Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Recent television

The Office, Season 6

Much to my surprise and, I imagine, that of most of the people who took the original Merchant-Gervais series as something of a television masterpiece, The Office achieved escape velocity around the third season and became, if not the same kind of achievement, a great, surprising work in its own right, with a seemingly limitless well of creative energy and enthusiasm. The tricky balance of the show, consistently struck and maintained over several years (and about two dozen episodes per season) is to contain the beyond-insane antics of the lead character (an emotionally stunted, borderline sociopath who, in spite of his penchant for destroying everything around him, not only manages to lead a successful branch, but remains eerily plausible in doing so) and a sense of the real world and real economy in which his livelihood is placed.

Without the characters who surround Michael Scott, of course, the show wouldn't amount to much. The Gervais-Merchant series depicted with a harsh sense of reality that a man like David Brent wasn't long for the business world, and drew out the approach to its inevitable conclusion to the limits of the viewer's endurance, and beyond, often swallowing up other characters' hopes and dreams along the way. ("She said 'no,' by the way" is about as heartbreaking a moment you're likely to find in any sitcom.) As developed by Greg Daniels, the American series not only opts not to pitch its characters into hopelessness and industrial-park oblivion (the optimistic "Christmas Special" conclusion of the UK narrative is less a satisfying resolution than a strained act of mercy), it expands its focus beyond the main quartet (Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight) to build secure foundations for its supporting cast. The idea isn't to guide the characters along a path towards their inevitable destination (happiness or disappointment) but to try and explore what choices people really would make, even under the most ridiculous circumstances, and to observe the nuances of their behavior along the way. For example, "The Shareholders Meeting" may have a perplexing, unsatisfying conclusion, but the key moment comes when Oscar is invited to share his brutal honesty with Dunder Mifflin's top tier - the truth he bragged about wanting to speak to power if given half a chance - and he balks.

It's the understated, empathetic approach to character that powers the emotional highs and lows of the program - the sheer elation of the conclusion of the "Michael Scott Paper Company" arc of the fifth season, which, in its use of a repurposed office space as an impromptu dance contest is almost worthy of Tati's restaurant shindig in Playtime; the heart-palpitations-inducing torture of "Scott's Tots"; the brilliant two-parter from the third season (directed by Daniels), "Traveling Salesmen"/"The Return," which likely was responsible for launching Ed Helms into a minor stardom. Listing moments of greatness could turn into a tedious parlor game, but there's scarcely a cheap shot to be found.

The X-Files, Season 3

As I make my way through The X-Files, I often find myself drawn more to the episodes that don't seem interested in developing the show's lasting legacy: the aliens, the inter-agency (or extra-agency) cover-ups, the shadow governments, and so forth. Two episodes from the second season, "Humbug" and "Soft Light", both seemed stronger in their single-dose story arcs (even if the latter is hooked up at the end to the conspiracy business, with Steven Williams's character written into an otherwise autonmously Twilight Zone-style script), and it seemed to me that episodes not dealing with what fans often call "the mythology" (aliens, etc.) are altogether stronger artistically, and take greater (and welcome) liberties with dialogue and characterization. "Syzygy," not an entirely successful "small-town hysteria" narrative with more than a few cut corners, nevertheless uses a kind of everybody-goes-crazy premise (a staple of science fiction serial television since Star Trek) to find some elasticity in Mulder and Scully's otherwise clean & professional comportment ("Sure, fine, whatever"), and "War of the Coprophages" shows the pair in fine Walter-Hildy form as they find themselves in the middle of what is essentially a black comedy version of a monster movie.

The season highlight thus far is "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (the title refers to the unsung Hollywood director who collaborated on several of Keaton's greatest films; he took his own life, penniless, in 1955), with a magnificent guest performance by Peter Boyle, and the kind of dry, eccentric humor that often galvanizes the show's best scripts.

Here we also see an influx of well-known actors, some in their pre-fame phase (Giovanni Ribisi, Jack Black, Bokeem Woodbine), some in their prime as character players (Boyle, J.T. Walsh, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Berryman, Stephen McHattie, a too-briefly-glimpsed R. Lee Ermey). If the kidnapped girl in Oubliette looks familiar, it's the future Kaylee from Joss Whedon's Firefly.

Have Gun Will Travel, "Three Bells to Perdido"

I didn't know what to expect from Andrew V. McLaglen, who is best known for directing five of John Wayne's more popular features (none of which I've seen), a fair share of Gunsmoke (ditto), and over a hundred episodes of HGWT (ditto again), but "Three Bells to Perdido" is quite a bit more expressive than McLaglen's lack of a reputation would seem to indicate. Richard Boone makes an ideal hero, his rocky features, unforgettable, baritone laugh and the diabolical gleam in his eye canceling any temptation to see him as a simple do-gooder.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Revenge"

Many episodes of the television program (which ran from 1955 to 1965) shared The Master's penchant for the macabre. The pilot episode, the first of the seventeen he directed himself, is not only quite subdued in this regard, it's arguably his bleakest moment - if it wasn't The Wrong Man, for which "Revenge" is something of a prototype. (Both star Vera Miles as a working man's wife who is traumatized into catatonia.) The epilogue declares for the story a too-pat resolution. The truth offered by the final shot (before Hitch appears) seems more clear: that these two will dwell in guilt and sadness into infinity.

Damages, conclusion of Season 1

At least two reviews compared this to Louis Feuillade. I don't see the resemblance, and I don't just mean in form (how could it?); the French master was one of the cinema's earliest great artists and storytellers, his work with themes of intrigue, narrow escape, and far-fetched conspiracy are a long way from the considerably more prosaic backstabbing and unraveling of moral rectitude that plays out across the first season of Damages. If anything, the battle between Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), the spectacle of gods and goddesses hurling moons at each other, disintegrating any mortals foolish enough to do - or defy - their bidding, only speaks with Feuillade through the medium of Jacques Rivette.

With one season under my belt, I find it's smarter than a pleasant time-waster, and its images (the windswept Manhattan grey, the amber of a single-malt you'll never be able to afford) pleasing to the eye, although the direction is almost always a little too enclosed and with-the-grain to foster much enjoyment on a formal level.

Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles, Season 1

An absolutely stupid program that I watch out of the corner of my eye when I'm occupied with something else. Not much to see here, other than Summer Glau's gifts as a comedienne.

30 Rock, Season 4 premiere episode

Not pretty. But that's how I felt about the opening of the third season, and it developed considerable momentum after I declared it a write-off. So here's hoping.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4 & 5

The fourth season is, so far, the show's most ambitious, both thematically, and in its apparent budget. Not everything works - the less said about "Where the Wild Things Are," itself a gloss on an episode from earlier in the same season, "Fear Itself," the better. And "Beer Bad" is often cited as the low point in the entire series. But when it's on, it's on. Whedon the producer allows Whedon the writer-director the greatest amount of experimentation in lighting and performance, and the show hits two all-time peaks, "Hush" and "Who Are You?"

Further tricks on viewer memory - begun with the Danny episode of the fourth Season - when Buffy's kid sister is introduced, and while the fifth season seems a little punch-drunk as it finds its legs, the quality of writing overall seems consistently sharp and funny.

Angel, Seasons 1 & 2

The first season suffers somewhat from Joss Whedon's absentee-landlordism: several episodes are simply poorly directed, and the dialogue is often "Joss Whedon Fan Club" grade, rather than the thing itself. (At the same time, Buffy's fourth season was one of the most ambitious, with its rather over-ambitious Initiative arc and some of the show's (and the cast's) shining moments. So one imagines Whedon had his hands full.) That said, the season's biggest mistake was corrected with the elimination of one unnecessary character (the in-real-life ill-fated Glenn Quinn, who succumbed to a heroine overdose while Angel was in its fourth season), and the grain of the show's promise remained indestructible even through episodes that wouldn't have passed muster during the final season of Sliders. Charisma Carpenter's strength as an actor came into fullest fruition in "Eternity"; her exchange with Angel in the finale allowed a dozen different expressions to cross her face without the slightest strain.

As far as great moments go, there are few more: there is a moment of strange and striking editing late in "The Prodigal" (watch the moment when Angel commandeers the police car); the introduction of Faith (on the lam from Buffy) bodes well; and, although I may be in the minority, Alex Denisof's stiff-upper-lipped Wesley is a welcome addition. The show has some work to do, however, to redeem the ham-handed introduction of "Gunn" and his gang of feral demon-hunters. Regarding that, it seems little coincidence that, when Shawn Ryan's name appears in the writing credits, Gunn becomes more of a tough adult than a tough eight-year-old.

Lost, Season 6

Sheer spectacle and disorientation is a hell of a way to debut a new series, and the show's creators compounded it with mystery, murder, and science fiction. Unfortunately, in the intervening years since the 2004 pilot, Lost became the victim of its spectacular success: the whys and whats and huh?s of a mysterious island with mysterious phenomenon can only be explained and re-mystified for so long before one imagines scripting committee's lively discussions devolving into a cacophony of dull, wooden thuds as they bang their heads against the table in sequence. As misdirections and backstories are layered upon one another, the body of the multi-strand narrative became bloated and distended, in spite of an intermittent show of vitality. The show's sixth and final season isn't so much a eulogy of receded success as a zombification of the mutilated cadaver, lathered in makeup, formal wear, and paraded around like the title character of Weekend at Bernie's: small wonder one of the two main characters is, when you get down to it, basically a re-animated corpse. The series conclusion was wished (and wished hard) into existence by the show's fans, but what is most evident now is that Lost, taken in sum, is quite a bit like the original Star Trek series, in which there's only one dull planet for our heroes to explore, and every extra's life is forfeit.

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