Van der Valk too Clever by Far

Van der Valk

I watched the first episode of Series Two of Van der Valk last night and came away unimpressed. I didn’t really like the first season of Van der Valk all that much either but, I said to myself, why not give it a chance?

The show follows a team of detectives in Amsterdam led by Peter Van der Valk. They are an eclectic group to say the least. The show is actually a reboot from an earlier series which I have not seen so I can’t really make any comparisons. The new show is flashy, stylish, filled with dramatic music, tense scenes, and intense characters.

My Review of Van der Valk

My review of the episode can be summed up in a single line: too clever. That’s simplifying all my problems with the show but it does express my general frustration with crime dramas and mysteries that make the solution so convoluted I have no chance of figuring anything out. Of course, I actually figured out the actual killer from the beginning but the clues that led us there were beyond baffling.

Basically, our killer left notes on the corpses with cryptic clues as to the next victim. Then one member of the team eventually had some sort of epiphany of understanding that led to the next scene. The word ethics must mean Spinoza! The word fire must mean Prometheus. The word God must mean Inventory but then, also be an acronym. Each revelation made less sense than the previous.

It seemed to me someone came up with the clever idea of having the murderer use Spinoza as an inspiration but then just went about it in the laziest way possible. I get using a local philosopher as a plot point but the story had nothing to do with Spinoza and the three great disasters of Amsterdam except in the most convoluted way possible. I lost track of it and just kept shaking my head and sighing in bewilderment.

While the effort to be overly clever certainly made my experience watching the first episode of Van der Valk unpleasant, it was not my only issue. Spoilers coming.

The Fish Tank

The fish tank in which the young woman drowned was way too high for the scene to happen. The murderer could not push the victim into the tank. The elevated tank came up to the chest of the detectives. You can’t bend over that way, it needed to be at waist height.

The First Victim in the Windfarm

Our murderer is not a large man. How he managed to get his victim up on the cross in the middle of the wind farm is beyond my understand. I’m willing to give a little leeway here. Maybe he rented a truck with a crane or something.

The Publicist and the Car

It’s revealed the publicist, who drowned implausibly as described above, was murdered because she took a bribe in order to stop her campaign to help the local artists. The bribe being a fancy car. This seemed utterly improbably to me. Amsterdam is a city well-known for an excellent public transit system. I can see her taking a large sum of money, but a sports car that she needs to pay upkeep and taxes on? Made no sense to me.

The Husband

The first victim’s husband was impossibly bizarre. The story of his separation from his wife and his violent abuse didn’t tie into the story at all. It just seemed an excuse to have a dislikable character as a possible suspect. His transparent lies made it clear he couldn’t be the murderer.

The Date

I can’t even begin to tell you everything I found wrong in the date between the detective and the ink maker. First off, it’s a stretch just to imagine she agreed to go out with him. I found his bumbling stupidity beyond credibility and Van der Valk ridiculing the poor fellow incessantly as some sort attempt at comic relief came across as completely unrealistic.

The poor fellow, I can’t even remember his name, seems to be on the show simply so people can make fun of him.

The Final Scene

Wait, the other bombs were real? When did he plant them. How does he have explosive knowledge. His reasoning for the brutal murders makes almost no sense. His final dialog with our hero went on and on. And on. And on. And on.

While they were talking, you can clearly see the Ferris wheel revolving normally in the background although supposedly it is being evacuated.

The Acting

I think the actors do their best with the lines they’ve got. It’s a mess but at least they try.

Conclusion

Blah. Too clever. Trying too hard to be dramatic. The serial killer leaving cryptic clues is tired and boring writing at this point. A good crime drama doesn’t need to save the world. It can just be a good crime drama. Van der Valk isn’t that.

Tom Liberman

Who is the Most Annoying Vicar in Grantchester?

Grantchester

Eh gads, but I’m thoroughly fed up with this show they call Grantchester. If it wasn’t for Leonard and the fact there’s nothing else to watch on Sunday nights; Sidney and Will would have driven me off long ago.

So, I put it to you, my audience. Who do you hate more, Sidney or Will? There will be a poll at the end of this blog. I remind you, casting your vote for Sidney or Will is not saying you like the other one. How could anyone like either of them?

Sidney’s Many Failings

Who could possible imagine I might yearn for the days of an almost psychopathic vicar who promised his girlfriend he’d leave the priesthood and marry her and then, an hour later, left her, waiting without so much as a note, at the door for a ride that never came.

Oh, Sidney, you were a liar, that much is certainly true. Filled with self-pity so much that it shot out your anus and your ears like a barrage of cannons. Every moment you came on the screen with your whining and crying about God having abandoned you, of not having love, of being bored with the religious life made me want to punch you all the more.

I’m not a religious man but I like to think if I was so, I’d rather have an aloof cat tend to my spiritual needs. If running away from your problems was a virtue, Sidney might be a Saint.

Ah, Sidney, you are not missed in Grantchester, not by me at least.

When will Will sigh sadly Again?

Probably in the next scene. Will sighs a lot. Everything about the new, chronically sad Vicar of Grantchester is awful. Life is miserable unless he’s banging whichever skirt happens to cross his path while guzzling whiskey like lemonade and smoking a pack a day. What a fine example you are for Grantchester.

Oh, sigh. Something happened. Sigh. Isn’t it awful? Sigh. I’m going to go sit and feel sorry for myself for a while. Go on and solve the case yourself. Sigh. Poor Leonard, it’s not fair. Nothing is fair. I’ve lost the love of my life for the tenth time. Sigh.

Well, Will, I mean, if it’s the tenth time it’s happened, it’s probably not the love of your life.

Gee, Tom, you’re right. Woe is me.

Oh wait, another girl! I’m in love again! I’ll charm her pants off and then find a reason why it’s all really so miserable. Sigh.

Grantchester Poll

You tell me. Who is worse?

Who do you find more Annoying?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Conclusion

Sigh.

Tom Liberman

Dark Winds a Bad Ending to a Good Show

Dark Winds

I just finished watching the last episode of the first season of the Dark Winds series on AMC and came away more than a little disappointed. Endings. They’re important.

Dark Winds is six-part series set in the 1970s which follows tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn as he attempts to solve both a bank robbery and a murder on the Navajo reservation. I very much enjoyed the show’s first four episodes although came away moderately disappointed after the fifth episode. It was the final episode that really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Let’s get into it.

Dark Winds Plot

The plot of Dark Winds revolves around Joe Leaphorn in his attempts to solve both the murders and bank robbery. The bank robbers escaped by helicopter onto Navajo lands and that puts the onus on Leaphorn to solve the crime. Meanwhile, the murders, while occurring on Navajo land, count as federal crimes meaning the FBI has jurisdiction.

The relationship between Leaphorn, played ably by Zahn McClarnon, and belligerent FBI Agent Noah Emmerich, played with great aplomb by Noah Emmerich, is key to the investigative part of the story. Emmerlich inserts a spy into the tribal police force to help solve the investigation but Leaphorn quickly figures it out and enlists Jim Chee, played by Kiowa Gordon, as an ally.

The Plot Isn’t the Story

Dark Winds does an excellent job, at least until the final episode, of telling a story and using the plot to drive it. The real stories are the death of Leaphorn’s son in an explosion at a refinery on the land and the general mistreatment of the Navajo people by the United States government.

Sure, the murders and the bank robbery drive much of the action but the real story is far more interesting. A young, pregnant Navajo girl is saved from forced sterilization by Leaphorn’s wife, a nurse at the hospital. Forced sterilization on Native Americans is just one of many shameful parts of United States history.

In addition, the Navajo activist who committed the bank robbery was the victim of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of teachers, priests, and nuns at boarding schools children were forced to attend away from their parents. The tormented Hoski, played by Jeremiah Bitsui, carries out his criminal acts largely as vengeance for both his own mistreatment and that of his people.

