The prowess of a Jordan Peele film reveals itself in the dive. With Get Out—his Oscar-winning 2017 social thriller about brain-swapping white liberals and their obsession with black bodies—Peele explored what it meant to descend into, and ultimately be trapped by, the dark vista of the mind. What unfurled was a cerebral madhouse of tangled racial horrors. It felt true. Especially true if, like Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris Washington, you are forced to live in the world merely as a consequence to mischievous white purveyors. Peele is likewise consumed by the crescendo, the ascent. He is just as eager to detail the rise from psychological or physical terror to a place of safety. What the writer-director-producer ultimately privileged in Get Out—was it the fall or the climb?—is much harder to parse; the project lends itself to a dense canniness.
Yet, the sum of Peele’s work isn’t uniquely about the summit or the slope—they’re mostly just devices he employs to great effect, hallmarks of a growing mastery. His films’ elucidation, then, lies in the context in which those emotions take place. He is someone who appreciates the complexities of the metaphorical rabbit hole. How deep it runs. Where it takes his characters (and, by extension, viewers). What we take from it. Its cavernous toll on the body and the mind in moments of escape or bold embrace. With Us, his latest horror puzzle, Peele continues to burrow furiously into the sinister subterranean of the American project.
With the unsettling slink of a classic horror flick, Us‘s prologue opens in 1986 in the lazy California beach town Santa Cruz. During a trip to the local boardwalk, an elementary-age Adelaide (a hypnotic Madison Curry) becomes curiously enthralled by a carnival attraction (a credit to Peele’s guile, the entrance perfectly forebodes: “Find Yourself”). Alone, having wandered off from her father, she roams the mysterious hall of mirrors and is taken in by her reflection. Literally. Adelaide is greeted by an exact, living, breathing replica of herself. The encounter is so jarring she flees in what we are meant to believe is a moment of panic. The experience, which is only hinted at in the opening exhales of the movie but comes into full view much later, leaves her with permanent lacerations. When we meet Adelaide as an adult (Lupita Nyong’o in her first lead role) she’s married with two kids—Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—but the trauma of the experience has irrevocably scarred her psyche. A family road trip back to the same beachside town threatens to rip the wound wide open. This being a Jordan Peele undertaking, it doesn’t take long for the blood to pool.
The one contemporary fracture the film is clear on is the poison of class struggle: the eternal fight between those at the top and those at the bottom, the above versus below.
There are, to my count, three key moments of descent in Us. The first begins after the Wilsons return from a day at the beach. They’re at home when, unexpectedly, the lights cut. Outside in the driveway looms a family of four, eerily identical to the Wilsons. Adelaide’s husband Gabe (Black Panther‘s Winston Duke) lobs physical threats, warning he will “get crazy,” but the family is unmoved by his faux-machismo (he’s a lovable goof at heart). The twist, of course, is that these invaders are also the Wilsons. Young Adelaide from the boardwalk funhouse has grown into Red, a gravelly-voiced, remorseless matriarch. She’s an inverse, darkness to the light of the Adelaide we have come to know, a shadow made flesh. As it turns out, each member of the Wilson clan has an evil doppelgänger, cracked mirror versions of their real selves. They call themselves the Tethered.
The second descent happens when it is revealed that the Wilsons are not the only ones haunted by malevolent, blood-thirsty clones. Everyone in town is. Overnight, Santa Cruz is animated by death—the Tethered have risen from the tunnels to enact revenge on their above-ground selves. The carnage is instantly volcanic: Once it detonates, the spill is impossible to contain and the radius of doom seems to expand by the minute. Even as the ruin curdles, it allows Peele to flex his penchant for humor. (A highlight: During a moment of frantic escape, the Wilsons take a moment to bicker over who has the most kills. It’s Gabe, with two.)
By now, the film has shed more of its layers—it’s a home invasion thriller that involves a zombie-like apocalypse—but it does so at the expense of leaving viewers dizzy, even as it scatters references to horror staples The Shining, Jaws, and A Nightmare on Elm Street in its wake. That’s not to say Us lacks for control, the film is not as loose as it occasionally feels, though it is at times derailed by its insistence on brevity. Perhaps that’s intentional. On The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast, Peele referred to Us as “a bit more of a Rorschach than my last picture. It’s really about looking within.”
Whatever the case, Peele extends his audience too much credit this time around. All of the film’s stray points—Why do the Tethered wear red jumpsuits and carry golden scissors? Exactly how many of them exist? When did they first come to be?—never add up. The one contemporary fracture the film is clear on is the poison of class struggle: the eternal fight between those at the top and those at the bottom, the above versus below. This divide, the feeling of being left behind, is what fuels Red’s venomous hate.
The final descent, though, delivers one of the most striking notes in Us. It’s what the film is rocketing towards from its start, a fated and fatal end point: a gruesomely poetic standoff between Adalaide and Red. It is also, to Peele’s credit, a literal descent. Adelaide ventures deep into an underground bunker to rescue Jason, where Red is waiting. Their fight is beautifully intercut with flashbacks of teenage Adelaide performing at a ballet recital. Cinematically, all the notes hit—the swift, curved shots; the slow villainous lurch of “I Got 5 on It”; the tug of Nyong’o’s eyes, those cracked watery pearls that ache with pathos, the way they demand full surrender. If Us is a film that privileges swell—and it very much is, sometimes to a fault—here, Peele embraces that bloat with brilliance and flair.
In the film’s closing scene it’s revealed, with a wink and a rascal of a smile, that the Adelaide who traveled into the bunker was not quite the same one who rose from it. And in that, we may very well have the most enduring message in Peele’s cinematic oeuvre—one that neither situates his work as a grand class parable or a genre-thrashing racial thriller—that even if we are lucky enough to escape, to ascend from the rabbit hole of our own private hells, we are never free from the transformation that has taken hold within us.
There’s one big question at the core of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan‘s new movie Glass: Who gets to be a hero? In the real world, a hero can be anybody. Someone who does the Heimlich maneuver in a diner, a firefighter, Colin Kaepernick. In movies (and TV and books and comics), though, the people folks call heroes tend to wear capes and have supernatural abilities. They may have started out as average citizens, but through some otherworldly power or scientific experiment, they’ve become more than human. Their heroism comes from their abilities. But in Shyamalan’s world, these two types of heroes—or villains, or both—are indistinguishable. And that’s what makes them great.
It all started with Unbreakable, a comic-book-inspired movie Shyamalan pretty much had to beg studios to produce back in 2000. In that film, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered he had the uncanny ability to survive almost anything, while Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) suffered from a condition where almost anything could break him, so he used his brain to become an evil mastermind. Fans loved it at the time, but Shyamalan moved on to movies like The Village and Lady in the Water, and it seemed like he might never return to that world again.
