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HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ is Equally Evocative and Embarrassing

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There are a few moments in HBO’s new series Euphoria that are profound in their emotional rawness, subtle ruminations on the familiar themes of identity and sexuality seen in all scripted teen-focused narratives. And yet, Euphoria‘s sixty-minute pilot can’t seem to spin those beautiful seconds of clarity into something cohesive, and moving: though beautifully directed by Augustine Frizzell, “Pilot” spends so much of its time trying to convince the audience just how evocative and casually revolutionary it is; like most teen fiction, Sam Levinson’s script feels like an imitation of Gen Z culture, more often offering superficial commentary on their place in history, rather than the nuanced, intense character piece it wants to be.

Euphoria really, really likes to express how smart and provocative it thinks it is.

Euphoria centers on Rue Bennett (Zendaya, in an eye-opening performance), a teenager and recovering addict returning home for her junior year of high school. But it is really telling a much larger story of a town and its people, which are mostly a collection of teenage archetypes; the Mean Girls, the aggressive Young Jock (or as I’ll now forever refer to them, The Kavanaugh), the Adult Male with Repressed Sexuality, the Divorced Kid… you get the jist here: Euphoria‘s first hour takes great lengths in its first hour to give ‘spins’ on these traditional stories, through the less-than-graceful deployment of “shocking” images, which include an erect penis (soft focused, though, so it’s just a bit blurry)and a young trans woman taking hormones.

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The problem is Euphoria never gives these moments any room, or depth: though it does raise some interesting questions about sexuality, consent, and drug experimentation, Euphoria‘s first hour treats these mostly as exclamation points to scenes, never able to humble itself long enough to let a moment speak. When it does, it can lead to some seriously powerful, if emotionally stunted moments: observing the arc of Jules (Hunter Schafer, in the show’s other powerful lead performance)

Filtering all of its commentary through Rue’s constant narration doesn’t help – and not because she notes herself as an unreliable narrator, a fact that should be blatantly obvious as inherent to the genre (again, Euphoria really, really likes to express how smart and provocative it is). The problem is it makes the show feel extremely myopic, in its most important moments: with Rue providing all the emotional context for the many flashbacks, dream-like sequences, and graphic sexual moments, there’s no room for the events and characters in these scenes to define themselves, which just makes everything feel a bit… exploitative for the sake of having very little to say at all.

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Everything with Jules is beautifully handled, the one instance of Euphoria not purporting its own importance and letting a story breathe just a bit. Honestly, it’s strange Euphoria doesn’t make her the main character, rather than Rue, a well-established entity with little original material to drive her story. Despite Zendaya’s masterful portrayal of the character, Rue is never the most interesting person in any room she’s in: she’s just a touch too cool, lacking the transparency between character and author it needs to feel convincing.

Instead, much of it just rings a false note, using its provocative moments as distractions from its lack of understanding for the complexity of being a teenager in the age of Social Media: “Pilot” features lines like “I was born three days after 9/11” and “nudes are our currency of love,” and pairs them with images of a baby crying to an image of George Bush, and a room full of randomly shirtless teenage men watching a classmate’s sex tape.

Unlike Gregg Araki’s Now Apocalypse, which understandably takes on the tribulations of slightly older characters, Euphoria doesn’t use its hyper sexualization for anything particularly revelatory. There are moments where it raises some interesting questions about consent – a scene between Jules and Nate’s father is a well-crafted entry into this complex conversation – but besides that, much of Euphoria feels like an imitation of Araki’s work, like it was filtered through Zach Snyder’s DC universe (albeit a younger, much hornier version).

Euphoria

Unfortunately, most of Euphoria‘s opening hour is too enamored with its ability to manufacture provocative images to make these moments resonate as much as they should -and again, the show’s focus on Rue robs its from having some more layered perspectives on its many characters. But when it does step aside and just lets its characters exist for a bit, it’s easy to see the potential it holds: there’s a scene near the end of the pilot with Jules and Rue that’s so quiet, so beautifully absent of blaring popular music and incessant monologues, it feels like a window into a different show, something a bit less jagged and cynical than what Euphoria‘s first episode offers.

