Lunchtable TV Talk: Borgia v The Borgias

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A rich and varied tale and time period it may be, but the late 1400s and the rise to power of the Borgia family does not seem like material that would make for two (quite different) series.

The Borgias on Showtime went for a bigger name at the head – Jeremy Irons – and aimed for more salacious and sexual (although Borgia is not far behind). Not unlike the other period pieces Showtime has pushed. Like history won’t be interesting unless it’s presented with boobs.

Borgia is something different – it actually takes a bit more time to explain the context in which the story fits into the world. No huge names here – and it is hard to buy John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia. He’s really such a … cop or corrupt cop or bad guy, you know. He was central to The Wire, and in general is just so American that it is not easy to see past. He shows up everywhere and in a lot of different roles, but as a cardinal/pope in this particular time period? No. Jeremy Irons pulls this off, and while Doman’s a talented guy, he is a man out of place here. The rest of the acting is terrible – an international cast that speaks questionable English even though it’s an English-language production… heavens, please.

I cannot say, even though I sat through both series, that I would recommend either.

Coca-Cola and “assholery”: Mad Men and HAPPYish

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Coca-Cola believes it taught us to sing. Or at least it believes it is so intrinsic to our lives that we won’t even notice its ubiquitous presence in our favorite TV shows. How pervasive Coca-Cola suddenly is in two TV shows that focus on the advertising industry: Mad Men and HAPPYish. If everyone in the world is an asshole, as the TV show HAPPYish posits, then ad men are the biggest assholes in the world, selling asshole ideas to a world of susceptible asshole sheep-herd consumers.

“In this toilet of a world, the asshole is king*.” Everyone loves the asshole.

“Your problem is that you think that assholes are some sort of anomaly, some sort of aberration. Nature is an asshole factory, my friend. If you exist, you’re an asshole*.”

Throughout the latter half of the final season of Mad Men, there have been multiple references to Coca-Cola, as present as Lucky Strike was to its first season. The references are subtle – talking about Coke like it is the holy grail of advertising, what all ad men aspire to. With only one episode left, it remains to be seen whether all these mentions lead somewhere or are just planted for the sake of talking about Coke. Lucky Strike’s dominance in season one, and the ad men’s urgent campaign to wipe out the rising tide of health warnings against smoking, foreshadowed a brave-faced Betty Draper Francis being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Do the constant references to Coke as Mad Men winds down – the pursuit of their business – foreshadow the oncoming proliferation of diabetes, obesity and other health ills that soon overtake America? Is Matthew Weiner painting a cautionary tale in broad strokes? The vices we desire are ultimately what will kill us, but there are awfully compelling, glossy ad campaigns that make these vices appear however ad men want them to look – seductive, sexy, wholesome, beautiful, “toasted” (Don Draper’s pitch to Lucky Strike in season one) or a harbinger of world peace (“I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony… I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”). All in the consumerist pursuit of elusive happiness and using manipulative, asshole tactics to convince us that a sugar-filled drink can accomplish anything of the kind.

Quite a different show about advertising, HAPPYish started off pretty weak and is still far from perfect. But in episode four, it started to get better. In it, the ad team at the heart of the show is pitching Coca-Cola. Much less subtle and totally over-the-top, the episode began with showing a bunch of young ad interns a parody of the original Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad. The actual Coke pre-pitch turns out to be a slap in the face to the young, Swedish upstarts trying to overtake the agency with their rejection of traditional ad campaign tactics. Oh the Swenglish sounds, spewing such corporate marketing psychobabble and insanity! One of the Swedish duo, Gottfried, exclaims, “We don’t need campaigns any more. It’s one smart idea, and it changes the world, ok? We need ideation! We need social integration. We needs events, we need moments… it wasn’t a war that started the Egyptian revolution, it was fucking Facebook.”

The show’s main character, Steve Coogan’s Thom Payne replies, “And the Egyptian revolutionaries.”

Bradley Whitford, the manager of the agency, grows more irate: “I don’t think Egypt is the best case study for the long-term effectiveness of social media.”

Gottfried: “It’s like you told me when we first met about Al Qaeda. They’re a great brand but what makes them a great brand? They don’t make campaigns – they make events: 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…” ?!

