Archive for the TV Acting Category

Peak Hours (Part 7)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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In a week where the absurdity of Washington has reached its zenith (for the week) I’m reminded of a political satire that pre-dated the era of Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump and yet eerily prophesized the swathes of talked-up men-children that came to occupy the highest office in the land. Hal Ashby’s Being There tells the story of Chance, an elderly gardener with learning difficulties whose employer dies, leaving him to go out on his own and obliviously rise through the ranks of Washington until he reaches the Vice Presidency. What does this have to with Twin Peaks: The Return?

One of the biggest surprises of The Return was that when the “good” Dale returned from the lodge (or Judy, or whatever it is now) he came back in the body of Dougie Jones, who when cosmically switched out with a somnambulist version of Cooper (I think), begins to strongly recall Chance’s characterization and story arc in Being There. Dougie is reminiscent of Chance in his childlike reaction to and pleasure in the world and the way that his speech vacantly mirrors what he hears from others. But it’s what happens to Dougie that makes this cinematic allusion absolutely unmistakeable.

Just as Chance is assumed to be a political savant after he offers basic horticultural tips to high-level diplomats, Dougie is viewed as a maverick genius by his boss Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) when he doodles over some claims in the course of his job as an insurance agent. The people who Chance and Dougie talk to read whatever they want into the most simplistic of utterances and reward them for bringing hidden truths about the world into light. The press exalt Chance for providing a solution to the economic crisis while Dougie is cited for exposing a fraudulent application.

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There’s nothing unusual about Twin Peaks delving into cinematic history. The original series had a fetish for film noir that resulted in characters taking their names from genre classics like Double Indemnity, Laura and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, it’s Dougie identifying the name of his FBI boss Gordon Cole (David Lynch) from a broadcast of Sunset Boulevard on TV (Lynch putting himself in esteemed company with director Cecil B. DeMille, who played a character with that name originally) that triggers the discovery of his secret identity. Referencing the work of a director from the American New Wave is a departure.

Perhaps Lynch is saying that American cinema of the 60s and 70s is to today’s generation of media artists what Hollywood of the 40s and 50s was to his. It’s impossible to watch David Simon and George Pelecanos’s The Deuce without thinking of Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Ashby’s own The Last Detail. Stranger Things is a riff on the Spielberg-Lucas canon while Ashby’s dark comedy exemplified by Harold & Maude hovers over dramedies like Girls and Transparent. Being There is never far away from TV satires of the dumbing down of the Washington political scene like Veep and Alpha House.

It remains curious because Lynch has typically avoided adaptation and remake in his canon (there are exceptions like Dune) but is nonetheless revealing about the shift to social satire from Twin Peaks to The Return. The less intelligent Dougie becomes, the more he begins to succeed at building his fortune, career and family. He climbs the corporate ladder and wins over the criminal element in Las Vegas by exhibiting a distinct lack of consciousness in his actions. He reveals the American success story for what it is; a blind stab in the dark whose outcome depends entirely on external factors.

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In a revival full of detours, none was perhaps more circuitous than having Kyle MacLachlan play the iconic Dale Cooper as an infantilised simpleton for the vast majority of the series. I’m sure it was a far greater challenge to the actor than even reprising a decades-old role as indeed it was for Peter Sellers to play Chance and break with his repertoire of larger-than-life comic characters. Ashby was taking a familiar face and channelling them through a new dimension of performance, which is very similar to what Lynch is doing here with MacLachlan by reimagining Dale through Dougie Jones.

We weren’t expecting Dougie Jones, especially not as a surrogate for Agent Cooper. But Lynch made the best of the situation, invoking another fine auteur director whose work still casts a long shadow over subversive media in the mainstream. It’s an association that helped The Return bear its satirical claws.

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Peak Hours (Part 6)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Strictly speaking, Twin Peaks was not teen television. But while the majority of nineties quality TV for adults focused on the lives of thirtysomethings (like the show … um … thirtysomething), Lynch and Frost’s series had teenagers at its core and made an effort to address issues facing young people in America. Iconographically, the teenagers of Twin Peaks harked back to the fifties but were mired in drugs and violence in such a way that they spoke to contemporary anxieties. The Return shows some of these teenagers as adults but the relaunched series did not ignore the youth of today.

The difference in approach from the original’s depiction of American youth is crystallised by Michael Cera’s cameo as Wally Brando, the son of Deputy Andy Brennan and receptionist Lucy. A mere foetus in Twin Peaks, in The Return a young adult Wally is living out a Marlon Brando fetish, parodying with grotesque comedy the anachronistic depiction of nineties teenagers in the first incarnation of the show. If ever there was a sign that The Return would observe its young in context, it was the sight of Cera dressed as The Wild One mumbling about honor codes inherited from The Godfather.

