'Paterno' And 'Killing Eve' Bring Complexity And Intrigue To Cable

Apr 6, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 9:39 am

Movie star Al Pacino came to TV 15 years ago, delivering a marvelous performance as Roy Cohn in HBO's brilliant adaptation of Angels in America. Since then, every time Pacino has returned to TV, he has played real-life, controversial men: assisted-suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian in You Don't Know Jack and music producer Phil Spector in the TV movie Phil Spector.

The Spector drama was executive produced by Barry Levinson, who directed You Don't Know Jack. He also directs Pacino in HBO's new Paterno, and the two men deliver yet another intentionally complex, sometimes ambiguous character study.

Paterno is about Joe Paterno, the lionized Penn State football coach who led and shaped his team and much of his university, for almost half a century. But this made-for-TV drama, written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, focuses on an intense two-week period in 2011.

Paterno begins with a record-setting football victory and ends with Paterno's diagnosis of cancer, which would claim him within months. In between is the sudden eruption, in the media, of revelations about former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with 48 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period.

The acts are never dramatized on camera, and Sandusky, as a character, barely speaks or appears at all — an artistic choice that may involve concerns over litigation as well as taste.

The spotlight, instead, is on Paterno, as the charges against Sandusky are announced and the controversy expands and explodes. At one point, the family gathers to advise Joe on what he should do and say — and Pacino, in a marvelously subtle performance, plays the Paterno patriarch as being simultaneously defensive, distracted and uncertain.

The central question of this HBO drama, really, is "What did Paterno know, and when did he know it?" It doesn't answer that question fully until the very last moment. But it leaves you thinking, and reflecting, long after the credits roll — which is precisely what makes it so effective.


Another very effective TV drama this weekend is BBC America's Killing Eve, based on the novels by Luke Jennings. Even before this eight-part series launches, the network has announced plans for a second season — and it's a smart move, because Killing Eve has a tone and style all its own.

It's adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose last TV series was the original and very funny Fleabag, and it has elements of a female version of The Fugitive. Sandra Oh, from Grey's Anatomy and Sideways, plays Eve, a desk-bound intelligence agent at London's MI5 who becomes obsessed with identifying and capturing a slippery professional assassin who has claimed kills all over Europe.

The killer, played by Jodie Comer, is a sociopath — except she is so twisted that even the people who hire her to kill for them bring her in for a psychological evaluation.

One twist in Killing Eve is that both the killer and the hunter are female. Another is that they share a similar fascination and ease with the very idea of murder; when Eve's husband interrupts her research at the computer to ask her about dinner, she replies by asking him what method he would use to kill her.

The first four episodes of Killing Eve — the only ones available for preview — play out like a game of cat and mouse, but one in which the cat and mouse keep changing roles. It reminds me of the first season of Homeland, when you had equal — and equally obsessed — adversaries, and you sort of rooted for them both.

In Killing Eve, it takes awhile, but Eve finally gets the opportunity to track down the killer — and vice versa. Killing Eve has whip-smart performances from its two leads; evocative location footage from Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere; and way too many surprises to describe — or to miss.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two ambitious new TV productions premiere on cable this weekend. On Saturday, HBO presents "Paterno" with Al Pacino playing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in a TV movie directed by Barry Levinson. And on Sunday, BBC America presents "Killing Eve," an eight-part drama series in which a sociopathic killer for hire is hunted by a British spy. And they're both women. Sandra Oh stars as the secret agent. Our TV critic David Bianculli reviews them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Movie star Al Pacino came to TV 15 years ago, delivering a marvelous performance as Roy Cohn in HBO's brilliant adaptation of "Angels in America." Since then, every time Pacino has returned to TV and HBO, he's played real life controversial men - assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian in "You Don't Know Jack" and music producer Phil Spector in the TV movie called "Phil Spector." The Spector drama was executive produced by Barry Levinson, who directed "You Don't Know Jack." He also directs Pacino in HBO's new "Paterno," and the two men deliver yet another intentionally complex, sometimes ambiguous character study.

Paterno is about Joe Paterno, the lionized Penn State football coach who led and shaped his team and much of his university for almost half a century. But this made-for-TV drama, written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, focuses on an intense two-week period in 2011. It begins with a record-setting football victory and ends with Paterno's diagnosis of cancer, which would claim him within months. And in between is the sudden eruption in the media of revelations about former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky charged with 48 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period.

