“Forsyte” Times Two

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Soames (Eric Porter) and Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter), 1967 Version

Who doesn’t like a story of family rivalry and strife?

When PBS aired the BBC version of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga,” in 1969, television drama in this country was irrevocably changed. Audiences loved the 26-episode multi-generational story, and the clamor for more eventually gave birth to “Masterpiece Theater” and its host of British imports. The popularity of the mini-series in this era was phenomenal—where would American television in the 70’s have been without “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”?

I’m a huge fan of “The Forsyte Saga” in all its black-and-white video glory, but I confess I promptly tuned out the 2002 remake when it first aired. Gina McKee as Irene was no Nyree Dawn Porter, who was superb in the earlier version. But I found myself drawn in last week when I came across my local PBS station’s airing of the later version. An absorbing story will always carry the day, though some faults in execution remain.

“Forsyte” 2.0 consists of ten episodes covering the first three novels of the “Saga,” ending with Fleur’s marriage to Michael Mont (The original series, which continues on with Galsworthy’s second trilogy, ends with Soames’ death). The 2002 edition departs from Galsworthy’s narrative at certain points and changes the thrust at others. Some of this is dramatized quite well—the emphasis on the lowly status of women, both legally and socially, in the Victorian Era, and later, the rise of feminism in the context of the women’s suffrage movement as portrayed in Irene and Winifred’s stories and in June’s rabble-rousing “Votes for Women” speech, respectively. In addition some relationships have been rethought. Winifred and Soames are not always staunch allies, though her lambasting of her brother and his male-dominated view of the world during her divorce proceedings proves to be one of the best scenes of the show. And the context of Soames’ rape of Irene in the 2002 edition is closer to Galsworthy’s intention: Soames enters her unlocked bedroom as opposed to chasing her up the stairs and ripping off her blouse in a scene that’s still shocking almost 50 years later.

Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter) and Young Jolyon (Kenneth More), 1967
Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter) and Young Jolyon (Kenneth More), 1967

In terms of visual appeal there’s no contest between the two “Forsytes”: the 2002 edition is in color and its production design is excellent. I love its conception of Robin Hill: who knew Philip Bosinney was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright? I won’t lie–despite its pleasures the 1967 version may be hard to view for some. Given the necessities of video taping in that era, the makeup is thick, the actresses’ eyelashes and frosted lipstick are straight out of the 1960’s and all wigs are of the bouffant variety, whether worn by women or men. And of course it’s in black and white. As Kenneth More notes in an interview that accompanies the DVD version, the show missed being taped in color by only a year, yet waiting would have prevented the appearance of some key actors who had other commitments pending. It’s a shame, because the on-set still you see here shows how sumptuous this version of “The Forsyte Saga” would have looked.

However, 1967’s “Forsyte Saga” was very well cast and put a number of its actors squarely on the map. Kenneth More was dream casting for Young Jolyon, Margaret Tyzack was phenomenally right as Winifred (it’s amusing that she appears to be far more comfortable playing older rather than younger as the teenaged Winifred whom we first meet at her engagement party), and Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene) and Eric Porter (Soames) were unforgettable (the Porters were not related). However, several performances in the 2002 version are an improvement over the original: Gillian Kearney is exceptionally likeable as June, Ioan Grufudd is the “young buccaneer” Phillip Bosinney to the life, and Corin Redgrave is a magnificent Old Jolyon. It’s also refreshing to see such young actors in the roles of Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Jon (Lee Williams), though Susan Hampshire was phenomenal as the original Fleur, particularly in the second half of the 1967 series.

