Thoughts on The Underground Railroad, Rutherford Falls, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, The Courier, Girls5Eva, and more.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
When it comes to “reviewing” this series, or even attempting to explain why Barry Jenkins’s latest project is so special, words feel inadequate. Or mine do, at least. Please read this or this for more in-depth analysis, both written by someone who’s not just another white guy with a keyboard. I can only do my best in explaining why The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, is the television masterwork of the year — ten hours full of feeling, the weight of history, and images I will never forget.
The first thing you notice are the colors. James Laxton’s cinematography is gorgeous — like the work of a baroque master painter, more real than real. Shadow and light and color play off each other with divine inspiration; every frame of Railroad would be the “money shot” for any other director. It is immaculate. The second thing you notice are the eyes. You are likely familiar with the “Spielberg Face,” deployed when a character is staring at something just off screen with a combination of awe and wonder. Here, like in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, is a showcase for the “Jenkins Gaze,” where many in the story’s Black ensemble instead stare directly into the camera. It is living portraiture, and when combined with thoughtful casting and Caroline Eselin’s impeccable costume design, creates the effect of witnessing history — as though the characters in this fictional story have stepped out of the Smithsonian Archive to look straight into our hearts, and open their own. You can literally feel the weight of it: the strength, dignity, and millions of stories left untold over centuries of terror.
The terror — as brutally depicted on screen as it was in 12 Years a Slave and similar projects — is what makes Railroad difficult to watch. Jenkins wondered himself if this story needed to be brought to the screen, the latest in a growing (and increasingly exploitative) series of films and television series centering on “black trauma.” But the originality of Whitehead’s storytelling, and Jenkins’s cinematic artistry in portraying it, makes it impossible to look away from. He does it with stunning long takes, and God’s-eye views; he does it with anachronistic end-credits needle drops that are always a surprise and always perfect. The further northward Cora (Thuso Mbedu, remarkable) travels from Georgia on the literal iron-and-coal railway that gives the series its name, the more the terms “alternate history” or “magical realism” feel woefully incomplete. Her journey leads her through an allegory of Reconstruction itself. In South Carolina, a seeming haven for “uplift” — complete with a futuristic “skyscraper” — proves untrustworthy; North Carolina is effectively a 24/7 sundown state; Tennessee is a burning hellscape. But there is wonder as well, in the bustling underground train stations and in the freedom that many have been able to find.
For much of the series, Cora is something of a cipher. So much happens to her that she is in a constant reactive state, unwilling to accept the possibility of hope, let alone romance — first from Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who escapes from Georgia alongside her, then later from Royal (the always-welcome William Jackson Harper), a “station manager” from Indiana who hopes to offer her a life free from fear. But on Cora’s heels with Javert-like fervor is the slavecatcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton, giving the whiskey-soaked performance of his life), who appeals to his own warped sense of justice and “the American imperative” as he pursues his prey with a young, free black boy (Chase Dillon) as his apprentice. Jenkins takes the unorthodox step in devoting an entire episode to Ridgeway’s backstory, which at first watch felt like the “this could have been an email” of television episodes. But when all of the patiently-laid thematic track comes to its terminus in episodes eight and nine, the collision has the force of a bomb. It’s not just the fate of Valentine Farm — a utopian Indiana winery built out of “Black love” — at stake, but whether Black Americans will ever truly have a place of their own; in a sense, the concept of Hope itself.
Yet this is ultimately not just another story of trauma, but triumph. The “in spite” of it all, as described by series editor Joi McMillon: that no matter what heartbreak or injustice Cora faces, the act of survival, to live a life of meaning in the cruelest of circumstances, is the victory. That’s why Jenkins chose to tell this story; that’s what the uniformly excellent cast brings to the screen; that’s what every aspect of the production from the set design to Nicholas Brittell’s hauntingly memorable score contributes to; and that’s why it resonates in 2021. That the series only exists at all because of Amazon’s historic corporate largesse feels like a metaphor for something else entirely.
Rutherford Falls (Peacock)
When Parks and Recreation and The Good Place creator Mike Schur puts his imprimatur on a new project, you know it’s going to be worth a look — and Rutherford Falls (now streaming in full on Peacock) is no exception. At first glance the series has the most in common with Parks, as both deliver lighthearted political gamesmanship in a small town, but where the fictional Wamapoke tribe was only one small piece of the former series’ mosaic, Rutherford puts its indigenous population, the Mineshonka, front and center. That begins in the writers’ room, with series co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore) and the talented Native comics she and Schur brought on board — two, Jana Schmieding and Bobby Wilson, are also part of its diverse cast.
If there’s one face you know, it’s Ed Helms (also credited as a series co-creator). He plays Nathan Rutherford, the local museum curator and “mascot” for his distant, lightly-mocked connection to the town’s founding clan. His best friend, Reagan (Schmiedling), mans the Mineshonka cultural center in a forgotten corner of the town’s primary attraction, the Rolling Thunder Casino. The unlikely pair love history, fighting to preserve the memory of their respective cultures, and judging local academic contests. But when a municipal debate about the removal of the founder’s statue becomes a larger scandal, casino CEO Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) senses an opportunity to remake the town for his tribe’s advantage, and the plot is off and running. Yet Rutherford Falls is not a plotty show (nor, to be honest, a joke-heavy show) — rather, a warm and rigorously authentic examination of Native American culture in the 21st century. Schur and Teller Ornelas strike a delicate balance: Terry is an entrepreneur, not a villain; Nathan needs to examine his privilege, but he’s not a buffoon.
Helms writes to his strengths as a sincere dork who is often ignorant of how he’s taking advantage of those closest to him (like his long-suffering teenage assistant, played with relish by Jesse Leigh), but his journey is much less interesting than watching Greyeyes make the most of the part he’s been waiting his entire career for. In the season’s fourth episode, Terry poignantly expounds on the nuances of “tribal capitalism” to NPR reporter Josh (Schitt’s Creek’s Dustin Milligan): “If we want to ensure this tribe has a successful life, one that can maintain our traditions, art and culture, well, it takes power. And unfortunately, power comes from money.” If Peacock decides to renew Rutherford Falls for a second season, that’s a solid foundation to build on.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Netflix)
The experience of watching The Mitchells vs. the Machines is perhaps not too different from actually being in it; imagine driving down a post-apocalyptic highway at top speed with killer robots on your tail, a doofy-looking pug strapped to your hood, “Numa Numa” blasting on the stereo, and everyone around you is screaming like a howler monkey. But on the other hand, I can’t remember the last time my kids laughed this hard. There are so many gags packed into the film that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Directed by Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe (creators of Disney’s Gravity Falls), it owes as much to the influence of producers Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) as it does Chuck Jones — a hyper-caffeinated family cartoon for the internet age.
As for the titular Mitchells, they’re a family of awkward weirdos, forever in the shadow of their more put-together neighbors. Daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker; she loves her little brother Aaron (Rianda, distractingly old until you just kinda forget about it) and her mom (Maya Rudolph), but is becoming more estranged from her tech-ignorant father Rick (Danny McBride) as she gets ready to leave for college. She’s psyched to finally be with “her kind of people,” a better audience for her absurdist short films (usually starring the aforementioned pug, Monchi) than her parents can provide, but her plans get put on hold — first, when Rick insists on driving the entire family across the country to drop her off; second, when a hubristic tech CEO (Eric Andre) accidentally unleashes an army of robots, who proceed to round up humans in translucent boxes before launching them into space at the command of their AI leader (Olivia Colman!). There’s a lot to set up, is what I’m saying.
Yet despite all the chaos on screen — giant Furbys! — Mitchells is incredibly smart about its storytelling. Throwaway gags from the first act get revisited for maximum pathos in the third, and the conflicts between family members are totally convincing. Even better, Rianda & Rowe’s script takes a nuanced view of technology, simultaneously critiquing control-hungry companies while celebrating how a bit of software allows young artists like Katie to come into their own. I also really liked the character design, with facial features in the style of ink and pen drawings; when it collides with the cel animation and graphic elements straight out of Dadaist YouTube, the result is a joyful, colorful cacophony. On our best days, that’s what family feels like.
The Courier (VOD)
This checks most of my Dad Movie boxes: Cold War! Spycraft! Moody cinematography! British accents! While The Courier lacks the artistry of counterparts like Bridge of Spies or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Dominic Cooke’s film is more than serviceable, thanks to a compelling central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch — but not much more. If it had been made three or four decades ago, it’d still be looping indefinitely on cable. Instead, partially thanks to COVID but also to the film’s own inability to distinguish itself, it’s likely destined to be forgotten.
Don’t let that entirely put you off, however, especially if the synopsis grabs you. I actually wasn’t that familiar with the story of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky before seeing the film, despite it being one of the highest-profile espionage tales of the 20th Century, so The Courier managed to provide plenty of intrigue and surprise — well, surprise is probably a strong word; more like “grimly nodding along as the inevitable transpires.” In any case, I won’t spoil it for you either, American reader, except the setup: gregarious British industrialist Wynne (Cumberbatch) finds himself thrust into the heart of the Cold War when his government asks him to ferry documents from a high-ranking Soviet official (Merab Ninidze), eventually thrusting both men into pivotal roles in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wynne, who has little interest in international affairs if they don’t affect his company’s bottom line, is terrified at the prospect of tangling with the Russians on their home turf, but accepts the mission as his patriotic duty, straining his marriage (with Jessie Buckley, in a relatively thankless role) as well as his own sanity.
