military recruit, a damning loss of innocence). Even without the horrifying images of seeing what happened to the unsuspecting first responders to the disaster (and the creeping realization of its main players of their own fates), Chernobyl‘s depiction of a government’s ineptitude to deal with the fallout of its own ambition makes it the most frightening show of 2019. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019 Euphoria

Euphoria

HBO’s button-pushing new drama Euphoria zeroes in on the lives of several high school students living in California and how they navigate a world filled with violence, profanity, drug use, overt bullying, and sexual abuse. The show has been billed as a parent’s nightmare, no thanks to the explicit sex scenes, nonconsensual-sex tapes and child pornography but beneath the show’s explicit exterior is a compassionate examination of adolescent longing. Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old drug addict named Rue, who is desperately trying to self-medicate her severe depression with whatever drugs she can get her hands on, Euphoria is both an exploitive and a surprisingly tender look at the overwhelming anxieties faced by teens today including neglect, anxiety, and loneliness. Some scenes contain powerful messaging while others seem designed simply to shock, but more often than not, Euphoria will have viewers thinking long and hard about the current modern challenges facing youth today.

Euphoria channels the spirit of movies like Kids and Gummo, and like those films, it’s best to view the series as a mood piece rather than a guide to Gen Z behaviors. If the series can slow down and stop trying so hard to shock adult viewers, it could become a worthy addition to the HBO pantheon. There’s a lot of potential here, but like the characters it follows, Euphoria is sometimes lost and trying to find its voice. That said, despite its shortcomings, it is still one of the better shows of 2019. (Ricky D)

Fleabag

Fleabag

Nearly three years after its genius debut, Fleabag finally returned for a second go-round in April – and somehow lived up to its gigantic expectations, delivering a second series even more darkly poignant and emotionally devastating than the first. Through the conduit of the meme-ified Hot Priest, Fleabag‘s second offering picks up the first season’s observations about human connection and gives it a properly epic feel, turning the audience into Fleabag’s only friend, and God of her world.

It’s stunning how effortless it all feels: from Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ little glances towards the camera to the layers of nuance in each of the season’s scripts, Fleabag is a work of art all to itself, lacking in the prestige pretention so many other notable series of the era get tied up in. It is undoubtedly one of this decade’s most important, reflective series on the human condition – but it never ever feels that weight, especially as it tells its tragic, comical love story of Fleabag and the aforementioned Hot Priest (who at one point, looks right through Fleabag and towards the audience, as shocking a moment as anything on television in 2019).

There are few shows as rewarding or as rewatchable as Fleabag, in all its twitchy, horny, awkward glory. It is a story of loss and discovery, of failure and retribution – and most importantly, of life’s continuous disappointments and occasional joys. Fleabag reminds us just how hard it is to latch onto the latter; but in the few moments we can, the peace and clarity we’re offered can energize an entire lifetime of beautiful misery. (Randy Dankievitch)

Game of Thrones Soundtrack

Game of Thrones

Like Black Mirror, Game of Thrones’ latest (and final) season has been incredibly divisive. With many fans lamenting the pacing issues and plot revelations behind the endgame of George R.R. Martin’s dark fantasy series, Game of Thrones may not have another Emmy in the bag, but it does leave a lasting legacy nonetheless.

The settling of some of the show’s most long-simmering and important plotlines may not have pleased all viewers, but the fact that Game of Thrones managed to tell the entire story of a seven book fantasy saga on television at all is wildly impressive.

Even with the polarizing reactions to season 8, Game of Thrones still offered the bombastic story-telling, intricate characterization, top-notch production values, and fantastic performances for which it has come to be known. These factors alone make it stand out among the best television of 2019, even if it couldn’t live up to the sky-high expectations of some of its fans. (Mike Worby)

I Think You Should Leave

As Netflix continues to diversify its eclectic brand of offerings, the streaming service is catering to more markets than ever. One of its latest successes is the no-holds-barred sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.

Created by and starring SNL alum Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave goes all in on each of its increasingly outlandish scenarios, including a cringe-inducing job interview, a man trying to get revenge on a baby, an awkward Instagram lunch date, and bikers from outer space. Yes, I Think You Should Leave is as silly and out there as it sounds, but with guest stars like Will Forte, Michelle Ortiz, Steven Yeun, and a host of others to sell the insanity, the comedy rarely falters.

With the first season coming in at only 90 minutes, and a second season already on the way, there’s no excuse not to give this brilliant Netflix sketch series a chance. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019

Love, Death + Robots

In case Black Mirror wasn’t enough to satisfy your appetite for a sci-fi anthology series,  Love, Death + Robots offers 18 bite-sized slices of mind-bending, futuristic goodness on Netflix as well.

Originally conceived as a new version of Heavy Metal, Love, Death + Robots eventually evolved into its own creation altogether. Focusing partly on adapting classic science fiction tales and partly on creating new stories, the series travels all across the space-time continuum, weaving tales of future farmers battling interdimensional insects and cryogenic sleeping astronauts awakening to their worst nightmares.

With tones and themes as eclectic as its settings and stories, there’s something for everyone to love in this gorgeously animated, lovingly rendered anthology series. (Mike Worby)

Mom

Mom

Entering its sixths season with 110 episodes under its belt, one might surmise Mom‘s latest offering is a rather safe endeavor, settling into the established rhythms of the series with the lower stakes that often come from a group of characters well-settled into their lives. As it always does, though, Mom continues to buck tradition and expectation with perhaps its best season yet, refusing to ever let its main characters – and their larger group of friends and fellow AA attendees – get comfortable, even for a second.

