#telosvision: spring series
recently at RQT
we’ve all been too ill for doing blogs (not literally too weak to type, but too busy either sleeping, coughing, or catching up with essential stuff that we’ve missed through sleeping and coughing).
however, what we have mainly been doing between bouts of sleep and coughcough is watching TV, and in particular keeping eyes on the first wave of spring series.
while there’s some interesting stuff still to come …
o new seasons of Mad Men and Game of Thrones
o Hit and Miss – Chloë Sevigny’s long-awaited transexual-assassin drama
o Smash – all singing, all dancing razzmatazz with Angelica Houston
o not to mention The Voice and the Dallas reboot (glances towards noose-stool combo)
… recent weeks have seen this year’s class off to a decent start in some quarters, and with the premiere of Mad Men season 5 now less than ten days away, it’s probably important to talk about any other shows now before Don-fever engulfs everything.
in terms of comedy, despite the embarrassingly bad Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy and the failure of BBC Four’s Australian journo-spoof Lowdown to gather any real momentum, we’ve been treated to new seasons of RQT favourites Archer and Eastbound & Down as well as the continuation of Parks and Recreation season 4 and the conclusion of season 2 of Portlandia.
alongside these established laugh-couriers, we have also been tickled by strong debuts from New Girl and the animated Napoleon Dynamite series.
drama, however, has mostly been “where it’s at”.
while there have been some good pickings round the edges – like the fact that BBC Four decided, off the back of their Italian season, to show the whole first series of Inspector Montalbano (which, despite hideous production value, brings the exploits of Andrea Camilleri’s phlegmatic Sicilian to life remarkably well) – it’s mostly been about the arrival on these shores of two new American heavyweights.
Channel 4 landed Homeland, Showtime’s slow-ish-burning security services thriller starring Claire ‘wherefore art thou’ Danes and Damien ‘i’m doing an impression of Michael Madsen now’ Lewis, whereas Sky Atlantic snapped up the Dustin Hoffmann/Michael Mann horse-racing-themed gangster vehicle Luck.
given that it was produced for Fox 21 by Howard Gordon, the obvious comparison was with 24, although i tried hard not to let that put me off. given that we’re currently four episodes deep and so far there have been no explosions and only three shots have been fired (two of which were at a deer), i imagine most 24 fans will have already come to the end of their underworked attention spans.
Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a mid-ranking CIA officer at the centre of what seems to basically be a classic and slightly caricatured character study. [paraphrasing] “I made mistakes that day …” (can you guess which day she means?) *pops blue pills in front of mirror* “… I won’t let that happen again” [subtext] “I’m strong, but fragile. I have a flawed past, but also moral courage. I might be a bit mental, but just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean that Damien Lewis isn’t out to get us all”.
she is a workaholic. she doesn’t eat properly or look after herself and her apartment is sort of but not really a mess. because she is in a rush, one of the first things we see her do in the series is hurriedly wash her vagina with a flannel. i don’t remember Jack Bauer doing that.
Lewis plays grizzled Sergeant Nicholas Brody, or ‘Brody’ to everyone (seriously, even his wife), a US Marine (‘oo-rah) who is pulled out of a hole in Afghanistan-Iraq (the two seem to be basically interchangeable) after spending eight years as a POW of war. Brody resurfaces suspiciously soon after we’ve witnessed a flashback of Mathison learning from a then soon-to-be-executed prisoner in an Iraqi jail that an American military captive has been ‘turned’ by Al-Qaeda.
behind the back of terrible-accented boss David (played, oddly, by David Harewood off of ITV’s proto-Gavin-&-Stacey flop, Fat Friends) and to the despair of both her powerful behind-the-scenes-meddler-of-a-mentor, ‘wise jew’ Saul Berenson (played by a man called Mandy) and friend/wingman/tech guy Ray Vecchio from Due South – who, despite his concerns, is “fucking in it now, up to your fucking neck and so is your stupid kid brother” (again paraphrasing – what? i’m not doing ‘research’) – Carrie bugs Brody’s house with cams and mics and looks at him intensely.
occasionally she looks away, then writes things down – things about him, but which could often also apply to her. which is sort of what irony is.
[key plot so far (spoilers)]
Brody has torture scars. when (he thinks) no-one is watching, he sits in the corner. instead of sexing his wife, Jessica, right, first he rapes her, then, another day, he wanks over her. he lies about knowing a known bad man. maybe he killed a fellow captive because the known bad man told him to. he sees known bad man in his dreams/bathroom mirror. daughter-Brody, Dana, is angry that mummy-Brody had sex with best-friend-Brody, Mike, while brody-Brody was off being presumed dead for eight years.
no interviews. OK, interviews.
when and where the hidden cameras can’t see him, Brody sometimes (although certainly not five times a day) does Muslimy stuff, like washing his hands in a bowl, kneeling on a mat and praying toward the east. when he goes for a run, he likes to stare menacingly at Capital Hill. at a party, he shoots a deer. a concubine to the Saudi prince/untrained CIA-assest has a necklace, but then is also dead. then she doesn’t have the necklace. a suspicious inter-racial couple use the proceeds from the sale of the necklace to buy a house under a flight path. time up, no more cameras. pressure.
so far at least, Homeland isn’t amazing, but then so little TV drama is. compared to something like 24 it’s tense, visceral, stripped-down and gritty. however, it is also lays it on too thick in places – the opening credits being a perfect example. still, i really like Danes and Mathison, and Ray Vecchio and i’m belted in for the ride.
talking of rides …
created by David Milch (Murder One, NYPD Blue, Deadwood), produced and guest-directed by Michael Mann and starring Dustin Hoffmann, mumbling, recent Academy Award nominee Nick Nolte, Michael ‘Dumbledore II’ Gambon, long-standing Mann collaborator and Hollywood-go-to-chump-mobster Dennis Farina and a stuttering Richard Kind, there’s plenty of well known (male) names involved.
