Saturday, March 11, 2006

James Burrows interview

NPR's Fresh Air has a great interview up with James Burrows.

Burrows, of course, rose out of the MTM studios farm team to become one of the greatest sitcom directors of all time. His skills are so good that he was able to obscure just how bad Will and Grace had gotten for at least two seasons almost singlehandedly.

To look at the resume of shows he's done more than one episode of is to look at one side of the history of the sitcom since 1970.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
"The Bob Newhart Show"
"Taxi"
"Cheers"
"Frasier"
"Friends"
"Newsradio"
"Will and Grace"

He's also done many, many, many pilots, many of which were pretty good (Dharma and Greg), then turned into bad series.

Burrows, of course, did something like 240 episodes over the run of Cheers, which left him otherwise occupied during the '80s, so he didn't work on Cosby or anything. He also came out of the MTM tradition, so he didn't work on any of the '70s Norman Lear shows for CBS (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, etc.).

To a very real degree, the stuff Burrows worked on has proved to be more timeless than the Norman Lear stuff. So many of the Lear sitcoms, while perhaps more sharply written, were too timely. All in the Family seems to be the only one that has aged well (M*A*S*H, which was not a Lear show, is out of the same tradition of issues-oriented sitcoms; it has hung around, but I find many of its seasons almost unwatchable). The MTM shows (which led to Taxi and Cheers and many others) were not as topical, so they have aged better. To a very real degree, Mary Tyler Moore wins so many critical polls because its style of sitcom is still (barely) alive (one can trace a direct line from the writing staffs on MTM to the writing staff on Everybody Loves Raymond). The Lear-style sitcoms mostly died out in the '80s with the success of Murphy Brown.

Of course, all of this is changing with the real advent of single-camera sitcoms and improvised sitcoms and the like. There seems to be less of a tutelage system in place now, and the older sitcom writers often find themselves without work.

Fortunately, some of the people involved in The Cosby Show have a pilot set up at NBC for next year about 50somethings. Let's hope it goes through and defeats the ageism of the TV industry.

Sorry for the light blogging. I'm prepping a big piece that predicts what network schedules might look like next year.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"I'm pretty in Cincinnati. I'm not pretty in a general sense."

I quote, of course, ABC's wonderful new sitcom "Sons & Daughters" (which, I think, has the potential to become the next great show).

Much has been made of the show's freshness and its great cast and its central humanity. But much has also been made of the show's HUGE cast (if you look over to the left, you can see all 16 regulars). To my knowledge, this is the biggest regular cast ever recruited from the outset for a television series (much less a sitcom).

Most critics feared that the huge cast would prove impenetrable and would be something that doomed the series from the start. But a cursory scan of the Internet (I know, hardly a representative sample) shows that people didn't have any problem understanding the relationships.

When Hill Street Blues hit the air, there was a big fear that its multiple characters and storylines would be too difficult to follow. The same was said of ER when it was new, since those stories moved by at a rapid pace, and the hospital was filled with lots of secondary characters the viewer had to keep track of.

And, indeed, Hill Street Blues was never a mega-hit. Arrested Development, with nine regulars, never took off. And plenty of other shows have juggled many characters and haven't found favor with audiences (even if they prove to be dense, novelistic works like The Wire).

But this is changing. And I really do think ER was the turning point (NYPD Blue came on a year before with a largish ensemble, but didn't have the seismic impact ER had). ER proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that audiences would follow fast-paced weekly stories (that started and ended within an episode), serialized storylines (that stretched over many episodes or seasons) and many, many characters. ER solidified the trend that Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure started and put it in a mundane setting (a hospital). And we were off to the races.

From there on out, stories only grew more and more complex. Some series started out fairly simple (The X-Files), only to gain byzantine mythology. Others started with small casts (The Sopranos, Buffy) but ended up ballooning out by their very nature as serialized storylines. And people didn't mind. People increasingly embraced this.

Now, look at some of the biggest hits on TV. Every reality show asks you to invest in more than ten individuals or teams. Desperate Housewives features four separate families and a variety of others who come and go from the story. The hospital of Grey's Anatomy is full of interns, secondary players and patients who come and go. And, of course, Lost features a HUGE cast.

Even sitcoms are getting in on the fun. My Name Is Earl has a small regular cast but is building up a stable of supporting players. The Office's cast of regulars is huge and it's cast of recurring characters is just as big.

All of which brings me back to Sons & Daughters. Tentatively, I hope, the huge family at the center of the show ends up being a BENEFIT for the show. Most people nowadays have some variation on a family that sprawls in all directions with step-s and half-s and ex-s. Sons & Daughters captures this feeling perfectly, and with audiences' increased willingness to follow these sorts of storylines, I think it could take off.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Ahhh! New format!

