Glee does Madonna, and a programming note

2010 April 22
by kvanaren

My issues with the plots and characterizations in Glee have meant that I often spend episodes muttering “c’mon, c’mon, less talking, more singing.” I have to say, this week’s “The Power of Madonna” episode probably went a little too far in the other direction.

glee 115 1

Don’t get me wrong – each number was fun and well-produced, but if you just move straight from one hit to the next without so much as an operatic recitative to cleanse the palate, you lose the impact of the songs. I was completely mesmerized by the Cheerios’ elaborate stilt choreography, but I can’t say it did much aside from sheer spectacle (something episode already had in spades). And it would be a shame for anything to take away from the “Like A Virgin” number, which was probably one of the best things Glee has done to date. I also enjoyed the expansiveness of “Like A Prayer,” which called back to the pilot episode’s “(Don’t Stop) Believin’” with its epic tone and simple red shirt/jeans/sketchers costume scheme (with an added gospel choir).

***

A little programming note –

Beginning tomorrow, this blog will be taking the briefest of hiatuses while I attempt to cram my head full of publication dates, character names, and the plot of Our Mutual Friend. I may post on the new episode of Chuck, I may post another giant screed on Dickens, I may wrangle some guest posts out of people, I may not post at all. But if nothing else, I’ll be back for the next episode of Lost, which airs May 4th.

Lost – The Last Recruit

2010 April 21
by kvanaren

Okay, Lost. That was pretty fun. “The Last Recruit” was clearly another episode where the show is gathering and repositioning all of its characters for some major show down, but thankfully, the episode was able to do that while also addressing a number of things that had previously made these sorts of episodes unsatisfying. For one, it’s easy to forgive the now too-familiar still-walking-through-the-jungle scenes when they’re bookended by a reasonably important island revelation (Smokey was running around in a Christian Sheppard suit for several years) and the unbelievably overdue Sun/Jin reunion. From a big picture perspective, neither of these highlights were all that surprising. As soon as Smokey took on Locke’s form, there was pointed speculation that he had done the same with Christian, and there was never any question that in all that running around the jungle, Sun and Jin would eventually end up on the same beach. But both scenes were well-constructed and hit satisfying emotional beats, and so even had the internal doings of the episode been unproductive, I think “The Last Recruit” would have been enjoyable.

Awwwwww

Awwwwww

Happily, “The Last Recruit” also moved away from a few other irksome features of this season, and so it was entertaining all the way through. The Sun/Jin reunion brought about the conclusion of the stupidest plot gimmick ever, Sun’s silly loss of the English language, which was appropriately capped by the cheesiest line imaginable (“Looks like someone got their voice back”). Desmond has been a real blessing for the sideways world, which has finally taken on some sense of urgency as knowledge from the island timeline starts seeping in and interaction between the characters has become more than just funny coincidence. It’s still a shame that there were so many episodes with seemingly pointless sideways plotlines, but as everyone begins to collide with each other, it’s easier to forgive the boring stuff that came first. My favorite moment of slippage from one timeline to the other was Sun’s look of terror when she saw John Locke in the hospital – it’s been cool to see the barrier between the timelines start to collapse even without Desmond’s interference. It’s as though once Charlie forced Desmond to see it, and Faraday gave Desmond some vague explanation for it, the breakdown between the timelines started to spread everywhere, almost uncontrollably.

The island's not done with us yet

The island's not done with us yet

It was also nice to see Jack finally owning his new island persona, something he’s danced around without fully embracing since returning on the Ajira flight. It makes sense that Sawyer is now just desperate to leave, and that Kate’s mission is fulfilled by reclaiming Claire (who, I worry, still has a few screws loose), but it was always Jack who felt as though his purpose on the island were bigger and less easily explained. He was the one running around episode after episode yelling, “We have to go back!” without really understanding why, so it’s a relief to see him admit to everyone else that his purpose is different than theirs. What that purpose is, we have yet to really understand – will it have something to do with the fact that his last name is Sheppard? Is he the eponymous “Last Recruit,” an episode title which was more opaque than usual? Who is his ex-wife, a character the show has been careful to avoid showing us thus far? (The best guess right now is Juliet, who has been markedly absent in sideways world.) In any case, it’s a good thing that Jack’s admitted to having a larger purpose, or as Carleton Cuse and Damon Lindelof said in this really nice Wired piece:

Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”

I think it’s clear that however we may feel about his character until now, we’re supposed to be siding with Jack on this one. And for those who are worried that the ending will be some awful gimmick, I’ll conclude with another quote from that same interview (because I am Quotey McQuoterson lately):

This is our best version of the story of Lost, and it’s the definitive one. The worst thing we could ever do is not end it, or go with some bullshitty ending like a snowglobe or a cut to black. That was genius on The Sopranos, but The Sopranos isn’t a mystery show. For us, we owe our best version of a resolution here.

Thank goodness for that.

Really long-winded Dickens thoughts

2010 April 20
Charles Dickens, 1859

Charles Dickens, 1859

So Friday’s blog post was not a List of Giant Things entry in the sense that I’ve usually been doing them, but it was a collection of quotes on an issue that’s closely related to that list. The quotes deserve a little additional commentary, which I was going to do yesterday, but Treme interfered. For now, then, back to Charles Dickens, Father of TV.

As I indicated in a comment on that post, one of the most important things to think about that little collection is how many of those quotes misread Dickens, or use him in an extremely limited way. I have a list here that covers some of the primary contexts in which Dickens appears when related to television, but there’s a lot about his work that does not have much impact on the commentary. (For instance: his frustratingly narrow depiction of most of his female characters, his astonishing prolificacy, his presence as a public performer, his role as an editor, his impact on social reform, etc. etc.)

This ended up being sort of absurdly long, so it’s going after a break. Join me for some TV-pertinent iterations of Charles Dickens:

read more…

Treme – Meet De Boys on the Battlefront

2010 April 19
by kvanaren

Part of the trouble with introducing the wider world to New Orleans in general and Treme in particular is that is that the show insists on its audience viewing the city from a specific viewpoint, and it’s almost certainly not the perspective that would be most comfortable for everyone involved. Last week’s solemn, joyous funeral procession left the show on a positive note, but this second episode offered an important corrective to that insider’s view of the city.

Shows often provide a figure inside the fiction to represent the viewer’s perspective, especially at the beginnings of complex shows like Treme that can prove daunting to navigate. Last week’s episode gave us just an inkling of that structure with Albert’s son Delmond, but “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront” threw in three wholesome tourists from Wisconsin to help cover what for Treme is clearly some difficult terrain. In their first scene, the three cheerful tourists explain that they’re visiting with their church group to help rebuild houses in the Ninth Ward and get rebuffed by a street musician named Sonny, who clearly resents what he perceives to be ignorant condescension. The tourists are then caught up in an odd, unexpected discussion about “When the Saints Come Marching In” after requesting that the next song be “authentic,” they end up at an out-of-the-way dive bar called Bullets at Davis’ recommendation, and are last seen wandering the streets in search of good hangover food.

Sonny the street musician and some tourists from Wisconsin

Sonny the street musician and some tourists from Wisconsin

Their journey through the city looks pretty straightforward – even a little cliché – on the surface. They show up with no prior knowledge of New Orleans, ready to pity the poor people whose homes were destroyed, and then end after being indoctrinated into the city’s party scene, complete with a guy with a ruby embedded on his gold tooth acting as their guide. They do what we do as an audience, beginning with our preconceived and probably pitying notions of the loss and devastation in New Orleans, and journeying through experiences of the real city until we too emerge intoxicated and overcome. But a lot of their little parable signals that things are much more complicated than a simple voyage from innocence to experience.

When Davis offers them a place off the beaten track, we know this will spell doom for someone involved, but the implication is that these teenagers will be unable to handle themselves in an unsafe neighborhood and get into some serious trouble. Instead, the tourists emerge from their trip to the real New Orleans thrilled by their new familiarity, and it’s Davis, the consummate New Orleans insider, who gets screwed by this little adventure. By sending these unwitting church group members somewhere other than touristy Bourbon Street, Davis violates the barrier between Bourbon Street and the rest of the city (which Antoine also struggles to navigate), and gets fired from his hotel job. Still, the loss isn’t that great – it was obvious from the beginning that Davis’ position at the hotel would never work in the long term, and he’s mostly annoyed that he has to find a different place to eat breakfast (after offering his preferred destination to the hungover teens).

Looking for somewhere off the beaten path

Looking for somewhere off the beaten path

That complicated little discussion about “When the Saints Come Marching In” proves more problematic. The tourists request an “authentic” song, and, disgusted at their ignorance, Sonny offers up “Saints.” They agree, but he quickly amends that “Saints” costs $20 extra, and they begin to haggle about whether they have to pay for a song they didn’t actually request. The debate is resolved as the Sonny’s partner promises they won’t have to pay if they don’t like it, and they launch into a hip-hop, mainstreamed, beat-boxed version of the song. There are so many tricky nuances going on here that it’s not at all easy to pick out the irony from the sincerity. Yes, the tourists are ignorant and overly condescending, which Sonny resents, but they’re also volunteers who are ultimately well intentioned. In his desire to rip off these well-meaning teenagers, Sonny deliberately twists their request for authenticity into something heavily ironic, laughing at their ignorance and at ours as well. Just to be sure we understand, Treme then shifts to a scene with Davis at the radio station, and a lovely, full brass version of “When the Saints Come Marching In” plays in the background, completely unmarked. “Did you catch that?” asks Treme. “This is the real version, and you need to be able to tell the difference.”

Post-New Orleans revelry

Post-New Orleans revelry

But however important our knowledge and powers of discernment may be for the show, its gaze does not excuse Sonny’s response. As becomes clear later in the episode, these kids are capable of learning the real city, and to brush off their requests for honesty devalues a real desire for truth and undercuts their sincere attempts to help.

Treme’s going to refuse to let us be the tourists who don’t know anything other than Bourbon Street, but it’s also going to turn a careful eye back onto the city it lovingly depicts. Albert Lambreaux’s startling violence, the police department’s incompetence, and Creighton Bernette’s description of the city as a zero-sum game are all a part of this careful balancing act. Treme will not let us off the hook as viewers, but it won’t be letting New Orleans off the hook either.

Charles Dickens, Father of TV

2010 April 16
by kvanaren

“One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one-chapter segments from the newspaper, so that’s why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We’re doing obviously the same thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people’s lives come together, and it’s a very fun way to tell stories”

- Tim Kring, creator of Heroes

Carlton Cuse: [Dickens]’s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn’t he?

Damon Lindelof: He is indeed. He’s a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.

Cuse: That’s right…he didn’t even have a word processor.

***

Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books…

Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y’know… his stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness… in a very strange an inexplicable way.

-       Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, producers of Lost

I found it kind of ironic that in season 5 there are a few really great scenes where you’re mocking the editors of newspapers who are asking for a Dickensian vibe, and then a lot of critics and writers compared The Wire to Dickens.
It was fun goofing on the Dickens comparison because I understood what they meant by Dickensian when they said it. You get this sort of scope of society through the classes, the way Dickens would play with that in his novels. But that’s true of Tolstoy’s Moscow. That’s true of Balzac’s Paris. It’s been done a lot in a lot of different places by a lot of writers. And I’m not the one doing the comparing. I’m just saying if you use those tropes you can go to a lot of places other than Dickens. The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out.

Now that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great writer and they’re not great stories. They are. But The Wire was actually making a different argument than Dickens, and the comparison, while flattering, sort of fell badly on us.

- Vice interview with David Simon, creator of The Wire

It’s a leap of faith doing any serialised storytelling. We had an idea early on, but certain things we thought would work well didn’t. We couldn’t have told you which characters would be in which seasons. We couldn’t tell you who would even survive…You feel that electricity. It’s almost like live TV. We don’t quite know what might happen. I’m sure when Charles Dickens was writing, he had a sense of where he was going – but he would make adjustments as he went along. You jump into it, knowing there’s something great out there to find.”

- J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias, Lost, Fringe

“[Shows like Damages are] like Dickens for the 21st century.”

- Glenn Close, actress on Damages

“[The Sopranos] has a novelistic sweep… Each character is defined multidimensionally. Instead of going back to drama’s theater roots, as TV did in the 1950s, it employs many of the techniques of, say, Charles Dickens and revitalizes them. This has been an interior journey from the beginning. Viewers took that trip with a bona fide sociopath, defying television’s time-honored prohibition against unlikable protagonists. In that regard, (creator/executive producer David Chase) created perhaps the darkest series of all time.”

Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media

Several critics have commented on The Wire‘s “literary” quality. In particular, The Wire has echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens (who gets a mention this season, as an obscene anatomical reference). The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore’s social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie. As with Dickens, the excitement builds as the densely woven plot unfolds in addicting installments. The deeper connection to Dickens’ London is the program’s animating fury at the way a society robs children of their childhood. In our civilized age, we do not send 12-year-olds to work in blacking factories as the Victorians did. Today’s David Copperfield is instead warehoused at a dysfunctional school until he’s ready to sling drugs on the corner, where his odds of survival are even slimmer.

- Slate’s Jacob Weisberg

Driver: [as the coach races down the road after the hearse] Everything in order, Mr. Dickens?
Charles Dickens: No it is not!
The Doctor: What did he say?
Charles Dickens: Let me say this first. I’m not without a sense of humor…
The Doctor: Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes.
The Doctor: The Charles Dickens?
Driver: Shall I remove the gentleman, Sir?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens. You’re brilliant you are! Completely one hundred per cent brilliant. I’ve read them all. “Great Expectations”, “Oliver Twist”, and whats the other one? The one with the ghost?
Charles Dickens: “A Christmas Carol”?
The Doctor: No, no, no. The one with the trains. “The Signalman”. That’s it. Terrifying, The best short story ever written! You’re a genius!
Driver: You want me to get rid of him, Sir?
Charles Dickens: No, I think he can stay.

- Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead”

Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn’t you bring that inside?

Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I’ve read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written – every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I’m saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die.

- Lost, “Live Together, Die Alone”

If you live in a cave, or just got out of prison

2010 April 15
by kvanaren

I have been planning to write a blog post today, I really really have. But there was some other writing to do for this one thing, and this meeting and another thing, and then I almost hurt myself trying to bring too many books back from the library, and I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. But oh, I am getting around to it now, because Some One just couldn’t be patient and had to send me a nagging text message. “Where is your blog post?” This Person wondered. “I am in need of more procrastination materials than you are currently providing.” “Why don’t you write the blog post, then,” I retorted. But it seems that This Person has enough time to require blog material to read, but not enough time to actually produce said material.

This is for you, and you know who you are.

Glee came back this week, which is what I was intending to write about anyway, because wow, that show is the subject of some intense hype. Thankfully, the show is well aware of its impressively hyped status, and my favorite part of the whole episode was the very first line, which is usually just an intro to the “previously on” material. “So here’s what’s happened on Glee,” the voiceover cheerfully proclaimed, “if you live in a cave, or just got out of prison!” It’s a classic “it’s funny because it’s true” line, and the show is going to have to fight to maintain some kind of balance between the ridiculously high expectations, the already-present urge for self-reference, and the show’s underlying, sincere premise. I imagine the instinct is going to be to reach for ever and ever higher feats of astonishing musical spectacle, and to be fair, Glee can pull it off if any show can. Witness this clip from next week’s Madonna episode:

(So sorry, those who live outside the US!)

At some point, though, the Glee kids are just going to be singing a mash-up of “Mr. Sandman” and “All the Single Ladies” while dancing frantically in front of an enormous Mr. Slurpee cup with Sue Sylvester setting off Roman candles in the background, and there will be nowhere else to go. So Glee really does have to do some backtracking to keep it within the realm of the possible, and the first steps of that movement are why this week’s episode felt a little unsatisfying.

Rachel, immediately post- revenge musical number, Mr. Shuester mid break-up

Rachel, immediately post- revenge musical number, Mr. Shuester mid break-up

It was inevitable the Finn and Rachel couldn’t be together for very long, and as disappointing as it was, Emma Pillsbury showed some really admirable maturity in putting the brakes on her relationship with Mr. Shue. From a story standpoint, though, these break-ups things had to happen because Glee’s never ventured too far into long-arc storylines outside of love interests and competition. The whole last segment of this season would have been Let’s Practice for Regionals, Quinn and Puck are Going to be Excellent Parents, This Is How Sue C’s It, and Great Moments in Stunt Casting. Fascinating, sure, but not very well rounded. The necessity of reviving those love interest plotlines is pretty easy to understand and doesn’t even feel that strained, given that Glee has been quite straightforward about its soap opera elements. Even so, the fact that the show did it so abruptly highlighted how hamstrung it would be if it weren’t driven by Mr. Shue’s and Rachel’s love lives. The supporting cast members have become familiar, interesting characters over the past several episodes, but clearly not to the degree that would allow the show to abandon its Boy meets Girl roots.

In any event, I’m glad it’s back. C’mon, did you see that clip from next week?!

Lost – Everybody Loves Hugo

2010 April 14
by kvanaren

Given the title of last night’s episode, it seems worth noting that going into it, I was really sure that I loved Hugo. Or even liked him that much. On past seasons of Lost, he’s played an important role as the guy who actually admits how crazy everything is, who focuses on the importance of feeding everyone, who notices, unlike anyone else on that crazy island, that those enormous swathes of green hillsides would make an awesome golf course. Hello, audience – meet Hurley, your inner-fictional audience stand-in. This island is crazy! And sometimes funny! And why do we all need to keep running through the jungle?! There have been lots of other things going on with his character, of course – his bit with the numbers was one of the earliest cues in the first season that the island isn’t just a magical scary isolated place, but actually has some kind of magical scary influence throughout these peoples’ lives. Even then, though, the numbers were sort of satisfying, in their totally crazymaking way. The numbers were part of a justification for the entire premise of the show, which wasn’t just showing you random flashbacks about these characters’ lives. The flashbacks developed the audiences’ understanding of who these people are, but they also had some important connections to whatever the heck was going on back on the island. I’ll always remember that moment when Hurley sees the numbers on the hatch door and completely loses his mind. It was one of those scenes that first began to gesture toward the bigger picture mystery that Lost would be unraveling.

Original Recipe Hurley, Island Flavorz Hurley

Original Recipe Hurley, Island Flavorz Hurley

Recently, Hurley’s been a lot less appealing. He’s still the funny side-character with a hefty dose of weird, but as he’s grown closer to Jacob and assumed the “dead people yell at me” mantle, he’s lost some of the relatable charm that helped ground the crazier bits of the show. It’s frustrating to see the court jester slowly transform into an unreadable mystic, even if the mystic still cracks the occasional Star Wars joke.

Which is why “Everybody Loves Hugo” was a pleasant surprise for me. Most of the flash-sideways have either capitalized on the things I already liked about characters on the island (Ben as a high school history teacher) or preserved the things that bugged me (Kate, running away, ugh). The flash-sideways on “Everybody Loves Hugo” was a chance for Hurley to be Original Recipe Hurley again: funny, confused, genial, self-doubting. At the same time, if Island Flavorz Hurley now has to be a leader who sees dead people, at least he was finally shifting that transformation into full gear, rather than just hanging back and running off to chat with Jacob occasionally.

MOAR DESMUND PLZ

So this Hurley-centric episode was good, and my faith in Hurley is at least rekindled, if not fully restored. But without question, the best parts of “Everybody Loves Hugo” came from Desmond. If I have trouble with Hurley as an all-seeing leader, I am totally on board with Desmond as resident mystic. I love that expression on his face that says, “I know what’s going on, I see the big picture,” because Desmond pulls it off so well, but really because there’s such a relief in believing that someone here can see the big picture. He’s bridging the two realities, he seems to be able to communicate or at least glean some instinctive impression of what’s happening in the sideways versions, and currently, he’s my big favorite moving forward. Which is totally fine, because c’mon now Lost, he is so obviously not dead at the bottom of that well.

lost 612 3

The episode did have several other goodies, including that somewhat clunky reveal that the whispers are the souls of people who can’t move on. As Jason Mittell notes, that’s a pretty unsatisfying explanation for why they appear in moments of high suspense or why they seemed connected to the Others in the early seasons. It does look like a “be careful what you wish for” warning in TV land: you may say you want answers, but if this is what the answers look like, do you really want them? And just because I like contradicting my own better instincts: GAHH, who are those boys in the jungle who make Smokey so angry?! My current theory is that they’re the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, and that Smokey is actually Tinkerbell. Thoughts?

TBS

2010 April 13
by kvanaren

Wow, that title is obnoxious, isn’t it?

No new Chuck last night (boo), but there was some pretty giant news circulating around the television world – after some well-publicized conversations about moving to FOX, Conan O’Brien has made a deal for a new late night show on TBS.

It’s easy to begin with an initial reaction of slight confusion. “Wait, there are things on TBS besides sitcom reruns?” But that sort of confusion quickly begins to look like an opportunity with a lot of potential, both for Conan and TBS. The last time I felt a little bemused about an interesting show being aired in a strange place, it was “What’s this whole Mad Men business, and since when does AMC do anything other than replay old movies?” And of course, that show is now totally forgotten by history…

Actually, TBS is much farther along in the process of building its brand and creating original programming than AMC was when Mad Men came along. It has a few original sitcoms that it airs along with its strong but admittedly uninspiring lineup of reruns – Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, and My Boys, which has gotten some good critical responses. TBS also has a foundation for its expansion into late night in the form of George Lopez’ Lopez Tonight, which has the youngest late night audience, but hasn’t yet been able to transform TBS into a stand-out cable destination in the way that The Daily Show has done for Comedy Central. Conan could be exactly what TBS needs. He’s a big name with an established audience who will draw new eyes to the channel, and the publicity and notoriety of his exit from The Tonight Show will garner a lot of curiosity about what his next late night venture might look like.

And despite Conan’s own ribbing about the career trajectory of moving from a major network show to basic cable, TBS could be good for Conan as well. TBS’s younger audience will resonate more with the Conan of Late Night than the staid comedy he was attempting on The Tonight Show, and there are words you can say and things you can do on basic cable that are still not okay on a network.

It’s not an instant home run. There’s not a lot of information yet about what the show would look like or whether it will follow the usual late night talk show format. Some of my favorite bits of Conan’s Late Night came directly from his irreverent but pleasant interview style, so a move to TBS does make one wonder what sorts of guests will want to appear and how the show will be able to bring in big names. Conan’s show will also be up against the Daily Show/Colbert Report block, which will be some significant competition for the show’s anticipated audience. It will also remain to be seen whether Conan alone can boost the visibility for an entire network. But that’s some pretty heavy weight to put on Conan’s shoulders, and as long as he succeeds at a much more modest objective, I think the show will be great. It just needs to be funny.

Treme – Do You Know What It Means?

2010 April 12
by kvanaren

Last night was the premiere of David Simon’s new show Treme, a show I’ve been looking forward to since its production was first announced, and a series that has some enormous, possibly unrealistic expectations. After making The Wire, a show that critics refer to as “the greatest television ever made” with the same assurance they have when calling Meryl Streep the greatest actress of her generation, Simon has made himself an almost impossibly high standard to top. It’s true that on the surface, the two shows have some marked similarities – they share two lead actors, they are both set in troubled American cities, and they employ the same basic formal structure of a large system of loosely connected characters who represent from different areas of the city. Here the similarities cease, and I think that bodes well for Treme’s future.

treme 101 2

Simon’s new show is set in New Orleans, which instantly differentiates Treme’s opening from the experience of beginning The Wire. In both instances, the cities are struggling, and the shows seek to uncover something totally hidden from casual observers or tourists. For The Wire’s Baltimore, though, the process of discovery and realization happens continually throughout the series, both for viewers and the characters. It’s a safe assumption that The Wire’s audience goes into the show with almost no knowledge about the Baltimore drug trade, but oddly, the same can be said for the show’s cops and lawyers. In the first few episodes, Jimmy McNulty bothers his bosses just enough to open an investigation on Avon Barksdale, the leader of an immense criminal organization in the city. Immediately, that investigation is hampered by the fact that no one knows who Barksdale is, where to find him, how his organization works, or even what he looks like. The process of information gathering, of moving from ignorance to knowledge (and, as a corollary, from idealism to deep cynicism), is at the center of every season, and happens in every new area of the city. Tommy Carcetti gradually comes to understand the inner workings of Baltimore’s political machine, Roland Pryzbylewski learns how to function in the deeply damaged school system, Frank Sobotka uncovers the deeper system of criminal enterprise at the docks, etc. etc. The show is called The Wire – you get stuck inside an unfamiliar system, you listen in, you figure out how it works, you become disgusted by the futility of individual human endeavor.

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian chief

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian chief

No one who watches Treme will come to it with the same blank slate that audiences had for The Wire. The show grapples with the inner life of a city that already calls to mind associations, stereotypes, and tragedies, so introducing New Orleans isn’t the show’s concern. Treme’s New Orleans knows itself in a way that The Wire’s Baltimore never does – you, outsider, may have no idea who the Mardi Gras Indians are or what a Hubigs is, but everyone in Treme does. The difference is palpable in the show’s pilot. In the opening of The Wire, almost no one knows each other; everyone knows everyone else in Treme. The pilot takes place three months after Katrina, and it would make sense for the overwhelming tone of the show to be doubt, loss, and the reality of a familiar world suddenly rendered strange. Those qualities are certainly there, and it’s plain that Treme’s characters are still coping with grief for their lost jobs, friends and homes. For the most part, though, that loss is a shared loss, and the pilot sometimes takes on the qualities of an enormous, tentative, city-wide reunion. The episode opens with early hints of recovery – it’s the moment of the first second-line parade since the hurricane – and throughout the next 90 minutes, Treme collects characters who are rebuilding, returning to the city, and greeting each other after an absence.

I have no idea what will happen of the course of the show’s (hopefully many) future seasons, but it makes sense at this early moment to imagine Treme as cautiously optimistic view of American urban life. However subtle the differences may be between the opening themes of this show and Simon’s previous work, the biggest difference is immediately, intensely palpable. Treme is a show about New Orleans’ musicians, and the pilot episode is bursting with musical numbers that would almost overwhelm the show’s careful character development if the two weren’t so thoughtfully interwoven.

treme 101 3

You could pick almost any scene of the pilot, point to it, and say “There. That’s what this show is going to be about,” but my favorite moment is the one that ends the episode. Antoine Batiste, a trombone player and one of the show’s central characters, shows up for a gig that he desperately needs for the money to support his family. The gig is a funeral, and Batiste discovers that he knew the deceased man while he prepares to join the band’s processional to the cemetery. A show about New Orleans, three months after Katrina – this should be a somber, mournful, reflective processional, and it is all of those things. But it’s not unfamiliar or new. The band all knows the right steps and the right chords, because this is the way funerals happen in Treme, and this is a part of New Orleans returning to itself. The music is perfect, of course; it’s contemplative, but it has a swagger and self-awareness that seems to imply full comprehension. Terrible things have happened, but these people are still here, and although the outside world may not know them, they know themselves, and they know how to move forward.

On Procedurals – Part 2

2010 April 9
by kvanaren

So yesterday I was in full swing on procedurals and Why They Work, and I had ended on the conclusion that in order to fully appreciate their fictional value, you have to think about the most obvious aspects of the shows. The pleasure of the procedural can’t just be the thrilling, pseudo-scandalous content (more on pseudo-scandal in a moment) or the very small percentage of each show dedicated to plot development outside the self-contained episode – there has to be some consideration of the underlying, inescapable reliance on predictable, comfortable, familiar, even tedious repetition.

The word “work” is important here. It is the basis of every single procedural I think of – maybe it’s lawyers, or doctors, or cops, or forensic scientists, or mathematicians – but every procedural inevitably justifies its repetition through the rhythms of someone’s job. They’re always exciting jobs that are fast-paced and put the main characters (err, main employees) in constant contact with drama, violence, extraordinary human circumstances, and usually some good gory bits. It’s work nonetheless, and however thrilling each new case may be, our protagonists always remind us that it will soon come to an end. That drive toward resolution seems like it’s just the familiar pressure of an hour-long episode, but the fictional structure of the show embeds that awareness into its main characters just as much as its audience. Our hour will end, and it will be just another episode of Law and Order: SVU, just as for Olivia Benson or whoever, at the end of the day, it’ll be merely another in a long career of crazy days at work. The audience’s familiarity with the rules of the hour-long procedural guarantee that the drama will not bleed over into other episodes, but that assurance also comes from within the show’s fictional premise. Of course this isn’t going to be a life-altering murder investigation that will forever damage your relationship with your family or force you to reconsider your worldview. It’s just work.

Temperance Brennan, just doin' her job. Next to some dessicated human remains.

Temperance Brennan, just doin' her job. Next to some dessicated human remains.

Let me make sure this is straight. Procedurals appear to be about drama and violence and sexual dysfunction, but they’re actually just about people at work, doing the same tedious examination of the crime scene they always do. At the same time, the procedural format re-inscribes the repetitive rhythms of performing a job. Bones may look like it’s about whether Booth and Bones are ever going to discuss their feelings for one another (and they do sometimes! Last night they totally did!), but even on Very Special Episodes like that one, the solid majority of the hour is just repetition of the familiar formula. We are introduced to a victim, we run through the possible cast of suspects, we investigate the evidence, we do a funny bit with the support staff, and, aha! A murderer is caught! These shows allow us to watch people work, and then build the repetitive, even mind-numbing reiteration of doing a job into the experience of watching.

Why are these entertaining, exactly?

As I mentioned yesterday, the procedural gets a lot of criticism for being aggressively un-lifelike. On the level of an individual episode, and often in terms of the fictional content of those episodes, I think that’s true. No one goes to the bathroom in television shows unless someone is hiding inside a stall to attack them, or they’re about to overhear some vicious gossip. But taken as a whole mass of regular, formulaic stories, the procedural actually does a pretty good job of representing what a middle class, working life might look like. It is repetitive, it is predictable, and for the most part, the major scandals of the day are ultimately pseudo-scandals. The chance that any particular day is going to contain a life-altering event is not very high, and the stuff that fills the day in the mean time tends to seem scandalous or highly dramatic, but is usually pretty trivial in the long term. Just as in life, procedurals allow characters’ personal lives to occasionally interject into the workplace, but it’s always placed inside the framework of their jobs, and always subsumed within the constant, fairly arbitrary delineations of the work’s closure – the end of a workday, a business week, a law suit.

Maybe I’m reaching, here, but I think procedurals are entertaining because we like watching ourselves, or at least, our own lives rewritten into a slightly different perspective. First, the job itself, which contains all sorts of taboo subject matter that rarely shows up in a cubicle. But that’s really just a side benefit of the bigger project: procedurals valorize work. It helps when that work is exciting and has obvious real-world impact, but the form of the procedural affirms any sort of work. It transforms the negative aspects of any job – repetition, tedium, conventionality – into positives. The procedural (your life) is not conventional; it’s familiar. It’s not tedious; it’s comforting. Repetition may be boring, but it’s also knowable and controllable.

Bones and Booth, walking back to work

Bones and Booth, walking back to work

This is the beating heart of every procedural, even the ones that make the exception appear more important than the rule. Last night’s episode of Bones was all about understanding the foundation of Bones’ and Booth’s relationship, which is ostensibly the story of how they met and were attracted to each other, how their personalities conflicted, how they negotiated their opposite worldviews. They kissed! They kissed not just in the flashback I teased yesterday, but they kissed again, in the current timeline of the show! This show is a romance!

But it’s not. Booth and Bones met because Booth needed help with his job. They liked each other because they were good at doing the job together, they fought when one person’s approach to the job opposed the other person’s, and at the end, after daringly suggesting that they try to have a relationship, Bones shoots Booth down. “I’m a scientist,” she says. “I can’t change, I don’t know how.”