Monday, February 25, 2008

For TV GUIDE: QUARTERLIFE: Re-Drawn and Un-Quartered

As you've probably read by now, quarterlife didn't begin as the web series it's been since last November, as well as a social networking site of some ambition beyond the show itself. As the potential fifth series producers Ed Zwick and Marhall Herskovitz would bring to ABC, after thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Relativity, and Once and Again, ABC passed, and the producers decided their concept of a series exploring young adults' lives, just after college but before they've actually settled into full-fledged careers and other aspects of "grown-up" existence, would lend itself handsomely to a webisode format, five to nine minute segments rather than 42 or so before the commercial breaks are added. And since Zwick and Herskovitz love to feature characters addressing the audience directly, in voiceover or, as in the brilliant Once and Again, in segments in which the characters' inner monologue is represented by their speaking (or staring silently!) directly into the camera (in black and white, on a limbo set), to add the aspect of video blogging into the drama would just make that sort of device even more organic.

NBC apparently snapped up the series before the strike (either as a bulwark against the looming strike or simply as a relatively safe midseason replacement, since it was in production anyway), but with the proviso that it will go on as a web series even if it doesn't go forward on NBC as an hourlong show. (Which also opens the possibility that another network might consider it...why do the letters "CW" seem to form on the distant horizon?)

As a web series so far, it has had both strengths and weaknesses. Being doled out, even twice a week, in such small chunks means that some transitional bits will have to be left behind in the web edits, and some things might have to be telescoped that might have a little more room to breathe in the longer format. The focus on twenty-somethings, which this series shares with the impressive, too-often overlooked Relativity, is a good idea (driven in part by the working life the producers found themselves in), but unlike the series since My So-Called Life, the greater texture that intergenerational interaction brings to the drama has mostly been unexplored (till the most recent webisodes, wherein Bitsie Tilloch's Dylan tries to cope with her mother and their difficult relation). For 25-year-olds, or thereabouts, the characters often seem remarkably adolescent; and, as some of the commenters on the quarterlife site itself tend to note, the characters often seem to drop out of sight for extended periods (a function, probably, of the tight focus the webisode length imposes).

But the series is well-acted, well-shot, and interesting, and I look forward to seeing how the longform version of the series might differ from what we've seen so far.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Best Nights of the US...over the last three, four decades...that I manage to remember...

This one's kind of another command performance, or suggested performance, from a line in Bill Crider's blog about how impressively, memorably good the 1972-73 CBS Saturday night lineup of programming (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show) was. And it was, particularly if you, like me, were just eight when it was introduced. I'd mentioned how it was surpassed slightly for me by the local lineup in the Hartford CT/Springfield MA market in 1975, by which time CBS had already moved the first two half hours away from "family hour" and into slots on other nights, but the three remaining CBS shows gave way to the local PBS's run of Monty Python's Flying Circus in its first full run at 11pm, and that neatly fed into the first season of NBC's Saturday Night (Live) (three weeks a month, and the almost-as-good sly newsmagazine Weekend on the fourth week). The first hour on CBS by 1975 was given over to mostly forgettable but supposedly family-friendly sitcoms.

For me, there wouldn't be another full night of television nearly as satisfying till another local arrangement, the DC area's Friday nights in 1995-1996, which saw the local UPN station run the syndicated Babylon-5 at 8pm, The X-Files was offered on Fox at 9pm, and then Homicide: Life on the Street at 10pm on NBC. Though perhaps there was another contender for me on Friday nights in the southern New Hampshire/Boston market in 1978-79, which saw the local PBS stations offer Sneak Previews, The International Animation Festival (hosted by Jane Marsh), a rather good short film showcase hour whose title slips my mind (Short Subjects or something relatively generic like that, it was a national package), and a package of Janus Film Collection international classics that was tagged PBS Theater, at least as it appeared on WENH in Durham--I was first able to see The 400 Blows, Forbidden Games, Rashomon, and other impressive chestnuts thus.

