Is The Undoing Crap or Gold?

The Undoing

I recently watched The Undoing on HBO and came away somewhat ambivalent. There are a number of things to like about The Undoing but, in the end, it left me slightly disappointed. I’ve written before about how an ending must be satisfying for any sort of entertainment to succeed completely. In this case it did not.

The Undoing tells the story of the Fraser family and the Alves family. Jonathan Fraser is the bridge between the two. He is a doctor treating the Alves son and Jonathan also has an affair with Mrs. Alves. It is her gruesome murder and the arrest of Fraser that drives the plot.

What I liked

Let’s start with the elements of The Undoing I enjoyed. The writers did an absolutely terrific job of keeping me guessing. Right up until the very end I wasn’t entirely positive who committed the crime. My early guess was that Grace Fraser, played ably by Nicole Kidman, bludgeoned Elena Alves to death. From there I fluctuated between Grace, Jonathan, their son Henry, and even the grandfather played by Donald Sutherland.

I found the setting entirely believable and the events around Reardon School, including the ostentatious auction, immersed me in the life of the Fraser’s completely.

Likewise, the acting proved largely excellent. Grant, Kidman, and Sutherland led the way but the supporting cast largely convinced me as well. Lily Rabe stands out for her portrayal of Grace’s friend as did young Noah Jupe as Henry.

What I didn’t Like

I found the courtroom scenes unconvincing. I regularly found myself thinking both lawyers didn’t know how to object properly, having watched real lawyers do it at the Depp and Heard civil trial. I kept emerging from immersion to think to myself, is that a question or a statement? Shouldn’t someone object here?

The final reveal also left me a bit dissatisfied. Shouldn’t the police and prosecution have discovered the information about Jonathan’s past during the investigation? They didn’t really need Grace to present it to them on a platter.

The Conclusion

As you may have guessed from my tease at the beginning of this review, the ending left me quite unhappy. I think the series should have ended with the final courtroom revelation. We know everything, boom, credits. Over and done. However, that’s not flashy. There is no running, shouting, or chasing. We don’t have helicopters and police cars. We don’t have a frantic Grace or an angry Jonathan and that’s what the audience apparently wants.

Not me. The last ten minutes of The Undoing really soured my entire opinion of an otherwise very good series. Of course, you may disagree! Tell me why.

Stick the landing!

Tom Liberman

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

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

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

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

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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

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

The Value of Transitions

Transitions

I just caught up with the latest episode of The Gilded Age and I’m happy to report myself moderately satisfied. Episode Six: Heads Have Rolled for Less than This wasn’t the greatest piece of film in cinematographic history but it showed a marked improvement over episode five.

However, that is not the topic of today’s blog. Today I will discuss transitions. Not particularly exciting, I know, but bear with me.

Transitions: going from one scene to the next. I’ve commented before that the scenes in The Gilded Age don’t have a common thread. That we’re thrown from one to the next without a lifeline to guide us. I tried to explain this in a previous review but two transitions in this episode particular illustrate the point I tried to make then.

Bad Transitions at the Red Cross Meeting

The scene begins with Marion and Peggy walking down the street discussing various things and ends with their arrival at the front of the building in which the meeting will take place. They are greeted by Clara Barton who exits a coach, speaks with them briefly, and then heads inside.

The scene cuts and we are now at the Van Rhijn household although it took me until almost the scene finished to figure this out. The transition was quick and without explanation. I had no idea where I was or who was talking. It turned out to be the maid and Ada Brook. The maid paying back the loan taken to cover her gambling debts.

Then the next scene we are inside at the Red Cross meeting where Mrs. Russell is being discussed. The transition between the Red Cross scenes served only to confuse me.

Why place the maid scene in between the two others? It made no sense and forced my mind away from the goings on at the Red Cross, the topics being discussed by Marion and Peggy, the general flow of the story.

The transitions did not enhance either of the scenes and there seemed to be no connection. It was jarring, unnerving even, and certainly took me out of the flow.

Good Transitions at Lunchtime

The good transition begins in the servants’ quarters at the Van Rhijn household where young Jack is filling in for Bannister. He nervously prepares to serve the luncheon and is encouraged by Bridget as he heads off into the lion’s den to face the aunts.

As he opens the door the transition happens. The doors that open are those at the Russell household where the grand lunch is being served. It was perfect, seamless, and purposeful.

This illustrates that scene transitions don’t necessarily have to be about related events. It was the simple fact that doors opened to a luncheon, in different locations, that worked.

Film Editing

The film editor sorted through various scenes and chose to put these scenes next to one another. That’s a conscious action. It’s done presumably for a reason and yet I can find no good reason for the first instance and applaud heartily the second.

It’s frustrating to see the luncheon transitions because it means the film editor is actually paying attention. If the film editor observed such attention to detail in one case, why not in others?

Conclusion

Why, I ask, why? It’s clear someone does know how to create good transitions. The luncheon proves it. Why not do it more frequently? Why not structure the episode so that one scene flows into the next without jarring the audience?

I hope this small illustration gives you a better idea what I tried to convey in my other blog. Good transitions and proper scene structure can enhance a show greatly.

Does my explanation of the good and bad transitions make sense to you?

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Tom Liberman

The Winner for the Most Scenes in One Episode Goes to

Most scenes

The Gilded Age Episode 5! Congratulations. If the goal was to cram the most scenes into the shortest amount of time, you win. All Creatures Great and Small, which I’d recommend, has less scenes in two full series than what I just witnessed.

I’m in shock. My brain reels. Did I just get run over by a train? If soldiering and critiquing were analogous, they’d diagnose me with post-traumatic stress disorder. Luckily for me that’s not the case and I’ll surely recover.

Stopwatch

Honestly, if I didn’t think it might cause me emotional distress, I’d go back and watch that episode again with my phone’s stopwatch engaged and a pad of paper to count the scenes. Wham, bam, thank you, Tom but the Gilded Age is already out the door and onto a completely different storyline. Don’t stop, don’t think.

There had to be a dozen or more scenes that lasted less than a minute. New scene, new place, new people, stilted dialog, go! Next! Faster! Faster! We’ve no time for character development, no time for emotional attachment, no time for a story to develop. Get moving and get moving now!

Bridget and Jack, Bye Bye

Bridget and Jack’s compelling story? No time, Tom. No time! We’ve got to get on with the housekeeper and her mother. Don’t you know we can’t dwell; we can’t risk you caring about anyone in the cornucopia of plots. Bridget’s serial rape and trauma, that’s behind us now, Tom. Catch up, catch up, catch up!

The Passage of Time

Don’t worry about the passage of time. It’s later, or the same time, or before. We’re not sure. It’s a scene! People in fancy clothes. It’s virginal and chaste girls swapping spit on their first kiss. Here, there, everywhere. Don’t worry, Tom. It doesn’t matter when or why; we’ve got to get the most scenes in as quick as we can. Go, go, go!

Speak Fast

Speak as quickly as possible with as little inflection as possible. Scenes, more scenes, we need more scenes, we need the most scenes ever put together in a single episode of television!

Clothes

New outfits, quick, hurry, don’t pause, that’s what people want. If we have the most scenes, we have the most outfits. Quick, into the changing room.

Nathan Lane

Good god, Nathan! Didn’t you get the message? Why are you speaking slowly, carefully, with emotion and thought behind your words? Don’t you know what show you’re on? Off, off, get him off. He cares about acting, he understands the structure of scene. Fire him, immediately. What? He’s under contract for more episodes. Damn. Get me the writers, cut his lines!

Paragraphs

More paragraphs, yes, that will make this article compelling. More headings, more paragraphs. Quicker, Tom, quicker. No one can pay attention for more than thirty seconds, you fool.

Conclusion

My head hurts. That episode was horrific.

The End

Episode Editing and the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

I just finished watching episode four of The Gilded Age and the episode editing struck me with the force of a runaway locomotive. It’s a problem I’ve noted in previous reviews, but this week’s episode editing lacked any semblance of a deft touch.

Film editing is the process of turning a bunch of scenes into an episode. We tend to think of it more in a movie than a television show but there is no doubt a good editor can make a profound difference in the flow of a television show as well as feature length film.

It’s a difficult art to perform correctly and even describing why the episode editing failed so abysmally in the Gilded Age is not easy for me to illustrate. Nevertheless, I shall try.

From Jumbled Scenes to Episode

When we watch a television show we see it in sequence and we generally don’t give it much thought. There is someone who does think about it a great deal. The film editor is given a bunch of scenes and must stitch them together in a coherent story that at least attempts to follow the original script. It’s not an easy job.

Each episode is really just a series of scenes, many of them unrelated to one another. In a show with a large cast and many competing storylines, like The Gilded Age, this is even more difficult. The film editor is trying to piece together a strong narrative that emotionally captures the viewer. If she or he does it right, the audience becomes entranced, we watch the scenes flow by and forget they are separate entities. We see a smoothly moving river.

When it’s done poorly, we lose immersion, we are yanked from one place to another without a strong thread to keep us attached.

I’m not saying each scene has to be directly related to the previous but I am saying you don’t want to ruin the mood, the emotions, the feelings generated by one scene; by following it with something out of place. Perhaps an example is necessary.

Poor Bridget

Bridget reveals her repeated rapes at the hands of her father, and how she hates her mother even more for allowing it to happen. That is a powerful, tragic, horrific scene. It is immediately followed by Peggy’s lunch with her parents and Marion’s ludicrous present. Pardon my language, but what the fuck was the film editor thinking? I cannot think of a worse scene to follow such a deeply disturbing moment.

There is no connection, no continuity, it’s almost like we’re supposed to forget what we just witnessed with Bridget. That Marion’s white privilege is a more egregious offense.

I can think of several scenes to better follow up the horror of Bridget’s confession. The scheming maid jumping into George’s bed contrasts a sexually emancipated woman to brutalized Bridget. Perhaps a scene with Agnes van Rhijn talking about the abuse she suffered in her marriage.

The profound emotional attachment I briefly felt for Bridget was swept away like water under a bridge. See ya.

Bertha’s Snobbery

Another scene begging for contrast and comparison is when Bertha puts down Raikes for his lack of money. Why not precede this with a scene where Bertha herself is snubbed for her lack of social standing. Showing that she is guilty of largely the same thing she rails against? Opportunities like this are readily available in any drama. Good dramas take advantage of them to keep the momentum from one scene going to the next, through the entire episode.

Lack of Flow

The episode editing in The Gilded Age shows us scene after scene but they have no connection, no flow. I’m don’t have time to absorb what just happened when a new thing happens. I’m not saying each scene has to be directly related to the previous but there needs to be a thread for the audience. We see little to nothing of this in The Gilded Age, no continuity, and thus a lessened impact, no emotional attachment to the characters.

It’s as if the episode editing was done by a random number generator rather than someone concerned with telling a cohesive and compelling story. The transitions are so jarring, I’m immediately taken out of immersion, my mind tasked with recalibrating and focusing on something entirely new, again and again.

Conclusion

Good episode editing isn’t easy, I don’t pretend it is. Someone makes difficult decisions to whittle down many hours of scenes into a single episode. It seems like no one is even trying in The Gilded Age and that’s a shame. So much potential is being wasted in any number of ways, as I’ve discussed in other episode reviews.

Tom Liberman

Finding Good in The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

Instead of talking about what didn’t work in this week’s episode of the Gilded Age, I will focus on the parts that did. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be all smiles and sour candy. I do love me some sour candy but that’s neither here nor there. Now, I reserve the right to contrast the parts that work well with those do not.

This is the third episode of The Gilded Age and I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for the show. It’s not great, frankly it’s not very good, but it has moments. My reviews of Episode One and Episode Two cover lots of things I think didn’t work. So, if you’re looking for witty and critical thoughts, check out those reviews.

Competing Stories

There are an absolute ton of stories going on in the Gilded Age. We go from one unrelated scene to the next with dizzying speed and it’s all I can do to keep up. Really the only thing that makes a difference is the acting. The storylines all meld together and I really don’t care about one more than the other except where the actor makes a difference.

The Best Storyline in the Gilded Age

The most compelling story in the show is likely the least important. Competing story lines include George taking on City Hall, Marion’s love life, Ada’s unexpected suitor, and Peggy’s short stories among many others. Yet, the one that grabs me, the one for which I eagerly await the next scene is Jack’s pursuit of Bridget. Why? Because Ben Ahlers is killing it as Jack.

Ahlers is the only actor who seems capable of ignoring the direction and dialect coaching that plagues this show. Every moment on screen his youthful exuberance and joyful expressions shine through like a beacon on a dark and stormy night. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but his performance is so vivid and full of life compared to everyone else that it absolutely pops.

Taylor Richardson as Bridget falls into the middle ground. Sometimes she’s bright and enthusiastic like Ahlers but then you can almost see the director come into the room. Less emotion! Less expression! Less tone! Read the lines, don’t say them!

Young Jack gives us more in a single glance at Bridget while attending the Theater Optique then most of the rest of the cast do in the entire series so far. I’m interested because Jack is interesting.

The Second-Best Story

The next most interesting story involves the trials of Gladys Russell. Taissa Farmiga plays her with a wide-eyed innocence that comes across well. As with Richardon’s portrayal of Bridget, at times Farmiga falls prey to wooden block school of acting apparently encouraged on the set of the Gilded Age. That being said, she is often quite endearing and sweet and I am rooting for her eventual coming out party.

