John Walker's Electronic House

Television Round-Up Part 3: H – L

by on Mar.01, 2010, under The Rest

So yes, I’m doing H again, but that’s because I just discovered How To Make It In America. So there it is. There’s the notable exception of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia below. It’s a brilliant show and I’m seasons behind. I’ll eventually catch up, because it’s always worth watching. But I haven’t, and don’t have anything relevant to say about it.

If you read nothing else in this post, please watch the video under Leverage. It’s four minutes that won’t be wasted.

How To Make It In America – HBO

To describe it this sounds like every first-year student TV writing project. Two guys who live on the edge of a criminal lifestyle, yet somehow hanging out on the elite New York partying scene, swearing at each other and attracting all who pass by. Yet the delivery changes a lot. The cast is strong (Luis Guzmán being reliably menacing alongside the younger, prettier crowd), and it’s occasionally aesthetically inspired. The direction is smart, and with a fantastic soundtrack (helpfully documented on the show’s site), its presentation helps cover gaps the perhaps not stunningly original themes may leave. The second scene of the first episode, pulling back to reveal Victor Rasuk standing on the back of a bicycle ridden by a Hasidic Jewish boy, outlines the smart wit. “Stay strong, He-brew.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the guys-struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-scene story is strong enough to sustain. In terms of story theme it feels like it falls halfway between the astonishing Bored To Death and the atrocious Entourage. There’s a tendency for the characters to speak in speeches, which feels a shame in a show that would benefit from a more naturalistic delivery. The heavy script of Bored To Death works so well because it’s so spectacularly refined, but here it seems to be holding things back somewhat. People don’t say, “He who hesitates masturbates!” and then twinkle their eyes. And perhaps they didn’t need the drunk guy shouting to his ex-girlfriend from the street scene immediately. Or someone complaining about being woken up and pulling the pillow over their head… But wow, the soundtrack helps me forgive a lot.

In Treatment – HBO

Season 1 of In Treatment was probably one of the most masterful television programmes ever made. Season 2 started off matching it. I didn’t finish it. I had to stop. Its hopeless misery combined with something I struggle to cope with: impending doom. Impending doom is something I find very off-putting in all formats – it’s about the inevitable awfulness that’s to come and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I recognise this as my own madness, but watching In Treatment was putting me on the verge of an anxiety attack (this isn’t hyperbole) and it was healthier to stop. I fully plan to go back to finish it, because good heavens, I don’t think there’s a better written or performed programme on TV. But only when I’m feeling remarkably upbeat and comfortable, and thus emotionally prepared to get through it. I’m not sure I could pay the programme a higher compliment than this.

John Safran’s Race Relations – ABC Australia

I think I have far more to say about this show than fits in here. It’s extraordinary. I just haven’t worked out if it’s a brilliant statement on race and relationships, or the most horrendous thing I’ve ever seen. Safran is a 37 year old (although looks ten years younger) white Jew living in Australia, trying to work out whether he should settle down with a nice Jewish girl like his mother always wanted, or follow his desire for Eurasian girls. Along the way he tries to understand racial divides of many sorts, by some really quite troubling first-hand experience.

He’s been making these part-documentary, part-comedy shows for years, each using his affection for pranks as a basis for making arguments on various topics. How relevant or appropriate you think the stunts are, and whether they achieve anything close to a statement on the topics for you, will likely define whether you think him a genius or scumbag. So for this series, well, how do you feel about his visiting an Israeli sperm bank to make a donation, then getting his Palestinian cameraman to provide the sample? Then repeating the same in reverse in Palestine, this time smuggling his own Jewish seed into the vaults. Or blacking up and hanging out with unwitting members of a New York militant black organisation, and then preaching in a predominantly black church. Or stealing the underwear of ex-girlfriends and Eurasian celebrities in order to perform an experiment. Or getting off with their mums. Or getting crucified, including having nails driven through his hands and feet. And it goes on. (Like digging up his mother’s grave to perform a Kabbalah prayer, for instance.)

There’s an enormous amount of squirming to get through an episode. His willingness to subject himself to hideous humiliation is extremely uncomfortable. For me, when the humiliation occurs to others (which is extremely rarely, to be fair), the discomfort becomes too much. Watching him in Thailand, dressed as a Eurasian woman (one of his exes, more disturbingly) and going on a date with a local amorous man, getting paralytically drunk and making out with him, then sleeping in the street outside – no one’s better for it. Goodness knows if any of it’s real – I hope it’s not. The blacking up in episode 2 is… it’s probably the most terrifying thing I’ve seen. But it’s hard to find too much complaint with a man who attempts to gas David Irving in a radio studio.

