Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Luck: David Milch’s Return to HBO is a Sure Bet

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 14, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

Dustin Hoffman as Chester 'Ace' Bernstein in Luck on HBO

On January 29th, the first season of David Milch’s new HBO show, Luck, will begin – and it shows every sign that it can live up to the best that both Milch and HBO have to offer. Though we’ll have to wait six weeks to see new episodes of the show (which boasts screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in their first regular roles in a TV series), this past Sunday HBO gave audiences a sneak peek at the new series when it aired its pilot episode.

Coming out of the gate strong, this show takes its time, and respects its audience, subjects, and characters the way that only a show which is truly meaningful to its creators can. Knowing a subject too well can be a liability when making a drama. (David Simon’s intimacy with Baltimore was an asset for most of the run of The Wire, but if the final season staggered just a bit, it was likely because Simon was just a little too close to the world of the Baltimore Sun that he introduced in that fifth season) But here, it seems, Milch’s lifelong association with the racetrack only seems to give him the confidence necessary to take it slow. A story that was basically five decades in the making, it paints a patient portrait of a unique world.

David Milch on the set of Deadwood
In December 2007, one month into the Writers Guild of America strike that would bring Hollywood to a standstill for three and a half months, David Milch – most famous as the creator of HBO's groundbreaking Western Deadwood – gave a series of impromptu lectures before a small audience of fellow writers and strikers at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. (An astute soul taped the talks, and they have been available online ever since. For the singular insight they offer into one of television's most creative and dangerous minds, I cannot recommend them more.) Interspersed with anecdotes about his first sexual encounter and his decades-long struggle with drugs and alcohol, the extemporaneous lectures touched on everything from Milch’s philosophy of writing, the deep ambivalence TV writers feel towards their bosses, and the essence of the creative process, to the life of St Paul and the nature of religious faith.  And Milch also spoke about two very personal television projects that he’d been kicking around for a long time, both of which were extremely personal to him, and neither of which (he implied) he expected to ever see the light of day. One was a show about the racetrack. Luck is that show.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 26, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The cast of NBC's Community

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell On Wheels: AMC’s New Western Falls Flat

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Anson Mount stars in AMC's Hell On Wheels

As I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels this past Sunday night, I slowly began to realize that I was feeling something I had never before felt while watching the premiere of an AMC original dramatic series: I was bored. Reviewing a show based only on its first episode is a risky business, though I do generally feel less guilty about it when it comes to cable shows, with their relatively short seasons and high production values. (The first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premiered almost exactly a year ago – told me everything I needed to know about the show and gave me every reason to keep watching.) And, much to the misfortune of AMC’s new series, I fear the first episode of Hell On Wheels is equally representative of the series as a whole.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t think they were unrealistic. AMC had given us a string of ambitious, structurally and morally complex, shows over the past few years (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), and I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled. Add to that that Hell On Wheels is the first major Western to appear on television since Deadwood went off the air in 2006, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps the inevitable comparisons with Deadwood are unfair – after all Deadwood is as much a Western as The Wire is a police procedural, and there are few shows in the entire history of television that would survive the comparison. But Hell On Wheels, to its own detriment, invites the comparison: with a hero who can barely contain his seething anger, a recently widowed city woman, its lawless, frontier community setting, and its monologuing Machiavellian villain. And speaking for this one viewer, it was difficult to keep memories of Deadwood from rearing up.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Once Upon A Time and Grimm: Fairy Tales Go Prime Time

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 3, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page

Jennifer Morrison (far right) and the cast of ABC's Once Upon A TIme

Fairy tales are the new vampires: this is what a friend of mine told me a couple of months ago after she saw the new fall TV schedule. And indeed, fairy tales do seem to be enjoying a real renaissance of late. Three years into our apparently unending economic downturn, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that popular culture is turning to more and more fantastic and otherworldly settings to tell their stories. And if fairy tales seems destined to displace teen vampires in our cultural zeitgeist, Snow White herself seems fated to be their poster child. Next year alone, Hollywood will be releasing two live-actions retellings of her familiar story: Tarsem Sitongh’s as-yet-untitled project with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen coming out in March, and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman with the Twilight saga’s Kristen Stewart playing a Snow White meets Joan of Arc incarnation of the character. And in 2013, never to be outdone, Disney will be releasing Order of the Seven, another live-action adventure which tells the story from the perspective of the dwarves and re-sets the action to 19th-century China.

