Month: August 2015

The King’s Great Matter

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I was about twelve years old when Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone movie was announced. It was the year 2001, and only four books had been published in the seven book series – all four of which I had read, re-read and loved, much before there were talks of taking the novel to the big screen. There were only a few friends in school who had read the series, and once we got tired of discussing the books between ourselves, we would collectively stalk the fan websites to get our fill of anything and everything related to Harry Potter. When the films were announced, I faithfully followed the hype, developed a rather premature crush on Daniel Radcliffe and ended up seeing the film the first week it released in theatres.

The next following weeks at school though, it seemed like everyone knew about Harry Potter, and the characters weren’t exclusive to the few of us anymore. I developed a condescension then towards the “haven’t read the book but I’ve watched the movie” type of people. This condescension didn’t last too long though – I am now well and truly one of them.

wolf hall on bbc, wolf hall, hilary mantel

Any literature, when adapted well for the screen, is a joy to watch for people who are already familiar with the story, but even more so for those who aren’t. Hilary Mantel’s award winning Wolf Hall trilogy, has been on my “to-read” list for a very long time now. This year, BBC adapted the books into a six episode mini-series for television. The story itself is based on real happenings, popularly known as “The King’s Great Matter”, which transpired during 16th Century England. King Henry the VIII needs an heir to the throne, but unfortunately, his wife of twenty years, Lady Katherine, has been unable to produce one, and so, Henry decides to abandon his existing marriage, and marry Anne Boleyn, who he is infatuated with. However, the concept of divorce then, wasn’t just alien, but also illegal. The only way for Henry to legally alienate the Queen is by annulling the marriage, something that he cannot do without papal consent. His Cardinal, Wolsey, struggles for eight long years to get the order from the Pope, but to no avail, following which Henry exiles him. The entire series of events, as well as what happens next, is narrated through the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, the Cardinal’s lawyer, and right hand man. Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, a “nobody”, as he is referred to in the series, who works his way up in the ranks to become the King’s confidante as well as an important political figure during that time.

The casting in the series has been exceptional – the show is full of faces you’d recognise if you watch Sherlock, Homeland and even Game of Thrones, such as Mark Gatiss who plays the thoroughly entertaining Stephen Gardiner, Damian Lewis as the conceited yet strangely likeable King Henry, Claire Foy as the haughty and resolute Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce who does a remarkable job of playing the wounded Cardinal Wolsey. You’d think that it would be impossible to pick an outstanding performance in a cast like this, but Mark Rylance, who plays the politically deft and determined Thomas Cromwell is in a league of his own.

The way the story ends for Anne in the series is no different from how it ends in history – she is executed on counts of witchcraft and incest, but watching the events unfurl on screen takes your breath away till the very last minute. I do hope that the show’s director, Peter Kominsky and writer, Peter Straughan earn many awards for Wolf Hall. The series is perfectly paced, skilfully written, and an overall triumph in adaptation.

Hilary Mantel is due to release the final book in her trilogy very soon, and I for one, cannot wait to join in on Thomas Cromwell discussions when it does. After all, I may have not read the book, but I have watched the series.

It’s All Good

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

When the TV phenomenon Friends came to an end, I was devastated, and I missed it terribly. It was this devastation coupled with the free time that one gets while waiting for exam results that led me to watching Joey, the Friends spin-off that picked the life of Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) up from where Friends left off. I was quite excited for the show, given that Joey was my favourite character in Friends, but hardly a few episodes in, I found myself wishing that I had just stuck to watching reruns.

A spin-off more or less ruins the original show for me. There is something so unimaginative and bland about them, and watching a spin off when there’s plenty of fresh content on television otherwise, feels like a criminal waste of time. Naturally, when Better Call Saul, the spin off to Breaking Bad was announced, I had neither had expectations from it (despite the fact that it was going to be directed by Vince Gilligan himself), nor any intention to watch it. Then, one very dull evening, I gave in to Better Call Saul.

better call saul, vince gilligan

The show’s undercurrent is the same as Breaking Bad’s – good men in a bad world. In Breaking Bad, Walter White, a chemistry teacher who gets cancer, turns to drugs to support his family. We saw him make his way through it all, not knowing exactly how things would turn out in the end. In Better Call Saul, however, there is no suspense because it is a prequel, and the story of how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a small time defence attorney, ended up becoming the despicable and widely hated lawyer from Breaking Bad.

