Thoughts on Fosse/Verdon, Avengers: Endgame, What We Do in the Shadows, Barry, and a dozen other things.
I didn’t do an April post for two reasons: First; Game of Thrones was keeping me pretty busy; Second, all the other shows I wanted to write about were only just starting and I wanted to wait until I’d seen more of them. So that means this one is going to be pretty massive. You’re welcome!
There was some resistance to Fosse/Verdon when it debuted, and it wasn’t without cause. In 2019, is there really an appetite for a series about a self-destructive, philandering, emotionally abusive artist, no matter how successful or acclaimed? It’s a fair question. Even I wasn’t sure. Bob Fosse was iconic, a titan. He won the industry’s triple crown in 1973 (for directing Cabaret, Pippin on Broadway, and a Liza Minelli TV special), an insane feat that will likely never be repeated. His influence as a choreographer speaks for itself. Fosse/Verdon, produced by the team behind Hamilton, knows this. It also knows that Fosse was a narcissist who left chaos and heartbreak in his wake. He was a visionary and a genius, but like too many other visionary geniuses, he got away with unconscionable behavior — to the point where he used his seminal film All That Jazz to exorcise his own demons in the open, two extraordinary hours of Fosse dunking on himself.
So what sets the series apart isn’t the attention it gives to Bob, but to the other half of the title: Tony-winning performer and Fosse’s muse/ex-wife/creative life partner Gwen Verdon. Astonishingly embodied by Michelle Williams (Sam Rockwell is extremely good as Fosse, but Williams is on another planet entirely), Gwen’s story makes a vital counterpoint to Bob’s: as his star rises, hers falls; as he cycles from glory to immolation and back again, she has to keep it all together not just for their daughter’s sake, but for their own. Every moment of her life she is performing the role of GWEN VERDON!, and those moments — about to pick up the phone, waiting for the elevator doors to open — where we see just behind the curtain are some of the show’s most powerful. Fascinatingly, after Bob’s death in 1987, no one would work harder to preserve his legacy.
The show’s style, set forth in the premiere by Thomas Kail (a Tony and Emmy-winner himself), leaps back and forth in its own version of “Fosse Time”; when the editing is at its most syncopated, it functions as its own kind of transcendent choreography. This reached a dizzying peak in last night’s troubling “All I Care About Is Love,” which featured Fosse, recovering from (his first) heart surgery, imagining himself doing Lenny-style stand-up on his traumatic childhood to an invisible audience, the cutting building to a mad crescendo.
Fans of Fosse’s work can delight in the faithful recreations of everything from Damn Yankees to Chicago, but also the twisty recycling of tunes for maximum emotional impact, like Gwen singing Sweet Charity’s “Where Am I Going?” at Bob’s beachside retreat, or Bob hallucinating Gwen and the Pippin cast pushing him to suicide through a medley from the show. Naturalistic supporting turns from Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky and Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking add both humor and heart. With its remarkable show-biz craft, powerful characterizations, and its way of making me dive down a research rabbit hole after every episode, Fosse/Verdon is in pole position for my favorite show of 2019.
I’m assuming everyone who cares about spoilers has seen it by now, so I’m going to forge ahead here: I thought it was sensational, and also a lot of nonsense, but that also didn’t matter? I had a wonderful time. I was moved in ways I didn’t expect to be. Even my kids were so enthralled they never asked to go to the bathroom. Endgame is an astonishing cinematic achievement for wrapping up an over 20-film saga in a satisfying (if messy) bow. And reader, I screamed out loud when Captain America picked up the hammer.
This isn’t really a review, obviously. Please read Manu’s terrific essay for a further discussion on its themes of shared grief and sacrifice. Whatever the film’s flaws, I’m just happy to bask in Kevin Feige, the Russos and company actually pulling it off. I admire the patience of the first hour’s extended Leftovers riff as much as the bonkers “time heist” of the second hour and the operatic climax of the third. Endgame is an overwhelming but ultimately appropriate reward for over a decade of fandom, and a worthy sendoff for both Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans, even if the directors and writers Markus & McFeely can’t agree on what happened to the latter. (I take the Russos’ side that he was on a separate timeline. I don’t buy Cap sitting out through the decades as bad things happened. I’d love to know how he put all the stones back, though.)
I do think Infinity War is a better film, but I’ll be returning to Endgame much more often: For BannerHulk, for “On your left,” for Nebula(!), for Paul Rudd, for all of it.
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
You don’t need to have seen Taiki Waititi’s 2014 droll cult classic to fully enjoy this series, ported across the Pacific and developed by Waititi and original star Jemaine Clement. What We Do in the Shadows could be classified as a “hangout comedy” like New Girl or Happy Endings, except that the characters dealing with heightened everyday problems are vampires in Staten Island. Not only is it screamingly funny (and cleverly gory!), it even breathes new life into the stale mockumentary format by frequently making the poor film crew into victims of the assorted neighborhood ghouls.
Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry, perfectly typecast as a blowhard) have been living together for centuries with the dream of conquering the New World for the vampire race, but haven’t gotten much farther than a couple of blocks. They are aided by Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who longs for Nandor to finally fulfill his promise of making him one of them (Novak’s pronunciation of “Guillermo” is one of the series steady joys). But the breakout character is Mark Proksch’s Colin Robinson, an “energy vampire” who is always referred to by his full name and sucks the life out of every room just through agonizing small talk.
