THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Amazon, 10 episodes) is like a symphony. Even the greatest symphonies can have thrilling passages that blaze their way into our memories . . . and head-nodding movements that intervene. After a long time investment in Railroad, I found myself reliving some of its more compelling episodes (1, 2, 3, 8 and 9) while, at other times (the other five episodes), feeling as if I were watching an earthen figure dry in the dim light of a flickering hearth.
The limited series, adapted by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, often seems more a distillation of its source, an attenuated tone poem riffing on Whitehead’s themes and narrative. Straightforward, it isn’t. Visually gorgeous, beautifully scored (Nicholas Britell provides the mournful, anxious, propulsive music) and piercingly acted, yes, it is all that. But The Underground Railroad is often a trial to sit through.
Maybe that’s the appropriate way to revisit the cataclysm of slavery, the original sin that won’t go away as proven by George Floyd and his many murdered sisters and brothers, and by the current knee-jerk outrage at the idea of critical race theory being taught in our schools.
Thuso Mbedu plays Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia, accused of murder while en route to the Underground Railroad (made literal, in Whitehead’s magic-realist take on Southern history). Child-sized with an old woman’s weary face, reduced to panicked animal grunts when in the clutches of her nemesis, slave hunter Ridgeway (the always fine Joel Edgerton), she delivers a brave but challenging performance that’s hard to warm to. When she smiles, the result is earthshaking, since it happens so rarely.
Railroad takes Cora through a battered, bloody Southern landscape that’s alternately whimsical and gruesome in its surreal embellishments. South Carolina is graced with anachronistic skyscrapers and elevators (Savannah and its City Hall pull their weight in Episode 2 and Macon’s Terminal Station has an extended role in a later one). North Carolina features endless avenues, its stately trees ornamented by the swinging bodies of Black men, women and children and the White people who dared to aid them.
The strong cast includes Peter Mullan as Ridgeway’s pious father, Lily Rabe as a shrewish North Carolinian, William Jackson Harper as a flicker of hope on Cora’s passage through the South, and a solemn, impressive young actor named Chase Dillon as Ridgeway’s child henchman.
Jenkins, shooting in Georgia, gives the state’s varied landscapes a glory rarely seen on film, and his use of natural sounds, especially the drone of insects, is fantastic. But Underground’s languorous pacing (also problematic in Beale Street) and some scenes shot with an impenetrable murkiness, make it seem more interested in creating its own artistic tone than in communicating the story. For better or worse, this Underground Railroad is more Jenkins’ project than it is Whitehead’s, less an adaptation than a takeover.
NETFLIX | The Innocent
From the sublimely ponderous to the flashily trashy, I binged the eight-episode THE INNOCENT a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it immensely but couldn’t remember a single thing about it until I checked my notes. That’s what you get with a series based on a book by Harlan Corben, the best-selling American page-turner who’s taking over Netflix one country at a time: The Woods (transposed to Poland) and Safe and The Stranger (the U.K.). Innocent has been transplanted to Barcelona. Corben is a master of twisty-turny plots that keep you hooked, but at the end of the narrative workout start to blend together and turn into mist.
That said, this latest offering is a typical guilty pleasure. Mario Casas (handsome and emotionally blank) plays Mateo, a young man accidentally responsible for the death of another fellow during a brawl outside a dance club. After serving time, Mateo returns to polite society and a successful career at his brother’s law firm. He even re-encounters a previous one-night stand, Olivia (Aura Garrido), leading to marriage and pregnancy. And yet — there are always at least a half-dozen “and yets” in a Corben plot) — nothing is as simple as it seems.
Olivia disappears, and her past gradually turns out to involve drugs, thugs, strip clubs, orgies and torture. Meanwhile, some unknown person (though you may well guess who long before the reveal) is working behind the scenes to punish Mateo for the crime for which he’s already served time. Turn off your brain, kick off your shoes, hit the remote and enjoy.
NETFLIX | Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness
In our era of true-crime immersion — in podcasts, on TV — a new, engrossing addition is SONS OF SAM: A DESCENT INTO DARKNESS (four episodes). The first hour returns us to an Escape From New York (but real-life) Manhattan rife with uncollected garbage, crime and simmering desperation. And that was before some lunatic (or as this documentary series proposes, possibly lunatics) went around the boroughs shooting young lovebirds point-blank in their parked cars.
