TV This Week: Watching Billions, Better Things, The Case Against Adnan Syed, Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst, This is Us

The Case Against Adnan Syed (HBO)♦♦♦

This 4 episode documentary just finished airing on HBO.  For anyone who listened to Sarah Koenig’s brilliant 2014 “Serial” podcast which covered the same case, it is impossible not to make a comparison. The question of whether Adnan Syed was given a fair trial in his conviction for murdering his ex-girl friend, Hae Min Lee twenty years ago became very murky after the podcast and remain so after the documentary.  So, if you listened to the podcast, should you still watch the documentary? If you don’t have HBO, don’t bother – you can read the analysis of the documentary to get the salient details.  If you do have a subscription, there are some new and updated facts that are in the documentary that have nothing to do with cell phone towers.  You will also get more insights into the victim and her family as well as those  fighting for a new trial for Syed.

Included in the new information were several revelations in the final episode.   New DNA tests show that Syed’s DNA is nowhere to be found on the samples taken from Lee’s body and car.  In addition, questions were newly raised about the lack of Adnan’s fingerprints, the autopsy results and the location of the car.  Adnan did not agree to a plea deal last fall and the day the documentary aired, he was refused a new trial on an appeal by the State.  What this documentary does, as does the podcast, is raise questions about how this case was prosecuted and Syed’s innocence.  There are no definitive answers but it is clear, from both of these series that there should be a new trial.  If you were a fan of “Serial” and are an HBO subscriber, the series is worth checking out as it takes us to the present day and continues the story.

Better Things (FX S3) ♦♦♦♦

Better Things is back for Season 3.  This “Dramedy” almost collapsed under the co-creater Louis C K’s firing between Season 1 and 2 due to his sexual misconduct accusations  He was also the co-writer which left his partner, Pamela Adlon (also the star of the show) in a difficult situation in terms of how to continue on without such an important influence.  She got through Season 2 and this season while heavy, is also very strong.  In the end, Better Things is about family, aging, mother daughter relationships, and just how someone gets through every day with all the pressures of working and life.

Adlon plays Sam, a single mother of three and daughter of a woman who may be struggling with the early stages of dementia and lives next door.  Sam’s oldest daughter is dropped off at college in the first episode of Season 3, only to drop out and be back by Episode 3.  Her middle daughter appears to have some sexual identity issues along with a difficult relationship with her younger sister.  The youngest wants to be treated like the oldest and all of this happens while Sam, an aging actress, has to fight for roles that are going to younger, prettier women.  In addition, there are the other elements of aging that factor into the day by day struggle to get by.

Life for Sam continually  gets crazier and seemingly heading toward a disaster when just in time something happens that brings this family together in a loving and often very funny series of events.  Sam is an unconventional yet loving mother and you know that even though her life is a constant battle with brinksmanship, somehow things will be ok. In the meantime, there are a lot of very funny lines and situations we can all relate to!

Jane the Virgin (CW) ♦♦♦♦♦

Jane is back for her final season and I’m so going to miss this little ray of sunshine in my life each and every week.  If you haven’t ever seen this “Telenovela” run, don’t walk to Neflix to watch the first few seasons as you won’t find another show on TV with as much heart and soul as this one.  If you are unfamiliar with the Telenovela format (and I certainly was) it is like a soap opera on steroids with totally absurd events mixed with rich characters full of heart and Jane has this in spades.

Jane returns this season having to deal with her dead husband’s return to the life just as she is about to marry her long -term off and on again love who is also her baby daddy.  This is nothing compared to all the other crazy things that initially started with Jane (a virgin) being accidentally impregnated at her annual gynecological exam.  We have been promised that we’ll learn the identity of the narrator telling Jane’s story by the last show although I am pretty sure I know who it is.  This individual is such an integral part of the show and knows the innermost thoughts and emotions of all the main characters and breathes life into them.   In the meantime, I will savor each and every one of these final few episodes.

