CBC’s Schitt’s Creek was kind of an unassuming watch for me in the sense that I don’t usually go for sitcoms and when I do it’s for breezy background noise, or simply reruns of stuff like That 70’s Show that I’m already intimately familiar with; the genre just isn’t really for me. This show, however, grew on me like no other and from the first quaint little episode to the emotionally uplifting grand finale it has now become one of my all time favourite pieces of television. Ostensibly the story of one disgustingly rich family who is embezzled out of their fortune by a disloyal employee and forced to relocate to a tiny backwater town they once purchased as a prank, this is so so SO much more than just a “riches to rags” comedy lark and such an important piece, and what’s more is it becomes important and essential without even trying to be, which isn’t easy to do. Eugene Levy is Johnny Rose, former video store tycoon relegated to rural life with his frequently hysterical prima Donna wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara) and two adult children David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy). As they are jarringly propelled from their ultra-bougie existence into a bucolic world of motels, diners and quiet country life we are swept up in a pithy, hyper-satirical slice of life small town dramedy that gradually and cunningly becomes something so good, so well developed and so engrossing the effect is almost profound. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara already have roots in SCTV satire from their days of yore and bring every inch of that pop culture sendup energy here, as Levy’s own kid Dan co-creates with pops and we get the sense that every creative engine involved here is just firing on all cylinders and perfectly in sync. The epic and incredibly dense yet somehow blessedly lighthearted six season run see these four characters go through unbelievable, surprising, touching, hilarious and always realistic arcs as they adjust to life in the sticks, make friends, find love, bicker absolutely non stop in the most lovable of ways and simply just… live their lives. Others orbit them including the town’s incredibly offbeat mayor (Chris Elliott is too funny for words here), his darling of a wife (Jennifer Robertson), the local motel owner (Emily Hampshire, who I fell in love with within minutes), David’s eventual boyfriend and colleague (Noah Reid) and many, many others all portrayed wonderfully. What makes this show so special and such a standout amidst the absolute galaxy of sitcoms out there is a delicious mixture of a few things: it’s relentlessly, consistently funny, like you don’t even get a chance to breathe in between the airtight, intimidatingly verbose jokes especially when O’Hara and her priceless pronunciation is concerned. The characters here are real, developed human beings who you grow with, learn to care for deeply, are frequently exasperated with and the sense of community, family and love permeates everything. The themes are relevant and the tone is compassionate, understanding and candid in terms of LGBT content and the whole thing just hums on every level, it’s about as close to perfect as you can get in the television storytelling world. It’s a bittersweet turn that the show only achieved real, worldwide acclaim near the end of its run because I feel like it could go on to say and do so much more, and influence so many more people with its fun, positivity, empathy, masterclass writing and once in a lifetime performances. Could not recommend this highly enough for how great it is.
In 1979, Michael Mann completed a 180 page screenplay that chronicled the exploits of a driven police detective and his criminal opposite. The screenplay was inspired by Mann’s conversations with Chicago detective and writer Chuck Adamson who, indeed, had matched wits with a high-line professional thief named Neil McCauley and, in the end, ended up killing him in a standoff. While Mann was able to break this screenplay apart over the years and place bits and moments of it into his various theatrical and television enterprises, his first chance to get as close as he could to doing the whole enchilada presented itself in the form of a television series Mann wanted to develop that centered around the robbery homicide department of the L.A.P.D. The 180 page script was cut in half, the tempo quickened to stroke level, and the two-hour pilot, eventually renamed L.A. Takedown, was produced.
In 2021, there are two ways to look at L.A. Takedown. The first would be to watch it in a retrospective manner where it will do nothing but look like a weak sauce, junior high stage performance of Heat, Mann’s now-classic theatrical retelling of the same material from 1995. While L.A. Takedown moves at the zippy pace of a television movie and I’m honestly astonished just how much of Heat Michael Mann was able to boil down into a 96 minute running time, absolutely nothing about it can touch Heat in terms of story, character, or mood which flattens this down into something just a little more heated than a stone cold table-read.
Another way to look at it is a logical step in the evolution of Michael Mann, one of the few filmmakers whose television work is as important as his feature work. In 1989, L.A. Takedown was Mann’s shot at getting his baby to the screen and as intact as humanly possible. We weren’t going to see reworked moments like Mike Torello coming home to his wife with another man in the early episodes of Crime Story; Manhunter’s Hannibal Lecktor and Will Graham looking at each other from across an expanse to evoke a certain kind of mirroring of the soul; or, as in Thief, Frank bitching to Leo about the transponders in the bumper and the wheel well. With L.A. Takedown, we were going to see all of Michael Mann’s heart and soul in the context in which it was originally envisioned.
For the uninitiated, L.A. Takedown is a story about whip-smart and laser-focused LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank) who runs a crew of cops out of the robbery homicide department. On the other side of the moral coin is Patrick McLaren (Alex McArthur), cool-as-ice professional thief who, like Hanna, surrounds himself with a team of trusted professionals to pull of complex and high risk robberies. When the hold-up of an armored car leads to a multiple homicide, Hanna’s ears perk up and he is on the case while his marriage begins to slowly disintegrate under the pressure of his vocation.
Shot in nineteen days, L.A. Takedown has all the hallmarks of something that was created on the fly and thrown together as quickly as possible. And, while watching it, one can’t help but feel that this must have been a little more than heartbreaking for Michael Mann. Rewriting and resetting so many of Heat’s moody, noirish night pieces in the bright white California sun is as visually upsetting as if someone remade every Val Lewton movie and set them on Miami Beach at high noon. And even without the benefit of seeing the upgrade that would come in 1995, the leads in L.A. Takedown can’t help but feel like Heat if it were performed by the Max Fischer Players. Scott Plank and Alex McArthur are fine-ish but, setting aside the level of craft inherent in them versus DeNiro and Pacino, I’m not so convinced there’s enough there there in Plank’s performance to carry the television series that didn’t materialize from this. Where Pacino is a haggard and heavy-lidded live wire, Plank comes off like a grumpy and harried dad who’s mostly put out because he has to drive his fifteen year old to the mall.
And what L.A. Takedown excises robs it of its overall power. One of the main joys of Heat is realizing that is a love story about two men who don’t realize their in the best relationship of their lives with each other. In L.A. Takedown, there is no cross flattery between Hanna and McLaren. The mutual respect is there as evidenced by the third-string version of Heat’s classic diner scene. But the deep, solitary longing of two guys who cannot live normal lives is muted as it chooses to contrast McLaren and Hanna’s respective relationships with their significant others which, due to the nature of this being a pitch for a television series, had to have a happier ending of reconciliation which betrays a core commandment in the Mann universe and is the very thing that caused Manhunter to just miss masterpiece status.
But L.A. Takedown is not without its merits. I feel that, taken in the spirit of its original intent, it’s an important piece of the Mann puzzle and, on a technical level, Mann’s utilization of ethereal, synth-driven soundtracks is effective. His obsession with procedural detail is always fascinating and welcome and, regardless on whether or not the delivery is flat, let it be known that Michael Kenneth Mann can write a line of dialogue or two.
While this was meant to be a series that explored Hanna’s department, this was not yet a show that the networks wanted and Mann found himself again at a crossroads. While he would continue to work on a couple of more projects for television in the capacity of writer and executive producer (Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Drug Wars II: The Cocaine Cartel), Mann was feeling the squeeze of television once more. Having blown his ultimate load on what amounted to a disappointing and failed television pilot, Michael Mann began to look toward America’s past to explore those themes that were close to his heart that might help regain some theatrical traction.
In 1986, Michael Mann was having a hell of a year. The second season of Miami Vice had proven to be immensely popular, he stewarded Band of the Hand into the theaters as an executive producer, did the same for Manhunter as writer and director, and, finally, brought Crime Story to the airwaves, making him for one brief moment of time, the king of television.
Had Crime Story been half as successful as Miami Vice, there is little doubt that Michael Mann’s name and the show itself would have eclipsed Miami Vice in terms of the conversation as to what it contributed to pop culture. Where Miami Vice‘s influence was immediate and changed the entire look of America for a hot minute, Crime Story would have undoubtedly been on multiple critics’ lists regarding the greatest network television shows of all time for its sophisticated storytelling, stellar period soundtrack, and its impeccably gorgeous production design. Alas, what can only be deduced as network interference spoiled the soup and caused Crime Story to remain only as the foundation of a brilliant show that went horribly wrong, the seeds of which nonetheless scattered far and wide and brought forth amazing fruit.
Inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s astonishing Berlin Alexanderplatz, itself a multi-part German television series shown theatrically in New York City in 1980, Crime Story was to be a less episodic television series than Miami Vice and, instead, one that told, in serialized format, one continuous narrative of the obsessive cat-and-mouse game between Chicago Detective Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and arch-criminal Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) that would span five seasons and cover the years 1963 through 1980. What Mann ended up with was more like Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, the Fassbinder series that was initially scheduled to run in eight episodes but was canceled after only five, ending the series on, for Fassbinder, an uncharacteristically happy note JUST before it got to take its planned darker turn. Crime Story’s aborted ending after just two seasons doesn’t do that, exactly; but, if you cock your head and squint just right, the end of the show does makes a certain amount of sense and create a small amount of satisfaction if looked through the prism of the universe of Michael Mann.