Yes, we know the story of David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, the nebbish postal worker who claimed, when collared by cops, responsibility for the murders, saying a demonic dog named Sam gave him his orders. Then journalist Maury Terry began connecting additional shreds of evidence that New York authorities seemed happy to ignore once they pinned the killings on one man.
Sons of Sam leads us to expect a reappraisal of the long-ago murders, and it does that, but through the lens of what Terry came to believe what might have been a wider conspiracy (or coincidences) that suggest there were killers other than Berkowitz. Sons is less about a serial killer(s) than it is about obsession. Terry’s words, drawn largely from his book The Ultimate Evil, are voiced by actor Paul Giamatti.
Initially, the documentary can convince you Terry was onto something. It is suspicious that two of Berkowitz’s neighbors and friends, actual sons of a hothead named Sam, died young in mysterious deaths not long after Berkowitz was jailed. But as the series continues, and Terry shows up on the daytime talk shows Geraldo and Maury, spinning ever-more elaborate tales of a nationwide cult, the journalist undermines his own investigation.
Sons of Sam reminds us of the earlier epidemic of nonsensical “satanic panic” that burned through communities and destroyed families and businesses in the 1980s. And it foresees today’s brand of satanic-cannibal-pedophile nonsense, QAnon.
Sons is well worth watching but be forewarned. In a kind of bait-and-switch, it starts off depicting Terry as a truth-seeking hero only to implicitly criticize him for being swallowed by the conspiratorial rabbit hole the show asks us to follow him down.
HBO MAX | Mare of Easttown
MARE OF EASTTOWN (seven weekly episodes, concluding Sunday) features Kate Winslet as Mare, a world-weary detective in a small town near Philadelphia. (SNL shrewdly parodied the thickly accented show in a skit called “Murdur Durdur.”
The willful griminess and funk of the first episode might turn you off but stick with the show as Mare investigates the murder of a young woman and the disappearance of two others. A little like the U.K.’s Happy Valley, Easttown is equally interested in the crime and in Mare’s home life. She lives with her nonbinary teen daughter, the toddler grandson of her junkie son (dead by his own hand) and her crusty mom, played by a zero-glamour Jean Smart.
HBO MAX | Hacks
Smart, in a complete reversal of her Mare performance, headlines HACKS (10 weekly episodes, concluding June 10) as a career stand-up comic named Deborah Vance. Deborah is in decades-long residence at a Las Vegas casino, living in a faux chateau in the expensively landscaped desert. Rich and famous, she’s also old hat and old news.
Against both of their wills, Deborah is paired with a rising comedian named Ava (Hannah Einbinder, a comic in real life and SNL original cast member Laraine Newman’s daughter). Her own career canceled by a too on-the-nose tweet about a closeted congressman, Ava grudgingly teams with a woman she sees as a laff-generating dinosaur.
Three episodes in, the jokes are uneven and Einbinder (and her character) feel a little unformed. Watch the show for Smart, who nails every moment in a character that proves she can do just about anything.
NETFLIX | The Woman in the Window
If you want to see something really (unintentionally) funny, check out the long-delayed film THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (100 minutes), a claustrophobic would-be thriller that wastes the talents of actors Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and director Joe Wright.
NETFLIX | The Mitchells vs. the Machines
More worth your time is the animated original feature THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (113 minutes), a frenetic, family-friendly romp about a typical American clan who finds itself responsible for saving the planet from takeover by sentient A.I. (think of it as a suburban cousin of The Incredibles). The animation is accomplished and relentlessly propulsive, but much of the action takes a backseat to an extended conflict between the Mitchell dad and his rebellious, affirmation-seeking teenage daughter.
NETFLIX | Army of the Dead
There’s a similarly clichéd father-daughter dynamic at the core of ARMY OF THE DEAD (148 minutes), but happily it tends to be drowned beneath geysers of blood and tumbling, severed heads. Dave Bautista plays a mountain of ‘roids leading a gang of would-be bank robbers into a sin city overrun by flesh eaters. Tig Notaro, digitally inserted after the main film was finished, steals the scene as a crusty helicopter pilot. Even her sharp, snarky scenes can’t solve the movie’s central problem, though — that director Zack Snyder really thinks a gory walking-dead flick needs to run 2.5 hours. In its own way, Army makes Underground Railroad seem like a fleet, tautly edited enterprise.
WANT MORE TO BINGE? Catch up with our May column, featuring reviews of Amazon Prime’s Them, HBO’s Tina and Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, among many others.