| | By Reese Erlich
Berkeley actor Ann Hallinan and friends were excited about making a web series of their own: no Hollywood producers, no boundaries, no censorship. These veterans of the Bay Area theater companies combined efforts to make a web series NEXT about women in the high-tech industry, available on YouTube.
Technology and competition are opening up tremendous possibilities for much more diverse TV, Hallinan told me. "Anyone with a cellphone can make a movie now," she said. "The tools of production are universally available."
But how will anyone find out about these new shows? And, said Hallinan, "How will the shows generate money?"
Cable and streaming TV now face the same capitalist problem as the recording, newspaper, and publishing industries. Technology makes more room for grassroots creativity than ever before. But the entertainment corporations are doing everything possible to co-opt, constrain, and profit from the new media.
"As platforms become more popular, mainstream producers have gotten more involved," noted Hallinan. "And of course they have a leg up."
The Bay Area's Peter Coyote, a politically engaged actor and writer, has more than 40 years experience working both inside and outside Hollywood. The core of the problem is the profit motive, he said. Entertainment corporations fear that airing anything too far outside the mainstream might cause controversy and hurt the bottom line.
Sex and violence are OK. Cops, spies, and corporate executives are fine on broadcast TV. Left wing heroes are out. Those restrictions often produce boring and repetitive programming. "The good guys always win," Coyote told me. "The leaders are always the most handsome guys, and the most beautiful women end up with the leaders."
But there is good news. Some cable TV and streaming video have allowed artists to alter the ideological framework that dominates the entertainment industry.
"Breaking Bad [FX TV] broke the frame," Coyote said. "The Newsroom [HBO] was brilliant at deconstructing the news industry. It showed how one-half of their job is to tell the news. The other half is to return corporate profits to their masters."
Coyote remains optimistic about the potential for multiplatform TV. For one thing, actors can find more work and juicier parts.
"Most actors my age," said the 75-year-old veteran, "are moving to TV because that's where the adults are."
And now—for you adults out there—a look at some recent TV series.
(Streaming on ShowTime)
A series about billionaires can look into their lives, develop compelling characters, and lay bare the exploitation inherent in making that much money. Let's call it the Bernie Sanders approach.
Or a series about billionaires can involve intricate plot twists, evil characters, and stories that justify rapacious activity. That's the Donald Trump version.
Showtime's Billions, which recently finished its second season, favors the Donald Trump school of drama.
Billions features some fine actors and explores current issues facing the super rich. The ultimate message, however: The rich have their problems but they deserve their wealth.
British actor Damian Lewis plays Bobby Axelrod, the hard-driving head of a hedge fund. Paul Giamatti is his nemesis, Chuck Rhoades, U.S. attorney for New York, who is determined to put Axelrod behind bars.
The series involves complicated plot twists as each character sinks to illegal and sometimes absurd tactics in a massive testosterone competition. In one particularly evil episode, "Axe" as he is called, is stuck with municipal bonds about to default. His hedge-fund managers debate what to do. Some point out the human cost of closing schools and laying off police. But others argue defaulting on bonds is just capitalism working to weed out the inefficient. Axe decides to foreclose and seize all the town's assets, including city hall.
It's as if Donald Trump starred in a fictional drama, in addition to his White House reality TV show.
The series is driven by plot, not character. We peek into the world of high finance, but ultimately, the main characters never change. A character-based drama that gets us interested in them as people might have succeeded. As aired, however, Billions is the story of corrupt, power-hungry men about whom we ultimately could care less.
(Streaming on HBO)
Big Little Lies also deals with rich people but in a very different way. On the surface, it portrays the lives of incredibly wealthy women living in Monterey, who have nothing to do but scheme against one another. These 40-somethings with kids, Mercedes, and beautiful seaside homes gossip and connive like 12th-graders.
Indeed, several episodes into the seven-part series, I almost stopped watching, thinking to myself, "Why should I care about a bunch of rich brats?" But there was something oddly compelling about the story.
