Listmania ’11! Miscellaneous Movie Observations: Part One

Here’s my hasty explanation for this gargantuan post: I had originally meant to write quick capsule reviews of a few films that stood out this year, but the words, the words they kept coming, you see, and I couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard I tried. This is why I should blog more often. It’s a boil I should lance, a radiator I should bleed, but instead I just save it all up for the end of the year like an idiot who doesn’t understand his audience. I’m so sorry for using up all of the words. I had to, though, because these two movies prompted a lot of pondering, for good reasons and really really really bad ones. As a result, this part of Listmania, which has been a two-parter in years past, will now be a three-parter. Blame Rod Lurie.

Best Remake: Footloose

It was sad to see Craig Brewer’s Twitter timeline in the weeks before his remake of Footloose was released. For the majority of that period, he just retweeted people aiming baffling levels of rage at him for daring to remake what must, if they were to be believed, have been a modern classic of American cinema on a par with The Godfather and The Last Picture Show. “Another remake?” they asked en masse. “Hollywood has run out of ideas. Fuck this movie.” And yet Mr. Brewer continued to RT these negative opinions, interspersing them with the one or two tweets of praise from folks who saw preview screenings and enjoyed his work.

At this point I still hadn’t seen all of Footloose, but I knew that Chris Penn danced in it, Kevin Bacon looked like a 40-year old high school student, and the final scene in which the teenagers of Bomont danced at their prom was bafflingly directed by Herbert Ross so that you could barely see what was going on. I probably wouldn’t have ever watched it if it wasn’t for a strange confluence of events; namely the presence of Craig Brewer as director and co-writer (SoC is a fan of Mr. Brewer’s previous movies and TV work), and Daisyhellcakes’ enthusiasm for dancing.

The return of So You Think You Can Dance (US, not the miserable UK version) is a cause for celebration in one half of this household, but I’ve started to be pulled into watching it due to the obvious expertise of the contestants and the fair-minded assessments of the judging panel; a rarity in most reality TV, which has less interest in actual talent and a greater focus on spectacle and entertainment. Also a key factor were numerous rewatches of Step Up 3; 25th on last year’s Listmania: Worst Films list and yet I’ve seen it more times than about 90% of the Best Films entries.

So I watched the original Footloose as preparation, and was mostly unimpressed. The cast were game, with special mention to Penn, Dianne Wiest and the simply amazing John Lithgow, but it was flabbily-paced, and the relationship between Lithgow’s preacher and his daughter (Lori Singer) was overblown, not helped by the gulf in acting ability between the two of them. If it wasn’t for the wonderfully empathic work of Lithgow — who often seems to have wandered in from a different, better movie — I don’t think it would have any spark at all, and would only be remembered for the kitsch elements.

Thankfully Brewer gets that. Ross’ movie could have done with some subtlety, as shown by this far superior remake, which manages to amp up the energy of the original while dialling back the melodrama. A lot of its success is down to Brewer’s feel for Southern life, as shown in Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan. A New Yorker like Ross would never really be able to understand that kind of life in the bone-deep way that Brewer does, though he makes a good fist of it. Footloose ’11 feels more honest and raw even while it has a glossier sheen, thanks to the vibrant photography of Amelia Vincent.

Brewer’s movie is also raunchier, but then what do you expect from the man who filmed this brazenly filthy musical moment? The preacher character in both versions wants drinking and dancing and general carousing banned in Bomont in order to prevent another tragedy like the car crash that killed his son, but the dancing ban also “prevents” the sexualisation of teenagers so feared by parents. However, in Ross’ version the dancing is so tame and sexless that it makes the argument completely one-sided. When you see nerds frugging ineptly (though admittedly realistically) the message from Rev. Shaw Moore seems out-of-place. When you see Kenny Wormald bumping up against Julianne Hough in the remake, you know Moore is onto something, and that makes the fight to rescind the dancing ban more interesting, and the eventual victory fully earned.

It’s not Brewer trying to amp up the sexuality of the original in order to appeal to a modern palate, though. He gets what made the original work, and keeps those shining moments while fixing the stuff that misfired. In Footloose ’84 Ren (Bacon) relocates with his mother to Bomont to live with his aunt and uncle, who don’t really understand him or treat him well. Brewer changes this subtly; Ren is orphaned after his single mother dies, and finds a happier home with aunt and uncle (a Deadwood reunion for Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon). Lessening the familial drama here paradoxically makes the rest of the drama work better. The effect of Ren’s rebellion on his now-sympathetic relatives — who find themselves treated as complicit in his campaign — heightens the stakes.

It also serves to create a connection between Ren and Rev. Moore, who have both suffered bereavement. One of the best things about Ross’ movie — and Lithgow’s performance — is that the conflict between the two main characters is so low-key, and the same thing happens here, but this little enhancement by Brewer really makes that muted antagonism, which morphs into respect, so much more affecting. It also makes up for the less compelling performance from Dennis Quaid. No knock on the guy; he’s very good here, and it’s great to see him cast in a real movie instead of guff like Legion and G.I. Joe, but he’s following in some pretty big footsteps.

One dramatic change in the remake paid unexpected dividends that I didn’t fully realise when I first saw it. Footloose ’84 features a scene in which Moore finds out the principal of the local school is burning books that he feels have a corruptive influence. This comes just as his daughter Ariel’s rejection of him reaches its sad zenith. Realising his attempts to protect the children of Bomont have gone too far, Moore’s enthusiasm for his ban is dented, and though Ren’s campaign to change the law’s of Bomont fails, the reverend “blesses” the prom and its dancing.

In the remake the book-burning is removed, and it’s more clearly shown that Moore’s endorsement of the prom is a sign of his recovery from his grief — a moment that is enhanced by Brewer’s choice to show the crash that inspires the ban. Moore’s sadness is a big element of the original, but the catharsis of his final speech doesn’t hit as hard when diluted by the bookburning. Though an atheist such as myself might appreciate a popular movie depicting a rejection of fundamentalism by a moderate preacher, this change is definitely for the best, narratively speaking. Moore grows past his loss, and his acceptance of Ariel is more meaningful.

I could go on listing all of the things Brewer does right. It’s easier just to say this; remakes don’t have to be cynical cash-ins. With the right filmmaker onboard, you can turn something familiar and underpowered into something fresh, something relevant, something that purrs like an engine. By tinkering with the plot, giving the story more focus, adding elements such as the different racial make-up of the new town — thus adding a new source of tension without distorting or overwhelming the plot — and polishing everything else until it really shines, you have a remake that renders the original surplus to requirements.

The leads are terrific, the dancing is thrilling, the music is eclectic but apt, and the cast is filled with dependable character actors and soon-to-be-stars — here I’m thinking of Miles Teller, who takes over from Chris Penn and delivers one of the year’s most entertaining performances. Footloose ’11 seemed to be ignored by most filmgoers, which is a crying shame. Even if you think a remake is an insult to the original, it’s worth giving this hugely entertaining crowdpleaser a try. It’s the definitive Footloose. Sorry, Kevin Bacon.

Worst Remake: Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah’s controversial thriller exploring the curse of masculine urges and the darkest consequences of territoriality might be the most profound and disturbing film of his short career. A very recent rewatch confirmed my feelings from my first experience of it, that it gets at the worst things about being a man in a patriarchal society; the relentless one-upmanship, the victimisation and dismissal of women and distrust of femininity in general, the malevolent urge to escalate conflict.

Straw Dogs is one of the very few movies that honestly portrays the cruel consequences of machismo, that distortion of masculine energy that ruins everything, turning normal people into psychopaths. Peckinpah was obviously troubled by his own impulses, if the excellent biography by ST:DS9 / Battlestar Galactica writer David Weddle is anything to go by. Straw Dogs was his best attempt at working through his heart of darkness, and spoke to me more about the effect of Alpha males on their fellow men more than any other work, except maybe Fight Club or A History of Violence.

I feared Rod Lurie’s remake would break completely that, but he keeps more of Peckinpah’s clever original than I thought he would. Co-protagonist David still exercises with an “effeminate” skipping rope, his relationship with wife Amy is still fractious (though less so, and with less childish acting-out by Amy), and the politics of small-town life is still dramatised well. However its the incomplete aping of Peckinpah’s original that sinks the remake as much as the differences, betraying that personal vision and eventually turning it into what the original version was described as by many critics; a celebration of violence as a way to resolve conflict.

Lurie’s version keeps the idea of the wimpy intellectual coming into conflict with the macho Alpha males of a new town, but transposes this to the US, meaning this David (played by SoC favourite James Marsden, and hereby referred to as MarsDavid) is still aware of the customs of the Southern town his wife comes from. The original David (played by Dustin Hoffman; let’s call him DustDavid) is a total stranger in a strange land, which contributes to his unease. MarsDavid doesn’t feel the same disconnect; the strife between a city boy and a country dweller in the modern US doesn’t have the same oomph as DustDavid being in a land as alien to an American as Cornwall in the 70s.

MarsDavid and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth; BosAmy) are depicted as being in love, with tensions between them growing as the movie progresses. DustDavid and Amy (Susan George; GeorgeAmy) are almost immediately at odds with each other, passive-aggressively sniping at each other in scenes that are sometimes taken word for word from Peckinpah’s movie but with the tetchy subtext removed. That snippiness in Peckinpah’s original is necessary to power GeorgeAmy’s attraction to her former lover Charlie. She’s still drawn to the man even though she loves DustDavid, and her feelings only strengthen as her relationship with DustDavid deteriorates.

This leads to the controversial rape scene, where she is seen to be torn between understandable horror and unexpected acceptance of the act. Charlie is, of course, 100% in the wrong, and it’s obvious that GeorgeAmy is upset by the event, but she is conflicted due to her feelings about the man. It’s a difficult scene to watch, and even more difficult (if not impossible) to defend, but at least in this dreadful moment there is something going on in her head. I’m not sure it counts as agency, but she’s more than a victim, is a complicated human being, until Charlie’s friend Norman appears and takes the scene into even darker territory, which also serves to alter the relationship between the two guilty men.

In the remake, we see BosAmy rejecting Charlie from the very beginning. She doesn’t warm to him at all, which means the fracturing of her relationship with MarsDavid serves no real purpose. When the rape happens it looks as if there will be no ambiguity there, that she is utterly opposed to the violent act, but then Charlie — here depicted as a shirtless buff hottie, bringing new variables about objectification into the equation — asks if she wants him to stop and she hesitates.

With no real set-up or build to that moment, the effect is to be far more offensive than Peckinpah’s original, if that’s possible. Without the obvious chemistry between the two, and no previous shading to the character, BosAmy’s moment of doubt legitimises the “women secretly want to be raped” argument. I just can’t imagine what Lurie thought he was doing. Did he think this choice made the scene less problematic? He then holds back from depicting the second rape in as graphic a way as Peckinpah did, compounding the problem by leaving us a mental image of the earlier, less violent act. It’s a monstrous miscalculation.

The end of the movie shows where Lurie was probably heading. In Peckinpah’s original, GeorgeAmy is traumatised by this act but never tells DustDavid about it. This means the final siege takes on a different meaning. Charlie, Norman, and the rest of the vile gang accidentally shoot the magistrate of the town before attempting to kill our protagonists to get at simpleton Henry, and DustDavid — who has fled America to avoid having to take a moral stand over the Vietnam war — becomes a killing machine to defend his house.

He’s not defending his wife’s honour, and it has been argued that his motivation in protecting Henry is to provoke his tormentors, allowing him to finally strike back. All he wants to do is kill, and there’s no glory in this, no higher purpose. Peckinpah, through his surrogate David, is expressing his fear of losing control, of becoming a murderous agent. It’s a critique of that male impulse for destruction and dominance; Hoffman plays David as a man who has turned a terrible corner, deriving a ghoulish glee from his actions. This is not a celebration of violence, and those who think it is have missed the point.

Lurie instead escalates the threat to MarsDavid and his home in a much shorter time, removing any hope of debate or escape. The gang become dangerous very quickly, with James Woods’ Coach Hadden intentionally killing the Sheriff in front of MarsDavid. This triggers a descent into violent retribution that’s sudden and borne as much out of necessity as male impulse. It might have worked if Lurie had been as interested as Peckinpah in exploring the subject, but the almost comical framing of MarsDavid — small in the frame with his face surrounded by either male torsos, arms, and groins with phallic beer bottles pointing out — is all we get.

Peckinpah’s film was soaked in machismo and commentary on male insecurities. Almost every shot and line strengthens the feeling that DustDavid feels emasculated by the power of the Alpha males, but Lurie has less time for this, and the finale is thus blunted. Even worse, BosAmy is an active participant in the finale, which turns a treatise on male violence into a mere revenge story. Don’t get me wrong, the sight of Kate Bosworth blasting her assailant with a shotgun has some power, some kind of basic balancing of the narrative scale, but for the first time ever in the history of storytelling, giving the female protagonist more to do makes a story less interesting and more conventional than a story in which the female character is sidelined.

The complexity of GeorgeAmy in the original remains until the end, when she calls out to Charlie and not Dust David for help, and later hesitates before saving DustDavid from a final attack. This can be read a number of different ways. BosAmy is just out to kill her attacker; she (and her husband, who then finds out about the rape) has nothing on her mind except revenge. It pains me to say it as I’m thoroughly sick and tired of seeing female characters shortchanged by not being given enough to do; this is a timely point considering the release of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which regrettably depicts the abhorrent rape of Lisbeth Salander, a character otherwise wonderfully pro-active and dynamic) and Steven Moffat’s recent controversial imagining of the character of Irene Adler in Sherlock.

Peckinpah’s critical examination of the crimes of men is something that has very rarely been done with such anger, and to do that he had to give his female characters less to do or to treat them in a dismissive way that gave him room to make his argument that masculinity is a destructive force. It’s regrettable, but in its most vital moments, Straw Dogs ’71 feels like the raging Tasmanian-Devil-whirl of a man flagellating himself, and a consequence of that raging introspection is that women are sidelined or presented as a baffling threat to his masculinity. We may not like it, and for good reason, but Peckinpah is at least honest enough to present that for us to accept or reject as we see fit. Michael Bay — whose female characters are mere lust objects — would never look into himself long enough to realise that he’s part of the problem.

Lurie’s remake goes in a more conventional direction than Peckinpah’s, diluting that story into little more than another I Spit On Your Grave. I’m glad BosAmy gets to exorcise herself of the trauma she endured, but her cathartic destruction of her assailant is nothing we haven’t seen before, and represents another example of that miserable trope Rape And Revenge, where a woman becomes an agent only once she has been horribly violated. This is something that Drew McWeeny was railing against recently, and prompted a discussion about the overuse of this most awful of plots. It’s as if no one can imagine a woman being prompted to take drastic action unless she’s sexually assaulted first; anything less than that and she’s just being “ambitious” and we don’t like that, eh? ::Insert angry emoticon here::

Lurie has removed enough character detail from Peckinpah’s version to make a hollow facsimile, a rote action movie that sees violence as the answer to our problems, not the cause of our psychic pain. I could accept this as the consequence of hesitancy on his part, but I suspect he doesn’t understand the original, and has no interest in giving the story any dimension other than to provide rousing violent moments for us and the characters and then to cheekily pretend that this has damaged their souls in some way.

There are numerous details in the original that enrich or strengthen Peckinpah’s personal vision; his distrust of women is revealed in the fact that GeorgeAmy buys a man-trap for their home (geddit?), whereas in Lurie’s film the trap — now referred to throughout as a bear-trap — is just sitting around to be used as a mere weapon, stripped of its allegorical weight. He might have removed a clumsy and unpleasant metaphor, but he also loses the point of including the trap in the first place. He’s using the iconography of the first without wanting to bring in any themes that would complicate his vision.

And what about MarsDavid’s vocation? DustDavid is a mathematician, someone who lives in the mind and is thus perceived as feminine by the Alpha males, which obviously bothers him to the point that he happily abandons his anger at them when they suggest they go hunting, as it allows him to feel like part of the pack. MarsDavid is a screenwriter from LA who is writing a movie about the WWII battle in Stalingrad, and who is so repulsed by the pack that he resists the call to hunt until he thinks it will allow him to find out if they killed BosAmy’s cat.

Peckinpah’s David is a man of the mind who cannot resist the pull of macho pursuits; a perfect depiction of the war that raged within the filmmaker. Did Lurie make David a screenwriter as an autobiographical touch? If so then the co-opting of Peckinpah’s (and co-writer David Zelag Goodman’s) dialogue, plotting and imagery is especially cheeky. This is not a personal movie for Lurie. He’s living someone else’s life. Of course it might be that Lurie thought that this was a clever way to set up conflict between MarsDavid and the pack, by modernising the intellectual /macho man divide (because apparently there are no mathematicians any more, only Hollywood writers), which is the generous interpretation.

The less generous interpretation is that he thinks he’s making a movie that satirises the violence in modern movies, like he’s suddenly Michael Haneke. If so, the alterations to Peckinpah’s original are doubly stupid, considering the catharsis of the finale. It’s especially galling as he could have made a timely movie about the Red State / Blue State divide in America, which is alluded to in the movie without ever going too far. All he had to do was make David a screenwriter (or playwright, as Daisyhellcakes cleverly pointed out; that’s perceived as being even less masculine a profession than screenwriter) from New York making a movie about the American Civil War.

Instantly the movie is transformed, but Lurie is obviously not interested in making something that works on a number of levels, as Peckinpah did with a movie that used the Vietnam war and the US protests as basis for so much of his movie’s drama. And this is the most damning thing I can say about this misguided remake; this year Kevin Smith managed to make a movie about the Red State / Blue State divide, but Rod Lurie didn’t. Outdone by Kevin Smith. That’s gotta hurt.

Yet more to come. Not about remakes, though. You can relax.

The 2010-2011 Caruso Awards: Miscellaneous TV Gubbins of the Year

It’s not over! I feel like a horror movie antagonist popping out of hiding ten minutes after the credits have finished rolling, but yes, the Caruso TV Awards have one last gasp before I retire them until the end of the year, when I will be almost as fanatical about the best and worst movies of 2011. This post should have been done at the start of the week but the 2011 London Film Festival kept me very busy, with one movie shutting down my brain for a couple of days (thanks for the mental shutdown, Take Shelter). This post is the first large blip on an EKG after my brain comes back to life. Enjoy.

Best New Show: Game of Thrones

Longtime readers will know that I have a habit of getting inordinately excited about big summer movies, to the extent that I can be bouncing up and down with anticipation years in advance (I’m looking at you, The Avengers. No, seriously, I’ve rewatched your trailer 288 times). TV is a different thing. The uncritical part of me will look forward to, say, a new Terminator movie or a second try at Daredevil just because of my affection for the franchise or character no matter how boneheaded it might turn out to be (though I hope David Slade can resurrect the DD franchise), but it’s rare that TV shows will be based around them.

Yes, a new version of Hawaii Five-O or Charlie’s Angels will pop up from time to time, but I’m not going to be excited about them in the same way, because when network TV pilfers from itself it betrays the dearth of imagination that critics feel is most rife during the summer film season. These shows are often contemptuous of the audience and cranked out like story-sausage, as brilliantly argued here by Linda Holmes. Who on earth set their TiVo with a quickened pulse when they realised there was gonna be yet another attempt to defibrillate the long-dead corpse of Knight Rider?

This is one of the things that has contributed to the renaissance of TV drama. Original dramas are being created all the time, and while many will be inspired by books or films or historical events, or be created to glom onto the success of some other show, much of the time these shows are distinct and arrive with no expectations. I have a pretty good idea of what The Avengers will be like — condensed awesomanium, of course — but I don’t really know what Boss or Homeland or Revenge will be like, to name three critically acclaimed new shows from the new TV season. I look forward to watching them, but I’m not chewing my knuckles.

This wasn’t the case with Game of Thrones. Though I’d only had a year’s worth of exposure to George R.R. Martin’s magnificent fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire, the wait for HBO’s adaptation was nigh-unbearable, partly because they kept so much of it under wraps for so long. At least it felt that way. I recall being so excited about it on the day before it aired on UK’s Sky Atlantic that it disrupted my sleep. Ridiculous, yes, but this passion wasn’t unique. It’s doubtful that anyone who loves the books was agnostic about the show. All it had to do to be instantly amazing was not fuck up, and the pre-aired clips shown on the HBO site proved that the look and feel and language of the books was intact.

Just getting it right would have been enough, but Game of Thrones was so much more than just a competent adaptation. It was vivid and pacy and funny and dark and exciting, building such a head of steam that the last three episodes eclipsed almost everything else shown on TV this year. It was spot on from the very first beautiful shot of the snowy North, but it kept giving us little treats throughout: the brilliantly staged fight in the Eyrie; the superb casting (bringing in Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister made me finally like Charles Dance); the chance to finally see the grasslands of the Dothraki Sea, and King’s Landing, and the dragon heads of the Red Keep, and the Twins standing on either side of the Trident.

To those who loved the books, attempting to convert the doubters was surprisingly easy. The fatuous but compelling comparison made by the showrunners (“The Sopranos in Middle-Earth”) was enough to tempt some to give it a try. As expected, the end of the first episode, with Bran in the tower, was exactly the right kind of hook to keep viewers coming back, and draw new viewers in as those who gave the show a try dropped their bacon sandwiches en masse. Just by using GRRM’s superb storytelling tricks, the audience grew and became more fervent as each new bombshell dropped, as the ruthless became purely evil, the virtuous died, and the rest of the characters became more complex and unpredictable.

One of the great joys of experiencing this glorious success was seeing the enthusiasm for this show grow almost exponentially as the series progressed. My Twitter feed, which already included several very happy ASOIAF fans, became filled with sceptics turned rabid believers as this narrative behemoth powered toward its stunning finale. “Fucking Joffrey!” became a rallying cry, memes like Tyrion slapping the young prince and Stupid Ned Stark proliferated, and longtime fans chewed their lips in wait for the end of episode nine, with THAT ending, knowing that a few million more people would experience the same extreme denial that we did. One good friend of the blog had an epic mental meltdown on Facebook. That’s the beauty of ASOIAF.

So basically, all HBO did was take a beloved and brilliantly written book, get two big fans (D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who is now forgiven for his involvement in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to write and oversee it, throw a shitload of money and talent at it, promote the shit out of it with a perfectly judged drip of information, and wait for every passionate creative individual involved in the show to pay tribute to that story’s ferocious narrative drive. They built it, and we did indeed come, in droves. It’s that simple. Just make something awesome. Commit to something of enormous scope. Don’t hesitate or cavil or second guess. Just be bold, and the audience will love you for it. Thank you to everyone who made this first, incredible series. It was a blast.

Worst New Show: Camelot

Recently a TV critic asked me why I watch so much TV; it’s troubling, in a way, if someone who watches TV for a living thinks I’m watching too much. The easiest answer is that I enjoy it, especially when it’s good but even when it’s bad, because as I pointed out at really really really insane length a couple of weeks ago, there are lessons to be learned by watching anything closely enough. That means committing to some shows that are truly dire in order to see whether it can be turned around. Parks and Recreation started out with a really poor first season but has since become essential viewing. The same thing happened with The Vampire Diaries; what looked like Twilight-lite (yes, that bad) is now one of the highlights of the TV week. Even if something bad doesn’t improve much, surely it’s only fair to complete a journey to fully understand the directions you’ve been given.

But SoC has to confess, this award for Worst New Show is being given to Starz’ Camelot without reaching the final destination. I’m sorry. I tried. I tried so hard to finish it, and put this post off all week so I could try to get through the last four episodes of the short ten-episode-season, but it’s impossible. Something this boring and aimless is like an affront to the viewer, and all I can do is bitch about it from a position of 20% ignorance. Feel free to dismiss my complaints, but enduring this glacially-paced monstrosity felt like a battle for my soul. This morning it took three hours to watch a single episode as everything in the house distracted me from the endless, dreary conversations conducted in underlit rooms. I’ve got better things to do.

Nevertheless, Camelot was already number one on my bad shows list after just a couple of episodes, so finishing the series was nothing more than some kind of bizarre flagellation. Longtime readers will know that I hold Joseph Fiennes in the highest low regard; his LOADED performance in FlashForward is justifiably legendary. They will also know of my war against Torchwood, whose first two years were overseen by Chris Chibnall. Camelot united these two creatives, which drove SoC into paroxysms of joy. Within a few minutes our expectations were met; the first episode of Camelot was as shambolic and absurd as we had hoped, and the next few weeks did little to dispell that. However, while Torchwood was a hysterical abomination, this was merely dull.

And that’s the problem. I’ll admit, it’s incredibly mean-spirited of me to hope that a new show will be bad in a certain way so that I can enjoy mocking it (see also: The CW’s Ringer, which started out ridiculous but now seems to be settling down, unfortunately). However that’s preferable to the miasmatic tedium that surrounds this ill-conceived take on the Arthurian myth. Even after a seemingly infinite number of adaptations of the Arthurian myth, there is still magic in this tale. It’s one of the greatest stories of all time, one that contains so many elements compatible with Joseph Campbell’s concept of the eternal narrative it’s possible that the story will never die. And yet Camelot does its best to smother it with a pillow made of gloom and worthy realism.

Now, that’s fine. A deconstruction of the Arthurian myth is a perfectly valid approach, and though many objected to Jerry Bruckheimer, Antoine Fuqua and David Franzoni’s “historically accurate” version, I thought it was an interesting idea undone by some pretty weak execution. It helps that the Clive Owen version is so different from previous interpretations that it almost stands alone; part of the novelty of it is seeing how the myth and the (questionable) realism crossover. Camelot sometimes feels like this is its goal, but it muddies the water by introducing anti-realist elements like Merlin and Morgan Le Fay’s use of magic. It’s down-to-earth and fantastical at the same time, and that’s a big part of the problem.

It’s a fantasy that’s not allowed to be fantastical because that would clash with the realism. It’s not totally realistic because that would stop them being fantastical. The result is an awkward mix of the two, with Merlin’s constant complaining about how much his magical powers make him sad unfortunately setting the tone for the show. Chris Chibnall has stated that Camelot is meant to be a political take on the myth, a contemporary retelling that uses modern-day idealism as its basis (possibly taking JFK’s “Camelot” as its starting point in an amusing reversal). However this faux-seriousness means every opportunity the show has to spread its wings is curtailed in case it undercuts the message. In short, Camelot hates fun, and won’t let you have dessert until  you’ve finished all the vegetables.

This isn’t the only time Chibnall has done this. The very worst episodes of Torchwood are the ones that profess to be making a serious point about morality or modern life. Who can forget Countrycide, which dared to take on the very serious subject of rampant cannibalism in the north of England? Or Meat, which opened a window on the depraved and cruel world of the carnivore by dramatising the fate of poor Spacey the Space Whale, a creature that is kept alive in order to be carved up over and over again for meat, just like in a real abattoir with real cows. See also his ponderous Silurian episodes in Doctor Who that belaboured a point about the failure of diplomacy between two intractable opponents over two self-important hours.

These berserk attempts at dramatising serious issues with untenable fantasy comparisons betray the showrunner’s belief that a point MUST BE MADE at all times. Bollocks to fun; drama is here to teach us stuff, and must not allow for any levity or liveliness. At its worst, Sorkin’s West Wing was the preachiest and most condescending show on TV that wasn’t Studio 60, but dammit, in those early seasons that show was hugely entertaining. That bitter medicine went down easily because West Wing teemed with event, its purpose greased by sassy dialogue and vibrant performances. Camelot‘s seemingly endless walk-and-talks are conducted in the gloom of portentousness; it’s an interminable lecture about good and evil conducted by a depressed professor.

This is before we get into the ill-defined characters, the lack of event (a sub-plot about Morgan taking the place of Igraine to foment discord between Arthur’s boring knights takes most of the season to kick in), the poor production values, the omnipresent exposition, the weak performances from much of the cast, the sense that the season arc is being made up on the fly, with new characters constantly introduced while old ones are sidelined far too quickly. Worst of all, the central narrative line of the series seems to be about the illicit love between Arthur and Guinevere. Perhaps with some chemistry between the actors this would have seemed compelling, but… actually no. There was nothing that could save it. The show is held up by string instead of cables of steel, and as a result whenever Camelot needs to rely on this wet romance for narrative strength, it collapses.

While it’s unfair to criticise Camelot for what it’s not, it unfortunately exists in a world that has given us Game of Thrones and Spartacus. The narrative complexity and ambition of GoT shows Camelot up as the weak gruel it is, trouncing it in every way. I was willing to concede that this might be attributable to differing budgets, but GoT — which was shot in Ireland and Malta — cost about $50-60m for ten episodes while the budget for Camelot was $7m an episode, and that was only shot in Ireland. Of course those figures could well be unreliable, but the fact is that while GoT has a sweeping, epic scope, Camelot feels like it’s set in one dingy room. It’s not lack of money that holds it back; it’s failure of ambition.

The comparisons to Spartacus are even more damning. Chibnall and the rest of the Camelot team are under no obligation to emulate that show, of course, but it might have been prudent to see how vibrant and endlessly entertaining Steven DeKnight’s unrestrained TV classic can be. I’m not just talking about the infamous Fighting and Fucking formula either. There isn’t a single boring moment in Spartacus‘ run to date; every scene and line and performance adds up to a greater whole. There are few shows as pleasurable to watch as Spartacus; it’s endlessly entertaining, surprising, and beautifully presented. And it’s cheaper than Camelot too; the budget is about $5m per episode thanks to New Zealand tax breaks and creative use of effects.

Camelot wasn’t doomed by money or competition or audience antipathy or even the scheduling difficulties that made its stars unavailable for another series. It was doomed because it was the opposite of fun. You can put that down to hesitation or lack of ambition or muddled intent. What matters is that sitting through each episode felt like swimming through quick-set concrete. Still, even that’s not what makes SoC angriest. Has anyone heard anything about the King Arthur movie that was to be based on a treatment by Warren Ellis? This is the last I heard of it. There are a million possible reasons why the project has disappeared, but if this dull-as-ditchwater reimagining of the myth contributed to that movie’s descent into Development Hell, everyone involved has earned my eternal wrath.

