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Starz’s The Chair: A Compelling Documentary, A Broken Competition

The Chair Key ArtWhen Starz made two episodes of documentary series The Chair (debuts September 6 at 10/9c) available to critics, I was unaware the series existed. After watching the two episodes, I was aware the show existed, but I still didn’t necessarily understand how it worked.

The Chair, as a television series on Starz, is a documentary about two filmmakers—YouTube personality Shane Dawson and independent filmmaker Anna Martemucci—who are each making a movie in Pittsburgh based on the same initial script. It’s an experiment both in terms of understanding the way a script changes depending on the creative forces bringing it to life on screen, as well as considering the specific contrasts in filmmakers who emerge in wildly different creative environments.

However, in addition to being a documentary, The Chair is also a competition, which is the element that was dramatically unclear in watching the series. Although a $250,000 prize is on the line, there were no specific details on how this prize would be awarded. There was the insinuation it would involve some form of audience voting, but the lack of clear details meant I had a wide range of questions about the series’ structure for Starz’s Summer Press Tour session about the project.

I’ll likely talk more about the series itself as we get closer to its September premiere, but the answers to some of those questions are more pertinent in the leadup to the premiere and the promotional campaign around The Chair. At the core of my question, in truth, is not only how this is going to function as a competition series, but also why it is going to function as a competition series. The answers to both questions were vague, but they speak to a project that shares a rather strange relationship to its stars, its network, and to the communities it seeks to draw interest from.

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Series Premiere: Under The Dome – “Pilot”

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I haven’t read Under The Dome. I actually don’t think I’ve read anything by Stephen King outside of some scattered short stories (and I might even be making that up). And so I don’t really have much to say on CBS’ Under The Dome as an adaptation, and will gladly let my A.V. Club colleagues Zack and Scott handle that.

There’s more to say about Under The Dome as the most high-profile broadcast scripted summer series in recent memory, although I think Joe Adalain at Vulture has written the definitive piece on just what Under The Dome represents to CBS. It’s there where I’d make one correction to Scott and Zack’s great review: Scott suggests that CBS is counting on the show to be a success, but as Joe reports they’ve already done their counting through a combination of tax incentives, streaming rights, and international distribution rights. While I am sure CBS wants the show to be a success (they’ve got their eye on The Walking Dead-style hype with this one), the show has the kind of security we would normally associate with a basic cable series: even if the ratings are a disappointment, CBS has room to be patient and let the series grow.

Under The Dome‘s pilot is not patient, although that’s sort of the point. Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the pilot notes that there’s a very traditional small town yarn at the heart of the series, and he’s absolutely right. However, while you could imagine a scenario where we’re introduced to the screwed-up small town for an hour before the dome is dropped on them, Brian K. Vaughan’s script wastes no time. The show promised dome, and by golly it’s going to give its audience a dome sooner rather than later.

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Mad Men – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

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“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

September 20th, 2009

If I had to suggest a single challenge in writing about Mad Men each week, it’s often where precisely to begin. Mad Men is a show defined by density, of layers of new and pre-existing storylines entwined around a theme central enough to be apparent but vague enough to be open to enormous amounts of interpretation. So when I sit down to add my thoughts to the chorus, illustrious and diverse as it is, my biggest challenge is finding the right angle at which to approach the material at hand.

But this week, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” is so defined (perhaps justly, perhaps unjustly) by a single scene that not starting with it seems nigh impossible.

I’ve seen this episode be tweeted about on numerous occasion as being fantastic (which it was), but more interestingly as proof that things actually do happen on this slow-paced show. However, the episode on numerous occasions indicates that the world (if anything) is moving too quickly, and that the central drama facing its characters is that when the show’s pace is disrupted by something tragic or sudden the common response is like a turtle hiding in its shell rather than a bird spreading its wings.

Of course, how this is read entirely depends on where you sit on the Mad Men spectrum; and, as someone who firmly believes the show’s slow pace is ideal for the stories being told regarding that constant tension between these characters and the world revolving around them, I’d say that the handling of a shocking moment in the midst of this contemplative show demonstrates yet again just how good this two-time Emmy-winning show really is.

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Cultural Reflections on Comic Con 2008

While I’m genuinely addicted to Twitter most of the time, being away over the weekend and thus mostly away from my Twitter account was a good thing. Many of the people I follow, most of which I’ve met through some great times at the /Filmcast, were lucky enough to be out in San Diego, California for the biggest event in geekdom: Comic Con. My jealousy knows no bounds, as it sounds like an extremely exciting event that covers the gamut of entertainment.

