Red-State shows: Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights

We’ve been watching two Red-State t.v. shows, Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights. In the recent NYT Magazine piece about Breaking Bad and its show-runner Vince Gilligan, the author pointed out that although BB has an audience as big at Mad Men‘s, it’s less visible than that show in the media, perhaps because whereas it’s a #1 show in Santa Fe/Albuquerque (where it takes place), Memphis, and Kansas City, it’s not even top ten in NYC and L.A. E.g., it’s a red-state show. I had not thought of it quite that way, but the contrast with Man Men especially brings out the contrast: Mad Men is about sophisticated NYC ad agency execs, BB is about Walt, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, dying of cancer and selling meth, ostensibly to leave his family a financial cushion (since of course his paltry teacher salary would not provide that). Other main characters include Walt’s brother-in-law, a D.E.A. agent, and their two suburban wives (Walt’s wife goes back to work as an accountant for a small company in season three). No cultural elites to be found, with the exception that proves the rule of Walt’s old college buddy and his wife who are now wealthy and culturally sophisticated scientists and seem to exist in a different world. Their brief appearance in the show only underlines that otherwise, BB takes place in a world of middle-class (or below) economics and aesthetics. I doubt there will ever be “Breaking Bad yourself” Facebook apps to make yourself look like a ravaged Bryan Cranston (as there is for Mad Men).

We’re in the third season now (on DVD; season 4 just started), and I think the show has improved. The first season’s pilot began by throwing you into a shocking and surreal scene (of Walt and his meth-cooking partner, his former high school student, fleeing the cops in their RV on the highway), but that season settles into an in-some-ways predictable rhythm, exploring the ironies as Walt maintains his suburban life and job while also secretly cooking and dealing meth. It kind of seemed like a masculine version of Weeds with some of the same themes of bland suburbia and an illicit underworld beneath it, and an emphasis on life in recessionary times, a head of the household doing what she or he needs to do to maintain the home. But as the show has gone on, it’s become increasingly unpredictable, suspenseful, and sometimes almost David Lynchian in its everyday surrealism. In season three the Twins, two murderous Mexican assassins, are maybe a bit much… (they reminded me a little of the Russian giant impervious to pain in the Stieg Larsson novels). But in this season the show has reminded me more of the Sopranos, with more of a feeling that you don’t know where the show is going; and Bryan Cranston has definitely developed some Tony Soprano-like gravitas and moral ambiguity.

Then we also started watching Friday Night Lights (first season!). A few friends (and many critics) have been recommending it for years. This one is totally Red-State. Small West Texas town obsessed with high-school football; many characters devoutly Christian; big emphasis on the positive values of teamwork and belief in oneself and one’s teammates; as Sarah commented, a high school that seems almost entirely dedicated to producing male jocks and sexy women (so far there is next to no reference to classes or academic work). But, it’s really good… very gripping, and one of us went into this with zero interest in football, the other (me) quite little. Maybe part of what’s so good about it is what made ER so gripping, a fictional immersion in a very challenging and difficult job that brings a diverse group of characters together in a common obsession. Of course it’s disturbing (to me) that high-school football bears that weight, but once you accept the given that these students and the coaches are engaged in an activity of immense public significance with a lot at stake, with possibilities for heroism, triumph, utter failure, shame, life-transforming injury, it creates a world of vividly meaningful drama which you don’t get in your typical show. There are, as with ER, soap-opera elements too, but the center of gravity is the team, the games and the season. There’s also a pathos in the viewer’s potential realization that the games are not in fact of such true significance… who really cares in the end if the Panthers win the season? (Well, it definitely matters for the coach, one of the main characters, who will lose his job if they don’t win.)  But that pathos becomes part of the meaning — the sense that they’re all pouring their hearts and lives into this game, a questionable fiction into which so much is invested.

I’m curious to see how it develops and to what degree, for example, the show expects a viewer who “agrees” with the importance of high school football, as opposed to one (like me) who wonders whether it’s a great idea for the entire town to focus obsessively on the job performance of 16 year old kids.

One minor note — the show has some basic continuity problems so far.  The fill-in quarterback Matt Saracen gets beaten up badly enough to go to the hospital, then two days or so later has no marks on his face; the player with a spinal injury cannot yet even more his fingers; he has a breakthrough where he moves his hands for the first time, then a day or two later is wheeling himself around in a chair.  (I assume this is unrealistic.)

