MURDER, SHE WROTE – The Days Dwindle Down (1987)

The Strange Bargain of Murder, She Wrote’s The Days Dwindle Down

(This is a repost of a previously penned look at this singular MURDER, SHE WROTE episode from my old tumblr.)

(Freevee/peacock) Please note: this article contains major spoilers for both the film STRANGE BARGAIN as well as the MURDER, SHE WROTE episode The Days Dwindle Down (Season Three, Episode 21).

A killer confronts the person they’ve framed, confesses their crimes, then threatens to take down the wronged man or woman. The police, waiting in the wings, swoop in and safely apprehend the killer. The wronged person sighs with relief and ‘The End’ appears on the screen.

This is the closing sequence of many movies, including the little known 1949 RKO noir film STRANGE BARGAIN. The audience assumes that the ex-suspect can move on and return to a normal, humdrum domestic life. What if they were wrong?

The Days Dwindle Down, the 21st MURDER, SHE WROTE episode of the show’s third season, asks that very question but it does so through the lens of the film STRANGE BARGAIN. By utilizing footage from the movie and casting the major players in the same roles, it tasks writer/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher with solving a crime that, for thirty years, was considered a closed case. It’s a particularly interesting concept — one that I haven’t seen attempted in any TV shows prior or since — and it elevated the normally conservative MURDER, SHE WROTE to a TV event that likely won’t be repeated any time soon.

The episode opens with Georgia Wilson (Martha Scott) overhearing Jessica Fletcher discuss her “real-life sleuthing” with her agent. Georgia pulls Jessica aside to ask for her help: her husband, Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), was just released from a 30 year stinct in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but they can’t move ahead together without finding out who Sam was doing time for.

Ever the optimist, Jessica offers her help and listens to their tale. The story, told through flashbacks utilizing scenes from Strange Bargain, detail Sam’s struggle: while going through a financially turbulent period, Sam (at the request of his wife) requests a raise from his boss, Malcolm Jarvis. Instead of bargaining with him, Malcolm immediately fires Sam, citing both his, and the investment firm’s, poor fiscal condition. However, Malcolm proposes a solution to both of their ills: Malcolm is so cash-desperate that he had taken out a substantial life insurance policy, and he planned to kill himself and pose the scene so it looks like murder, allowing his wife and son a secure future. What’s in it for Sam? $10,000. All he needs to do is to complete the tableau by firing a few shots inside the Malcolm’s study after the suicide, and then dispose of the weapon.

Sam refuses the offer, but Malcolm won’t take no for an answer. The night of the planned suicide, Malcolm calls Sam and tells him he’s going through with it. Sam rushes over to Malcolm’s home to prevent him, but he’s too late: Malcolm is lying face down in a pool of blood, gun by his head. On his desk is a personalized note to Sam, along with an envelope containing $10,000 dollars. Sam decides to follow through with the plan, partially out of guilt, and partially because of the money. He takes the note, the gun, and the cash, goes outside and fires two shots through the office window, then disposes of the gun at a nearby pier. He cleans the remaining blood off of himself and the car, but it’s to no avail; he ultimately ends up becoming the prime suspect for murdering Malcolm, chased by Lieutenant Richard Webb (played by a pre-Dragnet Harry Morgan), a war-wounded cop with a bum leg, a hooked cane, and a record for always getting his man.

Jessica takes all of this in and immediately concludes that there’s no way Sam could be the murderer, and she agrees to investigate further.

This is where certain facts from the film are conveniently — and permanently — excised from The Days Dwindle Down: Strange Bargain actually had a happy ending, an ending that didn’t involve Sam going to jail. The closing scene sees Sam return to Malcolm’s home where he confesses to Edna Jarvis, Malcolm’s wife, that he didn’t kill Malcolm; instead it was an act of suicide. Consequently, there would be no insurance money. He hands over the $10,000, hoping to wash his hands of the whole affair, when Edna informs him that she knew of Malcolm’s plans to kill himself, that she approved, and even coordinated alibis for herself and her son to ensure that they would avoid suspicion.

