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

Tuesday (6/16/09) 2:57pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Didn't manage to post this yesterday, owing to unexpected narcolepsy.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Peep Show [series 1], Burn Notice [3x01] [spoilers], The Sopranos [1x14] [spoilers]
Books:  Twelfth Night [Arden, 3rd ed.]

Peep Show [series 1]
Sometimes it seems like novelty is a limited resource for a television show -- like a show starts out with a set quantity of originality, and then they to choose how to 'spend' it.

Okay, LOST, you want freaky nonchronological narration and a crazy, reveal-heavy serialized structure?  Well, okay, but you've just spent all your novelty money.  Now all your episodes have to focus on by-the-numbers melodrama about emotionally-distant father figures.  And Arrested Development, you want to use documentary and cinema verité techniques to create a very dense, serialized sitcom?  That's fine, but now your subject matter has to be the classic "straight man dealing with his kuh-razy family!" sitcom trope.

I know this isn't actually true.  Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights seem to have an endless supply of 'novelty capital,' and 95% of the shows out there don't bother doing anything original at all.[1]  But you frequently see a show that's breathtakingly novel in one way, and compensates by being hidebound and traditional in every other way.

That's how the 2001 Brit-com Peep Show strikes me.

It has a gimmick that I have never seen before:  every shot in this show is a POV shot.  That is, every second of this show, you are looking through the eyes of one of the characters.[2]  And when we're in the POV of either of the show's protagonists, we also get a voiceover of what that character is thinking.

At its best, this gimmick makes the sitcom format feel brand-new again.  The British bent towards "irritainment" -- drawing humor out of embarrassing, uncomfortable situations -- is even more effective when you're made to identify so strongly with the main characters (not to mention that all the characters make direct, uncomfortable eye contact with the camera).  Plus they use the voiceover to get at jokes that other sitcoms just can't do -- either ironical (Jez tells himself cheerily, "That was a *perfect* idea!" after he's surely managed to get himself fired from his studio job) or just observational (Mark tries to sort out if his friendship with a work mate is actually latent homosexuality).  They can create a lot of moments that one has seen in real life (okay, fine, you've never questioned your sexuality -- good for you, here's a gold star) but rarely sees in sitcoms.

That said, once they've set up that bold stylistic choice, they've spent all their novelty.  What's the show about?  Okay, hold on to your hats:  it's about two roommates who -- get this -- don't get along!  Oh, oh, and is one of them uptight and clean, while the other is kind of idiotic and slovenly?  You bet your ass they are!  And are most episodes about one or both of the guys trying to get laid?  Right again!

So that's all a bit eyeroll-inducing.[3]  Fortunately, the vacuous concept does produce a steady supply of plots, and each plot lets them string together those unique moments of irritainment and inner-monolog that are unique to this format.  And the fifth episode, "Dream Job", heightens into a hilariously awful version of Strangers on a Train by the end.  But typically Peep Show just uses its plot as a clothesline for the jokes.

I'm glad that shows like Peep Show exist.  I'm glad that somebody's out there with a digi-cam and a tiny cast, pushing television in directions it hasn't gone before.  I'm glad somebody's blazing stylistic trails and keeping the medium from going stagnant.  But in the end, it's not something I need to watch more than once, because underneath the flashy gimmick, it's just another sitcom.

(Amusing side note:  Fox commissioned an American remake of Peep Show in 2005.  It was called Odd Couple, and it did not use the POV gimmick.  Huh?  Spike TV is now developing *another* American remake.)

Burn Notice [3x01] [spoilers]
The thing that's impressing me the most about this show is just how far they've gone with their apparently dead-end premise.  I mean, if you have a show about a guy who gets dropped from his agency for mysterious reasons, that seems to have a clear endpoint:  he eventually catches the agency guy who did him wrong, gets his old job back, and... well, that's it, right? 

Somehow they've managed to set Michael Westen on a journey that's three years and counting. 

