(A Matter of) Life (and Death) on Mars

Okay, that pseudo-clever title has already pretty much taken it out of me… Last night we watched the final episode of Life on Mars. There was definitely some good material in there, some very atmospheric bits – but on the whole, it struck me as a cop-out. They didn’t seem to have the courage to go with the ambiguity they’d evoked and instead ended on what felt like a reprise of the season 1 finale.

***Spoilers to follow! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!*** 

Sam’s decision to go back to, or stay in, 1973 by means of (real? dreamed? imaginary?) suicide was sold to us as the right decision, but that just doesn’t gel with Sam’s ambivalence (to say it mildly) about the past he was stuck in. He comes out of the coma (or not – there were hints either way, but nothing that suggests the writers really thought about it) and no longer feels at home in the 21st century? That’s okay: it makes sense, since he’s been in this other reality for so long, and it’s interesting for the character. But don’t try to tell us that the best of all possible solutions is for him to choose the immature, made-for-TV Boys’ Adventure that is Hunting with Hunt. Don’t dangle ambiguity in front of us and then say, “But it’s all okay, because 2007 means boring meetings about grey areas, but 1973 means driving too fast, beating up suspects and feeling good and manly about it!”

The sad thing is, the ending could have been much, much worse. It could have been much more hackneyed. But it gave in to the infatuation with Gene Hunt, as did Sam. And I guess that in the end, I felt that there could have been more to the series than “DI Tyler, or How I stopped worrying and learned to love that misogynist, racist, homophobic dinosaur Gene Hunt (and you can, too!)”.

Ah well. This means that now we can get started on Battlestar Galactica season 3. Yay!

What is it with men and toys?

Honestly. You can’t take John Locke anywhere. Get to a nice, cosy place wired with plastic explosive, show him a set of buttons, and off he goes! A computer tells him to “Enter 77” (that’s also the episode title) in case of a hostile incursion, and he goes and does it. Never mind that this sort of thing usually activates the defense mechanism, and we’ve seen what the island’s defense systems do to people – especially people who decide to drive around the island while under the influence…

Still, the episode was very enjoyable. For one thing, it’s always fun to see Sawyer getting clobbered by Hurley in one way or another, and the ping-pong bet was nice. And while it still feels like they’re making the main plot up as they go along, it was focused and intriguing enough to keep me going. Mikhail Bakunin is an interesting addition to the Others, and Sayid is quickly turning into the Iraqi McGyver… but in a good way! (Plausibility has long been maimed and killed by the island’s smoke monster, which is okay with me – if I want realism, I don’t watch Lost. I watch Grey’s Anatomy instead…)

Kate and Sayid, forcing the writers at gunpoint to make sense for a change

Today is a good day to watch others die (or is it?)

Yup, Sunday. It’s Six Feet Under day.

Today’s episode – the first one in season 5 – feels like it continues straight from the end of season 4, emotionally, even if enough time must have passed for George to have undergone ECT treatment and Rico to have started dating again. (He doesn’t seem to be very good at it…) There’s the same mix of tentative hope and deep sadness, the former perhaps most in David and Keith’s decision to try for surrogacy, the latter especially in the aftermath of George’s illness and Ruth’s fears of what her life will be like, tied to a sick person. Her hold on her life has always been precarious, but now she seems to lose against her fears.

David and Keith

What else is there? Billy’s rapidly becoming much more likeable than bitchy Claire (although she didn’t necessarily deserve the hard slap her mother gave her for something very minor). The Death of the Week(tm) was one of the uglier ones in the series, uglier even than the Elevator of Doom at the end of season 4. (Definitely the kind of thing that could put anyone off psychotherapy…) And Rachel Griffiths once again shows what a great actress she is.

Brenda and Nate

On a slightly different note: we watched Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly yesterday. Can’t say I like it as much as Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a much lighter, fluffier piece, and it forgoes the pathos of the later movie. But, like Once Upon a Time…, it’s got a great final showdown – and the music, like many of Morricone’s works, is iconic. It even survives being played by a ukulele orchestra. Don’t believe me? See for yourselves:

What’s in the box?!

I’ve thought before that Al Swearengen would make a good shrink (if shrinks took to stabbing their more annoying patients or slashing their throats, that is). I now think that the Indian head in a box he’s got might do an even better job; at the very least, it’s doing a great job of calming down Swingen’s temper. Or perhaps it’s gleets that do that to you.