It’s clear now said party, with a full Russell ballroom, is being setup as the denouement to season one. That’s a good thing because it means we’ll see more of Farmiga. Sadly, I suspect the ball will be more about Bertha than Gladys. Still, it’s something.

Small Guest Role

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the literary agent’s scene with Peggy at the newspaper. He was extremely effective in portraying the economic impact of institutionalized racism. It was clear he was not a racist himself but also did not possess enough courage to risk his business to fight those who are so.

It was a nuanced performance and I thought the actor handled it perfectly.

Conclusion

I’m afraid that’s about it. No one else is very good and none of the stories are all that interesting because of it. Sure, potentially they could be fascinating studies of the Gilded Age and the people who lived it. Sadly, I’m just not feeling it.

Tom Liberman

The Gilded Age without a Central Support

The Gilded Age

Episode Two of the Gilded Age came and went with a number of the same problems as the premier and new ones to add to my distress. I assure you, dear readers, I want to love this show. I love the time-period portrayed and the many ideas it might explore but it is, so far, failing to rise to the occasion.

This episode carried over the wooden acting from the first episode and failed utterly to focus on a main story. If you read my reviews of Around the World in 80 Days, you’ll remember my complaint about competing main plots. It’s the same here.

Too much was left to happen off-screen as well. We need to see the important things, not be told about them. In any case, on with the review.

No Central Support

This episode had no structure. It was just a series of scenes swirling with a dozen different plot lines. It needed central support. One theme to rule them all, one theme to find them, one theme to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. The interesting part, at least for me, is that there is a central theme to work around. The charity event could easily be the structure upon which the entire episode is based.

The charity event is the subject of the denouement when George defends his wife’s feelings by shutting it down with an ostentatious display of wealth. My problem is that the episode didn’t use the event as a central support by which to drive a compelling plot.

What we Didn’t See

A number of important events happened off screen and we only learned about them via exposition from various characters. This is particularly appalling when you take into account the shortness of the episode at forty-five minutes. Show instead of tell but with time to spare, nope.

The biggest omissions involved the charitable gathering. The coincidence of the event having to switch venues is critical to the entire plot but it’s not explained in any way at all. It just happens. Why not have Bertha or George engineer the conflict? That’s interesting.

Then have a scene involving the picking of a new venue instead of a couple of lines of exposition where the organizers blame each other. We don’t know what is true and what is fabrication. It leaves the audience out of show entirely and it’s extremely frustrating from a viewing perspective.

If we see this, then the scene where Bertha throws her tray becomes significantly more impactful. The next thing we didn’t see is George consoling Bertha and making his grand plan to ruin the event. I want to see George’s love for Bertha, his rage at the snub. Not just the cold finale. I want to see the events that led up to it.

Of less concern is why didn’t we see Mrs. Bauer’s proclivity for gambling at some point? Even a simple background scene where she’s playing cards for money or tossing dice with the handsome young footman. And why didn’t the debt collector want silver candlesticks? They are valuable.

Also perhaps worth noting is Oscar’s eagerness to meet with Gladys. If we are to believe he’s a gold digger then we need to see more of it. It comes across as flat and unreal.

Wooden Acting

The acting continues to be largely, but certainly not completely, atrocious. The on-screen chemistry between Marian and Raikes is only rivalled by the intensity of Anakin and Padmé. You could actually put out of a fire with the sparks that fly between them.

It’s quite interesting to watch because certain actors are good for a few lines but then you can almost see them forcing dialect and becoming stilted and monotone. Oscar is believable and relatable and then utterly monotone and boring all within the same scene. It’s inexplicable.

Mystery for the Sake of Mystery

I also want to take a moment to discuss the plot line involving Mrs. Chamberlain. It’s clear she’s an important figure and her desire to becomes friends with Marian is interesting but totally unexplained. It seems the writers want to keep the viewers out of the loop so they can spring some surprise on us. It’s not a good way to write.

I’m not suggesting the writers need to tell us everything but we need important information. In a mystery you don’t give away the murderer but you also don’t hide the fact that the murderer has a twin sister until the final reveal. You must trust the audience. Give us something. Don’t treat us like idiots.

Conclusion

I’m going to continue watching The Gilded Age because there are a few excellent performances and the time period is fascinating. They need to get cracking though. I’m quickly getting bored.

Tom Liberman

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