Kids In The Hall: Death Comes To Town – CBC

The news that the Kids In The Hall were to reunite on television was hard to know how to take. The sketch show finished in 1994, with the ultro-flop movie Brain Candy released in ’96. Despite reunion tours and live shows over the last decade, it’s still 16 years since they were last on TV. I adored the original show back then, and I still do. The DVDs take up a lot of space on my shelves. Discovering KITH was one of those watershed moments for me, switching on Channel 4 one night aged 14/15 and seeing comedy delivered in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It was unquestionably hit and miss. Deliberately so, it seemed. Many sketches were just thoughts, whims, without any perceivable direction. And none of their sketches ever reached a conclusion. They were the sketch comedy equivalent of a song that fades out rather than comes to a prescribed ending, each scene dissolving into mumbled lines while the audience whooped to let the viewer know it was over. Also, while men playing women wasn’t anything new for sketch comedy, playing them convincingly was. Despite knowing almost no one who watched it, everyone seems to remember Mr. Tyzik crushing people’s heads from his deckchair. I’m not quite sure how this character permeated a generation’s consciousness without anyone ever actually watching it.

It was my Python. I was born three years after Flying Circus finished, and it wasn’t usefully repeated until my later teenage years. Kids In The Hall caught me at just the right moment, similarly peculiar and uninterested in following traditional sketch form. And importantly for a kid my age, showed me gay characters in an unmelodramatic way – something British TV certainly wasn’t doing.

Toward the end the sketches grew longer, less stage-based and more often shot on film. It was clear they were interested in the single-camera format. Which gives me an excuse to put in this longer sketch from season 4, that highlights most of the things described above, and also shows off Mark McKinney’s range (playing the preacher enemy, one of the Sex Girls, and the director at the start):

So what to think about their getting back together to create a new show, single camera, and without an audience. Clearly as a huge KITH fan it seemed like brilliant news. But then should you ever go back? In this case, well, possibly not.

Death Comes To Town unapologetically borrows from The League Of Gentlemen. It’s a provincial Canadian town populated by people played by the five members of the troupe, following the events following their mayor’s death shortly after learning they would not be hosting the 2016 Olympics. Death has, shockingly enough, come to town, and has a few people’s souls to collect while he’s there.

It’s certainly true to the KITH format. They play most of the characters, they’re mostly caricatures, and it’s paced extremely slowly. However, each episode feels a little empty. I think what’s revealed more than anything else is how valuable the audience was on the ’90s show, providing both someone for the troupe to perform to, and some punctuation for the viewer. While they’re not aiming for big laughs, the cameo appearance of McKinney’s Chicken Lady would have been a lot more meaningful and entertaining if there’d been the inevitable chorus of cheers as she appeared.

But more importantly they don’t go far enough in any direction. Where League of Gentlemen was grotesque, this is extremely mild. Even the incredibly slow-burning plot of the gay man in love with the mayor who’s dug up his corpse and is attempting a life of marital bliss is somehow extremely forgettable. And I’m having a good deal of trouble working out exactly what Death is doing, or why. It does show off the skills of everyone involved. McKinney is unsurprisingly the best, but Scott Thompson’s range is quite phenomenal. It’s just hard to shake the idea that they’re spreading enough plot for one episode across two or three.

Legend Of The Seeker – Various

Based on The Sword Of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind, this is the only trad fantasy left on TV (unless I’m mistaken). Following the adventures of Richard, the Seeker, a young man who is imbued with enhanced instincts and sword-fighting skills, accompanied by the wizard of the First Order Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander and Confessor Kahlan (and currently a Mord’Sith called Cara), they, um, wander about fighting stuff.

It’s fun writing all that nonsense. This is mostly played very straight, but thanks to executive production from Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert there’s just enough of a Xena/Hercules vibe to keep it light, although never ironic. (And of course this means Ted Raimi has appeared twice now. Still no sign of Bruce Campbell, but surely it can only be a matter of time? He must miss the flight to New Zealand.) The first season was about fighting Darken Rahl, an evil ruler who controlled vast armies, determined to take over the whole of the land. Season 2 has him in the Underworld, still causing trouble, but in a much more ambiguous way that leaves the crew more open to stumbling into more varied situations. They’re technically following some magic compass thing now, to stop the Satan-alike from using everyone’s dead bodies to start an army, but despite travelling for squillions of miles to follow this they’re still always a day’s walk from anywhere they’ve been before. I’d love to see someone trace the route they’ve taken this season on a map.

Other brilliant things include that Zed says, “This is a DARK and TERRIBLE magic!” every week about every magic thing he ever encounters. And Kahlan will confess (putting her hands on someone’s throat which makes their eyes turn black and then they become her devoted slave forever) someone every week, who will then be conveniently killed later so she doesn’t have to have him follow her about. Oh, and they’ve take the Pushing Daisies approach to the Will They Won’t They, by setting up a situation where if Kahlan sleeps with Richard he’ll be confessed and therefore not able to save the world any more. Except this appears to be only a challenge to the writers to find excuses for them to cop off and get away with it. Last week Kahlan was bodily split into two halves of her personality, one half unable to confess, so they ran full pelt to the nearest grassy spot.

