Tuesday, December 13, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 17, 16, & 15

I'm finding it tough to write about some of the ones from 23-18, so I'm skipping ahead for the moment to the 'stuffs' I feel really strongly about.

17. A Bend in the River
Read this. My first ever 800 Words entry.

16. How I Met Your Mother

(Pathos, humor, and narcissism in perfect balance)

This was definitely a ‘TV’ year for me. It’s just as well, because in case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in the wake of TV’s true golden age. It’s often said that the Golden Age of Television was the 50’s, when TV was entirely new and before corporations realized how to maximize bottom line profits. But what was greatest about 50’s TV was completely different than what we understand as TV today, it was simply the best of culture transferred to a smaller screen. In television’s beginnings, great writers got a playground to experiment with their most daring ideas. But how can even the best fare of the 50’s can compare with today, when we understand exactly what makes TV effective. Just think of all the cultural monuments TV’s given us in just the last twenty years: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Stewart and Colbert, Arrested Development, South Park, Big Love, The Office (either/or), Flight of the Concords, the Star Trek resurrection, Big Love, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, Rosanne, The Larry Sanders Show, The West Wing, Family Guy, Six Feet Under, 30Rock, Parks and Recreation, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds, King of the Hill and for those who like the shows more than me, even Lost, 24, Deadwood, Futurama, and The Wire (and these are just the shows that I’ve watched...feel free to beat me up later). Nothing in any artform, not the movies or books or theater or music, can compare to the richness of what’s offered on television today. Will all of these shows hold up in a generation? Certainly not. But I’d argue that future generations will be stunned by just how many will. We’re living in a kind of golden age for television like movies had circa 1940, or the novel circa 1870, or Jacobean drama circa 1610. Somehow, the conditions in Television are such that great art is a little bit easier to make. And the result astonishes the world.
But in the wake of this golden age, there are many shows that strive to be Important with a capital I. Some of them achieve their grandiose ambitions, though not without enormous struggle. But some of them are just stupid. In the same way, some shows are meant to be stupid, and they’re actually amazing with a capital A.
How I Met Your Mother is not just one of the greatest stupid sitcoms ever made, it is one of the greatest sitcoms ever made - and done in an age when the ‘stupid sitcom’ (re: four camera) is supposed to be dead. It is meant to be a harmless show, always pandering to a broad audience, with lots of product placement, and never crossing a line that would offend anyone. The result should be like Two-and-a-Half Men or thousands of sitcoms that were mercifully cancelled before we could remember them. But good television depends on three things: amazing writing, amazing performers, and a camera that stays out of the way. In each case, How I Met Your Mother has that in spades.
Don’t be fooled by the surface schtik and catchphrases, this is a show written and acted almost solely by people who could hold their own in Golden Age Hollywood. Like Golden Age Hollywood, their specialty is pitch-perfect entertainment. Just when the show looks as though it’s about to slip on its own schmaltz, it pulls out a perfectly timed comic gag. Just when it seems like it’s bent the realm of plausibility, it pulls back into a situation of complete relateability. The result is precisely the opposite from the ‘No Learning, No Hugging’ motto of Seinfeld, a comedy in which you’re supposed to care for the characters. Audiences were supposed to be sick of comedies like this twenty years ago, and anyone with half a brain most certainly is (anyone who tells you that Friends is as good as How I Met Your Mother should be shot).
There are a number of difficult tricks which the writers and performers have to execute in every episode. They have to seem like ordinary people, and yet they also have to seem cleverer and more glamorous. And at the same time as that, the characters are routinely put through situations in which they seem arrogant, narcissistic, and downright unlikeable. Yet all throughout, they have to seem as though they are regular people, like the people we know next-door through a flattering enough mirror that we’d want to be around them every week. The result is still more extraordinary, an entertainment that is fundamentally about life as we know it - life as anyone their (my) age might experience it. With all the mundane concerns and unflattering moments intact.
But what’s most amazing is that only now, in the seventh season, does the show seem to be reaching its zenith. The last few weeks have seen the characters at their most solipsistic and messy, with devastating conclusions which yourself caring about in spite of the fact that you tell yourself ‘This is a stupid sitcom, how can I possibly react this way?’ yet the deft comic touch remains even in the most dramatic circumstances. So yes, How I Met Your Mother is a bad sitcom crossed with a bad soap opera. It’s also calls to mind what Chekhov and Hawks could have done with such unpromising material.

