Monday, September 29, 2008

No Fringe Benefits

Normally, about this time of year, I would have been sniffing around the new television shows premiering in the US to get an inkling of what might be heading this way in the next few months. Except this year I simply haven’t really bothered to pay the Fall schedule much heed, instead using my time to watch that show.

Or it simply may have been that when I did check out what was eventually commissioned, post-WGA strike, I wasn’t thrilled that quite a number of them were to be American versions of shows I’d caught over here. While some shows like The Office managed to translate well, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath over The Worst Week of My Life and Kath & Kim, or Life on Mars.

Foreign remakes aside, one theme running through a number of new dramas appears to be science running amuck. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, really really-bad science, and that doesn’t even include the resurrected Knight Rider from NBC. It was bad enough that last year the network brought back The Bionic Woman, though without the definite article. How bad must the other ideas pitched have been before they decided to put their money on that damned talking car?

One of the shows that has come my way is Fringe from JJ Abrams and the two guys that wrote Transformers. Now, I loved those first couple years of Alias and am even still clinging on to the hope that Lost will make some kind of sense at some point, but Fringe seems to have gone right off the rails from the absolute get go. I don’t know how they pitched it, but with an FBI Special Agent heading up the oddball team of characters, Fringe is like The X-Files but without the alien bullshit.

Or rather, it’s like The X-Files with a whole bunch of different bullshit. With wayward “science” that’s on the bleeding edge replacing extra-terrestrials, it means that by trying to make it understandable, if not credible, the blather-filled plots lack a sense of urgency as characters talk about things rather than getting on with it.

Maybe concerned about this they’ve whipped up some rather unusual elements to throw into the mix that certainly differentiates it from everything else. To begin with there’s a really mad scientist doing really mad science stuff. Even with his barrage of non-sequiturs it still becomes tired pretty quickly because it’s exactly what you’d expect. Now, a mad scientist on a cookery show would be something, having him put together bizarre recipes and declare, “My creation lives!” when it comes bubbling out of the oven.

Then there’s a remarkably clean cow, which is certainly very different. Having lived on a farm, I can tell you that the average domestic bovine will take a big messy shit at the drop of a hat. There was even one instance, though not on our property, where a cow happily crapped on the head of the calf behind it without batting an eye. That’s what they do. In fact the reason we slice these animals up and eat them is not simply to piss off pasty-faced vegetarians but to stop the surface of this fair planet turning into one massive cowpat. Maybe the Fringe cow has had its butt scientifically plugged.

Next there are the most bizarre on-screen legends that pop up through the course of the episode. Remember how The X-Files used to have the little Courier supers running along the bottom of the screen to note the locations, whether it was Bumfuck, Idaho, or whatever other godforsaken place? And then Heroes used a comic-book lettering font to keep track of the various characters and locations. Fringe tries to go bigger and better with massive, fuck-off, 3D words floating in front the different locations.

Maybe a decade ago this would have been kind of cool, given all the mapping it would require, and especially with the show-off camera moves thrown in. But since that kind of software is readily available, and in fact there are programs that will do even flashier stuff on the market, the first time these massive names appear it’s puzzling, and every instance after become just plain annoying.

After all that there’s just one last point to flag up. It had me raise an eyebrow, and to see if any other people got it I mentioned it to H when we sat down for a beer recently. You see, the pilot involves a commercial airliner than pitches down at Logan airport. I told H this, added a few more details and he came back with, “That sounds like the first episode of Department S.” Exactly. Then the second episode of Fringe has a woman give birth to a baby that grows into an adult in minutes. He flagged up the Alpha Child episode of Space:1999. Right again.

Apart from all the other nonsense with the scientist and the cow and the legends, they’re getting plots from Lew Grade’s old ITC shows. I’m not sure which is the scariest? Anyway, Sky has paid good money for the show so it’s turning up on Sky One sometime soon.

The other big bad science show is a US adaptation of Stephen Gallagher’s Eleventh Hour with Rufus Sewell in the Patrick Stewart role. This looks a far better bet, but a recent comment from one of the producers had raised a cause for concern. Not so much about the show, it’s more about how these Hollywood types view their country as consisting of the West Coast, East Coast and the flyover States in between.

Talking about the differences between the UK and US versions on Sci Fi Wire, Executive Producer Cyrus Voris states:, if you go to the English countryside, you can buy more that people are cut off from stuff in terms of some of the scientific crisis and ideas. We went through a whole thing on an episode that they're shooting now, which has to do with an outbreak of a smallpox hybrid. The big thing was “Where do you set it?” Because if you set it in New York City, it's unbelievable that the entire city wouldn't come to a stop and be shut down in, like, four or five hours.

It became, like, “OK, we have to find someplace in the U.S. [where] it's a little more believable that the story can play out in the way it needs to for drama.” I think they had a little easier time in the British version of doing that. If there's some little town, some coal-mining town out in the middle of the British countryside, you can believe a little bit more that stuff can get a little crazier, as opposed to some part in the U.S.

