Friday, February 17, 2006

The Sopranos - Season 1

I'm rewatching The Sopranos to get ready for the big start to the final season in March. I haven't seen all of the episodes, and I don't remember some of them all that well either (my HBO subscription was patchy at best, and I had to rely on various girlfriends and coming home for the weekend from college).

I had long mythologized Season 1 as one of the best seasons of television ever, and I was not disappointed by it. It really IS nearly perfect, taking so very few missteps. The pilot sets up Tony Soprano's world perfectly, introducing nearly all of the characters with memorable bits. College, of course, is one of the best episodes ever, but there's a lot of great stuff here. On the HBO shows, it's tempting to do non-season finale finales where not a whole lot happens (I disagree with this principle, thinking that serial narrative depends just as much on plot as on character, unlike other forms of narrative). Fortunately, that's not the case in this first season.

And yet, the finale provides a perfect bookend. One could see this as a little novella is one wanted to, a perfect little encapsulation of one story. And yet, everything changes in the finale from relationships to community standing to legal statuses. So we're compelled to go on and watch Season 2.

I've loved the other seasons of The Sopranos, but I still don't think they've ever topped season 1. Now, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary the show was (the other networks, of course, took the wrong lessons from The Sopranos, thinking what made it successful was its violence, nudity and language; indeed, compared to other shows on now, even on broadcast networks, the first season seems almost tame -- take out a couple of naked breasts and a few F-words and you could show this on Fox easily).

Here are some of the things The Sopranos did early.

--It ramped up the complexity of narrative that people were willing to follow (well, it and Buffy). The show had dozens of characters, and some of them would drop out for episodes to seasons at a time. When they came back, we were expected to catch up. Due respect to 24 and Lost, but Sopranos and Buffy got there first.

--It allowed for more introspective scripts. The first season provides lots of discussion about an America that has grown lazy and self-indulgent, an America that has lost its golden age. It's a perfect encapsulation of the late 90s, and creator David Chase and his writers were able to adapt it perfectly to our age of anxiety.

--It allowed an indie-film aesthetic in ever so slightly. There are scenes here that don't really NEED to be here. On a broadcast network, they would have been cut. Additionally, there are long, slow stretches where we just get to know the characters. When you see a show like (again) Lost unfurl an episode devoted to the backstory of a character that isn't completely necessary to the plot (like Sun), you can thank Sopranos for opening that door.

--It gave former E-Street Band members reason to hope. Can it be that long before Clarence "Big Man" Clemons joins the show?

To all of you catching up with The Sopranos again, you're in for a ride.


Y Kant Yung Peple Rede?

To try to save the newspaper industry, publishers are staking their businesses on what would seem to be an unlikely prospect -- the idea that young people, who for years have been ditching newsprint, will come back to the paper if they're given something that can compete with today's flashy media. That's the thinking behind these youth papers, which eschew news -- relegating all serious national and international coverage to a handful of small wire reports -- and instead focus on sensational local stories, pop culture, sports, and lifestyle features. Brevity is the soul of niche; these papers speed along with rat-a-tat prose and magazine-style photo spreads that would make a travel brochure for Guam look long-winded in comparison.

For all their apparent flaws, many publishers report that these niche publications have succeeded in attracting young readers and new advertisers. As a 27-year-old male, I'm squarely in these papers' line of sight, and I should take comfort in their attempts to attract people like me. But what hooked me on newspapers more than a decade ago wasn't the absence of news, it was the very fullness of it -- the daily chaos and complexity of human affairs neatly organized in ink on the page.

Today, newspapers still have the power to seduce people who find a thrill in following current affairs, and at least one innovative publisher is finding ways to do that by transforming newspapers into multimedia presentations. But after spending time reading some of the new niche papers, I can only regard their impending ubiquity with something like sheer fright.

Apparently, the rest of my generation is really, really stupid.

Go here and find out. (You'll need to watch an ad. It IS at a liberal opinion magazine, but the story itself features no liberal think-tank-ology or anything like that.)

So are we really that dumb? Are my friends just a non-representative sample?


Olympics thoughts. . .

I'm not watching these Olympics as much as previous ones. For starters, I've got work and busy TiVOs and other things I'm more interested in (apparently, scheduling things that appeal to my demographic opposite the Olympics DID work). And most nights when I could be watching, I'm writing or marveling at the fact that Maxim has a scantily clad Veronica Mars (no I will not link you) on its cover.

That said, two sports have leapt out at me as immediately entertaining.