For the first time in the series, we see young people suffering from the socio-economic deprivation of small-town life. Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) is first shown losing out on a white-collar job (after interviewing with cougar-loving former jock Mike, no less), spiralling downwards in a coke-fuelled nightmare before a suicidal stand-off in a neighbouring trailer park. The drugs were always there in Twin Peaks but whereas previously they helped peel away a veneer of wholesome family values in the town, here there seems to be no alternative lifestyle, either real or imagined, for the young. It’s a wholly systemized decline.

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A tangent from Part 1 of The Return seems to suggest something of the dehumanisation young people suffer in the Amazonized workplace. Watching a glass box and changing out the cameras in a bare loft at the behest of an unknown billionaire benefactor, Sam (Ben Rosenfield) has the kind of remote and menial service job performed by most young people in the contemporary economy of casual corporate labour. As soon as he deviates from the banal protocols with heavy doses of coffee and sex, Sam is eaten alive by a demon passing through a wormhole just vacated by Agent Cooper.

Not that all the young adults in The Return are victims, but it’s pretty certain they will become so. Some occupy a vacuum of morality that seems ingrained in their generation, or is at least a mutation of previous ones. Take Richard Horne (Eamon Farren), Audrey’s son and Ben’s grandson, who thinks nothing of abusing women in bars, fleeing the scene after mowing down a child in the road and victimising his grandmother and disabled uncle. Richard is Ben and Audrey’s ambiguity multiplied to the point of sociopathy. His cruel demise is less of a comeuppance than a tragic cycle.

The interplay of generations in The Return is what makes its portrayal of youth so multi-faceted. While condescending to Becky (Amanda Seyfried) for dating Steven, Shelly (Madchen Amick, who was frozen in time since the last one) gleefully dates weapons-grade psychopath Red, after having been with bad-boy (turned Sheriff’s Deputy) Bobby in the original series. Wally Brando is as much the product of Lynch’s self-parody (or Frost’s parody of Lynch?) as he is of his kooky parents, who channel the simplicity of an earlier era in American life. Richard seems to be all that the Hornes have hidden about themselves.

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There’s admiration for the younger generation too. At least Lynch digs their music. Most of the young people we see are the fun-loving, hard-drinking clientele of The Roadhouse, who have turned this backwater dive into the nexus of American alternative music, as long as it is somewhat retro in style. Most of the young people we meet simply flesh out the climactic musical numbers set in the bar, and never blossom into fully-fledged characters. But there’s an uncharacteristic warmth (at least where younger characters are concerned) to the way they’re presented, which betrays a discordant note of optimism towards youth.

The young people in The Return are not the mid-century archetypes that we saw in Twin Peaks. They’re informed by them insomuch as their parents and predecessors have shaped who they are. But The Return’s generation are more recognizably contemporary, though the teenagers of Twin Peaks were hardly shrinking violets.

 

 

 

Peak Hours (Part 5)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV History, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Twin Peaks features the most food and drink of any non-culinary show on television. The original series became synonymous with references to “damn fine coffee” and “cherry pie” and not an episode went by without food or beverage items being the focal point of at least one scene. It was a mechanism by which the show could conceal (at least temporarily) its dark heart. What little joy was experienced by the characters of Twin Peaks always centered on eating and drinking and it was prominently placed during their moments of redemption. So what does The Return add to the menu?

In short, something seems to have gone wrong with food and drink. A weakness for shop-bought lattes condemns a young couple to a gruesome death at the hands of an inter-dimensional demon. The contents of a deep fat fryer are just as likely to contain firearms as sticks of potato. More importantly, the quality of Norma’s pies is in jeopardy after her Double R Diner is franchised. The respite that a good meal washed down once provided from the violence and chaos in the town of Twin Peaks looks to have disappeared. Now it seems to be a harbinger.

Oranges in The Godfather and eggs in The Sopranos. Here the mere fact of opening a bag or pouring a glass of something can get you killed. Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s junk-obsessed assassins suffer demises as messy as their diets. Diane and Sarah Palmer, who are human manifestations of tragedy in this reiteration, are cosmically corrupted in a deep well of dependence drinking. To consume was once a pure act of pleasure, one that transcended the sickness of the world around it. Now it seems more like a symptom of the world’s illnesses that then attack the consumer.

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Lynch and Frost developed an orthodoxy based on an inverted snobbery idealizing American junk and diner fare. Now they seem to find something inherently toxic about such diets. Their attitudes towards food are, once again, translated through the body of Dale Cooper. Reborn into the (noticeably paunchy) body of the “manufactured” Dougie Jones, Dale rediscovers his love for coffee and pie with an infantile simplicity that seems to represent a desire to return to the roots of classic American dining. Another storyline featuring a beloved character from the original series puts a socio-economic spin on some of the same thoughts.

Yes, Norma now has a chain of Double R diners across the country. But rather than sacrifice the quality and authenticity of her pie recipes, Norma opts out of ownership to retain control over the original location. A re-telling of the origin story of the McDonald’s franchise with a (far) happier ending for the lineage of home-style cooking in America, it seems that Lynch and Frost’s malaise at the state of American food is tied up with a protest against the forces of corporate capitalism which dilute and disturb its uncomplicated bliss. Although David Lynch loves his Big Boy!