Wait a second; has this guy just said that Britain has more rural and isolated communities than America? Somebody needs to buy him a gift certificate from Rand McNally.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Just Great

With summer’s traditionally brain-dead movies dribbling out the door, and the big spit-and-polished films that studios are praying will get rimmed with Oscar glory being held back until year’s end, the change of seasons usually creates a lull in big screen entertainment. Since that leaves nothing on the immediate horizon for film magazines to get themselves in a sticky lather about.

To fill their pages, we can always rely on Empire to come up with some fool poll. Earlier this year the magazine rather pointlessly ran “The 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time!” Now they’re back, reeling off “The 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time,” based on votes from “10,000 Empire readers, 150 of Hollywood’s finest and 50 key film critics.”

As much as these kinds of polls usually leave me shaking my head in disgust at the results, their siren call still fascinates me. After all, what really makes a great film? Is it simply a combination of acting, writing and direction all working at the top of their game? Or does it require technical innovation added to that, like Citizen Kane or Toy Story?

Does a great film have to be universally liked? I can appreciate Raging Bull for all its expertise but quite frankly find it uncomfortable to watch. But, if we simply went on box-office returns, that would leave it in the hands of the chumps crowding into the multiplexs on Friday nights, which is always a bad thing. Even Best Picture winners have been occasionally suspect over the years.

Another factor in any poll is that it depends on what those casting their votes have seen. Nobody seems to want to watch old films anymore. Nobody seems to know about old films any more. Occasionally I’ve caught the quiz show Eggheads and when younger contestants catch a question relating to a movie from the 1940s, 50s or 60s they generally announce, “This is from before I was born.” How is that any excuse? It’s a good job they didn’t get thrown a history question.

Anyway, the full list of “The 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time” starts here. If you can’t be arsed to go through the whole lot, the top 20 are:

01. The Godfather (1972)
02. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
03. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
04. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
05. Jaws (1975)
06. GoodFellas (1990)
07. Apocalypse Now (1979)
08. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
09. Pulp Fiction (1994)
10. Fight Club (1999)
11. Raging Bull (1980)
12. The Apartment (1960)
13. Chinatown (1974)
14. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
15. The Dark Knight (2007)
16. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
17. Taxi Driver (1976)
18. Casablanca (1942)
19. The Godfather Part II (1974)
20. Blade Runner (1982)

The Dark Knight? Really? Going through the full 500, you can pretty much see which titles were put forward by the industry insiders and critics. Whether it’s Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (36 on the list), Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne (165), or Lubitsch’s marvellous Ninotchka (255) and The Shop Around The Corner (384) or the quintet of classic Powell & Pressburger films – the highest of which is A Matter of Life and Death (75) – I very much doubt they came from the average readers.

Instead, I suppose, they are the ones we have to thank for such entries as Back To The Future Part II (498), Superman Returns (496), Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (475), Batman (458), Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (453), Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (449), Dumb And Dumber (445), and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (330). Maybe they mistook it for a list of films that needed to be pissed on from a great height. Or it may be that these are the kind of films they watch because they don’t know any better.

It’s a shame the major channels are only interested in buying up recent blockbusters to screen, knowing they’ll have a guaranteed audience, rather than make an effort to screen the movies of Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges or F.W. Murnau or any of the other great filmmakers from the early half of last century. They probably wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, and people shouldn’t be bullied into watching them, but if all everyone wants is the next utterly vacuous Tarantino film, who’s going to be left to remember the real greats?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Everything Is Connected

It may be a lack of research or column inches but most articles relating to the long overdue UK publication of David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets rather too simplistically put it down as the inspiration for The Wire. Obviously the publishers, Canongate, are happy to promote a clear correlation between the two, even going so far as to use the same typeface as the HBO drama and having a cover similar in style to the season one DVD.

Certainly Simon’s year spent with the Baltimore Homicide Division was a starting point for everything to come, but only Stephen Amidon’s review in The Sunday Times seems to acknowledge that the book was initially adapted into Homicide: Life on the Streets by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. After first writing episodes of the police drama, Simon eventually left The Baltimore Sun to become a producer on the show’s final couple of seasons. From there he co-wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Ed Burns, which itself was turned into an HBO miniseries in 2000.

Having served twenty years in the Baltimore Police Department, including a spell in Homicide, Burns was first detailed to the FBI where he helped to arrest and convict a drug organization working in the city’s projects and then the DEA where he brought down a violent drugs trafficker. Retiring from the force, Burns took a job teaching in Baltimore’s public school system. Take all that into account – Simon’s background, Burns’ background, the Homicide Department, FBI and DEA operations, the school system, and The Baltimore Sun – and then you get The Wire.

As I said, maybe the lack of column inches meant there simply wasn’t the space to tie enough of it together. Of course the leap could have been made by the writers flicking through their review copies of Simon’s book and immediately happening upon the name Jay Landsman. Anyone who watches The Wire knows Jay Landsman as the usually jovial Detective Sergeant in the Homicide Department. Anyone who pays attention to The Wire will also have noticed the name Jay Landsman appear in the end credits.