Jimmy McGill, a one time scam artist, is now a struggling defence attorney who works out of a makeshift office housed in an Asian salon. He defends a variety of criminals, from drunk drivers to men who commit armed robberies to students who decapitate a head off a cadaver in the biology lab because they thought it was fun. After one particularly trying day, he goes back to his scamming roots to procure a client, only to get caught in the middle of a vicious drug circle ruled by a brutal overlord. Walter White and Jimmy McGill are both men who were pushed to the corner by circumstance, men who had no choice, but the difference between them is that Jimmy is a natural fraud who has to try really, really hard to be good.

Unlike Breaking Bad, whose slow, tedious first season nearly made me give up on the show, Better Call Saul is interesting right from the start. You want to know Jimmy better, you want to know why his brother walks around wearing a blanket made of aluminium foil, and you want to know what happened between him and his ex-girlfriend who he still has a soft spot for. The characters in Better Call Saul are also very oddball, and very original. In many ways, it’s unfair to call Better Call Saul a spin off to Breaking Bad – I would call it a companion show because although there is some reminiscence to Breaking Bad here and there, it stands on its own. Vince Gilligan hasn’t just taken a hit show and spawn something new, he’s also made sure that it wouldn’t be overshadowed by its predecessor.

There are ten episodes in the first season, where each episode is about forty five minutes long. Should you watch it? If you are already a fan of Breaking Bad, then it’s easy – you will thoroughly enjoy Better Call Saul. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, I would recommend Better Call Saul anyway. It’s interesting, it’s funny, it’s dark, and it’s unlike anything else on television right now.

{Better Call Saul is presently being telecast on Colors Infinity}

The Law of The Land

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The fifth season of Suits, which is currently underway, has been a revelation. Although I’ve been a fan of the series since it’s inception, I’ve always had this niggling worry in my mind about the show’s eventual deterioration – after all, there’s only so much you can do around the show’s basic premise of a fraudulent genius who practices the law. Season three was tiring, and season four improved steadily, with the last few episodes leading up to the finale having a few plot twists that were unexpected, but also the kind that you’d think would iron themselves out the moment the fifth season began.

suits, suits on abc, suits season 5 review

Well, they haven’t, and that’s why the fifth season is my favourite season of Suits, yet. We get to see the human, vulnerable side of Harvey Spectre (Gabriel Macht), everyone’s favourite tough guy lawyer, and the story behind why he is who he is. We also see how he deals with the loss of his secretary and Woman Friday, Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty), who has just started working for his rival partner, Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman). The Donna-Harvey split was probably one of the best things that happened in Suits. It gave the show the shake-up it’s been needing for a while, and has given it new direction. Initially, I’d expected only unnecessary drama, but I’ve been proven wrong – it’s been really enjoyable, endearing even, not only to see Donna and Louis working together, but also to see a sensitive side to Harvey.

There are four new characters this season so far, and all four of them have been excellent, and at times, steal the show from the mainstays themselves. Dr. Paula Agard (Christina Cole), Harvey’s psychiatrist, and Jack Soloff (John Pyper-Ferguson), this season’s bad guy, are both very well written characters, but the standout new character has been Gretchen Bodinski, Harvey’s new, brutally honest secretary.

Gretchen, who is played to the hilt by Aloma Wright, is sassy, eminently likeable, and has bags of personality. The Harvey-Donna chemistry was one of the show’s focal points, and something that a lot of fans even held sacred, but I hope that Gretchen stays on for the seasons to come. The latest addition to the cast has been Esther Litt (the gorgeous Amy Acker), who is Louis’ sister, and potentially, Harvey’s new love interest. Who would’ve thought, eh? Every episode of this season has had a twist, or a character, or a detail which has surprised me, if not completely taken me away, and has really reinforced my love for watching legal drama.

