Miniseries Review: Mike (dir by Craig Gillespie, Tiffany Johnson, and Director X)

“Who is Mike Tyson?” is question that’s asked by the new Hulu miniseries, Mike.

The answer to that question is that he’s a boring guy who did some interesting things.

For instance, he became a boxer and was briefly the world champion before he was brought down by his own hubris.  That’s interesting, largely because it’s something that seems to happen to quite a few people who suddenly find themselves on top of the world but don’t have the maturity necessary to handle it.  However, that, in itself, does not Mike Tyson an interesting human being.  It just makes him an example of how history repeats itself.

He bit off an opponent’s ear during a boxing match.  That’s interesting because it was such a savage act and it scandalized people who otherwise have no problem watching two men beat each other until one loses consciousness.  Causing brain damage is okay but God forbid you bite off a piece of someone’s ear.  But the fact that Mike bit off the guy’s ear does not, in itself, make Mike Tyson interesting.  It just makes him a jerk.

Mike Tyson has a facial tattoo that doesn’t really mean anything.  A lot of people have stupid tattoos.

Mike Tyson has a distinctive way of speaking.  So do a lot of other people.

Mike Tyson spent three years in prison after being convicted of raping a contestant in a beauty pageant.  Tyson was and is certainly more famous than the typical convict and, somehow, that conviction has not prevented him from becoming a beloved cultural institution in the United States.  The hypocrisy is interesting.  Mike Tyson is not.

At least, that’s the impression that I got from this 8-episode miniseries.  Seven of the episodes feature Tyson (played by Trevante Rhodes) performing a one-man show in front of an audience in Indiana.  Believe it or not, this is based on fact.  Apparently, Mike Tyson did have a one-man show, in which he would discuss his career and his life.  (Jeff even wrote a review of it for this very site!)  We watch flashbacks as the show’s version of Tyson provides a self-serving narration and, to be honest, it seems like it would be the most boring one-man show ever.  Tyson talks about growing up poor and with a mother who alternated between hating and loving him.  He talks about his first trainer (played by Harvey Keitel, who often seems to be channeling Jonathan Banks) and his first marriage.  Mostly he talks about how he feels that almost everyone in his life betrayed him.  The first two episodes, which deal with Tyson’s youth, are effective because they examine how a childhood of mental and physical abuse can set the course of someone’s entire life.  However, once adult Tyson shows up, Mike becomes far less compelling.  It’s hard not to get tired of listening to him blame everyone else for his own increasingly poor decisions.

The one exception to the show’s format is episode 5, which is told from the point of view of Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks), the woman who Tyson was convicted of raping.  This is a powerful stand-alone episode, both because of Eubanks’s performance and because it’s the only episode to not be seen through Tyson’s eyes.  It’s the episode that allows the viewer to see Tyson the way the rest of the world saw Tyson.  And yet it’s difficult to feel that, when viewed in the context of the entire miniseries, this episode is a bit of a cop-out.  It’s the only episode to focus on someone who was hurt by Tyson but it’s surrounded by episodes that once again portray Tyson as being a victim of his managers, his fans, and society at large.  Desiree is given one episode and then disappears from the narrative whereas the show’s version of Tyson is given seven episodes to justify himself.  One gets the feeling that the show’s producers knew that they had to include Desiree but they also knew that revealing Tyson’s version of the events would have also meant revealing that he continues to insist that he was the victim and that would have totally messed up the show’s final redemption arc.  And so, the narrative burden is temporarily placed on Desiree and Tyson only returns once it is time to discuss what it was like being in prison.

Mike was produced by Craig Gillespie, who also directed I, Tonya.  Like I, Tonya, Mike features characters frequently breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience.  In fact, it happens so frequently that it gets to be kind of annoying.  Breaking the fourth wall really wasn’t even that original when it happened in I, Tonya.  In Mike, it becomes a trick that’s used to try to make Mike Tyson into a more interesting character than he is.  But it feels empty, largely because it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know or couldn’t have guessed on our own.

The miniseries itself was made without the participation of the real-life Mike Tyson.  Tyson condemned the show as being an attempt to make money off of his life and he actually does have a point.  Unfortunately, the miniseries itself doesn’t have anything new to add to the story of Tyson.  It’s an 8 episode Wikipedia entry.  At some point, the streaming services may need to realize that not every celeb needs to be the subject of a miniseries.  Simply being famous does not always make for a compelling story.

