Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

June 27 2017 8:03 AM

To the Bone’s Marti Noxon Isn’t Afraid of the “Ugly Stuff”

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

“I’m feeling a little murder-y,” says Marti Noxon, which sounds not unlike something you’d hear from the mouth of Buffy Summers, the iconic cheerleader turned Hellmouth avenger. This is not surprising, given Noxon began her writing career on Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in 1997. Come to think of it, when I meet her for breakfast at a hotel in Tribeca, she looks much as I imagine Buffy might, if the character had made it to the age of 52.

Though I’d arrived well before our scheduled meeting, I find Noxon—who’d flown in from L.A. late on the previous night—already ensconced in the restaurant, her murder-y feelings prompted by her lodging in a claustrophobic room facing a wall. “It’s kind of like being jailed,” she says, “but a really nice jail, like for a white-collar crime.” Three or four times this morning, she reports, she’d considered asking for a better room—but she didn’t, because she assumed they would say no. And “that will be sadder because they probably do have one,” she jokes. “They just somehow know that I’ll settle for less.”

June 27 2017 7:33 AM

Downward Dog Grew Into TV’s Most Soulful Relationship Comedy, Talking Dog and All

Can a show about a talking dog be profound? Downward Dog, ABC’s new summer comedy starring Allison Tolman (Fargo), can often feel like its main purpose is to answer that question with a resounding, persuasive yes. The series is intently modest and spare, with the kind of humane aesthetic that network executives treat like the ratings plague. Its ensemble is small, its humor particular and finely-tuned. And its title character—a wistful, thoughtful rescue dog named Martin (played by a rescue named Ned)—comes off as so comfortingly familiar in his narration, so attuned to contemporary anxieties, that he feels more fleshed-out and relatable than a good number of TV’s human protagonists. Sure, Downward Dog is a creative breakthrough for the talking dog show. More impressively, it’s a creative breakthrough for the broadcast sitcom.

Alas, creative breakthroughs don’t always translate to commercial success, and this has turned out to be one of those cases: ABC canceled Downward Dog late last week, ahead of tonight’s two-part finale. The network hadn’t shown much faith in the comedy from the beginning. Downward Dog was ordered to series over a year ago, and its shortened eight-episode season was scheduled as a summer burn-off. ABC has built a solid lineup of family sitcoms in the last few years, and it’s true that Downward Dog isn’t exactly a natural fit with the likes of Black-ish and Modern Family—or, really, ABC’s entire lineup. But the show’s late-May premiere held up better in the ratings than expected, social media chatter has been consistent—dog humor is always a safe bet in that regard—and reviews have been strong. Perhaps ABC wasn’t as interested in what the show became after its pilot; perhaps its decent-to-mediocre numbers weren’t enough to convince executives to stick with it—whatever the reason, Downward Dog is a special little show that, barring a save from another network, will have lived entirely too briefly. (The first six episodes are currently streaming on Hulu.)

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Set in Pittsburgh, Downward Dog focuses on the relationship between Martin and his roommate and owner, Nan (Tolman), a 30ish woman who works in marketing for a fashion company. Supporting players pop in and out—Jason (Lucas Neff) is Nan’s on-again-off-again boyfriend; Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is her best friend and coworker—but episodes, for the most part, parallel the journeys of Nan and Martin as they face the challenges of middle age, consider breaking out of old habits, and question the meaning of life. An early episode frames their dynamic as a monogamous partnership that might be losing its spice; the sixth installment explores the complicated emotions surrounding Martin’s seventh birthday party. Martin addresses the camera periodically, providing melancholic musings on love and aging and the menacing cat (voiced, seethingly, by Maria Bamford) who lives across the street. He’s been described by the show’s creator, Samm Hodges (who also voices Martin), as “the social justice warrior millennial character as a dog”—less selfie-snapping, more esoteric rambling on the trappings of youth culture.

