Spotlight on TV: The Newsroom

The Newsroom

You mean to tell me you’re not watching The Newsroom yet? After two brilliant seasons and only one more to go this fall, there’s never been a better time to binge-watch all 19 glorious episodes.

I, too, was once like you. I’d heard about it and put it on “the list,” but I kept putting it off and making excuses. I’d get to it eventually. It took my dear friend Shannon buying me the first season in order for me (and my roommate soon after) to fall down the rabbit hole. I have since made it my responsibility to spread the good word and insist that my friends watch the series. And you know what, even when people have mixed feelings, I’m still encouraged. Mixed feelings are good: they lead to conversation and analysis and heated debate.

So. One of my favorite things to do is make lists, and I would like to make one for you here (don’t worry, there are no spoilers):

Reasons to Watch The Newsroom

1) The Writing

Let’s be serious; Aaron Sorkin is the main reason to watch this show. Known for his whip-smart characters, quick dialogue, and walk-and-talks, Sorkin continues to bring it episode after episode. Sure, he can be sentimental from time to time which is not everyone’s bag, but I’m all for it. Random link alert: check out his great cameo on 30 Rock.

2) The Quick Wit and Sense of Humor

The dialogue is sometimes so fast that you have to rewind to catch all the jokes packed into a one-minute scene. The combination of witty and intelligent humor never fails to amaze me.

3) Real News Stories

The primary premise of The Newsroom is that there is a fictional news channel called ACN, and we get a behind-the-scenes look at how they go about reporting the news. But what’s fascinating is that it’s real news from the not-so-distant past. An episode will focus on a major event from 2011 for example, but we get to see how this station would have reported the story to America. It’s a news channel attempting to focus on the truth rather than the ratings and then witnessing the consequences of that choice. The first season is packed with exciting reveals of which event is being reported.

4) Emily Mortimer

If you’ve talked to me about this show, you already know that I’m on a huge Emily Mortimer kick. I’ve always known about her, but I didn’t know she could shine like this. I so badly want to link to her scenes from the show, but I’m too afraid of spoilers. And it’s actually probably not as enjoyable unless you get to know these characters from the start. Emily’s work as MacKenzie McHale is exquisite and incredibly nuanced, and I cannot stop watching her. Or dressing up as her for Halloween.

5) The Structure

The show jumps around in time, particularly in the second season, and it keeps you on your toes and forces you to pay close attention. Many fans complained about the second season saying they didn’t like the change in format. What can I say? I loved it. I love that Sorkin switched it up and tried something new.

6) Musical Theatre References

Nuff said.

7) Jeff Daniels

There’s a reason this guy won an Emmy this year. His performance as Will McAvoy is fantastic, subtle, hilarious, and all things at once. I love that he can play this role with such conviction and also do this.

8) The Characters

The character development on this show is delicious. The people we get to know are 3-dimensional and brilliant. They’re extremely smart and simultaneously deeply flawed. I’ll take character-driven storytelling any day.

9) The Soundtrack

There are some great tunes and throw-backs to look out for.

10) The Opening Credits

Speaking of the tunes, let’s hear it for Thomas Newman and the great Season 1 opening theme.

11) The Entire Cast

Yes, I highlighted Emily and Jeff above, but I honestly could do that with any of the actors on the show. The main ensemble includes Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston, and Olivia Munn. And then you get recurring folks like Jane Fonda and Chris Messina (swoon) or guest stars like Marcia Gay Harden and Hamish Linklater. You as an audience member are in excellent hands all around.

So go – watch the first 8 minutes on YouTube, find someone with an HBO GO account, and give it a try. And remember my rule: you have to watch four episodes to give any show a fair chance. Okay, you have my blessing. Enjoy.

Six by Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Early in December, a documentary called Six by Sondheim aired on HBO about the life and career of Stephen Sondheim. I watched it the other week thanks to my friend’s HBO GO login information. You know who you are. Thaaaanks!

What’s cool about this documentary is that most of it is made up of interviews with Sondheim himself. He’s never shied away from speaking to the media so the filmmakers were able to collect interviews spanning his career. These interviews are then presented through the framework of six Sondheim songs, the six songs that arguably best encapsulate his career. Within this structure, we move through his writing history as he shares anecdotes, stories about Oscar Hammerstein, what inspires him, his working habits, and from where these six songs stem. The songs are also performed throughout the documentary: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Being Alive” from Company, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.

Sondheim says some pretty wonderful things about composing, acting, and art as a whole. Several of the numbers are presented as mini-performances within the documentary, produced and performed by Broadway folks. A few felt a little over-produced in my opinion. The songs that were most effective were the ones with footage of the original companies (West Side Story, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George). For example, “Being Alive” from Company was a video of the very first Bobby, played by Dean Jones, in the studio recording the cast album. Now I know this song very, very well and have listened to it hundreds of times, but I sat there on my couch and just started crying. I love that a song can affect me in such a way even after all these years of listening to it.

So for the Sondheim fans out there, I do recommend a viewing. On second thought, even if you’re not a fan (seriously, what’s that about?), maybe this will be a good way for you to learn more about where he’s coming from with his writing. If anything, you’ll get a fascinating inside look at the man himself.

Six by Sondheim
Directed by James Lapine
Aired on HBO on December 9, 2013

The Sound of Music Live!

The Sound of Music Live!