After complaints from roughly 500 of you that the old format hurt the eyes, I've switched to this one.

I'll be tweaking, and I have to re-add all of my old links.

But here you go!

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The Sopranos - Season 4

The fourth season of The Sopranos is generally thought of as the weakest of the series to date because it largely left behind the mob storylines and focused more on the personal relationships between the characters. In particular, an emphasis is placed on the marriage of Tony and Carmela, which, of course, disintegrates at the end of the season in the seminal episode Whitecaps.

Watched in a huge gulp, however, season 4 works much better. When it first aired in 2002, it must have seemed langourous and methodical (and it IS much more slowly paced than the other seasons), but it's moving to its own, deliberate beat. Part of this is probably the decision by David Chase to NOT wrap everything up in the fourth season (as was rumored before any production began in earnest). Part of it is probably the creative freedom afforded to him by the incredible ratings the show was garnering at the time (still the highest of any cable series ever).

Chase has always been ambivalent about the role television has played in his life. For the creator of one of the best TV series of all time, he seems awfully chagrined by that fact. He has made no bones about his desire to work in film instead of television (and seems ready to move on once The Sopranos wraps up next January). The irony, of course, is that the epic scope of The Sopranos has offered him an opportunity to examine issues that even the best films have trouble dealing with in their limited time frames.

Take, for example, the central thrust of this season: the marriage. Few American films have managed to capture marriage in all of its many subtleties and nuances. Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" did so, of course, but that was a LONG movie. And it, of course, started as a television series.

The Sopranos offered us an attempt over its run to see just how fragile a marriage really is and how compromises are made (often large one) to keep some of the fallacies in place that keep any good marriage alive. If any of these compromises are attacked, the whole thing can come crumbling down in an afternoon.

But Whitecaps wouldn't have had the power it had if it hadn't come after four seasons of television. It works only BECAUSE of investment in the characters. It wouldn't have worked as a film.

I'm talking about Whitecaps as if it were the sum total of the season, but there's a lot of other good stuff here. The Pie-O-My saga works better than it did when first viewed, and Whoever Did This is another powerhouse episode. The show deals well with 9/11 and the more introspective mood in America following that event (even if it has to fudge its internal timeline to do so).

But while season 4 is the home of one of the series' best episodes, it also holds the absolute worst: Christopher. But we'll talk about that in a (hopefully) upcoming feature called "When Bad Episodes Happen to Good Shows."

In the meantime, do you like these season reviews? Once I'm done with Sopranos, I could do more for other shows. Let me know what you think.

Sometime this week: The differences between American TV and films and why American TV is slightly better in many ways.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Oscar Shew

The whole thing was rather boring until Crash upset Brokeback Mountain. Then it was alternatingly exciting, infuriating and nauseating.

I did not like Crash. It was a lecture and a rather shallow view of both racism and the Los Angeles landscape. But Lionsgate ran a great campaign and managed to get the film to the win.

Ironically, the win for Best Picture will probably cement Crash's reputation as a bad film among the cognoscenti. It's not really a film that can stand up to this kind of hype. Plus, it's so of its moment that it's bound to feel dated in even ten years' time. I think the other four will age much more gracefully, but what do I know about the whole thing?

If you really want to know my true feelings on Crash, please read the essay I posted as a link yesterday (at the very bottom). I had the opportunity to see Black. White. (the new show from FX where white people and black people switch races via makeup), and it crystallized some of my feelings on Crash's faults. Crash looks at race through the prism of overt racism, which has gotten much more subtle in our society, which values political correctness. You don't see people running around, calling each other racial epithets as much anymore. In Black. White., the white family expects to be greeted with the n-word. They never are. But they fail to see how the ways they are patronized and ignored work as subtle racism. That's because, having never had to DEAL with actual racism, they don't have a frame of reference for it. I mean, I don't have a frame of reference for it. I have had to rely on the accounts of friends. Crash reinforces the myth that racism consists of slurs and angry confrontations, and that's why it falls apart as a film.

But it won. Good for it, and its supporters.

Other thoughts. . .

--Rap is now two for two as a genre at the Oscars. Three Six Mafia will also get the chance to fill out a ballot every year from now on. Amusing.

--Jon Stewart was, I thought, one of the best hosts in recent memory. I don't like the Billy Crystal style vaudevillian schtick, so Stewart's dry, irony-laced take was candy for me. He DID get better as the show went along, and I was impressed by his ability to rein in his trademark political humor, while still landing lots of great jokes.

