True Detective Is Not a Special Snowflake

I don’t think True Detective is the best show on TV as The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr does. For a start, it’s only halfway through its season and like most shows it has its share of flaws — the endless cavalcade of impermeable Matthew McMonologues, for a start, which are well-acted and poetic but a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, or precious little. As a device, it’s already repetitive. I’d point to shows like Hannibal and Rectify which can do that kind of thing better in terms of presenting a cohesive whole with seamlessly integrated visual and dialogic poetics. Also, as others have pointed out, its being mired so heavily in its hyper-masculine male point-of-view leading to almost total marginalisation of female characters is a worrisome drawback (I’m already getting my hopes WAY up for Pizzolatto to stock the show with character actresses in its next iteration instead), if only because favouring that point-of-view is still indulging it. Similar arguments were made about The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think that does it a bit better.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the show, which I still think is good, perhaps very good, and on a technical level it’s phenomenal (Adam Arkapaw is a bit of a genius; you should check out the films he’s shot, including Lore and Snowtown, a.k.a The Snowtown Murders).

BUT: can the people writing about this show quit it with the “finally a director gets to direct!” nonsense? It’s belittling to all the phenomenal work done by for-hire TV directors like Lesli Linka Glatter, Michelle McLaren, Jennifer Getzinger, Michael Apted, Michael Rymer, and John Dahl, to name but a few. Just because they’re working within a ‘house style’ doesn’t diminish their abilities. Just because Cary Joji Fukunaga directs every episode here doesn’t make him necessarily a better director, or this show necessarily better than others as a result. It’s a silly critical fallacy. There are any number of TV episodes directed just as well, and better, than any in True Detective. Is an impressive, flashy tracking shot really all it takes to get people to froth this much? I mean, if this is the only show that you wish you could watch in a cinema, as Orr states, I’d politely suggest that you both a) don’t watch enough TV, and b) are far too slobberingly playing the “cinema and television are at war” card, a dichotomy which is really not so concrete or definable. Beyond that, I’m very much unconvinced that that setpiece would have been less tense and immersive with a handful of edits tying it together, or even a ton of edits. Homeland has found plenty of ways to be hugely tense without tracking shots, as has The Americans. And generally speaking, their tense setpieces play into the show’s wider narrative in a far less frustratingly oblique manner.

Anyway, nowhere does the author suggest how exactly any of this is leading to a new form of storytelling in any way. I don’t see how this series is telling a story in any more cohesive and unified a way as any other dramas with great first seasons, and how is certainly not argued here. It’s still a story about two men investigating a serial killer and facing their own demons in the process. It’s really not all that fresh; Twin Peaks, anyone?

And beyond that, it’s not like this is the first show to be written entirely by one writer (the inestimable Adam Reed writes every episode of Archer, for example, and miniseries are regularly directed by just one person, such as Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce; to a lesser extent, every episode of Mad Men passes through Matthew Weiner’s hands before it goes into production). For all I know I’ll be eating my words come the end of this first season, but as it stands, can y’all just cool your jets a bit? Also, we really should consider the idea that maybe the best show on TV isn’t a portentous, crime-ridden drama. It’s not that people shouldn’t be saying True Detective is brilliant, it’s just that the way it’s being said is focusing on the wrong things.

[this post has been repurposed from the comment I left beneath the piece this is a vague response to]

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Dream Emmy Nominees 2013

The Emmys are so frustratingly stagnant that prognosticating them has become worrisomely simple, although if ever there were a year where the nominations could be upset this would be it. Here are my desired nominees for all the major categories which are hopefully less of a pipe dream than they seem (desired winner is bolded):

Outstanding Drama Series

  • Breaking Bad
  • Mad Men
  • The Americans
  • Hannibal
  • Rectify
  • Orphan Black

It’s a bit difficult to leave out Game of Thrones, which continued to be excellent, but as a season I felt it had too much padding (Theon, much of Tyrion, early Sam material) to quite elevate it to the coiled coldness of The Americans, the elegiac beauty of Rectify, the horrifying wonder of Hannibal, or the kinetic tautness of Orphan Black, the latter two of which had such high degrees of difficulty inherent in their premises.

Outstanding Comedy Series

  • Louie
  • Parks and Recreation
  • 30 Rock
  • Enlightened
  • Archer
  • Bunheads

I don’t believe Bunheads is actually on the Emmy ballot, but that’s only due to ABC Family’s negligence, because it deserves to be nominated, though I’d probably switch it out for Happy Endings or Arrested Development if I had to. Otherwise, Enlightened was the crowning achievement of the year in televisual drama or comedy given that it executed pretty much the best of both worlds. 30 Rock drifted into the ether with one of its best seasons and Parks, Archer, and Louie delivered more of their now-routine brilliance.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

  • Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
  • Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black)
  • Claire Danes (Homeland)
  • Keri Russell (The Americans)
  • Kerry Washington (Scandal)
  • Emmy Rossum (Shameless)

I must admit, I only regularly watch the shows of the first four women in this category, but I’ve seen some of what Washington and Rossum do and respect it greatly. But Maslany is the only logical choice here (in any other year, Moss or Russell would take it in a walk), her bravura performance is funny, moving, and bewilderingly complex, at one point playing a character who is playing a character who is playing a character and actually making that feel real.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

  • Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
  • Aden Young (Rectify)
  • Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
  • Hugh Dancy (Hannibal)
  • Matthew Rhys (The Americans)
  • Damian Lewis (Homeland)

Much as I love Cranston, I love an underdog more, which is why I have to go for Aden Young, whose quiet, measured performance is pretty much perfect. As are most of the performances here, perhaps with the exception of Lewis, who unravelled somewhat as his show did after its stellar first five episodes. Poor Jon Hamm, though.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

  • Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)
  • Tina Fey (30 Rock)
  • Sutton Foster (Bunheads)
  • Krysten Ritter (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23)
  • Ashley Rickards (Awkward.)
  • Laura Dern (Enlightened)

