Some thoughts on”Succession”

By Caitlin Kelly

Start with the bizarre, crashing theme music by Nicholas Britell, for which he won the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Main Title theme. Insistent, discordant, it signals the emotional chaos to follow.

If you haven’t yet seen it — now that Season Two has ended — it’s worth your time. We’ve watched both seasons twice. It follows the fortunes of the Roy family, led by 80-year-old patriarch Logan Roy, whose favorite phrase, growled, is “Fuckoff!”

He has four children by two previous wives: Connor, the oldest, who lives in New Mexico on a ranch and does nothing, and Kendall, Siobhan (nicknamed Shiv, and how it fits!) and Roman, who jostle hourly for their father’s favor and power within his global media company.

Other characters include Geri, the company lawyer and Marcia, the mysterious Lebanese stepmother and Greg, gangly and gormless…or is he?

Here’s an interview with the costume designer.

You don’t have to be a journalist (like me) or come from a father who delights in manipulation (ditto) to enjoy the show. It also offers a peek into the fly-private, driven-everywhere, never-touch-money lifestyle of the .00001 percent, where Shiv, dismissively referring to a six-figure sum says: “It’s only money.”

The four adult children are a mess: Kendall’s a cokehead; Shiv’s marriage to Tom is a sham; Connor wants to be President and Roman…who knows? But their competitive in-fighting for Logan’s approval is both sad and understandable…they have no other measures of value. None of them have children or, apparently, any friends. Papa means everything.

It’s both fascinating and sad to see spoiled, wealthy adults so deeply tethered to their father and his every move. Hmmmm, sound familiar?

They have no other identities, no other sources of joy, power or connection. Every surface gleams, all sweaters are cashmere, all meals served on costly china.

It’s also an interesting look at the challenges of managing a global business empire and the secrets that can destroy it.

Check it out!

Some (belated) thoughts on Fleabag

By Caitlin Kelly

I hope by now you’ve heard of this show, and seen it…a two-season television series created by and starring 33-year-old Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who this year won the Emmy for Best Comedy, Best Comedy Actress and Best Writing.

The show’s first season — deeply British — probably turned off a lot of viewers: her character, whose only name is Fleabag, is sex-obsessed, sarcastic, guarded and has behaved really badly at times. She’s mourning the recent deaths of her mother (breast cancer) and best friend and London fellow cafe-owner (traffic accident.)

She’s not perky and likeable. You want to shake her by the shoulders as much as give her a hug.

But the second season, which I recently binged, is much less comedy and so often the smartest and deepest look I’ve ever seen at what we want when we think we want sex — and we crave something much deeper and more lasting.

And so much more elusive.

And, of course, she wants it from….a Catholic priest.

It’s really difficult, if you have a certain kind of family of origin and a certain kind of sexual history — OK, mine — to watch Fleabag and her out-sized and inchoate yearnings and not feel deeply seen.

Her sister Claire is spiky and angry and married to a really awful American. Her father is  unable to share emotions or show Fleabag how much he loves her, instead forever kowtowing to his new wife-to-be, who is (the amazing Olivia Colman, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Actress in The Favourite) an even more awful person, simpering and selfish and passive-aggressive.

This brought back wayyyyyyyy too many memories for me of how my father (equally allergic to feelings and discussion of same) always makes sure the women in his life take precedence. Fleabag seems to have no pals and her sister is too often freaking out over something to be a reliably loving presence.

Fleabag also bounces off men (literally) like a pinball, until she meets the hot priest. I’ll save you the spoilers, but suffice to say he’s the only character finally able to challenge her and puncture her flip, glib defenses.

I also recently saw the original one-woman show that was the initial idea for all of this and it is astonishing, with lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone.

She is a bloody genius.

 

Have you seen it?

 

Thoughts?

What does it take to do good journalism?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

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Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

No laughing matter

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Want to write for one of these? Good luck, kids!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Hey, what’s more fun than punching down?

Apparently, nothing, thanks to the appalling lack of judgment by executives at Netflix who have ordered eight episodes of a TV series to — wait for it — “prank” job-seekers.

You know, like yanking away the cat toy just as it pounces.

Gaten Matarazzo, a child actor starring in Stranger Things and way too many commercials, signed up for this steaming pile of garbage.

A reaction from Inc.com :

You know him as one of the kids dealing with the Upside Down on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but if you see him coming now–you should be the one to run. Gaten Matarazzo is producing and starring in a new prank show, Prank Encounters, and Netflix just ordered eight episodes. Deadline describes it as follows:

Each episode of this terrifying and hilarious prank show takes two complete strangers who each think they’re starting their first day at a new job. It’s business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares.

Do you know what I have to say to this? No, no, no, and no.

Sure, we love to laugh at people’s misfortune–America’s Funniest Home Videos–made a fortune off people falling off step ladders and tripping over the dog. But, there’s a key difference here: people in that show submitted their own videos–they were laughing at themselves. This show sets people up for public entertainment with unasked for humiliation.

And it does it in a very vulnerable time of life–job hunting.

 

Looking for a job, or part-time work, or freelance work, is emotionally and intellectually exhausting — certainly if you are over 40, 50 or beyond when age discrimination already severely limits options for many people.

Just cancel the whole thing.

And, while we’re at it, for anyone interested in the brutal and absurd economics of freelance writing — witness the endless virtue-signaling, wagon-circling and knife-sharpening of late over an American magazine writer, now on staff at The New York Times Magazine (basically writers’ Everest, the coveted and unattainable peak of pay and prestige) and her crazy pay scale.

Some people have leaped to her defense — she works so hard! — while others simply wonder how so many other hard-working and talented writers are now, instead, desperately grateful to get paid even 25 percent of what she said she earns.

 

It’s a madhouse.

 

Work truly can be a four-letter word.

All the best British cop/crime series: must watch!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been bingeing of late on British crime and cop shows, so much so it sometimes feels like all-Nicola-Walker all the time.

I just finished the amazing 2015 series River, about a London policeman named John River — who has an unnerving habit of seeing dead people — which also starred Walker as his partner, Stevie. I then watched the final episode of Unforgotten, starring Walker as the lead investigator on a cold case of the murder of a young woman in a small town.

I like a few qualities of these shows: the focus on solutions and complications, rarely on endless gratuitous violence; little to no gun play and much more psychological story-telling than the usual cops/street chase drama and glimpses of beautiful British settings.

In every show, also unusual, the police are shown as human beings with their own complicated emotional lives — whether with their spouses, parents, siblings, children or co-workers.

Some of my favorites:

 

Broadchurch

How can you resist anything with Olivia Colman? This series, initially set in Dorset, with the second season also shot in Somerset, Devon and Berkshire, stars Colman as detective Elie Miller with David Tennant as her partner. The settings are spectacular and the familial twists add to the tension.

Unforgotten

This series stars Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and her partner DCI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar.) The opening theme music is especially haunting. I’ve watched the second and third seasons; both involve complicated plots and multiple characters.

River

This one might be my favorite, now four years old. The premise, a partnership between an older man with some significant mental issues and no friends or family and his fellow detective partner, a younger woman (with a secret) from a crime-ridden family, is interesting enough. I loved Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgard, 67, as the lead, an actor I haven’t seen much of since his super-terrifying role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — although he has appeared in many of the Avenger films.

Nicola Walker, 48, is surely one of Britain’s best-known and most-seen actresses on television — less so in film.

The Daily Telegraph critic raved “Creepy yet ultimately uplifting, River stands alongside London Spy, Humans and Wolf Hall as one of the year’s best home-grown TV dramas.”[21]

 

Shetland

The windswept and isolated landscape alone made me want to hop into a very small airplane and go see it for myself. So much of the appeal of these shows, as someone living in an American suburban town, is the dense interplay of characters living in small towns in impossibly picturesque places.

The Bodyguard

From its terrifying opening episode, this one is full of twists and turns, following the life of bodyguard David Budd as he guards a politician whose values he loathes, played by Keeley Hawes.

The Tunnel

I would watch French actress Clemence Poesy read a recipe card. She’s amazing in this two-season series, (an adaptation of The Bridge), which involves detectives from France and England after a body — cut in half — is found lying at the exact midpoint of the Chunnel, forcing both nations to investigate and work together despite cultural and linguistic differences. Poesy plays a woman who is somewhat autistic, maybe even someone with Aspergers’, whose single-mindedness confounds many of her co-workers but helps her be a great cop.

Happy Valley

Starring Sarah Lancashire, (who, like Nicola Walker, also stars in Last Tango in Halifax), as a weather-beaten divorced small-town policewoman in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire in northern England. Between the thick accents and speed of speech, you might need sub-titles! Her character, Catherine Cawood, lives with her sister Clare, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. Cawood’s adult daughter committed suicide after being raped and impregnated.

I know…this all sounds horribly grim! But Cawood is a great character and every scene is shot on location.

 

Grantchester

Edward Norton! Need I say more? He plays Sidney Chambers, a small-town minister helping local detective Geordie Keating, solve crimes. A much less grim and dark series, with lots of humor and domestic issues as well. Also set in 1953, so lots of period costume and details.

 

Endeavour

This is — of course — the detective’s first name, an Oxford drop-out. Set in 1968, 1969 and now 1970 for the latest season, it offers gorgeous glimpses of Oxford and surroundings. His partner’s name is Fred Thursday and they drive around in a stunning vintage Jaguar.

 

 

Why “Queer Eye” makes me cry

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Demons, be gone!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We  live — in the U.S. anyway — in such cruel times. Money is tight for far too many and compassion for those struggling in increasingly short supply. It can feel overwhelming and dis-spiriting to even glance at the news: racism, sexual violence, terrorism, etc.

Which is why the Netflix reality TV show “Queer Eye” is such a treat, now in its third season.

It features five gay men — Antoni Porowski (food expert — and fellow Canadian), Bobby Berk (decorator), Jonathan van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion) and Karamo Brown (culture.) If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.

In every show, the fab five — setting out in a shiny black minivan — choose a man or woman (in one case, a pair of African-American sisters whose barbecue shack is a local legend) to help pull together their life, whether a cramped kitchen, shredded self-confidence or someone just feeling really lost and overwhelmed.

