Lunchtable TV Talk: How to Get Away with Murder is Damages

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As I tuned in for the much-anticipated start to the sophomore season of How to Get Away with Murder, hot on the heels of a deserved Viola Davis Emmy win, I was struck by how a lot of TV is about placement and timing. See, How to Get Away with Murder is basically Damages with much more diverse cast and much better promotion.

Damages had a worthy rival to HtGAwM’s Annalise Keating in a strong, ruthless and tightly wound Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. Both women are conniving, bright, cutthroat and lethal in their own often twisted pursuit of their own definitions of justice. Both have done insane and questionable things. And most of all, both women have very little control over – and are practically unhinged in – their personal lives. It’s in their personal lives that things come apart. The story comes from those cracks in the power-hungry, driven veneer they project. And both stories are compelling and revealed key pieces of information in fragments, so you might think you knew – sort of – what was going to happen later in the season based on glimpses of things you had seen earlier – but not until the final episode would the entire story have unfolded.

The difference… Damages got short shrift, at least from viewers. Damages was intense and critically praised, but never found an audience. It was technically cancelled, in fact, after FX decided to get rid of it after three poorly performing seasons. It was given a two-season reprieve via a deal with DirecTV (which also revived the loved and lauded Friday Night Lights after NBC wanted to cut it short). With the way it moved around, it certainly never found its footing, and was gone too soon despite stellar casting and tight stories for all five of its seasons. In addition to the formidable Glenn Close, Damages featured Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant (the one and only from both Deadwood and Justified), David Costabile (increasingly visible all the time in all manner of shows, from Flight of the Conchords to Breaking Bad, from Suits to the rather irritating and cancelled Dig, from Ripper Street to Low Winter Sun), Janet McTeer (love her and sad her recent show, Battle Creek, was cancelled so soon), Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, John Goodman, William Hurt, the ubiquitous
Željko Ivanek, Ryan Phillippe and the leader of the John Hannah School of English Elocution, John Hannah.

When I binge-watched the compelling first seasons of HtGAwM, it felt familiar in many ways because it covered a lot of the ground Damages had already tread. It was still fresh because it has its own story and feel, but it made me feel regret that Damages was so little seen during its original broadcast (hopefully people are picking it up on Netflix). None of this takes anything away from the magnetic nature of How to Get Away with Murder, but instead, it’s worth stating that if you like it, maybe you will also like Damages.

Why I Changed My Mind: Paula Malcomson

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I won’t say that I ever disliked Paula Malcomson’s work, per se. She suddenly turned up all over the place, wielding different accents and playing roles representing different social strata across several time periods. I cannot go so far as to say that she is chameleonic – she does not completely disappear into all her roles (notably, her role as Abby Donovan in the recent Ray Donovan, is a bit too over-the-top with the put-upon Boston accent that it stretches believability). That said, she almost disappears into all her roles and imbues each role, even the villainous and suspicious ones, with a vulnerability and humanity that is unusual.

Why I thought of her suddenly, I am not sure. I suppose it’s because I was talking to someone about Battlestar Galactica – laying on thick praise – but cautioning them against its prequel, Caprica, in which Paula Malcomson plays a pivotal role. It is not that her portrayal of Amanda Graystone was anything less than great – she fully embodied and embraced the role and gave it the complexity it needed. It is more that the show never came together. The cast was never the problem.

I guess then that I did not change my mind about Malcomson so much as I decided to afford her work a more serious look. It would almost be easy to overlook her presence because she does slide into all kinds of different roles with such apparent ease. She would be easy to ignore – except that when you are really watching her, you can’t ignore her. In particular, her very human and heartbreaking role as Trixie in the late, great HBO series Deadwood was riveting. But in a show packed with a great cast and often overshadowed by the show’s main character – excessive profanity – it was easy to watch Malcomson be absorbed by Trixie, transfixed, but easily move on to the next thing, the next  Al Swearengen tirade for example.

Malcomson may not stick around on some shows for long but her roles – and what she brings to them – create repercussions in the twists and turns of a story. A case in point – Sons of Anarchy, in which her character, Maureen Ashby, delivered information that infused the story with new life. Her portrayal of Ashby was not only sympathetic but helped to shed light on a character whose specter has hung over the show’s entire run – John Teller – a character who has never actually existed on-screen (alive) in the show but whose history, legacy and legend informed the story and motivations of the characters (particularly John Teller’s widow, son and former best friend). Malcomson was able to subtly bring John Teller – and another aspect of his personality and aims – to life.

