From left, Jon Hamm and Larry David
The previews for Clear History, the Larry David movie comedy premiering Saturday on HBO, look promising, if only for the cast. In addition to David, who knows funny, supporting players include Jon Hamm, current Emmy nominee/Saturday Night Live veteran Bill Hader, Michael Keaton and Danny McBride.
Despite a promising set-up, however, this TV movie likely will please only hardcore fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David’s cult sitcom hit for the same premium channel, because Clear History – which, like Curb, is improvised by the actors based on a story line devised by David and longtime writing colleagues Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer – plays like a feature-length episode of the sitcom.
Let me just say right up front, this is not a good thing in my book. I’ll give David his props for coming up with some of the most brilliant comedy in TV history with some of his scripts for Seinfeld, but I’ve never warmed to Curb Your Enthusiasm, which revolves around a central character (played by David) who is, quite frankly, a self-absorbed jerk who is barely tolerable in a half-hour dose.
In Clear History, we spend most of the 90-plus-minute running time with David’s alter-ego Nathan Flomm, a selfish, grating dolt who spends the entire movie seething over misfortune that is entirely of his own making.
I had high hopes during the opening scenes which flash back 10 years, introducing the hippie-ish Nathan as the marketing executive at Electron Motors, a start-up electric car company run by lifelong friend Will Haney (Hamm), who is preparing to launch a new electric car prototype called the Howard, after Will’s young son. OK, that’s pretty funny, because the Howard is a ridiculous name for a car, and Nathan tells Will it will be impossible to market a car with such an idiotic name (“It’s like naming a restaurant Hepatitis!” he screams). Unfortunately, as with many of David’s characters, Nathan takes his argument way past a civil debate with his boss, throwing a tantrum and walking away from his job, which includes a 10 percent share in the company.
Against all odds, however, the Howard is a phenomenal success, earning the company billions of dollars. Soon, news of Nathan’s ill-advised resignation becomes public knowledge, turning him into a pop culture laughing stock.
Zipping forward to the present, Nathan has given himself a style makeover and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he is quietly living under the name Rolly DaVore. His contented life is disrupted, however, when Will and his wife (Kate Hudson) move to the Vineyard and begin building an ostentatious new home that only rubs salt in Nathan’s wounds. It’s not long before Nathan begins hatching a revenge scheme.
You’re probably ahead of me in spotting the basic flaw here. Nathan is seeking revenge for something that Nathan did to himself and, just as much to the point, he wants payback from someone who, we learn, is actually a very decent guy. How and why are we supposed to pull for Nathan?
An even bigger problem is the improvised nature of the film. Comedy is all about the timing, and while David, Hader and McBride are pros at improvisation, many other cast members are not, so we get a lot of exchanges that sound like this:
“I have no idea what to do.”
“You have no idea what to do?”
“Yeah, no, no idea at all.”
“You mean, like, absolutely no idea at all?”
As a result, instead of building up steady momentum that carries us to the climax, Clear History meanders, strolls, shuffles and, mostly, stumbles in its storytelling. It’s significant that one of the few moments that really made me laugh out loud, a visual joke involving a swing set, was something that was NOT improvised.
For what it’s worth, the cast seems to be having a good time, and if you’re wondering why Liev Schreiber, who has a fairly substantial supporting role, doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits, David recently told a gathering of TV critics in Los Angeles that it was because Schreiber currently stars in Ray Donovan on HBO’s rival, Showtime. That seems a little silly to me, but in any case, it works out well for Schreiber, because I can’t think many of these actors will want to include this limp, disappointing TV movie on their credits.
From left, Kate Hudson, Larry David, Jon Hamm
Jon Voight and Liev Schreiber
Move over, Olivia Pope. There’s a new fixer in TV Town.
Unlike Kerry Washington’s central female character on ABC’s soapy hit Scandal, Ray Donovan – the title character played by Liev Schreiber in a terrific new Showtime drama series premiering tonight – is decidedly masculine and based on the West Coast, but like Olivia, he earns his living helping power players sidestep potential career-ending scandals. You say you’re a Hollywood movie stud with a weakness for transvestites or a star athlete whose one-night stand is lying in your bed, dead of a drug overdose? Ray’s your guy.