We’ve all been there!

The men are funny, loving, insightful and there to offer the soul balm everyone needs so desperately — empathy, compassion, wisdom, advice, hugs and a lot of kind laughter. Just watching them swing into action is inspiring. Reality TV can be gross, but this feels lovely.

We watched a few episodes this week and one featuring Jess, a 23-year-old African American lesbian living in Lawrence, Kansas, was astonishing. She was adopted — and thrown out by her conservative Christian parents when she came out as gay at 16. She had lost touch with her sister and baby niece. Working as a waitress, she struggled with a host of challenges — but with energy and good spirits.

When the Fab Five show up, Jess is trying to figure out how to be fully who she really is — not uncommon at 23 — with no parental support or love. Karamo, 38, who worked for 10 years as a social worker, is of tremendous help to her, both as a gay American but also an African-American; their scenes together are really powerful.

I love Tan, whose is of Punjabi Pakistani descent — and (!?) speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent.

If you’re simply craving some feel-good entertainment, with a healthy side dose of inspiration, grab the tissues and settle down with me on the sofa!

Have you seen The Alienist?

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By Caitlin Kelly

Dark, brooding, scary and addictive.

This ten-part series, set in New York City in 1896, is a compelling adaptation of the book by Caleb Carr — an “alienist” was the word used then for a psychologist. The plot follows a grisly and brutal killer of young male prostitutes and the efforts of Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist, to find and stop him.

He’s aided by Sara Howard, (played by Dakota Fanning), and John Moore, a friend who’s a wealthy freelance illustrator for The New York Times and a pair of brothers, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, NYPD detectives. They’re threatened and thwarted by a corrupt police captain and his shadowy boss, aided by a young Teddy Roosevelt — later to become President — then the commissioner of police.

The production values are fantastic — at $5 million per episode — with exquisite costumes and hair, and period-authentic transportation in gleaming black horse-drawn carriages through cobble-stoned streets and an early steam train.

Like so many other fantastic television and film productions, (Game of Thrones, Blade Runner 2049), it was made in Budapest.

It’s been nominated for six prime time Emmy awards, including its main title, which is fantastic, and was very popular with viewers.

It’s a grim story, for sure, but if you have any interest in or familiarity with New York City, it’s interesting to see re-created, long-gone landmarks like the Croton Reservoir and to re-live that period.

The characters all have complicated emotional lives, several of them estranged from their fathers. The character of Sara Howard is my favorite — a whisky-drinking, cigarette-smoking iconoclast who stays steadfast in the face of violence, gory murders and everyday sexism as she becomes the NYPD’s first female member.

 

Have you seen it?

What did you think of it?

Four women comedians

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s been a rough summer: illness, too many friends dying, lost work…

So I’ve been watching comedy specials on television, most recently three women: Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby and Michelle Wolf.

Tig, who’s gay and married and a survivor of breast cancer, is the oldest at 47, and her show is radically different from the hyper, smiling Wolf — who’s 33. Notaro, halfway though her hour-long TV special filmed in Boston, removes her elegant navy blazer and crisp white cotton shirt — and performs the second half naked from the waist up.

Her delivery is slower, more thoughtful, less frenzied. She’s angry, but in a quieter and more moderated way.  You can tell she’s been doing comedy a long time, and feels in control.

Wolf is wild and dirty — with endless references to penises and periods. She grins a feral grin.

Gadsby is the outlier, Australian, earnest, furious. What begins as comedy morphs into something deeper and much more personal:

From The New York Times:

Ms. Gadsby, an Australian comedian, is the creator of “Nanette,” a stage show turned Netflix special that is lacerating in its fury about how women and queer people like her, and anyone else who might behave or look “other,” get treated, dismissed and silenced. She is unflinching about the abuse that they — that she — endured, and the cultural norms that enabled it. She calls out men, powerful and otherwise.

In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn’t invite people to laugh at it. “Nanette” is an international sensation, the most-talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years, exquisitely timed to the #MeToo era. And in its success Ms. Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction, even as she has repeatedly vowed, onstage, to quit the business.

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says in the special. “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

The fourth is a British woman, Viv Groskop, (a coaching client of mine), who  recently played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, who writes an advice column and who has a new book — pictured above.

 

Viv, of course, is Cambridge educated and speaks fluent Russian.

 

Do you have a favorite female comedian?

 

Do you stick with unlikable characters?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.

So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?

I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.

Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.

But how much of it can you take?

I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:

Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.

The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.

These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!

Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.

Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri  hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.

I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways,  appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)

Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.

Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.

Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.

I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.

 

Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!

 

How do you feel about unlikable characters?

Do you watch the credits?

 

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this piece in The New York Times, an argument in favor of watching the opening credits to TV shows.

I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.

The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”

I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.

I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.

I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.

My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry —  so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.

 

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Love this movie!

 

I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.

Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)

I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)

I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.

But not a word of it was in the credits!

There you’ll find cool movie jargon for some very specific jobs — and here’s an explainer for 12 of them.

 

Are you someone who reads the credits?