Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Shortest Day of the Year

Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips), Susanna (Nadine Sierra) and Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) Working on Yet Another Plot

Last weekend I had the pleasure of revisiting “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera. As originally presented in 2014, the production, set in the late 1930’s, had major echoes of Jean Renoir’s classic film, “Rules of the Game.” This was enhanced by the casting, which featured Peter Mattei as a very suave and authoritative Count Almaviva, and the excellent performance of Marlis Peterson, the definitive Lulu of her generation, who portrayed an older and far more sophisticated Susanna than usually seen in the role. The result was a dark comedy, tempered somewhat by the sweetness of Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. But a change of singers and a bit of tweaking has now resulted in perhaps a more traditional “Figaro”—funnier, but fortunately without the slapstick that can mar a production. In the final analysis, both views of the opera work equally well.

The current run of “Figaro” that just ended (it’s due to return with a different cast in February) had two key elements: the Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and Susanna Phillips’ Countess. After several runs as the Count, it was a pleasure to see Pisaroni in what I think is his more natural role. He’s Figaro to the life–the face, the expressions and the physicality all serve the essence of the character. Ms. Phillips, though with a lighter voice than I expected, was dramatically perfect. Her beautifully sung “Dove sono” limned the character’s emotions in all their complexity, which she describes in detail in an Aria Code podcast that may be the best in that series (What? You’re not listening? Tune in for some great insights). It seemed only Adam Plachetka’s Count fell short of the dramatic mark. There was unrelenting bluster, to the extent that I just didn’t believe him when he sang “Contessa perdono.”

In case you can’t guess, “Le Nozze di Figaro” is one of the my favorite operas, and it was a special treat to see this with such a good audience. They enjoyed themselves immensely, aided in no small measure by some wonderfully contemporary titles. A “Figaro” performance should at its end make you glad to be alive, and this one certainly did. “Corriam tutti!”

—————

“The Irishman,” now available on Netflix, is the summation of Martin Scorsese’s career. In short (as opposed to its length), I liked it. In its most basic sense, it’s an absorbing account of how to lose one’s soul by increments, though I doubt Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) would put it that way. In this regard, perhaps the most illuminating scene in the film is Frank’s conversation with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), during which they discuss Frank’s experiences in World War II. He registers virtually no emotion as he describes how he followed (unspoken) orders to massacre captured Italian soldiers rather than take them prisoner. Although Buffalino doesn’t even flinch, it’s Frank’s lack of affect that’s the most chilling aspect of the story.

It goes without saying that the casting of this film is superb. Award nominations have been raining down on De Niro as well as Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, but it’s Joe Pesci’s incredibly subtle performance that stayed with me the longest. I also enjoyed how Scorsese, a former executive producer of “Boardwalk Empire,” sprinkled “The Irishman” with actors from that show: Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Jack Huston (Bobby Kennedy), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), among others, not to mention a spectacular turn by Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano. Mr. Graham, who was a magnetic Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” seems to have inherited the chameleon-like manner of the late Bob Hoskins.

Much as I enjoyed “The Irishman,” I do have one quibble: I wasn’t sold on the de-aging effects used on De Niro, Pacino and Pesci at the start of the film. De Niro, in particular, looked positively glacéed as the younger Frank Sheeran. As difficult as the casting might have been, younger actors playing these roles would have been more effective.

—————

Midge and Susie Toasting the Shy Baldwin Tour

The third season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” premiered on Amazon Prime like gangbusters, complete with a USO show and a (backstage) string of dick jokes. It was especially gratifying to see Midge tour with Shy Baldwin, adapting to new types of audiences and coping with the stress of being on the road (By the way, it was no surprise that Shy turned out to be gay, since the character was so obviously modeled on Johnny Mathis). I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Midge and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) spend an evening together, first on-camera for the pseudo-Playboy Mansion TV show, then dancing at a jazz club. The end of their Las Vegas encounter, when “Will they or won’t they?” infused the air, was beautifully played by Rachel Brosnahan and Mr. Kirby (I think she made the right decision to decline his unspoken invitation).

Nevertheless there were ups and downs. The best part of “Mrs. Maisel,” at least this season, was any scene with Susie Myerson (a terrific Alex Borstein), who always seems to get the best writing on the show. I had to hit my remote’s “Pause” so I could howl for two minutes straight at her line to the potential producers about their Donner Party musical; ditto for her reaction to the vocal effects via telephone of Sophie and Gavin Hawk’s coupling. Susie also had the more interesting plots—the Sophie Lennon debacle, her gambling issues and those intriguing exchanges with Reggie, Shy Baldwin’s manager (an excellent Sterling K. Brown), keeper of secrets and bad cop to his boss’ good cop. That was an exceptionally heavy anvil he dropped at the end of the last episode, when, after he fired Midge, to his own distaste, he turned to Susie with “Someday you’ll have to do this.” Given the dynamic between Midge and Susie (tits up!), you really hope not.