The dovetailing of Hoski’s storyline of rage and Leaphorn’s own grief over the loss of his son is the real story here. It’s a tale of anger and an inability to let go of hate. A path both Leaphorn and Hoski share at the beginning of the series.

The real stories of Dark Winds are told at a leisurely pace and we see them slowly unfold as we get to know the interesting characters. It draws us in and holds us.

The Last Episode of Dark Winds

Then, in the later part of the penultimate episode and the entirety of the final episode, all the good work is abandoned with a ridiculous series of events, stunning coincidences, and one action scene after the next. It’s just a mess and the various characters act in inexplicable fashion. I’m not going to get into it all including the strange addition of the Mormon family hostages, it’s too much.

It’s all a setup for an intense scene between Leaphorn and Hoski. Hoski realizes all his rage has done nothing to help, on the contrary has caused more harm, more pain. Leaphorn ostensibly tries to convince Hoski to let go of the rage, go to prison, accept responsibility for his actions. In reality, Leaphorn is talking to himself, telling himself to let go of the anger over his son’s death.

Conclusion

The final confrontation between Leaphorn and Hoski is fine as is the denouement when Leaphorn finally releases his anger.

It’s everything in the last episode or so that leads up to that final which fails. These sorts of action scenes are what a lot of people want and I suspect many, if not most, people will enjoy the action-adventure end to the season. I did not.

I think everything might have led to the soul-searching climax with far fewer complications and a simpler story line. The finale left me deeply disappointed. All the good from the first four plus episodes was tainted.

That being said, the series is good and worth watching.

Tom Liberman

Endeavour Series Eight Trying too Hard

Endeavour

I just finished watching the final episode of the eighth series of Endeavour and came away mightily disappointed. Not that the mystery was terrible or anything but it failed to meet its normally high standards.

I’m aware this relatively negative review will not be popular with fans of Endeavour and of Morse shows in general. That being said, I call them like I see them and this season failed for a number of important reasons.

The Mystery

I’ve written in other places on the criteria I use when evaluating the objective quality of a show but a mystery show is slightly different. An important factor in a mystery is giving the audience a reasonable chance to solve the riddle before the conclusion. Too often in mysteries the writers make it so convoluted and confusing the audience never has a chance to figure it out.

In the three episodes of this series, only the first gives the audience even a semblance of chance to figure out the mystery. The second episode of Endeavour involved clock hands matching semaphore signals which spell the Welsh version of an important character’s name. Um, our chances of figuring that out? Zero percent seems high. The third was such a convoluted mess they spent twenty minutes explaining who did it and why and I’m still confused.

I found the mysteries too clever by far and this largely ruined the season for me. Particular the third episode, which tried to be Silence of the Lambs meets Halloween meets A Beautiful Mind, left me baffled, bored, and incredulous.

It’s my opinion the Endeavour audience doesn’t need all this nonsense. Give us a reasonable mystery and let the wonderful characters carry the story.

All the Rest

Everything else in Endeavour is up to par. The acting is excellent. The sets are great. The costumes are period and convincing. The cinematography is solid although I thought they got a little too fancy at times trying to be stylish.

Missing Son

The third episode included a lengthy side story involving Thursday’s missing son. I strongly suspect it is a lead-in to what will be the main storyline of series nine. It also allowed Thursday’s wife to have her meltdown which I guess was dramatic acting or something.

That being said, it was way, way too much. It took away from the episode and no investigation or even explanation occurred. It was just there. This really took time away from what was already a mind-boggler of an episode. Nothing forwarded the story.

I get what they are trying to do, or at least I think I get it. My problem is a much simpler way to handle the situation existed. Just a scene where the army calls looking for the son. Something simple, don’t get into details or even have it known that he’s missing. Just a quick setup.

Conclusion

The character of Morse, both older and younger, is well-established and interesting. He and his co-workers are good enough for an interesting episode. All I need is a reasonable mystery around them and I’m happy. This series of Endeavour just tried way too hard to be far more than it needed to be.

Irma Vep the Review

Irma Vep

I watched the second episode of Irma Vep on HBO and I’m glad I held off writing a review for a week. There’s a lot going on with this show and a single episode wasn’t enough to write an informed opinion about the show.

A lot of times I’m tempted to immediately wax poetic about a story I read in the news or some event that happened in my life. Often times it’s a great idea to get my thoughts down immediately, fresh, raw. Other times, particularly when the situation is nuanced it is better to wait. In any case, the wait is over, let the review of Irma Vep begin!

What is Irma Vep?

The show is not easy to describe. At its heart, it is about an actor making a film. That actor is Mira Harberg as portrayed by Alicia Vikander. Harberg is coming off a highly successful although soul-murdering role in a super-hero film. She’s now a highly sought-after and successful actor but she’s taken a role in a low-budget vampire film called Irma Vep.

Now comes the difficult part in describing this show. The film is a remake of seven hour long silent-film of the same name. The audience, that’s me, is shuttled back and forth between four different realities. First is Harberg and her life. Second is the making of the film in which she channels the Irma Vep character. Third is the film they are making itself as seen through the director’s eyes while watching the dailies. Finally, is the original silent film with scenes interspersed with the new scenes.

It’s a lot. It’s ambitious. It’s good. I’m really enjoying it and not just for the lurid suggestion of lesbian dominance and submission. Although, I admit, that does pique the old imagination.

The Acting

I’m absolutely loving all the acting. Vikander is delightful as the unfulfilled and spoiled actor trying to broaden her career. Devon Ross as Harberg’s new assistant is quirky and interesting. The old assistant, the vivacious Adria Arjona, is the aforementioned lesbian former love interest.

Particularly outstanding is Vincent Macaigne as Rene Vidal, the psychologically unstable director. His quirky, edgy performance is a thing to behold. His portrayal of the damaged director hoping to pay homage to one of his favorite films is breathtaking. The scene in the second episode where he insists on making it abundantly clear to his psychologist that he masturbated as boy to not Diana Rigg, who he respects as an actor, but to the character of Emma Peel is an absolute delight.

Vincent Lacoste as the insecure actor insisting on changes to the script to secure his fragile ego is marvelous. He doesn’t want to live with his mother who serves him herbal tea at night because it makes him look weak. Vidal tells the insecure actor he has written mom out of the script but she’s actually still in it. The scenes move from rollicking hilarity to brutal insecure honesty. I’m enthralled.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lars Eidinger as the crack-addicted Gottfried, Jeanne Balibar as the set coordinator, Carrie Brownstein as Mira’s agent hoping to lure the star away from the small remake into playing the Silver Surfer!

Structure

The structure of the story is complex, to say the least. We move back and forth between the four stories being told and it gets confusing at times. It’s a silent movie, it’s a real movie, it’s the making of a movie, it’s an actor becoming the character. Be prepared to pay attention.

Conclusion

I’m rather surprised it even got made, let alone picked up by HBO. It’s madcap, it’s mayhem, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s hilarious, it’s erotic, it’s complicated, it’s not for everyone, but it’s for me.

Tom Liberman

Is Monetization in Diablo Immortal Fixable?

Diablo Immortal

There’s a new mobile game on the market called Diablo Immortal and it’s generating a huge amount of hate in the gaming world. Diablo Immortal uses something called monetization as a method to generate revenue.

The game is free to play. Anyone can download it and start playing immediately. The makers of Diablo Immortal, Blizzard Entertainment, use in game purchases, or monetization, to make money. Nearly every gamer agrees the level of monetization in Diablo Immortal is unprecedented and a terrible direction for the industry.

My discussion today involves the idea something can being bad for one group or individual and good for another. Leading to difficult problems which are not easily solved.