A man and his head

I have to admit though that I wasn’t too keen on “Childish Things”, last night’s episode of Deadwood. There was something off about the writing and some of the acting – somehow it felt more like someone trying to imitate the Deadwood style and not quite managing. I wonder whether that’s also down to the director, Tim van Patten, who’s done quite a lot of Sopranos but no Deadwood. Added to which he directed some of the weaker episodes of the late, great HBO mobster series.

Still, there was a lot to like or even love about “Childish Things”. There was the gripping scene between Francis Wolcott and Joanie Stubbs in the darkened front room of the now defunct Chez Amis. (One of the things that make Wolcott so fascinating is that you really never know what he’ll do next. He doesn’t seem to know himself, and there’s this subtle trace of sadness at his own ignorance in him.) There was the priceless scene where Dan finds out about Al’s favourite rotting head-in-a-box. There was the moving scene where Charlie Utter confesses to Wild Bill’s grave just how worried he is about Calamity Jane. And there was Ellsworth sweet proposal to Alma Garrett.

But damn, boy, Bullock and his wife ought to go and see a marriage counsellor real soon. Who knows, perhaps Al and his amazing head could give the two of them a good talking to…

P.S.: No points for those who guessed what film the title quote is from. Anyway, perhaps you specifically need an Indian head to get the positive effects; Gwyneth Paltrow’s may have more of a “Must shoot the smug bastard several times and then go bonkers!” effect on people. Or at least on Brad.

What’s that? Jennifer Aniston?

Untitled

Good bye, Six Feet Under season 4. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s been emotional. What with graphic suicides, kidnappings by lunatics, illegal burials in the desert, and men getting squished in half by elevators.

I’d forgotten how much the last episode of season 4 sets up things for season 5. In between the second and the third season, there was such a strong break, and the same can be said to a lesser extent for the end of season 3. “Untitled”, however, the fourth season finale sets up most if not all of the pieces for the next season.

And it delivers the strange but compelling mix of tragedy, black humour and hope like no other series ever has. Yes, there’s some of the darkest material we’ve seen in the series so far, but there’s always rays of sunshine somewhere in between the clouds. Otherwise it would be unbearable at times.

Father and son

I’m both looking forward to and dreading season 5 now, because I know that it’ll affect me just as much as the first time I watched it. And chances are my reaction to the last episode will be pretty much the same. I hope my love is ready for the spectacle of her guy being a weepy heap for an entire Sunday…

Season 4, I liked you. Perhaps you’re the weakest, most meandering of all five seasons, but being the weakest of such a strong bunch is nothing to be ashamed of. Season 5 – looking forward to seeing you!

A season too far…

We watched another two episodes of the second season of Life on Mars yesterday, and while they were more enjoyable than a couple of the ones earlier this season, they still felt like variations on a theme – and minor variations at that. The impression I got was that they had material for a total of eight or nine episodes, at most. Instead they decided to stretch it to two seasons and 14 episodes altogether, and as a result much of the impact was lost. This could have been a little gem of a series, and instead it turned out to be an okay execution of a clever premise, extended past its sell-by date.

You doity rat (redux)

Quite a few series are milked, the episodes becoming tired, stale rehashes of earlier material. Even fans say that The Simpsons have been going on for too long (although they also argue that the last season has been a marked improvement). Same seems to go for Spooks (another BBC series by Kudos, the producers of Life on Mars), Buffy (I’ve seen few defenses of season 7), The X-Files or most of the Star Trek series.

And then you get series that are killed untimely. Firefly and Deadwood come to mind, but I’m sure there are other examples as well. (Futurama, perhaps, ending with one of the best episodes of the entire series, but it’s being revived right now, so I’ll wait and see.) Series that, quite simply put, had much more to say. Series that quite often also expected something from the viewer, that made demands – for instance, that you tuned in every week. You can’t really tell a good, sustained story if viewers may look in once a month, at best.

Death by trampoline?

To be honest, I can only think of a handful of series that managed to end when they should have. Six Feet Under is a candidate. M*A*S*H, perhaps, although the jury’s out on whether the series maintained its quality, got better, or simply got smug and self-righteous. Most people loved “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, but there are some who hated it with a vengeance for being Alan Alda’s soapbox.

I guess that, given the choice, most fans would prefer more material of their favourite series even at the price of diminishing quality. But it is frustrating to see them putting out yet another cop series or medical soap but at the same time not allowing more complex, more ambitious – and, admittedly, less audience-friendly – material the breathing space it needs.

It’s never lupus

Yesterday’s TV series evening was fun. First “Finding Judas” on House, M.D., then Lost‘s “Flashes Before Your Eyes”.

Slap the parents and House both, please…!

