Amazon.com Widgets

« December 2007 | Home | ">February 2008 »

January 2008 Archives

January 26, 2008

Slings & Arrows: The Complete Series

That Shakespeare’s works are still performed with regularity — if not popularity — nearly 400 years after his death is a testament not just to the language or the structure; William Shakespeare changed the way people thought about the human condition, something nobody has done better. The Canadian television series Slings and Arrows spent three masterful but abbreviated seasons celebrating the Bard and reminding us of his cultural importance, both historically and contemporaneously.

It begins with a fairly unusual pilot, in which we are introduced to all the main characters through the perspective of Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), the depressed artistic director of Canada’s most successful Shakespeare company, the New Burbage Festival. Through Oliver, we’re introduced to the central idea of the first season, that a production of Hamlet destroyed Oliver’s creativity, Ellen Fanshaw’s (Martha Burns) passion, and Geoffrey Tennant’s (Paul Gross) sanity. This trio was, at one time, a force to be reckoned with — the only reason New Burbage became synonymous with quality in the first place. Since, it’s become the kind of hacky theatre where more attention is paid to ostentatious sets than quality acting, where sheep-bleating sound effects substitute Shakespeare’s outdated-but-workable humor. Geoffrey’s the closest to being happy, running a tiny, financially strapped theatre in Montreal…that is, until police arrest him for squatting when they can’t pay the rent.

And then, at the end of the pilot…Oliver is run over by a ham truck after passing out, drunk, in the middle of an intersection.

The next five episodes combine black comedy with romance, high tragedy with demented wit — we’re gradually filled in on the backstory of Geoffrey, Oliver, and Ellen. What led to Geoffrey’s breakdown and the estrangement between the characters unfolds in such an interesting way, I don’t want to spoil it. Oliver returns in the form of a ghost that only Geoffrey can see, which begs the question for all three seasons: is Oliver really a ghost, or has Geoffrey not fully recovered from his breakdown?

In each season of Slings and Arrows, the New Burbage Festival works on a new play, and the backstage banter often parallels the themes — and in some cases, the stories — told in those plays. In the first-season story of Geoffrey, Ellen, and Oliver, the writers set out to answer the question of whether or not passion leads to glory or insanity. We get one answer in Hamlet itself (spoiler alert: it doesn’t lead to glory), but Slings and Arrows offers hope of redemption after the breakdown, while all Hamlet offers is death.

Meanwhile, they pave a storyline of treachery and behind-closed-doors machinations (reminiscent of the conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father, though there’s actually a lot more Macbeth in this subplot) between Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), the frustrated business manager, and Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), a conniving representative of New Burbage’s biggest sponsor. Holly wants to turn New Burbage into something like a Mamma Mia! theme park, keeping any actual Shakespeare content to a bare minimum. She teaches Richard the subtle art of manipulation, which he takes so far that the festival is nearly shut down.

All of this is balanced by two comic subplots: the romance between Jack Crew and his Ophelia understudy, Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams), and the introduction of Darren Nickles (Don McKellar) as a theatre director who hates theatre and wants to turn it into a combination of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie and performance art. The romance, in some ways, echoes the past romance between Geoffrey and Ellen. However, their conflict is a little different: while Kate worries Jack will ditch her the second he goes back to Hollywood, Jack has no confidence and fears Kate (and everyone else) looks down on him. His Brando-esque improvisations of the text have to be seen to be believed.

The second season isn’t quite as good as the first, but that’s sort of like saying, “Hamlet isn’t quite as good as Macbeth.” One of the more troublesome aspects is turning Geoffrey into a bit of an antagonist. Of course, we still want to root for him because Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) is an arrogant ham who refuses to follow Geoffrey’s direction, but the lengths Geoffrey goes to force Henry to follow his lead makes the whole story a little dicey.

This season also contains a couple of disappointing subplots. The first, following a young couple suffering through Darren’s cold, clinical direction of Romeo & Juliet (in which he has every actor dressed like a combination of a robot and a chess piece, staring blankly at the audience and delivering their lines in as flat a monotone as possible), simply doesn’t get as much development or complexity as the Jack Crew-Kate McNab story. It’s funny, but we never get to know these characters, so their victory in showing Darren the error of his ways feels like a minor diversion.

The second subplot finds Richard trusting an insane marketing guru (Colm Feore). Like the Romeo & Juliet subplot, it’s funny, but rather than being underdeveloped, there’s actually too much development. Colm Feore’s Sanjay is funny in small doses, and Richard’s misplaced trust is a much deserved comeuppance from his vindictive behavior in this first season, but Sanjay and his team are kind of given a one-note story. The beats of each appearance go like this: they show Richard a batshit insane concept, Richard gets pissed off, Sanjay uses his soothing voice and slippery con-man trickery to manipulate Richard (who’s as easily duped by Sanjay as he was by Holly Day). Going by pure laughs, it’s all very entertaining, and because the season is so short the repetition isn’t some sort of “jump-the-shark” moment. It’s just kind of wasteful, considering other subplots got less development in favor of this one.