Though teenage stories are fertile grounds for storytelling – the potential offered by the combination of hormones and emotional immaturity is obvious – it’s easy to fall into the trap of early-aughts Gossip Girl and Skins clones, which all feel like a bunch of adults (mostly males, of course) trying to live vicariously through fictional teenage versions of themselves. Euphoria‘s first hour is the epitome of that, the definition of a “try hard” teen drama – and despite that, I’m still interested to see where this story goes. There is just enough to this pilot to be intrigued, in spite of a terrible opening act and some equally awful dialogue choices – if Euphoria can figure out its voice as it builds out its world and story, it could stumble onto something special.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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My So-Called Life: “So-Called Angels” is a Timeless Classic

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My So-Called Life: “So-Called Angels”

Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today we look back at My So-Called Life.

What’s it About?

In 1994 Winnie Holzman introduced to the world her critically acclaimed TV series My So-Called Life, a realistic mid-nineties teen drama that takes a look at a 15-year-old girl and her trials and tribulations. From the instant, Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dyed her blonde locks a bright red, this teen angst series earned its place in the annals of television. Audiences were captivated by the rising star’s performance, and teenage girls swooned over the school’s gorgeous rebel-without-a-cause Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). The show gave a voice to millions of young women who otherwise had none on network television, but unfortunately, due to low ratings (and several parental complaints about being too realistic), the series was canceled after one season. My So-Called Life has since been referred to as one of the ten best “one season” TV shows of all time and still lives in the collective minds of its fans.

Synopsis: Christmas arrives in Three Rivers, and it finds Rickie (Wilson Cruz) out on the street running away from his abusive uncle. The family Chases’ Christmas gets complicated when Angela’s anxious search for Rickie, aided by a mysterious homeless girl (Juliana Hatfield), leads her into the seedy underground warehouse inhabited by runaway kids.

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Review

My So-Called Life often took a comic plot and subverted it by playing it for realistic drama, rather than just for laughs, but of all the 19 episodes of this short-lived teen drama, “So-Called Angels” is without a doubt the biggest tear-jerker. The episode opens with a whispery voice-over prayer, as Rickie Vasquez stumbles and falls along the cold winter snow – blood dripping from lips, his face battered and bruised. From Rickie, beaten, and alone, it quickly shifts to Juliana Hatfield, a homeless teen hipster with a guitar and the voice of, well, an angel. We’re just over a minute in, and the tone has been set for the upcoming 44 minutes – downright sentimental. The scene fades to white as a guitar plays the single notes of “Silent Night.” Gradually, the single notes of the guitar become the solitary keys of a piano. The camera pans downward and we fade into the Chase home.

If there was ever any evidence that the series played out like an After School Special, “So-Called Angels” would be the ultimate case study, complete with an actual PSA at the end, voiced by Wilson Cruz, for an organization which helps locate missing kids. Aside from existing as a solid stand-alone episode, it also kicked off one of the best subplots of the series: Rickie and his attempts to find a family. The show was notable for dealing with hot topics with relatively little melodrama. Some episodes often involve guns, drugs, sex and so on, but with the fifteenth entry, came the topic of child abuse and runaway teens. The episode remains both strong and current even today due to the then-and-still controversial subject matter and story elements. From the trials and tribulations of an openly gay character to the problems of child abuse and homeless youth, Winnie Holzman’s series doesn’t always paint a bright picture but it does present a truthful view of young America.

While the emotional force of this episode lies with Angela helping Rickie, there’s also a subplot about her two best friends: Rayanne (aiding a Holiday teen helpline) and Brian (dealing with his Holiday loneliness), who accidentally reach out to each other via a 1-800 number. Amidst the depressing, dark subject matter at the core of this sequence, come flashes of unexpected comedy (MSCL-style), culminating in one of the most awkward phone sex exchanges ever.

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Note: Fans of the show will notice that a scene that somberly recalls Brian and Rayanne’s Halloween night in the school basement, wherein Rayanne revealed a secret to Brian. Here, Brian unknowingly reveals his feelings to her.

