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.

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?

Posted in Television

Line of Duty Revisited

The Backbone of AC-12: Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure)

In answer to the question, “What’s the best cop show on TV today?” the only possible response for me is the British series “Line of Duty.” If you haven’t done so already, head over to Acorn TV, where you can stream the first two seasons; the third is available on DVD and the fourth just started airing in the U.K. (And if you come here to spoil, I will rain curses upon your head).

The primary focus of “Line of Duty” is the work of a police anti-corruption unit. Each season features a different investigatory target, a so-called “bent cop.” While I’ve previously written about Keeley Hawes’ tremendous performance as Lindsay Denton in the show’s second season, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to binge on what I had missed. Watching Seasons One and Three back to back, I was amazed yet again at the quality of what I was viewing.

Jed Mercurio, the creator and author of the show, is a master of both plot and character development. As an example, take the introduction of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson), soon to become a key player in AC-12. At our first encounter he’s the head of a counter-terrorist squad, about to lead a raid on a suspected nest. To his shock he finds the wrong house invaded and an innocent man shot dead with his baby in his arms. Though his superior literally dictates to all officers involved the cover story they must follow, Arnott refuses to toe the party line and is cut from the squad. Impressed by his resolve in the face of pending career suicide, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) recruits him for AC-12, where he joins undercover specialist Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Mr. Mercutio not only writes well, he writes smart. Not one of his characters is without ambiguity, not the least of whom are the suspected bent cops. Season One’s DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) seems at first blush to be a perfect role model with a phenomenally high clearance rate; he’s the recipient of an Officer of the Year award. (The fact that two other awarded cops later come to less than desirable ends makes you wonder about the future of Kate Fleming, who will similarly be honored at the end of Season 3). We soon learn that this great leader and the epitome of professionalism is sinking into a pit of moral quicksand not entirely of his own making.

Conversely, your first encounter in Season 3 with Sgt. Daniel Waldron (Daniel Mays), an Authorised Firearms Officer, is certain to raise your hackles from the start. Our introduction consists of seeing him cold-bloodedly kill a suspect who’s already surrendered, and pressure his squad to fabricate evidence to corroborate his cover story. His arrogance and self-righteousness during a subsequent interview with AC-12 are difficult to take, and this is only a warm-up for what’s to come. While it may be hard to believe, you’ll later come to have a certain measure of sympathy for this man, despite the despicable acts he commits. The same level of detail features in the depiction of the show’s regulars. Our upstanding men and women of AC-12 are not without flaw. Steve’s behavior toward Lindsay in Season Two, playing on her loneliness and insecurity in an effort to discover whether she’s crooked or not, makes for uncomfortable viewing (and indeed blows up in his face in Season Three). And Kate’s relationship with DS “Dot” Cotton? Is her flirting with him part of the job (and if so–yikes!)? If not, where are your brains, girl?

“Line of Duty” is unique in its lengthy interrogation scenes as AC-12 confronts a suspect. This is not just a plot “gotcha”—it’s a superb showcase for the actors, especially Adrian Dunbar, who as Hastings leads the interrogations. He’s the master of minimalism: a slightly lifted eyebrow or that small quirk at the corner of his mouth is all it takes to signal that he’s just not buying what the suspect is attempting to sell. Equally impressive are the plot twists and turns, which for some reason you can’t always see coming yet never seem far-fetched. Everything seems to grow organically out of the action we see in the first episode of each season.

To be sure “Line of Duty” has some lapses. I doubt an AC unit would be permitted to interrogate a member of its own squad. And you’d think by now the police grapevine would be buzzing about Kate’s undercover activity. But who cares when a show is this good?