Mom‘s sixth season is as impressive as its first, because of its ability to continue challenging its characters, masterfully walking the thin line between nuanced character study and broad network comedy. Never pandering or exploitative, Mom never forgets it is a show about a group of addicts: but it also recognizes itself as a show about white women of some level of privilege, constantly challenging and humbling Christy, Bonnie, and the gang (which now includes the legendary William Fitchner) as they try to navigate their complicated lives (and remain sober doing it).

Though I do wish the arcs of Tammy and Nora through the season a bit more defined, Mom remains the most rewarding show to watch about a community of women (sorry, Big Little Lies). For a sitcom on CBS, Mom remains surprisingly limber in its advanced age, able to be funny, poignant, and emotionally devastating in the same breath: few shows on television are able to balance so many emotional tenors, even fewer with the same poignancy and effortlessness Mom pulls off every week. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019

Now Apocalypse

Once considered the angriest, most unconventional, and relentlessly intriguing voices in independent cinema, Gregg Araki first made his name as a filmmaker in the 90s, emerging as part of the new queer cinema movement when his third feature, The Living End— a controversial road movie about two HIV-positive runaways who go on a violent cross-country spree. From there, Araki went on to make several more features including Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere (which would become known as the Teen-Age Apocalypse Trilogy) and his most famous film, Mysterious Skin: the coming of age drama about a small-town rent boy played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

If you’ve seen any of the Gregg Araki’s films, you should know what to expect from Now Apocalypse, his surreal, coming-of-age comedy series that … wait for it … explores identity, sexuality, and artistry while navigating the strange, dangerous and oftentimes bewildering city of Los Angeles while the main protagonist Ulysses, is having premonitions about the end of the world. Sound familiar?

Co-written by Araki with sex columnist Karley Sciortino, the new half-hour sci-fi comedy from Starz is bound to confuse viewers who have little-to-no previous exposure to Araki’s body of work – which is fine by me because despite its utterly ridiculous plot, Now Apocalypse features everything you’d want from a Gregg Araki series. Now Apocalypse is unapologetically queer, quirky, mysterious and fun. And while it is admittedly a huge mess, it is also never once boring and quite frankly, refreshingly different from everything else on TV.  (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019

Russian Doll

Russian Doll may very well be the very best TV series Netflix has produced to date. Co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the series stars Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York woman celebrating her 36th birthday, who is doomed to repeat the same endless time loop before she dies at the end of the night each time — only to awaken the next day having to start all over. Every time she thinks she might make it past the reset point, she dies again and again. The stakes are eventually raised when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow wanderer who is also stuck in his own depressive loop. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day unravels to becomes something darker,  deeper and far more complex. With so much bubbling under the surface, one could say, it’s a show carefully constructed like, well, a Russian doll.

One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction which makes sense considering Lyonne has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs. A more popular reading is that the curse placed on Nadia and Alan could stand in as a metaphor for mental illness as they struggle to find a way to end the loop, only starting to realize that they need to first seek the emotional closure in order to overcome their own personal struggles before moving on. Meanwhile, Russian Doll has also drawn comparisons to video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in which Nadia, who just so happens to be a video game designer, must race against the clock in order to avoid death, and avoid starting all over again. Along with themes of trauma and existential questions about the construction of the universe and the importance of human connection, one’s interpretation of what the show is all about may vary from person to person. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to address all of these subjects and more, weaving countless themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time in which not a second is wasted. (Ricky D)

Netfxlix The OA Part 2 Review

The OA: Part II

There’s nothing on television like The OA, a show about trauma, companionship, love… and traveling through parallel universes by doing an interpretive dance. Nearly two and a half years after its strange, hauntingly beautiful debut, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s ridiculous, heartfelt series returned a completely different animal, trading in its poignant, quiet reflections of season one into a loud, vibrant kaleidoscope of utterly ridiculous stories.

There are deadly online mobile games, a telepathic (and horny) octopus, and mini-robots who dance the movements: these are but a few of the ridiculous twists and turns offered in The OA: Part II, which is somehow a more ostentatiously opaque, thoroughly challenging offering than its predecessor. Unlike anything else on television, The OA: Part II demands audiences to trust it, to believe in the utter bullshit it portrays as plot development on screen – a challenge it most certainly meets, with a welcome earnestness and disregard for formula, or at times, even basic coherency.

It is an utterly confounding, beautiful work of art: The OA: Part II is an unforgiving and bold, one of the rare television series that is truly “like nothing else on television.” In 2019, that is a harder and harder thing to claim, but there is nothing like The OA‘s exploration of identity, destiny, and even reality. It is something you must truly see to believe – especially its ending, one of the most purely bat shit crazy plot twists I’ve seen in the Peak TV era. (Randy Dankievitch)

Superstore

Superstore

Perhaps the last great remaining workplace comedy on network television, Superstore‘s fourth season slowly shifts itself away from the melodramatics of its predecessor… and in the process, establishes itself as one of the more heartfelt and progressive shows on TV. More importantly, it does so without pretension, even though just about every major narrative arc of the season hinges on relevant social movements (like immigration, unionization, corporate capitalism), Superstore never lets these moments overwhelm its eclectic, lovable cast of characters, one of the most hilarious (and diverse) on television.