So far this season the vamps have feuded with werewolves (lifting the most memorable sequence from Waititi’s film), been trapped inside an Animal Control facility (thanks to Laszlo, who has a goofy habit of yelling “BAT!” right before he transforms), and taken their ancient master out for a deadly night on the town. But the most delightful half-hour of 2019 was last week’s “The Trial,” which featured a Vampire Council made up of Hollywood actors as themselves as their former fanged characters: Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Reubens, Danny Trejo, and even Wesley Snipes (over Skype!). It was, to wit, bloody hilarious. FX has already renewed it for a second season. Sink your teeth into it.
Our own Brian Schroeder is going to have a lot more on this after next week’s season finale (he’s been literally threatening to fight everyone who isn’t watching it), so look for that. For my part, first I should apologize to Bill Hader and Alec Berg, because as much as I loved the first season, I was on record saying that I didn’t want another. I didn’t think they could keep it going; I thought the ending was perfect on its own, and I didn’t think they could plausibly drag out Barry keeping his hitman exploits secret for long. It turns out that I was wrong: Barry Season 2 is every bit as good, perhaps better, because instead of taking the familiar “Am I a good man?” path, we already know that he’s not, and are waiting for Barry to realize it himself.
Hader’s performance has taken on added complexity this season, but others are benefitting from this season’s broader focus — no one more than Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank, the relentlessly positive center of a subplot about LA’s warring crime syndicates that only occasionally intersects with Barry. Sarah Goldberg was also given an extraordinary moment in this week’s “The Audition” — an extended single-take monologue where all of her creative and personal frustration comes devastatingly to the fore.
All of that would be enough without “ronny/lily,” a tour de force for Hader (who also directs), Stephen Root, and an equally hilarious and frightening Jessie Giacomazzi as the feral daughter of one of Barry’s targets. It’s a tremendous episode of television, a screwball short story that plays like the Coen brothers directing Buster Keaton, and on its own elevates Barry from “This is a great show” to “Holy hell, did you see this?”
- Veep ended its illustrious, foul-mouthed run this week, and I’ll probably always regret not giving it more attention on this site. At a certain point I just ran out of things to say; it was so consistently, gasp-ingly funny, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the greatest comedic actress of all time, and that is that. But I enjoyed this final season, which pulled more from our satire-proof reality to be meaner than ever.
- HBO’s Chernobyl is a hell of a miniseries and you should be watching it. I’ll have a lot more to say next month. The second episode was absolutely enthralling.
- If my fears about Barry’s second season proved unfounded, Killing Eve‘s has delivered about what I expected. Without Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unique voice behind the scenes (apparently the plan is to hand it off to a new showrunner every year), the series is still fun — and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are ridiculously good — but it’s not as exciting, or as essential. However, it’s not as mythology-heavy, either, which actually bodes better for its longevity than, say, Orphan Black.
- I watched Knock Down the House on Netflix, which is known mainly as “The AOC Documentary.” I couldn’t be more impressed by Ocasio-Cortez’s intelligence and poise (the footage from election night would move even her critics), but the film also follows three other women making doomed congressional bids, and their stories create an inspiring portrait of idealism and activism, even — or especially — in failure.
- The Les Miserables miniseries on PBS is not the musical, but an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, and that could be very good or very bad news for you, but either way I’m pleased to report that it’s terrific. Most impressive is Dominic West as Valjean, who imbues every stage of the convict’s journey with aching humanity. David Oyelowo plays immovable object Javert with self-righteous gravitas.
- Our Planet was Netflix’s swing at a BBC Nature-style series, and they even hired the same production team and the irreplaceable David Attenborough just to make sure they got it right. And it’s as grand and beautiful as Planet Earth, Life, and the rest, with an added chilling effect: Each episode focuses on a different ecosystem, and what humans are on the verge of erasing within it.
- I love Survivor, and I don’t care who knows it. This latest season (“Edge of Extinction”) isn’t as memorable as some of its 37(!) others, but it did deliver one absolutely bugnuts tribal council where the castaways started a game of musical chairs, breaking and re-forming in a half-dozen different temporary alliances right in front a bewildered Jeff Probst. I still don’t fully understand what happened, but I was mesmerized.
- As you know, I’ve written about Game of Thrones every week, but here’s my thousand-foot view: It’s hard to think of a show where the quality of the filmmaking and the storytelling have been so divergent. For every astonishing visual or action beat, there’s been a baffling writing choice. Keep an eye out for our annual roundtable when the ash has settled.
- I wrote about Documentary Now! in March when it was halfway through its season, so I’d be remiss not to mention how it wrapped things up — especially “Searching For Mr. Larson,” an acidic deconstruction of celebrity-chasing documentarians who make their stories all about themselves, and 30 for 30 riff “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” which starred Michael C. Hall as a legendary bowler looking for one more win in a resuscitated national league. Great, great stuff.
- Amy Poehler’s feature directorial debut Wine Country, now on Netflix, is fine. But it would probably be a lot more memorable if it was a documentary about these Saturday Night Live ladies (including Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch) having a holiday in Napa Valley as themselves, not as characters ad-libbing their way through worn sitcom plots. Paula Pell was great, though.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine has fully entrenched itself in that latter-day Parks zone where every episode is like walking into a hug. Characters earn laughs just for showing up and no inter-squad conflict can’t be overcome within 22 minutes. You know what? I’m perfectly okay with that.
- So I finally watched a John Wick. I know, I know. And I liked it! It was exciting! Ring the bells for the Keanussance! I plan to watch the second film soon! Okay?
- On my radar for next time: Hulu’s Catch-22, Amazon’s Good Omens, Netflix’s When They See Us, and, I don’t know, Men in Black International?