January 17, 2020

The Vertical Line on MHZ – Italian tv series

MHZ Choice, the tv streaming service, continues to introduce me to European television programs that I can’t find other places. The Vertical Line, an 8 episode dramedy from Italy is the freshest series I have seen in quite a while.

The cancer ward of an Italian public hospital seems like an unlikely place for a television show meant as entertainment, but each brief episode packs a punch of deep emotional truths and yes, comedy.

The main character, Luigi, played by the expressive-eyed Valerio Mastrandrea, is a devoted fortyish husband and father of a young child with a baby on the way. He tragically finds out he has a cancerous tumor that must be surgically removed.

He becomes part of an oncology ward where he encounters quirky patients, blasé doctors, aggressive nurses and med-techs and a morose hospital chaplain.

The show is semi-autobiographical in that the creator, Mattia Torre passed away on July 2019 at the age of 47 after experiences with the Italian medical establishment. As his tv swan song, Torre depicts joy and humor in The Vertical Line, as well as sadness in this excellent limited-run series.

If you want something completely different from American medical shows, check out The Vertical Line currently streaming on MHZ Choice. As a reminder, you can add MHZ Choice to your Amazon Prime Video package or sign up for the stand-alone app. It is worth every penny of the monthly $7.99 or $89.99 for the year.

https://watch.mhzchoice.com/

Songwriter Tom Lehrer: Biting Wit and Deep Thoughts

Over the years, I would hear mention of the name Tom Lehrer as this legendary songwriter of irreverent and topical tunes such as Poisoning Pigeons In the Park, The Vatican Rag, or National Brotherhood Week. Nor can one forget Buddy Charles’ stupendous rendition of Masochism Tango or the droll Hannukah in Santa Monica, a non-Christian holiday standard.

Lehrer’s popularity in the 1950s and 1960s included LP sales and writing music for the television show, That Was the Week That Was. Lehrer shifted his focus to teaching academic mathematics and musical theater in the early 1970s at places like MIT, Harvard, Wellesley and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He was definitely a man of many interests having worked at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, enlisting in the military and doing a work stint for the NSA.

His relatively small catalogue of songs is still relevant today. Lehrer is now 91 years old. Isn’t it high time we start a tidal wave of interest in his material? Shame on me because I don’t currently have any of his songs in my repertoire, but hope to rectify that soon.

My friend Lydia Stux gave me this link of Lehrer performing a special concert in Denmark. He has this nerdy charm, with his horn-rimmed glasses and his surprisingly good singing and playing.

Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHPmRJIoc2k

Younger on Hulu and TV Land

My current guilty-pleasure tv jones is the comedy series, Younger, broadcast on TV Land but streaming now on Hulu.

The Broadway triple threat, Sutton Foster plays Liza Miller, a 40-year-old New Jersey mother who splits from her husband of two decades to create a new life for herself in Brooklyn. Trying to get a job in publishing as middle-aged mom, long out of the game, proves nigh impossible, so Miller creates a 26-year-old persona who promptly gets an entry level job at Empirical Publishing. Her demanding boss, Diana Trout played by the hilarious Miriam Shor has her schlepping coffee and dry-cleaning.

Her besties include Debi Mazar, an OWL (older wise lesbian) who lets her crash in her artsy loft apartment, and Kelsey Peters, a twenty-something co-worker at the publishing company played by Disney actress/singer Hilary Duff. The men in her life (besides the ex who just can’t let go), are the tall and handsome Peter Hermann cast as the middle-aged owner of the publishing house, Charles Brooks and Josh, a 26-year-old tattoo artist hipster played by the buff ink-decorated Nico Tortorella.

Her 40-year-old self frequently collides with her new mid-twenties life as she valiantly switches clothing, speech and demeanor to suit the situation. I learn something new about pop culture and slang with every episode. (What IS a meme?) Thanks to interesting side characters and a plot that keeps evolving, this is no one joke sit-com.

The episodes are 21 minutes long so binge-watching two or three episodes in a sitting is a little too easy. Season 6 was made available on Hulu June 12, 2019. You won’t always buy the improbable situations, but this is the perfect fluff when your brain cells don’t need too much of a work-out.

You might also get to see some theater-heavy guest stars like Kristin Chenoweth, Martha Plimpton, Christian Borle, Laura Benanti, Kathy Najimy, Camryn Manheim and Lois Smith.

Crazy Rich Asians Book and Movie

Book clubs have been caught up in Kevin Kwan fever with his trilogy of novels, Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times used the adjectives “snarky,,, wicked… funny” in her review. “Escapist” is the word I would use. Who doesn’t want to imagine what being a billionaire is like with private jet travel, unlimited shopping budgets and eye-poppingly lavish parties for one’s friends and family?

Rachel Chu unwittingly starts dating the fabulously wealthy heir to a Singapore fortune. She thought her boyfriend was merely a fellow middle class college professor in New York. A visit to his home country quickly makes it clear that his family and social set do not consider her “wealthy Asian” enough for their handsome financial prince.

After a successful run in theaters, Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, is currently streaming on several web platforms. The film does a decent job of capturing the humor and lightness of the first book making it the perfect weekend entertainment after a hard week at the salt mines. We get to see the Asian one percent frolic which gives another layer of escapist exoticism.

A literary devotee sniffed that the writing was not very good, but I say, that is not the point. A soap opera plot, interesting characters and a foreign setting are the selling points in both the three books and the one film. There will always be high demand for movies and novels that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Bring on the caramel corn and fizzy blush wine.

HBO – More than just Game of Thrones

Just when I was about to cancel my HBO subscription after the Game of Thrones final season, I discovered a few other worthy things to watch on this premium cable channel.

For those of you who have read one or more of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, HBO’s treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend may be your small cup of espresso. The eight episode season, in Italian with English subtitles, depicts the friendship between Lila Cerullo and Lenu Greco, two young girls living in 1950s Naples. We get a snapshot of the entire Italian neighborhood including parents, children, teachers and business owners.
Rivalries between families, romantic attachments and even gender discrimination are seen through the eyes of Lenu as she manages her relationship with her brilliant but troubled friend, Lila, in this literate mini-series.

Even darker is the five episode series, Chernobyl which gives an account of the infamous 1986 nuclear reactor accident that occurred in the former Soviet Union. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson give stellar performances as some of the professionals who try to discover what happened and what actions to take to limit damage to the area and its inhabitants.

The Soviet Union itself is the “bad guy” as officials try to cover up details, sacrifice workers knowing that radiation will kill them and search for the least politically damaging ways to contain the catastrophe.
This is a real life cautionary story that hardly seems 33 years old and has much to say about the current treatment of our environment today.

I give a guarded recommendation for Barry, a very dark comedy vehicle for the singular talents of Bill Hader (8 seasons on SNL) and Henry Winkler (the Fonz on Happy Days). Hader plays Barry Berkman, a contract killer who discovers a love of acting when he is tasked with murdering one of the acting students. Winkler is acting guru, Gene Cousineau who takes Barry under his wing. Stephen Root as Monroe Fuches, Barry’s murder pimp is outstanding, as is Sarah Goldberg as Barry’s actress girlfriend. Anthony Carrigan, he of the bald head and no eyebrows is hilarious as a Chechen crime lord wanna-be.

My reservations in heartily recommending this program stem from the amount of violence seen in every episode. This is the Three Stooges with lots of guns and bloodshed. If that does not put you off, this may be your gallows humor show for the acting alone.

HBO is trying to keep us watching and for now, it just may be succeeding.

Schitts Creek, Canadian comedy series on Netflix

One of my sisters has been raving about the comedy series, Schitts Creek on Netflix, but the show title was enough to put it on the bottom of my list. That was a mistake.

Canadian Eugene Levy of Waiting For Guffman and Second City Toronto fame, has teamed up with son Daniel Levy to create a laugh-out-loud comedy series set in the fictional town of Schitts Creek. Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy), former video king magnate, bought this small town as a joke for his son’s birthday. The Roses lose all of their money and are forced to move to their only remaining asset, Schitts Creek.

Daniel Levy, Eugene’s real life son, plays the pan-sexual male progeny of this fish-out-of-water family. Mother Moira Rose is played by comedic actress Catherine O’Hara, a frequent collaborator of Eugene’s. Her parade of black and white designer duds and various wigs is almost worth the price of admission. The fourth in this comedic quartet is Annie Murphy playing self-absorbed, jet-setting daughter Alexis Rose.

As in most successful tv comedies, the supporting roles are equally engaging including Emily Hampshire playing deadpan hotel worker Stevie Budd, Chris Elliott as mullet-wearing Mayor Roland Schitt, along with his style-challenged wife Jocelyn portrayed by actress Jennifer Robertson. Other quirky side characters include the handsome local vet, a waitress at the only diner in town, the owner of Bob’s Garage and the only real estate agent in town.

At first, I thought the only joke was how cluelessly sophisticated the Rose family was in comparison to the seeming hillbillies of Schitts Creek. It becomes apparent that this new constellation of friends and acquaintances is a big improvement over their previous big city community in loyalty, generosity and heart.

For every biting bit of humor, there is a warm fuzzy realization that family and real friends help us get through any catastrophe, including losing our bank accounts, our possessions and our social standing. Laughs plus the occasional “Aw….” in Schitts Creek makes for the perfect end of day viewing.