I'm not the first one to talk about how curling is awesome. TV and sports commentators have been doing so since at least 1998. At first, it seemed like a bit of a joke, but by 2002, the love affair was on. I've finally checked out curling at these Olympics and it is as advertised. It could seem mind-numbing, I suppose, but there's such a weird, Zen grace to the whole procedure that it quickly becomes enthralling. Of all of the sports at the Olympics, curling is the easiest to lose yourself in. It's got strategy, practical winterwear and brooms. What more could you want? So get on the bus and check out the baseball of ice! (And that's not an insult, baseball being my favorite sport of all.)

Also, snowboardcross is clearly the bees' knees. But I'm not saying anything new there. Most of the other sports are too similar, but this one is wild and different every time with spills and thrills and such.

So there you go.


In The New World, we ALL will have scantily clad teenagers to call our own!

Sorry for the spotty blogging as of late. I've been busy, but you already knew that.

Terrence Malick's The New World is a gorgeous dream of a movie. Like the director's other films, it feels almost like a meditation on the subtle waves of the natural world, the power of memory and the pain of romantic loss. There's a yearning and a hunger in the film that isn't in 99% of the other films out there. It's a hunger, I think, for things that never were and never could be and never will be.

That said, this film isn't for everyone (as the box office reception has borne out). Of Malick's four features, it's his most Malick-y. To get into it, you have to completely submerge yourself in his wavelength. If you can't do that, there's little else in it to appeal to you. The story is almost an afterthought, the actors almost props. I can see why some critics I usually agree with are hating this so much.

Me? I found large portions of the movie to be emotionally overwhelming, almost heartbreaking. It's not my favorite by Malick, but I think it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his other films, and that's no small achievement.

That said, it gets curiously inert every so often. When Malick is just ignoring his story to show the joy of running through a sunny field or swimming in a river, the film is at its best. When he's trying to make his central love triangle live and breathe, the film doesn't quite work. Fortunately, these passages are fleeting and come only at the film's very end (there's a coda in London that has some scenes which feel tacked on).

Q'orianka Kilcher, however, manages to break through all of this. Malick has always done solid work with young females (think of Sissy Spacek in Badlands or the girl in Days of Heaven), and Kilcher is like a revelation here. She's intoxicating, and not in a creepy psychosexual way like so many other adolescent females are made to be. She's one of those great American symbols, always racing just in front of you so you don't know quite what she's supposed to represent. The natural world? America itself? Native Americans? Any and all readings could work.

In the end, Malick is a transcendentalist, interested most in the idea of what it means to be unspoiled. His film is about firsts. First contacts, first loves, first impressions, first losses.

And it is also about how futile and fleeting those firsts ultimately are.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

When the story is the story

So Dick Cheney shot a guy accidentally. Y'all hear about that? The guy, fortunately, is going to recover and get back out there (though, since he's 78, a slight change in room temperature could set him off, one would think).

The thing is, this is a one day story. Since it was an accident (and no one but the MOST malicious factions of the left-wing Internets suggests otherwise), there's "nothing to see here" beyond an update when the guy leaves the hospital. But it's stretched on for almost half a week. Why?

In most cases, the temptation would be to blame the media (in most cases, that temptation would be correct). But every so often, politicians just hand the media a story on a platter. This is one of those occasions.

When you look at the truly great presidential scandals of the last 50 years or so, the ones that really WENT somewhere, you're looking at instances where the media was led down rabbit trails full of suspicious looking stuff. Watergate wouldn't have become Watergate if Woodward and Bernstein weren't blocked at every track by the White House. The Lewinsky affair might have died down if Bill Clinton had just initially told the press that he HAD, indeed, had sex with that woman.

And look outside of the political realm. How much disgrace has been heaped upon Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire? I don't mean to say that their alleged drug use would have been laughed away, but America appreciates honesty more than trying to cover your tracks. And think of all of the celebrity scandals that could have been averted by simply telling the truth from the outset.

The Cheney thing BECAME a story because the Bush administration acted like it had something to hide. No matter how innocent the story is, if you sock your guy away, try to blame the other guy, fail to report the issue for some amount of time and switch up your story several times, you're going to look like you've got something to hide.

I really, really, really highly doubt Cheney has anything to hide. Had he just come clean initially, had he gotten on TV and said, "I shot that man accidentally, and my thoughts and prayers are with him. I feel terribly about this," he would've escaped the worst of this non-story story. He would have been mocked on late night television, of course, but who isn't nowadays?

When you are the subject of a story, what is said about you (after the initial story breaks) can still be controlled by you to a very real degree. Americans want to feel you're telling the truth. Clinton figured that out, and that's why his poll numbers rebounded (you may feel he was still lying, but the majority of Americans didn't at the time). Nixon could never wrap his head around that.

So there you go. If you ever accidentally shoot a major donor to your political party, just come clean. I know you want to look perfect, but save yourself the grief.

