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.
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.
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.
For anybody who’s a fan of mysteries centred on missing people, cold cases, decades-old secrets, multiple timelines, meticulous police procedural intrigue and deeply affecting human drama, I’d highly recommend BBC’s The Missing, Europe’s answer of sorts to HBO’s True Detective. This series not only contains everything I just listed above, but it executes each one of those elements pretty much flawlessly, and is one of those shows that compels you to put your phone down to track every detail, absorb every frame and immerse oneself completely, a seldom attained state of storytelling nirvana. So there are two seasons, done in anthology form, the only connective tissue between them besides thematic material being Tchéky Karyo’s deeply pragmatic, selfless freelance investigator Julien Baptiste, a sort of St. Francis of ex-cop PI’s who goes where he is needed, compelled on an elemental level to help out families whose children have disappeared.
Season one sees Baptiste assist a couple from the UK (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) whose young son disappeared into thin air one night while they are vacationing in a small French village. The police work tirelessly, it becomes a media sensation and two separate timelines eight years apart from one another unfold in symbiotic parallels. This case not only affects the parents, Baptiste and the local police force but also has a ripple effect into the nearby towns and eventually all over the continent as it becomes a notorious mystery akin to that of Maddy McCann. It’s a taut, emotional, incredibly complex series of events that isn’t too sensationalist but feels organic, momentous and immediate. The second season, which I loved even more than the first, takes place over in Germany where a challenging mystery plays out with the backdrop of a military garrison and all the families involved. Baptiste is here investigating the reappearance of a girl named Alice Webster who vanished nearly a decade before and may have connections to yet another girl that he failed to find many years ago. Her parents (David Morrisey and Keeley Hawes) are just glad to have their baby back until bit by bit doubt creeps in and it seems like something about her is.. off. So begins a series of revelations, callbacks to an older mystery years before in the Iraqi war and the ever present yet unseen presence of a monster who has been kidnapping girls for a long time.
This is peak long form television and taken as a pair of dual stories glued together by Karyo’s Baptiste, it’s a near perfect achievement in storytelling, a collective sixteen episodes that feel as if literal years of content has been presented in real time. I prefer the second season because it feels more well rounded and cohesive as a cinematic story, also it’s a lot less bleak than the first. These girls have been through hell and it has bled out into every other character around them, which is part of this show’s genius; this isn’t just about the victims, the perpetrators and the authorities who try to make sense of it all. This affects everyone who touches it or even hears about it, detail and careful attention is paid right down to the second, third and fourth tier characters until we feel immersed in a tangible world of human beings and every complicated, contradictory, evil, compassionate, inexplicable and every other act under the sun that they’re capable of. The acting is absolutely 100% top quality all around, not a false note or weak performance in sight and wonderful work provided by folks like Jason Flemyng, Roger Allam, Laura Fraser, Anastasia Hille, Olafur Darri Olaffsson, Abigail Hardingham, Saïd Taghmoui, Titus De Voogt, Eric Godon, Ken Stott and many more. Simply put: if you’re looking for a binge-worthy, addictive, intellectually stimulating, emotionally nourishing, all-bases-covered piece of programming, look no further because this is about as top shelf as anything gets. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime right now, too.
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.”
Daniel Roebuck’s directorial offering Getting Grace made me cry like a baby. The end result however, is that I was able to chat with one of the nicest dudes in Hollywood.
Now he’s back . . . and he’s in Star Wars. Well, a Star Wars video game, which isn’t bad either considering how much the line between video games and movies are blurring – the gaming experience having been elevated to its current status which is, quite simply, a little like an interactive story. But unlike the experience you have sitting down and watching a film – here you, are a part of the story.
From the soulless killer, Samson Toulette, in Tim Hunter’s acclaimed dissection of 1980’s teen anguish, RIVER’S EDGE, to his latest role as the irascible four armed pilot Greez Dritus in the highly anticipated video game release, STAR WARS: JEDI FALLEN ORDER(available on PS4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows).
EA and Respawn Entertainment’s STAR WARS JEDI: FALLEN ORDER has already garnered a great deal of interest and the excitement is building for its November 15th, 2019 release. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, game director Stig Asmussen offered his thoughts on Roebuck’s character Greez, “He’s a member of a new species we’ve created. I don’t want to give away too much of his backstory, but like anybody you’re going to find during these dark times, he’s got demons. But he’s kind of like this loudmouthed little guy, he talks real big, he tells tall tales and most of the time they’re not true.”
