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Monday, April 29, 2013

the revolution was televised, book review and nostalgia trip

Sometime this year I heard that Alan Sepinwall, a great television critic had written a book. The book is called the Revolution was Televised and its concept was to track the changes in American tv over the last decade or so using 12 classic or at least game-changing television shows, he would interview the creators, the businessmen and financiers who made it possible and write a series long review of each looking at the sore points, the great points, the point that anyone who had watched them would remember. The 12 shows were Oz, the sopranos, the wire, deadwood, the shield, lost, 24, battlestar galactica, Friday night lights, mad men and breaking bad.

This list includes some of my favourite shows, shows that had given me hours and hours of viewing pleasure. i haven’t religiously watched all the shows, I remember Buffy from this really grainy KTN we used to have where static would break in every few seconds and words were more of an approximation than an actual sound. Oz was a show I enjoyed watching though I had to be on the lookout to avoid the gay scenes and maybe I was too young for some of the themes it explored of dehumanisation and loss of liberty, of racism and the various ways people use sex to assert power. I had never watched the Shield, in fact all I knew about it was an article in the time magazine about the very last episode of the show. In it Jamie Poniczwez goes on and on about how beautiful an ending it was, perfectly fitting to end 7 seasons of a show about the most corrupt policeman I had ever seen. So I began watching the shield and watched it and watched it. And that ending really was something. As close to a perfect ending of a long protracted series as I have ever seen and maybe ever will.

Then I read the book. There are ways American television has changed over the last decade and anyone who watches it can tell. There was a time you could drop in at any point in a series and pick it up and watch it just like you still can for an episode of CSI or almost any sitcom. The baggage of memory is not necessary to get the full enjoyment out of them. However there are other shows that need you to know the characters and care about them, that need you to hold plot points that seem very obscure when they first pop up but on closer inspection point to a larger plan. Can you imagine for instance anyone beginning game of thrones somewhere in the middle of the second season. It would be impossible to get a grasp of the people and their relationships, what beefs they have with each other and what history led to those beefs. Another way its changed is the nod to the morally grey areas of life. There was a time where the good guy was obvious, you knew who you should like, they were the great and the good but now the main character of the sopranos is a gangster who kills people, runs prostitutes and commits crimes for a living. Walter White of breaking bad becomes more and more unlikeable as the show goes on, everyone makes excuses for him and his actions but there is a breaking point for many and I came to mine sometime in the middle of the 5th season and I can’t like him anymore, he’s the villain of the piece. Don Draper can only find fleeting moments of pleasure in alcohol and adultery, Al Swearengen from deadwood ordered a hit on a child and her entire family and these are the people we should support.

I realised while reading the book that the best chapters or at least the ones that resonated most were the ones talking about shows that I had already watched. In the chapter about the sopranos (by David Chase) he talks about the “Pine Barrens” episode. This is an episode where Paulie and Chris, two of tony’s underlings try to kill a Russian. They think he’s dead and have to dump the body at a forest as snow is coming down all around them. The Russian jumps back to life and runs away. A few seasons later we are treated to a remembrance, the Mafiosi are playing a game of remember when? And they start talking about the crazy Russian they tried to kill laughing all the way, and because the viewer is in on the joke and the event the memories are that much more beautiful. The book goes all the way to the end, an ending that has been parsed and thought over by so many people there is actually a 20,000 word essay out there somewhere detailing why the ending means this and not that.

Next he talks about the wire by David Simon and I can’t begin to say the ways in which I love this show. Everyone describes it as a novel, as a really long novel. It starts ostensibly as a wire tap investigation into drug dealers, as it goes on it shifts focus every season expanding its scope until the activities of the police are just an excuse to tell the story of the city of Baltimore. The story of the decay of a city, of the futility of the institutions that people insist on believing in and a story about what the war of drugs means, “nobody wins, one side just loses more slowly.” In addition to all the bleakness there is plenty of humour. One of the drug dealers, Stringer Bell, has been taking economics classes and begins to introduce business practices to drug meetings, including proper meeting rules like yielding the floor and using a gavel. One of his lieutenants, a little too enthusiastic starts taking minutes, “you’re taking down minutes to a criminal conspiracy?” he asks in obvious shock.

