Suburban murder mystery

Cast of Secrets and Lies.

The cast of Secrets and Lies is stuck in the suburbs with a murder mystery.

This post contains spoilers.

Secrets and Lies should have existed a decade ago.

Once upon a time, blogosphere snark was so prevalent that Serious Journalists had to write op-eds to criticize its prevalence as cheap and lazy journalism–as it sometimes certainly was. I started to consistently blog during the Internet Age of Snark and sure, I miss it sometimes. I was one of those sixteen year old bloggers who feigned maturity through snark because that was what all the cool twentysomething pop culture bloggers were doing; little did I know, behind that snark, there was a lot of cynicism about being an young adult and living in a recession and, if I want to get psychoanalytical, all that low-hanging snark was merely a defense mechanism.

But as the economy has gotten better, the dismissal of snark has allowed for more serious analysis about pop culture–not to say overt snark doesn’t exist, but it now exists in very specific, niche places. We’re in 2015 and it’s a pro-sap, post-snark pop culture universe–or at least, a less brutal battlefield contra recession 2005 because today, Television Without Pity and Videogum are long gone, Gawker writer Emily Gould is dating/potentially married to Keith Gessen, the author of a book titled All the Sad Young Literary Men (sure) and who was once a subject of one of Gould’s own snark-ticles.

And, the most obvious sign of the times–there is only one mainstream television blogger who recaps Secrets and Lies (Michelle Newman of Entertainment Weekly, who deserves a raise) with the kind of snark it deserves. Oh, how the world has changed!

We’re inching close to the day when we will live in a world where there are more Internet articles defending Kim Kardashian than criticizing her–and you know, maybe that’s the way it always should have been. The blog denizens have become sentimentalists, protectors, and even champions of the public figures they used to mock because they are a much happier people now, and dare I say it–perhaps bloggers are even a genuine people now.

But man, does Secrets and Lies deserve to be mocked with snarky derision circa 2005. It’s a treasure chest of material for Television Without Pity or Videogum, and the show could have subsequently gotten higher Nielsen ratings as a result of whatever recaps those sites could have concocted for viewer reading the morning after.

Based on an Australian series of the same name, Secrets and Lies, a 10-episode anthology series that just finished its run on ABC, a murder mystery series with the unsettling gloss of a daytime soap. It stars two movie stars, or former movie stars, if you will–Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis–who, unfortunately, don’t have the pluck to rise above a comically terrible script.

Philippe stars as Ben Crawford, a suburban husband, father of two, and house painter, who goes jogging one morning, only to find the dead body of a neighbor’s six-year old son. Lewis’ Detective Andrea Cornell is put on the case and she instantly suspects that Ben could be the killer. And, of course, Ben’s defense is weak as he struggles to recall what happened the night before he discovered the body; all he can remember is that he got into a fight with his estranged wife (KaDee Strickland) and went out for a night of drinks with his best friend Dave (Dan Fogler), but beyond that, he’s got nothing.

Instead of instantly trying to retrace his steps (he does eventually do it, though), Ben spends most of the show accusing his neighbors of murdering his neighbor’s son who he discovers at the end of the first episode is his biological son from an one-night stand he had with his neighbor six years ago. So Ben actually spends most of the show barging into people’s homes, declaring that they’ve killed his son, only to discover they really haven’t, and that he’s not a very good detective after all. Other than accusing people of killing his son, Ben spends his downtime wrongly accusing his best friend of molesting his teenage daughter, the detective for putting her own daughter in jail, and his wife of cheating on him. So Ben’s a pretty busy guy–being a prime murder suspect in his biological son’s death is almost besides the point.

There are a plethora of issues about this show, the most unbelievable being that the police department was apparently able to determine the exact murder weapon from the victim’s wounds–in fact, they were able to conclude that it was a flashlight of a specific make and model. And also, it’s a show about a guy who may have murdered his own biological son after all, but couldn’t remember because he blacked out.

