Part 3: Limited Series/Anthology
There have been a lot of great anthology and limited series over the last four years, some of which have been brilliant at showing some of the major issues of our time, some of which were just brilliant entertainment. Some of them were one and done; some of them were part of a collective. But even though they were classified under awards shows as ‘limited’, they were anything but in power and scope.
American Crime Story
So far we’ve only had two editions of Ryan’s Murphy’s most exceptional collaboration with FX, but each one has peered deeply into some of the darker corners of our world.
In The People V. O.J. Simpson, even those of who lived through ‘The Trial of The Century’ and thought that there was nothing left to say about it were absolutely astounded by how many new angles there were to see. From the prosecution trying to play this as any other murder to the ‘Dream Team’, showing us that this case was the story of race in microcosm, this story seemed to be a review and a preview of the world in which we lived. Hell, it even explained the Kardashians. It was also one of the great triumphs of acting of the last decade, with extraordinary work from veterans such as Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance to delivering the first of so many stunning performances by Sterling Brown.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace reversed the format by starting with the title murder and then going backwards, showing that the two lives by Andrew Cunanan (the extraordinary Darren Criss) and fashion icon Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) were mirror images of what it was like to be gay in the 1990s. Slowly, we worked backwards over Cunanan’s crime spree which seemed like something that could only happen then and yet seems eerily plausible now. And in doing so, it did something that the first incarnation could never do: it made us feel sympathy for the killer.
The third incarnation, which was supposed to deal with Clinton’s impeachment has been filmed but has yet to air. Perhaps given the climate in which we live, Ryan Murphy is waiting for a slightly calmer time. Whenever it comes, I’ll be waiting with baited breath.
With the coming of the #MeToo movement and the general realization of the role the police procedural may have been in our view of the justice system, Netflix’s telling of this investigation into a serial rapist in the west may have been the perfect tonic for it. Telling the story of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever in one of the best performances of the past two years) a teenager from foster care whose own background let to even her doubting a sexual assault, the story followed two female detectives who put all the ones from Dick Wolf to shame. Two of the greatest actresses working today (Merritt Weyer and Toni Collette, absolutely robbed by the Emmys…for this) played Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen, two detectives whose investigation into a single assault leads into one of the more sprawling cases that either could have imagined. Duvall’s placid exterior and Rasmussen’s vigor showed a contrast so vivid it almost made you forget that this may have been the first time in a very long time you saw two women investigating a case where it wasn’t put obviously front and center. You knew the two cases would link up eventually but it didn’t make it any less powerful when it did. Headlined by one of the most exceptional directors in the film industry, Lisa Chodenko, this may have been the hardest of all the series I will list to watch. It doesn’t make it any less important or well-done.
Now that Broadway has gone dark for who knows how long, it seems important to remember the legends who made it work. And it helped that two of films greatest legends — Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, who deserved won an Emmy for her work — played the roles of two of Broadway’s most complicated legends.
Bob Fosse was one of the greatest talents in any field he worked — the only person so far to win a Tony, Oscar and an Emmy in the same year. By the most casual of observers, he was also an impossible man to deal with. Only his wife and muse Gwen Verdon seemed able to handle him, but as we watched this series, the operative word was seemed. We got the view of their relationship from every angle — their beginning in the work of art Damn Yankees, how she helped him through Sweet Charity, and how their marriage finally collapsed in one horrible weekend. We saw he was a victim of drugs and excess, as well of sexual abuse in his younger days, but the writers pulled no punches in showing he was no less a victimizer as well. If there was a happy ending for these two complicated people, it may have come through their daughter, who managed to escape the madness on her own. It was dazzling, depressing, and let’s call it like we see it — show-stopping.
Little Fires Everywhere
Reese Witherspoon may have been the extraordinary force to come out of the past four years; I’ve already mentioned her brilliance in Big Little Lies and her talent in The Morning Show has been recognized, but in my mind her most extraordinary performance came as the locked into routine Elena Richardson is this exceptional limited series that the Emmys unforgivably shafted.
Witherspoon and the extraordinary Kerry Washington gave brilliant dueling performance as two completely different kinds of mothers to their children, one perfect on the outside but incredibly flawed, one angry but loving on the inside, and in each way, attractive to children in the other’s family. Surrounded by a mystery that opened the story, the show took a look at 1990s Middle America in a way we haven’t seen in a long time and dealt with racism, sexuality, cross race adoption and what it means to be a good mother. From the leads to the exceptional child actors, this was one of the greatest limited series in the past year, and in my mind, a far superior adaptation then the book it was based on.
In a sense, this example of ‘Midwest Noir’ got started two years before the time I listed. But the two seasons that it gave to the viewer were so incredibly well done — and in a way explain the era we live in so well — that it would be wrong to ignore it.
In Season 3, Noah Hawley took us into the post-recession would of Minnesota following the Stussy Brothers (both incredibly portrayed by Ewan MacGregor) one the parking lot king of the Midwest, the other a parole officer with one good thing in his life — parolee Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). A conflict over a stamp leads to a series of murders, blackmail and corruption which devoted cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) tries to unravel even though her job is being eliminated and it doesn’t seem like she exists anymore, according to security doors and washrooms. Does she succeed? It all depends, in a quantum universe. But God, it was fun.
Over the past few months, we’ve gone way back to the past — 1950 Kansas City, and watched the struggle between two families; one led by Loy Cannon (an incredible Chris Rock) the other the way over his head Josto Fadda (Jason Schwarzman). Because of two lesbian robbers, a seriously psychotic nurse, and a U.S. Marshal whose the only law in this town, things got very bad. A little child ended up leading one side out of the darkness. And through it all, a survivor from the last family struggle (Ben Whishaw in a searing performance) may have been the only compassionate person in the world. This was a history lesson, and in the final minutes we learned whose history we had just learned.
Fargo was an example of great TV. Like in so much of the work by David Milch, sometimes it didn’t make a lick of sense, but the dialogue is so good and the images are so powerful (like in what was as close to a bubble episode as the series gets, this year’s ‘East/West), the viewer didn’t care. This may be the end for this series, and if it is Hawley has created one of the most complete worlds in all of TV.
In my final set of articles on this particular part, I will deal with some series and shows I qualify under the category ‘the fantastic.’