Posted in Television

Compare and Contrast

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

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

WARNING–SPOILERS ABOUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’mon guys–you should be doing better.

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Posted in Television

At Home With the MacBeths

Woman of the Hour
Woman of the Hour

CAUTION: SPOILERS ABOUND (YOU NEED TO ASK???) 

In this election year no dream appears beyond reality, yet Season 4 of Netflix’s “House of Cards” fulfilled the wildest one yet: Claire Underwood grabbed the brass ring as her husband’s running mate, an achievement denied to even as savvy an operator as Eva Peron.

But is this a good move by the House of Underwood? If he’s reelected, she’ll be a constitutional heartbeat away, in prime position to grease the skids for his demise, whether politically or–gulp–literally. Yes, she’s that ambitious, and her futile attempt to grab a Congressional seat in no way dampened her desire. Frank senses it too, otherwise why the recurring nightmare of that horrendous death match?

While we’re on the subject of bodily harm to Chief Executives, if you don’t think that assassination attempt was totally orchestrated, boy, do I have a bridge in Brooklyn for you. So many details beg so many questions: Why was Lucas Goodwin there, let alone armed? The latter fact was so out of character—words were always his weapon of choice. The omission of Janine’s name from his suicide note was indeed strange; was this a clue that the letter may have been a forgery? And perhaps the ultimate tip-off: Meechum, not Lucas, fired the first shot. “House of Cards” is so twisted I can easily see either Frank or Claire setting this up: Claire, for obvious reasons; Frank, to gain sympathy so he could move ahead in the polls, though I imagine he had hoped the cost would have been a flesh wound, not a shredded liver. Of course we can’t eliminate from the list of suspects any of the enemies the Underwoods made on their way up, but it’s more delicious to think both Frank and Claire had motive and opportunity.

Season 4 left us with a great deal to mull over, but before we do I have a couple of issues that need airing. First, why were so many important scenes shot in half light? It felt like “House of Cards” was living in a perpetual gray dawn. But for me the biggest error was the omission of a recap of what led to the resignation of Frank’s predecessor, President Walker. The events Tom Hammerschmidt investigates in Season 4 happened back in Season 2. For the life of me I couldn’t remember who Lanagin was, or why those travel records were significant, let alone Meechum’s involvement in their alteration, or the details of Raymond Tusk’s role in Frank’s ascension to the Presidency. I love “House of Cards,” but I do work for a living—I don’t have time to revisit an entire season’s worth of episodes in an effort to locate key events. A “Previously on ‘House of Cards……'” would have been welcome indeed.

So in no particular order let us consider:

Claire and Tom Yates. This has been on the horizon for eons. I don’t see good things ahead, no matter how healing he may be for her. Discord is already apparent: “That’s the first time you’ve lied to me since you stopped lying to me.” Whoever would have predicted that Mickey Doyle (and his giggle) could turn into such eye candy?

A great star turn by Ellen Burstyn as Claire’s mother. I wish we had had more of her and her relationship with Claire. Let’s hope for some flashbacks next season.

Cathy Durant, imminent under-the-bus victim. I suspect once she’s out of the administration she’ll have a great deal to say about Claire’s honing her way into the negotiations with Petrov.

Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton. They’re finally free, and I suspect (hope) we haven’t seen the last of them. Ditto Heather Dunbar, ex-President Walker (love Michel Gill’s speaking voice) and Kathleen Chalfant as the Katherine Graham stand-in.

Doug Stamper. I can’t remember when I hated a character so much. What is it he’s got going with the Widow Moretti? Is this out of genuine guilt or will he marry her for insurance?

The Conways, aka the Underwoods in embryo form. Will is as ruthless as Frank and plays the game almost as well, but it’s obvious Hannah’s blood runs at a considerably warmer temperature than Claire’s. I’ve got one request for the showrunners, though—stifle their annoying kid.

So the nastiness has been ratcheted up to an extreme, all the more to relish the Fall of the House of Underwood. We seem to be well on our way. The boat is leaking in numerous places: Frank has started a war against ICO to scare the electorate into giving him a full term; Tom Hammerschmidt’s story just broke; and perhaps most damaging of all, Aiden’s technology is now in the hands of the feds who will shortly realize the full extent of Frank’s domestic surveillance.

It’ll be agony to wait another year to see how this unravels.

Posted in Television

On a Binge

Claire and Frank: Ever Plotting
Claire and Frank: Ever Plotting

What’s your favorite method of catching up on a TV show? There’s the binge of course, at the end of which you’re left with gray pallor and bloodshot eyes. But instead of the sprint there’s always the marathon—immersing yourself in a show over a period of time. Example? I’ve just come up for air after watching all three seasons of “House of Cards” over 17 days or so, and my sojourn in Washington and Gaffney, S.C. was just the right length.

Please understand: by no means do I knock bingeing. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, go for it. I’ve been there—my record is nine episodes of Season 4 of “The Wire” on a New Year’s Day several years ago. The show was in its first run and I was still furious that Stringer Bell had been killed off at the end of Season 3. The subsequent abrupt shift to Prez’s experience as a teacher in an inner city school didn’t interest me initially after the flash of Mr. Bell, Omar and Brother Mouzone, so I stopped watching. But curiosity made me return, only to discover that “The Wire”‘s availability On Demand was due to end on January 2nd. The resulting nine consecutive hours on my couch were well spent despite the horrible headache I ended up with.

