March 2008 Archives
March 22, 2008
I watched and loved this show when it originally aired in the U.S. (on Oxygen), which is why I requested to review Acorn Media’s new DVD set (even though one of our other writers had already signed up). I felt a little greedy, but I wanted to share my love with the Film Monthly readership and the world at large. However, if you noticed my use of past-tense verbs, you might have realized something went horribly awry.
I have two possible explanations. Either there was something magical about the zeitgeist of summer 2006 that Suburban Shootout just fit then but started to show its age immediately…or maybe it’s the type of shock-based comic effect that only works the first time you see it. Much of the comedy in Suburban Shootout does revolve around shock value, so if that’s the case, I’d split the difference and say this is worth a rental. However, if you rent it and hate it, chances are that the first explanation is correct.
On to the nuts and bolts: Joyce Hazeldine (Amelia Bullmore) moves to the charming suburb of Little Stempington with her police-officer husband, who’s tired of the chaos of the city. Little do they know, the entire town is controlled by two rival gangs — operated by women. Joyce finds this out rather quickly, when one gang blackmails her and the other enlists her as a sort of double agent. As each episode progresses, Joyce finds herself having to embrace her inner criminal in order to outwit each of the gangs. Bullmore’s standout performance is one of the few things about the show that still shone brightly on my second viewing. As the reserved housewife thrust into absurd circumstances, her gift for facial contortions and John Cleese-esque physical comedy elevates everyone and everything around her.
While Bullmore plays one of the all-time great straight-women, her fellow cast members routinely play everything over-the-top in the face of the cartoonish stories. The effect is hit or miss, because in a show like this, it almost works better for the characters to play everything as deadly serious. The winking, in-on-the-joke performances reduce the level of suspense, which kinda doesn’t work when the writing wants us to believe Joyce really is in some sort of danger.
Nonetheless, the sharp satire (not as British-specific as you might think) and Amelia Bullmore’s sublime acting definitely make Suburban Shootout worth a rental. Just don’t blame me if you hate it.
March 23, 2008
It was reported recently (okay, not that recently, but this column isn’t exactly news of the day) that the CW has eliminated its entire comedy development department. I have mixed feelings about this move. On one hand, in the combined history of the WB, UPN, and the CW, they have produced a grand total of two funny sitcoms. The other hand? One of those two comedies, the struggling Aliens in America, debuted this year. (The other, also-struggling Everybody Hates Chris, is only in its third season.)
This development season also yielded Reaper, which returned last week (when I rambled about The Wire). It’s an hour-long dramedy, but it’s much more comedy than drama. I love the show, but is there ever any real sense of danger? Is there an epic, Buffy-and-Angel-esque love story brewing between Sam and Andi? I couldn’t tell you whether the “drama” or “comedy” development teams worked on this show, but the fact that neither Reaper nor Aliens in America has been handed an early renewal troubles me.
At first, I laughed off suggestions that they’d be canned; neither show has been on the air since November, so it seems reasonable that CW execs would wait to make a decision until they see how the shows perform. Well…they aren’t performing well, but it’s hard to define what ratings-weakling the CW considers “well enough.” Aliens and already-renewed Chris hold roughly the same viewership as they struggle in their new home on Sunday nights; Reaper manages to hold the bulk of its Smallville lead-in, and Smallville has also been renewed.
There’s reason for hope, but there’s also reason to worry. The CW may give these series a chance to grow. Then again, the network just downsized its comedy development team out of existence, without recognizing that their network airs the only three comedies worth watching. Good decisions aren’t exactly flowing in the land of America’s Next Top Pussycat Doll.
Aliens in America (The CW) — I’d like to hear from people who haven’t seen Rent: was this episode even close to funny without having any idea about the show? This episode felt like a breath of fresh air after last week’s surprisingly lackluster offering, but I have to wonder if I laughed harder because all the Rent and community-theatre jokes appealed to my inner nerd.
The subplots here worked like a well-oiled machine, furthering development of these characters and their relationships. In particular, I enjoyed the expanding relationship between Claire and crush-stricken Raja. The teen-hotline “heavy-breathing” gags were great, but the fact that they motivated Raja to call pretending to be someone else, then turning into himself, then having his lie exposed and ruining his chances… It’s like a Dawson’s Creek episode played for (intentional) laughs.
Canterbury’s Law (Fox) — Julianna Margulies returned to regular series TV (we always need that “regular series” qualifier because she’s popped up in numerous TV guest appearances and miniseries starring roles) last week, when I was rambling about The Wire. After seeing the first two episodes, I’m not sure what to think. I liked Margulies quite a lot on ER, but her performance in the pilot was strangely off-kilter. In a few scenes, she really sold herself as the “tough attorney”; in an equal number of scenes, she didn’t sell anything to anyone at any time. My assumption/hope is that the pilot was patched together with a number of reshoots (as they often are), which were perhaps too rushed for her to really nail the role.
This week’s episode solidified both the character and the performance, so it’s clear she’s gotten into the groove and she’s up to the challenge. The second episode also presents us with this idea that Canterbury’s Law will be a little more Rescue Me than House.
While House often attempts long-term story and character arcs that run for five or six episodes, they…rarely do it well. It’s an above-average medical procedural that tries (and fails) to be more. I’d be much happier with the show if it just accepted what it was. The occasional shake-up of the formula is fine, but we don’t need Chi McBride and David Morse skulking around trying to make trouble. Rescue Me, on the other hand, is perfectly content to have its characters just…sit around being themselves. They manage to incorporate a big fire sequence into nearly every episode, but it’s very much a soap opera that occasionally has fires.
If Cantebury’s Law (produced by Rescue Me’s Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, and featuring a few moonlighting Rescue Me writers) gives us the same level of character depth as Rescue Me, it could have a good run. Otherwise, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill lawyer show. But hey, at least it’s not Ally McBeal Starring a Dude (damn you, Eli Stone!).
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — I love that this show has gone in the direction of having Chris be a down-on-his-luck nerd, working his ass off to get into the cool club. He spends half the episode trying to get invited to a spin-the-bottle party, then spends the remainder of the episode trying to avoid getting his ass kicked for kissing a girl he didn’t even want to kiss. It was a funny setup executed in a way that both avoided and embraced certain clichés.
