Smart Watch: The notorious "RBG" comes to CNN and more top TV picks for the week

The CNN debut of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's portrait airs the same week as the debuts of "Mayans M.C." and "The Purge"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 1, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid workout routine in "RBG" (Magnolia Pictures)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid workout routine in "RBG" (Magnolia Pictures)

Relative to many people Ruth Bader Ginsburg is soft-spoken. Given the towering persona assigned to her by popular culture, and the documentary “RBG,” that may come as a surprise to those who know the Supreme Court justice by her opinions as opposed to her personality.

Among the many biographical details shared in "RBG," making its television debut Monday 9 p.m. on CNN, are the formative words of wisdom her mother impressed upon her before she passed away, when Ginsburg was 17 years old.

One very important piece of advice Celia Bader passed along to her daughter was her insistence that Ruth be a lady. Another was that she be independent. This goes some way to explain those famous collars bedecking the otherwise sober, black judicial robes. When she’s with the majority, Ginsburg wears a gold piece decorated with delicate, sparkling embellishments.

Dissenting opinions, of which she’s written many, are immediately telegraphed by a collar some have likened to armor: dark, metallic and encrusted with silver beads. She wore it the day after Donald Trump’s election.

The sartorial shout-out to khaleesi would be intentional if she watched television, but she doesn't; in another endearing moment, the camera capture her genuine laughter as she watches, apparently for the first time, Kate McKinnon's impression of her on a segment of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update. In that moment, created by cueing up the skit on a monitor for the judge's enjoyment, Ginsburg gives the words “genuinely tickled” an effervescent newness.

RBG,” directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, is a Sundance Film Festival favorite that enjoyed a short theatrical run in the late spring and coincides with Ginsburg’s 25th year of service on the U.S. Supreme Court. (A feature film, “On the Basis of Sex,” is due out on December 25 and stars Felicity Jones as the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Obviously this is a good year to be the Notorious R.B.G.)

But its CNN debut is timely and necessary for reasons the filmmakers could not have foreseen. Given the electorate’s acrimonious split over Trump’s second nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, airing this now is a chance to take a beat and a deep breath, and consider how crucial one voice on that nine person court can be when it comes to shaping this nation’s history.

In a sense, as former president Bill Clinton points out in “RBG,” 1993 was divided along partisan lines as well — though not as deeply as it is now — and yet Ginsburg, as shown in the segments included in the documentary, received a polite and respectful inquisition before Congress, earning the respect of even Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

A few write-ups of “RBG” characterize the documentary as a love letter; it is certainly that, which takes nothing away from its lively production and bright energy. I can think of few instances in which a cinematic profile of a judicial official could be correctly described as a sheer delight to watch.

At the same time, although West and Cohen get around to the version of Ginsburg that has become a meme for Millennials and a symbol of resistance, the greater part of the film celebrates her tireless determination.

Extraordinary though any individual must be (theoretically) to merit winning a seat on the highest court in the land, that doesn’t even begin to explain the sheer might of this woman. Early in the film she attacked her studies at Harvard Law with enough ferocity to earn a spot on its law review, all while nursing her husband Marty through an early bout with cancer and caring for their young daughter. All this, before she even passed the bar.

Ginsburg is now 85 and through her wisdom and a strategy for securing equal rights for women that played a long game, which included winning key cases for male plaintiffs, the nation is better off for her service. And this is true regardless of what point a person claims on the political spectrum, or whether you marvel at her punishing workouts (which, yes, the film shows) and embrace the memes that have renamed her the “Notorious R.B.G.” or not.

With increasing vigor, fretting and frequency, many of us find ourselves asking not only what kind of country we’re dwelling in, but what sort do we want to live in tomorrow, in 2021 and beyond? It’s an important idea to ponder. But the words “What is happening to America?” are too often accompanied by a shaking of the head; taking the form of a rhetorical query as opposed to serving as a gateway to proposed solutions. Here, in this 98 minute documentary, is the story of a woman who decided to answer that question in ways more lasting and fundamental than most of us might ever dream of, simply by deciding she wanted to enter a profession that served society in a positive way.

But if there were ever any question as to how this women views her place in the word, it is dispelled in the moment when someone brings up her hip hop moniker and asks if she knows that it refers to the Notorious B.I.G., i.e. Biggie Smalls. Of course, she says, going on to share that she’d been asked whether she found that comparison offensive. Why would she? she replies. “We have a lot in common.”

* * *

Mayans M.C.,” Tuesday at 10 p.m., FX

Ginsburg is the epitome of soft power not often celebrated on television or most corners of popular culture. Instead much of our entertainment explores and elevates a different kind of strength — one’s ability to endure violence or propensity to unleash it upon another person.

Of course, it helps if the guy swinging the punches is easy on the eyes, as we learned with Charlie Hunnam’s turn as Jax Teller in “Sons of Anarchy.”

“Mayans M.C.,” set several years after Jax rode to his final reward by plowing into the front end of a truck, introduces us J.D. Pardo’s E.Z. “Ezekiel” Reyes, a prospect with the Santo Padre branch of the Mexican outlaw biker gang featured in “Sons.” “Mayans” connects itself to its predecessor straightaway by featuring appearances from several established characters, starting with Emilio Rivera's Alvarez, who rides with the Oakland charter.