Downward Dog is not above mining Martin’s internal monologue for broad comedy, but it’s dedicated to avoiding cheap laughs. Indeed, as Martin goes on adventures that range from hunting down his feline archenemy to considering the possibility that he might have superpowers—a new automatic doggie door really throws him for a loop—the show’s other half progresses as a beautifully understated character study. Downward Dog’s portrait of Nan is refreshingly messy and empathetic as she juggles new work responsibilities, a grating boss, and a relatively static love interest she can’t seem to quit. Nan feels like the rarest of TV protagonists: scattered but grounded, ambitious but sometimes not, an equal lover of video games and drinking nights, and a flawed dog owner.

Downward Dog is at its most successful when situating Nan’s personal journey in the context of her relationship to Martin. In the fifth episode, “Trashed,” she leaves Martin for a few days to jettison to New York for a major work opportunity. Wandering around, she wonders how she’d fit into the city and make a life there; she spots a laid-back couple and their dog in the park, and stalks them back to their apartment, observing their routine and analyzing whether they’re happy. She returns home and fights viciously with Jason, leaving her with Martin—together again. “You have to remember to be grateful for what’s right in front of you,” Martin explains in narration as the episode draws to a close. “We have each other, and that’s what’s important. We’re not alone.”

The show’s insight into the dog-owner dynamic is its most nuanced element, in many ways because of the way it spins a notoriously corny gimmick into something meditative and soulful. Talking pooch notwithstanding, Downward Dog operates in a far more naturalistic universe from movies like The Shaggy Dog or Air Bud, but to the show’s absolute benefit, it offers many of their simple pleasures as well. Hodges and co-creator Michael Killen indulge aplenty in the if dogs could talk clichés, and given their ambitions, it’s a weirdly brave move. While Nan quietly contemplates what lies ahead in “Trashed,” Martin goes off an adventure of his own: escaping the house and passionately digging through neighborhood garbage. Watching him race from house to house is thoroughly delightful, allowing us to embrace an oft-maligned genre—complete with absurdist first-person commentary—through a more refined lens. Downward Dog doesn’t malign and forsake its predecessors; it honors them, maintaining their earnestness while building on their potential.

Downward Dog is essentially an indie-fied take on the talking dog conceit, slower and pricklier and with a little more bite. The real surprise here is that such a show could wind up on broadcast in the first place. It manages to become less commercial with every episode, leaning more heavily into arty short-film structures and styles. The show can feel like an ingenious con—an incisive relationship comedy probably too subtle for even most of premium cable, selling primetime ads on ABC courtesy of one moody, inquisitive talking dog. The con, of course, may very well be up. But Tuesday night’s hour-long finale block, a double-header of unusual profundity that leaves behind a few intriguing loose ends, is, in its own way, a fitting place to finish. Downward Dog may not always obey the laws of reality, after all, but it sure knows how to talk about life: Regrets go hand in hand with joy, closure is usually elusive, and the love of a dog can go a very, very long way.

June 27 2017 12:55 AM

Seth Meyers: The Republican Health Care Bill Is “Cartoonishly Evil”

In an uncivil and unproductive move, Seth Meyers called the Senate version of the Republican healthcare bill “cartoonishly evil” on Monday, saying that the only way it could be worse is if it “mandated tying damsels in distress to railroad tracks.” Never mind that the bill is terrible for everyone; our nation’s wheels are greased by a great unwillingness to call murder murder, whether it’s committed by cops or drones or laws. How are Republicans supposed to feel if Meyers points out on national TV that their signature policy goal is, in his words, “a giant tax cut for the wealthy paid for with Medicaid cuts?” Should right-wing parents have to explain to their kids what Meyers means when he says the secret Republican bill is, “like a Slipknot tramp stamp: you definitely want to hide it, and the people who’ve seen it are terrible people?” How long are we going to shame Trump voters for letting a bunch of rambling old men take a meat axe to health care?

