Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Having finally caught up with HBO's In Treatment, I feel a lot like a patient ending therapy. A significant amount of my response has been projection, it has taken me to some dark places in order to ultimately reward me, and it has inspired both dependence and rebellion. This is me urging you to check it out, knowing Season 2 artfully improves upon an excellent foundation. Spoilers from here on out.
You could probably sum up my problems with Season 1 by saying it was too limited--limited by plot convention, strict adherence to format, and source material. It was tough enough to achieve a complete story (or set of stories) every day for nine weeks, much less aim for some philosophical investigation into modern life.
Cue Warren Leight, the showrunner for Season 2, whom I credit with taking a good show and making it one of the best on television. Part of that comes from liberties with the adaptation, which is just the tip of the iceberg; Leight has loosened the series up considerably. Notice how often we leave the two primary sets (the offices of Paul and Gina). Notice how many times a therapy session is merely a part of an episode, instead of the episode itself. Notice how much more comedy is played this season. The effect of all this loosening is to give us respite from the cruelty, and even there, the problems of Paul's new crop of patients pale in comparison to the horrors Sophie or Alex endured. Luke and Bess, parents though they are, come off merely as squabbling colleagues next to the vicious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? acolytes Jake and Amy.
What's more, free from the tendrils of all that melodrama, Season 2 feels both less conventional and more intoxicating than Season 1. It's funny that the producers at HBO relied on the Laura character last year, thinking the "will-they-or-won't-they" suspense was a primary draw. In the final account, fans hated Laura for precisely that reason. We as television viewers are conditioned to despise the flirty young things that show up to disrupt the marriages of our central characters. It's why Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton joined Friday Night Lights on the condition their characters are never written into affairs.
People also apparently despised Jake and Amy, I'm guessing thanks to the intensity of their battles. There's only so much cruelty we can take. In fact, much as I loved the revelatory performance of Mia Wasikowska, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle learning more about her troubled past.
But the cast and crew pulled me through, giving me an excellent return on my investment in those final few weeks as Sophie begins to cope. Perhaps my favorite moment from the series is when April gives her gift to Paul: telling him Sophie credits him with saving her life, she's in college now, and she sounds happy. It's a transcendent moment, earned by In Treatment's unique format. If I hadn't spent all those sessions with Paul and Sophie and April, it would have been merely an epilogue instead of the series' peak, loaded with so much meaning: Paul's been fretting about the value of his work, and here he's shown exactly how much good he can do; Sophie was so far-gone as to attempt suicide four weeks into treatment, and now one of the series' most beloved characters, the one you just want to reach out and hug, is happy; and April presents this compliment to lead into her realization that Paul has saved her life as well.
I don't completely agree with all the criticisms of Laura, Jake and Amy, but I understand. Like I said, last year was intensely claustrophobic. Watching Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz is a treat, but I won't deny the difficulty of enduring their weekly assaults. In Season 2, and this is also thanks to the relaxed format, every patient enthralls. The stories are unconventional and more subtle, the performances are compelling and never histrionic, and the patients relate to Paul less obviously. Instead of reflecting the surface elements of Paul's plot, like his marital trouble or alienation from his children, the Season 2 patients revolve around Paul's doubt.
Thus, Season 2 deftly challenges my leading criticism of Season 1, that In Treatment fails to have any perspective. What it means to be in therapy is examined deeply in Season 2, as are several criticisms of the process and a constant exploration of its ethical implications. I deflated at the Week 6 downturn, watching Paul receive his punishment for being a good person instead of a good therapist. He had to inform April's mother of her cancer when she collapsed, and he had to make Oliver a sandwich--his parents certainly aren't nourishing him, nutritionally or otherwise. Then he takes a week off for a legitimate emergency and returns to experience the consequences of dependence.
Those episodes exemplify what I wanted to see from the series. The basic requirement of In Treatment is that it be a television drama. In that respect, Season 1 succeeds. Going further, In Treatment ought to be a compelling show, which it is only intermittently in Season 1, mostly during the Sophie and Gina episodes (and, a personal favorite, the solo Jake session). Above that, it should aspire to something more, whether that be a rigorous study of the therapy process, an exploration of the psychological state of modern society, or a metaphor for something else entirely, say, the American political state after the series of democratic crises that introduced the decade.
Season 1 is often a compelling television drama that occasionally seeks to fulfill that higher need, especially toward the end. But Season 2 opens with a break in format--Glynn Turman's Mr. Prince serves Paul a lawsuit--immediately declaring its intentions to add to its surface therapy plots an examination of the value of therapy.
