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.