David’s Watch Diary: April 2020

Thoughts on Better Call Saul, Devs, Tales From the Loop, and more.

Better Call Saul, Season 5 (AMC)

Just incredible.

The penultimate season of the best show on television reached rarified air, a gobsmacking run of excellence produced by a team of creators who really, really know what they’re doing (the cinematography and editing remains superlative), and performed by a team of actors doing the best work of their careers. I almost want to leave it at that — because what more needs to be said? — but here are three things that jumped out to me over these past few months:

1. The merger of the series’s halves came at the right time. Up until now Better Call Saul has been two distinct shows: The adventures of Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, dodgy lawyer, and The Drug Stuff, starring Mike, Gus, and Nacho. They occasionally overlapped, but the hammer came at the end of this season in “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road” — when Kim turned to Lalo Salamanca for her now-husband’s whereabouts, and put herself fully, terrifyingly in “the game.” With Jimmy now a “friend of the Cartel” and Kim having walked away from her lucrative firm job for a crateful of pro bono cases, Saul has shed the last vestiges of its earlier doc review-driven seasons, and not a moment too soon. This was the agonizing climb up to the top of the roller coaster; next season comes the drop.

2. Tony Dalton is a revelation. It’s a travesty that even if Saul sweeps the Emmys in its final two seasons (including for the perennially underrated Bob Odenkirk), at least one of Jonathan Banks or Giancarlo Esposito will have to finish their runs in the ABQ without hardware. Hopefully, not so of Tony Dalton, whose Lalo is the most fascinating villain in many an age (again — on a show that includes Gus Fring): handsome and charming, but with an undercurrent of pure, uncut menace that can turn on a dime. Dalton’s performance, in his charisma and physicality (he leaps! he crawls! he towers!), is nothing short of mesmerizing every time he’s on screen. If Walt had to deal with him instead of Tuco, Breaking Bad would have been over in four episodes.

3. KIM. WEXLER. Hang on, is Kim the best character in the entire Gilligan-verse? Signs point to yes. As written by Gilligan, Gould, and the rest, and especially as performed by Rhea Seehorn, Kim has proven to be the heart of the show — and where we once feared for her physical safety, watching her start to break bad in “Something Unforgivable” brings a different, even worse, kind of dread. As she tells Howard (poor guy!), she makes her own choices and knows exactly what she’s doing. She and Jimmy and the viewers know that them getting married is a terrible idea, and that getting involved with Jimmy’s side hustles is a harbinger of doom (though Seehorn gets to command the screen in the show-stopping, hall-of-fame final scene of “Bad Choice Road”). But Kim’s not here to be a wet blanket or even Jimmy’s flickering conscience, but an accomplice, tapping into her secret heart of darkness with finger guns a’blazing. Forget whether Kim is still living at the end of next season — will she be able to live with herself?

Devs (Hulu)

This is going to read like an overly critical review of Devs, a show that I must classify as a disappointment despite giving it three stars on craft alone. It’s a tricky thing. I’ll start with the positives: I remain a big fan of Alex Garland, whose work as the director of Ex Machina and Annihilation puts him near the top of the list of Most Interesting Genre Directors. Devs is an intriguing story at a not-altogether unwelcome time, centering on an employee (Soyona Mizuno’s Lily) at a shadowy Silicon Valley company who just wants figure out what really happened to her missing boyfriend, but falls headfirst into an international conspiracy involving a literally world-changing piece of technology. The tech in question — a computer system that can render moments from the past and future in UHD clarity — leads to thought-provoking questions about fate and free will, a theme of countless science fiction classics. Familiar, sure, but with Garland’s visual panache, reliably engaging viewing.

So why didn’t it live up to expectations? A lot of reasons; none more important than the others or deal-breaking on their own, but taken together, make the miniseries less than the sum of its parts. For one thing, I’m not convinced it earned its eight-hour length; its pacing is lugubrious, and doesn’t use the time wisely. I don’t need to understand how the Devs system works (what’s with the dead mouse?), but I’d appreciate better development of its side characters instead of a spy subplot that goes nowhere. The performances are overly subdued, with the exception of the fantastic Alison Pill, Stephen McKinley Henderson (whose dialogue is mostly limited to words of doom), and a gender-busting Cailee Spaeny. We never quite learn what makes Amaya’s security chief tick, but Zach Grenier only ever comes across as a discount Jonathan Banks. Nick Offerman is asked to play distant and suspicious for most of the show until belatedly revealing the pathos within. As for Mizuno herself, electric in Ex Machina (where she danced with Oscar Isaac) and in last year’s Maniac, I believe Garland does her a real disservice here. Her line deliveries aren’t just flat, but infantile, and make most of her scenes a drag — especially when going up against Offerman and Pill.

Devs falls under the category of “I’m glad this got made, I just wish it had been better.” But it does look great (aside from some truly dodgy car CGI) and the score from Geoff Barrow and The Insects is cool and unnerving. It may not have anything new to say or really stick with you when it’s over, but it says it with style. Is that enough right now? I’m not sure.

Tales From the Loop (Amazon)

Besides, if you’re going to go in for multiple hours of heady, troubling science fiction, you’d be much better served turning to Nathaniel Halpern’s Tales From the Loop. Despite its northern setting, this is a much warmer show — as dedicated to exploring the nexus of human foibles and technology as Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, but ultimately more optimistic, even moving. Loop’s tempo is also about as deliberate as Devs’, but instead of death-marching towards its climax, it’s structured more like an anthology with each episode focusing on a different character in this strange community, lightly pulling on different strands that only tie together in the Jodie Foster-helmed finale.

