Road Runner, TV series, and The Odyssey

A character in Money Heist reminded me of Wile. E. Coyote who comes up with ingenious plans to capture the Road Runner, only to see them fail every time. He never learns and the characters never change. They just go through different challenges with the same results, akin to one definition of crazy. But, in this case, funny.
So: Aren’t many TV series, even some of the best like that? The basic qualities of the key characters are established early on and then they face challenge after challenge only to find a way to overcome them. Character development or change is rare since the appeal of the challenges is seeing how their fixed personality gets them through the problem: Saul Goodman’s resourceful efforts in Better Call Saul to work the legal system to benefit less than law-abiding citizens, Marty and Wendy Byrde’s incredible ability in Ozark to use their wits to outsmart gangsters and cartels, scheming locals and crooked politicians no matter how dire the circumstances? Money Heist explores a single robbery attempt over two seasons as challenge after challenge confronts the impressively resourceful robbers, who also have a political axe to grind with late capitalism!
And in others like The Bridge or Shetland or A Place to Call Home, the challenges may impede a murder investigation or test the mettle of an entire family, but the characters alter little while the challenges proliferate like a field of wildflowers.
But doesn’t this idea of fixed characters confronting severe challenges that they typically overcome with skill and wit not go back at least to The Odyssey? Do TV series owe an enormous debt not only to Chuck Jones and his amazing cartoons but also to Homer and his classic tale of an almost interminable quest to achieve a long-desired goal despite nearly insurmountable obstacles? Except in some TV series the hero’s journey doesn’t bring them home so much as the kind of predicament that invites another season. Stay tuned.


Mad Men: Going Going…

It’s all over but not the debate.  Both commentaries in the New York Times (in Logan Hill’s blog online on 5/18/15 and in Alexandra Stanley’s printed review on 5/19/15) discuss the ending as a clear message that Don Draper is back in the fold, “creating” the iconic Coca Cola ad that ends the show.  I don’t buy it. That is a possible reading but an incredibly cynical and tone death one to me.

The only reason to think the Coke ad is Don’s creation is the smile, or smirk, he has as he’s meditating just before we cut from him to this saccharine but famous ad. It feels to me lthat he has found something more valuable than advertising and that the ad belongs to the world he’s left behind ever since Marie vacuumed out his apartment and he realized that those “things” were nothing he truly needed. Isn’t that realization what propels him to walk out the beer ad meeting that would have been a chance for the old Don to truly shine? Consider all the other experiences and changes he’s gone through in the last two episodes:

*The strength of character he displays in returning the stolen money to the vets without exposing the identity of the true thief. He lets these men think the worst of him, if they choose, because he’s done the right thing and has no need for their forgiveness or acceptance.

*His conclusion of the divestment that began with the loss of his apartment’s furnishings, involuntarily, and now culminates it giving away his car and whatever other items were in it, voluntarily, apart from that little bag of overnight essentials, to the man who stole the money and needs to find his bearings.

*His open confession that his CO died because of his carelessness and that he stole his identity. It’s the first time he has willingly owned up to the falsehood behind the life he’s built for himself. It’s been based on deception not unlike the ads he’s created and has walked away from. He later repeats and elaborates on this confession to Peggy.

*His entire experience at the Esalen look-alike (shot on located right there by the sea, the beautiful sea) including:

*His willingness to go there at all.

*His shift from Mr. Zombie who irks the woman in front of him with his stony silence so badly that she shows her feelings by giving him a big shove.

*His heartfelt hug with the bereft man whom he cries with at the pivotal encounter session.

*His shift from a desperate urge to flee when he finds himself stranded there on his own to turning up, freshly dressed in off-white slacks for the first time in the entire show, for meditation by the sea.

*The real grief he expresses, non-verbally, to Betty as he tries to offer some words of comfort only to realize that “normal” for his own kids has come to mean him not being there.

*His collapse on the ground as a miserable failure after his confession to Peggy only to see him rise and accept an invitation to join the encounter group where he will at last discover his depth of feelings.

Does all this not suggest a genuine transformation? To give him credit for the ad is to see all this as posturing and pretence, soon enough forgotten. It is a discredit to the moral complexity of the show.

