The heart breaks while tempers violently flare in HBO's The Normal Heart (Sunday, 9/8c), Ryan Murphy's emotionally and politically explosive film version of Larry Kramer's provocative stage drama about the early response, within and outside the gay community, to the '80s AIDS crisis.
Teeming with anger, sorrow, passion and purpose, this powerful and harrowing movie is part tragic love story in plague times, part agitprop manifesto and tribute to tireless activism. "We're not yelling loud enough!" bellows Ned Weeks (an engagingly abrasive Mark Ruffalo), the story's pushy moral conscience, a belligerent scold who refuses to play nice when so many lives are at stake.
"Welcome to gay politics," Ned apologizes to his thicker-skinned ally, Dr. Emma Brookner (a bravely dour Julia Roberts). This "holy terror in a wheelchair" is as frustrated by the slow progress in treating and discovering the cause of this mystery disease as she is furious at the denial among gays who refuse to curtail their sexual activity even as they bury their young. Ned's fury — at the hypocrisy of heel-dragging politicians, at the cowardice of closeted peers, at the ambivalence of his own aloof brother (Alfred Molina) — makes him so outrageous in his dealings with media and power brokers that he becomes toxic even to his partners in founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis, portrayed by a superb supporting cast that includes Taylor Kitsch and, from the play's recent (and even more affecting) Broadway revival, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello.
Throughout the movie, loss and death loom as a constant reminder of why this fight is necessary. A Rolodex of the fallen is described as "a collection of cardboard tombstones," and when Ned's matinee-idol lover, the "too good to be true" Felix (a revelatory Matt Bomer), succumbs to the virus, we experience what one character calls "bereavement overload." The Normal Heart, still remarkable in its social and dramatic impact nearly 30 years after it was first produced off-Broadway, joins past HBO triumphs And the Band Played On (1993) and Angels in America (2003) as cultural milestones that define a dark chapter of history with artful urgency.
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CREEPSHOWS: No show has been more consistently unnerving or more hypnotically fascinating than the second season of NBC's macabre wonder Hannibal, which promises to come full circle in Friday's finale (10/9c) to the bloody showdown, teased in the startling season opener, between the notorious Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and his former FBI protector-turned-conspiratorial adversary Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). Jack and his psychologically conflicted partner-in-deception Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) have been laying an elaborate trap to snare the secretive serial killer, and as this scenario comes to a violent head, we can't help but mourn for all of those shuddery culinary masterpieces that may now never be prepared or consumed. At least not in present company.
Almost as tasty, Showtime's gothic free-for-all Penny Dreadful continues to grow richer by the episode, and Sunday's third episode (10/9) is possibly the best yet, especially when the focus stays on the tormented Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monstrous creation (Rory Kinnear), who made such a horrifically gruesome entrance in last week's episode. (RIP "Proteus," you will always be my favorite.) Turns out this creature knows a thing or two about drama, as the series takes a detour inside an actual Grand Guignol Theatre, where a production of "Sweeney Todd" (non-musical) is in rehearsal and where, as a friendly actor puts it, "our fare is mayhem and malice, with all the ingenious gore we can devise." While that nicely describes one aspect of this series, Dreadful offers a literate, even poetic, retelling of the Frankenstein legend, with Kinnear especially powerful as he conveys the monster's fury, terror and confusion at being subjected to the worst of humanity (and at times its best nature).
Unfortunately, Josh Hartnett as blank-slate gunslinger Ethan Crawford continues to be a leaden drag on the main story, which sends him along with Murray (Timothy Dalton) and psychic Vanessa (scene-stealer Eva Green) to the London Zoo, where an unexpected sort of animal lurks. Could it be that Hartnett is actually playing a zombie? (The evidence in this episode suggests something different.)
SECOND LOOK: If you missed Thursday's premiere, Fox is giving the new series Gang Related an encore on Friday (9/8c). Here's my mini-review of the show, the first of several network burn-offs this summer:
Is Ryan Lopez a good or bad cop? That question, reminiscent of the moral ambiguities that distinguished FX's The Shield, makes Gang Related more intriguing than the average police drama, even if an undertow of earnestness — he's actually a good cop in a bad bind — keeps the show from being truly electrifying. Ryan (the appealing Ramon Rodriguez) is torn between two families: his colleagues on the LAPD's elite Gang Task Force (including Lost's Terry O'Quinn as his boss) and the members of the underworld Acosta clan, a prime GTF target, who raised Ryan as an orphan and expect him to be their informant on the inside. As his worlds tumultuously collide, Ryan's divided loyalties illuminate corruption on both sides of the law. The action scenes are impressive, the cast admirably diverse (with Cliff Curtis especially strong as Ryan's demanding surrogate father), and the tone suitably rugged. All Gang Related needs to up the ante is a hero who's a little more "anti-."
Still, you'll likely have a better time Friday with a replay (8/7c) of Monday's 24: Live Another Day, in which Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) finds himself in another of those classic "how's he going to get out of this" situations, taking refuge (and a few hostages) in the U.S. Embassy while armed Marines wait for the President's order. Thankfully, it's finally becoming that time of day when a few key characters start believing that Jack's putting himself in all of this jeopardy for the greater good — to stop the wicked Margot (Michelle Fairley, a much nastier mom than she played on Game of Thrones) from getting control of the drones. As the final seconds tick toward 3 pm (London time), the crisis escalates enough that you'll likely be counting the minutes until the next episode.