Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Crowded Sunday Night: The Amazing Race, Mildred Pierce, The Killing and The Borgias

I know Sunday night is a 'good' night for TV networks to program their more adult fare, but must they put them all on at the same time? I know, in this age of PVR and On Demand, etc., etc., the need to watch a show when the networks plan it is greatly reduced. However, if you are like me and are one of those dinosaurs who still uses his VCR, what need do I have for PVR? (I've got tape, I've got a working VCR, why would I give the cable companies even more money a month for a PVR box?) Sure, there's On Demand, but I've found it unreliable (the image breaks up or it takes forever to download), and unlike the past, now that I've gone digital, I can't watch one show and tape another, so I'm stuck. It's either watch them while they're on, or at least in the case of AMC's The Killing tape the 1AM repeat and watch it the next day. Full confession, one of the shows, Mildred Pierce, was given to me on disc by a friend who actually gets HBO Canada, but I'm still in a quandary. You see, the one and only reality show, The Amazing Race, I watch is also on on Sunday evenings. So, from 8pm until 12am, it's a marathon.

So, here is how the schedule would be if I had to watch Mildred Pierce on initial broadcast: 8pm, The Amazing Race; 9pm, Mildred Pierce; 10pm to 11:10pm, The Borgias; 11pm (and miss 10 minutes) or 1am repeat, The Killing. It's a bit wearying. Fortunately, my other favourite adult show, Endgame -- starring Shawn Doyle as a sort-of Russian Nero Wolfe who suffers from agoraphobia and solves all his the mysteries by never leaving the hotel he's holed up in -- broadcasts on Monday nights. Endgame works because of Doyle's wonderful performance, but that's for another day. To my Sunday shows. I like them all, although none of them are perfect. But they are adult and are trying to get at some interesting things. They don't always succeed, but this one evening is far more entertaining than the last four months of feature film releases.

The Amazing Race is a warhorse of reality TV. Now in its 18th season, it has a very simple premise. Eleven teams of two start in the US and race around the world solving clues and performing tasks. Each week, the last place team at the pit stop is eliminated until three teams return to the US and search out the final pit stop. The first team at that pit stop wins a million dollars. There's always an array of teams: people to like, people to loath, people who are different, couples (gay and straight), brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, etc. Thankfully, there's usually one team I like who makes it to the final round, so it makes the journey tolerable. But what I think I love about the show is its travelogue nature. I love to travel and don't do it enough, but this way I get to see all parts of the world without leaving home. It's not too different, I guess, from those old newsreel shorts they used to show before movies that ended something like “we bid a fond farewell to beautiful Morocco.” Since shows now go right to the top of the hour, Mildred Pierce would be right after with no chance for a washroom break.

Mildred Pierce is an HBO five-part miniseries based on the novel by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity). It is a remake of the great 1945 noir classic of the same name that starred Joan Crawford in her only Oscar-winning role. Well, actually, co-writer/director Todd Haynes (I'm Not There; Far From Heaven; and the great told-with-Barbie-dolls, now-banned mini-feature Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) states that it's more a faithful adaptation of the Cain novel rather than a remake of the Crawford flick. Mildred Pierce tells the story of a 1930s divorced woman with two children who moves from wretched poverty to success as a restauranteur. Her world starts to collapse around her after her horrifyingly terrible daughter, Veda, does everything to undercut her, including steal her boyfriend. Kate Winslet is fine as Pierce, bringing a vibrant, if put-upon, strength to her role. And unlike the overrated Boardwalk Empire, the show at least really looks like it's set in the 1930s and not some set-bound extravaganza. The problem for me, after seeing three of the five episodes, is that it plays more like a Douglas Sirk hyper melodrama (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind) than a shadowy film noir of the Crawford original. This is not that surprising since Haynes' Far From Heaven is considered an homage to the films of Sirk. In the Sirk films, there always seemed to be the tragic death of an innocent. Haynes telegraphs so completely the early death of one of the miniseries' happy-go-luck and carefree characters you start waving 'bye bye' to them minutes after they hit the screen. It's still compulsively watchable, and Guy Pearce as the cad is also entertaining (as is eleven-year-old Morgan Turner as the young Veda; Evan Rachel Wood plays her as a young adult in the last two episodes), but the show is also somewhat high-strung. Perhaps if I'd actually watched it during its 9pm time slot I would have not been so irritated by the melodrama, but I watched it in one three-part gulp instead. Maybe it's just too concentrated at one go. The same can probably be said about AMC's The Killing. I'm going to cheat a little bit here and save The Borgias for the end, since I could watch The Killing at 10 (it's on at 10pm, 11pm and 1am) and skip The Borgias.

