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The Fall Season.

25 Sep

from Elvis Presley news

September is an exciting time for idlers and layabouts. The warmth of spring approaches  providing a backdrop of glorious colour to sit inside and ignore, the football season ends providing a sweet period of respite before everyone starts to pretending to know things about cricket, and the new season of american television appears right at the time when certain people should be fucking studying. As with previous years, I watched a bunch of them and read reviews on the ones that looked less promising in case I missed a diamond in the rough. Here’s the bad news: It’s all rough, no diamonds.

It would be foolish to expect to find even half of it to be quality television, as Sturgeon’s Law clearly demonstrates that 90 percent of everything is shit. Even that, it seems, is optimistic. CBS (one of the big four networks) now has 13 separate police procedurals as part of its weekly lineup.  Thirteen.  I say that they’re individual now but I imagine watching more than two hours of that network would reduce your subconscious to a quivering mass of retro sunglasses and blue-tinged jump cuts. I don’t know  what it is that made this year so spectacularly shitty- maybe the loss of a few major shows  like 24, Lost, and ER made networks reluctant to try new things, maybe the GFC has made funding high concept or novel shows a riskier prospect, maybe the strike period in 08 is still slowing shit down, but this years offerings have ranged from ‘adequate’ to ‘actively puts back race relations several decades‘.

Fear not, gentle shut-ins, all is not lost. Cable still brought the goods, and the list is pretty much all the new shows you should watch this year. Lonestar isn’t getting included because its on Fox and after one fucking episode they’re already calling for life support and I have been burned by those bastards too many times to get hurt again.


This is the closest thing on this list to a sitcom. I not biased against them at all, if you like the format and you haven’t watched Community yet you should get onto that right away but Louie is easily the funniest new show this I’ve seen this year. It’s a weird blend of  Curb Your Enthusiasm style awkwardness and a cynical, matter-of-fact surrealism that’s refreshingly bleak. The unusual format (most episodes consist of 2 10-minute stories joined by clips of standup) and strong emotional center add up to a frank and compelling show I’d recommend to basically anyone.

AMC shows should come with a warning. Rubicon, much like Mad Men, starts off slow and that initial pace can be enough to put people off. It’s a shame, as Rubicon isn’t quite the critical darling Mad Men is, and it doesn’t have the novelty of another time period or a Christina Hendricks to draw in casual viewers, but I like to think of it as the scrappy underdog. Set in the vaguely-named American Policy Institute, the show has two major concerns and how much you get out of the show will be determined by how much you think those two things relate. The first is leading Will Travers’ attempt to unwravel an shadowy conspiracy in the vein of cool 70’s movies like Three Days of the Condor.  The second, less direct thing is an examination of how your career shapes the person that you want to be, and the emotional and psychological toll that being work can bring you, especially if you happen to work in intelligence. Oh, and Miranda Richardson is in it. That’s pretty cool too.

Despite the above mentioned glut of cop and cop related shows on this year, Terriers is the only one I really like. This isn’t a case of the least worst though, far from it, even if there was a surprising wave of great new police dramas I would still pick this one. Much of this is due to the fine creative staff, the show was created by the guy who wrote Matchstick Men (one of my favourite Nick Cage movies)  and the writing team boasts Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear who worked on  Angel and The Shield, so it’s at pictures-cut-from-magazines-stuck-on-bedroom-wall-with-glitter-hearts-and-kisses already. Terriers follows two unlicensed private detectives, one recovering alcoholic ex-cop and the other a man of more dubious status as they try and solve crimes for enough cash not to have a place to live and not starve to death. As well providing a compelling back story and a range of fun secondary characters, the setup provides the crucial element missing from most cop shows- the people doing the crime solving actually motivated for reasons other than  it being their job, which makes it so much more compelling. The acting is great and it’s often very funny so if you like detective stuff you should be watching this.

Out of what’s listed here this is the one I’m the least certain of, but since only one episode has aired it still has to time to meet my admittedly high expectations. “HBO spends a lot of money on a show about prohibition-era gangsters starring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese” sounds like a formula for success, and in many ways it is. The cinematography is amazing, the sets and costumes are impeccable, the plot, while not exactly new is compelling, and the acting is generally high quality. The downside is that’s all there is to it. HBO desperately wants a new Sopranos, and this is pretty obviously their bid to out-drama Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but the problem with Boardwalk Empire is that it’s too safe. That sounds like an unreasonable task for one episode to fulfill, but The Sopranos pilot did a lot of things that hadn’t been done before, and this just isn’t as groundbreaking as I think they’d like it to be. There were a few touches I really liked (the baby scene and the deer in the forest particularly) but for now it’s a very well produced period drama that isn’t the revolution I’d hoped it would be. Having said that, I’ll certainly still be watching.

