As much as it may seem that Steven Soderbergh continues to model his career on the principle of fucking around and finding out, he’s actually been restraining himself for the last decade-plus. It used to be that you could expect at least one impenetrable no-budget experiment to compensate for any successful studio movie Soderbergh made, but after the arduousness of making Che resulted mostly in yawns, he no longer sees the point of making art for a vanishingly small demographic. From Contagion on, every movie and TV show he’s made, including the ones he uses as testing grounds for new camera tech, has been a genre piece made with a mass audience in mind. This doesn’t mean that Soderbergh’s idea of wide-appeal commercial entertainment is anything like what audiences actually like to see (not that we’ll know what a regular audience thought of the many Soderberghs thrown into the streaming void), but he’s fully committed himself to being a genre craftsman rather than someone following his muse in whatever bizarre directions it travelled. But I love those bizarre directions, many of them more than I’ll ever love the Ocean’s movies. So I’m very pleased that, for the first time since And Everything is Going Fine in 2010, Soderbergh has made an unambiguous one-for-me. He wasn’t even planning to direct what is now known as Command Z, he was initially producing it for his buddy Greg Mottola until circumstances made him take over in the tiny window of time between editing Magic Mike’s Last Dance and filming Full Circle (more on that later, of course). Once he did make it, it was kept tightly under wraps (The Playlist revealed a few cast and crew members but had no information on what it actually was) until he announced it himself, three days before its release. Rather than give it to one of his many previous streaming partners (perhaps they wouldn’t have wanted something that’s only tenuously either a movie or a miniseries) or even release it on his own website, Soderbergh decided to put it behind a paywall, where it can be yours for an $8 charitable donation. This gives Command Z the most self-selecting audience of any Soderbergh project in a long time, one for the “real heads” if you will. But also this is Soderbergh on a soapbox talking to a lot more people than the ones who love Bubble, addressing what’s made our world (and America specifically) such a scary place to live and suggesting possible ways forward. In a post-The Laundromat world, that could give me serious pause, except that Soderbergh does all that by getting goofy again, and what a rare treat.
It is the distant future, and it’s as bad as you keep hearing it’s going to be. Not that we see much of it beyond some future TikToks at the top of a few episodes (this was the original incarnation of the show before Soderbergh realized he wasn’t very good at emulating the grammar of TikToks). The only future space we occupy is an attic, where three volunteers (Roy Wood Jr., JJ Maley, and Chloe Radcliffe) take part in what could be the most important mission in human history. Not that they treat it any differently than they would a regular noble but frustrating job, a lot of effort expended for what seem like minor positive results. Guided by the A.I. ghost of disgraced tech CEO Kerning Fealty (Michael Cera), they will go back in time to July 2023 (with the help of a wormhole in a commercial dryer and Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany“) and try to influence several factors in the collapse of American society: oil CEOs building bunkers for when the world becomes unlivable, Wall Street bastards privatizing children’s hospitals, pastors trying to keep politics the domain of the Christian right, etc. Can they succeed in making incremental positive change in the world, and will that be enough? Can Wood Jr. make it work with his girlfriend on the other side of the “sea wall”? And will Fealty’s disembodied head find an intro that makes him look cool?
