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.