Friday, April 27, 2012

Quick Hits and Misses

1.  I may have been wrong about Stannis Baratheon.  With the birth of that shadowy demon figure at the end of "Garden of Bones," any comparison to Saul and David went out the window.  Instead we were treated to a possible new Smoke Monster, which is a very exciting prospect for any fans of Barry.

I still stand by the virtue of the show and of certain characters, just not with certain comparisons.  Which is why it's dangerous to read themes into shows that was not the writer's original intention.  The Slaughter of the Innocents still stands, though.  But that's not the biblical imagery you normally want to present.

2.  If I were to make a list of the most disgusting people on television, number 2 would be the gypsies, mostly for the way their children dress all slutty and wear entirely too much makeup for 10 year olds.  I have no problem with them as a people, note.  Just the way they dress and parade their children around.

3.  Number one would the parents on Toddlers and Tiaras.  It's difficult to take your eyes off this train wreck, because the mothers involved all seem nuts to me.  Which is exciting, because the fathers are never around, making me wonder if they are as embarrassed of the goings on as I am to watch.

I wish someone would fund a documentary to take place over the next 15 years to follow these pageant four year olds and see what kind of dysfunction they develop into.

4.  I would like to comment on The Killing, but that would force me to think about the absolute nonsense involved in each episode.  I'm pretty sure the title actually refers to what the show has done to entertaining television.

5.  Is there any more surprising show than New Girl?  Each character has somehow gotten better as time has gone on, to the point that Jess is now the character I look forward to following the least.

6.  Also, a belated note on Justified.  There is no show with a better command of dialogue than this gem.  Every scene is well-acted and well-written, but not in a way that is over-your-head.  It's wonderful to behold a western gotten right, since Deadwood was prematurely cut short.  I apologize for not watching this before and including it on my year end list. 

REVIEW: GIRLS

HBO - Sunday 10:30/9:30c

Lena Dunham serves as writer, director, star and showrunner of HBO's new comedy drama about four single women in New York City.  She has a handle on the actual dialogue and interactions of twenty-something woman, and she is able to articulate the problems facing the typical woman in the big city.  The problem for the viewer is that these aren't always particularly moral problems, which although realistic, can be uncomfortable to view at times.

1.  Does it entertain me?
Early in the first episode, one of the girls, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) refers to a Sex and the City poster in her room and asks who she is most like.  This is a good move on Dunham the writer's part, because the comparisons the Michael Patrick King's comedy about 4 women in New York were inevitable.

The difference is that Carrie Bradshaw and Co. always looked like they were having fun, and the problems they faced were blown up societal problems.  Each of the four women represented a woman at a different point in her life, and each woman acted according to certain societal norms.

Girls on the other hand, doesn't relegate each girl to a stereotype.  They exist in a city and each have their own problems.  But they exist in a jaded world, mostly due to Dunham's creative choices, and the whole world seems glib and not-funny.

Dunham's Hannah, at dinner with her parents, describes herself as the "voice of my generation."  It's not clear if she's speaking of her own actual self here, ala M. Night Shyamalan in Lady in the Water, but the comparisons are there.  She is not trying to sound arrogant, she is just trying to get across to the viewing public that this is a show that is going to be a commentary on society more than a buddy comedy.

The show is altogether not not-entertaining, but it's dark Appatow view of the world doesn't exactly make it the kind of show I am dying to see.

2.  Is it realistic?
TV has a habit of casting actors and actresses who are beautiful and who stand out.  Sex sells, and television executives understand this.

This is one trap that Girls does not fall into, as the characters are not super-attractive, but they all possess real world looks (the only other show that I can think of that pulled this off was The Wire).

Further, the dialogue is realistic, and Dunham calls out so many social occurrences that at times you chuckle thinking about it or hearing about it.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
Opium tea (apparently there is such a thing, and apparently it is legal), sex, limited swearing.  Oh, and talk about all this stuff.  Yes, it's safe to say that 2012 New York City is an immoral place.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
Hannah's parents decide to cut her off cold turkey from their funding.  They no longer will support her as she interns at a magazine, and so now she must fend for herself in the big city.  Fine, I can see that.

