Showing posts with label Television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Television. Show all posts

Thursday, August 13, 2015

TRUE DETECTIVE Season 2 , was very fine noir,

Jessica Reed writes a cogent defense of the second season of True Detective  in The Guardian, countering assertions of bad casting and performance, bad writing, misogyny and incoherence with clear arguments, clean examples. One understands that she "gets" the show and what creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto was aiming for with this gem of  a sentence from her article's fourth paragraph: "The message sent to us by the first episode’s final scene: we are entering a cursed place. Enter the world of Vinci, California, and you might never be able to escape its tentacles."

 Reed grasps that this eight episode arc was a descent into the worst kind of hell, one created by a gross indulgence in the baser instincts, a sphere built and constantly reinforced by lies, rationalizations and deceptions . This is not the world you enter if your are in the mood for neat tales with conflicts that are more annoyances than threats  and have resolutions that well made and pat. She  muses on how  HBO audiences seem , somehow, to gather together and reach what seems an unassailable consensus about the quality of certain shows they put on. Everyone must love The Wire, no exceptions, everyone must hate True Detective Season 2, no exception. It is a wonder how so many multiple thousands of Tweets and Facebook posts despised the program with precisely the same arguments, were routinely global in their condemnation. Just saying.

It would be interesting for someone to write a piece about the herd-think that has gone wild on the internet, arriving en masse to the lone talking point that TD2 is an "utter disaster". I was disappointed at first that the second season didn't seem more like the elegantly written and more typically "artful" style of the first, but I remained with the show and appreciated the differences. This was California noir, in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, 'China Town", "Kiss Me Deadly", "Asphalt Jungle", a dark exposition and exploration into crime, treachery, divided loyalties, hidden agendas, political scandals, kidnapping, drugs, sex, lust, avarice, the whole gamut of twisted and tortuously rationalized actions. It's a tradition of complex storylines, where nearly everyone advances balled faced lies and put forth competing fictions to hide real motives and cruel truths. Often times the plots are as near to incoherent as one can go'; and such affairs rarely go quickly, at a pace more suitable for the stock action film. It's a slow build, a slow uncovering, where every lie that gets exposed reveals more treachery, hidden agendas, crimes committed in dark places.

The casting was spot on for what the characters were supposed to be. Vaughn, I think, nailed the terse, near expressionless crime boss who tried to be Hemingway stoic while the buried rage cracked his facade. He was not everyone's choice, but after the peculiarities in the attention grabbing gestures of Matt M. and Wood H. from last season, I was perfectly happy with the less articulate, subdued qualities of these characters.

 And the dialogue, another aspect that's been bitched about to no end, was clearly a stylistic choice by writer Nick Pizzicato; the ostensible detectives uncovering the crimes through this mess are themselves broken and corrupted and here are attempting to do something resembling police work in order to bring  rough justice to those who deserve it. The truth, though, does not set you free, as the whole shebang becomes a ball of tar that has every vice stuck to it. I thought the bits of mumbled and muddled philosophy and wooden poeticism was effective in conveying the idea that the characters attempting to convey a sense of irony over recent events have little or no idea about what they're doing, what their goals are, or even where they stand as creatures with deeds to do, duties to perform. It was, I think, grossly under rated. It was mess, sure, but these kinds of stories are mood, not symmetry as it’s typically understood. It's a mess and it was beautiful, moody, nerve wracking and powerful

I liked the fact the show diverged from the creepy eloquence of the first season and instead placed us in a world of compounded noir particulars whose characters, good guys and bad guys, were not as well spoken as they thought they were. It was a moody eight episodes that had criminal conspiracies sprawling all over the landscape like Los Angeles county itself, and the fact that the investigators were a trio of cops with heavy baggage trying to decipher the thick over the layered sediment  of deception and corruption just made this fascinating for me. 

