Title

Leverage is the kind of modern show that people who don’t like modern television tend to like.  It’s old-fashioned: formulaic, familiar, minimally serialized.  It’s a genre show – a weekly caper, Mission: Impossible retrofitted for an era where capitalists, not communists, are the bad guys.  Usually I hate contemporary TV shows that try to be like old TV shows.  But Leverage is special.  It’s a lot of fun.  And it kept getting better as it went along – I have to switch to the past tense now, because its cancellation was announced while I noodled with this piece.

The heroes of Leverage are a quintet of criminals who do the Robin Hood bit: they use their skills to avenge the little guys who have been wronged, usually by some legally untouchable corporate fatcat.  It’s a show about the 47% versus the 1%, and although its politics are smart and topical, it doesn’t ram them down the viewer’s throat.  The secret to Leverage is that although the plots are intricate, the show is – in a way that Mission: Impossible always resisted – totally character-driven.  The leader of the gang, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), is a former insurance investigator driven toward vengeance by the death of his son at the hands of, yes, his corrupt employer.  His team is composed of likable misfits, each with a useful set of skills: actress/grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), who has an (initially) unrequited affection for Nate; computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a fast-talking nerd; muscle man Eliot (Christian Kane), who has rage issues; and thief/pickpocket Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a blithely adorable sociopath.

Nate

Although Nate remains a moody, tormented soul, Leverage is essentially light-hearted.  A breezy, improvisational performance style shifts the show away from its angry center, and makes it more of a romp.  The actors are all winners, complementing each other in a way that reminds me of the original C.S.I. ensemble.  Their camaraderie is joyous – it’s clear that both the actors and their characters are having the time of their lives.  It’s touching to see these misfits form a makeshift family, even as the actors are shrewd enough to remind us it’s a dysfunctional one.  Kane, in particular, has a compact, subtly Southern, and very authentic sense of tightly contained violence, and yet it informs a funny kind of comic timing.  Particularly during Eliot’s banter with Hardison, whose geekiness drives him up the wall, Kane’s short-fuse is hilarious.  Riesgraf, too, never lets go of her character’s fundamental oddness.  She’s like a robot learning how to be human.

Riesgraf

When good actors get the chance to build their characters from the ground up, and stay true to them over the course of a long-running show, magic happens.  By the fourth season, some of the characters have coupled romantically in ways that are touching (and also plausible, unlike some of the “shipping” on C.S.I.).  Nate’s functional alcoholism remains a fascinatingly unresolved issue.  Just the fact that Leverage doesn’t feel the need to scold or cure him is itself impressive, but the way the other characters dance around it, how they have to find ways to deal with their concern and cover for their leader’s shortcomings without trying to fix him, adds a layer of uneasy tension.  A lot of good shows wither because the writers can’t generate realistic conflicts between the main characters – famously, Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that everyone on a 23rd century starship should get along swimmingly drove the writers of Star Trek nuts.  On Leverage, the five protagonists have needs and values that are varied and clearly demarcated, so conflicts arise organically.  While it’s impossible not to root for the bonds between these vulnerable people to last, there’s a constant awareness that they’re all fundamentally loners, that they could fall out and go their separate ways if things really went sideways.

(The brains behind the show are writers Dean Devlin, John Rogers, and Chris Downey.)

Leverage’s episode orders approached network-size – eighteen in the fourth season – and that was probably too many.  Each season had its share of filler – Leverage goes to Nashville!  Leverage goes to coal country! – and there was the occasional ambitious flop. The half-century-spanning lost-loot mystery “The Van Gogh Job” fails because guest star Danny Glover is thirty years too young to play a World War II veteran.  But the best episodes, particularly towards the end of the run, were crafted to fit the characters’ skills and vulnerabilities like a glove.  “The Cross My Heart Job” glances off Nate’s buried grief for his son; it’s guaranteed that he’ll plunge the team into a twisty spur-of-the-moment airport heist to intercept a cooler carrying a purloined heart to a dying robber baron.  “The Gold Job” explores Hardison’s resentment over being taken for granted and puts him in charge of a con for the first time; the outcome depends on whether control freak Nate will undermine or support his colleague.  “The Radio Job,” a nifty locked-room con with the unlikely setting of the U.S. Patent Office, brings back Nate’s kryptonite, his low-life petty criminal father (Tom Skerritt), and again divides the team leader’s loyalties as their gambits cross purposes.  The fourth-year finale goes a bit astray, indulging in a macabre climax that discards the team’s moral code too cavalierly.  But how can you quibble with a television hour that unites the great character actors Leon Rippy and Saul Rubinek (below) in chortling villainy?

Rippy Rubinek

Then there’s “The Office Job,” which is one of the most complex and rewarding television episodes I’ve come across during the present decade.  In it, Nate and Co. infiltrate a greeting card company, the cubicle-farm headquarters of which is also being filmed by a documentary crew.  “The Office Job” is a double parody, of both the comedy series The Office (a joke everyone will get) and the ouevre of the gloomy German filmmaker Werner Herzog (one for the cognoscenti, even though Herzog is a star of the art cinema world).  At first the Herzog spoof seems one-note – Peter Stormare’s performance is unsubtle – but once the bombastic director is drawn in as a confederate, the show has fun with his childlike enthusiasm for the con.  With regard to The Office, Leverage mocks not only its content but its form.  Just as we, along with Nate and company, realize that Stormare’s crew is recording everything, “The Office Job” switches from the expected filmic grammar to the handheld video aesthetic of a single-camera sitcom.  It’s a jarring, daring cut – one of the ballsiest edits in the history of television.

Office1

Mockumentary becomes a strange and somehow newly urgent way to frame a Leverage caper.  The gag pays off over and over again, as the crew suddenly has to grapple with the constant presence of a snooping cameraman while they carry out a con.  The show can make stylistic leaps like this because it has that bedrock of well-defined characters, all of whom reveal new aspects of themselves in response to the new stimuli.  Parker’s inability to understand metaphor, for instance, sets up funny gags in which the others’ efforts to talk in code while on camera fail completely.  The direct-address segments – in which the Leverage characters, like their counterparts on The Office, comment upon the events taking place – morph from snark into something really startling, as Nate and Sophie air some raw, nasty gripes about each other.  It’s a bracing, uneasy payoff to a simmering resentment that has festered throughout the season, and a reminder of how rarely TV shows are willing to present their popular characters in a truly unfavorable light.

Office2

Office3

Lie to Me

July 25, 2012

Lie to Me has a gimmick that’s irresistible.  Fox’s vague marketing for the show might’ve convinced you that it was either just another procedural or, worse, one of those supernatural crime-solver things, like Medium or Raines or Life on Mars.  It’s neither of those, although it does share territory with some other shows on the crowded TV-mystery map, especially Psych and The Mentalist.  The protagonists of those series are both con men who use their con-men acumen to ferret out bad guys, through a vague takes-one-to-know-one logic.  Lie to Me refines and improves that premise by laying a scientific foundation under it.  Tim Roth plays the unsubtly-named Cal Lightman, a psychologist whose specializes in exposing deception.  Lightman – who is based on a real person, Paul Ekman – has spent years studying vocal inflections and facial “microexpressions,” correlating their myriad variations and combinations to specific, concealed emotions.

On paper that might sound abstruse.  In practice it means that Lie to Me has a protagonist who can read plausibly minds.  And because this mind-reading takes place not in a fantastic context but within a modern, realistic arena – Lightman’s tony Washington, D.C. firm consults for law enforcement, big business, and government agencies – it puts an authentically new spin on a worn-out genre (or, because the Lightman Group’s activities and clientele are highly varied, several of them).  Roth is a mugging chimp who’s often hard to take, but he’s perfect as this showy truth-prober, who has to get people riled up so that he can “read” their reactions.  Roth plays up his short-man’s swagger and his Cockney accent, slouches ostentatiously to show his contempt or boredom toward dissemblers, points his finger and gets into his targets’ faces during interrogations.  Lightman is a brilliant, obstreperous genius with no time for social niceties and an entourage who follows him around stammering apologies and explanations; in this regard, Lie to Me resembles yet another show, House M.D.  Both shows are, or were, on Fox, and it’s safe to assume that Lie to Me was consciously shaped in the image of the hit medical drama.  Except that, because sick people generally merit deference and courtesy, Dr. House’s assholery can become unsympathetic.  But since Lightman interacts mainly with liars, his lack of a filter is part of the show’s puckish charm.