It left little time to develop its subplots. The story of Julius’s jealousy of Rochelle’s former flame barely existed. The psycho-Drew storyline was kind of funny, but kind of uncomfortable. It’s never a bad thing to see Mr. Omar get a comeuppance, but Drew’s never exhibited that kind of behavior before. While it makes sense that he’d develop cheapskate and aggressive traits from his parents, I wish there had been more build-up to the change. It might sound like I’m overthinking a sitcom, but usually the writers do the overthinking for us. They curiously dropped the ball this time.
Jericho (CBS) — The past two episodes of this show have been great. I’m really disappointed to see it get canceled. Again. I guess I can’t argue with the “too little, too late” theory, because even I was ready to give Jericho up before its ill-conceived three-month break last year. I stuck with it, and I was rewarded for my trouble, but CBS has gone and shoved it up my ass.
They’ve managed to become the top network despite not having any good shows. Wouldn’t you think they’d want to keep around one or two low-rated “cult” shows, critical darlings (okay, Jericho wasn’t exactly a darling, but even the most cynical critic has to admit it’s improved exponentially since it started) that don’t have quite as large an audience as their endless procedurals and bland sitcoms?
Look at me, CBS: as soon as Jericho bows out next week, I will no longer watch your network. Not because I’m boycotting it; because there isn’t a single thing on your channel I want to watch. That may not mean something right now, but it will when America suffers from “awful, repetitive procedural fatigue.” (It could happen.)
King of the Hill (Fox) — This is the second episode this season that has suffered from “extremely blunt satire” syndrome. Ed Begley, Jr., is always a welcome presence, but his Stephens Davies character was too much of a caricature of Oprah-approved fear-mongering “professionals.” The episode still contained a number of laugh-out-loud moments — my favorite was Peggy’s decision that everyone should walk around the house in their underwear — and a tidy resolution, but it wasn’t up to the show’s usual standard of excellence. Even so, any show that can elicit laugh-out-loud moments in its twelfth season still has a lot of gas in the tank. Hear me, Fox?
Lost (ABC) — Lost has really been on a roll this season, and Thursday’s episode was no exception. Answering more questions than usual, the bulk of the story took place in flashback, showing what’s happened to Michael since leaving the island…and why he’s back. He is, not surprisingly, Ben’s “man on the boat,” but the writers handled his journey and return more smoothly than I would have thought. Always desperate to keep his son safe above all other things, Michael’s stumbled into a downward spiral of horrible decisions. It’s also nice to see Sayid isn’t the forgiving type. (Too often on this show, characters seem to quickly forget major sources of conflict that occurred only days ago, island-time.)
Do we really have to wait a full month for the next episode? Damn you, writers’ strike!
Medium (NBC) — The two-parter spanning the past two weeks had a lot of great moments, but the resolution felt a little unsatisfying. This isn’t the first time Allison has been given clear, obvious clues in her dreams and…totally missed them, but come on, put two and two together! Journeyman’s wife and Miles Silverburg running away together, combined with him performing strange dental work on a prostitute, combined with death by fire? The whole thing fell into place right after that sequence, yet it still took Allison 40 minutes to figure out what happened, resulting in the most eventful bail hearing in the history of time.
On the bright side, her character has been established as someone who’s sort of slow on the uptake. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but at least it’s a consistent characterization. The thing I don’t understand is, after explaining her dreams to Joe, Scanlon, and Devalos…nobody puts the pieces together until Allison hears about Arielle’s Barcelona dream. It’s hard to complain when I liked the story told in the two-part episode, but that’s just a nitpick I have to mention.
Reaper (The CW) — It still has its flaws, but I love this show. Like Arrested Development, not even stunt-casting the unfunny Jamie Kennedy can hurt it. In fact, dare I admit I actually liked Jamie Kennedy as a sneering but talentless rock star who sells his soul to Satan in exchange for rock stardom? Even more than the performance and the role, I loved the idea that Sam is becoming less interested in sending escaped souls to hell and would rather emphasize on saving souls before they get there. Even more than that, I loved the idea that human nature will inevitably get in the way. If Kennedy’s hand hadn’t been eaten, he would have sold his soul to Satan without question.
This week’s episode was even better, although it left me wondering why Sam’s dad is even listed as a regular cast member. The parents made their first appearance since, like, the third episode…and now Sam is moving out, implying even less screen time for them. Still, I think moving out is the right thing for Sam, Ben, and Sock — if we ever want to see these characters get the development they deserve. The actors give these characters so much that I feel like I know them, but there’s still so much unexplored territory for all of them.
On a related note, the Sam-Andi angst still needs work, but adding Cady to the mix has made that story infinitely more interesting. I hope they keep her around for awhile now that Sam doesn’t think she’s the spawn of Satan. (I still think he’s wrong, but who knows? It’s actually funnier to have an unhinged girlfriend who’s a card-carrying human.) I also enjoyed the gay neighbors/demons and the power-sander joke. Despite its flaws, I’m loving this show again.
The Riches (FX) — The Riches has returned for a strike-shortened season, and I’m both pleased and confused with the premiere. I enjoyed most of the story involving Wayne, Hugh, and Dale — especially the partnership between Wayne and Dale that I imagine will set up the storylines for this season — but the road trip with the rest of the family, leading to the hospitalization of “Mom” under suspicion of abuse…was underwhelming, almost an afterthought, which is not the kind of story you’d want for a premiere. I guess it was illustrating that they’re total boobs without Wayne holding them together, but I kinda think that undermines what each member of the family puts on the table. Maybe the car theft cliffhanger will pay off next week, redeeming the entire thing. I hope so.
March 2, 2008
I read a great comment from somebody who clearly hasn’t seen the show, arguing that it glorifies meth cooking as a source of easy money and isn’t something that should be watched by kids. Well, the commenter got that last part right, though AMC wasn’t exactly marketing it with a cartoon Erlenmeyer flask named “Crystal” who begged small children to watch and enjoy it. I don’t think kids tuning in will be a problem. If they do, I’m pretty sure acid-softened guts falling through a ceiling every few episodes will discourage them from taking up meth-cooking as a career.