What this blog is not about

One of the big arguments for monetization in Diablo Immortal is it’s really just pay-to-play rather than play-to-win. This is not my focus here today.

An argument for the pay-to-win model is that people can simply not pay. Again, not my focus here.
Another group argues that legislation against such predatory games will solve the problem. Again, not my focus.

However, I must cut through all the nonsense before I get to my actual point.

Addictions and Laws

People have addictions. Drugs including alcohol, food, gambling, love, whatever. Addictions exist and Diablo Immortal uses the underlying cause of these addictions to harm people. The game uses a tried and tested method based on dopamine. It works. People will be harmed.

Laws can’t stop it, although they can slow it certainly. If you make something illegal then a black-market arises which is worse than a legal, if predatory, market. Violent criminals gain huge sums of money.

Finally, my point

Diablo Immortal is bad for addictive personalities. It is bad for people who don’t have the time, money, or personal stability to play the game safely.

It is good for players who enjoy the underlying game and have the money, time, and personal stability to play it without trouble. It is obviously good for Blizzard Entertainment if it generates considerable revenue.

Where does that leave us? It’s not as simple as enlightened self-interest. I acknowledge this game will hurt people. I accept that addictions are real and the game taps into them and causes real harm. I fully get the manufacturers know it will cause harm and don’t care. The game won’t hurt me but I am not without empathy. I know it will hurt many people.

How to Fix the Problem

I’m against laws that outlaw such games for a number of reasons. The black-market as discussed above. The fact that many people can and will enjoy Diablo Immortal without negative consequences to their lives. Banning the game punishes those people.

The solution is elusive and difficult, as is often the case.

People who feel empathy for the harm Diablo Immortal will cause to others should not play. People who are against monetization of such games should not play. Friends and family must pay attention to those they love for signs of danger. Financial Institutions can implement notification policies when certain thresholds are met in regards to money issues.

Banning the game is a simple solution but it won’t work in the long run. Harassing the company might work in the short term but someone else will always take their place.

Easy? No. Simple problems have easy solutions. Difficult problems are not easily solved, no matter what an influencer might say. Don’t like my answers? I’m not surprised. Difficult solutions are never popular.

If enough people have critical thinking skills, empathy for the suffering of others, and understand the principles of enlightened self-interest; Diablo Immortal and its ilk will die. Good riddance.

Tom Liberman

We Own this City Review

We own this city

I watched the last episode of We Own this City on HBO and largely enjoyed it. It’s based on a book by Baltimore journalist Justin Fenton and created by David Simon of The Wire fame. It focuses on the Gun Trace Task Force led by Sergeant Wayne Jenkins in Baltimore.

The Wire is a great show about the problems of drugs in Baltimore specifically but all across our nation and, indeed the world. It doesn’t sugarcoat the violence and spares neither the police nor the drug dealers. We Own this City continues in the same manner and I came away discouraged about the world in which we live.

That being said, I think it’s a good show and well-worth watching, particularly by those invested in perpetuating the War on Drugs.

The Premise of We Own this City

The Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore engaged in criminal activity that resulted in many of its members being given lengthy prison sentences, particular their leader, Jenkins. They stole money, stole and resold drugs, took money from taxpayers for overtime they didn’t actually perform, and engaged in generally despicable and illegal behavior with impunity. Bullying, harassing, assaulting, framing, and otherwise attacking the citizens of Baltimore.

The six-episode mini-series details their behavior in horrifying detail and ends with the sentencing phase of their crimes.

The Quality of We Own this City

The acting, writing, sets, camera work, and everything else in We Own this City is excellent. It’s a slick and well put-together show. It’s a bit jarring seeing actors like Jamie Hector in role-reversal from The Wire but I managed to overcome that eventually.

The biggest problem with the quality of the show is the non-linear time flow. I understand they wanted to start with the arrest of Jenkins but the constant back-and-forth with time made the show difficult to process. They tried to make it easier by having Jon Bernthal, who played Jenkins with frightening aplomb, adjust his facial hair indicating the time frame.

The display of dates on the screen didn’t really help me follow the story. Is this happening before the scene we just saw? After? When is this? Has the previous scene we just watched already happened when we’re watching this scene or is it going to happen later? Very confusing. That’s pretty much my only problem with the show.

Who Watched We Own this City?

I wonder if the target audience of We Own this City actually watched it or is it a case of preaching to the choir. I have no doubt Simon and Fenton are passionate. They well-understand the War on Drugs and the horrors it begat.

The sad truth is the people who will watch this show already understand the problems associated with the War on Drugs. The people who must be convinced of its folly are not going to watch, at least I don’t think so. They don’t want to see beloved police officers turned into nothing more than the single largest criminal enterprise in the history of the world. Hyperbole? No, I’m afraid not. Police are the worst criminals in the United States.

Treat Williams Daggers the Problem

Now, having read the previous paragraph I feel certain you think I’m anti-police. Let me explain why that is not the case.

Treat Williams plays Brian Grabler, a retired officer who understand the real problem. He tries to explain its nature to Wunmi Mosaku. She plays Nicole Steele an attorney from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice department.

Near the end of the last episode, Grabler asks Steele what’s not in the report detailing the many systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department. What’s not in the report? She doesn’t understand and he must lead her to the answer.

The problem isn’t law enforcement officers. It’s not a legal system willing to stomp the rights of citizens. It’s not the violence on the streets committed by those plying the drug trade and those trying to stop them. It’s not that police departments are completely at odds with the communities they serve, enemies unwilling to cooperate.

The problem is the War on Drugs. It’s the root cause of everything else. Its corrupted our legal system. Its corrupted our police departments. Its corrupted city hall. The War on Drugs hasn’t stopped drugs, its just created an army of amoral criminals. Police officers, lawyers, judges, politicians. All engaged in criminal activity wrapped in good intentions and driven by the money the drug trade creates.

The system forces law enforcement officers to become criminals. Judges to twist the Constitution into a laughable parody of words used to enact that which it is designed to prevent. Politicians to actively work against their constituents.

Conclusion

We Own this City is an excellent show marred by a confusing timeline. It’s also a show that clearly illuminates the errors of the War on Drugs. Sadly, the people who need to understand the root cause of the problem have little interest in fixing it. Those who understand the problem don’t have the power to fix it.

Tom Liberman

Depp and Heard are a Billion Dollar Industry

Depp and Heard

Depp and Heard are in the middle of contentious legal battle and it’s a billion dollar industry. I’m conflicted. I’m talking about Amber Heard and Johnny Depp but I don’t think anyone needs that clarification. Who isn’t cashing in on the Depp and Heard drama?

I’m conflicted about this blog. Writing it means I’m part of the legion of Depp and Heard opportunists. Am I expressing genuine thoughts here or do I just want clicks and eyes on my blog? Maybe this post will go viral and indirectly result in the sale of millions of my novels.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of people trying to cash in on this terrible and tragic story is nauseating. I suppose it’s all moot in the end, you’re reading this and that means I wrote it. Let’s get on with it.

Depp and Heard Trial

The trail is all over the news and I’m not going to expend any time talking about the awfulness of one party versus the other. It’s a terrible tragedy. A marriage gone horribly wrong. Two people whose love turned into an international tragedy and lawsuits.

Cashing In

Who is the big winner in all of this? Not Depp and Heard. It’s mainstream news channels. Alternate news channels. Misogynists, social justice warriors. It’s social media personalities, all the influencers. Even morally bankrupt politicians are trying to garner a few votes by picking sides. Scalpers! Yuck.

Twitch watch parties with some of the biggest streamers. YouTube personalities with millions of subscribers releasing daily videos with sensationalistic titles. Depp this! Heard that! The Big Moment! Twitter is trending Depp and Heard. TikTok. Name a social media outlet and I’ll show you opportunists trying to take advantage of the situation to make some money.

