News Column

TV Picks: 'Boardwalk,' 'Halifax,' "Holler,' 'Brains on Trial'

September 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 06--"Boardwalk Empire" (HBO, Sundays). I have not kept up scrupulously with "Boardwalk Empire," from the sheer demand of trying to keep up with everything on television -- which is now not merely television, but anything you can see on a screen (not counting "the movies," but including, soon, your wristwatch). There are time-management choices even the non-professional viewer must make. But unlike some shows I do not keep up with, because they have nothing to say to me, or because what they have to say to me is disagreeable, or so poorly expressed as to be disagreeable, I am always happy to check back in with this series, now entering its fourth season, to bask in the luxuriousness of its assured tone, quietly evocative period work, impeccable acting and the richer-than-usual emotional life of its characters. For all that it's a complicated drama, with shifting allegiances and players who come and (often violently) go, one never feels flummoxed by having missed an episode or three or five; the power relationships are always clear and the business on screen usually intriguing enough to make any confusion moot.

Created by "Sopranos" vet Terence Winter, with Martin Scorsese as a pilot-directing, tone-setting executive producer, this story of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, the land that was Vegas before Las Vegas was Vegas, is of a piece with Scorsese's true-crime theatrical films, though also more down-to-earth and (the luxury of so many hours) relaxed. There is a certain psychological leisure, too, that comes with knowing (or expecting, anyway) that Nucky's fate, though certainly not the only or even most compelling concern here, is linked to that of a real-life model, Enoch Johnson, who survived into the late 1960s and at a respectably ripe old age. If nothing else, "Boardwalk Empire" puts Steve Buscemi, and Kelly Macdonald on television for a dozen weeks each year. Buscemi seemed an odd choice, at first, as he must often seem, but there is no arguing with him now. As political-boss-crime-lords go, he is more thoughtful and better-mannered than most, mostly. The series is also about class and race, two subjects most American television likes to avoid, either under the impression (mistaken) that we we have moved past all that now, or (possibly not mistaken) that it's nothing viewers want to hear about. (It resembles "Justified" in this respect.) Points too for its theme music, "Straight Up and Down" by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, an unexpected (no matter how many times I see it) bit of post-Velvets guitar spray (glittering, dangerous) that sets a chronologically anachronistic yet somehow emotionally appropriate tone.

"Last Tango in Halifax" (PBS, Sundays). Sally Wainwright ("The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard") wrote this lovely series (based on her mother's actual experience) about two Yorkshire families brought together when widowed elder members Derek Jacobi and Ann Reid reconnect, after 60 years, on Facebook, and begin a belated romance. (A sudden move and an undelivered letter set them on divergent paths.) It's schematic in a satisfying way: She's posh, sophisticated, bold and of the city; he's a quiet countryman, with a heart condition. Though the series is not immune from that condition in which old people having a full life (or just using a computer) look cute, or even slightly childish, or age-inappropriate, to younger eyes, that is also part of the point here. Wainwright respects her characters' experience and intelligence. They have survived their issues. Less can be said of their children, also presented in a kind of symmetrical opposition: Jacobi and Reid each has a grown daughter; hers (Sarah Lancashire) has two sons, heads a school, and is separated from her husband, a "writer"; his (Nicola Walker) has one son, works in a pharmacy (and on their farm) and is widowed and lonely. (Jacobi's scenes with Walker are as beautifully rendered as those with Reid.) Not all get on equally well. Yorkshire looks humbly gorgeous, with its moors and high-tension lines, its canals and cobblestones, setting off the human comedy-drama. A second series has been commissioned.

"The Heart, She Holler" (Adult Swim, nightly beginning Tuesday). Patton Oswalt, who like Savoir-Faire is lately everywhere, Amy Sedaris (replacing an unavailable Kristen Schaal) and Heather Lawless star in this backwoods-Gothic, surrealist soap opera parody, back for a second, longer season. Disturbing nearly every second it's on -- it's somewhat of a blessing, then, that each episode lasts only 11 minutes -- it is improper, impolite, perverse, disgusting and insulting to country folk, full of anatomical anomalies and all manner of sexual and supernatural weirdness -- a typical Adult Swim show, in other words. The story concerns the Heartshe family ("The Heart, She Holler" is a kind of misreading of "The Heartshe Holler/Hollow"): brother Hurlan (Oswalt), a Moe-haired moron who grew up in cave, alone, and his sisters: slatternly Hershe (Sedaris, who makes her even more repulsive than Schaal did) and Hambrosia (Heather Lawless), sexless, ethereal and sad, with a mystical bent. (A scene in which she repeatedly crawls into her oven, which has a "suicide" setting, and leaves behind bits of her soul, I guess, as pie for her indifferent husband -- until she becomes invisible -- is an effective metaphor for a certain sort of domestic despair, and rather beautiful; there are similar unexpected gifts throughout.) All are out to control the holler, urged this way and that by father "Boss" Hoss (Jonathan Hadry), who appears from beyond the grave in an "ongoing video will." A cross between "Un Chien Andalou," "Tobacco Road," "Erasherhead" and a "Carry On" film, it sometimes makes only a local sense, much as Hurlan's own mind operates. ("How long have you had these urges?" he is asked and replies, "As long as I can remember. About five minutes.") Reality bends to whatever odd effect the creators incline, and it is no no surprise at all to find that (with Alyson Levy), this is the work of John Lee and Vernon Chatman, who created "Wonder Showzen," a similarly depraved yet compelling 2005 MTV2 children's show parody that began with the disclaimer, "'Wonder Showzen' contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly and profound truths 'Wonder Showzen' exposes may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit." (Note proper use of "awesome.") The six-episode first season will rerun Monday; new episodes will air, beginning Tuesday, nightly through the rest of the month, at soap speed.

"Brains on Trial" (PBS, Thursdays). Alan Alda, who would not lie to you -- and he would tell you if he were -- hosts this two-part look at "how brains work when they become entangled with the law." That is not the John Agar 1950s sci-fi flick it might first sound like, but a look at how recent research into neuroscience and brain mapping change our understanding of basic questions of human reliability, memory and bias among witnesses, juries and judges. These epistemological problems, pondered by philosophers since time immemorial, are no less difficult today; if anything, they are complicated by new knowledge. But the new knowledge is interesting, anyway. The gimmick here, and it is one, is that a fictional crime (a convenience-store robbery, with a shooting) is being hashed out in a real courtroom with real lawyers and a real judge. (The defendant and the witnesses are actors.) Alda confers with legal minds and scientists to consider the ramifications of a possibly near future in which computers will read your mind (they already can, a bit, though they are liable to mistake Salma Hayek for the Mona Lisa) or expose, like a futuristic phrenologist, the likelihood of what used to be called a criminal mentality. Raised also are issues of free will versus biological predisposition -- what does responsibility mean to a person whose brain has a poor grasp of the concept -- and also of the privacy of one's own thoughts, and what the 5th Amendment might have to say about that. There is a corollary look at the physically immature teenage brain -- the accused in our (well-improvised) mock trial is just over 18 -- impulsive and lacking in self-control. The feeling of peer pressure is also a physiological fact, as is the quicker maturation of the female brain -- something you always felt to be true, but now can state with laboratory confidence.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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