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A CurtainUp Feature
How "Streaming" Eased the Summer of My Discontent
By Elyse Sommer
The best way to sum up how many of us have felt about this summer would be to paraphrase the ever quotable Will Shakespeare with "this has been the summer of our discontent." The heat has not just been uncomfortable but a frightening harbinger of increasingly devastating climate changes; that's even though our tweet happy but serious governance averse President still sees it as a hoax.
As a New York theater critic, this summer of my discontent has been exacerbated by not being able to go to the theater while recuperating from an accident. But here's the good news: As Curtainup's editor and critic in chief I usually see as many as five shows a week, and review at least three . That doesn't leave much time to see many of the multi-episode offerings from streaming networks like Netflix, Amazon Prime and a constantly growing list of other organizations. As was the case once before, my being sidelined from active live theater going has enabled me to play catch -up with some of the more buzz-y shows like Madam Secretary (originally serialized weekly on TV and now on Netflix) and The Crown, a lavishly produced Netflix original.
Whether the rights to a show were bought from the TV producers by Netflix or developed in house, "streaming" has made it possible to see it any time of day, an episode or two at a time, or all at once— and doing so without leaving my air-conditioned apartment and deal with MTA's frustrating glitches.
Of course, Curtainup's special page about shows available on small and large screens has long recognized the synchronism between the theater and other forms of entertainment. After all, many a musical or play is based on a book or a movie, and stage-born shows regularly gain a longer life and larger audiences when fllmed. What's more, most actors couldn't sustain themselves without large or small screen film work. Ditto for writers, directors and other live theater creatives.
It's also great to be able to see how actors work in both formats. Thus, while I wasn't able to get to Central Park to see Kate Burton as the mother of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, on the same night my trusty backup Deirdre Donovan covered her performance for us (Deirdre's review), I watched Burton make the first of two guest appearances as the crusty sister of Henry McCord, the husband of the show's title character.
My summer 2019 streaming experience has proved to be wonderfully stimulating. Watching two blockbuster multi-episode productions like Madam Secretary and The Crown not only confirmed the synergy between on screen and stage entertainment, but exemplified the streaming experience at its best. It also made me more sympathetic to how the popularity of streamed entertainment has ratcheted up the challenge stage and movie theaters producers have to deal with the change in audience habits. .
While access to content from several streaming organizations can make a substantial dent in one's discretionary spending budget, it's still cheaper than tickets for a show on Broadway; nowadays even off-Broadway. What's more, for "streamers" a close-up of an actor's expression is not limited to having a prime seat ticket. And, though multi episode storytelling does allow for complex plotting and diverse physical presentations, there's nothing like the never really frozen live theater experience.
I did note that both Madam Secretary and The Crown ran into one of the problems common to multi-episode shows: the tendency for a slump to set in and triggering the urge to fast forward a scene here and there, something you can't do at a movie or play seen in a "regular" venue. Granted, TV viewers can do this by taping an episode. However, they can 't watch only one episode at a time. In Madam Secretary's case, my urge to do a little fast forwarding set in around season 4 (which is probably why Season 5 wouldn't have happened without the boost Netflix gave it). As for The Crown, this Netflix original about the long reigning British Monarch has shown only one season, but it did have a couple of episodes that triggered my fast forwarding urge.
Naturally, you'll have to do your own "streaming" for full details about what happens throughout these shows, so what follows is an overview of what makes both worth watching-— as indeed they are.
Elizabeth McCord and her Husband, Henry (Tea Leoni and Tim Daly), a noted religious scholar and teacher, have nothing in common with the Richard the Third -like Frank Underwood and his equally deplorable spouse. The McCords not only have a happy and healthy relationship with each other and their children but are committed to do-the-right-thing public service. She's a former CIA analyst and was happy as a college professor until the secretary of state died in a suspicious plane crash and her former CIA colleague who's now President, Conrad Dalton, recruits her for the job. Husband Henry, a noted religion scholar and teacher, has also been recruited by the National Security Agency to apply his ethical know to their problems. Dangerous work that provides plenty of opportunity for tense interludes.
