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?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mad Kids

Revolutionary Road
DVD via Redbox

Have you noticed? Television is easily outpacing cinema in terms of creating sophisticated, adult drama, and has been for several years now. There are a lot of factors for the change. Partly, it's that studios find marketing films about ideas and not high concepts very difficult. A movie like Transformers 2 might cost $250 million to make, but with the correct advertising approach, it's guaranteed to make $300 million. Because of TV on DVD, On-Demand, and Netflix, cable outlets have a lot more potential revenue streams besides up-front ad sales. That means that it's hardly a setback when a fine piece of television work like AMC's "Breaking Bad" doesn't attract a huge audience in its first season. With the awards and writeups it's now received, the studio and network have a way of profiting from the already-aired first season in a way they didn't several years ago.

Revolutionary Road, a high-profile prestige picture directed by American Beauty's Sam Mendes and centering on two (overrated) A-list Hollywood stars, is impossible to discuss without making the comparisons to "Mad Men." And none of them are flattering. Both are about unhappy bourgeois marriages in the 50's. Both involve a couple who are probably too sensitive and intelligent for the life imposed on them; in both scenarios, the husband finds "acceptable" outlets in affairs and drinks with the boys while the wife is imprisoned by the double standards of the era. It seems unusual to say so, but in this case, the TV actors are grossly superior. Leonardo DiCaprio cannot be taken seriously as a grown man; his voice sounds like that of a cartoon dog and he winds up into curse words like a nun is going to run in from off-camera and clobber him. Winslet can be very good but she isn't here, her housewife plays as self-centered, deluded, and childish. She's hobbled by an odd decision by writer and director to completely ignore the two children the couple are supposed to have. They exist, as a plot difficulty, but they don't have personalities or (hardly any) lines. It's an impossible task for Winslet to seem sympathetic as a full-time mother who is never seen interacting with her children.

The whole cast is filled out with types, rather than supporting characters: the nosy neighbor, her loutish husband, the dorky boss, the compliant mistress. In sharp contrast to "Mad Men" and Mendes' earlier domestic drama, the cast outside of the leads have no hopes or dreams of their own, they only serve to point out to the central couple things that they themselves are too self-obsessed to realize. Michael Shannon has gotten a lot of notice for his very small part as the mentally ill son of older neighbors. He's not really that good (and the role is badly, inconsistently written), it's only that everyone else in the movie is slotted directly into an obvious archetype and this individual stands out starkly in that context.

About two-thirds through, when it becomes clear that the miserable family isn't going to pack up and move their problems to France, Revolutionary Road goes from tolerable to stupid. DiCaprio and Winslet start shouting very obvious movie script lines at each other while Mendes' camera intrusively jams into their faces and then pulls back randomly, sullying the tension and not helping either celebrity with what end up as a pair of trite, shrill, unlikable performances. A smarter movie, one following the inner lives of its cast rather than the life events than define their surfaces, would follow through on the Wheelers moving to France... and then have them fight even more viciously there. Despite Mendes' repeated attempts to create a nightmare visual motif out of the suburban house on the hill where these unhappy people live, it's hard not to watch Revolutionary Road and think that the filmmakers utterly missed the point. These are some unpleasant people, and the film doesn't redeem them -- rather, it cheats, somewhat misogynstically cutting away romantically (and traditionally) from the husband's affairs while Winslet's housewife's degradations are shown in clinical detail.

The big problem with the movie is that the filmmakers feel that these people are significant, that they were meant for more, and situations outside their control led to their lives ending in tragedy. I didn't feel that way at all. He was a jerk, and she was a passive-aggressive mess. There's a spark in Don and Betty Draper (and the younger adman played by Vincent Kartheiser, who's a lot more similar than the effortlessly alpha Jon Hamm to DiCaprio's character, only Kartheiser can act) that nobody in Revolutionary Road touches.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Streets I'm Watching

"Homicide: Life on the Street"
DVD via Netflix

I finally finished watching "The Wire" last month. I still don't feel prepared to begin breaking the series down critically, because (although I'm hardly the first to point this out) it's far more like a novel than any other television series and it would be foolish to begin higher-level analysis on a novel you've only read once. Before the year is out, I plan on getting the complete series box set and chugging through again. After a third viewing (summer '1o?), perhaps I'll have a few preliminary observations to share.

After finishing that weighty project, it's not surprising that I've gone to DVD comfort food these past few weeks. Immediately after "The Wire," I decided to give another go at watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" all the way through in order. I've seen all the episodes (I think), but unlike "Deep Space Nine," "Next Gen" doesn't benefit in the least from being watched in rapid succession. Since I purchased the DVD's several years ago, I've given "TNG" a couple of tries, but it never took. Sure, certain episodes ("Disaster," which I watched last night, is a favorite) I've cued up multiple times, but I don't think I was doing myself any disservice never going back for a second viewing of "Shades of Grey" or "Identity Crisis."

