Nine years ago today, I posted a roundup of TV in 2006. Nine years is a long time in TV World ... almost everything I talked about is long gone:
Battlestar Galactica, The L Word, The Shield, 24, Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Big Love, Huff, Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, Bonds on Bonds, The Unit, My Name Is Earl, The Office (U.S.), House, Lost, Rescue Me, Deadwood, Entourage, Life on Mars (U.K.), Weeds, Dexter, The Wire, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Ugly Betty, The Nine.
Some of my favorite shows are on this list: Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire. Some shows I barely remember are here: Bonds on Bonds, The Nine. There are even three shows where essays I wrote ended up in anthologies (BSG, 24, and House). They are all gone now. You can find a bit of the spirit of Lost in The Leftovers. Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin have similarities.
And then there are a few items that are still around in some form:
Comedy Central (although Jon Stewart is gone, and Stephen Colbert has moved to CBS).
Tim Goodman (went from the Chronicle to the Hollywood Reporter).
The World Cup (in 2006 it was the men, in 2015 it was the women).
Here is one of the highlights of TV 2006 for me ... it comes from a show I didn’t much like:
Homeland. The word is that Homeland is much better this season. That speaks more to the quality of what came before. This was a great show in Season One, and an erratic but still occasionally great show in Season Two, but it has gone downhill since then, which is the norm for series on Showtime. This year’s improvement is thus something of a miracle. If you’ve never watched Homeland, this is not the place to start. Go watch Season One. After that, you are on your own. You can stream the show on Hulu, but I think you have to have a Showtime subscription.
Humans. An English series about a time in the future when robots in human form work as servants for humans. It airs in the U.S. on AMC. The first season had eight episodes; a second season has already been scheduled for 2016. It features the usual batch of English actors I’ve never heard of, all doing good jobs, with special kudos to Gemma Chan as one of the “synths”. Oh yeah, William Hurt shows up. Humans is a good combination of social commentary and personal experiences ... I wouldn’t say it breaks new ground, but it does well with the old ground. It’s certainly intelligent enough to maintain interest for another season. Season One streams for a fee on Amazon.
Game of Thrones. It may be indicative of where Game of Thrones now sits on my TV watching list that I don’t appear to have written about it during Season Five. I don’t remember that it was any worse this time around, and I watched it religiously. Cersei’s “Walk of Atonement” was stunning and hard to watch, and instantly became one of GoT’s most memorable scenes. But for the most part, it was more of the same, which was pretty good, but at this point, it just goes on. And on.
Girls. Once again, I don’t think I wrote anything about this show’s Season Four. And once again, it wasn’t that the show got worse, and I watched it faithfully, and maybe it’s just the Curse of Peak TV, where there is so much I can’t even remember what I saw. But I think it’s also the case that Girls isn’t getting any better or any worse, it’s just there, and I have nothing more to say about it.
Both of these series are on HBO, and can be streamed on their HBO Go and HBO Now services. They are also available on a pay-per-view basis on Amazon.
Deutschland 83. I find this pretty much incomprehensible. It’s the first German-language show on U.S. TV (Sundance carried it). It’s not the German that confuses me, it’s the plot, which is to be expected, since I never understand the plots of complex spy thrillers. This one takes place in Germany in 1983 (duh), and involves double agents and ... well, a bunch of other stuff. I like it while I’m watching it, but then it sits on the DVR forever. We’ve still got three episodes to watch from an 8-episode series that ended a few months ago. It’s been compared to The Americans, but that’s not fair ... the latter is one of the best shows on TV, Deutschland 83 is marginal. Hulu will eventually get the streaming rights in the U.S.