Once mostly a haven for comic book adaptations and the like, the convention has taken on new life as pretty much “Any show that has fans on the internet or any kind of fantastical elements” when it comes to television presence. So this includes a show like The Big Bang Theory, which embraces its geek sensibilities on a regular basis, and a show like Prison Break that is really just there treating it as a fan convention in general terms. I won’t attempt to make an argument for the exclusion of such shows, though, because for the most part the convention has taken on a life of its own…and that life has brought a lot of new TV news to our attention.

Heroes

NBC’s highest rated drama series came to Comic Con with a devoted fan base to satisfy and a lot to prove to critical people like me who thought the second season was almost completely garbage. Perhaps realizing this task, they decided to placate both crowds and actually show the entire Season Three premiere. Now, some have commented that a show like Lost didn’t do anything similar (I’ll get to them in a minute), but Heroes has the added bonus of having started filming Season Three extremely early after NBC cut the second season short, so they’re in a unique position.

While I’m not reading the detailed recaps like Adam Quigley’s over at /Film or Dave3’s over at GeeksofDoom to avoid spoilers, there’s been positive word of mouth that this is, at least, better than last season’s entry (And perhaps better than the show’s pilot, which was kind of weak). I remain skeptical of Kring as a showrunner, though, and what I read of Adam’s review tends to indicate that the annoying dialogue and the tendency to delve into pointless subplots have not disappeared even as the quality elsewhere ramps up. Still, it’s a smart move to please both fans and critics alike, and once the pilot hits in September I’ll judge for myself whether they’ve got the quality to back it up.

Lost

While the lack of real Season Five footage (It doesn’t premiere for another 7 months, realistically) is certainly a bit of a downer, what Lost brings to the table is its usual blend of intrigue and mystery. While they weren’t there with new footage, they did have a new Orientation style video that seems a bit different. Although the YouTube link below is off a screen, it still seems to be higher quality than what we’ve used to. After the jump, I’ll go into some discussion on why this video has a LOT of ramifications (And is infinitely more interesting than an episode of Heroes).

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60th Primetime Emmy Awards Preview: Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Achieving success in the Supporting Actress in a  Comedy Series takes one of three things: having a recognizable name, being on a popular show, or being on a show that has won Emmys in the past.

Now, you’re probably asking yourself why I would take the time to isolate these three categories since they should (by and large) encapsulate 90% of nominees. The reason is that this is a category where there are some great contenders that won’t be recognized in favour of those who are part of the Emmy elite, or part of shows that give them more exposure. I’m not saying that these are not worthy contenders, but rather that there’s a few others who did fantastic work this season who won’t be recognized for it.

Instead, this is a race designed for last year’s contenders: from the surprise winner to the resurgent veteran, all sides are staging a battle that could prove one of the toughest predictions of the night – if only predicting the Top 10 was just as challenging.

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Pilot Preview: HBO’s “True Blood”

“True Blood”

Fall 2008 Pilot Preview

[As per pilot screener regulations, this is a preview and not a review. The content of the series may change between now and the show’s official airing, so all thoughts are of a preliminary nature pending said changes. For a full review, tune in for the show’s September premiere.]

Having recently made my way into Six Feet Under’s fifth season, I’ve started to better understand the work of Alan Ball. That HBO series was known for its dramatic performances, its death-riddled plot points (Seriously, a lot of people die), and also its inability (for better or worse) to keep a consistent tone. One moment you’re laughing at two characters, and the next you’re getting punched in the face by a cold reality. It’s a visceral television experience, and one that I’m still kind of torn on. I’m capable of appreciating the work I’m seeing, but there’s something that keeps me from really engaging with it, likely out of fear of “getting hurt” in the process.

That left me at least mildly tentative heading into Ball’s latest project, an adaptation of the Southern Vampire novels by Charlaine Harris. HBO’s True Blood is the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress with a special power who is making a living in an exciting time for America. Vampires have “come out” as it were, emerging as real citizens with their own lobbyists after the Japanese were able to manufacture synthetic blood that “suits their dietary needs.” It’s a strong setup that seems like it’s got a lot of broad potential, but it’s intriguing to see that its trajectory is far more fantastical than I had imagined.

And that, I think, is a good thing considering Ball’s history in television.

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Greek – “47 Hours and 11 Minutes”

“47 Hours and 11 Minutes”

May 5th, 2008

It’s “Meet the Parents” week on Greek, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of this one. Something about the various parents was just a bit too predictable: of course the Cartwrights are judgmental (Have you met their daughter?), of course Dale’s parents are overbearing, and of course Senator Logan is a cheating dirtbag because how else are we to start viewing his daughter as a sympathetic character?

The series is often mature beyond its appearance, but here it felt the exact opposite: an episode that appears on the surface to be a heartfelt realization of a parents’ love or a person’s own path is actually a validation of a vapid, twisted and totally unreasonable sibling perspective. I hated Casey in this episode, and by the end her behaviour was somehow “good” due to the end result. Call me a purist, but this “Ends Justify the Means” B.S. just isn’t going to cut it for me, not when the series already has issues with keeping her character within the likability window.

As a result, this episode was an exercise in my patience just as much as in the Freshmen with their parents in town.

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House – “Living the Dream”

“Living the Dream”

May 5th, 2008

On the list of storylines that I could have imagined for House, kidnapping his favourite soap star in order to diagnose the condition that he didn’t even know he had was not on the list. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, we saw the soap star last week, so we’re able to jump right into the story. And, well, it is an intriguing story.

Admittedly, House is a show that I never find myself excited to blog about (I’d be blogging about HIMYM right now if not for having to appeal to the masses), but I figure the idea of House managing to (of all things) diagnose a tumour through a television screen is perhaps worth a look. That it is a soap star works that much better, as House’s best possible persona is a hilarious, overbearing, and fanboyish doctor who is willing to go way, way too far.

After last week was definitely a study in character, this time it’s a study in humour – before we reach the end of the first act, he’s kidnapped, sedated, lied to and dragged future storyline details out of his favourite soap star, and in the process much laughter from the viewer. But with the end of the season looming, there’s the issue of ensuring that the storyline featuring our new diagnosticians is resolved – did it do enough to move forward that storyline even with this comic structure?

The answer is yes, even if it didn’t seem it at first.

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Pushing Daisies – “Corpsicle”

“Corpsicle”

December 12th, 2007

While I am still smack dab in the middle of end-of-term essays and exams at this stage, I couldn’t help but take an hour out of my evening to watch tonight’s Fall Finale of Pushing Daisies. Considering its procedural structure, I think sometimes we as viewers take for granted the rather deft hand being taken by the series in terms of the characters it has created. “Corpsicle” was not written by Bryan Fuller, or directed by Barry Sonnefeld, but it was perhaps my favourite episode of the series yet.

It wasn’t because it was funny, or witty, but rather that there was a level of poignancy which felt earned: it was a moment where Chuck was forced to face a harsh reality, and at the same time come to terms with her own reality. There were two scenes in the episode which were note-perfect dramatic scenes that proved that Lee Pace, Anna Friel and Chi McBride are deserving of their potential Golden Globes nominations tomorrow morning. Plus, an intriguing secret at episode’s end should prove interesting heading into the next season…whenever that might be.

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Let the Academic Hell Begin: Some Cultural Confessions

Yes, folks, it’s been quite some time now since I have been posting here at Cultural Learnings, and I apologize for that – yesterday was our lowest day in six months, so it’s clear that the lack of productivity is hurting big time. Since I still don’t really have time to put together anything all that impressive (I MAY be back for The Amazing Race tonight, since it’s the only thing on), I thought I’d let you know some of what I would have posted about.

  • Heroes’ finale I probably had time to discuss, but it was just so objectionable that I really didn’t feel like it. I’ve been mulling putting together another post on the series, which might have to wait for the Christmas break when it will be considerably less relevant. In short: finale bad, season bad, interest waning.
  • Having seen the final two episodes of Dexter, I can say that the season ends on a high note…but that doesn’t mean I’m still not frustrated by the show’s inability to put together a cohesive season. They’ve yet to get the middle section right, and to be honest the finale is even a little bit too much of a downer. It’s still one of the strongest shows on television right now, and is likely guaranteed a third season, but I really think that they need to re-evaluate some elements of their story arc structure. Mainly Lila. But, watch for yourself, it’s an exciting two hours of TV.
  • Speaking of Dexter, I’d love to delve into the writer’s strike a little more and try to imagine scenes from the show in neutered forms as CBS is considering repurposing the series (Edited for both time and content) for their strike-riddled schedule. I like this plan, to be honest: stick it after CSI on Thursdays, and I think it could do some good for the series. However, I need there to be a disclaimer that says “This show has been edited, so buy the DVD too you puritan!”
  • I don’t think I ever talked about House’s new team, even though that happened almost two weeks ago. It’s…good? I guess. I loved Anne Dudek in the role of Cutthroat Bitch, so it was disappointing to see her go in some senses, but I think that the team has a lot of potential. However, they REALLY needed to give Chase/Cameron something to do. I fear we’re dangerously close to “Chase and Cameron become the patients and one of them dies, driving the other one back onto House’s team” (Maybe for the Superbowl episode!), and I don’t particularly think we need that storyline.

I’ll be back over the next few days with my Mad Men essay as well as some ways you can pass your time while I am not providing as much distraction as I’d like to.

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