Luck is based in the world of Californian horse racing, and focuses on the way in which it is just clean and just dirty enough to be the perfect context within which disgruntled mobster Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein can take revenge on those who let him carry the can when his apartment was found to contain a large consignment of ‘product’; cocaine, which Mike Smythe (Gambon) had stashed there without consent.
following three years of prison time, Bernstein buys Pint of Plain, a promising Irish racehorse using chauffeur and factotum Gus (Farina) as a ‘clean’ proxy, and proposes that his former partners – on whom he wants to take his revenge – invest in a local track and build a casino there.
how these two schemes, and the parallel exploits of Nolte’s horse owner Walter Smith (the guy that thinks of surnames is pretty lazy), prickly track trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), stammering agent Joey Rathburn, novice (‘bug’) rider Leon, washed-up jockey Ronnie (played by real-life Hall of Famer Gary Stevens) and four-strong, degenerate betting syndicate Marcus, Renzo, Jerry and Lonnie (who see a huge payday from a fattened ‘pick six’ in the pilot), are connected, well, that’s the ‘hook’.
there was a decent buzz around Luck since its pilot pre-aired in the States at the end of last year, but i have to say four episodes in and i’m on my way out.
the biggest problem is the uneven tones. on the one hand, the the decision was made to go for a David Simon-like approach to racing slang and gambling concepts, with the first few episodes being packed full of ‘triple bugs’, ‘singling the fourth’ and so on. however, despite (or perhaps because of) this and the potentially complex and twisting meta-plots, the scriptwriters have decided that several of the characters should do large amounts of exposition, usually whilst talking to themselves out loud.
several do this, but Nolte’s Smith is the worse offender. his character is a heavy drinking loner who might just have a little-known horse that can win the Derby. apparently, this combination of characteristics means it makes sense for him to spend 2/3s of his screen-time vocalising his thoughts – either mumbling to himself whilst looking through binoculars as his prize horse trains, or (indulging the only bigger cliché on offer) mumbling to the horse, whilst rubbing it down before or after a workout. you just can’t do the whole ‘corrupt animal sport as metaphor for institutional manipulation’ thing AND do this shit too.
basically, it’s as if some people who know what they’re doing wrote the screenplay, but then Scooby-Doo and Dr Dolittle were asked to make whatever changes they saw fit.
at one point, we’re actually expected to believe that a seasoned gambler (Lonnie) doesn’t know which horse he’s supposed to be cheering for even though (as he’s already pointed out) the board clearly shows how much he’ll pocket if each horse wins, and one of them is a much bigger number than the others.
this undulating terrain composed of a cluster of characters with several (seemingly) loosely related interests, a barrage of horse racing jargon which is obviously supposed to make the whole thing feel ’embedded’ and edgy, but also ridiculous levels of plot exposition and hand-holding (presumably there to make good on a no-viewer-left-behind pledge) has so far made for a very disjointed and largely suspense-less experience.
fans of the back pages who were watching Luck in the run up to Cheltenham might have noted a small amount of reality crossover related to the somewhat murky goings-on at Paul Nicholls’ stables with regard to champion and then Gold Cup favourite Kauto Star’s hushed-up fall in training.
furthermore, it transpired that what punters had been assured was a totally fit and ready to go Kauto Star was pulled up in yesterday’s Gold Cup, less than half way round the course. i suspect the closed nature of the sport, the very reason it suits a story like the one told in Luck, will mean the truth about exactly what happened and how will be very unlikely to emerge. however, the parallels between reality and fiction did not end there.
on Wednesday, the opening day of the festival at Cheltenham, three horses were badly injured while racing and were euthanised as a result – which (along with two further deaths the next day) have put the ethical spotlight back on steeplechasing in particular and horse racing in general. meanwhile, on the very same day, despite the filming of the second season being underway and a third in the pipeline, HBO announced that, as a result of a (third) horse being injured (and subsequently euthanised) during production, Luck had been cancelled.
the death of two horses during the production of the first season – one early on in 2010 and another towards the end in 2011 – had already meant that season 1 aired without the American Humane Association’s famous “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making” endorsement, and a third, was apparently a step too far for HBO – although the more cynical among us might well point to the surprisingly low viewing numbers that the second half of season 1 posted in the US as the real reason for the cancellation.
so, with Homeland reservedly impressing, but Luck fading fast, what seemed like it might be a tight, two-horse race looks now like it might prove to be something of a let down. whence then the value? well, perhaps, i might steer you towards an outside shot: you might have to run your eyes down the card a fair way, but i’d say, from the first couple of episodes, that NBC’s Awake, starring Jason Issacs, could well be worth the televisual equivalent of a savvy each-way punt.