Dern is Dern, and she essentially won this category with the first episode of Enlightened’s second season. It’s arguable whether the show should be in this category (it shouldn’t), but it is, so there you go. Possibly controversial inclusions are Ritter and Rickards, who delivered very different but equally fearless female performances, one playing the world’s best-dressed sociopath for laughs, and the other nailing teenage romantic self-sabotage.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation)
  • Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
  • Louis CK (Louie)
  • Jason Bateman (Arrested Development)
  • Jake Johnson (New Girl)
  • Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It)

This is unquestionably the single weakest category possibly in the entire Emmys, which is a good thing. Dudes have had their day. Baldwin, dickish though he may be, still rules the roost here; Jack Donaghy is a pantheon character on a pantheon show and he was no less brilliant in 30 Rock’s final season. My inclusion of Johnson is begrudging since I thought New Girl’s second season was often mediocre, but his pretty good performance elevated it where it needed to be. Capaldi I’m including simply because I’d like to see him nominated despite not having watched the show for a while (which I must remedy).

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

  • Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad)
  • Christina Hendricks (Mad Men)
  • Lena Headey (Game of Thrones)
  • Adelaide Clemens (Rectify)
  • Abigail Spencer (Rectify)
  • Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men)

Gunn has long been Breaking Bad’s secret weapon, and many are tipping that this will be the year she finally gets the recognition she deserves. So many asshole dudes on the internet hate Skyler for no reason, but Gunn’s performance is undeniably fantastic. Clemens is a close second for what may be the most sensitive portrayal of a religious person on TV, and Hendricks should have won last year for ‘The Other Woman’. Headey is direly under-appreciated for her work, too, in the face of a showier performance from Emilia Clarke (whom I almost included). As much as I love Dame Maggie, fuck her for ruining this category for far better performances on far better shows.

Oustanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones)
  • Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal)
  • Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
  • Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) (tie)
  • Mandy Patinkin (Homeland)
  • Jonathon Banks (Breaking Bad) (tie)

Another stacked category, with Banks occupying Giancarlo Esposito’s slot of ‘Should Win But Won’t Because Emmys’. Kartheiser got more to do than ever this season on Mad Men, and was terrific every step. Coster-Waldau was the easy stand-out on Thrones, but will probably sit idly by while Peter Dinklage gets nominated for doing practically nothing. Patinkin anchored Homeland’s weak back-half, and Mikkelsen was as brilliant as he always is on Hannibal. Honourable mentions to Noah Emmerich, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Rahm, and Corey Stoll.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

  • Jane Krakowski (30 Rock)
  • Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development)
  • Carly Chaikin (Suburgatory)
  • Casey Wilson (Happy Endings)
  • Lucy Punch (Ben and Kate)
  • Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation)

This category is an insane bounty of riches, but I’d like to give honourable mentions to all the supporting Bunheads especially Julia Goldani-Telles and Bailey Buntain the Blonde Bunhead, as she is known. Also Eliza Coupe and Elisha Cuthbert and June Diane Raphael and Allie Grant and Ana Gasteyer and Jessica Walter and Julie White (who was one of the most rounded lesbian characters ever on TV) and Lake Bell and Anna Chlumsky and etc. etc. etc. forever. But Jane Krakowski NEEDS to win. NEEDS. Jenna sits alongside Jack in being timelessly funny and simply nominating her has never been enough. But watch Modern Family shit all over my dreams come Emmy night.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Damon Wayans Jr. (Happy Endings)
  • Will Arnett (Arrested Development)
  • Mike White (Enlightened)
  • Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation)
  • Adam Pally (Happy Endings)
  • Luke Wilson (Enlightened)

So many others I could include e.g Nick Offerman, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jack McBrayer, Charlie Day, Rob Huebel and maybe others. But they’ll all get passed over for the Modern Family bland armada and probably Bill Hader (fine) and maybe Max Greenfield (who deserved it last year but not this year).

And some assorted categories and who should win:

Guest Actress in a Comedy – Parker Posey (Louie). Unquestionably. Only Maria Bamford comes close for Arrested Development.

Guest Actor in a Comedy – Will Forte (30 Rock)

Guest Actress in a Drama – either Marin Ireland (Homeland) or Margo Martindale (The Americans) or Gillian Anderson (Hannibal)

Guest Actor in a Drama – Derek Luke (The Americans)

Outstanding Animated Series – Bob’s Burgers

Outstanding Variety Series – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Outstanding Reality Competition Series – Rupaul’s Drag Race

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie – Lily Rabe (American Horror Story: Asylum)

Enlightened Girls: why Amy Jellicoe and Hannah Horvath deserve equal attention

enlightened1

There is a moment in the February 3rd episode of HBO’s wonderful series Enlightened where Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), the show’s serenely chaotic centre, takes a wine glass from a server and considers the wealthy, elite philanthropists around her. Having watched a speech from a woman who mobilised a social movement online from a Starbucks in California, she is approached by a cater waiter. He recognises her, and tells her that he sometimes serves her at a Chili’s restaurant back in Riverside, where she lives. She brushes him off and pretends he doesn’t exist. She’s one of them now, her voiceover tells us. She has learnt their ways.

Amy is just one of many female characters in modern television that refuses to conform to the archetypes we know: goofy spinster, bimbo, bitch, love interest, hot girl. Through the genius writing of Mike White and Dern’s phenomenal performance, she is suffused with the kind of irritating narcissism that festers alongside smug self-superiority. You can see it in the politics-obsessed; those friends we all have who are so passionate about a cause, yet too naïve and stubborn to see outside their own perspective.

