Wednesday, December 08, 2010

[TV] Short Seasons

Short Seasons: Two critically well-received new shows just closed their first seasons.

By the way, since when did six episodes constitute a season? These shows are really just sequential mini-series. That's cool with me. Take your time, keep the quality up. It's better than hammering out 26 hours of video a year at any cost. TV seasons are like music albums: packaging fodder with gold to benefit producers at the expense of consumers. That these precepts are collapsing is one way in which the world has gotten better in my life. But I digress...

Boardwalk Empire on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC have both been widely praised. They're good TV shows, but not great. They break no new ground. In fact, I would argue they are both little more than finely crafted cliches.

The Walking Dead is about a band of survivors coming to terms with a full-on zombie apocalypse. That's a premise that was mercilessly pounded flat by the time Charleton Heston was the last man on Earth, yet suddenly zombies are all the rage. It's hard for me to understand zombies. Most horror creatures represent some sort of primal, archetypal fear. Vampires feeding on humans, especially comely young girls, is a metaphor for the vulnerability inherent in humanity and the risk of self-destruction that accompanies it. Got it. Werewolves represent the sin within us all, the dark animalistic side that we so desperately need to control. Got that too. But what exactly do zombies represent? Dead people come back and eat our flesh. Could it be the sins of the father coming back to devour us? Could it be "survivor's guilt" writ large? Could it be that there are just no moral issues with dispatching animated dead bodies so you can go hog wild with the flame thrower and the railgun and chainsaw without worrying about the censor?

Anyway, the zombie background would be fine provided the human stories were sharp and compelling. They aren't. There is a formulaic ethnic diversity to the survivors, along with the requisite manufactured conflict -- fretting for the children and the helpless; evil racists and wife-abusers; poor misunderstood street punks; people shouting "Do it now!" and "I can't live if you don't go on!" and that sort of dialog.

I think I'm going to bail on future seasons. Maybe if I hear some good reviews I might look in on it, but I don't think they have it in 'em.

Boardwalk Empire held good deal of promise, mostly unfulfilled. I would be curious to know the actual extent of Scorcese's involvement in the process. I think it's probably significant simply because the show suffers from the same shortcomings of all Scorcese's later work. It is oddly cast, the characters are uninvolving, and it brings nothing new to the table either in either substance or style.

Oh, it's not "bad." I honestly don't think Scorcese is capable of "bad" at this point in his life or career. Points of quality and competence are simply habit for him. What's lacking is real inspiration. There are criminal power struggles and whackings. There are compromised and compromising women. Sex and violence are intertwined. Family complicates things. There is loyalty and betrayal. Power is pursued at costs well beyond its benefit. Honestly, story-wise there is nothing here that you haven't seen in hundreds of organized crime films and most of Scorcese's oeuvre. The setting is Atlantic City instead of Lower Manhattan. Name brand crooks are highlighted -- Capone, Luciano, Rothstien, Lansky. At least the window dressing is fresh, if the content is stale.

The story centers around Enoch "Nucky" Thompson who controlled Atlantic City for decades from a behind the scenes position as Treasurer or some such unelected position. He is portrayed by character actor Steve Buscemi, who you probably know from his role as Tony B. on The Sopranos or as Carl Showalter from Fargo or as Shut the F-ck Up Donny from The Big Lebowski. He's a fine actor but it's not clear to me if he can carry a series like this. Although I am dubious about the long term strength of his portrayal of Thompson, I have to say, when he's not on the screen, the show slows to an absolute crawl. (Thanks to DVR technology this is not as excruciating as it could be). His protege, and potential betrayer, Jimmy, (cliche alert: he's tortured by memories of war service) seems like he'd fit in better modeling Gucci on the runway. His mistress is a one note samba of goodhearted dedication in the face of compromise (cliche alert: she's formerly a poor immigrant seamstress just trying to do right by her children). The FBI agent assigned to the case is a borderline psychotic Christian who indulges in the very vices he fights at times of weakness (I don't have to give you the cliche alert on that one, do I?). You get the idea.

Strangely, after all that criticism, I have to admit I'll probably give Boardwalk Empire another season to show what it can do. The reason is that watching TV is just something I do. TV fiction -- dramas, comedies -- not reality. I have done it my entire life and presuming to convince myself that I can or want to stop is delusion. For me, the trick is to find the best TV shows relative to all the others at any given time. For all of its flaws, Boardwalk Empire is objectively better than, say, Lie to Me or Grey's Anatomy or any flavor of Law and Order, or Walking Dead for that matter. I hope Scorcese can pull something out, or that the show gets turned over to someone who can. For now, the age of TV drama as high art continues to recede into the past. Boardwalk Empire will have to do.