It’s just about possible that this year’s best supernatural TV series comes from Germany. It’s called Dark, it’s available on Netflix since December 1st, so it probably won’t be on any best of lists for this year. It should be. Dark borrows from some of the most favorite horror TV series of the last two or three years; it takes what it can use from the recent Twin Peaks, Les Revenants, True Detective, Stranger Things and others, and distils those borrowed spare parts for long enough to turn into its very own material. There are two things that make it worth your while: it tones down the supernatural element and focuses on its characters enough so it doesn’t have to rely on its McGuffin too much, and it creates its own atmosphere so well that it’s easy to forgive it a few shortcomings. It’s a slow series, ten episodes of about one hour, but some scenes are almost bristling with intensity. Continue reading
They see dead people! (Ouija board optional)
As I mentioned recently, I’m currently watching both the first and the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – season 1 has replaced our previous Sunday morning show, Six Feet Under (there seems to be a distinct funereal vibe to our Sunday mornings…), but since I was watching Buffy before, I didn’t want to wait for two or three years until we caught up with where I’d previously been.
Season 1 is fun, but damn, is it cheesy… It’s goofy to an extreme and somewhat difficult to go back to after the last few seasons of the series. It also allows me to see how much the series has grown up with its main character – it has changed a lot in terms of tone and depth. Lots of fans would say that it turned into rubbish in seasons 6 and 7 – but I must say, I don’t see it. Yes, there’s less of the careless fun of dusting vamps, partying at the Bronze and pining after tall, dark, mysterious Angel. But the development the characters have gone through makes sense.
Yes, some episodes of seasons 6 and 7 are rather meandering, but that happens with most US series that run for 22 episodes each season. Practically any of those series would have benefitted from tightening to, say, 16 episodes per season. (Yes, Lost, this is a not-so-subtle jab in your direction. Don’t screw up now!) But then again, there are some episodes there that a) are among the handful of best episodes and b) wouldn’t have been possible in earlier episodes. The development that Buffy, Willow, Xander & Co have gone through is what makes an episode like “Conversations with Dead People” possible.
I was surprised when I read that four writers worked on “Conversations with Dead People”, because it’s one of the tightest episodes of the entire run of Buffy in terms of its writing. Everything fits together. It was in “Conversations” that I felt most strongly: this series was made by the people who created Firefly. It has the same astute mix of humour, drama and action as the best episodes of that sadly-missed sci-fi series. The episode manages to tell five stories in its 42 minutes: Buffy fights, and is psychoanalysed, by a vampire she went to school with (much funner and less corny than it sounds), Dawn is visited by what may or may not be the ghost of her mother, Willow gets a message from her dead girlfriend (or does she? – you get the gist), the nerdtastic duo Andrew and Jonathan return to their erstwhile stomping grounds, Sunnydale High, and Spike goes in for a little non-verbal Blonde-on-Blonde action.
What this shortest of summaries doesn’t reveal is the subtletly with which “Conversations” shifts its tone from witty to scary (for a horror-themed series, Buffy rarely had genuinely frightening moments, but this episode more than manages) to poignant. Like so often, the Big Bad in the series is at its most effective when what it says is largely true, but the kind of truth that the characters don’t like to face up to.
Okay, anyone who sat through all of this stuff on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer must be desperately bored or a fan of the series. In either case, here’s a little reward for you sitting this out. Enjoy!
You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone
For all of those who thought that after weeks and months of me going on about Six Feet Under you were finally rid of wafflings about the Fisher family, I’m afraid you were popping the champagne corks too early.
So, what brings on this bout of raising the dead? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been in a strange mood all day, and the last few minutes of “Everyone Waits”, the final episode of Six Feet Under, kept coming to my mind. Mostly in fragments: a bit of Late Nate Jr. singing “I Just Wanna Celebrate (Another Day of Life)” against a blinding white background, a bit of Sia’s “Breathe Me”. But mostly one short scene: as Claire says farewell to her family, she takes out her camera to take a picture. As she looks at them through the viewfinder, Nate stands behind her, telling her “You can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone.”
And it’s this line that’s been running around in my head. Taken out of context – by which I mean the whole scene, the episode and indeed the entire series – it’s nothingy. It even seems trite at first, like a slightly reformulated Seize the Day-type motto. But there’s more to it. The context adds layers. Is it about Claire’s constant attempts, as an artist, to capture something; call it the truth, the spirit of the moment, or just pretentious twaddle? Is he telling her not to hold on to moments, because those moments become the past immediately, and while you’re busy trying to hold on to it, you miss out on life? Is he telling her that life is fleeting? We all could drop dead from a brain aneurysm, be shot, die in a car accident, or have our heads crushed by blue ice falling from a plane passing overhead?
Probably there’s something of all of these in Nate’s cryptic sentence, but what kept coming back to me isn’t just what he says or how he says it. It’s the fact that Claire, after Nate has said his bit, takes the photo anyway.
