The first half-dozen years or so of the 21st century saw some of the strongest arguments that a Golden Age of Television had arrived. Many of those were produced by HBO, from the New Jersey mobscapades of The Sopranos to the sprawling social canvas of The Wire. While it was cancelled after three season, the Western series Deadwood stands tall among the standouts of that time. Even thirteen years after its cancellation, it’s difficult to find a series as accomplished, with an ensemble cast as strong, and with writing as distinct.Continue reading
I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.
Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.
And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.
Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?
There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.
Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.
And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.
Even though Deadwood has some of the grimmest moments of any TV series I’ve seen so far (probably the top 5 series in that respect would be HBO, by the way), one of the reasons it works so well in creating credible, likeable characters is by infusing them with a sense of humour. This is rarely as obvious as in the scenes with Dan Dority and Johnny Burns – and in yesterday’s episode, the magnificently titled “Unauthorized Cinnamon” (you’d probably expect that sort of title more from some anime than from a gritty western series), there was a scene with Al’s henchmen that had me giggling madly to myself. I would quote it, but without the context and the acting it wouldn’t be half as funny. There’s also a priceless moment with a mad, effete tailor trying to convince Al to wear colourful swatches of cloth on his Heastified hand – good old Swingen has never looked quite that baffled. The tonal range of the actors on Deadwood is simply amazing… as the scenes depicting the growing closeness between Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs also show.
However, don’t take my word for it. If you’re in any way interested in good writing, characterisation and gorgeously cinematic television, and if you don’t mind the occasional throat-slicing, go out, get Deadwood season 1, watch, and then go and get the next two series. And then hunt me down and kick my ass for getting you hooked on a series that was cancelled before they could finish the story as written.
Okay, enough blather from me about my favourite series. So, even though it’s Sunday and we’re about to watch the penultimate episode of Six Feet Under, let me just add two YouTube trouvailles. The first is a trailer for David Cronenberg’s Videodrome that is so gloriously corny and ’80s weird that I, as an 1980s movie goer, would have expected the film to be a soft-porn retelling of Tron. The second is a six-minute short by Cronenberg called Camera, picking up some of the themes of Videodrome, just without the porn creepiness, the graphic bodily mutilations and James Woods sticking his head in a TV. Hey – whatever shoots water up his stick, eh?
Okay, I haven’t seen Rome yet, or The Wire (which is next on my list of “DVD sets I should bloody well get”), but in the HBO series I’ve been watching marriage pretty much seems to be a recipe for unhappiness of one sort or another. Nate and Brenda (although they did get along better than last week, and for a change Nate had a point under all his aggression), George and Ruth Fisher, Rico and Vanessa… The marriages in Deadwood are somewhat less unhappy and antagonistic, but the happiest couples are the ones that aren’t married: Trixie and Sol (and golly, aren’t they a lovely couple – the whore and the banker?), David and Keith (well, it took them long enough to get their act together!), Dan Dority and Johnny… Okay, that last one doesn’t really count – because we all know that Dan only has eyes for Al.
Today’s episode of Deadwood, “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For”, made it clear that the town has been changed by the arrival of Hearst. People seem to be talking in more hushed tones and walking around on tiptoes. Even the sex and violence is no longer as carefree as in the good old days, when the guy shot dead in the saloon wasn’t part of an elaborate power game but just a symptom of Dan Dority having a headache. However, the episode had more humour in it than the season premiere, although some of it was of the “Did E.B. really just say that?!” kind. It’s amazing that the guy’s small intestine hasn’t jumped up his neck yet to choke his brain’s blood supply, to the service of all mankind.
We’re steadily getting closer to the end of Six Feet Under, and while I’m already sad about where the season will take us, I’m quite looking forward to getting started on a new series. We’ve got a couple to choose from: Rome season 1, Heroes, Carnivale (I’ve got both seasons), The West Wing, Dexter (you’ve seen him be neurotic and gay for five seasons – now see Michael C. Hall as a cop and a serial killer!). So many series, so little time…
Just in case you didn’t get the reference…
“Airborne”, yesterday’s episode of House, M.D., was fun. I like it when they shake up the format, even though the episode was a tad high-concept (“House on a Plane!” Well, you get it…) Seeing the doc try to deal with the situation without his lackeys was enjoyably snarky:
House: Can you say “Crikey Mate”?
12 year-old Boy: Crikey Mate.
House: Perfect. Now no matter what I say, you’ll agree with me, okay.
12 year-old Boy: Okay.
House: Nicely done. You, disagree with everything I say.
Foreign Man: Sorry, not understand.
House: Close enough. (to random woman) You get morally outraged by everything I say.
Sour Faced Girl: (about House writing on the movie screen) That’s permanent marker, you know.
House: Wow, you guys are good.
The editing between the two storylines kept the episode dynamic throughout – and I’ve started to feel sympathy for Chase since last episode (especially the glow on his face when he looked at Cameron’s photo). So far he’d been the blandest of the supporting characters, but there’s something genuinely sweet – if still not terribly deep – to his growing feelings for Cameron. She, on the other hand, is becoming somewhat grating: the combination of self-righteous and self-indulging may be credible, but I find myself thinking, “How about you keep your mouth shut and your pants zipped for ten minutes, girl…” (Yes, every now and then I guess I am a bit of a sexist. Sorry. Feel free to throw things at me.)
In other not-so-news: we started watching season 3 of Deadwood, and boy, is the air thick with ominousness… ominosity- ominiminy? Well, you know what I mean. Quite obviously, Hearst is not a good egg, nor is he the kind of moustachioed bad egg who keeps heads in boxes and whom we secretly like. I can’t really put my finger on it, but there’s something in the balmy frontier air, and it’s not Calamity Jane’s heady aroma. We’ll see where this’ll take us, but somehow I doubt it will be anywhere nice. Or perhaps the episode’s title was ironic: “Tell your God to Ready for Blood” might really be the prelude to a season of goodwill, cheer and fluffy bunnies in Deadwood (no state yet).