Edna explains to Sam that she had her doubts that Malcolm would follow through, so she returned to the house to listen for the gunshot and, when she failed to hear one she enters, only to see Malcolm standing, gun reluctantly hanging by his side. He simply didn’t have the wherewithal to go through with it. “Malcolm was a weakling. I had the courage to do what he couldn’t do. […] It really was suicide, in a way,” she explains. “He just needed someone else to pull the trigger.” And so she did.

She points a gun at Sam, noting that the police will find him dead — another suicide — and she’ll be in the clear. She pulls the trigger, misses, merely grazes his arm. A cane stretches into the frame, hooks her arm, and Lieutenant Webb bursts into the scene, knocks Edna’s gun to the ground, and the police drag her away. Webb explains been following Sam for days, that they heard everything, and Sam is now absolved of any blame. Georgia rushes in, holds him tight, as he recants: “Darling, I made a terrible mistake but I’ll never make another one.”

“Oh yes you will,” she warmly retorts. “You’ll make lots of them. Not like this, but you’re a man and men are always making mistakes. Even women make them sometimes.” The End. Credits roll. *

Lacking this information, Jessica hits the trail alongside Sam’s son Rod (The Brood’s Art Hindle) – a cop, determined to prove his father innocent. They start off by interrogating all living offspring, including Richard Beymer as Sydney Jarvis (presciently acting very much like a proto-Benjamin Horne). From there, Jessica slyly tracks down Malcolm’s old secretary Thelma Vantay (played by June Havoc instead of Betty Underwood) and asks her if Edna, Malcolm’s wife, could have shot him.

“Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have murdered anybody,” Thelma plainly states.

Jessica shoots her a quizzical look. “You mean, she was …too nice?”

“She didn’t have the guts!”

After discussing the case with the Wilson family over a nice home-cooked dinner, Jessica heads back to her hotel room for a fitful rest, only to awoken by a gunshot that found its way into her hotel room chair. The next morning, the cops procure the bullet and note that it belongs to a .38 revolver: the same type of gun that killed Malcolm. Unfortunately all of the prior Jarvis case records are missing, thwarting any attempts to match ballistics.

Jessica, undeterred, tracks down Edna Jarvis (played by Gloria Stuart, as Katherine Emery had passed away), and finds her in a nursing home, barely aware of her surroundings but zealously guarded by Sydney.

Conveniently, Jessica receives a phone call from a stranger purporting to have something that may help her investigation. Jessica taxi’s over to meet the man and is greeted by now-retired Lieutenant Richard Webb (still played by Harry Morgan, whose performance has loosened up over the years). He reveals that he has had the case record the entire time (“My Lindbergh baby,” he quips) and they confirm that the bullet fired into her chair was from the same gun. On the subject of Thelma, Malcolm’s secretary, Webb remarks that “I figured she was playing bedsheet bingo with the boss.”

Jessica enlists Rod, and the two scurry back to Ms. Vantay and, after a few rounds of good cop/bad cop, manage to squeeze out the admission that she deduced Malcolm hadn’t killed himself, and figured Sydney was covering it up. Sydney had been perfectly willing to pay her hush money but recently had fought back, knowing she couldn’t go to the cops without being brought up on blackmail charges.

Jessica and Rod gather Sam and Georgina to see Sydney in his drawing room, setting the stage for the big reveal. After quite a bit of verbal sparring with Jessica, Sydney eventually confesses, claiming that he killed his father, and he breaks down the events via more Strange Bargain flashbacks:

Sydney states that he saw Sam when he discovered Malcolm’s body in the study. He followed Sam to the pier (indicated in the flashback by black-and-white loafers) where he fished the gun from the water, just in case any prints were still left.

Jessica listens intently, then clucks at him. “You didn’t really kill your father at all, did you? Aren’t you really covering up for your mother?”

Sydney paces between two portraits of his parents while trying to explain away Jessica’s conjecture, but it’s no use. He sinks into a nearby chair, defeated, and reveals that, yes, his mother did kill Malcolm. Through another flashback, we see that it was an accident: Edna happened to enter the study when she saw Malcolm, poised with a gun to his head. She struggled with him, attempting to wrest the gun from him, but it went off and Malcolm was no more.

