Lunchtable TV Talk – Wolf Hall: “You’ve made a mistake threatening me, sir”


Any history buff is well and truly familiar with the story of Henry VIII and his many wives. There have been many books written and movies and TV shows made about his reign. Most recently The Tudors provided a sexed-up look at Henry and all his wives. The latest to take a new tack with much of the story is Wolf Hall, which is told more or less from the perspective of historical figure Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell is portrayed as perfectly dull and unassuming – and Mark Rylance looks exactly like these historical portraits of the real guy. It is something of a revelation when this modest man saunters in and so politely threatens people, such as when Harry Percy claims he has a binding marriage contract with Anne Boleyn, which would prevent her marrying King Henry.

Yes, politeness and decorum mixed with menacing threat: Cromwell will get someone to “bite the bollocks off” Percy if he refuses to quit his claim to Anne.

It is Rylance as “the ruffian” and cunning lawyer Cromwell that keeps the story moving forward and keeps me interested. Despite the brilliance of his wielding the law and persuasive powers, Cromwell appears fair, even if King Henry calls him out at one point, threatening, “Do I keep you for what’s easy? Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you on because you are a serpent. Do not be a viper in my person.” The balance is struck as well as it is thanks to Rylance’s subtle performance. Damian Lewis as Henry VIII seems a bit miscast – and it is rather a small role. I tend to think he has worked well with what he has here, but despite the story revolving around him, it is not really about him. Lewis is always excellent as a sniveling tyrant, much as he showed in the miniseries, The Forsyte Saga. He even showed us some of this indecision in his conflicted self-destruction as Nicholas Brody in Homeland.

Rylance’s performance, combined with writing that projects modernity onto an age-old story, bringing intrigues and political machinations to life, make Wolf Hall one of, if not, the best fictionalized pieces on this era. It would not seem logical that something like this would garner high viewer numbers, but in fact, Wolf Hall appears to speak for itself in that regard. A persuasive aspect of Wolf Hall that initially draws one in is its attention to historical detail, which is no accident. But it is the rich and refined performances that elevate this show to greatness (such as those of Joanne Whalley as the cast-aside Catherine of Aragon, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn), none more so than Rylance’s performance. (It may be more surprising to viewers because Rylance is not well-known outside of theater work, although I remember him from the small-scale but somewhat controversial film from Patrice Chéreau, RIP, Intimacy (2001), which featured actual sexual acts between the actors. It raised a lot of eyebrows, as if it were pornography or just lasciviousness for the sake of raising the film’s profile. The film, though, showed exactly the tawdriness and neediness of this sexual affair between the two main characters – again, elevated by Rylance’s performance alongside New Zealand actress Kerry Fox, who as recently as 2012 was still defending her performing a real sex act in a film from more than a decade earlier.)

Rylance is a respected stage actor, and as I felt – and later read – his being virtually unknown to television audiences created a double blindside. We the viewers don’t expect this committed, understated yet powerhouse performance – and most of the characters that Cromwell comes up against underestimate his cunning and influence… but definitely should not.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Empire


In general, I am not a big fan of people who are showoffs, the people who share just that bit too much information or “evidence” that they are “superior” when it really comes down to the luck of the draw, not to anything special. Attention whores. That is not to say that attention whores don’t have talent or that they don’t work hard. In the hit show, Empire, several of the characters have come from humble beginnings, have worked very hard and do have talent. But some of them embrace the glory a bit too much. That said, it wouldn’t be Empire if this were not the case. The Terrence Howard character, Lucious Lyon, head of an entertainment empire called, duh, Empire, dominates the show, his family and the Empire name. Near the end of the first season, he basically refers to himself as a god-in-waiting, and his youngest son Hakeem seems to be following in his footsteps – no questioning or self-awareness. Just arrogance without reflection.

Taraji P. Henson’s character, Cookie Lyon, is someone I did not expect to like. From the advertising around this show, it looked like everyone was egomaniacal, unreasonable and entitled. But Cookie is a woman who feels and knows what is important and knows how to get and protect those important things. She spent almost 20 years in prison for the sake of her family and does not need the flash and glamor because that was never at the heart of what she wanted or fought for. I found this surprisingly compelling.

