Hatfields & McCoys Miniseries

I tend to get to the theater early when I am going to see a movie. I don’t like to feel rushed, I like to get a good seat, and I certainly don’t want to miss the previews. So, more often than not, I wind up sitting through the 20 minute “First Look” program that runs before the previews start and the theater darkens, which highlights upcoming TV shows or movies and the behind the scenes production in an attempt to garner some interest in these projects. I’m not usually very interested in the programs that they highlight, but for some reason the segment on The History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys caught my eye.

Now admittedly I don’t know much about the Hatfields and the McCoys. Of course I was aware of the general premise – two southern families that had a long and protracted feud – but I had no idea as to its origins or the specifics of the feud. What made these families hate each other so much? How long did the active feud last? How many people were killed? I figured the feud must have not been too terrible as I had memories from my childhood of the descendants of the two families competing against each other on the game show Family Feud.

 

The Feud can get competitive, but it certainly isn’t a blood sport. How bad could this feud actually have been?

The fact that Kevin Costner was involved with the miniseries peaked my interest. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that Costner is a great actor, but I do think he does two types of roles particularly well: westerns and baseball players. And though Hatfields & McCoys isn’t necessarily a western, it was close enough for me to think he would excel at the portrayal of the Hatfield patriarch ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield. I was more leery of the casting of Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy; Paxton isn’t a terrible actor, but his years playing Bill Henrickson on HBO’s polygamy drama Big Love had kind of ruined him for me. That character was so sanctimonious and one-dimensional that I bailed out of the series in the final season, a big deal for a completest like myself. But the Costner factor outweighed my Paxton concerns, so I decided to give part one of the miniseries a try. I didn’t even set my DVR to record parts two and three; I didn’t want to waste valuable digital space if I just wasn’t that into the miniseries or if the commitment of six hours (with commercials) was just too daunting. Were they really going to have enough material to fill all that time without having a lot of filler or getting too repetitive?

The Hatfields & McCoys miniseries wound up being both compelling and entertaining. It turned out to be a pretty epic saga of how familial loyalty can become both toxic and deadly and how the desire for revenge often results in the worst possible outcome. I really enjoyed it. During the first commercial break of part one, I made sure I was ready to record the remaining chapters on the following nights. I was 100% invested.

The story moved along fairly quickly and managed to follow all the developments of the feud without feeling like it was dragging too much. Honestly, the time flew by. There are a lot of relations involved in the feud – cousins, aunts and uncles – but they developed even the supporting characters enough that it was fairly easy to keep everyone straight and to understand their motivations. It would have been easy for them to just have stock Hatfields and McCoys, but over the course of the six hours you got to know these people and care what happened to them. It also conveyed the complexity of the feud; though it began from pretty modest origins (a pig is involved), as the dispute intensified and deepened not all family members intensified their resentment. Some people on both sides tried to squash the feud or at least tried to contain it. Not all Hatfields hated all McCoys; central to the miniseries is the Romeo and Juliet type affair between two members of the battling clans and the impact their relationship has on both sides.

The miniseries makes clear that there was plenty of blame to go around in this feud and that there was wrongdoing on both sides. There were no angels in the dispute. Since I am so conditioned at this point to take a side in most cinematic disputes (e.g. “Team Edward” vs. “Team Jacob” in Twilight, “Team Eric” vs. “Team Bill” on True Blood), I was solidly “Team McCoy” for the first ¾ of part one. But as the events continued to unfold, it became obvious that you couldn’t root for either family. The longer the feud lasted, the more gruesome and ugly it became.

The acting throughout the miniseries is generally very good; Costner did his expected solid job and while I do find the sound of Paxton’s voice occasionally reminds me of the role of his that I dislike, it was infrequent enough that it wasn’t a major distraction. There were plenty of familiar faces in the supporting roles as the Hatfield and McCoy family members were filled with actors that had appeared on Deadwood, True Blood, Major League, St. Elmo’s Fire and Rome. I thought Matt Barr as Johnse Hatfield was a pleasant surprise as I recognized him from commercials from the now defunct CW cheerleading show Hellcats. Based on that resume I didn’t expect much from him, but he was very good as one of the more conflicted Hatfields.