This is Your Life, Genocide Edition

I take This American Life for granted and often it can seem too familiar and predictable. Some of the more famous voices on the show grate on me, and the giggles, awkwardness and teenager-y cuteness can feel contrived; sometimes I just want them to sound like grownups.  Yet, not so rarely they come through with something pretty great that you wouldn’t hear elsewhere.  Jogging the other day I listened to this pretty amazing piece about a few episodes of This Is Your Life from the 1950s that brought the show’s usual approach to the challenging realm of atrocity survivors.  TIYL was of course a hugely popular show with an audience of many millions; it was hosted by Ralph Edwards, who also taught Sunday School and was one of those 1950s reassuring voices of a benevolent status quo.

The This American Life piece (btw, it occurs to me that the show’s name must be indebted to This is Your Life — duh, I guess) is about a couple of jaw-dropping episodes in which Edwards brought (under false pretenses — guests were almost always surprised) on the show, to be confronted by friends and associates from their past, first, a Holocaust survivor (according to This American Life host Allison Silverman, the first person to discuss her experiences in the camps on American television), second, a Hiroshima survivor.  The first one:

“This is your life, Hanna Bloch Kohner.”

“Oh no!”

Oh, disturbingly, yes.  In May 1953 Edwards surprised Hanna Bloch Kohner, whose apparent dismay at having her life story told could have had something to do with the fact that a lot of her life was a staggering nightmare.

“Can I say, Ms Kohner, that looking at you, it’s hard to believe that during 7 short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror and tragedy.  You look like a young American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.”

Hanna Bloch Kohner is a Holocaust survivor, although the word Holocaust wouldn’t commonly be used for another eight years.

As Silverman goes on to explain, Kohler goes through the usual This is Your Life series of surprises, although the people she’s confronted with are not grade-school buddies or teachers but, for example, the friend with whom she went through Auschwitz.  The combination of Edwards’ patriarchally plummy tones, the 50s Hollywood game-show setting, and Kohner’s descriptions of her experiences in the camps (narrated in her pronounced Czech-Jewish accent) is just surreal and incredibly bizarre, like a George Saunders story, really.  Silverman’s best line is in regards to a promotional piece of jewelry presented to Kohner for appearing on the show; as Silverman quips, “it must be hard to design a Holocaust charm bracelet.”

The piece then discusses another TIYL episode, this one featuring Hiroshima survivor Kiyoshi Tanimoto.  As part of his big surprise, he gets to meet… Robert Lewis, one of the co-captains of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb that killed on the order of 100,000+ of Tanimoto’s friends and family.  Awkward, to say the least.  Lewis seems like a wreck.  Apparently he and Tanimoto kept in touch after the episode.

The episodes can certainly seem from our perspective to be in unbelievably poor taste, but as Silverman suggests, they were important in bringing this material to a U.S. mass audience in a sympathetic and basically respectful manner.  And both Kohner and Tanimoto seemed to have been very pleased with their episodes, regularly showing visitors the 16 mm. video they were given as a memento (I believe Kohner actually toured with the film to raise awareness).

A clip from the Kohner episode of This Is Your Life is on Youtube, I’ve just realized, check it out.  Also here’s a Der Speigel article about Kohner.

America’s Got Aerial Dancing

Somehow it seems that whenever I turn on the t.v. I’m assaulted by Howie Mandel’s irritating goatee on America’s Got Talent.  I usually turn the channel ASAP, but the other day I got sucked into the Michael Lipari/ Ashleigh Dejon “aerial dancing” performance.  This completely cracked me up and I had to catch up a bit on their previous history.  A few weeks ago they delivered this performance.  (There’s a minute or two of introductory blather; the key part of the performance lasts from about 2:30 to 3:00.)

Sharon Osbourne’s little clutch at Howie’s arm, and then his painfully fake/ stilted performance of confused concern just before Lipari & Dejon Rise from the Flames, are priceless.  The whole thing is so… old-school.  The athleticism is admittedly impressive.

Here’s their most recent performance.  This one brings the aesthetics of the Victoria’s Secret “Angels” line/ an over-the-top bachelorette party to the kind of bad acting you rarely get to see on national t.v.  The effect makes me think of the figures on top of a wedding cake come alive and swinging around maniacally on ropes and ribbons, pausing every few seconds to emote in operatic fashion.

“We decided to go the direction of being a little bit more heartfelt.  Last time we shocked the judges, and America.  And this time… we want to touch their heart.”

“People often think we’re a couple, but actually we’re just friends and partners.”  Wait, is it possible that Michael Lipari is not straight?

Curb Your Enthusiasm, shark, jump?

