I saw Mascots a few weeks ago and it hasn’t really stuck with me. It’s a solidly funny movie, hilarious throughout, but I can’t quote you specific jokes or even name specific characters. Weirdly enough, it’s the sort of movie that I would say is worth seeing but not worth a trip to the theater, but you don’t even have to go to the theater to see it. Mascots is perfect Netflix viewing. It’s a good one to watch at home when you don’t want to go out and it’s also a good source of calming audio for those dark nights when your head is racing and you can’t sleep. Again, I do want to stress that this movie is really, really, really funny and should only be used as a cure for insomnia once it has been properly viewed in full. But, considering the fact that it’s the first proper feature-length Christopher Guest mockumentary in over ten years, I was still left wanting more.
This movie comes at a weird point in Christopher Guest’s career. His style of mockumentary has become so iconic that you cannot do any work in the genre without being compared to This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, or Best in Show. The general structure of introducing a bunch of wacky characters, uniting them by a common interest, and bringing them together at a giant event has become enshrined as the “right” way to do a mockumentary. It’s a loose, yet specific, format that puts all emphasis on the characters and their relationships. Best in Show wasn’t really about the ins and outs of the dog show trade, it was about people and what draws them to such a strange preoccupation.
Take, for example, the famous moment in Best in Show wherein the dopey Southern Bassett hound owner Harlan Pepper (Guest himself) gives a heartfelt monologue straight into the camera about his affinity for naming various kinds of nuts. It’s wacky and it’s silly but it’s more than that because of the gosh-darn earnestness dripping out of his every word. He is one-hundred-percent confident that a movie audience is going to find this story to be the funniest thing in the world. His dog certainly seems to think so. That moment shows that the dog is more than just a dog. It is what Harlan Pepper is using to cope with the loneliness of his life. Even the fact that he owns a Bassett hound feels exactly like the sort of dog he would have.
In Mascots, the characters are pretty much into “mascottery” (as it is called) because it is funny to see people in giant animal costumes. I never got the sense that any of these people were mascots because they WERE mascots. For example, Zach Woods and Sarah Baker play an unhappily married mascot team trying to keep their marital strife within their costumes. I am a fan of both of them and they are both hilarious here but much, much more could have been done with this idea. There is no real gradual buildup of tension in their relationship so that their inevitable explosion isn’t as funny as it should be. They just don’t have that much screen time in a ninety minute movie filled with hundreds of characters. Yet, because the performers are funny and the dialogue is improvised, there are plenty of nice small moments in their dialogue and interactions even if their overall arc is unsatisfying.
The other characters suffer from the same issue. Chris O’Dowd is a French-Canadian barroom brawler who channels his aggression into a giant fist costume. Christopher Moynihan is a lonely real estate appraiser who channels his insecurities into a plumber. Parker Posey uses her armadillo character as a spiritual vessel for interpretative dance. Tom Bennett is the latest in a long line of mascots and desperately wishes to impress his disapproving father (Jim Piddock, who also co-wrote with Guest) by executing a dangerous stunt that has never before been attempted. They are all fun ideas brought to life by funny people rather than just being funny people. O’Dowd’s character was brought up in a cult that worships the Michael Landon TV show Highway to Heaven. That’s a hilarious idea, but does it fit this character? Is Highway to Heaven driving the need to mascot somehow? It feels more like a bit that came up during a riff session that was too funny to ignore.
The mascots are brought together at a worldwide competition for the coveted Golden Fluffy Awards. I was surprised by how much time was spent on each of the individual mascot performances. Each is meticulously choreographed and technologically elaborate. They are, indeed, very delightful to watch. But they also take us away from the characters because they are encased within a massive costume (As well as from the actors who are most certainly not doing their own stunts). That hurts because this is supposed to be their moment of triumph that we have been building towards for the entire movie. We cannot see their emotional reality through the overly produced mascotting. These characters would not be amateurs so it makes sense for their routines to have a certain level of professionality but the human within the costume gets lost.