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Irene (Gina McKee) and Old Jolyon (Corin Redgrave), 2002

However, the casting of the three leads in “Forsyte” 2.0 is somewhat off. They’re all fine actors, but something’s missing. Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon probably comes off best. He’s the “amiable fellow” his father speaks of, but because of his age (39 when the series was filmed) and his wide-eyed open expression (still there in “Last Tango in Halifax” thirteen years later) he looks as young as June, his oldest child, and isn’t as convincing as Kenneth More in the older but wiser version of the character in middle and later age. Damian Lewis is clearly hampered by the show creators’ view of the younger Soames as an obsessed misogynist; they show us less of Soames’ “smother love” than his outright weirdness. In contrast Eric Porter gave us the pathos of a man who is absolutely bewildered by Irene’s non-responsiveness. When he comes as close as he can to begging her for affection, you feel for him, if only momentarily; when Damian Lewis plays the same scene after he sees Irene smiling at Bosinney, it feels robotic—there’s no resonance. Unlike Galsworthy’s or Porter’s Soames, Lewis’ version shows no horror or even passing remorse in the aftermath of his rape of Irene, except in his confession to Fleur many years later in a scene concocted by the show’s writers. He just comes across as a flat-out monster who seemingly loves no one but his father and later, his daughter. His passion for ownership as a “Man of Property,” is very apparent, but there should have been more.

Gina McKee has a tall order to fill as Irene, a character whom Galsworthy shows us exclusively through the eyes of others. McKee lacks Nyree Dawn Porter’s allure in the role, and like her co-star, she seems restricted by the show creators’ conception of the character. In the 1967 version we, along with Soames, meet Irene Heron as a lively young woman in her late teens; Ms. Porter practically bubbles with Irene’s warmth and enthusiasm for life. Yet McKee’s Irene seems consistently morose from the start except in the scene where she dances; there’s no real heat in her passion for Bosinney nor later, in her love for Young Jolyon (In contrast, Mr. More and Ms. Porter, who had excellent chemistry, raised the temperature of the room considerably when they finally got together). Fortunately both Ms. McKee and Mr. Lewis improve significantly as older versions of their characters in the last four episodes of the series that feature Fleur and Jon’s story.

Finally, certain changes in the ending of the 2002 version prove somewhat surprising. Jon’s backtracking from his decision to end it with Fleur and especially the final meeting of Irene and Soames simply don’t ring true, given what we know of these characters. It may have been that the show runners were initially looking to continue on with the “Saga” since they leave Jon marooned in America; there’s also that charming American girl he met in Paris who no doubt was set for a reappearance in future scenes set in the U.S. Obviously this didn’t come to pass, so they tried to tie things up in a bow with a final handshake between Irene and Soames.

Somehow I don’t think John Galsworthy would have been pleased.

Brain Bits for a Hot July

The weather is definitely turning steamy and tempers are running short. Patti LuPone has emerged as the Anti-Cell Phone Avenger, to which I say loudly and emphatically “AMEN.” Is there a regular theater-goer or opera or concert attendee who hasn’t been disturbed by some moron who refuses to turn the infernal machine off or worse, texts during the performance? (Incidentally, that was me about to strangle the young idiot sitting next to me who drank beer and texted throughout that performance of “Wozzeck” at the Met).

So thank you, Ms. LuPone, for sticking up for the rest of us, who revel in that quaint concept of live performance uninterrupted by the Electronic Age. By all means, steal as many cell phones as you need to stop the madness.

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Nurse Jackie finale
Even God needs medical help at times

One by one my favorite shows are ending their lives on the tube. First “Mad Men,” now “Nurse Jackie.”

After seven years and several stints at rehab and jail-induced detox, our last image of Jackie Peyton was as an OD’d junkie stretched out on the floor of All Saints’ ER. “Nurse Jackie” ended as it should have—despite her lengthy penance in the Diversion Program, she remained an Incurable addict. She seemed incapable of comprehending how her addiction and the accompanying lying and cheating impacted the lives of people she seemingly cared most about. As Eleanor O’Hara (thank you, Eve Best, for returning for the series finale) told her point-blank “You make it so damned hard to be your friend.” Truthfully the reality of her situation made it so damned hard to watch. The last straw came when, after fighting so hard to get her nursing license back and enduring one humiliation after another in doing so, she pops a mouthful of pills seconds after donning those blue nursing scrubs again.

