Blowing My Thought Wad
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Monday, January 29, 2007
The Cold One Hundred
I had a thought over the weekend*. One that should sort out the problems that can seriously afflict ongoing American television dramas.
American television drama reminds me of someone who can’t always hold their liquor. Unless there’s someone around to take a firm hand, they keep on knocking it back until they become tiresome. Even then they blindly stumble around before eventually tripping over and lying there, blowing saliva bubbles and eventually voiding their bowels.
In the UK television drama tends to take a more measured approach. After downing six or eight, or maybe ten or thirteen shots, it’s more or less done. Anything that does run longer tends to switch to alcopops somewhere along the line, at which point it becomes bland and inoffensive, sitting in the corner, smelling faintly of wee. (This allusion does not include the likes of Doctor Who and Torchwood, which stumbled about all incoherent, and spewed all over the place from the absolute get go).
So what’s the answer? How about this: When it comes to serialised drama with an ongoing storyline, the TV shows are limited to one hundred episodes. That way the writers and producers can plan a beginning, middle and, more importantly, a satisfying end. And then it’s over. That way the plot doesn’t skew about and go all utterly fucking squirrely on us.
Obviously this kind of ruling eventually hoofs the regular pay cheque firmly in the works. Which means that folk who are more interested in keeping their snouts firmly embedded in the network’s money trough** for as long as they can may decide to opt for stand alone episode shows. The answer then is to restrict those shows with the same five-year ceiling, and comedies as well.
Firm, I know, but fair, assuming of course that the shows actually last that long. But let’s not be too darn rigid in the ruling, and instead add a caveat. The vagaries in television production means that nothing is set in stone, so how about, come the third year, every show comes under review.
If producers can show just cause for the ongoing stories to be successfully extended, they get the additional one or two or even three years. Just as long as people don’t get too greedy and shows don’t go past their shelf life and outstay their welcome.
Do it this way and shows will ultimately be remembered with affection not annoyance. Just for once artistic integrity would get to triumph over commerce, which would be nice. It still leaves opportunities for sequels or spin-offs – because there have got to be loopholes somewhere.
Such a practise would also cut down on the A1-Crazy fans that latch onto one particular show and over-obsess about it. They’d have to find something else to glom onto and give everyone a break. They may even get a life.
If you think this kind of ruling is a bit harsh, remember this: back in the 1980s The Dukes of Hazzard ran for seven seasons and close to 150 episodes. 150 episodes! And all each one amounted to an extended car chase and a lingering shot of Daisy Duke’s legs. I mean they even swapped actors for most of one season and nobody cared. Car chase, Daisy’s legs, end of story. We’ve got to have more smarts. We can’t let things like that ever happen again.
* I should point out that I actually had more than one thought over the weekend. It wasn’t like I spent the rest of the time sitting, staring into space, with my head tilted to one side and a towel on my lap to collect the drool.
** An altogether, slightly more wholesome image than something like keeping their lips clamped the networks’ money cock. Which is just plain vulgar.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Throughout February the BFI’s National Film Theatre, on London’s South Bank, is screening a brief season of films and television programmes celebrating the work of arguably one of Britain’s finest television writers: Troy Kennedy Martin.
Beginning his television career in 1958, Kennedy Martin wrote for the anthology and single-play formats before creating the then-revolutionary police drama Z Cars as a response to the complacency and cosy predictability of traditional police series like Dixon of Dock Green. Running from 1962 to 1978, Z Cars injected a much needed realism and energy into the genre with topical storylines and complex flawed characters.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Kennedy Martin wrote single dramas for The Wednesday Play and Out Of The Unknown, the six-part Diary of a Young Man, as well as episodes of the military police drama Redcap starring John Thaw, producer Gerry Glaister’s wartime drama Colditz, and the historical epic Fall of Eagles. In 1975 we wrote for The Sweeney, created by his brother Ian, which had instigated another seismic shift in television police drama with its fast pace and undiluted violence.
In the early 1980s Kennedy Martin wrote the twelve-part espionage thriller Reilly, Ace of Spies, based on the real life exploits of the WWI double agent Sigmund Rosenblum and the five-part adaptation of Angus Wilson's The Old Men at the Zoo. The two dramas were followed by his undisputed masterpiece, Edge of Darkness. A groundbreaking conspiracy thriller that effortlessly transcended the genre with its mix of murder, politics, nuclear tensions and ecological concerns, Edge of Darkness remains one of British television’s finest long-form drama serials.
Kennedy Martin returned to television in the late 1990s with the HBO/BBC nuclear submarine thriller Hostile Waters and an adaptation of Andy McNab’s SAS memoir Bravo Two Zero, and then in 2004 with Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor and based around South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In his long career, Kennedy Martin has written five feature films including the hit classic caper movie The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward, WWII heist comedy Kelly’s Heroes, and Red Heat starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As part of the season, Troy Kennedy Martin will be interviewed on-stage about his writing career on Tuesday 6th February at 8.30pm, following a screening of The Italian Job.
For information on all the films and television episodes in the season, which includes all six episodes of Edge of Darkness showing on Saturday 24th February, visit the NFT website. Alternatively call the NFT Box Office on 020 7928 3232 for ticket prices and availability.
Friday, January 26, 2007
All Words & Pictures
I suppose it had to happen sometime. Actually, when it did it took a while for the realization to sink in. leaving an office building yesterday I dawdled a while at the reception desk, being a shameless flirt when one of the girls asked me the question: How do you go about getting a book published?