We’ve certainly come a long way from traditional TV, where week after week we saw Perry Mason get the real murderer to confess on the witness stand during the last five minutes of the show—that is, if you were home to see it. If not, you had no alternative but to wait for the summer rerun. My how times have changed. In a recent interview the CEO of Netflix referred to the growing trend of  “non-linear” television which I’m beginning to think is descriptive not only of the audience’s viewing habits, but the manner of TV storytelling. Since fans are no longer married to the necessity of tuning in on a specific day or time to catch the latest episode, no two people may view—in both senses of the word—a series in the same manner.

My experience with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a kind of “do it yourself” immersion of the most non-linear sort. Prior to joining the Buffyverse I made fun of the show, primarily because of the title (shame on me, but I still haven’t seen the movie on which the series is based). But then there was an episode entitled “Hush” which to this day I think is one of the best hours of television that’s ever aired.

The Gentlemen of
The Gentlemen of “Hush”

At my house it then became all “Buffy,” all the time. Having been caught in the post-9/11 unemployment fallout, I could watch reruns twice a day as well as a new episode every Tuesday night (If memory serves, first-run “Buffy” was in its fifth season at that time). While being in a “Buffy” immersion tank had its benefits, there were problems. Because I hadn’t watched the show sequentially, certain events just didn’t resonate for me as they did for longtime viewers. Not to sound heartless, but Joyce’s death in “The Body” and the other characters’ reactions to the loss didn’t send me to my box of tissues. More significantly, I never fell for Angel, and not just because I met Spike first. Wit does it for me more than a pretty face and like “Mad Men”‘s Roger Sterling, Spike always got the best lines. Which, incidentally is why (remove your hats and bow your heads) “Firefly,” another product of Joss Whedon’s genius brain, will last forever for fans—almost every character, with the exception of the Tam kids, got the best lines.

CAUTION: “HOUSE OF CARDS” SPOILERS AHEAD

I was reluctant to jump on the “House of Cards” train for what seemed to be good reasons. I had seen the British original starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquart in its entirety when it first aired on PBS many years ago, and while the show was delightfully evil in its first two seasons, it became a cartoon in the third. And I wasn’t sure the machinations would translate—the U.K.’s parliamentary system seemed a more enabling environment for someone to rise so swiftly.

Fortunately the American showrunners have changed the tone of the piece considerably. The mood is darker and antagonists, both domestic and foreign, are everywhere. The leading character, now named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) still addresses the audience in asides which are variously bitter, astute or campy. But what I like most about the manner in which this series is unfolding is that it “reads” like a novel. There’s a strong narrative sense—each succeeding episode indeed feels like the next chapter in a book. Events build on each other. There are plot twists, but little sense of shock with the possible exception of Zoe Barnes’ murder. Since you know certain characters will stop at nothing—and if you don’t, you’re watching the wrong show—their actions seem to be foretold, though this in no way diminishes your enjoyment. Were you really surprised when Jackie Sharp endorsed Heather Dunbar for President, not Frank? Was there any way Premier Petrov would not have demanded Claire’s resignation as U.N. Ambassador?

The show’s meditations on power and what it does to people are what drive “House of Cards.” Morally upright Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) becomes so besotted with what she perceives to be her destiny to become President that she ultimately offers to buy written proof of Claire’s abortion for two million dollars (It helps to come from money). On the other hand, there’s Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank’s successor as House Majority Whip, who starts her game by forcibly pushing her mentor out to pasture, only to have twinges of conscience down the road when Frank’s demands during her stalking horse Presidential candidacy cross the line.

While Frank Underwood realizes his ambition by becoming President, things are more complex than he ever dreamed. The Russian Premier is even better at the game than he is, and Frank to his dismay doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as much anymore. But while it’s doubtful he holds the people around him (or for that matter, himself) in any high regard, he respects and indeed reveres the office he now holds. The role of Frank Underwood invites overplaying, but so far Kevin Spacey has mainly resisted the temptation.

But the sine qua non of “House of Cards” is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s not just her look and her demeanor—you always wonder how the character has ended up the way she has. Perhaps it’s to the showrunners’ credit that they haven’t given us the whys and wherefores yet; this way we’re left to our own suppositions about her past, her early relationship with Frank and whether things have always been this twisted and if not, what caused it. It’s agonizing that we won’t be getting even the smallest of hints until the show picks up again on Netflix next year.

I hope “House of Cards” avoids the problems that arose during the run of its British counterpart. The ascent to the top is always more fun than the drudgery of maintaining power, and I hope the show provides a counterbalance by featuring more campaign razzle-dazzle in its next season (the Presidential debate between Frank, Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar was terrific). More fundamentally, though, the basic scheme of “House of Cards” begs the question of how many people can Frank destroy and/or bump off before the show becomes ridiculous? And will Frank’s descent, which is sure to come, be as enjoyable to watch as his accession?

It all remains to be seen.