Lunchtable TV Talk: Billions

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We got rid of Nicholas Brody in Homeland, which could not have come sooner. It saved Homeland, and in exchange, we got Damian Lewis as self-made billionaire and financial wizard/criminal Bobby Axelrod in Billions. (FYI: Lewis is okay, but he is the least interesting thing about the show.) Is Billions great, on par with lauded fare like Mad Men or Breaking Bad? No. But is it interesting? Yeah, more than marginally. We get Malin Åkerman, who was so mercilessly set adrift after Trophy Wife was canceled, and she is unexpectedly fantastic as Lara, the bitchy, cutthroat, scheming, fiercely loyal wife of Bobby. We also get doses of Maggie Siff, who is always great (Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy), as Wendy Rhoades, the person who is actually closest to Bobby, who has worked for him for an eternity and kept him “sane”, and who happens to be (improbably) married to the man who has made it his life’s mission to destroy Bobby. That man is US Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, who is also always great, especially because he does fundamentally unlikable and complicated so well. His role here is no different, even if his character’s more stubborn than a dog with a bone – so hellbent on some kind of twisted sense of justice that he will let it destroy his marriage, his peace of mind, possibly his career and sanity, taking along with it his entire life and everything he values (taking a page from Les Misérables’s Inspector Javert, chasing this “villain” for his entire life – villain or no, the moral of the story – since there always is one – is that he only hurts himself in his dogged and endless pursuit).

There are other stories, characters, actors here, but there four form the real core of the show, what drives it forward and what keeps me watching. The rivalry between Bobby and Chuck – the stupid bravado driving both forward with what seem petty motivations in many cases, and the damage this does to everyone around them – from colleagues and employees to their families and loved ones – is the real driving force of the show. Also why I will continue to consume another season when it returns.

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

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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.