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'Mare of Easttown' is twisty until the very end, but the best part is its grace

Spoiler warning: The following story discusses the finale of "Mare of Easttown" in detail. If you haven't watched the show yet, what are you waiting for? Stop reading now and don't come back until you've binged it.

If you described Easttown as an incestuous place at the start of "Mare of Easttown," you may have mixed emotions about how right you were all along. You probably didn't mean it literally, right? And, yet.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Series creator Brad Ingelsby writes the overfamiliarity of Easttown as a blessing and a curse for detective sergeant Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), since everybody in the place knows her well enough to trust her while also resenting her.

Such a tightly knitted community means that anyone in that slumping burg could have a motive for murdering teen mother Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny). Except, well, for Mare or her mother Helen (Jean Smart). But aside from those two the list of suspects stretched long enough to cordon off a soccer field. It also hit very close to home.

Mare's daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) was among the last people to see her alive. Her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) made the mistake of being a good Samaritan, which wouldn't have caused any trouble if Erin hadn't turned up dead and the paternity of the son she left behind never came into question.

Suspicion bounced around from Erin's cruel teenage ex-boyfriend Dylan (Jack Mulhern) to any number of men in her orbit. Even Guy Pearce's literature professor and new guy in town Richard Ryan, Mare's most persistent suitor, had a huge question mark hovering over his head. (By the "Law & Order" rule of "the most famous person in the story who isn't a series regular probably did it" making Richard look good for the crime early on.)

But the circle eventually tightened to those closest to the victim.

The fact that Ingelsby and series director Craig Zobel insisted on ensnaring the audience in uncertainty up to and throughout the finale, even after the guiltiest looking parties confessed, is a credit to their adroit construction and manipulation of dramatic tension.

But they also worked up the audience to expect nothing less. Erin's murder drove the A-plot, often weaving down the road through an obstacle course of misdirects and MacGuffins as the mystery of her life informed her death. Everything after that became questions leading into cliffhangers.

Was her murder a one-off or related to the disappearance of Katie Bailey, the daughter of Mare's high school basketball teammate Dawn (Enid Graham)? Were there crimes within these crimes? In Erin's situation, yes! Several!

The walls of crazy and theories this show inspired were impressive and highly necessary, since every character with a line and a link to Mare has a story worth knowing and, perhaps, relevant to the main murder. And through the first four episodes, anyway, the sheer number of characters jostling for space muddled the plot. But as Helen would probably attest, sometimes a muddle mixed with spirits, bitters and twists makes a smashing cocktail. The woman knows and loves her Manhattans.

In the end, what distinguishes "Mare of Easttown" from the typical murder mystery and other prestige shows – besides Winslet's superior performance – is the way it swims with and through grief.

In my initial review I wrote about how heavily sadness hangs on this Pennsylvania working-class hamlet. The place itself has nothing on Mare, a woman whose determination to solve crimes and to serve and protect is really her way of hiding behind everyone else's grief. If she were to stop, she'd have to mourn her son's suicide.

When Winslet allows the dam surrounding Mare's despair to crack a little, frosting the blank spaces between lines of dialogue with pure aching emotion, tearing your eyes away is impossible. She also nails the regional accent, from what I understand, but her dramatic muscle really flexes when she says absolutely nothing.

"Mare of Easttown" gets under your skin in those quiet interludes. From the shots of its streetscapes to its architecture, the images tell the story of a place that feels too close, crowded to the point that Mare can't help but step on a lot of toes without wanting and meaning to. Sometimes those small hurts lead to large fractures, which is what happens with Lori and her husband John (Joe Tippett) and John's brother Billy (Robbie Tann), who are Erin's cousins.

The limited series' finale, "Sacrament," lifts some of that weight from Mare just in time for her to capture Erin's killer, who turns out to be different from what the penultimate episode leads us to believe. This gives Mare space, at last, to actually hold the people who need her most acutely — including her best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson), who discovers John is having an affair. Again.

A pause for one last bit of warning: From this point on, this story discusses revealing details that will blow the twists for anyone who hasn't seen the finale. So if for some reason you ignored the alert at the top, read no further lest ye be spoiled.

"After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable," Mare tells a grieving Glen Carroll (Patrick McDade), who is struggling to stay upright after the death of his wife Betty (Phyllis Somerville, in her final role).

Betty was in the habit of calling Mare for small bothers, which Glen takes up — fortunately. He provides a list of things that have gone missing, but then mentions that his gun also went missing for a time only to mysteriously turn up again in the locked shed where he kept it.

It also happens to be the same out-of-production Colt pistol whose bullets were used in Erin's murder.

This would not matter if Mare were simply interested in closing the case, which she had when Lori's husband John confessed to killing Erin . . . after a photo surfaced that shows Erin in bed with the man. That also meant Erin's son was actually John's. He alleged that she threatened to spill that secret, so he killed her.

This is the finale's first twist, since in a previous episode, it was John's brother Billy who was ready to confess to the crime, explaining that they had hooked up at the Ross family reunion. But it was by no means its biggest. Instead, the Colt's finding leads Mare to the only other person with access to Glen's shed: Lori and John's young son Ryan (Cameron Mann), whose anger at his father's latest infidelity led him to pick up a gun and confront Erin.

The ponderous sadness Winslet dumps in to Mare's voice as she calls dispatch to send cars to her best friend's home to pick up the 13-year-old for murder piles another heartbreaking note on a mountain of them. Realizing what this means for Mare is especially devastating when a hysterical Lori tells her she never wants to see her again.

This, after Mare reaches out to the grieving mother of her partner Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), who was shot and killed in the harrowing mission to finding and freeing Katie, only to have the woman slap her in the face.

Mare loses even as she wins.

The eventual and ultimate success of "Mare of Easttown" unifies around Winslet, who magnetized this series from the start, carrying the mystery through its turgid spots and electrifying its finest ones. The latter outweighed the former, because as our familiarity with this small galaxy of characters increased, so did our affection.

Ingelsby and Zobel's choice to end the story in a bright state of grace also makes this the rare kind of show that opens with a tone of encumbering woe but works to takes us to higher ground steadily and with intent.

The smallest calls turn out to matter greatly, and the same is true of the details. Naming the finale "Sacrament" may be the most positively Catholic moment in a show revolving around the most Catholic of families, including a cousin who's a priest that drinks.

The hour begins with a long confession and ends with absolution — for Mare, who at last forgives herself, and for a boy guilty of murder who shouldn't have to lose his innocence.

In the sixth episode she admits she hasn't been up to her house's attic since she found her own son hanging up there. Ending the series by showing her opening the hatch, pulling down the ladder and climbing up lets us know she's found peace. It's a simple frame, free of dialogue as it should be. With that "Mare of Easttown" departs in a way one couldn't have predicted when it began — with a sense that life may still be tough for its heroine, but as she moves through its paces the sun may shine on her, at long last.

All episodes of "Mare of Easttown" are available to stream on HBO Max.

'Last Man Standing' bids farewell — while Tim Allen keeps on truckin' with his right-wing shade

The final half hour of "Last Man Standing" finds the Baxter family mourning the theft of Mike Baxter's classic pickup. Mike, played by Tim Allen, spent 10 years restoring that truck, and he loved it so much that the family organizes a wake in its honor. One by one family and friends share tributes that grow increasingly warmer and heartfelt, and the viewer understands it's not about the truck, or the Baxters. What we're really watching is the actors holding a wake for their departing show. The welled-up tears in their eyes, especially Allen's, are real.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Conflating Allen's persona with that of Mike Baxter has been the show's selling point and, depending on who you are, its drawback. Allen is one of Hollywood's most unabashed Trump supporters. Mike Baxter is conservative too, but Kevin Abbott, the final showrunner in a line of them spanning back to the show's creator Jack Burditt, has long insisted that he's a centrist.

Nevertheless, Mike's final entry in his confessional Outdoor Man vlog was anything but. "I've been thinking a lot about makers and takers, you know, because I had something very valuable taken from me: Somebody took my truck. Ten years of attention to detail, and then, poof, gone! It's an empty feeling," he – nominally, Mike – tells his followers.

