September 25th, 2013
The loss of perspective is as central to my internal monologue as my ability to solve the world’s problems when I get going. It’s far worse television, to be sure. Yet sometimes I worry that Carrie Mathison exists only to rationalize the topsy-turvy structure of Homeland.
August 4th, 2011

A Line I Have to Use Somewhere

Don’t bother with “Shark Week jumped the shark”. That was done in 2004. However, I’m pretty sure that no one has yet proposed Shark Week as shark. It’s 24 years old, which means it has run (swam?) the in/out gauntlet and hardened into tradition, or optimized fact. Shark Week, like the beast itself, is perfect at what it does. Nothing brings together the disparate threads of basic cable like Shark Week: Nature, testosterone, adventure, minor celebrities, extreme dudehood, reality programming, and childish wonder without the slightest bit of guilt. Once they discovered the leaping Great Whites, it was all over. It will outlive cable television itself.

July 25th, 2011

Serious Masterpiece Contemporary spoilers lurk ahead, among others things: I watched the second Zen last night; the provocatively titled “Cabal” was, indeed, about a vast criminal conspiracy, until it wasn’t, until it was again at the very end, to such a degree that much of “Cabal” ends up feeling like a well-meaning misdirection. I was to understand that these things are very possible in Italian society. Absolute corruption, the mob, or the Church could have their hands in the pot, or these imagined actors could be mobilized in the name of farce or low-class criminal prank. That’s the black humor and daily irony of Roman life which, we are to gather, is why the uber-stylish, over-sexed (even the hospitals stink of it), and frequently weightless Zen is nevertheless biting social commentary. Alas, it’s hard for the viewer to appreciate this hybrid state when the the ups and downs of the plot, the piques and deflations that would give it shape, lack assurance.

I bought Truffaut’s Hitchcock last week. Then I brought to the lake, which was a terrible idea. I’m glad, though, that I had it on the brain as I tried my hardest to really get into Zen. Hitchcock was the Selznick-proclaimed “Master of Suspense”; Truffaut viewed suspense as both elusive and essential, hence his frequently punchy defense of Hitchcock as a Serious Artist. If suspect is the act of loading up audience expectations—not unreasonably so, of course—then managing its transition out of the imagination is just as important as stirring up questions and dread.

Hitchcock understood this balancing act. He also practically invented the conversion rate of mystery to pay-out. Zen, as with so many shows structured as mysteries, fell flat once we start to find out what really happened. I’m not suggesting that any whiff of super-conspiracy must lead us directly to said plot (reviving it at the last moment is fair ineffectual). More that, if all that atmosphere and near-cosmic uncertainty is brought into play, the stakes have been raised, and the reveal is likely going to be a letdown. The resolution isn’t the proverbial “who did it?” but that first, decisive step away from the hypothetical and into what actually happened. For there to be continuity, it has to maintain the same weight, the same degree of substance and depth. Silly language, I know, but I can’t figure out quite how to explain it. In Zen, learning that it was all a hoax was like the bottom dropping out of the plot. The same story could have been done in a way that made this section really sting.

That’s why everybody loves Wallander and the new BBC Sherlock Holmes. Luther, character-driven to the point of self-obsession, cheats and yet it too works the formula quote capably. Granted, none of these series attempt the same kind of loopy inversions that, in theory, Zen depends on. But none of them are strangers to plot twists, cruelty, or truly nasty ironies. There is always more, and less, than initially expected. This is Hitchcock in a nutshell; from what I understand, it’s what pissed off anyone who bothered to stick with The Killing. In the defense of Zen, it’s not easy. Then again, that’s why a genre like mystery can be either light viewing or a walloping reminder of just why it has stuck around, a part of our psychology that we can’t shake loose.

July 13th, 2011

"Damages" And The Rise Of The Super-Casts

More me, this time at GQ.com. I examine the ridiculously over-stuffed cast of Damages and ask how the fuck this is possible, and why this is the future of television—even if Damages itself has been relegated to DirecTV. Also, a list-within-a-list of all the reasons that Keith Carradine is awesome.

