When Season 1 of “Condor” was good — and it almost always was — it was a cinema-quality spy thriller. This was a smart, suspenseful, well made TV show that was very nearly perfect — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.
“Condor” was adapted loosely from James Grady’s 1974 book, “Six Days of the Condor,” and its famous film adaptation the following year, “Three Days of the Condor.” I’ve neither read the former or seen the latter, but I can tell you that this new iteration of the story is intelligently written, nicely directed and edited, and well performed by its actors. It seems to channel the modus operandi of Tom Clancy’s books and films — showing multiple thoughtful characters plotting and acting either against or alongside one another — while the show keeps the tension high with sequences of surprise violence. (And there is indeed some disturbing violence here, particularly when the story calls for it to be perpetrated against non-combatants. “Condor” aired on the Audience channel on DirecTV; I suspect its content might be too much for a regular network.)
William Hurt has always been a goddam national treasure, as far as I’m concerned. (I may be biased in my appraisal of his work, as I grew up watching him in films like 1983’s “Gorky Park” and 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist.” I think he’s one of the best actors out there.) Seeing his talent colliding with Bob Balaban’s on screen should make this show required viewing for anyone who enjoys spy thrillers. (There is an extended, loaded exchange between them in a coffee shop here that is absolutely priceless.)
The whole cast is great. I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser, simply because his movies are usually too goofy for me — but he shines in “Condor,” playing against type as an awkward villain.
Leem Lubany is terrific as the story’s merciless assassin. (See my comments above about the violence.) The role doesn’t call for her to have much range, as her character is a somewhat stoical sociopath. But she looks and sounds the part — combining sex appeal with an incongruous, calm, homicidal intensity. She reminded me a lot of Mandy, Mia Kirshner’s priceless, plot-driving assassin in Fox’s “24” (2001-2014).
If “Condor” has a failing, then it lies with its saccharine protagonists. The screenwriters seem to have gone to great lengths to paint an edgy, unpredictable, violent world full of compromised good guys and moral ambiguity. Why, then, are its handful of young heroes so implausibly perfect? The putative hero is “Joe,” nicely played Max Irons, who is just fine in the role. But the writers make him so idealistic, so gentle, so smart and so kind that it just requires too much suspension of disbelief. At one point I even wanted to see a bad guy at least punch him in the face, simply for being a goody-goody. It makes the story feel weird, too. (Who wants to see Jesus in a violent spy thriller?) The few other protagonists that we see here are also too good — they feel like thinly drawn, cookie-cutter heroes and not real people.
There are some plot implausibilities, too, that I’ve seen pointed out by other reviewers. (I have arrived at the resignation that others are simply far more perceptive about these things than I am.) But there was nothing that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.
“Condor” is great stuff. I recommend it.
[MINOR “GAME OF THRONES” SPOILERS BELOW. ]
This is what makes me worry over Arya’s fate before the show ends. I think a lot of people would think of Jon as the “lone wolf” of the family, being a putative “bastard” and being relegated to the Night’s Watch, etc. I, for one, always imagined the prognostication applied to him. (I think it was a verse Ned recited to Sansa in Season 1?) But … being marginalized, vilified or betrayed doesn’t mean Jon has been alone.
Jon’s has always had friends near him. He became a King, for god’s sake. But more than any of the other Stark children, Arya has usually walked alone. Her primary motivation is personal revenge, whereas Sansa, Jon and Bran are respectively motivated by their duties to House Stark, Westeros, and all of humanity. (I myself am slightly befuddled about Bran’s importance, including during the Battle of Winterfell. He’s … “the world’s memory?” I thought we had books and maesters for that. But whatever.)
Arya doesn’t exactly leave the Faceless Men under the best of terms. Even when she encounters Nymeria in the woods on her way back to Winterfell, her own former pet turns down her invitation to join her.
Then, even when she’s back among her siblings at Winterfell, she keeps to herself. Upon her arrival, she slips by the two guards who were supposed to escort her. When Jon asks where she is, Sansa says something to the effect of “She’s lurking around here somewhere.”