But as much as I would like to make fun of the show, the tenth episode of this show continues to haunt me. It’s been a few weeks, and I still can’t get over the exceptional twist–not so much that it was particularly unexpected, but just the way it unfolded. I haven’t seen the Australian series, which the show was reportedly loyally based on, but geez, I wished that tenth episode was the fifth episode and the suspense could have been Det. Cornell proving that Ben didn’t do it after all. The last half hour of this series is brilliant because of a young actress’ bold, nuanced performance. All I’m saying is, Bella Shouse–she’s one to watch out for.

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Dethroning the king

houseofcards

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks shelter as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Deep down, we all knew that Netflix’s House of Cards was trash. Relentlessly soapy, popcorn-blockbuster trash that can be marathoned in the same way college kids shotgun cheap beer. The show is high fructose entertainment disguised as hifalutin theater–all on the good faith of a rented tux.

Yet, Serious People watch House of Cards. Despite the soap, it remains a must-watch for the audience-elite. Blame it on David Fincher, who executive-produces the show. Blame it on Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, two of the finest actors of their generation, who star in the show. Blame it on its source material–a British book series turned BBC series. There’s a lot of surface prestige, but if you look closer (no pun intended, for all my Kevin Spacey fans out there), its first two seasons follow a man who almost too easily takes the American vice presidency and subsequently, the presidency, from opponents unworthy to rival him in a wannabe Shakespearean territory. Sure, it’s a show that sometimes wants to be about politics, but is actually more about one man’s ambition to the rule the world; at the end of day, however, House of Cards says very little about American government, but a lot about–well, a lot about something.

And therein lies the problem with the first two seasons of House of Cards–it’s a drama with a lot of showmanship, but not self-aware enough to know that it’s saying very little about any of the things it’s supposed to be about. Its opportunities to be more than a soap are vast, but all those opportunities are wasted on saying a lot of cynical things that we already know–politicians can be ruthless and dumb, journalists can be immoral and dumb. Reiteration is not insight.

In the third and most recent season of the show though, the tides have changed. The writers are now completely aware that their show is not so much a commentary on D.C. politics, but a commentary on, well, human nature–which is what they’ve wanted to explore all along, but were too afraid to venture too deep, too far, too fast. Yes, it’s still a D.C. show, but it’s now self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s also a show starring Richard III and Lady Macbeth in all their theatrical glory. As such, the writers don’t have much to say about how the government run things, but they do have some things to say about the people running the government–and more precisely, people running things.

Season three has been criticized as being too slow, as Francis Underwood’s (Spacey) super-villainy begins to wane. Frank has attained the presidency, but that creates problems–his wife, Claire (Wright) has political ambitions of her own, he can’t get his damn bill past congress, his party doesn’t want to support him in the next presidential election, things aren’t going well with Russia–the list goes on. Broadly speaking, all of that sounds like a usual D.C. affair, but the details show just how uninterested the writers are about writing American political fanfiction.

As president, Frank desperately tries to push through a bill called America Works (AmWorks), which he considers the crux of his presidency–his legacy, if you will. AmWorks aims to create more jobs and hopes to succeed this by taking money of the Medicare budget and dumping it to businesses to create new jobs. There are, of course, a number of problems with this bill, the most obvious being (well, all of them are obvious) that there is no way in hell that this kind of bill would be championed by a Democrat, or even by any sane Republican. Any politician knows that social security benefits are a precious social commodity, even to conservatives. Predictably, Frank is met with opposition from both sides, including the leadership of his own party.

However, it seems besides the point to contemplate Frank’s foolishness. It’s clear that Frank is on a power trip and he wants to make a mark on history all with pure adrenaline, sans substance. And it begs the question: Is this what Frank has been all along–a political hack? And furthermore, is that what the show has been all along–a dramatic hack job, a much ado about nothing a la Entourage, but has managed to moonlight around as a serious show for serious people for two whole seasons? Perhaps, but with this AmWorks bullshit, the writers seem to wink at us, acknowledging exactly at what they’ve done.

And you realize that, just maybe, that Frank’s terrible bill is just the usual made-up nothingness consistent with the show’s capacity to be politically irrelevant. Even Frank meeting with the president of Russia (a Putin wannabe very well-played by Lars Mikkelsen) in the Jordan Valley is far-fetched and sort of, well, ridiculous. While The West Wing tried to play idealist politics and Veep wants to be a modern-day political satire responding to the Sarah Palin “what ifs?”, House of Cards is not concerned about how D.C. should or is running things as D.C. is merely a stage for whatever stories the writers want to tell about whichever people. It becomes quickly apparent that the writers want to showcase the women this season–not just women in politics, but women dealing with modern-day feminism, starting with Frank’s souring presidency/legacy being determined by the women who have the capability to save or destroy him. The female characters that populate House of Cards dwell in the Jezebelian age of patriarchal dissent–a faux feminist ideology that upholds independence and sexual prowess, yet ignores how often those two ideas contradict when intertwined.

This season, Claire proves that she could just be Frank’s Achilles’ heel. She has her eye on the open ambassador position, but she needs Frank’s help to get the position, which could be politically compromising for both of them. Problem is, Claire also views the presidency as theirs, but yet, deep down, it’s not–he’s made it and she’s trailing behind and needs him to set the score even; if so, were they ever truly equals? Or, was she just a politician’s wife who was tricked into the idea that her husband’s life was truly hers as well? We discover that, perhaps Frank loves Claire much more than he’d like to admit, but as the season progresses, Claire discovers that, perhaps, she doesn’t love Frank as much as she has admitted. Like most great tales, maybe House of Cards has really been about the Underwoods’ marriage all along because well, this season certainly is.

Then there’s Jackie Sharp (effortlessly played by Molly Parker), the former war veteran turned Democratic majority whip who owes Frank for turning her into a relevant political powerhouse in season two, but who also brews greater political ambitions of her own. Yet, politics is a hard game for a fortysomething woman who isn’t a wife and mother, so she’s forced into a compromising position, as she fights her lingering feelings for former lobbyist and current chief-of-staff to the president, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali).

Also, enter Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Frank’s major political foil this season–a morally righteous solicitor general with a wealthy family who is fighting a fight worth fighting for, despite that she needs to sometimes play dirty and certainly has the money for it. In Dunbar, we have someone to root for in a show populated by variations of villainy or unlikability because she’s a worthy political foil–she’s not another Russo who can be done away with the promise of a good time. Frank is unsure whether to place Dunbar as an ally or enemy because she’s smart enough to be a real threat on the other side, but she’s a good enough person to be a bane on his own turf. Dunbar is dangerous to Frank because not only is she one of the few people in the House of Cards universe that has a shot at heaven, but the audience has a reason to like her. Dunbar’s taking away Frank’s spotlight, despite the fact that we, as Frank’s audience, are supposed to root for him as he’s the one who has invited us into his world with those clever asides and we probably even cheered when he first entered the oval office and banged his ring on the desk and it faded to black. Above all else, this is Frank’s story and we’re all starting to like Dunbar more–and that’s why she feels like such a threat. And that’s when it begins to feel like Frank Underwood is no longer writing history like he so easily did before, in turn, unexpectedly humanizing him and making his story a bit more interesting than before.

Frank has a worthy foil now–she’s no longer just an inevitable loser to be destroyed on his way to power. Frank and Claire’s marriage has become more or less a fractured partnership. Frank’s protege doesn’t want to be a pawn anymore. Frank unintentionally bares his soul to the novelist of his propaganda biography (in a wonderfully understated performance by Paul Sparks, destined to be underrated) and we discover more about him than we ever did from his asides.

