Category: Television

Review: The Bastard Executioner

TBX_S1_24x36_SWORD_poster_thumbFirst of all, let me say this:

Kurt Sutter is a sick, twisted whack-job…and I love him like a brother. Very few TV showrunners today have the stones to go into production with a show that is certain to produce such volumes of notes from the network (even FX). He does it though, and to be honest, I do NOT want to see what they convinced him The Bastard Executioner, Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX, he could do without. Really Kurt, leave that out of Blue-Ray Extras. Please.

At least three times, watching the two hour pilot episode and the excellent second week’s show, the thought that even Sons of Anarchy‘s Happy might well have had to close his eye and turn away, and remember, Happy loved Chuckie’s chili mixed with some guy’s head they were hiding from the cops. TBE in some ways, makes SOA look like CHiPs, with a few more guys.

Not really, but I think you understand where I’m headed with this. The Bastard Executioner is some damn good stuff.

Sutter’s real-life spouse, Katy Sagal stars, playing an Eastern European healer/witch, who is obviously more than meets the eye. I think we’ll find that if DNA testing had been available in medieval Wales, would have shown her mom-like attention towards main character, Wilkin Brattle…uh…justified. Note: This is NOT spoiler, since I have no friggin’ idea how the show goes. I just have my theories. Katy absolutely shines in her portrayal of Annora of the Alders, even though she appears to be working sans-makeup, which would have to be the result of makeup, of course. She’s beautiful in a stark way.

Miss Sagal’s husband, showrunner Kurt Sutter, who plays her companion/husband/boy-toy/whatever, “The Dark Mute,” continues to play out some weird self-mutilation thing as Annora’s husband? Bodyguard? In Sons, he played the always-incarcerated “Big Otto” Delaney, who over the course of the series, lost an eye, bit off his own tongue to make a point, and took a bunch of lead in a big house last stand.

The story has the potential to be a big one. It’s starting with a very limited mission of vengeance that, as these things so often do, gets complicated. I’m hooked. A word to the wise, however, as I said earlier, it’s not for the weak of stomach. I don’t think I’m exaggerating much when I say it makes Game of Thrones look like an animated Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the last season of SOA, Sutter shocked many with a storyline that included a school mass shooting that occurred just off camera.

How do I put this? The Bastard Executioner wastes no time in striding right across that line in the pilot. This is going to be a big show.

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Checkov’s Knucklehead

  

“Sons of Anarchy” is a great show, because it doesn’t try to portray the MC world as it truly exists, but, as Paris Barclay and Kurt Sutter say, a “great comic book.” A character on “Vikings” has it right when he says “Everything begins with stories,” and the mythology of “Sons” has power that extends beyond the world of bikers. There’s so much story told underneath and in between the narrative, and that is what is powerful, not all the speed and guns.

For instance, two or three times in this final season, we’ve seen the guys in the garage working on restoring JT’s 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, the bike John was killed on, that the bike not just be the unfired rifle hanging above the fireplace mantle that Checkov references. I believe the SOA mythology will wrap with Jax dying on that bike. Jax’s riding a big bagger Road King this season isn’t just about his needing a replacement bike after his parked Dyna Wide Glide was run over by that pimp from early in the season. He’s become the leader he was destined to become, and the Road KING helps reveal that. Riding a bike with bags also, I think, represents the additional *baggage* he’s accumulated since taking the gavel. It’s not just for the convenience of having saddlebags in which to hide the gun he needed to kill Damen Pope in the Season 5 finale. Unto his last, Jax’s stepfather Clay, who was responsible for JT’s death, always rode a Dyna. He was never the legitimate King of SAMCRO. Jax is, and that has changed him. I believe it will ultimately kill him. 

Gemma was always grateful that “the family flaw,” a heart defect that she survived, but killed Jax’s younger brother Thomas, didn’t manifest in her oldest son. What she has realized, over the past seven season of “Sons,” though, is that a darker flaw, passed down from JT to his firstborn, an existential question shared with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, did, and it’s one that if not answered correctly, will be Jax’s undoing. JT let the flaw overcome him and drive him to despair and the loss of his will to fight for his life. Jax took the opposite road, attacking the question head-on, determined to overpower it. The correct response lies in the middle of these two choices, and it’s one that the audience hopes Able will discover. Fix the problems you can, while not letting those things you can’t control destroy you.

Like “The Shield” before it, a show Kurt Sutter wrote for, “Sons” is a masterclass in telling a story on television, and as a writer, I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope to work with KS someday.

Update: ***Spoiler*** Looks like I was right, though I admit that when I wrote this, I had no preminition that *The Shield’s* Michael Chiklis would play a part. I also realized, in posting this update, that Jax hadn’t replaced his Dyna Super Glide with a Road King, but a Harley Road Glide. Sorry about that. 

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Hand of God

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The TV and Movie business is changing, and it’s for the better. Netflix started the ball rolling for real with its excellent original production of House of Cards, and we’re seeing some great television being launched without the benefit of the networks. Much like when Oz, the gritty prison drama, premiered on HBO, and introduced us to shows not constrained by Broadcast Television’s language, violence and content rules, once we got a taste of disintermediation, where the producers of programming had a little more direct access to the consumers of their creative output, we knew we wanted more.

