Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Take a Look at the Lawman

Welcome to my bi-annual blog post!

Kidding. But only kind of. I'm clearly great at blogging. 

In this episode of The Occasional Blog, we'll visit the oh-so-familiar cop drama, but this time one from our friends across the Atlantic, at the BBC.


DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm), a detective with the Greater Manchester Police, is involved in a car accident in the year 2006 (while listening to David Bowie's "Life on Mars" on his radio). Suddenly, Tyler wakes up from the crash to find himself in 1973, working in the same station but under very different circumstances.

A web of existential questions ensues. Did Tyler die in the crash? Is he dreaming? Has he lost his mind? Or did he really end up 30 years in the past? If he's really there, how can he get back to his life in the present?

Life on Mars had two seasons on BBC One, from 2006-2007. Apparently there was an American remake on ABC in 2009, but, as is usually the case when the US tries to copy British success, it was cancelled before the first season was even over.

It's a bit of a tenuous premise, to be honest, but it does manage to build quite a few complex plots and subplots, ask some interesting existential questions, and add some commentary about the state of policing across the decades.

In 1973, instead of being the chief inspector, Tyler is just regular ol' inspector, and works under the brutish DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), whose methods are, well, usually questionable, based mostly on gut instinct and often resorting to brutality, bribery, and planted evidence. The two immediately butt heads, Hunt's raging, blustery methods against Tyler's modern, squeaky-clean ones.

Of course, it's not like Tyler can tell the squad he comes from the future, but it's awfully hard to keep this kind of thing to yourself, I imagine. Especially when you're plagued by bizarre visual hallucinations and hearing the voices of your friends and family from 30 years in the future.

Luckily, Tyler finds a friend in WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), who faces plenty of problems on her own as a young woman in what is definitively a boys' club. Cartwright becomes Tyler's sounding board as he tries to decide whether what he's experiencing is real or not, while Tyler tries to help Cartwright become more assertive in moving her career forward.

While he tries to figure out how to get... ahem... back to the future (I'm sorry. It's impossible to let that one go), Tyler finds himself—literally—in the midst of his troubled childhood. Adding one existential crisis on top of another, Tyler begins to wonder if his adult self can save his child self from the pain he knows is coming.

Life on Mars does a few things very well. One is undoubtedly the soundtrack; being set in 1973 definitely does the show a great service, with songs from David Bowie (obviously), Thin Lizzie, Elton John, Lou Reed, Blue Öyster Cult, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, Electric Light Orchestra, and, well, you get the idea.

It's generally a gritty, serious show, but it does have its moments of humor, too. With the jump to a different decade, there are obvious opportunities for culture clash scenarios. Frequent jokes about things that would "never happen" that obviously have, e.g., "There will never be a woman prime minister as long as I have a hole in my arse" (Hunt, S1, Ep5). Tyler's accidental slips about technologies, historical events, and policing techniques that wouldn't happen for a couple of decades. Somewhat uncomfortable misogynistic and homophobic comments you can pretend are funny because they're so intentionally outdated.

It also does a pretty good job of balancing its role as a crime procedural with its overarching existential one. Most individual episodes focus mainly on solving particular crimes, with some bizarre moments thrown in to remind you why you're there.

I appreciate how Tyler's struggle to understand what is happening to him really builds him into a complex, interesting character, especially as he becomes more comfortable in 1973. In fact, all of the characters are pretty well developed for such a short series. The ways their relationships with each other grow and change is genuinely interesting, particularly between Hunt and Tyler as they figure out how to work together effectively.

I do love me a well-developed character.

Tyler: "We're looking for this woman, Dora Keynes. Approximately 5'2", curly brown hair, hazel eyes, fake topaz necklace..."
Hunt: "We're looking for a short skinny bird. Wears a big coat, lots of gob."
There are plenty of great things about Life on Mars, but, even with just 16 episodes in total, there were a lot of moments that I felt the premise got a little bit repetitive and a little bit stale. Okay, so policing in the '70s—or Tyler's idea of policing in the '70s—is different. Okay, so Tyler doesn't know if he's crazy. I get it. It's interesting. But, to be honest, maybe it would work better in one season, or even a movie.

Something I really appreciate about the BBC, and British TV storytelling in general, is that they know how to tell a story really well and get out before it gets bad. This is mostly due to the fact that British broadcasting isn't based on advertising (which is a completely different conversation for another time). Whatever the reason, I find that British TV shows tend to have a natural story arc that finishes when you want it to, and not when you're just desperate to put a show out of its misery. But Life on Mars was one that I felt took just that little bit too long to get where it was going.

I did really like the ending of Life on Mars, though. I won't spoil anything, but it was interesting, thought-provoking, and generally well thought out. It had all of the elements to be truly great, but in just 16 episodes it started tiptoeing into the LOST abyss of asking questions over and over again that never get answered. I can't imagine how it could have lasted for even a single 22-episode series in the US.

Despite this, Life on Mars is, overall, a high-quality, interesting period piece, with a little bit of sci-fi thrown in, plus some interesting crime solving and a great soundtrack. It ticks a lot of boxes, in a mostly-positive way. With only two short seasons, it doesn't take all that long to watch the whole series, and there's no disappointing ending to greet you when you finish. It's worth a watch, if you like crime dramas but want to venture outside of CBS territory.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Full disclosure: It's been about a year since I finished watching Life on Mars, and at this point I couldn't begin to pick a favorite episode. They were all pretty consistently good, and the larger story arc stood out to me more than any one episode.
The Test Card Girl
Some Trivia:

  • Rather than admitting he's from the future, Tyler says he was transferred to the Manchester police force from Hyde. Hyde is a town near Manchester, and is also a reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Tyler leads a double life, like the character in the book. Except Tyler is less creepy.
  • Tyler has frequent hallucinations of a little girl with a clown doll who gives him cryptic messages. The girl is a living incarnation of Test Card F, an image that appeared on the TV screen after programming had finished for the day.
  • Life on Mars is, of course, named for the David Bowie song of the same name. Following the second season there was a spin-off series about Gene Hunt, called Ashes to Ashes, another popular Bowie song.

Stay Tuned For Our Next Episode:
NewsRadio






Previously on Of Sight, Sound, and Mind:
House, M.D.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Everybody Lies

(I've changed the title of my blog to be more relevant. Bonus points if you know what TV show it references!)



Take Sherlock Holmes. Make him American, and a doctor. Take his cocaine habit and make it a Vicodin addiction. Turn Dr. John Watson into Dr. James Wilson. Then, take the name Holmes, play around with it a bit, and you get...

You got it: House.