The risks pay off with a final week of involving sessions and natural conclusions for the characters. Overflowing with touching moments--Mia deciding to continue therapy, Paul giving April a new hat, Paul telling Bess he admires her, Paul calling Oliver from the kitchen, Gina and Paul taking in the news that the judge dismissed the Prince lawsuit--Week 7 is as good as television gets.
If this is the end of In Treatment, kept inexpensive thanks to its strict shooting schedule and limited sets but equally low-rated, Season 2 has given us a fitting finale. Personally, though, I think they can do even better. If it's ever ready to return, my door is always open.
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Sunday, June 28, 2009
We watched Twilight today, and this elegant composition illustrates my appreciation of this sophisticated deconstruction of vampire mythology. "The lion fell in love with the lamb," indeed.
Edward Cullen is so dreamy. I mean, right? He's very dangerous, and very possessive, which is great, because I don't really like doing stuff on my own or making decisions or thinking. And that angst! It's so romantic. Especially when he bores right into Bella with those simmering, bloodthirsty eyeballs, regardless of whether or not she's awake. So dreamy. Where is my Edward Cullen?!
Only five more months till New Moon!
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For all its capable direction and riveting performances—and the cast of In Treatment is so uniformly excellent that the one weak link lies in an actor who was only in half an episode, and the fault there lies mostly with the writing—the inaugural season of In Treatment frustrates me. It is a deeply realized study of psychology where every glance or shift has some internalized motivation and every assertion is projection. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the series is so focused on itself that it fails to achieve any perspective.
They say that in a dream, every character is you. The same is true for this psychologically-informed series, where every patient and relative and friend-of-a-friend reflects protagonist Dr. Paul Weston’s life. His patients aren’t literal projections of himself, but each character reflects a rather obvious piece of Paul’s family troubles. It’s an intense effect, especially if you devour the series quickly, but the solipsism is stifling.
There are other issues with the series—somewhat cliched storylines, weak dialogue in some of the non-therapy scenes—but this is the one that bothers me most. As In Treatment progresses, a few touches begin to enhance the series, like an explanation of the water motif and patient breakthroughs, but it never truly engages with the world.
It comes close. Tuesday’s patient Alex, played with surprisingly charming bravado by Blair Underwood, is a navy pilot who bombed an Iraqi school, killing 16 children. Meanwhile Sophie, played by young Mia Wasikowska, reads a diary entry from a painful day in 4th grade—September 11th. That’s it. That’s as close as In Treatment comes to having an opinion on the world.
Surely that’s okay, though? Not every show needs to comment on society using 1960s poetry and French film allusions, right? Of course not. Great pulp is better than good highbrow anyway. But—and I’m playing the therapist here—I get the feeling In Treatment wants to comment on the world, it has something to say, but it just won’t allow itself to.
Unfortunately, In Treatment’s first season is not always compelling enough to overcome its myopia. If the series were at least interested in understanding the world, I’d be more forgiving of its storytelling weaknesses. Not that any of the patients’ storylines—not to mention Paul’s own crises—are especially uninteresting, but there is a vast disconnect between which of Paul’s patients are the most significant in their effect on him and which are the most captivating. This is my diplomatic way of saying the mostly boring Laura sessions get the most focus, Paul’s meetings with Sophie and Gina cackle with slow-burn tension, and the rest are hit-or-miss.
It’s not surprising that a series about therapy isn’t very critical of therapy. At various times, every male character questions its efficacy, but it’s never very serious, and Paul usually immediately proves to the viewers, if not his patients, the value of the process. But this is an issue worth examining. Clearly therapy can be effective, especially when people find themselves unable to cope with crises, but what are the consequences of living two lives, one where you’re the subject and one where you’re the object? Is it possible that therapy, in analyzing every motivation, can train people to overanalyze or become dependent on the process? Maybe that’s impossible; perhaps as Dianne Wiest’s Gina suggests, consciously understanding our psychologies is always beneficial. Whatever the answers, you won’t find them--or even sincere inquiry--on In Treatment.
I feel like I’m being too harsh. I can’t imagine how impossible it must be to script these therapy sessions, where exposition comes so naturally we don’t notice and every minute detail resurfaces as a clue to a patient’s psychology. The acting Emmys for Dianne Wiest and Glynn Turman are well-deserved, Gabriel Byrne delivers a complicated and affecting performance, and above all, the series is a remarkable showcase for Mia Wasikowska, whose sessions with Paul become the show’s highlight.
