Philip Pullman defends Chris Weitz’s “The Golden Compass” (2007)

Philip Pullman, the author behind the His Dark Materials young adult fantasy series, took to Twitter this morning to speak up for Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass (2007), an adaptation of his 1995 novel of the same name, according to The Independent. Only forty-two percent of reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes for the Nicole Kidman vehicle are positive, and its underperformance scrapped the two planned sequels, but Pullman, praising the cast (and singling out star Dakota Blue Johnson), says they had not enough time. The televised interpretation, BBC One’s His Dark Materials (2019-), is a critical as well as popular success.

Amazon Prime review: HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

Between AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and HBO’s Chernobyl (2019), Jared Harris specializes in playing characters who meet a very specific fate.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Chernobyl is available on Amazon Prime. Showrunner Craig Mazin also wrote the historical drama, with Johan Renck directing. Both of them won Primetime Emmy Awards for their efforts, as well as Outstanding Limited Series.

The crux of the miniseries is the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Pripyat, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The characters encompass the bureaucrats behind the scenes of the meltdown in addition to its aftermath on the ground.

First responders, volunteers, and miners digging a tunnel under the compromised reactor are all spoken for here.

This USSR fable is altogether Hollywood in its presentation, not only for its production value, but also its characterization.

It is a post-September 11 American imagery to cast the firefighters on the scene, their health forever tainted from their own self-sacrifice, failed by the very government they serve.

Moreover, such dramatic democratization calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) as popularized through George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), with commoners leading us across this epic narrative of institutional corruption and environmental apocalypse.

The aestheticism hums with an intoxicating foreboding as punishing as the decay which both literally and figurative eats away at the characters.

This verisimilitude bridges the temporal and geographic gulf between the Soviet Union and the contemporary United States, and, with the political and natural degradation facing us today, the themes of the show are allegorical in their implications.

Bearing witness to the ruination of these historical figures may make the audience wish to turn away, but its import to our own cultural trajectory is impossible to ignore.

It has always struck this critic as silly, though, when English-speaking actors play non-English-speaking roles (especially when it’s accented). In our shrinking world, the network had the resources to cast Eastern European players.

Modern viewers are media-savvy enough to read subtitles.

But it can be read as a textualization of the rhyme this team is conducting between East and West, between past and present, a way to set the tragedy in a world which more closely resembles our own.

Hulu review: ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012)

When the First Lady of the United States references your series for a White House Correspondents’ Dinner joke, you know you’ve got an instant classic on your hands.

If you don’t know what to watch next, ABC’s Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) is available to stream on Hulu. Marc Cherry’s mystery comedy-drama was a ratings juggernaut over the course of its run. It is the longest-running hourlong television show with all-female leads.

Set on Wisteria Lane, the primetime soap opera is narrated by Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) after she commits suicide.

The ensemble cast are Mary Alice’s friends and neighbors: the recently divorced girl next door, Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher); the overwhelmed mother, Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman); the WASP-y Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross); and the adulterous Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria).

Each season turns along a central mystery at its axis (the inaugural season being the circumstances which led up to Mary Alice’s death) as these four titular housewives come to grips with love, motherhood, and friendship.

Like Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Desperate Housewives should’ve ended after its fifth season, but went on for eight instead. The first five mysteries are the most bingeworthy.

After the infamous time jump between the fourth and fifth seasons, it holds itself to be self-evident that Cherry could only develop these characters so much.

Visiting them five years into their future is a gimmick which sticks the landing for a staff of writers whose reputation precedes them for setpieces and cliffhangers, but it’s one that cannot be outdone.

Susan, Lynette, Bree, and Gaby become not who we know them to be when we initially befriend them, which is organic to their dramatic trajectories, but they begin to feel like strangers in the final three seasons.

These last seasons fail not because they’re bad, but because they’re forgettable, which a soap never should be. The sixth-season “witness protection program” twist is yawningly predictable, and this reviewer can’t recall what even happens in the seventh and eighth seasons.

Not every program can be AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), quitting while they’re still ahead, and Desperate Housewives is in the business of generating viewership, not crafting high art, which it does well, even if it’s what’s keeping it on life support past its expiration date.

If true genius in entertainment is to be found in knowing one’s limitations, then a visit to the campy, twisty, addictive fun of Wisteria Lane won’t overstay its welcome as long as you don’t plan on moving in there.