In a sense the end was foreshadowed from the first episode of this season. I was never on Team Eddie. No matter what she did, he remained King of the Enablers—they consistently brought out the worst in each other, and their being together was one huge amber light. On the other hand, Dr. Bernie Prince, Coop’s replacement, was an intriguing counterbalance. The fact that he was played by Tony Shalhoub made it even better. I so wish the showrunners had introduced his character at least a season ago–he and Jackie would have made a great team, whether in the working or romantic sense, or both.

What made “Nurse Jackie” unique was its unapologetic portrait of a female anti-hero (and kudos to Edie Falco for having the guts to portray her). Jackie could be insensitive and irresponsible, but at some level she was never uncaring. And she excelled at her profession, though her addiction was making it more likely that this would eventually—and conclusively—be lost to her. Another major plus of the show was that none of the characters ever turned into a cartoon. They sometimes exasperated you, and several times you may have wanted to smack Coop upside the head, particularly in his early days, but most of the time they behaved in a realistic manner. Zoe grew, and to her credit outgrew Jackie. And so, in her oddball way, did Dr. Roman. Coop finally matured and moved on. And Dr. Prince, with his massive brain tumor, ended up in Death’s waiting room. Only those with addictions—Jackie to her pills, Eddie to his love for Jackie—remained stuck in their repetitive, destructive behavior.

Such is life.

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A God in RuinsEven after finishing Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” a month ago, I’m still thinking about it. This is her “companion volume,” not a sequel, to her wonderful “Life After Life,” which featured the many possibilities of the life of Ursula Todd during England’s twentieth century. While the two novels feature many of the same characters, the tone is quite different. And the conclusion is somewhat maddening.

“A God in Ruins” is a biography of Teddy Todd, Ursula’s adored younger brother. In “Life After Life” he’s a golden boy—the model for Augustus, his aunt’s scamp of a literary creation, his mother’s favorite and ultimately the heroic RAF pilot seemingly lost during World War II. “A God in Ruins” presents a more detailed portrait of Teddy. He’s still a caring young man, though it’s clear his father, not his mother, is his favored parent; his affection for sisters Pamela and Ursula remains the same. He’s somewhat at loose ends when the war begins. Teddy’s two attempts at a career have failed—his year in France as a would-be poet ends when he concludes his work is trite, and a stint at a banking job is utterly soul-killing. In actuality this gentle young man’s best talent is killing as he pilots a Halifax bomber in countless runs over Germany.

Unlike “Life After Life” with its magical changes in Ursula’s path, “A God in Ruins” shows us a protagonist who, after flying so high, becomes utterly grounded. His post-war life seems to be one grind after another, both in career and in his personal life. He no longer shines except perhaps later in life when as a grandfather he provides love and shelter to his grandchildren when their own mother is unwilling to do so.

At times you may feel Kate Atkinson deliberately set out to contradict what she created in “Life After Life.” In the earlier novel the romance of Teddy and Nancy Shawcross seems to be deep and eternal; in “A God in Ruins,” we learn that while Teddy’s love is present, there’s little passion. Although the revision may be closer to reality since they grew up as neighbors with little left to reveal, you don’t want that version. You want the magic. And while the nature of Teddy’s end is easy to foresee, Ursula’s final word at the conclusion of “A God in Ruins” may make you want to demand a refund.

But what makes “A God in Ruins” so engrossing is Atkinson’s account of Teddy’s war: the close calls, the camaraderie with his crew, his miraculous surviveability, his being the “old man” of his squadron at the age of 23. I don’t think I’ve seen a novel drive home what was actually at stake during that time so completely, epitomized by the Morse coded dit-dit-dit-dah (V for Victory) transmitted to Teddy’s plane from a Dutch civilian (“It was a message of both faith and comfort that they saw frequently”), capped by “You could sometimes forget that there were entire nations for whom you were the last hope.” Atkinson does well by these young men who undertook what was in essence a last stand.

“A God in Ruins” is a novel well worth reading due to Atkinson’s artistry. If you haven’t read “Life After Life” yet, I suggest you read the later novel first just so you can move from reality to fantasy rather than the other way around. It’s so much more fun that way.

