Archive for robert durst

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

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