what i watched last week
blu-ray series #6: what ever happened to baby jane? (robert aldrich, 1962)

more catching up: shameless, true detective, girls

The combination of being sick for almost a week, and the glut of new series beginning now, means I once again resort to “catching up”. In this case, it’s worth noting in advance that all three series deserve more than a quickie response.

The new series is HBO’s True Detective, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as the titular detectives. HBO is taking an interesting approach to this series. Nic Pizzolatto is the series creator, and he has written all eight of the episodes for the first season. All of the episodes also feature the same director, Cary Fukunaga, a local-to-us talent who directed that fine version of Jane Eyre a couple of years ago. This combination should ensure a consistency to the season. The advertising for the show plays up the two stars, and it’s a good idea, because both were excellent in the opener. The action takes place in two different times, 1995 and 2012, and Harrelson and McConaughey, helped by some good makeup, are believable in both periods (17 years being long enough for a person to have evolved, but still being the same person). It takes place in Louisiana, and revolves around a ritual murder. Thus far, this plot is probably the least interesting thing about the show. What stands out is the characterizations of the two detectives.

HBO intends for True Detective to be an anthology series, so next season will have a different plot and characters. In theory, this should mean the show stays fresh over the years. For now, what matters is that True Detective is off to a great start. A-.

Shameless began its fourth season on Showtime last weekend. It’s my favorite of these shows … actually, it’s one of my favorite shows, period. And I’ve written about it several times, with this one, from a year ago, being fairly representative. It begins, “I’m still trying to understand what makes Shameless work, and why I’ve never convinced anyone to watch it.” It also lives in that Steven Space somewhere between “favorite” and “best” … my grades for the first three seasons were B+, A-, and A-, with no real expectation it will finally get that coveted “A”.

I also mention, every year, that Emmy Rossum gets an A+. Rossum’s work as Fiona is one of the great unnoticed performances of our time. She won some awards for her role in the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera (she can really sing), but the only award she’s ever come close to as Fiona is a nomination for a Prism Award (“given away to writers, producers, actors and actresses for their accurate depictions of mental health and substance abuse”), which she ironically lost to William H. Macy for … yep, Shameless. (In fairness, Macy’s character is the one with substance abuse problems … also in fairness, Rossum is a lot better on the show than even Macy.) I imagine Rossum is never going to win that Emmy … the role of “TV Actress Most Criminally Ignored” has moved on to Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, and Maslany is indeed great. But Rossum is still playing at the top of her game, and I’m sure before the season is over, she’ll have another scene that makes YouTube and knocks our socks off. Season Three of Shameless ended like a series finale, and there was some question what direction the show would now take. Based on the season premiere, it’s all good. Yes, Fiona has a real paying job, so her family is inching just past the poverty line. But many of the characters we’ve come to know are still there, and it looks to be interesting watching what new surroundings will do. In this, it’s a bit like Season Four of Buffy, when everyone went to college. A-.

And then there’s Girls. It is such a polarizing show, and the arguments have long since turned old. Some of the complaints are reasonable, but too many of them come from people who don’t appear to have ever watched the show. (One friend hates Girls in part because when they shoot a season, parts of New York are closed off for filming, which understandably affects his life in a negative way.)

The basic problem is easy to state: the characters on Girls are self-absorbed twits and it’s an outrage that we’re supposed to like them. (I’m ignoring the “Lena Dunham gets naked too often” crap, which is so ludicrous this sentence is already too much time spent.) To be honest, I don’t actually know any people like the ones on Girls: 20-something white women trying to get by in Manhattan. I can’t speak to the specific veracity of the characters. But I often see parts of me in those women, which is rather remarkable considering I’m a 60-year-old man living on the opposite coast. But note, I said I saw parts of me … I didn’t say I liked those parts.

I’m falling into the trap of simplifying. There are critiques of the show that are more nuanced than I’m suggesting. (I don’t know how to link to specific Facebook threads, but one of the most interesting I’ve read came in a response to a two-sentence Facebook post about the show. As I type this, there have been 164 comments, 95 likes, and 2 shares.) And there is a fundamental point: if these women are so unlikeable, why would anyone want to watch them? I understand that, and I’m certainly not trying to force Girls onto folks who just don’t like the show. (I save that for Shameless … start watching!) But too often, I sense that people think we see The Girls as role models, that we don’t just see ourselves in their behavior, but see justification for that behavior in ourselves. And that is not what Girls is about. People would watch The Sopranos and want to be Tony, which drove David Chase crazy … he kept coming up with more vile things for Tony to do, and I’m not sure it ever worked. I’m willing to bet that far fewer people watch Girls and want to be Hannah than watched Sopranos and wanted to be Tony.

Perhaps the best way to understand what is going on with Girls comes in the pilot episode, when Hannah famously said, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation”. Some people heard the first of those two sentences and signed off. And some people still seem to think the audacity of that sentence demonstrates the self-importance, not of Hannah, but of Lena Dunham. For me, that self-importance is what makes Hannah unlikable. The second sentence is what makes Hannah a character worth watching. A-.


Charlie Bertsch

For the only the second time ever, with True Detective, I watched the first episode of an HBO series the day of its premiere (Boardwalk Empire being the other), as did Kim. That was exciting in and of itself. And I agree with you that the lead actors are what really make the show so far. But what really hooked me on the show is the way I watched it, in bits and pieces, and out of sequence. I saw some while we were recording it -- thanks to Comcast, we now finally have a DVR -- and then watched another few segments, longer ones, during its rebroadcast after midnight. In both instances, though, I somehow missed the initial visit to the crime scene and most of the specific references to it later on in the show. In other words, I pretty much saw only the scenes in which the two leads' acting was the primary focus and was particularly taken with those in which they interact with each other. Anyway, I ended up getting hooked without the mystery really being clear to me. When I finally did watch the episode from start to finish a few days later, it was fun to see how the parts I'd seen previously fit into the episode's official chronology, but otherwise did not change my perception of the show.

Steven Rubio

That's interesting, and fits into a general pattern where it is difficult for creators (or critics, for that matter) to anticipate exactly how their work will be consumed. Take your own example: the presence of the DVR made it possible for you to watch as you did. Time-shifting (which leads to the issue of spoilers), binge-watching ... the choices are seemingly endless at this point.

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