Game of Thrones: At a Crossroads

gotarenaAfter two days the ‘net is still buzzing over the final twist in this season’s finale to “Game of Thrones.” Theories are posited, interviews with the cast and the showrunners are endlessly re-posted, and George R.R. Martin seems to be denying it all.

If Season 5 were a baseball player, I’d say we had one streaky hitter on our hands. While there were some great moments (Daenerys flying away on Drogon’s back was something we had waited a couple of years to see), there were some questionable if not outright disappointing developments. And where we go from here is problematical because the showrunners have come to the end of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books published to date in their storytelling. While Martin has shared the plotlines of the two books to come in the series with the showrunners, it appears that the HBO series will be taking off in its own universe in the future.

My biggest concern was the extent to which the show has upped the ante in the “Horrific Events” Department. Each season has had its moment when I almost turned the set off (the beheading of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, Oberyn Martell’s eyes popping out of his head, etc.), but it seemed the showrunners went out of their way with the sacrifice of Shireen. This has to be the most disturbing GoT scene aired to date, and while I understood the point, I suspect there may have been some chuckling in the Writers’ Room: “How can we gross the audience out even more?” Well, it worked in the story since Stannis’ sellswords bolted with the horses, half his army deserted and his wife killed herself. Result achieved. But this begs the question of how far is it possible to go? By the time Arya stabbed Meryn Trant in the eyes, I didn’t even flinch. Granted, he was a pedophile, a murderer and Number 5 on Arya’s Hit Parade, but this kind of desensitization is not a good thing.

Season 5 also reminded us of a recurring fault in GoT: stretching out a story beyond its interest (c.f., the torture porn featuring Ramsey Snow and Theon Greyjoy a couple of seasons back), in this case having Arya in the dark washing dead bodies for far too many episodes without hinting at the direction of the plot. It was really late in the game to be introducing that House of Faces. And what is she in training to become? If she becomes No One, that means she’s no longer a Stark, and we really need to remember the North.

The reality is there are too many storylines for a ten-episode season. Season 5 underscored this by having key people either disappear after a couple of episodes or go MIA altogether. At least Varys returned in the finale for some prime repartee with Tyrion, but what happened to Margaery? Loris Tyrell? Littlefinger? GoT really needs twelve episodes a season. True, it’s very expensive to shoot, what with so many locations in play, but this show is the biggest HBO hit to date. The money has to be there.

After the criticism comes the praise, and there were a number of extraordinary events. Heading the list is Tyrion’s meet-up with Daenerys. Having these two combine their resources (her army, his brain) was a particularly neat development. In fact I enjoyed every twist and turn of his story, from his escape from King’s Landing to his kidnapping by Jorah Marmont to their encounter with the Stone Men to Tyrion’s sit-down with Daenerys. My favorite sequence of this season in fact was the arena scene in Episode Nine. The sight of the audience standing up as one in their Harpy masks was a shocking visual, only to be capped by the arrival of Drogon.

And in no particular order:

Night Watch/Wildlings vs. Whitewalkers. You knew that wildling mother who put her kids on the boat was dead meat from the start.

Stannis’ facial expression as the Bolton army bore down on him and his men, reduced to facing battle on foot. There was resignation, but also “I’m their King. I must share their fate,” as he drew his sword.  Kudos to actor Stephen Dillane for a wonderful moment.

Daenerys’ reboot. Better brush up on that Dothraki, babe.

Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes. Enough said.

Several interesting cliffhangers: Can the Lannisters break the Sparrows’ power? Did Bronn manage to keep some antidote so he can save Myrcella? Will there be a Dorne/King’s Landing war if he didn’t? Did Sansa and Theon survive their leap to freedom? Did Brienne in fact execute Stannis?

