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This BBC 5 part mini-series is a taut crime story, lovingly detailed, and anchored by a powerful, understated Gillian Anderson performance. A serial killer is loose on the streets of modern day Belfast and he is targeting professional women of a particular physical type, who he tracks, monitors and then strangles in an elaborate, almost artistic ritual. Stella Gibson (Anderson) is brought in from London to perform a review. When the killer strikes again, she is assigned the case.

This is not a whodunit, as we are introduced to the killer in the first few moments. Instead, The Fall is a meticulous police procedural with a distinct take on Belfast.  Be it the ways of a tough neighborhood, the politics of the investigation or specifics of a crime scene, the feel is assured and authentic.  The characters are also very strong, in particular, the killer (Jamie Dornan).  While he is in no way sympathetic, he is unique in that we see him not only planning and executing his gruesome acts, but as a seemingly loving father and husband, and a conscientious civil servant (of all things, he is a grief counselor). 

The Fall was created by Alan Cubitt, who has credentials as a writer for the Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect, and at first blush, Anderson’s Gibson and Mirren’s Jane Tennyson have some similarities. They are both Detective Chief Inspectors in a male-dominated profession and they both do not have a significant male others. There is where the similarity ends, as Gibson is in a new environment (the last Prime Suspect was almost a decade ago), one that is more friendly to women, but also one where male expectations and bias evince themselves in a subtler fashion. Anderson’s Gibson is also clearly more reserved and in-control than Mirren’s Tennyson, who was rock-solid on-the-job, but more vulnerable in her private life. Gibson is not vulnerable at all, but she is not brittle or overtly righteous. In many ways, she is a “first” for a female police lead, as male as any officer, certainly stronger and smarter than most, and emotionally detached without lapsing into copycat or bitch. When a married detective with whom she has casually slept with is investigated, and she is questioned as to the liaison in a manner different than a man would endure, she suffers the double-standard with a certain patience before matter-of-factly telling the investigator that the detective’s wife was her lover’s problem, not hers. She also has somewhat of a sexual kink. Not Clint Eastwood in Tightrope kinky, but a kink nonetheless, a true rarity for a female lead.

It’s a great character and Anderson has left a lot to develop.    BBC Two has renewed the series for a second season and I hope Gibson becomes the next Jane Tennyson, who carried us through 7 Prime Suspects.

Available on Netflix streaming.

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After watching Showtime’s premiere of Ray Donovan, a compelling crime drama about the consummate “fixer” in LA, I was enthusiastic.

Boy was I wrong.  Seven episodes in, and I’m calling it quits. What promised to be a smart, hard-edged look at the worlds of celebrity, law and crime when they intersect has become a ridiculous, overblown meditation on family, coated by some of the worst Boston accents I’ve heard since Thirteen Days.  I’ll identify one issue that I think says it all.

If you needed to have your father killed in LA, would you

A) use your ample connections in LA’s underworld, protected by your even more ample connections in LA’s law enforcement community, to do the job

Or

B) go to your hometown of Boston to invite Public Enemy #1 Whitey “James Woods” Bulger to come out of hiding for a trip to LA to do the job?

 

 

Diane Kruger was a model.

then naturally Helen of Troy.

And then she was in some other stuff, including a surprising but undemanding role in Inglorious Basterds, and then she played a convincing Marie Antoinette in Farewell, My Queen.  And on the strength of this body of work, she presumably got the lead in FX’s The Bridge.  Based on the Danish/Swedish series Bron, Kruger plays a seemingly stand-offish El Paso detective, part emotionless, part awkward introvert, and she’s about to be drawn into the seemy world of Mexican drugs, American corruption, etc . . .

Strike one – the quirky character (Kruger’s detective has Asperger’s).  Isn’t Homelands wacko Carrie Mathison enough?  Who is doing the hiring of our defense against domestic and foreign threats?   When Kruger is detailed to inform a husband that his wife has been found dead and bi-sected, ala’ The Black Dahlia, her extreme unfeeling and offensive behavior underscores the idiocy of the premise.  Next time, let’s send Dustin Hoffman in Rainman guise to pass on such difficult news.   What could go wrong? 

