The Regime is a Maddening Ride

The Regime

The Regime on HBO. What to say? Indeed, what to say? It’s a show. It’s difficult to watch. It’s maddening to watch. It’s enraging to watch. Comedic, horrific, painful, touching even. Drama? Satire? Comedy? Historical Retelling? Dystopian? I’m not sure, all of them?

The Regime tells the story of Elena Vernham, the chancellor of a Central European autocratic state. She is insane, crafty schemer, delusional maniac, abused daughter, hapless pawn of the Super Powers? Pick your poison.

For Whom are we Rooting?

If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. If there is one decent person in this show it’s Agnes whose misguided loyalty to Elena is her ultimate demise.

Everyone else? No, thank you. Elena? Self-serving monster. Herbert? Abusive, violent psycho. The rational cabinet? Greedy pigs stealing from the workers at every opportunity. The husband? Simp. The opposition leader? Manipulative, arrogant prick.

A show has to have someone to like? Bah, we don’t play by those rules.

The Moral Lesson?

Good luck finding anything here. The show isn’t about lifting you up. It’s about despair. Elena, in one of her rare moments of lucidity, confesses she always ends up as back as a scared child. Well, that’s a happy thought.

The Regime Quality

Superb. The acting is top-notch from Kate Winslet’s Elena all the way down. Nobody fails here. I believe them, in all their wretchedness. The sets are superb. The music is a delight, enhancing and not leading. The cinematography is beautiful, well framed shots. The sound is clear and crisp. This is a quality show in every respect. It’s just not easy to watch.

Conclusion

I’m not sure I can come up with a clear conclusion here. The show is wonderful and horrible.

I’ll finish with one observation. Agnes’s son. All but stolen from her by Elena. The last we see; he is laying terrified on the floor as the revolutionaries storm the building. What happened to him? The only thing we know for sure is Elena isn’t wasting any time worrying about it. That’s Elena. That’s the show.

Tom Liberman

Shogun Leaves the Audience in the Dark

Shogun

I just finished watching the critical acclaimed 2024 Shogun miniseries based on the James Clavell novel. It is an updated version of the 1980 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain.

Shogun tells the story of John Blackthorn who arrives at the island of Japan as an English merchant hoping to break the Portuguese monopoly on trade. Well, at least that’s the supposed premise but more about that later.

Shogun largely received good reviews from the critics and acclaim from the viewers. There is a lot to like here but it falls tragically short in my opinion. The show goes out of its way to leave the audience in the dark and that ruined it.

Immersion

One of the things that makes a show good is immersion. When I’m watching a show, reading a book, or otherwise engaged in consuming entertainment, I want to feel like I’m part of it all. I want to feel fear for the protagonist, lust for the romantic interest, elation at the victories, sadness at the losses, and all the rest.

The way this is achieved is by including the audience. Let us in. Tell us what’s going on. Shogun spends almost the entire miniseries keeping things from us, I’m guessing so as to spring twists and surprises.

How does Shogun keep us in the dark. Below is a list of things that bothered me, it is not all encompassing but my general thoughts.

What is Kashigi Yabushige Doing? 

The first instance we get of being kept in the dark during Shogun involves the possibly loyal servant of Toranaga, Yabushige. He is a schemer. He understands his lord is possibly going to lose the struggle with the counsel and is playing both sides of the divide to assure his survival.

How do we learn about this? Basically, in a series of conversations between Yabushige and his son. We never actually see him carrying out any scheme. We see him all too obviously prevaricating in conversations with Toranaga which a method of exposing his schemes, none of which we actually see.

Near the end he betrays Mariko and Blackthorn by scheming with a rival lord. Do we see him agonizing about this decision, planning it? Basically he’s asked to do a favor for the rival lord, cut to black.

This is a potentially interesting storyline. If we actually got to be in on Yabushige and his plans, to fear for Toranago, Blackthorn, and Mariko. We don’t and I therefore I don’t really care.

Buntaro’s Survival

The finest warrior in the land stays behind to guard the fleeing Toranaga as he escapes Kyoto. We see Buntaro battling off hordes of warrior as he disappears around a corner.

The next time we see Buntaro is when he returns. We are told he joined a band of Ronin who fought there way across the countryside with only he and one other surviving. Wow! I mean, what a fantastic little story. Are there any scenes of it happening? What about the surviving Ronin, is he made a Samurai by Toranaga? He must be a bad ass!

