“Only Murders in the Building”–A Cozy Mystery

In this Hulu original mini-series we see two septuagenarians from the entertainment industry begrudgingly have to team together to solve the murder of a young wealthy neighbor–Tim Kono– in The Arconia, a luxury New York City apartment building. Oliver (Martin Short), an out-of-work theatre director who relies upon his estranged son for financial support, imagines that the recent murder would make a popular “true-crime” podcast. Charles (Steve Martin), a retired actor who starred as a TV detective decades ago, will star as the narrator. Mabel, a millennial (Selena Gomez) a fledgling cosmetic artist remodeling a family member’s upscale residence, is talked into assisting them with the detective work.

Only Murders in the Building is reminiscent of the old-school cozy mysteries like “Murder She Wrote” and “Doc Martin”, but with the emotional old guys providing the comedy while the no-nonsense Mabel, the twenty-something artist-wannabe, tries to bring them into the 21st century world of technology. The unlikely threesome, brought together by a shared loneliness and need for friendship, offers the viewer an entertaining, if sometimes cringeworthy, one-upmanship on who is the most hipster of the three.  And then a fourth character, Jan (Amy Ryan), a bassoonist, enters the scene as a distracting love interest for Charles.

Only Murders in the Building proves to be a lighthearted, amusing comedy/mystery with some twists and turns, only a few red herrings, and fun to solve.   Yet what really makes this series work beyond its reach as a cozy mystery is the multi-generational friendships and romance.  Breaking out of the common segregation- by-age friendships, we see three strangers in a New York City high-rise yearn for and create a sense of community despite huge generational gaps.  While the gaps provide much of the good-natured and on-point humor, the genuine friendships that are created are reminiscent of an adult child with her grandparent. 

Selena Gomez is perfectly cast (in a role worthy of her “Fundamentals of Caring”, see my August 22, 2016 review­­­­), an emotionally blunt “granddaughter” to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s curmudgeonly seniors.  Comic in tone with some almost clownish lines, the cast nonetheless integrates comedy, mystery, and the drama of quiet sadness when loneliness and family problems surface.

An entertaining, easy-to-watch family series with a second season under contract.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

ON THE VERGE

On the Verge Netflix mini-series

Guest Reviewer:  Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List   

            Let’s hear it for the ladies.  Actually, let’s hear from the ladies.  “On The Verge” is a popular new Netflix show.  Twelve half hours set in the snazzy Venice and Santa Monica beach playgrounds of L.A.  It features an overlooked section of the audience.  “Sex and the City” was about 30ish women, “The Golden Girls” covered the over-sixty crowd, now we have four (always the optimal number) besties in their fifties.

            Justine  (played by series creator Julie Delpy) is a French transplant frantically running Chez Juste, her chic restaurant.  She’s got kids but her malcontent, thorny out-of-work Paris architect husband is the real handful.

            Anne (Elizabeth Shue) is on marriage number two or three, a rich girl courtesy of her money-bags ultra-critical mother (Stefanie Powers, “Hart To Hart,” remember her?).  Anne has artistic talents, but mostly she’s affably high on pot.

            Ell Horowitz (Alexia Landeau) is a single mom with few marketable talents, scrambling to pay the bills, while refereeing the hassles between her three kids — until she gets the idea to tape the skirmishes and try to package them on YouTube in hopes of becoming low-rent Kardashians.

And then there’s Yasmin (Sarah Jones), formerly a political campaign staffer, now a stay-at-home mom at loose ends.  Money is no problem; her husband is a brainy well-paid code writer.  Her talent is attracting self-made crises that frequently suck in the others.

Which is fine because these four are happiest when they’re hanging together.  That’s when all the laughing and real talk goes on.  It’s like eavesdropping at the command post for the Battle of the Sexes.  “On The Verge” is a light-weight series that occasionally deals with heavy-duty issues.  I can’t wait for Season Two.

“Squid Game”–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style

This #1 Netflix mega-hit, streaming in nine episodes, is a Korean dystopian story of survival.  A mastermind known as the Front Man, in a mask like Darth Vader, stages a series of deadly childhood games (tug of war, red-light-green-light, and the Korean-specific squid game).  The debt-ridden players, trapped on a remote island, are forced to compete in deadly versions of the gladiator-style games: gunned down if they lose.  Guards with triangles, circles, or squares marked on their masks are anonymous.

Squid Game’s sometimes shocking–always bloody–drama of blood-letting scenes grimly captures desperate people degrading themselves for money and survival. We see the truly hopeless future of the participants as they struggle to win the games.

The competitors — an unemployed, divorced autoworker and gambler with a young daughter, a Pakistani refugee who has no means of financial support for his young wife and baby, a fraudulent investor who has sold his mother’s assets— are only a few of the hundreds of debtors, who are not necessarily victims of their circumstances. These distraught and miserable players see no other options except taking part in the kill-or-be-killed, increasingly vicious games designed by the autocratic Front Man. The potential payoff for the winner or winners is tens of millions of dollars hanging literally over the players’ heads in a glass chandelier globe.

A timely, — if over-the-top– critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless.  This is what Squid Game drives home.

Unrelenting carnage is the show’s most conspicuous feature.  Think “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarrantino) which I couldn’t watch.

I don’t like gore, I don’t like horror movies, but I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity:  watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.

In Squid Game the characters die in the order of their importance to the plot.  The “game” tone–“this is not serious” vibe–is underscored by the cinematography (set-designs that look like animated Lego games) and cos-play costumes.

Definitely a niche-market with Korean originality a strong reason to watch.

Warning:  Fear and anger can make people vindictive and abusive. The narrative relies on this behavior and its horrific consequences.

“Goliath” Season 4 (Finale)–Addiction

In this final season of Goliath   we again see the still down-and-out “lemon lawyer” Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) take on a giant corporation.  This time it is an opioid mega-corporation, Zax Pharmaceuticals, and its billionaire CEO, George Zax (J.K. Simmons).   In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco  (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?

Season 4 opens with a flashback to Billy McBride, narrowly escaping death by gunshot.  Billy’s mental condition and circumstances propel him into flights of fantasy, perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder, mixed into a cocktail of alcohol. 

McBride is temporarily residing in Chinatown, his apartment paid for by Margolis & True, the white-shoe law firm representing Zax Pharma.  His former partner Patty (Nina Arianda), now employed by Margolis & True,  has offered him a gig not only as a loyal colleague, but also because McBride is the best litigator she knows, even if other colleagues don’t agree.

Other characters add to the escalating courtroom battle.  The estranged brother, Frank Zax (Bruce Dern), and a daughter whom his brother finagled into adopting.  As dueling, antagonistic brothers intent on destroying each other, Frank and George Zax turn sibling friction into fiery and merciless conflict.

Goliath Season 4 pulls back the curtain on the opioid crisis that is relevant to the present day. It hones in on its displeasure at the lives lost for obscene corporate profit.

This is the best season since Season 1 (see my October 23, 2016 review).  Goliath always has had noirish overtones of Alfred Hitchcock, but in Season 4 some (not so subtle) scenes pay  homage to Rear Window.  It’s not always easy to tell how much is real and what’s imagined (which usually, but not always, is telegraphed by filming in black-and-white flashbacks and fever-dream images).   Nonetheless, this finale is riveting and compulsive watching.  Some overwrought scenes drag the momentum from time to time.  There is even a dance-and-song routine by J.K. Simmons, but he is so much fun to watch at his villainous best! Binge-view it to keep track of characters and threads in the plot!

Availability: Amazon Prime

“Nine Perfect Strangers”–A Hot Mess­­­­­­­

Nine Perfect Strangers is based on the Liane Moriarty novel by the same name. Starring Nicole Kidman as Masha, a spiritual therapist, she  is reputed to heal all wounds of her wealthy  clients at her wellness retreat, Tranquillum.

