Posted in Television

Compare and Contrast

A Sip of Noir: Grace Billets (Amy Aquino) and Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver)

Now that the networks are in Rerun Hell, the only way to keep one’s sanity is to head for the Stream. I recently caught up with two favorite online series which in their new seasons have significantly diverged in fortune. One, by deepening the complexity of its characters, continues to engage. The other, now seemingly with its best days behind it, is clearly on a downward slide.

WARNING–SPOILERS ABOUND

“Bosch,” based on the series of novels by Michael Connelly, continues its impressive way on Amazon. Now in its third season, the show reveals new, and not necessarily pleasant, shades of Detective Harry Bosch’s character. The seeming solution to the murder of his prostitute mother, a crime which served as a running thread in the first two seasons of the show, begins to unravel, and his clashes with the L.A.P.D. and District Attorney hierarchies have become more explosive. Harry Bosch, superbly played by Titus Welliver, is no longer the pristine upholder of justice, if he ever was. In his pursuit of a suspected serial killer, he’s definitely of “The Means Justify the Ends” school, a side of him we never before suspected. And we’re not alone—his longtime partner J[erry] Edgar (a terrific Jamie Hector), shaken by the shadiness of Bosch’s actions, ends the current season by telling him “I’m not sure I can work with you anymore.”

Yet the Good Bosch is still there for us to enjoy. He cares—about his partner, his superior officer and peers and most of all, his teen-aged daughter Maddie, now living with him and itching to follow dear old dad in his cop’s footsteps. And his concern for ex-wife Eleanor, Maddie’s mom, remains despite her remarriage. He has a habit of reaching outside his family circle, as we see his protective interest in the young street hustler who stumbles upon the murder of a Marine veteran with whom Bosch shares a similar service record.

Usually I like the detective/mystery genre to move along at a decent clip, but “Bosch” is worth taking the time to savor for a variety of reasons—the writing, the actors, but best of all, the characters. It’s fun spending time with these people: Bosch and J. Edgar, their detective cohorts, refered to as Crate (Gregory Scott Cummins) and Barrel (Troy Evans), Sgt. Mankiewicz  (Scott Klace), and their boss, Lt. Grace Billets (Amy Aquino). Any show with Lance Reddick would automatically get points from me, but here he has a role to sink his teeth into: the wonderfully named Irvin Irving, newly made Acting Chief of Police, still carrying the guilt of his detective son’s death and the end of his marriage. I even enjoy watching the power-hungry District Attorney O’Shea (Steven Culp) who will forever be at loggerheads with Bosch. If this show were a baseball team, I’d say it had a very deep bench.

But this series’ biggest asset will always be Titus Welliver as Bosch. With his gray hair. laser blue eyes and wardrobe to accentuate both, he’s definitely easy to spend thirteen hours a season with. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Bogart in his prime, and his assurance, both as an actor and as the character, sells the show. Interestingly enough, I recently caught Welliver on a very old episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” and in his younger version he wasn’t half as impressive. Some of us need that extra mileage to blossom.

The current season of “Bosch” ended with some tantalizing teasers. There’s still the issue of who really killed Harry’s mother, and of greater concern, who in the police hierarchy covered for him. And ex-wife Eleanor, a former FBI agent who supposedly quit the Bureau to become a professional card player, seems to be working undercover for them on an assignment yet to be revealed. Perhaps best of all, Veronica Allen’s murder trial resulted in a hung jury. Hopefully this means we’ll see Bosch vs. Allen, Round 2, next season—Jeri Ryan makes a great Shady Lady (Blonde Division), and the powers that be have got to bring her back.

If you’re not watching “Bosch,” you should be.

The Ever-Plotting Underwoods: Claire (Robin Wright) and Frank (Kevin Spacey)

I wish the fifth season of “House of Cards,” recently dropped on Netflix, merited equal praise, but unfortunately it does not. The show suffers from a number of issues, not all of which are curable. One is inherent in the nature of the story, as was evident in its British television source: it’s always more fun to see devilish characters on the way up rather than working hard to maintain power. And with the current real-life goings-on in Washington, events and personalities which may have proved entertaining in seasons past no longer seem so.

While Robin Wright as Claire Underwood continues to intrigue in all senses of the word, I’ve grown tired of her television husband. Kevin Spacey seems to have completely emptied his actor’s bag of tricks on the role of Frank Underwood quite some time ago, and there’s nothing fresh about his portrayal. The fact that he has sex with men? That chime was rung back in Seasons 1 and 2. More importantly, unlike Ian Richardson, his British counterpart, he has little if any charm to compensate for the skullduggery, which made for very heavy sledding throughout the most recent season.

“House of Cards” has always been somewhat over the top, but the events of Season 5 make the show look like it just dived off the Empire State Building. I had reservations last season when Claire managed to get herself nominated as her husband’s running mate, but seeing it play out has only demonstrated that having a show rely on a twist so far removed from reality is not a recipe for success. And speaking of derailments: The murder of Tom Yates? Pushing Cathy Durant down the White House stairs and into a coma? The unraveling of Presidential Candidate Will Conway? To what purpose? I’ll really miss these actors—Paul Sparks, Jayne Atkinson and Joel Kinnaman, respectively—and I hope the show runners at least try to rein in some of the show’s outrageousness by replacing them with equally high-caliber actors. Every time Reed Birney, as the discarded Vice President Donald Blythe, appeared on screen, the audience received a lesson in subtlety, not to mention a breath of “good guy” air. Hopefully the addition of Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson will help, though her character is absolutely baffling up to this point (Is she just working for Premier Petrov, or is she playing all ends against the middle?).

