Saturday, September 02, 2006

Andy Warhol: Coming soon to PBS!

I absolutely LOVE Andy Warhol. I love it how his ideas - and work - made you think twice about what constitutes as original. I love it how he could simultaneously articulate the allure - and deadening shortcomings - of pop consumerism within a single canvas. But perhaps most of all, I love the fact that Warhol, unlike many of his peers, wasn't afraid to bridge the gap between "low" and "high brow" culture.

You can only imagine how ecstatic and thrilled I was when I found out that Warhol would be profiled in the ongoing PBS series, "American Masters".

The four-hour documentary, directed by Ric Burns, is currently playing at NYC's Film Forum. But all you non-New Yorkers (*sigh* myself included) can catch the doc on PBS in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, the PBS site does not offer the exact dates. But I will keep ya updated on the schedule (hopefully) soon.

In the meantime, here are some related sites:
Metacritic - Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film
PBS' American Masters: Andy Warhol
The Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol Prints


Friday, September 01, 2006

Poetry Friday: Excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


Mostly forgotten shows: Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge, a short-lived comedy on CBS, was part of a mini-trend in the early 90s: nostalgic shows that tried to take their time periods seriously. Homefront and I'll Fly Away also launched around the same time, looking at the time immediately following World War II and the civil rights movement respectively. Brooklyn Bridge was more about coming of age in the 1950s, though all three series were praised by critics and nominated for Emmys. All three launched in the fall of 1991, and all three lasted only two seasons, ending after network faith still couldn't translate into big viewer numbers.

I never watched either of the other two, being a mere 11 at the time, but I watched Brooklyn Bridge fervently. To be sure, it was a bit of a Wonder Years ripoff, and now that I think about it, it remembered childhood a bit too rosily, but the Bridge (and I may be looking at my own childhood a bit too rosily now) managed to nail a tone that's notoriously difficult: sweetly nostalgic.

Out of the three, this is the show that you still can't find anywhere. Neither Homefront nor I'll Fly Away are available on DVD, but Homefront periodically turns up in the nether regions of the cable box (I think it last aired on the Goodlife network), and I'll Fly Away occasionally airs on local PBS affiliates. Brooklyn Bridge apparently aired on Bravo briefly (back when Bravo took it upon itself to air critically acclaimed but quickly canceled shows -- Twin Peaks was another refugee), but I wasn't around to see it.

Brooklyn Bridge was the passion project of Gary David Goldberg, who had the money and clout to do such a thing, having created Family Ties (he later signed on to Spin City, which gave him even more cash). At the time, Goldberg talked about slaving over every aspect of the show, from making sure the set design of the various apartments where the show took place was just right to writing most of the scripts. Goldberg wanted to evoke his childhood, growing up as a young Polish Jew in Brooklyn, and he largely succeeded. The show largely avoided scenes where one of the kids learned a lesson, and the characters were sharply drawn. The show was also weirdly feminist, setting up a near-matriarchy, where the grandmother was in charge and the mother had her own job outside of the home.

The show was also impeccably cast. Most critics focused on Marion Ross, who was cast against type as the ferocious and loving grandmother, but the entire cast was full of deeply capable actors -- including Amy Aquino, who pops up from time to time in guest roles on other shows, and Jenny Lewis, who went from a cute child star to a legitimately gorgeous indie rock heartthrob.

I was drawn to Brooklyn Bridge because the storylines (mostly dealing with the tentative discovery of girls) roughly paralleled what I was going through at the time, but I stayed for a show that was nostalgic without being overbearingly so. It's the sort of show that deserves a loving DVD release from a company like Shout! Factory, but I'm not sure that will ever happen.

Weirdly, after the show was canceled, it seemed to slip from the critical memory. When the lists of great shows that were canceled too soon is compiled, this show is never on it, though Homefront and I'll Fly Away often are. I don't know why this is the case, but the show never seemed to inspire the passion in others that it did in 11-year-old me.

The Bridge, of course, deserved better. But television is a business-driven medium, not given to small, personal statements. Goldberg was lucky to get two years. And so, I guess, was I.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bruckheimer Procedural Type 157: Justice

(This post was supposed to go up this morning, but I overslept and didn't get a chance to post it until now. Now that the show has aired, I hope some of you will share your impressions in the comments section.)