Film noir is a genre famous for obtuse plots that are thick, hard to follow, at times bordering on incoherent; the point seems to be to expose and witness the peculiar rationalizations that motivated the crime, the larceny, and the paranoid self-seeking that forms the conditions for a bitterly ironic end for most of the involved.It was, in essence, of flawed characters who have made their various bargains with the devil attempting to escape their with the commision , they assume, of one virtuous act, the revelation of truth. No one, though, escapes their fate, and those who don't die find no redemption. It's a classic Tragic form, and TD2, provided an apt version of a thriller 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Serious like a good crying jag

Inveterate television watchers have been extolling the worth of cable drama for some time now, honoring the programming as solid evidence that television has entered a new Golden Age. It's a view I share in large part. There has been and continues to be so much interesting and artfully convened fiction and comedy spread  out along the cable channels that participating in a TV show carries the sort of prestige that had been the exclusive claim of movie work. Small wonder for the tremendous ground swell in quality, as movie producers, directors and writers, finding it more difficult to get serious dramatic films produced for theatrical release, approached premium cable stations like HBO and Showtime, along with FX and AMC on the non--premium side, to see if they could get their projects done. The rest, of course, is a changed industry, with new technologies, more viewing options , and more demand for original content. Not everything that has emerged in the vein of serious cable drama has been compelling, which was to be expected by anyone who knows the basic dialectical precept that "quantity changes quality". (Consult your Hegel, Marx and Engels for more elaboration, or browse this handy cheat sheet on the issue). The upshot of that abstract dictum is that familiarity breeds contempt on the audience's part, who eventually become so saturated in the fundemental mechanisms of serialized drama that what was once fresh and refreshingly unexpected becomes cliched  and , further, lends itself to parody. Worse, the dramas parody themselves. That would be a sad state to find ourselves in, a sad state to return to, not much different than when the broadcast networks ruled the airwaves and ruined us with decades of shtick.

This is to put forward that the sort of drama introduced to cable television introduced with the 1997 HBO prison series OZ  has been around long enough to develop, inspire further plot innovations and variations to the extent that the quality fiction programs we've come to know have developed their own generic structural particulars and developed , as well, their own cliches. Part of that seems to be the draining of humor, even gallows humor, from a good amount of the newer dramas and the drastic draining of any ironic sense that might give the relentless pursuit of gloom a breathe space or at least a chance to laugh hysterically at some sudden funny quirk that would release tension before building it up again. 

The Atlantic Magazine has an article titled "Why Prestige TV is So Depressing" .This article is a pretty good overview of the current crop of prestige dramas that have filled the cable channels. I pretty much share the opinion that television has matured to the point that it can have splendidly plotted, directed and acted serial dramas that provide the grittier and compelling twists of the human heart at war with itself (a paraphrase of Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech quote), an audience desire that theatrical motion pictures have not been able to do in large part for at least the last 20 years. 

 Humor in these most recent series,, though, seems to be on vacation and matters are several shades too dire and too serious . Game of Thrones should have been conceived as a limited series with an end game in sight, different from Martin's unfinished novel series. This last season was a humorless trudge for the most part , and killing off the characters you're sympathetic with is no longer effective means of keeping interest.The end of this many -layered saga is open ended and the story arcs , given the shuffling pace of the last two seasons, appear that they'll require several more seasons before anything resembling a conclusion arrives at our doorstep.

Focus is the key for series that want to dwell in the baser aspects of our nature. We would benefit from producers, writers and directors having very good outlines of where their proposed serial dramas begin and end, that the adventures in the middle area are interesting but don't wind up in a dead end or mired in the metaphorical swamp of distracted character chatter. We need more dramas with that have the element of irony , surprise and humor, dark humor of course, to make the complicating action of flawed characters seem more vivid--those moments of relief make the dramatic momentum have more power. Think Sopranos, think Six Feet Under, think Breaking Bad. All isn't lost, though, as we have Fargo, Better Call Saul at our disposal, shows that realize that dramatic power isn't limited to a cast of frowny faced psychopaths, rapists and killers who are working out their issues sans a punchline of any sort.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"True Detective", Season 2: a beautifully rendered muddle

The second season of True Detective has taken some hard knocks from viewers who are steamed that creator and writer Nick Pzzolatto hasn't created a new series of the show that would better compliment the masterful first season. I nod, of course, acknowledging the lack of polish in some of the more ambitious bits of dialogue and agree, as well, that this investigation is far more ambiguous than the supernatural aspects of the serial murders that were the focus of the first set of episodes. Acknowledging that, I think Season 2 has its own style and embedded genius. This is classic noir material, worthy of Hammet, Chandler, Cornell Woolrich , Jim Thompson; it is a world of scummy characters and their soulless undertakings ,  darkly lit and dark-hearted. If the investigation is unclear at times, but not incoherent, and this is the tone and spirit of this kind of story telling, which involves very screwed up people trying to redeem themselves by trying to discover a hidden truth behind a fatal incident.