In this Sherlock Holmes-ian world, instead of solving murders and missing person cases, Gregory House solves mysteries at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, of bizarre illnesses that no other doctors can solve. Far from being a caring doctor, though, House's interest in medicine (and people) is purely for the sake of solving puzzles, and he doesn't care who he has to piss off or what rules he has to break to get there. He's destructive to himself and everyone around him, but his unmatched ability to diagnose undiagnosable illnesses means that he can pretty much get away with anything. And he knows it.

During House's run on FOX from 2004-2012, I took a vague passing interest in the show, mostly out of morbid curiosity about the horrific illnesses featured in every episode. I watched reruns on occasion and caught a great many marathons on cable, but I never dedicated myself to it enough to follow any of the underlying plot.

Then I started watching it on Netflix one day in college, just as something to pass the time, as it always had been before for me.

Somehow, I got completely hooked.

Suddenly it wasn't just a vague passing interest anymore. I put aside everything else I had been watching (Sorry, Mad Men. Maybe I'll get back to you eventually) and binged House like it was nobody's business.

The thing about House is that it's only good if you're really invested in all of the subplots, because it was designed to be a character drama in a medical environment, rather than a medical drama that happens to have people in it. I've found as I watch episodes casually again that it gets annoying quickly, though, because the procedural basis of the show is ridiculously repetitive. They have a good sense of humor about it, but that doesn't really stop it from getting old. Here's how it goes:
  1. A seemingly easy illness turns out to be weird enough to interest House, and the team picks a diagnosis to start treatment.
  2. The case is somehow personal to someone on the team. House heckles them until he figures out what it is.
  3. The treatment doesn't work. Patient gets worse.
  4. They break into the patient's house. Someone on the team objects to this.
  5. Somebody suggests porphyria or sarcoidosis.
  6. They start a slightly dangerous treatment. Cuddy is mildly annoyed.
  7. Patient almost dies. They were wrong again.
  8. Cuddy emphatically tells House he can't do a reckless treatment when he has no evidence patient has next-idea-osis.
  9. House makes a comment about Cuddy's boobs and tells the team to do the treatment anyway.
  10. "But your last ideas were wrong and now I'm dying! How do you know you're right this time?"
  11. Foreman is afraid he's becoming House.
  12. House annoys Wilson. Wilson lectures him about something.
  13. House has a sudden epiphany about what's really wrong with the patient.
  14. House stops the reckless treatment at the last second. Patient finally improves.
  15. Everybody takes away some lesson from the experience.
  16. House blows everyone off to be alone.
Oh, and somebody calls House an ass about every 15 seconds.

Where House succeeds is in its ability to change up the surroundings just as things start to get really stale. They introduce new characters, or relationships change, or House gets himself into an especially sticky situation involving his Vicodin addiction, his relationship with Cuddy, or his tendency to push the wrong buttons. Or all of those.

It still could have been a little bit shorter, though, by maybe a season or two. It took a couple of seasons at the beginning to really get footing in the secondary plots and to build the characters enough to branch out from pure procedure. The last season, too, really floundered until three episodes from the end, when (HUGE SPOILER REDACTED). It felt like they didn't know how to bring the show back to the hospital from the crazy places it had gone in seasons 6 and 7, and the new characters they brought in just seemed like placeholders. Without the interplay between House and Cuddy, something felt like it was missing. Foreman just wasn't enough to fill that gap.

That said, for a long-running network medical procedural, it was really solid for a lot longer than it could've been. It had a great combination of emotional moments and comedy that kept me invested in the ways characters interacted with each other.

Hugh Laurie is, in my opinion, the sole reason House worked as well as it did. The other actors were fine, the premise was fine, the production was fine, but the whole thing was ultimately a vehicle for Laurie to, frankly, just be awesome. He was so good that executive producer Bryan Singer thought he was actually American when he auditioned—and so did most Americans, including myself for a long time.

Considering Hugh Laurie got his start in the business in comedy (really, really good comedy, I might add; his sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie with Stephen Fry is one of my favorite things in the world), his dramatic ability is astonishingly good. Under all that amazing sarcasm, you can feel the depth of House's pain and his personal conflict in trying to connect with others. In less adept hands, Gregory House could have been over-the-top, a one-dimensional sarcasm machine, or just plain cruel.

Instead, House is a genuinely interesting character. On the surface, he's brash and misanthropic to the extreme, but beneath the self-destruction and a thick layer of sarcasm, there is a man who's unable, for one reason or another, to allow himself to connect with people. He understands people deeply, but only as puzzles to
figure out and manipulate for his own enjoyment. He is uncomfortable with meaningful relationships, and when he gets close to one, he ultimately destroys it in increasingly harmful ways. His only lasting relationship is with the long-suffering Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), whose need for saving people means that he'll always put up with House's shenanigans.

Add on top of this his injured leg—the result of a dead muscle in his thigh—the constant pain it brings him, and his resulting addiction to narcotics, and you get someone who intentionally cuts himself off and alienates everyone around him because, as is often pointed out, he doesn't feel like he should be happy. He believes his diagnostic skill is directly dependent on his misery.

The semi-changing cast of supporting characters was competent enough, but, to be honest, they mostly weren't especially interesting. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), Chase (Jesse Spencer), and Foreman (Omar Epps), House's original team, spent most of their time worried about whether or not House was turning them into terrible people. And once they weren't the core team anymore, they just kept coming back, which wouldn't have been a problem if they had brought new aspects to the story, but it was always the same. The new team with Taub (Peter Jacobson), Thirteen (Olivia Wilde), and Kutner (Kal Penn) was a bit more interesting, in particular Thirteen's struggle with Huntington's Disease. But ultimately all the team members felt like bodies for House to interact with and backstories to exploit.

Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) added a nice element to the story, especially as her relationship with House evolved over time. On an episode-to-episode basis her place in the story was repetitive, but she was the only one who really knew how to handle House, and the only one who could play his games as well as he could. House also desperately wanted to be with her, which added a good objective for the story outside of medical mysteries and provided an opportunity for emotional growth for them both.

Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) was the reassuring constant throughout the series. He put up with a lot from House—a huge understatement, to be fair—and was always around to keep House grounded and, well, alive. House always knew how to manipulate him, but ultimately House really needed Wilson, and needed to know that at least Wilson cared about his well-being.

In all, House is a great character study, a rare instance of a kind of anti-hero on a mainstream network series. It's a pretty good drama that made the most of its huge success. And it brought America's attention to the magic of Hugh Laurie, which is never a bad thing. It's not the best show I've ever watched, but it was worth watching. It grabbed my attention and kept it, which is what it should do.