What is it about this moment that keeps coming back to me? On the one hand it’s the sentence itself, and if I try to reformulate what it means to me, it just becomes trite. On the other hand, it’s Claire’s defiance: yes, the moment is fleeting, yes, tomorrow we shall die, yes, sooner or later we will lose everything we have to time (there I go, getting all trite, even though I said I wouldn’t…) – but she takes the photo anyway. Against hope, against reality, against her better knowledge, she tries to hold on to the moment. A lesser series would have had her take the photo, and only then Nate tells her that what she just did was futile. So much of Six Feet Under was about defying that futility – to hold on to what we have already lost, and to honour it in everything we do in the present. It’s already gone – and personally I dread the moment we accept that and move on without looking back. I hope with all my heart to know fully well that I can’t hold on to the present moment, and nevertheless to do so.
P.S.: Next time, more HBO – and Peter Pan, by way of overrated Swiss directors. At least that’s what I’ve got planned. Yes, I actually plan these things in advance. Sad, isn’t it?
Soap gets in my eyes
I’ve admitted this before: I watch Grey’s Anatomy. And here comes an even bigger admission: no, I don’t just watch it because my girlfriend does. In fact, I like it – or rather, I used to like it. I liked the characters, especially Bailey and Christina.
Throughout the third season, though, I’ve started to find several of the characters kickable. In some cases that’s because they’re snivelling, self-righteous idiots. Which is fine, really; I don’t need everyone in the series I watch to be 100% likeable. I’d even say that series that try to make their characters too likeable will quickly become insipid.
What I mind, though, is how some characters have been reduced more and more to one-dimensional cardboard cutouts of their former selves. The worst offender in that respect is Izzie. She’s never been the most complex character – but within the confines of the genre of medical soap, she had some depth and even genuine tragedy.
Lately, though, her character has been reduced to one thing, and one thing only: pining for George. I don’t mind her pining, but I very much mind this being her only characteristic. (And no, saving Bambi does not make her a fuller, more interesting character.) Some actors can pull off two-dimensionality well and even make it into something more interesting – Bailey isn’t a cool character to watch because her writing is so much more complex, but Chandra Wilson turns the scripts into a living, breathing human being. When her material is good, Katherine Heigl does well, but with the sheer insipidity that she’s been given throughout the last ten episodes or so Izzie is becoming more and more ridiculous and unbelievable as a character.
And I can’t believe that I’m getting worked up about a medical soap! Gotta go watch some HBO, gotta go watch some HBO…
Fangs for all the memories
Eugh. Okay, I admit, that one was quite atrocious. Still, it fits, I’m afraid.
So, how does one replace Six Feet Under as the weekly Sunday morning programme? Does one go for something equally HBO – The Sopranos or Carnivàle? Or indeed The Wire? Well, the last one wasn’t an option, since a friend of mine has the DVDs at the moment.
For reasons that I won’t go into in great detail, we chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps it’s the whole death/funeral/cemetery thing. In any case, I’ve been watching Buffy for a while, usually while working out, and I’ve just started season 7. My love hasn’t seen any of the series, so we just watched the pilot. Here are some of my thoughts on revisiting Buffy:
My god, they’re all so young! And not just the usual suspects, like Buffy, Willow or Xander. Giles looks younger than I am! And they definitely played up the “British pansy” bit much, much more at the beginning. Can’t wait for him to become his later snarky self.
Cordelia? Nope, still don’t particularly like her. At least not in this series. She works better in Angel. (Yes, I watch Angel too. I never said I wasn’t a geek.)
Eric Balfour is dangerous to hang out with, at least if you’re a highschool student. Either he’ll turn into a crazed druggie juvenile delinquent (only to turn up a year later, blissfully dead) or he’ll become a vampire and much cooler than you, at least until you drive a stake through his heart.
I don’t think David Boreanaz is a particularly good actor. He works okay in his Angel role, mainly because he’s grown into the character. But in his first few scenes in Buffy? Ow. Ow, ow, ow.
And: they’re all so young!
So, for all of those who hate Sarah Michelle Gellar’s guts or who couldn’t care less about teen/twen angst dressed up in vamp metaphor, combined with some of the coolest character work Joss Whedon did before the much-mourned Firefly, you may want to give future Sunday blog entries a miss. In which case I may just have to hunt you down and drive a stake through your heart. And then make a witty quip about it. While looking good in miniskirts. You’ve been warned.
The Tube is not what it seems
Okay, gang. I’m afraid this entry is going to be short(ish) on words and long on film. Also, it’s only really going to be of interest to David Lynch/Twin Peaks fans. For all you other people: switch off your computers and go outside. It’s a lovely day. (At least where I am. For all I know, The Deluge: The Sequel has just started wherever you are.)
One of the features on the Twin Peaks Super Gold Fantastic Tacky Set is that the international version of the pilot is included. This was the version Lynch edited together in case the series wasn’t picked up by a network, and it ‘completes’ the plot. However, ‘complete’ has to be taken in the loosest possible sense here – for anyone who thought that Lynch’s works don’t make any sense, the international Twin Peaks pilot makes Lost Highway look like one of those “Run, Jane, run!” stories in terms of clarity.