Whether the characters find redemption of any kind--a second chance in a job or relationship, a healed relationship, self-acceptance--is up in the air at this point, and that gives this show a Calvinist aspect that is simply irresistible: none of the nominal heroes have an idea whether the investigation they're conducting will benefit them in this life (or the next, for that matter), but their hard work in applying their professionalism toward an inevitable discovery of ugly facts can be construed as hints, clues, indications of their chances of achieving some relief from their existential dilemmas. And for all the awkward philosophizing? Fine with me: these are cops and creeps with an appreciation of nuance and distinctions that abound in the life, but when they try to articulate it, it comes out awkward, confused, lacking an over all clarity. For all the plans, explanations, justifications and action , these are cops and creeps who are stumbling over themselves looking their lost selves in the middle of a crime scene. It is a perfect, beautifully rendered muddle.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

So Long David Letterman

It has been remarked that  David Letterman, who last night broadcast the final episode of his long running CBS program Late Night, had become cranky and dour in his last few  years on the air, to  which I say yes, he had been a grouch a time  or a   dozen times when I   stayed up late to  catch his program. 

But that was part of the man's appeal as a talk show host. There was the elusive Everyman quality about  him, liberally laced with a slickly restrained version of the Last Angry Man. Not angry, exactly, but more like fed up with the voluminous ego baiting that passes for notoriety and letting the air from the media's hot air balloon with three decades of sharp, absurdly accurate darts. There a sense in Letterman the way  he managed the helm of the Late Show, someone who kept his smile for the most part, who maintained his formal courtesy as  best he could , and yet we could see the ice  creak, we could witness the calm within get sullied by the winds of celebrity bullshit and the institutionalized idiocy of  those who deign to govern us. Letterman might have been cranky , but so are all of us at the end of the day, but rather than complain bitterly and without end that the bastards are at it again, he applied humor, much of if brilliant, in my view, that let a lot of the hot air from the problem-filled world that goes out of its way to ruin our serenity. 

Letterman, as well, was among the first television host to expose the whole lie of show business and the false fronts millions are spent just so we don't see the facade breaking. The culture of celebrity is odd and odious and it was Letterman, before anyone else on the tube, really, who brought as sense of the absurd, the surreal and the genuinely strange to a medium that created a phony baloney image of reality and poisoned the culture with. Letterman, from his NBC show to his years on CBS, was the remedy to the on going simulacra that passed for entertainment. And, interestingly, he became more human as time went on, being very open about his heart surgery, the birth of his son, his extra marital affair and the attempt to blackmail him. 

He was rarely mawkish about any of this, but he was, it seems to me, genuinely sincere in the feelings he expressed about the events. But most of all he was funny, he was smart and better read than even fans thought, and he a good conversationalist. He was the needed at the end of the day. Not a drink, but a good laugh, someone as bemused with the world as you were and who had the wit to say something about it that made an off kilter kind of sense.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Loose ends and asides

 The Spectator is , from appearances, not a fan of philosopher -turned-millionaire sophist Alain de Botton,  having recently ran an online squib questioning his intellectual heft, his actual worth to a thinking readership, and his integrity. "Why Alain de Botton is a Moron" is the title, and not a word of hit is a compliment. My favorite line in this piece describes de Botton as an "egghead", the sort of person who can "beat you in a pub quiz" with their eidetic propensity of remembering every detail they've ever read, but who has a personality that is all but lacking in true intellectual force. That is to say that for all the lifetime of reading across a wide swath of literature, art, philosophy, history, the savant doesn't seem to have synthesized anything resembling an interesting interpretation of what they've gorged themselves on. The knowledge seems only to have made the dull even duller, made their inanities even more colossally vapid. Alain de Botton is a business man who has found out that there are larger paychecks for dispensing bumper sticker adages and homilies than there are in reams of abstraction. Which is fine, I suppose, he has the right to make the best living he can from the materials he chose to master. Funny thing is that this article reminds me of the notorious critic John Simon, a polymath of a nasty-assed reviewer who has an enviable erudition that has, none the less, failed to inspire him to a higher level of negative reviewing; his put downs are cheap, vulgar, sarcastic , mean for reasons that are more venal than they are descriptive of art that fails to measure up. Another "egghead", a large set of references to underscore a resolutely idiotic set of responses.


The Point took on the skeptics who were not so enamored of HBO's "True Detectve" with a  smart defense of the philosophical asides and raspily mumbled disquistions of Detective Rust Cohle on HBO's brilliant series "True Detective". Debate rages as to whether the nihilist outlook he seems to represent are pretentious and not defensible as intellectual concepts, to which this author argues convincingly, I think, that the bleak cosmology Rust is a witness to are in fact, defensible as points of discussion. Beyond that, though, he seems to remind us that "True Detective" is a drama, an inspired work of fiction with a narrative that dwells, physically and psychologically, in dark places, and that fictional characters are allowed to speak with a heightened eloquence.My concern, basically, is in whether the conceit of Lovecraft meets Nietzsche meets James Lee Burke works together as a conceptual mash up. It does, indeed it does.


The thing about heroin is that it at the end , it turns the user into a cliche many of us in our impressionable (and gullible) youth considered to be romantic, a dead junkie found in an apartment/bathroom/back alley dumpster with a needle in their arm. So much blather has gone on about how artists are so sensitive that they have to alter the way they feel in order to merely exist, that they need to take the edge off because the world and their perceptions of how to put it back together again in art work gets to be too much. I call absolute bullshit and say that a gifted artist dying from a self-administered drug overdose is tragic, yes, but also a very stupid , inglorious way to die. What we have is just another dead junkie who could have lived longer and done the world more good with their creativity. It's time for us to change our thinking on the whole notion of Doomed Genius and Brilliant Wastral; it is time for us to arise from the death trap that is the confessional school of poetry and the sex drugs and rock and roll vibe of the sixties and maintain and insist that YOU DON'T HAVE TO KILL YOURSELF IN ORDER TO VALIDATE YOUR ART and that we can STOP CO SIGNING THE BULLSHIT THAT MAKES IT OKAY TO SPOUT CLICHES, PLATITUDES AND OTHER FATALISTIC BULLSHIT ABOUT THE DYING FOR ONE'S ART. Life is a gift and art makes life worth sticking around for and drugs are, plain and simple, a 24/7 example of bad news made real.


 Salon has become of the scold of the online left-leaning press, a humorless, neurotically PC collection of gadlfies and nags tut-tutting the ebb and flow of popular culture.  It's one thing to offer cultural criticism that takes on the contradictions and unintended ironies the enclosed words of Hollywood, literature, technology and the like give us; wit, though, self-effacement of a genuine and stylish sort as well, go a long way in getting a readership to finish your articles and respond to your ideas and not your attitude. What's one to do? Stop reading it, I suppose , and cancel my Facebook  endorsement. In a recent  spasm of strained contrariness, writer Alexander Zaitchik announces that the much heralded new "golden age of television" is a hoax and that t TV remains, in essence, the "vast wasteland" that long-ago FCC head Newton    Minnow declared. The remark has  been a cornerstone of the anti-boob tube harangues for decades, but it is instructive to read the full quote, not the snippet"

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

This piece seems to be more about showing us how much nay-saying media criticism the author has read rather than  being a nuanced and plausible debunking  of the claim that ours is a new “golden age” for television drama. The substance of Zaitchik's argument is substantially the same one that has been made against television since the 50s by cultural snobs on the left and the right; it is a technology that exists only to lull us into a state of illusion and accompanying delusion. Beyond the reiteration of the ideas of Marx, Adorn and Chomsky , the article  is by a tweedy bore dismissing television's contents as a whole, generalizing about the medium in general and failing to cite specific arguments about why  dramatic shows fail to live up to their acclaim. In plain fact television drama has vastly, dramatically changed in the last two decades, and a surprising amount of it is of great quality, complexity, style; drama that is worth talking about is the sort of narrative that takes the classic issues of being human , stories inhabited by characters who are  filled with assumptions of how the world should work and how it should respond to human desire and endeavor, and to view, investigate, explore the responses of characters when their agendas aren't met and their expectations result in circumstances they didn't foresee.