Miniseries Review: Candy

It’s strange how things work out.

In 1980, something terrible occurred in the town of Wylie, Texas.  Candy Montgomery, who was a Sunday School teacher and who had what seemed like the ideal life, killed Betty Gore.  Betty was reportedly one of Candy’s closest friends but Candy still ended up striking her 41 times with an axe.  After Candy was arrested, she revealed that she had cheated with Betty’s husband.  She also said that she attacked Betty in self-defense.  At her trial, she was ultimately found not guilty.

It was one of those small town scandals that the media tends to love and, 42 years after it all happened, it’s still spoken of down here in Texas.  Every five years or so, there’s a big “where are they now?” article in the Dallas Morning News.  Betty’s widowed husband married a woman that he started dating a few weeks after Betty’s death.  Candy’s lawyer, Don Crowder, tried to launch a political career and, when that failed, got addicted to cocaine and ended up committing suicide.  As for Candy, she divorced the husband who stood with her through the trial and apparently now lives, under a new name, in another town.

Still, despite the case’s continuing notoriety in Texas, I was recently a bit surprised to learn that there was not one but two Candy Montgomery miniseries in development.  HBO has Love and Death, which stars Elizabeth Olsen as Candy.  Love and Death is scheduled to come out later this year and it’ll probably suck because it’s written by David E. Kelley and this is exactly the type of story that’s going to bring out all of his worst instincts.  Meanwhile, Hulu produced Candy, starring Jessica Biel as Candy and Melanie Lynesky as Betty Gore.

Candy aired, over five nights, last week and I have to say that Hulu did a good job of presenting the story.  I’m usually a bit cynical about true crime miniseries (especially ones that are set in small town Texas in the late 70s) but Candy was actually really good.  The first episode featured a somewhat frazzled but always smiling Candy as she tried to balance a day that included swim lessons, bible school, taking the kids to see The Empire Strikes Back, and, of course, killing her best friend.  The final episode featured the courtroom drama, in which the ghost of Betty Gore could only watch as Candy Montgomery made herself the center of the tragedy.  In between, Candy provided a portrait of small-town life, church gossip, a mid-life crisis, and a lot of shag carpeting and wood paneling.  The miniseries balanced melodrama with satire but it also worked as a portrait of a group of people who all realized that their lives hadn’t turned out the way that they wanted them too.  Both Candy and Betty are portrayed as being frustrated and dissatisfied with what the world has to offer them.  The difference is that, while Betty wears her pain for all to see, Candy hides everything behind a quick smile and a superficially friendly manner.  In the end, one gets the feeling that Candy was acquitted because no one wanted to believe that someone who seemed so perfect could do something so horrific.

Candy is also well-served by its cast.  Melanie Lynesky is often heart-breaking as Betty Gore, while also still playing her with just enough anger that Candy’s story of being attacked is not easy to dismiss.  Jessica Biel keeps you guessing as Candy, playing her as someone who you would probably want to be friends with, even though you can’t help but suspect that she would also probably gossip about you behind your back.  Timothy Simons and Pablo Schrieber are well-cast as Candy and Betty’s clueless husbands.  Simons especially deserves some credit for generating sympathy for a character who, as written, could have been portrayed as just being a caricature.  And yes, Justin Timberlake does show up as the deputy who investigated the crime.  While it does feel a bit like stunt casting, Timberlake is convincing once you get used to the 70s porn mustache.

Though it aired without the fanfare that greeted other Hulu miniseries like Dopesick, Pam & Tommy, and The Girl From Plainville, Candy is a compulsively watchable and, at times, even thought-provoking work of true crime.  Without any of the slow spots that marred The Girl From Plainville or Dopesick‘s preachiness, Candy is definitely one that will benefit from being binged.  Check it out the next time you have five hours to kill.


TV Review: The Girl From Plainville 1.4 “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” (dir by Pippa Bianco)

Last week, when the first three episodes of The Girl From Plainville dropped on Hulu, my main concern was that, regardless of how well-acted the show may be or how tragic the true life story might be, there really wasn’t much left to be said about Michelle Carter and Conrad “Coco” Roy.   

Having watch the fourth and latest episode last night, I have to say that I think my concerns were justified.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The fourth episode was fairly well-directed.  It was definitely well-acted.  There was a scene where Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan start singing Can’t Stop This Feeling that I’m sure will be a favorite amongst many viewers.  But, in the end, it’s hard to see why eight hours are going to be required to tell this story.  There was really nothing in the fourth episode that couldn’t have been communicated in a two-minute montage.

