Wednesday, January 22, 2014


When Jacqueline Bisset gave what initially seemed to me to be a drunken or wasted speech at The Golden Globes (she said afterward that she was stone sober but just overwhelmed) after winning a Best Actress for her performance in the TV mini-series Dancing On The Edge, I decided I'd like to see what she won for.

The six episodes of Dancing On The Edge were available on demand, so I watched three episodes one day, two the next and the last the following day. And truthfully, Bisset was really impressive in it. There were some other good performances, mainly Chiwetel Ejiorfor's, playing the main character, a British jazz band leader in London in the early 1930s.

Modeled on Duke Ellington to a great extent, Ejiofor's character is classy, smooth, brilliant (musically, and at times socially and in some other ways, though often his actions seem not to smart) and ends up embroiled in a murder mystery plot, though the purpose of the show seems to be to emphasize the racism in England at the time.

The writing is often predictable and/or redundant, and the directing, including the casting, and acting are uneven. But Bisset is a revelation as a mourning, reclusive aristocrat with a taste for jazz music.  Only the music seemed totally miscast.  The theme and soundtrack music is modern, which is okay, other TV series with similar time periods, e.g. Boardwalk Empire, use contemporary music in their openings (though few do it for background soundtrack).

But the music that the entire premise of the show depends on bears little resemblance to the jazz of the period.  And the storyline depends on our accepting that England was unaware of "black music" i.e. jazz, until 1932 and Ejiofor's character comes along. Then the main jazz singer that supposedly captivates all kinds of people from all different classes, is played by a competent singer (if it's her voice) but nowhere near as exciting and original as the actual recorded black jazz singers of that period (like say early Ella).

And she's supposed to be beautiful in a way that captivates all kinds of men, and though the actress playing her is attractive she is nowhere near as stunning as she's made out to be. And so on. Then there's the other male lead, the white one to balance Ejiofor's character, a music reporter played by Matthew Goode, the British actor I always mistake for another one until he moves and talks and then I realize it's Goode, whose charm and attractiveness are not, for me, those of the leading men he generally plays.

The story did suck me in because I wanted to see how they resolved it.  But they used the cheapest of cheap shots to do that, so ultimately the whole experience was mostly unsatisfying, save for some of the acting (everyone was good in that regard, even if they were miscast), especially Ejiofor's and Bisset's.

But man, you want to see how to make a six-episode TV series, check out True Detective. Talk about high quality.  The casting alone is worth watching it for.  Everyone (so far, I've only seen the first two episodes, which are all that have aired yet) is good. But damn, Matthew McConaughy is having a hell of a "moment" as they say. He plays a troubled character, with some of the best film noir dialogue since Raymond Chandler, only more so, with perfect modulation and control.

I mean seriously, watching him in this is like a lesson in screen acting. As good or better than anything you could say that about, like early DiNiro or Pacino, or Brando even, or Jennifer Jason Liegh at her peak.  And he's playing mostly off Woody Harrelson, who's no slouch either.  Harrelson has some incredible moments as well, the subtle ones are the best, but it's mainly McConaughy's show and he makes it work in as a unique way as you're likely to ever see on TV.

The camera work, the music, the atmosphere, the editing and casting and direction are all so good, for me this show, so far (fingers crossed it doesn't disappoint in future episodes) is the new benchmark for TV drama (with the caveat that it does play the sensationalism, sex and violence card, as did Dancing In The Dark and does Boardwalk Empire and Homeland and so many others).  Can't wait to see it continue to play out.    


Bob said...

I haven't seen either program but always appreciate your reviews. Speaking of Harrelson, he continues to impress as his career moves along. Have you seen a film from a few years ago called, The Messenger? Harrelson was terrific as were all the other actors.

Lally said...

Yeah Bob, I did see it and he was terrific in that. TRUE DETECTIVE is similar in that the two leads are Woody and another intense actor, but McConaughy is doing something even more original than Ben Foster (which I think is the name of the other guy in THE MESSENGER)...

AlamedaTom said...

I had only seen the first episode when you first posted. Just watched episode 2 last night. Your assessment is perfect. Man, McConaughy is nothing short of amazing. Just watching him from scene to scene is a revelation. I'm now convinced that he is the best actor working these days. From True Detective to Magic Mike to Mudd to Dallas Buyers to Paper Boy his range astonishes. I used to write him off as a lightweight, "take his shirt off" actor, but no more. The guy has evolved into something very unique and special. I too can hardly wait for the next 4 episodes. Can it get any better? I hope so.

~ Willy

Lally said...

I saw a great interview, or maybe heard it on NPR, don't remember, but in it McConaughy talked about that transformation (from hunk to serious actor) and credits his wife and marriage and having children for it. He's incredibly articulate about the craft of acting and about himself. The guy's pretty brilliant it turns out. Which we may have all guessed by how well he made his first impact in DAZED AND CONFUSED. That was a pretty amazing acting job too.