Monday, June 6, 2022

TV or Not TV?


When I meet someone who learns I was once in show business, they invariably ask what I am watching. For years I had a standard, often off-putting, response: “they pay me to make this stuff, not to watch it.”

There was a lot of truth to it then (the hours were so horrific that there really was little time to watch other people’s work… or, for that matter, to do much of anything at all but produce my own show). But now? Well, now they no longer pay me to make the stuff, so I watch it… a lot.

Here, then, are snapshot commentaries for shows, old and new, you might enjoy… or not.

Lincoln Lawyer (Netflix): David Kelley has enough TV pedigree for any number of shows. To top that off, he made his bones on this kind of stuff. Here is the problem: he turned the bulk of the work on this show over to other folks… and they let him down.

A perfectly solid premise, a flawed and interesting lead, and a caper that might provide twists and turns for an entire season. Kelley had me at fade in but let me off the hook by allowing (I presume someone else) to cast the show with the most mediocre ensemble I can ever remember seeing in any so-called class A production. It’s not just that the actors are not only not all that accomplished, they also seemed to have been cast at the 11th and a half hour from a Hollywood unemployment line with no thought as to how they might look on screen in the roles assigned.

Were I still working, I would scrutinize those credits to find the casting director’s name to ensure I never made the mistake of hiring that individual on one of my projects. Granted the buck does not stop with the casting department, but they did let this group of actors in the door in the first place and that should never have happened.

Good as the show started out (and I did appreciate the tip of the hat in an early episode to Cagney & Lacey), the writing started quickly to slip away from Mr. Kelley’s desktop to lesser talents, and the whole thing just got too clich√© for me to stay tuned.

The Staircase: Executive produced by a guy about half David Kelley’s age, so you can bet he is not passing the tough work out to anyone. Antonio Campos has a nice list of interesting shows to his credit (one of my favorites being The Sinner) but I suspect that also of importance to this good-looking mini-series is the HBO crew that shepherds these things through development and onto your television screen. Oops, I almost forgot the lesson my friend Michael Fuchs always wanted me to learn: It’s Not TV. It’s HBO. (to be said with that same James Earl Jones sort of “THIS is CNN” sonorous resonance).

Just as with Lincoln Lawyer, I recognized few in this ensemble cast, led by the always believable and interesting Colin Firth and the very real Toni Collette. Here, however, it does not matter because the rest of the group of new-to-me folks were all uniformly good. A terrific bunch of players, they all looked as if the clothes they wore fit who it was they were being paid to play, and they related to one another just as their characters were meant to do in the scripts either written or supervised by Mr. Campos.

The story is riveting and the way it is presented, with flashback upon flashback and dramatized suppositions of what might have happened…all the while teasing us with flashforwards to a time more than a decade ahead of when the story takes place…convinced me that the whole series is clever, very stylish, and very HBO. Those are good things.

While watching HBO, let me point out that BARRY is back. It is Bill Hader’s third season as the titular head of this brilliantly dark HBO comedy, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A special shout out to old pal Henry Winkler who does the best work of his terrific career in this goofy and touching on-going tale. Season three was COVID delayed for more than a year, but these people have not only not lost a step, they obviously put their time to good use while in isolation.

Trust me, everything about this show is good. If it is new to you, see it from the beginning. If you have seen the first two seasons already, do not start season three without re-watching at least the last episode of season two. Producers Alec Berg, Hader, and Aida Rogers make few concessions to the casual viewer.

I came late to Orphan Black, it has been weeks since I finished streaming the fifty episodes that were made over five seasons and frankly, I cannot remember if I pointed this show out to readers of these notes in the past. Dunno, but let me do it now. If it is the second time you have read my words on this subject… and you still have not plopped yourself down in front of your Amazon Prime screen to do so…well, your loss.

Tatiana Maslany is the EMMY award winning (for this series, folks) female lead and she deserves that recognition and more. She is simply brilliant and does things as her character(s) that almost have to be seen to be believed. The show is a fun mystery/adventure/thriller with skillful writing, directing, solid production values and a fine ensemble cast in support of Ms. Maslany. It is, on occasion, a bit violent so put the kids to bed before tuning in.