Lie to Me’s brilliant conceit is that, even in situations where he might more plausibly whisper his findings in someone’s ear, Lightman and his underlings – especially protegee Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), a former TSA screener with a natural shining for the trick that Lightman had to learn – pick off his subjects’ lies line by line, right to their faces.  “See that?  That’s a lie, roight there,” Lightman drawls.  The poor, outmatched chump tries again.  “Nope, another lie!” Lightman informs him.  The guy stammers something else.  “Now you’re telling the truth, but you’re flashing shame.”  And so on, until the befuddled liar crumples like a wet paper bag.

The fun Roth is obviously having is contagious, because Lie to Me offers a kind of weekly wish fulfillment scenario, not unlike Veronica Mars (teenagers who talked like hyper-smart adults) or The West Wing (a Washington filled with noble-minded intellectuals instead of careerist dolts).  Who wouldn’t want to be able to navigate every conversation while knowing exactly what the other person was thinking?  Lie to Me scores every time it comes up with a set piece that plays on this desire.  In “Teacher and Pupils,” for instance, Lightman sits in on a boardroom negotiation and saves his client a bundle by tapping his pen when he perceives that the opposing party has made his lowest offer.  Ekman’s work is apparently pseudoscience, but with his book to draw on, Lie to Me couches the idea in enough jargon and specificity to make it sound plausible.  “Fear, then.  See how your face flinched?  Directly linked to the muscles in your sphincter.”  “Head down, eyes down, blocking the eyes with the hand – shame.”  “That kind of emphatic denial, with stress on every word, is a sign of condescending deception, Doctor.”  I have no idea whether any of that comes from Ekman’s research, or if the writers are just making it up, but either way it forms a set of codes that invites belief.  Don’t we all fancy ourselves as more discerning judges of character than most?  And wish that every falsehood could be dissected so reliably?

Initially, Lie to Me, which was created by Samuel Baum, seemed to have a dark heart.  It introduced Cal Lightman as tormented – by murky Gulf War experiences, by a failed marriage, by an unconsummatable crush on his married business partner Jillian Foster (Kelli Williams), by guilt over what was eventually revealed as a horrible family tragedy.  The early episodes varied in tone, but some were bracingly grim, especially “Blinded,” which pits Lightman against a serial killer (a mesmerizing Daniel Sunjata) whose sociopathic lack of emotion makes him atypically difficult to read.  But, just as I was about to declare Lie to Me my favorite guilty pleasure of late, something unfortunate happened: Fox dumped some of the original producers (with whom Roth had clashed) and brought in Shawn Ryan to oversee the tail end of the first season and all of the second.

Ironically, it was only this move that put Lie to Me on my radar at all.  Ryan, of course, is the creator of the coruscating The Shield and the co-creator, with David Mamet, of the ambitious but turgid military drama The Unit.  Someone of Ryan’s caliber should be creating cable dramas, not dropping in as a showrunner-for-hire on some network star vehicle.  Almost as much as Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas’s ill-fated stint as a replacement showrunner for the ABC dud Big Shots, Ryan’s arrival on Lie to Me struck me as a dramatic symbol of a moment of contraction in the possibilities for contemporary quality television.

I suspect now that some of the problems with The Unit, which I had been willing to lay at the feet of CBS or the now burned-out and neo-conned Mamet, may have been the fault of Ryan, or of the writers and producers (Sharon Lee Watson, Daniel Voll, Vahan Moosekian, et. al.) he brought with him from The Unit to Lie to Me.  Several second season Lie to Me episodes could almost be unproduced scripts for The Unit, lightly reworked: “Secret Santa” and “React to Contact” are dull Afghanistan war stories which make only incidental use of Lightman’s techniques, and the somewhat more compelling “Sweet Sixteen,” with Angus MacFadyen as an IRA bomber out of Lightman’s Pentagon-consulting past, is a War on Terror apologia.  Those episodes may not revive the adolescent testosterone worship and and the tiresome hoo-ah jingoism of The Unit, exactly, but they certainly echo The Unit’s frustrating insistence on appending pat outcomes to a scenarios that initially set out in defiance of cliche.

Most television critics praised the Shawn Ryan season as an improvement; I think they were seduced by the name.  Sophomore-year Lie to Me devolved according to the infuriating and all too common pattern of a low-rated show that tosses out everything original about itself and turns familiar and nice in a forlorn effort to court more viewers.  The dark shadings were reduced.  Foster shed a deceitful husband (Tim Guinee); Lightman became less troubled scientific genius, more an action hero.  He gained the company of new characters – an ex-wife (Jennifer Beals) and teenaged daughter (Hayley McFarland), bumped up from recurring status, and an FBI minder (Mekhi Phifer, the ex-ER doctor with the hatchet-fish profile and the one-note delivery) – whose presence maneuvered the stories into banal domestic and procedural territory.  The writing grew borderline embarrassing.  Out came the supersleuth template plots that were hoary back when Joe Mannix trotted through them.  Detective stumbles into case while taking much-needed vacation?  Check (“Control Factor”).  Wanted man takes detective hostage, forces detective to prove his innocence?  Check (“Honey”).  Few shows have enjoyed so crystalline a shark-jumping moment as Lie to Me’s, which took place, for the record, not as awkward-but-hunky Lightman Group tech guy Loker (Brendan Hines) began, in “Tractor Man,” to lead a gaggle of schoolchildren in performing an earworm tune about the relative merits of white lies, but a moment later, when a beaming Dr. Foster peeked in and began mouthing along to the insipid refrain.

Lie to Me ran out of lies last year, after a shortened, Shawn Ryan-less third season.  By the end, Roth had traded intensity for mannerism and self-satisfaction.  Backed by a dreaded producer credit, Roth clowned his way through scenes like an actor who’s decided that he’s the only thing his show has to offer.  In rare cases that kind of contempt might be justified, even aesthetically fruitful – think Mandy Patinkin in the putrid Criminal Minds – but the appeal of Lie to Me lay in the lies, not in the actor.  I know that at least a few readers of this blog only enjoy modern television when it resembles the classics, and for them the retrograde second and third seasons of Lie to Me might prove palatable.  But for anyone who wants new shows to actually be new, this one was a false positive.

Sloppy Seconds

March 7, 2012

For a variety of reasons – most of which I won’t go into, but one is that work on my book has reached a stage that requires some advanced procrastination skills – I’ve been revisiting some current series that I’d originally decided to abandon after my first visit with them: the second seasons of Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife and the third season of Fringe.

When I first wrote about Fringe, I called it a “zero.”  But I’m still watching, so the show must be doing something right, right?  By now, I’d say it’s moved up to a one.  The elaborate “mythologies” that these cult occult shows are their secret weapon; they can build up interest even when the original premise, and its execution, aren’t so good.  Lost – like Fringe, an outpost in the wide J. J. Abrams fanverse – had built-in flaws in its structure and casting that it never overcame.  But it got better as it went along, because once the basics had been laboriously laid out, the writers could keep throwing in new twists on the old twists, and casting better actors than the stiffs they hired before the show was popular.

Fringe works on this level, now that it has grown from the “Pattern” of X-Files-y events into an elaborate map of multiple universes, with most of the cast having fun playing dual roles.  At the end of the third season, the show seems bent on shifting again, this time into a time travel paradox.  The more Fringe keeps moving, the better it gets.  The show’s best sections remain the cool, conceptual sci-fi gimmicks; my favorite in the third season was the spooky electric typewriter that conveyed messages between universes.  It’s a shame that the dictates of plot require the show to chew through these ideas so fast.  The enigmatic Sam Weiss (Kevin Corrigan, not one of my favorite character players, but suitably inscrutable here), a humble bowling alley owner who’s also the keeper of centuries-old knowledge, was given a patient, three-year buildup.  But then all that got thrown away in a rushed, season-ending, save-the-world climax that rattled off Sam’s secrets faster than an auctioneer’s spiel.  It’s amazing that my favorite character, corporate-executive ice queen Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), still has most of her mystique intact.  If Fringe knows what it’s doing, it’ll keep Nina in reserve and make her the key to its endgame.

Don’t get me wrong: Fringe would be much worse had it committed to stasis instead of evolution.  The series has attracted some surprisingly top-level names for a low-rated show, too,  among them screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and indie horror director Brad Anderson (Session 9).  But the influx of talent hasn’t stopped Fringe’s pilfering from older, better shows.  Just as the first season brazenly duplicated the formulas of The X-Files, the third season’s doomsday machine plotline was a lazy rewrite of the much richer Rambaldi mystery from Alias (also an Abrams creation).  Then there’s the spectral presence of Leonard Nimoy, which now seems like a serious error in judgment.  When he cameoed at the end of the first year as William Bell, an answerer of riddles ensconced in a corner of a still-standing alt-world World Trade Center, Nimoy lent great authority to a shaky freshman fantasy.  Brought back in action-hero mode for year two, Nimoy seemed ridiculous and sadly frail.  For the third season, Nimoy’s now-obligatory cameo, heralded by creaky Star Trek in-jokes, took especially bizarre form: first in a silly body-transference plot that referenced “Spock’s Brain,” complete with a truly misguided Spock impression from the series’ game star Anna Torv (usually, the only reason to keep watching this mess), and then, without explanation, as a cartoon avatar.  I’m guessing the animated sequence in “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” was an elaborate, klutzy write-around for an ailing actor – Nimoy suffers from emphysema, and announced his “retirement” from the Trekkie circuit last year – who couldn’t travel to Vancouver.  I’m as much a Spock fan as anyone, but I wish they had gotten Christopher Lee.

