New York Magazine
I was afraid of virtual comedy shows—until I went to one.
Black Mirror once. Ten minutes into an episode where a woman (Hayley Atwell) attempts to rebuild her dead boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson) from his social-media accounts, I had to turn it off. I find the idea of a capital-S Satire about our modern dependence on technology just so exhausting. Especially now that we are living in a world that feels like someone wished for “technological advancement” on a monkey’s paw. But I find “Black Mirror” a useful term when describing anything that makes it feel like we are Icarus flying too close to the sun—but the sun is a MacBook Pro. I’ve been using it a lot since started ravaging our country and forced us to selfisolate. Mostly while watching comedy.
Maybe the grumpy stand-up veterans were right about “these social-media comedians” they’ve been railing against for the better part of a decade. Though live comedy is undeniably popular, comedy today is most often defined by the genre’s success on emerging platforms—TikTok, Netflix, and so on. As cosmic punishment for comedy’s sin of gluttonous expansion to new channels, comedians now only have the internet as an outlet. Sometimes the shows are good, sometimes they are bad, and they’re always a little weird. There’s one in which the audience listens to the disembodied voices of comedians while watching a cutesy creature “perform” the jokes over the video game Animal Crossing. It’s terrifying.
Still, there’s one digital comedy show whose image has haunted me for months: InCrowd Comedy. I became aware of it in
early July, when comedian Taylor Tomlinson posted a photo on Instagram. She was on a stage, performing stand-up in front of a wall of screens. Displayed on each was the face of an audience member watching from home. Created by the stage designer and part-time comedian Bubba Ginnetty, it looked like the “Architect” scene in the second Matrix movie. I asked Tomlinson what it was like performing for rows of faces on screens. “Nothing replaces live shows,” she said, “but this is the absolute closest thing.” For two months, I avoided experiencing one of these shows, but as the nights got chillier and outdoor comedy became less appealing, my curiosity got the better of me.
For all InCrowd shows, which are announced on no particular schedule via Instagram, there are two ticket options: $15 to watch the show and $30 for a VIP ticket to be one of the faces the comedians see. I chose the $15 one because I’m always afraid a comedian is going to ask me what I do for a living, and I’ll say, “Write about comedy,” and it’ll be a whole thing.
Right away, something unexpected happened. Host Tone Bell, a very good comedian whom I’ve never seen live because he lives in L.A. (the biggest bonus of any online show is it allows people who live outside New York and L.A. to see the best comedians in the country), tried to tell the audience a story about being in Texas the week before. An audience member responded in a plainspoken voice, “I’m from Dallas.” This was a result of the lack of social norms for an event like this. All the VIPs’ mics were on so their laughter could be audible, which meant their small asides were, too.
Soon after, another unexpected thing happened—I laughed. After spending six months thinking about how laughter could be literally infectious, I forgot that it is metaphorically infectious. At a show, the comedian talks and you laugh, partly to communicate to the performer “That’s funny” and also to communicate to the other audience members: “This is funny, right?” The comedian is the conduit for audience connection. It’s nice! For the InCrowd shows, headphones are suggested, so the laughs feel especially close. I found myself charmed by the people who are unconsciously compelled to say things like “Oh my God” or “That’s so funny” when they laugh. Better yet was the guy who repeated a punch line he enjoyed: “Tickling my pizza.”
It took a while, but each comedian was able to lock into a rhythm. Alonzo Bodden, a 58-year-old stand-up vet, was hysterical, but it took him half his set to realize it. “It’s throwing me off,” he said, “because every joke there’s a moment delay before everyone laughs. And I’m like, Oh shit. That one didn’t work. What the fuck else do I have? … I would hate to bomb in front of a simulated crowd at a warehouse in Sun Valley.” When I caught my breath from laughing, I realized why I’d put this off for so long. I was enjoying it too much. I thought of what Tomlinson said: “Nothing replaces live shows, but it is the absolute closest thing.” But does nothing replace live shows? Weren’t Netflix stand-up specials and front-facing camera videos and podcasts replacing live shows even when live shows were still CDC-approved? At first, it’s strange to feel like you are laughing with people when you’re not actually with them. It was scary how quickly I was able to adapt. I’m Domhnall Gleeson in Black Mirror. I’m Neo. I’m in the Matrix from The Matrix. One blue pill, please. Next time, I’ll pay for the VIP package.