Strike two and three and infinity – if you’re going to give someone this challenging if stupid role, why Kruger? An El Paso detective? She’s a ballet dancer born in Lower Saxony, Germany.  I didn’t stay to find out, but I suppose Armin Mueller-Stahl plays her toothpick chewin’ sheriff boss (actually, it’s Ted Levine).

It’s a hard role for someone who can act, and Diane Kruger cannot really act.

Full disclosure:  I turned it off after 25 minutes, despite some decent notices.

Having only seen the premiere, any rating is preliminary, Showtime is on my keister to contibute to the buzz.

The story of L.A. “fixer” Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) has all the elements of a great show.  Schreiber is a compelling central figure, hard-wired into the glitzy life of sex and power and celebrity, but beleaguered, not only by a childhood trauma, his own demons, dependent adult brothers, and the normal strains of a wife and two kids, but the ominous return of his menacing, just out of prison for 20 years, father (Jon Voight).

It’s also populated by some really fine character actors, including Elliot Gould (as Donovan’s Jewish hot shot Hollywood lawyer patron) and a thick Stephen Bauer, who has aged into Michael Nouri (as Donovan’s either Israeli or Greek No. 2).  Josh Pais, as a squirrely, unctuous studio mogul, damn near steals the first episode. 

Slate, in its never-ending quest to be contrarian, bemoans the series and its reliance on yet another anti hero.  Having just lost James Gandolfini, whose Tony Soprano was the dramatic anti-hero of our time, I welcome a new one, especially on of this species. Donovan is inward as Soprano was explosive, and he crosses two worlds (a tough Boston upbringing and sun-bleached, gaudy L.A.) which may offer all north Jersey offered and more.

Who would have expected this creepy gem to have come from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, writers and producers of Glee?   Available on Netflix streaming, this 12 episode ghost story is frightening, well-paced, extremely well-acted and on occasion, darkly funny.

The set-up is familiar. Husband and psychiatrist Dylan McDermott and wife Connie Britton flee Boston for LA with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) after McDermott’s long-term affair with a younger woman (Kate Mara) is revealed. They, of course, find the perfect home at the perfect price, save for an overbearing neighbor (Jessica Lange) who is more than a little tied to the house. It is soon revealed the home is the resting place of numerous decidedly restless ghosts.  It’s even a stop on an L.A. “Murder House” tour.

The writers overcome the central problem of any haunted house yarn by first emphasizing the financial duress of the inhabitants (they don’t have the resources to live elsewhere) and then, when anyone in their right mind would live in a cardboard box rather than stay, credibly demonstrating that each family member is possessed in different ways by the ghosts who haunt the place.  It sometimes feels like too much of a stretch, and all the balls in the air can be an obvious distraction, but these are nits.  

The series is also graced with a plethora of strong character actors, too many to name, but a few notables include Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Dennis O’Hare (Michael Clayton, True Blood), Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood) and Mara (House of Cards). These characters – tied to the house but with differing agendas – provide the backbone of the series. 

It’s also clever. For example, Frances Conroy plays the housekeeper, and to Britton, she appears as a stern but reliable partner in the bitter war she is having with her husband.

But to McDermott, the housekeeper presents as a much younger Alexandra Breckenridge, posing a larger problem for the straying husband

 

An example of the perverse humor – when Farmiga catches her father in a compromising position with the cleaning lady, she sees Conroy, not Breckenridge.