Nope, nada, nothing. Just one line. Why? Probably because the burgeoning romance between Blackthorn and Mariko must come to a shock conclusion with the arrival of her presumed dead husband. What a shame.

The Gardener’s Death

This one was particularly upsetting to me. At Blackthorn’s home there is a gardener. Blackthorn hangs up a pheasant to rot and the smell is so horrible, the gardener takes it down and is executed for disobeying Blackthorn’s directives.

What really happened? We find it out all through exposition. Toranaga has a spy in the village. Yabushige, discussed earlier, is trying to find that spy. Toranaga and the gardener come up with the plan to frame the gardener as the spy and thus stop Yabushige’s investigation.

The gardener is ill and feels he is near the end of his life. He wants to do one last service for his lord and thus takes down the pheasant knowing he will be executive but only after the fake evidence is planted in his home.

Holy moly! What a fantastic little side-story. It tells us everything about loyalty, the culture of Japan, etc. Do we see any of it? Nope, nothing. We just hear about it after it all happened. What a waste. I want to see the planning, the agony of the gardener’s family, the theft, the execution, the reward for loyalty and honor.

Yoshii Nagakado’s Death 

The son of Toranaga, Yoshii Nagakado, decides to kill his uncle because the man betrayed Toranaga earlier in the episode. He plans a daring raid of the brothel where the uncle is staying. He enlists compatriots, he carries out his plan. Again, great stuff. I want the anticipation of the attack, knowing Taranaga is opposed, perhaps it is almost discovered at the last minutes.

Again, nope, nothing. We’re at the brothel, the attack happens, Nagakado slips, falls, dies. Sadness. I don’t care! I just don’t care! You didn’t involve me! I didn’t see it coming. I had no rising tension. No chance to care.

The Final Plan

Toranaga surrenders to his peers but in reality, he has a cunning plan. He schemes with his must trusted advisor who commits suicide to make the plan more convincing.

Do we know this plan? Are we let in on it? No, no, and no. It’s all sprung on us as a big surprise. It’s the final insult. Nothing could be clearer: audience, we don’t care about you. We don’t want you involved, just sit there, trust us, it’s going to be great.

Is Shogun Terrible?

No, it’s not terrible. The acting is hit and miss. Cosmo Jarvis as Blackthorn and Anna Sawai as Mariko are unconvincing, bland, boring. Their romance is milquetoast. Everyone else is pretty good with particular credit to Moeka Hoshi as Usami Fuji who absolutely steals every scene she’s in. She does more with a single expression than Sawai does with her endless philosophical blithering. I felt her pain at the death of her husband and child, her loathing to serve Blackthorn, and her eventual respect for the man. She I believed. This is a woman of her time, of Japan.

The sets are great when they are actually sets but the CGI, mainly cityscapes and ship scenes, is adequate at best.

The story is scattered. Is it about Blackthorn’s merchant mission? Blackthorn and Mariko? Toranaga’s schemes? It’s just all over the place. It meanders from one place to the next like a drunken sailor without stopping to focus anywhere.

Conclusion

I’ve gone on for quite a bit here so I’ll wrap up quickly. Include me, damn you, Shogun. Let me in!

Tom Liberman

True Detective Season One versus Night Country

True Detective

I just finished watching True Detective: Night Country and I earlier watched True Detective Season One. I think they often have a similar structure and yet where one succeeds almost universally the other largely fails.

The reason I want to go into a deep examination is the superficial reasons for the reception of the two shows, basically the gender of the two leads. This has nothing to do with why one is largely great while the other is more pedestrian.

Or, to speak more plainly, True Detective isn’t better than Night Country simply because two men are the leads in the first and two women in the later. Let’s get to it.

Haunted Leads in True Detective

One of the most striking similarities in the structure of the two seasons is the haunted nature of the leads. Cohle and Danvers, played by Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster, both lost children earlier in their lives and are traumatized by this loss.

True Detective shows us this when Cohle arrives for dinner at Marty’s house staggering drunk. Over the course of the dinner Marty’s wife begins to ask Cohle some personal questions in which he reveals the death of his daughter. Marty’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, responds with kindness and understanding. Cohle begins to shed some of his trauma at this dinner.