On the down side, much as I love Tony Shalhoub, I could have easily seen less of Midge’s parents as well as her former in-laws. Nevertheless, there were still a few rewards: Joel and his father betting on who would faint at the bris; Midge’s conversation with Moishe about buying back her apartment, in which they approach each other for the first time on equal terms as he reveals Joel was an idiot to dump her; and most of all, her confrontation with her mother over the latter’s meddling. Their shouting match revealed they may have more in common than they think, despite mama’s distaste for Midge’s comedy.

Given the time frame of the show, I would expect to see Midge on The Ed Sullivan Show next season (“Mrs. Maisel” has already been renewed). And I really hope we haven’t seen the last of Benjamin (a terrific Zachary Levi). His scene with Midge in the last episode, when they finally discuss her dumping him, was a highlight of the season. Somehow the writers have to find a way to keep him around—he’s a necessary counterbalance to the craziness.

Santa just rode by on a fire truck as I was finishing this post. May all of you enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate, and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Posted in Television

Denouement

To hell with the naysayers…I thought it a fitting conclusion.

“Game of Thrones” ended where we began, in the North, with our eyes on the Starks (and Jon, for all that Targaryean heritage, is still Ned Stark’s son). Sansa has proved herself worthy to be Queen of an independent kingdom, Arya will forever roam and Jon goes back to where he started from, but with a difference. No longer confined to the Night’s Watch, we end with him leading the Free Folk back to their home.

And Dany’s fate? Deserved, and by the one individual who was best suited to kill her (We know Arya was itching to do it, but Jon had dibs). Drunk on power as she addressed her troops—I almost expected her to burst into “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”—she appeared not so much as a mad Targaryean, but one who had lost her moral compass. It was telling that Drogon, after seeing Dany dead, didn’t incinerate her murderer, but instead melted the Iron Throne, as if to say “You were the source of her downfall.”

I very much enjoyed the conclave leading to Bran’s election as King of the Seven Six Kingdoms (Nice work there, Sansa, cutting a deal for your people to remain independent). This time Tyrion got it right. One question though—how did Edmure Tully get there and where has he been? The last we saw him he was Jaime’s prisoner, so presumably he was freed and restored as head of Riverrun, otherwise he wouldn’t have had standing to participate in the council. It was rather amusing to hear Sansa tell him to sit down as he wound himself up to deliver true gas baggery. Some things just don’t change.

A few final thoughts:

Podrick is finally a knight! Long live Ser Podrick! And, not surprisingly, Sam as Grand Maester. This tale needs a scholar.

So sweet to see Jon and Ghost reunited, complete with direwolf nuzzles.

I didn’t realize that was Robin Arryn sitting with his council elders. The Lord of the Vale looks great now that he’s out from under Lord Baelish’s thumb. He’s still a teen-ager, though—all “Yeah, sure” as he cast his vote for Bran.

I’m so glad the showrunners left us with an image of Brienne completing Jaime’s written history. I was afraid our last glimpse of her would show her being pregnant with Jamie’s child, which would have been a big problem. Armor doesn’t come in maternity sizes.

I am so going to miss this show.

Posted in Television

Penultimate

If gore, guts and burnt bodies are your thing, you must have had a ball during Episode 5 of this season’s Game of Thrones last night. However, I thought it somewhat diasappointing for a couple of reasons. Your mileage may of course vary.

Why should Cersei get such a relatively peaceful end when poor Varys, master of wine, secrets and witty repartee, gets dragon-fried for simply speaking the truth? She and brother/lover Jaime operatically ended up entombed like the leads in “Aida,” which is certainly not just desserts for all the evil she’s done. And Jaime deserved a more heroic finish, given how much he’s changed during the course of the show.

Is there any doubt that Dany has reached full Mad Queen status? Leveling King’s Landing and frying the people she presumably wants to rule is not good for business. Ruling by fear does not a long reign make, and it’s already emptied her bed.

A special tip of the hat to Peter Dinklage for playing Tyrion’s farewells to Varys and especially to Jaime so expertly. It’s amazing that he’s always seemed to find new depths in a character that he’s been playing for so long.

A few last thoughts before departure:

I’ll miss future installments of Travels With Arya and the Hound. Seeing their mutual regard on display was a high point of the episode.

The Hound’s long-promised confrontation with his brother did not disappoint. Nor did the end of that slimeball Euron Greyjoy.

I was frankly shocked that Arya survived. She’s been the Stark most likely to be killed for ages.

Finally, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the folks in Winterfell. Game of Thrones began in the North, and one way or another it should end there. Good storytelling comes full circle.

On to the end.

Posted in Television

All in The Family

A rather somber Game of Thrones episode, don’t you think?