Helping Ray rescue the rich and powerful are his two associates, an intimidating Israeli named Avi (Stephen Bauer) and tough-as-nails Lena (Katherine Moennig, The L Word). The trio does most of its work for the powerful law firm of Goldman/Drexler, headed by Ray’s increasingly eccentric mentor Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and his high-strung partner, Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson, House).
It’s a rare professional challenge that Ray can’t handle without breaking a sweat, but he has less success on the homefront. His brother Terry (the great British character actor Eddie Marsan) struggles with Parkinson’s disease caused by spending too many years in the boxing ring, and kid brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) hasn’t been able to maintain sobriety since he was abused by a priest while the brothers Donovan were growing up in South Boston. Ray is convinced, however, that most of their problems can be traced back to their father, Mickey (Jon Voght), a brutal Irish gangster who gave his sons no emotional support and left them to fend for themselves.
Years ago, Ray moved his own family, along with Terry and Bunchy, to Los Angeles, hoping to make a fresh start far from the toxic influence of Mickey, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Now, however, Mickey is out and heading for the City of Angels, determined to punish Ray and reclaim his position as patriarch of the Donovan clan. And sadly for Ray, his bitter wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson, Deadwood), a seething ball of resentment and jealousy over her husband’s imagined infidelities, is all too ready to offer Mickey easy access to their two teenage kids (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby) just for the petty satisfaction of angering her husband.
Believe it or not, that extended back story just scratches the surface of the complicated emotional tapestry series creator Ann Biderman (the late, great Southland) has woven, brought to vivid life by this very gifted cast. There really isn’t a bad performance or a distractingly false note anywhere in the four episodes I’ve seen so far, but it’s the explosive relationship between Ray and Mickey that really powers this series.
During the past few years, Voight probably has gotten more attention over his occasionally kooky public comments than for his performances but, at 74, this Academy Award winner can still bring it when he gets the right role. Here, his Mickey is all silky charm and false contrition as he reunites with his family and plays harmless Gramps to score sympathy points, but Voight also lets us see the feral beast lurking and waiting just below the surface. It’s entirely believable that this old man still has the power to scare the daylights out of Ray, especially when Ray sees Mickey cuddling up to the kids.
As for Schreiber, well, like his longtime life partner, Naomi Watts, he’s been delivering one fascinating performance after another for several years now, yet he still seems consigned to the B-list in terms of major stardom. If Ray Donovan hits as solidly as it deserves to, that may finally change, because this is a performance that is both tough and tender, deeply poignant and compelling even in these first episodes where we’re still getting to know Ray. And believe me, if you’re a fan of powerful adult drama, you’re going to want to know Ray Donovan very well indeed.
Alan Alda and Laura Linney
Schoolteacher Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) confronts some tough decisions when her brain tumors start to grow again as one of Showtime’s most acclaimed dramedies starts winding down tonight as a four-episode, hour-long limited series under a new title: The Big C: Hereafter.
As fans will remember, season three saw Cathy’s oncologist, Dr. Sherman (Alan Alda), delivering some startling but joyous news: Cathy’s illness was responding very favorably to the clinical trial in which he had enrolled her. Stunned by her revised prognosis, however, the prospect of a less limited future sent Cathy lurching off the rails a bit, as she embarked on a foolhardy quest to adopt a baby (irrationally hoping that if she started raising a baby, she would live to see it reach adulthood). Her increasingly manic behavior sorely strained her relationships with both husband Paul (Oliver Platt) and son Adam (Gabriel Basso), and they began drifting away, the former into an improbable new career as a motivational speaker, the latter into joining a folksy religious cult.
Things still are tense between the trio as tonight’s premiere opens with Cathy forced to resume chemotherapy treatments, an ordeal that leaves her so sick and weakened that she makes a fateful choice (no spoilers, but the title of the episode is “Quality of Life”). If season three was about the Jamisons being pulled apart as if by some weird centrifugal force, these last episodes will see the Jamisons, along with Cathy’s brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), and close friend Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe), finding their way back together. We’ll also meet Kathy Najimy as Cathy’s remarkably outspoken new therapist, a bracing addition to the series.
