As a new year begins in uncertain times (again), our critics highlight the TV, movies, music, art, theater, dance and comedy that promise a welcome distraction.
The End of ‘Better Call Saul’
I’ll be sad forever when “Better Call Saul” is over, so part of me is actually dreading the sixth and final season. I never want to say goodbye to Jimmy or Kim — but man, am I dying to see them again. By the time “Saul” returns on AMC this spring, it will have been off the air for two full years. (Bob Odenkirk, its star, recovered from a heart attack that occurred on set this year.) If there was ever a show that knew how to think about endgames, it’s this one, among the most carefully woven dramas of our time. Of course, thanks to “Breaking Bad,” we know exactly where some of these characters are headed but not how they get there or how they feel about it or whom they’ll hurt along the way. Hurry back! But also, go slow.
OK, so yes, it was weird that my friends Sherri-Ann and Amber and I were the only Black people in the theater when we saw the movie “Downton Abbey” in 2019. At the time, we agreed that despite the absence of people of color in the theater and onscreen, we still found delight in the grandeur — the clothing, the castle, the cast of characters, especially the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, marvelously played by Dame Maggie Smith. Now that we’ve set our calendars to March 18, 2022, for the sequel, “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” I’m looking forward to seeing how the franchise tries to reinvent itself on the cusp of a new era, the 1930s, and how it fares in the current racial moment. (A Black female face pops up in a trailer.) Partly set in the South of France after the Dowager Countess learns she has inherited a villa there, the movie sends the upstairs Crawley clan and their downstairs employees off on another adventure, with another wedding. While Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton,” has a new show, “The Gilded Age,” premiering on HBO in January — which seems to be a bit more thoughtful in its take on race, class and identity — here’s hoping that this sequel to “Downton” takes a bow in grand Grantham style.
Jane Wagner’s 1985 play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” was custom-made for the chameleonic gifts of her life partner (and, later, wife), Lily Tomlin. Who else could have inhabited its 12 highly distinct characters — among them a runaway punk, a bored one-percenter and a trio of disillusioned feminists — with such sardonic sympathy? When Tomlin won a 1986 Tony Award for her work, it seemed to seal the idea that the performer and the play were forever one. But in the kind of casting that makes you smack your head with delight, Cecily Strong takes up Tomlin’s mantle in a revival directed by Leigh Silverman at the Shed, expected to open on Jan. 11. Strong — whose “Saturday Night Live” characters include Jeanine Pirro, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party and, most recently, Goober the Clown Who Had an Abortion When She Was 23 — seems like another custom fit, nearly four decades later.
Afrofuturism at Carnegie Hall
Stepping outside its own history as a bastion of Western classical music, Carnegie Hall will be the hub of a citywide, multidisciplinary festival of Afrofuturism: the visionary, tech-savvy ways that African-diaspora culture has imagined alternate paths forward. Carnegie’s series is expected to start Feb. 12 with the quick-cutting, sometimes head-spinning electronic musician Flying Lotus. (One challenge might be the main hall’s acoustics.) Shows at Zankel Hall include the galactic jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra with the cellist and singer Kelsey Lu and the spoken-word insurgent Moor Mother (Feb. 17); the flutist Nicole Mitchell leading her Black Earth Ensemble; and the clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid with her Autophysiopsychic Millennium (Feb. 24); the African-rooted hip-hop duo Chimurenga Renaissance and the Malian songwriter Fatoumata Diawara (March 4); and the D.J., composer and techno pioneer Carl Craig leading his Synthesizer Ensemble (March 19). There’s far more: five dozen other cultural organizations will have festival events.
The Metropolitan Opera Rethinks Verdi
Verdi’s “Don Carlos” may not be a flawless opera. But it’s a profound work; I think of it as Verdi’s “Hamlet.” Written for the Paris Opera, it nodded to the French grand style and included epic scenes and massed choruses. But at its 1867 premiere, it was deemed overly long and ineffective. Verdi revised the opera several times, making cuts, translating the French libretto into Italian, leaving a confused legacy of revisions. The Metropolitan Opera is giving audiences a chance to hear the work as originally conceived in its five-act French version, which many consider the best. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has led superb Met performances of the Italian adaptation, will be in this pit for this new production by David McVicar. The starry cast, headed by the tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, includes Sonya Yoncheva, Elina Garanca, Etienne Dupuis, Eric Owens and John Relyea. When performances begin on Feb. 28, be prepared for a five-hour show with two intermissions; I can’t wait.
