Television

Damnation – A Review

Created by Tony Tost. Starring Killian Scott, Logan Marshall-Green, Sarah Jones, Chasten Harmon, Christopher Heyerdahl, Melinda Page Hamilton, Joe Adler. Runs for 10 episodes.

It’s good to see Killian Scott back on a TV screen. While many non-Irish viewers will be unable to distinguish him from any of the other main players on the overpopulated conveyor belt of new dramas on Netflix, he is instantly recognisable here as Love/Hate’s tragic lothario Tommy Daly, one of Irish television’s best known roles while the series was running.

Damnation - Season 1

IndieWire

While his contribution there was an almost entirely indifferent one (it was nearly as if someone had challenged him to show as little emotion as possible onscreen), his leading role here requires more nuance, which he handles adeptly. Introduced to us as a preacher, Seth Davenport’s overtly impious actions, as well as his innovative interpretations of scripture, lead one to suspect that he is not a typical man of the cloth.

The drama begins in the cloak-and-dagger fashion that is typical of new series; plot twists and reveals are drip-fed at deliberate intervals. Davenport has organised a strike amongst local farmers in the Iowa town of Holden, in which this show is largely set. Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green) is the man entrusted with the job of ending the strike, and is thus referred to mainly as the “strike-breaker”. Turner makes his entrance in conspicuous fashion when he murders a striker in cold blood, enraging the inhabitants of the town. The suspicion that there may be a secret link between Turner and Davenport is not left unconfirmed for long.

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CinemaBlend

The theme of struggle between impoverished working classes and an indifferent elite works well in the setting of Depression-era America, but there is little innovation in terms of how it is presented. The striking farmers are a uniformly good-natured bunch, while the bankers and business owners determined to end their strike are stereotypical rich oppressors.

This sharp dichotomy is, regrettably, maintained in the relationship between Turner and Davenport. Turner is rarely allowed to come across as anything other than a bloodless minion of his wealthy employers, while Davenport is tender and altruistic but admirably tough as well. We are left in no doubt as to who we’re supposed to be shouting for.

While Davenport’s character is detailed enough to be believable, however, Turner’s is not. His present-day incarnation is a stony-faced cowboy, who Green tries very hard to turn into Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant from Lawless. A series of flashbacks shows us that he was once a much softer sort, incapable of doing harm to others; by the apparent standards of the day, a wimp. The contrast promises some sort of diverting subplot regarding his transformation into an unfeeling killer. This promise remains unkept, however, and we are left to conclude that Turner’s character must simply have changed by magic.

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Bustle

Many of the supporting roles are equally one-dimensional, as well as poorly acted. While Tost has failed to produce a compelling character-driven drama, however, he has succeeded in taking an elegant snapshot of the heartland of 1930’s America. The bleak settings are captured in a visually stunning manner, and the soundtrack builds its atmosphere beautifully. We are made to understand the harshness of existence for ordinary people of that generation, and we get a heartfelt (if somewhat one-sided) reflection on their plight.

It has been reported that Damnation will not be recalled for a second season, probably due to poor performance in terms of viewer numbers. If you are the kind of person who does not warm to open endings, then you may not wish to invest your time in this show, as these ten episodes were obviously not intended as a standalone production. If that doesn’t concern you, however, rest assured that there are far worse creations on Netflix than this.

2.5/5

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Television

We Need to Talk About the TV License

There have been many casualties of the inexorable proliferation of online entertainment. You need look no further for evidence of this than the gadget shop or sushi bar that used to be your local XtraVision. Rather than paying a fiver to rent a movie for the night, you can now pay eight or nine euro a month to Mr Netflix and get access to more content than you could watch in a hundred lifetimes, without ever having to leave the comfort of your couch. You can even get it all for free off a dodgy website, if you’re willing to risk malware entering your computer and spending the contents of your bank account on nuclear warheads.

This is all to be expected; inevitable symptoms of progress which we cannot impede and therefore should not feel remorseful about. Simply put, it is what it is. There is, however, one pesky anachronism that shows no sign of being swept away by the rising tide of modernisation; the television license.

Any Irish household in possession of a “television set” is required to pay an annual fee of €160, the bulk of which, we are told, is used to fund RTE, our state broadcaster. You might wonder why it is that RTE requires such a generous donation to keep its head above water when there are many, many other stations that manage this feat by selling advertisements. The website of An Post (who, for some reason, are tasked with the enforcement of the charge) tells us that “the moments we love are made possible by the License Fee.” Surely, however, if we loved them that much, enough of us would watch them that the advertising rights on them would be worth something? Evidently not.

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There are those who will say, of course, that our national broadcaster is representative of our society and thus should not be relying on the tackiness of consumer capitalism to turn a profit. This is all well and good in theory, but in real terms it is profoundly undemocratic. Who exactly was it that decided that €160 was a reasonable price to pay just for the decorum of keeping the Cillit Bang man off our screens during the break from Fair City? I’m willing to bet that most people wouldn’t object too strongly to a few more ads if it cost them less.

That aside, let us get back to the question of value for money. What are all these loveable moments for which we pay so dearly? Our very occasional sporting triumphs, I suppose, but most of those are quite capably covered by private channels anyway. Once upon a time a case could have been made for the news, but these days anything that’s even remotely worth knowing about is beamed into our pockets 24 hours a day, so that’s out too. This applies equally to political and social commentary. Years ago, we relied on RTE to keep a close enough eye on things to ensure that illegitimate children weren’t being farmed by nuns and sold, or that politicians weren’t spending all our money on tailored shirts. The dawn of the information age has left us with the ability to take care of all that ourselves.

Because, however, it is sheltered from the unforgiving glare of free-market economics, state-sponsored broadcasting refuses to shrivel up and die like other outdated institutions have. The result is an inefficient, slightly irritating and outrageously expensive thorn in the side of our society. In an age where homelessness is rampant and nobody can afford to pay rent, we are all still held to ransom to ensure that the constant stream of largely unwatchable content produced by RTE (and, lest we forget, TG4) remains uninterrupted.

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Plainly, something must be done. While it might be excessive to suggest doing away with it altogether, extensive reform is necessary. We could start by calling it a “tax” instead of a license, and just attaching it to the price of a television when it’s purchased (you know, like they do with almost every other commodity known to man?). This would reduce evasion rates (which are high) to exactly zero, and eliminate the requirement for a glorified postman to knock on every door in the country in pursuit of dodgers.

Unfortunately, fat would remain to be trimmed. Nationwide would surely have to go. As would Ear to the Ground, Today with Maura and Daithi, and all the other ones that are almost certainly never watched by anyone. The Late Late Show would probably have to remain due to its status as a cultural monument, but perhaps instead of paying Ryan Tubridy more money than the Taoiseach they could hire people to operate behind the scenes and actually make it engaging or informative, or at least funny. Whoever is behind Graham Norton’s show would do just fine.

It is highly improbable that any of this will come to pass, of course. Such a lucrative cash cow isn’t likely to be sacrificed without significant disapproval from the public, and that is something that the TV license miraculously continues to escape. That is, of course, until they suggest applying it to our smartphones.

Television

Manhunt: Unabomber – A Review

Created by Andrew Sodroski. Starring Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Bobb, Chris Noth, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Brían F. O’Byrne. Runs for 8 episodes of 40-50 minutes.

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Manhunt: Unabomber is the latest Netflix miniseries to set social media alight with unreserved recommendations and gushing praise. This is almost certainly due in part to the fact that we have just exited the Christmas season; the increasingly desperate boredom that comes with being trapped indoors for days on end is sure to elicit grateful (and therefore positive) responses to any form of passable entertainment. Or so goes my theory. It certainly explains why people still watch Titanic.

There is plenty to recommend Manhunt: Unabomber ahead of James Cameron’s groaning epic. It’s a small bit longer, for one thing, and the dialogue is much less awful. Also, Brían F. O’Byrne’s American accent is infinitely better than DiCaprio’s horrendous attempt at an Irish one.

The plot concerns the true story of the titular Unabomber (a scarcely recognisable Paul Bettany), an American terrorist whose real name was Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski killed three people and injured 23 others in a terror campaign that spanned almost two decades. His method of choice, as the name suggests, was bombing.

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The story’s main focus is on the FBI’s efforts to track Kaczynski down, particularly those of Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), a criminal profiler. His submissions on the construction of the Unabomber’s profile, which are repeatedly dismissed by his superiors (Bobb, Noth), transpire to be largely accurate and are instrumental in Kaczynski’s eventual capture.

We are introduced to Kaczynski in the second episode, in the first of a series of flash-forwards which detail the preamble to his trial in 1998, two years after his apprehension. Formerly a brilliant mathematician, Kaczynski began his terror campaign in protest against the proliferation of technology in modern society.

The subject matter is fascinating, and aside from the necessary dramatization the series seems to reflect it quite accurately. Unfortunately, it works somewhat better as a documentary than as a drama. Something of a conflict emerges between the story’s two strands; the fact that Kaczynski’s identity is revealed early on mitigates the effectiveness of the actual manhunt in compelling the viewer. Different suspects and theories feature in the earlier episodes, but our knowledge of them to be incorrect renders them largely useless as plot devices.

It has been noted that the character of Fitz is cobbled together from more than one real-life operative, and that the real James Fitzgerald was not as involved in the case as the show suggests. Perhaps because of this, and despite the (largely uninspiring) insights we are given into his love life, Fitz comes across more as a storytelling tool than an engaging protagonist. Sam Worthington’s pedestrian performance doesn’t help matters.

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Ted Kaczynski, on the other hand, is a cracking villain. His disturbed worldview is communicated with startling eloquence, and Paul Bettany breathes life into him with understated, softly spoken brilliance. The sixth episode deals solely with his background, allowing us to depart temporarily from a manhunt story which has by then become somewhat formulaic. It is tragic and disturbing in equal measures, and is almost certainly the series’ highlight.

A couple of references are made to the OJ Simpson murder case (which took place not long before Kaczynski’s capture) throughout the series. It is somewhat ironic that The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (also available on Netflix) is a comfortably superior miniseries to this. Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about Manhunt: Unabomber, and it pulls the same kind of “true crime” strings, if that’s what you’re into.

3/5

Television

Stranger Things 2 – A Review

Created by The Duffer Brothers. Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Joe Keery, Sean Astin, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery.

This review contains spoilers from Season One of Stranger Things.

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I’m probably late in posting this review, as it would appear from the noise in every corner of the internet that most of the developed world has already watched Stranger Things 2. With Netflix’s previous flagship production, House of Cards, recently “suspended” under the most ignominious of circumstances, it could hardly have come at a better time for the streaming service.

This second season cements Stranger Things’ status as one of the best series in production. That comparison may be somewhat unfair given the fact that, thus far, it comprises just 17 episodes; whether its excellence can persist for as long as that of, say, Game of Thrones will be a welcome test of its longevity, and may ultimately dictate its position in television’s history (in any case, its creators have stated that it is unlikely to progress past a fourth season).

Stranger Things 2 begins almost a year after the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) at the beginning of the first season. Having returned from the “Upside-Down”, the alternate dimension in which he spent the bulk of last season, Will’s life is still far from normal. Post-traumatic stress and his overbearingly protective mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) take a visible toll on him, and his otherworldly nightmares foreshadow the re-emergence of the supernatural in his life.

Elsewhere, however, life is largely progressing as normal. Among the obligatory influx of new characters is Max (Sadie Sink), a new student at school who attracts the romantic interest of both Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), but whose presence in the group displeases Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Also new to the show is Bob (Sean Astin, whom Lord of the Rings fans will recognise as Samwise Gamgee), a solid, reliable sort who has begun seeing Joyce. As was the case in the first season, although to a lesser extent here, the real start is slow to come.

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Having captured worldwide attention last year, Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal of Eleven is once again a haunting spectacle. Although she has a more extensive vocabulary this time around, Eleven is still far from garrulous; Brown must often rely on facial expression to act her part. This she does with flawless judgment. The fact that the actress has only recently turned thirteen is almost hard to believe. The other of this season’s standout acting performances is that of Gaten Matarazzo, who is unerringly charming in his provision of comic relief. His prominence this season comes at the expense of Mike, whose position as the main protagonist has been shared roughly equally among the (now expanded) group.

Plausibility is not a concept that this show places a great degree of importance in. The pubescent leads are impossibly composed for their years, and the timing of many key events is highly improbable. However, in a world where children have telekinetic superpowers and bloodthirsty monsters emerge from rips in the fabric of our dimension, does it really matter? Believability is not the selling point; as a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. Stranger Things’ greatest attraction is its setting, an offbeat universe that resembles our own, but is profoundly, magnetically different. Rather than scoff at its outlandishness, we must praise its fearlessness.

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This story arc travels to darker places than last season’s, and we are shown some very effective use of the horror genre; the show is truly frightening in places. As was the case last season, the soundtrack and the visual effects especially do an outstanding job of creating an atmosphere of menace and terror.

If you haven’t watched it yet, do. And try to overcome the temptation to do so all in one sitting.

5/5

Television

Narcos – Season 3 – A Review

Starring Pedro Pascal, Damián Alcázar, Francisco Denis, Matias Varela, Michael Stahl-David, Alberto Ammann, Arturo Castro, Pêpê Rapazote.

This piece contains spoilers from Seasons 1 & 2 of Narcos.

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There was always going to be a challenge here in maintaining artistic credibility, of defying claims that this third season was shoehorned onto our laptop screens for the sole purpose of filling Netflix’s coffers. Up until now, the primary focus of Narcos was the dissection of Pablo Escobar (a delightfully sombre Wagner Moura) as a character, and in that capacity it worked beautifully. His psychopathic disregard for human life, which never once imposes itself upon his tender nature as a husband and father, makes for fascinating viewing, as does the slow unravelling of his mettle as his empire comes closer and closer to collapse. In the wake of Mr Escobar’s dramatic departure, this third season was left with a large gap to fill.

Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez, with whom we became casually acquainted in the second season, jointly assume the role vacated by Escobar. They are two of the four godfathers of the Cali cartel, along with Pacho Herrera (Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz (Rapazote), neither of whom feature as prominently. The two brothers share the limelight roughly equally over the course of the season, with changing circumstances dictating focus.

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On the law enforcement side of proceedings, Javier Pena (Pascal) returns to Colombia, taking up the mantle of narrator in the absence of Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). With Pena returns his inscrutable façade and gruff determination to dismantle the Colombian cocaine trade. A cursory attempt at illustrating his life outside the world of policing is proffered, but few questions are answered; one is given the distinct impression that much more lies on the cutting room floor.

The singular, unemotional focus on action is tempered somewhat by the introduction of Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela). Salcedo begins the season as a leading figure in the Cali cartel’s security network, with the intention of resigning his post in the near future to set up a private security firm. His usefulness to the cartel proves to be a stumbling block for him in this pursuit; he is told in the opening episode that he must stay in his job until the cartel surrender their illegal operations. Despite his earnest demeanour and effectiveness in his role, he is not a killer, and is shown to be uncomfortable with the explicitly heinous side to the cartel’s activities as the season progresses. He is also a family man, and the stress placed on his home life by his unique position within the cartel adds a human dimension (quite similar to that provided by Agent Murphy in seasons 1-2) that would otherwise be sorely lacking.

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The documentary aspect to Narcos is as important here as it was previously. Production footage is interspersed with clips from news reports of major events, and Pedro Pascal’s narration carefully details major events, as Boyd Holbrook’s did. As well as dutifully covering the most unpalatable acts of violence by those involved in the drug war on the ground, Narcos unveils the political ugliness that facilitated it, and ultimately asks some troubling questions about the viability of the war on drugs.

This, collectively, is where the show’s greatest strength lies. The fact that its subject matter is so shocking, that the despicable acts seen on screen were actually perpetrated, packs a compelling punch. Unfortunately, its duty to portray truth also handcuffs it considerably. Compared to the spellbinding insight into the Escobar family we were given in the second season, this season’s characters fail to capture the imagination on an emotional level.  The Rodriguez brothers are defined principally by the broad differences between them; Gilberto is a man of reason, who basks in the admiration of those around him, while Miguel is gruff and stubborn. In the absence of his former partner, Javier Pena is now the face of the DEA in Narcos, and spends more time on screen than anyone else by a good margin. Despite this, Pedro Pascale is given little to do other than portray stoic dedication to the cause of apprehending drug traffickers.

There are enjoyable performances from more minor characters; Pêpê Rapazote, in particular, is tremendous fun to watch as gleeful psychopath Chepe Santacruz, who runs the Cali cartel’s operations in New York.

It isn’t giving away too much to share that the ending, on the whole, is far from a happy one.

3/5

Television

We Need to Talk About TV Series

There are many questions we must ask ourselves regarding the dawn of television’s new age, or, perhaps more accurately, the new age of screen-based drama. Traditional television, encumbered with the unfortunate tendency to prescribe and rigidly schedule viewing content, is almost certainly on its way to extinction.

Television shows, however, which may nowadays be consumed on anything from a cinema screen to a wristwatch, are enjoying a scarcely believable renaissance. Production quality has improved steadily and big-name celebrities with illustrious film careers (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Winona Ryder in Stranger Things and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective to name but a few) are getting involved. The number of top-quality shows has increased accordingly; never before have discerning viewers had so much to choose from.

A major consideration here, of course, is the explosion in the accessibility of TV programmes. Before the birth of high-speed internet, if one wished to watch several seasons of the same show back-to-back, they would have had to purchase a DVD box set. These were rather expensive, and required a certain degree of commitment and forethought. Neither of these drawbacks apply to the wonderful invention that is the on-demand streaming service, however. Netflix and its competitors have made the dream of convenient, affordable, unlimited TV consumption a reality for millions across the world.

We do not have to cast our minds back too far to recall a time when television binges were considered the preserve of aimless teenagers and those with a pathological fear of the outdoors. After all, it was somewhat unreasonable to expect a well-rounded person to derive pleasure from hours of TV-watching when the most entertaining spectacle available to them for a large portion of the day was Jeremy Kyle. Nowadays, things are different. There are now good, honest, respectable people, folk who, once upon a time, would have spent their free time hillwalking or attending Mass, that have no compunction whatsoever about announcing to their peers that they could contentedly spend entire weekends alone in a dark room, watching Narcos and eating crisps.

I have never been one to suggest to others what they should or should not do with their free time, nor indeed have I ever been a particularly voracious advocate of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It does seem to me, however, that we should exercise some caution before embracing this new culture too readily, for a rather specific reason; time. The time investment one makes when they commit to watching a new TV series is massive (and often unforeseen).

Compare, if you will, the length of time taken to get through The Sopranos to that required to watch the entire Godfather trilogy (a film saga noted for its length). Despite the comprehensiveness of the latter, the former takes roughly eight times as long to finish.

It’s probably true that, given its inarguable artistic qualities, The Sopranos represents a decent return on the time invested in it. But there is plenty of content that could have been left behind if it had become necessary. Scenes, storylines, perhaps even characters that would never have made it to the screen were it not for the requirement to fill up all those hours commissioned by HBO. Anyone remember the time A.J. made a stand to his parents by refusing to be confirmed in Season 2? I didn’t think so. And I (along, I’m sure, with many others) still feel profoundly wronged by The Fly, the unashamed filler episode that blighted the otherwise sublime third season of Breaking Bad.

The same complaint could be made of books, of course, where similar fleshing out of detail is commonplace. Novels can often stretch to over a thousand pages, yet it is unlikely that you will hear anyone accuse Charles Dickens or J.R.R. Tolkien of being unscrupulous time thieves. The key difference lies in the fact that it is quite difficult to overindulge in a book in the same way as a television series. Perhaps this is due to the level of active engagement required by reading, or perhaps merely our lazy preference for watching things unfold in front of us rather than having to imagine them to life ourselves. Whatever the reason, the comparison serves to illustrate my ultimate point; there is an addictive quality to television series, a tendency to absorb the viewer, that does not present itself in other entertainment forms, at least not nearly to the same extent.