From there Allen erases the pretense of separation between himself and his character. "I loved every moment of that show, er, truck. It was a classic, simpler, happier time. You know…the truck. And that's something that can't be stolen from me. What kind of punks steal other people's stuff? Make something yourself!"

"Last Man Standing" was never going to depart without circling back to its 2011 beginnings, but Allen's choice to sign off with these right-wing dog-whistles shows he's looking to infinity and beyond, and betting that this show's legacy will be to vindicate the version of reality he shares with his base.

In this interpretation, car theft isn't some random misfortune suffered by a wealthy man, but a symptom, somehow, of the undeserving reaping the fruit of honest people's labor. "Makers and takers" was one of former Republican congressman Paul Ryan's favorite phrases; it's also white grievance terminology dating back to the pre-Civil War era. It rolls off the tongue so easily, this shorthand for the myth that tax-funded government assistance programs that help the needy also make them more indolent.

But shucks, maybe I'm seeing something that isn't really there. Mike is only talking about his truck, and Allen is talking about his show; and in another interpretation the "taker" is 20th Television, now owned by Walt Disney, which also owns ABC, where "Last Man Standing" ran for six seasons.

I want it make it abundantly clear that its conservative skew doesn't make it a terrible sitcom. There's room on TV for all types of viewpoints, and certainly liberal creatives outnumber conservatives in Hollywood. Remove Allen from the mix, and "Last Man Standing" would be a harmless, decent family show demonstrating the ways that folks can hold different points of view, even quarrel, but still demonstrate loving kindness toward one another. This is how its fans would describe it and will remember it.

What's concerning is Allen's choosing to top off his show's overall veneer of homespun sweetness with such direct shout-outs to white male resentment, expecting that somehow we are supposed to laugh it off. It's not as if these concepts aren't normal family sitcom fare, but they're presented like harmless quips when they're not. If anything, they make the show's centrism look disingenuous.

Over the years, the show has been mischaracterized as a working class comedy, which it never was. That was abundantly clear when "Roseanne" returned to TV in 2018 and depicted the Conners struggling with money and health problems in ways the Baxters, an upper-middle class family living in a spacious Denver home, never did.

But where that show's storylines attempted with varying degrees of success to wrestle with Trump-era politics related to such topics as race, immigration and gender identity, "Last Man Standing" generally shoots for the middle.

Mike, for all of his he-man grumbling, is balanced by his wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis), a geologist who voiced support for Hillary Clinton, and his daughters Eve (Kaitlyn Dever), Kristin (Amanda Fuller) and Mandy (Molly McCook). Eve, his youngest, aligns the most closely with Mike while Kris and Mandy skew liberal.

Conflicts arise all the time, as they do in families, but their arguments stem from culture war talking points as opposed to matters of impactful policy. The ninth and final season avoids the most divisive issues of the day entirely, in fact, by jumping the story a few years ahead to a happier time when there's no need to get into pandemic-era tensions about mask-wearing and lockdowns.

This is in keeping with the show's reflection of America as your Fox News–loving family member perceives it: a country where everyone is equal, where hard work and ingenuity are always rewarded with a good and easy life, and where racial and social strife are manufactured by and happening to other people.

Don't get me wrong, some measure of escapism has long been the essence of the network sitcom's duty. Broadcast comedies are designed to comfort and entertain, and whatever conflicts humming behind the smiles and the laugh tracks are usually solvable in around 22 minutes, and almost always bearable over the long term. Hence when a show like "Black-ish" or "The Conners" gently and intelligently guides the audience through topics like police brutality or transgender visibility, it is a real accomplishment.

But this show's version of such field trips takes the form of conversations right-leaning families may have that don't typically turn up on broadcast TV. Some of them are actually quite uplifting and hopeful, such as the conversations Mandy's husband Kyle (Christoph Sanders) has with Mike's business partner Ed (Hector Elizondo), a staunch atheist, about his studies at seminary college.

Neither man converts the other, but the pair sustains a mutually affectionate understanding that comes across as totally genuine. Threads like these are quite typical in this series, where Mike or someone else airs their spin on a conversation starter and everyone travels through the topic in their own way until they reach middle ground.

In the wider and real world, middle ground might as well be the lost empire of Atlantis. Maybe it was accessible at some point, but not anymore. We're wrestling with a bevy of ills and in some respects TV is responding to that.

"Last Man Standing" premiered on ABC as part of a reactionary slate of shows catering to the false fear that the nation was suffering from a widespread affliction of low testosterone, a so-called "man-cession."

It was flanked by "Man Up!" and briefly joined by a disaster called "Work It," in which two men dressed as women thinking that they'd advance their careers in doing so – something like "Bosom Buddies," but with an eighth of the charm and no Tom Hanks to speak of.

"Man Up!" failed as well, but "Last Man Standing" survived to see nine seasons – six on ABC, until the network cancelled it despite it being the second highest-rated comedy on the network. Fans accused ABC of penalizing the show for Allen's Trump support, although executives maintained, and a number of journalists have researched and affirmed, that its dismissal had more to do with financial and demographic reasons. (Translation: the show wasn't produced by ABC, it was getting more expensive; and its audience is older.)

On Fox, its viewership held steady during the 2016-2017 season, when Trump first entered office, only to decline in its eighth. Giving "Last Man Standing" enough notice to give fans a farewell, then, is a courtesy not every show gets, even those that earn it. How this translates to Allen's show being "stolen" is baffling…unless it's not about the show, or the truck, but partisan politics.

Looking back from that perspective, then, the toothless punchlines take on another dimension. Lots of people have examined the sharpening of partisanship in parallel with the coarsening of culture, a reaction to the "wokeness" that in previous eras was called political correctness. That term was as terrible as "woke" is when it drools out of Tucker Carlson's mouth, but both are born of noble intentions that have been co-opted and twisted.

Where liberal comedians skewered political correctness as a release valve – correctly or wrongly – right-wing figures turned it into a process of attack and retreat. Cable news pundits, radio jocks, politicians and their followers honed a practice of lobbing vicious insults at their political adversaries and then, when called on crossing whatever imaginary line their might have been, throwing up their hands with an insistence that it's all just jokes. Can't you liberal snowflakes take a joke?

Allen wasn't so sinister in his stand up, particularly after he discovered the magic formula of speaking to conservatives with a wink and a goofy smile. This is why the Baxters never had to be an overtly MAGA-tribe, and Mike didn't have to prevail in his arguments or even follow through on cracks about Obamacare or gun control with cogent arguments. Acknowledging that a segment of the show's audience – the dominant portion – thinks like Mike and discusses such topics with their families is enough.

Mike's truck was stolen, no doubt about that. Allen's show was not, though. A more realistic interpretation is that TV chose to drop him off and keep on rolling. Not just him or "Last Man Standing," either. Sitcoms in general are entering a broadcast dry spell, indicated by the fall schedules NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox revealed this week.

Indeed, Fox's fall schedule is utterly devoid of live-action comedy half-hours, saving its new sitcoms "Pivoting" (about three women) and "Welcome to Flatch" (about small-town life) for midseason. ABC, the first home of "Last Man Standing," is corralling its sitcoms to one night, and all of them feature families that are working class or solidly middle class. Its remake of "The Wonder Years," the quintessential show about a "classic, simpler, happier time," shows how such an era was lived from a Black family's perspective.

NBC is also saving its comedies for midseason; no half-hours grace its fall schedule as it currently stands, although its streaming service Peacock has a few outstanding new ones. The exception is CBS, but its comedy block has been consistently successful for years. Many of the ones returning to its schedule are produced by Chuck Lorre, the king of imperfectly empathetic comedy that means well.

Viewing this as a sign of social progress is optimistic, but it's not entirely realistic. Television may influence changes of heart, and that's crucial. But it's tough to look at what's happening to our democracy and society, and not be disheartened.

At the pinnacle of Mike's speech, he shares the Thomas Moore–penned verse Reagan uttered when he lost the Republican nomination in 1976: "'Though I am hurt, I am not slain. I lay me down to bleed awhile. Then I'll rise and fight again.'"