Considered, reconsidered – for now, we can enjoy Malcomson’s presence in Ray Donovan – hoping she tones it down just a little bit, becomes slightly less shrill (although she does have her searing moments) – and her return to the Hunger Games film series to reprise her role as Katniss Everdeen’s mother.

Migraine films

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Tossing and turning and trying to sleep, a massive headache crept in. Since I could not get rid of the headache or fall asleep, I watched a bunch of films, such as:

  • The Governess: not new – I avoided it at the time of its release because I was irrationally against Minnie Driver – about whom I have since changed my mind. Bonus – Tom Wilkinson is in The Governess.
  • War Witch (Rebelle): Pretty devastating film about a girl whose village is destroyed by rebel soldiers. She is kidnapped to become a child soldier. The film is not set somewhere specific but was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On a sort of unrelated note, the soundtrack was spectacular.
  • Starbuck: A French-Canadian thing about a guy whose prolific sperm donations spawned 500+ offspring, of which more than 100 have formed a class-action lawsuit to force the adoption agency to release their biological father’s identity. His pseudonym through this process is “Starbuck”. Starbuck is a hapless, middle-aged guy, in debt up to his eyeballs and working for the family business, seemingly stuck in a rut he’ll never get out of. Once he knows he is the father of all these people, he begins intervening in some of their lives, and his small acts of kindness start to change his life. All in all, not a bad movie, and it is perfect evidence of how strange French Canadian sounds if you’re used to French French. People say French French is nasal, but this is nasal and whiny somehow.
  • Upstream Color: Unusual film, non-linear narrative. Not even sure how to describe it, and not sure whether I liked it or not.
  • About Sunny: Remembering Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under, it is interesting to see her evolve into this challenging portrayal of a single mother who is neither all good nor all bad – but in her struggle as one of America’s working poor, she is always one step away from a disaster.
  • Arcadia: John Hawkes can be counted on for wide-eyed likeability. He is much less sympathetic in Arcadia, as a man taking his three children across the country to California. By the end of the film, you do gain some sympathy for what the character has gone through – but he’s not the same character we’ve seen in his portrayals of the hapless shoe salesman in Me and You and Everyone We Know or Sol Star in HBO’s Deadwood. Of course Hawkes has a great range. There is actually a balance among all his roles – sometimes he acts in a sleazy, slimy way; sometimes he is a lovable, likeable guy. (Other notable performances include Winter’s Bone and The Sessions).
  • Zodiac: A long docu-drama about the Zodiac killer, who terrorized California in the late 60s and 70s. Great to see Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. and tons of other great actors.
  • Talhotblond: Documentary about people talking — and lying about who they are – online, ending up in one person’s death. It seems crazy – I remember being about 12 or 13 and lying elaborately about my age in order to talk to older people – and to escape the daily reality of my life at the time (this was the pre-internet age). Of course I was 12. Not that that makes it excusable, but I think a kid does not realize the impact these actions might result in. People in the film are adults with life experience and should know better. The people in this documentary are in their 40s. It is quite similar to another documentary I saw (Catfish), which tells almost the same kind of story – without any lethal outcomes.

Why I Changed My Mind: Kim Dickens

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Every day some random thing pops into my mind – a person, a tv show, a movie, a flavor. And I realize that I have changed my mind about it, one way or the other.

Watching the bittersweet ending of Treme, I was hit again by the revelation that I have gone from hating to loving the performances of Kim Dickens.

I used to hate the actress Kim Dickens to the point that when I knew she was in a movie, it would discourage me from watching it. There was something nagging and annoying about her back in the late 1990s – not sure what exactly she was in that I would have wanted to see (Truth or Consequences, N.M.? Mercury Rising? Hollow Man?). I saw these and other things and was always disappointed to see her on the screen (or her name in the opening credits).

When did this start to change? I remember when she showed up in Deadwood, feeling that sinking disappointment but then slowly coming around to her performance as Joanie Stubbs, whorehouse madame.

Next, when she showed up in Friday Night Lights, I remained skeptical but she won me over in much the same way as her character won over her estranged son, Matt Saracen.

Kim Dickens finally won me over completely as Janette Desautel in the sauntering, ever-underrated drama Treme.

The cherry on top is her performance as yet another escort-service proprietor, Colette, in Sons of Anarchy.

Somehow she has grown into herself to offer an elegant, intelligent screen presence.

Considered, reconsidered – Kim Dickens is proof that some things get much, much better with age.