Lunchtable TV Talk: Premature cancellation

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Do shows fail to find an audience because of (lack of or bad) marketing? Because today there is too much to choose from or just because the masses have questionable taste? (I know this to be true, and this is why I don’t much buy into the “wisdom of the crowd” or focus groups or anything that relies on tipping point-pleasing everyone logic. I, and most of my friends, are not the mass in the middle that wants to see lame singing contests on TV every night of the week or who once wanted more and more stuff like Fear Factor or Survivor or Big Brother. We’re not the ones who thought the title/concept of Big Brother was conceived with the reality show debacle that reality show “moment” spawned. We know exactly where Big Brother came from – and we know that Big Brother like tactics are exactly what are used to inform network decisions on TV cancellation.

So yeah… what about all those pleasant and sometimes fantastic shows that never found their audience, despite finding a voice?

I am sure there is a long list of television shows that I have loved – that you have loved – that saw a premature end. Then there are shows aplenty that started but could not end soon enough because they sucked that much.

Quite a few shows from past seasons were cancelled but were lovely: The Bridge, Better Off Ted, Lone Star, Party Down, Terriers. I still miss them sometimes when I think of them. And then there are some, like the hilarious The Brink on HBO. It was renewed during the first season’s run and sometime before the second season would have happened… HBO pulled the plug! I am miffed about that one and may yet be for a good while.

Somewhere in the middle were shows that were average and entertaining without being must-see. Or shows that glimmered with flashes of promise. And some things were just steadily decent.

I lament the loss of some of these – Gang Related had people like Cliff Curtis (a veteran of film of TV, who is currently a lead in Fear the Walking Dead); Terry O’Quinn (who will always make a sandwich of the bread-and-butter law enforcement style roles he commands); Jay Karnes (who is just the coolest guy in usually uncool roles). Most of these people will work no matter what. But it’s a shame when a cast comes together and works well but does not get a chance to see where it might go.

About a Boy is another similar show. Minnie Driver was sweet. Al Madrigal was silly. And overall it might have been a little mushy, but it was a mush not unlike a slightly sweet applesauce – easy to swallow and pleasant. Yes, I know – I seriously compared a TV show to applesauce.

And then I reflect on other show that I don’t miss but am not sure they would not have turned out okay – Monday Mornings, Taxi Brooklyn?

And then some, like Happy Endings, was vocally mourned by a lot of critics, who felt it was underrated – but I found it only rarely funny, often irritating and a lot less clever, funny or endearing than the aforementioned About a Boy. But still, it too might have been cancelled too soon.

But most of the actors involved in these undertakings landed on their feet elsewhere or already had well-established bearings.

Do we lose out on some of these things because we’ve hit peak TV? There’s too much to choose from or we have slow and poor attention spans? If that were true, the losses of some of these things would not still linger so many months and years after their demise.

Why I Changed My Mind – Saffron Burrows

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Emblazoned in my memory is the image of Saffron Burrows as the kind of vulnerable villainess, who, if memory serves, does redeem herself in the end, in the film Circle of Friends. I haven’t seen the film since its release back in … 1993? 1994? But the image, accurate or not, has remained. Recall if you will that I had misgivings dating back to that film about its starlet, Minnie Driver, as well – and overcame them in a big way. Burrows, as the beautiful temptress, thwarts the whole “inner beauty triumphs” story (at least temporarily) that propels Circle of Friends. And Burrows has been held, in my mind, to that femme-fatale, bad guy standard of the character she played (testament to her performance, though, that it had that kind of staying power) ever since.

My opinion has changed, but it is not like it ever made any dramatic shifts because it is not like I ever hated her or actively avoided her films or multiple recent TV appearances. She has always been sort of low-key, turning up when I was not expecting to see her, and always making an impression. She might fall victim to the misguided idea that beauty of her type could not possibly come with the kind of talent she has. I don’t really know, but seeing her recently in Mozart in the Jungle, I felt oddly moved by her portrayal of Cynthia, a flawed, complicated woman who is seductive and unapologetically in touch with that side of herself but who also gives generously of herself with whatever she can offer. At least that’s how I interpreted her character. Seeing her in this role made me go back and re-evaluate other places I have seen her. There are quite a lot of performances, and none really stand out – but she always brings something different and fresh to her roles.

While I don’t necessarily evaluate actors and other “stars” based on their personal lives, Burrows’ public openness and fluidity about sexuality and relationships has been refreshing. Despite being someone who seems quite private (but also political), she recently revealed that she married her female partner and has long been a voice for equality. Being in the public eye, it’s hard to keep such matters secret, and her love life has been mentioned here and there in the media before (with well-publicized romances with men, such as Alan Cumming, who himself wed his same-sex partner a few years ago. And of course, he was the actual “villain” in Circle of Friends, although villain might be too strong a word!). Burrows exudes a kind of “accepting” vibe – seeming very in control while being open and welcoming. I don’t know her, so this is just imagination. But this is the kind of confidence that her most memorable characters convey (in particular her Mozart character). Worldly but not jaded, a seen-it-all but still loving taking it in attitude.

Considered, reconsidered – I’m really impressed with Burrows. Her work speaks for itself, but by extension, I think her public handling of her relationship and situation is brave in that it can actually be difficult to recognize how and when to “live an honest life” – whatever that means. And sometimes that means not really defining yourself the way people expect you to be defined (that is, putting yourself in one box or another).

Why I Changed My Mind: Minnie Driver

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During my recent headache-inspired film-viewing overdose, I randomly decided to see the film The Governess, starring Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson.

While some actors, actresses, musicians or writers strike me the wrong way right off the bat (and I later change my mind), I have no rational explanation for why I decided I did not like Minnie Driver. It was not her performances (all of which were superb, right from the beginning, e.g. Circle of Friends, or one of my all-time favorites, Big Night). There was just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. Many actors I have disliked and about which I later changed my mind evolved or grew more into themselves, which explains the evolution of my opinions about them. It might not even be about their performances or their aging gracefully into different roles so much as it is about the roles they are actually offered.

But none of this was applicable to Ms Driver. Unlike someone like Kim Dickens, about whom I changed my mind, I did not groan to myself if I knew Driver was in a film – I still watched and enjoyed it. For a while she seemed to be everywhere and showed a great range – period pieces, drama and humor, smaller parts to leading roles, and eventually film to television. Arguably she is a bigger star than most of the people I sat on the fence (and eventually jumped to one side or the other) about – a fact that made her harder to avoid, had I wanted to.

It was not until I saw her in the underrated TV show The Riches (which itself was something I avoided during its original run) that I began to respect the depth of her talent. I think a lot of people sort of fell in love with her when they saw her in Good Will Hunting, but for me, I guess I could have fallen in love with her work, so to speak, much earlier if I had really been paying attention. Her work in the aforementioned Big Night was subtle and insightful, her turn as Debi in Grosse Pointe Blank was believable (in the most broad and comprehensive way – “believable” makes it sound like it was barely passable, when in fact I mean the opposite). Later her memorable TV appearances proved that she was also not afraid to make fun of herself and to make fun in general (Will & Grace in particular, but also more recently in Modern Family).

Considered, reconsidered – being in the public eye and putting oneself out there for the world to see, while a choice, is a vulnerable act. Actors are scrutinized constantly, so the armchair criticism of someone like me – on an individual level – does not matter much. But on the whole, if exposed to this constant criticism en masse – I cannot imagine it’s fun. The public’s – and fandom’s – taste is fickle.

That said, Minnie Driver has been delivering top-notch performances all along.

Migraine films

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Tossing and turning and trying to sleep, a massive headache crept in. Since I could not get rid of the headache or fall asleep, I watched a bunch of films, such as:

  • The Governess: not new – I avoided it at the time of its release because I was irrationally against Minnie Driver – about whom I have since changed my mind. Bonus – Tom Wilkinson is in The Governess.
  • War Witch (Rebelle): Pretty devastating film about a girl whose village is destroyed by rebel soldiers. She is kidnapped to become a child soldier. The film is not set somewhere specific but was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On a sort of unrelated note, the soundtrack was spectacular.
  • Starbuck: A French-Canadian thing about a guy whose prolific sperm donations spawned 500+ offspring, of which more than 100 have formed a class-action lawsuit to force the adoption agency to release their biological father’s identity. His pseudonym through this process is “Starbuck”. Starbuck is a hapless, middle-aged guy, in debt up to his eyeballs and working for the family business, seemingly stuck in a rut he’ll never get out of. Once he knows he is the father of all these people, he begins intervening in some of their lives, and his small acts of kindness start to change his life. All in all, not a bad movie, and it is perfect evidence of how strange French Canadian sounds if you’re used to French French. People say French French is nasal, but this is nasal and whiny somehow.
  • Upstream Color: Unusual film, non-linear narrative. Not even sure how to describe it, and not sure whether I liked it or not.
  • About Sunny: Remembering Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under, it is interesting to see her evolve into this challenging portrayal of a single mother who is neither all good nor all bad – but in her struggle as one of America’s working poor, she is always one step away from a disaster.
  • Arcadia: John Hawkes can be counted on for wide-eyed likeability. He is much less sympathetic in Arcadia, as a man taking his three children across the country to California. By the end of the film, you do gain some sympathy for what the character has gone through – but he’s not the same character we’ve seen in his portrayals of the hapless shoe salesman in Me and You and Everyone We Know or Sol Star in HBO’s Deadwood. Of course Hawkes has a great range. There is actually a balance among all his roles – sometimes he acts in a sleazy, slimy way; sometimes he is a lovable, likeable guy. (Other notable performances include Winter’s Bone and The Sessions).
  • Zodiac: A long docu-drama about the Zodiac killer, who terrorized California in the late 60s and 70s. Great to see Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. and tons of other great actors.
  • Talhotblond: Documentary about people talking — and lying about who they are – online, ending up in one person’s death. It seems crazy – I remember being about 12 or 13 and lying elaborately about my age in order to talk to older people – and to escape the daily reality of my life at the time (this was the pre-internet age). Of course I was 12. Not that that makes it excusable, but I think a kid does not realize the impact these actions might result in. People in the film are adults with life experience and should know better. The people in this documentary are in their 40s. It is quite similar to another documentary I saw (Catfish), which tells almost the same kind of story – without any lethal outcomes.