Tag Archives: Miniseries

The Pacific – “Part Two”

“Part Two”

March 21st, 2010

The Pacific is a show designed to tell the story of a war through the story of three men, but sometimes this isn’t a particularly easy task. Sometimes war is about the inhumane, the loss of identity and humanity amidst absolute chaos, at which point following characters seems almost counterintuitive. In other moments, meanwhile, conflicts become entirely personal, becoming disconnected from the “why” of the war and the big picture and becoming about one man battling against the enemy, or one company struggling to hold the line against an invading force.

“Part Two” is all about how these two perspectives start to speak to one another, how a large-scale offensive can become a personal tragedy and how the personal struggles of these soldiers are not being done for nothing. It’s not a substantially different story than “Part One,” but it uses the sameness to its advantage by avoiding desensitization and delivering some intense dramatic action.

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Series Premiere: The Pacific – “Part One”

“Part One”

March 14th, 2010

As an “amateur” television critic, I don’t receive screeners in advance, which means that I was not amongst those who received the entirety of HBO’s The Pacific, the followup to the channel’s Band of Brothers, a month ago. This would normally be a bit annoying, in that it means that Sepinwall’s review is up as soon as the first part finished while I’m putting this together two hours later, but I think with The Pacific that it’s probably for the best.

In some ways, I don’t want “Part One” of this miniseries to have time to sink in, time for me to really pull together my thoughts. With material of this nature, material that is meant to capture tense moments in the midst of an uncertain conflict, there is some value to just responding to what you witnessed, considering how and why the show goes about creating those responses. A masterpiece in dramatic pacing, “Part One” depicts the silence in chaos, the inhumanity of survival, and reminds us that many of the young men who went to war knew as little about war as they know about what they plan on doing with the rest of their lives.

In other words, it’s just like Band of Brothers except for all the ways in which it is quite dramatically different; in short, it’s fantastically engaging television.

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Missed Diagnosis: Narrative Pollution in HBO Canada’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

Missed Diagnosis:

Narrative Pollution in HBO Canada’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

January 8th, 2010

I like to consider Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, a short-form Canadian series debuting on Sunday, January 10th at 8pm ET on HBO Canada, a show made just for me. This is selfish, I know, but I studied the book as an undergrad so it sort of feels like Vincent Lam’s work is following me on my academic/personal/critical journeys. In fact, I even gave a presentation on the short story composite’s (I’ll explain that term in a second, although not in as much detail as I might be tempted to) relationship with television narrative (in a class which had nothing to do with television, by the way) during my time at Acadia University, so the long-gestating adaptation announced soon after the book won the prestigious Giller Prize in 2006 has been of great interest to me.

And while I’ll spare you (most of) the more academic consideration of the series that’s floating around my head after watching the opening episode (which, for Canadians, can be streamed on TheMovieNetwork.com), I will say that this is one example where having first-hand knowledge of the text at hand has largely ruined the series for me. This is not to suggest that Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a failure, or that what has been put on the screen is of low quality – there are some solid performances here, and the characters from Lam’s book remain compelling.

The problem is that in a text, and a medium, defined by its presentation of various time periods, executive producer Jason Sherman simply got it backwards – the parts of the story which have the most weight are relegated to flashbacks, and instead of allowing the narrative to unfold on its own time the series creates a melodramatic and unnecessary “present” which keeps it from engaging with the complexities of Lam’s story, complexities that seem perfectly suited to a new generation of serialized storytelling. I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way to adapt this series (after all, any adaptation will skew the original source text based on the writers and directors involved – I’m not THAT guy), but I will argue that the changes made reflect a reductive view of the short story as a medium and are unnecessary measures meant to kow-tow to genre stereotypes the producers are actively trying to avoid, resulting in a series that (while solidly made) fails to capture what made the original text so compelling as both a short story composite and as a potential television series.

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Review: AMC’s The Prisoner – I Know There’s An Answer (But Ask Better Questions)

Review: AMC’s The Prisoner

November 18th, 2009

“There’s something thrilling about honesty.”

