Archive for the Uncategorized Category

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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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.

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.

No Olds Barred

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV History, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2016 by Tom Steward

In a week when voters decided they didn’t have a problem with a man in his late seventies running the country, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s still a place in television for the old. While host of The Late Show Stephen Colbert managed a ten-minute skit based around The Twilight Zone – a show that first aired in 1959 – nineties science-fiction procedural The X-Files continued its revival on Fox. An anthology series about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson began and the miniseries Shades of Blue showcasing the anachronistic acting talents of Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta plodded along (and that is exactly the right word!). British television seems no less geriatric these days. Friends’ Matt Le Blanc was this week announced as the new co-host of motoring journal Top Gear, alongside – I might add – star of nineties light entertainment Chris Evans, who in turn has recently relaunched the pub-based variety talk show TFI Friday which had ceased broadcasting in 2000. How is it possible that so many programs and people from television’s past are now to be found dominating the airwaves? Well, there’s really not that much effort required to revive something that has never been away.

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In Rod we trust.

Syndication and the proliferation of TV channels and services mean that TV of decades past is never far from our screens. It’s a short road from endlessly recycling a show to providing some extra material to pad it out. That might explain the programs but what about the people? Well, in each case, we’re talking about personalities who have managed to stick around long enough to become institutions, or have just come off their own revival. While the idea of J-Lo as an actor is now strange enough to make her performance in Shades of Blue seem jarring, her judging for American Idol and appearances on just about every music awards show on the air makes it a much smoother transition for regular viewers. Matt Le Blanc had endeared himself to the transatlantic public once again with Episodes and Top Gear is merely the crowning of that – although I suspect the BBC will be happy with anyone who falls short of creating an international incident! As to Chris Evans, Channel 4 had yet to replace TFI Friday with anything as exciting in that slot – and believe me it wasn’t very exciting – so broadcasters’ lack of ambition is also a factor.

 

What’s harder to explain is why we’re suddenly so interested in material from the past. No-one who talks about Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story fails to mention that it has been twenty years since the events surrounding the arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson took place. TV may be a medium that prides itself on currency, but looking back over the decades has become another badge of honour. That’s what made Colbert’s Twilight Zone parody so bizarre. Weeknight talk shows are compelled to restrict their discussion to what’s been happening in that day’s news, and yet this trip down memory was motivated by nothing but fandom and ridicule-ripeness. I don’t know what to think about an X-Files revival (has anyone ever?!) but it’s an interesting case of throwing good money after bad in the wake of Fox’s breakout original programming like Empire. The youngest major network – if we’re still thinking in those terms – Fox has a particular problem letting go of the past. The Simpsons and Family Guy are now decades old, the network is home to a number of movie reboots, and this year primetime Fox vehicles provided a platform for the comebacks of Rob Lowe and John Stamos.

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Surely it’s a Z-File by now!

The number of revivals, period television, and veteran stars on primetime television is staggering. For example, ABC airs two sitcoms set in the eighties and nineties respectively, a drama set in the forties, an anthology series set in the eighties, a revival of a seventies TV franchise, a movie about Bernie Madoff, while featuring among its big names Don Johnson, Ed O’Neill, Tim Allen and Geena Davis. With the increasing competition and likelihood of cancellation, it may seem that TV ruthlessly cuts away that which is ageing, but in fact it seems more accurate to say that a job on TV is a job for life. One thing is certain; there is absolutely no property out there in TV land that is exempt from returning to our screens. I did mean the landscape of television not the recurring nightmare-oriented nostalgia network back there but actually both work just as well!

Crimetime

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by Tom Steward

Ever since Homer Simpson purred the words ‘Wow, Infotainment’, true crime has been the beating heart – or lack thereof – of American television. In the last year or so, a high-end alternative to the video-looking, cheaply put together true crime documentaries echoing the trite, uncomplicated and sensational timbre of news has emerged. This sub-genre of true crime TV looks more like the production value-laden, multi-layered serial dramas we’ve seen with exponential regularity in the past two decades and plays without loss on boutique networks and video-on-demand services. The prime suspects are HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Though both series seem to herald a new trend in televised crime, in many ways they are polar opposites. As G remarked, the former is about how privilege and money can get around the justice system no matter what a defendant may or may not have done while the latter is about how poverty and low status count against you legally regardless of your guilt. But their differences go further, speaking to a gulf in the quality and character of the dramatic television produced by these two non-traditional television services. While both appear to have changed the face of television documentary overnight, the nature of the filmmaking involved means that they have been in the works for several years and play off and into TV crime dramas perhaps more than other documentaries in the field.

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This guy is the Durst!