I think a big problem is that the actual competitors are not seen as the most important characters. Every character is seen as equally important and so we get a too few many scenes with the Golden Fluffy Awards staff, representatives from The Gluten Free Channel who are looking to buy the event for television, and various coaches and team owners. The positive side of this is that we get to see Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake having a heated exchange about Furries, Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge as a sexually voracious married couple, Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. as awards judges, and fan favorite Fred Willard as a character who exists so that Fred Willard can play him. Every single moment with every single one of these characters is hilarious, especially in a scene with Willard and the very funny Brad Williams. Even the announcer’s voice of the Golden Fluffies is funny because it is provided by none other than Harry Shearer. But they also divert us away from the core mascot characters and lessen the impact of their victories and their losses. There has been a lot of criticism that this movie is too “mean” towards its characters, probably because we don’t get to know them as well as we should. It’s possible that this movie may give you the feeling of telling a joke to somebody who you don’t know but kinda know and seeing their face wrinkle up in confusion before you realize that they didn’t think you were joking.
Ultimately, Mascots is a fun ride for the fact that it brings together so many funny people together and lets them do their thing. The goodwill that is generated from the Guest stock company is so much that you smile when you see just one of them in an insurance commercial or something. So any excuse to get as many of them as you can under one roof is a good one. But if you want the thrill and the pathos that made Spinal Tap, Guffman, and Best in Show so fulfilling, you should just quiet that little voice down and enjoy the funny. If you are still on the fence about hitting the “play” button on your Netflix screen, please count the number of times the words “funny” and “hilarious” appear in this review and then count the number of times the word “unsatisfying” appears.
NOTE: I almost completely forgot to mention that Guest cameos as Corky St. Clair, his character from Waiting for Guffman. Does this mean that there is a cinematic universe that connects all movies that Guest had a hand in? Can we start chasing that and have all the characters overlap in every film to the point where the actors have to play multiple roles in every movie so that they can riff with themselves?
The Young Pope Episode 2: Pope Pius XIII should probably work on his people skills
Spoilers are ahead for Episode 2 of HBO’s The Young Pope, so if you aren’t caught up yet, feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to master the finer points of kangaroo whispering.
If Episode 2 of The Young Pope serves a single intended purpose, then clearly it is in selling us the idea that Lenny, aka Pope Pius XIII, has some rather significant abandonment issues. And though The Young Pope is going to great lengths to make its audience skeptical of Lenny’s pious behavior – whether it be in his asking a fellow man of the cloth to spy on the pope’s adversaries (be they fancied or real), or egotistically castigating the one woman in the world who might offer some semblance of emotional comfort, or a thousand other selfish and vengeful acts in between – I also feel that we need to sincerely acknowledge Lenny’s past, if for no other reason than to better understand why he became the man he is at present.
The Young Pope is being very careful with how much of Lenny’s past is meted out in a single sitting, partly to maintain the shroud of mystery currently hanging over Pope Pius XIII (with so much of that shroud being woven by Lenny himself), but what we have learned over the last two episodes is enough to complicate my feelings about the man. We know he was abandoned by his “hippy” parents at the age of seven, and was raised by Sister Mary in a Catholic orphanage. At some point, Lenny came under the tutelage of Cardinal Michael Spencer, where he served as an effective yet timid protege. Lenny worked his way up the ranks, ruffling zero feathers and causing zero speculation on his piety, behavior, or intentions as a priest. In the recent past, Lenny was elected as pope by the college of cardinals, but we learn that there were politics at play in the decision, and that Cardinal Voiello likely stacked the vote in Lenny’s favor, disgracing perceived shoe-in Spencer in the process.
