Films have so many moving parts that it’s nigh-impossible for all of them to function at peak efficiency; when they do, we usually get that thing called a masterpiece. TV series take the same problem and multiply it by at least the number of seasons, even the number of episodes, as actors, writers, directors, producers, and even crew take jobs elsewhere or just plain lose the energy (or paychecks) that brought them all together in the first place; the second season of True Detective lost a lot of the first’s unity by not having Cary Fukunaga as the director. Having one weak element in an otherwise good film or series is a pretty clear and well-known phenomenon; as Bill McNeal sez, no one cares how good the main course is if the appetizer is turds-in-a-blanket. (Of course, our own Narrator has been detailing this issue among cinematographers for some time now.) Amazon’s Bosch and SyFy’s The Expanse have been running into the opposite problem, which turns out to be equally disorienting: each has a single great element (in each case, a great lead performance) surrounded by mediocrity, and the level that Titus Welliver and Shohreh Aghdashloo respectively play on unbalances the shows. Without them, both would be TV of high adequosity (“That isn’t a word, Bill.” “Is now”); with them, they’re big missed opportunities.
David Mamet remarked once that there is such a thing as a regal bearing, “and I have seen it in many not in the king line”; no matter what role she plays, Shohreh Aghdashloo is always a queen. That she was an acclaimed actress in Iran was actually put to good use in her (more or less) American debut, House of Sand and Fog, half of which was about her family’s attempt to hold onto its aristocratic self-image in circumstances that were anything but. Since then, she has been largely stuck in the background in movies and television, making a living but always making me wonder why we should care about anyone else except this smoke-voiced huge-eyed descendant of the gods wandering around the frame.
She first commanded my attention in 24; her performance as the villain in the fourth season (SPOILER: well, the first two-thirds, anyway) serves as a good counterargument to The Expanse, because she elevated the show around her. That regal presence served her character so well: coming down a staircase, watching her son’s girlfriend die after she poisoned her, Aghdashloo had a ruler’s indifference to human life that was just terrifying. That indifference extended to her own life; later in the season, she was completely willing to let herself be tortured and killed, knowing that even Jack Bauer couldn’t get the information out of her in time. In that scene, Kiefer Sutherland comes up to her level in two ways. As an actor, he looks genuinely thrown off by this; also, the scene and the episode was supposed to end on a Jack rejoinder, asserting (as ever) his dominance, but Aghdashloo’s impact was so great that Sutherland, working as a producer, convinced them to drop that and go out on Jack just saying “did you get that?”
If The Expanse’s creators had a similar acceptance of how good she is and a willingness to let that disrupt the structure of the series, they’d have something messier and better. The show gives her a role the size of 24’s and that’s still not enough. The show takes place three centuries in the future, when the human race has colonized the solar system out to approximately Saturn. (This gets depicted in the title sequence; outside of Aghdashloo, it’s consistently the best thing about the show.) Instead of conflicts among nations, there are conflicts among planets and regions: “Earthers,” Martians (i. e., humans living on Mars) and “Belters,” people living and working in the asteroid belt. There are several plots going on at once: a Laura-style detective (Thomas Jane, actually pretty good) in pursuit of a missing heiress; a full-science-fiction story about the first identified alien life form, the “protomolecule,” and a long-simmering Cold War-style espionage/diplomacy story about war breaking out between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Aghdashloo plays Chrisjen Avasarala, United Nations Undersecretary, placing her on Earth’s side in the third plot and giving her (in the second season) chances to get involved in the second.
Her performance is a case study in the sexiness of power. Even when her life is threatened, Chrisjen is at all times supremely self-confident, because her sense of herself comes from a certainty that power rightfully belongs to her. Aghdashloo has enough confidence to go almost giggly at times, anticipating just how much she’s gonna own a traitorous superior. Her line readings are just slightly formal, just slightly slowed down, playing like a) English isn’t Chrisjen’s first language and b) everyone else can just goddamn wait for her to finish talking. At other times, she doesn’t hesitate to talk over others, leading to a good farewell scene between her and her husband: he’s on the moon, she’s on Earth (like her 24 character, Chrisjen accepts death as part of her role), and the time delay leads to some funny and touching clashes between their lines. (The Expanse doesn’t use the finite speed of light and the delay it introduces in communications enough, but this was a happy exception.) When she exercises her authority, it’s without any pause and without raising her voice, just the slightest sharpening of tone on a line like “whoever the fuck you are, stand down and let her speak.” Aghdashloo gets on possibly an instinctive level what so many actors who play authority (and even actual authority figures) don’t: the more power you demonstrate the less you possess.