It is because I love this genre, that I know that although Suits is thoroughly entertaining television, it isn’t the particularly relatable, or even close to reality. Enter Silk, a courtroom drama series that is produced by the BBC. Silk chronicles the trials (literally) and tribulations of Martha Costello (Maxine Peake), a barrister in practice who is on her way to making “silk”, which is the informal term for the Queen’s Counsel (the British equivalent of Senior Counsel in India), a powerful and prestigious status that is bestowed on to lawyers based on merit. Martha’s rise isn’t going to be easy, and in order to make silk, she has to not only deal with difficult clients, but rival lawyers from her own chambers as well. The cast has many recognisable British actors, including Natalie Dormer and Nina Sosanya.

If you want to watch this show because you enjoy Suits, you should know that the similarities between Silk and Suits end with the fact that they’re both about modern lawyers. Silk delves into courtroom proceedings, and how cases are actually argued in court. Silk is also grittier, darker, much less glamourous and more cleverly written. The reason I love this show though, is not merely because I can associate with the black gowns and white bands, but because of its protagonists. It’s impossible to tell who’s good or who’s bad- making them all so very grey, and so very human.

Cooking Up A Storm

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Masterchef Australia came to an end last week with a finale that was, in every way, a condensed, concentrated reflection of the entire seventh season. It was full of drama, endless close-ups of focus and perspiration on contestants’ faces, Heston Blumenthal, and of course, beautiful food. The show’s ending has left a rather large void in my week night routine, considering that for the past few months, all I’ve been doing at 9 pm is religiously sitting in front of the television watching contestants chopping, pureeing, zipping sous-vide bags and plating up food like their life depended on it.

 

Contestants of Masterchef Australia Season 7
Contestants of Masterchef Australia Season 7

 

I’ve been watching this show right from its second season, and initially, I was underwhelmed. This was a cookery competition, where they showed very little of the actual cooking. What’s more, the contestants were nice, friendly and supportive of each other, which was against everything that was sacrosanct in reality television. A week into the show, however, I was hooked. I quickly realised that this was a show which elevated cooking into an adrenaline-pumping, high intensity sport. Five seasons later, I’m still infatuated with the show. I know the challenges contestants face in preparing and seasoning lamb racks, in creating that elusive shade of pink that only belongs to the most juicy of steaks along with them, and in filleting a King Salmon in a manner that is not only efficient, but also respectful. And this, is in spite of my being a vegetarian.

Considering the fact that the show doesn’t encourage participants to get nasty with each other, the theatrics come from the hosts (and judges) George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston. They zip in and out of kitchen stations, questioning contestants’ dishes, seasoning choices, and most importantly, what the title of Masterchef means to them. When the food does come to the tasting table, there are no words – just dramatic music as spoons meet plate, and indiscernible expressions before they admit, in detailed and almost poetic ways, to loving, loathing, or being on the fence about the dish in front of them.

This season was no different – George, Gary and Matt constantly spoke about the show and winning the title the same way most people would speak about the invention of Penicillin. For twelve weeks we saw amateur cooks either coming on top of, or crashing and burning while they recreated Michelin star recipes and participated in fine dining challenges with dishes whose names required French lessons to pronounce. Celebrity chefs including Marco Pierre White, who has become the resident Masterchef Boogeyman, and everyone’s favourite mad genius, Heston Blumenthal made appearances, and were given rockstar welcomes.

As it is with any reality competition, it is only when the season considerably progresses that you really start rooting for someone. When the Top 10 was announced, Reynold became an instant favourite for me, as did Billie and Matthew. Unfortunately, both Reynold and Matthew crashed out towards the end of the competition, and finally, only Billie and Georgia remained.

The finale, as expected, was brutal – and the usually calm, collected and machine-like Billie got a delayed attack of the nerves, and Georgia, who is made for prime time television and who experiences at least fifteen different varieties of panic before the hour comes to an end, powered through the first two rounds with a considerable lead. The final round, which was a vicious five hour pressure test set by Heston Blumenthal, turned the tables around as Billie tapped into her inner beast machine, and Georgia, oh Georgia, started dropping things and panicking again.

When the time came to announce the final scores, I had chewed up fingernails and had nearly dropped off my chair, and when it was confirmed that Billie was to be crowned this season’s Masterchef, I pumped my fist in the air as if it were a personal victory.

I’ve often wondered what makes this show the success that it is – Is it the format? The concept? Or is it the food? I got my answer this year, when my staunchly vegetarian mother watched a meaty dish being put together and sighed – “They’ve butchered a poor animal, but it looks delicious”.