A Season of Swords

Game of Thrones, otherwise known as every origins story trash-compacted into the "ultimate extrapolation of Dallas," returns for its third season this Sunday.

Once again, it's that splendid time of year when we get to cast aside human decency without a backward look. Let's savor ruthless ambition, revel in permanent war, and realize we don't give two hoots about the huddled masses being ground underfoot like cigarillos for conquest's sake. Kicking off its third season on Easter Sunday, and so much for piety, HBO's Game of Thrones may be the closest that high-minded lefties will ever come to experiencing the buzz Paul Ryan feels at CPAC. Meanwhile, virtuous conservatives get to gorge guilt-free on rampant carnality and unrepentant paganism, and who says there's no such thing as common ground anymore? Try Westeros. If you can believe it, GoT has gotten even more murky and brooding this season, creating an enjoyable illusion of depth where none exists. That's even true of the latest iteration of the title sequence, which is, as ever—thanks partly to Ramin Djawadi's theme music—among the most brilliant summonses to addiction in TV history...

Always Be Monologuing

Al Pacino's endless arias are the only thing that save David Mamet's Phil Spector from being mere propaganda.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.'" So goes the disclaimer preceding director and writer David Mamet's Phil Spector , which premieres Sunday on HBO, and what sense are we supposed to make of that Bizarro World claim? The movie features Al Pacino in a surprisingly convincing impersonation—or maybe I just mean a disconcertingly affecting one—of the 1960s record producer now doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson (real name also used). Nothing already known to the public deviates from the record, including Spector's cuckoo array of wigs in the courtroom. As if Pacino's participation doesn't already lend enough heft, Helen Mirren, flagrantly miscast—but, as ever, classy, and cowing us into being predisposed in her character's favor is what she's been hired for—plays Linda Kenney Baden, one of the battery of legal eagles who represented Spector during his first trial. (It ended in a hung jury; a 2008 do-over convicted him.) The real Baden is also...

Obama: The Republicans' Devil

Courtesy of the History Channel
Courtesy of the History Channel Mehdi Ouazanni in the History Channel's The Bible I n the Bible, the Devil doesn’t show up until relatively late. Most people assume he’s the snake in the Garden, but actually the Devil’s first appearance is around Chronicles, the two books that sum up the rest of the Old Testament. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Devil is an invention of Christianity, it would be fair to suggest that he doesn’t have the kind of mythic resonance for Jews that he has for Christians or, for that matter, Muslims, perhaps because in Judaism no single figure embodies God in the way that Christ and Muhammad do in the religions founded in their names. Over the millennia, as Christians have revised Jesus himself from the at-once historical and obscure figure in Mark (the gospel actually written before Matthew, whose more fantastical and spectacular take on Jesus and particularly the resurrection upstaged Mark and thus became definitive) to the judgmental, fire-and...

How "The Bachelor" Explains the Real World of Women

Forget falling in love, the show says a whole lot more about our hidden anger

I t’s March in America, and if you are any kind of average citizen in this plugged-in, un-buckled, vegged-out nation, you’ve been soothing your winter malaise with a tsunami of television watching. You might even be seeking a little insight into the human experience, tuning into HBO and Showtime for their critically lauded helpings of suspense, hard-to-watch sex, and pathos. But there is a show, neither subtle nor intellectually sophisticated nor on cable, which contains greater nuggets of insight into the most written-about, lusted-after, projected-upon creature of American popular life—the modern woman—than premium-channel dramas ever offer. ABC’s The Bachelor, behind all the beefcake and buoyant breasts, unsparingly depicts the central struggles of women’s lives—and no, that doesn’t mean fighting for a guy. While the quest for true love might be the raison d’être of the show, it’s the prickly bramble of societal expectations, bilious intra-sex competition, and internal crescendos...

It's All in the Game

House of Cards is irresistible, but by insisting that corruption, not fanaticism, is poisoning Washington, the series feels dated.

AP Photo
I t’s possible that people who live in Washington and work in a cottage industry that includes writing and reading this magazine feel about Netflix’s series of political intrigue, House of Cards , the way a resident of Los Angeles (me, say) feels about the guys on Entourage : I’m surrounded by assholes like these every time I walk into a coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, so why would I want to watch them on TV? Nonetheless my guess is that power couples like Francis and Claire Underwood don’t frequent the bars on the U Street corridor. Frank is the majority whip of the House of Representatives, and Claire is an activist, and together they consolidate their power in the shadows of each other, smoking at the back window of their townhouse in the wee hours; these moments of nocturnal rendezvous, right down to the cigarettes themselves, are post-coital except the coitus, which Frank and Claire have with other people but not each other. They divulge virtually everything when they talk,...

Riding Downton's Coattails

HBO's adaptation of Parade's End premieres tonight—too bad the show stole its soapy predecessor's formula but none of the fun.

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs
AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs F irst published as four separate novels ( Some Do Not. . ., No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up--, and Last Post ) between 1924 and 1928, Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is one of the earliest and greatest entries in the swan-song-for-old-England genre that became ubiquitous once the 1956 Suez crisis turned Gone With Gunga Din into an ongoing national dirge. The whole cul-de-sac filled with rue is still with us today in, for instance, Alan Bennett's more melancholic plays, not to mention a certain popular soap opera whose glibness I've been known to deprecate while granting I'm still hooked. But there's something to be said for revisiting Stonehenge. I doubt anyone who's read Ford's masterpiece can ever forget his pained, eternally solicitous hero, Christopher Tietjens, the stolid but suffering incarnation of traditional English values under bombardment both figurative and literal by 20th-century situational morality and the ultimate calamity of World War I...

Gleefully Hate-Watching the Oscars

You can complain all you want about the Academy Awards, but admit it. They're fun, and the griping is nearly the best part. 

AP Photo/ Reed Saxo
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes M ost serious movie buffs—and not even only those of a certain vintage, which does at least provide an excuse for bitterness—never tire of expressing contempt for the Oscars. One of their favorite damning proofs of the Academy's puerility is that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't even get nominated for Best Picture of 1968. That is, going on half a century ago, and talk about holding a grudge. In 1968, to put things in perspective, Christopher Nolan (director of The Dark Knight Rises ) hadn't been born yet. In 1980, when Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull scandalously— scandalously!— lost the Best Picture sweepstakes to Ordinary People, Wes Anderson was 11 years old. Perhaps the shock traumatized him into wanting to live inside painted boxes, but more likely it didn't. I don't recall any permanent damage myself. Nor do I get wrought up because, say, the obvious real Best Picture of 1990—at least to the handful of crazies who saw it—was Guy Maddin's gleefully...

You Can't Lip-Synch a Hip Shake

Beyoncé's new documentary Life Is But a Dream marks a brief pit stop during her rise to world domination.

AP Photo/ David Drapkin
AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn If you're as stubbornly naive as I used to be, you probably think that following up a performance of the National Anthem at Barack Obama's second inaugural with one sizzler of a Super Bowl halftime show would be exposure enough for anyone. A pop-cult twofer that unprecedented might tempt even the most driven of superstars to rest on her laurels until, say, early March. So it's a relief to learn that Beyoncé Knowles—known throughout the Milky Way, of course, as plain and simple Beyoncé—has her head screwed on right: "I don't want to never be satisfied. I don't think that's a healthy way to live." Honest, that's how she feels. If you're so minded, you can see and hear her say so in Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, airing on HBO on Saturday. She's credited as both "director" and executive producer, and adding "star" would be redundant at a level to invite the gods' mirth. Her 90-minute self-portrait hits cable under a month after she serenaded Obama's swearing-in, and...

An Addictive, Imperfect House of Cards

AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon
AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon S o help me, I almost gave up on House of Cards. After zipping through the first three or four episodes of Netflix's new 13-part, Americanized remake of the 1990 BBC miniseries about political intrigue, I figured I'd seen enough to cook up a reasonably brainy-sounding takedown, starting with how some of the supposedly sophisticated power plays executed by Kevin Spacey as scheming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood—a Democrat from South Carolina, and how likely is that in 2013?—would have left Machiavelli yawning at their crudeness in eighth grade. The idea that a single planted piece by a junior reporter could instantly vault someone into front-running contention for the job of Secretary of State had me groaning, and so on. Then I realized I wanted to keep watching, which was annoying. Especially given today's ever increasing surfeit of programming options—gee, thanks for getting into the original-content game, Netflix—critics trying to keep up...

Liberal Idealism, With a Healthy Dash of Satire

It may not be getting the same buzz as Girls, but Enlightened is growing nicely into its second season.

In case you don't know, Enlightened— co-created by its star, Laura Dern, with fellow cast member Mike White, and in its second season as of last week—is the show that currently airs right after Lena Dunham's Girls on HBO Sunday nights. To say it hasn't gotten as much attention as Girls is to riot in understatement, as Gore Vidal used to say. But without getting into which one is, how you say, better—these two tales of self-realization couldn't be more different—I have to admit that Enlightened interests me more these days. The main reason is that it's branching out into new areas in a way Girls hasn't so far. No matter how acute Girls is about the problems and attitudes of 24-year-old hipsters, they're still a fairly hermetic bunch of 24-year-old hipsters. Partly because she's one herself, a miniaturist like Dunham is hardly likely to think that giving their concerns any wider social applicability is part of her creative task. She thinks they're resonant for their own sake, after all...

Did Jodie Foster Just Come Out?

Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP
On Sunday night, as Jodie Foster accepted her Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, made an awkward and extremely peculiar speech. No one seems to be entirely sure what she was saying. Was she retiring from acting? Was she coming out even though she didn’t actually say she’s a lesbian—and even though she’s made out-ish comments and gestures in the past? Here are the parts that suggested coming out most clearly: So I'm here being all confessional and I guess I just have the sudden urge to say something that I've never really been able to air in public, so a declaration that I'm a little nervous about. But maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? Um, but uh, you know, I'm just gonna put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I'm gonna need your support on this — I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I'm kidding. But I mean I'm not really kidding, but I am kind of kidding…. I hope you’re not disappointed that there won’...

Media Violence versus Real Violence

In the days since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on violent movies and video games (in particular, for some reason, Natural Born Killers , a film that came out 19 years ago and was a critique of the media's obsession with violence), a number of people in the entertainment industry have been asked about whether their products contribute to real-world violence, and they've seemed extremely uncomfortable answering the question. They seem to have no idea what the answer might be. As it happens, this is a question that has been studied extensively, although the research is a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worthwhile to go over just what evidence there is for the assertion. So if you're a Hollywood big shot, read on so you'll have some idea what to say next time the question comes up. But before we get to that, I was prompted to write this by seeing this interview Quentin Tarantino did with the UK's Channel 4. When the...

To Stop Rape Culture, Ring the Bell

Very few men are rapists . Very few men are abusers. Or stalkers. Predators are the minority. The vast majority of men are decent people who want to do the right thing. What would it take to shift from a rape culture to a respect culture, and end violence against women? You have to involve the decent men. You have to let them know they are our allies, not our enemies. You have to let them know what they can do to help—to interrupt violence, to help spread new norms—without having to call themselves feminists or become full-on activists. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about some such efforts in the United States. Bystander-intervention efforts, in which groups train young men and women in what it takes to derail a situation that could lead to rape. Today I spoke with Mallika Dutt, founder of the binational organization Breakthrough, which works in both the U.S. and India to build a respect culture and prevent all kinds of violence against women—one by one, at the local, personal level,...

More Downton Abbey, Less Grand Theft Auto? Not Gonna Happen.

AP Photo/Joe Skipper
Last week, my sort-of opposite number at—culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, who also writes for The Atlantic and Slate —posted the kind of prescriptive think piece about Our Violent Culture that makes old geezers like me heave a hefty sigh as we finger our own dog-eared membership cards in the vast left-wing conspiracy. Just for the record, I should say that a) Rosenberg and I don't know each other at all, and b) she's someone whose work I enjoy and often glean dandy insights from, not least because our sensibilities and guiding premises are so different. If she's not at her best writing prescriptions, so what? That isn't really a critic's job in the first place. Even so, the assumptions in play in “ How To Change Our Culture's Reliance on Violence ” struck me as wrongheaded enough to deserve a hoot or two. To begin where Rosenberg ends, here's the clunker of a line I groaned at most: "It's time to retrain viewers in how to interpret violence.. . " She goes on to...

Zero Dark Thirty: Homeland's Prequel?

In both cultural depictions, September 11 is a wound that never heals.

Courtesy of Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime A scene from Homeland , with Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin K athryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness and the sound of a conversation that we immediately know is real. Trapped on a high floor of a tall building engulfed by fire, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she keeps repeating, her voice already becoming unmoored from her few years on this earth and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help; both women understand it will never come. We understand as well because this is the 11th of September 2001. When the call disconnects, we hear the operator mutter under her breath, “Oh my God,” and nothing in the movie that follows will be as wrenching as these few seconds in the dark; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prologue that...