Archive for the television Category

The One Where I Babel About Manhattan (the television show)

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by cueball

For most of us on a daily basis, we have a choice between telling the truth and telling lie.  Most of us choose to tell the truth because we have been taught that it is the right thing to do and it is easier to remember then the lie.  There is a new show this summer that shows the effects of having that choice taken from you and being forced to lie in almost all situations. 

Manh(A)ttan is one of the best new shows of this summer and one of the shows no one knows anything about.  Unlike the best show of the summer, The Honorable Woman, it doesn’t have a movie star as its draw like Maggie Gyllenhaal. The roster of Manhattan is made up of a bunch of “that guys” and role players acting their collective asses off in each scene. It does not have the cache of being on The Sundance Channel. It is the second show produced for WGN, the Chicago superstation. If this show was on HBO, AMC, or even SYFY, it would be the talk of the whole television/entertainment internet. 

What has really drawn me into the show is how the pressures of being part of the Manhattan Project effects the scientists, soldiers, and their wives.  The first thing I noticed was these characters drink a lot.  As the show has gone along, it became obvious the drinking and the sex are “symptoms” of the pressures of the jobs and the pressures of the continuous lies the characters are forced to tell.  Everything about this last episode highlights how in certain situations the greater good is served by lies and not by the truth.  Not only lies to the public, but lies to everyone you know.

Dr. Frank Winter is the main character and the lead scientist of one of the teams working on the project.  In this episode he assigns one of his junior scientists, Fritz Fedowitz, the task involving figuring out the best metal to use for an atomic bomb.  Fritz makes a mistake and basically swallows half of the world’s supply of plutonium.  Because we now know the effects of ingesting the most radioactive substance on Earth means Fritz is going to waste away and die over the course of the rest of the season.  Frank also knows this and in trying to get Fritz the medical help he is going to need, he finds out the medical services they are provided are a sham to keep all of these people from truly knowing how dangerous the things they are doing are.  At the end of the episode, Frank is given a choice, expose the farce of the medical situation or not. The rub is if the exposes the farce, the German atomic bomb project will move even farther ahead of their American counterparts.  What is the right thing? Tell the truth to help your friends or lie to benefit the greater good of the war effort?

It is not only lying to the public that is effecting Frank, it is the fact that he has to lie to his wife Liza who is a brilliant scientist in her own right.  Liza is a botanist who has noticed the flowers and honey bees she has grown dying mysteriously.  Liza is close to figuring out what the scientists are actually working on, but Frank tells her to stop before she figures out the truth.  John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams play the hell out of this scene.  The pain on Frank’s face for not only having to lie to Liza, but to also have to ask her to stop using her brain and her skills to protect the lie, is wrenching.  Equally impressive is the confusion and simmering anger at what Frank is doing on Liza’s face.

The mystery of this show is not how the Manhattan Project ends.  The mystery is how the process effects the people involved.  How does lying to everyone you know and work with at all times change you?  How does working with plutonium and creating atomic explosions effect you? 


A Rant About Television

Posted in television with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2014 by cueball

Police procedurals are fascinating in their sameness much the same way romantic comedy movies are.  Every episode of every network television procedural is the same.  In the first scene a crime is committed or a dead body is discovered.  In the next scene, our heroes arrive, there is an exposition dump mixed with witty banter between the cops.  The next scene is usually the investigators speaking to the surviving friends/relatives in which they get a clue that leads to the first obvious suspect of the episode.  There is usually a scene or two of “investigating” that leads the cops to bring in this obvious suspect for interrogation.  At this point usually the suspect produces some kind of alibi or piece of evidence that rules them out of the running.  From here on, the show becomes about the investigators chasing their tails and glomming onto whatever shiny lead pops up until the final twist occurs at the beginning of final act and the path to the actual perpetrator becomes clear.  This is only interrupted by the exposition recap that comes after the middle commercial break.  The bad guy is caught and arrested in the penultimate scene with the final scene being another information dump to tell you what has happened to all the parties involved.  

However, with all of these shows there is a better show lurking in there that never sees the light of the network day.  In Criminal Minds the most interesting minds and lives on the show are those of the BAU.  These are characters whose whole job is to sink into the minds of criminals who often visit the most egregious acts upon other humans.  How does that effect you?  How long before reading the reports, seeing the photos, and visiting those crime scenes eats away at your own humanity?

In the premiere episode of the show, Hotchner and Gideon are talking on the FBI’s jet on the way back from catching a serial rape/murder duo.  Hotchner’s wife is pregnant with their son and he talks about how hard it is to pick a name because so many of them remind him of the serial killers he has studied and captured.   That is a more interesting way to spend your time with these characters then having the writers and directors come up with new and interesting ways to violate, murder, and dismember human bodies. 

That seems to be what the show was originally supposed to focus on at least from how Mandy Patinkin loudly and abruptly left the show.  Why did the showrunners and their handlers at the network tack towards the familiar and safe grounds of case of the week and a little character development?  The obvious and easy answer is, to get as many viewers as possible.  However, it is viewer aggregation through rote and well-worn plotting and titillation.  Is that really all people want out of their entertainment? 

I get the idea of turning off the brain and just letting the easy to follow plot and salaciousness wash over you after a long day, but there are so many of these shows on via new episodes on the networks and the reruns all over cable stations that we as a group should want something different.  Even better are the vacation days where you just leave your television on a channel and get episode after episode of show nonstop.  It’s like eating popcorn in how easy it is to just devour one after another before you notice hours have passed and you haven’t moved. 

Watch a large chunk of these kind of shows in particular and you will be astonished with just how badly written they actually are when you pay attention.  I get it that each episode’s central mystery is simply an excuse to watch characters interact, but maybe the writers should spend some time reading Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe mysteries to see how to write a good mystery and how to make your investigators not look like morons.  If I ever commit a murder I want the detectives of network television to be the ones chasing me because they follow whatever shiny object you throw into their path down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. 

However, the best of the new breed of police procedural shows are the ones on cable that take the novelistic approach to storytelling and allow you to get into the lives of all the characters while creating a world for them to operate and grow.  Why don’t they create more shows like these? 

Maybe a better question is, does our throw away entertainment have to be so bad and why do we accept it being this bad?  I get that these television shows exist because they make a lot of people a lot of money including the creatives that do all the writing, directing, and acting.  However, shouldn’t pride in your work make some kind appearance in the creation of these shows?  Probably not as long as we all keep watching. 

So much of what appears on networks is sloppy cookie cutter crap or cynically insulting cash grabs.  This is such the case that the exceptions to those categories seem like someone at the networks thought they were green lighting something completely different.  Watching The Good Wife, Hannibal, or Sleepy Hollow makes me wonder, how did this show end up here?

I guess the only point to this was to yell at the sky to stop raining, but it still felt good. 

Why Am I Writing About Television? I Get To The Point Eventually. I Think.

Posted in television with tags , on January 13, 2014 by cueball

Andy Greenwald is one of my favorite writers on the Grantland website.  He is also one of my favorite television critics.  If you have read a lot of his work or listened to his podcasts, you know he has written and talked about how tired he is of two things in television:  the male anti-hero and an over-reliance of darkness and violence.

I have come to agree with him that television has an anti-hero and darkness/violence problem.  Too many shows rely on these things as signifiers of seriousness and quality.  The nadir of these ideas was the short-lived and much maligned Low Winter Sun.  This show seemed to spring from the mind of a network executive (it was in fact a remake of a much better British show with many of the same actors) after some type of fever dream.  It was a cynical attempt to just throw as many tropes of the great shows with male anti-heroes in a blender and come out with a quality hit.  It was dark and unrelenting in its darkness from its color pallet to its main protagonists.  Luckily, no one watched.

I think all viewers of quality television are a little tired of the unrelenting heaviness of many shows.  I think that is rooted more in an exhaustion of the same character types being foisted upon us in each new show.  We have at least to a small part been able to add female anti-heroes to the roster of television characters, and while that is an interesting and welcome change it too will grow tiresome soon.  There are only so many stories to tell about the same character types be they men or women, and if you’ve already told all of them using men telling them using women will grow less and less interesting very quickly.

I think the problem is not with the darkness or violence or the use of the anti-hero.  I think it is the over-reliance of those subjects as a group by television.  Whose fault is it if all the shows on television, particularly network television, seem to be the same shows?  Is it the creators who keep recycling the same ideas, characters, and actors or is it the executives at networks too paralyzed by the fear of failure to greenlight shows that are different.

It is somewhat obvious that there are many interesting ideas for shows out there and many creative people thinking outside the television box.  So, I do not think there is a dearth of quality ideas.  I just don’t think those ideas are getting to the shot callers and if they are they are not getting approved because of fear.

I think the entertainment business is by and large a conservative business. By that, I mean there is so much money invested with such little guarantee of return that movies, television, and book executives only bankroll things that are almost assured of making some money.  The only way to insure something will make something back is if it is like the last thing that was really successful.  So, you get lots of shows based on the same traits of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.  The problem is, the more shows you create based on the same DNA, the more degraded that DNA becomes until you have a pastiche of traits with no discernable entertainment value like Low Winter Sun.

The problem with trying not to be the executive who greenlit Cop Rock is you just keep pushing the same stuff out there season after season.  The problem with that is if you have crappy ratings that don’t improve and they won’t because you keep pushing the same kind of shows that got you the crappy ratings in the first place you’re going to get fired anyway.

I guess what I’m saying is, television executives just need to say, “Fuck it.  We’ll try this.  What have we got to lose?”  There is no future, there is only the present.  You should do your best and make the most of that.  We as television viewers would be so much better if we did.

We Should Remember To Enjoy Stuff

Posted in life, society, television with tags , , , on September 24, 2013 by cueball

It seems I start any piece I write about the effects of the internet and technology with the caveat that I love the internet and technology and I love all the advancements that have accompanied them for the most part.

However, as much as  I love Twitter, it and its other social media cohorts have fundamentally altered the way we consume entertainment, and not always in a good way.  These new modes of communication have made the enjoyment of, the reaction to that enjoyment, and the announcement of that enjoyment to the world instantaneous.  This makes us judge television shows, movies, music, and books solely by how it makes us feel at the exact moment we first experience it.

We are seemingly losing the ability to judge a work in its totality and to let things percolate.  In addition, and maybe more importantly, we are forgetting how to simply enjoy a thing simply as the thing in the moment.  Deciding something’s cultural importance can be done later (and should be done much later).

I have really noticed this phenomenon with the ending of Breaking Bad.  People seem hell bent on first trying to figure out what is going to happen next, second trying to be the first to say it wasn’t that great, and third trying to be the first to correctly nail its cultural significance.

The part that confuses me the most is trying to figure out what is going to happen next.  Why does it matter what your theories are about how it is going to end?  If today, I posted a blog post or a Tweet that correctly guesses at everything that will happen in the final episode, what would I win?  Also, how does guessing correctly make my enjoyment of the episode better?

The end of Breaking Bad is just the latest incarnation of this.  Every other week another movie, book, or album comes out and the next week is filled with an orgy of people tweeting and blogging about how this is the greatest thing ever in the history of history.  They seem to forget about the thing they said the used the same words on that came out 6 months ago or that there was a movie, book, or album that came out 20 years ago that this new one has cribbed a lot of its DNA from and after the initial orgy of bloviating praise has dissipated will still be seen as better than its newest doppelganger.

That was over 400 words to get to this, people please just enjoy the end of Breaking Bad.  We have been witness to what will probably go down a one of the great runs in the history of the television medium.  Don’t try to outthink Vince Gilligan and guess how he is going to end it.  Don’t get your The Wire fandom panties in a bunch because people are saying this is better than that.  Just sit back and enjoy a great television show that is working at its highest level.

First, you’re not smarter than Vince Gilligan so stop it.  Second, at a certain level of greatness distinctions don’t matter.  Distinctions of quality matter when comparing something like The Sopranos to Work It.  They even matter when comparing two quality shows like The Good Wife and Mad Men.  However, once you hit the rarified air of The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad you have differences with little distinction.  The dividing line in most of those shows is personal preference of style and content.

We as consumers and Internet denizens are so often geared to trying to be the first, the quippiest, and most though provoking, we sometimes forget to sit back enjoy and let the beauty of our entertainment wash over us.

Rambling on about the new television season

Posted in television with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2013 by cueball

I have written about writing about a new television show this year.  There are two reasons.  First, I actually love television.  I am a child of television.  A lot of my favorite entertainment and artistic memories are from the great 1 hour dramas television has shown us over the last 40 years.

The second reason is that, probably because of the first reason, I think of screenwriting as a literary venture and it interests me to study the way television tells stories.  Some of the best story telling lessons I’ve learned came from listening to the Battlestar Galactica podcasts showrunner Ron Moore did that accompanied each episode.  He explained the reasons behind almost all of his story decisions from how he structured the overall arch of the overall story and the decisions of when and where to place act breaks.

To my eyes, there are two ways to write a television show.  (I’m talking about the 1 hour dramas and not half hour sitcoms.)  The first is the more traditional stand-alone episode method and the second is the more serialized method.

The traditional stand-alone method is like a book of discreet yet interconnected short stories with the same main characters.  Each episode has its own arch that has a beginning, middle, and end.  The season as a whole may have some through-line that connects each episode, but you could essentially watch each episode on its own and all of the episodes in almost any order.  Traditionally each episode would end and the reset button would be hit and the next episode would start anew.

As television has matured as a story-telling medium even the traditional episodic shows have added more distinct and important through-lines that affect the character’s lives outside of the episodic storylines.

The more serialized method has gained in importance as the primarily cable dramas have used this method to do things differently than traditional networks.  This style is more of a novelistic approach with each episode standing as a chapter or part of chapter in a larger book.  The episodes do not necessarily have a distinct beginning, middle, and end because it is only a section of the story.  As I said above, the network dramas have started to use some of the ideas of that novelistic approach to add a larger arch to seasons that make the episodes more interconnected and try to tell a larger story.

The reason I want to study one show for a season is to study how the show runners tell a story.  What directions do you take?  Do you go for the easy feel good direction?  Do you take the darker direction?  Is the direction you decided to take a good one?  Are the decisions you’ve made over how to depict a character working or are they cheap and lazy?

The interesting thing is I don’t necessarily want to do a prestige show.  I could write about Mad Men or Homeland or any of the new premium cable shows coming out in the next few months.  I could also write about the second tier shows like Sons of Anarchy or The Bridge and still do the same thing.  The thing is I don’t want to write about any of those shows mostly because I still want to just sit back and enjoy television.  The show I pick will probably be one I would watch anyway, but not one that I would put on the level of those shows.

Right now television is maybe the most vital artistic endeavors in the United States right now.  We are at the end of what is termed the Golden Age of Television which brought us The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.  Television networks are throwing money and opportunities to writers and directors at an astonishing rate particularly on cable networks.  That is also the death knell of this period.

As the people who run television try to figure out how to monetize these prestige shows is that they are beginning to neuter the ideas so that each idea is the same as the last idea.  Networks have started to just import successful ideas from other countries and Americanizing them to varying degrees of badness.  The Killing, Low Winter Sun, and The Bridge were all shows from Europe whose American versions go from horrible, self-serious, to pretty good.

Once art becomes commerce and is monetized the people who invest always try to make money by predicting what will be successful by what was successful.  That always ignores the fact that most works of art that were successful were surprises that no one saw coming.

So, I want to enjoy this time in television as much as I can, but more importantly to learn about telling stories as much from the successes and mistakes from the new shows that are entering our television lives.

Movement, Action, and Trying to Signify Something

Posted in television, writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by cueball

In fiction as in life, movement does not equal action.  Having your characters flop around and do things does not make them grow necessarily.  That should be the point of action in a story, to make and show your characters growing emotionally over the course of the first word to the last word.

One of my favorite television shows is often a victim of movement as non-action.  Since season 1 and certainly the end of season 2, the characters seem to have become static entities.  A lot of things have happened over the course of those seasons.  People have gone to jail, people have died, and new characters have come on the scene.  However, it seems the main characters are all in the same head space they have occupied since the beginning of the show.

I will say in the second episode of this season one of the characters did something I didn’t expect.  That is the thing about this show that keeps me coming back.  Each individual episode is always well written and exciting.  It is just that as a whole each season has the same arch as the season before with most of the characters filling the same roles as they had before with everyone ending up where they started.

I think this is main characteristic of most pulp or genre fiction.  Things happen to the characters, but nothing changes them.  They are always exciting and action packed, but the action has no meaning and little consequence.  Now this isn’t to say that all genre fiction has this problem or that all literary fiction aspires to something greater.  The best genre fiction is also just good literature, and there are certainly any number of books and short stories that aspire to being literature that have flat characters moving about just to move about.

The problem, especially in the show I’m talking about, is that movement especially violent movement is used to give the work a since of grave importance.  These characters live in a violent world and that makes everything that happens and every decision they make important.  Almost every season, there is a violent act that takes place near the beginning of the season as the table-setter and the show tries to use it in an attempt to show how the accumulated violence of these characters lives has affected them emotionally and psychologically.

However, at the end of each season it is as if a reset button is hit and the weight of whatever violence has occurred is erased, especially for the main character.  He seems to brush off this violence and pain after each season and move on with his life.  Another question is how do you show the compromising effects of violence on characters that are already compromised?

Maybe, this cumulative violence on people who see too much violence on a regular basis will just break them all completely in end.  At least, that is what I hope.  Otherwise, I’ve just wasted 7 seasons.

Yeah, I’m trying to work out reasons to keep watching this show regularly.  Again, each episode is well done and most of the acting performances in them are wonderful to watch.  It is just that the show seems to go in circles for large swaths of time getting no one anywhere fooling us with excitement meant to make us think it is important.

It seems the show wants the violent acts to be the centerpiece.  So, the showrunner sometimes delays and then telegraphs what the violent act will be in order to build excitement for that single moment.  Instead, those violent acts should be simple sign posts that you drive past on the highway showing you where the characters are going emotionally.

The titillating act should not be the goal, but the trigger.  By making the violent act the focus, you take away the importance of the effects that act have on the characters emotionally.  That is how movement does not become elevated to action.  The point of the shockingly violent act is the shockingly violent act itself and that doesn’t leave room for the emotional and psychological effects to be explored.

I’m not going to stop watching this show.  I’m too deep.  Like a few of the characters.  I in so deep I can’t turn back now.  I just hope the characters actually do something other than simply strut and fret across my television screen.

Stereotypes that should die: The Magical Negro and The Purely Racist Southerner

Posted in blogging, Fiction, life, television, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by cueball

The thing I’ve really concentrated on trying to do with my writing recently is to get rid of the cleverness.  I don’t mean intelligence but cleverness.  That need to show how smart you are in your writing.  The need to make yourself laugh or to make the three people in the world who know you best laugh.  The more I’ve written, the more I’ve read, and the more I’ve studied writing as a skill, the more I’ve noticed this trait in the writing that I don’t like.

This cleverness comes off as an ironic sneer at characters and people the writer thinks are beneath them or ideas the writer thinks are stupid.  Both of these are examples of the great sin of making the writer part an integral part of the story.

This need for the writer to make himself a part of whatever is going on probably started with Hunter S. Thompson.  Thompson’s journalism and his essays were all about his experiences in situations from The Kentucky Derby, to hanging out with Hell’s Angels, to covering Presidential campaigns.  However, Thompson didn’t condescend to his subjects he was writing about because he in many ways felt he was one of them.

Thompson would have loved blogging (he did do work for Page 2 before his death) and Twitter because it would have been an extension of what he already did.  Many writers in the internet age have taken up what he did to varying degrees of success.  Many didn’t or don’t have his talent so in their attempts to be funny they go the easy route and make fun of the people they see instead of mining the pathos out of the situation that the writer and his subjects are in together.

Let me try again, instead of finding the comedy through the absurdity of the situation they make fun of the people in the situation.  This lack of respect for characters isn’t as egregious a sin in fiction as it is in nonfiction, but it is still the worst type of writing.

Maybe because I am African-American and a Southerner I am more sensitive to these slights.  Too often in fiction, television, or movies those from these groups (and others) are depicted in the worst light.  There was a time (some would say we are still in it) when a black person or Southerner was in a movie they were usually a criminal or uneducated/ignorant innocent.

My least favorite of these stereotypes is the “Magical Negro.”  I first remember hearing the phrase around the time The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance came out in theaters.  I remember Christopher John Farley’s Time Magazine article “That Old Black Magic.”  Basically, the magical Negro is a stock character of American fiction that appears in narratives to selflessly help white folk see the error of their ways.

While the magical Negro is an infantilizing subornation of blacks in order to help assuage white guilt, almost any white Southerner in a movie is a breathing representation of how the South is thought of in the rest of the country.  White Southern males are usually ignorant and racist (often drunk).  White Southern women come off a little better because they have been the central character in more Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts movies then men have, but those characters are still of a type that is not very flattering because they are not very real.

I understand how a writer can write about people are characters that he doesn’t like or respect by making them into stereotypes.  It is easier to write a stereotype then it is to create a character out of whole cloth especially if you have never had any interest in meeting a character not like you or your friends and family.  How can you write a Southern character if your only experience in the South has been going through Hartsfield-Jackson or Charlotte-Douglas airports?  How can you write about a black character if the last time you were around any black people, was when you were in high school?

I just think, however, if you are a writer, an artist, a musician, or any type of creator you have a responsibility to your craft to try and do better.  To try and show the closest thing to truth you can muster with each sentence and that begins with approximating true three dimensional characters and not some cut and paste fabrication you gleaned off of a television show you saw one time.