The Squad Supervisor back in 1988 when Simon shadowed the Homicide Detectives, Jay Landsman, with his trademark deadpan humour, was the inspiration for Richard Belzer’s John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Street. Munch, who transferred over to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when Homicide came to an end, has also cropped up in The X-Files and Arrested Development, and also made a cameo in the fifth season of The Wire.

Of course Belzer isn’t the only actor to show up in both Homicide and The Wire. Clark Johnson made the leap from Detective Detective Meldrick Lewis to Sun City Editor Gus Haynes and Erik Todd Dellums who plays the ME, Doctor Randall Frazier, previously appeared as the drug lord Luther Mahoney. Then there’s Gary D'Addario, cast as Grand Jury Prosecutor Gary DiPasquale, played Lieutenant Jasper, head of the QRT in Homicide. DiPasquale is a special case. Rather than a jobbing actor, he was previously the Shift Commander of the Baltimore Homicide Department when Simon was assigned as a “police intern”.

Using real police in dramas isn’t new. Michael Mann made a habit of casting police and criminals like Chuck Adamson and John Santucci in Thief and Crime Story. His most famous find was Chicago policeman Dennis Farina who has since carved out a pretty good career. As well as DiPasquale, The Wire also features Ed Norris, a veteran of the NYPD and one time Police Commissioner of Baltimore, as Detective Edward Norris. That leads to Jay Landsman, cast as Dennis Mello, the administrative lieutenant working in the Western District under “Bunny” Colvin during the whole “Hamsterdam” initiative.

If I go any further on this I’m probably going to need a dry board and markers to join everything up. But at least it shows how using people with the actual experience simply adds to the verisimilitude of the dramas. Even though Homicide and The Wire have finished their runs the connections still continue. In the first two seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street Jon Polito played Detective Steve Crosetti who obsessed over Lincoln’s murder, much to Meldrick’s annoyance. Now it looks like Simon and Tom Fontana are set to collaborate on an HBO miniseries about the search for John Wilkes Booth.

Based on Manhunt, James L. Swanson’s 2007 book about the hunt by Washington police and military officers for Booth in late April 1865, Variety reports that if the project goes ahead it will “focus on the perspectives of lesser-known historical figures that were connected to the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent media frenzy and manhunt.” Although in the early stages of development, with the success of their historical drama John Adams, which garnered a record 13 Emmy Awards from 23 nominations, including Best Miniseries and wins for actors Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson and writer Kirk Ellis, hope fully HBO will go ahead with the project.

In the meantime, anyone suffering The Wire withdrawl should seriously check out Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Having first read it in the mid-1990s, I’m giving it another go around. It’s probably a saner option than re-watching The Wire again. (Although, after the weekend, I'm halfway through season two).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Whatever Happened To Saturday Night?

You’ve got to admit, there have been days when you wish the Large Hadron Collider at Cern had ripped the world a new arsehole when the boffins finally flipped the switch. I would have been perfectly happy for it to happen last week when I discovered Christmas cakes already on the damned supermarket shelves.

It’s a shame that yesterday’s quench is the only real foul up so far. If it had been far more spectacular and life threatening it may have spared us the BBC’s utterly piss poor excuse for a new Saturday night schedule. Now I know that coming off The Wire absolutely nothing is going to be as good, and I know that the early part of the evening’s schedule is designed for the “family audience”, but... are we talking a family of utter fucking retards here?

What the fuck was the point of Arsehole in the Wall? That would have made a great round back in the days of It’s a Knockout or the international Jeux Sans Frontières, but otherwise it was just a bunch of hopeless D-listers getting repeatedly knocked into a pool of water. If the contestants were the US Beach Volleyball team or if the water was replaced by a good meat gravy and there were ravenous dogs lined up along the pool’s edge, then that would be entertainment. Otherwise the entertainment value ran out pretty damn fast.

Just because the format has been sold around the world doesn’t mean that some empty suit at the BBC should have signed on the dotted line. That’s the same argument as: Well everyone else has genital herpes, why not? The fact that this fucked up nonsense originated in Japan shouldn’t have come as any real surprise. But it’s the kind of weird shit that Clive James used to take the piss of a quarter of a century ago.

Then we get Strictly Come Dancing. Even though the novelty is wearing thin, it looks like the show is soon going to take over the whole damn schedule. Although it’s entertaining to see narcissistic control-freak dickwads like Gary Rhodes having to keep a fixed grin while the judges tell him he’s utterly shit, dear old Brucie, with his feeble jokes and tired banter, really should be taken around the back and humanely put down.

That just leaves Merlin, slopped into the Doctor Who slot. Now, I love the Arthurian legends, but not when they’re awkwardly shoehorned into the Smallville format. Maybe it got better after the first couple of minutes, but I couldn’t be bothered to find out. Still, they did all look lovely and clean. I always thought that in those times you could tell the king because “He hasn't got shit all over him.” Maybe I shouldn’t take Monty Python and the Holy Grail too literally.