Mireille Enos in The Killing
Based on a Danish series called The Crime (in Danish, its title is Forbrydelsen), The Killing (its 13 episodes equals 13 days of the investigation) tells the story of the brutal murder of a teenage girl in Seattle. The crime stirs up a hornet’s nest of problems for the cops on the case, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman), especially for Linden since the case lands on her desk on her last day on the job before moving to California with her fiancé. Of course, the intrigue of the case delays her departure. It is also a problem for Darren Richmond (Bill Campbell), a city councillor who's in the midst of an election campaign for mayor of Seattle. His problem? The girl's body was found in one of his campaign vehicles. And finally, it is quickly tearing apart the family of the girl, Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and their two boys. Then, of course, there's the rain. Now, I know this is based on a dour Danish show, but having been in Seattle, the city is just not that grey and the people are not so closed off. In fact, Seattle and Vancouver (where the show was really shot) have some of the friendliest people I've ever met. When I walked around both cities a few years ago, if you made eye contact with a stranger on the street they were likely to say hi, smile and carry on with their day. In this TV Seattle, everybody has something to hide, nobody smiles (okay, I know, it's a grim story, but did they really need to have it rain. All. The. Time?) and the city looks terrible (Seattle is quite beautiful, actually, and so is Vancouver). With all that said, Mierielles Enos is just great in the lead. She has one of those faces that is simultaneously beautiful and plain. Her blue, watchful eyes see everything and the pain and wear and tear of the job are likely to destroy her if she doesn't escape soon. It's a masterful, career-making turn (I'd never heard of her before this even though I'd seen her in, I guess – I don't remember – in Rescue Me). I'll watch anything with Michelle Forbes in it (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, Battlestar Galactica, etc.). Here, she plays a grieving working-class mother with a wonderful, simple dignity. Kinnaman as Stephen Holder is also good as the rule-bending partner. I was shocked to discover that he is a Swedish actor and this is his first role in English. I couldn't tell. Corruption is afoot here, and it is also at the heart of The Borgias.

Created by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Ondine), The Borgias is being marketed as "The Original Crime Family". Supposedly, author Mario Puzo based the Corleone family in The Godfather after this 15thcentury Spanish family who took Rome and Italy by storm. The father, Rodrigo, became Pope Alexander VI by 'buying' the vote, his daughter, Lucrezia was a legendary manipulator and poisoner, and his son Cesare, whom he appointed a cardinal, later became a vicious, but celebrated military leader. It was quite a clan and they are still talked about to this day. No wonder Jordan was attracted to this material. He wrote the first season and directed the first two episodes. Jordan has a wonderful cast to help him realize his vision (the first season is nine episodes; here's hoping it does well and gets another). Jeremy Irons is remarkable as Rodrigo. In just three episodes he has found a balance between his vile, murderous corruption and his clearly devout beliefs. Sure, he may want to fornicate and kill, but he still desperately wishes to protect and build the church. It's a bit early to see how François Arnaud, a French-Canadian actor (the show is a US-Canada co-production), does as Cesare, but so far he's wonderfully conniving. Sean Harris as Cesare's personal assassin (think Luca Brasi in The Godfather), Michelotto, is both frightening and oddly compassionate. And Colm Feore, as Rodrigo's arch-nemesis, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, is solid as he always is. The others? It's also too early to tell, but in the third episode, “The Moor,” there's a scene featuring Giuliano della Rovere and the son of the King of Spain that is truly creepy. The son looks to be a promising, debauched character.

So, for the next while, my Sunday nights will be busy watching shows that, with all their faults, have managed to capture my attention. I just wish the rest of the week, save Endgame on Mondays, offered something, but with the season finale of the terrific Canadian series, The Republic of Doyle, last Wednesday, the rest of the week sure is a bit parched.

 David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, good analysis. The Borgias suffers from a lack of a repeat time -- at least, the others can be postponed for another viewing.