“You’ve written a book?” I asked. “I want to, but then what would I do with it?” she replied. Okay. So, what kind of answer did she want to hear? I could have blown her off and been on my way. But she did have a nice smile. I’m a sucker for a nice smile.
So I explained she shouldn’t bother with the whole book straight away but instead concentrate on a sample chapter coupled with an outline. As for getting it published, well that depended on the subject matter, which would dictate which agent she should sent it to. Straight to a publisher and it would undoubtedly finish up in the slush pile.
Which led to the next query, asked with some trepidation: What was the subject matter? Without any idea of ‘The Pitch’ civilians are prone to rattling out the whole story – beginning, end, and every darned thing in between. Instead she was atypically brief: Her autobiography! Her autobiography? Well, that’s, ah... Really?
She explained she had had a really interesting life outside of her life as a receptionist. Really? Well, I thought, so have I, and I’ve got more than a decade’s worth of experiences on her. But I don’t expect other people to be that interested because they’ve got their own interesting lives. Unless, perhaps, it was pages from my succession of crash-and-burn relationships, like the instance I went on holiday with an ex-girlfriend and the current soon-to-be-ex girlfriend. That was a real doozie. Or the one that was just so wrong I actually wanted to get dressed and get the hell out in the middle of us having sex, even if it was ungentlemanly to go before she had come.
Subject matter aside, she asked how much money she would probably get. As an advance? I gave her a ballpark figure that didn’t impress her one bit. What did she expect, the kind of advances Stephen King and Grisham and now Dan Brown get? They may not write great literature but the books are page-turners and, more importantly, they sell. I suggested that as a young unknown with no track record she might like to try a bit or fiction first. Or something. I wished her good luck. She smiled.
Who needs to randomly put words on paper anyway? Aren’t we all supposed to be making movies? I had a conversation today about The Blair Witch Project. It didn’t last long. Neither of us liked the film. I’d bought it, sight-unseen, when it was released on video in the US. My excuse was I was pretty drunk at the time.
The holiday with the ex/soon to be ex had started in New Orleans. They’d driven from LA, I’d flown from the UK. They arrived first and the hotel desk had given me the key to the ex-girlfriend’s room. By the second day I was lunching on three Hurricane’s at Pat O’Brien’s to help me get throw the day. And this was before it all went down hill. I’d bought the film at the Virgin store a block or two from Jackson Square.
Today we were trying to remember at what point we were supposed to all be filmmakers. I don’t mean just us but everyone. Wasn’t it when digital cameras came down in price and home PC editing software became readily available? So not only does everyone have a book inside them but a film as well. Of course, just because a person can turn on a camera and remove the lens cap, it doesn’t mean they have the first clue about film grammar or storytelling, as some of the blander results prove.
If everyone could do it right, wouldn’t amateur sex tapes be better? Okay, the participants have more urgent matters at hand but they don’t even manage to put the camera in the right place. Take the recent Keeley Hazell tape. The framing is absolutely dreadful. It’s mainly bare bobbing man-ass action. What’s all that about?
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Woke up to the city blanketed in snow. Snow in the countryside, fine. Snow in the city... me no like. It’s the potential to slip and slide all over the pavements that loses my vote.
It would be all right if I had spent the day inside at the computer but typically I had to go out. The location meant that rather than take a train into Kings Cross and then head back out on the tube, it was easier to skirt around North London on the bus. Two buses, as it turned out.
If I had bothered to check I probably would have discovered that the trains were fouled up by the change in the weather. Even so, travelling on buses in the city at the best of times is fine for people who don’t care when they get to where they have to be, but an irritant for everyone else.
The time I had to get there meant climbing on board with kids going to the schools lined up along the top of the hill. I don’t what to come across as a grump but most of these unruly, undisciplined little fuckers should be ground up and used as fertiliser. At least then they’d be doing something useful.
Waiting for the connecting bus meant standing immobile as my extremities gradually went numb. At least with owners having to clean up after their dogs there isn’t the unexpected treat of stepping in a pile of dog shit hidden under the snow. By late morning it had the common courtesy to melt away.
Started watching Shameless last night having missed the first couple of episodes of the new series. Before the hour was up I had switched over to the CSI rerun on Five, and it wasn’t a very good repeated episode either.
I loved Shameless when it first appeared in early 2004. The series was funny as hell, but, based in part on Paul Abbott’s unconventional upbringing, there was humanity amongst all the anarchy. Now that Abbott has moved on, along with a good portion of the original cast, the show has simply become more and more extreme with the characters turning into caricatures in a live-action Tex Avery cartoon. Which is a great shame.
Almost two episodes in, I’m trying to figure out the point of the new BBC drama Five Days. I suppose I’ll find out next week. At least it has Janet McTeer in the cast. Still, it’s better than Dracula. Initially broadcast over the Christmas period, I haven’t yet managed to reach the sixty-minute mark. Every time I try to watch a little bit more I burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. It's a long slog but I'm going to persist, even though I don't expect for one minute I'll be rewarded at the end.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
The early edition of London’s Evening Standard newspaper led with a 2012 article. At first I thought it was the latest number of complaints to Ofcom about Channel 4 now that they’ve added to their woe with another reality show, Shipwrecked. Never heard of it until today, but apparently one of the desert island contestants called for the return of slavery and declared that “black people” should not be brought into Britain. I mean, what the fuck?
Amazingly after all this Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson still has his job. If I was on the board I’d have him striped naked, slathered in A1 barbecue sauce, made to wear a pair of stilettos and then given a five-minute head start before the dogs were set loose. Actually, if they filmed that I’d tune in and watch.
2012 is news because there are now only 2012 days left before the start of the Olympics in... 2012. See what they did there? Clever, eh?! (shakes head, sighs deeply) Which means the country has that long to pull its finger out and get the stadium and everything else relating to the games sorted out and built so the bloke with the torch came come trotting in. Like that’s going to happen.
With all the MPs involved being criticized by a cross-party committee for the spiraling costs of the project – already up £900 million to £3.3 billion (and expected to finally reach £6 billion) – and the Treasury and the Culture Department at each other’s throats over the spending, 2012 quid is probably what every resident in the UK will end up having to fork out for these silly games.
Friday, January 19, 2007
The sixth season of 24 returns to Sky One on Sunday, a week after it premiered in the US. By now we know the drill: Bad guys are looking to fuck up everyone’s day and Jack Bauer has twenty-four hours to save the world.
This time it’s Middle East terrorists with grudges and nukes that CTU have the thankless task of disarming. Of course as the fifth day ended last year, Chinese agents snatched Bauer in retaliation for his attack on their consulate in the fourth year. So first off the US has to get Jack back, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
Certain shows have recognisable narrative tropes and 24 is no different. In fact, as the years have progressed 24 has become the go-to show for juicy torture sequences. Season sixth is no different with an excruciatingly painful encounter between a knife and a kneecap early on in the run. It makes you realise that in The Prisoner, Number 6 would have given up his secrets a whole lot quicker if they had only doused him in water and attached the electrodes rather than indulge in all that surreal bullshit.
On top of that there are vehicles to steal, people to be killed without provocation, satellites to be repositioned and computer systems to be hacked. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Whereas other films and television programmes in the past have spawned their own liver-ravaging drinking games, to add to the enjoyment of Jack Bauer’s non-stop day comes 24 Bingo.
Press Go for the card of your choice then print it up and play along. With the clock ticking, the first person out... well, doesn’t go kablooie!
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Music & Pictures
As mentioned by David Bishop, Peter Bradshaw on The Guardian’s film blog brings up the subject of how a musical moment can deliver a dramatic punch in a non-musical film.
By example Bradshaw cites the training sequence in the original Rocky, accompanied by the Bill Conti-composed theme tune Gonna Fly Now, which probably sparked the idea when he sat down to review the new sequel Rocky Balboa. He makes a fair fist of putting together a list where, in his words:
Great cinema-music moments need not be over a montage, or a straightforward sugar rush like the Rocky sequence. They need not necessarily be songs from a musical, or characters who happen to be singing songs. What they do need to do is deliver compressed drama straight into the vein.
His own top ten begins with the singing of La Marseillaise in Casablanca, and thankfully there is no syrupy Celine Dion warbling from Titanic, nor Vangelis’ theme to Chariots of Fire, which has been so overused it’s now only available for parody, or any of the numerous songs pulled out and played over the de rigueur rom-com montages. But ultimately the list is notable for the glaring omissions.
While Strauss’ The Blue Danube from 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin' Jack Flash, which heralds the arrival of De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets both get a look in, where are the nods to Cameron Crowe and Michael Mann? Together with Kubrick and Scorsese, Crowe and especially Mann make up the quartet of filmmakers who are masters of melding film with music – in particular music and songs not specifically composed for a specific film – to remarkable effect.
Crowe started out as a reporter for Rolling Stone and has since always made music a key component in his films. The defining moment of Say Anything..., his directorial debut, has to be when John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler lifts a boom box over his head and blasts out Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes to reconcile with his estranged girlfriend, played by Ione Skye. A decade later, in the autobiographical Almost Famous, the growing schisms between the band members of Stillwater are temporary healed by a disarming sing-along to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer as the tour bus carves its way through the countryside towards their next gig.
And then there’s Michael Mann, who has always made music integral to creating specific moods in his films and the television series Miami Vice, Crime Story and Robbery/Homicide Division. With the scripts stripped to the bare essentials, actions speak louder than words. In his first two features – the existential crime drama Thief and the German Expressionism- influenced, wartime horror of The Keep – the talking stops long before the film does, leading to one of Mann’s signature pieces: the dialogue-free climatic showdown between protagonist and antagonists. In Thief James Caan’s safe-cracker Frank brutally severs his misjudged Faustian relationship with crime boss Leo. The Keep climaxes with the dedicated Glaeken Trismegestus destroying the growing evil of Molasar. Both take place against pounding Tangerine Dream soundtracks.
Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and Heat may have brief dialogue exchanges after the final bloodshed ensues, but the sentiment is still very much the same. In Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, Uncas and Chinachgook’s brutal confrontations with Magua on the mountain trail is backed by Trevor Jones’ interpretation of Dougie Maclean’s The Gael. Heat climaxes with a second, less cordial, confrontation between cop Vincent Hanna and criminal Neil McCauley around the runways of LAX. Although in this instance, with only the sounds of airliners punctuating the edgy silence and a brief refrain from Kronos Quartet, it is only when the outcome has been decided that Mann introduces the strains of Moby’s God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters.
And then there is Manhunter. Even before the combined resources of the police and FBI track him down, the unhinged Francis Dollarhyde has Iron Butterfly going mental on the stereo with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidda to terrify his intended victim, which gets ratcheted up a notch when Will Graham crashes the party and takes down the Tooth Fairy. If that doesn’t deliver “compressed drama straight into the vein” I don’t know what does.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Means To An End
Perhaps the best news to come out of the bi-annual TCA jamboree in Pasedena this month is that Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the executive producers of Lost, are already planning the show’s exit strategy. It’s a shame that not everyone in the US is that forward thinking but I guess we just have to take what we can get.