But before we get to the ending, we have to talk about the beginning and, man, what a glorious inception Crime Story had. Jumping off with an explosive, two-hour feature pilot, directed by Abel Ferrara, Crime Story chronicles the rise of Ray Luca, small-time Chicago criminal. Moving up through the ranks with the help of boss Phil Bartoli (Jon Polito), numbers runner Max Goldman (Andrew Dice Clay), cat burglar Frank Holman (Ted Levine), dim witted henchman Pauli Taglia (John Santucci), and crime lord Manny Weisbord (Joseph Wiseman), Luca is chased from one end of Chicago to Las Vegas and, ultimately, the end of the earth by Lieutenant Michael Torello and his gang of coppers; Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), Walter Clemons (Paul Butler), and young blood Joey Indelli (Bill Campbell). Working both sides of the fence at different points in the show is Stephen Lang’s David Abrams, mob boss son on a crusade against injustice and crime.
Crime Story was created by Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger and, indeed, is based off of true crime events that were massaged and fictionalized. A soft bridge between the cinematic, operatic opulence of The Godfather and the gritty, granular details of Goodfellas and Casino, Crime Story’s biggest progeny is likely The Sopranos which had the benefit of coming after Scorsese’s at-bat and was able to launch off the familiar popularity of Goodfellas in the same way that Happy Days was able to cloak itself in American Graffiti clothes. But, in 1986, Crime Story was well ahead of the curve by attempting what Mann described as a 20 hour movie that snaked its way through the annals American history via the exploits of its two leads.
So, yes, that is, indeed, the outline of the plot of Casino you’re seeing (except with Andrew Dice Clay in the Robert De Niro part) deep into season one yet nine years before the Scorsese film hit the theaters. In fact, you’re likely to see a plot element or casting decision or three that will likely remind you of things you’ve seen before and, yes, you’re probably right in deducing that they’re familiar. For Crime Story was the Velvet Underground of television shows; nobody watched it but those that did created their own piece of organized crime entertainment that became wildly popular. This is likely due that the raw material assembled for Crime Story, interviews Reininger conducted with actual mob figures, made up so much of the material that was used in the mob genre in the wake of Goodfellas and Wise Guy, the 1986 Nicholas Pileggi book from which Goodfellas was adapted.
Unfortunately, after the show made a ballsy and epic shift from Chicago to Las Vegas halfway through its first season, something seemed to go terribly wrong in the second season. The show’s pace seemed to quicken and format seemed to become more conventional. What was a single-threaded chase for Ray Luca became stagnated in the Las Vegas desert while the antagonist and his exploits were pushed to the background and rinky-dink, Mickey Mouse investigations found their way onto Torello’s desk. This mimicked the way Miami Vice did business but Crime Story could ill-afford to monkey with its special formula and when chasing Ray Luca becomes secondary for a saggy spell, the show becomes far less compelling and at its worst, it feels like a routine cop show in a fun period getup. Perhaps this was a way to help bring new viewers on board at random which would be next to impossible as the show was envisioned. Hell, in the 44 episodes that make up Crime Story, there are at least three clip shows designed to square-up the audience that HAD been paying attention. And, given the way networks and television shows work, I can’t say that I entirely blame NBC. But it was a devil’s gambit; a bid for an audience that didn’t show up which ended up costing the show its greater reputation.
The other issue with making Crime Story less of a two-hander about Torello v. Luca and more one about Torello and His Flying Sack of Maniacs is that the latter approach is rote and most definitely NOT Michael Mann territory. For whatever lofty heights the first season reached, Crime Story winds up being the lesser between itself and Miami Vice mostly because either one of two things have to occur in Mann’s work; either you have the cop chasing the criminal who is just the mirror image of himself -or- the cop and the criminal are almost so intertwined that they’re basically the same person. This may seem like a distinction without much of a difference but this is also how Miami Vice could stay true to itself in almost every episode and not get out of the scope of Mann’s overall thesis. Without Ray Luca’s constant yang to Torello’s Yin, Crime Story becomes inert and uninspired although I will admit that “Blast From the Past,” the second season episode in which Torello hunts for the kidnappers of his ex-wife’s current husband, remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire show due to its uncommon emotional depth.
There does seem to be a point in which all of the historical tchotchke that riddles the central story of Crime Story eventually became too heavy for Mann and the networks which is why the last three episodes of the second season seem to jettison their historical skin and literally look like a three part Miami Vice arc in which Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in a high level of jeopardy in an unfriendly and unstable South American country. But say whatever you will about those episodes in which the show begins to (almost jarringly) expand into territory Mann would later touch with his stewardship of 1990’s Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, itself a prototype for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it regains the core vision of the series where obsessed men strip themselves down to their most base and animalistic to hunt and destroy each other which, honestly, is what really drives Michael Mann’s best work. In fact, if you took away all of the period detail in Crime Story, you’d basically have the soul of his next feature, the 1989 made-for-television film, L.A. Takedown, which would find more important life six years later when Mann remade it as Heat. This is also why Crime Story’s second season’s cliffhanger ending, seen as tragically disappointing because of the show’s cancellation, is one that could also be easily seen as the most logical ending of all of Mann’s works. For if Torello’s season one threat to Luca of “I’m going to take you down right” is to be taken literally, there is really no other way for things to end outside them killing each other. So its probably best for everyone involved that they all perish when that plane hits the water lest Dennis Farina survive end up like poor Al Pacino or James Caan at the endings of Heat and Thief, respectively; a broken soul left to wander the earth alone, pouring over his miserable past with nothing especially to look forward to.
It’s something of a disappointment that Crime Story never became what it was inspired to be. Dennis Farina gives a tremendous, physical performance which looks like he hurt a few stuntmen and day players and it is a complete joy to watch him throw people through candy glass and slam their heads a little too forcefully into the props even when the show goes off the rails. Anthony Denison should have been a bigger star away from television and got done completely dirty when the second season ate his character away into being just a tiny bit more than supporting cast member. Andrew Dice Clay is surprisingly at ease and amazing which makes me wish that the show would have helped him pursue bigger and better acting roles which was a better vocation for him than what he became. And, man, Joseph Wiseman really gets to sink his teeth into a role that apparently contractually allowed him to eat every shred of scenery he wanted to when he was on screen. In the annals of Wiseman’s villainy, I’m generally more gripped and terrified when he’s lecturing someone in Crime Story than when he’s talking world domination with James Bond as the titular character in Dr. No.
And it’s probably not for nothing that contributing to the show’s inability to rise above a mere cult curiosity is the way it’s been treated since its broadcast. Due to Universal’s balking at picking up the show due to its tremendous price tag when they were already paying over $1 million per episode of Miami Vice, Crime Story was taken in by the television department over at New World Pictures, one-time Roger Corman outfit that had decided to go straight in the mid-80’s. To say that Universal was a better custodian of its intellectual property than New World is a vast underselling of the situation because Miami Vice has done nothing but lived on in syndicated reruns with little or no problem in terms of physical media or otherwise in allowing the consumers to watch the full, unedited show with as brilliant a picture as humanly possible. Not so with Crime Story. First released onto VHS in the subpar SLP mode (always a then-sign of trash quality), the show never fared any better when it made the jump to DVD. Now collected into one nine-disc DVD set by Image Entertainment, Crime Story is a disgraceful presentation of compressed, dark, and muddy images with sloppy and obvious soundalike cues sprinkled about where musical clearances were not obtained. To add insult to injury, the second season is presented without preservation to the original broadcast order necessitating one to consult IMDB to ensure they’re on the right track. This is a show that simply screams to be restored and if it were given better treatment, the show’s obvious shortcomings in the second season wouldn’t land as particularly hard as they do. For no matter how stupid Miami Vice got in its fourth season, Mill Creek made Crockett and Tubbs pursuing a tank of bull semen look absolutely and achingly beautiful. And if you think you’re going to get around these things by watching whatever app reflects as having this as a streaming option, you won’t as they’re using the same transfers.
Crime Story remains one hell of a show, regardless of its ignoble end. One could watch nothing more than the first season and think that Michael Mann had delivered one of the greatest things in all of network television. Alas, the second season came with a price tag that brought it down to earth. As the 1980’s were coming to a close Mann was finding the world of television to be just as frustrating as what he had experienced with The Keep and Manhunter. But he still had a couple of other small-screen projects standing between him and his big-screen reboot and they’d be ones in which he’d further shape his thematic ideas of good guys and bad guys living amid cultural, urban, and emotional wastelands.