ETA: I just saw the Cheney interview that happened today. It was well done and adequately explains away most questions. I would not be surprised if the story died down now. However, since it's really out of the White House's control now, I would not be surprised if it kept going either.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Are House and Scrubs the same show?

Much has been made of House's superficial resemblences to Sherlock Holmes, but no one to my knowledge has pointed out that House and Scrubs are very, very similar, just told from different points of view.

To wit. . .

Dr. House = Dr. Cox
Chase = J.D.
Foreman = Turk
Cameron = Elliot (though I had trouble remembering Cameron's name. . .preferring to think of her as "the hot girl from House")
Wilson = Carla
Cuddy = Kelso

Obviously, House doesn't have an evil janitor character, but the similarities between Hugh Laurie's character and John C. McGinley's are becoming more and more apparent to me with every week.


The latest time-slot firestorm

And I can be relevant too!

In this world we call TeeVee, time slots are everything. A bad time slot consigns you to wither away and die. A good time slot means you can survive longer than you probably should have. Unfortunately, with six networks out there (okay. . .only five soon), time slots are getting more and more crowded. As a matter of fact, all of the good shows are being forced to go up against each other while there are many slots where there's literally NOTHING ON.

The case in point from earlier this season was Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST/PST. However, that fight is over now. Survivor and Smallville won (with Dancing with the Stars coming on strong in the latter part of the season). So we now return our attentions to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST/PST.

Astute people who have talked to me in the past will know that Tuesdays at 9 have been a problem for some time now.

Why, just last season, we had. . .

CBS: The Amazing Race
Fox: House
NBC: Scrubs
UPN: Veronica Mars

all mucking up this time slot. NOT TO MENTION One Tree Hill, which commanded a loyal audience for some reason. And According to Jim which. . .well, we'd best not speak of that.

This season, the slot was slightly LESS crowded with. . .

ABC: Commander-in-Chief
CBS: The Amazing Race
Fox: House
NBC: My Name Is Earl/The Office
UPN: Sex, Love & Secrets
The WB: Supernatural

Now, Sex, Love & Secrets was a pretty awful show, but the other five all had their charms (especially if you subscribe to the theory that the president should really, really, really enjoy babies). If you didn't have multiple TiVOs and VCRs, what were you to do?

But now, at mid-season, this time slot has gotten even WORSE. . .

Observe. . .

ABC: Sons and Daughters
CBS: The Unit
Fox: House
NBC: Scrubs (two episodes per week)
UPN: Get This Party Started
The WB: Pepper Dennis

Reliable old UPN gives us something completely not worth watching, but the other five networks have brought their A-games. Sons and Daughters, The Unit and Pepper Dennis are the three midseason shows TRULY worth watching (if you enjoy, in this order, dysfunctional family comedy, military-themed action drama and "you-go-girl!" adventures in the big city). House remains one of TV's superlative procedurals. And Scrubs is a good go-to for zany comedic fun.

Fortunately, House should be in repeats, but that's still a huge train wreck.

Better to just read a book, I guess.


The latest firestorm

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a "liberal" or someone "of the Left," one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day – social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, "judicial activism," hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a "liberal," such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a "liberal," only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a "liberal," regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based.

Aren't you glad I don't write about politics? I would certainly fall under fire from Jonah Goldberg much more quickly.

Here's the follow-up. . .


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Perfect characters: Lisa Simpson from "The Simpsons"

How easy would it have been to screw up Lisa Simpson? To make her just a whiny know-it-all or a parody of liberal well-meaningness? Conversely, how easy would it have been to make her just a foil for Bart or his partner in crime? And how easy would it have been to make her a character in search of an identity like Meg on Family Guy?

It would have been far, far too easy.

And yet, she's all of the things I listed above and more. In a television landscape where there are too few three-dimensional characters, Lisa has dimensions to spare. Somehow, even in the series' weaker episodes, she has been written consistently. Though Bart and Homer are better characters to drive a story, Lisa is by far the most complex Simpson. She hates her family but loves it. She's a part of it but completely alienated from it. And she seems to have traveled here from an earlier era.

Lisa is a nerd. She likes to read. She plays jazz. She understands difficult concepts in politics, history and religion. She's the very antithesis of everything television, a fast-paced, sound-bite-driven medium, stands for.

And that's what makes her so perfect, especially on a show that's the fastest-paced of them all (or was in its day). Lisa is a throwback to an earlier America. Where Homer is brutish and loud and Bart is a troublemaker, Lisa is an idealist, ready to stand for the best in people, from her family to her town.

I would go so far as to say that The Simpsons wouldn't WORK without Lisa. While she's almost never the center of stories, she IS the center of the show. Without her point-of-view, though, the show wouldn't have a heart. It would just be a bunch of jokes fired off into a void (see, again, Family Guy). Many of these jokes would be funny, but they would ultimately prove hollow.

Lisa somehow makes this cartoon seem realistic. I know the trend increasingly is to have no straight men in television comedies, but I'm not sure the trend works. Straight men have been around forever for a reason: Comedy doesn't work without them.

Something to think about. . .


Perfect episodes: "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'"

When we talk about moments that change our lives, what do we really mean? Surely getting married or having a child or losing a parent is a moment that changes your life, but the moments that really change lives are small, almost insignificant-seeming at the time.

When I was 15, I didn't have much of a social life. A combination of not being allowed to drive after 8 p.m. (it was the law, yo), living out in the country and being a freshman in high school led to lots of dull, long Friday nights.

Here's the part where you expect me to tell you how I watched The X-Files every week.

Except I didn't. I talked on the phone to a girl all of the time who loved the show, and I had heard the buzz about the show even in its first season, but I didn't have access to Fox (my parents still don't get The WB or UPN to this day). When I was able to find the show through static (back then, my family had a big satellite dish, which I used to peruse the heavens), I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. (To this day, I remember the three X-Files I saw before "Chung's": "The Calumari," "Grotesque" and "Born Again." Told you I was a nerd.)

But on April 12, 1996, I found a solid Fox feed. And all of that changed. Because of this episode.

So when I talk about moments that changed my life, that was one of them. Before "The X-Files," I had never really considered a career as a television writer or critic. Before "The X-Files," I didn't know how a television show was put together. Before "The X-Files," I just didn't care. TV arrived magically through the satellite waves as far as I was concerned.

Granted, other shows have been more important to me ultimately, but "The X-Files" was the first, and you never forget your first.

Not to go all Aint-It-Cool on you.

But there are other reasons I consider "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" to be a perfect episode. And the first reason is the script.

Darin Morgan is one of the finest writers in the history of television. He's been responsible for four episodes of "The X-Files" and two of "Millennium." He's notorious for his lack of work ethic and his hatred of the pressures of TV, so we haven't gotten more from him over the years (when I was picking role models, this was probably a bad one to latch on to).

But he's also a genius writer. He introduced comedy to the self-seriousness of The X-Files. Literary references pepper his scripts. Every single one of them is a puzzle box of a construction, doubling back in on itself, then coming back out to open up.

"Jose Chung's" was his final effort for The X-Files. Like dozens of other shows before and after it, the episode employs a "Rashomon"-esque plot structure. In short, several different viewpoints are used to examine what at first appears to be an alien abduction. As the episode wears on, we simultaneously discover more of the story and see how the psyches of the characters inform their viewpoints. What Scully sees is different from what Mulder sees is different from what the abducted teenagers see.

The script is dense, dense, dense and packed with references to earlier X-Files episodes, works of literature and films. To be fair, this intertextuality makes the episode harder to watch for a novice fan (and for this reason, Morgan's Emmy-winning episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is probably a better starting point for someone who's never seen The X-Files), but it's a thrill for someone who wants to pick up on all of the references.

But what can this teach us (if anything) about television writing and/or criticism?

A lot, actually. Most of the time, when a show does a "stunt" episode (i.e. one that differs in filming style from a normal episode), the stunt itself is the reason for the episode to exist (the glorious exception to this rule is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). That is to say, if you film an episode as a faux episode of The Twilight Zone (as Felicity did once), the only thing that episode is going to be good for is as an homage to The Twilight Zone.

With the Rashomon structure, "Jose Chung's" is technically a stunt episode. However, Morgan uses this to examine one of the show's central themes: loneliness.

At their centers, Mulder and Scully are lonely characters. For one thing, they've got the weight of a government conspiracy on their backs. For another, they're the only people in the world doing what they do. The show usually shied away from this, preferring to find their partnership to be a companionable one, but as with any partnership, elements of frustration were there. The writers were careful to always make them exact opposites, and there's nothing more lonely than having your closest friend also be your greatest potential enemy.

Morgan doesn't directly bring out these elements, but they inform the script (especially the marvelous summation at the end). When we see how Mulder and Scully see each other, we see that they know each other but cannot truly understand each other. They're on different wavelengths. And possibly always will be.

So Morgan uses the conceit of seeing one story from many different angles to unveil hidden subtexts to the show we don't really know about. Even as someone who had never seen the show, who didn't know a lot about TV storytelling, I got this point, at least.

"Jose Chung's" is well worth a revisiting on DVD. I guarantee it's like little else you've ever seen on TV. Even if most elements of The X-Files style have been co-opted by other shows, the raw insanity of Darin Morgan has not.

And thank God for that.