A quick collection of things that I’m finding fascinating, frustrating and fun on TV this past week.
Better Call Mike
It’s no secret that I didn’t like the last episode of Breaking Bad, in fact, I wrote about it here shortly after it aired. I was wary of the prospect of a prequel spin-off, especially a spin-off that featured a character that I didn’t particularly care about as the lead. I watched the first few episodes of Better Call Saul with passing interest, emphasis on passing.
Because of this I’m way behind on Better Call Saul and, to be completely honest, when I watch it I’m most likely doing something else at the same time, so it took me a while to get to the best episode of the series thus far, “Five-O”. “Five-O” is the back story of Mike Erhmantraut, the beleaguered assassin whose moral focal point throughout Breaking Bad was his granddaughter, Kaylee. Mike was a fan-favourite on the show but I never paid him a ton of interest. Until this episode. “Five-O” follows Mike, a former cop in the Philadelphia police force, as he attempts to solve the case (and Mike’s way of “solving” amounts to one thing: violence) of the death of his son, also a cop. The episode works within the season arc but it works just as well as a stand-alone episode and even a mini-movie. “Five-O” is full of moody noir and crime-story clichés but what elevates it is the breathtaking acting of Jonathan Banks, playing Mike with this sad, seething anger – all squinty, watery eyes, and the way that it smartly divides from following Saul/Jimmy almost completely. The episode makes it known that the universe of Better Call Saul is expanding and that there is more going on than just Jimmy’s lawyerly exploits. Immediately the show feels different, more grounded, more soulful, more Mike.
The Best Little Whorehouse in France
A spinoff that I would love to see is the exploits of madame Greer from Reign running a brothel and hanging out with her whore girlfriends. Yes. This is an actual story arc this season. And I contend, if decidedly not the best, is at least the most fun.
There is little reason that this story should work. This season, the show has been about the rise in power of both Queen Mary and King Francis. Characters who are still teenagers put in a position of power where they are forced to make choices beyond their years. And it has also been about how that power is corruptible both because of what it can make a powerful person do to others and also what others want to do to that powerful person. Mary’s rape was handled about as deftly as you’d imagine from a show where a character was brutally murdered in one episode and promptly forgotten about the next (read: not). But, the show races through plots and romances and politics so quickly that breathing room is hard to come by.
Mary, Lola and Kenna (and, to a lesser extent, the used-to-be-tons-of-fun and rather quickly forgotten, Princess Claude) have basically been given the same thing this season: a handsome young man who throws a wrench in their respective love lives and lives in general. What has become clearer, though, through the episodes this season is that the remaining three women are all in a state of imprisonment in the castle. Mary, has fallen out of love with King Francis and has fallen in love with Conde. Mary has been faced with the decision of whether or not to take Conde back to Scotland with her (but she CAN’T just up and leave France! Can she?) – so, Mary’s choices are slim; Kenna, who pretty much gets seduced by every guy that walks by, gets manipulated by Conde’s brother, Antoine, and because of this (maybe? I don’t know exactly for sure and I’m not sure if the show knows either) her formerly loving marriage to Bash has dissolved. Kenna gets to cry a lot (which Caitlin Stacey is really good at) but not much else and Bash tells her that their relationship is over but that they should remain married so that she can use his good name to keep herself safe. Kenna has always wanted more (meaning more money and stature) – so she’s stuck. Lola, who had Francis’ child and perhaps what will be his only heir, is living at the castle and has to ward off Narcisse’s advancements and lies and then is pursued by Francis himself. Lola is seemingly the only one in the group who doesn’t seem to have grander designs at the moment. Lola’s been stuck for a while and doesn’t seem to want or need to get out.
And then we get to Greer who, after her husband-of-convenience was sentenced to a life in prison (!) for being a Protestant (!), has fallen on hard times. She was essentially banished from a life of nobility and amazing dresses by Mary and is holed up in what I think is a boarding house/rooming house/hotel without any money or a hairbrush. Greer accidentally, because of her connections to the upper class, becomes a pimp. And, yes, I know that even for a show that at one time had a young, sexy Nostradamus walking the halls at the castle spouting premonitions like they were going out of style and the long-thought-dead daughter of Queen Catherine living in the walls with a bag over her face and murdering lovely young things, this sounds utterly ridiculous. And it is. But it works. And here’s why: Greer is allowed, finally, to have agency over her own life and it only took banishment to get her there. Greer is stuck and then, by happenstance, not stuck in a way that is so light and airy compared to the slog that the other women are dealing with.
And, please, don’t get me wrong, this storyline glosses over any of the brutal realities of working at a whorehouse, being a prostitute, etc. etc. In fact, everyone looks like they are mostly having a pretty good time and making their own business and sexual decisions. I’m sure that a being a prostitute in France in the 1500’s was not a bed of roses or a cup of tea or a tiptoe through the tulips. What works is that Greer gets to do something, gets to BE something, other than a set of lips for boys to kiss (even if part of her new job is facilitating that very thing) and that’s a big boon for the ladies of Reign. Greer acknowledges this and embraces this and says it out loud.
Now if they could just get rid of that pesky Leith.
Speaking of women taking charge of their own lives, the most recent episode of Girls, “Home Birth”, was the best and funniest of the season, a truly fitting end for season 4. After a season full of failure and flailing, every one of the Girls gals (and some of the guys) picks up their bootstraps and moves forward with a kind of confidence that we haven’t seen from them before. Hannah finds Adam’s sister, Caroline (Gaby Hoffman), moaning, naked in a bathtub attempting to give birth at home, acting as her own doula. Hannah calls Adam to help and then Jessa. The attempted home birth forces the characters to set down their own bullshit for a minute and deal with something that is actually vitally important – and they all rise up to the challenge. I like the bullshit on Girls – that’s part of who these characters are and part of the reason that the show is funny – but after four seasons of it, it’s nice to see it dissipate a bit. Hannah takes charge with Adam, Marnie takes control of her music, Shoshanna and Jessa take charge of their careers. There are standout scenes galore in this episode but Ray’s honest and biting tear down of the truly awful Desi ranks as one of the funniest and most satisfying in the shows run.
The Weirdest Show on Network Television
The Last Man on Earth on Fox is about a guy who thinks he’s the only human left on the planet. The show stars a bunch of wonderful and hilarious people: Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, January Jones and Mel Rodriguez. Will Forte plays one of the most loathsome lead characters on TV and it’s a testament to his acting ability and appeal that the show doesn’t suffer for his ickiness.
Kroll Show, RIP
Kroll Show ended this past week and I’ll remember it fondly for its precise and pitch-perfect mockery of all things television. But I’ll also be reminded of it every time I watch Survivor this season as contestant and all around douchenozzle, Rodney, is basically Bobby Bottleservice. When I googled the comparison I found, delightfully, I’m not the first person to think this:
CBS won’t let me watch or post clips because I’m in Canada so just pretend that this clip from Kroll Show takes place on a beach in San Juan del Sur: