IR Television Review: CATHERINE THE GREAT [HBO]

The last Russian woman of power changed the way the game was played. But in an era of patriarchy she pushed against the status quo while still maintaining a healthy appetite which in many circles. This is what has survived all the rumors oddly enough. In a day and age when Crimea has come under the aspect of the news again in terms of Russian perception as an important port city what Catherine The Great’s dexterity and at times forthrightness reflects in her early Ideas of giving up serfdom are quite forward thinking. While Alexander’s tendency plays into  the thrust of his grandmother’s ultimate plan, it is her life and the way she lived it that is dynamic but also fallible. The details of her former husband that met his fate for her to assume the throne is still mysterious but how she governs is not. This is the effective perspective of “Catherine The Great” which both administers her strengths but also her faults.

Helen Mirren, as she has done with many characters over the years, understands the aspect of women in power but also the tricks of ambiguity and antiquity and the problems it creates. As an aging actress this has provided her most telling performance perhaps since “The Queen”. She has had fun playing others but the aspect of loss and gain here but also a more mature relationship speaks to the essence of trust versus jealousy. This is something that completed encompasses her relationship with Potemkin whom she first becomes enamored with many years earlier as the mini-series seems to span a good 15-20 years.

Jason Clarke gives an interesting portrayal of Potemkin. The problem is that as the younger version where his young features currently still show, the character never fully vanishes. It is only as he grows more grizzled halfway through the miniseries that his characterization truly becomes rich. The mustache and gravelly deliver become more natural. There is a hurt but also a love in his devotion to Catherine despite his want to be on the battlefield versus being at the palace with Catherine. In a short span when he brings Crimea to her feet and she witnesses it as her domain, it becomes a very intimate story wide in its scope but personal in its impact.

There are other supporting characters that key into the proceedings. Richard Roxburgh plays one of her early lovers who basically pushes against her rule. He disappears in a haze which is never fully specific. Catherine’s Minister Of War Olaf who helped put her in power is an interesting dichotomy as his loyalty shifts and the story moves forward. The pathetic part of the story is Catherine’s son Paul who simply reminds Catherine of the err of his father’s ways, not necessarily that he would be a bad leader but Catherine senses something off in him, that gut instinct that tells her something her advisers can’t. The epilogue proves that.

Politics aside “Catherine The Great” is also an interesting diatribe in showing the essence of sexuality and the reality of power without pretense. One of the aspects that does reflect is the absence of Russian accents or even Russian actors. Granted this is a miniseries made by Sky and BBC in congruence with HBO but unless one was told it was Russia and Catherine The Great, it could quite frankly be any monarchy save for the performances of Mirren and Clarke.

“Catherine The Great” has the lushness and texture of most HBO series with a leading lady destined to receive said due praises for her work. But at its heart, it is a love story, power ratcheting though that it may be, that is engaging but also exceptional to the status quo that human nature does not change.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Television Review: MODERN LOVE [Amazon]

The essence of the romantic drama/comedy per se has been lost in recent years because of the disappearance of the mid-range picture. As a result, many of the wonderful character work actors can do without special effects sometimes can be lost. Often with most television as well, the writers are trying to get to the next narrative beat which is not wrong but sometimes sacrifices characters on the part of the story. That is why “Modern Love” throughout its entire 8 episode first season is so refreshing. It is unique and heartfelt stories but each, in their own way, uniquely theirs.

From the first episode about a girl alone in the city that shows her time through personal hardship with the help of simple love, , though platonic of her doorman, the episodes are poignant, perhaps schmaltzy but not overly so. It maintains the balance that “Maisel” does without the need to push her forward. These people’s lives are their own, tragic and beautiful though they may be.

Because the actors don’t have to be in all the episodes, it allows some great film actors who might not indulge in TV or simply like the idea of small ditty to shine. Actors like Sofia Boutella, and Caitlin McGee really shine as the series really gets the idea of missed opportunities but also the messiness of human behavior right without resulting overly on violence or sex as part of the storyline.

For example, Boutella’s segment in an interesting ramification on the notion of who she is and coming to terms with it in a simple way but it undeniably works in terms of the guy she unavoidably spends the night with. Dev Patel’s segment which also stars Catherine Keener as well as bits with Caitin McGee and Andy Garcia is one of the most poignant and some of the best understated acting all of them have done in years. Many of the other stories follow suit but the fact that many of them are based on a series of stories in the New York Times and by extension are all NY stories make it even more textured.

There are a million stories like that in the city, with undeniably many more to be told. Not all are conventional but all seem to hit interesting notes of reflection and dexterity without being too indicative of a message. Anne Hathaway’s segment seems tailor made for her and a little more fantastical than the others but its story and the way it is told lets her get closer the drama she could do but perhaps the breath is not there. Interstellar got her close but there was no comedy in there. She is able to show the highs and the lows in this character which is beautiful in so many ways.

The essence of marriage is explored in the segment starring John Slattery and Tina Fey. What makes this one sing is because they each have such a dynamic connection to NY, he with Mad Men, her with 30 Rock and SNL, that the essence of marriage falling away in a way in the heart of NY city and the isolation that you get from her, again shows what a show like this can allow certain people to do.

Later segments have a tome about daddy issues but also surrogate motherhood which require a little more narrative control so the ideas are more complex yet still shine in the end. If the first couple eps hook you then you are good to go. The progression of life is a big theme in the series especially how it comes to an end the first season. Love Actually is in many ways a good parallel because it is all brought together not because it needs to but it is that these people all exist in the same reality but only separated by blocks and social and work circles.

The opening credits says it all. Any good opening if done well can hook but this promotes nostalgia but also a sense of reality in the best way possible with a great location and inherent soulful acting to boot.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: THE DARK CRYSTAL – AGE OF RESISTANCE [Netflix-S1]

The challenge of creating an updated world of one such as “The Dark Crystal” is a specific challenge. The balance reflects in two aspects: can the puppetry be held up in such a way that it doesn’t take away from the original but also does it take into play the world building and mythology that Jim Henson created so many years ago. Granted nothing can be quite like what was done in 1982 considering the restrictions. But what Louis Letterier and the Jim Henson Workshop have done with “The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” is quite effective in living up to the original while also taking it much darker which was always underlying beneath the surface in the initial film. Leterrier seemed an odd choice initially after Genndy Tartakovsky, known for “Samurai Jack” and the initial “Clone Wars” shorts left the project seemingly over creative differences. What might be said is that there might have been a structure that Henson had initially left which painted the backstory. It is hard to say.

Nevertheless, the story told over 10 episodes takes into fact many eventual outcomes seen in the movie. But it also reflects an immigration story in reverse that is very prevalent to our times while also being universal and older. Watching this iteration, especially in the plight of The Gelfings, the parallel to Native Americans both in the look and mysticism of the characters becomes much more defined especially with Deet, an exceptionally connected Gelfing from underground. Another clan from what is called The Crystal Desert plays into this myth as well. The key aspect in this series that it shows Thra as bigger than what was imagined (or likely planned). The eventual genocide of the Gelfing as indicated in the movie is a great underlying theme even as battles are fought. Rian, as played by Taron Egerton of “Kingman” and “Rocketman” fame, anchors the cast as the would be hero.

However the grand balance relates in the Skeksis, both in the voices and the abject cruelty that begins to seep in. The most intrinsic simply because he is the most dynamic in terms of chess moves is The Chamberlain, as voiced by Simon Pegg. He is almost the Judas in a way who belies his own loyalty for a texture of power. Pegg gets enough of the voice without overplaying say, the whimpering. The General as always is his adversary for power as voiced by Benedict Wong. The overarching Emperor is voiced by Jason Isaacs and Mark Hamill plays The Scientist. The driving force of essence at a certain point becomes all encompassing. This could be a balance to the progressive nature of the current opiod crisis or simply reflect back the essence of the opium trade in the 1800s. Point being that the story works on many different levels.

Augra is the unifying and yet destructuring force. It is she who is blame but also she who is ultimately a deliverer. It is almost as if she is the ID within everyone. The larger reasoning of who the Skeksis are and why the Mystics function as they do is hinted at but left for later deduction. The politics though especially within the clans of the Gelfling are really what propel the story but it is the ideas influenced through Augra that anchor it. While the aspects of transcendence and new age thinking still play into the actions of the characters, the introduction of The Archer and more specifically The Hunter as well as two other characters co-existing with each other at the end of the world create a different dynamic and add even more to the proceedings.

Ultimately though the elements of the betrayal of trust by the Lords Of Crystal and their ultimate greed is what defines the path. Technically, the show does what is needed to do. Practical effects and puppetry are used heavily with only slight digital enhancements while landscape and certain creature elements that just would not have been possible before without CGI add that degree of scope without forgetting the true nature of Thra. “The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” is an apt, entertaining and visionary extension of Jim Henson’s universe. Seeing the possibility of it coming back in this way, which would not have happened in the current TV and filmmaking climate without Netflix, shows the importance of certain Ips being given a chance to reach a new generation while still reflecting the old.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: PEARSON [USA-S1]

The essence of politics and law can be a tricky slope. The intention of what characters do and don’t do are usually reflective of how they live their lives and what they want to accomplish. In “Pearson”, which focuses on the travails of one Jessica Pearson who formerly ran a law firm in New York in “Suits” is an interesting transmutation.

At a TCA panel attended when “Pearson” was announced, Gina Torres discussed how she thought she was done with this world but that this series gave her an interesting balancing act. As the focal point, it is about Pearson’s deconstruction without losing the elements that make her character who she is. Pearson was always a fixer but here she is a fish out of water. She has all her experience but has to learn the new path of fixing problems in a city that continues in its paradoxical ways.

Chicago is a ripe city for this series to be set, both reflective of its history and because of its history. It doesn’t make the mechanizations too dense within the plot but also understands that nobody is clean yet all are dipped in shades of gray. There is something gnawing at every single one of the characters…no matter how virtuous or altruistic they think they are. Bethany Jo Lenz as City Attorney Keri Allen brings a balance of power and vulnerability which is an interesting diametric to Pearson. Isabel Arraiza as Yoli Castillo reflects in a different manne with a subtext and subtle innerworkings that remind one of Meghan Markle in “Suits” albeit from a different perspective.

The notion of family also has a very specific tenure within the story on many fronts, including the mayor and his brother, two halves of the same whole but with different understanding of sacrifice and loyalty. Morgan Spector as Mayor Bobby Golec walks the line between glib and vilified, inspiring and decadent…sometimes the mark of a true politician. There is also a balance of optimism introspected by Eli Goree as Derrick the press secretary and even Chantel Riley’s Angela who is cousin and parallel to Jessica but with the exact opposite problems in many ways as the lead character.

The season (without spoilers) progresses in a sense of stopping a dam but realizing the cracks being formed or simply becoming more pronounced. The series knows the puzzle pieces it is constructing but also the plot points it needs to hit. It isn’t a by-the-books procedural in any way since the characters move awkwardly with real intention which can only be accomplished through subtlety in writing.

Pearson as a character is an enigma but one icy enough that an audience can root for her but now also fallible enough to know what can and can’t be solved hence making her more accessible to the audience. Chicago, like all of America, is about fighting what is right but knowing that paths are meant to be circular. The notion of identity examined in “Pearson”, both about who we are and who we want to be is a conscious awareness that its lead character continues to traverse.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: “If Memory Serves” (STAR TREK: DISCOVERY) [CBS All Access – S2]

The aspect of canon has always been a thistle in a way in the side of the “Discovery”. While striving to make something original, this franchise like Star Wars can be helped and hindered. But in its best it transcends. “If Memory Serves” is the best episode of the series by far because it found that balance. In bringing in old TOS lore, and staying fairly close without breaking it, it necessitates what might be in store. The aspect of Michael and Spock is so dynamic because it shows the incessant humanity while completely lost in logic. When he finally begins speaking, it makes a lot of what we have seen past and present integrated. It also very much speaks to perhaps a bigger structural basis between the Kelvin & Prime Universes which undoubtedly is spacing through the writers’ room. That said, despite any of the mechanics, “If Memory Serves” is a dynamic emotional episodes that contains the best perspective of Star Trek episodes in that they make you think, reflect but also emote. While Michael and Spock carry the basis of the episode, it is the balance and intent of Anson Mount as Christopher Pike and his connection that allows for the bridge between two worlds, as Mount alluded to IR at our interview at TCA, without him giving a thing away. Bravo.

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: “Light And Shadows” (STAR TREK: DISCOVERY) [CBS All Access – S2]

The essence of “Light And Shadows” reflects in the ideas of who we are and who we are to be perceived to be. In the most recent episode, Doug Jones’ Saru discovered that his instincts were really part of an awakening which allowed him to come to his unseen potential. The inference comes to a head as he is drawn back home to face demons, literally and metaphorically that have changed the idea of what it means to exist. This balances in Michael Burnham’s continuing search for Spock and the reasoning of this point. We finally see the first glimpses of Ethan Peck as Spock but what is really interesting is the diametric of the family as Michael herself returns home and like Saru must understand the difference between knowing her path and walking the path. The Red Angel continues to be a presiding influence but in true serialized storytelling structure it is starting to take on a different meaning in terms of its resonance. Connection is a big driving force but tolerance and understanding even more so despite differing socio, political, even world views. The ideal that ends the episodes again points to another piece in the puzzle which slowly but surely continues to unfold while telling very universal stories which “Star Trek” has always been known for.

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: “The Sound Of Thunder” (STAR TREK: DISCOVERY) [CBS All Access – S2]

The essence of identity continues within the structure of “Star Trek: Discovery”. In ”The Sound Of Thunder”, the texture of the Red Angel is continued by a series of perceptions of changed definition. Saru is the focus and the return to his home planet after a transformation of sorts. While not as powerful as the previous episode simply because the stakes are different, this perspective shows, without giving anything away that rising awareness can affect change but also change the nature of who we are. This is true not just of Saru but of a recently returned crew mate. What is interesting in this continuing thread is what expectations create. Parallel structure definitely affects Michael Burnham in many ways and in certain perspectives, some of the canonized material seen sometimes can also run parallel to “The Next Generation”. As the narrative continues to unfold, the essence of the story is connected but while still making each episode, this one more than the last, able to have a essential life force of its own without sacrificing the serialized nature of the proceedings.

By Tim Wassberg