Netflix review: A&E’s “Bates Motel” (2013-2017)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the perfect film. When Gus Van Sant remade it in 1998, it was shot for shot because the only way to make the myth of Norman Bates is the Master of Suspense’s way.

Showrunners Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano opened this lightning in a bottle when they adapted a contemporary prequel for Hitchcock’s classic slasher to television.

But, then again, Hitch risked everything, too, when he produced Psycho.

If you don’t know what to watch next, A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-2017) is available to stream on Netflix. The psychological horror drama was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. One of them was for Vera Farmiga, starring as Mother herself, Norma Bates.

After the death of his father, a teenaged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) moves from Arizona to the fictitious White Pine Bay, Oregon, to run a motel with his overbearing mother, as well as sickly classmate Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke).

Shortly thereafter, Norman’s half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), arrives unannounced to make a name for himself in the local drug trade.

With all the danger and dysfunction surrounding him, Norman grows more and more unstable, until the final season loosely interprets the narrative of Psycho.

Bates Motel is better than it has any right to be. Norman, the shy, awkward mama’s boy, could lazily be mischaracterized as the quirky, misunderstood boy next door you knew back from high school.

He isn’t.

The series is an unsexy character study of a voyeuristic serial killer with an Oedipus complex.

Conceivably, Norman is cast as the deuteragonist to Norma’s protagonist, the drama revolving around a mother’s (tragically futile) desperation to save her son from himself, and protect the people around him, too.

One could submit Norma is an antihero for much of the show.

She enables Norman’s obsession with her, fails Dylan as a parent, and lies and manipulates her way through the violent, criminal underbelly of White Pine Bay.

This would be a myopic assessment, because, ultimately, she redeems herself.

She institutionalizes Norman even though she’s no less codependent on him than he is on her, she ends up in a healthier relationship with Dylan despite her favoritism toward Norman, and, if the police can’t be trusted, then what choice does she have but to play the game for her family?

Norma is not always likable, but she is always sympathetic. She suffers from many symptoms of borderline personality disorder, and she’s an abuse survivor without constructive coping mechanisms, but her matriarchy is dynamic and adaptable enough to evolve.

Psycho is composed with unspoken undertones that Norman is the true victim, and his mother is to blame for his murders for the crime of being too domineering. Bates Motel lays the culpability where it belongs, squarely at Norman’s feet.

Farmiga’s sensitive tour-de-force is the justice her character deserves, which is why Bates Motel is one of the most ethically written antihero’s journeys in the Golden Age of TV, even going so far as to downplay the incestuous subtext.

The production is as masterful as the drama. John S. Bartley was up for the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, and Chris Bacon, Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. Bates Motel does Hitchcock’s iconic aesthetic proud.

Additionally, the meta-writing subverts modern audience expectations the same way Psycho did for contemporaneous viewers in a world where we all know about the shower setpiece (whether we’ve seen it or not).

Bates Motel finds a new way to shock us, and modernize the misogynistic spectacle for feminist consumption.

It deserves more than its network. Sometimes, the dialogue cries out for a curse word. But that’s only a minor complaint.

Bates Motel, even for a Psycho purist such as this critic, is well worth the stay.

Hulu review: CBS and NBC’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965)

“Good evening…”

If you don’t know what to watch next, CBS and NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) is available to stream on Hulu.

It aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, NBC from 1960 to 1962 (when it was retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and its runtime extended from twenty-five to fifty minutes), CBS again from 1962 to 1964, and NBC once more in 1965.

The Writers Guild of America named the anthology series on their list of best-written television shows, and Time ranked it as one of the greatest series ever.

Each episode is a short story adaptation, some of which Sir Alfred Hitchcock himself directed. The genres encompass everything from thriller to drama to mystery to horror to crime. A constellation of guest stars appears, and the Master of Suspense hosts every installment.

As showrunner and executive producer, Hitchcock’s economical genius for cultivating talented collaborators immortalizes the anthology’s classic legacy (overextended writer-director-producer-actors like M. Night Shyamalan would do well to limit themselves).

James B. Allardice wrote Hitch’s monologues for him, shading in the Master’s iconic profile with black comedy as sharp as a knife’s edge.