Whitford’s Jonathan exclaims in angry exasperation: “THIS IS COCA-fucking-COLA! They couldn’t be less insurgent-like if they fucking tried!*”

The idiotic Swedish upstart interjects his “end of campaigns” BS and tries to tell Coke they can be an insurgent. After the Swedish wunderkind makes an ass of himself pitching the death of advertising, Bradley Whitford’s Jonathan jumps in to pitch Coca-Cola on a level it will understand: domination… in the form of the programmed, hyperdetailed, 600+ page 1933 Nazi organization brand bible: “This is what Coke needs” – the book that, Jonathan claims, makes Mein Kampf look like child’s play. He urges them to embrace global dominance the way the Nazis did – as no brand has ever been as powerful as the Nazi brand, not even Coke. “Domination is the same goal no matter what you’re selling. Coca-Cola is not a brand: it’s an uber-brand; it’s a movement that deserves a fanatical devotion*.”

HAPPYish’s antihero, Payne, ends up declaring, after the Coca-Cola pitch nightmare and a conversation about how society has cast philosophy and insight aside to look for wisdom in advertising and in retail therapy (“It’s not hard to be a genius in a world that looks to shopping bags for insights.”): “If I hadn’t met Lee (Payne’s wife), it wouldn’t be funny at all. We’re the only ones on earth that the other one can stand. Maybe that’s all you can ask for on this planet. One non-asshole. After all, the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness. You know who said that? LuLu Fucking Lemon. Here on planet asshole, the shopping bag knows all.”

Mad Men and its revelation-via-ad-campaign has echoed these same reflections, questions and explorations in its characters’ pursuit of happiness. It is a subtler, quieter evaluation of happiness and man’s wants in life. But it is further evidence of what HAPPYish hammered home – everyone is an asshole, which has been proven time and again in seven seasons of Mad Men.

*All quotes from season 1, episode 4 of Showtime’s HAPPYish

Lunchtable TV talk – HAPPYish: “Everyone’s f—ed and they don’t even know…”

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Apparently, HAPPYish on Showtime was meant to be a vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boundless talents before his untimely death. The usually entertaining (in that obnoxious, this-rubs-me-the-wrong-way-but-I’m-still-laughing manner) Steve Coogan stepped in.

I don’t think it’s Coogan’s fault that the material feels tired, overworked, too much overprivileged middle-aged man at odds with the changing world. Coogan’s character is a senior ad exec, and much like Don Draper in Mad Men, he finds that the changing media landscape and its youth-oriented sensibilities seem to be moving on without him – even if those movements are actually illogical, loss-making bullshit. Coogan is the voice of reason but no one is listening. He’s struck by malaise – unable to be effective at work and unable to be particularly effective in his marriage. He can’t sexually perform, he tells his eager wife (Kathryn Hahn) that Prozac has robbed him of his libido but without Prozac he’d basically be horny but a miserable prick. The first episode makes Hahn seem like she is not able to say much aside from some variation of, “Are we gonna fuck (or not)?” And we were led to believe that men had the one-track minds.

The second episode focused more on Hahn’s troubled relationship with her unseen mother and her internal struggle about whether or not she should return a giant package her mother sent for her grandson. Somehow the parental conflict we don’t see just feels petty and Hahn’s character petulant and self-indulgent because we don’t really know the context. I normally like Hahn (she’s great in both Parks and Recreation and Transparent) but the writing and story here does not suit Hahn and seemingly does not suit anyone who is in this show – and there are a lot of names popping up, but everyone seems awkward.

Part of the problem, apart from trying too hard, is that we have little pieces of this same show already done better in other shows. We have the ad man-out-of-time in Mad Men. We have the hilarious parody of an industry that often seems to be blowing itself and praising its own insular nature at the expense of reality in Silicon Valley. We have the married-life rut and suburban ennui done to perfection in Togetherness. Like most critics, I think we don’t need another TV show about a dissatisfied but mostly spoiled middle-aged white dude complaining about everything he doesn’t have.

Do yourself a favor and watch those shows – not this one.

“Everyone’s fucked and they don’t even know…”

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.

Why I Changed My Mind: Julianne Nicholson

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The TV show Ally McBeal has, for me, placed a hex on most actresses who’ve appeared in it. I hated the show to a degree I cannot begin to describe. The ensemble cast thus suffers. This is true especially of Lucy Liu and Julianne Nicholson. I am not sure I can ever like Calista Flockhart or Courtney Thorne-Smith. Portia de Rossi is exempt because of her work in beloved Arrested Development. That said, it has been hard to watch actors in obnoxious roles and imagine them doing something redeeming. While my feeling about Lucy Liu has changed (softened), a more striking transformation took place in my approach to Julianne Nicholson.

