G.B.H. (Acorn) is a savage satire of Thatcher-era party politics, a devastating drama of power and corruption and simple moral courage, and the best piece of dramatic television I’ve seen all year. Sure, it’s from 1991 and is perfectly reflective of its time, but it is so well written that the characters and conflicts haven’t aged a bit.
The brilliant British mini-series, written by Alan Bleasdale and directed by Robert Young, stars Robert Lindsay as ferociously ambitious and fiercely vengeful Labour Party politician Michael Murray, who has just been swept into power in a small industrial city with the help of old-school socialists who have their own agenda. Murray is a working class guy ready to use his newfound power to take revenge on everyone who ever wronged him along the way and Lindsay plays him as both a cunning opportunist and a man whose identification with the disenfranchised ultimately sets him in opposition with his Socialist supporters. Michael Palin takes a rare dramatic role as Jim Nelson, the compassionate headmaster of a school for special needs children who lands in his crosshairs when he defies a citywide strike to care for his students. “I’m here to tell you that if you screw up this day, I’ll screw up the rest of your life!” promises Murray, and he proceeds to make it happen. Palin brings a heartfelt warmth to a fragile but morally firm Nelson, who uses humor to cover vulnerability and fear. It’s heartbreaking to see such bullying happen to such an honest and dedicated man with such an emotional fragility and crippling anxiety.
But there’s so much more brewing in this dense, deviously clever series, an utterly scathing portrait of party politics and dirty tricks, of power and abuse, of the viciousness of smear campaigns from rival parties, and that’s all before the depths of the real conspiracy become clear. Lindsay Duncan co-stars as the womanizing Murray’s new love, but she’s not who she seems and she reduces the increasingly anxious and panicky Murray to a quivering, tic-ridden wreck, just before she starts to feel for the poor slob. It’s a riveting story with fascinating characters and surprises around every narrative turn, but it’s also far more generous with the characters than the first few episodes would suggest. Their arcs all feel right by the astounding final chapters, and they all feel earned . The series, which runs close to ten hours over seven episodes, was nominated for nine BAFTA awards and won for actor Robert Lindsay (beating out fellow nominee Palin) and composers Richard Harvey and Elvis Costello. Four discs in a box set of four thinpak cases. Features commentary by actors Robert Lindsay and Michael Palin and producer Peter Ansorge on Episode One and a 24-minute interview with writer/producer Alan Bleasdale, who tells the story of how the role of Michael Murray was written for Robert Lindsay and yet he almost ended up in the role of Jim Nelson.
Nurse Jackie: Season One (Lionsgate) is Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) a dedicated emergency room nurse and a veteran care-giver with compassion to spare for the fragile, the scared and the forgotten. “Doctors diagnose. We heal,” is her mantra, but she’s no Florence Nightingale, and not simply because of the vindictive little punishments she doles out to rude patients and thoughtless visitors. This wife and loving mother of two slips off her wedding ring as she commutes to work and carries on an affair with the hospital pharmacist (Paul Schulze), who supplies her with a steady stream of prescription painkillers that she’s just as likely to break down and snort like a line of cocaine as take orally as directed. This energy bump may keep her powering through another shift as she juggles a high-pressure job with the demands of two daughters with emotional issues of their own and the effort of keeping her lives separate (her co-workers don’t even know she’s married, let alone a mother). But the addiction also starts to take its toll on her body and unravel her carefully maintained illusion of control over the chaos of her job and her life.
The Showtime original series keeps the episodes down to a quick, snappy half hour and the format helps keep the show from slipping into sentimentality or easy melodrama. Falco embraces the contradictions and flaws of her character even as Jackie plays mentor to an idealistic young nurse trainee (Merritt Wever) and battles the heartless bureaucracy embodied by the Emergency Room Administrator (Anna Deavere Smith). Peter Facinelli co-stars as a cocky young doctor with his own issues, including a Tourette’s-like impulse of “inappropriate touching.” 12 half-hour episodes on three on DVD and two discs on Blu-ray. Both editions feature pleasant but not particularly enlightening commentary by Falco with the creators and producers on four episodes, three short featurettes on the show and a collection of five “Nurses Stories” originally produced as promotional spots. The new season begins on Showtime in March.
FlashForward: Season One, Part One (Disney), the latest high concept metaphysical mystery series to hit prime time, it opens with an event that literally stops the world in its tracks: the entire human population loses consciousness for 137 seconds and awakens with visions of their lives six months in the future. Are the flashes precognition, time travel, dream or merely a glimpse of the possible? Why did some people remain awake during the blackout? Are those visions destined to come true? These questions set the plot in motion as a team of FBI agents led by Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) and his partner (John Cho) track down leads while they and others attempt to deal with their flashforwards. They are also the questions that keep the audience hooked through the cleverly plotted show, which targets the puzzle-like mystery of “Lost” but fails to offer characters with a depth to match, which is the show’s major failing. The simmering conspiracy is intriguing but the people aren’t.
Fiennes is all blind intensity and furtive hypocrisy as he goes rogue on the job and blames his wife (Sonja Walger) for the sins that has not committed except in her vision, Cho struggles with the fear that his lack of a vision means he’s destined to die, and Jack Davenport and Dominic Monaghan are the scientists whose experiments may have caused the whole thing and face that responsibility in very different ways. The metaphysical and science fiction elements are compelling but the characters are familiar collection of types and their crises and odysseys, driven by visions inspiring and alarming, are far too predictable. The show ran ten episodes in 2009 before taking a three month hiatus and resumes in March 2010. This bare-bones two-disc set, which arrives mere weeks before the new episodes begin, features all ten episodes plus a short featurette on creating the spectacular disaster that opens the series and a brief (under five minutes) sneak peek (flash forward?) of an upcoming episode.
The theater of history is on display in The People Speak (A&E), a live event—a mixture of lecture, dramatic recitation and musical performance—hosted by historian Howard Zinn and drawn from his books “The People’s History of the United States” and “Voices of a People’s History.” Produced by Matt Damon and Josh Brolin and featuring Viggo Mortenson, Danny Glover, John Legend, Eddie Veddar, Marisa Tomei, Morgan Freeman, Rosario Dawson and many others, this presents (in Zinn’s own words) “A history of those voices that have been ignored…. Because democracy doesn’t come from the top. It comes from the bottom.” It makes for a touching memorial for the great people’s historian who died earlier this year. Includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and a brief montage of “Celebrity Interviews” with the participants.
The eponymous jail of Superjail! Season 1 (Warner), an animated series from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, is located inside a live volcano and ruled by a cheerfully eccentric warden in flamboyant purple duds and matching top hat (imagine the Willy Wonka of maximum security penitentiaries) who treats the place like his own personal toybox. That laissez-faire approach seems extended to the facility’s improbably limited staff: ultra-butch and gruesomely hairy guard Alice, the terror of the cellblock (and the object of the warden’s unrequited affections), the warden’s nervous accountant and assistant Jared, the resident Doctor who uses the prison population as his private stock of guinea pigs for medical experiments, a pair of twins whose presence goes unexplained as they wreak havoc on the Warden’s plans. Strange and surreal and blithely ultra-violent, the show delivers nonsensical stories in a deranged alternate reality for the core Adult Swim audience of young adults with a taste for absurdist humor and outrageous visuals. This formula has its fans but it pretty much wears thin for me. The first season ended in 2008 but, according to the Cartoon Network, a second season is currently in development. The single-disc collection features all ten episodes of gory farce and twisted justice, plus the 2007 pilot episode “Bunny Love” and other supplements.
Also recently released is Stargate Universe: SGU 1.0 (Fox), which came out a couple of weeks ago but just arrived (I hope to at least look into it later but it arrived in a very busy week), plus Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey: The Complete Season One (A&E) and Wartime Britain (Acorn), a box set featuring the debut of Heat of the Day along with the previously released Housewife, 49 and Island at War.