MCN Commentary & Analysis

The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode Two – Some Good TV

Television is so much a part of this experience of being locked down… so I’ll skip to those adventures before getting back to movies.

Let’s start by paying tribute to FX. Devs. Better Things. And Mrs. America. This is some of the finest television of the decade.

For me, it’s Devs over Mr Robot. For many, it’s the other way around. But I ain’t gonna argue. Alex Garland is the closest thing we have to Kubrick. The pace can be glacial. He is not going to give you the easiest characters or easy answers. His answer may be something that requires you to marinate on for weeks, if not forever. He is fascinated by the mundane elements of life, but always is trying to figure out how they touch the face of God.

How do you review a show that, like shimmering interior of DEVS, changes a bit every episode. Looking back from the end, it seems that it was all inevitable. But watching from the start, there seem to be at least 4 different shows percolating. This both infuriating and exciting. Garland has a passion for super-dry performances and gooey moist romanticism. As a result, while Sonoya Mizuno is the lead of the show, it is Nick Offerman who truly embodies the two sides of Garland’s spiritual coin. Muzuno does well in the series, but it is Offerman’s eyes that speak volumes. In the last few episodes, Alison Pill also grows into the embodiment of that perfect emotional schizophrenia.

Pamela Adlon loves a good stunt. But what makes Better Things the best half hour on television in the last few years is what is true and raw.

Hulu seems to like to follow up the most recent episode of FX shows with the start of Better Things, Season 1, Episode 1. Watching that episode, it’s quite remarkable how the show has changed, season by season. The first season was very much a collaboration between Adlon and Louis CK. The pilot was directed by CK. Every episode of Season 1 features Adlon and CK as writers with just 2 episodes sharing credit with others (Cindy Chupak on Future Fever and Gina Fattore on Alarms).

After directing just 2 of the 10 Season One episodes, Adlon took over all the directing responsibilities in Season Two, still sharing writing duties exclusively with CK. Adlon’s directing skills were not as polished as the directors of Season One, but there was a fearlessness and intimacy that took the show to a higher level.

The New York Times story on Louis CK landed on the same day as the penultimate episode of Season Two first aired. A season that should have won award after award after award was muted by the situation and the space that Adlon understandably needed to process the public destruction of a work partnership that I first saw on a live stage in Hollywood as HBO was developing a series called Lucky Louis in 2005 or 2006. (She had one story credit on the series and wouldn’t get another until Louie in 2011.)

Season Three took a little longer to happen than before. FX moved it from a September launch to February. The season starts with, perhaps, the most famous single scene from Better Things… Sam (Adlon) in her closet, trying on clothes that she doesn’t quite fit in in anymore. Simple bra and panties and fearless visual self-examination. Episode Two also starts in her underwear (after she rips off her pants), dealing with (perhaps) menopause, then the first peak at Sam questioning her sexual boundaries, and what would become a recurring theme, a caring but caustic look at older people. Episode 4… unwanted sex dreams. Another big theme would be Sam’s similarly aged female friends at various stages in their relationships. Adlon also brings on writing staff and for the first time, even has episodes that she has no writing credit at all.

And this fourth season has had its own flavor again. Deepening. Deepening. Adlon opens the season with a dialogue-free three-minute sequence, just wandering around the house. The themes of the series continue. Broken relationships. The daughters finding out new things about themselves. More of the women dealing with life as they pass the halfway mark.

I think what I love so much about Adlon’s show is that I don’t know what is coming… but it always feels right… and it always leaves me thinking and feeling and wanting more. This is an exceptional thing in any of the arts.

Another COVID “discovery” was Marcella, a British cop show—of a sort. Anna Friel stars and she is roughly glamorous, and so broken. It’s not even clear what she does in the early moments of the first season. She is a mother. She is recently and painfully divorced. She is a mess.

And as it turns out, she is a top end murder police. The question of “whodunnit” flips on her, as a murder case turns out to be close to home and she, in her current state, has blackouts that mean she can’t trust herself in many ways.

The show airs on Netflix and I binged until I passed out.. then finished Season One in the morning. The cast is great. The twists are really unique. And it’s beautifully made.

Second season… not so much. The thing is, much of what is so special about the show is resolved in the first season. And honestly, I was done. I got four episodes into Season Two and lost interest. But man, that first season!

There is a fascinating and terribly important Frontline episode, which you should be able to bring up on the PBS app or elsewhere, on plastics and how the are being and not being recycled. Plastic Wars. I watched with my jar on the ground. Frontline is such a great show… and this episode blew me away.