Posted in Television

Black Mirror

Probably the last light moment in
Probably the last light moment in “Playtest”

One of the most difficult television shows to describe is “Black Mirror,” a British import that’s become a Netflix favorite. It’s not because of twist endings—not every episode takes an O. Henry turn. It’s the total experience: the almost sterile look of the show, its stark imagery and its take-no-prisoners attitude. “Black Mirror” is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

This show is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker who cites “The Twilight Zone” as his primary inspiration. Yes, both are anthology series—there’s a different cast and director for each episode, though Brooker has written nearly all 13 episodes made available to date. Several of these reiterate some familiar TZ themes, such as replication of the dearly departed (“Be Right Back”) and humanization of the enemy in wartime (“Men Against Fire”). But “Black Mirror” twists the knife. The replica becomes too attentive. A soldier wants to remove the implanted technology that makes him see monsters, not people. One of the series’ best, “White Bear,” is also classic TZ in its story of a woman hunted in some dystopian future, though it’s far more brutal in both depiction and resolution than the earlier series ever could be.

It’s not just that television is no longer bound by the censorship of networks. Our mindset has been hardened by technology, and Brooker plays with this brilliantly. That infamous first episode, “The National Anthem,” with all of England glued to its televisions (Yes, the one with the prime minister and the pig which unfortunately you will never be able to un-see). The poor souls who cycle for a living in “15 Million Merits,” fighting boredom by fixating on the most idiotic video drivel (Brooker’s little nose thumb at us?). A corporation that lets you turn a mini-clone of yourself into a virtual house servant (“White Christmas”). And most strikingly, the married couple of “The Entire History of You,” who make love while reliving their hottest sexual encounters, courtesy of implanted “grains,” or chips. Those greyed-over eyes, enraptured by internally viewed video, will haunt you for days. Rod Serling made the “Twilight Zone” stories seem like they could happen in anyone’s home town. You pray “Black Mirror” never pays a visit to yours.

Not every episode will land for you, and a few, especially “Hated in the Nation,” are too long. However, the acting is uniformly excellent. It’s fun seeing familiar actors playing against type. Jerome Flynn, the wise-cracking Bronn on “Game of Thrones,” makes a terrific at-his-wit’s-end victim in “Shut Up and Dance.” Faye Marsay, the same series’ murderous Waif and enemy of Arya Stark, is a shrewd, tech-savvy detective in “Hated in the Nation,” and her cynical superior officer is none other than Kelly Macdonald, lately Margaret, Nucky Johnson’s discarded wife, on “Boardwalk Empire.” But some actors play variations on what they’re best known for, and it’s a welcome experience: Jon Hamm is an even darker version of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper in “White Christmas,” and Michael Kelly is only slightly less sinister as a psychiatrist in “Men of Fire” than he is as a political operative in “House of Cards.”

“San Junipero”

Ranking “Black Mirror” episodes seems to be a favorite online sport. Everyone’s mileage varies greatly, but here are my picks for the best:

“White Bear.” Difficult to discuss without giving it away. It’s freaky, it’s brutal, it’s brilliant, and it can spark conversation for days.

“Playtest.” Hoping to earn the money needed to return home, an American stranded in London picks up a gig as a test subject for a leading, though mysterious, game creator. But to participate he must consent to the implantation of a chip in his head that will discern his worst fears. To his surprise he has more than he thought.

“San Junipero.” This has consistently shown up on “Best Episodes of 2016” lists for good reason, yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Of all things, the bickering is over whether there’s a happy ending or not. This episode is the most un-“Black Mirror” in terms of energy and tone, and it’s definitely the sweetest. “Heaven is a place on earth” indeed.

“Nosedive,” an absolute gem of an episode that unlike the rest has a number of laugh-out-loud moments (Charlie Brooker wrote the story, but the script is by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur). In a world where everyone electronically rates every individual they encounter, a young woman struggles to raise her status in order to enjoy the things in life open to only the most pleasing. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an incredible performance, and the episode’s end is sheer perfection.

There are six more “Black Mirror” episodes waiting in the wings for 2017. Let’s hope Netflix commissions even more so we can continue to savor the products of Charlie Brooker’s imagination. There should be an endless stream of stories he can tell. As he himself has said: “[“Black Mirror” is] all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”

Posted in Television

Westworld

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Breaking the Pattern: Maeve and Escaton

For years–actually decades now— HBO has had a genius for filling that Sunday 9:00 p.m. time slot. “The Sopranos.” “The Wire.” “Sex and the City.” “Six Feet Under.” “Game of Thrones.” All with strong narratives, actors you love to watch, great production values and some of the smartest writing in the business. I’ve loved each of these shows.