What, then, is to be done? For those reading this who view their spare time as an item of irritation, something to be endured in as straightforward a way as possible, today’s unending raft of television programmes are most likely a cause for celebration. For those of you who aspire towards something more, however, perhaps think twice before blithely diving into whatever sparkly new Netflix creation catches your eye the next time you get bored.

Take it from someone who knows; it is not pleasant to find oneself halfway through the fifth season of Gossip Girl only to finally realise how dreadful it is, and that you have somehow spent over three entire days of your precious time on this Earth watching it. You have been warned.

Television

The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story – A Review

Starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Kenneth Choi, Nathan Lane.

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Dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, the legal battle which sought to put O.J. Simpson behind bars for the murder of both his ex-wife and her friend was certainly not without intrigue. The details of the story, which unfolds over ten episodes, are frequently outlandish enough that they would not have worked as fiction; a hallmark of a great true-to-life tale.

The trial itself does not begin until the fourth episode, but this is not to say that there is any shortage of drama up to that. Episode 2 gives us an unmistakeable flavour of the absurdity that surrounds this story and its protagonist; those old enough to remember the events of the debacle that was the lead-up to the Simpson trial will doubtless enjoy the retelling. Those not of such an age may find themselves dumbfoundedly hammering their Google machines at this point in an attempt to confirm whether this is, in fact, a true story.

Once the trial begins, Simpson assumes a less central role, with a switch of focus to the lawyers on each side. There are acquisitions by the defence team and reshuffles on both sides. Controversy around the reliability of witnesses and the veracity of physical evidence spills over into the media, and the prosecution’s seemingly unassailable case is met with unseen challenges.

Replete with unlikely plot twists, this story also benefits from a diverse group of characters. The creators have made the interesting choice to keep focus in this regard quite fluid; no individual player is allowed to hog the limelight for too long. If anyone, the star of the show would probably be Marcia Clark (played masterfully by Sarah Paulson), the tomboyish and highly capable lead prosecutor. Her righteous anger at Simpson’s alleged crimes simmers beautifully, and the toll taken on her personally by the limelight of the trial is portrayed in sublime fashion. The other standout performance is that of Courtney B. Vance playing Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s loquacious legal counsel. His soulful rhetoric is delivered powerfully, and Vance exudes both arrogance and genius in magnetic fashion. Both actors claimed an Emmy for their trouble.

Sterling K. Brown, also in receipt of an Emmy, gives an eye-catchingly controlled performance as Christopher Darden, an attorney for the prosecution. As a black man, he is directly exposed to the racial tensions that arose from the case; unlike Vance, however, he is not given the freedom to air his frustrations in bombastic prose at every turn. His soft speaking voice seems almost out of place in the courtroom, but acts as an effective counterpoint to the other main players.

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The remainder of the acting performances entertain as well, although this may only be true in John Travolta’s case due to an unintended comic relief factor. His lines are delivered in a clipped, overly deliberate manner, and his movements are somewhat robotic; it is his face, however, surgically reconstructed to the point that he is scarcely identifiable as human, that steals the show. Gooding’s performance has been the subject of critical ambivalence, but his technical skill in delivering the role cannot be denied. Simpson’s tortured mental state is portrayed with range and flair.

Ultimately, what begins as a murder trial that looks as though it will culminate in an easy conviction becomes a fascinating legal drama, and a look into the implications of the deep racial divisions in American society. Simpson’s innocence or guilt becomes an irrelevant consideration for many in what, for them, boils down to a symbolic battle against the oppression of the African community by the legal system and its enforcers. This series ultimately asks where the greater good lay in the trial of O.J. Simpson, and is too skilfully even-handed to suggest an answer itself.

While this series does not have the scope to present detailed dissections of its characters, it has more than enough material to present ten sharp, engaging episodes. Suspense drips and careful consideration is frequently provoked. For anyone contemplating a Netflix binge without the risk of too long a commitment (I got through it in under 36 hours), this might be just the thing.

4/5