I had bailed on Mr. Robot sometime towards the end of the second season. I just wasn’t interested in working that hard as an audience member. I know people LOVE the show. But on a too-tight content consumption schedule, it faded.

Then the final season came and all the superlatives that were flying in Season One were back. One friend in particular brought it up over and over and over again. So I leapt right into Season Four. And you know what… I liked this last season more (once I figured a few things out) that anything else I had seen from the show. I think it was because the actual premise was no longer a secret. And the stakes seemed so much more personal than I had felt watching the show before. It was great.

So if you are someone who fell of the Mr. Robot wagon, I encourage you to get back on there.

Shrill was one of those shows I never quite started with. Frankly, the design at Hulu keeps me from hanging around in and wandering around their content offerings. I am loving FX on Hulu, but it is always a challenged to get me to watch something for which I wasn’t already looking.

But the shutdown finally got me to start Shrill and I found it fascinating from start to finish. Aidy Bryant just falls right off the screen onto your couch. She is accessible and vulnerable and fun and dumb and brilliant. And her Annie Eaton on the show may be her in some ways and others not, but she can transfer that energy to her character and it is compelling in ways you never quite see coming.

It is the part of being open – or politically correct, if you like – that we seek to do “the right thing” for people whom we see as vulnerable, but never quite deal with the imposition of how we see those people. Nor do people find it easy to navigate the idea that people know what others see them as and sometimes they don’t feel it and sometimes they feel it deeply and the nature of both of those feelings is often misplaced, by the observer and by the object of the concern.

In many ways, Shrill is filled with the conventional. And then it just flips. and flips. And flips again. But it all makes sense. It just isn’t about nailing these characters – and not just the lead – down. Her parents! God, I loved Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern as her parents. And Patti Harrison… holy crap… queen of playing the black notes only on the comedy keyboard.

I’m going to stop now. These review pieces have been sitting on the desktop for weeks and I’m trying to find my rhythm pushing it out. So for now, less is more… with more to come.

16 Responses to “The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode Two – Some Good TV”

  1. Stella's Boy says:

    Long live FX. Better Things is fantastic. Haven’t checked out Devs yet. Mrs. America is outstanding. What an ensemble cast. Great television. I just watched the newest season of Bosch and really like that show. Underrated. The Plot Against America was excellent and eerily timely. Better Call Saul just had its best season yet.

  2. YancySkancy says:

    Not sure how the heck I missed that Better Things season 4 has already debuted and wrapped up. Gotta get on that. Wasn’t thrilled with the sort of supernatural element that got played up in season 3, but it’s definitely one of the best shows on TV.

    Seconding Stella’s endorsement of Bosch, a longtime fave, and the great fifth season of Better Call Saul. I also finally got around to the final season of Silicon Valley (great show, maybe not the greatest final episode). Caught up with Ozark, which seems to get better each season, and Succession, which I love. I’m even enjoying the social experiment of American Idol being done from the contestants’ homes.

    I’ve been rewatching a lot of movies, but I think it’s time to catch up on some more TV. Season 2 of Ricky Gervais’ After Life is up now, and I’m behind on The Deuce, GLOW, Mrs. Maisel. Haven’t seen Chernobyl, Devs, Mrs. America, The Plot Against America, The Outsider, Hunters. It’s daunting.

    My sister is urging me to start Criminal Minds, but 12 seasons? Yikes. And I’m not sure it’s my cuppa tea, though I have managed to stick with 20 years of Law and Order SVU as sort of “comfort food” TV, so who knows?

  3. Across the Pond says:

    I want to bang the drum for the UK’s National Theater “NT at Home” on Youtube. They’ve been showing their prerecorded plays the past few weeks, previously shown in cinemas (under the “NT Live” moniker) and up this week is Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch (you can see him as the monster or the doctor). A fantastic production and all around work of art.

    ADD: There are two versions: Cumberbatch and Jonnie Miller alternate the roles of the Doctor and the monster.

  4. Stella's Boy says:

    Nice to see another Bosch fan. That show has never gotten its due. The Outsider was very good. Pulled off a police procedural and supernatural weirdness quite effectively. I agree about Ozark. Found the first season pretty mediocre (and it wasted Laura Linney)? But it found its voice and has improved each season.

  5. movieman says:

    I watched the first three episodes of “Hollywood” last night.
    Appreciate the relative brevity of the eps (all under 60 minutes) and the fact that there are only seven in total.
    I’m enjoying it while mentally acknowledging that it’s really not very good and suffers from Ryan Murphy’s usual irritating tics (e.g., shoving the supremely unctuous Darren Cris down our throats).
    The production values are impressive, though, and I’ve always been a sucker for “Alternative Hollywood History.”
    The mix-and-matching of real people (Rock Hudson, George Cukor, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, et al) with fictionalized versions of others (most prominently the infamous Scotty Bowers) is pretty damn irresistible.
    Junk food-addictive with zero nutritional value.