Finally, we come to the third season, as depressing as the play it tackles — King Lear — and by far the darkest of the three. Like Lear, Geoffrey is stripped of everything in the pursuit of Charles Kingman’s (the late William Hutt) Lear. Kingman is an old man, dying of cancer and shooting up heroin to alleviate the pain. He’s an abusive old man, blaming everyone else for his mistakes, while Geoffrey just roles with it and lets Kingman do whatever he has to.

When it becomes clear that Kingman will never make it through a full performance, Geoffrey has to battle Richard, who spends the season with Darren Nickles, working on an awful musical (it’s like a hybrid of Rent and The Happy Hooker) that becomes a surprise hit. The whole story ends on a bittersweet note, but the truth of the drama and the lack of over-the-top subplots put this a few notches above the second season and a few notches below the first.

You might be thinking, “Well, I don’t like theatre/Shakespeare/Canada.” Fair enough, but let me tell you this isn’t a show about theatre — this is about life. It’s shown to us through the microcosmic theatre of both the theatre world and the plays of Shakespeare, but what great work of art doesn’t try to explore the basic problems of life through the individual stories of people? If you like hilarious, smartly written dramedies, you don’t have to know a thing about Shakespeare to fall in love with Slings and Arrows.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

January 18, 2008

He Was a Quiet Man

He Was a Quiet Man has one of the most interesting premises I’ve ever seen in a movie. It takes a cubicle drone, who is unhinged because he’s so lonely he talks to his fish (who talks back, but we’ll get to that), and allows him to fall in love…which makes him more unhinged. That is the journey Christian Slater’s Bob Maconel takes. It’s Slater’s finest performance, and an exceptional calling card to declare that he’s back, and he’s capable — and yes, he should reclaim his A-list status. The movie is good, but it doesn’t quite live up to the performance.

The setup for Bob’s love story is appropriately twisted. He’s a sad sack — no friends, no respect at work, apparently no family. His neighbors only talk to him when they want him to “do something about that lawn.” His only friend is a fish, who he thinks talk to him. It’s clear he doesn’t — even the fish admits that he sees everything Bob sees and nothing else. It allows us to learn about Bob’s subconscious without torturing us with long voiceovers.

But it’s clear Bob needs a hobby; unfortunately, he has one — toiling away on fake bombs. He has a ritual of loading a gun, assigning each bullet to an obnoxious coworker, except the last one — that one’s for him, if he ever had the guts to start shooting. Then comes the day when he drops the last bullet, and as he reaches under his cubicle to pick it up…somebody else starts shooting.

When he discovers the shooter has accidentally shot his crush, Vanessa (Elisha Cuthbert), Bob Maconel the potential shooter accidentally becomes Bob Maconel the hero. He’s rewarded with a new executive job, some respect at the office, extra money — but it’s not what he want. He saved Vanessa’s life, but she’s paralyzed from the neck down. He wants her, so when she asks him to finish the job, he has no idea what to do.

What follows is a love story as twisted an uncomfortable as its setting. He Was a Quiet Man toes the line between bleak (but mostly funny) corporate satire and uncomfortable, sad-sack drama. It’s like The Office with guns. Sometimes the tonal shifts are a little jarring, but it didn’t crush my suspension of disbelief. As Vanessa makes Bob realize his biggest problem is fear rather than loneliness, and he finally gets the confidence to do something about it, it leads him down a path that is as unfortunate as it is inevitable.

Both Christian Slater and Elisha Cuthbert give impressive performances. I’ve always been a fan of Slater, but when he resorted to working with Uwe Boll I felt like all was lost. It’s good to see him play a role worthy of his talents. Cuthbert, on the other hand, is someone I’ve only seen on 24, and while she did well with the rebellious-teen stuff in the first season, “adult Kim Bauer” was not her finest work. Based on her nuanced, tragic performance here, I’ll go ahead and blame that on 24’s weak writing. William H. Macy is underused but typically awesome as the slimy head of Bob’s company, a man who once had a fling with Vanessa (his former personal assistant). A supporting cast of mostly unknowns do a solid job of rounding out a corporate environment of shallow jackasses.

The ending gets a little overly existential and weird — in fact, so existential and weird that it kind of rips off Camus’s The Stranger — but writer/director Frank A. Cappello is on the right track. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a good film. Cappello clearly has an interesting visual flair, but sometimes it’s a little too much flair. Certain sections feel a bit over-directed, with the swinging camera and quirky trick photography. It makes some scenes, like Bob and Vanessa’s awkward but hilarious karaoke experience, feel stagnant because the camera isn’t whooshing around all over the place. Even so, a director having the ability to exhibit such interesting work on what I assume is a modest budget gets points from me, even if he overdoes it.

He Was a Quiet Man has its flaws, but it’s an enjoyable experience well worth seeking out. I just wish it were getting a more publicized release so more people would get the chance to see it. Fortunately, it’s available on DVD, so you can find it for rent or purchase pretty much everywhere. Check it out.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

January 26, 2008

Chancer: Series 2

In the second series of Chancer, the writers managed the impossible. They took two of their most irritating characters — Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd) and Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) — and made them nuanced, interesting, and funny. This was a necessary change, since none of the characters from last season’s Douglas Motors storyline return, but it’s a credit to both the writers and the actors who play them that the drastic changes to these characters felt believable.