The moral weight of So-Called Angels rests on Patty, Angela’s mother, who struggles to come to terms with her newfound knowledge of Rickie’s situation and then do “the right thing.” Her struggle is made clear by their transformation into one of the most loved Christmas icons, Ebenezer Scrooge. And let’s not forget Juliana Hatfield (the ghost of Christmas Eve), disappearing, reappearing and in general hammering home the message that any teen can end up a runaway, including Angela herself. It’s a heavy-handed focus on the issue no doubt, but somehow the execution works well against the backdrop of the Patty-Dickens storyline.

Note: Fans of the series will remember Angela already bumping into other class holiday-related characters (see the Halloween episode).

Back to Patty’s Christmas transformation: The first challenge comes from Angela, when she asks why the family doesn’t go to church, and whether her parents believe in God. It’s an interesting way to examine how a religious holiday has become a consumer event, even within the household of two self-described spiritual parents. The second test Patty endures comes when she shows little concern that the Krakow family left Brian home alone on Christmas while taking off on a holiday vacation. The third confrontation comes when Rickie arrives at their house looking for comfort and shelter and Patty outright refuses Angela’s request to let him stay the night. Graham then challenges her by asking if it would be any different if it were Brian instead of Rickie. Just as Scrooge is visited by three spirits which challenged his understanding of the world, so has Angela’s mom.

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The multi-layered characters in My So-Called Life were easily the highlight of each episode, but the show also offered top of the line production values. Keep in mind the pilot, as well as this episode, was directed by Scott Winant, who would go on to helm episodes of Breaking Bad  The direction is disciplined, and the sharp editing deserves special mention, as transitions often appear seamless. Juliana Hatfield’s ghostly sequences drift freely in most cases, creating a dreamlike pace and a smooth story flow. Charlie Lieberman’s photography here tops any of the other series’ entries and composer W.G.  Walden crafts a number of organic, poignant music cues that work well with the Holiday spirit. From the percussion-driven moments of heightened drama to quieter, more reflective sequences, the music sets the episode’s tone incredibly well.

Mushy and sentimental, perhaps, but one can’t diminish the overall effect this heartwarming tribute to the true Christmas spirit has. This holiday classic is worth an annual viewing – a truly classic, timeless episode, and one of the few that never grows old.

“Remember, folks: no man is a failure who has friends.”

Overall, “So-Called Angels” is without a doubt one of the all-time great Christmas specials, from what might be considered one of the “best shows ever”.

– Ricky D

How Christmassy is it?

Combine the story, the message, and the take on A Christmas Carol, and it’s easy to see that this is 100% Chrismassy.

Who’s it for

Everyone.

Other observations:

As Patty and Graham converse in their bedroom, the television silently runs It’s a Wonderful Life. Their faces are framed alongside the TV set in such a way that Jimmy Stewart is practically standing in the room with them. The scene from the classic Holiday film is the sequence in which George Bailey out of desperation, prays for help. By setting up this shot, director Scott Winant foreshadows the presence of Angela’s guardian angel – Hatfield. She is to Angela what Clarence is to George Bailey. These juxtapositions continue throughout the episode. A second example comes later in the Chase home when the television is showing the scene from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol where the philanthropists have come to solicit donations from Scrooge. We don’t get to hear Scrooge’s response, but Patty’s reaction speaks volumes when she outright rejects Angela’s invitation to have Rickie and the mysterious girl, over for Christmas dinner. The scene establishes the complete transformation of Patty into Scrooge.

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The Expanse Season Four Episode 2 Review: “Jetsam”

The Expanse’s fourth season inches forward in another captivating episode.

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The Expanse Jetsam

“So what do we got here?”

Miller’s inquisitiveness isn’t just a reminder of the show’s noir-ish roots; it’s an important framing device for “Jetsam,” an hour of The Expanse‘s characters and governments sizing each other up, poking at the edges to see what holds and what bends. And like the ancient structures Holden ends up unleashing at the end of the episode, it’s clear there is just something a little off, an unexpected wrinkle that keeps two sides of every conflict just out of arm’s reach.

Like Naomi, The Expanse is gaining density quickly; whether it will be quick enough is yet to be seen, though these first two hours leave me quite confident in both to pull through.

