Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wahlberg's 'Boston's Finest' for TNT is, Well, Finest

Donnie Wahlberg, star of the hit scripted police series Blue Bloods, was on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart the other night explaining how his years of experience playing cops and robbers gave him unique insight to be executive producer of TNT's new reality police series, Boston's Finest, premiering at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday, February 27.

"I've played probably 800 cops in my acting career," he told a transfixed Stewart. "I've had like 801 jobs, and 800 of them were cops."

Yeah, right. And just because Anne Hathaway can look sickly and hit a high note, she should win an Oscar for Les Miserables. (Oh, wait. That did happen.) What's more, Wahlberg maintained, his respect for the men and women who serve and protect the hometown he loves so much defined exactly the type of show he needed to make.

"We can't do it on one of these rowdy networks with billy clubs smashing over people's heads," he said. "It's Boston. I have to represent my city the right way."

Oh, how I wanted to dislike this series so wicked hard. One, it's yet another reality series, and someday soon we will be force-fed one too many of them and all our brains will implode. Between those Dish commercials for "The Hopper," the foulmouthed wacky impressions by SVP & Russillo on ESPN and every other cop movie made these days, Boston and its accent have become the chic media premise of the moment. And, quite honestly, it'd be a nice change to see Wahlberg fail at something: he's had the right stuff seemingly ever since he emerged from puberty, attaining extraordinary success at almost everything except finding a really good tailor.

Wanted to. Couldn't. Boston's Finest is what reality TV was supposed to be all along. Insightful. Absorbing. Quietly fascinating. Even a little educational, without smashing us over the head with a billy club. From the network that gives us the best scripted police saga on television, Southland, this is what we should have every reason to expect: Reality done the TNT way. Cops with a Harvard education.

The Wicked Finest. Photo courtesy: TNT
The show is beautifully shot and paced, almost cinematic in its feel, a succession of Beantown glamour shots. And the measured, mellow narration occasionally sounds like the public reading of a new novel. "These cops think the darkest corners of their city are worth saving, and that they were the ones born to do it." Isn't that melodic?

However, as Wahlberg and his fellow producers were getting the mayor, police commissioner and chief of police to sign off on the concept, he told Stewart, "they all said the same thing: It's up to the officers. If they don't feel safe with you in the car, you're getting out of the car, you take your camera and you go home."

Obviously, it was safety first. I looked hard for any sign of uneasiness, insincerity or acting on the part of the officers. Nada. To their credit, these cops accepted the cameras without playing to them. And, in a distinctive difference from most police-focused reality shows, Boston's Finest will, in time, touch upon every segment of the Boston Police Department – street patrol officers, the detective squad, special task forces, the SWAT team, the Fugitive Unit and the city's highly decorated, danger-filled Gang Unit. Layered alongside that, the show impresses in the way it integrates the personal storylines of its principal players with their main focus of snatching bad guys off the street.

For example, in the opening episode I think you will very quickly grow to like Jennifer Penton. A small, compact steel coil of a woman, Penton served her country in Afghanistan before joining the force and now patrols the Hyde Park district with her partner and "best friend," Pat Rogers. They're close enough to correct each other's English on camera without triggering dirty looks.

"This is probably one of the badder areas we're going into," Rogers announces.

"Worst," counters Penton. "I don't think 'badder' is a word."

"What if I say, 'I'm the baddest?'"

"You can be the baddest," says Penton. "But not badder."

By the time the hour is over you will meet her mother, her nephew and her twin sister Melissa, whose lousy life decisions and descent into drug abuse have left her unrecognizable as Penton's sibling. Melissa's existence drives her passion to take drugs off the streets and eventually get into the narcotics unit.

You also see Penton sweating hard in the boxing ring, training to overcome any assumptions criminals – or peers – may make based on her gender and stature. "I'm 5-foot-3, a hundred-and-something pounds," she explains. "With that comes a fear that I'm going to be faced with a 6-foot-2, 250-pound muscular guy who doesn't want to go to jail that day. I have to stay on top of my game. It could save my life. It could save my partner's life."

By the second episode, she's inviting Rogers to her apartment for an after-shift dinner. Ooh, is something more than a patrol partnership developing here? Well, that's why it's a series, silly. Tune in next week.

You'll become acquainted with the Gang Unit, spending a rare night off to meet at a member's house for dinner and care for their combined passel of kids so their wives and girlfriends can enjoy a "Ladies' Night Out." And the wily, devoted Fugitive Unit officer Greg Dankers, husband to a fellow Boston cop and father to twin 4-year-old boys, who sets a trap to catch a violent drug dealer nicknamed (I love this), "DropRock." You'll meet a dozen more before the season's said and done.

Every episode shrewdly ends with a surge of action, a little adrenalin rush to make you consider coming back again for more satisfying visual chowdah. The show's theme song, performed by the Irish punk-rock band Dropkick Murphys, ends with the line, "the roof is on fire and it's ready to blow." That may be an apt description of Boston's Finest as well. It's wicked good.

On a scale of 1-10 remotes, I give Boston's Finest an 8.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Joyful, Amazing Noise: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Remembered on PBS

I recently did a cover story for the Metro Times in Detroit on the Andantes, the most prolific background singing group in the history of Motown Records. It's estimated that Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow-Tate performed on more than 20,000 individual recordings in the 1960s and 1970s, yet you say you've never heard of them before? No surprise: They were in the background, get it? (You can read their story by clicking here, but give yourself a few minutes. It is a cover story, after all.)

It's a tragedy for present and future generations when amazing artistic talent becomes lost to the sands of time. And it's an oversight good ol' PBS (what would we do without 'em?) seeks to correct in the case of one remarkable performer when it opens the 27th season of American Masters with the fascinating story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll on Friday, February 22 (9 p.m. EST in most markets). It's a wondrous perfect storm of scheduling: The return of one of the network's finest series, a salute to Black History Month and the 40th anniversary of her death.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, c. 1940 (courtesy Don Peterson/Charles Peterson)
I worked as a professional rock critic for the better part of 15 years, yet I must admit the name Rosetta Tharpe was unknown to me. (This might suggest that I wasn't very good at my job, but I reject that.) Sister Rosetta, who died in 1973, was America's first crossover artist, establishing herself as the seminal gospel music superstar before becoming a principal influence in mainstream popular music. 

To kids who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s, she was Taylor, Gaga and Beyoncé, all rolled into one. When you see the vintage clips of her playing the newly electrified guitar Рwith a rootsy, rhythmic, mesmerizing energy most women can't emulate even today Рyou are instantly drawn to comparisons with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, even Jimi Hendrix. Then it hits you: They didn't inspire her; she inspired them.

"Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe," declares Gordon Stoker, who, as a member of he Jordanaires, performed with them both. "Not only did he dig her guitar playing, but he dug her singing, too." 

Born in the wonderfully evocative-sounding town of Cotton Plant, Ark., Rosetta was taken by her evangelist mother to Chicago at the age of six and became a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) child, developing her unique performing style in the church. In 1938, at the age of 23, she made the leap into show business, much to the shock of the churchgoing throngs who had grown to adore her gospel sounds. 

Credit: James J. Kriegsman
Her songs, like her big hit "Tall Skinny Papa," were drenched in sexual innuendo. She sang with Lucky Millinder's big band, became a regular at iconic New York venues like The Cotton Club and Café Society, and was a favorite musical guest of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Rosetta loved churches and nightclubs and had her talent firmly planted in both. But eventually she returned to her first love, gospel music, touring with the Dixie Hummingbirds, packing churches and theaters across the U.S. as well as Europe and becoming a popular mainstay on radio and the fledgling medium of television.

Of all the talking heads whose insights inform this doc, I most enjoyed the enthusiastic memories of Ira Tucker, Jr., son of the Hummingbirds' Ira Tucker, Sr. But I would have liked to know more – heck, I would have liked to know anything – about how Tharpe learned and mastered her rocking, bluesy guitar brilliance as a young black girl in the South of the early 1900s, an element of her story this hour overlooks. And while this American Masters offering is a British-made production (what's up with that?), I question the choice of British actress Pauline Black as narrator. It's continuously distracting to hear the tale of a gospel-blues queen from Cotton Plant, Ark., described by someone who sounds better suited for Downton Abbey. What, they couldn't fly in Cicely Tyson for a week?

Still, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll is a revealing, captivating study that will make you wish you'd known Rosetta longer – and better. It's well worth your time. On a scale of 1-10 remotes, I give it 7 boxes. 
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