For a while this season I felt that Curb Your Enthusiasm had jumped the shark.  (No huge spoilers here, btw.) Or probably that’s the wrong phrase in its suggestion of a Rubicon-crossing into sudden badness; more a sinking into repetitive tics and self-indulgence of some of the show’s worst qualities.  Is it possible that every episode this season involved someone trying to get money out of Larry, especially in the form of a tip?  It happened so frequently that you have to assume there was self-awareness about it, but really, could I care less about how hard it is for LD to have every waiter and coffee guy expecting a $20 tip from him at every moment? And the drive for edginess/envelope-pushing in regards to race and disability was often painful.  Although I did like the running joke about Larry’s baldness as an identity category.

In the end though I did find the Seinfeld reenactment/reunion to be somewhat irresistible and fun.  It was great just to see Larry and Jerry riffing on random stuff together.  And as a viewer, I felt a bit as Cheryl apparently did: it had gotten tedious to witness Larry always moping around as a bored rich man at loose ends; it was invigorating to see him actually at work trying to produce something, and to have the purposeful action that creates Curb Your Enthusiasm itself seep into the plot of the show.  That is, there was always a (initially productive) tension in Curb in that its main topic is Larry’s dilemma after he’s made his fame and fortune with Seinfeld; what should he do now?  Of course what he actually did was create a smaller, semi-improvised premium-cable show, but we could never see that in the show itself, which ended up spinning off endless and often redundant riffs on the minutiae of Larry’s aimless, spoiled existence and his Honeymooners- esque fights with neighbors and associates, etc.

So, there was a kind of satisfying formal logic to the way this season wound up in Larry “putting on a show” once again.  (Echoing the Producers plot of a couple seasons ago.)  And also perhaps to the way he finally backs away, once again, from a life of purposeful action and employment.  Although I don’t agree with those who found Larry performing as George Constanza sublime; Larry’s “bad acting” is just too… bad, I think.

I don’t think Cheryl made the right call at the end, though.

p.s.  For those who know me well, the reason I watched the show as it screened was that I got a fortuitously timed three free months of HBO.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

Watched the first (of three, I believe) installment of PBS Mystery‘s versions of the Henning Mankell Kurt Wallander thrillers.  Last night was Sidetracked and I think in the next two Sundays they’re doing Firewall and One Step Behind.

It wasn’t bad at all, was a creditable version, but was still mildly disappointing.  I didn’t really buy Kenneth Branagh as Wallander.  Wallander is an exhausted mess who drinks too much coffee, can’t sleep, is overweight and eats badly, and Branagh is just too good-looking.  Sarah pointed out that a major aspect of the novels and of Wallander’s character has to do with the mundanity of his daily life: the sad meals he ekes out of his empty kitchen, his fussing about whether or not to wear his thick sweater to the crime scene, endless pots of coffee.  Most of that sense of slow dailiness is excised.  Also, much of the pleasure of the novels depends on the suspense that builds over time, and the plot felt compressed and rushed into the 85 minutes or whatever.

It was odd that everyone spoke in British accents of one sort or another.  My guess is that they actually worked to translate specific Swedish accents/dialect into British versions.  I know film-makers have to face this problem routinely: should they speak in Swedish-accented English?  What would the logic for that be?  But this seemed a bit disconcerting.

Sidetracked is a pretty typical/exemplary Mankell novel in the way it reveals a modern Sweden scarred by various forms of global suffering, abuses, and evil.  The novels are obsessed with Sweden as country that sees itself as “traditional,” tolerant and liberal, but that doesn’t know how to handle the transformations of a new global economy, with its immigration and novel forms of inequity and corruption.  The theme of the traditional confronting the modern plays out in a striking way in this novel where the criminal turns out to commit his murders (of corrupt politicians and financiers, chiefs of the new economic order) in a kind of regressive psychopathic trance in which he reimagines himself as a Native American warrior.

I liked the Southern Swedish settings, beautiful photography.

It was disappointing that Wallander’s father now paints rather attractive-looking landscapes.  In the novel he paints basically the same painting of a wood grouse over and over; I guess they decided it would just seem too strange.

I’ll keep watching.  I wouldn’t watch if you haven’t read the novels, though.

Amy Poehler as Kaitlin

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I’ve only seen the first episode of Parks and Recreation so far.  This is the (sort of) spin-off of The Office, a mockumentary starring Amy Poehler as Leslie Knopes, a very enthusiastic parks-and-recreation officer in the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee.  Indiana’s national reputation took a boost when we went blue last November, but this show won’t do a lot to improve the state’s image on the coasts.  One detail I admired in the pilot was the big Bob Knight poster in the office of Knopes’ boss, who does not believe the city government should be involved in creating or maintaining parks, and who thinks the entire town should be privatized and run by Chuck E. Cheese.