The fourth episode continued the show’s distracting habit of jumping back and forth in time.  The main problem with this is that, unless Colton Ryan is in the scene, it’s often difficult to keep track of whether we’re seeing the past or the show’s “present.”  There’s not much different between past Michelle and present Michelle.  For that matter, Coco’s parents appear to have been just as miserable in the past as they were in the present.  There was a scene where Coco’s father and his grandfather got into an argument about whether or not they should sell Coco’s truck and it took me a few minutes to understand that the scene was supposed to be taking place in 2014 and not 2012.  To be honest, there’s really no reason for the show’s jumbled timeline, other than the fact that it’s currently what all the Emmy-winning miniseries are doing.  But since we all already know how the story began and how the story is going to end, we don’t really get much out of the show’s mix of flashbacks and flashforwards.

The show seem to be trying to generate some suspense over whether Michelle will actually go on trial over her part in Coco’s death but again, what’s the point?  We all know that she went on trial.  The publicity of the trial is the whole reason why most people are going to be watching this show in the first place.  In fact, all of the legal maneuvering is probably the least interesting part of the story.  So far, both the prosecutor and Michelle’s attorney are coming across as being one-note characters.  That may be a reflection of reality because real-life lawyers are rarely as interesting as their television counterparts but that still doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

What does make for compelling viewing is the show’s suggestion that this was all because of Glee.  Michelle’s obsession with Finn and Rachel, in particular, seems to have been her main motivation for pursuing a relationship with Coco in the first place.  And, of course, Finn died when his actor died so perhaps Coco had to die as well.  (On the bright side, at least Michelle wasn’t obsessed with Puck and Quinn.)  While the rest of the world is trying to understand why Coco killed himself and why Michelle apparently ordered him to get back in the truck, Michelle is imagining herself in an episode of Glee.  As I mentioned earlier, the Can’t Fight This Feeling scene was probably the episode’s highlight, if just because it revealed how fragile Michelle’s concept of reality truly was.

If the fourth episode of The Dropout was where that show justified its existence, the fourth episode of The Girl From Plainville feels like it has more in common with the fourth episode of Pam & Tommy.  The Girl From Plainville works as a showcase for Elle Fanning and, occasionally, Colton Ryan but the show itself still hasn’t quite convinced me that it needs to exist.

TV Review: The Girl From Plainville Episodes 1-3 (dir by Lisa Cholodenko and Zetna Fuentes)

With The Dropout scheduled to air its final episode next week, Hulu is moving on to another 8-hour miniseries about another young blonde woman who was at the center of a media firestorm.  The Girl From Plainville stars Elle Fannie as Michelle Carter, a teenager who was convicted of more or less goading her “boyfriend,” Conrad Roy (played by Colton Ryan, who was one of the few good things about Dear Evan Hansen) into killing himself.

It was a case that got a lot of attention and Michelle was, for a few months, everyone’s favorite heartless villain.  She was eventually convicted of manslaughter and, after several appeals, was eventually sentenced to 15 months in prison.  She served 11 and is currently free.  She’s 25 years old and has already experienced not only prison but also being briefly the most hated person in the country.  And yet, for all the attention that she received, no one has ever been able to determine just why exactly she told Conrad Roy that he should kill himself or why she went as far as to order him to do so, even after he said he had changed his mind.  There was a lot of speculation that Conrad perhaps thought that he and Michelle had a suicide pact, one that Michelle didn’t follow through on.  It’s also undeniable that, after Conrad’s suicide, Michelle made herself the center of attention.  Before her final text messages to Conrad were discovered, Michelle organized a charity softball game in his memory.  Of course, she held the game in her hometown instead of Conrad’s and apparently, she went out of her way not to involve any of Conrad’s friends or family in her efforts.  Could Michelle have pressured Conrad to kill himself just so she could use his death to be the center of everyone’s attention?

