Can women really have it all? That’s what ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ wants to know

ABC, Reviews, Screening of Life, TV

Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo in Only Mama Knows episode of Grey's Anatomy

You want to know why I still watch “Grey’s Anatomy”? Check out last week’s episode on demand.

In it, Shonda Rhimes and Co. pull off muscular – and affecting – drama around a plot point the showrunner planned at the series’ inception 11 years ago. That’s remarkable enough, but the episode titled “Only Mama Knows” also showed, in starker detail than before, the price a talented woman paid for her ambition and skill.

This has been the central conflict of the show: Can an ambitious woman have it all? What if she doesn’t want to be a mother? Or the men in her life can’t handle her talent or ambition?

Meredith Grey, the show’s title character, has struggled with this, and the shadow of her gifted mother, Ellis Grey, from the start. It’s a major flashpoint in her marriage to fellow surgeon Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey).

If this were a more conventional series, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) might be depicted as an anomaly. But Rhimes, a supremely talented showrunner and Dartmouth grad that also created “Scandal,” knows that smart and ambitious women aren’t as rare as unicorns.

From the start, doctor in training Meredith had an equally, if not more, ambitious pal in Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), even less interested in conforming to gender stereotypes than Meredith.

kate-burton-ellis-greys-anatomy-portraitAnd there was, and still is, Bailey (Chandra Wilson), a stern taskmaster for newbie doctors, plus telling flashbacks of Ellis (Kate Burton, left) in her prime. Nominally softer female characters such as Izzie (Katherine Heigl) were shown to have overcome long odds in their quest to become a doctor.

And now, 11 episodes in, Meredith is coming to terms with the love child her late mother had with Richard (James Pickens Jr.) but Meredith somehow did not know existed. When this development was first revealed late last season, long-time viewers could be forgiven an eye roll.

I know I certainly did.

After all, another sister of Meredith (from her father’s subsequent marriage) had already come and gone. And episodes had grown slack with an attenuated send off to Oh’s Cristina. I was still watching, but less avidly.

“Grey’s Anatomy” had certainly tested my faith before, most strongly with the Denny ghost storyline, but last season’s malaise felt different, more attributable to the show’s age. Another sibling seemed like a tired rehash of the Lexi (Chyler Leigh) storyline.

kelly-mccreary-maggie-pierce-greys-anatomyThis sisterhood, however, is pricklier, and a lot trickier to pull off than that one. How could Meredith not know about her mother’s love child? Or Richard? Here, the show’s longevity pays off: The drama plays on viewers’ knowledge of Meredith’s relationship with her mother, before and after Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the cloudiness of memory.

With this episode, Rhimes serves notice that she is not yet done examining the fallout from female ambition. “Only Mama Knows” is especially delicious coming so soon after the Alessandra Stanley’s reductive story about her “angry characters” in the New York Times. How many times are strong and ambitious women painted with that brush? Too many.

Ellis’ story is haunting, but Rhimes’ prognosis for contemporary women doesn’t seem nearly as bleak. For starters, she has created a mini-empire while raising children, and bristles when media press her on work-life balance.

And this week’s episode suggests that the long battle between Meredith and Derek over dueling career ambitions and parenthood isn’t as hopeless as it was starting to seem.

Maybe, just maybe, this fictional woman can really have it all.

This being a Shonda Rhimes concoction, I’m certainly not expecting a happily ever after ending for “Grey’s Anatomy,” however. The episode itself ends on a bittersweet note that I will not spoil here. You really should watch for yourself.

For more on Rhimes, read THR’s recent cover story , and its story about how this week’s remarkable episode came together. Mark Harris also wrote a compelling story about the “angry black woman” flap for Grantland.

And here’s my review for Rhimes-produced “How to Get Away With Murder,” which has yet to capture my fancy.

Save

Recent reviews: ‘The Affair,’ ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Left Behind’

movie review, Movies, Reviews, Screening of Life, TheWrap, TV

review-trio-affair-kingdom-left-behind

I recently reviewed “Left Behind,” “The Affair,” and “Kingdom” for TheWrap. Much to my surprise, I most liked “Kingdom.”

Yes, it’s drenched in machismo and more than slightly misogynistic. But creator Byron Balasco has created a believable world of characters that circle around a Venice beach mixed martial arts gym. The first episode pummels viewers, but things ease up in subsequent episodes, and the DirecTV show’s better for it. Nick Jonas holds his own in a cast including Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria.

Read more here.