That series-ending diatribe, served with Allen's signature grin, reminds us that the show's alleged centrism was always camouflage. It was never about the truck with "Last Man Standing," but figuring out what was really lurking underneath the hood.

The series finale of "Last Man Standing" aired on Thursday, May 20. All episodes are streaming on Hulu.

SNL host Elon Musk pulls the supervillain ploy of taking an audience hostage

Only a true supervillain has the gall to turn live TV into a crime involving hostages. The Joker's pulled that move a few times, as has Dr. Evil.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

As Elon Musk prepares to host "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, we can at least say that he's following in something of a grand tradition among his ilk. He's also one-upping those other malefactors because, unlike them, he's real.

The world learned the world's third richest person would commandeer "Saturday Night Live" two weeks ago by way of the evildoer's megaphone of choice, Twitter. The official "SNL" account shared a coy photo of his name written on an index cards, one of three with the other two setting the dooms date (May 8) and the other revealing the evening's Harley Quinn, er musical guest, would be played by Miley Cyrus.

We kid, but only sort of. Indisputable is that millions of folks are indignant about Musk hosting, reportedly including several cast members who may not perform alongside him in Saturday night's episode. Many others who haven't watched "SNL" in years and don't plan to break that trend are likely ticked off in principle which, OK, fair.

But the main reason "SNL" mastermind Lorne Michaels said yes to such a controversial figure hosting the late night institution is as old as the medium itself, which is to lure in the curious and halt the season's downward rating trend. "Saturday Night Live" experienced the same boost enjoyed and suffered by the mediasphere while Donald Trump was in office, remixing itself into a balm for our misery with its weekly trolls.

No comedian enjoyed the layman's assertion that Trump was great for comedy, but his vicious administration was a boon for "SNL". . . and the comedown hasn't been kind. Pulling in Musk is Michaels' way of admitting he and the show need a taste – just a bump baby, that's all.

While Bowen Yang and Aidy Bryant released their own dismayed social media reactions to Musk's duh-dumb "Let's find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is," tweet, Michaels is probably correct to wager that they're outnumbered by folks who share Pete Davidson's bewilderment at not knowing why people are freaking out.

"And I'm like, the guy that makes the earth better, kind of, and makes cool things and sends people to Mars?" the comedian told Seth Meyers on a recent episode of "Late Night."

Half of Davidson's point likely reflects the public's prevailing view. Ask the average person to tell you about Musk, and they'll say he's the guy who blessed us with Teslas, is currently worth $166 billion and wants to send humans to Mars.

Tell them that he also called concerns about the pandemic "dumb" in its earliest days and about half will reply, "Yup, they are."

That Musk is barred from running for president is cold comfort, and he's not running for any office now. He could in the future, but that possibility isn't as concerning as the damage he's doing right now in his current starring role as a planetary wealth hoarder. Musk is considered to be a union-busting, exploitative white collar goon who has enough money to influence government officials and bend policy to his will and whims.

One episode of "Saturday Night Live" won't shift that one way or another. However, it still serves the larger purpose of polishing Musk's celebrity value. Musk has already popped up on "Young Sheldon" and "The Big Bang Theory," along with "Rick and Morty" all shows featuring geniuses, the last one a thoroughly damaged and possibly sociopathic one.

These cameos are thematically understandable given Musk's founding of SpaceX. The company recently sent four astronauts to the International Space Station by way of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Musk might not have a film to promote but that's something he can crow about.

He's also a proponent of Hyperloop technology, which he and other mega-gazillionaires swear will be less expensive and polluting than air travel, and much faster than traveling by train or car. It involves travelling inside floating pods sliding within giant tubes at speeds exceeding over 700 miles an hour, which doesn't hold a hint of Bond movie nefariousness about it at all.

But these shows present him as a fictional figure, and in small doses. "South Park" and "The Simpsons" each tossed him a guest voice bone, but nothing central enough to earn more notice than a credit.

"Saturday Night Live" enables him to sell some version of himself, and whether of the parts he embodies has any basis in who is really is matter less that knowing he'll be in millions of people's living rooms and – ugh – bedrooms for 90 minutes. Come Sunday and the top of the week, the show's sketches will receive wider circulation, so even if you choose not to watch it you'll probably stumble across the episode's most successful bits.

Americans fall all over themselves for men like Musk with or without a gig like this, but any and all airtime assists them in styling their image and whatever legend they want to spin out of it. Plus, Musk's obscene wealth is actual as opposed to a reality show producer's prop, and to countless millions that make him the kind of guy who must be doing something right. Laugh at his jokes, forgive his sins and accept that to make that better Earth Davidson talks about, you have to move fast and break things. If one of those things is a town, or a group of people, or a nation, so be it.

Musk's "SNL" hosting gig coincides with the one-year anniversary of forcing his Alameda County, California-based Tesla factory to resume production in defiance of the county government's pandemic-related manufacturing shutdown order. (Around this same time he also received a performance-based company payout of approximately $775 million.)

He assured workers that they could take unpaid leave if they felt uncomfortable returning to the plant, and when some took him up on his offer, the company sent them termination notices.

No amount of shaming or threats of legal intervention made a difference. By December, according to county data, at least 450 Tesla workers had been infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But have you seen the latest Tesla whips though?

These criticisms are based in moral and ethical concerns, and this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" audience probably won't be thinking about much of either. They'll tune in to see whether Musk is funny, and he has a Twitter feed lousy with proof that he isn't, but that doesn't matter. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and billionaire Steve Forbes were not known as funny men, but the writers scripted them to be. "Saturday Night Live" also made Rudy Giuliani come off as a mensch in 1997.

NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff got a spin at the hosting wheel and I'm sure he did fine job of reading lines off of a teleprompter, but who in the heck remembers?

"Saturday Night Live" writers can and will massage Musk's persona into something palatable and they might even make cryptocurrency investors wet their pants by working a mention of Dogecoin into a skit. Celebrities love giving fans a shout-out during the monologue, and some of its investors are praying he does, supposedly jacking up its price. Doing so would place "Saturday Night Live" in the headlines for reasons other than ratings on Monday morning. Nobody should be shocked if Michaels blesses that move.

And really, this episode isn't the democracy-ending event some are making it out to be. It will be added to lengthening list of Musk's rehabilitating appearances, which he may build into a persona he can sell to the public or merely use to stroke his ego.

Over its many decades "Saturday Night Live" featured hosts who turned out to be not-so-great people. Less than a handful of them rose to positions where they could strangle our democracy, our environment or starve our economic system.

Musk is already there, and Michaels senses that he's type of polarizing host worth ransoming his 46-year-old show's audience for a week. In the short run his strategy will probably work. It may also prove to the countless people for whom "SNL" is no longer relevant, to quote another famously media-savvy archenemy, that there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

"Saturday Night Live" airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. PT on NBC.

HBO's QAnon series 'Q: Into the Storm' is a bewildering attempt to decode a super-conspiracy

Perhaps you're familiar with TV idiom "the crazy wall." Watch any detective drama for a while and you'll encounter one. The phrase describes a large vertical board kept out of sight by a dogged protagonist or freakish suspect who knows exactly what it says about them. Said board or wall is festooned with newspaper clippings, photos, maps, and Post-It Notes with random words like "PROOF???" written on them.

What makes a crazy wall crazy as opposed to an art installation is the tangle of yarn, push pins and creative thinking connecting everything together.

Long story short, Cullen Hoback's docuseries "Q: Into the Storm" is a crazy wall realized as a six-episode HBO Max docuseries. Any extended dive into the world of QAnon probably needs to be in order to understand how this mutating, supersized conspiracy theory infecting mainstream culture to an alarming degree came to be. Hoback traipses down several key timelines in the modern Internet's history and the rise of troll culture as he begins to explain it: What starts with the comedy meme site Something Awful in the late '90s morphs into the Anonymous hacktivist collective, Gamergate, the incel movement and Pizzagate.

All of it was the runway to 2017 when a mysterious user going by the handle "Q Clearance Patriot" began dropping strange riddles on 4chan and claiming Donald Trump to be a messianic figure. In the world according to Q, Trump is the only thing preventing a deep state run by infanticidal cannibalistic Democrats from ruining the world. This story may have started as an especially loony version of live action role play, or LARPing. Now there are likely hundreds of thousands (a very hopeful conservative estimate) who wholeheartedly believe in some QAnon lore if not all of it, including members of Congress.

