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TV Review: Cold Blooded (Sundance)

A new documentary by director Joe Berlinger is the best orientation I’ve seen or read of the November 1959 mass murder depicted in In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote. Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, which aired in two parts last week on SundanceTV, comes in four, 42-minute parts on iTunes. The thoughtful series is compelling and, surprisingly, life-affirming.

Tracing in a clear, concise but mercifully well-paced, conversational and cohesive narrative, Cold Blooded lays out the chronology, motives and steps of the two criminals who broke into the Holcomb, Kansas, home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter. The criminals were looking for a safe that one of the killers had heard or fantasized about while listening to tales about the renowned, skilled farmer Herb Clutter in prison, though rape may also have been a major motive. What followed the break-in, if you don’t already know, is thoroughly examined.

However, if you do know how 15 year-old Kenyon Clutter, 16 year-old Nancy Clutter and their parents were executed, and the murderers investigated, caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, this notorious slaughter gets a fuller, more nuanced and rational treatment and you’ll probably gain a lot of new knowledge. Cold Blooded is not one of those brash, vulgar, deep-voiced or sensory-overloading cable television shows that tease and sensationalize death for shock’s sake. Cold Blooded covers the case made infamous in Capote’s absorbing In Cold Blood and the subsequent 1967 movie adaptation (which I’ve reviewed and found lacking), but this series revolves around the exclusive, spellbinding and largely untold tale of the Clutter family.

And that makes all the difference.

Cold Blooded excels as objective reporting because veteran documentarian Berlinger — a real documentary filmmaker using documents, not primarily an activist with an agenda confining itself to perceptual material such as pictures — weaves facts, logic and history into a televised tapestry. His expertly conceived work touches on, accounts for and contemplates each and almost every aspect of this mid-20th century crime, which launched Capote’s career in earnest even as it destroyed the talented writer, catapulted the true crime genre and forever melded fact and fiction for better or worse (those of us inclined to opt for ‘worse’ will not be disappointed, yet Cold Blooded manages this without denigrating Capote).

Among Cold Blooded‘s exclusives: audio and video segments with the two surviving Clutter kids who’d moved out of the house before the murders and consented to these interviews on the condition that their privacy be paramount; other relatives, friends and the son of investigator Alvin Dewey. Crisp, not gimmicky, photography, brisk, not fast, pacing and carefully labeled archival footage add to the sense of realism through reflection and selective recreation of the crime. Berlinger found and uses See It Now (1952) clips with Mr. and Mrs. Clutter from an episode of the CBS News program.

Key facts are reported in scrupulous detail, from killers Perry Smith’s and Dick Hickock’s brutal and abusive backgrounds, which both include devastating physical harm including the beating of a boy’s penis by a nun and a major head injury. From Mexico, Iowa, Las Vegas, Barstow, California and Sarasota, Florida to precise retracings and reports in Olathe, Kansas City, Garden City and other Kansas towns and cities, including Holcomb, of course, Cold Blooded generally addresses crime and punishment essentials, though some aspects are underexplored.

The killers are not overexamined, which is typically the case with the Clutter murders, and the same goes for Capote, a flamboyant and intelligent writer who became an alcoholic and died at age 59 in 1984. Capote’s research in Kansas with To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is covered, too, as well as the 1967 movie directed by Richard Brooks starring Robert Blake, who, like O.J. Simpson, was later accused of murdering his wife and found by a jury responsible for her wrongful death.

Berlinger’s ability is on full display. He perfectly paces the segments. Interviews with persons associated with the case, whether they’ve known the criminals, prison, defense, prosecution, police or intellectuals, are sensitive, revealing and insightful. Titles are clearly marked with names and dates which last longer than a half-second. Several interviews are striking, poignant and inspiring. One Clutter relative kept a journal. Reading from it, the relative shares remarkable and poetic elegies. Others possess that distinctly American Midwestern sense of justice. A cemetery caretaker offers simple and profound thoughts. Capote is neither deified nor caricatured, as is often the case.

Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, who was a suspect, tells in a wounded voice his tale of intense, lifelong alienation and deep, abiding loneliness. But he returns later in the series to offer an unyielding and highly moral, even sacred, memorial tribute which rightly honors the dead and puts this horrible crime in a proper perspective. Berlinger lets the audience exercise their own judgment. This makes Cold Blooded an aching and overdue story about the good, decent and innocent victims of a then-newly emergent, partly thanks to Capote, type of American crime which never came to an end: the roving, random mass murder, from the hippie Manson killing of the productive for being productive in 1969 to last month’s unsolved slaughter of the happy for being happy in Las Vegas. In this purposeful recounting and powerful remembrance, facts, evaluations and evidence provoke the audience to contemplate this historic, evil crime and think about what’s gone wrong and why.

Putting the exterminated Clutter family in fuller view, Cold Blooded doesn’t let the viewer turn from injustice — which is the least the innocent and the living deserve.

 

TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.

Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.

Buy the first season

Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.

More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.

This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.

Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.

For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.

This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.

This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.

Remember Ron Glass

The cast of the gritty, Greenwich Village police comedy, Barney Miller (1975-1982), was anchored by Hal Linden in the lead. He played the 12th precinct’s rational police captain, who was practical, balanced and optimistic. The show’s uniquely dry, humorous pathos stemmed from shuttling between cynicism and idealism, almost always with a dash of the ridiculous. A multicultural cast avoided tokenism in the writing, which twists stereotypes every which way with cop and criminal characters that are old, Puerto Rican, black, female, Polish, gay, etc. The most intellectual character was a police detective who’s a writer named Harris.

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Ron Glass (seated, far left) as Det. Harris on ‘Barney Miller’

Detective Harris was played by Ron Glass, who died last week. Glass played Harris with perfection for all eight seasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, which isn’t easy to find in syndication, and longer since I watched with my dad as a kid while it aired on ABC. I remember Detective Harris as clever and discriminating in spending his wit and intelligence on his work in the precinct; Harris did his job and did it well and was often called upon for his writing skills. What was distinctive, besides his being black in an era in which most black TV characters were poor, uneducated or criminal, is that Harris was both intellectual and debonair; he was handsome and was always the best dressed without being a dandy.

Det. Harris was also the only one with a steady, long-term career goal outside of law enforcement. He was usually relaxed, driven and disciplined. Harris always held himself a bit removed from his co-workers. He was proud, even a bit arrogant, yet affable and he never sought to be just one of the guys. Harris had higher aims. As I recall, the sophisticated detective was also the least prone to suffering, guilt and self-pity. Harris was an egoistic, happy policeman.

I can’t think of too many writer characters in Seventies television, let alone writers portrayed as positive and efficacious, as against fundamentally flawed and neurotic, and in mostly male work environments. I noticed this as a boy and, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, I found myself looking to Harris as a character every week, watching how he held and handled himself, checked himself, disciplined himself, withdrew or spoke up and worked within the precinct as a means to an end. That Harris, who eventually wrote and published a book, happened to be black was less integral to his identity than that he wanted to write. I noticed this, too. I think that’s thanks to Ron Glass, who took biting lines and deadpan looks, gave the character depth—not merely sass—and created an indelible cop-writer.

Last week, a decrepit dictator died who should be remembered for mass enslavement, misery and death and, as a warning, for glorifying thuggishness in TV, media and culture. TV also lost an amicable and talented entertainer, Florence Henderson, who played a cheerful housewife and mother for five seasons on another ABC comedy. Seeing the glorified thug on TV taught me early in life that something was terribly wrong with the world. Watching an idealized parent on TV gave me some guidance in the form of an often artificial and silly situation. I gained the most value from watching an actor playing an intellectual policeman who chooses to become a writer. For eight seasons on Barney Miller, Ron Glass made projecting a goal into the future seem possible and enjoyable. He did it with a sense of hard, grueling work as a rare and rewarding achievement. For this reason, I think it’s Ron Glass, the least likely of these three to be known, grieved and remembered, whose work will have—and ought to have—the greatest impact in the future.

TV Review: Code Black on CBS

This week, the CBS medical drama Code Black, which aired on Wednesdays, finished its first season (no word on renewal yet). An exceptional first season it is.

In retrospect, the show loses momentum with too many cast additions and a distinct shift from the doctor’s proximity to (and impact upon) the patient to mundane, internal hospital melodrama and contrived social messaging. In its current status at season’s end, it’s too much like a soap opera. Tinkering in the last episodes detracts.

