February 22, 2017

Victoria on PBS

After watching The Crown on Netflix, I dove into the world of Victoria on PBS. Initially the Victoria production suffered in comparison, the first two episodes seeming a bit snoozy to me, but once Albert arrives in his red boots and military uniform, the drama takes off.

Don’t get me wrong, Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and the queen’s first confidante is engaging, but the suggested emotional connection between the Prime Minister and Victoria seems to be a dramatic contrivance. The show is really about the wonderful happenstance that an arranged royal marriage could still contain romance and genuine sexual heat. Actor Tom Hughes as the serious but dashing German-born Prince Albert seems straight out of a fairy tale.

Some of the side characters (Victoria’s maid and other serving staff) have compelling story lines, but the true heart of Victoria is the queen herself, marvelously embodied by Jenny Coleman. At one point she wishes to be just an ordinary woman and not the monarch of multitudes of citizens. The tug of war between Victoria’s regal responsibilities and her personal wishes provides the drama in this series created by Daisy Goodwin, formerly an executive producer of The Apprentice and the author of a book entitled Victoria on which the current series is based.

Upcoming episodes in Season 1 show her holding firm against her husband and advisors, so I look forward to seeing her go from young queen to seasoned sovereign.

If you need car chases, guns and a fast pace to be entertained, this is definitely not your show. Victoria shines with splendid cinematography, impressive costumes, first-rate acting and well-crafted script-writing.
The series has already been renewed for a second season which is not surprising since Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years.

BET’s Being Mary Jane on Netflix

I had heard good buzz on BET’s (Black Entertainment Television) tv series, Being Mary Jane and just found it on Netflix. I needed a break from my crime show viewing and this show was the perfect antidote.
Created by Mara Brock Akil and starring the adorable Gabrielle Union, this earthy, sexy show has its share of comedy and drama. Union plays Mary Jane Paul, a successful tv show personality who lives in a beautiful house, wears designer clothing and drives a hot car, but family and romantic problems continue to mar her seemingly perfect life. Her extended family treats her like their personal ATM and she seems attracted to handsome, yet selfish and sometimes cheating men.

This program is mildly reminiscent of the late 90’s tv series, Ally McBeal, especially in its spunky heroine and in its use of engaging contemporary music throughout the show.

As a blast from the past, action-actor Richard Roundtree plays Mary Jane’s compassionate father.

When I need a break from the rigors of the day, visiting Mary Jane’s world is a charming respite.
Seasons 1 through 3 are on Netflix; Season 4 is currently on BET.

Nobel tv series on Netflix

Netflix continues to feature foreign tv series for those who want to see what the world is watching. Nobel is an engaging series on Norway’s military involvement in Afghanistan. We follow Erling Riiser, a special forces soldier working in this troubled region. His wife, Johanne works in Norway’s foreign service so we get to see the different threads feeding into the conflict. Business interests, regional feuds, the status of women and diplomacy all figure into this complex mix.

The title refers to the annual Nobel Prize and the Nobel female descendant who helps choose who is honored. As the series unfolds, we keep shifting our opinions about who is behaving honorably and who is letting greed and expediency determine their behavior.

Tuva Novotny as Erling comes off as a modern day Viking as he literally “soldiers on.” His friend Jon Petter Hals (admirably portrayed by Anders Danielsen Lie) loses his legs in combat, and we observe his painful recovery back in Norway. The program may make you more sympathetic to our vets who have lost limbs in foreign combat.

If you’d like to know more about Norwegian politics and its involvement in Afghanistan, Nobel might be the well-made drama for you.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in Bright Lights Doc on HBO

If you love Hollywood lore, the documentary Bright Lights featuring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds will touch you deeply.
Originally scheduled to be released in March 2017 on HBO, the project directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom was sped up and released on Jan. 7, 2017 to coincide with the day-apart deaths of the famous mother and daughter.
In the footage, Reynolds appears to be a celebrity mother who was aware of the effect of her career on that of her children. Her relationship with daughter Carrie is warm and caring as you see them living next to one another in the same compound. Fisher demonstrates her incisive wit, her eclectic decorating taste and surprisingly good vocal skills. Her brother Todd also comes off as a good guy and proud of his mother. You just may laugh, cry and smile while watching this gentle slice of life program about two ladies who are part of cinema history.

11.22.63 TV Series on Hulu

Someone recommended the streaming series 11.22.63 currently on Hulu. Based on a Stephen King novel and starring James Franco as Jake Epping who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination in 1963, I was not inclined to put this on my watch list. The author, the actor and the subject matter did not allure me.
Thankfully, I checked out the first episode in the 8-part science fiction series and was immediately hooked. Not only is Franco engaging, but he is joined by acting luminaries such as Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones and Tonya Pinkins. Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald and George MacKay as Epping’s 1960’s sidekick are absolutely riveting.
The time shift between present day and the early 60’s in Texas is most amusing. Brightly colored cars with chrome and fins along with girls in pony tails and pastels give one an immediate sense of time and place.
Going back to Dallas during that fateful November 1963 wouldn’t seem entertaining, but in the hands of TV veterans J. J. Abrams, Bridget Carpenter, Bryan Burk plus  best-selling author King, we are given a new spin on all of the facts and conjectures that have been part of our national psyche. Binge on.

Call My Agent, French rom-com tv series on Netflix

Let me state that I love romantic film comedies which the French seem to have mastered to perfection.

Imagine my delight to find a TV series billed as original content on Netflix that captures the madcap breeziness of this genre. The show, Call My Agent, also listed as Ten Percent, depicts four agents who deal with spoiled actors, temperamental film-makers and difficult screen writers while they manage their own wackily complicated lives.

The creator, Fanny Herrero has cast Camille Cottin, Thibault de Montalembert, Gregory Montel and Liliane Rovere as the quartet of agents that you both love and hate-watch throughout the six episode Season 1. Cedric Klapisch, one of my favorite comic French film auteurs and his wife, Lola Doillon, a director and writer in her own right, are on board as episode directors.

The cameos made by French personalities will tickle film buffs, including Nathalie Baye and her daughter Laura Smet (her father is rock musician Johnny Hallyday), Audrey Fleurot (Spiral, A French Village), French rapper JoeyStarr and Cecile de France (who is in HBO’s The Young Pope), among many others.

Some people complain about sub-titles after a hard day at work, but witty dialogue and droll acting should pull you through the extra reading effort. Keep your eyes peeled for the terrier named, Jean Gabin who gives Asta of The Thin Man fame a run for his movie mutt money.

SyFy’s The Expanse on Amazon Prime

The holidays allowed me to get my sci-fi geek on with The Expanse, the SyFy series currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Termed a space opera/mystery science fiction drama, my brother-in-law informed me that the show is based on a series of books written by James S. A. Corey (the pseudonym for two guys named Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)

The show is set in the future when humans have colonized space including Mars and outposts on the asteroid belt. We are introduced to Belter detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) who is tasked with finding Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the missing daughter of a business tycoon. The main cast is rounded out by Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an Earther airship captain, a Martian pilot named Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), another crew member who grew up poor “on the Belt,” Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), a mechanic who is dangerously devoted to Nagata plus Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a leader with the U.N. and strongly pro-Earth.
Ancillary roles are filled by Paulo Costanzo (Royal Pains), Chad L. Coleman (The Walking Dead), Shawn Doyle (Big Love) and Jared Harris (The Crown) among many others.

The computer generated images of life in space are impressive, the clothing in crowd scenes amusing and the acting and writing quite good. If you like sci-fi shows, The Expanse may be your kind of program. Season 2 returns to the SyFy channel on February 1, 2017.

The Crown on Netflix

I was going through a bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal so The Crown, a Netflix ten-part dramatic series seemed to be the perfect “hair of the Corgi.”

High quality production values were apparent from the opening credits, but what unfolded was impeccable acting and emotional script-writing as well as gorgeous cinematography and beautiful film music.

Claire Foy is wondrous as Elizabeth II, from her father’s death in her 20’s, through her coronation to dealing with family and national squabbles in her first years as queen. John Lithgow as Winston Churchill is surprisingly good despite being a Yank actor and is both an adversary and advisor to the young Elizabeth. Matt Smith, known for his stint on Dr. Who, is believable as the prince consort who finds himself overshadowed by his regal wife. Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret is vibrantly played by Vanessa Kirby. Their sororal relationship in this very visible British royal family provide some of the most dramatic scenes.

Friends have found the slow pace of the episodes off-putting, but I luxuriated in the elegance and grace of this production. The Crown might make a relaxing binge between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Gilmore Girls Reunion on Netflix

Many mothers and daughters watched the iconic TV show, Gilmore Girls from 2000 to 2007. Netflix has wisely hired co-creators Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino to give fans a reunion mini-series that catches us up with the lives of Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham) her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). No less than Time Magazine and Rolling Stone have written about this cultural phenomenon.

The old series, set in the fictitious Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, featured characters played by actors who continue to star in TV and films. Melissa McCarthy was Sookie, the chef at Lorelei’s charming little inn. Rory’s boyfriends included Matt Czuchry (The Good Wife), Jared Padalecki (Supernatural) and the marvelous Milo Ventimiglia (This Is Us, Heroes) all of whom make appearances in this new four-episode series.

In truth, Kelly Bishop who portrays Lorelei’s mother is also a Gilmore Girl and is shown redesigning her life after the passing of her husband (Edward Herrmann who died in real life.) The current series is graced with cameos and small roles for celebrities such as Sally Struthers, Carole King, Todd Lowe plus Broadway veterans Sutton Foster and Christian Borle.

The emphasis may be on the “girls,” but men have important roles, too, such as Lorelei’s inn manager, Yanic Truesdale, town oddball Sean Gunn and the hunky Scott Patterson who plays Lorelei’s live-in boyfriend. The final Netflix episode left some with questions about how the show ends, but just let me say that history is again repeating itself with those Gilmore Girls. They may be tempted by the rich bad boys, but they end up with the salt-of-the-earth good guys. A happy ending indeed.

Catastrophe on Amazon Prime

catastropheAmazon, Hulu and Netflix continue to initiate more of their own programming. The streaming tv series, Catastrophe was the result of British actress/writer, Sharon Horgan and American comedian Rob Delaney meeting via Twitter. They decided that a comedic collaboration was meant to be.

Their inspiration was a quote from the movie, Zorba the Greek: “I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”

While on a business trip to London, American Rob Norris has a fling with Sharon Morris, an English grade school teacher. Once he’s back in the US, Sharon informs him that she is pregnant with his child. Rob decides to move to England to see if being a parent might be his next chapter.

We see their story unfold with catastrophic hilarity. Their respective friends and family are a motley crew who sabotage their tranquility at every turn.  Carrie Fisher is Rob’s abominable mother back in the States.

This is not a show for the easily offended. Graphic sex scenes and extremely bawdy jokes are sprinkled throughout the two seasons of 12 episodes. If you turn your taste meter down, however, you may find yourself laughing at the improbable situations, the profane banter and the marvelous interplay between Horgan and Delaney. The BBC passed on this show so Amazon, it’s up to you to order more episodes.