It feels like the new television season has started but, well, are there even seasons anymore? Not only on television but, in general?
How about movies? Isn’t late September/early October when we begin ushering in the prestige films? Yet it’s Shang-Chi and Venom 2 for the fall, 2021 box-office win.
Not a bad outcome if you’re a theatre owner, since there is very little “prestige” Covid box-office business to be had. In fact, doing any business at all right now could be considered prestigious.
It was in this spirit that I approached my personal, potentially exciting entertainment choices this week. And, in fact, it could account for my choices.
It does not escape me that the three new offerings I was most looking forward to – the new Apple+ series, The Problem with Jon Stewart; the debut of the long-awaited big screen prequel to television’s legendary The Sopranos HBO series, The Many Saints of Newark; as well as the return of Saturday Night Live for SEASON 47, were all subconscious attempts to recapture my past.
This was a time when the excitement and potential of new seasons seemed infinite.
A time when being snide and being a cynic did not necessarily go hand in hand.
As I recall.
But let’s not quite go there, as the kids say (Note: Or once said!). Even though Going There is the title of Katie Couric’s new memoir where she dishes former morning show competitor Diane Sawyer as her complete opposite – tall and blonde, with a voice full of money.
Yes, I’m sidetracking, but interestingly, even my choice of sidetrack subject harkens back to a time of what was rather than who is now. (Note: And if you don’t relate to that, let enough years go by and, trust me, if you’re lucky enough, one day you will).
As for my choices, let’s say they all have their charms, even as they all, at times, felt a bit charmless and disappointing. Which probably says more about me than it does about them.
After all, when you go to a party expecting to recapture the perceived halcyon days of your past, you have concocted a recipe for disappointment. It’s self-sabotage to the nth degree, and colossally unfair to blame all your troubles on the party you’re standing in. Which is not to say this present party is entirely blameless.
I’ve loved Jon Stewart a bunch of years before he took over a not very much watched Comedy Central series in 1999 called the Daily Show, revamped it, added his name into the title and in the process changed the face of political social satire and the way young people, in particular, forever perceived the news.
I saw the makings of this back in 1996 in his solo comedy special Unleavened. That was when this fellow Jewish kid from the east coast took on the then VERY rabidly homophobic Republican Party politics and joked that presidential candidate Pat Buchanan blamed gays for so much of the country’s problems because, of course how can you concentrate on anything with the constant sound of all that butt f—-g going on in your ears.
This is why it particularly disappointed me at how much I was disappointed in his new bi-weekly Apple+ series. After all his achievements in re-setting political humor and taking on establishment politics, it seems only natural that the next step would be for him to be less jokey and more proactive in trying to shine a light on the serious issues he’s been mining over the years.
Certainly, Stewart’s time as an advocate for 9/11 responders would lead to him being an advocate for thousands of wounded Iraq War veterans not receiving medical coverage for various forms of cancer and other serious diseases they came down with years after their service due to their exposure to toxic chemicals. So wasn’t the latter a more than a worthy subject for show #1?
See, it’s his idea now that in each episode in his new series he takes on an issue – nee PROBLEM, hence the show’s title – introduce the topic with his writers and others, give reportorial examples by interviewing and discussing those it affects; and then look for solutions in a third segment by reaching out to experts and powerbrokers who could effect change.
There’s some humor in there amid all the journalistic talk as well as some satire and commentary. And it’s a worthy undertaking. But it’s not a laugh riot – nor should it be expected to be. And yet I suspect a show with as much potential as this could likely begin to drown in a sea of expectations of what we all so desperately want from Mr. Stewart at this point in time and what we actually believe we’re entitled to given the last 18 months.
He seems more than aware of this too since he closed out the premiere episode joking to his writers that once the new show airs and he returns to a table full of comics backstage at a local comedy club he’s dreading lines like, ‘oh look who’s here, Mother Theresa.
Of course, he’s several steps ahead of his audience as usual, looking forward instead of back, even if we (okay, me) are right now unable to do the same.
The Many Saints of Newark is all about looking back because it literally gives us the origin story of HBO’s Sopranos. Interestingly enough, that series debuted the same year Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show and over eight years became the first cable TV series to EVER break into the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings, essentially catapulting HBO past all of the major networks in television excellence.
To say that it changed the face of what could be tackled in a one-hour television drama critically and commercially doesn’t quite do justice to the impact it has had on the business model for series TV and on what was possible for all creative teams artistically if they broke out of the constraints imposed on them by the four major television networks.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to not appreciate the joys offered by The Many Saints even though most of us are indeed still watching this new Sopranos FEATURE FILM story on TELEVISION via HBO Max, rather than on the big screen its creator David Chase intended it for.
It would also be dishonest to say that by the end of this film one didn’t feel they were now once again ready to revisit the next chapter of the Sopranos family that picks up exactly where THIS FILM leaves off. Because it’s only by the very end of this film that we fully get where the filmmakers were going with this somewhat generalized, episodic prequel.
Sure, it’s well acted, well made and psychologically cringe-worthy in all the best ways at various points. But what makes it special, and what makes it tick, is all the knowledge we bring from its six seasons over eight years on HBO. That was a time when America willingly embraced a larger than life guy running a huge criminal enterprise and family business more deadly and corrupt than anyone could fathom from the outside (Note: Sound familiar?).
Yet for all their faults, this family, The Sopranos, have always been more inherently conflicted, and scarily human than any of its real-life present day political dynasties. Which is what makes them all the more riveting and thought provoking in these particular times.
And to answer the lingering question – yes, Michael Galdolfini is often terrific playing the young version of the title role that his late father James Galdolfini, made famous. But he doesn’t enter until halfway through the film and by the end we want more of him. At least an HBO miniseries? Think of it as the Jersey, or even Jersey Shore, version of The Crown. Something that doesn’t so much try to capitalize on the past, but instead deepen our understanding of it so as not to want to repeat it.
Which brings us to Saturday Night Live. In its 45+ years, SNL has covered about the same amount of time as The Crown has covered Queen Elizabeth’s reign. And overall it has probably been just as effective as a series in its way. Indeed, both have deservedly won lots of Emmys, delivered high ratings and won all kinds of other accolades even if some episodes or years wound up not delivering, and even disappointing, more often than not.
Unfortunately, this SNL opener this past weekend hosted by Owen Wilson, was much more in the latter category.
Its spoof of female hosts of The View/The Talk, Wilson lambasting Jeff Bezos in space, the show’s take on a local school board meeting with several dozen crazies testifying about government controlled nonsense, and even Wilson spoofing himself voicing a new Cars movie simply felt tired and forced.
The new SNL cast member portraying Joe Biden – TikTok star James Austin Johnson – showed some promise. And Pete Davidson on Weekend Update saying the outfit he wore to the Met Ball last week made him look like Tilda Swinton on casual Friday was clever. But, oy vey, as my Grandma, used to say. Is that all they got????
Well, next week Kim Kardashian West is the host so how much worse can it get?
That was both snide and cynical for those keeping score.