The clever but pathetic parody of what makes life meaningful embodied in the Coke ad strikes me as Weiner’s final send up of the valueless world Don has left behind. He could never find a real goal or purpose in this world of half-truths and deceptions; he no longer needs to create a false front or fake persona, in life or in ads. None of his colleagues could give him a worthwhile goal that they’d fight for when he did his informal survey for Roger’s speech, but he does find something of value when he looks into his own heart, even it is at Esalen, an easy to mock target for the excesses and blind spots of New Age awareness, but a model of what we need to do to gain greater self-awareness all the same. Don’s new level of awareness—of the woes and suffering of others and of his own long suppressed feelings, seems genuine. And it clearly fits the mold of the road trip as journey of self-discovery that figures so massively in American movies and novels from Easy Rider to On the Road and well beyond.

Assigning the ad to Don is clearly possible: Weiner does not rule out that possibility, and even Jon Hamm himself thinks it’s a viable conclusion in an interview he gave: “With a final ding, the screen cut to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial—a sign that, depending on how you read it, either Draper has found the enlightenment this famous ad was trying to commodify, or was responsible for creating the ad himself.”

My money’s on the former choice of enlightenment but clearly part of the genius of the show is that the ending can be read two ways, at least. That so many critics seem to see it as obviously and totally clear in its meaning suggests a massive “failure to communicate” in the final moments of this extremely memorable program. Why would we want to discredit all the transformations we’ve seen him make? What does that say about the possibility for change, especially given that all the characters have evolved and grown more into themselves over the course of the show? Are ads the final expression of what truly matters in life? Don’s “fall” in the opening credits now clearly reads as a fall from pretence and illusion, not from grace. He doesn’t quite end up in an easy chair but he is clearly, as he sits there in a full lotus position, meditating, at one with himself, perhaps for the very first time.

True Detective

Along with Breaking Bad, True Detective is definitely one of the many impressive series gracing our soon to be defunct TVs (in terms of TV as a medium for banality and the ads that accompany it, and as a stand alone device).
Emily Nussbaum, a very solid TV reviewer at The New Yorker, panned it. I like her reviews and often find them a good guide to viewing, which could be either in the sense of if she likes it, I won’t, or vice versa, but not in this case.
Nussbaum finds if cliche ridden, especially in the cops as buddies, the women as eye candy, and the plot as predictable. Has she seen buddy movies that go all the way back to the 1920s, women as eye candy that go just as far back, or plots more subtly woven around slippages in time? (Emily definitely needs to see more movies.) She’s wrong on every count.
Nussbaum posits the British 5 part series, The Fall, as superior. Wrong again. The Fall opens with standard issue, cliche-ridden T&A shots of the star, Gillian Anderson, who can certainly reward such shots with visual pleasure, if that’s your sort of thing, but they are far more gratuitous than the early shots of a nude female victim of a demented killer that propels the two cops into a spiral of obsessions. The Fall follows that up with an underage baby sitter who goes through the Lolita thing without any nuance at all, and a high class brothel where the nude sex worker, who happens to be taking a shower in the other room but in plain view of the fortuitously placed camera, is there for no narrative purpose whatsoever but has a great body. The women in the bar where our two cops take shelter also has its array of attractive women but we do well to keep in mind that almost everything we see is told through flashbacks from these men’s points of view. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder would be an adage Nussbaum could have taken more to heart. Their pov is decidedly troubled, carefuly crafted (when they’re interogated by two cops some 17 years after the initial incident) and sometimes downright false.
These guys are just a bit unresolved when it comes to women. Far more than Gillian Anderson’s detective who’s got sex down cold. Ice cold. “Sweet nights” to her mean a one night stand that she initiates and terminates. This becomes an ideal because now, Man fucks woman, becomes Woman Fucks Man, and that, to her, is the feminist statement par excellence. Bravo, but it is but one way in which she, unlike Marty (woody Harrelson) or Rust (Mathew McConaughey) is a very off-putting, cold, one-dimensional character. That the editing creates numerous parallels between her and the psychotic serial killer is clearly no accident but it is not terribly insightful either and only posits a highly repressed but occasionally sex-hungry detective is not that different froma vicious, sadistic, psychotic killer. Support your local police just got another strike against it, but if there are any detectives just like Ms. Anderson’s character, I hope they will stand up.
Nussbaum also thinks The Fall is ahead of the game because we meet the killer early on and see much of his handiwork firsthand. This adds complexity. Wrong. Emily, please see Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for complexity, or, for that matter, Psycho. What The Fall fails to deliver is any plausibilty to this nut job. He’s a grief counsellor (!), and has a happy (sort of) family, with two kids, but holds down as his night job, serial killing. Right. With no effort through the first half of the series to reconcile these insanely incongruous types, the killer becomes something of a pathetic joke, hard to believe in and impossible to identify with in any sense, unlike the socially inept Henry or the earnest and protective Norman. He just seems a mishmash of traits heaped together to get us to scratch our heads. And like Anderson’s detective, he seems almost incapable of talk that involves more than one subject and verb, preferably monosyllables, in any given utterance. If there’s a there there in either of them, the show does a great job of hiding it.
I digress. Nussbaum makes passing reference to visual style and acting but gthese qualities is the heart and soul of True Detective. McConaughey won an Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and his portrayal here of a loner copy with a traumatic past is hardly inferior to his rodeo star cum AIDS victim portrayal. He mutters a lot of philosophical musings that Nussbaum, predictably dismisses. (When was the last time a mainstream critic took philosophic musings by a character in a film, let alone a TV series, seriously? They seem to get a mandatory innoculation against doing so prior to writing their first word.) But Rust’s musings are part and parcel of his character as a near celebate, ascetic, contemplative man who has lost his way and clings to the resolution of this series of horrific murders as his path to redemption. The musings make great sense and deserve serious attention but Nussbaum likes how Marty rolls his eyes at them in the early episodes and frets when he, and the show, seem to take Rust and his high-order thoughts more seriously. This means she, like Marty in the early going, fails to try to understand Rust and what troubles him and how these thoughts might be a defensive, and quite intelligible camouflage for the pain he holds within.
Nussbaum also thinks the Louisiana setting is a bit tired and cliched, but I respectfully disagree. Like Breaking Bad and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which she and I both admire greatly (whew!), the show gives Louisiana a distinctive stamp. The aerial shots of the bayous and decrepit ruins of this countryside speak volumes to the kind of world that could harbor, for decades, a serial killer or killers in its midst. Like the opening sequence, seen in each episode, and disliked by Nussbaum, there is a density and fascination to the images that goes well beyond the usual location shot. And T. Bone Burnett’s haunting, mersmerizing music makes the opening sequence far more significant than the heroic cops and exposed female bottom that Nussbaum managed to see, to the exclusion of everything else.
True Detective deserves a place in the pantheon of great new TV series. It should stand the test of time far better than The Fall and far far better than msot of the “entertainment” that fills the dial, even as we speak, and this new marvel of TV innovation takes place before us.