Could this episode have been more depressing? Jessica Hecht’s odd cameo from a few weeks ago comes into sharp focus here, as we learn Walt’s old girlfriend is married to a former peer and colleague. We’re introduced to what Walt could have been if he had made different choices. The show smartly played it so we don’t get a clear indication of what those choices were — we just know they were wrong, and he regrets them and hates seeing how the other half live.
Also to the show’s credit, Walt’s old college buddy — whose birthday they were celebrating — was genuinely touched by Walt’s gift of cheap old ramen noodles, more touched than the Clapton-owned Stratocaster he just tossed aside. It’s that kind of depth and unwillingness to play stereotypes that makes this show a cut above. Then it reached its tragic apex, as Walt is offered a job — a nice, high-paying job, doing what he loves. Out of pity. Because Skyler spilled the cancer beans.
We’re then treated to a possible indicator of where Walt went wrong: pride and hubris. He storms out of the party and refuses the generous financial help extended to him by the wealthy couple. Instead, while he does finally opt for treatment, Walt decides to start cooking to pay for it. What’s going to happen when he gets deep into it and can barely walk? I don’t know.
Meanwhile, Jesse hooks up with some old friends and tries to cook using Walt’s formula and methodology. He can’t do it — it’s too cloudy. And suddenly his standards are too high to smoke this slightly inferior product. He forces the friend to just keep doing it again and again, until the friend finally ditches him.
In the end: “You wanna cook?” The band’s back together, reluctantly but necessarily. It’s funny that this line comes across both triumphant and tragic. If not for The Wire raising the stakes beyond anything we’ve seen before and Lost just airing the best show its ever done (ever), I’d call this the best show on television. Right now, it’s a close third.
So the Hudson Valley Virus jumped the “blue line,” Dale bought vaccine, but the Cheyenne government wants to confiscate it? Is anyone else thinking “genocide”? I wish I could say it was something as simple as stockpiling so the “important” folks in Cheyenne have access to the vaccine, but I don’t think that’s it. They’ve already vaccinated Jennings & Rall peons, which seems awfully presumptuous considering it only recently jumped the line. That, to me, means exterminating those who rebel against the new government (like, for instance, Jericho) while blaming the Columbus government for letting the disease get out of hand. Too conspiratorial?
Elsewhere, Darcy and Hawkins are becoming malicious partners in crime (good!), Bonnie wants to take a trip to Cheyenne (bad!), Jake wants to kill Goetz (good and bad!), and the plucky blonde whose name I don’t know (okay, I looked it up, and it’s Trish) is apparently undermining Jennings & Rall. Does this mean Bonnie’s trip to Cheyenne will end well, or is hooking up with Trish a recipe for disaster?
King of the Hill (Fox) — Poor, pathetic Bill. Poor, delusional Dale. One of the great things about the running John Redcorn gag is the way everyone ends up supporting his wild conspiracy theories because it’s easier than letting him known the truth about John, Nancy, and Joseph. So when a new woman enters Bill’s life, and her daughter gets a little too friendly with Joseph, neither Bobby nor Dale are happy. However, Dale takes the initiative to do a DNA test (because the daughter looks familiar).
In Dale’s world, the aliens who kidnapped and impregnated Nancy also kidnapped and impregnated Bill’s girlfriend. Unfortunately, when Bill’s girlfriend learns John Redcorn is also in Arlen, she’s very pleased. Bill is less pleased, because he has turned into little more than a babysitter for kids he can’t stand. In typical King of the Hill fashion, the ending is happy for both Dale and Bill, but in the worst possible ways. Dale continues living his lies, and Bill is relieved to have the kids out of his hair (but not the woman). Kind of a downer.
Lost — Lost is one of those rare shows that has particular moments that just…completely blow your mind. The ending of “Walkabout,” for instance. Or “We’re gonna need the boy.” However, this is the first episode that has been a full hour and two minutes of complete, mind-blowing insanity. I hung on every second of it, absolutely loving it. Desmond has been such a wild character from the start, and his psychic premonitions last season felt a little far-fetched (even for Lost) — but if this is the payoff, it was all worth it.
Now I want to know what’s going on with Farady, perhaps the most interesting new character since Eko left this mortal coil. I don’t want to harp on the intricacies of time travel (or why this was such a well-constructed example of it), because that’d be worthy of a column by itself. All I know is, I’m both baffled and hooked and kinda want this show to go on forever.
Medium (NBC) — In the best episode of the season (so far), Allison finds herself working for shady defense attorney Larry Watt to find out whether or not a client (the underrated Bill Sadler) is guilty. The labyrinthine plot showed deft use of misdirection in Allison’s dreams, while the very setup of getting sent to Watt by Devalos, and the family’s financial situation in dire enough straits for her to accept the “job,” allowed for some great character conflict all around. Even the subplot, with Joe discovering Arielle is charging classmates for psychic readings, was solidly constructed. This more than makes up for last week’s lackluster offering. Gold star for Medium!
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — So is Cameron going to start donning wacky disguises every week? First the cop, then the ballerina — it’s actually kind of a fun element to the show, because of the impossibility of her ever assimilating. Although, to the credit of the writers, Cameron’s clear desire to understand the human condition, and trying to use dance to do so, was effectively subtle and pretty awesome. A nice twist.
Meanwhile, Dr. Silberman from the movies returns. This time, he’s played by Bruce Davison (perfectly cast) and he’s in charge of dropping the big reveal bomb: not only did Silberman start to believe in Sarah’s future after The Incident at Pescadero — Ellison believes. I have to say, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I didn’t see it coming. There’s also the craziness of Sarah Connor saving him from Silberman’s burning cabin. Their relationship dynamic has suddenly changed — for better or worse.
I had hopes this show would be good, but had no clue it’d be this good this fast.
The amazing thing about Kenard is not his youth but his anger. Granted, it’s more amazing considering his youth — but for as long as we’ve known his name, we’ve known him as a harder corner boy than thugs twice his age. His very character, coupled with his killing Omar, is just another point the writers have underscored from day one: one of the reasons for the decay of the modern city is disrespect, in all forms. In this case, disrespect for elders, for what comes before you, for legends. On the streets of West Baltimore, respect was one of the few things that kept people from just killing everyone who looked at them funny (which, you’ll note, is exactly what Marlo’s done since day one).
