Fall global series review: From Black radicalism to British royals in space
The Wonder Years

At this point most serious serial TV has moved online where there is no traditional “Fall TV Season,” that being a thing of the past, a relic of, what did your parents used to call it? oh yeah, network TV, that quirky period of television history, which is actually still the majority of television history, when three behemoths strode across the TV landscape forever locked in a death grip with each other that mostly yielded copies of whatever was the latest hit on the other channel. Yet another nail was driven into the coffin of what was still free television, as opposed to boutique pay subscriber streaming television, at this year’s Emmys when for the first time Netflix outdueled even pay cable TV favorite HBO by a margin of 44 to 19, a score that would be labeled a rout on a football field.

In addition, the streamers, supposedly free of network TV restrictions, have initiated what amounts to their own fall subscription drive with each attempting to outdo the other in big special event series that also brand the company. There is Apple TV+’s celebration of the wonder of technology within a declining empire in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi-classic Foundation, the conservative company Comcast’s Peacock with a reactionary “War on Terror” overlay on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and Amazon with a fourth and last season of David E. Kelly’s Goliath, which rightfully and insightfully attacks the greed and murderousness of drug companies while also nicely tilting the spotlight away from Jeff Bezos and Amazon. All however fail to match the splendor of the remake of a network TV sitcom The Wonder Years on the terrestrial channel ABC (owned by Disney and part of its “diverse” family strategy), this time with a Black family and set in the revolutionary period of 1968.

It’s hard to overestimate the contribution this remake of the popular series, which began in the late 1980s and also was set in the ’60s, makes to a deepening and politicization of the standard sitcom. Don Cheadle’s voiceover narration begins the episode as we watch the 12-year-old Dean Williams pedaling home in a middle-class post-segregationist Black neighborhood recounting “the talk,” not about sex, as might be the topic of the original series about a would-be white writer, but about how to behave in a Black boy’s first encounter with the police. The somewhat nerdy Dean, à la Everybody Hates Chris, is positioned in typical Malcolm in the Middle sitcom mode between an athlete older brother and a beautiful popular debutante sister, feeling he will never live up to either. However, the twist here is that he is also positioned between them politically with his absent brother away in Vietnam and his sister becoming radicalized, with a photo dropping out of her high school textbook showing her with a gun in a Patti Hearst pose and choosing, after a momentous event which rocks the family, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice over her SAT prep manual.

Also emphasized is that “post-segregationist” America is no less racist. A wonderfully telling scene has Dean with his Black and Jewish friends at the school water cooler, which a white girl and boy then avoid. In a nod to female emancipation, Black-style, Dean is about to try to rescue his “crush,” the girl he adores, from an aggressive male bully, when she instead grabs the bully around the neck and makes him cry uncle. The one stutter step in what is a near perfect 21-minute script by sit-com veteran Saladin K. Patterson has, in the final moment, Dean expressing anger, not at the further disenfranchisement and futility of a political assassination, but at seeing his crush with another boy. The sequence is scored to the 5th Dimension’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and it is hoped the show will continue to integrate its social agenda with the typical coming-of-age story in a way that makes this series a new take on the old sitcom formula, surpassing the original and aided and abetted by the superb direction of the ’80s Wonder Years child actor Fred Savage.

Sticking it to the corporations

Goliath

There is a lot of moralizing about the conscience-free viciousness of drug companies such as Purdue Pharma, perpetrator of the opioid crisis, in season four and the final season of Amazon’s Goliath—all warranted, but perhaps also by comparison shining a better light on less murderous worker gaugers such as the show’s parent company which this week was revealed has carried its overexploitation of its employees into Amazon’s space division as well. Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary final season that does a superb job of wrapping up this series about a self-destructive, alcoholic lawyer named Billy (Billy Bob Thornton in one of his greatest roles) who also happens to be a brilliant legal mind and who enjoys sticking it to corporations. The series does not focus on the effects of what amounts to oxycontin peddling on an unwitting population, though a lead lawyer’s daughter has died from becoming addicted, but rather on an underreported aspect of the crisis: the way lawyers on both sides collude to fix a settlement price that amounts to mere peanuts for the companies involved and, in that way, prevents the most damning aspects of company policy from ever emerging in court.

Because there is so little government regulation—a main point that emerges is that the companies do their own drug testing which federal regulators then approve—corporations more than ever fear a jury trial where they will be dragged before the public. Billy, the recalcitrant lawyer, is appalled that over the last decades the amount of civil suits that have gone to court where companies must face the public, has declined from 20 to 2 percent. Settlement and not airing the companies’ dirty linen are clearly the priorities.

There is an initial whistleblower who describes what is now common knowledge, the way the drug companies championed sales to doctors, including a lavish musical production number extolling the drug’s pain killing virtues. But again, this is public knowledge and well covered, especially so in Alex Gibney’s two-part series Crime of the Century, part one focusing on drug company creation of oxycontin, and part two on the creation of its even more dangerous cousin fentanyl. What is unique here is the show’s late reveal that the company knew all along about the addictive quality, and rather than run from it embraced that aspect of the drug to further its profits, in much the same way as the tobacco industry, where the “smoking gun” was that the industry knew all along about the harmful and addictive aspects of cigarettes and cultivated those qualities.