But the uniform excellence of the Season 2 patients has cemented my mixed response to Season 1. And my response isn’t really all that mixed—I have a few quibbles, and I wish the series would transcend its narrow focus, but I rapidly devoured this acting masterclass. Still, In Treatment has learned from its first season. The therapy is working.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009
Another Pixar cartoon, another hit. On cue, critics trot out all their favorite chestnuts: the latest is Pixar’s best, Pixar has the best track record of any studio, Pixar should prepare for an Oscar campaign. If you’re like me, all that jazz goes in one ear and out the other, not because it’s irritating or wrong, but because it’s so obviously right. Of course Pixar is the best. The worst they can do is crank out a decent entertainment.
After seeing Up, though, I began to wonder: how good is Pixar, really? If I'm honest with myself, there’s always something holding back Pixar films. They’re mostly terrific, of course, but not the masterworks popular opinion holds them to be. When it comes to comedy, these cartoons rarely flounder, and lately they’ve only increased in target, aiming not just for the knee-high set any more. Though, given Toy Story’s “laser envy” quip, I’m not sure Pixar has ever aimed to please only children.
But the greatest improvements have come in the studio’s handling of its dramatic subjects. For all the genius of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, these films come up a bit short when it comes to believably handling emotion. Sudden and unconvincing character changes (Toy Story), awkward, melodramatic, and unrealistic dialogue (Finding Nemo), and obvious or cliched family moments (The Incredibles) rear their ugly heads throughout otherwise excellent stories. This is not to say these films aren’t intermittently capable of tackling serious discussion—just look at Mr. Incredible’s relationship with his wife or Andy’s love for his toys—but the emotional catharsis of Finding Nemo—when Marlin accidentally calls Dory Nemo—is cringeworthy.
Ratatouille was the great leap forward, not just for Pixar's breathtaking animation but for its commitment to real human drama. There’s no comparison between Marlin’s epiphany and the cracking of Anton Ego. (For freedom of information, I find Peter O’Toole delightful and Albert Brooks overrated, but I really think I’m being objective here.) Then came WALL-E, a film unprecedented for Pixar in terms of its expanded dramatic bent, and one without an unearned emotion. Is there a more touching love story in the modern era than WALL-E and EVE? Who among us wasn’t on the edge of our seat when a resurrected WALL-E seemed to have forgotten his romance with EVE? Up has only cemented Pixar’s grasp of human drama with its masterful treatment of Carl’s relationships with Ellie and Russell. Where Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. often settle for forced sentiment, Carl’s backstory in Up is sincere and convincing. It’s told almost bereft of dialogue, and it packs a harder punch than anything the studio’s yet produced.
Forty minutes into Up, the film was unquestionably my favorite Pixar enterprise. I wanted to make my own adventure book, and I couldn’t wait to break out my old Boy Scout merit badge sash. Most of all, I desperately wanted Carl to achieve his dreams. Now that the film is said and done, I’m not quite as enthralled with it as I was. My biggest complaint is that I found the dog squad unnatural. I expected something more traditional to an old adventure series—maybe jaguars or monkeys—and while an old explorer going Kurtz in his rainforest-set Victorian blimp complements Carl’s pulp adventure nicely, semi-robotic dogs felt a bit out of place. (On the other hand, if I have to accept the villains to keep Dug, I will gladly retract.)
Further, I found the film a little too traditionalist--it justifies Carl's worldview too staunchly--but maybe that comes with the territory in a film about an old man and a boy scout fleeing modern society. Then I agree with several complaints I’ve read: not enough flying house, too much bizarre villain dogs, and a somewhat contrived action sequence for a climax. WALL-E faced similar scrutiny with its final act fight sequence. It’s as if Pixar films are struggling to transcend their kiddie cartoon outlines, but they can’t quite crack the climax.
The root of the problem lies with Pixar villains, roles you’d expect—based on Disney tradition—to be fascinating, popular characters, but who turn out to be not remotely as interesting as the heroes. I’ll take Sid and Scud, traditional enemies of the toy who are not without social commentary. And Syndrome is an inspired and intimidating foe for The Incredibles, easily Pixar’s greatest villain. But do Carl Muntz, AUTO, Anton Ego, and the like even register on a list of cinema’s best baddies? Are they even among the best parts of the movies that spawned them?
Moreover, Pixar films often brilliantly navigate internal conflicts or external obstacles instead of pitting heroes against a single villain. Look at Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, or Ratatouille—sure, the human characters challenge our protagonists, but they’re not single-minded enemies. Unfortunately, these films have a habit of introducing surprise villains like Stinky Pete or AUTO at their climaxes. However grave or motivated the threat, it always feels a bit like settling. There’s a reason admirers point to the first acts of WALL-E and Up as examples of Pixar’s heights. The studio is capable of so much more than your average summer action flick.
