A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #19: Losing the Plot – The Golden Age of Television

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3In this month’s podcast, we look back at TV series before the so-called Golden Age of Television and what has happened since – what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in times of HBO, prestige television and binge watching. Are series the novels of the 21st century or is it all sexposition, soap operatics and narratives dragged out way past their sell-by date? Featuring our theme tune, “Mystery Street Jazz” by Håkan Eriksson (make sure to listen to the very end of the podcast)… and a very special appearance by Trillian the Cat!

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All these worlds can be yours (but will you want them?)

Last week we went to see the latest of the new Star Trek films, the one whose title is certain to trigger a Pavlovian response in any fan of the English ska band Madness. I’d greatly enjoyed the first of the reboot movies back in 2009, though Star Trek Into Darkness hadn’t done much for me, but I hadn’t given up on the franchise yet. Star Trek Beyond, though… It’s a competent enough film in some ways, the main cast is still the best reason to watch the reboot – but I simply didn’t feel it. Most of the time it wasn’t the plot that kept me engaged; instead I found myself distracted, not least by remembering the recent death of Anton Yelchin and thinking, wistfully, that he should have had his final appearance as Pavel Chekov in a better film.

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Donuts and Depression

kitteridge4While watching Olive Kitteridge, the 2014 four-part HBO miniseries, I kept thinking back to Six Feet Under more than once. Both are HBO, both feature Richard Jenkins, and while SFU has a lot to say about death and dying, OK deals with depression and suicide. Before you quit reading: it is surprisingly upbeat and wise about it. All right, upbeat is probably the wrong word, but it is not as dark and… well, as depressing as you might think. It’s a well-told story about a Maine family, so there is also good reason to think of John Irving’s stories. The series never goes for broke with guns and gore, but skates over thin ice while hinting at the dark waters underneath. Continue reading

… or: How I learned to stop bingeing and love the wait

Let’s say I was given a choice: either I give up all the movies in my collection or I say goodbye to all the box sets I’ve got. Which do I let go of? The Criterion disks I’ve amassed since I first discovered the Collection would make this a difficult choice, but in the end I think I would want to hang on to the series I’ve got. The thought of not having constant and (nearly) instant access to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, as well as some of the later additions such as Treme or Hannibal is arguably worse than suddenly being bereft of the many, many films filling the shelves of the many, many Billy bookcases that we have accrued.

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Hooray for Whatshisface!

There are the stars, the big names, the recognisable faces, the Brads and Georges and Scarletts. Then there are those actors who may not be gorgeous and glamorous but who are great actors and win awards. And then there are those actors whose faces you recognise, whose names you may not remember immediately but seeing them always makes you like a film that little bit more, because it’s got Whatshisface and Whatshername in it. Unless, of course, you are a film geek and sigh contentedly whenever you see good old Whatshisface, mouthing the man’s IMDB link to yourself.

One of the actors that I always enjoy seeing, even in middling and even decidedly dodgy films, is Richard Jenkins. He is probably what is called a “character actor”, which more often than not seems to translate into “We want to say something nice about this guy but he’s not a hunk nor is he a tortured genius.” He can be utterly amazing, as in The Visitor, a film that could have been unbearable Oscar bait but ended up subtle, poignant and quietly devastating, an achievement that was in no small part due to Jenkins’ performance.

However, as good as the actor was in The Visitor, it’s Six Feet Under that best encapsulates why I love Jenkins. He’s good at playing dignified, often melancholy and sometimes stodgy everymen, but when given the chance to let loose he has a goofy, subversive energy, a Coenesque quality that is unmatched. (He’s been in three of the Coen brothers’ films, but what I best remember him for is his turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There: “Riedenschneider!”)

Jenkins has the face of a slightly disappointed man exhausted by life, but he has that gift of pulling off quirkiness without that precocious, grating quality that indie quirk often takes on. There’s a scene in the first season of Six Feet Under, where main character Nate finds out that his deceased father Nathanael Fisher Sr., undertaker and proprietor of Fisher & Sons, had a secret room above an Indian restaurant that no one in his family knew about. As Nate imagines what his father may have got up to in this room, we see several scenarios: Nate Senior playing solitaire, Nate Senior shaking his booty to a groovy record, Nate Senior having it off with a hooker, Nate Senior shooting at passers-by with a sniper rifle. It’s a tricky scene, and I can’t imagine anyone other than Jenkins pulling it off as he does, deadpan and perfect.