Amidst my Christmas holiday week of movie watching (American Hustle, Casablanca, City Island, and Frozen a second time), I managed to find the time to finally sit down and view The Sound of Music Live! I have since been debating whether or not to post about it. I feel like everyone and their mother have already put their two cents in, particularly in the theatre community, and it was quite the mix of feelings. It seemed like this musical broadcast became either a personal affront to viewers or a personal accomplishment. There was a lot of hate and a lot of preaching back to that hate. My Facebook news feed blew up the way it does when there’s a big football game on, and I end up having no idea what anyone’s status means. But I figure things have died down a bit, and I suppose it can’t hurt to throw a couple more pennies into the mix, right?

Let’s start with the good, shall we? There was some lovely singing, smooth camera work, and solid nun talent. Vampire Bill – I mean, Stephen Moyer? He did a pretty decent job! That kid playing Kurt? Great. He was in it. Audra? Clearly. Do we even need to talk about her? Everyone already knows she’s a goddess. It was a pleasure to have real theatre folks involved like Christian Borle as Max. There’s an extra comfort level in watching stage actors do what they do best, especially those who already have TV experience.

But let’s be serious, I’m mostly writing this review so I can brag about Laura Benanti. I love her, love her, love her, and I’m so glad people are finally starting to take notice of her abilities. I was never drawn to Elsa growing up. I didn’t understand the character, but now she’s clear to me. Laura brings a naturalism to the role, to live filming, to song, to everything. And thank god we had her for some laughs.

Of course there were weak links, but I honestly don’t want to dig into them too much. I don’t know what was up with the costumes. Some of the kids were hard to watch. The mountain set was awkward, although the scene changes were smooth and well done.

Listen, I know you’re all waiting for me to rip into Carrie, but I don’t really want to do that. The critics have been cruel enough. I’ll just say this: I feel bad that she and the people who represent her thought this was a good idea. She’s talented and clearly can sing, but she is simply not an actress. This doesn’t make her untalented; it just makes her not an actress. There isn’t an acting instinct in her bones. I was frankly very uncomfortable watching her speak any dialogue. I also feel bad that they yanked all of the “Southerness” out of her. This at least gives her character and flavor. True, Maria shouldn’t be a Southern belle, but without it, she came across as vanilla and bland. I understand that Carrie was cast to draw in viewers. Hopefully next time they’ll find a name that can better carry a show.

All that said I’m thrilled they took on this endeavor. It’s a wonderful chance for people who don’t live in a big theatre city to get to see a musical on screen. To this day, musicals still don’t get a lot of respect. People consider them merely fluffy or lame; they’re all flash and spectacle and couldn’t possibly affect audiences the way plays can. The fact that NBC is going to do another live musical due to the ratings The Sound of Music got is fantastic as far as I’m concerned. Folks associating musical theatre with high ratings?  I don’t know about you, but as a musical theatre fan through and through, I’ll take that any day.

The Sound of Music Live!
Directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller
Aired live on NBC on December 5, 2013
Photo Credit: Will Hart
Pictured: Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti

Spotlight on TV: Orphan Black

Orphan Black
I’m cheating! I’m straying from the Broadway world to talk about television! Gasp!

It’s true though, I can’t help myself: I watch a lot of television. I learn just as much from good TV as I do from live theatre nowadays. We are in a day and age of some excellent TV right now. Ten years ago people talked about movies: “What have you seen? What should I go see? What’s not to be missed?” But now? We talk TV. Catching up with a friend? I guarantee you’ll cover your new show obsession, whether it’s Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Veep, The Good Wife, Louie, Parks and Recreation. I could keep listing. The options out there are endless…as is my To-Watch list. It’s getting longer by the second, and I can’t keep up.

What often happens is I find out about another show and get distracted from what I’m already in the middle of. At the moment, I’m particularly fond of easy binge shows (aka fewer episodes in a season), because then I know I can catch up faster. This brings me to Orphan Black.

(Forgive me if you’ve already heard this spiel from me before when this was the only thing I was talking about a few months ago.)

I found out about Orphan Black on tumblr of all places. I saw a video of a woman winning the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series over Claire Danes. Now, I haven’t watched Homeland (I know, I know, it’s on my list), but Claire wins everything. I know that much. So for this new chick to win and to see the folks in the audience looking around in surprise, I knew this was something I wanted to pay attention to.

Orphan Black is on BBC America. Season 1 aired last spring (10 episodes), and I don’t know if a show has ever gotten so much buzz months after its season finale. Unfortunately there was not enough buzz to get Tatiana Maslany the Emmy nod she deserved, but she did just get a Golden Globe nomination a couple weeks ago!

This series is a weird mix of drama, sci-fi, dark comedy, and action. What you really need to know though is that it’s about clones. I want to share more, but I think it’s more exciting to find out about the twists and plot developments as you watch. Not into the sci-fi genre? That’s okay. The reason to watch the show is Tatiana Maslany. She plays the protagonist, Sarah Manning, and you know, some clones. What’s brilliant is that each clone is a completely new and nuanced character. Maslany absolutely transforms. Sure it helps with different hair and clothing, but even with the external stuff aside, she fully becomes the other clones. Maslany shifts her physicality, energy, accent, and even where her voice sits in her register. It’s mesmerizing to watch. And I’m not lying when I say there have been multiple occasions when I have looked at the credits trying to see who played a certain clone.

I know everyone is swamped with life and all that, but if you find yourself snowed in or hibernating some random weekend this winter, I recommend a good ol’ fashioned Orphan Black binge, and then together we can freak out during Season 2 (premiering April 19th).