Wednesday, January 18, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Tuning In

Queen Victoria (smiling!) in an open coach, 1892.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Tuning In — The New "Victoria" ... "The Young Pope" ... and "Bad Behavior" Gets a Second Season (With advice from us, natch!)

“ONCE YOU touch the trappings of monarchy, like opening an Egyptian tomb, the inside is liable to crumble,” said the British writer, Anthony Sampson.
Queen Victoria with her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Munshi), who taught her Hindi.
ON SUNDAY night PBS Masterpiece gave us its latest bit of Brit history with the first episode of a new series, “Victoria.” It will tell of the life and times of Queen Victoria, who also styled herself as Empress of India. She was quite a character. And she was the last British monarch to emerge from the Germanic House of Hanover.

The introductory episode ran two hours, which should have been plenty of time to establish all sorts of historical and emotional motivation, but somehow it didn’t.  Everything seemed rather rushed and simplistic. We didn’t get much of a feeling for what was going on in England in 1837 when Vicky ascended the throne, after the death of William IV. 

Beautifully produced and obviously expensive, it nevertheless seemed a hodgepodge of a Daphne du Maurier romance and a lot of “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey.”  Which is fine for people who like that sort of thing — and we do, under totally fictional circumstances — but, in the first episode at any rate, far too much attention was placed on the jealousies, thievery and back stories of the kitchen staff.  (I’m not terribly interested that Vicky’s hairdresser was once a lady of ill-repute. I mean, she’s more to be pitied than censured and a man was the cause of it all — as popular ditties of the era went — but her fallen state is not relevant to Victoria’s tale.)

Jenna Coleman is lovely as the young queen, perhaps too lovely. And too contemporary-looking. I kept getting flashes of Christina Ricci.  Throughout the show, I couldn’t help admiring Miss Coleman’s neck, which is amazingly graceful and long — few real queens have ever enjoyed such a regal physical asset! (Like the actual Victoria, Coleman is tiny, or at least she appears to be.) 
Jenna Coleman as the perhaps-too-lovely young queen.
Catherine Fleming and Paul Rhys are more than appropriately ominous and controlling as Victoria’s mother and her mother’s ambitious “friend.” (The villains in this all but twirl their mustaches and mutter, “curses, foiled again!”)

Rufus Sewell is charming in the role of the gallant but concerned Lord Melbourne, who must shepherd the inexperienced and foolishly headstrong queen into, well — more queenly behavior.  
Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming) and her devious friend, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys).
Rufus Sewell as the gallant Lord Melbourne.
It’s much too soon to give a proper critique. (As far as I know, there’s no place to binge watch “Victoria.”  If PBS would like to send us the entire first season we would not demur.)

But this one is going to have to work hard to sway our allegiance to Netflix’s brilliant “The Crown,” and to the excellent 2009 feature film, “Young Victoria” with a dazzlingly effective Emily Blunt as Vicky.
Emily Blunt as “Young Victoria."
“ARTSY FARTSY.”  Didn’t many of our parents use that expression when faced with films, TV and other aspects of popular culture that simply went over their heads?  And we — so sophisticated and knowledgeable — rolled our eyes, pitying their great age and close-minded attitudes. 

Well, I’m reviving “artsy fartsy.” What else to call HBO’s new series “The Young Pope?” I was prepared, of course, for something different and unusual — after all, it’s Jude Law playing a young (fairly young) American Pope.  But I didn’t expect the non-linear surrealist approach of creator/writer Paolo Sorrentino.  It’s very Fellini or Bunuel or Kenneth Anger or Darren Aronofsky.  Or Mario Bava. There’s a slo-mo, hypnotic 1970’s vibe to “The Young Pope.”  Not, however, hypnotic enough to totally hold my interest. 
I was expecting more of a historical fiction based in some sense of reality.  Diane Keaton as the new pope’s friend, weird Sister Mary is not based in reality.

I know it’s supposed to be deliberately ridiculous, confounding and confusing. And profound, too, I imagine. And I know I’m supposed to be smart and edgy enough to get it, wallowing in the arch fantasy.  And we are! We are so edgy here at the Liz Smith office!

This time, however, I just don’t think I want to be.  (That said, I never like to give up too soon.  So yes, we’ll tune in next week.)
The ball is in your court!
YAY! Over the weekend came news that the TNT network had renewed “Good Behavior” starring Michelle Dockery and Juan Diego Botto.

As I wrote last week, and prior to that, these are difficult characters in a bizarre situation. It will take extremely careful writing not to careen off a cliff, as the series goes forward.  But, I’m glad Miss Dockery and company will have at least another season to carry on.
I'll drink to that!
After our call for the show to be renewed we were fairly inundated (for us!) with emails from “GB” fans agreeing and expressing all sorts of praise for the show and its stars.  I have but one suggestion in advance of season two. (Oh, you thought we’d just say “so happy, go on with what you’re doing?” Silly.)  Fans of the show will get this.

Have Letty (Dockery) return her son to grandma Estelle (Lusia Strus). We all know it is the best thing to do.  For the kid, and for dynamic of the show.  “Bad Behavior” does not need, and should not have a child in every episode.  Unless producers intend to go down a far darker road than they’ve already traveled.  Or, a boring one.
... SPEAKING of mail, we had another influx of opinion after we wrote about a previous influx, regarding people writing in, expressing a “nice but ‘meh’” reaction to what is considered the Oscar shoo-in movie of the year, “La La Land.”  (The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly have both recently published articles which state, basically, “Can anything stop ‘La La Land?”) 

Nobody hates “La La Land” — come on, you’d have to be a monster to hate such a well-intentioned, exquisitely photographed fantasy.  But the “Gone with the Wind”-esque  reviews leave many puzzled.
I did receive this note, from a lady named Bonnie, who expressed her opinion on why so many reviewers and millennials in the audience have embraced the movie.  She writes: “I think the reason people are crazy about it is they haven't grown up with the great musicals that we have. ‘Singing In The Rain,’ all the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth films. ‘The Great Ziegfeld,’ ‘American in Paris,’ Judy Garland. ‘Gigi.’ MGM, etc. etc. etc. 

“Those were all my childhood growing-up films and had a big impact on me.  The millennials haven't been exposed to that era, that genre, so therefore were not aware of those truly great films. I can understand their love affair with this film. It's so new and fresh for them. Hopefully, there'll be more musical in the future. It was wonderful and magical growing up with them.”
This makes sense.  The musicals younger audiences have been exposed to have been grittier fare, such as “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.” But tuneful romance, not so much. 

Look, when all is said and done, it won’t be wrist-slashing time if “La La” takes all the top honors. (Except, maybe, Best Actress. There I might indulge in a bit of fainting, pearl-clutching and foot-stamping if things don’t go the way I want.) It’s just the movies. 

And, truth be told, that “City of Stars” song does worm its way into one’s head!
Contact Liz here.