Thursday, May 19, 2022

A Mixed Bag of TV Series - Some Biopics, Some True Crime and a Documentary

[I review these TV series: "Julia," "The First Lady," "The Girl from Plainville," and "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin."]


Julia (2022)

An absolutely delightful dramatized series about how Julia Child became the queen of French cooking in America.

Most people probably have some sense of who Julia Child was, that she wrote cookbooks and had one of the early TV cooking shows on PBS, but how many of you know her story and how she got there? This charming HBO Max biopic series wants to remedy that.
It begins in Norway where Julia’s husband, Paul (David Hyde Pierce), works as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department. But he has been called back to the U.S. and both Julia (Sarah Lancashire) and Paul think that it’s because the State Department wants to station them in Paris again, something both really want. Not to be. Paul is actually forced into retirement and Julia and Paul move to Cambridge, Massachusetts to start civilian life.
As a bit of a back story…Paris was the dream and they lived it. While in Paris, Julia discovered French cuisine and the French lifestyle. She attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later joined a cooking club where she met two women who were working on a French cookbook for Americans. They asked Julia to join them and the three collaborated on what would become the seminal cookbook on French cooking for the American market - “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Now back in Cambridge, the tables have turned a bit on Julia’s and Paul’s marriage. They are loving and dedicated to one another, but remember, this was the mid-20th century. Women, no matter how accomplished, still put their husbands first, and Julia was no exception. Women got their way by making their husbands think everything was their idea. Julia’s book has been published and after a funny TV interview where, instead of talking about her book, she made an omelet, a producer at WGBH in Boston proposes a cooking show for her and “The French Chef” is born. Against all odds, the show takes off. And then the San Francisco public television station, KQED, is the first to pick it up and off she goes. Paul on the other hand must find something to do with himself now that he is no longer working. How does Julia follow her dream while keeping her husband happy?
In addition to Julia’s story, the series is also eye-opening in its depiction of the early days of public television (think PBS), where Julia’s show started. WGBH was the first public television station in Boston and the first non-commercial station in all of New England, and let’s just say it was a bit stuffy and pretentious, and the idea of a cooking show was shocking to what was mostly a male dominated educational station. And they didn’t really know how to showcase a cooking show either, not to mention that Julia was not your typical TV performer. She was a big woman with a very high-pitched voice and she was not young. But she had charm. She was scared to death but determined and this all makes for a completely delightful series about a lovely, fascinating woman and the very first cooking show on TV. I dare you to not full in love with her!
And lest you think this show is just for foodies or cooks, or women, it’s not. Created by Daniel Goldfarb, it’s cultural, historical, wise, heart-felt, well-written, funny and just damn enjoyable. And you men will enjoy it too. Hubby is totally hooked! Can I gush enough? No.

Sarah Lancaster plays Julia and is a fixture on British TV. You “Last Tango in Halifax” fans will recognize her as Caroline, though maybe you won’t, because she has been completely transformed into Julia Child, voice and all, and she is just wonderful and fascinating to watch as she brings Julia to life. David Hyde Pierce, who specializes in playing snobby, fussy but endearing men, and plays Paul, is reunited with Bebe Neuwirth, his co-star from their “Frasier” days, who plays Julia’s good friend, Avis.

Rosy the Reviewer says…this series is a confection, the best meal you will ever have. It’s bingeable, delicious and satisfying. You won’t be able to put down your fork, er, the remote! Bon Appetit!
(HBO Max)


The First Lady (2022)

Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt are in the spotlight in this new Showtime series, a dramatization of the personal lives of three First Ladies and their impact on American politics while in the White House.  Who were they really? 

Viola Davis (Michelle Obama), Michelle Pfeiffer (Betty Ford) and Gillian Anderson (Eleanor Roosevelt) wonderfully bring them to life in this revealing series, that is well worth your time.

Created by Aaron Cooley, the series covers many of the stories most of us already know about: Betty Ford’s health problems and alcoholism and the founding of The Betty Ford Center, Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote health care and Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspoken activism at a time when women were supposed to be domestic and support their husbands.  But the series also highlights what you might not know: Michelle Obama’s fears for the safety of her family (because of threats,  Barack Obama was assigned Secret Service protection nine months before the Democratic National Primary, something that had never been done before) and the racism she endured; Eleanor’s disappointment at not getting a cabinet position, her sexuality, her involvement in international affairs and her limitations as a mother; and Betty Ford’s activism on behalf of the ERA and other feminist issues.  And there is much more revealed as these three strong women participated in the history of the United States.

Viola Davis uses a pursed lips approach to portray Michelle Obama, that sort of works but then becomes annoying after awhile.  Michelle Pfeiffer has the Michigan accent down (and I should know. I grew up there)!  And Gillian Anderson has worked her whole acting career to live down her role as Special Agent Dana Scully in “The X Files” (she always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with that role), and now seems to specialize in character roles.  All three actresses are all wonderful but Pfeiffer especially stands out. She is just phenomenal in this role.  If you had thought she got by on her looks, think again. She is an actress at the top of her game.  So believable as Betty Ford and so poignant. Expect an Emmy nomination for her performance. But all three are great. Each of these actresses could have carried a series playing these roles all on their own.  Kiefer Sutherland plays FDR, Aaron Eckhart plays Gerald Ford and O-T Fagbenle plays Barack Obama, and they are all fine but can't really compete with these tour de force performances by their actress counterparts.

There is something to be said about “the power behind the throne,” though I am not a believer that women need to take a back seat to their husbands.  But the Presidency is an institution that is slow to change, so thanks to Showtime for putting the spotlight on these heroic women, who played huge, though often unsung, roles in American history. We need heroes these days.  And thank you to these wonderful actresses who portrayed their stories so believably.

Rosy the Reviewer says…the fascinating stories of real female influencers. (Showtime)




The Girl from Plainville (2022)

This dramatization is based on the true heart-breaking story of teens Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy III and their ill-fated relationship.

Note: This story of teen suicide could be triggering for some.

Conrad Roy III (Colton Ryan), also known as Coco, killed himself by suffocating himself with carbon monoxide in his truck in a Kmart parking lot while Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) was over an hour away from him and yet she was indicted for involuntary manslaughter. It became known as “The Texting-Suicide Case.” How can she be responsible for Conrad’s death?

I was drawn to this series because, as you know, I am fascinated by true crime, and I already knew about this case, an unusual and intriguing case if ever there was one, heavily reported on in the press. But the fact that I knew all about it was also the reason I was torn about whether or not to recommend it.
I asked myself, does everyone else already know all about this, too, how it happened, how it ended? Is there anything this series can tell us that we don’t already know?
But as I made my way through this series created by Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, I realized there was quite a bit that I didn’t know, some very interesting nuances, and there was much more to it than was reported in the press. These kids weren’t just names in the news. They were real, this really happened, and this series does a good job of bringing them to life and providing some context to this very sad story. Even if you thought you knew all about this case, this story has not been told in its entirety. It's a story of teen-aged angst, families in crisis and nobody talking about any of it, and from an artistic standpoint, it’s also a very engrossing, well-done, well-acted series. Ryan and Fanning are particularly wonderful with Chloe Sevigny putting in an affecting performance as Conrad’s mother.
Here is the back story: Conrad met Michelle on vacation in Florida and yet it turned out they lived only an hour from each other in two different Massachusetts towns. When they returned home, they considered each other boyfriend and girlfriend, but they rarely saw each other. In fact, after Conrad’s death, no one in his family even knew anything about Michelle. The two conducted their relationship via text. Lots and lots and lots of texts, creating a false intimacy that ultimately lead to tragedy. And don’t worry that this series is all about reading texts. Even though Michelle and Conrad spent little face-to-face time together in real life, the writers have done a good job of integrating their texts into fantasy sequences.
Conrad was a very sensitive but troubled young man who had tried to kill himself before he met Michelle. Michelle was also troubled. She struggled with an eating disorder and with self-esteem. She desperately wanted to be liked, to have attention and for her life to be more like her favorite TV show, “Glee.” The fact that these two lonely, wounded kids would find each other and that it would end as it did is horrific and scary. You don’t want your troubled, suicidal son to meet a Michelle Carter.
When Conrad and Michelle first met, Michelle was supportive of Conrad and tried to help him with his suicidal thoughts, but the two fed off of each others’ neuroses and it all went very dark. Michelle needed purpose and her purpose turned out to become the grieving girlfriend. And all the while, neither of the parents on either side knew anything at all about what was going on with their kids. If you think that texting relationships are safe relationships, this series will disabuse you of that notion. The series is sensitive and respectful of this subject matter and begins and ends each episode with resources to help those struggling with these issues.
Rosy the Reviewer says…you true crime fans, this is for you, an intriguing, well-presented, though very disturbing case. And you fans of a really well done intriguing drama, this is for you too. But it's a cautionary tale for families and a reminder that teenagers can lead secret lives.
(Hulu)


The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin (2021)


This documentary series details the story of Gwen Shamblin Lara and her fame as a diet guru and religious leader.

One of my ex-husbands (okay, yes, there was more than one) once said that if you wanted to be super rich, start a church and tie it somehow to losing weight.  Well, my ex should have followed his gut, er, hunch and jumped on that idea, because as this five-part documentary series, now streaming on HBO Max, shows, Gwen Shamblin had the same idea and beat him to it.

I love documentaries, and I have always been fascinated by cults.  I just can’t understand why my fellow humans give up their free will here on earth to follow another human who promises them they will get into heaven if they do what she says, or in this case, lose weight by praying to God.  I don’t get it but I eat this stuff up.  I want to understand it.

Gwen Shamblin was an unlikely prophet. But she wrote a book called “The Weigh Down Diet” where she called on people to bow down to Jesus instead of the refrigerator, and, believe it or not, for many it worked (I actually think it’s called not eating), and Gwen Shamblin became famous and very, very rich.  Add workshops and conferences where her disciples could hang out with her and voila.  A church is born – Remnant Fellowship.  And then let the mind control and indoctrination begin!

Even though Gwen was the head of the church, the doctrine was a conservative, male-dominated one.  Not only was everyone supposed to lose weight but the women were supposed to be submissive and the children highly disciplined – the usual fundamentalist doctrine that seems to give people comfort.  If you don’t have to think for yourself or make your own decisions, and you leave it all to God, everything will be okay, right?

Well, a fascinating element to this series is the fact that Gwen, her husband and five friends died in the crash of their private plane. How do you explain that?  Now that is not a spoiler, because the series begins with that event, though the first three episodes were filmed before that happened.  So what was originally meant to be a three-parter, turned into five, dealing with the aftermath of the plane crash and losing Gwen. 

Gwen was an unlikely leader of a church.  Her hair alone would make me ask myself, “Do I want to be led by this woman?”  Gwen’s hair seemed to get higher and higher as she gained more and more power.  Maybe she thought, the higher your hair, the closer you get to God? 

During the series, testimonials from ex-members abound and they express the low self esteem and guilt they experienced when they left the church.  Some even committed suicide.  But survivors say that sharing their stories helped them heal. There is also plenty of footage of Gwen doing her thing in front of her congregation and commentary from experts on cults who offer insights into this phenomenon.

Rosy the Reviewer says…a fascinating story and here is my insight. Beware of the promise of a quick fix, especially weight loss plans that say God wants you to be thin.  I think he doesn’t give a...well, you know. (HBO Max)

Thanks for reading!

See you again soon!

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