The fourth season of Fargo stars Chris Rock as Loy Cannon, a ruthless Kansas City crime boss battling an Italian-American gang for power in the 1950s. In order to keep the peace while doing business, Loy and his rival swap their youngest sons as hostages. The series is both an immigrant tale and a migrant tale viewed through the familiar lens of a gritty mobster saga. Though true to the Coen Brother’s sensibilities, creator Noah Hawley injects it with darkly oddball humor and characters.
The audio was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy.
The secret weapon of Disney+’s The Mandalorian, is discovery.
It’s pretty much in the DNA of the series — which became a streaming TV phenomenon last year — on the strength of a new character the series calls “The Child” but most of us fans call Baby Yoda.
The goal: to explore all the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe that the big movies ignored and build compelling stories around them.
I’m happy to note the first episode of the show’s second season leans hard into it with spectacular results. We see a new side of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine, learn the aftermath of the second Death Star explosion (seen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi), uncover fresh depths in the Tusken Raiders’ culture and meet a character from the original films whose legacy has shadowed this series since it debuted with the Disney+ service back in November 2019.
(Don’t worry, I’m not dropping that name. But there will be a few smaller spoilers and hints sprinkled through this review, so consider yourself warned.)
For disenchanted Star Wars fans like myself – folks who have grown frustrated and dismissive of the bloated predictability in the franchise’s recent films – The Mandalorian is an impressive, expertly-executed do-over. It revisits and reinvents a fictional world loaded with storytelling promise, too often underutilized on the big screen in the drive to build the next sci fi blockbuster.
From its start, The Mandalorian had simple goals and a direct style. Built around a bounty hunter presumed to be a member of a legendary warrior race, the first season turned on his discovery of The Child during a job and his decision to become its defender.
Fans knew immediately this kid was a pint-sized specimen from the same race as one of the most famous Star Wars characters, Jedi Master Yoda. Over the course of the first season, “Mando” — a nickname from the show which sounds so close to a slur I resist deploying it – discovers he must find other members of this race and bring The Child to them, pursued by remnants of the evil, authoritarian Empire who realize the youngling is a powerful resource.
For all those who complained about the series’ slow start in 2019, this year’s model kicks off with a swirl of intensity. Our Hero survives a fight, only to learn he must head to Tatooine to find another Mandalorian who might know where The Child’s people live.
Once there, he stumbles on Mandalorian armor any Star Wars fan would instantly recognize, worn by a local marshal played by the best actor to ever embody a sharp-shooting lawman, Justified alum Timothy Olyphant (told you there would be a few spoilers). The moment Olyphant lets fly with one of his smart-alecky quips, you know these two are teaming up for something.
If the mothership Star Wars movies are space operas built around reimagined fragments of samurai films and the legends of medieval knights, then The Mandalorian finds its tone in a slightly different genre: it’s a straight up Western.
And there is no greater Western trope than the story of a scrappy, dusty frontier town threatened by a grand danger, depending on a stalwart sheriff and mysterious, gunslinging stranger to help save the day.
The great challenge of The Mandalorian is to keep us entertained, even as it references familiar storytelling most fans know so well, they can predict the end of the tale even as it begins.
Because we know how Westerns work, we know Our Hero and Olyphant’s character will form an uneasy alliance, after a tense initial moment. We know they’ll eventually find success. We know that success will cement an uneasy, culture-bridging alliance between the townspeople and the Tusken Raiders, marauding pirates who attack Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars film.
But the brilliance of The Mandalorian’s new installment is how it deploys revelations about the Star Wars universe to keep us guessing and engaged, topped by the episode-ending reveal of a character that will make fans squeal with anticipation and delight (How do I know this? Guess who squealed loud enough to wake my neighbors when the final scene appeared?)
Creator Jon Favreau — who wrote and directed this first episode of the new season – seems to have learned from critical snipes about the first season. The storytelling pace here is quicker, with more reveals that spark deeper questions; just as scenes lapse into the gobbledygooky space jargon needed to build the plot, we get a little action to break things up and remind us we’re watching a gritty, occasionally grand adventure. And the new episode is 55 minutes long, compared to last season’s installments, which averaged about 40 minutes each.
Best of all, I left this new episode eager to see what comes next, and a little annoyed with Disney+ that they don’t follow Netflix’s binge model and drop an entire season at once.
This new episode of The Mandalorian proves the first season wasn’t a fluke. They have revitalized one of sci-fi’s biggest franchises, boosted one of media biggest streaming services and marked a bold new chapter for one of TV’s most ambitious and well-crafted series.