Don't watch it while you're sick, though. It might be porphyria.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My Favorite Episode: "Wilson's Heart," (S4, Ep. 16): This is actually the second half of a two-part episode, but it really runs the gamut of the emotional range of the show. House was involved in a bus accident with Wilson's girlfriend, and she is in grave danger as a result. The key to saving her is trapped in House's concussed, drug-addled brain. This episode is really the first time we see the devastating destruction House's actions can cause, how deeply his problems run, and how far he's willing to push himself, physically and emotionally, to solve a puzzle. It also shows, for a rare moment, how much House is capable of caring, particularly when it comes to Wilson.

Some Trivia:

  • Hugh Laurie became so used to Dr. House's limp that, even after the show ended, he would automatically start limping when a director called "action." Laurie has also said that the limp has caused him actual physical injury.
  • House lives in apartment 221B, just like Sherlock Holmes.
  • When patients with a history of drug abuse are admitted to the ER, they are given the label HOUSE in their charts, meaning "History of Use."
Next Up:
Life on Mars

Previously:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

I'll Be There For You


(This post contains spoilers)

Well, I didn't think it would happen, but here we are. I've joined the rest of the world and I've finally watched all of Friends.

Of course, I'd seen a few episodes here and there before Seinfeld marathons on TBS, but I'd never taken enough interest to actually invest the time to watch all 10 seasons. It was only when I decided I needed a new Frasier (i.e., a ton of seasons that don't require my full attention) that I took the plunge.

Arguably one of NBC's (and television's) most successful shows of all time, Friends started with a cast of virtual nobodies who, over the course of the series, rocketed to star status and are now some of the most recognized actors on screen, big or small.

Friends is basically the epitome of the '90s; although it had spilled into the next decade by the time it ended in 2004, when you think of Friends, you think of the '90s. For the TV-watching world, Friends is the ultimate representation of both the era and of being a twenty-something.

As a twenty-something myself, it's impossible to separate myself from the intent of the show. I'm exactly the type of person who's supposed to love it. And yet, to be perfectly honest, I just didn't.

Let's be clear: I didn't hate it. I just didn't love it the way everyone else seems to. I found it perfectly entertaining, enough to stick it out through more than 200 episodes. But the '90s was a decade packed to the brim with really great multi-camera sitcoms (you already know how I feel about Frasier), and, to me, Friends just didn't hold a candle to the likes of 3rd Rock from the SunNewsRadio, or Will & Grace.

I get why people love it. It's fun, it's relatable, and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. It wasn't particularly groundbreaking, though, and I found a lot of the punchlines to be predictable and a lot of the acting to be, well, overacted. A lot of sitcoms tend to get shouty, where all of the actors just yell all of their lines, especially the funny ones, instead of delivering them believably. Unfortunately there was a little too much of that on Friends (I'm looking at you, Courteney Cox).

On that note, I loved the episode where Chandler and Monica's prospective couple friends rejected them because of Monica's constant yelling.

To be honest, I don't understand why people like any of the characters or think any of the things they do to each other are okay. At least on Seinfeld the fact that the characters are all shmucks is basically what the show is about. But if Friends is about growing together as friends, it just didn't happen for me. Let's be frank—it's no wonder all these people are friends with each other, because there's no way anyone else would be friends with them! They're self-centered, judgmental, manipulative, and often just plain annoying. They're not even that good to each other.

That said, I honestly don't get why everyone hates on Ross so much. I find him so much more sincere and endearing than any of the other friends, and even though he was whiny and did some awful things—telling Rachel they were divorced when they weren't comes to mind—is he really any worse than the others?

Rachel ran out on her wedding, called Ross gay for not having sex with her when she was vulnerable after her dad's heart attack, and interfered in everyone's relationships when they didn't suit her. Jennifer Aniston is the only one of the actors that I ever really liked before watching Friends, but seriously. Rachel is terrible.

Chandler made fun of Monica when she was fat and lied to Janice about moving to Yemen just to avoid breaking up with her. He constantly belittled everyone he talked to. He grew the most as a character over the course of the series, and I liked seeing him as a husband and dad, but he was kind of an asshole about 80% of the time.

Joey is an incessant womanizer, and... well, that's really his entire character. We never know much about Joey, so all he is is a dumb, misogynistic actor and seems to only be there for punchline value. It's too bad, really. He could have been more.

Monica is extremely competitive and controlling, and I just can't get past the yelling. She's not the worst; I appreciate her ambition, and she knows what she wants. But her borderline OCD and control freak tendencies just get old fast.

Phoebe turned out to be less annoying than I initially thought, but her character is a bit confusing to me. Half the time she's the flighty hippie type who lives in her own, strange world, and the other half she's manipulating her friends and boyfriends in various ways. Her rough childhood on the streets was actually pretty interesting, but it didn't really seem to factor into who she was on the show very often. It seemed like it just came up when it was convenient but didn't have any bearing on anything else that happened.

Ross may be trigger-happy when it comes to getting married, but he really cares about people. He's intelligent and has the only stable career of any of them, but he's constantly made fun of for both of these things, because sitcoms always have to dump on smart people. His mistakes almost always come from misguided attempts to be nice to people. I wouldn't want to be friends with him, but compared with the rest of the characters, why does everyone hate him specifically?

Anyway, somehow all of these lousy people ended up together, and the rest is television history.

Considering it was on for so long, Friends was actually pretty consistent in its quality. Granted, the quality wasn't much above average to begin with, but it didn't get really bad like it could have. It was more successful in its long story arc than other long-running sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. Somehow, despite being perfectly average, it beat my 5-season theory. Well done, guys. Sort of.

And while the ending was mostly great, I was really unhappy that Rachel stayed in New York to be with Ross. It's great that they finally got together—the whole "will they or won't they" business got really old, because obviously they were going to end up together eventually—but there's no reason that Rachel couldn't have gone to Paris. There are museums in Paris that Ross could've worked at. But that job Rachel was offered was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I don't get why neither of them considered it an option for both of them to go to Paris. It seemed unfair to me for Rachel to just give up her dream without any discussion between them.

That aside, I liked that everyone moved on. They were out of their twenties and had gotten on with their lives, and that's why the show had to end. I appreciate that; as I've mentioned before, few things are more disappointing in television than shows that last beyond what's good.

Creator Marta Kauffman says that this is why there's never been a reunion or a reboot or anything of that sort: "Once you start having family of your own it changes, and the show was over. A show has a lifespan, I believe. It has a lifespan like anything else, and there's no reason to continue doing it just because people miss the characters. Watch the old ones; there is no way we could win that. And there's no way it would be satisfying and it'll never happen. We'll never do it." (I saved this quote but failed to save where it came from. I think it was a Buzzfeed article.)


Thank you, Marta Kauffman, for being a voice of reason in a profit-driven media world!! It would be so easy for a show as well-loved as Friends to constantly come back to appease viewers who don't understand that things either end well or get bad. There are 10 perfectly good seasons available to enjoy: enjoy them as they are.

I'm glad I watched Friends so I can finally have a real opinion about it, but the trouble is that I didn't like it enough to satisfy the people who would care enough to want to know. People are fiercely dedicated to Friends, to a point that I don't really understand. Again, I understand why it's popular. But really. It's not that good. Sure, I'll watch reruns, but it'll never be among my favorites.

Oh, and for the record, they were on a break.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My Favorite Episode: "The One Where Everybody Finds Out," (S5, Ep.14). Everyone finally finds out, in various ways, that Monica and Chandler have been dating. Phoebe and Rachel start messing with Monica and Chandler to try and get them to confess. Also includes Ugly Naked Guy, which is never a bad thing.
It's hard to choose a favorite episode, because there are so many. There are more individual moments over the course of the series that I liked a lot more than any in this episode, but as a whole episode, this one was funny and helped move the plot along in an effective way.

Some Trivia:

  • Even the cast didn't like the Joey and Rachel plotline. "It felt wildly inappropriate. [The cast] got super defensive about the whole thing." -Matt LeBlanc
  • Pay negotiations were a group effort for the cast, so that no main character ever made more than the others. At the beginning, they each made $22,500 per episode, and by the end it was $1,000,000 per episode.
  • R.E.M's "Shiny Happy People" was originally supposed to be the show's theme song instead of the now-iconic Rembrandts song.
  • Tom Selleck was met with standing ovations every time he entered a scene. Those entrances were unusable, so he would have to re-shoot them all without the audience.
  • The show's main characters are all named for characters from All My Children.
Next Up:
House, M.D.
Previously:
LOST

Monday, June 20, 2016

Live Together, Die Alone

Remember that time I had a blog? No? Apparently, neither did I.

Since my last post I've managed to get several jobs on actual TV shows and move to another country, but never fear—my introverted tendencies mean that Netflix is still an essential companion. Livin' it up!



So. Let's go to a mysterious island, where nothing makes any sense. A bunch of people crash there, only to find that a bunch of other people already live there. They all try to kill each other. And that, in a nutshell, is LOST.

LOST ran for six seasons on ABC, from 2004-2010. The concept and execution of LOST were hugely experimental for the time; with monsters, immortality, time travel, and an apparently-sentient island, nothing like this had ever been done before on television (outside of The Twilight Zone, which is, even now, in a league of its own), or really much afterward.

On top of that, there's nothing procedural about it, which is fairly common now on cable networks and streaming services, but which was (and still is) frowned upon by the networks, who are wholly reliant on viewership and the advertising money it brings in, and so need shows that anyone can start watching at any time during its run. But it's pretty much impossible to jump into LOST at any episode, which ABC was worried about before giving it the green light. In true creatives-versus-business form, creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof flat-out lied to the network and told them that "Of course people can start watching any time!" even though they had already written out a several-season story arc. ABC needn't have worried, because viewers got hooked immediately.

It's really kind of hard not to get hooked immediately. LOST grabs its audience by making us ask ourselves one of those hypothetical questions we sometimes think about in the shower: what would I do if my plane crashed on an island?

Charlie (Dominick Monaghan), Sun (Yunjin Kim),
Shannon (Maggie Grace), Sawyer (Josh Holloway),
Boone (Ian Somerhalder), Jack (Matthew Fox),
Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Michael (Harold Perrineau),
and Kate (Evangeline Lilly)
The show begins with Oceanic Flight 815 hitting turbulence, splitting in half, and crashing onto an uncharted island on its way to Los Angeles from Sydney. Out of the survivors, personalities, secrets, relationships, and alliances arise while they try to survive and wait for rescue. Once they start exploring the island, the survivors discover that they're not alone there, and "The Others" present a new threat that they—and the audience—struggle to understand.

Through flashbacks, and later flash-forwards (if that's a word), more and more about each character's history and motivations is revealed, building them into really interesting, complex people the viewers can understand on a deep level.

This, to me, is the most amazing thing about LOST. The concept is average at best, and the constant mysteries and cliffhangers can get a little old, especially in the later seasons. But the complex and genuinely interesting characters and the relationships they form are what made me want to keep watching. It's what I love most about television in general, but it's what makes LOST and J.J. Abrams's other shows so interesting to watch. It's what Abrams is best at, and where his films fall flat, honestly; he doesn't have time to build his characters and his stories the way he can on TV, so all that's left is a multi-million-dollar lens flare.

Another way that the show is really made by its characters is the sheer diversity of people. In a way that Hollywood pretty much never is, the cast of survivors is really representative of the diversity you'd find on an international flight. A pregnant Australian girl, married Koreans, a Black single dad and his young son, an overweight Hispanic guy, an Iraqi, a southern con-man, an older interracial couple, a middle-aged, sort-of paraplegic, and a British, drug-addicted rock musician. Though, of course, the main character, Jack, is a sexy white doctor, and, frankly, was wholly uninteresting. To me, Sayid and Sawyer were far more interesting characters and could've been just as effective as leaders of the group and the show.

4-8-15-16-23-42
One of the biggest missing links to me is
the origins of the Dharma Initiative.
There's a pretty definite shift in tone in the last half of the show, when the flashbacks switch to glimpses of the future. That's all well and good—it moves the story along and introduces new questions. But then in the last two seasons, things get really crazy with uncontrollable time-shifts, extra supernatural elements, and new plot twists that, to me, just muddled things up when they didn't need to be.

Before that point, it felt like things were finally being explained. The time jumps were promising, because it seemed like the origins of the island, the Dharma Initiative, and the Others would finally, finally, make some sense. But instead, LOST fell into the trap that I've found a lot of suspense-driven shows fall into: mystery for the sake of mystery, drawn out for the sake of intrigue, and then poorly—or never—explained. I like being left with questions, sure, but they have to be good, thoughtful, interesting questions, and not just "What the hell just happened?"

It's incredibly disappointing, because up to that point the mystery was exciting, and didn't feel exploitative. In the last two seasons, I felt like the cliffhangers were just taking advantage of my investment in the show, and not in the smart way that good stories do. It felt a little cheap, frankly.

And, well, the end. I had heard complaints about it and went into the show believing it had been spoiled. If it helps anyone who wondered, they weren't all dead the whole time. Thank. God. I put off watching the show for several years because I was so disappointed in this possibility, because, if it were true, it would be such lazy writing that it would completely ruin an interesting show.

I still didn't love the ending, but it was better than the alternative. It was emotional and was nice in that it brought all of the characters back together, even ones that had died early on in the show. But it was disappointing in the same way the last seasons were: it just wasn't explained well enough. It was a nice idea, but there were too many loose ends that felt contrived. They could've been explained, but they just weren't, and for no reason.

My five-season theory holds up here. LOST would have been infinitely better if it had had one fewer season. It felt like it had one too many story lines. One too many returns to the island, one too many time trips, one too many supernatural elements. Again, it felt a little cheap and exploitative. It felt, as with many shows that last a little bit too long, like ABC was just trying to drag out the viewership just a little bit longer.

All in all, I'm glad I watched LOST. I'm glad I can be part of the cultural phenomenon that came out of it, even if it's years too late. It's certainly worth watching if you like suspenseful stories and interesting characters with some sci-fi elements, but just be aware that it's not consistently good all the way through. I personally much preferred Abrams's Fringe, which is one of my favorite series, and the very short-lived Alcatraz was promising, as well. But LOST was worth watching and is really fun to discuss, and with so many hugely-dedicated viewers and so many weird plot lines to figure out, there's no shortage of things to talk about. And I think the LOST community is what helped it last.

This is a show that demands conversation. So on that note, let's talk about it! Leave a comment with your thoughts below—I'd love to hear from you!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My Favorite Episode:
"Live Together, Die Alone," (S2, Ep.23). We learn more about Desmond's past, and Michael brings Kate, Jack, Hurley, and Sawyer to the Others to try to rescue Walt, while Sayid, Sun, and Jin try to stop the betrayal. Desmond and Locke decide not to press the button in the hatch, and Charlie and Mr. Eko try to stop them. Picking a favorite episode is difficult, because each one is so connected to each other one that it can be hard to separate them. But the hatch was my favorite plot line, because it included a lot of interesting dilemmas for the characters. They learn about the Dharma Initiative (which I wish had been better explained), and the imperative to keep pressing the button brings up the question of how much of the island's information they should take on faith, and how much control they actually have over their time there. The hatch also showed a lot about the characters involved, based on how they reacted to the instructions to continue to press the button.

Some Trivia:
  • Daniel Dae Kim hadn't spoken Korean since he was a teenager, and had to relearn the language for his monolingual character Jin. Yunjin Kim, whose character Sun secretly speaks English and teaches Jin to speak English, actually spoke Korean in most of her previous acting credits and helped Daniel Dae Kim with his Korean.
  • Michael Emerson, who played Ben, was originally only supposed to be in a few episodes. The producers liked him so much that they made him a more prominent character. (Good thing, too. Ben was probably the most interesting character, even in the last seasons when things got weird.)
  • Parts of the crashed plane were used as instruments in Michael Giacchino's soundtrack.
  • Jorge Garcia (Hurley) was the first person cast in the series, after J.J. Abrams saw him in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Next Up in the Series:
Friends
Previously:
Murder, She Wrote

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tonight on Murder, She Wrote

I've seen my fair share of crime dramas, from Columbo (which will likely be a future post), Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I. to NCIS, Bones, and Elementary. But few are as dear and nostalgic as Murder, She Wrote, a show my mom watched every single Sunday as I was growing up.

With the catchiest of catchy theme songs (just try to get it out of your head) and a talented, charming, and intelligent main character, Murder, She Wrote is a beacon in the crowded crime procedural genre. Is it perfect? Far from it. But it's comfortable and it's endearing, great for a snowy afternoon or a lazy summer evening.

Via Wikimedia
MSW aired on CBS for an unbelievable 12 seasons from 1984-1996. It's about successful mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played, of course, by Angela Lansbury), who lives in the sleepy, yet strangely murder-ridden, town of Cabot Cove, Maine. Her success at writing murder mysteries has given her an uncanny ability to solve them in real life, so she lends the police a hand in their investigations whether they want it or not—and they usually don't.

Jessica Fletcher is a woman with no apparent weaknesses. She's a great friend. She knows a little about everything. She has no fear. She's got great instinct, and she knows how to follow it to an end. She can out-police the police every time.

Murder seems to follow Jessica everywhere she goes. Whether she somehow gets roped into an international smuggling scheme or she's just looking to get some repairs done on her house, someone she knows will either be murdered or be accused of murder. You know a person's doomed at the beginning of an episode if he has some kind of interaction with Jessica. It's like the red shirts in Star Trek, only this time, it's anyone Jessica talks to.

It's a good thing she travels a lot, or else Cabot Cove would be entirely empty by the end of 2 seasons. As it is, the fictional small town has a higher murder rate than Honduras, the murder capital of the world. So, there's that. But for Angela Lansbury, we'll believe anything.

There's a whole host of guest stars in the show. Everybody who was anybody, and everybody who wasn't, in 80s and 90s television showed up at least once, including Jerry Orbach, Jessica Walter, the dad from Ferris Bueller, and even George Clooney and a teenage Neil Patrick Harris. My mom made sure to tell me through every episode what other shows each guest star had been in. Thanks, mom.

Jessica Fletcher, always peering around corners.
As a side note, it's a testament to Angela Lansbury's skill and grace that she was able to stay in character even opposite the worst actors possible. The famous guest stars were great. The ones who weren't so famous? Not so great.

Anyway.

What allowed this show to last as long as it did was that it was purely procedural—meaning that my 5-season-limit theory doesn't apply. Each episode stood entirely on its own, with the exception of a few 2-part episodes. Even after Jessica moved part-time to New York City in season 8, while the tone shifted to seem a little grittier—complete with cheesy 90s saxophone music—every episode was still largely the same as it always had been. In fact, there were some episodes, particularly in the last seasons, with exactly repeated motives, methods, character types, and solutions from earlier episodes, presumably because the writers assumed no one would notice, and probably due in part to the fact that the show had a completely new production team after season 8. But it couldn't jump the shark, because they weren't trying to develop any characters or include any long story arcs.

There were plenty of recurring characters, like Jessica's lovably grouchy best friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom) or the debonair Dennis (Keith Mitchell), but these and all other relationships remained static for all 12 seasons. Angela Lansbury insisted that the widowed Jessica remain independent throughout the series, despite pushback from the producers, and I think ultimately that helped the show last as long as it did. Besides, Jessica don't need no man.

Overall, though, the mysteries themselves were quite interesting. While there was a formula, it wasn't so completely obvious that you knew exactly who did it 10 minutes in (in one crime show I watched, the murderer was always the third person they talked to). The mysteries weren't so easy that you could solve them immediately, but the clues were prominent enough that you could figure it out on your own if you paid attention. And, because Jessica knows people in all sorts of situations and walks of life, there are plenty of interesting scenarios in which the murders occur: operas, espionage, ghost stories, salon gossip, you name it.

Like I said, though, the show was far from perfect. Around half of season 6 was made up of episodes that weren't about Jessica Fletcher at all. Some of these episodes were meant to be pilots for other shows that never got picked up, but others were just random, disconnected storylines. I don't know if Angela Lansbury wasn't available for that whole season, or if things were just lagging for other reasons, but it was a great disappointment to watch.
Seth is probably in the middle of calling Jessica
"woman" here. Their relationship is my favorite
of the series—completely platonic and
completely adorable.

The last episode, too, was a big let-down. Perhaps they didn't realize it was the last episode, or perhaps they just didn't put much thought into it, but I didn't feel like I was able to say goodbye to the show. It wasn't in Cabot Cove, for one thing, so there wasn't any closure on Seth, Sheriff Metzger, or any of the beauty shop ladies. The mystery wasn't even that good. For a show that was pretty solid for 12 years, it was a terribly anti-climactic ending.

Murder, She Wrote is best enjoyed on occasion. It's not a great binge show, because every episode is similar enough—and Jessica perfect enough—that it can get old with too much saturation. This isn't a show you engross yourself in; it's a show you can casually enjoy over a cup of tea and a puzzle. And plus, who doesn't love Angela Lansbury? Despite its (relatively minor) flaws, it's a must-watch if you like mysteries and classic TV. Or catchy theme songs.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My Favorite Episode:
"The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel," (S5, Ep. 7). It's difficult to pick a favorite episode of a show like this, not just because there are so flipping many episodes, but also because not many of them are really stand-outs (not that they aren't good). In this episode, a missing Air Force plane from the Korean War is recovered, containing evidence of a murder that could be pinned on Jessica's late husband, Frank. What I liked about this one was that it showed a different side of Jessica. Normally, she is completely and utterly unflappable. She's cool and collected, all the time. She always knows what to do. But in this episode, she really gets angry. When it comes to her beloved Frank, she won't allow shoddy investigation to tarnish his reputation. It also provided a little more background for Jessica that hadn't really been revealed before. It was a brief departure from the show's norm, and it worked well. It was just nice to see a little bit of humanity in Jessica every now and then.

Some Trivia:

  • Angela Lansbury was nominated for the Best Actress Emmy every year the show aired, but she never won.
  • Jessica Fletcher could not drive a car. In Cabot Cove she rode her bike wherever possible, and she often asks other characters for rides.
  • The show's title comes from Murder She Said, a film adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories.
  • Angela Lansbury and recurring guest stars Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers all co-starred together in Beauty and the Beast, which filmed during MSW's run, as Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth, respectively.
The ultimate in "before they were famous" stills—Neil Patrick
Harris before...well, before anything.

Next up in the series:
LOST

Previously:
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Sopranos
Frasier
Series introduction

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Oh, Rob!

For this post, we're taking a step inside our WABAC machine (which is another great show from days past), all the way back to 1961. In 1961, America was living in fear that the Earth would be blown up at any instant and our country would be taken over by Commies—and we weren't even sure which was worse.

Television had been a thing, or at least a thing people used regularly, for about a decade, and by then it was already in almost 90% of American homes. Amazing, right?

The early '60s were still a pretty squeaky-clean time for television, as far as censorship and regulation goes. Think of I Love Lucy, where they weren't even allowed to say the word "pregnant" because the network felt it was too vulgar—even when Lucy was actually pregnant.

Well, in comes The Dick Van Dyke Show, breaking boundaries at every step without really even trying. They faced some push-back from the network, but with persistence and clever loopholes, they managed to capture a sense of reality in every episode that no one else had accomplished before. It ran for five seasons, from 1961-1966, on CBS, and is still popular in syndication, as well as being one of the most well-loved sitcoms ever. It won 15 Emmys for acting, writing, and directing, and was nominated for many more; it was nominated and won at least one award for every season it was on air.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally meant to star creator Carl Reiner and was called Head of the Family. The pilot episode of this version is on Netflix for you to watch, but it's so terrible that I'm not sure you really want to. Luckily Reiner realized it wasn't working and set out to find someone else to star.

Lucky for everyone, he found the then-nobody Dick Van Dyke, long before anyone knew him as Bert from Mary Poppins (which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite movies). He was starring with Chita Rivera in Bye Bye, Birdie on Broadway at the time, and when Reiner saw him, he knew that he would be perfect: not too good-looking, a little awkward, and all-around lovable. The trouble was, Dick Van Dyke was far from a household name, so Reiner took a pretty big risk putting his name front and center. However, the show eventually became so popular that Dick Van Dyke would be a name no one would forget.

Public Domain
Besides the obvious Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show also stars Mary Tyler Moore as Rob's wife Laura, as well as Larry Matthews as their young son Ritchie. Rob works as the head writer on the fictional Alan Brady Show (based on Reiner's experience as a writer on the real Sid Caesar Show) with co-writers Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), whose one-liners are to die for, and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). There are also Rob and Laura's neighbors and best friends, Millie and Jerry Helper (Anne Morgan Guilbert and Jerry Paris, respectively), as well as Carl Reiner himself as the ill-tempered diva Alan Brady and Richard Deacon as his balding producer Mel Cooley. The show even includes a couple of appearances by Dick Van Dyke's real-life little brother Jerry in particularly hilarious episodes, as Rob's sleepwalking little brother.

In every episode, the characters find themselves in all kinds of silly shenanigans—yet always believable ones. Whether it's a flashback to Rob and Laura's wedding that almost wasn't, or it's Rob losing a script that he, Buddy, and Sally had spent all day working on and then negotiating with a homeless man to get it back, or it's a bird that has taken a liking to little Ritchie's hair for its nest and attacks him every time he comes home from school, there's no shortage of entertainment in every episode.

There are many, many things that work in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Very often when I watch early television, like I Love Lucy, Green Acres, or even something a little later like Bewitched, I find that I enjoy it because it's quaint. It's adorable and old. And sometimes a little bit uncomfortable because of the obviously misogynistic story lines. No matter how scheming Lucy was, Ricky always put her back in her place. I love these shows and find them funny and entertaining, but there's always a part of me that thinks, "Aw, how cute."

This was never the case with The Dick Van Dyke Show. It never felt quaint, despite being over 50 years old. It was just genuinely funny. I laughed out loud all the time.

Carl Reiner was nothing short of genius in the way he put the show together. First and foremost, Reiner made it his goal to capture real life. It wasn't "real" life the way TV portrayed it in many other similar sitcoms. It was real life the way he and the people he knew experienced it. He would ask his crew, his actors, and even his then-young son Rob (who is a great actor, writer, and director in his own right), about things that had happened in their own lives. Much of what happened in Dick Van Dyke came from actual things that happened to people Reiner knew. Reiner has said himself that he never intended to necessarily break any boundaries or be particularly forward-thinking; he was just thinking about real life. Mary Tyler Moore said of the show that the only thing that didn't feel real about it was the fact that Rob and Laura slept in separate beds. Ah, well. You can't win every battle with the networks.

The character Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) was the
first time a single, working woman
was shown on television.
Also pictured is Morey Amsterdam as Buddy
Sorrell, king of the hilarious one-liners.
The Dick Van Dyke Show treated women with great respect. They weren't just gossiping housewives (although Laura and Millie were housewives, and they did gossip, that wasn't their only purpose). They were real and they had opinions that were valued. One of the things Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore fought the network for was pants. In every television series before this one, women were always, always shown in skirts. No woman had ever been shown wearing pants. But Mary Tyler Moore pointed out, "Well, all the moms and housewives I know wear pants," so Reiner said, "Then you'll wear pants." This bothered CBS, who at first wouldn't let them show Laura in pants at all, and then insisted that they show her in a skirt for at least a certain number of scenes in every episode. This lasted until they included a scene in which Laura goes into the kitchen wearing pants and comes out a second later wearing a skirt, after which CBS finally decided it wasn't going to change their minds. Mary Tyler Moore actually made Capri pants a huge fashion trend because she wore them in the show.

Sally Rogers was also a remarkable character. She was a single, working woman, which was absolutely unheard of in entertainment and extremely rare in real life. She was always joking about finding a husband, and she was teased frequently about it, but it was always good-natured, and she was never made out to look like some kind of spinster or whore or anything. Her teasing wasn't any harsher than the treatment Roz Doyle gets on Frasier, and considering the state of the world in the early '60s, that's pretty amazing. Sally was great at what she did, and that, rather than her being single, was her defining characteristic, which honestly is more than I can say about some more recent shows.

Reiner was also aware of the lasting impression The Dick Van Dyke Show could have if he was smart. He intentionally never included political or cultural references or 1960s slang in episodes, because he knew that those would date the show and would make it less likely to withstand the passing of decades. And it's true; once I knew this fact, I looked out for it, and I might have heard a brief reference to an actor or something maybe once or twice, tops. The content is generally timeless and relatable, despite being in an era with very specific visual markers.

The relationships between the characters are also interesting, particularly between Rob and Laura. Unlike many shows (especially I Love Lucy), Rob and Laura genuinely respect each other. They both make decisions together. It's not all up to Rob to be the man of the house and be in charge of everything—they run the house together. And, more than that, they argue. They argue about real problems and petty ones, just like a real couple. This isn't Father Knows Best, where the husband is
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing as
husband and wife that the public was extremely disappointed
to find that they weren't actually married.
Some people even actively hated Dick Van Dyke's real
wife, Margie, because she wasn't Mary Tyler Moore!
so wonderful and respectable and the wife is so obedient that no one argues. This is a real, loving, respectful relationship. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing that people thought they were married in real life, and were even devastated to find out that they weren't.

And the last major piece of genius from Reiner and the production team was to end it after five seasons, even despite pleas from the public and the network. Especially because at this time every season had at least 30 episodes (compared to the average 22 or even 13 of today), this was a brilliant move to keep the show from, as I've said before, either jumping the shark or simply fizzling out. Reiner didn't even want to have any reunion episodes later on, which I also think is smart, if only because I just personally am not a fan of reunions.

So, overall impression: it's an incredible specimen of television. Maybe not every episode is a complete winner (including the slightly disappointing final episode), but as a whole, this is simply great TV. Not great TV despite its era, just great TV. The writing is witty, clever, and often laugh-out-loud funny (real lols were had!). The characters are endearing, and their relationships are believable. The casting is brilliant. And it's never quaint. The jokes are lasting, the scenarios are lasting, the relationships are lasting. It's no wonder Dick Van Dyke became a household name.

If you've watched The Dick Van Dyke Show, let me know your thoughts! If not, go watch it now, you'll love it!
The cast and producers with their well-deserved Primetime Emmys!
Richard Deacon (played Mel Cooley) is on the left. Mary Tyler Moore
and Dick Van Dyke are to his left. Carl Reiner is the second from the right.
I believe the man on the far right is Jerry Paris, who played neighbor Jerry
Helper, and who was also a very successful (and Emmy-winning)
director on the series. Unfortunately I'm not sure
who the man to Reiner's right is. If you know, do tell!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My favorite episode:
"Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc," (S5, Ep. 26). Rob, Sally, and Buddy write insulting epithets about Alan Brady in their script while they are writing, something they do every week, but they always ink it out before sending the final script to their egomaniacal boss. However, this particular week they were in a big hurry to finish the script and left it on Alan's desk without remembering to cover up all of their insults! Alan is out of the office, so the three, plus Laura, hope they can get the script back before Alan sees it and without being late for the play they're about to see.

Some Trivia:
  • Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Mel (Richard Deacon) are notoriously enemies on the show. Buddy is always making fun of Mel's baldness with hilarious one-liners, and Mel always refers to Buddy simply as "Yeuch!" However, Amsterdam and Deacon were actually close friends in real life and came up with many of Buddy's best insults over dinners or between scenes.
  • This was the last show to have its entire run in black & white. If it had continued on to a sixth season, it would have converted to color.
  • Buddy Sorrell was based on Mel Brooks, who worked as a writer on Sid Caesar's Show of Shows alongside Carl Reiner.
  • Alan Brady's face was never shown and his voice was rarely heard for the first three seasons of the show, because Carl Reiner wanted to find a big celebrity to play the part. But by season four, Reiner decided just to play the role himself.
Next up in the series:
Murder, She Wrote

Previously:
A favorite scene of mine, in a Christmas special.
"Alan Brady, Alan Brady," they all sing sweetly, until, one by one,
they each sing out their own names and exit the song, leaving
a peeved Rob conducting no one!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Woke Up This Morning

It took me far too long to finish watching The Sopranos: nearly a year. This was due in no small part to how much I hate using every Amazon Prime streaming app, but as this isn't a post about how poorly designed those apps are, we'll let it slide for now.
Wired
The Sopranos ran for 6 (or kind of 7, depending on who you ask) seasons, from 1999-2007, and it was one of premium cable network HBO's first forays into original television programming. It's ostensibly a mafia story, about Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini), the boss of the New Jersey mafia, but on closer inspection, it's really more a family drama: Tony's difficult marriage to Carmela (Edie Falco) and the challenges they face as parents to Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler).

This show has been rated as one of the greatest TV shows of all time on pretty much every list there is. It was the first cable drama to win the Emmy for Best Drama in 2004, and it won 21 other Emmys for writing, directing, and acting. It also won the Peabody Award two years in a row. In short, it's pretty incredible.

The Sopranos makes an amazing first impression. First off, the theme song is simply awesome ("Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3). I enjoyed it for six whole seasons. But more than that, and more than the stunning cinematic quality that just didn't happen in television before Tony Soprano graced our screens, you find in the very first episode that you are getting the answer to a question you never thought you'd ask: What would happen if a mafia don went to a psychiatrist?

We see Tony's pride, his deeply-ingrained machismo, in his aversion to the very idea of psychiatry, but his obsession with those ducks in his pool suggests a softer side that remains largely untapped. Through every season, as Tony continues to visit Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), we as viewers keep hoping that Tony will change, that Dr. Melfi's therapy will get through to him.

What's really incredible about The Sopranos and its collection of characters is that it set an amazing precedent. It was the first time that a TV show focused on a true anti-hero: a protagonist who is truly terrible, maybe even a little evil, but the viewers still root for him and want him to succeed. More recently, we saw anti-heroes in Dexter Morgan and Walter White, thanks to David Chase's groundbreaking creation of Tony Soprano.

And really, on the surface, there's not much to like about Tony Soprano. Right off the bat, he literally murders people with his own hands. There are multiple occasions in the series when he actually has blood on his hands (how's that for blatant symbolism?). He orders his "soldiers" to kill, as well. Almost every penny he makes is dirty in some way--and he makes a lot of pennies. He bribes cops, inspectors, anyone who might stand in his way of making a killing, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Obviously, he's a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad guy.

So let's put his actions aside for a moment and look at Tony as a man. Likely due to his position as the boss, he's prideful. He's selfish. He's petty. He's hugely hypocritical. He's not faithful to his wife. He has no understanding for his own son's depression, despite his own struggles. He's a sore loser. He's extremely rigid in his views of the world.
Tony faces off against Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese).
From thesopranos.info
Why do we care about him so much, then, enough to watch six seasons of violence, dirty dealings, and sometimes gore? He is obviously overwhelmingly more flawed than good. It's all down to brilliant writing, interesting plots, and in-depth relationships with equally-interesting characters. And Tony loves his family. He really, really loves his family. He mistreats them, but he loves them deeply. He will do anything to protect them, to provide for them. Like Walter White, somehow that one lovely quality is enough to excuse the evil-doings for long enough to be enthralled by what's happening.

There really is a lot to say about The Sopranos. There's a lot going on, a lot of characters, a lot of sub-plots. If I'm honest, I missed some things because I wasn't paying enough attention, so there are a few deaths and a few relationships that I was never completely sure of. There's so much to keep track of--who's related, who's part of which gang, who killed who and why, etc., etc., etc.--that if you miss one moment it can get confusing.

Overall, though, it was interesting. It included political and social commentary that is often still relevant. It was an intimate picture of a man who, if he were real, we would only get a glimpse of through news broadcasts. It's an interesting statement of humanity: this man who makes his living through murder and shady deals is still a man. He has a family he loves. He has very close friends. He sees a psychiatrist. He's just a man.

And that ending. Boy, that ending. I knew it was going to be ambiguous going in, but it's much more abrupt than I expected. I thought the Internet had cut out until the credits started rolling. People have been debating what happened to Tony after the dramatic cut to black since it happened in 2007. Was he whacked? After all, he had just taken out the head of his rival gang. It could have been a gang member coming in the door instead of Meadow. Or maybe that guy in the baseball cap who went into the bathroom just a moment before would return to put an end to the Soprano rule.

Or maybe it was just the end. Nothing happened, and that was the extraordinary thing. For a man who lives his entire life suspicious of every person, unsure of whether someone is going to kill him or turn him into the cops, time with his family is rare and precious. With Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" playing on the jukebox, it just feels so simple, so idyllic, so American.

David Chase refuses to answer. In fact, he doesn't care whether or not Tony was killed in that moment. He says it's more about the small happy moment Tony spends with his family--such a rare moment for them--than about whether or not he dies. Here is a really interesting shot-for-shot description of the ending with David Chase.
The family, minus Meadow, enjoy onion rings just before
the infamous black-screen ending.
From salon.com
Chase explains, "The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing."

Despite all the incredible things about it, The Sopranos does fall just short of passing my five-season-limit theory. The last season was okay, but I found myself struggling to find the motivation to get into it. After the end of the fifth season, I felt more or less satisfied with where things had ended up, and it took me a while to even start watching season six. I think at the very least, the last season could have been shorter; it was almost twice the length of the previous five seasons, and it often felt that way.

On that note, I felt that some of the sub-plots took too long to come to a close. There were a few things I had completely forgotten by the time they were resolved, and in some cases I had kind of just given up hope of having closure when they were suddenly brought back again. The plots were always interesting, but I felt that there were some I had to wait a little too long for.

Final thoughts: Amazing series. The cinematography looked like a movie in every episode. The characters were fascinating, as were their relationships with each other. The writing and the directing were top-notch. It just felt a little long in places, particularly during the sixth season. Definitely watch it if you like family dramas, the Godfather movies, or are just really into good TV. It's a classic, it's groundbreaking, and we have it to thank for some more recent successes, and for showing the world that even TV can be an art form.

What do you think?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My favorite episode:
"The Test Dream," (S5, Ep. 11). Tony has a series of vivid nightmares while he's trying to relax. He's visited by dead friends and dreams of family issues. What I love about this episode is how accurately it captures the experience of dreaming. You're never sure from shot to shot if it's a dream or not, and people and things are constantly changing every time Tony looks at them. Things appear normal at first glance, and then as Tony looks closer they suddenly become strange. It's fantastic, and by far the best depiction of dreaming I've ever seen, in film or television.

Some Trivia:

  • Real-life mafia members often contacted James Gandolfini to compliment him on the authenticity of the series, and to give him advice.
  • David Chase didn't allow any camera movements in Dr. Melfi's office.
  • Tony Sirico, who played Paulie (one of my favorite characters, incidentally), was actually a mobster when he was young, before becoming an actor. His nickname was "Junior," which is the nickname of Tony Soprano's uncle, Corrado, in the series.
Next up in the series: 
The Dick Van Dyke Show

Previously:
Frasier
Series Introduction