No matter that he’d like to think of himself as a mainstream studio player, Soderbergh still has to make a Schizopolis every couple years lest he become hopelessly complacent in making things that everybody enjoys. Sometimes it will take the form of a $110 million heist blockbuster, but The Informant! and this retain the original’s focus on deadpan absurdist workplace comedy, with deep sadness lurking beneath. It would doing this very fun b-side a disservice to put it on the level of those two movies, but it scratched a lot of the same itches for me, unabashedly silly and lo-fi even when concerning serious subjects. The jokes-first approach is the exact right way to handle what could’ve easily been toothless, self-righteous liberal comedy, it never demands that you take it seriously but you do anyway. Like The Informant!, Command Z is built on the foundation of entirely serious source material, Kurt Andersen’s book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America that covers the decades-long string of conservative and capitalistic policies that led us to where we are now (and where we’re heading). A straight-faced take on it would be much more likely to make its audience sink even deeper into despair and hopelessness than to motivate them to even small positive actions. And a half-straight half-silly approach is basically what Soderbergh tried on The Laundromat to shockingly little success, the hat trick of being unfunny and racist, demoralizing with no course to action (despite having an all-time embarrassing “call to arms” ending), and confusing even in explaining the basics of its corruption. Command Z actually taught me something I didn’t previously know (about the potential of nuclear energy as an alternate-energy source), which makes it more effective as edutainment than Laundromat in addition to being infinitely funnier (and not racist). Soderbergh has said that he was told, while researching for one of his many projects that never got off the ground, that people are most likely to open up and be willing to change a deeply-held belief “when they’re laughing”. Another director could easily take that idea in a more sad-clown direction, but Soderbergh follows that ethos to commit fully to funny above all else. He even ends each episode (except the last one) on a guaranteed laugh, at his lists of films to watch for more information on the topics covered in each episode. They’re about half sincere (or just blindingly obvious, like watching Wall Street for more information on Wall Street) and half things like “for more information about dogs, watch Snoopy Come Home” or “Hotel For Dogs“.
Behind all the yuks is Soderbergh’s belief that a (slightly) better world isn’t as far out of reach as it may seem, even if it takes acts of incredible selfishness to get it to that point. But mostly the focus is on the acts of selfishness being hilarious. The tone is perfectly by episode 2, where a Big Oil exec has to explain to his daughter why he isn’t letting Mommy into his underground climate-disaster bunker with them. Fealty’s head notes that traumatizing children is usually a very successful way to get people to do something, and this proves that it’s an even more reliable laugh-getter. The oilman’s subsequent change of heart occurs only because his own livelihood is threatened, rather than merely the well-being of the people (or maybe just person) he loves. Discussing any new Soderbergh project eventually becomes a way to discuss Soderbergh’s fascination and revulsion with the mechanics of capitalism, here focusing not on the little people getting squashed but the absurdly evil people at the top, maybe capable of change if you really scare the shit out of them. The question the show and Soderbergh are interested in is one without any concrete answer: if a person is driven to do unambiguous good for horribly self-centered reasons, does that reflect badly on the good being done? Soderbergh believes no but the show is a little less certain, especially when the impact of the good seems like a drop in the bucket. We can think on this and then we can watch a whole episode where nothing happens except we listen to a description of what Soderbergh’s Ready Player One might have looked like, and nothing is learned except that it’s really funny to hear the words “Mr. Misogyny’s Jerk ‘n’ Brew” said out loud.
But alongside the gags, a moment of heartbreaking clarity will peak through, mostly via JJ Maley as the youngest and most optimistic of the trio. They cut through the glibness not with cloying pathos but with earnest inquisitiveness, showing the kind of person who could maintain a can-do attitude even when it’s clear they have absolutely nothing to be hopeful about. As Soderbergh’s become an elder statesman, he’s settled into an “I believe the children are our future” mindset, but not in the self-serious way of a grown man obsessed with Greta Thunberg. Rather, he believes that the goofballs of today, Maley or Lucas Hedges in Let Them All Talk or Melvin Gregg in High Flying Bird, are the ones who hold the future in their hands, because they’ve managed to avoid getting ground down by the present unlike the people closer to Soderbergh’s age. They don’t yet aspire to be one of Soderbergh’s usual professionals, they just aspire to be themselves and that’s their greatest strength even when it doesn’t help them in the present.
