Killing the Borgias

Todays Reviews:

The Killing
The Borgias
Breaking In

The Killing

Starring Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Michelle Forbes, Billy Campbell,
(Sundays @ 10 on AMC)

It’s hard to argue that the title of AMC’s new drama The Killing is, at best ill-conceived.  Raise your hands if you thought that it was some sort of Horror show, perhaps a sequel to The Walking Dead.

But if the title is an errant step, it’s the only one.  I watched the Premiere Sunday night (the first two episodes, which serve as the Pilot) and was utterly blown away. This is Drama the way it’s supposed to happen.  AMC has recently become the “it” place for serious TV shows. Think Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rubicon and The Walking Dead.  

They may have outdone themselves.

The Killing starts off rather conventionally, as if to remind us how (sadly) mundane murder feels these days, if only because we’re so used to it as a staple of our TV viewing. We open on Rosie Larsen, clearly in peril, running for her life.  We’ve all seen CSI or Law and Order or any of the dozens of other crime procedurals, so it feels very familiar, right up to the point where we don’t actually see the murder.  (It should also be noted that, belying the title, this opening scene will likely be the only violence in the entire series, as the whole Season focuses on this one murder.)

Next we meet a Detective on her very last day with the Seattle Police Department. She’s supposed to show a new guy just in from Vice the ropes.  He’s all street-cred and zero tact, or for that matter, manners, but he has instincts and....

It all seems so familiar. We’ve seen these plot-lines how many times?  Would you be surprised to know that the victim seemed like the perfect 16 year old girl but was actually hiding many secrets? Or that a youthful teacher at her high school might know more than he should?  What’s her best friend hiding?  And try not to be shocked when you learn there’s a connection to a politician running for mayor and (wait for it), the election is less than a month away.

If I seem like I’m mocking The Killing, I’m absolutely not. What I am doing is backhandedly giving the biggest compliment I know.  The Killing doesn’t tread any new ground that I could see in the first two episodes. We have the murder, we have the family who will be devastated by this, with their various reactions of grief. 

We have lots of other people who are hiding things who may or may not be connected to the murder, and we have two cops forced to work together, one on her way out the door (repeated throughout the first episode: “don’t you have a plane to catch?”) and another not yet with his toe in the water.  

I cannot stress this enough: no matter how conventional the plot sounds. I promise promise promise you the execution was anything but boring. I was riveted to watch the cops go through their routines. I was deeply moved by the family, and suspicious and engaged with every side character.

This is drama at its absolute best.  

The main character is Detective Sarah Linden, and the producers go in the exact opposite direction than normal TV fare. The actress (Mireille Enos) is a beautiful woman, but here she is plain plain plain. There are scenes where you could SWEAR she wasn’t waring any make up, and her hair never deviates from a functional but decidedly horsey-like ponytail.  

When we meet Linden we find out she’s leaving police work.  We quickly discover there is a fiance, a planned move to San Diego (leaving that night!) and one sullen pissed-off fifteen year old son who does NOT want to go. Linden seems young, mid-thirties at most, so it’s strange she’d be burnt out so quickly. Most homicide cops can’t ever let go.

And it may be in Linden’s blood too.  Throughout her last day we see her instincts, her drive, her professionalism kick in.  She has a way of talking to “civilians” that doesn’t push and shows empathy but without ever being weak.  On the other hand, this isn’t  Columbo.  We’re not going to see Detective Clouseau or Goren or Andy Sipowicz or any of the other nearly super-cops we’ve come to expect from police on TV.  She’s quiet and effective, but human.  The pacing of the police part feels like The Wire in the sense of realism.  A lot of cop work is boring, methodical. Checking stuff over. Checking again. Linden gets the only stage-y line of the show when she tells her ersatz new partner (who wants to give up a seemingly-fruitless search and get in out of the rain): “This is Homicide.  There is no clock.”

Speaking of that partner, he’s Stephen Holder (played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman), and if Sarah Linden is the personification of tough, quiet professionalism, Holder is the exact opposite.  It’s not just that he’d bend the rules, he doesn’t seem to know the rules are there.