The story resumes 10 months after last season’s cliffhanger finale, with Stephen Crane (now known by his true name, Derek Love, and played as always by Clive Owen) just about to have a “good behavior” parole hearing. Of course he gets out of prison, because if he didn’t there would be no story, but there’s very little fallout from last season’s various storylines. We have a few throughlines — like the decay of Klebers Bank, and Jo Franklyn (Susannah Harker) having a new baby in tow — but mostly the story focuses on how to save Piers’ family estate.

Like the first series, Chancer continues its deft combination of high-finance con games and soap opera dramatics. It’s mostly satisfying, though the “who is the baby daddy?” storyline is obvious from the get-go, and introducing Jimmy Blake’s daughter, Anna (Louise Lombard), as a love interest for Derek Love leads to some awkward stumbles toward the end.

In fact, while I enjoyed the series overall, the last two episodes had me groaning, as they introduced Anna’s stereotypically psychopathic ex-boyfriend as a dangerous foil (and played as cartoonishly as possible by Michael Kitchen), which meant leaving the finance stories as an afterthought. I probably would have had less of a problem with this had it been a 13-episode series like the first; with only seven precious hours to tell the full story, it felt like a big cheat to toss in some lazy histrionics in the home stretch.

Despite the flaws, when combined with the first series, Chancer is one of the most entertaining British shows ever made. It’s no surprise that his performance as Stephen Crane/Derek Love brought Clive Owen fame; it’s just surprising that it took almost another decade for him to gain international recognition.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

January 13, 2008

The Wire Returns

That’s right, the best show on television has returned for its fifth and (sadly) final season. Also returning this week: Medium, which ranks at the top of the network shows in terms of quality, and USA’s Monk and Psych. Neither of these two will win any awards (well, other than Tony Shalhoub winning best actor…every single year), but they’re pretty entertaining. Hey, what happened to all the other shows?

Medium (NBC) — This show can do “realistically disturbing” like nothing else on TV. It’s rare for anyone to make images as innocuous as dancing feet, Run DMC, and a smiling kid bobbing his head to the beat into something skin-crawling and nauseating. Kudos, Medium, for giving me more nightmares than your main character.

As far as our noble band of misfits are concerned, we got at least a minor check-in with all of them: Scanlon has become Officer Friendly, Devalos has gone on vacation, Joe’s still out of work, and Allison has to call 1-800 tip lines to deliver her premonitions. I feared that, with last season’s “shit hits the fan” three-parter, the show would back itself into a My Name Is Earl-esque corner, but if this episode is any indication, that won’t happen. I don’t say any kind of “we’re getting the band back together”-type storyline in the show’s future, but I think the group can still crime solve in their new vocations.

Did anyone else get a little confused by the Sound of Music subplot? At the risk of unleashing my inner musical nerd, I have to point out that the “Going on 17” song Arielle auditioned with was…not Maria’s song. “My Favorite Things,” sung by the world’s oldest high school sophomore, is Maria’s song, so at least they got that right. Since I automatically assume executive producer Kelsey Grammer is exactly like Frasier Crane, this slip-up surprised me. Frasier would know better! Anyway…I only bring up the subplot not because of my confusion at misassigned songs, but because — what the hell was going on with that montage at the end? I hate it when TV shows try to get arty, especially when they try to get arty and I don’t know what the hell is happening (I’m looking at you, House). Feel free to e-mail me so I can take credit for it in next week’s column and not appear to be such a fool.

Oh yeah, and when did Elvin turn into a dick? That’s right, Geoffrey Owens has apparently been hanging around NBC so long since The Cosby Show ended that they’ve finally put him to work in brief cameos on this, Las Vegas, and Journeyman. He played Joe’s unemployment counselor.

Monk (USA) — I found this premiere enjoyable, especially Howie Mandel’s fun guest appearance (hey, remember when he was a moderately amusing actor-comedian?) as an overly friendly cult leader. The idea of Monk getting duped into joining a cult is a pretty good one, and although the mystery was a bit obvious (as usual, though the mystery elements improved significantly in several episodes last season), Monk is a mystery show where the mystery doesn’t matter.

It’s hard to say much more about this show than “it’s funny,” with varying degrees depending on how amusing Monk’s antics are in a given week, but I will level this minor criticism at the episode: I think they’ve gone to the “Trudy makes everything better” well a few too many times. The one thing that snaps Monk out of his obsession is Dr. Kroger reminding him of Trudy and wondering what she’d think of him — and boom, he’s all better. They’ve used the same device a several times to good effect, but it’s become too much of a crutch, which cheapens the sentiment of Monk’s undying love for Trudy.

Psych (USA) — Now that they’re finally letting Gus come into his own more, he’s revealing himself to be as insane (or more) than Shawn. Would anyone have imagined Gus as the type of guy to get trashed and marry somebody? Me neither, but they made it seem plausible thanks to that goofy flashback and the idea of Kerry Washington as a woman who makes Gus do unendingly stupid things. For Kerry Washington, who wouldn’t?

All of this supported a reasonably interesting whodunit, first casting suspicion on Washington’s character, then Shawn realizing she has no knowledge of anything — it’s all her mystery fiancé, a notorious con artist looking to swindle her wealthy family’s collection of rare and expensive wines. The episode maintained its usual hyperkinetic, ’80s-pop-culture-obsessed pace. I’m happy to see it back.

