Talking Movies

May 24, 2012

Any Other Business: Part III

Filed under: Talking Television — Fergal Casey @ 5:16 pm
Tags: , , ,

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a third portmanteau post on television of course!

Burning Down the House

Back in October I heralded the start of House season 8 on Sky One with a piece exploring what I perceived as a change in the dynamic of the show over time; focusing on how Olivia Wilde’s character Thirteen exemplified it. Now I precede the final ever episode of House on Sky One tonight with some ruminations on how the show is going to go out. Season 8 has featured some fine episodes, but overall has given an impression of terminal drift; as if the writers knew well before it was confirmed that they were coming to the end, and were simply shoehorning in all the pet high concepts they’d never found a way to organically weave into the storylines. House’s season finales have tended towards the devastating; from psychotic breaks, to firing entire staffs, to procedures so dangerous as to be suicidal; and it’s unlikely that Gregory House will personally end the show on an upbeat note. (In this respect the producers will probably respect the logic of the show more than 24’s staff wimping out on Howard Gordon’s broken promise to kill Jack Bauer in the final episode) But how do you end the series on a note that is both devastating and organically generated? My hope some weeks ago when I started writing ideas for this piece was that Olivia Wilde would be enticed back to the show for the final episodes. My October hope that Wilde would stay with the show and that it would run long enough for it to do something truly remarkable by gradually depicting a slow physical decline for the beloved Thirteen had of course been well and truly dashed. My big idea was that Thirteen would arrive back for a suitably crushing finale in which she would hold House to his promise in season 7 that when the time came when her Huntington’s had overwhelmed her that he would kill her. Sadly, while my prayers were answered and the prodigal daughter did return and reference that promise from House, a bolt from the blue devastating ending rather than a truly organically generated finale will play out tonight…

48

I’ve been getting steadily more annoyed with 02’s endless promotion for its MVNO spin-off 48. The ever-present TV ads, the endless promo voiceovers on Phantom FM, and the posters at every bus stop. The first question I asked myself on seeing the TV ad was ‘where are all these burlesque costumed orgies in massive warehouses taking place anyway?’ Apparently this is what 18 to 22 year olds do nowadays, regardless of the fact that the space available for these parties seems to exist somewhere between 1970s New York and the copywriter’s imagination. Next I asked myself whether the copywriter would have dared to flip the ‘oh so daring’ bisexual experimentation depicted on its head, a la Bret Easton Ellis. Probably not, and this titillating but hypocritical use of lesbianism where two men making eyes at each other wouldn’t have been countenanced annoyed me. But then I noticed the voiceover, which is straight from Dublin, Ohio. There’s something incredibly jarring in Irish names like Emer being dropped into the middle of the narrator’s monologue (ending in the ubiquitous slogan “Go conquer”) which is delivered in tones that wouldn’t sound out of place anywhere in the American Mid-West. What the hell?

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November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

Zack-and-Hodgins-Playing-under-the-pressure-zackaroni-and-hodgepodge-3852460-1024-683

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

October 6, 2011

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

3e earlier this year aired House re-runs from season 3 right up to the season 6 finale. Being concurrent with season 7’s run of awful Thirteen-free episodes it made me think about how Olivia Wilde’s character sums up the evolution of the show…

My jaw dropped, seeing season 3 Cameron again after three years of Thirteen, as I realised just how boring she was. Cameron’s wishy-washy inconsistent moralising and romantic moping appear utterly bland next to Thirteen’s sarcastic brilliant bisexual drug-addicted self-destructive doctor cursed with the early and hellish death sentence of Huntington’s disease. Some of this may be due to the actresses, after all Wilde also set The OC alight with a luminous portrayal of another bisexual hell-raiser, and the show never really recovered from the end of her recurring role as Alex, while Jennifer Morrison has never been that exciting. But it’s also partly because Morrison’s character is emblematic of a different dynamic within the show. Chase had to murder James Earl Jone’s African dictator early in season 6 to torch his marriage with the departing Cameron and properly make the leap from one dynamic in the show to the other.

The dynamic I’m referring to is the change from the original style of cipher characters surrounding the Holmesian House dripping occasional back-story points around plots written for the sake of a damn good medical mystery, to medical mystery plots chosen because of the character angles of strong personalities surrounding House that they allowed to be explored. A prime example of this is the season 6 episode where Thirteen chooses a case because the patient is in an open marriage, and House sabotages the reserved communication between Sam and Wilson to try and force a relationship ending fight even as he and Thirteen gleefully cajole Taub into attempting an open marriage. The original dynamic is last glimpsed in House’s season 4 disappointment at a lucky diagnosis and his obsessive pursuit of the G&T answer, and his enabling of Zeljko Ivanek, his mirror, in season 5 because he needed to know ‘why’…

House has always had a stronger connection with Thirteen than with any of his other doctors. When House drugs her to confirm his hunch that she’s hiding Huntington’s she drugs him right back to do a liver biopsy, a little more sadistically than is medically necessary: “You drugged me” “You drugged me” “Ouch!” “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to say that might pinch a little.” She’s also been granted zinging one-liners every bit as outrageous as House’s. When House claimed of Cuddy, “I kinda hit that last night, so now she’s all on my jock”, Thirteen immediately rejoined, “She looks remarkably good for someone on rufies”. The bond comes from Thirteen’s nihilism and skill. When House fires her for drug-taking then hires her back after she comforted a patient she quickly cracks his motivation, “You wanted to see if I could still make a connection. You’re trying to save me!”

