TV: River

RiverIt’s not often I’ll watch a great season of television only to hope it doesn’t get renewed. But that’s precisely my reaction to River, a grim but endearing British crime series that ends so perfectly that to extend it further would do it a disservice. It’s the story of Detective Inspector John River (Stellan Skarsgård), a peculiar but effective London police officer who has a high clearance rate…and who speaks regularly to the voices in his head. River’s mental illness makes life a challenge in the best of times, but these times are worse than usual: his partner Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), who for many years helped him cope with his condition, was murdered right in front of him. River’s obsessed with solving the mystery of her death, but with his judgement impaired by grief and his condition more exposed than usual, he may not last long enough in his job to realize that goal. However with the patient help of his new partner Ira (Adeel Akhtar), his superior Chrissie (Lesley Manville), and his therapist Rosa (Georgina Rich), he transcends his issues to delve into Stevie’s past to unearth the circumstances that led to her grizzly end — all while visions of her, and of other dead people, haunt his every waking moment.

River is based largely around the visual spectacle of its protagonist having conversations with dead people — an idea that goes back at least as far as other shows that deal with grief, like Six Feet Under and Rescue Me. But writer/creator Abi Morgan seems more mindful of the mental health issues involved than most, and handles River’s plight sensitively. River’s not a great detective because he’s ill, but despite it, and his journey is very much one of coping with a condition, a struggle greatly intensified by grief. It’s a unique look at the plight of an outsider, and there’s another layer to that; River’s an immigrant. Even though he’s lived in London for most of his life, his Swedish upbringing informs his view of the world — and adds another layer of uncomfortable pretense to his existence. He doesn’t belong, and knows he doesn’t belong, and sees the world — and ultimately the case — in a different light because of it. All these circumstances combine in a penetrating character study.

But it’s also an absorbing mystery. Stevie’s brutal death, replaying mercilessly on CCTV footage throughout, is worthy of a trigger warning, but the script brilliantly builds intrigue around that horrible moment. Even as we’re getting to know River, we’re getting to know Stevie…but only through River’s visions and recollections. Her mysterious death has filled him with doubts, and he’s not sure he’s imagining the real Stevie, or creating uncomfortable new versions of her.

It makes for gripping viewing, the intelligently detailed script enhanced by terrific performances from the two leads. Skarsgård’s subdued, touching persona is ingratiating, and Walker provides lively, winning support; together they share an entrancing chemistry that only grows as the mystery progresses. Their relationship in particular is worth the price of admission, sad and bleak, but also charming and beautiful. And River’s search for closure ends on just the right note: hopeful, but realistic, and very, very satisfying.

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TV: Fargo (Season 2)

fargo 2Season one of Fargo was damn near a comic noir masterpiece, but it turns out this show has another gear, and season two shifts right the hell into it. Journeying back to the late 1970s, it delves into the past of the Solverson family to further flesh out the complex criminal landscape of the series’ bizarre world. The results are explosive, and evolve the show into a decades-spanning chronicle of legendary “false crime,” a sideways secret history of the upper midwest.

In season one, retired policeman Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) makes several dark references to a traumatic, violent series of long-ago events in Sioux Falls. Season two dramatizes these events, which turn out to be even bloodier and stranger than he ever intimated. The primary conflict involves the Gerhardt family, a minor organized crime operation controlling distribution from their modest Fargo HQ. The Gerhardt criminal empire has lasted for decades, but their territory is jeopardized when patriarch Otto (Michael Hogan) has a stroke. Left to keep the business running are his wife Floyd (Jean Smart) and three sons: the raging Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), the simmering Bear (Angus Sampson), and the runt of the litter, Rye (Kieran Culkin). As if losing Otto weren’t enough, the Gerhardts are about to be confronted by the Kansas City mafia — represented by enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) — who want to absorb their business. Their struggle is further complicated by Rye’s ill-fated attempt to prove himself: taking on a solo mission to intimidate a judge, he sets loose a bloody chain of events that entangles the saddest married couple of all time, Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons). As the mayhem escalates into all-out war between vying criminal organizations, the law enforcement mess falls largely to young Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson, doing an exceptional job channeling Carradine’s character) and his father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson).

