Archive for elmore leonard

Justified And Ancient

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

Currently my two favourite shows are both revivals of iconic literary characters and new twists on old TV genres. Justified features Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap as well as the short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ from which the FX series sprung. As Justified aired, Leonard wrote his final novel Raylan about the character. Elementary is based around scatological-saying sleuth Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas, re-located and updated to present-day New York. Both are ostensibly police procedurals, a genre spanning the history of television, but they also resurrect some more archaic formats, such as the western and the mystery drama. These are shows that can appease snobs and slobs. Elementary goes under the radar while Justified will soon fall in the woods without sound. So why don’t people like them as much as I do?

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I’m not saying that Justified and Elementary are in any way reviled, but neither are they exalted like the offerings of AMC, HBO and Showtime. Despite being on a network with a stellar reputation for original drama, Justified is continually overshadowed by series like Fargo and The Americans, both of which are unlikely to have existed without Justified blazing the trail. Elementary has the disadvantage of being on CBS rather than cable, but it is still far from being considered a giant of well-made, middle-of-the-road entertainment like The Good Wife. This is what they get for doing everything a complex, mature character-driven drama would without disturbing what makes good television. Surely that is more remarkable than trying to produce something worthy without regard to what works on TV (American Crime, I’m looking in your direction!) or even accomplishing great art on networks that are purpose-built to challenge mainstream television conventions.

Maybe they’re a victim of the times. Elementary comes in the wake of the BBC’s Sherlock, a contentless self-hyping publicity machine that has established itself as the worthier successor to the Sherlock Holmes name without any claims between opening and closing credits to that title. Justified began as an episodic procedural and grew into long-form storytelling, and may have looked to those who think good TV comes in serial boxes as unfashionable. Maybe they care too much about history. Justified is pulp fiction comedy in the noble tradition of The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. and homage to the TV westerns (and disguised police westerns thereof) of the 1960s and 1970s, underlined by Timothy Olyphant borrowing Clint Eastwood’s legs for the project. Elementary doesn’t contemporize like Sherlock, or at least it doesn’t fetishize new technologies as a substitute for coherent storytelling, and at its best it’s Columbo in a brownstone.

I suppose what’s layers to some people is packaging to others. But what would it take to understand how holistic a television experience it is to watch Justified and Elementary? I’m watching TV now and in the past, a pleasurable formula alongside a gruelling psycho-drama, good television and the cherry-pickings of popular culture. I look to other TV shows that currently fascinate people like Scandal and Empire and the common denominators are melodrama and outrageous behaviour. Perhaps Justified and Elementary are too straight-faced and plausibly written to stand out in primetime. Maybe the success of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is not so much in the transformative character arcs (which both my faves provide in equal measure) but the Dickensian coincidences and lunacy of the protagonists. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and characters doing stupid things to create drama. Characters in these two shows are drawn not sketched.

'Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!'

‘Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!’

Because Justified and Elementary derive from a body of work outside of themselves, perhaps audiences assume they need prior knowledge of the characters and authors’ previous works in order to enjoy these series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary eschews the fan-fiction qualities of Sherlock in favour of original content utilising the character dynamics of the literary cycle. You do not feel like you have to be a devoted reader of Conan Doyle nor worship the cult of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate Elementary. Yet it is an authentic introduction to the Holmes stories in a way that Sherlock refuses to be. Elmore Leonard is simply a point of departure for Justified and his characters and storylines have been reinterpreted, interwoven and extrapolated to the point where they are born anew (for copyright reasons just as much as artistic ones). Leonard is the midwife here not the overprotective mother.

Advertisements

Telly-picking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Tom Steward

As someone who has spent the best part of their life enthusing, studying and writing about television, I often get asked what’s best to watch, as if I have access to a secret channel that only the TV wing of Mensa are eligible to subscribe for. I’m always hesitant to answer. As a self-confessed TV snob, I know that whoever’s asking will have dipped their toes into far more shows than I ever have and experimented with titles I would have simply dismissed. When you teach the tube (if you’re doing it properly) you learn to embrace more of the spectrum of what we might call television. So I’m worried I would answer with something insane like CBS’ coverage of the NFL or a public access schools programme about surrealism. It’s also because there’s now so much choice in television that it’s possible (at least as a middle-class white man) to find a show that caters exclusively to you. I genuinely couldn’t say whether or not Boardwalk Empire is great TV since it features just about everything I love in this world (gangsters, American history, HBO, Steve Buscemi), achieving distinction in my eyes just by being made in my lifetime.

Boardwalk Empire: If you don’t like it, you’re not me.

When people ask I’m pretty sure they want a good drama to sink their teeth into and aren’t asking for advice on what rolling news service they should tune to. Givens that, (pun not typo) my go-to is always Justified which I can universally recommend with more, ahem, justification than my TV make-your-own pizza Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that’s off a lot of people’s radar, or at the bottom of their list, so I feel I might actually be telling them something they don’t know rather than sounding like I’m reading from a list of trending tags. There’s plenty for me to get excited about as an Elmore Leonard aficionado and lover of TV westerns and cop shows but there’s something for everyone here. Every character from walk-on to lead is immaculately written and acted (even Bubba from Forest Gump) and there are beautiful men and women to gaze at, whether you like rough or smooth, or both. If you like your CSIs and your SVUs there’s a whole, complete and expertly crafted story each week. If you’re more of a long game person, behold the four seasons of onion-peel plot development and character works-in-progress like the ever-elusive Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Without sounding like all the good things are in the past-to paraphrase Stevie Wonder-Justified represents a kind of television there’s a severe shortage of today. A medley of action, story, humour and character that’s entirely entertaining and yet never lacking in quality and complexity, not seen fully since The Rockford Files. With kicking dialogue and music to boot, you can’t go wrong. And you’ll be in love with from the first scene.

A Justified choice!

I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years. How can I tell someone to start watching Breaking Bad in full knowledge that nothing compelling will happen until the third season? Sons of Anarchy doesn’t even come together until the fifth season! That’s roughly fifty hours of television to tunnel through before seeing any kind of daylight. In all but the rarest cases, we’re talking about shows that you can’t tell someone to jump into already knee-deep in story so you’re really signing them up for work as much as enriching their lives. You see people that you’ve recommended slow-burning TV series to and you can see they’re worn down and trying to think of something nice to say in order to match your enthusiasm but sweating pure ambivalence. If I think someone has the strength of character to endure the grind, I may nod them in the direction of The Walking Dead purely because it’s only a mini-series worth of mediocrity before it all starts to fall in place, a comparative blink of the eye. Fancy a bet on a rank outsider? Try Portlandia. Ostensibly a location-specific sketch show, it’s actually more freely artistic and socially incisive than most TV comedy or drama. You can keep asking me what’s good but most of the time either you know or you don’t want to know.

Split Images

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

One of the only saving graces of a great artist dying, though oblivious to them, is the opportunity it grants us to talk about their work. Doing so always carries feelings of guilt-especially if the artist was still working at the time of their death-as we recognise this is what we should have done all along and curse ourselves for exploiting their demise to fill our quotas. I’m taking advantage of an obituary-led spike in the commentary on one of the foremost writers of our time to talk about where he and American television have crossed paths. Morbidly timely it may be, but hopefully it sheds as much light on the medium as it does the departed, and covers parts of his career that will remain untouched by most tributes.

Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

This time last week novelist, short story author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke earlier this month. The post-mortem of his oeuvre will undoubtedly focus on his contribution to literature and the movies, and rightly so given his prolific output of books, stories and scripts, as well as the ongoing cycle of adaptation, imitation and homage to his writing in the cinema. But Leonard meant a lot to American TV. Television’s engagement with Leonard was sporadic to say the least, nonetheless it bookended his career. Leonard’s last completed book was Raylan, a novel-length revival of a character from some of his earlier novels and stories, Marshal Raylan Givens. Not only was Leonard inspired to write a book based around the character following his screen incarnation by Timothy Olyphant in the TV series Justified, but the loose collection of cases that make up Raylan and its meandering style of storytelling seem heavily influenced by TV’s episodic nature and large story canvasses. The first screen adaptation of Leonard’s writing was on the small screen rather than the big one. In 1956, the CBS anthology series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars featured an adaptation of Leonard’s western story ‘Moment of Vengeance’, a year before Hollywood cinema would do the same with ‘3.10 to Yuma’. TV introduced Leonard to the screen and it concluded his career.