Best Pilot: The Walking Dead

When I say Game of Thrones was the only show of the year to get me pre-excited, I’m omitting the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore which, for a while there, was the biggest game in town for horror and comic nerds. I was infected too; even though the comic leaves me cold, the thought of a zombie TV show helmed by a horror movie old-timer as Frank Darabont was good enough to raise expectations through the roof. And before anyone calls into question the use of the term “old-timer”, I remember seeing Chuck Russell’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and The Blob back at the old ABC in Walsall in ’87 and ’88 respectively, and both were co-written by Darabont. I was a teenager then, so I’m sorry, but that makes him a goddamn horror movie old-timer and that’s that.

Both of those movies thrilled me when I was a TEENAGER OH GOD I’M SO OLD, and The Mist blew my mind a few years back, so I figured The Walking Dead was in good hands. Now, most of the current opinion of the show revolves around the latter half of the first season, which disappointed most people, and the start of the second season hasn’t exactly thrilled many people either. The consensus seems to be that this was a wasted opportunity, and one that might become even more frustrating with AMC cutting the show’s budget and driving Darabont to quit. Glen Mazzara runs things now, which has caused concern. I haven’t seen his Starz show Crash, which was widely mocked and hated by some critics, but I wouldn’t want to blame Mazzara — a long-running producer and writer on The Shield — as he ran a TV show based on the world’s worst ever movie. Only an evil tree can grow from a bad seed.

As for Darabont, he may have his detractors, but as someone who risked life and limb to see The Blob not once but twice at the local fleapit, I’m definitely in the love camp. I mean, did you experience the despair that gushes out of that photo I linked to earlier? That was some 1950s kitchen sink bullshit, I tell you. You don’t know what it was like going to the Walsall ABC on a Saturday night during the 80s. You can buy Kevlar at your local Asda nowadays but back then it was impossible to find it anywhere. It’s one thing to shoot angry looks over your shoulder whenever some clown at the recent London Film Festival arrives 25 minutes into a movie and hits you in the back of the head with his Moleskine-filled satchel, but try doing that to 300 hormone-fuelled Tasmanian Devils screeching with derisive laughter and pelting you with Smarties. You have to be devout to go through something like that once, let alone twice.

Anyway, forget about the torrent of bullshit and bad blood that has poured over the audience since the pilot first aired, and try to remember it untouched by controversy. Watching it again for this post, I was struck once more by just how bold and beautiful it is. How many other TV shows are willing to depict the end of the world in such stark and uncompromising terms? How many other TV directors would leave so many long, dialogue-free scenes in their show? Has any other show started with the hero shooting a child in the head? This is Darabont’s favourite trick, it seems, as kids die memorably in The Mist and The Blob. Perhaps that’s what every show needs. Maybe more people would watch The Good Wife or Community if more zombie kids got shot during the cold open.

What kind of people are we that we would watch The Walking Dead in droves just to see if any little girls will be blasted to death this week? Obviously, we’re people who like the fact that for a while there seemed to be a new show that would actually put its characters through weekly horror movie hell just for our ghoulish entertainment, and the thrill of that possibility was enough to make this AMC’s biggest hit. Darabont’s assured handling of the first episode was good enough that I’d put this hour of TV above most of the tiresome zombie movies of the past few years. Setpieces like Grimes’ walk through the hospital, or his ride into a seemingly deserted Atlanta were riveting and terrifying, but mostly they were made with care, attention to detail, and the courage to take things slow. Darabont treated the subject with deadly seriousness, and we responded with instant admiration.

After that the series became less interesting, sillier, and confused in tone, leading to a desperately underwhelming finale at the CDC. A real shame, because the first couple of episodes were so good it looked like we were in for a real treat; the second episode was very strong too, with its Excellence Quotient bolstered by 1000 Michael-Rooker-As-A-Loathsome-Redneck points. Hopefully at some point this show will get back on track with or without the input of Darabont, but even if it doesn’t we still have this remarkable exercise in sustained tension and atmospherics, impeccably performed by all, with special SoC love for Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James representing for the UK.

Worst Pilot: Blue Bloods

Earlier this year BSkyB launched Sky Atlantic, its secret weapon in the battle to win over the middle-class liberals who had resisted giving money to the monolithic Murdoch machine. After scoffling up every prestige show from the US that it could, it promised a roster of TV shows that not only included all HBO shows, but also Mad Men. How could the bottle-of-Merlot-a-night crowd cope without their beloved Mad Men? It was also a great way for Murdoch, Tempter, Son of Perdition, to strike yet another mean-spirited blow against his PSB enemy. “Screw you BBC”, it screamed with all of those adverts featuring Don Draper and his glass of booze, “all you get now is European dramas, and no one wants to watch those. Erm…

Sky Atlantic’s first night promised the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, and numerous documentaries bragging about the sets and Martin Scorsese and, er, the sets, and the costumes, and that Steve Buscemi. This generated insanely high expectations that no show could have matched (well, Game of Thrones could have, but that’s just my partisanship talking). Nevertheless, this was a statement of intent. This channel was SERIOUS. It was the home of QUALITY DRAMA. It was worth the Sky subscription all on its own, even though daytime was filled with repeats of X-Files, thirtysomething and Star Trek: Voyager. This was where the best of the best could be found. They could have called it Sky Emmywinners, it was so loaded with quality.

And so, all of those people who tuned in to watch Boardwalk Empire hung around to watch the next show on the roster; Blue Bloods. To a UK audience who might not be as aware of its network, non-cable pedigree, this might have seemed like another prestige drama, just one that stars Wahlberg the Lesser and Tom Selleck and his Amazing Utility Mustache, instead of Buscemi, Shannon, Whigham, Pitts and DABNEY COLEMAN FTW. Sky Atlantic was not in the business of explaining that while Boardwalk Empire was funded by subscription and could make an effort to be distinctive without alienating its targeted audience, Blue Bloods was a commercial show dependent on advertising revenue and would therefore not offer a similar experience for the audience. To those who hadn’t read up about it, it was as if these wildly different shows were being treated as equal.

Let’s put it this way; Sky1 shows lots of commercial stuff, but Blue Bloods isn’t even good enough to be shown there, let alone this new prestige channel. I’m not saying it’s bad because it’s not as good as Boardwalk Empire; I’m saying it’s bad because it’s awful, and awful because it’s bad. It’s so awful. It’s so bad. It’s AWFUL! AWFULAWFULBADAWFUL. It was almost amusing to see UK newspaper reviews the next day. Some critics seemed to express great befuddlement at the gulf in quality between the two shows, having fallen for Sky Atlantic’s trick. SoC has gone on the record as saying that Boardwalk Empire was a disappointment, but compared to the pilot of Blue Bloods, the first episode of Boardwalk Empire was the entire first season of Deadwood and fifth season of The Shield combined.

How bad is the exposition in this show? So bad that The Soup, which is usually content to focus its derision on terrible reality shows, featured a long clip from the beginning of the pilot in which the assorted members of the Reagan family (!!!!) just name each other and explain their relationships with each other. Never – NEVER – have I seen anything as clunky as this. There is no attempt to wait for this information to be parceled out through the rest of the episode. In fear of losing the audience before the second ad break, we’re bombarded with clumsily-acted meteors of information. Yes, there are a lot of central characters to introduce, but exposition this ugly just screams of desperation.

Mind you, they have a lot to get through in this first week. Not long after the clumsy download of names and relationships we see a young girl abducted, and not only that, she’s diabetic and needs an insulin shot. Even the addition of a ticking clock at the bottom of the screen would seem less manipulative than this. An abducted child is a staple cop show plotline (CSI: Miami has had several), but it’s usually reserved for sweeps week, and an audience that has seen way too many of these shows can usually sleep through them as they rarely offer anything new. This is no exception.

We get emotive pleas by hysterical parents, growled lines by impatient macho cops as they race around the city, and intolerant comments about characters who don’t represent the most basic church-going football-watching red-blooded mainstream “norm” (here it’s a doll collector, who is the recipient of several sneering comments from Wahlberg 2.0). Blue Bloods isn’t about to delay its dive into the pool of mediocrity; it’s gleefully skinny-dipping by the time most lowest-common-denominator ratings-chasing shows would be bending down to undo their shoelaces.

Once the kid is found midway through the episode, things get worse. Wahlberg is such a maverick cop he had to torture the vile, gloating kidnapper to find out the kid’s location, and this means evidence is inadmissable blah blah you know the drill by now. This automatically leads into a debate about the use of coercive interrogation techniques (AKA toiletboarding); it’s the kind of thing added for some topicality, but this show has a new twist. Fascist cop Wahlberg’s sister is wet liberal lawyer Bridget Moynahan, meaning this debate can be conducted between siblings who don’t get on.

It’s like a power-up bonus for this overused scenario. It comes at the expense of logic, sadly. Having Moynahan represent her dick brother to the DA is so improbable that the scene comes to a close with her pointing out that she would have to recuse herself from the case if it went any further. And who comes out best in the argument? Do you really think a show about a family of cops that already features a scene where both journalists and bloggers are treated like obstructive shit-sculptures by morals-fetishist Tom Selleck is going to approach this subject with any restraint? Wahlberg dismisses Moynahan’s complaints with ease and contempt.

The scene is even framed with her sitting down and Wahlberg looming over her (no mean feat; he’s about three feet shorter than her, by my calculations); he’s the boss and she’s the subordinate, wasting her time with woolly ideas about human rights while he’s out banging the heads of cartoonishly evil paedophiles against the side of a stinky toilet because might makes right. You can practically hear the capital-punishment supporting patriarchs nodding sagely in their comforters while wifey washes the dishes like a woman should.

This debate continues later over a family dinner (where the main course is yet more exposition) during which Wahlberg asks Moynahan if she would feel the same way about protecting the rights of paedophiles if her daughter was abducted. She, of course, has no response to this, other than to spell out that she hates paedophiles just as much as he does, just in case the audience thinks that defending the rights of all citizens to a fair trial is the same as joining NAMBLA. This isn’t a reasoned debate; it’s a loaded argument for the abolition of human rights and the rule of law designed to give the right-wing audience something to fap over, with the fact that seriously I’m not kidding the family really is actually called THE REAGAN FAMILY being the NRA-supporting cherry on top.

The show oozes with disdain for moral equivalence or reasoned thought. A Judge Dredd TV show would be less aggressive in its promotion of strict force, though of course the intention there would be satirical. Blue Bloods is Judge Dredd without the jokes. Or the helmet. Or the futuristic setting. Or anything, really. But you get my point. The success of resolutely unliberal shows like CSI: Miami, and reports like this one showing that the most successful shows on US TV are watched by Republicans, could well have influenced the ideological positioning by the network, who happily loaded the pilot with brusque manly men, submissive women (please don’t tell me Moynahan’s lawyer is anything other than a Strong-Female-Character-In-Name-Only), and black and white villainy.

As the show progressed it introduced a season arc about the corrupt Blue Templar organisation within the NYPD, so the water did get muddied as it went along, but an hour of this fascist-pandering horseshit was enough for SoC. Which is a shame, as dialogue as bad as, “We need to find this kid. Alive,” or, “You know, there’s no shame in talking about what happened in Iraq,” would have kept us happily chuckling until Torchwood: Miracle Day came along.

And that’s that for another year. Thanks to everyone who has commented on, liked, or retweeted these long long articles. I’m now going to go soak my fingertips in water for a few hours.

The 2009-2010 Caruso Awards: The Best New Characters of the Year

Yes yes, I’m still not done. Traditionally Shades of Caruso feels obliged to praise showrunners for creating new characters that embody all that is great about a show, draw attention to aspects of the show that we hadn’t spotted before, or make us want to watch something that otherwise we wouldn’t be that bothered about. Previous years have seen us hurl garlands at Walter Bishop from Fringe and Dr. Amber Volakis from House like we were throwing love-frisbees. Who will win this year? Will it be Amy Pond? (Clue: no.) Will it be a sexy new vampire on True Blood? (Clue: No, because we haven’t watched it, despite all of the sexiness.) I’d like to think our choice is utterly uncontroversial. We’ll save the controversy for the following post, which will be about the worst new characters of the year. Rules apply: only characters introduced in seasons completed by the time the awards started are eligible, and only one character per show can be included, except for the two exceptions seen below, who made it onto the list because I think the relevant shows have two important, likeable characters that share a lot of traits and also show how issues of race can send two similar people down completely different roads.

10. Dan Stark – The Good Guys

Matt Nix’s endearing cop show sadly doesn’t have the consistency to become a regular watch, but whenever it comes on, your attention will inevitably be held by Bradley Whitford’s full-powered performance as retro-cop Dan Stark. He’s more than just a mustache-delivery system. Due to his time on Sorkin-Shows — where the amount of dialogue exceeds molecules in the universe — it’s forgivable to think that verbal humour is all Whitford can bring to a role, but much of the pleasure of his turn as the American Gene Hunt depends on his bizarre physical comedy. It’s worth tuning in each week to catch his weird stiff-armed high-kicking combat stance, let alone his clueless pronouncements and hysterical technophobia (as shown above). It’s a joke that’s been done elsewhere, but Whitford’s lively energy is infectious. Colin Hanks is a good foil, and RonReaco Lee is funny as a Huggy-Bear-esque snitch, but they don’t even need to be there for The Good Guys to work. It’s Whitford’s show: everyone else is just visiting.

9. Dr. Bennet Halverson – Dollhouse

Adding a character to this list of awesomeness should be a happy moment, but there is a twinge of sadness here. Though Dr. Bennett Halverson is introduced with a flourish and allowed at least one classic episode almost to herself, we don’t get a chance to see just how great this character could have been. The sense that there was a 500-page story-bible written about her various exploits is there in every scene. Halverson’s unpredictability, impishness and ruthlessness shine through Summer Glau’s most winning performance yet, so much so that we can go from being charmed by her to hating her guts in an instant. Other than Echo, she’s the most complicated character on the show, something made very clear even though her character is disposed of in a hurry, just like the show. You just know her final moment was meant to be a fourth season shocker, something that would have built to an amazing emotional crescendo. Unfortunately, we just a fraction of the ultimate plan. It’s enough to create a strong negative emotion, but still only a ghost of that all-too-familiar Whedon-pain.

8. Vince Howard / Luke Cafferty – Friday Night Lights

Sometimes all it takes for a character to win over an audience is just being a good guy. Not a Nice Guy, but someone who is shy and dopey and overly polite and too sincere for his own good. Luke Cafferty is a slave to his manners, his own worst enemy, a guy who makes a series of stupid mistakes and suffers terribly for them all while trying to do the right thing. Vince Howard is on the knife-edge of taking a wrong turn in his life that he can never return from, all the while knowing what the right choices are. Luckily for them, they’re in a show that has at its core a simple message: you can be better, and you can transcend this. Maybe I instantly loved both characters because they were just regular good guys who refuse to let misfortune grind them down, but I also wonder if I loved them because they enable Coach Taylor to do what he does best: change lives, save young men from the hell of their mistakes, and inspire them to be better people. After all, at its best Friday Night Lights is like uplift-porn.