To The Dark Tower

10 Sep

By now you may have heard that Team Darlton abandoned their TV adaptation of The Dark Tower, which has been picked up by Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman. Their new (and slightly insane) plan is to switch between three feature films and two television series, incorporating the original 7-book series and the prequel comics.

In theory, I think it can work. In practice, it’ll be incredibly difficult. Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are two of the most over-the-top, bombastic people working in Hollywood today and if nothing else they’ll give us a really beautiful world to look at. The big problem will be when they first transition from film to television. While television has gotten a hell of a lot smarter and more complex then a decade ago,  the budgets have not risen at anywhere near the same levelt. I’m fairly sure that the Lost pilot is still the most expensive ever made, and most of that money was spent on the plane wreckage. What this means is that they might lose a lot of viewers who’ll tune in to discover that the show is not as action-packed as the films.

This compounded by the choice of Howard and Goldsman. While they’re both more than capable of directing big budget crowd pleasing movies, neither of them are exactly known for emotional subtlety. In a two hour movie you can ignore that and just go with the pretty but 12 hours into a TV show you need to care about the characters in order to maintain interest. A big part of the fun of The Dark Tower is the minutiae, all the references to other King works and his skewed take on sci-fi, western and fantasy tropes and I feel like doing it this way will end up smoothing over all the little details in favour of the broader strokes. If nothing else it’s an interesting experiment.

How to be cool when nobody is watching.

8 Sep

Play this first.

Close the curtains. Find the Sergio Mendes amongst the piles of unlabeled CD-R’s and black cases. Two of the ice trays are empty so gut the third. There’s a cube with a jagged end that sticks to your finger. Look around for a bandaid and find none. Decide you can suck your finger and chop limes at the same time. Swap hands for a moment, forget what citric acid does to cuts.

ow.jesus.fuck.ow

Everything in the shaker. Can’t find the jigger, use guesswork. Try shaking in time to the music, there’s too much ice, your hand is going numb. Consider picking up the teatowel. Looks uncool, feel the burn. Discover you’ve still got one martini glass left unbroken. No ice left, throw a few from the shaker for good measure. One Note Spanish Flea comes on. Sit, and drink.

Tales of Misery and Woe

4 Sep

Ezio Auditore: Smarmy Motherfucker

Given my recent block of free time (read: procrastinating as hard as I god damn can) I went and did something almost unthinkable – I started playing a video game made after 1995, and one from a proper studio and everything. I’ve been avoiding the vast majority of the major titles, not out of some desire to stick it to the man – although I suppose that’s a legitimate way of doing so, even if it is the lamest way possible- but because with a few exceptions they’re shinier variations of things I did a decade ago. Kill the demon,  drive the car, defeat the Nazis.

Assassins Creed 2 somehow manages to be better than that by offering a compelling narrative, a likeable protagonist, a rich and varied world to play in and an improvement of the gameplay mechanics of the first game. Essentially, what all game sequels say they’ll do, they actually did. AC1  had such a compelling free-running mechanic that it nearly compensated for everything else in the game feeling half-arsed. It also didn’t help that the protagonist, Altair, had two emotions: stoic and stoically confused. AC2 provides Ezio (pictured above) a spoiled, oversexed nobility brat who spends the course of the game becoming something that resembles a responsible adult. The game has an occasional sense of humour that’s so refreshing, and a welcome change of pace from the usual ‘YOU ARE THE SAVIOUR OF MANKIND’ stuff. The depiction of Leonardo Da Vinci is particularly good, his childlike awe and excitability for basically everything is a more compelling characterisation then the ‘learned-dude-with-beard’ that a less imaginative writer would’ve chosen, and the game gives character backgrounds for all the major villains which are filled with gory little anecdotes told with dry wit from the Snippy British Person helping out in the real world. At its best, it’s like you’re playing Medieval Iron Man– a pulp novel with enough twists on the formula to keep you entertained.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what videogames should be like in order to make them better. Some say they should be more like books, some say they should be more like movies, and others say you should stop being a faggot and put Master Chief in everything. Personally I don’t think there’s any single approach that’s the best, and that the idea that there is is detrimental to video games as a whole. Stuff like “everything needs a morality scale!”,  “everything needs MMO elements!” or “everything needs regenerating health” results in a dozen games a year being released without a single differentiating feature.