At ten hour-long episodes, Making a Murderer lasts about long as a typical high-quality TV drama season and offers the same compelling serial narrative we look for in them. Each episode is prefixed with a rich, stylish and lengthy credits sequence equal to and clearly modelled on those that have announced standalone masterpieces in series on such elite platforms as HBO and Showtime. As many of my partners in crime television – including Squeezegut Alley and Dolly Clackett have already observed – this documentary following the trial of exonerated rapist Steven Avery and his nephew for murder in Wisconsin, plays out like a real-life Murder One. Further to the interplay between drama and documentary in crime television, however, Murder One was in no small part indebted to the televised trial of O.J. Simpson, which had concluded a few months before airing and proved that a single trial could hold the attention of audiences for months on end. To complete the circuit, FX are soon to air the first season of their factually-based drama anthology series American Crime Story based around the trial of O.J. Simpson. Critics of Making a Murderer have pointed to the filmmakers’ omission of key pieces of trial evidence and one-sided view of Steven Avery as an innocent patsy. I’m all for directors declaring their biases rather than pretending they don’t exist but it would have been a far better documentary if the emphasis had been on the reasonable doubt about the Averys’ guilt and the distinct whiff of police misconduct surrounding the case rather than conspiracies and frame-ups.

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Avery complicated case!

Though The Jinx shares many visual and narrative similarities with Making a Murderer – not least their elaborate curtain-raisers – in almost all ways HBO’s documentary miniseries is superior to its Netflix counterpart. This six-part account of how business heir Robert Durst became a prime suspect in multiple murder investigations yet remained a free man had greater sophistication in its handling of the subject. The documentary factored in the impact that media coverage of Durst has had on the various cases, including his own attraction to the spotlight which allowed filmmakers direct access to him. They refuse to be drawn on the question of Durst’s guilt until a smoking gun presented itself, at which point the filmmakers are forced into the position of interrogators. The Jinx has also accomplished more for social justice than Making a Murderer, as Durst was arrested for murder following the broadcast of the series while the post-show discussion of the Steven Avery case has yielded an ill-advised petition to The White House which they are powerless to act upon and rancour against the filmmakers for cherry-picking evidence – which is bad documentary practice anyway but given the stakes is a criminal act all of its own. The Jinx might be the reason Durst is under arrest but it may also be the reason he beats jail. Any decent defence lawyer could argue that the documentary has already branded Durst a murder and therefore he cannot get a fair trial. The prosecution would need a jury without HBO subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

UK with Me: Part 2

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2016 by Tom Steward

Where I continue my rundown of the TV I watched during my time in the UK, as a result of visiting at a time of year conducive to indoor sports that require no physical prowess or ability. Since we didn’t have a darts board, the television would have to do. Much of the British television I had written off as dated and defunct had returned and, though many were old wine in old bottles, there were several programs being broadcast made by familiar names that added something new and interesting to a pre-existing legacy. There were also genuinely innovative moments:

 

Car Share – BBC One

 

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Hands up who likes Peter Kay again

 

After emerging in the late nineties as a successor to the observationally rich character comedy pioneered in the North of England by writer-performers such as Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Steve Coogan with That Peter Kay Thing, Peter Kay stagnated creatively in the naughties and the teens, content with cosying up to light entertainment until it swallowed his authenticity. The two-hander sitcom Car Share which follows two colleagues carpooling on their commute to and from work was exactly the stripped-down concept that Kay needed to reboot his realism. Punctuated by conversational silences drowned out in the perfectly pastiched audio garbage of satellite radio commercials, the wiretapped feel of the dialogue and understated sincerity of the couple’s interaction reminds us why Kay was once such a treasured comic voice in British culture. Even the more indulgent sequences, such as the fantasy music videos, have an almost Dennis Potter-like quality in the context of the storyline.

 

Toast of London – Channel 4

 

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His career is toast

 

Arthur Mathews once co-wrote and created Father Ted, the sitcom of its day and one which – like much British comedy of the time – refuses to date and instead grows in stature the more we find out about the world (or in this case the Catholic Church). Nothing that Mathews has done since has been able to surpass Father Ted, although surreal juxtaposition sketch show Big Train came tantalisingly close. But seeing Toast of London, which Mathews devised with Matt Berry, a comedian, actor and writer who is a darling of cult comedy and possesses a sleazy retro quality that consumes everything he does, you feel as if he might come close. As with Father Ted, the sitcom is set in another sphere of absurd mediocrity; that of the jobbing actor. As heavily stylised as its ecumenical predecessor – which often resembled a live-action version of The Simpsons – it nonetheless discovers inherent truths about the profession that a documentary treatment couldn’t, though you suspect many of the situations encountered are anecdotally motivated.

