Category Archives: Shows

Twin Peaks

January 17, New York: Twin Peaks is the only media in this project that might have gotten short shrift. I watched a couple of episodes today, the last day, and felt unfinished with it. The truth is, I don’t think I ever planned to watch the whole of Twin Peaks— I remembered the long slow drone of the second season, but nonetheless this didn’t feel like enough.

The first season of Twin Peaks feels more like modern television than it does TV of its time. Each episode is a full day, each episode advances the narrative. There are a multitude of characters, all with secrets slowly revealed over time. And then woven into the whole thing is David Lynch.

Special Agent Dale Cooper might be one of the best characters in television history. He loves a damn fine cup of coffee, he’s curious about the trees, and he’s a hell of an investigator. I loved watching him enter town again for the first time. Other characters are fine, too, but they almost all are outlined with a thick brush of camp. One of the hallmarks of the show. That and the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful women living in this tiny mountain town.

I’m excited to see this series come back, what they might do with it.

You can actually watch Twin Peaks in its entirety on Netflix.

TVTV: “Four More Years”

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 17, New York: I went to film school expecting to become the next great writer/director. We all did. We idolized PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc. But what film school taught us was that that was rare and that if we wanted jobs, if we wanted to survive financially in Los Angeles, we should look to the guilds. Editors, cinematographers, sound designers— that’s what film school wanted to make of us.

My friends and I found an elective class called “Guerrilla Television”. It was taught by a guest professor, a fellow named Allen Rucker, and it was offered in two parts. Part one: spend a semester watching and critiquing alternative methods of producing documentaries. Part two: Spend the next semester producing your own. This class changed my life. I took two semesters with Allen Rucker and then stayed on to be his teaching assistant the following semester. I loved everything we watched and I really loved producing my own work.

I had abandoned journalism when I went to film school because I thought the only path was local TV news reporting and anchoring. But here was a way to tell non-fiction stories and make films and challenge the establishment system my education was pushing me toward. It was through Rucker’s class that I met my first career mentor Mitch and chased a job working with him, the job that became my first real job out of college. And that set me on the path of my career. I owe Allen Rucker’s class a lot.

So who is Allen Rucker? (Buy his memoir! It’s really good.) What are his documentary chops? Rucker was a member of a video collective in the 1970s called TVTV. Artists, filmmakers, experimenters— they were given a batch of the very first 1/2-inch video cameras (the format that later become standard for VCRs) and set loose on the world. They developed a method where they would deploy en masse in teams of two or three at massive events and seek out the quirky details that wouldn’t make the news. The textural elements. “Four More Years” is the Republican National Convention in Miami. They also did the Democratic. They went to the Super Bowl, to a rural Cajun Mardi Gras, to see 16 year old Guru Maharaj Ji greet his US followers in the Houston Superdome. Their work was funny and unpredictable, rough at times but full of absolute gems of story you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

I’ve watched (and love) all the TVTV work, but “Four More Years”, is still one of my favorites. It was the first or the second they produced, and you watch the members of TVTV figuring out the format as they go. Stumbling upon gems of honesty from people in a time that cameras weren’t yet ubiquitous.

I’m not going to send you to Amazon this time. I’m going to send you to an archive website of TVTV content, where you can buy and download high quality digital copies.

American High

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: Like The War Room, another story about technology and access, and also another story brought to us in part by RJ Cutler. American High was a short-lived television show in 2000 that featured a dozen high schoolers from a Chicago suburb. They were followed by film crews, interviewed by producers, and their relatively familiar teenaged stories were told through pop music-infused reality techniques. It was a style that was already begin explored on MTV in True Life. But Cutler and his crew introduced a new element.

The students were all enrolled in a video production class and were taught by Cutler’s producers how to film TV-ready video diaries. Then they gave them all cameras. Without the mediation of the interview producer, these teens would unload their emotions into small DV cameras they took with them everywhere they went. Late at night, alone in their bedrooms, the safest possible place in the world to process out loud, they would just hit record and talk. It is that material that makes this series revolutionary. The evolution of technology to a point where broadcast-quality video can come out of a camera that can be held and operated by a high schooler allows for unprecedented, unfettered access to the most intimate of monologues. It’s brilliant.

