Empire

Only A Number

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

Indian cinema has long been notorious for its ridiculous gender gap. That fifty plus heroes are paired with heroines who are half their age (or less) even in this day and age is not something that is surprising anymore – in fact, it’s convention. The situation is just as bleak in the west, with Hollywood also afflicted by similar gender parity in both casting and in pay. It’s as if every female actress in the world comes with some kind of expiry date, after which they’re exiled to smaller, less significant roles. While films still have a long way to go, it’s heartening to note that television, or at least recent television has created a space for older female actors. More and more shows with strong women leads who don’t necessarily fit into the cookie-cutter versions of female TV characters (young, beautiful and full of first world problems) have been cropping up the past year.

Take the case of Sarah Jessica Parker. I’ll admit that despite being a huge fan, I was relieved to see the end of Sex And The City. It was painful to watch her as Carrie in the last few seasons, for she had obviously aged but was still being written like a twenty-year-old. In her newest show Divorce, however, she takes on the role of a woman struggling through a dysfunctional, middle-aged marriage. The show works because of its painful honesty, an honesty that wouldn’t have been possible without the caliber of an actress like Sarah Jessica Parker, who doesn’t just play Frances, but becomes her.

Winona Ryder, one of the eighties’ most iconic actresses, made a splash on the smaller screen by wresting all attention in Stranger Things. Her performance as the distraught small town who must make sense of the bizarre happenings that shroud her son’s disappearance made the show for me. Interestingly enough, the other character who stands apart among the varied and diverse cast of the show, is twelve-year-old Millie Bobby Brown. Brown blew me away as ‘Eleven’, a child on whom unspeakable experiments have been conducted on, and is additional proof that when it comes to being a lead, age and gender are mere constructs.

Grace and Frankie rounds off the list of my favourite shows with unconventional and (much) older female leads. This heartwarming comedy about two seventy-year-olds trying to reclaim whatever is left of their lives after their husbands declare their love for each other, resonated with me in ways I never expected it to. Given how sixty plus actresses are usually relegated to two minute roles of crazy grandmother, it’s brilliant to see 78-year-old Jane Fonda and 77-year-old Lily Tomlin light up the screen the way that they do, and have always done.

There are a few more shows that I can list with older and nuanced female leads. There’s How To Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis as a powerful lawyer with a turbulent life, and although I’ve stopped watching Empire, there’s really no doubt in my (or anyone else’s) mind that the life of the show is Taraji P Henson in her role as Cookie Lyon. Veep is another example of a series whose success has hinged entirely on Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ comic talent and timing.

Shows which are brave enough to go all out on a female lead are few, but it is heartening to note that there is a palpable change taking place across the film and television fraternity. One can only hope that more shows with older female leads make it to screen, after all, actresses, like fine wine, only get better as they age.

My Watch Has Ended

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s impossible at this time and age to keep track of every show on air, which is why recommendations on what to stop watching, are just as important as what to watch. Here’s my guide on shows to kick out of your watch list for there’s little worse than precious time (and space on our hard disks) wasted on terrible television.

Empire: I have professed to loving this show many times to many people, and the truth is I did enjoy the first season’s humour, music and the exquisite tension between the leads, Lucious (Terrence Howard), and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). There were lots of surprising turns, the music of the show was fabulous, the writing was crisp, and Cookie’s barbs in particular, were magic. Unfortunately, the second season went flying off the rails for me, with story developments that made no sense and twists that were so over the top that the show became a parody of its previous season. If you haven’t watched the show at all, I do highly, highly recommend the first season. The second season, unfortunately, is awful enough to warrant giving up on the show altogether, and is proof that in television, even the toughest Cookie is capable of crumbling.

Quantico: Quantico is another show I openly admitted to liking for it’s fast pace, and home girl Priyanka Chopra’s surprisingly (I was surprised, at any rate) effective performance. The thriller series worked well when the audience were forced to re-evaluate their predictions as to who bombed the Grand Central Station in the first half of the season, but the instead of tying the mystery together and providing some semblance of clarity to its viewers, the show just became a pointless goose chase. While I do hope that Priyanka does more mainstream American television in the future, I’ll be giving Quantico a miss from now.

The Flash: The Flash started getting tiresome for me the moment the writers stopped focusing on The Flash’s powers, the humour and the wit that the show is known for, and instead started putting out emotional plot arcs. Between Barry (Grant Gustin) refusing to commit to love because he’s a superhero, Joe West (Jesse Martin) going out of his way to be every character’s dad, and Iris West’s (Candice Patton) incapability to express feelings (not to mention the complete lack of chemistry between her and Barry), there were hardly any “that is so cool!” moments during the second season, which are so important for superhero shows. I might cling on to this series for a third season, but for a show that had a talking gorilla as a villain once, the entertainment quotient has really taken a steep dive.

The Big Bang Theory: The Big Bang Theory used to be an intelligent comedy about a bunch of physicists, but now, it’s just about a bunch of guys and their relationship problems. Even the show’s greatest character, the incorrigible Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) has relationship problems! The Raj Koothrappally (Kunal Nayyar) stereotypes have gone from bad to worse as well. The series has mutated from the interesting show about a bunch of people passionate about science, a group that is thoroughly underrepresented in mainstream television into a more boring version of Friends (whose reruns I can always watch anyway).

Two Broke Girls: To be honest, I’ve no idea how this show is even running. The acting is vapid, there’s zero humour despite the presence of the usually stellar Jennifer Coolidge, and to be honest, there really is no reason to watch this show unless you’re waiting for Masterchef to come on next.

Mum’s The Word

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Growing up in Chennai in the nineties, watching American television, there was a large cultural gap between my world, and the world I saw on screen. It took me some time to understand the way things worked in the west, but what remained for me, the greatest conundrum of all, was the American mother. I was raised in a protective household, typical of most nineties middle class households in the city, so the fact that mothers in the west let their teenagers make their own choices in life was something I found both confounding and exotic (I’ll also go on record to state that I’m glad that my mother didn’t let my foolish teenager self make any).

Although I am now grown up (I think), the television mom continues to be a subject of endless fascination for me. There are a fair number of TV moms who I believe are interesting, but the most interesting, hands down, is Cookie Lyon of Empire. Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a former drug dealer who spent seventeen years in prison to ensure that her husband could fulfil his musical dreams, seventeen years away from her three young sons. When she returns, her sons aren’t the wide eyed little boys who saw her off at the courthouse anymore, and worse, they don’t understand the reasons behind her absence, and don’t respect her. In the first season of Empire, when she returns from prison to meet her family, her youngest son, Hakeem, isn’t impressed. “Do you want a medal?” he asks. Cookie, instead of crumbling like most TV moms would, goes after him with a broomstick, automatically qualifying her to be the greatest mother on television today.

Cookie is a mother in a dysfunctional family, and while mothers like her are few, dysfunctional families on television are a dime a dozen, with the Tanner family being a notable one. Full House was a show I watched a lot growing up, and I lapped up the squeaky clean humour and the saccharine life lessons. It embarrasses me today, but I know I have plenty company, after all, why else would there be a sequel, twenty years later? Fuller House sees the eldest of the Tanner clan, DJ (Candace Cameron), take on the mantle of single mother of her three children. The show has its flaws, and banks on nostalgia value, but what was interesting was that unlike Full House where it was the children taking on life lessons, it’s the adults. DJ is no perfect mom, and stumbles aplenty while trying to raise her boys. We live in a day and age where everyone seems to have a Instagram perfect life, so watching DJ take on failure was endearing.

My favourite crazy family though, has got to be The Simpsons. Its slapstick humour is timeless and the long running show has won numerous awards with plenty laying claim to Homer Simpson, the dull-witted protagonist, as their life guru. Surprisingly, there is hardly any talk about Marge Simpson, the matriarch of The Simpson family. Although the character was originally designed to be the stereotypical American housewife, Marge’s disposition to handle anything that life throws at her, and her towering blue hair ensured that she’s one of a kind. Despite all the trouble that her husband and children create, she doesn’t lose faith in her family, and handles them with a little love and a lot of patience – which, as any mother (animated or otherwise) will tell you, is the secret to success. Happy Mother’s Day.

{Empire is on FX, Fuller House is on Netflix and The Simpsons is on Star World HD}

Women on TV

{Previously published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Women’s Day is fast approaching on the 8th of March, but surely we don’t need any one day to celebrate these five fantastic female characters who are on television right now.