In the pilot of Enlightened, we meet Amy mid-breakdown. She’s a junior executive in a massive corporation who has been sleeping with her boss, who is now transferring her out of her department. When some co-workers walk in while she’s weeping in the bathroom and essentially slut shame her, she storms out of the cubicle with the words, “Fuck off, Cheryl. Back-stabbing cunt!” She marches down the hall, past her protesting assistant, and screams at her boss, mascara running like the blood she wants to spill.

Everyone reacts in horror. And when the show premiered, it wasn’t just the characters that reacted negatively to Amy, and the show at large. It was funny – in the show, Amy was being shoved out of her job because the boss didn’t want her around anymore, essentially shifting all the blame off him onto her. Suddenly, she was the desperate chick who wanted to bang the boss to get ahead. In real life, the show was too inaccessible, or not funny enough, or not relatable enough. The two reactions mirrored each other.

As Enlightened has progressed, Amy – for all her sometimes irritating idealism – has become one of the most sympathetic protagonists on the best show currently on television. So why have so few people been willing to follow the show in its ascent? It’s hard not to point to Amy. She is a difficult character, yes, but she’s also an incredibly autonomous, forceful, persistent woman – and people simply aren’t used to that on TV.

In television (and often film) these days, shows are written in a manner that says that female characters need to be ‘softened’ before sympathy for them can develop. Usually, this is done by making them a victim. For Amy, there’s no immediate push into the “sympathy” column. Instead, White writes her in the way that best suits the tone of the show – a slow, meditative, unfurling account of why and how she has become this wounded warrior.

Part of this comes from her coldly distant mother, Helen (Dern’s real life mother, Diane Ladd). In the ninth episode of the first season, the show spends half an hour from her perspective, and we see the reason for her guardedness, for her deep concern for Amy, but her near-inability to properly express it. It also looks at the achingly lonely life of an elderly woman, how even in old age society expects just one kind of person from the senior citizens of the world. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of television in recent memory, and it’s made all the more impactful because it’s earned and real and deserved. Suddenly, Amy makes so much more sense, an indirect development of her character through her mother that reveals volumes about their relationship, Helen’s parenting and how Amy got to the point she did. It is clear Amy could never talk to her mother about anything, and this inability to communicate permeates the show.

Amy is no saint, however. For all her loneliness, the utter abandonment by all her friends upon return from a holistic wellness retreat, her mistreatment by her former employer and so on, she is still retains a sly, manipulative streak that parlays into the show’s developing major plot – corporate whistleblowing. Upon her return from Hawaii, Amy comes back more stridently concerned about the environment, about people’s rights, about all manner of things she felt blinded to before.  And Enlightened proceeds to cleverly show us how unwilling people are to deviate from the norm, especially in a company like Abadonn, Amy’s employer for fifteen years.

Her assistant, Krista, has taken over her old position and now meekly swats at her like a buzzing fly, refusing to treat her like a human being, and more as a caricature of the woman she was for all of a five minute breakdown. Her boss refuses to talk to her, where all Amy wants to do is apologise. The company rejects out-of-hand her suggestions they become more eco-friendly and engaged with the community. It’s no wonder people have struggled to get into the show, because it almost feels like they’re being preached to.

But Enlightened’s strength is the way it uses these issues to explore the humanity of its characters. Amy doesn’t champion these causes because the show wants us to examine those issues first and foremost. She does it so we can see the way people treat activism, cower from change and make lepers of strong women. She does it so we can see how these issues consume the time she would otherwise spend on friends and family lost, or an addict ex-husband (Luke Wilson, doing his best work since The Royal Tenenbaums). She does it so we can experience the crushing loneliness that comes with it, this horrifying sense of belittlement that life can so often dole out unrepentant.

Its second season opens with Amy’s patient, poetic voice intoning, “What if this kingdom really is cursed?” as images of a night-lit office complex come into view. There’s a literal element to this sentence – Amy is trying to take this fictional company down – but buried deep within its words are far more essential truths. Amy’s quest is far more than corporate espionage. She is tearing down notions of subservient female characters, of fatalistic passivity, of overwhelming cynicism, of reliance on technology, of how globalisation is making companies treat people like utter shit, just for starters. There is so much rich, thematic depth in Enlightened that is almost makes your head spin.

The reason, however, that it has been viewed as inaccessible or difficult is because at no point does the show stand behind Amy’s cause one hundred per cent. In the same monologue, Amy asks, “What if somehow you knew how to break the spell? And only you could bring the light? What if somehow you had found the key that could unlock the chains, the magic key that could free us all? Would you use it?” Amy’s quest also seeks to destroy hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs. She speaks of it in voiceover and to other characters as though she is a glorious avenging angel from the heavens, coming down to liberate cubical monkeys from their tombs. There’s a pomposity to what she does, an overabundance of self-satisfaction that, early in the show’s run, makes people stop and think, “Wait. Why do I want her to succeed?”

Enlightened asks the viewer to look past why, and examine how she goes about her failures and successes, but also how this whirlwind of a woman, this intelligent woman with no filter, fits into the lives of others. To her assistant Krista, she’s a plague, a ghost of the past who haunts her and brings disarray. To her meek workmate Tyler (played by series creator Mike White with perfect awkwardness), she becomes the agent of change, someone who sweeps him along with her and gives him purpose, turning him from a ghost into flesh and blood again. This is a show concerned with the kind of female duality we get little of – so many female characters are written without a second side to them, and as Skyler White of Breaking Bad has taught us, it’s incredibly difficult to make men in particular identify with the suffering of a strong woman. In Enlightened’s case, it’s even more difficult when that woman is the show’s anchor.

Hannah Horvath, however, is a proximate example. In Girls, with which Enlightened is paired on Sunday nights on HBO, she is another rare example of a flawed, intelligent woman at the centre of a television show. The reactions to Hannah in and outside the show are deeply illuminating, as have been the varied and often insane reactions to the show’s creator, Lena Dunham. For her part, Dunham has created and stars as a young woman who too is suffused with a naivety, some lack of social graces, poor decision-making, and a desire to change herself and follow a long, difficult path (in this case, being a writer). Girls, however, has garnered far more attention, largely because of bizarre accusations of nepotism, projective complaints about Dunham’s nudity, an abundance of ugly sex, and how the absence of characters of colour is indicative of her racism, and not of the cloistered lives of the show’s characters.

The reactions to Girls have been characterised by overexposure, where Enlightened still battles away for meagre ratings week after week. The latter suffers because it’s not as young-skewing and doesn’t have pigheaded people concocting controversy around it simply because they don’t like it as much as everyone else does. One of the most cited reasons for this is that the characters are unlikeable or aren’t relatable, which is up there with the absolute dumbest reasons not to engage with a show or film. “Unlikeable” characters show us a slice of life we actively retreat from in reality, and present them to us in the safety of fiction. Refusing to engage with that simply comes off as wilful ignorance that there are people out there who aren’t like you.

And if all art was simply content to reinforce things we already know, where would we be? The world ought to be grateful that Mike White, Laura Dern and Lena Dunham exist to give us these beguiling fictions, these alternate realities, where characters can do and say things we would never dare do or say ourselves. These are the kinds of shows that elevate discourse, that last in our minds because they showed something different instead of repeating things we all already know in our minds – which still makes for good entertainment, but not meaningful art. There’s a good reason modern shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and The Simpsons are viewed with the intense reverence they so deserve: none were ever content to just be what they’re “meant” to be.

It is in the vein of these shows that ones like Enlightened and Girls follow, and why they represent quality television going forward. Each is able to break convention (both have, in recent weeks and in the past, made stark departures from their usual points of view or narrative to engage in more meditative, contained story-telling) and each is willing to portray characters with the kind of nuance that, though never absent before, has become the hallmark of great drama* in modern television. For all the buzz around Girls, it does sap discussion away from another terrific – arguably better – show. Enlightened is like no other show on television in its perspective or in practice, so why won’t you watch it too? 

The iffy queer politics of Ryan Murphy’s ‘The New Normal’

If there’s anything at all to be said for Ryan Murphy, it’s that bless him, he tries. It’s easy to commend him for his commitment to putting queer characters on screen, particularly on broadcast networks. Aside from your Will & Graces, you end up with Glee, and a smattering of them elsewhere – Max on Happy Endings most successfully, as well as others on Murphy’s American Horror StoryThe LA Complex, Political Animals, Modern Family and less significant bit players in shows like New Girl.

The New Normal, Murphy’s new NBC sitcom starring Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells (the lone homosexual actor in the ensemble), Georgia King and Nene Leakes. The show is also haunted by the ghost of Ellen Barkin, who seems hellbent on making people hate Ellen Barkin.

The premise is simple: Rannells’ character Bryan is shopping when he exclaims that something he sees is very cute and that he must have one and TWIST it’s a baby. Eventually the show gets past the idea that he just wants a kid as some kind of perpetually-shitting accessory, but it’s a really terrible way to present the idea, and it just ends up saying, “Hey, this long-term gay couple wanting to adopt a child is THE NEW NORMALLLLLLLL so we’re gonna introduce the idea by predicating it entirely on the stereotype of gay superficiality!”

So they find a blandly pretty blonde girl to carry their child that Rannells – the stereotypical one – informs David (Bartha) that he wants interrupting David’s watching of SPORTS! Because gays can like sports omg!!! It’s the cheapest possible way to characterise David as the “straight” one, while Bryan gets to wear ugly capri pants and faggotstroke over the cuteness of babies. I’m not a huge fan of Modern Family, but at least in that show they went the less obvious route of making the more effeminate of the couple the one who’s a football fan.

So on one hand, the one who likes to shop has to be the feminine one, and the one who’s a successful doctor and sports fan gets to be responsible ‘man’ of the relationship. Yeah, this is totally the new normal – it’s so new that it sounds exactly like a stereotypical heterosexual relationship!

And then there’s Ellen Barkin’s character, who plays the grand(?)mother of Georgia King’s surrogate character, who is so bland I’ve already forgotten her name despite watching the pilot twice. The problem with Barkin’s character is that she’s a horrible, irredeemable racist homophobe. She shouts horrible insults at a perfectly lovely looking lesbian couple with a child, and she says very racist things to the Asian woman (played by Ming from Awkward. which is very weird) with whom the surrogate mother’s husband – or boyfriend, it’s never specified – is caught having sex. Which is problematic in itself, not racially, but because when King breaks up with her she immediately states how much wardrobe space she needs. WIMMIN, AM I RIGHT?!?!

Then after all this, we’re supposed to suddenly feel like Barkin’s heinous attitudes are justified because she caught her husband fellating a man once. That’s the big emotional moment where apparently we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, for applying a generalised hatred towards all gay people because her husband was a bit of a skeeze and she apparently stayed with him for another 10 years despite this. Sorry but, that’s not really how it works. Outward homophobia isn’t magically absolved by being cheated on with a man, sorry Ryan Murphy!

In the episode’s worst sequence, a bunch of actors break the fourth wall – for no discernible reason – to explain how crazy and weird families are nowadays! That midget had a kid and now it’s almost bigger than her! WACKY! One woman used to sleep around a lot! And they’re letting her have children?! These two people are deaf! They too can function as normal adults! Who’d have thought? This pretty much perfectly captures the tonal inconsistencies of the show. It’s so busy trying to be on-message but also funny but also edgy but also broad but also UGH.

I’m more than happy to be wrong, however. If the show simply slowed down and took some time to expand the characters beyond shopping-obsessed flamer (he appears to have a job, but we’re yet to discover what, and he does not seem particularly intelligent), the straight-laced “masculine” gay man to ground the effeminate one, the bigoted old lady, the attractive woman who had a kid at 15 and now wants a second chance at life, the ‘quirky’ child, and the sassy black assistant (played by a real housewife!). Like, that’s an alarming number of clichés and stereotypes. It’s not that difficult to come up with three-dimensional characters, it really isn’t. But it feels like Murphy isn’t trying.