This is Us (NBC) ♦♦♦

This is Us finished up its third season this week with a twist (of course) that sends us well into the future of the Pearson clan.  I’m not sure why I’m still watching this show which consistently pulls at your emotions through the use of various gimmicks.  I’m so tired of Randall and Beth fighting (I”m totally with you on this one Deja!); I’m tired of Kevin’s substance abuse, I’m tired of nothing good happening to any of these people although in last night’s finale, one happy thing did occur and it was incredulous that it did.  It was just ridiculous and I’m sure it will be controversial as it minimizes a life and death situation that many people experience.   I won’t go into any more detail in case you haven’t seen it.

As I said, I’m not really sure why I still watch this and I may not return to it next season.  It may be just that I didn’t have anything else to watch on Tuesday nights as I continually leave Network TV behind.

Billions (Showtime) ♦♦♦ 1/2

Another show that seems to be running its course with me is Billions.  I thought the first two seasons were absolutely brilliant as Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby (Damien Lewis) played a complex and riveting cat and mouse game.  4 seasons in, however, this, like so many other Showtime series as slowed down.  Once Bobby and and Chuck made up in Season 3,  much of the tension went away.  The introduction last year of Asia Kate Dillion, TV’s first gender non-conforming lead character,  has helped provide a fresh storyline that has held my interest.  In general, though, there are so many sub- plots that are complex and if you don’t pay attention, you could miss something important – or not.  I’ll finish up this season and make a determination as to whether I go forward with it – if it goes forward.

A Fond Farewell to You’re the Worst (FX)

It ended the only way it could have (Spoiler Alert)  without a wedding.  Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) make up perhaps the most dysfunctional couple on TV and we have spent the entire fifth and final season hurtling toward a wedding between the two of them which seems doomed to disaster.  Helping us prepare for that outcome are a number of flash forwards which not only suggest that Jimmy and Gretchen are not together but that their lives have taken a very dark turn.  Thankfully, the writers of the show left us in a good place with this couple and have given us as sweet of an ending as is possible while remaining true to the characters.  How could any of us ask for more of a finale?  I loved the ending and will miss this show.

 

 

 

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TV: Three Big Finales – The Leftovers, The Americans and Billions.

Series Finales:

 

The Leftovers (HBO)

The Leftovers ended it three season run with a moving and yes, satisfying ending universally heralded by critics as a masterful conclusion to a brilliant final season.  This makes me happy for Damon Lindeloft who was the major force behind the show as he was with “Lost”.  The man who I think is perhaps the best TV creator out there deserved a big win after years of controversy about the Lost finale and he got it.  The Leftovers evolved into perhaps the best TV show of this century and Lindeloft gets much of the credit.

This last season has been a roller coaster ride with Tasmanian sex boat, A sex crazed lion, a machine that can take humans into another dimension, death and resurrection, and parallel universes but in the end, it was a simple love story that prevailed.  As Lindeloft said at the beginning of the series, we will never know why 2% of the world disappeared one fine day – just that they did.  The story is not about them but those that were left behind and how they grappled with the loss while trying to put their lives back together.  The finale focused on one love story, that of Kevin and Nora, and what they had to do to be able to be together.  It also wrapped up several other storylines in a creative way via a short dialogue between Nora and Kevin about what had happened to the people in their lives in the intervening years that they were apart.

Now for the acting.  Carrie Coon is fantastic in this finale “The Book of Nora”.  Her eyes tell it all.  They should win an Emmy by themselves. Her scene with Christopher Eccleston (who also was great in this final season) as her brother Matt just as she is about to “leave this world” is gut wrenching.  Her final scenes with Kevin, played equally brilliantly by Justin Theroux, are some of the finest I have seen in years.  These actors should all win every award out there although I have scant hope that they will.

Every television critic in America has weighed in on the Leftover’s finale today and much more eloquently than I can hope to do so I won’t go into any more detail on it.  In addition, there are numerous interviews with Damon Lindeloft out there to further enhance the understanding and appreciation of this series and the finale.  I’ll just conclude with this.  If you haven’t seen the Leftovers, this summer would be a great time to watch it end to end.  You need to understand that the first season is dark and depressing.  It closely follows the Tom Perrotta book and is a tough slog but necessary to understand the depths of grief created by the departure of 2% of the world’s population.  The critics and audiences bailed from the show in droves after the first season but the critics at least returned when the second and third seasons stormed back in a massive way with creative and less depressing plotlines.  The writers could do this because they were freed from the constraints of the book having finished that story in Season one.  I am going to miss the Leftovers.  It has been a great ride and I can’t wait for Damon Lindeloft’s next series.