The series was created by David E. Kelly, known for his stunning courtroom surprises, and the finale, under the capable hands of showrunner Lawrence Trilling, does not disappoint, with Billy off the case and a stunning summary by a surprise witness sinking the Purdue Pharma and Sackler stand-in company, Zax. The latter’s CEO shyster, enacted by J.K. Simmons, plays for his evil off his best-known television role as the erstwhile spokesman for Farmers Insurance, a meta casting that impugns and compounds both real and fictional companies. Billy says of Zax, in his most damning indictment of the drug companies as a whole, “He’s not in the pain relief business, he’s in the addiction business.” The show also makes cinematic use of San Francisco, with its foggy, shadowy menacing exteriors where everyone is monitored, and its long-take corporate interiors in lavish camerawork that is the lush opposite of disjointed life on the streets. It references Rear Window, Chinatown, and directly quotes, in Billy’s fantasy, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma while also being an acting compendium with Billy Bob Thornton facing off in a multitude of scenes with his acting mentor Bruce Dern.

A reverse Abu Ghraib

Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, pensive, bored or boring? In ‘The Lost Symbol’

Peacock’s splashy fall entry is an adaptation of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol which does contain the Dan Brown-required trap doors, hieroglyphic imprints, and shadowy cult villains, in this case, the Masons. These old reliables work well enough. The problems are twofold: First, Comcast’s overlay of the now outmoded, if ever relevant, “War on Terror” on these shenanigans. The series opens with a reverse Abu Ghraib, with Muslims beating an American prisoner in a Turkish jail, casting a pall over the series which is never quite dissipated and which feels like an extraneous, conservative sheen on the plot. Brown’s plots, as in the Da Vinci code, do sometimes engage Christian symbology as false, with that novel’s reveal about the true nature of Jesus and Magdalene’s relationship, and that critique here is overshadowed by the show’s anti-Arab overtones. The second problem is the actor Ashley Zuckerman, playing Young Robert Langdon (he’s no Young Sherlock Holmes), in a decision to turn back the clock. Brown is famous for his papier-mâché characters who are simply ciphers who decode one symbol and then rush to the next with the breathless pace carrying the story. Even so, this Langdon is extraordinary lifeless, affectless, boring, without a trace of humor. At least Tom Hanks in the two films had a kind of smarmy Everyman morality that you could either love or hate (hated it!), but here the writers completely abandon their job of fleshing out this lifeless Harvard quasi-archeologist character who in contrast makes Indiana Jones seem like Hamlet (or in the latest iteration Lear).

Algorithms reign supreme

Royals in Space and a third-rate Loki in Foundation

The least successful and the silliest of the major fall series is Apple TV+’s Foundation, based on the Isaac Asimov trilogy, about a future world where numbers, i.e., algorithms, reign supreme. The empire has become a kind of cloned DuPont dynasty, inbred, self-perpetuating, decaying and under attack not by actual rebels who want to overthrow the imperial reign but by mathematicians who predict the empire will collapse in five centuries (not much of a prediction!) and then move to try to preserve it and “civilization” against the self-destructive urges of its incestuously cloned leaders.

What better advertisement for Apple, a Silicon Valley company par excellence, which presents itself as outflanking government in both managing the future and preserving the integrity of its users. The rebel girl from a planet that resembles Africa chants “86,983,791,” which flattens out into boring numerology Rent’s “525,600 minutes” in “Seasons of Love.” The phony British empire overlay—this is The Crown meets Star Trek, or Royals in Space—is heavy-handed with the ultimate imperial villain, called “Empire,” scene-chewing as a kind of third-rate Loki.

Yuck

A word about The Crown: “Yuck.” The success of this Emmy darling and British and U.S. fetish, with two actresses winning successively for playing various stages of the life of Queen Elizabeth, can probably best be explained as Elizabeth’s “grace under fire,” meaning her “bearing up” under the fall of the British empire as the American empire is itself in the process of crashing—and as both sides of the Atlantic lionize an institution whose sell-by date has long since expired and which owns half the land in the United Kingdom while working-class tenancies deteriorate and homelessness abounds and with its American royal equivalent being Bill Gates who now owns half of the country’s farmland.

The series does retain some of Asimov’s reverence for science, but often the special effects are gimmicky and less than meets the eye. As the young “African” Gaal Dornick descends to the imperial planet of Trantor, she looks out the window and says, “This is incredible.” We then see what she sees, which is a kind of standard CGI and miniature floating city not much improved technically over Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. She is then told as she descends that “This part is great,” and again the effects don’t match the verbal buildup. We should be naturally gasping from the visual splendor not repeatedly having to be told, or ordered, to marvel at it. It all adds up to a sort of 2001, A Space Odyssey: The Podcast. Finally, a 9/11-type terrorist attack on the empire with towers collapsing does not have the effect of, say, the pilot of Battlestar Galactica with everyone having to flee the planet. Again, the main problem here is the ambivalence about preserving what amounts to a fascist empire, the same empire Apple is both building and helping to undercut as it moves itself to outflank all forms of government as it defines “civilization” not as culture but as algorithms.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.

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