And finally, is Jon Snow really dead? Actor Kit Harrington, who plays him, says so. But leaving him that way, without his revival by Melisandre, who’s now in the house at Castle Black, would be a shame. While GoT has a number of heroic figures, the show needs the type of Hero We Can All Love. Jamie Lannister, while he’s been wonderfully rehabilitated from the roles of Kingslayer and would-be child killer, can’t ever be that man. Even if we meet up with Gendry again, we really don’t know him. On the other hand, we knew Jon and all his faults, and even if he knew nothing, he had our sympathy and support. House Stark needed to live on in him (My theory: He was the son of Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna, and Robert Baratheon). Bran, who conceivably could be that Hero, was a long way from filling the bill when last we saw him.

Best to sit back and relax, though. The next chapter is a year away.

Farewell “Mad Men”

MadMenSeason3
Beginning again……

Unless you’ve been in Antarctica for the last several months, “Mad Men” has finally come to a conclusion. After all the eulogies, interviews, panel discussions, symposia, fashion shoots and miscellaneous soul searching, a show so firmly rooted in the 50’s and 60’s faded out on a California cliffside with Don Draper meditating, New Age style.

It was a fitting end. “Mad Men” has always been a series about reinvention. Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper, Sterling Cooper becomes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper & Partners, then ultimately nothing as Don’s powers to reinvent the business one more time are finally exhausted. It’s Don’s realization that you can’t really lose your past which causes his breakdown at the California retreat. When he hears himself giving the same “put it all behind you” speech to Stephanie that he gave to Peggy after the birth of her son so many years before, it all comes tumbling down. How fitting that phone call to Peggy was, as he most likely severs his last link with the Don Draper we knew, pushing him back into the cocoon for yet one more reinvention, evidently from King of the Road back to Madison Avenue Ace.

I’ve been engrossed with “Mad Men” from its first episode, though not as enthralled over the last two seasons as I had been earlier. After two stupendous back-to-back episodes in Season 5 in which Joan slept with the Jaguar rep in order to secure the account for the agency, and Lane committed suicide when Don discovered his embezzling from the firm, a significant amount of energy seemed to seep out of the show. An excessive amount of time was spent on Megan, Don’s failing marriage and his increasing navel-gazing at the expense of our enjoyment of Peggy, Stan and the latest advertising campaign. It was always the office goings-on that gave “Mad Men” its pulse; departing from this premise gave this show anemia, at least until the final three episodes.

“Mad Men” will be remembered for a number of things, not the least of which is its depiction of the fundamental change in women’s roles in the workplace and society as a whole. It wasn’t just the evolution of Joan and Peggy that caught the imagination—it was the manner in which they traded roles that always kept the show interesting. At one point Joan takes Peggy to task for firing an assistant for being insultingly sexist, saying she’s done herself significant damage–now they’ll think she’s nothing but a battle-ax. Yet in the end it’s Joan who waves the ACLU and NOW in Jim Hobart’s face when he refuses to take her complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Ultimately Joan and Peggy end up where they’re perhaps most suited—Joan, who’s always been a fixer, spearheading her own business, and Peggy, without Joan’s means (courtesy of that settlement from McCann and Roger’s assuring her son’s future), sticking with the security of corporate life. At least for now.

But what will remain of “Mad Men” is superb drama. TV critics and bloggers have spent the last month drawing up lists of the best and/or their favorite episodes, but to me “Mad Men” is a series of memory flashes:

Bobbie Barrett’s counselling Peggy on “Don’t be a man, be a woman,” Joan’s correctly telling her “They’ll never take youBert-Cooper seriously if you continue to dress like a little girl,” and Peggy’s finally asserting herself by calling her boss “Don” instead of “Mr. Draper” for the first time. All in the same episode.

Pete and Trudy’s Charleston and Roger (leave it to him) in blackface.

Every Don and Anna Draper scene, especially when he goes AWOL on his California business trip.

Roger taking LSD and seeing Bert’s picture on the bill he gives the cabbie.

Harry losing it during the meeting in which Don pitches his campaign for the Kodak Carousel.

The British partners’ visit to Sterling Cooper, ending with the unfortunate tangle with a John Deere lawnmower. Roger’s comment offered as comfort to Harry and Ken: “Believe me, somewhere in this business this has happened before.”