True-Crime, Starring Renée Zellweger
This winter brings more than the usual number of big stars taking time out for the small screen, like Uma Thurman (“Suspicion”), Christopher Walken (“Severance”) and Samuel L. Jackson (“The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray”). The one that piques my interest the most is Renée Zellweger, taking on only her second lead television role in “The Thing About Pam,” premiering March 8 on NBC. Zellweger can be hit or miss, but her hits — “The Whole Wide World,” “Chicago,” “Judy” — keep her in the very top rank of American actresses. Here she plays Pam Hupp, who is implicated in multiple deaths and is currently serving a life sentence for one of them, in a true-crime mini-series whose showrunner, Jenny Klein, was a producer on solid TV offerings like “The Witcher” and “Jessica Jones.”
At 91, Faith Ringgold Gets a Retrospective
When the Museum of Modern Art opened its expanded home in 2019, its most important Picasso suddenly found itself with a new companion: a tumultuous, panoramic painting of American violence that Faith Ringgold painted in 1967. Ringgold, born 91 years ago in Harlem, has never been an obscure figure: Her art was displayed in the Clinton White House as well as most of New York’s museums; her children’s books have won prizes and reached best-seller lists. But she has had to wait too long for a career-spanning retrospective in her hometown. The one at the New Museum, which opens Feb. 17, will reveal how Ringgold intertwined the political and the personal: first in her rigorously composed “American People” paintings, which channeled the civil rights movement into gridded, repeating, syncopated forms; and then in pieced-fabric “story quilts” depicting Michael Jackson or Aunt Jemima, and geometric abstractions inspired by Tibetan silks and embroideries. The show comes with a major chance for rediscovery: the first outing in over two decades of her “French Collection,” a 12-quilt cycle that recasts the history of Paris in the 1920s through the eyes of a fictional African-American artist and model.
A Viking Prince Seeks Revenge
Robert Eggers has directed only two feature films, and yet he’s already known as a maker of beautifully strange, critically acclaimed movies. “The Witch,” from 2016, was followed three years later by the grim and perplexing “The Lighthouse.” Both established Eggers as a stylistic descendant of the Brothers Grimm, a crafter of macabre fables that descend into torrents of madness. Which is why I’m excited to see his third feature film, “The Northman,” expected to premiere on April 22, about a Viking prince who seeks revenge for his murdered father. Steeped in Icelandic mythology, the story is based on the tale of Amleth, the inspiration for Prince Hamlet, my favorite sad boy of English literature. Eggers wrote the screenplay with the Icelandic poet Sjón, so we can surely expect an epic with epic writing to match. There’s also a stellar cast, including Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe — and Björk as a witch. I’d watch for that alone.
Transformation, Via Tap and Modern Dance
There are times, however rare, when a virtual dance can be just as stirring as a live one. Ayodele Casel’s joyful and galvanizing “Chasing Magic,” presented by the Joyce Theater in April, was just that. Now the tap dancer and choreographer unveils a new version of the work, directed by Torya Beard, for the stage — an actual one — starting Tuesday, barring any Covid cancellations. And the following month, “Four Quartets,” an ambitious evening-length work by the modern choreographer Pam Tanowitz, lands at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Feb. 10-12). Based on T.S. Eliot’s poems, the production features live narration by the actress Kathleen Chalfant, music by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and a set by Brice Marden; in it, Tanowitz continues her exploration of the relationship between emotion and form. It’s true that one is tap; the other, modern dance. What do they have in common? Both have much to say and to show about the transporting, transformative power of dance.
The Rapper Saba Explores Trauma
Diaristic and quietly intense, Saba, a rapper from Chicago, is the kind of artist who navigates grief with a cool solace. In 2018, his record “Care for Me” considered this theme in the aftermath of the murder of his cousin and collaborator, who was stabbed to death a year earlier. Out on Feb. 4, his next album, “Few Good Things,” confronts equally gutting life challenges: the anxiety of generational poverty and the depths of survivor’s guilt. It reprises Saba’s slithering and poetic flows, which breathe out a profound sense of narrative. The beats are still buttery, jazzy and meticulously arranged. But this time around, there is more wisdom — a recognition that living through trauma means finding gratitude and affirmation in the moments you can.
Comedian Taylor Tomlinson on Tour
“Quarter-Life Special,” the debut stand-up special from Taylor Tomlinson, introduced a young artist with real potential. Tomlinson tautly evoked a clear persona (cheerful but not the life of the party; more like, as she put it, “the faint pulse of the pot luck”) and told jokes marked by a diverse arsenal of act outs and manners of misdirection. She covered standard territory (dating, sex, parents, kids) with enough insight and dark shadings to get your attention. Most excitingly, every once in a while, she let her thought process spin out into deliriously unexpected directions, like the story that led her to imagine a test for sadness conducted by the police. “Instead of a breathalyzer,” she explained, “they have you sigh into a harmonica.” This Netflix special made a splash, but it would have probably been a bigger one if it didn’t come out in March 2020. One pandemic later, she has another hour ready, and another Netflix special on the way. She’s now performing it on tour, which is expected to stop in New York in January at Town Hall and then the Beacon Theater.
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