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


If you’re looking for something different on TV, an exotic flower among endless rows of spider plants, writer and director Steven Conrad offers an interesting case. Previous series, dark-comic pastiches spy thriller (“Patriot”) and the contemporary western (“Perpetual Grace Ltd.”) were no strangers, both for being faithful to their sources and for the many high-concept genre workouts on offer. Conrad, on the other hand, is a gifted and idiosyncratic writer, and his shows have a distinctive blend of grim humor and cool absurdism that sets them apart and inspires a cult devotion.

His third series, “Ultra City Smiths,” begins airing its six-episode season on AMC+ on Thursday (three of which were available for review). Another piece of dark humor is a neo-noir set in an alternative New York City, where crime and corruption are somewhat more prevalent and far more romantic than in real life. But this time, Conrad adds a few more layers of satirical distance. Cops, crooks, politicians, and spectators are moon-faced plastic dolls (aged with wigs and beards with magic markings), who walk the evil streets in stop-motion animation and offer world-weary dialogues and expressions through digital effects.

And from time to time they begin to sing: a rookie detective is easygoing as he lists the sexual services available in different parts of the city; A middle-aged swindler sings a mournful ballad about his ailing lover.

There’s a plot involved with the disappearance of an Ultra City tycoon and mayoral candidate (named Smith) investigated by the new detective and his veteran partner, and related story lines involving a daughter in debt to a mobster and an abandoned baby. outside a police station. But the details of the story are more trivial than usual for this kind of show. “Ultra City Smiths” is all about atmosphere and tone and pleasant associations with a long series of offbeat, end-of-the-line New York stories like “Midnight Cowboy”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Dog Day Afternoon”. Warriors.”

And it’s also about the creative voice-over that begins with the endearing filing of Tom Waits as the narrator and eventually unfolds as he runs a newsstand on screen. A number of crack artists have emerged from Conrad’s previous live-action franchises, including Terry O’Quinn, Kurtwood Smith, Hana Mae Lee, Luis Guzmán, Damon Herriman (scammer), and Jimmi Simpson (rookie). They’ve been joined by a cast of stars, and there are some genius choices, including Bebe Neuwirth as a serious 280-pound professional wrestler, and real-life Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell as a bumbling politician and his wife.

Before moving to TV, Conrad wrote features, including excellent screenplays such as: “Pursuit of happiness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Through these films and “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace,” you can trace some consistent themes and motifs: the full but loving relationships between fathers and sons; men interested in maintaining their facade of normalcy; Values ​​of patriotism and competence in the America of Reagan, Bush, and Trump. What might have been cynical and smug was made melancholy and animated by a gentle (albeit sometimes quite violent) shenanigan.

Despite having a similar longing and nostalgia, her new show doesn’t want that kind of attention. Conrad has shown a fondness for card games (in “Patriot”) and magic (a key plot point in “Perpetual Grace”), and in “Ultra City Smiths” he shows off his sleight of hand by keeping our eyes on the screen. with shadows and memories and harsh talking babies.


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