This same technological window helped launch my early career. I came of age with DV tape, shot mountains of it on Sony PD150s— prosumer cameras that shot good-enough video, all of which could be edited on a home computer with Final Cut Pro. Mine was the first generation of digital producer-shooter-editors. And through it all I was completely in love with the video diaries used here in American High. I’ve borrowed this technique time and again in my career. I gave cameras to high schoolers to video diary about the 2004 election. I gave a camera to a Marine who was headed to Iraq. As my career progressed I found myself more and more focused on access over production training, building a program for documentary citizen journalism for Current TV. No matter how great my field reporting was, it would almost always be trumped by a subject turning the camera around and talking directly into it.

American High was a blip. The other techniques used in the series— montage, pop music, slickly produced interviews— that feels more like MTV today. And that’s the way the industry went. More 16 and Pregnant and less True Life. With that context, American High is harder to watch today. The music sears. The poor video quality just feels unpolished. The genius moments of intimacy shine less brightly. And now that intimacy is everywhere. Teenagers have been recording from their bedrooms and posting it to YouTube for about ten years now.

Some kind soul uploaded every episode of American High to Daily Motion.

Battlestar Galactica

November 30, Scituate, MA: I dawdled on restarting Battlestar Galactica. It was only the press of time and the daunting volume of television left to consume that finally pushed me into it. Why did I wait? I wanted so badly for Jill to watch along with me for the first time. I kept telling her it was West Wing in space. That out there in the deep black, Admiral Adama and President Roslin spent episodes testing the very foundations of representational government at its furthest extremes. That’s what I remembered most strongly from my first viewing back when this was on the air: a space epic shot through with politics. And how! Battlestar truly was a perfect time capsule of the issues of the mid-aughts: terror, revolution, suicide bombers, constitutional tensions, an invisible enemy among us. Good people faced tough choices in impossible circumstances and all of that caused us the audience to question our assumptions about the dominant cultural narratives of our day. It was almost a series designed by the very critical theory professors who told me in college that mass media was a reflection of societal subconscious; that Independence Day was really about immigration. But at it’s core it was so fun to watch.

Battlestar Galactica was more than cultural mirror, it was representative of a fundamental shift happening on television: the rise of the megastory, the double-digit-hour-long sprawling televised epic. Battlestar began the same year as Lost, two years after The Wire kicked off. It was one of the first brave new shows that began with an end in mind. Clues are laid in early episodes that build to the final conclusions… a trait that contemporaries like Lost struggled with, but something we’re all too familiar with now. It was one of the first shows upon which I binged (though, then, it was to catch up with live viewing), cranking through DVDs late into weekday nights.

Battlestar is not quite the megastories to come. It lacks the production value, for one. Where today we’re used to the sumptuous budgets of Game of Thrones or even Mad Men, BSG still feels very much like other SciFi Network originals. (If SciFi could have bottled this lightning they could have been AMC five years earlier.) The ship itelf conveniently looks like 1970s technology because Admiral Adama is cantankerously anti-tech, which saves them from the Cylons in the initial attack. The show also struggles with the chess-game-like storytelling of the true television epic: moving pieces across the board in each episode building to big finales, behavior that’s acceptable to binge-watcher but vexing to the weekly viewer who doesn’t recall each and every detail. We see here, especially in wayward Season Three, many self-contained episodes or 2-3 episode mini-arcs that feel more akin to 1990s television than what comes later: bottle episodes and other plot diversions.

That said, Battlestar is a truly revelatory piece of storytelling. It is so rich with detail, so intricately-woven. Where costs may have been cut on set design, there has been no expense spared in plot. From the taut early tensions of the Cylons in the fleet to the revealing of the final five; from Baltar’s guilt to his assumption of the role of Jesus; from Kara’s death to her rebirth as an angel— a hard twist to pull, but fully and completely earned by the writers— this series just fires on every possible authorial cylinder. The repeating of time works incredibly well throughout as a framing device and also a mechanic to keep the audience guessing— what next will be repeated and what might break the cycle. The details of the tactical assaults— these crazy missions that come out of Adama or Starbuck or Lee that are so brilliantly-designed and executed. I thought about the assault on New Caprica for days: the drone decoys and then jumping into the atmosphere to release the Vipers and then sacrificing the Pegasus at the end. So good! All of that and cherry-topped by the Adama-Roslin storyline which is so wonderful. The tension and the love. You, the viewer, care for them both so much.

With all of this, the writers earned the maximum amount of respect and flexibility from the audience. They could do nearly anything, ask us to suspend nearly any disbelief. Except for the final episode. That absolute pinnacle of televisual disappointment: the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.

I was expecting this let-down. I knew it was coming. I thought maybe this time I’d see it differently. I didn’t.

It starts to get rough after the mid-season finale where they discover the original Earth. Particularly rough because that could have been a fine end to the show. A few loose ends yet to tie up, but perfectly satisfying. The show continues, however, and the writers have earned that. We give them the benefit of the doubt: through Dee’s suicide and the two-episode-arc revolution/mutiny which accomplishes little from a plotting perspective. We warm to Ellen’s return and simmer through the soap opera subplots of Tigh’s love triangle. We see there is a plan here; we trust that the writers, like Adama and Roslin, will lead us to the promised land. The first two episodes of the three episode finale ring true: one last desperate tactical assault, tying up all the loose ends left around the universe, and finally, at the end, discovering Earth— OUR Earth.

But the final episode is just silly. Starbuck disappears. Just disappears. The Caprica flashbacks we’ve been tolerating build to nothing we didn’t already know. And in the stretchiest of disbelief, to the point at which it breaks, the colonial remnants scatter across the Earth. They elect not to build a city, not to build a new civilization, but to trek off on their own paths. Keep in mind, these people are lawyers and soldiers and spaceship captains and space miners and god-knows-what-else and suddenly they’re all talking about staking off plots of land on a relatively wild planet and starting from the absolute beginning? They barely have food! They leave carrying backpacks! What do these people know about cabins, farming, herding, distilling, child-rearing, mid-wifing, and on and on and on? All for the tiny ending payoff that Hera is “mitochondrial Eve”, our first ancestor. Meaning everyone else probably just died off in the first or second year of being idiots and not sticking together as a civilization. Dummies. (Not to mention the final bit of the robot sequence, asking if we’re just around the corner from beginning the cycle again. For a series so incredibly in touch with the social issues of the day… to suddenly declare that ROBOTS are the great lurking evil? My God.)

So, in respect for the 74 episodes that come before the last and for the fully and wonderfully satisfying story they tell, I offer you an alternate ending:

Andrew’s ending for Battlestar Galactica:
The Colonials, with their democratic structures and advanced technology, settle not in Africa but in Greece and not 150,000 years ago but in the time immediately prior to Homer. The loners get islands, but they’re all still pretty close. The Raptors run out of fuel, but they build triremes. They bring their ideas a) of Greek Gods and b) of democracy to this new land and they seed the future for Western civilization. Baltar, accepting exile at long last, goes to the Middle East to spread the word of the one true God. And Starbuck doesn’t disappear, because she doesn’t have to disappear, she moves in with Lee and they’re happy. I mean, c’mon. They’ve earned it. And then in the far future (today) archeologists discover not Mitochondrial Eve, but some little token from space like an octogonal book or a piece of tillium that could lead our society to space travel. And the two angels (invisible Baltar and Caprica) walk away from reading the article over the series creator’s shoulder while talking about God’s Plan and how it brings us to the heavens or some crap. Boom. Done. The End. Hashtag Satisfying.

There you go. So, please go back and re-watch Battlestar. It’s really quite good, flaws and all. But instead of watching the finale, just watch 74 episodes and then imagine that my ending happened.