Considering the narrative dissonance, it’s not surprising that there was no mention of the film’s closing scene now. In fact, all of Sydney’s flashbacks are markedly different from the source footage. His shoes are inserted in the flashback footage, as is Edna’s tussle with her husband (they don’t even try to hide Edna’s casting change). It’s tough (but not impossible) to explain these discrepancies away as unreliable narration on Edna’s behalf, that she shot Sam in self-defense, that she was lying to protect Malcolm’s legacy and therefore Sydney’s, but the fact that it’s never even mentioned 30 years later is glaring.

At the end, everyone’s happy (or, at least as happy as they can be). Knowing Edna’s state, Sam doesn’t want to press charges, and they feel they can move on with their lives. The resolution fits the MURDER, SHE WROTE formula of exonerating any female suspects, and defangs Edna in particular. In short, the murder and the resulting events have been whitewashed. Thanks to the lack of morally ambiguous characters, STRANGE BARGAIN was hardly noir before The Days Dwindle Down, but Jessica’s deductions turn it into something else entirely.

I wasn’t familiar with STRANGE BARGAIN when I first saw The Days Dwindle Down, and I sought it out simply to see how the MURDER, SHE WROTE writers incorporated the source material. I assumed that The Days Dwindle Down had reversed whatever had been decided at the end of the film, that the events in the film were reshuffled or re-contextualized to put a different spin on the source material, or that the episode would at least would play with point-of-views and unreliable narration. While the concept and Jessica’s sleuthing was intriguing and well-executed, the reveal was far weaker, and far less interesting, than the tepid source material. Ideally MURDER, SHE WROTE would have been tweaked to accommodate the film and the characters’ needs; not the other way around.

The Days Dwindle Down aired almost exactly 28 years ago, the same span of years between the episode and STRANGE BARGAIN’s release. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before (if anyone else has — note that I’m not counting franchises or TV reunions — please chime in) and it may be another 28 years before see something like it again. I do believe The Days Dwindle Down to be the most experimental, noteworthy episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE but, while I still bemoan the end result, I heartily recommend it to anyone that will listen. Just make sure to watch it first, and STRANGE BARGAIN second.

STRANGE BARGAIN is currently unavailable to stream, and is only available as a Region 2 DVD.

For a more comprehensive look at STRANGE BARGAIN, click here.

SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW (2022)

(Disney+) John Byrne’s SHE-HULK run absolutely blew my mind when it was initially published, and was particularly formative for me. It was one of those rare times where you encounter a work that opens your eyes, that makes you say: “Wait, you can do that?” It was unlike any Marvel comic I’d previously read; it focused more on Jen reconciling her personas and how she presented herself to the world, and repeatedly broke the fourth wall in smart, funny, sexy ways. There’s one moment early on in his run where She-Hulk literally tears through the page and traverses through a comic book buyer guide, and it was littered with in-jokes which still feels fresh even today (even if most young comic book readers wouldn’t know what a comic book buyer guide is).

My main qualm with most Marvel film/TV works is: it feels like they’re trying to re-invent the wheel, instead of working off and improving on prior narrative formats. With the exception of THOR: RAGNAROCK, they all feel extraordinarily clumsy to me, even WANDAVISION, an extended meta-riff on the history of TV that -should- know how to handle TV tropes, often felt like folks writing off of Cliffnotes.

SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW feels like Marvel’s stab at ALLY MCBEAL. That’s not a complaint at all, as ALLY MCBEAL doesn’t get enough credit for being a 90s version of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and, you know what? We don’t have enough of those shows. It’s fun, quippy, but also often confronts the issue of being a single woman navigating a male-centric workplace, and nothing has changed.

So, while I do gripe a bit to myself about Disney+’s SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW not being as much fun as it could be, not as inventive as it could be — after all, I doubt we’ll get a scene where she bursts through the Disney+ interface — I do sincerely love it. Every Wednesday I wish it were Thursday because I could really use the lift it provides halfway through my week. Do I wish they had dispensed with the CGI and just put Tatiana Maslany in green and lifts, because she can do anything? Yes, yes I do, and the CGI is distracting, and also: she could have retained her curls, because She-Hulk is unbridled. However, I will take what I can get, because it’s a thoughtful and comedic take on a somewhat horrific turn in life, and we need more of that in our cultural diet.