“You ever forget who you are?” Saundra Santiago’s Detective Gina Calabrese asks Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) as they stand on the deck of his boat and take a brief respite from their jobs as undercover vice cops in an early episode in the first season of Miami Vice.
“Darlin’,” Crockett replies with a wide grin that made millions of Americans fall in love with him, “sometimes I remember who I am.”
By the end of the series, all of his wise guy charm will be burned to the ground as a hollowed out and gutted Sonny Crockett will slowly come to terms with himself and what he’s been through over the course of the past five seasons and 111 episodes. “Things I’ve done, things I can’t remember. I can’t believe that was me,” Crockett will eventually muse to his partner, Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). “Jesus, Rico. What kind of a person am I?” His smile muted and with his tres chic ripped jeans and stylishly shaggy, $500 Beverly Hills haircut causing him to look more like a self-destructive stepdad who has missed his last three AA meetings than a People Magazine cover boy, the denouement of Sonny Crockett is one befitting a pastel festooned and neon-filigreed Greek tragedy. And, regardless of the many hands that stewarded the show from its origins to its finale in 1989, Miami Vice is 100% the crystallized vision of executive producer Michael Mann.
In its most embryonic form, Miami Vice was an idea for a television show that grew from a seed that was a scrap of paper with the words “MTV Cops” written on it by NBC head Brandon Tartikoff. By the time it passed through the hands of Anthony Yerkovich, producer and writer of the popular crime procedural Hill Street Blues, he had filled in the idea with the notion of vice cops and their bottomless supply of impounded goods that they could then use in their sting operations. But when it worked its way to Michael Mann, he found in it the perfect vehicle in which he could blend his then-radical power-chord coupling of music and image, then saturating the world of music videos, with his fascination regarding the fine line and symbiotic relationship between heroes and villains. For not even fifteen minutes into “Brother’s Keeper,” Miami Vice’s pilot episode, the thesis of almost every Michael Mann enterprise that will come after has been spoken by Caroline (Belinda Montgomery), Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife. “You’re all players, Sonny,” she says to him. “You get high on the action.” For all of the ephemeral details that surrounded it and the many pop culture flourishes that it inspired, Miami Vice is the cornerstone of all of Mann’s works; a fable about professional men who cannot hold their personal lives together because they’re too busy chasing themselves around the block.
When it first aired in September of 1984, there was simply nothing on network television that was remotely like Miami Vice. But unlike other television shows that made a splash, not a one rearranged the entire landscape like Miami Vice did when audiences began to eat it up during its first season’s summer reruns. From the way television shows looked and were produced to the emphasis on post-modern architecture to, finally, men’s fashion, Miami Vice made an impact in such a way that one could argue for a pre-MV and post-MV line in the sand when discussing pop culture in the 1980’s.
But Miami Vice isn’t exactly the 80’s fluff that nostalgia-porn hounds try and make it out to be. Jabronis could and will costume themselves in linen jackets and pastel colored shirts to the end of all eternity but the show’s dated touchstones can never erase the sheer sadness that acts as the undercurrent in Miami Vice. Of the original five characters in the vice division at the end of the show’s pilot episode, only two remain at the close of the series, the other members either suspended, dead, or having participated in voluntary attrition. Likewise, contrary to the white-hot look the production stills of the duo conveyed to mass audiences via slick posters sold in the local mall’s Spencer’s Gifts, Crockett and Tubbs aren’t flashy players with cool clothes who lounge on the hood of Sonny’s Ferrari Daytona (or his Ferrari Testarossa, depending on the season) while parked on the banks of a Miami waterway, chasing hot women and solving crimes on the side. Mostly everything on their backs and in their possession are loaners from impound, their romances and relationships are all doomed, and for all of their diligent and valiant efforts as low-paid public servants (as the heavy in every fifth or sixth episode is fond of reminding them), they are rewarded with absolutely nothing; the series ending with both of their lives in virtual shambles.
Of course, Miami Vice wouldn’t have been the monster hit that it was if the show’s deeper and more existential nature not been dressed up with the kind of irresistible mix of pop music and slick visual style that worked like dopamine on television audiences for a good couple of years. The first two seasons, encapsulating the time in which Michael Mann was most involved as the series’s showrunner (and scored his sole writing credit on the show with season one’s “Golden Triangle, Part II” episode), have the best balance between party and pathos and are likely the seasons that are most etched into the collective minds of those who might have caught an episode or three, but mostly soaked up Miami Vice as it permeated everything else. And, while ensuring the cosmetic side of the show was its ace in the hole, it gave the series a sly ability to reveal so much about the rot of the 80’s while simultaneously celebrating it. It’s all incredibly sexy to look at but underneath all of it is a show that reflects bottomless excess as the criminals in their vast, empty mansions reveal the vacancy of the soul and the slicked down edges reveal an artificiality of the spirit. Likewise, the show doesn’t skimp on taking viewers to the less glamorous parts of Miami and the redneck-festooned, outer limits of the state, reminding viewers that Florida is 10% Miami club scene and 90% Oklahoma with a beach view.
While Mann would later plant the seeds for the more tightly-plotted kind of serialized television we’d come to expect in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with 1986’s Crime Story, Miami Vice adheres to a looser narrative arc which feels both comfortable and realistic. Ensuring that there was always a way for new viewers to feel at ease with the show no matter when they dropped in, Miami Vice was less rigorous in its continuity than a nighttime soap like Dallas and, instead, it would frequently loop softly back on itself and move forward in believable, incremental time bursts by weaving perpetual side characters such as Charlie Barnett’s Noogie Lamont and (especially) Martin Ferrero’s Izzy Moreno in and out when needed but also by bringing characters back from previous seasons and episodes to deliver closure to their stories.
Being a network show not anchored to a serialized format and one that was bound to myriad forces beyond its control, Miami Vice sometimes fell victim to the fickleness of the broadcast order causing the narrative illusion to sometimes falter as beards (and Daytonas) disappeared and reappeared. Additionally, though it’s not quite as bad an offender as VEGA$ (and this may very well be a matter of personal taste given that it was completely normal for shows of its day), Miami Vice occasionally had higher-end guest talent popping up in multiple roles throughout the series (looking at you, Martin Ferrero and Stanley Tucci).
But, perhaps worse than VEGA$, the sheer amount of stunt casting in the show (particularly season two) is embarrassing, indicative of a property so immensely popular that it was becoming self aware and learning all the wrong lessons. For every musical artist who could act (Glenn Frey or Phil Collins) there were ten others who couldn’t (nine of them being Frank Zappa) and the random appearances of non-MTV musical artists such as Peter Allen and Leonard Cohen (who’s actually pretty great in his episode) shake out as downright bizarre. And given that the show was basically 111 one-hour movies, you can be certain that there were some recycled storylines peppered throughout with the occasional irredeemably awful episode thrown in just to ensure you were paying attention. And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s a horse race between “Missing Hours” and “The Big Thaw,” fourth season entries that feature, respectively, a plane-shifting James Brown and the cryogenically frozen remains of a reggae artist, as to which is the episode most up its own ass.
But the most egregious issue facing Miami Vice was the network’s decision to slash four episodes from season five during its original broadcast run to move the finale up, cancel the series, and free up its Friday night time-slot, which shortchanged a bit of the show’s narrative drive. While a fun, if inconsequential, back-door pilot was buried by this decision, two of the series most emotionally rewarding stories involving Dennis Farina’s crime boss, Al Lombard, and Pam Grier’s NYC detective (and Tubbs’s love interest), Valerie Gordon, were either relegated to being shuffled into the non-syndicated 1989 summer rerun schedule or, in the case of Grier’s episode, not being shown until 1990 after the episode was sold as part of a syndication package to the USA cable network. Anyone curious in revisiting the series would be well served to remember that, whatever order the episodes appear on whatever streaming service or physical media release, “Freefall” is the episode that closes out the series and that those “lost episodes” are only marked as such because of a business decision by NBC and were indeed originally produced and intended to be broadcast before the finale (and, as a side note, if the streaming package doesn’t include “Evan”, one of the greatest episodes from season one, protest loudly).
And for a show widely remembered as surface pap, Miami Vice took sympathetic, serious, and direct looks at AIDS, homosexuality, rape, the homeless, child molestation, and generally saved its anti-drug ire for dealers and cartels, refusing to sanctimoniously point fingers at casual users or addicts. For a show cemented down in Reagan’s America, it was unashamed when it cast a critical eye to the United States’s shady relationships with South American dictators, itself the dark heart of the final episode of the series. And while it mainly focused on the exploits of Crockett and Tubbs, Miami Vice did stretch out a bit with the characters of Detectives Calabrese and Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), giving both room to develop and breathe in episodes with layers of psychologically complicated issues at play. Additionally it also allowed second-banana characters Larry Zito (John Diehl) and Stan Switek (Michael Talbott) to go beyond their initial boundaries as the sometimes-bumbling duo who provided the laughs and ultimately toward something much darker and more tragic in the third season. And unlike other shows at the time, episodes would avoid traditional closure by eschewing a pre-end credit tag in favor of episodes that would run out the clock and employ effective freeze frames to keep the audience in its grip, contemplative of the (usually) downer ending with which they’d just been hit.