The first three episodes of The Girl From Plainville dropped on Hulu earlier this week and they certainly suggest that Michelle could be capable of doing it all for the attention.  At the same time, they also suggest that Michelle herself probably didn’t truly understand what she did or why she did it.  As played by Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan, both Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy come across as two people who didn’t have much of a connection with reality.  Conrad, or Coco as his friends and family call him, wants to escape a home life that is dominated by the constant bickering between his divorced parents.  He’s at his happiest when he gets a summer job working on a fishing boat and he’s miserable when he has to return to the “real” world, where he’s anxious around people his own age and he’s constantly being used as a pawn in his mother and father’s never ending battles.  Meanwhile, Michelle is so detached that she has to watch an episode of Glee in order to come up with something to say after Conrad’s suicide.  Conrad’s family is earthy, loud, and working class while Michelle’s family is reserved and wealthy but both families have raised children who feel like permanent outsiders.  Indeed, it seems almost preordained that they would eventually find each other and both Colton Ryan and Elle Fanning do a good job of bringing Conrad and Michelle to life.

That said, as I watched the first three episodes of The Girl from Plainville, I did find myself wondering if there was anything more to say about this case.  After the endless news coverage, one Lifetime movie, one HBO special, and countless “ripped from the headlines” episodes of Law & Order: SVU, are there any new insights left to be gleaned from the story of Michelle and Conrad?  With a story this terrible, one’s natural tendency is to search for a deeper meaning but is there really one there?  What if, for all the speculation, Michelle really was just a heartless monster who manipulated Conrad into suicide because she knew she could?  In short, is there enough here to really justify spending 8 hours with someone like Michelle Carter?

I guess we’ll find out over the upcoming few weeks.

TV Review: The Dropout 1.7 “Heroes” (dir by Erica Watson)

This week’s episode of The Dropout was the most emotionally satisfying yet.

Seriously, after six episodes of Elizabeth and Sunny walking over their employees, lying to their investors, and basically getting away with all of it, it was deeply satisfying to watch everything start to unravel in episode 7.  Not only did Elizabeth and Sunny fail to kill the Wall Street Journal story about their fraud but, for once, their heavy-handed attempts at suppression made the situation worse for them.  Tyler Schultz refused to sign the new NDA.  Even if George Schultz is still too stubborn to admit that he was wrong about Elizabeth, he at least seems to suspect that he’s been played.  Even David Boies seems to be at the end of his limit as far as defending Theranos is concerned.  Perhaps that explains why he didn’t seem to be too upset when one of his associates made a very basic mistake that gave John Carreyou (well-played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) the information he needed to keep his WSJ story alive.  Perhaps most satisfying of all was the scene where Phyllis Gardner finally got a chance to tell Elizabeth off to her face.  It was a stand up and cheer moment in a miniseries that, up until this point, has portrayed the world as being a very dark place.

This week’s episode also deserves a lot of credit for the perfect use of David Bowie’ “Heroes” over the opening montage.  Even when the proverbial walls closing on her and Sunny, Elizabeth still convinced a lot of people that she was a hero, a college dropout who has somehow managed to revolutionize the way that blood is tested.  To be honest, it was always too good to be true but, for many years, Elizabeth Holmes pulled it off.  Not only did she present herself as being a hero but she allowed her investors to feel that they were also heroes for supporting her.  As the song says, “We can be heroes …. if just for one day.”

This episode of features several clip of Elizabeth Holmes being fawned over by the members of the political and media establishment.  Cleverly, the show digitally inserted Amanda Seyfried into actual footage of Holmes being interviewed and praised by old men like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Charlie Rose.  As the miniseries has made clear, Elizabeth Holmes’s biggest boosters were all older men.  Women easily saw through her but men like George Schultz, Ian Gibbons, and others took on an almost fatherly role with her.  When Tyler asked George if he secretly wished that Elizabeth was related to him instead of Tyler, George didn’t answer.  He didn’t have to.

On one final note, I do hope that this episode will be viewed by the people responsible for Inventing Anna because this episode’s portrayal of journalism and a working newsroom feels exciting authentic in a way that Inventing Anna doesn’t.  Unlike the neurotic and needy characters at the center of Inventing Anna, John Carreyou gets the story through his own hard work and he fights for the story because he knows that it’s true.  LisaGay Hamilton’s performance as Carreyou’s editor was one of the highlights of the episode and her scenes with both Moss-Bachrach and Kurtwood Smith were fun to watch.  They left the viewer wanting to know more about the character.  Indeed, one of the things that The Dropout does so well is that it creates the impression that everyone on the show is worthy of their own miniseries.  I would happily watch a show about Carreyou and his editor.