Besides picking up the mantle of West Wing's liberalism Madam Secretary borrows from the format of the much loved The Good Wife— not only by having a smart, charismatic female lead but by adapting the setup of a weekly legal procedural intertwined with the personal story. In Madam Secretary that means giving Elizabeth a political-crisis-of-the-week.
Each episode calls for Elizabeth to apply her diplomatic skills to trouble shooting a variety of global issues that have gone awry, saving lives, and keeping important national or international agreements from falling through. This being very much a story championing female empowerment, one episode even has her dealing with the inappropriate sexual behavior of a nutty dictator.
The way these torn from the headlines situations are dramatized and resolved does tend to be less than realistic. But who cares about problems being resolved too easily and with intelligence, when it's all so bracingly upbeat, well staged and performed. Leoni and the others inhabiting the key roles are terrific. Given my many years as< i> Curtainup's Madam Edtor and Critic-in-Chief, it wwas also lots of fun to spot so many actors I''ve seen in plays and/or musicals popping up in occasional and frequent guest roles.
As for actors I haven't previously seen on stage. . . that includes the the show' s star, Tea Leoni, and the young thespians playing the McCord offspring ( Wallis Currie-Wood and Katherine Herzer as daughters "Stevie and Alison, and Evan Roe as son Jason). I did see Henry (Tim Daly), just a year ago in Downstairs a play Theresa Rebeck wrote especially for him and his sister Tyne Daly
Most of the actors playing characters who are regularly in Elizabeth's orbit — including her boss, President Dalton—, have musical creds. Keith Carradine is a seasoned songwriter and singer as well as actor. His POTUS doesn't get to sing, but the show's writers have smartly provided a few fun musical riffs for Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth) Elizabeth's chief of staff for the first three seasons, publicist Daisy Grant (Patina Miller ), and executive assistant Blake Moran (Erich Bergen). Ultimately, what's really great to see is how smart and dedicated all these characters are, with Dalton's right-hand man Russell Jackson (the superb , Zeljko Ivanek) managing to mark an often hostile character admirable and more hero than villain.
As I've already stated, without Netflix to expand the audience, Season 5 and the soon to come Season 6 finale of Madam Secretary probably wouldn't have happened . That windup season during which Elizabeth is no longer Madam Secretary but a wannabe US president will run parallel with the actual 2020 presidential campaign.
True to the series' echoing real history but taking liberties with it, the Dalton administration was not affiliated with either part. And so, the former Madam Secretary too will be campaigning as an independent, even though no Independent has ever made it into the Oval Office.
Whatever happens to this fictive candidate, I fervently hope that a candidate with the charisma and savvy of Leoni and her character will make us all feel good about our country again.
Being somewhat less fascinated with the British Royal family than some, the Netflix original multi-episode The Crown, didn't immediately have me gung-ho to watch the currently running first season (2016-2017). But the fact that it was created by Peter Morgan famous for Downton Abbey, dud tweak my curiosity— even more so, when I learned that Morgan's movie The Queen and his Tony-winning play The Audience which I reviewed during its 2015 Broadway run (review) were the springboard for this series.
Season 1 of this decade spanning saga takes us from Elizabeth's young adulthood, to her fairy tale wedding , through her coronation. We follow her struggle to deal with the duties of being Queen and its effect on her marriage, as well as her relationship with her sister and Uncle David, the King who abdicated the throne for the woman he loved.
It was a treat to see a cast of outstanding British thespians strut their stuff. Some, like Ben Miles and Harriet Walters, I've seen during trips across the pond, others our London critic, Lizzie Loveridge, has written about. Winston Churchill, the first of the many Prime Ministers with whom Elizabeth held her weekly audiences, is potently portrayed by the always worth watch nag American actor, John Lithgow. Some of the most compelling scenes focus on Churchill (retired and now himself an amateur painter) having his portrait painted by Graham Sutherland (a marvelous Stephen Dillane).