On a technical level, Miami Vice was probably the most impressive show of its time and it remains a masterful piece of network television. The character arcs are satisfying and its stylistic choices have proven to have longer legs than the fashions it inspired. Jan Hammer’s music sounds like the perfect cross of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream and hasn’t dated one day and the kind of pop songs employed in the show now have enough mileage on them to be considered oldies, giving their utilization a new kind of life. In its day, the usage of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (used beautifully in the fourth season episode “Rock and a Hard Place”) had an immediate emotional relevance. Closing in on forty years later, it lands a whole other kind of way. Likewise, the utilization Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is so masterful in blending the music with the image that when it occurs in the fifth season’s “Redemption of Blood” episode, it provides the series with one of the most emotionally disarming moments. Most surprising was that it was never beyond Miami Vice to make ironic use of pop music, its most notable and perverse example occurring during the “Rites of Passage” episode from season one as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is laid over a cross cut juxtaposition of Tubbs and Valerie’s lovemaking and a tragic, lethal dose of heroin being forcibly delivered.
Ultimately, though, Miami Vice could only work with the right chemistry between the cast members. Don Johnson wasn’t the first choice to play Sonny Crockett but he was the right choice. It was a fairly portentous move to cast Johnson as he is able to deftly move the attention from his megawatt smile and, as the series unfurls towards its closing seasons, incrementally closer toward the sadness in his eyes. Additionally, as he becomes more comfortable with the role, Johnson begins to pitch so naturally that, in the closing episodes of season four and beginning episodes of season five, the differences in that of Sonny Crockett and Sonny Burnett, Crockett’s deep undercover persona, are all built out of minor subtleties. It’s one hell of a performance. Philip Michael Thomas is an even more inspired piece of casting as he brings a much more authoritatively hip and relaxed feel to the show and he never lets his New York vibe slip into the background, no matter how long he stays in Miami. Although he’s saddled in earlier episodes as the “dialect guy” where he’s forever going undercover as a Jamaican, his character goes through as many dark turns as Crockett’s and, by show’s end, Thomas’s impressive range has been given an appropriate showcase. And likewise, Diehl, Santiago, Brown, and Talbott are all fantastic in their roles and each of them get moments where they do a great bit of impressive heavy lifting.
At the center of the show, though, is the taciturn stoicism of Edward James Olmos’s Lt. Martin Castillo. A character who spends 90% of his time keeping his words to a minimum while staring a hole through whoever is pissing him off, it’s kind of staggering just how fleshed-out Castillo is by the time the series ends. For within the series is an actual Castillo arc that is both incredibly moving but also serves as a reminder that, along with those episodes that focus on the other characters on the show, Miami Vice was big enough to encompass stories for all of the members of the team and each and every single one is an encapsulation of downbeat pragmatism.
But the guiding light of the show had to be the vision and thematic elements planted in the first two seasons by Michael Mann. As the show grew outward and influenced the culture, it took on a life of its own. But the stylistic flourishes that continued to bounce off the show, even during Dick Wolf’s reign during seasons three and four, were just the clearing of the heavy exhaust fumes Mann had put in the air in 1986. Stepping away from the show to put both Band of the Hand, of which he was executive producer, and Manhunter, which he wrote and directed, into theaters while prepping Crime Story, a new television series starring Dennis Farina that debuted in September of that year, made 1986 a busy and pivotal year for the filmmaker. And though none of those projects had quite the same impact of Miami Vice, they all played a part in making Michael Mann’s name something recognizable; a kind of visual and aural brand of moody entertainment whether on the big screen or the small.
In the world of Michael Mann, the balance between compelling, operatic drama and high-camp self parody is as tenuous as the balance between the cops and criminals in his works. In Miami Vice, this balance was perfected in a way impervious to those who would go through the show with an ironic detachment. And those who would purposefully do that would sadly miss what is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest contribution to his own cinematic legend.
“You know, you and I aren’t that different,” crime boss Al Lombard says to Crockett near the end of the first season of Miami Vice.
“All I am is what I’m going after,” Lieutenant Vincent Hannah will confess to his wife as his third marriage swirls down the drain in Michael Mann’s Heat almost exactly ten years later.
While Miami Vice was the small-screen project that first raised serious awareness of Michael Mann to the millions of television viewers who likely missed Thief and The Keep when they enjoyed their brief theatrical runs, his first big break occurred as the credited creator of Vega$, the ABC television series that ran a respectable three seasons between 1978 and 1981. Co-executive produced by Aaron Spelling, Vega$ chronicles the exploits of Dan Tanna (Robert Urich), Las Vegas private investigator who solves cases brought in by walk-in clients while also working on retainer for Philip “Slick” Roth (Tony Curtis), fictional owner of a battery of casinos including the the then-very real Desert Inn (and, in the earliest episodes, the similarly then-very real Maxim).
Vega$ exists in a netherworld between Michael Mann’s penchant for realistic detail and Aaron Spelling’s jet-puffed, blow-dried nothingness that was baked into most of television ventures, which also means it’s also a show that is mostly at odds with itself. One can imagine some great material coming from the central idea of a Vegas private eye who is on retainer for a Sheldon Adelson-type who mixes with the seedy world that lives under the glitz and glamor of the Vegas strip. Yes, this is definitely a Michael Mann movie for 2021 or beyond. But for 1978, hookers have perfectly feathered hair and roller rink lip gloss, drug deals happen in broad daylight in the parking lot of the Desert Inn, and sex trafficking is conducted by Cesar Romero with Moses Gunn as his backup. This is definitely Aaron Spelling territory.
To extract any value out ofVega$, it’s important to look at its complete arc as a television program; one that had to burn precious clock time fumbling around with its formula before finally hitting its stride at the moment it was too late. In the beginning, Vega$ was just a destination show. It would be something that looked like a downmarket Hawaii Five-0, a programmer that would build a viewership mostly due to the curiosity and excitement generated by its exotic, titular location, then in its final throes as an “adults only” hot spot. For those folks who wanted to go to Las Vegas but didn’t have the money, the time, didn’t want to drag their whole-ass families to the nightmarish Circus Circus only to be around a bunch of similarly miserable parents and their screaming brats, or just didn’t want to be around anyone other than who was in their living room, Vega$ took audiences up and down the Vegas Strip and into the casinos as they were in 1978-1981 at no charge except for what was reflected in the audience’s electric bill.
In its early episodes throughout the first season, Dan Tanna conducts a schedule that never seems to include meals, sleep, or, surprisingly, romantic relationships of any kind. Almost perpetually on the go, Tanna is oftentimes pulling into his crashpad (the Desert Inn’s theatrical warehouse) just long enough for Beatrice (Phyllis Davis) or Angie (Judy Landers), his female assistants and sometime-Vegas showgirls, to cram a sandwich (that he won’t finish) into his mouth and give him some new information, causing him to jump directly back into his car and hightail it to another destination. Sometimes, he’ll enlist the services of his connection at the LVPD, Sgt. Bella Archer (Naomi Stevens), ex-wise guy flunky Binzer (Bart Braverman), or his old Vietnam buddies, Harlan Twoleaf (Will Sampson) and Mitch Costigan (Chick Vennera). Oftentimes, Tanna will be forced to mix with hokey guest stars who are doing little outside playing themselves (and, in a couple of cases, quite literally playing themselves). The mix of multiple characters, silly plot diversions, and lackluster stories makes the whole of the first season both uneven and under baked, only distinguished by its commitment to its locale.
The second season, now crediting producers both in L.A. and Las Vegas, stabilizes the show a bit by cementing its episodic structure and streamlining its cast. Angie disappears without a whisper, Beatrice becomes Tanna’s only Girl Friday, and Binzer emerges as his lovable, and primary, second banana. Greg Morris’s Lt. David Nelson materializes as Tanna’s sole connection inside the police department as Sgt. Archer vanishes without comment. Harlan Twoleaf reappears in a couple of episodes before exiting and Philip Roth, too, eventually takes a powder. Appearing in one episode of the second season and a couple of episodes in season three, Roth becomes a globetrotting jet-setter who is always out of town but keeps in constant communication with Tanna and company. In settling the cast and getting into a regular rhythm in the second season, the show is forced to adopt another sheen of artificiality as it replaces Tanna’s pull car with phony-looking back projection, allowing for more freedom for the night sequences. Season two also doesn’t know what to do with Binzer half the time but generally keeps him locked down as the bumbling comic relief, most embarrassingly in an episode where he wears roller skates throughout to address the then red-hot energy crisis.