The move toward continuing, serial drama is certainly a more enriching experience than shows with pretty much self-contained episodes because it allows more time and space for the stories and characters to develop, but there is always the worry of how and when it will end. Dickens had his novels first published in instalments in journals such as Household Words and Master Humphrey's Clock, much like the serial dramas, but each book reached a natural conclusion and he moved on to the next. Television producers and showrunners are perhaps not that lucky.
What every plot-centric serialised drama needs is a satisfying resolution. Which means it needs producers with the courage to work toward the day when their regular pay cheque stops. If they find themselves overseeing a hit show the obvious temptation is to hang on in there as long as possible, rather than wring the neck of their golden goose, because there’s no guarantee they’ll be lucky again. As part of a panel during the television critics press tour, Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives, doubted that he could catch that elusive lightning in a bottle a second time.
Whether it happens or not, they need the courage to believe another hit will come along and work toward a conclusion. Joe Straczynski’s space opera Babylon 5 was designed to run five years with a beginning, middle and definite end. Amazingly, with all the variables involved in television production, it actually made it, which was something of an achievement. Of course it was then sullied by a rubbish, swiftly cancelled sequel and some doofus TV movies, but that’s by the bye.
Hanging on too long lines the pockets but leans towards alienating a weary audience who feel they’re being jerked around. Which of course brings us to The X-Files. Some folk thought it went on a couple of years longer than it should have. But that’s being kind. It went on far longer than it should have. The problem with The X-Files was that it had not just one good idea but lots of ideas, which went about bashing each other senseless, leaving the story to drunkenly stumble around in all directions. Cuse and Lindelof obviously don’t want to be tarred with the same brush, which is a very good thing.
“I have been consistent in terms of saying, it’s always felt to me like the story is going to last about 100 episodes,” Lindelof told reporters. Which means that the fifth season of Lost looks like it will be the last. With that goal in sight, Cuse and Lindelof can start to set up how and when to reveal the overall mysteries and mythology and decide on where each character’s journey ultimately takes them. Unless of course ABC tries to keep the show going without them. I guess in the next couple of years we’ll get to see.
The best ever decision for knocking a show on the head is held by Tom Fontana. He realised it was time to finish his HBO prison drama Oz when he ran out of ways to kill off characters, declaring on the website he would, “rather walk away feeling strong, rather than be chased out of town.”
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Work Buddy and Terpsichore, the governess who expertly guides us through the twists and turns of the pharma business, call them Treacle Days: times when you’re floundering around and don’t seem to be making any progress. The past week has felt like that.
Is there something about January that messes to the wiring in our brains? My Best Girl used to say that she felt “out of sorts” on days like these.
I guess it came from trying to chase down an idea that stayed just beyond my grasp. And it bugged me. Last week I had to go out two days in a row just as the weather turned, wandering about scribbling notes, just to try and clear out my head and hunt the little sonofabitch down. That vexed me more.
Who was it said that the actual writing of the script comes last and takes the least amount of time? I’d put my money on Goldman, but I could be wrong. Each night I’d sift through the pages of notes that littered the desk, trying to make the connections, looking for the in.
I don’t see the point of starting a script until I have the plot, characters and motivation, and a true grasp of everything involved sorted in my head. Starting out without them fully clarified, what’s the point? It may all come together over time, but more likely than not the pages will end up abandoned in a desk drawer after the flaws become too pronounced.
I like to know the foundations are solid, which usually means the detailed treatments to work from are almost non-formatted scripts with described dialogue. It’s virtually prose, but then that’s where I started out.
What I was looking for wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Maybe I was looking for a distraction.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Ten Of The Best
I was holding this back anyway in case anything really magical snuck its way onto the air before Big Ben chimed the hour. And then we started partying. Dark and stormy Old Year’s Night may have been, but at least the wind and rain eased off when it came time to light the fuses and blast a colourful hole in the sky.
Once that was done there were far more urgent matters that held it back even longer. Still, it’s done now. Better late than never, right? Unless of course it’s an actual deadline. Then of course zebras and lions start fucking and their killer mutant offspring take over the world. At least that’s what I was told.
Anyway, instead of going out to the movies in 2006, I seemed to grab what free time there was at home watching the box. Cinema may be great for sheer spectacle and entertainment but television, if it’s well made, is still proving to be the home of strong, complex stories.
Since I don’t have any porn channels, here’s what made me sit up and pay attention. With one exception they’re all dramas, unsurprisingly. Some titles that should have found for a place are omitted simply because I didn’t have the chance to catch them. One drawback with the emphasis on ongoing storylines is, miss an episode here or there and you’re basically screwed.
Under those circumstances it was simply better to bail out and wait for the DVD boxset. Which is why the recent series of The Sopranos isn’t on the list, or the fifth day of 24, having only caught the first two hours. Sometimes, trying to be even an average couch potato can be bloody difficult.
There were some real disappointments last year, or shows that I simply couldn’t connect to like Prison Break or Life of Mars, but they’re far back there in the dust and not worth dwelling over. Now that it has tipped over into 2007, this means that I’ve got to concentrate on the good things. Which were:
What else is there to top the list? After an extended absence The Wire came back for a very welcome fourth season. The time it was away should have been long enough to come up with even more superlatives to describe the show. After all, while justified, “Best drama. Ever” is starting to get just a tad repetitive.
After starting out in the drug-infested low-rise projects before focusing on the Baltimore docks and then municipal government, the drama put the spotlight on the city’s crumbling school system as a quartet of young boys at a West Baltimore middle school. As they struggle with their past and present circumstances, the continued fight for city hall puts the politics of politics under the microscope, showing that the real crimes against the good citizens of Baltimore aren’t being committed out on the street.
Without Barksdale or Stringer to take down, the Major Crimes Unit defanged due to political manoeuvring and the members of the detail sidelined, and even that onetime “gaping asshole” McNulty reduced to a bit player as he happily pounds the beat and gets his life back together, The Wire still manages to engage and reward the viewer for paying attention.
Even better news is that HBO has granted David Simon a fifth and final year to round off his inner city opus. In the meantime, anyone who says they enjoy intelligent television drama but doesn’t watch The Wire should be looked upon with suspicion.
Harlan Ellison, who recently presented Ronald D. Moore with Screenwriting Expo 5’s Television Writer of the Year award, once described good science fiction as a reflection of the present day, with the mirror askew.
Taking that lead, Battlestar Galactica’s third year opened with suicide bombers, Star Chamber show trials, dissent amongst the crew – and these were just the good guys. Some viewers suggested last year’s finale, with the sudden one-year jump forward in the colonisation of New Caprica, might be the show’s undoing. Instead the audacious move added new dimensions to the characters, now suffering the effects of the physical and psychological tortures inflicted upon them during their time on the Cylon-occupied world.
Catering to the ‘sci-fi’ audience who like their bright and shiny bright and shiny, we were treated to the incredible sight of the Galactica jumping into low orbit above New Caprica and plummeting like a rock as it launched its Vipers. Or the Pegasus going out in a blaze of glory and taking out two Cylon Base Stars with it. Even then, the spectacle was always married with subtle character moments that emphasised the human drama.
Handing the award to Galactica’s recreator, Ellison said: “This award is for the astonishing job of making one of the worst television series ever made into one of the best television series ever made.” Amen to that.
Back when Deadwood premiered it was the language critics remarked upon. It may have sent John Wayne spinning is his grave, but nobody could quite say “cocksucker” like Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. Soon it became evident that there was more to the drama than that, in much the same way NYPD Blue wasn’t solely reliant on bare asses and network-approved colourful turns of phrase.
The third season of David Milch’s western saga has been remarkable in its depiction of the inhabitants of the mining community coming together in the face of a common enemy – George Hearst. With such a large cast of perfectly realised characters, almost equal in numbers to The Wire, as much importance was put in the struggle between Hostetler and Steve the Drunk over the Deadwood livery, the choice of fruit served as refreshment at town meetings, or the children being walked to school, as the larger season-encompassing power struggles.
For all the luxurious, sepia-toned visual imagery, the critical acclaim for Deadwood once again comes down to the language. Except now, instead of the inventive cussing, it’s how Milch imbues the rich dialogue with a remarkable Shakespearian iambic pentameter. This Old West doesn’t come cheap. With a reported $60 million per 12-episode season and nobody else reaching into their pockets to help pick up the tab, when Milch pitched his new surf noir drama John from Cincinnati, HBO decided to put it into production in place of the proposed fourth season of Deadwood.
This may be a misstep for both the show’s creator and the channel, but at least we’re promised two television movies that’ll see Deadwood off into the sunset. Looking back, the two parties have created a world in 36 episodes that has done much more than simply tell us something pretty.
It may have become an irritation for the poor folk who just want to know the answers to all the questions spelt out for them, but if they expected the secrets of the hatch and the motivations of “The Others” to be surrendered so soon, that’s pretty retarded of them. If they don’t like it they can quite frankly always piss off and watch Heartbeat or something equally simple-minded.
Lost certainly has evolved into a conundrum – for both the audience and the programme makers. One signature element of the unfolding story is the subtle changes in perception. Over the first two seasons and into the third, Lost has slyly shifted its weight from being plot-driven to a character-driven drama. The regular flashbacks may initially have been dreamt up as a device to get the survivors of the downed Oceanic Flight 815 off the island. Almost immediately the presented hard evidence of what made them the people they are today and whether they have managed to learn from their past mistakes.
It can be exciting and infuriating in equal measure, but that’s what makes it fun – trying to work past the bluffs and the blinds to join together the dots as the story moves forward in increments. While other network shows are a tee-shirt at best, Lost should be written about for years to come. If they don’t fuck it up.
Ah, superheroes! They work in comic books or the cinema, where millions of dollars could be spunked on their widescreen super fisticuffs, but on television it’s either cheap and nasty Saturday morning cartoons or eyebrow-arched campery bubbling away in a cauldron of pubescent hormones that attracts an audience of teens and paedos. Until now. Who would have thunk it?
Thankfully Heroes creator Tim Kring wasn’t steeped in the culture of years of twisted comic book lore and instead just wanted to tell a story about ordinary people being given extraordinary powers. It may seem like a good idea at the time but the handful of characters see their change as a blessing or a curse and embrace their newfound talents or rail against them. It’s only when they gradually join up and try to figure it out that the pieces of the much bigger picture gradually start to come together. From the looks of things it’s not going to be pretty, but at least there’s no brightly coloured costumes. Although we are promised a sword in the future, which is cool.
