“All I wanted to do was make a movie,” utters would-be film director Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) after things have escalated greatly late into Netflix’s new horror series “Brand New Cherry Flavor.” Created by Nick Antosca (“Channel Zero,” “The Act”) and Lenore Zion, and adapted from the novel of the same name by Todd Grimson, the show follows Lisa down a nightmarish spiral after she comes to Los Angeles with dreams of turning her experimental short film “Lucy’s Eye” into a feature.
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We first meet Lisa making a late-night call from a remote gas station payphone to her friend Code (Manny Jacinto) asking to crash at his place. The opening shot is reminiscent of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”: headlights illuminating the yellow lines of a dark desert road. The series is chock full of homages to both Lynch and body-horror master David Cronenberg, but really owes its biggest debt to Coen Brothers’ 1941-set period black comedy psychological thriller “Barton Fink.”
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Like that Coen Brothers’ film, “Brand New Cherry Flavor” brings an outsider to Hollywood as a cipher for the audience to learn about its seedy underbelly. LA cliches abound – characters who don’t work in the biz, work in real estate or are petty crooks and bougie drug dealers. One particularly funny recurrent supporting character is a woman covered in bandages getting plastic surgery to look like Darryl Hannah. “Cher wasn’t built in a day,” she quips.
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The show’s drama revolves around Lisa’s attempt to turn her haunting short film, starring an actress (Siena Werber) who looks like a Cindy Sherman photograph come to life, into a feature. Salazar turns in a fearless performance. Throughout the series writhes equally in pain and pleasure, barfing out kittens (yes) while (mostly) suppressing her boiling rage and rampant ambition.
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She meets producer Lou Burke (Eric Lange), who won a couple of Oscars in the 80s but is now washed up and desperate for a hit. Lange plays the role to perfection, with coked-up energy and easy charm that masks his truly monstrous nature. At first, Lisa thinks she’s found a mentor, but things take a dangerous turn for them both when the deal goes south.
That’s when Lisa meets a mysterious woman named Boro (Catherine Keener), who casually approaches her at a party, gives her a cat, and gently offers to hurt someone for her, should she need it. Keener is clearly having a ball in this role, underplaying the wacky Hollywood mystic with expert calibration.
When Lisa takes her up on the offer, she finds Boro in a decaying Boyle Heights mansion filled with vines like a jungle, where she crafts her spells, pulls tattoos up from people’s skin, and tends to a pack of zombies. She promises Lisa that the spell she’ll cast for her will only be as fucked up as Lisa is; unfortunately for Lisa, she’s already being followed by a being that looks like a cross between the Flukeman from “The X-Files” and those ragdolls from Shane Acker’s “9,” so we know she’s in for a wild ride.
Thrown in the mix for good measure is marquee blockbuster actor Ray Hardaway (Jeff Ward), who can charm anyone into thinking they’re his best friend. He’s drawn to the darker elements of Lisa, probably because of his own bleak past. One of the show’s best scenes comes when Ray shares how he killed his twin sister most nonchalantly, then adds, “I die in all my movies. Nobody ever notices that.”
In the first episode, a title card informs us that this is the early 90s, but we know for various touchstones seen throughout that it is December 1990, from a time-stamped issue of Daily Variety to billboards for 1990s release “Tremors” and “Darkman,” down the show’s soundtrack featuring songs from the year like “Tomorrow Wendy” by Concrete Blonde. It’s unclear why the show needs this early-90s setting when its aesthetic does nothing to showcase the era’s style; in fact, again, much of its decrepit look comes from the decaying Hollywood portrayed in “Barton Fink.” However, unlike the film, the show doesn’t really use its period setting for anything much.
While the show somewhat addresses rampant sexual harassment of women in Hollywood, it doesn’t really showcase the unique struggle women had in the business. In fact, it barely acknowledges women even made films. Spielberg gets a name drop, as does “that “Sex, Lies and Videotape” kid” aka Soderbergh. The only woman mentioned is Kathryn Bigelow, and even then, not by her name, just a passing mention of her rustic vampire western “Near Dark.”
So while ostensibly, the series is using the genre to comment on the seedy nature of Hollywood, it never gets as specific as the period setting should have allowed it to. There are a few striking images peppered throughout the show, like a decaying coyote carcass outside Lisa’s apartment or Hollywood’s iconic palm trees, shot to look menacing rather than aspirational. But again, the imagery isn’t specific to the era.
Through its twists and turns, the show wants us to know these characters have all become numb to the violence inherent in their world. Everyone is a gangster. Everyone in Hollywood has helped someone move a dead body at some point, metaphorically or in actuality.
Early on, we feel for Lisa as her film is stolen from her. We feel for her as each mentor slowly turns on her, reaches out to use her for something. But as the show progresses, we learn that Lisa is no different. Her friend Code eventually asks her if she was “always like this,” shocked by her violent and selfish behavior, past and present. See, it’s telling us that Hollywood isn’t just full of monsters; it also attracts them. Hollywood enables that dark part of you to come out and play.
However, despite its game cast, some unique imagery, and plenty of gore, we’ve seen this story before and done better. What makes the work of David Lynch so great and so compulsively rewatchable is how he never tells us what to think; he presents us with imagery that makes us think. So many elements of “Brand New Cherry Flavor” feel borrowed, and so much of what it has to say feel shouted. In the first episode, Lou tells Lisa that everyone has a story; she needs to learn how to sell herself. It’s a shame the show didn’t take its own advice. [C]