The Gilded Age a Season in an Episode

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age on HBO premiered this week and, as a history buff, I tuned in with eager anticipation. The Gilded age refers to an incredibly interesting time in the history of the United States as the country transitioned to industrialization.

New money families arose and began to challenge the established wealth that dated back to colonial times. Many of the great family names still around today, Westinghouse, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Morgan, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt, and more ascended at this time. The time frame gives us a huge historical reality to play with and so many plots to explore.

I eagerly anticipated watching the first episode. I was somewhat disappointed for reasons I’ll detail below but I think the show has a lot of promise. On with the review!

The Gilded Age Plot

The major storyline of The Gilded Age is the conflict between new money and old in the New York social and business world. The Russell family is new money and George is the classic robber baron of the railroad industry. His wife, Bertha, tries desperately to find a place in New York with the established families.

In contrast are the van Rhijn ladies who represent old and snobby money. They want nothing to do with the Bertha and her social plans. The conflict between Bertha and Agnes van Rhijn is the driving force of the story although the younger generation has a role to play as well.

Too Much too Fast

The speed at which the plot developed in the opening episode left my head spinning. We met character after character in a dizzying array of scenes that left me without attachment to any of them. It’s a real shame because several of the characters have an enormous potential to feed future plots.

Peggy Scott as a young writer of ambition. Larry Russel as the son of the George and Bertha, a spirited young fellow eager to be in the world. Gladys Russel as the shy and sweet daughter of new money. Several of the servants in both houses including the scheming Turner and the wise Watson piqued my interest.

I don’t mention Marian Brooks, the niece of Agnes, because the young girl is incredibly boring; but I will deal with that later.

A Whole Season of Potential Gone in One Episode

Sadly, a huge amount of potential was lost as we sprinted through an opening episode that I argue might have been an entire season. The failed party hosted by Bertha served as the climax of the episode. To my mind this should have been the denouement to the entire season.

The premier episode might center around young Marian Brook and the difficult financial state brought on by her father’s reckless spending. The relationship between her and the lawyer, her father’s estrangement from his sisters. Then we might switch to Peggy and her family troubles. The incident that caused her to separate from her father. We might end with the two meeting at the rail station.

The second episode might center on finishing up the magnificent Russel home. Focusing on the two children and Bertha’s ambitions. Spending some time getting to know George and his financial success, how it happened, the old life they are leaving an attempt to reach the upper crust of society. We might meet some of their old friends and finish with the family moving into the new house.

In any case, I’m not going to outline an entire season here but it’s clear to me they rushed things far too fast and left many juicy plots behind in their eagerness to get to the failed party. I feel like I missed out on an entire season of the Gilded Age because of the incessant rush.

The Acting

The acting is stiff and wooden to a level that I can only attribute to the director. It’s as if the actors, many quality performers, are looking over their shoulder to make sure the nun isn’t going to smack them with a ruler because they showed the slightest bit of emotion.

I’m guessing this is designed to display the ultra-formal speech used back in those days. Maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s just bad acting but I don’t think so. Poor Louisa Jacobson, who portrays Marian and is the center of the story, is like a wooden block. She looks terrified she might make a mistake in every scene. She is not alone though.

Almost everyone is wooden including Carrie Coon as Bertha. Bertha and Marian are the main characters of the story! Even Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski, established and quality actors, as the van Rhijn aunts, appear almost frightened to actually perform.

I must take a moment to praise Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy as Dorothy Scott and Mrs. Astor. The two brought real emotion and life to the otherwise dull character interactions. Blake Riston as Oscar van Rhijn was also quite good although his arc seemed fit for a season long storyline rather than something to be quickly revealed in the first episode.

Conclusion

I’m not completely disappointed with The Gilded Age. It had a few good moments and I think if the actors are allowed to act and the pace of the story slows, there’s a good chance it might become an excellent series.

The first episode is disappointing.

