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—the characters’ 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.

The Verdict

PaulNewmanHas middle age ever flattered an actor the way it did Paul Newman?

After a long career in which he created a number of unforgettable characters, including Chance Wayne, Hud, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman took his craft to another level entirely in his 50’s. Beginning with “Absence of Malice” in 1981, he scored three Oscar nominations in five years, finally winning his only Best Actor Oscar for “The Color of Money.” But as good as Newman is in the films I just mentioned, they don’t quite measure up to the level of his talent. Given the scene of a lifetime, Wilford Brimley walks away with “Absence of Malice” after we’ve spent an hour and a half scratching our heads over the profound mismatch of Sally Field and Paul Newman. Tom Cruise’s antics are a major distraction in “The Color of Money,” and unfortunately are not entirely erased by the subtle underplaying of Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio as his girlfriend and Newman as a middle-aged Eddie Felsen, a character he first played 25 years before in “The Hustler.”

Instead Paul Newman’s best work is displayed in the middle of his Oscar nomination streak, in 1982’s “The Verdict,” directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by David Mamet. For my money this is his best performance on film and the one that should have won him that Oscar.

“The Verdict” is a story of redemption, and Paul Newman at long last has the face for it. Age beautifully sharpened the planes of his face, finally removing what remained of his younger, slightly overripe look. It suits the film’s central character, an alcoholic attorney named Frank Galvin, to a tee. There’s nothing pretty about Galvin’s slipping a funeral director $50 just so he can get close enough to a grieving widow to pass her his business card. Or drinking his breakfast at a local bar, his hand shaking too badly to pick up the glass. Or trashing his own office out of self-disgust. Newman goes for broke as an actor here, and it’s marvelous to see.

“The Verdict” at issue is one sought in a medical malpractice case against a Catholic hospital in Boston, as well as the attending obstetrician and anesthesiologist of a patient, Deborah Ann Kaye, who went into cardiac arrest while in labor with her third child. The evident cause of this condition was a blocked airway after she vomited into her mask, which resulted in the death of her baby and her own vegetative state. Frank inherits this case from his now-retired law partner; his object is simply to wring some money out of the Archdiocese for Ms. Kaye’s care (and to collect a not inconsiderable fee for himself). But something happens on the way to the bank. When he visits the nursing home to take snapshots of his comatose client for the purpose of shaming the bishop out of money, he sees Deborah Ann Kaye for the first time—really sees her, tethered to tubes for the rest of her life. Newman’s wordless gaze at what remains of this woman, once a wife, mother and sister, transforms Frank Galvin from wreck into advocate. When he refuses the bishop’s settlement check he does so not just to fight for his client, but as an attempt to salvage his own worth.

What places “The Verdict” a cut above “Absence of Malice” and “The Color of Money” is that every performance in the film is without exception on a par with Newman’s. In no particular order there’s Julie Bovasso as a nurse with something to hide, who matches Galvin’s every push and shove. James Mason is simply stupendous as Concannon, Galvin’s slippery courtroom adversary—after so many years in film he turns in one of his finest performances. The very young Lindsey Crouse brings the right amount of innocence to the key role of Kaitlin Costello, the former nurse browbeaten into submission. Not to mention the incredible beauty and mystery of Charlotte Rampling’s Laura Fischer, and three of the best character actors around: Jack Warden as Galvin’s former law partner, Milo O’Shea as the old hack of a judge and Edward Binns as the sympathetic (to a point) bishop.

NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW

I saw “The Verdict” when it was first released and like the many attorneys who wrote screaming letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, I was appalled by the legal errors, ethical misconduct and outright crimes committed by the lawyers (and judge) in this film. God knows there are enough faults in the American legal system to complain about without a screenwriter’s having to invent more. In the real world Kaitlin Costello would have been among the first potential witnesses to be deposed, and Galvin or his former partner would have moved heaven and earth to find her long before it dawns on the two of them in the movie that she’s needed. I’ll spare you my rant about inducing expert witnesses to disappear, opening other people’s mail and failing to consult with the sister (and guardian) of a comatose client before rejecting a settlement offer. But the one screamer that really got to me was the exclusion of the photocopy of the original admitting record and the striking of Kaitlin Costello’s testimony from the record. If there’s one thing the American justice system is good at it’s permitting juries to hear challenges to the credibility of evidence. So it irked me no end to see the film give credence, even from a biased judge’s ruling, to the proposition that such challenges are impermissible.

