New Beginnings in “The Freshman” and “City Of”
June 19th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
It’s only fitting that, as Buffy and Angel’s paths diverge into two separate series, the Cultural Catchup Project forces them back together for the sake of analysis.
There is no plot-based connection between “The Freshman,” Buffy’s fourth season premiere, and “City Of,” Angel’s “pilot” of sorts which started off its first season: while there is a brief moment shared between the two episodes, it is an easter egg more than a substantial development. However, both episodes tell more or less the same story: our protagonist moves onto a new stage in their life in an unfamiliar location and struggles to reconcile their past life with their present situation.
In that sense, both episodes serve the function of a pilot: while “The Freshman” isn’t debuting a new series, it is ushering in a new era for Buffy, as she heads down the road to UC Sunnydale and discovers that it is truly a “whole new world” in more ways than she bargained for. And “City Of,” while unique in that Buffy viewers have a greater understanding of Angel and Cordelia’s characters than those tuning in for the first time, still needs to introduce Angel’s current goals and set up just what kind of show Angel wants to be.
And while both episodes were entertaining, I’m going to make the argument that neither of them were actually that successful when considered as the beginning of their respective seasons.
“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.
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.
March 2nd, 2010
I’m currently trying to imagine a world where someone could handle watching both ABC’s Brothers & Sisters and NBC’s much-hyped Parenthood, the centrepiece of its Olympics advertising campaign. I used to watch the former show back in the day, and it had its moments: Sally Field makes a strong matriarch, the family squabbles featured a number of strong actors (Rachel Griffiths, Justin Annable, Emily VanCamp), and once its melodrama settled down enough to reveal itself as human drama the show could even be quite poignant on occasion.
And Parenthood reminds me a lot of that show, at least generally speaking. You have an extended family who gathers together for tense family dinners, you have the various siblings sharing a unique bond that is as deconstructive as it is constructive, and you have each separate family within the larger family dealing with their own issues with every other family peering over their shoulder.
I don’t think I can really tell you why I like Parenthood more than I ever liked Brothers & Sisters, but if I had to really try I would say that it is less smug. It feels more natural and less self-aware, either because the characters are slightly less idealistically wealthy or because I simply like the talent behind this show better. Or maybe, just maybe, the shininess of a new show is outweighing the staleness of an old one, the repetition and heightening melodrama of Brothers & Sisters being traded out for the fresh, unused template of Parenthood.
Perhaps in four years, I’ll be raving about another show just like them; for now, let’s talk about this one, because I quite enjoyed it regardless of how similar it may be to something else.
After reader David Sigurani asked what I thought about Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand, I realized that I hadn’t really even considered watching it. This week, both Spartacus and The Deep End were eviscerated by critics to the point where watching them seemed kind of unnecessary. However, since David asked, and since critical impressions indicated that Spartacus was so obnoxiously bad that it would prove interesting if not fulfilling, I decided to sit down with the pilot.
What surprised me is not that the pilot is terrible, but rather that the pilot’s terribleness does not necessarily feel like some sort of tragedy. The show has absolutely no sense of subtlety, no character nuances, and a twisted depiction of both how human resolve conflict and express their love for one another, and yet there is so little actual content beyond those factors that I don’t feel as if there is some television travesty on display. Sure, I’d like to see the enjoyable Lucy Lawless on a better show, and I do wish Rome would have gotten a longer run, but I can honestly say that I check out of Spartacus: Blood and Sand with a shrug, and well wishes for those who stick with the show to see how it builds towards a second season that’s already been ordered, and that’s already stocking up on departing Dollhouse staffers.
More on why I’m checking out despite thinking the show could actually grow into something better, after the jump.
January 18th, 2010
When a network attempts to change its brand identity, it’s always an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, the network wants to be able to sell advertisers and viewers on the fact that they are new and exciting, charting a progressive path into the future. However, on the other hand, no network can entirely rebrand, so there will be remnants of the former identity kicking around both in order to provide a sense of stability for both advertisers and viewers alike.
Life Unexpected won’t be the last time I talk about this particular phenomenon this week (Hint: the other will be on Friday), but it’s definitely a show that hearkens back to The WB more than anything else in The CW’s lineup. It’s created a really interesting critical reaction to this show, where everyone points out how much it doesn’t fit the current CW brand and that, considering the critical opinion of said brand, it is better off for it. And I’m not going to deviate from this script: the show evokes Everwood and Gilmore Girls far more than Gossip Girl or Melrose Place, and I’m certainly not going to complain about that.
I do wonder, though, where the audience that watches a show as sweet and heartwarming as this one is currently located. I appreciate what the show has to offer, and I would certainly suggest that you check it out if The WB’s brand of charming drama series were up your alley, but I can’t help but wonder if the WB brand has become so stratified that the people who were silently sitting in their living rooms thinking to themselves “I wish there were shows like the WB used to have” have moved onto other networks (like ABC Family) and aren’t going to look past the network’s new brand.
I want to be wrong, though: I quite liked Life Unexpected, and I’d like to think shows like this could still succeed in this day and age.
January 14th, 2010
Airing two nights before its American premiere (Sunday at 8pm ET) may seem like a big deal for Canadian viewers of FOX’s new series Human Target, but it’s not as if the show’s pilot has been an unknown quantity. The pilot was basically presented in a condensed form as the show’s trailer back when it debuted at last Spring’s upfronts, and since the show was held for midseason it’s been “out there” for long enough that every beat of the show’s first episode was predictable.
Of course, part of the show’s charm is that every part of it is predictable: even if you had never seen or heard of the show before, chances are you knew that the inaugural voyage of a futuristic bullet train was not going to go smoothly. It is a show that has no intention of being surprising, nor upending expectations based on its genre: this is a lightweight action thriller of a television show that creates weight through intense action sequences and strong production values as opposed to subtle character development. By building that show around three very likeable and talented actors, and by crafting a relationship between them that has just the right balance of mistrust and respect, the show creates the kind of “setup” that promises to be exactly what you expect it to be.
There’s something comforting about that, something that has proved to be an admirable quality with other series that I’ve grown to be quite a fan of – I’m hopeful the same happens here.
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.
January 4th, 2010
It’s not a huge surprise that ABC (likely through ABC Family), which already has a show about teen pregnancy, would be interested in acquiring the rights to 18 to Life (Mondays at 8 on CBC), a show which investigates teen marriage (as has been pointed out to me now, that co-production deal eventually fell apart). However, the Canadian series is not the same type of moralistic investigation that The Secret Life of the American Teenager wants to be. While it may not necessarily be offering an endorsement of kids who marry on an impulse at a young age (there’s a cautionary tale, here), it has no interest in taking the premise beyond its sitcom roots: this is a show about the madcap hijinks that face two kids trying to start a life together before their parents believe their lives have actually started, and the lack of moral aspirations is perhaps its strongest quality.
If you’re looking for something to break down sitcom expectations, you’re not going to find it here: of course the young couple have secrets that complicate their relationship, and of course their parents represent polar opposites, and of course they don’t think everything through before committing to their marriage. However, the pilot captures enough of the charm the premise is capable of evoking that I’m willing to endorse the show as a light-hearted negotiation of life, youth, and holy matrimony.