Meanwhile, we are sort of vaguely told Danvers lost a son through some flashbacks of her playing with the boy and a stuffed polar bear missing an eye.

I felt for Cohle, genuinely. The scene where he arrived drunk was inexplicable until we understood, we felt his existential dread at meeting a happy family. I connected with Cohle on a level I never did with Danvers. Danvers was just angry but I never really understood her pain, it wasn’t demonstrated to me.

The Flawed Hero Trying to do Good

Marty, played by Woody Harrelson, is an extremely flawed man as is Navarro, played by Kali Reis. Marty has a weakness for crazy women while Navarro has anger management problems. The difference is Marty is completely self-aware of his flaws. He knows he messes up and wants to be better, he just can’t get there. Navarro seems to have none of this self-awareness. She is angry and proud of it.

A vitally important scene occurs when Marty and Kohle visit a house of ill-repute and Marty spots an underage girl working there. He tries to save her. Later he protects his daughter in his own, inimitable way. We see that fundamentally; Marty wants to be a good person. He is trying.

We never get that from Navarro. She seems perfectly content in her self-destructive life. Her love for her sister is substituted for Marty’s attempts to be a good person. It just didn’t resonate with me.

Despite his serious and obvious flaws, I like Marty. I’m rooting for him. I can’t say the same for Navarro. I don’t like her much and I don’t really care what happens to her.

The Criminal Investigation

Marty and Cohle investigate the gruesome murder of a young, female prostitute. Danvers and Navarro investigate the mysterious death of a group of scientists.

In True Detective we see the investigation. We see Marty and Cohle working the scenes, interviewing witnesses, detecting. Big chunks of the show are dedicated to watching the two professional work their magic. We also see their partnership in which their strengths are combined to make them greater than the sum of their parts. They are good detectives and respect each other immensely, that’s shown through a series of scenes in which they are being interviewed by other detectives about another crime years later.

Danvers and Nararro don’t do a lot of investigating. Most of the useful information about the case comes from Prior, Danver’s young officer, and others associated with the two. They don’t like or respect each other. They are filled with rage and bitterness. There is nothing to like about their relationship.

I believed Marty and Cohle as detectives but I didn’t have that feeling about Danvers and Navarro. I imagined a long history of law enforcement work with Marty and Cohle and believed it absolutely. For the life of me I can’t figure out how Danvers and Navarro advanced in their professions. They just are not believable.

The Supernatural Angle

Both shows have a supernatural feeling to them. There is Carcosa and the Night Country. In True Detective the supernatural theme is lurking in the background but the nature of the crime is clearly human. The opposite is true in Night Country. The supernatural angle is played up from the very first scene when a herd of Caribou stampede off a cliff for no apparent reason.

The supernatural element came along organically and sparsely in True Detective and neither of the leads really paid it much attention to it other than Cohle’s philosophical rambling. It played a front and center role in Night Country. A huge number of scenes showed people having supernatural experiences with the dead.

I felt Night Country just wasted a good chunk of time showing us scenes of the supernatural rather than storytelling, detecting. Every time something supernatural happened, I’d roll my eyes and lose interest. A lot of it seemed to be played for the shock value rather than furthering the story.

A Moment for What the Two Shows didn’t Have in Common

Humor. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud at the antics of Cohle and Marty. Their interactions, their dialog, was often hilarious. Night Country? I don’t recall laughing once. It was grim and unrelenting.

Likeable characters. I liked Marty. I liked Cohle, I liked many of the bit players. I can’t think of a single character in Night Country I truly liked. Young Prior probably comes closest.

Conclusion

True Detective Season One worked on almost every level and I consider it some of the finest entertainment available. True Detective: Night Country largely failed. It’s not a terrible show. The acting, cinematography, sets, and music are terrific. It just failed to make me care, to tell a cohesive narrative, to immerse me.

Tom Liberman

The Seventh Episode of Luck Illustrates Good not Great

Luck

I’ve been watching a 2011 television series called Luck. It stars Dustin Hoffman as recently released mobster Chester “Ace” Bernstein and his subtle plots for vengeance against those who conspired against him.

The first six episodes are astonishingly good. Great. Other than some audio problems requiring closed-captioning to understand the principal characters it is, in my opinion, one of the best series I’ve ever seen. Then came the seventh episode. Something happened. Something went wrong. Why? How? Let’s get into it.