A lot more television gets produced than ever airs. Between late January and late March, Hollywood enters “Pilot Season,” where there’s a mad dash of activity on sound stages anywhere television is produced. It’s the busiest time of year for actors who have decent agents, and it’s not uncommon for one to work on several projects. The hope is, one gets picked up by a network and becomes successful. A few attract enough good attention that they get a shot, and every so often, one becomes a Cheers, Seinfeld or 30 Rock. Usually though, they become a Roll Out, the decidedly unfunny sitcom that tried to cash in on the success of MASH* in a show about race relations among American troops in World War II. Didn’t work. Twelve painfully boring episodes were produced and aired before the whole project was quietly thrown into the trash. Don’t ask me how I remember it. Believe me, the thought that I’m using brain cells to retain all this disturbs me greatly. Regardless of the show’s failure, there was apparently a pilot that led people to believe the show would make it. I’d hate to see the shows that Roll Out beat to make a spot in its network’s lineup. The point is, a lot of pilots get made. A very few get picked up. The vast majority are never seen by the public.

Amazon recently began a bold and innovative program that provides a pathway for independent productions to gain commercial release. Here’s how it works:

The pilot is produced, and made available to Amazon Prime Video subscribers. Amazon customers can watch it, and based on the success of the show, Amazon either picks it up as a regular series or not. It’s putting the decision of whether a show becomes a thing or not a little closer to the people who truly matter, the audience. It’s not perfect, since Amazon Prime Video customers don’t necessarily reflect the tastes of the video-watching public, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to reality than some group of Hollywood TV industry guys deciding what you and I get to watch.

Amazon’s most recent Pilot is excellent. Really. Hand of God tells the story of a judge, (Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman) who loses it after his son attempts (and mostly succeeds in) suicide. The first scene shows a police officer, played by Emilio Rivera (Sons of Anarchy, Gang Related, and one of the Priceline commercials where William Shatner plays a long grey bearded biker – Emilio’s one line is “Hey, those guys ain’t no Dragons,” which he wisely delivers with a bandana worn to almost cover his eyes – you have to be an Emilio fan to recognize him, which I am), who wades into a big fountain to coax Perlman’s character out. The judge has shed all his clothes, and is in the fountain speaking in tongues. Obviously, this is a problem, not just for the judge, but also for his wife, played by the magnificent Dana Delaney (Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof, China Beach, and his business partner/Mayor, played by Andre Royo (The Wire). Judge Harris is obviously unbalanced, and claims to be in communication with God. In his court, he finds an acolyte to command and inspire, a heavenly henchman, if you will, in KD, played by Garret Dillahunt (Life, Burn Notice, 12 Years a Slave). Dillahunt is perfect. My exposure to him to date has been as recurring characters in the excellent ABC series, starring Damen Lewis, Life, and the successful USA Network spy series that ended a great run last year, Burn Notice. In both cases, Dillahunt played complete psychopaths, and he does it well. Perfect for KD in Hand of God.

Perlman as the damaged Judge Harris is wonderful. As big and bold and unique as he is as an actor, the subtlety with which he brings his characters to life is really incredible. As satisfying as it was seeing Clay Morrow die last season in Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit, the show feels Perlman’s absence. I’d like to think Sons show-runner Kurt Sutter intended that, but as good as KS is, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Sutter has admitted the audience’s reaction to the loss of Jax’s best friend, “Opie,” in the previous season was a surprise, and if it was in his plan to eliminate an evil character, but then have an even darker, denser evil rush in to fill that void, then my outlaw-black half-helmet is off to him. Well played, indeed, sir. I am shocked at how much I miss Perlman on Sons. The point is, when you have an actor as skilled as Perlman in your cast, you have a brush that can fill entire sections of canvas with paint in seconds, but still highlight the crow’s feet on a face we see from several yards away.

I’ve often remarked that Al Pacino is such a great actor, because we can see him play, not only Michael Corleone, the quiet, yet ruthless crime family head but also the sad, passed over wiseguy, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, without any hint of the other character present in either performance. Pacino is amazing. And so is Perlman, I’ve come to realize. Though some mannerisms are similar, the raised voice of Clay Morrow is the raised voice of Pernell Harris, but they’re different in a way I can’t identify. I don’t expect Judge Harris to walk out of the courthouse and swing his leg over a Harley Dyna-Glide. Even when Perlman hammers down his gavel from the bench, issuing his ruling as KD stands before him as a defendant, it prompted no flashback at all of Clay Morrow gaveling an end to a SAMCRO meeting around the reaper table on Sons of Anarchy. Amazingly, I didn’t even notice the gavel connection until I was writing this. Two different guys, using two different gavels for two completely different purposes.

Hand of God is great television. Well-written, cast and shot. It’s absolutely top-notch television. GOD, I hope Amazon decides to pick the show up. The twist at the end, completely unexpected, and game-changing, makes leaving this story untold something that will seriously disappoint me.