Cookie Lyon, Empire – Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P Henson, is one of the most entertaining and over the top female characters we have seen in television in a long time. A former convict who took the punishment for the sake of her husband, she comes back from prison and is ruthless in her pursuit of the wealth and share in business which is rightfully hers. While it’s incredibly fun seeing her do whatever it takes to get to the top, it’s just as heartwarming to see her try to be a good mother to her sons, and make up for the time that she lost in prison.

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Brienne of Tarth, Game of Thrones – Although Danerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister are the first female characters you can think of in the context of Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth (played by Gwendoline Christie), for me, is the most underrated female character in the show, and in the books. She is a ungainly, not feminine in the conventional way, taller than most of the men on the land, and doesn’t give two hoots about any of it. She is a brave knight who values honour and friendship, and isn’t afraid to lay her life down to protect the ones she cares about. Brienne of Tarth is a wonderful character who defies all conventional gender roles and teaches us that being different, is what makes us special.

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Jessica Pearson, Suits – Gina Torres plays Jessica Pearson, the managing partner of Pearson Specter Litt. There is only one word which captures the true essence of Jessica Pearson, and that is bad-ass. Jessica has no qualms in admitting to the amount of work that it took for her to get on top, which is why she’s all the more protective of her position as managing partner in the law firm. She can intimidate and sniff the truth out of anything, and anyone. Years of watching legal television have convinced me that Jessica Pearson is not just a boss, she is the boss.

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Annalise Keating, How To Get Away With Murder – Viola Davis won an Emmy the past year for her portrayal of Annalise Keating, the no-nonsense defence attorney who is also a Criminal Law professor. Annalise is charismatic, intelligent and relentless both in her cases as well as in class. Watching Annalise navigate through the world of criminal law, prisons, hardened criminals, and the minds of her own students is utterly gripping, and makes no surprise as to why this show has so much critical acclaim.

Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation – The inimitable Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a small town government worker whose sole aim is to improve the town she lives in. Leslie, apart from being hilarious also has some amazing feminist zingers in her repertoire including, but not restricted to “ovaries before brovaries”. Leslie Knope works tirelessly not only make her town better, but to also tell the rest of us, that being a woman shouldn’t have anything to do with getting the career and life that we truly deserve.

2015 in Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s time for us to welcome the new year with family, friends, celebrations, and of course, somewhat pointless lists. So without further ado, here are my TV favourites from 2015 (in no particular order):

  • Empire – Empire is a musical soap opera about a Hip Hop mogul, and the lengths he’ll go to stay on top. It’s the television equivalent of the pizzas that have cheese stuffed in the crusts, the kind which oozes yellow, processed glory, on to your fingers. Yes it’s disgustingly over the top, and you can’t really tell people how much you enjoy it, although you know that they’d enjoy it just as much as you do when they eat it, I mean, watch it. {FX India}

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  • Better Call Saul – Better Call Saul was my favourite show this year. Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of recurring characters, but surprisingly, it has an entirely unique tone, and while one is occasionally reminded of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul stands on its own. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Wolf Hall – Wolf Hall is a literary mini series which was produced by the BBC. The cast and screenplay is splendid, and Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece comes alive over the course of 6, hour long episodes. I do hope that more show makers take the hint from Wolf Hall and make more mini series from literary classics – that way I don’t have to pretend like I’ve read them anymore.

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  • Game of Thrones – Dragons! Kings! Betrayals! Dragons! Death! Snow! Did I mention Dragons? The fifth season of the epic fantasy story came to an end this year, with a finale that shook the world, or at least, broke the internet. Game of Thrones is the show whose return I’m most looking forward to in 2016. {HBO}

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  • Daredevil – While I enjoyed both The Flash and Arrow, Daredevil takes the super hero genre of television to a whole new level, the way Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the game for films. Netflix has come out with a winner, yet again, and there is no doubt that Daredevil is the benchmark for super hero television shows to come.

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  • Master of None – If you’re not socialising with your family, and have plenty of time in your hands this weekend, why not cosy up with the entire first season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy for all seasons? It’s one the most relatable shows I’ve watched on international television (and not just because Ansari hails from Tamil Nadu), and the perfect candidate for marathon viewing.