Not a bad day’s work — even for the coolest Mandalorian in a galaxy far, far away.
by Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon, Soraya Nadia McDonald, and Daisy Rosario
The HBO miniseries Watchmen recently earned 26 well-deserved Emmy nominations. And if you haven’t seen the series, now is a good time to catch up. Watchmen is not strictly an adaptation of the landmark comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — it’s technically a sequel. It stars Regina King as an ex-cop in Tulsa Oklahoma who’s not-so-secretly the masked vigilante Sister Night. It also stars Don Johnson and Tim Blake Nelson, alongside Jean Smart and a very odd Jeremy Irons, who may or may not both be playing characters from the comic. Showrunner Damon Lindelof has set the show within a big, weird world that keeps getting bigger and weirder, even as it seeks to comment on some very contemporary, real-world issues. (This episode originally aired on November 6, 2019.)
The audio was produced and edited by Jessica Reedy.
by Rachel Martin, Simone Popperl, and Lilly Quiroz
Diego Luna wants you to start talking.
The star of Y Tu Mamá También, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Narcos: Mexicoand Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a new series that he hopes will compel audiences to do that. It’s called Pan y Circo, or “Bread and Circus,” out Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
The title is a reference to the poem “Satire X” by Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote in the second century that bread and circuses — food and entertainment — are all that’s needed to convince Romans to give up their political freedoms.
“The title was not my idea,” Luna says. “When I heard it that first time, I was like, it’s perfect. It’s perfect because it has the irony that the show wants to have. Also it’s kind of like the show. It’s the reaction of many years of bread and circus in this country,” Mexico.
But the concept applies in many other countries as well, according to Luna, “where politics are a kind of a show for us to witness and get hooked.”
Luna says he believes that coming together to eat and talk is the first step in breaking that cycle. In the first episode of Pan y Circo, he asks the audience to imagine a better future after the pandemic is over: “Even after the end of the outbreak, the damaged systems will remain damaged,” he says in the series’ first episode. “And if we want to fix them, if we have the will to repair what’s wrong, we have to sit at the table.”
In each episode of Pan y Circo, Luna hosts groups of scientists, artists, thinkers, activists and journalists for a meal and conversation. They talk about daunting societal problems, including gender violence, climate change and racism. They don’t always agree on the problem, or what can be done about it. Sometimes the disagreements get heated.
And of course, they eat together at the same table, something that’s no longer possible as a result of COVID-19. The disease highlights the urgency of what Luna is trying to accomplish: “With this pandemic, I live in a country where the numbers are horrible, but it’s because we were sick already,” he says. “It’s not because of the pandemic. We were sick, and we were doing nothing. Now we have the chance to actually do something because we know how vulnerable we are.”
On the importance of food and cooking to the project
It’s been 10, 15 years that I’ve been really obsessed with what happens in the kitchen. Everything is the kitchen. No matter how much you want people to stay in the living room or at the table, it always ends up in the kitchen. And it’s where you say everything, where you allow yourself to actually open, where the meaningful conversations happen.
The table is a place where at least we can remind ourselves that we can share the food. Doesn’t matter who you voted for, what you believe in. At least sharing the food is something we are capable of doing. And it’s the first step [before] the next one, which is the one that matters to me: How can we find a way to work together in this stuff?
After the elections in Mexico, I was seeing with a lot of worry and sadness how polarized my own family was, my friends, my work, my partners. There was no way to actually be in a discussion that didn’t suddenly get to the point where people started saying: You’re with me or against me.
To me, that’s very dangerous, because in that moment, we as a society become incapable of actually bringing any kind of change. To be able to actually do something as a society, we need to find that civil power. We have to work together. We have to find a way to sit at the table and find those things we can agree on.
On the way the conversations were transformative for the cast and crew
It was very interesting because I sat down at that table thinking I was one person and I ended up realizing I wasn’t. … I was fooling myself. And it confronted me with my ignorance and the very little that I do. And it was really interesting, the process, because that happened not just to me, but to the whole team of Bread and Circus.
I sat down at that table saying, I’m not a racist, I’m definitely not a racist. And after half of the dinner, I was like, holy s***, how much have I benefited through my whole life from the system, and how little I have done to fight it!
But it was very interesting to have that reflection, because then the dinner ends, and we come out from the control room. The team comes out, and we sit down and we start talking and we have a mezcal, and we discuss what just happened. And you can realize how these tables ended up transforming all of us somehow.
On how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the series
We were in post-production. We finished the shooting of the six episodes that Amazon agreed on doing with us. So I sat down and edited it for quite a long time with the team. And we were almost done, and thinking on how to put it out there, when the pandemic happened.
For me, the pandemic happened in a very specific way, very different from most of the people in Mexico. I was in London, and I was about to start working there and I was sent back home. Then I came here [to Mexico]. There [were] no cases, and it was like a different reality, you know, a parallel world where things were still the same for a few weeks.