Take, for example, Fallout 3. By far the most compelling part of that game was picking a direction and walking until you find something cool. While the main quest was pretty dull stuff, the game shone in the margins, which I suspect was the work of the junior writers trying to impress dedicated players. If so, kudos. The wasteland was filled with weird things to discover: The crashed spaceship complete with awesome ray-gun, the vault where you trip balls and go back in time to the 1950s, the hamlet where the locals seem blissfully unaware that the apocalypse even happened and the Lovecraftian horror of The Dunwich Building. Fallout 3 was more  like playing through a short story anthology than a novel and was all the better for it. I have high hopes for Fallout: New Vegas, a quasi spinoff/sequel developed by Obsidian, which still retains some employees old enough to have worked on the best novel-as-videogame ever made, Planescape Torment.  Here’s to hoping.

The Idiot

26 Aug

In the unlikely event that David Attenborough dies before scientists find a way to turn him into an immortal cyborg, Karl Pilkington should narrate every documentary from now on.

Here’s some monkeys, dunno what they’re doing really. Could be anything.”

I’m not sure who came up with the concept, but somebody famous and clever said that all authors spend their lives trying to write one story, and their entire body of work is just variations on a theme (this could in theory extend to songs or paintings or bottled ships).The more I wrote the more that feels true. M John Harrison, whose work is uniformly excellent, includes the image of a horse’s skull in almost everything he writes. Stephen King famously includes the number 19 in a variety of places. Why should this be the case?

I’f I’m being honest, (and this is a novelty so I don’t know how well it’ll go) I think the sneaky and underhanded goal of a lot of fiction is to get other people to see the world their way. Via the cunning use of imagination Tolkien demonstrated to millions the brotherhood and companionship that can flourish in times of war, a power so strong that it alone can triumph over adversity. Joseph Heller explained the inherent absurdities of burecracy and authoritairanism by writing one of the most roundabout narratives ever devised, and Stephanie Meyer informed young people about why pre-marital sex is wrong, getting pregnant when you’re young will ruin your life, black people and native americans are basically demons and Roman Catholics are untrustworthy.

There is a danger, if you are aware of this, of slipping into didacticism a.k.a being a wanker. I’ve never written a story from scratch with the intention of making a political or philosophical point, but at the same time I’m aware that my own beliefs do have an influence, even if I’m not aware of it at the time.

Tl;dr,  Gifs!

Marijuana

Why is Peggy so cute goddamn

Pryce audtions for the SCDP amateur production of ‘Whoopsie My Trousers’

You should definitely play Steamshovel Harry.

The Rejected, or ‘The Routine’

17 Aug

This week’s episode is the directorial debut of John Slattery, and ‘The Rejected’ was a resounding success. There weren’t a lot of flashy tricks, which was a good choice considering how tightly structured Mad Men is visually. What Slattery did show was a keen eye for gesture, physical comedy and juxtaposition, and I hope that Slattery gets to do another episode this season (or a guest spot somewhere else) because the thing was a joy to watch. Since there was a lot happening visually this week, there’s a lot more screenshots than usual, so apologies to any poor bastard trying to read this on 56k.

Take the opening shot pictured above. One of the odd things about Mad Men is the disconnect between the way it’s promoted and the actual content of the show, which is in itself kind of ironic. There were complaints that Mad Men was increasing the rates of drinking and smoking due to its extreme coolness. In this scene, Roger and Don have to work through the new laws regarding smoking advertising, one of which is that you can’t shoot the actors from a low angle to make them look superhuman. This occurs 30 seconds after the opening shot, which as you can see does precisely that.

This week Don gets to do something he’s never really tried before, take responsibility for his actions. The fallout from his one-night stand with his secretary was painful to watch, largely because Don was so oblivious to how hurt Allison was that every word he said only made things worse. Sure, with his encroaching alcoholism, unresolved divorce and a dying best friend he has some stuff on this mind, but his hand waving of Allison’s request for a recommendation letter was a low call. The DDFTL is now hovering at zero, and it’s probably going to stay that way until he can bring himself to finish typing that letter. While Don was dealing with the bastard he’s become (or always was), Pete and Peggy got outside the SCDP office for some good old-fashioned character development.

Things Pete and Peggy have in common: they both suck at hide-and-seek.

‘The Rejected’ put a lot of work into drawing a parallel between Pete and Peggy this week, they even went to the trouble of giving them the same colour outfit, and had them do the same action at different points in the episode. As the two youngest main characters on the show (apart from Sally), they’re the most susceptible to the effects of the  rapidly changing world around them. Pete’s dream is to be part of the old guard, the men like Roger and Don who don’t respect him because he’s a sniveling ass. This week he gets everything he wanted- Trudy is pregnant, Cosgrove (in a fun but essentially needless cameo this week) is jealous of him, and he turned through some manipulative finagling he got a big account signed to the firm, thus winning him the respect of the senior partners. Unfortunately, ‘this character fulfilled all their dream and was fine forever’ is not a compelling storyline, so expect something awful to happen to Trudy or for Pete to do something colossally stupid in the coming weeks.

