Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat
Thursday, 02 April 2020 18:18

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat

As more people have to stay home and watch TV, Dennis Broe reviews some current TV series from the U.S., Britain and Iceland, showing how they both expose and conceal real social and economic injustice

The best network series in what might be a season cut short by the coronavirus is ABC’s For Life, a combination prison/court room drama about an innocent African-American inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for being a drug kingpin. The series is based on the true story of Issac Wright Jr., a New Jersey inmate who used his time in prison to become a legal counsellor and claimed to have freed 20 unlawfully jailed prisoners.

DB4 Lawyer prisoner Aaron Wallace in For Life

Similarly, Aaron Wallace, a club owner – as Wright was a promoter who claimed he put together the Latina Girl Group The Cover Girls – is jailed by an ambitious and corrupt Illinois prosecutor, Glen Maskins, who is running for Chicago District Attorney. In order to free himself Wallace studies to become a lawyer, takes the bar, becomes the legal representative for the inmates and begins an aggressive campaign against the would-be DA, attempting to prove a pattern of faulty convictions.  

For Life is a brand new approach to the courtroom drama genre, by crossing it with the prison series and by emphasizing the unfairness of the legal system and the ways African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites are caught in the crosshairs of a system that presumes them guilty from the start. This is a system where tainted evidence and lack of investigation characterize the actions of both prejudiced police and politically ambitious prosecutors.

It is stirring to watch Aaron – who changes each week out of his orange prison jumpsuit into the tailored suit of a lawyer and then appears before a judge –masterfully arguing his cases. By being in prison and having access to the stories of inmates, and through his own interaction with the law, Aaron is able to take into court a point of view and perspective on the legal system the lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom do not have.

He is also accused of cutting corners himself, in his defence of the inmates. On being confronted with this by a liberal female warden who is on his side he answers that with all the obstacles against him, it is up to him where to draw the line. The ultimate statement about his predicament occurs when he is reprimanded by a black cop who he asks to illegally obtain his police file, which he is barred from seeing. To Aaron’s declaration that the procedure is unfair, the cop replies “You should have thought of that before….” Aaron interrupts him with, “Before what, I decided to be black in America?” The cop folds under this logic and grants Aaron his request.

The show was produced by 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III, a victim and perpetrator of street violence who was arrested for dealing and was once shot nine times before establishing a highly successful career as a rapper. He wanted to tell Wright’s story and Wright himself is grateful he was able to address the wrong in his own situation. He hopes that the show will be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for the “thousands of people” wrongly incarcerated that he left behind. .

DB3 Kelsey Grammers evil prosecutor in Proven Innocent

The series is tightly constructed and owes something not only, of course, in the prison context to the landmark HBO series Oz but also to a short-lived courtroom drama from last season called Proven Innocent, where the female Caucasian protagonist becomes a lawyer to escape her own wrongful conviction, and then after being freed becomes an advocate for the underprivileged. She is pursued by a bullying prosecutor (Frazier’s and Boss’s Kelsey Grammer), also running a political campaign, who put her in prison and wants to put her back behind bars. The character of the prosecutor especially owes much to this Fox series which that network quickly dropped. I wonder why?

For Life ups the ante by having its protagonist still in prison and battling to get out, and most crucially by adding the element of that most incarcerated class, black men. Their imprisonment is often not based on guilt or innocence but on a systemic need to discipline a recalcitrant and rebellious population, and to fill the jail cells of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become a boondoggle for private enterprise. In the Bible, Aaron is the older brother of Moses, who leads the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and to freedom. Each week this Aaron attempts the same for an large ethnic group within the American working class, for no reason other than prejudice and profit.

Twisting the truth through twists in the plot 

Alfred Hitchcock talked about the differences between what he called coincidence and suspense. Coincidence was the result of a poorly constructed plot, involving a mystery that seems to simply assemble random events and betrays its own shoddy construction. Suspense, on the other hand, meant involving the audience in a series of events that gripped them and made them a part of the plot because they knew what the characters were going through.

In the era of peak and binge TV, a contemporary buzzword is “twisty.” The word has a positive connotation and indicates not just a surprise ending (as in such films as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense) but rather a continual series of surprises constantly shocking the audience.

DB5 Patriarchal Lineage in The Stranger

Two contemporary Netflix shows, the British series The Stranger and the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, are both “twisty” but for radically different ends. The Stranger’s “twists”, akin to coincidence, are simply the sparkplugs of an addictive plot driving the story forward for no reason other than propulsion. The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is made up of a series of twists akin to suspense, with each taking the audience deeper into and ripping the curtain off the layers of corruption that infect Icelandic society.