The answers to these questions are, respectively: Republicans should feel fucking terrible, right-wing parents should have to constantly explain Republican savagery to their children, and no one who voted for Donald J. Trump to be President of the United States should be able to watch television without being insulted for at least a decade. That said, Meyers should maybe stop irresponsibly throwing around phrases like “cartoonishly evil.” Cartoons are funny.

June 27 2017 12:22 AM

In the Trailer for The Foreigner, Pierce Brosnan Has No Idea Who He’s Dealing With (It’s Jackie Chan)

The trailer for The Foreigner, the upcoming Jackie Chan/Pierce Brosnan thriller from Casino Royale and Goldeneye director Martin Campbell, was released Monday, but from the looks of things, it’ll be closer to Taken than James Bond. Brosnan, who started his film career playing an IRA terrorist in The Long Good Friday, is playing an older, respectable version of the same, one “Deputy First Minister Hennessey” who’s never formally renounced the organization. Jackie Chan plays the father of a young woman killed in a bombing who becomes convinced that Brosnan’s character knows the bombers’ identity. As it happens, Chan has his own history of violence, is the last person Brosnan should ever have crossed, has been pushed too far, etc., etc., etc.

Chan vs. Brosnan sounds like it could be at least as fun as, say, Cage vs. Travolta, but the tone of the trailer is less over-the-top and grimmer than you’d expect from that kind of face-off between two legends. It’s no surprise that Campbell isn’t making movies that look like Goldeneye anymore, but the washed-out blues and browns of The Foreigner’s cloudy London make even Casino Royale—noticeably grim for a Bond movie eleven years agolook positively vibrant. If the dialogue or plot ever get past revenge movie clichés, there’s no evidence in the trailer, but if you’re making a movie in which Jackie Chan avenges the death of his daughter at the hands of IRA terrorists, there’s only so much anyone can do. At least, not without special forces training. The Foreigner will be released on Oct. 13.

June 26 2017 3:42 PM

With a Surreal Flashback, Twin Peaks Rewrote the Rules of TV, Again

In its first 10 minutes, the eighth episode of the Twin Peaks revival had already established itself as one of the strangest and most disturbing things ever to air on American television. After Agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelganger was shot dead by his sometime partner in crime, his body was swarmed by a host of soot-black, semi-translucent figures who seemed to be consuming his corpse, which then sprang back to life after disgorging a slimy sac containing the face of BOB, the series’ embodiment of evil. Then, David Lynch set off a bomb.

The abrupt, and unprecedented, shift from the more-or-less-present day to 1945 was disorienting enough, but Lynch was only getting warmed up. To paraphrase another groundbreaking work, we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. The black-and-white panorama of the New Mexico desert along with a July 16th timestamp gave a hint as to what was coming, but it’s one thing to witness the historic detonation of the first nuclear bomb from a distance, and another entirely to push on inside the mushroom cloud, where all pretense of narrative filmmaking fell quickly away. Clouds of boiling smoke gave way to a hailstorm of white scratches on a black backdrop, then to what looked like a celestial birth canal. An eyeless female figure—identified in the credits as “Experiment,” and apparently the same as the one that carved out the insides of an unlucky couple’s heads in the series’ first episode—belched forth a pseudopod containing that same ominous Bob-bubble, and also a small, misshapen egg. In an observatory atop a rock spire in the midst of a raging sea, a light flashed, and the Giant (or, as he’s known in this iteration of the show, “???????”) watched humanity enter the nuclear age with a look of mute horror on his face. He floated up to the ceiling as a cloud of golden particles began to emerge from his mouth. Those particles eventually coalesced into a luminescent ball with the face of Laura Palmer, which the Giant’s workmate, Señorita Dido, dispatched towards earth, beginning its long journey towards a small logging town in Washington.