The ancient, towering structures sitting on Ilus prove to be a powerful metaphorical device, along with being a fascinating mystery to unlock: centered around the idea of unexpected wrinkles, everything in “Jetsam” is not exactly what it appears on first glance. Bobbie’s invitation to Avasarala’s peace-making dinner, Naomi’s slow adjustment to a new atmosphere, and Multry’s demeanor are but a few examples of the subtle shifts and turns “Jemsat” holds under its surface.

The Expanse Jetsam

But perhaps this episode’s approach to storytelling is best exemplified by Avasarala; when we first see her sitting and holding a conversation, it is assumed she’s still on Earth somewhere. But then she stands up, grabs a pen out of mid-air, and smiles as she thinks about Amos teaching her about using mag-boots; the wrinkles are simple, and disposed of quickly, but they’re nonetheless effective narrative devices to unify its universe-traversing plot.

The disparate parts of “Jetsam” follow this basic blueprint: Klaes guiding Camina to understand their purpose outside the ring, Bobbie being dismissed by her Martian counterparts as a disgrace, Miller’s curiosity about a root obstructing the mysterious function of the ancient alien tower… everything in “Jetsam” flows through this idea of subversion, and it makes for a rewarding – if meticulously slow-paced – episode spring to life in its few truly dramatic moments.

But “Jetsam” is not just narrative winks and literary masturbation; with characters like Naomi and Bobbie, it is more than capable enough of delivering powerful personal stories among the larger ideas and stories it hints towards. Naomi and Bobbie form a strong foundation for the episode, two women whose sacrifices aren’t being rewarded by the powers that be; Bobbie is basically condoned as a traitor on Mars, while Naomi’s cardiovascular system can’t keep up with her ambitions of experiencing a terrestrial’s life.

Like Naomi, Bobbie is able to stay focused on the horizon in front of her, driven by her inherent nobility (and ability to effectively beat the shit out of anyone, physically or verbally) – but both are being rejected by the places they’re trying to settle in, abstracting The Expanse‘s everlasting fascination with the various sociopolitical and biological forces that drive us as a species.

The Expanse Jetsam

The rest of “Jetsam” is no slouch, an hour particularly focused on the women of The Expanse, only occasionally wandering to let its audience marinate in the Miller/Holden dynamic, moments of supernatural noir that coalesce with the episode’s smaller moments in brilliant ways. Another great parallel can be found in Camina and Avasarala’s attempts to forge forward in their respective duties, struggling to find positive ways to assess the dire situations in front of them.

With ships of refugee belters stranded around the ring, violent pirates are having their way picking through the easy targets waiting on the intergalactic shores; the UNN, as it is often want to do, stagnates on making a decision on what to do with both the refugees, their own disillusioned society – and now, the settlers of Ilus, claiming a planet as their own right under the government’s noses.

Though I don’t expect Kaels to walk off the job like Avasarala’s Home Secretary did, there is definitely a shared uncertainty between them, the gnawing sensation that their pessimistic instincts are leading them in the right direction; a direction ripe with moral conflict, that may find them both fighting against their own people to keep the stalemate going long enough to figure out what’s really going on.

The Expanse Jetsam

So what is really going on? Besides Amos immediately… well, settling in with an Ilus local, “Jetsam” continues to keep the larger picture a bit fuzzy. A few things are made clear: Murtry’s landing was a work of sabotage, and the ancient tower’s inoperable state was due to nature playing the saboteur; in short, everything in Ilus already appears to be pretty fucked, and Earth and Mars haven’t even started claiming their space rights on it yet (how many episodes until someone utters the phrase “manifest destiny”?).

Another way to look at “Jetsam” through its strange opening sequence is where “Miller” frustratingly details its attempt to “see if something clicks”; outside of the crew of the Rocinante, most characters are just running around trying to shove squares into circular pegs to see if something sparks. The aptly-named Sojourner, after spending 13 weeks waiting patiently in space, falls victim to these ambitious attempts to find connection: they make it through the ring, but as corpses floating through the core of the ring, reduced to a byproduct of UNN’s attempts to establish space domination in a place it doesn’t understand, and is too afraid to actually explore.