Then, in 2016, he released Split, a movie about a man (James McAvoy, doing the most in the best possible way) who had 20-plus personalities, one of which possessed superhuman strength and abilities. It wasn’t advertised as an Unbreakable sequel, but there at the end was David Dunn, setting up Glass, a movie that would complete the most unlikely “superhero” trilogy ever. Unlikely because it comes from Shyamalan and not Marvel or DC, and unlikely because its protagonists and antagonists are real people who live in Philly rather than Gotham, and there isn’t an Infinity Stone in sight.
“It goes hand-in-hand with my attempt in my movies to ground everything,” Shyamalan says. “To ground the supernatural, and in this case the comic book world—or at least the concepts of that world—in a way that starts to make us wonder whether a percentage of what I’m depicting is actually true.”
Glass exists in percentages that just might be real. Set nearly two decades after the events in Unbreakable and a short time after those in Split, it finds Dunn working at a store that sells security systems and side-hustling as a vigilante known as the Overseer. McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb/the Beast is haunting Philadelphia and kidnapping and murdering young women, and Mr. Glass has been institutionalized under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who seeks to treat people with a particular delusion of grandeur that makes them believe they have superhuman powers. When Dunn and Crumb come under her care as well, she finds herself with three very different subjects to observe—and Mr. Glass finds himself two potential accomplices in his scheme to show the world just how real self-manifested superpowers truly are.
But here’s the thing: Are they real? Moreover, what is “real” really? If someone believes they have superpowers that aren’t there, does that matter if they can still bend steel and climb walls? Or, to use the analogy Shyamalan gave me, does it matter if a pill is a placebo if it still makes you feel better? The patients in Staple’s care are being treated because it seems insane to think that anyone could will themselves to withstand a train crash, as Dunn did in Unbreakable. What they’re doing, as Shyamalan explains, is “hobbling together from the ordinary something extraordinary.” But if they’re still able to do good—or evil—in the world, does their implausibility matter? Are they the mentally ill ones, or is it everyone else who can’t see their capabilities? Who gets to call themselves a hero?
This question seems particularly relevant now, even more so than it did when Shyamalan first half-posed it in 2000. Comic book heroes, like the ones Mr. Glass is obsessed with, have historically often been responses to the times they were created in, from Captain America during World War II to Black Panther during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. When those heroes show up in movies now, they’re mostly fighting aliens or otherworldly mega-baddies, not Nazis or racists. But in the real world, the one Shyamalan depicts, those evils are the ones most in need of battling.
“I think we are looking for heroes because we’re being governed at this particular point by a madman,” says Paulson. “There’s something very powerful in going back to the root of how these [comic book] stories were probably born anyway, which was, what are we as humans capable of? And if we were to unleash something secret and long-held within us, what would we do with it? How many of us would run to the, in the direction of, towards goodwill, and how many of us would run towards selfish endeavors?”
Glass, then, positions itself as a sort of super-antihero movie, a flick that asks why anyone is hoping to be saved when they could be saving themselves. Or at least that’s what it seems to be trying to do. As often happens when a Shyamalan movie falters, it presents a stellar concept that doesn’t necessarily make a great story. The nearly two decades since Unbreakable have attuned audiences to the narrative language of comic-book movies, which gives Shyamalan a lot of room to play, but his film often gets bogged down trying to explain its points rather than making them. (Did this movie need multiple scenes where someone goes to a comics shop and Finally Gets It? Or was having Mr. Glass screaming, “It’s not a showdown, it’s an origin story!” necessary? Probably not.) In its attempt to set up the final act’s big twist—it’s a Shyamalan movie, there’s always a twist—it spends a lot of time telling its audience what’s happening, rather than showing them.
Narrative glitches aside, Glass, along with Unbreakable and Split, creates something few movies before them have: an actual original superhero trilogy. Other movies (Hancock and Super come to mind) have tried to riff on the formula, but hardly any have deconstructed the meaning of superheroes while also featuring them. Its good guys and bad guys could teach Hollywood’s caped crusaders a thing or two about saving the world—even if they can’t be saved from the movie they’re in.
“I’ll tell you a big life lesson,” John Krasinski enthused to TheNew York Timesin early January, recalling the time his good buddy and fellow famous movie director Paul Thomas Anderson taught him to keep his lack of enthusiasm to himself.
Paul was over at my house, I think it was my 30th birthday party, and I had just seen a movie I didn’t love. I said to him over a drink, “It’s not a good movie,” and he so sweetly took me aside and said very quietly, “Don’t say that. Don’t say that it’s not a good movie. If it wasn’t for you, that’s fine, but in our business, we’ve all got to support each other.” The movie was very artsy, and he said, “You’ve got to support the big swing. If you put it out there that the movie’s not good, they won’t let us make more movies like that.”
A lovely and heartening sentiment, perhaps, when it’s the guy who did Phantom Thread counseling the guy who did A Quiet Place. “Dude, Paul Thomas Anderson is out there on the wall for us!” Krasinski continued. “He’s defending the value of the artistic experience. He’s so good that maybe you project onto him that he’s allowed to be snarky, but he’s the exact opposite: He wants to love everything because that’s why he got into moviemaking. And ever since then, I’ve never said that I hate a movie.”
Another way to get out there on the wall and defend the value of the artistic experience is to take the precise opposite approach. Roger Ebert, on the 1994 family comedy North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” TheNew York Times’A.O. Scott on the 2008 Will Smith melodrama Seven Pounds: “Among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.” Every film critic in America, myself included, roughly paraphrased on 2018’s farcical mob biopic Gotti: “LMFAO.”
This sort of scorched-earth denunciation has proved itself useful and necessary (and memorable!) across every medium, including reviews of books of other people’s movie reviews. Renata Adler, on Pauline Kael’s 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down: “Line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” It works, increasingly, in the Peak TV era. Vulture’s Jen Chaney, on the tasteless 2018 Netflixsatire Insatiable: “It turns out the show is not as bad as you imagined. It’s actually worse. Like, worse in ways that you can’t even anticipate.” And it perhaps works best of all in the uncouth and anarchic arena of rock criticism. Robert Christgau in 1972: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them.” An unnamed reviewer on Spinal Tap’s early-’80s hard-rock opus Shark Sandwich: “Shit sandwich.” It is a proud, ever-evolving tradition. Pitchfork, in lieu of text to support a pseudonymous 0.0 review of Jet’s own 2006 hard-rock opus Shine On, instead simply posted first a GIF, then a YouTube video, of a monkey pissing in its own mouth.
