February 13, 2015

STREAM: Add Some Drama To Your Netflix Queue

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PART 1: SPIES, LIES, MURDER AND MARY JANE

HOUSE OF CARDS might get all the attention, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of scripted drama series available on Netflix. We selected a dozen of our favorites, each one a worthy addition to your streaming queue. It’s a mix of past hits you may have missed, previous seasons of current favorites and lesser known titles that deserve the spotlight.

The first six of our picks appears below. Look for the rest of our dramatic dozen in part two of this feature next week.

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ALIAS

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When ALIAS debuted on ABC in 2001, the network was in rough shape and had little experience handling a violent spy thriller with an ass-kicking female lead. Despite the odds stacked against it, ALIAS ran for five seasons. Though never a Nielsen powerhouse, the series was a critical darling and fanboy favorite that put creator JJ Abrams on the A-list.

Jennifer Garner leads a first-rate case that also includes Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, Ron Rifkin, Carl Lumbly and Lena Olin (as one mother of a mother). Each episode in season one ends on a cliffhanger, something meddling network execs eventually pared down to season finales only. Be prepared: each of those is a mindbender.

ALIAS is packed with high drama, outrageous twists and some of the most complex action sequences ever seen on network television. The series will keep you on the edge of your seat right through the final episode (an emotionally satisfying tear-jerker). All five seasons are available for streaming on Netflix.

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THE ASSETS

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Based on insider accounts of the infamous Aldrich Ames espionage scandal, the first episode of this limited-run series has the dubious distinction of being the lowest rated drama premiere ever on one of the big three broadcast networks. When ABC decided to  launch a Cold-War thriller of its own in early 2014, network execs were probably hoping for a success similar to THE AMERICANS on FX . Instead, the ill-fated drama was cancelled after only two airings.

While the audience response was sub zero chilly, THE ASSETS is actually a pleasant surprise. The methodical pacing might annoy those with short attention spans but, if you like dense drama packed with rich period detail and traitorous nogoodniks, this will be right up your alley. The full eight episode mini-series is available for streaming on Netflix. A ninth “episode” is actually a bonus documentary that details the real story that inspired THE ASSETS.

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BEING MARY JANE

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Gabrielle Union has often been the bright spot in any number of big and small screen clunkers. With BEING MARY JANE, she’s finally found a vehicle worthy of her considerable talent. Never heard of it? Well, it’s on BET, the black entertainment network most black people rarely watch. That could explain how this gem flew below your radar were it not for the fact that season one averaged more than 3 million viewers each week. Contrast those impressive numbers with the limp digits GIRLS scrapes together for HBO. It’s a show no one watches (seriously, no one) but everyone is forced to hear about. Perhaps if Mary Jane was whiter, wider and completely self-absorbed, the entertainment elite would be buzzing. Of course, that would also make the show an insufferable slog and one Lena Dunham opus is more than enough.

Executive producer Mara Brock Akil (who also created the excellent and underrated GIRLFRIENDS) does a remarkable job keeping a lot of balls in the air simultaneously. It’s an elegant and deceptively effortless juggling act. Akil manages to craft compelling and coherent storylines from a bumper crop of issues, drama and moral dilemmas. There’s a lot at play in any given moment but the pacing is consistently spot on. Akil has that rare combination of creative confidence and artistic alchemy. It’s what gives BEING MARY JANE clarity of vision, organic unpredictability and a connection to the little things that make scenes feel lived in. Even the music is well chosen. It’s rarely obvious but always just right.

CLICK TO GO TO THIS SERIES ON NETFLIXUnion plays Mary Jane Paul, a successful broadcast journalist and high-functioning hot mess. She’s a woman of considerable substance with a bad habit of leaping before she looks. Like the time Mary Jane strolls into a pet store to confess her affair to the wife of the guy she’s been sleeping with. It’s a cringe-worthy encounter even though Mary Jane meant no harm. Of course, there’s no malice of forethought if you skip the forethought.

