Sunday, August 22, 2010

Justified: Portrait of a 21st Century Lawman

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 22, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

There are some TV shows that come out of the gate with such polish and promise that from the very first episode you know you’re watching something special. Justified is one of those shows. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 2002 short story “Fire in the Hole,” Justified premiered on the FX network on March 16th, ran for 13 episodes, and ended with an explosive season finale on June 8th. Already, it's shaping up to be one of FX’s most consistently solid series since The Shield. A second season has been ordered for 2011. (It airs on Super Channel HD in Canada.)

The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) from Miami back to Harlan, the rural Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town where he grew up. On the heels of a much-publicized shooting incident, Givens reluctantly leaves behind investigations of international drug cartels to face the problems and people he happily left years earlier. Though the story is set firmly in 2010, when we first see Olyphant, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish Givens from Sheriff Seth Bullock, the character he played for three seasons on David Milch’s Deadwood on HBO: they’re both men with well-defined, albeit personal, codes of justice, men who don’t draw their guns unless they intend to use them. Wearing a white Stetson above the stoic and squinting expression of an old West lawman, Givens is a man out of time, or more precisely, a man out of genre. From the Emmy-nominated song playing over the credits (a track by Gangstagrass, a New York-based band known for a unique brand of bluegrass/hip-hop fusion), the tone is set. The show is itself a mash-up—the old West with crystal meth and Smartphones, the story of a 19th century man with a 21st century life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 13, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Four TV Shows You Should Watch With Your Kids

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Television viewers have never had it so good. In this age of DVDs, digital cable, and iTunes downloads, there is almost no end to what is available. A few weeks ago, I recommended five recently cancelled TV shows that you should definitely watch. Today I turn my attention to a different kind of programming: four quality shows that you should watch with your kids. Popular culture produced for children doesn’t always have a reputation for quality, and Saturday morning shows even less so. But it isn’t all Hannah Montana or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As with adult fare, it is usually simply a question of knowing where to look. Each of these shows is perfect for kids 8-12 years old, but they are all worth checking out, with or without child supervision!

All of the shows I discuss below have finished their runs. Although these series were not necessarily cancelled before their time, they may still have passed unnoticed. Children’s programming is often underappreciated, but each of these shows, in their own unique ways, demonstrates the real strengths of television as a storytelling medium. Even when its target audience can’t legally drive, television continues to create cleverly constructed worlds, with fully-defined characters, intelligent dialogue, and compelling stories.