The buzz was so strong I couldn’t resist, so I queued up the discs for Season 1 and me and the wife settled in. What was not to like? I’d been impressed by Damian Lewis ever since his turn as Captain Winters in Band of Brothers, and The Manchurian Candidate set-up was intriguing. Better, the series started off with a bang as Sgt. Nicolas Brodie (Lewis), a Marine held in captivity by al Qaeda for 7 years, calls his wife (Morena Baccarin) to tell her he’s been rescued just as she is dismounting her lover, Lewis’s Marine buddy.  The CIA operative who suspects his allegiance, Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), is so committed that when her boss Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) threatens to expose her excess, she offers him her body.   So far, so good.

But boy does this show get ragged, if not in a hurry, eventually. There are many reasons.

1) Could an American be turned against his government ala’ Laurence Harvey? Sure. He could be a ticking time bomb. But could an American be turned into a ideologically driven, pray-to-Allah daily in his garage Muslim who has accepted in his marrow that he must strike the blow against his homeland? Perhaps, but with absolutely no backstory on Lewis’s character, and the thin gruel provided as his impetus, the leap is too far.

2) As Lewis’s Javert, Danes is a bi-polar freakout queen who regularly tests the limits of her family friends, coworkers and meds. She is singularly miscast, laughably over-the-top, made even more annoying by her love of jazz (which, we’re led to believe, is intricate and riffy like her mind), and is horribly written. My favorite line is when she directs the apprehension of a dangerous sniper, warning other agents over the radio that he is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. When her mentor tells her to be careful, she responds, “this is not my first polka.”

I’ll concede.  Her signature move – the bug eyes and quivering trout mouth – is pretty awesome.

 

She is wonderfully lampooned here by Anne Hathaway in this SNL skit, but upon reflection, it’s not so much a goof as a faithful rendition.

3)  Danes is presented as a tough cookie, but she soon lapses into a simpering “I never got asked to the prom” victim and it becomes more and more difficult to take her seriously as a CIA pro.

4) Danes’ mentor, Mandy Patinkin, is as interesting as Carlton your Doorman but that doesn’t prevent a pretty involved, sleepy subplot about his wife leaving him.

5) There is actually a line where the al Qaeda man who has turned Lewis says, “And they call us the terrorists.”

6)  Apparently, if you are going to authorize a drone strike on a school, it is always best CIA practices to videotape the Vice President, the deputy CIA director and the Secretary of Defense making that decision.

On the upside, the sister of our good friend is in the show, and whenever she appears, we point and remark at how similar the two are in appearance and mannerism.  Every time.

Ah, the corruption of celebrity.

Okay, technically, this BBC production is not a film, but I have watched both seasons, the second of which is currently on demand on the BBC channel, and they merit a good recommendation.

The competition to theater releases from television series, mini-series and films is stiff.  My unscientific list, just from HBO, demonstrates that as a “studio” it is as prolific and successful as any —

SERIES OR MINI-SERIES
The Sopranos
Rome
John Adams
Deadwood
Angels in America
Game of Thrones
The Wire
Boardwalk Empire

FILMS
Taking Chance
Barbarians at the Gate
Too Big to Fail
Into the Storm
Path to War
61*
Wit

If I haven’t listed an HBO series, mini-series or film, it is not that I made an omission – it means that some of what HBO puts out, like Treme and Hung and Carnivale, isn’t all that great.  But the network’s hit-to-miss ratio is impressive.

BBC’s output is similarly strong and pre-dated HBO’s reign. The Hour is a lovingly detailed show depicting the creation of a BBC television news program in 1956.  In season 1, we were introduced to producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West of The Wire) and reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s new Q) as they developed the program while investigating Cold war intrigue. Season 2 brings us police corruption intersecting with a high-level blackmail scheme. The look is very time-specific and classic, and because of that, The Hour has been favorably compared to Mad Men, but it is much more story-driven and deliberate.

I realize television viewing time is limited by so many strong options. Much to the consternation of many folks who have highly recommended certain shows, I haven’t been able to tackle Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Justified, having committed to Downton Abbey, Sherlock and, for a time, The Walking Dead. If you can fit The Hour into the schedule, you won’t regret it.