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Peak Hours (Parts 3 & 4)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by Tom Steward

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When Mulholland Drive topped the BBC’s list of the 21st Century’s Top 100 Films last year, Time Out film editor Geoff King was interviewed about David Lynch on BBC News. King was subjected to the kind of bullyboy pedantry that has infected BBC journalism since the era of Jeremy Paxman, and apparently now taints its arts coverage. The reporter banally badgered King about whether or not he understood Lynch’s movie, a question which the critic sensibly dodged by challenging its relevance to an appreciation of the film, adding “I think I’m getting everything that Lynch is putting out there”. I couldn’t have said it better and it’s a sentiment that should inform any attempt to write about Twin Peaks: The Return.

I’m not suggesting I’m any better than those who try to make literal sense out of Lynch’s work. I recently clicked on a YouTube video that was doing the rounds on social media called “David Lynch comments on the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return” which turned out to be a montage of the finale with Lynch as Gordon Cole edited in for comic effect, asking “What the hell?” In spite of myself, I still feel the need to rationalise what Lynch (and, in this case, Mark Frost) puts up there on the screen. Yet I genuinely believe that the critical reception of the series focuses far too much on meaning and not nearly enough on feeling.

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Looking for plausible explanations of what happens in The Return immediately reveals its own futility. Take any of the series’ unsolved mysteries, for example: “What happened to Major Briggs’ head?” The question itself is so absurd; it renders any answer moot. I’m more interested in talking about the sublime image of Don S. Davis’s head floating through space like an early cinema moon. Critics are on firmer ground when they ask legitimate questions about cliffhangers from the original series. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, these storylines would most likely have been resolved, while here they are surrounded by even more uncertainty. The continuation of Audrey Horne’s story arc from the third season finale is a case in point.

We learn that Audrey fell into a coma after being the victim of an explosion at the Savings & Loan while she was handcuffed to the vault. We also surmise that she gave birth to a child, Richard, fairly soon after. That is exactly as much as we know, and we don’t learn any of it in the scenes in which Audrey features. In those scenes, Audrey appears to be caught in a loveless marriage and has taken a lover. But there’s an odd doctor-patient vibe of her relationship with husband Charlie and the denouement of her storyline has Audrey clearing the dance floor of The Roadhouse as she slow-dances to her eponymous leitmotif, followed by a last-second jump-cut to an expressionistic close-up of her face inside a mirror surrounded by clinically coloured and lit walls.

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In Audrey’s story, there’s a perfectly rational explanation of her fate, a completely fantastical one, and everything inbetween. Viewers can latch on to the “fact” of her coma and ascribe her appearances to an elaborate fictional life created in unconsciousness, which is then broken in those final few seconds as she comes out of it. The reverse works just as well. At any point, we may be in the real world or the realms of fantasy, and they could switch at any time. This is an openness of storytelling seldom seen in television. I also suspect this may be a satirical comment on the trope of “retconning” in TV revivals, as information previously understood to be true in a show is unconvincingly revoked or revised by future versions of it. Here Lynch and Frost become the least reliable sources for what has happened to the characters they themselves created.

The Return keeps original Twin Peaks characters dancing on the edge of cliffs in an entertaining holding pattern that promises more resolution than it can ever deliver. At times, Lynch and Frost (my instincts tell me mainly Frost) pay heed to the viewers’ desire for closure but these are hollow gestures, with the exception of Norma and Ed’s happy ending. As the series drew to a close, it appeared that Cooper might return to his original status in the show, but all the different variations of the character seen in The Return coagulate into the muted, half-speed version of the Dales we encounter in the finale episode.

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One thing Lynch is putting out there that I’m definitely getting is the casting. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, the cast comprised largely of Lynch favourites (Kyle MacLachlan and Jack Nance, the protagonists of Blue Velvet and Eraserhead respectively), teen pin-up eye candy (Sheryl Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, James Marshall), veteran actors from Hollywood movies of the 50s and 60s (Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Piper Laurie) and those selected for bodily attributes (The Dwarf, The Giant, The One-Armed Man). The mix of old and new in The Return is already complicated by a pre-existing cast that looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. The dual sense of history and youth is retained but, once again, that means something entirely different in casting The Return.