Sick to my Stomach

I’m honestly feeling nauseas just writing this. I’m regretting it. I’m thinking I shouldn’t be doing it just because it means I’m part of the problem. Still, I think it’s important to call out everyone profiting off this situation.

I know this lurid story is interesting and people are genuinely picking sides. That being said, there is no doubt that a YouTube video that suddenly generates millions of watches is a strong motivator to make more such content. A Twitch streamer watching the legal case live with thousands of viewers is cash in the bank. It’s money and its gross money, at least I think so.

Human Nature

People love a train wreck. It’s undeniable. People cheer at the hockey game as much during a fight as they do for a goal. Many people enjoy the lurid, the sensational, the exciting. Depp and Heard is all that. Everyone has an opinion and if they can make some money expressing it, all the better.

I suppose I’m tilting against windmills here, just the same as when I rail against drafting in professional sports.

Conclusion

I think I’ll wrap this up quickly and then go wash my hands. Gross. It’s all so gross.

Tom Liberman

Sanditon Lacked the Deft Touch of Jane Austen

Deft Touch

Season Two of Sanditon wrapped up with a final episode largely lacking a deft touch. The various plot lines largely smashed to the ground with all the force of turkeys dropped from a helicopter. This lack of deft touch runs counter to the general manner in which Jane Austen writes her novel and struck me greatly.

I’m certainly not saying the second season of Sanditon is a disaster. It proved largely watchable and mostly enjoyable. Still, the heavy-handed conclusion to several of the season-long story lines left me somewhat disappointed. Let’s talk about it.

Charlotte, Alexander, and Colonel Lennox

I never felt any real chemistry between Charlotte and Alexander. I found Rose Williams effective in her role of Charlotte but I couldn’t see why she fell in love with Alexander. Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Alexander never really engaged me. He seemed dull and lifeless, which, to be fair, is part of the character as written.

Likewise, Colonel Lennox didn’t strike me as the sort to win Charlotte’s heart. In addition, his portrayal as a scheming villain never resonated for me. Tom Weston-Jones just didn’t make me hate him, or like him much for that matter. He was just sort of there.

Because I never really got invested in the potential love triangle, the ending never tugged at my emotions at all.

The Kids

Honestly, I know one is Leonora but the other one I just can’t remember. Let me look it up, ah, yes, Augusta. Eloise Webb didn’t have a lot to work with and she rotated between hating and adoring Charlotte so often I lost track of it all. I just didn’t really care about either one of the children to be honest and therefore their plight didn’t mean much to me.

Tom Parker and the Money Problems

I did find the money issues involving Sanditon and Tom Parker compelling but the resolution left me completely dissatisfied. I hoped Arthur might come up with some brilliant plan. Instead, a single hand of cards in a game that wasn’t explained solved the issues. The dramatic music played during the game hoped to create tension and suspense but I felt nothing.

It’s a real problem when one of the biggest dramatic moments at the conclusion of a season is confusing and dull. The resolution here left me baffled. This is the best the writers could find?

Miss Lambe and Charles Lockhart

The ending here really turned me off. Alexander Vlahos did a superb job as the brilliant artist, dismissive of society, admiring Miss Lambe. Then, suddenly, with no explanation or foreshadowing, he’s the bad guy. Crystal Clarke as Georgiana also turned in a fine performance. First disdainful of the artist and then succumbing to his charm.

The conclusion largely betrayed everything that came before it. If we’d seen Lockhart revealing his nefarious scheme in any way before the denouement, it might have worked. We didn’t. The twist ending fell quite flat for me at least, the deft touch of Austen completely absent.

Alison, Carter, and Fraser: A Deft Touch at Last

This love story made more sense and the flavor of Austen came through. I believed the innocent and bright-eyed Alison falling for the apparently dashing Captain Carter. Frank Blake as Fraser did a great job portraying his admiration of Alison while displaying loyalty to his friend.

Rosie Graham as Alison and Maxim Ays as Carter also performed admirably in their roles. I found myself invested in this story and when Fraser emerged as the winner of Alison’s heart it made sense.

I was a little put off by Fraser resigning his commission and returning with Alison to a life of farming. A more appropriate ending, in my mind, is Alison joining Fraser in India, traveling the world as the wife of an officer destined for glory. That is a small quibble and this storyline proved more satisfying.

The Nefarious Edward

Absolute applause for Jack Fox in his role as Edward Denham. His performance made this story the most compelling in the series. This is a villain! He perfectly transitioned between scheming miscreant to charmer. I believed him, his plan made sense. He brought Edward Denham to life in a way lacking with Colonel Lennox and Charles Lockhart. A villain is vital to a story and Fox sold me completely.

Lily Sacofsky as Clara, Charlotte Spencer as Esther, and Anne Reid as Lady Denham ably supported and enhanced Fox’s performance. Each of them brought their own nuance to the plot and I believed every second of it. When Clara comes to the realization she’s better off on Team Esther it is apparent and logical. Everything comes together nicely.

Perhaps I found her final decision a bit paradoxical after her speech about the fierceness of her love for the baby, but this is minor.

Conclusion

Sanditon is a decent show and I enjoyed it. Sadly, it lacked the deft touch necessary to bring it home as excellent entertainment. What did you think?

Tom Liberman

A Mess of a Winning Time Episode

Winning Time

Any carry over from last week’s excellent episode of Winning Time quickly dissipated with this mess of an episode. No focus, no central theme, back to unnecessary salacious content, lots of fourth wall breaking, and just a general hodgepodge of an episode.

I honestly find it difficult to believe the people who put together Pieces of a Man also released Momento Mori. Same director, largely the same writers, and yet a completely different result. I find it unfathomable.

What went wrong with this episode of Winning Time? Let’s discuss.

Lack of Central Theme

I’ve discussed before how a central theme holds an episode together and allows other, smaller stories to swirl around it with an anchor to bring them home. The theme was readily available, the catastrophic injury to Coach McKinney. The necessity for assistant coach Westhead to grab the team and take over.

The episode certainly showed us the blood covered McKinney often enough but the other story line of Magic Johnson and his endorsement deals shared the spotlight. Frankly, both made good thematic elements but by splitting the episode back and forth between them with a cursory look at dementia inflicted Momma Buss only diluted the impact of everything.

The added theme of the financial troubles for Dr. Buss took up another big section of the episode. Each vied for supremacy and nothing really emerged. We just jumped from one scene to the next along all three plot lines. It ended up being largely confusing and unimpactful.

Too Fast

The various story lines just went too quickly. Magic’s relationship with his girlfriend and father came out of the nowhere. It seemed like a vehicle for the fourth wall breaking punch line of the Nike rep at the end. I’m not a big fan of an entire storyline dedicated to setting up a zinger at the end, even if the zinger is a good one.

Coach McKinney’s injuries and the team responding to them all happened so fast. It was just a whole bunch of scenes tenuously strung together. The emergence of Michael Cooper as a premier defender is an interesting story but you’d only get what was happening if you already knew the outcome. It wasn’t cohesive storytelling.

The loan situation was really interesting as well but it came in short snippets interspersed with the other stories. Everything just raced along toward zinger conclusions. The episode completely lacked the deliberate and intense pacing of Pieces of a Man.

Fourth Wall in Winning Time

Not surprisingly, this episode of Winning Time broke the fourth wall almost continuously from beginning to end. The previous episode resorted to this tactic only once or twice and briefly at that. This time we found ourselves listening to long monologs as characters explained their motivations and plans. I found it irritating, pointless and detracted from the interesting stories.

Conclusion

It’s a real shame of an episode following the brilliance of its predecessor. The show is still largely entertaining and worth watching but I hope we get more of the good stuff and less of the mess.