In some ways, Mary Jane is like an earth-bound Olivia Pope; stunning, whip smart and driven but without the fate of the Republic keeping her up at night. Mary Jane might not be bonking the President or dodging a murderous mama, but she has been with a married man and her family offers more take than give. One episode in, and you’ll gird your loins right along with MJ every time her mother calls. Something as ordinary as a ring tone adds a resonance and immediacy that creates a visceral connection to the moment.

Union hits all the right notes here, creating a character both familiar and refreshing. She’s not just good, she’s damn good. Mary Jane is complex in very real ways that make her wholly relatable. Union skillfully tempers the sharp edges with a mix of charm, warmth and vulnerability. It’s a study in colliding contrasts that she spins into something quite wonderful. Pay special attention to the little flutters and flourishes Union plays with. These tidbits of character “business” give Mary Jane her heart and humanity.

Watching BEING MARY JANE isn’t your typical passive viewing experience. It feels more like a ride along with a good friend. This isn’t a “black” show or a “chick” show. Most of us know a Mary Jane or see one when we look in the mirror.

Season two of BEING MARY JANE is currently airing on BET. The series has already been renewed for a third season. Season one is available for streaming on Netflix. Start with the stand-alone movie pilot. The link in the images above will take you there first.

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BROADCHURCH

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When it comes to really thorny murder mysteries, no one does it better than the Brits. They don’t gravitate to neatly wrapped plot packages full of clearly defined heroes and villains or share our sad fascination with endless variations on the “woman in peril” trope. We should thank them for all of that and then thank them again for BROADCHURCH, a towering masterpiece of gut-wrenching drama.

The central mystery begins when the body of an 11 year old boy is discovered on a desolate beach. The hunt for his killer plays out over eight gripping, tightly-paced episodes. Along the way, the ugly secrets and hidden truths of a small town are laid bare. BROADCHURCH quickly blossoms into an exquisitely crafted character study that gets under your skin in profound and unsettling ways.

Series two of BROADCHURCH is currently airing in the UK. The entire first series is available for streaming on Netflix.

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CROSSING LINES

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This lavishly produced crime thriller stars William Fichtner as a former NYPD officer who has fallen on hard times thanks to a debilitating injury and an addiction to morphine. Nonetheless, he is recruited to join an elite special crimes unit under the auspices of the International Criminal Court. From their headquarters in The Hague, the team investigates high profile crimes that cross international borders. Donald Sutherland plays an ICC overlord who supervises the proceedings. He pops in and out of each episode in a role that amounts to a glorified cameo.

CROSSING LINES is often preposterous and overwrought but it’s also wildly entertaining. European locations (principally Nice, Paris and Prague) distinguish the visuals and add high-end gloss to elaborate action sequences. It’s not all fun and games, however. The murder and mayhem is usually visceral stuff with ruthless baddies generating high body counts. Principal character backstory and evolving interpersonal relationships round things out and provide continuity. As always, Fichtner shines. He’s a master at revitalizing hackneyed, stock characters.

Season one of CROSSING LINES was carried by NBC during the summer of 2013. A second season was produced but NBC did not air it. As a result, fans in the US never got to see these new episodes...until now. Both season one and two are available for streaming on NETFLIX.

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THE FALL

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One of the most addictive dramas of 2013, BBC Two original THE FALL is a Netflix exclusive in the U.S. Series two launched on the service in January of this year.

Gillian Anderson is at the top of her game  here, playing Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson. She’s sent to Belfast by the London Metropolitan Police to review how local authorities handled (or mishandled) the investigation into a string of murders. What she discovers is the diabolical handiwork of serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, also doing exceptional work). Over the course of five fast-paced episodes, Gibson and Spector engage in an increasingly twisted game of cat and mouse.

What sets THE FALL apart is how enthusiastically it upends TV conventions and toys with the audience. Anderson is cast in a role that would typically be played by a male and it’s written exactly that way. Stella Gibson is fearless to a fault and has no problem using men for her own sexual gratification. Things are just as trippy on the dark side of the fence where it’s all too easy to fall for Spector’s deadly charms. In a wonderfully perverse twist, our serial killer is also a bereavement counselor with a wife and two young children at home.

A third series has been discussed but is not yet confirmed. The first and second series of THE FALL are available for streaming on Netflix.