I was ready to like “The Affair” — beach settings! pay cable relationship drama! — but alas, I was far from smitten with the premiere. Biggest issue: the extramarital dalliance at its center seems awfully familiar. Oh geeze, another seemingly happy married man just can’t resist a weepy woman from a lower socio-economic bracket. How midlife crisis of him.

The Showtime series is indeed full of pretty beach scenes — it’s set in Montauk, Long Island — and has an intriguing he said/she said set-up, but so far the main characters just aren’t likeable enough to warrant a major commitment. I’ll check back, but am not overly optimistic that it will win a place in my cranky heart.

My review is here.

“Left Behind,” meanwhile, should have stayed a direct to video movie. The Rapture disaster reboot starring Nicolas Cage is didactic, and verging on parody. Production values: Not good.

More here.

 

Homeland Episode 401 with Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

‘Homeland’ is back – and I’m on board

Reviews, Screening of Life, TV

True confession time: I have tried intermittently to get into “Homeland” since its debut, but never could. Too political or too something. In any case, not for me.

Until now. The first two episodes of Season 4, both airing tonight, had me on the edge of my seat. It was like a much better version of “Zero Dark Thirty” from an early episode bombing strike onward.

And Claire Danes, who will always have a place in my heart as Angela in “My So Called Life,” is riveting as Carrie Mathison. Maternity has not softened the CIA operative; she is as complex and devoted to her work as ever.

When her boss (playwright Tracy Letts!) inquires about the mental well being of another operative (Rupert Friend’s Quinn) fresh from the field, Danes’ Carrie urges understanding.

“Give him some time – he was right in the middle of it,” she responds.

“Yeah,” her boss says, “so were you.”

But Carrie isn’t like everyone else, as surely everyone knows by now. People keep asking the Drone Queen whether she’s ever troubled when tactics go wrong, and she deflects.

“I try to see the big picture – the mission,” she responds after one such inquiry.

“Homeland” took some knocks last season, which saw the death of Damian Lewis’ turncoat officer Nick Brody, the father of Carrie’s child. Whether or not disappointed fans will be ready to see the larger creative picture is up to them.

I just know I’m completely on board.

“Homeland” Season 4 debuts on Showtime at 8 p.m. ET/PT

No season pass for ‘How to Get Away With Murder’

Reviews, Screening of Life, TheWrap, TV

how-get-away-murder-viola-davis-abc-premiereI was SO ready to like “How to Get Away With Murder,” the latest project from Shonda Rhimes, but the premiere left me wanting. Viola Davis was riveting, but the plotting was disjointed and the student characters callow.

Maybe that will improve with time. But I’m not ready to devote a season pass to it yet.

Here’s my review for TheWrap.

Do yourself a favor and watch ‘Transparent’

Reviews, Screening of Life, TheWrap, TV

jeffrey tambor stars in TransparentJill Soloway’s new serio-comedy is so good I plowed through all the episodes I could get my hands on yesterday, then quickly re-watched to see what I had missed the first time around.

The Amazon show revolves around a father coming out to his adult children with his secret female identity. It’s melancholy, intimate and wholly unconventional, the perfect antidote to broad sitcoms trafficking in tired cliches.

You will never think of Jeffrey Tambor the same. Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman are pretty terrific, too, as adult kids with their own issues.

Read my review at TheWrap here. And then go stream the show via Amazon Prime.

‘The Good Wife’ Season 6 Opener: Alicia Finally Snaps Out of It

Reviews, Screening of Life, TV

Julianna Margulies in the Season 6 premiere for The Good Wife, The LineVery strong season opener for “The Good Wife” tonight: Alicia and Co. got back to business with nary a mention of Will, the partner killed late last season, though the fallout from his demise continues to reverberate.

My review for TheWrap:
‘The Good Wife’ Review: Legal Drama Ditches the Grief for Dynamic Storytelling

‘Parade’s End’: Benedict Cumberbatch has a bad case of the mumbles

HBO, TV

benedict-cumberbatch-parades-end-mumble-mouth

Caught up with “Parade’s End” and I’ll say this about HBO’s “Downton”-like miniseries:

1. It looks gorgeous.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch’s muddy elocution got in the way of the story. For long patches of the five-part series, it was impossible to figure out what his character was saying. I get that Christopher Tietjens was supposed to have a stiff upper lip — and be restrained to a fault — but director Susanna White did the audience no favors by allowing him to mumble his words so.