So if Pixar fumbled some of the straight drama in their early outings and contrived climaxes for its later ones, I must concede that the studio isn’t quite as perfect as everyone accepts. They’re pretty close, and both WALL-E and Up achieve such great heights it’s disingenuous to even suggest the few and arguable lows greatly diminish the whole. But there's always something.
Sure, Pixar has had some missteps. A Bug’s Life is fine, but it’s the kind of film that could have been done by any studio, despite its appropriation of Bergman and Kurosawa. Cars is the oft-cited low for the studio, and it ever so slightly shook the world’s faith in the Nemo/Incredibles juggernaut. However, since Ratatouille, Pixar has perfected its blend of diverse comedy and real-world drama. Plus, Pixar films are good for you, with their deft, literate homages to cinema history, longer but not bloated running times for the youtube generation, and especially their genuine look at life’s troubles and joys.
It’s astonishing that anyone could grumble about Pixar’s pipeline—three sequels (admittedly including Cars 2 and Monsters, Inc. 2), a fairy tale, and a newt-romance—but already the doubters are vocal. Yes, they're returning to two of their least inspiring wells, but if anyone’s earned a little faith, it’s Pixar. Up may not be a Pixar masterpiece. But it's my favorite so far.
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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Once we arrived in Vienna, I somehow managed to convince my benefactors that we may as well take a trip to Bratislava since we're in the area. After all, according to wikipedia, Vienna and Bratislava MAY be the world's closest capital cities (barring, one assumes, Vatican City). Hell, I'll do anything for a maybe.
To our surprise, Bratislava turned out to be a charming little town. It's not remotely as magical as Prague, but it has that same vintage Europe feel, which is to say despite its cars and graffiti, it's really just a small historical town wearing big city clothes.
But since we only had a day there, I don't have too much to say. Lots of churches, all of them exquisite. The Catholic church actually had a First Communion ceremony that morning, so we saw a lot of dressed-up Slovakian chilluns milling around the entrance.
The real reason I wanted to visit Bratislava was for its castle, which is practically the archetype of medieval castles: a square base with round towers at each corner. But remember when I said Europe was under construction? Well that includes Bratislava Castle, currently adorned in charming scaffolding. Instead, we had a lot more time to just wander around the Old Town.
Having viewed the Danube now from three capitals, I confess that I preferred Bratislava's position the most. The bluest parts of the river I've seen snake right by Bratislava Castle. Still, the Danube has nothing on the Salzach or the Spree, am I right?
We enjoyed the market kiosks in the town square, which is also where I took that picture with a statue on a bench. I bought a neat sketch of the town on the cheap. I also considered buying gifts there--maybe scarves or corn-husk dolls (Bratislava specialities)--but then I reflected that buying Slovakian dolls, after having been to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, sounds a little cheap. It's like touring all of Europe and coming back with some Bulgarian washcloths.
Nothing much left to say. Enjoy these last few snaps of picturesque Bratislava without all this annoying commentary:
Next up: Vienna
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You may have missed it amidst the Bergmanesque fracturing of Jon and Kate or the politically motivated furor over a Letterman joke or the weirdly nostalgic return of Zack Morris. Or maybe you were on vacation. But in one of the most creative marketing ploys yet, Land of the Lost's Will Ferrell joined Bear Grylls in an awesome Man vs. Wild special.
"I wish I had a dollar for every time I've come to Sweden and eaten a deer's eyeball."
Is it too much to ask that Man vs. Wild rebrand as Men vs. Wild permanently? To my eyes, Will Ferrell is the perfect partner-in-survival to Bear Grylls. Bear's the brains and the brawn and the beauty, and Will's . . . Will's the damsel in distress. The intensely, hilariously earnest damsel in distress.
To be fair, Will never complains (unless couched in jest) and faces every obstacle with determination. And I've never seen Bear trek through as much falling snow as he did with Will in Sweden. But the joys of watching Will Ferrell, a performer known for his manic energy, repeatedly throw himself on the ground, always with a wry joke--well, that was more fun than I've ever had watching Man vs. Wild, and Bear doesn't even take his clothes off.
Of course, Man vs. Wild is an action-oriented survival show, not a comedic one. In that respect, this special comes up a little light; since Bear spent so much time worrying about Will, there was less time for survival demonstrations. All the same, we behold multiple ice-climbing scenes, snowshoe cobbling, and a feast of deer eyeballs, so it's not like the episode completely abandoned its principles. What's more, this special featured more footage devoted to the peace and wonder of the outdoors than usual. As much as Bear is prone to take a moment to appreciate wilderness, Will's even more so.
As I said, Bear Grylls and Will Ferrell make an entertaining team, whether Will's trying out some of Bear's Britishisms or Bear's ribbing on his teammate's Hollywood lifestyle. I'm sure a permanent collaboration would garner some ratings success. In the age of shame-ratings (ahem, TLC), that's no mere trifle.
Man vs. Wild returns in August with Bear Grylls in the lone saddle. I don't doubt I'll enjoy it as much as I have the rest of this engaging series--as Bear visits Borneo, Uganda, and New Zealand--but I can't help but miss Will Ferrell.
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Here's a hint. Below, another:
At last, one of my very favorite movies--a marked distinction from my mere favorite movies--arrives in the western world (well, the west western world) thanks to Criterion. I'm speaking, of course, of Last Year at Marienbad, of which friends, roommates, and countrymen should prepare for marathons.
I have yet to crack anything but the first part of the film on this DVD set, which looks stunning, but I'm eager to explore the interviews with Alain Resnais.
But that's only half of the answer. I am also the proud owner of another new Criterion, Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve. And then some. This three-discer is extraordinary in all things but packaging, which is cramped. It's worth it, of course, for the eight silent Painleve shorts scored by Yo La Tengo, which amount to a glorious atmospheric trance. I haven't gotten around to Disc 3 yet, featuring a documentary about Painleve, but the centerpieces of the set--the Painleve films themselves--are appropriately wondrous.
More to come, I expect, as I devour these sets. People tend to complain about Criterion's diminishing output, as if a boutique DVD label could be remotely recession-proof, but these two sets have elicited tremendous gratitude from at least one film fan.
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I already posted my favorite pictures from Budapest, but I suppose I could muster up a few more just for you. Budapest is the furthest east I've been, and like Berlin, it's a modern industrial city with a few ancient landmarks sprinkled throughout. Of course, Budapest wasn't remotely as clean as Berlin, nor were there enough bratwurst stands or apple strudels for my liking. But it's interesting in its own right.
For instance, of the three Tex-Mex places I drug my family too (not blindly, but upon guidebook recommendations), Budapest had the best. Started by a real, 'live Mexican, the Iguana features delicious guacamole (with chips that I wasn't a great fan of, but my parents liked them), refills and iced drinks, and one mean quesadilla.
I walked by a bar that I swear is straight out of the first scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, but alas, no pictures. Still, Bela Tarr set me up to be disappointed when I left Budapest without a single metaphysical or existential profundity. Not even a traveling circus!
The most famous landmarks are probably the Hungarian Parliament, about which more later, and the Chain Bridge. And they certainly contribute to Budapest's splendor--let's not understate the glory of that Parliament building--but my favorite site was the Matthias Church in Buda. To get there, we climbed the hill and up into the Fishermen's Bastion, some cool, sandcastle-looking tower-wall built as a monument to the fishermen's guild. The Matthias Church, meanwhile, is like a cross between a gothic or romanesque church and a great hall. So it felt like being on Klingon. I was especially fascinated by the flags inside the church, which gave the building not just a political feel but a tribal one.
Similarly, the paintings in the National Gallery were a lot more fun than those in Vienna's counterpart, by which I mean the Hungarian artists showcase their horse-riding, nation-conquering, rip-roaring past, while the Austrians are busy making up for Hitler with as much Christ as you can handle. Plus they let you take pictures in the Hungarian National Gallery.
I'll take this opportunity to say that, like Houston, Europe is apparently under construction. In fact, many of the most famous landmarks were at least obscured by scaffolding, if not closed to the public entirely due to renovation. This list includes but is not limited to some of the most famous sites we visited: Sanssouci Palace in Berlin, the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Great Tower in Karlstejn Castle (we did get to tour the rest, fortunately), Matthias Church in Budapest, Stephensdom in Vienna, Bratislava Castle, and Fortress Hohensalzburg.
One castle we did get to visit fully was the Vajdahunyad Castle out in East Pest. Boy was that underwhelming. I should have read my book more closely, because it turns out Vajdahunyad never actually served as a castle; it was constructed as a tribute to Hungarian architectural styles, attempting to blend romanesque, renaissance, gothic, and baroque styles into one unified palace. So it was a lot like visiting the Disney castle--pretty to look at, but fifteen minutes and you're jonesing for Space Mountain (which, btw, I am).
Afterward, we caught a tour of Parliament, which felt like a prisoner exchange thanks to the crazy security measures. To get tickets, one person in your party is allowed to enter the premises, crossing the parking lot and disappearing inside some room on the inside. Oh, and they take your passports to get tickets. Lucky me, I followed the book's suggestion and left my passport in my room, and after some finagling, I got to enter Parliament without anyone in Hungarian government knowing my name or details. I really should have bombed something.