This time, in large part because my girlfriend hadn't seen any "Star Trek" at all and is rather enjoying the prolonged exposure (she loves Data), it looks like I'm going to get all the way to the end. We're in Season Five now. The first three seasons were really rough, way worse than I remembered. Most of the really great writers who leap to mind when I think of "Next Gen," like Michael Piller, Ron Moore, and Rene Echevarria, didn't come on board until the fourth season or later. Also, it seems to have taken the syndicated show some time to earn the respect of the character acting community. The guest performances for the first half of its run are almost uniformly ghastly (except for John De Lancie, who almost counts as a regular, and Colm Meaney, who would eventually become one on the spinoff). It's not until after "Best of Both Worlds" that folks like Terry O'Quinn, Ashley Judd, Michelle Forbes, Bebe Neuwirth, David Ogden Stiers, and so forth begin appearing to send you scrambling off to IMDb to figure out where else you've seen them. Forgot about Whoopi Goldberg, I guess... although I don't have an opinion either way on her schtick or her character Guinan, whatever it is that Whoopi does on screen can't exactly be called acting. In any event, no watching old "TNG" episodes for any of you until you've been through the markedly superior "DS9" at least half as many times as me.

Having the bulk of "Next Generation" in the rearview, including all of the stupendously bad first two seasons, I've finally stepped up to some new content. My "Wire" research led me to (creator) David Simon's extraordinary work of novel-length journalism, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and the book in turn led me to the television series that was nominally adapted from it. I must say, I nearly quit halfway through the pilot, sent the disc back to Netflix, and canceled the rest of Seasons 1 & 2 from my queue. "Homicide," the TV series, is not journalism. It's certainly not "The Wire."

What really drove me nuts watching the first "Homicide" TV episode was all the minor changes made for no reason. The series has the rookie cop played by Kyle Secor going out for his first case and winding up the primary on the investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old girl. That's stupid, insulting, and unnecessary. There's no way any big-city police department would put a wet-behind-the-ears rookie on a "red ball" like that (unless the mayor's office deliberately instructed them to do so, as happened to Kima on "The Wire"). In the book, Baltimore detective Tom Pellegrini had been in homicide for several months and had worked a handful of cases as primary before the case the TV show is vaguely retracing fell on his desk. That's pretty amazing as it is -- why did the show have to overdo it? Massive lack of respect for the intelligence of its audience is the only answer. As scripts continue to take big chunks of Simon's prose and turn them into grandstanding speeches for the comically implausible Andre Braugher character, you long for the foul, inarticulate reality of the real cops in Simon's book and the believably fictional ones of "The Wire."

But it's not the fault of "Homicide" or its talented if conventional writers, actors, and filmmakers that I didn't get around to watching it until after "The Wire" spoiled more or less all network cop shows for me. (Except "Life." Bring back "Life," NBC!) To Barry Levinson, who knows Baltimore pretty good, bringing Simon's book to the small screen meant making the concessions to storytelling and recognizable character archetypes that most movies and television feel necessary. And it's not as if they filmed the thing in Vancouver. The sets look right, the stories largely resist pat endings, and at least one of the cops has a mustache (although in the book, every single last one of them did, and also none of them were women). Clark Johnson and Ned Beatty are terrific, even more so if you are familiar with the real cops their characters are patterned on. Donald Worden, the 25-year vet from the book, is one of those amazing real life characters not even Charlie Kaufman could dream up. Watching elements of his personality show up in Beatty's Bolander and Lester Freamon from "The Wire" reflects how deep of an impression Worden must have made on the young David Simon.

Ultimately what I like best about "Homicide" the TV show is something that doesn't have to do with Simon at all. The early episodes borrow his prose a lot, as I mentioned, mostly in speeches by Braugher or Yaphet Kotto. But they can't repurpose any of his dialogue quoted from the actual cops, because (like most cops I assume) everything they say is irreparably vulgar. That puts the "Homicide" writers in an interesting bind. In attempting to repackage Simon's marvelous reporting as a TV drama, giving some glimpse into the offbeat personal lives of the detectives is part of the challenge. To serve both realism and the structural requirements of the televised, commercial-interrupted network series, the characters are given lots of wholly original off-topic dialogue. Thanks to the unflagging quality of the cast of regulars (except for the minor Baldwin brother, who's distractingly bad, like Charlie Sheen's insufferable "Two and a Half Men" manchild only as a cop) and guest casting that doesn't have to work out of the hole of syndication (a younger Edie Falco has a standout bit in an early episode), these scenes really pop. I really like listening them BS about Memorial Stadium, Robert Irsay, blue crabs... Baltimore stuff.

(Anybody watching the All-Star Game notice that the Orioles went back to putting "Baltimore" across the front of their road grays, after years of "Orioles?" I approve of the change. Might finally get that Melvin Mora jersey now.)

It's bittersweet watching Richard Belzer on "Homicide." As good as Belzer is, and as iconic as his John Munch character has deservedly become, neither holds a candle to Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman from the Homicide book. Almost certainly a relic from a bygone age (as reported in 1988, when the insular, men-at-work camaraderie of the homicide unit was in its death throes, beset by affirmative action, political correctness, and monumentally incompetent administrators), Landsman's singular sense of humor begins at necrophilia and then gets really dirty.

So, no more watching "TNG" until you do your "DS9" homework, and no "Homicide" until you read the book where it all started. Got it?