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PART TWO: COMING NEXT WEEK

NOTE: All titles were available on Netflix at the time this post was written. Some may become unavailable at a future date per the terms of carriage agreements between Netflix and content providers. Netflix has not paid any sponsorship or promotional fees for this post.

January 28, 2015

EMPIRE 360: We Go All-In With the Ballsy Breakout Hit

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIRE

EMPIRE: WATCH! WHERE? WHY?

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Have you ever found yourself lost in the unexpected pleasures of an amazing meal? You stumbled upon the restaurant and the food is a delicious surprise. Hooked at first bite, you can’t wait for the next course. The sudsy drama EMPIRE is like that; a gorgeous guilty pleasure tossed with shiny objects and fancy flourishes. There’s some serious brain food in the mix but the juicy, indulgent stuff  is all empty calories wrapped in high-end gloss.  You don’t know why you can’t stop eating but when it tastes this good, who cares?

The EMPIRE 360 is part introductory overview, part series review and our biggest entertainment feature to date. We start with what you need to know about EMPIRE. This section of background basics includes an interactive slide-show with photo-bios of the main characters and quotable one liners. Immediately following is the full-length RONTHINK review. We wrap with a selection of must-read topical articles and blog posts.
 
EMPIRE: AIRS WEDNESDAYS 9PM E/P ON FOX. NEXT DAY STREAMING ON:

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EMPIRE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

 
EMPIRE was created by Lee Daniels, who directed THE BUTLER, and Danny Strong, screenwriter for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY. Fans of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER will be more familiar with work in front of the camera where he played sorcerer Jonathan Levinson.  The inspiration for the series came from an idea Strong had for a present day version of KING LEAR set in the hip-hop world. Original songs are featured in every episode. Timbaland serves as executive music producer.

The Lyon Family from EMPIREEmpire Enterprises is a music and entertainment conglomerate run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a former drug dealer turned musical artist turned media mogul. His rise to the top is full of dark and ugly stuff, most of which is parsed out in periodic flashbacks. At the outset of the pilot, Lucious is on the verge of realizing his dream of taking the company public. Everything is going according to plan until his doctor delivers devastating news about his health. Lucious is forced to face his own mortality and the threat it poses to Empire. Now, he must decide which of his three sons will succeed him as part of a stable transition plan. Until that happens, his diagnosis must be kept secret.

Things go from bad to “holy shit” when Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie  (Taraji P. Henson) shows up unexpectedly. She’s been in prison for 17 years but was granted an early release. Cookie took the fall when she was arrested running the drugs that bankrolled the start of Lucious’ career and the opening of Empire Enterprises. They started the company together but she reaped none of the rewards. Once Cookie was locked away, Lucious pretty much turned his back on her. Now it’s time for payback and revenge. Cookie wants a piece of the company she helped build and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

View our “who’s who” slide show of the main characters on EMPIRE. Meet the entire Lyon family and see why Cookie is already queen of quotables.

 

EMPIRE: THE RONTHINK REVIEW

 
EMPIRE isn’t shy about flashing its upmarket production pedigree. With bragging rights to impressive talent on both sides of the camera, the show has swagger. This gorgeous head-turner lives on the small screen but isn’t confined by it. Each episode is decked out in lush, cinematic style. Key scenes are set in expansive work and living spaces, a creative choice that heightens already outsize drama and brings an epic quality to the proceedings. Top shelf aesthetics give the series gloss but that’s just the eye candy icing on a gleefully badass cake. EMPIRE is easily the most audacious, addicting  and flat-out enjoyable new show of the season.
 
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIREIf you haven’t tuned in because you assumed the show would be preachy or teachy, fear not! EMPIRE is, first and foremost, spectacularly entertaining television. That doesn’t mean it’s all style and no substance. Serious  issues are tackled head-on, with frequent visits to places dark, difficult and uncomfortable. Daniels and Strong know how to keep viewers hooked without dumbing things down or turning scenes into patronizing lectures.  Dialogue is smart, sharp and colorful. There are no lapses into self-impressed, pseudointellectual claptrap. If that’s your thing, you should watch GIRLS on HBO or follow Lena Dunham’s Twitter (ego)feed.
 
Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon on EMPIREEvery good drama needs a villain and Lucious Lyon is one hell of a baddie. He’s a control freak with a mean streak and a singular focus on his own success. Everyone, including his family, is a pawn in his game.  When he isn’t manipulating something or someone, Lucious can often be found hurling homophobic invective at  his gay son or beating the tar out of some poor sap who pissed him off. Limits? Not this guy. When his old friend Bunkie becomes a problem in need of a permanent solution, Lucious shoots him point blank in the face.  Problem solved!
 
It would be easy for Howard to play Lucious as a total monster but he  opts for a more nuanced approach. He surrounds the character with a façade of respectability. Lucious looks like a stand up guy but he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Still, there are times when you can empathize with him and the magnitude of his personal baggage.
As good as Howard is, Taraji P. Henson is a dazzling revelation. Despite Oscar and Emmy nominations, the bulk of her work has flown below radar. That’s about to change. Cookie Lyon is a career defining role and Henson’s fearless, balls-out performance will make her a big star. She’s the main event here.
 
Henson turns Cookie into a force of nature. She’s a one woman tempest with a big mouth and bigger dreams. Cookie tosses verbal grenades with military precision and loves to make a really big entrance, invited or not. An unlocked door is all the permission she needs. If you cross her, watch out. Just ask youngest son Hakeem. When their first on-screen meeting jumps the rail, Cookie responds to his verbal abuse with a broomstick beat-down so spectacular it’s awe inspiring. She is, in every sense, one mother of a mother.
 
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIRE
 
Cookie won’t win any first impression awards but there’s much more to her than sound and fury. Still, the lack of social skills makes sense. Cookie was arrested at a young age. She was poor, undereducated and dealing drugs. When every day is a battle for survival, etiquette lessons aren’t on your to-do list. Prison put her life on pause. Cookie grew older but she didn’t necessarily grow up. Her days were spent in confinement, feeling alone, betrayed and angry. Now that she’s out of prison, Cookie is back among familiar faces but has to figure out how to deal with them in an unfamiliar world.
 
Although Cookie’s has flaws to spare, Henson re-frames these shortcomings in ways that connect them to something real. They become battle scars; physical manifestations of hidden emotional wounds.  Cookie might be strong and act fearless but when she lets her guard down, there are unmistakable flashes of the pain, fear and loss that haunt her. None of that can be written. It’s all in the performance and Henson hits it out of the park.
 
Terrence Howard  and Bryshere Gray as Lucious and Hakeem Lyon on EMPIRE
 
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, with the exception of Bryshere Gray, who plays Hakeem. This is his first professional acting gig and the lack of experience shows. Yes, the character is supposed to be an irresponsible layabout, but that can’t be all there is to Hakeem. Lucious  is convinced his son is a star in the making and someone with the potential to run Empire. As it stands, Gray hasn’t given us much more than a one dimensional version of Hakeem. Without some depth to the character and evidence of hidden greatness, it won’t matter what Lucious thinks. A big chunk of plot becomes a tough sell.
Obviously, EMPIRE is well-stocked with damaged goods in the parent/child relationship department. If the show was a town, they would call it Dysfunction Junction.  Of all the emotional wreckage that litters the proverbial streets of this hapless hamlet, nothing comes close in size to the smoking hulk of twisted darkness that exists between Lucious and Jamal. It’s a toxic tango they’ve danced for years. As a spectator sport, it’s a one sided event. Jamal is the guy you cheer for. Only an asshole would choose Team Lucious.
 
Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon on EMPIRE
 
As Jamal, Jussie Smollett has taken on a role that is probably the most difficult in the cast. Because there are so many way to make a wrong move with the character, watching Smollett get it right is a pleasure. Jamal is one of the good guys but Smollett doesn’t make him a saint. He’s talented, sensitive and relatively grounded but Jamal can also be stubborn, aloof and an impetuous brat. As characters go, Smollett isn’t sticking to the “GLAAD Guide To Keeping Us Happy If You’re Playing Gay On TV” and we thank him for that. That means no sign of a new Jack, Will, Kurt or either of the gays who sank THE NEW NORMAL. Jamal can stand his ground but there are fleeting moments of shame, self-loathing and fear in the mix. The persona Smollett has created for Jamal feels organic and definitely reminds me of real people I know. That doesn’t often happen with LGBT characters in primetime.
 