An unapologetically mean review, too, is a big swing, and the ultimate weapon for passionate but principled critics who want to love everything but will not hesitate to really, really, really hate something. A truly vicious pan, a merciless slam, a full-scale ethering is born of a righteous fury that can transmute into pure joy. “The secret of the bad review is that you can get a lot of pleasure out of it,” A.O. Scott tells me, chatting via phone in late December. “It is a kind of a dopamine rush. First of all, editors—especially editors at TheNew York Times—love it. They love bad reviews. And they’re fun to do because they give you access to a lot of writerly tools that are fun to use. You can be funny. You can be clever. What you’re doing is, you’re demonstrating your superiority to a thing that you’re writing about.”
Which can be intoxicating, and for the sharpest-knived critic, a source of tremendous pride. “The first paragraph of my review of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor,” Scott says with a laugh, “if I can get to blow my own horn, is a classic to be studied in every How to Write a Negative Review class.” But “you can get too hooked on that feeling” of writing slam after slam, he warns. “They’re definitely more fun. But positive reviews—where you can make a case for something that you really feel enthusiastic about, and still write as well as you can—that’s a lot harder, and a lot more valuable.”
This potential for fearsome, mentions-ruining clapback was only magnified in 2018, which happily generated some of the harshest reviews in recent memory. In October, Pitchfork’s Jeremy D. Larson lambasted Anthem of the Peaceful Army, the full-length debut from the ludicrously Led Zeppelin–aping young rock band Greta Van Fleet. (Opening line: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.”) This Larson tweet summarizes the resulting online conversation.
Later that month, fellow longtime critic Jeff Weiss, writing on behalf of The Washington Post, attended Post Malone’s inaugural Posty Fest in Dallas and did not care for it at all. (Opening lines: “Him? The most popular young artist in the most unpopular young nation is a rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese. Post Malone is a Halloween rental, a removable platinum grill, a Cubic Zirconium proposal on the jumbo screen of a last-place team.”) The result, as Weiss recounts now, was death threats, amid an avalanche of Twitter invective that included Post Malone’s own father referring to Weiss as “a petty little cuck.”
The film-review universe, meanwhile, is relatively more civilized lately, save the occasional gleeful mass beatdown visited upon the likes of Gotti or Fifty Shades Freedor the treacly Life Itself, which Scott himself described as “inadvertently hilarious.” As for television, in an overstuffed year more notable for its daunting quantity than any consensus as to any one show’s quality, Kyle Paoletta’s polarizing November essay for The Bafflertook TV critics to task en masse for abandoning criticism in favor of pure cheerleading. “Left to their own devices,” he wrote, “our most prominent television critics seem solely interested in defining the best and the greatest, as determined by increasingly esoteric criteria.”
But Emily Nussbaum’s hard-nosed New Yorker takedown of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last monthsuggests otherwise, a thorough and thoughtful disruption of that show’s general aura of universal praise, a valuable service Nussbaum also provided in 2014 when she punctured the awestruck bubble encasing True Detective Season 1. Still, for my money, the best, and meanest, and funniest TV review of the past few years remains Slate critic Willa Paskin’s “Excruciatingly Clear Plot Breakdown” of True Detective Season 2 in 2015, a riotously detailed explainer that doubled as a cry for help, or at least mercy. “As I was starting to do it,” Paskin recalls of that piece now, “it was very hard to organize the information.”
But in 2018, for pure vitriol, it was hard to beat Andrea Long Chu’s electrifying November Affidavit review of the Jill Soloway memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy. “As a book about desire, power, or toppling the patriarchy,” the first graf concludes, “it is incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless.”
People loved it. People wanted it. Who are Extremely Bad Reviews written for? What do they hope to accomplish? Are they spiteful acts of vengeance, or more principled demands for justice? Are outright slams more prevalent now, or more effective now, or both, or neither? The answers change with the medium, and the target, and the reviewer in question. Chu, for one, had compelling reasons to be so unsparing; with apologies to the unerringly supportive likes of Krasinski and PTA, the best and the meanest critics always do.
I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
“I just remember reading that,” Jeff Weiss tells me now, “and being like, ‘Honestly, you’re a contemptible hack.’”
What matters, to a professional critic, is sometimes saying no. Weiss’s Post Malone roast is a dazzling onslaught of one-liners, from “He looks like he got clubbed over the head by a cartoon peacock” to “He makes Macklemore look like Mac Dre.” It is based on long experience, not all of it wholly negative: Weiss notes that he cautiously liked Post Malone’s 2015 breakout hit, “White Iverson,” which got a very early semi-positive notice on his long-running online critical hub Passion of the Weiss. (He also realizes, midway through our phone conversation, that the coffee shop he’s sitting in is playing Post Malone.)
Less positively, he’d caught Post’s set at Coachella 2018: “‘The worst show I’ve ever seen’ is probably the most accurate statement.” But for the Washington Post piece, he showed up at Posty Fest in October willing to have his mind changed, if not fully blown. It didn’t go well.
But that, Weiss insists, is nothing personal. “No, no, I don’t care,” he says. “Post Malone is probably a nice guy. I don’t need criticism to enact vengeance on people. Nothing is personal in criticism. It’s art. You’re doing art. I think that’s this weird misunderstanding now, because everything has become this me, me, me, personal, like, this is my brain, this is my brand. All that bullshit. Criticism’s art and culture. That’s a thousands-of-years-old tradition. It’s one that’s probably broken down on the rocks right now, but like I said, I assume Post Malone is a pretty nice guy.”
You could hardly blame Post, of course, for what appeared to be his initial response, tweeted the same day the article ran.
But as the resulting online fan invective, much of it directed at Weiss personally, ramped up, Weiss says Post apologized over DM, and the two came to something of an understanding. “Judging from our interactions, he was a pretty sweet kid that was trying to write really great songs,” Weiss continues. “I don’t know. I know about me, I want to write books one day, and if someone really wrote a horrible, horrible review, I mean, yeah, would I want to murder them? Sure, no question. Would I poison their first-born child? Of course! But I would think about it, and maybe think [about] what I did wrong.”
Post Malone, naturally, is no stranger to bad reviews. Same with the Chainsmokers, and Florida Georgia Line, and latter-day Justin Timberlake, and Imagine Dragons, all wildly successful and vividly polarizing pop artists who do not, to Weiss’s mind, therefore qualify as easy targets undeserving of discouraging words. “I think that I honestly find that a repugnant take, that there are some artists that are too safe,” he says. “I wouldn’t even know what a hard target is. Is Drake a soft target? These are the most popular artists in the world. They matter whether we like it or not.”