Fargo. As I type this, Season Two has one more episode to go. Based on the first nine, I can safely say that Fargo is at or near the top of the list of great shows, and that Season Two might even be an improvement on the wonderful Season One. In takes place in Minnesota and other northern states in 1979, and while Season One took place in 2006, the seasons are connected ... Season Two features three characters from Season One. And the general tone is similar ... both seasons are like the movie in that regard. Strange humor, often of the gallows variety, simple setups that are always more complicated than they seem, and sporadic but awful violence. This season has a stunning cast of well-known and lesser-known names. Patrick Wilson is the closest the show comes to a lead character, playing the man who becomes Keith Carradine in Season One. The better-known actors include names like Kirsten Dunst, who gets top billing and who is really bringing it by the penultimate episode (she also gets to deliver my favorite line from any show this year: “It's just a flyin' saucer, Ed.”) There’s a Who’s Who of TV actors: Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Jeffrey Donovan, Nick Offerman, Brad Garrett, Michael Hogan. Kieran Culkin has a bit part. Bokeen Woodbine steals the show whenever he turns up. Zahn McClarnon plays another of his ominous Native American roles. And Bruce Campbell appears as Ronald Reagan. (He’s great, naturally.) No show goes from funny to dead serious better than Fargo. And it’s a show that is always capable of things you absolutely didn’t expect (see Kristin Dunst’s quote above). Even without seeing the Season finale, I can feel safe in assigning an A grade to this one. It’s hard to understand the streaming possibilities for this one, but Season One seems to be on Hulu, and Season Two is on the FX website if you have the proper cable or satellite provider.
Fear the Walking Dead. A prequel to The Walking Dead, this fairly popular short series is proof that if put the words “walking dead” in the title, you’ll have a hit. It’s not the worst series on TV ... no show with Kim Dickens can be all bad. And it’s the highest-rated first season for any cable series in history (did I mention the words “walking dead” are in the title?). But it’s not much compared to its parent. The ratings ensure at least one more season. I think the first season will begin streaming on Hulu next year.
On his weekly blog post about music, Tomás Summers Sandoval wrote:
I think the best music is often music geared toward a teen/young adult audience, people experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time. That’s because we love music about love, about loss, about struggle, and about pure fun.
Music speaks to this period of our lives so well because of who we are in those years. We are possessed by ourselves, by our discovery of self and the world. That comes with the hubris of thinking that we are the first, the most authentic, or the most real of any generation to have experienced these things. And, if we are lucky, those years come with tremendous possibility and not too much responsibility.
One thing I would add is the unspoken notion that we’re supposed to outgrow a lot of our teenage passions. In his post, Tomás mentions Nirvana, who have avoided this notion (if indeed it exists) ... Nirvana/Kurt Cobain are considered artists, and thus not something to outgrow. But he also mentions “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes. I admit I’ve never been quite sure what this song was about. I also admit I loved it when it came out, for its sing-along chorus, and for its vaguely hippie-ish lyrics. (I’m nothing if not consistent ... I just noticed I wrote only a couple of months ago, “It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.”) Still, the time comes when you realize “What’s Up?” is more of the moment than it is a timeless classic, and it becomes a bit embarrassing to admit you liked it. I lived in this zone for many years, until I saw Pink pull it out in concert back in ‘02. Her un-ironic approach, combined with the exuberant singing of the pre-teens in the audience, reminded me that someone is always experiencing something for the first time.
I have always loved “Creep” by Radiohead. Other than that, I confess I never gave Radiohead much thought. I was aware that they were very popular and very highly regarded, but that’s about it. The only reason I didn’t completely lock into Nick Hornby’s infamous review of Kid A was that I hadn’t been paying Radiohead enough attention to get the furor. Hornby, who is of my generation (he’s four years younger than I am), wrote:
[I]t relies heavily on our passionate interest in every twist and turn of the band's career, no matter how trivial or pretentious. You have to work at albums like "Kid A." You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles ("Treefinger," "The National Anthem," and so on) might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. Anyone old enough to vote may find that he has competing demands for his time - a relationship, say, or a job, or buying food, or listening to another CD he picked up on the same day.
You have to be sixteen. Experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time.