There are too many satisfying arcs to list here (though Amy’s ascension to store manager is a personal favorite) – but it’s the final four episodes of the season, culminating in “Employee Appreciation Day,” that firmly cement Superstore‘s legacy as one of the decade’s great ensemble comedies (and in a roundabout way, everything Aaron Sorkin wishes The Newsroom could’ve been). It’s striking to see a show (a network comedy, no less) take such strong stances on unions, immigration, and corporate discrimination – to do so while also remaining a deeply rewarding comedy about a cast of blue-collar misfits is something truly special. (Randy Dankievitch)

True Detective

After a rocky second season and a four-year hiatus, True Detective has returned at last with what may be its finest noir tale yet.

Focusing on the disappearance of two young siblings, and spanning the course of four decades, True Detective‘s third season enlists the talents of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as troubled detectives trying to solve a mysterious case over the course of three different time periods. Moody, atmospheric and haunting, True Detective goes utterly for broke in its latest effort, and is all the better for it.

With tons of twists and turns along the way, a jaw-dropping cast, and a fantastic soundtrack, Nic Pizzolato’s third run at the classic film-noir detective story has reinvigorated the love for this series, and offers plenty of hope for an equally excellent fourth season. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019

The Umbrella Academy

This 10-episode Netflix series, which is adapted from the comic book created and written by My Chemical Romance’s frontman, Gerard Way, might have its share of flaws and excesses, but it, for the most part, feels fresh in what is an oversaturated genre. The basic premise revolves around seven kids with superpowers born to different mothers on the same day and brought together as young children by a wealthy inventor and philanthropist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) who adopts all seven of these miracle babies, and creates an academy in order to teach them how to hone their powers.

Best described as a particularly bleak X-Men story with the musical and visual flourishes of Watchmen, The Umbrella Academy is as stylish as they come – featuring gorgeous costume design, stunning cinematography, dazzling visual effects, colorful sets, and thrilling action scenes. The production design is simply incredible as is the soundtrack which plays a prominent role in bringing several key sequences to life. Take for instance a split-screen shoot-out in a department store as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” provides the high-tempo backdrop as the action unfolds – or a scene in which the team listens to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” as the camera glides through the mansion capturing each sibling dancing in separate rooms. And underneath all the razzle and dazzle is a brutal portrait of a damaged, unhappy, dysfunctional family that has drifted apart for various reasons and must now band together in order to help each other while also saving the world. The combination of family drama and superheroics is nothing new but The Umbrella Academy shows enough moments of genius, albeit brief, to warrant a spot on this list. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019

When They See Us

Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in When They See Us, a dramatized account of how thirty years ago, five young boys came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating a white female jogger in Central Park, and leaving her left for dead. It is one of the most famous cases of young boys wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit. The case made headlines around the world and the five teenagers, all of color, would ultimately become known as the Central Park Five. The story of the Central Park Five has been covered extensively by media since, including in the incredible 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But this scripted miniseries is different and it feels more personal due to DuVernay’s approach in closely examining the five individuals whose lives were turned upside down before they’d even had the chance to finish high school. And in many ways, When They See Us is the perfect companion piece to that famous documentary. Instead of reinvestigating this case, or delving into the circumstances that led up to it, When They See Us focuses more on the suffering the boys endured both when they were forced to do time and when they were released from prison.

The first episode shows how the police department, detectives and lawyers tricked these young boys into confessing to a crime they were not guilty of. The second episode captures the trial and the media hype surrounding the case while the penultimate episode (which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond, the four men who emerge from their juvenile sentences and are faced with various obstacles when restarting their lives as registered sex offenders. The final episode which is the most heartbreaking runs nearly 90 minutes long, and focuses on the particular suffering of 16-year-old Korey, the only one of the five sentenced as an adult and winds up spending his time behind bars in various adult prisons. When They See Us is not an easy show to watch but it is essential viewing if you care at all about how unjust the justice system is. It’s a powerful, dense, series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement. It is profoundly rich, urgent, unflinching, and DuVernay’s strongest work to date. It might also just be the best series of 2019. (Ricky D)

You’re the Worst

You're the Worst Pancakes

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece bidding adieu to You’re the Worst, one of the best comedies of the generation. In it, I said:

When the Sunday Funday crew take their final bow, You’re the Worst’s audience will say farewell to an honest portrayal about the pursuit of happiness, and why the “good” emotions of life can often be the most unsatisfying.

The entire final season of You’re the Worst tackles this idea head on, particularly in the professional lives of its main characters. As Jimmy and Gretchen hurtled towards a wedding neither of them actually wanted, You’re the Worst cemented its legacy as one of the romantic comedies of this generation, nimbly moving between stories of professional anxieties and personal battles as it built towards “Pancakes,” the beautiful, bittersweet farewell to Gretchen, Jimmy, Edgar, and Lindsay’s story. Though not quite as potent as it was in its earliest, most revelatory seasons, the continued misadventures of Jimmy’s writing career and Gretchen’s mental health struggles proved to be fertile emotional ground for the show’s final batch of episodes.  Of the many shows to end in 2019, this will be the one I miss the most. (Randy Dankievitch)

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TV

20 Years Later: ‘The West Wing’ is a Whole World Away

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life, is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

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The West Wing made its debut on NBC in September of 1999, and it arrived as something of a dream come true for a certain type of TV watcher — someone highly educated, politically liberal, deeply engaged with politics, and likely a habitual consumer of Time, Newsweek, and all of the Sunday morning news shows. 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

To that type of audience, the series had a lot to offer beyond the service of a respected and talented company of actors — led by Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, and Allison Janney — as well as a slick visual and musical style that seemed to just scream “prestige.”

The West Wing was a vision of a Democratic White House run by smart and competent people who truly loved public service, and they were serving a president with both an Ivy League professorship and a Nobel Prize in Economics. The show was set in a world where the smartest person in America somehow got to be president.  

