©2021-2022 By Legs McNeil
1. Godfather of Harlem 2019-2021 (Epix)
Everyone of importance during the 1940’s to the 1960’s is represented here; Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (played by the amazing Forrest Whittaker), who was Harlem’s numbers and heroin kingpin, is pitted against downtown mobster godfather Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (played by a fatter, more ravaged Vincent D’Onofrio). They are the two protagonists– and it’s a joy to watch them try to kill each other off!
They are surrounded by Malcolm X (played by lookalike Nigel Thatch), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (played by lookalike Giancarlo Esposito), Cassius Clay (played by lookalike Deric Augustine), Head of the Mafia Commission, Frank Costello (played by Paul Sorvino) and mobster godfather Joe Bonanno (played by Chazz Palminteri).
Equally as strong as all these great male characters are, the females add even more depth to the stories, as in my favorite, Stella Gigante (played by the wonderful Lucy Fry) whose every boyfriend is bumped off by her father, “The Chin.” Equally compelling are Bumpy’s wife, Mayme Johnson (played by the gorgeous llenesh Hadera), and Bumpy’s junkie daughter, Elsie Johnson (played by the powerhouse of an actor, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy). Elsie later kicks dope and becomes a Muslim under Malcolm X’s tutelage, much to Bumpy’s displeasure.
But that’s all the spoilers I’m gonna give you, but it really is the African-American version of the Soprano’s! And it’s about time! Everyone associated with the “Godfather of Harlem” should give themselves a huge pat on the back for being a part of this groundbreaking show! While not everything is historically accurate, all the big stuff is, and the little stuff can be forgiven since the writing and acting are perfection.
Why more people don’t know about this show is a puzzle to me.
(Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein)
2. Queens Gambit 2019 (Netflix)
Yeah, yeah, everyone’s heard about what a great miniseries this was, but it’s well-deserved praise and shouldn’t be missed. The story is about an orphaned Beth Harmon (played by the compelling Anya Taylor Joy) and based on the book by Walter Tevis who wrote the novels that the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth were based on. So it shouldn’t be a shocker that the “Queen’s Gambit” is so good.
It’s another period piece starting in the 1950’s and going up to the early 1970’s and the sets and costumes are perfect, according to my memory. Beth Harmon is a shy, but precocious kid who starts her chess career by playing the janitor in the basement of the orphanage, the cantankerous Mr. Shaible (played by the great character actor Bill Camp), who soon recognizes Beth’s extraordinary ability on the chessboard, until she’s adopted by a typically unimaginative 1950’s couple, Allston and Marielle Heller (played by the very believable Patrick Kennedy and Alma Wheatley). Mr. Heller spends most of his time on the road, and when he decides not to return home, Mrs. Heller realizes there’s money to be made when Beth consistently wins one chess championship after another– that provide cash rewards, and so our story begins.
It may sound boring, but it isn’t at all, trust me. Beth is chess prodigy!
Instead of sex, sex, sex, its chess, chess, chess, even though Beth develops a strong dependency on alcohol. (But who doesn’t?) But that’s all I’m gonna say, except Beth ends up in Russia matched against the best chess players in the world. The reason why this is Number Two on the list, besides being a fantastic binge watch, is because it will not have a second season.
As writer and creator Frank Scott explained, “I’m so sorry. I hate disappointing anyone, but no. I feel like we told the story we wanted to tell, and I worry — let me put it differently — I’m terrified that if we try to tell more, we would ruin what we’ve already told.”
God Bless Integrity! Especially in Hollywood! I’m sure they drove dump trucks full of money past Scott and Alan for a second season, but they stood their ground!
Congratulations for not ruining a good thing!
(Created by Scott Frank and Alan Scott)
3. Dopesick 2021 (Hulu)
It probably helps that I read Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe, about how the Sackler Brothers replaced the barbaric practices of lobotomies and electroshock therapy with pharmaceuticals; inventing such soothing drugs as Librium and Valium, among others, as well inventing the medical-marketing industry to push their new drugs. As The Empire of Pain tells it; One Librium ad depicted a young woman carrying an armload of books, and suggested that even the quotidian anxiety a college freshman feels upon leaving home might be best handled with tranquillizers. Such students “may be afflicted by a sense of lost identity,” the copy read, adding that university life presented “a whole new world . . . of anxiety.”
Such medical phrases as “chronic pain,” “levels of pain,” and other common medical phrases we take for granted, were invented by the Sackler’s, which was their evil way to sell their dugs, especially Oxycontin, which is basically time released heroin. At Perdue Pharma, the Sackler’s Oxy company, their ads proclaimed, “The One to Start With and the One to Stay With,” as if you had a choice, and that’s what “Dopesick” is all about; how the Sackler’s got the U.S. hooked on pharmaceutical heroin.
The story plays out with the main character, Dr. Samuel Finnix (played astonishingly by Michael Keaton), a small-town doctor catering to the injuries of the miners in a small coal-town in West Virginia. That’s where Purdue Pharma first targets their patients, in small-town America, prone to lots of physical injuries due to their high-risk jobs. And, at first, Dr. Finnix is glad for the relief Oxycontin provides his patients, especially since the Sackler’s promote their new time-release dope under the oral statement, “And only one-percent of your patients will ever become addicted!” Oxycontin is the strongest opioid pain reliever on the market today, (besides Fentanyl), equipped with an easy way to crush the pills and make the time release stuff disappear.
Dr. Finnix is taken in by the Sackler’s high pressure sales pitches and promotions; he even accepts Purdue Pharma paid-speaking engagements, until he begins to realize, contrary to the Sackler’s claims, Oxycontin is super addictive, and if the patients ever get cut off from their scripts, they have to resort to heroin to avoid the horrible withdrawals.
Head Oxycontin pusher, Richard Sackler (played by the creepy Michael Stuhlbarg), blames all this on his faster-growing junkies by stating, “They wanted to become addicts!”
Eventually Dr. Finnix has his own accident and ends up at his doctor’s office, who prescribes him his own RX for Oxycontin, and you can guess what happens…
Michael Keaton gives an Emmy Award winning performance that you’re not gonna wanna miss! And interwoven in the Michael Keaton story are the subplots of the Sackler’s market representatives making tons of money getting more doctors to prescribe Oxycontin for backaches and sprained ankles, to paying doctors tons of money for speaking tours to promote the drug, to the creation of “Pill Mills,” wherein unscrupulous doctor’s clinics dolled-out , Oxycontin prescriptions and then filled those scripts, all for cash. And how the FDA was bought off by the Sackler billions. Watch it, you’ll be appalled.
(Created by Danny Strong)
4. Mindhunter 2017-2019 Netflix
Like most great TV miniseries and movies, “Mindhunter” is also based on a book; Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. While I haven’t had the pleasure to read the book yet, it’s on my book shelf. “Mindhunter” is a very realistic portrait of trying to start something as new as the “Behavioral Science Unit” to interview serial killers in custody to understand what makes them tick, in order to give the FBI an edge on catching them. Yeah, can you imagine how difficult it would be to start such a revolutionary department as the “Behavioral Science Unit,” especially within the monolithic bureaucracy of the FBI Bureau?
Every new revolutionary idea is a series of never-ending, “No’s,” until by sheer persistence and guts—the answers and positive results begin to trickle in.
That’s how the show starts, when the oddball team of FBI Agents Holden Ford (played the ultra-convincingly and nerdy Jonathan Groff), an over-enthusiastic, idealistic young agent who sees the need to interview mass murderers in order to figure out what makes them tick, and the older, traditional old-school FBI Agent Bill Tench (played equally convincingly by Holt McCallany), Holden begins to advocate for a way to talk to the most menacing serial killers; a term they invent to explain the purpose of their program– as more and more, mostly young women, go missing in America under inexplicable circumstances in the 1970’s.