*

Nurse Jackie has drawn a reasonable amount of acclaim (Edie Falco won an Emmy for the first season), but it has plateaued as one of those mid-level performers that doesn’t turn up on many end-of-year best lists.  The show has yet to master that awkward half-hour dramedy format for which The Wonder Years remains the gold standard.  The comedy in Nurse Jackie often skews too broad, like the occasional pratfalls, or just forced, like the unfunny running gag with Michael Buscemi (Steve’s soundalike brother) as a man who thinks he’s God and harangues passersby from an upstairs window.  The drama, or at least the self-contained storylines involving hospital patients, feels familiar; welcome as their guest shots are, Marion Ross as an abused senior citizen and Barbara Barrie as a bitchy VIP might as well be leftover ER vignettes.  There are some fine actresses in the cast – Falco, of course, but also the grand Anna Deavere Smith as her boss and, playing a young nurse, Merritt Wever, a true eccentric who surprises me with every off-kilter line reading.  But the men, save for Falco’s Sopranos castmate Paul Schulze as a mopey pharmacist who can’t get past his affair with Jackie, are forgettable.

There are two things that Nurse Jackie does well.  The first is an oft-used (really, overused) story template in which Jackie, a seen-it-all ER nurse, marshals her indignation and charges into the bureacracy on behalf of some patient who would get lost in or turned away by the system without the benefit of her experience.  In one episode, for instance, she lays it out for the loving wife of a brain-damaged football star that the only way to avoid bankruptcy in paying for his care is to divorce him.  It’s a fairly cheap wish-fulfillment fantasy – the medical professional as masked avenger – but one that can’t help but resonate in the pre-Affordable Care Act era, where those of us who can’t afford the health care we need don’t have many advocates above the pay grade of ER nurse.

The other thing Nurse Jackie does that I haven’t seen before is present a kind of no-nonsense, non-judgmental idea of addiction.  The series is free of the kind of moralizing or melodrama that have dominated the alkie/druggie genre since The Lost Weekend.  That’s not to say that Nurse Jackie is making even a covert argument on behalf of drugs.  It isn’t, but it also has too much integrity to condemn the choices made by its heroine, even though almost all of them are self-destructive.  The show avoids those cliched scenes in which an addict endangers or embarrasses herself with out-of-control behavior.  The painkillers on which she is dependent don’t make Jackie any less of a skilled or even heroic caregiver; there are, Nurse Jackie reminds us, many functional addicts walking among us.  When the show does dramatize the consequences of addiction, it’s in ways that are fresh.  When Jackie opens a statement from the secret bank account she uses to make purchases at a half-dozen pharmacies, Falco’s eyes widen in silent terror; Jackie knows she can’t sustain that kind of spending forever.  The second season ends with an inevitable intervention that I had been dreading.  But there was an unexpected epilogue to that scene, an exquisitely liberating burst of secret profanity from a defiant Jackie.  It gave me some hope that the third season (which has already been broadcast and released on disc, so some of you know the answer to this) will avoid the schoolmarmish recovery/redemption tack taken by, say, John Carter’s (Noah Wyle) pill-popping doc on that other show, the shadow of which Nurse Jackie will never outrun.

*

When The Good Wife premiered two seasons ago, I called it The Mediocre Wife.  It scanned like a kitchen sink filled with ideas from half a dozen different shows: courtroom theatrics, office politics, marital conflict, political scandals and conspiracies, even teen melodrama.  Some of these elements were uncertain or derivative, and most played out with the lassitude and predictability of all the procedurals on The Good Wife’s mismatched network, CBS.  The political stuff was pointless after The Wire, and the legal maneuvering and interoffice backbiting couldn’t compare to the pre-burnout writing of David E. Kelley on The Practice and Ally McBeal.  (Even Kelley’s signature contribution to the genre – the wacky judge! – is recycled regularly in The Good Wife, most memorably in the form of the sanctimonious liberal idiot played by Denis O’Hare.)  I’m not sure what changed to make The Good Wife so much more compelling in its second year – it’s now my favorite non-cable drama – but it’s worth noting that The Good Wife’s husband-and-wife showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, wrote or co-wrote twice as many teleplays in the second season as they did during the first.  Often the creators of a hit show dash off to make more deals and write more pilots, but in this case the credits read as if the Kings stayed around to help their creation reach its full potential.

At the center of The Good Wife are Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a homemaker who revives her law career after a long hiatus because her husband, Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) has just been jailed on a corruption rap and their family suddenly needs income.  The only job she can get is as a junior associate working for her old law school flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who’s still nursing a crush.  None of this was terribly promising at first glance.  Noth is one of those stolid TV actors without much personality and Margulies, while technically proficient, projects a standoffish, judgmental quality.  Cast as a victim of infidelity (Alicia’s husband was banging hookers, too), Margulies immediately takes the character into martyr territory.  I still have problems with Margulies, but Noth wakes up a bit in the second season, turning the character into a short-tempered asshole, his eyes flicking impatiently at the other characters.  As television’s Harrison Ford, he’s found himself.

Archie Panjabi, who won a freshman-year Emmy as the law firm’s cold-eyed, manipulative private investigator, also struck me as stiff and, with her tiny frame and poorly suppressed British accent, wildly miscast.  But the second season had a smart idea: it gave Kalinda an unscrupulous but hunky rival eye (Scott Porter).  The competition that took root between them allowed Panjabi to delineate Kalinda’s edgy self-contempt, and her capacity for danger, in ways that were startling, compassionate, and at long last plausible.  The producers also fixed the political arc by sidelining Noth in favor of the lively Alan Cumming, added to the cast as Peter’s brilliant but ethically slippery campaign manager, and reworked the unsustainable contest between Alicia and her weaselly junior-associate rival Cary (Matt Czuchry) by moving Cary to the state’s attorney’s staff.  I thought that switch would slide The Good Wife into another lawyer-show cliché, with Cary turning into a Hamilton Burger figure, a hateable weekly rival for Alicia and company.  But in practice, Cary became an unpredictable agent of shifting loyalties, and a self-hating villain: Czuchry, with his slow pothead smirk, hit his stride playing the character against type, as a young man whose ambition often overcomes a basic decency.  (It’s probably no accident that Cary’s last name, Agos, sounds like Iago.)  These transformations are relatively minor – a rearrangement of the chess pieces rather than an arm sweeping across the board – but collectively they are shrewd enough to have turned a tedious show into a gripping one.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a great “bottle show” – an episode of a usually sprawling series that confines itself spatially and temporally – but The Good Wife pulled off a remarkable one with “VIP Treatment,” in which the Lockhart-Gardner lawyers have only a few hours to decide for themselves whether to believe the story of a masseuse (a terrific Natalie Knepp) who claims she was sexually assaulted by a Nobel Prize winner.  Another nail-biting race-the-clock episode, “Nine Hours,” manages to find a new vein in the most mined-out of legal cliches, the last-minute death-penalty appeal.  (An anonymous law clerk offers only the slightest hint that the appellate brief lacks an argument that will sway one of the judges, and Alicia must somehow figure out which judge and what argument without exposing the clerk’s breach of protocol.)  Nearly every episode has some clever, authentic-feeling wrinkle like that.  Taking its cue from early David E. Kelley, The Good Wife finds its best stories in arcane aspects of the law that strike us laymen as novel or counterintuitive.

If there’s anything that puts The Good Wife within the range of greatness, it’s the way in which the Kings have developed the Alicia-Will-Peter love triangle.  This arc seemed to hit an irrevocable climax at the end of the first season, when Will professed his love for Alicia via voicemail.  But the writers managed to defer a resolution for an entire year, and did so without making the viewer (this one, at least) feel cheated or short-changed.  One of the narrative tricks used to push this simmering storyline along – the deletion of the message by another character in the second season opener – was clever, but another – Alicia’s discovery of the lost text in a way that prevented her from doing anything about it – was one of the most ingenious plot twists I’ve ever encountered on television.  Neatly, as it returns at last to the Will-Alicia romance, the second season ends where we had expected it to begin.  I hope The Good Wife, in the third season that’s in progress now, hasn’t ducked this storyline again; the second time, it would feel like a cheat.  But then again, that may not matter, because in the last few second-year episodes The Good Wife detonated a bomb in the friendship between Alicia and Kalinda, one that daringly “ret-conned” much of the first and second seasons, and set up the third as an unmissable event.