Granted, this is only the pilot, but never once has a Ryan Murphy show actually improved as time has gone by – Glee, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, even the much-forgotten Popular. He managed to turn Chris Colfer’s Kurt from an interestingly sympathetic character into another bland stereotype in Glee, and since he’s starting with bland stereotypes here, things can conceivably only get worse. And since about three episodes of plot have been run through in just the pilot, we’ll just have to sit back and watch the train hit the wall.

The Newsroom Season One: What Needs to Change

There are hell of a lot of problems with The Newsroom. Let me first say that by no means is this a roadblock to enjoyment of the series, but as a season of television it is ridiculously problematic.

The biggest problem is mind-boggling inconsistency, which is one that then trickles down and causes more and more problems in the rest of the show, like patches of growing mold. What makes the show so inconsistent is that it tries to be far, far too many things at once. It feels like most of the show’s issues could be resolved if they simply excised about 10-15 minutes of each episode at least, given that some of them run for more than an hour. The recent finale is a perfect example of this. At about 53 minutes of the 62 minute total running time, the camera tracks away from Will behind his desk, a beautifully shot piece of television that would feel like a fitting conclusion to a show which mirrored its principle subject – a failed attempt at fulfilling a stupidly lofty ambition.

But instead of continuing to shrink Will’s desk down in the centre of the frame, something which is both thematically interesting and potentially iconic, we cut away to Maggie in the newsroom, smiling in admiration of Will McAvoy, “speaking truth to stupid” once again, and suddenly you realise there’s another 7 or 8 minutes of plot being shoved into an episode in which we spend 2 minutes wishing that Jim, Maggie and Don would all go back to whatever bastardised Friends-aping sitcom they came from.

Because, seriously, this is one of THE worst love triangles – actually, it’s basically a pentagon now – ever put on television. And because the scenes in this subplot are so heightened, it makes all the interesting, dramatic scenes around them feel out of place rather than the other way around. You find yourself moved less by the suicide of Solomon Hancock because it occurs within the same episode as Maggie screeching some insipid monologue about how wrong Sex and the City  was about being a single woman in Manhattan AT a Sex and the City tour bus AFTER paying homage to the credits of that show by having her be splashed with water by THAT EXACT BUS on which is the EXACT GUY SHE IS PROFESSING TO BE IN LOVE WITH.

And then what happens? She says she’ll go talk to Don, and then he asks her to move in with him, and she evidently says yes, and you end season 1 dreading that within the first  half hour of season 2 you can reasonably expect to see John Gallagher Jr. shooting a mournful look at Alison Pill while she talks to Thomas Sadoski.

The real problem here, as best identified by Todd VanDerWerff in his excellent AV Club review, is that Sorkin simply doesn’t seem to know when to stop. You get one reference to Sex and the City, then another just in case you didn’t get it the first time, then ANOTHER, and then ANOTHER. And it’s the same thing with Will’s triumphant broadcast spread throughout the episode – which was jarring, because is this a news show or an editorial news show a la Olbermann or O’Reilly? – after a whole season bashing the Tea Party, who does Sorkin think he’s convincing? There’s literally no reason to keep going after the same targets for year-old issues with such futility unless his sole aim is to have people at home sit there and nod sagely as they think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought at the time. I am so very clever.” Which is why it just comes off as a totally humourless Daily Show segment instead of an insightful and interesting segment from Rachel Maddow – who does what Will does more or less in real life and with more aplomb.

And then suddenly Sloan, one of the only most reasonable female characters on the show, is suddenly only single because this whole time – despite no foreshadowing or sexual tension whatsoever – she’s been super in love with Don. There is literally zero reason for any of these plots to exist other than to appease Sorkin’s masturbatory desire to replicate Donna and Josh’s will-they-won’t-they from The West Wing, except in that case it mostly worked (for a few seasons at least) because their potential relationship actually affected their work lives. Not once has Sorkin shown how Jim and Maggie’s told-not-shown attraction is affecting their work lives, so therefore there’s no reason for the audience to care because it ends up feeling like a completely different show to the other one where Jane Fonda yells at Charlie Skinner who yells at everyone but chiefly Will McAvoy who yells at the Tea Party, celebrity journalists, anyone he dates and Mackenzie.

Speaking of Mackenzie, it breaks my heart to see Emily Mortimer utterly wasted like this. Each episode she’s reduced to a shrieking mess with no consequence to the story. At least in the pilot you got the sense that Will needed Mackenzie there to make him perform so well, but ever since her importance has diminished to the point where now everything in the show is about how superlative a journalist Will is and Mackenzie as a producer is just there to fill in the blanks. And the ties between their working relationship and their personal relationship are once again drawn so vaguely and tenuously that when Mackenzie marches onto the set to demand what else was in the voice mail, you just wish she’d get back in the control room and let him do the damn broadcast, or go back to THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN where she was good enough to win Peabody awards, seemingly something she was only ever capable of off-screen, conveniently enough.

Yes, the show has a LOT of problems. But it doesn’t stop it at least being fascinating to watch. The bizarre dramedy mish-mash that the show quickly descended into, reaching its absolute lowest point with Neal’s completely fucking stupid Bigfoot bit from ‘I’ll Try To Fix You’, creates a kind of morbidly fascinating Frankenstein’s monster of tonal inconsistency. The show’s inability to decide what it wants to be most singularly evokes Glee, a show whose tonal problems stem from a similar inability to mix its comedic and dramatic elements with any subtlety. At this point, The Newsroom feels like it should be on Showtime, not HBO, airing alongside Weeds and Nurse Jackie, both shows which have also struggled to get their dramedy formulae correct.

But if Sorkin can double down with a better writing team in season 2, develop the characters a bit more, excise the more cringeworthy interpersonal sub plots in favour of ones that create tension from, you know, news-related things – differing standards of journalistic ethics, for example, or actual competition between producers and researchers to break stories.

Work out how to turn Will back into the loveable, intelligent asshole rather than the smug prick he is so regularly made to be. Focus on some smaller stories: the voter fraud issue is an interesting one that is still being talked about in the lead-up to the election and yet most of that entire issue was pushed aside in favour of more general Tea Party-bashing you could read in thousands of Huffington Post articles. Reject the use of tragic or monumental real-life events as moving dramatic beats, like the odious use of that daft Coldplay song over the reveal of Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting which came off as sappy and exploitative rather than moving – have them be more like Don revealing to the pilot of his stationary aircraft that Bin Laden had been killed.

Less Mackenzie shouting and hitting people for no reason, because honestly, who would actually want to work with her after any of her behaviour? Fewer musical theatre references! We get it, you like musicals, it’s cute every couple of episodes but when the only cultural references you seem able to make are Camelot and Sex and the City – a brand whose cultural relevance was declared dead with the second film and the realisation that Carrie Bradshaw is one of the worst female characters ever conceived – your show just seems embarrassingly dated.

Maybe just get rid of the Neal character altogether? It’s just vaguely bemusing to watch a technophobe, writing a show in which most characters seem to have a fundamental mistrust of technology and modernity themselves, try and write an IT guy in with weird plots about pretending to be a misogynist on the internet – because the only way to make economics PhDs angry is to belittle Olivia Munn’s apperance – and infiltration of hacker circles without every saying the name “Anonymous” just comes off as silly.

And personally, I think season 2 would benefit from gravitating away from using real-life news as its fuel, because a) the show is going to run out of material fast, since season 1 ended essentially a “year” ago in the show’s timeline, and b) because it continues to sap the drama out of some of the show’s most intriguing scenes. In my mind, I think it would be most interesting for the show to start creating an alternate timeline, in which the same real-life events occur but in a different political climate, for example, whomever loses this presidential election should become president in the Newsroom universe.

So yes, I sound overwhelmingly negative about the show, but it’s only because as soon as you see one flaw you see them all. This is one of those shows where you can just as easily sit back and just be entertained for an hour, and in episodes like ‘5/1’ I found that happening. But it’s hard to watch the good aspects of the show be so camouflaged in atrocious romantic subplots, dated jokes, bizarre treatment of women and unnecessary diversions. There’s enough there to make the show…okay, sometimes good. It’s enough to make it watchable. And the rest of the time, watching the show grapple with itself has been just as, if not more, interesting in turn.

But this isn’t a show I want to spend all of my time criticising. I want it to be a show I can laud and love, but it’s really just not there. More about the process of breaking and making the news; less about the process of breaking and making up.

2012 Emmy Nomination Predictions – Comedy / Variety / Animated

Hi there! Welcome to the second in a two-part post about this year’s Emmy nominations, which are set to be announced by Nick Offerman and Kerry Washington on July 19. We’re coming off the back of an insanely good year in TV – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, Archer, Homeland, Game of Thrones…there are a LOT of amazing shows and actors around at the moment which makes something like the Emmys rather hard to predict. Emmy voters are a fickle bunch. They can alternately be painfully conservative in their choices, or surprisingly forward-thinking. In the very rare cases in these categories where I’m unfamiliar with the shows, I am gauging them based on the opinions of other critics. So here goes!

Outstanding Comedy Series (preferred winner italicised, otherwise in the order of likelihood to win)

Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Big Bang Theory

This could be a weird category, in that there’ll either be lots of attrition or very little. One thing’s for sure, Modern Family Mediocrity Train will likely chug its way to another undeserved Emmy. The show was a pleasant trifle when it began, but slowly became less and less interesting and more and more like a really conservative Tim Allen sitcom wrapped up in a mockumentary bow. The deserving winner would be Parks and Recreation which, weirdly, seems like an actual possibility this year, whereas last year it was a case of, “Well, thank christ it’s nominated.” The rest of the field is a bit odd – 30 Rock is a lock, but I’m guessing that Glee and The Office will drop out of the field because who gives a shit about either of them any more, really? The Big Bang Theory will, sadly, generic its way to another nomination, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which wasn’t eligible last year, will likely garner yet another nomination for a season that contained Palestinian Chicken which, oh my god, go watch that episode.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Jim Parsons, Alec Baldwin, Louis CK, Larry David, Johnny Galecki, Adam Scott

Let’s clear this up: Jim Parsons is a skilled comic actor with good timing. But The Big Bang Theory is a boring, bland multicam sitcom trumped up as something far more complex because its writers spend all day on the Wikipedia page for ‘astrophysics’ so the show sounds smart while it makes jokes at the expense of an autistic man. Hilar. How Johnny Galecki is even a thing I don’t know. Alec Baldwin would be an acceptable winner but he’s won before so it’s kinda boring, but Jack Donaghy really is one of the greatest comedic characters of all time. That said, Louis CK really deserves this. He gets far greater range, and he also has the advantage of writing, directing and editing his show, achievements which can often work in favour of an actor in the disparate arms of the Academy. But it’s a long bow to draw, so Parsons is likely to pick up another inoffensive Emmy and make another inoffensive, uninteresting speech.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Zooey Deschanel, Melissa McCarthy, Laura Dern

Amy Poehler better fuckin’ win this. I swear to god, you guys. I don’t know how you could watch the season 4 finale and vote for anyone else, or The Debate (which she also wrote and directed – big ups for that). But this is the Emmys, so who knows. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the few comedic actresses on her level, as is Tina Fey. But who knows – the capacity for Zooey Deschanel to win just because the Emmys think that’s what young people would want is depressingly high. I like Zooey, and think she’s good in New Girl, but her role is so, SO easy that the idea of her being nominated, let alone winning, kinda hurts my soul. Melissa McCarthy will be nominated again but won’t win because no Bridesmaids this year, and Laura Dern won the Golden Globe somehow despite almost zero people watching the pretty good Enlightened, so she should be able to get sheeped to a nomination here.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Ty Burrell, Nick Offerman, Ed O’Neill, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Max Greenfield