Looking back at the national network schedules, it is notable how often one would have some difficulty finding consistently-good fare on any given night (and not infrequently have good shows pitched against each other, of course), but that doesn't take into account just how much more interesting and often impressive cable and syndicated fare was available, particularly around 2000-2002, which is in most ways the best two seasons US television has seen, and the last two, even with strike, haven't been too shabby, either (even given the inevitable tripe, around the millennium even much of the bubblegum was of a quality that would've shone like diamonds during most of the latter 1970s and
The Huntress
early 1980s seasons...contrast the Annette O'Toole vehicle The Huntress or even the Xena knockoff Witchblade with the witless crap that was The Dukes of Hazzard or The Fall Guy or Charlie's Angels...Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinatti, The Rockford Files, The Paper Chase, SCTV, and eventually Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey could've used the company among the more intelligent shows kicking around in those years). But while there have always been at least some good series to watch...those who claim there's nothing get no sympathy from me, it's a bit like saying there's nothing good on radio or nothing good to read anymore...finding a single night where the Newsradio or Scrubs bright spots haven't been interspersed with Veronica's Closet dreariness or at best Wings competence has been very much a rare and temporary thing. Tuesday nights at 8pm ET were particularly ridiculous a few years back, wherein at least four or five regularly scheduled series I enjoyed, including PBS's Nova and the WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, were simulcast (I believe Newsradio was part of that stack, though beginning at 8:30pm on NBC, and the only interesting series on the then new Pax network, Mysterious Ways), while there were long stretches throughout the week wherein any of those series would've been quite welcome.

And then there're Sunday nights...where pay cable and often also the "basic" cable stations come out to play, and if there's something interesting on the broadcast nets as well...well, one can be glad that the cable stations almost always repeat everything so often...and the broadcast networks are doing the same with their Saturdays, particularly.

The closest to a fully satisfying night we've had in the last season has been Mondays on NBC, where the fine Chuck, the foundering but still watchable Heroes, and the brilliant and cancelled Journeyman were offered in the first months of the short season...

But, of course, I have to give a nod to Saturday afternoons in the Boston area in the early 1970s, when viewers of Channel 56 got to see repeats of The Outer Limits followed by the Creature Double Feature...a solid five-six hours of outre photoplay, ranging from utter cheese to quite good indeed. Warped my mind.

China Beach (see comments)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Afterward, a vignette

This is a late entry in the Abbott Valentine's Day 750 words or less challenge to do a story with love and crime in it. More of a challenge, perhaps, to do a vignette with no love and no crime. I don't like "publishing" my own fiction on my own website, don't ask me why...too much like utter vanity, probably. But the links to the stories that have showed up are here:

Afterward copyright 2008 by Todd Mason

It wasn’t until he knew she’d been murdered did he realize how much he missed her, and how terribly fast that came to him. There it was, right in front of him, in the paper. It was a freak story, or else there wouldn’t’ve been a reason for the wire report to be carried from one city/suburban cluster to another, every city has its share of routine murder, young men (usually young men, not always either) drunk on despair and testosterone and whatever substance was supposed to make things easier right then, angry spousal equivalents, payback abuse or just abuse.

He hadn’t seen her in years, hadn’t corresponded (if that’s what one did with email) in months, maybe as much as a year. He knew she was happy, in a way he was quite sure she’d never been when they were together, a way she probably couldn’t be with him. She’d gone through several changes, was settling into a new job, she loved her husband the way you’d want to be loved if you were him. An off-duty police officer who’d developed a habit of pulling over women of a certain age chose her one night as she was driving home from the night class. Officer Friendly made sure he was the last to see her alive. She was the sixth of seven they knew about. He’d really gotten sloppy by the seventh.

Sitting there staring at the paper, seeing her name there, knowing there was no reason for authorities to contact him (maybe a call from Officer Friendly’s best buddy in the Academy or at the local land-grant school,, or maybe his ex-partner), didn’t make him feel any less clobbered. Her husband might’ve, but he’d’ve had his own version of real-time hell to cope with, not this sudden smack after the fact. Cold print. Gasping. Cold, blind rage. Officer Friendly had been called Davy by his family. David Miller. Pillar of the community.

He sat staring at the paper and weighed his options. He could go to the trial, try to find a way to kill Davy Miller or at least introduce him to some small measure of what the wire story didn’t detail too closely of what he’d done to at least seven women. He could go to the trial, in that other big city up north a bit, and try to get some satisfaction out of his Twinkie defense, the slam-dunk the prosecutor would have, the life imprisonment with the hope of a shiv in an ex-cop’s back. He’d never have another conversation with her, he’d never get a card from her again at year’s end, she wasn’t at least walking around somewhere else nor laughing nor thrusting her hips just so as she came, nor rolling her eyes just so at some weak joke someone else would make (she’d wiggle her eyebrows to let you know she knew how weak her joke was, if it was). He wouldn’t know that she was fine. She never would be fine again. His impotence in the face of that fact wasn’t as hard to bear as the thought of her loss, but was no more reassuring.