Would you believe this is the part that makes absolute sense?

Adam McKay ("Succession") produces "Q: Into the Storm," which probably explains how Hoback, a nimble independent documentarian, can afford to jet to various American cities as well as Italy, Japan and the Philippines to conduct in-person interviews. He maintains a very lo-fi field shooting style, utilizing handhelds and surreptitiously filming at times even when he's asked not to.

When Hoback attempts to make some sense of the alphabet soup of Q drops, numeric tags, random Socratic questions, that's where the attention begins to wander. As the filmmaker twists this tale into rope he also introduces us to a passel of QAnon YouTube evangelists and zealots, a few of whom know one another well enough to share a bizarre sense of camaraderie.

Soon Hoback embarks on a journey to Asia to meet Jim and Ron Watkins, the father and son who run 8chan, the website that hosts Q, and Fredrick Brennan, the man who created 8chan before selling it to the Watkins.

Brennan, who has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair, once worked with them but is now their bitterest adversary, and their energized rivalry soon become central to "Q: Into the Storm." The Watkins' banal lack of concern over the uncensored hate speech on the site is in stark contrast to Brennan's insistence that they shut it down, which only intensifies after a slew of violent racists incidents are traced back to 8chan.

Ironically Brennan's dedication to uncensored speech is the reason he created 8chan in the first place.

Hoback approaches his series as part educational exploration and part investigation, and what emerges is a somewhat organized wreck. "Q: Into the Storm" soaks us in a deluge of information very quickly in the first two episodes before slowing down to entertain the veracity of several larger theories about Q's identity. Included are insights from people who lived key parts of the Internet history and respected investigative reporters at respected (or: fake news) media outlets, but these are presented right alongside true Q believers.

Through it all Hoback engages in educated guesswork as Q's true identity. Could it be Steve Bannon, or Trump's advisor Michael Flynn? Hoback pushes harder on the more believable notion that Ron or Jim Watkins may be Q. Ron, known by his 8chan handle "Codemonkey," plays upon those suspicions by claiming to have been in contact with Q while insisting he doesn't know who Q is.

The series turns more personal as the Watkins and Brennan compete for Hoback's attention and his sympathy, and at times the filmmaker seems too close to maintain any objectivity. On the other hand, as he gains Brennan's trust, Brennan divulges more and more about the inner workings of 8chan. Jim Watkins takes Hoback on strolls through his pig farm (which he says funds about 25% of the site), and Ron Watkins speaks to him from a cross-legged seated position, as if he were some dead-eyed martial arts master.

They're an eccentric group of characters, Ron and Jim Watkins more than Brennan. Jim, who made his fortune in Internet hardcore porn, plays up his impishness for the camera, but given who he is and his off-kilter sartorial choices, his creepiness only increases as the series progresses.

Hoback resists the urge to paint Q followers like dupes, even the ones filtering their existence through analyses of each QAnon drop, searching for meaning and signs. But "Q: Into the Storm" doesn't neglect to connect a movement they insist is heroic at best and harmless at worst with a surge in racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence and a rekindled rise in neo-Nazism.

The filmmaker nails that point by opening the series with footage of the Jan. 6 domestic terrorism attack on the United States Capitol, an inevitable result of years of conditioning people to disbelieve reality. Whether it ends by unmasking Q is probably beside the point, even if that's the obvious reason to hang with it through its messiness. Even those who are reeled in by the quirkiness of these grimy characters can't ignore the terrifying nonchalance with which they're watching society tumble into ignorance and chaos simply because they can.

"Q: Into the Storm" premeires with two back-to-back episodes Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO Max.

The 'South ParQ Vaccination Special' fails to be funny – but maybe that's the point

One day we're going to look back upon all this and laugh. Seriously though . . . no. No we won't. Provided enough of us recall the broader details of this pandemic year, very few will find anything funny about it. A more likely scenario takes the shape of choosing to forget and move forward, having learned nothing. Not all of us can or will; bearing the weight of 500,000 deaths does that to a country; or perhaps it's better to say, it should.

But if there's anything we should recognize on this one-year anniversary of the global pandemic, it's that many aspects of America society remain fundamentally broken. A glorious summer may be a real possibility. Returning to a previous state of "normal" probably is not.

That about sums up the general message of the "South ParQ Vaccination Special," the hour-long companion to last fall's "Pandemic Special" and the only new episode of the series we've seen in the 15 months since the 23rd season's finale in 2019. Referring to it as a companion is an assumption, I'll admit. Although Matt Stone and Trey Parker previously oversaw serialized seasons of the animated series, they returned to one-offs after the 2016 election.

A few changes had to remain consistent including the election of the show's Donald Trump stand-in Mr. Garrison to the nation's highest office. That's something the creators probably weren't expecting and had to follow through the 21st, 22nd and 23rd seasons. Having him roast a scientist alive at the end of "The Pandemic Special" before cheerfully reminding the audience to vote was a brutally humorous shocker. In light of Wednesday night's new hour it also doubles as a plea.

Last fall Parker, who wrote and directed that hour and "Vaccination Special," may not have predicted how extensive QAnon's infection would spread or even how quickly pharmaceutical companies would develop effective vaccines.

But when Stan said, "I can't take these shutdowns anymore and I'm scared of what it's doing to me," we should have paid closer attention. Maybe the "South Park" guys didn't have a clue as to how the pandemic would reshape their two-dimensional world back then. They do now.

"South ParQ Vaccination Special" begins with relatable absurdity and ends with an imperfect reset of the show's world that rebuilds a wall between it and our society's very real madness. Everything in-between, like life itself right now, feels irregular.

The opening scene restyles the town's local Walgreens as an exclusive club complete with velvet rope and bouncer, with elderly patrons designated as V.I.P.s.

Once vaccinated the town's old folks go full "Cocoon" – they're revitalized and mischievous, taking over bars and burning rubber on motorcycles.

While this is taking place, at South Park Elementary Cartman worries that the forced separation of quarantine has threatened to break up the "bro-ship" he has with Stan, Kyle and Kenny, inspiring him to pull a prank on a teacher in the hopes of lifting everyone's spirits.

Since he never thinks about anyone but himself, Cartman doesn't get why the teacher responds by ranting about risking her life only to be mistreated and walks off the job. This further endangers said "bro-ship," so Cartman redirects his tendency toward opportunism into organizing the boys to steal enough vaccine to inoculate the school's teaching staff.

This is the scenario to which a post-White House Mr. Garrison returns flanked by Mr. Service, a Secret Service agent sporting a thong instead of trousers.

Most of South Park hates him, including the administrators at South Park Elementary, who refuse to hand his old job back to him. But then he stumbles across a family of supporters, the Whites, who also organize the town's QAnon faction.

From there Parker weaves his usual web of pandemonium only to tear it apart at the climax. Classrooms empty out after the cult organizes a private teaching service, "Tutornon," that indoctrinates most of the children into a youth sect called Lil' 'Q'ties.

The boys succeed in their mission only to be set upon by hordes of people who also want the vaccine – and even Kyle, who is usually sensible, can't resist attempting to steal some for his parent. All of it collapses into a battle royale in front of the school at the same time that Mr. Garrison and Mr. White discover that in the world of "South Park," one part of the QAnon conspiracy is true: There really are Hollywood elites controlling their world. Their names? Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Not every "South Park" episode succeeds in its aim. Some of them aren't particularly funny. The "South ParQ Vaccination Special" is an odd entry, though, because reminds us that sometimes hilarity is beside the point. Sometimes we need to see the obvious and disturbing parallels between actual examples of human behavior and the facile reasoning that informs cartoon characters' decisions.

The "Vaccination" one-off proves the near impossibility of satirizing a reality that has become a living parody to such a degree as to make one-upping it nearly pointless, and in case you haven't noticed, this is the world we're living in right now.