Tom Liberman

Pieces of a Man Winning Time’s Statement Episode

Pieces of a Man

Pieces of a Man is the fifth episode of Winning Time and what an episode! Booya. If you’re wondering how to craft a story properly, watch Pieces of a Man. It showcased fantastic acting, an intense and compelling story, and passion. An episode like this is why I love entertainment; this is why people filled stadiums to watch Greek Tragedies two thousand years ago.

I know I’m waxing overly poetic here, but it’s been a while since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed a television episode. I’d probably have to go back to the heyday of the Sopranos to remember a time when I found myself so engrossed.

Last week I mentioned what a solid understanding of character Solomon Hughes brings with his portrayal of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If only I knew what awaited. Anyway, on with my review.

The Central Theme of Pieces of a Man

It is generally a good idea to have a central theme to focus an episode and the characters therein. In this case we leave Dr. Buss and Magic Johnson and focus on Abdul-Jabbar. We start with him as a young witness to terrible racial injustice. His father, a police officer and a devout Christian, does not see eye-to-eye with his son, Lew Alcindor.

Being a superb athlete and champion is not enough for Alcindor. This young man is a piece of what he will become but he wants more, he wants to be more. He comes to Islam and takes a new name much to his father’s chagrin but that is just another piece in the man that Abdul-Jabbar is becoming. It’s a fantastic start to the episode.

This isn’t about the Lakers, it’s about Abdul-Jabbar, but it subtly becomes about the Lakers. It becomes about Magic Johnson, Jack McKinney, and Dr. Buss. It’s a story about all of them and all the pieces of them. It’s a profound episode.

Salaciousness

I’ve complained about the unnecessary salaciousness in Winning Time. We get it here but it is part of the story. It’s part of the locker room. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms. I played sports. The locker room scenes in movies with men in towels everywhere and overly condescending locker room talk always strikes me as fake. Not here.

Here the players talk about cut cocks with Wood Harris, in all his glory, playing the role of Spencer Haywood. He brings it to life with a monolog that sounds like the locker room. I believe! Whether it’s a true story or not hardly matters. I believe these are real athletes in a real locker room and that’s no easy trick. Most sports movies fail miserably in this regard because it’s difficult for an actor to portray a professional athlete.

The Other Characters as Pieces of a Man

Dr. Buss plays a small role in this episode which was an incredibly brave move and it works. While Abdul-Jabbar is struggling to reconcile what he has become as compared to the youthful energy and enthusiasm of Johnson, we also see Dr. Buss struggling to put together his pieces as well. Can he step back from the edge of the cliff and admire the view?

Will Abdul-Jabbar add another piece in his journey? Can Magic Johnson become more than a fragment, a single piece of a man? Can Jack McKinney put together the final piece that he’s been striving for all his life?

The Importance of Dialog

This episode functions on many levels. The conversation between Heywood and Abdul-Jabbar in regards to young Magic is thoughtful and moves the story forward.

The disagreement between McKinney and Abdul-Jabbar where the later exactly predicts the result of his performance is profoundly interesting. McKinney realizes that Abdul-Jabbar knows what he’s talking about. It brings their relationship to a new level.

The locker room fight between Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar trying to put together their own pieces and find their place in all of this is raw and powerful.

The conversation between the financial advisor and Dr. Buss brings us a deeper understanding of his struggles to put together his own pieces. Even Jeanie finding Paula Abdul to lead the cheer squad is interesting.

Abdul-Jabbar at the mosque talking with the Imam moves the story toward its inevitable conclusion. We know what’s going to happen but it’s the journey that compels us to keep watching.

The dialog pulls the entire episode together. There is no telling in this episode, just showing. No exposition. Just actors performing, owning their characters and their lines, pulling us into their world.

Conclusion

You’ve probably figured out I liked this episode. Go watch it. Well done. Well done, indeed.

Tom Liberman

Sanditon is it that Difficult to Keep a Timeline?

Timeline

Argh, Sanditon, I say. Argh, I repeat with emphasis. Is it really that difficult to construct a timeline that makes sense? Of what do I speak, you might ask? The latest episode centers on a festival later on today or tonight or next week or tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure. They keep changing it.

I know I’m the only one in the world who cares about this sort of thing, but the fuzzy timeline of the big festival largely ruined my immersion in this week’s episode of Sanditon. When is the festival? When? Every time I think I have a handle on the timeline, it shifts likes the sands of Arrakis.

The Festival is Today

Tom Parker gets a package. He looks up at the sky and tells the clouds not to rain. Clearly there is something on tap for today. He opens the package and finds a bunch of fliers for a festival. Oh, good, he exclaims with glee as gazes at them.

I’m already confused. He just looked at the sky and told it not to rain. Does that mean the timeline for the festival is today? That seems like the only explanation but why are the fliers only arriving now? Why haven’t those been pasted all over town a month ago?

The Festival is Next Month?

Tom doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to paste the fliers all over town. I am utterly confused. Maybe the festival isn’t happening today. Next month, perhaps? Surely, he understands promotion well enough to know he can’t post the fliers a few hours before the event?

The Festival is Tomorrow Morning

The elephant is cancelled? If the event is happening tomorrow, I’d expect the elephant to be on premises at least a few days early. There’s much to do, setting up a pen for the mighty beast, arranging for food, and other necessities.

Everyone does seem excited about the elephant. Tom is ripping down the fliers, that the timeline hasn’t accounted for putting up, because it’s embarrassing that the elephant he promised, today, won’t be here tomorrow.

Charlotte is Time Traveling Again

Charlotte is with her employer and the girls, Alison is out on a date with the shady officer, now they are talking to each other with Miss Lambe at the Parker house. Now she’s back with her employer having a picnic. When is the festival? I’m lost. Is Doctor Who in charge of the timeline of this episode?

It’s Tomorrow

Oh, it’s tomorrow. When is the festival starting, tea time? Everyone is going about their business like the thing is happening later but it’s been all day already. Charlotte woke up, went to work, had a picnic, tutored the girls, and is still back in Sanditon in time for the hydrogen balloon, no hot air required for those of you with inquiring minds.

Winch

How incompetent is Colonel Lennox? You’ve got three soldiers holding a rope for the balloon? Winch. You need a winch. Not a wench, Alison is all over that. I know, this has nothing to do with my rant today but I can’t stop myself.

At least we’ve got jolly Arthur Parker to save the day. Although, honestly, after that fiasco I’d be less inclined to make the ascent. The soldiers are clearly all idiots.

Conclusion

Is it really that difficult to construct a coherent timeline? Why weren’t we told about the upcoming festival last episode. The elephant, the fliers, all the things required to make this week’s focus, the festival, make any sort of sense.

Argh, I repeat for likely not the last time.

Am I the only one who cares about out of sequence events?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Tom Liberman

A Cartoon Interlude that Nearly Spoiled Winning Time

Cartoon Interlude

I’m largely enjoying the HBO series Winning Time. It covers the early period of Dr. Jerry Buss’s ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers with star rookie Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. The story itself is compelling, the actors are doing a great job, the sets look good, it’s the formula for a winning show.

Now, I’ve got my quibbles about the Fourth Wall breaking they do throughout the show. I also think they could do with less salacious content but overall I’m enjoying it. This week’s episode other than some unnecessary sexing it up early was shaping up to be a great episode, the best of the series.

Then came the cartoon interlude that completely took me out of immersion. Let’s talk about it.

The Good Stuff

We got to see some absolutely superb character development and acting. Hadley Robinson makes Jeanie Buss interesting and conflicted as her father’s daughter. Sally Field is great as Jessie Buss the harsh but caring mother.