He sat and thought about what he would do, what he was worth, how little David Miller was worth, what she…had been. He couldn’t completely catch his breath, he wasn’t yet ready to cry, if that was coming. Maybe on his trip north.

Whatever he was going to do, he needed to gather a few things, make a few calls. And he needed to know when the services were. And the trial. And whatever came afterward.

Monday, February 11, 2008

THE WIRE review for TVG

HBO's The Wire: Why You Should Tap into It

When: Sundays at 9 pm/ET, with the fifth (and final) season premiering Jan. 6.

What's what: A complex and panoramic portrait of American society's waste of human potential and betrayal of its own stated ideals, as demonstrated by the lives of Baltimore drug dealers, the police who attempt to break up their operations, and the regular citizens affected by their activities.

Who's who: Probably the largest cast of any U.S. open-ended television series, with a constantly shifting group of current and former gangsters, the street peddlers who work for them, their neighbors, cops, lawyers, politicians, teachers, social workers, prisoners and dockworkers.

What's next: Each season has focused on some segment of Baltimore society affected directly by the drug trade and/or by the attempts to stop it; this fifth and final season will examine how newspaper journalism and related media play their roles. We also see the ongoing turf battles within the illegal drug business and within police and other government agencies, particularly the schools and the rivalry between and within the Baltimore city and Maryland state governments.

Why watch?: The breathtaking ambition of the series, and its wit, grit and sophistication. While the show can occasionally offer excessive speechifiying and, rarely, an awkward infodump or strained irony, it's a natural extension of what the creative staff was attempting to do with previous projects Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner: an indictment of what is wrong with the way things usually go, never failing to make its case with brilliantly drawn characters in believable and often morally and ethically ambiguous situations that have no quick or easy fix. As with any complex serial, there is a lot of backstory that new viewers might want to catch up on (all previous seasons are available on DVD; shop, but if the past is any indication, jumping in midstream will still make for compelling entertainment.

Say what?: Along with the Homicide folks, such noted crime-fiction writers as Richard Price (Clockers), Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), and particularly Baltimore/D.C. specialist George Pelecanos have been tapped to write for the series. — Todd Mason

THE L WORD review for TVG

Showtime's The L Word: Why You Should Go that Way

When: Sundays at 9 pm/ET, with Season 5 premiering Jan. 6.

What's what: A look inside the lives of a kaffeeklatsch of Los Angeles-based lesbian and bisexual women and their lovers, relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Who's who: It's a very large cast, but the core characters are: Alice (played by Leisha Hailey), an open-hearted if mildly acerbic radio host; Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a somewhat troubled writer who finds success with an autobiographical novel about the group; curator and professor Bette (Jennifer Beals) and studio executive Tina (Laurel Holloman), a couple who split but share custody of a daughter and otherwise uncomfortably remain in each other's orbit; hairstylist and former adolescent prostitute Shane (Katherine Moenig), who's unsurprisingly rather guarded and afraid of commitment, but is also fiercely loyal and apparently irresistible to many women; and, increasingly, Kit (Pam Grier), Bette's "straight" older half-sister, who's attempting to restart her aborted singing career while running the café and nightclub, the Planet, where the others often meet.

What's next: Resolution of the major cliffhangers from last season: whether Jenny, upset over the way her novel was to be filmed (and who was involved), might've drowned herself; what the legal consequences might be of the theft of money by newer character Helena (Rachel Shelley) from her controlling paramour and boss Catherine (Sandrine Holt); and how the budding but already-rocky new romances for Bette and Shane might proceed, particularly with Shane losing her temporary guardianship of her young half-brother.

Why watch?: At its frequent best, The L Word is a genuinely funny and often-touching drama about a group of well-realized and by no means whitewashed characters making their way in a world that often will arbitrarily hold things other than their sexual preferences against them. The arc involving Moira Sweeney becoming Max Sweeney (Daniela Sea), particularly the awkward and partial but genuine attempts by his puzzled father to reconcile with the former daughter he'd alienated, was extremely well-handled, avoiding many of the clichés that have already arisen in this kind of scenario.

While such American series as Ellen (the sitcom), Roseanne and Once and Again had dealt to some degree or another with fairly realistic lesbian characters (and Xena certainly winked and coded), even the U.S. version of Queer as Folk seemed to treat its Sapphic cast as metaphorical little sisters. The L Word has been the first to make lesbians its primary focus, and to make a game effort to touch on as many aspects of women's experience as possible... even if, particularly in the early episodes, few of the characters seemed to need to work very often.

At its infrequent worst, The L Word is a mildly interesting, somewhat-cartoonish soap opera where characters (particularly the protean Jenny) seem to suffer abrupt behavioral changes and make plot-driven arbitrary decisions with disproportionate consequences.

Say what?!: A Taiwanese-American lesbian friend of mine has a sort of love/not-quite-hate relationship with the series, in part for continuing a trend she sees in a lot of U.S. television and films, wherein the East Asian-descended characters (such as Catherine here) are most often pettily to grandly evil. Even the rather positive "Papi" character played by Indian/Dutch-American Janina Gavankar was Hispanic rather than South Asian. Of course, part of what my friend also doesn't like about the series is that Papi won't be continuing into the new season. — Todd Mason

BREAKING BAD review for TVG "Strike Survival Guide"

AMC's Breaking Bad Is One Hot Meth

When: Sundays at 10pm/ET (with many encores), premiering Jan. 20.

Why watch?: Judging by the pilot, this promises to be a smart, stylish, grimly funny, ultimately serious look at how life can treat one poorly and how bad choices can make things that much worse... but not always worse, and not in every way. Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher in Alburquerque, New Mexico, who is just turning 50 as the series begins. His job pays so poorly that he has to moonlight at a car wash; he had done early work that helped other chemists earn a Nobel Prize while he's clearly been slaving away at his school for too many years; his teenaged son has cerebral palsy (though generally seems to be coping with that); his wife is pregnant and 39ish; and he discovers that the persistent chest cold he's been fighting is actually malignant, incurable lung cancer. (You're laughing already, yes?) Having decided that playing life straight isn't going to do him any good nor leave any kind of financial (at least) legacy for his family, he partners up with an old student of his to be a crystal meth "cooker"... fast money and a means to flip the bird at fate and propriety. X-Files writer-producer Vince Gilligan has managed to leaven all this with clever fish-out-of-water humor, as White makes his way in the drug culture while also keeping his family in the dark, and shows that he's nobody's fool except his own. Imagine a less giddy, sharper Weeds that substitutes chemistry for horticulture, add in a dash each of Numbers and The Sopranos, and you might have a sense of what it's like, right down to the theme of mistaking machismo for manhood.

Who's who: Bryan Cranston (see related Q&A) is probably the best choice imaginable to play Walter White; as with his character on Malcolm in the Middle, he's a loving father and husband caught in several dilemmas at once, and like Hal (only more so), White has inner resources that might just allow him to achieve at least some of what he aspires to. Anna Gunn plays his affectionate and usually attentive wife, like Walter coping as best she can with their ongoing predicament (she's picking up small money as an eBay vendor, when not fending off her hypercritical sister or loutish brother, a DEA agent who first unintentionally inspired Walter to consider meth as a career choice). Aaron Paul is Jesse Pinkman, achetypal punk in the old sense, a guy who just doesn't know when to shut up or stop acting tough, but who is an established meth supplier, as "Cap'n Cook." Creator Vince Gilligan had served with Chris Carter on his short-lived series Harsh Realm and X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen before joining the mother-ship series, along with writing films and other television drama.

What's next: Deeper into the meth underworld, while perhaps he'll let at least his wife in on his health and criminal secrets... and perhaps not. This is meant to be an ongoing series, if all goes well.

Say what?!: Cranston apparently has no trouble going around clothed only in tighty-whitey underwear briefs, as required by a good chunk of the pilot's action. (Walter didn't want his street clothes to reek of meth and other chemicals.) Cranston notes that this is the second series in a row that has required him to do so (after Malcolm), and that he's come to the conclusion that "this is what America wants to see."

What do you say? While this show in no way intends to glorify meth nor drug culture (in distinction, perhaps, to Weeds, where the merits of marijuana legalization often are discussed at least in passing, particularly while jubilantly passing a joint or a bong), does showing sympathetic characters doing major and minor crimes trivialize such offenses? Do we need another demonstration of how crime doesn't quite liberate criminals from oppression they feel from within and without? — Todd Mason

Use our Online Video Guide to check out some dope preview clips from Breaking Bad.