The Big C may have been uneven in the fearless way it occasionally has used irreverent comedy and even whimsy to chart the emotional bump-‘em-car ride on which Cathy’s devastating diagnosis has sent her, but it never has been less than moving, thanks in no small part to Linney’s remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental performance in the main role. As the show drags us, kicking and screaming, toward the finale we all somehow knew was awaiting us but never wanted to see, it still has a surprising number of aces, and laughs, up its sleeve even while it gently reminds us that we’re all heading toward the same final destination – Cathy’s just on an express train there.
As for that final episode, you’ll want to stock up on tissues, but you’ll find that The Big C, like its heroine, takes its leave with style, class and immense grace.
Nurse Jackie, which begins its fifth season tonight on Showtime, is one of those quietly excellent dramedies that flies under the radar for way too many viewers. I lost track of it last season in the preponderance of other, newer shows, but a revisit to past episodes and tonight’s premiere reminded me how worthwhile this show – and, especially, its leading lady, Edie Falco – are.
Executive producer Clyde Phillips (Dexter) is now running the series, which opens tonight with Jackie (Falco) marking several months of successful sobriety under challenging circumstances. For one thing, her soon-to-be-ex, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), is bitterly fighting her for custody of their two daughters and behaving like an asshat in general. Even worse, Jackie’s best friend. Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best), has turned in her notice and decided to move to London to be a fulltime mom to her new son, who was born in the fourth season finale.
Elsewhere, there are some bright spots. Mike Cruz (Bobby Cannavale), Jackie’s rage-aholic boss last season, has left his job as hospital administrator to mourn the overdose death of his teenage son, who had grown close to Jackie from their time in rehab together. Cruz’s departure cleared the way for Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) to return to her old administrative job, to widespread approval from the staff.
There are a couple of new faces at the hospital. Dr. Ike Prentiss (Morris Chestnut), a veteran doctor with several tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq to his credit, almost immediately is named the new chief of the emergency room and Jackie soon recognizes him as a kindred spirit who puts patient care and compassion above bureaucracy. Prentiss’ promotion goes over like a lead balloon with Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), who is, however, easy prey for new first-year resident Dr. Carrie Roman (Betty Gilpin), who uses her beauty and sex appeal to get others to do most of her work for her.
Things also are improving on the dating front for Jackie, who finds not one, but three, men pursuing her: Eddie (Paul Schulze), her old pharmacist-lover who still carries a torch for her; Officer Frank Verelli (Adam Ferrara), a genial cop who courts Jackie; and a third, very unexpected guy I won’t reveal.
This season also will see daughter Ruby (Ruby Jerins), now 14, hitting the terrible teens with a vengeance as she begins to act out wildly and try to play Jackie and Kevin against each other.
It’s a very eventful season that mingles laughter and poignancy with skill.
The Vatican explodes with acts of treachery as The Borgias returns for its third season tonight on Showtime, joining a very crowded Sunday primetime lineup. The action picks up right where the second season finale left off, with Pope Alexander (Jeremy Irons) being poisoned by a young assassin dispatched by the pontiff’s nemesis, Della Rovere (Colm Feore). As Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) desperately tries a little-known antidote to save her father’s life, Vanazzo (Joanne Whalley) confides to her son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) that she fears for the fate of the entire family if Alexander dies.
And her foreboding proves prescient, because as the hour unfolds and the pope’s life hangs in the balance, the three other members of the family find themselves (and Lucrezia’s infant son) assailed by a complex violent coup designed to eradicate the entire Borgia clan in Rome. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who’s behind the mayhem, but for anyone who watched season two, the answer isn’t all that hard to figure out.