I also loved the way Beadie’s speech underscored Omar’s death. Nobody seemed particularly shocked or broken up about the man’s death. Maybe Renaldo will, but who knows when or if he’ll find out about it? Point is, Omar didn’t have any true family. At the end of the day, he had nothing. He was a legend in West Baltimore, and will probably remain so for a few years, but he didn’t matter. He didn’t make a difference. He just was, and then wasn’t.
Elsewhere: shit is ramping up. Templeton’s out, I’m sure, but I have this weird feeling McNulty will get off scot-free. I think his callback to Bunk’s classic line — “You’re no good for people” — is key. McNulty will be okay, while everyone around him falls. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am, because they don’t deserve it nearly as much as he does. One well-deserved comeuppance that I think we will see: Carcetti’s going to fold in on himself. There’s no way the crime rate will go down, and without the homeless to latch onto after McNulty’s bullshit explodes in their faces, his political career will stagnate.
All in all, as we head to the finale, the elements of what felt at first like a shaky, unbelievable plot have converged and reminded me why The Wire is the best show on television.
March 16, 2008
The institutional collapse of the modern American city drove Jimmy McNulty (and David Simon and Ed Burns and all the other writers) insane for five years — well, technically, more than five years. We just came in on the point where McNulty started to do something about it. To me, this has always been The Wire’s message: as the infrastructure collapses, the only way to succeed is to work the system before it works you. In the pilot, McNulty takes his complaint to a city judge who has the power McNulty lacks. In the finale, Sydnor — the quiet protégé of the Major Crimes unit, a detective who didn’t get much face time but showed marked improvement over the course of the series — takes a similar complaint to the same judge. Everything’s cyclical, and if there are more Sydnors and Carvers and fewer Hercs and Colicchios, more Danielses than Burrells, more…well, we never saw a good mayor on the show, but I guess you could say Haynes was better than Templeton, and I guess you could say the old-to-young baton passing went from Haynes to Alma and Fletcher.
I can’t articulate in words how great this show is. I’m amazed, because I’m kind of notorious for trashing HBO for glutting the airwaves with overrated crap (Sex and the City, The Sopranos) and abandoning its edgy, comedy-focused programming (The Larry Sanders Show, Mr. Show with Bob and David, both excellent series) to hype the shit out of shows that don’t deserve it. Don’t even try to tell me Sex and the City is daring or edgy in any way. Profanity, boobs, and frank sexual dialogue do not automatically make a show daring, edgy, or (in this case) funny. Sure, they can; they just don’t here. Stock sitcom plots + boobs = bad television. You need more.
Even The Wire and Deadwood — two great series that happened to hit HBO at a time when all the acclaim went to the vastly inferior The Sopranos and Six Feet Under — flew under the radar at the network know for hyping movie-quality production values and epic “It’s not TV — it’s HBO” storytelling. They didn’t get their due from their network or from audiences. Now that the backlash has caught up with HBO — for canceling the incomplete Deadwood to greenlight a mess like John from Cincinnati, spending tens of millions on a sprawling epic about Rome that’s about 5% history and 95% romance-novel histrionics, airing to ultra-depressing series about therapy back-to-back, and giving up top-notch series like Dexter and Mad Men to Showtime and AMC — it’s time to think about what The Wire means to television as an art form and television as a storytelling medium.
One reason I can’t figure out the popularity of a show like CSI (or even Sex and the City) is that if you force a person to pinpoint the primary reason they watch and enjoy a television show, week after week, it’ll come down to the characters. You want to spend time with these people, get to know them, get to understand them. How do you do that with characters who are one-dimensional and black-and-white? The Wire’s great strength is in treating its characters — even the ones we’re not supposed to like — like human beings. Everyone, on both sides of the law, is a victim of the decay surrounding them. They’re equals, and they’re given equal time, equal development, and equal humanity. Tommy Carcetti spent two seasons championing change in Baltimore before revealing himself as just another politician. Having spent that time getting to know him, it feels like a devastating betrayal to the audience — because it is. We think he really cares and wants to make a difference, but he chooses his career instead. If Gil Grissom decided to advance his career by ratting out coworkers, would it have the same effect?
The way the story unfolds is so intentionally novelistic that Simon and Burns brought in actual novelists — including George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price (whose novel Clockers was one of the main inspirations for The Wire’s storytelling style) — to craft the story. While many series have taken a somewhat “novelistic” approach, they often descend into confusing soap operatics because it’s clear the writers either haven’t planned in advance, or the real-world difficulties of producing a television series prevent the plan from coming to fruition. I couldn’t tell you if The Wire’s writers are simply better at adjusting to the practicalities — e.g., a certain story element that worked on the page doesn’t work on the screen, while something intended to be very minor reveals itself as having a great deal of potential — or if they plan so meticulously that they can plant a seed in the pilot that doesn’t sprout until the end of the third season. I honestly don’t know enough about their process; I just know, whatever the process, it worked better than anything seen on television.
It’s as if the writers followed their show’s own message, taking the medium of television and working within its trappings to say what they want to say, narratively and thematically, even if it’s not what people really want to hear. It’s bleak and cynical, but it’s not exactly wrong. I have a hard time watching police press conferences without thinking of the emphasis of statistics and “dope on the table” over good police work.
Is this an anomaly, or has it sparked a revolution? Two of TV’s best new series — Breaking Bad and Mad Men, both on AMC — show the spark of potential, but both are too new to know whether or not they’ll stick with an overarching, novelistic story or get lost in their own mythology (like Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s previous show, The X-Files). Hell, at this point, it’s hard to say whether or not Breaking Bad will even make it to a second season.
The closest network television has come to this — ignoring the “event” miniseries whose heyday has come and gone — is with ABC’s Lost. It’s had some uneven patches, but it’s reached a point where even episodes that felt like filler — like Hurley’s obsession with fixing the VW Bus last season — have come back in huge ways. Or, at least, moderately satisfying ways. Lost has, this season, returned to the high standards it set in the first season. Like The Wire, the writers having a deadline to end the story has, ironically, given them freedom. They can plan more meticulously, cast more effectively, and hope the audience reacts positively.
What does this mean? Should all series have a five-year shelf-life? Not in the ratings- and profit-driven business of television. If Law & Order and The Simpsons can continue to make money after nearly two decades on the air, the network will keep them on the air, to paraphrase Troy McClure, “until they become unprofitable.” I’m one of the biggest Simpsons fans around, and after a long (like, five years long) battle with low quality and weak episodes, it’s finally come back around to being decently funny. However, it still can’t come close to the Golden Age (seasons one through six, wall-to-wall genius unmatched by any comedy or animated series — ever).
Perhaps with shows that fit the “standalone” mold, which tend to be more popular (a consequence of America’s awesomely short attention span), can ignore the rule, but anything with a long-term storyline — something that requires audience attention for every episode — should have a cap. Five years, six years, whatever. In October, I suggested the struggling CW institute a policy of only picking up one-year “limited series” that they would only renew if the second-season story matched the quality of the first; they would commit fully to the entire season, allowing viewers to watch without fearing imminent cancellation, or even distant cancellation that would still cut a long-term storyline short. Perhaps the bigger networks could support their serialized shows — which means, among other things, advertising them — by testing the waters with a season-long story that’s fairly complete and satisfying, only moving into the more elaborate, five-year plan if it earns a renewal.
The flaw in this system comes from ever-fluctuating ratings; I contend that ratings go down when quality goes down, and quality most often goes down when writers have to stretch out a particular storyline to appease a network driven by keeping popular shows on the air long past their shelf lives — much more dangerous for a serial show than a standalone. You could cancel Law & Order tomorrow and not leave with a cliffhanger. What if ABC did that with Lost or Grey’s Anatomy? With a tighter focus and a clear ending in sight — even if it’s four or five years away — viewers would be less likely to stray.
Of course, the show also has to be good. The networks still seem to have a hard time solving that problem. Maybe they should take McNulty’s advice and work the broken system they have rather than trying — and failing — to effect real change.
March 9, 2008
As we approach finales for two stellar shows (The Wire and Breaking Bad both finish up next week), the CW sneaks in and brings back two of their best shows (Aliens in America and Everybody Hates Chris), with a third (Reaper) returning next week. They’ll fill the quality-programming void until the CW abruptly cancels them to make room for a new cycle of Pussycat Dolls.
Aliens in America (The CW) — The CW’s only good sitcoms are back for awhile, and I’m happy. Rumors started floating this week that they’d cancel Aliens in America and Reaper because they were the only two CW shows that didn’t receive an early renewal. Am I the only one thinking there’s no logic in this “imminent cancellation” rumor? Neither show has been on since, like, November, and both are scheduled to come back this month. Why wouldn’t they wait to see how they perform over the next month or two?
At any rate, this episode’s quality was typically high, though more cartoonish than usual. Justin telling the sociopathic, homicidal bully that his mother slipped into a coma so he can avoid getting killed (quite literally, we’re led to believe) was a great setup for a fairly stereotypical high school story. Even funnier was the subplot in which Franny scratches a car and leaves a note that they’ll pay for any damages. Keep in mind Gary’s unemployed, which sort of justifies his logic in going to remove the note, but turning this into a story of escalating lies just illustrates what this show does so well: taking outlandish comic ideas and pinning them down with real emotional truth. That might sound a little too deep for a sitcom, but it’s what makes this the most satisfying new comedy on television.
Breaking Bad (AMC) — Holy shit! Breaking Bad has a week before its (strike-induced?) finale, and by mirroring the pilot’s structure they managed to build a taut, insane episode. Cutting mild-mannered Walt explaining his “silent” partnership with skinhead psycho Walt walking away from unidentified carnage or mayhem. I had no idea the transition would come so quickly, but then, when I watched the pilot, I wondered how the entire season would play out over the course of 12 hours. What I’m saying is, I’m not smart.
One of the great moments on this show is Walt explaining the chemical process leading to an explosion — the quicker the reaction, the bigger the bang. A great, subtle metaphor for his transition. Another great metaphor: Walt complaining that Jesse has no real drive to make money, juxtaposed with Walt’s desperation-fueled MacGyver antics. It’s almost like Walt was a drug kingpin waiting to happen — all his pent-up anger about so many things (illustrated by the ultra-depressing birthday party a few weeks ago) and desperation for money have led him to this.
Meanwhile, Jesse has become 100% more interesting. First, his sympathy (and extreme knowledge) of Walt’s cancer, because he had an aunt who died of cancer. Then, his thorough incompetence in dealing with distributors. Of all the ironies, he’s the one not cut out to be anything more than a small-time dealer. Walt’s not only the brains of the operation — he’s the rage.
I can’t imagine pissing off the biggest distributor in town will end well for either of them, but I’m really looking forward to the season finale.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — I confess I was looking forward to some well-observed southern satire, but they win: it was a lot funnier that they never left the bus station. I think they could have found a less clichéd way of losing their money than three-card monte, but that’s a minor nitpick. The real joy was watching Chris and Julius try to get out of the jam. Also, I enjoyed Wayne Brady. He’s a very funny comedian and great in a supporting role like this, so I hope they keep bringing him back as they have Todd Bridges, Ernest Thompson, Antonio Fargas, et al.
The subplot in which Mimi discovered the book-cooking (by Goetz or somebody else?) was unusually intense — in a good way. I honestly didn’t see it ending with the death of Bonnie or the wounding of Mimi, but I’m willing to accept that yes, the show has balls, and yes, it’s going to keep up the level of surprise, intensity, and action in the hopes that maybe somebody other than me will start watching. One thing I admire about Bonnie’s death: she went out fighting, balls-to-the-wall, shotgun-in-hand. Also, I have a strong suspicion that Mimi hid her corrected ledger. In fact, if she was really smart she would have made a fake, uncooked “oops, I’ve made a huge mistake” version of the ledger hidden in plain sight. It’s a little late for something like that to save lives, but at the very least I hope it casts suspicion away from Mimi so she can figure out what’s going on in secret.
Esai Morales continues to surprise me. He plays the improbably named Beck as a brusque, tough-as-nails soldier — but he’s not cartoonishly evil. He’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation, and let’s hope Hawkins has finally convinced him that neither the Cheyenne government nor Jennings & Rall have the best intentions of the American people at heart. I’m not convinced he’ll join Jake, Hawkins, et al, but he might turn a blind eye for the time being.