The series was created by Aaron Sorkin — riffing off of his 1995 script for the movie The American President, also about an uncommonly decent and competent commander-in-chief (in which Sheen had played the White House chief of staff to Michael Douglas’ POTUS) — and even though The West Wing nominally had a writer’s room, Sorkin is generally understood to have written every episode himself in its early years. 

The West Wing landed as well with its target audience as any show in memory, for a few good reasons: for one thing, it was really, really great right out of the gate. Sorkin assembled an amazing cast, gave them strong situations to play, and got audiences hooked. The West Wing ran on all cylinders for its first two seasons or so, finding a way to make the everyday minutae of running the White House exciting, dramatic, and even funny.  The first season’s greatest moment? Definitely the “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” scene:

There’s another reason why the show succeeded. It might be odd these days to say that 1999 was a time of great cynicism about American politics, but 20 years ago the nation was coming off of the Clinton impeachment — a time of massive partisan warfare, and when many liberals and Democrats were feeling somewhat let down by Bill Clinton. So here came a portrayal of a Democratic president — Bartlet — who not only was a lot smarter than Clinton, but didn’t have affairs with interns, and didn’t otherwise act recklessly. Sure, the show tried to create a parallel plot about Bartlet facing consequences for concealing his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, but it never quite made us doubt Bartlet’s decency. 

Great as it was in its early years, the bloom came off The West Wing rose rather quickly. 

First, George W. Bush was elected president, and then the 9/11 attacks took place, and both of those things made the world of The West Wing resemble modern American politics less and less, while making the stakes of its plots matter less as well. The show tried to catch up, first with an ill-advised post-9/11 episode that was literally a sanctimonious lecture, and then with halfhearted terrorism plotlines, and later with the character of Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), Bartlet’s Republican opponent and a lazily conceived Bush stand-in.  

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

The show wrapped up in 2006, after 7 seasons and 156 episodes. And two years later, Barack Obama — himself a former professor, later a Nobel laureate, and probably the political figure on the planet most in line with the ethos of The West Wing — was elected president of the United States. 

The West Wing has something of a complicated legacy, one not helped by the viscerally hostile reactions to Sorkin’s post-West Wing series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom. Neither show was as strong as The West Wing at its height, and part of the problem was that while the gravitas and importance Sorkin applied to his writing fit with the White House, it was wildly out of place when depicting a TV comedy show or a cable news network. 

Also not helping was “Sorkinisms,” a viral video from 2012 that showed the writer’s tendency to re-use the same words and phrases in his work, often three or more times. There was also an over-arching sense that Sorkin, who created the great character of C.J. Gregg, had somehow lost the ability to write convincing female characters. In later-period Sorkin, every woman is the same person, and sounds like every other. 

Sorkin’s non-TV projects have been better received; he’s been nominated for screenplay Oscars three times, winning for 2010’s The Social Network, and though his complete illiteracy about the Internet has been a theme in his later work, give credit where it’s due; he saw that something foul was going on at Facebook many years before the rest of us did. 

The West Wing‘s entire run is available to stream on Netflix, and new fans over time have discovered and loved it. The show resembles an idealized view of politics for a certain generation of viewers who grew up with it, and it’s not a rare sight for West Wing cast members to endorse or campaign for real-life political candidates, as most of the cast did for Hillary Clinton in the home stretch in 2016. 

But that’s just the thing: We all know what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. There are many on the left side of the political spectrum — the Chapo Trap House podcast especially — who frequently decry the lessons The West Wing taught a generation of people about American politics and how it works. It represents a version of politics that’s Hollywood, celebrity, and wealth-centric — one centered on the mostly false notion that a brilliant speech can solve just about any political problem, and that’s nearly always center-left and not left-left. This doubles as a critique, by many of the same people, of the real-life Obama presidency.  

Like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, The West Wing was an aughts show that was by liberals and for liberals. It was never about convincing undecideds or fence-sitters, which was part of why it made so little sense for its cast to stump for Hillary Clinton. 

In one of her only truly inspired columns, The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd — said to be a sometime paramour of Sorkin’s — in 2008 collaborated with her old beau in order to envision an election-year conversation between the real Obama and the fictitious Bartlet — and it got to something key about the series.

“I didn’t have to be president of America,” Bartlet told his real life counterpart. “I just had to be president of the people who watched ‘The West Wing.'”

“I love that it has, almost in a weird way, more resonance now, than it ever did even then,” Rob Lowe said of The West Wing when I interviewed him earlier this year. “It’s just a part of people’s lives still, it’s really an amazing thing to be a part of. It was always a wish fulfillment show, when it was made, it was sort of a what-if, if only we could have a situation…now, 20 years later, I think it would not be wish fulfillment, but it would literally be science fiction.” 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us — of a competent and professorial president, supported by a staff of brilliant, dedicated public servants — is as far away as one can possibly imagine from what’s on offer in real life. Your mileage may vary on whether re-watching The West Wing makes you feel good about that gap, or makes you feel even worse about it. 

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The Righteous Gemstones Season 1 Episode Six Review: “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men” Shines Bright

The Righteous Gemstones turns its attention to Judy in another fantastic episode.

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The Righteous Gemstones Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men

There’s no more telling harbinger of what’s to come in The Righteous Gemstones than the toppling Jenga tower in Jesse Gemstone’s living room at the end of “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men”; when an empire is built on such a precarious, unsettled foundation, it’s only a matter of time before the wrong piece gets removed, and the whole thing comes toppling down. It’s not exactly a surprising bit of foreshadowing, but it is nonetheless effective, a potent visual metaphor that applies to much of the episode preceding it.