As with the previous season, Fargo’s second year is a gripping, brilliantly suspenseful, bloody spectacle, mitigating its pitch-black subject matter with incongruous humor and the kind-hearted behavior of its heroes — in this case, Solverson, Larsson, and their created family, which includes Lou’s stoic wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) and a boozing local barrister, Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman, in brilliant comic form). The masterful world-building continues here as well, the first season’s legacy given additional color by the period detail: the specter of Viet Nam hangs over the proceedings, even as the Reagan era looms, and these greater circumstances inform both the characters and the themes.

And it’s thematically, I think, that season two rises above its predecessor. The first season often felt like standard antihero fare, glorifying the exploits of its criminal element. While that sense doesn’t entirely vanish in season two, it feels like part of a greater tapestry, a more thorough social critique. If season one examined the criminal hiding inside us, season two is more interested in the environment that inspires that criminal urge: the circumstances that reward corruption, the value systems that encourage me-first attitudes, striving for notoreity, and the desperate need to win at all costs. This is most noticeable in the tragically clueless Blumquist couple, but also in the aspirations of the criminals. By critiquing the greedy, economic empire-building of the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob, Fargo is also critiquing the American dream — a dream that, at this point in history, is about to be irrevocably mutated by Reaganism. If that message is occasionally on the nose in the season finale, it still moves the show into strong new thematic territory.

Season two also addresses another of my complaints: it provides strong, memorable female characters. Aside from Dunst’s ditzy, accidental criminal and Smart’s steely mob boss, season two gives us Milioti’s Betsy, struggling to cope with a bleak cancer diagnosis; Dodd’s treacherous daughter Simone (Rachel Keller); Peggy’s closeted lesbian friend Constance (Elizabeth Marvel); and Ed’s teenaged bookworm co-worker Noreen (Emily Haine). The women have more agency and depth, and the sexism that felt like accidental subtext in season one is called out and addressed. Yes, the playing field is still tilted male, driven largely by the violent subject matter; but the improvement is significant.

Be forewarned: this season of Fargo is an intense bloodbath. But it’s also a gripping, powerful, darkly funny entertainment full of propulsive narrative, confident filmic craft, and at least one brilliant WTF moment. Proving Fargo has more and different types of stories tell, season two builds impressively on the franchise legacy, and has pushed the series well up the charts on my all-time favorites list.

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Previously, on Everything (Season 2)

I’ve officially converted to bingewatching, but there are still a handful of series I follow every week in real-time — usually shows Jenn and I watch together. Here’s this year’s wrap-up:

Agent CarterAgent Carter, Season 2. In addition to being a refreshingly female-led Marvel property, the first season of this retro adventure was light, promising fun with a winning cast. Alas it backslides miserably in its second year, as Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and her spy colleagues relocate from New York to Los Angeles. A scattered plot involving a nefarious conspiracy to harness shady superscience introduces an interesting villain (Whitney Frost, portrayed capably by Wynn Everett), but there’s not much else to recommend its storyline, which starts out mediocre before laying on the twee and getting just plain bad. Atwell’s charms are powerful, but not powerful enough to save this show, which continues to waste the likeable James D’Arcy and the criminally under-utilized Enver Gjokaj. Perhaps ts biggest flaw is that it keeps telling us how awesome these spies are, without showing them being awesome; instead, they bumble awkwardly through each clumsy operation at the whims of the requisite story beats and plot coupons. An extremely disappointing end for a series that never realized its potential. D-

 b99 3Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 3. I’ve hailed this show as the new Parks & Recreation, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine seriously loses its mojo in year three. Not only does it fail to build in the same heart-grabbing way as Parks & Rec, but its perfect comic timing and balanced ensemble feel starts to slip. Andy Samberg’s manboy act is overplayed at the expense of the other cast members, especially Amy (Melissa Fumero) and Terry (Terry Crews). Only the stellar deadpanning of Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) saved this season for me, which is full of forgettable episodes and trying-too-hard gags. I’m hopeful they can turn it around next season, but this one was disappointing. C-

 goodwife-s7ep7The Good Wife, Season 7. The final year of this venerable CBS legal drama was far from perfect: the presidential race of Peter Florrick (Christopher Noth) was a reach, and the storylines at Lockhart, Agos, and Lee — particularly the handling of Diane (Christine Baranski) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) — were less than sure-handed. Flaws aside, though, The Good Wife remained one of the classiest, funniest, and most engrossing network shows on TV, even in this, its weakest year. Highlights included two stellar new characters — Alicia’s new friend and colleague Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) and hilariously suave investigator Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — and plenty of showy material for the great Alan Cumming, whose Eli Gold belongs in the Supporting Character Hall of Fame. But the year succeeds primarily as a send-off showcase for Julianna Margulies: Alicia, gradually running out of fucks to give, is more fun than ever as her complex story comes full circle — and delivers a surprising final message. Season seven never reaches the heights of the early days, and the finale opts deliberately for an ugly, hard landing rather than a truly satisfying one; I respect the aim, but not the execution. That said the destination didn’t ruin the journey for me; I’ll still miss this world and its characters immensely. B-

 jane 2Jane the Virgin, Season 2. There are so many ways this show just isn’t in my wheelhouse. Sometimes it’s too twee, sometimes too melodramatic, and the storylines involving Jane’s writing career and her son leave me cold. But Jane the Virgin, an effervescent comedy-drama full of zany telenovela twists and winking metahumor, is still one of the most refreshingly progressive and well messaged shows on television. If Rogelio (Jaime Camil) stole the show in the first season — and he remains in fine form — this year it’s Petra (Yael Grobglas) who breaks out. I was expecting some premise fatigue in season two, but it didn’t happen; indeed, the show got stronger, continuing to charm and surprise on a regular basis. A-

iZombie 2iZombie, Season 2. In an era when great first seasons tend to be followed by rushed, iffy second years, iZombie is a rarity: not only does it dodge the sophomore slump, it improves dramatically. The adventures of Liv Moore (Rose McIver), a zombie doctor who solves murders by eating the brains and absorbing the memories of the victims, escalate impressively in the second year. This show is full of witty dialogue and creative cases that work episodically even as they advance the series’ greater, involved story arcs. David Anders and Steven Weber provide scenery-chewing villainy, but the real hook in season two is the increasing camaraderie of Liv and her circle of friends and colleagues: her crime-solving partner Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), her hilarious ex Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley), her best friend Peyton Charles (Aly Michalka), and her inimitable boss, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli). Major and Ravi both have exceptional comic years, and the zombie underworld storylines ramp up effectively to a pair of season-ending episodes that stick the landing brilliantly. It will be interesting to see whether they can sustain this level of quality into season three. A

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Film: After the Dark

afterthedarkAs idea pieces go, After the Dark (2013) has more money and polish than the usual indie fare, and while ultimately it falls prey to similar flaws, it’s an interesting and attractive film. In Jakarta, a class full of exceptional students turns up for the last day of philosophy class, run by the dashing Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy). Zimit has one last thought experiment to run past his class: an apocalypse scenario. The students are asked to imagine a world-ending cataclysm, during which they find a bunker that can sustain ten people long enough for the radiation to clear; given random professions, they must decide amongst themselves, using ruthless logic, which of them should be saved for th betterment of the human race. As the dark exercise progresses, however, Zimit’s methods and motives come into question, and the students — led by the class’s brightest student, Petra (Sophie Lowe) — begin to see through and subvert the experiment.