What remains even more controversial to this day, however, is the character of Laura, the woman Galvin meets at his favorite bar and who becomes his sounding board, confidante and lover. Charlotte Rampling plays her with just the right amount of withholding, but it’s still a shock to discover who she really is. Ultimately you’re of two minds about her. She’s evidently blackmailed into doing what she does—it’s a fair bet she was sexually involved with Concannon at one time, otherwise why would he treat her so badly. Nevertheless she refuses to perform the ultimate betrayal by informing the Archdiocese’s legal team of the whereabouts of Kaitlin Costello (Concannon is totally flummoxed by her appearance in court as well as her testimony). As per Sidney Lumet in the extras of the DVD edition of “The Verdict,” women in the film’s preview audience cheered when Frank Galvin punched her in the face. Was it due to the mere fact of her betrayal of Frank, or because a woman who stoops that low betrays all women?

The end play of “The Verdict” is predictable. The Archdiocese will file a motion for remittitur to reduce whatever amount is ultimately awarded by the jury; failing that, it will appeal, but in the meantime offer Galvin a settlement far greater than the one he turned down. This time he’ll take it—his client will be well provided for, and Deborah Ann Kaye’s sister and brother-in-law will be able to get on with their lives.

But he’ll never pick up that phone that’s ringing with Laura’s call.

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano

© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost). _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for

At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________ lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Down the Tubes?

LastTango_Kate

Kate…You Should Have Been Allowed to Stay

CAUTION–THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 OF “LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX.”

It definitely made for a great episode. But is it good for the long haul?

“Last Tango in Halifax” recently saw both a glorious beginning and an intolerable conclusion. Caroline and Kate were married in a heartfelt ceremony, only to have it all end the next day when Kate was killed by a hit and run driver. Prior to her death her baby was delivered via C-section, leaving Caroline a single mother.

To be honest I was livid when I first heard of this pending turn of events. I had loved “Last Tango in Halifax” from the start, primarily for its avoidance of cliché. But elements of soap started creeping in during Season 2 with Gillian’s confession to Caroline that she had murdered her abusive husband, and things got even sudsier this season when Alan learned he had fathered a son during an extramarital fling many years ago. But Kate’s death? This one hit the TriFecta of soap: killing off the (1) black (2) lesbian, (3) but keeping her around in spirit, thus indulging in Dead Denny Syndrome (™”Grey’s Anatomy”).

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

It’s an unfortunate fact that the majority of persons of color (indeed, practically all minorities) on television shows in the U.S. and the U.K. play supporting characters, not leads–sidekicks, if you will, whether love interests or not. And we all learned as far back as the cheesy movies we watched as kids that if there’s a need to show off a leading character’s depth of emotion, the sidekick gets killed off. Given what a trope this is, you wonder how Tonto ever made it to the end of “The Lone Ranger Show.”

Killing Off the Lesbian has been another trope for decades in fiction, film and television, contrary to the protestations of Sally Wainwright, “Last Tango”‘s creator and writer, though I suspect she’s about to get a swift education from the LGBT community. Kate and Caroline, played superbly by Nina Sosanya and Sarah Lancashire, respectively, were a terrific couple—interesting, funny and a joy to watch. The best thing about Kate was that she called Caroline on her bullshit. Their differences provided great chemistry—Caroline used to taking charge and making quick decisions, Kate sweet but with a will of iron. It took them two full seasons and three break-ups to finally get together, and Sally Wainwright ends it the day after the wedding?

Why is it the intriguing relationships get thrown in the trash with such disheartening regularity? Stephen Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” was infamous for this. In the former he drove a stake in the heart of the Henry Goldblum/Faye Furillo pairing. Here was the type of couple that had not been seen on network television before: a blended relationship in which both were divorced and each had at least one child. Both had been around the block and now they’re trying to make it work. It may sound like nothing special now, but keep in mind this aired only a few short years after CBS demanded that Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic Mary Richards (“Oh, Mr. Grant!) be changed from a divorcee to a single woman. So Henry and Faye, as real as they became, had to go. And as for “L.A. Law”, I need only invoke the name “Rosalind Shays” to prove my point. She was the formerly villainous attorney who had an affair with senior partner Leland MacKenzie. Finally we were treated to something groundbreaking for its time—the affair of two characters in late middle age. Does Bochco pursue this? No way. For the sake of “drama” he kills her off by having her step into an open elevator shaft. A huge mistake more accurately characterized as “jumping the shark.”

Kate may be dead but she’s not really gone—Caroline, in WWKD (What Would Kate Do?) mode, summons her spirit on a consulting basis. What to name the baby? Should I hire a nanny? I can’t do this alone. So Kate is there to give her advice and occasionally a verbal boot in the behind. On the one hand, I’d never turn down the opportunity to see Nina Sosanya on-screen. Plus we’re getting the return of opinionated Kate from Season 1. But let’s face it, what we’re really seeing is “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir MacKenzie-Dawson.” Throw in a brain tumor and you’ve got Dead Denny Syndrome.

But on the other hand…(and it kills me to write this) Sally Wainwright produced a superb episode showing the aftermath of Kate’s death.

From the beginning, with the sleight of hand presence of Kate, discussing baby names with Caroline, who we gradually and shockingly realize is dressing for Kate’s funeral, to meeting Kate’s mother (Michelle Hurst) and little Flora Grace, to seeing Caroline so bereft, it’s heartbreaking but the tone is so right. The small talk, the reminiscences, the mild jokes—Sally got it all, as well as the best scene on the show since Caroline and Kate had their talk in the garden in Season 1. Greg, Kate’s friend from Oxford and Flora’s biological father, approaches Caroline with an offer to help with the baby’s care. He acknowledges that he and Caroline got off on the wrong foot (to put it mildly), and makes it clear that had events been different, he would have stayed out of the picture. But the man is so sincere and so concerned for both Caroline and the baby’s welfare that Caroline, displaying a type of kindness we hadn’t seen before, runs interference for him with Kate’s mother, who everyone knows considers Greg an idiot. Caroline still isn’t sold on having Greg care for the baby, but I suspect pep talks from Spirit Kate will wear her down. Besides, that nanny who waltzed in at the end of the episode sounds ditzy as hell.

We’re used to superb acting from the “Last Tango in Halifax” cast, but what transpired during this episode was above and beyond. Sarah Lancashire was just tremendous, as was Nicola Walker during the uncomfortable scene when Gillian told Caroline she was marrying Robbie. Anne Reid as Celia perfectly timed that “Do you fancy her?” when Caroline hesitated over endorsing Gillian’s upcoming wedding. I hope we see more of Marcus Garvey as Greg and especially Michelle Hurst as Ginika, Kate’s mom. That ever-expanding family tree in the show’s opening credits needs replenishment.

Sally Wainwright’s stated purpose in killing off Kate was to provide a catalyst to bring Celia and Caroline back together after the fall-out over the latter’s wedding. However, I think in the end the absence of Kate, and what she brought to her relationship with Caroline as spouse/lover/friend/sparring partner will result in a poorer show.

While the aftermath was beautifully done, it shouldn’t have had to be done at all.

In Cold Blood

in cold bloodNo book ever frightened me as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Merely reading the New York Times review caused me a sleepless night. I was 15 when I first read it, and the story of a family murdered in their Kansas home was an inexorable horror show. But the quality of Capote’s writing was undeniable. Many readings since have only caused my admiration to grow for his stark prose and the detail of his observations.

At the time of publication, Capote, who seemingly couldn’t live without stirring up controversy, boasted that “In Cold Blood” represented his invention of a new format: the “nonfiction novel.” He detailed how he had adapted the techniques of fiction to the reporting of true events, though in truth this format was not new. The New Yorker had prided itself on this style of reportage for years, and in fact John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Lillian Ross’s “Picture,” both of which had originally appeared in that publication, were frequently cited by reviewers who maintained that others had gotten there long before Capote.

