Friday, February 1, 2013

More TV Rapture

My conviction continues that TV's where the culture is flourishing these days. I've been paying nearly as much attention to my idiot box as I devoted to restaurants in the 1990's. It's not that everything on TV is great now, or even good. Nor was all jazz great in 1953, or films in 1971, or lasagnas in 1996. It's not a universal thing. It's just a matter of reaching a tipping point with a migration of inspiration into a particular realm. At that point, the human flocking instinct kicks in and quality can soar. I'm not a big fan of flocking humans, generally, but in this sort of scenario, it's downright thrilling. Remember how once Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile, everyone else could suddenly do it?

Film people are recognizing this, and are flooding into TV en masse. Movies have become increasingly formulaic and cliched; it's hard to get much depth in two hours, and the industry's in a state of creative stagnation. The best television series are now akin to really long movies (here's how that came about), and the longer form offers freedom - the opportunity to fully develop characters, and to engage in fine subtleties.

Consider "Luck", the HBO series directed by Michael Mann and starring Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman. You've heard about this as "the show about horse racing where horses died so they had to cancel it". That outrage was a publicity stunt trumped up by PETA (the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights). For what it's worth, here's the real story with the dead horses.

I just voraciously viewed the series, and I think Luck's a masterpiece. Its ratings were microscopic, because it demands a lot from viewers. First of all, writer David Milch ("NYPD Blue", "Deadwood", etc.) is quirky as all get-out, and plies a syntax all his own. But that can be a great boon for actors this good. Just as negotiating the tricky linguistic terrain of Shakespeare can bring out an actor's best, Milch makes his players work deeply. Also, Luck plunges viewers into the arcane rituals of horse racing without much hand-holding (this helpful tutorial is de rigueur, and I recommend studying the great Alan Sepinwall's episodic run-downs after you see each show, and perhaps Todd VanDerWerff's, as well).

The first four episodes can be maddeningly confusing, the language is hard to parse (I watch with the subtitles on), and you'll need to rewatch certain scenes (and want to review whole episodes), but it's all chewy-rewarding rather than chewy-opaque. By the middle of the season you'll find yourself drawn in as with a great novel, and by the end, you'll be mourning the show's premature cancellation. Quality's so high that, as I viewed, I kept flashing back to the Shakespeare analogy. The first season doesn't always hit "for-the-ages" heights, but it's certainly headed there. It's a tragedy that there'll be no second season.

Nowhere near the same league, but still damned good, is "The Americans", on FX. It's a new espionage thriller that premiered this week, set in the 1980's, about a Russian sleeper cell in the American suburbs. It's a seemingly normal American couple under such deep cover that they don't even speak Russian, or reveal their earlier lives, to each other, even in private moments. And the show's as much an exploration of their sixteen year marriage (even they're not sure what's "cover" and what's "real") as of their spycraft.

There are little flaws - e.g. an FBI counter-espionage agent just happens to move in across the street (wince). And it's become popular on the Internet to dissect and excoriate a series' flaws. But in spite of our massively networked culture of criticism (which, god help me, I helped start), here's an essential truth, which I hope to write more about: the best stuff isn't stuff with the fewest flaws. The best creations are created with great love and care and talent. Flawlessness, in and of itself, is worthless. The pianist who makes no mistakes is, more than likely, a boring pianist who takes no chances. What matters - all that matters - is the magic.

Also, big news: did you know David Fincher's "House of Cards", starring (speaking of migrating film people) Kevin Spacey, is available, starting today, exclusively via Netflix streaming? I haven't seen it, but it sounds terrific, according to my go-to television critic, the aforementioned Alan Sepinwall (here's his rundown). Per Netflix's business model, they released the whole season at once, so you can "binge view" to your heart's content. This could be the start of something big.

Finally, three great series few people know about: "The Hour", Britain's "The Sandbaggers", and CBC's "Intelligence" (dubbed "The Canadian Wire" by Slate).

"Game of Thrones" third season begins March 31, and season two of "Veep" airs in April, and, best of all, "Breaking Bad" is back for the final arc this summer.

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