“Bessie,” an HBO Films production directed by Dee Rees (whose “Pariah” premiered at Sundance in 2011), “Togetherness,” a comedy series from filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass (“The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead”) and “Sinatra,” a two-part documentary from Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) are new examples, joining hit series “Girls,” from Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”), about to launch its fourth season and just renewed for a fifth. Also introduced was a six-part documentary series from Andrew Jarecki (“Capturing the Friedmans” “Catfish”), called “Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” based on the incredible true-life murder cases involving Durst, scion of a family that made a fortune in New York real estate development.
The network also announced that “Citizenfour,” the documentary about Edward Snowden and his revelations about the National Security Agency, considered a front-runner for the Oscar, will air exclusively on HBO beginning Feb. 23.
And the lines between mainstream movies and television continue to blur, with Jack Black and Tim Robbins leading the cast in the Jerry Weintraub-produced HBO comedy series “The Brink,” which will bring a welcome dose of intentional absurdity to the arena of geopolitical tensions when it premieres this summer (“Kim Jong-Un isn’t in this show,” quipped Weintraub, in reference to the recent flap over Sony’s “The Interview”).
“Bessie,” in which Queen Latifah portrays real-life 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith, debuts this spring, 22 years after producers Lili and Dick Zanuck first approached Latifah, then a young rap artist, with the project, scripted by the late Horton Foote. After Rees emerged as a vital new talent at Sundance, she was brought on as director. Her update of script includes a franker depiction of Smith’s sexuality (her lovers included both men and women). Based on clips shown to critics assembled for the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, the film looks like a powerhouse musical production for HBO – rowdy, earthy, low-down, glitzy, sensual and sensational.
The blues, said Rees, were just emerging in the 1920s as an avenue of expression for “black people who had a new geographic mobility, and a new autonomy with their own sexuality,” said Rees. “Within the blues, they could create a public discourse, and criticize the system they were being oppressed by.” Latifah, who appeared in the Oscar-winning musical “Chicago,” said the life experience she gained during the project’s long gestation deepened her performance. “I got to live more of the blues,” said the performer, who became an executive producer of the film, adding “I like roles that require me to give everything I have, and I get dusted up pretty good in this one.” Latifah said she wasn’t familiar with Smith’s music until after she became involved with the project. “I was blown away by it,” she said. “I can hear her voice in so many artists who came after. The music may be 100 years old, but it has a power a lot of artists could learn from today.”
“Togetherness,” a half-hour comedy that debuts Jan. 11, looks like L.A.’s answer to “Girls” in that it centers on four characters (albeit older ones) living in L.A.’s bohemian-creative Echo Park neighborhood who are struggling to make sense of their lives and relationships while middle age bears down on them. The series marks the debut as a TV writing team of Mark and Jay Duplass (“Jeff Who Lives At Home,” “The Puffy Chair”) who created it together with Steve Zissis. The main characters include Mark Duplass as a sound designer, Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”) as his intimacy-starved wife, Amanda Peet, as the still-single owner of a bounce-house business, and Zissis as a struggling actor about to throw in the towel. Jay Duplass, currently in the cast of the acclaimed Amazon streaming series “Transparent,” co-directs and co-writes the episodes with Mark. “We wanted to make a show that represented the way Jay and I see the world, which is that we want to have that intimacy and involvement with others that it takes to have a great life, but then as soon as we get it, we want to bail out,” said Mark. “It’s sad and funny to us.”
Very funny, apparently – based on clips shown at TCA. This new TV chapter of their careers is all of a piece with their DIY ethos, said Mark. “With our films, we felt like unless we made them ourselves, they woudn’t happen, and that’s kind of why we made the show. It’s about characters who have one foot in L.A., and one foot out, and aren’t sure they fit in. The original title for it,” he joked, was “Sensitive People and the Sensitive Way They Feel Things Sensitively,” but HBO said, ‘Just call it ‘Togetherness,’ and we said okay.”
Making a big splash in terms of cinema star-power at HBO’s presentation was “The Brink,” for which Black, Robbins, Weintraub and director Jay Roach, along with Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber (“Orange Is the New Black”), Aasif Mandvi, Maribeth Monroe and co-creators (and brothers) Roberto Benabib and Kim Benabib comprised the panel. The Benabib said that a visit to the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the L.A. County Museum of Art, which included the late filmmaker’s work on “Dr. Strangelove,” inspired their show, described as “an epic dark comedy” about a geopolitical crisis in which a rogue general seizes control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. Robbins plays the U.S. Secretary of State, Black is a hapless foreign service officer, and Schreiber is an ace Navy fighter pilot. The ten-episode first season premieres this summer, at a date yet to be determined.
“We loved ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and we realized there isn’t a lot like it going on in the world of movie comedies,” said Roberto Benabib. Roach said that tonally, “The Brink” is a political satire that owes something to movies like “MASH” and “Catch-22.”
HBO also announced a premiere date of Sunday, April 12 for the fifth season of “Game of Thrones.” Two other hit returning series, “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” will return the same night.