I can't speak for anyone else — well, maybe I can — but I've been watching a lot of television. For most of a lifetime, of course, but especially in, oh, the last two years or so, I've been hooked on the thing. By which I refer to episodic television, in case that distinction was unclear.
As glad as I have been to be granted access to first-run movies in abundance via streaming services, the supply has started to become diluted and diminished, much like our collective patience and stability in the face of the ongoing plague. The movie industry continues to struggle to adapt, attempting to predict or influence some sort of return to normal, while continuing to succumb to internal rifts and outmoded thinking. And so, for no good reason, we find ourselves lumbering into the traditional down-season of movie distribution. The fields aren't exactly fallow but it takes more wandering to find sustenance.
Which is only one excuse to turn to television — maybe not even an excuse. It's become almost an aphorism that movies are the domain of the director, while television is a writer's medium. For some time, I bristled at the distinction, arguing the visual execution of prestige TV often outstrips most theatrical releases. But, as time wears on, I realize I was missing the point, or at least only acknowledging a part of it. The American cinematic-industrial complex has all but pushed the writers out of the room, if not slammed the door behind them. Dominated by sequel-able intellectual properties, writing for the studios is now less about imagination than ensuring market-share — empire, essentially. Writers of insight and passion still toil in the shadows, and a few writer-directors in the old mold still manage to ply their trade, but the machine has become a juggernaut designed not to communicate ideas but to give the audience more of what they are supposed to want.
It could quite fairly be said this is nostalgia for the '90s, but even as I lament the transitional death of independent cinema, I'm watching some pretty goddamn mainstream television and seeing more creative DNA in it than in the majority of movies that make it to the big screen. And, ironically or not, much of it is about empire, greed and division. It's almost like television is a better reflection of culture than movies. Huh.
Writers and commentators in every sector have worn their fingers to their nubs with hot takes on the first two shows we've stormed through recently, so I'll only briefly mention Yellowstone (Paramount, Peacock) and Succession (HBO), the great twinned ogres of the American Dream writ nasty. The former, created by Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, 2017), whose work I've long espoused, is a pulpy, bristling soap opera/action-Western about a vicious Montana ranching family working mightily to protect their vast land holding against all comers. The latter, a thinly veiled, thoroughly brutal satire about a terrible family defending their global media empire, is the brainchild of Jesse Armstrong (Four Lions, 2010).
The two shows could hardly be more different in tone or style, but each is a tribute to the joys of good writing for screen, filled with ripe dialogue, devious character turns and multi-season story arcs. And each has found, in presentation for the small screen, budget enough to create a cinematic landscape against which the storytelling can take place. These shows look like movies and are so loaded with character and story that, with a few minor exceptions, they feel like movies delivered episodically. They also, both troublingly and satisfyingly, examine American greed and exceptionalism with terrific nuance, with an unsparing even-handedness. The fact that each is about a rarefied segment of culture that willfully ignores the other speaks volumes to their topicality in the moment.
The Righteous Gemstones (HBO), a product of the cracked genius of Danny McBride and company, is also about American Empire, albeit with a goofier, even cartoonish delivery. The titular Gemstones, a family of vastly wealthy Christian televangelists based in South Carolina, are a band of infighting hypocrites with as many problems as parishioners. While father Eli (John Goodman) struggles to control his dynasty, his offspring, Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin (Adam Devine), each more ridiculous than the last, run amok with their own ideas of how things should be. There are kidnappings, blackmail and murders to further complicate things.
The outlier in this bunch, The Peacemaker (HBO), came as a surprise. I enjoyed James Gunn's rethinking of The Suicide Squad last year and was cautiously optimistic when I learned that he would be developing a spin-off series for John Cena's eponymous character. I've said a lot about the shortcomings of comic franchises and intellectual property, it's true. And so perhaps it is appropriately hypocritical of me to endorse this, a hyper-violent, richly funny comic book story that transcends some of the conventions of its origins.
Also, season 15 of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX, Hulu) has arrived and it is still the most consistently funny thing going.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
THE 355. Jessica Chastain, Fan Bingbing, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz and Diane Kruger play a team of spies with Sebastian Stan as a Bond Boy. PG13. 124M. MILL CREEK.
CLEAN. Adrien Brody stars as a sanitation worker haunted by his violent past and looking for redemption. R. 94M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE KING'S MAN. Ralph Fiennes and Gemma Arterton star in a retro action spy prequel. R. 131M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE KING'S DAUGHTER. Pierce Brosnan, Kaya Scodelario and Bingbing Fan in a historical fantasy with a mermaid at Versailles. PG. 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LICORICE PIZZA. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of coming of age and first love in 1970s California. Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. R. 133M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
MATRIX RESURRECTIONS. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return hopefully to give me whatever pill will take me the hell out of here. R. 148M. BROADWAY.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY. King of horror-fantasy Guillermo del Toro creates a carnival experience we will all be afraid of, with Bradley Cooper, Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett. MINOR.
REDEEMING LOVE. Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis star in a star-crossed, Old West love story about a sex worker trafficked since childhood. PG13. 134M. BROADWAY.
SCREAM. The horror franchise picks up 25 years later like a Friends reunion but stabbier. With Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette. R. 120M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
SING 2. The animated animal musical returns with the voices of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. PG13. 148M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.