MAGGIE (2022-)

(Hulu) Within the first ten minutes of Hulu’s MAGGIE I thought: “Oh, the jokes are smart! And there’s SUPERSTORE’s Nichole Sakura! This feels pretty cozy and winsome, albeit a bit basic.”

As if in response, the show then started laying into folks named “Glenn with two N’s” which, if you haven’t read the About section of this site, is my first name. I did not react well:

“Well fuck you too, show. I didn’t want to like you in the first place.”

(I’ve had a hard past few months and had hoped this would be a slice of escapism, but apparently not!)

That said, I didn’t turn it off in anger, but let it wash over me and I’m glad I did because this rom-com has a quick wit and is far deeper than it may first appear to be.

MAGGIE, created by LIFE IN PIECES co-creator Justin Adler and alum Maggie Mull, centers around the titular Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a 30-something who has been psychic her entire life; she sees her visions via touch. It took a long time for her father, Jack (Chris Elliot) and mother Maria (Kerri Kenney) — those are some quality gets, folks — to believe that she truly could see the future, but they finally accept her, and she currently resides in half of the bungalow her parents own.

While her parents may have been skeptics during Maggie’s youth, her best friend Louise (the previously mentioned Nichole Sakura) was mostly there for her through high school, at least when she wasn’t studying night-and-day to get into med school.

In the first episode, Maggie is giving psychic readings at a party and one of the partygoers, Ben (David Del Rio), takes a shining to her, asks for a reading. Maggie obliges and sees a vision of herself marrying him, gets frightened and runs off.

The next night, while consoling Louise after a bad date, she runs into Ben, and Louise eggs her on to roll with it and Maggie does, right into bed with him.

The morning after, as Ben makes breakfast for her, Maggie sees another vision of him marrying someone else, and she rushes out.

Fast-forward a bit. Louise and Maggie are heading back to Maggie’s bungalow and they run into Ben. He explains that he and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Jessie (Chloe Bridges) are moving into the same bungalow as Maggie’s. Along the way, we meet Ben’s off-kilter sister Amy (UNDONE’s Angelique Cabral), who got married to people-pleasing partner Dave (WESTWORLD’s Leonardo Nam) at Burning Man.

The first half of the season is primarily concerned with Maggie and her love life in a way that recalls GILMORE GIRLS (Maggie :: Lorelai, Ben :: Luke) and, like GILMORE GIRLS, Maggie gets involved with bearded Daniel who is basically Max Medina in this situation, and it feels very formulaic, albeit with wildly vacillating tones; one ep in particular feels like a 90s three-camera sitcom.

Then the second half of the season kicks in and the show snaps into view. You realize that the psychic gimmick meant to individuate the show is essentially a stand-in for neurodivergent brains. The show fully leans into that and matters turns serious, without dialing down the jokes.

Without spoiling much, there is one moment where Maggie realizes that an important person in her life doesn’t believe that she is psychic, and she is absolutely crushed. It’s not just that she doesn’t feel seen, it’s not just that she feels this person doesn’t believe her, it’s not just that this person is utterly dismissive towards this foundational aspect of herself and her history, it’s also that she — an actual psychic — is blindsided by the news.

Anyone who lives with any kind of invisible issues can identify with the fear that you won’t be understood or believed. MAGGIE’s writers know it, and they are fully putting it on display.

One more example, although this has major spoilers for Episode 11 – ‘You Will Experience a Loss’:

Spoiler

Maggie is at a bachelorette party. She’s had an abnormal number of visions all day and immediately feels like she shouldn’t be there, feeling extra-sensitive. Nonetheless, she’s dragged onto the dance floor and bounced around like a pinball. As she pings off each tightly packed partygoer, every hit induces a vision until her world goes white, as if a flashbang has gone off in front of her. When her sight returns, she immediately grabs Louise and demands to ‘read’ her:

“What happened to no readings for friends?”

“NOW!”

Maggie drags her from the dance floor and presses Louise’s hands.

“What do you see?”

“…nothing.”

Yes, the classic ‘powerless’ trope. While this is a tried-and-true superhero trope — for the first half of the season I mused to myself: you could have saved yourself so much trouble if you’d learn from X-MEN’s Rogue and just wear a thick pair of long sleeve leather gloves — it’s surprising to see the device deployed in a rom-com.

The rest of the season deals with the fallout of her loss of her mystic foresight, of her grappling with being normal, of no longer being the one looked to for answers, to problem solve, to shoulder it all, while lamenting the perks of being psychic.

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While the show tackles mental matters in a surprisingly far more interesting way than most, it does have a number of issues, such as the shifting tone, spotty ground rules of Maggie’s abilities, and the fact that Maggie’s voracious Black psychic mentor self-named Angel (DON’T TRUST THE B— IN APT. 23’s Ray Ford) seems to be the sole queer representation on the show.* While Ford knows how to calibrate his performance, this approach feels very dated, and hard to overlook.

If there’s a second season — and that’s a big if — I could see this show really coming together and become something special. The end of the first season raises more questions than it answers, and exploring the potentials of its mysticism could open up a whole new world.

  • It’s possible that there are passing mentions regarding other characters, but if so, I missed them or they weren’t prominent enough to count.

HARLEY QUINN (2019-)

(HBO MAX) Despite being a pretty hardcore comic book nerd as a youth — I still have the long boxes to prove it — I never quite embraced comic book movies or TV. Apart from the occasional oddity like MYSTERY MEN or BIRDS OF PREY or THE SUICIDE SQUAD or LOKI or that one trauma-laden flashback episode of WANDAVISION, they’re rarely as weird or imaginative enough to keep my interest.

I’ve previously stated that I stayed away from comics for years because I thought they were just endless stories of people punching each other and, while I eventually found comics that consisted of something more that endless fight scenes — or at least used the fight sequences to communicate something larger — most of the MCU and DCU works consist solely of sexless, soulless, dull rope-a-dope tropes that exist solely to prop up future films; all sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Sorry, Will.)

This lead me to initially punt on the animated DC TV show HARLEY QUINN. Sure, BIRDS OF PREY was a sparky lark, and I ate up BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES when it aired waaaay back in the day, but I assumed HARLEY QUINN would be just as defanged as most of its film brethren.

How wrong I was.

I don’t know how the fuck this show got made, but it’s such a filthy delight. The pilot itself is a marvel of a mission statement: it scrutinizes the toxic relationship between Harley and The Joker, sees her free herself from him (kind of) and discovers a new found family of D-list villains, including who I know to be her one-true-love, Poison Ivy.

It’s kinetic, it’s weird, it runs a mile a minute, it’s extraordinarily punk, and it’s unapologetically smutty but it’s always in service of the story. It’s an encapsulation of being liberated from live-action. It fully leans into all of the potential of animation, which given that most comic book movies nowadays are essentially an array of CGI sequences, you think there’d be more experimentation, but nope!

It also, just like LOKI, acknowledges that the characters are smart but completely askew. It literally features the following exchange from Harley to herself:

“Ooooh. You’re smart.”

“I know. I’m you.”

It ticks all of my boxes, and I haven’t even finished watching the first season yet. (So far, there are three seasons. I would not be surprised if HBO MAX shelved it, which is why I finally pulled the pin on watching it.)

Now, a few choice quotes:

JOKER: “You know she has HPV?”

BANE: “Most sexually active adults do.”


POISON IVY: “That potion makes people fall in love with me, and then kills them.”

KITEMAN: “Whaaat?”

POISON IVY: “YES! What did you think, you kite-fucking-freak? My name is Poison… Ivy!”

KITEMAN: “This is why I stick with the kites. So simple.”


“I hate you, dad.”

“I hate you, too, son.”

HARLEY: “This is so fucked up, but weirdly moving.”