It’s impressive how “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men” is able to push to the precipice of so many climactic moments, only to pull up at the last moment to bring more depth to the simmering conflicts.

At the center of “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men,” though, is Judy Lee, whose character has sprung to life over the past three episodes. In what’s quickly becoming an MVP performance, Edi Patterson’s Judy lives at the intersection of The Righteous Gemstones‘ many stories, a woman forced to live in the shadow of her mother and brothers, victim of both the misogynistic goal posting of her identity and career, and the legacy of her mother, whose personality was accepted, loved – and even fought over – by so many people.

The Righteous Gemstones Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men

On the heels of “Interlude,” watching Judy push against the glass ceiling imposed on her by Eli is devastating to watch, even as The Righteous Gemstones builds beautifully comedy around Judy’s frustrated outbursts and quirky asides (I nearly pissed myself when she blurted out “Let’s fucking kill people!”). Eli’s just never taken her seriously, a dismissal that’s spread to his sons; Kelvin undermines her every time she speaks, and Jesse often only tolerates her when it serves his needs, even when his balls are in a vice over the video his son’s been trying to secretly blackmail him with.

But the Gemstone family, absent of its matriarch, is not willing to let another woman run the show; Jesse’s absolute refusal to be honest with his wife offers potent parallels to how everyone views Eli Gemstone’s only daughter, and her importance to keeping the Gemstone family together. “Interlude” showed us the seeds of that conflict brewing; with that, the subtext of Judy’s scenes in “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men” becomes so much more potent, from her middling professional designation, to the narcissism-tinged frustrations she feels at not receiving the same nepotistic treatment as her brothers.

The Righteous Gemstones Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men

It gives moments like Martin’s attempts to speak for Eli an added layer, something beyond the comedy of her flipping out because she’s being shut down again; Eli can’t even bring himself to be honest with his treatment of Judy, an undercurrent that becomes a rush of emotion in the episode’s closing minutes.

There’s satisfying drama to be had in Judy’s plot, for sure: seeing her team up with Baby Billy (while kind of recognizing that they’re treating each other as a means to an end) is a wildly intriguing proposition, a true test of Eli’s patience with his brother-in-law’s constant schemes to turn Aimee Leigh’s talents into a paycheck for himself (“I have nothing to show for it,” he tells Eli – though, given his many, many debts, we know this isn’t quite true). There’s a moment when Judy and Baby Billy are singing “Misbehavin'” and the camera pauses on a contemplative Eli, who can’t help but see the spirit of Aimee Leigh shining through Judy on stage, letting out the smallest of smiles to himself as he watches her channel her mother’s beauty and energy.

But like Gideon and Jesse’s uncomfortably honest embrace of each other, the good times and memories are but brief respites from the present; and whether it’s the sight of an increasingly frustrated Johnny Seasons at his tiny congregation, or Scotty’s unhinged anger at losing another battle with Jesse, it’s clear many of the tiny cracks we saw forming in “Interlude” are threatening the very foundation of the Gemstone empire. Jesse’s manic attempts to claim victory over his blackmailers and mislead his wife are suspiciously successful in “Now the Sons”; but as he celebrates and takes family photos dressed in white suits, the precarious balance of the Jenga tower is clearly falling apart.

The Righteous Gemstones Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men

It’s impressive how “Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men” is able to push to the precipice of so many climactic moments, only to pull up at the last moment to bring more depth to the simmering conflicts. Judy and Baby Billy are the obvious highlights – it certainly felt like him and Eli were going to go blow-for-blow in the green room Billy’s staged in the middle of the old Sears store – but the material around Jesse, specifically with Gideon and Amber is also impressive, in how it continues to build out this rich farce Jesse lives in, one where he’s always victorious and never guilty (or responsible). He makes gestures at being a pastor and a father, but he’s really the most fraudulent Gemstone of them all, something The Righteous Gemstones continues to unravel in delicious fashion.

“Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men” makes a conscious decision to close on that Jenga tower, a moment after Eli’s smile, and a moment before Scott Steele (and all the reality he brings with him, however, unhinged he might be) arrives at the pearly gates of their kingdom; after all, the fun of Jenga is not in finding balance, but in the chaos of watching the best-laid plans fall apart, a fascinating study of a disaster in slow motion The Righteous Gemstones is observing as it heads into the final act of its masterful freshman season.

Other thoughts/observations:

The reveal of Keefe’s sleeping garments is another wonderful parallel to Jesse, who is most certainly going to get caught with his pants down about all his lying sometime this season.

Anyone who knows me knows I love talking about the intersection of sports, philosophy, and television: seeing the Gemstones play golf while Judy tries to assert herself has major echoes of the Bhagavad Gita, which The Legend of Bagger Vance (which isn’t as terrible a movie as people think it is, and a terrific book) is based on. The idea of “true self” and one’s “authentic swing” is powerful, and beautifully integrated into this episode – I could spend a thousand words digging into the two-minute scene, but let’s just say it is a beautiful visual metaphor for the journey of self-discovery Judy’s in the middle of.

Walton Goggins is having so much fun, and it shows – his walk away from Eli backstage is Emmy-worthy stuff. His costuming is also award-worthy; from the suits to the golf clothes, his character is so beautifully captured in his clothing. Costume designer Sarah Trost’s work cannot be understated here.

“What songs can you play, dummy?” “I know ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Toxic’”.

Kelvin’s reaction to Scotty’swell-worn copy of Dianetics; “That’s a fake Bible.”

