Including Modern Family, Tony Slattery and White Lines
From sad sitcom salutes to dire drug dramas, here's some new stuff on the small screen.
Little Fires Everywhere ★★★★☆
Having played everyone from a ridiculous wannabe lawyer to June Carter Cash, Reese Witherspoon appears to be settling into the role of overly fussy mom whose every sentence seems loaded with passive aggression. In that sense, she takes a short leap from Big Little Lies to Little Fires Everywhere, an eight-part adaptation of Celeste Ng's late 90s-set novel about class, race and privilege. But above all, the piece is concerned with motherhood, as Witherspoon's Elena Richardson does her utmost to secure the best possible future for her four kids (one rebel with identity and mental-health issues is treated partially as a pain in Elena's ass).
Paired against this faux-perfect suburban homemaker, local news journalist and book-group leader is Mia (Kerry Washington), an artist who is now Elena's tenant. Mia's teenage daughter Pearl remains unaware of her father's true identity. A few episodes in, all we're sure of is something sinister lurking in Mia's past and that this mum/daughter team have moved home innumerable times.
In almost every single scene, Washington does a remarkable if surely exhausting job in having her face move from pained smile to bafflement and then barely disguised disgust, sometimes at the Richardsons' privileged ways (despite Elena and her husband's suspicions, they take Mia on as their 'home manager'), occasionally at her daughter's perfectly reasonable despair at their itinerant lifestyle. An over-reliance on musical montages aside, Little Fires Everywhere does a good job at ramping up the intrigue and portraying both the loneliness and yearning of those tagged as outsiders.
Amazon Prime Video, Friday 22 May.
Modern Family ★★★☆☆
After 11 years, 250 episodes, cast changes, serious illness, cosmetic surgery, divorce, and death (Stella the dog died the day after the final season's filming was complete, and Phil's 'dad' Fred Willard passed away last weekend), the show which did a fair bit to bring America together in times of severe division has finally checked out. And it's fair to say that this emotional goodbye had been coming. While never exactly scraping the barrel, the writers couldn't quite match the undeniable glories of its early years: little wonder that 2011 Emmys host Jane Lynch introduced that ceremony with the words 'welcome to the Modern Family awards'.
With its last episode, all three households are attempting to come to terms with various era-defining changes. All the while, Jay is learning Spanish to impress Gloria, while Mitchell and Claire re-enact their finest/ickiest moment on the ice-rink, and Cam inevitably gets stopped in his tracks during a probably over-wrought farewell speech. There are plenty tears, a few laughs and some regrets (you can see it in the cast's eyes at least) that a show which was viewed as relatively progressive when it premiered in 2009 was now over.
All episodes on NOW TV and Netflix.
Horizon: What's the Matter With Tony Slattery? ★★★☆☆
Back in the 90s, improv comic genius Tony Slattery appeared to have the world at his feet. After incidents which witnesses at the time put down to mere showbiz eccentricities, he disappeared from public view almost entirely. As this Horizon documentary shows, most people had no inkling that his increasingly erratic behaviour was due to a mix of severe mental-health issues exacerbated by chronic substance abuse. Once a strikingly handsome and energetic presence in any room, Slattery is now a 60-year-old who looks at least a decade older, run down by addictions, bipolar disorder and a secret story of childhood abuse that was made public in the past year.
Across a mere 60 minutes, this programme aims to boil down his problems in a desperate pursuit of Diagnosis By Documentary as we see him visiting a number of clinicians, cameras whirring as he reveals things which have apparently been kept private even to his selfless partner of several decades, Mark Michael Hutchinson. There's a vaguely awkward reunion with old pal Stephen Fry, nostalgic clips of Slattery in his heyday, a look at his recent tentative attempts at a comeback. All fine and well, but were the interviews with Slattery now in which he provided a voiceover to repeated and exploitative images of him looking crumpled and anxious strictly necessary?
But soon it is all over, and viewers can file Tony Slattery's life story away in the 'seen' folder. You often watch a new eight-part drama and wonder why they didn't manage to cut off all the excess and get it done in two or three parts. Here, it's hard to fathom why this gets the rushed treatment with an individual and a subject that deserves a much more considered and broader approach.
BBC Two, Thursday 21 May.
White Lines ★★☆☆☆
From the creative mind of Álex Pina, the man behind unlikely international hit Money Heist, comes a drama about the mysterious death of a young Manchester DJ in mid-90s Ibiza. With the coke, hash and booze flowing freely (it's apparently all AOK to drink and drive back then and now on the Balearics), we dip back and forth in time as wide-eyed teen Zoe becomes the concerned grown-up sister (Laura Haddock) who hotfoots it to Ibiza to unveil the killer of her ego-bloated brother (although she seems happy to park this honourable mission most nights to go clubbing like it's 1996).
Sadly, White Lines amounts to several hours of implausible plotting and poorly scripted fare. There are ridiculous grandstanding court scenes which have the credibility of a Carry On, and one inexplicable scene after another: a clearly drowned poodle is revived to gambolling status with a single punch to the throat while a man who has been harpooned in the leg in episode one, is sprinting around in episode two, and sleeping with his assailant by episode four. Despite the acting talents of Daniel Mays (largely wasted here, in more than one sense), there are a number of key roles taken by performers who don't quite possess what it takes to do the heavy lifting on an eight-part drama.
Mainly shot in blisteringly bright sunlight and featuring busy scenes (often in hazy slow-motion) of non-social distancing that will have you boiling in fury at such small-screen taunting or excited about the potential for their return one day, White Lines wants to be flashy and fun but is bleak and boring.
All episodes on Netflix.
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