Lunchtable TV Talk: Vice Principals

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I was looking forward to HBO’s Vice Principals. I found Eastbound & Down to be crass but hilarious. Bringing the sensibility and tone of that paean to petty insecurity into a high school setting seemed potentially genius. The story follows the high school’s two dueling vice principals who have to band together to get rid of the new principal who has usurped the job they both thought they deserved, and this seemed like it could be a recipe for hilarity. Add to it the great Walton Goggins, and it also seemed like a recipe for success. But it’s absolutely dreadful. Not funny in the least bit. I don’t even know how describe how unfunny it is. It hurts to watch – and not in the good, awkward, cringe-worthy way that things like The Office was. HBO has a huge misfire on its hands here.

The only bright spot – if there is one at all – is that the two idiotic men at the heart of the show fail on so epic a scale in their schemes (very Wile E. Coyote). But those schemes are so destructive, so dark, so hideous that we cannot see anything remotely entertaining about them. The idea then that these plans and destruction backfire on such a colossal scale means that everything they’ve done is for nothing. They seem only to be strengthening their enemy rather than destroying her.

Here we go, axemen, here we go… at the pep rally, I stole the show…

Then again, if there is any silver lining here, it’s that dumb, entitled men who think they should just slide into places of authority when there are better qualified individuals, including women, aren’t going to find it that easy to derail real adversaries.

Photo (c) 2009 Joel Russell

Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.

Sweet TV

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