7. Lucretia – Spartacus: Blood and Sand

In the new age of TV, we demand bad guys who are nuanced and not just evil. Spartacus starts off with a hissable villain in the form of Gaius Claudius Glaber, the legatus who ruins the life of “Spartacus” after our hero dares to question his orders. It’s telling that Glaber then disappears for the majority of the season, to be replaced with the glorious duo of Batiatus and his wife Lucretia. While SoC has long considered John Hannah to be a not-great actor, his work here has prompted a rethink. Nevertheless, as entertaining as the spluttering lanista was, he’s nothing without Lucretia. She works less as a Lady Macbeth and more as an equal, independently following her own plans to aid their political ambitions. What’s best about her — other than Lucy Lawless’ fine work — is that her plans don’t work out as well as she hoped: her “friend” Ilithyia eventually escapes her web of blackmail, and her inevitably doomed love of Gladiator Crixus proves to be just one part of her downfall. It’s that vulnerability and fallibility that makes Lucretia one of the most entertaining bad guys of the year.

6. Troy Barnes – Community

I agonised over which character on Best New Sitcom Community would make the grade here. Someone had to. Creator Dan Harmon did a fantastic job of populating the show with a central cast of memorable characters, and carried that good work through the season by altering relationships and focus to take advantage of growing chemistry and hidden acting strengths. All of the main characters (and secondary characters such as Star-Burns and Dean Pelton) are brilliantly realised, but the most consistently funny member of the core group has to be Troy Barnes, the dopey but good-natured former quarterback who loves Robin Williams, thrives on best friend Abed’s pop-culture savantism (even when he doesn’t quite understand it), has a notable way with words, and can harmonise even while scared of rats. Most importantly, Troy is a great showcase for the amazing Donald Glover, the Spider-Man who sadly never was. His ascent to immense super-stardom begins here.

5. Zoe Graystone – Caprica

Caveats naturally apply here, as of course the character of Zoe Graystone only exists in Caprica for a few minutes before being blasted into smithereens by crazed monotheist terrorists. The “Zoe Graystone” that captured my imagination is a computer extrapolation of metadata turned into a virtual avatar, hooked up to a robot, and then magically transformed into the first Cylon. Perhaps it’s this berserk origin story that makes her so fascinating, as she acts as a futuristic techno-Trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Robot. Perhaps it’s seeing her grow — in the few episodes we got before Syfy maddeningly took the show from our screens — from a clueless, hostile teenager into a confident woman grieving for her own life and desperately trying to escape her physical prison. Mostly it’s because the most complex character in the Caprica-verse is played with such quirky energy by Alessandra Torresani, who drops into the nerd-culture consciousness with a splash and makes a meal of it. If she hadn’t been right for the part, the show would’ve been doomed. Thankfully, she’s perfect.

4. Davis McAlary / Antoine Batiste – Treme

Treme is about a number of things: it’s a critique of the Bush administration’s abandonment of a devastated city; a celebration of American culture and history; an organic musical that lacks the intentional artificiality of Glee; a thesis on the differences between commercial culture and “authentic” artistic endeavour. Most of all, it’s an attempt to document the “feel” of New Orleans, and though Albert Lambreaux’s furious Mardi Gras Indian chief might be the most detailed character in terms of introducing a slice of history that is unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, it’s lovable chancers Antoine and Davis that provide most of the laughs. Their lackadaisical personal lives are contrasted with their loyalty to local history, as Davis battles to preserve something of the town he loves and Antoine just gets on with being an essential part of Jazz culture. They’re also unreliable and shifty, with Antoine’s lovelife and Davis’ questionable appropriation of African-American language and culture being the salt in their sugary personas. They also serve as a subtle comment on race in America: while Antoine struggles, Davis coasts.

3. Raylan Givens – Justified

Shades of Caruso has many criteria for selecting the best and worst characters of the year, but there are some criteria we don’t often mention. One is Outrageous Hottness. I will admit to some weakness on occasion, but only one character made both myself and co-blogger Daisyhellcakes sit up in our chairs and say, “Hello!” Super-cool gunslinger Raylan Givens could turn even an unturnable head with his handsomeness, his pulse-quickening height, his lovely hair, his odd-but-sexy walk, and his excellent hat. Even better, the character is created by Elmore Leonard and is therefore rounded, funny, dark, and mysterious. Timothy Olyphant eschews the glumness of his previous TV character — Deadwood‘s terrifying Sheriff Seth Bullock — but keeps the Western elements. Raylan is a sharp-shooting, quick-witted, no-bullshit hero with terrible arch-enemies, compromised friends, a bad temper, a bit of a problem with drink, and two beautiful women who love him as much as he loves them. Basically, he is AWESOME and everyone who has yet to watch Justified needs to so they can contract Raylan Fever.

2. Lane Pryce – Mad Men

Ah Lane Pryce, let me count the ways that I love thee! SoC was already in the bag for Lane in the third season: his ups and downs in season four confirm the wisdom of our decision. In his first season as a secondary character, Lane is introduced as a stiff British dope who makes his American colleagues uncomfortable. As the season progresses, we see how he becomes won over by the American way of thinking, to the detriment of his marriage. It says a lot about Jared Harris’ wonderful performance that when it seemed he will be transferred from New York to India by his masters in London, we were mortified. Thankfully he is saved by THAT lawnmower, and stays long enough to see his exciting new life in New York jeopardised by PPL’s plans to sell off Sterling Cooper. There’s much to love in the stupendous season finale Sit Down And Have A Seat, but the greatest moment might be Lane turning on his bosses, saving the day and hanging up on them with a cheery “Very good. Happy Christmas!” like a puppet who just cut his strings. It’s an uplifting, delightful scene, and his emerging joie de vivre is infectious.

1. Sue Sylvester – Glee

It’s tempting to forgive all of Glee‘s flaws just because of Jane Lynch, though that would entail a boatload of forgiving. In a regular episode of Fox’s outrageously successful musical, there’s probably about five minutes of Sue Sylvester screentime, on average, and many weeks that five minutes can be enough to make watching the rest of the featherlight chaos worthwhile. Her florid dialogue, abuse of students, and quips about Will Schuester’s hair are comedy gold, but casting the magnificent Jane Lynch was the instant masterstroke. Party Down‘s loss is Ryan Murphy’s gain. Would Glee have any worth without her?  She’s the only reason Shades of Caruso has not yet given up on it. That’s how good she is: she utterly counteracts the considerable suck of the rest of the show. She’s the funniest thing on TV that isn’t in an NBC sitcom, and a source of unending joy. Don’t thank Murphy for it, though. His decision to make her a secret softy — her sister has Downs syndrome, and her interactions with her display a lighter side that no one else ever sees — could have ruined her. The only reason it doesn’t is because Jane Lynch is a comedy master worth approximately 58 Lily Tomlins (I say this as a fan of Lily Tomlin). We’re lucky we get to see her at the top of her game.

Coming up: the worst new characters of the year.

What I Cried For

During the penultimate episode of Lost the main character — Jack Shephard — quietly makes a choice, accepting enormous responsibility with a quick and resigned “I’ll do it.” No one questions him, there are no histrionics. He makes his choice, and that’s that. Daisyhellcakes — who has accompanied me on this island journey — was distracted from this moment by the sound of sobbing coming from the other side of our uncomfortable and cat-clawed sofa. I was in a figurative glass case of emotion, devastated by that choice. Though it’s not the first time I’ve cried at Lost – you should have seen me at the end of the fifth season — this was the first time I seemed to be crying at something that didn’t seem that emotional on the surface. Why the hell did I cry?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been experiencing a wave of sadness that it’s almost over, but it’s not just because my favourite show — in fact possibly my favourite ever story — is about to end. Part of it is the sense of occasion: as I said to ace tweeter @iambags on Friday, this final week feels like a royal wedding, though it’s not just localised to one country. All across the world people are dealing with this in their own way, either by doing what I’m doing with this post, or by getting really creative. This fan-made trailer has it right when it calls the finale “The Most Anticipated Episode In Television History”…

If that wasn’t enough to choke me up, this nearly finished me off: a superbly edited and written love letter from The Injustice League, featuring enough clips of iconic moments to reduce any Lost fan to emotional blubber.

To outsiders (or, as that song correctly identifies non-Lost fans, Others) this post is going to seem like an absurd perspective-free joke, but Lost has been a big deal for me since the first season, which I caught on DVD while going through some stressful events five years ago. It really helped me get through the tumult, and then did the same again, earlier this year, during which we undertook The Great Lost Rewatch. It has helped me out mentally, and probably spiritually as well. As an atheist I only have the word of believers that faith is a quantifiable and recognisable part of their mental landscape. I’m probably going to unintentionally insult many by saying this, but the only event in my life (other than the experience that the humans refer to as… love?) that has given me an insight into what it is to give yourself over to something even though it could well turn out to be a mistake is the commitment I’ve shown to watching, debating, and pondering Lost.

Yes, that’s a mighty bold claim to make about a TV show, even one that I have considered to be an emotional balm, and anyone reading this who doesn’t watch it — or really love it — will think I’ve taken leave of my senses, but for many fans, sticking with the show and defending it from the tedious criticisms of people who abandoned it early on or didn’t bother because “it just looks stupid” has demanded more than the usual level of fan commitment. From the amazing pilot onwards the show has rested on certain mysteries that prop up the entire narrative structure, and in fact the show itself has not just been about faith and belief in a mysterious purpose, but is also about maintaining an air of ambiguity and mystery that demands the audience has faith and belief in the mysterious purpose of the showrunners. Just as the flashback-laden plot structure was echoed by time-travel events in later seasons, the events in the show and the fan’s relationship with the show has grown to echo each other. Our brains (Jack) say it’s just a TV show and is destined to fall apart at the last hurdle: our heart (Locke) tells us there will be a satisfying ending that will justify the wait.

For the record, I’m not comparing God to a bunch of writers who used to work on Deadwood, Buffy, and Nash Bridges, and I’m not saying my experience with Lost is comparable with someone’s experience of God (whatever that might feel like), but I am saying my enjoyment of the show relies upon my belief that it will all have been worth it, and for the most part the show has felt coherent enough and complex enough that I have been able to hold forth about it against unbelievers with great confidence and even greater obnoxiousness. Nevertheless, the sixth season has seen the largest backlash against Lost since the beginning of the third season, where the wheels seemed to be idly spinning a bit too often. This year, as every episode passes without explaining what the Hurleybird was, or why the Dharma Initiative were playing around with Skinner boxes, my fellow Lostians have become angrier and angrier.

Two of my favourite TV critics –AV Club writer Noel Murray and AVC/HitFix/LA Times blogger Todd Van Der Werff — have been objective but also thrilled by the narrative boldness on display, but other critics have not been so kind.  Heather Havrilevsky made me laugh (and froth at the mouth) earlier this week when she criticised the show for letting her down: amusing considering I have never — never in the last four years at least — read a review from her that didn’t complain about the show not being fun enough. Why anyone would rather the show had been little more than an adventure romp in the jungle ending each week with a freeze-frame of the characters laughing in their cave hidey-hole instead of featuring scenes with the consciousness of a beloved character being blasted into another universe by an electromagnetic shed is beyond me.

I gather Maureen Ryan has been vocally angry about it, especially the very contentious episode Across The Sea, but I can’t even look for her recaps for fear of bursting a blood vessel (here is a post in praise of Across The Sea from Overthinking It: essential reading). I’m still pissed at her for calling out Cuse and Lindelof in an interview for daring… DARING… to include a time-travel season in THEIR show. That, and blindly defending the chaotic end of Battlestar Galactica, and spoiling the end of Mad Men in a tweet several months ago, which resulted in my angriest unfollow yet (that showed her!). Earlier this week Alan Sepinwall posted an interview with Cuse and Lindelof that made the showrunners seem like testy assholes. It’s true, they do seem to lose their tempers, but seeing as Sepinwall pretty much asks the same question (“Why is the story going in the way that it is going and why are you not doing what is expected?” or thereabouts) in 15 different ways, I’d lose my temper too.

But then I’ve found myself getting increasingly annoyed by all of this to a degree that is scaring me. I won’t lie: this season has been a rollercoaster for me too, testing my faith far too often. Seeing other people allow their disgruntlement to completely turn them against the show has been exactly the kind of thing that makes me question my own feelings. Am I fooling myself? Some critics and hardcore fans I once allied myself with have jumped ship, and I’m left behind with no life-jacket. After the amazing season opener, there have been numerous moments where doubt has crept in. The temple scenes were mostly a bust (seeing John “Sol Star” Hawkes wasted as the pointless translator Lennon really pissed me off), some of the character deaths were fudged, and some of the answers have had their effect blunted by being hinted at before they are fully answered: deadly when a fanbase will pick over every line to the degree that it does, meaning the eventual reveal comes too late.

The negativity surrounding the final season has taken a toll on me (cue violins). I couldn’t help but feel deflated when What They Died For finished, even though I had been moved on an emotional level. With only a couple of hours to go there was still too much to be explained, and no time to do it. That said, this wave of panic feels more like an intensification of the perfectly natural faith-testing doubt I already had. What galls me is that I had already tried to avoid this, and it was all for naught. I began pre-emptively ejecting questions I wanted answered even before the season started, hoping to prevent any disappointment. First to go was, “What is the source of the electromagnetic energy?” I’m happy to accept that the island is a special place with a special thing on it that makes weird shit happen. Unless Cuse and Lindelof invent a new element — Mysterianium — there is no way a concrete answer would work. It’s magical stuff, either God’s Blood or supermagnetic 4D anti-matter. In my head, that’s fine.

Nevertheless, other questions (What are the rules that Ben was talking about in The Shape of Things to Come after Alex was killed? What is the nature of the corruption that allows The Man in Black to control people? How did MiB visit Jack in LA as his father?) are being scratched off my list as well, and soon I’m going to be left with nothing. That would be fine, but this week I’ve felt like the guy who throws every bit of luggage, seating, and extraneous material from a plane running out of fuel, but we’re still going to crash into the mountain no matter what.

It’s not like Cuse and Lindelof are unaware of these concerns: apparently the DVD/Blu-Ray of season six will have a feature where they explain things that have been left out. Their common defence whenever a critic has asked why we didn’t get to see Alvar Hanso and Gerald De Groot in front of a whiteboard covered with equations that explain everything have often said that it’s the characters that matter the most, and I’ve held onto the belief that they get that right even while my concern has grown, and for the most part this season has proven me right. The sideways world has featured many satisfying moments, such as Jack letting go of his anger at his father by bonding with his own son, or Sun and Jin becoming a happy couple without Jin’s corrupted values and paranoia getting in the way.

I have no doubt that the character’s arcs will all work out: my concern with the answers to the mysteries is that I will end up trying to answer them after the final episode has aired in much the same way I railed against BSG fans when their finale left dozens of loose ends: by explaining away inconsistencies at such length that it stops being fanwank and ends up becoming fanfic. I’ve already been taking solace in the fact that a lot of questions have already been answered but people kept bringing them up because they thought the answers were so unsatisfactory that there had to be something more there (e.g. Ben’s comments about the “Magic Box” and his subsequent abrupt about-face: guess he really had been pulling Locke’s leg after all). There is a very good chance I will be waving away concerns in the next few weeks in a way I found insufferable in BSG fans. I’m dreading it. I’ve bought some crow pie just in case Lost ends up fluffing it as badly as that show, but I don’t want to eat it. Crow tastes all nasty, like.