Nor will even the harshest review endanger that. “I have no delusions about criticism changing the trajectory of an artist’s career,” Weiss says. “Post Malone was going to be rich and successful with or without that review. The soft-target thing, it really pisses me off, because I feel like I don’t see any negative reviews anymore. That’s why I think my and Jeremy’s things resonated. … There’s always been those things. Writers have written entire books devoted to hating other writers. I don’t know. The notion of a soft target is just like—yeah, we have Donald Trump as our president. That’s the softest target there is.”
Greta Van Fleet, in their short but already luridly fascinating career, have likewise attracted a great deal of attention and stoked a great deal of indignation. But Larson’s Pitchfork review, for all its finely honed mockery—“At least Zeppelin knew how to separate their sweet-lady-I’m-horny songs from their howling-about-literary-fantasy songs”—was careful to take the absurdity seriously, and cite other 21st-century artists, from Andrew W.K. to the Darkness, who’ve updated classic-rock tropes with more verve and personality.
“I think to show fans that I wasn’t just a hired assassin just out to take this band out from 500 yards away,” Larson tells me, “I wanted to show that, like, ‘Look, I’m experienced. I know these songs. I know this style.’ And then, yeah, the response I got, it was a lot of people being like, ‘You don’t understand.’ And I’m like, ‘Ah! I really do. I really did. I promise you I do.’”
Another common complaint about mean reviews is you didn’t give this a chance, the sense that a critic hits play or sinks into a theater seat or slinks through a festival gate with an operatic takedown already written. That certainly happens; precious few critics are never guilty of letting their assumptions overwhelm their opinions. But it’s also true that a piece of art that’s terrible in a genuinely memorable way can take awhile to sink in. “I think it actually kind of tumbled around a little bit,” Larson says of the Greta Van Fleet album. “I find that it’s really easy for me to tell whether a record is mediocre right away. Like, I can kinda know, it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t doing anything special.’ But then when it’s something bad, you’re worried that you’re going to galaxy-brain it, and maybe this is really good. And so you’re kind of playing against being too cold. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s something that I find really repulsive right away. Now I have all of these feelings about it.’ And donating critical value to all of these feelings is not easy, I think.”
Pitchfork, in its 20-plus years as the chaotic focal point of rock criticism, has itself amassed a reputation for a singular sort of gonzo hostility. Devoted readers can likely reel off a half-dozen infamous 0.0 reviews and the calamity they wrought on those artists’ careers. The writing back then was often wilder, and loopier, and, sure, meaner.
“I think there’s a recognition of Old Pitchfork and New Pitchfork,” Larson says. “And there isn’t really a line there, but you know it when you see it. Like the Jet review, or the old Tool Lateralus review, which was written from the point of view of, like, a mega-Tool fan. Which I still think is really funny. That’s a form of criticism that is different from what Pitchfork is doing now. So, you know, I always foolishly start out a draft by being way too clever, and then eventually, you’re just like, ‘Ah, just write a normal thing,’ you know? And it always ends up better.”
What this means in practice is that the Chainsmokers aren’t liable to get a glowing review from Pitchfork in 2019, but they’ll get a fair hearing in a tone that’s a little less barbaric and surreal and detached. “I can’t really speak to if it was like a meeting one day where it was like, ‘No more monkey-piss GIFs,’ you know?” Larson says. “But I think it’s just sort of a, ‘Well, did we accomplish all we needed to accomplish with doing criticism like this? Is there a way we can challenge ourselves more?’ … I don’t think there was a meeting of the High Council of Pitchfork Reviews being like, ‘We are done having fun now.’ I think we sort of realized it’s a strong spice. You know? You gotta use it a little more conservatively.” And one way to hit harder is to lash out less often, and for that matter to hit smarter, not harder in the first place.
One common denominator in many of Pitchfork’s most caustic reviews, from Travis Morrison to Liz Phair to Black Kids, is the idea that only an artist the site used to love can inspire such visceral hatred. There’s a not-mad-just-disappointed air; there is, artistically speaking, almost a moral dimension.
This feeling is only heightened when there’s an actual moral dimension—when real-world values are at stake. The ferocity that goes along with that sort of argument can be thrilling, but critics invariably get much better at knowing how (and when) to channel that anger as they get older. And they learn to do that sparingly. “I think that this is often true, that the negative reviews—the sort of vicious, stinging pan—you’re used to doing, is more gratifying to do, and feels more justified when you’re younger,” A.O. Scott says. “Partly because you feel like you have something to prove against the world, and also, you do want that kind of revenge. And I did, when I was starting out as a film critic, I did take bad movies as a kind of personal affront—like, ‘How dare you put this piece of shit out in front of me? And expect me to watch it, and take my time?’ But, over time, I think that I saved the really harsh negative reviews for something that I think is a greater betrayal than that.”
From Scott’s perspective, there are, unfortunately, very recent examples. “It’s not just, ‘This isn’t a very good movie,’ but something cynical or meretricious—especially, something that kinda abuses the good faith of the audience at play,” Scott continues. “It’s kind of a moral lapse, almost, on the part of the movie. I really did not like Bohemian Rhapsody. And not just because it was dumb in the way that it was dumb, or kind of a clumpy biopic in the way that it was, but in the way that it took a figure that a lot of people loved and cared about, and just sort of didn’t do right by him or by the fans. I mean, a lot of people loved it anyway. But that just felt like something more than just not succeeding at making the movie as interesting as it should’ve been.”
This is a story about someone who responds to criticisms of her TV show by taking “a glamping writers’ retreat” to El Capitan: “We had a shaman come. She did magic incantations as we lay on the floor of a yurt.” It is an unwitting portrait of a rich Los Angeles creative type with a child’s knack for exploiting the sympathies of others, a person whose deep fear of doing the wrong thing was regularly outmatched by an even deeper distaste for doing the right thing. The nicest thing that can be said of this oblivious, self-absorbed, unimportant book is that it proves, once and for all, that trans people are fully, regrettably human.
“It makes it possible to bring a kind of moral clarity to a piece like that,” Chu tells me. “Like, obviously, there is the pleasure of dunking—I mean, I would be lying if I said that wasn’t part of it, but absolutely. The fact that there’s bad writing is bad, and as a critic I feel totally empowered to get really angry about bad writing, because it’s sort of my province. But there were parts of the book that were really attempting to exculpate Soloway, while actually doing the opposite.”
What elevated this particular review, then, from a satisfying artistic takedown to a viral phenomenon was Chu’s larger point of asserting that personal identity alone does not make Soloway’s thoughts or art important, or for that matter even tolerable. “It’s pernicious and condescending, because it’s a different kind of dehumanization when you assume that the aesthetic contribution of a minority group is simply existing, as opposed to actually producing things of interest and value,” Chu says. “It’s important for me not just as a critic, but as a sort of public trans person for better or worse to be able to say, ‘No, actually, extending humanity to historically dehumanized people means that when they make shitty art, you tell them they have made shitty art,’ you know? Like, that is actually where dignity lies.”