June 22nd, 2011

Every Second Famous

The draft is bad television we’ve all secretly agreed to enjoy as theater, camp, and a collection of possibly iconic moments that never really get too big or too small. That’s why it’s so hard to turn up an image, or clip, that we haven’t seen a thousand times before—no matter how insignificant or boring it may be. Even the Hawks’ 1987 pick of Dallas Comegys is part of the canon, whether or not you could have told me anything about it off the top of your head. It’s not just that, quite wisely, NBA-TV plays past drafts on loop in the week leading up to this year’s edition. This thing was meme before meme degenerated into what it means today. This state of hyper-familiarity is only heightened by the informal, even mysterious, state of the draft before broadcast tore into it. It used to be a buffet, hunches, and eight million rounds. Actually, there were still lots and lots of extra rounds as late as 1988. What grail is holier, the future Hall of Famers selected casually, sloppily, with an indelicacy that would make your fantasy league blanche? Or those later picks made in the rubble of the telecast? The former need no gleam. They are lean and inevitable in way that even 1984 can’t match. In our minds, the later rounds of the eighties catch the reflection of spectacle, but deformed and forgotten, probably have suits and reaction shots that are the NBA equivalent of outsider art.

June 20th, 2011

GAME OF THRONES SPOILER ALERT. I don’t know why I’m bothering—chances are, if you were watching at all, you’ve seen the finale by now. If not, good for you, being too high and mighty to watch a so-called fantasy show. Yep, those were dragons in that jaw-dropping last scene, a very Wagnerian set-piece that made the mythic past very real, while throwing the entire future of the series into sharp relief. But in the show that Game of Thrones has been up to this point, a dragon is first and foremost about military, and socio-political, consequences. Khaleesi Daenery’s three little screeching loose nukes, revived from the realm of pure fantasy with only the slighest bit of foreshadowing, was Game of Thrones finally acknowledging its genre at the most basic, non-negotiable level. Eric Freeman wrote that Eddard Stark’s death was at once shocking and totally predictable. Game of Thrones was just that kind of ruthless fiction, a land of knights and princesses that was both modern in its psychological detail and unflinching in its fuck-conquer-kill worldview. The casting of spells that episode was the real news.

Premium cable shows generally start by re-defining their genre (The Sopranos  and the mob; The Wire and police procedural; Deadwood as revisionist Western), and then building out from there toward universality. Game of Thrones, while unmistakably HBO, spent most of this first season keeping its genre’s basic tenets at arm’s length, or at least beyond The Wall, in the distant past, and otherwise out of any real notion of its time and space. The show danced around its genre, convincing us that we weren’t watching fantasy. Game of Thrones covered an immense amount of thematic ground, but none of it depended on, or dealt with the implications of, traditional fantasy elements. The Sopranos or The Wire addressed and reformulated this stuff in the first few episodes. It took until the last scene for Game of Thrones to emerge—like Kelisi from the ashes—with its dragons. Instead of moving to transcend genre, it’s put itself squarely back in the middle of it.

This is anything but a miscalculation; it’s nearly brilliant. The audience, fully convinced of the show’s richness, is now forced to acknowledge that fantasy can be reinvented, even the dragons and magic. Had it come too soon, it wouldn’t have hit in quite the same way; it might even have undermined all the credibility the show built up. Closing the first cycle with a naked lady suckling baby dragons forced us to admit that sometimes, a naked lady suckling baby dragons is a lot more than just that.

May 27th, 2011

"You Only Need To Watch The Last Five Minutes"

Do these people still exist? If so, what do they make of the Heat and Mavericks this past week? I suppose you could have just tuned in to see them dismantle a late lead. The better teams won and all that; the youngsters collapsed, there was an air of inevitability about it, and everything that came before was rendered irrelevant. Except what if you care about process, context, or narrative, or more plainly, tension and release? In a way, an ending like tonight’s is even more dramatic. The Bulls had this game … until they didn’t, and the Heat swooped in to clinch the series. Same with the Mavericks on Monday. It was fun, scary, and overpowering. A nail-biter is one kind of story. This is another.