So what are we to make of all of this? How is viewing Lenny’s life through the lens of his past supposed to inform our understanding of him in the present? I think the first thing we have to understand is just how awful it must be to grow up in a Catholic orphanage without the love and guidance of one’s parents. This is a huge part of Lenny’s identity, regardless of how long it’s been since he was a child, and it explains why he is so indifferent to people’s opinion of him.
Well, most people’s opinion of him. When Lenny goes to meet with Spencer, we can see that Lenny’s genuine respect for Spencer is only equaled by Spencer’s derision for Lenny. After Spencer accuses Lenny of colluding with Voiello in the papal election (which Lenny denies, and at this point I feel compelled to believe him), Lenny asks him why he was summoned. “To remind you that you’re the pope now,” says Spencer, “and that you’re all alone. Just like you’ve always been. And that you’re a nothing. Nothing.” I suppose that’s about the harshest thing one could hear from their mentor/father figure. Lenny is rightfully hurt by these words, but at the same time, he’s absolutely uninterested in resigning as pope, which is the one thing that would reingratiate him to Spencer. Instead, he offers to make Spencer the prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, which would effectively allow the two men to rule side by side, but Spencer wants none of it, because he has his own ego to look out for.
After enduring Spencer’s harsh words, Lenny seeks the comfort and council of the only mother he’s ever known – Mary. It’s telling that he returns to her for solace after having earlier chastised her for admiring the homily that Voiello drafted. This shows us that Lenny sees a clear line of demarcation in his relationship with Mary; on the one side, she is his trusted (if not increasingly reluctant) advisor and aide, while on the other, she is his safe haven of maternal calm.
Both of them seem to understand this binary aspect of their relationship, but Mary is the one who better navigates the two-fold nature of their bond. For his part, Lenny wants the best of both worlds – a mother figure and an advisor – but his folly is in misunderstanding that an over-reliance on one aspect of Mary results in serious limitations of the other. As a result, Lenny never quite seems to get what he wants from Mary, though it isn’t from a lack of her trying. And what the hell are we to make of it when Lenny cuts her off when she brings up some past incident involving a kangaroo? She was almost reverent in her tone, giving the impression that she sees the kangaroo as something of an omen. Who knows, but I can’t wait to see if there’s a payoff in this.
Understanding Lenny in this context – that he is an emotionally damaged egoist – helps to better understand why he is the way he is. We can perhaps see the consequences of Lenny’s issues of abandonment most clearly in his meeting with Sophia Dubois, the Vatican’s director of marketing and communications, when he shoots down any idea of using his image to bolster Vatican revenue. “I do not have an image, lady,” he bellows. “I am no one . . . No one. Only Christ exists. Only Christ.”
Though his words are spoken with conviction here, I can’t help but think that Lenny is talking less to Sophia and more to himself, using the words to remind himself that, even though abandoned, he will always find mercy in Christ. It would be easy to feel sorry for the guy in some way if he wasn’t so backward on other things, like wanting to fire the current Congregation of the Clergy for being gay, or being an outright asshole to his staff – even the nice old nun lady who prepares the meals. Sure, Lenny is complicated, but mostly, he’s just a very powerful dick, no matter who he’s dealing with at any particular time.
Never is Lenny’s annoyance and impatience ever more laser-focused than when he’s dealing with Cardinal Voiello, who is becoming a very compelling character in his own right. At first, we were shown an inwardly shrewd but outwardly humble man, one charged with helping the new pope ease into office, as well as being Lenny’s political advisor. Now that Lenny has cast Voiello out of his inner circle, Voiello feels that it is his ecclesiastical duty to oust the pope.
After finding no dirt on Lenny, Voiello retreats to a private apartment, where he comforts a bespectacled disabled boy who clearly means a great deal to the cardinal. Mary sees all this from afar, which tells me that she, and by extension Lenny, knows that the boy is Voiello’s weak spot and will certainly come to serve as leverage against the cardinal in future episodes. Further complicating things is Voiello’s near-ambiguous realization at the end of the episode, when he insinuates that he will go to extremely drastic measures to undo Lenny. But for Lenny’s part, he sees Voiello as nothing more than yet another empty spiritual vessel in a life filled with empty spiritual vessels; as far as Lenny is concerned, Voiello embodies the promises of the Church no more than his absent hippy parents.
I’ve spent so much time in this review trying to understand Lenny’s past, and his core humanity, flawed as it may be, so that I may better understand why he said what he said when he finally stepped out before his faithful followers in St. Peter’s Square at the end of the episode. I think we all had a feeling that he would go off of Voiello’s script, but I don’t think anyone knew just how far afield he would truly go. In short, Lenny chastises his flock – all one billion of them – telling them that they’ve fallen away from God, and that to be close to Him, they must live a wholly devout spiritual life. And forget about trying to be close to the pope; Lenny wants nothing to do with them. In fact, the last thing he tells them before he abandons the speech is that they don’t deserve him. He runs away, leaving his follows and all attending cardinals in a state of shock.
So what are we to make of the Lenny we know? He is complicated, yes, but we don’t yet know why, beyond the abandonment we’ve already discussed. But as far as his end-game is concerned, it’s anyone’s guess. He seems to have risen to the papacy almost by accident, which tells us that his designs weren’t always set on the highest office in Catholicism. Nor does he seem to have any solid plan in moving forward in his position within the Church; we see this perhaps most clearly in his deep consideration of actually using Voiello’s homily, up to the moments before he takes the stage.
He may not have a plan for the day-to-day workings of the Vatican and the Church beyond, but if nothing else, Lenny has his convictions. Or, on the other hand, perhaps Lenny sees all of this – the papacy, the Vatican, the Holy Roman Church in its entirety – as some cruel, outdated, uncaring institution. He mocks every tradition and every protocol he encounters, so maybe his intent isn’t to bring about a more traditional, conservative epoch in Church history, but rather, raze the whole thing to the ground.
Either way, I’m loving it, and look forward to seeing what Lenny’s end-game really ends up being.
The Young Pope Review: HBO’s controversial new series is delightfully decadent
Spoilers are ahead for the premiere episode of HBO’s The Young Pope, so if you aren’t caught up yet, feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to polish off this can of Cherry Coke Zero.
Now that The Young Pope has finally debuted stateside, it’s clear why the show was such a hit in Europe – especially among Catholics – when it began airing back in October. The Young Pope has all the makings of a hit television show here in America as well: there’s political and religious intrigue; beautiful photography and production design; compelling (if at times rather stiff) dialogue; top-rate acting; and, of course, a megalomaniac new leader at the center of it all – one whose agenda seems to be driven by unapologetic self-interest rather than providing divine guidance through humility and acts of faith. If HBO wanted to take a gamble on co-producing a show that has something as potentially divisive as religion as its focal point, then it seems the network made the right call with choosing The Young Pope.
Series creator Paulo Sorrentino – who also wrote most of the season and directs all of it – seems to want his audience to think hard about the title of the show. Sure, Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII is young in age, at least when compared to the elderly Holy Fathers who most recently held his post before him. But historically, Pius XIII isn’t uniquely young among his predecessors. The youngest pope to ever serve was likely John XII, who was only 18 when he rose to the papacy over 1,000 years ago, and there were a handful of others throughout the centuries who were still in their twenties when they became pope.
No, I think Sorrentino had something else in mind when he chose the title for the show. Pius XIII is young not because he is still on the greener side of fifty, but rather because he still has some growing up to do. I’m not quite willing to say that Sorrentino is asking his audience to be Pius’ moral arbiter as we watch him break with church tradition on everything from appointing personal advisors from within the Vatican to smoking cigarettes in the Papal suite (or anywhere else, for that matter). Instead, I think Sorrentino simply wants us to join Pius as he navigates the realities of his newfound power and come to our own conclusions on Pius’ inexperience, his shortcomings – his young-ness. Whether or not Sorrentino is being a bit too on-the-nose with his usage of “young” is certainly up for debate, but I certainly found myself enjoying the spectacle of watching a self-interested holy man in the early stages of stacking the ecumenical deck in his favor.