Transparent was far easier to grapple with critically when it was merely one prominent TV show out of what seemed to be 10,000 prominent TV shows. Pure volume and a near-total lack of critical or audience consensus are the guiding principles of TV criticism now, which affects not so much the shows critics hate as the shows critics regard as worth hating.
Slate’s Willa Paskin does not necessarily consider herself a harsh reviewer—“Someone once told me I was ‘unimpressed,’ in a complimentary way”—but she can still appreciate the joys of reviewing something harshly. “The thing about pans is that they’re very invigorating,” she tells me. “Any time you feel strongly—if you love something or you hate something—is a rarity, and so it’s really fun to write about. And when you hate something, you almost get to be freer. When you love it you have to explain it—it’s actually harder. It can be much harder. Explaining why you hate something is the easiest thing. So it’s the most fun thing to write. I mean, the simplest.”
And so her 2015 pan of the medieval FX dirge The Bastard Executionerradiates a nauseating sort of delight: “The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.” But the question now, less than four years later, is whether a show like that would deserve her attention, let alone her enmity.
“Because of the amount of TV, for something to be worth a pan, it’s harder,” she says. “When there were less shows, if it was on a network, maybe that was worth panning, just because of that. But now, it’s like, I’m gonna take this nothing show and shit all over it? I’ll just skip it. So if it’s something like The Romanoffs, that rises to the occasion, where I can be like, ‘Oh, I have nothing good to say about this, and I can say nothing good about it. It’s worth it.’ But if not, if you really hated something—like now, if The Bastard Executioner came out now, I just would never write about it. Why would I have written about that show? Of course it’s not for me, it’s like a minor offering from FX. There’s no way.”
There is a different but just as pervasive sense of futility to even those few shows everyone’s actually watching. The final season of Game of Thrones will inspire tens of millions of words of content, but is it beyond the point of inspiring provocative, effective criticism? And will the final season, as a stand-alone piece of entertainment, actually be “good”?
“Whether it’s good or not is not actually important,” Paskin says. “It’s not the question we’re litigating every time we talk about Game of Thrones. … We already know how it’s ending. Everyone’s gonna be all very excited about it, even as they’re shitting on it. And everyone’s writing like 10,000 recaps of things, and then there’ll be the finale. And then there’ll be like 100 pieces about how, whatever the finale is, whether it’s a good or bad finale. It’s kind of irrelevant. Then there’ll be 100 billion more pieces, and 100 million more things to come. I mean, it’s just so irrelevant. Game of Thrones is a thing to me that, it just feels like it’s so irrelevant what any person has to say about it. And it just gets great traffic.”
The calculus of when something is too powerful to be criticized or not powerful enough—or a critic is too emotionally invested to be impartial or not emotionally invested enough—continues to vex criticism as a whole, and complicate the question as to how criticism, in the past several decades, has or hasn’t changed. Reviews aren’t necessarily meaner now, nor are there necessarily more of them, but the social-media outrage that necessarily follows a righteous takedown might convince you otherwise. Is the critical conversation meaner now? Possibly. Is it louder now? Undoubtedly.
“One of the things that I noticed when I was working on the book is that when people make statements about the general state of criticism, both things are true at the same time,” Scott says. “So you have, almost simultaneously, people publishing essays about how criticism has gotten so harsh and so mean and we’re just trying to take everyone down. And, the next month, someone will publish something that says, ‘The reviews have gotten too soft and too permissive, and everyone’s just being cheering and encouraging, and no one’s harsh enough.’”
Meanwhile, the hits—and the hit pieces—keep on coming. In early January, Leonard Cohen, of all people, took a shellacking in The New York Times Book Review, via William Logan’s dismissive review of Cohen’s posthumous new poetry-and-drawings collection The Flame. “Monotonous scribbles of the moody-undergraduate school.” “At any moment of the day, ‘Suzanne’ is probably playing in an elevator somewhere.” “If singing badly is no bar to stardom, everyone who stands caterwauling in the shower should take hope.” Is Cohen a soft target? A hard target? Does it matter that he’s … dead? It’s something new to argue about, at least. So sound off in the comments—after all, that’s where all the best, or at least the meanest, criticism gets written nowadays.
Electric bicycles are great. They’re fun, they ease congestion on city roads, and they help reduce humans’ reliance on fossil-fuel-powered cars, the industry that NASA has reported to be the world’s largest net contributor to the pollution that causes climate change.
However, one problem persists: Most people who buy an electric bike were already biking in the first place. According to a 2018 paper released by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, the vast majority (93.4 percent) of the people who buy e-bikes or add electric systems to standard bikes already owned a bike to begin with.
With the Elby, founders Fred Gingl and Frank Stronach wanted to make an electric bike that would appeal to people who would otherwise never get on one. Instead of putting an electric motor on a standard bike frame, the team attempted to rethink the e-bike from the ground up with mainstream accessibility in mind.
Big and Rich
The minute you see an Elby bike, the difference between it and a standard bike is obvious. “Is that even a bicycle?” my daughter’s preschool teacher asked, when I wheeled the Elby into the hallway. “It looks more like a motorcycle.”
The Elby isn’t small. It weighs 57 pounds, and it’s impossible for me to carry or bump up curbs. It doesn’t fit easily in a lot of the places where I need to store my bike, whether that’s in my bike shed, the crowded bike racks of my current home town of Portland, Oregon, or the narrow hallway where bike commuters put theirs at my daughter’s preschool.
It also has a very distinctive profile. The Elby has a durable aluminum frame with an extremely low step-through top bar, almost low enough to look like a scooter. This makes it much easier for the average rider to climb on and off. The BionX motor is a large black disc mounted on the rear wheel. Elby recommended that I lock it up by the rear fork triangle instead of the front fork, which is more secure given the step-through frame. That might be true, but it’s not exactly convenient when trying to wedge its big butt onto bike racks as I rode it around town on errands. The 500-watt battery is in a locked case near the crankset.
Elby claims that the bike can fit a wide variety of people sizes. This is true. At five feet, two inches, I’m on the lower end of the bell curve when it comes to human heights, and I could lower the seat post enough to sit comfortably and rotate the handlebars upward and back. The seat post can extend up to 13.625 inches, to fit someone as tall as six-foot-five.
However, the clamps you use to adjust the fit don’t use quick-release levers, so you can’t switch riders easily. Elby includes an Allen wrench set when you order the bike, but you’ll have to supply the patience (and elbow grease) yourself. For example, the Elby manual doesn’t tell you there are locking teeth in the clamp when you rotate the handlebars, and I’m sad to report that it took me a while to figure out how to unlock it. But once adjusted, I found it very comfortable. I chose to sit upright, like on a classic Dutch-style omafiets. The seat is wide and padded, and the ergonomic handlebars have a sticky rubber surface that it made it nearly impossible for them to slip out of my hands, even when gloved and riding in the pouring winter rain.