The Dropout finishes up next week as Elizabeth and Sunny finally face the consequences of their own bad actions.  I can’t wait!

TV Review: The Dropout 1.5 “Flower of Life” (dir by Francesca Gregorini)

Who was Elizabeth Holmes?

Was she an idealist who got in over her head and ended up cutting corners with the best of intentions?

Was she a con artist who simply lied for the money?

Was she the abused and manipulated partner in a crime that masterminded by Sunny Balwani?

Or was she a sociopath who was simply incapable of feeling any empathy for the people that she manipulated and, in some cases, destroyed?

That’s the question that’s been at the heart of the first five episodes of The Dropout.  It’s also a question that the show’s version of Elizabeth Holmes (played, brilliantly, by Amanda Seyfried) is struggling with.  One gets the feeling that she herself doesn’t full understand what’s going on inside of her head.  For the first half of the episode 5, Holmes is an almost sympathetic character.  Still desperate for Sunny’s approval and seemingly convinced that Theranos can come up with some magic spell that will actually make the Edison work, Elizabeth comes across as being more self-delusional than malicious.  For the first half of the episode, it’s like we’re watching the socially awkward but earnest Elizabeth who we first met at the beginning of the series.  At her uncle’s funeral, she asks her mother if she ever had any hobbies when she was younger and her mom can only list several competitive activities that Elizabeth took part in.  But, as becomes clear, Elizabeth never did anything just for fun or just for enjoyment.  Instead, everything the she’s always done has been a part of an obsessive need to not only prove her own abilities but to also prove that she’s superior to other people.

Perhaps this strange mix of a grandiose self-image and gnawing insecurity is why she simply cannot bring herself to settle the lawsuit that’s been brought against her by Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy).  Instead, with the help of her newest mentor, George Shultz (Sam Waterston), Elizabeth brings in David Boies (Kurtwood Smith).  Boies is one of the leading lawyers in the United States.  Before getting involved with Theranos, Boies tried to put Al Gore in the White House.  After his involvement with Theranos, Boies tried to keep Harvey Weinstein out of jail.  Boies failed on both accounts but he was far more successful when it came to battling Fuisz’s lawsuit.  One of the key scenes in the episode comes when Schultz mentions that he and Boies are on different sides politically but that they’re willing to come together to protect Theranos.  It doesn’t matter that Schultz is a Republican and Boies is a Democrat.  What matters is that they’re both a member of the elite and Theranos, with its prestigious board of directors, is now a part of the elite as well.  Richard Fuisz, with his terrible haircut and his excitable manner, is far too gauche to be allowed to defeat Theranos.

Indeed, Elizabeth spends most of this episode worrying about the lawsuit and also what might happen if Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) is called to testify.  Gibbons’s name is on all of Theranos’s patents, along with Elizabeth’s.  Gibbons is perhaps the one person who can testify that Elizabeth had nothing to do with designing any of Theranos’s equipment.  When we first see Theranos’s legal team pressuring Ian to sign a statement saying that, as an alcoholic, he can’t testify, we’re left to wonder whether the team is working at the direction of Sunny, Boies, or Elizabeth.  When Ian points out that signing such a statement will end his career, no one seems to care.  Ian Gibbons goes home, plays with his dogs, listens to his favorite opera, says goodnight to his wife, and then kills himself.

Elizabeth’s reaction to Ian’s death tells us all we need to know about her and it pretty much erases whatever sympathy we may have had for her.  She’s a bit like a robot, trying to generate the “right” emotions but not quite sure the proper way to do it.  When told that Ian is dead and that the lawsuit is apparently dead as well, Elizabeth focuses on the finger puppets that she wants to stock in the Theranos Wellness Centers.  The puppets are for children to wear after getting their finger pricked but they’re also a part of Elizabeth’s fantasy world, a world where Theranos will be fine and she’ll be as famous and beloved as Steve Jobs.  And if that means that the Edison had to be built with technology with Sunny stole from another company, so be it.

The episode ends with Brendan (Bashir Salahuddin) quitting the company and George Schultz’s nephew, Tyler (Dylan Minnette), starting his first day.  Using her fake voice, Elizabeth gives a speech to her cult-like employees.  She talks about her uncle’s death and how it effected her and we know that it’s all a lie but Elizabeth sells it.  The only disconcerting note comes from Sunny, who can’t stop himself from casually threatening to fire anyone who doesn’t share Elizabeth’s version.  They’re a team.  Elizabeth knows how to sell Theranos.  Sunny knows how to terrify anyone who asks too many questions.