Lynch’s 21st Century films are represented here by the leading ladies of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern. Though, along with Harry Dean Stanton (in his final television role), Dern connects The Return with Lynch’s oeuvre of the 80s and 90s. She does more than that. By casting her as Diane, who remained offscreen for the entirety of the first run, Lynch has entrusted Dern with giving life to a character that never had one. It really speaks to the idea that Diane is a figment of Lynch’s imagination manifested in the body of his favorite actress. The way Diane’s story plays out onscreen and the agency that Lynch (as Gordon Cole) has in her scenes eerily mirrors their professional relationship.

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Like Twin Peaks, The Return is unashamedly sexy in its selection of actors. But there’s a different aesthetic here. While the original titillated viewers with the eroticism of preppy high-schoolers and teenage beauty queens embracing the darker sides of their sexualities, the revival finds the same quality of desire in adult femininity. Agent Tammy Preston’s hourglass figure, hip-slinking walk and lithe chic is the object of Lynch’s lust. Were this not obvious from the way he shoots her, Lynch’s Cole is also the voyeur in front of the camera. We can draw similar conclusions from Cole, the character once again interchangeable with the director, talking about “one of his Monica Bellucci dreams”, a fantasy which the actress gamely indulges for Lynch. The sexualisation of Diane’s hard drinking, smoking and swearing is another indication of Lynch’s fetishes achieving maturity.

With over a half-century gone since the era of Hollywood that Lynch and Frost plucked their Twin Peaks stars from, it’s remarkable that Beymer and Tamblyn remain to keep the torch of movie nostalgia alight in The Return. This is topped off with the addition to the cast of Don Murray, whose brushes with mid-century Hollywood glamour (having acted alongside Marilyn) and character actor chops make him the perfect Peaker. But The Return also pays homage to the Indiewood cinema and quality television that has dominated American popular art since Twin Peaks first went off the air. Think of Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s pair of assassin lovers as American indie cinema’s Prom King and Queen, with Michael Cera and Amanda Seyfried the first-grade pretenders to the crown. Robert Forster as Sherriff Truman manages to straddle associations with both mid-century Hollywood and the nineties US indie boom.

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While James Belushi might seem a curious choice, for the TV connoisseur his presence puts Twin Peaks into a quality television timeline that acknowledges early nineties virtual reality thriller Wild Palms and then culminates in contemporaries such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, whose stars make punchy cameos here. Lynch and Frost seem to recognise that the paradigms of pop art have shifted with time. Actors are still cast on the basis of their different bodies (though refreshingly not made to play mythical creatures this time) but there’s a few nice twists on the theme. I was particularly enamoured of the three Las Vegas detectives, all named Fusco (and possibly all brothers), who have a heavyset uniformity that makes them seem like actors all waiting to audition for the same part.

In short, there are ways to appreciate Twin Peaks: The Return that don’t involve interpreting it. We should enjoy the freedom that Lynch and Frost give us to experience the characters without the burden of story arcs hanging over them. Sometimes, the significance of characters is not related to their role in the story but is closer to the actor playing them, and what they mean to the world of the show. I don’t feel cheated and I hope others don’t either.

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Peak Hours (Parts 1 & 2)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Any belated revival of a TV show will inevitably fail to recapture the essence of their original. Insurmountable anachronisms, missing or surrogate cast and creative personnel and a return to a radically altered television landscape compound, leaving such enterprises feeling like a stilted ventriloquist act of the first run. With Twin Peaks: The Return, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have made a virtue of this uncanny disconnect between original and revival.

The limited series event (a fashionable moniker for “miniseries” or “special”) is themed and styled around anachronism. Deputy Andy and receptionist Lucy’s adult son Wally confusingly models his life on the film characters of Marlon Brando; Lucy herself is acutely afraid of cellular phones, a technology that became ubiquitous in the intervening decades (and one that, incidentally, was advertised early on by Kyle MacLachlan playing Agent Cooper). Beloved characters like Cooper and The One-Armed Man claim not to be able to distinguish between future and past, and we jump around in time about as much as we do geographical space and existential realm, and as fluidly.