After all that I’d certainly vote for the tonne of liquid helium to be leaked through Television Centre. Until it happens I may have to go right back to the streets of Bodymore, Murdaland, for any satisfaction.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Wire In The Blood

A week last Monday I flipped through the TV listings, frowning at the utterly lacklustre load of old pish on offer. For a quick fix I should have grabbed a movie off the shelf that would sufficiently eat up a good few hours before it was time to turn in. Instead I settled down to season one of The Wire.

As any fule kno, this can be a pretty dangerous practice, especially if you’re a long-time addict of the show. There I was thinking I could catch a couple of episodes and that would be it. But I failed, spectacularly. In the past I’ve burnt through weekends watching one season or another, but with the final season available on DVD (well, on Region One at least), there’s now the opportunity to watch the entire run of sixty episodes. So that’s what I did.

Again I thought I could keep it down to a manageable number of episodes a night but that proved impossible. Blogging right went out the window. Sustenance pretty much followed straight after, with me reduced to stuffing an onion bagel in the toaster during an end credit sequence or hurriedly fixing a cheese and pickle sandwich.

I took a time out to watch A Number on the Wednesday, which I regretted, and another this past Monday to spend an entertaining evening with my pal H, which I did not. That said, it was still good to get home with enough time to squeeze a couple of episodes before calling it a night. In between the weekend disappeared as I tore through the final half of season three and got deep into season four.

This may appear horribly obsessive, and it most probably is, but since David Simon has described the episodes of The Wire as sixty chapters of a visual novel, watching it becomes the equivalent of reading a favourite book. In that instance you’re ravenous to see how it turns out but enjoy it so much you don’t want it to end either. So, there’s the rub.

The Wire has always required attention to be paid because even the most casual aside mentioned early on in one season will pay off later on. Watching all five, one after another sees situations and dialogue carry on across the years to create a marvellous tapestry of a dysfunctional city and its inhabitants, on both side of the law, trying to keep their heads above water.

There’s no point berating people for not watching The Wire. You either want to take part in the experience or you don’t. The one thing I can’t get my head around is how the various people intent on writing for television aren’t flocking to this show in droves. Still, who wants to see the levels quality drama can attain when there’s Holby City to watch? That’s like wandering around a gallery, cooing at the kiddies’ finger paintings on display and ignoring the Rembrandt next door.

Anyway, I finished watching the show on Thursday evening and instantly that left me with a dilemma, or, to put it another way, profound withdrawal symptoms. Flicking through the channels I couldn’t find anything of real substance that even came close. In fact this evening, feeling utterly bereft, I watched the series finale again to fill the gaping void.

Amongst all the little details, like the tip of the hat to the late Robert F. Colesberry, executive producer of The Wire who also played Detective Ray Cole, and the various characters moving on only for someone to take their place, I began to wonder if we’d ever seen Sgt. Jay Landsman eat the same thing twice as he stalked the Baltimore Homicide department.

Maybe that should be investigated sometime soon. As excuses go, I can’t think of a better one right now. In the meantime the only thing left to do is to raise a glass to the free born men of the USA and say, “Nicely done.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Wednesday Plays

Posts have been light this past week because, with nothing of much consequence in the schedules, I went back to rewatching The Wire from the first episode onwards. Well, you know how that is. Before I knew it the evenings had slipped away. Right now I’m deep into season four and breaking for dinner.

I did take time out midweek to watch A Number on BBC2. To be honest, halfway in I fell asleep, waking just before the end. I don’t know if the past three Wednesday’s plays were part of some grand scheme cooked up behind closed doors, high up in the BBC’s ivory tower, but apart from one outstanding drama, I’d say they got it typically ass about face.

If some empty suit got it in their thick skull to resurrect The Wednesday Play, hurray for them. Except, of course, they took it far too literally. Back when it launched in late 1964 the series did start out with adaptations, such as Sartre’s In Camera which featured Harold Pinter in the cast, but only because they were leftovers from the recently cancelled Festival strand. Come the New Year it was on its feet screening provocative and thoughtful dramas.

There are people who look back on The Wednesday Play as being more worthy than entertaining, taking on contentious contemporary issues such as capital punishment and racial prejudice. But more importantly, under the aegis of producer Robert McTaggart, along with assistant script editors Ken Trodd and Tony Garnett working under Roger Smith, not only did the series step outside the confines of the studio by shooting on film but it also created a platform for new writers.

In its first full year, which began with the crime drama A Tap on the Shoulder written by convicted murderer James O’Connor, The Wednesday Play screened the first four plays by Dennis Potter. Starting with The Confidence Course and Alice, his psychological portrait of Charles Dodgson, the series saw out 1965 with the semi-autobiographical Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.

It would also provide a home for more established writers like Troy Kennedy Martin and David Mercer, which may be why the three recent offers went to playwrights David Hare and Caryl Churchill. The problem was Hare’s My Zinc Bed was that the production was ultimately compromised by miscasting. Uma Thurman may still stir the blood but she was hopelessly out of her depth. It may have benefited from the original Royal Court cast of Steven Mackintosh, Tom Wilkinson and Julia Ormond.

