Thursday, 3 April 2008

Desperate Housewives: Smiles of a Summer Night

Marc Cherry must be one of the most insecure network writers out there. He’s populated his programme with watchable characters, gifted them some smart dialogue, and thrown in plenty of lingerie. But still he thinks people will only watch for the mysteries. This was understandable for the first season, when pitching a show about middle-aged women being neighbours to the Lost-commissioning ABC must have seemed a daunting prospect. Even then, people tuned in because of the hype and kept watching because of the characters and writing. I don’t think anyone’s cared about why the narrator killed herself, let alone what dark secret is harboured by each season’s new family. The irony of the characters promising each other no more secrets in the previous episode was nice, but I would have traded that for an equivalent promise from the writers.
By now, Desperate Housewives should be comfortably in its stride. This season has enough compelling stories to keep it going: a strong woman and her family struggling against cancer, a neurotic woman’s pregnancy and new marriage, a manipulative woman keeping a man with the threat of suicide, and so on. It’s even fun to watch Kyle MacLachlan being sincerely bland. Admittedly, none of those stories are compelling on their own, but they work sewn together into a tapestry and embroidered with wit.
Watching credible characters deal with recognisable problems in mostly good humour is good television drama. Drama is watching characters make decisions and live with the consequences. There’s a place for surprise in that, as Six Feet Under uses sparingly and effectively. But mystery doesn’t do much; even for shows like Heroes, preoccupied by mystery more than character, the twists and turns will always disappoint TV-literate viewers whose minds will take the stories in individual directions not enslaved by network convention.
For one comparison, there’s the most recent episode of Mad Men, 5G. The viewer was led to expect that Don would kill his brother, but what actually happened made much more sense without destroying the character's ongoing plausibility. I still don’t care for the mystery of Don’s true identity too much, but I am mildly more interested in it than in the latest Wisteria Lane family’s secret (perhaps only because Mad Men, unlike Desperate Housewives, has no history of disappointing resolutions yet). Mad Men is also developing what could be an awesome cuckolding plot.
Anyway, for another comparison there’s the Sopranos. The Sopranos understood that suspense heightened drama, but it didn’t make drama; the drama was seeing Tony and the other characters live with what they did, and the suspense was knowing what they were capable of and hoping they wouldn’t do it. This was clearest in the bravura final seasons, which didn’t flinch from depicting Tony as he was and the logical repercussions of his choices.
Now, no one’s expecting Desperate Housewives to take such dark paths, despite its willingness to plunge the depths (Marc Cherry must be sensitive to Family Guy barbs that the show’s just about old women, or common criticism of the twee unifying voiceover). Suburban live naturally has its darkness – cancer, loveless marriage, etc. – and Desperate Housewives has the intelligence and warmth to deal with this subtly, with dignity and with integrity. It undermines these qualities with the brash murders and abductions, without adding anything to these issues in its own voice. I’m sure the show’s writers could eek some comedy out of the abnormal horror, but they seem to think to do so would detract from their drama. But if it’s good drama they want, they should focus on the kitchen rather than the basement.

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The Sopranos: Complete HBO Seasons 1-6 Box Set [1999]
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Desperate Housewives - Series 1 - 3 [19dvd]

The Apprentice: Wednesday 2 Apr 2008

Alas, poor Shazia: big eyes, big cheek bones, big nose, big mouth . . . small face.

As has been remarked upon elsewhere, this seemed to be a wholly producer-instigated firing. Why? Well, first, she was obviously less ‘TV gold’ than her rivals. And second, not that I want to imply the producers are racist, but the racist producers clearly felt she was too similar to Sara. The drunk casting producer must have assumed he was seeing double and let them both through, not that my comments should be construed as implying the Apprentice’s producers are drunk or racist.
Maybe in time they would have differentiated themselves, but it seems the particularly sarcastic editing this year wouldn’t have allowed anyone to break out of caricature. Raef says something about not making any mistakes; cut to Raef dropping something, no doubt at some distant point in time. That said, the contestants don’t seem especially willing to challenge the viewer’s perceptions (shut up about the bloody army).
Curiously, while the producers are making it hard to trust the show, this week’s task provoked a genuine response from me. Normally, they can just sell whatever it is and move on without regard to the future of the embryonic business. Here, they had to sell a service and deliver that service before they could get paid. Seeing Raef and his chums giggling as they piled up the work without a care for how it would get done made me feel slightly physically sick, bringing back horrible memories of having to work through the night because of some thoughtless selling. The salesmen might be right that new business has to be brought in, but seeing their spoilt-schoolboy attitude to making life harder for others without any sense of it was pretty unappetising.
So despite the producers eschewing all credibility, the episode managed to win a little human sympathy for the poor guys abandoned at the press. What’s more, there could have been further sympathy for the contestants had that prissy cow Lucinda not sabotaged her cause by staying in bed. The episode thus was more concerned with showing the hopeless ineptitude of the wannabe executives (how could the girls not have gauged their competitors’ prices when starting up a new business?) than the ulcer-inducing reality of over-promising.
Finally, without wishing to sink to the vile racist depths of the producers, what price Lindi to respond to ‘You’re fired’ with a sassy, ‘Oh no, he d’uhnt!’?

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Therapists

Once a season, Curb Your Enthusiasm seems to bring together all its brilliant constituent parts into one excellent episode. Thus, this episode achieved the perfect balance of farce, gross offence, whimsical dialogue and obnoxious characters. Everything fitted together and had room to breathe. The show's contrivances are often distractingly implausible, but here they told a story.

Larry without Cheryl has broken the formulaic mould somewhat, and seems to have liberated the show. Where robbing House of his familiar patterns reinforced the established order (so far, at least), Larry tried to grow. The episode could easily have spun this premise out for a full 30 minutes. The interplay between Larry boasting about wearing proper shoes, accidentally confessing to hating his sister-in-law, and the temptations served up before him (all suitably minor, but by now we know how Larry can make a scene out of tipping a bartender or sponsoring a walkathon) would have taken us through the episode at a gently wry stroll.

However, better was to come with the introduction of Steve Coogan. Not from him, though. His presence was oddly and perhaps intentionally grating; a more anonymous face would perhaps have worked better, as the part was more a device than a character. He was needed as a device to make Larry wreck the newly budding relationship with Cheryl, not because Larry wouldn't have done so himself in time, but because Larry is best when he's half wrong/half wronged. Larry measured the delivery of the recommended ultimatum perfectly, coming as close to suspense as a literate comedy will allow itself.

From this moment of idiocy blossomed a hundred payoffs. Curb Your Enthusiasm has always executed sublime scene cuts, right from the first season's 'Of course I won't tell anyone/And then her uncle fucked her'. In this tradition, Larry announced he had a great idea. Cut to him persuading a black man to mug a woman. Even without the wonderful subsequent discussion of the plan's intricacies, it was great bathos (it wouldn't have been out of place as an opening to an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

The secondary Funkhouser/Alzheimer's story also fed neatly into the main plot. The described symptoms were funny and Larry claiming Marty raised funds for charity under false pretences was funny. They could have stood apart, but they expertly paid off when they prompted Larry to feign the disease. Normally Larry would go too far and be found out there and then, but in this episode we were teased with the possibility of a successful scheme. His delight at pretending to have forgotten they ordered and at bemoaning chicken salad was tangible, and resolved the Coogan strand as well.

The antics throughout were enlivened by a bounty of nonsense chat: Larry complaining that his therapists didn't tell him to get a love-me gift, squabbling over percentage responsibility for the new Larry, challanging the image he projects of Cheryl, wincing at getting fucked up by Leon, observing that sometimes it's dinner then a movie or vice versa, counting in 24s, advocating cards, and of course revelling in the 'time's up' punchline.

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Buy online: Curb Your Enthusiasm - Series 1-6 - Complete

Sunday, 30 March 2008

ITV: The 2008 Boat Race

If ever there was a sporting final in which everyone involved was a loser, it was the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Every year southwest London is gunked up by Oxbridge detritus, spilling out of tacky sports bars in their collegiate waterproofs. It is such an undeservedly self-pleased crowd. First, it’s as ridiculous a rivalry as there can be between two medieval university towns. With rivers. Second, they’re like intestinal parasites cheering on stool; two repulsive things happening to share the same space at the same time, but having nothing else in common. Third, none seem to understand the hollowness of their achievements. The rowers have rowed for 20 minutes and wasted a lot more time preparing to row for 20 minutes. The braying hordes of eager-to-belong undergraduates and empty-lived alumni, latter-day Calvinists that they are, have mistaken attendance at a prestigious university for objective superiority. One third will have been accepted because they were long groomed to pass tests, another third will have fooled the admissions tutors by exploiting their unfulfilled romantic yearnings with pretentious nonsense, and I suppose some are probably quite smart (these people don’t participate in the vacuousness of the boat race). Now, I don’t mean to imply that only a third of Oxbridge students are intelligent. It’s obviously a lot less than that.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Apprentice: Wednesday 26 Mar 2008

When did ‘I’m making an executive decision’ come to mean ‘I have an inferiority complex’? People used to use the active ‘I decide’, and that decision could then be characterised as executive by others. Bloody reality television has changed all that. Now we’re far too exposed to the pretensions of non-actors (they would be the real people) as they whimper their meek self-assurances into the camera.

This is particularly horrific for language when done on shows like How To Look Good Naked. It’s now impossible to use words like gorgeous and glamorous without the implicit meanings of fat and cheaply over-dressed. While the inflection of words like curvaceous and voluptuous has always carried a certain wry irony, gorgeous and glamorous were straightforward positive words. No more. As Homer might have lamented, ‘They ruined all our best words like love, and glamorous, and gorgeous. Those were the best words we had!’

Anyway, this series opener was otherwise standard introductory fare, which I hope is why it veered so sharply between the unnecessary voiceover exposition and the squabbling scenes. One thing the voiceover didn’t do, though, was clearly label which fool spewed which of the obnoxious publicity quotes. The cretin who can’t say loser should never be allowed to forget it, and the idiot who thinks she’s the best salesperson in Europe should have that ridiculous boast stapled to her forehead.

This first episode also set up the dynamic that I guess will drive at least the boys’ dynamic this series, class or education or culture or whatever anodyne term conveys the divergent speech patterns and accents they’re effecting. Let’s hope they can unintentionally satirise all class-aspirational stereotypes out of existence. To stretch the thin Simpsons motif, this year’s candidates seem to be guitar-playing rasta surfer rappers like never before. Who wear proactive attitudional aviator sunglasses.
Buy now: The Simpsons - Season 8

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Five: Breaking Into Tesco

This programme offers three idiots the opportunity to foist their idiot idea upon the UK. Their idiot ideas are judged by a bunch of idiot food tasters, who are to a man middle-aged white women who have long been deprived access to cosmetics. Prompted for positive comments about the foodstuffs, they venture remarks like ‘Caramel’. Caramel is a value-neutral noun. Caramel is not a sentence. If it is to be given as feedback, it needs to be in context. It needs to be in a sentence.

Anyway, the first idiot’s idiot idea is ‘Soup In A Bun’. ‘I don’t get it’, burbles some Tesco idiot. Once you’ve seen the product, it’s really quite difficult not to get it. It’s soup, in a bun. How could it possibly be simpler? ‘Soup In A Bun, No, Really, It Really Is Just Soup. In A Bun’. Maybe Mr Tesco would prefer a shorter name: Soup & A Bun. This doesn’t quite convey the innovation of putting the soup in a bun. However, it could leech on the upcoming Sex In The City/Sex & The City film publicity. Soup and a bun is also a fundamentally good idea. ‘Soup and a bun?’, you might exclaim. ‘That would be a nice lunch. Oh, soup in a bun? I don’t get it’. This idiot also insisted on delivering his presentation in doggerel, perhaps the only person ever inspired by the couplet ‘Soup In A Bun/A Meal For One’.

The second idiot did not understand the concept of marketing. ‘There’s lots of good fudge out there, so why would anyone buy yours?’, questioned a Tesco executive. ‘My fudge tastes better’, came the confident retort. Luckily, the Tesco chap didn’t prolong this nightmarish circular argument. ‘I’m sure it does, but how will people know before they buy it?’ ‘My fudge tastes better’, the idiot would reiterate, slightly menacingly. Advised to reshape the fudge because certain people – the EU, no doubt – might not find a brown lump appetising, the idiot would not countenance such good sense. ‘We’d have to use different packaging’ was the bewildered counterargument. The idiot also claimed that it was ‘intelligent’ fudge, as its makers listened to Radio 4. Awful.

Finally, some idiot didn’t understand that ‘no fat’ is a different claim from ‘no added fat’. This was also the sole non-white idiot. It was her curry sauce that the food tasters rejected.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Mad Men: New Amsterdam

It was nice to be reminded that not every TV episode unified by a theme requires a voiceover to explain said theme to us. This episode of Mad Men offered some thoughtful rumination on the nature of fatherhood, without being bookended by the introduction and summation of a surrogate perceptive viewer. Admittedly, it was still a themed episode (never the most finessed way to tell a story) but it built up slowly and carefully, not spelling it out until near the end with Roger’s observation, ‘Kids today, they have nothing to look up to because they’re looking up to us’.

Elsewhere, we saw Glen without a father, Pete with his father, Trudy with her father, and more abstrusely Roger as Don’s father, Bertram as the firm’s father, and Don as Pete’s father. Of these, the most effective where those that added to the character. Hence, Pete heaped the frustrations on himself in his interactions with his father and father-in-law, while Betty’s concerns about her husband were thrown into relief by the quirks of a father-less child. The intra-firm paternal relationships served more to drive the plot, not that that harmed the show.

The episodes also developed the conflict between Pete and Don. The obvious inference from the show’s setup is that Pete is Don when he is younger, perhaps softened by his absence from war. The writers never take this simple motif at face value, though; rather, the dynamic is more that Pete hopes he is a young Don and Don fears he used to be Pete.

The programme certainly goes some way to establishing that they are mirror images of each other, with the great unknown of whether the experience of war separates them. Pete’s first instinct is always to do the wrong thing, but he is capable of checking himself quickly. Thus, his initial anger at his wife for invading his personal space was swiftly calmed and they took lunch together. In contrast, Don’s first instinct is to do the right thing, against which he soon rebels. In this way, in the previous episode when his wife jealously sent him from another woman’s company to fetch a birthday cake, he obliged without murmur only to spurn this path later and buy a dog without consultation (his thoughts with a potential affair) rather than the cake.

Overall, this episode returned to the ideas I enjoyed most in the pilot, but which had been at best tertiary in the subsequent episodes. There wasn’t too much marvelling at how the 1950s were different, which had been pre-eminent if still subtle (kids with plastic bags over their heads, pregnant women drinking, etc.) up until now. The episode instead derived its humour from the office wit that livened up the pilot; the standout line for me was Don’s instant response to the remark that there’s a Pete in every agency, ‘Can’t we get one of the other ones?’

Pete’s acting also stood out, particularly the palpable sickness he conveyed at being fired and then again after being saved. He also injected the necessary mania into his argument with Don, which was otherwise odd. His desire to snap back at Don’s imperiousness was clear, but he did so in a remarkably ineloquent and ridiculous way. His assertions that he could have invented direct marketing and his boasts about his notebook were a wonderful evocation of the perils of trying to fight/impress a superior without composure. It would, nevertheless, perhaps have been better to keep Pete collected until later in the series, when his insecurities and frustrations might unravel him to better effect.

Seeing him brood by the grand windows at the episode’s close, as he was confined to the shadows by tales of his maternal family’s former (but long gone) glory, marvellously left him on the brink of desperate suicide and overseeing an empire.
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