Archive for james gandolfini

The End of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve just finished watching The Fall, BBC2’s new police drama miniseries. Or have I? The open-ended nature of the last episode watched had me rushing to IMDB to see if Netflix had failed to purchase the series’ remaining instalments. This being a fairly common occurrence with an online content provider which faces rights restrictions preventing them from making the latest episodes of TV series available to users. My online search concluded this was in fact the final episode and that this ending was considered ‘controversial’. The word used to describe an adverse response to something offensive or provocative having been done or said but now simply means that a lot of people with Twitter accounts don’t much like it. While searching, I found vigorous defences of the ending by creator Allan Cubitt on grounds of authenticity, arguing that the ambiguous ending gestured plausibly towards the ongoing difficulty of police work and the lengthy timeframes of major investigations. This made sense. The series regularly disturbed and played with the conventions of its genre. It puts The Fall in league with TV crime series like The Wire and The Shield which were equally determined to show policing as a messy, unresolved business.

‘This is DSI Gibson. Do we have an ending in custody?’

Case closed. But wait a minute. I’ve just read that the BBC has commissioned another series of The Fall to be broadcast in Autumn 2014. I’m assuming this will continue the story of the first series and not be a totally different crime drama under the banner of The Fall nor merely a new case for DSI Gibson. There is certainly precedent for these latter options in British crime miniseries. BBC1 multi-arm legal strip Criminal Justice created a completely new set of characters and storylines for its second run and there’s a tradition of detective dramas like Prime Suspect and Cracker holding on to their lead detective whilst continually updating the cases they investigate. It is, however, unheard of to not wrap up the previous case before moving on to the new one and if the next season of The Fall were to do this the show would be genuinely breaking new ground. So if it is to be a continuation, then the ending of the (first) series should be thought of as more of an end-of-season cliffhanger, a suspense-mongering technique designed to keep viewers hooked until its return-an echo of serial TV melodramas like Dallas-and only realistic by default.

Who Shot J.R.? Much difference?

I’m put in mind of another couple of TV finales which blur the boundaries between cliffhanger and open ending. The first of these is the final episode of Twin Peaks, which lies at the close of its second season on the air. The series ends on a note of uncertainty about the fate of its protagonist, Agent Cooper. Given that the show’s co-creator was avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch and that the programme was challenging and innovative in its storytelling, critics and audiences alike were quick to assume that the ending was a deliberate subversion of closure and resolution and an artistic statement on the nature of TV endings. This belies the fact that the ending was written in full expectation of a third season which an abrupt cancellation, following a drop-off in ratings and acclaim, put pay to. This suggests the season ending was meant to work as a cliffhanger in the manner of the previous season, which left the lives of most of the main characters dangling in the balance. This is not to say that the cliffhanger wouldn’t have been met with something surprising and original, as with the last one, but it still reeks of conventional storytelling.

Was the ending of Twin Peaks really breakthrough?

The second of these is the ending of The Sopranos, following six seasons and eight years on the air. A suspension of narrative closure in the form of a literal blackout, it too bore the label ‘controversial’ although ‘uniformly hated’ would be closer to the truth. I initially thought the ending a technical error on the digital station E4 where The Sopranos was first broadcast in the UK, having become accustomed to its legacy of transmission problems which routinely turned my screen ratios into accordions. Alas, the mistake was on the behalf of creator David Chase who had sacrificed all that was good about the show (music, character arcs, engrossing storytelling) for an arch and pretentious modernist gesture, which put art before content. Or so I first thought. The cynic in me now thinks that the ending was merely an arty smokescreen for the kind of cop-out ending that refuses to make any big decisions about the characters in order that the franchise may live on. Think David Chase is above this? Lest we forget Chase presided over the mid-90s spin-off TV movie series of The Rockford Files. It is only James Gandolfini’s death that renders a revival an impossibility.

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Goodbye Mr. Smith!

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

This blog seems to be nothing but obituaries these days but I’m happy that, after reporting the dreadful loss of James Gandolfini, I’m only talking about the death of a fictional character this week and not even that. In essence all I’m really discussing is an actor leaving a role and something that’s happened ten times over, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be much cause for mourning and sadness. But this time it’s not a relief to say goodbye or a feeling that the pleasure has reached its capacity just that of being deprived of something truly wonderful.

So it’s come to Tardis: Matt Smith leaves ‘Doctor Who’

In 2009 there was nothing but alarm amongst fans of the TV show Doctor Who as the younger ever actor to be cast in the eponymous role was announced as the replacement for David Tennant. Matt Smith was 26 at the time but his uneven hair, emo style and awkward deportment made him seem much much younger. Concern and panic was only exacerbated by a number of appearances in which he seemed illegible and incapable. Unlike most, I was happy to see Tennant and his lazy shortcuts leave the series, but became prematurely nostalgic for him after learning the news.

Matt Smith in 2009, looking more like Adric!

A terrible debut scene at the end of one of the most tedious and portentous Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast didn’t help matters. Horribly written and directed in a needlessly elliptical style, Smith’s performance in the final few minutes of ‘The End of Time’ seemed fragile and misplaced, falsely suggesting a performance of infantile nihilism that was the worst everyone feared. Expectations sufficiently lowered, we started to get reasons to be cheerful. In the previews Smith looked and sounded commanding and unique and word spread that Smith had reconsidered his approach after studying Patrick Troughton’s groundbreaking interpretation of the role.

The jury was still out when in Easter 2010 Smith made his full debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Quietly assured in the Bond-teaser opening, he went from strength to strength in his first hour of television, re-injecting a genuine sense of fun, humour and warmth into the show (without resorting to saccharine) and refusing to romanticize the character, making The Doctor a troubling proposition of unpredictable behaviour and sinister tendencies despite his innate affability. Unlike Tennant it wasn’t a needy performance that asked you to idolize the actor as you worshipped the character, just an actor doing a part justice.

As Smith’s first season progressed, his ability to judge the demands of the role became increasingly evident. He knew exactly when to let loose the pantomime of the piece and when to tone it down and squeeze out the profundity. While honouring the previous ten performances of the role-in a way that his last two predecessors had not-Smith stamped his authority on the part with a wholly original spin on the character. Each actor playing The Doctor has to find a way to capture his alien qualities. Smith played The Doctor as a social misfit, comically illiterate in human beings’ behavioural orthodoxies. He talked to children like adults and adults like children, gleefully misjudged fashion and etiquette, and moved and gestured in disregard of convention.

There are definitely two aliens in this photograph!

As the second season of the programme veered head-first into pure space opera, Smith brought to the melodrama an understated honesty and brevity that gave the emotional core of the show a raw power unseen in its mawkish, self-pitying previous few years. Tears were no longer an inevitable part of a cloying formula but hard-won and always accompanied with restraint. As such, Smith pulled off that fine balance between the outlandish and the sincere that makes Doctor Who. He was able to suggest age and wisdom well beyond his years, and with it the overgrown teenager we initially saw evaporated.

Hard-won tears from Matt Smith as The Doctor

Smith’s third season as The Doctor saw him finally getting the mature, heavyweight material he needed to showcase his pedigree as one of the finest performances of the part. Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’ allowed Smith to shine in a powerful and disturbing story of genocide and war. However, a rapid fall-off in the quality of the 2013 episodes of Doctor Who-and a gradual slowing of the rate of episodes per year-has left audiences wanting more from Smith, and more of him. It was announced in June that Smith will leave the role at the end of the year, with only two episodes remaining. It is a part that will always outlive any actor that plays it but it will never escape Matt Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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