The Wire (HBO) — In a show as densely packed as this one, it’s surprising to think they can wrap the entire thing up in a satisfying way, all the while introducing new characters and (according to rumor and innuendo that I’ve picked up while trying desperately to remain spoiler free) resolving long-thought-dead storylines involving the Sobotkas and Barksdales — and doing all of this in 10 episodes instead of the usual 13. And the 10-episode order is supposedly David Simon’s idea, not HBO’s. Considering the way they’ve been promoting this show — for the first time ever, it seems — now that cash cows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City are dead, I think it’s fair to assume Simon is telling the truth. After four years of brilliant storytelling, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

So in the opener, Baltimore is grimmer than ever: it’s a year after Carcetti decision to royally fuck the police to save the schools (and his political career), and he’s both whining for more cutbacks and whining because the police department’s stats don’t look better. I used to sort of like Carcetti, and I appreciate The Wire for giving nuance and dimension to his character, because ever since last season’s finale, I’ve hated him. I probably wouldn’t hate him nearly as much if they hadn’t shown us everything leading up to his decision in last season’s finale. I wonder how his wife feels, after telling him generically that she thinks he’ll “do what’s right.” Oh well, at least we still have Norman laying it out (paraphrased): “I think when the governor threw $55 million on the table, you should’ve taken that and run… you’re just the weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city.”

As a result of these cutbacks, the police department has resorted to paying overtime and court hours with vouchers. In a final act of shitting all over the BPD, Carcetti approves shutting down Major Crimes — no more looking into Marlo Stanfield, no more investigation of the 22 bodies pulled out of row houses last season. The best Carcetti could offer was two men to stay on Clay Davis, and that’s only because he pissed off a fed offering police funding in exchange for taking the Davis case federal. My prediction? That whole thing will become a clusterfuck that will end with Davis getting off scot-free.

Oh, and Marlo’s crew is checking up on Sergei. Looks like he was serious when he said he wanted to find out more about the Greeks. I hope this is the avenue through which the Sobotkas and Barksdale are returning.

Perhaps the disgusting masterstroke of this episode was the reveal that Herc has gone from fucking up the BPD to investigating on behalf of Levy, the weasel who repped the Barksdales (and I think he reps the co-op, as well). He also reps Naresse Campbell, the City Councilwoman whose role went from “shrill adversary to Carcetti” to “horrible criminal” in this episode. This subplot was also our avenue into the new characters, the staff at the Baltimore Sun. All the promos have suggested this will be David Simon eviscerating his former stomping grounds just as he and Ed Burns destroyed the police department, city and state politics, the school system, and the docks. Granted, there’s a shitload to attack involving the media, especially a print media struggling to compete in a digital world, but for now the significance of these characters remains unclear. We had an introduction to those who appear to be key players, watched them get a juicy story, and didn’t see much else.

What did I leave out? Bubs is clean and bored as shit, apparently. Randy Wagstaff and Namond Brice are MIA (not to mention Prez and Bunny Colvin), but we saw a brief glimpse at Michael and Dukie and their ultra-depressing lifestyle. Michael seems typically sociopathic, but I’m concerned about Dukie. He looks a little suicidal. I have to say, while it’d be nice to check in on Randy, I’ll be happier if we don’t see Namond or Bunny. I like to think things are going to be okay now, for both of them, and I know if they bring them back, nothing will be okay for either of them. Ever.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

January 20, 2008

Strike Fever!

So how’s that new, “writer-less” model working out? What’s that, all the reality shows are underperforming? Including American Idol being down 11% from last year’s premiere? Wait, did you just say you’re going to start airing Dexter and USA Network shows in place of new programming? I didn’t realize cable shows didn’t have writers! How interesting. Hey, good luck editing Dexter so it’s appropriate for network TV. Are you going to put it into a 30-minute time slot, with commercials? Good thing you aren’t desperate or anything.

Medium (NBC) — We know Allison has these visions and often doesn’t know what they mean, and even oftener her subconscious substitutes friends or loved ones in place of the actual people. In this case, we see a dream of a near-dead Ariel in a flipped car, reaching for a cell phone and moaning for her mother. Meanwhile, we have Ariel dreaming of her “cool mom” in 1987 (unfortunately, the younger Allison was not played by two-time flashback-Allison and underrated actress Jessy Schram), who has an ingenious scheme to get concert tickets. Present-day Arielle also wants to go to a concert.

These visions are connected; we’re not sure how, and as the plot comes together we are somewhat dazzled by how it all goes down, tying a flashback crime to a present-day crime, and tying the subplot of teen-angst Ariel to the main plot. It’s one of the most tightly constructed episodes of this show, and yet…

We don’t know how these visions happen. Psychic energy, increased activity in areas of the brain closed off to most people, God? This episode featured more divine intervention than usual, as these visions both brought Allison and Ariel closer together while informing Arielle of the dangers of sneaking off to a concert. Yet…I have a beef with this, because that’s not usually how these visions roll. On top of which, the idea of having Allison dream certain chunks of these visions and having Ariel dream another, expecting on the two of them to put their heads together and figure it out, seems like the most inefficient possible way for these visions to work.