It certainly feels like we’re seeing final curtain calls now. We seem to be saying goodbye to one character after another, whether through death or departure.

So many farewells in this last episode. What a lovely gesture by Sansa to slide a Stark direwolf pin onto Theon’s armor as his corpse lay on the funeral pyre. Jon’s goodbyes as he left Winterfell were even more heart- wrenching: to Tormund, to Sam and Gilly, and–sob!–to Ghost. We’ve got two more long episodes to go, so I’m hoping we see some of these characters at least once more.

There was a contrasting type of farewell by Arya and the Hound. Due to unfinished business neither will see Winterfell again. The Hound looks to repay his brother, currently Cersei’s giant in armor, for tossing him into the fire as a child and giving him that scarred face. Arya’s mission, of course, is to complete her Hit Parade, which has always been topped by Cersei. If anyone has known her destiny, it’s Arya, who probably first proclaimed herself “Not a lady” at the age of three. He doesn’t think so, but with her self-knowledge she did Gendry a kindness by turning him down.

Speaking of which, now that Gendry is no longer a bastard but Lord Baratheon, doesn’t that put him on a par with Jon and Daenarys with respect to claiming the throne? Dany may have thought it was clever to ennoble him, but I think that move is going to bite her in the behind in the long run.

On a lighter note, I thought the Stark conclave was hysterical, what with Jon insisting “We’re family.” I was waiting for him to say “We’re family, but not the family you think, since I’m really your cousin, not your brother.” And so much for secrets—I was surprised Jon’s true identity hadn’t appeared on a billboard by episode’s end, given how much these characters blab. Speaking of which, too bad “loose lips” didn’t figure into Tyrion’s war strategy—knowing about those catapults in advance sure would have come in handy.

So now Brienne gets her second heart’s desire—Jamie. Aren’t they the oddest couple, though? Sansa and Tyrion, whom I’m still rooting for, make more sense, even though Brienne’s been pining for Jamie since Season 2. More than the romance, their last conversation, in which Jamie recounted his evil deeds, was shocking in its honesty. His final assessment of Cersei and himself— “She’s hateful, but so am I”—was another gut-wrench. Watching the evolution of Jamie Lannister from Cersei’s amoral pawn to the man he is now has been one of the highlights of GoT. I still expect Brienne and Jamie to die side by side in battle, with her telling him “Jamie Lannister, you’re a good man” before she goes.

Ah, Cersei—playing the baby daddy game for all she’s worth. She reached new heights–or depths, depending on your point of view–of cruelty in this latest episode. I don’t think we’ve actually seen a head lopped off on this show before, not even Ned Stark’s. Poor Missandei. At least she rallied the troops with that last “Dracarys,” though her execution may have sent Dany round the bend. What a strange expression on the queen’s face after she turned away from the death scene.

Three quickies until next week:

Paralleling Jamie’s evolution has been the growth of Sansa. I really disliked her at the start of GoT—her boy-craziness over Geoffrey helped set one tragedy after another in motion. Yet over time she’s become one of the most clear-headed characters on the show. This is why I’m hoping she ends up with Tyrion—they’ve grown into a great match for each other.

I am so going to enjoy Euron Greyjoy’s getting his.

If Lena Headey were to be paid by the sneer, she’d be the richest woman on TV.

To be continued.

Posted in Television

Battle in the Night

It would have been better had we been able to see all that was going on.

Yes, it was fitting that the climactic battle between the forces at Winterfell and those of the Night King take place—well, at night—but seeing who lived and died was difficult at times. And while the technical stuff was a wow! the fighting was pretty repetitious (My favorite in the GoT Combat Division is the Battle of the Bastards. Interesting fighting, an almost save of Rickon Stark, and most of all, it took place in daylight!). But it was worth sitting through 85 minutes of this just to see Arya outwit the wights to finally kill the Night King, thus destroying his empire. In Stark We Trust.

By the way, does Winterfell have a Department of Public Works? Who gets to clean up all that wight mess left behind?

So the end score was Night King: 2, House Mormont: 0. Jorah’s been in the GoT death pool for several seasons now, and it was good to see him have a fitting departure, battling to the death to save his Khaleesi. Ah, unrequited love. And little Lady Mormont likewise did herself proud with that bullseye to the eye of that ice giant. I’ll miss her.

No surprises with respect to the rest of the dearly departed. Theon Greyjoy’s been a dead man walking ever since he opted to rejoin House Stark. At least he received that final purifying “You’re a good man, Theon” from Bran. Other non-surprises were Edd and Beric Dondarian who, per that witch Melisandre, had “served his purpose,” living one more life just to save Arya. And speaking of departures, I knew Melisandre could only die by turning into dust. Someone better rescue that ruby fast!

Two quickies to end this discussion:

It was great to see two formerly non-combatants swing swords, namely Dany and Sam Tarly. Good work!