At first After the Dark looks like it’s going to be a dialogue-based bottle show in the vein of Twelve Angry Men or, more on point, the thematicallyy similar Circle. But while conversation drives the plot, the film soon strays from the classroom setting to strikingly dramatize the class’s imaginings. Solid effects, stunning Indonesian scenery, and a polished cinematic style, not to mention an absurdly attractive and diverse cast, make the film a visual feast. But it succeeds on the strength of its ideas, which are somewhat pretentious, but also clever and at times movingly realized. Alas, the mystique is dispelled by some glaring imperfections. The ultimate message is telegraphed, and Lowe’s dreamy expressions and flat affect don’t entirely sell her as the smartest person in the room. But worse are the final scenes, a pair of ill-conceived codas that step rather clumsily on the film’s carefully engineered mood and tone — first with incongruous comedy, then with over-explicated and unnecessary character motivation. It’s unfortunate, because up until then the film casts an agreeable spell, and more satisfying closure was merely a grace note away.

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TV: UnREAL (Season 1)

UnREALJust in case the ridiculous artifice of reality television hasn’t gotten its comeuppance yet, here comes UnREAL, an unforgiving gut-punch of a drama that goes behind the scenes of a fictional Bachelor-style competition show. It’s a brutal, cringeworthy take-down of Hollywood awfulness, if not also a thinly veiled condemnation of the uglier side of the American dream. As with reality TV itself, there are complex machinations at work underneath the surface of this one.

Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is a producer for the long-running reality series Everlasting, in which a roster of attractive women vie for the affections of a wealthy, eligible bachelor. Returning for the new season in the wake of an epic, onscreen meltdown the previous year, Rachel is (to say the least) conflicted about her work; “producing” on Everlasting basically means ruthlessly manipulating the contestants in order to generate drama. But she has no choice: she’s weighed down with debt, and pinned under the blackmailing thumb of the show’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), who knows that Rachel’s mastery of mindfuckery translates into high ratings. Rachel’s first major task is to prevent the new season’s bachelor, charming British playboy Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), from flouncing off the set. The interaction begins a relationship that may turn the show upside down, if not transform Rachel’s view of what she wants out of life.

Initially UnREAL presents like Burning Love for masochists — a painful glimpse at a world full of Hollywood sociopaths, where every moral compass in broken. But as the season advances, it becomes an increasingly astute critique of American competition culture, where nothing matters but getting what you want, regardless of the consequences. The message is consistently scathing, but offset at times by flashes of goodness that reveal themselves through the fog of ruthless ambition. This is drawn out most clearly in the character of Faith (Breeda Wool), an awkward Christian virgin brought onto the show for the express purpose of being publicly humiliated. But goodness is also just barely detectable under the thick skins of Rachel and Quinn, two of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen on television. Appleby and Zimmer are sensational as psychologically damaged yet resilient players in a cut-throat, media-twisted landscape. And both brilliantly exude an aura usually reserved for male actors: antihero charisma. Even as you deplore their methods, you sympathize with their positions,  and their behavior jerks you back and forth over the line between wanting them to succeed and knowing they deserve to fail. This penetrating element of character study, combined with the twisty narrative and raw social commentary, makes for a riveting season of television, and it all culminates in a clever finale that possesses a unique, fucked-up elegance. Hard to watch at times, but just as hard to look away.

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Film: Captain America: Civil War

Civil_War_Final_PosterBoasting the same creative team as its outstanding predecessor, Captain America: Civil War (2016) once again centers on a perfectly realized hero, but this time surrounds him with an army of major characters from every corner of the MCU, pitching them into memorable conflict. Even with sky-high expectations, this movie totally delivers, a wildly entertaining romp that further strengthens Cap’s legacy as Marvel’s most accomplished and consistent franchise.

In the wake of the roster shakeup at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) now leads a new team, and Civil War opens with them on assignment, tracking the nefarious Rumlow (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria. Alas, the operation results in another highly public case of tragic, collateral damage — and for the United Nations, it’s a tragedy too far. Thus the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement to bring the Avengers under stricter government control, since their track record of costly catastrophes has called their very efficacy into question. Cap strongly disagrees with the Accords, but they’re just as strenuously supported by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose fraught superhero career as Iron Man has led him to see the Avengers’ exploits in a negative light. With Cap and Tony rallying the factions, a polarizing rift forms in the Avengers, which grows more serious when Cap gets wind of a criminal conspiracy the Accords may prevent him from pursuing. He forms a team of like-minded Avengers to secretly pursue the case — only to come up against Tony’s opposing team, who are just as determined to sideline Cap and his rogue allies.

