Thursday, March 21, 2013

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 21, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Fireflywere barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.

But the thunderous success of Rob Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a proposed Veronica Mars movie has shifted my thoughts to a darker, less congenial question: what about those beloved series that lived too long, the ones whose sublime early seasons begin to decay under the weight of their own continuity
?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ripper Street: A Fresh Take on Old Crimes

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 6, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Jerome Flynn, Matthew Macfadyen and Adam Rothenberg star in Ripper Street

You can’t swing a remote control these days without hitting a period drama. From Downton Abbey, to Mad Men, to Copper, it seems that TV producers and TV audiences are interested in stories that happened ‘back then.’ The dividing line of these period offerings is whether the television produced mobilizes feelings of nostalgia and wants us to long for those times, or whether the stories are told precisely to disturb that warm and fuzzy feeling for the days of hats, cigars, and clear social structures. The new BBC/BBC America co-production, Ripper Street, falls firmly into this second category. The Victorian-era crime drama opens a door into a distinctly gruesome version of Conan Doyle’s London: a re-imagining which upsets and reconfigures our set notions of the past. It is easy to imagine Holmes and Watson moving about in hansom cabs, solving their own mysteries just five urban miles west of Ripper Street's Whitechapel district. Mind you, I was inadvertently well-prepared to imagine just that, having recently finished Anthony Horowitz’s novel The House of Silk, a faithful and gritty take on Conan Doyle’s characters and setting. Horowitz tells a dark story perfectly in sync with the spirit of Richard Warlow’s Ripper Street – both tell period stories geared towards an audience willing to glimpse just a little deeper in the depths of human depravity than previous generations.

It’s 1889, and London’s East End is still reeling from the effects of the grisly Jack the Ripper killings. Jack has gone silent, but the repercussions of those murders are still emerging: both for a traumatized population and for the policemen who failed to catch him. Such is the setting of Ripper Street. And it is gripping stuff.