Deceased or unavailable actors (or, in David Bowie’s case, both) are not an issue but instead are woven into the fabric of the storytelling. Michael Ontkean declined to reprise the role of Sherriff Truman and, in a nod to the series’ daytime serial muse, Robert Forster takes his place as Harry’s brother…Sherriff Truman. The reverse is also true. An actor whose character was killed off previously returns in an almost identical role. Phillip Jeffries (Bowie channelling Jerry Lee) is back, but with a new voice and recast as a shadowy steam kettle. The Return is as estranged from television in 2017 as Twin Peaks was to the medium in 1990 but to achieve that effect, the latter has to be pathologically dissimilar from the former.

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For starters, The Return immediately spurned its eponymous location, forsaking Twin Peaks for other rural backwaters like Buckhorn, South Dakota, and small communities including The Fat Trout trailer park last seen in feature spin-off Fire Walk with Me. Iconic cities such as New York and Las Vegas also feature, and we even venture into Latin America for a few seconds, though don’t ask me why. This kind of mobility is commonly found in and used to justify sequels (Babe: Pig in the City, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) and such a negotiation with the commercial is by no means above David Lynch’s avant-garde take on pop art. But the pan-American canvas and urbanization of the revival indicate that it is more rooted in social reality than its predecessor, even if the approach taken to the material is about as far from social realism as it’s possible to be.

Secondly, sound. The perpetual underscoring has been scrapped in favour of long silences punctuated by atonal soundscapes with a few sonic callbacks to the original when canonical characters appear. Ironically, the new sound design serves to highlight the presence of music in the show even more prominently than before, which I didn’t think possible. This is capped by a “concert series” approach to musicality, in which alternative bands and performers appear in the last few minutes of each episode behind the credits, with the faintest of story justification as acts playing The Roadhouse. The ability to completely overhaul the sound design yet have it perform the same function it always did is a testament to how familiar yet strange The Return really is.

As I suggested earlier, the uneasy mixture of reassurance and disparity is usually a by-product of aiming for the tone of the original and misfiring. Here it is cultivated. Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper, but a Dale Cooper possessed by evil ghost Bob, and alter-ego Dougie Jones, himself split between a lovable compulsive and sleepy new-born simpleton. Tiki-fetishist Dr. Jacobi has become Twin Peaks’ version of Alex Jones and Audrey Horne is so unrecognisable from the thrill-seeking bad girl we used to know, she (and Lynch/Frost) barely knows what to do. Characters are not permitted to appear the way they were, until they have gone through a seemingly endless series of alternative permutations.

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The Lynch-directed episodes of Twin Peaks were groundbreaking in retarding story development to draw out select scenes until they were protracted beyond credulity. That goes for the entirety of The Return. The show is slower than wax. This slow television is yet another example of how the follow-up has one foot in the original and another in an alternate dimension of art.

How slow is Twin Peaks: The Return? Well, it takes Audrey Horne two episodes to leave her house. The scenes involving the FBI play more like table reads than final cuts, with David Lynch as Director Gordon Cole regulating the snail-pace delivery onscreen as well as off. The cast is populated by a variety of mutes and monosyllabics and the most basic of actions take an eternity to complete. In fact, one could easily write the series off as an experiment to take the most circuitous route to the simplest outcome in each scenario.

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Lynch had certainly played with this kind of pacing before in Twin Peaks, most notably in the opening scene of season two in which the cliffhanger of Cooper’s shooting is suspended in time as a doddering room service waiter attempts to deliver a glass of milk to the mortally wounded agent. The (first) series finale, which leads into The Return in a way other Twin Peaks episodes do not, consolidated the idea that this was about Lynch’s speed as director and elevated the early talking picture staginess to auteur style. We’ve seen this bloom into a mark of Lynch’s filmmaking in his cinema of the past two decades, with both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire exercises in unnecessary elaboration. Indeed, Mulholland Drive began life as a television pilot, which makes one wonder how much The Return would have resembled a Mulholland Drive TV series.

We can think of pacing in The Return as the natural evolution of Lynch’s languorous directorial style, culminating in a project with an eighteen-hour run-time. But context is everything and it’s hard to discount the importance of having Showtime as a partner in this respect. When Twin Peaks aired on ABC, it wasn’t a typical network show but it pandered to the network viewers’ diet of serial melodrama, sitcom and police procedural just enough to get away with some of Lynch’s more left-field ideas, like his slow-motion storytelling. Now the cornerstone of a premium cable channel’s output, The Return gets its artistic license from the baggage of quality television the franchise comes with, a Sunday-night drama that is designed to out-experiment the competition. In this ecology, it’s easy to see that Lynch’s loosening of narrative could be a real commodity. It makes rivals for the quality TV crown Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (as well as anything else on the network) seem positively pedestrian by comparison.

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For any viewer used to the clip of television narration, Lynch/Frost’s pacing decisions must seem perverse. To devotees of Twin Peaks (Twinsies? Peak Audiences?), it borders on sacrilege. Despite its avant-garde overtones, the original was largely driven by story. Multiple, labyrinthine plotlines layered each episode and built successively until they were unfathomably complicated and entangled, while the overarching narrative became multi-dimensional, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. The diminished pace of The Return means that there’s barely enough time for a cursory drop-in with each of the recurring characters, and that could be a problem for long-time viewers. The premature cancellation of Twin Peaks at the end of season two resulted in cliffhangers across the board, many (if not all) of which audiences expected to be addressed in the revival. With the exception of a few notable concessions, like Norma and Ed getting the ending they always deserved, the threads are left hanging and in some cases clouded with even more ambiguity.

For the most part, Twin Peaks: The Return unfolds with a sluggishness one expects from a video installation in an art gallery. Whereas the vast majority of TV shows use their generous quota of screen minutes to create the most expansive stories possible, Lynch and Frost have turned that tendency in on itself and focused in with minute detail on a set of small, self-repeating incidents. Were it not so artfully done, it would simply be tedious. In fact, it dangles over the precipice of tedium more times than I can possibly count. But, like his fellow art cinema auteur Lars Von Trier, Lynch knows exactly the right moment to add a jolt of (often comic) energy that will reel the audience back into engagement.

Part 15

I’ve resisted using the word “leisurely” to describe the pacing of The Return because there is nothing about the absences that is remotely enjoyable. The lingering silence and portraits in pausing are where the most disturbing aspects of the program coagulate. When nothing happens, there is no greater sense of fear and dread.

 

 

 

 

Cable Cars

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on July 13, 2017 by Tom Steward

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I heard the news that a television adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was in development at Netflix a matter of weeks after seeing the West Coast Premiere of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin in San Diego (shame on you, San Francisco!) which documented the author’s life and work. Much lamented in the film were the circumstances surrounding the PBS broadcast of the miniseries version of the original Tales collection which subsequently prevented future adaptations of all the books in the series. Aided by a selectively salacious highlight reel of the first miniseries – which in some markets would be the best possible trailer – Senator Jesse Helms (Maupin’s former boss, in a Dickensian coincidence worthy of the author’s serial fiction) led a campaign against taxpayer funding of a series which he argued was an affront to family values (of the homophobic, ultra-conservative, religious fundamentalist variety, of course), resulting in PBS dropping the show. The subsequent two collections were later televised by Showtime, but in dramatically ineffective and (eventually) severely truncated formats that tipped the balance into TV movie-esque melodrama. Getting even three of the collections televised was a notable success – especially in the nineties – but somehow still unsatisfactory.

I’d suggest that the latent disappointment stems not just from completism but the natural home in television for the Tales of the City books. First published in a format copacetic to television’s repeated regularity, the newspaper serial, the continuing episodic storytelling that drives much TV fiction is inbuilt. Tales derived from the tradition of newspaper-based serial fiction written by authors such as Charles Dickens, which would later inspire the broadcast soap opera (so much so, in fact, that the very title was chosen by Maupin over alternatives because of its Dickensian quality). It’s a lineage that the BBC’s successful radio serial adaptation of recent years only serves to reinforce. You only have to look at how many times the characters in the Channel 4/PBS original miniseries are caught watching the late 1970s daily satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to see how much the producers felt this was a convergence waiting to happen. In a TV “binge” culture, the sheer amount of literary material available for adaptation becomes a selling point for the franchise rather than the drawback it had been in previous decades. But Netflix will still encounter problems of adaptation due to the period of time elapsed.