Maybe it falls under the category of “stranger than fiction” — perhaps the real Allison DuBois has daughters who have psychic dreams, and they have had similar experiences. I tend to think it falls under the category of “as strange as fiction.” Looking past the tight structure, every scene in this episode was dramatically compelling, from Ariel and Young Allison’s teenage foolishness to Present Allison’s humiliation in the wake of Anjelica Huston’s mildly terrifying frustration…but the inefficiency of the visions was little more than a dramatic device, as effective as it is irritating. Some speculation as to why the dreams were divvied up in this manner would have been nice; I’m not seeking clear, goofy answers — just somebody like Joe wondering.

Monk (USA) — See, this is why I’m not happy about them always dipping into the Trudy well. Yes, I enjoyed this episode; yes, I found it as amusing as any given Monk episode. At the end of the day, though, setting up Trudy as a motivating factor for Monk working as a security guard, then giving us a teensy bit of drama and suspense as he’s forced to give up her diamond bracelet in order to save their lives, just didn’t work. Solely because it’s the show’s crutch, and it’s been used so many times (up to and including last week).

Still, it had some intriguing moments — more flirtation and rock-like support from Natalie, which was interesting. Sometimes I wonder if they’re going in that direction, and then they don’t, but in this episode it seemed so overt that they must be headed in that direction. Feel free to laugh when I’m thoroughly wrong.

Beyond my annoyance with the Trudy thing, this episode also featured the most compelling and complex mystery the show has had in some time. It’s a rare episode where I’ve predicted twists, but then they zag when I think they’ll zig. I come up with some stupid-ass twists, but usually when I finish an episode I think, “Eh, my lame way’s better.” This week, however, I thought of some decent ways the story could have gone — and the writers skunked me by going in better directions every time. Well played.

Numb3rs (CBS) — This show is, officially, dead to me. I was willing to cut it some slack a few weeks ago because, even though it turned out to be both an FBI agent and a congressional candidate — violating my “if they make one more dirty cop the villain, I walk” promise — it was played so well by the regulars and guest stars Enrico Colantoni and Chris Bruno, I had no problem with it. This week, I didn’t even watch it. The TV Guide write-up said they’re on the hunt for a crooked-cop rapist, and that’s it. It’s clear the writers and producers of Numb3rs want to tackle the issue of police and political corruption (and/or be the poor-man’s The Wire), which is fine and noble, but give us a little variety. And by “variety,” I don’t mean “give us two cops and make us think one is dirty to mask the fact that the other is dirty.” Sorry, Numb3rs. I liked you better when it was about the math.

Psych (USA) — This episode worked better than usual because it took the time to integrate Corbin Bernsen (who has been underused since the series started) more fully into the story. They usually shoehorn him awkwardly into a scene or two (plus the opening flashback), but this time he had a real purpose in the story and showed he can keep up with the fevered insanity of James Roday and Dulé Hill. I do hope the wasted cameo from Brian Doyle-Murray pays off in a future episode, though.

This episode also did a pretty good job of keeping us as unconcerned as possible with the reasonably simplistic whodunit. One thing this show has over Monk, its companion, is that unless they have a pretty tight mystery, they try as hard as possible to keep us focused on the antics of Shawn and Gus (and to a lesser extent Lassiter and Jules). The mystery takes a backseat, whereas in Monk — crazy “Monk is a fish out of water” setpieces aside — focuses on the mystery a little more than it needs to.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — This new series had a special, 24-esque two-night premiere, except unlike 24, it was apparently just a two-hour pilot that they sloppily chopped into one hour. Maybe I have that wrong, but if you combine the two episodes, the first hour had a brisk pace, a lot of rapid-fire exposition, and the “series setup” (1999 Connors traveling to 2007), and then, once they had us hooked, the second hour slowed quite a bit to develop some new mythology and give us a better sense of our characters. Without the first-hour hook, I have my fears that audiences stuck around past the first commercial break.

This is a good show that has the potential to be great. It’s made by folks who clearly loved the first two Terminator movies, and they are able to capitalize on my love of these two movies with the occasional reference and shout-out, and by paying close attention to the movies’ continuity (though I did catch one glitch — the new, advanced, “Summer Glau” model Terminator was sent back two years earlier than the inferior Schwarzenegger model from Terminator 2, when that movie strongly implies that it took quite a bit of effort to nab and reprogram a Terminator. It’s also sort of bizarre that Future John Connor would send this Terminator to find 15-year-old John, then transport them 2007 so they can be “safe,” then two years later Future John Connor sends another one to protect 11-year-old John from the T-1000. Could this mean Summer Glau’s mission will ultimately fail?

Okay, enough nerding out. I have no clues on the direction of this show, though I do suspect the reason they are using Some Random Dude’s picture in place of Joe Morton’s in the Miles Dyson photos is because — he’s not really dead! This is my one prediction; he’s alive and in some sort of Cyberdyne Witness Protection Program so he can keep working on Skynet. It’s unfortunate, because Dyson seemed to really believe Sarah Connor’s history of the future, which is why he helped them destroy Cyberdyne, and actually sacrificed himself for the cause… or did he?!

Wait, didn’t I say I’d stop nerding out? Objectively, as a non-Terminator nerd, I will say that these two pilots had some fantastic stunt coordination and action sequences — much better than any other supposed “action” show currently on TV. I hope this trend continues despite the budget constraints of TV.

As I said, I also enjoyed the deepening of the Terminator mythology. We have some hints that John Connor and the Resistance have established an entire underground infrastructure, dating back at least as early as 1963, in order to “fight the future” in the past. I hope we get more involved in that concept now that we know the Enrique of 2007 has turned into la rata (gotta say, that was a disappointing character assassination — almost as Dyson’s will be, when he shows up alive and well), which pretty much severs ties with the only other “good” character we know and love from Terminator 2.

Regarding the new characters, I’m unsure of Charley’s motivation. I guess it’s hard to trust anyone when you know the Resistance has sent humans back in time for various reasons. What if the Resistance is splintered? What if there are some folks in the future who don’t believe John “I Can’t Find the Turkey” Connor is humanity’s only hope? It could be interesting to see a little non-cyborg sabotage happening. I think the FBI agent was a tad underdeveloped, though. He seemed like little more than a backstory machine this week. I’d like to see more of him, maybe enough so that I learn his name.

One last thing I enjoyed, and hope they play around with, are the brief glimmers of anachronism with the Connors. John Connor, computer expert, getting flustered because he doesn’t know what a browser history is — funny, yet believable. Even in 1999, when it was dawning on people the World Wide Web was here to stay and it could be used to sell products and services that don’t do anything, the idea of clearing the history hadn’t really caught on as a method for covering tracks. It was a nice detail, as was Sarah’s baffled (but slightly more obvious) “What’s a 9/11?”

The Wire (HBO) — “There’s a serial killer in Baltimore.” — McNulty

Jesus Christ, McNulty, when did you go insane? Oh, right: season one, episode one. Yeah, that’s right. Anyone who is thinking and/or complaining that this is out of character or that McNulty is a good guy — think of all the other unethical and illegal shit McNulty has done. Just take a few minutes to think about the fact that a functioning brain is the only thing that separates McNulty from Herc, and the way McNulty’s pounding back the Jameson, he’s trying to reduce the curve as much as possible.

Think, also, about the narrative tightness of this episode. At first, I thought the whole thing felt rushed. As we go through the episode, we witness McNulty having the mother of all bad days, all of it caused by the budgetary clusterfuck of this year’s BPD. We hear some important tidbits about how to make any old death look like a murder, and in the end, we watch McNulty put that knowledge to devious use. It’s all a little too neat. The Wire is the type of show that lays the tracks well in advance of the train, and while I know they only have 10 episodes this year, the quickened pace felt a little jarring…

And yet, as I thought about it, I slowly came to the realization that this wasn’t a one-episode builld-up. This has been coming, slowly but surely, since day one. Starting this episode, we have the addict and former prostitute spilling her guts at the NA meeting: “That bitch wants to kill me.” Sound familiar? McNulty expressed almost that exact sentiment in last season’s finale? What about him complaining that “the game’s rigged”? Words out of Bodie’s mouth, again in the finale (so quit griping that the poor guy’s death had no effect on McNulty). What about his long history of addiction, not just to alcohol and (some might argue) sex, but to the job. The ugly Jimmy has reared its head again, and with his actions in the final moments of the episode, it looks like this time maybe it will kill him — either literally or figuratively.

Ahem…moving on. Can I complain about all the hubbub regarding the suspiciously nuance-free characterizations in the Sun newsroom? I gotta say, I know Gus is supposed to be a David Simon surrogate, but the man is a dick — and I firmly believe David Simon and everyone else writing this show knows and agrees with that. He is not the knight crusading for good journalism in the face of all the evil, mustache-twirling higher-ups and incompetent, sycophantic underlings. He certainly has his heart in the right place, and he’s probably a good journalist, but good enough to justify the colossal ego, the occasional belittling of coworkers (I was actually surprised when he complimented Gutierrez last week), and the quiet seething over the increasingly corporate structure at the paper? Maybe he is, but the fact remains that Simon must recognize these qualities in himself; it can’t just be Clark Johnson seeing this in the subtext, because most of his snottiness is in the text.

Compounding this, I don’t see nearly the level of vilification in the other Sun characters that certain folks in his former newsroom do. Maybe it cuts deep because he’s taking real stories and turning them into thinly veiled fiction (something The Wire has always done, and done well) and they’re having a hard time taking criticism in such a public forum, just as I imagine the police department, drug dealers, mayor’s office, state capitol, docks, unions, and city schools (did I leave any institutions out?) had a hard time with it. The representatives of these institutions are just not quite as shrill, perhaps because they’re actually willing to acknowledge the flaws in a broken system (something the news media across the board obviously has a difficult time accepting).

