"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

2019 TV Round Up

ESTIMATED READING TIME: 5 minutes 14 seconds

Once again the Emmy Awards are upon us, and once again no one cares. But since this Sunday night is supposed to be a celebration of the best of the best in tv, I thought I would briefly share my thoughts on the 2019 television fare I was able to catch.

I rarely write about television only because there is so much of it and I am so behind in watching everything that comes out. An example of which is that I literally just started watching 30 Rock for the first time a few months ago and that show went off the air in 2013.

The advent of binge watching, thank you Netflix, has changed the tv viewing experience so that audiences no longer simultaneously digest new material, but rather do it on their own time. I prefer this method of tv viewing, but it makes writing on the topic difficult and rather useless.

So, since I rarely if ever review television, I have decided to just throw together a cheat sheet of mini-reviews for the relevant shows I have watched this year. I have no idea if any of these shows are nominated for Emmy Awards because I, like every other normal human being on the planet, do not care about the Emmys, in fact my indifference is so great I refuse to even do a google search to see the list of nominees.

So with my laziness established, let’s begin our review of 2019 television!

GAME OF THRONES - HBO: 4 Stars

I watched Game of Thrones from the beginning and as a testament to my limited intellectual abilities I readily admit I didn’t what the hell was going on 90% of the time and had no clue who half the characters were, but the show had an above average amount of nudity and violence, my two favorite things, so I was on board.

Game of Thrones was one of the very few, in fact I think only, tv show I wrote about this year. As previously stated the show’s final season was a definite mixed bag and was not nearly as good as the seasons that preceded it. That said, watching King’s Landing get obliterated was as exhilarating a visual sequence as we have seen in the history of the medium.

The cast of Game of Thrones have always done solid, if not spectacular work. I think Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage were among those who were the most spectacular.

THE BOYS - AMAZON: 4.5 stars

The Boys is an absolute gem of a show that is the best kept secret on tv. I seem to be the only person who has ever watched the program and have become a sort of evangelist in favor of it. I have told countless friends that they have to check this thing out.

The Boys beautifully deconstructs the corporate superhero mythology that is the dominant myth of our time. If you are sick of Marvel and Disney’s dominance of the superhero space…then watch The Boys. The show is an insightful and piercing commentary on the American corporatocracy, and it pulls no punches. It eviscerates the empty headed corporate flag waving of the media, Disney in particular, and tells more truth in its fiction than the establishment news has ever done in its reporting.

There is a sequence in the show, and I won’t give it away, but it deals with the Hegelian dialectic (problem - reaction - solution) and it is the absolute truth of our time and is brilliant.

The show stars Jack Quaid, who is the son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quad. This is obvious but still kind of weird to see, but Jack is the perfect amalgam of his two famous parents. At times he looks exactly like his dad, and other times just like his mom…it is like he has his own weird famous parent morphing super power.

The rest of the cast, which includes Karl Urban, Antony Starr, Elisabeth Shue and Erin Moriarty, is top-notch and play their roles with aplomb.

The Boys is not perfect but it really is a fantastic show and a bolt of anarchist rebellious energy into the very stagnant super hero genre. This show actually made me yell in joy at one point at how subversive it is…I kid you not. Anyway, if you love super hero stuff, or are sick of superhero stuff…this is definitely the show for you.


MINDHUNTER - NETFLIX: 4.25 stars

Mindhunter is produced, and sometimes directed, by filmmaker David Fincher. One of my favorite Fincher films, and one of my favorite films period, is Zodiac. Zodiac is a rare Fincher film in that it sort of flew under the radar, in fact I didn’t even see it in the theatre. But after discovering the film a bunch of years ago, I cannot get enough of it…and even use scenes from it when I work with clients. I watch Zodiac so often it has become a running joke in my house…and probably with the FBI agents who are surveilling me.

Mindhunter is like an extended and expanded version of Zodiac, as it is set in relatively the same time frame, and shares the same visual and artistic aesthetic. Mindhunter is, not surprisingly since it is a Fincher project, beautifully shot and lit and looks great.

The acting in the show is solid and subtle, as the main cast maintain a tight lid on things. The guest stars, who play a panoply of serial killers, are creepily fantastic in bringing their famous killers to life.

Mindhunter is, at its core, an extremely well made “cop” show that is decidedly smart and mature. This show is Fincher at his best….moody, unnerving, menacing, unsafe. The show is so well- made I think it would be impossible to watch it and not end up double checking the locks own your windows and doors before going to bed at night and also not looking at the nearly invisible normal people who populate our surroundings and thinking, at least for a moment, that they might be, or are at least capable of being, super predators.

FLEABAG - Amazon: 4.5 stars

Fleabag is what feminist tv/film should be. It is not whiney and self serving with an axe to grind but aggressively funny and deeply reflective. Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote and stars in the show and her performance is remarkable and her writing, scintillating.

The rest of the cast, which include Sian Clifford, Andrew Scott and the glorious Olivia Colman, give superb performances across the board.

What makes this show such an intrepid piece of feminist comedy is that the female lead has absolute agency, she is not a victim but an active participant in the mess that is her life. The plot of Fleabag is fueled by Waller-Bridge’s character’s actions, not by her responding to other people’s actions. If she is a victim it is of her own bad decisions, not of other people’s.

BLACK MIRROR - NETFLIX: 4 stars

Black Mirror really is a Twilight Zone for the 21st century. The show never fails to be unique, original, challenging and insightful and also never fails to surprise. Black Mirror boasts terrific writing, top notch direction and stellar casts.

What is great about Black Mirror is that all of the episodes are stand alone so you can watch them at your leisure. This season there are, at least so far, only three episodes and they are fantastic. The best of the bunch is “Striking Vipers” which is both shocking and funny.

I can’t remember being underwhelmed by any episodes of Black Mirror, but I can recall being completely freaked out by more than a few of them. (The one with the dog like hunting drones is stellar!)

THE HANDMAID’S TALE - HULU: 1.5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season was an electric piece of television. The fact that the show was in production prior to Trump’s election but spoke so eloquently about women’s anxiety after he won, is a testament to the artistry and craftsmanship that went into making it. The problem though is that the show, which was so compelling in season 1, quickly jumped the shark in season 2, and in season 3 has gone full Evel Knevel on a tricycle over Jaws in a kiddie pool.

It is difficult to overstate what a heinous piece of crap this show has become. The only equivalent I can think of is the precipitous fall of House of Cards which was like a speeding train falling off a cliff after its first few seasons.

Just like House of Cards downfall, what saps The Handmaid’s Tale of drama is that there is no longer any genuine threat to the main character June. June has become an avatar for the girl power people in her audience and thus is given no genuine obstacles to overcome, just manufactured ones, by the fan servicing producers.

At one point while watching one of the episodes in season 3 I said out loud to no one in particular…”I hate this show”…and I really have grown to hate it, which is frustrating because the show in the first season, and Elizabeth Moss’ acting in that season, were just mesmerizing. But now the show really has devolved into a pointless, rambling, dramatically incoherent, self-reverential mess and Moss’ acting little more than her not blinking in order to cry and acting faux tough. The bottom line is this, if Gilead were as awful and authoritarian as it is supposed to be, then June would have been swinging from the wall a long time ago. At this point I watch the show praying she gets hung and puts us all out of our misery.

The show is just so…stupid and frustrating…and the characters equally stupid and frustrating. In season’s 2 and 3 The Handmaid’s Tale has abandoned any semblance of a coherent internal logic and now just seems to be winging it. It is safe to say I will not be returning to Gilead for season 4.

WHEN THEY SEE US - NETFLIX: 1 Star

This show, which is about the very relevant and important story of the Central Park Five, is produced by Oprah and directed by Ava DuVernay….and it shows. That is not a compliment. This mini-series is just God awful. It is embarrassingly maudlin, shmaltzy and unconscionably ham handed.

