Friday, January 25, 2008

Deeply superficial blog-a-thon: Just a reminder

Remember that the deeply superficial blog-a-thon starts just one week from today -- Friday, Feb. 1 -- and runs through Friday, Feb. 8

Here's the manifesto from the original post:

You could write an extended treatise on a work where the superficial pleasures led you to a deeper understanding of the piece as a whole. Or you could make a list of people you find attractive. Or you could just post pretty pictures. So long as it has to do with something in the arts or pop culture and it's something you enjoy on some sort of shallow level, it's fair game. Obviously, the subject lends itself to more humorous writing and/or personal reflection, so if you feel up to either, feel free to go ahead with that. It's as scholarly as you want it to be.

We'll link to everyone that writes a Blog-a-Thon post at their own blogs. Don't have one? Well, type something up in a .RTF file and e-mail it to me by January 31, and I'll publish it here with your byline and everything.
Here's a YouTube video too, only a different one this time. I'll be back in full force in Feb., but I wanted to remind you about this before you forgot.


Unlikely happiness: Life on Mars

In case you’re not familiar with the sometimes brilliant if often frustrating Life on Mars, here’s a quick recap: detective inspector Sam Tyler gets hit by a car in 2007 and wakes up in 1973. He forms an uneasy partnership with Gene Hunt, a brutish fellow DI with zero regard for proper procedure. In between flirting with PC Annie Cartwright and philosophising with wise barman Wilson, Sam throws himself into his police work to avoid the burning question of what exactly has happened to him. Three possibilities: he’s either mad, in a coma or actually back in time. And that’s all! So before this starts sounding too much like an advertisement, let me get into some actual analysis.

Life on Mars is, I feel, a hugely overrated show, both in the UK and the US. It leans far too heavily on its procedural aspect, every episode not just based around a case but dominated by it. The opener of season two, for instance, followed Sam struggling to jail someone he knew would become a violent criminal in the future. Interesting idea, but not interesting enough to sustain a viewer’s attention for an hour (that’s a full hour, without ads). Every episode had Sam hearing messages from the modern day, often through TVs or radios, a gimmick that got old pretty quick. Without anything else going on, Life on Mars never became more than a crime drama with a twist. A twist which, while it did help the show stand out from the pack at first, could not hold up whole stories on its own.

The reason Life on Mars has never been heavily criticised for these problems has been its characters. Like many leads, Sam Tyler sometimes drifted into ‘annoying do-gooder’ territory, but the magnificent John Simm kept him likeable through it all. Without Philip Glenister, however, Life on Mars would be nothing. His hilarious Gene Hunt – sexist, racist, bigoted and lovable – made the perfect antidote to Sam’s level-headedness, forging one of TV’s greatest odd-couples in years. Watching Simm and Glenister bounce off each other was a pleasure that made the show worthwhile. The downside will be familiar to experienced TV watchers – whenever Sam and Gene weren’t on screen together, the proceedings tended to fizzle. The rest of the ensemble never made it past caricature status (the love interest, the idiot, and…the other idiot).

For all these reasons, I only viewed Life on Mars’ second season intermittently upon its initial airing (in the UK, where I live). I did, however, make sure to watch the last couple episodes, as whatever problems the show might have had, I was still intrigued to see how it would end. Which brings me to the finale (which aired Tuesday night on BBC America), what I really want to talk about. Written by series co-creator Matthew Graham, it is an amazing hour of television that makes up for the mediocrity that has come before. There’s no big twist in the reveal of how Sam ended up in 1970 – in fact, Graham has admitted that he had never really intended it as much of a mystery, an interesting example of the showrunner being on a completely different page than the viewer. The finale offers a simple, concrete explanation of Sam’s situation: he’s in a coma, the present day is the real world and 1973 is a kind of purgatory. While not a shocker, this conclusion allows the show a remarkable emotional closure.

Graham’s script is a tense, gripping hour of television, one of the best constructed stories I’ve ever seen on television. Its brilliance comes from how it works on so many different levels. You could argue that Sam is simply insane as a result of his accident, unable to remove himself from the fantasy world he created inside his head. On the other hand, maybe Sam is the sane one, and it’s everyone else who’s leaving in a dream world. It could be seen as a condemnation of our shades-of-grey 21st century society, with Graham arguing that the 1970s were simpler and therefore happier times. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for how happiness can be found in the most unlikely of places, and ultimately home is where the heart is.