The meat of the show is the central workplace dynamic and it’s a very fun mismatched trio, they’re all funny but in completely different registers. Maley’s positivity is nicely balanced out by Wood Jr.’s seen-it-all bemusement and Radcliffe’s venomous snark, at some point we’ve been all three looking at the news. Their scenes are pitched sitcom broad in a way that takes a little getting used to, but once I got into their groove I enjoyed them very much. Surrounding them in 2023 are many actors I’ve not heard of (that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard of them either, like the one I’m told was on Succession) who also do good jobs within the less-than-subtle tone. But if this show comes back to a single man, it’s Michael Cera maybe even more than it is Soderbergh. Soderbergh has directed so many different kinds of actors and performances that I’d love to see just about any good actor work with him, but some would be more exciting than others, and this just about lives up to how exciting a Michael Cera-Soderbergh collaboration was to me. Cera’s had a great 2023, reestablishing his place as a studio-comedy scene-stealer with Barbie and giving a bravura lead performance in Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults (a scene where it gradually becomes clear he’s talking about The Lion King is the year’s funniest and most inscrutably sad moment, except maybe for other moments also in The Adults), and now he’s taken to the Soderbergh model of “figurehead spouting empty nonsense” like he was born into it. Kerning Fealty is Elon Musk in the details (he died in an explosion on his way to Mars) but T. Azimuth Schwitters in everything else, fluent in platitudes, corporate jargon, backtracking, and many other kinds of talk that sounds significant but isn’t. He’s mostly seen in posthumous A.I. form, ostensibly much-improved from his human self but still so insecure and insincere that he casts doubts even on what seem like the noblest intentions possible. I don’t know if it’s scary or somewhat reassuring that even A.I. will become as needy and smarmy as many humans, I do know that Cera makes it fucking hilarious. Nobody does better at playing people (or machines) who tell on themselves the second they open their mouths.
Command Z peaks with episode 4, the second part of a two-parter and a little jewel of comedic storytelling (it even ends on a perfectly-deployed bad pun), plus another showcase for a great actor I’m thrilled to finally see work with Soderbergh. It’s the best and the goofiest use of the show’s premise, where Wood Jr. attempts to provoke a change of heart in Liev Schreiber’s finance monster by way of his dog. When the canine “ESP” breaks through to Schreiber, he unleashes a monologue that’s sincere and hysterical, outlining sins ranging from buying the Milwaukee Bucks while blackout drunk to walking out of Hamilton upon realizing it was a musical. Schreiber is a magnificent comedic actor here and elsewhere because he never seems to acting for a laugh, he plays his characters as real as he can and that only makes them and their absurdities even funnier; I believe his remorse but never stop laughing to acknowledge it. His speech is then illustrated with stock-photo impersonations of Mike Mills’ “still image against white” montages (complete with wistful ambient soundtrack, and did I mention the “talking” dog?), except they’re illustrating things like Schreiber pooping next to a bed. This is direct pandering on a level I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before, even as I’m not sure how good-natured Soderbergh’s parody is.
Also elevating episode 4 is a return to what might be Soderbergh’s most controversial experiment ever, shooting on iPhones. He did this for two movies and it so enraged people that they still hold it against him even as he’s returned to “normal” cameras, filing any Soderbergh stylistic decision they don’t like as a result of him always being on his damn phone (basic visual literacy has gone down the tubes if many people can look at Let Them All Talk and think it was shot on a phone). I’ve seen no discussion of what this was shot on, but it looks almost exactly like Unsane and the camera is small enough to rest on Liev Schreiber’s chest and observe the rhythm of his breathing while he speaks. This and the dog POV-cam at the start of the episode are why Soderbergh wanted to use iPhones in the first place, the opportunity to put his camera in new, exciting, and very small spaces. That would be more than enough for me, but I also just like the iPhone look, less distinctive here than in Unsane or High Flying Bird but still just the right unsettlingly antiseptic glaze on lavish corporate offices and dismal attics alike.
I had a great time watching Command Z but it’s towards the last two episodes, not coincidentally when Cera’s floating head starts getting sidelined (though there’s plenty of Cera being a dick in human form to compensate), that the seams start to show, with the sci-fi premise taking over versus the silly workplace comedy and cynically optimistic social commentary. It’s hard (and maybe inadvisable) to make art about time-travel that doesn’t eventually dig into time-travel logic, but the mechanics are so backloaded that they feel like an unnecessary complication rather than an organic extension of its premise (even as Soderbergh enlists a great last-minute ringer to explain the turn). Still, it rights itself by the very end, with a turn that upsets even Maley’s ability to always look on the bright side and then an unexpectedly lovely grace note, one that reveals I had more investment in the relationships of its workplace crew than I thought for the previous 7.9 episodes.