We don’t have quite as many shades of gray as we usually do, but that also doesn’t make it a black and white portrayal. We haven’t gotten much screen time with these Sun reporters, and remember we barely got into Carcetti’s head until the end of the third season (and never saw his true colors until the end of the fourth). On a related note — what the hell happened to Cutty? I miss that dude.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

January 27, 2008

Breaking AWESOME

This week, we have a new entry in the Idiot Boxing line-up. Out with Numb3rs (as of last week, for those who missed it), in with AMC’s Breaking Bad. It’s a show about a high school chemistry teacher (played by Malcolm in the Middle’s Bryan Cranston) who moonlights at a car wash and still has financial problems. When a diagnosis with terminal lung cancer coincides with going on a ride-along with his DEA agent brother-in-law, he makes a decision: he’s going to start cooking crystal meth to build a nest egg for his (pregnant) wife and teenage son after he dies. He enlists the help of a former student that he sees fleeing the scene at the DEA bust, and that gets the ball rolling for an insane, hilarious, existential trip through the world of bottom-feeding Albuquerque drug dealers.

It has its problems (see below), but the pilot is enough of a creative hit for me to look forward to whatever else AMC has up its sleeve. Paired with last summer’s Mad Men, they’re rivaling FX for high-quality basic-cable programming.

Breaking Bad (AMC) — I’m not sure what to make of this show. Great premise, great cast, great location shooting in New Mexico. It’s an intensely dark comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously (Bryan Cranston’s Homer Simpson-esque screams, which he put to great use on Malcolm in the Middle, are still in full force when needed), and yet…

I have my worries about the longevity of the series. Not solely because Cranston is terminal; though his doctor predicted he wouldn’t last more than a year, it’s the nature of his disease that he could last another decade without treatment. Really, the problem is his family. His DEA agent brother-in-law, his shrew of a sister-in-law, his caring wife, his smart-ass son — these people are going to figure him out, and if any one of them does, the show is over. It’ll be a hell of a ride, but I hope the show realizes the limitations of its premise and goes out on top after a season or two — or that they have a series of aces up their sleeves that will keep this show on course even if he’s found out.

Medium (NBC) — I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated by this episode. It had a perfect setup (Allison is hired by the family of Joe’s prospective employer to find their daughter) and had a lot of nice twists — until they decided to abandon the subtlety and telegraph the ending. Maybe we were supposed to chalk it up to the goofiness of psychic dreams, but considering the way it all turned out, it made Allison appear really stupid (and not in her usual “average non-detective person” kind of way). She has a dream in which she sees the victim watching a local Phoenix newscast from the Paris hotel room in which she’s being held prisoner and doesn’t immediately put two and two together? The dioramas? The sudden clarity in that she is being held in that hotel right now and Allison is not dreaming of the honeymoon? She only pieces it together when she sees the ex-husband with a bandaged hand? Come on!

Honestly, if Allison hadn’t had a dream of the newscast, if they hadn’t drawn so much attention to the newscast — they could have come up with something subtler, maybe a little absurd, to hint at the timeframe. This had some nice writing otherwise, but that newscast bugged me.

Monk (USA) — This episode was very nearly undone by its lame red herring. I know things like this do happen, but “truth is stranger than fiction,” and strange truth shatters my suspension of disbelief. Do they expect us to believe there are only four “Julie Teegers” within 1000 miles of San Francisco, and that all four live in San Francisco, and that two of them live close enough to get their mail mixed up, and that the third just happens to be the daughter of the personal assistant of the most famous detective in the city, and that the fourth is the dead mother of a mentally disturbed man with a deep mother fixation and a profile that would match a serial killer? It had some clever notions, but I guess it disappointed me that Julie was never in any real danger. Not that it’s so great to put 16-year-old girls in danger, but they could have taken the good parts of this episode and raised the stakes a bit higher.

Fortunately, Monk is a “meaningless mystery” show, and the real joy of it is watching the characters do their thing. In that sense, this was a near-perfect episode. Traylor Howard did an exceptional job playing the panic of a mother fearing for her daughter’s life. Stottlemeyer and Disher surprised me this week by not getting pigeonholed in their usual one-dimensional roles of “angry” and “stupid” (respectively). However, they didn’t do total character 180s — the writers just stopped being lazy and made them a little more real. Disher first makes a good, competent suggestion, based on research and solid police-work; then he springs the Terminator theory on them. That’s funny, and much more interesting than having Disher be a stereotypical dumbass.

Notice I didn’t say much about Monk. This is the rare episode where his antics get into the backseat, and he becomes a useful — but not overbearing — part of the ensemble. I love Tony Shalhoub, I think he plays the character exceptionally well, but they have a great ensemble who usually get the short end of the stick because — well, when the show’s title has a character’s name, you can pretty much bet it’ll be all about him. This episode had a nicer balance, though, and showed them that it doesn’t need to be all Monk, all the time. (This isn’t a fluke, either, since last week’s episode and several from last season did a good job of using the ensemble.)

Psych (USA) — Well, the “Shawn gets cast on a telenovela” subplot was slight, even for Psych, and they labored a little too hard to build up to the barely-plausible “live show” gimmick, but this show’s always funny. It was a straightforward episode, without many interesting or unusual developments to discuss.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — Well, it looks like this show is settling into a groove that will consist of: (a) deepening the movies’ established mythology, (b) giving Sarah some sort of ethical dilemma, and (c) wacky teenage hijinks. The crazy suicide storyline was well played, but it came out of left field. I guess that’s what they want to do to make it a series, and it works (left field or not). Also, Summer Glau is hilarious in her attempts to fit in. “I’m a bitch whore,” and the makeup. Funny stuff!