We don’t yet quite know what Pope Pius XIII desires most, or what his end game is, but one thing is certainly clear: Pius is no demagogue. He’s in this for himself, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, whether they be the devout followers he refuses to address with his first homily at St. Peter’s Square, or the many holy folks who oversee the spiritual and administrative functions of the Vatican and, by extension, the billion-strong Catholic faith. The premiere episode (unceremoniously titled “Episode 1.1”) did a fine job of setting up the plot points and conflicts that will come to serve as the series’ story engines, all of which will certainly coalesce around the machinations of Pius XIII.
One of Pius’ defining traits is that, for most of his life, he wasn’t Pope Pius XIII, but Lenny Belardo, a Catholic priest who was raised from age seven in an orphanage under the guidance of Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary. If nothing else, the premiere episode serves to inform the audience that Mary is perhaps the only human being that has any sway over Pius, whom she still personally refers to as Lenny, which shows how strong – if not potentially unhealthy – their bond is to one another.
For her part, Keaton brings the same degree of grace and aplomb that she’s brought to all her roles over her storied career, but at the same time, I had difficulty connecting with her character in the premiere. When she finally showed up in the episode, it was without any preamble or context; she simply breezed in from on high and situated herself upon Pius’ shoulder as his guide and his conscience – a Jiminy Cricket for a more aged demographic. I’m interested in seeing where this character goes as the season moves forward, but as far as the pilot was concerned, Sister Mary was the one character who felt out of place. Part of my disconnect was just how other-worldly Sister Mary felt in all of her scenes, particularly in the one in which she admonishes Pius in her new chambers, reminding him of the importance of his position and responsibility to his followers, all while bright white curtains blow and glow behind her, imbuing her with an angelic ambiance that was just a bit too much.
At the same time, I have to remember just how tightly sutured we the audience are to Pius’ subjective experience; nearly every scene we saw in the premiere was through his own lens of reality, which might explain why Sister Mary appeared so god-like in the aforementioned scene – we see her that way because Pius sees her that way. I’m sure we’re in for a few shocking revelations about their history and relationship as the series continues, but for now, it seems that Pius counts her second to no one in both his public and private life.
But let’s talk a bit more about the subjectivity of the narrative, and think about the ways we’re being asked to respond to seeing the world as Pius sees it. For instance, what in the bloody hell are we to make of the opening shot, in which we behold what can only be described as an alien ocean comprised of infants. As the camera slowly pans across the babies – mostly motionless (dead?!?) save a few infantile twitches, here and there – we eventually see Pius himself crawl out from underneath them, dust himself off, and stand to face what I can only guess to be a vanguard of his perceived enemies.
This sequence was quite horrific and evocative, especially since it was with zero context, being the first scene of the episode. But after learning that Lenny’s parents essentially abandoned him at age seven, it might be worth speculating to think that Pius sees himself as unique among his orphaned brethren. While so many others were left to disregard, destitution, and young death, Lenny emerged, somehow victorious, and rose to the highest religious office in the world. Perhaps this means that Pius believes himself as truly chosen by God – an idea that becomes quickly problematic when we take into account Pius’ last words of the episode, in which he tells Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo) that he does not believe in God. Sure, Pius quickly retracts the statement, but his actions throughout the episode reinforce it; for Pius, he himself is God enough for his millions upon millions of followers.