The Expanse Jetsam

Given that it’s a ten episode season, it’s not surprising to see The Expanse already linking together its many strands of story and character spread across its vast universe; it is an impressive balancing act, one that’s able to ebb and flow between the personal and political – and at times, even veer sharply into violence, whether it be Murtry’s murder of an aggressive belter or Naomi’s body rejecting her attempts to speedily acclimate to living on a planet, instead of a rock spinning through space. Like Naomi, The Expanse is gaining density quickly; whether it will be quick enough is yet to be seen, though these first two hours leave me quite confident in both to pull through.

Other thoughts/observations:

a few other ‘unexpected wrinkles’ in “Jetsam” I enjoyed: Amos letting someone take his drink, Alex’s crush turning out to be married, and Avasarala’s job offer to Bobbie (the Get Bobbie Back in Fuckin’ Space campaign is looking strong this week, folks!).

Even though the black feather shuireken weapons were made of proto-molecule material, the infection didn’t spread to anyone injured by then. Important – maybe?

I’m willing to bet we see Avasarala’s former colleague show up somewhere this season.

Fred Johnson? Fred Johnson? Fred Johnson??!!

Bobbie fucking up a bunch of drug dealers reminds me of season one adventures with Miller, getting into fights wherever he went.

The different aspect ratios for Ilus and everything else is jarring, though it does give the Ilus scenes a particular cinematic flair I can’t help but enjoy.

Avasarala remembering Amos teaching her how to use mag boots is a great little moment.

“I like the things you see, better than the ones I do.”

Where the hell is the Reverend Doctor? Did I miss that detail somewhere?

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The Mandalorian “Chapter Six: The Prisoner” Confronts Old Villainy and New Rebellion

The Mandalorian Season 1 Episode Six Review: “Chapter Six: The Prisoner”

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Very minor spoilers ahead!

If this episode did not ooze of Dave Filoni’s earliest Clone Wars and late Rebels bounty hunting and pirate-infested heydays, then this is only the beginning of what’s to come. While it is not an episode that skyrockets the plot a whole lot further in the grand scheme of things, The Mandalorian “Chapter Six: The Prisoner” certainly delves deeper into the background of the title character as we see how he was previously involved with as Obi-Wan Kenobi would have put it “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” before his more civilized days began.

While not exactly getting entirely back to what many people have been hoping to see after last week’s uninspired fillerish episode, “Chapter Six: The Prisoner”- directed by Rick Famuyiwa and co-written by Christopher Yost- heads for a clearer direction to what everyone wants to see and still holds on to all the reasons as to why The Mandalorian might just be one of the best shows of the year; tight and well-directed action, interesting characters, and gorgeous set-pieces that are on par with the Star Wars movies. This group of bounty hunters’ latest heist just might be one of the best episodes in the series so far.

“Chapter Six: The Prisoner” endures the path of both a standard and outlier episode as it proves that a strong focus on plot might not always be the most necessary aspect for some stories to walk away with a strong character narrative.

In pursuit of more work outside of the empire’s grasp, the Mandalorian finds himself arriving at the feet of his old criminal dealing ally Manzar “Ran” Ralk who is in need of a fifth person to run a newly assigned job. In desperation to earn whatever funds he can gather, Mando signs on to an unfair breakout rescue operation where to his surprise a team of his old partners and he have to infiltrate and free a former fellow bounty hunter by the name of Qin from a New Republic prison ship guarded by only defense droids. The human sharpshooter Mayfield, the untrustful droid Zero, a Devaronian named Burg, Xi’an the Twi’lek female, and of course Mando set off on his junk ship the Razor Crest to find Qin.

While “Chapter Six: The Prisoner” does not have a major overarching plot, this episode dives deeper into the past of the Mandalorian himself as we get to hear how he used to operate with groups of rag-tag scoundrel bounty hunters such as those present before his ethics and ideologies took a drastic turn down the line. It is by far one of the deepest character-driven episodes in a while and it never shies away from opening up Mando’s past through the other characters’ hatred and distaste towards him. Mando constantly remains silent like a protagonist in an old-western film, but he consistently establishes his higher status in the room as he looks down on everyone and repeatedly out-smarts them through both words and combat.