I wanted to shake his shoulders like Gen. Campion and say: Enunciate, good man!

This tortured diction was evidently intentional, given that Christopher’s father in the series, portrayed by Alan Howard, spoke in the same incomprehensible fashion. Spoiled and vivacious Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) was a welcome antidote to these two marble mouthed men.

I liked the complexity of the characters — especially Sylvia — and swooned over her outfits and the gorgeous scenery away from the front lines in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I novels. But I really wish Cumberbatch had spoken more clearly.

‘Age Is Just a Number’: Now we’re talking!

books, TV

agejustnumberAnd now, for a reminder that middle-age need not mean sitting around whinging, I bring you Dara Torres. The Olympian who mounted an improbable comeback at age 41 is still competing one year later despite pesky knee problems and a rambunctious toddler at home.

Over the weekend, she competed in the world swimming finals for the 50 meter free, alas finishing eighth. Tonight she’s skedded to appear on “The Daily Show.”

She took time out of the pool long enough last year to pen “Age Is Just a Number” with coauthor Elizabeth Weil. In this frank account, published in April, Torres talks about her struggles with bulimia, failed marriages and other missteps along the way to her fifth Olympic Games in Beijing. It hasn’t always been easy but Torres isn’t the type to scare off easily; she has always been blessed with a strong competitive drive and financial resources to pull her through various setbacks.

Best of all: She never intended her last comeback, but rather fell into it after resuming swimming during pregnancy.

“I didn’t consult any scientists to see if my comeback plans were crazy,” she writes. “I suppose I didn’t want to hear if they were. But later I learned that lifestyle, not genetics, is the primary reason older athletes slow down, and that made a lot of sense to me.”

Torres hasn’t ruled out the 2012 Games, but for now she’s ready for a much needed break. The rest of us would be well-served to heed her message: Don’t let age make you give up on your dream.

Earlier: Oh snap out of it: Why midlife crises can be so boring, Lessons from my mother

So much for the land of the ‘Free’

HBO, networks, recession, TV

freecoverLatest blow to Chris Anderson’s argument that Free stuff always prevails — feevee subs are continuing to hold their own in this wretched economy, despite more cost free alternatives than ever. HBO and Showtime execs proudly touted this fact at the TV press tour last week, just days after Anderson’s grumpy interview with Germany’s Spiegel went viral.

Among the bon mots in that interview: “Free is the force of gravity.”

Don’t get it? Let him explain: “If we decide to resist it then somebody else will compete with something that is free. The marketplace follows the underlying economics. You can be free or you can compete with free.”

He then argues that Wall Street Journal “cleverly” uses free content to convert people to paid content — a variation of his argument in the book that HBO uses free content on YouTube to drive subscriptions. Neither tracks. People subscribe to HBO and the Wall Street Journal because they value the quality of the content. Other outlets haven’t been able to succeed with the same argument, but that doesn’t diminish either the WSJ or HBO’s achievement: Sometimes consumers ARE willing to pay, other times they aren’t. In fact, as The Wrap points out, feevee channels are doing well at a time when broadcast nets are struggling.

Sheesh.

Earlier: Glad she asked: ‘Free’ prodder; ‘Free’: A paradox of expediency

Wyatt Cenac, vampire of comedy

comedy, digital media, TV, Variety

wyattIn case you were wondering, Wyatt Cenac is not one of those rat-tat-tat jokesters in person. Not at first meeting, anyway. But make no mistake about it — he’s very droll. And sly.

During our interview a few weeks back, he made several stealth points about Sarah Palin and the media. Sadly, they didn’t make it in my Variety Comic to Watch profile, linked here. Not enough space to do them justice; besides, sometimes you have to be along for the ride.

Cenac, “Daily Show” exec producer Josh Lieb observed, is deceptive — he seems innocent but is very sharp-witted. When you relax your guard, “that’s when he kills you. He’s a vampire of comedy.”

If you have a few minutes, treat yourself to a couple of his bits from “The Daily Show.” In “Judgmental,” he amusingly riffs on Sonia Sotomayor’s name and supposed gang ties; in “Fled Sanford,” he wildly speculates about Gov. Mark Sanford’s activities while supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail. I love how he breaks up during the latter.

Also wrote three profiles for the companion Comedy Impact Report: One on Sandra Bullock, who showed she still has serious comedic chops in “The Proposal”; another on comedians’ use of Twitter; and a third on Comedy Central’s Web sites, led by Erik Flannigan.