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It’s been reported that the stars of the original three TV adaptations Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis will be returning, which raises a lot of difficult questions about what the new series will be. A good quarter-century has passed since Further Tales of the City aired on Showtime, which limits what can be done with the characters in certain age ranges. Their casting strongly suggests that we will pick up the series from Michael Tolliver Lives, a belated sequel from 2007 that spawned a (supposedly) final trilogy of Tales novels, since this timeline would find Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal somewhere near the same age as the actors playing them (in all but appearance). Of course, it’s entirely possible Linney and Dukakis will be playing different characters, as is conventional in a remake. This seems unlikely to me, as, unlike other (frequently re-cast) characters in the canon, the Tales of the City fanbase tends to find the two leads inseparable from their performers. It was, after all, Laura Linney (albeit dressed as Mary Ann Singleton) who rode alongside Grand Marshal Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride in 2003. Re-casting these actors would be highly problematic.

If my suspicions are correct, a (more or less) contemporaneous Tales of the City TV series is in the works. There are gains and losses here. TV thrives on being able to hold up a (broken and vaselined) mirror to current events, and the original Tales serials had that very cultural commentary in mind. It would then be the first time that a television version of Tales of the City played the same role in society as the original literature. Viewers would, however, miss out on three novels’ worth of character and story development. They will particularly feel the absence of Babycakes, the first novel to discuss AIDS. Though, with its vacation vibe and self-standing storylines, the third in the series is probably the only Tales of the City novel that would work as a feature film. Either way, Looking is the modern-day heir to Maupin’s San Francisco no more.

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Nineties Degree

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by Tom Steward

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This isn’t the first post I’ve written about nineties nostalgia in television but at the time of writing I had no idea how contagious it would be. Consider the evidence. The most innovative program on TV remains Twin Peaks (I’ll hold off on saying the best until it’s over). There is a television revival of Fargo which not only seems determined to re-capture every iconic moment from the golden decade of The Coen Brothers, but also currently stars Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor (incidentally, this is too much for someone who once owned VHS of both movies with the other film’s trailer before them). Louis C.K’s experiments with television comedy, both on and off the air, channel nineties indie cinema auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, and what is Horace & Pete but a serialised soundstage version of star Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge? Factor in a Friends revival and you couldn’t be more nineties.

The best of nineties nostalgia TV is also a cultural commentary on it. Netflix’s transcendent sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the device of a woman kidnapped and secluded for fifteen years in a bunker to retrofit the majority of the program’s points of reference to nineties pop culture. There are so many I’ve lost track but imagine an alternate universe where the apotheosis of pop culture remains Kelsey Grammer. It’s a satire of our arrested development that also manages to capture the (albeit anachronistic) zeitgeist, as any successful sitcom must. Though not specifically aimed at the early nineties, Twin Peaks processes its nostalgic appeal in fittingly gothic ways. In the reboot, the Sherriff’s Department receptionist Lucy has a debilitating phobia of cell phone use, which she regards as some kind of witchcraft, while her son Wally Brando (an unusually well-used Michael Cera) delivers an eerie ventriloquism of namesake Marlon.

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In some sense, it was only a matter of time. We’re about as far now from the nineties as we were from the fifties when movies and TV shows romanticising the decade like American Graffiti and Happy Days started to dominate pop culture. We may be waiting a while for the nineties-set equivalent of the explicit love letter to the fifties that is Back in the Future, which is to say this phase probably hasn’t peaked yet, but it can’t be far from saturation point. Enough time has passed that any piece of media dealing with the nineties can now legitimately be seen as a work of history. Indeed, this very Summer CNN premieres the graduation of its decade-based documentary series The Nineties, the trailer for which positions the CD player as the relic of a bygone era and The Backstreet Boys as detached from the present as The Beatles.

Nineties nostalgia is also a by-product of a TV ecology where the past is always present. Though claiming to revolutionize the reception of television, Video-On-Demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu have done more to take TV content back in time than any oldies station ever did. Entire canons of popular (and not so) TV shows from the 1950s onwards are now instantly accessible to a vast viewership, and without the bitter pill of catheter commercials to swallow. The appeal of such platforms is as much being able to binge on Cheers as House of Cards. If lifespan permits, such extensive replay creates a natural demand for revival, which the VOD platform’s business models are always more-than-happy to accommodate, with a slew of fannish resurrections. Done so routinely online, the on-air networks are now spicing their season line-ups with revivals of nineties properties, as shown by the upcoming return of Roseanne.