I read what I’ve written and it sounds like I’m describing Dirty Harry or Jack Cates.  I am so not.  Holder comes across like a mixture of geeky actor D.J. Qualls with the street-edge of Eminem. He seems exactly like a guy who just spend six years in vice working as an Under-Cover, and is still soaking in Street.

If Sarah Linden is the lynch-pin character that makes a show like The Killing work, Stephen Holder is the one everyone will be talking about.  You can’t take your eyes off of him.  He’s always up to something, and not always in a good way.

I’ve talked a lot about the main characters, but the threshold of a drama like this is how well it’s cast, and again the producers hit it out of the park.  Rosie’s mom and dad are played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, whose names may not be familiar but I bet you’ve seen them in supporting work for years. In particular I’m a fan of Forbes for her work on Battlestar Galactica, 24, Homicide, In Treatment, True Blood and even all the way back to Kalifornia.

When we meet the Larsens we know more (or think we do) about what has happened to their family than they do.  Watching the dawning tragedy take hold in the family is at times chilling, at times incredibly sad and always very moving. This is Tony and Carmella Soprano-caliber work we’re seeing. I look forward to learning more about the family in the episodes to come, as well as watching them deal with a blow I cannot even imagine, let alone relate to.

I’m skipping so many quality supporting characters for time but one other subplot I have to mention is Mayoral candidate and his staff. Councilman Richmond is played by Billy Campbell, whom you may remember as Jennifer Lopez’s husband in Enough.  Campbell has that perfect genial face that makes him totally believable as a politician who cares, but could easily have been mixed up in a murder.  

If I seem like I’m gushing maybe it’s because i get so tired of the crap we’re generally forced to watch.  Great actors are important but great casting is more important - the right person for the right part.  High-quality production is always a plus but it’s like special effects - it cannot augment an already weak story. It can add to a great story; otherwise it just sits there showing off.

Most importantly - and no matter how many times you hear it, it’s worth saying again - the greatness of a story, whether in book, television, play or movie - is not WHAT the story is, but HOW.  In the case of The Killing we have a plot motif seen hundreds of times before, and familiar-sounding characters.  We even have a dumb-ass name.  But none of that matters.

The Killing is effective, gripping, first-rate drama that you shouldn’t miss.

(There’s an Encore presentation of the two-hour pilot on Thursday, or you can watch it online any time at  Regular episodes are Sunday at 10:00 on AMC.)

The Borgias

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Fran├žois Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Colm Feore
(Sundays @ 9 on Showtime)

The advertisements for Showtime’s new historical Drama The Borgias describe the titular group as “The Original Crime Family.” That sounds promising, especially when added to their reputation of being accused of adultery, theft, incest, rape and murder. Now we’re talking!  I mean, as fellow PTA members, maybe not so much, but as a subject for a TV drama, on Showtime no less (with their liberal views on boobies).....?  

Let’s do this thing!

In case you weren’t aware, the Borgias were an actual family back during the Italian Renaissance. They were accused of (and quite probably guilty of) everything written above.  They were also prominent members of the Church, including Cardinals and even Pope, which is what adds even extra flavor.  As the show begins the Pope is dying, which triggers a Conclave (to elect a new Pope).  Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) is determined to ascend from Vice-Chancellor to Pope, and has his illegitimate son Cesare buy off the Cardinals he needs.  

(This process is known as Simony, and was apparently a pretty big deal at the time, although compared to everything else the family is accused of seems almost laughable today.  It’s also worth pointing out that the very same Cardinals who are bought off are later outraged by the whole thing, shades of “shocked to find gambling in this establishment!”  One suspects that Renaissance Church is going to take quite a beating for its hypocrisy and a history book: they earned it.)

I mentioned Jeremy Irons is the main character, and he’s reliably great, although a small part of me wished to see someone unfamiliar in the role. It’s not that Irons can’t delivery the complex performance of a power-hungry man who nonetheless is capable of feeling a divine spirit with God, it’s just that I’ve seen Irons give complex “bad guys who are still very human” performances many times, so there is some feel of deja-vu.  

More interesting (to me) is the role of Cesare, played by Fran├žois Arnaud.  He’s the most dynamic character in the first two episodes (which serve as the Pilot - there are seven additional episodes planned for Season 1), a man who wishes nothing more than to be a soldier and protect his family, but forced to watch his younger brother fill that role while he is a Cardinal.  Many Cardinals of that time were (by our standards) gross hypocrites, but Cesare feels the yoke particularly harshly.  He doesn’t want to be in the Church, and only does so to please his father.

I’ve mentioned hypocrisy twice, but in reality it’s a little more complex than that. This review isn’t the proper place to go into it, but in short: at the time the Church was greatest avenue for a family to acquire and gain wealth and power, much like Politics or Business today, so noble families would have at least one son enter the priesthood.  Current scandals about priests aside, no one thinks of becoming a priest today as a way to get rich, but that was definitely par for the course then.

At the same time, the Church came up with the brilliant idea of not letting priests marry, not for service to God, but because as unmarried men they would have no legitimate heirs and so at death all their titles and lands would revert to the Church. Sort of a symbiosis of corruption, if you will.  Yet these men were still, you know men, and many routinely had mistresses and children, etc.  Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI) was not atypical of the period, but he does symbolize the worst of it.

One of the reasons is because he was the first Pope to have a mistress - or at least be known somewhat openly to have one.  That would be Giulia Farnese (played in The Borgias by Lotte Verbeek), and Rodrigo Borgia had her installed in a castle next to the Vatican complete with underground passageway so they could visit each other for “spiritual comfort” in the night.

(I’m not making up the “spiritual comfort” line.  When Rodrigo’s mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei (played by “still bringing the heat at forty-six” Joanne Whalley) finds out about Giula Farnese, Vannozza storms the Vatican screaming at the Pope about “his new whore” and he tries to explain that he had no choice - the woman needed spiritual comfort!  Any dudes out there - let me know if that works.)

Of all the women surrounding the Borgias, however, the one history is most fascinated with is daughter Lucrezia (played in the Showtime series by the impossibly-named Holliday Grainger), one of the most infamous names of all time.  Maybe it was because she was suspected of plotting to kill a few husbands. Maybe it was her “close” relationship to brother Cesare, or maybe it was just her general awesomeness.  Here’s a small excerpt from her Wikipedia article:

She is described as having heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour, a full, high bosom, and a natural grace which made her appear to "walk on air"; these were the physical attributes that were highly appreciated in Italy during that period. Another description said that "her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, and the bust is admirably proportioned."

(Leave it to the Italians to “highly appreciate” those wacky features, eh?  Flashing eyes, long hair, large sweet mouth, moved well and had a nice rack.  Way to go out on a limb, guys!)

The other supporting roles that make up the rest of the cast are excellent, as one would expect, populated with your venerable character actors from stage and screen, such as Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore.  One guy I did want to specifically point out, though, was 
Sean Harris as Michelotto Corella, the Borgia’s private assassin.  The dude is mesmerizing to watch, and I couldn’t take my eyes from him when he was on screen.  

The Borgias was created (and apparently completely written) by Neil Jordan, one of the most underrated directors of the last 20 years. You probably know him from THE CRYING GAME and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, but he also helmed great work like THE BUTCHER BOY, IN DREAMS and THE GOOD THIEF.  

Knowing Jordan was involved raised my expectations greatly, and there was a sweeping grandeur in the opening, giving us a sense of how immense the Pope (and the Church) were in those times.  Yet - and forgive me for going all horny teenager on you here - this is Showtime!  Where was all the sex and nudity?  I counted maybe 3 naked women, maybe 5 boobies and a couple of cheeks. (There wasn’t much beefy flavor, either. I play fair, Ladies: what’s good to get goosed is also good to get gandered, or however that goes.)

The first episode of The Tudors has more naked women than you could shake a....well, you get my point.  They front-loaded the nudity there egregiously (no other episode had that much sex) in order to get people to watch. And Hyperion supported that plan. Maybe this is Pop-Chair psychology (pop pscyhology + armchair psychology) but I felt like Neil Jordan held back on the venal sinning of the time period a bit in part because he was trying to make a weighty drama, you know, full of literary worth and all that.  Hey, I’m all for that, but how can you truly represent the Renaissance Church without whores and full-fontal nudity, and lots of it?