I’ve liked Soderbergh’s run of 4-out-of-5 genre bangers as much as anybody, but there’s nothing like when the man lets his hair down (hey, wait a minute…). It’s easy for me to be sentimental for any kind of return to silly Soderbergh, any minor misgivings I have fade away and are replaced by thoughts of Michael Cera’s passive-aggressive floating head. It’s also insightful in part because of its silliness, and generally a nice, thoughtful thing to put out into the world, but mostly it just has the funny. The time is now right for Soderbergh to realize his calling and put Michael Cera in Son of Schizopolis.
Lester Scale: Really Fascinating Object That Couldn’t Be More Of Its Time
The Soderbergh Players: None! Looking tangentially, Liev Schreiber had one of his funniest parts in the Soderbergh-produced, Greg Mottola-directed The Daytrippers, and this section would be better-titled The Greg Mottola Players. It’s through Mottola that Soderbergh got Cera and presumably Roy Wood Jr., who just worked with Mottola on Confess, Fletch. Not that Soderbergh isn’t more than happy to throw parts to Daily Show correspondents on his own.
Mottola connections only get you so far, and for the rest, Soderbergh’s go-to casting director Carmen Cuba does another bravura, unexpected job. She can assemble great casts of stars and character actors, but her best work usually involves people you’ve never heard of, or at least people you never would’ve expected to see in a movie/TV show/whatever. There’s a lot of the former here and at least one of the latter, an appearance by Cum Town (which I’ve successfully avoided learning much about except its reputation and name) host Stavros Halkias, in a tiny (but prominent) part where he says nothing and has to do absolutely no dramatic heavy-lifting. Funny, just like the sad Hulu magician playing a murderous CEO.
It’s been easy to make the same joke over and over again about Soderbergh’s pseudonyms returning for each of these projects, but while Peter Andrews is still DP, this is the first Soderbergh project sans Mary Ann Bernard’s involvement since Contagion (despite my initial assumptions, it seems composer “Meade Bernard” is no relation). Even for a man famed for burning the candle at both ends, he realized that it wasn’t tenable to edit this while also directing and editing another (much bigger) TV show. Ably filling Bernard’s shoes is Francesca Kustra, an editor on the Soderbergh-produced Elvis documentary The King. And Soderbergh still found room for another of his noms de plume, with a creator credit for “Sam Lowry”, the Brazilian fellow who also wrote The Underneath and Gregory Jacobs’ Criminal.
- Mr. Misogyny’s Jerk ‘n’ Brew is the off-market version of Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House.
- Soderbergh continues his favorite easter egg here, naming various businesses “Perennial” starting with the armored-car company at the center of The Underneath. Here, the dryer that houses the time-travel wormhole is a Perennial brand.
- Also in the proud tradition of Schizopolis, Soderbergh shot all the workplace parts of this in his current home. If nothing else, this show is a successful brag on Soderbergh’s part that he has a really cool staircase.
- Soderbergh continues to go for new blood with his production designers, here working for the first time with Scott Kuzio. Kuzio has credits across many different scales and formats, but in particular his excellent work on Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Golden Exits, the two New Yorkiest movies in a very New York-y oeuvre, must’ve made him an obvious choice to design in and around Soderbergh’s Tribeca residence.
- This is probably the only context where I can tell you that in Miranda July’s Criterion interview about sex, lies, and videotape, she reveals that Mike Mills saw her watching sex, lies and asked (somewhat dismissively by July’s interpretation) “Is that movie good?”. C’mon (c’mon) Mike!
Up Next: I cover the adventures of Melody Harmony and Chef Jeff, among many others.