The AV Club, as so often, has a fun and informative interview with Jenkins in their “Random Roles” series – well worth checking out for anyone who finds themselves to be quite a fan of Late Nate.

All fun and games, until someone loses his head

I understand that the following might get me defenestrated, decapitated, poisoned, disembowelled and/or otherwise treated harshly – but I think that Game of Thrones is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great series with a cast that well night perfect, characters that are engaging, production values that are amazing, complex storylines that are riveting and setpieces that are stunning. It’s head (not Ned’s, obviously) and shoulders above a lot of TV. Nevertheless, on a list of favourite series it wouldn’t make it into my Top 5: I’d take The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire over it any day, to name just a few.

Thing is, for all its strengths the series is pretty much entirely about itself. It has little to say about our world. I’m not denying the series all relevance, but for all the cruelty and political intrigue of the world it depicts it is still escapism. Does it need to be anything more? Most emphatically not – but it makes the superlative praise the series gets ring somewhat hollow.

Hmm... My shoelaces are untied.

My impression is that because the series is brutal, because it kills our darlings, people implicitly see it as something more than escapist entertainment. “This is what the world is really like – cruel, amoral and swift to kick you in the privates, steal your silver and stab you in the spleen!” Except I doubt that most of its fans live in a world in any real sense that is like Westeros. Does Game of Thrones have anything much to say about power, responsibility, pragmatism and honour in a world of shifting alliances and uncertain motives? It probably does, although not all that much beyond what makes an intriguing story. Then again, it doesn’t need to – but its fans sometimes behave as if the series is completely new and does things that haven’t been tried before.

What puzzles me most is how Game of Thrones is almost universally hailed, yet HBO’s earlier series Rome barely made it to the end of season 2. In so many ways, Rome is an amazingly close precursor to the sprawling Westerosiad. Sex and violence? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Exotic locales? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Ciarán Hinds, Indira Varma, Tobias Menzies? Check, check and check again. (We’re still waiting for Ray Stevenson to make it to Westeros and for Kevin McKidd to be saved from his Seattle day job by a crazed, bomb-wielding, suicidal plane crash-cum-zombie apocalypse.) In terms of format, tone, characters, visual identity and, obviously, Nipple Count (and no, that’s not a character on the X-rated Sesame Street spin-off), the two series are very similar. Certainly, there are no ice zombies and dragons in Rome, but is that what makes Game of Thrones a success whereas the earlier series floundered? When people praise the series’ complexity, its characters and the world it evokes, are they actually saying that dragons, ice wights and boobs are cool? Or was the world not yet ready for a series of this kind when Rome was first aired?

Two.

There’s something about about the way the internet has embraced Game of Thrones that recalls self-perpetuating feedback loops. People don’t just get excited about the latest episode, they get excited about the latest round of YouTube videos depicting fan reactions. Watch total strangers scream at their TVs as Prince Fringfrang of House Shmoodle gets his arms torn clean off! Controversial scenes? Check out the clickbait: Why women like The Walking Dead better than Game of Thrones! (Not a joke, that one…). There’s something performative to the fan hype, as if people think they’ll become more interesting if they’ve got a video of themselves shrieking at Ned Stark’s decapitation or if they’ve got a blog post about what people on the internet say about-

Okay, gotcha. I’m feeding on, and into, the hype machine as much as everyone else. And who am I to tell the internet that it’s overrating its latest darling, especially if I then go and wax gastronomical about Hannibal after posting my own clickbait? So, to close this meandering post: if any fans of Game of Thrones are still reading this, I’m not telling you to stop enjoying the show or talk about it. But if you get bored waiting nine months for season 5, do check out Rome, especially season 1. You might enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about book readers spoiling next episode… just pesky historians. Just don’t enter “does caesar” into the Google search window, lest the auto-complete function ruins it for you.

Breaking points

First of all, let me be absolutely clear: I like Breaking Bad a lot. I consider it one of the best TV series of the millennium to date. It’s ambitious, smart, exceedingly well acted (with some exceptions in the minor parts), and it has a grasp of complex characterisation like few other series.