I’m not going to lie, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny to re-watch Battlestar because it’s not on Netflix Streaming. You can either sign back up for Netflix DVDs or you can buy episodes from the Amazons or you find a… DVD rental shop?

The West Wing

July 6, New York: Unlike most titles in this list, I’ve actually re-consumed The West Wing a number of times. I discovered the series late, long after its run on television. I watched it for the first time in the summer of 2010, when I took some time off to write a novel. Called Drain the Gulf!, this book was steeped in Washington politics and I needed some good background to inform the details of the story. I asked Alexis Madrigal, who was living in DC at the time, for an introduction to someone on the Hill. Instead he introduced me to the Bartlet White House.

It was a good solid binge, that first time through. I rented DVDs and tore through them in the evenings. Jill was away for the summer and I was alone and not working. My daily rhythm was wake up, write, run, lunch, write, West Wing, sleep. But if you chunked that into percentages, time spent on those last two items would have been roughly equal.

Very shortly after that, I introduced Jill to the series and she was hooked. I’ve never seen her so addicted to a show as she was to this one. We started to watch the whole damned thing again. But then a funny thing happened: I left home. I was working in DC for weeks at a stretch and Jill was alone in our SF apartment. So we developed a ritual: we would both rent an episode from the Itunes store and then open a video chat. We’d cue the episodes up to start at exactly the same moment, and then we would watch it together. Half the screen was the White House and half the screen was each other’s faces. We passed a long couple of months that way.

Re-watching this time was like reconnecting with an old friend whose tics and quirks you still remember vividly. Snappy writing, walking and talking, Martin Sheen (how amazing is Martin Sheen?). But also Aaron Sorkin and his ever-beleaguered ladies, who never shine quite as bright as our white male heroes. The show has its flaws, but it is incredible television.

In addition to providing me atmospheric source material for Drain the Gulf, The West Wing has also proven to be a fount of other cultural notes. West Wing Twitter is one of the most incredible phenomenon I’ve ever stumbled across. Fan-created character accounts who dwell and interact in a parallel universe in a Santos Administration. A community of anonymous individuals behind familiar faces who are so knowledgable about the inner workings of our government, one has to assume they are employed in it. I am fairly certain at least a few have worked in the Obama White House.

And then there’s the fascinating parallel between the Obama White House and the Bartlet White House. Two moderate Democrats of high intellect but incremental achievement. The smart, idealistic young brains who swept into the White House in 2008 were the core audience of The West Wing when it was on television. Hundreds of people convinced they were the next Sam Seaborn or Josh Lyman. And has the incrementalism of the Obama White House been a self-fulfilling prophecy? The Bartlet Administration was hemmed into only moderate action by the challenges of script-writing a parallel world: they couldn’t diverge too far from our existing world or else they’d lose the audience (no FDR “New Deals” from Jed Bartlet), so the show became about process. Did that process-focused view of holding power provide a roadmap to the bright young things of the Obama Administration?

This one you can actually just watch on the Netflix. (That’s right, the whole thing!)

Highlander (TV Series)

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 7, New York: Queen’s “Princes of the Universe” is quite possibly the most awesome TV series theme song ever, ever used. “Heeeeeere we are, born to be kings…” Lucky break to have Queen write a soundtrack song for the movie your TV series is a spin-off from. Actually, two lucky breaks— because the Highlander also features “Who wants to live forever” (Awesome).

Quick review: Highlander was a movie staring Christopher Lambert. In it a secret society of Immortals live among us but, TWIST, “there can be only one”. So when they meet, they fight. And as an Immortal can only be killed by beheading, fighting means totally radical swordplay. There were a handful of Highlander films, and this show, which was a spin-off. In the first episode Lambert appears to hand-off/lend credibility to his clansman of the Clan Macleod (Adrian Paul— TOO handsome).

