Lunchtable TV Talk: Person of Interest revisited

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“You need to move fast.” “And here I was planning to move at a slothlike pace and get captured.” – season one, Person of Interest

I wrote about Person of Interest the other day – I started watching it as a filler while working, but it hit its stride early even if the first season felt a little bit more like what it appeared to be on the surface. At first, it looks and feels like a standard CBS-style procedural, but then its prescience about technology and the absence of privacy made it unusual. But the characters and actors who embody them differentiate the whole thing.

The reclusive billionaire character, Harold (Michael Emerson) who drives “The Machine” is quirky, honorable, lovable. The loner “Man in a Suit”, John (Jim Caviezel, who improbably keeps mentioning Puyallup and Sumner, Washington – not exactly household-name towns in America – perhaps to him since his family’s from there), could be a cliche – the loner/hero who loses everyone and everything repeatedly. And it would be impossible not to fall in love with Taraji P. Henson‘s Detective Jocelyn Carter in this show (and that love and respect grows throughout). This happened before her powerhouse performance as Cookie in TV’s runaway hit, Empire (she is one of the only reasons I watch that show). And the characters who join later, from the sociopath Root to the hitwoman Shaw (Sarah Shahi – someone I also love even though I have only ever seen her in a few things), or even the villain played by Clarke Peters (I love him in everything, too, particularly as Lester in The Wire, but he is very effective as a villain-in-hiding).

Everyone is in the right place, right time. It comes together almost perfectly, if slowly sometimes – which I enjoy – and I am as surprised as anyone to find the show as addictive as I do. Its fifth and likely final season is starting up soon, and if it is indeed the end, it will probably be going out on top, not having exhausted all its avenues and goodwill. I’ll never be able to explain why the show is just right, but someone (at Indiewire) took the trouble to pinpoint the details. And the article explains it exactly the way I would, even if I can’t make the time or find the words to give it all the attributes it deserves.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Empire

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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 – Nashville: Music pulls you in

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I am happy when a same-sex couple shares some kind of intimacy on television. On the most recent episode of Nashville, closeted and conflicted character Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) kisses a man in whom he has interest. Will’s journey to self-acceptance has maybe only just begun (he does not want to jeopardize his career by coming out) but at least he is not trying to throw himself in front of trains, acting out in homophobic self-hate or getting married to women to conceal his true self. He seems to be moving slowly toward coming out, which required a lot of self-searching and bad decisions – and most of all, coming to accept himself as a gay man. Maybe coming out is coming next.

I like seeing these personal evolutions of all kinds on tv, and I am especially happy when “minority” storylines play out alongside the rest of the stories. Will’s reluctance to come out has a lot to do with believing his doing so will jeopardize his burgeoning country music career. A somewhat similar story unfolds in Empire, in which one of the characters, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), is proudly gay and out to his family, but his father – the head of an entertainment empire, doesn’t want Jamal to come out publicly (Jamal is a musician), and the father holds this over Jamal’s head (along the lines of, “If you come out, I will cut you off…”). These experiences share similarities and differences, and seeing them on television will further the case for equality – and for letting people be who they are (and see representations of that on TV).

I saw a quote from Ellen DeGeneres today that summed up my thinking exactly: “Whenever people act like gay images in the media will influence kids to be gay I want to remind them that gay children grew up with only straight people on television.” The important thing – what we need to move toward – is showing representations of all kinds of people so that all kinds of viewers can relate.

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In many ways Nashville is an annoying soap opera, but I keep watching because I like Connie Britton, because I mostly like the positive changes that Hayden Panettiere’s character has undergone, because I sometimes hope there will be some kind of semi-redemptive qualities in characters like Oliver Hudson’s Jeff Fordham, and mostly because I really enjoy the music. It’s the music that has always pulled me in and kept me coming back.

Lunchtable TV Talk- Guest star: Courtney Love

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Courtney Love has lived a life full of drama that has played out in the public eye – both by her own hand and because some of her antics have been so outlandish that a public debacle was unavoidable.

The only reason I think of her now is that she has appeared in small but somewhat tantalizing guest roles in a few shows lately – first as a preschool teacher in Sons of Anarchy and as a hitman in the increasingly ridiculous Revenge. Then I read that she plays a role in Empire (one of the few shows it seems I have not seen).

I can’t judge Love and some of her seemingly odd life choices, but in seeing these very brief appearances on TV, I started to wonder what kind of performances we may have missed from her because of these odd life choices and seeming derailments. She showed tremendous promise and generated buzz in a few film appearances that coincided with the height of her band’s fame (Hole, for anyone who doesn’t know, however improbable that is). I can’t claim to know what she was going through privately, but I wonder sometimes whether, had she continued acting really actively, her skills would have been honed. Where would she be now? She’s doing a fabulous job in these small roles – and standing out doing it (not just because she is Courtney Love). But what more might she have done had she focused? (And not knowing everything, I don’t know if it has a lot to do with focus.) When we have seen glimpses of a sane and talented actress in Love, I have to ask what more we might have seen?

I don’t find myself thinking this way about most actors – maybe I think of her because it feels like so much promise squandered. Maybe not “squandered” as much not living up to full potential. Maybe because I can never decide if Love is a misguided lunatic genius or a misguided lunatic idiot.