Roebuck spent a few months working alongside of Cameron Monaghan, playing Cal, the young padawan and Debra Wilson who plays Cere in the game. “We had a wonderful camaraderie, the three of us,” said Roebuck. “Plus, we were performance directed by Tom Keegan who is truly a master director and always brings great insight into the process.” Keegan and Roebuck had worked together before on DEAD RISING 3.
During the performance capture process, the actors donned form fitting body suits covered with reflective balls and performed the game’s cinematic scenes in front of dozens of cameras. They also wore head gear fitted with cameras so that the animators could utilize the footage to animate the character’s facial features by directly correlating them to the actor’s reference video.
STAR WARS JEDI FALLEN ORDER is on track to become one of the most successful video game releases of 2019. The game is one of a triumvirate of entertainment options being released by Lucasfilm LTD this fall. Its release coinciding with the original program from Disney +, THE MANDOLORIAN and STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, out this Christmas.
The story of Al Leong is not an uncommon Hollywood story in this respect: he is a face you’ve seen, but probably have no knowledge of his name, his explosive talent, his devotion to his craft and the incredible legacy he has built through the movies we all cherish. So, if you fall into that category, then you probably don’t know the man behind the face of our favorite Henchman – you probably don’t know Al Leong…? Well ladies and boys…you’ve come to the movies at the most opportune time in cinema history, because, friendly neighborhood filmmaker and nice guy all-round, Vito Trabucco, has assembled for your inquisitive, movie-loving minds this beautifully human, lovingly detailed, star-studded valentine. That candy-chomping terrorist that decided taking on The Willis was a good idea; that screaming Wing Kong Hatchet Man in the service of the ancient evil of Lo Pan – and the man who very nearly conquered most of the known world of his day…and who loves Twinkies for the excellent sugar rush…!
Man I could write for days of the films, television and memories that have and still are the fabric formed of my love of storytelling…..of which Al Leong is an indelible part. Join us as Vito and I wax political, poetical and even romantically about the cinema that is part of the wonderful life . . . of our favorite Henchman…
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over Men at Work and why can’t they make a sequel. While I feasted on potato chips nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping, turns out it was Herbert West a-rapping, at my chamber door.
I just want to go on the record and say there are a handful acting dynamos out there that have enjoyed long and industrious careers. But then, there’s Jeffrey Combs. If you’ll forgive the crassness of a STEP BROTHERS fan (and Jeff, I mean this as a compliment mate), Mr Combs is the f#@king Catalina Wine Mixer of genre/character/genius actors. You need only to watch Sir Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners – nothing further your Honor.
But for right now let’s focus on NEVERMORE. The creators of the eleventh episode in the second season of Masters of Horror have brought their act to a literal theatre near you – but if you’re reading this outside of the US – sorry. Directing legend, Stuart Gordon (Space Truckers) and his (frequent) co-writer from “The Black Cat”Dennis Paoli (From Beyond) have created a vehicle which has brought to the stage a critically heralded experience that has delighted audiences for over a decade.
Hailed as “a landmark performance” by the L.A. Times, Combs has thrilled crowds across the country with his dynamic and revelatory portrayal of the legendary Poe.
This marks NEVERMORE’s Westchester County, NY, premiere, an event made extra special by the area’s bicentennial celebration of Washington Irving—a contemporary of Poe who was, from Poe’s perspective, also a rival. As Combs recalled in a recent River Journal article, “I don’t think they ever met. I take dark delight in pointing out that Poe doesn’t have very nice things to say about Irving. Specifically, about Irving’s penchant for always having a moral to his stories while Poe was often criticized for being without morals.”
SHIFF (The Sleepy Hollow Film Festival) celebrates the Hudson Valley’s wellspring of American history, of classic literature, and the continuing legacy of supernatural writings and cinematic works that it has inspired,” says festival co-founder Taylor White. “We’re excited to have NEVERMORE as part of the festival because it encapsulates so many of these ideas—not to mention it’s a fantastic show, at the perfect time of year, in the perfect venue. We can’t wait for the crowd to experience it!”
As Combs added in the River Journal, “Poe was truly one of America’s great writers. I’m honoured every time I step on stage and recite his beautiful words.”
SHIFF, a celebration of outstanding genre cinema in the cradle of the American supernatural, takes place in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, NY, October 10-13, 2019.
Finally, Jeff Combs was an absolute pleasure to chat with, his personality is as vivacious and extraordinary as the multitude of characters he has brought to our screens. If we had more time I would have really delved a great deal deeper – but, never being one to turn down opportunity when he comes a-rapping at my chamber door, I could not in good conscience turn down the chance to talk with one of the world’s most original performers. He’s still batting a thousand, I hope you’ll enjoy…