‘Downton Abbey’ 5×3 Recap: The Morning After

[Warning: The following statement is NSFWR (Not Safe For White Russians); please escort any and all refugees from the Revolution out of the drawing room before continuing.]

If I had to describe Lady Mary Crawley’s sex life in a sentence, I’d turn to Karl Marx. History repeats itself, he warned us, first as tragedy, then as farce. How better to describe Mary’s dangerous liaisons? The first, with the dashing Turkish attaché Kemal Pamuk back in the pilot episode, ended in death and disgrace. The second, with eager-beaver suitor Lord Tony Gillingham in tonight’s episode, turns out to be a source of dirty jokes and awkward pauses, but little else.

Checking Your Prestige Privelege: A Guide to 2015’s ‘Important TV’ Schedule

Alright, are we over 2014, yet? We’re two days in, people, it’s all about the ’15 now. Alright, fine, watch your “It’s been a great year, thanks for being a part of it!” Facebook thing one more time. We’ll wait. Okay two more times.

We’re good? Good. Because there is a lot of ground to cover when it comes to TV shows to get excited about this year, whether they be premiering, returning, or coming to a close. Compiled here is the beginnings of your own personal master list, covering January and February, that shortly will be the only thing you need to read, and that includes all those things you New Years resolution-ed to read.

For Fans of ‘Girls,’ Three Web Series to Satisfy Your Lena Dunham Addiction

Alexandra Kern, creator, writer and producer of the web series 'Single Dumb.'

Alexandra Kern, creator, writer and producer of the web series ‘Single Dumb.’

I love all things Lena Dunham. I love Tiny Furniture, I love her Twitter feed, and I love her casting savvy. Most of all, I love Girls. I love the bad behavior and the faux-casual nudity and the uncomfortable arguments and the terrible sex and Adam Driver. What I don’t love is that Girls is an unavailable boyfriend: Each episode runs only half an hour. And we’ve been waiting nearly ten months for a new season to drop. During this torturous silence, I’ve watched the Season 4 trailer three times, listened to Zosia Mamet and her step-sister sing, and admired Jemima Kirke’s paintings. But, weary of my beloved’s absence, I’ve also had affairs—with three beautiful web series, each written by and starring a smart and funny woman.

If you love Girls, you’ll love and lust after:

While I’d like to pretend that I unearthed this list by digging behind the couch cushions of the Internet, the truth is, Awkward Black Girl won a Shorty Award and Issa Rae is now working with Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore on an HBO series. (Of course, Rae, playing the role of an awkward black girl, will star in it.) Rae also has a book coming out in February titled, of all things, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. In other words, I’m not edgy: Everyone falls in love with this series.

Awkward Black Girl is a comedy, about…well…an awkward black girl named J. The humor is absurdist, the characters and situations over-the-top (the name of J’s love interest, for example, is Jay), but uncomfortable subjects, including race relations, roil just beneath the silliness. “I think absurdist humor is the most effective way to show how generally ridiculous racism and prejudices are,” Rae says. “I don’t really like to be didactic, or preachy, but I love satire, and I love to make people aware that other people’s stupid opinions, actions, and judgments exist, and we should all be pointing and laughing at them.”

In one of the most enjoyable episodes, The Date, J’s best friend CeCe (Sujata Day), frequent giver of terrible advice, declares herself “an interracial expert” and convinces J that her first “white date” with “White Jay” (Lyman Johnson—my celebrity crush, if we’re speaking frankly), is going to include sushi and an art museum and “a nightcap at Yogurt Land with unlimited organic fruit toppings.” Instead, White Jay takes J out for fried chicken and to see an insufferable (though for the viewer, amazing) Spoken Word show. “Rap and poetry had a baby named Spoken Word. I wish I could abort that baby,” J thinks in a voice-over.

After the show, J accuses White Jay of being racist. In turn, because J is wearing her gym clothes (“white guys love casual,” CeCe insisted while J was getting ready for her date), White Jay accuses J of making no effort to impress him. But in the world of Awkward Black Girl, darkness and anger never prevail—and that’s one thing that makes the series so enchanting.

J and White Jay laugh. “I was trying so hard to make this the perfect white date,” J says. They realize that, in fact, they both really like sushi and salad and each other. And so they fall in love.

