A week ago, I wrote that I’d review some of the TV series I’ve been watching this summer. I’ll start with two good, and one bad. I won’t attempt to write about everything I’ve seen – I also watched Revenge seasons 1 through 3, but really, what could one say about it? (Not that this will stop from watching season 4 when it shows up in Netflix.) These three, though, are worthy of comment.
Les Revenants. This was the big winner of the group, and I’m only sorry it took me a while to watch it. Several friends recommended it highly, but the premise – zombies – put me off, even if they were returning to earth in a village in the French Alps, which certainly suggests a high degree of taste.
But really, saying Les Revenants is about zombies doesn’t begin to capture the nuances of the show, which – until almost the end of its eight-episode run – focused on capturing, with exquisite subtlety, the unmooring of an entire community, who are faced with the return of people they loved, but had never expected to see again. From the first shot, the look and feel of Les Revenants – beautiful but disquieting – had me in its grip. It can seem at first as though almost nothing is happening, yet you can’t look away. Everything about the show – writing, acting, and cinematography – is just terrific. (And OK,I’ll admit it – I think actor Pierre Perrier is just about the sexiest thing I’ve seen on TV in years.)
My only worry now is that season 2 (not yet screened, at least not in the U.S.) won’t – can’t, really – live up to the first one.
Rectify. Like Les Revenants, Rectify has short seasons (three so far, for a total of 22 episodes), and is built around a big, difficult premise – Daniel Holden, a still-young man (whose murder conviction 20 years ago – which carried a death sentence – has been vacated, leaving him to return to an uncertain future with the family who never expected to see him again, in the community that thinks he’s a killer.
Yet Rectify is also like Les Revenants in that God is in the details – in this case, through a nuanced look at the small details of life in a tiny Georgia town. Sometimes, the show is sadly funny; more often, it’s simply heartbreaking. But it’s almost always gripping, and superbly acted, especially by Aden Young as Daniel, who manages to be sympathetic and scary at the same time. There’s also fine supporting work by a number of actors – my favorites are Adelaide Clemmens, as the fragile wife of Daniel’s stepbrother, and J. Smith Cameron, as his mother – these two seem absolutely real.
Empire. This pulpy soap opera practically defines “guilty pleasure” – the next morning, you may not be able to look at yourself in the mirror, but it’s hard not to have fun while you’re watching the ludicrously over-the-top antics of music moguls Lucious and Cookie Lyon. The basic idea – Dynasty reimagined as a Black family hip-hop industry – is inspired, the look of the show is first rate, and if the plotting and dialogue lack substance…. well, nobody is watching Empire for credibility.
The real (and surprising) problem with the show is that there are only a few actors who give professional-calibre performances – mostly Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as the senior Lyonses (but I’ll put in a good word, too, for Damon Gupton, in a smaller recurring role as a detective). I’m frankly appalled that Howard, an unrepentant domestic abuser, is not only not in jail, but is gainfully employed – but I can see why creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong hired him. Howard has the unctuous charm of a snake oil salesman. Henson, who throws herself into the fray with an awesome mix of energy, bite, and even a humorous wink at the silliness of her material, is just great.
But the younger generation – and they are hugely important here, since Empire is very much in the Dynasty mold – are a total loss. Maybe you could find a blander, less charismatic group of actors, but you’d have to look hard. Nor have the high-profile guest stars brought anything worthwhile to the party – I don’t know what Courtney Love thinks she’s doing, but it’s a train wreck disguised as a performance.
Don’t get me wrong – I still think Empire is entertaining, and I plan to continue with season 2. But there’s an awful lot here that rests on Taraj P. Henson’s leopard skin-clad shoulders. I hope Daniels and Strong gave her a hefty bonus – she’s earned it!