The acts are never dramatized on camera and Sandusky as a character barely speaks or appears at all, an artistic choice that may involve concerns over litigation as well as taste. The spotlight instead is on Paterno as the charges against Sandusky are announced and the controversy expands and explodes. At one point, the family gathers to advise Joe on what he should do and say. And Pacino, in a marvelously subtle performance, plays the paternal patriarch as being simultaneously defensive, distracted and uncertain.

Greg Grunberg plays one of his sons, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERNO")

GREG GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) Dad, did you know anything else about Jerry?

AL PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) What do you mean? Why are you saying that? I just told you.

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) I don't know. I don't know. But...

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) What about Jerry?

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) ...If you read it, you can see. The guy had a clear problem, you know? I mean, maybe...

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) I didn't read the thing. You told me about the thing, Scott, and then you told me again.

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) I know.

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) So I know.

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) I'm just saying.

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) No, you're badgering me. You're badgering me. I don't like it. I've got a game to prepare for. That's what's important to me now, Scott. Whatever these things are, these...

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) People think that you knew about all of it...

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) But I don't care what people think.

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) ...2001, 1998. Well, Joe Pa runs the school. How could he not know?

PACINO: (As Joe Paterno) Well, I didn't know. I don't know what they're talking about. I didn't know. What am I, omniscient here?

GRUNBERG: (As Scott Paterno) Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what they think you are. And they're writing stories.

BIANCULLI: The central question of this HBO drama really is what did Paterno know and when did he know it? It doesn't answer that question fully until the very last moment. But it leaves you thinking and reflecting long after the credits roll, which is precisely what makes it so effective. Another very effective TV drama this weekend is BBC America's "Killing Eve," based on the novels by Luke Jennings. Even before this eight-part series launches, the network has announced plans for a second season.

And it's a smart move because "Killing Eve" has a tone and style all its own. It's adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose last TV series was the original and very funny "Fleabag." And it has elements of a female version of "The Fugitive." Sandra Oh from "Grey's Anatomy" and "Sideways" plays a deskbound intelligence agent at London's MI5 who becomes obsessed with identifying and capturing a slippery professional assassin who has claimed kills all over Europe.

The killer, played by Jodie Comer, is a sociopath like Dexter, except she's so twisted that even the people who hire her to kill for them bring her in for a psychological evaluation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KILLING EVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There are concerns about your state of mind.

JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Have you been feeling any anxieties or stress recently?

COMER: (As Villanelle) I had quite a heavy period last week. But other than that, I think I'm OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) When was the last time you worked?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Was it a successful mission?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Yes. I shot him twice in the heart and watched the spark drain from his eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Did you talk to him?

COMER: (As Villanelle) A little. He said he had children and offered me money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What did you feel when he said those things?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Impatient.

BIANCULLI: One twist in "Killing Eve" is that both the killer and the hunter are female. Another is that they share a similar fascination and ease with the very idea of murder, as Eve, played by Sandra Oh, reveals when her husband, played by Owen McDonnell, interrupts her research at the computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KILLING EVE")

OWEN MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) Dinner?

SANDRA OH: (As Eve Polastri) How would you kill me if you could?

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) I don't know. Push you down the stairs?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) No, seriously. They'd come for you immediately.

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) (Laughter) I don't know, flatter you to death. OK, how would you kill me?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I'd paralyze you with saxitoxin and suffocate you in your sleep, chop you into the smallest bits I could manage, boil you down, put you in a blender, then take you to work in a flask and flush you down a restaurant toilet.

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) You've really thought about that.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Smart?

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) Very.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Sexy?

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) Hugely. Do you want supper?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Oh, yes. Thank you.

MCDONNELL: (As Niko Polastri) Ok, love you.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Love you.

BIANCULLI: The first four episodes of "Killing Eve," the only ones available for preview, play out like a game of cat and mouse but one in which the cat and mouse keep changing roles. It reminds me of the first season of "Homeland" where you had equal and equally obsessed adversaries and you sort of rooted for them both. In "Killing Eve," it takes a while, but Eve finally gets the opportunity to track down the killer and vice versa. "Killing Eve" has whip smart performances from its two leads and evocative location footage from Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere and way too many surprises to describe or to miss.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." On Monday's show, Terry talks about Rodgers and Hammerstein with Todd Purdum. His new book explores the creative partnership that transformed musical theater. He'll talk about shows that didn't work and the stories behind their great successes. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.