‘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 television, an exotic bloom amid the endless rows of spider plants, the 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.”), didn’t feel unfamiliar, both because they’re faithful to their sources and because there are plenty of other high-concept genre workouts on offer. On the other hand, Conrad is a talented and distinctive writer, and his shows have had an idiosyncratic mix of mournful humor and cool absurdism that has set them apart, and inspired a cultish devotion.

His third series, “Ultra City Smiths,” begins streaming 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 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. The cops, crooks, politicians and bystanders are moon-faced, plastic baby dolls (aged up with wigs and magic-marker stubble), walking the mean streets via stop-motion animation and delivering world-weary dialogue and expressions through digital effects.

And every so often they break into song: A rookie detective does a soft-shoe while listing the sexual services available in different parts of town; a middle-aged hustler sings a plaintive ballad about his ailing lover.

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

And it’s also about imaginative voice casting, beginning with the endearing rasp of Tom Waits as the narrator, who eventually shows up onscreen running a newsstand. A number of crack performers from Conrad’s earlier live-action series appear, including Terry O’Quinn, Kurtwood Smith, Hana Mae Lee, Luis Guzmán, Damon Herriman (the hustler) and Jimmi Simpson (the rookie). They’re joined by a cadre of stars, and there are some genius choices, like Bebe Neuwirth as a solemn 280-pound professional wrestler and the real-life couple Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell as a feckless politician and his wife.

Before switching to TV, Conrad wrote features, including excellent screenplays like “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Through those films and through “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace,” you could trace some consistent themes and motifs: fraught but loving relationships between fathers and sons; men concerned with maintaining facades of normality; the values of patriotism and competence in the America of Reagan, Bush and Trump. What could have been cynical and self-righteous was rendered melancholic and acted out through gentle (if sometimes quite violent) farce.

His new show doesn’t ask for that kind of attention, though it has a similar wistfulness and nostalgia. Conrad has demonstrated a fondness for card tricks (in “Patriot”) and magic (a significant plot point in “Perpetual Grace”), and in “Ultra City Smiths” he is demonstrating his own sleight of hand, keeping our eyes on the screen with shadows, memories and tough-talking dolls.

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