But we don’t have to wait until 2012 to experience the fairy tale revolution: over the past two weeks, two new shows have premiered on the small screen, each with its own revisionist take on the familiar stories we all grew up on: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm. But even though both shows operate generally on the same, perhaps familiar conceit – bringing storybook characters into our contemporary world (see 2007’s Enchanted for a recent movie example of this) – the two shows could be hardly be more different in their particular takes on the idea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Gifted Man: A Truly Gifted Show

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 19, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page

Jennifer Ehle and Patrick Wilson star in A Gifted Man

Barely four weeks into the new fall TV season, and we’ve already seen our first causalities: NBC’s neither sexy nor smart The Playboy Club, ABC’s dead-on-arrival Charlie’s Angels remake, and NBC’s workplace comedy Free Agents, have all been cancelled. (Perhaps I was alone in this, but I was rather charmed by Hank Azaria and Free Agentsand I regret that it wasn’t given more time to mature). In the end, however, I expect the 2011 fall TV season will likely be remembered for highly anticipated and expensive disappointments like Terra Nova, and impressively original cable fare like Homeland. (AboutTerra Nova, perhaps the less said the better, but Homeland deserves a special mention, and not only for the compelling case that Susan Green recently made on this blog. Showtime’s Homeland marks the return of Damian Lewis to television, last seen when NBC’s brilliant but short-lived series Life came to an untimely end in 2009. Lewis’ talent to portray quietly dangerous men with unfathomable internal lives is on full display in Homeland, and his presence alone would make the series worth your time!) 

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to wade through CGI Brachiosaurs and 60s-era stewardesses to find great television. Every once in a while, good TV can play by established rules, and still bring something refreshingly new, smart, and entertaining to the small screen. This season that show is CBS’s A Gifted Man, and hopefully it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A Gifted Man is a medical drama with a twist, and so far it seems to be doing almost everything right.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The House that Tina Fey Built: Women Take Charge of the New Fall Sitcoms of 2011

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 29, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Tina Fey
We are now firmly in the second week of the new fall TV season, and so far one thing seems clear: quirky and complicated women seem to be taking over our airwaves. Beginning in mid-October, ABC will offer two new comedies with a male perspective, Last Man Standing and Man Upboth promising to look at the modern beleaguered man. But for now, September is awash with new sitcoms boasting an array of strong, funny women: Zooey Deschanel in New Girl on Fox; Kathryn Hahn in Free Agents, and Whitney Cummings in Whitney on NBC; and Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls on CBS.
Strong female characters are of course nothing new in the history of the American sitcom: Gertrude Berg (The Goldbergs) and Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) basically invented the situation comedy in the early 1950s, playing women who were brazen, funny, and regularly willing to make themselves the joke. But as the TV mother and wife evolved through the decades, fallible and funny women characters were generally replaced by the long-suffering and inordinately pretty wives of fallible and funny men – roles like Mary Richards, Maude Finlay, and Roseanne Conner became the exception instead of the rule. No doubt emboldened by the critical and ratings successes of Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), executives have clearly decided that perhaps it is time to return to their roots. And generally speaking, the viewers are all the better for it – though as usual, not all the new shows are equally worth our time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Giddy Thing: Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre (August 29, 2011)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 21, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