Loy is so dedicated to his men’s enlightenment that he would make sure to define tureen—which isn’t that obscure now, and definitely wasn’t then—on the spot, even if it meant stepping on his own punch line?
An even worse moment appears soon after: Odis gets in Loy’s face and says, “You didn’t fight in the war, did ya?” “Naw, man,” Loy snarls, “why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?” While less dreadful on its face than the tureen moment, this one is more debilitating, because it’s a twofer example of the dogged literalism that undermines the show’s poetry. Channeling substandard Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino imitators more than the Coens, FX’s Fargo states or restates that which was already plain from watching the characters go about their business (in this
case, a Black man’s estrangement from a country founded on white supremacy).
And it’s yet another Fargo scene in which a major character cannot enter a room and state what he wants or attempt to accomplish a goal through direct or indirect means without first forcing an audience to sit through a tedious monologue. There are barely any actual conversations to be heard here, only florid anecdotes followed by a character either asking if the listener understood the subtext or preemptively relating the moral. Every season of Fargo is a veritable monologuefest, but season four seems especially top-heavy, perhaps because it’s more doggedly prosaic and linear in its telling and more concerned—à la Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy—with who’s whacking whom and where and for what immediate purpose, not so much with the cosmological and philosophical aspects of life and crime that made seasons one and two of Hawley’s series so gripping.
This last failing is particularly odd given the central conceit of season four: Kansas City’s gang leaders have a tradition of swapping their sons as a failsafe to stop violence from escalating too quickly or becoming too all encompassing, or perhaps to force the other side to think of their enemies as human beings when things get dire. If you can move past the fundamental improbability of, say, the leader of a Jewish gang sending one of his sons to live in an Irish gang leader’s house and vice versa, then move past the fact (established in episode one’s prologue) that this arrangement invariably leads to massacres anyway, it’s a fascinating nature-vs.-nurture prompt. Yet Fargo never treats the circa-1950 transplanted sons as anything other than narrative hot potatoes to be passed from location to location as the plot requires. And it never ties the idea of transplanted cultural representatives to the season’s larger themes of immigration, assimilation, and shared and enforced cultures.
All this and more is encoded in the character of “Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw), a former Jew who spent time among the Irish and has now become an honorary Italian (even though the Italians never fully trust him). He is tasked with guarding Loy’s swapped-out son. Whishaw’s sad eyes and relaxed lethality (like a snake coiled in a burrow) wordlessly communicate the complexities of being a person of many cultures who is effectively without a culture (i.e., the condition of most Americans). But season four of Fargo isn’t interested in subtext unless it can be turned into text, underlined and boldfaced, with directional arrows.
Other actors besides Whishaw manage to spin straw into gold. Glynn Turman adds another panel to his gallery of classic character turns as Doctor Senator, Loy’s consigliere and resident father figure. As U.S. marshal and devout Mormon Dick “Deafy” Wickware, Timothy Olyphant brings his Deadwood and Justified experience to bear. He lets the show’s ornate, often pseudo-biblical declamations roll off his tongue and grounds episodes filled with scenerygnawing eccentrics by doing more reacting than acting. As Oraetta Mayflower, a chirpy, murderous Minnesota redhead who’s like Marge Gunderson’s secret evil sister, Jessie Buckley seems to be starring in a barely related but vastly more compelling season of Fargo. She captures not just the essence of her character (a seemingly motiveless bringer of death in the vein of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and Raising Arizona’s Leonard Smalls) but a hyperspecific subset of mid-century middleAmerican white lady: the kind who walks like she’s 80 when she’s barely 30 and has a sprightly aphorism for every occasion (even murderous ones).
But the rest of the cast ends up stranded in Fargo’s shallows—notably Chris Rock; Jason Schwartzman as young Italian gang boss Josto Fadda, who’s basically Michael Corleone by way of Fredo; and Salvatore Esposito as his brother Gaetano, an Old Country hothead who seems styled on Jon Polito’s gang boss, Johnny Caspar, from Miller’s Crossing. What’s the problem? Sometimes miscasting seems to be the main culprit: Rock and Schwartzman, especially, radiate modernity so strongly you wouldn’t be surprised if their characters took cell-phone calls in the middle of a scene. In other cases, Hawley and his fellow episode directors seem to have encouraged their actors to cling to the most obvious choices (Esposito bugs his eyes out in every scene to show that his character is “crazy” and “capable of anything”).