Top: Parking garage, cell phone, baseball bat – the stuff of The Good Wife.

Notes on Southland

January 31, 2012

The low-rated ensemble police drama Southland became a cause célèbre a few years ago, when it got canceled by an impatient NBC and then unexpectedly rescued by TNT (a basic cable station that typically wouldn’t shell out for such an expensive undertaking).  I have rooted for it too, but its underdog victory isn’t reason enough to declare Southland the new standard-bearer for quality television.

Southland was created by Ann Biderman, a screenwriter (Primal Fear) who worked briefly on NYPD Blue, but it is produced under the umbrella of TV mogul John Wells.  Southland bears a closer resemblance to bustling Wellsian professional dramas like ER and Third Watch than to squadroom ensembles like Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue.  Many of the creative staff are veterans of one or both of the Wells shows: writers Dee Johnson and Angela Amato Velez, directors Christopher Chulack, Nelson McCormick, and Felix Alcala; actress Lisa Vidal; costume designer Lyn Paolo; and so on.

(Southland also carries some of the DNA of Adam-12 and Dragnet.  A storyline in “Two Gangs,” in which two squad-car partners spend their shift answering trivial “garbage calls,” plays exactly like one of the more quotidian Friday-Gannon episodes.  Like the Jack Webb shows, Southland is resolutely pro-police.  Its LAPD contains flawed cops – such as the spectacularly alcoholic Dewey, played with gusto by C. Thomas Howell – but no corrupt ones.  Positioned on the cultural timeline after Bad Lieutenant, James Ellroy, The Wire, and Training Day, not to mention the pepper-spraying thug brigades that assaulted those unresisting OWS protesters last year, Southland comes across as somewhat naïve.)

Biderman is the showrunner, but ironically Southland’s chief holdover from NYPD Blue is not in the writing; it’s the formal device of the handheld camera, which was novel in 1993 and has become, twenty years later, one of television’s most punishing clichés.  Speaking of clichés: Southland turns the shakycam up to eleven.  It sounds ridiculous, but Southland actually reminds me a little of late Godard (from Eloge de l’amour on), in that many of the important beats seem to take place just outside the frame or in between cuts.  Most shows that use shakycam these days are just mindlessly following the fad, but Southland is arty.  Look at the shot in “Westside” where Regina King lurks totally out of focus in the background for three or four seconds, an eternity in television time, before walking forward into a woozy close-up.  The immediacy, the lurching urgency, of handheld works fine in action sequences, like the exciting car and foot pursuit that concludes “Westside.”  But Southland never anchors the camera, and in the intimate scenes all that unnecessary, exhausting motion becomes a daunting barrier between the actors and the audience.

The other key problem is one of length: Southland is fifty minutes of show in a forty-one minute bag.  It also tops out at ten episodes per season instead of the twenty-two (or more) that a successful network show would get.  Wells and company haven’t scaled their ambitions to match; they’ve crammed Southland with more characters and story than they can service in the time allotted.  The result is that most of the many people who fill the world of Southland remain poorly defined even after several seasons, and instead of fixing the problem, the producers have resorted to writing out some good actors and starting over again with new faces (Lucy Liu, seriously?) who may not exactly be an improvement.  I’m thirteen episodes in, and still trying to figure out what the hell is the problem between emotional detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and his flaky wife (Emily Bergl), or what kind of cop Bryant is supposed to be; or why the aloof detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) acts so sullen and passive around his protective partner (King).  Too late now: Scott was gone before season three, and while Russell’s exeunt had some shadings I hadn’t seen in a cop show before, it didn’t matter much, because there was no character there in the first place.  In its subject matter and its keen eye for the look and feel of Los Angeles, Southland resembles Boomtown, a fine metropolitan drama that didn’t find a cable savior to save it from a premature death, also at NBC’s hands, a decade ago.  Boomtown struggled with its sprawl too – it also axed some good characters too soon – but I wish Southland would emulate the earlier show’s habit of zeroing in on a single figure for a whole episode, whenever that character’s storyline came to a head.

The three characters that do work on Southland are all iterations of familiar cop show archetypes.  The actors who play them are terrific, but the archetypes give them a big advantage over the rest of the cast, a head start in connecting with the audience on a show where everyone is vying desperately for screen time.  Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) is the first-day rookie.  John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) is his asshole training officer, a Sipowiczian saint whose crosses to bear include a painkiller addiction and closeted homosexuality.  Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis) is the outnumbered female beat cop, who’s alternately resigned to and resentful of her colleagues’ casual sexism.

Maybe Southland should have dumped everyone else and focused on this trio, or just on Ben Sherman.  ER, if only by virtue of cast attrition, took shape as a bildungsroman that followed John Carter (Noah Wyle), a med student in the pilot and a seasoned doctor by the end, on a journey to the moral heart of the show.  Sherman is a comparable figure on Southland (with Cooper analogous to Anthony Edwards’s unflappable Mark Greene, and Chickie the equivalent of Julianna Margulies’s Carol Hathaway).  McKenzie, who played the two-fisted street kid adopted into the wealthy candyland of The O.C., has a wonderfully open quality, similar to Wyle’s.  He’s always engaged in his environment, loose, unpredictable, wide-eyed but sharp.  McKenzie is a natural star, a performer built to the intimate scale of television, like David Janssen or David Morse.  But he’s wasted on Southland, a show with no stars in its universe.

The Summer Man

June 14, 2011

The fourth season of Mad Men was the series’ finest thus far.  The narrative strands that took the show into areas of tonal inconsistency – Peggy’s surprise pregnancy; Don’s Carnivale-worthy childhood flashbacks – have been erased or smoothed over.  Mad Men now has a roster of rich, fully-developed characters upon which the writers and actors can riff with confidence and take in a thousand different directions.  Of the television series I’ve seen, only a tiny handful have lasted long enough and stayed good enough to enter this zone: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Peyton Place, maybe St. Elsewhere, middle-period ER, The Sopranos, maybe The Shield, the American The Office, The Wire.  Perhaps I’m just rationalizing personal taste, but Mad Men further commits me to the theory that for television the serial drama is the apotheosis of the art form.

I could go on like that.  But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m just going to focus on some (but by no means all) of Mad Men’s connections to actual sixties television.  As we saw in Season 2, Harry Crane’s (Rich Sommer) promotion to head of the (one-man) television department meant that the fictional admen of Sterling Cooper would interact with the real-life TV biz of the mid-sixties.  Though it offered nothing as elaborate as a whole episode wrapped around The Defenders, Season 4 was peppered with vintage TV references.

  • In the season opener, “Public Relations,” Harry sells a jai alai special to ABC, which he says is now interested in telecasting unusual sporting events.  He doesn’t mention the name, but it’s clearly a reference to the network’s Wide World of Sports, which had become popular by doing exactly that during the early sixties.  Incidentally, that jai alai fad that Mad Men has chortled over several times was no joke.  I’d never heard of the sport until I came across a 1963 Route 66 episode (“Peace, Pity, Pardon”) about a Cuban jai alai team.
  • In “The Good News,” Harry hears that Don will have a twenty-four hour layover in Los Angeles and asks him to have lunch with “Bill Asher at the Brown Derby.”  Asher created Bewitched and therefore a lot of Mad Men bloggers caught this one, because that show’s Darrin Stephens was a Madison Avenue ad man (something I’d forgotten, I confess).  But when Harry grumbled that Asher would probably cast Don in something, I thought maybe it was a jab at Don’s looks and that he might have been thinking of the beach party movies that Asher was directing for AIP in 1964-1965.  I would have said that Bewitched in-jokes were too cheap for Mad Men, until I got to the episode (“Hands and Knees”) in which Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was thumbing desperately through his rolodex and calling former clients.  He reaches someone named Louise, who tells him that her husband Larry has passed away.  I surrender: Larry Tate was Darrin’s boss on Bewitched, and his wife was named Louise.
  • In “The Summer Man,” Harry (sitting next to his autographed photo of Buddy Ebsen in full Beverly Hillbillies attire; hyuk!) tries to talk freelancer Joey Baird (Matt Long) into auditioning for Peyton Place.  He says that one of “Ryan’s” (Ryan O’Neal) “rivals” has been giving an embarrassing performance, and that there could be an opening.  “Can’t tell you who,” insufferable star-fucker Harry says, so we can only speculate on which actor Joey might have replaced.  I doubt very much that Matthew Weiner et. al. went to the trouble of quizzing surviving cast and crew but, in fact, there were several disappointing second leads on Peyton Place around that time who might have been written out of the show sooner than planned.  Richard Evans, who played Paul Hanley (Allison’s unintentionally creepy college-age suitor), and Don Quine, who played Gus Chernak (a hoodlum who died after Rodney, O’Neal’s character, beat him up), come to mind.  That’s only the most prominent of several Peyton Place references in Season 4, which takes place right at the height of Peyton’s huge popularity.
  • Incidentally, Harry reveals that he sent Joey’s Polaroid from the office Christmas party (depicted in “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”) to Bernie Kowalski in Hollywood.  Bernard L. Kowalski was a real person – he collaborated with Sam Peckinpah at Four Star and directed the Mission: Impossible pilot around the time of this season’s events – but as far as I know he had nothing to do with Peyton Place.  Just me, but I don’t think Joey would’ve been so hot as Mr. Briggs.
  • In “The Beautiful Girls,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) watches The Patty Duke Show; and in “Chinese Wall,” Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) watches Hazel.  I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that either character would be a fan of those particular series.  But, hey, in 1965, there weren’t a whole lot of choices when you turned on the TV.

