tongue-tied lightning


2010: The Year in Television

I watched substantially more television this year than I have in the past.  Enough, I think, to justify having a year end list.  The shows at the top aren’t much of a surprise so I’ll be listing things from best to worst.

Mad Men A+:  I think Mad Men is pretty clearly the best show currently on television, perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that every year they find a way to outdo themselves.  In terms of plot development, this may have been the least substantial season yet, but it gave way for great character based episodes like “The Rejected”, “The Suitcase” and “The Beautiful Girls”, among the best episodes of television I’ve seen from any show.  There were weak points, like the voiceover narration in “The Summer Man” and the absence of plot for much of the season led to an episode or two towards the end that felt a bit too plot-driven, but the finale was wonderful and the way things are going there’s no reason to believe next season won’t be even better.

Breaking Bad A:  If season 2 of Breaking Bad was perfectly plotted, season 3 often felt like it was flying by the seat of its pants.  That sounds like a criticism but with a show like Breaking Bad I think it’s a good thing.  Walt and Jesse are often making it up as they go along and it feels right for the writers to be doing the same.  Continuing a turn that began in the latter half of season 2 Jesse has become the audience surrogate and Walt in many ways is becoming a villain.  It’s a more intriguing dynamic than the one the show began with and I can’t wait to see what they do with it in season 4.

Friday Night Lights A:  The jump in quality between seasons 2 & 3 on Friday Night Lights is kind of shocking.  I’m not sure what to attribute it to, but what was merely an entertaining drama has become one of the best shows on television.  Season 4 does nothing to change that.  Mad Men might be the most intellectually stimulating show on TV and the one most attuned to my pleasure centers, Breaking Bad is certainly the most suspenseful show on TV, but when it comes to melodrama and perfectly crafted moments designed to trigger emotion, I’m not sure there’s anything as good as the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights.

Treme B+:  David Simon’s much anticipated follow up to The Wire was met with a fair amount of criticism in the wake of it’s highly praised pilot.  The complaints I most often heard lodged where that nothing ever happened and it lacked a unifying thread.  The latter is easier to combat than the former, as the focus of the show is clearly the city of New Orleans; the music, the food, the culture.  If it’s not as dramatic as the latest reiteration of the CSI/Law & Order formula, well, that’s perhaps for the better.  I think there’s plenty of day to day drama, people struggling to get their lives together and survive in a city that suffered a near-death experience.  I found a lot to love in the first season and I’m looking forward to revisiting it when it hits DVD, I’m also looking forward to season 2.

Rubicon B-: It’s a shame that Rubicon was cancelled because it wasn’t until the final third of the season that it really found it’s footing.  AMC fired series creator Jason Horwitch early on and that’s evident when watching the show.  The first few episodes are much more concerned with crazy conspiracy theories and they move at a glacial pace, even by AMC standards.  There was a Miranda Richardson plotline that took up a third of every episode but seemed unrelated to everything else going on.  It becomes a much stronger show when things start coming together and they focus more on the day to day at API and the conspiracy angle is moved to the background.  The show really found a groove in the last few episodes and then was met by cancellation.  It’s unfortunate that The Walking Dead is getting a second season and Rubicon wasn’t given a chance to flourish.  It had some great characters (particularly Kale Ingram) and some of the best cinematography on TV, but as it stands it’s hard to recommend investing the time.

Boardwalk Empire C:  Given Boardwalk Empire’s pedigree I’m disappointed to find it a completely average show.  It has great performances (the performances are frequently more memorable than the characters themselves) and the direction is usually exceptional but it feels like the writers don’t know what kind of show they want to make.  For much of the first season it seemed to punctuate boredom and aimlessness with bursts of stylized violence and copious amounts of nudity.  And then there’s Michael Shannon’s Van Alden, who is so awash in quirks and idiosyncrasies that it’s hard to remember there is a human being buried in there somewhere.  It did seem to come together a bit during the final few episodes, as Van Alden continued to feel more and more out of place, and the finale seems to narrow things down to a core group of characters and sets up some rivalries that should give season 2 the focus that season 1 often lacked.  There’s a lot of potential here, which I suppose is what keeps me watching.

The Walking Dead D:  If I wasn’t sure whether Boardwalk Empire or The Walking Dead should take the lower spot on the list their respective finales decided it for me.  While The Walking Dead has perhaps been more consistently entertaining, it’s flaws are too many to overlook.   The acting and directing are about what I’d expect to find on a direct-to-video horror film, but it’s the writing that has been the shows weakest point.  Whether it’s an ill-advised racist rant by a redneck character, a character that abuses his wife and daughter and in nuance is lacking only a mustache to twist, a stereotypical latino gang that are just good guys trying to protect their grandparents, or a crazed scientist who is hell bent on confining people in a blast chamber for no apparent reason, the season wasn’t exactly lacking when it came to bad writing.  And while with the six episode season things often felt rushed, it also felt like they were treading water.  Episode long detours that have no apparent value when it comes to theme, plot or character development.  The good news is that Darabont has apparently canned the entire writing staff, and while this could backfire, I can’t imagine it making the show much worse than it already is.  I’m hoping new writers and a 13 episode season will help Darabont & Co. work out the kinks, but if not I won’t hesitate to jump ship.