 

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride – BBC Four

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No really…this is it

 

If the successes of Gogglebox and Car Share have demonstrated anything, it’s that extremely basic formats still hold tremendous appeal for British TV audiences. But All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride has taken this to avant-garde extremes. A camera is rigged to a traditional reindeer sleigh and taken on a two-hour journey across the Artic wilderness of Norway. There’s no music or editing or semblance of a narrative, simply the spectacular footage the camera collects as it moves. Of course, TV audiences adore gazing lingeringly at landscapes given the ratings-winning genre of nature programming, but the development here is about time, and how much of it we’ll give without the reward of storytelling and entertainment. Perhaps the structureless viral video has immunised us to the boredom of simple watching, or maybe this is gentle and familiar enough a subject to bring experimental video art into our homes by the back door.

 

Downton Abbey – ITV

 

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Downton finale criticized for anachronisms

 

I’ll remain as anachronistic as Downton itself by pretending that anyone in America who wants to see the finale hasn’t already used their internet connection to steal it, and not offer any spoilers. Not that there’s a lot to spoil, the finale ramming home how little storylines or character development have to do with the appeal of this piece of virtual tourism versus the other quality television drama of our time. Creator and writer of all episodes Julian Fellowes certainly knows what his audience wants, and is not shy about giving it to them in as tidiest boxes as he can pack. I preferred the series in high melodrama mode and so it was somewhat of a disappointment to me that the electric hair-dryer that everyone kept pointing out was merely historical window-dressing and not foreshadowing some Emmerdale-like fiery disaster to wipe out the cast. Indeed, any hint of tragedy seems to have been smoked red herring.

Got Milch?: Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized on July 3, 2015 by Tom Steward

Thanks to the deal between Amazon and HBO – which is the best move the company will ever make until it stops treating its employees like they’re in a pyramid scheme – HBO Original Series are now starting to trickle down to the screens of people like me who are too cheap to pay for both postage and a cable subscription. Earlier seasons of currently airing shows have been made available recently, but for the most part the HBO series added to Amazon Prime are drawn from the ranks of the old or forgotten. An artist whose work consistently falls into both categories is David Milch. The next couple of posts look in turn at two David Milch dramas I’ve been able to watch in their entirety through my Prime membership, starting with the unintended miniseries Luck.

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Lucking.

Luck is an ironic title, but it was never meant to be. Unlike most serious dramas (especially those made by HBO), the characters regularly experience success and fortune instead of their lives going badly wrong. We’re continually told that drama is based on conflict, and yet Milch has managed to create a drama that is completely devoid of it. For Milch and his writers, drama is what happens every day – hence the calendar-like structuring of his oeuvre. In Milch’s hands, the blandest of small talk becomes existential poetry. No-one in a David Milch drama merely says ‘hello’ and no word or thought is ever misplaced. What we do have in Luck is the suggestion of confrontation that never comes to fruition, a theme we’ve encountered before in Milch’s work, whether it’s the much-reviled finale of Deadwood or the chase scenes in NYPD Blue offset by a moment of comic bathos.

So why is Luck an ironic title? Well, it’s because behind-the-scenes the series didn’t have enough to get to a second season. The deaths of three horses during production of the first compelled Milch and the other producers to either find an alternative (presumably digital) solution or bow out completely. I don’t wish to antagonise those who fight animal cruelty, nor suggest that there wasn’t an element of shooting oneself in the foot, which is a suitably violent analogy. I’m glad the decision was taken to end production, both for the sake of the horses who would clearly have been in further danger should it have continued and because the aesthetic of video gambling would have undone the visceral power and suspense of the stunningly directed and edited race sequences. I abhor horse racing but there is a parallel between the call to forfeit a potentially game-changing piece of drama for the safety of animals and the cruelty-free reverence for horses expressed in the episodes.

Despite premature cancellation, the nine episodes of Luck hang together rather well. By the end of the first and only season, the characters have already revealed depths untold by their initial depictions and a tragic denouement is eschewed in favour of reconciliation. It is only foreknowledge of Milch as an auteur that makes Luck seem like such a loss. The three seasons of Deadwood are as unceasingly brilliant as any single piece of art has been. NYPD Blue went off the boil the second Milch left the series after eight years – and I mean that quite literally. Milch can not only create, he can sustain, but the artist has been denied his canvas. Luck was also the perfect middleman between Milch’s more obtuse work like the arcane John from Cincinnati and the modern-times Elizabethan theatre of NYPD Blue. Luck could have filled the vacuum in our culture left by Deadwood.

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Lucky actors!

It’s refreshing – even for Milch – that the race track is just a race track and not some loaded allegory. Luck is as profound as any Shakespeare about human vice and folly, and yet as bound to the flow of daily life as a soap opera. If you wish to see it metaphorically, and not simply as a centre of dramatic and thematic unity, then it functions as a retirement home for character actors, albeit an indiscriminate one that allows movie stars to mingle with TV movie stars. Even though the actors are veterans, the material compels them to learn about themselves as performers, and how to resist their worst urges towards melodrama and synthetic gesture. I’m sure they rarely find dialogue of the kind of purity that it can only be spoken aloud. It’s not naturalism as such, but an artifice that finds a rhythm of speech mirroring our own.

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