It's hard to say much about Justice. Like all other shows produced by one-man crime show machine Jerry Bruckheimer, it's essentially a "This is how we catch the perps!" procedural, except this one is, "This is how we help the perps avoid jail!" It's handsomely produced (what isn't nowadays?) and well-acted, but the show isn't remarkable enough to avoid fading in to the woodwork.

The legal drama, of course, has long been one of TV's three basic drama types (the other two being the cop show and the medical drama). But, as of late, only Boston Legal has caught on with viewers, and that was a spinoff of an even more successful legal show, The Practice. But just as cop shows saw a resurgence with CSI in 2000 and medical shows saw a resurgence with Grey's Anatomy and House, it seems as though it's time for legal dramas to come back swinging. CBS' (frankly, better) bid Shark comes later, but Justice is Fox's latest attempt to make a show that they can port around anywhere on their schedule to see it repeat well.

Unfortunately, just as Vanished feels like a watered-down version of Prison Break, which was a watered-down version of 24, Justice feels like a watered-down version of Bones, which was a watered-down version of House. This isn't as outright bad as Vanished, but that's because it's very hard to make a truly bad procedural if you know how to write the structure. Unfortunately, the viewers of procedurals know the structure too, and huge twists and turns are hard to come up with when the populace is so educated.

Justice really does try, though. It's aiming to give us a new view into the life of defense attorneys, especially in the age of celebrity trials. A lot of this was done better on ABC's late, lamented Murder One, but Justice wraps a whole six-month trial in to a neat little time span (no word on whether or not the show will progress in real time with every two episodes roughly comprising a year). Victor Garber is a bit over-the-top, but his hammy attempt at the stereotypical, only-wants-to-win attorney is winning enough to make you buy it. His underlings aren't as well defined, but that's not what underlings are for on shows like this.

Two things make the show stand out from the procedural glut. There are repeated cuts to a Nancy-Grace-style show within the show called American Crime where the host castigates our heroes for defending those she has already tried and found guilty on her show, and the last scene of the show flashes back to show us if the crime really went down as our heroes decided it did. Presumably, this will leave us with some room for doubt in the future, as we see innocent people convicted and guilty people freed, but it will take a delicate writing process to make these twists truly surprising, and I'm not sure the Justice team is up to it.

All in all, Justice is pretty bland. If you like procedurals, you'll probably like this. It's not dreadfully pretentious (like Criminal Minds) or horribly bleak (like the quickly canceled Killer Instinct from last year). It's a well-crafted meat-and-potatoes show, and you'll probably like playing "who did it" along with the lawyers.

If you are a serious TV fan, though, there's not going to be enough here to sustain you. Like most of Bruckheimer's output, it's just empty calories.


Trauma and Drama on Rescue Me

Rescue Me, which ended its third season last night, is a series at war with its own worst impulses. In every episode -- indeed, in every scene -- the audience holds its breath, waiting to see if the writers will find a note of grace or banality.

Even the finale, a mostly quiet and occasionally meditative hour about the sacrifices the men of the firehouse have made, was marred by a ludicrous cliffhanger in which Sheila (Callie Thorne, doing strong work in an underwritten role), in a fit of rage prompted by the admission of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary, stunning even in the show's weaker episodes) that he's not going to retire and move with her to the beach, drugged Tommy, then accidentally started a fire, which she somehow couldn't put out (and she's supposed to be a fireman's widow?) and collapsed beside him as the flames roared around them. Sheila, a once interesting character, had sunk to the level of a crazy shrew -- an unfortunately common outcome for the show's female characters.

The cliffhanger was already objectionable for its lack of real suspense (does anyone really think Tommy won't get out alive?). But it was doubly unfortunate that it came at the end of a short arc (mostly dealing with the death of Tommy's brother Johnny, played by Dean Winters) that eschewed the show's usual on-the-nose approach to plot twists for something subtler. In large part, the season's last three installments had blended humor and pathos in a way that only Rescue Me can manage. It seemed possible that the show third year would end a high note -- a major victory, considering that this season was problematic even at its best. Co-created and overseen by Leary and coproducer Peter Tolan, Rescue Me tends to mistake collections of bad events for high drama, it has trouble drawing believable female characters, and it often doesn't trust itself to go for an understated moment when an over-the-top moment is readily available.
There's more where that came from here.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Theatre people ruin everything: Deadwood, season 3

Deadwood's third season was its best and worst season simultaneously, a perfect encapsulation of the series' themes and a season full of the occasional aimless meandering. David Milch's creation of a whole community, indeed a whole world, never felt fuller than it did in its third year, but there was also a sense of marking time, of trying to get to a fourth season that will now never come.

