Category Archives: TV

Finding the angle of attack

True Detective returned last weekend for season 2 with an all-new cast: Rachel McAdam, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughan and Taylor Kitsch.

The first series attracted rave reviews, nearly universally. And good it was, if weird in places.

The second season opener followed the same pattern very closely – a troubled moody cop in an interview room, followed by initially disconnected flashbacks. We don’t know nor understand much of what’s going on but it definitely holds the attention with no shortage of dramatic moments.

It’s almost a carbon copy of last year’s episode 1 in structural terms, and last year plaudits followed, to an almost hysterical level.

This year the reviews are more mixed though the story and the actors are if anything better.

It seems almost as if some critics and some publications have decided to adopt a contrarian view as a strategy to stand out from the crowd. Except that many other outfits had the same idea and the pack have ended up in largely the same place. Again. But on the negative side of the argument.

Is it because True Detective is no longer niche? Or new? Or is just uncool to like it when almost everybody seems to?

Is the way to attract attention, readers and web clicks to find an angle of attack whether it’s deserved or not and rain on the parade long and hard, irrespective of what’s actually happening on-screen? Of how good or bad what we’re actually watching is?

A cynical approach surely but increasingly common, online at least. If the Easter Bunny and Unicorns turned out to be real tomorrow, or world hunger and poverty alleviated,  you can bet someone would find a negative perspective in order to chase the viral wave and elbow themselves to the front of the optic queue.

It’s a cheap and tawdry tactic and hopefully one that falls flat.

Nuanced reality is much more interesting if harder to produce and lets hope it wins out. Or at least survives.

Better Call Saul

Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman
Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman

Does it ever seem that some people are  jinxed?

That, no matter what they do, they just can’t catch a break?

Saul Goodman is one of those people in the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.

Or Jimmy McGill as he is when we first meet him. It’s some years before the riveting roller-coaster that was Breaking Bad. The not-yet-but-just-about-to-become-Saul-Goodman Jimmy McGill is working as a lawyer of last resort from a cramped office behind a nail salon. His office has enough room – barely – for Jimmy to squeeze into with some impressive contortionism. His landlady just about acknowledges his existence. A shipping container would be a jump up in the world.

This first series of 10 episodes explains Jimmy’s backstory and sets up the premise for his looming transformation into Saul Goodman.

When we meet him first, Jimmy’s doing battle with the legal firm where his older brother, Charles McGill, is a senior partner.

Charles’ life has been turned upside down by the sudden onset of electromagnetic sensitivity. His electricity is disconnected, his curtains drawn, he lives in the dark, stores food in boxes of ice and refuses to let any piece of electrical equipment into the house – and he also refuses to leave the house. His only connection to the outside world, his lifeline quite literally, is Jimmy.

Jimmy is attempting to convince his brother’s firm to pay out millions of dollars since it seems unlikely Charles will ever return to practice law. In the meantime, Jimmy is supplying Charles with food, ice, newspapers and a host of other much-needed goods.

His good deeds are slowly driving Jimmy into bankruptcy.  He’s casting about for new and well-paying cases – and everyday he gets more desperate and less scrupulous.

How far will he go? Will he sacrifice himself to save his brother?

Not saying too much to spoil the experience, but the core of the show hinges on the fact that though Jimmy may be a rogue willing to countenance a fair amount of fuzziness around what constitutes legal in his book, he is at heart a genuinely good person while the respectable society he’s so eager to be a part of may not be all it seems.

Funny and genuinely poignant at times – well worth a watch even for anyone who has never seen Breaking Bad.

Banshee

Banshee - Badges and Blood
Banshee – A tough town for law enforcement

Tense and taut from its very first seconds, Banshee is Justified on speed.

I’m just catching up now with this series which has been renewed for a third season.

The first episode opened with a man being released from prison.  Rehabilitation doesn’t seem to have gone very well. Within minutes he’s slept with a female bartender and stolen a car. Minutes later he’s dodging bullets amid manic mayhem on the mean streets of New York – no glamorous parties or lavish settings for our resolutely grim, grimy and gritty Mr Anonymous.

Escaping death by a hair’s breath he sets off in search of an old acquaintance. At this stage we have very little idea of who the mystery ex-con is, what he wants, where he’s going or why – the backstory arrives slowly, drip by drip, dollop by sparsely doled out dollop over the next 40 tense and action-packed minutes.

Our antihero/villain arrives in the town of Banshee, Pennsylvania. Calling into a roadside bar, he gets caught up in the middle of a robbery which ends with the death of an equally newly arrived man who’s just-about-to-be sworn in as the new sheriff. Opportunity has knocked, and Mr Anonymous assumes the identity of Lucas Hood, Banshee’s newest lawman.

After that we gradually learn why he’s in town and a little about the town itself – a small place on the edge of Amish country with one top dog in terms of crime, Kai Proctor – and that life for the new Sheriff Hood (!) is going to be anything but simple on many fronts.

Banshee is resolutely dark in tone, frequently very violent, but rarely if ever dull. Made with an adult audience in mind, it has a hard edge, graphic sex scenes, a soundtrack that alone would make it worth watching  and hypnotic camera work that chimes every bit with the unsettled and jumpy feel of the show.

Certainly not for everybody but if you’re looking for a stylist, fast-moving, no-holds barred show about dark pasts, dangerous secrets and doomed dreams, this is it.

The Boys on The Bus: Politics and Predicting the future of TV in 1972

The boys on the bus cover
The Boys on the Bus (1973)

 

It’s amazing how some things weather so well.

I’ve just finished reading The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s landmark book about the press coverage of the 1972 US Presidential election. Written in 1973, the book reads as freshly as if it had been produced last week.

Richard Nixon effectively stonewalled the media and escaped any critical assessment. His much more open opponent, George McGovern, suffered for his accessibility and the relative chaos of his communications strategy.

Other than the candidates, very little has changed since then in how elections have been covered or the tactics used by political campaigns to ‘spin’ and try to control or manipulate the news cycle.

Perhaps social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – will draw the current era that started in the 60’s to a close. In some ways it already has, if we cast our minds back to Mitt Romney’s close encounter with almost everything being recordable, everywhere, all of the time when he gave his tuppence worth in a Florida hotel in 2012 on 47% of American voters being hooked on entitlements

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser

How relevant will professional journalists be in future political campaigns, in the US and abroad? Or newspapers themselves?

Ironically, Crouse’s book suggests a fairly positive prospect. His central point about 1972 is that journalists were almost completely boxed in by official and officious handlers – as well as by their editors and publishers, and their own unwillingness to rock the boat and be frozen out.

Today such tight shepherding and shaping of what’s seen and heard is no longer assured: every phone can record and broadcast. A balance of sorts has returned between responsibility and authenticity, and a critical examination of candidates to an extent that Crouse bemoans was not possible in the 1972 may again be on the cards.

A useful analogy might be found in the world of TV. By the 70’s it was a tightly managed world, with little of it’s free-wheeling 1950’s origins. Formula and the health of the bottom line dictated as little experiment or deviation from the norm as possible.

But even as things became more regimented, Crouse’s book highlights that the undoing of the inventiveness-deficit was already an idea. He mentions how 28 young cable TV reporters headed by Michael Shamberg had an idea that they believed would revolutionise the small screen:

“The networks, with their economic dependence on mass audiences and mass advertising,  would eventually go the way of the mass magazines like Life, he thought. And cable TV – local, decentralised, appealing to small audiences and specialised tastes – would gradually take over. This might not happen until Shamberg was old as Walter Cronkite, but he was in no hurry ” [Chapter VII: Television. Kindle version, location 2761].

Crouse and Shamberg were spectacularly right, and far-sighted, on both scores. Right that cable TV was something worth mentioning and right that it would only come into its own far into the future.

But it did. And cable, HBO and the Sopranos and a host of other programming has reinvigorated TV.

A prediction and half from 1973.

Who knows what social media will do in the same time frame to come?

To TV, politics – and life?