Maybe not all of the character’s stories gel quite so well so far, but the specky, cherubic Hiro, who enthusiastically embraces his new-found time-bending talent, is certainly the hero of the hour. Nerd power has a delightful pudding-faced face. And you can’t fault a series that has one of the leads wake up in the middle of her own autopsy. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Obviously being one of the most anticipated new shows of the year can be problematic when you don’t deliver what people expect. Why people assumed the drama to be a comedy is anyone’s guess. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip swiftly became the drama America’s sitcom writers publicly loved to hate. At least until the LA Times puts their vehement dislike of the show in print, in which case they quickly backed down.
It may be far too clever to sit alongside its disposable real-life counterparts, but this is Sorkinland after all, not the real world. Call me a great big snob, but I love clever. In fact, the more elitist it is the better. So for me, the Gilbert and Sullivan parody was just priceless, while the New Orleans jazz musicians’ rendition of Oh Holy Night on the Christmas show was sublime. Critics may complain that Sorkin is lecturing to us. If that’s the case, can I have a desk right at the front of the class.
The series set-up addresses the broader issues of television within the sketch show environment rather than going for simple chuckles. Still, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. And anyway, isn’t having Ed Asner playing a venal capitalist funny enough? My other question is, has Steven Weber always been this good an actor?
A blood spatter analysis expert for the Miami PD who’s a full blown serial killer might, on paper, seem like a high concept that’s gone so high it’s become starved of oxygen. But centred around Michael C. Hall’s remarkable blank-slate performance as the sociopathic Dexter Morgan, the series works a treat as it effortlessly slides back and forth between gruesome dark drama and hilarious black comedy without ever losing the plot.
Preying on the guilty little maggots who have slipped through the cracks in the criminal justice system may make Dexter appear honourable in a twisted way, but it’s also a good way for him to prolong his activities without causing too much attention. While killing is easy, it’s faking the emotions as he goes around his daily routine that proves the really hard part for Dexter. Wanting to be in a relationship, because that’s what people do, but unable to show any feelings? His answer is to simply hook up with a rape victim who can’t deal with physical intimacy. But typically even that eventually has its pitfalls. Then there is the mysterious Ice Truck Killer, taunting Dexter throughout the series and raises the bar when it comes to killing.
Dexter’s advantage is, coming from a cable channel, it only runs for a dozen episodes and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just when his arch nemesis, is finally revealed to the audience and it looks like the show is going to settle back into predictable crime drama conventions, the drama pulls one more rabbit out of the hat. And then expertly wrings its neck.
Partway through the fourth year of The Shield my interest started to wane. It didn’t help that I‘d managed to miss the whole of the third season, revolving around the aftermath from the Strike Team ripping off the Armenian Money Train. While the arrival of Glenn Close’s Captain Monica Rawling, taking over from David Aceveda, and the disbanding of Mackey’s crew, shook the show out of any potential ruts, I felt too far out of the loop to really get into it.
Season five made me sit up and take notice. Back in play, bulldog Vic Mackey was once again off the leash, raging about and being an even bigger bastard than a prep school sports master. This time he had a far more worthy adversary in Forrest Whittaker’s less than clean Jon Kavanaugh from Internal Affairs, an even bigger, more manipulative sonofabitch than Mackey himself. Out to take down the Strike Team and rub their noses right in it, his in was through Curtis Lemansky, who was always the crew’s conscience, putting on the pressure by trying to connect him to their past transgressions.
Of course it was all an elaborate bluff and Kavanaugh would have conceded if Mackey hadn’t made it personal. Which left Lem to take the fall and Shane Vendrell, who always was a twitchy little fucker at the best of times, using his own initiative to make sure that his old buddy won’t ever rat them out. You just know that, come next season, there’ll be hell to pay.
The State Within
Finally, some home grown drama makes the list. Hurray for that! It’s not that I give everything that’s been produced here of late the thumbs down, but I get a feeling at times that UK drama is just stumbling around the ring, punch drunk from getting a gleeful pummelling from its US rivals.
This past year especially there’s been so much damn hype rolling in, in advance that when they eventually arrived the shows turned out to be all hot air and bluster with little substance. And then there was The State Within. This is what we do really well: meaty, densely plotted, conspiracy thrillers. Sure, they may only come along once in a blue moon, this one was right up there with Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup and State of Play.
Not only was it multi-layered, thought–provoking drama, but also, in its execution, The State Within borrowed stylistically from its American counterparts which made it stand head and shoulders above everything else in the schedules. And hardly anyone watched it. What was all that about? After just one episode the ratings went into a virtual freefall. Was it too complicated for an audience conditioned to stare blankly at hours of mindless pap? Well, to hell with them. I’ve always liked puzzles and problem solving. The State Within left me guessing up to the very last episode, which is a rare thing these days.
The UK may not make consistently good television drama anymore, but nothing beats the output from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Once again they excelled themselves with the sheer magnificence of Planet Earth. It’s easy over here to grumble about the license fee, but not when it produces results like this.
Of course new technology helps. In this instance the real bonus was a new camera lens that could produce perfect close ups from over 400m metres away. Attaching them to helicopter mounted gimbals, it meant that vast animal migrations could be filmed for the first time undisturbed. Naturally it wasn’t just a case of taking to the air and pointing the camera downwards. The diary shorts which rounded off each episode showed how hardy and patient you have to be filming wildlife, and foolhardy too. Top marks went to the crew member whose snoring disturbed the nearby lions when they were out, using specialist night vision equipment, to document the pride taking down a lone elephant on the great plains of Africa.