Meanwhile, in 1956, the Experiment’s egg began to hatch in the New Mexico desert, revealing a pulsating, insectile creature within. As a girl and a boy—whom the credits call Girl and Boy—share a furtive first kiss, soot-men swarm the roads, and one asks a terrified motorist “Got a light?” in a voice that crackles with electrical distortion. The Woodsman, as the credits call him, makes his way to a radio station, where he crushes two people’s skulls with his bare bands and commandeers the airwaves to deliver a repeated message: “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and ascend. The horse is the white of the eye, but black within.” Several people hear the broadcast and drop to the ground, but the Girl merely slumbers and opens her mouth as the insect crawls down her throat. The Woodsman heads off into the darkness as we hear a horse’s whinny.

The details are fuzzy, or unimportant, but in broad terms it’s possible to offer at least a tentative explanation for what’s happening here. The detonation of the atomic bomb, an instrument of mass death and potential human extinction, brings BOB into the world. (The dissonant soundtrack for the bomb test is Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”) The egg is produced as a byproduct of his birth, as are the soot-men, who come into being around a deserted gas station/convenience store that looks like the mock dwellings built to test the bomb’s effect on human habitations. The Giant sees this happening, and creates Laura Palmer as the embodiment of good to balance the scales, just as the good Cooper and the bad Cooper offset each other’s existence. Eleven years later—these things take time–the egg hatches and the insect finds a human host to gestate in. We know from the original Twin Peaks that Leland Palmer first met Bob when he was a child, so 1956 is about right as far as the timing goes for his emergence into the corporeal world. Why the golden bubble of good took another 20 or so years to arrive, and how the embodiments of both good and evil ended up living under the same roof, is something the rest of Twin Peaks might explain, or might not.

The idea that Bob was birthed by the atom bomb is so tidy as to be almost prosaic: It’s almost hard to fathom Twin Peaks embracing as tired a TV trope as the origin story. But the way Lynch delivered that information was without precedent, at least as far as the history of series television is concerned. If you’re moderately familiar with the history of experimental film, you could spot the influences of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, and Jordan Belson, and if you’re familiar with the rest of Lynch’s filmography, you can trace a line backwards from Inland Empire’s narrative destruction to Eraserhead’s squishy expressionism and the short films he made in the 1960s and ’70s. (The influence of Lynch’s Peaks co-creator, series TV veteran Mark Frost, is too often discounted, but with this particular episode, it seems fair to ascribe most of the artistic impetus to Lynch alone.) But there’s never been anything like it on television, let alone in the context of a much-hyped miniseries on a major cable network. David Lynch didn’t just detonate a nuke. He blew up the landscape of TV as we know it.

June 26 2017 12:59 PM

Reviews of War for the Planet of the Apes Say It’s Become the Best Franchise Going

Through two films, the rebooted Planet of the Apes movies have garnered critical acclaim. And, now, the series’ third installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, is gaining a similar reception. Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn, and directed by Matt Reeves, War takes place two years after the events of the previous film (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, also directed by Reeves) and finds the apes, led by the charismatic Caesar, in a full-out war against the humans, who are seeking to eradicate them. While it boasts dazzling special effects and elaborate set pieces, critics are saying War is bolstered by strong performances and plot coherence that is so rarely found in today's summer blockbusters.

Here's a roundup of what critics had to say.

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It's the best kind of blockbuster filmmaking.

Germain Lussier, io9

When War for the Planet of the Apes ended, I was unable to move. Glued to my seat, I sat dumbfounded at the achievement I’d just witnessed: an exquisitely filmed, emotionally stunning film that challenges what a big-budget, summer blockbuster is supposed to be. And it’s about a planet of apes.

Bilge Ebiri, the Village Voice

I don’t know when it happened, but it happened. Somehow, while we were worrying about superheroes and star destroyers and hot rods and whether Captain America could beat up Superman or whatever, the goddamned Planet of the Apes movies became the most vital and resonant big-budget film series in the contemporary movie firmament.

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

The Apes films succeed because everyone involved took an approach to franchise filmmaking that eschewed the current vogue for creating movies that feel like endless teases for other movies; the trilogy is smartly wedded to good, old-fashioned blockbuster knowhow.