The Stranger is based on a Harlan Coben novel, with Coben as executive producer. The catalyst for the story is the appearance at that most quintessential bourgeois parenting event the kid’s soccer game of a mysterious woman in a baseball cap who reveals to the father of one of the participating boys that his wife has faked a pregnancy and that his two sons may not actually be his. The show centres around lineage, with the father the wronged one in this danger to the succession of patriarchal power.

This mini-series is indeed “twisty” with a new reveal coming not just at the end but generally at about every quarter of each episode. Without revealing these plot turns it is important to note that at the end of a supposed questioning of middle-class bourgeois customs, that order is restored and the sanctity of the bourgeois suburban marriage is reaffirmed even though much of the show has at least summarily questioned it. So they are addictive twists, for the purpose of dragging viewers along with them for commercial reasons, but with almost no interest in questioning what lies behind a trail of deception and violence.

DB2 Corruption in Iceland in The Valhalla Murders

 The Valhalla Murders on the other hand is the complete opposite, though it begins in much the same clichéd way. That most reliable of staples, the serial killer, is the antagonist in this drama about two Icelandic police officers tracking a bloody trail that leads to a now boarded-up boarding school, as the former instructors in the school are being gutted and the police have no clue why. The series is based on the first serial killer case in Iceland, and the first half of the series treads familiar Silence of the Lambs ground.

However, the serial killer plot is surprisingly resolved at the midpoint in the series and at this point it becomes much more interesting as the two cops investigate other possible roots of the violence of the boarding school and as the trail climbs ever higher in the judicial and state hierarchy. ‘Valhalla’ in Nordic mythology is a warriors’ heaven ruled over by Odin, wise but also a vicious warlike figure associated with death. The boarding house is a Valhalla where its young warriors are initiated into an unfair battle that has ruined their lives and made living corpses of them, as they die prematurely or wander aimlessly in jobs that simply occupy their time. They are casualties of a brutal abuse of power.

The twists and turns in The Valhalla Murders deepen the critique of a society that is willing to look at its flaws. In contrast, the twists in The Stranger work to conceal the flaws of an oppressive and exploitative society – instead of exposing and examining them, they are presented as an ever-spinning addictive spiral that obstructs the viewer's critical reflection.

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019
Thursday, 02 April 2020 18:18

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019

Dennis Broe reviews the best TV Series of 2019

I could not fit all the series I liked this year into a Top Ten so I have what amounts to a Top 30 best series in global television. At first glance this might indicate that series are improving but let’s not be so hasty. In the US alone, not to mention worldwide, there were nearly 500 series produced in 2019 on network, cable and streaming services, so the fact that there are a rising number of watchable and even quality series is more a product of the number of series as a whole increasing.

Peak TV

We have gone from what used to be called the Second Golden Age of Television, which in truth may have finished around 2004 with the period’s ending marked by the demise of the HBO series Deadwood, to what is now referred to as “Peak TV.”

tv Peak TV

The name denotes a phenomenon where the market, as happened with oil, is glutted, and one has to dig down much deeper to refine or find a watchable series. Yes, there are more quality series but there are also more mediocre series with the vast majority being simply unwatchable, just niche series with a very limited appeal or pre-packaged rip-offs of previous series or movies. In the supposedly quality era of streaming TV we are actually getting closer to the phenomena of cable, that is 500 channels, or in this case series, with almost nothing to watch.

Streaming Services

That is the first major trend, saturation or peak TV. The second of course is the rise of the streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon now joined by Disney+ and Apple TV+ and with NBC Universal, titled Peacock, and AT&T Time Warner, titled HBO Max, still to come. A wave of consolidation accompanied these behemoths with Disney buying Fox, AT&T absorbing Time Warner, CBS merging with Paramount Viacom, and, finally, Comcast, one of the largest cable companies in the US, also now owning NBC and buying Europe’s leading satellite company Sky. The goal in many of these mergers is to both create original series and lock up movie studio back catalogues, so that the service provides a seemingly endless array of product.

The other unstated goal of these conglomerates moving online is to use serial TV as a way to harvest data on users and sell the data to advertisers, so that advertisers are paying not only to advertise on the streaming service but also for data collected by the service. Hence, AT&T, the conservative company from Dallas, on merging with Time Warner bought a company that allows it to send targeted ads to all devices and Disney+ contracted with Publicis, a company which is already adept at collecting data from TV sets and selling it without the viewer’s consent. So, the movement now allows these entertainment complexes to become full-fledged members of the surveillance economy, and converts the “freedom” of Serial TV into a device for creating and manipulating consumer interest, and then spying on and harvesting it.