Keeping Up With The Kardashians:  Let’s face it.  The only reason I watch this show is because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to dating Kim.  I can be such a 14-year-old girl sometimes.  It’s a sad life but someone’s gotta live it.  And hey, at least I’m not watching Jersey Shore.

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An Update
September 20, 2010, 6:35 PM
Filed under: misc

I’ve been neglecting this blog lately so I thought I’d make a post for the sake of making a post.  The fact is I haven’t been watching that many movies lately.  I’ve seen like 15 in the last two months.  There were a couple notable ones and I could’ve written about them, but you know, I never got around to it.  I’ve been busy with some summer stuff, being outside and that, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading lately and catching up on some TV series’.  I’m thinking about writing some pieces on some of my favorite comic books, maybe that’ll get me back in the blogging swing of things.  In the meantime here are some highlights from the last couple months.

Films:

Toy Story 3 – Another great Pixar film.  I don’t even know what to say about them anymore.  This is one of the films I felt compelled to write about, as the subtext is worth examining, but the moment has passed.  Perhaps I’ll revisit it when it hits DVD.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – 2 hours of pure fun.  Wright manages to translate the feeling the comics have of capturing the Id of a generation, most notably our proclivity to relate to one another via pop culture, but the formal innovation is what keeps the film having the stagnant feeling of most adaptations.  He manages to seamlessly blend the video game and comic book aesthetics into the cinematic form in a way that feels completely fresh and original.

Stolen Kisses – I’ve never been a huge fan of Truffaut, so to say this is my favorite of his films may not be the high praise it sounds like.  It’s still a wonderful film.

Showgirls – I err towards the side of those that feel this film is a Masterpiece rather than the Worst Film Ever.  I wonder how it would’ve been received if it was directed by David Lynch and not Paul Verhoeven.  The heightened performances feel positively Lynchian as does the simultaneous embracing and deconstructimg of the American Dream.  And it’s funny and entertaining on a surface level, if you’re willing to embrace the Las Vegasness of the whole thing.

Books:

Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was the running theme of my summer.  Supplanted by Kafka’s novels, Salinger’s stories and some unremarkable detours into non-fiction.  The Trial, The Castle and All the Pretty Horses are all essential reading.  I’m currently nearing the end of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City to be followed by Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom which I will hopefully find compelling enough to write something about.

Music:

Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and Of Montreal’s False Priest have so dominated my listening over the last month and a half that I’m hard pressed to think of anything else worth mentioning.  More about both to come in my annual Music write-up.

TV:

I filled a chink in my Joss Whedon fan armor by working my way through Angel which is, in it’s own way, as compelling as Buffy, if not quite as memorable.  I finally got around to Breaking Bad, in which Bryan Cranston earns every bit of praise he’s received.  I’m currently in the process of catching up on Friday Night Lights and hasn’t this season of Mad Men been absolutely amazing?



July 30, 2010, 12:19 AM
Filed under: misc

Moments of unbridled happiness often overtake us when we’re least expecting it.  You find yourself driving home after an exhausting ordeal, the windows are down, a favorite song comes on the radio, the sky is a beautiful charcoal blue glowing with the memory of sunlight, the evening air is cool and abundant with the aroma of springtime.  As you approach a railroad crossing you notice the lights flashing and slow to a stop, listening as a train passes by, hearing a sound that once meant progress but now seems antiquated in this era of tractor-trailers and interstate highways.

After a time you notice you are completely content.  Any worries you may have brought with you concerning your work, money, your future or your health have melted away.  You are enjoying the song on the radio, the beauty of the evening sky, the feeling of the air, the smell of the trees and flowers.  As soon as you realize this it goes away, but for a moment you knew what it was to feel at peace with the world.

It’s a feeling that used to be easier to come by, when I was younger and my biggest concern was whether Maribeth had a crush on me or just wanted to be my friend. Now as I take my evening walk it’s more often I find trace elements of former contentment than contentment itself.  I walk past Josh’s parent’s house and think back fondly on the many nights I sat with him and others around a campfire, illegally obtained beers in hand, talking about whatever came to mind, completely at ease with who and where we were at that moment in time. Or the time when I laid on his back porch into the early morning hours while everyone else was sleeping, watching shooting stars dance across the sky.

I cling to moments such as these a bit too firmly.  My friends have moved away and gotten married, they have kids.  Yet I sit still hoping that if I wait long enough everything will come back.  Meanwhile my life is passing me by, just like this train.




Blogging Treme: Episodes 5 & 6 “Shame, Shame, Shame” and “Shallow Water, Oh Mama”
May 17, 2010, 10:08 AM
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The biggest development these last two weeks has been DJ Davis launching his political campaign.  What started out looking like a pisstake is, well, still a pisstake but one that he’s actually pursuing in a serious manner.  He ends up on a local news station engaging in a debate with other candidates laying out his plans for “Greased Palm Sunday” and his “Pot for Potholes” program.  Whether or not he has any hope as a politician, and he doesn’t, you have to admire his wit and ability to turn a phrase.

That this is the biggest development belies something that’s become a criticism of Treme.  That it lacks plot elements, that nothing happens, that every week is more of the same.  I’m not sure I agree with this, certainly alot happens; Jeanette has to close her restaurant, LaDonna’s brother continues to elude her lawyer, Sonny and Annie’s relationship is building to a head.  The difference is they are realistic plot elements, stripped down beyond even the level The Wire was, not the typical overplotting we’ve come to expect from television shows.  To claim that nothing happens on Treme is to claim nothing happens in real life.

At the halfway point, the show’s thesis seems to be that culture is what keeps us going.  When times are tough and things get fucked up, getting together with others and taking in a jazz gig at a bar or attending a parade or participating in a second line can be enough to see us through.  It may be a simple theme and there is certainly alot more going on underneath that, but that seems to be the crux of the show.  Simple as it may be it’s a theme I agree with, I find solace in music, in film, in art, and in coming together with other people to celebrate these things.  We are a culture becoming to some extent disillusioned with religion, but heaven is right in front of us, in each other.

There are plenty of other things to note.  To touch on the previous discussion regarding the show being unkind to outsiders, it was nice to see a Japanese man buy Antoine a new horn and reveal that he knew as much if not more about New Orleans culture than Antoine did.  Of course, by making the character a foreigner, there is also the sly ‘he understands American culture better than most Americans do!’ nod going on.  It was also cool to see Davis’s neighbors bring him in when he passed out drunk in front of their house, bearing no ill will towards him despite how he’s treated them in the past.

Favorite scenes?  In episode 5, Davis criticizing the Bush adminstration with an all-star cast of New Orleans musicians in tow.  This week?  How can I not say the Krewe du Vieux parade?  It’s interesting to see we’re already into Mardi Gras season, as many assumed that would be the seasons climax.  It looks like that won’t be the case with Fat Tuesday only about a month away.



Blogging Treme: Episode 4 “At the Foot of Canal Street”
May 5, 2010, 9:23 AM
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I don’t have much to add this week.  Another solid episode.  The Sonny/Annie plot continues to become more and more interesting.  The centerpiece of this week’s episode featured Sonny going on a road trip to Austin to play at an open mic with the Rebirth Brass Band.  Annie picks up gigs where she can, playing with street musicians portrayed by Steve Earle and his son Justin.   She ends up getting better gigs alone than she could get with Sonny, further fueling his jealousy.

We see Antoine’s relationship, or lack thereof, with his children.  John Goodman and Steve Zahn act together again and Goodman’s Creighton Bernette discovers YouTube.  We have appearances from lots of Wire alum this week.  Not only Steve Earle but Anwan Glover returns and Jim True-Frost shows up.  The longer the show goes on the less it feels like there will be any over-arcing plot and the more it seems it will just continue to follow unrelated characters capturing their lives and portraying the culture of their city.  I’m just fine with that.  Hopefully I’ll have more to comment on next week as we reach the halfway point.



Blogging Treme: Episode 3 “Right Place, Wrong Time”
April 29, 2010, 12:08 AM
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The final scene from this week’s episode Treme is a lasting one and one that’s caused alot of critical kerfluffle.  As a Katrina tour interrupts the Big Chiefs from several Mardi Gras Indian Tribes gathering to mourn the loss of a friend, just what are we supposed to take from this scene?  Is David Simon attempting to dismiss all curiousity seekers as soulless vultures?  Isn’t the same human urge that compels the tourists in the van compelling many of the show’s viewers to watch?  I’m not sure if David Simon is consciously trying to make this point but I feel it is the point made by the scene.  The tourists on the show are in the wrong.  This is due less to any inherent problem with Katrina tours than a dramatic leverage gained by making the tourists a faceless mob fighting to get the best pictures and stacking on top of that the fact that they are interrupting a group of grieving friends.

