Bad Education, The Clinton Affair, Trial By Media

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I’ve never enjoyed a Hugh Jackman performance like the one he gives in Bad Education (HBO, on Foxtel in Australia). As Frank Tassone, the real-life New Jersey school superintendent whose left-of-legal shenanigans start to be revealed by a dogged junior reporter for the high school newspaper, he is oily and charming, monstrous and delicately tender. It’s a tricky, challenging role in a movie that could have played as an issue of the week; instead, both performance and film are hugely entertaining.

Tassone is not quite a Richard III, or even a Richard Nixon, of the schoolyard; his villainy isn’t as well constructed, nor his delight in it so palpable. But like those two Dicks, his downfall is our delight, and watching him eloquently sweat as the noose tightens is ever more gratifying.

There’s an excellent deep bench around him, including Alison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Stephen Spinella and Alex Wolff. Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) directs with a deft, light touch; I laughed a lot, and was sad for it to end. The Oscars have announced that streaming films will be awards-eligible; Hugh could get nominated here, deservedly. Great fun. * * * *

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The Clinton Affair, a six-part documentary series beginning Sunday the 24th of May at 8:30pm on SBS in Australia, examines the investigation into and impeachment of US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It is comprehensive, revealing and riveting, and, watched in our current era, operates on multiple levels.

As a portrait of the Clintons it is compulsive. They’re amazing characters, supremely intelligent and capable, but – in Bill’s case, anyway, – flawed, and what a flaw! The Monica Lewinsky incident stands as an historically stupid act, and in the era of #metoo, reminds us that ‘great men’ are always brought down by sheer, idiotic carnality.

As a document of the intense and relentless dirty tricks utilised by the Republican Party since the Clintons came to power, the series places the current US tribalism in a very clear context. Up until the Clintons, the series suggests, Republicans and Democrats had drinks together after a workday in Congress. Then came Newt Gingrich, and set the country on a highway to partisan hell.

Finally, seen today, the series is simultaneously a slice of nostalgia and a hard-hitting exposé of GOP hypocrisy. The party that tried to impeach the President for a sexual encounter supports Trump, who will outshine Clinton in corruption and deviancy on any given Wednesday. The attack on the Clintons was disgraceful, but also seems, viewed from today, as almost quaint: monstrosity in a less monstrous time.

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On Netflix, Trial By Media is a six-part, one-hour-per-episode documentary series examining six American courtroom cases, stretching back to 1984, where the media coverage of the trial became so omnipresent that it must be asked whether it influenced the outcome. Executive Produced by a heavily experienced team including Jeffrey Toobin, Steven Brill, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, it’s compulsive viewing, featuring reams of archival footage, interviews with copious associated participants (including, often, the lawyers on either side of a case) and a ton of research. Catnip for media, courtroom and doco lovers alike.

 

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

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Not everyone gets to make a home movie for HBO, and even Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha may have faced a “Thanks, but no thanks” suggesting a personal hagiography of her (deserving, there is no doubt) mother. But when you can bring your stepdaddy Robert Wagner to the table, promising an intimate interview including going over the events of ‘that night’ – that Natalie drowned – in excruciating, minute-by-minute detail, well, you’ve got yourself a green light.

The result, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, is filmmaking at its most personal, and its most agenda-driven. In a nutshell, Natasha Gregson Wagner’s intention with the film is to exonerate her “Daddy Wagner” – as she calls him throughout the film – from the lingering whispers, mainly propagated by Natalie’s sister Lana, that he was directly, even murderously, responsible for her death. She makes a strong case, basically because Wagner, now 90, comes off as such a teddy bear, and one who clearly legitimately loved his deceased wife.

I rather loved this film, even as I saw through it. You could remove all the stuff with Daddy Wagner and have a lovely hour-long ode to Natalie’s life as mother and actress. But then, without daddy, I doubt there would have been a movie at all.

Now screening on Foxtel in Australia.

