TV: The Thick of It [1x04-1x06], The Dana Carvey Show, The Middleman [1x01-1x04]
The Thick of It [1x04-1x06]
These are the last few episodes of the BBC farce about officials in the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.
These last few episodes are pretty much more of the same. It's a very good 'same', mind you, but I don't have much to say about the show that I didn't already post last week.
This time around, I was impressed by the constant feeling of peril. On any given episode of The Thick of It, everything is going wrong all the time. Even at the very start of an episode, where most farces depict a happy status quo, the protagonists are fending off some new batch of problems.
This violates Screenwriting 101, which dictates, "Thou shalt depict a normal, happy state of affairs, then have some force disrupt that state, then tell a story that brings us to a new, stable state of affairs." The audience is used to that structure, so breaking that rule is risky -- I'd posit that it makes the show harder to follow -- but the payoff is significant. We the audience never get a chance to relax, so we understand that this is a world of constant panic.
Even the closing credits don't quite put you at ease. Instead of closing music, the dialog continues over the credits, while the video alternates between the last, lingering scene and the credits proper. So you get the sense that this last awkward conversation will continue on, in this world, long after our window into that world has closed.
And so the Department will continue with "everything going wrong, all the time."
The Dana Carvey Show
This was the short-lived prime-time sketch-comedy show that the famous SNL alum hosted in 1996. It's become something of a legend because many of the people who worked on the show -- including Louis C. K., Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Charlie Kaufman -- would go on to more successful comedy gigs.
What interested me about this show was its dissonance.
Okay, that word is vague. Let me explain. Some sketch-comedy shows are clearly countercultural. The State will show you something shocking like hunting Muppets for meat -- but at the same time, it's kind of what you expect from that troupe. Michael Ian Black's default setting seems to be "leaning back in his chair, sneering at the audience". So, sure, they're going to be a bit edgy. At last year's OoB there was a sketch troupe called FUCT that ended its show by attaching several dozen clothespins to a performer's skin and yanking them all off simultaneously. But then, what did you expect from a troupe called "FUCT"? Puppies and unicorns?
At the other end, you have the bland antics of SNL, where harmless twentysomethings bring America's tween-agers a collection of strained impressions and irritating recurring characters. Nothing shocking happens. Indeed, much of the time, nothing happens at all. But again, you take one look at the pretty, likeable cast and you pretty much expect what you get.
But The Dana Carvey Show has dissonance, and the dissonance is apparent right from the start.
A brief tangent: one review of So I Married an Axe Murder described Mike Myers as "doing everything short of jumping up and down and screaming, 'Like me!!'" I'd put his partner in crime Mr. Carvey in the same category. You can see through the impressions these hints that he's just a big comedy nerd having himself a good time. He wants you to have a good time, too. Silly voices! Wacky costumes! See? Fun!!! Sure, maybe there's some of the comedian's flop sweat to his performances, but even that comes across as really, really wanting to get the audience to like him.
So that's Dana Carvey. And the first sketch of the first episode opens with Dana Carvey at a desk. He's dressed up as (then-president) Clinton. And somehow the sketch *starts* with Clinton laughing about how far ahead he is in the polls, and *ends* with Clinton shirtless, displaying a variety of superfluous, lactacting nipples. Aides bring in puppies, kittens, and babies for Clinton to suckle simultaneously.
That's what I mean by dissonance, and that is what I like about the show: it's centered on this fundamentally likeable TV personality whose sketches keep veering into ghastly, how-did-this-wind-up-on-a-Disney-owned-n
Don't get me wrong: if sketch comedy isn't normally for you (I would put myself in this category), The Dana Carvey Show won't change your mind. It's full of recurring characters that basically do the same thing in every appearance. If you don't find celebrity impressions inherently funny, about half the sketches won't do a damn thing for you.
But even when they don't go into lactating-president territory -- even when the show gives us more straightforward sketch comedy -- they're still doing interesting stuff. About half of the impressions are abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. (For example, I don't think their Bob Dole ever said a comprehensible sentence.) And even I have to respect how far the cast was willing to go to sell a joke. (Check out "Waiters who are nauseated by food" -- episode five at the 11'18" mark.)
In the end, this show was worth watching because it was strange, but I don't think I'll ever need to see it again.
The Middleman [1x01-1x04]
I am very excited about The Middleman. It's one of those programs that feels like it was designed specifically for me.
And fortunately, that specificity means that you can quickly determine whether it's for you or not. Here are a few facts about the show:
- The lead is a geeky Latina art-school grad who fights monsters and supervillains.
- Every episode includes, at some point, the Wilhelm Scream.
- Every episode includes, at some point, the line, "It's sheer elegance in its simplicity!"
- Generally, it has the same sort of screwball-comedy dialog featured in Pushing Daisies -- high-speed, inventive, and eminently quotable ("Great sands of Zanzibar!").
- When do the luchadors show up? Episode two.
- When do the evil monkeys show up? The pilot.
Me, I'm glad I've lived to see a day where there are so many shows out there that are just plain fun.
