“Dublin Murders” (S1), “Jack Ryan” (S2) and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” (S1)

Three highly anticipated series…all of an utterly different style and genre. The first, “Dublin Murders” a classic BBC UK-style murder mystery that happens to take place in Ireland. Next, the second season of a beloved American action/spy thriller, “Jack Ryan,” which one hopes improves on its first. And, finally, a long overdue African-American origin epic, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” as written by those who lived it. How do they fare? Well, it’s a considerable mixed bag with highs and lows in each…sometimes within the same scene. A closer look…

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“Dublin Murders” Season 1 (Starz)
Created by Sarah Phelps

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Is there anything more disappointing than going through eight episodes of a mystery that’s got so much going for it, only to realize at the end they’ve not only failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion, but have completely undermined the character’s themselves? That said, if you liked “Broadchurch” you’ll probably like Dublin murders. After all, most people’s biggest complaint about that show was how it dealt with its inevitable solutions in each of its three seasons. But where “Broadchurch” was smart enough to stick to one main story, in “Dublin Murders,” creator, Sarah Phelps, has decided to take two novels (Tana French’s “In the Woods” and “The Likeness”) about two completely different protagonists and force them to be woven in to each other. And much like Hulu’s recent “Das Boot,” that is simply too much to ask of both the actors, the scripts and, ultimately, the audience. It’s not so much a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup as it is a Tofu and Bison Meatloaf.

Which is a shame, because these are REALLY interesting stories. And while writing anything about them would give away more than I would want (including the character’s names), I can unequivocally state that the two lead actors give it everything they’ve got. Sarah Greene (who takes on the “The Likeness” portion) and Killian Scott (“In the Woods”) are terrific. Easy to watch, and even when the dialogue is at its most hackneyed (which, sadly, becomes more and more prevalent as we get deeper in to the two stories), they pursue a truth with everything they have. Greene is asked to do the more impossible to believe, but she manages to do some of the very heavy lifting with as little extraneous effort as possible. The same cannot be said for Mr. Scott. As his story goes further and further off the reservation, so does his character-work and mooring. It’s really not his fault. Nonetheless, it takes us out of the story.

The rest of the cast is made up of your classic UK character actors, the most notable being Conleth Hill, better known as GoT’s Varys. Alas, he is asked to be maybe the most caricatured version of a police chief ever. It’s positively “Naked Gun”-esque. But there are some standout performances. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (The Avengers’ Ebony Maw) and Moe Dunford (Aethewulf in “Vikings”) are both terrific as colleagues of the Scott and Greene. And the young actors in flashback are mostly terrific, especially the projection of innocence shown by Ellie O’Halloran, and the too-early weariness portrayed by Aoife Fitzpatrick. And kudos to first-timer Michael D’Arcy, as he is asked to perform terror as a very young lad, which he does quite capably. Let’s hope, for his sake, that the directors of each episode found ways to minimize trauma for the pre-adolescent actor.

Production wise it’s a success. The locations are suitably creepy, the overall feel of the photography is distinct (if slightly reminiscent of “Hidden” or “Unforgotten”), and the sets, while obvious, are certainly complete. And, while Hauschka is credited as the composer, much of the music seems to be re-purposed from previous entities. Still really good and effective, just not new.

I know I’ve painted a not-so-great picture of this show. I’ll stand by that. The endings are just too out-of-touch with the rest of the series to feel like I was rewarded for my viewing. And for the life of me, I don’t know why they didn’t make it an anthology and give each novel its own season. BUT…it does carry more weight, production expertise, and skilled performance than almost anything we Yanks have to offer, and, as a result, I think you could do a LOT worse than “Dublin Murders” for your mystery fix.

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“Jack Ryan” Season 2 (AmazonPrime)
Created by Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland

jack202 Such a joy when a sophomore effort not only matches the first season, but exceeds it..and, to be clear form the top, season two of “Jack Ryan” is far better than the first in almost every category.

Most notably, the plot is tighter while simultaneously more epic, illuminating and interesting. And while that may be more obvious, since the creators no longer have an obligation to communicate this version of Jack Ryan’s origin story, it still means they had to take a complex diplomatic set of circumstances and drill it down to a believable tale. To this end, Cuse, Roland and their writers have tossed the extraneous over board and left us with only that which is necessary to keep us invested, intrigued and excited. There are even moments, this season where I was slightly breathless…and, maybe more importantly, didn’t roll my eyes once (something I found happened quite often in the first go-round).

As a result, they’ve allowed Krasinski to play a single storyline with a single-mindedness, instead of asking him to play several. While I’m not suggesting he can’t handle it, I am saying that the writing and dialogue in the first season asked him to have, by my count, four different intentions…some never connecting with the others. Here his dalliances beyond the main storyline all seem in service to the whole. So we care much more about Ryan. We care about his success, and we appreciate how his Ryan comes to action and conclusion more than we did. Of course, they’ve finely focused Wendell Pierce’s character much more, as well. And his presence helps anyone look and sound better. More involved in the plot this time around, Pierce’s sardonic nature is more relatable and entirely welcome. The addition of Michael Kelly is..well…fantastic. Put him in everything and he’ll make everything better. Best of all, the creators were smart enough to play to his strengths, and, as expected, every time he is on screen, the show gets better. Tom Wlaschiha (unrecognizable from his “Faceless Man” days on GoT), is delightfully frightening in his turn here. Also, very glad to see John Hoogenakker not only return as Black Ops leader, Matice, but given much more heavy lifting to do. He’s just a fabulously easy actor to watch. And it’s nice to have a female character, German star, Noomi Rapace, whose formidable strength does not revolve around falling in love with Ryan. Finally, the “bad guys” in the story are all terrific Spanish-speaking stars, chief among them, Jordi Mollà.