A word about my particular bent in terms of series TV and in general. Manny Farber, way back in the early ’60s, wrote a crucial essay on the difference between Elephant and Termite Art, Elephant Art being big-budget, “meaningful” art with a socially uplifting purpose and Termite Art being low-budget, degraded, prickly art with no apparent redeeming social value. He might as well have been saying bourgeois art which caters to an upper-middle-class taste versus working-class art, enjoyed by the masses and discounted by the critics. I am almost always on the side of Termite Art. On TV this would be the Nancy Drews, Burden of Truth, In the Dark rather than the Elephant Art of Succession, The Morning Show, and Billions/Black Monday

tv Succession       

The other trend is that this year saw the first wave of post-MeToo series come down the  pipeline and the prognostication is positive. Female leads in Stumptown, In the Dark, Proven Innocent, Burden of Truth and Nancy Drew generally were part of a formula that produced series that were nicer, less violent, and more social and political than previous series with male leads. This was apparent for example in the difference in two series on Apple TV+, the more patriarchal, typically apocryphal Mad Max-like See and the more matriarchal, looser and more quietly questioning the persistence of the colonial social order of Dickinson.

 I should add also vis-à-vis my Top Series that a successful series is one that gets on the air, not necessarily one that has a long run, since so many of the best series are cancelled quickly, with cancellation in a commercial medium generally having little to do with the quality of the series.

Top 15 TV Series

 tv homecoming

Homecoming – Much more than a Julia Roberts vehicle, this Amazon Prime series, originated as a podcast which made for an extremely tightly constructed half hour, the equivalent plot-wise of most hour series. Robert’s slowly coming to grips with a corporate-induced amnesia shed light on, and was one of the few series to tackle, the nefariousness of Big Pharma as the opioid crisis persists.

Bad Banks – Season One of this German-Luxembourg series, now airing on Hulu, with Season Two soon to come, boasted one of the most outstanding pilots beginning with a run on a bank and flashing back to the financial crimes that led to that collapse including millennial bankers cheering wildly at a California earthquake, which resulted in their profiting from a financial instrument that pays off on catastrophes.

Bob Hearts Abishola – Much better Chuck Lorre series than the Elephant-like The Kominsky Method. This touching on-again, off-again courtship and romance solidly rooted in the day-to-day conflicts of its female Nigerian hospital nurse and male Detroit small business owner, has its share of embarrassing stock sitcom characters (Abishola’s aunt and uncle, Bob’s sister and brother) but the leads, and especially Folake Olowofoyeku’s Abishola, aided by the writing of Gina Yashere make this an extremely heartwarming series.

Bloody Vienna – BBC2 mystery series, likely soon to circulate on BBC America, that maps the reactionary anti-semitism and stifling militarism of post fin-de-siecle Vienna as well as its grappling toward modernity in its Secessionist art at the dawning of psychoanalysis. Both are embodied in the young Freudian Max Lieberman who aids a working-class Austrian detective by employing this new science of the mind to solve crimes that originate in the repressed atmosphere of the upper reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Who is America – Sasha Baron Cohen’s one-season wonder on Showtime in which he inhabits four characters in Candid Camera-like situations but exposes the innate racist and violent nature of the actual American personalities he catches being themselves. The best character is his Israeli officer Colonel Erran Morad whose own militarist impulses allow those of the Southern Old Boy subjects he encourages to emerge on screen.

Jeux d’influence – or Game of Influence, now broadcasting on Amazon Prime. This French series lays bare the disastrous effects of lobbyists who in this case are aiming to keep a cancerous agricultural product, based on Monsanto’s glyphosphate, on the market. It’s a well-told Zola-esque view of the industry, its farmer victims, and the politicians of all the legislative parties, who, knowing the product is murderous, delay banning it, just as in fact Macron’s government has done with the actual product.

Proven Innocent – Fox, the network where all good series go to die, broadcast 13 episodes, then cancelled this show about a female attorney who fights to free unlawfully jailed victims of the Chicago criminal justice system and in so doing exposes the inequities of that system. This is the antidote to the more conservative procedural Cold Case since here the back case is about proving the defendant innocent. A marvelous complete in itself 13-episode arc also ties the original murder, for which Rachel Lefevre’s attorney was imprisoned, back to Kelsey Grammer’s prosecutor, now running for attorney general who persecutes her, with the show linking the actual guilt to the post-Citizens United world where unlimited money furthers unjust candidates.