Debate about the meaning of the show is one thing, and will follow on naturally from the discussions that have formed so much of the Lost experience over the last six years. Once it’s all over, and the final DVD has come out, we’ll all be in a better position to assess what worked and what didn’t. Nevertheless, I worry that we will be trying to connect dots that aren’t meant to go together. During the Great Lost Rewatch we were pleased to see some mysteries made more sense once we applied knowledge from later seasons, with my favourite being Locke explaining the rules of Mouse Trap in season one, foreshadowing the events in the shadow of the statue at the end of season five. This gives me hope that in the minds of the writers there is a concrete answer to almost everything, but how will we know what is on the right track and what is an error of comprehension, and how much of our own explanations will be an entirely new story that we invent ourselves that misses the point of the show?

And yet despite all of these concerns, there are some things that give me hope, and make me believe we were right to commit to the show all along. Many of the complaints have been aimed at two of the most daring episodes: Ab Aeterno and Across The Sea. Ab Aeterno ruffled some feathers by showing us a Richard Alpert that had no answers of his own, in contradiction to what people had expected (i.e. he knew everything, and his flashback episode would reveal tons of new information), but most people responded to its incredible sweeping romantic moments and thought it was probably the highlight of the season so far (an opinion I share). However, I wonder if the free passes handed to it were only because the Jacob/Man in Black episode was coming up, which would surely answer everything, right?

Wrong. The sight of two confused and very human characters stumbling through the earliest years of the story and not giving anything up other than some vague information about the Mysterianium was the final straw for many, who hilariously and melodramatically vowed not to watch the last three episodes in protest. I’ll be honest: the thought of these two characters — who many assumed were God and Satan, or thereabouts — as just a couple of confused boys who fell out over a difference of opinion is so pleasing to me I want to hug the show all over again. For a long time I have been comparing the show to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, a magnificent book which features huge events over a large period of time, but all in the service of making a tiny, seemingly insignificant thing happen (no spoilers, as everyone should read it). When Lost seemed to be introducing two demi-gods, that little absurdist element from Vonnegut’s book vanished, and I was sorry to see it go.

Happily, even though the stakes on the show have been revealed to be world-destroyingly vast, at the heart of it is still this mad idea that everyone who has been on the island has just been a normal, flawed person who has gotten in over their heads. To those who complain that the Dharma Initiative ended up meaning nothing (a viewpoint that I find absolutely baffling: the show could not have progressed without these hippie mad men in the background), I say this: they were just guys with too much money on their hands who came into contact with a magical island and made the same silly mistakes as Jacob and The Man in Black and back beyond them, probably to the dawn of thought itself. It was another iteration of this point: we’re insignificant, and vastly important, both at the same time.

Our troubles and misunderstandings shape us as much as these events of enormous scope, and though we are fools, we are also potential saviours. This aspect of the last few episodes is one of the things I have loved most about the show so far, and What They Died For continued that by having possibly the most momentous scene in the entire series be a chat during which all of the expected fireworks and melodrama were reduced to the tiniest of character moments, and what had been treated by fans as something as immutable as the carvings on the Ten Commandments tablets was “just a line of chalk in a cave.” This beautifully refined balance between the epic and the mundane is surely enough to give the show a break for almost any crime. Other than killing off Frank Lapidus. I think that’s going to annoy me no matter what happens. (We miss you Frank, you beautiful bastard!)

So it’s not all agonising for this doubting Thomas. As this week of worry has progressed, I’ve found myself taking consolation in my previous state of mind, that the story has been told so well so far, and has given me so much pleasure, that it is only fair that I forget about judging the finale as a success or a failure, and just accept whatever Cuse and Lindelof throw at me. As O.C. showrunner Josh Schwartz says in this Vulture post, when asked what advice he would give the Lost showrunners about their finale:

There is no advice that I can give to those guys. What they’re doing is on its own level. Anything goes, and I’m along for the ride. I will watch any way that they want to end the season at this point. No rules apply to this show.

He’s right: after all of this joy, how can I turn on them? I want to love the finale, so I’ll bloody well love it and that’s that. I wanted to love the end of BSG but to be honest I’d given up on it and become increasingly more annoyed by it about four episodes before the end of the second season, and only the New Caprica episodes gripped after that. Lost has never let me down, and my dip in enthusiasm this week was more to do with my worries about the imminent finale. The episode itself was great, with my favourite character Ben Linus getting to be the coldest badass he has ever been, and the scene with Jack that hit me with such force. This is a show that I don’t actually know how to hate. I just don’t know how that is possible.

So I can rationalise away my fears, and crystallise what I have loved about it, but what about the grief? And believe me, there will be grieving once the screen goes black (or white, as in the fifth season). Perhaps I can take solace in the knowledge that the show will almost certainly live on after it is over, as the debates rage. When this is all over, there will be happy fans and grouchy former fans who think the show failed, but I’d hope that everyone who has taken this journey feels it was worthwhile, if only for the mental workout it has given us. I feel bad for anyone who decides to give the show a try after the final episode airs, because they will have missed out on the slow build and the conversation between viewers and creators alike. I’d almost argue that we have all become “creators” as we watch and theorise, interacting with the show to an extent that it no longer qualifies as passive entertainment.

When I tell people one of my hobbies is watching TV I feel this swell of shame for admitting to enjoying something that doesn’t involve kayaking, but loving Lost leads to debating, interacting, studying. How telling that the final Lost ARG is Lost University: the community of like-minded people who have expanded their knowledge of the world just because of this TV show has made me feel as connected with humanity as I once felt while trapped on a small campus in the middle of the country, many years ago. We were in it together then, and bonded en masse. This feels much the same, but without the excessive drinking. It’s been humbling to see how many Lost fans are out there having the same emotional response as me; hundreds of thousands of fans on message boards, showrunners and writers and chat show hosts. Those of us who have metaphorically been touched by Jacob are in this together, and knowing I won’t be alone in feeling like crap tomorrow. Somehow the thought of a choked-up and bereft Jimmy Kimmel makes me feel better. Sorry, Mr. Kimmel.

So why did Jack’s decision make me cry? On some level I was crying because it’s almost over, but also because, maybe subconsciously, my faith was strengthened by the show’s confidence in bringing us to that point in such an emotionally satisfying way. In the face of a potentially calamitous final episode, there was a moment of quiet, perfect grace in the middle of all of this tempestuous attention, all of these end-of-season articles, complaints from former fans, and relentless promotion from ABC. Cuse and Lindelof told us the show was about character, and we all say yes, yes, what about the mysteries? But when Jack stood up to meet his destiny, the argument-for-character-drama won out. As much as I want questions answered, I know now that Lost doesn’t necessarily need two hours of exposition about every single mystery still hanging. It will win out if the Man in Black is defeated, Sawyer meets Juliet in the sideways world, Jack is redeemed in both worlds, and my boy Frank Lapidus somehow thrives. I don’t know that these things will happen, but I do know more tears will be shed, and for the first time this week I’ve been able to expect that they will be tears of joy. I’ll see you on the other side, brothers.

Listmania ‘09! The Worst Movies Of The Year

It’s arguable that I shouldn’t pick over the very worst movies of the year, that I should concentrate on the good and embrace positivity, but hell, I sat through these clunkers out of curiosity and got a whole heap of pain in return, so I’m going to make something of that experience. If that means writing a lot of words about how dreadful and misguided these films are, then so be it. Sadly, I know for a fact that this list contains movies that are loved by family members, friends, and Twitter acquaintances. Conversations about these films have previously been conducted with care, as I attempted to not give away my feelings about said films for fear of causing offence. As a result, pre-emptive apologies are due to all those who love movies on this list. If you derived pleasure from these films, that’s awesome. I’m genuinely glad that you had a great time with them. I’m just recounting my subjective experience of these films, and if they differ from yours, it is not a personal thing. Though it should go without saying, I feel it necessary to state that I consider it bad form to judge a person because of their opinion. I’ll like you or love you no matter what, and my disagreement doesn’t reflect a judgement upon you. Unless you like the number one movie on this list. If you do, there’s no helping you.

And so, with that defensive caveat in place, on with the hatred:

Worst Movies of the Year:

25. Angels and Demons

Ron Howard’s second attempt at breathing life into Dan Brown’s clunky prose was far more successful than The Da Vinci Code, and even managed to hold our attention for its duration. Only after the credits roll do you realise how extravagantly silly the movie was, and how little had actually happened. A harmless and entertaining failure, maybe, but a failure nonetheless.

24. Surrogates

Adapted from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, Jonathan Mostow’s satire on the lure of social media and fears of modern disconnection was ill-served by two things: being directed by Jonathan Mostow, and being a satire on the lure of social media and fears of modern disconnection. Luddite witterings about the awful effects of reliance on new communication technologies are irksome already before being further mangled by Mostow, whose dead eye for action renders the movie as lifeless as its robotic characters. Any good ideas from the original comic are sadly buried under a layer of drabness.

23. The Hangover

A nervous nerd, a socially inept madman, and a gigantic, charmless wanker act like pricks in Las Vegas for two hours, and we pay millions of dollars to see it. Irreverent behaviour like this is always going to be appealing, but Todd Phillips has never been able to bring these moments to any kind of life in any of his previous comedies, and he fails again here. Jokes fall flat, comedic situations are resolved in witless fashion, and convicted rapist Mike Tyson is brought on as an ostensibly daring addition to an overstuffed cast, and succeeds in doing nothing but making the whole enterprise unpalatable without being funny. The main trio — all talented guys — are utterly wasted here.

22. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it was far more entertaining than Stephen Sommers’ leaden-footed series of explosions and bellowed exposition. Poorly staged action, predictable character arcs, boring tech designs, and most regrettably no spark of Bay-style madness. It also gives Channing Tatum more unwarranted screentime and squanders the talents of Rachel Nichols, Christopher Ecclestone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The worst toy-based movie of the year, by a nose. GO JOES! GO FAR AWAY!

21. Orphan

George Ratliff’s fascinating Bad Seed thriller Joshua was only given a small release a couple of years ago, but is good enough to warrant chasing it down. Ostensibly similar, but far inferior, Jaume Collet-Serra’s hysterical and misjudged horror movie brings an Eastern-European Other into an affluent family with A Dark Past and runs through a litany of thriller cliches with excessive energy. Crashing unsubtlety is only the beginning of Orphan‘s problems. Narrative implausibilities pile up the further in we progress, leading to a hysterical finale with a truly demented and silly twist. Kudos to Dark Castle for getting Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard onboard to lend a veneer of respectability, but boo to them too for making those actors look so horribly lost.

20. Paul Blart: Mall Cop

In 2008 Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions did the world a great favour and produced the delightful House Bunny, starring the ever-magnificent Anna Faris. The world didn’t really seem to be bothered by this excellent gift, and it made minor money at the box office. In 2009 Happy Madison bankrolled Kevin James’ simplistic mall cop movie, despite the fact that the script contained no jokes even though it was obviously meant to be playing with the Die Hard template. Fertile ground, you’d think. However, when this short Ben Stiller sketch contains more funny lines than your entire movie, you know you’re in trouble. And yet it grossed way way more than House Bunny. ::sadface::

19. The Box

Richard Kelly attempts to redeem himself for the failure of Southland Tales by making a straight adaptation of Richard Matheson’s excellent short story, exploring the moral quandary therein with thoughtfulness and maturity. Only kidding! He garbles the whole thing with a needlessly complicated and confusing plot about aliens and morality tests and dimensional portals and the afterlife and chickens and sentient masonry and water and water and water and water and oh God, someone please stop him. (Warning: it does not feature chickens and sentient masonry. Please don’t watch it because that makes it sound more interesting.)

18. Knowing

How depressing to see a technically ambitious and interesting SF director like Alex Proyas trot out something so illogical and exploitative. With Nicolas Cage asleep and Rose Byrne in shriek-mode, there is little here for an audience to empathise with, and if this tale of extinction and salvation works at all, it’s because of a couple of grandiose setpieces, especially a poignant moment at the end set to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Other than that, it’s a muddle of poorly explained philosophy and New Age and Christian symbolism, and ends up as nothing more than a religious wet-dream, with the odious and smug conversion of our atheist protagonist at the last-second. Remember, the caves won’t save the Chuldren! Only blindly trusting the Sky-People will!

17. Away We Go

What could have been a vaguely interesting article in The New Yorker about Dave Eggers’ experiences during his girlfriend’s pregnancy was instead turned into a bloated and pointless road movie, an exercise in narcissism filled with unpleasant stereotypes broadly played by an array of actors far too talented to be left adrift here. At its best it could have been vaguely diverting, but then Sam Mendes horribly misjudges the tone of the film. His flat visuals and clunky control of pace consign this movie to oblivion.

16. The Taking of Pelham 123

It’s bad enough that anyone thought it necessary to remake this story, one already told twice before and one of those times in remarkable fashion, without it being tackled with such cack-handed aggression. Tony Scott’s sledgehammer style removes almost all of the character from John Godey’s original story, and then Brian Helgeland rubs salt into the wound by adding needlessly coarse dialogue. It’s also hobbled by a depressingly low-energy performance from the usually dependable Denzel Washington, and an even more depressingly high-energy performance from a never-worse John Travolta. It gets more wrong than it gets right.

15. I Love You, Beth Cooper

Larry Doyle’s screenplay probably had some interesting things to say about teenage life, expectations, and sexuality, not to mention referencing pretty much every great (and not so great) teen comedy of the past couple of decades, but you would never know that under the usual empty gloss of Chris Columbus’ direction. All subtlety or purpose is crushed by Columbus’ predictably awful take on the subject matter, with his tone-deaf approach being too crass to make the sweet moments connect, or too prudish to make the bawdy stuff go far enough to become memorable. It’s also utterly unfunny. Not a single joke lands. How is this man still making movies?

14. The Blind Side

Michael Lewis is a smart man and I reckon his book — upon which John Lee Hancock’s feel-good drama is based — is far more interesting than this. It will also have the benefit of not being a trite and patronising two-hour-long pat-on-the-back for affluent white Christian folk who took in lost youngster Michael Oher even though he is depicted here as an African-American Lenny sans rabbit. Wrong-headed in the extreme, this film contains less wit and insight into human behaviour than any randomly selected three-minute-long scene from any episode of Friday Night Lights. FNL also has the benefit of not featuring the dreadful Tim McGraw or Jae Head as the most annoyingly precocious child actor in film history.

13. Dragonball Evolution

Pretty much nothing in this horrible, joyless commercial product works, but it is especially irksome to see something that mangles another cultural work being made by James Wong. His X-Files work had always been so entertaining, the first Final Destination was an endearingly bleak project, and The One was an interesting project that could have worked with a few rewrites and a bigger budget. Since then he has floundered, and this awful sub-Matrix Kung-Fu pastiche is a true lowpoint. It made Chow Yun Fat almost unwatchably smug too. Horrible from overcomplicated beginning to incomprehensible end.

