Reviews & More: Living on

Viola Davis in the acclaimed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” 

This week I’ll write briefly about some of the shows I saw in the past two weeks. We’re all still quarantined in our homes, so perhaps this will add to the list of interesting programs available on TV and streaming. First, let’s discuss “The Prom.” A singing-dancing-glittering array of major stars (Meryl Streep, James Cordon, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington and more), an important message about tolerance, and all of that for a not-very-interesting musical. A friend said it was kind of like “putting lipstick on a lamb.” This friend also thought it was fine escape fare but I’m afraid even that wasn’t enough to thrill me. Bottom line: I admire the production without admiring the show.

The late August Wilson wrote a brilliant series of 10 plays that chronicled the Black experience in each decade of 20th century America, including such masterpieces as “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix) has been adapted (and greatly opened up) by iconic director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson into a stunning production that has all the intensity of the original one-set play but never loses the focus on southern and northern racism in the 1920s. Alternately funny and heart-rending, the superb cast (Viola Davis, playing up Ma’s narcissism and not-so-quiet fury; the late Chadwick Boseman, inwardly seething, outwardly charming; and several gifted character actors) shines as they honor Wilson’s characters, words and a message that, sadly, still resonates 100 years later.

“Murder on Middle Beach” is a documentary by filmmaker Madison Beach, new to HBO. And although the first of four episodes starts off slowly, we soon become engrossed in the journey of 28-year-old Beach as he tries to solve the mystery of who murdered his beloved mother in 2010. He began his investigation and documentation mere months after his mother’s death and we find ourselves rooting for him on his amateur quest, which becomes less amateur as the years go on. Along the way, we form opinions about certain family members, then discard them, then reform them because, as secrets are revealed, Madison can be sure of one true thing: no one is—or ever was—as he or she appeared to be… most especially his mother. It drags sometimes; four episodes could have easily been condensed to three and nothing would have been lost.

I somehow missed 2019’s “Sanditon” on Masterpiece Theater so I decided to check out the eight episodes this past week via PBS Passport. I was not sorry. Based on an unfinished (less than a novella length) novel by Jane Austen, the scriptwriter, the gifted Andrew Davies, has taken the liberty of finishing what Austen began, with some very modern additions. Never in her books did Austen deal with childhood sexual abuse, overt racism and hints of incest—it simply would not have happened. But Davies’ inclusions of elements not in the original works very well in creating far more complex characters and story arcs. And, of course, there’s that amazing pool of English actors to choose from, which means the show is perfectly cast and wonderfully acted; the production is just fine and the script witty. This first season leaves us hanging and as long as Davies was fabricating a story line that did not exist, I’m am hoping there will be a season two.

Last but never least, allow me to highly praise and recommend the documentary on HBO Max, “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which celebrates the three brothers’ story, their childhood, their rise to fame, their fall, their rise followed by another fall, the family tragedies and the music. Oh, the music! This is a well-deserved tribute, major recognition at last that this was a singular group of singer/songwriters who broke ground with their harmonies and amazing songs, and whose music will live on forever.