Churchill’s A Number betrayed its theatrical routes from the very beginning without making any effort to adapt to the different medium, unless of course you count that final scene I woke up just in time for. Between the two was Frank Cottrell Boyce's magnificent God On Trial, in which a hut full of Auschwitz prisoners launch into a theological and philosophical debate as they await their uncertain fate.

It’s a shame that the other two plays couldn’t have been of the same high calibre. But these days I suppose one good drama and two middling ones are better than nothing. But if they want to try this little experiment again, maybe looking for some new voices might be nice.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Top Pilot Study

Last week’s TV Guide carried a rather misguided list of what it considered the 10 Best TV Pilots. Obviously this led to much debate between various American television critics like James Poniewozik at Time magazine (who helpfully reprinted the TV Guide list), Alan Sepinwall who writes for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, and The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan.

Not having access to the original article, which doesn’t appear to be on the magazine’s website yet, there’s no idea whether an accompanying article gave any additional reasons that led the writer to formulating the list. Without it we can only assume the ten were based on personal opinions more than anything, and it that’s the case then we can only deduce that the article’s author hasn’t watched much good television over the years.

It can be forgiven that the majority of the TV Guide ten are from the last decade. After all American television has been getting better over these many years, both on network and cable channels, rather than a simple failure of effort, but that said there are some horribly glaring omissions.

I suppose as well it depends what you’re looking for in a series pilot. Charged with the tricky balancing act, a pilot has to introduce new characters and push forward the plot, all the while engaging the audience. With competition to contend with, perhaps more importantly it has to bring something different. So, not a tall order at all.

Mulling it over, I tried to watch as many pilots available as possible over the weekend to remind myself of the impact they made. One additional factor that stood out amongst a select few is that they arrived fully formed and hit the ground running, rather than showing a marked difference between that initial episode whether in cast changes, different locales or tweaks to the storyline.

Casting an eye over the TV Guide list, I’d take issue with the inclusion of 24. Although it had an intriguing format – playing out in real time over the course of a single day – the first episode itself was quite average, with too much time eaten up with the stupid antics of Jack Bauer’s annoying daughter. I watched the pilot of Desperate Housewives on Channel 4 but came away with the opinion that it desperately wanted to be an HBO show and can’t remember anything else.

Saturday Night Live is a show I’ve never found remotely funny. I’ve seen old clips on John Belushi and tried watching a whole episode when I was in New York for almost two months in 1990. Having read Doug Hill and Jeff Weingard’s book Saturday Night, I don’t understand how the first show that went out in October 1975, with “The Wolverines” sketch kicking it off, could be considered a pilot because NBC had already committed to the series.

While 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s sitcom revolving around the making of a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy, was certainly more focused later in its run, the pilot appeared too garbled and rambling to belong on the list. It may be that comedies fail to produce truly great pilots because it takes a while for the writers to discover the strengths the cast bring to the roles.

Lost certainly got off to an intriguing start, with an almost silent opening that saw Jack coming round in the jungle before introducing the mayhem around the crash site of Oceanic 815. But we should remember that it took a double-length episode, featuring the invisible monster rumbling through the tree line similar to the end of Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, and the pissed off polar bear in the second half, before the fuselage survivors started asking what kind of crazy island they had been dumped on.

Those objections aside, The Shield certainly deserves a place on the list. A traditional staple of television, each new police drama needs to bring something new to the table so as to differentiate it from everything that has gone before. Shawn Ryan’s drama certainly did that with the arrival of the bullish Vic Mackey on the bleached out streets of LA. While corrupt cops aren’t new, past incarnations always had a line they wouldn’t cross. In the final minutes of the pilot Mackey vaulted right over it.

Alias, too brought a much needed new twist to the secret agent genre, punching the stories forward on a fast-paced adrenaline high filled with bluffs and double bluffs, double- and triple-agents before revealing itself to be a canny drama about a dysfunctional family at heart. Obviously without the spy shenanigans, ER filled the emergency room of Chicago’s County General hospital with the same breathless energy. Perhaps its chief appeal was in treating the audience with intelligence by not stooping to explain the blur of procedures.

That said, what has the list omitted? I’d place Hill Street Station on the list, the pilot episode of Hill Street Blues because it not only matched the requisite criteria, changing the face of television drama. Joining it would be NYPD Blue which, a decade on, raised the bar well beyond the next level. The early thrill of nudity and more adult language became merely adjuncts to the sharp writing of David Milch, aided by the expertise of New York detective Bill Clark, which added emotional depth to both characters and situations.

At this point it would be so easy to fill the remaining slots with police shows. EZ Streets, Paul Haggis’ morally ambiguous cop drama, would probably make the list except it has been so long since Channel 4 screened the short-lived series in its now defunct 4-Later graveyard slot that, although I recall being excited by the pilot the only clear memory I have is of Rod Steiger’s character being stuffed inside an oil drum.