Folklore – HBO Asia series based on the fact that as its creator Singapore director Eric Khoo says “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” But, the catch, in this marvelous horror anthology from six Asian countries, is that, unlike Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, which took a while to become relevant, this series right off the bat combines ghost stories with the actual horror of ordinary people’s lives on a continent where the disparity between rich and poor is vast.

Back To Life – Airing on Showtime, this is a second stunning and funny series from alumni of the too-soon-departed satire of the television industry Episodes. Following Steven Mangan’s Hang Ups, Daisy Haggard’s series about a woman sent to prison for murder returning to a town that rejects her is a bittersweet version of Rectify, but here the humor and the pathos is more direct, as Haggard proves herself first a marvellous comedian, then a marvellous actress.

tv Grisse

Grisse – Another HBO Asia series, this one condensing 200 years of rebellion against the Dutch in a province of Indonesia into a single uprising that employs the iconography and attitudes of a Sergio Leone Western to make its point about Dutch colonial brutality amid native resistance and compliance.

Nancy Drew – One of the year’s outstanding pilots as we find out that the CW’s contemporary Nancy Drew, is not at all your mother or grandmother’s female detective. Nancy’s mother died of pancreatic cancer, her father is a not-to-be-trusted scheming lawyer who defends the rich in this coastal New England town, Nancy’s African-American boyfriend served time for manslaughter and there are two murders in the town of its leading wealthy daughters, one of whom still haunts the area. The difference between the dream world of the original and the far tougher world of the Veronica Mars present is what lends this series its frisson.

Burden of Truth – CW again in a trend that is seeing American and Canadian production companies collaborating, meaning Canada’s more critical social democratic spirit fuses with American neoliberal television to create more socially relevant series. In this case Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk stars as a corporate lawyer who secedes from her father’s scurrilous corporate law firm to battle over two polluters causing brain damage to their children and data harvesters. Couldn’t be more relevant and utterly overlooked by mainstream critics.

Chambers – Netflix cancelled this series after one season and again critics despised it for being muddled in its presentation. In truth, the series, though sometimes a bit obscure, was not at all unclear about its sharp class presentation of the distinction and potential menaces to its Native American/African American heroine living in a trailer by the upper-middle-class Sedona type patronizing couple who employ Me Generation healing tropes in their mansion to attempt to coopt her. 

The Mandalorian – Best post-original Star Wars creation. This tight, terse horse opera about a bounty hunter with a heart operating in the nether spaces in the time after the empire has collapsed, that is after the end of the first trilogy, takes up the question of how life is lived in the wake of a shattered evil empire, a question the US may be facing at the moment as its imperial reign comes to an end.

Late Night with Seth Meyers – Not strictly a series but perhaps the funniest show on television and best of the late night hosts. Meyers’ humor, in his “In The News” and “A Closer Look” segments almost always with a political or social point, is the sharpest in late night, though lately he has gone overboard and is sounding a little one-note on impeachment. Along with him is the funniest person on television, Amber Ruffin whose segments “Amber Says What” and with Jenny Hagel “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” all of which can be watched on YouTube, constitute the most precise take anywhere in American media on the inequality of black-white relationships in Trump’s America.

Honorable Mentions

tv Damnation

 Damnation – USA, now-cancelled, series currently on Netflix about the effects of the depression on an Iowa farming community, featuring a scene where farmers intimidate bankers at an auction to get their foreclosed property back, right out of King Vidor’s film made during the Depression, called Our Daily Bread.

 In the dark – This series about an alcoholic blind girl becoming a detective brings the feistiness of Jessica Jones to network TV, with a Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Scooby Doo-like group replacing Jones alcoholic isolation.  

 Killing Eve – Two seasons now of this intriguing are they or aren’t they lesbian relationship, spy thriller, with television’s most compelling female lovers since the two combatants on Zena Warrior Princess.

 Stella Bloomquist – Icelandic series, available on Viaplay, about a sexually liberated female lawyer who wades into and runs afoul of the patriarchal power in the upper echelon of her world as she defends the marginalized of that society.