The bounty hunters are quite unorthodox compared to the batch that has been shown so far in the previous episodes. Without spoilers, each character in the group is uniquely developed in their own way as we see how they interact with Mando and even The Child. The members of the group clearly have it out for him as whenever he is in danger they choose not to help, disagree with the majority of his personal methods, and they even attempt to crack some humorous jokes at him every now and then as they take aim at Mandalorian religious practices such as never removing their helmets- you know your fate will not end well if you compare a Mandalorian to a Gungan! All four of them are deeply characterized and hit the sweet spots of showtime even if they may just be one-time appearances.

The tension between Mando and his former allies always remains at the roof throughout the episode which ultimately establishes and builds a more intriguing cast of characters that I’m sure no one would mind if they returned for another episode or two down the line in some form. Xi’an makes an effort to flirt with Mando, Zero proclaims himself above him due to his droid intelligence, Burg attempts to use his height to show dominance, and so on. This group of bounty hunters is without a doubt the most memorable cast of characters to show up in any episode so far. Compared to the last five chapters, “The Prisoner” takes a major leap in the right direction when it comes to satisfying build-up and delivery. You can clearly get a better idea of how the Mandalorian has developed as a character before the beginning events of “Chapter One” took place because of how the bounty hunters interact with him here.

Viewers prone to epilepsy should be warned for this episode that there is a ton of flashing lights, specifically within the last fifteen minutes of the episode. Cinematography and directorial wise, these sequences are incredibly well put together and are taken advantage of on several occasions when it comes to incorporating action, but I would not be honest if I did not admit it will be difficult for some viewers to watch for its entirety. If you easily attract headaches from these types of sequences or once again are prone to epilepsy, this is just a heads up but do not worry since this segment does not last for that long. Nonetheless, it results in one of the highlight sequences of the episode- dare I say the series.

Speaking of, the most notable part about this episode is by far the close centered action that never disappoints. The Mandalorian has always contained engaging action, but there is nothing sweeter then Star Wars close range firefight sequences. Due to the setpieces focusing on smaller corridors and tight spaces within the prisoner ship, the action sequences remain extremely compact and close up. While Mando gets to flash some flames, fire some blasters, and even use his satisfying wrist rocket tools, everyone this episode gets a shot to throw some punches and lasers. Even The Child- or better known as Baby Yoda- gets a hand in the action as he has a humorous cat and mouse chases with Zero inside the interior of the Razor Crest.

“Chapter Six: The Prisoner” is without question overall one of the least involved episodes in the overarching plot of the series so far for season one, but that does not automatically strike it down as an uninteresting narrative. It continually aims to provide more insight into the past of Pedro Pascal’s unnamed softy Mandalorian character who we truly do not know too much about- a subject that I’m sure the show will continue to delve deep into as it proceeds to find a stronger footing. As per usual, when it comes to action, design, and character development, this episode is The Mandalorian rightfully showing off at its absolute peak. The sheer amount of passion and high-quality production values are never shy out from making themselves outstanding. This episode will only make viewers even more excited for whatever comes next in the final two chapters of season one.

Other Thoughts/Observations

Composer Ludwig Goransson adds a new sci-fi remix to the western roots of The Mandalorian theme for the opening title and it comes off as nothing but welcoming. The phenomenal original score for this series keeps snowballing into Star Wars music that proves that it is in no need of John Williams- although it certainly would be incredible to have him guest star for a score down the line.

The New Republic should be noticing that they are in need of better defenses in the future as their defense droids were as useful as clanker cannon fodder from the days of the clone wars even though they were able to put up somewhat of a fight when the bounty hunters first dropped in.

By far one of the most admirable cameos in the series so far was not actually a reemerging veteran character in the episode but rather renowned Star Wars television writers and executive producers Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, and Deborah Chow who starred as the X-Wing pilots during the New Republic’s attack run. Matt Lantern, the voice of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, also plays the doomed rebel guard on the prisoner’s vessel at the halfway point of the episode.

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