Now it’s time to talk about Peggy. But first, this, because it’s hilarious.

If Pete’s mission is to become part of the old guard, then Peggy’s is to become part of the future. From that first scene with lesbian photo editor Joyce (I know this is terrible stereotyping, but her eyebrows were a giveaway, also the photos of naked ladies, that may also have been a subtle clue) Peggy reacted with confidence and enthusiasm far removed from her date with Kurt back in season two. The party scene was a good indication of how far she’s come, and at the same time the distance between her and her more avant-garde colleagues. Peggy seemed genuinely surprised that they wouldn’t be interested in having their work used for advertising purposes, which I’m willing to put down to naivety. She’s smoked a few joints and been to a warehouse thing , but she’s only part of the counter-culture on a fairly superficial level. While she’s in a much better place than Pete she’s still part of an institution they despise, and as long as that’s the case she’ll only be a very successful outside- much like Don really.

Another telling detail- Don and Peggy both adjust their clothes at the same time when the psychologist walks in the room. She’s great at her job, and that’s what makes her so dangerous to both Peggy and Don. Don rejects the conclusion she comes to as too old-fashioned, and while that might be right his defense comes across as a little too personal, much like it did when he avoided the test back in episode 1. I don’t think Don is going to ask for an appointment any time soon, but she may be around long enough to keep chipping at him until he gives something away. Now for a final piece of clever (if a little direct) composition.

Pete and Peggy, separated by a glass wall. Peggy leaves with the cool kids to go harass Warhol and discover LSD, while Pete is inside, now a member of the inner circle he’s dreamed of for so long. Careful what you wish for and all that jazz.

Next week is “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. Maybe something about Don as a failed knight-in-shining-armour?

The Good News, or A Man, A Room and a Checkbook

10 Aug

Last week I suggested that ‘The Good News’ of the show’s title would be something of a mixed blessing, which was not that difficult of a prediction since it is impossible for the people on this show to go a single day without ruining their lives in one way or another. Much like last week, the main stories were connected with a motif,  the aforementioned ‘good news’.

Joan. Joan did some great work leading the b-story this week. In interviews she’s mentioned that Joan gets more to do this season, which is a good sign as she hasn’t had much to do in quite a while. This episode reinforced the great tragedy of Joan’s life- she has everything she wants (or more precisely, everything she is supposed to want) but is miserable because of it. Just look at her husband. He’s what she says she wants, a handsome and charming doctor she can have babies with, but in reality he’s a very occasionally charming but fucking terrible Doctor who’s leaving for ‘Nam before she can have kids.  Roger, for all his many flaws, is a better man than the good doctor will ever be. Joan, like everyone else this week, found solace at work- at the end of the episode she resolved her conflict with Lane, had a great time firing a shitty secretary and took her place at the head of the table. However shitty her life ends up, she’ll still be great at her job.

Lane. I considered subtitling this week’s entry as “Don and Lane’s Excellent Adventure”, because that entire sequence was hilarious. Lane’s news that the company is financially successful is a cause for celebration, and as a British Person he has to keep his personal life away from work as much as possible. Don finds something of a kindred spirit in Lane, and their evening together looks like the most fun he’s had in his entire life. What’s telling is that while Lane found an entertaining evening of distraction with a co-worker, Don found somebody to talk to for yet another night of prostitutes and booze. Lane is too self assured to lose himself quite so heavily as Don, but theres 9 episodes left for terrible things to happen.

Don. The Don Draper Fingerbang Threat Level is at an all-time low. With difficulties at work, a wife that hates him and a child he isn’t allowed to see, so he takes off to visit the one person in the world he can actually relax with and discovers that she’s dying of cancer. Matthew Weiner going with a very Sopranos route here. In the early seasons there was a sort of humour about Tony, that while he did some morally reprehensible things he was still a fun guy. Once that reached a critical point David Chase spent a very long time proving to everyone what a despicable bastard he really was – kind of like the Seinfeld finale stretched over three years. Don’s attempts to help Anna were charming but ultimately ineffectual, what else can he do but throw money at her in desperation?  Don would pretty much have to be publicly humiliated by Campbell for his life to get any worse. With the DDFT this low, he may find clients not so easy to charm, and I doubt Betty is going to take him back any time soon.

This episode felt a little off for some reason, and I can’t quite articulate way. It felt a little sparse, without a c-story events unfolded less like a moment in time than important plot threads that needed to be dealt with by this point in the season to set things up for later. At any rate, welcome to 1965.

Next week’s episode is The Rejected, which is being directed by John Slattery (Roger Sterling). Apparently Pete has a lot to do next week. Prediction: the return of Cosgrove, and a lot of awkward stares.