BILLIONS, with all the caps

Episode 101

Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti star in BILLIONS, a show where the cat-and-mouse dynamics consume everything.

There’s this television series on Showtime called BILLIONS, in all capital letters. I do understand that’s just the stylized title card, but that’s how I like to think of it: a bold, confident show that demands a presence in all of our lives.

It’s a wonder that it hasn’t gotten the kind of thundering reception it deserves, though. It stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, esteemed actors who can surely find the finest work but choose to do this series. It’s created by a New York Times writer, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and the writing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien from Rounders–yes, Rounders, that fun Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker film from 1998.

BILLIONS’ dialogue is so unique, funny, and bizarre that I wonder if hedge fund high-rollers and district attorneys really talk like that. But no matter–I buy into this universe along with all its dazzling soap opera-ish allure.

The show’s premise is, admittedly, a bit ridiculous and thin. District attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) wants to arrest hedge fund CEO Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) for insider trading. Fueled by political ambition and personal jealousy (Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff) is a highly valued therapist for the hedge fund, Axe Capital), Rhoades is willing to do everything in his power to make sure Axelrod gets caught; Axelrod is willing to do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t get caught. While we’re supposed to root for Rhoades, the guy on the right side of the law, the show makes it clear he’s flawed and privileged, and Axelrod, though clearly a villain, has embraced the American dream we all wish to capture.

It’s a classic cat-and-mouse game but with the visual splashes of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, and the kind of dialogue and characterization that’s entirely unique to this show. I’m sure many viewers open their musings about BILLIONS with the hook that Paul Giamatti plays a guy who engages in S&M, but I suppose, shockingly, that’s probably the least interesting part of the show.

The show’s dialogue has often been described as “baroque” or “animalistic,” and really, I’ve never heard anything like it. There’s something so exhilarating about a show in a post-Diablo Cody world that dares to have a booming population of characters that frequently speak in a way that doesn’t quite resemble real people; for example, the characters sure love to reference the animal kingdom–everything from jungle beasts to octopi–with equal parts of self-awareness and spontaneity.

The characters also sell its pop culture references fit for a mid-life crisis without being too cringe-worthy. Case in point: an episode, titled “With or Without You,” not only references the U2 song but ends the episode with a montage set to the very song. It’s a show that doesn’t shy away from being cheesy as fuck and even manages to pull it off with as much emotional intensity as an episode-ending montage is meant to have.

There is some excellent supporting work here–Malin Akerman as Axelrod’s tough trophy wife, David Costabile as Axelrod’s right-hand man, Toby Leonard Moore and Condola Rashad as the bright-eyed lawyerly denizens at Rhoades’s district attorney office. But most notably it’s Asia Kate Dillon’s performance as Taylor Mason, a brilliant gender queer math whiz at Axe Capital, that steals every single scene they’re in in season two. What makes Taylor so compelling is how the show makes them likable and seemingly morally pure, but also uncomfortably and understandably loyal. Never for a moment does the show make Taylor feel like a gimmick; we and the other characters know that they identify as gender queer, but the point never becomes the show’s obsession.

The second to last episode of season two, “Golden Frog Time,” is one of the finest pieces of television I’ve seen and I believe, was its Emmy submission episode. It’s a shame that the Emmys didn’t recognize the show, as the episode is as thrilling of a Wall Street escapade as they come. But if you plan to watch any episode of BILLIONS, “Golden Frog Time” is it–it’s cleverly structured, written, and acted. And the episode joyously closes with Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers,” bookending an episode-long ride that feels emblematic of both a car crash and cruise control. Much like the show itself.

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Masterpiece Theater: for the Americans

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Bob Odenkirk stars as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul, the Saul Goodman origin story that we didn’t know we needed.

White-hot hit drama Breaking Bad gave birth to the surprisingly subtle Better Call Saul, a spin-off that is so muted and so thinkpiece-unfriendly that it may have easily flown under the radar, save for its handful of Emmy nominations for its three modest seasons.