Two sequences in particular sent my heart racing. There’s Sam’s confrontation with Frank Morgan as he realises that Morgan’s promise to send Sam home referred to Hyde rather than 2007. Morgan offers an altogether new explanation of Sam’s situation, a full-on red herring on Graham’s part, suggesting that Sam had imagined 2007 rather than 1973. Simm is at his best during these scenes – his underplayed break-down when Sam thinks he will be stuck in ’73 forever is pitiable while never pathetic. The second sequence was of course the final ten minutes, starting with Sam’s return to 2007 and culminating with him, Hunt and whole team driving off into the sunset. Considering Mars was frequently not even entertaining, let alone emotionally engaging, it’s surprisingly moving stuff. The final interchange, a typical argument between Tyler and Hunt, highlights the two leads’ brilliant back-and-forth chemistry which so many shows strive for but few can organically sell. Sam utters the final line – suitably, “In your dreams” – before Test Card Girl, a sort of spiritual guide for the viewer, appears and reaches out towards the viewer as if to turn off a TV. The screen goes black. Journey’s over. Nothing like a perfect ending to make a bumpy journey suddenly seem so worth taking.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

“I don't sleep.”: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

There’s not much to say about this week’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, so I’ll keep it brief. Many of the same criticisms I noted in my review of the first two episodes still stand. Lena Heady remains weak rather than engaging. It’s not so much her displays of mercy that bother me, but that I never believed she’d have it in her to kill anyone in the first place. Sarah shouldn’t be homicidal or anything, but she has to be frightening. Richard T. Jones got some more to do, but I still think he’s being underused. Right now, all he’s doing is wandering around last week’s locations (he won’t always be one episode behind, right?) and sitting behind a desk doing paperwork.

Also not working for me: Sarah, John and Cameron’s interactions in the house. Seems writer John Wirth was trying to establish an easy banter between the three, both for comic effect and to form a familial bond. Nice idea, one more shows should embrace (that is, letting its characters just bounce off each-other) but at the moment it’s feeling forced. Part of the problem might be the accidental sexual tension between Heady and Thomas Dekker, and the obviously intended sexual tension between Dekker and Summer Glau. The latter is okay, but together they make for a seriously weird family unit.

On the positive side, Glau and Dekker are starting to grow into their roles a little more. In typical Terminator fashion, Cameron’s ignorance of human customs is the main source of humour; although where Schwarzenegger’s Terminator had no initial interest in mimicking human behaviour, Glau’s Cameron is closer to a child, gleeful at every new discovery. Her interactions with John are diverting enough, his attraction to her a suitably creepy touch that I’m glad the writers aren’t shying away from. This episode also gave the first hint of the potential hero inside John with his impassioned speech about helping others – though this was pretty much ruined by the distasteful use of teenage suicide as a dramatic device. I can see no way in which it was necessary for the girl to kill herself in such a gruesome way, or for her even to die.

Sarah Connor Chronicles strikes me as a show that doesn’t really suit weekly recaps, as it is doling out information slowly and in little bits. For instance, we don't yet know much about the new Terminator glimpsed at the end, and the significance of Andy Goode (Brendan Hines) remains unclear. I get the feeling Josh Friedman is gradually building up the complex universe he has in his head. Which leads me to worry that Friedman and co. are spending too much of their attention on this universe, and not nearly enough on their characters. With only six episodes left, Sarah Connor Chronicles has less breathing room to improve than most new shows, but since the potential is there I will try and remain optimistic.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"We have to kill again.": The Wire

(Forgot to publish this Sunday night. Don't know what's up with that. -- ed.)

Once again, I am saddened to find that I lag behind the curve on a Wire observation. I was struck by just how funny the fake serial killer plot was, only to find Alan Sepinwall labeling it as outright farce and various other commentors calling this the funniest episode of The Wire ever. If the fake serial killer storyline was going to work, it had to have a note of humor to it, and I think the show has been nailing that tone as the storyline progresses.

The most important thing here is that David Simon and his writers didn't make McNulty's plan a raging success. The bleakly comic tone of the utter failure of McNulty's plan to take off initially (so he must bring in Lester -- who's surprisingly amenable to the idea, coming from a similar position of frustration as he does) sells the whole thing. If McNulty had launched a front-page story, if he had hooked up with Scott from the first and peddled his crap more easily, the whole house of cards would have fallen apart. The story is still mighty hard to swallow, but the careful work at making sure it doesn't go too far too fast is keeping it just on this side of the believability line.

McNulty's idea of the red ribbon killer is silly on its face, but it also speaks to a deep-seeded need in people to hear stories that they can make sense of, to collect information that can be assembled and forced to fit into a pattern. The randomness of real life, of the actual patterns that keep the streets of Baltimore a tough place to live, are much harder to put into an easily digestible narrative, and that's why they get ignored. As Gus pointed out last week, you need to be more wide-ranging if you're truly going to diagnose the problems of the school system, even for a newspaper article. But wide-ranging doesn't sell papers (or attract viewers), so the system turns things into something more palatable. It's just the way things work, though not on The Wire itself.

This episode seemed a lot more concerned with plot than several others this season, particularly in regards to Marlo dealing with Proposition Joe and trying to get at Omar (living down in Puerto Rico, but forced to confront his past and hometown at the end of the episode -- and we can only hope his return lives up to all the anticipation). But McNulty also hatched his serial killer plot in earnest, Burrell saw the beginning of the end of his career, and Gus continued to smell a rat in regards to Scott, who made up a quote, then fibbed his way through it easily enough, even as the quote had unintended consequences for Burrell and Daniels.

Most in the media are complaining about the media storyline because they don't like the way Simon has slammed his former employers at the Sun, but I'm inclined to forgive him for that. What I'm less impressed by is the treatment of Scott, who seems almost too much of a bad guy at this point, someone whose sheer toady nature is portrayed with little nuance. Maybe this is because he's just been introduced, but I already feel like I know Gus and Alma pretty well, and we've only known them for three episodes as well. Scott just feels a little too bad to be true, if you'll forgive the cliche twisting, what with the way his flimsy work ethic so easily gave way to just making stuff up. Then again, if you read an account of how the Jayson Blair thing went down at the New York Times (or how the Jimmy's World story that ended Janet Cooke's career ended up in the Washington Post), you might not be surprised that the unscrupulous with a good gift for kissing the right butts would jump so quickly to just making it up as they go. Still, it might have been nice to see Scott struggle with doing it the right way for a while, even if the theme of the season is how lying can become the truth if you can back it up.

Two scenes that did ring true were the scene where the newsroom staff learns of further staff cuts (though the complete and utter lack of mention of the Sun's Web site in any of these scenes seems to me to be the one way this plot doesn't approach "realism," insofar as that's important). The frustrated howls, the angry questions, the loss of institutional memory. All perfect and right on. And the scene where Gus and his departing colleague went out for a drink and talked of their dreams for what journalism used to be and why they grew interested in it in the first place hit just the right note of fond nostalgia without pandering.

I feel as though juggling all of the balls this season (including incidental appearances from figures from seasons one and two) has led to a situation where the Carcetti storyline, so potent in seasons three and four, is being backburnered. But that's, perhaps, the way it has to be, as you can only do so much in this storyline. Perhaps it will perk up a little later on in the season.

If there's one thing we can be sure of this far into The Wire's final season, it's that lies abound on the streets of Baltimore. Some of those lies will have to be paid for. Others will probably allow their tellers to skate on by. In the meantime, let's hope for some more howls of desperation. Or of laughter.


'One Tree Hill': Men (and women) behaving badly

I'd like to pause our regularly scheduled recap to make an important announcement: Nathan Scott finally cut his hair. His unkempt appearance was a trial for us all but thankfully those horrible times are in the past, hopefully for good. Well, at least until the next time Nathan has some sort of a life-altering crisis (which will likely be sometime in the next few months, knowing the history of this show).

Now on to the recap! Unfortunately, the running theme for this episode seemed to be people acting like jerks for no apparent reason.

Read the rest of the article here.