12. Twilight: New Moon

Even the world’s most powerful supercomputer, when given the requisite raw data and a million years to generate alternate scenarios with it, could not create a movie as tedious as this. A stagnant narrative mess filled with singularly unappealing, navel-gazing brats, this pop culture phenomenon continues to fascinate millions while doing little more than running on the spot. It takes an especially bad franchise to alienate a nerd such as myself, but Twilight: New Moon managed it by celebrating dysfunctional romantic relationships while being even less entertaining than the dreary original. The only bright spot was a demented performance by Michael Sheen. Other than that berserk cameo, there is nothing to recommend the most sloppily constructed movie of the year.

11. The Proposal

Romantic comedies are going through a really bad patch. The genre was represented by more cynical and shoddily made exercises than ever before. With only The Invention of Lying and (500) Days of Summer attempting to do anything new with the genre, this year’s commercial enterprises at least tried to do one thing that the genre does really well: explore the gulf in behavioural expectations between men and women in an age where we are more aware than ever of our differences and similarities. This is not to say this was done well, though. The Proposal was essentially a by-the-numbers trainwreck of comedy misunderstandings, last-minute changes of heart, and hilarious grandmothers, this time played by an unwatchable Betty White crushing jokes underfoot with obnoxious relish. Yet another terrible Sandra Bullock movie in ’09.

10. Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire

As with The Blind Side, life for poor African-Americans is here depicted as a kind of hell that even Heironymous Bosch would shrink from painting. Lee Daniels’ tawdry and exploitative adaptation of poet Sapphire’s novel of urban deprivation and depravity is a relentlessly nightmarish vision. If it were a kind of satire on the Boy-Called-It phenomenon of tell-all child abuse memoirs Precious might hold some tasteless appeal, but instead it is an insult to those who suffer real abuse every day. This racially insensitive melodrama’s only worth — other than in giving a showcase to a strong cast who work hard to make Daniels’ scattershot direction seem better than it really is —  is in celebrating those who strive to maintain support systems in America’s most deprived areas. Those hardworking Samaritans deserve a better tribute than this, though.

9. The Ugly Truth

The Proposal was marginally successful by dint of having Ryan Reynolds in the cast. The Ugly Truth, however, is a disaster on every level. Its odious reinforcement of cultural stereotypes about gender behaviour would be bad enough without featuring a mugging Gerard Butler defining “comedy timing” as “jutting out your chin at certain points in a sentence”. Nevertheless, compared to the joyless charm-void that is Katherine Heigl, he’s Spencer Tracy. While Butler tries to tell jokes, Heigl says every line with the same intonation and emphasis, making it impossible to tell where she is meant to be funny. Maybe she’s not meant to be. Bad-movie legend Robert Luketic has no idea how to modulate tone (or light or frame shots), saving his energy for the big vibrating panties scene: a joke so laboured and cringe-inducing that it should have killed this reductive mess on the spot.

8. Love Happens

Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel Up In The Air struck me as an insincere and mechanical exercise in sentimentality. I was deeply disappointed by it. Then I saw Love Happens and for a few minutes I felt like writing a letter to Reitman thanking him for every choice he made that stopped him from making something as wholly empty as this. Though Jennifer Aniston looks right at home in such uninspiring fare, Aaron Eckhart is wasted as a man dealing with that romance genre staple: the loss of his wife. Judy Greer, John Carroll Lynch, and Martin Sheen look like they’re praying for someone to rescue them from this openly manipulative farrago. Tricky to get stories about traumatic grief right. This didn’t even try. It makes Nights in Rodanthe look like Gone With The Wind.

7. Obsessed

Somehow a guy who directed episodes of The Wire and Deadwood thought it would be nice to launch his film career by directing a Hallmark Channel movie about evil temps written by the guy who wrote Star Trek V. The nicest thing that can be said about it is that it seems to have been made with a post-racial America in mind. The sympathetic protagonists are African-American and the evil antagonist is Caucasian: a fact that generates no discussion about race or the exploitation of black people in contemporary America. Sadly, I doubt that the filmmakers thought we had progressed beyond the point where this wasn’t worth commenting on: they just didn’t really know what to say, and so ignored the narrative minefield. That left us with a neutered Fatal Attraction clone with flat performances, ugly lighting, and ten minutes of an otherwise unused Beyonce beating up Ali Larter in the signposted finale.

6. My Sister’s Keeper

All I’ve experienced of Jodi Picoult’s work is her terrible run on Wonder Woman, where she revealed absolute ignorance of everything that made the character exciting. This syrupy and insincere adaptation of her novel doesn’t make the idea of reading her books any more appealing. A terrific cast — plus Cameron Diaz in full-on squawk mode — battle with a mountain of disease-of-the-week cliches, all served up in an unconventionally fractured narrative that could be considered avant-garde. I suspect it’s actually just that Nick Cassavetes didn’t really know what he was doing. Yet another shitty movie cynically treating emotional turmoil as grist to the mawkish mill. It gets added evilness points for misrepresenting scientific endeavour as morally compromised by inventing a fantasy scenario designed to scare incurious people into distrusting doctors.

5. The Boat That Rocked

Richard Curtis seems to think that English history is a Lego set that he can use to construct any old fantasy about our cultural past that he likes and no one will mind. When garbling historical events for obvious comedic effect in Blackadder, the result was a superb sitcom. Here it is just another exercise in using the devalued Cool Brittannia brand to hide the fact that England is painfully uncool, and making respectable actors put on drainpipe trousers and do the Twist on the deck of a boat for no reason is like watching the Queen trying to crunk. Curtis also seems to have forgotten how to tell a story: the meandering digressions featured here do not count as narrative. Pointless, needlessly hectic, overlong, unamusing and shoddily filmed, The Boat That Rocked almost represented the nadir of Britain’s film output in 2009. Almost.

4. All About Steve

The Year of Bullock was not a 100% financial success, but it was a total washout. This baffling movie represented the lowpoint of her Trilogy of Awful, and stands as a true curio. Why was this film made? The judgement of everyone involved must be called into question, because it honestly feels like no one knew what was going on at any point during its development and production. Was it an attempt at Farrelly-Brothers-style gross-out comedy? A celebration of the outsider? A denunciation of the outsider? A pro-life pastiche? A remake of Twister? All that is certain is that Bullock is insufferable here, stalking an embarrassed-looking Bradley Cooper across America while his colleagues enable her for no easily-identifiable reason. No one behaves like a human being until the sentimental finale where the grinding tone change paints protagonist Mary Horowitz as an admirable hero and everyone who has previously resented her falls into line to praise her. It’s utterly incomprehensible and nigh-unwatchable.

3. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li

Steven E. DeSouza’s original Street Fighter movie is treated like cinematic dog-doo by game fans and non-fans alike, but hopefully it will be revisited in the wake of this franchise revamp and seen as the light and entertaining diversion it actually is. Because this new Street Fighter movie sure isn’t light, and it sure isn’t entertaining. While the game features exaggerated movements, fantasy elements and imaginatively rendered characters, writer Justin Marks and director Andrzej Bartkowiak make the mistake of treating the game to a Batman Begins / Casino Royale-style revamp that strips every appealing element from the source material and leaving a tedious revenge plot against an unscrupulous entrepreneur in its place. Easily the most boring action movie of the year, it also features one of the worst performances, from oily Chris Klein. To be honest, he’s almost bad enough to earn a recommendation. His oleaginous demeanour and hilarious tough-guy mannerisms are the most entertaining things to be found here.

2. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Arguably the worst, most misguided and compromised big budget summer action movie ever made. To fanboys it represents yet another slap in the face from Tom Rothman, yet again mangling the things about a franchise that make that franchise appealing in the first place, as well as cutting budgets, altering the shooting script, and overriding director Gavin Hood. However, it’s not just nerd-preciousness that powers this rage against the money-making machine. Nothing in this cynical enterprise works, from the set design to the dialogue to the hideous effects to the casting (not counting Ryan Reynolds or Taylor Kitsch). The broad-strokes narrative desperately tries to match up Marvel’s Origin story with the beginning of the X-Men trilogy, but manages to taint all of the movies with its half-arsed stink. I can’t remember ever feeling so cheated by a superhero movie, or so horrified at how brazenly my love of these characters was being manipulated by a man who does not care a jot about their history.

1. Lesbian Vampire Killers

Someone shoe-horned everything that is wrong and miserable about British culture into one movie for the convenience of those of us who cringe at the thought of lad-mags, shoddy horror comedies that are neither funny nor scary, piss-poor “gentle” sitcoms (i.e. they contain no jokes), and traditional British directorial ineptitude. Horne and Corden — who are to Morecambe and Wise as dysentery is to tasty dessert toppings — mug their way through a joke-free and plagiaristic “romp” in which very nearly all women are sexually voracious and scantily-clad gay hotties who appear to be filled with what could be semen, considering how they explode in a shower of white goop when they are “amusingly” killed by the horny protagonists. It doesn’t even have the courtesy to be outrageously tasteless like the horror comedies it emulates so ineptly. It’s just tacky, stupid, gormless, tedious, misogynistic, and puerile. It also single-handedly negates all of the good will generated by British movies made by BBC Films and Film4, dragging the British Film Industry back in time to a period when Carry On films represented our most visible contribution to the world of cinema. If it could be deported, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Worst film of the year? Fuck that. Worst film of the decade, more like.

More to come, hopefully, including Best Actor and Actress, Worst Actor and Actress, and “awards” for directors, writers, and a cinematographer that I dissed last year.

Stringer Bell and Sasha Fierce in: Futile Attraction

In the 80s and 90s Michael Douglas was the go-to guy to play men harassed, used, abused and manipulated by women, as seen in the White-Men-Under-Attack trilogy of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure. After his screen avatar’s bad luck was purged by David Fincher in The Game his screen appearances have become sporadic. The next generation demands a new macho hero who can be hunted by the kinds of obsessive, dangerous women that only exist in movies. In Obsessed, the man attempting — and failing — to fill Douglas’ shoes is Idris Elba, who plays executive Derek Charles with a relentless and tiring intensity the movie doesn’t warrant. Happily married to his former assistant Sharon (Beyoncé Knowles), Charles is stalked at work by a temp assistant, Lisa (Ali Larter). At first she merely seems infatuated with Elba, but after he rebuffs a couple of aggressive approaches she becomes crazed, interpreting his rebuffs as evidence of his love for her, prompting her to insinuate herself into his life a la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Jessica Walters in Play Misty For Me.

Those movies showed the male protagonist’s culpability, with the message being “Mess around, and you will suffer for it.” Here writer David Loughery and director Steve Shill seem to be saying “Guys, there are some crazy women out there, and they’ll fuck up your life for no reason.” This doesn’t even pass muster as a morality play. It’s just another movie stating that there is no such thing as the Other any more. No matter how well you live your life, people are going to hunt you down, drug you with Rohypnol, rub up against you while you are in a fugue state, and listlessly kidnap your child, though “relocate” seems to be a more accurate description for what she does, as the nefarious Lisa merely moves Derek and Sharon’s son from his crib to their car.

The worst that happens to Derek is that he is accused of having an affair. The evidence for this is entirely provided by Lisa, and yet despite the flimsy nature of it (for example, listing him as an emergency contact number, or writing about the imaginary affair in a diary), at least two women automatically believe he is in the wrong. In one of the stupider scenes of the year, a police detective (Christine Lahti) investigating a suicide attempt by Lisa interrogates Derek in the crowded waiting room of a hospital with Sharon sitting next to him. As the scene descends into incomprehensible histrionic chaos, we see Elba desperately trying to prove his innocence while both women irrationally dismiss his pleas. The movie seems to be saying that it just doesn’t pay to be honourable, because women will always distrust their man.

It’s tempting to think Obsessed is intentionally trying to trade in the most witless and offensive gender stereotypes possible, as some kind of poorly signposted satire on gender politics. The male characters (including Jerry O’Connell and Bruce McGill) are either flamboyant homosexuals mincing around the office or leering sexist pigs whose idea of small talk is to discuss how sexy women love to extort money from them with their feminine wiles. Still, at least gender politics are addressed, albeit ineptly. The potentially inflammatory racial implications of having the only black characters in the film threatened by a predatory and insane white woman are ignored altogether. Apparently, this was to avoid repeating the themes of Loughery’s previous movie Lakeview Terrace, which featured a racist black cop menacing a white family.

It quickly becomes clear the filmmakers are only interested in cranking out the least provocative thriller possible. With a blameless hero victimised by a villain who has no recognisable human qualities, even the dependable nightmare scenario of being framed and losing everything is diluted by the vast amount of contrivance needed to place our hero in jeopardy. We’re merely expected to wait — unmoved and unoffended by the mild PG-13 thrills — for the villain to get her comeuppance, which comes in a protracted and absurd finale, when Sharon returns home to find Lisa in bed. The poorly choreographed catfight that follows is violent but bloodless, and finally provides Knowles with something to do other than chide Elba. After mouthing some unconvincing threats and killing Larter, Knowles is comforted by her husband, and the last shot is of her, not the man who has been onscreen for most of the film. I’m not the only person confused by this shift in focus. Did Knowles — who co-produced the movie with her father Mathew — sign on just so she could film a long fight scene? Why would that appeal to her? Did she hate the third season of Heroes even more than I did? This mystery is the only aspect of the movie that invites further reflection.

Obsessed is as dreary and toothless a thriller as you’re ever going to see. Unimaginatively plotted by Loughery — the man who wrote Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — the viewer waits for anything shocking or interesting to happen and gets little more than some one-note shouting from Elba and some lazy misogyny. All that’s left for the viewers to occupy themselves is mockery of the risible dialogue (“I’ll take up that slack. That is one smoking hot piece of ass!”) and direction. TV director Shill has worked on almost every notable show of the past ten years, including The Wire and Deadwood. However, he started out with EastEnders, Emmerdale, and The Bill, and it is these uncinematic melodramas that provide the closest link to his work here. Overlit, poorly blocked, and littered with even more establishing shots than in Tommy Wiseau’s notorious bad movie classic The Room, Shill fails to transform Loughery’s script into even a passable movie. Apparently the working title for Obsessed was Oh No She Didn’t. It’s a pity they went with the straight-to-DVD-esque title it now has. If they’d retained the original title, at least the laughs elicited by this dismal failure might have seemed intentional.

The 2008-2009 Caruso Awards: The Best New Characters Of The Year

A quick explanation of what’s going on here. This is, as the title says, a list of what I feel are the best new characters introduced in the same time period as the first two lists, though I suspect number 9 is ineligible due to Leverage starting just outside the capture period. Well, tough, because I’ve written all that and I’m not changing it now. These are the characters that have entertained me the most, have served their show best, and have been created and manifested with the most care. The number one slot will come as no surprise to regular readers, and I must say I’m pleased to be publishing this post just a few hours before his triumphant (I hope) return to our TVs.

10. Nina – Reaper

ninareaperIt’s tempting to think of Reaper‘s resident hott demon as little more than a riff on Buffy‘s Anya, being a love interest who just happens to be a servant of a dark force, but while Anya was given a rich inner life — not to mention a tragic end: never forget! — Nina is perfectly designed to fit into the jollier — and simpler — milieu offered by CW’s comedy. For a show that has been so bad at creating compelling female characters (remember Josie?), it was especially pleasing to see Nina fit in so well, but then the second season was much looser than the first, allowing for much broader comic characters and sillier plots. Sadly for the fans, the show’s annoying cancellation by the misguided CW means we’ll never get to see how Nina’s relationship with Ben plays out. We’ll also miss out on Jenny Wade’s crackerjack comic timing. Someone snap her up, quick. The Dollhouse team could surely put her to some good use, especially with its new links to Reaper.

