"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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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

The Death of Stalin: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT.

The Death of Stalin, written and directed by Armando Iannucci, is a dark comedy about the power struggle in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Josef Stalin's death. The film boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Michale Palin and Jason Isaacs.

2018 has thus far been a less than stellar year for cinema. Granted, it is only March and prior to my most recent jaunt to the theatre I had only seen three other films, Black Panther, Red Sparrow and Annihilation, all of which were entirely underwhelming. But ever the optimist, I picked myself up by the bootstraps of my disappointment and made the journey to the local art house to try and break out of the rut of banality that had been the hallmark of my recent trips to the cineplex. 

Thankfully, The Death of Stalin was just what the doctor ordered as it was a powerful antidote to my bout of cinema blues. The Death of Stalin is a comedically taut, deliciously funny and masterfully paced film riddled with exquisite performances from an impeccable cast.

I knew nothing about The Death of Stalin prior to seeing it, except that I assumed that it was a comedy about the death of Stalin…and unlike that great cinematic fraud The Never Ending Story, The Death of Stalin is indeed a case of honesty in advertising. After seeing the film I read a little bit about the director, Armando Iannucci, and discovered that he is the creator of the HBO series Veep, which makes sense because The Death of Stalin is sort of like a super-dark version of Veep set in Stalin's Soviet Union. If you like Veep, you will enjoy The Death of Stalin.

The cast of The Death of Stalin is fantastic across the board, but Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi are particularly good. Beale, who plays Beria, the Head of State Security, is a British actor whom I had the great fortune to see masterfully play Iago at the Royal National Theatre twenty years ago during my London days. Beale is a meticulous chameleon of an actor who, much like his equally gifted Shakespearean peer Mark Rylance, has been a master of the London stage for the majority of his career. I hope Beale gets the same level of recognition from a wider audience that Rylance has in his later career, as he is most deserving. Beale's Beria is a study in paranoid entitlement, bemused viciousness and the banality of evil that even at its most heightened never rings false.

Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Kruschev with his usual humorous flair and delivers an phenomenal performance. Alongside the comedy of Buscemi's Kruschev is a palpably frenetic desperation to save himself, and Russia, from falling out of the frying pan of Stalin and into the fire of some other brutal tyrant. Buscemi wraps Kruschev in a cloak of bitter cynicism that hides a rabidly patriotic soul. 

The supporting cast all give specific and technically precise performances filled with masterful comedic timing that they are an absolute joy to behold. 

Jeffrey Tambor, fresh off the abysmal atrocity that is/was Transparent, which was easily the worst and most repugnant television show I have seen, does a nuanced and hysterical turn as Malenkov, a member of Stalin's inner circle. Tambor is at his most insecure best as Malenkov, who is living proof that Stalin wanted to surround himself with only those considerably weaker than himself.

Andrea Riseborough is terrific as Stalin's daughter Svetlana who must navigate life without her powerful father, as warring factions try to use her as a pawn in their chess match. Svetlana is not as weak and delicate as she pretends to be, but she isn't nearly as strong and resilient as she thinks she is. Riseborough has the least flashy of all of the roles in the film but her comedic subtlety and dramatic chops make her Svetlana a vital part of the film's artistic success. 

Rupert Friend plays Stalin's drunken, hockey-team losing son Vasily with aplomb. Friend nearly steals the entire show with his volcanic drunken tirades that seem to have no end and no discernible beginning.

Jason Isaacs masterfully plays famed Soviet General Zhukov. Isaacs' Zhukov is a pitbull in a parade uniform and he has little time, and less tolerance for the political machinations of the backstabbing politburo. Isaacs brings a force and energy to the film that elevates the comedy and the drama to an even higher level. 

The rest of the cast, including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko and Adrian McLoughlin all do stupendous and seamless work that keep the film right on track. 

An interesting note regarding the acting is that the entire cast never uses a "Russian" accent. Nor do they all use a coordinated "British" accent which some films use to signify a foreign language without alienating American audiences. Instead in The Death of Stalin all of the actors speak in their disparate native tongues, accents included. This is a very wise choice since comedy, and this type of specific verbal comedy in particular, is difficult enough in an actor's first language, adding any accent and most especially a Russian one, would make it nearly impossible. What is so interesting about this languid language/accent approach is that it comes across as so coherent, effortless and comedically harmonious as to be unnoticeable. 

Director Iannucci plays to his comedy strengths in The Death Of Stalin even more so than he does in his stellar HBO show Veep. Veep is a heightened comedy that refuses to acknowledge any connection to a real world or actual human behavior. In The Death of Stalin on the other hand, Iannucci has made a very funny comedy that is propelled by genuine human behavior. The Death of Stalin, as absurd as it can be, is still based on a solid realism despite its being so funny.

A very effective tactic by Iannucci is how he deftly handles the rather glaring issue of the brutality of Stalin's Great Terror by only giving the audience the perspective of those in Stalin's inner circle. Viewers are unconsciously connected to the protagonists like Beria and Kruschev in the inner circle and Iannucci never explicitly shows the violence and savagery for which these men are responsible. It isn't until we are fully on board and rooting for the good guys to win that we see what the good guys (and we) are capable of, and it isn't a pretty sight. 

