L UnBinged TV ReviewUnBinged reviews three series featuring swindlers, moles, and sinister striplings, as people from different eras, backgrounds, and regions find reasons to play pretend.

The Sympathizer (HBO/Max)  

A spy known simply as the Captain attempts to play both sides of the Vietnam War, but in Max’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Sympathizer, his loyalties are as blurred as the politics that surround the conflict itself.

Created by acclaimed director Park Chan-wook and writer Don McKellar, the story of a Communist turncoat is transformed into a compelling series about self-identity, with a commentary on the atrocities of war. A complex narrative told through the POV of an unnamed half-Vietnamese, half-Caucasian Trotskyite operative, the series recounts his time as a high-ranking mole in the South Vietnamese army, his escape after the fall of Saigon, his time in Hollywood working for the film industry, and, finally,  his capture and imprisonment.

Framed as a confession written from solitary confinement, Hoa Xuande’s Captain is the focus of this satirical period piece, which gets progressively darker as it continues, until ultimately embracing the full brutality of war. The success of the adaptation hinges on Xuande’s brilliant performance. 

Similar to other villain protagonists, like Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Death Note’s Light Yagami, the narrator is an antihero who strongly believes he is the white knight of his story, despite the nefariousness of his acts. As our guide through absurd and deeply upsetting circumstances, Xuande perfectly delivers the narrator’s sardonic point of view, to create a morose anti-war send-up with moments that are difficult to forget. 

Aiding him along the way is a supporting cast of heavy hitters, including a shapeshifting Robert Downey Jr. channeling his best Peter Sellers to play different roles, including the character of Professor Hammer, the head of “oriental studies” at Occidental College, who fetishizes Asian culture, and Claude, the CIA operative who is both mentor and overseer for the narrator, allowing the former Iron Man to formally enter his Award Era as the heavy for the series. Other notable performances, from Sandra Oh, Toan Le, and Fred Nguyen Khan, as best friend Bon, help complete the thought-provoking tale.

The Sympathizer’s ability to evoke the narrator’s conflicts for the audience is as compelling as the lunatic story itself. Driving the tale is Xuande’s riveting performance as a spy who must be many things, except himself. The story of The Sympathizer is not the journey of a hero but an elevated narrative driven by a gray morality that blends macabre humor with the inhumanity of war to tell an outlandish spy story unlike any other. 

Ripley (Netflix)

If Netflix’s Ripley proves anything, it is that Andrew Scott is a force to be reckoned with. If you missed the Irish actor as the scene-stealing, disco-loving Moriarty in Sherlock, as the knee-weakening priest in Fleabag, or in his underappreciated turn in All of Us Strangers, Netflix has been kind enough to provide yet another spectacle in which Scott can dazzle. This time around, he takes on the role of iconic swindler Tom Ripley. 

This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a more foreboding retelling than were previous efforts. Set in the 1960s, Ripley is barely getting by in New York as a scam artist when the father of an old acquaintance engages his services, asking that he try to convince his frivolous son Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) to return home from Italy. Little does he realize the danger he has placed in his son’s path as Ripley sets up shop in Dickie’s life. Imagine IRL swindlers Anna Delvey or Billy McFarland, if they operated on bloodlust instead of Twitter.

Through a meticulous execution of the material, series creator Steven Zaillian gives Ripley the noir treatment the story so richly deserves. Scott slips into the role of Ripley effortlessly and is particularly skillful as he interacts with his prey, Dickie. Flynn’s portrayal as the charismatic man-child is mesmerizing, highlighting everything Ripley is not: jovial, vivacious, and native to the privileged class Ripley so desperately wants to join. Additional players Dakota Fanning and Eliot Sumner are formidable as Ripley’s adversaries, going head-to-head with the monster when Dickie goes missing.   

With all eight episodes scripted and directed by Zaillian, almost every scene is framed as if it were wall-worthy of the Guggenheim. Shot in black and white, the starkness removes any sense of light or hope that a cheery Italian beachfront might provide, while adding a sense of timelessness to the content.

In Ripley, Zaillian creates high art from thriller noir. The depth of the performances blends with the artistry of the direction and cinematography to allow the story to shine. Scott’s take on the low-key sociopath adds a level of menace that is truly terrifying, highlighted by Flynn’s understated and savvy performance. The overall effect has viewers on the edge of their seats, even if they know how the story ends.  

Under the Bridge (Hulu/FX) 

After a winning streak that includes top-notch content with the retelling of your mother’s favorite miniseries, Shōgun, and the historical high-society scandals of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Hulu and FX march forward with an adaptation that centers on the most menacing phenomenon ever to terrorize mankind: an angry pack of 14-year-old girls.  

Based on the late Rebecca Godfrey’s true-crime book of the same name, Under the Bridge is the fact-based story of every parent’s worst nightmare. The tale of a missing 14-year-old uncovers a secret, sinister world of juvenile girls, where having nothing to do in the middle of nowhere usually means nothing good. Here we find teen girls who want to be gangsters and wield violence when boredom gets the better of them.  

A muted version of Larry Clark’s Bully, the horror of the tale centers on the young teens that populate the Seven Oaks Youth Home, who are accused of and later stand trial for the murder of Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta). Oscar-nominee Lily Gladstone steps into the role of Officer Cam Bentland, the only police officer who takes the disappearance of Reena seriously, while Riley Keough plays author Godfrey, who, while researching a book about her past, gets pulled into the drama. 

Gladstone and Keough bear a large brunt of the work, as seasoned pros in a miniseries mostly dominated by a Gen Z cast. Their relationships with the teens and each other are easily the best parts of the series. Archie Panjabi also shines as Reena’s overbearing mother, helping to paint a picture of the troubled teen’s suffocating home life. But while the adult cast is solid, the depictions of these troubled teens and guileless bullies come off as flat, fairly standard tropes. Only the character of Reena is fleshed out, thanks to Gupta’s elevated performance, but her erstwhile chums are not as convincing. In addition to issues with the teen characterizations, the series suffers from overall repetition in tone and mood, making it feel monotonous. There is no joy in this town. No humor and no love. Just anger, pain, sorrow, and guilt, so there is very little to endear the viewer to most, if any, of the characters. 

Under the Bridge is a sufficient adaptation of powerful source material that will remind most viewers why junior high is hell. However, the minimal character development given to the young cast that is central to the story and the lack of contrasting emotions hinder the production. Though the performances from both Gladstone and Keough occasionally help dig the series out of an overarching ennui, viewer interest might taper off sooner than expected.  

Erin Maxwell started her career at the Paley Center for Media and then worked on the news desks of Variety and the Daily Mail, covering comic books, awards shows, horror films, off-beat television programs, and everything and anything having to do with alt culture. 






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