Hacks: I have not yet savored season two of this HBO award winning comedy series, but Sharon has, and she tells me it is every bit as good as the premiere episodes. Hard to believe anyone could keep up that pace, but if anyone can, I would trust Jean Smart to be the one who does.

The Last Tycoon: I came late to this somewhat vintage series on Amazon Prime based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished and posthumously published novel of the same name. It is, at the very least, a guilty pleasure. Well produced, beautifully shot, and nicely cast with Matt Bomer in the title role and a fine ensemble led by Kelsey Grammer. There are but nine episodes so, if you missed it when it first came out on Amazon, it is an easy catch-up. I commend you to it. Nothing ground-breaking or earth shattering here… but a solid soap about the early days of Hollywood.

More on “guilty pleasures:” Paramount+ has an offer I could not refuse. It is called The Offer and it is the (or to put it more accurately) it is a story about the making of The Godfather. Al Ruddy, the producer of the original movie, executive produced this series, based on his own book. Here, Ruddy has himself portrayed by Miles Teller, who would make a good candidate for an Elvis look alike. Wishful thinking on Ruddy’s part? It sort of makes one wonder about the general authenticity of this memoir about the making of what many…me included…believe to be the finest motion picture ever made.

I will try not to dwell on the flaws of the series, which had me wishing this were an HBO project (with that company’s attention to detail, creativity, and verisimilitude) since this Hollywood tale did work (for me at any rate) on several levels.

Beyond my reverence for the original film… this movie, and some of the people portrayed therein, were personally known to me. Their stories are all contemporaneous with my own time in Hollywood. One of those depicted, Peter Bart... right hand man to studio chief Bob Evans… was a good friend of mine dating back to his days at The New York Times.

A year or so before Mario Puzo authored his novel, Bart offered me a job at Paramount at a time I was happily…and successfully…producing my first series, Daniel Boone, for 20th Century Fox and NBC.

I turned my good friend down and---in retrospect---have always believed had I taken that job, Bart would have ultimately handed me the reins to The Godfather instead of to Al Ruddy. That’s my fantasy… I suspect The Offer is Al Ruddy’s.

That personal bias aside, on many levels, I am enjoying this series. Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Bob Evans is consistent with my memory of the flamboyant studio chief; I liked Giovanni Ribisi as Joe Colombo, Dan Fogler, as Francis Ford Coppola, and Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo.

Overall, any reasonable critic would have to give high points to the entire ensemble, but above all others in the cast is Justin Chambers’ interpretation of Marlon Brando. The scene where the actor first meets The Godfather creative team makes the investment of one’s time in this series more than worthwhile.

I knew Brando and worked on two of his films (Mutiny on the Bounty and Morituri). He was more than his generation’s greatest actor. He was also one of the most powerful… and intimidating… personas I have ever encountered. For any actor to take on the role of this American icon… even to be asked to do such a thing… had to be intimidating. Hat’s off to Mr. Chambers. He nailed it.

The shots of the lot at Paramount (many of them right outside the office I  occupied years after the Bart offer… and which was only smaller by the tiniest of margins than that of Benito Mussolini’s) brought back waves of nostalgia for those brief, but good old days. And Al Ruddy’s story, no matter how self-serving, at least gives us a peek at some of the things that take movies so long to make.

It was at this same studio that Forrest Gump (another great movie of its time) took over eight years to get launched… even though then producer, Wendy Finerman, had the advantage of being married to Mark Canton, at the time one of the most powerful executives in all of Hollywood. The years it took to launch my own series are documented in my memoir, Cagney & Lacey… and Me.

Indefatigability is a big part of making it in Hollywood. Back in the day when my own The Trials of Rosie O’Neill was a short-lived hit, an advertising campaign sponsored by Eastman Kodak, featured a handful of Hollywood “success stories.” I was one of that “handful” expounding on what it took to be successful in show business.

I summed up my own story, saying something akin to, “if it were easy, there wouldn’t be an Akron, Ohio. I mean, who would live there when they could all come to California to be in show business.”

I picked Akron on the theory that names with a K are funnier than those without.  This off-handed reference precipitated so many letters from that Ohio town, including one from the Mayor advising I ought never set foot inside his city, that I now limp away with the only slightly less inflammatory suggestion that if making it in Hollywood were easy, everyone would do it.


Barney Rosenzweig

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