The Emmys paid attention to the right thing (for once): Better Call Saul is absolutely wonderful. It’s how I often imagine Call the Midwife to be like, but with a healthy mix of old school noir, Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, Grantchester, and all the visual panache and the cathartic context of Breaking Bad.

Focusing on Breaking Bad’s scene-stealing criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Better Call Saul is mostly a prequel (and also sort of a sequel) to its meth dealing counterpart. The show tracks one man’s gradual transformation from scrappy, down-on-his-luck lawyer, Jimmy McGill to the slippery slick, strip mall lawyer, Saul Goodman.

In its three seasons so far, the show has explored the complex and antagonistic relationship between Jimmy and his brilliant lawyer brother, Chuck (brilliantly played by Michael McKean), who is suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and the loving but sometimes frustrating relationship between Jimmy and his on-and-off girlfriend and very hard working lawyer, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). These relationships effectively form the soul of the show, gently weaving all the traits that make Jimmy human, yet showcasing all the vices that will inevitably transform him into Saul.

It wouldn’t be a Breaking Bad prequel without some connection to a threatening drug underworld. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) returns in a more prominent role in this show, as his backstory and personal life have more space to thrive.

I started binging Breaking Bad after I finished the masterpiece that is The Sopranos. While there are arguments hinting otherwise, The Sopranos is the richest television drama series ever created. Breaking Bad, though aesthetically memorable, structurally ambitious, and cleverly made, is also, admittedly, blissfully gimmicky and frustrating. With Breaking Bad, though, showrunner Vince Gilligan has created a one-of-a-kind universe with a glorious wasteland of characters, storylines, and premises that its audience simply needs to accept–some of it rings true, and some of it leaves us all feeling a bit cheated.

Better Call Saul, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from Breaking Bad’s deficiencies. There’s a charming glassy-eyed naivete (if that’s even the right word) to Better Call Saul that makes it sharper, sweeter, more intelligent, more endearing, and more pleasant. It doesn’t mean it’s not a dark show–it can sometimes be as emotional and emotionally violent as Breaking Bad--but it’s smart enough to teeter on the edges of moral ambiguity without drowning its audience in a series-long ethics debate.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul is an eccentric philosophical musing about the law and how to execute it, done with all the bravado of a used car salesman. It’s a show about lawyers, who do their job, think about their job, talk about their job, bleed their job, live their job. And, in an expansive universe of cute lawyer shows, it feels exceedingly rare to watch a law firm workplace drama that has dimensions beyond hookups, breakups, and the occasional trial. Better Call Saul is to lawyers, as Whiplash is to jazz drummers–I think.

I don’t think Better Call Saul will ever have the same astronomical mass cool appeal as Breaking Bad, but I do hope it finds an audience beyond the folks with a geriatric sweater knitter soul. It’s a show that feels like it could have been on Masterpiece Theatre–in the time slot right after Call the Midwife, I suppose–if it were a British production. Yet, as fate would have it, it’s on AMC, and one could only hope that the Breaking Bad and Mad Men fans someday find it worthwhile.

I Watched Mozart in the Jungle Because the Golden Globes Reminded Me I Had To Finish It Someday

Highligh (Lola Kirke) and Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal) take a bus around Mexico because they are totally not meant to be.

Highligh (Lola Kirke) and Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal) take a bus around Mexico by themselves because they are totally not meant to be.

I was at a Golden Globes viewing party when Mozart in the Jungle won in two major television categories–Best Television Series – Comedy and Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Its win was perplexing to many, mainly because no one has even heard of the show, created by Roman Coppola (a Coppola), Jason Schwartzman (another Coppola), and Alex Timbers (a non-Coppola).

But I’ve heard of it. In fact, I actually watched the pilot episode two years ago when Amazon first posted it as a Prime offering, and didn’t even have the option to watch the second episode because Amazon still hadn’t picked it up for a full season at the time. I’m hesitant to say I liked it before it was cool, but I definitely watched it before it was cool.

