Talking Movies

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.

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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.

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August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

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