Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?

In an instant, they were gone. Family, friends, lovers. You turned around for one moment, and when you turned back they were gone. Where? Why? Who knows. How to go on? Who knows. And how can you ever hold on to anyone again if you don’t know whether it might happen again?

No, I’m not talking about the Snap. (We’ve done enough of that elsewhere.) I’m not talking about the Rapture either, not quite. What I am talking about is one of the strangest, saddest, most infuriating, most hopeless, most hopeful stories I’ve seen, on TV or elsewhere: The Leftovers.

The Leftovers

Continue reading

… to miss Treme

I have never been to New Orleans, and while I would like to go there, it is unlikely I’ll be traveling to the United States in the next couple of years. As a result, I cannot even begin to say whether Treme, David Simon’s four-season HBO series, delivered an accurate depiction of the city. More than that, I’m definitely not entitled to claiming that I care about New Orleans based on having watched a TV series. But I can say that I have come to love the series’ version of New Orleans – and that’s due in no small part to Simon’s unique brand of storytelling.

cq5dam.web.1200.675

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

That Old, Familiar Tune

Is this what some people feel like when they watch a Quentin Tarantino film? There I was, watching the penultimate episode of The Night Of, HBO’s 2016 prestige crime/prison/courtroom drama. (Beware spoilers for The Night Of, but also for The Man Who Wasn’t There.) In its final, expertly staged scenes, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-innocent protagonist Naz becomes a willing accessory to a swift, bloody jailhouse murder. As the scene begins, violins start playing a melancholy tune – one that I immediately knew: the makers of The Night Of had taken a page out of the Coen Brothers’ songbook, using a theme written by composer Carter Burwell for The Man Who Wasn’t There to colour a scene of ruthless brutality.

The Man Who Wasn't There

Continue reading

A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #14: The End is Nigh

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3It’s September, and the world is coming to an end on this month’s episode. Join Mege and Matt as they talk about the post-apocalypse in pop culture, from Obsidian’s epic role-playing game Fallout: New Vegas via Mad Max: Fury Road to – bear with us on this one – the HBO series The Leftovers. We also discuss Spike Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, and talk about Sarah Vowell’s book Assassination Vacation.

Continue reading

That was the end of the world… and I feel fine

The Leftovers was already an odd beast in its first season. Here’s a series about a world where, on October 14 three years ago, 2% of the world’s population just vanished. Poof. You may have been sitting at breakfast with your family, you may have been getting in the car where you’ve just put your infant after shopping for groceries, you may have been in the middle of having a tryst with someone not your wife – and from one moment to the next, they’re gone. Your highschool sweetheart that you occasionally see at the store? Gone. The old man who touched you when you were a kid? Gone. What’s this? The Rapture?

The Leftovers Continue reading

The long dark journey through The Night Of

thenightof12I was hypnotized by The Night Of for five or six episodes, which isn’t bad at all considering that it’s an eight-part HBO miniseries. To me, it seemed to scratch the itch that season 2 of True Detective left me with. It’s on the dark side of things: it mostly takes place at night and/or indoors, but even the exterior daylight scenes look sort of gloomy. It’s about crime and punishment, and about the law, about justice and injustice, and about courts and prison. It’s set in New York, but is based on the British TV series Criminal Justice from 2008-09, starring Ben Whishaw. The Night Of, however, has no problem standing on its own. Continue reading

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

2009-2014: HBO’s Second Coming, or its Silver Age?

I consider myself lucky for discovering HBO’s series during their Golden Age. Starting with The Sopranos, then moving on in short order to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and Rome, showed me the potential of ambitious TV: ambitious in terms of direction, acting, writing, structure and production values. Even a more flawed offering like Carnivàle seemed infinitely more daring than most regular series with their standalone episodes, 20+-episode seasons and heavy padding.

We miss you, Al.

I still love HBO’s output during that time, but the problem of getting into something during such a strong period is that whatever follows is likely to disappoint. HBO still does strong programming, and I’d count miniseries like Generation Kill and The Pacific among their best, but then there are series whose premise wasn’t enough to keep them interesting for their entire run, like In Treatment, or guilty pleasures that increasingly become more guilty and lesspleasurable, like True Blood. I haven’t seen John from Cincinatti or Luck yet, but neither sounds like it measures up to the heydays of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, McNulty or the Fisher family.

Boardwalk Empire is probably a good example of latter-day HBO. There’s no doubt that it’s a handsome series, with gorgeous production values. It’s well written, the cast is pretty much impeccable, it looks and sounds the part: this is quality TV. However, by comparison, it’s also average TV. For all its qualities (and there are many of them), it doesn’t have the freshness or the audacity of The Sopranos. It looks cinematic enough, but it meanders, feeling like a movie stretched out to several seasons. The same material, the same cast and crew, might be served better by a shorter format with more focus; instead, Boardwalk Empire feels somewhat rote at best and flabby at worst. Compared to so much TV, it’s still great – but compared to the pioneers, the real greats, shows that had something to prove and proved it, it can’t help but disappoint. It’s a shame, because there are moments when it’s up there with its stronger predecessors: disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow going to the woods to kill himself, or Chalky White interrogating an increasingly frightened Klansman after a racist killing. There are scenes of wit and intelligence, there are surprising and thrilling moments, and there are those insanely intense eyes of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden: we never know from one scene to the next if Michael Shannon’s Fed is a stony-faced straight man or a psychopath waiting to happen, or both.