The Seventh Episode of Luck

Luck starts the seventh episode with a bizarre recap of the story leading up to current events. It’s narrated in great detail and continues on for an abnormally long time. I sat there shaking my head, they haven’t done recaps before, who is the narrator, what is going on here? What prompted this?

Then the episode started. It wasn’t exactly like watching a different show but then again, it kind of was exactly like watching a different show. The characters, the actors, the sets, all pretty much the same but not.

Early on a kid appears out of nowhere and the veterinarian helps him but there’s no explanation, what’s going on? Then there is a big poker tournament out of nowhere. A rather gratuitous sex scene. Yes, there were sex scene before, but they furthered the story. The music is really obtrusive now, it was subtle before, enhancing, not telling me how to feel.

The actors aren’t speaking with nuance anymore, they’re saying directly only what was implied before. The kid scene spirals into inexplicable behavior by all parties. The old jockey is in an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting but it’s short. All the scenes are short, abrupt, whereas before they took a leisurely pace, slowly unfolded.

We’ve got a plethora of up-close head shots, every scene has them. We didn’t have that before, did we?

It’s not terrible but it’s not what it once was. What happened?

The Investigation of Luck

So, as the episode is rolling, I’m getting pretty distressed. I look it up. What could possibly have happened? During the filming of the Luck, during the seventh episode in particular, horses were injured and had to be put down. Horses were stopped from running while an investigation took place. Eventually HBO cancelled the series although not before the season was complete and a couple of episodes from a planned season two filmed.

The Difference

It’s impossible to determine exactly what happened during the investigation to alter the flow of the show but it’s pretty clear to me, people knew it was the end. Probably more than a few people felt terrible about the deaths of the horses and no longer had their heart in the show. It is quite apparent. The editing, the writing, the music, nothing from the seventh episode of Luck is up to the standard of the first six.

Conclusion

I haven’t watched the final two episodes, maybe it hits it stride again after the shocking death of the horses. We’ll see. I’d like to know from anyone else who watched the show, did you immediately detect the change in tone of the seventh episode?

The entire thing demonstrates to me the effort required to make a show great. There are so many moving parts. Acting, directing, editing, music, costumes, sets, and more. Making a great show requires everything be exceptional. Making a good show is a lot easier. Luck shows the difference.

Tom Liberman

White House Plumbers a Tour de Force

White House Plumbers

Blown away. White House Plumbers is a stunning take on the events surrounding the Watergate Scandal of the Nixon administration.

Hilarious. That’s the word that comes to mind and it’s obviously a strange description of a show depicting the events here. I haven’t laughed out loud this much at a television show in I can’t remember how long.

Let’s get into why I loved this mini-series.

White House Plumber Mediocre Reviews

The show isn’t receiving rave reviews and that doesn’t particularly surprise me. It takes on a topic of political importance that has a great deal of meaning to a lot of people, even those not around at the time of its unfolding.

The satirical, darkly humorous take presented here is bound to offend people on all sides of the political aisle. Democrats will loathe the humorous take because they consider this a serious topic. Republicans will not like the portrayal of most of the parties as moronically stupid.

Acting in White House Plumbers

If there is anyone left in the world who doesn’t believe Woody Harrelson is a tremendous actor, I hope his stunning performance here disavows them of that misconception. Meanwhile, Justin Theroux stands toe-to-toe with Harrelson’s E. Howard Hunt in a jaw-dropping portrayal of G. Gordon Liddy.

I mean to say, Holy Fucking Shit! What performances. I believed. I double-believed. The two work with one another and their co-actors like perfectly ticking metronomes.

Hunt’s children were outstanding. The wild daughter, the dissolute son, the good daughter, and even the young boy. Lena Headey as his wife was my only, slightly, sour note. I thought she over-played it a tad but that’s understandable when trying to avoid being totally overshadowed by the over-the-top Liddy and Hunt.

Judy Greer as Liddy’s wife absolutely nailed it. She’s better known as a comedic actor but she is amazing here.

All the bit players, Toby Huss as James W. McCord, Sr. Domhnall Gleeson as the weaselly John Dean. The list goes on and on. Everyone playing the Cubans. I don’t want to leave anyone off but I must. All good. All believable in situations that are impossible to believe.

The Tone in White House Plumbers

A hilarious satirical look at the Watergate Scandal? It’s almost impossible to conceive of this take. If you pitched it to me, I’d have told you to go back to the drawing board. How does it work? I’m not totally sure, but it works.

Out of the box, subverting expectations, madness. I love it.

The Utter Stupidity of it All

The show doesn’t pull any punches on the idiocy of the entire plan. Hunt is a damaged man, traumatized by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and driven by delusions surrounding it. Liddy is simply an insane idealogue, his righteousness so predetermined he need not examine anything with a critical eye. He is right, was right, will be right. That drives everything else.

Together they bring down the president of the United States with their moronic behavior.

The final scene between Liddy and Hunt is a stunning display. A standoff worthy of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

I was particularly impressed with Liddy’s rationalizing the utter stupidity of it all when he justifies his actions by spinning it to be his plan all along. To sow distrust in the American public of political institutions. This is a mad man whose behavior is particularly enlightening at this time in American history.

Conclusion

A lot of people won’t like this show, let alone love it. They’ll be offended. They’ll be upset. Count me not among them. I loved almost every second of it. The acting, the writing, the sets, the music, everything.

Well done to everyone. Well done, indeed.

Tom Liberman

The Deuce Lost its Story

The Deuce

I just wrapped up season three of The Deuce and I’m ready to write my review. The executive producer of The Deuce is David Simon from The Wire fame and the show aired on HBO between 2017 and 2019. It’s a raw show that tackles the emerging sex and pornography industry in New York during the 1970s and 1980s.

When it worked, it worked quite well although it’s not a show for the easily offended. When it failed, it fell terribly flat. This being the case, it’s not particularly easy to write a simple review. Is it good? Is it bad? It’s both.

The Story is the Thing

The first season of The Deuce is the best and I think this is because it committed to telling a story. Multiple stories. There is an ensemble cast including James Franco in dual roles as Vincent and Frankie Martino, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy/Eileen, and a host of others.

The story of that first season revolved around Vincent as a business owner and Candy as a prostitute. They are surrounded by a colorful cast of pimps, police officers, and prostitutes. It’s basically telling three stories through a variety of characters. That of police corruption, organized criminal presence in business ownership, and prostitution.

What makes the first season good is the intersection of these three stories with the lives of all the characters. It’s raw, very raw. I found the sexual content over the top but, considering the nature of the story, I understand why they went in that direction.

We get to know corrupt police officers and those officers fighting the good fight with integrity. We meet mobsters who care and those who do not. We learn about the lives of pimps and whores and prostitutes who choose to work without a pimp.

It all comes together nicely. The first season, if you can get past all the lurid content, is fantastic.

The Lost Story

Starting in the second season The Deuce loses track of the underlying story that brought it all together and starts to focus on the characters. There’s nothing wrong with deep character development and watching as them change over time. The drug culture, VCRs making pornography available privately in the home, organized crime, the city of New York’s attempt to clean up the region, and the deadly AIDS epidemic.

The problem is the plethora of characters means we mainly just get one vignette after the next. First, we’re with Vincent for a one-minute scene and then Eileen for another. We jump from scene to scene between the many characters rapidly and meanwhile the underlying story gets lost in the minutia. It’s just too much and the story grinds to a halt while we learn more and more about the lives of each of the characters.

There just isn’t enough time to tell all the stories. There are plenty of good moments and the acting is outstanding. The sets are amazing. The passion is evident. There’s just not a good story to hold it together anymore.

The Tragic Lives

The third season focuses even more intensely on individual characters but some of the most intriguing old characters are gone. Larry Brown and his burgeoning acting career. Darlene’s transition into the life of a nurse. Gone.

New characters arrive and their stories take up a large amount of screen time but don’t really advance anything. It’s all character studies and no story. Nothing affects anything else. When Lori kills herself there isn’t time to show how others deal with the tragedy. It’s never mentioned again by anyone. Well, that’s that, let’s move on to someone else.

Abby’s wealthy family ties? Not enough time. The newspaper stories? Nope, too much else going on. Eileen’s son?

I’m not opposed to all the unhappy endings. I don’t think everything needs to be tied up in a neat little bow to make the audience happy. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things ambiguous. I do think the story needs to end with something though, anything satisfactory, whether good or bad. Here it all just fades away.