With all that said, the Elby is an incredibly smooth, fun ride. Riding at 12 to 15 mph on my rickety old pedal bike is terrifyingly fast (for me). At 16 mph on the Jetson Metro, another e-bike I recently tested, I was passing dedicated bike commuters and staying alert for any cracks or sticks in the road that might trip me up and turn my face into shredded cheese.
But the Elby is surprisingly comfortable. There were a few times when I casually looked down at the Elby’s console and saw that I was going 15 or 16 mph (like most e-bikes sold in the US, the max speed is 20 mph). The bike comes in single-speed and nine-speed versions; I tested the nine-speed. You can select between four different levels of assistance, and the bike’s onboard computer will also respond to how hard you press on the pedals, adding juice when it senses you’re working harder. The assistance feels natural, as if your quads just grew exponentially overnight.
It also has a throttle. By twisting it, you can make the bike go without having to turn the pedals. In most cases, I have mixed feelings about e-bike throttles. If a bike’s throttle isn’t accelerating fast enough to make my head fall off my shoulders, it turns on when I’m holding the bike and becomes a poltergeist, making the bike bash itself into my shins or fling itself into the street. Not to mention that in some states, a throttle changes an e-bike’s classification from a bike to a motorized scooter, which can make it illegal.
But I like the Elby’s throttle a lot. It has a safety, so it only turns on when the wheels are already moving. It’s also smooth and not too fast, giving me just enough kick to cross some of the busier streets around my house.
The Elby has an advertised range of 80 miles per charge. While I wasn’t able to travel anywhere near that many miles, in a week of putting three or four miles per day on the bike, I only ran the battery down to 77 percent. You can check your bike’s stats on the console, which you can click through with a small panel of buttons on the handlebar. You can change the view from a simple one, showing your speed, range, and whether you have your lights on, to one that is slightly more dense with information.
The Elby also has an app, which I wasn’t expecting to find it particularly useful. After all, any information that you’d find in the app, like directions, weather, or bike stats, can be found on either the bike console or elsewhere on your smartphone. However, I failed to take into account all the times I need to find that info in the same place while riding. You can even mount the phone onto the bike’s handlebars for greater accessibility. I drive with my phone mounted on the console; why wouldn’t I do the same with my bike?
And finally, the Elby includes all the bells and whistles you’d expect on a premium e-bike, like regenerative braking with its solid Tektro hydraulic brakes, and puncture-resistant tires. It has most of the little doodads that make an e-bike an attractive, convenient commuter option: an actual, literal bell; aluminum fenders with integrated front and rear lights; and an included rear rack on the fender that accommodated my Axiom panniers, if not very well. I slid the hooks on the bottom of my pannier onto the chain stay tube, but they didn’t always stay put. If I owned the bike, I would probably skip the company’s fender rear rack and just install my own.
Pass on the Gas
If the reason you don’t own or ride a bike is because there’s too much money involved and you have no place to store the thing, the Elby is unlikely to be much help. Both the single-speed and the nine-speed start at $3,000. At 57 pounds, you’re not going to be cheerily swinging it over a shoulder on your way to your third-story walkup.
However, if the reason that you’re not riding a bike is because you think they’re awkward or dangerous, or you haven’t ridden a bike since you were five, then the Elby has your back. It’s comfortable and maneuverable and it has all the perks of a motorized sit-down scooter minus the reliance on fossil fuels. Elby has even partnered with the “mechanic in a van” company Velofix to assemble the bike for you, so you can buy one even if don’t live near one of the company’s retailers.
All in all, I found that the Elby worked well for my lifestyle. One rainy, dark, night, I discovered one of my kids had run out of Vaseline. I grabbed my keys and headed out to my car, but found myself staring guiltily at the Elby, parked in my garage with the headlights and motor just waiting to be switched on. I sighed, and biked to the store instead of driving. Once they start selling them with a built-in lock, I’ll be completely sold.
Two members of Congress are seeking a formal investigation into claims that the bidding process for a contentious $10 billion Pentagon contract was rigged in favor of Amazon.
The contract in question would give one company full reign over the Defense Department’s Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative, or JEDI Cloud—a program that the Pentagon has described as “truly about increasing the lethality of our department.” JEDI is part of the DOD’s quest to bring military operations into the modern era by partnering with a commercial cloud provider to streamline defense operations, upgrade data-analytics programs using artificial intelligence, and provide soldiers with real-time mission data.
First Man is a rare bird. It’s a big, adventure movie that goes from the flats of the Mojave Desert to the surface of the moon; and it’s a deft, thoughtful film about overcoming grief. It’s got wrenching performances, and an entire sequence shot in IMAX that looks best on the biggest screen possible. The fact that these things all coexist in one film isn’t that unique—but the fact that they all play together in one piece that never loses its heart or its momentum very much is.
Based on the book of same name by historian James R. Hansen, First Man is a biopic for Neil Armstrong, the NASA astronaut first to plant a boot on the surface of the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. But instead of focusing just on the eye-popping, nail-biting specifics of getting a rocket into space, it trains its lens on the story of Armstrong as a stoic and private national hero who always stuck to the business at hand. (A space cowboy he was not.) It shows not simply the ticker-tape parades and cheering flight controllers in Houston, but the side of astronaut life that’s downright terrifying.
This is a list of things that happen in the new movie Venom: Riz Ahmed, personifying every rich supervillain trope at once, utters the words “God has abandoned us … I will not”; Tom Hardy hops in a restaurant’s lobster tank and eats a crustacean raw; the movie’s titular character says “on my planet, I was kind of a loser”; and an alien turns into Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams. These are the kinds of moments that turn a movie into a cult favorite, or into a total disaster. Venom could be either—if it had any idea what it was at all.
Smell that pumpkin spice in the air? That means the fall is coming, and with it, new action cameras.
GoPro—aka the Band-Aid/Kleenex/Q-Tips of action cameras—is here with the latest entry in its category-defining camera platform, the Hero7 Black. I’ve spent the last few weeks banging around (and getting banged up) with it, and while it feels more like an iterative upgrade than a sea change, it’s gotten noticeably better in a few key ways.
First, you’ll note that the Hero7 Black looks almost identical to the Hero6 Black, aside from a slightly different-looking mic and a darker finish. It’s still waterproof to 33 feet without a housing, and it works with all the same GoPro mounts and accessories you’ve been using for years. Even on the inside there are more similarities than differences. The Hero7 has the exact same image sensor, and it shoots at the same resolutions and framerates as last year, maxing out at 4K60 or 1080p240. What it does have, however, is twice as much on-board memory, which it uses to make some smarter decisions on the fly.