Addendum: Okay, they still exist. Thanks, Kevin Pelton.

April 23rd, 2011
Every house I grew up in had at least one study in it. This was never really the right word for them—”study” suggests a Victorian contrivance, intended to prove a point about the manhood of the mind. These were simple, sometimes cramped, rooms set aside for weekend work, consisting of a desk, a chair, a computer (later, a modem, too), a telephone, some office supplies, a trash can, and maybe one framed print on the wall for color. Back then, space was the basic currency of the home office, unless the goal was to project a power that may or may not have actually existed in the real workplace. Physical space was the staging area for the mental.Today, space could scarcely be less important. The desk has been replaced by the desktop, which now merely describes a metaphoric space within our laptops; paper is a hindrance, and with hard drives even a virtual trash can; my wallpaper changes weekly and each shift is like an office makeover. The professional set-up has been collapsed into a single small, portable device bounded only by preference. Technology no longer needs to be accommodated. Now, it is waiting on us. As convenience reigns supreme, the onus to work (to work in order that work might get done, rather) falls on us.We are the moody, faulty, imperfect technology. That’s not to say that laptops don’t break, or that writer’s block didn’t exist in 1974. Garrets could be chilly like a motherfucker.  Yet optimization and consolidation have both resolved many of snares that arose from the typewriter, the rotary phone, and the desk stuck in where it fit.  Today, we are the problem, losing this particular space race against ourselves. It’s the burden of convenience, reflected back as responsibility. Instead of “where will you put that shit and how will your back hold up and is it kind of quiet,” we’re left with the wholly ambiguous “work habits”—sometimes, a window out into the realm of self-improvement and personal organization. The home office has become an ambient state, devoted wholly to making our damn brains work a little harder."I work at home" has shifted miraculously over the last decade—which, incidentally, ropes in my entire post-college life. It’s been a sign of changing times; a viable, common sense alternative; an unthinkable luxury; and a euphemism for unemployment. In that, it’s a lot like my line of work, which is hard to spit out in conversation whether you go with "writing" or "writer". "Writing" is dangerously close to "warriors of content", or a wholly unprofessional state of Being. Shouting "writer" without any context sounds like I’ve been revising a historical novel about my great-uncle’s flight from a Cossack bandit gang in the latter part of the Crimean war, complete with an appendix explaining several varieties of cannon.Some swear by silence, yet that raises a basic problem: if silence is context, then really, the mind is left alone with itself. This allows for bouts of intense concentration, but can also lend itself to self-involvement, worry, delusion, and all those other aberrant states that creep up when you’re trying to go to sleep. There needs to be an anchor, a feeling that work is real and you are real and so is everything around. The at-home worker is abstracted enough; what he needs is more distraction and imposition, not less. Otherwise he just might float away, never to return.Talk radio offers the illusion of companionship; a simulated peer group; and maybe even some odds and ends that will find their way into a project. Yet the yappin’ of others has an expiration date, and within months, or days, this forced excavation of information and empathy is little more than white noise. Movies and records present an especially appealing option: What if working at home could be part-task, part-recreation? The problem there is obvious: multi-tasking really involves letting one’s attention flit back and forth. Crucial scenes zip by unnoticed, and that emotional sweep of music, dulled. When I first learned how to drive, I was shocked at how quickly my favorite albums were reduced to mush by repeated listenings. It takes a certain kind of record built for the road.And that easy, formulaic movie? The movies, however small the screen, are escapism’s clarion call. You will be knocked off course and sucked in. Even the worst movies are not, at the moment, disposable.The answer, for me at least, is trash television. Police procedurals, with their spring-loaded narratives, are a coach, not a temptress. The History Channel’s many great offerings on the subject of aliens, the Crusades, and future pestilence offer up examples of empty, but frantic, brain activity. No one wants to ride the train alone, but at the same time, without the worst kind of company, you might never find your way off.