I also think that in some ways Breaking Bad is overrated. It’s not quite the perfect series it’s sometimes made out to be, and while it exceeds in many respects, there is room for improvement in others. Granted, I may be talking out of turn, as I haven’t yet finished the series; we’re five episodes away from seeing the last of Mr. White. However, as I’m currently rewatching the first four seasons in parallel to finishing season 5, I think I can safely address what I consider the series’ main flaw.

More than many of my favourite series, from The Sopranos via Six Feet Under to Deadwood, Breaking Bad is heavy on plot. It uses plot to talk about its characters, but it still puts a considerable focus on What Happens Next. This in itself isn’t a flaw; what is, in my opinion, is that while the characters develop in an interesting five-season arc, the season-to-season plotting undermines these arcs to some extent.

Men at work

To a large extent, Breaking Bad is about Walter White oscillating between pathetic, disempowered male, anti-hero and outright villain, and the discrepancy between how he sees and presents himself and how the audience sees him. The tension between these different positions is always interesting, but the series spends a lot of its dramatic ammunition too early, moving Walt into villainous territory only to retcon him – or, more accurately, our view of him – in the following season to some extent (Warning: the following will spoil events up to and including season 5.)

One of Walter’s main crimes in the final season is the way he glibly accepts the murder of an innocent child as something that couldn’t be avoided and that, he thinks, wasn’t really his fault. We watch the scene and its aftermath and we see him as the monster he has become. However, is this act more monstrous than his watching as Jesse’s girlfriend Jane suffocates on her own vomit while she’s in a drug-induced stupor? Especially if we consider what Jane’s death leads to, namely an air crash that kills hundreds. No, Walt doesn’t pull any triggers – but then he rarely does when he’s at his worst, does he? – but his actions lead to those deaths, both the more abstract hundreds of victims of the crash and the more immediate death of Jane. As in season 5, his reaction is to rationalise his actions and his involvement, coming to the conclusion that he is not to blame. Is this more villainous in season 5 because we see the victim, a young boy on his BMX bike? Or is the series suggesting that people may not remember season 2 and the beginning of season 3 (if indeed they were watching Breaking Bad at the time) and the point needed to be reinforced?

There are other points in the overall narrative that hit similar points – Walt getting Jesse to kill Gale, a defenseless and relatively innocent man, for instance – that in the context of their seasons and the surrounding episodes make perfect sense, but when you look at the overall narrative beats they feel like we’re revisiting ground that has previously been covered. It makes some sense if you consider that audiences watching the series on TV would have several month-long breaks between seasons, so there’s a purpose to treading old ground – but in hindsight several mini-arcs feel redundant in terms of how they develop the characters. They feel like the makers of Breaking Bad either didn’t know where they were taking the series, or they didn’t know how many seasons they had left to tell their story. Especially Walter White’s overall arc almost depends on the viewers forgetting or ignoring where the series had previously taken its characters and how far they’d progressed into full-on villain country.

The Meth Throne

The fact that Breaking Bad still works eminently well is largely due to its stars; even when revisiting old ground, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s performances feel fresh and immediate. The same is true for Anna Gunn’s Skylar, although arguably the series and its writing have been less generous to her at times; rewatching the previous seasons, I was struck by how similar her arc in the first half of season 5 is to how she developed in season 3, yet Gunn delivers a great performance. Nonetheless, if it were possible to go back and redo Breaking Bad, it’s the overall plotting that would require attention. If my suspicion is correct and vince Gilligan didn’t always know from one season to the next if the series would be renewed plotting accordingly, it’s understandable that he would have aimed for arcs that hit certain character beats, not knowing whether he’d get another chance later to do so – but it did leave him with characters whose overall arcs have built-in redundancies. While this makes for clever design, it makes for slightly frustrating storytelling. More so because there are so many things Breaking Bad does not just well but better than almost any other TV series.

And that’s before we even mention The Awkward Case Of The Ricin Cigarette – so let’s leave it at that.

