The New Lurid
By Sean T. CollinsFebruary 8, 2024
Almost every episode of Flanagan’s grotesque miniseries is loosely based on a different Poe story or poem, each providing the gruesome methods through which the main characters—thinly veiled stand-ins for the infamous Sackler family—are dispatched one by one (with either dramatic irony or poetic justice, depending on your perspective.) In addition to “Red Death” and “Usher” itself, Flanagan’s show offers updated takes on Poe’s work, both famous and obscure, from “The Tell-Tale Heart” to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Names and plot points and murder methods aside, Usher has about as much in common with Poe’s grandiosely melancholy gothic style as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations did. As with Corman, what you get is enough gonzo fun that the disconnect from the source material matters less than the simple pleasures of killer chimpanzees or pendulums slicing people in half. Flanagan chose “The Masque of the Red Death” to kick off these Grand Guignol killings, and he chose it for a reason.
In this version of the story, Prospero Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota), a beautiful, feckless young party promoter and wannabe nightclub impresario, is the first of the heirs to the Big Pharma fortune—amassed by his father Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) and his twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell)—to be slaughtered by the cosmic justice the twins invited decades earlier. As such, Prospero’s showcase episode sets the tone for the show.
How so? Class, first and foremost. Like other shows recently in vogue, The Fall of the House of Usher hates the rich. Pampered and casually sociopathic—he thinks nothing of setting up cameras at his party so he can blackmail all his ostensible friends and clients—Prospero embodies the decadence and decay of the American aristocracy.
Secondly, sex. Prospero’s obscene banter with his sister-in-law Morella (Crystal Balint) and pulse-raising flirtation with Verna (Carla Gugino), the Luciferian figure who brings about his eventual demise, establish the show’s métier of frank, intensely erotic dialogue. The intrafamilial dynamic speaks to the aristocracy’s (very gothic) endogamy problem: the desire to keep it all in the family, whether “it” means sex, wealth, power, or all of the above.
Thirdly, there’s the look of the thing. Prospero’s almost-tryst with Gugino’s mystery woman is bathed in the overheated sensuality of expressionistic red lighting, which looks as though it has been poured on them rather than shone. The pent-up sexual and reproductive energy of these elite characters—obsessed not just with fucking but also with the family line—has nowhere to go but into the stuff of the filmmaking itself as color and light erupt in overripe abundance.
“The family line” is key too. When they first made their pact with Verna, Roderick and Madeline agreed that upon their own deaths, all their children, and their children’s children if applicable, will die as well. For all their earthly randiness and otherworldly attempts to placate the supernatural, the Ushers are a dying breed.
And Prospero’s death from a chemical shower, along with that of all the beautiful people at his disastrous rave in one of his family’s condemned plants, is as nasty and repulsive as anything I’ve ever seen on television. You don’t need to know that the threat of violence is embodied in Gugino’s character to sense that this threat follows these people everywhere. (The Ushers’ opioid riches make it clear that to live the way they do is to necessitate violence, since to have that much, it must be taken from others.)
In his original story, Poe wrote of Prince Prospero’s rich-people party, “There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
In the brightly lit sin chambers of his party at the end of the world, Prospero—and his uninvited guest—reflected a template followed by more television shows in 2023 than just Flanagan’s. Last year, series including Nicolas Winding Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy (Netflix), Alice Birch’s Dead Ringers (Prime Video), and Sam Levinson’s The Idol (HBO/Max) preceded The Fall of the House of Usher. Made for different streamers by very different filmmakers, all four eschew the prestige-TV realism of the dramedies that dominate year-end best-of lists for an aesthetic, tone, and topicality that is lurid in every sense of the word.