With an absurdly large cast to cram into the proceedings and so many moving parts to the plot, Captain America: Civil War could have been a flailing kludge, but instead it’s an impressive Rube Goldberg contraption, layering coherent plot and interesting themes atop its kinetic, eye-popping spectacle. When it comes to vision, theme, and execution, I still believe Winter Soldier is the superior film, but Civil War is a worthy extension of those ideas, and also finally examines a heretofore unspoken elephant in the MCU’s room: collateral damage. It’s a gripping debate the audience should be (and has been) asking, not to mention a timely reflection of the state of the union, and the script handles it intelligently. Mercifully the opposing sides don’t square off arbitrarily; thoughtful arguments and character motives inform the touchy debate, and the film remains true to the characters’ histories and personalities. It makes for legitimate, organic conflict, and the fact that we’re invested in characters on both sides lends emotional weight to the resulting clash. Which isn’t to say this isn’t a fun film — it’s chock full of humor, both verbal and visual. But, again like Winter Soldier, serious themes bubble along under the wisecracks and flying fists.

Of course, for me the true joy of the MCU has always been the characters. These icons are lodged in my brain from many, many years of comic fandom, and it’s been terrific to see them brought to live-action life, at times more effectively than the source material. Civil War is particularly satisfying on this score. Chris Evans, of course, is the key, and I’m still impressed with how he’s perfected what could easily have been two-dimensional patriot, turning him into arguably the MCU’s most important presence. Downey Jr.’s snarky, silver-tongued Tony Stark is as effective as ever, and while sometimes the story seems overly heavy with his tedious manpain, his inner conflict — guilty conscience warring with massive ego — makes him the perfect and necessary foil to Cap’s earnest selflessness. Black Widow’s role in the proceedings feels somewhat reduced this time, but Scarlett Johansson once again proves herself the ensemble’s unsung hero, serving here as a middle-ground voice between two stubborn positions. Her superstar presence seems effortless, and Black Widow’s shifty perspective and wicked-cool fighting style has never been rendered so effectively. (Where the hell is her solo movie?)

There are further waves of terrific support, familiar from earlier movies. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) was one of the best things about Winter Soldier, and Civil War continues to deploy him winningly, as well as adding some neat bells and whistles to his armory. His humorous rivalry with Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — pitting Cap’s oldest best friend against his newest one — is a riot. I’ve never been much of a Bucky Barnes fan, but Winter Soldier serves an important story function and Stan more or less hits the right notes, considering his character is written as a haunted cipher. The film also imports War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany), to varying effect. Best are perhaps Scarlet Witch and the Vision, fleshed out nicely by Olsen and Bettany after their rushed Age of Ultron intros; here they begin to develop a quirky, awkward rapport, as befits their unlikely history in the books. Alas, Cheadle is woefully underutilized, while Renner merely makes for a passable Hawkeye, whose presence felt forced. I’m still disappointed that Joss Whedon imported the Ultimates version of Hawkeye instead of the more fun original Hawkeye; it will always feel like we have a slightly broken version of my favorite character. That said, I’d rather have this Hawkeye than no Hawkeye at all, and there’s at least a nice, spirited argument between Hawkeye and Stark that made me nostalgic for the old hothead archer in the goofy purple suit. Finally, there’s motherfucking Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), fresh from his breezy solo film. Rudd is again hilarious, easily the funniest presence in a film full of tough competition. Ant-Man is turning out to be a wonderfully cinematic hero, his outlandish powers and chaotic fighting style bringing consistent laughs and brilliant action setpieces to the table. I wasn’t expecting to like him so much in this context, but he turned out to be a major highlight.