There’s a moment in the final hour of AMC’s remake of The Prisoner where I started to realize where its real problem lies. This is not to say that I haven’t been realizing the show’s problems from the word go, as the first five hours of the show were highly problematic, but when Ian McKellen’s 2 utters the above line I realized that this is where the intentions of the miniseries went awry.

There are problems with the thematic content of this miniseries, but the real problem is how the writer chose to structure this story in order to create a sense of mystery that was ultimately more vague than it was exciting. In the eyes of the writers, the climax of this story is when the story becomes clear to the audience, and the purpose of the rest of the miniseries is to effectively buy time and confuse us until we’re so desperate for clarity that when we receive it we give ourselves over to the truth. And, to some degree, the strategy worked: the final hour was, in fact, the best of this miniseries primarily because it was finally revealing and engaging with the larger thematic issues being discussed.

However, the problem with this strategy is that the cloudiness of the first four and a half hours of the miniseries not only made us hunger for thrills but also destroyed any sense of thematic consistency and, as a result, destroyed audience interest. While the theme presented at the end of the miniseries is actually compelling, it was so wholly absent for the first four hours (in particular) that it ends up depending entirely on the audience’s willingness to slog through an abstract and experimental four hours where the writer keeps adding new elements to the series when it’s in some way convenient for them as opposed to when it feels earned or natural.

While the miniseries eventually creates a compelling image of modern society, it’s an image that does little to make the first hour hours any better, and in some ways makes them even more irrelevant. It results in a miniseries that is the absolute worst sort of failure, where an intriguing idea and a couple of strong performances are executed in such a way to rob them of any potential to move their intended audience.

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Torchwood: Children of Earth – “Day Three”

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“Day Three”

July 22nd, 2009

At the heart of “Day Three,” part three of five of this week’s Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries, is the fate of the middleman (sadly, the fate of canceled ABC Family series The Middleman remains the same, just in case you were wondering). With a new (Read: old) extraterrestrial threat at Great Britain’s doorstep, what’s becoming clear is that everyone and their mother wants to distance themselves from the conflict at hand. However, for various reasons, there are people trapped in the middle of the conflict who make things easier for one side and far more difficult for those who find themselves middlemen (and middlewomen, for that matter) in the midst of a very complicated conflict.

It makes for a really intriguing glimpse into the first ambassadorial contact with the 4-5-6, however, as the cloud of poison continues to shroud their identity in mystery in a way that doesn’t feel like a budget-saving move and instead feels just as moody and atmospheric as it should. We have three separate vantage points at the inevitable conversation that everyone has been waiting for, and all of them point towards this being a situation that will not end well, and one where the middlemen and middlewomen are likely to find themselves held responsible for things they never really wanted any part of.

And good or bad, I feel for all of them.

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Torchwood: Children of Earth – “Day Two”

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“Day Two”

July 21st, 2009

If I were a regular Torchwood viewer, I may have found “Day Two” to be particularly strange. Considering that Captain Jack Harkness, who seems to be the leader of Torchwood, is almost entirely absent due to the fallout from last night’s cliffhanger, this may not have been your traditional episode of Torchwood. However, in actual fact, the episode is far more successful for Captain Jack’s absence, as in the aftermath of the explosion at the docks both Gwen and Ianto are able to take matters into their own hands.

In the show’s accelerated and almost 24-esque pacing, “Day Two” manages to do two of the most important things in serialized drama: it presents a legitimate and credible threat to the progress of our heroes, here in the form of a crafty anti-terrorist squad and a whole lot of explosive, and it creates a mysterious suspense surrounding the big picture. Some shows may have been content to do one of the two, but at this blistering speed of Torchwood things need to happen simultaneously. At the rate the show is going at, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Day Five” ends up post-apocalyptic, the world ending in the span of “Day Four.” For now, though, this is one rollercoaster ride that I’m enjoying a whole lot.

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Torchwood: Children of Earth – “Day One”

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“Day One”

July 20th, 2009

The trope of creepy children is not exactly new . Not only have there been numerous horror films that have utilized the form, but there have also been numerous parodies – I may have never seen Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned, for example, but I have seen The Simpsons’ parody of them when Springfield’s youth sneak into a late night showing of The Bloodening. A quick check of TV Tropes (which, if you haven’t discovered it before, is a wonderful way to waste hours of your time) indicates that this is not exactly something new, which could indicate that Torchwood: Children of Earth is at risk of being derivative.

However, like any good piece of science fiction, Children of Earth is about the reaction to a particularly strange phenomenon rather than the event itself, and where the miniseries sets itself apart is in the diversity of responses. By focusing on two very different agencies at the heart of Britain’s response to this crisis, and by introducing a combination of characters who will become more important as the series goes on as well as hints that there is more than meets the eye to this conflict, one realizes that the creepy children are an entrance point.

What emerges in “Day One” of this special Torchwood event is the way in which these creepy children are a uniting force. There’s a scene where Frobisher, a civil servant, asks a colleague whether or not he has any children of his own, and he responds that he simply didn’t have the time. However, while it may initially seem like an uncanny introduction to a broader conflict, the use of children as a central theme provides a connective thread for all of the series’ characters: all are in some way effected by children, and the result is a sense that the stakes are not only political or extraterrestrial (this is science fiction) but also personal.

With all of that out of the way, meanwhile, the show can get to blowing things up – there’s plenty of excitement to join its more subtle points of development.

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A Television Event: Torchwood: Children of Earth Preview

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Preview: A Television Event

July 20th, 2009

As a television-producing nation, Britain was very much at the forefront of the short-run series. While American networks tend to focus on syndication, with cable series being the one notable exception, British series like The Office and Extra (amongst others, of course) were amongst the first to eschew the “more is more” principle and embrace the concise, focused and effective season.

However, Torchwood: Children of Earth is a really intriguing little experiment. A fairly successful BBC series in its own right, the Doctor Who spinoff went from thirteen episode seasons in its first two years to a five-part, five night miniseries that aired as a week-long event a few weeks ago on the BBC, and airs this week on BBC America and Space in North America starting this evening. The miniseries is certainly more prevalent in Britain than it is in America: look at how American producers turned successful miniseries like The Eleventh Hour or State of Play into either television shows or movies as opposed to maintaining the format.

If I had to offer a theory as to why the miniseries has been predominantly ignored stateside, I’d suggest that it’s due to shifting perceptions of event television. Tracing back to the phenomenon of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which coincidentally returns next month), the rise of reality television has shifted the concept of event television. While there are still shared television experiences that can bring people together, the simplicity of reality television has changed both the context and volume of such events. There is an event every few months, American Idol leading to America’s Got Talent leading to the next series that in its emphasis on viewer democracy creates an event. I can’t remember the last legitimately successful miniseries, and the presence of only two Miniseries in this year’s Emmy category (and the fact that Generation Kill was realistically more of a short-order series than a miniseries) would seem to indicate that the form is on its last legs.

What makes Torchwood: Children of Earth so interesting is that it was a huge hit in Great Britain, and the only thing legitimately standing in its way of being a big hit in North America is its accessibility through less than legal channels. It emerges as a piece of event television that may not be a third season in the way that some fans expected, and that certainly appeals more to fans of science fiction than to the kind of people who obsessed over Susan Boyle, but that in its deft use of plotting and sly combination of both continuity and exposition hooks the viewer in.

Children of Earth tells the story of Torchwood, an organization designed to protect Britain from extraterrestrial life forms, and in particular their response to a very strange scenario. At 8:40 in the morning, every single child around the world stops dead in their tracks, responding to no one and creating a series of accidents and more than a few red flags. The miniseries follows Torchwood’s efforts to respond to this crisis, as well as the government response. In both instances, there are a number of twists and turns more at home in a political thriller than your typical piece of science fiction, and yet at the core of everything is the unquestionable existence of extraterrestrial life.

I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that despite my very minimal experience with Doctor Who and zero experience with Torchwood, I was thoroughly transfixed by tonight’s opening episode. I’ve never quite watched a piece of television that’s operated in this fashion, developing an intelligent serialized science fiction suspense thriller that in many ways offers the scripted equivalent to the game show event: by leaving you hanging at the end of the first night, desperate to discover what the uncertain future episodes will bring, and then actually delivering the following evening, it captured me in a way that a traditional series wouldn’t be able to. Children of Earth left this non-fan not only dying to move onto the next episode but also most interested in returning to the show’s first two seasons, which seems to me to be its ultimate goal.