(Plays far better here than it did in FLASHFORWARD!)


HARLEY to IVY: “I can’t listen to ya when you’re dressed like a 40s housewife who is fucking her husband’s boss.”


“You are truly the Shakespeare of the sea!”

AQUAMAN: “I prefer to think of myself as the Dickens of the deep!”


HARLEY: “Oh, I did it! Although no one said I could run a crew!”

IVY: “What? Hello? Hi. I said you could run a crew.”

HARLEY: “Yeah, but you’re my friend, I mean, come on, it’s like when your mom says you’re the prettiest girl in school.”

KING SHARK: “That’s what my mom said!”


HARLEY: “I just tried to touch myself! That is a stripper rule!”

To cap it all off, it has a banger of an intro/outro, one that I always have to fucking keep HBO MAX from skipping over because you can’t fucking prevent auto-play with HBO MAX.

I haven’t even touched on the amazing voice acting! Lake fucking Bell! Ron Funches! Kaley Cuoco! Alan Tudyk! Christopher Meloni! J.B. Smoove! Jim Rash! Tony Hale! Jason Alexander! It is an embarrassment of riches!

This show brings me so much joy at a time in my life when I’ve desperately needed it — although it is worth nothing that S01E05 deals with trauma-centric disassociation that is not fun if you’ve lived through it, but is still excellently well-played. And if you have lived through it, well, you’ll feel seen.

BETTER CALL SAUL Season Six (2022)

Warning: spoilers ahead!

There’s a lot to unpack about the final season of BETTER CALL SAUL, so much so that one can almost forget about the foundation of the character of Saul Goodman and his issues with his brother, one of the best slow-burns I’ve ever seen on TV.

However, I want to call attention to one facet that I haven’t read much about: Kim’s shift. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) was always the heart and soul of the show, a brilliant workaholic who always wanted to do good, but was often drawn towards the thrill of darker places, towards the power she could enact through her smarts and her voice and brazen, bold blonde ponytail.

However, at the end of the series she goes brunette, trades her signature ponytail for bangs, and is now in a relationship with the most milquetoast dude in the world. That’s not the worst of it, though: she has relinquished command of her voice.

“Maybe?”

“I don’t know?”

“Perhaps?”

Past Kim was always declarative, decisive, but after seeing what her voice had wrought — the inadvertent death of Howard — she obviously made a conscious decision to stop using her coercive powers. Instead, she mutters indecisively or stuffs bland tuna fish sandwiches into her mouth. She even re-edits her own dull ad-copy on the website of the sprinkler supply company website she oversees.


What I have always loved about Kim is: she’s smart. She’s far smarter than Jimmy/Saul. Jimmy was the clever enabler, the slick man that made it fun for her to do bad things, and she finds that she -loves- to manipulate, loves toying with people, especially those she’s felt wronged by (and by simply being a woman in America, that list is very long).

By the end of BETTER CALL SAUL, we see her afraid of her own voice, her potential, her command, afraid of what she has wrought, afraid of what she’s capable of. She feels guilt, shame, but is still restless. We finally see her volunteer at a local legal non-profit, silently shuffling papers, a bit of a callback to her prior legal work. We see her telling her story, the events that lead to Howard’s death, through printed words, entirely unspoken but plain on the page.

Kim gets it. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication. And she checks out of it and checks into a life that doesn’t require it, for better or for worse.

MADE FOR LOVE SEASON TWO (2022)

(HBO MAX, for now) I’ve written about MADE FOR LOVE twice before — first concerning the initial HBO season and second regarding the original novel. Now I’m writing about the second and, sadly, final HBO season so, this will probably be the last time I’ll write about it.

Both the initial novel and the first HBO season dialed in on a very sloppy woman named Hazel who routinely made bad decisions and rarely thought about or regretted them, which lead to the trauma of being a woman escaping from a technological bubble created by Byron Gogol, an obsessive man’s technological spider-web. She ultimately gets roped back into the bubble — The Hub — but MADE FOR LOVE’s second season is a tad more flip, far more darkly comic, albeit at the cost of a lack of focus.