After Mozart in the Jungle’s unexpected wins at the Globes, Medha was responsible for watching and reviewing the first season, and I was responsible for watching and reviewing the second season. Medha blew through the two seasons because she was able to watch the show on her train rides home and even wrote about it months ago, while I binged the first season and indefinitely stopped watching season two, until today. So, I’m sorry, I’m a terrible blogger who can’t make commitments.

The first season was charming enough, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal’s irresistible performance as the wunderkind maestro of the New York Philharmonic, Rodrigo de Souza. Bernal’s performance in season one is wonderful in the sense that he adds so much depth to a character that could have been a textbook brat on paper. Bernal plays the character with such vitality and wit that he makes some of the amateur classical music references sound like jokes a world-class conductor could conceivably crack. In addition, season one allowed its audience to marvel in the fact that Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell are regulars on a streaming television series because, well, it’s 2015.

Yet, season two loses some of the whimsical charm from season one. Our oboist-protagonist, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), is no longer the lost, semi-relatable gal (as relatable as a twentysomething female protagonist in a NYC-set comedy series could potentially be to a normal human being who binge-watches television shows) struggling to make it in the big city as the conductor’s personal assistant, but is now a member of the New York Philharmonic. She sleeps with a famous cellist, charms a wealthy banker, and makes out with her conductor. Gone is the girl who was so easily charmed by a con man and was dating a freelance dancer–Hailey Rutledge is now a cool city girl who can have pretty much anyone and anything she wants.

Protagonists become boring when things fall into place for them. As for the other characters, however, things are not falling into place quite yet. The rest of the orchestra is making demands for their livelihood–to be better compensated, to have better health insurance, and so on. While the show presents a real problem–musicians not being paid enough to be the cornerstone of a very monied institution–the show sort of glosses over the serious issues with libido-driven digressions. Case in point: cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows) falls for the orchestra’s hired lawyer (Gretchen Mol), creating an awkward love triangle between the two women and flutist Bob (Mark Blum).

Yet, Bernal remains the heart of the show. Without him, the show is nothing. While the Roman Coppola’s beautifully directed episode, “How to Make God Laugh” set in Mexico City contains the breezy, playful charm of season one, or more specifically, the “You Go to My Head” episode (also directed by Coppola), it’s Bernal’s performance that shines above all else. “You Go to My Head” is one of the first episodes in the series where the show probes a bit deeper into Rodrigo’s fragile, childlike soul–directly showing the extent as to Rodrigo relates to a child prodigy–and “How to Make God Laugh” acts as sort of a coda to the sentiments expressed in “You Go to My Head,” removing Rodrigo from NYC and pushing him to reflect away from the limelight. There’s a vulnerability to Bernal’s performance that I’m willing to bet isn’t in the script; he elevates the character and the show so much so that it feels that his performance should actually exist in a different show. Surprisingly, though, Bernal’s performance also feels like it could very well belong in Mozart in the Jungle’s cartoonish stupor, which is perhaps his greatest achievement of all.

There remains, in season two, some great supporting performances by Bernadette Peters as the orchestra’s manager, Gloria Windsor, who, we find out in season two, CAN ALSO SING (surprise!!) and Malcolm McDowell as the begrudged former conductor, Thomas Pembridge. They’re fun, but they don’t really add any gravitas to the show.

Which brings me to the show’s main problem–it’s not a very ambitious show. While Bernal does a lot of the heavy lifting with his performance, the show itself is extremely thin. Never does the show feel particularly thoughtful or insightful about human relationships, dedication to one’s work, or musical culture. In fact, it feels cliched and silly, and more so in season two where we’re supposed to believe in tea leaves and curses. I suppose one can argue that the show is not invested in conveying important things and it’s meant to be a delightful romp. Sadly, it feels like the show has so much potential to be more than a silly, misguided attempt to make classical music sexy to twenty-first century denizens. Look no further than some recent films about musicians, such as the underrated The Last Quartet, or the excellent Whiplash for examples of films that Mozart in the Jungle could take note of.

I’m not sure where the Coppolas and Alex Timbers are going with this show. Season two ends with a cliffhanger, but we’re sort of assured that everything is probably going to be all right because things rarely turn out badly on this show. That said, dialogue, such as, “I fucking love Bach,” cameos by Beethoven and Mozart, and ice skating jokes about Stravinsky (because Stravinsky is Russian and Russia is cold, get itttt??) can only sustain a show for so long. While there are things still to be explored on this show, I’m not sure how much longer I can stand this low-stakes parade of consumeristic classical music.

I Watched Mozart in the Jungle Because Amazon Told Me To

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When Gael García Bernal won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series-Comedy, I was pleased. After his unforgettable turn in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mamá También” in 2001 and his role in Jon Stewart’s debut film, “Rosewater” in 2014, it’s nice to see Gael on American television or at least American Internet-streaming television. His genuine shock at winning  only added to his charm, as he beat out perceived HFPA favorite, Jeffrey Tambor. Like Marcy, maybe the HFPA just wasn’t feeling Transparent Season 2.

But when Mozart in the Jungle won for Best TV Series- Comedy, I groaned. Already predicting Amazon’s gloating email the next morning about its original show winning 2 Golden Globes , I decided to be proactive and start the series right after the ceremony. Well here I am, less than 24 hours later, just having finished Season 1.

Before you think I don’t have a job and I just binge-watched all day, let me clarify: I watched on the train, which conveniently struck a car today (no fatalities or injuries, thank goodness), as if to support my binging habit. Shoutout to the Amazon Instant Video app. Also shoutout to T-Mobile’s Binge On for facilitating this incredible feat.

Spoilers ahead…obviously

Mozart in the Jungle is the Coppola-Schwartzman (who is a Coppola) produced Amazon original inspired by a book of the same name. It’s the show that nobody bothered to watch, instead clicking on “The Man in the High Castle” when logging into their Amazon Prime accounts. No one but Marcy, who watched the first episode like over a year ago. Seriously. I can confirm this and can probably even dig up the first FB chat message exchanged over this show.

Anyway, the show centers around the new conductor Rodrigo( Mozart!) -played by Gael- of the New York (the Jungle!) Symphony Orchestra. The exiting conductor Thomas Pembridge, played by a fantastically grumpy Malcolm McDowell, is pissed that this young, cool-haired foreigner is taking over his baby and flees to an initially undisclosed location. Turns out it’s Cuba, which we figure out when his on-off again mistress Cynthia the bassist (played by an unbelievably cool Saffron Burrows…awesome name btw) casually flies there to check on him.

Anyway, back to Mozart in the Jungle. Cynthia befriends a twenty-six year old oboist, Hailey Rutledge. Side note: Ok, when I first saw Hailey, I thought “Is that Jemima Kirke?!” I was too lazy to do my Googles so I watched a couple more episodes before giving in and Googling. I found out that Hailey is played by Lola Kirke, Jemima’s sister! Cool story, huh? Ok, no, not the point.

Hailey really wants to play in the orchestra and eventually becomes Rodrigo’s assistant, making him mates and cutting his luscious locks but leaving a disgusting few rattails. C’mon Hailey, you should know better than to leave these  hanging smh . She also replaces Sharon, the Asian assistant who Rodrigo once made out with. (Actually, wait what happened to Sharon?! Coppolas: I demand an explanation)

Honestly, the best part of this show is the way that Gael says Hailey’s name. It’s very phonetically accurate, if that makes sense. Like it starts off sounding like the first part of “highlighter” (before the “ter” part).

Anyway Highligh -uh- sorry, Hailey lives with an artsy girl Lizzie who is a recovering prep-school rich kid and is now a tattoo artist or something (We discover this at a rich person party which I originally mistook for a Playboy party but was actually just hosted by some old woman named Bunny). Hailey is also dating a Juilliard dancer turned butt-model named Alex who is eerily similar to that one bisexual guy on Broad City but not as much of an idiot.

She ditches her roomie and Alex whenever Rodrigo needs her, which is quite often, especially when he has the urge to see his crazy ex (or maybe current) wife Anna Maria, played by Nora Arnezeder. I’m still not really sure what kind of accent Anna Maria is supposed to have because it fluctuates from French to Spanish to American. Anyway she is insane and breaks violins and screams wherever she plays, whether in Greenland or in a graveyard.

As far as the story is concerned,the season progresses slowly (the final episode is Rodrigo’s conductorial debut…sort of). I found myself flying through the season only because each episode is about 25 minutes and the “Next Episode” button is so conveniently located on the Amazon app. There are some noteworthy cameos: Jason Schwartzman has a role as Bradford Sharpe (B Sharp…GET IT?!), a nerdy podcaster who’s got a thing for Hailey’s roommate and Wallace Shawn guest-stars as a pianist with mommy issues and a thing for hypnotism.

Obviously, there are a lot of classical music references that fly over my head. I may not be well-versed in this scene, but I can’t be the only one who thought it was bizarre when Rodrigo imagined Mozart talking to him in the library. It’s probably better if we don’t have random Mozart flashbacks. Just a thought.

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Mozart, pictured here in the library and not the Jungle

Overall, I did enjoy Gael’s performance and I can see how the HFPA could say that he deserved the Globe over say, Aziz, who really just played an exaggerated version of himself (or his standup character) in “Master of None.” Still, a little shocked that Mozart won the comedy show category but I’m willing to give it a shot for Season 2. After all, when Amazon makes it so easy to watch, why not? Oh also, I need to know if Highligh and Rodrigo get together in the next season or if she stays with butt model Alex.

See you tomorrow, Season 2.

Transparent season 2 is sort of silly

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The cast of Amazon Prime’s Transparent returns for an underwhelming season two.

Once upon a time last season, Amazon Prime’s revolutionary Transparent was on track to becoming one of the greatest shows of its era. Heartache has never felt so funny, refreshing, and warm, until showrunner Jill Soloway came along with a show that was progressive, but not preachy or self-important. In fact, it felt real. Real, in the sense, that her characters felt like real people, and did not just embody whatever agenda the show wanted to push forward into the real world.

Years from now, we’re going to talk about how Transparent was one of the forerunners of transgender storytelling, but that was not really the heart and soul of the show. Like all great shows about important things, it didn’t care about connecting the sociopolitical dots for its audience; instead, it wanted to tell a story about family.

Then, season two came along, right near the end of 2015, the year of Caitlyn Jenner and The Danish Girl. And lo and behold, we have, in season two, perhaps the most try-hard, self-important show to ever exist. And maybe–just maybe–it’s on its way to becoming the most intolerable show of its era. But what a shame, it was once so truly great.

What’s so frustrating about season two is not that most of the characters become full-blown narcissists–we always sort of knew they were–but it’s really the season-long narrative itself, which is sort of coalesced with flashbacks to 1933 Berlin.

The problem is two-fold, meaning that Soloway & Co. wanted us to accept two very specific premises, just because. And they had so much faith that we would accept their premises and be moved by it, that they had the audacity to write it and film it.

Please don’t read beyond this point if you don’t want any Transparent season two spoilers.

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A Bachelor in a strange land, and in a stranger (but awesome) post-show

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Sean Lowe’s heir apparent, Ben Higgins mildly tolerates 28 beautiful women.

The Bachelor has returned for its twentieth season, and the new Bachelor is long-suffering Bachelor host, Chris Harrison.

NOPE. IN YOUR DREAMS.

(But please, everyone, hashtag the hell out of #ChrisHarrisonForBachelor. I swear, ABC is missing out on a ratings galore. If I were running for president, #ChrisHarrisonForBachelor would definitely be my main political platform.)

The new Bachelor is actually the remarkably half-fratty, half-puppy (depending on the angle, I suppose) former Bachelorette contestant, Ben Higgins. Ben is an Indiana native who currently lives in Denver, loves the outdoors, and is a software business analyst. So totally normal guy! As evidenced by his LinkedIn profile, he appears to have some confusion over the proper use of semicolons and commas, which is another normal problem that normal people tend to have.

