This weekend, HBO offers up a comedy special (Talking Funny), a new movie about an historic TV phenom (Cinema Verite) and the return of a distinguished drama series (Treme). All are worth a look. It's actually an HBO grand slam if you count Game of Thrones, the triumphant adult fantasy series that was renewed for a second season shortly after the first episode aired. (HBO has a tradition of doing this, but rarely in recent years has the network's enthusiasm been so well deserved.)
In Thrones' eventful second chapter (Sunday, 9/8c), you begin to sense the series' range, as many characters begin disparate journeys through the sprawling land of Westeros: dutiful Ned Stark heads out with King Robert's entourage to King's Landing, bringing along his daughters (the starry-eyed Sansa, the willful Arya) while wife Catelyn stays in Winterfell to tend to the fallen Bran (with a direwolf as added protection); bastard son Jon Snow treks North to join the Night's Watch brotherhood along the great Wall, with impish Tyrion coming along for the experience and the chance to "p--- off the edge of the world"; and on the other side of the sea, newlywed exile Daenerys marches with the Dothraki horde, learning along the way how to seize the upper hand in her volatile new union. By the end of the hour, it's possible some of your favorite characters will be those loyal wolves.
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Here's what else HBO has in store this weekend:
Talking Funny (Friday, 9/8c)
Like a master-class seminar in the art of stand-up comedy, four giants in the field gather in what looks like a fancy hotel suite to kick around favorite bits, jokes and tricks of the trade. They affectionately rag on each other, but mostly praise, analyze and sometimes envy what the others bring to the stage. When the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais talk, it's best to listen. And laugh.
Executive producer Gervais, who came to stand-up only after making his splash with The Office, is the relative newbie, still a student of the circuit, and in between those raucous cackles (so familiar to viewers of The Ricky Gervais Show), he often guides the conversation as they chat with reverent irreverence about audience expectations, how much of an act should be replaced and how often, whether profanity helps or hurts an act — watch the fascination with which they regard Seinfeld as he interprets a classically mordant Louis C.K. joke in his own style — and their collective guilt over going at times for the easy, cheap laugh. (Gervais says he takes them all out of his DVDs.)
These guys love a good joke — and at times it looks like they like bad ones even more, spending an inordinate amount of time deconstructing a lame gay joke/song parody that cracks them up the more they take it seriously. "We're drugs," says Rock of the comedian's appeal to an audience. Well, Talking Funny is certainly addictive.
Cinema Verite (Saturday, 9/8c)
If only Pat Loud, TV's first "real housewife," had heeded her own qualms. "Why would anyone want to participate in such a thing?" she marvels, cringing at the thought of airing her Santa Barbara family's laundry, dirty or otherwise, on national TV. But the family did, and the rest is TV history.
HBO's punchy, pungent but ultimately facile Cinema Verite dramatizes the making of 1973's revolutionary PBS (!) docu-series An American Family, a precursor to today's exhibitionistic "reality" freak shows. Diane Lane and Tim Robbins are spot on as the self-consciously combative parents of the self-described "West Coast Kennedys" — sure enough, dad's a notorious cheat. And as the manipulative producer (a bearded James Gandolfini) predicts, "When you turn a camera on things, the truth just rises to the surface." Sometimes that truth is revelatory, as gay son Lance (Thomas Dekker), a born provocateur, takes full advantage of the exposure. Other times, as Pat and Bill's marriage crumbles in the camera's poisonous focus, it's awkward and painful.
Unfortunately, the movie is so short (clocking in at around 90 minutes) that things stay pretty much on the surface in this episodic treatment. It's always fascinating and often entertaining as things fall apart in front of and behind the camera — for a time, we find ourselves nostalgic for a time when "documentary ethics" was even an issue in producing a series like this. (Doubt anyone involved with Jersey Shore has ever lost sleep over such concerns.) But Cinema Verite could have been so much better if it could have stolen one of the hours HBO devoted so slavishly to Mildred Pierce.
For those who want to see what all the fuss was about, the public TV-affiliated WORLD channel is airing marathons of all 12 episodes of An American Family on Sunday and Monday, starting at noon/ET. (Some PBS affiliates are also airing the series in its entirety; check local schedules.)
Treme (Sunday, 10/9c)
"Too many dead nights in here," says bar owner Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), one of the New Orleans survivors whose love for the battered city is at the heart and soul of Treme. She figures one way to improve her fortune is to bring live music into the bar. "The down side: musicians," sighs the ex-wife of a feckless trombonist (Wendell Pierce) who after years of be-bopping from gig to gig is angling to start his own band: Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles.
Will Antoine achieve his musical dream? How long can Ladonna hold onto her business when her husband and sons (and now mother) live long distance in Baton Rouge? Theirs are among the myriad stories swirling in the funky gumbo of this one-of-a-kind drama. With a pace so measured and a narrative so meandering it makes AMC's brooding The Killing look like The Fast and the Furious (kidding, kinda), Treme immerses us in the sounds, smells and savory flavors of a unique American community during its slow and often painful rebirth. (The second season picks up in 2006, roughly seven months after the events of last season.) Crime is rampant, and so is institutional and political corruption (a favorite theme of series co-creator David Simon), but there is an unquenchable zest and spirit to New Orleans, and Treme, embodied by its swinging, jazzy soundtrack.
Whenever I revisit Treme, I'm reminded of Robert Altman's equally panoramic 1975 classic Nashville as well as the cinema verite (to borrow a phrase) documentary feel of the 1969 landmark Medium Cool. As we wander the streets and clubs of this fabled city, Treme hardly feels like fiction. These are not bigger-than-life characters, and their concerns for the next paycheck (or government check, good luck with that) or the next gig are relatively modest by TV's standards. But their concern for New Orleans' future is epic, whether expressed through artistry or hard labor or the occasional web or radio rant.
One new character, a cocky opportunist from Dallas played by Jon Seda (The Pacific), provides an entry point to see the city anew: not with nostalgia for the past but with an insatiable appetite for what's now and what's next. "Never let a disaster go to waste," he tells a banker, and we get the picture. He's no hero. Or is he? Out on the town, soaking up the local nightlife with his serious nose-to-the-grindstone cousin, he declares, "There's more to life than money."
Maybe New Orleans will redeem this conniving capitalist. Stranger things have happened. Because if it weren't for HBO, what are the odds that a series as low-key and offbeat as Treme would get a second season to spin its peculiarly intoxicating web?