Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pay Cable Summer Lovin'

Showtime via DVR
"True Blood"

I mentioned AMC's "Breaking Bad" yesterday as an example of a show that might never have made it past a third airing were it not for the new realities of TV's business model. It was a tough, bleak show to watch with no name actors and a number of unique, possibly off-putting elements. But AMC was hot at the time, could afford to take a risk, and had already seen with "Mad Men" how DVD and On-Demand could build massive, bankable buzz even around a show with tiny initial ratings on a network most people couldn't find without assistance.

"True Blood" when it first premiered had critics circling in the water. The relatively small community of newspaper television writers built up HBO's reputation as the only network around worth paying for solely on the basis of its original programming, and journalists aren't any less susceptible than screenwriters to the lure of the perfect third act. Having chronicled the premium channel's maverick rise and awards-hogging golden era, our TV writers were all too ready to shovel dirt on Home Box with "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos" concluded, "Deadwood" prematurely suspended, "John from Cincinnati" a costly flop, and "Entourage" becoming malodorous self-parody even more rapidly than (its model) "Sex and the City" did.

But wait! "Flight of the Conchords" and "Eastbound and Down," two totally different and completely hilarious comedies, were both partially dismissed by critics as minor fare before they even made their debuts. Neither exactly concerned itself with intimate contemplation of human mortality, but so what? "Conchords" was nominated for both Best Comedy and Best Actor (Jemaine Clement) Emmys, and "Eastbound and Down," when it's all said and done, might be the single funniest original series HBO has ever put its name on. (Not to say that it's brilliant, mature work, but "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is hardly cerebral either, not to mention "Dream On" and the proliferation of premium cable "comedies" that are/were a half-hour long but not even remotely funny.) In retrospect, writers seemed overly predisposed to dismiss whatever HBO was serving because it fit in with their storyline: big heavyweights leaving, shady business dealings here and there, network leadership being reshuffled amidst scandal... sure, all of that has happened at HBO in the last 18 months, but also at pretty much all of the other television networks within the last couple years.

"True Blood" had problems when it first appeared, but not insurmountable ones. As a one-hour show with a noted fussbudget auteur as creator and producer (Alan Ball of "Six Feet Under"), drawing comparisons to David Milch's "John from Cincinnati" was bound to happen. However, "John" was almost unquestionably doomed from the start. It was impenetrable and dense, populated by creepy people, and seemingly went out of its way to alienate us from the few characters that seemed identifiable. (I kind of liked it.) But "True Blood," even though the first couple of episodes really sucked, had some obvious assets that professional television watchers overlooked in their rush to heap dirt on HBO's grave. It wasn't serious about itself at all, a conscious choice of Ball's after the hermetic "Six Feet Under." It had a truly bizarre cast, a mismatched collection of solid pros, good-looking but talent-light bimbos of both of the male and female variety, and a couple of recovering child stars eager to claim their own small part of the legacy that really built HBO's empire: unimpeded on-camera views of the female nipple.

It's wild to think about it, because HBO has been trying for years to justify its essentially prurient roots with all kinds of contrived sex series and documentaries, but "True Blood" is the first show they've ever produced that uses sex and nudity to this degree without it becoming the whole point of the exercise. It's a credit to Ball's vision that the graphic content has only increased since the show started and yet it's become less and less the focus when it comes to discussions of "True Blood." He's created a world where characters, protagonists even, are free to pursue (mildly) deviant sex in search of greater pleasure and self-actualization, and where one of the major themes even is that what you choose to do by consent in the bedroom has no bearing on your character otherwise. That's wildly rare, possibly even unique, for American television. A lot of writers have zeroed in on "True Blood" as a metaphor for the gay liberation movement but I think Ball is aiming more broadly still.

"Weeds" is a beneficiary of the new pay-cable reality as well, having survived both a rough shakedown period (enduring major cast and stylistic changes in the first few episodes) and a meltdown of a third season (leading to really major cast and stylistic changes at the beginning of the fourth). While I was happy to see the show survive, I'm still on the fence as to whether the decision was entirely creatively motivated. It seems like Showtime really needed an other female-led half-hour show to pair with "Nurse Jackie," and they didn't have anything else likely in the pipeline. The fourth season, with some hiccups, seemed to represent enough of a correction from the previous year's wreck that the show could live on. Only a few episodes into Season Five, I am reconsidering this long-term assessment.

Trouble is, I just don't trust "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan any longer -- the woman suffers from incurable plot incontinence. Giving drug dealer Nancy a boyfriend in the DEA isn't enough, she has to marry him. Then he has to be killed by Armenians, so she can sleep with the mayor of Tijuana. And then she has to get pregnant, so Alanis Morrisette can play her OB/GYN. Are you following all of this? This is insane, right? Well, any sitcom that runs long enough can probably be made to seem pretty silly by picking the right string of random plot points. The trouble with Kohan and her show is that it's just never found a balance between hurtling forward recklessly and giving any of its characters a thread to hold on to and follow for more than a couple of scenes. Buffy and her gang saved the world at least twice per year and they still had tons of time for self-reflection; Data played Henry V, wrote poetry, solved cases as Sherlock Holmes, painted, and had at least two cats named Spot in his free time.

Everybody on "Weeds" is so constantly reacting to the latest seismic shock -- most recently, Kohan jump-cut the show forward almost an entire nine-month pregnancy with a single title card -- that they never have any time to be anything. Nancy's sons are two somewhat distinct collections of neuroses, Doug and Celia are reduced to being one-joke characters (two different jokes, at least), and even Justin Kirk's usually reliable Andy seems to be running on fumes. All right, it was at least a little bit funny that Andy reacted to rejection by Nancy by "growing" a pathetically fake beard and spending every waking hour playing Ms. Pac-Man. But the subplot before that, which had Andy assuming the identity of his late brother to seduce a spinsterly bank teller, seemed degrading to character, actor, and writers alike. Isn't anybody here, fictional or otherwise, learning anything from their past experiences?

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