But we were talking about hotness, weren’t we? E.Z. isn’t your alley-variety thug, see. Although he served time for killing a police officer — albeit with extenuating circumstances, of course — E.Z. is book-smart and blessed with a photographic memory that serves as a convenient means of moving the plot along.

Upon his release from prison E.Z. joins his brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas) in riding with the gang, much to the dismay of their father Felipe (Edward James Olmos), a butcher who is a pillar of the community.

“Sons of Anarchy” gave viewers a lot of reasons to dislike it, but at least it was aspiring to be “Hamlet,” a light that guided its story development and lent it a measure of profundity for several seasons. “Sons” also had Katey Sagal anchoring the story with her stalwart performance as Gemma, the club’s matriarch. “Mayans” has no such anchor or, for that matter, much in the way of significant roles for women beyond Sarah Bolger’s Emily, E.Z.’s one-time great love for whom he still carries a torch.

Most anything else that can be said about “Mayans” ventures into spoiler territory beyond observing that aside from Emily, most of the women featured are little more than devices for groping or protecting. They are tools, in other words, to enable the men in the gang to demonstrate their gallantry and, perhaps, their fighting skills. To drive this point home one of the women they dash in to rescue is shown actually getting her crotch grabbed by a thug before the Mayans arrive to save her.

Ostensibly this inaugural season of “Mayans” allows its creator Kurt Sutter to explore the violent underpinnings of border politics while styling its Latinx bikers as unlikely and unsung heroes. The opening episodes introduce a highly coordinated Galindo cartel, led by a polished hothead named Miguel (Danny Pino), scion of a Mexican kingpin. The Galindo cartel has pressed the Mayans into its service, although the men share the sympathies of those pushing back on the cartel’s violence and deadly intimidation; the organization has visited plenty of suffering and brutality on innocents caught in the crossfire of its drug war.

Guess what? We're treated to a great deal of that brutality in the show’s opening episodes.

Border politics, explicit torture, dismemberment, immolation and threats to children — all of it splatters through the opening hours of “Mayans.” Is nuance your gig? This is not your show.

Scrape away the gore and you’ll get to the main problem with “Mayans M.C.” — it jams so many subplots into its opening two episodes as to make it nearly impossible to connect to any of the characters in a meaningful way. Sutter has found a compelling lead actor in Pardo, whose onscreen chemistry with Olmos and Cardenas has enough fortitude to hold the center long enough for the show to find a map, if it can.

First it would have to drop some of its bloat which, knowing Sutter and FX’s hands-off approach to its prized auteurs, won’t happen. The show’s 67-minute premiere is the storytelling equivalent stuffing 10 pounds of sausage into a two-pound bag. Then again, to “Sons of Anarchy” super-fans who never got over its departure from their viewing menu, I’ve just described a feast. They’re welcome to it.

* * *

The Purge,” Tuesday at 10 p.m., USA Network and Syfy

Demonstrating the polar opposite of jurisprudence, this continuation of what may be one of the most chilling cinematic franchises answers the question of what we’d get if John Carpenter received an order for a TV series with soap opera elements, and a healthy budget with which to make it.

Yes, yes, I know Carpenter had nothing to do with the four “Purge” movies and this series, which are all James DeMonaco, who has written and executive produces this version. But the influence is right there on the face of it, even though the wasteland that Snake Plissken navigates is a lot worse for wear than the alternate present in which the series is set.

For the edification of those who may have somehow escaped the films or their accompanying cultural references, “The Purge” revolves around a 12-hour period when all crime, including murder, is legal, as deemed by a totalitarian political party known as the New Founding Fathers. The idea is to lower crime rates by allowing the population to release their violent tendencies on one particular night. For the wealthy it’s a means of thinning the herd, further securing their hold on power and indulging in repugnant revelry while others suffer, free of consequence.

The series follows three separate plotlines that demonstrate the economic schism that empowers the rich to stand on the necks of the working class, including an ambitious black female executive (Amanda Warren) planning the most hostile of takeovers; a couple (Colin Woodell and Hannah Anderson) eager to secure funding from a solipsistic billionaire (Reed Diamond) for a low-income housing venture; and the main event, our Snake Plissken, a Marine (Gabriel Chavarria) risking his life to save his sister (Jessica Garza) from a death cult.

Each of these would merit a middling TV movie at best. USA and DeMonaco have somehow found a way to stretch out these tales over 10 episodes, which is about six more than feels sustainable. And in drawing out the premise's dark parody of our obsession with the "life changing, healing power of killing," as one character puts it, the film franchise's purported critique of political exploitation, and the wealthy’s amoral dismissal of the raw suffering of the middle class and the poor, collapses in on itself. Left in its place is a shallow festival of violence and bloodshed, and not very artful demonstrations of either.

On the other hand, dystopian gauntlets seem to be the new zombies these days.  And the continued resilience of “The Walking Dead” and its wriggling offshoot “Fear the Walking Dead” hints at the possible appetite for this brand of cheap catharsis. In the films purging is a choice, and DeMonaco has said in several interviews that characters who avail themselves of that choice, or choose mercy instead, experience consequences accordingly. “This is the world we’re living in!" a character cries desperately. "We can’t change the Purge, but we can change our lives!”

Uh huh.

Instead of asking what this series says about what our nation has become, we may choose instead to opt out of participating.

Or we can wait for the perkier, sunnier treatment of that question by indulging in the return of Hulu’s “I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman,” starting its new season on Thursday. Somehow that option feels a little . . . kinder.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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