Even though the series is on The History Channel, I do take their portrayal with a grain of salt. I’m not sure a network that now specializes in shows like Swamp People, UFO Hunters and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy can really be trusted to be bastions of historical accuracy. There must have been some changes or modifications for dramatic effect, which is fine. This isn’t a documentary. But after watching the miniseries I am now more interested in doing some research into the feud and learning more about it, which is probably the best result that they could hope for. I believe only a dozen people were killed as a direct result of the feud, but it felt like that many were killed in the first two hours of the program. There certainly was a lot of blood spilled over the course of the six hours. This bitter rivalry took a real toll on both sides.

When the miniseries finally came to an end, I definitely had a better understanding of the Hatfields and the McCoys and the severity of their war. It all seemed so pointless, though as someone who doesn’t have a particularly close relationship with my extended family I did respect their devotion to each other, as misguided as it might have been. It’s amazing how quickly the whole thing spiraled out of control and how the bitterness consumed generation after generation.

If you missed Hatfields & McCoys during its original airing and want to check it out (which I recommend), The History Channel will be running a marathon of all three episodes on Saturday June 2nd starting at 6 pm. It is well worth the time investment.

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The Future of Community

The week of the television upfronts, when networks unveil their fall line-ups and announce what shows will or will not be returning, is always more stressful for me than it should be. I mean, I don’t work on any of these shows and I’m not in the business, so I don’t have any financial interest in these decisions. However, as someone who is pretty passionate about television, I’m kind of invested in what shows return and what shows are cancelled. I also like to know if I’m going to have some decisions in the fall when faced with valuable space on my DVR. Thursdays at 8 pm have always been a particular nightmare for me. I usually have to watch the NBC comedy live, DVR The Vampire Diaries (don’t hate – it’s a great show) and then watch The Big Bang Theory on demand. This year, the upfronts were a source of particular anxiety because I love a lot of shows that were on the bubble for renewal. There was a real chance that Cougar Town, Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, 30 Rock and Community could all be cancelled. I was preparing myself for the worst, so I was pleasantly surprised when all the shows were picked up in some form or another: Cougar Town is jumping networks (from ABC to TBS), Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings received a full 22 episode pick up from NBC and ABC respectively, and both 30 Rock and Community were given 13 episodes orders by NBC. While 30 Rock will be ending their run after these final 13 episodes, there was a possibility that more episodes of Community could be ordered (in other words, it wasn’t necessarily cancelled after those episodes, the network could extend the deal). Though Community was moving to Friday nights I was still pretty optimistic; though Friday nights are often thought of as a television graveyard, this also means that expectations for shows on Friday are much lower and therefore networks are happy with ratings that would be considered low any other night. And to say that Community is “ratings-challenged” would be putting it nicely. So it really was the best case scenario – all my shows were returning in the fall and my favorite of the bunch was given a time slot where perhaps it would be able to thrive. I was a happy camper.

And then NBC/Sony Pictures fired Community’s creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon.

The loss of the showrunner and primary creative mind might not be that big of a deal to some other shows; the more routine or procedural shows on the schedule tend to follow a general pattern so their success is not necessarily tied to one person’s vision. I’m pretty sure I could take over Two and a Half Men and put out the same crappy product that is currently being produced. Many showrunners have handed off the responsibility for their shows to hand chosen successors so they can go off to develop other programs. A change at the top of a long running program may be less disruptive as storylines and character development have already been done; the heavy lifting accomplished, a new showrunner just has to keep the show afloat.