Peggy, eyes full of “What!?!,” walking into Joan’s office after Don announces his engagement to Megan, and Joan’s faux-innocent: “I wonder whatever could be on your mind.” Only this could have topped Roger’s classic “Who?” when Don drops Megan’s name as his fiancée.

The evolution of Peggy and Stan’s relationship from sworn enemies to workplace husband and wife to “Now that I think about it, I’m in love with you.” The growth of this over several seasons was particularly well written as we were shown, not told, how well suited they were for each other.

Bert’s farewell in the form of a production number. If anything, “Mad Men” amply demonstrates that the best things in life are not free, but it was great to see Robert Morse become J. Pierrepont Finch just once more.

Don and Peggy’s working after hours, whether on Samsonite or Burger Chef (and learning via Roger’s tape, of Bert’s–er–condition and Miss Blankenship’s notorious past). Not to mention the extraordinary scene when Peggy tells Don she’s leaving Sterling Cooper. Equally memorable, though perhaps the ugliest scene in the show’s history: his throwing money in her face.

Roger calling Joan after that bust of his daughter’s wedding reception on November 23, 1963. After dealing with all those uneaten dinners, a drunken wife and a dead President, his first words to Joan as she answers the phone: “So what’s new?”

Duck Phillips turning Chauncey out on the street (gulp).

Freddy Rumsen zipping out the rhythm of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” on his fly.

Lee Garner, Jr. forcing Roger to play Santa Claus.

Miss Blankenship. Enough said.

I’m sure people will spend acres of print hashing over the finale and pointing out what Matthew Weiner could/should have done in ending “Mad Men.” I for one am satisfied, though I do wish we had seen more of Anna Draper during the run of the show. And a return visit by Sal Romano in at least one episode in the final season. But these would have been icing, not the cake itself, which I feel Matthew Weiner baked very well indeed. Bravo.

P.S.: Yes, I have a favorite “Mad Men” episode, though it’s almost impossible to pick just one. The first photo in this post will tell you my selection: Season 3’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” works on so many levels it’s ridiculous. We see Don’s admiration of Peggy, how essential Joan and Pete are and once again, the premise of “Reinvent or die.” Not to mention Peggy’s perfectly flat “No” in response to Roger’s request for coffee during the marathon raid to steal the firm’s resources from the Brits.

Good times indeed.

A postscript is in order at this point: I loathed that Coca-Cola commercial when it was new, and I certainly haven’t grown any fonder of it over the years. It strikes me as the height of corporate cynicism, which no doubt is the reason why Matthew Weiner wanted to use it. Although I don’t buy the idea that this was Don’s creation, Weiner’s ending the series with this is a great piece of snark. The commercial’s goal of peddling product in the name of peace and harmony strikes me as something Roger would have thought up, had he been in the creative end of the business.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Peggy Strut
And beginning yet again…………

On a Binge

Claire and Frank: Ever Plotting
Claire and Frank: Ever Plotting

What’s your favorite method of catching up on a TV show? There’s the binge of course, at the end of which you’re left with gray pallor and bloodshot eyes. But instead of the sprint there’s always the marathon—immersing yourself in a show over a period of time. Example? I’ve just come up for air after watching all three seasons of “House of Cards” over 17 days or so, and my sojourn in Washington and Gaffney, S.C. was just the right length.

Please understand: by no means do I knock bingeing. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, go for it. I’ve been there—my record is nine episodes of Season 4 of “The Wire” on a New Year’s Day several years ago. The show was in its first run and I was still furious that Stringer Bell had been killed off at the end of Season 3. The subsequent abrupt shift to Prez’s experience as a teacher in an inner city school didn’t interest me initially after the flash of Mr. Bell, Omar and Brother Mouzone, so I stopped watching. But curiosity made me return, only to discover that “The Wire”‘s availability On Demand was due to end on January 2nd. The resulting nine consecutive hours on my couch were well spent despite the horrible headache I ended up with.