Strikingly, Vega$ begins to find its way in its third season when the dramatic stakes seem to be higher and the subject matter gets a little more lurid. Where it wasn’t atypical for season one Dan Tanna to be running bullshit errands like finding a missing lion or untangling a scam Red Buttons is running on the slots (both found in the overstuffed and creepy Mann-scripted pilot episode), season three Dan Tanna gets hit with double heartbreak after discovering his girlfriend is a top-shelf call girl only to see her killed for her efforts when she tries to quit the business. In fact, some of the material in season three becomes JUST gritty enough to where, if he were so inclined, Michael Mann could construct a contemporary feature out the recycled plots of two and a half episodes. Porn rings, male prostitution, and Dan Tanna being forced to get hooked on heroin á la French Connection II, shows that some of the third season was serious stuff. In one of the series very best episodes, the megawattage of Wayne Newton is juxtaposed with a pitiful, obsessed impersonator (a fantastic Richard Lynch) who works the dives on the fringes of town, creating a thoughtful and sad portrait of the highs and lows of Las Vegas. That it also functions as one of the weirder entires in the series as Newton had already guested in season two as a washed up race-car driver (involved in a plot that was stone cold stolen from the first French Connection) thereby creating a universe with two Wayne Newtons is also one of the charms of the show. After all, I’m pretty sure Dick Bakalyan plays three different characters throughout five episodes.
The third season also hints at opening up its cast and mixing things up a little. Captain Smith (David Sheiner) rolls up in three episodes in the third season and we get introduced to Victor Buono’s milk-swilling man of leisure, the highly connected Diamond Jim, who lends his services to Tanna in four episodes. Likewise, Louis Jourdan (in a powdered fright wig) gets his very own character arc over the course of two entries. The guest appearances mostly feel less of a variety show nature and more like more real day-players putting in a real day’s work. All of these elements, plus ephemeral details like Dan buying Binzer a new car that actually continues to make appearances in further episodes, blend to suggest that season three was priming the show to really settle into something that might become great before it was cancelled.
Did the show’s darker tone contribute to its demise? Perhaps. Magnum P.I. had taken over the “destination” market a year before and it was a much more digestible blend of exotic locales, light plotting, and colorful characters. By the time it was cancelled, Vega$ felt like the last hurrah of the 70’s. It’s probably no coincidence that Charlie’s Angels, another Aaron Spelling project, was cancelled the same year as Vega$. If you wanted harder nosed cop dramas, Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey debuted the same year Vega$ was dropped. If you wanted some light private eye fluff, Simon & Simon, likewise debuting in 1981, became the audience go to, most especially after being moved to Thursday nights as to follow Magnum.
Despite finally nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Series-Drama in its third season and a two consecutive Globe noms for Urich’s performance in seasons two or three, Vega$ really wasn’t a multi-season megahit worth intense scholarship, pop or otherwise. Nor was it really brief enough to be a binge-worthy curiosity. But Vega$ does capture something unique. Its colors and style, most especially the earth tones that make up the wardrobe of Dan Tanna and the splashes of green that appear in the Wimbledon Suites addition to the Desert Inn, evoke a very specific time that was here and then gone in a literal flash. Because recent nostalgia waves have favored the late 60’s and early to mid-70’s as the most desirous of eras to ape, the late 70’s through the very early 80’s only truly exist in the media of the time and Vega$ is special that it was a show the chief purpose of which was to capture its location as contemporarily as possible. So, in retrospect, Vega$ ends up existing as a moving snapshot of a less heralded time (which boils down to the nadir of the Carter years). And beyond the neon and the towering signs that no longer dot the Vegas strip, the half-moon archway-heavy, western architecture of the era has a distinct familiarity for Generation X kids who can still see remnants of that style as it crumbles in the strip malls of their youth that have long gone to seed.
And where is Michael Mann to be found in this mess? While there may not be more disparate work than Vega$ and Straight Time, which both debuted in 1978, you can see the raw material of Mann’s work emerge in both, though it’s completely segregated. In Dan Tanna, there are small traces of the Mann archetype but trying to turn Tanna into some kind of a brooding mope who’s constantly explaining that all he is is all he’s going after or giving one of Mann’s patented “time is luck” monologues while staring off into the desert night would have been verboten in the palace of Spelling. So Robert Urich mostly plays the role with a loose, relaxed charm that sometimes gives way to a harder edge as the show marches toward the end of its run.
Debuting three years after the cancellation of Vega$, Miami Vice became something of that show’s spiritual successor as it took the formula of exploiting its exotic location with massive budgets and hip guest stars. As the third season came to a close, Dan Tanna basically took his fashion-conscious look, his high-dollar car, and his satellite office down to Florida where he gave up shaving and socks to become Sonny Crockett. And while Vega$ retained far less Michael Mann than Straight Time, it is still an important entry on Mann’s resume even if it did nothing but burn his name into the consciousness of American audiences who would get to see it before the beginning of all of its 69 episodes.
Stunning. Sensational. Complex. Deeply heartbreaking. Surprisingly romantic. The creators of The Haunting Of Hill House have done it agin with The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a lush, emotional, Victorian Gothic puzzle box of human drama, tragedy, memories that won’t die and yes, horror too although there’s less of it this time round. As one character remarks, “this is a love story, not a ghost story.” It’s true, and while Netflix hasn’t marketed it as such, if you go in expecting a romantic tragedy instead of full on horror like Hill House (think Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) you’ll absorb the material with a clearer, fairer palette.
Our story starts as young American nanny Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) journeys from London to Bly Manor in the countryside, hired by nervous, boozy Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, dutifully flaunting a posh dialect he’s clearly worked hard on) to look after his young niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Henry keeps well clear of Bly and the two children, content to wallow in his fancy London office, always at the bottom of a bottle for painful reasons we later are privy too. There she meets various complicated and, well written and flawlessly acted characters including tomboy gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), stoic housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), lovable cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the black sheep among them, Henry’s shady, maladjusted valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Bly Manor itself, referred to in baroquely quaint terms by several characters as “a great good place,” is a world away from the omnipresent shadows, oppressive blue hued austerity of Hill House. Bly is rich, ornate, painted in deep chestnut browns, opulent dollhouse purples (the 80’s setting is proudly reflected in colour here) and the grounds adorned in brilliant green topiary, verdant meadows and beautiful rose gardens.
Now, my favourite part: the story. As told by a mysterious, wistfully mournful narrator played by the always brilliant Carla Gugino, this is a very dense, layered arrangement of interweaving love stories and subsequent tragedies, several ghosts and a host of human beings who all feel real, full of life and vitality and whose pain is shared greatly by the audience because of how excellently character development is cultivated, performance is calibrated and episodes are spun together on a loom of effortlessly fluid storytelling. Pedretti is a wonder as Dani, luminous and charismatic but one can see in her wide, drawn eyes and flighty mannerisms she has a painful past. Past and memory are important themes here, and every character, even the one painted as a flagrant villain, has something in their past that haunts them, causes them pain and dictates the choices they make in our narrative. Thomas is achingly restrained as Uncle Henry, Kohli raw and potent especially in an affecting campfire monologue that encapsulates everything we know, feel and wonder about life and death in one pure utterance. The two children are superb in quite difficult roles that require them to change tone, pitch and mood quite frequently. This story reminded me of those staircases in Harry Potter that continually shift their angles and pitch people out into unfamiliar hallways without warning. This narrative does the same for its characters, trapping them in ‘tucked away’ memories that seem arbitrary at first until you realize it’s for them to come to some realization or epiphany. I love that sort of reality melding, spaced out storytelling that uses memory and the mind in a literal sense and setting, it’s used to fantastic effect here and the story, while structured similarly as Hill House, is its own nesting doll narrative full of complexity and shifting components. Is it scary? Well, aside from a few effectively chilly moments no, not really, and nothing comes close to some of the skin crawling sequences in Hill House. But like I said, it’s more of a human story with life in its veins, and the most disturbing, distressing elements are the emotional rigours these human beings must endure, the torment that memory can inflict, the potent pain of a deep heartbreak, the deep wounds that grief imprints on one’s soul and the ways in which some may find redemption and others… not so much. It’s a tough, emotionally devastating tale and especially so for those who feel deeply and get invested in story and character, it takes its toll. But it’s a gorgeous, challenging, complex, beautifully rewarding experience in the same token, and I’m grateful to Mike Flanagan & Co for doing something equally as spellbinding as Hill House, yet cut from a different sort of cloth altogether. If this were a nine hour film (which is how I recommend you view, it demands to be binged in rapturous immersion) it would be my number one of the year.
What is it about heroes like Hercules that endure? They come and go throughout the years in so many incarnations; transforming with the times while still remaining timeless. And who among you does not long for the power of a God at your fingertips…or to wield ancient and powerful weapons, to strike with the might of great Zeus’s thunderbolts, into the dark hearts of those angry Gods and vengeful outcasts, mythical colossus’s, woken titans….?