And then my kids got sick; they were [among] the first cases in Mexico. We were talking about putting the show out, and I was experiencing that and they were sick and I wasn’t. So I couldn’t be close to them without having to protect myself as if I was working at NASA.
So I said, what if we do a show about this moment? And that way we can put all these topics in the table because we’re starting from the point of: If we don’t think about this now, if we don’t do anything about gender violence, about migration, about the climate emergency, if we don’t react now, then what’s the point of all this craziness we’re living? … It was like, oh, my God, I have everything, and at the same time, [if] I can’t hug my kids, then I have nothing.
Note: This interview discusses, and the show contains, scenes depicting, and stories about, sexual assault.
The new HBO series I May Destroy You is a stylish, sometimes funny drama about a very serious subject: rape and sexual assault.
The series centers on Arabella, a young writer who is raped after her drink is spiked at a bar. Michaela Coel, the show’s creator, writer, director and star, was assaulted in a similar way when she was writing and starring in her first TV series, Chewing Gum.
Coel says she initially wanted to create a series about sexual assault because of her own experiences. But as she heard from other people who had similar stories, she began to think more broadly.
“I realized that many people had some sort of experience that was connected to mine,” she says. “There were so many different ways to explore consent and how it affects us today. What better place for a story than one that I felt many people could find an identification in?”
Writing the show was especially difficult: “It almost sent me around the bend, back into the shock,” she says. “I was probably already suffering from PTSD.”
But Coel says that acting was a different story: “We had a therapist that was on site at all times, so it felt like I could be safe to explore very dangerous areas in a very safe playground.”
On piecing together what happened to her after she was drugged and raped
In many ways, Arabella’s story … is very similar to mine, but there are differences that I’ve intentionally kept so there’s always a distinction between myself and Arabella. But yes, I was writing all night in the production office that I was making a TV show for, and went on a break to meet my friend in a bar. And I had a drink, [I blacked out], and then I was back at work typing and finishing the episode that was due and didn’t quite realize my phone was smashed.
I was a mess, but I didn’t quite connect the dots until I had a flashback. And then, yes, I had friends who helped me going through Uber receipts, bank statements, calling other friends to literally try and gather the pieces. So our stories are different, but there are many, many similarities. …
It’s such a strange experience. And I think for a lot of people, they don’t even have a flashback at all. It’s even stranger that I had a flash that enabled me to end up going to the police to give DNA swabs, or all these things technically should never have happened. I wasn’t supposed to remember anything. It’s troubling.
On relating to how Arabella minimizes what’s happened to her because of other suffering in the world
I definitely look at myself and my tendency to look out instead of looking in and sometimes looking out is almost an escape from looking in. So, yes, there are hungry children. There is a war in Syria. Not everybody [has] a smartphone. And within this world, you were raped. … If you’re using the outside world to escape your introspection, I think that’s where Arabella goes wrong and where I’ve definitely gone wrong in my life.
On rethinking her relationship with social media
I used to spend a lot of time on social media, scrolling. I loved being on Instagram Live. It felt very natural for me to start a live feed and to share my thoughts and to read the thoughts of other people and to constantly be engaging. I would make yoga videos for Instagram. I wonder, for me, whether I was feeling alone and feeling very marginalized and like I needed to connect, but was perhaps too unaware of how to connect with myself and my trauma and even my friends, and so it seemed like a very easy way to connect with loads of people. But very similar to Arabella, I did realize that to kind of go on the journey of introspection that I wanted to go on, and that I needed to go on to make the show, I would have to severely limit my time and cleanse my algorithms and the people I was following, to just quiet down the noise the social media makes.
On how she learned to write for TV for her first series, Chewing Gum
I Googled “how to write a series.” … It was so helpful. … [I learned] structure, understanding a comedy, and ending on a high before the commercial break and setting up the world of the character, the structure of acts, whether you’re doing a 5-act structure or 3-act structure. It gave me information that I think was definitely helpful. I already had my ideas and I had Chewing Gum Dreams the play, but was attempting to write it in the television world, which I had very little idea about, other than being in a few TV shows.
On joining the Pentacostal Church as a teenager and speaking in tongues
We would do this thing called prayer in the park, and one of those prayer days, that was when I first spoke in tongues. … I think it did come out of me unprovoked, and I was definitely having an experience of something beyond and I liken that very much to the writing process when I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to write, but I put my fingers on the keypad and something flows. It’s also like improvising as a comedy group in English. This just happens to be tongues. And it’s unexplainable. But, yet, it does happen. …
I remember being very emotional. Very, very, very emotional. And then life carries on as normal. And I think I even got some, “Congratulations! Welcome, tongue speaker! You have spoken in tongues!” Sometimes I’d be in church and I’d speak in tongues again. I definitely don’t speak in tongues anymore, but when I meditate, sometimes I cry.
