When the going gets tough, I turn to TV.
Did your mommy ever make you a nice cup of steaming warm milk with no skin on it when you were little and troubled late at night? It’s like that. In my experience, when you’ve penetrated deep into the wilderness of sustained, unremitting life stress, when you’ve pinned the needle so long you’re bent, you’re just not in the mood for a Norwegian film about depressed head-banger novelists, say, or French monks imperiled by Algerian revolutionaries. No, you crave serial TV, one episode after another with the same familiar characters and a story line that’s already hooked you — like 60 episodes of “The Wire” or 86 “Sopranos.”
When you’re sleep-deprived, and stuck within the ethereal abstractions of a time-shifted digital existence, you don’t really feel like hauling the whole sloppy atomic aggregation of your physical body all the way to some multiplex, in conformity with a quaintly fixed schedule of showtimes, at the risk of being disappointed by a “Drive,” “Potiche,” or “X-Men.” Sure, you’d be totally up for something great – a “Point Blank” or “Margin Call,” say, but when you feel like way too much of your essential life energy already has been vampired out of you, who needs the risk? So you watch TV. Well, I do.
During the past several weeks, I’ve gorged on television, consuming entire seasons with the greedy voracity of a Galactus: “Luther” seasons one and two; “Breaking Bad” season four; “Justified” season one; “Pan Am;” the first episodes of “The Hour” and “Enlightened;” “George Harrison: Living in the Material World;” and “Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk – A Celebration of New Orleans Blues.” Oh baby baby, just what the doctor ordered. It’s like morphine in the emergency room when you’re a coil of pain at the edge of death, only better, because morphine just isn’t all that entertaining.
“Luther” Seasons One and Two
TV doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. Playing Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” Idris Elba revealed the soul of an unambiguously bad man and made us love him. Here he plays Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, an ambiguously good man who’s almost as winning.
You might say, Anything with Idris Elba will be great, but that’s just not true: See “Thor.”
No, the fun here is in the conception of the character, which gives Elba the material he needs. DCI Luther is a senior cop specializing in serial killers. His opponents are such monsters that we sympathize as Luther cuts corners and breaks rules, behaving monstrously himself when he thinks he must to get the job done. His intentions may be noble, his heart may encompass the world, but Luther is not a good man by any conventional definition. He has too much feel for his demented adversaries, an intuition so keen that we suspect he has much in common with them. This suspicion is confirmed in every episode (six in Season One, an inadequate four in Season Two) as Luther meets the killer for at least one face-to-face contest. Luther is a kind, compassionate man, a self-sacrificing protector of the innocent, and yet something not quite right resides within his nature. At root, he is not entirely unlike his adversaries. Same with me. What fun.
The show is elegantly written and directed, with an engaging ensemble cast. (The sensitive Indira Varma, who plays Luther’s wife, has moved up in the world since “Kama Sutra.”) The action is addictive, particularly during Season One, which I devoured in two days amid plenty of distraction from earning a living.
“Luther” isn’t perfect. I don’t buy the plot strand involving Ruth Wilson, although she is captivating on screen, with sly mouth and twisted brain. The bad guys are much badder than I might have preferred: I can’t wholeheartedly participate in the global fascination with serial killing. But in this rare case, I will accept some atrocity in return for the undeniable satisfactions of the larger story. Surely the world would be a better place if “Silence of the Lambs” hadn’t been such a gigantic hit, but here we are in a culture that accepts the most appalling cruelty as mainstream entertainment. Get used to it, as they say.
Maybe what hooks me in “Luther” is the theme of delusion. The insanity of Luther’s antagonists (and of sane society’s well-intended rules) often shows up in a weirdly familiar intransigence. We all know people who get stuck in a fixed idea, stubbornly refuse to consider alternative points of view, cling tight to anxiety, fail to recognize our shared need ultimately to agree. Maybe the psycho-killer is a metaphor for the ordinary nut jobs we meet every day at work, at the supermarket, at the polling booth. (And of course: We have met the enemy and he is us.) We all know the frustration Luther feels when confronting that absolute inability to connect with another person. Somebody here is handcuffed and chained to delusion, and I strongly suspect it’s you. That may be what madness is, or maybe it’s just what’s tricky about human interactions. No wonder we’re fascinated.
“Justified” Season One
This show didn’t appeal to me at first: the big-hat, big-gun imagery of the promos suggested a target audience of Walmart-shopping NRA members. When at last, frantic for serial TV, I started watching the show, I discovered that the target audience is me.
Inspired by the writing of Elmore Leonard, “Justified” stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a contemporary U.S. Marshal with an aggressive pale cowboy hat and a problem with anger. The series opens in Miami, where Givens joins a drug dealer for lunch at a trendy restaurant patio and, while both remain seated, mortally bests him at a quick-draw contest. Right away, we get it that Givens is an unselfconscious throwback to a bygone era of violent heroics. The bad guy is dead. What we saw amounted to an execution – because of course nobody can draw faster than good ole Raylan.
Next thing you know, the Marshals Service exiles the trigger-happy Givens to his home turf of Lexington, Kentucky. The location supplies the kinks that drive the show. Kentucky stands for everything Givens has tried to escape: ignorance, insularity, the people he grew up with and, especially, his father.
His ex-wife is there too. So is the young woman who admired him in high school and is newly available, having recently shotgunned her meth-dealing, wife-beating husband. Naturally Givens gets involved with both women. Likewise he tangles with his old buddy Boyd, a natural-born cult leader who moves from neo-Nazi to Christian ideology during the course of the season. Givens’ daddy, an amoral louse, keeps showing up, and the more time we spend with him, the more transparent Givens becomes.
Everybody understands why Givens is the way he is, because everybody knows his pa. In this show, everybody knows everybody. What would be secret in another show is common knowledge here. There are no secrets in these parts.
The setup is low-life corn-pone melodrama, and for my money the best Elmore Leonard adaptation yet. Serial drama provides time and space for acutely-perceived details to accumulate and quirky characters to reveal themselves. Givens’ hat attains cult status. People swill straight Bourbon at all hours of the day: It’s how they respond to life’s little challenges. When all else fails, they shoot.
Olyphant, so memorable as the hardware-store owner Seth Bullock in “Deadwood,” is more than good enough here. He’s a physically beautiful man and an actor who effortlessly commands the screen, with a capacity for quiet that draws us in. If it weren’t for his Tom Cruise smirk, if he weren’t quite so aware of being pretty, he’d be great.
One complaint: There’s a stink of misogyny in the casting of female characters here, with all the major female roles filled by interchangeable skinny blondes. (This isn’t unusual in TV: “24” permitted some diversity in hair color, but all the women were even skinnier.) You get the sense that whoever makes the casting decisions for “Justified” is turned on by a particular female look, and you want to shoot the guy, over lunch, without bothering to stand up.
“Breaking Bad” Season Four
You don’t need me to tell you this is one of the great shows on television. Season Four belongs to Giancarlo Esposito, playing the criminal mastermind Gus with subtle authority. Producer Vince Gilligan has earned his place in the pantheon of TV’s greatest narrators, along with David Milch, David Chase, David Simon, and Matthew Weiner.
If I understand correctly, ABC has bumped “Pan Am” from its Sunday time slot but is committed to airing 14 episodes for Season One. After that, all bets are off. As krundtistas know, I’ve been rooting for this show since its earliest days of development, and still cherish hope for a Season Two. Amen?
The superficial aspects of the first few episodes struck me as perfect: the period details, the look and feel, the lighting and sets and fluid camera movements. Casting, characterization, and plot, not so much – but I began noticing the first signs of depth in Episode Four.
Here’s hoping ABC gives the show its chance to prove itself, and that the production team digs down to where the stories are.
This two-part documentary by Martin Scorsese rocked my world. People who didn’t grow up with the Beatles may never understand what all the fuss is about. But George Harrison, along with John, Paul, and Ringo, has inhabited my subconscious since I was a kid. I know the guy. He’s part of who I am. So it’s a big deal that one of the best living directors – and maybe the only director other than Jonathan Demme who understands rock ‘n’ roll – gained access to George’s private archives and found it within himself to make a great movie out of what he found. Scorsese’s music movies have been uneven: “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” worked; “Shine a Light,” on the Rolling Stones, was a superficial throw-away. This one is really good.
The first episode, dealing with the familiar history of the Beatles, is not life-changing. The second episode, engaging with George as a human being, is profound and touching. It captures a man who aspired to realize the divinity within himself, while subject to all the usual temptations and distractions of life. Along the way, lots of good music and the experience of growing up.
You don’t need to see this unless you’ve never been exposed to the sublime music of New Orleans. Hugh Laurie, best known as the eponymous hero of the hit TV series “House,” indulges himself in a musical fantasy-camp trip to the Big Easy, playing creditable piano and growling lyrics while backed by the likes of Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. The traditional music he plays is great and Laurie himself is not bad, but hey, Irma Thomas could make even me sound good.
I’ve never seen “House,” but I will always adore Laurie for his work in “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” which is available from Netflix. During the late 1980s and early 1990s he collaborated with Stephen Fry on some of the best sketch comedy ever done.
First episode was sweet. What a thrill to see Jimmy McNulty with a double chin and a tailored suit — and who knew he went to Eton? Sophia wants to watch this series, so we’re saving the remaining episodes for dessert.
Her gift is for being real, and “Enlightened” provides the perfect setting. In the pilot episode, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe extravagantly flames out at her executive job and retreats to a New Age clinic in Hawaii. All rage and streaming mascara in the opening scenes, she calms down, learns to meditate and, newly centered, returns to LA believing that she’s found some kind of inner truth.
Anyone who’s spent time in spiritual circles recognizes the type: the awakened but ungrounded novice, hot to spread the word and change the world, unaware that revelation is the easy part.
The real world that Jellicoe fled remains unchanged upon her return. Her mother (played by Diane Ladd, Dern’s actual mother) is depressed and emotionally withdrawn. The company that fired Jellicoe doesn’t want her back. The married executive with whom Jellicoe had a messy affair now avoids her. What transforms this situation into adult-sitcom heaven is Jellicoe’s grit. She doggedly pursues her intentions and proves resourceful when opposed. Wait till you see how she gets her job back! Along the way, we care intensely, because Jellicoe’s vulnerable heart always is on display.