This is the cinema of the legendary Son-of-God, and just like peanut butter he comes in oily and dry, crunchy and smooth. From Reeves to The Rock, the man and his name that has ascended to the heavens, where the stars spell out his glory are always adventures worth going the distance for. So when I first saw Kevin Sorbo take up the mantle, here again came a joyous and wonder-dipped slice of a pie that I had not tasted since that marvelous, though short-lived series, Wizards and Warriors. Here we would trek on the heels of the champion of Olympus on a regular basis, through the ancient worlds and ancient wonders, discovering forgotten realms and the magic that dwelt there.
Through the classics to the contemporaries, from the unintentionally funny to the down-right awesome, Hercules put enough of a hit on me, if I were a bear…I might have been launched into orbit…but seriously, I dig the cat enough to want to write my own private blended drink of a tale, that saw the man loose his strength because of his father’s mortal fornications and thus is forced to take on an attacking other-worldly titan…with a shotgun. But…I stress this was not conceived to mock or denigrate the character. It was written with tremendous affection. Because, for my money, a good Hercules story dances that fine line between the wondrous and the wacky…that just below that surface veneer of cinematic insanity there is in fact…brilliance.
So who better to sit down with for a chat with than one of the longest serving performers to ever carry the role through many a legendary journey. Kevin Sorbo would, as the fates would have it, turn out to become a real life Hercules. He is a man who has been on his own private odyssey, and it was by far, more arduous than anything he ever put on screen. Sorbo , however, in a fashion similar to the hero he portrayed, lived to fight another day and has gone on seemingly possessed with God-like strength and determination and has become not only an endearing screen icon, but a prolific producer, writer and director.
When the hour cometh the hero shall be tested, and there, at the glorious moment, in that final stillness be found triumphant or wanting. These are the marks of few, the bold…those that will be marked by the lights of distant stars. So it was cool indeed to chat with the Legendary Hercules. Unfortunately, as I had hoped, I can’t present to recording as, because of a technical issue, it is not of sufficient quality. So I have taken the time to go through and transcribe what remains…though I regret that some has been saved only in my memory. Still…the journey continues…
Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls of all ages…I give you the mighty, Kevin Sorbo…
KH: You came from Minnesota originally?
KH: What was it, during your early days there, that lead on the crazy adventures you’ve been on ever since?
KS: Well…it probably started when I was this eight year old kid, and my Mom would watch the old matinee movies with Katherine Hepburn and Cary grant…just all the people from the golden age era, and I loved those movies, and I went to the Guthrie Theatre, a famous theatre in Minneapolis, and a lot of Hollywood shows come there, or they start there. Then I remember going to a play in New York, The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. Now, I don’t know what they were talking about, I was eleven, but I remember being mesmerized by these actors on stage, and it wasn’t long after that I went to my parent and told them I was going to be an actor. But I was a closet thespian because I was also a jock, and we used to make fun of guys in the theatre being jocks ’cause you know I played American football, baseball, basketball…took up golf…love the game of golf and I still play it to this day…so I didn’t really do anything about the acting till I got through college, feeling that peer pressure…but the seed was planted so…I knew that was the road I was gonna take some day.
KH: See if you can tell me where this line comes from…ready?
KS: (laughter) Okay.
KH: This ain’t Jim Beam!
KS: Arh…I did a Jim Beam commercial back in 1992, down in New Zealand. I get down there and I was in Auckland and got see some of the surrounding beaches and stuff, and thought it would be really cool to come down here to see this country more…of course I got Hercules a year later and I ended up coming back to New Zealand for seven years so…be careful what you wish for (laughter) …no, I love it down there…but that little commercial got me fan mail for like five years…I got more fan mail from that commercial than I did for Hercules. (laughter) But it was interesting they chose do it that spot in new Zealand when there are plenty of places in Texas that would be considered a redneck bar…which they were trying to reproduce. But then the guys from Jim beam told that because of the campaign there sales had gone up 80%, I said you guys owe me a little more more money ’cause I’d rather be paid by percentage…
KH: They thought you’d be happy with a lifetime supply of Jim Beam?
KS: There it is. (laughter)
KH: But we should talk about that briefly because you are a bit of an ANZAC, having spent a number of years in Australia as well as New Zealand, and, as you mentioned in your email prior to our chat…it was like a second home to you…?
KS: I actually was in Australia for two year. Back in 1986…I went to Sydney to shoot a commercial at Bells beach and I ended up staying, and my agent in Los Angeles flipped out, and I said to him, I’ve wanted to come to Australia since I was twelve years old and now I’m here I want to see it. I went to Melbourne as well…I lived at Bondi beach…I’ve been down there for Comic con’s in Brisbane and Townsville, Perth…so I’ve been there a lot and I’m in talks right now with a production company down there to come and shoot another one…so we have a TV series that we could be shooting down there in the future…
KH: Splendid…well done. We’ll it will be nice to have you back…yet again.
KS: I’m looking forward to it.
KH: Awesome. So, moving right along…are the rumors true, because the internet should always be questioned and never taken for granted, that you were just beat out, by a nose, for Lois and Clark and The X Files?
KS: With the X Files it was more like I was in the final six, not the last three. With playing Superman though, I did test for that. Both Dean and I tested with Teri Hatcher and I go the the part…so I went out, celebrated, next morning I get a phone call and they say, “We’re going with Dean Cain!” So, that’s the nature of the business…but Dean’s a good friend of mine and for him it was meant to be…but…three months later, I got Hercules, so Dean was like, “You got the most watched TV show in the world and I got cancelled after three seasons.” But, it is what it is.
KH: Exactly. But…do you think you would have liked to have played Superman?
KS: Oh I think I would have enjoyed it…but Dean was right for the part…I think was better at the alter ego part of Superman, rather than the actual Superman. Would I have liked it…sure…but I was pretty happy doing Hercules so…
KH: Well Hercules takes up a massive chunk of your early career. You were in New Zealand doing crossovers with Xena…
KS: Xena didn’t exist when we started. We did five two hour movies, and by the end of that season two, they introduced that character not knowing it would become a spin-off, that’s how that came about, and with the son of Hercules in season five, it would be twenty year old Ryan Gosling playing me so…
KH: There you go. But in the midst of all this, the dark clouds of tragedy move in, it was between seasons four and five…you were doing press at the time for KULL the Conqueror and you had a series of four strokes?
KS: An aneurysm went to my left sub clavicle, that effected strength in my shoulders, balance, I was getting bumps and bruises…I loved working with the stunt team down there…so I blew it off. I went back to the States, my doctor found a lump, he thought it might be cancer and wanted to do a biopsy, I had the first stroke and then three on the way to the hospital, it affected things like my speech and took a long time to recover but I wrote a book, True Strength, back in 2012, and it allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have done like public speaking which I still do on the subject. Of course I did return to Hercules, but it was in a limited capacity and then came Andromeda and that was like the third year of recovery and I was starting to feel recovered.
KH: I was a fan of you as Hercules, but being a life-long aficionado of Robert E. Howard…now…of course Schwarzenegger made Conan his own and brought that character into public consciousness, but Kull never as much, yet, we got a Kull movie…tell us what making that was like?
KS: Well Kull was the last novel Howard wrote before he blew his brains out so….you know….the original script was very dark, though the rewrites didn’t help. Conan was a brooding anti-hero where Kull was more able to articulate his thoughts. And I fought for him to use the battle axe as opposed to a sword…Conan was all about his sword but if you look at the art work inspired by Howard’s books, a majority of his warrior heroes carried axes. We shot for three weeks in Croatia on that movie. There were a lot of people that worked on it that had worked on the Conan films and it was well directed by John Nicolella, who has sadly passed away. It was fun a to a big budget action film…went to the big premiere in DC…it’s always a thrill.
KH: I can only imagine. So lets talk about TV, you’ve had such a variety of roles on the small screen. Andromeda was another big chunk of your career…tells of the journey from sword and sandals, so-to-speak, to the space and far-flung stars?
KS: I always was a big believer in the message Roddenberry was trying to put out there with these stories of humanity no merely being envoys for our race but far-reaching students of the vastness and complexity of our galaxy…but you know…when you spend a big chunk of time on one show and then on another…it still strikes me as delightful that, when I go to conventions, you’ll have your die-hard Hercules and your die-hard Andromeda fans…and never the twain shall meet…but that’s okay…that’s why variety is essential in entertainment…there’s something for everybody.
KH: My sister wanted me to ask you about a film of yours she enjoyed…Never Cry Werewolf?
KS: (laughter) Yeah…that was done up in Toronto and I gotta say that was a blast doing that one. It was one of those cases where….I get so many offers to do parts….and it was a small part, I think they sent me the twenty pages of script that I was in…these independent producers have their stock stable of crew and its a matter of go in and shoot and move on to the next…but I honestly have so many projects of my own, as well, that I’m working on, I have a slate of five films, features…some I’m in some I’m producing, I’m off to do a civil war movie and then after that I’m going to England to film a Charles Dickens adaptation…
KH: Wow….you’re no slouch mate. Don’t let them tell you you’re not on top of your game…and how you do it all is a mystery to me, for sure and certain. But…among your TV credits I know and have seen the episode you did of Murder She Wrote, you’re a part of the glorious group of performers that garnered a guest spot on Murder She Wrote. What was that experience like?
