I can’t remember the last time I saw Piper Perabo, but I’m sure it was around the time of Coyote Ugly. If you remember that film, it was where she played a small town girl who came into the big city chasing dreams only to end up dancing atop a bar. It was a terrible film. That was probably the last time I saw her anywhere (okay, that’s a lie, I saw her in Cheaper By the Dozen but I’d like to pretend that never happened either), until this past summer where she’s been heating up the USA Network’s summer schedule with the Doug Liman produced Covert Affairs.
The series is, for all intents and purposes, a lighter less-heady version of previously popular spy drama Alias. Perabo plays Annie Walker, a fresh out of school recruit whose immense language skills has earned her a spot at Langley. Through the series, she trots around the globe doing spy things- exchanging information, extracting people, kicking people, and generally getting out of sticky spy situations. Her immediate team includes Auggie Anderson (a blind operative helping Walker from the desk, played by Christopher Gorham), Jai Wilcox (a fishy CIA officer who appears to have more than one secret) and the husband and wife director team played by Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett.
It is the pairing of Matchett and Gallagher as CIA directors (with Gallagher’s character being Matchett’s superior) that proves to be the series’ unique character relationship. While Walker’s cover means she often lies to her sister and family, it is the strain between Gallagher and Matchett’s respective characters that proves to be the most interesting. How does a married couple possibly live and cope as two high-ranking CIA operatives? How do you possibly take that friction and disagreement home to bed? Not a bad set up for summer fare.
The show’s lighthearted veneer is both an asset and a hindrance. It’s relatively easy going and the missions and plotlines do their best not to complicate any of the characters. A former CIA agent troubles Walker, a previous lover (played by Eion Bailey), but this story line tends to falter more than it shines as it fails to do anything other than give some back story to why Walker will at times seem troubled (she at least, cries much less than Sydney Bristow did). The aesthetics and cinematography borrows more from the CSI school of television than it does The Wire, with pretty people abound and a glossy shine cast over the locales. Viewers shouldn’t expect season-long story arches and multi-layered complexities that lingers long after the show is done either. Through the season we’ve seen her travel to South America, Europe and across North America to diffuse situations like protecting a boy-genius, leaks in the Senate, suspicious art and an escaping Iranian defector who as it turns out, just wants to get back with his childhood girlfriend. Not exactly stopping a nuclear holocaust.
Yet you can’t help but enjoy the 40+ minutes it’s on every week. For one, Perabo is absolutely fantastic in it. She was born to play a lovable, but slightly troubled, beautiful spy whose world of espionage is both engaging and interesting, but only slightly dangerous. Her command of foreign dialects is believable and her earnest character makes her one of the best on television at the moment.
Summer fare rarely pushes deeper than the immediate surface. With Perabo proving the goods however, Covert Affairs has been the perfect antidote to television doldrums and a show to watch as it traverses past the singular season mark. If anything, Covert Affairs just wants to have a good time and to be well liked, both accomplished with stylistic aplomb.
Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero
Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity
If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.
With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.
The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.
Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.
Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.
You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.
It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.
The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue
Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work
At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”
This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.
What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:
“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”
Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?
With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;
“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”
Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.
The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.
Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.
Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.
He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.
A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.
And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:
“Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”
The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.
Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:
“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”
That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.