Monday, September 29, 2008
House is back, and it's good but not as reinvigorating as last year's reality show take-off. Ever since adding three new team members for House's department and banishing the original Scoobies to the far corners of the hospital, fans have complained about the apparent dismissal of Chase and Cameron, and decreasing screentime for Cuddy and Wilson. The party line is that House is not an ensemble drama, but a show about the character of House and the people he interacts with.
Soaking up Mad Men's return (after skipping a week so fans could instead watch the cast and crew accept their Emmys), I couldn't help but be reminded of the House situation. Mad Men just had an episode focused as much on minor character Freddie Rumsen as it was on Don Draper, and yet the series at large is specifically about Don Draper and the people he interacts with.
What's more, seasons of Mad Men are about half as long as those of House (13 episodes compared to 24 for House), and while Mad Men usually runs about 5 minutes longer on average thanks to AMC airing fewer commercials, House still has the clear win on screentime.
Yet, House can't even manage 9 characters. The new response to such criticism is that there will be an episode this season dedicated to Chase and Cameron. Great news. A whole episode for two cast members!
Meanwhile, Mad Men studies carefully Don and his wife Betty, rising copy-writer Peggy, accounts alien Pete, creative poseur Paul, closeted husband Sal, bachelor Ken, TV head Harry, executive Roger, and fabulous Joan. On top of the 10 main cast members, we've got Duck Phillips, Jimmy and Bobbie Barrett, Freddie Rumsen, Arthur Case, Father Gill, every so often Francine, and the family and mistresses of almost everyone--I believe we've now had significant scenes involving all ten characters' families, right? Not that we know, say, Roger's wife Mona or Sal's wife Kitty very well, but we've seen them or heard them discussed just enough to give us a clear picture of their tracks through life.
And House is complaining about not having enough time for anyone but House and his department?
I want to make it clear that I, personally, have no problem with the way House has handled its characters to this point. Ever since Cameron, Chase, and Foreman quit, I was hoping they would be gone or phased out for the sake of realism. I do wish for more Cuddy and Wilson, since Lisa Edelstein, Robert Sean Leonard, and Hugh Laurie are by far the best actors on the show. But it's not that big of a deal for me.
Still, failing to effectively utilize the entire cast is sign of diminishing creativity. In recent years, Dawson's Creek, The OC, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights each had falling approval ratings (popularly and critically) during seasons that featured separate storylines and sometimes flat-out neglect for supporting characters.
This isn't endemic to teen dramas either. I recently ranted about this season of Weeds cutting three cast members and dividing the rest into storylines that never connected. The general consensus regarding Six Feet Under is that Season 4 is the low point, due to the phenomenon of irreversibly divergent plots. And the Lost writers learned a thing or two about backlash during their Season 3 fall pod, which returned from hiatus without resolving the cliffhanger for episodes because they were too focused on one small (dare I say, unpopular?) segment of the cast.
But take a show like Arrested Development. 9 main characters with only twenty-two minutes per episode, and still everyone had something to do each episode (with a few exceptions). Or The Wire, with something like 30 characters each season (probably more by Season 5, depending on the ratio of dead old characters to new arrivals) and online character charts that are practically necessary to understand what's going on. Battlestar Galactica not only explores humanity at all levels of leadership, but also the cylons and, in some cases, their vastly different duplicates. Not to mention The Sopranos, the godfather of all television character studies, had plenty of time for Tony's two families and his psychiatrist and her associates.
Of course, none of these are mystery shows, with the A-plot each week involving a guest actor and most of the screentime devoted to the show's lead detective solving the case. I understand the limitations of the format for House. But then I think about Veronica Mars, whose budget was so low only three characters could be in every episode. Nevertheless, in one season, Mars conveyed an entire town's worth of real people thanks to its efficient focus on the supporting cast. Mac couldn't be in every episode, but they made the scenes she had count, and by Season 3 she joined the cast full time.
It's getting difficult to defend the House writers. Better shows than this have overcome the ensemble problem while focusing predominantly on exploring the lead (Mad Men, Veronica Mars, The Sopranos). Not to pile it on, but these shows also delved much deeper into their leads than House does, and Veronica Mars hit that blend of comedy-drama more consistently.
House remains wonderful entertainment. Tellingly, they just introduced a House-like PI played by Michael Weston in the hopes of a potential spinoff series. While I'm not opposed to a House-like PI show, maybe the writers should focus more on the characters they already have--even if it means axing a couple of them--before worrying about dividing their attention even further.
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Saturday, September 27, 2008
Last Wednesday, a late summer gem aired its finale, and in just six episodes vastly outshone the new fall series. I'm just getting around to writing about it now because of a busy week, something the students featured on Architecture School know plenty about.
I had no idea the season was ending so soon, and now that it's over, I realize how much I loved it. Airing on Sundance, Architecture School is a documentary series set at the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans. Working with local organizations, the students in the URBANbuild program design a house for a low-income family--the house is subsidized so the standards are moderately high for the families living there--in the fall semester and build it in the spring.
Prior to the series, the program had successfully accomplished the erection of two progressive houses. This season focuses on the parallel stories of building the third house and finding a buyer for the second house, the lots just a few blocks from each other.
The informative aspect of the series--learning about the designs, seeing construction, enduring the endless search for a financially stable buyer--is compelling enough, but this dynamic series is so much more.
As we learned in the final episode, there's an old New Orleans joke:
How many New Orleans residents does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to change the light bulb, and two to talk about how great the old light bulb was.
So it is with the housing project. A major subplot concerns fears of gentrification, as the predominantly white students come in to a poor, black neighborhood and replace its usual ramshackle housing with modern, efficient architecture.
One of the best aspects of the show is its dedication to even-handedness. The series does not glorify the students, nor the views of the neighborhood's residents, nor the housing process. During the first few episodes, if we weren't with the students at Tulane designing houses, we were spending time with a local resident who was trying to acquire the latest house for her daughter. The bureaucracy is endless, and I'm sure I didn't completely understand it all, but you can't help but sympathize with the potential buyers. The URBANbuild program was designed to give Katrina victims a place to return to, and the local residents are understandably frustrated that it looks like the house will end up going to an outsider moving to the area for the first time.
New Orleans is a significant host for the series. King cake, Mardi Gras, gumbo, and jazz make prominent appearances, but so do a series of murders on the street of the housing project. One student's purse is stolen, and she's told by the police it's her fault for leaving it in her car. Another student finds a car window shattered. Throughout the project, residents complain, forcing the audience to consider the gentrification argument carefully. The wraparound porch becomes a symbol of New Orleans' architectural and social heritage. Windows are chinks in a home's armor in the Big Easy. At times, the show feels like a localized experiment in foreign intervention.
Fortunately, we spend most of our time with the students, who consisently display their creativity, dedication, and frustration. The first few episodes cover the fall semester, where they learn about the program and create their own designs. The vetting process is grueling, as the students present their ideas to a tough committee of architects. But it's the students who vote on which design to build, and in the spring, they get to work.
We get the expected complaining of long work hours, but for the most part, the work on-site is charming as they work together to install an exciting progressive house. They joke around, bet on how far the cantilever will sink, and furiously seek donated materials to maintain their budget. Unexpected problems crop up each episode, and it's a pleasure to see how they adapt. Time spent following the students after-hours (rock-climbing, at crew practice, outside a cafe) helps us get a more well-rounded look at their lives, and their late-night conversations were highlights for me. As was one student's day off to work an Obama rally.
Architecture School is a fast-paced, unique, rewarding series with an intelligent, well-rounded approach to the story of students trying to rebuild New Orleans. I highly recommend seeking it out via reruns or the inevitable (I hope) DVD set, and I hope it continues, following the fourth URBANbuild house.
As one of the students discussed in the finale, the most satisfying thing about building a house from scratch is the sight of a chair on the porch, Spiderman drapes, or a face peering out of the window designed for a child's height. Over the finale credits, we got to see a child looking out that window, and it was one of the many reasons Architecture School (and Mad Men and The Middleman) made this summer a delightful season of television.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 12:48 AM
Sunday, September 21, 2008
I've written more about the Emmys this year than any other subject on this blog, and it's time to say goodbye with my reactions to the ceremony, the awards, and the excessively self-congratulatory hosts.
I suppose it's my fault for setting the bar low with my awards predictions, but Emmy fulfilled the bare minimum, giving one of the top two drama awards to Mad Men and the top three comedy awards to 30 Rock. For that, I'm ever grateful. NBC can't cancel a show that's been deemed the best comedy on television every year it's been on, right?
For all that talk about cable making progress in the awards circuit, take a look at the drama winners. Best Drama, the acting awards, and the writing Emmy went to cable series, with only directing left for broadcast (for House's finale--the award should have gone to Mad Men). What's more, only one of those cable Emmys went to HBO (In Treatment's Dianne Wiest for Best Supporting Actress), which has won plenty in the past. Apparently cable's the place to go for quality drama.
On the other hand, the Damages love is excessive. Zeljko Ivanek was captivating throughout the season, and Glenn Close was certainly worthy of a nomination, but neither are the top of their classes. Plus, they had me sweating the Best Drama award till the bitter end.
But congratulations to AMC for its well-deserved Emmys. Mad Men is the best of the Drama nominees (and second only to The Wire), and while I preferred the script for "The Wheel," the pilot is also brilliant. (Actually, I preferred the script for "-30-," but I'm also happy The Wire can remain too good for Emmy.) And as much as I love Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston gave a remarkable performance in just seven episodes of Breaking Bad (thanks to The Strike), and he's by far the most worthy competition for Hamm's nuanced lead.
On the comedy side, I'd again like to shower 30 Rock with praise, and Emmy too for picking a great slate of comedy nominees this year. I have nothing to say about Jean Smart's performance on Samantha Who. I've loved her elsewhere (Garden State, 24, Designing Women--don't judge me), but I still wish Amy Poehler had won for her final completed year on SNL. As for Supporting Actor--the second worst award choice of the night. And based on his red carpet interviews, I just don't have much respect for Piven any more. Please let him be a closet scientologist.
I almost forgot. What was the biggest award travesty of the night? Laura Dern lost for Recount. I don't know how that happened, with so many "go vote" speeches, and so much love for Recount in other categories.
I'm thankful John Adams received its due, particularly the awards given to Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Tom Hanks is always pleasant, and writer Kirk Ellis gave a brilliant intro to a speech cut short by a classy promo for Best Reality Host. I thought they caught enough flack for cutting Sally Field short last year.
Speaking of Reality Host, leave it to these guys to make the show about them. Opening with an unfunny sketch about the job of the host was an ominous sign. The constant promos for Reality Host ("coming up next") were more ridiculous. I did enjoy the Kimmel bit, but mostly thanks to Kimmel, such a classy guy getting applause for the hosts (although to be fair, his compliment was that they were "sufficient," which I totally agree with). Then I remember that they cut off speeches (and Neil Patrick Harris' bit--by the way, bashing Howie Mandell on stage? Legen-dary!--among others) to make time for their skits. We're here honoring award winners--cut the skits to make room for the speeches! But what bothers me most is that they saved their special award for the end, after the lead actors even, as if we'd been waiting all night for them. I'm just glad Probst had the grace to at least act humble.
Otherwise, it was an acceptable show with acceptable results. Colbert's win for writing was well-deserved, and I hope he can finally win Best Variety, Music, or Comedy Special next year, an award he should have won for a while now. Of course, I love Jon Stewart, and I'm happy to keep giving The Daily Show the Emmy (particularly in a year of Indecision), but The Colbert Report was funnier and more trenchant this year. Also, maybe I don't got no respect for my elders, but Don Rickles, Tony Bennett, and Barry Manilow need to die already and give Colbert a chance! Did any of them run for president this year? Nailed!
Of course, the banter teams you'd expect to be great--Amy Poehler/Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais/Steve Carell, Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, Steve Martin/himself--vastly outshined the hosts. The speeches were mostly classy and more subtly political than we're used to (ahem, Michael Moore). In other words, the night was mostly boring. But at least Mad Men and 30 Rock got plenty of love. And you know I'll be back next year.
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Saturday, September 20, 2008
As someone interested in the Emmys tomorrow night, I'm legally obligated to deliver my thoughts on who will probably take home the gold tomorrow night.
My first prediction is regarding the ceremony itself. Ryan Seacrest's hosting job was, as has been noted, catastrophic. This time around, he's helped out by the other four nominees for Best Reality Show Host (Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandell, Jeff Probst). I think we can all agree that this will be less of a disaster, but also far from excellent. I bet you next year, they give hosting duties to one person as a tacit admission of guilt.
Regarding the awards themselves:
Best Drama - My fervent hope is that Boston Legal wins since the rightful best drama (The Wire) isn't nominated as kind of a scorched-earth approach to the Emmys. But I (foolishly, no doubt) actually believe Mad Men, which deserves the gold, will triumph. Seriously, though, if it's not Mad Men, I bet it's Boston Legal.
Best Actor in a Drama - On the other hand, while Jon Hamm (and Bryan Cranston, Michael C. Hall, etc.) deserves to win here, I can't help but believe the Academy will once again anoint James Spader their favorite dramatic actor. So, for those counting, Mad Men should win the top 2, but I bet Boston Legal takes at least one of them.
Best Actress in a Drama - I really don't care. Glenn Close will win, but all of the nominees pale in comparison to the accomplishments of Jon Hamm and Dominic West. And for that matter, Mary McDonnell, whom I hope swings in on a vine and snatches the Emmy from Close's cold fingers.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama - As with many categories, I have seen every minute of screen time from all of these nominees except Boston Legal's William Shatner, so I feel qualified to claim John Slattery is the best on the list. Furthermore, Slattery's hilarious and ought to give us one hell of a speech. But I fear he's one of the least likely to win. I'm not sure who will, but I guess I'll say Michael Emerson will walk off with the trophy as the Academy's way of recognizing Lost's comeback without giving them the big one.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama - Again, don't care. I'll take the ladies of The Wire (Sonja Sohn, Felicia Pearson, Deirdre Lovejoy) or Mad Men (Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Christina Hendricks) over these gals any day. That said, I'm guessing Chandra Wilson takes it.
Best Comedy - 30 Rock will deservingly take the gold for the second year in a row as a way of saying "Sorry for not rewarding Arrested Development enough." And we'll still have to wait until October 30 to see any new episodes of the best comedy on television.
Best Actor in a Comedy - I repeat, 30 Rock (Alec Baldwin) will deservingly take home the gold.
Best Actress in a Comedy - Ditto Best Actress. It was past voting time, but Tina Fey's Sarah Palin sketch on SNL proved again that the world loves her, and Emmy is no exception.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy - Neil Patrick Harris! I really want him to win, which means he won't. If I were Jeremy Piven, I'd start making some room on my trophy shelf.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy - Amy Poehler is my favorite, and I think she'll actually win for dominating SNL the past few years.
There you have it. Emmy is never perfect, but in the comedy categories, they just have to give the top 3 to 30 Rock and I'll be satisfied. As for Drama, I've given up on the actress races, and I've given one of the top two to Boston Legal, so I have my disappointment bases covered.
But I've given it a lot of thought this weekend, and I don't watch the Emmys to see them crown my favorites. I watch to see the stars of my favorite shows, and to hopefully get some good jokes from the host, and to root for a team regardless of the outcome. My favorites winning? That's just the icing on the cake.
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Monday, September 8, 2008
I'm having the greatest week, dividing my time between the Venice and Toronto international film festivals, in Venice and Toronto, respectively. It's been such a rush catching the latest flicks from Darren Aronofsky, Rian Johnson, Spike Lee--oh wait. I've been in College Station all week.
Of course I wish I'd been elsewhere. Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, a movie I had zero desire to see until this week, just won the Golden Lion at Venice. It's getting raves all over the place, especially for Mickey Rourke's, like, fourth comeback. Somehow, I'm very excited all of a sudden. And not just because of Zack and Miri Make a Porno and its banned poster.
I've been anticipating Rian Johnson's follow-up to Brick since it was announced, and it's good to hear The Brothers Bloom is a solid movie that knows its film history. I'm wary of reading anything with spoilers, or anything more long-winded than the dictionary (ahem, Moriarty on AICN), but it's safe to read snippets of Jim Emerson's updates from Toronto. He makes the festival circuit feel like a Christopher Guest movie waiting to happen.
As for Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, my interest grew entirely independent of any festival news, though the buzz has been encouraging. I caught the trailer on TV last night and was floored to realize it's Fall already. We're entering a world of pain, er, greatness. Sorry, I watched The Big Lebowski last night.
I know I'm supposed to be more anxious for the serious dramas like Revolutionary Road and Doubt, but December's, like, three years away. Right now I'm too pumped for Appaloosa, which I hope aspires to be simply a fun western. I'm afraid it could go either way, but with Viggo Mortensen in the frame and Ed Harris at the helm, we ought to be safe. Also streeting soon is Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, starring God Cera. Bet you didn't know God had a last name. I'm joking of course. God's last name is Fey.
Sooner still comes the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, which I can't wait for. Nobody but nobody can turn a phrase like the Coens. Also, I don't know why people say "nobody but nobody," which seems redundant. I tried it out; it's not for me.
But rather than gallivanting from festival to festival, taking in some Swedish indie about porn-star midgets and hitting up the local diner to eavesdrop for the latest buzz, I'm here. In Texas. Being shat upon by the sun.
We used to have a Texas Film Festival right here at Texas A&M. I think they may still, but it's not the same since they shut down funding for our arts programs. The former coordinating group, MSC Film Society, was disbanded and responsibilities for the festival were distributed among a few other organizations. It's the inverse of consolidation. We were liquefied. Entropy rising. It's like they want the apocalypse.
So instead of strolling on down to Rudder Theater to watch a shorts package, or better yet, having a Q&A with Rian Johnson in Toronto, I'm forced to have my own film fest, right here in the splendor of my living room. After all, America's about individualism, right?
What's on my roster? Well, I watched The Third Man to kick off the weekend, and later caught My Left Foot for the first time. I smell Oscar buzz for Daniel Day-Lewis! As I mentioned, I watched The Big Lebowski (which gave me the insatiable desire to say "vagina" decisively to the next person I see) and the last half of I Vitelloni on Turner Classics. Now I want to rewatch the whole thing--Fellini'll do that to you. Aside from that, a whole lot of Chelsea Lately, a smattering of Anthony Bourdain on Travel Channel, and the special Sunday episode of The Hills.
(Sidenote: If you don't watch The Hills, you may not pick up on this, but every major event in an episode is forecast in its promo. This episode ended with a cliffhanger that we already knew was coming from the trailer.)
The Golden Bean (for Best Film) will probably go to The Third Man (which I loved even more this time around), but the jury is finnicky and inscrutable. This year it's headed by a Welsh corgi who speaks with a British accent and only likes commercials. Well, parts of commercials. And buzz for Chelsea Handler is rising. She may earn the Silver Bean for excellence in the field of impressing the jury.
But the TIFF (Texas Individual Film Festival) ain't over yet, so anything could happen. Tonight I'm gonna try to catch either Mr. Arkadin or Antonioni's Blow-Up, which I tivoed last night. Oh, and Mad Men. One more use of the Decemberists, and Mad Men'll have a lock on the Golden Bean. Better luck next time, The Hills.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 1:50 PM
Friday, September 5, 2008
TV Guide thinks they've come up with the 10 best first episodes (not pilots). Unsurprisingly, I think they're nut-burgers. But I'm gonna be brief because I don't think my picks add anything new to the conversation. Also, I'm on borrowed time, er, computer.
So, this is the TV Guide list. Not the worst list I've seen, but the fact that it's ranked (and so poorly) drives me batty.
3. The Shield
4. The Sopranos
5. 30 Rock
6. Football Wives
7. Desperate Housewives
8. Saturday Night Live
I have to abstain from opining on the ones I haven't seen, so that takes out The Shield, Football Wives, Desperate Housewives, and ER. I haven't seen all of the SNL series premiere either, but it's safe to say I wouldn't include it on my list.
Why does everyone think the Lost pilot is the greatest thing since sliced airplanes? I take issue with the gimmick pilots leading the list, because the shows don't live up to their respective concepts. I still love the (admittedly far-fetched) real-time plotting of 24, but that series opener erred on the side of boring. I'd probably take better to the Lost premiere if it had characters resembling people, rather than leads on a Sci-fi channel original movie (that's a knock at the writers, not the actors who mostly do the best they can with their teenage dialogue). Sure both pilots were intriguing, but to call them the best ignores so many smarter or more cohesive premieres.
And it gives me no pleasure to say this, but the pilots for The Sopranos and 30 Rock, though good, are not worthy. Well, Sopranos' premiere may deserve a slot in the lower ten, but 30 Rock's pilot-by-committee (and yes, I did just refer to NBC's treatment of the most recent Best Comedy as socialist) is not nearly as hilarious as the show became.
As for my top 10, I know my shortcomings. It's probably more accurate to say this is the 10 best pilots of the past 10 years. Through the '90s, I pretty much just watched Seinfeld and Star Trek, and it wasn't until 2004 that I really watched television. So, it's too bad I haven't seen the pilots of Twin Peaks, MASH, Hill Street Blues, etc., but even without that, I have 10 series premieres to put the TV Guide list to shame.
1. Battlestar Galactica - I'd give the miniseries a B+, but if we're strictly ranking the best first episodes, "33" has a fighting shot for the top spot.
2. Star Trek - the best Trek pilot is the unaired pilot of the original series, but even the second pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") is worthy of mention.
On with the show, my unranked list of the 10 best series premieres:
Arrested Development - Leaving off AD is literally worse than the Holocaust.
Deadwood - "Welcome to fucking Deadwood" indeed.
Firefly - The two-part "Serenity," for clarification.
Freaks and Geeks - I have fonder memories of this homecoming than my own.
Friday Night Lights - When the show was about community.
Mad Men - I was hooked from that first scene with Don and the waiter.
Scrubs - Perennially, unfairly overlooked.
Six Feet Under - Remember the ads for funeral home equipment?
Veronica Mars - Possibly my favorite.
The Wire - Unquestionably dense, but that makes rewatching it that much more rewarding.
You may have noticed, I don't think Aaron Sorkin is nearly as entertaining as he does. I should have given Twilight Zone an honorable mention--great show, great first episode, but as an anthology series, less complicated than the others that introduced long-running arcs and characters--but I'm all the way down here already. And I promised brevity.
So there you go. Your turn!
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