KS: It was a great experience. We shot on the Universal lot and I was able to meet Angela Lansbury and her Husband….and, one thing I found out later is that Angela had apparently been checking me out, to see what kind of a character I was during set-ups before she introduced herself which I thought was sweet and funny, but again I had a great time. Angela is a true professional and a legend, I mean, I saw her again when she was touring around with a theatre production, you know, so many years later…that’s impressive to me.
KH: Yes, the lady indeed is an absolute treasure. But, another of your credits I wanted to ask you was advertised at the end of one of my favorite films The Sword and The Sorcerer, but it would take Albert Pyun another 30 years to finally give us Tales of an Ancient Empire?
KS: Well when we filmed initially we only shot part…like fifty percent of the movie so I knew it was going to take time for them to gather the rest of the film, which sometimes happens on independent productions, but I loved the role, I loved the script…but it was the first thing I was ever involved in where they ran out of money and had to shut down at the time. But I can see the ambition and how it was part of a much larger story, on a Lord of the Rings type of canvas, there would have been a bigger world on display had the budget been there, but my character was kind of a shady, jerk, womanizer…which was fun to play. But I know Albert has had a lot of health issues lately…and it’s been a while since we’ve spoken…but he was a great guy…I wish him all the best with the struggles he’s going through, being someone who has had debilitating health issues…I pray for him.
KH: Tell us about your part in The Kings of Mykonos?
KS: Oh that was a great location, shooting on the sunny island of Mykonos. I played this American guy with a bad Italian accent who was very popular with the ladies (laughter)…it was just fun you know…we had a good time…a lot of laughs on the set. I know that film did really well, especially in your and in European regions. It came out on DVD over here, but sadly never got a theatrical release.
KH: I thought you were great in it…you have the comedic touch…which you did get a chance to showcase again in a little film called Meet the Spartans?
KS: I remember I had a meetings, and they were four hours apart in Hollywood, and 300 was screening, so with the time in between meetings, I went to a matinee and I thought, this is the perfect movie to spoof, so eventually when the part came around I jumped at it, playing the lieutenant to King Leonidas. It was great, there was the opportunity to improvise and in some cases they used those takes where we just riffing on each rather than what was scripted…the key to a good a parody is not just poking fun but presenting the futility of the situations sometimes…I know that I sound like a broken record but again…it was a lot of fun to do.
KH: Did you ever consider spoofing Hercules in a similar fashion…’cause got your story. Hercules with a Shotgun. A retired Hercules has been stripped of his God-like strength because Zeus has been kicked out of Olympus by his wife for philandering constantly with mortal woman. Thus the son of Zeus is forced to take on a monstrous titan with nothing but a shotgun?
KS: Hey…get it funded and we’ll talk.
KH: No sweat…I’ll get the money in the bank and have my people call your people.
KS: Well I don’t have an agent any more so just get in touch with me.
KH: No worries…I’ll find someone to pick up the cheque and I’ll give you a bell.
KS: Sounds great.
KH: Well Kevin…been awesome to chat to you mate, I better let you get on ’cause I know the bases are loaded.
KS: Yeah I’m actually off to Oxford on Monday to finish up a documentary so…there’s always something going on. Your listens can of course keep up with it all on my official Facebook page and my official website: http://www.kevinsorbo.net/ , and thank you for the conversation Kent and a big G’day to all the folks there Down Under…a great place on this Earth.
KH: Best wishes with all you got going mate…an maybe we’ll catch you back in this neighborhood some day soon…?
Are you content enough in your beliefs to set aside the big questions of what we are, where we come from, where we go when we die and what it all means? Do you strive endlessly across all fields of existence for answers to these questions or are you, for the most part, happy to live your life and just let the mystery be? Whichever side of that fence your soul sits on will have a lot to do with how much you enjoy and what you take away from HBO’s The Leftovers, a confounding, fiercely individual three season showstopper from Lost’s mad storytelling brewmaster Damon Lindelof, a series I just reached the finale of last night and am honestly sheepish about even tackling a review as the thing is so dense and pockmarked with events that take a while to process.
Outlining the show’s general premise does zilch in imparting it’s essence, but here goes: one day, all at once, all over the world, three percent of the world’s human population vanishes into thin air. Just like that. Where did they go? Well.. refer to the first few lines of my above paragraph. This show isn’t really about how or why these people left, it’s about the people left behind, how they live now, how the world has been reshaped and altered by such a huge event, and where to go from it. We meet people like small town police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux in probably the encore performance of his career), his daughter (Margaret Qualley), his mentally unstable yet weirdly charismatic father (Scott Glenn, awesome as ever), deeply wounded Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, excellent), God himself or at least a dude claiming to be him (Bill Camp taking a whack at an Australian accent), a strange drifter (Michael Gaston) with a penchant for shooting dogs, Kevin’s ex wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), passionate preacher Matt (Christopher Ecccleston), wayward housewife turned cultist Meg (Liv Tyler) and many, many more. The one who resonates the strongest might just be the great Ann Dowd in a ferocious, affecting and often downright hilarious turn as Patty, figurehead of a spooky cult called the Guilty Remnants who wear all white, chain smoke and take a vow of silence. They serve to represent the splintered remains of humanity who have deliberately renounced many of their ways in recognition of their collective trauma, while the rest of society chooses to bury it, soldier on but are no less afflicted.
Season one is kind of like the dry run, based on an existing novel by Tom Perrotta and serving as a deeply felt series of dramatic and interpersonal revelations revolving around the upstate New York town of Mapletown, and those that live there. Season two and three however are where the cart flies off the rails (in the best way imaginable) and the magic really happens because it’s all brand new material spun by Lindelof and Perrotta himself who signs on as co-creator. These seasons traverse from Mapleton to an eerie Texas town called Miracle, on to Australia and even to dreamy purgatorial planes of inter dimensional space that defy description or logic. There are a wide variety of human beings here who all react differently to this mass departure as they grow, learn and suffer into the future at their own paces, turning to everything from religion, crime, messianic devotion, ..uh… shooting dogs, mind bending near death experiences, time travel, metaphysical pseudoscience and more. I’ll admit I struggled with this one because of its purposeful ambiguity, and not in the impenetrably surreal way of, say, Twin Peaks or even the offhand arbitration of Lost, two narrative vernaculars which I have always been able to accept and intuit. No, here the mystery is different, it’s like a dream where the riddle is so specific and clearly drawn yet the answers are so squarely out of reach, and for the most part remain so until the haunting, emotionally resonant and appropriately hazy finale episode. I began watching this looking for clues, stockpiling them for later, paying attention to behaviour and profiling these folks so that I might get to the centre of the mystery before the show itself did… but I didn’t, and neither did the story. It’s just not that kind of piece, and one need only look at the artistic expression and music of the opening credit sequence to see this. Season one always starts with a baroque, austere and Michaelangelo-esque vision of humans ascending in great discomfort, it feels decidedly biblical and somehow organized. Then in season two the visual aspect of the credits is far more esoteric and less classically spiritual… human beings are caught in candid snapshots of day to day activities with their loved ones, many of whom aren’t really present in the frames, their silhouettes replaced with nebulous stars and open space while Iris Dement’s delightful song ‘Let The Mystery Be’ warbles along in the background. These people are gone and that’s the first mystery, but it leads to many more and it’s almost not even our business or our right to impose so many questions and demand explanations in a story like this. This is *their* story, these brilliantly written and acted humans we see onscreen and it’s an intensely personal, at times indescribable story. We bear witness and can draw our own conclusions as to what it all means, but at the end of the day we have no way of knowing and such as it is in this show, so too is the case in our very own existence, we kind of don’t have a choice but to do just what every episode gently reminds us: just the mystery be.
It has been an amazing decade for television! Not only that but in the last ten years we have seen a giant shift from the casual week-to-week entertainment factor of cable TV towards serious arthouse long form storytelling, major production value on the small screen and a much celebrated golden age of serialized television. There have been dozens upon dozens of beautifully crafted, innovative, imaginative and affecting pieces of work produced and here are my twenty personal favourite!
20. The Big Lez Show (2012/YouTube)
This one is something else. Essentially a simplistic piece quite literally animated on Microsoft Paint, it highlights the profane, raucous and often meditative adventures of Big Lez, his stoner Sasquatch buddies and many others. Australian humour adds an offbeat quality and there’s never a shortage of bizarre comedic set pieces, hysterical character interaction and a sense of WTF-ness that permeates the whole thing.
19. Justified (2010/FX)
You’d never believe that such a legendary, Kentucky fried aesthetic could be distilled from one Elmore Leonard short story, but this thing is a feast. Timothy Olyphant scores big as brittle Federal Marshal Raylan Givens, venturing back to his rural roots for six glorious seasons of pulpy, star studded, densely verbose modern western intrigue.
18. Goliath (2018/Amazon Prime)
Billy Bob Thornton does a career best turn in this surreal LA noir about a disgraced ex super-lawyer on the skids and forced to take on near suicidal class action lawsuits. Cue mystery, political corruption, glossy California decadence and a sense of ramshackle family within his tight knit crew. It’s a fantastic, high powered thriller and intense character study with top caliber guest actors and a feel for California and the surrounding area that draws you right in.
17. Ray Donovan (2013/Showtime)
Part Grand Theft Auto, part L.A. Confidential with a healthy dose of contemporary pop culture, this is a fantastic cross section and often satire of gritty underworld Hollywood through the eyes of Liev Schreiber’s Ray, a Boston bred tough guy with the polish of L.A. who acts as fixer, muscle, often romantic partner and secret agent of sorts to the elites of media and sports industries. There’s morality plays, fierce examinations of Shakespearean loyalty and betrayal, stinging dark humour, farcical sensibilities, dastardly villains and a lot of pathos packed into this still continuing epic.
16. Shameless (2011/Showtime)
Life for a lower middle class Chicago family is hilariously documented in this candid, raunchy, heartfelt and chaotic framework full of fantastic performances, chief among them William H. Macy as their perpetually drunk patriarch and the lovely Emmy Rossum as his brave, fierce and resilient daughter. There’s never a shortage of hijinks, severely R rated shenanigans or berserk subplots around, plus along the way you get a good sense for each family member and their woes, joys and personal struggles.
15. Game Of Thrones (2011/HBO)
I do have issues with this show, namely pacing, tone and the fucking rush job of a last season thanks to those two writers. However, this is a gargantuan fantasy epic that changed the landscape of television forever and has an infinity of gorgeously mounted set pieces, complex character dynamics and yes, dragons.
14. StrangerThings (2016/Netflix)
Neon, 80’s nostalgia, Amblin vibes, Stephen King atmosphere and yesteryear pop culture abound. This show is now an international phenomenon and rightfully so but it legit has the quality and heart to back up the hype, particularly in the near perfect first season.
13. Homecoming (2018/Amazon Prime)
Julia Roberts uncovers a deeply planted conspiracy amongst the ex military patients she’s hired to provide counselling for in this baroque, moody noir that only arrives in thirty minute episodes but somehow seems much denser. Melancholy, burnished and stocked with musical tracks lifted right from classic Hollywood films, this is one captivating piece of storytelling.
12. The Alienist (2018/TNT)
This dark, macabre tale sees a psychiatric pioneer (Daniel Bruhl), a crime scene illustrator (Luke Evans) and the first woman in the New York police department (Dakota Fanning) on the hunt for a terrifying, ever elusive serial killer near the turn of the century. It’s slick, intelligent, unexpected and not watered down whatsoever, leading to one of the starkest and most brutal yet captivating portraits of history I’ve ever seen onscreen.
11. The Terror (2018/AMC)
This inclusion goes for season one, which in its own is a thing of magisterial beauty, terror and primal existentialism. An elemental fiction reworking of a real life naval disappearance in the arctic, this story is best binged in one rainy day to absorb character, incident and the cold atmosphere of such a remote series of events.
10. Fargo (2014/FX)
I’ve been flayed for holding this opinion before but for me this tv adaptation outdoes the Coen brothers’ original film itself. A near biblical trio of seasons that begins with the icy Minnesota black comedy crime aesthetic and ascends at times to something daring and esoteric, this breaks both the mould it was forged in and that of television itself. Plus you get to briefly see Bruce Campbell play Ronald Reagan and if that ain’t worth the time capsule then I just don’t know what is.
9. Letterkenny (2016/CraveTV)
Rural Ontario seems like an odd setting for one of the snappiest, smartly written and hysterical comedies this decade has seen but there you go. Basically just the humdrum misadventures of a town with 5,000 population and no shortage of mayhem, this is television like no other and you really have to just crush like five episodes, immerse yourself in the mile a minute dialogue and jokes to experience the magic. Pitter patter.
8. Happy! (2017/SyFy)
Disgraced, alcoholic ex cop turned hitman Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni in a career best) and his daughter’s imaginary friend Happy the flying unicorn (Patton Oswalt) hunt down all kinds of freaks, weirdos, perverts, contract killers and arch villains on Christmas Eve to find a bunch of kidnapped children. That description says nothing though, only through viewing this can you appreciate how ballsy, subversive and deeply fucked up this story really is. Not for the faint of heart, but anyone with a love of whacked out dark humour and unconventional storytelling will get a royal kick.
7. Hannibal (2013/NBC)
I’ll admit I wasn’t super pumped when I heard that NBC was doing a Hannibal rendition, as they’re kind of a vanilla cable show runner. But creator Bryant Fuller churned out something spectacularly atmospheric, unbelievably artistic and so not what you’d expect to see. Mads Mikkelsen makes a chilling, low key and almost ethereal Dr. Lekter, Hugh Dancy a haunted, empathetic Will Graham and there’s an eclectically rounded cast of guest stars including Laurence Fishburne, Kacey Rohl, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt, Katherine Isabelle, Lance Henriksen and more.
6. Westworld (2016/HBO)
The advent of artificial intelligence blends with humanity’s deepest desires and eventually something more profound in this complex, operatic, gorgeously mounted science fiction epic. It’s a tricky beast and a labyrinthine (literally and figuratively) experience to process but stick with it and the resulting effect is mesmerizing.
5. Maniac (2018/Netflix)
Jonah Hill and Emma Stone headline this psychological fantasy that’s kinda tough to pin down. A clandestine drug trial in a casette futurism setting leads to personal revelations, social satire and the kind of episodic time travel multidimensional storytelling that I live for. Brilliant stuff.
4. The Haunting Of Hill House (2018/Netflix)
Stephen King called this a work of genius, and I too share that sentiment. This is old school spook horror done beautifully, with powerful performances, psychological depth, harrowing scares both ghostly and wrought from human nature and characters that forge a strong place in your heart with each passing episode.
3. The OA (2016/Netflix)
I’m still so choked that Netflix cancelled this after only two seasons yet they keep tired, mediocre garbage like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why limping on long past their shelf life. I’ll quit being bitter now but you’ll see what a gem this is after five minutes of the pilot. Rich storytelling, groundbreaking conceptual design and ideas that don’t only think outside the box but defy dimensional existence. One day someone will pick this up for continuation but until then please check out the two masterful first seasons.
2. True Detective (2014/HBO)
A southern gothic conspiracy folk horror, an inky, fatalistic LA noir and a bleak ozark family saga. So far. The first season kicks off with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the darkest heart of Louisiana and while it’s my favourite part of this anthology so far, all three chapters cast their respective spell wonderfully.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return(2017/Showtime)
David Lynch delivers not only a dazzling, appropriately perplexing and ever mysterious follow up to his initial series but a personal filmmaking magnum opus. He and his team changed the face of television once in the early 90’s and with this stunning piece of originality, horror, musical performance, surrealism, coffee, cherry pie and inter-dimensional travel… they pull it off again.
Thanks for reading and tune in lots in the coming decade for much more!!
In 1986 Matthias Hues came to Hollywood without a shirt . . . or, little more than the shirt on his back. And it is without a shirt that he has built a career that continues to not only grow, but evolve. Like his predecessors, peers and the now emerging class of action stars, the mantra has really become adapt, or fade away. But really…it has always been that way.
Shirtless in Hollywood charts its course through the movie world that is at once bright and shining, as well as being dark and loathsome. Matthias has seen the incredible heights and the deep, lonely valleys which await everyone looking to get their hands on a slice of the pie of stardom. Through it all he has remained grounded. Warmed by those whom he trusts, sharpened by those with whom he has shared the screen, and tested by fame and fate at each and every turn.
Matthias’s book is compelling because it is not merely a tale of the glamorous life of a movie star. Instead it is a very human story for which his memoir’s title carries a double meaning. He came with little but the shirt on his back and then set about forging a career out of his physical gifts, to the point where esteemed action director Craig R. Baxley said, “If anyone is going to take their shirt off, it’s going to be Matthias.”
He has thrived alongside resident action men like Dolph Lundgren, Ralf Moeller, and Alex Nevsky. He has been mistaken for Fabio and a star of a film he wasn’t even in (Die Hard). He is a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy, that hasn’t let it all go to his head and hasn’t let it all come crashing down as the cinematic landscape changes.
Matthias is still an imposing figure, and it was a thrill to chat once again with a Hollywood idol who I think is going to have a great resurgence – if indeed the project that he discussed with me gets off the ground. Still, as much as he has overcome, Hues is man of quiet satisfaction who has found that real paradise does not exist between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. This huge Liam Neeson fan has gifted us all with his incredible tale and take on a business that can chew you up and spit you out . . . but only if you let it.
Shirt on, or shirt off, I think Matthias Hues is a legend . . . so kick back and join us as we take it all off and dive into the memoir of a grand gentleman of the old school who’ll still tell you, “I come in peace.”