All the other immoral activities mentioned above still continue, though, and these serve to slowly uproot and undermine the family.
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If Sex and the City proved that 4 women who are friends will backstab each other and then become friends again, Girls is trying to show that this backstabbing might occur in a more subtle level.  It is dark, crass and occasionally funny.  But not sure if it's funny enough to come back to on a weekly basis.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 20, 2012

What to Make of Don Draper

For 4 years, we were treated to a womanizing-absorbed in his work-doesn't care about family Don Draper, a man that was supposed to represent the free living 1960s.  We were viewing a man that was living a life as another man, and all the while we didn't know who the real man was.  We barely caught a glimpse of Dick Whitman.

The only thing we really knew?  Don Draper was unhappy.

Always speculation and contextual, this idea was always at the center of every affair, of drunken session, every glimpse into the life of Don.  It wasn't until the episode "Signal 30" that this notion was finally voiced, and by Don Draper (or is he Dick Whitman at this point?) no less.

Sitting in the car with Pete Campbell, Pete having just slept with a call girl at a "sorority" and accusing Don, of all people, of judging him, Don says, "Roger is unhappy.  I never thought you were."  Don, for his part, had remained steady at the bar, drinking and not straying from his new wife.  Thus we get the idea that Don's previous infidelities were because of his unhappiness with Betty, and that now that he had Megan, he is unhappy, and is actually more interested in having a child with her than in sleeping with a hot young co-ed.

But is it that simple?  And are we supposed to take one moment of strength as a complete change in character for a man who has lived his life one way, and is now suddenly desiring to live it another?

It might be a bit premature to blame all Don's troubles on Betty, even though she is apparently a horrible person who is now destined to wear Lee Adama's fat suit, which may be a fate worse than death.  Sure his marriage sucked, but that is never a reason to be unfaithful and to ruin other people's marriage, in the process using his own unhappiness to make others feel the same way.

So is the new transformation back to the original man genuine?  And if so, can we cheer on Don Draper as a man now?

With all things considered, I believe that we have to assume that Don is a new man, and that his attempts to be good are legitimate.  If we want and hope and pray for bad men to become good, it's natural to be a little suspicious.  One act does not a good man make, but it could lead to one becoming good.  It's a beginning, and that's all that you can ask for when it comes to responsibility and ethics.

Maybe Don was in an unhappy marriage, and that led to his indiscretions.  It doesn't excuse them, but it could help to explain them and contribute to his search for love and feeling elsewhere.  He has made a conscious effort to start over with a new woman, who knows his true identity and doesn't hold it against him.  This could be what Don needs and what is going to help him along his path.

But until he shows a pattern of ethical behavior, it is still proper to be cautiously optimistic and know that he has a better chance of becoming good than Walter White.

REVIEW: Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23

ABC - Wednesday 9:30/8:30c

Starring Krysten Ritter (Jane on Breaking Bad, which also led to this fantastic promo), Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 follows Chloe's misadventures in New York City with her new roommate June (as far as I can tell, the first television character to be named June since June Cleaver.  So that's something).  While at times crass and rude, the show is kinda funny, which is the most accurate review that I could come up.  It really is kinda funny, but not gut-busting funny.

1.  Does it entertain me?
There is a strange dynamic working between the two leads, Chloe and June (Dreama Walker.  That may be a stage name).  They work together, with each feigning some sort of innocence and manipulation.  But that's why the show is kinda funny, because they are both capable of something horrendous, and yet you can feel sorry for them.

But the best thing about the show so far is James Van Der Beek playing an Extras version of himself.  In other words, a slightly crazy and maniacal he’s-sorta-out-there version that relives his Dawson’s Creek life in his conquest of women and fans everywhere.  He gets a lot of laugh out loud moments, in fact the most that came from me were directed at him.