Nicholson is not as high-profile or “on-the-map” as someone like Lucy Liu has been, but her choices have been unusual and unexpected, showing her capacity not just for depth but for losing herself in some very stern, unglamorous roles that show off her talents in ways that something like Ally McBeal never could.

I should not hold the choice of material against actors or believe that these choices somehow reflect on their abilities as actors. Being a working actor, I imagine you take the roles that you can get; you make the best of even bad material – and who can blame an actor for wanting to participate in a popular show, where visibility is much higher? And I am in the minority in believing that Ally McBeal is crap material.

Julianne Nicholson has turned up in the most surprising places, much to my delight. While she has popped up here and there, and has been pleasant, her very different and staid roles in Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire have shown the breadth of Nicholson’s range. Her career has been filled with independent films, many of which are well worth seeing (just the other day I saw her in a small role as a supportive friend to the main character in Keep the Lights On). Yet she has balanced these deliberate choices with mainstream roles in shows, such as the aforementioned Ally McBeal and a more entertaining, if procedural, Law & Order – Criminal Intent. Based mostly on her work in Ally McBeal, I never would have said that I thought she’d exhibit the kind of authority needed to pretend to be a cop. But she was surprising and delivered the goods.

Considered, reconsidered – it’s a tough world for working actors. I don’t doubt that for a moment. Thus harsh criticism shouldn’t be the first thing I unleash. I suppose it’s a little bit easier if you are pretty – as Julianne Nicholson is – but easier still if you are distinctive (another score for Nicholson). That said, when the acting is clearly more important, and the willingness to forgo vanity in favor of plainness is something an actor can embrace (not in the showy Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman  in The Hours way – but in a more subdued, subtle way), it is easier to see the actual talent and the work that goes into the role. This is where Julianne Nicholson really shines.

Why I Changed My Mind: Paula Malcomson

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I won’t say that I ever disliked Paula Malcomson’s work, per se. She suddenly turned up all over the place, wielding different accents and playing roles representing different social strata across several time periods. I cannot go so far as to say that she is chameleonic – she does not completely disappear into all her roles (notably, her role as Abby Donovan in the recent Ray Donovan, is a bit too over-the-top with the put-upon Boston accent that it stretches believability). That said, she almost disappears into all her roles and imbues each role, even the villainous and suspicious ones, with a vulnerability and humanity that is unusual.

Why I thought of her suddenly, I am not sure. I suppose it’s because I was talking to someone about Battlestar Galactica – laying on thick praise – but cautioning them against its prequel, Caprica, in which Paula Malcomson plays a pivotal role. It is not that her portrayal of Amanda Graystone was anything less than great – she fully embodied and embraced the role and gave it the complexity it needed. It is more that the show never came together. The cast was never the problem.

I guess then that I did not change my mind about Malcomson so much as I decided to afford her work a more serious look. It would almost be easy to overlook her presence because she does slide into all kinds of different roles with such apparent ease. She would be easy to ignore – except that when you are really watching her, you can’t ignore her. In particular, her very human and heartbreaking role as Trixie in the late, great HBO series Deadwood was riveting. But in a show packed with a great cast and often overshadowed by the show’s main character – excessive profanity – it was easy to watch Malcomson be absorbed by Trixie, transfixed, but easily move on to the next thing, the next  Al Swearengen tirade for example.

Malcomson may not stick around on some shows for long but her roles – and what she brings to them – create repercussions in the twists and turns of a story. A case in point – Sons of Anarchy, in which her character, Maureen Ashby, delivered information that infused the story with new life. Her portrayal of Ashby was not only sympathetic but helped to shed light on a character whose specter has hung over the show’s entire run – John Teller – a character who has never actually existed on-screen (alive) in the show but whose history, legacy and legend informed the story and motivations of the characters (particularly John Teller’s widow, son and former best friend). Malcomson was able to subtly bring John Teller – and another aspect of his personality and aims – to life.

Considered, reconsidered – for now, we can enjoy Malcomson’s presence in Ray Donovan – hoping she tones it down just a little bit, becomes slightly less shrill (although she does have her searing moments) – and her return to the Hunger Games film series to reprise her role as Katniss Everdeen’s mother.