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

Tuesday (12/17/13) 3:18am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, owing to laziness.]

Movies:   <none>
TV:   WKRP in Cincinnati [1x08-1x15], Rubicon [1x01-1x03]
Books:  <none>

WKRP in Cincinnati [1x08-1x15]
This is the late-70s/early-80s sitcom about an AM radio station that switches its format to rock'n'roll.

Okay, now I've watched another batch of episodes, and I'm not feeling quite as breathless about the show as I did last time.

It's odd, because the the show is still good.  Even their clip show -- kids, there used to be abominations called "clip shows" where a new episode would comprise mostly clips from previous episodes -- had a lovely dramatic coda.  It went from a wacky highlight reel to a slow, thoughtful two-hander about regret, self-doubt, and parenthood.

Side note: the show is very good at switching tone on a dime, creating even the tiniest moments of drama and realism amid the broad comedy.  Sure, sometimes it's ham-handed -- when Frank Bonner (as Herb) has to play a serious moment, it doesn't quite land -- but usually it's like that clip show, where suddenly you're in a black-box theater, catching a glimpse of what characters like this would really feel in that moment.

I think part of the reason they can do this is because, apart from the opening and closing themes, they rarely use non-diegetic (that is, "soundtrack") music.  This makes sense, both historically (I think wall-to-wall sitcom soundtracks were more of a late-80s thing), and contextually (there's so much diegetic music played at the radio station that a soundtrack would confuse the issue).  If a sitcom tries to play something realistically, and it has a treacly synth in the background telling you "THIS SCENE IS SERIOUS", it goes into maudlin, unconvincing territory pretty fast.  It's the difference between showing something sad, and telling us that it's sad.

I suppose I was over the initial rush of getting to know the characters, and now I was watching a fairly standard reset-button sitcom, where they do a fine job of showing more facets of the main characters, and a fine job of expanding the world of the show to include secondary characters (e.g., Herb's wife) and new locations (e.g., Johnny's apartment), but the story never really goes anywhere.  Johnny Fever moves to LA, then moves back in the very next episode, pretty much so that they can do a storyline about a DJ taking payola.

So it turns out this isn't the best show to binge-watch -- stringing all the episodes together makes it start to feel like the same episode, viewed over and over with different jokes.

They do start to tweak the show's format -- for many episodes, they kill the full intro sequence and add in a pre-credits teaser.  (Was that a new thing for late 70s sitcoms?  I'm not sure.)

In any case, I'll probably dip back into this show every week or two, slowly drifting through the seasons in no particular hurry.

Rubicon [1x01-1x03]
This is the 2010 AMC drama about a government think-tank employee who uncovers a large-scale conspiracy.

Let's say you're a spy.  What do you do?  Well, you think, maybe I break into high-security installations, I seduce Russian scientists, I pretend to be a businessman... but my bowtie is really a camera.

Great.  Now let's say that you work in intelligence, but you're doing it in the *real* world.

In that case, you probably work at a non-governmental organization.  If it isn't in DC or its suburbs, it's going to be somewhere on the east coast, within convenient train distance of the Capitol.  It's probably got a bland name like "The American Policy Institute", and an absolutely anonymous façade.  And every day, your job is to look at data and answer questions.  The questions are things like, "An Al-Qaeda cell is hunkered down in one of these two locations, but we don't know which.  If we strike the right one, we'll get the bad guys and our troops will be safe.  If we strike the wrong one, we'll kill innocent civilians and our troops will be ambushed and shot.  Here is a hard drive containing a petabyte of intercepted communications.  If we don't get an answer from you, we'll flip a coin.  You have five hours."


Mutant Enemy was very fond of distinguishing between "what an episode is about" and "what an episode is *really* about".  Applying that to Rubicon, the show is about a man at the American Policy Institute who stumbles on a vast international conspiracy.  It's *really* about what happens to the employees who have to make those weighty intelligence decisions, over and over, until it drives them crazy.

I like that.  I like it when a show can really dig into a subtext with emotional stakes.  I like that Ed, the one character who's retired from the Institute, seems almost visibly drained and broken.  I like how the protagonist, Will Travers, obsesses on this 'conspiracy' he's uncovered with a mania that, in this case, is justified... but you can imagine other people in Will's position just spinning off into insane, paranoid delusions, as the brilliant pattern-recognition that they do for a living skids of the rails.

I like how it informs the way they shoot the show.  As I mentioned on twitter, this is a show made by people who must have watched The Conversation over, and over, and over.  This is the 70s cinema of Coppola and of Kubrick -- to the point that I can spot shots that are quotes of films by Coppola and by Kubrick.  The style skews far more to formalism than to realism.  Compositions are balanced and deliberate and static.  The color palettes are simple, with each scene usually limited to variations on a single tone.  In these first few episodes, Rubicon has one incident that's more violent and frightening than anything in, say, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done so far -- and it does it in a long, patient shot, with its composition neatly balanced, with its camera doing a slow, deliberate pan, and with its  soundtrack nearly silent.

The world of Rubicon is weighty and stifling.  It's a world where everything has an order to it, and that order is unsettling and oppressive.

I love how specific the setting feels.  They aren't afraid to make the offices a little bit shabby, with employees carrying around cheap sheafs of papers in manila envelopes in anonymous-looking conference rooms.  Mind you, the heavy security in the place seems convincing, but they're obviously not springing for the glass-brick walls and tasteful track lighting.  And sure, they've picked attractive actors, but nobody is 100% *conventionally* attractive, so you're not stuck with the awkwardness of five people who look like models arguing about the details of Russian money-laundering mechanisms.

The people look like people.  The place looks like a place.

Not everything's perfect.  Miranda Richardson, as Kathleen Rumhor, is sort of the Daenerys of the story; she pursues a plotline that seems isolated and unrelated to what's happening at the American Policy Institute.  It's kind of hard to keep that thread from feeling like "changing channels to another show" every time it crops up.

The plot can feel a bit forced sometimes.  In several scenes, Will finds ciphered clues left behind for him, presumably giving him more information about the conspiracy he's going after.  Honestly, that feels like the flip side of, say, Moriarty setting arbitrary puzzles for Moffat's Sherlock, in an act that makes the villain feel less like a character and more like a reality-show producer.  "Okay, instead of having the next event be a natural outgrowth of how the characters feel and how they conflict with each other, we're going to have... another puzzle show up!  Ooh, fun!"

Meanwhile, the slow pace means that sometimes the show can stall out -- always a risk when you're telling a story in this slow, measured style.  This might be related to the dialog, which is always a little heightened and mannered.  That's fine for people discussing possible assassination attempts in hushed tones, but it can make normal, casual conversation feel a little off and forced.

But those are just quibbles.  Even though I'm told the story doesn't end strongly, I'm still keen to see the rest of its one-and-only season.

For next time, I'll keep watching Rubicon, maybe start Cowboy Bebop, continue frittering away time on Zero Punctuation, and chip my way through a bit more of A Clash of Kings.  I may have given up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for now, but I'll report back on the last couple of episodes I watched.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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