That isn’t to say that Chloe and June don’t have their moments.  Theirs are more genuine and complex, because they need to carry the emotional and the comical elements of the show, where as Dawson only needs to provide comic relief.

So yes, there are times when the show entertains me.  It has the potential to blossom into a full-fledged sitcom, but that might take time.  And it may need time, like FOX’s New Girl, which has become the surprise hit of the 2011-12 season, and is genuinely funny, in a way that I actually can’t wait to see it every week.

2.  Is it realistic?
It’s New York.  I’m sure there are bitchy people who do horrible things to each other all the time.  And Chloe has that weird personality where you could see her being friends with James Van Der Beek.  So I’ll let all the seemingly random things slide in favor of the larger show.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
June’s boyfriend has just arrived with a youth in his custody and his attractive nurse in tow.  Of course, said boyfriend is cheating on June with that nurse, and Chloe, being the good roommate and friend that she is, needs to tell June.  So she takes it upon herself to seduce the boyfriend and be caught in a compromising position just as June comes home, thereby seeing what a lying rat he really is.

Makes sense, right?

This kind of situation is commonplace in the world of Apartment 23.  It’s not the most moral place in the world, but unfortunately it’s the world we live in.  And this is not me defending it; I wish it didn’t happen, and I can’t even defend the friendship notion of it (although Cicero might).

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
No, there is sex and cheating and one night stands everywhere.
Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 is kinda funny.  It’s kinda crass and yet it is creative and seems fresh.  I don’t know if that feeling will last, and I don’t know if it’s worth your time, but at least it’s not a copy cat of another show on tv.  There is creativity out there, we just need to find it and give it a chance.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Defense of Virtue and Game of Thrones

With all due respect to St. Peter's List post about Game of Thrones, which states that George RR Martin has no sense of virtue and good, only evil and sexuality, I disagree.

Granted, this is going to be about the current HBO show, and he was writing about the book.  But I feel the show accurately captures Martin's style and has his blessing.  So all of this could be more praise of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, which is ok.

On the site, HHambrose says, "The literary trap that Martin does not avoid is that of modernity. One such pitfall is the inability for modernity to understand virtue. Almost every character in the series is an anti-hero. They are lesser evils fighting against greater evils. Those characters which do appear to be good speak of honor, not virtue. Inevitably, this leads to vague notions of morality based off naval gazing, i.e., seeking the “right” and “honorable” answer by self-searching and not external standards. However, even these vague moral heroes are naive, exploitable, and ultimately lost within a Machiavellian political power structure. It is a pit almost all modern literature falls into – modernity understands evil, but it does not understand good."

While correct in his assessment that fighting for honor is not the same as virtue, I disagree that every character in the series is an anti-hero.  An anti-hero is someone who is typically a villain, but whom we are intended to root for because his actions tend towards the good.  The classic example is Han Solo, a smuggler and thief who becomes the hero because he works to destroy the Empire.  Richard B. Riddick is another, the man of immoral deeds tasked to save the universe.

Often confused with the anti-hero is the villain that we root for.  Tony Soprano embodies this character, running the mob and killing people all for the purpose of advancing his business.  If you want to make the argument for lack of virtue in their characters, The Sopranos is the best example, since each person in that show, almost without exception (FBI agents occasionally withstanding) were doing things according to a code and honor, but none of it was virtue in accordance with the Good.

Taking the fantasy world of Westeros, however, a few rules must be set down.  First, until this current season, this was a polytheistic world.  The old gods were worshiped, similar to ancient Rome and Greece, without any knowledge of the one true God.  However, this does not excuse them from a sense of morality, since the Judeo-Christian moral system that is the most commonly followed takes its foundations from Natural Law, which in turn takes its turn from God himself, whether or not people believe in him or not.  He is still there and still deciding what is right and just.

Game of Thrones, then, has the similar task that Aristotle and Plato had, to exist in a world of multiple gods and come to an understanding of good and evil that is not dependent on the god of the sun or the god of the harvest.  Intellectualism is at the service of man, needing to understand the human condition using faith and reason.  Faith in something unknown and reason to pass that understanding on to the people in a way that they will understand without proof.