Morgan clearly had access to some fascinating material— like the devastating fog that almost ousted Churchill from 10 Downing street. I also didn't know much about her personal religious beliefs and meetings with the Evangelist Billy Graham (played by another American actor, Paul Sparks, whose work I've long admired).
But even when the focus is on the most familiar aspects of the Windsor dynasty's history, The Crown manages to be a fresh and fun to watch entertainment. It's a feast for the eyes with s gorgeous scenery and costumes. At times you feel as if you're e stepping into a museum and find yourself mouth agape at a spectacular painting before you.
While The Crown is hardly likely to match the super-hit status of Like Downton Abbey, it does manage to imbue this behind the scenes look at the personal ups and downs of these famous public figures with a highbrow flavor. And the cast so far couldn't be better. For starters there's Claire Foy who plays this fictive queen for just this and the next season. Her performance is wonderfully subtle . Matt Smith also gives a nicely nuanced interpretation to the role of the macho husband who has to adapt to the constraints of being the royal consort .
Alex Jennings is a standout as the Duke of Windsor who hates the way his family has exiled him from the perks of the royal life. Also excellent are s Vanessa Kirby as siser Margaret and her lovers — first, the unsuitable Peter Townsend (a superb Ben Miles) , later the photographerAnthony Armstrong-Jones ( a fascinating performance by Matthew Goode).
Jeremy Northam is very fine as Anthony Eden, Churchill's deputy prime minister and Foreign Secretary who becoms his successor. Harry Paton-Smith, who I last saw as Henry Higgins in Lincoln Center's revival of My Fair Lady here plays the young Queen's private secretary Martin Charteris.
If you need a royal drama fix before the next season of The Crown arrives, Netflix also has a detailed documentary called The Royal House of Windsor as well as a drama about another royal family, The Tudors. Sum-Up
No doubt there'll be other streaming services coming along to rescue floundering or cancelled TV shows, and create brand-new content . As I get back into full swing reviewing live theater, my "streaming" time will be more limited. However, I'm determined to find time to see how candidate Elizabeth McCord fares and watch Queen Elizabeth deal with a changing world and mores within her own family.
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Madam Secretary, Created by Barbara Hall
The Secretary of State's Family
Tea Leoni-Elizabeth McCord
Tim Daly-Henry McCord
Wallis Currie-Wood -Stephanie "Stevie" McCord
Katherine Herzer -Alison McCord
Evan Roe Jason McCord
Keith Carradine-President Conrad Dalton
Zeljko Ivan -Dalton's chief protector,Russell Jackson
The Secretay of State's Saffers
Sara Ramirez - Kat Sandova
l Patina Miller - Daisy Grant
Erich Bergen- Blake Moran
Sebastian Arcelus -Jay Whitman
Bebe Neuwirth Nadine Tolliver
Go to https://www.imdb.com for full cast and other credits
The Crown Created by Peter Morgan(Season 1 2016-2017)
Cast Membersbr> Claire Foy- Queen Elizabeth II
Matt Smith- Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Jared Harris -King George
Victoria Hamilton- Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
Alex Jennings- David, Duke of Windsor
Lia Williams- Wallis Simpson
Vanessa Kirby- Princess Margaret\
Ben Miles- Peter Townsend
Matthew Goode-Antony Armstron-Jones,Earl of Snowdon
John Lithgow- Winston Churchill
Harriet Walters-- a Clemmy Churchill
Stephen Dillane-Graham Sutherland
Jeremy Northam- Anthony Eden\
Harry Paton-Smith- Martin Charteris
John Lithgow- Winston Churchill
Harriet Walters-- as Clemmy Churchill
Clive Francis- Lord Salisbury
Greg Wise- Lord Mountbatten
Anton Lesser- Harold MacMillan
Reverend Billy Graham-Paul Sparks