This show will no doubt win a bunch of Emmys, but that is only because it is the sort of anti-Trump, anti-racist screed that Hollywood dipshits gobble up like Xanax. But do not be deceived, this show is atrociously poorly made. The cast, most notably Jharrel Jerome, are abysmal. Jerome sets the craft of acting back decades, if not millennia, with his corny performance as Korey Wise, one of the Central Park Five.

What frustrated me so much about this mini-series was that it is based on what should be a dramatically potent true story, and a story that is so vital and relevant to our times. But in the hands of DuVernay, this story is sapped of any meaning, and instead turns out to be an emotionally manipulative piece of garbage better suited to the Lifetime channel than Netflix.

Sadly, this story of the Central Park Five is as true to life as the Central Perk Five of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe. Yikes.

CHERNOBYL- HBO: 4 stars

This mini-series which recounts the 1989 nuclear disaster, starts out great but loses some dramatic momentum late as it staggers to the finish line. Chernobyl looks great from start to finish and is elevated by some great acting, most notably from Jared Harris.

The weak link with the show is the script, as it falls into the tired Boris and Natasha evil Soviet caricature too often. The historical accuracy of the show has been called into question as well, but that is somewhat excusable, but the tired cliches of Soviet inhumanity are not.

The first few episodes of the mini-series were as good as anything on television this year, but the finale was decidedly disappointing and underwhelming. That said, I enjoyed it for the great cast and for how well it was shot.

ESCAPE AT DONNEMARA - SHOWTIME: 2.5 stars

Escape At Donnemara, which was directed by Ben Stiller, is a wholly uneven enterprise. Just like Chernobyl it starts off strong, then there’s a lull and then a significant dramatic and artistic spike in the second to last episode…but then it finishes with a whimper.

Stiller certainly puts some artistic bows on the show, using music and sound and fading to black to nice effect, but ultimately the show only stays on the surface of things and there is never a sense that we are getting at any semblance of the truth.

One of the odd things about the show is that it can feel incredible slow, bordering on dull, and yet that leisurely pace pays no dramatic benefits because the narrative ultimately seems so rushed at the end of the day.

That said, I thought Paul Dano’s performance as Sweat was really phenomenal. Dano makes Sweat a real person, not some caricature. Dano’s Sweat is conflicted, with a vivid and pulsating inner life that is compelling to watch. The show would have been better served with more Paul Dano and not less.

Patricia Arquette’s performance is all show. Arquette’s Tilly is nothing more than a monotonous and endless droning on, and the acting never once reveals anything of use or honesty about Tilly.

Benicia del Toro gives what I would deem a rather lazy del Toro performance…we’ve seen this act before and it has grown tired.

Ultimately, this mini-series has its moments but ended up being unsatisfying.

VEEP - HBO: 4 Stars

Veep was good this season but not great. Of course, Veep had set the bar ridiculously high with its first six seasons, so topping it in the finale was always going to be a tough job.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the wonders of the world, and her performance as Selena Meyer was so great as to be iconic. The rest of the cast were their usual stellar selves as well.

That said, season 7 felt like the show had definitely run its course and in the age of Trump, where reality is much stranger than fiction, seemed a bit, dare I say it…tame.

I liked season 7, but I think it was the weakest of all the Veep seasons.

BARRY - HBO: 4.5 Stars

Barry is awesome. This show perfectly captures the absurdity of the Hollywood experience for any actor trying to scratch out an existence and chase a dream. The acting class scenes are spot on and poignantly painful for their depiction of the shit show that is acting class in Hollywood.

What is so great about Barry is that it wonderfully mixes shocking violence with exquisitely subtle comedy. Few shows are ever able to do one or the other, but Barry is able to do both and do them extraordinarily well.

The straw that stirs the drink of Barry, is Bill Hader, who is a god send as assassin turned wannabe actor, Barry. Hader’s comedic timing and energy are exquisite, but it is his transformation into the ruthless assassin that makes the show real enough to be worthwhile. Hader is not just a funny man, he is a genuinely gifted dramatic actor, and his versatility is a rare trait indeed.