Her sense of power is so physical, carrying herself with a queen’s sense of responsibility: she must appear at all times dignified before her subjects, and “subjects” means “every other person around her.” Always straight-backed but never stiff, courteous but not familiar, in costumes that are ornate but never overbearing (costume designer Joanne Hansen knows what to do here; Chrisjen’s outfits suggest an ongoing synthesis of all of Earth’s rulers’ garments and styles), she calls up the always-on-stage quality of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, except Chrisjen is totally comfortable with this, even born to it. How much of this comes from Aghdashloo living the first half of her life in Iran, a place with much more of a sense of royalty than here, how much is simply instinct, and how much is learned is left as an exercise for the reader; I’ll just note that it’s exactly what the character requires.
This sets up an unavoidable tonal clash with the rest of the show, though, even the rest of the network, like, I don’t know, dropping someone who belongs on a lame CBS procedural in the middle of The Shield. SyFy seems to choose its actors according to the United Colors of Benetton style of multiculturalism, creating diverse casts where everyone comes from different races and cultures and yet they all resemble each other because they’re all catalog-ready, well-scrubbed, unthreatening, the kind of people who will provide a nice background for commercials for companies from anywhere, not just America, a Thomas Frank argument about the confusion of democracy and capitalism made flesh. Just on that level, Aghdashloo throws off the balance, commanding so much attention and coming across as so particular in her presence that she undermines the rest of the cast, no matter what they’re doing. SyFy may want to show us a world where everyone has a chance to be equal consumers, and the story may want to be about a struggle for equality among Earth, Mars, and the Belt, but every time Aghdashloo shows up, it’s clear she should run things.
It may not be fair to judge performers and performances on appearance, though it is necessary. Moving from appearance to talent, though, Aghdashloo is way above everyone else. Sometimes that disparity can help a work. In that poisoning scene in 24, Aghdashloo overpowers the other actors just as her character does; poor Leighton Meester never had a chance. (It’s a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis v. Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood.) As Chrisjen’s backstabbing superior, Shawn Doyle doesn’t catch on that Chrisjen’s caught on, and that’s an element where Doyle’s weaker acting helps; of course he’ll get outplayed. For most of The Expanse, though, she’s working with a cast where prettiness comes at the expense of impact; “distractingly bland” may be an oxymoron but it describes them well. Thomas Jane’s presence in the first season in a different story was a good counterweight to Aghdashloo (they never met) but the second season switched most of the moral burden to Steven Strait as a miner-turned-captain and he wasn’t anywhere near up to the job. His emotional and acting range largely consists of attempted glowering; you can see him as an actor trying to assert the authority his character should already possess. He’s not really worse than anyone around him, just asked to take on a responsibility way past his ability. It doesn’t help that he’s also in a story that Aghdashloo is not. The Expanse’s story splits up its characters and scatters them across the solar system, so not that many actors get to interact with her, but those who do raise their game; Frankie Adams, as a gung-ho Martian marine, gets demonstrably better when she has scenes with her. Also on her level is Nick Tarabay as Chrisjen’s bodyguard Kotyar; it helps that the two of them have a medieval relationship, queen-and-servant. He knows his role and lives it as comfortably as Chrisjen does, and putting Aghdashloo, Adams, and Tarabay together in the final episodes of season two was one of the smartest moves The Expanse made.
In Amazon Studios’ Bosch, the problem is both less obvious and more fundamental; it’s a well-done police procedural where the lead performance is matched by much of the cast but not the story. Based on Michael Connelly’s novels, Harry Bosch (yes, his real name is Hieronymus) is a detective in contemporary L. A.’s Hollywood Division, each season adapts two or three of the books into a ten-episode run, and the characters are made up of Bosch’s colleagues on the force and just outside of it: Amy Aquino as the sergeant, Jamie Hector as his partner, Lance Reddick as interim (as of late third season, the permanent) Chief of Police, Steven Culp as the Sleazy D. A., so forth. To call this standard stuff isn’t to criticize it, just to locate it in the fine tradition of police series stretching from Dragnet and 87th Precinct to Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Bosch does a good job as that kind of show. Much of any episode’s running time has a relaxed hangout vibe with the cast interacting, thinking, occasionally bullshitting each other; it’s the side of the cop show that’s workplace comedy/drama. Casting veteran character actors like Aquino and Scott Klace as the desk sergeant helps this too: these are familiar, even friendly TV presences and it both creates a welcoming vibe for us viewers and gives the actors something to really do with their talent; one of the great pleasures of TV over movies has been the range of actors who get steady work. (I still can never see Reddick’s otherworldly presence and not ask “why does he not simply use his psychic powers to explode the Mayor’s head?”) The direction has been high-quality, too; Ernest Dickerson, who got his start as Spike Lee’s first director of photography, has handled a lot of episodes and his sense of framing and color has only gotten better. Violence erupts and disappears without warning, action sequences always happen with a clear sense of who is where (unless we need to be unclear), actors get enough attention to develop a sense of character.