Maybe nostalgia is the difference. When Sinclair (memorably played by the buffoonish Tom Sizemore) tries to bribe Dougie to conceal his part in insurance fraud, he takes his co-worker to a coffee shop in the lobby of a Vegas business complex that seems to have been transported back into the 1950s. The waitresses have mid-century hair and uniforms, pies are on display stands, and your gal promises to bring a piece to your table while you enjoy your coffee. Clearly this is nothing like the Starbucks shacks that would really inhabit such spaces, yet there we are.

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In other parts of the show, it appears that Lynch and Frost have simply become more modern and mature in their tastes. Dougie Jones’ primal relationship with food and drink passes off such predilections as childish folly, while Lynch himself (in the barest of guises as FBI director Gordon Cole) swigs fine Bordeaux and one of Dougie’s co-workers finds a green tea latte a perfectly acceptable substitute for a decent cup of coffee. There are many commentaries on the cultural changes that have taken place since original airing, but democratization of fine food and drink is perhaps the most telling.

There’s a lot of talk about The Return missing so many qualities from the original. The truth is much more complicated. The themes and preoccupations of Twin Peaks are largely present but register differently, and this is true of food and drink. In food language, you might call it “elevated”.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Stage 3

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.

 

 

Garry Under Wood

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

2016 has been the Year of Death…or so clickbaiters will have you believe. I’m sure at any given moment there is a steady stream of celebrities dying but what’s so remarkable about the glut of passings we’ve witnessed since the beginning of this year is that it’s concentrated around the great innovators of pop culture. Comedy and music have been hit the hardest and key artists have been dying with such frequency that two of the most significant names in television comedy on either side of the Atlantic, namely Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood, died within weeks of each other.

It occurred to me while taking in that Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood are both gone from the world that the pair were almost counterparts in their understanding and reinvention of television in America and Britain. Though both took fairly traditional career routes into the TV of their native lands – with Shandling a sitcom writer and Wood a variety star – they mastered the medium by keenly observing its conventions and then satirically reproducing them. The self-reflexive sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and talk-show set The Larry Sanders Show both featured note-perfect facsimiles of longstanding TV formats with a knowing (distinctively buck-toothed) smile at their absurdities. Wood’s As Seen on TV featured a myriad of TV flow pastiches including commercials and soap operas, the latter of which was Acorn Antiques, a devastating summation of the budget-constrained, storm-in-a-teacup melodrama that had been commonplace in regional daytime dramas in Britain since the seventies.

Wood and Shandling were also too overflowing with brilliance and creativity to accept their place in the TV hierarchy. Wood began her TV career as winner of the talent show New Faces performing her own comic songs on the piano, earning her a place as a novelty act on the consumer affairs and erotically shaped vegetable discussion programme That’s Life. Rather than continue to plug the remaining – and increasingly unlikely – spaces for traditional vaudeville performance in a changing TV ecology, she diversified into playwriting, sketch comedy, character stand-up and pop culture parody. Her focus on the latter meant that Wood was ahead of a curve of self-referential television comedy that is typically seen as coming into existence when it became male. As Seen on TV first aired in 1985 which significantly pre-dates the supposed watershed moment of televisual self-awareness with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s The Day Today in 1994.

Shandling’s career could have gone two ways. Instead it went a third that was almost the same as the first two. After writing for sitcoms such as Sanford & Son as well as a successful stint guest-hosting for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Shandling seem destined to graduate either to an eponymous sitcom or late-night talk vehicle. He did both and neither. Shandling sold It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to cable station Showtime after networks balked at the idea of a show that actively drew attention to the mechanics and artifice of the studio audience sitcom. It was a revolution in TV form. As Shandling once explained to Ricky Gervais: ‘Either I did a talk show or a sitcom about a talk show.’ Of course he did the latter. The result was The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a continually fledging late-night talk show, while commenting wittily upon it.

Their commitment to raising the bar of television comedy was so wide-ranging that neither stopped at satire. Both Shandling and Wood embraced comedy that was as real as it could be, and that eschewed the synthetic qualities of much comic material on TV. In Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, the naturalism of both visual style and performance was staggering and well beyond what audiences were used to seeing. Needless to say, The Office and its mock-doc ilk would never have existed without this breakthrough. Wood’s comic characters were drawn with such observational realism their dialogue could have been telegraphed from an encounter on public transport and she frequently emulated the fly-on-the-wall documentary but as a route to pathos rather than irony or sneer, something Shandling also achieved with The Larry Sanders Show. In particular, the ‘Swim the Channel’ segment of an As Seen on TV episode has rarely been bettered.

Of course, there are massive differences. Wood is far less cruel to and awkward with her characters, and Shandling much more provocative in his humour. But it’s hard to imagine we’d be watching half (and that’s being generous) of the comedies we currently do without either of these two colossuses.

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