By Peg Aloi
A quirky mini-series that’s filled with mundane yet magical LA vibes and subtle supernatural sparkle.
This strange and sometimes disturbing but quite watchable series is set in 1990s Los Angeles. A confident young filmmaker (Rosa Salazar) learns firsthand how hard it is to break into the industry, which is dominated by creepy white men (and still is, for the most part, really, but at least we’re a bit more aware of it these days). Salazar (known for the series Parenthood and more recently Undone) plays Lisa Nova, who arrives in LA with her newly-made short horror film to jumpstart her directing career. She crashes with her friend and ex-lover Code (Manny Jacinto of The Good Place) and his girlfriend (The Magicians’ Hannah Levien). She also crosses paths with some weird people who guide her path and initiate her into the city’s many subcultures and undergrounds.
Lisa has a few friends in LA that are connected to the movie industry, and one of them gets her a meeting right off the bat with a big name producer who offers to produce a feature length version of her short film. Lou Burke (played by the wonderful Eric Lange, who was excellent in Escape at Dannemora) is straight out of central casting: ordinary looking, ambitious, somewhat charming, connected, arrogant, and, ultimately, vindictive. His efforts to help Lisa come with a price, and when she rebuffs him, he betrays her. Outraged, she turns for help to a local witch (hey, it’s LA) to exact revenge. But the witch’s magic isn’t straightforward at all.
Played by Catherine Keener with laidback bemusement, Boro is a stylish Bohemian maven living in a broken down mansion surrounded by a lush tangle of tropical plants. She also exacts a price for her favor. Lisa is traumatized and grossed out by the tasks she must perform in exchange (and some viewers might be as well). The witchcraft subplot gives Brand New Cherry Flavor its weird, trippy atmosphere, fed by intense (often erotic) scenes of body horror and wild excursions that showcase the mystique of LA in all its mundane yet magical glory. There’s also an alluring, disturbing backstory to Lisa’s film that gradually unfolds, adding layers of meta-cinematic intrigue and psychological strangeness. This connection of Lisa’s past to her present struggles, awash with visions and symbols, also imbues the story with a sort of Jungian theme of self-actualization, which is deliciously ironic, given most everyone here is self-absorbed and greedy for fame and fortune, Tinseltown-style. The sets are visually stunning in their diversity and tactility, from Boro’s steamy arcadian oasis to Lisa’s cavernous sublet with hot pink walls to Lou’s immaculate mansion full of tribal and modern art. The soundtrack is edgy and energetic, the pacing frenetic and organic, like an eventful weekend in the City of Broken Dreams.
The series is co-created by Nick Antosca (The Act and the forthcoming Antlers) and Lenore Zion (Ray Donovan). The two also recently co-created Channel Zero, a horror anthology that quickly picked up a cult following. Also co-producing this limited series is lead actress Rosa Salazar, whose performance is red hot: sensual, funny, and savvy. Her facial expressions are masterful, her eyes dart about like mercury. Along for the ride is Jeff Ward (Hacks) who plays a heartthrob actor who is strangely drawn to Lisa and becomes fascinated by the occult world she stumbles into. The excellent cast gives this quirky mini-series plenty of life, but perhaps none more so than Keener, whose minimalistic but nuanced performance oozes laconic LA vibes and subtle supernatural sparkle.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.