Tom Liberman

Why I dislike Succession on HBO

Succession

Succession is a highly rated and successful show on HBO and I recently began watching. It garners 93% on the Tomatometer from Rotten Tomato critics and 81% approval from audiences. The show is equally highly rated on IMBD with a score of 8.6. It has two Golden Globes and nine Emmy awards in the first two seasons.

My personal perusal of reviews and audience reaction confirms these numbers with sentiment for the show running quite high. People seem to love the storyline, the acting, the directing, the sets, just about everything to do with Succession.

I Hate it

I hate Succession. I’m certainly not telling people who love the show they are wrong. I understand I’m merely three episodes into the third season of Succession and my opinions are based on extremely limited information. Still, I can barely make it through an episode.

Just because I don’t like a show is no reason it shouldn’t be successful. I find most of the blockbuster movies made today to be awful and they make hundreds of millions of dollars. If you like it, so be it. I don’t and I’m going to tell you why, because that’s what I do.

Overview

Succession tells the story of media and entertainment mogul Logan Roy along with his family. It is billed as a Dark Comedy although, in the episodes I’ve seen, I don’t recall laughing a single time.

I’m not going to dive deep into what makes a show good or bad but if you’d like my thoughts on that, take a look at this blog.

The Dialog

The first thing I hate is the writing. It isn’t so much terrible as it is untrue. The dialog seems written more toward what the audience expects the characters to say and do instead of what the actual characters might actually say. I find it almost universally unbelievable.

I find Kendall to be particularly implausible considering his educational and family background. His historical references don’t make sense. Ok, he has self-doubt and struggles with wanting to be liked. Could you do that with subtleness rather than hitting the audience over the head with a sledge hammer every single time he opens his mouth?

Shiv takes a minute of hemming and hawing and umming and uhhing to speak a line of dialog. I want to kick her in the shin, spit it out!

Roman’s lines seem written for a thirteen-year-old, and I apologize to boys that age for the comparison. “Ha ha, I said fart,” is about the crux of it.

Greg’s bumbling is so pronounced and severe I don’t even believe he’s human.

I could go on but I’ll stop there.

Scene Structures

The scenes come fast and furious but I see no connection from one to the next. Is it an hour later? The same moment but a new location with different characters? A week later? There’s no rhythm to the show. It’s just one scene after the next, each seemingly with the sole purpose of a one liner at the end hoping for a laugh. Spoiler, I didn’t laugh.

So many things happen that make no sense I can’t even begin to get into it all. I’ll give special mention Shiv’s big speech. Why was there a panic when Kendall came into the building? Like they weren’t expecting it? How incompetent are they?

Then Kendall suddenly comes up with a great plan to ruin Shiv’s speech by playing loud music. He sends a lacky out to buy equipment at the last second. Someone runs hundreds of feet of wire, interfaces with a receiver, and the master plan goes into effect.

Let’s discount this should take an hour at best and mention a hundred people see all of it happening and can’t call security? Can’t unplug the speakers? Utter nonsense. This happens all the time in this show. I’m constantly taken out of immersion and into stunned incredulity at the stupidity of it all.

Acting

I can’t blame the actors because the dialog is so bad. Credit to Brian Cox as Logan, Alan Ruck as Connor, and J. Smith-Cameron as Gerri as remotely believable in main roles. Most of the good acting performances come from bit players, probably because their lines aren’t written with audience approval in mind.

Conclusion

I find the show painful to watch. I’m not immersed in the world, I’m shaking my head at dialog that makes no sense, scenes that come out of nowhere and return to oblivion after a stupid one liner. Everything is rushed, pushed, shoved, harassed, and jammed into place. There is no reflection, no pacing, and hardly a likable character. An hour seems like a day. It’s painful.

Bring the hate, you lovers of Succession. I can take it.

Tom Liberman

White Lotus Ultimately Disappointing

White Lotus

What is White Lotus?

White Lotus is a recently released mini-series which received acclaim from both critics and audience. It tells the tale of a group of travelers at a luxury resort and expands on their personal problems while hinting at a murder mystery.

