CultureJew: GOT, Deadwood, Happy!, Dead to Me and More

Has anyone been watching the nutty Syfy series “Happy!”? It’s almost impossible to summarize this show, but I’ll try: Christopher Meloni plays  disgraced detective Nick Sax, a drunk and druggie who moonlights as a hit man. After a heart attack, he suddenly sees an animated flying blue unicorn with buck teeth, voiced by Patton Oswald. The unicorn, called Happy, is the imaginary friend of Hailey, Nick’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a lunatic dressed as Santa Claus. Happy thinks Nick is the hero Hailey believes him to be and pleads with him to rescue the little girl, who Nick hasn’t seen for a long time. Can it get loonier? Oh yes, it can, with a depraved children’s-show host, pudgy aliens, a mobster taken over by a mythological monster, and a hilarious cameo by Ann-Margaret. The show is based on a comic book series and while it has been dropped by Syfy after two seasons, it may show up somewhere else. Profane, scatalogical, and obscene, it’s often laugh out loud funny. Meloni has such a good time playing the no-boundaries Nick, you can’t help but enjoy it along with him.

I watched HBO’s “Game of Thrones” from the beginning along with millions of others and enjoyed it for the first four or five seasons despite all the stuff everyone complained about–the gratuitous nudity (only women, of course), the multiple rapes, the sadism–but after seven seasons I was happy to see it end. That show had gone on too long, and the finale was proof, if anyone needed it, that GOT had outlived what made it work. The whole final season felt like an obligatory let’s-just-get-this-over-with exercise. The production values were fantastic and the acting was just as good as ever, but the writing and plotting had softened like an overripe banana. In contrast, I watched the “Deadwood” movie, another HBO production, with nostalgic delight. Everything I loved about that show was there–the humor, the deep characterizations, the extraordinary dialogue, the sense of time and place–and while it was clear that threads were being tied, the plotting felt organic and satisfying. There was no obnoxious winking at the audience, as there was on “Game of Thrones” and no sense of emotional depletion. It was the ending that a great show deserved.

If you haven’t seen “Fleabag” on Amazon Prime, you’re missing one of the best shows made for TV. This extraordinary production features the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who adapted the series from her one-woman play of the same name. The protagonist, played by Waller-Bridge, is a sexually voracious alcoholic who is trying, often unsuccessfully, to deal with the death of both her beloved mother and best friend. That basic description doesn’t convey Waller-Bridge’s genius for story construction or the hilarity she gets out of this potentially tragic situation. Season 2 is even better, though I wouldn’t have thought that possible. Waller-Bridge was one of the writers of “Killing Eve” and if you’ve seen that, you’ll recognize the wit and delight in outrageousness.  The unnamed protagonist in “Fleabag” often behaves outrageously, but is also charming and poignant and insightful about others. She is so alive in her needs and faults and virtues, thanks to Waller-Bridge’s acting, that she’s irresistible. The show benefits, of course, from a terrific supporting cast, including the wonderful Olivia Colman, who can do anything. I expect to see her tap dancing on the ceiling in her next role.

The Netflix series “Dead to Me” feels as American as “Fleabag” feels British. The acting by the leads Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini is just so-so, but the premise is intriguing and the plot twists keep you watching. Two women meet at a grief support group and become fast friends despite having different personalities. Applegate plays the hard-boiled realtor Jen, whose husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver; Cardellini’s flakier character Judy is mourning multiple miscarriages. I can’t say much more without revealing important stuff but a lot of the show’s appeal comes from the brisk, often funny dialogue between the two, and some appealing secondary characters. Manages to be light-hearted even though it’s about people dying.

And a Few Movies

On to the movies. The French thriller “My Son” spent little time in the theater here, and I’m not sure why. Christian Carion’s film is a no-frills child-rescue movie that I found as exciting as most in the genre. A successful oil executive (Guillaume Canet) who spends most of his time traveling learns that his young son has suddenly gone missing. He comes back to rural France and sets about looking for the boy. His ex-wife (Melanie Laurent) and her fiance get in his way for awhile, but he gets to work tracking down the bad guys. There’s not much else going on besides action, but that’s done well enough to make this entertaining. Check it out if it starts streaming.

The workmanlike documentary “The Lavender Scare” will screen on PBS this month. Narrated by Glenn Close, the doc focuses on the purge of homosexuals from the federal government that started with the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s. Because so many lived secret lives at the time, homosexuals were considered liable to blackmail and therefore posed a security risk. Filmmaker Josh Howard proposes that not only did this purge deny the government the services of thousands of talented and eager professionals, it also created fury in the gay community and planted the seeds of the gay-rights movement. The documentary is straightforward and informative, and even though it doesn’t break any boundaries either in technique or research,  it introduced me to Franklin E. Kameny, the grandfather of the gay-rights movement, a Jewish guy who refused to take the discrimination without a fight. He wrote thousands of letters to Congress, filed numerous lawsuits, and finally organized large protests in front of the White House. He’s one of those irascible characters who don’t mind breaking lots of rules to get something done.

The best film I’ve seen in the last few months by far is “The Souvenir.” I stopped reading a profile of the writer/director Joanna Hogg in “The New Yorker” because it was too dull, but I’m so glad I saw the movie. Slow and serious in the way “Roma” was, “The Souvenir” tracks the painful education of a young, naive film-school student as she learns that her first love is destroying both himself and her, and also how to make movies. Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, a shy film student eager to make a movie about the struggling lower classes. The fact that she comes from entirely different social and economic circumstances doesn’t strike her as an impediment at first. Her new boyfriend, Anthony (played brilliantly by Tom Burke) suggests that her ambitions are misplaced, but she is determined to do something that will break her out of her upper-middle-class cocoon. Anthony will do that soon enough, even though Julie doesn’t understand what causes his behavior for a long time. Hogg’s storytelling is subtle and careful, and her actors deliver luminous performances. Tilda Swinton appears as Julie’s mother, and she is in fact the actress’s mother. The two threads of Julie’s education are marvelously intertwined; “The Souvenir” is a major accomplishment for a young filmmaker.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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