--The song performances were all pretty good. The "In the Deep" performance WAS a bit odd, what with the interpretive dancing and burning car, but Bird York has a beautiful voice. Dolly Parton was a true showstopper. And Three Six Mafia's performance was suitably iconoclastic.

--The best speech, I thought, came from George Clooney. Sad that it was all downhill from there.

--It's time to truly revamp the Oscar process. Why not follow the Tonys lead and present some of the technical awards on PBS, so people can truly understand what they're all about? The reason people don't care about the technical awards is because they don't know what cinematography means.

--Since so many of you have asked me. . .Sound mixing is the creation of the total audio soundscape. It's about how well the dialogue, sound effects, music and other elements combine to make ear candy. Sound editing is about the sound added AFTER the film is completed. It mostly has to do with creating sound effects (which is why Sci-Fi and war films tend to do well here).

--Despite the crowing about Crash in the media, this is truly the biggest Oscar upset in a long time. The only film to win MORE precursor awards than Brokeback was Schindler's List. The closest analogue I can find in Academy history for this is the year In the Heat of the Night beat Bonnie and Clyde. And that doesn't even really fit. Perhaps the Chariots of Fire over Reds year is a better fit. Nah. Nothing fits.

--Crash only won three awards. The last Best Picture winner to do that was Rocky in 1977 (for the year 1976). The last time four films won three awards a piece to tie for the most awards won was. . .I don't even want to think about it!

--On to 2006!

Sopranos Season 4 review tomorrow. And maybe some other stuff.

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Who will win?

My mom wants to know who's going to win at the Oscars. So here you go.

If you want more specific commentary, again, Kris Tapley is your man. And, if you go there, you'll get to see lovely photos of the red carpet and the setup at the Kodak Theatre before its pureness is sullied by the likes of George Clooney and Kevin O'Connell.

See a complete list of nominees here.

Post YOUR predictions in the comments and we'll have an ersatz Oscar pool!

Best Picture:

Win: Brokeback Mountain
Place: Crash
Show: Capote

Capote seems like a remote shot, but the other three are ALL remote shots, and I think Capote has the most vociferous cult of the other three. But these are five cult nominees, to one degree or another.

Best Director:

Win: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Place: George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Show: Steven Spielberg, Munich

Lee has this all wrapped up. Anyone else would be a major surprise.

Best Actor:

Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Place: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Show: Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow

Conventional wisdom has Joaquin Phoenix in third, but Howard has been WORKING L.A. It won't get him an Oscar (this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the top two), but it will make him a movie star. Hoffman is WAY out in front, but Ledger is a solid second place.

Best Actress:

Win: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Place: Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Show: Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents

This is the worst category in YEARS. Witherspoon and Keira Knightley gave the only performances I could stand. Thankfully, Witherspoon is going to win. Huffman has been campaigning hard, but I think Hollywood wants to add to its list of starlets by giving it to Witherspoon. Still, a LOT of people are banking on Huffman. We'll see.

Best Supporting Actor:

Win: George Clooney, Syriana
Place: Matt Dillon, Crash
Show: Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man

The biggest race of the night. Any one of these three could win. So could Jake Gyllenhaal. The only one who's completely out is William Hurt. Clooney wins for having a heck of a year and fattening up for Syriana.

Best Supporting Actress:

Win: Amy Adams, Junebug
Place: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Show: Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Absolutely, ABSOLUTELY do not listen to me here. Weisz is way out in front. I just can't imagine anyone seeing Junebug and NOT voting for Adams. That said, the film IS underseen. Catherine Keener is also in the hunt here.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Win: Brokeback Mountain
Place: Capote
Show: Munich

Brokeback is WAY out in front. Don't bet on anything else.

Best Original Screenplay:

Win: Crash
Place: Good Night, and Good Luck
Show: Match Point

Crash is WAY out in front. Same deal. The screenplays are the two most locked awards of the night. If either loses, a backlash is afoot against the film in question.

Best Foreign Film:

Win: Tsotsi
Place: Sophie Scholl - The Final Days
Show: Paradise Now

Despite the hubbub surrounding it, Paradise Now isn't much of a frontrunner. Tsotsi wins for following the Andrew O'Hehir (a Salon.com critic) formula for Oscar success: Start as odd and foreign as possible, then gradually adhere to a Hollywood formula. Don't count out Joyeux Noel either.

Best Documentary Feature

Win: March of the Penguins
Place: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Show: Murderball

The penguins win for proving you don't have to have Michael Moore to be a huge documentary hit.

Best Animated Feature

Win: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Place: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
Show: Howl's Moving Castle

The winner of the Annie (from the animation guild) for best animated feature has always won this award too. So say hi to Wallace and Gromit.