Crazy-ass Mike. Don't you ever change.

Most of the time, though, Boardwalk Empire feels like HBO by the book: there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s quality TV, but in being handsome and exquisitely crafted, it lacks the scathing punk attitude of The Sopranos or the squishy, pulsating heart and mock-Shakespearean grandeur of Deadwood, nor does it have the Dickensian scope of The Wire. One could argue that it’s its own thing, but I’m not sure yet what it brings to the table that is unique and that could only be done by this particular series. Boardwalk Empire is enjoyable, but it’s also strangely forgettable from one episode to the next.

Yet, there is also Treme, which was broadcast around the same time. David Simon’s series of post-Katrina New Orleans suffers by a rash comparison to The Wire – it lacks the structural focus of Simon’s Baltimore saga, which had a main case and storyline each season to peg its themes onto. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into Treme, but I’m now almost through the second season and have fallen in love with its world and characters. It’s less showy than Boardwalk Empire, which aims at the burnished looks of a Once Upon a Time in America and tries to recall mobster drama from The Untouchables (the Prohibition setting) to The Godfather (the ghost of Fredo Corleone haunts various characters), but it has attitudes, heart and a righteous anger at what ails New Orleans, both from outside and from within.

Butter wouldn't melt in his 'bone-playing mouth.

What seems flabby in Boardwalk Empire I’ve come to see as an asset in Treme: its many characters and plot strands all contribute to a portrait of a city that has been dealt a near-fatal blow but that is struggling to survive. As he did with Baltimore, Simon has crafted a passionate ode to a place and its people that does not shy away from its own faults but that is an example of essential, loving humanism. It’s not in the series’ individual moments, though there are many strong ones, but in their accumulation: each scene, each character, each moment of growth constitutes a brushstroke in Simon’s grand portrait of a city in struggle. Where Boardwalk Empire suffers from the TV format and practically calls for a more focused narrative format, Treme needs its sprawl to unfold its full effect. Simon’s rhythms and structures may not lend themselves to lean, muscular storytelling, but the way he portrays a society and culture could not function in a medium that calls for discipline and brevity. Is Treme up there with HBO’s greatest? Well, I’m not even halfway through the entire series, but I will say with confidence that few TV series have made me care as much about a place I’ve never been to and people I’ll never meet.

We’re all going crazy, buck-jumping and Breaking Bad!

Wow. Just wow. Breaking Bad season 4 (yes, as always we’re a year or so behind the US) has done the series proud. Is it better than the previous seasons? I admit, there were moments when I felt the plot was spinning its wheels somewhat – we had scenes that were variations on earlier scenes without adding anything new, usually telling us something about Walter White’s personality that we already knew – and the season didn’t always maintain its well honed balance of plot, theme and characterisation, but when it worked (and it often did), boy, did it work… and off the top of my head, and before my first coffee of the day, I could mention scenes and whole episodes that were stronger than anything that had gone before.

He won.

And “Face Off”, the final episode of the season? I would put it up there with the most tension-building denouements I’ve seen or read in any medium. The way Vince Gilligan and his team have put together the individual building blocks to arrive at this ending for one of their most memorable characters, and the way it all comes together in Tio Salamanca’s muffled bell-ringing. As I’ve said: wow.

At the same time, Walter White – who I once thought to be a man trying to do as best he could in an impossible situation – has become one of the greatest villains in any visual medium. It’s difficult to read his tone of voice when he says “I won” at the end of the episode (it’s been described as smug and triumphant, but to me Walt’s shaking voice sounded not a little scared by what he’d become), but Bryan Cranston is pretty much perfect in his depiction of the character. Almost every episode of this season could serve as a master-class for budding actors, and a depressing one too – very few people will reaching the dizzying heights of Cranston’s performance and the character he has brought to life.

Just coming off the high of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate season, it’s difficult to segue neatly into the other season we’ve just finished watching, namely season 1 of Treme. I started watching David Simon’s latest with unrealistic, unfair expectations: The Wire is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV in many ways, and since Treme shares some of the earlier series’ main actors (Wendell “Bunk” Pierce, Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters) it’s even more difficult to shake these expectations. During Treme‘s first 4-5 episodes I kept repeating the mantra, “It’s not The Wire, it’s not The Wire“, which is true but not entirely fair: some of the themes are the same, but Simon and his cast and crew go for a different feel here. The series is much more meandering; it has a few plots threaded throughout the series, but character always comes before plot in this series.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when it all clicked – there were probably different moments for different characters – but by the end of the season, as the last episode of S1 transitioned into the flashback of all the characters preparing for Katrina, it definitely had. The writers and actors of Treme are impressively astute at balancing the depressing realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, at least for these particular characters, and the flashes of hope and humanity. I’ve never understood the people accusing Simon of cynicism (being a pessimist doesn’t make you a cynic!), and his deep sense of empathy has never been stronger than in Treme.

Except perhaps with Sonny, the Dutch louse – but given time even he could turn out to be human. Simon has a history of doing that… and I’ll gladly give him time to do so.