King of the Hill (Fox) — Poor, easily bamboozled Hank. I have a love-hate relationship with episodes that showcase Hank’s biggest vulnerability — his misguided trust in others. I love them because it’s such a consistent part of his character, and his optimism and enthusiasm make him more lovable. I hate them because it’s really depressing to watch him get screwed all the time.
Any episode that prominently features Strickland is bad enough, but this took it to another level: since he bought his first car from local salesman Ted Hammond (voiced by Ted Danson), Hank has proudly paid sticker price. He foolishly believes that this is a real deal. I guess one flaw of the episode is the lack of explanation as to why he’d think the price written on the side of the car is a deal. If they’d tossed in a throwaway line or two about him avoiding the price increase of optional features, it would have worked pretty well.
Nonetheless, the setup served the episode well, first giving Peggy some conflict as she wonders how to handle this revelation, then leading Hank to one of the show’s oddest conclusions: while making some inflammatory flyers to put on the windshield of every car on Hammond’s lot, a teen agrees to join Hank’s fight…and blows up a few cars. Hank’s the only one seen on the security cameras, so he’s brought in for questioning and, in the end, let off the hook thanks to the generosity of Ted Hammond — reaffirming Hank’s faith in quality salesmen relationships. (Of course, Hank misses out on the ironic ending in which Hammond confesses he believes Hank is guilty but doesn’t want more bad publicity.) It’s not that this was a bad course for the story to take; it was just more bizarre and Simpsons-esque than usual.
Lost (ABC) — It would have been difficult to follow up last week’s triumph with something better, but having a Juliet-focused episode took things to a new extreme. Okay, that’s kind of mean, but I’ve never been hugely fond of Juliet as a character. Of course, this episode did very little to make me like her. One of the nice things about Lost — the flashbacks help us to understand the characters, whether we like them or not.
Since we only had minor revelations — Goodwin had a wife, she’s still alive (maybe) and in communication with Ben (so is that a confirmation of the astral projection theories?), and she doesn’t like Juliet. At all. Can you blame her? Meanwhile, Ben is obsessed with Juliet (something that has been subtly portrayed in Michael Emerson’s performance since her first appearance) and basically led Goodwin to death to keep him out of the way.
The new information on Charles Widmore and his obsession with the island was interesting, but I think the biggest piece of the puzzle was the introduction of the Tempest. It’s clearly what Ben used to cause The Purge, but I can’t help wondering what kind of power source would not only vent toxic gas — it’d vent it in such a way that it’d kill everyone on the island. Why wouldn’t Dharma have taken precautions against it? My only thought is that Ben — with Alpert’s help — rigged the power station for his nefarious use. I hope that turns out to be the case, because otherwise none of it makes much sense.
Medium (NBC) — Was I the only one who found himself really affected by the Bridgette-Joe-credit card operator subplot? I admit it was sort of hokey — right down to him being in Bangalore, which I know is becoming a cultural norm, but it still feels like a stereotype — but it really got to me, especially the resolution. I actually kind of think that’s why he had to be Indian. I would imagine if an American CSR were told to buy a lock, then he was robbed a few days later, he or she would take that as a retroactive threat and start pointing fingers at Joe. The gratitude of the rep on this show made me feel warmer and fuzzier than this show usually allows.
To balance that out, we were treated to some of the show’s most disturbing dream sequences: cannibal Gregory Itzin (the best part of 24’s stellar fifth season, here again playing a smarmy, murderous politician) dining on the flesh of a gentleman who looks like a hobo. As the dreams clarify, we discover, while imprisoned in Vietnam, Itzin’s state senator suggested the others kill a man dying of dysentery, so they could ward off starvation. (It also begs the question: if you eat a guy with dysentery, wouldn’t you get infected, too?)
As the mystery unfolded with the help of the dreams, it revealed itself to be one of Medium’s most well-crafted mysteries. The conclusion wasn’t totally obvious, and in the end they actually dove into the murky gray area of whether or not both the Vietnam murder and the contemporary murder were deserved. Well done!
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronciles — Damn, I hope this show gets renewed. My fear is that Fox expected much more from a show with a built-in audience (who among current 20-somethings didn’t grow up loving Terminator 2?), and probably expected much less from an action show. Sure, the show has plenty of action, but it also keeps the spirit of the show: weighty sci-fi involving issues of fate versus free will and good versus evil, surprising character depth and drama that comes more from the small moments than the big set-pieces.
The sequence of FBI agents repeatedly dropping into a motel swimming pool, cut to Johnny Cash singing about the Apocalypse, may be the most artistic, cinematic moment ever aired on the Fox network. They should be prouder of this series than they are The Moment of Truth, but this is the network that has unfairly canceled more high-quality shows than I can recall (off the top of my head, Undeclared, Firefly, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Arrested Development are just a few recent examples), so I guess we should say our goodbyes early.
The Wire (HBO) — Herc, you fucking moron! How many times have I said that in the past? After I thought he finally redeemed himself by handing Carver Marlo’s cell number, he fucks it all up by insisting to Levy that they used a wiretap, not a C.I. Ugh! The whole thing’s falling apart, and it’s not solely because Kima ratted McNulty and Freamon (and to a lesser extent, Sydnor) out to Daniels.
I don’t think anybody will argue too much with me when I say I haven’t been quite as emotionally affected by this series as I have in the past. The biggest emotional spikes involve McNulty’s treatment of Beadie, which is horrible, and my rage at Scott Templeton for being such a jackass. (McNulty’s not exactly off the hook, but at least I understand why he’s doing what he did — Templeton’s just an ass who wants to get ahead.) I even felt a little numb to Omar’s death. It wasn’t that I saw it coming (I didn’t) or that it wasn’t horrific and tragic to see Kenard as the trigger man. It just felt so inevitable — if it had to happen, it’s harder to get upset. The whole theme of last week’s episode was how wasted Omar’s life turned out to be. He had his code, but in the end, that was about all.
But now…that last scene hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve read some “debate” on the Internet (among both professional critics and fans) stating a belief that Michael was “pretending” not to remember because he didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment. Bullshit! The tragedy of that scene is the innocence lost. So much shit has gone down for Michael since that happy day of piss-filled balloons, ice cream, and ass kickings — he really can’t remember. Can’t remember the good times, can’t remember the fact that two short years ago he was just a kid, and now he’s hardened. Dukie remembers because he’s never been hard — that’s been the whole point of their relationship this season, and this scene was the culmination of that. And yes, it was absolutely as depressing as seeing Dukie on the corner in last season’s finale.
So I guess I was wrong in my belief that McNulty would get off scot-free while destroying the lives of everyone around him. I’m afraid to watch the finale next week. I really am.
March 30, 2008
A&E has taken to rerunning CSI: Miami during the noon hour. I don’t know how long they’ve been doing this, but needless to say I’ve just discovered it and set the TiVo to record it. I revel in its sheer stupidity and the over-the-top comedy gold of David Caruso’s satirical performance. (I have to believe he’s playing Horatio Caine with a wink and a smile or else I’d have trouble sleeping at night.) I haven’t enjoyed a show’s pure awfulness since NBC’s short-lived “CSI meets Las Vegas” disaster Medical Investigation.
Still, I have to wonder why the CSI shows are a hit. CSI: Miami is one of the worst shows currently airing, yet it consistently finishes in the top 20. Why do all three shows (and pseudo-spinoffs like Without a Trace and Cold Case) get such consistently good ratings? I could never stomach the original series because of William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger attempting to exude uncomfortable, plasticized sexuality as they solved disgusting crimes. Both came across as kinda scuzzy, and even that would have been fine if the writing acknowledged it and portrayed them as such. Unfortunately, the writing is cartoonishly simplistic in both story and character, leaving a vacuum of entertainment where quality should be.
While I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these shows, I have seen enough of a sampling of each to recognize that they’re uniformly bad, mostly for the same reasons: no character depth, predictable storylines, questionable procedure portrayed as unquestionable, and (my personal favorite) the killers breaking down and spelling out their motives as soon as the police arrest them. I can understand a person possibly doing this out of guilt. It’s called a confession, and you don’t often need expensive lab tests and a high-speed chase involving helicopters to get one. I don’t understand procedurals’ reliance on the Scooby Doo “all right, you got me — here’s why I did it” ending. Killers kill. Unless they’re very guilty or very showy, they aren’t going to rattle off a confession to the arresting officer. Besides that, many of the killers play the roles as over-the-top sociopaths, making it even more unbelievable that guilt drove them to confess (and even more predictable, because you know whodunit as soon as you see the smug sneer).
But nothing — not even binging on the junk food of CSI: Miami for the past week — could prepare me for the unadulterated badness of a CSI: New York episode entitled “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I don’t watch these shows regularly, but a good friend of mine insisted it contained moments of awe-inspiring stupidity. I had to do my critical duty by watching it. After all, it’s my job to keep track of the cultural zeitgeist and explain to people why they’re wrong.
Not much more than a commercial for the game Second Life (a game that only seems to be played on television; I’m friends with an assload of nerds, none of whom have played Second Life for more than 15 minutes), the episode begins with one of the weirdest and most entertaining sequences in television history. We see a sweaty Mac Taylor jogging past a museum at night. Inside the museum, a janitor enters a room littered with mannequins, cranks up some classy tango music, and begins dancing very sensually with one…until the head falls off. When he bends over to grab it, the janitor finds a costumed dead body.
From this body, they discover many forensic red herrings, including a tick swimming in Lyme disease and a piece of bamboo under the victim’s fingernails. They use the comically inaccurate power of Google image searching to, apparently, plug in a photo of the victim, which magically finds them photos of her Second Life avatar. (Google has created some amazing technology, but this is not one of them.) Second Life helpfully provides her real-world information, and it turns out she’s kind of a loser who spends the bulk of her time “living” a Second Life.
So Mac jacks in, and the bulk of the traditional investigation occurs within Second Life itself. This includes such bizarre feats as a hoverboard chase, a “virus” nearly infecting the lab’s computers, and, best of all, the office’s random computer nerd stepping up to a giant wall-screen to battle a bunch of Second Life avatars armed with what looks like a VCR remote from 1983.
They follow some dead-end real-world leads, including questioning a fidgety Second Life player whose pasty skin and irritable behavior suggest Lyme disease (turns out, he’s just a nerd) and a mechanic-in-real-life/shoe-salesman-in-Second Life (not a step up) who “would kill” to have an “online celebrity” like the murder victim wear his digital clothing. Eek?
This leads to the most baffling development in the episode: the apparent motive for the killing (according to the CSIs, who haven’t yet identified a legitimate suspect) was the celebrity status. See, their mythical suspect is a paid assassin who may or may not have killed a judge in the same New Jersey woods where the Lyme tick is found (the bullet matched their current victim), and somehow they discover the next target is a U.S. congressman, so the assassin must be using the celebrity status of “Venus” to get close to the congressman…
…except she just trots over to the apartment anyway, dressed like Venus for no apparent reason, and shoots him dead before he can say two words. So, a paid assassin plays Second Life long enough to familiarize herself with its “celebrities,” then kills one of these celebrities and assumes her virtual identity to get close to a congressman’s avatar — just so she can find out where he’s staying in New York? There’s no easier way to find out that information? There’s nothing else she wanted out of this whole Second Life deal? Then again, her greatest hits include “paid assassin who repeatedly uses the same gun as if nobody would investigate that” and “shooting a judge while he’s on a hunting trip.” Maybe she’s just inept.
As if that wasn’t enough, the episode ends with the Venussassin diving into a laundry chute, staring at Mac as he patrols the hallway, then slamming it shut loud enough for him to hear. Mac pulls open the laundry chute, looks in, and sees the words EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: JERRY BRUCKHEIMER inside.
I watched this entire episode in stunned silence, and when it was all over, I felt compelled question the tens of readers who enjoy this column: if you watch any of the CSI shows or know anybody who does, please, please explain why. Do people watch it out of ironic fascination, or do they think anything what appears on this show is in an honest, truthful, and insightful portrayal of police work? I keep reading things about CSI influencing and confusing juries, destroying cases, yet I can’t imagine anyone with half a brain watching these shows and taking them seriously. Please, enlighten me.