Loving Breaking Bad

So, what does that title mean? Whatever it means, it captures the curve of Walter White from good to bad, from teacher to killer in some elusive way. I’m in the middle of a marathon catch up, starting season 4 and watching Walter and Hank swap positions as tough guy, Walter and Jesse become “family” more than he is with Walt Jr., watching Skyler drift further into this dark underworld, for, like Walk, very good but perhaps ultimately poisonous reasons. It all has feel of an epic Russian novel, with a denser, tighter trajectory than The Wire or Mad Men as characters actually evolve and chanage in significant ways. To see Walter get a handgun, conceal it, drive to Gus’s house, and, before leaving his car for what he imagines will be a fatal confrontation, put on his black hat and run his fingers along the rim captures perfectly the Jekyll/Hyde transformation that he knowingly enacts, with greater and greater ease. Are we all Walter Whites? Is that part of the appeal?
More later, when I’ve caught up to the finale.

Orange Is the New Boring

I loved House of Cards and went back to see the British predecessor.  It, too, was quite impressive as F.U., Frances Urquart fought his way to power by any means necessary, including murder.  It stretched plausibility at times as did the Kevin  Spacy version but it made me feel as if Netflix was the new player in town.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Orange Is the New Black has the seductive Here-Is-a-World-You-Can-Immerse-Yourself-in-for-a-Long Time quality of House of Cards and classic TV shows from The Wire to Mad Men.  Prison is a great set up in that sense and the flashbacks that gradually flesh out the characters and help us understand their actions–why Red would hate a somewhat privileged, smug preppy girl (our hero), for example, becomes very clear from her past humiliations–add density and texture to it all.