The overwhelming sense at the end of Sunday's series finale was a sense of loss. The world of Deadwood seemed more real to its acolytes than just about any televised world before it. Those who loved it seemed to live in the town, to speak in its profane yet rhythmed meter. And now, thanks to a stupid fight over money between two giant corporations, it's all gone, save for two promised TV movies that may or may not happen.

The third season saw Deadwood (the town) face down its most daunting rival yet, George Hearst (the wonderful Gerald McRaney). In doing so, the town banded together, its many citizens joining as one to fight for a common good. While they only succeeded in chasing Hearst out of town and keeping their lives, the moral victory they won by averting a shoot-out that would have killed many seemed almost worth it (even if the morals of the town and its fledgling society were subverted in the process).

All of this stuff -- the town steeling itself to prevent Hearst from taking over -- worked marvelously. The scenes between Ian McShane (as Al Swearengen -- who went from thug to productive member of society during the series' run) and McRaney were fraught with tension, with the fear of what might go wrong in the camp at the slightest provocation. Even when the citizens of Deadwood gained the upper hand, there was a sense that it all could go spiralling down very quickly (and it did).

But it was the stuff that felt like a set-up for season four that made the season feel like the worst of the three. In particular, lots of time was spent with a theatre troupe that never really seemed to pay off. Indeed, story threads were left dangling. The troupe never quite tied in with the community as a whole (which makes sense for a traveling group of actors), and its thematic parallel to the town (drama on the stage of real life) was never quite put across adequately. Similarly, plot threads about the doctor being very sick, Hearst's cook Aunt Lou and her son Odell and the Earp brothers were dropped entirely or resolved matter-of-factly. The series simply tried to juggle too many plotlines, and some had to be dropped.

But that didn't negate the quality of the filmmaking or the acting. The directing actually seemed to take a step up, as Mark Tinker, a veteran TV director, joined the production staff. The acting, too, was nearly perfect. The actors had all settled in to their roles and knew their places within the ensemble. Any combination of characters could lead to a thought-provoking scene, and every character got a chance to expose new sides to their natures.

To be honest, I'm still a bit stung by the loss of this show. It's the sort of show that revealed itself to you gradually, unfurling itself to reveal new layers of depth, new patterns to its actions. Plus, I'm a bit wiped from writing a review for another publication.

There's a lot of eloquent writing about the end of Deadwood. If you click on the links to the right, you'll find a lot of people talking about the end of one of the best series ever to air on television.

But know, Deadwood, that you'll be missed by me at least. And I'll return to you on DVD time and time again.


Would you rather. . .

I do nightly reviews of individual episodes of series? Or continue doing season-long reviews? Talk at me in the comments section.

Got backed up with other projects tonight, so SDD gets the short shrift. Tomorrow, a review of Deadwood season 3 and maybe Entourage season 3. And look for my Rescue Me season 3 review Wednesday morning at House Next Door.


Monday, August 28, 2006

What sorts of pilots do you like?

This is just the first part of what could end up being a lot of thoughts on pilots (the episodes of television series shot as "samples" for networks that are usually aired as first episodes), but since I'm rather exhausted, it hardly seems the time to try to write my ENTIRE thoughts on pilots.

Besides, Denis McGrath has done much of the work for me here.

The point is, there are two types of pilots -- the ones that show you how everything came to be (premise pilots) and the ones that drop you into the middle of a new world and expect you to keep up (we'll call these catch-up pilots, since I don't see another name for them). The two types, of course, crossbreed (with one famous blend we'll get to in a moment).