There are worse ways to spend a summer night in London than in a lush West End theatre watching a high-octane Shakespeare production, but I have to confess that my girlfriend and I hadn’t actually planned for it. Coming on the heels of a much more orderly two and a half weeks in France, our time in London had a satisfying seat-of-your-pants feel to it, since it was essentially a pit stop en route from Paris to our final destination in Scotland But even months earlier, when all we’d confirmed about our time in the UK were our arrival and departure dates, there was one thing we were certain of: we knew exactly where we would be on Saturday August 27 at 19:00 GMT. That night we’d be sitting in front of a TV screen watching the much-anticipated fall premiere of Doctor Who. The preceding episode of the season had aired way back in early June, and I have no shame in confessing that our twin geek hearts were genuinely aflutter with the mere idea of watching the show’s return live on British soil. (Europe is lovely yes, but we’d let our travelling interfere with our TV watching quite enough at that point in our month-long trip!) And so perhaps you can imagine our excitement when, while looking for the entrance to the Charing Cross tube station, Jessica and I stumbled serendipitously upon Wyndham’s Theatre. There, on the marquee, were the shining faces of David Tennant and Catherine Tate – both of Doctor Who fame! – headlining as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. No doubt all the stars in heaven had conspired to bring us to this very moment: these were our last two days in London, and it turned out to be the last week of the show’s 3-month run. We simply had to see this play.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who
And so, on the morning of Monday August 29, Jessica and I got up early and stood in line for that day’s lottery, hoping to secure two of the few remaining seats for that evening’s sold-out performance. We weren’t alone, it turned out. The line outside the theatre that morning was well-populated, but buoyant. Many were coming to see the show for a second time, and true to form, the conversations we had were less about Elizabethan theatre than that Saturday’s Doctor Who episode. In the end, we left with two standing room tickets, and were grateful for them! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the Tate Modern and following a quick visit to a nearby pub, we got to the theatre a half hour early (as we’d been advised to do by the lovely woman and rabid David Tennant fan, we’d met in line that morning) in order to secure a good standing spot for ourselves. It turned out we needn’t have worried: Wyndham’s is a fairly intimate space (especially in the Stalls), and the back of the house had a clear, unobstructed view of the whole stage. And so we waited, and watched, as every seat in the sold-out house slowly filled up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beach TV 2011: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

If you’ve been spending this summer catching up on all the television you didn’t get the chance to watch during the year, you’ve likely been missing out on new episodes of the best shows currently in production: Breaking Bad on AMC, Curb Your Enthusiasm and True Blood on HBO, and the sublimely brilliant Louie on FX. (And, for our Canadian readers, Showcase has been airing the much anticipated second season of the endlessly original British sci-fi import Misfits since early June.) And there was a lot of serious, dramatic, and important television that aired in the past year.

But if I’m being honest, what I often really want to watch at the end of a long summer day should be as easy to digest as summer reading – the televisual equivalent of a new Sue Grafton novel. In this era of dark comedy and intense psychological drama, it is sometimes easy to forget that great television can often be simply diverting, escapist, and just plain entertaining. After all, NBC’s Parks and Recreation is not only one of the most good-natured shows on television: it’s also one of its funniest.

Over the past several weeks, two new shows and one returning favourite have populated the television equivalent of my beach reading list: Franklin & Bash, Suits, and Warehouse 13. What these shows may lack in gravitas, they more than make up for in sheer fun.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Portrait of the Comedian as a Middle-Aged Man: The Painful Pleasures of FX’s Louie

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 30, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Ever wondered what it would look like if you mixed television comedy with indie filmmaking budget and sensibilities? Now that Louis C.K.’s darkly funny series Louie has returned for a second season, you can wonder no more.  Loosely based on his real life (as a 40-something, recently divorced comedian with joint custody of his two young daughters), Louis C.K. has been given unprecedented control over the content and direction of the series. With a promise to FX to keep the budget to shoestring levels, the network has agreed to stay out of his way, leaving C.K. to star, write, direct, edit, produce, and even cast every episode. Gleefully mixing gross-out comedy with existential anxiety, a single episode can casually touch on themes of post-divorce loneliness, the joys and traumas of parenthood, the aging male body, and even mortality itself. Last week’s episode (the second season premiere) may have hinged on an epic bout of flatulence, but it was also one of the most poignantly painful stories Louie has ever told. I’m not sure if Louie is the saddest comedy in the history of television or its funniest tragedy. Either way, it is one of the most original shows on TV today.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Game of Thrones: Winter is Almost Here