Solomon Hughes has a great handle on what he wants to do as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I don’t know if Kareem is really like that but Hughes is throwing himself into the role. He is completely believable as the aloof captain of the club.

Tracy Letts is slaying it as the tormented genius Jack McKinney. I believe, I’m immersed, I’m enthralled. The look back at his sons’ ruckus in the backseat said a thousand words with just a glance. The team rebelling against McKinney’s novel ideas seemed realistic to me.

The athletic sessions, always difficult in a sports movie with actors not athletes, came across as believable. All the players seem like players, not actors, and that’s not easy. Then came the cartoon interlude.

The Cartoon Interlude

We’re watching the team struggle with McKinney’s fast paced offense. We see Magic’s attempt to get the ball to open players who are not ready for his court awareness. Then, suddenly, we get a cartoon interlude of cartoon Johnson talking directly to the camera. Not for five seconds, not for ten seconds, but on and on and on and on. It went on forever.

The cartoon interlude shocked me. It immediately ruined all my immersion in the episode up until then. I’m tempted to call it the most fundamentally flawed intrusion into show I’ve ever seen. It had no place, no function, no use.

Aftermath

The show then immediately picked up where it left off with excellent acting, great character interaction, drama, conflict, story. Happily, I forgot about the cartoon interlude just a few minutes after it made its unwelcome appearance.

As I sit here and write this blog, I’m still in somewhat of a state of disbelieve. Did the cartoon interlude actually happen? Maybe it was a bad dream? I am a Boomer and prone to napping. The rest of the episode was great.

Magic hand-squeezing the orange juice. Claire pitching Jeanie’s ideas to Dr. Buss. It all worked except that stupid cartoon interlude.

Conclusion

I don’t even really know what to say. Perhaps I should just forget about the cartoon interlude altogether. Did anybody like it?

Did you like the Cartoon Interlude

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Tom Liberman

Sanditon Cliffhanger not Resolved Well

Cliffhanger

The first episode of Sanditon ended in a pair of cliffhangers. One when Miss Lambe and Miss Heywood, Alison that is, crashed their coach. The army officers training on the beach rushed over to rescue them and Charlotte’s little sister gazes up into the eyes of her handsome hero.

The second when we find out Sidney Parker, before his death, learned something distressing about Miss Lambe. Now, generally speaking, when ending an episode or a season with a cliffhanger it’s reasonable to expect it to be resolved fairly quickly in the next episode. It’s not a necessity by any means and there are good reasons not to do so, which I’ll talk about later.

Generally speaking, the reason you include a cliffhanger in an episode is to draw the audience back for the next episode. People want to find out what happened. Cliffhangers are generally structured so a resolution is the next possible event. But not always.

Were the choices made good ones? Let’s discuss.

Coach Crash Cliffhanger

The coach crash falls into the immediate category. We left off with the young women spilled out all over the beach, knocked nearly unconscious. We sort of need to know if Alison and Miss Lambe suffered any serious injuries.

I imagined we’d pick up right where we left off. We’d see the rescue, first aid applied, a rushing over of concerned bystanders, and eventually a return home. Later scenes might include a visit to the doctor and the concern of Charlotte for her sister’s safety, an admonishment to Miss Lambe for her careless driving. None of that happened.

Instead, we pretty much immediately see both of the young ladies up and about in good health and spirits. The only mention of the accident comes when Captain Carter comes to deliver invitations for the ball and Alison somehow doesn’t even know his name. It seems like information she’d have from the aftermath of the crash, but, whatever. Not a big deal.

The problem with resolving the crash this way, for me at least, is I found myself totally confused during the opening scenes of the episode. Wait, wasn’t there a crash? Did I miss an episode? Is this out of order?

I’m guessing, without any evidence, a rescue scene was filmed but the editor decided it didn’t add much to the story and cut it. It just felt like an odd way to handle the cliffhanger.

Miss Lambe’s Finance Cliffhanger

The other cliffhanger was less immediate. We learned Sidney was investigating something about Miss Lambe and we suspect it might be financial shenanigans. This is the sort of cliffhanger that doesn’t need an immediate resolution. The truth of the matter can slowly unfold over the course of the next episode and those that follow.

That being said, it barely got a mention at all. The only time I recall it coming up occurred when Arthur Parker is speaking with Miss Lambe. They both seem aware of the situation involving Sidney but no further information is divulged.

I found myself surprised that someone told Miss Lambe about the situation at all considering they don’t know much. How did Arthur find out? Presumably discussions occurred but all off screen. I’m not a big fan of handling a major plot device with such exposition. Show us the scenes where Miss Lambe is told about the potential irregularities. Let’s see her reactions. It’s an important plot point because Miss Lambe’s wealth is a major focus of her many suitors. If she’s not the heiress we all imagine, if the money is gone, that is pretty important information.

Why was the situation largely ignored in the second episode? I’m sure more is coming but a few scenes where Miss Lambe is informed of the problem, perhaps where Charlotte is told, are in order. The lack of those scenes dulls my interest. If this is to be a major plot point, we need some information, some scenes, some concern about the potential consequences, but nope, a couple of useless lines.

Conclusions

I find myself quite disappointed in the way Sanditon handled the two big cliffhangers from the premier episode. Confused at the opening scenes of the episode and mostly forgetting about the Sidney situation.

The show is largely lacking the deft touch of say, Jane Austen.

Tom Liberman

The Many Saints of Newark Stages of Grief

Many Saints of Newark

I’m sorry to say that I finally got around to watching The Many Saints of Newark. To say it was disappointing is not to do it justice. I feel like I went through some version of the stages of grief while watching the hot mess that can charitably be described as disjointed fan service.

I’m a big Sopranos fan. I loved the show and watched the entire arc twice through and wouldn’t mind doing so again. I even wrote a blog about how Little Carmine Lupertazzi most certainly did not kill Tony Soprano in the show finale.

I read the various reviews of The Many Saints of Newark and I knew it didn’t live up to expectations, that people were disappointed. These reviews did not prepare me for the reality. On with my grief.

Stage One: Expectations

Even though I read the negative reviews of The Many Saints of Newark I still went in with at least middling hopes. I didn’t expect it to be great but I did imagine a mildly entertaining movie and perhaps a few nods to the brilliance of the original series.

My expectations were largely met in the first twenty minutes or so of The Many Saints of Newark. Then we kept getting scene after scene but no actual plot, not story, no through theme, no structure. I discussed this problem in The Gilded Age so you can read my full thoughts here. Eventually, I said to myself, there has to be a main plot, right? This is David Chase after all. His brilliance in the series cannot be denied.

Stage Two: Confusion

We’re an hour into the show now and there is still no sign of plot. Wait, did they just kill the Ray Liotta character. I saw previews where he spoke with Dickie Moltisanti in prison. He can’t be dead, can he? No, he’s dead. I mean, he’s on fire and not saying anything which is a good indicator.

No, seriously? A twin brother? You’ve got to be kidding me? Is this an afternoon Soap Opera? I’m utterly confused at this point and still waiting for a plot of any kind. There has to be some direction eventually doesn’t there?

Stage Three: Rage

I’m angry now. It’s nothing but a series of scenes with lots of fan service. Entire scenes are simply designed to provide a line of fan service to those of who loved The Sopranos. This is ludicrous. How did this happen? Screw you for spitting on the legacy of the Sopranos. Why, David Chase. Screw you, Many Saints of Newark.

You are this bad. You are really terrible. The acting is fine. The sets are good. There is no main story. There is no structure! Why is anything happening? There are twelve different storylines going on and none of them are explored with anything other than superficiality. There is no central thread. This movie sucks!

I hate every single character in the movie. I hate them all.