And, as a subplot that feels like it exists both in the same show and a different show, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, in a supporting performance for the record books), tries to claw back into Frank’s good graces as he also searches for his attempted murderer/obsession, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). While Doug’s story line is a wicked slow burn, it’s also the most heartbreaking, frightening, and complex one this season–all that thanks to Kelly’s spectacular performance, worthy of an Emmy this year, or any other year. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by Spacey’s and Wright’s towering performances, but the show made the right decision to properly give Kelly his chance to carry his own space. Kelly reaches into every corner of Doug’s screwed up soul from every complicated, uncomfortable angle, just to find out that, deep down, Doug yearns for, well, embarrassingly enough–love and validation.

Not to say it’s not a season populated with other great performances–yes, Spacey and Wright are still fantastic to watch, especially in their last few scenes together. I almost forgot to mention Kim Dickens as as a White House journalist who is miles more likable than Zoe Barnes will ever be; in fact, Dickens’ and Sparks’ chemistry is one of the most charming parts of the season, if not sometimes oddly distracting because there’s a romantic comedy worthy of The West Wing in this bastard of a universe–it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but an enjoyable mixed bag, nonetheless. There’s also Jimmi Simpson as the hacker from season two and Kate Lyn Sheil as Rachel’s Christian ex-girlfriend whose stories unexpectedly intertwine in a very heartfelt, and sort of touching way.

Here’s a show that didn’t dabble in the matters of the heart, but now the show purely benefits from wearing its heart on its sleeve. Creator Beau Willimon’s staunch anti-sentimentality stance seemed to be running on empty and the show finally realized that to grow, we all need a little more than Claire Underwood feeling sorry for a middle-aged cashier lady (i.e., that brief moment of humanity in season one). Point is, Frank is not doing very well, personally or professionally, as president–which makes him less fun, but gives him more depth. Because the world around him is turning sentimental–or was it sentimental all along? And, maybe that’s part of the show’s point this season–it may have very little to say, politically, about foreign affairs, LGBT rights, racism, Medicare benefits, and unemployment as it handles all those issues quite awkwardly and there’s no reason to dwell on things that are clearly not meant to be done well, but it does have a lot to say about, well, humanity. The show has always been just that brash in its ambitiousness and it has taken three seasons for it to declare it with such honesty. And with such honesty, House of Cards is no longer trash–it’s the sustained operatic high note that it has always aspired to be.

The coming of age of a television drama

Thomas and O'Brien being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Since marathoning the first six episodes of season three of Downton Abbey, I was rather disappointed at the show’s increasingly slow, melodramatic nature. While season one was absolutely terrific–a Gossip Girl for the matronly and the pretentious–season two sort of prodded along, alternating between somewhat inspired, to somewhat dull, to moderately entertaining, with World War I as the backdrop of the excruciatingly ill-fated Matthew, Mary, and Lavinia love triangle.

After a hiatus from the show, I knew I had to finish season three someday, so I took the official beginning of my summer vacation to marathon the last few episodes. I dreaded the Bates and Anna scenes, but thank God–Bates finally got released from prison and we would never to deal with their boring angst ever again. And, well, the last few episodes were helluva more rewarding than I ever expected them to be. Sure, it wasn’t as fun as the first season, but the show demonstrated its undeniable age. And good shows, such as Downton, can age like fine wine.

The women in Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

The women in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

I first had this thought about the coming of age of a television drama when I was marathoning the recent sixth season of Mad Men earlier this summer. I was initially skeptical about season six, mainly because there has been sort of a weird critical and audience negativity surrounding it (namely from The Washington Post). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. The show capitalized on its period backdrop; it expertly used that tumultuous time in American history (the late ’60s) to be a catalyst for the show’s escalating drama. It is by far my favorite season of the show because it is the season that avidly proves the show’s novelistic worth.