The 2017-2018 ABC Television Upfront Presentation

I was a teenager in the nineties and those were my formative cultural years. At the time, I thought the best of film, TV and music had been and gone, though it turns out that’s a very nineties way of looking at things. Now I fetishistically relish what came out of that decade, and regard it as a far more sophisticated era in mainstream media arts than we are currently experiencing. I think I’m pretty typical of my generation, if we can be uniformly tantalised by the prospect of a Minnesota-based police procedural coming to primetime or react excitedly when one of the most belaboured sitcoms of all time returns to network TV. There’s no doubt we’re the demographic that television executives are targeting with their retroactive approach to commissioning, and that producers find common ground with their fragmented audience based on a shared love of the decade’s cultural output.

 

Stage Set

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History on March 29, 2017 by Tom Steward

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I’ve spent a lot of time away from this blog because I’m building a career in theatre. However, I’m finding that the playwrights I come across when I’m reading plays or looking for audition monologues are many of the same names I’m seeing in the writing credits of the TV shows I watch. In a previous career as a TV historian, I observed many instances of theatre artists crossing over into American TV – or vice versa – and each time emigres were brought in to help shape or re-define the medium, carrying with them the necessary cultural cache to do it.

And here they are doing it again. Louis C.K’s web experiment Horace and Pete used the internet to deliver a fusion of TV and theatre which was hitherto unseen in the US, and he enlisted the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker in the process. While Baker declined the offer to be a staff writer on the project, the author of The Flick and The Aliens was instrumental in bringing her trademark edge of masochistic naturalism to the third episode of the mini-series (which begins with a 12-minute monologue by Laurie Metcalf), where she is loosely credited as consultant.

Louis C.K. eventually succeeded in getting an award-winning playwright to join his writing staff when he hired author of The Whale and A Bright New Boise Samuel D. Hunter to pen episodes of Baskets, a dramedy starring Zach Galafianakis that he produces for FX. Though far more conventional than Horace and Pete in form, Baskets nonetheless confounds expectations of tone for a series which led strongly with broad physical comedy before existentially breaking down each of the absurd characters. Hunter’s episodes go a long way towards this analytical deepening of the (sometimes literally) massive stereotypes established in the opening episodes.

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Orange is the New Black writer Jordan Harrison is also a renowned playwright, with Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime under his belt. It’s interesting that a playwright concerned with digital technologies which change human-machine relations should be involved with a series that’s at the cutting edge of the electronic televisual experience. Having seen the play along with his Amazons and their Men, I can see how (for better or worse) the clipped art of TV writing has affected his theatre pieces, with both feeling like they cut away from a scene too early or, more importantly, that they need follow-ups.

Gina Gionfriddo is the playwright of Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn. She also wrote for Law & Order and Cold Case. Given the obscenity and offensiveness of her plays, it’s a safe bet she had to self-censor when it comes to satisfying the still-draconian standards of network television, at least where words were concerned. However, if you follow John Mulaney’s thinking (and who wouldn’t?), the two procedurals with their graphic depictions and explications of heinous crimes would be the perfect dwelling place for a writer concerned with the underside of human behaviour. But these are by no means pioneers.

The play format of early American television resulted in the employment of writers who both came from and subsequently went to the theatre, including Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose. Much of the immediacy we still associate with television came from it being written as a live, continuous experience by theatre-savvy artists in those years. Even when TV eschewed theatrical trappings, playwrights continued to enter the medium, such as Neil Simon, who worked on comedy vehicles for Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar in the late 1950s. Simon would later theatricalize this for Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

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While we’re used to talking about writers from the movies coming to TV, we’ve traditionally overlooked stage playwrights who moonlight in the medium. In the 1980s, another Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, was ahead of the game when he penned an episode of the transformative cop show Hill Street Blues, before following this up decades later with military drama The Unit, which he co-created with Shawn Ryan of The Shield. The Hill Street Blues episode was before Mamet made the jump to cinema and well before great writers flocked to US quality TV. It’s easy to see playwrights who come to TV as Greek Gods who deign to push us mere mortals in the right direction, but the truth is much messier and speaks to exchanges of ideas between the two art forms which have always been around and are still in development.