I wish I could say the same for HBO’s latest Sunday evening resident, “Westworld.” But I view it the same way I do certain novels, movies and operas—I admire the artistry and craft that made it, but I’m not sure I like it.

There’s such a felicitous analogy that explains what ails “Westworld.” This show is like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”—it has no heart. To be sure it does have a pulse, which fortunately belongs to the host and saloon madam, Maeve, brilliantly played by Thandie Newton. Maeve wants out of Westworld in the worst way, but from what we can gather of the outside world via the behavior of the guests and the corporate types that run this fantasy land, she may be sorely disappointed.

Part of my frustration with this show lies in the genre’s very nature, which serves to severely circumscribe the plot possibilities. The hosts will either develop human memories and emotions or they won’t. They will either revolt or they won’t. Ditto whether they’ll escape or kill guests. A guest, in this case William, falls in love with a host (Dolores, who seems to be receding from the strength of her declaration, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel”). And it was so predictable that at least one member of the team running Westworld would turn out to be an android (I’m reminded of the terminology used in the “Alien” movies: “synthetic” or, as the android Bishop puts forward as his preference, “artificial person”). I didn’t find Theresa’s murder to be shocking at all; I suspect that either tonight’s episode will begin with the reveal that she’s also a host or, if she’s really human, that the host we saw being manufactured in Ford’s basement will be her android replacement.

Obviously this is a very cerebral show with its expected explorations of what it means to be human, what it’s like to play God, and related philosophical matters. I have to admit that when Ford told Bernard he had an idea for a new Westworld story line and the camera panned to a church steeple, I groaned. It’s been done so many times before (See “Twilight Zone, Episodes of”). But the show is not really much fun. “Game of Thrones” may occasionally be a gory mess and sadistically play with its audience’s affections for its characters, but damn! It gives us a good time. It’s pure id, as opposed to “Westworld”‘s superego.

I’ll still be watching, though, and not just to see how it turns out. “Westworld” does have its rewards, of course: Thandie Newton’s Maeve, with her fabricated memories of an Indian massacre. The visual razzle-dazzle, special effects and spectacular scenery. Escaton, played by Rodrigo Santoro, that sexy sex machine, and the shifty Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr., who looked so familiar but unplaceable until I realized he had played Perry Smith in the film “Capote”).

But the character who may save it all is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), whom I predict is going to be revealed as the good guy in this saga. We’ve already been tipped off that in the outside world, he’s a philanthropist—he was recognized by another guest as the man whose financial contributions saved the life of family member. In his conversation with Ford, he sounds like a knight on a quest as he searches for the entrance to the maze; he insists there’s a deeper meaning to Westworld than first appears, that it’s “something the person who created it wanted to express.” Perhaps William got it right when he said “Westworld doesn’t cater to your baser self—it reveals your true self.” And does it seem that the creation of hosts by a mysteriously vanished inventor of this artificial world  (Arnold, where art thou?) was an attempt to construct beings spiritually better than the human who made them?

We’ll see.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Rainy October

metsclinch
My Boys!

Autumn has been rainy and gloomy so far—that is, until the Mets came through and clinched a Wild Card spot in baseball’s post-season playoffs. Back in late July this seemed impossible. They couldn’t hit, they had already lost Matt Harvey and David Wright for the season, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz had been diagnosed with bone spurs and they were two games under .500. Worst of all, they needed to jump over five other teams to secure Wild Card status.

But then the team came together. Yoenis Cespedes started hitting. Asdrubal Cabrera, this year’s Mets MVP, hands down, came back from the disabled list and bad knees and all, could not be shut down once he had a bat in his hands. An “aged” rookie, T.J. Rivera (he’s all of 28), may have just Wally Pipped Neil Walker at second base, the discarded James Loney, whom the Mets picked up for a song, did an admirable job at first, Wilmer Flores proved he could hit, Jose Reyes proved the team needed a spark plug, and three minor league pitchers, Seth Lugo, Gabriel Ynoa and Robert Gsellman (all correctly spelled, folks) patched up this team’s hobbled rotation. And, after looking like the Dud Trade of the Year, Jay Bruce went on a rampage during the last two weeks of the season, making certain the Metropolitans would not be denied.

