Posted in Television

TV Times Three

Kate Winslet, John Douglas Thompson and Evan Peters: “Mare of Easttown”

Television in whatever form, be it broadcast, cable or streaming, has never been better. The choices are endless—even if you plopped yourself down in front of a screen and glued your eyelids open 24/7, it would be impossible to keep up with every worthwhile show that’s available.

Within the last month I caught three excellent series, two of which pair up nicely in terms of genre. “American Crime” and “Mare of Easttown” are mystery/fictional crime shows, while “Hacks” is a prime example of dark comedy. All make for excellent viewing.

“American Crime” lasted for three seasons when it originally aired on ABC. I had seen the second season when it was first televised, and caught up with the remaining seasons after Netflix sounded the alarm that the show would depart at the end of May. Each season of “American Crime” focuses on a different scenario (in sequence: drug dealing/murder, sex crime/revenge porn and immigrant abuse/murder) while examining the disparate treatment of people who are touched by the criminal justice system, whether suspect or victim, and their families and friends. Issues of race, class, gender and immigrant status are thoughtfully explored. Four key actors appear in different roles throughout the show—Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King and Lili Taylor, all giving excellent performances throughout, as do guest stars such as Cherry Jones and Dallas Roberts. The writing is consistently illuminating without being preachy, and it’s a shame “American Crime” didn’t enjoy a longer life. Hopefully it will be picked up by another streaming service soon.

I particularly enjoyed “Mare of Easttown” for a number of reasons (and yes, I thought the “Murdur Durdur” parody on SNL was hysterical). In addition to strong performances by all concerned, I thought the pacing was just right. The story didn’t linger—I didn’t feel a sense of attenuation even with several blind alley theories of the crime, not to mention Mare’s idiocy in stealing heroin from the evidence locker to plant on the mother of her grandchild. Whatever plot holes existed—and there were several—the shocking fifth episode alone was worth the price of an HBO subscription. And it goes without saying that several of the actors may need to dust off the mantle for the Emmys which should come their way. In addition to Kate Winslet, Jean Smart (more about her below) and Evan Peters, I was pretty much bowled over by Julianne Nicholson. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen her in, whether “E.R” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Boardwalk Empire,” or “Masters of Sex,” even as far back as “The Love Letter.” The uniform praise she’s now receiving for her performance in “Mare of Easttown” is both well deserved and long overdue.

Mulling it over: Hannah Einbinder (Ava) and Jean Smart (Deborah) in “Hacks”

Is there anything Jean Smart can’t do? Going from Kate Winslet’s mom in “Mare of Easttown” to comedian Deborah Vance in “Hacks” might seem a stretch, but she does it with ease. If you enjoyed the late lamented “GLOW,” you should grab onto “Hacks” at your earliest convenience.

This is a very smart (no pun intended) show. Deborah Vance, long time, old style comedian who’s on the verge of finally wearing out her welcome in Las Vegas, is in need of fresh material and an approach that’s consonant with today’s humor. Her beleaguered agent sends her another one of his clients, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who’s become otherwise unemployable due to a single indiscreet tweet. That these two are miles apart in age, outlook, economic status and above all, frame of reference, is the engine that drives this show.

You may find the first couple of episodes a bit trying, since Deborah is so acerbic and in fact mean to Ava. But these are not without charm—the laughs fly as they furiously shoot one-line barbs at each other, and we learn that Ava can give as good as she gets. Midway through the season, “Hacks” seems to really hit its stride. Deborah and Ava begin to grow a mutual regard, and their romantic interactions with others aren’t diversions but instead necessarily tell us so much more about their characters: Deborah’s on again, off again relationship with Marty (Christopher McDonald), the owner of the hotel where she performs, and Ava’s meet-up with a handsome stranger at the hotel in which she’s staying, as well as her evident inability to shake loose from a former girlfriend.

Speaking of Emmys, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if “Hacks” corners the market in the comedy division. Hannah Einbinder, who in fact is a stand-up comedian (and Larraine Newman’s daughter) seems to grow as an actor throughout the series. She and Ava seem to mature at the same time. And I can’t say enough about Jean Smart. She makes Deborah a complex character whom you want to know more, not less, about, especially in the last two episodes of the series. Her reaction when she thinks Ava has betrayed her trust is one of the most memorable scenes of the show. Rather than displaying anger, she seems to fold into herself. Her confrontation of Ava in the next episode is extraordinary, both in writing and performance. Kudos, ladies.

We’re left with a particularly juicy cliffhanger at the end of the final episode. Since “Hacks” has been renewed for another season, we’ll just have to wait to see if Ava dodges disaster once again. In the meantime, enjoy Season 1 on HBO Max. It’s so good I may watch it again.

Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a (Melting) Winter Wonderland

Only three days after a two-foot snowfall the temperature turned a balmy 45 degrees. Hallelujah! Now the melting snow is creating new waterways over roads, at curbs and in cracked sidewalks. Let’s just hope the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing tonight—we’re not ready to go ice skating without skates again any time soon.

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Regina King, André Benjamin: “American Crime”

Too many quality TV shows, too little time.

Commuting into New York is absolutely killing my ability to keep up with some great shows. Early to bed, (too) early to rise eliminates watching shows that air at 10:00 pm, so I’m scrambling to get acquainted with PBS’ “Mercy Street.” Showtime’s “Billions” is opposite “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights, and as much as I think the “Masterpiece Theater” import will ultimately just collapse across the finish line, I’m still interested in how it’ll turn out (more about that later). I’ve only seen the first episodes each of “Mozart in the Jungle” (shame on this classical music fanatic), “The Man in the High Castle” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though I’ve actually gotten through the first two episodes of “Jessica Jones.” But no “Sense8” or “Angie Tribeca” yet for me, sad to say.

My work schedule was also behind my losing track of one of the better shows last year, though thankfully I’m able to become engrossed in its second season courtesy of the “On Demand” button on my remote. ABC’s “American Crime” (not to be confused with the soon-to-be premiering, O.J. Simpson-centric “American Crime Story”) is repertory theater at its best. Each season covers a different crime, with the same starring actors in different roles: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Elvis Nolasco, with key recurring appearances this season by Hope Davis and André Benjamin. That’s some potent talent.

The current run of “American Crime” outdoes “Law & Order: SVU” in being ripped from the headlines. It’s a timely mix of high school sports, male rape and internet shaming, all of which are even more timely in light of reports of the latest hazing atrocity. This season of “American Crime” focuses on a tony private school with a championship basketball team (Headmistress: Felicity Huffman, Head Coach: Timothy Hutton). Going viral are lewd images of a male scholarship student from the other side of the tracks at a party hosted by the basketball captains. The student has no clear memory of what happened, though he senses “something was done to [me]” (Connor Jessup gives a beautifully modulated performance as the victim). His mother (the superb Lili Taylor), having been refused a meaningful investigation by the school, reports the incident as a rape and contacts a local reporter. Naturally various parents, administrators, students and basketball team members have their own interests at stake and a list of issues to hide, but it’s their reactions and interactions with respect to the crime that prove fascinating.

It’s an unusual show. There’s no razzle-dazzle; it builds incrementally. It’s as far removed from the fevered pitch of “Law & Order:SVU” as you can get; the contrast in tone is easily seen, given that “American Crime” airs in the time slot immediately following “SVU” (Just for the record, I’m still a huge fan of Olivia Benson, Fin, Rollins and Carisi). “American Crime” is an exceptionally well-observed show. The writing reflects a very adult sensibility in how the characters are drawn; the audience is encouraged to consider their strengths and inconsistencies at some length. The result affords the actors a key opportunity to be expansive without having to overplay. Regina King, as the mother of one of the basketball captains, is a sophisticated corporate executive with extensive political and law enforcement connections. She lectures her son day and night about society’s expectations of young black men and vetoes the girls who aren’t good enough for him, yet her response to news of the crime is clueless: “Boys can’t be raped.” Yet somehow the gifted Ms. King presents this as just one more layer in a very complicated character.

“American Crime” makes you look forward to seeing what will be unveiled next. I’m glad it’s back.

Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: "Billions"
Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: “Billions”

A few notes are in order before I hurry off to catch up on those shows I’ve missed:

Even if “Billions” featured only Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, I’d be riveted. Fortunately it’s got so much more going for it: Paul Giamatti as one kink-chasing U.S. Attorney, Maggie Siff as his wife who supplies the kink in 5-inch heels and who works for billionaire Bobby, and Jeffrey DeMunn, Malin Ackerman and a slew of wonderful actors. There’s money, shady dealings, the S.E.C., zingy one-liners and secrets with a capital “S” (What’s the deal with Bobby Axelrod’s whereabouts on the morning of 9/11?). Thank you, Showtime, for one heady brew.

Before there was Discovery Channel, ID, History Channel and the 1000 other channels that grace your cable bill every month, there was PBS. And one of its best shows has always been “American Experience.” I was reminded of this last week when I managed to find an hour to watch its “Bonnie and Clyde” episode, which told as much about the Depression as it did about the two people it featured. On “American Experience” context is all, which is why its episodes linger in memory. PBS’ terrific website features “American Experience” episodes in full along with a wealth of related material. No need to pay for Hulu or Amazon Prime—PBS is all free, all the time.

After four episodes into its final season, does anyone doubt how “Downton Abbey” will end? Odds are, in no particular order:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate.
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word.

Remember, you saw it here first. And if you do know what happens, don’t spoil.