Monarch is a mesmerizing mess, Viola rules in Woman King, and Moonage is a Bowie fan's dream
Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox
Some of us out here are rooting for broadcast TV, okay? Every time a commercial network reclaims a flash of its former glory with a critically lauded and ratings-robust new series (This is Us, Abbott Elementary, Ghosts), it's a comforting reminder that progress doesn't have to destroy the past.
Terrestrial TV hasn't had a quality primetime soap since Empire season 2 wrapped in 2016, but network TV execs keep trying. Fox's latest effort is Monarch, a hilariously miscast melodrama about "the first family of country music." Featuring sibling rivalries, blackmail, infidelity, and wigs — oh, so many wigs! — Monarch is an often-ridiculous mess, and God help me, I will watch every episode.
Albie (Trace Adkins) and Dottie Roman (Susan Sarandon) are the reigning King and Queen of Country. (Have you suspended your disbelief yet?) For reasons that are too spoilery to get into, Dottie is preparing to pass her crown to her oldest daughter, Nicky (Anna Friel) — a plan that rankles her perpetually overlooked younger daughter, Gigi (Beth Ditto), who has her own powerful set of pipes. This leaves Luke (Joshua Sasse), Dottie's pretty-boy son and the CEO of the family's Monarch music label, in an awkward position — as does the fact that he's sleeping with one of his sisters' significant others.
Showrunner Jon Feldman takes this gaudy tapestry of soapy scandal and drapes it around (what else?) a murder mystery, one that ties back to a long-buried secret from Dottie's past. Monarch could be a lot of fun, and sometimes it is. (I'll not soon forget the sight of a hologram Susan Sarandon singing "Love Can Build a Bridge" as a crown of butterflies flutters around her digitally rendered head.) But save for Ditto and Kevin Cahoon, who plays the Roman family's loyal stylist, no one seems to be having a hoot nor a holler. Friel is a very likable performer, but Nicky always looks a little tentative on stage, like she's worried her flowing auburn wig will come loose. Conversely, Adkins is fine in the musical performance scenes but has the acting range of a mahogany Fender.
Couples lack chemistry across the board; the writing can be nonsensical (sorry, did Luke just say he took a helicopter to a glacier — from Nashville?); and you can see one of the big reveals coming from a country mile away. Still, I devoured the six episodes Fox made available for review like a bag of Funyuns, because now I've got to know whodunnit and to whom they dunnit. Monarch is an objectively mediocre show that is also undeniably watchable — just call it Smashville. Grade: C+ —Kristen Baldwin
The Woman King
In theaters now
Our cinematic cup spills over with Bravehearts and Gladiators and Last Samurai; even lions can be kings on screen. But female warriors, unsurprisingly, have mostly been confined to TV syndication or Themyscira, which feels like a deficit Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King is long overdue to correct. And the movie arrives as the rousing crowd-pleaser it was crafted to be: a spirited and often thrilling action epic elevated by the regal, rigorous commitment of star Viola Davis.
Davis is General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie, an all-female fighting unit in early 19th-century West Africa who lay down their lives — no marriage, no children — to defend the Dahomey empire led by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Some join voluntarily, others are prisoners of war; Nawi (South African actress Thuso Mbedu) lands there because her exasperated father has given up trying to marry her off. Instead she becomes an immediate thorn in the side of nearly all her superiors, including Izogie (No Time to Die's Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) — a girl so eager to do things her own way she can't stop rebelling and questioning and disregarding the chain of command.
There's never really any doubt that she'll also make a great warrior, and Prince-Bythewood, who spent years helming intimate, intelligent dramas like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights before pivoting to the large-scale adrenalized action of the 2020 Charlize Theron Netflix hit The Old Guard, fills her training scenes with lively, stirring pageantry. The fighting, when it comes — from both competing tribes and white colonizers steadily advancing an international slave trade — is viscerally satisfying too, even as the screenplay, by Dana Stevens (Fatherhood) and actress Maria Bello, works mostly in the broad strokes of genre storytelling.