Conclusion

The first season is absolutely outstanding. I really enjoyed it and perhaps that’s why I found myself so disappointed in the second and third season. The Deuce just lost track of telling a story and instead focused on the lives of the characters too much.

You may disagree.

Tom Liberman

Perry Mason Season Two Review

Perry Mason

I just finished watching the second season of Perry Mason and I’m ready to write my review. If you recall, I loved the first season and lavished it with high praise. Does the second season live up to the first? I’m afraid not. It’s still entertaining television, certainly.

I don’t like to harp too much on what went wrong this season because it’s still good and well-worth watching. That being said, it wasn’t of the same quality as the first season.

Wrong Focus on Personal Relationships

I found the focus on the personal lives of Mason, Della Street, Hamilton Burger, and Paul Drake took away from the investigative nature of the show. I thought they did a good job of balancing personal lives and the crime investigation in the first season but fell far short here.

Both the Street and Mason relationships didn’t add anything or further the mystery. Particularly with Della, the focus seemed to be on the salacious rather than anything to do with the crime. Much better, in my opinion, was the focus on the personal lives of side characters in season one. We learned a great deal about them and this furthered the story and explained the nature and circumstance of the crime.

My preference is for a deeper examination of the lives of the McCutcheon and Gallardo families. I particularly felt the absence of any sort of look into the widow Elizabeth McCutcheon and her children left the show incomplete. The murder of Brooks is the focus along with learning why Rafeal and Mateo committed the horrific crime. Yet, we learn only a little of their past and lives with so much screen time dedicated to Mason and Street. We should have found out more about Phipps and his wife earlier as well.

The stories of Emily Dodson and Sister Alice in the first season immersed me completely and the failure to do so in the second season is the biggest problem with this season, at least in my opinion. The impact of the crime just isn’t there because the focus is on the wrong people.

The Reason for the Murder is Unconvincing

I found the entire oil embargo, fruit swap, Japan connection to be unconvincing. It just didn’t seem like a good reason to have Brooks murdered. How did the murder get arranged? Who talked to the Gallardo brothers?

The entire thing just seemed contrived and unbelievable. I didn’t buy it and this really took me out of immersion of the show. The fact we spent so much time on the personal lives of Perry and Della, as mentioned earlier, means we really didn’t leave time to flesh this part of the story into anything believable.

The Best Parts of Perry Mason

The amazing sets. I can’t give enough praise to the set designers in this series. Fantastic work. The music also stood out as helping scenes rather than dominating them.

Conclusion

I’m not recommending giving the second season of Perry Mason a pass, it’s still quality entertainment. I hope the writers will get back to what made season one so great. Don’t focus on Mason and Street. Focus on the crime. Why the crime happened. The lives of the criminals and those around them. That’s the story.

Tom Liberman

Perry Mason is an Excellent Show

Perry Mason

I just finished the first season of Perry Mason on HBO and largely loved it. I think it’s pretty easy to get into a rut writing negative reviews. Such articles definitely get more interest than the ones that wax poetic about a show.

Therefore, it is with great joy I write this review about the modern interpretation of the old classic, Perry Mason. The Perry Mason novels and television shows date way back to his debut in the 1933 pulp fiction novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

After a famous radio series, a successful television series run, and lots of movies we now arrive at an HBO series. Let’s get into it!

What is Perry Mason?

The first season of the show covers a period of time before Perry Mason became a lawyer and his transition into that role. He is a private investigator working for E. B. Jonathon played by John Lithgow with his usual brilliance.

Jonathon takes up the case of a murdered baby and uses Perry Mason, played energetically by Matthew Rhys, as the lead detective to determine what actually happened.

Why is it Good?

Determining why a show is good or bad is generally pretty easy but explaining why it is so can be more challenging. I’ve written before about what makes a show good or bad and Perry Mason hits all the good marks.

The Acting

The acting is generally superb with Lithgow, Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, Shea Wigham as Pete Strickland, and Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice standing out. Not to say Rhys as Mason, Juliet Rylance as the iconic Della Street, and Andrew Howard as a disturbed and violent police officer are not exceptionally good as well. Everyone from the main players to the bit parts sells their role. I’m not going to mention all the excellent performances but if you look up the cast, you’ll not see a single actor who failed to convince me.

