Category Archives: Television

TopGear and Revolution

In 1783, the Thirteen American Colonies were officially recognised as free and independent states by their former mother country, the United Kingdom. Initially, each of the thirteen states were autonomous to the extent that they were effectively separate countries, united only in a weak document called the Articles of Confederation. The power vacuum left with the departure of the British colonial authorities led to a worryingly unstable situation across all Thirteen American States. Stability in government was only restored with the Constitution of 1787, the binding document which created the Federal Government of the United States, effectively creating the system of government that has kept the United States relatively stable, despite one civil war, ever since.

A similar revolution has occurred in the BBC’s hit motoring show TopGear, with the departure of the old order, led by the trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, who have gone to Amazon Prime Video. In their wake, the BBC has chosen a wide array of new hosts, led by Chris Evans, to take over one of their greatest hits. Having seen the first episode, Evans, American presenter Matt LeBlanc, and their fellow presenters, who frankly are more like corespondents than full time hosts, have truly put TopGear through a revolution.

The same old skeleton exists within, but the show itself is well removed from its predecessor. This new TopGear is like the Thirteen American States in the period of the Articles of Confederation; it is in a period of transition and still trying to figure out how to exist without its former presenters. Evans, LeBlanc, and the others have the same light hearted attitude to their work on TopGear that Clarkson, Hammond, and May had before, but at the moment it just does not seem to be as funny. With the former trio, I knew to expect that odd, somewhat nonsensical, at times pointless humour. As a result, I reviled in it, often with a big smile on my face for the entire hour long programme. With Evans, LeBlanc, et cetera, I laughed on occasion. Simply put, I am not familiar with these new hosts, and do not know what to expect.

Perhaps in a few weeks, once more of the current season of TopGear is broadcast, I will  be able to appreciate the new presenters, and new format better. At the moment, I am looking forward  to the first episode of The Grand Tour, Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s new programme, which will be released on Amazon Prime Video this coming Autumn. As to the next episode of TopGear: yeah sure, I’ll watch it. This new TopGear has undergone a revolution, but it still has a long way to go until it leaves the shadow of its predecessor and enter into its own spotlight.

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“The Story of the Jews”, Simon Schama’s Masterwork

Kansas City – When I first read that PBS would be broadcasting a new Simon Schama documentary, happy memories came to mind of his only pervious work that I have had the pleasure of seeing, The Power of Art. His latest documentary, which Andrew Anthony of The Observer also called “his greatest” was simply sublime storytelling. The series, which runs in 5 parts, covers Jewish history from the earliest instances in the archaeological record of there being a Jewish people in the Near East to the modern struggle of identity for those residing in Israel and Palestine, though where Israel ends and Palestine begins has been a matter of some confusion for a few generations now.

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Courtesy of the BBC.

As a historian-in-training I found Schama’s style of telling the story of his own people to be inspiring for my own goal of eventually telling the story of my own people, the Irish diaspora. Schama’s reasons for studying history as a profession, because “We are our story,” we are the source of the history that we, as historians, study. This is almost word for word my own chief reason for studying history. That is something that Schama seems to connect to with his latest documentary that many other historians fail to see, that history is nothing without being an inheritance from the past to the present. Schama’s way of telling the story of his faith made me, an Irish Catholic American, feel as though not only could I understand some elements of the Jews troubled history, with both of our peoples often being at the receiving end of some bigger power’s brutality, and with his frequent remarks on the Jewish sense of humour developed through centuries of oppression and exile. Yet, despite these, and many other, commonalities, the story that Schama tells is very much a Jewish one. The very fact that the Jews have made it through all they have is testament not only to the existence of God but also to the tenacity of the human will to survive.

Schama is at times whimsical bringing the viewer into his personal life at the synagogue and at the annual Seder, whilst at other points he brings the viewer into the darker, dolorous parts of what it means to be a European Jew in a community that is now a mere shadow of its former self. His visit to Lithuania, his family’s homeland, is one such moment. A particularly poignant point came when Schama proceeded to explain just how the Lithuanian Jews in a particular shtetl were rounded up, tortured, and killed en masse by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Likewise in its poignancy for me was the intense description that Schama used to conclude his telling of the story of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Queen Isabella, more famous today for sending Columbus to the Americas. He recounts how the Spanish king ordered his Christian subjects, “Not to harass or disturb the Jews in the process of packing up and selling off synagogues, and lands, and possessions. Get them out of here in peace and as quickly as possible, to which you want to say ‘How very considerate.'”

What sets Schama’s documentaries and books apart from many other historians is how dedicated to his work he has become. Especially in the case of The Story of the Jews, where Simon Schama invites us, the viewer, to join him on a journey into his own family history. It’s an invitation that I would highly recommend be accepted.

To watch Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews online in the United States, please click on the following link.

Netflix’s “House of Cards” comes into its own

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Don’t worry, there are no spoilers below.

 

Kansas City – A few weeks ago I published my first review of a “television” show. I find it amusing that my first TV review should be of the first big-budget show to be produced and broadcast by an online-only broadcaster. In January, I wrote about how the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Congressman Frank Underwood (D-SC) and his wife Claire, related to its British parent.

Like the country in which it is set, this new American House of Cards needed a while to set itself up as an independent show. However, with the start of Season 2, Netflix’s masterpiece of drama truly set itself apart from its roots in Westminster. I found the second season to be far more thrilling than the first. The speed by which the action moved, balancing the need for both quick and slow plot lines, was exhilarating. There were quite a few moments over the past fortnight that I found myself sitting forward in my seat, gasping “Did they just do that?” My first season mulligan of “Well, I know how the BBC version went” quickly became defunct and resoundingly out of place in this truly American drama.

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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Courtesy of “The Guardian”.

Spacey continues to refine and evolve in his role as Underwood, the epitome of the modern anti-hero, perhaps villain. He was able to balance out the ruthlessness and chessmanship of the political realm with the more mellow personal moments here and there throughout the season. I found myself amazed that even he as an actor going off of a script could keep up with the many twists and turns, the double and triple bluffs that lace the plot in such a fashion that they began to seem almost too fantastic for the politics of the reality (or at least I should hope, though perhaps naïvely, so).

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Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Courtesy of “The Huffington Post”.

Complimenting her Golden Globe award from last month, Robin Wright’s performance as Claire Underwood continued to evolve just as much, if not even more than Spacey’s role as her husband. I found Claire much more likeable after a while in this season than I certainly did in Season 1, though the same characteristics that made me wary of her in the first season are certainly still present in her character. After seeing the second season, I find myself hoping, again perhaps naïvely, that Claire Underwood won’t turn out as Elizabeth Urquhart (the wife in the BBC series) did, as a sort of Lady Macbeth to counter Frank Underwood/Francis Urquhart’s Richard of Gloucester (Richard III).

Beyond the acting, the runaway golden winner here has to be the writers. Their work is truly a masterpiece of drama that certainly does a good job at expressing the emotions and desires of our time, especially in the political realm. Netflix’s House of Cards is a drama for our time, set in our time, featuring us, and calling upon us to ask ourselves how we feel about what we see in the mirror that the series offers the United States in 2014.

Washington and Westminster – Comparing both “House of Cards”

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Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart.
Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Kansas City – It was funny to me that last night as I finished watching Season 1 of Netflix political drama House of Cards, one of its leading stars, Robin Wright, won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her part in the hit series. I was first introduced to the Netflix series through its inspiration, it’s daddy so to speak: the BBC’s 1990 miniseries of the same name. The BBC’s version was based upon the novel by Michael Dobbs in a script adapted by Andrew Davies. It starred acclaimed Scottish Shakespearean Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, MP a Machiavellian Tory chief whip and is set in the years following the fall of Thatcher’s government in the 1990s.

I was first attracted to Richardson’s House in large part by the leading actor’s grandfatherly charm, which prevailed over his on-screen persona for the majority of the original BBC miniseries (it had two sequels, To Play the King, and The Final Cut). Also I am a bit preferential to the parliamentary system over its presidential counterpart, which added into my interest in the British series. Richardson’s Urquhart is a charming aristocratic MP, who feels cheated by the Conservative Party when he was not chosen as her successor for the leadership. What follows is a reign of vengeance that easily rivals that of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. In fact, another area in which I was drawn to the series was in the subtle, though sometimes verbal, references to Shakespeare, with Urquhart being based upon Richard III whilst his wife rings more true of Lady Macbeth.

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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood.
Courtesy of Salon Magazine.

In comparison Kevin Spacey’s Congressman Frank Underwood (D-SC) lacks the charm that Richardson so gracefully portrays. What the two characters do share is a dramatic penchant for ruthlessness and determination to do whatever it may be that is on their minds at any given moment. Thus far, considering that only half of the American version has been broadcast, I would say the character closest to their British original would have to be Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s Chief of Staff. He shares many traits with Urquhart’s Junior Whip, Tim Stamper, MP (Colin Jeavons). Both are loyal at first to their superiors, but as time goes on Stamper, MP begins to see how truly evil Urquhart’s intentions are, a plot development which I will be sorry to see missing from the second season of Netflix’s rendition.

Likewise in the Netflix adaptation, I will say that thus far my favourite characters in the Netflix series are Congressman Peter Russo (D-PN), played by Corey Stoll, and his Chief of Staff and girlfriend, Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). They seemed the most personable of the entire cast to me, and after all it’s nice after a while to find a love story that is very honest and quite beautiful in how human it really is. To counter this I was left rather confused by the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood, the leading couple, who frankly (pun intended) seemed, perhaps more so than Francis and Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), like having Gen. Patton and Field Marshal Rommel living happily married together. Both characters are outwardly kind and considerate, but inwardly ruthless and willing to go to any lengths, yes any lengths, to see their goals achieved.

At the same time as Robin Wright was accepting her award in LA, I found myself mostly thankful that the first series of this all-too interesting show was at last over. One major complaint that I have about American television is that there can at times be too much of it. Consider that the average British season will run for about 6 to 8 episodes, whilst the average American one runs for about 10 to 20. After a while, especially in the context that I was watching it in, to review it in comparison to the BBC’s original, I found myself emotionally exhausted by the many bumps in the road that Netflix’s House of Cards has to offer. For a programme like this, 13 episodes per season is just too long to watch in as short a span of time as I did (in about half a week).

And yet, I am looking forward to seeing how Season 2 carries on the threads from Season 1, hopefully bringing them together for a good conclusion. In short, Netflix’s House of Cards is good in its own right, but I would still prefer to listen to Francis Urquhart’s asides mixed with a sense of laughter at the world than here Frank Underwood’s complaints and Machiavellian strategies on how he’ll make his next move.