Unfortunately we don't get a lot of learned intellectual discussion in Game of Thrones, and the sole proprietor of this is Tyrion Lannister.  Born a dwarf and unable to fight in a world based on war, Tyrion had no choice to read the works of the ancient philosophers and come to understand the way the world works (very similar to the way that Octavian prepared himself to become Caesar Augustus and usher in the Pax Romana).

So the question is, does Tyrion understand virtue, or does he just understand politics?  Most of the show is spent politicking and warring with other families, and aside from the Lannisters, there is no real sense of actual good vs. actual evil.  This isn't The Fellowship preventing the rise of the Dark Lord and enslaving all of Middle Earth.  We don't know why Aerys Targaryen was overthrown, and we don't know if Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark were justified in doing so.  We do know, however, that government is at the service of the people, and the moment that government is no longer acting in the best interests of the people, they have a moral obligation to overthrow it.

Is that not virtue?

Is not the Night's Watch defending the Wall against the Wildlings and White Walkers virtuous?  Putting their lives on the line so that people they do not know can live, sacrificing their well-being for others is a selfless act that could only be could virtuous.  So isn't Jon Snow virtuous?

Ned Stark leaving his family because he could do more for the Seven Kingdoms as the King's Hand, again a selfless act, when he was happier in Winterfell is an understanding of actual Good.

It's easier to talk about evil and write about evil, because it is easier than good.  It's why Luke Skywalker asked Yoda if the Dark Side was more powerful.  Living a moral life is not easy.  But in order to write about evil and in order to depict it, you have to have some understanding of good.  There are no truly evil characters (except for Joffrey of course) and there are no truly good characters, because in the world, there is no one who is all good or all evil (except for Veena Sudd, of course).

So yes, the inhabitants of Westeros lean towards what is honorable.  But what is honorable is oftentimes similar to what is just and good.  We shouldn't be so quick to write off the notion of honor as something that is contrary to the moral law, and we shouldn't make it just a personal thing.  Although they do not understand the One God, they were still created in his image, so when Robb Stark does something out of honor, he is understanding his inherent dignity and that he should behave in such a way that gives glory to that Unknown God.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

REVIEW: Magic City

Starz - Friday 10/9c

Starz's newest iteration in scripted fare takes place in Miami in the late 1950's and follows Ike Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is also the primary reason to watch the show) as the manager of the Miramar Playa, a glamorous hotel along Miami Beach.

It's well-written and well-acted, but there was something missing from the pilot.  Parts just didn't click, even though it seemed like it should.  This could be due to the shows that Magic City tries to be, rather than just trying to be itself.

1.  Does it entertain me?
Starting out entranced, I quickly lost interest in the union strike closing the hotel storyline, which was the main part of the first episode.  This is not good for a show that looks sleek and sounds retro.  In fact, that is what the show had going for it: the influx of 50's music playing over everything, where you find yourself watching Ike Evans drive down the A1A (note, I don't actually know if that's the A1A, I'm just making reference to Vanilla Ice) rocking out.

What Magic City so desperately wants to be is nostalgic and glamorous, but in a fake way.  When Ike is explaining the hotel to his new bellboy Ray (Ray), he is pointing out the perfume being pumped into the hotel.  What does it smell like?  The ocean.  Which is right out back, but in case the ocean doesn't smell like the ocean, he wants his rich clientele to believe that is what the ocean smells like, and that they like it.  He goes on to explain that they keep the hotel cold because the women who visit his hotel are rich and buy fur coats, and since they live in Miami, he wants to make sure they get to wear them at his hotel.

Again, he is going for a fake world for people who live in their own.

Magic City also borrows heavily from The Sopranos with its mob dealings.  The opening scene is underwater, showing all the people in nice clothes who have been sent to sleep with the fishes.  It's rather effective, showing us this is the world that it wants to live in.

The problem is that Boardwalk Empire already accomplished this feat, showing the mob dealings in 1920's Atlantic City.  The difference is that Boardwalk never tried to drown you in nostalgia.  It was a strict period piece, while Magic City tries to be both.

Mad Men was able to weave in historical events into the show because they acted as background to the character.  When Magic City tries to sell Sinatra as the finale piece of the show, people get distracted because we want to see and hear Sinatra.

There is promise in Magic City, but only if creator Brian Grazer is able to make all these pieces fit together.

2.  Is it realistic?
There's a lot of backstabbing and mob dealings, but that's also what I would expect in mob-riddled Miami.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
Unfortunately, Magic City falls prey to the premium channel trap and loads their show with gratuitous sex and nudity.  The the point that it might be the most of any show I've seen in recent memory.  And unfortunately, most of it is done unnecessarily, to attract viewers and show them sex.  This is rather disappointing, since it prevents the show from ever really being acceptable to audiences who might have morals.

That is to say, it can be distracting.  There is rarely a place for extra-marital sex on television, but when it exists simply for sex, then it is definitely crossing the line.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
Absolutely not.  There are affairs, cheating, scandal, everything you could think of.  The family gets another slap in the face with Magic City.
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Magic City combines a business show, the mob, the 50s and wonderful music to make for a decent outing.  Unfortunately anything that is good is outweighed by the sex and nudity that is presented.  This might just be a ploy of the pilot to gain viewers and may decrease as time goes on.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Unpacking the Trajectory of Biblical Themes on Television

Occasionally I have ideas for recurring series of entries into this blog, and on equally as many occasions, I either forget what that series was or begin to write about something else.  Religion on television is something that excites me greatly, and about which I write often, albeit in different guises.

One of my favorite elements of a show to write about and to watch in action is the role that religion plays, and especially specific references to Catholicism and Christianity.  "Lost" was notorious for doing this, none moreso than the Baptism scene in season 6.

Pay particular attention right around the 2:20 mark.

Television is filled with these scenes, making it one of the best mediums to express this idea.  This is the kind of freedom that television has: because of it's sub-hour nature, and 13 hour season, writers can pack all sorts of themes and imagery into one episode or even one season, and bring the show to a higher level.  One of the greatest things to study about and to read/watch is man's relationship with God.  And because we ultimately live in a Christian society, these images speak to so many different people.

So for this week's Biblical Themes, we're going to take a look at "Game of Thrones" and the episode from 4/1, "Remember the North."  As predicted here, "Game of Thrones" was one of the most likely shows to embody this religious discussion and to carry it forward.  Fantasies, by nature, are a study of the human world in a make-believe setting.  And there is no greater desire by man than to understand the supernatural.

Keep in mind, also, that I am watching this show as someone who hasn't read the books.  Thus I don't know what comes next in the story, just what's happening currently on the show.

With Robert Barratheon dead and Joffrey on the throne, it is only natural that someone else would try to lay claim to it.  So when it's discovered that Joffrey is not Robert's true son, there is a rumor that Robert has a bastard living in King's Landing, and he should be the true king.  When word of this gets out, that there is a true King out there, all bastard children are slain where they stand.

The Slaughter of the Innocents lives on in television form.  Young children killed before their mothers, all in the hope of protecting the mortal king on the throne.  Herod would be proud of Cersei's command.

The other main element in this episode takes place between the red-haired priestess and the traditional gods of Westeros.  Spitting in their polytheistic ways, she declares belief in one God, the true God of Light, who knows what is best for the lands and for the kingdom.  This is blasphemy to the people, who know there are man gods, and the belief in this one heathen God is repulsive.

This the same road that "Battlestar Galactica" traveled down, which made for some excellent television (and theology), as the cylons proclaimed their one God and his glory, contrary to everything that the Colonies had believed in for so many centuries.

This revelation of One God in "Game of Thrones" carries with it the same weight, that instead of many gods, some good some bad, there is one only one God, who is all good and powerful, and who wants one person to rule, and who has actually chosen that person to rule.

Whether or not Stannis Baratheon ends up being overthrown by a shepherd boy remains to be seen.