Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Finale Series

If you are interested in the next four parts of this excellent video essay, click here.

"24" came to television at a curious time. I do recall it's initial ambitions, as a throwaway action suspense series, one that hinted at an anthology approach should there be a last-minute renewal. The first season centered on Jack Bauer, not yet a superhero but actually a clock-punching soldier of a counter-terrorism unit. He was just another face in a sea of soldiers, one with a troubled family life (his wife is not pleased he continues to work with a woman he's slept with) and an approach that was less justice around-the-clock and more "we do what we can do." Kiefer Sutherland, an actor of conviction if not much range, hadn't adapted the jowly grunt that would become the character's trademark, playing Bauer as more of a Dad with Gun. His responses to the violent outbursts behind the season one schemes was half man-of-action, and half terrified of further casualties. In one key moment, during a critical juncture he tips his head back and catches himself nearly falling asleep, shocked at his own vulnerability.

Of course, "24" became something else entirely, known to fans as the Jack Bauer Power Hour. The show's writers found themselves incapable of writing more than eight or nine different stories, and so each season was a rush towards the greatest hits: Who will the mole be? Who will be tortured this episode? What sort of improbable, largely irrelevant troubles could daughter Kim find herself involved in? "24," for all it's achievements, which included Emmys and Golden Globes, was the world's biggest drinking game.

But we forget that, in 2001 upon the show's launch, few were willing to delve into multi-part plot structures, complex character interactions and heavily serialized storytelling. The show's real-time aspect was a thrill compared to the generic procedurals and laugh-track sitcoms of the era, which have somehow proven they can co-exist with more progressive narrative-driven programs. As seasons went on, the connective tissue between them only intensified - there would be no relaunch or reboot. While the show's real-time aspect wavered on an episodic level, the overarching tale of Jack Bauer, afflicted superagent, intensified, with most of the momentum being given Jack's greater losses in the battlefield.

A show like "24" (and the similar shows afterwards - the post-"24" spike in even lightly serialized storytelling is impossible to ignore) tested the overall objective of a television show. If you're willing to present a semi-realistic world where you take your characters seriously, then has your show become one singular story? Even with the show consistently jumping forward an improbable amount of time between seasons (the final season has to be somewhere between 15-20 years after the first), continuity suggested that there was an end to this particular story, one that began as the tale of a semi-realistic "Mission: Impossible" task force and ended as the singular journeys of Bauer, a man impossibly dogged by the violence he's inflicted on others to preserve a fragile world peace. With "24," there was always the uneasy revelation that whenever the major threat behind a certain plot (usually involving a bomb, natch) was vanquished, there was always a puppet master pulling the strings. As the years went on, "24" mirrored the real world conundrum current governments were faced with, that there was a certain futility in consistently asking "Who do you work for?" and then literally climbing the chain of command. In the end, Jack Bauer's politics went from "save my family" to "save the world" and, through his failures at both, "save myself." We never know if he accomplishes that mission.

A similar end met "Lost," the quasi-sci-fi program that began around a similar time period. "Lost" was also dogged by the problem of it's own existence: it is a weekly television program, and it's necessary to not only pull in new viewers week after week, but also to never lose them during the commercial break. "Lost" tested the normally Pavlovian responses of many viewers by presenting a central tangled mystery - how do we get off this island? - and then tangling it further by involving science, magic, suspense and emotion. Unlike "24," which had solid but unspectacular production values usually revolving around busy gunfights, "Lost" had a strong, nearly cinematic focus. It's vast multi-culti cast, sweeping island vistas and stirring Michael Giacchino music distinctly separated the show from anything on the air, then and now.

But was "Lost" a closed narrative? The BBC notably only keeps shows on the air for two or three shortened seasons at a time, but it's America that insists on 22 half-or-full hours per fall, lasting as long as the public will accept. If "Lost," with a pretty close-ended story, were to maintain it's popularity over twenty seasons, would the creators not be tasked with keeping up the story threads and denying closure for those viewing the week-by-week incidents as part of a bigger whole?

"Lost" took a curious approach to this dilemma, eventually developing several realities and multiple narratives to maintain what ended up being six seasons. Each revelation drove "Lost" deeper into hard science fiction, and as a result, the show unquestionably lost more than a few followers, a dedicated cult remaining for the convoluted, excessively busy final season. What started out a narrative became a weekly adventure, and then a deep mythology. It was not satisfying in a conventional sense, but it was certainly never less than fascinating.

Each revelation changed the scope of the entire program, to the point where a casual viewer would have a different synopsis of the show's purpose each season. In the first episode, it was an unseen monster causing havoc. By the end of the first year, it was the castaways facing off against creepy mirror versions of themselves, a group called The Others determined to mess with our heroes. Later it became a mystery involving a secret organization that calls the island home, and eventually a temporal procedural, as characters were followed through different points in their existence. The one constant in the series was that it was an Adventure, through and through. Each answer led to more questions, and each question remained vague and potentially-exciting enough that you clung to hope that the answers wouldn't destroy our beloved castaways.

Indeed, the writing was never approaching the level of "sharp," but it was a strong cast and intriguing backgrounds that made the cast of "Lost" easy to watch and follow. Each character had their own secrets, their own insecurities, and, as we often saw in the show's consistent flashbacks, their own crushing failures. The performances from this cast provided the necessary depth to allow for this sort of narrative dicking-around, with the hope that, whatever was happening, it would lead to them freeing themselves from this rotten island.

In the end, the "Lost" creators merely opened too many doors they didn't know how to close, raising a number of questions too vague to ever contradict, yet too plentiful for any six season series, let alone one with such a massive cast. When the mysteries bogged us down, it would take another cast member, or another plot twist, or an action sequence, all executed with a level of panache not seen on broadcast television. The creators knew how to set up a beautiful framework, but they couldn't stop indulging their love of red herrings, even with chance to end the series of their own volition, a generous gesture not normally reserved for faded six year old shows. What was "Lost"? What we learned in the end was that it was the story of a group of people who experienced something very powerful together, enough to bring them back together in the afterlife, a focus on faith instead of the hard facts and science of the show. It didn't answer anything about polar bears or four-toed statues, leading many fans to gripe, some with very respectable points. But that would be something left to a normal, pedestrian series, wouldn't it be?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

To Piggyback Off My Colleague's Thoughts

We lost a titan today.

Dennis Hopper was one of our last cinematic renaissance men. These days, there's so much marketing and PR people pushing their energies into actors as a brand, with even our greatest on-screen performers pigeon-holed into a certain type of filmmaking, but Hopper, writer, director, actor, artists, counterculturalist, represented the apex of what we could achieve. Those focusing on the years of Hopper we lost when he was in the wilds post-"The Last Movie" ignored the fact that, like Orson Welles, his accomplishments spoke for themselves. He didn't need a body of work with a masterpiece every four years. With both "Easy Rider" and, to an (unfortunately) lesser extent "The Last Movie," Hopper had his message, and he sent it loud and clear over the loudspeakers of Hollywood. The fact that they rejected the thoughtfulness of the latter movie, and every day neglect the lessons of the former more and more, speaks not to his lack of artistry but of the stubborn contrarian approach that usually greets titans.

A PBR in your honor, Mr. Hopper. You were gargantuan.

RIP Dennis Hopper

Well, not this was unforeseeable, but still a terrible loss.
Not the most prestigious or best-remembered role of his career, but I think I first saw Hopper in Super Mario Bros., at a birthday party in the third grade. I was more than a little bugged that the filmmakers chose to do away with King Koopa as a walking, talking, fire-breathing dinosaur, but, in the end I think Dennis Hopper as a cold-blooded tyrant with Lisa Simpson hair was probably the better decision.
Before I really knew what good film acting was (or good film, for that matter. I defended Super Mario Bros to several friends over the course of the next few months), I was struck by how he accomplished so much with single-word lines of dialogue, such as "Monkey!" or Plumbers!" Now that I think about it, "plumbers" probably came at the end of or in the middle of a sentence, but it's that one word that sticks with me: in those two syllables he really sells the contempt that a different actor could easily gloss over, not according any serious effort to such a silly concept, and that's why we loved Dennis. We always felt he was a dangerous presence and that's because he always bought in to the paranoia and psychopathy of the characters he portrayed in such a tangible way.
At the risk of sounding dismissive or reductive, he was one of the last truly nutball actors. Like Klaus Kinski, when he stalked onscreen he displaced any sense of normalcy the film may have established up until that point. Using Hopper was a way for a director to show that everything had become unhinged and where ever you thought the movie was going, Hopper was sure as hell going to frustrate any expectations of complacency and bring you into his nightmare. Up until the last thirty minutes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, I was bored by what seemed to be a pale attempt at recapturing the danger of a cultural phenomenon that had passed more than a decade previously. And then, in the climax, "Oh shit. Dennis Hopper has chainsaws." And he did.

2 of 'em.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Episode 7: Crazy Heart/The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Podcast Version.
Works well as such, considering the audio configuration.

Episode 6: The White Ribbon

Podcast version, and still my favorite episode.

Episode 5: Daybreakers

Podcast version again.

Episode 4: Avatar

Podcast version.
Again, thanks for bearing with us. And now's your chance to catch up on all our back episodes, in crappy-quality Vodcast form!

Episode 3: My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done

We've had problems with posting these eps as podcasts. I've toyed around a bunch with this, and there's only one way I can figure out how to do this, and it ain't pretty. Please stick with us until we find a more elegant way to do vodcast.