You can pre-order a Hero7 Black now for $400 (GoPro has wisely made it $100 cheaper than the Hero6 was at launch) and it will be available globally on September 27. It will arrive in the US three days later, on the 30th.
The smartest new feature is an improved in-camera image stabilization mode, which GoPro, in its GoPro-y way, has dubbed “HyperSmooth.” Now, it’s still electronic image stabilization (EIS), which means it crops 10 percent of the image as it zooms in a little to mitigate shake, so you lose some field of view. That said, it’s a very clear improvement over last year’s EIS. It does a really nice job of eliminating smaller shakes and vibrations. For those who do fast-moving activities (think racing cars), you’ll notice that the notorious rolling-shutter effect is all but eliminated. Even when riding my mountain bike over gravel that was making my arms jiggle like crazy, I found that the Hero7’s image stayed extremely stable. It even works at 4K60, which the Hero6 couldn’t stabilize. It’s really quite impressive.
That being said, GoPro is claiming that this is “gimbal-like” stabilizations, and that’s definitely an overstatement. It smooths out little bumps and shakes, sure. But when I was going over bigger rocks on my bike, jumping off of things, or even running down a street with a gimbal and the Hero7 in the same hand, you can see a very clear difference in the stability of the output. Gimbals are much, much better at eliminating the shake from big bumps and jolts. Of course, there are a lot of disadvantages to using a gimbal: A good one is going to run you at least a couple hundred bucks, they’re bulky, you have to charge them, they suck in high wind, and you can’t take them in water. So yeah, stabilization that even approaches gimbal territory is great… but I still would stop short of calling it “gimbal-like.”
One thing to note: Two days before this review published, GoPro sent me a firmware update for the camera, claiming that it further improved HyperSmooth performance. Obviously, I couldn’t re-test everything, but I did re-run my test against the gimbal (a Hero6 Black in a GoPro Karma Grip), and I found that my original assessment stands. The HyperSmooth feature may have improved a bit with the last-minute update, but it’s still not as good as a gimbal when it comes to stabilizing the bigger shocks.
HyperSmooth is also being transported over to the time-lapse videos, and it actually makes for a huge improvement. The feature is now called “TimeWarp,” and it applies the new stabilization algorithm to time-lapse video making them way, way smoother. The horizon is now locked in place and the focal point of the image no longer bounces around all over the place. This is basically just the “Hyperlapse” feature we’ve seen on smartphones for the last few years, but it’s great to finally see it come to wide-angle POV footage.
Sound and Sight
The only real physical difference (aside from the darker paint job) is that GoPro has rebuilt the microphones to be more sensitive while still remaining waterproof and reducing wind-noise. The problem with the Hero5 and Hero6 is that with a waterproof membrane over the mic, audio tended to sound muffled. For people who actually care what their videos sound like, it’s been a real pain point. The redesigned mic in the Hero7 is noticeably louder and clearer, with deeper bass and lifted mids. It’s still not as good as the mic on a non-waterproof camera, but it’s getting a lot closer.
For you Instagram addicts, vertical video is now supported.
For still photos, there’s a new auto mode called SuperPhoto. (Oy, GoPro, these names!) Basically, it tries to read a scene, expose for faces, switch to HDR when needed, and apply noise-reduction to low-light shots. I took several dozen test shots, comparing it to the Hero6, and I’d say it works OK. Faces are maybe a little better exposed, low-light pics maybe have a little less noise. I’d call it a minor improvement, which is understandable since the camera uses the same exact image sensor as last year’s. For stills, I really recommend shooting in RAW, which gives you way more flexibility in the edit.
What else? For you Instagram addicts, vertical video is now supported. For the last several generations, the camera could sense when it was upside-down and auto-rotate, but now it can do that when it’s on its side, too. All of the onscreen displays and controls rotate, too, which is handy. Previously, if you wanted vertical video, you’d have to rotate it manually by 90 degrees in post. Now, the files that come out of SD card are good to go into your ‘grams. I don’t see myself using this mode too much, because I generally want my videos to look good across all platforms (vertical video looks terrible on anything other than a phone), but it’s good to have options.
Livestreaming is now supported across a number of platforms, including YouTube and Facebook. Previous GoPros could only stream to Periscope. Now it will work with pretty much any platform that has an open API. Unfortunately, the doesn’t yet include Instagram Live, but hopefully Instagram will fix that in the future. This is all done via the smartphone app, so you need to have your phone handy, too. Videos will stream at 720p and will be available for instant playback. Nothing like adding a live audience watching along at home when you’re doing something dangerous to ratchet up the pressure a little more. I wasn’t able to test this feature since my testing was completed while the Hero7 was still unannounced, and I didn’t want to accidentally leak the news that the camera was coming out. But we’ll update this review if the feature it doesn’t work as advertised.
The UI has been revamped a bit to be more swipe-based. GoPro’s CEO Nick Woodman said they wanted the experience on the camera’s screen to be more phone-like, since that’s what people are most familiar with. I found it a bit hit-and-miss. Overall, the new UI does a good job of putting the most commonly adjusted features front and center. But sometimes you just can’t just swipe to select something, but you have to tap it too, which screwed me up a few times.
There are a couple other smaller additions, like quick video mode, which sets a limit on how long video clips can be (e.g. 15-second clips, maximum). Basically, this is for parents, so they can give their kid a camera while keeping them from burning though the whole card by accident. It also finally has a photo timer for group shots and selfies that don’t prominently feature your forearm, which is a long overdue addition.
Ultimately, there’s nothing not to like here, but it feels more like an iterative upgrade rather than a whole new camera. It’s like when iPhone goes from the 6 to the 6S, or from the X to the XS. That’s not a bad thing. The Hero6 Black was our number one recommended action cam last year, and the Hero7 Black is the same camera, but better. What’s unknown is if these updates will be enough to keep the Hero on the throne throughout another year.
Five years ago, Wired published the first ever review of a little gizmo called the Coravin, a device that inserts a needle into a bottle of wine, letting you draw its contents without removing the cork—or spoiling the remaining liquid.
This oddball device has since become a worldwide phenomenon in the wine world. With four different models now available, the Coravin is prized by both collectors looking to see if that bottle of Masseto is ready for drinking and by high-end wine bars aiming to serve cult wines by the glass.
Today, Coravin finally enters the digital age. All versions of the device thus far have required a somewhat arcane series of manual steps in order to get it to work. A tab on the back of the unit dispenses argon into the wine, but the bottle has to be held at the right angle or else wine gasps and sputters out all over your bespoke suit while you’re pouring. Recognizing when to press the tab and knowing the particular dance of dipping and raising the neck takes practice—my own experiences with Coravin-powered wine tastings have shown me that some people just never get the hang of it.