The rest of the cast, particularly Henry Winkler, are gloriously good. Winkler’s scene stealing work as Gene Cousineau is a stake through the heart of the ghost of Fonzie (hey, second Fonzie reference of this article!). Winkler perfectly captures the insincerity, dishonesty and desperation of those unfortunate souls who become acting teachers…I would know.

Barry is appointment viewing in my household.

Thus concludes my brief foray into television criticism, I hope you found it useful. My top picks this year are The Boys, Mindhunter, Fleabag, Black Mirror and Barry. None of those shows are for the feint of heart, so know that going in. I have no idea if any of these shows are nominated or will win at The Emmys on Sunday night…and more importantly, I don’t care…and neither should you.

©2019

Mind the Generation Gap: While We're Young, A Review

THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!

A few weeks ago, a delicately beautiful young woman approached me and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her. "What movie do you want to see?" I asked. "I want to laugh" she said, "let's go see Ben Stiller in While We're Young".  After an extended uncomfortable silence, I dryly retorted, "I thought you said you wanted to laugh."  I had zero interest in seeing While We're Young for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that I have an instinctive, gut-level impulse to punch both of the male actors in the film, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, right in their stupid, idiotic, oh-so-punchable faces. Add to that the fact that I have a pretty strong revulsion to much of writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous work, The Squid and the Whale being the lone and notable exception, and you have a recipe for a nasty case of movie rage on my part. But when a charming young woman asks me to a movie, even a movie I don't want to see, who the hell am I to say no? As I do with all beautiful women, I relented to her request. And so we were off to the theatre to see While We're Young

Chalk it up to low expectations, or the attractive lady on my arm, but While We're Young actually won me over. I know, I know, I am just as surprised as you are about this turn of events. I mean, watching Ben Stiller and Adam Driver for an hour and a half sounds more like some heinous form of torture banned by the U.N. rather than a form of entertainment I'd pay for, but gosh darn it if those two punchable asshats didn't pull it off.

Now you may be wondering why I am so strongly repulsed by Stiller and Driver. This is a good question, and I can honestly tell you that I have no idea. Or at least I am not consciously aware of why they irritate me so much.  I've never met them or heard a bad word about either of them personally from anyone I know who knows them. I've actually even enjoyed some Ben Stiller films in the past too, although I can't name them off the top of my head and don't want to waste my mental energy searching the dark recesses of my mind trying to find them. Regardless of why I feel the way I do, I do feel it. There is just something about the both of them and their dopey, moronic faces that quickly triggers the punch reflex in me. I readily acknowledge this is much more an indictment of me than of them. (Although to be fair to Adam Driver, I have that same "punch reflex" reaction to every single person who has ever appeared on the show Girls, or who has ever even watched the show Girls, or has even thought about watching the show Girls. I don't like the show Girls, just wanted to make that clear. That said, I am not exactly Girls target audience, so if I did like Girls, Girls would probably be doing it wrong.)

Now that my irrational Stiller/Driver hate has been outed and explored, you can have some sense of what an accomplishment it is for Baumbach, Stiller and Driver to get me to like their movie. It is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. How did they do it? Let's take a look, shall we?

While We're Young is the story of New York based documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both of whom are in their forties and childless.  Josh and Cornelia are losing all of their friends their own age to parenthood and are struggling to maintain their identities as artists and creative, cool people. Then they meet aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young hipster couple in their twenties who reignite Josh and Cornelia's zest for life and creative living. Through Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia are born again hipsters. Josh wears a hipster hat like Jamie, and Cornelia takes hip-hop dance class with Darby.  