We really do have teachers and parents preaching QAnon conspiratorial nonsense to kids, or attempting to pass off the big lie about November's election results as fact. We really do have wealthy people going to impossible lengths to obtain a vaccine meant to protect members of vulnerable populations, including working class folks who don't have the luxury of staying at home.

In both cases the reasoning is similar to Butters' excuse: "I just wanted to believe in something that got me out of the house."

Usually "South Park" refracts the image of who we are back to us in a way that skewers our smug sense of righteousness, snickering at religion, politics and all manner of sacred cows while usually validating some part of our beliefs. The land of flawed logic is their playground. And yet, what is there to laugh at in our current state of affairs? An alarming number of people are so hungry to return an inept and dangerous man to power that they refuse to believe facts regardless of who is presenting them.

A dangerous band of terrorist cultists attacked the capitol. People died there, on top of the half a million people dead of COVID-19. Yet half of our political leadership, along with their followers, wants us to move on. Sadly, we have, as Wednesday's special depicts by having the town gather for a character's funeral only to ditch the mourning midway through the eulogy, kick over chairs and start partying.

There is no "going back to normal" in our reality. "South Park," though, is subject to the whims of its makers, which it shows by zapping Mr. Garrison, Mr. White and Mr. Service into an arctic void. In a flash Mr. Service turns into Mr. Hat, and Mr. White – railing at the unseen forces controlling everything – endures a series of ridiculous transformations, including mixing up his body parts and putting him in a shapeless dress, before turning him into a gigantic talking phallus. The perspective shifts, showing Mr. Garrison, and us, how this world works, that at any time the people making it can add layers or remove it. So Mr. Garrison strikes a deal with his invisible, omnipotent puppeteers – everybody in town gets shots, and he gets his old job back. The lesson he's learned, he explains, is to always be sure to be on the same side as the people with the most power.

It's as if the last five years of madness never happened.

Stan, Kyle Cartman and Kenny won't forget it. As the special ends, their "bro-ship" is fractured, and they agree to share custody of Kenny using the standard 2-2-3 schedule familiar to children of divorce.

"South Park" has depicted existential crises several times through its 23 seasons and somehow manages to keep going. These pandemic quarantine-created specials are evidence of its dedication to rolling with the times, however that manifests.

Although Comedy Central hasn't set a premiere for its next 10-episode season, it's been renewed through 2022 and the channel is more or less keeping the lights on by heavily stripping repeats throughout the week.

Between this and access to the full library of past seasons on HBO Max, it's very easy to escape to ye olden pre-pandemic times when the show inflated the vulgarity of our culture-wide egocentrism in ways that made us roar.

But if the "Pandemic" and "Vaccination" specials aren't the most entertaining entries in the "South Park" library, that's because they refuse to discount the ways in which this past year on top of the four that preceded it have changed the boys, and us, and Parker – and presumably Stone. By admitting to this, they can also do something those of us living in a three-dimensional living, breathing reality can't do. They can rebuild the divide between the world and their cartoon, and write a story in which its star characters find ways to air their grievances and get past them.

They can even decide to simply and eventually agree to move on and return to the way things have always been, reminding us that while "South Park" isn't really America, it is a true mirror of who we really are. One day soon we'll be eager to belly laugh at what it shows us. Just not now.

The "South ParQ Vaccination Special" is available to stream for free online.

Only Oprah had the empathy and interview skills to take on the damaging British media – and win

Americans and Britons alike are still processing the "what?!" heard round the world, courtesy of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's spilt tea during Sunday's "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" special on CBS. Now let's look closely at the context in which that particular bomb dropped.

Meghan, fully open but diplomatic in what she chooses to say, tells Oprah that a member of the royal family had expressed to Harry "concerns" about how dark the couple's son Archie might be when he was born.

Oprah's expression in the silent second or two that follows mirrors that of every person of good conscience who heard it with her. The host's typically serene face slackens in shock – "What?" – then comes the indignation. "Who – who is having that conversation with you?"

Meghan slowly blinks, shifts uncomfortably in her seat, takes a deep inhale and says nothing. Oprah puts her hands up as if to fend off some invisible malice attacking her calm. "Hold up . . . there's a conversation . . ."

At this Meghan's anger flares, albeit tempered with regal dignity. "There were several conversations." Oprah gently pushes her to elaborate: "With you?" she asks. "With Harry," Meghan replies. "About how dark the baby was going to be?" "Potentially, and what that would mean or look like."

Then, more silence. Oprah asks if she'll say who had the conversation with Harry. Meghan pauses again before responding. "I think that would be very damaging to them."

The next day on the "CBS This Morning" telecast, as Oprah shared scenes that weren't included in the two-hour special, co-host Tony Dokoupil requested clarification when the mogul said that was the most surprising moment of her conversation with the prince and his bride. Was she surprised that such a thing happened inside the palace, he asks, or that the couple was telling her about it?

Oprah pauses before saying, "I was surprised that they were telling me about it."

There is an art to the one-on-one television interview few people master regardless of how long their careers may be. On Sunday Oprah reminded us why she's a part of those ranks, but for very different reasons than other interviewers who sit down with hard-to-pin-down subjects and stick the landing.

Oprah's reputation for treating vulnerability as a virtue can be a weak spot in her technique, since at times she uses that approach to create the mirage that we're all friends here — audience, host and guest alike. This was not a David Frost/Richard Nixon-style standoff, and neither was it the same as her 1993 Michael Jackson interview where the goal was to humanize a star dogged by troubling allegations. A closer likeness is Martin Bashir's 1995 BBC interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. But even there, Bashir adopts a cool, clinical demeanor, relying on Diana's personality to carry the conversation . . . which it does.

In contrast Meghan and Harry are obviously friendly subjects; Oprah attended their wedding and on "CBS This Morning" said she had been communicating with Meghan since then.

Somehow this felt different that other one-on-ones. At times the conversation took on the shade of plaintiffs appealing to a jury that's only ever heard the defendants' point of view. Compassion led Oprah's tone, although the wall between her and her subjects was palpable and she only probed as far as was necessary.

But the product's real power rested in the silences between the earthquakes, and in the mutual unspoken sadness and disappointment you could read on each woman's face. Those spans of quiet added their own truth to the testimony.

With its relatively spare production, beyond its setting in the flawlessly cultivated backyard paradise of one of Oprah's "friends," "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" is designed to be a one-shot, surgical rebuttal to all the sniping Meghan has endured in the British press.

Regardless of whether Meghan and Harry truly had no idea as to what Oprah was going to ask them, the Duke and Duchess obviously decided together what they were willing to go on record about, how much they would say about it, and no-go areas. For instance, each makes a point of heaping praises on Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, with Meghan claiming they remain close even now.

They also take care to draw a distinction between the family and "The Firm" or "The Institution," whenever they referred to some of the more inhumane moments, such as when Meghan admitted she had suicidal thoughts, reached out to the powers that be to ask for mental health treatment, and was denied . . . because it would not look good for "The Institution."

Oprah and Meghan also worked the PR angles – as did Harry, who joined the interview in its second hour.

Then there were the bits that made for good, soft-filtered theater, like Meghan's claim that she never researched how to curtsy before meeting the Queen for the first time, or really anything related to what it meant to be in a relationship with a British prince. There was the off-the-cuff charm of Harry singing "just the three of us" to the tune of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us." The tiara, however, was Meghan's recollection of an "a-ha" moment instigated by rewatching "The Little Mermaid" during one of her low points. "I went: Oh my God! She falls in love with the prince and, because of that, she has to lose her voice," she says, "But by the end, she gets her voice back."

That this revelation occurs while they're in the couple's chicken coop is a magnificent feathering of their "happily ever after."

But the level of candor Oprah coaxes out of her the subjects is partly possible because Oprah is a powerful Black woman speaking to another Black woman who is world-famous but disempowered by her royal in-laws. Thus, the interviewer knew when to let the tension do the talking instead of probing wounds until they bled, demonstrating the puissance of eloquent silence. This technique asks the audience to sit with what they had just heard instead of trying to fill the void with more words.

