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

Monday (5/27/13) 11:44pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Justified [1x01-1x03], Arrested Development [4x01-4x03]
Books:  <none>

Justified [1x01-1x03]
This is the FX series about a disgraced U. S. Marshal who gets sent home to a small, crime-ridden town in Kentucky.  It's based on a series of stories by Elmore Leonard.

On the one hand, this is a straight-up serial.  Crimes happen, Raylan Givens solves crimes, and a Big Bad lingers menacingly in the background.  Structurally, it moves with the same clockwork as any acronymously-named crime drama on CBS -- the crime happens in the teaser, the pursuit closes in, things go wrong at each act break, the bad guy gets beaten, and there's a bit of musing about what this adventure means in the tag.  By all rights, this should be boring.

But Justified feels different.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the show feels like it's populated by people who have better things to do than be in a crime procedural.  So whereas a typical crime-procedural scene is very utilitarian -- the characters only do the tasks that move the plot along, and they only possess the traits that will motivate them to do those tasks -- in Justified, every exchange has these rough edges to it.  The Detroit thug wants to talk about his gardening business.  The escaped bank robber doesn't really feel much ill will towards the marshall chasing him.  The ex-sniper takes some time during a stakeout to chat about his time in the middle east.  And so on.

And this feeling of life, of detail, of quirky realism -- this takes a lot of the classic old procedural tropes and makes them feel alive again.  The big confrontation between the hero and the Big Bad in the pilot hinges on the oldest structure in the book: an argument in which person 1 scores a point, person 2 tops it, and person 1 concludes the argument by topping *that*.  If you're writing a scene with a fight, then that's the easiest way to do it.  (Hell, that's how we do all the fight scenes in Start Trekkin'

And this starts like the most by-the-numbers take on it: Boyd, the Big Bad, explains his racist philosophy -- that's point one.  And the CBS version of this show would have a very standard second beat: Raylan says "racism is bad" in some impassioned way, shows Boyd some key piece of evidence that he's gathered, and leaves looking like a badass.  But it's like the show can *feel* the draw of how this scene usually goes, and its characters want to take it in a direction that's more quirky and realistic.  So instead, we see Raylan just look puzzled.  He explains that no, Boyd is too smart to really believe that, and after all, Boyd had a purely financial reason to firebomb the black church.

So not only is the show zigging when others would zag, but it's letting its hero be *genuinely* smart.  Instead of some other character saying "Ooh, Raylan is a genius" (the usual way we learn that TV characters are brilliant), we're watching Raylan put together the facts that we've also seen -- and it's not some Sherlock parlor trick where there's no way the audience could put the facts together[1], but it's genuinely a reasonable way to put together the simple plot points that the episode has presented us.  And in the process, this endows Boyd with depth -- he's not just a cookie-cutter racist 'true believer' -- he's a canny, sociopathic criminal who understands the tactical upsides to *pretending* to be a racist nutjob.

Then the writing tops itself again: Boyd turns things around with a sharp, personal dig against Raylan.  It's a well-made point about Raylan's bitterness against his father, and it's, again, something we-the-audience haven't thought of, even though we've had all the facts laid out for us.  So this time, it's Boyd that impresses us with his intelligence, and it's Raylan that's endowed with depth.

And the best part is, the director lets that last line *land* on Raylan.  We watch Raylan's face, and we know that Boyd guessed right, and the dig hurts.  And this is a great instinct: let the bad guy win.  Let the protagonist, though capable, start out at a disadvantage.  Don't show us a hero that can easily win every individual confrontation.

(Yup, lookin' at you, House of Cards.)

Again, there's nothing new to this structure.  It's one of the basic building blocks -- a rule-of-three back'n'forth argument -- that you use to build scenes.  But they're doing it with an eagerness to surprise us, and to give odd nooks and crannies to its characters.

The same goes for the last scene in the pilot.  Again, they employ the oldest trick in the book -- reference the first scene in the last scene -- but again, they're doing it in a way that takes the facts that we've seen and uses them to build something surprising.  In this case, it's Raylan musing about -- not whether he did the right thing in gunning down the thug, but about what he might have done had the thug not drawn on him.  Oh.  Well, of *course* that might well be on his mind.

And then they end on an unexpected, and canny, yet traditional place: Raylan's ex-wife calling him "the angriest man I've ever known".  But of course that's where we end.  Justified should only *nominally* be a show about tracking down criminals every week -- the real story, deep down, should be about character, about Raylan learning to change, or learning to deal with who he is.  That's the sort of grist that's relatable, and it's subject matter you can explore over multiple seasons.

At the same time, I spent much of the pilot twitching at the show's representation of Kentucky.  I'm from Kentucky, and quite often this element or that would jump out at me as feeling "off".  One woman refers to "the University of Kentucky" by its full name, which no Kentuckian does -- it's always "U of K".  And lots of the settings felt wrong in the pilot -- too clean, or too Deep-South-y, or not poor enough.

