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‘The Twilight Zone’ Gains Some Altitude With “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

It’s not quite a soaring takeoff, but “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” sets a much better course for ‘The Twilight Zone.’

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After an inert debut, Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone manages to get a bit off the ground with its second entry, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” an homage to Richard Matheson and Richard Donner’s classic ‘monster on a plane’ story from Season 5 of the original series. Though it does suffer from an overabundance of moving parts and a dud of an ending, fantastic direction by Greg Yaitanes and a jittery performance from Adam Scott inject just enough spookiness and personality to almost save the day. Almost.

Like with the 1963 original, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” introduces us to a man who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and is about to board a flight. Investigative journalist Justin Sanderson (Scott) seems all better now — despite occasionally mumbling to himself that “the past is past” — and is set for the long trip to a relatively stress-free assignment in Tel Aviv. However, the discovery of what looks like a vintage mp3 player in his seat pouch leads to Justin tuning into a mysterious podcast that presents as its subject his very flight — including its potentially tragic future. After listening to details that prove eerily prescient, Justin works to uncover the truth of what is happening, and possibly save the lives of everyone aboard in the process.

It’s a clever setup that makes for a fresh take on a Cassandra-like character — one who speaks only the truth, yet is never believed — with Justin’s shifty eyes and mousy demeanor the perfect foil; we know he’s right, but can absolutely understand why others would doubt this guy’s credibility. He sneaks up and down aisles, makes odd requests to flight attendants, bothers his neighbors, and defies instructions, all while growing increasingly anxious as the clock ticks down to whatever unnamed event supposedly causes disaster. Enough credit can’t be given to Adam Scott, who manages to portray bumbling instability and sincere integrity within the same moment, and carries nearly the entire load. However incapable of dealing with this situation Justin may be, Scott never let’s us forget that his intentions are good, and the best episodes of The Twilight Zone usually have someone to root for.

The reason for that, of course, is so that the show can pull the rug out from under their feet. Unfortunately, this is where “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” falters. While the premise is somewhat simple, once again the show’s writers (Marco Ramirez is credited in this case) toss in so many balls to juggle that they lose sight of character in favor of plot machinations — which naturally causes them all to tumble down. Having a podcast that tells the future is enough to focus on, offering plenty of wrinkles involving frustration, fear, and sanity. Yet for some reason there are side stories involving the Russian mafia, an enigmatic fan, and a guessing game around which passenger might be an air marshal. None of these contribute in any meaningful way, yet they all serve to distract from and muddle any underlying themes.

Is Justin questioning his own sanity? Not enough time is spent on his recovery from the breakdown to make that an issue. Is he a busybody that can’t keep his nose out of others’ affairs? Outside of exposition that reveals he’s an investigative journalist, we never learn of any flawed tendency toward intrusiveness. Is he a martyr, a do-gooder who always wants to save the day? Again, no evidence of this is provided beforehand. Because of the lack in foundation, the eventual twist of fate has no moral or behavioral leg to stand upon, and so must succeed solely on its own terms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Thus far this new iteration of The Twilight Zone has yet to demonstrate a lack of understanding that what really made the original show so lasting was its exploration of humanity, not just supernatural twists and turns. Still, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” shows promise in other respects. Even when the script squanders opportunity, director Greg Yaitanes does a fantastic job at keeping the tension high with outstanding camera placement. He wisely updates those trite Dutch angles with unsettling shots from fly-on-the-wall vantage points, and floats down the aisles with a fish-eye lens that distorts the reality around Justin. Scenes that might otherwise be absurd (e.g., reaching into a passengers carry-on) end up nail-biting due to tilted perspectives and efficient staging. A blue filter urges calm, but also projects a cold sterility — an unstoppable fate.

The craft makes a huge difference, and projects a brighter future for the series. While “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” doesn’t live up to the classic versions, it charters a better course for The Twilight Zone to follow, suggesting that we may yet reach that dimension of not just sight and sound, but mind.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘Mindhunter’ Season 2: A Deep Breakdown of the Best Show on Netflix

David Fincher’s crime series investigates the Atlanta child murders and the BTK Strangler.

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With fans having waited with great anticipation for two years, David Fincher’s revolutionary Netflix series returns for its sophomore season to give fans an even deeper dive into the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. The long wait was well worth it because this second season is every bit as great as the first.

Catching Up

With a largely new writing staff, the second season of Mindhunter makes some structural changes including placing a larger focus on Holt McCallany’s endearing Bill Tench, who takes center stage over the determined and cocksure Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff). Shifting from the 1970s to the early ‘80s, Mindhunter sees the BSU continue to go about interviewing and profiling incarcerated serial killers in order to better understand what makes these killers tick while identifying if they share any commonalities that could be studied, and then used to catch others like them. Why do killers return to the scene of the crime? Why do some take souvenirs? Why are they obsessed with the media? Can they live a normal nine to five life? How do they choose their victims, and why do some victims later help their perpetrators?  

There’s a whole new set of criminals lined up to interview but the majority of the season centers around Atlanta’s child murders which Ford sees as an opportunity to help validate their line of work and research. Tench, meanwhile, must deal with an extremely difficult personal struggle that unfortunately mirrors their investigation in tracking down the mysterious killer responsible for abducting and murdering more than two dozen black children in the greater Atlanta area.

