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?

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Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

________________________________

It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

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 Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

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 Movie Reviews, Observations

Stranger Than

oj-made-in-america-30-for-30

It’s that time of year.

“10 Best” lists are proliferating, movies are hashed and rehashed and opinions are flown with abandon (“You moron!” How could you not mention X!”). One of the more interesting inclusions in this year’s set isn’t a movie in the traditional sense, but a five-part, eight-hour documentary—director Ezra Edelman’s marathon, “O.J.: Made in America” (not to be confused with the FX docudrama, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Courtney B. Vance). The plaudits are well-earned.

What makes “O.J.: Made in America” a singular experience is the context in which Edelman has us view not just the details of Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but the nature of his life and celebrity. What gives the documentary its depth is Edelman’s juxtaposition of Simpson’s privileged existence with the long history of police abuse suffered by the African-American community of Los Angeles. “O.J.: Made in America” examines every thread that still exists in the social and political tapestry of America—Race. Celebrity worship, but more accurately, jock worship. The entitlement granted to athletes. Domestic violence. Media irresponsibility. The advantages the rich possess in dealing with the justice system. Jury bias.

Race is the primary theme of the documentary and rightly so, given the subject and the setting. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Simpson’s story is that a man who seemingly moved heaven and earth to present himself as devoid of color (his watchword was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) became a symbol of black oppression to the African-American community. We see how carefully Simpson constructed his image, and the lengths to which corporate America further encouraged that image (As several interview subjects note, O.J. was always surrounded and cheered on by whites, not blacks, in the commercials he did for Hertz and other products). We also see how Simpson cultivated a social and professional circle that was predominantly white at a time when the African-American community of Los Angeles suffered one outrage after another at the hands of the LAPD. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Edelman doesn’t flinch when presenting Simpson’s abuse of Nicole Brown, his second wife (his first marriage, to a black woman, remains largely unexamined). The number of interviewees who admit they knew what was going on will make your blood boil; if it doesn’t, Simpson’s sports show interview subsequent to his arrest for domestic violence certainly will. Simpson is so full of “It was New Year’s Eve—we both had too much to drink and things got out of hand. The press is making a mountain out of molehill,” while Roy Firestone, his interviewer, drips sympathy. Then you see the photos of Nicole’s damaged face, and hear a cop describe yet another occasion when a beaten Nicole summoned help. This officer actually arrested Simpson, but his superiors swept the entire incident under the rug because “Hey man, it’s O.J.!” You wonder how many free passes he actually received—and whether those who knew but excused Simpson’s behavior were able to sleep at night after Nicole’s murder.

There’s no doubt that the manner in which these victims died reflects how personal these crimes were to the killer. The savagery of the wounds inflicted and their number speak volumes (Warning: Photos of the victims and the murder scene are displayed at length in Episode 4 as Assistant Prosecutor Bill Hodgson describes the probable sequence of events in graphic detail). Contrary to the defense’s theory, it’s inconceivable that this was the work of a gang or a hired killer, both of whom kill far more efficiently—and quickly. No stranger would have created a blood trail that led directly from the murder scene to Simpson’s Ford Bronco to his front door and then to his bedroom. If you weren’t convinced before, “O.J.: Made in America” leaves you with little doubt that Simpson committed these crimes.

Edelman presents a straightforward account of Simpson’s trial for murder, and doesn’t hesitate to point fingers at Judge Lance Ito’s weakness in controlling the proceedings or the mistakes of the prosecution and law enforcement, of which there were many: District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s politically correct decision to try the case in Central Los Angeles, which virtually guaranteed a jury pool unsympathetic to the police and the prosecution; the late addition of Chris Darden to the prosecution team and his role in the trial, which made him Uncle Tom incarnate in the eyes of a predominantly black jury; Marcia Clark’s unshakeable belief that she had exceptional communication skills with female African-American jury members, despite a consultant’s findings to the contrary (The consensus of test panels? “Marcia Clark = bitch”); the infamous request to have Simpson try on those gloves, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s refrain to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

However, Edelman also notes that the jury was not exactly free of bias. The prosecution’s jury consultant cites a high percentage of African-American women on his test panels who hated Nicole Brown and viewed her as a homewrecker, despite the fact that Simpson never for a moment remained faithful during his first marriage. Two of the Simpson jurors, both African-American women, are also interviewed; one firmly states: “Let me tell you something, I lose respect for a woman who takes an ass-whuppin’ when she doesn’t have to…Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head. You’ll drown.” Add Mark Fuhrman’s racist remarks, errors in evidence-gathering at the crime scene, the long history between the LAPD and the black community, and the ungodly length of the trial for this sequestered jury, and the final result should not have been surprising.

The participants in “O.J.: Made in America” include some well-known faces: Gil Garcetti, Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman and friends and members of the Brown and Goldman families. However, far more interesting observations come from others. One stand-out is a childhood friend of Simpson who to this day believes in O.J.’s innocence, though every anecdote he relates only attests to how self-centered and slippery the man was, even as a young teenager. We also hear from Ron Shipp, a former football player turned cop and O.J.’s friend for many years, who, being thoroughly familiar with the extent of abuse inflicted on Nicole, ends up testifying for the prosecution. While the prosecution team more or less owns up to its mistakes, Edelman shrewdly lets the members of Simpson’s Dream Team of attorneys run on, thus allowing them to reveal themselves, and not always for the better. Carl E. Douglas boasts of more than one act of ethical flim-flammery, F. Lee Bailey (later disbarred, though Edelman doesn’t tell us that) unfurls his ego yet again, and Barry Scheck dodges and squirms when questioned about his trial conduct. And finally, Edelman pulls no punches when it comes to the press—there’s no doubt that their coverage, from the Ford Bronco chase to the acquittal, clearly shows the news establishment squandering whatever journalistic credibility it had only to end up as merely yet another vehicle for mass entertainment.

Simpson’s acquittal and the vociferous enthusiasm this met in the African-American community shocked white America. In retrospect neither is surprising given the racial history of this country. Those in the community who thought otherwise seem to have been pressured to keep silent. We hear from a black minister in Los Angeles who thought from the beginning that Simpson was guilty; his response when the verdict was announced? “I saw a rich guy get off.” Color trumped wealth in the eyes of many (“Now you know what it feels like,” says a community activist, even today), yet time has made some of the outspoken more thoughtful. The female juror quoted above, when asked how she feels about the verdict today, hesitates and her conflict is visible. She bails with “It was what it was,” but there’s no escaping that justice was denied for these victims.

Yet an acquittal does not an innocent person make, at least in the eyes of the public. It’s clear that Simpson evidently thought the verdict would reset the clock and he could return to his pre-trial life. Not so, and I’m not sure this was entirely due to race; one of F. Lee Bailey’s previous clients, Dr. Sam Sheppard, endured a similar professional and social decline following his ultimate acquittal. Having covered Simpson’s ascent, the documentary proceeds to cover his descent, culminating in his conviction and lengthy sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a confrontation over stolen O.J. memorabilia.

Made in America indeed.

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.