Unfunny stuff: that terminator fetus thing was disgusting, but I loved the idea that these terminators are resourceful enough to seek out half-crazed scientists to do their futuristic bidding. It’s disappointing that he killed the scientist, though; they could create an intriguing layer by letting the terminators actually teach scientists how to make them, thus ensuring their eventual creation, basically undoing everything Sarah did with the cell phone salesman/Clark Kent wannabe. As a side-note, I admire that the various science references (with the probable exception of the skin-creation) are not only real but properly used. It’s surprising to see Deep Fritz referenced on a Fox show.

The Wire (HBO) — What is the deal with Chris Partlow? That’s the question that haunted me throughout this episode. Gbenga Akinnagbe, possibly in conjunction with the writers, gives us all these subtle touches — last season, when they go after Michael’s stepfather, Chris unleashes a world of pain on the man, and it’s not just for Michael’s benefit (for one thing, Michael’s not even there). No, even when Michael presents the idea to Chris and Snoop, Chris asks a few telling questions and — he knows.

Last week, Chris gave Michael an ambiguous look when Michael began questioning Marlo’s methods and authority. It might have said, “Watch yourself, or you’re next,” but I interpreted it as, “You’re thinking the same things I’m thinking, but I can’t say a word because I’m here to do a job.” He’s the muscle; they don’t pay him to think or ask questions. If he does think and ask himself the questions, he knows it’s best to keep them to himself. Besides, he always has Snoop the sociopath to help him lose his moral compass…

…but this week made me think shit will hit the fan, and Chris won’t be putting up with Marlo much longer. Another silent look — but one full of pain, guilt, and maybe even fear — into Butchie’s empty eyes, just after he shot the man. He puts on a tough front, but there’s something going on with Chris that will definitely pay off by the end of the season. I just hope Michael and/or Dukie and Bug don’t get caught in the crossfire.

Elsewhere, we had a lot of nice moments in scenes that are effectively bridgework — they continue stories set up in previous episodes, building toward a payoff in an episode down the road. It was nice to see Daniels and his ex-wife together again, even under unfortunate circumstances. I give The Wire credit for seeing this long-term arc through to its grisly conclusion. It never occurred to me, as Daniels rose through the ranks during the third and fourth seasons, that the mostly-forgotten “bad behavior” in the Eastern mentioned in the first season would come back to bite him in the ass.

This is going to underscore the artificiality of the media yet again. First, douchebag Scott makes up a fake quote from Campbell, which puts Burrell on the offensive and could end up destroying both Cedric and Marla’s careers. Then, as this story “develops,” with Burrell going public with What He Knows, do you think anybody will dig deeper and point out that there’s about 10 years and a whole assload of soul-searching between the Bad Old Eastern Days and Colonel Cedric Daniels.

Speaking of the media, we got some more development from the Sun players. Gus is still kind of a dick, but at least he’s entertaining about it. Cutbacks have forced layoffs, and in an illustration of David Simon’s exact frustrations with the print media, they let go of “deadwood” like Twigg — who can rattle off Daniels’s whole biography off the top of his head — and hang on to Scott, who makes up plausible quotes because he’s too lazy, apathetic, and angry to do the legwork. The thing I can’t figure out about Scott is, does he know he’s an incompetent tool or does he think he’s a genius? Say what you will about the portrayal of this storyline, but for every Scott, you have an Alma and a Fletcher — good reporters who have a sincere passion for the medium.

Plenty have complained that this is unsubtle and lacks the depth usually shown on The Wire, that Simon doesn’t have a clue because he left the Sun 13 years ago, but if you’ll notice, many of these complainers are print journalists. Every article I’ve read has come across as whiny and defensive, with the exception of this article from the Columbia Journalism Review. It does take a few unnecessary shots at Simon, but for the most part it’s a balanced account looking at both sides of Simon’s career in news.

I don’t see nearly so much of the grudge-holding, revenge-getting, clueless Simon in the series. Maybe I don’t know the intricacies of journalism the way Sara Libby does (sample quote, made up Scott-style: “like, omg, u can txt stuff 2 ur frenz n play newz quzizes!!!!!”), but I know the intricacies of having a job in a shitty economy at a company struggling to stay afloat because its industry has been marginalized. Who hasn’t dealt with bosses like clueless Whitting and profit-obsessed Klebanow? Oh well, I guess all is well if today’s journalists are more interested in sending stories via Facebook than understanding the significance of Woodward and Bernstein.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

January 16, 2008

Little Darlin’

The canonical explanation for this song’s existence, per the Abysmal Crucifix blog: Girth discovered an illegitimate daughter, and after making a number of horrible decisions with her that spiraled out of control, he decided to rebrand as a youth-oriented folk act singing cheery, uptempo numbers about love and caring. This song is ostensibly about a father who loves his daughter, but the creepy pedophile undercurrent is no accident. Some fun trivia: this song has a rather fast, suspiciously melodic guitar solo. At the time of recording, I was suffering from a severe tear of the triangular fibrocartilage complex of my left (picking) wrist. But I played through the pain, because I’m a real man. Even though it hurt like fucking shit after recording three tracks of the same uptempo chord progression before tackling the solo.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 9:54 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Writing, Music