It is impossible to watch The Death of Stalin and not relate it to the politics of our day. For instance, the backstabbing paranoia and positioning of Stalin's inner circle before and after his death certainly resembles the daily drama emanating from the Trump White House. The Trump purges of cabinet members is less bloody than Stalin's, but the impulse behind them is the same. Trump instinctually surrounds himself with people that are intellectually, and even physically, smaller than he is because, like Stalin he wants to be The Big Man. Beria, Kruschev, Malenkov and the rest of Stalin's ass kissing brigade have counterparts right here at home in Trump's cabinet, and could easily pass as Bannon, McMaster and The Mooch. 

Even Stalin's kids are reminiscent of the Trump children. Svetlana, the doe-eyed beauty trying to manipulate her "royal" standing for all it is worth, is Ivanka plain and simple. And speaking of simple, Stalin's son Vasily is as if Don Jr. and Eric Trump were morphed together into one drunken ball of entitled moronity. 

The Death of Stalin is also relevant in the context of the headlines of today due to the plethora of anti-"Russia" news. Russia is currently the enemy du jour and is blamed for everything that could, did or will go wrong in the world. The Death of Stalin is, like the recent Red Sparrow, a rather shameless piece of anti-Russian reinforcement propaganda meant to buttress people's preconceived negative feelings about those conniving and brutal Russians.

I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of The Death of Stalin, but the fact that Stalin and Russia were the subject of a film at all is indicative of the wave of anti-Russian resentment and hysteria fomented by a calculated Russo-phobic propaganda campaign. For instance, would this film have been made if it were about the machinations behind the scenes when Ariel Sharon was in a coma? Or about when FDR died? or Mao? or JFK? No…of course not. American audiences have been primed to accept that Russians are a particularly loathsome and untrustworthy bunch, so it is acceptable to laugh at them and highlight the worst of them when they are at their most despicable. 

That is why The Death of Stalin is in theaters now, because it buttresses and reinforces the anti-Russian madness by reminding people that Russia, at its core, is only Stalin's Soviet Union during the Great Terror, and nothing else. Nuance need not apply when it comes to the Russia of today, just tune in to MSNBC or read the Washington Post for proof of that. 

You may be asking what difference does it make if there is anti-Russian propaganda? Well, the biggest issue is that it makes Americans gullible to any anti-Russian story thrown out there. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK? Must be Russia, and no proof or evidence is needed to back up that claim. Same with the claims of Russian "hacking" of our elections, voting machines and even our power grids…all unsubstantiated but accepted as Gospel Truth by the opinion shapers in the establishment media. Unproven claims that Russia started a war by invading Ukraine, shot down MH17 and rigged elections in Crimea are treated the same way.

The propaganda campaign against Russia is not just dangerous because people are primed to believe any outrageous claim against that country, but because of where that belief will inevitably lead…a catastrophic war. The biggest problem with the anti-Russian hysteria and hatred that has become mainstream here in America, is that it is lead by the people who would usually be anti-war, liberals and Democrats. With incessant rhetoric being spouted by liberals about how Russia has "attacked America" or "committed an act of war", there will be no speed bumps on the road from a cold war with Russia to a hot one…and that will not end well for anyone. 

The real lesson of The Death of Stalin is the corrupting influence of authoritarianism on the soul. With authoritarianism on the rise across the globe and in our collective consciousness, The Death of Stalin is now compulsory viewing. The important thing to remember is that authoritarianism isn't just on the rise in the form of Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Xi…but in the hearts and minds of regular people…even those who may share your ideological beliefs. For instance, there has been a spate of people silenced or exiled for daring to question Democratic or liberal orthodoxy. I know this because I am one of them. I was exiled by numerous friends who did not like what I wrote about the last election, and instead of talking to me about it, or God forbid debating it, they exiled me…and my family…from their circle. This is metaphorically just like Stalin's Great Terror where he eliminated those who dare think for themselves or speak truth to power. 

The great danger of our time is not so much Trump, who is a bumbling buffoon of a man and an even worse president, but rather our authoritarian response to him. #TheResistance has proven itself to be a hypocritical outlet for the authoritarian impulses of establishment Democrats. Watch these alleged liberals discard history down the memory hole and contort themselves in all sorts of illogical ways in order to embrace the intelligence community (CIA, NSA, John Brennan, Michael Hayden and John Clapper) and the FBI (and James Comey, Robert Mueller and Andrew McCabe) all in the hopes of destroying Trump and regaining power. With authoritarians, Truth and actual history have no meaning in the quest for power and revenge, and so it has become with establishment Democrats and certain sections of the left. If you can watch The Death of Stalin through the prism of liberal authoritarianism, it will be a very enlightening experience indeed, especially if you're a liberal who likes to banish people with opinions that challenge your own. 

In conclusion, even though The Death of Stalin is yet another piece of anti-Russian propaganda, it is a finely-crafted, exquisitely made piece of propaganda, and that is to the credit of its remarkable cast and director Armando Iannucci. I recommend you put in the effort to see The Death of Stalin in the theatre as it will most assuredly entertain you as it did me. And if you are able to look past the surface of the film and see it not just as another Russo-phobic hit piece, but as a clarion call against all forms of authoritarianism…especially the authoritarianism that lives inside your own heart…and mine, then it might just make you more than laugh, it might even make you think…and cry in despair.

©2018