Therefore, while some commentators suggested Oprah failed to get Meghan and Harry to name names, that's beside the point. It wasn't going to happen, for one; Harry knows that turning on his family members would only put his and his family's safety at a higher risk than it may already be. The larger point rests in the revealing skin color comment. That in itself speaks to a truth each woman and a significant portion of the audience knows, which is that at some point a person's Blackness erases whatever social or financial status they've gained.

Oprah is the richest Black woman on the planet, and she's been refused service at two high-end boutiques while shopping for handbags. Meghan married a prince and yet his family announced their son Archie would not also enjoy that title. Meghan says this was not her or Harry's choice, explaining this decision allows the palace to refuse to provide security for Archie. The other explanation, which she doesn't need to say out loud, is the jaw-dropper that made Oprah say, "What?!"

This is how Oprah and the Sussexes brought a slam-dunk case to the only place that matters in a situation like this, the court of public opinion.

While there were many accusations left unanswered in those two hours and the supplementary bonus clips on "CBS This Morning," enough was said to leave plenty of room for reasonable doubt in the minds of the American public on Monday morning, with Britain's impressions following on Tuesday.

In the United States, Meghan and Harry are the living proof that those fairy tales Disney raised children to believe in and "The Bachelor" franchise markets to adults can be true. We love riveting television about royal problems. (Exhibit A: "The Crown.")

Meanwhile before marrying into the Windsor family, Markle was mainly familiar in the U.S. as the co-star in the USA drama "Suits." In the U.K. the public saddled her marriage to Harry with expectations that they would modernize the stodgy monarchy, as if two people could do such a thing. Instead she became Buckingham Palace's tabloid scapegoat in order to make Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, look nobler. She was, as Oprah made her specify, not silent, but "si-lenced."

But the part in the interview about the predatory, parasitic relationship between Buckingham Palace and the tabloid press is the real game they're playing here. Harry has long detested the media over its role in his mother's death, and he admits his fear of history repeating with his wife and child. Then he and Meghan pull the lid off of the cozy symbiosis the "Firm" shares with the media.

"There is this invisible contract behind closed doors, behind the institution and U.K. tabloids," Harry explains. "It's a case of if you, as a family member, are willing to wine, dine, and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press. . . . There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations."

With this the interview becomes something more than Harry and Meghan alleging a litany of sins on the part of their family. It evolves into Oprah and Meghan and Harry versus the British gossip machine.

While the U.K. media had its own fast reaction to the broadcast on Monday morning, most of the British audience hadn't seen in the telecast when Piers Morgan weighed on "Good Morning Britain" and declared he didn't believe Meghan's shocking admission that she "didn't want to be alive anymore."

Backing him up was none other than Megyn Kelly, who you may recall destroyed her NBC News bag by publicly supporting Team Blackface during a Halloween segment on her morning show. Poor things. They hadn't a clue as to what they were up against.

According to CBS more than 49.1 million viewers worldwide have seen the special so far. Some 11 million U.K. viewers watched the special Monday night, joining Sunday's 17.8 million-strong American audience. By Tuesday, mid-morning West Coast time, the verdict was in. ITV released a terse statement saying Piers Morgan "decided now is the time to leave 'Good Morning Britain.'"

Buckingham Palace also released a statement on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. "The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan," the statement reads. "The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

Shortly before this on the Palace's Instagram account, photos of Prince Charles sharing space with Black people suddenly appeared. (On Monday's "CBS This Morning" Oprah passed along that Harry wanted the public to know neither the Queen nor Prince Phillip made the offending inquiry, thereby narrowing the list of suspects to Charles, William, or, let's be real here, Camilla.)

Barbara Walters could not have achieved the same result even if she was bringing her A-game. Neither could Gayle King, for that matter, and this is said with the full recognition of King's sharp interviewing skills. Oprah brings this and empathy, and that's what won this part of the case. Be assured, there will be several appeals.

For now the public has a better view of who Meghan and Harry are, separately and together. They may also have a more clear-eyed impression of what it means to be a royal in a time of so much social reckoning with regard to race and class.

And I suspect the British media now recognizes what Americans already know and Morgan and the Windsors are learning the hard way. Defending the Queen and taking potshots at duchesses may sell papers, but if you're going to take aim at Oprah, you best not miss. Otherwise, prepare to be si-lenced.

An encore broadcast of "Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special" airs at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 12.

HBO's wrenching 'Allen v. Farrow' builds a damning case against Woody Allen's credibility and egomania

What with all the documentary series and special reports that taken on such fallen superstars as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson some cinematic reckoning for Woody Allen was inevitable.

That the task fell filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering to make HBO's "Allen v. Farrow" will surely be a relief to some and predispose others to approach everything contained within the four-part series with skepticism, perhaps even doubt.

Where you fall on this scale depends on how you would answer the first question Dylan Farrow poses in her 2014 open letter: "What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?"

How much you believe of "Allen v. Farrow" depends on your answer to that question. Dick and Ziering are aware of this, and a good portion of the series' fourth hour features critics and academics wrestling with the conundrum of whether one can separate the artist from his art, and whether one should have to once they've been made aware of the artist's odious actions.

We have known about Woody Allen's taste for women many years younger than he since 1979's "Manhattan," where he plays a 42-year-old twice-divorced comedy writer dating a 17-year-old girl. At the time of its release Allen also was twice divorced and 43, and while a man's art isn't always an imitation of his life one of the women featured in "Allen v. Farrow" alleges that Mariel Hemingway's "Manhattan" character is based on her.

The other version of that story is the one we already know, the tortured and squeamish "the heart wants what it wants" fairy tale that ends with Allen married to Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. Farrow and Allen were still in a 12-year relationship when he and Previn conducted a secret affair that officially began while Previn was a freshman in college. According to witnesses who worked at Allen's apartment building and who are referenced in one episode, their sexual relationship was very much active while Soon-Yi was still in high school.

This is the part of Allen's mythology that people accept because millions of people have a favorite Woody Allen movie, or several; because he's a quirky artist, a writing and cinematic genius. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow's 1992 sexual abuse allegations were buried and overlooked in the lurid coverage of Allen's affair with Soon-Yi, and the famed filmmaker's people successfully painted Mia Farrow as a woman scorned and a liar. (Allen consistently denies ever having abused Dylan.)

That is the case Dick and Ziering make in "Allen v. Farrow" which replays this history from Dylan's and Mia's points of view and is supported by several of Farrow's still-living children – including Fletcher Previn, Ronan Farrow, Frankie-Minh Farrow, Quincy Farrow and in audio-only clips, Daisy Previn.

Allen's side is presented via excerpts from the audiobook recording of his 2020 memoir "Apropos of Nothing." The series' filmmakers reached out to him, Soon-Yi and Moses Farrow, who eventually turned against his mother and accused her of being abusive. All of them declined to participate in the project.

Documentarians aren't obligated to be objective, and if you know Dick and Ziering's track record you can safely guess without seeing "Allen v. Farrow" that Woody Allen does not come off well here.

The filmmakers first came to national attention with their 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War," a sobering account of the widespread sexual misconduct in the military and the near-total lack of recourse or support for victims. They applied the same critique of institutional failures to universities in 2015's "The Hunting Ground" and took on the music industry's propping up of rape culture in 2020's "On the Record."

None of these are facile examinations and each requires the filmmakers to piece together the victims' wrenching accounts and furiously mine documentation for whatever corroboration they can construct to make the most forceful case possible. The accused never agrees to give their side.

Mounting an attack against institutional failings is in some ways simpler, than taking on a Hollywood god, especially one who cultivates an image of being awkward, nerdy and clever. We expect systems to fail us, but afford special dispensation to the artists whose work speaks to our souls.

If there is a dividing line in "Allen v. Farrow" that separates the film from being a straight bullseye and a piece that somewhat leaves wriggling room for reasonable doubt, it is one drawn in the ink of the viewer's compassion.

"Allen v. Farrow" is necessarily an intimate tragedy laid bare for all to see, one in which an abuse survivor agrees to bare her scars again and again, bringing unwarranted agony down on her mother in the process. Seen as a family quilt sewn with cherished home movies and old photos, placed next to recently filmed shots of Farrow sequestered at the family's Connecticut retreat, the series is a devastating tragedy.

