I've waited nearly 10 years for the return of Project Greenlight, one of my all-time favorite docu-reality series, in which novice directors make a low-budget independent film while cameras record their every struggle. Although HBO has green-lit the show's comeback, Starz may have trumped it with The Chair (Saturday, 11/10c), from former Greenlight producer Chris Moore, which ups the stakes and doubles the fun by challenging two first-time filmmakers to work from the same initial script and make their own kind of movie. The reward to the winner, as judged by viewers: $250,000.
The competition element is an intriguing twist, but what makes The Chair so compelling, beyond the usual monetary and production crises you'd expect during a four-week shoot in wintry Pittsburgh on a $600,000 budget, is watching two distinct personalities shape the material in such thoroughly different ways.
They also couldn't be further apart in their attitudes about being a reality-TV subject. Anna Martemucci, a screenwriter so eager "to direct my own words" that she rewrites the entire coming-of-age script, is self-conscious about exposing her insecurities in front of the camera: "How much am I going to cry on this f---ing thing?" Whereas the more irreverent Shane Dawson, who aims to make his movie as raunchy as possible, is a puckish YouTube star with 10 million subscribers to his channel (which seems to give him an unfair advantage going into this contest). He absolutely thrives on being the star of his movie and being a reality star. Whether The Chair will catapult either of them into the movie industry's mainstream remains to be seen, but I'll be pulling up my own chair to watch them try.
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END OF AN EMPIRE: "What's the sense of looking back? Never does any good," opines the pragmatic Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) to an unusually reflective Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), sweating out the Great Depression in Cuba as HBO's Boardwalk Empire begins its fifth and final season (Sunday, 9/8) by jumping ahead in time to 1931 — with the end of Prohibition so close, yet still so far away (it would be repealed in 1933). With almost every character I ever cared about on this series snuffed out in previous seasons, and more interesting — though sometimes impenetrably convoluted — mob machinations occurring in Chicago (with an increasingly volatile Al Capone) and New York (with a coldly ambitious "Lucky" Luciano), I can't blame Nucky for spending the season's first hour as far away from Atlantic City as possible.
He's in Havana (gorgeously and lavishly rendered, as most everything on this deluxe series tends to be), hoping to strike a distribution deal with Bacardi Rum, looking forward to the Eighteenth Amendment being in the past. "I intend to be open for business legally in the thirstiest country on Earth." But carrying so much criminal baggage won't make that transition easy.
As Nucky takes measure of his life, Boardwalk flashes back to the 1880s — a device that promises to define, and elevate, this elegiac last run — in an evocative recreation of Nucky's coming of age in a still-developing Atlantic City. The young Nucky (an impressively soulful Nolan Lyons) is a desperate and cunning urchin, seeking to escape a stifling life of domestic poverty by making an impression on the powerful Commodore (John Ellison Conlee, doing a fine job of channeling an early version of the character played in the first few seasons by Dabney Coleman). These quieter scenes have an emotional urgency largely lacking amid the present-day mayhem — although Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, always riveting) remains the show's most electrifying presence, and as he is reintroduced in chain-gang uniform, simmering in rage at his dehumanized condition, we wait anxiously to witness his next eventful chapter.
There are still pleasures to be found in Boardwalk Empire, but it's definitely time to wrap — and enjoy a good stiff drink as a reward.
IN BRIEF: HBO's decidedly uneven but sporadically fascinating wallow in unhinged grief, The Leftovers, ends its first season (Sunday, 10/9c, not previewed) with those annoying Guilty Remnant tobacco-holic cult creeps making a mess of Memorial Day. So what else is new? Best reason to watch: the performances by Justin Theroux as the town's tormented sheriff and especially Carrie Coon as Nora, the sole survivor of a vanished family, who "makes a life-changing decision" in the finale. Whatever she does, she's terrific. ... Still, I'm much more invested in Showtime's Sunday night dramas. On another intense Ray Donovan (9/8c), our favorite brooding "fixer" (Liev Schreiber) has his hands full on the home front, frantic to protect his beloved daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey, very good) after she witnessed a horrific double slaying last week. "These are the kinds of things I take care of," Ray growls, comforting no one. But will she take his lead and lie to the cops, or will her shrewish mom's new detective boyfriend convince her to put her life on the line for the truth? ... And Masters of Sex (10/9c) continues its provocative exploration of sexual dysfunction, with Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt (almost unrecognizable) heartbreaking as a traumatized patient who takes Virginia's amateur psychoanalyzing perhaps too literally. Lightening the mood a bit, yet still painfully poignant, timid film geek Lester (Kevin Christy) hopes to be cured of his impotence the old-fashioned way. And Smash's Christian Borle is excellent as Bill's long-estranged brother, whose method of bringing up the past rattles the uptight Dr. Masters, who's finding it less easy to find solace in bed with Virginia (and vice versa).