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  • Quantico – This is right on top of my list of unexpected favourites. I didn’t want to like it, I watched it with great prejudice but eventually gave in to the racy screenplay and exaggerated drama. The show is addictive, and Priyanka Chopra has made an assured debut into American television and proved that she is a bonafide star. The penultimate episode before the season finale, and the season finale itself were a tad frustrating and I’m hoping (against hope) that it sorts itself out when it comes back next year. {Star World}

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  • The Affair – One often talks about “mindless television” – The Affair is the opposite. It demands your attention in a manner that is unforgiving, and if you blink, you miss. The Affair follows a story of infidelity narrated through different perspectives, none of which are objective, and leaves it to the viewer to be the judge. I’m a chronic multi-tasker, but The Affair ensured that my attention only belonged to the screen. {FX India}

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  • Mr. Robot – A terrific and well researched show that goes into the psyche and life of hackers. Given the rising coverage with respect to the hacking group “Anonymous” in the mainstream news, Mr. Robot is an excellent way to better understand hacking, and how the right information in the wrong hands could potentially break the world as we know it. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Modern Family – It’s not from 2015, technically, but I have been watching it religiously, all year. I could never tire of this show, or it’s characters, and I am yet to find an episode I haven’t guffawed out loud in. A perennial favourite to end the list! {Star World}

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Singing A Different Tune

The sixth and final season of Glee is presently running on television. If you were a one-time fan of the show, now is the time to get back, because this season is short, fast-paced, and full of the irreverent humour that the show was famous for. I have watched the show right from its inception in 2009, stuck to watching it despite the inevitable collapse that happened when the show’s lead actor, Cory Monteith, passed away due to a drug overdose, and cried secret tears during the finale. Glee covers the trials and tribulations of a bunch of misfits in high school, who discover themselves through song and dance. Given the premise, there is plenty of music on the show and the cast breaks into song every five minutes to express their feelings.

Although Glee rarely does original music, their covers of pop songs were, on most days, better than the original. In fact, I endured the travesties that were the fourth and fifth seasons of Glee, only for the music. Despite Glee’s shortcomings, I was convinced for a very long time that it was the most successful example of a series that mixed drama (high school drama, but drama nonetheless), with music, into one cogent, entertaining show. My opinion changed when I started watching Empire.

Glee Season 6

Empire delves deep into the hip-hop industry, its workings, and the culture, which forms its roots. I’ve never been a fan of hip-hop or rap, but Empire changed that for me because it gives context to the genre, and that makes the music much more enjoyable.

The show follows the life of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who is a drug dealer-turned-music mogul. Lucious is the head of Empire records, a company that started out from nothing, and is now poised to go public. It is at this time when he is diagnosed with ALS, a disease with no cure that will eventually lead to his death, and he realises that he must name one of his three sons as a successor before it’s too late. Lucious’ sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are vastly different from one another, and are united only by their ambition to take over Empire. Andre is a hardworking financial wizard with zero mass appeal, Hakeem is a talented but lazy rapper whose constant partying and entitled attitude comes in the way of his career, and Jamal is an immensely gifted musician, but much to his father’s distaste, is also gay. Also fighting for Empire is Cookie Lyon (Taraji Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife, who has just been released from prison after 17 years.

Empire moves at a blistering pace, with enough plot twists to make your head spin. Scorned lovers, illegitimate children, conspirators, spies and vengeful henchmen walk in and out of episodes before you have the time to register what is happening. Cookie is, undeniably, the life of the show. Played by Taraji Henson, Cookie is the ex-wife who is ready for life and hungry for success with a rare kind of panache. Cookie isn’t afraid of doing what’s right for herself and her sons, even if that means beating one of them up with a broomstick until they learn to give her respect. Some of her lines on paper, sound terribly contrived (“You want Cookie’s nookie?”), but on screen, they are magic. The other breakout star is Jussie Smollett who plays the sensitive, genius Jamal. He is completely believable in his struggle as a gay musician who is trying to gain acceptance not only from the world, but also from his father.

His voice is beautiful, and his songs in the show are poignant, beautiful and catchy. If you’re looking for a show that will entertain you, look no further than Empire. It has drama, attitude, and at times, it even has heart.

(The sixth season of Glee is being telecast on Star World)