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

It isn’t just the look of the new films that’s been upgraded thanks to breathtaking motion capture technology, the storytelling has gotten richer and more complex, too. Like Caesar and company, the films seem to be getting more intelligent and human as they evolve.

The special effects are on-point.

Ethan Anderton, SlashFilm

[T]here’s emotion in every scene as the you forget these apes are digital creations brought to life with computers and motion-capture performance technology. Subtle movements of the eyes, a quivering of the lip, and more all make these apes feel real, continuing to make a strong case for the actors who bring them to life to finally get some kind of recognition for their incredible work.

Scott Collura, IGN

[H]ere the work of visual effects powerhouse Weta Digital has finally reached the point where there’s never reason to question the “realness” of the characters onscreen at all. Ape or human, it makes no difference. This world simply exists.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

We take the effects work of the “Apes” films for granted because it’s both seamless and ambitious, but “War” takes mo-cap to new heights. Whether it’s an army of apes on horseback (or the climactic blow-out battle), or intimate moments between Maurice and the equally mute young girl, these three films make us believe what we’re seeing without ever thinking about the complicated technology or hours of detailed work required in the post-production process.

Andy Serkis as Caesar is War’s MVP.

Matt Goldberg, Collider

People will continue to argue whether or not Serkis deserves credit or if it’s the animators at WETA, but for me Serkis is the true MVP. He’s driving this performance, and without his choices and his delivery, the animators could only do so much. Not just anyone can do what Serkis does, and over the course of three movies, he has crafted one of the most heartbreaking and fully-realized characters in blockbuster filmmaking.

Brian Truitt, USA Today

It was a shame that Serkis’ mo-cap role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films didn’t snag him an Oscar nomination. But it’s truly an injustice if Serkis’ third—and best—turn as Caesar doesn’t get a serious push. While it's probably still a long shot (no mo-cap performance has ever garnered an acting nomination), what he accomplishes here is monumental.

Alan Cerny, ComingSoon.net

Someone give Andy Serkis an Oscar. Please. It really is that simple. His Caesar is an all-timer. I don’t care how much effects work went into animating his face, because you cannot fake that kind of performance. Serkis has carried these films and brought true emotion and power to pixels and motion capture.

It won't leave you feeling super-optimistic about the human condition.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire

For large stretches of time, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is simply a marvel of morbid imagery rarely seen in this kind of American movie. The prison, with its weary, bloodied apes shivering in the ruthless cold, looks like a Siberian gulag crossed with the world’s saddest zoo. It’s just disturbing enough to make the plot for an uprising gain renewed urgency, even as we’ve seen variations on it before.

Peter Debruge, Variety

Reeves is determined to do things his way, which means orchestrating a man-vs.-monkey conflict epic enough to justify the movie’s “War” title — represented by a gruesome concentration camp where apes are enslaved and later decimated by machine-gun fire (violence that would tip the film into “R” territory if it were directed at humans).

Rosie Fletcher, Digital Spy

With an extraordinary level of bloodshed and even torture and execution scenes, as well as Harrelson channelling Marlon Brando's crazed Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, at times War is perhaps a bit too relentlessly grim.

But not everyone agrees that the writing is the best of the series.

David Crow, Den of Geek

Despite this high-mindedness, War is admittedly a step down from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While it is refreshing that the movie has dispensed with the need for a James Franco or Jason Clarke to hang around and steal screen time from the apes, the picture does not quite have the narrative and tonal clarity of Dawn, which was a slow-motion tragedy about how things fall about between hostile communities, be they in the Middle East or in the ruins of a post-ape apocalyptic San Francisco.

Peter Debruge, Variety

In fact, War so desperately wants to inspire awe that Reeves and DP Michael Seresin (shooting on the large-format, ultra-hi-def Alexa 65) design every shot of the film as if it were a painting intended for the Louvre, getting the composition and lighting to look just perfect, often at the expense of the underlying narrative. Whereas 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Wyatt) offered a cautionary tale about genetic engineers playing God, and Reeves’ 2014 follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes coincided with growing racial unrest (somewhat problematically equating apes to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.), War fails to delivery a functional allegory.
 