March 12, 2008
Here’s what nerds argue about:
Where’s the first act-break in Die Hard? I watched this movie today, for the first time since I was maybe 10-years-old, in my continuing effort to analyze the way movies in this genre are put together. In particular, this movie was recommended to me because it shares one common element with my action thriller: an extremely long first act. I’m not ordinarily one to follow the goofy script-guru “if [insert jargon] doesn’t happen on page [number], your story will fail” line of reasoning. For me, screenwriting is about 30% mechanics, 70% instinct. Anybody who has seen a lot of movies could write a screenplay with a rough but definable three-act structure, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. The structure may be the only thing they get right, with all the plot points and arcs hitting the right beats, because it’s been ingrained in drama since Ancient Greece.
March 7, 2008
I mentioned this offhandedly at one point, but here’s the deal: CGI has ruined special effects innovation. When it is used merely to enhance the story — as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, and also Jurassic Park (which I recently rewatched and wow, the special effects still hold up) — and populate a world with things that cannot exist in reality, I don’t have a problem with the use of CGI. Good artists manage to lend weight and texture to the objects, making them look less cartoonish than, say, Samuel L. Jackson’s death in Deep Blue Sea.
However, while there are still minor innovations in the realm of CGI, nothing compares to the insane genius of practical effects. I’ve been working on an action script rewrite, and one of the comments on the previous draft is pretty obvious: too much action. It muddles one character’s arc, which doesn’t quite ruin the script, but it doesn’t help. So lately, I’ve gone back to some of my favorite action movies to see How They Did It — mainly in terms of balancing story and character with action set-pieces.
Watching Point Break a couple of weeks ago helped. The intensity of everything in that movie, from the back-alley chase to the end, wouldn’t have much dramatic impact if we weren’t already thoroughly invested in Johnny Utah’s internal conflict. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true.
I also broke out another Cameron Classic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is one hell of a movie with a paper-thin third act (but fuck, they’re up against the T-1000 — who needs plot twists?!). Then I tossed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Each of these movies gave me separate goals to think about — they’re so tightly constructed. It’s very rare you have a drinking contest as both a point of character development and a major plot point.
After thinking about how to improve my script, I considered the insanity of these movies. Like, at the beginning of the movie, Alfred Molina is covered in tarantulas. Real tarantulas. When was the last time you’ve seen that in a movie? All I ever see are poorly rendered CGI bugs. Most people know the story of Harrison Ford and the cobra separated by a thin pane of glass. Snakes on a Plane (which used more real and/or rubber/”practical” snakes than I would have thought) aped that shot — with a cheesy, CGI snake.
Terminator 2, which did use digital effects extensively (but again, to enhance, not as a cheap catch-all) has some amazing practical effects, like using an amputee for the scene where the T-1000’s body freezes and breaks apart. Can you imagine a time and place where a man was paid millions to come up with a way to have a “liquid metal” machine freeze and break apart, and he comes up with “amputee”? Nowadays, the most innovative thing about a shot like that is actually making the frozen pieces look convincing.
I understand the reasons for the switch: these days, CGI is just cheaper and easier. But as a result, we’ve lost an element of movie magic. There’s rarely a sense of wonder in seeing something new on film. “How’d they do that?” has been replaced by “Wow, that’s pretty good CGI!” It’s disappointing.
March 26, 2008
About six months after posting the surprisingly famous R. Kelly rant, I received my first confused/misguided request for R. Kelly’s e-mail address, from someone clearly thinking I was R. Kelly, despite the decidedly anti-Kells sentiment I spewed at the time (I’ve since learned the error of my ways and have come to love and respect the man’s tortured genius). This started an echo-chamber effect that has lasted to this day, with commenters from places as distant as Cameroon and as close Louisville posting their desire to contact R. Kelly. Around October of last year, I decided I’d start pranking them all. Nobody responded to my e-mails, in which I pretended to be R. Kelly by affecting poor spelling and an awful attempt at “street” patois, except for one guy. This is his story.
March 27, 2008
Yes, I know how to spell. That’s a pun. You’ll see.
I discovered from the blog of stupidity that a screenwriting forum I no longer read (because, honestly, it got too full of people like her) has had somewhat of a debate on character arcs, prompted by a post by this guy. His take is decidedly an argument against arcs. Her take?
But that doesn’t mean authority is always wrong either, because that would be equally short sighted. So I say, if your script calls for character arcs, knock yourself out. And if it doesn’t, knock yourself out with that too.
Way to be Switzerland!
March 3, 2008
It might surprise you to learn I didn’t hate Jennifer’s Body. I didn’t like it much, either, but it manages to eschew most of Juno’s more egregious problems with its legitimate fantastical setting (as opposed to Juno’s “people are accusing us of offering an irresponsible message, so we’re calling it a fantasy” fantastical setting). It also, despite its problems, doesn’t try to forget or ignore where the story should naturally head in favor of a sloppy, forced happy ending. It’s sloppy and forced in other areas, to be sure, and its ending is unremarkable, but Jennifer’s Body knows its role and, for the most part, lives up to it.
Here’s a brief outline of the story: plain-jane Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (I am not making up that name) is 17 and institutionalized. In voiceover, she suggests that we ought to know how she ended up in the nuthouse, which flashes back to her killing her best friend, the once-beautiful Jennifer Check who has now become some sort of unknown monster. Jennifer’s mother catches Needy in the act; she’s arrested and, eventually, hauled into the nuthouse. Of note is a song — a “soaring rock anthem” — which places twice during this opening sequence — once when Needy is dragged into solitary confinement, and again during the flashback where she’s arrested.
March 24, 2008
About a month ago, Ken Levine posted a moronic critique of No Country for Old Men, written by Bob “Back to the Future” Gale. (Some of the nitpicks are reasonable, but the bulk of them are either a side effect of not paying attention or just not understanding what was happening. I don’t understand why people, especially professional writers, found the movie so difficult to follow.) This post isn’t about that.
March 29, 2008
Found this on a blog, where the author has a weekly tradition of predicting weekend box-office success:
SUPERHERO MOVIE (2960 theaters). Craig Mazin over at Artful Writer wrote and directed this, which means it’s likely to be more consistent and funnier than “Epic Movie”, “Date Movie” and that ilk. Should do pretty well. $19.3 million.