Besides … [MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SEASON 8 AFTER THE JUMP BELOW]
I don’t understand how “Black Summer” can be as good as it is. It’s produced by The Asylum, the makers of low budget, direct-to-video ripoff films like “Atlantic Rim” (2013) and “Triassic World” (2018). It’s a prequel to the horror-comedy “Z Nation” (2014-2018) — a show that was so bad I couldn’t make it through its first episode. Yet “Black Summer” is inexplicably a great, albeit imperfect, TV show. I’d rate it a 9 out 10.
I might be in the minority here; a lot of people are severely panning this show online. And I do recognize its weaknesses — there is very little detail in its plot or character development … there is often even very little dialogue at all. And even I recognized some plot holes. (I’m typically a little slow on the uptake where these are concerned.)
But this bare-bones zombie story still manages to screen some likable characters, and then put them through a thrilling succession of hyper-kinetic chases and melees. I was on the edge of my seat, and I consequently didn’t miss the methodical, detailed plotting of shows like “The Walking Dead.” The season’s finale is crowned by an extended, eye-level, real-time action set-piece that ought to be considered a classic in the zombie-horror subgenre. It was mind-blowing. I just can’t dislike a horror property that genuinely scared me.
I could simply be out of step with everyone else; I often have different tastes in zombie fare. I love Zack Snyder’s 2008 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which this series reminds me of. And I also love similar overseas productions like Spain’s “[REC]” films (2007 – 2014) and Britain’s “Dead Set” miniseries (2008), while those amazing entries are hardly known among my friends. I also cannot understand why many people who love George A. Romero’s and Robert Kirkman’s productions must always compare other films and TV shows unfavorably to them. We can love both. Why not?
Hey, if you don’t want to make my word for it, here is what Stephen King tweeted: “No long, fraught discussions. No endless flashbacks, because there’s no back story. No grouchy teens. Dialogue is spare. Much shot with a single handheld camera, very fluid.”
I obviously recommend this.
“The Purge” franchise continues to defy expectations after its move to television. It still isn’t high art, and it probably can never fully transcend the high-camp trappings of its premise. (I suppose it’s hard to script a truly grounded horror property about people in Halloween costumes murdering one another with impunity on a designated “holiday.”) But, like the movies preceding it, the USA Network’s new dystopian horror show is still a bit smarter and more interesting you’d expect from its bizarre central plot conceit.
The 10-episode first season, which aired with seemingly little fanfare last fall, generally succeeds — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’ve spoken with a couple of other horror fan who were as happy with it as I was. The people who recommended it to me are also big fans of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (which has radically improved this season), and that makes sense. Although “The Purge” has an entirely different feel than “The Walking Dead,” it also has a lot of common elements — both shows are milieu-type horror stories with a large, diverse group of characters negotiating a sprawling setting with innumerable deadly antagonists.
A surprising amount of thought went into this show. There’s a nice degree of world-building and detail, with various characters embracing, rejecting or remaining ambivalent about the titular “Purge.” The screenwriter here tries hard to round out the twisted America in which The Purge annually takes place, with a lot of creative and blackly cynical story elements. (I’m not clear if the writer here is James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three of the four “Purge” movies.) We see, for example, a cult whose brainwashed members offer themselves up as willing murder victims, as well as anti-Purge revolutionaries who exploit the night to target the fascist oligarchical government which created the brutal holiday. There are a lot of surprises in terms of plot, character and setting that I will not spoil here.
The gore and violence were surprisingly high for network television. (Again, this show may be taking its cues from “The Walking Dead,” which always pushes the boundaries.)
Some of the acting is quite good — William Baldwin is absolutely superb, Lee Tergesen is always fun to watch, and the beautiful Hannah Emily Anderson is another talented standout. I swore I recognized Fiona Dourif’s distinctive looks and mannerisms. (She portrays the cunning cult leader who entices young people to sacrifice themselves, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t totally look and sound the part.) But, upon Googling her, I realized I’d never seen her before — she just reminds me of her father, who also plays a lot of bad guys — the amazing Brad Dourif.
Some of my enthusiasm for “The Purge” waned just a little as the season wound down toward its conclusion. After Season 1’s unsettling ideas were left fully explored, the show did start to feel more like conventional television — right down to a standard good-guys-vs.-bad-guys shoot-em-up at its climax. (If the show had fully sustained its tension until the end, I would have rated it a 9 out of 10.) And the final minutes of Season 1 consist of a coda among three characters that is forced and preposterous … I’m surprised it made it past the editing stage. But this still wasn’t enough to spoil the fun.