Although I quickly grew into Homicide: Life on the Street, the Paul Attanasio-scripted pilot, directed by Barry Levinson, while sketching in the characters perfectly and including a prime cast that included Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto, Jon Polito and Richard Belzer (screaming at a suspect that he is “not Montel Williams!”) still remains a little bit obtuse for my liking. Similarly, while Robbery Homicide Division was visually impressive, which is what everyone expects from Michael Mann, and included the always excellent Barry Shabaka Henley in the cast, the pilot lifted a little bit too much from Heat and Miami Vice for my liking.

Still, I would make room for The Target, the first episode of HBO’s The Wire. Without getting all high and mighty about it, it could be argued that David Simon’s drama is simply masquerading as a police drama and is instead a savage indictment of the failure of institutions to protect the individual. Though some people feel it takes a couple of episodes to get into the show, it had me from the very beginning with McNulty lamenting the short life and quick death of Snot Boogie.

Sticking with HBO and David Milch, I’d also add the pilot of Deadwood, which breathed new life into the cocksucking Western with a wonderfully alarming jolt. Although I’ve said sitcoms take time to find their feet, Arrested Development sprang up, fully formed, with Mitchell Hurwitz’s utterly bonkers tale of the Bluth family showing The Royal Tenenbaums just how dysfunctional family comedy should be done.

By my reckoning that makes eight shows. I’m still on the fence about the ninth, struggling to chose between the pilots of My So Called Life, Veronica Mars, and maybe even The Sopranos or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with Judd Hirsch’s remarkable on-air meltdown kicking off proceedings. Battlestar Galactica probably has to be ruled out in all fairness because it started with a miniseries that acted as a backdoor pilot once a series was commissioned.

Of course some people may carp about British shows not getting a look in. Some probably would appear if we were simply talking about opening episodes. But we have to remember that a pilot is a different beast altogether, playing a part in a completely different commissioning process from over here.

Although there was a phase a while back of the odd pilot appearing well before the full series, like New Tricks with it’s “Woof! Woof! Bang! Bang!” line and long before that the Golden Rose-winning Cold Feet. We also had one-off thrillers like Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes being turned into a sadly short-lived series. Even with them in contention, the drama that would be tenth on my list, and in fact would be top of the list, taking pride of place as the perfect pilot, would be Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

Few pilots tick every box, but I thought The West Wing absolutely nailed the lot. The lead characters were perfectly sketched in and the casting of known and less well-known faces was just perfect. Like Tom Fontana before him, Sorkin showed what can happen when a playwright is left alone to write a television series.

Following ER’s lead, it didn’t talk down to viewers by feeling the need to spell out the political machinations. More importantly, over the titles, as Leo McGarry entered the White House and worked his way to his office, viewers were treated to the first of Thomas Schlamme‘s long roving takes that would become a signature of the show. The almost constantly moving camera subliminally added extra vigour to what was essentially an hour of people sitting or standing around in rooms talking.

So that would more or less be my favoured ten pilots. Which ones did I miss?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Well, It Begins With "C"

So, the Cultural Olympiad, eh? A four-year programme comprising of 500 events to showcase Britain’s arts and culture that was apparently a key factor in London’s winning bid to host the 2012 games.

In her speech for London First Conference in January last year, Tessa Jowell, the idiot Culture Secretary, declared:

“The Cultural Olympiad in particular gives us an unprecedented opportunity to show international visitors not only how creative and innovative we can be, but also the variety of what we have to offer - both in London and the UK as a whole.”

With a budget of £40 million, the Cultural Olympiad is charged with planning numerous and local and regional events as well as co-ordinating both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 games. These include illuminating Windsor Castle and Blackpool Tower in pink, blue, orange and green - the colours of London 2012; holding a National Singing Day to celebrate music as a “universal language”...

Oh fuck it! here are some kittens...

Friday, September 05, 2008

Complete Bastards

For a long while it has become increasingly obvious that television dramas are best watched from a DVD boxset. That way the narrative isn’t interrupted by commercial breaks for car insurance, hair care products and celebrities bigging up supermarkets. It also means as a viewer you aren’t at the mercy of channel schedulers who either stick the programme into an inconveniently late time slot or disappear it all together.

Of course the drawback is that companies putting out the various shows on DVD aren’t simply doing it just for our benefit. If they don’t sell enough units to receive a decent return, the releases are liable to grind to a halt. Hill Street Blues hasn’t got beyond the second season, Fox have halted NYPD Blue in its tracks at season four, and it doesn’t look like St Elsewhere is going to get beyond its first year, which is a shame.

Still, there’s always a glimmer of hope. Sony left a whole three year gap between the second and third years of The Shield, then hurriedly spat out the further seasons in a bid to catch up. But for fans who doggedly buy a show on DVD, season by season until the very end, it’s got to be particularly galling when the company releasing them then brings out a special complete series set that includes additional extras beyond what was originally offered.

For fans of Seinfeld, Sony again seriously rubbed their noses it in by putting out a 33-disc Complete Collection, that a 226-page coffee table book, right on the back of season nine’s release. Meanwhile Warner Home Video knocked out The Complete West Wing, which contained the Region 1 extras that hadn’t been made available in the individual UK boxsets.