Here's the Museum of Applied Arts, which we only looked at. Well, I only looked at, while my family members waited in the subway stop. But is this not a gorgeous example of Secession architecture? It turns out Secessionism is the same thing as Art Nouveau, but throughout our tour to the capitals of the movement, they seem to prefer the Secessionism label.
I'm trying to remember anything special that we did in Budapest, but I'm not sure we did anything spectacular. Apart from visiting the landmarks, we spent an exorbitant amount of time walking down the main shopping center, Vaci Utca, and we always went back to the hotel early. On the last night, I went back out to shoot pictures of the Chain Bridge and Parliament at night, which was enjoyable. But I think Tex-Mex and some old lady watching us from her apartment window are about the only surprises from Budapest. Oh, and I bought Satantango for approximately a quarter of its American price.
Or as Kenneth the Page might say, "I give Budapest about a B."
Next up: Bratislava
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
And we're back with the final part of my revamped Dream Emmy Ballot for the 2009 Emmys. Part 1 focused on the Comedy nominees, Part 2 on Drama, and Part 3 will cover everything else. Anon!
I really don't have much more to discuss, so rest easy.
Old business: I have a general thought on the acting nominees that I forgot to bring up earlier. Damages has quite a lineup of potential nominees, including Glenn Close, Tate Donovan, William Hurt, Ted Danson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Doman, and Clarke Peters. Having seen Season 1, I fully believe these actors are capable of splendid performances even on a pulp opera like Damages. It may be enough to convince me to check out the universally reviled Season 2.
I only watched one, but it's a doozy: Generation Kill. I'm patently unqualified to judge this category, but I'm still pulling for some major Gen. Kill victories, including Best Miniseries. Meanwhile, Alexander Skarsgard's up for Best Actor in a Miniseries, and Lee Tergesen, Stark Sands, and James Ransone (and the guy who played Poke) are up for Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries. Here's hoping. I was a little surprised and dismayed to see Billy Lush, who played Trombley, didn't throw his name into the ring. He was terrific, even if I'd prefer to see Ransone take the gold.
Best Variety, Music, or Comedy Series:
The series nominations allow you to fill up to 10 slots, even though I stuck with 5 for Comedy and 6 for Drama. But here are the late-night series I've seen (at least in part) this season:
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Important Things with Demetri Martin
Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon - I've only seen a few segments, and never an entire episode
The Late Show with David Letterman
Saturday Night Live
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
So I could theoretically vote for all 10 of these series. But if I actually judge on consistency, it's an easy choice:
1. Chelsea Lately
2. The Colbert Report
3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
4. Late Night with Conan O'Brien
5. The Soup
Sorry to long-time favorite SNL, but you weren't really in the game this year outside of those Palin sketches. Better luck next time.
Of course, my lineup is heavily cable-oriented, which marks me as an elite viewer but way out-of-touch with Emmy voters, who will undoubtedly reject Chelsea Lately and The Soup in favor of more traditional talk shows.
Oh, and thanks a lot, Emmy, for disbanding the Individual Performance category. Now Colbert will never get what he has rightfully deserved for approximately 17 years.
I would like someone to explain to me the difference between Outstanding Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Reality Program.
For instance, Survivorman is a nonfiction series, but Man vs. Wild is a reality program. Is it because Man vs. Wild is gussied up with action music, while Survivorman just sits there boring us to death? That can't be, because Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch are both nonfiction series as well.
Meanwhile, Architecture School is up there with Man vs. Wild in the reality sphere. So are Ace of Cakes, MythBusters, and Flipping Out. But Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations qualifies as nonfiction.
As expected, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-list, The Hills, and The Real Housewives of New York are all in the reality bracket. But the perhaps even trashier Cops is a nonfiction series. I still have no idea what the line is.
That said, here are my picks in both categories.
Best Nonfiction Series:
1. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
2. Deadliest Catch
3. Toddlers and Tiaras
I don't know what criteria I should be judging on. Bourdain's show is my favorite of the above, but I appreciate Toddlers' subtle subversiveness. I find No Reservations to be the most educational as well, even as it is heavily filtered through the curmudgeonly, non-academic Bourdain.
Best Reality Program:
1. Ace of Cakes
2. Architecture School
3. Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List
4. Man vs. Wild
5. The Real Housewives of New York
Don't judge me. I love the New York housewives! Sorry, MythBusters!
But Architecture School deserves to win this thing. Even over two-time champ Kathy Griffin and my long-time love Bear Grylls.
I wonder if Jon and Kate's recent buzz will affect their chances in this category. There's no such thing as bad press, right?
Now it's your turn. I invite you to criticize my picks or offer your own alternatives. And please, someone tell me what the difference between nonfiction and reality is!