It turns out that “novel” may have trumped “nonfiction” in the case of “In Cold Blood” more than first suspected. To a certain extent this is not exactly news. Various sources have revealed over the years that Capote molded the story to an unusual degree to suit his ends, going so far as to invent certain incidents such as the book’s final scene, an accidental meeting at the Clutter grave site of Nancy Clutter’s best friend and Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective whom Capote credits with solving the case. More recently Charles J. Shields’ biography of Harper Lee, “Mockingbird,” provided tantalizing details of what Lee learned about Holcomb, Kansas as well as the Clutters while assisting Capote in his research, specifically the extent to which Mrs. Clutter’s illness cast a shadow over her daughter’s life. As per Lee’s notes, Capote feared that such information would mar the image of the all-American family he intended to portray and refused to include it in his book.

This month the heirs of Harold Nye, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who worked the Clutter case, won the right to publish his notebooks and other material relating to the murders and their investigation. For a number of years KBI agents and their survivors have disputed Capote’s depiction of how law enforcement identified and captured the murderers, so it should be fascinating to see how Nye’s contemporaneous notes gibe with “In Cold Blood.” Capote famously declined to take notes during his interviews with the various sources for his book, relying instead on memory to reconstruct what had been related to him. Logic tells you this technique is not the best to ensure accuracy, no matter how prodigious the powers of recall, so a newly revealed account should be an interesting contrast to “In Cold Blood.”

Should we fault Capote for the manner of his presentation? He never said his work was journalism, which as we know isn’t always 100% on the money as every newspaper’s “Corrections” section can attest (too bad certain cable stations fail to air their apologies in similar fashion). Aren’t works of nonfiction, not to mention documentary film, inevitably the result of choices made by the author or director to include or exclude certain material, to interpret and to present a point of view? Capote may have erred on various facts or misrepresented whether certain events took place, such as that grave site meeting, but I’d be surprised to learn that he distorted either participant’s emotions or views. And as for attributing the breakthroughs in the case to one man, Capote evidently felt the book needed a hero: Alvin Dewey, a solid family man who knew the Clutters. By doing so Capote enables us to see events unfold through the eyes of an individual whom we come to know, so that the climactic passage of the book, Perry Smith’s confession to Dewey, carries the horror that it should.

Capote’s initial impulse in writing about these events was to show the impact of a murder upon a small town. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we hear the stunned remarks of Holcomb residents and view the image of fearful townsfolk sitting up all night with every light burning in their homes. What people say and do in the aftermath of murder can be astonishing, as witness the wedding of one of the older Clutter daughters two days after the funeral of her parents and younger siblings. In a way it makes sense—her entire extended family was in Holcomb and the church had already been booked for the next month—but reading Capote’s account, it seems incredibly strange. On the other hand, I saw similar reactions many years later. When I was still living the corporate life, my boss of ten years was murdered; to date the case remains unsolved. How I saw people behave in the aftermath was no less odd, not to mention at times insulting and occasionally just plain weird. Let me just say that Capote’s observations in this regard ring very true.

“In Cold Blood” is more than a milestone in the true crime genre. It’s included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, residing alongside some fast company indeed. It remains a classic.

Detecting

The-Fall

Query: Why is it U.K. television does police procedurals so much better than we do in the U.S.?

I just saw Season 1 of “The Fall” and “Broadchurch,” respectively, and I’m still marveling at how well these shows told their stories. I can only think of two series set on our side of the Atlantic that match their grit and intensity: the classic 1990’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and more recently “The Wire,” though the latter is really a portrait of Baltimore with each season of the show focusing on a different facet of the city (in order: the police, the waterfront, the black community, the schools and finally the politicians).