Mindhunter Season 2 Review

The first episode quickly (and wisely) puts an end to the fallout from season one which generated tension between the four members of the BSU as well as Holden’s sudden panic attacks and his brief stay in a psychiatric ward. A good amount of screen time is given to Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who finds herself in a new relationship but unfortunately, her subplot struggling with her sexual identity doesn’t quite pay off. That said, Torv is at least awarded some decent material as her Wendy increasingly feels isolated from the rest of her colleagues while also frustrated with working in an extremely conservative, male-dominated organization that is largely homophobic. More compelling is the arc of Bill Tench who must somehow balance his work life with his family life. McCallany gives the standout performance this season, and along with Stacey Roca (who plays his wife), they deliver some of the best scenes over the course of all nine episodes.

New additions this season include Lauren Glazier as Wendy’s new love interest Kay Mason, and Michael Cerveris as the new boss Ted Gunn, a man who has ambitious plans for the BSU and unlike his predecessor, is fully supportive of his staff. Meanwhile, Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) remains the fourth wheel and is regularly omitted from important meetings and social gatherings. It doesn’t help that he was outed as the man responsible for the leaked tape but while Smith is perhaps the least likable character, he does provide some much-needed humor particularly when he and Wendy conduct their own interviews in Holden and Bill’s absence. Unfortunately for him, his substandard performance doesn’t go unnoticed and worse, Gregg’s ineptitude becomes apparent when contrasted with the work of Jim Barny (Albert Jones) who salvages a pair of interviews that Holden has little-to-no interest in conducting.

Mindhunter Season Two Review

The Horror

As with Season One, Season Two is based on the nonfiction book titled Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Killer Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Douglas was one of the first criminal profilers in the U.S. who pioneered the method of building psychological profiles of killers so detectives could anticipate their next move or narrow down a list of suspects. While traveling around the country providing instruction to police, Douglas began interviewing serial killers (before “serial killer” was even a term) to gauge their motives — and figure out why they did what they did and why they did it the way they did. What makes Mindhunter different is how it never shows us the grisly murders nor recreates any of the crime scenes. Instead, the series takes an almost clinical approach to the aftermath of these horrific crimes sometimes by simply showing a chalk outline or a brief glimpse of some photos from a crime scene. Like Season One, Season Two remains a show about conversations, and we get a lot of long conversations between just about everyone involved. And what we don’t see is often more terrifying than what we are shown.

Mindhunter is a show firmly rooted in dialogue and exchanges of ideas, beliefs, worldviews, and psychology. Forget computerized databases and forensic science — Ford and Tench don’t believe the criminals they pursue as born inherently evil but rather formed, and that’s where David Fincher’s involvement feels pivotal. Mindhunter plays out like an expanded version of other big-screen, Fincher-directed procedurals, like Seven, Zodiac, and Gone Girl. The show takes its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, whether it’s a tense interrogation or the back-and-forth banter between the agents and convicts. But Season Two is far more reminiscent of Zodiac than say, Seven, with fewer investigations than Season One making it even more methodical than say, macabre.

Elmer Wayne Henley Jr.

Elmer Wayne Henley

Early episodes of Season Two features interviews with high-profile serial killers including the first victim-turned-killer in Elmer Wayne Henley who is currently serving six life sentences for kidnapping, raping, and killing at least 28 teenaged boys with his accomplice Dean Corll (aka “The Candy Man”) in what became known as the Houston Mass Murders. Henley (Robert Aramayo) appears in the best scene of the fourth episode when Greg fails at interviewing him and has every single one of his questions shut down. Quick to react, Wendy rightfully intervenes and it doesn’t take long before she realizes how to get Henley to talk by telling him a story about how she was once in a dominant/subordinate relationship with someone of the same sex. It’s not just the best scene of the episode but one of the best scenes of the entire season as it shows just how capable Wendy is in doing her job (something her colleagues and her superiors don’t realize)— and— shows (in similar and opposite ways) the extreme denial and homophobia of both Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. and Wendy’s partner Gregg.

Torv’s performance in the scene deserves praise as she demonstrates how Wendy is simultaneously proud of her work while also ashamed of her sexuality. But what makes this scene especially great is how we learn that Elmer Wayne Henley was first a victim of Dean Corll’s before becoming his lover and rounding up victims for him to murder. Their complex relationship complicates matters for the BSU who are still trying to figure out how to profile men and women who were persuaded to become serial killers—a topic later addressed again when Holden and Tench set out to meet Charlie Manson.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson, Tex Watson, and Ed Kemper

With the fifth episode of Season Two, Ford and Tench visit Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman who happens to portray the cult leader in a brief cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). The latest subject in their long-term research has Holden especially excited since he’s been obsessing over the convict since the very first episode of Season One when he tried to convince a room full of police officers that Manson was possibly a victim and his upbringing led him to do terrible things. Needless to say, Holden is secretly a fan of Manson, even if he doesn’t realize it, so much so, he’s willing to entertain the idea that it was Tex Watson (Christopher Backus) who masterminded the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders after Manson tells the agents that it was all a plan to get another family member Bobby Boselie out of jail. It doesn’t take long before their meeting with the famous criminal and cult leader goes off the rails as Manson starts claiming that the witnesses who testified against him couldn’t be trusted and that Helter Skelter wasn’t real.

Mindhunter critiques the cultural obsession that’s grown around the Manson family over the decades and reminds us that most of what we think we know about Charles Manson is either exaggerated, twisted, or simply untrue. For a man whose profile is among the most anticipated criminals of Season Two, Charles Manson comes across as a deluded, idiotic narcissist who is too weak and too short to be capable of killing anyone. It’s certainly fitting that Mindhunter finds the time to include Charles Manson given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders — but the best thing to come out of their meeting is the brief (and sadly only) cameo by Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) who expresses his resentment for the far more famous Manson, who he superciliously refers to as “the charlatan.”

Kemper was the big bad of Season One, a man who feels no shame or remorse, and someone who would crack your skull open in a blink of an eye. And yet every time he is off-screen, you can’t help but miss him. Standing at 6 feet 9 inches, Kemper is articulate, polite, extremely intelligent, and loves to talk. Manson, next to Kemper comes across as a complete nut, and whatever “charisma” Charles Manson supposedly has, it is nowhere to be found here. In fact, after watching Holden’s interview with Tex Watson, one has to wonder just how a man like Charles Manson convinced and brainwashed his followers to commit those horrific crimes. As with Elmer Wayne Henley’s case, Mindhunter Season Two keeps returning to this question.

David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam

David Berkowitz and William Junior Pierce

While Manson and Kemper occupy a bit of the screentime, as do other interviews with the Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper) and William Junior Pierce (Michael Filipowich), both of whom are played for laughs. When Agents Holden Ford and Jim Barney visit Pierce at a Georgia jail in the third episode, they’re taken back by how dim-witted the convict is. As Pierce insists he’s intelligent and claims he speaks seven languages (while simultaneously showing us he has trouble to count to ten), the F.B.I. agents quickly realize he lacks the analytic insight and Ford quickly loses interest. Unlike the better-known murderers, it covers, Mindhunter doesn’t particularly detail Pierce’s life or crimes, which isn’t surprising since there’s little to be found (at least online) about the convicted killer – but the scene is interesting if only because it demonstrates Barney’s interrogative skills while finding time to also drop an Easter egg in the form of a picture that Agent Barney produces of the very real William Junior Pierce that was taken on May 1971.

It’s the second episode of Season Two that features the first interview with a murderer and who better to start with than David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the 44 Caliber Killer a.k.a. the Son of Sam) who killed six people and wounded seven between 1976 and 1977 before he was finally captured. Much like the Zodiac Killer, Berkowitz communicated with the police during his summer of carnage, leaving behind hand-written letters next to his victims and sending messages to the press. Berkowitz clearly took pride in his growing fame and did everything he could to become a household name. The “dumpy, awkward mailman,” as Doctor Wendy Carr describes him, claimed that he was possessed by a demon who shouted commands at him via his neighbor’s barking dog. As it turns out, Berkowitz made up the entire scenario in hopes to cash in on a book about his life.

What makes the Berkowitz interview fascinating (apart from the brilliant performance by Oliver Cooper) is how quickly Holden is able to sort through the facts and realize Berkowitz was manipulating the media the entire time in order to rebrand himself after being dubbed the “.44 caliber killer” a nickname he didn’t like. As it turns out, Berkowitz quickly confesses that he was faking his initial claims of schizophrenia and can’t stand the thought of a copycat killer stealing his thunder. But the most important insight they cull from the interview with Berkowitz is that he returned to the scene of the crimes, and according to him all serial killers do; it’s something they just can’t resist, he tells them.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler

BTK Strangler

While Season Two teased the investigations of the BTK Killer (short for Bind, Torture, Kill), who killed ten people in the Wichita, Kansas metro area throughout the 70s and 80s — the killer himself only appears briefly in each of these nine episodes. As with Season One, Season Two features several cold opens with a focus on the BTK Killer himself, Dennis Lynn Rader (Sonny Valicenti) mostly concentrating on his practices with autoerotic asphyxiation while wearing a creepy doll mask as well as the aftermath of a few crimes he committed during that time. Anyone expecting more from him may be disappointed given that Rader had ended his murder career in 1991 and only began correspondence with the press and police again in 2004 leading to his eventual arrest in 2005. In other words, don’t’ expect more of him since he and the F.B.I. only cross paths much later in life.

Depending on whether or not David Fincher will want to fast forward a couple of decades in later seasons, we can only assume Rader will continue to be used simply as a thematic string to connect certain plot points along the way. Considering that Holden has often gone on record to say many times that serial killers are incapable of living normal lives, Rader directly contradicts that theory. In fact, everything about Dennis Lynn Rader conflicts with the profile that Holden Ford and his team have formulated thus far. In Season Two, Holden is also convinced that the Atlanta murder must be African American, a good theory but also one that many believe to this day, was completely inaccurate. Now that Mindhunter has introduced BTK as a regular, he’ll become a representation of the sad truth that no matter how advanced the FBI’s profiling techniques are, the reality is that they don’t always get the guy – and no matter good Holden may be at his job, he isn’t always right.

The Best Scene of 2019

Despite his lack of screen time, the BTK killer does bring the absolute best sequence of the series thus far courtesy of David Fincher and his impeccable talent in deriving suspense and tension out of even the simplest scenes… such as three men sitting in a car. Of course, I’m referring to the sequence involving Bill’s interview with the only known survivor of a BTK attack, Kevin Bright — whose sister was, unfortunately, not as lucky as he. Bright was shot in the head but survived; his sister, on the other hand, was strangled to death.