Stage Four: Rationalization

Ok, I accept The Many Saints of Newark is awful. I’m over that. It’s bad and these things happen. It’s got to be that Chase didn’t want to make the movie. That he made it at the behest of money loving studio executives and intentionally sabotaged it.

He let the executives write the script. He did everything they wanted in a deliberate attempt to make a bad movie. Yeah, that’s got to be it. Chase can’t have completely gone off the deep end. It’s deliberately bad. There will be some nod, some tip, right near the end, to let me know it’s all a goof.

Stage Five: Acceptance

Dickie drowns the girl? Junior kills Dickie? The ending is more fan service? Ok. It’s bad. They tried. The magic is gone. You can never go home again. At least I’ll get a blog out of it.

Tom Liberman

By Jove The Gilded Age Finally Got it!

Gilded Age

It took an entire season, but The Gilded Age finally came through with a worthwhile episode. The season finale delivered on the hype by giving us an entertaining and watchable episode. I cared. I’m not saying the episode made me change my generally negative opinion about the show, but it gives me hope for season two.

Huzzah! Hurrah! I’ve been writing largely nothing but negative things about the show and I think that gives the impression I enjoy doing so. That I’m one of those reviewers who prefers to give negative assessments and make cutting remarks.

This is not true. I want The Gilded Age to be good because excellent entertainment is in my best interest. I prefer good shows. I’m not the sort to be happy when my team loses because it validates my hate. In any case, why was this episode good? Read on.

A Central Theme in the Gilded Age

I wrote an entire blog on why an episode needs a central theme to hold it together and the season finale had it. The entire episode swirled around the debutant coming out party for Gladys. Sure, we had Marion’s ice hot love life to distract us along with Peggy’s revelation and the chef’s troubles, but the entire episode had the structural support it needed.

With the debutant ball to hold everything together we came back to the main structure again and again. The side plots entertained us briefly but then we returned to the support that held everything together. This is the foundation of a good episode. It keeps us grounded and focused on a particular thing.

I hope my complaints earlier about the lack of such support make more sense now that we’ve seen it done properly. The actors are all working around this idea. The scenes are not scattered all over the five boroughs without relation to one another. Cohesions.

A Single Timeline

With the support of the debutant ball to focus the plots, the fuzzy timelines of all the previous episodes vanished. We didn’t see one character pass through a week while other characters were still back on the same day eating dinner. Because of the ball, everyone moved at the same rate. Everyone was going to the ball so time, by force, had to pass at the same rate for everyone.

Improved Acting

I’m not going to pass out awards for the acting but it showed a marked improvement. It wasn’t all about one character cutting down another with witty remarks. We didn’t have an overwhelming plethora of quick scenes designed around a zinger at the end. The main story forced the characters to work with one another, to care for one another. We saw longer scenes, real interactions, meaningful character development.

We had Raikes as a foil and the battle of wills between Bertha and Mrs. Astor played out through the friendship of their daughters. I was immersed in the battles.

Contrivance

Ok, there was a ton of contrivance, I know. The bank loan, the chef’s revelation and his drunken replacement, the letter revealing Peggy’s son, the elopement and the ball on the same night, it was all clearly contrived and rather silly but I can overlook that when everything else is well done.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there must be conflict and sometimes that requires coincidence and a little creativity from the author. Believe me, I’ve done it my books and I don’t begrudge the writer a bit of leeway in this regard.

Conclusion

I’m very pleased to be writing this positive review of The Gilded Age. I wish I could have done it earlier. The season finale did things properly as far as structure and that elevated the entire episode.

The idea is technical and I won’t get delve deeply but there is a thing called the Five Act structure. It’s been around since ancient Greece. It’s a foundation upon which to build a story. Ignore it at your peril.

Tom Liberman

Oh Sanditon don’t be The Gilded Age

Sanditon

The much-anticipated premier episode of the second season of Sanditon arrived with fanfare on PBS and because of that, you get to hear my thoughts about it. I’ll be clear right away, I’m not one to mince words. The episode borrowed far too much from The Gilded Age and that does not make me happy.

I don’t think the episode nearly met the low standards of The Gilded Age but it seemed the producers of Sanditon, at least in this first episode, used the same playbook as those who created the aforementioned series.

Now, perhaps it’s a good thing to borrow from a successful show but to my way of thinking, success is not equivalent to high quality. Let’s get on with it.

Blistering Pace

Sanditon blasts off with all the subtlety of an Elon Musk product launch. The opening iambic pentameter recap just wasted time reminding us of the events of the previous season. Then came the race to start every plotline as quickly as possible.

Sidney is dead, Charlotte is returning with her sister, Sanditon is rebuilt, loans must be repaid, miscarriages, army units, nefarious officers, dashing officers, children running under horses, women working for a living; it’s all happening too fast. Who, what, why, when, where? Doesn’t matter, stand aside, we’ve got to introduce every conflict as quickly as possible instead of letting them unfold organically.

Out of Time Sequences

Scenes out of time and out of place is a particular annoyance of mine although I know it doesn’t bother others as much. It’s a staple in the Gilded Age where one character has five days roll by and another only has a single afternoon pass when they meet for lunch.

It wasn’t nearly as egregious in Sanditon, but Charlotte went from applying for the position of governess to having lunch with the Parkers and then to walking back from the job interview. Maybe the good Doctor Who intervened somewhere to make that possible.

Contrived Conflict

The majority of the conflict seem to come out of nowhere. Why does Miss Lamb hate the artist who will clearly be her love interest? The argument between Charlotte and her employer was out of place. Even the military unit’s presence in town didn’t make a lot of sense. As for the two wayward children, they seemed almost like alien entities. Why are they here? What’s going on? Don’t know, don’t care, we need plot!

Now, I’m not a stickler for this sort of thing. You’ve got to have conflict and sometimes you need contrivance to make it happen. A few coincidences and events I don’t mind, but it was just one after the next in the premier episode.

Not All Bad

The middle section of the show slowed down to a calmer pace. Particularly, the story of Lady Esther Babbington arrived organically and makes sense. The plot line of the loaned money also seemed very natural and normal as did the cliffhanger regarding Miss Lamb.

The acting is universally strong and that stands in stark contrast to the Gilded Age. The director lets the actors act rather than forcing stilted conversation on them. They speak to one another rather than at each other. It is this quality acting that largely saves Sanditon in my opinion.

Conclusion

I hold out every hope the frantic pace of the premier episode of the second season will disappear into the background. That the show, with all the conflict set in motion, will move forward at a more regular pace.

A boy can hope, can’t he?

Tom Liberman

Introducing New Characters Gilded Age and Winning Time

New characters comparison

Introducing new characters into a series is not always an easy task. When the series is in its first season the audience meets new people fairly frequently and how they interact with the existing characters is important.

Today I’m discussing the way the Gilded Age and Winning Time introduced a new character and why I think one method is better than the other. In both cases the new character is a crotchety older woman and mother to an established character. That’s why I thought it might be an apt comparison.

Mean Old Mom

In The Gilded Age we’ve met the nasty housekeeper, Armstrong, from the Van Rhijn estate on several occasions as she made life miserable for Peggy and others. Meanwhile, Dr. Buss is one of the main characters in Winning Time and we know a lot about him.

Both of those characters have mothers, obviously. It turns out both women are more than a bit crotchety.

We meet Armstrong’s mother when Armstrong takes a day off from work to help the bed-ridden woman. Armstrong takes non-stop abuse from the horrible woman. Mom is as one-dimensional a character as you can imagine. Mean. That’s it, no more, no other traits, nothing redeeming.

Meanwhile we meet Momma Buss when her son comes to her with the company books for help with accounting issues. She’s biting in her critique of Dr. Buss and they have quite the exchange that seemed like real family to me. Near the end it is clear that while she is nasty, she also cares for her son and wants what is best.