When I was sixteen, I owned maybe a dozen records, tops. I could spend time listening to those same albums over and over again ... I had the time, I had the desire. Nowadays, I’ve lost that ability ... partly because I’ve been Spotified to such an extent that listening to entire albums seems alien to me, but also because I’m not sixteen, I don’t have the desire (I have the time, but I spend it in different ways). I listen to music as much or more as I ever did, but in a less focused way. I don’t become fiercely attached to new things (unless Sleater-Kinney counts as new, which they no longer do).
So now, more than ever, I find that I lock onto certain songs, the way I always did, even before I was sixteen. And if those songs are older, I eventually find that I have “outgrown” them. Or at least I think I am supposed to outgrow them. The truth is, sometimes I still feel the same chill down my spine.
A few years ago, Andrea DenHoed wrote, in the New Yorker:
“Creep,” Radiohead’s 1992 anthem of alienation, is one of those songs that everyone has loved at some point, and no one would admit to loving now. It’s hard to watch the original music video without cringing a little bit. Thom Yorke’s pasty face, with its cavernous cheeks and olive-pit eyes; the other, stringy-haired members of Radiohead looking moody and disaffected behind him; the lurid sherbet-hued lighting—it’s all just too sincerely pathetic. And so nineties. It’s not a song that you want appearing on your Facebook/Spotify feed without a knowing comment to diffuse it.
DenHoed is saying that we outgrew the sentiments in “Creep”, that it’s one thing to identify with the song when we are young, but when we grow up, we understand that the world is bigger than our navel.
But I’ve never outgrown it. I identify with “Creep” just as much today as I did when it first came out:
Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You're so fuckin' special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here
“Creep” is back on people’s minds because of a version Prince performed in concert back in 2008. Of course, a video surfaced immediately ... it was a remarkable performance. And, of course, the next day, Prince ordered it taken down ... he doesn’t like his music on YouTube. A month or so later, Thom Yorke said Prince should unblock “our song”. And so things stood until October of this year, when a copy of Prince’s “Creep” was uploaded to YouTube. And this time, Prince has given his OK (at least as of this writing).
The Internet has gone predictably crazy. Prince is the greatest, no doubt about it, and his version of a classic like “Creep” has inherent value. His version also has a couple of great Prince guitar solos, which are always good.
But he gets the song all wrong. He flips the pronouns ... “You wish you were special” is not the same thing as “I wish I was special”. As I said to my son, “Creep” personifies self-loathing. And there is no self-loathing in Prince’s version. Here’s Hornby again:
"Creep" ... gave voice to everyone who has ever felt disconnected, alienated, or geeky - just about anyone who has ever used rock music to get through the day. "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo," the singer Thom Yorke piped with unnerving sincerity. "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." The genius of the song was its mournful anguish ...
No, I have never outgrown this feeling.
DenHoed led me to something else, however, and I am so glad she did. She had written, “The performance is very Prince and not very “Creep.”” But then she mentioned a new video of the song, by someone I’d never heard of. Apparently this performance was viral for a moment ... I never got on that wagon ... the singer is someone named Carrie Manolakos. Neetzan Zimmerman’s Gawker piece was headlined, “This Cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ Will Make Your Ears Orgasm”. Manolakos had a Broadway background ... she’s got a great voice, but she is also attuned to the possibilities of dramatizing a lyric. There is no telling if she is “acting” or singing with unnerving sincerity. But, for my money, she understands the song in ways Prince does not. DenHoed one more time:
Manolakos, whose background is in musical theatre, performs the song with perfect earnestness, closing her eyes and choking back tears. She floats lightly over the soft notes and reaches up to a stringent wail towards the middle of the song. She takes all the qualities that made “Creep” moving in 1992 ... and repackages them in an old-fashioned night-club singer’s torch song.
Manolakos’s version does what covers ought to do; it picks up a song that has sunken into throwback territory, dusts it off, and treats it like a classic.