That all changes with the Coravin Model Eleven, which takes great strides to simplify the operation of the device by making key functions electronic and automatic.
The new Coravin retains the basic design premise of the original. While it lacks the original’s spring-loaded arms that grip the wine bottle’s neck, you still attach it to a bottle by manually pressing the svelte needle down through the capsule and cork, which engages the system. From there, a colored LED on top of the Coravin lights up, informing you that you’re ready to pour. Just tap the only button on the device to choose between a full glass or a small taste, then tip the bottle. The Coravin Eleven dispenses wine out and forces argon in, automatically, no tab-dancing required. If you don’t want the full pour, just set the bottle back upright and the device stops dispensing automatically.
It certainly works well. It’s definitely easier for novices to grok the Eleven, and the system is more intuitive than ever before no matter what level of experience you have. It’s still a little daunting to jam the needle down through the cork, but a couple of practice rounds should make anyone comfortable with it. I should also note that Coravin’s main selling point—that wine remaining in the bottle does not spoil—is still entirely valid and doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the last five years. In my hands-on testing with several different bottles, I couldn’t detect a difference between the first glass from a fresh bottle and the last one, which I left suffering in near-empty containers for up to two weeks.
All told, the Model Eleven is clearly the best Coravin to hit the market to date. The catch is that this will cost you one thousand dollars, which is probably more than that Masseto. Now, you get a lot in the box for that G-note: USB charging cable, cleaning equipment, six argon canisters, six screw-cap adapters, Coravin’s aerator, and a carrying case. You also get to use Coravin’s new app, Coravin Moments, which offers food and wine pairings in addition to providing a dashboard for the device.
That’s a lot of stuff, but it’s not $800 more stuff than you get with the lowest-end Coravin, the Model One, which works great and costs just $200.
So, is removing a tab you have to manually press down really worth five times the outlay over the old way of doing things? Well, as with every calculus in the wine world, if you have to think about the answer to that question, then the answer is probably no. But for all of you in the one percent, it’s a no-brainer of an upgrade.
One of the best perks of the job is that I get to try some tech toys that are simply out of my price range. From high-end cameras to bonkers-expensive pro laptops, I realize I’m pretty spoiled. That’s why when I had the chance to try one of the newest Samsung 4K TVs in my apartment, a sense of dread came over me. Would swapping my dinky, three-year-old 40-inch for an expansive, pricey, 55-inch 4K unit ruin my life? Would I feel compelled to immediately jump onto the higher-def bandwagon and sell one of my kidneys for the pleasure?
Having now returned the Samsung TV to its rightful owners, I’m inclined to say no. This awe-inspiring quantum-dot-packing eye-fatiguingly luminous television didn’t quite make me rethink my entire existence. But why didn’t this luxe flat panel transform my low-contrast, standard dynamic range life into something brighter and happier than my cheap, old Sony? Two words: Frasier Crane.
Out and In
Opening the box and setting up the Samsung Q8FN was a joy. The panel is big, but it wasn’t too hard to wrestle the set out of the box by myself. Thankfully, instead of a complex stand, the two metal feet are held in by clips, and you won’t have to touch a screwdriver to get it onto your entertainment center. Even though I kind of miss the versatility of Samsung’s OneConnect system (which broke out the TV’s ports onto a separate box instead of leaving them all tucked away behind the TV), this year’s Q8FN seems way less cluttered. On its own on my TV stand, it struck a clean, austere profile.
Though they’re not effortlessly accessible, the Q8FN’s ports are at least plentiful. With four HDMI ports and a few USBs, you’ll be able to plug in plenty of inputs, be they PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Blu-ray, or Apple TV. Because it’s a 4K HDR-capable set, I opted to plug in an Xbox One X, which can play streaming and disc-based media in that high resolution.
The OneRemote clicker is similar to what other high-end Samsung TVs include, eschewing a number pad for a simple iPod-like direction ring, two rockers for volume and channels, and a few other controls. The remote includes a microphone and a voice command trigger for use with Bixby, but I didn’t find it all that useful, since I eschewed the TV’s built-in smart platform and broadcast TV for streaming via the Xbox.
After giving the set a few hours of break-in (I popped in my 4K Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and ran the film on a loop during an afternoon), I sat down and started checking out what there was on Netflix. I’ve been watching some classic shows recently, mostly switching between stretches of Frasier and Star Trek: Voyager. The problem? Both of these SD shows, no matter how the Samsung’s Q Engine chip tries to upscale, look terrible blown up on this TV. The resolution delta doesn’t help, but the big, 55-inch size made the poor compression and lack of detail so obvious compared to our rinky-dink 40-inch set.
The sound wasn’t so hot either, since the speakers seem to be rear-firing and lacking in bass. Definitely invest in a sound bar.
But then there’s high-def content. The first movie I spent time watching on the TV was the terrific Black Panther in 4K HDR. This movie blew me away on this Samsung. Action scenes like the nighttime car chase in Busan, Korea pushed the TV’s HDR to its limits. Thankfully, the set made short work of the fast-moving action and contrasty visuals, arguably making the movie look better than it did when I saw it in theaters. Even normal HD stuff like Netflix’s Luke Cage was spectacular to watch, bringing the show’s version of Harlem, with its resident baddies and goodies, vividly to life.
Games look great too—I spent hours flying space fighters in Star Wars: Battlefront II and was in awe of the blackness of space, nearly blinded by the glare off of nearby planets and capital ships. Granted, the Xbox One X is geared for high resolution gaming, and when I changed inputs to the connected Nintendo Switch, Super Mario Odyssey was noticeably less crispy—it’s in HD, after all.
While this set’s “QLED” tech won’t give you OLED-level blacks, I was pleasantly surprised at the contrast the TV was able to output. With the full array local dimming turned to the lowest setting, and the TV’s brightness reduced a bit (out of the box, the Q8FN was aggressively bright) did a convincing OLED impression. I didn’t notice weird blooming or lag between when an object appeared on screen and when the closest backlight portion boosted its brightness. For an LCD, this Samsung justifies its premium perch in the QLED lineup.
When my review period was up, I was sad to have to put this gorgeous slab back into its box. Switching back to our old 40-inch Sony took an adjustment period, but, all things considered, I adjusted quickly. I went back to my routine of Frasier and Voyager, and though it isn’t as all-enveloping as our old HDTV, I was happy to watch the low-quality show on a smaller, duller TV. I’ll be shopping for a 4K TV later this year. But maybe I’ll wait until I’m done with my ’90s TV binge.