Lunchtable TV Talk – House of Cards and Veep – Politics

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I can’t add much to the feverish discussion surrounding the latest, much-anticipated release of House of Cards episodes on Netflix. Similarly, I won’t be eloquent about HBO comedy Veep. Both have been around for a few seasons – and in both cases, the new seasons began with the stakes higher than ever for the main characters, Frank Underwood and Selina Meyer, respectively, because both had since last season, ascended to the presidency of the United States.

House of Cards is a drama predicated on a lot of underhanded and often illegal machinations and dealmaking. Veep is a comedy predicated on the idea that vice presidents are little more than puppets who appear for photo-ops and toe the party line. Each show has its strengths – particularly their stellar and varied casts (as I have written before – I will watch things just because I like the actors in it). These shows are no exception.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright head a cast that includes quite a few great performers. I happen to love Molly Parker, and her Jackie Sharp seems genuinely conflicted at times about balancing the need for honesty and humanity against the requirement to lie and scheme to achieve upper-echelon power. Michael Kelly’s continued portrayal of Doug Stamper as a shady operator, willing to do whatever it takes, has been riveting. I also enjoyed seeing Lars Mikkelsen (brother of Mads Mikkelsen of Hannibal fame) playing the Russian president to idiomatic perfection – “it’s a lot of work being a Dane trying to do a Russian accent” (naturally adding a tick in the checklist of even more Scandinavian men appearing on TV). There is a lot of drama, a lot of intrigue, and there are many unlikable people and actions here.

In that sense, I didn’t always enjoy the latest season. Wright’s performance as the First Lady is as commendable as her spot-on work throughout the series – she commits to and embodies Claire Underwood completely. But the story about her husband naming her as US Ambassador to the UN felt a bit half-baked to me. Even if such a move is possible, it seems so unrealistic and highly risky given the stakes pitted against her inexperience. Her demand that the president yield to her, reasoning that it is “her time”, might be authentic, if petulant and crybaby in tone, but the outcome feels forced. Nothing good comes of it.

Meanwhile the troubling trajectory Doug Stamper is on feels quite genuine, even if unrealistic, and Kelly embraces it with aplomb. He doesn’t just lie down and die when the president distances himself. When he is no longer in the inner circle, he finds ways to ensure he will get back there. Not pleasant ways, but sometimes chilling and always manipulative schemes to get him the information, leverage and power he needs to return to the president’s side.

Veep is of course, for the most part, a horse of another color. Despite superficial similarities, the shows – their casts, their tones, their drive, their stories, their purposes – could not be more different. In previous seasons, all the characters bring something special, comedic (sometimes embarrassingly comedic) to the table and present a farcical take on (vice) presidential politics. Headed up by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is really in her element here, as vice president (now president) Selina Meyer, the cast is made up of characters both overly driven and egotistical who compete with each other to try to win favor with the VP, as is the case with Anna Chlumsky and Reid Scott. Both are smart and want to be at the forefront of Meyer’s campaigns and staff – and often ended up, for lack of a better term, “eating shit” on Meyer’s behalf. Tons of other great characters played by great actors – nothing more notable that I can add. (I am so happy to see Patton Oswalt on the show as the new VP’s chief of staff. Oswalt’s showing up everywhere these days, and I love it: Justified, a hilarious episode of the beleaguered Battle Creek, voiceover in The Goldbergs, voice work in BoJack Horseman, a role in Brooklyn Nine-Nine… and he is still something to miss about United States of Tara!). It’s a funny show, and keeps getting funnier – while House of Cards feels like it’s sliding.

All of that said and done, if you want the best political drama ever to be on TV, it’s Danish and includes the aforementioned Lars Mikkelsen: Borgen.

Scandinavian Man Invasion on TV

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Anyone as obsessed with TV as I am knows that Nordic TV shows have asserted a kind of quality and dominance that has garnered well-deserved praise and attention (and the inevitable English-language – and other – remakes, as with The Killing mirroring the Danish Forbrydelsen and the Swedish/Danish production Bron spawning American/Mexican offshoot, The Bridge, and UK/French offshoot, The Tunnel).

Amidst the sea of fantastic Scandinavian television show choices, one cannot overlook the strength and ubiquity of the Scandinavian actors on English-language TV shows. TV has been taken over by Scandinavian men… I will undoubtedly forget some of them (yes there are that many!) but the most notable that spring to mind right now include some pretty startling, arresting performances:

Mads Mikkelsen (Denmark) in Hannibal

Ulrich Thomsen (Denmark) in Banshee

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Denmark) in Game of Thrones

Joel Kinnaman (Sweden/USA) in The Killing

Alexander Skarsgård (Sweden) in True Blood

Bill Skarsgård (Sweden) in Hemlock Grove

Peter Stormare (Sweden) in The Blacklist

Of note, Stormare is also starring in a series of Volvo Trucks ads (not unlike Jean-Claude Van Damme!) that champions Swedish values – see below. Stormare rules – cannot help but think of him again frequently now that there is a TV version of Fargo. He was a highlight in the film version.

Better safe than sorry!

Look at him “fika” all by himself!

Might not want to try “allemansrätten” wherever you come from (especially the USA where “stand your ground” might take precedence)

Nowhere in the world will you see as many dads with prams!

Substantial Swedish food!

Lagom! The Swedish Goldilocks complex!

Darri Ingólfsson (Iceland) in Dexter

Christopher Heyerdahl (Canada) in Hell on Wheels (honorable mention since he is not really a Norwegian but beautifully plays a Norwegian who shifts like a chameleon into different identities as it suits him but is known in the beginning as “The Swede”)

Updated

Gustaf Skarsgård (Sweden) – Vikings (Yes, there are a lot of those Skarsgårds!)

Kristofer Hivju (Norway) – Game of Thrones (Finally – a real Norwegian to add to the list!)

Driven by film – at least it isn’t Danish

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When actors die suddenly, à la prolific and talented-beyond-words Philip Seymour Hoffman, I want to spend a lot of time focused on watching films – whether they include that actor or not. Just to enjoy the performances that exist.

When I get sad – for good reasons or no reason at all I am also tempted by sad movies (believing while watching the stories unfold that things could always be worse).

Yesterday, apart from watching a documentary on Mitt Romney (and see his whole Mormon family pray together), I watched The Hunt (Jagten). Great film – disturbing, great performance from Mads Mikkelsen and, in keeping with my preferred theme of “it could always be worse” – I can see that the story of a man falsely accused of child abuse is one such strand. Speaking and listening to Danish is the other such strand. Any language one speaks, s/he can console him/herself that at least it isn’t Danish.