In order to give their unnamed program some psychological credibility, Ford and Tench consult with Boston psychologist Wendy Carr, the proper and sophisticated lesbian Professor (played by the very classy and commanding Anna Torv), who is currently writing a book about white collar CEO’s who happen to be sociopaths, but is fascinated with the idea of interviewing disturbed prisoners locked-up for heinous multiple-murders, and eventually comes on board and forms the Behavioral Science Unit at the Training Division at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
And every infamous serial killer is showcased in “Mindhunter,” including a very convincing Charlie Manson (played by Damon Herriman), Richard Speck (played by Jack Erdie) and Son of Sam’s David Berkowitz, (played by Oliver Cooper), etc., etc., but my favorite is the hulking, 6’9, “Co-Ed Killer,” Edmund Kempner, a very intelligent (his IQ was 145) and very likeable murderer (played by the incredible Cameron Britton), who explains to Ford and Tench how hard it is to kill someone and then have intercourse with their neck.
As in “Godfather of Harlem,” all the infamous serial killers look and act exactly like their true-life counter parts, as far as I’ve seen in video clips. (The one complaint I have is that Richard Speck’s face is not as pock-marked as it was in real life, but that’s just one criticism, otherwise “Mindhunter” hits it out of the park!)
The personal subplots of Ford, Trench and Carr are equally as fascinating as the serial killer interviews, because they show the dramas between Ford and his girlfriend Hannah Gross, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Virginia, (played by the ultra-sexy Debbie Mitford.) Bill Tench and his wife, Nancy Tench (played by the increasingly exasperated Stacey Roca), and their adopted son Brian Tench (played by Zachary Scott Ross) who suffers some sort of autism or reactive attachment disorder, a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers.
Brian Tench is so withdrawn, he brings Bill and Nancy Tench’s marriage to the breaking point. But that’s all I’m going to say.
And then there’s Wendy Carr, the psychology professor who breaks up with her Boston girlfriend to move to Quantico, and keep her sexual orientation in the FBI closet.
Trust me, you’ll love it!
(Created by Joe Penhall)
5. Endeavour 2012-2021 (Amazon Prime)
I usually hate British Television dramas (with the exception of the “Avengers,” “The Crown,” and “Downton Abbey”), as they usually don’t go anywhere except bore me to tears waiting for something to happen. “Endeavour” is different, it’s the story of Endeavour Morse, (though his first name is never mentioned) as he begins his career as a detective constable in the town of Oxford, where he was formerly a student at Oxford University. Who knew there were so many murders in Oxford?
What’s great about “Endeavour” is it’s so unpredictable and intellectual, you’ll never be able to figure out who the murderer is. A welcome relief from American Network TV that seems produced for morons. The “Endeavour” stories are fascinating, intelligent, entertaining and somewhat calming. Yes, calming. Even so, there are enough shootouts and gross dead bodies being autopsied by my favorite character, Home Office Pathologist, Dr. Max Debryn (played by the very stoic and professional James Bradshaw), who always says, “Shall we say two o’clock,” indicating when his autopsy well be completed, after the homicide detectives of the Oxford City Police have made their preliminary inspection of the corpse in the field.
Since it takes place in Oxford, there’s a lot history, and museums, and gorgeous buildings, and stolen artifacts, and other cool stuff to keep your interest.
My favorite episode is called “Quartet,” where Inspector Morse is recruited to dress up in weird, oversized costume and compete against a cast of international athletes also dressed up in weird, oversized costumes for Eurovision television. (It’s some bizarre European ritual.)
During the competition an East German athlete collapses, from what everyone believes is heatstroke, but when a young boy falls too, at the same time, Dr. Debryn realizes they’ve been shot with a silencer. And so starts an investigation into international spies, all recruited at Oxford a few decades earlier. (Shades of the Cambridge Spy Ring!) It’s a great episode! Watch it and tell me what you think!
(Created by Russell Lewis; From characters created by Colin Dexter)
Legs McNeil is the guy who named a movement, and then told the true story of how that movement came to be in PLEASE KILL ME; THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK, among several other books.