Watching the Mets play at the top of their game was reward enough—making the post-season is just icing on the cake. Of course I want them to beat the Giants and go on to play the Cubs, but I have no illusions. It’ll be a difficult progression, but to my way of thinking they’ve already won the season.

Thank you, boys!

westworld1
“Westworld”: Dr. Ford Quizzes His Creation

LOOK OUT: SPOILERS BELOW

Robots run amok have always been a staple of the sci-fi genre, but HBO has upped the ante with a new version of “Westworld” that premiered this past Sunday. Based on the 1973 film of the same name that starred Yul Brynner as a cyborg gunslinger with a mind of his own, the HBO version has added some intriguing layers to both story and effects. The artificial humans, or “hosts,” who populate the luxury resort of Westworld are so improved that they’re barely discernible from the visiting guests, a fact brought home when we watch Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the cyborg inventor, knock back a few with Buffalo Bill, one of his earliest creations (Cute reference there to “Silence of the Lambs”). Bill is all herky-jerky, his speech is repetitious and in short, he looks and acts like a large mechanical toy.

Not so the hosts that populate the Wild West area of the resort (if I heard correctly, there are a total of 12 different worlds available to tourists, so there’s a great deal of room for the show to grow). They can react to innumerable variations posed by the guests and can even assist their programmers, headed by Bernard Lowe (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright), in diagnosing any glitches in their code. But things start going awry when they’re reprogrammed to be even more human, against the objections of Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of cyborg maintenance and Bernard’s rival on staff. Some have reveries, one accesses past programmed lives on his own, another goes off script altogether. An even greater threat is posed by Peter Abernathy, the “father” of the Wild West cyborg heroine, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), when he unearths a photograph of an urban scene, prompting him to question the reality of his existence. It’s chilling, yet sad, to see his forced retirement into cyborg storage after Dr. Ford determines that it’s too dangerous to keep him working—Peter marches into oblivion with a tear in his eye.

HBO did a fine job with the first episode of “Westworld,” and the cast couldn’t be better. Thandie Newton is the saloon madam (I assume she’ll have far more to do in the coming weeks–she only had five lines last night), James Marsden is Dolores’ cyborg hero-boyfriend, Teddy, and best of all, Ed Harris is the villainous guest, The Man in Black, who appears to be a corporate spy (he “scalps” a cyborg in order to steal the circuitry in his skull). It goes without saying that the special effects are outstanding. My only quibble is that composer Ramin Djawadi’s theme music for this show is basically a ripoff of what he wrote for “Game of Thrones.” The music is so similar it’s distracting. I’m hoping the powers that be enlist the services of a new composer or order a rewrite, pronto.

The next episode can’t air soon enough.

Posted in Television

The Journey, Not the Destination

crownies_01
Sparring With a Witness: Crown Counsel Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp) and Instructing Solicitor Lina Badir (Andrea Demetriades)

I love mysteries, specifically the hardboiled and procedural varieties with private eyes, cops and especially lawyers. They so consistently produce great character-driven stories. Where would Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” be without Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and Miss Wonderly Miss LeBlanc Bridget O’Shaughnessy? Not to mention that most inscrutable of P.I.’s, Sam Spade?

While the genre has been a television staple for decades, variations on the theme keep it refreshing. English television has definitely outpaced its American cousin in this regard: “Happy Valley” and “The Fall” feature female leads, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the iconic “Prime Suspect.” Although the co-leads of “Broadchurch” consist of a mixed doubles detective partnership, romance is definitely not in the air (and please, may it never come to that). Two more shows on which I recently binged easily match these for quality—the Australian series, “Janet King,” available on Acorn TV, and its predecessor, “Crownies,” all 22 episodes of which are up on YouTube.