I should also note here that not everyone enjoyed “The Purge” as I and my friends did. Critical and popular reaction to it is definitely mixed. (As of this writing, the show has only a 42% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with just 63% of audiences liking it.)
Postscript — I could almost swear that the auditorium we see towards the end is the very same shooting location used for Thomas Smith’s school in “The Man in the High Castle.” You can tell by the establishing shots. It’s even lit the same way.
A show like “The Exorcist” must be difficult to write. It stands in the shadow of some of horror’s greatest films (William Friedkin’s 1973 original and the third movie in 1990). Its plot device is inevitably redundant. (How many possessed innocents can we see strapped to beds while priests pray at them?) It seems easy to stray into camp. And it seems like a story concept that is tough to structure into a serialized format.
But the second season of “The Exorcist” was … fantastic. It surpassed the first season, and I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.
The ten-episode arc wisely changes things up a bit from Season 1, which was maybe a bit too reminiscent of the films. Our priestly dynamic duo are on the road in America’s northwest, and on the run from a Vatican that has been infiltrated by followers of the demon Pazuzu. (As stupid as all of that sounds, the show actually depicts it quite well.) As the story proceeds, there are a couple of surprise plot developments that will contradict most viewers’ expectations. (I won’t spoil them here.)
The characters are all likable and all well played. Ben Daniels remains possibly the show’s strongest asset as the senior priest; he’s just a superb actor. John Cho also gives a fine performance as the head of a foster home where a demon runs amok. Alfonso Herrera is quite good as the apprentice priest — his character is better written this time around, and isn’t saccharine to the point of annoyance. And Herrera himself seems more comfortable in the role. The kids are damned cool — all of them, and their interaction with their foster father was surprisingly sweet and funny — which raises the stakes emotionally when the entire household is besieged by a sadistic force.
The weaknesses here were minor. I think the ten episodes could have been shortened to seven or eight, to make them tighter. (I realize I write that about a lot of shows, and I’m not sure why.) The first five episodes were tightly plotted, while the second five were a little loose. I think better editing would have entirely excised the flashback scenes depicting Daniels’ character and this season’s new female exorcist, played by Zuleikha Robinson. (Yes, that is indeed Yves Adele Harlow from “The Lone Gunmen” and “The X-Files.”)
The flashbacks were cheesy, even if they gave Daniels a chance to show his range. They depict his tutelage of Robinson’s character decades prior, complete with some cliche pulp novel stuff. (Ugh.) We’re shown that the priest is younger because of his blond, surfer-esque haircut. (Really?) The flashbacks were out of place, and a little too campy. They reminded me of the comic book style of the “Highlander” films and TV series — this show could have done without them.
I also found myself slightly annoyed by a dearth of exposition about the process of exorcism itself. After the films and now two seasons of the show, I wanted to know more about the key actions here that affect the story’s resolution. Do some prayers or methods work better than others? Then why not use them all the time? Why are some interventions more lengthy or difficult? We are told that the demon attacking this family is different than Pazuzu, who we’ve seen in the past (though Pazuzu still puts in an appearance this season). Can the demons coordinate their efforts, or at least communicate with each other? If not, why not? These seem like logical questions to ask, both for the characters and the viewers.
But there is something more that bothered me. If a demon is intelligent and wants to harm people, then why make its presence known — and why torment or kill only a few people? Why not remain undetected until it can commit a mass murder? Or even perpetrate an act of terrorism, and harm far greater numbers of people by causing riots or wars? That would suit evil’s purposes far more than the garish individual spectacles we find them performing in horror tales like these. (Maybe I’m just analyzing too much.)
Anyway, I cheerfully recommend “The Exorcist.” It might be the most grownup horror show on television.
And one more thing — there’s some fun to be had here recognizing actors from other roles. Daniels was a member of the Rebel Alliance in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016). And there is actually another “The X-Files” alum here — even if it was only a small role. I thought that Harper’s mother looked familiar — the actress playing her was Rochelle Greenwood. She’s none other than the teenage waitress who witnessed Walter Skinner getting shot waaaaay back in 1996’s classic episode, “Piper Maru.” (Can I remember faces or what?)