Archive for deadwood

Got Milch?: Part 2

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, Local TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s the longest-awaited sequel since Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and probably just as underwhelming. The promise of a second part that never comes is one that resonates with what I’m going to talk about here, David Milch’s follow-up to Deadwood at HBO John from Cincinnati, which along with Luck lasted one season and is now freely available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video as part of their HBO collection – designed, no doubt, to take the edge off the company’s flagrant employee abuse. This is the David Milch series that means the most to me.

2 minutes to Mexico!

2 minutes to Mexico!

There are plenty of TV shows that have put places on the map. But what about the shows that failed to make their locations famous? Breaking Bad made Alberquerque a hub of tourism and yet John from Cincinnati did not do the same for Imperial Beach, a coastal community south of San Diego bordering Mexico, in which the series is exclusively set. Perversely, tourism has come to Imperial Beach without the help of John from Cincinnati only a few years after the series aired. And, to rub sea-salt in the wound, Imperial Beach attracted visitors by projecting an image contrary to the one presented in John from Cincinnati. Imagine Hobbiton becoming overrun with people only after a brutalist tower block was erected in the centre of downton (which is what I’m presuming they call downtown in Middle Earth). I know this not because I’m a good journalist but a resident.

Of San Diego, that is. But I did live in Imperial Beach briefly a couple of years ago when I first arrived in the states. Though on an upswing even then, the community felt more like the faded surfer haunt gently harbouring drug addicts and derelict motels that is depicted in John from Cincinnati than it does today. Now it is a prime beach destination replete with upscale hotels and restaurants. Apart from the most inconspicuous memorabilia in a few local establishments, there’s no sense that a TV show was ever filmed here, and certainly not as recently. I’d like to attribute that to the thoroughly dysfunctional portrayal of Imperial Beach, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. After all, Breaking Bad made Alberquerque famous not attractive. Despite the esteemed creator and network, John from Cincinnati was not liked or known enough to front a campaign for tourism.

It’s depressingly easy to see why the show was not embraced. It is aggressively cryptic, with titular John not a protagonist in the conventional sense but a conduit who precipitates the actions of other characters and speaks only in the words of those he encounters. John is not human, or at least not mortal in the way we understand it. Others have unsubstantiated mystical ability. The writing and acting is egregiously ornate and portentous, even for a David Milch drama. In particular, Rebecca DeMornay proves herself the missing link between the Lifetime school of TV movie acting and the televisual avant-garde. On the other hand, it seems like John from Cincinnati is punished for the strangeness we conversely admire in shows like Twin Peaks. Milch’s previous drama Deadwood was universally praised, and yet was similarly impenetrable, but because it was linguistically rather than conceptually challenging, it was somehow more acceptable.

Coming after Deadwood may have been John from Cincinnati’s greatest error. Milch’s fanbase scapegoated the show for taking Deadwood off the air after only three seasons and – as I’m sure Nic Pizzolatto and David Simon will testify – critics have only one use for shows that follow TV of wide acclaim. I don’t want to be a John from Cincinnati apologist; at times it is too pretentious for its own good, and it would be hypocritical of me to boycott Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who for its incoherence and not at least mention it here. Much of my interest in the show is strictly geographical, although that does help me understand its intentions better than someone who’s never experienced Imperial Beach would. It is, however, one of the few shows I can’t think that transcends classification. You’ll have a hard time relating this to any format or genre of television out there.

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

John from Cincinnati is undoubtedly hard work, but if it’s elision of norms is not reward enough for you, then maybe its peerless cast, all of whom are given monologues equalling the best of Milch’s writing, should be. Among them are character giants Ed O’Neill, Dayton Callie and Jim Beaver.

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Double Act

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by Tom Steward

One of the toughest tasks in acting is creating a unique and memorable character that becomes completely synonymous with the actor. One of the toughest tasks in TV acting is to do it twice. Cinema and theatre actors are asked to do this every time they appear, unless reprising a role in which case they won’t play the part more than a few times. But due to the lengthy and ongoing nature of most TV fiction, small screen actors tend to play one part continuously over a number of years, embedding themselves in the public’s consciousness as a single character. Many TV actors struggle to transcend these defining roles, either failing to convince when playing conflicting parts or returning to screens as thinly disguised versions of their most remembered character.

Alan Alda: Forever Hawkeye

Alan Alda will always be Hawkeye Pierce-the Korean War medic he played during the 11 years MASH was on the air-and much more so than Donald Sutherland who originated the character. While Sutherland would continue to add iconic screen characters to his name (John Klute, Fellini’s Casanova, The Man on the Bench in JFK), Alda would stay a hawk in eagle’s clothing. This is partly the problem of Alda being cast in roles which functioned as tributes to his MASH character, like his stint as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence in ER. But the shadow cast by MASH was too enduring for him to escape even when subsequent performances were superior, such as his turn as presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing featuring a semi-improvised debate filmed under live conditions.

Dennis Franz and his costume for the last 20 years.

Dennis Franz is quintessentially Andy Sipowicz to most TV viewers after 12 years playing the character throughout the entire run of NYPD Blue but could also conceivably be remembered as Norman Buntz for his 4 years in the role in Hill Street Blues and eponymous spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz. It would seem Franz achieved the impossible and created two wholly separate characters that he is instantly identifiable with if it weren’t for the fact that Sipowicz and Buntz were 2 sides of the same maverick antihero cop coin. Actor Daniel Benzali was first introduced in a major role to TV viewers in NYPD Blue as mob lawyer James Sinclair and then a year later played criminal defence attorney Teddy Hoffman in Murder One, the same character but with different moralities.

Benzali in his best acting role yet…a pop singer!

I’m put in mind of these peculiarities of TV acting because I’m currently watching FX’s modern-day western detective series Justified which features not one but two performances where the actors have bucked this trend and created new characters distinct from those they were previously renowned for. It’s now impossible to think of these two actors without having both of their characters in mind and yet they never become confused. This feat is even more remarkable as said actors have achieved recognition as a second character while playing roles which on paper look identical to the ones they previously inhabited and in like shows. It’s a rare ability that’s enough to put an actor in a television elite but almost unheard of from two different actors in the same TV programme.

Two great actors, four great characters!

The actors in question are Timothy Olyphant, who previously portrayed the reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood and currently plays anachronistic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, and Walton Goggins, formerly shit-kicking scumbag corrupt cop Shane Vendrell in The Shield and now Justified’s resident anti-villain Boyd Crowder. Olyphant plays Bullock and Givens as self-styled western lawmen poseurs (helped considerably by his gunslinger profile and Eastwood-like gait) but the former is humourless and ascetic whereas the latter is all about freewheeling comedy and casual vices. Both are altruists fighting hedonistic urges but while Raylan seeks justification or soft substitutes for his pleasures of the flesh (whether manoeuvring felons into quick draws or indulging an ice cream fetish), Seth punishes himself for all transgressions to the point where he is psychotically repressed.

Boyd Crowder isn’t just Shane Vendrell in drag.

It would have been tremendously easy for Goggins to play Crowder as a twin of Vendrell, the amoral and emotionally child-like southern states cop-turned-criminal. Both men are at root ugly, bigoted criminals who are nonetheless veneered with Dixie charm and flirt with respectable social institutions, be it the law or the church. There are shades of Shane in the race terrorist Boyd we first encounter in the Justified pilot but he soon emerges as a man locked in a paralysing performance of deadpan ambivalence and courtesy reconciling his inner contradictions of benign religious servitude and venal gangsterism. If the job of acting is to transform oneself repeatedly then TV could be seen as a hindrance to the profession. On the other hand, we become attached to one character they create far more than in any other medium. Two of American TV’s finest actors are demonstrating that we can have both.

TV Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve been (hardly) working my way through Breaking Bad, one of the more remarkable American TV shows of our time, and one of the most striking features of the series is its timeframe. Eschewing the TV rule of thumb that the time onscreen runs parallel with the duration of the initial broadcast, all 5 seasons of AMC’s family crime dramedy take place over the course of a couple of years (there’s a few episodes left but all indications are we’ll go no further ahead than that) effectively making the series a period piece by the time it finishes in 2013. This jeopardises Breaking Bad’s plausibility. The tectonic shifts in character and flurry of cataclysmic events which transform a high school chemistry teacher into an international druglord would be far more credible if spread over a vast number of years. Inside an 18-month window, it puts the series in the realms of bizarre melodrama. We also can’t take what happens to the characters as development as no-one has the luxury of time for any significant growth to occur. Instead, we’re witnessing how the cast of characters react to crises and trauma and watching them expose the existing depths of their personalities.

From Walter White to Heisenberg…in a year?

The time we watch TV is regulated and ongoing so it’s natural for most shows to try and match this for the sake of minimum disruption. Look how seasons of The Office begin with a re-cap of what happened to the characters during the Summer, when the show was off-air, simply to remind audiences that the onscreen and offscreen time syncs up and that the hiatus experienced by viewers was simultaneously endured by the characters. It’s especially important to make sure TV shows can capitalise on seasonally themed episodes (Christmas, Halloween) by juxtaposing them with the time they occur in the real world. Deviating from this scheduling ritual is a source of much innovation and originality in US TV. Unconventional uses of time can be the difference between cliché-ridded formula fare and mould-breaking masterpiece. People were happy to forget what a laboured potboiler 24 was because of its real-time season-as-a-day format and that the non-linear point-of-view narrated Boomtown was just another cancellation fodder cop show. It can even just be temporary relief from a format that is grindingly rigid in how it treats time. Brain-sparing cause-and-effect procedural CSI frequently throws in a flashback or reverse episodes to break the monotony.

Cliche + Time = 24

In a show like Breaking Bad, quirky time management isn’t the first blow of brilliance hitting you over the head but more like a gentle pat on the shoulder reassuring you of quality. If timing is the most noticeable characteristic of a programme, then chances are it will be a fast-fading novelty. 24 lasted 10 years on air but no-one in TV seems especially interested in using its format again. Boomtown was cancelled after 2 seasons once all possibilities of fragmented viewpoint-driven storytelling had been exhausted. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the entirety of Twin Peaks and Deadwood without acknowledging how each episode crafts its multiple storylines into one day’s worth of time and lose nothing of their artistic brilliance. Indeed it seems perfectly in tune with Twin Peaks’ satire of soap opera and tendency towards the supernaturally fantastic that such an overwhelming wealth of events occur in a ludicrously short space of time. More than that, equating a single episode with 1 day has subsequently become TV’s way of making it seem like it’s running alongside everyday life. Unlike the patchy coverage we get from calendar-linked shows, here we never miss a minute of the action.

30 Days in the Life of Twin Peaks

It would be wrong to assume that US TV shows deal with time in a way that is abstract or avant-garde. Even the most altered state of TV time is highly structured and controlled. The dream world of Twin Peaks may have ruptured the show’s real world chronology but it was only ever there in the first place to plug a gap in the middle of the screenplay of the pilot. The spread of TV might be amorphous and ever-expanding but individual programmes and their runs are tightly timetabled and time within them needs to follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the innovations of time in TV storytelling have complimented the scheduling of the programme. US TV dramas are an hour fitted into a run of 21-25 hence a thriller set over 24 hours with each episode an hour. So is Breaking Bad doing something genuinely outlandish? Time will tell.

 

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