Deadwood by David Milch was a show about a town in the wild west. It was about gold prospecting and bars and prostitutes but it was also about the formation of laws in a place without them and the signing of a social contract by the people who wish to be governed by them. It was also about all the beautiful words used to express these ideas, in one of the first episodes one of the characters gives this monologue, “I tell you what: I may have fucked up my life flatter’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and holdin’ a workin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself, or any of these limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.” It was the words that did it for me, everyone spoke as if reading from a dirty, prose poem. The town itself was dirty and muddy, fights and brawls ended with people smeared in mud so brown it looked like shit. And of course there was Al Swearengen the man who stole eloquence away from all of us. When comforting a co-conspirator who has beaten and beaten badly he says, “Pain or damage  don’t end the world or fucking beatings. The world ends when you are dead. Until then you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” And it all came from the mind of a man who was expelled from university and said,” There were guns. There were police. There were street lights. I got arrested. I had become involved in quite a protracted pharmaceutical research project involving hallucinogens. It all seemed to come together so I was asked to withdraw.”

The shield by Shawn Ryan is a show about a corrupt police unit and the department they work out of. The main character is vic mackey who is a man’s man. This is a cop show where the cop will catch the drug dealer who ran away, he will break through doors, pull him down from fences, beat him up and coerce a confession out of him. it’s also a show that has you wondering why you support vic. In the end he is just as bad if not worse than most of the criminals he’s after. He justifies all the crimes he commits as being for the greater good, as cutting corners for the sake of getting to the destination faster. It also moves fast, it was a show that told 2 or 3 stories a week as opposed to most cop shows one. The pace was relentless and as Alan Sepinwall said, “you didn’t so much watch the shield as you got beat up by it for an hour before it went to grab a couple of beers and hustle a pimp.” However over those seven seasons you got to know those characters and care about them. This is why the ending was so amazing. There were moments of character, reminders of things that happened in the first episode a laying out of all you had seen in such stark terms that you couldn’t believe all the justifications you and vic had made

Lost by a lot of people but mainly damon linfeloff and carlton cuse. The chapter on this begins with a description of how the show came to be made. The way it was a perfect storm of disasters that led to it, a confusing hodgepodge of ideas and people and chance encounters and what-the-fuck? Why-the-fuck-nots that anyone who watched it through will remember as being familiar from the answers we got to all the mysteries on the island. The polar bear, the statue with four toes. These clearly pointed somewhere but just forgot where that somewhere was. This show had an ending that divided people clear down the middle. There were the people who wanted answers to the mysteries and an explanation of the mythology that they had been drawn to for nearly 6 years. They wanted the ending to give them that and that ending was never written. There were the people who loved the characters so much that a neat resolution for them, a chance to see them be happy was all they needed in order for them to be happy. That ending was written. For both groups though it was a wild ride, surprises, mysteries, shared parentage, emotional moments, tear-jerking reunions all of these and more were dumped in there during those 6 years and for some you had to love it.

24 by joel surnow. What to say about this show. Heart-pounding excitement is the nearest I could get, remember that time in season 5 when the screen split into six as they revealed the big bad? Jack bauer was a hero’s hero,  the man who never slept or peed. Not for him the tongue twisting techniques of most police dramas. He would ask “where is the bomb?” ask again, “WHERE IS THE BOMB ” and then shoot you in the leg. To think that the reason the show was made was because one of the creators was tired of doing shows that had only 22 episodes a season and wanted to try something different and so made one with 24 is a good thing to think on. One thing mentioned in the book that was clear to anyone who watched the show was that it ate up plot. There would be a bad guy and then a decoy bad-guy and then another guy who was pulling the strings and then the actual person and of course the mole at CTU. The creator talked about giving a character amnesia and said that he understood why daytime soaps kept returning to this plot point, its just what you have to do when something is this long or plot driven. 24 was also about all the horrible things that the American government allowed to happen to Jack Bauer and all the horrible things that he did on their behalf. All that blood and torture that haunted his dreams until in one of the final episodes he gives this speech to one of his protégés when she asks his advice on torture “You took an oath,” he tells her. “You made a promise to uphold the law. You cross that line, it always starts off with a small step. Before you know it, you’re running as fast as you can in the wrong direction, just to justify why you started in the first place. These laws were written by much smarter men than me, and in the end, I know that these laws have to be more important than the 15 people on the bus. I know that’s right. In my mind, I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with that. I guess the only advice I can give you is, ‘Try to make choices you can live with.’”

Battle star galactica by Ronald moore was a sience fiction series that started off with a bleak premise. The humans have created a race of artificially intelligent robots. They then go to war with them, there is an armistice and peace for a few years then the robots attack committing a genocide that wipes out all of humanity except for the ones aboard the battlestar galactica and companion civilian ships. From here it sets out to tell stories about what it means to be human and how far we would go to preserve our race. There is an episode about abortion and whether it would be right to allow it to stand as legal in a time when there are fewer than 50,000 humans. Each episode begins with a count telling you how many humans still live and as the series go on you see that number reduce steadily. The race of robots, called cylons, are also explored.T they have a religion, they have different personalities, they have conflicts. They have all the things that make us human and the question becomes whether or not they are human. There is a sequence of  episodes concerning itself with the moral and ethical issues behind suicide bombers and an occupying force that almost any country that has been colonised or done colonising can relate to in its cultural memory. The humans are on a search for a lost colony called earth and the last season deals with despair of the kind that can only happen when your last hope is gone. Suicide and love and complicated father-son relationships along with an education minister who is promoted to presidency because of the line of succession and takes the mantle over so well that when she threatens war and destruction even the audience shakes in its boots all thread through a story that’s ultimately about survival and hope and all the things we hold on to until there is nothing else.