But then there are shows that are so intertwined with the man or woman who created them that it is difficult to even imagine what the show would be like without them. The Sopranos without David Chase? Forget about it. Mad Men without Matt Weiner? Breaking Bad without Vincent Gilligan? Vastly different shows. All these programs come from man’s specific viewpoint and bear the stamp of one person’s distinct voice. Take that away and you take away the very essence of the show.

Community, I fear, falls into this category. This show comes right from Dan Harmon’s wacky brain. If you’ve seen the show, and based on the ratings that isn’t many of you, you know that the show is quirky and hops around in different genres of storytelling. One week you get homage to spaghetti westerns and another week you get a spot on Ken Burns documentary parody. It’s all creative, surprising, smart, funny and – more often than not – pretty brilliant. But it is 100% Dan Harmon. This is his baby. The actors are all great, but they are speaking his words and executing his concepts. By most accounts, he IS Community.

I get why they may have wanted to let him go. Dan Harmon was allegedly kind of difficult to work with. He’s publicly feuded with Chevy Chase, one of the stars on the show, which is generally not a good thing (I tend to side with Harmon in principle – Chase isn’t exactly rumored to be a peach to work with either – but not in his execution).  His show isn’t doing all that well in the ratings, though it is a critical darling with a fairly rabid and devoted fan following. People are speculating that the main reason that they show was brought back was to hit the right number of episodes for syndication (they already have an agreement with Comedy Central). If that is the case, they don’t care about quality; they are only after quantity.

So I’m not really sure what to expect when the show returns in the fall. I’m trying to stay optimistic, as the showrunners that they have brought on formerly worked on Happy Endings, a show that doesn’t necessarily have the same sensibilities, but at least is in the same general comedic ballpark. As far as I know, the entire talented cast is returning, which is also a good sign. I’m definitely willing to give the new team a chance; I love this show far too much to just write it off. If I’ve stuck it out with The Office all this time, I can certainly give the new showrunners my support for what is could be the final 13 episodes of the series. But by the same token, it’s still kind of sad to know that the show I knew and loved is essentially over. The best I think I can hope for is a pale imitation of the original; without Harmon, I just don’t think that Community will be the same. If that’s the case, I’d rather the show ends it run after these 13 episodes rather than further mar the greatness it once was.

If you haven’t seen the show, I do encourage you to seek out the first three seasons on DVD. It takes a few episodes for the show to find its footing, but once it does it really is fantastic. I really don’t understand why this show isn’t more popular.

Thanks to Dan Harmon for three spectacular seasons and good luck to new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port. I have a feeling they are going to need it. The fact that the memo sent to cast and crew about how to handle the situation was immediately leaked to the media indicates that there is trouble afoot in the halls of Greendale.

Men in Black 3 review

Though the biggest movie of the year has probably already opened with The Avengers, Memorial Day weekend is the traditional kickoff of summer movie season. The model has clearly changed as the offerings this weekend are on the lackluster side, with Men in Black 3 being the flashiest of the bunch. While it won’t break any box office records or probably win any awards, Men in Black 3 is a fine, if not ultimately pretty forgettable, film. If you are a fan of the earlier movies in the franchise, then this will be right up your alley.

It’s debatable if this film is even really necessary; it’s been ten years since the Men in Black 2 debuted and I don’t really remember there ever being a groundswell of support for another film, perhaps because the second film wasn’t all that good. Clearly everyone involved felt like there was still some money to be made from this venture. Maybe Will Smith is having some money problems or wanted to resurrect his film career.

Men in Black 3 finds Agents J (Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) still working together and maintaining their uneasy friendship while they keep an eye on the aliens that walk among us on Earth. The trouble starts when alien Boris the Animal (the unrecognizable Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Concords) escapes his lunar prison with revenge on his mind. Boris plans to go back in time to kill Agent K, the man who arrested him and cost him one of his arms. By eliminating K, Boris can also undo the chain of events that protected the planet Earth from his alien race’s invasion and prevent their ultimate extinction. J has to go back to 1969 to prevent Boris from being successful and to save his partner and Earth from peril.