And that’s the kind of event television that feels like a breath of fresh air during the summer television season. Torchwood: Children of Earth starts tonight on BBC America at 9/8c, and at 10pm EDT on Space Channel in Canada. I’ll be back later tonight with my thoughts on Part One; In the meantime, you can check out reviews from fellow relative Torchwood neophytes Dan Fienberg and James Poniewozik, as well as some more seasoned perspectives from Alan Sepinwall and Maureen Ryan.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Generation Kill (Miniseries)

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Complete Miniseries (HBO)

Airdate: Summer 2008

Debuting in the summer, David Simon and Ed Burns’ HBO miniseries was one of those shows that went largely without hype, a fact which shouldn’t surprise anyone after the previous year had seen a myriad of Iraq War films fail to capture the nation’s attention. Dramatizing reality has its benefits, but when it is reality that so often hits close to home there is often not enough distance to allow a show to capture a piece of the public eye.

Generation Kill felt too real to me by half, but this is perhaps what kept me most interested. With the same sense of character-driven storylines and a similar investigation into bureaucratic failures as their work on The Wire, Simon and Burns bring to life something that doesn’t need dramatizing: the consequences of the events seen within the series are today’s headlines, and the people they depict are not amalgams but individuals (one, even, played themselves in the miniseries).

What resulted was a wakeup call to how easily a situation like Iraq can happen: the mistakes made were in some cases driven by incompetence, in other cases by communication failures, but the miniseries’ main purpose is to place us in the middle of all of it to get a sense of what the people on the ground could do about it. As we become personally attached to the men in Bravo Company, we see that they could only do so much: with flawed strategies driving them, poorly trained reserve units botching their missions, and many of the soldiers there driven by the lust of gunfire more than the pride of searching for one’s country, Iraq becomes less a headline and more an experience that seems simultaneously very small and very large.

Based on Evan Wright’s best-selling novel of the same name, and released on DVD in December, Generation Kill will likely beat out a myriad of other potential Emmy nominees as the one I will campaign for most of all: strong performances, amazing production values, stunning direction, and assured writing deliver a miniseries that more people should experience.

Related Posts at Cultural Learnings

[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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Series Finale: Generation Kill – “Bomb in the Garden”

“Bomb in the Garden”

Series Finale

Saying goodbye to Generation Kill isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible.

I recently finished The Wire’s fifth season (partially why I was so late getting to this finale), and the show’s conclusion (like the conclusion of every season) is about reflection: about the journey of these characters we followed for five seasons, and about how their journeys are part of today’s modern American society. And yet, there is that necessary and welcome distance which we also experience: while this is something that does happen in our own society, it is still playing out with fictional characters (regardless of how much we may relate to them in various fashions).

So while I certainly have a new perspective on the drug trade, education, the media, or anything else that the show exposed to me during its run on HBO, I can honestly say that watching that finale gave me some hope: hope that the cyclical process that we follow could potentially be stopped, that the show and its message can serve as a guiding post for the future. It doesn’t paint an idealistic picture of the world Simon and Burns created, no, but its meaning in “reality” is still a bastion of hopefulness for those who choose to view it as such.

But there’s something far more infinite in the tragedy of Generation Kill, the tragedy of a “true story” as told through the eyes of someone who experienced it first hand. Watching this finale was not like saying goodbye to old friends and reflecting on what we can do as a society to change it, but watching with horror knowing what was going to happen over the next five years. Simon and Burns’ gut-wrenching reality check is far worse when it is actual reality, when they are framing our understanding of something ongoing within today’s society. It is downright scary that, five years after the fact, Simon and Burns still found this particular warning necessary, that the problems they outlined throughout the miniseries have certainly not been solved.

As a result, finishing Generation Kill was a process that took some time when we consider that, in the end, we’re not just accepting to end of Hitman 2’s mission with this finale, but the start of our own shattered reality; and while I have numerous kudos to wave in the series’ direction, I will have to say that finishing it certainly is not satisfying. Instead, it is simply scary, and it seems like this is what Wright (And Simon and Burns) intended.

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