Bright agrees to speak to the authorities only on the condition that nobody ever looks him directly in the face. Since Kevin cautions Tench that he doesn’t want to be seen, Bill keeps his focus forward as Fincher stays locked in on tight shots of all three men with Kevin shown in the background out of focus. Adding to the tension are the sounds of a passing train in the background and waves of daylight piercing through the car windows. The sequence is a prime example of how David Fincher brings together the full talent of his cast and crew to get the most of a scene that in the hands of any other director, would just be a simple conversation taking place inside a vehicle. With Fincher in the lead, it is instead a master class of direction— and while our point of view of Kevin is head-on, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and astute direction of Fincher, we technically see as little of Kevin as Tench does.

The Brilliance of David Fincher

Fincher, who also serves as executive producer, returns to direct the first three episodes with his usual panache; while Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and TV veteran Carl Franklin (The Leftovers) helm the remaining six. Fincher’s aesthetic and style permeates the series right from the get-go. In the first episode’s cold open, Mindhunter follows the wife of Dennis Lynn Rader as she arrives home only to discover her husband in the act of autoerotic asphyxiation. It’s one hell of a way to open up the season as Fincher’s use of slow-motion coupled with the eclectic choice of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” keeps viewers at the edge of their seat thinking she will just be another victim of the BTK killer, only she’s not.

Mindhunter is simply put, some of the most disciplined filmmaking ever put to the small screen. It seriously is a stunningly gorgeous show to look at, even when things get ugly. Fincher makes the most of every scene using careful shot selection, terrific performances, assured pacing, brisk editing, crisp lighting and incredible sound design that clues us to things our F.B.I. agents don’t see. And given that most of the horror appears off-screen, Fincher somehow finds ways to heighten the suspense even in scenes with little-to-no action.

Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Murderer

The Atlanta Child Murders

Even more ambitious than the first season, Season Two spends much of the latter half tracking down the Atlanta Child Killer, an extremely complicated case (that is still open to this day), about young black children who are killed in an alarming rate. It’s a monumental task since the story unfolds against a political backdrop which saw the city and the capital of the state of Georgia, emerge from its pivotal role in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement into a new progressive era for black Americans. Not only does Season Two have to deal with the fact that many people believe Wayne Williams is not the man responsible for killing the children (a theory re-examined in the podcast Atlanta Monster)— but the second season of Mindhunter must also address the sensitive topics of racial, social, and economic divides that hampered that investigation from the start.

After being approached for help by a desperate hotel clerk, Tanya Clifton (Sierra McClain), Holden is introduced to a group of grieving mothers who are leading their own investigation. Ford firmly believes the child killer is also African American since, in his eyes, a white man can’t go unnoticed in the impoverished black neighborhoods in which kids had been abducted. But as the black mayor, the black officials and his black colleagues remind him, missing black kids are hardly a surprise in an area where the Ku Klux Klan have many active members, some of which work on the force. And while Holden Ford makes a good point about the difficulty of a white man going unnoticed in broad daylight while kidnapping black kids, he’s also eliminated any possibility that maybe, just maybe, he’s wrong. As Agent Jim Barney reminds him, Holden’s theory is just that, a theory. In the end, Wayne Williams is arrested and charged for two murders, but the fact remains, we still to this day have no physical evidence nor a confession that proves Wayne Williams was indeed responsible. Like Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, Mindhunter succeeds in reminding us that, there’s not always closure when investigating homicides and many of the most notorious crimes remain unsolved to this day.

Ultimately, Mindhunter is one of the best shows of 2019— a meticulous, well written and darkly evocative re-creation of a time and a place that captures the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned detective work. The attention to detail must be applauded— Mindhunter captures every feeling and nuance of an entire era and through its brilliant commentary, it will make you want to dig through Wikipedia posts while binging several true crime podcasts just to learn more about its subjects. It’s a story about the incomprehensible nature of evil and reminds us that in the end, we won’t learn every detail and understand every motive.

I guess we can all look forward to seeing John Wayne Gacy, a.k.a. The Killer Clown appear next season as pointed out by Reddit user @nick_o_lay, via the screenshot below.

  • Ricky D
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The Righteous Gemstones Season 1, Episode 1: “The Righteous Gemstones” Begins in Intriguing, Uneven Fashion

Look beyond the outlandish characters and lavish setting, and it is easy to see the existential promise of Danny McBride’s new HBO series.

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The Righteous Gemstones

Danny McBride’s latest HBO project, The Righteous Gemstones, will naturally be positioned against network counterpart Succession: both are about the empires of fading white men, their families fighting over the power and legacy bestowed to them, to both comedic and dramatic effect. But a more cognizant comparison would be McBride’s first HBO project, Eastbound and Down, using the twisted prism of post-modern American capitalism as a venue to explore deeper metaphysical thoughts about purpose, identity – and most prescient to this comparison, religion (for a more in-depth look at the beginning of that series, you can still read the piece I wrote about it seven years ago).

With The Righteous Gemstones, the Biblical subtext of McBride’s stories becomes quite literal – and it makes for a fascinating, if slightly unbalanced, first hour, easily one of the summer’s most intriguing premieres.

“The Righteous Gemstones,” the self-titled first episode of the series, explores the same ideas of worship and karma Eastbound & Down quietly did a decade ago: McBride’s ability to mix tinges of existential thought between fart jokes and pop culture references remains underrated with his latest series, perhaps his most ambitious project to date. Though the themes are familiar, the scale is completely different: with The Righteous Gemstones, the Biblical subtext of McBride’s stories becomes quite literal, and it makes for a fascinating, if slightly unbalanced, first hour, easily one of the summer’s most intriguing premieres.