But every episode up until the freeway pileup climax (“The Fog of War”), makes Code Black one of TV’s best series. The premise of a team of residents learning at the discretion of a leading doctor everyone calls ‘Daddy’ (Marcia Gay Harden) and a tough, wise nurse who goes by “Momma” (Luis Guzman) at a Los Angeles hospital that’s chronically at or over patient capacity carries the season to greatness.

CodeBlackCBSThe family-themed hierarchy helps. It sets the tone of Michael Seitzman’s show, which is based on the documentary of the same name, and casts the strangeness of working in this uniquely unhealthy, demanding environment—the American hospital in general; the emergency room in particular—in the proper perspective. In every episode, there comes a stylized dawning that illuminates the darkest corners of the rooms, instrument trays and curtain folds of a place where lives are won or lost and changed or reborn. This moment when the sun comes up means that reality exists independent of everything you’ve experienced; the new day brings new trauma.

Let’s get to it, Code Black‘s arch team seems to say every week, without the smugness of NBC’s ER, which often depicted doctors as topical mouthpieces or CBS’ Chicago Hope, which often showed docs as eccentric windbags. Here, the team is mostly led by a stern, rational physician played by the excellent Ms. Harden (Grandma, The Hoax, If I Were You), challenged, needled and backed by Guzman’s nurse, and their personalities are secondary to the medical matter at hand. They each exist to serve the medical purpose of the moment and, while each character’s background and motives for working in this place becomes clear, it never comes at the expense of fixing, tending, saving, declaring the dead and, yes, curing. Code Black at its best stings with its wholeness of purpose: the time the cocky stud learns to handle a patient’s priapism, or to grasp what he has in common with a flamboyant, dying patient or to grapple with why he’s always alone.

Nothing feels fake or forced on Code Black, though there are cliches and contrivances, as there are in matters of life and death, too. When a resident discloses a past drug addiction, death of loved ones, sexual orientation or fear of failure, it’s relatively organic to the plot, which is liberally blended with any from a wide variety of medical scenarios with ordinary or morally loaded circumstances, such as a religious parent’s preclusion against medical intervention or a patient’s self-imposed order to not resuscitate. The situations feel like another day in a high volume hospital, the patients come off as realistic and so do the staff and yet everything retains both the steady intensity of today’s impossible medical bureaucracy and life’s—and especially health care’s—fleeting intimacies that flare up in color and fade to gray or, sometimes, black.

Watch for Marcia Gay Harden’s interactions with any other character for the soul of the show. Look for Kevin Dunn as an intelligent foil who makes good points and bends rules even though he’s a hospital bureaucrat. William Allen Young as intellectual Dr. Guthrie is one of Code Black‘s best characters and one of its first victims of mid-season tinkering—when personal stuff explodes in the hospital, which starts to gain uninteresting characters (Heather, Grace, Gina) and lose its involving aspects—and the cast of residents is fine, too. Raza Jaffrey as Dr. Hudson and Benjamin Hollingsworth as Dr. Savetti are also especially strong in roles that call for wide ranges.

The first 12 episodes are the best, striking hard, fast and powerfully with larger than life themes (“The Son Rises”) that may move the audience to tears. Even when an annoying patient character played by June Squibb (Nebraska)—in the same type of irritating role Squibb always plays—dismisses Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it’s plausible that someone like her would fail to grasp something like that. Even in lower caliber later episodes such as the season finale with Paula Newsome (Black or White) as a politician’s wife, a superior performance elevates contrived, politically correct material. Code Black deserves to get better and it ought to get a second season. Only then does it have a chance to recapture its original and incisive dramatic contemplation of what it means to be a doctor and medical practitioner in a mad, sick world in which every day might also hold something glorious and good.

Fox News and Facebook in Ohio

Last night’s spectacle in Ohio, billed as the first 2016 presidential election debate, was a farce.

The top-polling Republican candidates from the current field of 17 were emasculated in the Fox News event, which was a ratings winner and an awful piece of broadcasting. The event (it can’t reasonably be called a debate) was run by three Fox News program hosts (Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace) and co-sponsored by Facebook. An earlier event with other Fox News people and other candidates was also held.

Candidates quipped, firing off lines to no particular effect. A woman named Carly Fiorina who used to run Hewlett-Packard with dubious results and once ran and lost a U.S. Senate race in California apparently dominated a lackluster field in the more congenial mini-spectacle. In the main event, drawing attention chiefly for the prospect of watching the unfiltered Donald Trump, the spectacle was pathetic.

First, the Fox News trio, led by Kelly and sniveling like mustache-twirling cartoon villains, paraded the candidates before the Cleveland, Ohio arena’s audience like they were part of a perpetrator walk for a police lineup. The men, possibly the most religious field of candidates in U.S. history, were made to stand and do nothing while the trio snickered and the audience was incessantly reminded that the house was packed with an enthusiastic crowd, an assertion which had nothing to do with a proper debate. Really, the Fox trio lorded over the candidates. I later saw a headline on Drudge which indicated that the three Fox News people had more cumulative talk time on air than the candidates.

Left-leaning press types are already praising Fox News for being tough on the candidates.

But that’s not really true. The trio was more aimless, grandstanding and badgering than they were honest, clear and tough on top Republicans. They were more like duty-bound cops barking at the detained than they were like respectable journalists conducting an inquiry for the purpose of an exchange of ideas. It was all about optics, not issues and understanding.

In fact, commercial bumps, theming and branding took up excessive time. The introduction went on and on, pandering to the audience, explicitly putting location, audience and spectacle above any exposition of candidate ideas, values and positions. Only seasoned Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, seemed mildly befuddled, frustrated or annoyed at the affair and he was relegated to third string after fraternity-type Baier, who declined Texas Sen. Ted Cruz after a polite request for a reply, and overbearing, unprofessional Kelly, the trio’s leading voice in Tammy Faye Bakker false eyelashes. They seemed to have brought lines and quips and a zeal to score points as against being studied, prepared and informed enough to ask questions, demand answers and elicit views for the audience to gauge, judge and consider. The viewer never got even a flash of context in today’s times, let alone a sense of the magnitude of the major, catastrophic issues and dangers faced by the nation. Questions about reality TV quotes on “fat pigs” were treated with equal measure as questions about a nuclear-armed Islamic enemy. The affair was an exercise in smallness.

Nothing much was learned. Trump the poll-leading anti-capitalist was Trump, defending total government control of the medical profession without followup. Florida’s ex-governor Jeb Bush showed up with an air of entitlement as he always does even when he speaks of something he thinks he’s earned. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, son of a preacher, worked in a line or two as if sensing that this is not his best format. Doctor Ben Carson stammered and rambled about altruism and God. Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio made points and messed up facts. Tellingly, Arkansas ex-governor Mike Huckabee, the Christian socialist-populist and former Fox News host, wrongly stated that the purpose of the military is to kill, adding only as an afterthought that they ought to protect the nation, too. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sparred over mass, indiscriminate surveillance on Americans and both failed to make a coherent case in an exchange which should have been (and, with moderators, would have been) broadened into a debate among speakers. Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich sounded respectable representing the status quo, Me-Too Republican welfare statist, justifying each violation of individual rights with God and religion. As usual, Ted Cruz was fine until he spoke of God speaking to him and outlined his religious agenda, though he at times sounded like the most thoughtful of the bunch.

But they all served a single purpose and it wasn’t to discuss, debate and disseminate ideas. They were presented as clowns in a carnival; props for Fox News promotionalism. The format and questions were generally driven by the desire to titillate and generate fragments of controversy, not to query, induce an exchange and inform the public.

The left praising the display is likely moved by the notion that, if the mainstream media can convince people that last night’s spectacle was an exhibition of journalism, if not good journalism, the left can claim impartiality, employ the same cheap, shallow tactics and continue to get away with propping up the welfare state, leading Americans into total fascism. Baier, Kelly and, looking out of place and slightly ashamed of the company he keeps, Wallace, huffed, snorted and behaved like they were in a friendly barroom brawl, as if programming about presidential politics exists strictly as a spectacle sport. Properly executed, it does not.

Nothing less than America and the lives, liberties, properties and selfish pursuits of Americans is at stake in this presidential election, which is already such as circus that the most serious, principled candidate in the race so far is a socialist from New England named Bernie Sanders, a Democrat who’s filling up arenas as fast as any charismatic advocate of statism. The best that can be said of last night’s Fox News/Facebook debate is that it was not, as advertised, a debate. Like most of what Fox News puts on, it was a show. What Americans desperately need (and, still, to some degree, deserve) is a serious approach to political journalism, not a ringmaster ridiculing clowns at an anti-conceptual circus which may lead into a horror show.