This was the first episode of the series to not be directed by Michael Showalter.  Instead, it was directed by Francesca Gregorini and there are a few scenes where you really do miss Showalter’s ability to balance the absurd with the dramatic.  That said, this episode worked due to the performances of not only Seyfriend and Naveen Andrews but also William H. Macy, Kurtwood Smith, and especially Stephen Fry.  Fry especially broke my heart, even though I knew enough about the real story of Theranos that I already knew that Gibbons was going to take his own life.  Still, Fry plays the role with such a wounded dignity that you are left with no doubt that Gibbons was the last of the true believers.  He gave his life for Theranos and, in the end, Theranos gave him nothing in return.

The episode ends with Richard calling Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), who was last seen telling a very young Elizabeth that there was no way to make the idea behind Theranos a reality.  Phyllis tells Richard that Elizabeth is a fraud.  And I have to admit that, as a viewer who had just spent 50 minutes with Elizabeth Holes and Sunny Balwani and David Boies, it was nice to hear someone come straight out and say it.

Next week, Tyler Schultz starts working at Theranos and he discovers that everything is not as it seems!  It’s the beginning of the end for Theranos and I’m looking forward to watching it all come down.

TV Review: The Dropout 1.4 “Old White Men” (dir by Michael Showalter)

If the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Dropout occasionally seemed as if they might be a bit too sympathetic to Elizabeth Holmes (played, brilliantly so far, by Amanda Seyfried), the fourth episode presented us with Elizabeth in full supervillian mode.

Gone was the socially awkward but well-meaning Elizabeth.  Now speaking with her trademark deep voice, wearing her black turtlenecks, and possessing the wide-eyed stare of someone who rarely blinks, Elizabeth spent the fourth episode conning Walgreens into investing in her worthless blood testing machine.  When she wasn’t manipulating the Walgreens execs, she was coldly firing poor Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) and only bringing him back after the rest of the lab team threatened to quit in protest.  Of course, it wasn’t Elizabeth who placed the call to Ian and asked him to return.  It was Sunny (Naveen Andrews) and, when Ian returned, he was taken out of the lab and given a desk job.

Yes, it quickly became obvious that Theranos had changed a lot since the previous episode.  Security was everywhere, befitting a company that claimed to have come up with revolutionary technology.  People in different departments were not allowed to talk to each other.  The earnest and free-wheeling atmosphere had been replaced by a slick but curiously impersonal office.  Even the quote from Yoda now felt out of place.  Yoda would have been fired for asking too many questions.

Of course, the majority of the episode dealt with Elizabeth and Sunny’s attempts to sell their “wellness center” concept to Walgreens.  It was an obvious con but the Walgreens execs eventually fell for it.  One of them, Jay Rosen (Alan Ruck), fell victim to Elizabeth’s flattery and a belief that Elizabeth represented the future.  (In a rather endearing scene, Jay compared Elizabeth to a Katy Perry song.)  Another exec, Wade Miquelon (Josh Pais), initially understood that Theranos’s claims were too good to be true but, ultimately, he set aside his concerns when it appeared that Theranos might make a profitable deal with CVS instead.  Only Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer) was able to see through Theranos and, ultimately, his concerns were ignored.  Ruck, Pais, and Sommer were all wonderfully cast and they all did a good job of showing how Elizabeth, Sunny, and Theranos were able to con so many people who should have known better.  By the end of the episode, Elizabeth has tricked former Secretary of State George Shultz (Sam Waterston, radiating gravitas as only he can) into joining the Board of Directors.  While the Walgreens corporate leaders performed an endearingly dorky version of What I Like About You, Kevin Hunter curiously looked at the Edison blood testing machine and Elizabeth coldly looked at him.

After being so disappointed with both Inventing Anna and Pam & Tommy, I resolved to be a little bit more cautious when it comes to overpraising the early episodes of The Dropout.  And I do think you could probably make the argument that devoting an entire episode to Walgreens is an example of how a miniseries will occasionally drag a story out and will devote an entire episode to something that could have been handled with just one five-to-ten minute scene.  But, when you’ve got a cast this good and writing this sharp, it almost doesn’t matter.  Director Michael Showalter did a wonderful job of balancing the cringey humor of the Walgreens plotline with the more emotional moments in which Ian Gibbons dealt with his frustrations over the direction in which Sunny and Elizabeth took Theranos.  Even if you don’t already know the details about what ultimately happened to Ian Gibbons, Stephen Fry’s performance will still break you heart.  Fry plays Gibbons as a man who, despite advancing age and poor health, refuses to surrender his idealism.  That makes him a good scientist but also the perfect victim for Elizabeth and Sunny’s syle of manipulation.

Old White Men was a well-done episode, perhaps one of the best that I’ve seen so far this year.  I look forward to seeing where the show takes us next week.

TV Review: The Dropout Episodes 1, 2, and 3 (dir by Michael Showalter)

On Thursday, I binged the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Dropout.

The Dropout is Hulu’s miniseries about the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes (played by Amanda Seyfried), the enigmatic Stanford dropout who founded Theranos and became a billionaire before she turned 30. She promised that Theranos would revolutionize both the way that blood was tested and the world of health care in general. She was known for black turtlenecks, her deep (and possibly fake) voice, and her habit of not blinking. Of course, as common sense should have made obvious to just about anyone, it turned out that Elizabeth Holmes was lying about the blood testing machinery that her company was marketing. She and her business partner and former lover, Sunny Balwani (played, in The Dropout, by Lost‘s Naveen Andrews) were eventually charged with defrauding their investors. At trial, Holmes argues that her intentions were good and that she was trapped in an abusive relationship with Balwani. While Balwani’s trial is scheduled to being later this month, Elizabeth had already been convicted and currently await sentencing. Theranos, of course, no longer exists.

After the first three episodes, I would say that I’m cautiously optimistic. Seyfried and Andrews seem to be perfectly cast as Elizabeth and Sunny and the story itself is an interesting one. The miniseries format seems like a good one for director Michael Showalter’s trademark mix of dark comedy and drama. Much as with Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, there were a few moments that felt a bit too cartoonish, most of which involved William H. Macy as Elizabeth’s former neighbor and eventual business rival but, for the most part, the first three episodes managed to establish and maintain a consistent tone. Before she lowers her voice and dons her black turtleneck, Elizabeth comes across as being socially awkward but likable. It’s only towards the end of the 3rd episode that we really start to see her as being the villainous figure that she eventually began. The first 3 episodes are like an origin story.

Of course, the fact that it took 3 hours to tell her origin story is one reason why I’m cautious in my optimism. Streaming services are currently full of miniseries that all take stories that should be interesting but then drag them out to such a length that it’s hard not to eventually lose interest. (If you need an example of what I’m talking about, go check out Netflix’s Inventing Anna.) The Dropout‘s first three episodes were well-done but it’s still hard not to feel that the story told in those three hours could have just as easily been told in 20 minutes, without denying the viewer anything that they needed to know to understand Elizabeth and Sunny. There are five more episodes to go. Can the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos remain interesting for 8 hours? I’m hopeful but I’m not totally sure.

With all that in mind, I’m recommending The Dropout, on the basis of the first three episodes. But remember …. I was originally pretty enthusiastic about Pam & Tommy as well.

Film Review: No Exit (dir by Damien Power)

After she learns that her mother is in the hospital and possibly on the verge of death, Darby (Hannah Rose Liu) breaks out of drug rehab, steals a car, and starts driving to Salt Lake City.  However, what Darby doesn’t know is that she’s also driving straight into a blizzard.  Soon, Darby is forced to take shelter at a nearby state park visitors center.

Darby isn’t the only person seeking shelter that night.  There’s a married couple, Ed (Dennis Haysbert) and Sandi (Dale Dickey).  Ed is a veteran of the Marine Corp while Sandi is a nurse.  There’s Ash (Danny Ramirez), who has the friendliest smile to ever be seen in the middle of a blizzard.  And then there’s Lars (David Rysdahl), who is distinguished by his long hair and his nervous mannerisms.  When Darby first enters the visitors center, Lars is curled up in a corner and loudly snoring.

And then there’s Jay (Mila Harris).  Jay is a child who happens to be bound and gagged in one of the vehicles parked outside.  When Darby discovers her, she has to not only save the child’s life but also figure out which one of the people in the visitors center is responsible for kidnapping her.

Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, No Exit is full of twists and turns.  I’ll do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum in this review.  Not all of the film’s twists work, of course.  There’s a few moments that, in hindsight, didn’t exactly make sense.  After watching the film, you could spend hours debating why certain characters did the things that they did, assuming that you were so inclined and that you could actually find anyone else willing to sit through your analysis.  However, the film itself is so quickly paced and well-directed that it doesn’t matter that the story itself is occasionally a bit implausible.  From the minute Darcy breaks out of that rehab, the film captures the viewer’s attention and it doesn’t let go until the final credits start to roll up the screen.  This is an entertaining B-movie, one that makes good use of its isolated location and its talented cast.  Havana Rose Liu especially deserves a lot of credit for her sympathetic lead performance as Darby.  Darby is a cynic and a survivor but she still has enough humanity inside of her to risk her life for a stranger.

The film looks great, with its scenes of cars driving through the raging snow storm and the film’s cast gathered in the somewhat tacky visitors center.  All of the snow falling reminded me of i’m thinking of ending things and I have to admit that a part of me kept expecting there to be some sort of a metaphysical twist towards the end of the film.  I found myself wondering if the visitors center would be revealed to be Hell, which wasn’t a totally outlandish idea when one considers that the film shares the same name as Sartre’s famous play.  But no, No Exit is a thriller that deals with concerns that are very much earthbound.  It’s an well-executed thriller and an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.  It can currently be viewed on Hulu.

TV Review: Pam & Tommy 1.5 “Uncle Jim & Aunt Susie in Duluth” (dir by Gwyneth Horder-Payton)

This week’s episode of Pam & Tommy was a definite improvement on last week’s, largely because it didn’t feature Seth Rogen wandering around with a “poor me” expression on his face.  Last week, far too much time was devoted to Rogen’s sad sack portrayal of Reed Gauthier, who the show insists on trying to make a sympathetic character even though he was essentially just a thief who tried to make a lot of money by stealing and then selling someone else’s private sex tape.

Reed was nowhere to be found in this week’s episode.  Instead, the narrative focused on how Pam and Tommy’s sex tape became a national story.  Not surprisingly, it all turned out to be Tommy Lee’s fault.  When the show opens, Jay Leno won’t make jokes about the sex tape because it’s not something that Uncle Jim and Aunt Susie in Duluth have heard about.  The LA Times won’t run a story on it because the editor says that it’s not real news.  With Pam preparing for the opening of Barb Wire and Tommy working on his new album (and very much aware that his label no longer views him or the band as being a top priority), it appears that there’s a chance that Pam and Tommy can ride this out.

But then Bob Guccione the publisher of Penthouse, gets his hands on the tape and Tommy and a bunch of lawyers decide to file a lawsuit to keep him for publishing stills.  Pam has her doubts but Tommy and the lawyers do what they want.  Guccione responds by saying that he had a first amendment right to publish pictures from the sex tape.  The L.A. Times discovers, from the court filings, that the sex tape was stolen from Pam and Tommy and that it’s being sold without their permission.  With the story going national, Jay Leno realizes that Duluth now know all about it.  On top of all that, Pam learns how to use a search engine!

It was a busy episode.  And, in contrast to the nearly hour-long episodes that proceeded it, it was only 32 minutes long.  A half hour is the perfect amount of time to spend with Pam & Tommy.  Spending more than half an hour with them means dealing with the fact that Tommy’s a moron and Pam really does seem to think that she’s going to win an Oscar for Barb Wire.  Spending just 30 minute with them means that both characters get a chance to present their cases without wearing out their welcome.  Sebastian Stan and Lily James both gave good performances in this week’s episode, with Stan portraying Tommy as being a manchild who is in deep denial about the fact that the 80s are over while Lily James captured Pam’s need to try to keep everyone happy.  It’s Pam who instinctively knows the right way to deal with Guccione but she’s ignored by Tommy and his team of lawyers.  As Pam’s publicist puts it, women are taught from an early age to always say yes and to agree with men, even when they know that the men doesn’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

That said, Pam & Tommy is still definitely a flawed vehicle.  For every moment that works, there’s a moment or a line of dialogue that just tries too hard.  Particularly in the scenes with Jay Leno, Pam & Tommy felt like it was one Nathan Lane cameo away from turning into a Ryan Murphy production.  Five episodes in and the main problem remains that Pam & Tommy continues to struggle to convince the audience that it’s telling a story that needs to be stretched out of over 8 episodes.  If ever a true story was meant to a 90-minute TBS production, this is it.