The Righteous Gemstones

It still needs some fine tuning; the sardonic tone of The Righteous Gemstones can find itself at odds with its ambitions as a comedy and drama. As a satire of evangelical culture, “The Righteous Gemstones” is devastatingly sharp – but that clarity of vision is set in a world full of characters McBride and company want to exist in three dimensions, which is a tall ask for any series to manage effectively over the course of an hour-long episode (forget an entire season, or a whole series). And though “The Righteous Gemstones” doesn’t quite fulfill its own ambitious vision, there’s so many promising moments and points of interest, it seems a matter of time before it finds a groove.

The Righteous Gemstones tells the story of the Gemstone family, led by the patriarch Eli (John Goodman, who absolutely destroys every single line he’s given), and siblings Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin (McBride, Edi Patterson, and Adam Devine, respectively), nepotistic adult babies who worship at the temple of self-righteous greed and power. As one might expect, “The Righteous Gemstones” paints these family members as narcissistic and self righteous as possible: but there’s more meat on the bone with its main characters than expected, offering some interesting twists on the archetypes it introduces the main trio of siblings as.

It can be a bit of a mixed bag: while Jesse and Judy are compelling characters in their own right, the over-costumed, underdeveloped Kelvin is representative of The Righteous Gemstones‘ early struggles to walk the tightrope between genres. Kelvin, the youngest child in the family, is presented as responsible, ignorant, childish, and cunning at different parts in the pilot, a clash of personalities only further undercut by the ridiculous costuming, which feels superficial and forced, even next to the outlandish clothing offered the patriarch and chosen son of the Gemstone family (which at least tap into a specific fashion sense and projection of wealth in the evangelical community, something more potent and funny than “general hipster douchebag” offered Kelvin).

The Righteous Gemstones

But when “The Righteous Gemstones” is sharp, it’s really sharp: especially when it pauses to reflect on the loss of the Gemstone matriarch, whose ghost hangs heavy over the lives of Eli and his children. There’s a scene where Eli eats dinner alone, in front of a picture of him and his wife, that’s as powerful and poignant as anything the premiere has to say about modern-day evangelicalism (where rich = righteousness), or the tenants of American capitalism McBride is always fascinated with (the fetishization of wealth, celebrity, and tragedy, to be specific). And it’s just John Goodman sitting alone at a dining room table: but what it says about love and faith is as strong as anything else in the series, a moment of reflection on the unseen forces of nature we choose to accept and reject in our short life times.

(of course, there’s a big Sunday brunch that serves as its own highlight; another McBride-ism are scenes set at family dinner, something that’s proven to be a potent setting for storytelling and character on his shows).

There are a few aspects of The Righteous Gemstones that are just downright uninteresting, the blackmail plot chief among them. While it’s at least entertaining to watch Jesse try to navigate inner family politics to try and deal with the situation (someone filmed him doing cocaine with a bunch of naked strippers), it is an extended instance of The Righteous Gemstones fumbling to find its identity: the combination of black comedy and melodrama it aims for is far less interesting than its examinations of the dark, unexplored places where faith and prosperity meet.

The Righteous Gemstones

When “The Righteous Gemstones” isn’t stuck on Pilot Auto-Pilot (introduce character, give them quirk, give them drama, integrate, repeat), it offers moments of enormous potential, intersecting ideas about American society without doing what too many shows do to ground itself in this specific era of 2019 (where evangelicalism has become “support a racist, homophobic prick bent on the self-destruction of humanity at all costs because he gives us power”). The Righteous Gemstones is not about adjudicating punishment for the evil, narcissistic parasites of society; though objectively designed as a tragedy, McBride smartly crafts his new series as a study of American opulence, rather than a pointed, one-dimensional rejection of the very-real cult of religion TRG is observing.

That’s because at its core, The Righteous Gemstones does hold a curiosity and reverence for the existential: it is perhaps more interested in theology than its titular subjects, whose adherence to Christian customs and behaviors only carries as deeply as the silk lining in their jacket pockets. What happens to a man of purpose, when faced with the meaninglessness of life? How blindly (and simply) can one be corrupted by money and fame? Is redemption attainable? These are the real questions Danny McBride searches for in his art, that are quietly weaved into the DNA of The Righteous Gemstones; and while it may take a few episodes to find the right calibration of its many ingredients, but the pilot is full of vibrant characters, an incredibly crafted world, and plenty of enticing sequences, signs that the series just needs to tweak its recipe a bit to channel the holy spirits of serialized TV greatness.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • welcome to reviews of The Righteous Gemstones! Chapel is on Mondays, and tithes are only accepted in the form of tacos.
  • there’s a subplot with Dermont Mulroney regarding small-town priests angry at the Gemstone expansion into Locust Grove (aptly named city); it is more of a placeholder in this episode than an actual plot point, something the arc of the season will be built around.
  • Walton Goggins does not appear in this first episode, and that’s just a bummer.
  • Perhaps the most interesting intersection of the many ideas on this show is with the unseen faithful; The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t condemn the core idea of belief and faith, just the disgusting culture of opulence, fear-mongering (there’s a great exchange about Judy’s fiance being pro-abortion), and the frauds at the top of the Christian industry pushing these “values” on society (including Eastern society, a centuries-long movement Gemstones briefly touches on).
  • One troubling note: unlike his other two series, McBride has said he doesn’t have a definitive ending for the Gemstone story in mind, leaving it more open-ended than his previous works. While this certainly offers a lot of potential, it also leaves room for narrative wandering and navel-gazing in the future that could dilute some of the stronger thematic and symbolic structure of the series. Time will tell!