First out of the gate last year was Copenhagen Cowboy, from the director of Drive (2011) and The Neon Demon (2016), Nicolas Winding Refn, who developed the show with Sara Isabella Jønsson Vedde. Refn’s second TV show (after his brutal 2019 collaboration with crime comics writer Ed Brubaker, Too Old to Die Young) is a slow, sumptuous immersion into the neon-lit underworld of Copenhagen as subtle but increasingly unmistakable supernatural forces begin to shift its balance of power. The foremost of these forces is our heroine, Miu (Angela Bundalovic), an Eastern European immigrant trafficked into the country due to her mysterious but indescribable power of good luck. With her short brown hair, lambent eyes, expression of mute soul-weariness, and blue tracksuit, she’s like if the Bride from Kill Bill had been played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti.
Of all the shows on this list, Copenhagen Cowboy is far and away the most lurid in the chromatic sense. Refn’s oversaturated colors, red in particular, are an almost physical presence on the screen; they are echoed by a competing palette of cold, blinding gray winter afternoon light reserved for the rich young psychopath Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen) and his debauched family of billionaire murderers and sex criminals. In both cases, Refn’s slow camera and long takes enable the viewer to soak in these intense color schemes.
The reproductive focus of Usher is found here, too. Rosella (Dragana Milutinovic), the gangster who imports Miu, does so because she cannot conceive, and she hopes Miu’s presence will bring her a baby. Nicklas’s relationship with his mother, meanwhile, drips with incestuous energy. When his long-augured battle with Miu leads to his ignominious defeat, he is partially devoured by his family’s pigs; they eat his penis, to the chagrin of his father, who believes the male sex organ to be the ultimate vector of power and who hires a team of architects (including a cameo from Refn) to design Nicklas a new one. That decision is emblematic: when these sexual and reproductive energies can’t be vented in the usual fashion, they make incursions into the show in other ways.
And despite being relatively tame material from Refn, particularly when compared to Too Old to Die Young, Copenhagen Cowboy is a show that practically bleeds from the injustices suffered by those Miu is trying to protect. The contrast between her unsmiling face and the silent, slow-motion cackles of Nicklas’s parents during a surreal gift-giving ceremony makes clear for whom this vividly nightmarish world was built. This has an effect on the psyche after a while, turning Miu’s fight to save a series of trafficked or enslaved women both from the crime bosses who control them and from Nicklas’s predations into a fairy tale—a story of a woman entering the dark woods alone.
Nothing that happens to doctors Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Rachel Weisz and Rachel Weisz), the protagonists of Alice Birch’s unexpectedly, unnecessarily brilliant reimagining of David Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers (1988), happens to them alone. Like their Jeremy Irons namesakes, the Mantle twins are brilliant but mercurial gynecologists, albeit ones who split their specialties between fertility and childbirth instead of concentrating solely on the former as in the original film. In the ghastly Anton Furst–designing-Batman–style birthing center they build using blood money from opioid heiress Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle, scarcely recognizable as a human being), their techniques drift into the Frankensteinian, and their minds into shared madness.
To create a Dead Ringers hotter than what Cronenberg and Irons managed takes some doing, but Birch and Weisz pull it off. The blunt voraciousness with which Elliot seeks and attains sex at various inappropriate moments—cajoling an expectant father into exposing himself to her in her office while his wife is in the bathroom, fucking a potential investor during a retreat at the Parker mansion while his translator is forced to watch and is forbidden to masturbate by Elliot herself, doing the initial work of seducing Beverly’s eventual girlfriend while posing as the wrong sister and subsequently complaining about her lack of further sexual access to the woman—is both refreshingly lascivious for its own sake and representative of the series’ many ways of demonstrating the moral rot of the rich. The emotional incest between Elliot and Beverly, which by the series’ end can barely even be called covert—Elliot is Beverly’s obstetrician and gynecologist, a societally sanctioned way of penetrating her twin—is more “The Fall of the House of Usher” than The Fall of the House of Usher is in this regard. Sex is insular, inward, always about the sisters, never about them and their partners.