 

 

June 26 2017 12:14 PM

You Don’t Need to Know a Thing About British Politics to Appreciate This Savage Monty Python Parody

Clueless about Jeremy Corbyn? Baffled by Brexit? Generally ill-informed about the U.K.’s general election? You’ll still probably get a kick out of “Theresa May and the Holy Grail,” a parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that casts the British prime minister as King Arthur. In the impeccably edited video, May meets with the flatulent French, negotiates for a Brexit shrubbery, and even runs through fields of wheat, which the PM recently admitted was the “naughtiest” thing she ever did as a child, to widespread ridicule.

Kudos to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and editor Huw Parkinson for bringing us some lovely filth, indeed.

June 26 2017 11:18 AM

John Oliver’s Message to Anti-Vaxxers, Slow-Vaxxers: “Memes Are Not Science”

John Oliver has dedicated past segments of Last Week Tonight to the different ways Big Pharma can harm us, as with the opioid epidemic or the practice of marketing directly to doctors. But on Sunday, he turned his attention to defending “one of humanity’s most incredible accomplishments”: vaccines.

By now, you’ve probably heard the hoopla about a supposed link between vaccines and autism, which comes from a thoroughly debunked study by Andrew Wakefield, the discredited researcher Oliver calls “the Lance Armstrong of doctors.” Misinformation from figures like Wakefield, actor Rob Schneider, and, yes, even internet memes can lead to a precipitous drop in vacination rates, which in turn clears the way for resurgences of once-eliminated diseases like the measles outbreak currently affecting Minnesota’s Somali population. And while people who reject vaccines outright are thankfully still pretty rare, there are plenty of parents out there with misguided views about vaccines, such as slow-vaxxers, who prefer that doctors space out their children’s recommended vaccinations. That’s a philosophy might sound sensible, but as Oliver notes, it’s actually “a middle ground between sense and nonsense,” one that even its proponents admit is not based in science.

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Oliver understands why vaccines might seem scary to some people. “Vaccination can mean getting injected by a needle filled with science juice—although pretty much every medical practice sounds terrifying when you break it down like that.” But that doesn’t mean we should cave to those fears, especially since not vaccinating—or not vaccinating on schedule—puts the most vulnerable among us at risk, like sick people and newborns, who rely on herd immunity.

Oliver capped off the segment by telling the audience that he and his wife plan to have their infant son vaccinated fully on schedule despite a difficult pregnancy and premature birth. “I’ve worried about his health, and I still worry about his health a lot,” he said. “And if I can resist the temptation to listen to the irrational shouting of my terrified lizard brain, then I believe that everyone can.”

June 26 2017 8:03 AM

What It Was Like to Star in the Trump-Themed Julius Caesar

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

“Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily.
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
but bear it as our Roman actors do,
with untir’d spirits and formal constancy.”

On the night of Sunday, June 18, I spoke those words as Brutus for the last time in Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar. I had said those words hundreds of times before, but on Sunday I almost couldn’t get them out from pride. By then, our show had become the target of hecklers and online vitriol, and it felt as if we were acting in two plays simultaneously—the one we had rehearsed and the one thrust upon us. The protesters never shut us down, but we had to fight each night to make sure they did not distort the story we were telling. At that moment, watching my castmates hold their performances together, it occurred to me that this is resistance.

June 26 2017 7:33 AM

On Broadway, 1984 Is Watching You

For nearly 60 years, George Orwell’s 1984 has been posing readers thorny questions about the dangers of ideology and the relationship between language, history, and memory. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation, which is now open on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, adds another, equally pressing question: Why bother?