I lump Ann Carr in with Kristin Wiig and Parker Posey—funny, subversive actresses I could watch all day and never tire of. In The Actress, Carr delivers that squirmy brand of dark comedy: The protagonist, aspiring actress Hannah Kennon, endures untold humiliations—her best friend’s new husband chewing her out at the wedding, relentless sexual harassment, an obnoxious child actor vomiting at her feet. She speaks up when she shouldn’t and stays silent when she shouldn’t, has poorly timed meltdowns, and can’t mask her jealousy of other actors and friends. She deals with trying people, from a hostile stage mom to a lecherous head-shot photographer to a scene partner who drops dead right in front of her. Disturbing and dramatized though the episodes are, you can’t help but feel while watching The Actress that you’re seeing something true. “The funny thing about the truth,” Carr says, “is that we are so used to glossing it over or polishing it up that when you just show it in its raw form, unflinchingly, people laugh. They’re not used to someone calling bullshit on the world.”

The Actress, which Carr co-writes with her husband, comedian Warren Holstein, explores the plight of being a woman: In one episode, inspired by Carr’s real-life experience, Hannah sees a dermatologist (Michael Kostroff) to get some moles on her leg checked out. The doctor barely looks at the moles before he starts trying to sell Hannah on Botox. When she repeatedly declines his offer, he tells her, “I understand, I understand. A lot of girls get testy about foreign things injected into them.” He laughs heartily. “Loosen up, honey,” he says, “it’s just a joke.”

The series also pokes fun at our society’s belief in the power of positive thinking: “Good things are happening for you, Hannah,” Hannah assures her reflection in the mirror one night. Earlier in the evening, she learned of an actor friend’s big break and got so drunk, she made a racist comment to a black bartender (Jason Tottenham), who sent her packing. She looks at herself for another moment. “Bullshit,” she says.

• Alex Kern’s SingleDumb

Actress Alex Kern deserves the award for Best Facial Expressions. They’re all priceless—her “I can’t believe this shit” look, her “What did I just do?” look, her “I don’t know if I should be flattered or terrified” look—and they come in handy in SingleDumb: Each episode portrays a bad date (or some other missed romantic opportunity), based on Kern’s own experiences as a twenty-something single in New York. Humorous though it is, the series captures the pain of dating—that inkling that no one in the world will ever understand you, and that you won’t understand any of them, either. “After going on so many disastrous dates in this city,
Kern says, “I really had two choices: therapy or comedy. Creating SingleDumb allowed me to have a little bit of both.

Each “date” concludes with an unexpected punchline. In Charlie, one of the most well-crafted episodes, Alex (Kern’s character, who shares her name) sits on a bench at an outdoor train station beside a handsome stranger (Charlie Gorrilla). Neither of them speaks. Alex puts her hair up, takes it down, applies lipstick. She and the stranger keep glancing at each other. The desire between them mounts palpably. Surely, someone is going to break the silence at any second. She’s going to say something sweet! He’s going to ask her out! Alex looks directly at Charlie. He smiles.

“What are you looking at?!” she snaps.

“Oh. Sorry,” he says, getting up and running away.

Once he’s gone, Alex silently reconsiders the situation. He seemed pretty great, didn’t he? And now she’s alone, still waiting, both literally and metaphorically, for her train to come. “Fuck!” she says to herself.

Part of what makes the episode interesting is the tension between the desire for romance and the fear for one’s safety—a tension women on the dating scene experience all too often. Kern’s eye for tense dynamics lends SingleDumb its charm and depth.

Each episode runs under two minutes, so be prepared to binge-watch the whole first season in one gulp. In fact, you’ll binge-watch all three of these series, and even though they are my mistresses, I can’t help it: I’m jealous of you.

‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Special 2014 Recap: The Ghost of Christmas Never

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, meeting Santa. (BBC)

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, meeting Santa. (BBC)

To begin with, let’s just get this out of the way: No, a lot of what happens on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really make very much sense. It is a fun story about dreams within dreams, several of said dreams involving a real, living Santa Claus who may or may not exist. And if you think about it for about 20 seconds, it all starts to come unraveled.

For instance, the whole chain of events that led to our protagonists’ series of nested dreams, we find out, is set into motion when the Doctor encounters a “dream crab”—a psychic parasite that reads your thoughts and traps you in a dream state while it eats your brain—on some alien planet. Then it follows the Doctor’s thoughts to find and suck out Clara’s brain, too. The whole story in which the Doctor flies to Earth and finds Clara and takes her to the North Pole turns out to be a shared hallucination. The Doctor was actually on the alien planet the whole time, while Clara was in her bed on Earth, both with crabs on their faces.