 Floodlands – Dutch-Belgium series about a nebulous border area between the two countries with a female Euro/African detective investigating the traumatizing of a young African immigrant and in so doing exposing prejudice on both sides of the border.

tv Godfather of Harlem

Godfather of Harlem - Chris Brancato’s best entry since the first season of Narcos boasts superb performances by Forest Whitaker’s wily gangster and Giancarlo Esposito’s sleezy Adam Clayton Powell, but what raises the series above the usual mobster fare and gives it its moral fibre is the revolutionary presence of Nigel Thatch’s Malcolm X.

 Dickinson – This life of the poet Emily Dickinson utilizes the Sophia Coppola/Maria Antoinette school of history as respecting the period details but making ultra-modern the language and music, so that Emily complains when asked to fetch water from the well that “This is such bullshit” before doing her chores over a rap montage. Best episode is her own championing of the environment while finding Henry David Thoreau a crass opportunist. 

X Company – Too quickly cancelled Canadian series, streaming on Netflix and Hulu, about a bevy of male spies behind enemy lines in World War II, led by a Jewish female who burrows deep within the Nazi hierarchy as the series moves over its three seasons from France to Poland to Berlin and as she extracts her own revenge on the worst of the calculating murderers of her people.

The Loch – Above average Brit detective series, now streaming on Amazon Prime, featuring a female detective in charge of her first murder investigation in Scotland’s Loch Ness, with the monster emerging at the end not as horrific otherworld creature but as the embedded evil of the region’s patriarchy.

 Cloak & Dagger – USA series from Marvel about a male/female black/white friendship between two teens each with their own power and both plagued and tramautized by the corporate malfeasance and police brutality that mark their town.

C.B. Strike – Based on the series of novels by J.K. Rowling, this noirish detective show features an intriguing, professional relationship between its seasoned and cynical private investigator and the female assistant who wants to break into the field herself.

Requiem – BBC series streaming on Netflix about the haunting of a young female cellist after her mother’s suicide which seamlessly but in a sophisticated way mixes the psychological and the supernatural.  

tv Mystery Road

Mystery Road – Australian series streaming on Acorn TV featuring Aaron Peterson’s Aboriginal detective here teamed with Judy Davis’ tough local cop as they investigate both the murder of a young girl and Davis’ white settler family legacy which pollutes the town and perpetuates the brutality and inequality which marks the country’s history.

Ozark – Netflix series whose second season, with the hardening of the Laura Linney character, could not match its first but which still refreshingly concentrated on the financial nuts and bolts of money laundering in a part of the country long left for dead.  

 Stumptown – Cobie Smulders as an alcoholic, sex-addled war vet slowly turned private detective as part of her recovery process in the darker recesses of Portland. The town’s teenage drug pushers ,under stress in the competitive quest for college entry grades, mirrors the problems of the country as a whole, while providing a female take on those problems.

Five Worst  

 The Morning Show – Perhaps the worst show of this or any season. This Apple TV+ “blockbuster” manages to waste the talents of its Two and A Half Comedians (Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston) by taking the silliness of morning television seriously, portraying it as deadly accurate journalism at a time when the actual news media is more frivolous than ever and when an Episodes-like satire would have made this a show to remember.

Succession – The Rupert Murdoch clan as King Lear. What a falling off is this, in HBO’s entry in the “wealth porn” genre. The Financial Times noted the show had no likeable characters but still fascinated us, meaning that while more people now despise the superrich that is no reason not to continue to be obsessed with their every move. Equally yucky is Black Monday, the African-American version of this phenomenon which originated with Showtime’s Billions where self-serving material gain is the only value.

Tin Star – Tim Roth as an ex-British cop in the Canadian West pursued by his demons and inflicting them on his family. A repulsive character whose detecting method is to simply exert violence by beating suspects. A hero for these times perhaps, but not the hero we need.

Dollface – Supposedly feminist series starring the superb Kat Dennings as a woman quickly dumped and trying to return to the world of female friends. Sounds good in theory but on the ground, takes the powerful in-charge, working-class, waitress from Two Broke Girls and transforms her into a weak and whimpering relationship buffoon.

Secret City/Deep State – The first is a promising Australian series with Fringe’s Anna Torv as an investigative reporter boasting a dark conspiracy theory visual overlay that unfortunately is undone by its rampant and exhausting anti-Chinese sentiment. The second has no redeeming social value in a Fox Sky TV produced series that is not about undemocratic Western intelligence operations as its name implies but is instead a cheering section for a black ops team tasked with assassinating Iranian scientists, making Trump’s prelude-to-war gesture of merely cancelling Obama’s nuclear pact seem humanitarian. A new low even for Fox.

Note: You can find out more about the ins and outs of contemporary television in Dennis Broe's book Birth of the Binge.