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Netflix Series, ‘Wu Assassins’ Breaks Bones but Tells a Familiar Story

Wu Assassins delivers the martial arts goods, but the all too-familiar Saturday morning cartoon plot ultimately holds it back.

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Wu Assassins

Iko Uwais might not be a known name to many, especially in the TV world, but he’s quickly garnered a lot of attention since he fought through an entire apartment building in The Raid: Redemption. A martial artist with a knack for expert choreography, Uwais has more than proven himself as a capable fighter – and with Wu Assassins, he aims to impress with more than just his skills with his fists. Unfortunately, this mystical martial arts series does itself no favors by pushing its star into an ensemble and then drowning him out with a needlessly convoluted story line – all stitched together with some immaculately staged action beats that are far too few and far between.

Wu Assassins delivers the martial arts goods, but the all too-familiar Saturday morning cartoon plot ultimately holds it back.

Everyone will – and should – be coming to Wu Assassins for some martial arts action. Assuming it’s not already evident with the opening scene, there will be lots of bones to break and blood to spill. Each fight is orchestrated for maximum impact. The camera moves with the action as opposed to other films that treat the camera like an extension of limbs. This method is what brings a lot of Uwais’ pencak silat fighting style the cinematic feeling of being in the thick of the action with the fighters. It also doesn’t matter if its Uwais or any of the rest of the cast fighting – they all absolutely bring their A-game, which makes a lot of the rest of the series feel stifled, losing its footing anytime it turns away from its action.

Wu Assassins

Unfortunately, there is no denying that Wu Assassins drops the ball pretty hard when it comes to its storytelling. Kai (Uwais), a chef with dreams of starting his own food truck, is thrust into a showdown in San Francisco with mystical powers beyond his comprehension. Now the Wu Assassin (the chosen one, if you will), he hatches a plan to restore balance between the different Wu’s. Alongside him are his closest friends and some new allies, bringing together an ensemble that has fairly decent chemistry with each other throughout the entirety of its ten episodes.

Where that chemistry drags is in all the sub-plots padding out the overarching narrative. What is basically a show about one guy taking on four powerful people, becomes one where characters are given a single defining trait in order to create the most basic of archetypes – like Tommy Wah (Lawrence Kao), the heroin addict who is a constant disappointment to everyone around him. There are characters that feel less obvious, but their arcs are often muddled by the show’s decision to mess with the chronology of events for “dramatic effect” or the cartoonish way it handles storytelling. For better or worse (often worse), Wu Assassins treats its narrative like a Saturday morning cartoon – in fact, its closest comparison point would be an animated show like Jackie Chan Adventures, but Wu Assassins is too serious to effectively embody the true absurdity of that claim.

Those cool tricks it tries do tend to lead to more memorable episodes. The eighth episode follows different characters in the same situation, messing around with the chronology of scenes until there’s a full picture. Unfortunately, it never feels like there is any significant reason as to why scenes are edited in that way. Horror moments such as in the Earth Wu’s storyline or even brief moments in other stories are so brief, they just feel like neat ideas someone had that didn’t go beyond the pitching stage (which is what strings a lot of the fights together, as well).

There just seems to be too many times when the plot tries to fit something in that just doesn’t seem necessary. At one point there is a history lesson on Chinese-American people that seems like an important topic, but is ultimately just a rant followed by a fight, none of which really offer much to the story itself.

Wu Assassins

What’s most disappointing is that Wu Assassins has great performances all around. Each Wu is helmed by a more-than-capable actor ready to bite deep into some mystical martial arts tale. It’s what makes Uwais’ performance feel noticeably flat is he isn’t quite on the same level acting-wise as everyone else involved. It is very clear that the choreography and stunts were his main focus when working on the show, and as someone creatively involved he just might not have had much direction in how to get a better performance from himself. His character is sort of hollow as well, with much of his backstory shared by other characters, providing them with the ability to take the weight off of him narratively. Instead, he mostly just deals with uncle issues.

Everything about Wu Assassins seemed like it would be a lot of fun. It’s got a silly enough premise to lend itself to some entertaining beats, that feel ripped straight from cartoons. However, the best stuff in the show is when things get deadly serious; whether it’s the top-notch choreographed fights or the occasional horror moments within minor sub-plots, there’s usually something in every episode worth seeing. But those moments are spread so thinly that the show becomes utterly dull when they’re taken out, which leaves nothing but a dull narrative (that oddly ends with an epilogue, implying hopes for a second season) and a cast of predictable, thin characters – though one that ends with an (oddly inserted) epilogue, one teasing a more potent, exciting future for Wu Assassins not tied down by the standard-rate hero’s journey of the first season. Wu Assassins may not be Uwais’ best work, but he puts a deserved spotlight on himself as an action choreographer, and rightfully deserves to get more work bringing his stylish fighting style to the masses.

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‘The Terror: Infamy’ Blends Historical Fiction and Horror in Frightening and Clever Ways

AMC’s incredible horror anthology series is back!

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Based on Dan Simmons‘novel of the same name, AMC’s The Terror returns for a second season with new characters, a new setting and a different historical backdrop.