15. Boardwalk Empire/Boss:

Here are two shows which both benefit and suffer from the ‘post-Sopranos’ glut. Both of them are trying desperately hard for some sort of ‘definitive statement’ on corruption in American life. Both of them can fall flat as a pancake, but what amazes is how often they succeed.

(In case you’ve forgotten how great an actor Kelsey Grammar is)
Whatever else Boss is, this is the single best written show I have ever seen. It might be betrayed by much of its directing, but nobody can take away the fact that this show has the greatest script of any show I’ve watched. It makes the banal details of politics interesting, it taps into all of our fears of how American politics works, and it has a whole gaggle of larger than life Shakespearean characters. But every episode has directorial choices which threaten to turn the show from potentially the greatest show about politics we’ll ever see into a ludicrous pot boiler. In order to suspend disbelief, we have to edit moments out of the show in our minds. Just after a scene of stunning high drama, we’re plunged into a softcore sex scene which has no reason to be there except that the show is on a network which can do that. Every time the Mayor has an attack brought on by his (fatal) illness, the soundtrack introduces a synthesizer riff so blatantly obvious that the creators must think we’re idiots (and what’s with filming everybody’s eyes?).
It’s doubly a shame, because so much of this show is truly amazing. Ultimately, this is a show about nothing less than the will to power - the person with the will to go to the most extreme lengths for control is the person who succeeds. And those who succeed can only become empty shells, completely alone at the top because they’d long since sold their souls to get there. No doubt, there are people whom the show will strike as heavy-handed. The characters often speak in a kind of elevated American colloquialism that is much grander than most TV fare. Furthermore, most people don’t want to believe that American political officials behave with the kind of sociopathic will to murder, maim, and betray people that we see on Boss. But what ultimately makes Boss such a promising show is that it leaves such concerns at the door. It is an unapologetic, brutal vision of American politics which tells us that we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on those who would do us harm. Is it right? I hope not.

(from one of the best episodes of Season 1)
If Boss is trying to say something about the nature of American politics, then Boardwalk Empire is saying something about the nature of American history. It’s yet another show that tries to be ‘important’, and this one catalogues the rise of organized crime in America - displaying the Roaring Twenties as an era over which corruption had absolute control, with The Great Depression as the only possible result.
For a show that went in with hopes so high (its premiere was directed by Martin Scorsese), excitement and disappointment in equal measure is almost a given. This show was supposed to be HBO’s answer to Mad Men, combining Mad Men’s larger statements about history with The Sopranos’ insights into the nature of violence and evil. It was inevitable that the show would not quite meet its expectations. But that it’s come so close as often as it has should amaze people.
Boardwalk Empire has frustrated a lot of critics - every episode seems to introduce a new cadre of characters, and a lot of the episodes are spent with an almost incomprehensible amount of exposition on more story rather than on the characters they have. I think that this perhaps misunderstands the point of the show - we are seeing an entire new world born and in order to see the birth of the Mafia, we have to get the whole picture from Chicago to New York to Atlantic City to Washington to Cincinnati.
But there are certain episodes as powerful as anything in Mad Men or The Sopranos. The last five of this season in particular have been stunning. After a season in a half, the true plot of the show was finally in motion, and once the momentum of tragic events began, it was unstoppable, each new tragic turn more powerful than the last.
One of the more interesting touches of the last five episodes was a flashback to one of the gangsters’ studies at Princeton. The script centers around a literature class in which the Jacobean dramatist, John Fletcher, is studied. I wonder if this wasn’t an admonition and explanation from the writers. If The Sopranos is Shakespeare, then Boardwalk Empire is Jacobean drama: more heavy-handed, not as insightful, often veering into the melodramatic. But nobody can or should deny the visceral thrill it gives.

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