Though they feature the same characters, these two series couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. “Crownies,” centering on five junior solicitors in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” in its depiction of eager (in all senses of the word) young professionals mentored by the presumably older and wiser. It’s very much a dramedy—the genuinely funny moments far outnumber the cringeworthy, but both are outweighed by the seriousness of the cases the DPP handles. On full view are the Attorney General who drugged and raped the women who worked for him, the sisters who beat to death the man who’d seemingly been abusing them, the convenience store murderer whose crime is caught on surveillance video in gruesome detail, the 11 year-old boy who may or may not have murdered his younger brother—the list goes on.

What makes “Crownies” somewhat unusual is that the gray areas of these cases, especially the kiddie and domestic violence killings, are explored in such depth. It’s the DPP’s responsibility to determine whether to prosecute, and the show doesn’t stint on discussions (and frequent arguments) regarding the legal merits of these cases. It’s refreshing to see such thought put into a television series. And I have to admit I’m more than a little envious of my brothers and sisters at the bar who can cross-examine a witness with “I put it to you that…” instead of the far more passive-aggressive “Isn’t it true that…?” we’re forced to use.

Although the acting is uniformly excellent, not all the juniors are equally enjoyable. Three are flat-out terrific no matter their flaws: Erin (Ella Scott Lynch), whose fondness for wine leads her to make some really bad choices in the male department; Lina (Andrea Demetriades), of Palestinian background, who stubbornly sees no future in her relationship with Andy, a police detective; and Richard (Hamish Michael), the classic genius who’s classically inept away from his books. Rounding out the quintet are Tatum (Indiana Evans), an irritating princess type whose father evidently became rich by stepping over if not causing a few dead bodies, and Ben (Todd Lasance), the spoiled rich kid with the barrister father (When Erin, exasperated, asks him at one point, “Don’t you ever get tired of you?,” you’ll find yourself yelling back at your TV, “I sure do!”). All five are instructing solicitors who prepare cases for trial by their superiors and appear on behalf of the state on petty matters. And each is an excellent lawyer, regardless of personality.

In contrast, “Janet King” is very much a procedural, featuring a dark story of mercy killing (maybe), child abuse, kiddie porn and corruption in high places. It discards the ensemble show concept in favor of a leading character, and for good reason. Superbly played by Marta Dusseldorp, Janet King is a senior crown counsel who seems at first glance to be a staple of the genre: the unflappable stoic hero(ine). Naturally, appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. She cares about the junior solicitors in the DPP; she’s an excellent mentor, giving praise and challenging them to do their best (We see a subtle change in the later series—the professor/student dynamic that prevailed in “Crownies” has been replaced by a greater sense of collegiality). There’s an underlying kindness as she advises the bumbling Richard to pace himself when he’s about to work all night to prepare a case (not hers) for trial, and she doesn’t hesitate to read Erin the riot act for letting a very promising future slip away because of her affair with the wine bottle. Although she tells Richard she doesn’t let the horror of her cases get to her (“It sounds weird but it just doesn’t touch me at all”), we later see her break down, sobbing, over the deaths of two young boys drugged and suffocated by their mother.

Fortunately, Janet’s professional life is well-balanced by a rich personal life. While we know in “Crownies” that she’s trying to get pregnant, it’s not revealed until a number of episodes later via an amusing bit of misdirection that her partner, Ash, is a woman; later on we find out that Janet is carrying twins. Pregnant lady humor may seem clichéd, but given what these characters do for a living, it’s a  welcome break (The scene in which Erin attempts to distract her when she goes into labor is classic. “Wait–you’re telling me lawyer jokes?”).  Another of my favorite sequences in “Crownies” involves Ben, Mr. Suave himself, getting so rattled in court by a senior counsel’s alcoholic meltdown, that he can’t even spell his own name correctly for the court stenographer when he’s forced to take over. A later scene, in which he and Richard compare their respective idiocies over a shared sandwich, is a great bit of comic timing. Bravo, gents.

Acorn TV will be adding Season 2 of “Janet King” starting August 29. (It’s currently available on YouTube, but the quality is not the best). No fools they, Acorn will only be adding one new episode a week, so no binging, at least not yet. No sense giving it all away during the one-month free trial period, right?