As fun as it can be, EMPIRE does not sweep the raw ugliness of homophobia under the rug. There’s frequent use of “sissy” and “bitch” as gay slurs and flashbacks provide disturbing glimpses of the abuse heaped on Jamal when he was a boy. In one particularly horrifying incident, he walks into a family gathering wearing heels and a woman’s head scarf. It’s a totally innocent childhood behavior but Lucious sees something else entirely. He explodes into a blind rage and carries the little boy outside. Cookie makes a frantic attempt to stop Lucious but by the time she catches up with him, he’s already  dumped Jamal head first into a trash can. It’s a shocking and difficult thing to watch but, it’s based on fact. Lee Daniels had a similar boyhood experience at the hands of his father.
 
Jussie Smollett and Rafael de La Fuente as Jamal Lyon and Michael Sanchez on EMPIRE
 
Though gay characters are no longer rarities on television, EMPIRE takes an unusually bold approach that puts it in a class by itself. It’s the first time a broadcast network series has dealt head-on with homophobia in the black community and the hip-hop industry. There are cultural realities at play in both groups that add unique shading to the already difficult process of coming out. This storyline was a priority for Daniels so it’s especially satisfying to see it being realized so vividly and effectively.
 
On the flip side, measuring the success (or failure) of the various hip-hop elements in EMPIRE doesn’t lend itself to a succinct summary. Everyone has an opinion and none of them seem to agree. If you’re a strident hip-hop fan with no sense of humor or flexibility about the music you love, EMPIRE might drive you crazy. With the exception of one hilariously bad video shoot (look for the scene with shirtless male models rolling around in sand), most of the major music-focused sequences look great. Of course,  I’m no hip-hop expert so, I’ll leave passing ultimate judgment to those who are. Personally, I don’t care. Watching EMPIRE and bitching about something not being “authentic” is like complaining that HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER isn’t a “realistic” look at law school. Duh! These are TV dramas, not documentaries.
 
EMPIRE was a huge hit out of the gate. The numbers were strong enough to give FOX a much-needed boost out of the ratings cellar. Post-premiere, the show continues to defy convention with each of two subsequent episodes adding viewers. Though originally promoted as a limited-run event, FOX already renewed EMPIRE for a second season. Of course, that decision was a no-brainer given the numbers. Still, we’re talking about a success story no one really saw coming. There has never been a broadcast network series quite like EMPIRE. It’s set in the hip-hop business, has an almost all-black cast and leads with a front-burner gay storyline. None of that screams “monster hit” yet, that’s exactly what it is. If you haven’t yet boarded this wonderfully wild crazy train, jump on now!
 
EMPIRE is your new TV addiction and it’s waiting for you to get hooked.
 

EMPIRE: MUST READS

In addition to the text links included in this feature, we enjoyed the following posts and thought you might too. To read, click the icon next to each article.

CLICK TO READFROM THE WASHINGTON POST: “The Tragedy Behind Fox’s EMPIRE: Lee Daniels’s Father Beat Him For Being Gay”

CLICK TO READFROM ABC NEWS AND GOOD MORNING AMERICA: “Why Taraji P. Henson Nearly Turned Down the Role of Cookie in EMPIRE”

CLICK TO READFROM MORNING EDITION AND NPR: “Fox's EMPIRE Sets DYNASTY-Style Soap Opera To A Hip-Hop Beat”

CLICK TO READFROM THE WIRE AND THE ATLANTIC: “Series Co-Creator Danny Strong On EMPIRE: 'King Lear' Meets Hip Hop Meets DYNASTY”

CLICK TO READFROM THEGRIO.COM: “Series Co-Creator Lee Daniels wants EMPIRE to expose homophobia in black America”