Archive for the shield

Special FX

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.

The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.

I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.

The hype is Justified!

The hype is Justified!

So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.

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 in a Word

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Tom Steward

If this were in print I’d feel obliged to emblazon the word ‘Advertisement’ over it but as all online writing is faintly promotional anyway I’m content to leave it at this bashful disclaimer.

A month ago I started the Twitter account @TVinaword which creates new words to describe TV shows by compounding three words that are synonymous with each individual programme. For example: ‘The Shield. Vic, Visceral, Vicious. In a word: Viscous’. The account had a long evolution. I originally wanted it to consist of reviews of films that were 1 sentence or 140 characters long (those of you who regularly read this blog know it could go either way) such as ‘Downfall: When you’ve seen one Nazi officer shoot himself in the head, you’ve seen them all’ or ‘Prometheus: 124 minutes of film to explain one dodgy special effect’. I quickly reconsidered upon realising that there were several accounts like this already, not surprising given that it’s only a slight adaptation of what Twitter does anyway. I also felt it was slightly peevish to create an account simply to allow me to take my revenge on a medium that hasn’t given me much to enjoy in the past few years. Cinema deserves better from its critics than simple mockery-even if currently worthy of it-and anything written about it should always stress how great it can be and look past momentary phases of decline.

The Viscous Vic Mackey!

Whatever the account was going to become I knew at that point it would be about TV. I’d be sending up the medium from a position of affectionate mockery and in light of my unadulterated admiration for it. I also wouldn’t mind being reductive about TV given that I devote hundreds of words a week to exploring it in excruciating detail. I still hadn’t figured out what form this Twitticism would take when after finishing BBC2’s detective serial The Fall I took to Twitter to try to describe what was unique about the programme. It wasn’t just that it was chilling; it wasn’t just that it was brilliant, but it was both these things and Gillian Anderson. It seemed to me that any word that tried to account for The Fall needed to have these three elements in play. That’s how the word ‘Chillian’ came about. After tweeting this new word, I realised this was exactly the problem with TV criticism. The same old words are trotted out each time we write about a programme (if I see the words ‘complex’ and ‘HBO’ in the same sentence again I may scream) and yet the programme itself is entirely unique.

The Fall…Chillian.

After coming up with a name and tweeting a few more words, I began to see that it was particularly effective when the word, despite being completely new, seemed to describe the TV show perfectly. Like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, the words make sense because of the imagery they evoke not because they have shared meanings. The breakthrough in this respect was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The word was ‘Connferscience’ which incorporated ‘Conn’ (the Enterprise’s command which is forever being transferred like a verbal Frisbee), ‘Conference’ and ‘Conscience’. If you were to ask what happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation Connferscience, despite its Newspeak qualities, would be as good an answer as any. Sometimes words arrange themselves in ways that sums up the show more directly that the three words they amalgamate. The Walking Dead was represented through the words ‘Humanity, Humidity, Stupidity’ which becomes ‘Humanstupidity’, a word that could conceivably work as the show’s subtitle. It’s always gratifying when the word resembles one we know, especially if that word is the opposite of what the show is. Three words that sprang to mind when watching Revolution were ‘Swords, Gourds, Bored’, creating ‘Sworgourdsbored’, which it most definitely is not.

Swords? Bored! Revolution.

Every TV show-good and bad-is different and they each deserve a different word. There’s always something that can’t be accounted for in existing language, like a character or an actor. What makes a TV programme is a cocktail of different energies and when one or two of those are removed from the mix, it’s not the show anymore. I’ve tried to make this problem disappear by writing a lot and hoping that enough combinations of words will eventually do justice to one programme. Now I’m doing the exact opposite, whittling these descriptions down to a few words and creating a brand new one distinctive to a programme. TV is a variety of individuals, each with a name.

 

Jumping The Arc

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m not one to ignore the advice of Public Enemy but I believe the hype. American television is as good as it’s ever been. Full of rich and varied programmes that are as emotionally compelling as they are artfully composed, flush with writers, directors and producers who recognise and understand the craft of good television (many of them the same) and boasting a success rate that easily surpasses American cinema. It’s only because I feel this way that I’m willing to tolerate the abominations of storytelling that even the finest shows on the air serve up on a weekly basis. The people behind American TV have a right to be complacent, and with complacency comes bad habits. A plague of lazy short-cuts and downright sloppiness has spread exponentially through US TV writing and several worrying tendencies have emerged. Here’s a run-down of some of the worst inclinations and their hosts:

Flashbacks/Flashforwards:

I’ve seen the future…and it is confusing!

As far as I’m concerned, if you need to use a flashback or a flashforward at any point in your screenplay you’ve not written the scenes in the present well enough. There are exceptions-like biographies-but the TV shows I’m talking about don’t fall into any of those categories. Great new series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead regularly go back and forth on their timelines, and increasingly wield these digressions as banners for the programme. Going back in time serves to fill in story gaps, underlining how badly communicated previous episodes were and alerting viewers to missed opportunities. Looking ahead creates an enigma then made comprehensible by the subsequent action, betraying a (usually undue) lack of faith in the material of the episodes to sustain interest in their own rights. Moreover, these displacements in time interrupt the forward momentum that these shows thrive upon to compel further viewing.

Cast Montages:

There’s only one way this can end…with a montage.

Ever wondered what all the characters in a show are doing at a given time? Me neither. Yet still the most common device for bringing a programme’s ensemble cast together within a single scene is a montage sketching each character’s activities at a time of day (typically morning or night). While this technique usually reveals something essential and often surprising about one or two of the characters, others are left to make up the numbers as they can’t all be doing something profound at exactly the same moment. Most shows manage to keep this tendency to a single scene at the beginning or end of an episode but series like Sons of Anarchy now feature multiple cast montages scattered randomly throughout each instalment, the only means of keeping track of the show’s surplus of sub-plots. There must be subtler, more sustainable ways of getting everybody in one place.

Song Overlays:

Coldplay: ruining American TV since 2002.

Nothing dates faster than music. Despite this truism, American TV shows continue to overlay scenes with contemporary songs that will likely only be considered respectable in the moment they’re first transmitted. Remember when The Shield ended its first season with a musical montage using Coldplay’s ‘Spider Webs’. That was in 2002 when the band still had cache and fed into the alternative style the show was cultivating. Now that Coldplay embody corporate bland, the sequence looks and sounds like middlebrow advertising. Series continue to make the same mistakes by selecting the latest hipster warbles rather than looking for the transcendent instrumentals that will preserve them throughout history. The choices tend to reflect the producers’ record collection rather than being linked to character or place. The Walking Dead would like us to believe that a teenage girl from a remote Atlanta farm has committed Tom Waits B-sides to memory.

Showrunners Writing:

‘Mr Darabont…step away from the script!’

While I’m grateful for all they do to put a programme on the air and keep it in good shape, I wish showrunners would keep their hands off the teleplay. They seem to have a knack for writing the weakest and most mechanical episodes and the ones most concerned with the image of the show not the art of television. Without the might of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont behind it, The Walking Dead may never have reached TV screens but the couple of episodes he wrote that headed up the series seemed incapable of articulating how the show would progress as a long-form narrative (rather than a 2-hour zombie movie) which is essential to establish in the pilot stages of a series. As soon as the writing responsibilities passed to serial TV veterans Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee, the ongoing vision for the programme became evident.

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.

Selling TV to Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by Tom Steward

My unofficial job title for the last couple of months has been PR Officer for American TV. Recently I’ve been introducing G to a number of my favourite US TV shows using the vast-if routinely inaccessible-archive of programming on Netflix and HuluPlus as well as my DVD collection, which lies within a handful of colossal CD carry cases in an object-fetishist’s version of efficient storage. Some programmes sold themselves. It didn’t take long for G to figure out that Northern Exposure was an engaging, endearing and intelligently written piece of television and not the geriatric-baiting fodder she suspected. Despite its nausea-inducing camerawork, the viscerality, complexity and wit of The Shield also won G over instantly. But there was always a fly in the ointment, and in every application. G took issue with the titles of both shows, Northern Exposure for its meandering moose and The Shield for its kid-friendly jingle. I tried to explain that these were some of the most iconic and beloved aspects of these shows but it fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Much as I love them, I can see why G thinks these gimmick-driven, one-dimensional titles might be doing a disservice to the shows.

‘Stupid moose’-G

But sometimes G’s sales resistance is difficult to break down. Her response to the Pilot of Breaking Bad was ‘That’s it?’. I wanted to argue with her but it did seem slight in comparison to later episodes and I didn’t think my observation that it was a ‘postmodern version of MacGyver would make it seem any more profound. Twin Peaks was apparently ‘all dialogue’, which is a new one for Lynch critiques, and only became visually stimulating when the donuts came out.  In these instances, I did what every good salesperson should and tried to associate the product with something the customer knows and likes. ‘It’s like Northern Exposure…but with murders’ I said of Twin Peaks. ‘It’s Malcolm in the Middle on meth’, I said of Breaking Bad. ‘You watch Malcolm in the Middle? What are you, 10?’ G responded. I guess my cold reading skills aren’t as good as I thought. Or maybe the prospect of Bryan Cranston in underpants isn’t as alluring to the rest of the world as it is to me.

Just me, then…

On other occasions I became a victim of my own salesmanship. I’ve managed to hook G on a hoard of arresting novelty shows that I’m fast losing interest in. This means I’m watching their tiresomely protracted runs again as exactly the point when I’ve given up on them. 24 and Damages are the chief culprits here, both of them wildly overlong elaborations on an initially brilliant premise. I didn’t think I could lose much more respect for 24 than had already gone but sitting through those final few seasons again with their automated scenarios and tedious twistiness I think it went subterranean. Worse, as the gruesome compulsion to clear all the episodes in as little time as possible accelerated, the show became like wallpaper in our house, an ever-present wall-adornment barely noticeable to our jaded eyes. G is still at the point in Damages where the promise of finding out what will happen in the ongoing story arc is yet to be beaten down by the knowledge of what does happen. But I can see this fading fast. G’s already worked out that they’re only keeping a serial story strand so as not to lose Ted Danson from the series.

A reason for sticking with Damages.

Although G came to Mad Men much later than me, thus allowing me to cherry-pick the most tolerable episodes from the dreary first few seasons, we’ve both turned sour on the series at about the same time. Actually, G got there first before I was willing to admit that the party was over. Midway through the most recent season, the sixth overall, I remember her asking ‘Where’s the advertising gone?’, which should have been enough of an alarm bell given that it’s the equivalent to Cheers forgetting to feature beer. For me, though, it was the sexual reunion of one of the series’ estranged couples that signalled the end of quality. Breaking a rule of good television established in Northern Exposure, it haphazardly thrust (in every sense of the word!) two characters together whose entire function was to carry the suggestion of romantic involvement without ever reaching that point. G turned to me the other day and said ‘I miss British TV’. I think it might be time to start offering a new product line.

 

If you like these blog posts why not follow my new twitter account @tvinaword where I create new words to describe TV shows. Send your own and if I like them I’ll retweet them!

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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