Following closely after the release of White Lotus (see my August 17, 2021 review), the same territory is explored:  why do uber-rich white people seem so unhappy? There is the damaged novelist (Melissa McCarthy) who just can’t trust anyone.  Another has a virulent past of drug addiction (the superb Bobby  Cannavale as a physically damaged athlete) ,Another couple (played by Michael Shannon and Addie Keddie) and their adult daughter grieve over the death of their son,  Young marrieds   provide the much-desired mystery tension.   An investigative reporter and  a fragile divorcee ( Luke Evans and Regina Hall) round out the group.  Who is going to die?

Nine Perfect Strangers   could have been so much more.  Purportedly about the self-help movement and its tendencies to be a scam preying on the wounded affluent, this series could have satirized the “perfect strangers”  wounds, their slights and neuroses.  The staff who cater to their clientele’s demands, no matter how unreasonable, and to their boss, Masha, are angry and servile at the same time,  Again channeling White Lotus.  More of their anger and their dreams were sorely needed.

And let’s look at Masha.  A Russian emigre and highly successful former corporate CEO,  Masha suffers from multiple traumatic  experiences which we see in flashbacks.  Trauma is the impetus for leaving her adrenaline-pumped life for the tranquil retreat she builds for those like herself: sufferers who need and want to move on.  Nicole Kidman seems drugged, coated with a Russian accent so annoying it is difficult to decipher what she is saying.  Such a travesty of a role for a great actress.  What was she thinking?

Only Melissa McCarthy, as the demoralized author of romance novels, is watchable.  In every scene she is commanding. The viewer feels motivated to hang in there and not reach for the remote.  But even she cannot save Nine Perfect Strangers from its abject imperfections.  If you watch this to the conclusion of the ten episodes, you are likely to raise the same question I asked myself:  “Why did I waste my time watching this?”

Availability:  Hulu

“Sandra Day O’Connor–The First”

For almost 200 years, the United States Supreme Court was a male bastion. In PBS’s American Experience: “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” we see Sandra Day O’Connor become the first woman Supreme Court Justice.   She is remembered for being the critical swing vote on cases involving this country’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights — and for casting the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on  the second largest  cattle ranch in Arizona. Learning to ride a horse across that vast ranch, change a flat tire, and herd cattle, the pre-teen “never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish.”  A brilliant student, she entered Stanford University at the age of sixteen. 

Although O’Connor went on to graduate at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students),  no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor (whom she married in 1952) thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis:  mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients.  From this unassuming start, O’Connor moved to city, then state legal offices.  Eventually nominated to fill a vacant Arizona Senate seat, she drew the attention of the state’s Republican power broker,   US Senator Barry Goldwater.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint the most qualified woman to the high court, and in order to appease the educated white female Republican voters the party had fear of losing, Reagan nominates O’Connor.  He expected a modest unassuming Supreme Court justice. She was considered a safe bet and  was unanimously confirmed by the Senate (99-0). Surprisingly, the only objection to her nomination came from a burgeoning and increasingly powerful faction of Republican conservatives, led by Jerry Falwell,  who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

O’Connor would soon defy the suggestion that she would modestly defer to her male colleagues.  She approached each case with meticulous care and attention, and with the unshakeable  conviction that the role of the Court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government, not to legislate changes in current law.  Social change was to be dealt with by the legislature, not the courts. 

O’Connor emerged as the Supreme Court’s   crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to Americans.  As a result, the Supreme Court was nicknamed “O’Connor’s Court” since her vote was determinative. Yet she often wrote concurring opinions that limited the reach of the majority, interpreting most cases very narrowly. Hers was often the voice that spoke for the court. 

The only woman on the court for 12 years until Ruth Bader Ginsburg (see May 21, 2018 review: RBG–Truth to Power) was appointed by President Clinton in 1993, O’Connor was ecstatic at the confirmation:  “We just became two of the nine justices and it was just such a welcomed change, it was great.” In 1992 (before Ginsburg joined the Court) O’Connor served as the swing vote that reaffirmed  Roe v. Wade, despite the Republican push to overturn it (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey). 

In 2006 we see another upheaval for O’Connor.  Her husband, rapidly declining from Alzheimer’s,  compelled  her decision to retire earlier than expected at the age of 75. Her biographer, Evan Thomas,  writes that O’Connor confided to a friend, “John gave up his position in Phoenix to come with me [to Washington] so now I am giving up my job to take care of him.”

A glaring omission  in this American Experience production is the lack of coverage of  the impact of O’Connor’s decision.  She told her biographer that she sorely regretted early retirement: “It was the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did.”  Watching the succeeding judges, particularly Sam Alito, whittle away at her legacy greatly dismayed her as she came to conclude that the Republican Party she so dearly loved was no more. Her decision to leave at the peak of her influence and ability is, in this American Experience episode, tragic.

A woman of her times, raised in a culture in which she overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles, is an eye-opener.  These obstacles occurred almost half a century ago but seem persistent today. 

Highly compelling glimpse into a remarkable legal mind, jurist,  and political strategist.

Note:  To this day Sandra Day O’Connor is the only Supreme Court justice with experience in all three branches of government  (executive:  state assistant attorney general; legislative:  Arizona state senator and first woman speaker of the state senate; and judicial:  Arizona State Court of Appeals),

Availability: PBS American Experience (streaming)

“Guilt”–A Hit-and-Run

Guilt is a four-episode Masterpiece Theater mini-series, a darkly sinister and acerbic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who leave a wedding drunk and eager to get home. We see the elegant lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar of “Shetland”) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Jake hit an elderly man who steps in front of Max’s car.  Jake (Jamie Sives) is driving because Max thinks his brother is less inebriated than he is.

Jake wants to report the accident to the police, but Max is concerned about his professional reputation so they agree to cover up the hit-and-run by dragging the old man back into his house, positioning him to look as if he died of natural causes.

Max is very clever with the cover-up, having knowledge of what constitutes evidentiary material.  So, luck appears to be on their side. But then Angie (Ruth Bradley), the only living relative of the old man, shows up and begins to ask questions.

Nervous about the subterfuge, Jake wants to come clean, but Max will have none of it.  Reassuring his younger brother that he has always had his best interests at heart, Max convinces Jake that he will be safe with his older brother in control. But there are no secrets kept.

A nosy neighbor, a newly sober detective, and Angie’s change of heart all add to the suspense–can the cover up be sustained?  Will the two brothers face their own reckoning as the lies of the past and the crimes of the present come back to haunt and possibly destroy them?  For Jake–the man-child whose record shop was bought by his brother to help him out–the guilt over the hit-and-run gets more intense.   Jake dreams of a life with Angie, far removed from his brother’s shadow.  For Max, guilt is what the evidence reveals.  If there is insufficient evidence to convict, then they’re not guilty, whether a crime was committed or not.

Guilt is a four-hour guilty pleasure for those viewers who love a good mystery with lots of subplots. At times–particularly when a new character pops up on screen–the viewer is jostled trying to figure out where he or she belongs in the story.  Full of surprises –cannot mention all the characters for that reason–this is quite a chilling portrait of betrayal and brotherly love.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  PBS streaming (Masterpiece Theater)

“Coda”– A Song from the Heart

In this unusual introduction into the Deaf world, Coda features a high school student, Ruby Rossi (British newcomer, Emilia Jones), who is in love with music.  Trying out for the choir, she learns that a monumental decision will force her to leave her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  As the only hearing member of the family (CODA=Child of Deaf Adults), she is the communicator and interpreter for their struggling fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures:  Deaf and hearing?  That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. A hilarious early scene has Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s office where she translates, via ASL, her father’s symptoms.  He signs that his “nuts are on fire” and scrunches his hands into fists, his fingers like crabs clawing into his skin. The diagnosis? Ruby has to sign “jock itch.”  The treatment?  No sex for two weeks.  Frank then asks his daughter to respond to the doctor for him:  “But I can’t.  Don’t you see how hot my wife is?”  Ruby is mortified, but the physical comedy is even more uproarious because of the sign language, so visual the viewer doesn’t need to understand ASL.

Ruby also experiences her first possible chance at love with Miles (Ferdie Walsh-Peelo), the student assigned to sing a duet with her for the school concert.  This subplot is rather weak and distracting.

Dreaming of a career as a singer, Ruby faces challenges practicing for an audition to win a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music.  The choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), recognizes her talent, empathizes with her family’s needs, but nevertheless reminds Ruby of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Particularly noteworthy are moments of poignancy, particularly between Ruby and her mother and separately, with her father that are universal but also specific to Deaf culture. Because her parents will never experience the sound of Ruby’s exquisite voice, the scene between Frank and Ruby, where he tries to understand the timbre of her voice and resulting talent, is exceptionally touching.

A very heartwarming glimpse of Deaf culture, without becoming unforgivably saccharine, in no small part is due to the gifted actors, especially Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur.

Availability:  Apple+

Note:   Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are deaf actors. The French movie upon which Coda is based–La Famille Bélier–controversially cast hearing actors for all major roles.

“The Chair”–Academic Patriarchy

The Chair, a Netflix series created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, is executive produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners for Game of Thrones. This comedy drama startles with unexpected energy.  After all, any theme involving university professors promises to be a snooze fest.

The opening scene features Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) as the newly appointed first female Chair of the English department and the first person of color. On her first day, her office chair collapses, foreshadowing the circumstances soon to overtake her.

The English department is not at all popular with students. Declining enrollments are triggering budget cuts and forced early retirement on the old white professors who never thought of sexism and racism while teaching the “Great Books”.  Ji-Yoon is highly motivated to bring excitement to teaching, modernize the curriculum, and work toward greater diversity.  But the old-school profs will have none of it.

“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” says a frustrated Professor Kim.   

One of the major plots is the conflict and cognitive disconnect between the young progressive and idealistic professors (untenured) and the aged faculty who once thought of themselves as at the forefront of intellectual thought.   Now they are just part of an antiquated, petrified system of white patriarchy.  There is some uproarious dialogue between the old boys sharing their sanctimonious opinions.

Recently widowed colleague, Bill Dobson (whose complex personality is played energetically by Jay Duplass), is the former chairman and possible romantic interest of Dr.  Kim.  Idiotically “joking” about fascism with a Nazi salute, Bill faces the deleterious consequences not only for his own career but also for Ji-Yoon’s as well as the reputation of the university.

Two female professors add subplots that raise the interest in academic backstabbing and pedantic squabbles.  Professor Joan Hambling (the always sensational Holland Taylor) is past retirement age and is battle-worn from her own skirmishes with the old boys. Dean Paul Larson (the consistently reliable David Morse) relegates Joan to an office in the basement, hoping to antagonize her enough to retire.  Meanwhile, Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) is a young Black rising star being courted by Ivy League schools.  Not surprisingly, she is overtly disrespected by the senior white male professors. Yaz’s inclusion of feminist and rap-style dramatization of classic literature is anathema to the old profs as well as threatening, providing grounds for denying her tenure.  

The Chair mini-series

As if Ji-Yoon doesn’t have enough to contend with, Dean Larson reminds her that the university’s image and very existence is dependent upon donations.  Add more pressure from her personal life where her “aunties” wonder if there are still available men to marry.  And her adopted six-year old little girl, Ju Ju (the whimsical Everly Carganilla), is emotionally distant from her and from her grandfather (Ji-Yoon’s father), who only speaks Korean and who is an unwilling babysitter.  Ju Ju doesn’t understand a word he says.

The struggles that Ji-Yoon faces–in her role as a mother, her desire for a soulmate, and her wish to change the playing field and intellectual landscape of academia– are all too familiar for women.  No one is ready to take accountability for their actions nor recognize the need for moving on to meet current values and research directives.

Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew.  Known primarily for “Sideways”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and most recently, “Killing Eve”, The Chair allows us to enjoy her hilarious performance with physical, and especially facial expressions poking through the mask of her professorial demeanor. Her body and face do one type of acting, while her words do another, magnifying the humor with the disconnect.

The Chair has moments of slag, scenes that should have been tightened to ratchet up the comedic potential.  One bewildering minor character playing himself–David Duchovny (“X-Files” and “Californication”)–is sorely extended in a scene needing to be truncated, but a hilarious moment saves even this awkward intrusion.

The Chair is a surprising emotional drama with charm beneath a sometimes goofy exterior.  Highly entertaining!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

­”The One”–A Perfect Match DNA-Style

Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science?  That is the premise of the  Netflix mini-series, The One.  Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb (Hannah Ware),  uses her own husband Ethan (Wilf Scolding) as living proof that genetic matchmaking can produce “the one” against all odds.  Her own match is  purportedly the perfect soulmate identified through algorithms and DNA analysis.  Her message:  “You’re not going to end up alone.”

As CEO of the start-up MatchDNA, Rebecca becomes unimaginably wealthy manipulating the human desire to find one’s perfect match.   Through scientific datamining, MatchDNA promises to  shortcut all the dating disappointments one usually experiences.

The backstory for Rebecca Webb, before she  becomes a female version of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, involves the scientific brains of her friend and partner James Whiting (Dimitri Leonidas). His genetic research on ants’ teambuilding and mating leads to the breakthrough innovation of  applying DNA data to the human mating game.  James soon leaves the MatchDNA start-up about the time Rebecca’s apartment roommate Ben Naser (Amir El-Masry) is found dead, floating in the Thames.

Enter a local reporter Mark Bailey (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) who is quite happy with his wife  Hannah (Lois Chimimba).  But Hannah is curious, wondering if there is someone better out there for her and perhaps for him.  FOMO. Tragedy soon reveals its ugly head.

The One becomes part sci-fi crime thriller and part ruthless corporate conspiracy.  Several key players have motive to murder Ben. DCI Kate Saunders (Zoë Tapper), and her partner, DS Nick Gedny (Gregg Chillin) follow clues that eventually lead them to the main entrepreneurs behind MatchDNA and its lurid financing. 

So many characters and subplots, The One reminds me of a number of Chinese melodramas replete with characters, murders, and suspects.  Keeping track of all of them is not easy, and the second season, in development, may pull together some loose ends.  The final episode was a cliffhanger!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  In “The Algorithm of the Marriage Pact” (New York Times, May 19, 2021) a Stanford student project and business plan– aptly named “The Marriage Pact”– exemplifies real life imitating fiction. 

“The White Lotus”–White Gaze

In this HBOMax six-episode mini-series (which ended August 15), we watch two uber-wealthy families on vacation in Hawaii (at the upscale Four Seasons) make themselves miserable in a perfectly-seeming tropical paradise. Their privileged existence is the luxury not to be concerned with others. 

In White Lotus’s opening scene, at the airport, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), an insufferable, narcissistic scion of a wealthy and powerful family, explains with great disdain to fellow passengers that his wife, Rachel, has died…on their honeymoon. A cardboard coffin marked  “human remains” is loading onto a plane.  We’re ready to be hooked in:  a mystery awaits.  Who killed Shane’s wife?

Privileged to a degree that the wrong hotel suite–one without a plunge pool–can ruin his honeymoon, Shane zeroes in on making Armond, the hotel manager pay–with a vengeance–for assigning him an “inferior”suite.  Shane deserves the best of the best–and feels unhinged by the perceived slight.  Armond (the scene-stealing Murray Bartlett), the “hired help” providing impeccable but fulsome service to those who expect no less, cannot comply with Shane’s wishes but is excruciatingly obsequious in trying to placate him…as do all hotel staff.

His young journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes from a far more modest background, and is proud of her budding career.  She is beautiful, sincerely wants to be an independent woman, and is frightened by the specter of being Shane’s trophy wife.  Unable to endure Shane’s tantrums and humiliation of the hotel manager, Rachel soon becomes inconsolable.  Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), who pays a surprise visit to her son and daughter-in-law on their honeymoon, tries to convince Rachel that being a trophy wife can be lots of fun.

The Mossbachers are equivalent to Shane Patton’s family in excess and decadence.  Nicole (Connie Britton) is a Forbes-style mega-entrepreneur emulated by ambitious women. But her teenage daughter, Olivia, can barely share the room’s oxygen with her. Bringing her friend, Paula, to distract from her dysfunctional family, Olivia hopes her friend will ease the tension on vacation.  Paula, however, grows increasingly uneasy with what she observes.  The dad, Mark (Steve Zahn), questions his own relationship with his son Quinn, the outlier in the family, after learning some secrets concerning his own father.

And then there is the wealthy single Tanya (the outstanding Jennifer Coolidge), who is in Maui to scatter the ashes of her unloving mother.  Lost, wanting some peace of mind, she offers to finance the dream of a local hotel masseuse, Brenda (Natasha Rothwell) to own her own spa.

This  luxury vacation is all about relaxation and renewal… until it is not..  The social critique of colonialism and its impact on the local residents is scathing and, at times, insightful.

All the characters have unhealed wounds, and most don’t know it.  They surround themselves with distractions, with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “need to be white”,– the addiction to having power over others,– to use wealth and privilege to maintain position, oftentimes unaware of this thirst or the deep emptiness in their own souls.   Paula, in one scene, astringently observes that her friend, Olivia’s, insistence that she is not privileged and entitled is delusional:  “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.”  The self-absorption is, at times, on the verge of suffocation.

The hotel employees, caught up as providers for the served, want independence from being dominated. What drives the engine in all relationships throughout The White Lotus is money.  The hotel staff is essentially bought– body and soul– by the guests,

So many characters, so many threads of possibility:  dramatic turns of characters and their arcs.  We are hopeful.  But then they almost all fall flat. The ending of The White Lotus borders on fraudulent.  Hooking the viewer with an opening scene of a dead honeymooner in the tradition of a whodunit but then not delivering.

 No, no, no!   This series was such a disappointment in concept, writing, and overall structure with more questions than answers about amorphous, half-developed characters.  There were some good lines but I’m afraid a grade of C+ is generous, and only given because there was so much promise from excellent actors who needed a tightly plotted script, and a few highly original political and social comments about the “white gaze”.  A second season? Really?

Availability: HBOMax

“Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival

Silent Witness,  one of the longest running  BBC television series (broadcast in more than 235 countries),  focuses on a team of brilliant forensic pathologists who investigate a crime every two episodes. First broadcast in 1996, there now have been twenty-three seasons,  making  Silent Witness  the  entertainment industry’s longest running crime drama. The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. 

The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   Toxicology reports and DNA to identify a severed limb or family connection are quintessential procedural investigative stages.  Post-mortem dissection of body parts is not for the squeamish, as the pathologists, without noticeable  reaction, cut open and squeeze contents before plopping them onto a steel basin.  For those who flinch at biologically realistic appearing organs, bones and tissue, you might want to skip this series.  For those not squeamish you will find the scientific precision extolling  conclusions based on research and science to be riveting.

A brilliant, often ignored  female pathologist is commonly the key to solving the crime(s).  [Each two-episode case also features at least two corpses and two crimes to solve.]  The series has had multiple casting changes, including the actors who play the three pathologists.

It is challenging and so much fun to solve the crimes, from the viewer’s perspective.  All clues are there, if you pay close attention.  However, often an insignificant comment in a conversation at the beginning of an opening scene foreshadows who is the culprit. (Note:  It is never the most obvious suspect.) 

It is obvious why this series is such a crowd-pleaser.  Even with multiple casting changes throughout the twenty-three year history of Silent Witness, the drama keeps pace with  social change.  Nothing seems dated in any of the narratives, with the exception of some of the cases in South Africa.  In addition, not only the mystery and suspense of a whodunit plays to the audience’s interest, but also the backstories of the three key forensic pathologists.  Each is flawed with a corresponding family history and drama. The three pathologists’ unstable private lives often underscore the chaotic paths of their dogged, determined hunt for the killer, poking into their own psyches as they probe the “silent witness” to the crime.

Silent Witness is not headed to the morgue anytime soon, and certainly, is not dead on arrival.

Note:  A bonus feature to watching Silent Witness is seeing some of Britain’s most talented actors at the very beginning of their careers, mere acolytes learning the trade.  For the gimlet-eyed, some of the more notable are Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism,  and Daniel Kaluuya, as a teenager trying to eradicate a local gang’s influence on his family.

Availability:  Amazon Prime streaming.