I still think Tyrion and Sansa will end up back together, despite her opinion that their marriage never would have worked out. His reaction to her “You were the best of them” was one for the books. By the way, did anyone else think Sansa was going to pull a murder/suicide with Tyrion in order to avoid Death by Wight? Her mother’s daughter for sure.

Now all these people get to kill each other in the fight for the Iron Throne. See you next week.

Posted in Television

Home Stretch

I’d been studiously sitting out the 24/7 “Game of Thrones” party that seems to have been everywhere during the last several months. This is one show for which I’ve always avoided spoilers like the plague, because there’s nothing like a GoT “OMG! Did they actually do that?!?” gasper. Since I went HBO-less for several months after I received my cable company’s latest rate hike, I didn’t even rewatch any of the episodes except for some bits and pieces in the week leading up to this season’s premiere. However, you can be certain I was sure to catch one of the most satisfying scenes in GoT, namely Littlefinger’s demise at the hands (and dagger) of Arya—good times. In Stark we trust.

So here we are again, in snowy Winterfell, this time preparing for battle against the White Walkers.

Does finally getting your heart’s desire automatically move you up in the GoT death pool? Brienne gets dubbed a knight, Arya has sex for the first time (and knowing GoT, it may be her last), and Jamie gets a pass from Bran for shoving him out that window so many years ago. Several seasons ago I predicted Jamie and Brienne would die side by side in battle, and it seems to be coming more and more into focus now.

That having been said, is there any doubt that Theon Greyjoy is Numero Uno in the death pool? I’d throw Euron Greyjoy into the pool, too, because I doubt Cersei will be putting up with him as soon as she gets her elephants. A little poison in the mead goes a long way.

I’m so enjoying the Danaerys/Sansa stand-off. Oh, Sansa—in-law trouble already and they’re not even hitched. I loved the initial meeting between these two ladies. You could actually smell the rancor. Things became far more interesting in last night’s episode, which clearly demonstrated their differences. Sansa is internally guided—she’s learned the hard way from her experiences with Geoffrey, Cersei, Littlefinger and the Boltons. She’s absorbed all this and has no need for outside counsel. Thus her pardoning of Jamie, not to mention her unyielding demand that the North remain its own kingdom, even with Dany on the Iron Throne. In contrast, Dany is constantly guided by voices not her own, most recently that of Jorah Mormont who astutely reined her in. Now that she knows Jon’s claim to the throne is greater than hers (not to mention that she’s slept with her nephew), I’m not certain any advisor will be able to help.

Just a couple of quickies before next week’s Big Battle:

Tormund still has it for Brienne. Will anything ever come of this?

I hope Sam Tarly avoids the death pool. Even though they treated him badly, it was heart-rending to see him learn the fate of his father and brother from Danaerys, whose dragons melted them. Sam needs to stick around–it will take a scholar to tell this tale to future generations.

How many Iron Throne claimants are there in the picture? There’s Jon, Dany, conceivably Jamie as a Cersei-usurper, and don’t forget Gendry, Robert Baratheon’s bastard. Assuming the Night King is defeated, who will prevail? It seems the real battle lies further ahead.

Posted in Television

Bingeing “The Good Wife”

 

I passed on CBS’ “The Good Wife” when it initially aired in 2009. To be accurate I watched the first episode, but the second, in which Denis O’Hare as an eccentric judge did something legally outrageous, buried the show for me. However, time, a subscription to Amazon Prime, the recommendations of friends and finally a desire to see “The Good Fight,” its sequel on CBS All Access, made me look again. So I binged, watching all seven seasons in about six weeks (being between jobs helped).

As a result this was my longest sustained TV series binge. It didn’t top my record of nine episodes in a day—that’s held by my New Year’s Day binge a number of years ago of Season 4 of “The Wire”—but “The Good Wife” is so addictive I was tuning in almost every night. I tried to stay away from spoilers, reviews and other online material, but due to news coverage when the show originally aired it was unavoidable that I knew of three key “Good Wife” events: Will Gardner’s murder, Kalinda Sharma’s departure in Season 6 and Diane Lockhart’s slapping Alicia Florrick’s face in the series finale. I usually hate being spoiled about anything, but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment in the slightest.

The verdict? For Seasons 1 through 5: Tremendous. For Seasons 6 and 7: A grade of C-minus and a long, loud raspberry.

For those who never watched the show, “The Good Wife” begins with the media-event resignation of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) from the office of State’s Attorney for Cook County (Chicago) in light of charges that he used public funds to pay for prostitutes. Standing stoically by his side is his wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), enduring the type of humiliation with which we’ve unfortunately become so familiar (See Silda Spitzer, who was the inspiration for the show’s creators; Hillary Clinton; Dina Matos McGreevey; Huma Abedin, etc. etc.). After his conviction and imprisonment, Alicia needs to return to the practice of law to support herself and her two teen-aged children. Fortunately her old Georgetown Law School flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) offers her a first year associate’s position at his Big Law firm, Stern, Lockhart and Gardner, where she’ll be competing for a more permanent berth with another first year associate, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) who’s a good 15 years her junior. The game is on.