In other words, this new season finds the personal stakes seriously raised for all the main characters. When the dust settles, the surviving Borgias must fight for their safety in a new reality where some of the oldest and most important families in Rome regard them with barely veiled contempt. It’s a shrewd plot development for this historical soap opera, and despite the pomp and pageantry in which the series is wrapped, the storytelling is admirably lean and swiftly paced. The focal point of the show, of course, is Irons’ plummy-verging-on-high-camp performance as Pope Alexander, a highly mannered piece of work that sometimes goes totally over the top, yet he’s certainly never boring. Arnaud, a French-Canadian actor, is superb as Cesare, one of the most emotionally complex character threads in this huge tapestry, and Grainger is likewise very fine, especially in scenes that involve her, um, warm feelings for her brother. Even better, the spectacular Gina McKee is back this season as the terrifyingly formidable Catherine Sforza, who has several serious scores to settle with the Borgias.
If you haven’t sampled this series before, I strongly recommend you catch up on at least some of the previous episodes via any available media platform before trying to jump into season three unprepared, because understanding the dizzying intrigues, betrayals and double crosses is crucial to enjoying this show. If you’re a seasoned fan, though, by all means tune in tonight secure in the fact that The Borgias is in better shape than ever before.
The World According to Dick Cheney, the feature-length documentary by R.J. Cutler premiering tonight on Showtime, opens with an off-camera interviewer firing a series of standard questions at the title subject: What’s your favorite virtue? Your favorite food? Your idea of happiness? Cheney instantly shoots back his responses, until he gets what seems to be a curveball: What do you consider your main fault?
He stares almost uncomprehendingly at the questioner, hesitates, then replies, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”
No kidding. Throughout much of the one hour and 45 minutes that follows, Cheney reflects matter-of-factly on his life and career with the somewhat disengaged air of a man who clearly does not spend much time in self-reflection. As the film’s title itself suggests, this documentary both gives Cheney a straightforward forum to make a case for his time in the political spotlight as George W. Bush’s vice president and also hints that Cheney may believe this is his world. The rest of us just live in it.
Say what you will about Dick Cheney, it’s hard to deny that this man reshaped, for good or ill, the traditionally thankless office of vice president into a position of power unprecedented in American history. In doing so, he also polarized Americans like few political figures before him. His supporters still maintain that Cheney simply had the intestinal fortitude to make difficult decisions in the sincere interest of keeping Americans safe from foreign enemies. His detractors, who labeled him “Darth Cheney,” view him in a far more chilling context, as a man who systematically and ruthlessly dismantled constitutional checks put into place to safeguard against the executive branch running amok. Both these viewpoints are so deeply entrenched by this point that Cutler’s film is unlikely to change many minds. It is, however, fascinating and surprisingly well-balanced.
Even as the Florida recount in the aftermath of the contentious 2000 presidential election was still going on, it was Cheney, not Bush, who quietly but efficiently started putting together the transition team for their new administration. While political enemies occasionally accused Bush of cronyism, most “friends of George” actually didn’t make the cut for key positions simply because Cheney already had smoothly slid his own picks into place.
“Bush just didn’t know how thoroughly overmatched he was by the team that was assembled around him,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine.
In the days following 9/11, Cheney secured House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s reluctant support to declare war against Iraq by blithely misrepresenting suspicions about Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of those notorious “weapons of mass destruction” as documented and confirmed facts. (Cheney’s justification, in hindsight, boils down to “Well, it could have been true and we couldn’t take a chance.”)
Worse still, when Cheney later wanted to get an extension on a warrantless surveillance program he deemed vital to the nation’s security, even after the Justice Department had ruled the program was unconstitutional and illegal, Cheney persuaded Bush to issue an executive extension of the program by withholding the news of that ruling, as well as the fact that several top administration officials, including deputy attorney general James Comey, were threatening to resign if the program were continued. On the eve of those resignations, Comey was stunned to discover that Bush was completely in the dark about the matter. (Today, Cheney shrugs that, if it had been up to him, he would have let them all resign.)
It was a sharp turning point in the Bush-Cheney relationship, a rupture that would never heal, even though the two men shared their party’s successful ticket again in 2004. As Barton Gellman, author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, remarks, Bush now realized that Cheney had walked him to the edge of what could have been a fatal political cliff. As their second term wound down, Cheney hectored Bush to pardon Irving “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, who had been convicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the Valerie Plame CIA affair. Bush refused, and eventually told his aides he didn’t want to take any more meetings or even phone calls from Cheney.
“Cheney was a genius at understanding and acquiring political power, and he’s also a zealot,” Gellman comments near the end of the film. “If you have someone who is both, he’s going to move the needle on history.”
And Cheney insists he has no regrets or second thoughts.
“I did what I did,” he says in the closing moments of the documentary. “It’s all on the public record, and I feel very good about it. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
Let me say right up front that I sat down to watch Vikings, a new nine-part historical drama series premiering tonight on History, with some trepidation. On the one hand, this was History’s first time co-producing an original scripted drama. On the other, this one was created and written by Michael Hirst, the man who did similar duty on Showtime’s pretty wonderful series The Tudors. Then again, Hirst also created Camelot, taking so many capricious liberties with the King Arthur legend that this usually foolproof material completely jumped the track, and Starz canceled the series after a single season.
I’m happy to report, then, that Vikings finds Hirst definitely in full Tudors mode, delivering a focused, action-packed and dramatically compelling period narrative that I’m fairly sure will appeal to most viewers — or at least, the ones who can handle some occasional jarring violence.
Opening in Scandinavia near the end of the 8th century, Vikings stars Australian actor Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, a young farmer and family man who has begun to chafe under the brutal and mercurial restrictions of his local chieftan, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). Each summer, Haraldson sends his Viking raiders east to pillage and plunder Russia and the Baltic states, hitting towns and villages that have become just as treasure-challenged as Ragnar’s own home turf.
Ragnar, however, is a visionary. He’s convinced he is a direct descendant of Odin, king of the Norse gods – Ragnar’s name, presumably, derives from the same root as Ragnarok, the Scandinavian equivalent of Armageddon – and he dreams of devising a new boat that would allow him to sail west across uncharted waters and plunder riches rumored to be lying in England.
Defying his lord’s stern orders, Ragnar and his close friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard, brother of True Blood star Alexander) devise a new type of watercraft that allows them and a small crew to make their voyage in secret. After plundering a coastal English monastery, Ragnar and his men return to Scandinavia laden with gold and accompanied by priests to be sold as slaves, including Athelstan (George Blagden), who becomes a servant in Ragnar’s home. Alas, while Ragnar’s homecoming is greeted with cheers by his neighbors, Haraldson is enraged, since Ragnar’s defiant success feeds into the chieftan’s deep paranoia and jealousy, and he soon is plotting ways to destroy the young man he sees as a threat to his throne.
I have no idea how accurate Vikings is in its depiction of life in Scandinavia during the early Middle Ages, but the important thing is that it feels credible and allows Hirst to explore a wealth of rich dramatic topics. The tension between Ragnar and Haraldson is an epic clash between a forward-thinking working man and his tradition-bound leader, while Ragnar’s growing friendship with Athelstan finds both men – one pagan, one Christian – finding a common ground in their spiritual worldview.
Two fine actresses, Kathryn Winnick (Bones) and Jessalyn Gilsig (Glee), allow us divergent insights into the role of women in Viking society with their roles as the wives of, respectively, Ragnar and Haraldson, and the production values are generally top-notch – the dwellings and costumes alike look convincingly lived in, not trappings for a sad little role-playing game.
In a uniformly strong cast, I have to make special note of Skarsgard’s work as Floki, a character who takes his name from Loki, the Norse “trickster god” of deception. While the shipbuilder is a loyal friend to Ragnar, he is otherwise a riotous free spirit, and Skarsgard responds with a performance that is funny, startling and sometimes just plain weird. When he’s in a scene, it’s hard to look anywhere else.
I don’t want to oversell Vikings, because it isn’t high art and it won’t change your life. What it is, though, is wildly entertaining. Let me put it this way: I sat down to watch just the first of five episodes History sent out for review and wound up sitting glued to the TV screen for the next (almost) five hours. And I was jonesing for more.
Maybe it’s partly beginner’s luck, but in any case, well done, History. Keep this up and you could easily become a serious player in the expanding world of scripted TV drama.