Season Finales:

The Americans (FX)

As readers of the blog know, the Americans has been my favorite show for several years (although the Leftovers surpassed it this year for me).  Next season is its last and so in this penultimate season we have been slowly winding down the story of the Jennings.  When I say slowly, I mean slowly and too slowly.  This was not my favorite season.  The show moved between two major story lines; Oleg’s in Russia and the Jennings in America. I didn’t care about what was happening in Russia except for my pure joy at seeing Martha again but the rest wasn’t compelling and took away from the story that I wanted to spend time with.  The new cases for the Jennings, that of the wheat shortage and the Evgheniya/Pasha/Tuan plot did not interest me in the slightest leaving just the plotline of the Jennings struggle with their way of life as the storyline that kept me coming back.

Then there were the teaser side stories.  The writers got me excited about Philip’s son Misha coming to America to find his father only to send him home before a meeting occurs.  Will Misha ever meet his father? Is Stan’s girlfriend a spy (I think so) and if so, who does she work for?  Will we ever know?  Why are we spending so much time on Henry and boarding school?  These plot twists remained unresolved and frustrating for many viewers.  I can only hope that some of them pay off in the final season.

The most compelling development, that of Philip and Elizabeth’s increasing disillusionment with their jobs, sets us up for next season with a twist in the finale.  The Jennings were set to return to Russia when one of Philip’s targets becomes head of a key Soviet department in the US government causing Elizabeth to say that they could not go back as long as they had access to this individual.  Philip clearly cannot continue at the same level he has been operating at and is crushed.  So, we are now 10 episodes from the series finale and I have no idea how it will end other than Stan must find out that his bestie neighbors are Russian spies.  It is difficult for me to believe that the Jennings are going to drag their children to Russia but I guess that could be an option.  I can only hope that the fast-paced spy stories of previous seasons will be part of the final journey.

Although this season of the Americans was one of its weakest, it was still better than 95% of the shows out there.  It is hard for me to contemplate what my TV world will be like with the Leftovers, the Americans and Game of Thrones all coming to an end.  I don’t see any great replacements lining up.

Billions (Showtime)

I finally got through all my remaining episodes of Season 2 of Billions and it was well worth it.  Billions might be the only Showtime series that improved in its second season.  The testosterone battle between Chuck and Axe is not enough to sustain me through an entire season and it took the introduction of Taylor, played by a Gender Non-Binary individual both in real-life and as a character to add depth and complexity to life at Axe Capital.  Maybe a show about a bunch of rich white guys making millions at the expense of everyday investors is appealing to the Wall Street crowd but it doesn’t keep me engaged and the addition of Taylor was great.  Not only was the introduction of this character historical in terms of TV but also to the environment of all the high-end investment firms filled with Ivy-League educated white guys.  Having a brilliant non-binary character trying to find their way in this environment added a lot to the story-line this season.

Another improvement was that the female characters of Lara and Wendy were given more to work with in Season 2.  Although I might quibble with the act that finally drove Lara to question her marriage and start looking out for her own self-interest, she did do just that.  We are reminded of the bad-ass that was initially introduced to us early in Season 1 but who had faded into a more subservient wife role since that time.  Wendy’s motives are less obvious and her character is certainly evolving and I wonder just how the whole Dominatrix thing will play out in the war between the alpha males.  We did get a potentially strong third female character at the end of the season with Mary Louise Parker’s George and I hope she’ll be back as a major force next season.  I think we are going to have to rely on these three women to be the most interesting as those in the Federal prosecutor’s department leave me cold.

I’m not sure how long I can watch this battle of deplorable males continue but during the few moments when Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti are in the same room speaking to each other, it is television at its finest.  This season’s second to last episode with the Ice Juice play was amazing and perhaps the best episode of TV I have seen all season up until the Leftover’s finale.   I’ll be back for the next season of Billions but I hope Showtime and the Billion’s show runners have a plan to wrap it up without dragging it out well beyond its expiration date.  The overall plotline seems to me somewhat limited and as the two lead characters become more disgusting with each episode, it is hard to imagine where the viewer will find charters that keep them involved with the show.