As it effortlessly moved from the poles to deserts, jungle to the ocean, all you could do was watch agog and throw every superlative imaginable at the screen. For all the natural beauty and sheer spectacle of the astonishing crystal formations in the Lechuguilla caves, nothing was more affecting than the footage of the polar bear, weak from having to swim two days now that the ice flows were rapidly melting. Severely wounded after desperately attacking a herd of walrus to gain sustenance, the bear just dug a shallow bowl in the ground and lay down to die.
* * *
So that’s what put a smile on my face over the last twelve months. That said, I can’t go without giving Prime Suspect: The Final Act an honourable mention. After months of lacklustre dramas, ITV brought two old favourites back to the screen. The return of Fitz in a new Cracker proved to be a disappointment, because Jimmy McGovern had evidently forgotten what made the drama so special in the intervening years. Broadcast two weeks later, Prime Suspect: The Final Act thankfully avoided any similar pitfalls.
When she first appeared in 1991, Jane Tennison was out to get the respect from her colleagues that she deserved. The bittersweet Final Act, examined the cost exacted upon her. Here was someone who had sacrificed family, friends and relationships to put their career first, facing retirement and wondering whether it had all been worth it. Trying to make some amends comes close to destroying not just her last murder investigation but also herself.
Because this was Prime Suspect‘s last hurrah before the curtain came down, ITV's publicity machine went into overdrive, taunting the audience over whether Tennison would make it to retirement or leave the job feet first. Normally this kind of thing would drive me to utter distraction, but this time I was prepared to give them some leeway, especially when faced by another utterly remarkable performance by Helen Mirren. For once ITV deserved all the attention it could get.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Bill Of Wrongs
Is it just me or are there other people who don’t get this whole cult of Quentin Tarantino?
BBC2 broadcast the first part of Kill Bill tonight. Having managed to avoid it all this time, I began to watch out of curiosity’s sake. Not a wise move.
I’d seen Reservoir Dogs when it was screened at the London Film Festival back in the early 1990s, before all the hoopla started. Tarantino was present and got up to speak before the film ran. Obviously the City on Fire connection hadn’t been made yet.
Watching Pulp Fiction was only enlivened when a guy in the audience called a friend on his mobile to tell him about the film. Spending a Christmas in LA, I saw Jackie Brown at the Burbank mall and fell asleep twice.
By then I realised I was watching films about films. Tarantino wasn’t making movies based on any life experiences but what he had watched when he worked in a video rental store.
What I saw of Kill Bill was a film made of films. It was QT’s favourite clips from his favourites. It was like a mix tape. Actually, it was worse. It was the film equivalent of a freaking Jive Bunny single.
I suppose it ended bloodily. I went back to watching Kingdom of Heaven.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Flight Of Fancy
A return to the daily grind and dull overcast skies means putting not just the festivities behind us but the end of the witless television season. Worst offenders are always the “special” Christmas editions of current sitcoms and sketch shows. Bloated by an extended running time and an upped budget to turn them into an EVENT.
If they aren’t specifically festive-themed, the extra cash is usually tossed off on exotic locales to make it different by writers who seem to have forgotten that the locale the characters inhabit is as important in creating the comedy as the characters themselves.
No matter, it’s over now. Although following in the season slipstream came two event comedies that were removed just enough by being scheduled post-New Year so as not to be labelled with the trash.
First up was a new hour-long edition of The Thick of It, which I missed, but then so did Chris Langham. Apparently in his place were a couple of hapless politico fuckwits finding themselves out of their depth and getting poked by the sharp end.
With only six episodes to its name, prior to the special, The Thick of It is the best political comedy since Yes, Minister. Whereas Jim Hacker’s Minister of Administrative Affairs once had the devious Sir Humphrey Appleby outwitting him at every turn, Hugh Abbott, the witless Secretary of State for Social Affairs, has to contend with Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s monstrous enforcer, who shouts “Come the fuck in, or fuck the fuck off!” when someone knocks on his door.
According to one of the reviews Tucker had an equally terrifying sidekick in the special who threatened the naïve Oliver with: “I will remove your iPod from its tiny nano sheaf, and push it up your cock. And then I'll plug some speakers up your arse. And then I'll put it on to shuffle with my fucking fist.” Rude as fuck, certainly, but The Thick of It is richly imbued with creator Armando Ianucci‘s razor-sharp wit. It’ll be on again. Judging by the BBC digital schedules, probably in about twenty minutes from now.
The ratings winner over the Christmas period was The Vicar of Dibley. I can’t see the appeal because the idea of an obese female priest in a village of lazy stereotypes never appealed to me. The wedding finale was Dalek-themed from the advance publicity shots which, for me, would be like being presented with a big steaming turd and then having shit sprinkles put on the top.
The audience for part two exceeded part one, and I can only assume people tuned in to make sure it was the very end of the show as we were promised. If that was the case they were probably sick to their stomach by the almost immediate news that The Vicar of Dibley would be back as a skit for Comic goddamn Relief. It really is the comic equivalent of herpes. There’s no getting away from the bloody thing.
One comedy that was finally over was Green Wing, which came to an end this week. Whereas The Thick of It has been lauded with BAFTA and RTS Awards, Green Wing always seems to be overlooked come the awards ceremonies, which is utterly criminal.
Half sitcom, half sketch show, taking up an hour timeslot, Green Wing was never less than satisfyingly mental. Amongst all the inspired nuttiness, Green Wing really centred around two relationships: the love triangle between doctors Todd, McCartney, and Secretan, and the utterly dysfunctional collision of hospital consultant Alan Statham and HR administrator Joanna Clore.
