Mixed bag ‘Henrietta Lacks’ debuts on HBO
A searing performance by Oprah Winfrey forms the crux of HBO’s dramatization of the 2010 nonfiction book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (8 p.m. Saturday) by Rebecca Skloot, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s master’s program in nonfiction writing.
Ms. Winfrey stars in the HBO production as Henrietta’s adult daughter, Deborah Lacks. Henrietta died at age 31 in 1951 from cervical cancer when Deborah was 2, and Deborah learned only years later that Henrietta’s cells were harvested without her mother’s knowledge and proved to be a scientific breakthrough, growing in a petri dish an immortal cell line still used in medical research today.
Dubbed HeLa cells — taken from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names — Lacks’ family never monetarily benefited from her contribution to science and weren’t even told much about the breakthrough. (As one doctor snobbishly sniffs, “It’s not like those people would have understood anything anyway.”)
Freelance journalist Skloot (Rose Byrne, “Damages”) makes it her mission to tell the Lacks family story, but she encounters resistance and suspicions from family members, including Deborah, who appears to suffer from past traumas and mental illness.
As Skloot researches her book, Henrietta (1993 Carnegie Mellon University graduate Renee Elise Goldsberry, “The Good Wife” and the musical “Hamilton”), comes alive in flashback scenes that depict her rural Virginia hometown and relationships with relatives who come to play a role in Deborah’s life, too. And yet for a story that’s supposed to be about Henrietta, this film brings Deborah and her siblings into sharper focus, a somewhat odd disconnect given the title.
The burgeoning push-and-pull friendship between Deborah and Skloot is the heart of HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a relationship that explores race and class differences and what results from a lack of proper treatment of mental illness. (While the focus is on the Lacks family, there is a bit of a white savior vibe given that Skloot is essentially the lead, but it’s also how the tale unfolded in real life.)
Ms. Winfrey’s Deborah can jump from settled to agitated and filled with perseverating thoughts in the blink of an eye. It’s a role that
could fall into caricature, but Ms. Winfrey brings vulnerability and believability to the part.
“Henrietta Lacks” also benefits from a strong supporting cast, some in small but noteworthy roles, particularly Courtney B. Vance (Emmy winner for his role as Johnny Cochran in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” last year), who has a brief but entertaining turn as a con man who attempts to take advantage of the Lacks family.
The film, directed by George C. Wolfe (“Lackawanna Blues”), stumbles most profoundly in the way it wraps up. The conclusion to the 90-minute film comes too quickly with an abrupt shift in tone.
NBC’s final new sitcom debut for the 2016-17 TV season begins with what sounds like a terrible premise — elderly woman goes to work as an intern at her TV news producer daughter’s office — but “Great News” (9 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, WPXI) manages to be at least a good broadcast network comedy thanks to sharp writing and winning performances, particularly from “SCTV” veteran Andrea Martin as Carol, mom to cable news producer Katie (Briga Heelan, “Ground Floor”).
Created by “30 Rock” veteran writer Tracey Wigfield, who also appears in “Great News” as the network’s meteorologist, and executive produced by Tina Fey, “Great News” benefits from the smart, snarky comedy stylings reminiscent of “30 Rock,” particularly when it comes to media satire.
In other ways, “Great News” is a little more pedestrian in how it depicts the relationship between Katie and her boss (Adam Campbell, “Harper’s Island”). But there’s enough good humor that flows through the show — particularly from scenes with odd couple cable news anchors Chuck (John Michael Higgins, “Pitch Perfect”) and Portia (Nicole Richie, “Candidly Nicole”) — that “Great News” stands above plenty of other scripted broadcast comedies.
And anytime Ms. Martin, as the overly involved, filterfree mom, is on screen, “Great News” comes closest to living up to the first word in its title.
AMC renewed “Fear the Walking Dead,” due back for a third season in June, for a fourth season.
E! renewed “The Arrangement” and Amazon will bring back “Patriot” for second seasons.
Bravo renewed “Imposters” for a second season and streamer Crackle did the same for “Snatch.”
Amazon picked up one of its recent pilots, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, for two seasons.
Netflix will revive the former PBS kids show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” as an animated series for 2019 with Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) voicing the title character. Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV was a production partner on the original, but is not involved in this reboot.
Fox will revive “Showtime at the Apollo” as a weekly one-hour series in the 2017-18 TV season with Steve Harvey as host.
National Geographic Channel renewed its Albert Einstein scripted drama “Genius” for a second season.
Tuned In online
Today’s TV Q&A column responds to questions about “Outsiders,” “hit” shows and a local TV news anchor pregnancy. This week’s Tuned In Journal includes posts on NOVA’s “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” and “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Read online-only TV content at http://communityvoices. arts-entertainment-living/ tuned-in.