Cooke, working from a script by Tom O’Connor, has his work cut out for him in making extended montages of men quietly exchanging folders and microfilm seem thrilling, so he wisely doesn’t try very hard. Instead, he focuses on the psychology of these two men — why they would take this risk, and how far they’re willing to go to save the world from nuclear war. Cumberbatch, sporting a thin mustache and eyes barely veiling Wynne’s weakness and self-doubt, is effective as the ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. It was vital to his own survival that he appear as something of a Mr. Bean figure, naively bumbling through Moscow with no knowledge of what he was a party to; it’s a challenge to square that with Cumberbatch’s innate gravitas, but the actor delivers, especially in the wrenching final reels. Yet, even from this British production, I would have appreciated equal time for Ninidze as the world-weary Penkovsky; his scenes with Cumberbatch crackle with life as they graduate from cautious allies to true friends, and his sense of isolation is palpable. The imbalance is revealed by the film’s original title: Ironbark, Penkovosky’s code name. But the film’s not really about him, is it?
You can see Tina Fey & Robert Carlock’s fingerprints all over Girls5Eva, but it’s Meredith Scardino (who worked on the pair’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) who primarily brought UKS and 30 Rock‘s spiritual successor to life. 5Eva maintains the same highly-tuned joke engine and magically absurd vision of New York City: it’s weird, it’s hyperspecific, and in service of its washed-up pop star protagonists, features more Jeff Richmond earworms than any show before it. Best of all, it’s a showcase for stars Sara Barellies, Busy Phillips, Paula Pell, and Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry, who attack lyrics like “We’re dream girlfriends, ‘cause our dads are dead” with gonzo commitment.
The setup: After an up-and-coming rapper samples an old Girls5Eva hit in one of his own, the former members of the group sense the chance for a comeback to rejuvenate their stagnant lives. Dawn (Barellies) works in her brother’s restaurant in Queens; Wickie (Goldsberry) is a flight attendant scraping for social media relevance; Summer’s (Phillips) marriage to former boy-bander Kev (Andrew Rannells) is on the rocks. Gloria (Pell, the only actress who doesn’t play her younger self), an accomplished dentist, has successfully reinvented herself in the interim, but a second chance at fame — hopefully, this time without flagrantly problematic lyrics — is too much to resist, and the quartet joyfully embarks on a journey of (re)self-discovery involving a Swedish lyricist (Stephen Colbert), an invisible piano, a hologram of their late fifth member (Ashley Park), and other assorted daffiness. Fey herself even shows up as a hallucinated Dolly Parton. It’s a raucously delightful time, and I’ll never look at Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler the same way again.
One sequence stands above the rest, however, and it’s worth spoiling: In the series’s third episode, Dawn worries that reuniting the group will lead to her young son becoming an only child, which is illustrated by a pitch-perfect Simon & Garfunkel homage called “New York Lonely Boy” where the Milk Carton Kids plaintively sing of little misters listening to NPR, buying fountain pens, and being best friends with their doorman. Actually, just watch it, and watch Girls5Eva.
- Update: Mythic Quest is a few episodes into its second season on Apple TV+, and is already realizing its full potential by mixing and matching character groupings and giving every storyline a dose of heart. Also, it’s hilarious. More next month.
- After a few weeks of praise from critics I trust, we got on board with Hacks (HBO Max), and it’s biting and clever and super entertaining. Jean Smart rules. Again, more next month.
- The Bad Batch (Disney+) is Dave Filoni’s latest animated Star Wars series — this one set shortly after the end of The Clone Wars, following a rag-tag group of clones with busted inhibitor chips and no love for the new Empire. It’s fun, but relatively lightweight, and I’m getting an odd feeling that they’re working extra hard to make Rise of Skywalker‘s Palpa-clones make sense.
- Our Top Chef journey has continued at breakneck speed over the past month. We finished the All-Star Season 17 (yay Melissa!) before jumping down to the Texas-set Season 9, which was basically night and day with all the bullying and back-biting. Even if the right chef won in the end, it’s clear that the competition series has evolved dramatically since then. Season 15 (Colorado) was also incredibly satisfying, and with the current Portland season we’re rooting hardest for Shota and Sara (Last Chance Kitchen be damned!).
- Meanwhile, we finished Justified S4 since my last post, which was — of course — excellent, especially the back half of the season. “Decoy” might be my favorite episode to date? Please don’t respond to this, but anything happens to Art, I’ll riot.
Looking ahead to… Time-hopping shenanigans ensue in Loki, which looks absolutely delightful (6/9, Disney+)… the long-awaited In the Heights adaptation aims to be the Movie of the Summer (6/11, HBO Max & in theaters)… Lupin returns to Netflix for the second half of its inaugural season (6/11)… Pixar’s Luca, a new original that is definitely not Call Me By Your Name with fish people, comes exclusively to Disney Plus (6/18)… Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy plays a vengeful sitcom wife on meta-dramedy Kevin Can F*** Himself (6/20, AMC).