Friday Night Lights by Peter Berg is a tv show based off of a movie that’s based off of a non-fiction book that’s based on a year in the life of an American football team deep in the heart of texas. The show itself is a fictionalised take on the book and movie. At the heart of the show are a coach and his wife and their marriage that’s at times difficult but ultimately very happy. The show also takes a look at the high school children who have such high expectations placed on them by the town they live in. they have to win the game and go to playoffs and go to state and win that state championship ring and carry the weight of the hopes of a whole town with them. In such times they turn to alcohol and sex and all the other ways of coping that teenagers have. The first episode ends with the paralysis of a star quarterback due to  a football injury and the rest of the season charts the struggle to both put him back together and get the team in working shape. As the show progresses the children get older and actually leave high school. It tracks what it means to have been practically a god and then have to fit into the skin of a college student. It turns its focus to the black side of town and begins to deal with problems of drug addiction and race and the kind of crippling poverty that America seems to reserve for its minorities. It does all this while putting on a game of football and a smile in everyone’s faces.

Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan is the show that may be easiest to describe. It’s about a high school teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. He then starts cooking meth in order to put aside some money for his family. Except that such a description does not begin to deal with the layers and layers under the show. The creator has said it’s a story of mr. chips turning into scarface. I have no idea who mr chips is but I do know scarface as a drug lord who drove away or to death all the people who mattered most to him until in the final scenes his sister tries to kill him and an army of assassins succeeds where she fails. In breaking bad walter white starts out as a bumbling adult who you feel sorry for because of all the humiliations he has to endure. His obvious intellect isn’t enough to gain him respect in a world where money, fear and power rule. Then he gets his diagnosis and falls into the criminal underworld. A place for which he is remarkably well suited. This isn’t a campy comedy like weeds where the stakes are only raised after seasons and seasons. In breaking bad the drug trade is a dangerous world where you either kill or are killed and this is a lesson walt soon learns. He gets high off of the success and is soon afflicted with the kind of pride that leads a man to fly too close to the sun. in addition he does some reprehensible things to the people close to him. Things so horrible that I just don’t like him anymore and don’t understand the people who do, are they watching the same show as me? This show ends its run this year and I can’t wait to see the end of this character arc, the moral truth of the universe he inhabits and quite frankly some of the most beautiful scenes and cover songs ever put together for a tv show.

Mad Men is a show about an ad agency set in the 60s. at first glance it looks like an excuse for sexism and cigarettes and alcohol at the office. However when you watch it you find its about something much more important. The main character don draper seems to have all the things that a man would want out of life. Respect, power, a beautiful wife, a sexy mistress, a job that he’s great at. But he’s deeply unhappy. So deeply that none of his addictions works for very long. He sells these great ad ideas to companies. Beautiful ideas that sketch out the outlines of a life we all long for and allow the viewer to fill in the fantasy with his own details but he can’t sell the same to himself. When one of his mistress asks him what he wants for the new year he says, as he’s wrapped around her glorious naked form, “to stop doing this.”. In those words at that time you can tell he means it. He doesn’t want to be there in her arms or in any of the places his sadness drives him. its not all bleak though, roger sterling a happier man because he doesn’t seem to think at all about life brings to the show some of the best one liners ever made including:

(on the death of a secretary in the office), “she died as she lived, surrounded by people she answered phoned for.”
(an apology for hitting on a colleague’s wife), “at some point we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.”
“Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face,” “Jets are made for dropping bombs on Moscow, not French cuisine,” “Well, my wife likes fur, but you don’t see me growing a tail,”

“in greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound,” Don Draper tells the man from Kodak. “it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” This is what I feel is great about these shows. The time spent with them allows you to feel actual nostalgia for these fictional characters as they go about their daily lives and as you remember different facets of each. I felt nostalgic when reading the book and again when writing this pseudo-review that turned into a mini-summary of all the shows I watched and loved. So, was the revolution televised, I feel like it was when I watch shows like game of thrones with its nearly hundred talking characters or the americans with one of the most complicated and interesting marriages I have ever seen. But then I’ve always loved tv.