And after two series their outcomes were both resolved with a two-hour finale. While Statham and Clore were taken away from the locale the characters inhabited, it still worked due to the strength of their grotesque personalities.
Statham and Clore were on the lam after the former had beaten a midget to death with a stuffed heron. The second series had ended with them in a stolen campervan, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, and an annoyed Statham reciting his own personal alphabet:
“A is for anus. B is for bumhole. C is for cock. D is for dog’s dicks...”
Somehow they got out of their predicament and carried on their tortured journey, managing to murder a mechanic, shop assistant and policeman along the way. They also kidnapped a sheep. Short on resources Statham adapted the campervan to run on alcohol and fermented excrement whereupon it promptly blew up.
Left with the choice of giving themselves up, trying to cross the Channel and start a new life in Spain, or killing ourselves, they opted for the latter because Statham didn’t like the Spanish and Clore didn’t want to go to prison and be lady-bummed.
Their continued twisted dalliance over the series has even made some of my crash-and-burn relationships seem normal by comparison. In the end they stripped off and walked hand-in-hand into the sea. When the tide was out. Meanwhile the just-married Todd held one helium balloon too many and floated away while her ex-suitor looked up her dress. Somehow it finally all made sense.
People have rated the recently departed drama Bodies, set in a hospital’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department as the most disturbing portrait of the current NHS. Green Wing topped it, big time, While at the same time ably demonstrating why the UK’s traditional half-hour, laugh track laden sitcom is dead and doesn’t know it.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Don't Look Back
Last night I watched The Big Chill, I mean This Life +10. Why, I’m still not really sure. I never really took to the show when it was first broadcast. Maybe because I wasn’t of that generation: a bunch of shallow, whiny arseholes. And this is coming from someone who really loved thirtysomething.
Why watch it? Maybe it was being flush with New Year optimism. Or maybe it was simply due to a strange fascination. Watching it I was trying to remember just whom the hell I used to hang out with a decade back. Our friend H had been part of a group of people I gravitated to, but it was still a while before I really got to know him. There were the studio folk, now gone.
For everyone who fell by the wayside, would I want to find myself back in their company? When the Friends Reunited website gained in popularity, I sniffed around some of my school listings. Fine, if you stayed put. But in the course of my education, from the very first primary to the Esteemed School of Art, I went to eight different schools/colleges.
With so many faces, so many years ago, I found it taxing trying to remember anyone. Although I eventually tracked down some alumni from the Grammar School and exchanged emails, it soon occurred to me that all we really had in common now was for those few, brief years we sat in the same classrooms.
When the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, I caught it with the lass I was seeing at the time at the Odeon West End on the south side of Leicester Square. As we passed through the cinema foyer, one of the managers present called out my name, which came as a shock. Apparently we had been at the Grammar School together. While I was obviously still recognisable, I couldn’t place his name or remember him at all. Which was embarrassing.
Oddly enough, one of my contemporaries from Sixth-Form College works at the Empire cinema on the north side of Leicester Square. I ran into him at screenings of The Mummy Returns and Pearl Harbor. The lack of films I’m eager to see has meant that I haven’t been back to either cinema.
I suppose there are folk from a long time back that I exchange Christmas cards with and possibly a couple of emails over the course of the year to briefly catch up. But I haven’t seen them in person for a good while. Everyone moves on and I’m terrible at keeping in touch.
Amongst the current circle of friends, I discovered that Our Pal once worked at a design studio with a girl I knew at The Esteemed School of Art. He actually met up with her again at a company party just before Christmas and his opening line was that he had seen a photograph of her wearing my clothes – all very innocent, I assure you.
She was a fiery character when we knew her but has apparently mellowed some. Rather than simply give her my email address, he gave her this blog address instead. So Mon, if you’re reading this, the complete profile page has a link to my email.
I guess the lifestyle growing up meant that I got used to leaving people behind. Working at different companies in my career continued the nomadic existence. Now that I’ve finally settled down some, doing what I want and what I’m good at, things should change.
In fact, there is a ballerina I haven’t see for a couple of years and wouldn’t mind getting back in contact with. But only so I can get her knickers down.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Not So Sure Thing
The festivities over. Back home, after Work Buddy and I had locked our schedule for this month. Writing.
Work Buddy’s girlfriend had two of her chums over from the Nether regions for the New Year. Over there the Dutch can pick up some, but not all, of the British television channels. They wanted to see what this Torchwood series was all about. So we all sat and watched the two-part finale on BBC3.
Which they expressed on very regular occasions. I would have joined in but for the ninety minutes I was struck dumb while desperately trying to stop myself clawing my eyes out and stamping on them.
As the final credits were rolling and everyone was taking the sort of deep breaths that help fight back nausea, Work Buddy’s Girl read out a line from the Radio Times regarding the show:
But if and when Torchwood returns, we’re going to have to care a lot more about the characters than we do now.
Not exactly the harshest criticism doing the rounds in print, but it was the “if and when” that caught our attention.
It may just be the two-week Christmas issue had been printed before the second series was given the green light. But buoyant with New Year optimism we hoped it might mean the BBC channel controllers had seen the low ratings as the writing on the wall and changed their minds. Or possibly the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had wised up to the fact that the money they put in as part of the co-production deal could be better spent at home, placing any further episodes in jeopardy.
For now we can only live in hope.