Thursday, July 26, 2012

What’s So Good about Feel-Bad TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston star in Breaking Bad on AMC

Television has a well-earned reputation for producing escapist fare. But the continuing popularity of shows like Grey's Anatomy, America’s Got Talent, and The Bachelorette doesn’t tell the whole story. Many of the best TV series in the past ten years – a decade of worldwide terror, multiple (and seemingly unending) wars, mortgage crises, and economic decline – are also the most challenging, darkest, and let’s just say it, depressing shows in the history of television.  While Hollywood is overrun with costumed heroes, romantic comedies, and vampire hunting U.S. Presidents, television (cable TV in particular) is taking up the social slack, addressing issues like racism, cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, death, and dying. And its confrontation with these issues has met with both popular and critical success.

Rather than pander to a hypothetical population that wants to leave reality behind, shows like Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Dexter have found big audiences by telling difficult, uncomfortable stories, calling into question old assumptions about why and how people watch television. Notably, while there are few subjects as taboo as cancer, cable TV currently offers two shows with a lead character suffering from the disease: The Big C (Showtime’s comedy starring Laura Linney as a woman recently diagnosed with late stage melanoma), and Breaking Bad, which recently began its fifth and final season on AMC.

If you want to understand the current appeal of Feel-Bad TV, Breaking Bad is perhaps the ideal place to start. The show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, joins forces with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student turned drug dealer, and begins to cook crystal meth. The recipe for Breaking Bad’s success lies in its unflinching realism and its refusal to pull any punches: the very same ingredients which often make the show so difficult to watch are also why it is such compelling viewing. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Batman: The Brave and the Bold – Let Fly the Hammers of Justice!

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 15, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Batman and Plastic Man battle some super-intelligent apes in Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Batman has long been my favourite superhero. And I’m not alone: Hollywood has long favoured the Caped Crusader – giving us a half dozen major motion pictures in the past two decades alone. In five days, the long-awaited conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly intense, philosophical Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, will open in theatres worldwide. But Batman’s life on the small screen has been just as varied. Beginning with the famously campy Adam West series in the mid-sixties, and reaching perhaps its zenith with the classic Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman have been a television staple for more than four decades. Last August, the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold ended its three-season run on the Cartoon Network – but I confess that it was only over the past few weeks that I finally gave the series a real look. And with Nolan’s sure-to-be blockbuster movie waiting in the wings, this is as good a time as any to let you know why you should check it too.

Based on the long-running DC comic series of the same name, The Brave and the Bold is unique among the many Batman titles in that it specifically focuses on Batman teaming up with other heroes of the DC universe. The animated series follows this same mandate, bringing Batman together with one or more other costumed heroes in his famous battle against villainy and evil in all their incarnations. But Batman: The Brave and the Bold (hereafter BtBatB) was unique in another way, in that it controversially marked a return to the lighter, more tongue-in-cheek Batman stories of an earlier generation. It’s brighter in tone, snappier in dialogue, and unapologetically cartoonish in its animation style. And truth be told, in 2008 when I dutifully tuned in for its premiere episode, I hated it. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth to Stupid

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 8, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The Newsroom, on HBO
Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom, on HBO

Contains minor spoilers for the first episode of The Newsroom.

Tonight the third episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new workplace drama, airs on HBO, and it pains me to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it. When the series – which is set in the anguished world of TV news production, and boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston – premiered two weeks ago, I tuned in with cautious optimism.

On the plus side, the pilot episode marked Sorkin’s return to series television after five long years, since the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired on NBC in 2007. On the negative side, well,  Studio 60: a series which, like The Newsroom, came with a great cast (in that case Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a promising premise, and great expectations. Sure, the show had intelligent characters, and the mile-a-minute dialogue that Sorkin so brilliantly employed in his two previous critically-acclaimed shows Sports Night and The West Wing, but Studio 60 quickly became bogged down by Sorkin’s own ambitions. By mid-season, the show’s big ideas about America’s so-called “culture wars” began to dwarf the characters and story, and more often than not its speeches felt like Aaron Sorkin debating Aaron Sorkin: staged political dialogues, voiced by Hollywood actors. It was smart, funny, and looked and sounded great, but it grew progressively more tiresome, until I began to look forward to its inevitable cancellation.

But in the years since Studio 60’s cancellation, Sorkin has more than proven he’s still got chops, with three Academy Award-nominated screenplays for Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010) and Moneyball (2011), winning the Oscar for The Social Network.  Hence my tempered expectations for The Newsroom. Unfortunately, my ambivalence was more than validated by the first two (of ten) episodes. In the end, The Newsroom seems to be a kind of beautiful mess – but a mess nonetheless.