Archive for the west wing

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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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.

 

 

 

The Residential Telection

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2012 by Tom Steward

I cannot tell a lie. As a flightless fledgling that has only ever developed use of his left wing part of me could not help but rejoice last week as Fox News atrophically awoke from its coma-deep political sleep and blearily wiped its coping-mechanism fantasy of a conservative America from its self-gauged sightless eye sockets. The humanitarian in me wept with relief as the network finally released its statistician hostages from their underground prison-all victims of a one-strike-you’re-out policy on including empirical evidence in reports-thanks to the efforts of negotiator Megyn Kelly, a woman who has made a career on telling comforting lies to people who have made bad life choices. As Kelly abandoned the obfuscation-forcefielded studio and walked the emergency-broadcast-network-after-zombie-apocalypse corridors to the quarantined chamber of facts, the façade fell away like actors in a fourth-wall sitcom coming out to meet their studio audience…only no-one was there except employees.

Whatever joy I felt was tainted by the knowledge that my smug sense of self-satisfaction would be shared by another news network which also puts partisan politics before reporting news and skews the facts towards a prevailing ideology: MSNBC. Sure enough, the following day signature anchor Rachel Maddow was on TV instructing viewers-who she clearly thinks of as eternally living in an episode of Thirtysomething-to get popcorn before her rundown of the election results. But results were not the focus of the item. They were simply cues in a spoken-word liberal version of the national anthem, a diatribe that one day will be set to the theme music of The West Wing (‘O-bama-wiiiiiiiins’) and released by Baz Luhrmann to be bought by thick people. Though evidently meant to anger Fox News, I can imagine Bill O’Reilly gazing on in awe similar to Goebbels admiring the propaganda power of Eisenstein’s films.

When asked to account for the relish with which she recounted Obama’s election victory by fake conservative Stephen Colbert-who for once didn’t have to try too hard to look pissed off with a liberal-Maddow replied that ‘this week the facts have a liberal bias’. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but no less a shameless piece of media spin and political fabrication for it. By Maddow’s rationale, there are weeks where Fox News coverage is entirely accurate, as long a conservative has been successful at something in the previous few days. Whether she knows it or not, Maddow is on to something. Fox News and MSNBC have a symbiotic relationship. One political extreme needs an equally uncompromising polar opposite to counter the damage. They turn viewers into party extremists when all they want is political options in their news consumption. The only high ground MSNBC has is to say childishly: ‘Fox News started it’.

You don’t need to be a conservative to attack this liberal…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m gravitationally inclined towards many of the politicised views espoused on MSNBC. I think Maddow recognises the minutiae and complexity of political systems and endows every hour of TV with the societal-unravelling sophistication of a season of The Wire. There is no comparison between her multi-faceted understanding of the world and Bill O’Reilly’s PowerPoint flow diagram of a political consciousness. I admire the Reverend Al Sharpton as an activist, politician and orator greatly and I’d take his wisdom over the washed-up, day-in-the-sun extremists that Fox News recruitment drive after their inevitable ignominious failures any day. I credit MSNBC for steadfastly avoiding the showbusiness ethos that Fox News presenters adhere to, even if it costs them ratings. What I object to is the idea that it’s the job of TV news to present political perspectives, legitimise partisan affiliations and comfort viewers about the righteousness of their choices.

Totally balanced coverage

I didn’t always feel this way. I once found tiresome the myth of objectivity that British TV news divisions such as the BBC wrap themselves in. I thought it better than reporters relinquish the façade of balance and own their opinions rather than pretending their reports were unbiased. The illusion of giving equal weight to both sides of an argument seemed to me entirely artificial, not only because in many cases there was no ‘other side’ and only one right thing to do but also because there was usually a clear affinity with one side or the other. I thought it more productive to admit bias and make it work for the report, especially in humanitarian crises such as famines or disasters where there was a global consensus. After prolonged exposure to American TV news, however, I now long for a token alternative viewpoint and the masquerade of even-handed commentary.

‘Where were you tonight Barack?’

I could not help but mourn for neutral window-dressing after witnessing MSNBC’s veteran newsman Chris Matthews, most recently seen reacting to Obama’s lethargic campaign debate performance like a disappointed father at a school football game, interview prolific investigative journalist Bob Woodward about his new book on the financial crisis. Woodward is known for his evidence-based investigations which privilege factual rigor over politicised interpretation. Yet Matthews tried to brow-beat his guest into admitting that Republicans were more to blame for stalemated response to the crisis than Democrats even though Woodward’s extensive research concluded that there were comparable errors on both sides, a systematic failure of government not of party. Relief comes in the form of news satires such as The Daily Show that, though entitled to bias, attack the inadequacies of both conservatives and liberals. And yet it is this show that holds a reputation for political bias and partisan machinery!

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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