As for reproduction, for the continuance of the family line, well, that’s the entire show. Beverly wishes to help women conceive and give birth comfortably while she is unable to carry a baby to term herself. The birthing center project is funded by a family that made its fortune killing others. (Parker’s relatives—another group of Sackler stand-ins—and those of her wife Susan, played by Emily Meade, are nightmarish portraits of new and old money respectively.) The Mantles were largely brought on board in hopes that they could assist Susan’s gynecologist father (a loathsome Michael McKean) in delivering the baby of one of her siblings, a procedure that goes disastrously wrong. Even Beverly’s sperm donor is her girlfriend’s brother—not a particularly unusual situation until you consider the context.
And yes, there’s red, red red red all over the place. The famous Denise Cronenberg red hospital scrubs receive their due homage, of course. Here, however, they are a direct echo of the graphic depictions of vaginal childbirth, C-sections, and various operations both botched and successful. Blood is as much an aesthetic component of the show, a part of the color scheme, as it is a biological fact of life; it’s all ensconced in writing so razor-sharp that it’s easy to miss how Birch made one of the goriest shows in television history.
Far and away the most divisive show of the group—and that divide has been lopsided against it, to say the least—The Idol is also one of 2023’s most direct bridges to TV’s recent lurid past. Sam Levinson—the controversial showrunner who co-created the series with its star and muse, pop behemoth Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, and Reza Fahim—is also the man behind Euphoria. Debuting on HBO and Max in 2019, that gloriously overheated, R-rated teen melodrama–cum–nail-biting drug/crime thriller exudes unabashed sleaziness and druggy beauty that anticipated this year’s lurid wave, and remains the biggest hit created in the style.
For its part, Levinson’s latest luridity plays off Tesfaye’s carefully crafted public persona as a great lothario. The Idol casts him against type as Tedros, a minor club owner and Svengali with a cult-like hold on his musical acolytes, who turns out to be equal parts abuser, grifter, and poseur, albeit one with a good ear. (The inexplicably widespread idea that Tesfaye was somehow unaware he was coming across like a sweaty, unserious creep does not hold up to scrutiny.)
Tedros’s quarry is Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp, really leaving it all on the screen), a pop star recovering from a psychotic break following the death of her stage mother. Their many, many sex scenes are built almost entirely from the kinds of things you say and do in bed that make you cringe in the cold light of day; they largely play out in a mansion that would put Prince Prospero’s castle to shame, surrounded by a coterie of industry hangers-on (Jane Adams and Eli Roth are the standouts, slime-wise) who deserve Red Death–ing as badly as any Usher kid.
It’s less obvious here than in the others, but the panic and unease that surround the idea of perpetuating the family can be found in The Idol as well. Jocelyn’s secret origin story is that her stage mother was horrifically abusive—terrorizing Jocelyn’s entire circle, outing her teen-sitcom co-star Xander (Troye Sivan) when his own popularity threatened Jocelyn’s, and beating Jocelyn with a wooden hairbrush for the slightest perceived flaw or flub. Jocelyn’s ongoing mental breakdown began with the woman’s death, and she has no real way to move past this rupture without being used by—or is that using?—Tedros and his repertoire of unpleasant kink. The central dilemma of the premiere episode is how Jocelyn’s entourage will break the news to her that a photo has been leaked of her with semen on her face; while Jocelyn (correctly, might I add) blows this off as no big deal, that spent reproductive energy has to go somewhere.
So Levinson suffuses much of the show in the same woozy Piss Christ gold as Euphoria, though to a less hallucinatory extent. The heat of that tone is balanced here with stark nighttime compositions derived from slasher and giallo films, and a repeated use of cold bright afternoon light in the sumptuous vein of Barry Lyndon (1975). (His use of stately Kubrickian zoom-outs on stationary, centered figures drives home the comparison.) The entire production is squarely in the tradition of the satirical erotic thrillers of Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma—the Old Lurid. Indeed, the benefit of the show’s dire reputation is that a Showgirls-style critical reclamation project is as inevitable as it is well deserved.
To determine what is and is not New Lurid, it’s worth examining a pair of liminal cases. Succession (2018–23), Jesse Armstrong’s massively acclaimed riff on the Murdoch dynasty, sends its repugnant Usher-like family of billionaire assholes on the occasional excursion into Luridland—the birthday party that required passage through the simulated vaginal canal of birthday boy Kendall Roy’s (Jeremy Strong) mother, for example. Meanwhile, the open marriage of Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and the masturbatory affair between Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) and company lawyer Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron) show that at least some in the Roy brood get off on nontraditional sexual relationships.
But as Kendall’s birthday party indicates, these really are only temporary excursions for both the characters and the show. The Roys and Succession are most at home among people in drab, expensive clothing and black logo-less baseball caps, in blue-gray high-rise offices or mansions, and at retreats that are carefully tasteful in their extravagance. They’re New Lurid day-trippers at best.
In contrast with Succession’s final season, the second installment in David S. Goyer’s loose Isaac Asimov adaptation, Foundation (2021), lives in the lurid. From the moment we see Brother Day (Lee Pace), the self-indulgent galactic emperor, fucking his immortal robotic majordomo Demerzel (Laura Birn)—only to be interrupted by assassins who slice her metal face in half before engaging in a fight to the death with the still-nude emperor—it’s clear we’ve left the C-suite of Waystar Royco far behind.
True, Foundation (whose second season, which aired this year, was so much better than its first that they may as well be two different shows) has more on its mind than being lurid. It is still a space opera with an interest in both big sci-fi ideas and simple blockbuster uplift, as well as the occasional display of tenderness; the New Lurid has little use for any of these things.
Yet the genre’s staples of sex, violence, and swipes at the ruling class are all evident in the opening bedroom sex/fight scene and recur throughout the season. An aristocratic sex-death chamber straight out of “Bluebeard”—another Old Lurid—lies hidden at the heart of this season’s story. The obsession with failures of reproduction is integral to Goyer’s biggest addition to Asimov’s original story: Brother Day is just one in a long line of clones of the first Emperor Cleon, a solution to the problem faced by all the other dynasties listed above. His insistence on attempting to produce an heir the old-fashioned way leads to disaster.
But there’s more to it than that. While showrunner Goyer largely avoids the outright expressionistic lighting and color adopted by Refn, Birch, Levinson, and Flanagan, his team more than makes up for it with some of the lushest and most original science fiction lighting effects in recent memory. Massive and dazzlingly bright spaceships and palace interiors, as well as the technicolor warping of space-time as ships emerge in and out of faster-than-light travel, suffuse the season with sumptuous blues, golds, reds, and purples. These are echoed in the thoughtful, critical costuming; at one point, Brother Day orders a genocide while wearing a sexy gold mesh top and imperial-blue pantaloons.
In that outfit alone, we see how inextricably the elements of the New Lurid are linked. Vibratingly bright color, used to communicate boiling-point emotions, worn by a sexually irresistible man ordering extreme violence—a cloned emperor (perhaps the ultimate form of aristocratic inbreeding is to repeatedly breed oneself) whose sick civilization is crumbling around him. It’s lurid all the way down.
The idea that we hoi polloi see the ruling class who lord over us as louche, overindulgent, perverse, and dangerous is nothing new. It is, after all, as clear how Edgar Allan Poe felt about Prince Prospero and his revelers as it is how Mike Flanagan feels about Prospero Usher and his. But in the main, television’s swipes at the ultrarich have been satirical and visually straightforward, and have preferred to keep violence to a sanitized minimum. Succession is a very nice-looking show, as is The White Lotus (2021– ), but they don’t feel as though the depravity of the characters has seeped through into the stuff of the filmmaking itself.
The New Lurid, by contrast, gives television auteurs and viewers alike a new narrative and visual vocabulary, one commensurate with the degeneracy of our overlords as represented by the characters to which they often directly correspond. Like a televisual vanitas, it is sensual but death-haunted, lush to the point of rottenness, like a once-magnificent family finally, terminally, gone to seed.
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