There is a splendid, wonderfully balanced complexity in The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad; the early promise of cable was that the increase of channels across would be the medium in which writers, directors, actors, artists    of all sorts would finally find a place to create quality work. The shows I’ve mentioned are a partial fulfillment, and I think the issue is how to make sure this influx of quality content continues. As it goes, I really don’t know what it is Zaitchik is grousing about besides the  currently  trendy refrain of this being television’s genuine magic period. I dislike herd-thinking as well, but when my complaints are        registered and a sufficient amounts of spleen have been vented, the truth remains the truth, unchanged by festering resentment. In this instance, television has become as good as its fan it has.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010


NBC seems to be the F Troop of television networks, first allowing a prize like David Letterman to profitably embed himself over at CBS, and now all but destroying the luster that was formerly the Tonight Show with the contretemps regarding Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Of the two unfunniest comedian-talk hosts in history, the Peacock Network gets to keep the schmoozing Lantern of Obvious Punchlines Leno, while having to pay O'Brien a cool forty million dollars to take a hike. That's not a bad payday for someone who never improved his delivery, timing or punchlines in the decade plus he hosted Late Night; there was an unsettling, not endearing nervousness about the man's manner (as opposed to style) in front of an audience, and he always made think of the one funny friend you have who thinks he can be a comedian. Yes, you know the punchline, the night your friend signs up at local comedy club amateur night, he breaks out in flop sweat, his topics conflate with one another like unruly schools of fish, his tongue seems to swell, his twitchy delivery is one click away from a sobbing breakdown.

At his best, he seemed like he was rehearsing his ad libs in front of the bathroom mirror; at his worst he looked painfully ill-at-ease, often times casting a sidelong glance that made him appear like a rushing pedestrian trying to catch his profile in a store window. I would say good riddance, of course, but it's only a matter of time before Conan O'Brien sets up shot on another outlet, Fox most likely, and the likes of us looking for something to gaze upon while sleep descends on not quickly enough will have to rush past this over paid stiff's limp humor. To make matters less appealing, we'll have to pass the crusty walls of Lenoland on the way to catch Letterman's usually sprite monologue. One may avoid the whole ordeal, to be sure,by going to bed early; sleep has never seemed more attractive.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cop Shows

The Wire on HBO has come back for it's fifth and final season, and for one last time we get to witness the further doings and undoings in the city of Baltimore. There isn't a television drama, let alone a crime drama , that's done what this program has done, construct a narrative line with a novel's depth and complexity .Each class level is explored, characters of high, low and pragmatic motivations are given full back stories and who's personalities and motivations are subject to unexpected fluctuations of mood, tone. There are no cardboard characters in this drama.Created by author David Simon, who authored the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the drama began as an investigation by a rag tag Baltimore police unit into street drug trafficking, a covert activity informed by the phrase "follow the money". Follow the money this crew did, and what's unfolded in the four previous seasons is a textured, superbly layered of how all that unmarked cash has found it's way into the social,educational, religious and political institutions that nominally exist to improve the quality of civic life; corruption blatant and subtly seductive both undermines the best intentions of the virtuous and deludes those with power that there efforts in this corrosive mire is progress toward a brighter day. Hard truths triumph, though, and matters get worse. The heros , as it were, fight off the a bitter cynicism and apply their ideals to unforgiving circumstance. The Wire is a true tragedy,and nothing else is likely to be as compelling a television experience for many years to come.