The extremely ill-advised decision to replace Thirteen with Masters, rather than the bizarre car-crash in the season finale, may well be judged the moment where House jumped the shark. Amber Tamblyn’s incredibly irritating one-note doctor who is scrupulously honest to the point of self-destructive and veritably societal-destroying stupidity, a trait even more aggravating than Cameron’s inconsistent moralising, sucked the dramatic life out of every scene she was in. The writers even seemed to admit their mistake with an in-camera apology, or perhaps merely an unconscious admission of guilt, when Masters stuck up for, and enabled the release of, a patient who turned out to be a cannibal serial killer wanted by the FBI. It begged comparison with Thirteen’s diagnosing of psychopathy in a patient who gave her the creeps – as House noted, “Odd that she’s the only one here to have the natural reaction to a predator circling the waters”.

Little wonder that the show seemed to visibly perk up at the end of the season as House drove to a prison early in the morning to welcome back to his team a just released Thirteen. Compliments showered on her included, “You have the best poker face of anyone I’ve ever met”, while she later dispensed to him the stoic wisdom regarding their misery, “We are what we are, and lotteries are stupid”, before, after breaking into his house to check on his depressed state, displaying both the edge and the bracing honesty that bind the two, “Cuddy and Wilson both asked me separately to break in. You’re an idiot.” House has a chance to do something truly remarkable if it can keep running long enough to break our hearts by gradually depicting a slow physical decline for the beloved Thirteen. Here’s hoping it can pretend last year never happened…

House season 8 begins its run on Sky 1 at 10pm tonight.

August 5, 2011

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

1981 neo-noir movie Cutter’s Way, recently screened at the IFI (yet again) has been forgotten, and it’s a half-deserved neglect. It’s not a great film, but it does showcase a superb performance from John Heard as the acerbic crippled Vietnam veteran Alexander Cutter. What’s startling is just how familiar his character is…

We first hear about Cutter thru Jeff Bridges’ character Richard Bone mentioning that he needs to buy some more medicines for him. Then we’re visually introduced to Cutter sitting in a bar making fun of people he’s just met, before saying something outrageously racist about one of them, and then compounding the problem when some guys who heard the remark start to circle. Bone gets him out of this, despite Cutter’s best attempts to get Bone dragged into the fight too, by excusing him on account of his leg… Cutter then yells at Bone that he needs more pills, and throws his cane after him, breaking a neon sign. The glorious off-screen shout “That’s going on your tab Cutter” confirms that this is just how Cutter rolls. The resonances with a certain drug-addled anti-social doctor and his drug-sourcing enabling friend don’t jump off the screen at this point, although they’re apparent later. What really puts the House comparison into your mind is when Bone delivers a drunken Cutter home to his long-suffering wife. She’s played by Lisa Eichorn who could well be Jennifer Morrison’s twin sister sent back in time so startling is the resemblance to House’s team-member Allison Cameron. As the film progresses you get the weird sensation that this is what would have happened if that date between House and Cameron at the end of season 1 went well. Cameron has sunk into alcoholic depression as she waits for House to forget about his leg and his misery and just start living again…

Such sentiments are reinforced by Cutter’s memorable arrival home in his car. Drunk as a skunk he first lurches to a halt splayed across the road. He’s not going to park it there, is he? Oh no, he’s going to ram his neighbour’s car, which is in the way, reverse, ram it again, reverse again, and park in his driveway, having destroyed his neighbour’s car in the process of shunting it into the correct driveway. Cutter stomps into his house, and announces he’s been picking up hitchhiker’s and saying how much fun they were, with one qualification; “Never orgy with a monkey, the little f—ers bite”. His wife points out that he has no car insurance, “That would be his problem”, and that his licence has expired, “Car runs just fine without it”, as Cutter changes into his old army jacket to go out and deal with the police the right way by talking about duty, appearing reasonable and apologetic, and getting away with everything because, as he quietly reminds the enraged neighbour (when the cop has left) by holding up his cane, “I’m a cripple”. Later Bone in exasperation at Cutter’s deranged scheme to blackmail a local millionaire they suspect of murder yells about how he doesn’t want another lecture by Cutter on “How you just see the world as it is, a crock of shit. And oh God, don’t start in on your leg…” Needless to say Bone, like Wilson, always ends up embroiled in his friend’s maddest plans despite his objections.

There are of course substantial differences between Alexander Cutter and Gregory House. Cutter is a soldier, not a doctor, and prone to adding physical violence to his cutting rhetoric. Waiting for a procrastinating Bone to make a blackmailing phone call Cutter whips out a hand-gun and shoots the target that Bone has been messing about with on the pier arcade to hurry things along, “Give the man his goddamn doll”. Cutter even strikes his wife when she questions his choice to wallow in misery. There’s even one weirdly prophetic anticipation of House’s recent move away from audience sympathy in this violence. Cutter’s demented hero moment in the closing frames as he rides a horse thru a garden party to crash thru the window of the evil tycoon could almost be the inspiration for the shark-jumping finale of House season 7. The resemblance to Cameron is accidental and hilarious, that to Wilson not overly pronounced but still present, but Cutter’s mixture of logical deductions that pin the crime on the millionaire and his biting remarks and refusal to obey any social contract all seem classically Houseian. So, did David Shore watch Cutter’s Way years before creating House and subconsciously remember aspects of a long-forgotten character, or is this just one of those weird moments where an idea seems to be floating around waiting for someone to use it, like discoveries in physics and astronomy that parallel researchers discovered simultaneously?

Probably the latter, but it sure makes for one hell of an entertaining and oblique way to view Cutter’s Way.

May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

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