They’re spending decent money on each episode ($1.5m, apparently, which is a hefty chunk for a show that’s made as a first-run syndication, meaning it’s not on any fixed channel – ABC pays for it, but doesn’t air it), and the fights are often very splendid. While serious, it avoids being po-faced. I like it far more than I probably should.

Leverage – TNT

Season 2 of the techo Robin Hood has been given an advantage by the show’s weak link, Gina Bellman, being away on maternity leave, replaced by the far superior Jeri Ryan. The band of thieves help to right a wrong by scamming the rich to make money for the poor, using elaborate cons that require constant improvisation as twists and turns arrive from each angle. Season 1 was a far tighter run, however. Season 2 has had some really disappointingly dull episodes, alongside some splendid ones. However, one episode in particular makes up for any other that’s lacking: their open, bold reveal of all the scams and tricks used by so-called mediums. It should be shown in schools as the most spectacular lesson on how cold reading, and hot reading, work – a step by step breakdown that explains it all with even more clarity than James Randi’s eloquent lectures. Parker was cold read by the medium, who talked about her brother who had died on his bicycle, which she had taught him to ride. Well, here it is:

It’s never been done so well. And then the rest of the episode is about getting spectacular, fair revenge on this dreadful man. And yes, that was Luke Perry.

Lie To Me – FOX

This is another show, like Castle, that has really found its feet in its second run. The first season was a fun show, but felt extremely laboured. Tim Roth is an expert at detecting when people are lying via recognising micro-gestures. And because of this he can solve all murders and prevent terrorists from blowing up the world. In the first season it was so tortuous as they created a super-sized version of the scrap of science behind it all, making it ludicrous. “Did you see that?! Stop it just there!” cries Roth, as they freezeframe the gurning criminal contorting his face into a cartoon grimace. Yes Mr Roth, we all did. Season 2 has been far more relaxed, focusing on the far more interesting aspects of the show – primarily Roth’s being a cock and always right. Unlike House, Roth’s Dr. Cal Lightman always has a good reason for being rude to people, provoking the emotional response he needs, or whatever. But it’s still fun to watch his Quasimodo lurching and grumpy right-being. Plus it had a song.

Sorry to end on that, but it had to stop somewhere.


9 Comments for this entry

  • tome

    I love that this begins with “So yes, I’m doing H again, but that’s because I just discovered How To Make It In America.”

  • innokenti

    Leverage has been a surprisingly good catch for me. I accidentally stumbled upon it and the whole team very quickly grew on me.

    I think both seasons have been great, though there have been a couple of miss episodes. Jeri Ryan really is so much better than Gina Bellman, but there’s a quality that the latter brings which works, I think, and she hasn’t really detracted much from the show.

    In Parker, Hardison and Elliott they have created some awesome characters, and for those three alone I’ll watch anything they show me.

    Lie To Me has always amused me despite the occasional rubbish. Roth is too much of a pleasure to watch being a dick.

  • Dante

    “People don’t say, “He who hesitates masturbates!” and then twinkle their eyes.”

    I’ve always felt realism is overrated in writing. If I wanted to hear real people speak I’d just talk to someone, I watch television so that I can listen to people who are smarter, wittier and quicker on the draw than I ever will be.

    I may not be able to talk like people in the West Wing, they’re better than real, they’re scripted.

  • Pace

    Jeri Ryan! Woo!

  • Pseudonym

    Not a fan of Lost then?

    Also, did you try Life Unexpected?

  • TheBlackBandit

    Brief Pushing Daisies reference their, John. What did you make of that little saccharine slice of pie?

  • devlocke

    Of all the fantasy series to make a show out of, they had to pick one written by a self-righteous objectivist nut-job who just retells the same story over and over? Blech. The fact that Sam Raimi is producing it makes me want to watch it, but I can’t stand Goodkind.


    I think there are two ways a show can be well-written: There’s writing that emphasizes brilliant dialog, and writing that emphasizes brilliant characters and plot. For the latter, actors that make dialog natural, rather than formal, help a lot. I think it’s ideal when you get both sorts of good writing in the same show.

    I totally agree that two guys naturally saying what two dull individuals naturally would say in a dull situation is not in any way interesting. But interesting characters naturally saying what they would in an interesting situation… that’s kinda nice.

  • Dolphan

    The Sword of Truth novels start off alright, but turn into vomitworthy political/pseudo-philosophical propaganda. When they had an entire plotline about whether the grand hero Richard should actually bother saving the ordinary people of the world since they might not ‘deserve’ his heroism I gave up. Pity, because I’d love to see some really well-done fantasy on TV.

  • cmichaelcooper

    And although they are only a day away from everywhere in the world, they always mention that it’s days or weeks away so that you know they are walking very far. I would like to know what brand of cross-trainers they wear, because they never seem tired, or to have blisters.

    The fight choreography is quite good most of the time, but is painfully obvious when it is bad.

    Legend of the Seeker is definitely a guilty pleasure.