Roush Review: Transparent Returns, and Remakes of The Exorcist, MacGyver

Matt Roush
Transparent
Amazon

Once again transcending the boundaries of comedy and drama with a poignant embrace of lives in neurotic transition, the third season of Jill Soloway's remarkable Transparent ends with the family embarking on a rare holiday together, their titanic dysfunctional turbulence at odds with the festive rhythms of a cruise ship. With the Pfeffermans, it's never smooth sailing, but as a metaphor for people who are adrift and unmoored, it's quite effective.

The anchor of the series, as always, is Jeffrey Tambor's twice-Emmy-winning performance as Maura, whose pride at her transition from Poppa to Moppa to Mom also carries a deep residue of pain and shame. (An entire episode movingly flashes back to her traumatic childhood in the 1950s, when little Mort would play dress-up in a nuclear bunker.) After Maura announces at her 70th birthday party that she’s finally ready for gender confirmation surgery, the camera pans the faces of her extended family, a wrenching tableau of sorrow, acceptance—and eventually even laughter. Ex-wife Shelly (the sublime Judith Light), after all, says she has also transitioned: “I’m a brand!” she declares.

And yes, I’d go see her “To Shel and Back” one-woman show. So many spiritual and emotional epiphanies abound in these 10 episodes, which features the welcome return of Kathryn Hahn as rabbi Raquel, struggling with her faith as much as her flock. I still squirm when the focus falls too far from Maura on to her impossible children, but episode by episode, Transparent is as close as TV comes to living art.

the exorcist. fox

FOX

The Exorcist

THE DEVIL MADE THEM REMAKE IT: You never forget your first scare. And that’s the greatest hurdle Fox’s series version of The Exorcist faces: how to live up to the reputation of one of cinema’s most notorious and successful horror movies. (I watched it again last Halloween. It holds up.)

As remakes/reboots go, this is on the high end, with strong performances and production values and a sustained creepiness long before they rev up the “Tubular Bells” theme at the end of the pilot episode. By then, we’ve made the acquaintance of two very different Fathers—the tormented Father Marcus Keane (an intense Ben Daniels), a seasoned but burned-out exorcist recuperating from a terrible incident in Mexico City that we witness in grisly glimpses; and troubled Father Tomas Ortega (an appealing Alfonso Herrera), the studly priest of a struggling church who is approached to rid a suburban Chicago home of demons and is understandably skeptical.

“I’m not a crazy person,” says Geena Davis as Angela Rance, who comes off a bit crazy as she talks of voices inside the walls, demons in her midst that are threatening her family—which includes a touching Alan Ruck as her brain-damaged husband, whose moments of sudden lucidity may not be heaven-sent. Even the spookiest moments—and there are several that could make you jump and shudder—have a whiff of the familiar, reminding us how times, and the culture, have changed in the 40-plus years since the original movie’s release. It may be hard for an audience accustomed to graphic The Walking Dead-style horror to appreciate what a sensation The Exorcist was in its day. The very idea that this has now migrated to network TV, with a minimum of fuss and expectation, says a lot about what it takes to shock us anymore.

And yet there’s a nice bit of misdirection in the pilot episode, creating the sort of jolt that makes you think there may be life in this devilish franchise yet.

macgyver, fox

CBS

MacGyver

NO FIXING THIS ONE: And then there’s CBS’s plodding, pallid reboot of MacGyver, with the durable character reimagined as a resourceful young hunk. Angus “Mac” MacGyver is now being played with zero personality by Lucas Till, who looks like a justifiably forgotten Winchester brother from Supernatural. As adept, though not as charming about it, as Richard Dean Anderson was back in the day at fashioning makeshift weapons and gizmos, this MacGyver is more like a baby Bond. He’s assigned to perform dangerous missions with the help of a team that includes CSI’s George Eads as his muscle, chirping witless banter like “You go kaboom, I go kaboom” to show that he’s got the kid’s back. There’s also a female hacker (Tristin Mays) on board, because everyone’s got to have one these days, even if she kind of makes MacGyver’s skills seem redundant.

Maybe it’s a function of a terribly written pilot, saddled with endless voice-over expositions, but every time MacGyver underscores a twist by saying to the home viewer, “I know what you’re thinking,” I kept thinking I hope he doesn’t. Because this is meant to be a family show.

Transparent premieres Friday, Sept. 23, on Amazon.

The Exorcist premieres Friday, Sept. 23, 9/8c, on Fox.

MacGyver premieres Friday, Sept. 23, 8/7c, on CBS.