Veep

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.

The Political Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The past week has been eventful, with two announcements that had us glued to our television sets, the first being the demonetization of the Rs. 500/- and Rs. 1,000/- notes, and the second being the majority of America’s public voting in Donald Trump to be the President of the United States, and the most powerful man in the free world.

Both were surprises, bombs, even, that were dropped on an unsuspecting public, leading to shock, awe and panic. Both these decisions, I am sure, also involved tense newsrooms and action behind the scenes – the kind that directors and writers try so hard to bring to life on screen. It’s hard to imagine exactly what could have happened in the halls of our Prime Minister’s office given the superficial, almost comical ways that high stakes Indian political scenarios are played out in our films and television. However, it is possible to visualize the amount of work, the tension and the nerves that took over political offices in the United States on Wednesday morning, thanks to the abundance of excellent film and television shows that give us an intimate look into the workings of their system.

The most comprehensive show when it comes to American politics, is undoubtedly, The West Wing. The show ran from 1999 to 2006, a true television classic, and is perhaps the prime reason behind Aaron Sorkin’s iconic status as a screenwriter today. The West Wing explores the trials and tribulations of the senior staff at the White House as they attempt to run the most powerful country in the world, while balancing a no-nonsense President who couldn’t care less about being liked and the ground realities at Washington. It’s fast paced, full of quotable lines, an enormous amount of fun to watch, and most importantly, an education in American politics.

Although the The West Wing is the first show that comes to mind (my mind, at the least) at the mention of American politics, it is a decade old now, and runs the risk of being ever so slightly irrelevant.

Many consider its successor to be the Netflix original (and smash hit), House of Cards. It must be said though, that House of Cards is practically a fantasy show in comparison to The West Wing. House of Cards traces the ambitions of Frank Underwood, a Congressman, and his wife, Claire, as they go on a no-holds-barred spree to do whatever it takes to get to the top. House of Cards is just as well written and snappy as The West Wing, but is also extraordinarily exaggerated. The West Wing’s pull lay in its realism. There are plenty of moments in House of Cards where you can’t help but wonder how absurd the scenarios are. Having said that, Donald Trump is America’s President-Elect, so I’m starting to question myself about the show’s farfetchedness.

Finally, it is hard to ignore Veep, the HBO production starring multiple Emmy award winner, Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Veep narrates the story of Selina Meyer, a former US Senator who becomes the Vice President after a failed campaign, and is constantly relegated to matters of unimportance. Veep is entertaining, witty as hell and sharply written. It is unfortunate though, that the one show which is focused on chronicling a woman’s effort to get to the top seat has to be classified as a comedy.

{The West Wing is on FX, Veep is on Star World Premiere HD, and House of Cards is on Netflix}

Of Awards and Underdogs

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 68th Emmy Awards came to a close the previous Sunday night (Monday morning, for you and me), pulling the curtains down on an another year of television based glitz, glamour and predictability. While most of the awards went to the same people and shows it usually did (Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth straight Emmy), there were a few notable moments from the Awards ceremony.

Rami Malek took home the Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for Mr.Robot, in a ‘surprise’ win that felt obligatory. There’s no denying that Malek was excellent in his performance as the neurotic hacker, Elliot, but it felt unfair to me because some of the other actors in his category (and by some, I mean Matthew Rhys) had given better performances over a longer span of time. Mr. Robot’s second season is already far less impressive than the first, so although the Emmys took the apparently unconventional route with this winner, it didn’t come across as deserving. The Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series was also a surprise, albeit more meritorious – Tatiana Maslany, after three years of being snubbed, took home the award for playing multiple characters in Orphan Black.