Actually, I tell a lie. The “Judas” episode wasn’t fun, though it was eminently watchable. For the first time, House really seemed to lose it completely, becoming a strung-out bastard who used his incisive mind not to help his patient but to hurt those who are on his side. If Tritter wasn’t so clearly a bastard himself, he would have proven that he has a point in much of what he says. House’s words to Cuddy, for instance, were cruel and his general behaviour shitty. His suffering from withdrawal explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Obviously the episode was manipulative (even more so than most of House), but effectively so. I knew they wouldn’t amputate the little girl’s arm and leg, but part of me sat there thinking “Ohshitohshitohshit…” nevertheless. I’m curious to see where they’ll take the Tritter plot and Wilson’s friendship with House, as that storyline seems to be coming to a head. And I wonder whether it’ll ever be lupus…

“Flashes Before Your Eyes” was an intriguing episode of Lost, and a heavy focus on Desmond is always welcome. For all its meandering and self-indulgence, the series has been fairly good at introducing new and interesting characters: Ben, Mr Eko, Desmond. The episode also had some interesting twists, such as the Precog Scot trying to save Charlie (and not Claire, as it appears at first), and the clever use of the flashback convention.

It’s oh-so-British, innit?

I could have done without the fake Englishness of some of it, though. The series’ England feels as if its makers only know the country from bad movies and TV. Especially Fionnula Flanagan’s character felt fake, when she should have been eerie. Still, though, it looks like Charlie – possibly the character who annoys me most – is heading for a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. Can’t say I’m going to be too sad. Then again, they made me kinda like Shannon and Boone just before killing them off. The Lost writers are obviously bastards.

It is not a coma!

Yesterday my love came back from her holidays, and we watched a double bill of House, M.D. The first of the episodes, “Son of Coma Guy”, was one of the best, sharpest written episodes in a long time (and that on a series that has no shortage of sharp writing). Like many of the best House episodes, it broke the usual pattern: I like the series, but 95% of the episodes have exactly the same plot, the only difference being names, faces and illnesses. You can imagine a licenced version of the Clue board game: “Mr Smith, in the MRI room, with the lupus.”

 The other thing it shared with my favourite episodes: “Son of Coma Guy” had a strong foil for Greg House in coma guy Gabriel Wozniak (John Laroquette). Two, even, if you count Wilson who’s definitely benefitting from the Tritter storyline. It’s quite heartrending to see Wilson’s friendship with House being brought close to breaking point, but it’s showing us a side of Wilson that we haven’t seen yet: he may be strong enough, and hurt enough, to draw the line at some point.

The episode benefitted from an effective performance by Laroquette (if only I could remember where I’ve seen him before…) who gelled very well with Hugh Laurie. And I loved House’s subtle screwing with Coma Guy’s head, suggesting that the future he’d woken up to was weird and wonderful in so many ways. And, of course, it’s got ip-ods!

Lost, but not forgotten

Since my love went on holiday today, we caught up on the series we’re watching yesterday, starting with Six Feet Under. One of the things I appreciate about the series is that neither the writers nor the actors feel that a story is only good if the characters are likeable. They have the courage to make the protagonists truly flawed – not the sort of flaw that you’re secretly supposed to like. (Did anyone mention Gene Hunt?)

Is that you, Butch and Sundance?

Nate, especially, has become a lot less instantly likeable. In the first season, he was the closest to an audience stand-in. He was, or seemed to be, the most normal member of the Fisher family. By season 4, he’s become self-righteous and self-pitying, but he’s still the character. He wasn’t rewritten or changed, he simply grew. And that’s one of the reasons why the series feels so real to me, in spite of a couple of melodramatic twists and turns: the characters aren’t static. Life has an impact on them, gradually shaping them, moving them in interesting directions. There are few series that manage to pull this off as well. No, scratch that – I don’t know any series that do it this well.

Lost, the second item on yesterday’s TV menu, doesn’t really do subtle character development (although it may be there, sometimes, in a handful of the characters). What it does, though, is this: the characters who die are given great send-offs. I remember finding Boone really boring… and then they went and made him interesting, and then they killed him off! It was pretty much the same with Shannon, arguably the most annoying character in the series, but then they made me think, “Hang on, perhaps she’s not that bad after all!” And then, BLAM! Cue one paranoid, pissed off Latina with a handgun, and bye-bye, Shannon!