It roughly goes like this: Mike, the one-armed man, calls Agent Cooper and tells him that Bob killed Laura. Coop and Sheriff Truman meet Mike at the hospital. They find Bob in the hospital basement. Mike shoots Bob. Cut to twenty-five years later: Coop is in the red room, little guy dances, Laura kisses Coop and whispers something in her ear. The end.
I’m somewhat reminded of the first time I watched Twin Peaks on telly. They were showing it on some second-rate channel, but they stopped roughly 2/3 into the series without saying that it wasn’t actually over. For years I thought, “No wonder people say that Twin Peaks doesn’t make any sense!” Even the ending that Lynch finally came up with had more closure and felt more coherent than what I’d seen…
P.S.: Even if the international pilot is rushed and incoherent, you gotta love Lucy and Andy.
P.P.S.: For those of you who want to see something that is more representative of the Best of Twin Peaks: this is pretty much my favourite scene in the series.
Wrapped in plastic
When I was 16 or 17, I had a crush on Laura Palmer. Not Sheryl Lee – Laura. And not because I’d actually seen Twin Peaks, but because of the little photo of her in the Twin Peaks soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti. Yes, it’s sad – but somehow it also fits the series. The little town of Twin Peaks has a clear image of who Laura is, symbolised by the framed photo of her as Homecoming Queen. They’re in love with that Laura, and many of them have no clue of what’s going on behind that all-American façade.
It’s been years since I last watched the series, and coming back to it now is weird. I watched the pilot yesterday, and my emotions were intertwined so strongly with nostalgia from the first note of the title tune and the first shots of the sawmill that I found it difficult to step back and look at it somewhat more objectively. I didn’t want all my feelings towards the series to be copies of my earlier feelings, reheated moods from the early ‘90s. Especially since television has come a long way since then: back when it first came out, Twin Peaks was clearly revolutionary, but nowadays, there is more varied, more unconvential television. (HBO, I’m looking at you! Don’t screw it up!)
The series still looks surprisingly good for television. Even at 4:3 format, it’s clear in the pilot that Lynch put a lot of effort into framing his visuals. There’s none of the stagey flatness of much of ‘80s television (American television, that is – there are some real gems of English miniseries at the time). In short, Twin Peaks still looks good.
What looks less good from a distance of 15+ years is some of the acting. I never watched the series for its acting, but I don’t think I was quite that aware of how badly acted Bobby Briggs was, for instance, or Shelly and Leo Johnson, or James “Nomen est omen” Hurley. Obviously, Twin Peaks is the wrong place to look for naturalistic acting – but there’s a difference between stylised acting that works (say Kyle Maclachlan’s Dale Cooper or Russ Tamblyn’s Doc Jacoby) and the thespian crime you get from Eric Da Re, for instance.
Nevertheless, the series still holds up pretty well, and that’s mainly thanks to the strong undercurrent of, well, Lynch. There’s a dreamlike intensity even to the first episode which is rather short on the director’s trademark weirdness. It’s not as strong as in his most cinematic work – Twin Peaks does feel like Lynch Light – but it’s there nevertheless. It’s there in the shots of douglas firs swaying in the wind or of lone traffic lights at night. It’s there in the train waggon where Laura died. It’s there in battered, bloodied Ronette Pulaski stumbling across the railway bridge in her torn chemise. And it’s there in the synthetic sounds of Angelo Badalamenti’s unforgettable soundtrack.
SIX FEET UNDER
Her name is Bambi?
Nope, but it might as well be… Okay, what on earth am I talking about? Grey’s Anatomy season 4, which just started over here.
I’ll get it out of the way first and foremost. I basically like Grey’s Anatomy. I like watching many of the characters, and usually, when it gets too soppy, I just bite my tongue until the next time Christina or Bailey are back on screen and then I’m okay. However, I got very tired of the non-medical soap opera in season 3. And the season 4 starter didn’t much convince me that change was inevitable, however much Meredith rambled on about it in her voice-over.
And what I really mind, not specifically about this series but about so many soap operas in general: I don’t want to be told who to like and who to dislike. I want to figure that out for myself. And I especially dislike being told (implicitly, of course, but not very subtly) that I’m supposed to like character A when I’ve just come to the conclusion that character A is an idiot and is wasting my time. And no, just because a character is made out to be all cute and adorable doesn’t mean that I can’t dislike her.
Yes, I’m looking at you, Lexie Grey.
(Warning: If you’re tired of my “I love HBO” sermons, this is where you go and read that other blog. You know, the one by that guy who writes about these things. And there are pictures and stuff.)
That’s one of the things I love about Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood, or even Battlestar Galactica (okay, that one isn’t HBO). No one tells me that I have to like Tony Soprano or Alma Garret or Nate Fisher. In fact, it’s absolutely okay for me to dislike Starbuck (which I don’t – but I could!) or Claire or Carmela. And, what is more important, the characters are deeper, more real – they can’t be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You may feel understanding for them, but that doesn’t stop you from shouting at them in the next scene, telling them to stop being so fucking stupid, goddamnit, cocksuckers!
Okay… perhaps I should try to reduce the weekly dose of Deadwood.
It’s all fun and games after someone loses an eye
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?