“Orphan Black”–Adopting a New Model

Orphan Black2This new BBC America television series premiered on March 30, 2013.

In the opening scene the camera zooms in on Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian newcomer to television), a grifter desperate to escape her drug dealer boyfriend.  Seizing an opportunity to escape her past, Sarah watches as her doppelganger jumps in front of a subway to her death.  Stealing the identity of the suicide victim (“Beth”) who looks exactly like her, Sarah assumes that the dead woman’s identity will be an improvement over her own, but she is proved wrong.

Proud of her independence, even with its painful repercussions, Sarah is a former foster child and single mother.  Her one friend–a homosexual “brother” from foster care, is her only companion and confidante.  Together these two outsiders try to survive on the streets of Toronto.

While categorized as  science fiction, “Orphan Black” is not your typical sci-fi model.  No flying space ships.  No extraterrestrial costuming.  The focus is on the characters and their relationships to each other as they assume each other’s identity and problems. (Yes, there are more look-alikes besides Sarah and the dead Beth–this makes following the story confusing sometimes.)  The futuristic science and technology are not really the core of the story but an ingenious overlay to hold the viewer’s attention. The series delves into what happens when you steal the identity of someone else and all that encumbers. Both empathy and judgmentalism struggle within each character as each Sarah clone confronts more mysteries and puzzle pieces.  Living dangerously in a world where no one can trust each other and everyone is a potential spy (“monitor”), the price of living in such a world is haunting and heavily tinted with paranoia.

The private hemispheres of each character make “Orphan Black” so much more than science fiction (although it will appeal to sci-fi fans too).  On May 2, 2013 BBC America announced plans to renew the series for a second season. I’m happy that viewers will get another chance to continue enjoying “Orphan Black” and see how compelling adopting a new model for exploring futuristic worlds can be.

“Top of the Lake”–A Top Notch Thriller

While some cable and television distributors fund their own productions (note the excellence of  “House of Cards”, the final season of “Damages”, and the forthcoming “Arrested Development”), Sundance is in the enviable position of previewing thousands of entries for their annual Sundance Festival. “Top of the Lake“is an exciting option from the Sundance Channel, created by Gerard Lee and Jane Campion (who produced and directed the Academy Award winner “The Piano”).

The first episode opens with the disappearance of a 12-year old pregnant girl, Tui, in a remote backwater town in southern New Zealand named Laketop.  The hamlet of Laketop is as much a character in the series as are the main actors.  Laketop seethes with brutal violence, fear and bigoted townspeople, with a history of brutal rapes and missing young girls.  And the plot takes the viewer down slowly as it sinks into this corner of the world which has no place for outsiders, even residents who have moved away and returned.

Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of  Peggy Olsen fame in “Mad Men”) is  one such former resident.  A furloughed investigator, home to visit her dying mother, Robin  does not want to be in Laketop.   No one else, including her mother, wants her there either.

The incestuous pathology of the townspeople and their dangerous secrets are slowly revealed through seven episodes. Magnificent scenery obscures a cesspool of corruption and brutality. Tui is always the undercurrent that keeps you on the edge of your seat, shocked by her heartbreaking situation.  Brilliant acting with raw emotional nakedness at every turn results in some explosive surprises throughout.

“Top of the Lake” is a remarkable thriller, in some ways similar to the excellent “The Killing”, set in the northwest.  While there is an original storyline in the pre-teen who is at the center of the investigation, “Top of the Lake” has two stories which do not always integrate as well as they could have.  The Paradise commune–a recovery group of middle-aged women with their hippie guru GJ (Holly Hunter)–offers comic relief and some insightful observations that could not have been presented easily in another way.  However, GJ seems wasted in the last episodes and could have been a catalyst for the solving of the crime.  Consequently, there isn’t the dramatic liftoff the narrative should give us.

Nonetheless, I really recommend this as a binge-viewing weekend excursion (available through Netflix).  Enter a dark, sinister world full of menace and deception. The bravery of the women is inspirational and the dramatic energy of a Campion production is a wonder to behold.

“The Following” Redux–Not Going There Again

In February I reviewed and recommended “The Following”, a Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy.  There have been a total of nine episodes so far, but this past week’s episode has made me recant my earlier review.  How disappointed I am in this series!

The story is focused on two main characters:  an FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and a brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who has a cult following of wannabe killers, mostly young outliers trying to find a place to belong.  But the last episode has overstepped the boundaries for even the psychologically wounded law-enforcement officer and the psychopath: excessive: gratuitously violent scenes that take attention away from the story.

