There has always been an appetite for tart, behind-the-scenes drama and comedy set inside the worlds of TV and film. From The Larry Sanders Show to the current success of Call My Agent!, some material succeeds well in both mocking and celebrating certain elements of show business. In all instances there is, of course, an expectation from the viewer that what they’re seeing is either a heightened version of reality, or based in reality.
Irma Vep (HBO/streams on Crave) is the latest entry and among the cleverest in its meta-approach to mocking and drawing sympathy for its protagonists. As it moves along, episode to episode (there are eight, new ones arrive on Mondays) you begin to feel you’re truly inside this disquieting, heady world where a prestige TV series is being made. The dynamic between the director and actors, the fraught feelings that the lead actor has about her role and her feelings for an ex-lover, feel grounded in true experience. At once delicious with plausible acrimony between egotists who are actually vulnerable people in real life, and sensitive to the vagaries of show business life, it has an unusual and very adult tone.
To get the meta-theme out of the way, all you need to know is that Irma Vep is a series based on the 1996 movie by writer-director Olivier Assayas. Here Assayas is again in charge and the series, like the movie, is about a French director doing a remake of a classic 1915 silent film serial classic called Les Vampires. In it the character Irma Vep is the muse to a gang of vampire thieves. But you don’t really even need that background info to savour this.
Here, Swedish actor Alicia Vikander (Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) plays Mira, the actress arriving in Paris to play the role of Irma. She’s just been in a hit superhero movie, Doomsday, and some in her entourage are amazed she’s making this little artsy production in France.
Her agent Zelda (Carrie Brownstein) wants her to do another superhero movie instead: “Here’s the twist. The Silver Surfer dies and the girlfriend takes over. This is exactly what people want right now!”
Still, Mira has her own reasons and, tellingly, she becomes a different person when she wears the costume for her Irma Vep character. Also, she knows, her former assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona) is in Paris. She had a highly charged affair with Laurie who then married the director of Doomsday. There is a startling honesty about love, desire and ambition among people who hope they’re making art but fear the work will fail, and know the passions ignited in the making of film or TV are transitory.
Also airing/streaming this weekend
Becoming Elizabeth (starts Sunday, 9 p.m. Starz, streams on Crave) continues the Starz channel’s obsession with Tudor-era drama. This one, however, has a very clear and formidable focus – young Queen Elizabeth as a teenager. See, her father Henry VIII has just died, and both England and the royal court are in turmoil. Henry had three living children: Mary (Romola Garai), the daughter of his first wife Catherine of Aragon; Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg), the daughter of Anne Boleyn; and Edward (Oliver Zetterstrom), who is now King Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour, but he’s just 11 years old.
The drama – eight episodes arriving weekly – is anchored in Elizabeth’s struggle with mother-figure Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine) and Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), whom Catherine has wed. The couple want influence over the new king, and the court, but young Elizabeth’s main problem is Thomas’s unhealthy interest in her. It looks gorgeous and moves briskly.
The 75th Annual Tony Awards (Sunday, CBS, CTV, 8 p.m.) is fun times for theatre fans. (There’s a one-hour pre-show on Paramount+ at 7 p.m.) The host is Oscar winner (for West Side Story) and Tony Award nominee Ariana DeBose, who got her start competing on So You Think You Can Dance in 2009. The presenters are many and A Strange Loop leads with 11 nominations, followed by MJ and Paradise Square with 10.
An important note here, too – the pilot of Abbott Elementary (Sunday, ABC, 9 p.m.) is worth your while. (The second episode follows at 9:30 p.m.) The series went on to become a huge hit and deservedly so, being the freshest new network comedy in years. Finally, with the Jan. 6 hearings now happening, CNN has two new specials to give context, explaining how the Watergate hearings unfolded and what it all meant. Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal, followed by a second episode. Starts Sunday, CNN, 9 p.m.
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