In the second episode, though, the show felt like it settled into a much more realistic Kentucky.  We see Raylan driving along a highway surrounded by green hills, and his passenger has the quick, nasal Southern accent[2] I recall from my youth.  Some outdoor scenes get the insect noises just right, such that I immediately thought, "Oh.  Now I know what season it is in this scene."  This is ironic, since the pilot was shot near Kentucky -- southeastern Pennsylvania -- whereas the rest of the show was shot in and around L. A.  Maybe they had a wider range of available shooting location in California, so they could construct a better simulacrum of Kentucky there.  Or maybe this is all in my head, and the "accuracy" of the latter episodes is just me getting used to the show.

In any case, I'm eager to see where it goes from here.

Arrested Development [4x01-4x03]
Yes, this is netflix's long-awaited continuation of the long-dead Mitch Hurwitz comedy.

No, it's not as good as the original.  But what is?  Nothing is.  It's still great.  So stop complaining.

It was strange, watching season four stumble out of the gate.  Yes, the "Cinco de Cuatro" party was a funny concept, but then... then it flashed back to a couple of actors we'd never seen on the show doing impressions of young Lucille and young George.  SNL veteran Kristin Wiig did a brilliant job evoking Lucille Bluth.  And Seth Rogen... was Seth Rogen.  It was a distracting piece of stunt casting, and Seth Rogen, while hilarious, isn't a mimic -- he's a comedian who plays himself.  And in this case, he was playing himself in a scene where actors who aren't part of the show play out backstory I don't care about.

... 'kay.

And then that same scene veers into an odd, unfunny voiceover set in a Dr. Seuss mode, and that bit drags on for a while, and... eh, it didn't bode well.

But since then, it's occurred to me: it doesn't matter that this season doesn't start auspiciously, because this season doesn't really have a 'start'.  Instead, season four is this big, tangled ball of twine, and each episode follows one strand through the tangle.

That opening scene encapsulates the weaknesses of this season nicely.  There are scenes in this show with bits of comic business that get caught up in their own 'rules' -- like delivering the entire "Cinco de Cuatro" backstory as Suessian couplets -- without really delivering on the funny.  Occasionally the show stalls out so that it can get lost in the byzantine detail of, say, Michael determining voting procedures for kicking out George-Michael's roommate, or the details of George trying to steal and implement Sitwell's plans for a Mexican border wall.  During those bits, I watch with a puzzled look on my face, as I think, "well, this is *complicated*, but not so much *funny*."

I'm guessing this tendency was always under the surface in the show, but it was held in check because they tried to deliver massive amounts of story in tiny, nineteen-minute episodes.  So I'm sure they wrote these bizarrely-detailed bits of comic complexity, and then had to cut them mercilessly to keep the story moving.

But that scene also hints at some of the strengths of season four, a season that has license to work at a different pace than broadcast television would allow.  Episodes don't have to be 19'20"; they can be whatever length they need to be.  This means that, on the micro level, they have new tools available to them.  We can watch them stretch out the awkwardness of, say, George refusing to tip his treadmill-installers, or Buster patiently ferrying his mother's cigarette smoke out to the balcony.  The show gets to revel in that embarrassment humor in a way that those first three fleet-footed seasons didn't get to do.

So yes, getting to be wildly and belaboredly complicated in this new medium is often a *good* thing.  And hell, right after their initial stumble in the pilot episode, you start to see how this license to indulge themselves -- to make the fourth season even *more* complex than the first three -- is, on the macro scale, flat-out brilliant.  It becomes very clear early on that the whole season is a giant jigsaw.  Michael's arrives at the model home, and the story leaves out obvious chunks -- Michael shows up with a black eye; Michael talks to GOB about some "unpleasantness" between them; Michael recognizes an unseen lady there.  Mind you, we're talking about the gaps in just the third *scene*.  It's like each episode is a zillion-dimensional jigsaw piece, and every scene is showing us the tabs and blanks where the other episodes will eventually interlock.

So: again, season four doesn't have a 'start'.  It just has an episode that happens to go first.

And that's exciting to me.  It's exciting to see television do something qualitatively different.  This was what everybody was promising with the new streaming platforms -- that streaming shows didn't have to fit your standard comedy/drama/reality molds, and who knows what we'll see next -- but nothing high-profile seemed to take that step.  Now we see something that looks on the surface like a staunchly traditional rollout -- the fourth season of a known sitcom -- but no, season four of Arrested Development is using its sitcom playset to serve a novel and different structure.

Now, mind you, I don't want to say the show's not funny.  It's funny as hell.  After the throat-clearing of those first couple of scenes, it gets funnier and funnier.  And by the time they hit episode four ("The B. Team"), they're firing on all cylinders, as they set the controls for "insanely meta" and go full speed ahead, casual viewers be damned, and it's hilarious.  No, I'm saying that, for me, it's almost a moot *point* whether this is funny: it's a fascinating experiment no matter what.  Hell, I just want to see if they can *pull off* this audacious piece of lunacy.

And I kind of want to go back in time to 2010, and tell younger!me that the successor to LOST, both in terms of plot complexity and in terms of its ambitious experimentation with the series-television format, is going to be Arrested Development.

That would just bewilder the crap out of me.

For next time: more Arrested Development and more Justified -- but not much more, as I'm spending part of the week visiting New York City.

[1] In terms of mystery writing, we can say that Justified is operating by the rules of
"fair play".
[2] Think "Ernest P. Worrell".

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