There are so many things that were done in season six that simply could not have been done if the show was a relatively young show. And if those things were done when the show was relatively young, it would not have been as nowhere as dramatically effective and emotionally satisfying. No one would savor it because no one would appreciate it.

I’m thinking about that great scene when Don eavesdrops on Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Or that scene when Don and Betty reconnect. Or when Don breaks down during the Hershey’s meeting. Or that last scene of the finale–that heartbreaking, moving look between Don and Sally, set to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” None of these things would work if we didn’t know these characters, didn’t know what they have been through together, didn’t know their history together.

One of the great things about committing to a great television series–as a fan or as a writer–is that you really get to see the characters grow. And I suppose, as a writer, you get to a point where you have so much freedom to do so much with your characters because character dynamics are already so well-established and the viewers are already so familiar with this world you have created that you have the ability to capitalize on that. You can explore more and more possibilities as the show ages and the characters grow. That’s the advantage that a long, long story has over a 120-minute film: it has the capability to boast that it’s art that imitates life. Though, truth be told, it’s not necessarily better.

I understand that not all television series have the opportunity to flourish as much as  Mad Men and Downton have been so lucky to do so, but as a viewer, I feel like it’s such a rewarding experience when the writers know that their show has come of age.

So back to Downton.

While there were several shocking moments–Edith being left at the altar and Sybil’s death–I was never quite intrigued, if that is the best way to put it. Those were horrifying scenes, but in context, they weren’t fulfilling. However, for most of season three, I found myself strangely drawn to the Thomas and O’Brien relationship more than I ever did in previous seasons. Or, the development Thomas’ character, in particular. Upon the arrival for O’Brien’s nephew, Alfred, and Thomas’ unwillingness to help him out, the former smoking buddies have become antagonistic toward each other–and it’s one of the more interesting story lines in the eerily bland first half of season three. And, as Thomas’ attraction to the pretty boy footman James attraction escalates–you know O’Brien is going to exploit the hell out of it.

However, in the last few episodes, the drama escalates to a point where Thomas, creepily sneaks into James’ bedroom, while James is sleeping, to give him a kiss, based on O’Brien’s false tip about James’ supposed feelings for him. Alfred sees the entire scene and James begins screaming at Thomas. The dominoes fall as they do, and Thomas ends up in a position where he may have to leave Downton, after 10 years of service, without a reference, and perhaps with a prison sentence.

Thomas has always been difficult to sympathize with, but I certainly always have. I love to hate him, but I also hate to love him, and sometimes the latter certainly triumphs. Because I know that deep down, there are redemptive qualities about him. Not to say what he did wasn’t sort of creepy–for a lack of a better word–but for once, he seemed truly apologetic because he truly meant no harm. And I think that’s the sentiment that most of the other characters share, as everyone–all those former enemies turned allies–rallies behind Thomas to protect him. Because behind all the ambition and deceit, there is a character who just wants to be successful and happy, who just wants to be better than who he is, and find a place that is better than where he is. If he needs to worm his way into those places, you can’t really blame him for any of that. Like Thomas told Carson, it isn’t against the law to hope. And damn right it isn’t.

When James thanks the beaten-up Thomas for defending him when he was drunk at the town fair and even goes as far to call him brave (made more meaningful by the audience knowing how Thomas wanted out from WWI), James inquires why Thomas was even following him. Thomas responds honestly–“you know.” James mans up and tells Thomas that he can never reciprocate, but he’s willing to be friends. And perhaps, there is some hope for Thomas after all.

The writers couldn’t have possibly pulled the Thomas story line off without the show being well into its third season. Or without the supremely well-constructed performance of Rob James-Collier. Thomas’ villainy, on paper, defined who he was, but the show is starting to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

While there are a plethora of other things in the most recent season that can elicit feelings from long-time viewers of Downton (like the final scene of the Christmas special), the transformation of Thomas Barrow has been, personally, the most enthralling and rewarding story line in the dawn of the drama’s coming of age.