 

 

Trump TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV History, TV News on January 20, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Following Barack Obama’s consecutive election triumphs, cultural commentators lined up to congratulate American TV for paving the way towards national acceptance of an African-American President. Among those frequently cited were 24’s David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysbert), TV’s first African-American President outside of a comedy skit or cartoon. Though Hispanic, The West Wing’s Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) represented a minority rising to the Presidency with producers claiming (retrospectively) the character was based on Obama. As Donald Trump takes office, which TV portrayals will be deemed responsible for his ascension to power? Here are some of my personal predictions.

Though only a few weeks into its pilot season, ABC’s Designated Survivor projected that someone who was drastically under-qualified for the Presidency coming from outside the Washington establishment could successfully take office. Given that the 2016 election went right down to the wire and polls were offset in the final couple of weeks before voting, it’s not unthinkable that this fish-out-of-water political drama normalized the idea of a Trump presidency for some swing voters. Although since Tom Kirkman’s lack of fit with the job derives from his liberal bent and academic background, this is where any resemblance to Trump ends.

24 should not be let off the hook either. Palmer had become President by the show’s second year, yet subsequent seasons undercut the legitimacy of his administration, much as Republicans and their affiliated media outlets would eventually do to Obama. Dead-in-the-water after one term, Palmer’s administration is mired in scandal while the Democrat is deemed incapable of handling rising national security threats, and capitulates to an ignominious, seemingly inevitable assassination. As many have viewed 24’s later seasons as a (more) fictional extension of Fox News, the synonymy of their respective rhetoric for debunking an African-American Commander-in-Chief cannot be a coincidence.

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24 may have overreached in its predictions of Palmer being succeeded by Romney-clone John Keeler (whose fate, thanks to uneven storytelling, we remain unsure of) and later the first female President, Alison Taylor. Although, to be fair, Romney was a close call and Hillary Clinton was twice a foregone conclusion for the office. But the series was right on the money when it prophesized that the US Presidency would fall into the hands of a treasonous, spineless egomaniac engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia who demonstrated a reckless regard for weapons of mass destruction. Charles Logan was a trailblazer.

Indeed it’s hard to believe that 24 didn’t have a psychic consultant on staff when it aired scenes of a newly sworn-in Logan rushing former President Palmer into his office to advise the new Commander-in-Chief how to do the job in spite of utter incompetence and inconsistency, before shunning his predecessor and claiming all the credit for their successes.  While many looked back to Nixon (especially considering actor Gregory Itzin’s astounding physical resemblance to the man himself), Logan looked into a Trump crystal ball, which is not only a metaphor but an actual domestic good produced by the Trump brand.

With his rank outsider status, any consideration of what brought Trump into office must also consider what kept Hillary Clinton out of it. CBS’s The Good Wife had a lot to say about that. In the latter seasons of the hit legal drama, Alicia Florrick runs for the political office of Illinois State’s Attorney, having witnessed her husband Peter’s consecutive electoral victories which propelled him to Governor. Despite winning outright, Alicia is forced to resign her office after an election fraught with allegations of vote tampering and concerns about the integrity of the Democratic Party image. Starting to sound familiar?

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What The Good Wife saw, that most in politics would not, was the inevitability of a woman failing to succeed to the offices that their male peers had risen to against worst odds. Peter is an adulterous ex-con with a reputation as one of Illinois’s most corrupt politicians, yet he glides effortlessly from State’s Attorney to Governor, and even runs for President. Alicia is an outstanding lawyer with no stain on her character, and yet is forced to be the fall guy for a party at war with itself, despite her achievement. Similarly, Hillary Clinton shoulders two unsuccessful bids for the Presidency in the shadow of her philandering, ethically dubious two-term President husband while the marital indiscretions of former Congressman Anthony Weiner provided the impetus for the FBI to besmirch her name just prior to election day. She lost to an inexperienced African-American male and won to an internet troll.

 

 

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

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Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

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Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

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