And it’s this idea that adds to my personal investment in episodes to come. A pope that sees himself as infallible, the final word of the power behind the Church. It’s a fascinating concept sure to be marked by lurid fantasy and indulgences in proscribed behavior. But we can’t forget the challenges Pius will face along the way – challenges that may serve to bolster our connection to our antihero protagonist, or perhaps serve to sour that connection and leave us reveling in his downfall. We know that Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) has ordered a private inquest into the exact nature of Pius’ past transgressions as a means to gain leverage, and we know that Pius’ former mentor (and disgraced almost-pope) Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) will play a prominent role in coming episodes. These men and others may lead to Pius’s downfall, or maybe Pius comes to melt his own wings when flying too close to the sun, but either way, I’m in.
4/5 stars: Though the premiere was great on the whole, I had trouble connecting with key characters, and there was never a single scene or moment that truly wowed me. I’ll wait to make any judgments on these issues after a few more episodes, but as it stands, I’m all-in with The Young Pope.
Lamenting The OA: Netflix’s biggest missed opportunity of 2016
Spoilers ahead for the first season of Netflix’s The OA, so if you aren’t caught up, feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to master The Five Movements.
In the spirit of shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld, Netflix’s The OA has quickly (if quietly) emerged as something of a “puzzle-box” series, wherein the show’s central mysteries stand in equal value to more traditional storytelling components like character and plot development. It’s a storytelling model for a more, dare I say, intellectual age – one which can be attributed as much to the passionate online communities that revel in shared speculation of a given puzzle-box show as it can be to the idea that this phenomenon is simply the next logical step in the evolution of storytelling in general.
The OA co-creators Brit Marling (who also stars as the titular character) and Zal Batmanglij (who directs all eight episodes) strive to make the world and characters of their show feel authentic and, most importantly, sincere. Though they largely succeed on this front, this is where they should have capped their approach to the narrative; The OA is by far at its best when it attempts to explore the lives and motivations of its very human characters – whether it be the hot-tempered high-schooler Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson), or his emotionally aloof teacher, Ms. Betty Broderick Allen (Phyllis Smith, who is transcendent here), or the many fine secondary characters in between.
Where The OA fails is in its inability to strike a manageable balance between its fine character work and the larger (and largely unsatisfying/confusing) Prairie/OA-centric mysteries that ostensibly serve as the plot engine for the series. The OA never fully commits to what it wants to be; maybe it’s a supernatural sci-fi thriller that questions our understanding of reality, or maybe it’s a character-based drama that explores how we navigate the avenues of human trauma and grief, but either way, there is never a point in the series where The OA successfully fuses these two modes of storytelling together in a satisfying manner.
More on all this below, and assuming you’re all caught up with the show, I won’t spend much time recapping – I’d far rather just jump in and roll around in the rather beautiful mess that is The OA. Let’s get to it.
THE GOOD STUFF
The premiere episode, “Homecoming,” does a fine job of introducing Prairie Johnson, AKA the OA, as our protagonist, as well as some of the central mysteries surrounding her, including her lengthy disappearance, the nature of the scarification of her back, and her returned eyesight. Marling imbues the character with what I can only describe as a humble vulnerability cloaked in a fierce commitment to purpose, which follows her throughout the season; never do we doubt her belief in her in intentions, even if the truths behind those intentions come at a frustratingly slow pace – for her, and for us. Though she was subjected to horrific experiments for years on end, I appreciated that her character wasn’t built on a sense of victimhood, but rather upon her belief that she still has work to do to right the wrongs that were done to her and the other near-death experience (NDE) people she was imprisoned with.
In “Homecoming,” we also get a strong sense of the world that Prairie left behind when she ran away all those years ago. Her loving adoptive parents, Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige), steal the show in nearly every scene they’re in. The disappearance of Prairie affected each parent in its own way; Abel remained pragmatic and cautiously optimistic over the years, while Nancy regressed into a state of fearful neuroses that comes to complicate her relationship with her family as the season moves along. Wilson and Krige play off each other in such believably decisive ways that we can’t help but feel the years-long loss of their daughter as deeply as we come to feel Prairie’s own losses, and the pair come to be one of the strongest elements on the season on the whole.
Also wonderful are the other supporting characters who come into Prairie’s life after her return to her hometown of Crestwood. In addition to Steve and Broderick-Allen, we meet French (Brandon Perea), a committed student and athlete who is the sole breadwinner for his struggling family; Buck (Ian Alexander), a transgender teen boy trying to navigate the difficulties of transitioning; and Jesse (Brendan Meyer), Steve’s friend, the one person in this group of characters who doesn’t get much development compared to the others and is framed primarily through his friendship with Steve. But what we do know is that each of them are facing their own internal emotional struggles – struggles that each of them are finally able to face once the OA brings them all together.
I really enjoyed the dynamic of the group once they came together, paradoxical in their incongruous symmetry. They are humanity’s imperfect pieces who have finally found a way to sew their torn edges to the frays and tears of another, and honestly, if these particular relationship dynamics were the limit of the show, I think I would’ve walked away from it far more satisfied. Don’t get me wrong – there were some amazing moments shared between OA and her fellow NDE captives (more on this shortly), but those scenes were fully entrenched in the tediously ambiguous mythology of the show; they always felt like they were in the service of the plot, whereas the scenes in the attic felt far more organic, human, and lived-in.
I also need to give credit to the neighborhood in which all of the present-day story takes place. Nancy calls it “New Crestwood,” but we can see as clearly as she does that the subdivision died before it even had a chance to live. “They ran out of money before they could finish it,” she continues, a point that’s driven home by several shots throughout the series in which we see meandering residential streets weaving their way through empty blocks where houses should’ve been. On the periphery of these lots are tree-dappled hills, with the odd finished house accentuating the landscape here and there, butting up against useless retaining walls capped with malnourished pines. It’s depressing as hell – a visual representation of the failed experiment of the American Dream, each empty house and lot another piece of withered fruit on the vine of self-determination.
Yes, it’s depressing, but the antiquated neighborhood also serves as a rather magnificent visual representation of what each of our characters are going through. Everything is drab, dark, and empty in New Crestwood – the houses, and its people. There is a certain power the characters gain when they use one of these abandoned houses as their place of fellowship and respite; they are, in a way, reclaiming the neighborhood from the grips of slow death, while also reclaiming the parts of themselves that make them feel alive. For Broderick-Allen, it is coming to terms with her brother’s death; for Steve, it is embracing his inner goodness; for Buck, it is standing up to his father; for French, it is realizing that there is more to his life than what a scholarship might do for him; and for Jesse, well, I guess it means he gets to see his buddy Steve thrive and not much else. Again, if this was the extent of the series – six people learning to live life through sharing a profound experience together – I would’ve been pretty stoked for the show.
THE BAD STUFF
So yes, I enjoyed much of the character work and all of the setting of The OA in its present day, but that is where I must limit my accolades for the show. For all its thoughtful meditation on the nature of suburban folks living a life less ordinary, The OA leaves these compelling narrative threads all too often in an effort to explore the show’s central mystery (hackneyed and rather silly, as it turns out), and to do that, we have to trudge through the ultimately unsatisfying events that transpired over the last seven years – and all of this through the subjective lens of OA’s subjective recollection.
All of OA’s memories of this time period coalesce around the events that transpired in Dr. Hunter “Hap” Percy’s (Jason Isaacs) underground prison lair, where he imprisons folks who have had an NDE in order to observe them and learn the true nature of what happens to us after death. Along with OA, there is Scott (Will Brill); Rachel (Sharon van Etten); Homer (Emory Cohen); and later, Renata (Paz Vega). Held for years in cells with clear walls, the group forms a bond over their NDE histories, and come to discover the nature and use of the “movements,” which, if done correctly, will open a portal to another plane of existence. For his part, Hap kills the NDE’ers over and over and over again with a terrifying drowning machine, hoping to crack their mystery open, and gasses them to make them forget. The show wants us to see him as a conflicted man pursuing the darkest edges of science, and Isaacs acts at high execution, but Hap never gets beyond being a rather garden-variety dick who abuses the vulnerable over the course of years and years for his own selfish ends.