 

 

The Last Day

May 19, 2011

The surprising thing about the final cycle of 24 is just how low-key it was.  Evidently no one felt a need to top what had come before.

Given the vastness of the global and personal carnage wrought over the preceding seven seasons, maybe they figured it couldn’t be done.  Season Eight doled out the expected 24 cliches as generously as Jack Bauer gives hugs.  No First Family conspiracies, no jeopardy subplot for danger-magnet daughter Kim, no nuclear detonations, no jumper cable-powered torture sessions, no ACLU straw-men to absorb the writers’ japes at civil rights absolutism, no sunbaked San Fernando Valley chase scenes (the locale shifted to New York), no cameos by fan faves Jude Ciccolella (the scheming Palmer-era kingmaker) or Glenn Morshower (the loyal secret service agent), a suspiciously paltry body count (did the actors wise up and demand run-of-show contracts?), only one measly CTU mole (albeit a pretty good one), and the most meager roster yet of slumming A-list character actors phoning in perfs as escalating “Big Bads.”

(The biggest name this season was Jurgen Prochnow, who’s starting to resemble the late Jackie Cooper.)

I don’t know how it played for week-to-week viewers, but in multiple-episode marathons Season Eight became less of a roller-coaster thrill ride than a documentary on the mundane work of government operatives.  Not totally routinized in its final cool-down lap, 24 by 2012 might yet have mimicked a Frederick Wiseman vision of intelligence agency operations: one thousand minutes of bored operatives parked in cubicles, running the world on their glowing LCD screens.

The politics of 24 – its xenophobia, its torturephilia – have already been hashed out ad nauseum.  After a couple of years of left-baiting, so-what-if-we-are-terrormongers storylines, Season Eight was content to sidestep anything inflammatory.  Except that it revived, more idiotically than ever, an underremarked failure of earlier seasons – a retrograde fetish for cross-racial casting.  The ghost of Vito Scotti (you know, the Italian-American who played buck-toothed Japanese kamikazes on Gilligan’s Island) has visited 24 before.  In Season Four, familiar Latino character actors Tony Plana and Nestor Serrano mingled with actual Middle Easterners (including Emmy-nominated discovery Shohreh Aghdashloo, from Iran) as members of a Muslim terrorist cell.

For Season Eight, the writers invented an fictitious-but-clearly-meant-to-be-Iran Middle Eastern country and cast as its president the Indian actor Anil Kapoor (a Bollywood star who played the TV host in Slumdog Millionaire).  The president’s family comprises a wife (Iranian-American Necar Zadegan), a daughter (Nazneen Contractor, a Canadian of Indian descent), and a brother (Akbar Kurtha, Indian); their associates are played by Mido Hamada (German-Egyptian) and T.J. Ramini (a half-Palestinian, half-caucasian Englishman).  I’m not suggesting that passport-checks should be required in Hollywood casting sessions, but none of these actors sound or look as if they hail from the same region, much less the same family.  The weirdest part is that Zadegan and Contractor, playing mother and daughter, are roughly the same age.  Are their looks supposed to be so “exotic” that we won’t notice?

Contractor (left) and Zadegan (right): Mother and daughter?

These days I sense that casting directors have a mandate for ethnic accuracy, both for the sake of creative credibility and because it means work for deserving non-white actors who might not have a whole lot of parts being written for them.  Maybe the producers of 24 are behind this curve just because they’re lazy.  But since strident us-vs-them rhetoric is so much a part of its DNA, 24 raises the suspicion that embodying the “them” in an ethnically imprecise or inaccurate form is a conscious political low-blow.  In other words, the jumble of accents and skin hues deliberately renders this phony Muslim nation (the “Islamic Republic of Kamistan,” or IRK, an acronym that turns any scene with a TV news crawl into a Mad Magazine panel) as an “other” as non-specific and cartoonized as Bush’s very 24-worthy axis of evil.

Or not: At one point Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, whose Canadian accent still pokes through at times; may we see Jack’s birth certificate?) passes himself off as a German arms buyer, an impersonation so threadbare that awkward expressions of skepticism and rebuttal are required.  Then there are the Russian co-conspirators, played by a German (Prochnow), a Canadian (Callum Keith Rennie), and an American (Doug Hutchison), all of whom attempt accents that are not at all credible.  Hutchison, in fact, makes such a laughably unconvincing Russian that I wonder if he prepared for the role by studying Harrison Ford’s performance in K-19.  This season lists a dialect coach near the end of the credit roll, and the poor fellow (Joel Goldes) had the hardest job of anyone.

In a bizarre turn, 24 almost becomes good in its final six or seven episodes, as it shaves off extraneous characters and returns to its original structure of a parallel focus on a head of state and his (now her) chief enforcer.  The show achieves what it never quite pulled off during the first two seasons: a compelling crisis of conscience for a “good” president dragged into the muck of realpolitik.  The writing is as generic as it has always been – assassination! conspiracy! betrayal!  split-screen video conference call! – but the wily stage star Cherry Jones somehow inflects it with Shakespearean weight.  The story arc compresses what would be months’ worth of real-world reversals into a few real-time TV hours, as President Taylor tumbles into a rabbit-hole of ethical compromises to save a tattered peace accord, until by the end she’s ready to order Bauer’s execution (the ultimate evil in the 24 world).

(As an aside, the cock-eyed casting I questioned earlier pays dividends here.  Zadegan, as the crypto-Iranian first lady, escalates to a major player in this arc, and holds her own against Jones in key scenes; she will be an important actress.)

Double standards for (coded) liberals and conservatives: Even as they plunge their holier-than-thou president into ethical ignominy, the writers of 24 permit Jack Bauer to have his moral cake and eat it too.  Jack insists that he’s after “justice, not revenge,” convincing no one, but guess what: they’re the same thing.  Forced to make massive sacrifices for the cause in previous seasons – his wife, his freedom – Bauer in Season Eight finds the greater good aligning propitiously with his own personal vendetta.  “You people are so stupid.  Why don’t you just leave us alone?” Jack whines as he eviscerates his girlfriend’s murderer, in a scene of hard R-worthy torture that somehow surpasses in repugnance every earlier Bauerian excursion into violence.  Once canonized as a self-loathing arbiter of brutality, Bauer now tortures out of self-pity.  Groping towards a different cliff-dive of conservatism, end-stage 24 positions Bauer as a Howard Roark figure, petulantly blowing up a government that has failed to meet his exacting standards.  In a season of ineffectual villainy, 24 posits Jack as the final villain.  After Roark, Jack is rendered as Raymond Shaw, tragic/pathetic assassin of The Manchurian Candidate; the series stages its last climax with cheap allusions to the John Frankenheimer film.

Even as it feints further than before in the direction of depicting Jack as a deranged avenger, 24’s final season still won’t commit to a position on whether Bauer’s methods (and by extension those of our “war on terror”) are justified.  (Compare that to the endgame of The Shield, which makes it absolutely impossible to condone the choices of its seductive anti-hero Vic Mackey.)  Now the hemming and hawing about whether Jack has gone over the edge is provided not by liberal wimps but by his own Girl Friday Chloe (the marvelous Mary-Lynn Rajskub) and an operative (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) who is conspicuously the just-takes-orders type that Jack used to be.  There’s also a sequence in which Jack shoots a defenseless and relatively sympathetic villain (the aforementioned CTU mole) in cold blood, and I commend the producers for not introducing any kind of hedge that allows us to justify this execution as lawful, or heroic.