The Writing

The writing is equally good and allows the actors to really set their teeth into all of the roles. The district attorney, the judge, the accused criminal, all fantastic roles and all played superbly. There were a few moments where I thought Perry Mason himself was portrayed as a bit too hot-headed and irrational but I understand that was done to set up the ending when he transforms into the cool-headed and rational Perry Mason we all know from previous media.

The Sets

Incredible. From matchbooks to motor vehicles to radio microphones. I’m astonished at the craftsmanship of the set designers. The attention to detail. The clothes. Everything looks real to me. Maybe someone with a better eye than mine can find a few anachronistic things but I noticed nothing.

The Music

As is always the case, less is more with music. We don’t need the music to tell us a scene is dramatic, sad, happy, or anything else. We should know that from the scene itself. The music is there not to explain but to enhance. If I ever find the music overbearing then I know there’s a problem. Didn’t happen in Perry Mason.

The Love Stories

There are several love stories in Perry Mason but they don’t interfere with the main plot, they enhance it, they are not the focus. Often times the love interest can take over. In this case Perry’s affair with the airfield owner is gritty and real. It gives us insight into Perry himself. The affair of between Emily Dodson and George while integral to the story takes place off screen. Della and her girlfriend are there but not in your face and over-the-top Woke.

The Story

The story unfolds with each episode at a leisurely but satisfying pace. We learn more and more. Each individual episode tells its own story, introduces ideas, characters, themes. There is no rush to tell us things, nor are important facts hidden from us in order to create a twist ending. We learn, with Perry Mason, the horrible truth although in the end he cannot prove it.

The Ending

The ending isn’t completely satisfying. It doesn’t try to wrap up all the loose ends. One feels for poor, abused Sister Alice and for her replacement Emily; but it’s not all joy and happiness. The ending isn’t the end but it’s enough to leave me quite satisfied and yearning for more.

A nod to the first novel at the end was a nice touch.

Conclusion

Good crime drama done right. I eagerly await season 2.

Tom Liberman

His Dark Materials a Descent into Maudlin

His Dark Materials

I recently completed watching the HBO series His Dark Materials and found myself with mixed emotions. The series is based on the trilogy of the same name by Philip Pullman. The three books, Northern Lights, Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass follow the heroine Lyra through a series of adventures.

Why am I mixed in my opinion of the show? The three season series went from superb to standard action fair to maudlin. When it was great, it was great. When it was not, it was not. Let’s get into the review.

A Season and a Half of Wonder

His Dark Materials starts out wonderfully with playful Lyra and her friend Roger running about with wild recklessness at Logan College where she is something of a ward, having been dropped off by her parents and abandoned.

The story unfolds leisurely but interestingly as we meet the major players. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel and the evil Mrs. Coulter who are, of course, her parents. She becomes embroiled in the kidnapping of young children when Roger falls afoul of the villains.

What’s great about this first section of the series is it moves slowly but steadily. We are drawn into the plot and the characters. There are dramatic moments followed by frolic. Comedic relief. Action scenes. Things are mixed up nicely and the story tells itself, no one need explain what is happening and why. I found myself eager for each new episode and not disappointed when it came.

His Dark Materials becomes Action Adventure

The last couple of episodes of the second season suddenly abandoned this approach. It became standard action adventure. Everyone was running around fighting one another. One battle after the next. Lots and lots of running, shouting, and shooting.

All the pacing of the first part of the series vanished in this orgy of violence and drama. It’s almost as if someone told them to spice it up a little. It’s getting boring with all this pacing and interesting character development. Let’s shoot some things, crashes and explosions galore.

The Maudlin End

The death of Scoresby seems to signaled the end of any fun. The entire third season is nothing more than maudlin introspection, heartfelt conversations, and weeping. Lots of weeping.

At least the final season didn’t have as much running around and shooting as the end of the second. Instead, we had one teary-eyed important conversation after the next. We … will … speak … slowly … with … emphasis … on … every … word.

Particularly distressing was Mrs. Coulter’s transition from a frightening villain who brought fear into every room she entered to a weeping and wailing caricature of herself. Every conversation was of the Utmost … Importance and needed teary eyes.