I felt a little ridiculous even typing all that.

While the whole time travel thing has been done before in plenty of other films, it was a nice way to reinvigorate the movie and freshen up the franchise. I don’t know how much mileage they could have gotten out of more of the same of Smith and Jones chasing aliens and Jones being cantankerous. With time travel, they get some new blood with the introduction of Josh Brolin as 1969 version of Agent K. Brolin’s inclusion in the film is what made me interested; I think he generally does good work (he was a GOONIE, for goodness sake) and I was interested to see how he would pull off what was basically a Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. Brolin does a fine job and I think captures Jones pretty well; he is definitely one of the best things about the film. Without his inclusion, this movie would have been a rehash of the previous two movies. Smith is at his affable best; he definitely has on screen presence and delivers during the film’s one emotional scene. I’ve kind of grown tired of him mugging his way through these kinds of films and wish he would return to more serious roles; I thought he was quite good in Ali and would like to see him do more of that type of work. Clement was a fun bad guy, though I spent half the movie trying to figure out who the actor was behind Boris due to the makeup and special effects. I knew I knew the voice, but I just couldn’t place it until I looked it up on IMDB.

Also distracting was trying to determine if Howard Stern had a cameo in the movie. It sure looked like him during the film, but this screen grab makes me think that it was his impersonator. You decide.

Stern or not?

I do appreciate that the movie did acknowledge, however briefly, that as a man of color, 1969 might not be the most desirable destination for Agent J. They don’t dwell on it – Men in Black is not the right vehicle for social commentary – but I’m glad that they didn’t gloss over it either. A few jokes were made and then they moved on, which I thought was just right.

The special effects of the alien creatures that they encounter deserves special recognition as I thought that they were quite impressive and creative. While the aliens tend toward the cartoony side of the spectrum, they are very well done and show a lot of ingenuity. The woman sitting behind me at the screening apparently was impressed as well, as she insisted on saying “Oh my God” every time a new creature made its appearance. Believe me – it got tiresome.

Even with the addition of Brolin and the likability of Smith, the film just didn’t hold my attention throughout. I’ve never been a huge MIB fan; in fact, I couldn’t even remember if I had seen the second movie (spoiler: I had). The movie isn’t bad, but it is a little too inconsequential for my tastes. There were a few funny moments, but I found the rest of the plot pretty predictable and by the numbers. I don’t know if they thought that the reveal at the end was going to be a surprise, but I saw where they were going to end up in the first act. There was still some sweetness and nice moments, but this is probably not a movie that I would have chosen to go to if a) it wasn’t free and b) I didn’t write a pop culture blog. Older kids might get a kick out of the film – little ones might be a little frightened by some of the aliens – but I think adults will generally find this kind of meh. Like I said out the outset, I’m not sure that this was a movie that really needed to be made. But it is harmless and certainly not a terrible way to spend an hour and 45 minutes. It just wouldn’t be my first choice.

Men in Black 3 generally works as a standalone movie; a basic knowledge of what the Men in Black do might be helpful, but it is pretty easy to figure out the gist of it from the context of this film. So if you’ve never seen the previous films and are curious about this one, I don’t think you’ll be at any disadvantage. This isn’t Lost.

The one thing that I appreciate the most about Men in Black 3 has nothing to do with the movie itself, but with one of its tie-ins with Dunkin Donuts. I’m a big fan of the iced Black Mocha Cream coffee that is being sold in promotion of the movie. It’s fantastic and I could drink it every morning. If this movie had to be made for me to get that drink, it was worth it.

Men in Black 3 is a perfectly ok film and is a definite improvement over the previous film in the trilogy. But it isn’t a must see and it is fairly disposable; this is not a movie you’ll be talking about after you see it. If you have enjoyed the series in the past, you’ll like this. If your kids drag you to it, it isn’t torture. But you can probably find better ways to spend your time at the cinema.

Men in Black 3 opens nationwide today.