Season one centered on the Royal Navy’s risky voyage into uncharted territory as the crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage and confront the fear of the unknown (and a giant, man-eating polar bear). Whereas season one is a first-rate survival horror about a group of men, desperate to survive, season two turns its attention on one of the darkest, most horrific moments in the history of the United States.

For the unfamiliar, the novel does not have a sequel, nor a prequel— but AMC wisely decided to build the title into an anthology series – thus season two was created, only this time around The Terror: Infamy studies the horror felt by Japanese-Americans who saw their own country turn against them during World War II.

With the exception of executive producer Ridley Scott, nobody— not the original showrunners nor the cast or crew— are back this season. Normally a change of showrunners would be a cause for concern, but co-creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein have everything under control. The Terror: Infamy is a chilling follow-up to what we considered one of the best TV shows of 2018.

That said, fans of the first season of The Terror should prepare for just how different Infamy is.

the-terror-season-2

The second installment takes place in California during World War II and follows a group of Japanese immigrants who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in North Dakota after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, spreads xenophobic hysteria across the United States. Much of the story focuses on the Nakayama family living in Terminal Island. At the head of the family is Henry (Shingo Usami), a fisherman who immigrated to the U.S. twenty years prior with his wife Asako (Naoko Mori). Henry is proud of the life he lives, proud to be an American, and proud of raising an American citizen in their son Chester (Derek Mio). Chester loves and respects his family and the sacrifices they’ve made but he longs for an American life of his own. He’s in love with a Spanish-American student named Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo) and hopes to step out of his father’s shadow, get married, and chase his dream to become a professional photographer. Only after the Japanese attack, his life turns upside down, as he and his family are forced to relocate after Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashes Executive Order 9066.

If it wasn’t obvious by the title and plot synopsis, the events of the first episode patiently build to December 7, 1941 — the day Roosevelt delivered his famous speech and gave birth to the term, “day of infamy.” The second season of The Terror isn’t coy about where the story is headed using the horror genre to examine a truly shameful moment in American history. Infamy is simply put, an unflinching look at systemic oppression and how sometimes a government can violate basic human rights – and given the current political climate, Infamy feels acutely relevant.

Since this show is called The Terror, it is expected we will see supernatural elements at play, and it doesn’t take long before they are introduced. The Terror: Infamy opens with a harrowing look at the death of a Japanese woman (Yuki Morita) who strolls down a dock toward the ocean and ends her own life. From far, it looks to be a suicide but it’s not long before we suspect the woman’s death was caused by some sort of supernatural force. Soon after, other strange occurrences plague the residents of Terminal Island as Season 2 dives headfirst into Japanese folklore introducing a Yūrei-like shape-shifting spirit known as an Obake that attacks both the Japanese and white Americans alike.

Infamy plays its supernatural card from the get-go, using it as a means with which to heighten the tension, fear and socio-political troubles of the time and in the end, The Terror: Infamy blends historical fiction and horror in terrifying yet clever ways. There’s a lot to unpack here which I plan on doing as future episodes roll out but as it stands, Infamy will please both fans of season one and those who love Asian Horror.

  • Ricky D
The Terror Infamy
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Scrubs Season Two Episode 7 Review: “My First Step” Moves In the Right Direction

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Scrubs My First Step

The title “My First Step” is a direct reference to what JD says about his approach to life: always anxious to move, unsure of how to take the first step in any direction. It’s an idea that effectively applies to the entire episode; “My First Step” is essentially a prologue for the larger stories of Scrubs‘ second season, be it Cox’s maturity, Carla and Turk’s relationship, or JD’s increasing realization he’s not the most talented, special doctor in the world.

Through Elliot and Dr. Cox, “My First Step” does hold a nugget of a core Scrubs idea in its hands, about the inner strength it takes to conquer one’s insecurities, to take risks and be truly vulnerable.

Because of the important role it serves, it can be easy to overlook that in isolation, “My First Step” is a rather ineffective episode of Scrubs, a constant crescendo of personal drama that… just kind of goes nowhere, offering a few intriguing images in the final minutes as bread crumbs for later episodes. As a whole, it is a thumb-twiddling placeholder, though one that serves an important role as a catalyst for the season’s big stories.

Scrubs My First Step

Where it drops the ball most noticeably is with Carla; in what will eventually become commonplace for Carla-centric stories, it feels like Scrubs doesn’t have a grip on Carla outside of her relationship with Turk. All of “My First Step” posits her as a career nurse completely satisfied with her position, even with the limited responsibilities and benefits of her job; that is, until it anchors her supposed “satisfaction” in her relationship with Turk, a disappointing turn for what was looking to be a rather subversive Carla arc.

Carla spends most of “My First Step” annoyed at Turk for trying to push her into nurse practitioner school, after she mentions that she can’t help patients as effectively as she wants, because she’s “only a nurse.” She gets pissed at Turk for trying to push her, and sarcastically responds to anyone who suggests she might enjoy the position: this continues until she reveals to Cox that she doesn’t want to go to school, because she’s currently making her bet on Turk.

It is one of the most head scratching moments of Scrubs, even when watching with the foreknowledge of its colossal struggles with gender dynamics across the entire nine-season run. Carla doesn’t want to make more money and have more power at work because… she’s just hoping Turk will marry her, so she can have babies and not work anymore? To be quite honest, I don’t get what Scrubs is trying to say through Carla here – the entire episode is about admonishing JD’s “wait and see” approach to doctoring, and yet here is Carla, refusing an opportunity she’s clearly interested in, because she really hopes the romance in her life works out?

