“I’ll Fly Away”
June 20th, 2010
“I’m just a player.”
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
“Gone in the Teeth”
June 13th, 2010
AMC has officially dubbed their airing of Rubicon’s pilot a month and a half ahead of its premiere as a “sneak preview,” but I think a “teaser trailer” may be a more accurate description of the episode in question. A good teaser trailer shows you atmospheric scenes which give you a sense of the mood a particular movie or television series is going for, but really doesn’t tell you much about the plot in question: for example, HBO’s teaser trailer for Game of Thrones, the much-anticipated adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, shows a few key images and establishes the series’ tagline.
Considering this, it’s fair to say that my use of the designation for “Gone in the Teeth” is symptomatic of my frustration with the enigmatic lack of clarity which pervades this series. If a show’s pilot is supposed to be a teaser trailer, an aesthetic exercise designed to build hype, then I would consider this to be moderately successful: there was absolutely nothing here which would keep me from tuning into the series in August. However, a pilot needs to be something more than a teaser trailer, and the series’ shortcuts in establishing both its central character and its central conspiracy show a lack of elegance which does little to convince me that this belongs in the same breath as AMC’s other original series.
Official Ballot Miscellany
June 4th, 2010
Earlier this evening, Emmy voting officially began; this isn’t particularly important to us non-voters, but it does mean that the official ballots were released (PDFs: Performers, Writing, Directing), which means that we know who submitted their names for Emmy contention and can thus make our predictions accordingly. In some cases, this simply confirms our earlier submissions regarding particularly categories, while in other cases it throws our expectations for a loop as frontrunners or contenders don’t end up submitting at all.
For example, Cherry Jones (who last year won for her work on 24) chose not to submit her name for contention this year, a decision which seems somewhat bizarre and is currently being speculatively explained by her unhappiness with her character’s direction in the show’s final season. It completely changes the anatomy of that race, removing a potential frontrunner and clearing the way for some new contenders (or, perhaps, another actress from Grey’s Anatomy). Either way, it’s a real shakeup, so it makes this period particularly interesting.
I will speak a bit about some surprising omissions and inclusions in the categories I’ve already covered this week, but I want to focus on the categories that I haven’t discussed yet, including the guest acting categories, writing, and direction, which are some interesting races this year.
Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Drama Acting
June 3rd, 2010
On the drama side of things, there’s fewer trends that we can follow through to the nominees than there are in comedy. There, we can look at Glee and Modern Family and see some logical directions the awards could take, but in Drama there’s really only one new contender (The Good Wife), and the other variables are much more up in the air in terms of what’s going to connect with viewers. Lost could see a resurgence with voters in its final season, or it could be left in the dust; Mad Men could pick up more acting nominations now that its dynasty is secure, or it could remain underrepresented; Breaking Bad could stick to Cranston/Paul, or it could branch out into the rest of the stellar cast.
That unpredictability isn’t going to make for a shocking set of nominations, but I do think it leaves a lot of room open for voters to engage with a number of series to a degree that we may not have, so it’s an interesting set of races where I’m likely going out on some limbs.
“I See You”
May 9th, 2010
I don’t have much to say about plot development in “I See You” because there largely isn’t any: after the shootout at the end of last week’s episode, we spend the hour sitting in a waiting room as Marie and her family struggle with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Hank would make it out alive. There are no crazy twists or action sequences, replaced by people waiting to find out the fate of their husband/brother-in-law/uncle/partner/colleague/etc.
However, the hour raises an important point: from the beginning of this season, we have been made aware of things which Walter has, to this point, been ignorant to. While Walter’s life is dominated by uncertainty and paranoia, we have a lot of the answers that he’s looking for, and our knowledge is making Walt’s struggle particularly interesting but also, if we’re being honest, somewhat unsuspenseful. Last week’s episode lulled us into a false sense of security before unleashing the Cousins on Hank, but this week’s episode has Walt panicking over something that we watch being taken care of, an odd juxtaposition which makes an interesting thematic point regarding the season but which lacks some of its impact now that the worlds collided last week.
I don’t entirely mean this as a slight on what is a fine episode of the show, but it feels a tiny bit indulgent in ways that I want to try to get a grasp on.
“Perchance to Dream”
April 27th, 2010
Last week, Parenthood was given a second season, and I was pleased: yes, I have at times voiced my intense frustration with some of the show’s tonal inconsistencies, but in doing so I admit that they seem like a show working itself out more than a show which has no chance of ever reconciling its various parts. Rather, it’s a show that very clearly doesn’t want to know what it is yet, a show which wants to embrace the slack that we cut freshman series by trying out as many things as possible. The result is occasionally a show that makes me want to tear my hair out, but it’s also occasionally a show that really resonates emotionally, and there has always been moments which make you think that maybe these crazy Bravermans might just make it after all.
“Perchance to Dream,” easily the most consistent episode of the show thus far, feels perfectly timed to make me excited to see where this show goes in its second season. The show has, to this point, felt like one where the characters are sort of adrift in a sea of uncertainty, as changes and challenges to their family force them to react and respond accordingly. However, this week’s episode dials down the drama and creates “slice of life” scenarios which the show plays for some humour but ultimately uses to draw out some meaningful character moments that feel like they’re building towards something more than a saccharine conclusion. It finally feels like we’re seeing something out of Act Two rather than Act One, and showing characters capable of being self-aware and who share relationships with other characters which don’t have clear hierarchies that lead to formulaic storylines.
Dare we dream that Parenthood might some day become the dramatic powerhouse that is Jason Katims’ other show, Friday Night Lights? Well, no, but I do think we’re to the point where the idea doesn’t seem like a hilariously improbable notion.
“Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”
April 18th, 2010
There’s a scene in this week’s episode of Treme where John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette sits in his office going over a list of programs being cut from what we soon learn is his own university. He lists off a lot of practical degrees, many of them in engineering, noting the irony that the programs are being cut just after a disaster which he believes could have been prevented or at the very least mitigated through proper engineers (electrical, mechnical, and otherwise) working on the levees, power grids, and everything else. That’s ultimately consistent with his character, or what we’ve seen of the character so far, but his subsequent rant about the courses being maintained (women’s studies, Caribbean studies, Portuguese, etc.) seems a little bit “off.”
It’s not that we can say that this character wouldn’t make that argument: while we could argue that his own position as a professor of English makes him a little bit disingenuous to be bashing the liberal arts in such a fashion, we don’t know enough about the characters to say that this is out of character. However, it’s one of the moments when you realize that not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the future of New Orleans, as “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront” identifies at nearly every turn. It is an episode filled with moments where structural integrity or personal safety or the letter of the law are placed in opposition to both the cultural past and the storm-addled future of New Orleans, and while some stress the importance of identity others emphasize the importance of survival.
While there are temptations to read characters like Creighton, who rallies against authority and emphasizes the failures of bureaucracy, as representations of the creative impulse of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, this speech and this episode are a reminder that they’re trying to capture the complexity of this city rather than a singular image of its rehabilitation.
“What’s Goin’ On” with NBC’s Parenthood?
April 20th, 2010
When I was watching last week’s episode of NBC’s Parenthood, in particular the scene where Sarah (Lauren Graham) shares a moment over some Faulkner with Mark, her daughter’s English teacher and twelve years her juniour, I was not surprised. The scene plays out exactly as you would have imagined it would play out as soon as the two characters met, sparks flying over shared metaphors and the romance of literature as their love defies social constructions of age and awakens something inside of them. I was ready to write the scene off as the precise opposite of subtlety, falling into every cliche we could have predicted, but then I heard something in the background…and then my jaw dropped.
It was “In These Arms,” a song by the Swell Season; for those who don’t know, the Swell Season is the moniker under which Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are currently recording music following their Oscar-winning success with Once. However, my jaw did not drop out of simple recognition of this very beautiful and haunting song; rather, it dropped because Hansard and Irglova were at one point in time romantically involved, with eighteen years separating them. It was at that point that I came to a very important conclusion: someone, somewhere, on the staff of Parenthood is screwing with me.
It could be the Music Supervisor, as there is plenty of evidence to indicate that whoever is choosing music for this show is in fact still living in 2006, or it could be the performers, some of whom seem to have made it their life’s work to entirely take away my ability to tell when this show is trying to be serious and when it’s trying to be sarcastic. For every time when I think I finally have Parenthood pinned down, when I grasp at some sort of straw that convinces me that this could some day develop into half the series that Jason Katims’ Friday Night Lights became, there’s moments which leap off the screen and just beg me to ridicule, abandon or at times even throttle this series.
And I’m sort of loving it.
Davis and Defictionalization: Treme’s Inherited Crisis of Continuity
April 18th, 2010
When I was watching Treme earlier this week, I knew that there was some buzz in early reviews about one of the show’s characters, although I had stayed far enough away from those reviews that I actually didn’t know which character it was going into the premiere. However, there was no doubt after watching the episode that the response was to Steve Zahn’s Davis, a character who is a bit too much of a jerk for some viewers.
I wrote about this a little bit in my review of the premiere, arguing that the character has yet to be given a reason for this sort of behaviour, which keeps the audience from relating to him in any way. However, I’ve since that point read a lot of comments from others (including Ethan Thompson at Antenna) which have started to paint Davis as something more intriguing, something which speaks to both the series’ complicated intertextuality and its unique relationship with historical reality.
So, after the jump, a few thoughts (with probably a few Wire spoilers) on the defictionalization of Simon and Burns’ Baltimore and its influence on the response to Davis’ incongruity within Treme’s New Orleans.
“Do You Know What It Means”
April 11th, 2010
I’m in the middle of a fairly chaotic week (that will continue to be pretty chaotic until at least the weekend), and so I only today got a chance to sit down with David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s Treme. As a fan of The Wire, and a fan of good television, I can objectively say that this is a very engaging television program that I look forward to watching for the remainder of the Spring.
As a critic, I don’t know if I quite have time to delve into it with the depth that I might in different circumstances – I’m going to offer a few brief thoughts on a couple of stories, and probably talk a bit about the show’s depiction of New Orleans, but full-detailed thoughts might have to wait until later in the miniseries.
Of course, I’m writing this before I start writing the review in earnest, so you could look beneath the fold and find something as long as you’d normally expect.