BJ is quickly becoming the equivalent of Tom on Succession, and I am here for it.

I don’t know what is funnier: Judy yelling “I gotta shave my pussy so I can surf faster” or her later admission that’s she’s already… gone under the razor, so to speak.

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American Horror Story: 1984: “Camp Redwood” Puts the ‘Camp’ in Summer Camp

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American Horror Story 1984 Camp Redwoord Review

The ninth installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series embraces nostalgia and horror iconography as it heads back to the ‘80s for a hilarious send-up of slasher movies that buries a surprising amount of surprises under buckets of gore.

There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie…

These days, everyone knows the rules of how to survive a horror movie — and no one’s ever laid them out quite as well as Randy Meeks in the Scream franchise. With its witty self-awareness and sharp deconstruction of modern horror tropes, Scream was a truly groundbreaking horror film when it was released in 1996. By subverting audience expectations, the movie managed to be a critical and commercial success, delivering an unpredictable plot and an iconic villain alongside some refreshingly clever moments of dark comedy. And if there’s one thing the Scream franchise never let you forget, it was the rules you needed to follow in order to survive.

Much like Scream, this season of American Horror Story promises to be a savvy reconstruction of the all-too-familiar subgenre, jumping back and forth between 1970 and — you guessed it — 1984, which is arguably the golden age of the slasher genre. While the rules of modern horror movies have changed since Scream was released, American Horror Story: 1984 seems set to return to the formula that made franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween so incredibly popular. Take, for instance, the cold opening, which features three camp counselors in the midst of a threesome before being massacred by a stalker. Not only is it a direct reference to the opening of the original Friday the 13th, but it reinforces that if anyone is bound to survive this season, they best not have sex — and given how horny these teenagers are, I don’t expect many of them to make it out alive.

AHS Review

While we have yet to see just how far Ryan Murphy is willing to play with genre conventions and bend these rules, American Horror Story: 1984 thus far honors the genre with numerous callbacks to a number of genre classics and lesser-known gems that mostly lived and died on home video. The ‘80s references come hard and fast too, with nods to such films as My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, Psycho II, Black Christmas, and of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Set in 1984 and in Los Angeles during the midst of the summer Olympics, American Horror Story: 1984 follows a method-trained actor named Xavier (Cody Fern) who brings a band of unemployed teenagers to work as counselors at the newly re-opened Camp Redwood. Among them is disgraced athlete Chet (Gus Kenworthy), who lost his chance at Olympic gold by failing a drug test; an aspiring aerobics competitor named Montana (Billie Lourd); the obligatory nice guy, Ray (DeRon Horton); and Brooke (Emma Roberts), the last virgin in town and recent survivor of an attack by the infamous Night Stalker.

The hapless teens are quickly introduced to a delirious hitchhiker and the obligatory voice of doom in the form of a surly local gas station attendant (Don Swayze), who warns them of Camp Redwood’s bloody past and tries to scare each character away before “bad” things happen. With the injured hitchhiker in tow, the fledgling counselors arrive at Camp Redwood, where they’re greeted by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), a devout Christian who intends to spend the summer teaching impressionable youth to love Jesus. As it turns out, Margaret has a secret past of her own: fourteen years earlier, on this very campsite, she was the sole survivor of the worst summer camp massacre of all time.

American Horror Story 1984

Three Killers?

As this is the first episode of the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Camp Redwood” takes its time introducing the cast while fleshing out the backstory of both the summer campers and the killers who continue to terrorize the citizens of Los Angeles. To that end, this season introduces two (if not three) serial killers, starting with Benjamin Richter — aka Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) — who escapes a nearby mental hospital (in an extremely Halloween-esque sequence which even includes a female version of Dr. Loomis), and is headed straight to Camp Redwood, where he murdered several students a decade earlier. Then there’s also the Night Stalker, based on a real-life serial killer who terrorized California and horrified the nation. It’s been a banner year for fictionalized depictions of serial killers, and now American Horror Story: 1984 joins the likes of shows like Mindhunter by including Richard Ramirez, whose highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985.

While the Night Stalker will most likely be the central threat for the upcoming episodes, one of the reasons behind the popularity of American Horror Story is that each season contains at least one major plot twist, usually involving the mystery surrounding who the killer or killers really are. And with just one episode, American Horror Story: 1984 already seems to be teasing a third killer in the form of Cody Fern’s Xavier who — wait for it — is a method actor trained by Stella Adler who was recently offered the role of a serial killer on a TV show. Of course this is just speculation, but there is a good reason to believe that Xavier can’t be trusted, since he could have an ulterior motive for inviting the teens to the camp.

Theories aside, what makes American Horror Story: 1984 so fun so far is how it painfully recreates the low-budget aesthetic of the slasher films we once watched on well-worn ‘80s VHS cassettes or on late-night TV. Everything about this season nails the tone and style of the slasher films of that era, from the synth score (that calls to mind the music of John Carpenter), to the fantastic title sequence, to a soundtrack which includes tracks from Frank Stallone, Bananarama, Def Leppard, Hall and Oates, and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” The cinematography is especially on point, with jittery tracking shots, over-the-head bird’s eye views, and even missing film grain. Take note of the especially inspired sequence of a panic-stricken Brooke running from the killer that is juxtaposed with the torch lighting ceremony from the 1984 Olympics. It’s scenes like this that make me keep coming back to American Horror Story year after year.

