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‘Ultra City Smiths’ Review: New York Neo-Noir, With Plastic Dolls

‘Ultra City Smiths’ Review: New York Neo-Noir, With Plastic Dolls
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‘Ultra City Smiths’ Review: New York Neo-Noir, With Plastic Dolls

‘Ultra City Smiths’ Review: New York Neo-Noir, With Plastic Dolls

If you’re looking for something different on TV, an exotic bloom amid endless rows of spider plants, writer and director Steven Conrad presents an interesting case. His previous series, dark comic pastiches of the spy thriller (“Patriot”) and the contemporary western (“Perpetual Grace Ltd.”), were not unknown to him, both because they are faithful to their sources and because that there are many other high level genre workouts on offer. On the flip side, Conrad is a talented and distinctive writer, and his shows had an idiosyncratic mix of sad humor and absurdly cool that set them apart and inspired cult devotion.

Its third series, “Ultra City Smiths,” begins airing its six-episode season Thursday on AMC + (three were available for review). It’s another black humor genre piece, a neo-noir set in an alternate New York City where crime and corruption are a little more ubiquitous and a lot more romantic than in real life. But this time, Conrad adds several more layers of satirical distance. Cops, crooks, politicians and passers-by are plastic dolls with lunar faces (aged in wigs and magic marker stubble), walking the wicked streets via stop-motion animation and offering dialogue and expressions weary of the world through digital effects.

And every now and then they start singing: a novice detective makes a flexible shoe while listing the sex services available in different parts of town; a middle-aged con artist sings a plaintive ballad about his sick lover.

There is a plot linked to the disappearance of an Ultra City mogul and mayoral candidate (named Smith), which is being investigated by the new detective and his veteran partner, and related stories involving a girl in debt to a gangster and an abandoned baby outside a police station. But the details of the story are even more trivial than usual for this type of show. “Ultra City Smiths” is all about atmosphere and tone, and loving associations with a long line of New York stories like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Warriors.”

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And it’s about an imaginative voice cast, too, starting with Tom Waits’ endearing grater as the narrator, who ends up appearing onscreen with a newsstand. A number of crack performers from Conrad’s previous live-action series appear, including Terry O’Quinn, Kurtwood Smith, Hana Mae Lee, Luis Guzmán, Damon Herriman (the scammer), and Jimmi Simpson (the rookie). ). They’re joined by a bunch of stars, and there are some genius choices, like Bebe Neuwirth as the solemn 280-pound professional wrestler and real-life couple Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell as the inept politician and his wife.

Prior to appearing on television, Conrad wrote feature films, including excellent screenplays like “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Through these films and through “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace”, you could trace coherent themes and motifs: strained but loving relationships between fathers and sons; men anxious to maintain facades of normality; the values ​​of patriotism and competence in the America of Reagan, Bush and Trump. What might have been cynical and self-righteous was made melancholy and staged by a gentle (although at times quite violent) farce.

His new show doesn’t demand that kind of attention, although it has a similar nostalgia and nostalgia. Conrad demonstrated a penchant for card tricks (in “Patriot”) and magic (a major plot point in “Perpetual Grace”), and in “Ultra City Smiths” he demonstrates his own sleight of hand. happening, keeping your eyes on the screen with shadows, memories and loud talking dolls.

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