Raylan: Art imitates Art!

Despite this early entry in the history of American TV, it would be a long time before Leonard would feature again. In 1980, during the heyday of the American TV movie, Leonard returned to the medium to attempt the daunting and foolish task of penning a television sequel to Stanley Kramer’s High Noon. Inevitably lacking the Hollywood star and filmmaking quality of the original and as clunky as any unnecessary sequel, the dispiritingly titled High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane notably improves on its predecessor in several respects. Leonard’s screenplay uses the quotidian, eye-witness qualities of television to carve out a politically, economically and socially realistic vision of the western frontier rather than using the ‘old west’ as an allegory for 1950s blacklist America as High Noon did. Leonard’s versions of the films’ characters are far cooler and more credible with complicated personal moralities that put the Manichean originals to shame. The script also demonstrates Leonard’s effortless skill at integrating his characters into an ongoing story world and coherent universe of his characters. The casting of David Carradine cast as a sympathetic, laid-back outlaw and the movie’s progressive representations of African-Americans gunslingers and frontier racism suggests that Quentin Tarantino, who adapted Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into Jackie Brown (still his most mature movie), may not have restricted his fandom of Elmore Leonard to the literary and cinematic efforts.

High Noon 2: Even Higher, Even Nooner!

The western TV movie would be the form that Leonard’s involvement with television would take throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with numerous adaptations of his work and contributions of original screenplays. However, TV didn’t get serious about adapting Leonard’s work until the turn of the millennium when it attempted to ride a wave of successful versions of his books in independent American cinema throughout the 1990s. The TV adaptations would be beset by many of the same problems of translation that faced earlier screen adaptations of Leonard’s work and took until the last decade of the century to be resolved. In TV, such problems were compounded by Leonard adaptations having to fight for their right to remain onscreen. Despite bringing Leonard’s Get Shorty to the big screen with great success, Barry Sonnenfeld could not do the same for a TV series based on Maximum Bob-one of his most celebrated novels-cancelled in 1998 after a truncated debut season of seven episodes. Even Leonard characters that had already entered the popular consciousness were trampled by TV. In 2003 a series was developed around FBI Agent Karen Sisco, a character who had been portrayed by singer-actress Jennifer Lopez in the movie Out of Sight, a hit star vehicle for her and George Clooney based on the Leonard novel of the same name. This time it didn’t even make it past the pilot stage.

Was Elmore Leonard justified in his decision to stay with TV?

Television was in danger of incurring the same animosity Leonard held for the movies’ mistreatment of his work. Clearly, any continuation of the relationship between Leonard and television would have to be justified. And so it was. In 2010, producer Graham Yost created Justified, a procedural about Marshal Raylan Givens returning to police his hometown in Kentucky, which took as its jumping-off point Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. Though following its own course after Leonard’s point of closure, Justified continues to weave characters from Leonard’s canon into the episodes-including the extended Crowe and Crowder families who genealogically permeate his writing-and structures the central dynamic of the show around the tensions between Givens and Boyd Crowder in the original story. In his last years, Leonard was vocal about his admiration for the series’ sincerity as an adaptation of his work and was particularly taken with its faithfulness to his dialogue style. Justified also embraces the no-bullshit ethos of Leonard’s storytelling, stripped down yet flamboyantly funny, giving audiences what they want and need according to taste. Leonard is credited as producer, a title vague enough to mean anything from muse to head writer. Given that Leonard’s comments about the show seem to be from the outside looking in, it’s probably more like the former. There’s certainly no greater screen testament to the power of what Elmore Leonard does than Justified.

Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: