David’s Watch Diary: May 2020

Thoughts on The Eddy, Mrs. America, Homecoming, Run, and more.

The Eddy (Netflix)

There are projects that are “good but flawed,” implying that they just missed the mark of greatness in a disappointing way (last month’s Devs, for example) — these are usually the hardest to write about, because you feel bad for picking apart the creators’ effort while still wanting to praise what’s praiseworthy. Then there are projects that are “flawed but good,” where you know from the jump that what you’re watching isn’t totally working, but you find yourself drawn back to it anyway because something in there just resonates. The Eddy fits that description. By many measures it’s a melodramatic muddle that leans disproportionally on its weakest elements. But it also has such a remarkable sense of place and authenticity — a vibe, if you will — that I still wanted to hang out in that world with these inconsistently-written characters.

If the cliché about jazz is that “it’s about the notes you don’t play,” The Eddy plays them all. Created by English screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, last year’s The Aeronauts), it’s set around a fictional club in a diverse and urban Paris we rarely see on screen. The plotting is divided into three strands, with varying success; the most successful, giving the series nearly all of its vibrancy, focuses on The Eddy’s house band, made up entirely of professional and titanically-gifted musicians with little-to-no acting experience. These sequences, often featuring extended performances of original jazz music (from legendary producer Glen Ballard), crackle with excitement, accentuated by the surprising emotional weight Joanna Kulig (the singer from Polish Oscar nominee Cold War), Damian Nueva (the bassist, and coolest guy in any room), Lada Obradovic (an instantly memorable and distinctive drummer), and the rest bring to their characters. The series’ visual style, honed by Oscar-winner Damian Chazelle in the first two episodes, is predominately live-wire handheld work that meshes perfectly with the shifting time signatures and scorching solos.

If that was all the show was, if it kept tighter focus on the band and didn’t drag their songwriter/club owner/American ex-pat Elliot Udo (André Holland, Moonlight) through The Eddy’s half-baked, often cringeworthy A- and B- stories, it’d be a gem. Instead, the series also wants to be a crime drama — at the end of the first episode, Elliot’s best friend and club co-owner Farid (Tahir Rahim, charismatic in limited screen time) is murdered by a organized crime ring, and Elliot has to spend much of the show alternately aiding and being suspected by police, scrambling to keep the club open, and unwisely taking matters into his own hands. If that weren’t enough, his estranged teenage daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) has just joined in him Paris, and her own troubled past repeatedly manifests itself in uncomfortable (and very TV) situations. Their relationship eventually becomes one of the emotional fulcrums of the show, but it’s a slog to get there.

Nevertheless, there are enough moments of pure pleasure, almost entirely music-driven, that I can’t not recommend The Eddy to anyone who finds those things in their wheelhouse — like a joyful, impromptu wake for Farid’s widow (Leïla Bekhti), or a stuffy wedding enlivened by the bassist sneaking in friends. The genuine enthusiasm the cast has as they play good music well, and together, is infectious. It’s a pity that the series’ weaker elements saps its own momentum across its eight episodes, but it also makes the brighter moments seem even more so by comparison.

Mrs. America (Hulu/FX)

From The People vs. O.J. Simpson, to Fosse/Verdon, to Chernobyl, there has never been a better time for ensemble, historically-rooted miniseries (heck, throw in Season 1 of The Terror, because I’ll never pass up an opportunity to talk about The Terror). FX (via Hulu) now adds Mrs. America to that list of excellence, and at what feels like exactly the right moment. Not just because the struggle to enshrine the Equal Rights Amendment still continues thirty years later (with the 38th state, Virginia, finally ratifying it this year), but because stories of advocacy for and struggles within marginalized groups are timeless.

Also, Cate Blanchett is on TV! As Phillis Schlafly, the conservative firebrand who led the movement to defeat the ERA to boost her own political profile, Blanchett is mesmerizing — it’s a brave thing to take on the role of someone so despised, but an extraordinary thing to imbue that performance with humanity. We may vehemently disagree with Schlafly’s aims and the underhanded way she gets there, but we understand why she thinks the way she does. That doesn’t mean that the show is too kind to her, a charge levied against the series in the early going — as Mrs. America continues, Schlafly’s manipulations and mis-truths stack up, but it still spares a moment of sympathy for a woman struggling to make herself heard in the boys’ club of DC politics, where she is only seen as the means to an end.

But Schlafly is only half the story; as written by series creator Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) and her talented team, the characterizations of the feminists fighting for equality are just as sharp and compelling. Rose Byrne gives the best performance of her career as Gloria Steinem, who became the face of the women’s liberation movement to the praise of many and the consternation of others. Carefully hidden behind her long hair and large glasses, her Steinem radiates intelligence and quiet inspiration, pushing for collaboration between her different political coalitions in contrast to Schlafly’s single-minded autocracy, where you can always just change the subject if someone questions your association with racists. Margo Martindale (as movement leader Bella Abzug), Ari Graynor (Brenda Feigan-Fasteau, who memorably debates Schlafly on television), Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan, old-guard legend viewed as past her prime), Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisholm, the first black major-party presidential candidate) and many others shine in supporting roles. We feel every betrayal, cheer every temporary victory, and groan when indecision and paralysis sets the movement back years (if not decades).