Maybe it’s because I adore the slasher genre or maybe it’s because 1984‘s tone is so much lighter and stylized than previous seasons, but whatever the case, American Horror Story: 1984 is promising to be the most enjoyable installment yet. Whereas last year’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse is an acumination of eight seasons of crossovers diving deep into the mythology of the series (while indulging in too much fan service), 1984 feels like a breath of fresh air and a far step away from the sometimes nihilistic tone the series has become known for. There are still plenty of Easter eggs that connect to seasons past, and there is still plenty of blood that is shed, but overall the season premiere titled “Camp Redwood” is relatively light on gore and heavy on lustful undertones that potentially confirms the hugely popular fan theory about how all the seasons are connected.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have always found clever ways to remix classic horror films and movie tropes, and while American Horror Story: 1984 isn’t necessarily doing anything new, “Camp Redwood” is an exciting way to kick off the season. With every installment, AHS hooks viewers in with a radical new premise and plenty of shocking twists, and I personally can’t wait to see how it will shake up the slasher genre over the course of the next twelve episodes. With a new cast, a new tone, and a new decade, American Horror Story: 1984 could potentially be one of the show’s best seasons yet. All in all, 1984 presents a gory, funny, and affectionate skewering of the slasher genre. If you are a fan of the exploits of the 80s cinematic stalkers, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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‘Veronica Mars’ Explores Our Dark Obsession with True Crime

Veronica Mars’ fourth season explores America’s true crime obsession, both admiring and skewering the community in tandem.

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Veronica Mars

*Please note that this article contains spoilers for the 4th season of Veronica Mars*

After a five year hiatus, the long beloved mystery series Veronica Mars returned this summer with one of the only TV comebacks to be actually worth a damn (yes, we’re looking at you The X-Files.) While the Hulu revival has been widely acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, one of the key elements of the 4th season that hasn’t seen much coverage is its stellar exploration, and at times skewering, of true crime culture.

Even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years.

Over the last decade, there has been a wild resurgence of true crime. While movies like Zodiac and TV shows like The People vs. O.J. Simpson have achieved great success in their respective mediums, it has been the true crime podcasts which have been most responsible for this boom. Wildly popular shows like Last Podcast on the LeftCriminal and My Favorite Murder have blown up to be some of the biggest podcasts in the world, and with so many people listening, fans don’t feel so ashamed or morbid talking about the gruesome details and awful circumstances behind some of humanity’s most horrendous crimes.

Of course, even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years. If the murder ballad folk songs of the early 20th century or the detective novels of the late 19th century weren’t an indication of this fact, surely the hundreds (or thousands) who might gather to watch criminals being publicly executed in the middle ages (often stealing a possession or lock of hair after the execution) surely is.

However, there is an even darker side to true crime and the public’s obsession with it than a simple morbid souvenir or two. Killers like Ed Kemper (recently made famous by Netflix’s Mindhunter) or BTK have sometimes been known to ingratiate themselves into the investigative process, misleading those searching for them or gathering information on how much the police actually know.

This is the most interesting element that Veronica Mars taps into in its latest season. After a string of grisly bomb attacks rocks Neptune, there’s no shortage of suspects who might be responsible. There’s Big Dick, a real estate maven who stands to profit from the plummeting market values the attacks create, and his Chino cellmate Clyde, a former bank robber. There’s a violent bar matron with a vendetta against sex offenders (who make up some of the victims) and some squirrely frat brothers who definitely seem to be hiding something. Hell even the cartel and a scandalized senator avail themselves as possible perpetrators before long.

With that laundry list of usual suspects, though, comes a lowly pizza delivery man. Penn Epner seems to have little going on in his life, and while he comes across as charming and affable, his true crime leanings hide a much darker secret. As he consistently makes himself the center of the investigation, standing up to accuse people at town meetings, talking to any journalist who will listen, and constantly visiting the police and Mars Investigations, he attempts to direct the focus of the investigation toward his enemies and away from himself.

Meanwhile, Penn is responsible for nearly all of the criminal carnage being perpetrated around Neptune. Though the first bombing is indeed revealed to be part of a real estate scam, the remaining copycat crimes, committed by Epner, are a part of his sick manifesto: to punish the unruly spring breakers who rudely accost him and strike fear in the hearts of the political and financial elite he despises. A brilliant man who was kicked out of college for his part in a sick game that mutilated a classmate, Epner takes a sort of ironic outrage at being teased and berated by today’s students. He also feels unable to utilize his strong intellect for anything truly worthwhile, which causes him considerable frustration in his true crime group, a group which is filled with otherwise very successful people.

Of course, he is only revealed as the perpetrator of the bombings in the final episode of Veronica Mars’ fourth season. Up until that point, he’s the last person you would expect to be responsible for so much death and destruction. Portrayed by the amusing and likeable comedian, Patton Oswalt, Penn is usually the comic relief or the wacky side character to the proceedings, giving viewers little reason to suspect he might be the one behind the crimes he seems so intent on helping to solve.

There’s actually an interesting real-life correlation there as well. Oswalt’s wife, Michelle McNamara, was a very serious true crime enthusiast before she passed away in late 2016. She was instrumental in the final stages of the Golden State Killer investigation, and her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, explores her rich, dark obsession with the vicious killer that she never lived to see unmasked as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. This additional kernel of knowledge leads one to wonder if his role in the 4th season of Veronica Mars is meant as a loving tribute to his late wife, as the background knowledge seems to close for coincidence.