On reflecting on the way she is perceived as a Black British person compared to how her Black friends are perceived in the U.S.
I do have some Black friends in America, and I think we find it fascinating and discuss these things quite a lot. … I do hear from some of my friends that in America, people like me who are British African, are seen differently as people who are African American. Perhaps there’s a strange privilege being me in America that is denied to people who are African American. And I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t share that history, of slavery, being the descendants of slaves, that African Americans do with people in America. …
[There’s also] something about the accent. I think Britain has done a very good job of perpetuating the narrative of being very fine and fancy and elegant. And I think this somehow enters the minds of Americans when they hear it — which, it’s interesting, because it’s not real. It’s not real at all! It’s all based on these stereotypes and prejudices. I sometimes say, “I’ve dropped out of college three times. But my voice is giving you a different story!”
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
It’s been five years since Parks and Recreation ended its run, after a final season that jumped forward into the future — specifically, to 2017. We haven’t got the nifty transparent touchscreens their 2017 showed. Instead, we have a pandemic, and we have social distancing, and we are doing without many of our comforts, large and small. But for a half-hour on Thursday night, we did not have to be without our friends from Pawnee.
The special, conceived, written and filmed during the weeks of isolation that have idled much of Hollywood, began — after an intro from Paul Rudd’s lovable rich dummy Bobby Newport, who’s living an oblivious life in Switzerland — with Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) checking in via video chat. He was at home with their kids; she was somewhere else. He’s in Congress; she works for the Department of the Interior. There are nods to the things he’s done to amuse himself during lonely moments in the past, from his Claymation experiment to his complicated board game, Cones of Dunshire. She’s worried about him.
But Leslie, being Leslie, is running a phone tree with all her former colleagues, because she checks in on everybody to make sure they’re all right. She calls up Ron (Nick Offerman), who’s out in his workshop in the woods — and he’s still doing battle with his second ex-wife, played by Offerman’s wife Megan Mullally. What makes that particularly funny is that Ron is with Tammy 2, but the show is otherwise stuck with the limitations of actors who can’t be in scenes together, even though the story would have them living together. This is sometimes solved with humor, as when April (Aubrey Plaza) is not with Andy (Chris Pratt) because he’s locked himself in the shed (classic Andy). It’s sometimes solved with simple logic, as with Ben and Leslie’s busy jobs, or when Ann (Rashida Jones) is quarantining separately from Chris (Rob Lowe) and their kids because she’s still working as a nurse. It is a pure quirk of casting and the intersection with reality, but it’s also very funny, that out of all these people, only Ron and Tammy 2 can be together.
The episode, written by show creator Michael Schur and a virtual room of the show’s former writers, finds some very clever ways to incorporate the oddities of video calling. Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta) are using the same tropical background on their call together, because they are always looking for ways to live well. To treat themselves, as it were. And Garry (or Jerry, or Terry, or whatever they’re calling him right now) (Jim O’Hehir) is unable to figure out how to turn off the camera filters that make him look like a dog or a baby.
But one of the reasons I tried — oh, I really tried — to keep my expectations low with this special is that Parks has always been, for me, a show about togetherness. At weddings, at funerals, at parties and weird public events, it’s typically been at the height of its powers when a group connects. And I’ve seen enough Zoom calls to know that groups of faces on a screen have their charms, but they can’t really get to the emotional place that a group hug wants to go.
I was wrong to doubt.
Because of course they found the perfect final moment; of course. It wasn’t just the “Bye Bye Li’l Sebastian” singalong (although it was that, obviously). It was that we got a little slice of what became my favorite story of love in all of Pawnee when Ron reminded Leslie to stop taking care of everybody else and let people take care of her. This group of writers found a true character beat, one that made sense for the moment and is absolutely what the Ron we know would need to tell the Leslie we know, that they could write into this special. Mostly, yes, it’s just a visit — with the whole gang, with Joan Calamezzo and Perd Hapley and Dennis Feinstein and Jean-Ralphio. And that was such a spirit-lifter that it would have been really fine.
But then there was that little bauble of a reminder that even though they’ve been separated for years, even before social distancing, these people still love each other, and they still know each other. It’s so funny now to look back at the great feature Vulture did in early April in which writers speculated about what their COVID-19 episodes would look like. Schur said a lot of things that didn’t come true in the special, quite. But he also said this: “Ron would be thrilled because now there’s a reason for him to be alone with no one bothering him. But he would worry about Leslie.” And that little bit of emotional realness in an entry that’s largely jokes, is the part that survived.
That, and the lighters, and the singing … well, I cried, of course. But it was the nice kind of crying. Maybe I even needed it. And hey, sometimes that’s all you can ask for from a visit with old friends.
“My time in Washington,” Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) says at one point in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood, “taught me a lot of things. I used to believe that good government could change the world. I don’t know if I believe that anymore. However, what you do — the three of you — can change the world.”
The year is 1947. The “three of you” she’s addressing in this scene are a trio of movie studio executives. The studio in question is a fictional one — Ace Studios — and the three execs are played by Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor and Patti LuPone. (Yep, two female studio executives in 1947; put a pin in that.)
The question to ask yourself before diving into the latest Ryan Murphy/Ian Brennan co-creation (after Glee, Scream Queens and Netflix’s The Politician) is: Do you agree?
Do you agree that government can’t change centuries of systemic racism, misogyny and homophobia, but movies (or in the situation dramatized in this miniseries — one movie) can?
Because know this: Murphy and Brennan believe it. In their bones. Their show Hollywood, which premieres Friday, believes it — its entire narrative infrastructure is built upon that notion, in fact — and it will spend its seven-episode running time striving to convince you. It will do so by positing an alternate history in which a plucky, diverse handful of brave Hollywood writers, actors, directors and producers shatter entrenched social, racial and gender barriers — accomplishing this task at a time when, in the real world, those same barriers still proved forbiddingly inviolate, and would remain so for long decades.
The result is confounding. What begins as a critique of media’s tendency to cling to the same scrubbed, self-serving, cynical narratives that deny full humanity to women, people of color and queer folk becomes … a tone-deaf paean to the Magic! Of! Hollywood!
On a purely plot level, however, it’s tough to quibble with how deftly the series weaves its disparate threads together. Jack Castello (David Corenswet) is a good-looking wannabe actor in postwar Hollywood with a pregnant wife and no prospects. He falls in with slick lothario Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who runs a prostitution ring out of a Hollywood gas station. (Ernie is based on the true story of Scotty Bowers, chronicled in the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.)
Jack’s fate will intertwine with that of the wealthy Avis (LuPone), black screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope) and his lunk of a boyfriend, Roy (Jake Picking). Roy, in turn, will fall into the clutches of scheming Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who’s part talent agent, part carrion bird.
There’s also the idealistic wannabe director Raymond (Darren Criss) and his ingenue girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), who’ll compete for a potential breakout role with the beautiful Claire (Samara Weaving).
Corenswet gets a lot more to do here than he did in last year’s The Politician, where he was mostly expected to smolder — there’s something agreeably doofy about his Jack. Parsons’ character is cartoonishly loathsome, but then Murphy and his writers do love painting with broad strokes, and anyway Parsons is having a ball. Mantello, as a wise, world-weary studio exec, is great at expressing both his character’s reluctant idealism and his tortured soul. LuPone gets to stretch her muscles, too, embodying her default regal hauteur in line readings full of consonants that slam shut like so many car doors, but she also finds moments of warm vulnerability.
Holland Taylor remains Holland Freaking Taylor, and that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
Is it fun to see this ragtag gang of good-looking outsiders triumphing over cigar-chomping Old Hollywood via togetherness, moxie, gumption and a few well-acted, performatively woke monologues? Sure. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that in trafficking in tidy uplift, this progressive parable is erasing the lived experience of those who — through no fault or lack of their own — couldn’t and didn’t manage to accomplish what these idealized, thinly drawn characters do. And though the series goes out of its way to supply moments of vindication to real-world figures mistreated by Hollywood like Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) — moments that are clearly intended as catharsis — in execution, they feel at best opportunistic and at worst appropriative.
Rewriting history for a better outcome isn’t inherently a moral and narrative dead end. When deployed with intelligence, restraint and nuanced, fully realized emotion, it can force us to grapple with the choices we collectively made in the past. Or, when it’s less layered and more pulpy, it can instead supply a sense of visceral, fist-pumping, Tarantinoesque exultation, even triumph.
Hollywood may think itself the former, but the series’ approach is too lightly imagined; what it achieves is closer to the latter: Inglourious Acters.
From the days of Popular and Nip/Tuck, a sense of glibness has always marked Murphy’s output; his various co-creators seem either to channel it into something a bit more grounded (Pose, American Crime Story) or to shape it into full-on, guano-crazy genre archness (American Horror Story). The genre here is “Hollywood Tale,” so you’d be forgiven for expecting a touch of camp, but the tone keeps vacillating, scene to scene, between sober and swoony, as if the show can’t make up its mind.
What it remains consistently throughout, however, is self-consciously well-intentioned to a fault, and absolutely certain of Hollywood’s power to set a world full of benighted yokels on the right path, through the sheer power of showing us all how selfless and brave and — heck, let’s face it — noble creative people are.
If there’s a second season of Hollywood — and given Netflix’s deal with Murphy, this seems likely — there’s evidence it will only double down on season one’s What If Courageous Filmmakers And Studio Suits Challenged The Status Quo dynamic. Along the way it will likely make a lot of the same very good points this season makes about the importance of representation and the idiocy of intolerance. And it will likely include some very good actors delivering on-the-nose speeches while wearing very good clothes.
And, as in season one, if you listen very closely, you will likely be able to discern a soft sound, a noise like a whisper, like a contented sigh that makes up this series’ insistent, omnipresent subtext: Yes, America. You’re welcome.
“With everything else going on in the world, now I gotta spend almost nine hours of my life thinking about Phyllis Schlafly?”
It only seems honest to admit to this reaction to the approach of Mrs. America, a nine-part miniseries created by Dahvi Waller. It was made under the FX Networks umbrella, but it’s available only on Hulu, which drops the first three episodes on April 15. The series is not exclusively interested in Schlafly, but she is its point of greatest fascination, as it tells the story of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
What has set Mrs. America apart since it was announced is its large and impressive cast: Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, the conservative woman who railed against feminists as immoral opponents of decent housewives everywhere and successfully generated a large backlash against the ERA. Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, the creator of Ms. magazine and a representative of the movement whose prominence would remain controversial both inside and outside it. Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, the presidential candidate who found much of second-wave feminism to be, at best, condescending to her candidacy. Margo Martindale as New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as influential author Betty Friedan, and on and on and on.
At the center is Blanchett’s deployment of her most patrician affect (which is saying something) to portray Schlafly as an ambitious woman eager to gather power, who originally tries to obtain it as a foreign policy commentator. Finding that door largely closed to her — in part because of sexism — she realizes that while they don’t want her opinions on foreign policy, she is very much welcomed by the male politicians in her circle when she is fighting and deriding other women. Feminists, specifically. Blanchett’s version of Schlafly adopts her antifeminist positions more because they are her path to power than because they are her greatest passion, although there’s plenty to indicate she believes in them at least enough to support their imposition on other women. (As other characters repeatedly point out, Schlafly herself is hardly living the life she advocates as the one most noble for women: Far from a housewife, she is essentially a professional full-time lobbyist.)
It’s curious. The performances in Mrs. America are, as you’d expect, uniformly excellent. But there is something that feels not quite complete about it. Perhaps it’s that the series’ reach exceeded its grasp. Because about half of the narrative energy is spent on Schlafly and about half on all the women in the feminist movement put together, they all, despite the marvelous and nuanced portrayals, struggle to be fully realized. Martindale has a couple of very moving scenes as Abzug, whose moment is passing between the beginning of the 1970s and the end, and whose carefully crafted political skill becomes disappointing for the women who want her to stand firmer on matters like gay rights and racism. Byrne shines in the moments when Steinem proves young enough and progressive enough to be more aware than some of her colleagues of the racism inherent in the movement she’s helping to lead, but not quite able — or is it willing? — to make eradicating it a priority.
Still, it’s almost inevitable in a historical sweep like this that some stories will seem to get short shrift. Chisholm’s presidential campaign is a big part of a single episode and Aduba drives it brilliantly, creating a Chisholm who’s wise in general as well as wisely skeptical of figures like Steinem and Abzug. But she’s absent from long stretches of the story. Similarly, it would have been great to see more of Niecy Nash as Flo Kennedy, a character who shoots off sparks in every scene in which she appears. It’s refreshing, and it’s essential, that Mrs. America is transparently cognizant of the lack of commitment the women’s movement has often shown to black women, poor women, lesbians, and other constituencies not well-represented in its leadership. But it perhaps needed more of this part of the story, told through the lens of these characters — more, more. More of Aduba and Nash and of Bria Henderson as the editor and activist Margaret Sloan-Hunter. More of Annie Parisse and Anna Douglas, who play Midge Costanza and Jean O’Leary, who want nothing to do with a movement that still welcomes Friedan, whose opposition to embracing lesbians as part of the women’s movement lasted years.
Moreover, because there are so many of them and there’s so much stage-setting to do and so much updating about what’s actually going on in the decade or so that’s covered here, the women on the ERA YES side spend a lot of their time explicitly explaining and expositing on matters of feminism, feminist strategy, and internal movement politics. Where Schlafly gets at least some scenes with her children and husband that don’t revolve around her explaining her beliefs about the ERA, the women working with Abzug and Steinem rarely do anything except tell you what they’re going to do next and why, and who’s fighting with whom. Rifts like the long-standing (and well-known) one between Steinem and Friedan are more documented than illuminated, simply because of the limitations of time. Nevertheless, the time spent with these characters is never boring, simply because the acting is so good.
What doesn’t work as well is a composite character named Alice, played by Sarah Paulson — also a tremendous actress, here given a disappointing role. One of Schafly’s early acolytes and a close friend, Alice’s growing doubts are the least satisfying subplot on offer in all nine episodes.That’s partly because Alice seems like precisely what she is: a made-up person among icons, cooked up to make a specific point. But it’s also because by the time we spend most of an episode watching Alice contemplate whether she wants to remain on Team Schlafly, the question of whether this comfortable, well-off woman will finally push back after ignoring years of clear signals that Schlafly’s movement contains elements that trouble her morally, her plight seems exceedingly low-stakes, compared to everything else that’s happening. Cognitive dissonance is a distraction when it’s framed against, say, civil rights.
But back to Schlafly, where we began.
If it is meant to be inherently perplexing, and thus fascinating, that a woman who has experienced sexism herself would take up the cause of antifeminism, or that anyone from any other group would assume a position of hostility against what seem to be their own interests, we are surely past that now. If the central question of the series is what made Schlafly choose this cause, the answer it provides is simple: because it was there. Because this was the place in which powerful men found her most useful, and therefore it was the place in which she was able to gain a toehold to eventually accumulate power of her own, which she could flex independently.
The Schlafly you see here is as much an opportunist as a believer, although she is surely both. There are suggestions that she bristles at the arrogance of her lawyer husband Fred (John Slattery) and privately enjoys the moments in which her stardom eclipses him. But the answer that the series provides about Schlafly’s fundamental (so to speak) qualities goes like this: she wants power, she lacks empathy, and she’s very effective at creating baseless fears in people that she can then exploit. It’s profoundly depressing to watch, and it’s very plausible. But does it enlighten? Is this something different from what you might expect to learn?
Mrs. America doesn’t ask you to sympathize with Phyllis Schlafly, exactly; it is unsparing in drawing her as a tremendously unkind and destructive person — and, increasingly as it goes on, a dishonest one. But it does seek to explain something about her. It seeks to use the story of her as a way to explain how power works and how politics works, as well as how the ERA came to fail after looking like it was on a clear path to ratification. But perhaps we are past needing all of this explained. Perhaps that is why the story of Schlafly feels wearying.
To be clear, Mrs. America is made well; in particular, it’s directed and edited well and acted very well. There are some playful and clever juxtapositions in the editing, as when you jump from a very sexy scene to one in which Schlafly is dutifully rubbing her husband’s tired calves. The re-creation of the aesthetic of the period is gorgeous and feels truthful, looking like the 1970s rather than a send-up of the 1970s. Across nine episodes, it never feels dull, even though it does sometimes feel a bit speechy. It doesn’t give in to too many of those moments in historical pieces in which names are dropped in a wink-wink kind of way, as when Schlafly meets two young men late in the series who seem unimportant and then introduce themselves as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. Or when a young woman helping with the legal work is told, at the close of her one significant scene that perhaps she should assume a higher-profile role — and then she is addressed as “Mrs. Ginsburg.” Winkety-wink.
But something seems amiss, separate from the filmmaking, separate from the artistry. Maybe it’s just that it can be hard to separate Mrs. America‘s utter bleakness from its quality. Its conviction that determined public figures can persuade people to turn on their neighbors in response to invented threats is hard to argue with, but hardly a proposition for which one needs to turn to fiction — even historical fiction. As the old Palmolive ad of this era would have said: we’re soaking in it.
When nerds are depicted on screen, they are often bookworms and wallflowers who struggle to stand up for themselves. That’s not the type of nerd Mindy Kaling wanted to focus on in Never Have I Ever, the Netflix series she co-created with Lang Fisher.
“There’s also the belligerent, confident nerd, and they want big things for themselves,” Kaling says. “We wanted to show an ambitious nerd … [who] wanted to lose her virginity, wanted to be cool, go to concerts.”
Kaling first became known for her role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office. She was also a writer and producer of the series, and she was the showrunner and star of the series The Mindy Project.
Never Have I Ever draws on Kaling’s experiences when she was in high school. The main character, Devi, is the 15-year-old daughter of immigrants from India and one the school’s top students. She’s nerdy and unpopular — but she’s also outgoing, opinionated and on the hunt for a boyfriend.
Kaling was initially hesitant to revisit her teen years for the project: “Like a lot of comedy writers, I think of my adolescence and childhood as incredibly embarrassing,” she says. “I thought it would honestly be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences.”
But Kaling filled the writers room with a staff of young Indian women, and once they began sharing stories, her outlook changed. “It ended up being very cathartic, actually,” she says. “It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone.”
On where the idea came from to give Devi a temporary paralysis brought on by her father’s sudden death
It happened to the brother of my co-creator, Lang Fisher. … When we were talking about the series — there are so many teenage series … about love and sex and all of that — and we were both really interested, because we had parents that died unexpectedly, in talking about grief and how grief manifests itself. And [Lang’s] brother, after her parents got divorced, had about four months when his legs were paralyzed. And then, all of a sudden, they started working again. And they went to every doctor. They went to every psychologist. And it was this mysterious thing. …
Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) becomes temporarily paralyzed after the sudden death of her father in Never Have I Ever.Netflix
In researching it, this is something that happens to people, particularly young people, sometimes after trauma. So that was hard to resist as something to talk about. And after she spoke to her brother and got permission, we felt we wanted to use it in the series, because we thought it was a really fascinating physical manifestation of a teenager’s grief.
On how her experience of being a diversity hire for the writers room of The Office informed her movie, Late Night
[I’m a] proud diversity hire. … I think the [NBC diversity hiring] program was invaluable, and I think that NBC was, at that time, the only one of the major networks that was doing something like that.
At the time, I didn’t think so. At the time, I thought it was really humiliating, actually, because the way that that works is a diversity hire is no cost to the show. So when you get hired and you’re a minority and through that NBC diversity hiring program, you know that NBC is paying the cost of your salary, not the show. So that’s why the show is incentivized to hire minorities. …
There’s this phenomenon that … a writer gets hired for a year and then they only pay your salary the first year. So if you are going to continue on for a second year, they won’t pay your salary anymore. So you’d have this phenomenon on these shows — because other networks started doing the same thing — where you’d have a minority writer who is a staff writer, which is the entry-level writing job, and then the next year there’d be a different staff writer, because to promote them, the show would have to take on the cost of the staff. …
For eight seasons, Homeland has closely tracked real-life events and anxieties. Claire Danes played CIA officer Carrie Mathison — chasing down traitors and terrorists, al-Qaida plots and Russian bad guys. Showrunner Alex Gansa says the show has held a “funhouse mirror” to events in Washington and overseas.
But now, the show drops its finale in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — a terrifying real world plot twist.
“For the first time in the history of the show, we’re being watched as a de-stresser — as something that can lower anxiety,” Gansa says. “And that’s a novel place for us to be.”
On Carrie being an unreliable narrator, especially in an era of so-called “fake news”
One of the things that we always treasure on the show as writers is the ability to get at the truth by dramatizing conflicting opinions about the same event or a same idea — with the idea that there was some truth in the middle somewhere … And obviously that idea has gone out the window in the last four years. It’s just very difficult to find your way to what is real. …
So that became difficult to write about on our show when we when we’re trying to present something that feels real and it feels truthful. And I think the character of Carrie Mathison actually helped in that way because … she is bipolar, and just her ability to hold contradictions in her head is profound — and so she actually was an asset in that mission.
On Carrie not being a traditional hero and whether it was hard for viewers to sympathize with her
I think there are plenty of people that did stop watching because of that. But for us, that was the thrill of writing the show. And Claire is such a compelling actress that, whether or not you find her likable, it’s hard to turn away from her. She is electric on screen and she lived inside this person in a way that you just don’t often see on television.
On the symmetry between the beginning of the series — when Marine Corps sergeant Nicholas Brody is suspected of being a traitor — and the end of the series, when Carrie is suspected of betraying her country
We were certainly not headed there. I’ll tell you, when the idea came to me and that was at the end of Season 7, we were filming a scene on a bridge in which Carrie was being returned from captivity. She’d been in Russian custody and deprived of her medications. So she’d actually gone into a psychotic state and she was being ushered across this bridge back to the Americans and back to Saul … her mentor and boss. And she’s being returned to Saul on the bridge, and she’s so far gone that she doesn’t even recognize him.
And it hit me like a thunderbolt standing there in that cold, Budapest night, that, my God, she’s in exactly the same position that Brody was in — Season 1 being returned after captivity. And it just felt poetic, in that moment, to put her in Brody’s shoes for the last season. So that was really the first big idea for Season 8.
On whether the show — which, when it began, was really a mirror of the moment — will still feel relevant a decade from now
I hope so. But it’s unknowable. You know, it really is. I mean, one thing that we tried to do in the finale is leave the story open-ended in a way that it could live in the imagination of our fans — and I think that’s where it’s going to live most strongly.