Best Moment: Spending an entire episode flirting with Sam’s douchey half-brother Morgan, just to lure him into a trap set by the Path of Steve. Then she eviscerates him. She’s, like, the perfect woman or something.

9. Eliot Spencer – Leverage

eliotspencerLeverage expends a lot of energy mimicking the air of casual smartassery Soderbergh mastered with the Ocean’s Numeral films, and then splicing it with the snarkiness of vintage A-Team. It’s not a knock, as Leverage does it well enough on a low budget, and entertains much more than most higher-profile network shows. Nevertheless, both Soderbergh’s con-movies and The A-Team are not known for their multi-dimensional characters, and ciphers will not work in a long-running series anymore. Plus, as with the increasingly tiresome Ocean’s films, without a heart at the center of it Leverage would pall quickly. Thankfully, the team’s bruiser — a long-haired, white B.A. Baracus played with dopey charm by Angel‘s Christian Kane — works as the show’s conscience as well as the guy who hits people in the head. Just as with the show’s hybrid nature, it’s a winning combination.

Best Moment: In the pilot, Spencer — who has, to this point, been portrayed as little more than a cool-as-a-cucumber hardass — begins to enquire into Nathan Ford’s past, and his obvious depression. His interest, and vow to look after his new boss, was the unexpected emotional hook that kept me watching.

8. Veronica Palmer – Better Off Ted

veronicaBOTBetter Off Ted pulls off a tonal miracle by lampooning sickening corporate thoughtlessness while still being a goofy, benign sitcom about office politics. Hiding its thorns under lovely petals of silliness (metaphoraclypse – sorry), the show gets away with some edgy material by playing up the wacky musical stings, and relying a lot on the charm of its lead, Jay Harrington. Nevertheless, the show wouldn’t work without its MVP, Portia de Rossi, who comes closer than the rest of the cast to playing a caricature. The hard-nosed, humourless, no-nonsense female boss is an overused archetype, but de Rossi plays Veronica Palmer to perfection, lacing her almost robotic personality with shades of doubt. Often as confused by the goings-on at the sinister/lovable corporate monolith Veridian Dynamics as everyone else, she maintains enough of an edge to keep her minions in check. What could have been a one-note cliche character is, in de Rossi capable hands, the number one reason for watching the show.

Best Moment: Nonchalantly squirting water into Phil’s mouth to stop him screaming following a cryogenic experiment gone wrong.

7. Patrick Jane – The Mentalist

patrickjaneShows featuring anti-social know-it-alls flourished this year, taking their cue from the continued success of House, but the trick is hard to pull off a second time. Lie To Me‘s Dr. Cal Lightman, played by a hyper-aggressive Tim Roth, almost made it onto this list for his late run of excellent moments in the final few episodes of the season, but that character needed to be tinkered with as the show progressed. Patrick Jane, however, arrived fully formed. Surrounded by affable dopes who seem to dislike him half the time and then secretly delight in his antics when he’s not looking, Jane — as played by the extremely charming and dapper Simon Baker — is the mirror image of Lightman. While Roth’s character is a seething mass of hostility with a soft centre, Jane is a showman and charmer who hides a dark core, tortured by the murder of his family and desperate to catch their killer, Red John. The rest of the show is formulaic, but Baker’s brilliant work as a man trying to distract himself from misery with mischief and silliness is enough to keep us watching.

Best Moment: The season finale sees Jane closer to catching his nemesis than ever before, and his genial mask slips throughout. Brazenly promising to kill Red John as soon as he catches him, his colleagues are forced to question the wisdom of keeping a vengeful maverick on their team.

6. Dr. Claire Saunders – Dollhouse

clairesaundersIt’s difficult to talk about Dr. Claire Saunders being a great character, as she is fictional even within the context of the fictional world she lives in. Formerly an Active, Whiskey is maimed by the insane SuperActive Alpha, rendering her useless as a puppet, and then made to take on the personality of a composite character, trapped within the building by fear, and judging the actions of her colleagues without realising she is one of their puppets too. The beautifully timed late season reveal of her origin made her even more tragic than she already was, and her final appearance in Epitaph One, haunting the Dollhouse like the ghost of someone who never existed, was heartbreaking. For those of us who have been adamant that Amy Acker is an immensely underrated actress, this first season was a powerful and undeniable vindication of our beliefs. Let’s hope Whedon finds a way to bring her back for the second season.

Best Moment: Every time she silently reacts to some amoral inanity from the loathsome Topher Frink with withering disdain, an angel gets its wings. (Edit: As pointed out in comments, it’s actually Topher Brink, not Frink. I guess my brain is slowly trying to erase itself so I never have to think about his annoying ass ever again.)

5. Constance Carmell – Party Down

constancecarmellJane Lynch is like Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, and Joyce Grenfell rolled into one unstoppable comic behemoth-lady. Everything is better with her in it, and Party Down was lucky enough to have her for eight episodes before she disappeared to make Glee. Sad for the fans of the brilliant adult sitcom, but she left us with many joyous memories. Constance is a washed-up actress who doesn’t even realise she is washed up, hanging onto past glories and oblivious to the fact that these fleeting brushes with fame are the highlights of her career (such as playing a hooker in Baretta). While the show leads — Ken Marino, Adam Scott, and Lizzy Caplan — get the big emotional beats, Lynch takes Constance’s sad circumstance and explores all comedic and tragic aspects of it, sometimes all at the same time, without needing big plot developments to showcase her complexity. With just the slightest of plot-threads at her disposal, she makes Constance breathe, all while blowing every other performer on the show away. Considering the incredible cast (both regular and guest), that’s some achievement. I’m sure Glee is very good, but for taking Lynch away from Party Down, I shall hate it forever.

Best Moment: Almost too many to count, but the clueless liberal outrage that erupts while catering the California College Conservatives Union Caucus is priceless. Teaming her up with Ryan Hansen is a masterstroke.

4. King Silas Benjamin – Kings

silasTo be perfectly honest, there are only two words needed to describe why King Silas Benjamin makes it into the top five of this list: Ian Mc-Fucking-Shane. His presence is enough to make Kings essential viewing for all fans of Deadwood who mourn the loss of Al Swearengen. He could have been playing a postal worker, with each episode showing him completing his route, and it would have been appointment television, but instead we’re lucky enough to see him as the monarch of the fictional country of Gilboa, a man tortured by the deals he has made to get where he is, and scared of the consequences of his actions. As his brother-in-law, Crossgen CEO William Cross, conspires against him and the attention of the nation turns to his potential successor, his faith in God and his love for his family are torn apart and rebuilt time and again. Watching Benjamin do terrible things to maintain his hold on power while being assailed by his enemies was one of the purest joys of the year. Sadly, that’s all she wrote. Yet another stupid decision from NBC.

Best Moment: During a power-cut orchestrated in a fit of spite by Cross, Benjamin is haunted by the Sabbath Queen, a manifestation of what seems to be the Devil, come to collect on a deal he made to keep his daughter alive many years before. The king’s sanity is tested to breaking point by the visions, and the intensity of the show jumped up about fifteen notches.

3. Mia – In Treatment

miaWhen compiling these lists — both this one and the subsequent Gupta list, it’s tempting to praise the nice characters and diss the out-and-out assholes. Nevertheless, the screenwriters of In Treatment managed to write a particularly frustrating character who does nothing but complain and belittle those who help her, lying to her loved ones and pushing them away, all the while oblivious to the negative consequences of her actions, and still manage to make her compelling, sympathetic and strangely lovable. At least, they did a lot of the work, but it’s Hope Davis’ masterful performance that really brings this contrary and annoying woman to life, making you care deeply for her even when she is doing and saying the most exasperating and needlessly confrontational things. Desperately unhappy with the way her life has turned out and eager to blame everyone for it except for the one person responsible for shaping her personality, Mia rails against therapist Paul for seven weeks, before finally reaching a point where she looks at herself from outside long enough to see that she can change, given time. There is no award prestigious enough for Davis. Her work as this character is utterly exemplary.

Best Moment: Her final epiphany during her final session is a breathtaking moment of catharsis and revelation, perfectly performed and deeply moving.

2. Dr. Raymond Langston – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

raymondlangstonAs with Ian Mc-Fucking-Shane,  bringing Laurence Fishburne into your show is guaranteed to make me watch it. When it’s a show I already love, I’m even happier. When the man I reflexively refer to as Morpheus is given a role as entertaining, as well-developed, and as rich with potential as Dr. Raymond Langston, I’m beside myself. Early reports about Gil Grissom’s replacement hinted he would be half scientist, half serial killer, and the suspicion that the long-serving CSIs such as Catherine Willows would not be promoted due to the introduction of someone new gave cause for concern, but Langston never turned into Mr. Hyde, and Catherine became head CSI, proving that the showrunners really give a damn about the internal logic of their show. Such thoughtful fan service is rare these days, and much appreciated. This meant Langston starts at the bottom and works his way up: an odd state of affairs when that character is played by someone of Fishburne’s fame and talent. Thankfully, this move paid off beautifully. Langston’s enthusiasm, naiveté, and kindheatedness are a breath of fresh air after the turmoil of the last few seasons, though the final episode, with Langston forced to kill a man in self-defence, shows he’s not out of the woods yet.

Best Moment: Langston’s first day on the job goes horribly wrong (botched fingerprint dusting, getting muck all over his suit, etc.), but eventually equilibrium is reached. He even wins over audience-surrogate Hodges. Sadly, the shrunken ratings for the best procedural in town did not reflect this meta plot point.

1. Dr. Walter Bishop – Fringe

There was no competition. Even with the character of Dr. Raymond Langston showing so much care and attention from the writers’ room, nothing could compare to the joy I feel whenever John Noble ambles onto screen, chattering excitedly about some food stuff or other. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Dr. Walter Bishop, and I don’t want to go over the same ground again, other than to stress how important John Noble’s (and Kurtzman and Orci’s, and Abrams’) work has been to me. Fringe is a bit of fluff that could well go far. The best episodes of the first season were genuinely exciting and well-constructed hours of TV that easily ranked among the best of the year. The potential is there for some really thrilling developments and some bold storytelling. It was also, on occasion, horribly boring and stupid, poorly written, formulaic, and crazy, though sadly not the right kind of crazy. At times I half watched it while doing other things, which is something I would never think to do with Lost. However, even in the show’s darkest moments, I never, even for a second, considered not watching any further. From the moment in the pilot episode when Walter pointed out he had pissed himself (“Just a squirt.”), I was hooked for good.

I can’t think of any other character on TV, past or present, who manages to be pathetic, inspiring, commanding, comedic, tragic and lovable all at the same time. He’s a narrative miracle, able to alter the mood of every scene he is in without ever betraying what the character is at his core because he encompasses every possibility. Part of that is strong writing (even the worst writer must relish putting words into Walter’s mouth, giving them a chance to shine), but most of it is the inspired casting of Noble, which opens up innumerable opportunities for pathos, drama or humour. The only other character on TV that makes me this happy is Ben Linus, who was also a happy accident of casting that gave writers so much to play with. Emerson and Noble are proof that casting interesting and daring actors is more than half of the job of making dramatic gold. Let us hope they inspire other showrunners to take a chance on the weird.

Best Moment: Oh God, where to begin? “I just got an erection. Oh, fear not, it’s nothing to do with your state of undress. I think I simply need to urinate.” “Unless you have an IQ higher than mine, I am not interested in what you think.” “To understand what happened at the diner, we use Mr. Papaya. This is upsetting because he is the friendliest of fruits.” “The only thing better than a cow is a human! Unless you need milk. Then you really need a cow.” Then there’s the random moments, such as shuffling around a room long enough to generate a static shock to his son’s head, or his various explosions of temper at the generally useless Olivia or Peter. Basically, pick even a weak episode, and wait for Walter to show up. Invariably, something fun will happen. When he’s not having some awful and distressing breakdown.

Next up, worst new characters of the year, and then miscellaneous stuff about best pilots and worst direction and all that jazz.

Car Shoot Car

My promised rant about The Mummy 3: How To Waste Jet Li has been postponed momentarily so I can make this horrible confession. Though I don’t want to say it, and feel like I’m betraying everyone I know and love, I watched Paul W. S. Anderson’s Death Race a few hours ago, and I didn’t think it was the worst film of the year. Whether this has anything to do with seeing the truly appalling 88 Minutes a couple of days earlier, I do not know. BTW, if you’re after a synopsis of Death Race, read the Wiki page I just linked to. There’s no way I’m going to go through it again, which means I’m exhibiting as much effort as Anderson did while writing it.


I usually cannot abide anything the guy does. Resident Evil remains one of my least favourite films of all time, Aliens Vs. Predator defecated all over two franchises that even hacks like Stephen Hopkins and Jean-Pierre Jeunet couldn’t soil beyond salvation, and I’ll never forgive the guy for wrecking David Webb Peoples’ script for Soldier. Knowing that he was going to swallow Paul Bartel’s entertaining Death Race 2000 and then regurgitate it out as a hairball of mediocrity angered me a lot, though perhaps not as much as the die-hard fans of the original.

Of course, PWSA has stripped the original tale of its subversive edge and satirical bite, turning in a homogenous tale of wronged convicts and duplicitous wardens, as if crossing Steve Jackson’s Car Wars and John McTiernan’s Rollerball remake with John Flynn’s Lock-Up, adding just a dash of Mario Kart to appeal to the gamers in the audience, while cynically introducing exploitation tropes like exploding people, gratuitous hotties, and Grizzled Old-Timer Ian McShane saying “Bullshit” a lot (but sadly, no “Cocksucker”). The cast aids and abets PWSA in his quest for mediocrity. The usually likable Jason Statham merely scowls and shows off his disconcertingly buff bod, Tyrese Gibson fails to act (as usual), and worst of all, Joan Allen appears as the warden of the prison within which the Death Race takes place. Having had her face filled to bursting with enough botox to kill a blue whale, she is incapable of emoting anything other than muted anger. It’s like she’s trapped behind a mask that looks like a puffy parody of her own face.


This, more than anything else on display, depressed me totally. Joan Allen is a terrific actress (if you don’t believe me check out her turn as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s biopic of the shamed President), but here she has been plastinated so badly that she looks like a cross between Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a cat with Moebius Syndrome. Just to rub the misery in, she also gets to deliver such lines as “Release the Dreadnought!” and, worst of all, “Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk”, which is obviously PWSA trying to please the audience by getting an Oscar-nominated actress to utter profanities in a “shocking” manner, but just ends up sounding desperate, not to mention incomprehensible.


This all might have worked if the whole enterprise wasn’t so joyless and measured, aiming for a Grindhouse aesthetic but blowing it by being too neat and tidy. People explode, cars fly through the air, necks get snapped, and men hoot and holler at the sexy ladies brought in for no other reason than that sexy women attract viewers (an actual bit of meta-exposition from the film, horribly enough), but it feels hollow and gratuitous. That’s saying something, considering Grindhouse movies are supposed to be hollow and gratuitous, but this is like the pod person version of those movies, all sheen and competence instead of enthusiasm and imagination.

And yet I still found myself enjoying it on a lizard-brain level, perhaps because I thought the design on the cars was so sweet. They don’t look particularly battle-hardened, even when peppered with bullet-holes, but they look butch and tooled-up. Who can resist the sight of a car covered with mini-guns, even though, illogically, they fire constantly throughout the movie and never seem to destroy anything?


PWSA has raised his game with the action scenes as well. Though repetitive and often unimaginative, they are at least edited and shot with more coherence than a lot of modern action films, and with more muscular effect than he has exhibited in his previous, lethargic films. They’re not perfect by a long shot, and confusion creeps in from time to time, but for the most part they are mindlessly fun to watch, with the added bonus of seeming to be filmed using real cars, pyrotechnics, and stuntmen (with sporadic CGI blowouts). Sadly, all of the good will generated by that commitment to real stuntwork was erased at the end of the film when Ian McShane addressed the camera. Totally unearned, and utterly embarrassing. You don’t mistreat Al Swearengen like that, Anderson, you tool.


So basically I’m saying the movie does not count as pure FAIL, which is a really insipid bit of praise, but considering how badly this most awful of directors usually screws up, it’s a notable improvement. However, compare it to Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, and the lack of quality becomes apparent. That was exactly the film this wished it was, and once more I urge any readers to watch it immediately. Either that or watch 88 Minutes. I’m serious! That shit is off the mu’fukken chain.

Oh, and for the ladies (and gay fellas) who have just Googled “Jason Statham hot muscles”, here is a screencap of him doing pull-ups, which he does in the middle of the film for no reason other than that his fanbase kinda expects this to happen at least once a film.


It’s a totally insane bod.

TOUCHDOWN!

We have to shout from the rooftops; Friday Night Lights is coming back for a third season of 13 episodes, all of which are guaranteed. Just as with Veronica Mars I have been holding two thoughts in my head in a kind of DoubleThink mode, loving it and yet not wanting to commit to it too much because shows this wonderful rarely last long. Mars, Firefly, Journeyman, Deadwood, Dollhouse (we all know it, let’s not kid ourselves that Fox will suddenly surprise us); we’ve been burned before. But finally, some good news!


Yes, 13 episodes is not the amount I would like (can 365 installments a year be managed somehow?), but I’d rather have an HBO-size season than nothing at all. More Smash! More Riggins! More Landry! Best of all, more wonderful Coach and Mrs. Coach sparring! Where’s my booze and pompoms? It’s go time!

Lost – Eggtown

I tell you, not having a computer at home has made this very difficult. My beloved screencaps, which I take so much pride over, have had to be taken from YouTube, so the quality is a bit poo, but then to be honest this was far from my favourite episode. I had great difficulty mustering much enthusiasm for it, not helped by guessing what the twist ending would be as soon as I saw Kate giving Aaron the stink eye when Claire suggested she hold the baby. That is what I hear is known as “foreshadowing”, which sounds like “flawshadowing”, a word that, according to the Shades of Caruso dictionary, means, “Pointing out that something is going to happen later in a story either with some shaky writing or a sledgehammer-subtle visual”. This is a genuine word. I didn’t just make it up.


It was an especially disappointing episode as it was co-written by the hugely talented Elizabeth Sarnoff, who has previously worked on Deadwood and some of Lost‘s best episodes, including The Man Behind The Curtain. However, she did also co-write Stranger in a Strange Land, possibly the worst episode of Lost ever, so let’s hope she only writes one of those a season and now Eggtown is out of the way we’re back to the usual superb standards.

Sarnoff worked with another writer this week, a chap called Greggory Nations, who previously worked on Nash Bridges and apparently wrote the Lost show bible, which must have been a frustrating and time-consuming experience. On the production side of things, we were treated to the return of Stephen Williams and Cort Fey, who last shot the incredible Confirmed Dead. That was a visual tour de force, but this week was comparatively restrained, either because of the nature of the script, or because the shooting schedule didn’t allow for more time to be expended on it.


This week was primarily about Kate bartering for information and freedom, either through trades or trickery. Hurley and Locke came off worst, with Miles and Ben doing fairly well with their own trade-off (Ben will give a tantalisingly exact amount of money to Miles so that he will keep his mouth shut, possibly by killing other characters, including C.S. Lewis). That theme was reflected in the title, which appparently referred to trading in the old West. That said, the definition was listed as fact on Lostpedia, and repeated around the blogosphere, but now it’s missing from the Lostpedia page altogether. This was what it said, as far as I can recall:

Egg-town is a pejorative term that refers to the days of bartering during the Great Depression. A traveling salesman would have to barter his candy or tobacco or shoelaces for different commodities. A poor exchange would be for eggs, a relatively common item that was also highly perishable. Nobody wanted to trade for eggs from a traveling salesman because they had their own, so the salesman who accepted an egg in exchange was forced to accept a bad deal. Salesmen would tell each other things like, “If I were you, I would stay away from Bogart. That’s an egg-town.” Of course, salesmen often didn’t trust each other, and it was likely that one salesman would lie to another about the quality of a town’s customers to keep them for himself. Invariably, the second salesman would venture into Bogart only to find it truly was an egg-town. He was either persuaded to not visit a town that had good customers or was tricked into visiting a town that could only offer eggs. The term “egg-town” represents a deal with undesirable outcomes in either case.

That they have taken it down makes it seem like it might not have been true, or was a joke. Detached from the possibly genuine meaning, calling a place an egg-town sounds fake, like saying, “You wouldn’t want to invest in that company. Those are pickle-juice stocks. They’ll just quack your portfolio into a zinc-box.” Of course, I could be wrong about this.

Whatever the meaning (many think it has to do with the eggs Locke brought Ben prior to killing the island’s last chicken — in which case, why wasn’t the episode called “The Last Chicken”?), it was a Kate-centric episode, and much as I don’t want to join in with the usual internet shrugging whenever the show concentrates on her, I often find it hard to give a damn about her and her woes. This has nothing to do with Evangeline Lilly, who I think is just fine in the part. However, she obviously has considerable charm and liveliness outside of her stinky Kate garb, as shown when she was interviewed by Letterman recently. Her tales of failing to travel to China due to oblivious disregard of international visa laws charmed his horrible white socks off, and us too. Why doesn’t she get a chance to shine like that in the show?

To be honest, there are only two times she interests me. Firstly as an action lady, kicking ass and taking names, as shown here in a murky screencap of her knocking the shit out of a padlock while Miles watches in bemusement behind her.


Secondly, as a member of the Kate-Jack-Juliet-Sawyer quadrangle of loaded looks and occasional lust. This aspect of the show has often annoyed fans, but I started to enjoy it in the third season, mostly because I love Sawyer and was happy to see him receive some attention from the islander of his dreams. I still get choked up during the scene when he nearly gets killed by Michael Bowen and she pleads for his life.


Another thing that damaged my potential affection for the character came early on, when we found out she was on the run from the law. It’s a horrible cliche in TV and film that if we’re going to side with a character who is a fugitive, they either have to be innocent, or guilty of one of the “lesser” crimes (car theft, or self-defence murder). A friend could never enjoy Con Air, as even though Cameron Poe killed a man defending his pregnant wife, it was still murder, and he couldn’t get past it. It doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much (and certainly didn’t affect my love for Con Air, which is a classic half-spoof/half-full-on actioner filled with flights of absurd genius), but it can be very obvious. In the first season, Kate was shown doing some incredibly stupid and reckless things, getting the love of her life killed and robbing a bank just to get a memento of him back, but her first crime was left unexplained. I suspected it would be something to do with killing someone who abused her, and it struck me as a reasonable way to have her be a fugitive but still be accepted.


However, it turned out to be a horrible cliche, and a total non-surprise, and smacked of a lack of imagination, as if her character hadn’t been fully thought through. Her flashbacks have been less revealing than anyone else’s, featuring only the odd cool moment (her “good dad” knew Sayid in Iraq!). This meant I was less than invested in her flash-forward, and if the big moment of the episode was the shocking reveal of her “adoption” of Aaron, then that got spoiled too, so we were totally onto a loser.


Even worse, the trial scenes were rushed through so fast that they were littered with illogicalities. Though I was glad to see Big Love‘s Shaun Doyle defending Kate, he seemed to get her off with some bizarre tactic that involved going on and on about being a hero. Never mind the fact that she was involved in at least two deaths and a bank robbery. Never mind that she spent years on the run. Never mind that the US Marshall escorting her died in the 815 crash (that really doesn’t sound at all dubious). She looked after a bunch of people on the island. And we only have Jack’s word for it! No testimony from Hurley or Sayid, though that might be because Hurley is in an institution and Sayid is hunting The Economist, and the sixth survivor (if Aaron counts as number five on that list) is hiding until the forthcoming reveal. Also, I didn’t like her hair during the trial. She looks better with it down. [/catty]


While watching it, we were incredulous that the prosecutor asked Jack if he loved Kate. Would that really be a question during a big murder trial? “Do you have noogy-oogy-boo-boo feelings for the defendent? Remember, you’re under oath!” It struck us as silly, but thinking about it now, knowing that apparently the prosecution only had one bit of proof up their sleeve (Kate’s mom’s testimony), and the defence only had one thing to exonerate Kate (Jack’s shifty testimony), I guess they really needed to crush him with some hardcore legal manoevering. Even so, it was a weirdly awkward moment in Lost history.


Good job Kate’s mom finally tried to revoke her Lost-Gupta status by changing her mind, although seemingly doing it so she could see Aaron was a bit of a screw-up. The character has long annoyed me. I might not like Kate’s backstory much, thinking it the least fleshed out of all the Lost characters still living (let’s not get into the Shannon/Boone stuff), but it did have that frisson of featuring some rare mother issues in a show so dominated by father issues. Sure, Kate had those too, but her mother was particularly nasty, so seeing her soften in this episode was a welcome change. Beth Broderick played the hell out of her short scene, showing a mixture of contrition, indignation and bemusement. Kate’s rejection of her was all the more affecting for it.


In the past few weeks I’ve tried to look at the visual choices made by the directors, but this week, as I mentioned before, was rather muted. That said, while going over the YouTube clips, I noticed a lot of third-person shots throughout Kate’s scenes. Sometimes it was subtle…


…and sometimes it took over the frame.


I guess it’s to do with Kate’s connection with those around her, especially the men in her life. For a lot of the episode she is trying to figure out if getting off the island is a good idea or not, and so is doing her own thing. She needs Sawyer’s help, but it’s her plan, and she gets what she wants, though perhaps she isn’t going to be too happy about what she finds out. Not to mention having to put up with Miles’s lame come-ons.


Nevertheless, while she’s seeking an answer to her questions, Jack in the future and Sawyer in the past try to (benevolently) impose themselves on her, and as such crowd her in the frame. She acts reluctant to let them in, but she is in the frame too, just to show her complicated feelings for the men.


In one scene, while she is alone in the frame, ostensibly visiting Sawyer to discuss the outcome of their plan to get Ben and Miles together, we can see her reflection in a mirror behind her, together on the bed with Sawyer. It’s as if we’re seeing what’s in the back of her mind (i.e., some sweet island sex with her hott bad boy).


Of course, by the end of the episode she pushed Sawyer away and leapt on his relief over her non-pregnancy so she had an excuse to leave (not to mention Locke banishing her from the Barracks in an echo of Juliet’s branding and shunning by the Others). Well, that’s one reading. The other is that she wanted to be with Sawyer, but on her own terms. Sadly, he didn’t see it that way. That certainly seems to be the case with Jack in the future, so obviously besotted with her but unable to do what she wants out of some unknown reticence over her adoption of Aaron. These hott men just won’t let her be herself, and she’s willing to be alone if necessary, and by the end of the show the only male sharing the frame with her is Aaron.


So, in retrospect, a frustrating episode, mostly treading water while setting up future episodes with Sun and Jin, showing Faraday suffering from a mysterious case of amnesia, and giving Ben something to do other than be tied up and sarcastic. I didn’t hate it (it’s an impossibility), but it didn’t fire my imagination the way Confirmed Dead or The Economist did. Oh well, I don’t expect every episode to be a masterpiece. It was still worthwhile, and Kate still had her good moments. For a start, she has finally removed the stinky clothes that have been dominating the screen every time she appears. Canyon was most pleased by that turnout. Also, she did get to be a badass (when the show started I often thought of her as Spock to Jack’s Kirk, but that didn’t work over time). I love that she is meant to be easily as tough (if not tougher) than the guys around her, and the most startling moment of the whole episode came as she reacted to Sawyer’s snide taunting with a vicious backhand that knocked him across the bed.


He made a few good points, even though he was being unnecessarily spiteful. To be honest, the show is definitely featuring much more violent behaviour from our heroes, and the internets are buzzing with talk that the castaways are now far worse than the Others ever were. If it’s not Hurley turning on his friends, Jack attempting to shoot Locke, everyone kicking Ben around as if he were a sneaky football, and Kate knocking Sawyer’s hair flying, it’s Locke turning into a pure psychopath by putting a grenade in Miles’s mouth, a WTF moment that is running the risk of being purely absurd.


Hopefully that grenade is fake; otherwise Locke is crossing a line. Of course, the news that Miles won’t be around in the last five episodes due to Ken Leung having other commitments makes me mad enough to look the other way on this. To quote Carlton Cuse:

We have one actor we very much need who is doing a play and another actor doing an HBO series. But we also have some opportunities. Nestor Carbonell, who played Richard Alpert last season, was on Cane. But now we’ll be able to use him. Another unforeseen advantage is that we’ll be able to respond to confusion the audience might have about the season so far.

Yay regarding Carbonell, but it sucks that Miles won’t be around. I totally understand Leung’s need to find work, though. This is mere frustration that this excellent character won’t be around. Rumour has it the other missing actor will be Sonya Walger, who will be off obsessing about babies on Tell Me You Are Available To Finish Filming Lost Please.

Anyway, I’m still freaked out by Locke’s utter craziness this week. I bet he killed the damn chicken out of fury. I’ll even bet he’d named the thing Ben, and tore its head off in frustration. To make things worse, Locke’s attitude to Miles’ predicament was obnoxiously blase. He pissed me off with his little ring flip.


Man, just because Ben is being particularly accurate with his little barbs of disdain doesn’t mean Locke can get away with being a jerk of this magnitude. That said, Ben sniffed at Locke bringing him a copy of PKD’s Valis, saying he had already read it. Dude! That’s a total masterpiece! It rewards further reading, and you should know that, you pouty douche. I’m conflicted!

Still, we get a break from the island violence and PKD-snubbing tonight, with the broadcast of The Constant. I saw a quick clip from it on YouTube while looking for these clips, and it looks like the most fascinating and headbending episode ever. Watch out for Minkowski’s first appearance. It will drive the internet wild with speculation and worry over Desmond’s fate, if it hasn’t already. Speaking of driving people wild, we very nearly had a wardrobe malfunction in Eggtown. Sawyer was being more open than usual while wooing Kate in his bedroom. If you know what I mean.


It’s at times like this that you really miss being able to get HD screencaps. I can imagine I just disappointed a lot of Sawyer fans with that crappy and frustrating image.