Though Boyega is excellent as a king smart enough to know the difference between pride and ego, the women are more than enough on their own, and the movie hinges on the strength of their fierce collective presence. Davis's Nanisca alone gets a deeper backstory, one she imbues with a grace and gravitas not necessarily embedded in the script. (King's handling of the Dahomeys' actual role in perpetuating slavery has already incited heavy debate online; the history conveyed here seems incomplete at best, if not seriously misleading.) For all its gorgeous choreography and costumes, the actual look of the film also lacks a certain richness in the settings and cinematography, a sort of small-screen swords-and-sandals feel. But the movie is swords and sandals, a classic hero's quest — one that just had to wait several lifetimes for the rest of the world to catch up. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt
In theaters now
As the first authorized posthumous deep dive into the David Bowie estate's massive archive, Bret Morgen's transfixing profile supplies eye-opening surprises on a second-by-second basis: He never had a teddy bear ("I never liked children's things"). He detested Los Angeles, even when he lived there. He played John Merrick in Broadway's The Elephant Man without recourse to makeup or prosthetics. Charmingly, he was constantly wracked with doubts.
And while you do get the general shape of things — crying glam fans, coked-out limo rides, the escape to gray Berlin and art rock, Bowie's triumphant return to '80s commercial pop — Morgen ends up articulating a point that's deeper and more sophisticated than mere biography, an insight that feels like a serious contribution to music criticism. Bowie's life was a pendulum, swinging between an impulse to connect and another to withdraw. His music, so initially anthemic and euphoric, from "All the Young Dudes" and Ziggy Stardust's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" ("You're not alone!"), gave way to the need to recharge and regroup.
Those moments of detachment are the ones that Bowie's hardcore fans are going to treasure, and Moonage Daydream is loaded with them, like the weirdly arresting shot of the star in a green room circa "Let's Dance," watching TV alone, his back to us, like an outtake from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Morgen uses wonderfully strange footage of Bowie swanning around a neon-lit Singapore as a kind of visual metaphor: He is recognized but always moves ahead. Even when he's not advancing — as with the elephantine Glass Spider tour and his fallow late-'80s period — Morgen is smart enough to contextualize it not as an artistic failure, but as a weakening of self-identity: "I've come to the vacuum of my life," Bowie says under footage of Tina Turner cavorting with him in a Pepsi ad. (The turn? His marriage to Iman.)
Occasionally, Morgen's flow can feel belabored and imprecise, snippets of Buster Keaton, 8½, The Red Shoes, Nosferatu, and Plan 9 from Outer Space competing for space against more germane choices (not least a raft of Bowie's own movie work in The Hunger, Labyrinth, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). But pruning would hamper the unencumbered risk-taking on display, an approach that instantly vaults the effort to the top of the Bowie docs. The music itself, gorgeously remixed by Bowie's longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti, has never sounded better or stranger, with isolations of instrumental passages that stick in mind. "I put myself through everything," the subject says of his life near the end of Morgen's nearly two-and-a-half-hour immersion, and you may feel as much yourself. Grade: A– —Joshua Rothkopf
Genndy Tartakovsky's Primal
Streaming on HBO Max
Surprises await in this dino-fantasy's season finale, but that's nothing new. In a spectacular run of episodes, Primal introduced a vast mysterious world of malevolence and wonder around wandering Spear (Aaron LaPlante) and his trusty Tyrannosaur Fang. Vikings! A ship as big as a city! Bird-riding flight combat! Um, the devil? Creator Genndy Tartakovsky injected all the genre-freakout madness and red-river bloodshed with remarkable sensitivity, especially when freed captive Mira (Laëtitia Eïdo) and a few eggs transformed Primal into a family portrait of survival at any cost. Expect quiet majesty and ker-smash monstrosity from season 2's climax, and credit voice actor LaPlante with unleashing some of the most soaringly emotional wordless caveman grunts ever heard. Grade: A —Darren Franich