Best Cinematography

Win: Brokeback Mountain
Place: Good Night, and Good Luck
Show: Memoirs of a Geisha

I think the top two are closer than most people think, but the film with the most sweeping vistas tends to win here, and that describes the achingly gorgeous Brokeback to a T.

Best Editing

Win: Crash
Place: The Constant Gardener
Show: Munich

Crash had the most visible editing (cutting between so many stories like it did), but Gardener could sneak in here.

Best Art Direction

Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Place: King Kong
Show: Good Night, and Good Luck

Again, Geisha is expected to win, but Kong is probably closer than most think. Still, Geisha had more "real" art direction and less computerized work.

Best Costume Design

Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Place: Walk the Line
Show: Pride & Prejudice

I don't know what to make of this category beyond the fact that Geisha will win. And the costumes WERE right purty.

Best Makeup

Win: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Place: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Show: Cinderella Man

I don't have any idea why Cinderella Man is IN this category. Narnia gets a token win for making a lot of money. Even though Star Wars made more, the prequels have been excoriated in Hollywood. I would vote for Sith, but what say do I have?

Best Original Score

Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Place: Brokeback Mountain
Show: The Constant Gardener

John Williams needs another Oscar! Okay, clearly he doesn't. If Brokeback wins here, it may presage a mini-sweep by that film.

Best Original Song

Win: "Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica
Place: "In the Deep" from Crash
Show: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle & Flow

"In the Deep" is the presumptive favorite, but I have a feeling about the Oscars love of superstars. Hence, I think, the Dolly Parton tune will win. And never count out the "Wouldn't that be amusing!" votes for "Pimp."

Best Sound Mixing

Win: King Kong
Place: Walk the Line
Show: War of the Worlds

Kong gets to show off in these technical categories. Still, Walk the Line can't be counted out. Ray won last year, after all.

Best Sound Editing

Win: King Kong
Place: War of the Worlds
Show: Memoirs of a Geisha

Why is Geisha even IN this category? Honestly? I think it's Kong in a walk, even though I was more impressed with the sound effects work in War of the Worlds.

Best Visual Effects

Win: King Kong
Place: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Show: War of the Worlds

I thought Narnia had AWFUL effects, but there are quite a few who love the film itself. I'm surprised Star Wars didn't make it here. The only thing standing in the way of a King Kong win is New Zealand fatigue. And, honestly, that's not going to stop it. It was the most groundbreaking work of the year.

Best Documentary Short

Win: The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club
Place: God Sleeps in Rwanda
Show: The Mushroom Club

This is a COMPLETE guess. I think it will be one of those top two, since they have the Oscar friendliest subject matter, but the one film I said had no chance in this category last year went on to win. When it comes to the shorts, nobody knows anything.

Best Short Film - Live Action

Win: Ausreisser (The Runaway)
Place: Cashback
Show: Six Shooter

Again, a complete guess. I didn't get a chance to check these out in L.A. or on iTunes, so here's hoping the one everyone is predicting wins.

Best Short Film - Animated

Win: The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation
Place: One Man Band
Show: 9

This award has been going to deeply personal films lately, hence my choice. Before that, it went to screwy comedies, hence my second-place choice. But don't count out the appeal of 9, which was made by a UCLA student or something.

And what do I think SHOULD win (outside of the shorts categories)?

Well. . .if I had a ballot, I would mark the following. . .

Picture: Munich (r/u Capote)
Director: Steven Spielberg, Munich (r/u Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain)
Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (r/u Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow)
Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (r/u Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice)
Supporting Actor: William Hurt, A History of Violence (r/u George Clooney, Syriana)
Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, Junebug (r/u Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener)
Adapted Screenplay: Munich (r/u A History of Violence)
Original Screenplay: The Squid and the Whale (r/u I wouldn't have a runner-up, actually. I don't like any of the others enough to vote for it.)
Foreign Film: Tsotsi (r/u Paradise Now)
Documentary Feature: Murderball (r/u Darwin's Nightmare)
Animated Feature: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (r/u Howl's Moving Castle)
Cinematography: Good Night, and Good Luck (r/u Brokeback Mountain)
Editing: Munich (r/u The Constant Gardener)
Art Direction: King Kong (r/u Pride & Prejudice)
Costume Design: Pride & Prejudice (r/u Walk the Line)
Makeup: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (r/u The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
Original Score: Brokeback Mountain (r/u Munich)
Original Song: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle & Flow (r/u "Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica)
Sound Mixing: King Kong (r/u War of the Worlds)
Sound Editing: War of the Worlds (r/u King Kong)
Visual Effects: King Kong (r/u War of the Worlds)

Post your woulda, coulda, shoulda predictions in the comments second and have a happy Oscar day!

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