In any case, Veronica Mars‘s exploration of true crime isn’t all doom and gloom. The rest of Epner’s true crime obsessive group, dubbed The Murderheads, are more or less well-adjusted and useful members of society. Ranging from a librarian to a political consultant, the other Murderheads seem to be intelligent and analytical thinkers who genuinely want to help law enforcement find the person responsible for the Neptune bombings. Like in real life, the majority of true crime aficionados in Veronica Mars are people who are just as fascinated by the dark underbelly of society as they are troubled by it.

Epner, though, remains a vivid portrayal of the real-life criminals who return to their crime scenes, taunt law enforcement, or purposely direct the flow of an investigation. While they may not always be as nefarious or calculating as their fictional counterparts, these people do exist, and the latest season of Veronica Mars serves as a welcome reminder to keep our eyes open for them.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 5 Review: “Interlude” Is an Early Series Highlight

The Righteous Gemstones flashes back and delivers its best episode yet.

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The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

One of Peak TV’s most pervasive trends is an addiction to the flashback episode – what was once a silly device to fill episode requirements on long-running comedies became essential backbones to modern dramas. Propelled by shows like LOST and Orange is the New Black, which utilized frequent, lengthy flashbacks to build out its array of characters, the last few years have seen an uptick of these “retro” episodes – from Arrow to Westworld and even Carnival Row, modern shows have a penchant for self-indulgent episodes full of wigs and retro fashion. And while “Interlude,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ best episode yet, initially feels like another one of these unnecessary digressions, by the time it reaches the stunning conclusion of its 40-minute running time, it firmly establishes itself as one of the best episodes constructed in this very specific, suddenly popular mold.

As “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes.

Where most flashback episodes fall apart is their sense of self-importance; what “Interlude” understands is that it is possible to recreate a moment in the past without having to build some sense of mystery around it. “Wicked Lips” already gave us the foundation of the central conflict between Eli and Baby Billy, which means “Interlude” exists simply to give context and texture to stories and people we already understand. Billy’s opportunistic ways, Eli’s disgruntled sense of self, Judy’s strange, unappreciated uniqueness… all of these elements are well defined in the first four episodes of the series, and “Interlude” smartly doesn’t try to play coy with these long-festering conflicts.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

Centered around Aimee Leigh discovering she’s pregnant with Kelvin, “Interlude” is a careful observation of the ripple effect the news sends through the family. In doing so, The Righteous Gemstones goes through a radical emotional shift; rather than just being a black comedy about a falling evangelist empire, “Interlude” reveals a deeper, more complex emotional core to the young comedy – so much so, it almost feels like a different series, the humor of “Interlude” often taking a much subtler route than the abrasively juvenile style of the opening episodes.

But as Eli said, change takes time to understand; as “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes. And it does so across a broad spectrum of characters; Billy’s desperation to stay relevant, Eli’s slow transformation into the imposing figure he’d become, and Jesse’s misbehavin‘ ways are all given voice in “Interlude,” injecting Gemstones with some much-needed emotional depth, which helps deepen the many Biblical parallels Danny McBride and his creative team are beginning to flesh out.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

But where “Interlude” surprises the most is with the two OG Gemstone women; both Aimee Leigh and young Judy spring to life as characters in this episode, offering intriguing perspectives on the two “true” Gemstone women. It’s a tough act to nail; Aimee Leigh is essentially the God of the Gemstone kingdom, her absence the foreboding catalyst for the downfall of the evangelical empire -you only get one shot at a first introduction for such an important character, and “Interlude” absolutely hammers it out of the park, as dynamic a combination of writing and performance by (the eternally incredibly talented) Jennifer Nettles.

“Interlude” offers a look at so many different shades of Aimee Leigh; as the family matriarch, the famous face of the burgeoning Gemstone empire, a sister, and a woman in her 40’s facing a difficult, unexpected pregnancy. In an episode with a lot already on its plate, the most impressive part of “Interlude” is how her character is brought to life; it’s hard to make a woman who manipulates poor people with cheap platitudes and displaced righteousness, but goddamnit, “Interlude” does it with nuanced grace, a highly unexpected (but entirely welcome) turn that nonetheless helps the many plot threads of the series find their harmony.

I mentioned Judy as another highlight; perhaps this one is more personal, as a one-time contender for “child in the family with the weirdest habits,” but where “Interlude” does so well is informing Judy’s character in the present. As the Gemstone family plans the future of their family business, she’s left to sit on the stairs alone, or be admonished for her stranger habits and indulgences; of course, this leads her to lash out, in the form of being an absolute bitch to her guests, during an elaborate birthday party thrown by her parents (perhaps as some sort of compensation for how intentionally excluded she is from the normal rhythms of the family).

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

That party is the absolute highlight of the episode, the “pushing all the chips to the center of the table” moment for The Righteous Gemstones. While watching Judy piss and moan about the gifts she’s being given, Eli is admonished by his father for the people they’re turning into, tarnishing the humble legacy of their family name with extravagant gifts and exploitative practices. They talk about what Eli’s birthday used to look like (he’d usually get chores off for the day), leaving Eli to contemplate the generational chasm that inevitably forms in families, and how hard it can be to stay eternally loyal to the amorphous, irrational idea of what a family “should” be.

In typical Gemstones fashion, this leads to a drunk Jesse (thanks, Uncle Baby Billy!) getting shitfaced, puking on the hamburger grill while yelling at Eli about pissing on the face of his unborn sibling. But those moments of humor only act to illuminate the deeper conflicts The Righteous Gemstones is beginning to surface, ideas about legacy and loyalty that should illuminate characters like Kelvin, Judy, and Billy as Gemstones moves back into the present, and the temptations of power and money only continue to tear the inter generational bonds apart.

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