Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce
March 27th, 2011
The front cover of the press kit sent to critics for HBO’s Mildred Pierce suggests that Kate Winslet is Mildred Pierce in a five-part Miniseries.
The inside cover, meanwhile, touts Academy Award winner Kate Winslet starring in a film by Todd Haynes.
None of this is ostensibly untrue. Kate Winslet is both an Academy Award winner and unquestionably the centerpiece of this project – if there’s a single scene in which she does not appear, I have no recollection of it. And this is indeed a project directed by Todd Haynes, and it will air in five parts over the course of three weeks starting this evening at 9/8c.
However, I’m admittedly quite intrigued by the notion of “miniseries” and “film” being used as synonyms. To be clear, I know it isn’t ostensibly wrong: considering that Todd Haynes directed all five parts of the miniseries, and that they were all scripted by Haynes and Jon Raymond, this is a single cohesive project which has simply been split into five parts (oddly enough airing over three weeks). And yet there’s something strange about considering this as a single project given the way it will be seen by the majority of its audience, and the way it will be covered in certain locations which cover shows on a weekly basis.
I was actually going to write about the reception of the miniseries independent of having seen it, but I felt that I should withhold that commentary until actually sitting down with all five and a half hours. And yet, watching it has created only more questions: did I watch it in the “correct” fashion by seeing it all over the course of a single evening with a brief intermission, or was it actually meant to be consumed in the episodic fashion being utilized by HBO?
And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth your time at all?
“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.
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.
“Right Place, Wrong Time”
April 25th, 2010
One of the challenges of watching television while engaged with (but not wholly part of) the critical community is that you can’t help but have certain expectations from others critics having already seen future episodes of a series. The end of “Right Place, Wrong Time” is something I’ve known about for a few weeks now, so I spent the episode expecting it, knowing that things would eventually get to the point when the tourists would happen upon the funeral service in the 9th Ward and in the process turn ritual into spectacle. In the end, of course, the (problematic, which I’ll get to) scene isn’t ruined by this expectation, but some of the intended effect is lost in the process.
What I think the well-made and compelling Treme is struggling with right now is that we have certain expectations: history has already written its own story of what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and to some degree Treme is in the process of checking off a list of things that they “have to” cover rather than revealing new stories that head in unexpected directions. With the weight of this expectation, the show feels like certain stories are moving towards inevitability, designed to get to a particular point about post-Katrina New Orleans rather than unfolding in a way which speaks to that particular concern.
It’s as if the show is always in the right place at the right time, a situation which makes “Right Place, Wrong Time” struggle to feel quite as organic as we may want the show to feel at this stage of its development. The drama remains extremely compelling, and many of the individual scenes within these stories are as evocative and worthwhile as we expect from Simon, but there is something about the way things are unfolding which fails to embrace, even while capturing, the uncertainty of reality.
“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.
“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.