The Telltale Ricin

P.S.: Another thing that I’ve realised while rewatching especially season 1: Marie Schrader may just be the character that benefitted most from the series’ evolution over the course of its five seasons. In season 1, she is a two-dimensional character at best, slipping at times into flat caricature; by the final season, she is as rounded, complex and capable of tragedy as any of the main characters. While I may see this as something of a flaw of early Breaking Bad, in this case I prefer to look at it the other way around: the series definitely got better over time. This is also clearly seen in its villains: there’s no comparison between psychotic Tuco “Loony Tunes” Salamanca and the much more nuanced Gustavo Fring.

Information! Information!

… and yes, you’re right, that post title needs to be read in a booming voice. (Don’t turn around now, by the way – there’s a giant white inflatable ball right behind your chair!)

While the title is prompted by us having only one more episode of The Prisoner to watch (my thoughts will follow in an upcoming post), this is actually more of a “Did you know that you could waste hours by following these links?” kind of post, plugging the following two things:

  1. XKCD, a self-described “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” – although I think that their recent comics have been somewhat hit-and-miss, the new feature What If? is quite inspired at times, addressing important questions such as “What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” (nothing, at first, but what follows is fascinating!) and the surprisingly poignant “What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?” If you’re even mildly nerdy and sort of miss those student conversations at 2pm after a couple of glasses of wines every now and then, well worth checking out!
  2. How long has it been since I’ve plugged anything HBO-related? The A.V. Club‘s John Teti has just finished his series of reviews-cum-analysis of the second season of Six Feet Under. Some of the most insightful writing I’ve seen on the series and especially on Nate and Brenda – and it’s made it clear that it’s time for me to watch the series again in its entirety.

Farewell to Oz

We managed to finish two long works recently – first Don Quixote (I’m convinced that most people didn’t read past page 150, since almost every single reference you read or hear is to what happens in the first fifth of the novel), and then Oz, the HBO prison (melo)drama.

The series is a prototype for so many later HBO gems, The Sopranos and The Wire just two of them. It pioneered the network’s trademark adult style, with lashings of violence and sex. Its characters were often nuanced, always ambiguous, its cast of characters portrayed by actors who give it their all. I don’t regret watching the whole series, and there were very strong moments throughout.

All of which is building up to faint praise, to be quite honest. The series’ grasp exceeded its reach – which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, but what really rankles is how Oz seems to think itself more astute, more perceptive on the evils of the American penal system than it really is. It is too infatuated with its own running commentary and social critique, and it displays the tendency towards hysteria in its storylines and presentation that Spike Lee is prone to. It’s easy enough to forgive this in Lee’s films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but to find the same tricks used over and over in a series in the late ’90s and early 21st century… well, it makes the series look hokey.

More than that, though, Oz could have been much stronger and held up much better to its successors if it had been two or three seasons rather than the full six seasons it lasted. Its social critique started off as hit-and-miss, often facile rather than perceptive, and this only increased as the series went on. By the time we got to the last couple of seasons, many storylines were thin and fraying at the edges; what kept us watching wasn’t the commentary on prison and how it often achieves an effect that is the opposite of what is intended, but the soap opera. Would Beecher find happiness in his relationship with charming sociopath Keller? Would McManus finally manage to have an adult relationship and not turn into a dick towards a woman he clearly likes? Would Schillinger finally accept that no one knows how to pronounce his name correctly? And as with daytime soaps, the episodic plots were sordid, tacky, maudlin: Rebadow takes up playing the lottery because his son is dying of leucaemia! Alvarez’ wife is divorcing him and fucking his brother! Did I care? Yes – but in a distanced, not particularly involved way.

The final season was a mess of barely begun, half finished ideas and storylines. Dead characters from past seasons were brought back to add their voice to Augustus Hill’s – and then that idea was dropped. New characters were introduced for no apparent reason, almost as if the producers were pretending that Oz wasn’t coming to an end. There were powerful moments – Cyril’s almost-execution – but others were as silly as the series’ worst excesses. (Kirk and Hoyt believing they’re possessed by the devil – WTF?!) The prison production of Macbeth (and the running gag of replacing the actors because they keep dying off) was forgotten for most of the season, even if it was used effectively to stage one character’s death.

All things considered, though, this is one Oz I’m unlikely to revisit. I’ve seen Six Feet Under three times (and am gearing up for a fourth). Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood – even Carnivale and Rome. I’m unlikely to go back to Oz Penitentiary any time soon, though. I guess what we had here was a failure to communicate, eh?

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.