At this point I suppose I should get the elephant out of the room. As an attorney I’m sometimes irked at the inaccurate way TV portrays the legal system, but sometimes not—I was a huge fan of “L.A. Law” back in the day, and their shenanigans were legendary. Insofar as “The Good Wife” is concerned, its track record in this regard is somewhat erratic. It seems for every six things they get wrong, they do get at least one thing right. There are good scenes involving trial preparation and discovery, and it was refreshing to see Alicia handle gritty bond court work after dwelling in the rarefied air of Big Law. But I had to throw in the towel on legal accuracy after seeing a deposition conducted in an early episode. Among other things: (1) Opposing counsel sat right next to Cary Agos’ client; (2) Cary did not demand that opposing counsel move to the other side of the conference table, as is standard (3) Opposing counsel didn’t question Cary’s client, but laid out a scenario in a long conversational discourse (4) Without an “Objection as to form” from Cary. At this point it was either nitpick the show or enjoy it, so I opted for the latter. Disbelief wasn’t just suspended–it was thrown out the window.

So enough of the law–we’re here for a TV show, and for my money, the first five seasons of “The Good Wife” featured the best writing on a network series I’ve seen in a very long time. It was immediately apparent that the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, were playing to the urban and the urbane, and by knowing their audience so well, they produced a particularly engrossing series. The storytelling was taut, with little braking for explanation, whether as to a legal point or otherwise. It amused me to hear Will Gardner refer to ex-senior partner Stern’s cronies as “alter kockers” with no translation (per Leo Rosten’s excellent book, “The Joys of Yiddish,” the cleaned-up English equivalent would be “old farts”). Similarly when Will and his partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) are discussing funeral arrangements for Stern, the latter asks where the family will be “sitting shiva,” i.e., observing the Jewish period of mourning. Again, no explanation because refreshingly the audience is expected to know. Another source of enjoyment: how entertainingly “The Good Wife” serves as an astute tutorial on politics, both public and private. Peter Florrick’s world and especially the maneuverings of Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), his political advisor, are neatly mirrored in the power struggles at Lockhart Gardner where name and equity partners play tug of war over the firm’s future.

After bingeing so many episodes, I’m a bit blurry as to what happened when. Nevertheless, some stories are particularly memorable. The superb episode “Doubt” from the first season, featuring rapid cross-cutting between jury deliberations on the fate of a college student accused of murder and flashbacks to the trial testimony. We see the jury vote by written ballot, but after much angst, the defendant is persuaded by her mother to take a 10 year plea deal rather than gamble on a verdict, though the defense made a strong case that there was no crime—it was a victim-induced accident. The heartbreaking reveal? The jury voted “not guilty,” but not in time to prevent that young woman from throwing away a significant portion of her life. Talk about cutting to the bone. Similarly a pair of key discussions, one between Alicia and Will, the other involving Diane, are true eye-openers for Alicia as well as the audience. When Will turns at the last minute and votes against Alicia’s choice for a new associate in order to support the hiring of equity partner David Lee’s (Zach Grenier) niece, Alicia is all “Why???” Will calmly replies: “Because I owed him one. How do you think you were hired?” When Alicia is made an equity partner for political reasons to the exclusion of other fourth-year associates, Diane’s confession to Alicia that the only reason Stern made her (Diane) a partner was out of tokenism, namely to fend off accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination made against the firm. And the episodes involving the courthouse massacre in which Will dies and its aftermath are just flawless.

Unfortunately, “The Good Wife” began to lose steam for me beginning in Season 6. Plots and machinations became repetitious; while watching Will, Diane, David and Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) plot to vote out a disagreeable partner was delicious in Season 2, it became tedious several seasons later as paranoia among partners set in and the gamesmanship took precedence over the lawyering (no wonder Cary leaves the firm). Even more, Kalinda Sharma’s departure was a major disappointment for several reasons. Archie Panjabi played that role with panache—it was a kick to watch Kalinda in action, either sleuthing or seducing. I also thought the plot which led to her exit was both awkward and awkwardly handled—a drug kingpin like Lemond Bishop would have made it his business to kill her. And while Cary Agos’ standing trial on drug charges was a nail-biter, his subsequent ascension to name partner undid our interest in him. He was far more engaging as a snarky first year associate and Deputy State’s Attorney, even more so as Alicia’s partner as they bolted from Lockhart Gardner. Many fans point to Will Gardner’s murder as the breaking point for the show, but oddly, I didn’t miss Will all that much at first. However, as the quality diminished over Seasons 6 and especially 7, I really felt his absence. Without him the backbiting at the law firm became very irritating, and I very much missed the rapport he had with Diane.

