Lunchtable TV Talk: Banshee

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Banshee was a pretty crazy show: violence, mystery, unreal (but fantastic) characters. Despite what reads in a synopsis as a lunatic-filled bloodbath, Banshee was one of those can’t-miss indulgences. I was looking forward to watching the final season early in 2016, but then the final season was pushed back to April. It felt like an interminably long time to find out the fates of the Banshee crew. When it arrived, it seemed to end so fast.

The premise always stretched capacity to believe. An ex-con arrives in Banshee, Pennsylvania, Amish country, and assumes the identity of the town’s new (recently murdered) sheriff. He doesn’t seem like a run-of-the-mill lawman, but for years he manages to never quite be caught impersonating a dead man. The story evolves but really isn’t anything special without its cast, the colorful characters who make up the Banshee world and the killer action/fight sequences. It’s not deep, meaningful entertainment, but it’s well done.

Most of all, I think, I will miss Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen as Kai Proctor, the town villain and Amish outcast. He was not long missing from the small screen, though, as even before Banshee’s final episodes had aired, he turned up in NBC’s The Blacklist, which feels like an ideal role for him, even if it’s in an increasingly irritating show.

Photo (c) 2007 Mattias Weinberger under Creative Commons license.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Hit & Miss (or why I changed my mind about Chloë Sevigny)

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Hit & Miss was the first time I heard Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” in what would be twice in two days (the second was in the stellar soundtrack to Stranger Things). Just incidental but positive.

I don’t know quite what led me to Hit & Miss. It’s a British show from 2012, so it’s not new, but I think it appeared on a recent list of “must-see” shows (which I routinely paw through looking for gems I may have overlooked in my obsessive TV viewing. Believe it or not, with the mushrooming of different platforms and their respective original programming, it’s easy for a lot of good and true-to-the-word “original” programming slip through the ever-widening cracks).

The protagonist, Mia, played by the versatile Chloë Sevigny, is a pre-op transgendered woman – and hitman/professional assassin. She’s at the top of her game in terms of successful hits when she gets word that her former girlfriend is ill with cancer and the surprising news that she has a son, Ryan. By the time Mia receives the letter and goes to her former girlfriend’s home, the woman has already died, leaving behind just her children. Mia, wanting to be there for her son and indeed for the rest of the children, takes on the entire family. The drama that ensues from here plays out over the course of six episodes is well worth watching.

Somehow, describing the plot in these bullet points makes it sound completely outlandish: any show would have more than enough story to grapple with just managing any single one of the traits/points listed. That is, a story about a transgendered woman could make a whole show. The story of a female assassin, another. The story of a former lover having to return to the past to rear a child he never knew about, another. But to combine all these and make it not just work but triumph is a real feat. Not everything about Hit & Miss was perfect, but its understated nature and careful, never-gratuitous handling of all of the difficult and sensitive subject matter nearly was. And at the core of that near-perfection was a solid, committed performance from its star, Sevigny.

Why I changed my mind: Chloë Sevigny

Sevigny was sort of an “it” girl – but a subversive one – in the 1990s, but she never embodied that overhyped concept (a concept that makes one biased immediately against someone who is overexposed in the early parts of their career). Someone like Sevigny, who has never been “mainstream” in a sense but has been prolific in her varied work, is someone I felt that bias against, both because of the overexposure/praise and because many of her sometimes daring choices seemed attention-grabbing (unsimulated oral sex in The Brown Bunny) more than professionally risky. Not to mention that many of the characters, despite being vulnerable, are almost never likeable. Often shady, scheming, not anyone you would want to be friends with or emulate. But that is Sevigny’s genius. She can make all of these negative character traits work and weave them into so many vastly different characters but at the same time make many of these characters fragile and vulnerable in ways that I have rarely seen any actor convey. Over time I have come to appreciate the growing depth of her work (I loved to hate her in Big Love; felt she added an interesting, honest, world-weary depth to the already brilliant Bloodline; was one of the few bright points in the most recent season of the increasingly bad American Horror Story). Frankly she grounded Hit & Miss, which could have been a colossal miss had it not been for her performance.

Photo (c) 2005 Cesar Bojorquez

Lunchtable TV Talk: Maron

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I don’t know of anything better than a certain self-deprecating humor, the likes of which Marc Maron has mastered in his podcast and further on his TV show, Maron. I binge-watched all four seasons in two days (could not stop), and read just as I slid into season 4 that the episodes shown this week would be the last ever. It did feel fitting and perfect, ending on his terms, well before some ho-hum inertia, repetition or dullness set in.

I think what gripped me about Maron is how the somewhat unusual parts, which appear in every episode, are still relatable. I was shocked to find how many times the plot points mirrored things that happened in my friends’ and acquaintances’ lives.

Cases in point:

  • A colleague forced an elderly, dying hamster on another colleague and then dodged her phone calls when she was trying to call and ask him about this sickly hamster. In the end she took the hamster to a veterinarian and had to spend about 200 USD to put the hamster down humanely.
  • A man I used to know was secretly living in his storage unit/garage. He built a loft inside. I did not know for a long time that he lived in a storage space, so was surprised when he drunkenly phoned me one night and reported that he had somehow fallen out of bed… onto the hood of his truck?! It sounded logistically impossible until I later learned he was sleeping in a loft above his vehicles.

I could continue this list but it’s useless. I only want to illustrate that there is something both real but unreal about Maron, and this is its perfect imperfection … and why it was utterly addictive.

(And, my god, who doesn’t love the cats?)

Lunchtable TV Talk: 1992 – Italian TV

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Don’t let Italy fool you” – the one motto that remains constant in my life. This motto, usually holding true, sometimes prevents me from watching some otherwise riveting film – and surprisingly television.

1992, a ten-part Italian TV series, tells a story of lives that intersect across several Italian cities in 1992. From perspectives that span the law, politics, corruption and scandalous outcomes of these intertwining areas, it’s a gripping story with deep, interesting characters, each with his or her own challenges, and quite a bit of insight. Modern stories that plumb the past not just to spin a tale of historical fiction but to shine a light on universal and enduring truths are common enough (we’re seeing echoes of this in the current TV dramatization of the OJ Simpson trial in American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson), but are they always edge-of-your-seat TV? Not always. But in this case, I’ve been on a binge.

Admittedly though I’ve had this lined up to watch for more than six months. I kept putting it off because I don’t know Italian and did not really have time for reading subtitles. I got halfway through the first episode twice before finally getting through the whole thing in a third-time’s-a-charm result. Now that I devoted a whole day to gobbling this up, I can’t believe I didn’t watch it sooner.

Of note is the great soundtrack that is just so 1992 (“Nearly Lost You” by the Screaming Trees, for example). And also one character’s insistence that we have a leader in Silvio Berlusconi – and everyone else around him is discounting this vision as pure folly, scoffing at an opinion poll he’d done with youth. One man even laughed and told him the list of popular public figures he’d compiled, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the number three slot, was patently ridiculous because – guffaw, guffaw – who on earth would take the idea of old Arnie as a politician seriously!? Haha. We know what happened there. And look what happened for Berlusconi in 1994 (and a few times thereafter).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Shameless

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In a hazy and unpleasant summer spent largely in Berlin a few years ago, I was exposed to the original UK version of Shameless, which I did not care for at all. The US version of Shameless, on the other hand, I enjoyed right away, although I found it to be both bawdy with its off-color jokes, and difficult, digging into struggles with poverty, family problems, mental illness and identity. It has always been reliably entertaining, but the third and fourth seasons really kicked it into high gear.

In the lead-up to the new season of Shameless (already season six!), I have been thinking about how it developed into the confident, moving and human show it is. Its real power surfaced through deeply compelling characters whose backgrounds, full of imperfections and flaws, have been fully fleshed out to make the characters into real people: the Gallagher family. A drunken, drug-addled patriarch, Frank, malingers and manipulates as a narcissistic leech with no concern whatsoever about his family of six kids – Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam.

It would be easy to give in to the urge to shame Fiona Gallagher, the young, accidental “matriarch” figure who has always held it together to make sure the family is cared for and bills are paid. She had to take on all the responsibilities when it was clear that Frank wouldn’t, and their mother, Monica, was mentally ill (and left them). She had a lot dumped on her and never had her own childhood. So… when Fiona lost it, she really lost it… and in doing so, let everyone in the family down. But when you consider that Fiona was thrust into her role when she was just a child herself, it’s a bit easier to understand how she would act out. And keep making mistakes. And why the consequences are so much more devastating. Her role models/examples have continued to fuck up in worse ways than she could ever do (although her criminally manipulative, ne’er-do-well father, Frank, commits crimes, misdemeanors and trespasses and always seems to get away with all of his hijinks, depravity and dereliction). But for Fiona, the stakes are higher – always higher.

Fiona’s second-in-command, Lip, is a self-destructive genius who steps up to the plate when he needs to. Ian is another story (see the next paragraph). Carl is a not-too-smart would-be criminal (any smarts he has are used for scheming). Debbie has low self-esteem as she hits puberty and falls into some of the stereotypical traps (seeking out a sex to boost self-esteem, getting pregnant purposely to feel “loved”). Liam is a baby/toddler and is only interesting in that 1. he is black and no one knows or cares why, 2. he has to be cared for, and the challenges of rearing him play into larger plot points.

I would not be exaggerating, though, to say that the show turned a corner and became great in its telling of the Ian and Mickey story. Ian is the sensitive one in the family, very caring and yet rule abiding (he wants to join the military). He is also gay, which the family knows about and supports. During the run of the show, he falls in love with a tough and totally closeted neighborhood guy, Mickey Milkovich. I could rehash the way his coming out story unfolded when he realizes he is in love with Ian, but it’s better to watch. It’s also been written about in the perfect way. The deft handling of both the coming out and the subsequent relationship, which has been tested not just by the societal constraints of who the two of them are but also by the emergence of Ian’s mental illness, is nothing short of the best TV has to offer.

It is not necessarily fair to focus only on the core cast of characters because some of the supporting characters are essential – the neighbors/friends, Kevin and Veronica, are rich, viable stories of their own. Sheila, the agoraphobic mother of Lip’s disturbed girlfriend Karen and eventual paramour for Frank, is unassailably… weird. Some supporting parts are less effective (Frank’s daughter Sammi and her son Chuckie) even if they were important to the plot. But all the supporting parts hold the viewer’s attention and get the story where it needs to go.

But no supporting role(s) have been as key as the Milkovich family. Partly the sister Mandy, who is pivotal in Lip’s life – demanding that he live up to his potential (since he seems to be the only one in the neighborhood who has any). But most crucially, Mickey, because he and his relationship with and love for Ian form the real heart of the entire show. Others are the body and hold things together, Ian and Mickey are the heart.

I could ramble – clearly I already am. Some shows are good, and I write about them because I pick out one or two remarkable parts that strike me particularly deeply. In this case, though, it’s the whole package.

Lunchtable TV Talk: River

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It is not often that Stellan Skarsgård goes wrong in his choices. Sure, I don’t love Mamma Mia! or The Glass House, but usually his work is worth watching, even if only for his presence (Nymphomaniac comes to mind here).

For me, River is one of the best surprises of 2015. For one thing, it’s “trippy” (as The Guardian refers to it). Detective Inspector John River is a loner who is out of touch with his own feelings but is in touch with visions/hallucinations of dead people and with a deep sense of empathy. All of this is quite unusual for a TV serial “renegade cop”. It could easily be a caricature, but the acting and the storytelling ensure that it does not devolve into ridiculous territory.

Ultimately it turns out to be a study in human complexity and fragility and is engaging at every step – and it’s only a six-hour journey, meaning that it fits neatly into an evening or two (for dedicated binge-watchers). Like most “detective” shows it’s point is to seek answers. But on different layers – not just the cop mystery on the surface. There are always secrets, and having community with the dead allows a bit more insight into those secrets. Seemingly cheesy plot device, but Skarsgård and excellent supporting cast make it work.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Lilyhammer – No experience leaves you unchanged

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It’s been a long time since I watched Lilyhammer on Netflix. And a long time since I moved to Norway myself. It was not a crash-landing as rough as that experienced by protagonist “Johnny”, the alter ego of an American mobster, Frank Tagliano, who goes into witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway after testifying against his cronies. Knowing the reach of the mob and relying on his love for the “Lilyhammer” Olympics (most of us just remember the Tonya HardingNancy Kerrigan saga), Frank manages to get his witness protection assignment in Lillehammer, Norway – which turns out to be a major culture shock not just for him but for everyone he encounters in the community. That includes the police force, social services, his new girlfriend, the hospital system… and everyone else.

He makes a strange bunch of new friends/colleagues, opens a new nightclub and changes the rules to suit him. Through manipulation and brute force, he pushes through quite a lot of his own brand of corruption, intimidation and coercion to impose on the naive, fairness-loving Norwegians. He also forces the residents to look in the mirror (e.g., an episode that deals with racism, refugees and “inclusion” – which is timely now during the recent refugee crisis). Frank can be insensitive and totally politically incorrect (and sexist), but has his own sense of fairness that comes from living in a multicultural society – even if a very limited one like the mob – and this rubs off on everyone around him and comes full circle until he starts to realize new truths about himself as well.

But no experience leaves you unchanged. While the Norwegians eventually bend and comply – and learn – from Frank’s ways, Frank too is softened by Norwegian life.

Lilyhammer was cancelled, so no more of the fun we got for three seasons… but luckily three seasons is an easy binge watch.