Yesterday we watched Eko’s Last Stand. Now, Eko… Him I liked more or less from the very beginning. He was an intriguing character, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has charisma. Eko’s spiritual side was a great foil to the increasingly fanatical Locke in season 2. His backstory made for a nice change from most of the more ‘whitebread’ character bios. But yesterday we watched him being picked up by Smoky, slammed against trees and then tossed to the ground like a broken toy. And what do we get in the way of new characters? Nikki and Paulo, the Slumber Twins. Almost makes you wish that the two of them meet a sticky end very, very soon…

The last in the trio of TV series we watched yesterday was Deadwood. I’ve written about the characters before, apart from which I’m way too tired to make this entry much longer. Let me just say, though, that I love the series’ casting. And I get a certain sly, postmodern kick out of Milch’s casting of Garret Dillahunt, first as Jack McCall in season 1 (he’s the one who shot Wild Bill Hickock), and then as Francis Wolcott, geologist, sexual deviant and the person who buys Wild Bill’s very last letter. I imagine their casting calls come on a Moebius strip.

Jack McCall…

… and Francis Walcott - twin brothers separated at birth?

By my troth, thou art a hooplehead

If anyone bemoans the state of TV in my presence, I tend to point them in the direction of HBO. At least if they’re not against watching series that may be very sexual or violent, or that may “contain language” (as opposed to all the Marcel Marceau-inspired television programming, of course). I’ll tell them to check out Six Feet Under, naturally, and The Sopranos. I myself haven’t checked out The Wire yet, but it’s definitely at the top of my list. From what I’ve seen so far, HBO series have a fairly consistently high level of quality, in terms of acting, writing, directing, cinematography.

I was rather surprised to find just how much I liked Deadwood. As a genre, the western doesn’t interest me that much. It took me two or three episodes to acclimatise to the language – not just to the incessant swearing, but to the elaborate quality of the dialogues. But then I was hooked.

One of the reasons is definitely the language. I know that the word “Shakespearean” is overused in criticism especially of TV and cinema, usually to give the younger, technological media a veneer of respectability that isn’t really needed anymore. But series creator David Milch’s writing does strike me as similar in quite a few respects to Shakespeare’s plays. Milch deftly mixes ‘high’ and ‘low’ language; he uses an impressive range of registers, styles and imagery to convey the characters. The difference is simply that with Shakespeare most people need to read the footnotes to see how filthy the language is at times. (I could imagine that it’s either frustrating as hell for the actors to speak the dialogues or greatly enjoyable. Or both.) The characters. Now, in a list of the best fictional characters on television, you couldn’t leave out an Al Swearengen. As a matter of fact, I’d say that you couldn’t leave him out of a list of the best fictional characters, period. (I imagine he might be joined there by Tony Soprano and his mother Livia. Now, I’d love to eavesdrop on a barroom conversation between Tony and Al.) I wouldn’t even consider it hyperbole to compare Al Swearengen to one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, Falstaff. He’s just as rich, complex and ambivalent – and arguably as attractive – as the fat, vainglorious, cowardly and ultimately tragic knight of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. (Having said that, I would love to see Ian McShane in a Shakespearean role. Richard of Gloucester, for instance.) 

Ellsworth

While everyone loves Al, I must say that some of the more minor characters are my favourites. The first of these is Ellsworth. It’s difficult to write a fundamentally decent character and not make him boring, but they more than succeeded. And how can you not love a character who says the following, keeping a completely straight face?

Joanie Stubbs:   Will you keep a girl company?
Ellsworth:   I will, but I’m expensive.

Or indeed this?

 

Ellsworth:   Well, Ma’am, I’ve got myself a working gold claim.

Joanie Stubbs:   Well, sir, is that a damn fact?

Ellsworth:   A hell of a working gold claim, and if we knew each other better I’d throw “fucking” in there somewhere.

Joanie Stubbs:   If you did I’d try to catch it.

Ellsworth:   A working fucking gold claim, Joanie, and thank you for allowing me my full range of expression.

My second favourite character must be Dan Dority. He’s not the brightest, and he doesn’t exactly have great impulse control. But there’s something funny and sweet to his devotion to Al. His genuine distress when he thinks that Al prefers pretty boy Silas Adams to him, or when Al almost dies of a gleet. Again, like Shakespeare at his best, Milch mixes pathos and comedy perfectly in his best characters.

Dan Dority and Al Swearengen

 

It is to Dan and to Ellsworth, to Al, Sol, Seth, Trixie, Joanie, Charlie, Alma, Jane – and yes, even to E.B. – that I raise my glass of bourbon and say: “To your health, cocksuckers and hoopleheads! See you soon!”

 

P.S.: If you’re looking for a (Swiss-)German blog to read, especially if you’ve got a thing for outlandish international cuisine (and flame-baked Smurfs), check out Magenta’s Lucky Page. Highly recommended!