The Golden Age of Television: A Summer of Madness and Sadness
Here’s what you think about HBO’s The Leftovers: You have no idea what to think. It’s the weirdest show outside of Adult Swim or some other willfully esoteric programming segment, if that’s the proper term for it, on a channel few people watch. It’s absolutely fucking weird and as addictive as the relentless smoking by the white-clad members of the show’s nihilistic Guilty Remnant cult.
Most people I’ve spoken to about The Leftovers haven’t made it past the first few episodes. That’s okay: I’m standing outside your window like a Guilty Remnant member, puffing away, waiting mutely, emotionless. You will succumb eventually.
The show has been called a study in grief and loss and love. I would throw madness in there as well. The premise is this: If two percent of the world’s population, or around a hundred and forty million people, suddenly disappeared with no reason, then what would happen to those who remain, to those leftover?
My personal premise is, if that happened, then there would be no question: I’d be one of the vanished, for sure. Whatever the reason is for those people disappearing, I’m sure it applies to me. Even in the slim chance the reason doesn’t apply to me, they would disappear me just as a bonus to mankind.
I haven’t read the book Leftovers is based on. As curious as I am as to where this is going — and it is gearing up for something major, I can feel it; it’s in the music, in the ominously spooky things like disappearing/reappearing white shirts and toasted bagels — I won’t peek into some cheat-sheet synopsis online because I don’t want to spoil the basis for my addiction: having absolutely no clue what the fuck’s going on or why I’m watching this. I don’t want to get to the last Doritos at the bottom of the bag just yet.
The writing isn’t the best on premium cable right now, but this is a meditative, plangent series in which a sizable portion of the cast doesn’t speak at all. It has that Euro-festival-film thing going on, you know what I mean? It’s a thing that’s starting to seep into premium cable: A chic lack of clarity, a tease, an edging, as they say in BDSM practices. There is little room for Shakespearean soliloquies that grandstand for Emmy voters.
Justin Theroux does a fine job of playing the perplexed law-enforcement mensch whose family is coming apart, and it is an archetype. A side bonus is he reminds me that I am perfectly willing to date men more my age, if they look and behave like that. Liv Tyler’s presence distresses me; I think of her as the ultimate modern Lolita ingénue from Stealing Beauty, but she’s getting older, definitely, and that’s not a bad thing. It just reminds me that Stealing Beauty was released eighteen years ago, and I feel my back might go out as a result of trying to carry that reminder.
Just when you were thinking, as I did, that British actors do great American accents but our guys suck at doing theirs (cough, Peter Dinklage, cough), along comes Christopher Eccleston to dispel that notion. He is the U.K.’s very own Dinklage when it comes to screwing up an upstate New York accent, not that the American actors on the show seem particularly interested in regional accuracy; it wasn’t until episode five that I figured out it takes place in Westchester, not the Pacific Northwest.
I am in until the end with this one, and suggest you get caught up. You don’t need to smoke; I’m vaping.
Equally weird in terms of the way it is made is the new Manhattan on WGN America. The show is centered around the race to build the atomic bomb, starting in 1943, when the brightest scientific minds in the country were shipped off to what amounts to a cushy concentration camp in the middle of the New Mexican desert, a place that would evolve to become Los Alamos. But we didn’t know anything about that back then. Nor did the scientists’ wives or children, who were interred along with them. As a child of the Cold War, when the world was held hostage by Robert Oppenheimer’s creation, I’m naturally fascinated by anything to do with it.
Normally, the person who is solely credited with the A-bomb is Oppenheimer — Sting sings of “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” — but it stands to reason he was really the brilliant leader of a brilliant team. In Manhattan, Oppenheimer is painted as a shadowy, Wizard of Oz type who is more talked about than he is seen. Everyone else is fictionalized. Only what they talk about and what they will eventually produce is true to actual events.
At this point in the history of filmed entertainment, the blustery, frustrated scientist, who is forced by adversarial circumstances to prove Nietzsche right by stomping on his own moral compass, has become another archetype, thanks largely to Walter White from Breaking Bad. Sam Shaw, Manhattan’s showrunner, hasn’t taken any chances by casting a Bryan Cranston lookalike, John Benjamin Hickey, as the lead frustrated genius whose ethical standards must be compromised for his invention to move forward. And Hickey does a perfectly decent job of playing Walter White stuck on a pile of what is likely radioactive sand in the 1940s. The atomic bomb is his blue meth.
From the opening shot of Hickey’s Frank Winter shooting a golf ball into a violent sandstorm, the histrionics are revved up to maximum, themselves a compromise for better dramatic impact. How else can they keep a story about geeks racing the clock against the Nazis, about which you already know the outcome, engaging other than by making lots of noise? The tone is relentlessly pacy, angry with autistic frustration.
I like that Manhattan is chipping away at the heroic stereotypes the victors of World War II painted of themselves. The reality is the dynamics were as messy as all human interactions, especially in a time of great conflict. The dynamics were abusive. There were as many villains among our heroes as there were good guys. In many ways, we didn’t treat our people any better than the Japanese or Germans did when it came down to winning. How very American of us to admit it.
If you’re jonesing for Israeli television made in English with a U.S. budget, then Tyrant is for you. It’s not for me; I couldn’t watch past two episodes. It’s hard to believe the pilot was directed by David Yates, the director who saved the Harry Potter franchise again after Alfonso Cuarón saved it first from the clutches of Hollywood crapmeisters like Chris Columbus. Everything, from the overblown writing to the poor direction of performances — there is no way an entire group of actors can uniformly perform as a collection of garish Sicilian marionettes; it’s the direction — to the clichéd Arabesque music to the offensive way Arab culture is portrayed, makes you scratch your head and go, “The guys who created Homeland made this? Really?” Yet it’s true.
Clearly the production is one of those out-of-control messes, a domino effect that probably began when Ang Lee dropped out as director, to be replaced by Yates, who, mind you, isn’t a bad substitute by any means, certainly not for a show like this. Maybe creator Gideon Raff was overstretched with all of his other commitments. Only the filmmakers know for sure, and I’m sure everyone is pointing fingers everywhere; Tyrant has been panned almost across the board. What is certain is that it has broken the FX channel’s winning streak, which the network was enjoying with Archer, Sons of Anarchy, Louie, Fargo, and The Americans, all of which I watch and love. They do make a few other hits, too, which I don’t follow because they’re not for me. But they still aren’t outright stinkers like Tyrant.
The fact this is an Israeli production starring many Israeli actors as Arabs, a production that is as culturally sensitive as a Velociraptor trying to hatch quail eggs, is an example of how some shows take a great risk with timing in terms of current affairs. Another show that I’ll talk about shortly is also about the Israeli-Arab conflicts, specifically the Palestinian crisis, but it actually benefits from the timing of what is going on in Gaza. Nobody with a conscience has the stomach for Israeli vilification of Arabs right now.
The show co-stars Moran Atias, an Israeli actress I’ve had occasion to hang out with twice, once here in L.A., another at the Cannes Film Festival. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met in person, a woman so beautiful the true impact of her physicality is diminished by the camera; it’s as if no lens has yet been made that can fully capture that level of intensity. Or maybe they’ve simply stopped filming Bond girls like they used to. Or maybe the HD pixels can’t take the same heat that real film once did. In any event, I don’t remember her being as dark-skinned as she is in Tyrant, despite being from a Moroccan Jewish family. Either it’s makeup or tanning. Whatever it is, if it is at all, it’s blacking up. Tsk tsk.
The first time I met Moran, she tagged along on a hike to Runyon Canyon in Hollywood with me and the Israeli actor Michael Lewis, who briefly replaced Channing Tatum in the cast of my as-yet-unproduced film Hatter. When we got to the top of the hill, I pointed out the landmarks of the sprawling city beneath us. This is normally a moment that makes people pause for reflection; they realize they are standing above fabled Hollywood, and they’re somewhat in the wild canyon land of the American West, gazing out over the impressive hazy vastness of Los Angeles. And it’s sunny, eighty degrees, and late November.
I looked at these two unbelievably gorgeous creatures standing beside me like Leni Riefenstahl’s ideal of young athleticism and beauty, had Riefenstahl actually been Jewish instead of just sort of sounding it. I’d been on this hike so many times that the view, and the sentiments the view evokes for entertainment folk, was a long-distant memory. But I’m one of those who is so spaced out, especially when he’s deep in thought on a hike, that he’ll walk right by something obvious, for years, and never notice. And I’d never noticed a sign near where we had stopped that warned, “Caution Rattlesnakes.”
“Hah. Look: there are rattlesnakes around here,” I said, pointing at the sign. Neither Michael nor Moran reacted. There they stood in profile to me, golden Israeli godlings, looking out over Hollywood and beyond, soaking in their dreams. I nudged them further: “I said, ‘There are rattlesnakes around here.’”
Moran broke her gaze from the view, turned those almond-shaped Salomé eyes to me. “Why would we give a shit about rattlesnakes?” she growled with a smile. “We’re Israeli.”
There is a wonderfully catty, entirely accurate paragraph written somewhere out there about what it takes to make the perfect festival film. I haven’t been able to find it since sending it off to a film-school professor friend, and I can’t find a copy of that email, either. If I try to reconstruct it, the elements described were something like this: To make a festival film, you need a remote location nobody has ever been to, melancholy people staring out the window perplexed by problems you will never understand, faced with challenges that would never happen to you. The shots must be long and contemplative, with a burst of shocking drama at the climax that leaves you depressed and thoughtful for an hour or so after leaving the theater.
I am by no means doing justice to the original description, but that’s the gist of it.
Rectify is the ultimate American festival film paced over eight episodes per season, which makes sense seeing as it is a scripted drama from the Sundance Channel. And, boy, is it dramatic; it reaches Douglas Sirk levels of melodrama. If anyone ever smiles, it’s wryly. This is fitting: the series mines one of the most important American issues of our time, the evil twin of our lack of stringent gun control: the death penalty.
I am a firm believer in treating weighty issues with due solemnity. I cannot fault Rectify for that. It is also superbly scripted, some episodes more that others. Unlike mini-series like True Detective and the Israeli-Palestinian one I’m about to discuss, it is written by different people, and they seem to be allowed to add a subtle hallmark of individuality on each script, which is highly unusual; Americans do love their sameness of experience, and screenwriters normally oblige.
Series like Rectify give me great hope for the future of filmed entertainment, small screen and big. Every intelligent line, every cogent observation and philosophical utterance, every not-dumb, unusual turn of events is another blow to the pablum that the majority of Americans consume, which dictates what gets green-lighted. Viva la evolución!
The problem is, just how much Slingblade can you watch in one sitting? With its idiot savant, gnomic male lead and the overall funereal tone to the series — Rectify is even more of a slow-burn meditation on grief, loss and love than Leftovers — this is probably the most difficult high-quality premium-cable show to binge watch. I found it enervating when I got up to speed with it in just a couple of sittings. I would recommend watching it in small portions, even an episode a day. And watch some sherbet in between to lift the spirits, a high-quality comedy like Louie or Veep.
Where Tyrant fails to be the next Homeland, The Honourable Woman, a co-pro between Sundance Channel and BBC2 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role, may surpass it. Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a newly ennobled British-Israeli heir to a vast fortune made by her arms-dealer father, who was brutally murdered before her eyes when she and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) were small children. As the heads of a Jewish trust that aims to improve the situation in the Middle East by bolstering the economy on the West Bank, Nessa and Ephra must navigate the maze-like minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are Hansel and Gretel characters lost in a dense, treacherous forest filled with British, Israeli, Palestinian and American witches. They can trust nobody, not even each other.
That’s some compelling drama right there. What a set-up. I doff my hat and bow deeply to creator Hugo Blick, the show’s sole producer, writer and, yes, director. I also spit the venom of envy at him for being able to pull this off so intelligently, so stylishly, so refreshingly, so grippingly. At the end of episode three, he successfully did my head in after seducing me with an impossibly realistic pas de deux between Nessa and a lover. I uttered an expletive and tweeted, “Damn you, British TV.”
What elevates The Honourable Woman to a position of honor among the great shows in this golden age of filmed entertainment is how smoothly it tackles a complex issue that is at the core of so much of the world’s conflict today. What happens in the former Palestine affects most of us. But do we understand what it is about exactly, its genesis and the minutiae of the current situation? How many of us who are appalled by what is happening in Gaza truly understand the history behind it, the dynamics at play? We know that the State of Israel doesn’t give a shit what we think. Do you want to know why it doesn’t care, why it can’t care? Whatever you take away from Honourable Woman, this is why it rides the monstrous wave of current events so perfectly, so fortuitously.
I stand here before you to sing the praises of the undervalued Maggie Gyllenhaal. Firstly, let me mention the Gyllenhaal Smile, with which both she and her brother are blessed: at once charmingly winsome and menacingly creepy, it should be trademarked with SAG, if they allowed such a thing. The Gyllenhaal Smile is a quickly expanding and contracting comma they deploy to add surprising beats and contrary nuance to their lines. Then there is that posy of expressions unique to Maggie, at the center of which is The Smile, which she uses as a flipbook to carry her through the trickiest of monologues. Watch how she flips from surprised-and-appalled laugh to tears within two sentences, with nothing more than a sniff to bridge them. This is fantastic acting.
What to say about her pitch-perfect cut-glass English RP accent? I mentioned how awful and grating Peter Dinklage’s is. Gyllenhaal’s is the opposite. The accuracy and ease of it makes me both relieved and perversely patriotic at the same time: We can do it! And it isn’t only that glorious freak Meryl Streep who can do it.
I want to say that Gyllenhaal is the rich man’s Carey Mulligan, but that is being irrationally unkind to Mulligan. Still, it expresses what I mean, for both women have a certain sameness in the way their faces are shaped, in the doleful slope of their eyes, in the generous sensuality of their unlikely mouths, in the grownup-waif seductiveness of their essential facial expressions, a honeyed set of expressions that causes you to relax a couple of extra inches into your seat, that slumps your eyes into bedroom mode when you’re talking to them in person. Moran has this quality. Even if they aren’t classically beautiful as Moran, they become so by virtue of those pheromone-releasing characteristics; it’s called “a certain je ne sais quoi,” not meant for explanation, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to say what that quoi it is.
Every now and then, I call a film or a TV series out as being mandatory viewing. If everyone watched The Honourable Woman, they would approach the Middle-East crisis with a little less hysteria and more balance. There can be no more generous purpose to exist for a piece of entertainment than that.