But I may have seen too many classic B movies sets in prisons or Midnight Express or Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour to buy the convenient division of roles and types that get played out with a pastel tinted emotional palette. Lots of innuendo, little action.  Lots of predictability, few surprises.  And plausibility seems stetched at almost every moment Piper Chapman, our hero, (played by Taylor Schilling) is on screen with her well coifed hair and model looks.  Her cluelessness can be an attraction, for a while, and her former lesbian self and the partner who saw to it that she did  time, at the same jail, add a bit of complexity–or is it titillation?–to her character but when the series begins with the shower scene, the inevitable–for cable–bare breasts, and a healthy dollop of comment on them by another inmate we know that pandering is not beneath the writing and directing crew.

That we enter a women’s prison and experience a new form of dynamic, very different from the male prison films I referred to, could be a great plus but when I think of what Lena Dunham did to the girlfriends banding together formula with her series Girls, I feel more opportunities have been missed than seized.


Mad Men again

Catching up on Season 5 on dvd I am again amazed at the quality of this show.  The scripts are incredibly well-crafted. Within a minute or two we go from initial encounter to serious stuff.  Don comes in as Joanie goes beserk at receptionist.  He asks what’s up. Joan withholds, then, in her office, she admits to heartbreak: hubby served divorce papers.  Don, gallant guy he is, takes her to test drive Jaguars, a potential new client.  They wind up drinking and confessing long suppressed feelings.  She intimidated him; he didn’t send flowers like all the others. She found him hot but would never act on it.  A man eyes her. Don, still in early love with Megan, his new and incredible wife, takes his leave. We don’t know what Joanie does but can guess, knowing how she is. But Don gets hell at home for coming in late and drunk and not calling. Megan can’t stand his cavalier way but they clearly love each other.  All this in minutes.  And when Joanie gets flowers later in the program, guess who sent them?

For a tv show where dragging things out is often a key ingredient, ala the classic soap operas, Mad Men leaves little waste, little hesitation. Within a line or two we expose character flaws and deep yearnings, weaknesses and strengths. And every character has more than one side, none are set ups for the others.

If only every show were this complex, and others are too–Game of Thrones for one–I’d reconsider dropping my Direct TV service soon given that so much is a wasteland. Can you imagine a restaurant where, if you order steak, are told Great and that comes with mashed potatoes, french fries, potato chips, baked potato and potato au gratin.  I don’t need the fries. Sorry, that’s not an option.  It won’t be long before someone figures out the Hold Them Captive So We Can Pay Exorbitant Prices for sports events and other things, will crumbe in the face of a reasonable, appealing, affordable alternative.

The Oscars: Boobs and Buffoons

The real boob here was the host, Seth MacFarlane. If “the hook” still existed from its vaudeville days, the first line or two of his “I saw your boobs” song (using the word extremely loosely) would have warranted putting it into play.

The Academy’s membership and its viewing demographic skew upward, into the mature and elderly.  They know they need to reach a younger, more diverse audience.  Instead they seemed to have decided that all they need is to reach teen age boys on testosterone binges, the kids who flock to gross out comedies, horror films and action movies.  MacFarlane gave that group lots to laugh at, but noting the aghast expressions, cut short by the show’s producers who must have realized the reaction shots were of appalled female stars who couldn’t believe their ears, Captain Kirk’s judgments were being born out as he tried to jokingly side step the disaster Kirk warned of.

How to fix it? Apart from banishing MacFarlane back to juvenline TV shows, the Academy should do 3 things:

1. Downplay the host role.  At best the canned humor and ad libs pale compared to solid stand up comedy.

2. Play up the movie role.  Give more time to the films celebrated. Show more clips, but in the spirit of the now ubiquitous but seemingly unknown to the Academy Bonus Material on DVDs.  Add commentary by participants, add interviews and voice-over, add “making of” coverage and behind the scenes moments.  Help viewers appreciate the magic that lies within all great or even really good films.

3. Banish “thank you” from the winners’ vocabulary.  How can anyone hunger to hear winner after winner thank people we have never heard of?  As one winner said this time, “I will be thanking the people who helped win this over the next two weeks,” as well all winners should.  Let winners Thank the Academy. Period.  Let them say a few words about what they did or how they did it, or what working on the film was like, or how it came about, or what was most challenging or rewarding.  Let them share with us something of what brought them to the stage in terms of what they did.  And then let them exit with dignity, not with fanfares of trite music as if they were uninvited party crashers.

These three changes along with banishing buffoonery from the show will make The Oscars the kind of “inside” celebration, which, once shared “outside” the industry in a live television broadcast will linger in our minds as something memorable and not because it’s  a disturbing demonstration of how many boobs it takes to mess up a potentially great show.