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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (10/27/08) 10:54am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  A Room With a View
TV:  The Wire [5x01-5x03], Pushing Daisies [1x01-1x03]
Books:  <none>

A Room With a View
Sometimes it's strange when a movie turns out to be absolutely what you expect.

Honestly, I haven't seen many Merchant-Ivory films.  I suspect I've seen Howard's End, though I remember none of it.  I remember The Remains of the Day (loved it).  And that's about it.  Given how often movie buffs allude to that pair of names, it's strange that I'd only seen approximately one of their films.

So I figured I only *thought* I knew[1] what Merchant & Ivory were all about.  I figured that when I hit "play" on perhaps their best-known film, there would be surprises in store for me.

Instead... it felt like what you'd get if you gave an improv troupe the genre "Merchant-Ivory films" and the title "A Room With a View".  Ah yes.  Of course it features English Edwardian types.  Of course they're very repressed people in an oooh exotic location.  Of course we have a bunch of quirky-but-refined secondary characters surrounding the two leads who have A Love That Their Elders Just Won't Allow -- the plucky heroine and the capital-R-Romantic gentleman.  (And yes, we start with two veddy proper English ladies arguing about the view from their hotel room.)

There was something amusing and deeply satisfying to how completely this film hews to the stereotype -- or more accurately, to how precisely the stereotype fits the films.[2]

So maybe that amusement put me in the wrong state of mind towards the film.  It struck me less as an edifying adaptation of a great piece of literature, and more of a slight, pleasant, absolutely-by-the-numbers romantic comedy -- a bit maudlin and light on the comedy, sure, but a pleasant bit of escapist distraction nonetheless.  Why not immerse yourselves in the world of Edwardian expatriates, falling in love excitingly and visiting with quirky character actors?  There's no harm in that.

The Wire [5x01-5x03]
The first disc of season five of The Wire includes the episodes "More With Less", "Unconfirmed Reports", and "Not for Attribution".

Every season of David Simon's sprawling crime drama focuses on a different sector of the city, and tries to show us how it's failing.  After going over the war on crime, the industrial sector, city hall, and the educational system, it makes sense to finish up with the city newspaper.  For anyone who watched those first four seasons and asked, "Why don't the media report on these problems?", season five will give you an answer -- and as with most of the answers The Wire offers, you're not going to like it.

It was interesting to start this season after listening to David Simon's recent lecture at UT.  To quote from my own post, this is Simon's reasoning as to why modern newspapers are crap:
Simon first blames the buyouts that happened in the newspaper industry.  These would frequently leave only one major newspaper in a city, owned by some distant media conglomerate.  With a local monopoly, a newspaper could get lazy about the quality of its reporting (frequently by laying off lots of reporters).  They'd reap lots of profits, but those profits would go off to the distant conglomerate instead of getting reinvested in the paper.  Eventually, the ability to cover the "Why?" of a story -- the difficult part, which requires veteran reporters who know their beat, can dig into the causes behind an event, and (often) sort out who's lying -- goes by the wayside.
In season five of The Wire, this is what happens to the Baltimore Sun.  They're in the middle of buyouts, veteran reporters are being let go, and the greener kids just don't have the background and the experience to get to the bottom of a story.

Honestly, I don't know if I have anything new to say about this show.  The things it did will in seasons one through four, it continues to do well now.  It's just a ten-episode season this time, so I'm guessing the first three episodes comprise the entire first act of the season.  And true to form, they set enough threads in motion -- sharp, clear objectives for the cops, the pushers, the reporters, and the politicians -- that they'll have no trouble generating all the plot they need for the remaining seven episodes.

I'm quite impressed with how the season premiere introduces a half-dozen characters at The Sun, delineates them all from one another, and lets you know what they're about, all without appearing to deliver any exposition.  What's more, they squeeze all that into a fraction of the show's running time -- most of the show sticks to the cops and the robbers we've seen before.  I would kill to write character introductions that are that elegant and efficient.

One drawback:  in episode two, they introduce a plotline that strains credibility -- it's a bit too much like things that only happen in TV movies, and less what I'd expect from The Wire.  Mind you, it could be worse -- it's not quite as bad as the ridiculous storylines in season two of Friday Night Lights -- but it makes me wince a little bit.  "C'mon, would he really do that?"

We'll see how that goes.

Pushing Daisies [1x01-1x03]
I was *going* to start this out by saying that there are some shows I recommend to everybody, and other shows I only recommend to a few people.  The problem with that is that the first statement is a lie -- these days, there are *no* shows worth recommending to everybody.  Maybe fifteen years ago I could have recommended The Simpsons to all and sundry, but these days a show that appeals to all people is only going to be everybody's twentieth-favorite thing -- and is that really worth anybody's valuable time?

Mind you, the landscape is lousy with good shows, even great shows, but they all cater to very particular tastes.  Lots of people will find Mad Men too slow, or Arrested Development too fast, or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia too offensive, or The Mighty Boosh just too damn surreal.  (And if you like all of those shows, well, yippee for you.)  If you try to make "TV for everybody", you end up with Two and a Half Men or some bland CBS procedural that draws big numbers among the 'I need background noise while I fold the laundry' crowd.

So maybe it's better to say that there's a spectrum between "recommend to many" and "recommend to few".  And Pushing Daisies is a show I emphatically, whole-heartedly recommend to almost nobody.  Basically, if you have my exact taste in TV shows, this show is exactly for you.[3]

Fortunately, we can run down a quick checklist that should determine if the show is for you.  Do you like...There are no concessions to normalcy here.  It is gunning 110% for where it's going, and either you're going with it or you're not.  The show is saccharine enough to cause insulin shock and so twee that all the regulars at the local frayed-anorak shop cheerfully greet it by name when it walks in the door.  I mean, the first episode is titled "Pie-lette", fercrissake.  By the time one of the characters bursts into song (that'd be in the middle of episode two), it doesn't feel that out of place.

Of course, I am a complete and utter wuss and am prone to make little whirring airplane noises whenever I walk around a corner, so I mind exactly none of this.  Nor do I mind that this show doesn't really have a point -- at least no point beyond being pretty and funny and cutely romantic.  It's like the cinematic equivalent of Springerlee cookies, sweet and insubstantial.


The show comes from Bryan Fuller, who previously created Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me.  (He also worked on Star Trek:  The Next Generation and the first season of Heroes.[4])  I haven't seen Dead Like Me (yet), but I have seen Wonderfalls.  Having seen both shows, I can't shake the feeling that Wonderfalls was the muted version of Mr. Fuller's voice.  Either because of budgetary constraints, or technological limitations, or notes from Fox, Wonderfalls tones down the whimsy[5] and hews closer to reality.

Pushing Daisies must be what the world is like in Mr. Fuller's head, without any such mollifying mediation.

I find the structural similarities between Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies intriguing.  They're both client-driven shows -- that means that every episode features a "client" (think:  guest star) who walks into the show with a problem that the central cast has to solve.[6]  In Wonderfalls, Jaye Tyler gets tormented by a talking tchotchke until she does some particular good deed for the client.  In Pushing Daisies, Ned, Emerson, and Chuck have to solve the client's murder.

Also, both shows feature cryptic verbal clues.  In Wonderfalls, the tchotchke[7] repeats some little imperative sentence like "Make her say it," and Jaye has to figure out what all the pronouns mean and how to make it happen.  In Pushing Daisies, a corpse gets one minute to divulge the circumstances of his/her horrible demise.  Typically, banter and the rather-elastic nature of cinematic time whittle that down to maybe fifteen seconds -- just long enough to deliver a rather cryptic clue.  (In episode two:  "I was killed by a crash-test dummy.")  And then our intrepid crew has to figure out what the hell *that's* all about.

At this point, I really should track down Dead Like Me, just so I can spot the similarities across all three shows.

One last thing:  I know I'm not the first to say this, Anna Friel's American accent really is flawless.  I couldn't find a single Brit-nunciation in the first three episodes (whereas I made something of a sport of Britspotting with Hugh Laurie's performance on House).  And what's more, Ms. Friel actually sounds like she's *from* somewhere.  So often, British thespians wind up with a "received" American accent, bland-ified and de-regional-ized to the point that they sound like newscasters.  Somehow she avoided that, so:  good for her.

For next time:  I'll watch more of The Wire and Pushing Daisies, finish watching The Bicycle Thief, finish reading The Ghost Map, and maybe see one of Patton Oswalt's stand-up DVDs.

Still listening to Beethoven for the time being.

I've plodded through more of the TEDTalks podcast.  Recent highlights:  Richard Dawkins's talk, which resembled his talk at UT; James Howard Kunstler's talk about city design -- nothing new there, but still an interesting topic; and Thomas Bennett's take on why we should have a Department of War and a Department of Everything Else.

In other podcast news, there's a great KCRW interview with Simon Pegg here.

[1] ... odd phrase, that.

[2] Put another way, it was like I had already seen this movie, even though I had never seen it.

[3] The ironic thing is that everybody who likes the show seems to come to this conclusion -- vide the myriad critics who watched the pilot and said (essentially), "What a great show.  Too bad they'll cancel it."

[4] Amusingly, he managed to slip the wax lion from Wonderfalls into a shot in Heroes.  Note that Mr. Fuller wrote the best episode of Heroes:  "Company Man", which reveals the backstory of the horn-rimmed-glasses guy.  Also note the nosedive in quality at Heroes after Mr. Fuller left.

[5] One TV columnist mused that any review of Pushing Daisies has to include the word "whimsy" at least once -- so I've done my part.

[6] And of course, a good client-centered episode is never really *about* the client.  The client is just the catalyst for the central cast to work out some problem centered on their own inter-relationships.

[7]  Can you tell that I really like typing 'tchotchke'?  Tchotchke.  Tchotchke tchotchke tchotchke.

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Date:Monday (10/27/08) 10:31am
I love Pushing Daisies. The frequent puns. The odd juxtaposition of qualities (PI who likes knitting. Oh my god, I just realized that this show pairs a P.I. and a PIE maker). Anna Friel. Kristen Chenoweth! Dead Like Me was enjoyable, too, though not nearly as fun as Pushing Daisies.
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Date:Monday (10/27/08) 11:13am
I found wonderfalls to be much more enjoyable than dead like me - the latter always felt like it was trying to find its footing. I still watched the entire run, and it was cool, but... I'm looking forward to Peter's review of dead like me to tell me exactly why I didn't like it as much. :)
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Date:Monday (10/27/08) 12:27pm
One drawback: in episode two, they introduce a plotline that strains credibility

Ugh. Honestly, that plotline never got better for me. I'd like to chat more about this when you finish the season.
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