Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: Merv, ‘Newsroom,’ ‘Last Patrol,’ ‘Worricker,’ ‘Poirot’
“The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986" (MPI Home Video). Even for many of us who remember the genuine article, the image of talk show host Merv Griffin is inextricably mixed up with the impression Rick Moranis unleashed on “SCTV”: “Oooo, we’llberightback.” But as this filling and fulfilling new DVD romp through the late midcentury demonstrates, that was barely a parody at all. There is a kind of jazzy intimacy to his sound, like a cocktail lounge strapped to the back of a Lear Jet; he pronounces the favorite word “sensational” with an exclamation mark attached to the middle syllable, as if he’s taking a corner at high speed. With an afternoon talk show on NBC debuting on the same day (Oct. 1, 1962) that Johnny Carson took over “The Tonight Show,” Griffin was a man of the old school, when talk shows were more devoted to talk than they are now and guests flogged their wares somewhat less conspicuously. (Some guests do just seem to be have been favorites of the series, whether great -- Richard Pryor, Henny Youngman -- or small, like rock-singing celebrity hairdresser Monti Rock III.) They have a leisurely air.
The chronological arrangement of the 12-disc, 42-hour set is the right one: This is history, a chronicle of rapidly changing times that puts you right inside them. (“Fascinating,” I can hear Merv say, accent on the first syllable.) The mix of personages and personalities is striking and unpredictable, the tone at times surprisingly serious, even solemn. A few of these appearances, such as those with Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick (she does the talking), or with Phil Spector, Eartha Kitt and Richard Pyror (they didn’t come together) show up in documentaries from time to time. There are segments or whole episodes devoted to the likes of Sen. Robert Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon (not yet president but thinking about it), Presidents Ford and Reagan; a 10-year-anniversary salute to Ms. magazine with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant, Carole King and Loretta Swit (“Now we have names for things,” Steinem says of the traveled distance, “battered women, sexual harassment; then it was just called life”); Rosa Parks; a Stax Records summit with Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Albert King and Carla Thomas; a tequila-fueled colloquy with John Wayne; a young George Clooney; an old Laurence Olivier; Salvador Dali; Redd Foxx; Lillian Carter; Joan Rivers, Steve Martin; Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall interviewed while eating spaghetti; Dick Cavett interviewing Griffin upon the release of his memoir “Merv”; Muhammad Ali, Jack Benny, Warren Beatty -- I’m just randomly pulling names now from a long roster.
Griffin isn’t averse to asking a hard question, though he prefers a cheery answer, and will sometimes try to nudge a dark reply into a sunnier place. Orson Welles calls old age “a shipwreck.” Griffin: “But you feel wonderful, don’t you?” Welles, rolling his eyes: “Oh, sure.” (He died hours later.) “We’ll have fun here with Francis Ford Coppola” is a perfectly Griffinesque phrase. But mostly he loves show business -- it’s a term you hear over and over again here -- and respects success, whatever haircut it wears.
“The Newsroom” (HBO, Sundays). Aaron Sorkin’s third show about the making of television, after “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” begins its final season this week. We are in 2013; Will the Anchor (Jeff Daniels) and Mac the Producer (Emily Mortimer) are talking bridesmaids and groomsmen, name-dropping a Diane Sawyer here and a Brian Williams there; and a bomb goes off near the finish of the Boston Marathon. As is his wont, Sorkin piles on the passion and the pedantry; he is a inveterate romantic who also can’t resist a teaching moment, who views real-world conflicts and ethical conundrums through a scrim of theatrical artifice. (That’s not a criticism; it’s what makes his work distinctive and what makes it go.) Once again, Sorkin’s bedrock theme is that it is exciting to go to work with people who are excited to go to work; that good work may be done in the short run and good may be done in the long run (he is temperamentally an idealist and optimist); that deadlines are fun; and that the best kind of romance, and also the worst kind, is an office romance. As usual, there is much shouting and running about; the show is staged with a relish for speed, even as the characters declare that speed should not be of the essence: As we start, the people of “News Night” are still gun-shy from last season’s Operation Genoa fiasco (“We’re going to do this thing well,” says Will, of the Boston story, and later, “We don’t do good TV; we do the news”). There is some sniping at the damned kids and their Internet. (“We’re not going based on tweets from witnesses we can’t talk to,” says Mac. “What credible news agency would do that?”) And some sniping back from the Internet kids at the fogeys swimming against history. And as if to answer the charges from past seasons and other projects that Sorkin patronizes women, it’s the female characters who seem most on top of things this season, running the show, being bold, taking risks, getting a handle on the facts, putting it all in perspective, while the menfolk fumble and huff, relatively speaking. I suppose that in itself may be accounted patronizing, but it doesn’t play that way. Most of your old friends are back, including Sam Waterston (the mouth on him!), Alison Pill, Olivia Munn, Jane Fonda. Dev Patel and Chris Messina; and say hello to Kat Denning, B.J. Novak and Mary McCormack -- hooray! -- sporting a badge once again.
“The Last Patrol” (HBO, Monday). A somewhat ragtag but very moving documentary by Sebastian Junger, in which Junger, Spanish photojournalist Guillermo Cervera and combat veterans Brendan O’Byrne and Dave Roels go looking for America. (Junger’s dog comes, too, as does a cameraman.) “We are all trying to come home,” says Junger. “I thought a 300-mile walk might help.” It’s a kind of tribute to the late war reporter Tim Hetherington, with whom Junger made the Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” and whose life was the subject of an earlier Junger HBO documentary “Which Way to the Front Line?” They follow rail lines as much as possible, because that’s something Junger and Hetherington had discussed, and because it will take them “right through the ghetto, through the suburbs, through the farms and the forests.” They sleep rough in sheltering groves or under bridges, look out for rail cops, engage with the friendlier locals, go to church on Sunday. It’s the premise for a novel, or for a road film, “Easy Rider” without the motorcycles, “Stand by Me” with big people. They find America worried, and dissatisfied, for different and sometimes conflicting reasons; they struggle with why they were drawn to war and whether they can leave it behind; they talk about how they grew up, and wonder whether they ever really did, and how they still might. Some of it is brutal. But some lights do come on.
“Worricker: Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield” (PBS, Sundays). David Hare’s 2011 political thriller “Page Eight” becomes the first part of a trilogy with the addition of these films, again starring lanky, laconic Bill Nighy as M15 officer Johnny Worricker; as before the enemy is within, where the security spies on the security. Having had to leave England in a hurry at the end of “Page Eight,” Johnny is now discovered living low and slow on a Caribbean island, until Christopher Walken (!) turns up one day and sets in motion events that over the course of the two films will eventually bring him back to his old turf. Hare has political points to make, about Britain and America in the age of the War on Terror Etc., and at times his story is dragged around by his agenda, and his dialogue provides a plinth for facts and figures he has to share. It’s also not always easy to tell what’s going on, though in part that may be dramatic strategy. What the films do supply, bountifully, is good company: great actors speaking melodious lines pleasurable in form and substance. Among the players are Helena Bonham-Carter as an ex-girlfriend, conveniently placed; Ralph Fiennes, still reeking of Voldemort, as the prime minister; Judy Davis as an M15 bigwig; Winona Ryder as a troubled woman with troubling associates; Olivia Williams as a newspaper editor; Malik Yoba as a police detective; Walken as, well, Christopher Walken. (Further identification would constitute a small spoiler.) Nighy is his usual dry-reed-in-a-light-breeze self, heroically straightforward, hard to ruffle, but with flaws enough to stay interesting.
“Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (PBS SoCal, Thursdays); “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Complete Cases Collection” (Acorn Media Blu-ray). The final three installments of the Hercule Poirot cycle, which bring to zero the number of stories David Suchet has yet to play, come finally to American broadcast television. (They were available earlier to stream from the subscription service Acorn TV, and on DVD.) PBS SoCal has the first of them, “Elephants Can Remember,” slated for Thursday, which some of us remember, with satisfaction, as the old “Mystery!” night, before they folded it into what used to be called “Masterpiece Theater.” (Check your local listings, locals of other locales.) “Elephants” features the return of Zoë Wanamaker as Agatha Christie-like mystery writer and sometime sleuth Ariadne Oliver -- Jessica Fletcher, basically, or Rick Castle, at a stretch. This was the last Poirot story Christie wrote, Poirot’s own final adventure, “Curtain” (the series’ last episode) having been written some years before and locked away till she was done with him; as you might have guessed, there is murder in it. Suchet, who played the part for 25 years, has aged into the part, though not expanded into it -- that is still a fat suit he’s wearing -- but he owned it from the first. Still, the Poirot he leaves us with is a few shades darker and deeper and more driven than the fastidious Belgian detective he first brought to television in 1989. You can revisit that Poirot, and every Suchet Poirot since in a sparkly new, newly sparkly Blu-ray set “Complete Cases Collection,” released last week in plenty of time to let Santa know.
Robert Lloyd tweets answers in the form of questions @LATimesTVLloyd
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