mr robot, rami malek, emmys 2016, emmys 2016 rami malek

Aziz Ansari also took home an Emmy, although it wasn’t in the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series category. Instead, Ansari, along with Alan Yang, won the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None. While Ansari didn’t get to talk much (the orchestra began playing before he could even finish his thank-yous), Yang made a comment in his speech about how there are 17 million Asian Americans in the United States, and about the same number of Italian Americans. He went on to say that the Italians have The Sopranos, The Godfather, Rocky and Goodfellas, whereas the Asians have Long Duk Dong (an Asian exchange student in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, known for his bizarre behavior and over the top clumsiness). Yang also asked Asian American parents to get their kids “cameras instead of violins”. Yang’s speech was definitely one of the more dramatic ones that the evening saw, but it comes at an important time, after all, it has taken till 2016 for Asians and South Asians to be portrayed with nuance and depth, and not as inhuman parents constantly preoccupied with their children’s grades or bumbling owners of grocery shops.

The final hour of the Emmy’s was as predictable as the final hour of most masala movies – surprise winners notwithstanding, everyone knew who the winner was even before their names were announced. People vs OJ Simpson, which was nominated in a whopping 22 categories, took home the Outstanding Limited Series award. The Outstanding Drama Series went to Game of Thrones. Veep won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Now, People vs OJ Simpson, Veep, and Game of Thrones, are without doubt, studies in television excellence which deserved to win – but why does disappointment linger? Maybe it’s because from time to time, we want a David toppling a Goliath. Maybe it’s because we watch far too much television, for if we didn’t, we would know that underdogs hijacking spotlights doesn’t really happen in the real world.

If This, Then That

A couple of days ago, I was reading about the algorithm, or the computer code that internet giants like Amazon and Netflix use to round up recommendations for their users. They’ve constantly been updating their algorithm, in order to provide better recommendations, and the name of the algorithm they use now, is called Pragmatic Chaos. I found this intensely fascinating – imagine engineers poring over complex mathematical equations to help you find the best way to burn another ten hours of your life, watching television. Pragmatic Chaos determines sixty percent of what is being watched/rented at Netflix, which is a ridiculously large number for sales that’s generated by a piece of code. Inspired by Pragmatic Chaos, and in the hope that this will contribute towards the remaining forty percent of viewing choices, here are my recommendations for what you should be watching, based on what you like.

If you like Sherlock, you will love Broadchurch: If you were to pin point to the reason for the appeal, and at times, frenzy behind the BBC’s contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, it would be Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock. His accent, his lack of empathy and his cheekbones make him a character who is hard to ignore and to dislike. Broadchurch, also produced by the BBC, has a similar emotionally unavailable protagonist (with similarly high cheekbones) in detective Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant. Much like Sherlock, Broadchurch has a wonderful working partner chemistry between the leading pair (Olivia Colman who plays Ellie Miller), too. If you enjoyed Sherlock, then it’s time to make way for Broadchurch as your new favourite detective series.
{Broadchurch is presently telecast on Colors Infinity}

broadchurch, television show reviews

If you like Friends, you will love Grace and Frankie: Most of my generation grew up on Friends, and I can’t remember anyone who disliked the part hilarious, part heart warming (and part bawdy) coming of age comedy. Most of my generation is also now all grown up and facing existential crises every other day, which is why I recommend Grace and Frankie, a show about two women in their seventies whose husbands leave them for each other, and now have to navigate the single life by themselves. This show is just as heartwarming, hilarious (and bawdy) as Friends. While Friends saw a lot of us wanting to become adults and grow up overnight, Grace and Frankie will make you feel a lot better about ageing.
{Grace and Frankie is on Netflix}

If you like House of Cards, you will love Veep: If you enjoy House of Cards and Francis Underwood’s takeover of the American government, it’s probably because you either have a twisted mind that’s similar to Francis’, or because you enjoy fast-paced, and entertaining shows based on American politics. If it is indeed the latter, then you will enjoy Veep, a political comedy that is as sharp as it is silly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent as Selina Meyer, the Vice President (Veep for short) of the United States who has startlingly little power. Veep is the light to the dark that House of Cards brought to politically themed shows, and although it is very funny, do not expect it to be as entertaining as the actual American elections that are going on right now.
{Veep is being telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

veep