Two new characters, however, truly transform the landscape of the film, and look to do the same for the MCU moving forward. One of them is brilliantly introduced and integrated: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who looks to be a breakout star. His emergence is true to the classic character while also organically growing out of the plot. Boseman has gravitas to spare, and the film’s depiction of his fierce fighting style and thoughtful heart is perfect. I’m less enamored of the second new face: Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or his latest incarnation anyway. Civil War‘s Spider-Man is…well, he’s like a gourmet cupcake…on a pizza. Don’t get me wrong, Holland is wicked fun as a geeky teenager fumbling his way into the superhero world, but his presence here makes zero sense. Not only is he untraditional Avengers material, but (spoiler alert) the fact that he’s recruited by Stark seems utterly at odds with Stark’s tortured conscience. Inviting a teenager into a war zone, in the context of this story? I’ve heard Spider-Man is important to the source material, but he seems incidental here, his drive-by participation leaving an aftertaste of product placement.

With so many big personality heroes on screen, it’s easy to overlook the understated villain of the piece: Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl). But I think he deserves special mention as a uniquely nuanced antagonist, and a different kind of villain — quietly motived, deadly focused, with an agenda that’s far from earth-shaking but that ties cleverly into all the broader goings-on. It’s a smartly conceived and executed character, and Brühl brings him expertly to life.

All in all, then, it’s another rousing success of a Marvel movie, a thoroughly satisfying assemblage of eyeballs kicks and snappy dialogue and colorful action. Yes, Spider-Man is incongruous, and for crying out loud, surely Marvel can stir up a few more female superheroes to make this less of a dudefest? But aside from those caveats, this one’s a Marvel geek’s delight, slotting in nicely behind Winter Soldier as the MCU’s second-best movie.

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Novel: Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s impressive body of work expands with Luna: New Moon (2015), the first half of an inventive, intense duology that further cements his status as one of science fiction’s most talented and consistent writers. In the early twenty-second century, five powerful corporate families vie for control of Luna’s various natural resources and growing industries. Corta Hélio is the fifth and newest of the “Five Dragons,” an ambitious cartel that has made its fortune providing Helium-2 energy to Earth. Founded by Brazilian immigrant Adriana Corta, the family is entering its third generation, firmly ensconced as a power to be reckoned with — a position strengthened through a weave of opportunistic marriage contracts and entangling alliances with the other Dragons. But Corta Hélio’s power is about to come under fire from a mysterious unknown threat, forcing Adriana’s five children — leader Rafa, schemer Carlos, powerful lawyer Ariel, soldier Carlinhos, and shifty outsider Wagner — onto the defensive, to protect the interests of the family and their burgeoning financial empire.

Even if I hadn’t known that the author has described this series as “Game of Domes,” I’d like to think I’d have recognized Luna: New Moon as the potential hit television series it seems destined to become. Equipped with maps, glossaries, even a dramatis personae, it boasts the sprawling cast, fascinating complexity, and emotional twists and turns of popular episodic TV in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Expanse. And hopefully they’ll do it right, because McDonald’s vision of the future is vivid, gripping, progressive, and gloriously diverse. As usual, McDonald draws liberally from non-western sources to enhance his future worldbuilding; his moon combines aspects of Brazilian, Chinese, Ghanaian, Russian, and other Earth cultures into a convincing, uniquely Lunar melange. Similarly, he avoids an expected sexual default for his characters: the moon is a decidedly fluent place, its people falling on an open-minded spectrum that eschews the traditionally hetero-normative. These sociopolitical elements are refreshingly forward-looking, even as they’re layered atop familiar soap opera power struggles, harsh-environment survival scenarios, and emotionally charged action sequences. This moon is an unforgiving frontier world ruled by cagey negotiation and feudal politics, and McDonald first lures you with its schemes and mysteries, before ultimately engrossing you in its epic crises.

In my estimation, the sheer scope and ambition of McDonald’s body of work previous to this book — which includes the remarkable River of Gods and The Dervish House — made him a legitimate candidate to be a future SFWA Grand Master. Luna: New Moon only strengthens that impression, leaving me very anxious for the concluding sequel.