I’d personally consider that a dealbreaker, but 28 girls disagree. There are 28 girls who are willing to disregard the fact that Ben does not how to properly punctuate, and I must say, the oversight is completely understandable. Because this guy is a sweetheart, despite all the weirdos that the Bachelor producers managed to attract this season.

Ben had to deal with professional Las Vegas twins (as they were coming out of the limo, Ben said, “Group hug?”); Lace, the crazy-ass villain this season who is an IRL unsympathetic Mary Crawley; a “Chicken enthusiast”; an “Unemployed” woman (who is not weird, but she is also “Unemployed,” so what is the story there?); a woman who arrived with a giant-ass flower on her head; a woman who brought her horse with her; a woman who hiked a football just so she could show her ass (creative!); a woman who left her news anchor job to be on this fucking show; and a woman who broke up with her boyfriend to date this guy on television.

Yeah, like I said, crazy.

To be honest, though, I was pretty charmed by Ben, who called his parents to say good night after the limo arrivals were over. Ben’s sincerity really reminded me of Sean Lowe, who is probably the greatest Bachelor ever, mainly because he treated the women like human beings (gasp) and very clearly loved Catherine, and Catherine alone. Except Sean did put the women in life-threatening situations on the dates (e.g., sky diving, diving into freezing water, etc.) and the women felt pressured to participate. So except for the fact that Sean was sort of a sadist, he is probably the greatest Bachelor ever.

Surprisingly, though, the real fun didn’t start during The Bachelor. As far as this show goes, this season-starter seemed pretty typical.  The real fun started after The Bachelor, with a new four-week post-Bachelor show called, Bachelor Live.

“What the hell is Bachelor Live?” you may ask.

To paraphase Chris Harrison (#ChrisHarrisonForBachelor), Bachelor Live is a post-game show for The Bachelor so fans can call in and tweet to the show, and it exists so ABC has something to air before Castle comes back. But I hope Castle never comes back (as it shouldn’t, because your neighbor’s grandmother is the only person still watching that show) because BACHELOR LIVE IS AWESOME.

Chris Harrison introduces two guests to the show: Academy Award-winning screenwriter (and very cool Entertainment Weekly columnist), DIABLO CODY (of all people) and actress Lauren Lapkus. And they all proceed to play the Bachelor Live Fantasy Draft, which is apparently a real thing, using cardboard cutouts of the ladies. (You can also play the Bachelor fantasy draft using a kind of lame-looking PDF ABC officially created, even though I guess you can make your own cardboard cutouts, if you have the time.) The coolest thing about Chris, Diablo, and Lauren (I’ve decided we’re all on a first-name basis now) is that they watch the show like the rest of us: with guilt, with pleasure, with irony.

Then, just when you thought this show couldn’t get any better, Academy Award-nominated actress ABIGAIL BRESLIN SKYPES INTO BACHELOR LIVE. Because she’s a huge fan, and had a few things to say to Ben–

–Ben, who is sitting RIGHT THERE IN THE HOT SEAT IN BACHELOR LIVE, just taking it from all these fans who think he’s adorable, but also acknowledge that he’s on a totally ridiculous show. And he definitely knows too, which kind of makes him all the more charming. Chris Harrison does compare Ben to Sean, hinting that Ben could be one of the greatest Bachelors ever, too. Plus, Ben and Sean seem to be tight, which is great to know.

At one point, Ben had to make space on the conveniently three-person couch for Kaitlyn, the Bachelorette who sent Ben home, and her fiance (from The Bachelorette), Shawn. It was sort of awkward! But kind of not, since the three best friends revealed that they had a few drunk Skype conversations already.

Bachelor Live felt like a amalgam of two very cool worlds: that ridiculous party that you couldn’t wait to tell your friends about because you couldn’t believe how Curb Your Enthusiasm it was, and that ridiculous party that you really wished you were invited to, and couldn’t even crash, because you’re physically unable to CLIMB INTO YOUR TELEVISION SCREEN.

But WAIT, as the show came to an end, Chris Harrison announced that next week’s guests will include former Bachelor Chris Soules (ugh) and, wait for it…

…THE ONE AND ONLY QUEEN KRIS JENNER.