Archive for nypd blue

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.

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TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!

http://videos.nymag.com/video/Opening-Credits-Homeland#c=GPW04R137JDPW6CY&t=Opening%20Credits:%20’Homeland’

Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of  main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.

Jazzing up Terrorism.

In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empires beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.

The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.

Image grab longer than actual title sequence.

Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.

Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.

Jazz in a 9/11 beat, daddy-o!

Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.

I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.

Johnson & Johnson

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2011 by Tom Steward

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing sporadically which try to raise the profile of some of American TV’s most unfairly neglected artistic talent. We begin this week with actor-director Clark Johnson.

Clark Johnson as Gus in 'The Wire'

'People can't be evacuated...well they can. But that's not what you mean'

The unsung heroes of American television are the directors. While journalists, scholars and fans (not to mention the artists themselves) rhapsodise about US TV writers and producers like Steven Bochco and Joss Whedon, they are perfectly content to ignore, marginalise or deride the directors who carve out the visual and dramatic life of programmes. Direction seems only to be valued when it is either combined with writing and production to construct the myth of the omnipotent TV auteur or when it is attached to a big marquee name in the media, most likely from the cinema (e.g. Quentin Tarantino’s episodes of ER and CSI). Some in the academic community, like Tise Vahimagi and John Caldwell, have tried to bring the work of TV directors to light but even then directors of Pilots get all the credit while directors of random episodes are seen as artless journeymen anonymously re-hashing someone else’s vision.

ER, 'Motherhood'

'ER' directed by Quentin Tarantino

Another production ritual in American TV that slips by most commentators and audiences is actors going behind the camera. Look at the later episodes of virtually any of your favourite US shows and you’ll invariably see its stars and supporting actors taking up the directorial reins for a week or two. As US TV shows have a very limited shelf life thanks to the spectre of cancellation which hangs over even the most popular and acclaimed series, a direction job can give actors more options and opportunities for work in the industry, especially for the less well-known ensemble players.

The subject of this blog is an actor from a renowned ‘90s cop drama, who went behind the camera only to create the enduring stylistic template and dramatic conventions for two of the most significant, innovative and exceptional police programmes of the last twenty years, perhaps ever. And what’s more, he went back on screen at the end of both of them to claim his deserved dues. Clark Johnson rose to public prominence playing the cool yet intemperate, honourable yet eminently fallible Baltimore police detective Meldrick Lewis in Paul Attanasio’s Homicide: Life on the Street based on David Simon’s book. Johnson’s performance helped to forge a distinct identity for the programme as a cop show that didn’t feel the need to romanticise or kowtow to the powers of its protagonists, particularly when bringing out Lewis’ reckless and impetuous side when crashing a police car into an ambulance in an early episode.

'Homicide: Life on the Street'

Clark Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis in 'Homicide: Life on the Street'

With a handful of behind-the-camera credits on Homicide, Johnson began to build up a portfolio of directing jobs on US TV in many of the most acclaimed dramas of the time e.g. NYPD Blue, The West Wing. Johnson seemed able to adjust to the distinct visual and dramatic styles of these shows effortlessly while successfully steering some conceptually tricky episodes and giving viewers some of these series’ most memorable moments, like Alison Janney’s hilarious and sexy mime to Ronny Jordan’s spoken word acid jazz piece ‘The Jackal’ in The West Wing.

In 2002, Johnson pulled off a remarkable and practically unparalleled feat as he directed the Pilot and initial episodes of two crime dramas that would blow the lid off the American police procedural, but for very different reasons. In Shawn Ryan’s L.A. police corruption drama The Shield Johnson invented the kinetic and jolting camera style that made the programme so arresting and exhilarating and helped craft the visceral energy and sly humour that made Michael Chiklis’ Detective Vic Mackey America’s most feared and entertaining bent copper. Conversely, in Baltimore-set drugs investigation drama The Wire, Johnson set in motion a near-invisible and highly methodical visual approach that avoided aggrandising or distorting the show’s complex portrayal of American institutions while laying the foundations for some of the most compelling, attractive and finely-tuned character performances ever seen on TV. These directorial styles were poles apart and demonstrated Johnson’s brilliance at finding the aesthetic most suited to the concept and ambitions of a programme.

'The Shield' and 'The Wire'

Johnson's two triumphs

As these series drew to a close, Johnson not only presided over the direction of the finales but also returned to the screen in befitting tributes to his instrumental role in their success. In Season Five of The Wire, he plays Gus, the City Editor for The Baltimore Sun, a highly meta-textual role in which he is bestowed the honour of voicing the ethos of the series to represent society in all its collective complexity. In the finale of The Shield he plays the federal agent who takes Mackey’s wife and kids away from his Beelzebub-like hold, inadvertently becoming the hero of the piece. On the credits Johnson is listed as ‘Handsome Marshall’. He’s earned that adjective.

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