Tuesday, June 5, 2018

After the darkness fell

The Surprisingly Non-Violent End of “The Americans.”  Also — “Animal Kingdom” ... ”Book Club” ... Mail and History.
by Denis Ferrara

“LIFE being what it is, one dreams of revenge,” said the artist Paul Gauguin.
FICTIONAL TV being what it is one often dreams of revenge as well. 

I am on record as wanting Keri Russell, aka Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings to die as miserable and painful and bloody a death as she visited on countless others over six seasons of “The Americans.”  And not simply other spies or operatives; the innocents who died at hers and hubby Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) hands was mind-boggling. I gave Philip a bit of a pass because he had more of a conscience and got out of the spy biz, leaving Elizabeth to shoot, stab and strangle, willy-nilly, all on her lonesome. 
But guess what?  Last Wednesday’s finale was free of gore, beautifully bleak, dark, poignant — very Russian!  I was not lusting for Elizabeth’s demise, or even her capture, by the time the 90-minute finale wrapped.  For those — and I assume there are some — who have not seen the finale and have somehow avoided news about it, I won’t spoil.  There’s misery, surprise and mystery.  Much goes unanswered, as it should. And yeah, we get wigs to the end! 
The acting remained on a high level, with a particular nod to Noah Emmerich as Stan.  His scene of confrontation and full realization in the garage was masterful.  This show has been underappreciated, under-awarded, but most everybody realizes it’s up there with the really great ones, like “Breaking Bad.”

I hope only that nobody ever revisits the characters.  It’s done, and done perfectly.  We have imaginations, yes?  Let’s all imagine, to our pleasure, what happened after darkness fell over Elizabeth, Philip and Moscow.
MORE TV:  “The Americans” has left the building, but “Animal Kingdom” has returned!  Based on a brilliant and heartbreaking 2010 Australian movie about a low-level family of criminals, this series became an instant favorite with me because of all the eye candy and Ellen Barkin as the loathsome, loving, don’t-turn-your-back-on-her matriarch, Smurf.  Given Smurf’s horrible nature, perhaps the actress would not appreciate our saying this is the role she was born to play, but — I think it is.  Reptilian, manipulative, murderous and sexy in a kind of hypnotic, malevolent manner that recalls Agnes Moorehead in “Dark Passage.”  Not beautiful by any classic standards, but so aggressively fascinating that feature-by-feature perfection hardly matters. (I don’t know what the producers of “Animal Kingdom” have in store for Smurf, but I don’t think she’ll be obliged to meet the old traditional fate of “bad women,” as did Moorehead.)
Barkin heads a triumvirate of females steering crime shows right now.  She is the worst of the lot, having chosen her life with little apparent regret. 

Then we have Niecy Nash of “Claws” (soon returning for season 2) as a manicurist who just wanted her own salon, but things got complicated. 
And Christina Hendricks of “Good Girls,” who was simply trying to pay off  her no-account hubby’s debts until ... things got complicated.  These actresses are blessed with excellent co-stars and scripts, but make no mistake, they are the deluxe engines that pull and power their shows.
As for “Animal Kingdom” I won’t spoil, but a major character has been excised. Still, to fill the gap the eternally debauched Denis Leary joins the show this season so we have to bear up.

And, for any of you who have followed the career of Shawn Hatosy since the 1990s, he plays the most deeply troubled of Ellen Barkin’s progeny on “Animal Kingdom.”  Always an excellent actor, he has never been better than he is here, as the agonized, off-kilter Pope Cody.  Also, for those who care, he has provided fine visual effects.  Let’s just say — he’s not shy.  And has no reason to be.
I KNEW what to expect when I took myself off to see “Book Club” over the weekend. It’s been done — women of a more-than-certain age discovering or re-discovering their sensuality.  Here they are Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen.  All become fascinated with the latest addition to their book club, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  Adventures in arthritic eroticism ensue.  I wasn’t sure if I laughed or cringed more. 
The film is spotty plot-wise and unevenly written; a slightly more expletive-laden Lifetime movie.  Maybe it was the book that so intrigued these women that irritated me — “Fifty Shades of Grey?”  I have not been able to bring myself to read any of the “Shades” books, but I have (on cable) seen the films.  Atrocious. (Dakota Johnson — I have seen you in other films, such as “How to Be Single.”  I beg you, save your money.  In thirty years there won’t  even be projects such as “Book Club” for you. I am sure you are a lovely person. Please discover crafting.)