But in other ways, the series’ strongest threads involve the characters on the fringes. Elisabeth Banks is a standout as the movement’s “token Republican,” Jill Ruckelshaus, who is powerless to stop the real-time realignment of the political landscape around the ERA. And Sarah Paulson gets the most fascinating arc of all, all the more so for not being based directly on a real person. As Schlafly’s demure right-hand woman, Alice, we watch her evolve from front-line true believer to skeptic, which comes to a head in the series’ best episode, “Houston” (directed by Captain Marvel’s Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck) — a hilarious and profound “one crazy night” story of Alice mixing her drinks and stumbling from one eye-opening convention room to another, learning the true meaning of “This Land is Your Land” as she stuffs her wide-eyed face with brownies, then the next day finding her calls for common ground and greater decency shot down by her anti-ERA sisters. It’s not just Mrs. America in a nutshell, but all of our politics: How can everyone feel heard when no one wants to listen?

Homecoming, Season 2 (Amazon)

It’s hard to write in any detail about the second round of puzzle-box storytelling from Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz without spoiling things, but if you enjoyed the first Julia Roberts-led season, this will tickle your brain a bit as well. Whether a return to the Geist Group was really necessary is the one question it struggles to answer.

The draw here is Janelle Monáe, as a woman who wakes up in a boat, in the middle of a lake, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. At first it seems like we’re in for some Bourne Identity-style shenanigans, but the show doesn’t let many of these mysteries hang for long — instead reaching something close to the end of the story by the end of the second episode, then shuttling back to the preceding days to gradually explain how we all got here. This eliminates a lot of Homecoming’s sense of urgency, and viewers of the first season won’t have a hard time figuring out how it all connects anyway. Instead, what Bloomberg & Horowitz (with Season 1 director/co-creator Sam Esmail now in a producer role, having ceded the chair to Kyle Patrick Alvarez) seem to be more interested in is a subversion of our natural sympathies: what happens when the characters we’re drawn to at the beginning are only trying to clean up their own amoral messes?

But Monáe is a star, and with Homecoming also giving ample time to Hong Chau (having a great 12 months after Watchmen and Driveways), Chris Cooper, Joan Cusack, and last season’s breakout Stephan James, and especially with its seven half-hour episodes sliding by at a clip, you could easily blast through the whole thing without pausing for breath. And while it can’t hold a candle to the outstanding twist at the climax of the first season (one of the coolest reveals in recent television, for sure), the conclusion is a difficult, and memorable, brew of poetic justice. I don’t think there’s much left to milk here, but at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Run (HBO)

It’s a great premise for a film: a man and a woman, college exes now with families and/or careers, impulsively decide to fulfill a longtime commitment to hop aboard a cross-country train to see if they’ve still, you know, got it. Vicky Jones, who collaborated with Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag and Killing Eve, sets it up beautifully: with just enough mystery about who Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) really are, why they would do this, and what they hope to get out of it other than a naughty good time, it’s Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train where they only pretend to be the strangers, having sent and received the single-word text (“RUN”) that serves as their starter pistol.

Unfortunately Run is not a feature film, but a television show, and even at seven thirty-minute installments quickly loses steam. It’s certainly zippy, and fleetingly entertaining, but the more we learn about Ruby and Billy — both their toxic histories and through the poor choices they make now — it never really seems like the show has anything interesting to say, instead relying on Wever & Gleeson’s chemistry to carry everything. And they nearly do! They’re fun to watch, and fun together.

But when Waller-Bridge herself appears in a late but pivotal role, you’re ready for the story to really take off after a few episodes of being in and around the train, and it just… doesn’t. There’s betrayal, and intrigue, and chases, and a “shocking” (and gratuitously handled) death, but it doesn’t add up to much. If Run were a stylish 100-minute rom-com, I feel like it’d be a sleeper hit. But on HBO Sundays at twice that length, I expected more. Vicky Jones has a unique voice, though, and I’m still interested to see what she tries next.

Quick hits:

  • For a few months, at least, Survivor: Winners at War was “Sports.” And it was great. Tony solidified his place on Survivor’s Mount Rushmore (alongside Boston Rob, Parvati, and Sandra) with an incredible wire-to-wire game where he won his first immunity challenges, orchestrated literal last-second blindsides, and never received a single vote against him despite his chaotic “spy shack” reputation — so satisfying.
  • Speaking of sports, The Last Dance was a much-needed communal experience for four Sunday nights. It may not have been excellent documentary filmmaking (what could be, if its subject had that much say in the final product), but it was a mesmerizing, often hilarious time capsule.
  • Bad Education kinda got lost in the shuffle as an HBO film release, which is a shame, because it’s a good watch, and well directed by Cory Finley. Hugh Jackman gives a fantastic performance as a corrupt Long Island superintendent (the center of the biggest school embezzlement scandal in US history), and Allison Janney and Ray Romano are also at the top of their games. My favorite subplot, though, followed Geraldine Viswanathan’s high school journalist — more like that, please!
  • What We Do in the Shadows is on an incredible run right now, and as of this writing has only two episodes left in its too-short season. I’ll have more next month, but for now, two words: Jackie Daytona.
  • We also got a surprise Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special, Bandersnatch-style, which added new layers of jokes to its already high-RPM joke engine. One piece of advice: It’ll go against everything you believe in, but click “Skip Intro.” Trust me.

Looking ahead to… Indie alien-invasion film The Vast of Night on Amazon (5/29)… Steve Carell & Greg Daniels reunite for Netflix’s Space Force (5/29)… Spike Lee also brings Oscar contender Da 5 Bloods to the service (6/12)… Matthew Rhys plays Perry Mason for HBO (6/21)… Dark returns to Netflix for its final brain-melting season, so catch up now (6/27).

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