Taken as an assembly of documentation discrediting Allen, there's enough to back up Dylan's insistence that Allen sexually assaulted when she was seven years old, including Farrow's videotaped interview of a very young Dylan explaining what happened to her in the days after the event was alleged to have taken place.

The filmmakers polish the images' clarity in earliest episodes as the Farrows construct their portrait of family life, filtering the footage to look darker and fuzzier as Allen's shadow weighs heavier over them.

Then again, maybe that's the psychological effect of the head spinning at taking in everything that happens after Dylan's accusations go public. The recordings of phone conversations where he threatens to destroy Farrow, the step-by-step examination of all that led to the faulty Yale-New Haven Hospital report Allen made public to destroy Dylan and Mia's account, all of it chips away at Allen's credibility.

And there is valuable hindsight contributed by people like Connecticut prosecutor Frank Maco who found enough evidence to pursue a criminal case against Allen but did not out of fear of traumatizing Dylan. So the world moved on, and Allen continued to make movies.

A few production aspects of "Allen v. Farrow" are questionable, like the lack of clarity as to when Daisy's audio interview was recorded and the context in which her comments were offered. We're left to assume that the filmmakers could only persuade her to lend her thoughts without using her image, but how do we know they made those recordings?

"Allen v. Farrow" also whisks through its examination of media complicity and the susceptibility of the gossip machine, making it easy for public relations machines around powerful men to prop up predators and bury their victims' reputations. We know this to be true based on what we know about other powerful beastly people – Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves – and their influence the used to wield in newsrooms. But when the film insinuates that the New York mayor's office is behind the dismissal of a New York social worker's findings that Dylan's allegations were plausible there isn't anything to back that up beyond hearsay.

But you can't deny the reality of the adult Dylan Farrow's uncontrollable shuddering at the memory of her abuse. The rage you may feel at witnessing all of this and watching a succession of female performers praise Allen for all the thoughtful parts he wrote for women, or at Diane Keaton defending Allen in a Today show interview with Matt Lauer (of course!), is very real.

Scene after scene showing Hollywood's elite giving Allen standing ovations and praising his genius long after Dylan's case went public in 1992 take on a nauseating tone.

I may be one of the rare cinema lovers who never liked Woody Allen. "Allen v. Farrow" crystallizes why that is by revealing the sinister egomania fueling his vision as it shapes his art and the world around him. That makes me lucky because don't have to bargain with my conscience about the art and the artist. Given that he's preparing to direct his 51st film, which is being produced in Europe, I wonder how many people's affection for Allen will be affected by the case against him as it is presented here.

"Allen v. Farrow" premieres Sunday, Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO.



Allen v. Farrow: Official Trailer | HBO www.youtube.com

'I finally got a fascist nutcase out of my bed': author recounts dumping her MyPillow

Thursday morning will forever be remembered as the first time in who knows how long that I woke up without neck pain, back pain and creaky joints. Untold millions may have awakened similarly refreshed, the result of a temporary relief that sanity has been restored the White House and the nuclear football is no longer in the hands of an unpredictable madman.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

But I credit this atypically sound night of sleep to an additional factor: I finally got a fascist nutcase out of my bed. In this respect I suppose my household may have something in common with Jane Krakowski.

According to a report in The Daily Mail, Krakowski secretly dated Mike Lindell, Donald Trump's weirdo bestie and inventor of the infamous MyPillow, for nine months. A statement from Krakowski's publicist to Page Six denies the story, stating "Jane has never met Mr. Lindell. She is not and has never been in any relationship with him, romantic or otherwise."

However if the tale turns out to be true at least she kept her alleged lapse in judgment brief; my husband and I have been resting our troubled heads on four MyPillows for the better part of a decade. Our only excuse is sheer laziness. (This paragraph has been updated.)

They were gifted to us by my mother-in-law, a devoted worshipper at the church of "As Seen TV," who first introduced Lindell's bestselling products to us during a hometown visit. Thanks to her, our lives have been blessed with many direct-to-consumer-marketed devices over the years, including but not limited to: one Snuggie, the Clapper, and countless packages of ShamWows.

Usually she sneaks them in under elaborate Christmas wrapping. In this instance, she secretly replaced the old pillows on her guest room bed with a pair of MyPillows with all the wily verve of an instant coffee taste tester. If memory serves, she asked how we slept, and we must have responded "fine" because she insistently sent us home with the two sacks of open-cell poly foam fill we slept on, shipping two more as presents later.

We didn't turn her down because our existing pillows were old and crappy, and here were four that perked right back up after a few cycles through the dryer.

Admittedly for a long time we didn't think our MyPillows were bad, mostly because we barely thought about any of the pillows we purchased before we got these. They were also free, which is a main reason the devil's fun bags lasted in our home for as long as they did despite the fact that they were yellowing, getting flatter and miserably irregular as time trudged on.

Still, they're also entirely machine washable.

But then Lindell tried to hawk overthrowing the government with all the slickness and subtlety of Wile E. Coyote trying to tiptoe away from an amateurish trap only to have it snap on his ankle, triggering an anvil to drop on his head. Following the elections he loudly peddled lies about widespread voting fraud involving Dominion machines; in response Dominion fluffed up a legal letter warning of pending litigation.

Lindell also funded buses to the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection in Washington D.C. And after it went over about as well as a post-taco Tuesday Dutch oven, he popped up at the White House with notions of convincing former president Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law.

At long last I looked at the offending nap cushions, turned to my husband and said, "I'm sorry, but we really need to get rid of these."

"I was thinking the same thing," he grimly muttered.

Could I have sauntered over to some big box store and picked from the replacement options there? Of course. Instead, for the first time in my life I decided to research my purchase instead of throwing my money at some down-stuffed floozy that would eventually make my life worse. More than this, I wanted some level of assurance that the manufacturer wasn't a complete kook. In other words, I decided to treat my pillow selection with more or less the same level of vetting I'd give the people I vote for, with the difference being I intended to sleep with it.

At the time we acquired our MyPillows neither my mother-in-law nor my husband nor I or suspect most of America had a clue as to the extent of Lindell's depravity. Back then – "then" probably being around 2013 or 2014 – Lindell was mainly known to insomniacs and convenience enthusiasts.

We placed him in the same category as Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and Vince Offer – fast-talking late night hucksters pushing products of variable usefulness. This one, promoted as "The Most Comfortable Pillow You'll Ever Own!" led Lindell to call himself a "sleep expert" and tout his American-made pillows as the solution to chronic neck and back pain, sleep apnea and an assortment of other bodily nags, ailments and chronic diseases.

These claims would eventually make him the subject of many lawsuits.

Anyway, even after Lindell started popping up next to the game-show host-turned-feckless authoritarian, even after he tried to sell poison as a snake oil COVID cure, we nervously assured ourselves that the money that funded our pillows was spent long ago and not by us.

This time the decision I made would be completely on me, so I decided to use a combination of consulting consumer evaluation lists and poking around a few "about us" sections of the recommended companies' sites. I cannot claim this to be anywhere close to a scientific method or on the same level as an investigative report. The only thing I knew is that I wanted those lumpy crimes out of my home, and I didn't want to trade them for a product supporting a company that might be somehow as bad as Lindell or possibly worse . . . but smarter because they remained quiet about it.

Here's the sad, honest truth: If Lindell hadn't loudly participated in multiple assaults on America's people and its democracy over the course of 2020, it's highly likely I would still be sleeping with the enemy. I am not proud of this.

Since I spent most of 2020 trying to ignore that crackbrain, several of his other abhorrent acts escaped my notice, including his assistance in bailing out Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with gunning down two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin who were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Yes, I know. I should have trashed the pillows then.

Let he or she who has never quenched their thirst with a Coca-Cola or a Fanta; used IBM products; quoted Coco Chanel or treated their illness with a drug manufactured by Bayer cast the first stone.

But capitalism follows some version of the comedy equation of tragedy plus time when it comes to persuading the masses to forget details like Nazi collaboration. Lindell's walrus-mustached face is up in our collective business right now, and at long last some companies are de-platforming him in the same way tech companies banished his messiah.

Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl's, H-E-B and Wayfair have all dumped Lindell's products; Krakowski allegedly cut him loose last summer, and following a brief search for new bedding options so have I.

Kristin Wiig returns home to 'SNL' for a holiday edition rife with promise and peril

Whether the year in which they air has been defined by soaring highs or miserable flops, the holiday episodes of "Saturday Night Live" are . . . consistent. People who keep up with the long-running late night sketch series approach each December's jaunt with an air of anticipation if not outright excitement, particularly its year-ending episodes.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

For those, Lorne Michaels brings in the big gun hosts: Matt Damon left tinsel-sparkled memories in the wake of his 2018 appearance. Last year Eddie Murphy made headlines with his return to "SNL" and revived a number of his old hits, including Gumby; Mister Robinson, the down-on-his-luck double for Mister Rogers; and Buckwheat. Nightmarish as 2020 has been, 2019 wasn't exactly all strippers and parades either, making Murphy's return welcome if not a shoot-the-moon performance. That his stint was largely composed of retreads was beside the point – we were simply happy for a visit from a friendly face from way back when.

That brings us to Kristen Wiig, the latest returning "Saturday Night Live" alumnus to tuck the show into its midseason nap. Since exiting the sketch show, Wiig has expanded her repertoire to include bonafide dramas, and on Christmas Day she'll be tearing into Wonder Woman as The Cheetah in "Wonder Woman 1984." Our expectations for her this weekend are much simpler.

Wiig is her "SNL" class' Kate McKinnon equivalent, the clutch player with dozens of characters and impressions under her belt. This all but guarantees a troop through past seasons and a few clapter-inspiring cameos from her famous cohorts. Maya Rudolph is already nearby, what with her impression of Kamala Harris saving Jim Carrey's disastrous Joe Biden parody on the regular. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler might pop in too.

As likely are signature character revivals that fit the season: Gilly? Target Lady? Dooneese? They can climb down that list like a ladder, and they will. In the way of all half-glass empty optimists, I am bracing to be underwhelmed with the expectation that Wiig will clear the middle rung where I've placed the bar. It's also 2020, and I'm not in the mood to be taxed by anything anymore. Bring on Wiig's Judy Grimes playing "Black Jeopardy," why not? Like everyone else I'll be watching with my head on a pillow from a prone and deflated position.

Closing out the year with old friends coming back to "SNL" isn't a regular gift, but they have done it a few times over its 46 seasons, and it's an easy win. Among the alums who came back to ring in the holiday with viewers are Bill Murray (in 1981), Jimmy Fallon (2011 and 2013), Martin Short (2012) and Fey and Poehler in 2015. Murphy has seen out the old year three times now, hosting in 1982 and 1984 when he was at the height of his powers. One imagines these homecomings to be something of an easy walk for the writers, particularly with a host like Wiig. Hand her some doll arms and an off-putting elf suit and you've got a fine way to kill 10 minutes.

We're all due an easy win, a bit of midwinter's rest. And surely many of us are curious as to how "Saturday Night Live" will enter 2021 now that the man Alec Baldwin has been clowning for years now is getting booted from the White House and – fate willing – our screens, newsfeeds and subconscious.

Baldwin's Donald Trump facsimile was tremendous for "Saturday Night Live" in the administration's early years and a simple magnet for giggles before the novelty wore thin. The sketch show's fall return did not ignore the election but retrained the spotlight on Carrey and Rudolph's Biden/Harris ticket, a dicey proposition since the audience loves Rudolph and was less enamored of Carrey's Biden. But as of Saturday we won't have the "Kidding" star to kick around anymore: he announced his retirement from portraying the president-elect on Twitter.

Over the last few episodes the creative stagnation in the scripts has become tougher to countenance but forgivable; the cast, crew and writers lived through the same year as everyone else, and if the skits were flat, no one could blame them.

Bringing back Wiig at the end of this stretch is a good thing. Her appearance also underscores the promise and peril of these alumni returns, though – they spark our nostalgia for what was and make us notice the ways in which the present cannot live up to the past.

This weekend, though, Wiig also has an opportunity to remind us that the time will soon be here when we may not be wrung out on a Saturday night following a week of processing multiple acts of dangerous, heartless stupidity committed by our leaders. Maybe she'll be able reassure us that a shift in our mood lurks but a few weeks away instead of years.

Perhaps whatever goodwill she can engender will inspire everyone at "Saturday Night Live" to aim to be something beyond imitative and reactionary. Wiig once observed, "When you go out of your comfort zone and it works there's nothing more satisfying." She's not wrong . . . and we so badly want to be satisfied by "Saturday Night Live" in the coming year.

The final "Saturday Night Live" episode of 2020, hosted by Kristen Wiig, airs Saturday, live at 11:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. PT on NBC.

Masquerading as a right-wing news outlet, Newsmax's dull repetitiveness is stupefying — and intentional

Home shopping networks exist beyond the critic's purview. They just sort of do what they do with low production value, living or dying on the charms of their hosts. Plus, it's widely understood that despite announcers' assurances that what they're selling is solid and true, the real deal, much of what they're hawking is of questionable quality.

Absorbing hour after hour of Newsmax made me contemplate the great American appeal of home shopping consumerism and its strong attraction to the emotionally vulnerable, people seeking out that unknown item to fill some gap in their life they cannot name. Newsmax mimics that approach, only instead of dealing in sleeved blankets and cut-rate gemstones, it sells concentrated alarmism and far-right extremist fantasy.

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'All of that noise is destructive': Shep Smith reflects on Fox News and the war on truth

At several points during Salon's recent conversation with CNBC anchor Shepard Smith, he talks about noise. "The noise is just so loud. You've got have some quiet time," he said, referring to the space he carves out for himself during the workday when he retreats to his spartan office, puts his feet up and listens to music to harvest a little peace from the day's cacophony.

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'The Reagans' shows how the Gipper paved the way for politicians pretending they aren't racist

Forty years after Ronald Reagan's ascent to the presidency his legacy is still treated with kid gloves. Centrist Democrats seeking to find common ground with Republicans quote him as if he were a saint, the modern example of a conservative with bipartisan appeal save for, you know, a few mistakes he could not recall. In 2003 CBS was set to air a fictionalized miniseries that romanticized Ronald and Nancy Reagan but was hounded by the GOP until the network shunted it off to Showtime, the same network airing Matt Tyrnauer's new docuseries "The Reagans,"

"The Reagans" doesn't adequately dig into who Ron and Nancy were or tell us much of anything we don't already know about them within its four hours. But at some point somebody should.

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What's next now that Trumpism needs Fox News more than Fox News needs Donald Trump?

In the recent past a person may have dared to imagine a world with a significantly muted Donald Trump. Nearly 78 million voters pushed to make that a reality, spurred on in no small part by the desire to simply shut him up. That's understandable. The man takes up a lot of mental real estate whether people want him to or adamantly do not.However, that dream is predicated on the notion that the media organizations serving as Trump's megaphone – Fox News, in the main – would wean themselves off of the endless mutual ego-stroking that joined man and network at the hip over the last five years.

But with around 73 million voters indicating their comfort with another four years of Trump's madness, the one certainty is that while Trump may recede from the center of our lives, Trumpism isn't going anywhere. The difference, at least for Fox, will be in finding and anointing the next star for the right wing to rally around.

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Meghan McCain Nation: Anyone baffled at how Trump's margin among white women went up hasn't been watching 'The View'

On the day after the election, Meghan McCain was feeling nostalgic. Accompanying an Instagram graphic that urges, among other observations, "Vote for whomever, but it will be up to us to rebuild the division this political process has established by being decent, respectful, kind, loving, supportive, and compassionate human beings during these trying times" were a few of McCain's personal thoughts.

"My first Election Day without my dad is my first with my daughter Liberty. Feeling overwhelmed with nostalgia and warm sentiments about the circle of life. . . " she wrote.

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Fox News was in a 'purple haze' on election night until Trump's wild claims gave them clarity

In the midst of Fox News' prime time Election Day coverage, network anchor Chris Wallace advised his colleagues to approach all reporting on vote returns with caution.

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