In many ways, the series constructs the more signature characteristics of Hitchcock’s pop cultural persona, which allowed him to market himself as a dependable brand that audiences could count on for transcendent entertainment.

One can’t help but feel, however, that Hitchcock was constrained by the puritanical broadcasting standards of the day.

Most episodes end with the criminal seemingly getting away with it, until Hitchcock fades in to tell us how they get caught – if he wanted that to be the way the short films end, wouldn’t that be the way they’re written?

Be that as it may, Hitchcock’s dark fantasies are at their least exploitative when such restrictions are in place, and thus at their most artful; this is a flawed filmmaking ego whose cinematic violence is an aestheticized wish fulfillment for his own abusive, impotent megalomania.

When his bad guys get what they deserve, he does, too.

“Downton Abbey” and its journey from television to film

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Scheduling the ensemble proved to be one of the most daunting challenges for the filmmaking crew, as much of the cast had found success with the triumph of the series. (Image Courtesy: CNN).

Michael Engler’s Downton Abbey (2019) exceeded box office projections for its opening weekend, raking in three times its production budget as well as outperforming Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood (2019) and James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), according to CNN. Showrunner Julian Fellowes did not plan on writing a big-screen adaptation of ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015) until producer Gareth Neame started developing it after the series ended, and Engler approached the movie as though it were the show, just with greater resources. Neame says a cinematic franchise is in the works, and Fellowes is waiting to see how the first film fares.

Netflix review: Showtime’s “Dexter” (2006-2013)

Dexter Morgan is remembered alongside Jaime Lannister and Patty Hewes as one of the greatest antiheroes in the Golden Age of Television, and for a time, all three of these characters were flying high.

But in the end, none of them could stick the landing.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) is available to stream on Netflix. The crime drama mystery series is James Manos, Junior’s, adaptation of the 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay.

Leading man Michael C. Hall and guest start John Lithgow both won Golden Globe Awards in 2010 for their portrayals of the Bay Harbor Butcher himself and the iconic Trinity Killer, respectively.

Dexter is a forensic blood spatter analyst for the fictional Miami Metro Police Department moonlighting as a serial killer who murders other serial killers.

His adoptive father, the late Detective Harry Morgan (James Remar), secretly raised him to act on his violent sociopathy as a vigilante.

In order to blend into the civilian crowd, Dexter enters a relationship with the fragile Rita Bennett (Julie Benz) as part of his double life, and because his adoptive sister, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), works homicide at Miami Metro, his criminal lifestyle threatens all he has.

The show overstays its welcome by about three or four seasons, but for the first half of its run, it is both a playful dark comedy as well as an astute psychological thriller, fashioning a sharp character study of a psychopath whose victims deserve it.

At its best-written, Hall’s dry voiceover narrates Dexter’s truth, when so much of the character’s life is performance. At its worst, it is repetitive, lazy exposition for onscreen events we can already see for ourselves.

The supporting cast is unevenly characterized also, sometimes to satisfactory effect, only for most of their promising developments to be forgotten about in service of some contrived new conflict.

Filler abounds in the later seasons, and, sometimes, the lattermost villains are unmemorable (the cliched Eastern European hitman, “the Wolf” (Ray Stevenson), in the seventh season; the been-there-done-that “Brain Surgeon” (Darri Ingolfsson) in the eighth season).

Other times, they’re ridiculous (the laughable “Doomsday Killer” (Colin Hanks) in the sixth season).

Much ink has been spilled about the finale, which could’ve been passable without the whack at an ambiguous, open-ended coda tacked onto the end.

To the showrunner’s credit, it is uncanny that Dexter could salvage enough material for its fourth (and best) season after a second season that would have been the last season for any other drama.

While can be argued that it should have ended with the bloody, poetic climax of the fourth season, one of the most game-changing twists of all time, the fifth season is still watchable.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the sixth season.

Even then, there are still two more seasons to go before it’s put out of its misery.

Dexter is a classic example of TV milking its appeal dry until it becomes a pale shadow of its former self, rather than blowing out on a high note like AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

It is a cautionary tale that any premise, no matter how ingenious, will be known for how unwatchable it becomes past its shelf life.

For the masterpiece it could’ve been, quit bingeing at the fourth season, and for more of what makes it entertaining, the fifth season.

For the example it’s made of itself in TV history, subject yourself to the slow, painful end.