Well anyway, hopefully they step that up.  Overall The Borgias got off to a good - if not spectacular - start.  They have a great cast, they’re in capable hands, and if they will unleash the hounds, so the speak, the material will take care of itself.

(There are repeated encore airings all week or you can catch up On-Demand. Regular episodes are on Sunday at 9.)

Breaking In

Starring: Christian Slater, Bret Harrison, Odette Annable
Wednesdays @ 9:30 on FOX

Remember the main character from Reaper (Bret Harrison), the guy forced to work in a job he didn't sign up for, who was in over his head working for the Devil, always had a "why me?" expression?  He plays Cameron Price, forced to work in a job he didn't sign up for.  

He has a thing for Melanie Garcia (the luscious if oddly-named Odette Annable), but God forbid he ever tell her how he feels and I bet you're just going to fall over in shock when you find out that she is a really great girl but has this jack-ass boyfriend and she can't seem to realize it. 

Then there's Cassius "Cash" Sparks, who's a black guy so we know he's cool but he likes Star Wars and Star Trek so we know he's a nerd but he's a black guy so we know he's cool can both be true, TV????

All of these people, quite dysfunctional in their own way, are also (of course) super-geniuses who work at a high-tech firm that specializes in helping companies improve security by "breaking in" to find their weak spots.  So the group does a lot of thievery, but it's all kosher, see?  (You know, like Wall Street or when your girl asks you to tie her up.)

This company was founded by the mercurial, enigmatic and possibly crazy Oz, played by Christian Slater, who at this point needs a lifetime achievement award for not breaking his Jack Nicholson character once in 22 years.  

If I sound a bit dismissive maybe I am, but it's only because I feel so overwhelmingly like I've seen the show before.  In my review of The Killing I point out how familiar concepts and story-lines can seem fresh and vital when presented the right way, but in Comedy people are (more or less) playing themselves, and the Writing and execution has to be spot-on.  

I've only seen one episode, and it wasn't bad or anything. I just feel like it would have been awesome in 1999.  Or 2003.  Or even 2007.  But here it is 2011.  I've seen Bret Harrison be a reluctant lead.  I've seen the hot brunette who's so great but can't seem to realize she's dating a loser.  I've seen the cool black guy who's also a nerd.  And gods help me, not only has Christian Slater played the same character in every movie since HEATHERS, but we've already seen him as a possibly-crazy worry-about-nothing spy-esque dude just a couple of years ago!

Comedies always take time to gel, so I have no doubt that Cast can flesh out. The writers may find their footing too. I just hope it won't look like so much else out there.  


Starring Eric Close, Tim Blake Nelson, Freddy Rodriguez, Kurtwood Smith
Fridays @ 8:00; CBS

Freddy Rodriguez goes to work at the CIA to be a spy (and if this is the level of operative the Agency is hiring these days then suddenly America’s Foreign Policy begins to make sense).  Anyway, Kurtwood Smith (forever now “Foreman’s Dad”) sends Rodriguez to spy on an intractible group he has had no success in removing. A thorn in his side. Al Qaeda?  No.  KGB?  Nope.  FARC?  Not even close.  No, this enemy is a group within the CIA,  called (wait for it) the Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services, or C.A.O.S.

If you’re already kind of bored with this review then I have done my job, because it didn’t take me long to already be kinda bored with Chaos.  As soon as it ended II wrote on Twitter: 

(Yes, Camelot was way way way better, but that review isn’t until later in the week, so you’ll just have to wait.)

When I was trying to come up with a way to describe Chaos in terms of another CBS show the best I could do is “The Goonit” - They basically want the action of the Unit but without any of the drama. Essentially this is going to be a workplace comedy with explosions.  

There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, arguably the best show on TV right now (or at least the funniest) is a work-place comedy about spies. (Archer on FX, in case you’re slow.)  My problem with Chaos isn’t the concept, it’s the Network. CBS runs things a certain way. It’s usually very well done. Good-looking production, telegenic safe safe safe.  The LAST thing a comedy mixing spies and office politics should be is safe. That’s partly what makes Archer so outrageously hysterical. And it’s what (I think) dooms Chaos from ever being anything other than “there.”  CBS is so powerful they may make a hit. But if the real CIA is that boring no wonder we can’t get the right people in there.  (I’m always available)

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