True Detective and Hannibal

February 17, 2014

This contains SPOILERS for everything up to episode 5 of True Detective.  It is also written from the ignorance of not having seen the final three episodes left.  So hello posterity, I hope you’re having a good and hearty laugh.

True Detective 1.02 (2)

If it’s true that in the new age of “sophisticated” television drama, the best ones teach you how to watch it, then HBO’s True Detective is an absolute befuddling mess.  The first season of a planned anthology show (i.e. each season will be self-contained with different characters/actors/directors) is a gorgeously hypnotic investigation of a genre that’s so peculiar in its mannerisms, intelligence, and plotting that half way through, I quite frankly have no idea where it’s going to go or, more importantly, what it’s trying to do.  This could be seen as a fault, of course, but the HBO brand – not to mention the star power and directorial talent involved – has ensured a degree of kindness when it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt.  It is certainly odd, however, that the show premiered within a year from the debut of another serial killer investigation show, also strangely featuring naked female corpses with antlers.  NBC’s Hannibal is quite easily the best network drama on air, and though that’s a pretty low hurdle to jump, it shouldn’t take away from Bryan Fullers twisted, nightmarish achievement.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Newsroom

August 28, 2012

I’ve been over a lot of this several times before, but it’s worth keeping in mind when discussing The Newsroom.  HBO has arguably been the prime mover in solidifying the showrunner’s place as the auteur of a television series.  As with film, this is a tricky thing to determine just because of the many different ways people run a television show and the impact the writers as well as the cast and even the directors have on any given episode as well as a season and series as a whole.  Still, David Chase was instrumental in creating this new paradigm with The Sopranos, and he was followed by David Simon and Alan Ball and even David Milch, perhaps the most distinct voice on the network (when he has a show there, anyway) even though he’s firmly rooted in the broadcast traditions from his time on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, among others.  All of which is curious in a way because HBO dramas have a very distinct feel to them.  They are often guided by moral grey-areas and characters of questionable values as well as a penchant for moving into dark territories.  Deadwood might be the most positive show ever aired, but it doesn’t exactly feel that way in any given scene as they tend to be mired in grit, filth, and violence.  The Sopranos started in 1999, and though its impact wouldn’t be fully understood for a few years, that was also the same time that Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing premiered on NBC and became a bona fide broadcast television hit.  Read the rest of this entry »

Please note that this post contains spoilers for Mad Men through Season 5, Episode 6, Girls Season 1, Episode 2, and Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 4.

As someone who realizes that he has absolutely no place in writing about the topics of Feminism (I’m a male), Diversity (I’m white), or Privilege (I’m firmly middle class, despite what my bank account over the last 4 years might indicate), I know I shouldn’t weigh in on these topics, especially when there is a plethora of great (along with terrible) writing on these subjects by people who write for a living and have studied the issues for a very long time.  Regardless, I’m shouting down my better angels because these topics have, in some way or another, reached a fever pitch over the last few weeks due largely to the premiere of HBO’s Girls, which has seemed to – in one way or another – brought up some long-percolating discussions about Game of Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men.  I am not going to name the authors or commenters, as I have no interest in turning this into the opening salvo of a flame-war lob (like anybody will read it anyway, right?), nor do I think it’s particularly nice to call people out for annoying me, especially when their hearts tend to be in the right place.  Instead, I’d like to write a little more broadly about the approach certain people take to these programs, because I think there’s a disconnect between “what I think they should do” and “what the creators want to do”.  Now, I don’t mean to be hard on anyone because I want to defend shows I like, though certainly the enjoyment and intellectual engagement with the material creates some degree of bias.  Really, I find it irksome because I think that writers who look at popular media through the lens of feminism, race, and/or socio-economic circumstances are perhaps the most practically important set of cultural critics around.  It is absolutely no secret that Hollywood and American Television are overwhelmingly the domains of white, privileged males, and though I hasten to point out that those circumstances do not mean they cannot produce great, relevant art, but it also doesn’t encourage balance, especially when the output of most of them is so anemic and pandering.  There’s a half-truth about target markets and what sells – for instance, films starring black actors turns off white viewers who think it isn’t geared towards them, or that films that appeal to women won’t appeal to men as well – which have gone a long way in financially justifying and, thus, perpetuating the sexist, classist, and racist practices in the studios.  All of this is why I think it’s even more crucial for these cultural critics to get it right, especially when becoming too po-faced or vehemently anti-everything is a huge turn off to average readers and viewers, who are already half-wanting to write off this segment as crackpot “feminazi, anti-white, socialists” (a little extreme, but you get the idea).  Because of the relatively niche markets of the shows I’m discussing here, and the different financial models in which their respective networks operate, I should really spend time factoring those considerations in, but as this is an impromptu rant brought about by too much time on the internet as opposed to a long-gestating, extensively researched essay, I’m not going to give that element the time it deserves.