Really Good for While

The thing about White Lotus is that it’s really quite good in almost every respect. It’s not a situation like The Nevers or Miss Scarlet. Those shows, while many people certainly enjoy them greatly, I found to be almost without redeeming qualities.

In White Lotus the writing is well-paced and interesting. The characters slowly reveal themselves to us through dialog and events rather than obtrusive exposition. In particular the Quinn character story arc spoke to me in a number of ways.

Steve Zahn as Quinn’s father annoyed me to no end but slowly grew into an interesting and fully three-dimensional character. The acting is largely excellent. I thought Jake Lacy as the annoying husband to the confused and unhappy Alexandra Daddario particularly effective. Connie Britton peeled away the crazy layers of her character with wild-eyed abandon.

The sets were lovely, the cinematography well done. Quinn going outside to sleep on the beach as the sun set and whales breeched is an image I won’t soon forget.

Why it Doesn’t Succeed Fully

You might be wondering at this point as to why I found White Lotus disappointing if all I can manage to do is heap praise upon it.

It’s the ending. Perhaps I should say some of the endings. I don’t mind a story that doesn’t tie everything up in a nice little bow, in fact I general prefer a little ambiguity. I also don’t mind an ending that isn’t happy. That’s real life and it happens.

The fate of Rachel in a golden prison with Shane is not my problem. Nor is the conclusion of the Nicole story with her joyously sprinkling the ashes of her dead mother. Those two I liked, it’s everyone else’s ending that disappointed.

I really don’t know what to make of the Paula and Olivia ending. What happened? Are they still friends? Did they learn anything. What about poor Kai? Manipulated by Paula to salvage her own conscious at being of color but living in luxury.

I worry that Quinn won’t even be able to make it back from the airport to the resort with no phone and no money. How will he survive? His parents certainly won’t let the plane leave without Quinn on board.

What about Belinda? What will she do with the wad of cash? Will Nicole run the business opportunity by her team and change her mind?

Armand’s story seemed to simply justify the premise of the opening scene where we know someone died. It didn’t seem organic to me.

In the End

Too many of the endings just weren’t endings at all. I found myself unsatisfied. I’m certainly not saying White Lotus is bad, it’s quite good really and I very much enjoyed watching it. I’m looking forward to a second season reportedly in the works with new guests.

I guess my point here is that endings are really important. If you can’t find a good ending then every wonderful thing leading to that point is forgotten. White Lotus was close to wonderful and I’d recommend it even though the ending left me disappointed.

Tom Liberman

The Nevers Baggage Free Review

The Nevers

An Objective Review of The Nevers

The Nevers is a new show on HBO and I’m right at the center of the demographic audience for whom it is intended. That’s a fancy way of saying I’m a nerd with money to spend.

Not long ago I wrote a review of All Creatures Great and Small and Miss Scarlett and in it I discussed the ideas of reviewing a show for its objective good or bad traits rather than any baggage associated with the show or those who are involved in it.

If ever a show needed an objective review, it’s The Nevers although I’m not going to go into reasons why it is necessary, trust me on the subject. Most review are going to be at least partially if not mostly influenced by said baggage. None of that here.

What is The Nevers?

The Nevers is a much-hyped show on HBO which follows the exploits of a group of late nineteenth century Londoners dealing with the results of an unexplained phenomenon that left a number of people touched, that is to say, with special abilities and traits.

It’s a nerdalicious show with all the elements that have intrigued me since the early days of such shows which arguably began with the underrated Misfits of Science. To say that I’m a fan is to damn with faint praise indeed. I eat this stuff by the gallon and beg for more.

The Review

Acting

The ensemble case, and I do mean ensemble, for the premier episode did an excellent job for the most part. It doesn’t hurt that lead actor Laura Donnelly is an athletic, dark-haired vixen with more than a touch of crazy in her eyes. I have a weakness for that type. Still, trying to ignore my rapidly beating heart, I thought she was believable in the lead role as Amalia True.