Look: the latest torpid, boated, giant-robot movie comes out, and I watch it, and I hate it, and then I get apologists telling me, "Peter, it's not Citizen Kane. It's just a fun, turn-your-brain-off movie!" And the thing is, I like breezy escapism. Hell, I *love* breezy escapism. But here's the key thing: it's really damn difficult to do breezy escapism well. Most attempts are just boring.
And somehow, against any reasonable odds, we've got shows like Pushing Daisies or Burn Notice or The Middleman, shows that deliver the sort of escapist summertime fun that the bloated-budget blockbusters never quite manage. I suspect that the advantage here is that television is held in such general cultural contempt that an escapist TV show can happily go about not taking itself too seriously.
Old B-movies were characterized by a certain amount of glee, if not outright camp. They were this genre of entertainment that the cultural gatekeepers didn't bother paying attention to. They were providing fun for a very specific target demographic (read: teenagers making out at the drive-in), and they didn't need to do a single thing more.
Then the B-movies of yesterday became the A-movies of today. That is, the sort of "mutant polar bear attacks Detroit" plotline you'd expect from a 50s B-sci-fi film is, fifty years later, becomes the core of a tentpole summer picture for one of the major studios. And with that comes a certain inflated self-importance. "Wow! The army is coming!" becomes "Oh. My. God. Look at these amazing, glistening, hard, military engines of doom." And the storylines have to be complicated, since of course, an important movie deserves tricky plot twists. And you can't poke any fun at any aspect of the film, because... well, because then people might make fun of your tentpole picture, and we can't have that.
TV shows have no such constraints. You want to make a simple story about fighting a monster and winning? You got it! You want to have a breezy, cheerful, jokey tone about the whole thing? Great! An escapist TV show -- particularly one that's plugging away on basic cable -- has no other agenda imposed on it. So maybe those TV shows have moved into the niche once occupied by B-movies.
Okay, I've moved away a bit from talking about the show itself, but it is definitely helpful to think of The Middleman as "50s-B-movies: The TV Show". That puts you in the right frame of mind. I mean, it is certainly a cheap show. (One can't expect ABC Family to put up a huge wad of cash for an iffy genre show.) Most of the scenes are 'two people in a small room, talking. The few bits of CGI have that fake-plastic, untextured look. Some monsters look like they wandered in from old-school Dr. Who. The green-screening for the driving shots is almost as bad as rear projection.
No, The Middleman is one of those numerous TV sci-fi/fantasy shows that are more about the dialog/storylines and less about the special effects.
So: I like the show in broad strokes. There are also some smaller details to The Middleman that I appreciate.
Let me just get this out of the way: yes, I'm glad that there's another U. S. show with a Latina protagonist. Honestly, I'm usually fairly apathetic about championing diversity, but even I get annoyed by just how bleached and out-of-whack TV casts look. It's not even a matter of "TV does not reflect the lives and concerns of my brethren of color" (though that's certainly true, it's not something I consciously notice while watching shows). No, this is a more selfish thing: if I'm in a room with a half-dozen people, *they aren't all going to be white*. This makes television just look weird. And lead roles tend to be even whiter and maler. And lead roles in sci-fi... eh, you get the idea. So: hooray for casting Natalie Morales.
(Not only that, but the casting facilitates some awesome Spanish-language-related jokes in the luchador episode.)
I also like how they deal with the show's potential UST. The two central characters of this show are the protagonist/viewpoint character, Wendy Watson, and her boss, the titular "Middleman". They're both attractive twenty-somethings. But the showrunner doesn't really want to retread The X-Files, with a central couple fighting both evil and interminable "will-they-or-won't-they?" tension. But how are you going to sidestep that? Isn't the audience going to read sexual innuendo into all their interactions?
What they do on this show is (1) give Wendy a roommate ("Lacey"), and (2) have the Middleman and Lacey fall in love at first sight. Suddenly there's electric UST every time those two are in a room together, while Wendy lays down a strict "You. cannot. date. my. roommate." rule. ("Why not? I'm eligible." "Just... don't." "Are you ashamed of me?")
This was such a clever move that I wouldn't be surprised if it's a storytelling cliché that I just don't know about. It gives Wendy yet another thing to be annoyed at, and it gives her a source of conflict with both her roommate and her boss. It gives the show UST without taking the show's central relationship in a skeezy direction that the showrunner doesn't seem to want. And it keeps the fellow in that Platonic relationship from seeming repressed. It's not that he's a professional who's repressing his feelings for his coworker -- it's just that Wendy is not his type, and he's hopelessly swoony over a secondary character instead.
I'm not saying that this will in any way stop the fanfic community from producing Wendy/Middleman fic. Hell, there's probably fanfic out there pairing leading characters with notable pieces of set furniture, and all that is just fine by me. No, I'm talking instead about my *own* viewing experience. I really don't want to watch yet another "unresolved workplace-romance story" -- I want to watch Wendy fight supervillains, thanks -- and this show found a way to keep me from dwelling on "wait, why isn't the Middleman hitting on Wendy?"
(Now, you could also argue, "Why isn't Wendy hitting on the Middleman?", because of course women have needs, too. I imagine it says a lot about me that I'm not formulating that particular question while I watch. For the record, Wendy spends the first few episodes dealing with a painful breakup of her own, and isn't really lookin' for love just yet.)
Moving on: there are also a couple of technical bits on this show that I find neat.
Bit #1: occasionally, this show will break from the action to do brief montages of black-and-white still photos. I like these montages.
"But, Peter, didn't you say montages are 'like knives dipped into habañero pepper extract and jabbed under my fingernails by Satan?'"
Well, no, I didn't say that, but it's the sort of thing that I might say.
"Then how in god's name can you like *these* montages?"
That's a good question, voice-in-my-head. And I'm not sure I have the answer.
I know that part of the answer -- the hand-wavey part -- is that it's just prettier and more elegant to show us a series of well-composed photographs instead of the cheesy, generic "fractions of scenes" that you might see in a typical montage. Also, I'm sure the novelty of the technique impresses me.
But I think I'm mostly impressed by *how* they use these montages.
Brief tangent: most opera is composed of two types of singing. These are "arias" and there is "recitativ". The "recitativ" singing is less tuneful, and is more like dialog that drives the story forward. The "arias" are the points where time stands still -- the plot stops for a few minutes -- and we explore a character's emotional state with a song.
Most montages are used like recitativ. That is, they're a ham-handed way to push the plot forward. "Then the soldier did a bunch of training and got good at killing people. Here is a series of mini-scenes that show him getting better at it."
These montages, on the other hand, are more like arias. "Wendy is in an awful mood about her failed job search. Here is a series of photos that show what this mood is like."
The 'recitativ' type of montage always grates on me because it's so *unnecessary*. ("Jesus, just cut to the next scene and put a "one month later" caption on it.") But the 'aria' type of montage is actually adding something to the story. Sure, it isn't giving us plot, but it's letting us deliberately step back from that plot for a while, and just take in somebody's mood in a series of unguarded, solitary moments.
This is especially helpful on this show because Wendy, the protagonist, is much more a "witty, defensive badinage" type than a "hello let me tell you about my feelings" type as far as dialog goes. Sometimes the story needs to show her when she's not snarking at other people -- but then solo scenes are a bitch to write, so the montages provide a handy way to let the audience in.
I haven't seen this technique in TV before. Granted, we see new techniques show up all the time in television, but most of those come from the inevitable forward march of technology. This is a neat trick that requires no fancy computers, and it's surprisingly effective. I hope lots of other shows steal it.
Bit #2: the closing credits of this show are great. They're almost as great as the closing credits of The Kingdom. It's typically just some extra footage they shot and couldn't use. In the pilot, one scene pans past an ape doing tai chi. For the closing credits, you get several minutes of ape-doing-tai-chi footage. Fun fun fun.
Okay, one last note: I've been meaning to watch this show since before it was filmed.
To explain: the showrunner/creator of The Middleman is a guy named Javier Grillo-Marxuach (AKA "Javi"). I first noticed that name on the writing credits of "... In Translation", which was one of my favorite episodes of the first season on LOST. So: I watched the episode, I said, "Wow! Who wrote that?", and since then, as the Sith say, I have followed his career with great interest. He discussed the progress of the new show on "The Middleblog", and I made a mental note to watch it when I could.
And then the show got cancelled. I think he's got some other show in development. *sigh*
I did indeed give up on War and Peace. For the moment, I'm listening to back episodes of Intelligence Squared, the NPR debate show. It makes me uncomfortable to hear such interesting arguments that go against whichever side I agree with -- at the moment, I'm listening to Karl Rove speak against the motion "Bush was the worst president of the last fifty years" -- but it's a good, thought-provoking kind of discomfort.
For next time: in honor of John Hughes, I shall finally check out Some Kind of Wonderful. I'll also watch some more of Pushing Daisies, and maybe see the Japanese film After Life. I'll keep reading Henry V and listening to Intellgence Squared.
 Citizen Kane is always the go-to movie in this sort of case.
 ... and what's worse, very few people respect you when you actually pull it off, because, oh, you're not making Citizen Kane out of boulder-sized Big Weighty Concepts.
 I'd argue that in the 70s and 80s we had a very brief transition period where the B-to-A pictures were now big-budget, but still firmly focused on entertainment, not self-importance. (See: Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.)
 Mind you, there are a few jaw-dropping special effects in Battlestar Galactica, and the initial plane crash in LOST has some badass sound design. I'm just saying, it's surprising how many sci-fi TV shows just do enough effects to get by so that the audience can sit back and listen to the characters talk.
 Snarky take: no, the fact that such a relationship would be (gasp!) *heterosexual* would scare most avid fanfic-ers away from writing such a thing.
 ... or if there wasn't such fanfic before, there is now, via rule #34-b: "Just speculating about a kind of pornography on the Internet actually *makes* it come into existence, most likely somewhere in Japan."
 ... wherein each episode ends with Lars von Trier wearing a cheap tuxedo and standing in front of a gold-lamé curtain. Lars then chats with the audience about the crazy stuff they just saw and suggests topics for further discussion. It is glorious.