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On the End of Luck

March 15, 2012

The shocking news that, ordinarily, would not be so shocking, is that HBO along with producers David Milch and Michael Mann, have decided to pull the plug on Luck following the third horse death in two years of production.  I understand and appreciate their decision, especially as Milch and Mann are such obvious lovers of the animals that it must be personally very painful for them to feel responsible for the deaths.  PETA, one the most tone-deaf and annoying organizations in the land, are probably rejoicing, which irks me quite a bit, but so be it.  If they had watched the show and understood what Milch and Mann were doing, they would have seen that the running theme of the show was the way in which the horses, with all of their majesty and beauty, tapped into even the most wayward person’s soul.  Read the rest of this entry »

The nature of the medium of television breeds a certain amount of critical consensus every year.  There just aren’t that many shows out there, and while there are enough that this list could be entirely different from someone else’s, it isn’t likely.  So what’s the point of making this list?  Basically, it’s just a bit of fun really.  I’d also like to talk briefly about something that I devote far too much of my time so it feels at least somewhat worthwhile beyond sheer entertainment.  The rules are simply whatever aired in 2011, so the final results shouldn’t include the first half of a broadcast network season (even though I admit that they probably play a role in some cases).  There’s an intriguing discussion to be had somewhere about how a year-end list favours cable dramas because of this, but we’re not going to have it here.  Just a note that Friday Night Lights could technically be on this list, but as it only aired 3 or so episodes – as I saw them – this year it didn’t seem fair.  Suffice it to say that it’s a great show and if you haven’t seen it you should seek it out. Spoilers for two shows have been noted in the headings.

  Read the rest of this entry »

Downton Abbey

September 30, 2011

I’ve already complained enough about the milquetoast tastes of Academy Awards voters and their love of inoffensive, tarted-up junk food like The King’s Speech, and though I will certainly wheel that bugbear out again in a few months, it is a little bit harder to say the same thing about the Emmys.  Sure, they tend towards the conservative (as you’d expect), but they’ve also spent the last decade as a platform from which to praise HBO, which is without a doubt the single most artistically interesting (and, indeed, revolutionary) television channel of our times.  You can make arguments that the middle of the road taste still wins out when Modern Family receives best comedy series or even that Mad Men’s four successive best drama victories represent a handy intersection of those milquetoast values with genuinely complex artistic achievement, but really, this has been HBO’s decade and it will continue to be for some time to come.  It is, then, only under these circumstances where a five-part mini-series adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce by idiosyncratic director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) would be seen as the all-but-unbeatable juggernaut of the night.  So it was a shock when plucky ITV-produced upstart Downton Abbey, aired in the US on PBS, swept in and took the prize from under poor old Mildred’s nose.  This isn’t to say that Mildred Pierce was the best possible winner – that went to the not-even-nominated Carlos – but it was still a deserving one.  I subsequently watched all of Downton Abbey, and all those King’s Speech feelings came flooding right back.  Once again, the “discerning” American viewer gave into their baser instincts for easy, melodramatic nonsense, only this time it was incredibly offensive.  Read the rest of this entry »

With the rebirth of scripted television and the rise of original cable programming came the need for networks to establish an identity to rope in new viewers.  Gone were the days of four broadcast networks wheeling out their new shows over the course of a month and people picking and choosing; original programming is now year-round and there are a lot more outlets to choose from.  As such, cable networks have developed brand identities in the hopes of building a core audience of faithful viewers who are always willing to check out their new shows because they have certain expectations.  FX is largely male-oriented and ‘edgy’, HBO is high-quality content for the discerning viewer, USA is light entertainments, and TNT hews closer to broadcast drama procedurals.  AMC has been in the original series game for five years now, and off the back of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they’ve gained enough critical acclaim (and the awards that go with it) to see themselves as the only true rival for HBO’s high-quality crown.  The idea, I think, is to not have any particular genre niche to cater to, but rather to create and maintain a stock of exceptionally good shows that anybody who likes good TV can tune into and enjoy.  Their biggest hit to date, The Walking Dead, complicates this, of course, as it is a fairly mediocre show that doesn’t transcend its zombie trappings at all, but like HBO and True Blood, AMC won’t complain about a hugely successful money maker.  The Killing, based on the acclaimed Danish series Forbrydelsen, on the other hand, is clearly attempting to rise above its crime genre roots and become The Next Great Thing.  At that it fails miserably, but for reasons that go beyond simple execution.  Read the rest of this entry »