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Once again, I've finally read the full list of Emmy submissions and come up with my selections. As you know, I've split this into three posts (Comedy selections here). Part 2 of my Official Emmy Ballot, my Drama nominees, coming up.
Again, I have failed when it comes to HBO this season. So possible heavyweights Big Love and In Treatment are unfortunately outside my purview. On the other hand, almost no one watches In Treatment, even compared with relative niche shows Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica.
Perhaps more importantly, my picks won't matter because voters prefer Boston Legal, Damages, Dexter, and House. In the past, they've also favored Heroes and Grey's Anatomy--which is manifestly ridiculous--but I think those ships have sailed. I think.
1. Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
2. Breaking Bad (Season 2)
3. Friday Night Lights (Season 3)
4. Mad Men (Season 2)
5. *Rescue Me (the first half of Season 5)
6. The Shield (Season 7)
It should be noted that Rescue Me Season 5 airs across Emmy seasons, so (I believe) only the first 8 episodes are in competition this year. Which makes it difficult to compare, but I know I've been regularly impressed with this season, including unified subplots and strong monologues from Cousin Mick, Sean, Franco, Lou, Needles, and Sheila, none of whom, it should be noted, are stage-hog Tommy Gavin.
We also have two final seasons (up against a third in Boston Legal). Apropos of nothing, the final episode of The Shield beats that of Battlestar Galactica, but as whole seasons, the balance tips toward Battlestar.
Best Lead Actor in a Drama:
Second weirdest moment reading the ballots: Seeing Chace Crawford's name right next to Bryan Cranston. Yeah, totally in the same league. Relatedly, props to Penn Badgley and Blake Lively for keeping their names out of the running. Also, Rob Lowe is in the Lead category. Someone thinks an awful lot of himself. Apparently, he always runs as a lead, regardless of his role. Which makes me hate him (and his frustratingly uninteresting performance on Brothers and Sisters) even more.
Once again, Bill Paxton and Gabriel Byrne are the biggest oversights of this category for me. I'm hoping to get to In Treatment at some point this summer. But my initial Emmy lineup returns with one addition:
1. Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights (Season 3)
2. Michael Chiklis - The Shield (Season 7)
3. Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad (Season 2)
4. Jon Hamm - Mad Men (Season 2)
5. *Denis Leary - Rescue Me (Season 5a)
6. Edward James Olmos - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
Best Lead Actress in a Drama:
As you know, I only have three nominees. But fear not, because Emmy voters won't care. They'd much rather stick with their old favorites Patricia Arquette, Mariska Hargitay, Sally Field, and Glenn Close.
1. January Jones - Mad Men (Season 2)
2. Mary McDonnell - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
3. Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men (Season 2)
Apparently Nicki Micheaux is in the running for her work on some show called Lincoln Heights. I don't know anything about it, but she was incredible on The Shield, so I support her inclusion.
More importantly, there's no way McDonnell, at worst the second-best lead drama actress of the year, is going to make the cut. Because we have more important people to nominate, like Holly Hunter and Calista Flockhart. I just know this is going to be the category I most despise when the final ballots are released.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:
Weirdest moment reading the Emmys: Seeing Max von Sydow as a supporting actor on The Tudors. Who knew? Note to Max: Just because Bergman died doesn't mean you have to stop making good films.
Here's a nice category. I have several honorable mentions: Jay Karnes, for his final season on The Shield, stuck with the incompetent Billings, bolstering Claudette, and facing one last serial killer. Adam Ferrara, who failed to register much last year on Rescue Me, but who has impressed in Season 5, constantly betraying the weight on his shoulders. Also: Daniel Sunjata and John Scurti, both terrific this season. Vincent Kartheiser, growing into something resembling a man this year on Mad Men. Dean Norris, demonstrating his range on Breaking Bad. Finally, Henry Ian Cusick, Jeremy Davies, and Michael Emerson, who were barely given anything to do on Lost and still managed to be the best parts (Terry O'Quinn is not in the running, because the former Best Supporting Actor is classy like that).
1. James Callis - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
2. Walton Goggins - The Shield (Season 7)
3. Michael Hogan - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
4. *Steven Pasquale - Rescue Me (Season 5a)
5. Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad (Season 2)
6. John Slattery - Mad Men (Season 2)
Most of the Rescue Me ensemble have been better than ever this year, but Pasquale has impressed me most, from his naturally not-all-there comedy moments to his pent-up frustration outbursts. And the rest of this list is the same as before.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:
Not that I want 90210 to steal any nominations, but if it must have one, I wouldn't mind seeing Jessica Walter make the cut here. That said, here's my actual list:
1. *Connie Britton - Friday Night Lights (Season 3)
2. Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad (Season 2)
3. Christina Hendricks - Mad Men (Season 2)
4. CCH Pounder - The Shield (Season 7)
5. Katee Sackhoff - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
6. *Callie Thorne - Rescue Me (Season 5a)
Because Melinda McGraw entered the Guest race, I had an extra slot to fill here, which fits nicely since I had to move Connie Britton from Lead to Supporting in accordance with her wishes.