Ann Skelly as Penance Adair was also excellent as a sidekick. She brought a sweetness to the role that seemed to shine through. The secondary characters all performed well. Amy Manson seemed over-the-top as the murderous Maladie and I thought hers was the weakest performance although she had little to do so I’ll withhold judgment.

I have only one quibble with the acting and it’s probably more with the sound team and the writing than the actors. I struggled throughout to understand the dialog. Their accents along with a lot of mumbling made it really difficult to follow.

Characters

The characters were all quite interesting and the opening vignette where we met them was relatively nicely managed. It’s not easy to get in so many backstories so quickly and I felt somewhat shortchanged, particularly in regards to Amalia who attempts to commit suicide but why?

In addition, Amalia’s Touched power is precognition but she somehow has ninja skills and is a martial arts master. I’ll talk more about this in the writing section.

Likewise, the Beggar King was introduced almost as an afterthought and attempting to make him menacing with so little to do didn’t work well for me. Lord Massen was handled particularly well as the big baddy. They did a nice job of explaining, at least partially, his hatred of the Touched in that his daughter collapses after the inciting incident.

Mary Brighton’s introduction seemed very forced as well and I just didn’t care about her at all even in the climactic opera scene. I think the big problem was too many characters too quickly. There’s just not enough time to get to know or care about them.

All in all, I think the characters are interesting and promising.

Writing

In a nutshell, this is where things went wrong. The writing falls into the typical trap of action shows where entire scenes appear out of nowhere, make no logical sense to the plot, and take me out of the moment. By this I mean I leave my immersion and shake my head in astonishment at the stupidity.

Particularly egregious from my perspective is Amalia with martial skills. Why does she have them? It makes no sense. They really needed a third lead along with Penance who has such Touched abilities but I guess the cast was already far too large.

In addition, Amalia’s precognition is a real problem in that she sees the future, changes her behavior, and alters the timeline removing what she just witnessed. I kind of have this problem with precognition in whole. I’d like to see her Touched ability give her insight into what to do after the event happens, not prevent it entirely.

From a scene related perspective, when Amalia and Penance went to investigate a touched girl, Myrtle things made little sense. Suddenly, while downstairs with her parents, kidnappers arrive upstairs and an enormous chase scene ensues. The investigation was just an excuse to have the chase.

Now, I will give the writers credit, they tried to explain the coincidence of the kidnapping at that exact moment as a result of the Beggar King giving the same information to the group led by Maladie. Still, I’m not buying it.

The pivotal opera scene made no sense whatsoever, from beginning to end. Why were they there? Maladie was there apparently to capture a Touched girl but goes on a nonsensical rant on stage as a way to introduce her compatriots, I guess. I couldn’t follow her dialog at all. Why did Mary start to sing?

It was an enormous hodgepodge of a chocolate mess. Why didn’t security rush the stage immediately? How did Hugo Swann only notice the murderous rampage on set when Maladie rushed by with Mary? I mean, he was standing right there for the entire thing.

The weepy dialog between Amalia and Penance after the failed pursuit didn’t make any sense at all. The entire scene, arguably the most pivotal in the first episode was baffling.

The writing really killed my enjoyment of what otherwise seems like a promising show. Too bad.

Sets and Costumes

The sets are stunning and believable and the costume design work is absolutely first rate. No quibbles here.

Music

Music is generally a problem in shows of this nature as it grows overbearing and preachy. When should I be afraid? When should I sense romance? Just listen to the volume cranking up. I’m thrilled to say the music was used with a relatively deft touch. The action scenes weren’t drowned by the music.

I am happy with the relatively deft touch displayed by the sound team here although they must do something about making the dialog understandable.

Conclusion

I didn’t enjoy the show almost exclusively because of poor writing. Many scenes seemed to be setups for action sequences rather than a plot moving device. Everything else was worth watching and I’ll keep tuning in for the moment, but we’ll see.

Tom Liberman