Connelly may have made the best and worst decision about Bosch by insisting on Titus Welliver as the lead. He first came to my attention in Lost as the Man in Black/Smokey/Esau/whatever (admittedly, Lost is the kind of show that sparks this kind of confusion), giving me the kind of viewer-buzz you get when someone totally owns in a single scene. That scene, the first of the last episode of the penultimate season, gave us our first glimpse of the twin gods of the Island, Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) and Welliver’s MiB, and Welliver was extraordinary: calm, otherworldly, and terrifying; director Jack Bender gave him a Leonean pan as he shifted the whole scene (and in some ways, the whole series) with the line “do you have any idea how badly I want to kill you?” It was the moment, after almost a hundred episodes, that it felt like we’d hit the bedrock of Lost’s mysteries, and Welliver stepped up and made it happen.
Like a lot of great actors, he knows how to use his appearance. His face, heavy-lidded and dry-aged like a good steak, does lack of reaction better than almost anybody; it’s a face with backstory, as Quentin Tarantino sez. On the level of technique, he knows how to use stillness to make himself even more threatening. In Bosch, he keeps his speech rhythms clipped, even with his family; a Welliver character always plays poker, and it will cost you to know what he’s thinking. The final shot of the third season of Bosch (see above), courtesy of Welliver and Dickerson, fits so well into the tradition of great American action cinema, from John Wayne in Stagecoach to George Clooney in The Peacemaker and well beyond: the held shot on the still gaze of a man about to own everything in sight, and God help you if you’re on the other side. (John Getz, another reliable character actor, is on the other side, and he has a nice beat of fear here.)
He’s an actor, though, that’s too good for the story around him. Welliver’s Bosch is on the same level as Russell Crowe’s Bud White in L. A. Confidential, but the world around his is anything but James Ellroy’s. (It’s not even Joseph Wambaugh’s.) Bosch’s mother was a prostitute, killed and largely ignored by everyone except him, and Welliver plays that knowledge as a long-simmering, unappeasable rage. Like White, it gives his cop a permanent streak of vengeance. What Welliver gets and the writers don’t is that this takes him out of the realm of He Gets Results You Stupid Chief! Three seasons in, it’s clear on the strength of Welliver’s performance what a destructive asshole he is, but the incidents have been structured so he’s either right or a victim all along, and darn it, why doesn’t his partner/boss/ex-wife/girlfriend(s)/daughter/Mayor/D. A./Chief appreciate that? One of the major plots of season three had Bosch framed as a killer, and absolutely no other character even considered that possible, which destroys any tension that could have. Every season has far too many shots of Welliver gazing out soulfully over the Los Angeles nightscape, far too many moments where everyone but Bosch has to acknowledge they’re wrong.
Given that this comes from a long-running series of novels, this can’t be The Shield, which unbalanced its universe in the pilot and then played out a classical tragedy as the balance came back. The closest model for Bosch isn’t Vic Mackey but Justified’s Raylan Givens. Elmore Leonard and the series writers’ drew and Timothy Olyphant played Raylan with so much charm and effortless ownage, but none of them ever forgot Raylan’s defining line from Leonard: “the angriest man I have ever known.” Over the seasons, that anger got Raylan and those around him into moral traps that were harder to get out of and landed consequences on everyone’s heads. (Sometimes, as our own Ruck Cohlchez has noted, those consequences were a fundamental misunderstanding of Raylan’s prey.) Raylan was a white hat and Justified was great entertainment, but there was always a risk there that it was gonna go much darker in both senses. There was a psychopath just below Raylan’s smile–one of the best running themes of the show was that Raylan’s opposite number, criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), was at peace in a way Raylan wasn’t. That played out not just in performance but in action. There were consequences to how well Olyphant played Raylan. The story matched the performance.
We haven’t seen that with Bosch; Welliver creates a great character without the benefit of a great story. It might happen now; season three ends with Getz as the new candidate for his mother’s killer, and a comment from Son of Griff and an IMDb check reveals that a major plot turn might be coming up in the fourth season. Greatness, by its nature, disrupts; the best creators are the ones who recognize the value of their materials and use that value to the fullest extent, no matter where it leads. If Bosch and The Expanse realize the full value of Welliver and Aghdashloo they’re going to become different shows. One can hope.