Best Guest Actor in a Drama:
Once again, the guest categories are allowed up to 10 slots. I tried to keep my list within reason, but I still went up to 8.
1. Robert John Burke - Rescue Me (Season 5a)
2. John de Lancie - Breaking Bad ("Over," "Phoenix," "ABQ")
3. Michael J. Fox - Rescue Me ("Baptism," "French," "Sheila," "Perspective")
4. Richard Hatch - Battlestar Galactica ("A Disquiet Follows My Soul," "The Oath," "Blood on the Scales")
5. Jay Karnes - House ("The Social Contract")
6. Mark Moses - Mad Men (Season 2)
7. Joel Murray - Mad Men (Season 2)
8. Bob Odenkirk - Breaking Bad ("Better Call Saul," "4 Days Out," "Mandala," "Phoenix")
Here's another confusing category case: According to IMDb (which my memory cannot refute) Mark Moses was in every episode this season on Mad Men. Yet he's a guest? Well, wherever he wants to enter, I'll vote for him.
As House patients go, Mos Def and Meat Loaf got big publicity, but Karnes is the one who managed a great performance on a subpar procedural. He has no chance of being nominated against those two, much less the rest of the candidates, but at least I can honor his work in some small way here.
Best Guest Actress in a Drama:
I can use up to ten slots here, but I'm only going to use four. Wish more were worthy.
1. Anne Dudek - House ("Saviors," "House Divided," "Under My Skin," "Both Sides Now")
2. Melinda McGraw - Mad Men ("The Benefactor," "Three Sundays," "The New Girl," "Maidenform," "The Gold Violin")
3. Krysten Ritter - Breaking Bad (Season 2)
4. Kate Vernon - Battlestar Galactica (Season 4b)
In a perfect world, this would come down to McGraw, Ritter, and Vernon. I wonder if any of them will be nominated.
Best Directing in a Drama:
This is a tough category simply because it's difficult to pick a favorite piece of direction on shows that are consistently well-directed. Further, Emmy only allows five slots here. It helps that most shows only submitted a few episodes, but still. This is what I've come up with so far:
1. Leslie Linka Glatter - "A Night to Remember" - Mad Men
2. Clark Johnson - "Family Meeting" - The Shield
3. Terry McDonough - "Bit by a Dead Bee" - Breaking Bad
4. Edward James Olmos - "Islanded in a Stream of Stars" - Battlestar Galactica
5. Matthew Weiner - "Meditations in an Emergency" - Mad Men
It's safe to say that these are my favorite-directed shows on television, and I'd be happy to find any episodes in these series nominated here. Picking the best-directed Breaking Bad or Mad Men is no easy task.
It's also interesting to see which episodes were left off the list. Rescue Me only offered one, perhaps in order not to split its own votes, but chose one of my least favorites. Yes, "Iceman" is quite a theatrical, "dramatic" piece, but it's so self-consciously big as to be distracting, like most of last season. I'd have much preferred the (barely) lower key "Sheila," which culminates in quite the long shot, especially by television standards.
Battlestar Galactica only submitted two episodes, my selection and "Daybreak, Part 2." Not like they'd be nominated anyway, but I found "Someone to Watch Over Me," "The Oath," and especially "Sometimes a Great Notion" phenomenal pieces of television direction. You just don't see shots like those on any old series.
Best Writing in a Drama:
Again, only five slots, so I had to pick among many favorites.
1. Jane Espenson - "The Hub" - Battlestar Galactica
2. Andre Jacquemetton, Marie Jacquemetton & Matthew Weiner - "Six Month Leave" - Mad Men
3. Shawn Ryan - "Family Meeting" - The Shield
4. Robin Veith & Matthew Weiner - "A Night to Remember" - Mad Men
5. Matthew Weiner & Kater Gordon - "Meditations in an Emergency" - Mad Men
As you can see, Mad Men scored three of the very limited slots, because I find Mad Men to be exceptionally well-written. I only wish "The Gold Violin" were in the running as well.
It's a shame not to find room for any Breaking Bad episodes, but I wouldn't mind seeing them score actual nominations here. Especially since Battlestar's in the running in name only.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of my Emmy Ballot.
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