C’mon guys–you should be doing better.

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Posted in Television

The Keepers

The latest “must see” from Netflix, the seven-episode documentary, “The Keepers,” is a compelling exercise in storytelling. It begins with one narrative, namely the investigation of a 48 year-old murder, but quickly veers to another in order to shine a light on even older crimes: an extensive pattern of sexual abuse covered up by a powerful archdiocese. While the subject matter is absorbing, it’s the manner of the telling that keeps the viewer coming back. Director Ryan White is a master at revealing information only a bit at a time. It makes for such tantalizing viewing that you’ll literally find yourself leaning forward for more clues, more witnesses, more facts.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t get enough to satisfy; this parceling out of information leads to mixed results. While a definitive answer as to who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik is not forthcoming, at least at this time, the actions of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in covering up years of sexual abuse of minors by a particular priest are without question.

“The Keepers” begins by studying the abduction of Sister Cathy, formerly a teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, in the fall of 1969. At the time of her disappearance she and a fellow nun were living in an apartment away from their convent and teaching at a public high school in an experiment sanctioned by the Church to promote closer contact with the community. On the night of November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left her apartment to run several errands, including a stop at a local shopping center; she never returned although her car was later found parked haphazardly in the driveway of her apartment complex. Two months later her body was found in an isolated area several miles away. Her skull had been crushed.

The extensive investigation which is the focus of “The Keepers” was conducted by Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two of Cathy Cesnik’s former students, whose results, we come to learn, are far more informative that those previously obtained by law enforcement. It’s the old story of too many cooks stirring the broth: both the City of Baltimore and Baltimore County apparently had jurisdiction, though the sharing of information left a great deal to be desired. That the ball was dropped on more than one occasion becomes glaringly obvious during an interview with a county detective in charge of the still-open crime file. His shock and embarrassment in discovering that a key bit of evidence—an unopened letter Cathy wrote to her sister postmarked the day after her disappearance—was never turned over by the city police to the county, and in fact remains missing altogether, is painful to see.

But “The Keepers” ultimately spends less time on Sister Cathy’s murder than on the behavior of the priest who is strongly hinted to have been involved. Father Joseph Maskell, the chaplain at Archbishop Keough High School at the time Sister Cathy taught there, was a textbook sexual abuser who methodically identified and preyed upon the most vulnerable students in order to secure their silence, whether by religious coercion, physical threats or both. However, not all kept quiet; at least one girl confided in Sister Cathy, who assured her that “This will stop.” Whether her knowledge led to a confrontation which culminated in her murder remains a mystery, though it’s obvious the Baltimore Archdiocese knew of Maskell’s behavior. In a pattern so well detailed in the film “Spotlight”, the powers that be hopscotched Maskell from parish to parish over the years, and in fact sent him to the Institute for Living in Hartford for six months to get him out of the reach of irate parents. He was eventually named as a co-defendant in an action brought by two Keough abuse survivors in 1994, and later fled to Ireland; he died in 2001. While he was interviewed by law enforcement during the initial investigation of Sister Cathy’s murder, nothing came of it.

Which brings me to an irritating flaw in “The Keepers”—hints are frequently dropped, but follow-up is sometimes lacking. While Father Maskell may have had motive, did he have opportunity? There’s no discussion of his whereabouts on the night Sister Cathy disappeared, though “The Keepers” may or may not prove that he knew where her body was dumped (While I believe Jane Doe’s account of the abuse she suffered, I don’t buy her story about Maskell’s showing her the body). There’s also the matter of Gerry Koob, a former priest who had an extraordinarily close relationship with Sister Cathy; whether their attachment went beyond the platonic is another question that maddeningly remains unanswered, even though Koob is interviewed extensively throughout “The Keepers.” Law enforcement evidently thought there was both smoke and fire, and in fact treated him as a suspect. They had some questions regarding Koob’s whereabouts on the night of Sister Cathy’s disappearance, since the friend he claims was with him had a somewhat different story. After all these years, the friend can not be located, even by the intrepid team of Gemma and Abbie. Equally frustrating is the fact that Sister Russell, Cathy’s roommate, having left the order and married, died a few years ago; she consistently refused to discuss Cathy, the crime or even her years as a nun during the intervening decades. Again, there are implications that threats may have been made, but there’s nothing concrete.

In its fixation on Father Maskell and to a lesser degree, two other suspects who are questionable at best, “The Keepers” omits or downplays some key information. Not until the final episode do we learn there was an eyewitness who saw Sister Cathy on the night of her disappearance being driven in her own car by an unidentified man as she struggled to exit the vehicle. This is mentioned in one sentence and dropped. While “The Keepers” does examine the abduction and murder of 20 year-old Joyce Malecki, which occurred four days after Sister Cathy’s disappearance, there’s no mention of the two 16 year old girls who were also abducted from Baltimore area shopping centers in separate incidents in 1970 and 1971. Coincidence or connection? Equally telling is the condition in which Sister Cathy’s body was found: her skirt was hiked up and she was nude from the waist up, which is more than suggestive of a sex crime. Yet there’s no discussion of this, let alone a confirmation or denial of the presence of semen or any evidence of rape. However, one question has been answered, only days before “The Keepers” became available for viewing. Maskell’s DNA, obtained after exhumation of his body, is not a match for that recovered from a cigarette butt left at Sister Cathy’s crime scene.

Even with its flaws and particularly in light of recent developments, “The Keepers” cries out for at least one more episode. You listening, Netflix?