And not only that, but they've made each season about something new.  Season one was about tracking down the people who burned him.  Season two was about working for those people while trying to undermine them.  And now season three is, apparently, best summarized by that beautiful closing shot from season two, with Michael all alone in the middle of the ocean, swimming desperately towards the distant Miami skyline.  Now he's stuck.  Management wants nothing to do with him, and they're no longer protecting Michael from all the cops and agents and miscellaneous baddies who have unfinished business.

I don't mean to imply that the show has some sort of horribly-convoluted "mythology bloat".  Burn Notice just aims to be a simple, solidly-entertaining show.  It adds just enough continuity to provide B-stories and to keep the episodes from feeling interchangeable.  I'm just saying that I love the small bits of continuity that they're adding.  They've somehow managed to take an overall story that feels like it should cause endless wheel-spinning and they use it to create a story that goes through distinct 'volumes'.

Apart from that, there isn't much to say about 3x01.  Yes, Michael sets up a con that's based on establishing a relationship with the bad guys under false pretenses.  Yes, there is a "rat-f***" scene at the end.

The variations from earlier seasons are slight but interesting.  They've set up a plotline that promises many scenes between Sharon Gless and Bruce Campbell, which is certainly no bad thing.  The music is slightly improved -- not much -- but slightly.  It's not that the music has increased in quality, but rather that there are more crappy rock instrumentals and fewer crappy inspirational piano solos.  (When it comes to the Burn Notice soundtrack, I take what I can get.)  I noticed fewer explanatory voiceovers in this episode, but that might just be in my head.

It's still the same show -- a much-improved version of those awful 80s action dramas we recall with undeserved affection -- but the overall narrative moves things along just enough so that it doesn't feel samey.

Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of the season.

The Sopranos [1x14] [spoilers]
The last disc of season one contains just the last episode, "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano".

The more I watch of The Sopranos, the less surprised I am, in retrospect, by how its last episode ended.  (And yes, if you've been living in a cave under a rock with your thumbs in your ears and never heard about the ending of "Made in America", please to stop reading now.)  Yes, The Sopranos has an overall narrative, but it's not *about* its narrative.  The narrative is, at most, an excuse to explore the characters.  It makes sense to me that Chase would end his show with a big upraised middle finger to people who look for clever and elegant plot resolution.  Look, we've watched this guy, we've explored his world for a while, and now we don't get to explore it any more.  We're done.

So when season one finishes up, sure it ties up some of the narrative arcs at play.  Artie finds out that Vesuvio's burned down (add your own "Vesuvius" pun here) and comes to terms with it.  Carmella finally tells off Father Phil in terms that I'd normally call horribly on-the-nose -- but for some reason, telling it exactly like it is works perfectly at that moment.  The escalating war with Junior comes to a conclusion.  Sure, there are surprises (Junior gets caught by the Feds instead of shot by Tony) and there's tense drama (but yeah, Mikey gets shot), but it's not the SHOCKING CONCLUSIONS that CHANGE EVERYTHING that other serialized dramas tend to favor for season finales.

No, this is just tying up its threads in reasonable, tidy, logical ways.  It's a show centered around a client seeing a psychologist, fercrissake.  So of course it's less about "Tony finds out his mother tacitly approved the hit on Tony" and more about "how Tony *feels* about that knowledge".  And of course it doesn't end with a big shootout or a tense showdown with a SWAT team.  It's Tony, trying to enjoy a quiet moment with his wife and kids while the ominous storm rages outside.[4]

That's what it was about all along.

Twelfth Night [Arden, 3rd ed.]
Whew.  This was much better than Arden's third edition of Richard II.  Gone were the long concordances of imagery references, and this editor (Keir Elam) consigns the long-winded arguments about exact composition date and folio/quarto textual variation to the appendices.  His discussions of the recurring imagery and performance history are straightforward and relevant.  The prose doesn't exactly leap off the page, but it's all readable enough.

Twelfth Night has always struck me as basically harmless fun.  I'm sure there are exciting depths to plumb in what it says about gender politics and so on.  Again, the Arden edition reminds me that it wasn't just Viola playing Cesario, it was a boy actor paying Viola playing Cesario, making the sexual-identity politics of the show in original performance make one's brain hurt.  Still, in modern performance it strikes me as pretty straightforward:  it does the usual "men are like 'zoop zoop zoop', and women are all 'lalalalala'" jokes, while simultaneously taking potshots at those jokes.  *shrug*  It has its cake and eats it too.[5]

What struck me most this time around is how separated its plot threads are.  In TV language, we have very distinct A-, B-, and C- stories.  Viola shuttlecocks between the houses of Olivia and Orsino.  Maria & co. prank Malvolio.  Sebastian lands in Illyria.  Sure, all of Shakespeare's plays have distinct plot threads.  In Much Ado, Claudo woos Hero, Beatrice and Benedick get gulled, and Dogberry leads the forces of justice to a decisive victory.  But in Much Ado, the plots are braided together much more tightly:  Dogberry foils a plot to derail the wedding; Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio; Don Pedro hatches the gulling plot as a way to pass the time until the wedding.

This time, what does Olivia's ill-fated love have to do with Malvolio in the dark room?  And what does any of this have to do with Sebastian?  By my reckoning, nothing, until act five.  (And even then, the Malvolio plot seems largely self-contained.)  To me, this feels a bit like Arrested Development[6], where you sense that they write a convoluted train-wreck of a final scene, and then work out some independent threads that could build up to that point.

But hey, we don't look to Shakespeare for elegant plot construction.  If anything, we look to Shakespeare to find out how much sloppiness we can get away with.  For instance, like Hamlet and Othello (and surely others), Twelfth Night has timeline wonkiness.  If you chart out the events, you can decisively conclude that Olivia spends both (a) three days and (b) three months working her way into Orsino's service.  Yet watching the play, who notices such things?  It's really wonderful.

I'm also amused at how screwed over Malvolio and Aguecheek are at the end.  Malvolio realizes he's been completely humiliated and duped, and... he shouts something and leaves.  Aguecheek realizes Toby's just been milking him for cash all along, and... he exits without a word.  I'm not used to Shakespearean comedies ending with characters left out in the cold like that -- I think of the endings as more, "Everybody's married!  Everybody's happy!" -- but maybe I just haven't been paying attention.

Not much new, podcast-wise.  I listen to a lot fewer podcasts now that I'm using my iPhone for reading most of the time.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Schumann -- sonatas for piano and violin now.

For next time:  starting in on Troilus & Cressida (it's new to me!), watching The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, continuing the military jag with Generation Kill, and listening to more of The Metamorphoses -- which continues to be an incomprehensible fever dream of rapey gods, gorey battles, and people getting turned into birds for no apparent reason.

[1] I'm intrigued at how many shows in current development use the working title "untitled <actor name> project."  Could it be any clearer that they aren't trying to make a show that's interesting or new?  Instead, each show is just a straightforward and serviceable monetization of a known showbiz personality.

[2] This is not 100% true.  The show does use one- to two-second establishing shots for its main locations (the apartment, Mark's office) that don't seem to be from anybody's POV.

[3] Plus, apart from Mark's protracted wooing of Sophie, there's barely even any serialization; you get to the end of an episode and you pretty much hit the reset button on the universe.  Dull, dull, dull.

[4] I admit, I even found myself wondering if Artie would try to poison the guy.  Clearly I'm approaching the show wrong, but I think this sense of paranoia and doom we have on Tony's behalf is intentional.  They didn't pick "State Trooper" for the end credits by accident.

[5] ... and now I'll just sit back and wait for people to voice their irritation at that phrase.  It's an easy way to identify the wearisome, proscriptivist grammar prats.

[6] I would use Fawlty Towers as my go-to for television farces, but all those scripts are frakkin' Swiss watches.  It's not "several plots independently arriving at a conclusion", it's "every bit interrelates to every other bit, and you can't change any moment without breaking the whole thing".

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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