In February I acknowledged that this is one of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV (and the series has received negative press because of the extreme scenes), I also found the story compelling enough as well as fearlessly acted by Bacon and Purefoy to justify the violence as necessary for understanding the ferocious nature of a psychopath.  However, with the last episode I fear that the long, bloody narrative has taken a backseat to violence for its own sake–a titillating, visceral thrill at seeing pain and torture.   The difference, I think, between violence which supports the story’s plot and “pornographic” violence” is the degree to which the violent acts give a better understanding of the characters and the consequences of their actions.  However, the story has become formulaic and has not moved forward in development of character or plot.  At its extreme, which this last episode demonstrated, “The Following” has bordered on computer-game violence–visual images for their own horrific impact,  appealing to an addictive fascination for some (especially young) viewers..  In this last episode the serial killer appears to have an orgasm after the kill.  Enough is enough!  Take this off the air.  Too bad– not even Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy can resurrect this sickening and exploitative violence, a malignant chemistry that does not belong on either mainstream television or in cinema.

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.

 

“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.

 

Following “The Following”

A Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (the British actor who brilliantly played Marc Antony in the “Rome” series), “The Following” premiered two weeks ago (January 21).  It is already gaining a fervent, mostly young audience.

A furloughed FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), responsible for the imprisonment of the brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), is brought back into action when Carroll masterminds a series of copycat murders perpetrated by a cult following (think Charles Manson meets Silence of the Lambs).  But Carroll is no ordinary psychopath.  He is a brilliant college professor who knows the power of his charisma and attracts a bevy of young college women to his seductive interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe.  The cult he creates becomes devotees of a perverted, distorted  religion, a version of Gothic romanticism Carroll has authored to encourage the belief that the only way to truly live is to kill.  With obvious references to the “Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “Telltale Heart”, and “Nevermore”, the viewer may have a renewed interest in Poe as reflected in the depraved mind of Ryan.

What follows is a battle between the psychologically wounded (Bacon) and the malevolent psychopath (Purefoy)  who inflicts unimaginable horrors on his victims. Ryan is damaged by the affair he had with Claire Matthews, Carroll’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea–the weak link in the superb cast).  Because he had a romantic connection with the criminal’s ex-wife, Ryan is dismissed from the FBI.  Now the pursuit of not only Carroll but also of his lapsed romance with Claire forces Ryan to deal with his unhealed wounds.

One of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV, “The Following” is definitely not for the squeamish.  (The series “Dexter” looks edited and censored by comparison).  The horror/suspense nature of the series is underscored by the fact that all the victims in the first episode are young women.  The cult of killers or wannabe killers is made plausible by the quality of the writing and the acting, so that the violence is definitely gory and frightening (I closed my eyes in some scenes), but the psychology of manipulation, betrayal, and exploitation prevents the story from becoming ridiculous.  More back story of the principals (Ryan, Carroll, and even Claire) is required for this program to continue to maintain its fans, however.

“The Following” is a ferocious alloy of  psychology and violence, redemption and deceit.  I can’t wait to see where it’s going next.

“Garrow’s Law”–The Gallows of a Hanging Court

I recently discovered a lesser known BBC series, Garrow’s Law (2009-2012), and highly recommend this superb British period drama based upon the life of 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. As the  barrister who demanded that the accused was  “innocent until proven guilty,” Garrow became the Perry Mason for the poor and unjustly accused.

But the extraordinary story of William Garrow might never have been dramatized had it not been for the online publication of the Old Bailey Proceedings (1674-1913) in 2008. (The Old Bailey is a reference to the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). The historical legal cases are spellbinding.  From rape and burglary to murder, high treason and corruption, each episode begins with the accused being unable to afford defense counsel and not expecting justice.  Garrow and his mentor John Southouse work to uncover the truth, through rigorous cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, paving the way for habeas corpus and the modern legal system.

Thief-takers,  heinous opportunists  who were a byproduct of  the “kangaroo courts” of Garrow’s day, were private individuals much like bounty hunters, who paid others to steal and then either extorted money from the thief or brought him to the court to receive a fee for every guilty verdict.  Thief-takers play a key role in many of the court cases argued in front of a minefield of corrupt judges, witnesses, and jurors.

A major subplot running through the series concerns Garrow’s relationship with Lady Sarah Hill, an aristocratic figure with an interest in justice and the law. Lady Sarah’s husband is Sir Arthur Hill, an important politician and member of the government whose values diverge dramatically from Lady Sarah’s. 

The superb cast members (Andrew Buchan as William Garrow, Alun Armstrong as Southouse, Lyndsey Marshal as Lady Sarah, and Rupert Graves as Sir Arthur Hill) are all familiar to us from many BBC productions.  This series belongs among the very best that television has to offer! Garrow’s Law will satisfy a craving for stories both intimate and political. What makes the series particularly compelling is that each defendant seems doomed almost certainly to either execution or to a very long prison sentence. How Garrow overcomes what seems like insurmountable odds has us cheering passionately for justice for the accused. This BBC series should attract those interested in a delectable treat:  justice for those least likely to receive it.

 

“Hit and Miss”–Or, “Boys Don’t Cry” meets “Dexter”

This new mini-series created exclusively for DirecTV’s Audience Network stars Chloë Sevigny as a transgender hired assassin living in Yorkshire, England and fated to parent four children who have just lost their mother to cancer.  One of the children, Ryan, is her son whom she fathered before pursuing her journey to becoming Mia. Now she finds herself the legal guardian to  four children.  When the children she inherits begin to affect her, she is shaken by her own amorality.

In each opening scene, the camera moves over Mia’s pre-op transsexual body: nude with both breasts and a penis.  The grey drizzle of the scenery of Yorkshire emphasizes the “film noir” mood of the narrative. Sevigny, an extraordinary American actress, has mastered a Yorkshire accent in a cast of British and Irish actors.   Every episode features her gangster boss, Eddie (Peter Wright), assigning a “hit”, which Mia has to carry out, usually disguised as a young boy in a hoodie or as an alluring prostitute.

Chloë Sevigny’s first breakout role (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award) was in “Boys Don’t Cry“, as the girlfriend of a transgender youth.  It is a tribute to Sevigny that the role of Mia in “Hit and Miss”  feels remarkably natural.  The audience is forced to contemplate how gender defines our identity.  Sometimes Mia is a  deadened or robotic self, but she is awakening to the gentle self of mother, father, and lover.

Ben (Jonas Armstrong) will certainly become a heartthrob for his exceptional performance as the one so deeply in love with Mia he can accept her pre-op transgender body in graphic sexual scenes while questioning why he is so attracted to her.  Armstrong’s cool but empathetic air in understanding the problem of a relationship with a transgender partner is an incredibly moving window into the heart of gender identity.

“Hit and Miss” fits into a recurring theme in some of the most talked-about current television series:  the dark past of the anti-hero who has hidden himself or herself in order to blend into “mainstream” society.  Family complicates the secret life by forcing honesty with those the hero loves (or wants to love).  Think:  “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Suits”, and “Damages”.  The back-story inevitably unfolds: an explanation–not quite a justification–for the main character’s moral ambiguity or sociopathology.  “Hit and Miss” clearly fits into this ferociously psychological contemporary genre, engendering a visceral response to the uncomfortable but familiar rabbit hole of human relations.

 

“The Newsroom”–A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Cable TV News

In the opening episode, veteran news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is asked by a fresh-faced journalism student what makes America the greatest country on earth.  Cajoled into giving a substantive response by the moderator, Will McAvoy throws caution aside and proceeds in a blistering monologue filled with statistics to explain why America isn’t.  The collateral damage becomes significant. His boss (Sam Waterston) considers the episode a meltdown.

The meltdown forces him to reassess his former self–a time when news reporting was about defending the ideals of a culture and truth telling. Then Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), a heroic war correspondent and McAvoy’s former lover, becomes the executive producer to monitor his erratic behavior. For Will this is a nightmare, since their romantic relationship ended in heartbreak. Nonetheless, Mackenzie is the one person who can jolt him out of his apathy.

Aaron Sorkin (the writer of “A Few Good Men”, “American President”, “West Wing” and “Social Network”) commands the viewer’s attention with biting dialogue, a gifted cast, and a flinch-inducing, provocative exploration of American politics. This is not to say that the piercing, no-holds-barred monologues will unite audiences of all political persuasions. If you share Sorkin’s politics, you will watch “The Newsroom” every week in amazement at the tenacity of the script.

Incredibly high stakes are involved:  Who tells us what the truth is?  Who sloppily forgets to get a second verification of facts?  What exactly is involved in news reporting with integrity– under tight deadlines?

The portrayal of personal relationships, however, is a disappointment. Will and MacKenzie as squabbling former lovers are dreary and cringe producing, diminishing their intelligence and professionalism.  The young intern Maggie (Alison Pill) is the love interest for two jealous staff reporters (Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr.) who should just move on and forget about her. However, Jane Fonda, as the female Ted Turner who owns the network, could prove a wonderfully ruthless foil to electrify the business side of competitive broadcasting in a declining market.  However, Sorkin has yet to exploit Fonda’s potential in this role.

I only hope Aaron Sorkin can keep the monologues at such an intellectually vibrant level, setting the bar so high.  I’d rather watch an edgy show that aims high and sometimes falls short, than one that doesn’t. And I’d rather watch a great screenwriter in action than a run-of-the-mill one.

“Scottsboro”–The Inexcusable

“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy”  is a 2001 PBS documentary in the American Experience series about the notorious trials of  nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of a fair trial, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended.  The miscarriage of justice on the part of several judges, jurors, and witnesses belies the assumption that justice will prevail in the face of truth and obviously false testimony, including the recanting by one of the victims to all charges. No crime in American history– let alone a crime that never occurred– produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, appeals to the Supreme Court, and  retrials as did the “Scottsboro Boys” case of  March 25, 1931. The series of trials included two separate appeals to the US Supreme Court resulting in two landmark decisions over a fifteen-year period. The first ruling was that adequate legal representation applies to all citizens.  The second ruling declared a constitutional right to a trial by one’s peers, in this case, mandating that the jury include blacks. Spanning the Depression, the Scopes Trial, and the end of World War II, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys foreshadowed the rise of the civil rights movement that would reach a feverish pitch three decades later.

On March 25, 1931, nine black teenage boys, ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, hopped off a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee to be accused by two young white women (Victoria Price and Ruby Bates) of rape. Arrested in the small town of Scottsboro, found guilty in a rapid set of kangaroo trials, eight of the nine defendants were sent to be executed by electric chair on July 9, less than three months after the trial ended.  (The thirteen-year-old defendant was considered too young for execution.)

Many Northerners, particularly in Harlem and in the Communist Party, organized street demonstrations supporting the Scottsboro Boys.  The American Communist Party decided to get involved in the battle for equal representation under the Constitution enlisting the renowned lawyer, Sam Leibowitz.  Second only to Clarence Darrow (who was willing to take on the case for the NAACP), Leibowitz was known for his brilliance as an attorney.  But his overreaching self-confidence would be his downfall, failing to anticipate the “Mason Dixon” animosity by the South, and their hatred of Jews and Northerners, as much as their racism towards blacks.  Nonetheless, Sam Leibowitz is a profile in courage.

In October 1932 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Scottsboro trial denied due process to the nine young defendants, who encountered a mob atmosphere and endured poor legal representation.  After a second trial yielded the same verdicts, Leibowitz again appealed, in 1935, arguing that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury duty was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled, in an unprecedented decision, that African Americans are entitled to have a jury with black jurors in order to guarantee a trial by one’s peers. Ruby Bates (who had run off to New York City) recanted her testimony, admitting that Victoria Price had bullied her into fabricating rape charges. The jury, however, found all nine defendants guilty as charged, discounting Ruby Bates’ testimony as tainted by her “Northernization”.  Judge James Horton, who had political aspirations to be governor, set aside the verdict and granted a new trial, despite death threats and the annihilation of any political future.  With attorney Sam Leibowitz now relegated to an assistant counsel’s role, a jury—now with one black member—returned a guilty verdict.

Alabama abandoned its legal fight after the second Supreme Court decision, realizing that the cost to the state’s budget and reputation was too high.  Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the remaining five ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in the head by a prison guard, suffering irrevocable brain damage. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and sent back to prison. Clarence Norris, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, escaped parole and went into hiding in 1946. He was pardoned by Governor George Wallace thirty years later and wrote a book about his experiences. The last surviving defendant, he died in 1989.

The Scottsboro Boys led to the end of all-white juries in the South and served as a core inspiration for the civil rights movement. The case also has been retold in the award winning “Scottsboro Boys: The Musical” on Broadway and is currently at the ACT in San Francisco.  The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics.

 

“The Borgias”–Bonfire of the Vanities

In the Season 2 finale of “The Borgias”, there is adultery happily engaged in by the beautiful Lucrezia, the fratricide of the favorite son of Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), the torture and death of the charismatic but delusional Savonarola (who spearheaded the original bonfire of the vanities), and the successful poisoning of the pope by his archrival’s deputy.

The ecclesiastical greed and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church drives the adrenaline of the Borgia family, an Italian/Spanish dynasty, to continue the campaign of corruption and murder in order to retain their position as the greatest force–religious or secular–in the entire Western world of the 15th century.  And how unashamed the Borgias are of their venal lives while most of Italy endures horrific poverty.

The series is rather closely based on history: the cunning of Pope Alexander VI and two (of three) sons and daughter by his beautiful but now middle-aged mistress.  A womanizing and vain man, Pope Alexander VI is determined to have his family remain unified in appearance if not in intention, all the while perpetrating lies, deception, and murder.

Like “The Tudors” which preceded “The Borgias”, the villains and antiheroes in this TV mini-series are obsessed with power at all cost, in the guise of religious devotion.  With Jeremy Irons as the sinister Alexander VI, Colm Fore as his archrival Cardinal della Rovere, and newcomers playing his sons and daughter, the series is outrageous when you least expect it (for example, Catherine Sforza’s exposure to the troops).   There is some poignant and moving dialogue as well.  In the powerful interchange between the pope and his older son Cesare, his son asks why his father always favored Juan yet was blind to his cruelty.  The distinctions, which are played out between what constitutes good intentions and bad, would yield a philosophical treatise on the nature of good and evil.  You will be thinking of scenes from this series long after the program has ended.  Another season is planned for 2013, so at least I can postpone my disappointment for now when the entertaining and provocative “Borgias” finally comes to an end!

Fall from Grace: “The Good Wife” television series

First premiering in 2009, “The Good Wife” is a spellbinder and the past two seasons are available on  Netflix (unfortunately not on Instant Queue yet).   We can’t get enough of this intricate, superbly written series!

Starring Juliana Margulies in the pivotal role of Alicia Florrick, wife of the disgraced Cook County state’s attorney (played by Chris Noth, Mister Big of “Sex and the City” fame), Margulies’ character is the collateral damage from her husband’s prostitution scandal that has turned her affluent suburban wife’s life upside down.  While Peter Florrick is serving time in prison for the scandal, Alicia has to return to work as a first year legal associate to support herself and her two teenage children.

The creators of “The Good Wife”  series were inspired not only by  politicians’ sex scandals (think Bill Clinton, then John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and Mark Sanford), but also by the fact that the humiliation of the wife who “stands by her man” is often a high-powered attorney who no longer practices her profession.   Alilcia Florrick embodies a certain aspect of the humiliated political wife.  

The worst has happened to Alicia already — she is the betrayed wife; her family name is in the headlines; she has moved from her expensive home and her friends (who turn out to be less than loyal). Alicia finds she has to navigate within the world of work, after almost twenty years as a stay-at-home mom.  This is a woman who graduated at the top of her class at Georgetown and now has to start as a junior level associate competing with a 27-year old striver. But her legal sense is partly derived from her uncanny ability to see what is really going on, perhaps due to her being blindsided by her husband’s betrayal.  She doesn’t care about the conventional way of looking at life anymore.  That failed her in the past.   All that matters is that she survives from one day to the next–with emotional support from and for her son and daughter.

Revealing personal feelings is out of the question for her. Alicia Florrick rarely is emotional with her estranged husband (although sometimes she seethes through clenched teeth) and is tenaciously rational with her colleagues and kids. But the unraveling unfolds and the viewer sees Alicia is heartbroken. She was in love, and wants to be again.  She replays scenes with her husband, trying to find what she has lost–not just him but herself. Take away the legal cases (which are a unique twist from the typical law-and-order script) and the personal journey of the Florricks becomes even more unpredictable…and sometimes ugly.  She can barely recognize the person she had been but the person she is becoming requires great strength, and she is attracted to her new sense of self.

“The Good Wife” speaks volumes to the conventional role of women, even those who are powerhouses in the professional world of law.  Margulies perfectly combines cold fury, bewilderment and unflinching integrity in her role as the good wife, the good lawyer, and the good mother who continues to sacrifice her own happiness for those of others. Moreover, Alicia Florrick heroically refuses any vestige of vengeance.  Her character continues to evolve.  Small hints of who she really is start to emerge in a restrained manner (perhaps too restrained for some viewers), in a kind of poised, permanent heartbreak. But the backdrop of Florrick’s emergence as a woman with her own identity–separate from her husband, her children, even her career — is like no other drama currently on television.  If you are not currently watching this series, by all means, order it online!