I also found the idea of the “outsiders” within a family to be very compelling. The eldest son Andre is by far the furthest outside the family circle because he has no artistic talent or vision – he went to business school. In many ways, he has inherited some of the worst traits of both his parents. The ambition, ruthlessness and willingness to lie that characterizes Lucious and a bit of the trigger-temper of his mother (probably in large part due to his struggles with bipolar disorder). His lack of musical talent means he cannot relate to the rest of the family. His mental illness makes him a pariah to his father, who refuses to accept that this illness exists and ostracizes Andre once it’s clear that he can’t just blame “that white woman” (Andre’s wife) for foisting this pretend illness on him. We see Andre struggle the most and spin the furthest out of control.

The middle son, Jamal, by far the most musically gifted, wants to come out as gay, and the stigma of this is too much for the patriarch, Lucious, to take. Everyone else in the family accepts. Most of society accepts. No one really cares. But the father has lorded his prejudice over Jamal his entire life… but Jamal does finally assert himself, and comes out on top because ultimately this musical thread is what ties the family together – and keeps those on the outside from really taking part (which keeps happening to poor Andre). Jamal is also the least entitled. He does not have to work as hard to come up with genius, but he works hard nevertheless.

Finally there is the youngest son, Hakeem, who, as mentioned, is like a cookie cutter of his father. But that does not by any means make him the favorite. In some cases, he is favored because of these similarities, but Hakeem does not want to put in the hard work, wants to just be famous and take over Empire but the depth and staying power don’t seem to be there. What he lacks in natural talent, he tries to make up for in flash. This is also not to say he has no talent – it’s just that it does not seem to flow from him the way it does from Jamal.

With these strong characters – not always written or acted perfectly or particularly well – and interesting dynamics – even when they are soap operatic at best, I found the first season entertaining enough to keep watching when the show resumes for season two.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Reign: Historical fiction


Most women my age – and probably a fair number of men, too – watched and maybe even loved the CBC/PBS miniseries, Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows, while she has had a rich and long career since, will never quite shake her identity as Anne Shirley. And Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s academic rival, friend and eventual husband in the Anne of Green Gables series (a series of Canadian books set in Prince Edward Island, Canada that adolescent readers have devoured for the many decades since they debuted), had life breathed into him by Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie. He has appeared here and there in other things, perhaps most recently and notably in The Good Wife, but he has been tied all his life to his reputation-making role as “Gil”. Sadly, Jonathan Crombie passed away this past week at the age of 48, which plunges the hearts of “kindred spirits” of my age into “the depths of despair” – to use some of Anne Shirley’s over-the-top, verbose, well-loved language.

Ultimately, though, this was not meant to be about Crombie or his passing. (Or to question the “dying young” passing of Canadian actors who graced Canadian tv institutions. Referring here to the 2007 death of Neil Hope, who was “Wheels” on the original Degrassi Junior High.) Instead, I had just been watching this week’s episode of Reign, which sucked me in despite not being my style at all. In large part, I tune in week after week to watch Megan Follows’s regal, scheming performance as Catherine de Medici. Follows finally outshines her past, defining role as Anne Shirley and is the one reason I keep coming back to Reign.

This is not to say that Reign isn’t a decent show. I like these kinds of historical fiction programs in that they may not paint a full or accurate picture of historical events, but they breathe life into long-past history that may ignite curiosity in those non-historians among us. We might then make moves toward reading real history and finding out what in these programs (like Reign, The Tudors and Wolf Hall, to name a few recent entries) is true and not true. History brought to life, regardless of creative license employed for television audiences, can only pique interest and perhaps make history a more interesting subject for otherwise disinterested generations (each generation, at the risk of sounding like a cranky old person, seems less and less interested in history).

I am driven by my viewing of Reign to go back and read the history – and often enjoy the modern music pairings that make up the soundtrack. Occasionally an interesting person will turn up as a guest star – Amy Brenneman as Marie de Guise (a great piece of casting!), Yael Grobglas as Olivia (best known now as Petra on Jane the Virgin) and even Battlestar Galactica’s Helo (Tahmoh Penikett).

Considering all these factors, especially Megan Follows’s presence, now that I know the show has been renewed for another season, I will continue to watch (even if my mind is very much stuck now on Anne of Green Gables, Anne and Gil and Jonathan Crombie, resting in peace.)