It’s impossible to praise the acting on this show enough. The casting was spot-on; it was a major asset for the series to be shot in New York, thus enabling it to draw from the pool of Broadway talent. It was also a shrewd move to have so many actors in recurring roles, which certainly kept things lively. Particularly memorable were Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton), attorney extraordinaire, Neil Gross (John Benjamin Hickey), internet billionaire with his amusingly named “Chumhum” search engine, and especially the louche Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker, creatively cast against type) with his equally kinky fiancees and wives, wonderfully played by Morena Baccarin and Laura Benanti. Whenever he appeared, it was a party. On the other hand, I thought the show had too much of Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning, and not enough of Gary Cole as Kurt McVeigh (Be still my heart!) or Michael Boatman as Julius Cain (His “Because I don’t like you” to voted-out partner Derrick Bond was one of the show’s funniest moments). I also wish we had had more of Matthew Goode as Finn Polmar—he brought a refreshing Jimmy Stewart touch to a world of some slick characters. But “The Good Wife” stands on its regulars, and while all were excellent, special honors must go to Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart—she is simply superb in that role.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The antics of the NSA eavesdroppers were great comic relief. I cracked up at every one of their goat videos.
  • I really enjoyed the guest cameos of the judges and arbitrators: Jane Alexander, Jane Curtin, Ana Gasteyer (“In my opnion…”), Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Masur, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior!), Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack!), Jay O. Sanders. And Christopher McDonald as the crooked bond court judge made a great “Man You Love to Hate.”
  • Speaking of villains, I thought Michael Cerveris as State’s Attorney James Castro was the best, what with that shaved head and soft-grained voice. It was hard to believe this was the same actor I saw as the closeted father in the Broadway musical “Fun Home.”
  • I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve omitted discussion of Alicia and Peter’s family. For the record, I liked Zach until he decided to drop out of college and run off to France with his older girlfriend. I disliked Grace until she pitched in to secure clients for her mother’s new law firm. And both mothers—Alicia’s and Peter’s—were annoying, ditto Alicia’s brother.
  • As excellent as it was, “The Good Wife” left several threads dangling: Kalinda and Peter’s one night together was never really explained, though I picked up a hint this was compensation for his assistance in disguising her identity and erasing her tracks as “Leela”. We never learned whether Kalinda’s husband really left town, and whether he did so via her Plan A or Plan B. And what happened with Special Agent Lana Delaney after discovery of the information leak to her girlfriend Kalinda?
  • Sorry to all Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) fans, but Alicia’s best squeeze was Will Gardner. Second place goes to Finn Polmar.
  • And what of Alicia’s future? In the final analysis she’s a survivor, though in my mind not an admirable one. Her “standing by her man” may have wowed voters, but there’s a doormat element to that kind of pose. Staying in that marriage came to seem masochistic, though it was obvious she and Peter continually and mutually used each other. I thought she was at her most likeable when she was most independent—bolting from Lockhart Gardner with Cary, and later starting her own firm. Having lost just about everything else, running for office seems to be all she has left by the end of the series.
  • And in case you’re wondering, I think she deserved that slap from Diane Lockhart for trashing Kurt McVeigh.

Onward to “The Good Fight”!

Posted in Books, Television

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), Colin (Will Poulter) and Mr. Thakur (Asim Chadhry) Checking Out Nohzdyve

Charlie Brooker has done it again.

“Bandersnatch,” the latest “Black Mirror” entry which dropped on Netflix last week, is an infernal maze of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” that’s maddeningly intriguing. This is the first Netflix presentation that requires viewer interactivity—you have to watch with remote in hand in order to select from among the potential plot options along the way. Fans have already produced maps, flow charts and critical path drawings of the various outcomes, and while they’re helpful, it’s so much more fun to go into this world on your own. I guarantee you’ll visit multiple times.

We begin in 1984 with young Stefan Butler’s attempt to create a game called “Bandersnatch” based on a multiple outcome novel of the same title. Its author, a mad genius named Jerome F. Davis who believed in multiple existences and parallel universes, later became notorious for beheading his wife. Stefan takes his concept to a company named Tuckersoft (nice nod to “San Junipero”) headed by a Mr. Thakur who immediately enthuses over Stefan’s work in progress. He offers him a spot working on premises with a development team, and this is where the viewer makes the first key choice: Does Stefan work collaboratively or on his own? The later options increasingly raise the stakes—does Stefan see his psychiatrist when he becomes blocked in his work, or does he seek counsel from Colin Ritter, Tuckersoft’s resident genius game creator? Does he take his meds or not?

