Friday, June 10, 2016

TV Rampage

TV Rampage - Television Reviews

The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)
This British espionage thriller stars Dr. House, Hugh Laurie, and Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, as adversaries in a deep undercover spy game.  Huddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, is a former British soldier working as a night manager at a Cairo hotel. When he meets Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), mistress of the hotel’s Arab owner, they immediately make a connection, physical as well as emotional. Sophie gives Jonathan some secret illegal arms documents she feels guilty about hiding, and quickly pays the ultimate price for her betrayal. Turns out those documents were a blazing trail to Richard “Dickie” Roper (Laurie), a flamboyant English arms dealer whose weapons indiscriminately kill soldiers, bystanders, children and local sheep. He’s a bad, bad man. Pine is perfectly placed for revenge and to infiltrate Roper’s group, so with help from MI6 (the British CIA) and the CIA, (the American CIA), he infiltrates Roper’s gang and attempts to take them down from the inside.

What follows is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about a slick but untrained undercover operative trying to bring down an international arms cartel virtually alone. As Pine gets closer to Roper, he fends off a smart, skeptical member of the group with many correct suspicions, and starts to fall for Roper’s young, hot American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Roper sets up Pine as Andrew Birch, the head of a shell corporation that sells everything from Cobra missiles to Sarin gas. What is so fun to watch is the shell game itself. Roper becomes aware of a mole in his company, but can’t be positive who it is. He knows the authorities are on to him (despite his bribed minions in high British office), and runs circles around their attempts to catch him and expose his operation. Time after time, Pine leaks documents or information, only for Roper to be one-step ahead and closer to having Pine’s extremities removed. The story circles back to the original hotel where Pine and Roper met, as they have their final confrontation.

I can’t write about The Night Manager without mentioning Olivia Coleman, probably the finest currently working British actress. Coleman (Broadchurch) plays Angela Burr, a very pregnant MI6 agent who has been trying to nail Roper for years. As she loses her battles with her bosses, with Roper and finally her entire spy division, she maintains a stoic surety that one day she will get him. Pine is her last hope, and she bets everything on him—her career and even her life. Her speech about first discovering civilian bodies gassed by Roper is chilling and Emmy worthy. I absolutely love this woman’s work. The Night Manager is a first-rate production—more like this please.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Wynonna Earp (Syfy)
This is the first season of a Syfy production based on the Beau Smith comic book. Shows on Syfy can be incredibly cheesy and most times are not worth viewers’ attention—even on a lonely Saturday night. I’m happy to say Wynonna Earp is an exception. Overall, the show is a whimsical breath of fresh air. Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) is of course a direct descendant of Western lawman Wyatt Earp, latest in the line of supernatural fighting Earps. She inherited a magic six-gun that vanquishes demons, and as a child, said demons attacked her house and murdered her father and sister to get it. Wynonna comes back to the town of Purgatory after being away for a few years, and eventually recovers her magic six-shooter. She joins the “Black Badges,” a supernatural U.S. Marshall unit run by her boss Agent Dolls (Shamier Anderson), then proceeds to go after the rogue demons, especially the ones who attacked her home. Her younger sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) assists her from time to time.  

This show is a hoot. It is especially well cast, with Scrofano having a dynamite sense of comic timing and a hilarious talent delivering one-liners. When a demon demands she hand over her magic gun, she looks at him seductively and says, “It’s at home in my panty drawer, why don’t we go get it?” When she needs to empty out a bar quickly, she pulls out her pistol and shouts, “CrazychickwithaGUN!!!!!” and fires into the ceiling. Dominique Provost-Chalkley as Waverly beautifully plays the helpful sister sometimes frustrated with Wynonna’s self-destructive behavior, and Anderson is fun (but a little humorless) as Agent Dolls. Tim Rozon as 150-year old Doc Holiday strikes the perfect balance between slimy, questionable good guy and a bad-choice love interest for Wynonna. The plots have been smart and fun with some big surprises. The only wrong turn taken by the show is when a lesbian sexual predator in authority (a police officer) goes after formerly straight Waverly. And gets her. It’s creepy and unnecessary to the plot. Otherwise, Wynonna Earp is pure supernatural comfort food.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

The Americans (FX) *SLIGHT SPOILERS*
Folks will be talking about The Americans long after the show is off the air. Taking place in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., it’s a phenomenon that gets better every season, every episode. On the surface, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings and their kids are a close, middle class American family. Phillip and Elizabeth own a travel agency, their kids Paige and Henry are typical teenagers. In reality, Phillip and Elizabeth are Soviet sleeper agents, sent to America to raise a family and blend in while they go on covert espionage missions for the USSR. While Phillip recognizes that America isn’t all that bad and actually has a lot to offer, Elizabeth is a true believer who is in no danger of going native. Married as young agents, through the years they actually fall in love and become what they appear to be; a loving family.

Their neighbor Stan is an FBI agent—a coincidence, but one Phillip exploits by becoming friends with Stan. This is a prime example of the show’s brilliance—I think Phillip really likes Stan and would be friends with him anyway—but the extra layer is that he can innocently squeeze Stan for intelligence without arousing suspicion.

The show is in its fourth season and keeps ratcheting up the drama. This season Phillip and Elizabeth, and their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) are working with another spy who specializes in infectious diseases. They keep sneaking more virulent strains of nasty substances out of the lab, but the expert himself doubts they should be giving it to the homeland office. Phillip agrees, but is conflicted by loyalty to his country. Meanwhile, the couple came out to their daughter Paige as to who they really are, with hopes of possibly recruiting her to their crusade. This was a miscalculation, as Paige couldn’t handle the news and told her church Pastor. Now Phillip and Elizabeth have to struggle with what to do … kill the pastor and be hated by their daughter? Or make him a friend and hope he doesn’t tell? It’s riveting drama.

Even though they are perfectly acted, well-rounded characters, I have little sympathy for Phillip and Elizabeth. Their actions have directly or indirectly led to the deaths of many innocent Americans. They have destroyed lives—including the FBI secretary Phillip married under an alias and who fed him classified information. The show should end with Phillip going to the gulag and Elizabeth being hanged. At least he has a conscience. Serialized TV doesn’t get any better than this.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Cleverman (Sundance)
This Australian show, new to American shores, offers a plethora of unique and mad ideas. Apparently a Cleverman, in Australian Aboriginal lore, is sort of a shaman who rules a supernatural dream dimension.

In the show, Neanderthals have survived to the present day, an idea that really appeals to me. Treated as an underclass, they are held in ghettos by the Australian government and called “Hairies” by the local population. They are as intelligent as humans, but twice as hairy and three times as strong. If they leave their ghetto they are subject to beatings, arrest and a possible sentence to a prison camp, where they are separated, abused and even branded.

Hunter Page-Lochard plays Koen West, an Australian bar owner and Aborigine who specializes in getting black market living spaces for the Hairies, then turning them in and collecting the reward money. He’s a double-dipping douchebag, with no empathy for his victims. When the large family he turns in has a young daughter killed by the police during their apprehension, Koen’s older brother Waruu (Rob Collins) steps in to punish him. Waruu is the leader of an underground group of Hairies and Hairy supporters, which has turned into a thriving, if not yet successful, society. Meanwhile, Koen and Waruu’s aged uncle Jimmy is the show’s Cleverman, at least in the pilot. He finds reason to give his magic powers to one of his nephews … but which one will he choose?

Meanwhile Jerrod Slade, the local Network mogul (played by the great Iain Glen from Game of Thrones) sees that the conflict with the Hairies makes good TV and doesn’t miss an opportunity to broadcast their stories. He also has a friendly relationship with the Cleverman. His chief on-air reporter is sleeping with Waruu. All of the characters are related somehow, making the cast very connected, sometimes without even knowing it.

I’ve only seen the pilot, but the show has set up an intriguing world of which I want to see more. There is magic, mythology and many questions to be answered. The two I have are: 1.) If the Neanderthals are so much bigger and stronger than us, how did they get to be an abused, conquered people? and 2.) Why are they hated and treated so badly? Sure, they’re not strictly human and hairier than us, but in 2016 the world would not let any group of sentient bipeds be brutalized and forced to live in work camp/slums, deprived of any sort of civil rights. It just wouldn’t happen, and it is not believable so far on the show. But I love some of the ideas put forth—what if Neanderthals hadn’t become extinct? How would humans react to living side by side with a different species? So far not very well. I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

Rating: ***½ out of 5

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