“The Fall,” set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is the old story of the hunter and the hunted, but with a twist—you’re not always clear as to which is which. Gibson’s on the trail of a serial killer who stalks women, breaks into their homes and later returns to murder them, ultimately washing, grooming and posing their bodies for discovery. I won’t lie—this show is incredibly intense and the assault and murder scenes are very difficult to watch. Nevertheless the story is absorbing because the murderer is such a far cry from whom you’d expect: Paul Spector (the incredibly handsome Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor who’s married with two children. His wife is a neo-natal nurse, and because they work opposite shifts she hasn’t a clue as to how her husband spends his time while she’s at the hospital.

DS Gibson is one ambitious cop. She never hesitates and she never quits. Originally she’s imported from the Metropolitan Police Force to help solve the murder of the former daughter-in-law of a powerful politician. Through just a modicum of finagling Gibson gets herself appointed SIO (senior investigating officer) on another case involving the murder of a young female attorney. To the distress of her superior officer, she sees the connection to the earlier murder and drops the serial killer card on the table for all to see.

Gibson is something of an enigma. Warm she’s not, yet she handles peers and subordinates well—the scene in which she talks a fellow detective down from hysteria after he witnesses a suicide is extraordinary, as is the manner in which she assuages the guilt of an officer who along with her partner might have prevented the attorney’s murder. For the most part, though, she’s extremely guarded; the only character with whom she appears to be at ease is the medical examiner, Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi). Although we see her pick up a cop in record time (her technique resembles how you and I would choose a steak from the meat case of our local supermarket), it doesn’t appear that she enjoys the sex beyond the merely physical. A very cool customer indeed.

It’s evident that Gibson is leading her quarry on. But she and Paul Spector seem to be distorted mirror images of each other, since he’s obviously doing the same with her. I’m looking forward to the second season of this show, which has already aired in the U.K., for a resolution of this very high-wire tension. The suspense, as they say, is killing me.

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Broadchurch

“Broadchurch,” though focused on a murder investigation, centrally poses the following question: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” For the residents of a seaside town in Dorset, the answer is not a welcome one.

DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to work after a three-week vacation only to learn that the job she wanted has been filled by the imported DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a cop with a huge blot on his record due to a botched murder investigation. To say Ellie’s not happy is an understatement, but she and her new boss are immediately confronted with the murder of an 11 year-old boy who happens to be her son’s best friend. And Broadchurch, being the small town that it is, is a hotbed of everyone being in each other’s business. Stoking the flames of distrust even higher are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, one of whom is Ellie’s nephew. No one is above suspicion, whether obvious or not: the local vicar, a telephone repairman who receives psychic messages from the dead, the murdered boy’s father, Ellie’s son. DS Miller is forced to learn more about her neighbors than she ever wanted, and in the middle of it all, we see a bereaved family attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The pace of Season 1 of “Broadchurch” keeps the story at just the right simmer over its eight-episode length. I was totally absorbed by the relationships of the town’s residents and especially by the interaction of Hardy and Miller. What would a detective be unless he had a Past (capital “P”), and Hardy certainly does, as we come to learn. He’s rude, he’s brusque, but he’s so much fun to watch. He’s got a laser-like focus when he questions witnesses and suspects, something we only see develop in Miller (as Hardy insists on calling her) over time. This in turn makes you realize that their superior was right all along in filling the lead slot with a detective who was up to the job from the start.

If there’s a fault in “Broadchurch” it’s only in an exceptionally heavy anvil dropped in the seventh episode, though even this serves the purpose of coalescing your thoughts as to whodunit. The ultimate resolution is crushing, if not entirely unexpected, but there’s resilience: “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season, though BBC America won’t be airing it until March (in the meantime I’ll be checking YouTube religiously for uploads). The show’s American version, “Gracepoint,” also starring David Tennant, didn’t fare as well, having been cancelled after ten episodes. I saw the first (long before I watched “Broadchurch”) and didn’t care for it. The California coastal town seemed unreal and the pace threatened to be excruciating. Having stuck with the interminable “The Killing” for its first season, I wasn’t eager to go through that experience again.

Why anyone felt the need to transplant “Broadchurch” is beyond me. If ever there’s a poster child for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s this show. I hope it continues for quite some time.