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.


TV series: Herrens veje

Among my favorite long form TV series (Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Legacy, A Place to Call Home, Last Tango in Halifax, etc) is Borgen, a Danish show about a female Prime Minister and her struggles over several years and against multiple adversaries.

Now I’d add Herrens Veje, as Netflix bills it, though it also goes by Ride Upon the Storm.
This is also by Adam Price, the creator of Borgen.

It is about a family with Lutheran priests in it for the last 250 years. The current patriarch and his two troubled sons form the crux of the show, with vital peripheral characters thrown in.
When I’ve been asked over the years to name films that deal with religious themes intelligently I find the list petering out after several Bergman titles and some of Scorsese. Now there is this series. Some will find anything that tackles faith, doubt, sin, betrayal, redemption, guilt, spiritual visions, and family drama over the top no matter what. Better to deal with bad guys and fallible cops. But Price tackles these themes with an honesty and detachment that does not invite us to believe in anything beyond our own power to be engaged by complex, soul-wrenching situations. There are no apologies and those who speak for the church, the Danish National Church in this case, are just as flawed as those whose doubts run deep.
It’s all in the particulars and this show has them in spades.

The use of close ups is particularly compelling. These are all faces that seem to suppress as much emotion as they express. The characters are tightly wound with desires, fears, guilts and longings and only a fraction of it gets openly expressed. It gives the scenes an enormous sense of tension and the whole series a great deal of suspense, even though there is no ticking time bomb or a serial killer on the loose or any of the other usual suspects.

I’m finding it a more thought provoking show than just about anything I’ve seen in the last few years. I hope you do too, or, if not, I hope you’ll let me know why not.

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.