    Totally agree about “Better Things.”
    It’s one of the best cable shows ever, and almost makes me forget how much I’m still missing “Louie.”
    I keep imagining “BT” as a European art movie w/ Juliette Binoche in the Pamela Adlon role (and Catherine Deneuve as her next door mother). And maybe Andre Techine as director.

  6. Stella's Boy says:

    Haven’t seen Hollywood but Criss is just devastatingly good in the excellent American Crime Story: Versace. He isn’t my favorite actor or anything but he blew me away on that show.

  7. movieman says:

    Criss has never remotely impressed me, SB.
    Nope, not even in “Versace” where I thought he was the weak link in an otherwise pretty seamless ensemble cast.
    Finn Wittrock, another Murphy favorite, could have knocked that role out of the park.
    Wittrock is just as pretty as Cris, but an immeasurably better and considerably more versatile actor (his range on multiple seasons of “AHS” was darn impressive).

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    Wittrock doesn’t do much for me. He’s…ok. I believe Criss received widespread raves for Versace. Rightfully so.

  9. movieman says:

    Not from me, SB, and that’s the only thing that matters, lol.
    Wittrock’s performance in the carnival season of “AHS” was superior to Criss’ cumulative (Murphy) credits.
    He must have the same kind of mind-meld power over Murphy that Putin exerts on Trump.

  10. Stella's Boy says:

    I’ve been enjoying the return of Joe Bob and The Last Drive In. Last night’s pairing of Maniac and Heathers was good and he interviewed Tom Savini. Joe Bob is great television. Tells entertaining stories. Such vast knowledge. But his strident libertarianism is annoying. Ten minute screed against San Francisco last night was very get off my lawn. Man thinks he’s a victim because the world changed and he hasn’t. I guess no one’s perfect.

    Enjoyed the first episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Loved its predecessor. This one has excellent production values, a strong cast, and some fun weirdness.

  11. Pete B. says:

    Don’t know if regular network TV is to gauche to discuss, but the first season of Fox’s Prodigal Son was a blast. The finale kept the wife and I both guessing. Too bad who knows when Season 2 will air, if they even got any production started.

  12. Stella's Boy says:

    I have a friend who likes that show a lot and recommended it. Just hard to keep up with everything. I like a good network show. First season of Bone Collector on NBC was an easy watch and I enjoyed it. Found the familiarity and predictability more comforting than anything else.

  13. YancySkancy says:

    Stella’s: I also enjoyed The Bone Collector, which is almost an update of the old Raymond Burr series Ironsides, if you think about it, though I know it’s actually based on the previous movie and book. I’m a fan of Arielle Kebbel, so it’s nice to see her get a leading role in a series.

    I finished The Deuce, season 3, perhaps the series’ strongest.

    Movieman, I too am 3 episodes into Hollywood and finding it sort of addictive but not very good.

  14. Stella's Boy says:

    I like her too and also like Russell Hornsby. The Deuce season three was great. Went out strong. The Atlanta Child Murders doc on HBO is grim but very good. Killing Eve’s new season has been fun so far. Some nice surprises even as it covers familiar territory. I just love the performances so much. Also watching Run on HBO. It’s so-so but Merritt Wever is wonderful and makes it worth watching.

  15. YancySkancy says:

    Yes, great to see Hornsby get a lead as well!

  16. movieman says:

    LOVED “The Deuce”!
    Maggie Gyllenhaal did career-best work, as did James Franco.
    And is anyone else as much in love with Zoe Kazan as I am these days? (Paul Dano excepted, of course, lol.)
    She was fantastic on “The Deuce” (who wasn’t?), and equally great in “The Plot Against America.”

    I’m enjoying “Run” so far.
    Merrit Weaver IS wonderful, SB. She’s like this amazing cross between a pre-“Captain Marvel” (i.e., when I still liked her) Brie Larson and Amy Schumer. And I’m happy they’re letting Dom Gleeson use his native Irish accent. (“The Kitchen” proved he doesn’t do “American”–even “New Yawk”–very well).

    I liked the “Atlanta Child Murders” docu-series, but the lack of a real smoking gun left it feeling a tad anticlimactic.
    I’m no more (or less) convinced of Wayne Williams’ guilt than I was when it started.
    The fact that the killings magically ended with his arrest remains a pretty damning indictment.

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