Scrubs My First Step

It’s disappointing to see Carla reduced to a device for other characters: “My First Step” tries to overtly connect her professional reluctance to that in Cox’s personal life, as he tries to resist the feminine wiles of pharmaceutical rep Julie Keaton (Heather Locklear, fresh off her Spin City run). It’s a forced attempt to tether the two stories together, and tries to use Carla’s turmoil as a lightning rod for Cox’s story – which, in reality, are two stories only tangentially connected by the shared concept of fear driving us away from finding our true selves.

Julie’s introduction is an important conduit for Scrubs‘ second season; her presence is a turning point for Dr. Cox as a character, as he begins to truly contend with his own strange, twisted self-perception. Cox sees Julie as everything wrong with medicine – he dresses her down as a soulless pill pusher only interested in profits – but he’s also wildly attracted to her, a hypocrisy that feels more grounded and layered than Carla’s “I can either be professionally satisfied, or have a boyfriend” internal debate.

Scrubs My First Step

Like most of humanity, Cox is equally driven by desire and self-loathing; Julie is the epitome of both, a frightening proposition for a man like Perry Cox. Of course, we’re only an episode or two away from Scrubs fundamentally challenging Cox’s sense of identity; in that sense, “My First Step” is a rather tepid introduction to these ideas, drawing on Cox’s self-destructive psyche in a very similar way to his ex-wife in ways that are neither redundant or expansive.

But again, foreknowledge is everything: knowing Julie’s appearance is really the catalyst for Jordan’s reappearance gives some much necessary perspective on Cox’s story in “My First Step.” Without it, his reluctant rejection of Julie kind of has no teeth – we know Cox is going to give in to his hateful lust eventually, because it’s television. What “My First Step” doesn’t engage with is the emotional component of it all for Cox: season two of Scrubs is spends a lot of time Cox fundamentally challenging his own perceptions as a doctor, a man, and a partner, none of which bubble to the surface of “My First Step,” limiting the impact and importance of Julie’s arrival (however brief it’ll turn out to be) into the world of Sacred Heart.

There is one component of “My First Step” that feels fully formed: Elliot, whose journey through the emotional wringer of Scrubs season two begins in earnest when her patient dies in a dangerous surgery she recommended. Persisting through some truly awful JD behavior (it cannot be understated what a dickhead he is to Elliot at every turn), Elliot is given a rare victory in “My First Step” when Dr. Kelso commends her ability to make a decision in a tough moment – the kind of compromised moral victory Scrubs often makes its sharpest observations, though it mistakenly latches onto it as a lesson for JD to learn about his own impotence in taking risks.

Scrubs My First Step

Before it does that, though, it gives the scrappy underdog of Scrubs a much-deserved victory; an important moment for a character whose journey through season two is equally dynamic (if not quite as effectively communicated) as Cox’s. Elliot asserting herself, and having that validated by Kelso, taps into so many interesting aspects of her character: though it doesn’t necessarily play to these strengths (again, this becomes a story about lame JD), how she reacts to the board’s decision captures the neuroses and talents of Dr. Reid in a rare early moment of Scrubs finding harmony in her character’s many facets.

Much of Scrubs‘ early years are dedicated to challenging (and caricaturing) Elliot as a doctor: dismissed by many of her (male) colleagues, Elliot’s sheer force of will carries her through so many crises of identities, a foundation we can see being built during the events after Mrs. Kahn’s unfortunate, offscreen death. That’s why it’s such a bummer it uses her arc as a framing device for JD’s character: it’s a really strong episode for Elliot, so often the butt of Scrubs‘ humor and male gaze, one that gives her agency as a doctor, and presence as a three-dimensional character.

Through Elliot and Dr. Cox, “My First Step” does hold a nugget of an idea in its hands, about the inner strength it takes to conquer one’s insecurities, to take risks and be vulnerable. Complacency can often be more dangerous – and limiting – than failure; knowing Scrubs is building some of these larger ideas in a serialized fashion makes some of the more frustrating, unresolved elements of “My First Step” easier to endure, a sign that the series isn’t falling into the same metaphorical traps in its sophomore effort.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Yes, this episode is focused on JD, who I barely talk about in the review: it’s because he’s so insufferably selfish and indignant in this episode, he’s not worth discussing. We’ll talk plenty about JD’s personality “quirks” as the season continues. The same goes for Turk, whose “innocently naive” bit runs very thin at various points through the season.
  • so much of Scrubs music has changed on Hulu, since many of the series’ original music rights have expired – “My First Step” in particular suffers, the opening and closing sequences completely losing their tone with the generic replacements offered for Robert Palmer and the Counting Crows.
  • The Janitor is just kind of there in “My First Step”: he turns an innocuous comment JD makes into a funny, though pointless series of punch lines about JD’s sense of power around the hospital.
  • ahh, remember “skateboarding fail” videos? Early internet was so innocent.
  • Todd gets a high five from Turk for the line “I’d like to double her entendre.” In his defense, Todd was pretty desperate for approval.
  • I’m willing to bet Heather Locklear smacking her own butt was in every single NBC promo that week.
  • “If I wanted to make small talk over low grade beef, I’d eat dinner at home!”
  • Turk’s “turf and turf” meal is just abominable.

Scrubs Season 2, Episode 7 “My First Step”
Written by Mike Schwartz
Directed by Lawrence Trilling
Aired 11/7/2002 on NBC

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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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