The trend in recent years has been away from premise pilots. I think this is probably because The Sopranos and The West Wing dropped us so believably and immediately into their respective universes in their pilots (the President's staff has been on the job for a year in The West Wing pilot and Tony Soprano has been a mobster for decades in The Sopranos pilot -- though it's arguable that that's a partial premise pilot since he goes to therapy for the first time in that episode). The idea is that the audience is more sophisticated -- they can figure out what's going on all by themselves. Of course, there are some shows that just don't work without a premise pilot (no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of a way to open Lost three months after the plane crash).

It's very easy, however, in a catch-up pilot to overwhelm your audience with too much backstory -- think of how the Veronica Mars pilot almost derailed because of all of the STUFF Veronica had to relay to the audience. It would have been untenable to start right before Lilly Kane's murder, but the exposition bordered on clumsy.

But here are some examples of the two types of pilots from recent years.

Premise pilots:

Lost -- The plane crashes. The survivors begin to realize the island they're on is full of crazy stuff and mysteries and such.

Arrested Development -- While the Bluth family exists much as it always has, this is the first time they're seeing each other in years. We find out (as they do) that George Bluth, Sr., has been engaging in criminal behavior. Responsible son Michael is recruited to hold the family together.

My Name Is Earl -- Earl is hit by a car after winning the lottery, and he learns of karma and decides to reorder his life thusly (notice the amount of backstory dropped here though -- from Earl's ex-wife Joy to his brother Randy).

Battlestar Galactica -- If we accept the miniseries as the pilot, then this is the premise-iest of them all. The world ends. A low-ranking cabinet official becomes president. One battleship stands between humanity and oblivion.

The Wire -- McNulty tells a judge about how the police department isn't getting its job done, and the judge leans on people, which results in the creation of a special unit to investigate the crimes McNulty was talking about (interestingly, the formation of the unit doesn't happen until episode two).

These are all situations where it behooves us, the audience, to jump in to the story as early as possible. We should be along for the ride to figure stuff out with the characters.

Catch-up Pilots:

Weeds -- We open months after the death of the main character's husband. The drug-dealing business is the main thrust of the pilot.

24 -- All of our terrorist fighters are in place. The only thing that's new is the terrorist threat, which, honestly, is nothing new for these people.

Veronica Mars -- Our heroine has gone from popular to goat, and her attempts to understand how her best friend died aren't helping.

Gilmore Girls -- The mother/daughter relationship, as well as the town relationships are all in place. The frosty relationship between the grandparents and mother is established, though we never quite find out why.

Rescue Me -- Sept. 11, the cataclysmic event that sets off the chain reaction of events that leads to Tommy Gavin's depression, is long in the past. Gavin is trying to hold it together.

In a catch-up pilot, it behooves the audience to come in to the story just when it's going to get dramatically interesting. We don't NEED to see Lorelai give birth to Rory -- we can see that in flashback years later. We don't need to see the World Trade Center attacks again -- we're already familiar. By incorporating just enough backstory to keep us intrigued, a catch-up pilot can drop us in to a world with a minimum of confusion.

There IS a way to blend the two, though it has become almost cliche -- the first day on the job pilot. In this sort of pilot, every character but one is in place, and that one character joins the team. We see the world through their eyes, giving us a chance to get some much-needed exposition. While this is a favorite of workplace dramas (CSI and Without a Trace both used one), you'll find its basic structures buried in other pilots (often in surprising places).

Such as. . .

Alias -- Really, all of the characters but Sydney are in place. Jack is a double agent. Sloane is evil. Vaughn is working for the FBI. But Sydney uncovers these things piece by piece and we are drawn in to the world with her -- her first day on the "job" is really a first day of awareness about her own life.

Deadwood -- The camp is already there, but we see it through the eyes of Sol Starr and Seth Bullock, who have just moved in.

The Shield -- Our eyes into the Strike Team is a man who's working to bring the team down. But then, he's shot and killed at the end of the episode by the main character, the "good guy."

Of course, the vast majority of "first day on the job" pilots use the tried and true structure where someone joins the team and learns everything about it (a good example of how to do this well is Scrubs).

There are plenty of examples of all three of these types this pilot season. As we come upon them, think about what you like about them and why. I prefer a good catch-up pilot, but I respect a premise pilot that knows it needs to start at the very beginning. The first day on the job structure is so familiar that I often feel turned off by it initially, but it can win me over.

So what do you think?