Icke and Macmillan’s version, which was first staged at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2014, opens with Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge) taking the fateful step of beginning a journal and then leaps promptly to some unspecific point in the future, where that journal is being dissected in what might be a graduate history seminiar. As Winston, who remains, semi-present, on the edge of the scene, watches, they discuss his book, which has become so famous that, one future character remarks, “It occupies a place in our collective unconscious, even if we’ve never read it.”

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The way they talk about Winston’s book is familiar, and it’s meant to be. Like his chronicle of life in the fascist state of Oceania, Orwell’s 1984 is it’s easy to think you’ve read, even if you haven’t. But though its ideas, especially about the way totalitarian regimes use language to alter the landscape of thought, have become so common as to be almost banal, the book itself—as the hosts of Slate’s Culture Gabfest found when they (re)read it in March—is vaster and more complicated than the word “Orwellian” can encompass.

Still, as we languish in a country that shows many of the traits of a proto-fascist state, it’s fair to ask: Does that matter? Or, as one of the characters in the stage version asks, “How can you say a book has changed the world when the world is still exactly the same?” Is it enough to free your mind if your ass doesn’t, or can’t, follow?

If we are indeed sliding towards totalitarianism, Icke and MacMillan’s 1984 is not about to go quietly. It’s a noisy production in both concept and execution, kitted out with video projections and surveillance cameras, shifting scenes with the flash of strobe lights and an ear-rattling slam. After four people reportedly fainted during previews, Olivia Wilde, who plays Julia, Winston’s partner in love and rebellion, tweeted, “Warning: this is not your grandma’s Broadway.” There is, naturally, no intermission, and a notice in the program informs you that if you leave your seat for any reason, there’s no getting back in.

The rationale for this periodic assault on the senses would seem to be Winston’s exclamation, “Is this what it feels like to go mad?” As we slip between frames—from Winston’s apartment, where he scribbles in a corner he thinks safe from the all-seeing telescreen; to an antiques shop where he sifts through artifacts of a past he has learned to say, and perhaps even believe, no longer exists; to the hidden, surveillance-free room off the shop, which the audience ironically glimpses only through hidden cameras and where he and Julia can act out for a few stolen moments the love their society forbids; and finally to the Ministry of Love, with its near-unimaginable tortures—it becomes impossible to keep track of what is real and what is imagined, what is history and what is myth. Reed Birney, who plays O’Brien, the party elder who may be a leader of the resistance or a cunning trickster out to ensnare would-be rebels, mostly deftly navigates the production’s levels of illusion and half-truth, so that we, like Winston, can never be sure if our minds are playing tricks on us. To those future scholars, the details of the world described in Winston’s journal are vague, lost in the mists of history or deliberately erased, but they’re confident of one thing: Winston Smith never really existed. So what, then, are we looking at?

There’s something a little, one should pardon the term, oppressive about the insistence with which 1984 jolts you out of your seat, and it’s not helped by the curious flatness of Sturridge’s performance. (Although the story’s setting in what was once London has not shifted, Sturridge has, like the production’s other English actors, been directed to speak in American accent, which seems to curtail his range somewhat.) But just as interrogation subjects wither beneath the lights, the play does smash through your defenses and eventually plants one square in the gut.

The audience’s job is to watch the play, but like Big Brother himself, 1984 is also watching you. Once Winston ends up in the notorious Room 101, the screams begin and the stage blood flows in extraordinary quantities. The production’s earlier scenes are lit in the dim glow of an underground bunker, but in the Ministry of Love’s torture chamber, everything is dazzling white on white; there’s nowhere to hide, for them or us. At one point, Winston calls out for help, and we’re meant to feel culpable: Aren’t we guilty, just like Oceania’s obedient citizens, of falling under the spell of our screens, of failing to look up as the world shifts around us? But here, too, we have a part to play; we know the ending has been written, and the script has no lines for us. Our place is to sit, and perhaps to feel bad, and then perhaps to congratulate ourselves for being so sensitive to Winston’s plight. But 1984 has one more curtain to pull back, one more question to ask, and it’s one that forms only after the lights have come up and the players have left the stage. What do you do next?

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