At still other times, the dialogue hurls every other aspect of the production to the floor and pins it like those wrestlers who vexed Barton Fink. Anachronisms sink otherwise serviceable exchanges (the Twitter-certified warning “slow your roll” shows up twice), and lit’ry wordclots fail to translate from page to screen. You can tell even Fargo recognizes that last problem by the way it keeps selfconsciously trying to make light of it. When Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), a half–Native American outlaw, declares she has been “masticating savory vittles and imbibing top-shelf hooch,” her lover, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), peals, “Hoo-weee! Someone’s been studyin’ their vocabulary!”
One of the Coen brothers’ most quoted lines—practically a summation of their aesthetic—is from 2009’s A Serious Man: “Accept the mystery.” Hawley’s Fargo seems increasingly unwilling to take that admonition (itself rather cryptic) at face value. Still coasting on fumes from its season-two peak—which retrospectively seems like more of a fluke than the fulfillment of season one’s promise—the series carries itself as though it has the answers to everything. When one character asks a question of another and then announces with a self-regarding smirk that it was rhetorical—something both the audience and the listener could already tell just by the phrasing—Fargo disappears into its own navel, where even the lint is annotated.
where, as proud patriarch Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) brags to his wife and children when they first arrive, Led Zeppelin once stayed while working on an album. But there doesn’t really need to be for it to scare the shit out of Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), the younger of the two kids, who seeks sanctuary at night with his teenage sister, Samantha (Oona Roche), until she kicks him out; then he sprints through the darkened hallways to his room as though something’s going to drag him off into the shadows if he’s not fast enough. And then there’s the horse, which belongs to wife and mother Allison (Carrie Coon). This gorgeous black animal just isn’t the same after being transported from New York to the U.K. As the soundtrack swells with audio of its distress, there’s an ominous zoom in on the half-built structure where it’s stabled, as if it’s a creature possessed.
As a virtuosic movie about the slow implosion of a family, The Nest doesn’t require the help of hauntings or demonic forces—the call, as they say, is coming from inside the house. It’s coming from Rory, mostly, a fast-talking commodities broker with a taste for luxuries he can’t afford. It’s the ’80s, and Rory, who has been an Englishman abroad for years, uproots his family and moves them back to the London area after he gets what he describes as a job offer too good to turn down. This turns out to be a lie, which we learn at a party alongside Allison, the camera holding on her frozen face as Rory’s boss, Arthur (Michael Culkin), gives a speech about how his former employee called him up and pitched his services. Yet Allison doesn’t confront Rory, having served as co-conspirator and enabler in her husband’s games for a while now. She doesn’t press him about how much the house cost (“Less than you’d think!” he promises), and she plays along when he tells his co-workers that they own a penthouse in New York and are looking to pick up a pied-à-terre in Mayfair. Rory has been maintaining this façade for so long he can’t even be honest with himself about it, but the way Allison hoards and hides cash hints at how many times they’ve flamed out before.
The Nest is the second feature from filmmaker Sean Durkin, who made a splash back in 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene, which launched Elizabeth Olsen’s career via what you could call the title role of a young woman who has escaped from a cult that still very much maintains a hold on her mind. Durkin didn’t disappear after that debut—he made the glum 2013 miniseries Southcliffe for Channel 4 in the U.K.—but this follow-up has been long in coming, and it’s impressive enough to make you wonder why. Durkin has a real skill in using space, turning the family’s gloomy country house into a warren of doorways and hallways that box in the characters and framing the glass-walled office Rory prowls as though on display at a zoo. Shots like the one of the family clustered at one end of the massive Elizabethan table that came with the house, or the one of them struggling to get their suburban furniture into the grandiose space, underscore how poorly they fit this lifestyle without saying a word.
While all four family members experience their own personal miseries— Benjamin is bullied, Samantha is bored and rebellious in her choice of friends— the film really centers on Allison and Rory. Coon and Law offer a pair of performances that are among the best of the year, Law leaning into the air of artificiality that can accompany his beauty and Coon allowing her character’s buried rage to bubble up suddenly in ways Allison herself seems to find bewildering. Sitting at a dinner they can’t afford, the couple play a form of chicken; Allison orders the most expensive items on the menu, and Rory sneers at her taste in wine. They’re perfectly matched in their bruised magnificence, two people who have been exhausted by years of pretending to be something they’re not, chasing a dream they couldn’t entirely articulate. As a statement on a decade of consumerism, The Nest doesn’t have anything particularly new to say, but as a fable of familial dysfunction, it’s resonant and, yes, frightening, with nary a ghost in sight.