Talking Movies

March 22, 2016

Any Other Business: Part XI

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 an eleventh portmanteau post on television of course!

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper – The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

The Height Manager

At first I thought The Night Manager might be a good three episode show trying to escape from a six episode run. But then, as I found myself fast-forwarding through sweeping shots apparently accompanied by mislaid John Barry Bond cues, I started to doubt that. As I started fast-forwarding through protracted suspense sequences and pointless tracking shots I thought there might be a decent movie buried trying to escape from John Le Carre’s story. As I started fast-forwarding through dialogue scenes because a piece of spy-craft involving ice creams resembled an SNL sketch I stopped thinking and just hit delete on the DVR. I will remember little in a few months of The Night Manager except how director Susanne Bier dealt with Elizabeth Debicki’s great height: never stand her directly next to Hugh Laurie or Tom Hiddleston if possible, and if they must stand beside each other, cheat. Debicki stood in bare feet next to Laurie standing in shoes, so that both were standing at the same height. And, even more farcically, Debicki walked beside Hiddleston on a steeply sloping beach, but closer to the ocean so that he appeared fractionally taller. Jed “I don’t care who sees me naked, I do care who sees me crying” Marshall brought to mind Richard Yates’ castigation of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley as not a real character but merely a ‘high-school masturbatory fantasy’. It’s baffling that Debicki chose to slum it in such a vacuous role, but what exactly is the fuss about female directors all about when Bier so ridiculously upholds the convention of leading man looming over leading lady?

Jerk-Ass Seeley

Bones has long been a startling exemplar of decline without any obvious parallel. In its marvellous first season it was a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags delivered by complicated characters. In its current eleventh season it is an average intelligence forensics sitcom with constant average gags delivered by characters whose level of complication can be gauged by new addition FBI Agent Aubrey being defined as gourmand. Bones’ trajectory has been so consistently downhill that each season is observably slightly worse than its predecessor. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember social niceties and her conversation suffered from total ignorance of pop culture. By season 6 she was, so to speak, consciously unconsciously anti-social. And it’s only got worse. After 11 years of working with Seeley Booth, during which she has observed his example of what to say and how to act in nearly every conceivable circumstance, she has not only not learnt, but has regressed: becoming ruder and given to hideous attempts at humour. But a recent NSA episode, transparently about Snowden, was truly jaw-dropping. The penultimate episode of season 1 tackled 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. By contrast the NSA episode of season 11 saw Booth snarling like a deranged bear at everyone, and Hodgins deferring meekly to Booth’s party line that if you didn’t serve, you have no right to speak. Given that the leak in question was about not just illegal spy programs but an NSA hit-squad operating without Congressional oversight you have to wonder if Booth just wants all but a handful of his Army Rangers buddies disbarred from voting. After all if you didn’t serve, are you really worthy of voting on where to support the troops next? How did Bones get to this state of shocking disrepair?

MARVEL'S AGENT CARTER - "Better Angels" - Peggy's search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on "Marvel's Agent Carter," TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Better Angels” – Peggy’s search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

Agent Carter: LA Noir

“I drove across town to La Brea then straight north to Hollywood. The canyon road was narrow and winding but there was no traffic at all. We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to coloured men and white women.” – Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins noir novels, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Mosley was born in 1952 and published his book in 1990, but he was interested in capturing a sense of the lived reality of black life in the era of Raymond Chandler’s PI mythologies. The second season of Agent Carter is set in Los Angeles in 1947. Except it’s not. Agent Carter is interested in the 1940s purely for set-dressing and steam-punk plotting. When black scientist Wilkes instantly hits on Peggy Carter and she reciprocates the show doesn’t hear historical accuracy alarm bells ringing. Indeed it goes out of its way to have a white guy make racist assumptions about the pair because he’s a horrible racist, and Howard Stark treats Wilkes like he would a white scientist because Stark’s a great guy. More people will casually watch Agent Carter than will actively read Devil in a Blue Dress, so surely it matters that history is being made into pigswill. And surely it matters that people will be soothed by the idea that people were always decent but a few racists made trouble, when the man who accosts Wilkes and Peggy is representative, not exceptional. Michael Portillo was told in a BBC documentary that there were no signs indicating segregation in Washington DC in the 1940s, black people just knew where they weren’t allowed: racism didn’t need to physically accost, it already had a policing voice mentally inside its victims. I can think of few more terrifying, gut-churning scenes of fiction than Easy waiting to meet DeWitt Albright and hoping upon hope that a bunch of white teenagers will not approach him, only for a white teenage girl to strike up an aimless conversation with him that nearly sees Easy lynched on the pier. It’s depressing to think that having Wilkes means Agent Carter scores a tick on the diversity checklist, regardless of the opiate ahistoricity of his use.

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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.

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