Too Many Explanations

The books are complicated, I understand that. I think the screenwriters needed to remove a lot of complexity, dumb it down a bit. In the end we got tons of exposition but mostly without context. Where did Asriel’s army come from? What were his machines? The specters came from where? Who were the elephant things again? What exactly did Mary do? What was Asriel’s pit weapon thing? Why did worlds have to be closed? Why did the angel die when it killed the priest?

They tried to explain everything and give rationality to it all but it was too much. Too many rules being made up at the last second with little backstory to explain why things needed to happen. Confusing is the word I’d use. Very, very confusing.

The Real Ending

His Dark Materials is really about one thing. It’s the correct interpretation of the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. In Abrahamic religions this is considered a terrible moment. The end of eternal happiness and the beginning of the world’s miseries.

Pullman tells us Eve chose rightfully to escape a horrific cell. She was nothing more than a mindless pet, slavishly worshipping an egomaniacal warden. The escape was our salvation. All we enjoy today, all the good, the wonder, the happiness, and the freedom is a result of their willingness, the human need to escape such a pretty prison.

That’s what His Dark Materials is all about. In the final moments of the last episode, we finally get around to understanding this theme but it’s too late, too late to make it effective for the audience. We needed less time on the complications and more time on the underlying theme. Then it hits home with force.

Conclusion

The books are complex and the series spent the first two seasons in a largely compelling adaptation. Then they thought gunfights, chases, and tear-wrought scenes were what people wanted. It’s a shame they didn’t manage to finish the way they started.

Still, worth a watch.

Tom Liberman

The Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

In a show called The Deuce a former prostitute gives a ten thousand dollar blow job and it feels very dirty. I found my disgust at the situation interesting because a few episodes before she’d been performing the same service for twenty dollars.

How, you might ask, can a ten thousand dollar blow job be worse than one provided for far less money? Let me try to explain and you can tell me if you agree.

The Circumstances of the Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

Eileen, played superbly by Maggie Gyllenaal, has transitioned from her job as a Times Square hooker to making pornographic movies. She finds herself in Los Angeles for an awards ceremony and tries to sell her idea for a new movie based on the Little Red Riding Hood story.

The money-man is willing to help her with a check for ten thousand if she performs the aforementioned sex act on him while he writes the check. She clearly doesn’t want to do it but in a moment of self-reflections gives in. Later she stares at the check and smiles. It’s certainly the most she’s ever been paid for performing in such a way.

The Twenty Dollar Blow Job

When Eileen, or Candy as she called herself in those days, worked the streets she often gave blow jobs for twenty dollars. Men approached her or she flagged them down and that was that.

What’s the Difference?

What is the difference? That’s a good question. It was clear in my mind the ten thousand dollar blow job was worse. I knew it. Then I had to figure out why. Candy wants money. Eileen wants money. Men have the money and they want blow jobs.

Candy’s job is to give blow jobs. Eileen’s job is to make movies. Does Candy like her job? Does Eileen? We can argue perhaps she does not. It can be argued she likes one more than the other but the reality is we don’t know. Would she rather be doing something else for money?

The Difference

To me there is one important difference between Candy and Eileen. Candy’s job is to give blow jobs. Eileen’s job is to make movies. If the producer wanted a blow job, he could easily find a girl for far less than ten thousand. He used his position of having money and power to coerce Eileen. She didn’t come to him offering a blow job, she came to him with a good idea for a movie. He got his sick jollies by making her do something she didn’t want to do.

I think it’s not difficult to argue Candy doesn’t really want to give blow jobs either, that men use their money to make her do something she doesn’t want to do. The difference is she’s made the decision to give the blow job and men who see her on the streets know why she’s there.

The producer knew why Eileen was there. To make a movie. If he thought she was going to make a good movie then he should finance it.

Conclusion

It’s akin to your boss making you bark like a dog in order to get your paycheck. You’re there to do your job, not bark. Sure, you probably don’t want to do your job all that much but you signed up for it. That’s why you get paid.

The reality is the world is filled with people like the producer. They enjoy feeling superior to others. They use their money, or some other incentive, to coerce people into behaving a certain way. It’s wrong, it’s sick, but it’s reality.

Not everyone has the wherewithal to tell people like that no. Not me. Not this time, bub. It’d be nice if the world didn’t have people like the producer.

Stop coercing people.

Tom Liberman

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