The Purpose of Side Characters

Often times the purpose of side characters is to give us insight into the main character. By meeting Armstrong’s mother and Momma Buss we should learn about the two more important characters.

In this case it seems to me the idea of introducing Armstrong’s mother as a miserable and hateful person was to make us more sympathetic to the longtime Van Rhijn maid and her treatment of Peggy.

The idea behind introducing Momma Buss is to give us some awareness of the kind of upbringing Dr. Buss had and perhaps his own drive to succeed.

The Aftermath

After meeting both mothers, I liked Momma Buss despite her flaws but Armstrong’s mother was so vile, so mean, so without redeeming characteristics that I should have disliked her but, because of her one-dimensional nature, I didn’t really care much one way or the other.

This is a general problem with the Gilded Age. We cycle through characters and story lines so quickly that I don’t really get to know anyone at all. I don’t hate them but I also can’t say that I genuinely like any character in the Gilded Age. Young Jack is likeable and we got an extended scene with him this week but that’s not a topic for today.

As discussed, I think portraying Armstrong’s mother so negatively was to get us to have sympathy for Armstrong. And yet, in the latest episode, Armstrong is absolutely horrible. I don’t like her. I have no sympathy for her. So why did we meet her horrible mother? One more person to dislike on The Gilded Age? As if there aren’t enough?

Meanwhile, the short scene with Momma Buss gave us insight in Dr. Buss as did the scene with Red Auerbach. Michael Chiklis absolutely slayed it in that role by the way.

New Characters Add to the Story

The new characters in Winning Time, Momma Buss and Auerbach, added greatly to the story. They interacted with the main characters in ways that pushed the story forward. In ways that gave me insight into the main characters. They were introduced seamlessly and easily.

New characters in the Gilded Age; Armstrong’s mother, Mrs. Fish, Carrie Astor, and many more don’t really seem to do much. They are there. They speak. The allow other events to happen but they don’t interact meaningfully with the main characters. They give us little or no insight and they come and go like a freight train in the night.

Conclusion

I don’t say Winning Time is a perfect show or that The Gilded Age is without merit. I say that someone at Winning Time understands how to tell a compelling story and maybe someone over at the Gilded Age should take some notes.

Tom Liberman

Talking at Each other in the Gilded Age

Talking at each other

I watched episode eight of The Gilded Age last night and I’m afraid it was largely just characters talking at each other. Any momentum from last week’s moderately decent episode went flying out the window. Almost the entire episode consisted of one character spitting out their lines at a breakneck pace without giving the words of the other character even the slightest consideration.

Honestly, I’ve seen some terrible entertainment over the years but this was the worst case of characters talking at each other I’ve ever witnessed. The problem of too many short scenes recurred, the problem of no central theme recurred, the problem of time flow recurred, it was a cornucopia of everything wrong with the Gilded Age.

Talking at Each Other

What do I mean by characters talking at each other being bad? Isn’t that what people do? I speak and the other person responds. That’s the normal flow of conversation, right? Wrong. The normal flow of conversation is that one person speaks, the second person listens to those words, formulates a reply, and then answers.

If I want to watch two people talk at each other I’ll turn on the local opinion show that masquerades as news. That’s just one idiot saying something and the other moron responding with whatever they wanted to say regardless of what they just heard. That’s not what I expect from a highly produced television series.

Sadly, that’s exactly what happened in this episode, time and time again. One person spoke and almost before the sentence ended the second person spat out a cutting reply with no intonation, no reflection, no indication of any emotion. Just a quick, sharp, and move on to the next scene so I can see someone in a different outfit.

A Good Dialog

The only reasonable dialog in episode eight occurred when George discussed the derailment issue with his experts. The experts, minor characters, actually listened to George, thought about his words, and then replied at a normal pace indicating they listened to his original statement. It was startling to see the contrast between the bit players and the main actors.

Bad Acting?

Is bad acting to blame? I’m don’t think so, at least not in every case. Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon are two capable, veteran actors with good work to their credits. Even they seem to struggle to speak their lines with emotion and thought rather than spit them out like a runaway steam locomotive.

I’m of the opinion it’s the directing. The actors are being told to spew out their lines quickly and without emotion, to not pause, to fail to consider their opposite’s words. The problem is far too universal and largely only with the main characters to simply be bad acting.

Now, it’s possible some of it is bad acting, I don’t deny that and I think everyone knows the actors of whom I speak. But, it’s also possible that those actors are actually talented with potential but being wrecked by terrible direction.

Conclusion

The season is barreling toward its conclusion with Gladys’s debutant ball. Perhaps when it comes time to film the second season someone will have noted all the problems and try to give this show the direction it needs. I hold out little hope for the remaining episodes.

Tom Liberman

The Fourth Wall in Winning Time

Winning Time and the Fourth Wall

Winning Time is an HBO series telling the story of the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. The actors in the show break the Fourth Wall with great frequency and that is the focus of my blog today.

The show is about Dr. Jerry Buss who purchased the Lakers in 1979 and his attempt to build a championship team around young Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Jr. I’ll break any suspense by telling you I think it’s a pretty good show … at times. Then the actors break the fourth wall and it’s not so good.

What is the Fourth Wall?

The Fourth Wall is line between the stage and the audience. The actors are actors and the audience is the audience. An actor generally pretends she or he does not know the audience is out there watching. He or she performs. This means pretending to be the character in question rather than an actor portraying that character.

The purpose of the Fourth Wall is to immerse the audience in the performance. It is generally important for us to believe the person on the screen is Dr. Jerry Buss, not John C. Reilly an actor pretending to be Buss.

Why Ignore the Fourth Wall?

There are reasons to ignore the Fourth Wall and the character Deadpool from comic and movie fame is a perfect illustration. Deadpool understands he is a character and we are watching him. His jokes revolve around the idea of this self-awareness.

There is, in my opinion, no reason to do this in Winning Time.

Why Breaking the Fourth Wall hurts the Show

The show, when the actors are acting instead of mugging for the audience is quite good. The only time Reilly isn’t excellent in the role of Buss is when he’s talking to us. Rob Morgan is absolutely slaying it as Earvin Johnson, Sr. I believe every second of his performance as a caring, loving father and, not surprisingly, none of his scenes break the wall.

DeVaugn Nixon is excellent as Norm Nixon, worried about the young Johnson coming in and taking his job. Michael O’Keefe is superb as Jack Kent Cooke. Jason Clarke’s rage as Jerry West, whether accurate or not, comes across with red-hot intensity.

Largely, the only time the show doesn’t work is when the actors break the Fourth Wall. Doing this has two negative effects. First it immediately takes me away from immersion. I realize I’m watching actors and not actual events and people.

Second it is being used as exposition, to tell us something rather than showing it. A glaring example is when actor Gaby Hoffman turns to the camera and tells us she needs this job and then lets down her hair right before meeting with Buss. Why not just let down her hair? That tells us everything we need to know. I don’t want to watch Gaby Hoffman, I want to see Claire Rothman, a woman in a sea of misogyny, doing her job.

Black Culture

Getting away from the fourth wall for a moment I want to praise what appears me as a fair portrayal of black, urban culture. The family scenes with the Johnsons and the pedicure scene with Nixon rang very true to my eyes. The writers didn’t overplay these interactions to the point of parody nor did they hide the cultural norms of the community. They seemed true.

Now, I’m a white boy from the suburbs so I’m certainly not particularly well-qualified to make that judgement. I can say with utter honesty, the scenes convinced me, I was immersed.

Conclusion

It’s a good show but I wish they’d decided against going with a Fourth Wall breaking formula. The story of Buss, Johnson, and the others is fascinating on its own. That, of course, was not my decision to make and it’s not going to change.

I’ll be tuned in next week.

Tom Liberman