Each fork in the road leads to a significantly different outcome involving the characters’ various fates, and more amusingly, the rating eventually given to the “Bandersnatch” game by a quintessentially nerdy TV reviewer. There’s method in Charlie Brooker’s and Netflix’s madness: If you’re not happy at any point with the story you’ve essentially created, you can’t rewind or fast forward—you can only erase your choices by starting over again from the beginning. However, when certain options lead to premature or dead ends, you are presented with the ability to redo a critical selection. This is occasionally irritating, but the more time you spend with “Bandersnatch” the more intriguing it becomes.

At its core, “Bandersnatch” is a world of mirrors reflecting mirrors. The references and homages enhance rather than detract from the experience. In addition to that reappearance of Tucker, we see that Colin’s current best-selling game is called “Metl Hedd,” reflecting the “Black Mirror” episode of the same title from Season 4. More audaciously, one of the “Bandersnatch” outcomes uses a plot device straight from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode entitled “A World of Difference,” where determining what exactly is reality is impossible. And let’s not forget the origin of the word “bandersnatch” either….through the Looking Glass (punny, isn’t it?) indeed.

The acting is uniformly excellent, though special honors go to Will Poulter as Colin Ritman, who fills the role of Stefan’s guru. With that white hair and the character’s various obsessions, you can’t take your eyes off him (And speaking of which, I’d love to know how his buggy eyes were achieved during a key sequence).

So when you have the time, key in Netflix, keep your remote in hand, and start your “Bandersnatch” adventure. Good luck!

● ● ● ●

There’s no better way to wait for the rest of “Black Mirror,” Season 5 than to read “Inside Black Mirror,” a thorough history of the show and a compendium of commentary by the creative team for each episode. It’s fascinating to see where and how the concept for each story originated and how it grew, was modified and ultimately realized on-screen. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, his producing partner, are wonderfully readable, but the best chapters are those in which the actors contribute to the discussion, including among others, Jon Hamm on “White Christmas,” Bryce Dallas Howard on “Nosedive” and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis on “San Junipero.” With all the razzle dazzle of “Black Mirror” and its storytelling, the show’s consistently astute casting shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Inside Black Mirror” makes for compulsive reading and of course the need to revisit all those episodes, if only to pick up on details you may have missed the first time around. It’s a keeper.

 Happy New Year to all!

Posted in Television

Bodyguard

Richard Madden and Keely Hawes: “Bodyguard”

If ever there was a series for which to avoid spoilers, “Bodyguard,” Netflix’s latest entry, is it.

“Rollercoaster” doesn’t even begin to characterize it. This is the most curious blend of shock and ambiguity I’ve seen in quite a while. Created and written by Jed Mercurio, who fills the same roles for “Line of Duty,” perhaps the best cop show ever, “Bodyguard” is difficult to discuss without giving plot twists away. So I’ll just leave it at this: The protagonist is David Budd (Richard Madden, truly late of “Game of Thrones”), an Afghanistan war veteran turned police sergeant, who, after thwarting a terrorist attack, is assigned as protection officer for the controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keely Hawes). Unlike “Line of Duty,” which is a classic police procedural, “Bodyguard” is a thriller that never stops. So many shocking  developments occur that sneaking around the internet for spoilers will absolutely wreck your viewing experience.

It’s not hard to see why this show was a huge BBC hit. First and foremost, it features taut storytelling—there’s not an ounce of filler or flab in its six episodes. Which raises an important point: some recent Netflix series (I’m looking at you, “The Five”) are stretched beyond endurance. Ten episodes for a mystery or thriller? That’s definitely four too many. Brevity is not only the soul of wit—it’s frequently the hallmark of good writing for this genre.

In addition to Robb Stark—er, David Budd—there are some powerful women at work here. Aside from the Home Secretary, there’s Lorraine Craddock (Pippa Haywood), his immediate superior, and Anne Sampson (Gina McKee), Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command—all played by terrific actresses. Once again, Keely Hawes, so memorable in Seasons Two and Three of “Line of Duty”, turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Julia Montague. Ambitious and hard-nosed, she’s not afraid to tangle with the big boys in government. She’s matched, if not exceeded by Gina McKee, who plays her character’s ambiguity to the hilt. There’s not one second you’re sure of her. Is she working against the Home Secretary or is she loyal? Ms. McKee keeps you guessing for all six episodes. And she’s not the only one—you’re not even certain of David Budd. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Anjli Mohindra as Nadia, a woman forced by her husband to don a suicide vest.

One word of advice: “Bodyguard” is definitely bingeable, but you may want to take a breath or two along the way. You’re going to need it.

Bravo, Jed Mercurio!

Posted in Television

Great Expectations

Nanette (Cristin Milloti) Getting the Last Laugh in Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Is there any doubt that one of the highest bars in American popular culture was set by that television gem, “The Twilight Zone”? Lasting only five seasons in its initial run, its long shadow has been felt ever since. There’s hardly been a sci-fi or speculative television series in subsequent decades that has not escaped comparison with Rod Serling’s creation. Its hallmarks made it iconic: Serling’s clenched-jaw introductions, the terseness of its storytelling and above all, its final twists. It was and is a tough act to follow, yet we still hope, with the premiere of each new show of that genre, that the original will be matched, if not surpassed.

“Black Mirror,” the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, was both inspired by and measured against TZ from the start. Now in its fourth season, “Black Mirror” seems not only in competition with the older show but with itself. Gaining steam over time, “Black Mirror’s” previous episodes culminated in an unforgettable Season 3, which brought “Nosedive,” “Playtest,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and, most memorably, the Emmy-winning “San Junipero.” Where would Charlie Brooker go from here?

The answer, at least for me, was not entirely welcome. While I have no quibble with Brooker’s promise that Season 4 of “Black Mirror” would be much darker than before, I found it markedly inconsistent, both in writing and in execution. It begins with “USS Callister,” featuring a “Star Trek”-like fantasy created by an exceptionally mean character. I was never a Trekkie, but the end of the episode, both in real and fantasy time, is most satisfying (the above photo is only half the story). Two of the episodes, “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” are the darkest of Season 4, and both fail for different reasons. I’m not into torture porn, which features in the former, and the latter consists entirely of a chase with little if any information as to “Who,” “What,” “Where” and “Why?,” leaving you not to care. And I found “Black Museum,” the last episode, to be quite predictable.

The two stand-out episodes are “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ,” which in retrospect are also the most plausible. “Arkangel” rests on the age-old push/ pull between mothers and daughters, updated with technology that’s just around the corner. Featuring Rosemarie DeWitt as the over-protective (to say the least) mom and Brenna Harding as her shielded daughter, the episode is directed by Jodie Foster to a heartbreaking conclusion. However, my favorite, and one of “Black Mirror’s” best, is “Hang the DJ,” the ingredients of which somewhat resemble those of “San Junipero:” two characters with mad chemistry who belong together. In place of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, we’ve got Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole (who is especially adorable) in a world where Higher Powers pair people in serial relationships of dictated duration. “Hang the DJ” resonates on several levels, not least in its references to mythic stories. The Forbidden Question looms large in this episode: as Elsa can not ask Lohengrin his name, as Orpheus may not glance back at Eurydice, Amy and Frank agree not to ask the length of their predetermined relationship. Naturally one of them blinks. In addition to the sweetness of its actors, “Hang the DJ” features a number of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending worthy of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a shame the rest of this season’s episodes didn’t match this one in quality.

The availability of Amazon Prime’s “Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams'” followed closely on the heels of the current round of “Black Mirror.” This 10-episode show is based on Dick’s futuristic short stories which were initially published in the early 50’s. Although Dick’s work has been updated and expanded, there’s a strong feeling of “Been there, done that.” So many ground-breaking sci-fi concepts of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s wound up in film and television that the imitations are stronger in memory than the originals. But this show suffers from another problem: so many sci-fi concepts originally deemed beyond imagination have in fact become reality. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said (and is quoted in one of the “Electric Dream” episodes), “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Like “The Twilight Zone,” “Electric Dreams” is an anthology in which each episode has a different writer, director and cast (“Black Mirror” also features independent episodes, but all with the exception of Season 3’s “Nosedive,” were scripted by Charlie Brooker, who still managed to devise its story). When “Electric Dreams” works, it’s more because of the actors’ performances than the material which by now has been worked and reworked so many times: The boy who thinks his father has been taken over by an alien (“The Father Thing”). The man with a psychotic son being tempted to join a perfect world in which the son never existed (“The Commuter”). The existence of a fantasy world which may be more real than the original (“Real Life”). Greg Kinnear, Mireille Enos and Jack Gore, Timothy Spall, and Anna Paquin, respectively, enrich these episodes to a considerable degree, as does Richard Madden (hello, Robb Stark!) for “The Hood Maker.”

“Human Is”: Silas (Bryan Cranston) and Vera (Essie Davis)

Once again, though, mad chemistry wins out, this time in “Human Is,” the episode which may be closest to Philip Dick’s original concept. The beginning is hard to take—Bryan Cranston may be a space hero, but his emotional distance from his wife, played by Essie Davis, borders on abuse. The change in the man, following a harrowing ambush by aliens, the suspicion of his co-workers, the loyalty of his wife and the wonderful ending are all foreseeable, yet the journey is a particularly enjoyable one. Cranston has never been more intriguing, and he and Davis are terrific together. The final lines of the episode are taken directly from Dick’s short story, and Cranston’s delivery sticks the landing of the final twist. Bravo!