While the end of the first season of MADE FOR LOVE aptly set the stage for a second season — going against the grain of its source material, I’ll add — the second season feels like a wild swing for the fences; it tackles a number of wide-eyed high-concepts in ways that recalls cyberpunk classic MAX HEADROOM while still hewing close to its character study of Hazel’s difficult relationship with her father, how she can course-correct her life, and ultimately find a better version of her self.

There are times when the season feels rushed, however there are also a number of subplots and character arcs that feel tantalizing but sputter out — especially the reintroduction of Zelda, the dolphin that aided Hazel’s escape in season one. However, the highs exceed the lows — this season ventures into batshit-crazy territory and completely exploit the universe. I wish I could say why without spoiling matters.

Season two bites off more than it can chew, certainly, but goddamn it is an aspirational piece of high-concept work that utilizes tech and humanity in ways that feels revitalizing.

ANGELYNE (2022)

(peacock) When I first heard that there was a TV mini-series about ‘Angelyne’, a singular blonde Los Angeles personality known almost solely for featuring herself on an array of billboards around Hollywood, featuring SHAMELESS’ Emmy Rossum as the titular character who doesn’t remotely resemble her, I couldn’t help but murmur a lackluster ‘huh.’

If you’re of a certain age, and a specific type of film nerd, you’re vaguely familiar with the image of Angelyne. Neon pink modern sweater L.A. woman. That’s all you saw on the billboards, that’s all you were sold, and that’s all she apparently wanted you to know. It was quintessential L.A.; she even became used as a sort of shorthand: all surface, no substance.

Angelyne, during the show, repeats to herself: “I am not a woman. I am an icon.”

Obviously, Angelyne is cribbing from the perceived career path of Marilyn Monroe — often learning the wrong lessons — but finding herself in a different era, and adapting herself to fit it. Similarly, ANGELYNE does the same.

ANGELYNE is a bit of a mess, by intent, which is what makes it interesting, and the only way you could tell this story. It’s littered with unreliable narrators and collisional character tales.

There’s an extended conversation in the first episode that sets the stage for what will become ANGELYNE, a literal combination of Joan Didion and Barbie, where she muses to this band leader who is infatuated with her about her need for a car to be able to escape situations:

“A car is supposed to be an extension of you; your being. I want something fast! So I can get away if I have to. […] I have to know I can escape.”

She then dovetails into a discussion about her idolatry regarding the Barbie doll:

“I’d love to be like Barbie!”

“You’re already blonde and beautiful,” the band leader — who would become greatly entangled in her life — interjects.

“Oh, she’s so much more than that! She lives a painless existence. You can stick her with things and she won’t cry; she doesn’t hurt! Wouldn’t that be nice, to never hurt?”

Obviously, there’s a lot of backstory to Angelyne, which is the tease of the show — an L.A. journalist named Jeff investigates her and writes a safe expose about her — but that’s really not the point of the show. This is about a woman trying to create her own narrative in the way that she’s seen men pen their narratives about women. She’s the one in control.

It’s a fascinating mini-series that I’m still flabbergasted was greenlit, but well-worth your time.

THE BEAR (2022-)

(Hulu/FX) I have a few issues with the first season of THE BEAR — mostly typical first season problems regarding tone and clumsy character dynamics — but you should watch it if you’re into claustrophobic, high-strung, hyper-local character dramas, especially if you’re a Chicagoan who seeks out restaurants or have worked in restaurants.

Also, I was relieved to see that it skews closer to half-hour eps for its eight ep run. (That said, wouldn’t be surprised if the runtimes ballooned in the second season.)

One notable facet is its use of lighting and set decoration as a cleansing arc throughout the season. THE ORIGINAL BEEF space goes from looking like mud to gleaming like a private hospital, and watch for how light increasingly floods the space, beaming around the characters.

Also noteworthy is that it’s one of the few works out there which starts out with a dude being traumatized in many ways, he tries to be better, realizes he’s still not great at it, but learns how to reach out. He’s willing to learn, and willing to change, in a city that is often resistant to change.

In other words, S2 could be great. “What do you call it?”

THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.