Every house I grew up in had at least one study in it. This was never really the right word for them—”study” suggests a Victorian contrivance, intended to prove a point about the manhood of the mind. These were simple, sometimes cramped, rooms set aside for weekend work, consisting of a desk, a chair, a computer (later, a modem, too), a telephone, some office supplies, a trash can, and maybe one framed print on the wall for color. Back then, space was the basic currency of the home office, unless the goal was to project a power that may or may not have actually existed in the real workplace. Physical space was the staging area for the mental.

Today, space could scarcely be less important. The desk has been replaced by the desktop, which now merely describes a metaphoric space within our laptops; paper is a hindrance, and with hard drives even a virtual trash can; my wallpaper changes weekly and each shift is like an office makeover. The professional set-up has been collapsed into a single small, portable device bounded only by preference. Technology no longer needs to be accommodated. Now, it is waiting on us. As convenience reigns supreme, the onus to work (to work in order that work might get done, rather) falls on us.

We are the moody, faulty, imperfect technology. That’s not to say that laptops don’t break, or that writer’s block didn’t exist in 1974. Garrets could be chilly like a motherfucker.  Yet optimization and consolidation have both resolved many of snares that arose from the typewriter, the rotary phone, and the desk stuck in where it fit.  Today, we are the problem, losing this particular space race against ourselves. It’s the burden of convenience, reflected back as responsibility. Instead of “where will you put that shit and how will your back hold up and is it kind of quiet,” we’re left with the wholly ambiguous “work habits”—sometimes, a window out into the realm of self-improvement and personal organization. The home office has become an ambient state, devoted wholly to making our damn brains work a little harder.

"I work at home" has shifted miraculously over the last decade—which, incidentally, ropes in my entire post-college life. It’s been a sign of changing times; a viable, common sense alternative; an unthinkable luxury; and a euphemism for unemployment. In that, it’s a lot like my line of work, which is hard to spit out in conversation whether you go with "writing" or "writer". "Writing" is dangerously close to "warriors of content", or a wholly unprofessional state of Being. Shouting "writer" without any context sounds like I’ve been revising a historical novel about my great-uncle’s flight from a Cossack bandit gang in the latter part of the Crimean war, complete with an appendix explaining several varieties of cannon.

Some swear by silence, yet that raises a basic problem: if silence is context, then really, the mind is left alone with itself. This allows for bouts of intense concentration, but can also lend itself to self-involvement, worry, delusion, and all those other aberrant states that creep up when you’re trying to go to sleep. There needs to be an anchor, a feeling that work is real and you are real and so is everything around. The at-home worker is abstracted enough; what he needs is more distraction and imposition, not less. Otherwise he just might float away, never to return.

Talk radio offers the illusion of companionship; a simulated peer group; and maybe even some odds and ends that will find their way into a project. Yet the yappin’ of others has an expiration date, and within months, or days, this forced excavation of information and empathy is little more than white noise. Movies and records present an especially appealing option: What if working at home could be part-task, part-recreation? The problem there is obvious: multi-tasking really involves letting one’s attention flit back and forth. Crucial scenes zip by unnoticed, and that emotional sweep of music, dulled. When I first learned how to drive, I was shocked at how quickly my favorite albums were reduced to mush by repeated listenings. It takes a certain kind of record built for the road.

And that easy, formulaic movie? The movies, however small the screen, are escapism’s clarion call. You will be knocked off course and sucked in. Even the worst movies are not, at the moment, disposable.

The answer, for me at least, is trash television. Police procedurals, with their spring-loaded narratives, are a coach, not a temptress. The History Channel’s many great offerings on the subject of aliens, the Crusades, and future pestilence offer up examples of empty, but frantic, brain activity. No one wants to ride the train alone, but at the same time, without the worst kind of company, you might never find your way off.