I suppose I should get to the videos. First, here is Prince in 2008:
Next, Manolakos in 2012:
And finally, Radiohead’s original:
The Leftovers has held an interesting space in the critical landscape. Metacritic assigned a Metascore of 65 to Season One (“generally favorable reviews”), and I am a big fan of the site, a “review aggregator” that serves a similar purpose as Rotten Tomatoes (although Metacritic expands beyond movies and TV). A problem with Metascore when it comes to television, though, is that the score is calculated based on the initial reviews for a series. Alan Sepinwall has been perhaps the show’s biggest champion, but his review on which Metacritic did its calculations came after he had only seen four episodes. The Leftovers seemed to get more praise as the season went on, and my guess is if Metacritic had used the season-ending reviews, the score might have been higher than 65. When I wrote about Season One a few weeks in, I called it “intriguing”. By the end of the season, I was giving The Leftovers an “A” grade. As I noted, though, a series that so effectively examined guilt and depression would be too much for some (most?) viewers, and you couldn’t just sit back and enjoy gangsters getting whacked to take your mind off of Tony Soprano’s anxiety. And I’m not clear about how HBO figures ratings, or how much they care about ratings, but The Leftovers was not a ratings hit in its first season.
The Metascore for Season Two jumped to 80. Not only were those who already liked it still on board, but some who didn’t much like it felt the new season was an improvement. The headlines accompanying various pieces by Matt Zoller Seitz demonstrate this. His first review, of Season One, was titled “The Leftovers Is All Bleakness All the Time”, while today’s piece is titled “The Leftovers Is One of the Great Dramas in American TV – and It Deserves a Third Season”. Once again, the initial Metascore may have been low, because critics were generally effusive in how well the end of the season played out.
How did the second season differ from the first? The series is based on a novel, and that’s a key right there: a novel, not a series of novels. Season One covered the novel, so Season Two had to break new ground. Several of the regulars moved across the country, so there was a new location for the events of the season, and many former regulars were left behind. This new location was a town in Texas, Jarden, that had renamed itself Miracle, because no one in the town had departed. I seem to remember people sensing that Season Two wasn’t quite as wrenching. Here’s a brief Twitter exchange I had with Willa Paskin:
Willa: The new season of The Leftovers is real good, will not make you want to claw your eyes out in depression.
Me: But I liked being depressed!
Willa: It’s still sad, but, like, have a tub of ice cream and cry it out sad, not self-harm sad.
This might have been true at the beginning of the season, but I don’t know, it was pretty fucking depressing by the end. Well, the final shot might have had a tiny bit of uplift in it, but the several episodes prior to that moment were tough to watch. They were also great.
In any event, by the end, critics were placing it in their Top Ten lists, and some were suggesting it was reaching the heights of the acknowledged greats of the past. Alan Sepinwall was again gushing: “As great and special as the best years of the classic HBO dramas of the early ‘00s”. I’m not there yet, and if I was going to pick a great show that isn’t being watched by enough people, I’d go with The Americans over The Leftovers. But it’s close.
What makes it so good? The way it looks so closely at how events effect the various characters ... this is part of why it is an uncomfortable series, pain and guilt and depression aren’t comfortable. It has just enough magical elements to keep us on our toes. And there are so many actors doing such great jobs, it’s the old “I can’t list them all, so I won’t list any”. OK, I’ll list a few. Justin Theroux has his Emmy scene now:
Amy Brenneman, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd ... all great. Perhaps the most startling performance came from Liv Tyler, aka Arwen the Elf maiden. Her transformation into one of the scariest characters on TV was amazing, and unexpected.
Grade for Season Finale: A+. Grade for Season Two: A.
Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001). This is the third Miike film I’ve seen, and like the others, it features extreme levels of cruel gore. (Those others are Audition, and 13 Assassins, which is my favorite of the three.) I’d say Ishi is my least favorite, but I have to hand it to Miike ... he’s committed to his art. If he decides to make a movie about sadists and masochists, then by golly he will, even if he has to stuff it into an otherwise standard yakuza movie. It’s something of a comedy, in the vein of the Evil Dead franchise. Actually, what I was most reminded of was the scene between the sadistic dentist and the masochistic patient in Little Shop of Horrors. #991 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.
Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015). I waited too long to see this one. The budget was relatively small at $55 million (del Toro’s previous movie, Pacific Rim, cost $190 million ... of course, it drew more than $400 million worldwide). For some reason, I thought this would be a box-office blockbuster, and I intended to go as soon as it opened, preferably in IMAX. But things happened, as they often do, and by the time we got to it, it was playing in a much smaller setting. (You know, the kind of theater where you can sit on couches and bring drinks from the bar next door.) I assumed, from what I knew about the movie, that it would be popular with the stereotypical women’s audience because it was a Gothic romance, and popular with the stereotypical men’s audience because it would have lots of gore. Well, it is a gory Gothic romance, but there’s not as much romance, or even that much gore. Which leaves fans of Guillermo del Toro as the audience, and apparently we’re not big enough. Well, del Toro has had some hits ... Hellboy did well enough that a sequel was allowed, and again, there was Pacific Rim. His TV series, The Strain, has been given a third season. It’s not that del Toro works in an obscure corner of the art film world. But he has his own imaginative world, where there is room for superheroes and giant monsters on the one hand, and Gothic romances on the other. His greatest film, Pan’s Labyrinth, is barely describable ... it’s a fantasy fairy tale war movie or something. What becomes clear the more del Toro movies you see is that the genre is “Guillermo del Toro”. I remember that between seeing Hellboy and its sequel, I saw some others of his movies, and after that, Hellboy II made sense. Crimson Peak looks beautiful, and Allerdale Hall, the falling-apart mansion that is the setting for the much of the movie, is a marvel. (Trivia note from the IMDB: a dog in the movie “is a Papillon. The Papillon, meaning butterfly in French, is known for its butterfly look because of the its large fringed ears and symmetrical facial markings which make up the wings of the butterfly.” My sister pointed this out after we saw the movie, but didn’t want the credit, so I’m quoting the web, instead. Anyway, del Toro likes to include lots of bugs in his movies, and there are a LOT of butterflies in this one.) 7/10.
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014). 7/10.
The story of Stephen Hawking, taken from a book written by his first wife. You don’t come to a movie like this expecting to learn much science ... the general attitude seems to be that the audience won’t understand it, anyway, so we get the occasional scene where Hawking talks over our heads and his fellow scientists congratulate him on his brilliance.
If you don’t come to a movie about Hawking looking for science, what can you expect to find? The story of the man behind the science. And let’s not forget that Hawking’s life is uplifting for the way he has overcome his disabilities. It’s easier to make a movie about the individual triumphing over adversity, than to make a movie that gets deep into the science of things.
This falls into the category of movie that requires me to include this snippet of Kate Winslet on Extras:
Eddie Redmayne is a fine actor who had never been nominated for an Oscar before playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His performance here won him the Oscar for Best Actor.
I’m being unfair, of course. The Theory of Everything is a perfectly acceptable movie. Redmayne’s performance is Oscar-worthy, although ... well, maybe this shouldn’t count as an “although”, but what Redmayne is doing here is imitation, which isn’t the same thing as acting. Hawking himself said that when watching the film, “at times, I thought he was me”, which is fine praise but points again to the possible difference between emulation and acting. Again unfair, though ... Redmayne actualizes the film’s version of Hawking, which is what matters.
Felicity Jones plays the first wife in a lovely, fresh-faced way, never too sicky sweet, honest about their relationship. She, too, actualizes the film’s version of her character.
Everything is quite tidy. You could take your grandparents to this movie. But I wonder if a movie true to the life of Stephen Hawking would ever be tidy? 7/10.