The story of While We're Young is straightforward enough, it is the tale of all of us as we age and try to stay current, cool and relevant. This is a fools errand of course, but that doesn't stop us from trying anyway. What made While We're Young resonate with me is that it very closely resembled my own life's journey, or at least my artistic life's journey. Stiller's Josh is a Brooklynite, a self tortured artist, and he worships his art with a religious reverence. I am guilty on all counts (although I have relocated my existential angst from Brooklyn, the city of my birth, to Los Angeles, the city of my death…most likely). The film not only mimicked my experience, but understood it and, at a very deep level, respected it. That is a great credit to director Baumbach, who is of my generation and shares a similar temperament, taste and worldview. He may have cut me to the bone with his insightful look at Josh's/my life, but he did it with surgical precision and I tip my hipster cap to him for it.

The generational struggle, be it Gen X'ers versus Baby Boomers, or Millennials versus Gen X'ers, is cyclical. The struggling artistic purist of today will be replaced with the corporate crowd pleaser of tomorrow. It happened to the baby boomers, it happened to the Gen X'ers and it has already happened with the millennials. But there are always holdouts from each generation. Like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands who never knew that World War Two had ended, so it is with the generational holdouts. I know because I am one of them, and so it Stiller's Josh.  We are true believers and we have such a respect and reverence for great art that we are exhilarated when we see a talented and equally, in our eyes, honorable artist in a younger generation, and indignantly horrified when we see the sellout, faux artists in that same generation, or any other generation. This is the struggle of the purist. For reasons too elaborate to get into here, Generation X is a group with a higher Purist ratio than other generations, and with Millennials, it seems as though Purists are a rare breed, and a nearly extinct one at that. Although the reality is much more likely to be that there are probably just as many Millennial Purists as there are Gen X Purists, but due to the seismic shift toward corporatism in the creative economy over the last twenty-five years, they are much, much harder to find. With this in mind, the two generations are wonderfully represented in While We're Young by Stiller's Josh (Gen X) and Driver's Jamie (Millennials).

This generational struggle is what I think will make While We're Young interesting for all sorts of people, not just Brooklynite artistic purists like myself. Releasing the mantle of being one of the cool people to the younger generation who are, by definition, the cool ones now, can be a catastrophic event for some people's ego and identity. But that doesn't make it any less inevitable. This is the story of While We're Young, this is the story of me, this is the story of everyone, sooner or later, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.

As for the rest of the film, it is well made. I laughed out loud quite a bit, or to put it in terms the kids use today I "lol'd". (See how cool I am, kids? I know all the lingo! Kids? Kids? Why are you rolling your eyes and laughing at me? I'm hip…I'm not jive!!) Stiller is excellent, creating not just a character, but a real person, who is at once frustratingly stubborn yet genuine and endearing. Naomi Watts, as usual, gives a solid performance. Her Cordelia is vibrant and carries a palpable wound that gives her a strength and a fragile charm.

Adam Driver is…good. He uses his unlikability to his great advantage in the film. I'm not supposed to feel completely at ease with Jamie, or to completely like him…and I don't. So mission accomplished. This helps drive the story and Driver is a great foil for Stiller to play off.  Driver, who is tall, with a commanding physical presence and a goofy confidence, paired with Stiller who is short, neurotic and desperately desperate, makes for a fantastically and uncomfortably poor pairing, which is why it works so well.

Amanda Seyfried is an actress I always enjoy watching, and she is interesting and very compelling here as Darby but is terribly under used. The film focuses more on Josh and Jaime than it does on Cordelia and Darby, which works out fine in the end, but I did wish I saw more of Watts and Seyfried…maybe because I like them very much as actors and don't want to punch them like I do with their male co-stars. Regardless, I think there is great potential for a similar film to be made from the female perspective.

In conclusion, While We're Young was a very pleasant surprise. It is a genuinely funny, interesting and painfully honest film that keeps you engaged and laughing. Like me, you may only be laughing at yourself because the films bare bones honesty makes you so very uncomfortable, but you will be laughing nonetheless.  

Oh…and one more thing. This is very difficult to type with my fists clenched so tightly but…a job well done by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver. You both did excellent work in the film, and I respect your talent. I offer this to you both...I cannot promise to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore…but I do promise to try to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore. Sorry, it's the best I can do, believe me. Now…GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!!!