Category Archives: TV

Bean Ballet

I’ve heard from some people that they were disappointed that not that much happened in last night’s Mad Men premiere. I admit that while I thought the episode was stellar, I was looking for more plot than the subtext we got. But the more I thought about it, we witnessed a bean ballet that even Peggy would have been proud of. I have two important takeaways:

First, my expectations were too high about the amount that would happen. I’d forgotten that this is a show of subtle shifts, not major ones (which is why the biggest shift on the show–the move from Sterling Cooper to SCDP–was so memorable). Weiner loves to mess with expectations, so it makes perfect sense for him to have what feels like a middle-of-the-season episode as the premiere after an 18 month layoff. What better way to screw with people than to satisfy them with exactly what they’re least expecting? Don’t be surprised if you see something major happen next week solely because we don’t expect it.

Second, I think the subtle shifts we were supposed to take out of this episode are all about power dynamics. We’re used to seeing Don and those in the office being in charge of everything, but they’re being accosted on two fronts: by the civil rights movement and by the Beatles’ generation.

The civil rights movement was the more obvious of the two as they’re now being forced to change by backing themselves into a corner on hiring an African American. My guess is that a good amount of the plot tension will arise from here this season.

But, Mad Men has never been about the plot (or at least, it’s never been a plot-driven show). This leads to the second area and it plays into the relationship between Megan and Don. We all assume that Don is firmly in control of that relationship, but is that what’s actually happening? She had no trouble standing up to him on almost everything. The best example of this is Don’s birthday party. I’m sure all of us watching thought the party was a terrible idea and that Megan’s song and dance routine was cringe worthy (at best). But you know who seemed to enjoy it in a non-ironic way (I’m sure the SCDP folks loved it just to see Don embarrassed)? Megan’s younger friends that were there. The SCDP folks are our proxy, so we identify with them and their reading of the situation, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see that this season’s “bad guy” is the Beatles’ generation? They’re a direct assault on the button-up conservatism of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

If that’s true, that’s immensely interesting because we already know how it turns out: our heroes lose.

The 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards NOMINATIONS

The 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards NOMINATIONS | OFFICIAL WEBSITE of the HFPA and the GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS.

 

If you had to guess which one these were the television comedy Golden Globe nominees…

Enlightened
Episodes
Glee
Modern Family
New Girl

Community
Parks and Recreation
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Happy Endings
30 Rock

…you would be wrong. Also, Boss and American Horror Story instead of Breaking Bad and Justified in the drama category? How can you take yourself seriously?

Presumed Dead, Until Proven Living

As frequent consumers of media, we become numb to certain tropes, even if we don’t realize it. Sitcoms will put the protagonist in wacky hijinx in the first part of the episode only to see him or her get out of it and return to the status quo by the end. Dramas find conflict in interpersonal relationships, environmental factors or from within and protagonists learn to grow from these conflicts, but return to the status quo a little bit wiser. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s what writers have been doing for thousands of years and they’ll do it for a thousand more.

Now that we’ve got the grandiose introduction down, let’s talk about why last night’s Walking Dead midseason finale was so effective. If you haven’t seen “Pretty Much Dead Already,” you’re probably not reading this, but whatever, spoilers ahead.

The Walking Dead has its problems. First, characters are there at the behest of the plot. Let’s look at Dale’s confrontation the past two weeks with Shane. How in the hell does he know Shane had shot Otis? He may have an inkling based on the way Shane has been acting and he’s overemotional about Shane’s relationship with Andrea, but what Dale’s levying are some pretty serious charges, ones that you don’t make unless you’re fairly certain that they’re true. And, of course, Dale doesn’t know the accusations are true, there’s no way he can. Sloppy character beats, but without that premonition, we don’t get the ending that happened. That’s plot development at the detriment to logical character actions.

My other big problem with the Walking Dead is that the group keeps getting in trouble because people do stupid things: Sophia runs off when Rick tells her to stay, Andrea shoots Darryl, Glenn and Maggie get attacked in the pharmacy because they’re not paying attention, Glenn almost gets eaten by a zombie in a well because they thought it was a good idea to lower him down to try and get the zombie out (but, for real, would you have drank that water even AFTER they got the zombie out? Thought not). I get that this is a a dangerous world, but that highlights even more reasons why that kind of plotting isn’t necessary. Even if the group does things perfectly, bad stuff is going to happen. I realize that all good zombie stories (and this is one of them) are an allegory for how even the living degenerate into former shells of themselves and that people make mistakes, but how many are too many?

But, you know what? All this getting-pieces-to-where-they-need-to-be type plotting is forgivable when you start to toy with people’s expectations. I would say that the vast majority of us assumed that they’d find Sophia alive and well. This goes back to the tropes of media: Coldplay songs will swell to a catchy hook, Zelda games will end in a big boss battle, Tarantino movies will have a ton of dialogue about seemingly off-subject topics. The longer Sophia was gone, the more likely it was that they’d find her. Well, they found her. Just not how we all expected.

A good twist ending surprises the audience, but doesn’t shock them. Shocking them implies that they weren’t prepared for what they just saw. Surprising them means that they didn’t expect what they just saw. Of course, Sophia’s a zombie, she’s been in the wilderness for a week and a half. Of course, Herschel and his people found her, she was near their land. Of course they’d put her in the barn, they still saw her as a living person. But man, none of us expected that, even though it made perfect sense.

These are the notes that the Walking Dead needs to consistently hit in order to be more than a show about awesome ways that zombies are killed. Even if the show was just that, I’d still watch (same way I’ll always a watch a pretty terrible show like Terra Nova, since there’s always the chance that someone could get eaten by a dinosaur). But the dichotomy of Shane’s survival philosophy v. Rick’s law-and-order philosophy can cater to both the plot and to character development. This is what the best seasons of Lost did (Man of Faith v. Man of Science) and this is the direction that the Walking Dead needs to take.

The always incredible AV Club has a great write-up over last night’s episodes that hits many of the same beats that I’ve talked about. If you get a second, follow that link to check it out. As they mentioned, in the end, we all wanted Rick to do what had to be done. And I use the term “wanted” very loosely. Sophia may not be a character we know that well or care that much about, but:

…he shoots a little girl in the head, and in doing so, demonstrates that he might be the only one who understands what this means: everyone is presumed dead, until proven living. Please plan accordingly.

It just got a lot longer until February.

Film vs TV, Oscars, and Drive Angry.

Film vs TV, Oscars, and Drive Angry..

My friend, Chris Baldwin, recently posted a note about his feelings on the state of the television/film industry. All his points are excellent and if you get a second, you should read his note and comment on it. The link is above.

I wanted to take the time to fully flesh out some of the areas that I agree with him, but also my disagreements. 

For those lazy people out there that don’t want to read his note, here is a (very, very) simplified version of his questions:
1) Has TV overtaken film as the medium with the highest quality of material?
2) (The age-old argument) Do the Oscars matter? Why do the Oscars suck?
3) Drive Angry: Best movie ever made or BEST MOVIE EVER MADE?

I’ll try to tackle them in that order: 

1) Has TV overtaken film as the medium with the highest quality of material?

This is a question I’ve often thought about. I really think that TV and films are more difficult to compare than is normally assumed. While you can objectively assess both films and TV shows with all six value measurements he mentioned (quality, narrative complexity, characterization, production value, artistic integrity, overall entertainment value), I don’t know if those assessments are directly comparable because of the differences in the mediums.

My hunch is that if you’ve been entertained more by a specific TV show in the past year, it’s because you’ve been able to watch characters and plots grow over the course of 20+ hours rather than because it’s actually been “better”. It’s human nature to want to see characters and plots to their natural conclusion. How many of those episodes are completely out-of-the-park stellar episodes? Half? We’re much more forgiving of a few bad episodes in TV than even one scene in an otherwise incredible film. While I think that’s how it should be, it makes comparisons difficult.

A technology analogy may be that films are like Twitter and TV shows are like Facebook. Films are necessitated to be limited in scope because of time constraints. This often means that there’s less character and plot development than in TV shows, but it also affords them the ability to explore themes that don’t need to or actually cannot be explored in-depth. (e.g. what would a 127 Hours TV show look like?) The way television is produced and aired (in a “season” or “series” format: 10-20 episodes per season/series that air weekly) requires depth. With TV, there’s much, much more information that’s coming out of a specific show, but not all of it is great. We love films because they’re a one-time shot at greatness. We love TV because we know that we’ll get attached to the characters and see plots completely play out.

But, that’s a cop out and all of those things being considered, I think there’s a clear answer here: recently, comedies have been better on TV, but dramas have been better in film.

You’ve got five truly great comedies on the air right now: Community, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Modern Family and a diminished, but still very good the Office. Curb Your Enthusiasm can be thrown in there when it comes back on. What was the best film comedy you saw last year? For me, it was Easy A. As a 27 year-old, heterosexual male, I should never have to say that. In fact, the only comedy of the past few years that can be mentioned in the same sentence with those shows is the Hangover.

Now think about dramas. How many truly great dramas aired on TV last year? By my count, I’ve got four (and that’s a stretch): Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and maybe Fringe.

(Other possibilities, but reasons they weren’t included:

Walking Dead- Too small of a sample size. Two-thirds of the episodes were very good to great, but 1/3 were kind of ridiculous

Lost- Very good show in its entirety, but the sixth season’s episodes were too inconsistent to be considered. Some of the best episodes of the series were there, but some of the worst were, as well.

Dexter- It’s gotten away from what the core of the show used to be about; the reason it was so good in the first place.

I’m sure I’m leaving some out and I’m also sure I’ll really hear about it)

Now think of the number of quality film dramas from 2010. I’ll stop at six from last year: Inception, Social Network, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, the King’s Speech. I could go on for about twenty movies in that list.

My final point here is that I wouldn’t be so quick to say that TV shows are better than movies. I’ve often thought this may be true, but you can’t penalize a film because of it’s length and you can’t reward a TV show for the same reason. They’re two different mediums saying two different things. The amount of enjoyment you get out of one or the other is dependent on how much you want to invest in it.

2) (The age-old argument) Do the Oscars matter? Why do the Oscars suck?

The quality of the Oscars has a causal relationship with the quality of movies that year. The Oscars will kick ass on Sunday. You’ve got a legitimate best picture race between King’s Speech and Social Network. Supporting Actress will be close. Supporting Actor and Best Actress are closer than people think. No matter who they pick, it won’t be a travesty. (The closest thing to it will be King’s Speech beating out Social Network)

But the reason the Academy Awards will be good on Sunday is because of how good the movies were in 2010. Some years the races are this close, but the films suck, so we couldn’t care less. That’s not the fault of the Oscars, it’s the fault of the movies that came out that year. So, taking under consideration that the (assumed) Best Picture runner-up in 2007 (There Will Be Blood) can’t take home the Best Picture award in 2008, I can’t say there’s been an absolute travesty for what they’ve picked for Best Picture over the course of the last several years.

I think everyone can agree that Slumdog Millionaire is one of the worst movies to win Best Picture and that’s coming from someone who immensely enjoyed it. But we’d pretty much be saying that about any movie that won that came out that year. Sure, Dark Knight is an incredible film and my favorite from that year, but is it on the same level as some of the other best picture winners? Absolutely not. If it came out in 2010, it would have only been my seventh favorite movie of the year. It’s arguable whether or not the Dark Knight should have won, but it’s not a clear travesty that Slumdog did. (The same is true for the Hurt Locker/Inglourious Basterds combo in 2009, though I think both of those movies are on a much higher level than Slumdog/Dark Knight)

In short, some years are weaker than others in terms of the number of quality films. In those years, the Academy Awards will make bad choices because it has to. (Though, it would be ridiculously awesome to see a system like Sports Hall of Fame voting where if movies or actors don’t reach a certain threshold of votes, there is no best picture/actor/actress from that year)

To answer the “do the Oscars matter” question: yes and no. Of course they don’t diminish how much you like a movie; I have my favorites from 2010 and my enjoyment of those films will not change relative to what happens on Sunday. But they do matter in two areas. One is micro and the other is macro:

The first (micro) area is validation. Do I want the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pick the exact same movies I do as the best of the year? Hell yes I do! Not because it makes me enjoy the movies any more, but because these so-called “experts” agree with me on the best pictures/performances of the year are and that validates me. Validation is a basic human desire. Anyone who cares about anything wants validation in that area.

The second (macro) area is that they show that these types of movies are worth making in the future. The King’s Speech has been roundly (and, in my opinion, accurately) criticized as being an “Oscar-Bait” type movie; the kind of movie that takes the checklist of what the Academy likes and molded to be that. (Royals? Check! True Story? Check! Period Drama? Check! Colin Firth? Check! Nazis? Check! Overcoming Adversity? Check!) Does that make it a bad movie? No. In fact, on the contrary, it’s ridiculously entertaining and enjoyable. (which is why I’ll be upset when it beats Social Network, but there probably won’t be a 5000-word rant about it).

It was important for movies like Inception to get Academy Award nominations because there are huge inherent risks with making a movie of that type. (non-sequel, brainy and expensive—the three words that scare Hollywood the most) If it had failed at the box office (and there was a legitimate chance of that happening), it needed awards to fall back on to show that these types of movies are worth making. We’ve got years and years of awards precedence as to why movies like The King’s Speech should be made, but there’s very little (as far as awards precedence goes) in the way of why movies like Inception should be made. (In fact, last year’s District 9 is the only one I can think of).

As a quick side note and one that many people may disagree with: I have a (probably untestable) theory that the vast majority of money that Inception made can be directly attributed to the fact that people went to see it because “Hey! It’s the guy who made the Dark Knight!” This means if we lived in a world where Inception existed and the Dark Knight didn’t (which, again, wouldn’t happen—the only reason Warner Bros. let Nolan make Inception was because of how popular the Dark Knight was), Inception probably wouldn’t have made its money back. In short, I’m saying that the general popularity of Inception was, in a large part, based off of the uber-popularity of the Dark Knight. How this ties into the greater point is that if it wasn’t for the Dark Knight, Inception would need awards to fall back on. My biggest fear is that studios have this same theory and will be hesitant to take a chance on unproven directors with original ideas.

3) Drive Angry: Best movie ever made or BEST MOVIE EVER MADE?

I concur that Drive Angry will be enjoyably bad, but here’s why I can’t place it at the same level as Troll 2 or Waterworld: it knows it’s bad and doesn’t try to be anything more than that. The only thing that movie wants to be is Nic Cage blowing shit up and saying kickass one-liners. I place it in the same category as The Expendables from last year (which almost made my top 20). Awesomely bad, but knows it’s bad, so it’s tough to place in that top-tier of train-wreck movies.

That being said: Who’s up for Drive Angry (IN 3-D!!!!!) at some point next week??