The question of Katrina tours is a problematic one.  The idea of profiting off a tragedy is disturbing, and I’m sure many citizens of the lower 9th ward do feel like an exhibit as privileged white folks drive by gawking at them.  Nobody likes to be pitied or patronized.  On the flip side of that, it is empathy that leads people to go on such tours.  A desire to comprehend an incomprehensible tragedy.  Some people need to see to understand and without understanding how will people prevent such tragedies from happening again?  Not that Katrina tours are anywhere near the most desired way to satiate this urge, but that the show doesn’t make any attempt to grant the tourists is troubling (especially in light of The Wire allowing even the show’s most undesirable characters their reasons) and potentially alienating.

On the topic of The Wire, over the last couple weeks we are starting to seemany of Simon’s trademarks shining through.  There was the scene with Clarke Peters discussing a remodel job with a friend wanting to drywall over the plaster in his house  ‘people do a lot of dumb shit because it’s easier’ the cracked plaster clearly calling to mind the shoddy construction of the city’s levees.  A character is concerned about them bulldozing the lower 9th ward and there was talk last week of the city using the flood as an excuse to get rid of a troublesome housing project that wasn’t affected by Katrina.  Then there is the corruption running rampant among the police department, national guard and the prison system.  Davis McAlary and Antoine Baptiste both end up on the unfortunate end of that.

My favorite scene came just before Antoine’s run in with the law when he stopped on the sidewalk to sing “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance” with Sonny and Annie.  Despite the acuity of Simon’s societal criticism it is in these sublime celebrations of culture that the show’s heart lies and it’s what has me hooked.  After episode 2 there were some rumblings that Sonny and Annie could perhaps be modeled on Zachary Bowen and Addie Hall.  It’s unfortunate, but this weeks episode furthers that perception.  While I can’t imagine Simon ending it quite that grisly Sonny looking on jealously as Addie plays alongside Tom McDermott and sadly drinking the bottle of wine he bought her alone seems to hint at such a possibility.  There is also the revelation that drugs were a part of Sonny’s past.  An enigmatic character to say the least.

It is in the human interactions that Treme shines.  Life is so colorful in New Orleans it’s infectious.  While a strong dramatic arc has yet to emerge and may not, it is the characters and culture that will keep me coming back.  This is a bit of a departure from The Wire, which while featuring strong characters and maintaining a humanist nature, always placed the focus on societal criticism above all else.  As pointed out before, this is where Treme could potentially falter, though the lack of gray areas could owe more to less focus being placed on that aspect of the show than any failure on the writer’s parts.  There was one moment that seemed to counterbalance the ‘insiders vs. outsiders’ nature of the show some have been critical of.  Davis McAlary, while criticizing his neighbor’s taste in music and landscaping discovers that, despite all appearances, they are just as New Orleans as he is.  Hopefully as the show continues more ambiguities will develop and it’s unabashed defense of New Orleans will gain a little more nuance.



Blogging Treme: Episode 2 “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront”
April 19, 2010, 3:38 AM
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Last week, Slate Magazine published an article questioning whether or not David Simon was going too easy on New Orleans, that is, whether or not he was stacking the deck for the home team.  It mentioned the British reporter from the first episode and a moment with some street musicians in the second.  Watching early in episode 2 as they ridiculed some kids who had come down with a church group to help “gut houses and stuff” I wondered if Slate didn’t have a point.  I was pleased  when they were redeemed later in the episode.  They had been touched by Christ but not Kermit and tellingly, between their first scene with the street musicians and their last, they learned how to pronounce New Orleans.

I think the second episode builds on the foundation set by the pilot rather well.  We find out more about Creighton Bernette’s vocation.  We find out why Janette DeSautel doesn’t want anyone to ask her about her fuckin’ house.  We start to get a bead on Albert Lambreaux and the activities of Mardi Gras Indians are slowly being revealed to us.  At the same time, we’re being introduced to some new characters.  We start meeting character’s families. I’m not sure if we’ll see the tourists again but the street musicians seem like they might be coming back.

Davis McAlary continues to be my favorite character, at times it feels like he’s in there to provide comic relief, but he seems to really be in tune with the spirit of New Orleans.  Seeing him try to hold down a legitimate job in a Bourbon Street hotel is quite amusing.  I really liked seeing more of Rob Brown’s character, Donald Lambreaux but perhaps that’s because his more prominent scenes involved Allen Toussaint and Stanton Moore.

On that note, the music continues to be top notch.  We get another small scene with Kermit Ruffins who I’ve really been digging into after last week’s episode.  He may not be Miles Davis but he’s far more than adequate and his laid back party style really suits the show and the city it’s trying to portray.  Where else but New Orleans could someone like Kermit Ruffins exist?  To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes of the episode: “You come home every night smelling like cigarettes and pussy.” “That’s not pussy.” “What is it then?”  “Barbeque, Kermit’s barbeque.” “Honey, Kermit’s barbeque tastes right but not that right.”  I can’t think of a better place to leave off this week.