Highlander the TV Show is kind of the perfect awesome 1990s serial action drama. Remember, in the 90′s we weren’t allowed to have multi-episode story arcs like we do now (unless it was sweeps). So every episode had to be self-contained while feeling like it was advancing a greater plot. The Highlander universe allows for a perfect self-contained show. Every episode you have a new villain, another Immortal that Duncan Macleod must face off against. Which also means you’re going to have an awesome swordfight at the end of the show. Since Duncan has lived for 450 years, every episode also has a parallel arc at some point in the past: the Civil War, the French Revolution, literally ANY time. And then for the really big episodes you can trot out the second Queen song (or later in the show “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas).

I used to watch this show live on broadcast television with my Dad *every* night it came on. My Mom was traveling a lot in my tween years and so this was a regular ritual for Dad and I: make a ‘guys’ dinner (tuna casserole or fish sticks) and watch Duncan Macleod kick some ass with his katana. Watching TV was a big deal in our house; neither of my parents really liked TV or live sports so we never just plopped down and watched a bunch of shows. This was a special ritual for a special show.

I am not going to send you to Amazon this time. I am going to send you to Netflix where this show is available IN ITS ENTIRETY on streaming.

Mr. Show

May 26, In flight: I own Season Three of Mr. Show on DVD. The first thing to know is that it took me a long time to dig out those DVDs, because who uses DVDs anymore? But at some point I bought those so that at a later date I could watch them and that later date materialized this weekend and so there I was sneezing from the dust in the back of a forgotten storage cabinet, dragging that physical media out into the open.

I popped the first disc in, the DVD player in my computer whirred, whined and struggled to load it, and then finally launched into an episode. The second thing to know is the reaction: “Did you and your friends use to smoke a lot of pot when you were watching this?”

Mr. Show feels exceptionally of the 1990s. I laughed in this viewing, but I laughed in echo to the laughs of yesteryear. I made it through about four episodes before the slowness of the DVD player was too much of a drag on the process and I gave up. But in that time I managed to see a few of the hits. THE HITS! (The third thing to know is that I love the hits.)

I could still sing along to “Y’all are brutalizing me.”

Despite the hits (THE HITS), I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I would. I expected to be consumed again with a desire to watch every bit of every episode of Mr. Show ever produced. To cackle with mirth at every new introduction of “Hey everybody, it’s Bob and David!” But there is a difference between funny and the echo of funny. The eye-watering, breath-gasping bouts of laughter that accompanied my first viewings of Mr. Show are locked away somewhere deep inside and were inaccessible this weekend. As I was looking for the above links, I went and found <a href=”http://splitsider.com/2013/06/the-24-best-mr-show-sketches/”>a site with the top 24 Mr. Show sketches</a>. That did the trick. I love the jokes of Mr. Show. I love that they exist. I can still share a laugh with another fan reliving THE HITS. But that experience of sitting on our ratty collegiate couch, falling off the edge from laughing so hard at every single wrinkle of a sketch— that’s a time that lives in the past.

You, of course, should treat yourself to some physical media. Because unlike me you still want these “DVDs” that Jeff Bezos is peddling.

Miami Vice

Feb. 23: Atlanta, GA: I rediscovered Miami Vice last year buried in this “Mailbag” post from Grantland including four great uses of “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. (The instigating use was last year’s pilot of The Americans.) I sat down at my computer and I watched this scene all the way through and the wonder that is Miami Vice washed back over me. It was high on the list for the Thirty-Three Project.

I first watched this show as a child (I probably shouldn’t have been watching it) and I loved it because it was fun TV. As an adult, as a critical viewer of television with a film degree, as a fan of the later works of Michael Mann, this pilot is just sheer amazing. There is none of the awkwardness of a TV pilot finding its way— it’s like diving right into a feature film. The Miami you see isn’t the pop parody of bikinis and art deco and models waiting to be discovered, it’s ripped straight from the documentary Cocaine Cowboys— murder, police corruption, shitty neighborhoods wracked by drug war crime. At one point in the pilot a small-time dealer tells an undercover Sonny Crockett to “consider the geopolitical implications of it, man. You should sponsor a child in Bogota.” