The Monday (or Tuesday) Morning HBO Quarterback: Week 1

It’s been a long week since the dramatic Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale. Not only does this part of the year usually indicate a lull in quality television, but with the NBA Finals over and the NFL not starting until September, the next couple months usually force us to.. (gulp) spend time with our families and wait for the last two majors for tennis and golf. How traumatic!

Luckily, HBO is eager to capitalize on your viewing vacancy with 3 “new” shows on Sunday nights. Normally, I wouldn’t tune in to that many premieres in one night, but with HBOs advertisements on Youtube, New York busses, the MTA, and half the public bathrooms in the city, I seem to have been convinced otherwise. If you, like me, are easily seduced by advertising, you’ll start your night at 9 with the second season of “Once in a generation” anthology series True Detective, and wash down that grit and depression with Dwayne Johnson’s “Ballers”, or as it’s otherwise known, “Entourage for Athletes”, and the Jack Black/Tim Robbins Veep-style political comedy, The Brink, which follows two diplomats, a fighter pilot, and a driver as they navigate around the potential end of the world via global nuclear holocaust. I didn’t get on the HBO train early enough (skipped the 3rd GOT Season, just caught up to Silicon Valley 2 weeks ago, still haven’t watched the 1st TrueD season), but you can bet that I will be playing right into their strategy by watching their 2 hour Sunday night block (which is followed by the always great Last Week Tonight) with rapt attention. To make myself feel a little bit better about filling my Game of Thrones/SV Void with Jack Black and Vince Vaughn, I’ll be writing a recap/roundup of the night’s festivities every week. So welcome, reader, to the HBO Monday (Or Tuesday, depending on the volume of things I have to say/other things I have to do) Morning Quarterback. We’ll go in order

true-detective-season-2-teaser-screencap_1280.0.0

True Detective:

Notably Starring: Collin Farrell, Vince Vaugh, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams

Like I said earlier, I haven’t actually seen the critically acclaimed first season of True Detective. Normally, I would hesitate to pick up a show mid-run, but in this case, I actually think it’s for the best. True Detective’s first season has been heralded to be so great that almost nothing can compare to it, so watching TwoDetective (clever, right?) within that lens can only serve to detract from the beauty of Nicholas Pizzolato’s new writing.

And what a bit of writing it is. If you thought Game of Thrones was bleak and depressing, you’re in for a shock. Collin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro is so dark he’ll make Jon Snow’s first 4 seasons seem like a vacation, and even Rachel McAdams sheds her trademark fluffy charm and endearing smile for an uncharacteristically feisty, hard-drinking cop who looks perpetually pissed off.

To make a long story short, Collin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, and Rachel McAdams all have problems. Their families are fucked up, they have trouble in the bedroom, and they don’t know how to smile (even while getting a blowjob from a very eager girlfriend). It matters less what brings them, along with Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymons, together (the death of a corrupt and sexually deviant city manager, found by Kitsch on a suicidal late night bike ride, that happens to do business with Vaughn), and more about what makes them terribly scarred people (figuratively and literally). The show has a clear love affair with the LA-Noir cop story, complete with alcoholic antiheros.

Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.

The thing is though, that Pizalloto has taken anti-hero to a whole new level. The hook of a good anti-hero is that he/she is someone you want to root for. The closest thing to a lovable character so far is either Vince Vaughn’s charming criminal or Rachel McAdam’s beautiful loner with an estranged family. Though Vaughn seems the least comfortable with the confines of his role, the character shows promise. Vaughn as an illegitimate businessman is not a stretch, and his inherent likability shines through alongside the charm of the character. It’s the violent streak and anger that comes off a little forced. I, like everyone my age, am a big fan of Vaughn’s early-aughts work (Wedding Crashers, Old School, etc). I’m rooting big time for him to shine in this role. As Frank Seymons tries to go legit, hopefully he’ll also become better at making Pizalloto’s oft-heavy dialogue more intriguing, as Matthew McConaughey was lauded for doing. He may be a crook, but he’s a talented crook with a seemingly good heart, and that’s worth something.

Colin Farrell, meanwhile, is a revelation in his role. Andy Greenwald wrote a few years ago that Farrell had historically been miscast as a hero in the 2000s, and that he was more suited to life as a character actor. He characterizes the off kilter, anger-ridden, bad/dirty cop with ablomb, and this first episode showcases his ability impressively. You come into the episode expecting to root for Velcero struggling against the backdrop of corruption in Vinci, which is personified by Vaughn’s Seymons. What you don’t expect is for our cop, whose sympathetic backstory involves a wife who was raped while potentially pregnant (casting doubt on the parentage of his fat, redheaded son), to be a violent and downright unlikable drunk that is always teetering on the brink of destruction. Though it turns out to be Farrell working for Vaugn’s criminal, it’s Farrell’s Ray Velcero that  would strike fear into the heart of you in real life. Farrell has the unique talent of being able to encapsulate this insanity in just his eyes, and his acting this season will surely continue to impress as the drama builds. He is capable of love; his defensiveness of his son and subtle kinship Ray and Vaughn display near the end of the episode are the only moments on positive human connection he displays, but provide room (and hope) for more in the coming weeks.

From what small bits I’ve seen of True Detective Season 1, it provides a lot of high flying philosophy that will only truly work at the height of the Mconnaisance. This season is not only down to earth, but it’s buried in the gravely, dusty wasteland of industrial California. I expect this season, and it’s characters, to be consistently rough as it is intriguing. When viewed in a vacuum, separated from it’s predecessor, TwoDetective doesn’t so much shine as it does punch you in the gut, and force you to watch Ray’s trainwreck of a life as it conveniently connects with Kitch’s PTSD/ED ridden Paul Woodruff and McAdams sexually adventurous(?) Antigone. Pizollato, from all accounts, is taking the show even more under his control this year, and it certainly plays as a show for a crime-fiction writer. This is an anthology, and things have (based on early reviews I’ve read) clearly changed. This is angry, brooding Collin Farrell, not super-serious pretty boy and believable spaceman McConaughey. As Ray tells his son via old-school recorder, “Astronaut’s don’t even go to the moon anymore”. Now they do dirty work like the rest of us, ski mask and all.

ballers

Ballers:

Notably Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rob Corddry, John David “Yes I’m Denzel’s Son” Washington

We’ve all become well aware through the media’s constant reminders by way of salary cap speculation, out of control parties, and frightening club incidents that athletes in their prime have the means to live a life of luxury. We’re also all cognizant of the horror stories that come with young, poor, and naive men becoming multi-millionaires overnight – out of control spending, money mismanagement, misplaced trust, and trying to support the whole neighborhood that couldn’t make it on its own. Ballers may, based on its cast and trailer, look like an ode to the opulent lifestyle of the rich and famous. In reality though, it’s the story of men whose livelihood is based on their bodies struggling to deal with the reality that one day, their incomprehensible athleticism will run out, and everyone that wanted a piece will leave them high and dry. Led by the walking advertisement for charisma, Dwayne Johnson, Ballers provides an entertaining and surprisingly poignant view into the vices and pitfalls of professional athletes. Johnson is Spencer Strasmore, a former Miami Dolphins DE turned money manager… except he doesn’t have any money to manage. Spencer is charming, handsome, considerate, extremely caring, well meaning, and trusting to a fault. In short, he’s everything we’ve come to expect from a Dwayne Johnson character. Following the accidental death of a former Miami teammate at the hands of his mistress, Spencer’s boss (played by the always excellent Rob Corddry) tells him that it’s time to “monetize his friends”. This happens with extreme reluctance, only after Spencer’s former agent reminds Spencer that he should his manage his friends money, for both of their sakes. It is revealed Spencer lost 800k to bad advice, and that he’s not the only one who needs to work for a living at this point. He spends the episode playing responsible parent to a group of reckless young players, the most prominent of whom is “troubled” slot receiver Ricky, whose antics (hooking up in a club bathroom and fighting a douchebag overly-preppy kid who insults his departed friend) get him cut from the Packers. Dule Hill (The West Wing, Psych) makes a nice surprise appearance as a Miami scout with ties to Spencer, and the episode smoothly sails home. Spencer finishes the episode by lending 300,000 dollars he doesn’t have to a rookie that ran through his 12 million dollar contract by way of an entourage that has gotten too large for him to recognize all the people in it. He needs clients, and he has faith in his friends. But as we see in the episode’s last scene, when Spencer is, brutally, too overdrawn to pay for movie tickets on a date, it’s possible that faith will get him nowhere.

Ballers is by no means flawless. The lack of female characters who have roles beyond eye candy is one glaring issue, and most of the characters are just played out sports tropes (the notable exception to these being the character of Charles Greane, a former O-Lineman turned Chevy Salesman and his doctor wife, both of whom are characterized by their heart and decency). A lot of the jokes don’t stick, as they come off more sad than funny. But what does work works because of the strong acting. The writing will smooth out, and the source material is vast as it is topical, especially in the wake of this year’s many NFL scandals. And even if the writing only gets marginally better, I’ll probably continue to watch, because in the end this show rides on The Rock’s size 80 shoulders. Spencer may be forced to chew painkillers to counteract his playing-day injuries, but it’s 2015, and I’m certainly not going to bet against the star power of Dwayne Johnson. Just check out this monologue that is certainly going on his Emmy submission reel1. Dude’s just not going to drop the ball.

The Brink

the-brink-hbo

Notably Starring: Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Aasif Mandvi

By far the least put together of the 3 HBO premieres, Brink opens with a good, wholesome, Asian prostitute bondage scene courtesy of Tim Robbin’s sexually obsessed Secretary of State, Walter Larson. Though his breath smells like a fire hazard from his deviant exploits, Mr. Secretary’s trist is interrupted by his assistant, who insists he goes to the situation room to deal with a situation in Pakistan. Across the world, caught in the firestorm, is Alex Talbot, a low level member of the US Embassy played by Jack Black. As a coup de état engulfs the country, Talbot is escorted the family house of his driver, despite the fact that “they just started dating”. Though the jokes in these two stories are juvenile, Black and Robbins have the American asshole bit down pat already, and once we move past the pilot I’m sure the show will be able to mine some great jokes at their expense. What is more unclear, especially through the first 20 minutes of this episode, is the role of the random fighter pilot that sells anti-sleep drugs on an aircraft carrier and knocks up other members of the crew. He seems to hold no purpose for the first part of this episode, even as he asks “Who the fuck are we bombing?”

By the end of the episode, however, the whole thing begins to come together. That is, until it doesn’t. We end with 2 related cliffhangers. First, after a semi-heroic fax of the crazy Pakistani General’s medical records to the White House, the Army comes knock-knock-knocking on our Pakistani host family’s door, causing Black to quip, “You wouldn’t happen to have an attic?”. Simultaneously, those records incentivize the President to authorize a military strike against Walter’s wishes, led by, you guessed it, our pill popping fighter pilot Zeke Tilson. As Zeke is given the honor of talking to the President, he realizes that they’ve mixed up the pills, leaving us still-near-the-back of our seats in ambivalent anticipation.

As much as I hate to say it, so far The Brink doesn’t work very well. The jokes are average, the racism not outlandish enough to be funny, and the performances not nearly farcical enough to distance you from the actual incompetence of our modern day politician.Jack Black does Jack Black things, but they’re not quite compelling… yet. The conceit is there, though, and the brightest spot by far is Tim Robbins, who shines as the irresponsible, yet effective, prick of a Secretary of State. I’m going to continue to watch, if only because I trust HBO and scoring a hit with a comedy pilot is near impossible. The siblings Benabib better show us something soon though, otherwise their fictional world won’t be the only thing on “The Brink” of destruction.

——

1. Let me tell you how it went down for the golden boy. I had this vision of my retirement day: standing up at the podium, microphone in front of me, coach on one side, the owner on the other, family and friends around. You know how it really went down? I was sitting up in my goddamn living room just staring at my cell phone, waiting for that call to come in from the owner, the GM. I would’ve taken a call from the fucking trainer. “Thank you, Spence. Appreciate it, Spence. Good luck, Spence.” You know when that call finally came? Never … You better wise the fuck up, because you’ve got one contract left. And when it’s done, you’re gonna be out here on the streets with the rest of us. You keep fucking up like this, you keep acting like a little kid, when it’s done and you’re done, you’re gonna be broke and miserable. And you know what the worse part about it is? Nobody will give a fuck about you.”.

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