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 15, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones
This Sunday, June 19th, HBO will air the tenth and final episode of the first season of its new medieval fantasy series, Game of Thrones. Based on George R. R. Martin’s popular series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is HBO’s most ambitious fantasy series to date. With more than 7 million copies of the novels sold worldwide (the fifth of the planned seven books will be published on July 12th), the series was one of the most anticipated shows of 2011, and in my opinion it has more than lived up to the hype. With a strong ensemble cast of veteran actors and newcomers and impressive production values, the show is more than an amazing example of fantasy storytelling, it is quite simply great television.

The series co-creators, screenwriters David Benioff (Troy) and D. B. Weiss, have committed to adapting one novel a season, following the model established by HBO’s other successful fantasy series, True Blood. But unlike True Blood, Game of Thrones offers a much more faithful translation of the novels. With most of the scripts for the first season penned by Benioff and Weiss, the series builds confidently towards its explosive final episodes. The novelistic pacing of this season is ideally suited to the inherent strengths of television: telling a sweeping story, with twenty main characters and dozens of supporting roles, multiple storylines, and grand themes. But despite its epic tenor, Game of Thrones takes its time. Its first episodes serve not only as an introduction to this world and its unique history but, more crucially, to the people that populate it. The series is profoundly and deeply human in the details. Heroes and villains alike are drawn with patience and sympathy. At the end of an episode, it is more often the smaller conversations and interactions that loom larger and linger longer in my mind than the show’s more epic elements. By the time the battle lines are drawn in the second half of the season, we are intimately familiar with players on all sides of the conflict, and there is a heartbreaking depth to every drop of blood that is shed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgement Day: Some New TV Favourites Bite the Dust

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 22, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene fron NBC's Outsourced

When you love television, the threat of a show’s cancellation comes with the territory. Whether it’s because of middling ratings, skittish sponsors, quirks of network schedules, or a main star with eyes on the big screen, you know that a beloved TV series isn’t going to run forever. Nor, to be perfectly honest, should you want it to. Creatively speaking, in my opinion, some of the most fruitful consequences of the cable TV revolution are shorter seasons and shorter runs of shows. Thirteen brilliant episodes of a series like Terriers are worth more than 218 episodes of Smallville (which, after 10 seasons, recently aired its final episode). This is not to say that I wasn’t and am not still quite a bit upset about the untimely end of Terriers this past winter, but I’ve become a lot more philosophical about the lifespan of TV shows. Ironically, what made the cancellation of Terriers somewhat less upsetting for me was how well-constructed the series was, from start to finish. The writers and stars seemed to know exactly what the show was, and who the characters were, right out of the gate. What is more frustrating are shows that get cancelled just as a series is beginning to figure out what it is: you can see how good it’s going to become, only to see that future cut short. Every television season comes with a few heartbreaking announcements, and (with the cancellations of Outsourced and Traffic Light) the 2010-2011 season was no exception.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scaling the Fourth Wall: TV Shows about TV Shows

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: Curb Your Enthusiasm
I've always been a sucker for self-referential media: be it celebrity cameos, intentional genre-busting, fictional characters meeting fictionalized versions of themselves, and everything in between. (My favourite Woody Allen film is The Purple Rose of Cairo, I continue to believe that Last Action Hero is an underrated masterpiece, and no-one probably applauded more than I did for Nathan Fillion’s Firefly shout-out in last season’s Halloween episode of Castle, walking on-screen in full “Captain Mal” gear.) And the most popular and entertaining form these stories have taken is the show about a show: films and TV about making film and TV. It’s a conceit that's been around since Shakespeare, and whether it’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or 30 Rock, there will always be something especially compelling about a show within a show.

Last month, I wrote about the recent Showtime sitcom Episodes. This dark comedy stars Friends alum Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc, and tells a story as old television itself: the trials and tribulations of making a television show. In this case, it was the story of a married British comedy writing team who had the misfortune to have a hit series of theirs optioned by an American network. As I wrote, Episodes, for the most part, works well (in large part due to the talents of the BBC television veterans who play the show’s leads), and is definitely worth checking out.

But some of the weaknesses I identified in Episodes have got me thinking about just how tricky it can be to make a television comedy about making television comedy.  It’s one thing to dramatize or satirize the process (from Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood has long been its own favourite subject), but it is quite another to film a comedy about how empty and compromised sitcom production can often be. Episodes mostly held its own, but it’s swimming next to some big fish: The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Extras. Here we're going to look at why I believe these shows, in particular, are so successful.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Showtime’s Episodes: The One Where the Brits Get Shafted by Hollywood

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 15, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Some of the biggest news in TV this winter (long before Charlie Sheen began his distracting antics) was the return of some old Friends to the sitcom world: Matthew Perry on ABC’s Mr. Sunshine and Matt LeBlanc’s on Showtime’s Episodes. Since I’ve already weighed in positively on Mr. Sunshine, today we’re taking a look at Episodes.

Episodes is far more than a Matt LeBlanc comeback vehicle. Co-produced by Showtime and the BBC (and airing simultaneously on both of sides of the pond)Episodes tells the story of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (former Green Wing co-stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg), a British husband-and-wife writing duo whose BAFTA-award winning TV series is optioned by an American network. The 7-episode first season takes place over a period of only a couple of weeks, taking us step-by-step from the couple’s disorienting arrival in Hollywood to the end of the filming of their show’s pilot. This slow corruption of the Lincolns’ professional integrity is mirrored in the concurrent decay of their relationship. The two are compelled to make compromise after compromise in the production of their show, including being forced to (mis)cast Matt LeBlanc (credibly played by Matt LeBlanc) as the show’s lead. Within hours of landing in L.A., their show’s title shifts from “Lyman’s Boys” to “Pucks!”, transformed from a genteel, if biting, boarding school comedy about an aging headmaster with a wistful crush on a middle-aged, lesbian librarian into a middle-of-the-road romcom-sitcom about a hockey coach wooing the school’s young, sexy, and very heterosexual librarian.

Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan
Taking on show business from the inside raises the bar considerably for a comedy series, and so Episodes gave itself a steep hill to climb. (The gold standard will always be HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, but Ricky Gervais’ much more personal approach in Extras comes in a close second.)  But even if making a TV show about making a TV show is as old as television itself, Crane and Klarik do bring something new to the table: the dramatization of the difficult translation of a successful UK series into the very different culture of American TV. In that sense, it could hardly be timelier. In the very same week that Episodes first aired, 3 US versions of popular UK shows premiered: Skins (on MTV), Being Human (on SyFy), Shameless, which aired immediately following the first episode of Episodes on Showtime itself. As each of these shows struggles in its own way to translate very popular (and still on-going) British series for an American audience, Episodes offers a dark and satirical look behind the scenes at a comparable, if fictional, effort. If you’ve ever seen a favourite UK series be painfully adapted to the US network model (NBC’s limp re-creation of Steven Moffat’s Coupling comes to mind), Episodes is definitely a must-see.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Good News: Four Promising New Sitcoms of 2011

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 18, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

While the 2010-2011 television season has given us some extraordinary new dramas, comedy lovers haven’t been as lucky. In 2009-2010, the US networks gave us a number of critical and popular successes, most notably Modern Family, Cougar Town, and Community. But this past fall, the only comedy standout has been NBC’s Outsourced. And Outsourced, despite doing consistently well in the ratings, has generated an almost unanimously poor critical reception – one which, in my opinion, is wholly undeserved. Considering the largely disappointing crop from the first half of the season, I awaited this new batch of sitcoms with a mixture of both eagerness and trepidation. Fortunately, it would seem that the networks were saving the best for last!  Below, I review some of the sitcoms that have debuted in 2011 that I believe are worth checking out: Bob’s Burgers (Fox), Traffic Light (Fox), Mr. Sunshine (ABC), and (for our Canadian readers) CBC’s new spy spoof, Insecurity.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Israeli TV’s Arab Labor: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Checkpoint

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 7, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The cast of Arab Labor (Season 1)
Watching great foreign television is often a multilayered pleasure. It gives the viewer access to a whole new world of talent – writers, actors, and directors – and the stories and themes that other cultures choose to explore are often surprising in themselves. Television is too often a generic art form, and even its innovations sometimes seem to be confined to variations on familiar, well-trodden situations. Not only can the best of foreign television be refreshingly unique in its execution, but watching these shows can also reveal heretofore unknown or unobserved aspects of our own domestic television. Our most basic assumptions about character, plot, and human interaction (presuppositions that can function as a kind of storytelling shorthand, and therefore often pass without being perceived) can become visible, precisely in their absence, in these new programs. This is a fact that cinephiles have known for decades, which is why foreign language films are watched with such dedication and enthusiasm by movie lovers. But foreign television – especially foreign language television – has never been as accessible as foreign film. While cinephiles have long been able to enjoy movies from all over the world, telephiles (why isn’t this word in the OED yet?) haven’t been quite so lucky.  

For decades, networks like PBS and the CBC have been bringing us the best of British television, but the TV powers-that-be rarely, if ever, broadcast non-English programs in North America. More often than not the North American TV viewer’s sole access to foreign television is indirect, by way of domestic adaptations of the original shows. I’m sure there are some well-intended reasons behind this practice: the very nature of TV storytelling, be it drama or comedy, often relies on cultural cues and references which can be obstacles to new audiences, even when language isn’t an issue. In the past month alone, US cable networks have launched three high profile remakes of British series, all of which are still in production in the UK: Being Human, Shameless, and Skins. And, as touch-and-go as remakes notoriously are, that is not to say that US networks haven’t had some stunning successes in the past: often as much can be gained as is lost in translation. Still, for every All in the Family (based on the BBC’s working-class comedy, Till Death Us Do Part) and The Office, there are tone-deaf failures like NBC’s Coupling and ABC’s recent Life on Mars. An avid TV viewer has more than enough reason to approach these new efforts with some caution. But if you want to watch original non-English TV, even in our current 200-channel universe, you’ve got to program them for yourself. Fortunately for us, each of us individually has access to more television than ever before, and even if the shows aren’t airing with any regularity, Internet streaming (from services like Netflix and from international websites) and DVDs from Amazon can more than make up for it. Today I want to talk about Arab Labor, a series running on Israeli television which recently completed its second season.

Monday, January 17, 2011

FX’s Terriers: Catch a Ride with a Trickster and a Travelin’ Man

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 17, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Terriers (on FX)
For the most part, the FX Network was good to me in 2010. By mid-summer, they had already premiered three of my favourite new series of the year: in comedy, the hilarious and deeply original Louis C.K. vehicle, Louie; in animation, the surprisingly funny, edgy, and intelligent spy spoof, Archer; and in drama, the hard-boiled contemporary Western, Justified, based on the work of Elmore Leonard and starring Timothy Olyphant. (All three shows have been renewed and will bring us second seasons in 2011.) But the folks at FX weren’t done yet: on September 8th, they premiered Terriers. Created by screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven) and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, Terriers stars Donal Logue (Life, Grounded for Life) as Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, who teams up with Britt Pollack, his best friend and mostly reformed thief (played by Michael Raymond-James, True Blood), to open an unlicensed private investigation firm. Based on the early promos for the series, I had initially positioned the series in relation to The Good Guys, the good-natured buddy-cop show created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), which premiered on FOX over the summer (and was cancelled last month). But halfway through the opening credits of Terriers (and the original theme song written by the show’s composer Rob Duncan), I knew I was going to be delightfully mistaken. With substantial characters and two charismatic stars, some powerful writing and subtle serial nature, Terriers would soon rise to the level of FX’s spring season hit, Justified. While often hilarious, the show was also carefully plotted, and offered a perfect mix of compelling characters, dark humour, and genuine intrigue. Unfortunately, by early December, FX announced that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers. But whatever its future, Terriers will remain one of the few bright spots in what was an often disappointing new fall TV season.