Again, all the acting in these flashback sequences are fine, with Isaacs and Cohen giving particularly powerful performances. And again, the good acting is all for naught, because the things that are actually happening in each flashback scene range from the silly to the utterly preposterous. For instance, I really wanted to feel the tension in the scene where OA tries to, and nearly succeeds in, drugging Hap’s soup. Well, it turns out that it wasn’t the drugs that affected him, but rather the tomato in the soup. See, Hap is deathly allergic to tomato, so thank god he didn’t have anything in his own kitchen that contained tomatoes – oh, wait. Yeah. He did. See, this is poor storytelling. I can’t invest in characters or their struggles if I’m too busy feeling bamboozled by a shoddily-crafted plot element – even a seemingly small oversight such as this.
But when I stack up the many small (and some rather large) oversights in the story – particularly those that surround the central “Is OA an angel or is she just heavily traumatized from her captive ordeal” mystery – The OA quickly begins to flounder under the weight of its own misguided ambition. Remember how willfully resistant OA was to telling her parents the truth of her captivity for several episodes, only to unload the information on them while eating in a crowded room at the Olive Garden where everyone can hear? Not only is this silly because of the abrupt change in OA’s fundamental, established behavior, but it’s silly because it undermines and invalidates the importance of her secret mission of saving Homer and the others. These sorts of things happened far too often as the show moved toward its finale, and I spent far too much of it being ripped out immersion due to poor storytelling decisions.
So yeah, the OA is an angel, the original one, whatever that means. Which is a detail I almost missed because I was so distracted by the confusion playing out during the big reveal. The Olive Garden? Really?
AND THE UGLY STUFF
When it comes to The OA‘s poor storytelling decisions, there is one that I might put at the top of the list: the movements themselves. Listen, they were kinda cool in theory, but as their importance continued to increase on-screen, so too did their sheer goofiness. I get what Marling and Batmanglij were going for: a visually evocative expression of an abstract idea – in this case, an interpretive group-dance that somehow opens a link from our world to another.
Okay, I get it. On paper it must have looked great. Hell, even the first few times OA and Homer tried the moves looked great. But once they started having dance-move arguments with each other, I had to tap out. It just didn’t translate on-screen for me like it was intended to, which I’m assuming was to increase my emotional investment in these characters.
Never was my derision for these movements so focused as it was for the culminating scene of the season, in which our present-day group of five muster their courage and use the movements to bedazzle and distract an active school shooter in the school’s cafeteria. And yes, it feels as absurd to write that sentence as it was to behold the woeful scene itself.
This scene is the moment the entire series has been building to – OA’s season-long premonition dreams tell us as much – and for it be a school shooting feels like a pretty cheap deal. If nothing else, Marling and Batmanglij could have at least attempted to make some kind of social commentary on the pervasive problem of mass shootings in America, but there is none of that. Instead, Marling and Batmanglij seemed to have randomly drawn “school shooting” from a hat filled with random tragic events and decided such a potentially triggering topic was as good as any. This, coupled with the plain silliness of the movements, wrecked this important scene for me, which in turn soured me on the series.
So here’s where I sit with The OA: it’s a show that annoyed me far more than it wooed me, but dammit, for the moments it did woo me, it knocked it out of the park. There were so many beautiful little character moments tucked in throughout that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, but the balance was all wrong. I mean, here I sit, a week after finishing the series, and I’m still far more interested in learning more about Buck’s troubled relationship with his family than I am with learning if the group opened the portal for OA, or even if OA is okay after being shot.
In other words, my favorite aspects of the show seem to be the aspects that the show itself is least concerned with. The OA wants its mysteries in the forefront, and that’s okay as far as it goes, even if it means I personally won’t be racing back, if and when there’s more.
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