But in the final hour 24 contrives artfully to right Bauer’s moral compass and reinstate his holy martyr status, and in the meantime I was bemused (or amused) by just how entitled the late-model Bauer has become.  Once a humble soldier serving at the pleasure of the president, Bauer now invokes his personal privilege left and right.  Count the times now that Jack threatens to supersede some bureaucrat’s authority by going directly to the president, like a third-grade hall monitor taking names for the teacher.  Tired of playing competence and then nobility, Sutherland shifts to impatience: by this point Jack knows he’s superhuman, and he can barely control himself around all these fucking mortals who don’t get it.  The writers and Sutherland seem to be only partially in control of Jack’s shift from righteous badass to malevolent asshole.  The moral crux of 24 is the shocking moment in which Jack chokes his best friend (Chloe) into unconsciousness.  There’s no crossing back over that line, but I’m pretty sure – since there’s an expository backflip later on about how that act of betrayal was really for Chloe’s own good – that the show doesn’t grasp that.

When I wrote about 24 two years ago, I thought its politics were purely opportunistic and that cultural critics who tried to parse them were on a fool’s errand.  Now I guess I’ve taken the bait and engaged with 24 on its own terms, at least to a point.  The show remains ideologically incoherent (and indefensible), but perhaps incoherent and indefensible on the same level as those mid-period John Ford westerns that cheerlead simultaneously for individualism (the loner anti-hero) and institutional authority (the tradition of the cavalry).  The minds behind 24 share Ford’s knee-jerk scorn for pacifism: in the final moments their Madame President renounces a peace treaty in so confrontational a gesture that a Season Nine might have been set after the apocalypse.  (Mad Jack!)  Even though it’s altogether dumb compared to The West Wing or The Wire, 24 will probably retain its zeitgeist status in the history books.  Distorted, confused, insane, it reflects who we were during the era between September 11 and the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Its repugnance is its legacy.

Infringement

October 15, 2010

It’s that time of year again.  Time to max out the DVD recorder with the new fall shows, and then try frantically to sample all of them before (a) nobody’s talking about them any more, and therefore everyone will care even less about what I think of them than they might have a short time earlier, and (b) the DVD recorder fills up.

But not this year.  This year I’m celebrating the new fall season by canceling my cable.

I’ll catch up with the season’s survivors on DVD, and as for the ever narrower roster of shows that flop so ignominiously that they don’t net a home video release … well, c’est la guerre.  It’s only mid-October and so far there are three goners – Lone Star, My Generation, and Outlaw – that will probably never resurface outside the private libraries of obsessive collectors.

It’s not that I think new television is bad and old television is good and you should all get off my lawn now.  As I think I’ve said before, I had always planned to fudge the definition of “classic” and write about modern television on this blog, too.  I’ve done that once or twice, but the networks foiled my plans somewhat by taking a bit of a dip creatively just I was planning to start reporting here on the new fall seasons.  Other than Mad Men, I haven’t seen many new series that are as energetic and intelligent as some of the shows that bowed out around the time this blog debuted in 2007: The Wire, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, The Shield.  Since the very beginning, the relative density of good television has been cyclical – and I think that right now we’re in the middle of one of the dry spells.

Also, I’m kind of busy these days, with (among other things) some projects that will be noted here in the coming months.  I try not to let real life intrude upon the watching of television, but the threat looms.

*

That’s a partial explanation for why I’ve only just started on Fringe, which is now entering its third season.  The other part is that since I’ve shifted to watching new stuff on DVD rather than “live,” I have fallen behind to the point that I now define “new” as “less than three years old.”

By that arithmetic, Fringe is Fox’s “new” clone of its big hit from the nineties, The X-Files.  It was created, if that’s the word, by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.  All three were writer-producers on Alias, a clever genre series that recombined the DNA of a dozen or so espionage, fantasy, and serial melodrama shows into something original.  So it’s a disappointment and a surprise that their latest effort is so uninventive.

Fringe is shocking in how extensively it copies from a single antecedent.  It is also surgical in its skill: it manages to remove the best things about The X-Files and replace them with new things that don’t work at all.  It’s as if Abrams et. al. took some old X-Files scripts and tried to play that Price Is Right game with them, the one where the contestant tries to match a bunch of price tags to a set of corresponding prizes.  Then he or she runs over and pulls a lever, and a big sign next to Bob Barker lights up and indicates how many prices are correct.  If it’s less than all four, the contestant hurries back and switches the tags around before the clock runs out.  In the worst case scenario, a contestant might start out with three right and end up with zero.  Fringe is a zero.

(That game is one of my favorite television-derived metaphors for life, incidentally.)

Fringe centers on two crime-solvers, a female FBI agent and a “consultant” with a checkered past, who investigate mysterious phenomena as part of the Bureau’s “fringe” division.  Some of those phenomena appear to be related; these are collectively referred to as “the Pattern,” and they may trace back to a conspiracy involving the government and a sinister Microsoft-like corporation called (ever so subtly) Massive Dynamic.  Unspoken sexual tension flourishes between the two leads.

I told you: it’s The X-Files with the nametags switched.  In the second season premiere, there’s a throwaway line which establishes that the Fringe division “used to carry the X designation” – in other words, the writers have puckishly placed both shows in the same fictional universe.  That is what we goyim call chutzpah, and unless cameos by Mulder or Scully or even Walter Skinner are in the offing, it was a very bad idea.

I realize now that one of the key ingredients of The X-Files was that Mulder and Scully operated alone in the darkness.  They had no anchor to anything consistent or comforting, at least not that we saw.  Mulder had a backstory, but the supporting characters in the series – like Agent Skinner, Mr. X, and the cigarette-smoking man – were introduced gradually, and always as part of the ever-expanding conspiracy plotline that made up the show’s “mythology.”  And there was a high mortality rate among these characters.  Their purpose was to up the stakes, to insist that we remain invested in material that was, after all, the stuff of supermarket tabloids.

Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate their blandness, Fringe burdens its Mulder and Scully wannabes, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), with a large roster of full-time tag-alongs.  There’s an FBI partner, an FBI boss, another FBI partner who may or may not be dead (long story), a lady from Massive Dynamic with a spooky robot hand, a lovably eccentric scientist, his adorable lab assistant, and so on.  A few of these characters prove so disposable that the writers kill them off.  Others exist mainly to offer comic relief of a variety so persistent, repetitive, and unfunny – the mad scientist has a pregnant woman’s weird food cravings, only it’s a different craving in each episode! – that they would be better suited to Scooby Doo.

And instead of dispatching to remote corners of Vancouver (er, I mean, the fifty states), these characters converge in a warmly lit, comfy-looking basement laboratory on the Harvard campus.  The show’s reliance on this inviting stationary set dulls the edge of any eerie atmospherics that the writers and directors try to get going.  (Remember, Mulder and Scully spent very little time at home or in the office).  It also requires that most of Fringe’s unexplained happenings occur within driving distance of Boston, a nagging implausibility for which the show has yet to offer a solid explanation.  At least Scooby Doo worked out of a van.

I’ve seen dumber ideas and more generic sets of characters come to life in the hands of the right creative people.  But Fringe is saddled with a dull cast, and felled by one crucial performance that is so wholly ill-conceived and executed that it becomes sort of fascinating, like a forty-some hour train wreck. 

John Noble (pictured above), an Australian expatriate known mainly for a role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrays Walter Bishop, the father of the male investigator.  Walter is Fringe’s one multi-faceted character, and one of the problems with Fringe is that the writers have appended just about all of the show’s facets to a single character.  Walter is the Frankenberry-munching buffoon I ridiculed above; he’s also a brilliant intellectual, a man with a tragic family history, a repentant villain, and the keeper of a lot of secrets that are doled out now and then as the series unfolds.

It’s an unplayable role, but there are a few actors who could probably pull off the wild swings between intensity and silliness that it requires; Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol (both late of Chicago Hope) come to mind.  Noble doesn’t get hold of either end of the character.  His craggy face and deep baritone form an unusual barrier between himself and the audience.  Noble might be fine doing Gilbert and Sullivan on stage, but he has none of the approachability that most successful television actors develop. 

Noble could have opted to hide behind his natural stoicism (or, dare I say it: nobility) and let us guess what he’s thinking most of the time.  (William Hurt and William Peterson often hold back in this way.)  Instead, Noble veers the other way, toward a bathos that smothers all the father-son scenes.  Maybe because it’s the most external aspect of the character, he fixates on Walter’s uncertain mental health, deploying an exhausting repertoire of twitches, facial tics, and goofy expressions.  (To be fair, some of this, such as Walter’s incessant humming and singing, is scripted.)  Noble is so bold in his bad choices that I’ll bet he has some passionate fans; but all I can see is an actor far out of his depth.

On the other hand (pun intended), the robot-arm lady, Nina Sharp, is played by Blair Brown, and she’s totally captivating – sinister, sensual, mysterious, and matronly, all at once.  Nina is the only major figure on the show whose motives are at all hidden or ambiguous (another smart thing about The X-Files is that it had a ton of these characters), and Fringe mostly wastes her as a purveyor of exposition.  There are shows where casting doesn’t matter as much, but since almost nothing in the narrative or the look of Fringe is novel, I find myself tuning out the details of each week’s x-file (’scuse me, “fringe event”) and getting stuck on how good Brown is and how bad all of the other actors are.

Fringe succeeds in one and only one area.  It offers an acceptable substitute for the extraterrestrial invasion that structured the mythology of The X-Files.  By the middle of the first season, Fringe has shown most of its cards in this regard: it posits the existence of a parallel universe, and the ongoing storyline explores the potentially disastrous consequences of contact between it and our own.  (Is it piling on to point out that the pattern by which Fringe alternates between self-contained “monster” episodes and fan-servicing “mythology” episodes duplicates a strategy worked out by The X-Files?)

The theory of parallel universes actually exists in quantum physics, and so it opens the door to do “hard” science fiction of a type that none of the major American fantasy series have attempted.  Fringe hasn’t availed itself of this possibility nearly enough, but its few imaginative ideas have all come out of it: a mummified madman (Jared Harris) teleporting himself, and the occasional motor vehicle, through space using a set of souped-up surveying equipment; a strange bald guy (Michael Cerveris) with futuristic spyglasses who seems to pop up at important moments throughout centuries of human history; a great second-season time-paradox episode about a grief-stricken scientist (Peter Weller) who turns himself into a cyborg time-machine; and the circumstances and setting of the long-deferred initial appearance of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the Massive Dynamic founder who is (sort of) the mastermind behind everything.

But those are fleeting pleasures, and in between them Fringe is just video-methadone for sad addicts who have done without an X-Files fix for close to a decade.

Taboos

July 14, 2010

Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year.  Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.”  It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.

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Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights.  Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit.  Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.

Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos.  That’s not true.  Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity.  And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed.  Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”

As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress.  Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent.  But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.

In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.”  Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her.  (That was in 1972.)  Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.”  I think that’s the key.  Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse.  In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed.  That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.

In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject.  I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion.  That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today.  I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood.  Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”

Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one.  Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with.  I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads.  But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration.  It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying.  But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day.  And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.

It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle.  The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds.  I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.

The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”  In that show, which was made in 1965, Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide.  What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful.  The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip.  Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias.  Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority.  Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms.  Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism.  (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.)  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes.  I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?

There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment.  The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism.  Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both.  “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs.  That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica).  Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.”   I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode.  Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.

I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them.  I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion.  I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime.  The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.

The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because   it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject.  The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people.  Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not.  With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.

You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook.  But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry.  I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.

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Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration.  For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary.  But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.”  Not good enough.  If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do.  The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.

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And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor.  In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan.  The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber.  I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old.  Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.

The New Classics

December 30, 2009

Even though the decade doesn’t really end for another year (don’t get me started on the subject of the Year Zero), everyone is playing favorites this month, and I can’t resist joining in.  Typically, I’ve come across plenty of discussion about the best movies of the “aughts,” but not a whole lot about the highlights on the small screen during the same years.

I haven’t written much about “new” TV in this space, mainly because the launch of this blog two years ago coincided with a notable dip in the quality of both network and cable offerings.  But I’ve always insisted on defining “classic” as good rather than just old.  Here, then, are some remarks about the shows that I think stand as the finest of the past ten years.  (Yes, they’re in order of preference.)

1. Veronica Mars (UPN/CW, 2004-2007).  A howl of class resentment masquerading as teen angst, this po-mo Nancy Drew update mined revenge-fantasy gold with its sly premise: Veronica, a middle-class townie among decadent rich kids in a seaside SoCal town, uses the private eye skills she learned from her ex-police chief father (the wonderful Enrico Colantoni) to claw her way up the socioeconomic ladder.  Who wouldn’t want to relive their high school years armed with a Nexis password and a skeleton key to the principal’s office?  Newly-minted star Kristen Bell nailed the title role, cultivating a smart, sullen reserve that explained how Veronica could be beautiful (and capable of belting out a rockin’ karaoke cover of “One Way or Another”) and still a perpetual outsider.  Rob Thomas’s neon-lit neo-noir never took the easy way out, always treading instead into darker places than you thought a UPN show could go: Veronica spent the first season tracking down the rapist who took her virginity.  At the heart of the show was a touching filial bond – daughter and father against the world – but even there trust was not sacrosanct.  When Veronica swiped a clue from his private office safe, Dad said nothing . . . but changed the combo.

2. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008).  If its teenaged target demographic could overlook the Marxist underpinnings of Veronica Mars, there was no ignoring the class concerns of David Simon’s masterpiece, an epic survey of Baltimore’s haves and have-nots, from wretched crack addicts all the way up to scumbag politicians.  Jaw-droppingly ambitious and intelligent, The Wire earned a rep for complex plotting (“it’s more like a novel than TV,” was the backhanded critical refrain).  But the characters were the reason to watch; they were perhaps the richest and most unpredictable in the history of television, and often the writers seemed to make choices simply to find out what one of their creations would do in a particular circumstance (Prez … as a teacher?).  The inattentive recoiled from The Wire’s final season when the putative protagonist, homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), finally stepped outside the hypocritical professional code that had triggered his self-destructive rampages in the past.  Never mind that the groundwork for this act had been laid carefully for years: there are things that TV heroes just don’t do, and The Wire violated that covenant.  In granting Jimmy some measure of peace at the finale, the series reaffirmed the most essential and sagacious of its basic tenets: that our systems may be unsalvageable but that the people within them always merit respect.  Season Five also served up the best of the show’s trademark civic-arena subplots.  Simon staged a heart-rending tribute to the beat reporting from whence he came with his canonization of an old-school, anti-corporate newsroom editor (an astonishing Clark Johnson, also a key director on the show).  Dare I point out that East Side/West Side, forty years earlier, also closed by invoking the death of independent journalism as a self-referential metaphor?

3. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007).  If people were generally redeemable in Simon’s vision, the other David – David Chase – saw humanity as corrupt to the core; HBO in the aughts boiled down a Manichean debate between the conditional optimism of The Wire and the misanthropy of The Sopranos.  Indeed, The Sopranos’ central conceit that the mafia are just like us extended, over time, into a premise that every person is trapped in a prison of his or her own making – that we all repeat the same patterns of destructive behavior over and over again in an unbreakable cycle.  Consider Carmela’s endless but always deluded personal re-inventions, Janice’s interchangeable scumbag boyfriends, and of course the gradual decimation of everyone in Tony’s inner circle: viewers who played the game of guessing who would get whacked next missed the forest of existential despair for the trees.  Delighting in the visual contrast between mob violence and the bland New Jersey suburbs, Chase foregrounded his mockery of tracksuits and Starbucks until The Sopranos verged on full-out farce; by the end it had more in common with Seinfeld, the original Show About Nothing, than with The Godfather.

4. The Office (NBC, 2005- ).  Because the original British series was note-perfect, this adaptation seemed doomed, until (during the second season) showrunner Greg Daniels found ways to rebuild its structure to fit the American TV custom of more episodes and open-ended network runs.  One strategy was to shift the focus somewhat from megalomaniac manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) to a uniformly hilarious supporting cast of office oddballs, most of them played by non- or semi-professional actors.  Another was the use of melodrama – long-running, off-and-on story arcs like Dwight and Angela’s bizarre romance, or Michael’s feud with Toby – as the structural foundation for the gags.  Over time, these complicated subplots began to mimic real life, so that The Office’s jokes became interchangeable with the you-had-to-be-there insider humor of our own workplaces.  Best of all, Daniels and company – and it is a company, of performers and writers who, judging from the leftover scenes on the DVDs, improvise far more than is customary in the sitcom form – enjoy challenging their audience’s complacency.  Jim, the sardonic slacker who provides our easiest point of identification, begins to come off as smug and entitled when he gets the girl or works for a normal boss.  Meanwhile, Michael’s dim-witted worldview seems a bit less infuriating after he meets an adorable soulmate (Amy Ryan, doing a comic version of her character from The Wire).  If there’s a message here, it may be that work makes us all kind of insufferable.

5. Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006).  So corrosive in its sensibilities that it was destined to become a cult item, Mitchell Hurwitz’s dazzling satire attacked the American dream with a buzzsaw.  (Literally – much of the action took place in a house that was sliding into oblivion.)  The Bluths were a family of crooked Orange County land developers who were not just decadent and kooky, but utterly narcissistic and vile.  Incest – between the semi-retarded Buster and his perpetually soused mother; between the two tweener cousins; between the “normal” brother Michael and his maybe-sister (played by Jason Bateman and his actual sister, Justine) – was a frequent narrative possibility, and also the key metaphor in the show’s attitude toward the sanctity of family.  Arrested Development skirted so close to ugliness that I was poised to tune out until the most extreme characters, like the semi-retarded Buster (Tony Hale) and the sexually confused Tobias (David Cross), gradually worked their way around to being funny instead of just creepy.  What removed this show from Married With Children territory was its capacity for intricate verbal and physical farce.  As the seasons mounted (only up to three, alas), flocks of throwaway gags – like the one where teenaged Maeby stumbled into a successful career as a Miramax development exec – recurred and extended to the point that Arrested loyalists were rewarded with a laugh on every line or background action.  By the time Buster, the luckless Oedipal casualty with a dominant mother named Lucille, was maimed by an animal that escaped from his magician brother’s act – you got it, a loose seal – it seemed as if the English language itself might have evolved just to suit the show’s needs.

6. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006).  Aaron Sorkin’s presidential drama was so much a product of the Clinton era that I’ll bet many viewers have forgotten it was, save for the first few months, a show of the aughts rather than the nineties.  With its fantasy of a Wilsonian academic as president and a court of White House insiders who were philosophers as much as pragmatists, The West Wing was a tonic that helped many of us endure the Bush debacle – even though Sorkin was more likely to turn a New Yorker article into a C-storyline than to tackle any fiery lefty talking points head-on.  Sorkin’s exit just past the midpoint cost the show its brilliant Gilbert-and-Sullivan walk-and-talks, but the maligned “John Wells years” made some acceptable substitutions.  Wells’s core of new writers found flaws in the characters Sorkin had deified, and took a chance on a Robert Drew-derived pseudo-documentary civics lesson during its final Jimmy Smits vs. Alan Alda election storyline.  This was the last, and nearly the best, in the now extinct tradition of the eighties-vintage, character-driven large-ensemble drama.

7. The O.C. (FOX, 2003-2007).  The initial premise was thin, but irresistable: a prince-and-the-pauper variant by which a semi-orphaned delinquent (Ben McKenzie) befriends the son (Adam Brody) of the rich Orange County couple who adopt him.  The two teens engage in a form of mutual gate-crashing: the poor kid, Ryan, gains access to a world of privilege and opportunity, while geeky Seth trades on Ryan’s bad-boy cool factor to become popular.  Add some autobiographical sincerity from creator Josh Schwartz; a raft of snarky, self-referential improvisations by breakout stars Brody and Rachel Bilson; and just the right amount of a grounded truth in Peter Gallagher’s lovely performance as Seth’s mensch of a dad – and you have the feel-good show of the decade, a perfect dream of the way your teen years should have been but weren’t.

8. The Shield (FX, 2002-2008).  Was Vic Mackey, the epically crooked cop at the heart of The Shield, a subhuman monster or a vigilante saint?  I had no doubts about my own opinion of him, and at first I thought creator Shawn Ryan was taking the easy way out by playing the Archie Bunker card – that is, making Mackey (a ferocious Michael Chiklis) charismatic enough to serve as a rallying point for conservative viewers and leaving the rest of us to root for the massing horde of vengeful gangsters, politicians, and internal affairs cops to take him down.  But Vic Mackey turned out to contain multitudes: the ever more torturous and rickety amalgam of rationalizations that enabled Mackey to see himself as a defender of family and innocence rather than a murderer and a thief made him a compellingly ambivalent and complex anti-hero.  As Vic’s poison cascaded downward, everyone in his path (wife, kids, partners, bosses) struck similar bargains with themselves in order to keep the Mackey Problem at arm’s length; some of them, namely the brilliant but troubled serial-killer specialist Dutch (Jay Karnes) and his morally irreproachable partner Claudette (CCH Pounder), spun off into equally fascinating mini-stories of their own.  The Shield sustained an adrenaline-fueled pace that few shows could match, and constructed a vast, grungy world of L.A. lowlifes (on both sides of the law) that made it the best James Ellroy adaptation that’s not actually a James Ellroy adaptation.

9. Boston Public (FOX, 2000-2004).  Running on fumes after the intoxicating nineties (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal), the written-out David E. Kelley delivered one more of his quirky, sensitive, beautifully observed character dramas for the new millenium.  As unconcerned with teen life as a show set in a high school can be, Boston Public (like Mr. Novak forty years earlier) scrutinized the diverse mix of personalities who made up the mostly dedicated teaching staff of an inner-city campus.  Kelley’s respect for this impossible profession was consistently moving, as were many of the individual performances (especially that of Nicky Katt, as a teacher whose passionate involvement with his students’ problems was complicated by perpetually poor decision-making skills).  As often happened in Kelley’s best work, a prickly but soulful loner came to occupy the show’s emotional center; in this case, it was vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald), a much-loathed martinet with an unnoticed compassion for his students and an unrequited crush on a young teacher (Jessalyn Gilsig).  Guber’s unlikely friendship with the world-weary principal, Steven Harper (Chi McBride), set the stage for the decade’s most poetic two-handed acting to come from a pair of relatively unknown character players.

10. C.S.I. (CBS, 2000- ).  A victim of its own success, C.S.I. dropped off the critical radar after it tainted its brand with a pair of wretched spin-offs.  But the original version maintained its status as the most satisfying mainstream genre show on the air for most of the decade, thanks less to the clever forensic mysteries and the tiresome “bullet-cam” stylistic tics than to the well-rounded cast.  The whole ensemble understood that underplaying was the only way to build characters amid the torrent of technobabble, and star William Petersen maintained a poker face that kept science guru Gil Grissom an enigma all the way up to his 2009 exit.  The handful of episodes written by Jerry Stahl (which introduced the world to “furries” and “adult babies”) revel in their gleeful perversity and sexual frankness, and collectively they represent a kind of morbid humor that remains rare on television.  You can only get away with that when you’re number one.

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Although I have a pet peeve about top ten lists that morph into “top seventeen” lists, I will comment on a few shows that merit some sort of honorable mention.  I wish I had found room for Jenji Kohan’s Weeds (Showtime, 2005- ).  Its writing is uneven and sometimes lazy, but also hilariously, unapologetically profane (“cockamole on her faceadilla” gave me my loudest laugh of the decade) and perfectly attuned to the weird personas of Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Nealon.  Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-2010) has insight, fine performers (especially Julian McMahon and Boston Public castoff Jessalyn Gilsig) and, crucially, some of the most vibrant and empowered women characters on television.  But the consistent streak of cruelty in Ryan Murphy’s world finally turned me away.  Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005) and Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) could have made the list, had either of those very different shows carried the depth and urgency of their first two seasons forward into their last three.  30 Rock (NBC, 2006- ) has overcome most of my initial resistance, and hit some kind of zany peak in its third year.  Fastlane (FOX, 2002-2003) gets the “guilty pleasure” vote: this forgotten one-season cop show catalogued the mindless pleasures of empty banter, expensive man-toys, sexy ladies, and explosions with an infectious glee and a surplus of style.

And while I love Mad Men (AMC, 2007- ), something (maybe just the fact that I haven’t seen the most recent season) kept pushing it out of my top ten.  Like its hero, Don Draper, the show has a way of holding back just when it should burst forward.  Will Mad Men’s undeniable excellence last long enough to earn it a spot in the next decade’s list?  Somehow, I doubt it – but then, I’m not sure if I’m going to last that long, either.

Sex and Violence

July 9, 2009

I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones.  Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history.  But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again.  So perhaps that’s a place to start.

Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America.  (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.)  For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon.  Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.

But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter.  The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights.  That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause.  Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.

As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting.  I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological.  This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.

In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device.  Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24.   It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time.  Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies.  But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B.  24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc.  There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford.  Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock.  24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.

It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about  the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist.  But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic.  Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left).  Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance.  But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology.  Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.

What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero.  But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.

In the New Yorker, Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture.  Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24.  Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public.  People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too.  Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A.  Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today.  What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.

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Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year.  Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory.  What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?

Not much, it turns out.  Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under).  But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time.  Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher.  But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.

There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies.  (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.)  Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression.  Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue,  as she is in bed with two men.  Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.

But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle.  The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism.  I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church.  But Parker understands that we want to see her break through.  She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments.  A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect.  Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.

The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable.  For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial.  At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.

Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping.  Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence.  One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.

Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too.  There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped.  Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood.  Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance.  But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?

I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma.  “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently.  Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.”  (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.)  Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either.  Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto?  One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.

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