But if the Doctor never actually flew to Earth, then how did the crabs get to Earth to capture Clara too? The crabs don’t fly. And why on Earth did it pick four other random people to bring into their dream? And if the whole point is to keep them sedated and happy while they suck out their brains, why is their shared hallucination a freaky dream about being trapped at the North Pole with brain-sucking crabs, rather than about having a lovely Christmas at home, like Clara’s own dream-within-a-dream (within-a-dream (within-a-dream)(I think)) was?

Yes, it is really hard to pull off a dream-within-a-dream story without creating plotlines that make no sense—just ask Christopher Nolan. (Actually no, don’t. He’d just take three hours to tell you something he could have explained in 20 minutes.)

The thing is, though, it feels downright uncharitable to pull this episode apart this way. It is a Christmas story, after all. It is a fun, celebratory and ultimately great story, one that manages to split the difference between heartwarming and terrifying in a clever way that represents Doctor Who at the top of its game. It was certainly the best Christmas special this show has turned in since its 2005 reboot (not a high bar, admittedly), and it carried the main Clara plotline forward in a touching and emotionally satisfying way.

Say what you will about Stephen Moffatt and his narrative foibles (I certainly have), but he does have a particular talent for turning the weaknesses of his show into its virtues. And “Last Christmas” is the best example of this yet: It is an episode built around Moffatt using his own storytelling limitations, and the narrative limitations of Doctor Who, against themselves in productive and enjoyable ways.

By making everything we see parts of various dreams, the show makes us understand how the logic of Doctor Who has always been dreamlike. We are always being thrown into a new situation whose background is a bit hazy. There are always going to be things that don’t make complete sense if you think too hard about them. Some stories are always going to seem like they are reconstructed out of elements of other stories. And, most importantly, the Doctor has always been a living myth, a demented version of Santa Claus who bestows his gifts (“all of time and space,” natch) on just one lucky good child, every once in a while.

The special distinction of Clara as a companion is not her grit or her passion or her loyalty. She has all of those things in spades, but so did many of her predecessors. Her real accomplishment is her understanding of this basic fact: no matter how long you spend with him, the Doctor is not someone you know; he’s someone you believe in.

Which brings us to Santa Claus. Nick Frost portrays him with admirable realism, a funny guy who nevertheless never becomes a punch line, and who can go toe-to-toe with the Doctor when he needs to. And the fact that he may or may not actually exist only adds to and resonates with the clever themes of the episode—for one thing, how much more ridiculous are flying reindeer and a sleigh than a time-traveling blue police box?

In other words, Moffatt has also managed to find a way out of the conundrum of cheesy Christmas specials. This now-decade-old tradition generally suffers from its own contradictions: a heartwarming holiday tale, ostensibly for kids, set within the universe (and carrying forward the story) of a complex and self-referential sci-fi tale. The specials tend to slide into either treacly Miracle on 34th Street territory on the one hand or incomprehensible hodgepodgery on the other.

But by setting everything in dreams in which Santa is at once the savior figure and the signal that the world is really fake and therefore a trap, this year’s installment manages to sidestep that problem entirely. The heartwarming bit becomes the narrative complexity, instead of having to sit uneasily beside it.

It’s also a clever conjunction of themes. Dreams and Santa Claus don’t have all that much to do with one another. But there is one place, of course, where the two meet: wish fulfillment. And thus it is that, without sacrificing the dark tone of the show—they’re getting their brains sucked out my face-hugging crabs the whole time, remember—we get a series of narrative satisfactions that will gladden the heart of any Whovian.

We finally get a proper sendoff for Danny Pink (though hopefully not to Samuel Anderson; there’s still his grandson Orson, after all), set in the innermost dream of the episode. We get to see the Doctor smile with true joy, for once, reminding us that he is, in fact, an incarnation of the grinning boy Clara knew. We get one possible version of a final parting between the Doctor and Clara, a touching scene in which Clara has grown very old and lived a full, adventurous life without him.

And then, because the Doctor makes a wish, a real wish, Santa Claus comes back one last time to fulfill that one too. Because the old-Clara scene was actually the last layer of their dreams. (Or it was an original ending, written before Jenna Coleman decided to stay on the show for another season. Or both. Probably both.) And once they are fully awake and back in the real(-ish) world, the Doctor and Clara realize, touchingly, that their journey is far from over.