The production team has far less to do here than in the first, or maybe because it’s set in a South American country, it is less foreign to us than the middle east locale’s of the first, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishment. This looks like a real world throughout, even in the scenes encompassing a giant scope. And Game of Thrones composer, Ramin Djawadi’s music, as in the first season, is fine thriller accompanying fare, if less character-driven than his GoT themes.

Overall, I had very low expectations for this second season. I even wondered if a second season was necessary. And as I gave it ten hours of my life, I’m quite relieved to say it not only improves on the first, but is quite good all on its own.

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“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” (Hulu)
Created by RZA & Alex Tse

wu2 So, I can’t claim to be a big Wu-Tang Clan man. I’m not anti-Wu. I just never really got in to them the way I did with other nineties hip hop (Tribe, Pharcyde, DeLaSoul, etc). However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate an origin story that, like “Straight Outta Compton,” isn’t afraid to portray either the players or their surroundings in a light that is nothing if not glaring and harsh. HOWEVER, one of “Saga’s” best traits, and what distinguishes it from most urban-experience stories, is that each character has a particular innocence about them…an innocence that balances a stable and warm home life with the frenetic nature of being a young adult on the front lines of the nineties drug culture. While some of the characters come from troubled homes, most, if not all, of the leads are shown as members of a successful family unit. And the ups and downs of those units, in addition to the overarching Wu-Tang story, are a large part of what keeps you invested through ten episodes. The other effect of this take is that it really shines a light on those characters which DON’T have that familial underpinning. Thinking further on it, I would say the dialogue in this might actually be better than in “Compton,” which given the need to fill ten hours instead of two, is either miraculous or obvious (I’ll go with miraculous given that there is a different credited writer for each episode).

But, alas, there is a huge problem with the arc of the show…the season just sort of ends. I’ve read some critics refer to it as a cliffhanger, but, no…it lacks almost all catharsis or suspense. In fact, I was so confused by the shrug of an ending, I assumed there was still another episode to come. That said, it seems a forgone conclusion that there will be a season two…which is a decidedly good thing, because that ending is about the only really bad thing I can say about the show.

The story may tread some well-worn tropes about urban life in American cities (in this instance, Staten Island’s Park Hill and Stapleton projects), but the portrayal of the times, the place, and the danger come across as exceedingly realistic. The characters are specific, the settings are of their time and place, and as previously stated, the family units within the framework of the story are well developed and easy to connect with. Scott Murphy’s production design and Matteo De Cosmo’s art direction hold up the base of our belief in this world, and Niels Alpert and Gavin Kelly’s photography communicate both the times and the inescapable claustrophobic ‘stuckness’ of living in a place with so little hope. Oh and the re-creation of a particular character’s terrible first video is absolutely hilarious.

But it’s the acting that, while not particularly spectacular, is incredibly consistent, which, with about a dozen or so main characters, is saying something. One of the best decisions RZA made was to avoid casting Wu-Tang doppelgangers (with the exception of the hilarious T. J. Atoms as the young Russell Jones aka O.D.B.). By using gifted actors (or perfectly cast newcomers), and letting their abilities do the work, they have filled a dangerous world with empathetic characters. And it’s that empathy that more accurately portrays the struggle of every day life in the projects – while balancing the expectation of escape via the glorified rise of the rap star. Ashton Sanders is the show’s central anchor. As Bobby Diggs/Prince Rakeem/RZA, he has a dreamer’s innocence which is always anchored by the disadvantages his situation forces upon him. Equally well cast are the story’s two main rivals, Sha/Raekwon, played by “The Get Down’s” Shameik Moore (also the voice of Miles in “Spider-Verse”), and Dennis/Ghostface Killah, played by Siddiq Saunderson. As dueling protagonists/antagonists, the screen comes alive in their presence. Dave East has a powerful charisma on screen as Shotgun/Method Man, made more unique by the fact that this is his first major acting gig.

But, while this is a story about a male hip hop force, there are two female characters,  front and center, who, again, uniquely for the genre, never rely on a man to make them whole, unless they choose to. Zolee Griggs, making her first foray as a dramatic television lead, is simply great. Fierce, innocent, terrified, and courageous, she is a major player both within the storyline and the emotional impact of each episode. And, then there’s the great Erika Alexander. As RZA’s mom, she holds down the fort in a household that threatens to crack at any minute. I don’t need to tell you that she’s great in it, but I will anyway.

So…yeah…if you like hip hop, you’ll love the show. If you don’t, it’s WELL worth watching anyway. It honestly portrays a time and a world most of us have not experienced – and does so in a manner that, unusually for the genre, extols the virtues of a solid home life without losing its grit or danger.

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“Dublin Murders” (Starz/BBC) Trailer:

“Jack Ryan” Season 2 (Amazon) Trailer:

“Wu Tang Clan: An American Saga” (Hulu) Trailer:

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