With Christmas soon to be looming on the horizon, Warner are poised to release The Sopranos – Deluxe Edition. Along with all 86 episodes of David Chase’s New Jersey mob family drama, deleted scenes and commentaries, the set includes Alec Baldwin interviewing Chase, cast and crew discussing the series finale over two sit-down dinners, and numerous spoofs and parodies.

It also features “The Whacked Sopranos” panel discussion from March 2007. Held at New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, now renamed The Paley Center for Media, the special event saw actors Steve Buscemi, Drea de Matteo, Vincent Pastore, David Proval and Annabella Sciorra take to the stage to discuss their character’s untimely, and usually bloody, demise.

The previously released individual seasons of The Sopranos weren’t exactly cheap. So this new arrival, along with Deadwood: The Complete Series, which is coming out on Region 1 DVD in December and trumpeting a bonus disc of all new material, has really got to stick in the craw of anybody who has already forked out for them.

It’s bad enough that various movies are re-released on Special Edition or Definitive Edition discs, but if companies like Warner and Sony are going to take up this practise of bringing out better packaged editions of particular television dramas long after their initial costly release, what are we expected to do? Ignoring the original releases and waiting to see what eventually comes out seems to be a plan.

But if nobody takes any interest to begin with the company may think there simply isn’t an audience out there. While we twiddle our thumbs in anticipation, they cut their losses by simply knocking it on the head and then nobody gets to see it. There are times when capitalism really sucks.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lost The Plot

There’s usually good value to be had in a culture clash. We’ve seen it before in Northern Exposure, which later begat Doc Martin. To give it that extra dimension there’s always the A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court approach, employing a shift in time as well as location, although of course the shorthand reference to such a notion is more likely to be Life On Mars nowadays.

Whereas Hank Morgan simply woke to find himself transported back to the reign of Arthur in Mark Twain’s novel, Sam Tyler had to suffer a more violent approach and be bounced off a speeding car before he could awaken to piss his political correctness all over The Sweeney. Now ITV is trying it on with Lost in Austen, although in a suitably far less aggressive manner.

I should say right away that obviously this isn’t a show for me, but I was curious to see how the construct was set up. Disappointingly it was less Life on Mars and more Mr Benn, although without the fez-wearing shopkeeper or the need to put on a Regency-period dress. Instead the unlucky-in-love, Pride and Prejudice-reading heroine, having set the evening aside to tuck into Austen’s book, was interrupted by the discovery of a hitherto unused door to Longbourn in her bathroom.

Apparently the carpenters who provided select furnishings for Professor Digory Kirke’s country house also did a sideline in plumbing on the QT. Except this time sad little Amanda Price also had the added inconvenience of a befuddled Elizabeth Bennet standing in her bath. After the introductions but before the explanations the pair ended up on the wrong side of the door.

At this point I should have turned over to catch God On Trial on BBC2 but it had taken so damn long to get there that I figured Frank Cottrell Boyce’s play would have to wait until I could watch it on iPlayer. With Lost in Austen crawling along at such a leisurely pace I ended up more engrossed in the crossword. While there might have been some reference to the modern girl’s pubic topiary to enliven proccedings, I was so caught up in trying to solve 21 Across that I missed the set up.

Having watched it through two commercial breaks, come the forty-odd-minute mark and still unsure what the point of it all was, I simply switched the television off. Time travel adventures always feature all kinds of wrongs to right, many of which are usually caused in the first place by the protagonists. The best episodes from the various incarnations of Star Trek involved some kind of time displacement, whether it was The City on the Edge of Forever, Yesterday’s Enterprise, Trials And Tribble-ations or the film Star Trek: First Contact.

In Back to the Future Marty McFly had to deal with the unwelcome advances from his mother in her younger guise before finding his way home. Closer in tone to Lost in Austen, without the Oedipal entanglements, with Elizabeth Bennet apparently still in the bathroom her father appeared to be putting one of his other daughters up for marriage to Darcy before I gave up.

“How will she keep the greatest love story of all time on track when Elizabeth Bennet is stuck in the modern world?” the press notes asks. The past couple series of Doctor Who saw the time-travelling twit cross paths with William Shakespeare and Agatha Cristie, stuffing the episodes with all manner of sly references to the authors’ work. Rather than having Amanda Price rub shoulders with Jane Austen herself, Lost in Austen instead transports her into one of Austen’s fictions, which has no real ramifications.

So surely the question to ask is: If you mess up a fictional world, who gives a shit?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Golden Opportunities

Thanks to the spectacular crash of thunder early yesterday morning that introduced an almost continual downpour, I put my feet up and finished reading Robert J Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age. Published in 1997 and subtitled “From Hill Street Blues to ER”, the book is obviously out of date now, but what’s important is how it began rather than where it is now.

Yes, the American system is different from the English was of programme-making, but there are still things to be learnt, whether they directly apply or not. Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University sees the Golden Ages of Television being predominantly defined by the drama on offer. These were the programmes described as “quality television” by the critics of the time and to narrow the focus, Thompson looks to The Viewers for Quality Television organization for a definition:

A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought. Characterization is explored. And usually a quality comedy will touch the funny bone and the heart --

So, that’s Knight Rider off the list then. Taking on board what viewers, critics and scholars agree makes up “quality television”, Thompson creates an eleven-point profile that includes:

Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV.