Maybe if the ladies onscreen had been reading “Madame Bovary” or “Anna Karenina” or “The Scarlet Letter” and the action had been spawned by discussion of how to be sexual and free without meeting the bad ends of Emma or Anna or Hester?  Or even “The Story of O” if the writers were so intent on an S&M theme? 
Older women and sex — it was done more amusingly, I think, with “The Golden Girls” — and very daringly for the 1980’s!  Mature sex-symbols who can’t keep their camisoles on?  How soon we have forgotten 50-year-old Joan Collins on “Dynasty?”

It was good to see these talented and still very attractive women on screen — and their men, too: Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Ed Begley, Jr.  I wish they’d been better served, although I’ve seen much worse, for sure.  (Most anything with Rebel Wilson, Anna Farris, Amy Schumer, Adam Sandler or directed by Judd Apatow.)

... ROSEANNE  had  to go, and how foolish of ABC-TV to risk millions on the loose cannon that is Ms. Barr.  And although I wasn’t finding the re-booted “Roseanne” amusing, it’s too bad the cast had to suffer Roseanne’s madness and racism.
... SAMANTHA Bee should have gone.  Sorry, in our current world of unending outrage, there’s no place for Bee if Barr gets the can. (And the unfunny Bee planned and pre-taped her “feckless c***” remarks about Ivanka Trump.)  I am no fan of the First Family (I sympathize, however with Melania and her son, Barron.) But this unrelenting “comic” vitriol is NOT WORKING. In fact, it is damaging and counter-productive.
... ON the matter of things not working, the important read of the week is Peter Hamby’s piece on Vanity Fair’s Hive website, on how Democrats, at this point have already lost the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election.  This should be required reading for all the smug lemmings at MSNBC as well as the “comedians” who think trashing the president and his family 24/7 does anything but infuriate, embolden and strengthen his base. 

... AND speaking of MSNBC — why is Joy Reid still on the air? Nobody “evolves” from homophobia and anti-Semitism as much as she claims she has.  If so, she needs to get herself to a laboratory, pronto.  She’s one for the science books.
Monroe on the set of her unfinished film, "Something's Got to Give."  Reader Gina From the Midwest is NOT a fan!    
MAIL:  “UGH!!!!”  That was a constant reader, Gina from the Midwest (as she signs herself) in reaction to my mention of what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 92nd birthday, on June 1st.  Although Gina has written approvingly of some other subjects aired in this space, she has a visceral, negative reaction to anything concerning MM. (I’m sure even the initials give her a headache.)  I feel bad about this, but ... I shall carry on. I love Monroe.  Sorry, Gina.  Oh, and even if you move south or east or out of the country, you’ll always be Gina from the Midwest to me.

I received a good deal of nice comment on the column that ran here on Memorial Day.  I was appreciative, but did remind everybody that the real compliments go to Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and historian Richard Hofstadter, whose words dominated that column.  My own stuff, in between was ... okay. 

And here I must also acknowledge and compliment the distinguished author Jon Meacham.  It was from his current excellent book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” that I culled the Smith and Hofstadter material and was moved to write on Memorial Day.

Pulitzer Prize winner Meacham is the author of several books that rest prominently in my bedroom bookshelves — his biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and “Franklin and Winston.” (If I have to give full names on the latter, please leave this page.)
Click to order “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels."
When I was younger, and not even that much younger, I didn’t have a great interest in American history.  No Borgia poisonings, no Tudor wives beheaded, no imprisoned Scottish queens or randy Russian empresses. No tragic woman in the tumbrel, the way to the guillotine, for whom wisdom and moderation came too late. 

But as I’ve matured — as much as a person such as I can mature — I find American history fascinating (and wildly frustrating in it vagaries!) Studying the best and worst of our country’s past is now imperative as history is ominously made and unmade on a daily basis. 
Contact Denis here.