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Non-Fiction: John le Carrè: The Biography by Adam Sisman

carre-biography-xlargeAdam Sisman’s eloquent biography of David Cornwell — aka John le Carrè — is an insightful, engaging glimpse at a remarkable life and fifty-plus year writing career. Cornwell’s story begins in 1931 in England, and Sisman spends a considerable portion of the book focused on his earliest years. The author’s formative influences were many, among them his childhood experiences of World War II, but none were greater than the influence of his father Ronnie, a notoriously likeable con man whose erratic business dealings systematically charmed and bilked marks for decades. Ronnie is so exhaustively examined that I started to get sick of him, but it’s time well spent, as Cornwell’s conflicted relationship with his father would go on to inform his work for decades, most notably in his semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy. Sisman chronicles Cornwell’s schooling, his relationships, a brief military service, and short-lived careers in teaching and the intelligence services, leading up to his unlikely transition to one of the most successful writing careers in history. Particularly interesting during this stretch is the almost offhand manner in which he came to the intelligence world: casually recruited to report on fellow students while studying abroad in Switzerland, he ultimately found his way into the employ of MI-5 and then MI-6, even running agents briefly before a posting to Germany. There his embassy experience in Bonn would feed into his later novel A Small Town in Germany.

Interestingly Cornwell turned to writing fiction to relieve the boredom of intelligence work, and (ironically) to “supplement” his income. His two early mystery novels, which introduce George Smiley, built him a modest reputation before his landmark book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold catapulted him to international fame. This novel changed his life irrevocably, leading to the end of his MI-6 career and, ultimately, his unhappy first marriage. He struggled mightily with this unexpected success — his next three books did not do nearly as well — but by the late 1970s his “Quest for Karla” series re-established him as the world’s pre-eminent spy novelist.

Once the book shifts focus to le Carrè’s fiction, the biography reads very quickly. For readers familiar with the novels, it’s a little like re-reading them in succession; while not a critical examination, it does look into each book’s merits, reception, and most interestingly how they’re each a reflection of the times in which they were written. Le Carrè’s novels consistently engage with the present, so reading about them is a like a journey through history; it’s fascinating to watch how the events of the day informed the material, and how changing geopolitical circumstances spun the tone of his work.

No writer has entertained, inspired, or enlightened me more than John le Carrè. Sisman’s biography, while attempting to at times, fails to dispel the author’s mystique. Indeed, it made me want to re-read each and every novel again, from the beginning.

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TV: Happy Valley (Seasons 1 & 2)

happy-valley-sarah-lancashire-dvd-cover-artThe extraordinary British series Happy Valley may not look like much at first glance: a hard-nosed female police sergeant fights crime in an economically depressed corner of northern England. What’s the big deal? Well, only this: it’s probably one of the best modern crime dramas ever made. Immersive, ingeniously structured, and powerfully feminist, it builds brilliantly on the long-form techniques of outstanding modern crime shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and The Shield, matching them for dramatic intensity. But while those series are overly enamored of their antiheroes — often in the service of exploring the criminal lurking within us all — Happy Valley puts that ugly glamorization in its place, redirecting the spotlight from villains to victims, and from destructive male impulse to inspiring female endurance.

A former detective, Catherine Cawood (the amazing Sarah Lancashire) now leads a squad of police officers in the West Yorkshire police. She took demotion in the wake of tragedy: her daughter Becky committed suicide after being raped, but not before giving birth to the rapist’s son Ryan (Rhys Connah). Catherine’s decision to raise her grandson shattered her marriage, but she’s managing the daily struggle, with the assistance of her sister Claire (Orphan Black’s Siobhan Finneran, terrific here). Of course, Claire has her own problems: a history of alcoholism and drug addiction.

The first season’s mystery begins with a run-of-the-mill accountant named Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton). In some ways analogous to Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Fargo’s Lester Nygaard, Weatherill is a walking midlife crisis, a self-proclaimed loser and small-minded malcontent who sees his respectable but hard-luck life as a crushing disappointment. His envious grudge against his powerful, successful boss Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) leads him down an unexpected criminal path. When he stumbles across the operation of an organized crime outfit shortly after being snubbed for a raise, he impulsively decides to get into bed with the criminals by serving up Nevison’s daughter Ann (Charlie Murphy) in a half-baked kidnapping plot. His intentions are spiteful and avaricious, but he’s opened a more destructive can of worms than he realizes: one of the kidnappers’ minions happens to be Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) — Becky’s rapist and Ryan’s biological father, just released from prison. In light of past events, Royce is already on Catherine’s radar, but his involvement in Ann’s kidnapping turns into a reign of terror, setting Catherine on a collision course with the architect of her grief-stricken life.

Season one is a shattering procedural, full of graphic violence and disturbing situations, but it held me absolutely rapt, and not just with its compelling plot of escalating complications and reactive puzzle-solving. As emotionally challenging as it is, it’s also emotionally satisfying, delving deeply into the psychology of its characters — moreso, perhaps, than any other show I’ve seen. Programs of this nature often conspire against the viewer, tricking them into relating to the monsters driving the calamity; meanwhile, the actions of the criminals’ adversaries are often secondary. Happy Valley flips the script, depriving its impulsive male villainy of any sympathy whatsoever, instead shining a light on the tragic and powerful resilience, primarily female, of those forced to deal with the consequences. As Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire delivers one of the most gripping sustained lead performances I’v ever seen. But her resolve and constitution is matched or reflected by the many other women of the series, whether it’s Claire struggling with her addiction, Ann fighting for her life against the kidnappers, or the long-suffering wives of Weatherhill and Nevison, forced to cope with and pick up the pieces of their husband’s rash or misguided decisions. Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce is one of TV’s most broadly despicable antagonists, but in his own quiet way Pemberton’s Kevin Weatherill is just as deplorable, as are the other kidnapping conspirators who enable and exacerbate the situation. Series writer-creator Sally Wainwright doesn’t let any of them off the hook, and consistently reminds us that the people we should really care about are their innocent victims.

The equally effective second season has two thrusts. The first of these feels like a stretch, at first: a campaign of psychological warfare against Catherine, carried out by Royce with the assistance of a gaslighted accomplice, Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). This thread is deftly handled, ultimately, but more sure-handed is the primary criminal plot, which involves the shrewdly cast Kevin Doyle (familiar to Downton Abbey fans as the awkward butler, Molesley). Doyle plays a philandering detective, John Wadsworth, who attempts to fold the evidence of his own impulsive crime into an ongoing investigation against a serial criminal. Like Weatherill and Royce, Wadsworth views himself as a misunderstood victim, completely unwilling to concede his own considerable shortcomings. As a police insider, he engages in a delicate ploy to mislead his colleagues, but he’s no criminal mastermind: indeed, he’s a fidgety opportunist, incapable of admitting his inherent hypocrisies. Doyle is an inspired choice for this role and makes the most of it, and while his crimes don’t drive Catherine’s struggle this year, they inform it, and lead to another memorable climax between a beleagured, inspiring hero and a truly monstrous villain.

Happy Valley is exceptional television, a gripping and intense journey that breaks new ground in serial crime drama by finally shattering the criminal mystique. Instead it creates a much more necessary one: a heart-wrenching, breathtaking awe for the resilient survivors of the world’s unspeakable evils.

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Film: Phoenix

PhoenixChristian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is slow, deliberate, and energyless, but oddly effective for all that. In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. Disfigured in the war, Nelly’s face is reconstructed, making her unrecognizable. This vastly complicates her primary goal: reconnecting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Their reunion leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable and unexpected new turn in their relationship.

The atmosphere and production values of Phoenix are first-rate, bringing the bleak post-war years of Germany vividly to life, and Hoss is mesmerizing as the traumatized, unreadable protagonist. But the film is also static, protracting the tragic scenario’s infrequent story beats; it felt like a short film dragged out to feature length. This made for tiresome viewing…and yet, in the end, the patient narrative strategy pays off in a rather elegant and powerful final moment. An unimpressive resolution might have left me regretting the watch, but Petzold nails it, rescuing the difficult build-up with an ending that is perfect. This one’s probably not for a wide audience, but it’s liable to resonate with certain afficionados of understated international cinema.

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