Lunchtable TV Talk: Rizzoli and Isles

Standard

In a transitional week – in many ways – during which I attempted to “decompress”, I decided to binge watch the TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Why this show? Perhaps because I had never seen any of it; perhaps because it would not require much attention (would allow for the thoughtless decompression I desperately needed); perhaps because there are seven near-mind-numbing seasons with which to anesthetize my brain. It could also be other, more random things like remembering with some sadness the mid-show suicide of one of its leads, Lee Thompson Young; the entertainment value of the older detective character, Vince (Bruce McGill), mostly because I have a weird obsession with the movie My Cousin Vinny, and I could play a “Hi Bob!”Bob Newhart Show-esque drinking game, downing a drink every time McGill utters one of the words or statements that were made so distinctive by his rendering of them in Vinny. (Seriously, after McGill got to repeatedly utter the phrase “Sac o’ Suds” in Vinny, I never imagined being able to hear him say “suds” again – but he did, in an R and I episode about a murder in a car wash). Really I could cite a whole list of reasons why I chose this show over anything else. But none of it much matters.

As I write this, I am heading into watching the final season, which just ended its cable run after seven series. I can’t really write a “comprehensive review” (do I ever?) but here are some of the things that struck me:

  • Lead Angie Harmon: I like her character, Detective Jane Rizzoli, and want to like her, as an actress, but it’s hard to reconcile with the Bush-supporting, religious nut conservative she seems to be in her real life. The interplay she has with her socially awkward best friend, Dr Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), helps with the objectivity.
  • I like that most of the time, when the characters are not okay and are struggling with something, they say so. When someone says, “Hey, are you okay?” most of the characters feel comfortable enough to say, “No, I’m not.” I notice this because in most shows, every character is either unhinged and obviously not at all okay or is portrayed as being tightly wound and bearing a stiff upper lip (never being able to admit to some vulnerability). Particularly in these kinds of procedurals. This made Rizzoli and Isles feel more human and real.
  • I felt that Lorraine Bracco’s presence as Rizzoli’s mother, particularly in the first season or two, was completely wasted, annoying and out of place. The character’s development has helped.
  • I felt genuinely sad when, in season 4/5, the real-life suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young, was handled on the show (as an accidental death). I remembered seeing him play a role in the ill-fated and stupid show FlashForward, in which his character kills himself.
  • The fun part of watching the seven seasons of this procedural retrospectively is seeing all the guest stars who went on to other things – Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, Taylor Kinney from Chicago Fire (and former Mr Gaga), the red-haired dude who has been Jiminy Cricket in Once Upon a Time and is now a detective on Murder in the First – and a whole bunch of others. Even Jerry from Parks & Recreation.
  • There is nothing particularly important or special about this show, but its near-blase approach to women in powerful or not traditionally female positions is a positive shift. When you consider the near radical feminism of putting Cagney & Lacey on tv in the early 80s as real women with real problems who also happen to be detectives, and the novelty of that (and much scholarly research and writing, believe it or not, has been written on the subject), it’s remarkable to see Rizzoli as an experienced detective who has not had to endure quite as much sexism as her predecessors. She undoubtedly experienced plenty – it’s just that she probably does not face it from everyone she meets, including her colleagues in the department.

How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality

Standard

When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!

Why I changed my mind – Kathleen Robertson

Standard

As the second season of Murder in the First comes to an end, I mostly reflect on one of its stars, Kathleen Robertson. I have enjoyed both seasons of the show so far, in large part because of a good and low-key cast (including Ian Anthony Dale, who is always fun to watch regardless of what it is – including Hawaii Five-0 and the otherwise tedious The Event). I won’t say anything more about Murder in the First except that I recommend it. Instead I will talk about why I have changed my mind about Kathleen Robertson.

It would be easy to dismiss Robertson based on what she has been best known for – playing a girl in Beverly Hills 90210. I believe she spent a few seasons as a roommate and friend to the main characters and her character also dated the “Steve” character in 90210. I was never a fan of 90210 and sometimes watched it to laugh at it. Even then, Robertson seemed a bit “fish out of water” because she seemed smarter than the show and her talent was constrained by the constraints of the show. Nevertheless, my determination had been made, however unfairly.

I never gave her much thought after 90210, although she popped up here and there.

When I finally got around to watching the short-lived but powerful Boss, a starring vehicle for Kelsey Grammer, I was consistently impressed with Robertson’s performance as political aide, Kitty O’Neill. At first I was doubtful – her character was smart, ambitious, driven but under the thumb of the oppressive Tom Kane (Grammer). The O’Neill character’s professional drive and underhandedness was something Robertson handled well, but where she excelled is in her handling of the character’s personal life. She uses her overt sexuality not to gain power but, it seems, to make herself feel better, to feel desirable, to feel powerful, even though nothing about it gives her power in the end. She attaches no emotion to her encounters – or tries not to and believes she isn’t, even though she is clearly affected (not necessarily in positive ways) by all her encounters and sometimes seeming humiliations. It is the classic powerful, single woman behaving in a sexually liberated, aggressive, detached way and she seems confused by her own evolution.

In part, she has dedicated her life to the politician she works for, and in that sense, does not have time or interest in anything else. And Kane can be a Machiavellian – and emotionally abusive – boss, which would further erode Kitty’s sense of worth. But she is sexually driven, but perhaps there is a lot more behind it than is first obvious. And what makes this compelling is what Robertson brings to the role. This tough exterior with a clearly vulnerable, emotionally stunted inside. And the thing is – it was deeply relatable. I found myself transfixed many times in Kitty’s more vulnerable moments, sometimes even pushed to tears by her choices or the choices she needed to make. It’s pretty rare that I would have such a reaction.

Robertson’s role in Murder in the First is quite different, although she brings some of the same tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside approach to her role that makes her feel strong and smart – but you can feel her frustrations, her tiredness, the way she is trying to balance her demanding career with her life as a single mother.

And then to top it off, I read recently that Robertson has written a new TV project, Your Time is Up. I am looking forward to seeing what she creates.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

Standard

More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Lunchtable TV talk: Steven Weber is everywhere – “What do you think you’re doing here? Waiting for the Village People to make a comeback?”

Standard

I make no secret of or apologies for my TV addiction. I find it delightful when I can make connections with other people based on shared love or hate for particular TV shows. I am equally delighted when I watch a handful of very different shows and find a favorite actor popping up frequently. Sometimes these actors are well-known, accessible to memory only by mentioning their name. Sometimes, though, despite how ubiquitous they are, their names alone are not enough. I won’t go so far as to say that such actors are undervalued because they clearly are turning up everywhere – but at the same time, they are next to anonymous.

Steven Weber is one of these actors.

Most recently appearing in Helix, House of Lies, Falling Skies, Murder in the First and Web Therapy (I know there are plenty more in the last two or three years that I did not see) – and in the past in everything from my former go-to love-to-hate Brothers & Sisters and one of my all-time, hands-down favorites, Wings, there is very little that Weber can’t do.

Here’s one of my favorite episodes of Wings. Hilarious blast from the past. And nice to have discovered The Daly Show, featuring Weber with former Wings costar, Tim Daly. “We were in there talking and we decided that we were not born yesterday.”