Quality TV creates a new genre by mixing old ones.

Quality TV tends to be literary and writer-based.

The subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial.

Reading those snippets today may lead some to think, “Yeah, so?” but remember this is relating to the 1980s when we were still having the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard foisted upon us. As noted in the book, prior to the arrival of the first of these quality dramas, prime-time stories based around abortion, homosexuals, racism and religion had yet to appear. AIDs was ignored until St Elsewhere ran a storyline.

Though the critics’ darlings, most of these shows were never great ratings winners. Ordinarily they should have been cancelled, but the networks usually saw their way to giving them a reprieve. It could have looked like they were looking for much needed plaudits the same way film studios indulge in movies that attract accolades rather than audiences. Instead, the shows may not have got all the viewing audience but it did get the right demographics: the “upscale, well-educated, urban-dwelling, young viewers advertisers so desire”.

One other drawback of the quality television shows was how it didn’t make syndication in America easy. People could take a load off and enjoy an episode of Magnum PI or The A-Team because the narratives were structured to be self-contained. Coming across an episode of Hill Street Blues or thirtysomething, the casual viewer would be confronted by a story that wouldn’t be properly resolved until the next episode or the one after that. That may be why so many of the more contemporary dramas that specialise in ongoing stories have been speedily packaged into DVD boxsets.

Still, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The first Golden Age of Television in America took place in the 1950s and the shows associated with it were the anthology dramas like Kraft Television Theater, Studio One and Playhouse 90 that put on work by the emerging new writers like Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Gore Vidal. In early 1961 the Golden Age was ruled to be over by the US government who declared television had become “a vast wasteland”.

Addressing the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington DC on May 9th, Newton Minow, the newly appointed Federal Communications Commission chair challenged station owners to watch their content for an entire day, stating:

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials – many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all boredom. true, you will see a few things you enjoy. But they will be very, very few.

Replace “Western” with the more repetitively tiresome contemporary genres and that all sounds horribly, horribly familiar. With BBC One being named Terrestrial Channel of the Year at the recent Edinburgh Television Festival, it makes you wonder whether it shouldn’t have been the celebrated for being the least worst channel as opposed to the best. As for BBC Three being named the best digital channel and Doctor Who winning the best programme of 2008, let’s not even go there.

The book covers such dramas as St Elsewhere, Moonlighting, thirtysomething, Northern Exposure, China Beach and Picket Fences, and shows what each brought to television. Although very different in content and style, one thing most of the shows had in common was that they were picked up that networks that were in last place at the time, meaning they had space in their schedules and willing to take a chance on something different.

Although ABC, CBS and NBC would in turn be seen as networks that embraced innovation, over the years they would also become less friendly to bolder programmes as their stock rose. As well as celebrating the ingenuity of such shows, Thompson also offered a warning about the damage a drama like Twin Peaks could unwittingly do to quality television. Writing for Connoisseur magazine in 1989, Warren Rodman called Twin Peaks “the series that will change TV forever”. For all the wrong reasons it almost did.

Mark Frost and David Lynch’s quirky small town crime drama was initially the critic’s darling and an audience pleaser but by the second season the bloom was firmly off the rose. Filled with nods to past films the way St Elsewhere before it had been rife with amusing television references, Twin Peaks may have set out to defy traditional television drama but ultimately became, “a show about little more than it’s own strangeness” that alienated everyone but the core fan audience.

While its influence may have lived on in Northern Exposure and David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, the perceived negative effect of Twin Peaks would see network heads lose patience with numerous “quality” shows and the critic’s favourites were purged from the schedules. Although quality television wasn’t completely snuffed out, the new wave of shows like NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street and ER would be set in more traditional television genres.

Still, the best lesson to be learnt comes from the opening chapters of Thompson’s book. Although Hill Street Blues would revolutionise US television drama, creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll both had a bellyful of working on cop shows and initially turned down the invitation. They eventually relented only when Fred Silverman, Michael Zinberg and Brandon Tartikoff at NBC effectively gave them catre blanche to come up with something completely different from the shows they had worked on before.

It also helped Bochco and Kozoll were making the show at MTM, the company co-founded by Grant Tinker and his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore in 1970. Initially formed to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM, with its familiar meowing cat logo, went on to produce a number of the acclaimed dramas of that decade. Many of the shows stood head and shoulders above their more obvious contemporary fare because of Tinker’s decision to make MTM a writer’s company.

Openly acknowledging that he was not a creative person, Tinker let them get on with what they wanted to do, all the while shielding them from any network interference. Under his watch, this new kind of quality television began to emerge from the nurturing environment. Even when he later became chairman and CEO of NBC, Tinker decided that the network should follow the same lines as best it could. As Thompson writes:

Celebrated as one of the giants in television history, Tinker’s principal contribution to the medium was to do what few executives have had the courage to do: to gather together talented creative people and to leave them alone.

If only such a radical idea could be employed over here.