Inspired directly by the melancholy artwork of Swedish painter Simon Stålenhag, Tales From the Loop seems to be set in an alternate reality. The landscape is littered with rusting machines: lonely robots, imposing towers and buoys, a broken-down sphere that echoes the voice of your future self back at you. No explanation is offered for any of this — are they alien in design? Relics of a previous civilization? The cars and televisions of the characters suggest the 1980s, but that’s as far as it goes. This place is The Loop, home of a secretive lab for theoretical physicists; down in the lowest level is an enormous black sphere that gives the facility — and the town — its beating heart.

Each episode puts a new spin on classic ideas: encountering past, future, or parallel versions of yourself; body-switching; freezing time; artificial intelligence. But unlike Devs, the focus isn’t on the technology, but its wielders. Rebecca Hall is the closest the show has to a main character; she is a high-ranking scientist at the lab founded by her father-in-law (Jonathan Pryce); her husband (Paul Schneider) has a mechanical arm; her two sons (Daniel Zolghardi and the tremendous Duncan Joiner) aspire to work at the Loop when they get older, even though they don’t know what happens there. These short stories, with a few exceptions, are largely self-contained, but the best of the bunch are premiere episode “Loop,” “Echo Sphere” (directed by Andrew Stanton), and “Parallel,” which centers on the Loop’s lonely security guard (Ato Essandoh) for a memorable one-off. With its striking cinematography, lovely score co-written by the great Philip Glass himself (alongside Paul Leonard-Morgan), and poignant storytelling, Tales From the Loop is one of the biggest surprises of this bizarre entertainment year.

Quick hits:

  • I came to really enjoy Briarpatch in its last few episodes as it’s labyrinthine plot fully unraveled. Rosario Dawson and Jay Ferguson were terrific together. It was also lucky not to suffer too much in comparison after airing its own “lost in the desert” episode the very same night as Better Call Saul’s. Whether it’s worth your investment depends on your taste for southern-fried noir.
  • Mrs. America is three episodes in on Hulu (er, FX on Hulu), and is ably following in the footsteps of American Crime Story and Fosse/Verdon with style to burn and crackerjack casting. Cate Blanchett is as good as advertised as the monstrous Phillis Schlafly, but Rose Byrne is out here doing yeoman’s work as Gloria Steinem. More on this next month.
  • HBO’s Run, created by Vicky Jones and produced by Phoebe-Waller Bridge, is a crackling half-hour rom-com-thriller that has yet to even hint at where its plot is going, and I’m enjoying it all the more for that. Merritt Wever and Domnhall Gleeson, as old college flames who impulsively jump onto a cross-country train, are electrifying together.
  • If I was completely honest, I’d say that there’s nothing I look forward to week-to-week more than Survivor: Winners at War. My only complaint is that it’s too short. 90-minute episodes, please! My beloved Yul got sent to Edge of Extinction, the last of the “old-school” players to get picked off, so now I’m campaigning for Sophie (having a sneaky great game) [UPDATE: NOOOOOOOOO] and Tony (who is just tremendously entertaining). The strategy is just next-level, man.
  • SPORTS! Chicago Bulls documentary series The Last Dance, just two episodes into its run on ESPN, is fascinating. Not just because of the treasure trove of archive material from their final championship run, but for the petty candor of the interviews with Jordan, Pippen, and the rest. The “traveling cocaine circus?” My God.
  • If you need a big laugh, Middleditch & Schwartz is here for you. Normally if I hear the phrase “experimental long-form improv comedy” I get very worried, but have no fear: these guys know what they’re doing, and are even funnier when they’re breaking. The first episode of three sees Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Ben Schwartz (Parks and Rec) mine their audience for details on a upcoming wedding, and somehow fabricate out of thin air a wild, uninterrupted sketch with a dozen characters, tragedy, and ghosts.
  • Also: What We Do in the Shadows is back! Haley Joel Osment! Benedict Wong! Guillermo! BAT!
  • Also also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine is better than it has any right to be in its seventh season. “Valloweaster” and “Ransom” were great.
  • Killing Eve, though… I don’t know. Now on its third showrunner in three seasons (on purpose, I should note), it’s starting to feel aimless and leaning too hard on the shocks instead of the character work that made it a breakout hit. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are still great, but I’m getting serious Orphan Black vibes here.
  • I watched the first episode of PBS/BBC’s World at War because I’m a sucker for anything WWII that gets decent reviews — but despite its high-profile cast (Sean Bean, Helen Hunt), I found it kind of dull and didn’t go back to it. Oh well.

Looking ahead to… Hugh Jackman in HBO feature Bad Education (4/25)… Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix miniseries, the 1940s-set Hollywood (5/1)… Greg Daniels’s Upload, which looks like The Good Place meets Black Mirror (5/1, Amazon)… Damien Chazelle is doing jazz, again, in The Eddy (5/8, Netflix)… There’s a Choose Your Own Adventure Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special (5/12, Netflix)… Do ya’ll think the Snowpiercer adaptation will be any good? (5/17, TNT)… Sam Esmail’s Homecoming returns, minus Julia Roberts but plus Janelle Monáe (5/22, Amazon)… Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take one last Trip to Greece (5/22)… David Lowery and A24’s Arthurian tale The Green Knight hasn’t been pushed back — yet (5/25)… Steve Carrell stars in Netflix’s Space Force (5/29).

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