This category gives me the shits. Fuck off Modern Family. None of you deserve awards for playing the same unchanging characters for 72 episodes. Nick Offerman, however, is iconic as Ron Swanson, and while putting him second here is probably a bit optimistic, he really does deserve a win, or at the least a nomination. Max Greenfield is the best thing about New Girl, and gives a legitimately fearless and funny performance, so it’d be nice to see him scrape in. But it’s hard to survive in the supporting categories against Modern Family drywall, so we shall see. Perhaps the voters will be bit more ‘meh’ on it after a season that received mixed reviews for being too stagnant and open their minds to difference. Per…haps.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Julie Bowen, Sofia Vergara, Betty White, Jane Krakowski, Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Joosten

Again, fuck off Modern Family. I like both Bown and Vergara, but oy, are they wasted on such a drab show. Ditto Betty White – Hot in Cleveland? Really? Can you believe she’s won two SAG awards for that show? At some point, surely she’ll have to say, “Seriously guys, the shows I’m on are shit. Please don’t reward me for them.” In a perfect world, though, Jane Krakowski would win an Emmy for playing Jenna Maroney, one of the funniest, most wonderfully unhinged characters on TV. From her various terrifying dalliances with Mickey Rourke through to her sexual walkabout, this was the season where many 30 Rock fans finally sat up and realised that Krakowski has been quietly putting in one of the show’s best performances each year since season 3 as the writers have amplified Jenna’s crazy. On a purely comic level, Krakowski should have this in the bag. But sadly, there might be too much working against her. In fact, it’s possible she’ll fall out of the field and be replaced with, say, Cloris Leachman, who is in the Betty White position of being a hilarious older actress on a crummy show (sorry, Raising Hope, you’re boring as hell). I like Kristen Wiig but ugh, SNL these days ugh, and I’m tipping Joosten to knock Jane Lynch out and get a posthumous nomination for being the best part of Desperate Housewives for the couple of years I bothered with it.

Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series

The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Conan, Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman

Having won this category every year since 2003 bar 2008, it’s hard to bet against The Daily Show, which continues to turn in excellent work with the November election looming. The Colbert Report could win, though, largely doing the same – that said, I find that Colbert tends to be less consistent and less focused than The Daily Show when both are at their best. The rest are probable locks, but it really is a two horse race.

Outstanding Animated Program

Archer, The Simpsons, Futurama, Avatar: Legend of Korra, Adventure Time

It’s difficult to believe that The Simpsons wasn’t nominated in 1993 or 1994, the years of its two best seasons – the 4th and 5th. How could you not nominate Marge vs. The Monorail? Last Exit to Springfield? Cape Feare? The list goes on. In any case, somehow forgotten then, The Simpsons is now essentially a lock regardless of whether they make a passable episode in any given year, which seriously bums me out given how low the show has gone. In any case, Archer is certifiably the funniest show on television right now. And if there were any chance that they’d submit in the Outstanding Comedy Series category, I’d want them to win that too. The season’s best episode, Lo Scandalo, is one of the funniest half-hours ever committed to screen. The rest, here, are just guesses really, because this category has bizarre attrition rates. But given the love for Legend of Korra (which I’ve yet to get to), and the increasing popularity of Adventure Time (that’s mostly me trying to will it into the category) and also because it’s great, means that they could be in with a shot. And Futurama has a great submission episode in Reincarnation, so they’ll likely pop up. My hopeful predictions will likely be quashed by shitty South Park/Family Guy/Robot Chicken episodes. Alas.

Outstanding Voice-Over Performance

H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Castellaneta, John DiMaggio, Kristen Schaal, Seth Green, Hank Azaria, Jessica Walter

Again, this is mostly a guessing category, but again, Archer you guys. Plus, H. Jon Benjamin now also has the increasingly great Bob’s Burgers to his credit, so anchoring two successful shows must count for something. John DiMaggio deserves some recognition for Bender and Jake the Dog, Kristen Schaal is incredible as Louise on Bob’s Burgers (as is Eugene Mirman and Dan Mintz, but they’re not as likely), Jessica Walter kills it as Malory Archer (and again, I wonder if this award should be an ensemble one, because Archer’s voice actors are second-to-none). Seth Green sucks but will probably be nominated, and in all fairness, Dan Castellaneta and Hank Azaria might not be saying anything funny most of the time anymore, but they do their darnedest.

And that should do it! When the nominees are announced I’ll go back over all of these, as well as assess the nominees for the Writing/Directing/etc. awards. See you in a week or so!

2012 Emmy Nomination Predictions – Drama / Miniseries & Movie / Reality

Hi there! Welcome to the first in a two-part post about this year’s Emmy nomination, which are set to be announced by Nick Offerman and Kerry Washington on July 19. We’re coming off the back of an insanely good year in TV – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, Archer, Homeland, Game of Thrones…there are a LOT of amazing shows and actors around at the moment which makes something like the Emmys rather hard to predict. Emmy voters are a fickle bunch. They can alternately be painfully conservative in their choices, or surprisingly forward-thinking. Now, I’ll admit right now that I’m not as up-to-date on the dramatic shows as I am on comedies, so where some of my predictions are coming from a place of my own knowledge, in other cases I am gauging them based on the opinions of other critics. So here goes!

Outstanding Drama Series (preferred winner italicised, otherwise in the order of likelihood to win)

Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire

I only watch four of these six shows – neither Downton Abbey nor Boardwalk Empire are really my thing – and I’m not up to season 5 of Mad Men (just yet, I’m halfway through season 4 and watching rapidly), but I’m pretty confident about these six nominees. There is a slight possibility that Dexter will be nominated again solely because the voters feel obligated, but by all critical accounts Dexter is just being edged out of the nomination field after an uneven sixth season. Mad Men has won four times in a row, and as much as I want Breaking Bad to win – its 4th season was one of the best ever, in my opinion – I think Mad Men will continue its streak. But here’s hoping Breaking Bad scores at least one win for being one of the best TV dramas ever made.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, Steve Buscemi, Kelsey Grammer, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis

Bryan Cranston is the one to beat here, although I feel bad for Jon Hamm. He truly is brilliant as Don Draper, and he was absolutely robbed last year, no matter how happy I was for Kyle Chandler. However, this feels like the inverse of the Drama Series category, where Cranston will dominate and Hamm hopefully scrapes an award by the time the shows ends. Cranston is lucky in this category because he is such an anchor for the show, whereas Mad Men often gives way to supporting characters like Peggy, Pete, and Joan. Breaking Bad has a laser focus on the life of Walter White, and Cranston’s performance is one of the absolute best, and he has the advantage of being given material with far more gravity than Hamm. Not 100% sure that Damian Lewis will scrape into a nomination, but I think he truly deserves it, as anyone who has watched Homeland will attest.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Claire Danes, Elisabeth Moss, Julianna Margulies, Elizabeth McGovern, Glenn Close, Mariska Hargitay

Claire Danes will win this award. That is honestly without dispute. Her performance in Homeland is often-times literally breath-taking, and she deserves this award. I feel somewhat conflicted, however, because I want Elisabeth Moss to win SOMETHING for playing Peggy Olsen. Having recently watched ‘The Suitcase’, I realise now that she absolutely should have won last year. Peggy is my favourite Mad Men character and Moss kills it in the role, but by all accounts her role in Season 5 was muted by comparison and she would be more at home in the Supporting category, where she could or would very likely win. The last three here I’m not 100% on, especially Close and Hargitay. But those two slots are up in the air, with Mireille Enos, Emmy Rossum, Jessica Pare and other all in contention in varying degrees. I don’t believe for a second that Hargitay deserves a nomination here – not that she is a poor actress – but I think she’ll managed to get nominated again out of regularity. Glenn Close will be nominated because Glenn Close.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Giancarlo Esposito, Peter Dinklage, Aaron Paul, John Slattery, Mandy Patinkin, Alan Cumming

This is one of the most stacked categories this year, with a serious embarrassment of riches in terms of great performances. I’m predicting a bit of an upset, solely because I can’t imagine anyone watching a Giancarlo Esposito submission episode and not vote for him. Gus Fring is one of the greatest villains in history, and yet he was somehow a villain you rooted for in small measures. Aaron Paul is brilliant in the same show, and Peter Dinklage is the returning winner and coming off a season in which he was at the forefront, but by comparison Dinklage just doesn’t have the material to best Esposito in my eyes. Slattery and Patinkin are welcome additions – depending on Homeland’s second season, watch for Patinkin as a possible favourite next year – and Cumming, while a great actor, will likely scrape in though there are likely more deserving nominees, like John Noble, Joel Kinnaman, Johnathon Banks, and so on.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Maggie Smith, Christina Hendricks, Kelly MacDonald, Christine Baranski, Archie Panjabi, Anna Gunn

Look, I love Maggie Smith to death. And from what I’ve seen of her on Downton Abbey, she’s great. But it’s not award-great. She can play an arch bitch with aplomb, but it’s such a nothing role for her, and this is a drama actress award. Which is why I’d give it to Christina Hendricks, even though I don’t think she quite has a chance against Smith who is an awards juggernaut in almost every capacity. Hendricks has done some insanely heavy lifting over the seasons on Mad Men and I strongly feel she deserves recognition, and this seems like the best year for her to do it. It’s close, but Dame Maggie will likely prevail, but I would be equally unsurprised for Hendricks to snap up her first Emmy. The rest of the field I don’t really care about because they are all on shows I barely watch, except Anna Gunn, who I think is seriously underrated as Skyler White. She cops it a lot from Breaking Bad viewers because the character is not terribly likeable, but Gunn does an excellent job with the role she has.

Outstanding Movie/Miniseries

Game Change, American Horror Story, Hemingway and Gellhorn, Sherlock, Hatfields and McCoys, The Hour

No personal prediction from me here because I don’t care, but what used to be (and I wish still was) Downton Abbey’s category is now wide open, and I daresay Game Change will take it.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Movie/Miniseries

Clive Owen, Idris Elba, Woody Harrelson, Bill Nighy, Benedict Cumberbatch

Again, I don’t really care, but I’ll go with Idris Elba because he’s great in everything and this Emmys is turning out to be a depressingly white affair.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Movie/Miniseries

Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Emily Watson, Connie Britton, Rachel Weisz

The other four don’t matter, JuMo has this hands down.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Movie/Miniseries

Ed Harris, David Strathairn, Martin Freeman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes

Another bland category, but Harris will likely ride the Game Change wave.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Movie/Miniseries

Jessica Lange, Judy Davis, Sarah Paulson, Gillian Anderson, Frances Conroy

I’m extremely glad that American Horror Story has been submitted as a miniseries, even though that’s a bit of a dubious classification, because I don’t like the idea of Lange, who somehow won the Golden Globe and SAG, detracting from the chances of more deserving winners. Because while I love Jessica Lange, American Horror Story was a big, but entertaining, piece of shit.

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program

I’m not making any real prediction here, I just need to say that any show that isn’t RuPaul’s Drag Race is heinously undeserving.

Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program

Ditto above, but for RuPaul. It’ll probably be Jeff Probst again, which, ugh.

There we have that! My Comedy/Animated/Variety picks will be up in the next day or two. When the nominations are announced I’ll come back and see how I went!