Big Little Lies is an unusual murder mystery. We know neither the perpetrator nor the victim. Interspersed with the women's bickering are snippets of police interviews with various townspeople, each with their own suspicions about who committed the murder.
And the characters are intriguing. Unlike Billions, this series is character driven. So I kept watching.
The drama is propelled by four fine actors: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley. Early on, the Witherspoon character (Madeline) befriends Woodley's (Jane), a working-class transplant from Santa Cruz.
Jane quickly grabs our attention because by comparison, she's a poor single mother trying to survive in a tank of wealthy sharks. Her son is accused of bullying one of the rich kids at elementary school, and our sympathies go out to her as the less affluent outsider.
We come to find out that Jane was brutally raped by a wealthy man, who gave her a false name and an unwanted pregnancy. But in a nice dramatic twist, Jane's character changes as she buys a gun, engages in target practice, and seems to stalk the suspected rapist. We still sympathize, but much more warily.
Meanwhile, Kidman's character, Celeste, appears to be a happy, talented lawyer who has taken off time to raise her two kids. Her husband, Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, also appears as a loving father. But we slowly learn the relationship is deeply troubled. The couple's dominant/submissive sex is about spousal abuse, not kinky pleasure.
Dern's character, Renata, portrays a hard-driving corporate CEO who becomes convinced that Jane's son was bullying her daughter at school. She tries to get the boy expelled. Many parents side with the rich mother against the outsider, Jane. In one scene, Jane confronts Renata and pokes her in the eye.
We slowly come to understand the role of violence, even in the lives of these wealthy and highly privileged women. Celeste emerges as the most interesting character as she at first denies her husband's abuse and then comes to realize its horrific effects on both her and the children.
We also come to appreciate the impact of violence and warped morality on the other kids. Madeline's teenage daughter announces one day, for example, that she is auctioning off her virginity online with all proceeds going to a good cause—the perfect distillation of Madeline's attitudes toward sex and the ACLU.
Big Little Lies makes effective use of the California coast with its winding roads, bridge spans, and crashing waves. Handheld cameras capture the principals sometimes at odd angles or from a distance. We are effectively brought into the raw beauty, homes, and lives of these women in ways not often found in contemporary TV. As the series moves to its finale, we see the petty bickering give way to a sense of understanding among the main characters.
We don't find out who's been bumped off until the final episode. And the series doesn't name the perpetrator until the final seconds of the final episode. The climax will surprise you. The characters who previously bickered show solidarity in the face of crisis.
Don't get me wrong. Big Little Lies is no Norma Rae. The women of Monterey do not cast off their Manolo Blahnik pumps and carry banners to city hall. The series operates within the confines of big Hollywood productions.
But a TV show that initially appears to center on entitled brats turns out to be a small cry for women's rights.
Two Bay Area veteran actors recommend some shows they are watching.
Anne Hallinan shows a wide range of interests:
NEXT, a YouTube web series with Hallinan as a major character. (YouTube)
Transparent, Jeffrey Tambor turns in a sensitive portrayal of a transgender character. (Amazon)
The Americans, a complex, well-written series about Russian Soviet spies living as an American family in the 1980s United States. (FX cable network)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO) and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS and YouTube). Both of these former Daily Show correspondents carry on the tradition of political humor. Oliver features spot-on investigative pieces mixed with insightful comedy.
Peter Coyote particularly likes foreign dramas not otherwise available in the United States:
Occupied, a series about a Russian occupation of Norway when they discover a clean fuel and decide to stop pumping oil. Then we meet Norwegian resisters who plant bombs in the name of freedom. (Netflix)
Peaky Blinders, excellent portrayal of a street gang in post-World War I Britain. (Netflix)
Love/Hate, a powerful and dramatic contemporary Irish mob series (Amazon).
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (Facebook.com/reese.erlich) or visit www.reeseerlich.com.