Hunters (Amazon) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

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Even though he may have aged out of being a massive box office drawer, Al Pacino is still a Big Deal Movie Star, and thus his first TV series is a Big Deal. Shame then, that – based on the movie-length pilot, and I won’t be watching any more episodes – Hunters (Amazon) is such an agonisingly bad choice for his streaming debut. Garish, sadistic and desperate to please, it is also deeply offensive, so much so I’m staggered it was green lit, made and is now being screened.

The premise is that in late 1970s New York, there is a ragtag team of Nazi hunters, led by Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, a concentration camp survivor, hunting Nazis in America. Indoctrinating a young fella whose survivor-grandmother has been coldly murdered by one of these rogue Nazis, Offerman and co also face a potential new Nazi movement in the US – a Fourth Reich.

Nazi hunting is certainly not unprecedented as dramatic fodder; The Boys from Brazil (1978) was always playing on Sunday night TV when I was a kid. That film was nominated for three Oscars and is considered pretty classy. There are plenty of smaller films, such as Remember (2015) and The German Doctor (2013) that try to wrestle with the human side of evil and approach the subject with some form of integrity.

But it is integrity that is wholly absent in Hunters. This is cartoon stuff and brutally insensitive. I knew I was out halfway through the pilot episode when a ‘human chess game’ is depicted at a Nazi concentration camp: a mean Nazi commander plays chess with one of the prisoners, using other prisoners armed with knives as living pieces; when they ‘take’ each other, they slaughter each other. I cannot imagine how I would feel, seeing this sequence, were I a camp survivor. “Your experience,” the show is saying, “wasn’t horrible enough, so we’ve invented this.”

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Meanwhile, on the altogether more classy HBO, Larry David delivers a tenth season of his comedy of manners Curb Your Enthusiasm (on Foxtel in Australia). There’s no reason for him to; after all, just like his character (who is himself), Larry is loaded, beyond any mortal’s wildest dreams (estimates are around the billion dollar mark, from royalties and ongoing sales of Seinfeld, which David co-created). But #metoo has happened to the world since Season Nine, so it stands to reason it should happen to Larry, who, while no predator, ticks every other box for being in the movement’s crosshairs. Watching Real Larry and Fictional Larry duke it out onscreen – where does one stop and the other start? – in this heightened environment gives the season a definite edge it hasn’t had since about Season Three, and makes it worth watching. That, and the fact that, as usual, it’s really funny.

Avenue 5: HBO / Foxtel Showtime (Review)

It is with no pleasure at all to report that Armando Iannucci’s new show for HBO, Avenue 5, is not good (at least, according to the pilot). Iannucci, my favourite living screenwriter and showrunner/creator/producer/director (I’m Alan Partridge (and various other Alan Partridge shows), The Thick Of It, In The Loop, The Death of Stalin, Veep, and the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield). Iannucci has brought some of his long-standing writing and producing crew, including Tony Roche, Will Smith, Ian Martin, Georgia Pritchett, Sean Grey and Simon Blackwell along with him to this new venture; together, these are The Beatles of TV comedy, as astonishingly consistently brilliant group. Let’s call them The Iannuccis. But all artists are fallible, and something happened here.

Political satire has been The Iannuccis’ stock in trade, and they’re at their most dextrous when manoeuvring a group of three to seven nincompoops around a farcically inane situation. Here, they’ve substituted recognisable corridors of power – British Parliament, the White House – for those of a luxury starship cruise liner, led by Iannuccis all-star Hugh Laurie as a witless captain (there’s a twist to that which I won’t spoil). When a galactic incident occurs, the starship is propelled into a new trajectory, stranding the passengers and crew together for three years.

It’s hard to define exactly what went wrong, but something really did, because the show fails, landing its gags with a dead thud. The huge cast – rather than tight groups, we’re deliberately dealing with a lot of passengers – weighs the comedy’s mechanics down; the contrived setting jettisons The Iannuccis ability to deploy satire; mainly, though, the characters who form the key ensemble within the starship just aren’t well conceived. This means we’re stuck with them, drastically reducing the chances of the show ‘finding itself’, at least this season.

Too much money, too much carte blanche, too long working together, too complacent in their brilliance, too much on their plate(s)? Impossible to say. What is clear is that the cast – some individually talented – are clearly trying to play in The Iannuccis style; they’ve watched Veep and they’re doing Veep, and with this many of them, it’s all too much, too loud, too unfocused, and unfunny.

Oh well.

The Young Pope and The New Pope

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Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but there would be a case to be made that The Young Pope is the most beautiful season of television ever made. It was created – and, vitally, every one of its ten episodes was directed – by Paolo Sorrentino, who is recognised worldwide as one of the great visual stylists, whose trademark style is beauty, and whose breakthrough, Oscar-winning film is called The Great Beauty. That film takes place in Rome, widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful cities in the world; The Young Pope is set in the Vatican, which is in Rome, and shot in Venice, which, need I say, is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Take all this and add an HBO budget – you know, Game of Thrones / Succession level budget – and there’s your case: The Young Pope is possibly the most beautiful season of television ever made.

That’s important, because its beauty helps keep you going when the plot gets you down. It’s not that Paolo can’t tell a linear story efficiently, it’s that he doesn’t care to: if you’ve seen any of his movies you’ll know what I mean, and he brought the same disregard for traditional plotting, and the same emphases instead on visual style, intense wit, multitudinous references, and deep character examination, to The Young Pope.

That was 2016 / 2017. Now, rather than a second season of The Young Pope, he gives us The New Pope, which will make sense once you watch Season One. Should you? Unabashedly yes, if you’re down for what I’ve already put forward and more: astonishing, ravishing beauty (including that of Jude Law, who plays The Young Pope), wit, deep intellectual curiosity, uncanny political relevance (much of The Young Pope predicts Trump’s chaotic reign and the intense turmoil it causes) and extremely deep levels of conflicted, confusing, contradictory characterisation. Just don’t come expecting a simple story cleanly told. That’s not Paolo’s style, nor his Young Pope’s.

The New Pope has been fast-tracked and is now screening on SBS On Demand in tandem with its episode-by-episode release on HBO. All episode of The Young Pope are available.

Watchmen (HBO / Showcase)

Watchmen remains the equivalent of a sacred text among graphic novels. The 1986 tome by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels in English since 1923. It was adapted into an incredibly faithful film by Zack Snyder in 2009. At the time I wrote of that film that it was an “excellent, exciting adaptation which will please fans no end, but probably bewilder those who have not read the source material. Violent, strange, enigmatic and loads of fun.” Some of those sentiments carry over here.

Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series continues the story world of Watchmen by bringing its given circumstances into the present, but not our present. Like the source text, it presents an “alternative history” narrative. In the 2019 of the show, Robert Redford is President (and that is literal: the actor Robert Redford is not playing “the President” in the TV show Watchmen; rather, in the TV show Watchmen, the actor Robert Redford is the President). Police officers’ handguns, at least in the state of Oklahoma, where the first episode is set, are locked into gun-safes within their squad cars and may only be remotely released by an authorised higher-up back at base. Cops wear masks to protect their identities. And, most intriguingly, race now longer seems to be generally consistent within families: black parents have white children, and vice-versa.

There are a few big barriers to entry. The show’s world-building is clearly going to be deliberately parceled out, and those who need to get a quick grip on everything will feel rootless and probably frustrated. If you haven’t read Watchmen or seen the movie, the whole tone, which is intense, highly ironic (and sarcastic) and really pretty provocative, may be discombobulating or off-putting. And this is a show about vigilantes who wear masks and capes, so it is certainly superhero-adjacent.

I’m in for now. Lindelof is a TV genius (The Leftovers is one of my favourite TV shows ever, and Lost certainly was a thing) and the opening of this episode, dramatizing a horrendous moment in US racial history known as the Black Wall Street massacre, is arrestingly bold. The production values are through the roof, the music propulsive, and Jeremy Irons is in a concurrent storyline as a really weird castle dweller. One thing is for sure: there’s no predicting what’s coming next.

Succession Season Two

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Now halfway through its second season, Succession (HBO / Showcase on Foxtel) continues to overwhelm me with its brilliance; I feel that I am watching some of the greatest television ever made, on par with Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men. The humour is razor-sharp, the satire sharper even than that, while the drama is intense (and at times quite moving, quite the achievement for a show about privileged brats) and the plotting unbelievably engaging. This show rocks.

This season seems to be slicing even closer to the actual shenanigans of the Murdoch family, while also creating strong facsimiles of Vice and Gawker, Fox News (including a female version of Roger Ailes), Bernie Sanders and the Sulzberger (New York Times) and Bancroft (ex-Wall Street Journal) media dynasties. The directorial craft is exceptional (there are multiple directors), the acting incredible (and never more so than from the three “kids”, played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Australia’s own Sarah Snook) and the design impeccable. But it’s the writing, from series creator and chief scribe Jesse Armstrong, that is always the mic drop. He joins his colleague Armando Ianucci (they did The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In The Loop together, among other projects) as a CJ-Certified genius. If you haven’t tasted Succession, you need to watch season one first. What are you waiting for?

Chernobyl

Wielding resources from both HBO and Sky Atlantic, and fielding a cornucopia of British and European acting talent, Chernobyl is something to behold, a monumental, thus-far impeccable (and impeccably researched) five-episode rendering of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Suspenseful, alarming, horrifying, tragic and angry, this is television as good as it gets.

The scientists, party members, public – well, everyone – of this sad story are all portrayed speaking English with dialectically variable British accents, which takes a few moments to adjust to, but then you’re in. (Incidentally, The Death of Stalin did the same thing, with director Armando Iannucci pointing out that the USSR was so vast and composed of so many different dialects and accents, the use of multiple British voices made sense, and it did, as it now does here).

The show thus far is a scathing indictment of the State system of secrecy, cover-up and general terror at being perceived as anything other than perfect at everything. The sheer denial of truth at every level is mind boggling and infuriating, and will be a revelation for many viewers (myself included). This is an expansive, expensive, take-no-prisoners investigation into a system’s response to a terrible accident, rather than a “disaster movie” depiction of the accident itself, although the disaster is rendered, in the first episode, with exquisite and disturbing effect. I was truly moved as the credits rolled on episode one, and felt reverberations from those late 80s nuclear-themed calls to action The Day After, Threads and When The Wind Blows.

You would hardly expect from his credits – Scary Movie 3 and 4, The Hangover Part II and Part III – that creator and writer Craig Mazin had this in him. People will surprise – and amaze – you. This is must-see television.

New Comedy On The Box

There’s no denying Chris Lilley’s “commitment to the bit”, nor his abilities around mimicry, impersonation, vocal dynamics, physical comedy and all the other technical performance skills that go into his brand of long-form / ongoing character comedy. At his best his portrayals are uncanny. That said, I’m two episodes into his new show Lunatics (Netflix) and yet to laugh. There’s technique on display, but very shallow content.

Lilley’s new show showcases six characters; only two of them are engaging (for me), meaning there are already long stretches of desert content. He seems to dislike his female characters, and flat-out hate an unfortunate income-and-intellect-deprived hefty teenage boy (read: fat bogan idiot); they are treated with disdain, and by association, so are the social, cultural and national types they are emblematic of (such as a female South African ‘psychic to the stars’).

Lilley’s comedy was once cutting-edge; whether or not it’s now considered offensive (he no longer trades in blackface, but comes close), it can hardly be called relevant. Some of it is long in the tooth, some strikingly observed, some mean. The overwhelming comic attribute of this suite of characters is that they’re dumb; one of them, Joyce, seems to be seriously mentally ill, and nothing about her is funny. It’s a dispiriting package overall.

Luckily, Netflix has also dropped another, better sketch show, I Think You Should Leave, by Tim Robinson. These six 16-minute episodes are wild, unpredictable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Like Lilley, Robinson, aided by occasionally famous guest stars and respected alternative comedy regulars, skewers types and tribes of people; unlike the characters of Lunatics, they’re types and tribes of the here and now, that we can recognise.

Entering its seventh and final season, Veep (Foxtel) is making a play for the greatest half-hour comedy of all time. In this, series creator Armando Iannucci will be challenging his own brilliant British show, The Thick of It, for the title. They’re thematic cousins: the first eviscerated the British political system, while Veep rips a new one for the Americans. Both portray politicians as venal, greedy, foul-mouthed and generally incompetent, and both are funny as hell. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in Veep’s lead Selina Meyer, has created one of the greatest of all television characters, becoming a six-time Emmy winner for the role (that would be the last six Emmys, and she’ll almost certainly win one more time for this season).

The challenge for this season, of course, is that Trump has made US politics stupider and more corrupt than anything Veep has come up with. In response, Selina (and Jonah, played by Timothy Simons) have become even more craven, and that’s fine. This show was never going to get nicer; if it had, it would have been a betrayal. The trademark rapid-fire dialogue has gotten even faster, as though the writers are challenging themselves to produce a show that demands to be watched again the moment the episode is over so as to catch all the jokes. They’ve succeeded. Veep remains a brilliant piece of satirical art, and the funniest show on all of television.

Succession

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HBO’s Succession, now airing (and available for full-season download) on Foxtel, is not only the best season of television of the year, it is one of the best debut seasons of television I’ve ever seen, up there with the first seasons of Deadwood, Spiral and The Wire. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, what you may call Shakespearean, dealing, as he did, with humanity’s foibles through the prism of the very rich and powerful. It is also incredibly funny, which may not be apparent from its signifiers: it’s an hour-long show, it’s got a cast of actors mainly known for dramatic roles, and it looks, from stills and trailers, like a drama. But its pedigree is not only very much comedic, its golden.

The creator is Jesse Armstrong, a very English comic author whose crowning work, before Succession, was fifteen episodes of The Thick of It and the screenplay for the movie that accompanied that incredible series, In The Loop (co-written with Thick of It co-conspirators Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell). If you know those, you’ll recognise that Armstrong (along with his collaborative team) is a spectacular creator of character-based, intelligent humour, spectacular dialogue, and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of power. All those combine magnificently in this season of television, this magnum opus.

The writing is sweeping, kaleidoscopic, vibrant, sharp and all kinds of outrageous, as well as being remarkably empathetic given the base-line venality of the characters. That’s the thing about Succession that you really need to know in order to take the plunge, and ride out the first few episodes which are very important to building this incredible world’s foundations: even though you may hate these characters, you’re going to weirdly end up loving each and every one of them, because they may not be good human beings, but they’re ludicrously good characters.

From the top down, the acting bench is uncommonly deep. Brian Cox, as a Murdoch-styled patriarch, lords over the action in the role his entire illustrious career has prepared him for. Australia’s own Sarah Snook is fascinatingly complicated as his only daughter, Kieran Culkin weird, funny and tragic as his cheeky, woefully unfocused youngest son. Jeremy Strong, who worked with episode one director and series executive producer Adam McKay on The Big Short, is quite brilliant as Kendall, the son who is meant to inherit the empire but keeps screwing it up; it’s an ensemble show but at the end of the day – and season one – it’s Kendall’s story and Strong is the lead, his relatively “unknown” status as an actor contributing effectively to Kendall’s mercurial, slippery, unknowable nature: is he dumb as an ox, smart as a whip, spoiled, ruined, traumatised, or just a brat? He’s all; they’re all all; the writing is encyclopaedic and the playing fully committed.

Then there’s Matthew Macfadyen, an outsider playing an outsider, the love interest to Sarah Snook, a sycophant to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, giving the funniest performance of the year. Strong may carry the show’s weightiest dramatic burdens but Macfadyen is given the responsibility of delivering some of the best lines Armstrong’s ever written, and he’s written a lot. If you know Macfadyen as the tall, incredibly British lead from Spooks or Pride and Prejudice then his wicked performance is all the funnier. It’s masterly work, worthy of a multiple awards. (Weirdly, the only Golden Globe nomination for this undeniably accomplished series is for Culkin, who is the only “American star” in the cast, which makes the Globes once again guilty of star-f***ing, of which the people in this series would probably approve).

What else can I say? That the season concludes so perfectly that I was shaking my head with wonder at Armstrong’s plotting genius? That Nicholas Britell’s magisterial score had me replaying the opening credits over and over? That we haven’t even mentioned “Cousin Greg?” This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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