I was an obsessive viewer of the genius television cop drama Homicide:Life on the Street, one of the faithful who stuck by the show during it's wobbly seven year run. The show never gained a huge audience, but it has had a huge influence on serialized drama to come; demon-plagued murder police trying to make up for shortcomings but speaking for the murdered dead, the grit and grease of dogged police investigation, tersely eloquent dialogue where the characters considered larger things in the universe other than themselves without a trace of writerly strain or artifice.Elmore Leonard meets Ed McBain. The writing and acting on the show was superior to what one would pay ten dollars for at the movie theater, and thanks to the release of the entire series on DVD and the insane convenience of Netflix, one can view the classics over and over, until they are well sick of the show and the actors. That has yet to happen with me, and a recent viewing of the last episode of the last season, gets me just a little choked up. I try to be a cynic and come across as hard, hard to impress, but somethings get me just a little weepy.

The sense of the show is that at anyone time a character thinks they've come to an understanding of how some universal principles operate in the world, some crisis, some kind of natural catastrophe or outbreak of meanness upsets their paradigm, leaving them confused, angry, demanding answers about the "why" of evil from a sheer surge of global energy that never bothers to answer. Frank with his arguments with his Catholic God come to mind, but also G with his Blue Brotherhood provincialism, and even Bayliss, with his Zen enlightenment being only another Totalizing paradigm that works only to shield him from the nagging notion that perhaps there is no "why" behind the random homicides he investigates, and that the only reason to track down and bring killers to justice is all show and tell, a flurry of activity that distracts the grieving and the frightened from what may be this worlds' scariest truth: there really is nothing behind any of these things, nothing to maintain, no "great' truths of moral virtue to be upheld. These detectives have been pounded relentlessly from the first day of the show, and since it , despite the strong vein of humor, is mostly in the Tragic form, we have displays of Hubris being smashed to bits, slowly, rapidly as the situation fits the action: expectations are constantly downsized, withered, dying from the sheer onslaught of raw phenomena that has no humor , or inkling of irony. Bayliss, at the end, displayed an air of listening to one view after another, realizing that from Munch to G to Lewis , the world views expressed are as valid as it makes the skin of the sayers fit better, yet the only thing he learned was that he had loved Frank, and that thing, that person, who had given his job meaning at all was gone, and with the departure, his reason to stay.We have Bayliss leaving through the door he came through seven years earlier, knowing at last that only love gives meaning to the world, and that the lack of love kills it.

There were some middlebrow revisionism in the TV columns that have made the case that NYPD Blue, an cop show that ran on ABC for year seasons, was a sexy TV show. Scratch that. Not sexy,but erotic.Hardly. Even in the early days when this program was supposedly "pushing the envelope" regarding what they could get away with on a broadcast network drama, there was an aggravating smugness to all the pressed-ham glimpses of butts and sliding side views of women's breasts.

Nudity and sex had long been accepted in commercial films , and the response that Steven Bocho and David Milch came up with , a timid glance of nudity, became distracting set pieces in the story lines; in the interest of perpetuating the "drama" of the program, everyone who had sex in this show never seemed to enjoy themselves leading up to, during, or after the fact. NYPD Blue were cops in a perpetual post-coital funk. Intercourse wasn't an expression of love but rather something that resembled sporadic acts of desperation.A good part of the meanness and bad faith that inhabited the characters simply continued beyond the stumbling awkwardness of the act. One can, of course, make the case that this is a storyline in which intimacy is well-nigh impossible for cops whose job requires them to observe the endless insults foisted on human dignity and decency, but there are limits to the dramatic plausibility as it played out each week.

Between furtive sex scenes,NYPD Blue became rudderless over the seasons, reduced to a few plot moves to justify another three-five episode story arc; let's kill Andy's partner, let's make Andy drink, let's kill Andy's son, let's make Andy get sober, let's kill Andy's wife, let's make Andy drink, let's get Andy sober again, let's kill Andy's new partner, let's make Andy stay sober this time. This set of variations of deaths and relapses got old over the last five seasons, and all you could wonder is why any Detective would partner with Sipowicz given the trail of bodies he left behind. One wonders, also, why it was this battered soul remained a cop considering it didn't seem Fate would cut him any slack.