We’ve certainly come a long way from traditional TV, where week after week we saw Perry Mason get the real murderer to confess on the witness stand during the last five minutes of the show—that is, if you were home to see it. If not, you had no alternative but to wait for the summer rerun. My how times have changed. In a recent interview the CEO of Netflix referred to the growing trend of  “non-linear” television which I’m beginning to think is descriptive not only of the audience’s viewing habits, but the manner of TV storytelling. Since fans are no longer married to the necessity of tuning in on a specific day or time to catch the latest episode, no two people may view—in both senses of the word—a series in the same manner.

My experience with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a kind of “do it yourself” immersion of the most non-linear sort. Prior to joining the Buffyverse I made fun of the show, primarily because of the title (shame on me, but I still haven’t seen the movie on which the series is based). But then there was an episode entitled “Hush” which to this day I think is one of the best hours of television that’s ever aired.

The Gentlemen of
The Gentlemen of “Hush”

At my house it then became all “Buffy,” all the time. Having been caught in the post-9/11 unemployment fallout, I could watch reruns twice a day as well as a new episode every Tuesday night (If memory serves, first-run “Buffy” was in its fifth season at that time). While being in a “Buffy” immersion tank had its benefits, there were problems. Because I hadn’t watched the show sequentially, certain events just didn’t resonate for me as they did for longtime viewers. Not to sound heartless, but Joyce’s death in “The Body” and the other characters’ reactions to the loss didn’t send me to my box of tissues. More significantly, I never fell for Angel, and not just because I met Spike first. Wit does it for me more than a pretty face and like “Mad Men”‘s Roger Sterling, Spike always got the best lines. Which, incidentally is why (remove your hats and bow your heads) “Firefly,” another product of Joss Whedon’s genius brain, will last forever for fans—almost every character, with the exception of the Tam kids, got the best lines.

CAUTION: “HOUSE OF CARDS” SPOILERS AHEAD

I was reluctant to jump on the “House of Cards” train for what seemed to be good reasons. I had seen the British original starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquart in its entirety when it first aired on PBS many years ago, and while the show was delightfully evil in its first two seasons, it became a cartoon in the third. And I wasn’t sure the machinations would translate—the U.K.’s parliamentary system seemed a more enabling environment for someone to rise so swiftly.

Fortunately the American showrunners have changed the tone of the piece considerably. The mood is darker and antagonists, both domestic and foreign, are everywhere. The leading character, now named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) still addresses the audience in asides which are variously bitter, astute or campy. But what I like most about the manner in which this series is unfolding is that it “reads” like a novel. There’s a strong narrative sense—each succeeding episode indeed feels like the next chapter in a book. Events build on each other. There are plot twists, but little sense of shock with the possible exception of Zoe Barnes’ murder. Since you know certain characters will stop at nothing—and if you don’t, you’re watching the wrong show—their actions seem to be foretold, though this in no way diminishes your enjoyment. Were you really surprised when Jackie Sharp endorsed Heather Dunbar for President, not Frank? Was there any way Premier Petrov would not have demanded Claire’s resignation as U.N. Ambassador?

The show’s meditations on power and what it does to people are what drive “House of Cards.” Morally upright Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) becomes so besotted with what she perceives to be her destiny to become President that she ultimately offers to buy written proof of Claire’s abortion for two million dollars (It helps to come from money). On the other hand, there’s Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank’s successor as House Majority Whip, who starts her game by forcibly pushing her mentor out to pasture, only to have twinges of conscience down the road when Frank’s demands during her stalking horse Presidential candidacy cross the line.

While Frank Underwood realizes his ambition by becoming President, things are more complex than he ever dreamed. The Russian Premier is even better at the game than he is, and Frank to his dismay doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as much anymore. But while it’s doubtful he holds the people around him (or for that matter, himself) in any high regard, he respects and indeed reveres the office he now holds. The role of Frank Underwood invites overplaying, but so far Kevin Spacey has mainly resisted the temptation.

But the sine qua non of “House of Cards” is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s not just her look and her demeanor—you always wonder how the character has ended up the way she has. Perhaps it’s to the showrunners’ credit that they haven’t given us the whys and wherefores yet; this way we’re left to our own suppositions about her past, her early relationship with Frank and whether things have always been this twisted and if not, what caused it. It’s agonizing that we won’t be getting even the smallest of hints until the show picks up again on Netflix next year.

I hope “House of Cards” avoids the problems that arose during the run of its British counterpart. The ascent to the top is always more fun than the drudgery of maintaining power, and I hope the show provides a counterbalance by featuring more campaign razzle-dazzle in its next season (the Presidential debate between Frank, Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar was terrific). More fundamentally, though, the basic scheme of “House of Cards” begs the question of how many people can Frank destroy and/or bump off before the show becomes ridiculous? And will Frank’s descent, which is sure to come, be as enjoyable to watch as his accession?

It all remains to be seen.

Doctor…Psycho Blonde…Nurse…Nurse

ThatGal

One of the documentaries I’ve enjoyed most in the last several years is “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing.” Featuring a roster of actors whose faces you’ve seen so many times, but whose names usually escape you, it’s 79 minutes of entertaining yet eye-opening anecdotes about life as a working actor, which as it turns out, is a rarity in Hollywood.

Now Ian Roumain, the director of that film, has produced a natural follow-up, “That Gal…Who Was in That Thing,” highlighting the trials and tribulations of the female version of the actor species (The majority of the participants in “That Gal” prefer to be described as “actors,” not “actresses,” so I’ll gladly follow their lead). The documentary is available on Showtime and On Demand, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

Despite their extensive resumes, the participants in “That Gal” were more obscure for me than the men in “That Guy.” The only face I could put a name to immediately belonged to Roma Maffia, only because of her appearances on the “Law & Order” shows and “E.R.,” both of which I watched regularly. Actor L. Scott Caldwell mentions early on that people tend to know her voice but not her name, and in fact, I wracked my brain until she finally mentioned playing Regina King’s mother in “Southland.” And while I knew Jayne Atkinson’s name from her extensive New York theater career, it was a big “So THAT’S who she is” when she appeared on-screen.

These are actors that luckily can make a living but aren’t stars. A couple, like Roxanne Hart, whose first film was “The Verdict” (she played the sister/guardian of Paul Newman’s comatose client) might have made that breakthrough when they were younger, but as luck would have it, it just didn’t happen. So now they keep on going with TV roles, winning a slot on a series if they’re lucky, and character parts in film, while at least two have branched out to other fields—in Ms. Hart’s case, directing in theater, and in Ms. Maffia’s, obtaining her master’s degree.

But what makes “That Gal” stand out from its male counterpart is an extensive and frank discussion of how Hollywood views and treats female actors. One of the documentary’s participants is Donna Massetti, a talent agent, who along with the actors who appear, details at length the problems of their early aging (at least in the eyes of producers), weight, appearance, etc., that are endemic in the industry. It’s the old story—a craggy 60 year-old male actor is “interesting,” a female actor that age will be sidelined into playing a great-grandmother. The bigger issue, though, is one of sheer numbers. There are always more roles for men because it’s a male-driven industry. The majority of the creative talent is still male, and the men get to present their vision. Fortunately with the emergence of cable TV and the development of original internet programming, the ladies are beginning to have their day.

However, some issues may never go away. Most of the actors in “That Gal” are mothers, and their stories about having to hide their pregnancies for fear of losing out on a role give you pause. L. Scott Caldwell’s account of what it cost her to send her son to live with his father while she gave a Tony-winning performance on Broadway is heartbreaking. And while Paget Brewster is exceptionally funny in describing how female actors are routinely assessed by men in the industry, she’s dead serious about being sexually assaulted while filming a bed scene.

The women who appear in “That Gal” are proud of their craft. After seeing it, I can only hope that they will have the opportunity to continue in their chosen profession for years to come.

P.S.: The title of this post comes from an amusing sequence in “That Gal” when the actors list the types of roles in which they’re routinely stuck with cast.