Anyway, I found myself watching the SNL Amy Poehler special last night which reminded me that she’s kind of a comic genius.  My all-time favorite Poehler character is Kaitlin, the manic/hyperactive 10 year old girl who drives her sweetly beleaguered step-dad Rick crazy.  She is just brilliant.  Here’s a great one: Kaitlin choosing an instrument to play at the mall music shop with the help of Rick’s friend Chaz, played by Paul Giamatti.  I’m especially partial to Kaitlin’s impromtu performance of the Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle” (just a few seconds into this clip).  Also check out Giamatti almost losing it as Kaitlin tells him about how she almost died doing a backflip in rollerskates on a trampoline.

Other than the Kaitlin clip, my favorite moments from the highlight show were Poehler with a stalkerish crush on Justin Timberlake, and her heavily-pregnant Sarah Palin rap performance.  I think I somehow never watched that at the time.  It’s kind of amazing that it actually happened in the final weeks of the Presidential campaign.  Surreal to watch Palin bobbing her head to the faux hip-hop.  How desperate must McCain-Palin have been to think that this would be a good idea.

What the Frack?: Battlestar Galactica

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We’ve been making our way through the first season of Battlestar Galactica.  I’d heard good things about it, but I’m not the biggest filmed sci-fi fan and it felt like a big commitment.  What finally inspired me was running into an old acquaintance who has pretty hip/smart taste who declared that he believes it may be the best t.v. show ever.

Not sure I’d go that far, but it’s definitely excellent.  It’s overwhelmingly a post-9/11 narrative: a comfortable, complacent way of life suddenly shattered; nothing will be the same; life in wartime; our way of life threatened by “others” who may be infiltrating our world; a return to wartime/military ways of thinking and feeling that had felt decades out of date, with the rise to prominence/call out of retirement of old military heroes; the enemy is like us but different/evil; strains of religious fundamentalism and old prophecies.

And of course, interrogation scenes.  There’s a painful one of the interrogation of a Cylon in which the interrogator gives a free rein to the most violent methods on the grounds that, of course, “he’s not actually human.”  The Cylons are, basically, robots who have “evolved” and surpassed human beings; one of their talents is the ability to mimic perfectly human form.  So they are not-human but human; the most interesting twist is that there are Cylons who have been placed as embedded spies in the human world and do not yet know that they are not human.

So, one of the clever aspects of this remake is the way this hoary sci-fi kind of plot is in effect re-purposed as a post-9/11 allegory.  It could be read as quite “conservative” in its literalization of the instinct that “the enemy is not really human” — certainly the interrogation scenes are disquieting in this way — although I tend to interpret it as self-aware in smart ways.

We got Grandma Suzy into the show on her visit last month.

I’ve been amused by the show’s neologism “frack.”  This is a substitute for the obvious curse word, as in “what the frack.”  What’s funny about it is that it comes across as a bleeping-out of “fuck” for network t.v., sort of like when Sex and the City or the Sopranos ran on non-premium t.v. they absurdly dubbed out the curses: “I’m gonna kill that [twerp]”, etc.  But I suppose the idea is supposed to be that in this futuristic society, “frack” is the form into which the original term has evolved.  (Since contemporary human society is the ancient, mythical past of the Galactica humans.)

But — doesn’t that mean that “frack” is to “fuck” as Cylon is to human?????

“Wheep wheep wheeeeep:” R.I.P. Oliver Postgate

R.I.P. Oliver Postgate:

  • Maev Kennedy
  • The Guardian, Wednesday December 10 2008

As Tiny Clanger might have remarked, mournfully pulling his ears over his eyes, “wheep wheep wheeeeep”: Oliver Postgate, creator of the Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, and the immortal Bagpuss, the cat who retained an ineffable dignity even when in grave danger of losing his stuffing, has died aged 83.

“We bow our heads in respect,” one award-winning animation team said, part of the generation profoundly influenced by Postgate’s slightly shabby creatures, looking precisely as if they had been hand-knitted or run up out of scraps of wood, and animated in a cowshed in Kent.

Yesterday Peter Lord and David Sproxton, co-founders of Aardman Animations, makers of Morph, Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit, said: “…Those of us in early middle age recall with great pleasure the Sunday afternoon ritual of watching Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine or The Clangers. With Peter Firmin, Oliver Postgate created wonderful, imaginative worlds, populated with delightful characters through which Oliver’s skill at story-telling shone through.

Has anyone fully theorized the long history of the aesthetic of British shabbiness?  I want to check out this book Austerity Britain 1945-1951 which I suspect may hold some clues.

I guess these Smallfilms shows were kind of like the British version of the Sid and Marty Krofft shows (H.R. Pufnstuf, etc.), much better-seeming, though.

Here’s an episode of the Clangers:

And one of Pogle’s Wood — kind of scary!:

This Youtube comment amused me:

Clangers nooooooooooo not the clangers again.
My shrink convinced me they were a fiction in my mind
but here they are
real again
Ohhh help me please
God I’m so disturbed again

Jello Sculpture Art or Not?

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Sarah discovered this t.v. show Art or Not? which is on the Ovation channel, whatever that is.

It’s entertaining, although there’s something about the premise that is a little bit corny — I mean, the question isn’t really whether the jello sculpture, say, is art (what else would it be?), but whether it’s crappy art or at all smart/interesting.  Each episode features some contemporary artist and then a few responses to the work by critics, art professionals, and ordinary joe types.  Most of the commentators are blandly positive: “conceptually, the jello sculpture makes a really interesting statement…”  What makes the show is this guy Matt Gleason who is amusingly mean and biting with a kind of Michiko Kukatani flair for the crushing one-liner.  On Shepard Fairey, for example, creator of the Andre the Giant icon and, recently, one of the better-known Obama posters (which we actually have on our wall): “he’s a brand promoter… At the end of the day, it’s a very empty experience.”

Gleason is the (an?) editor of the Coagula Art Journal which on a quick perusal seems really good.

I’m sure Gleason is very conservative about the contemporary art scene and perhaps unfairly prejudiced against certain kinds of conceptual art, but it’s just fun to encounter a strong-willed critic who has a forceful P.O.V. and is not afraid to call out work he finds empty or vacuous.  This drives me crazy about a lot of contemporary art criticism (what little I see of it), its tendency towards bland description as a norm.

I’ll also point out that Gleason was a big fan of the tattoo artist they had on the show, so it’s not as if he’s only into oil painting or whatever.  This is an excerpt from the Shepard Fairey episode of the show:

The year CBS killed everything with a tree in it

Re: Wasilla Hillbillies, I found myself watching The Beverly Hillbillies recently with the sound off (but with subtitles) while working out on the Arc Welder or whatever it’s called at the Y, and thinking “wow, this is a really good show.”  The writing and acting seemed sharp and hilarious; I especially admired the physical comedy of Irene Ryan as Granny.  I kind of inanely mused, as I huffed and puffed, about the cleverness of the very idea of the “Beverly Hills Hillbillies,” re-imagining the “hills” of L.A. as a site of displaced rural Southernness.  So most likely I was just having a weird exercise endorphins reaction.

In any case, bear with me and check out these fascinating/weird tidbits from wikipedia:

Cancellation and “the Rural Purge”

Nielsen ratings for the 1970-71 season indicate that the bottom had dropped out for the perennial Top 30 series but was still fairly popular when it was canceled in 1971 after 274 episodes. The CBS network, prompted by pressure from advertisers seeking a more sophisticated urban audience, decided to refocus its schedule on several “hip” new urban-themed shows, and to make room for them, all of CBS’s rural-themed comedies were simultaneously canceled. This action came to be known as “the Rural Purge“. Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres, famously remarked that, “It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.”[2]

In addition to The Beverly Hillbillies, the series that were eliminated included Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee Haw.

And some surreal details about the Granny character:

She was extremely scrappy and was an expert at wielding a double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun, although the one time she actually fired it, unknown to her, Mr. Drysdale had replaced the shotgun pellets with bacon rind and rock salt after he arranged for Hollywood stuntmen to dress up as fake Native Americans to “attack” the Clampett mansion. She was also able to tell the precise time, to the minute and even the second, by looking at the position of the sun. ….Two of Granny’s phobias were “Injuns” (she actually bought wigs so the Clampetts wouldn’t be “scalped”) and the “cement pond” (she has a fear of water). In a long story arc in the show’s eighth season, Elly May dates a U.S. Navy frogman, which confuses Granny: After seeing the frogman climb out of the pool in his skin-diving wear, she thinks that anyone who swims in the pool will be turned into a frog.

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I think this was one of the shows that I would only watch when I was home sick from school. There was a taboo in our household on watching television during the daytime, so there was something distinctly unhealthy and corrupt-feeling about lying on the couch with a fever, drinking ginger ale (also only permitted when sick) watching hours of reruns.  I associate Family Affair, which I think was pretty awful, with this as well.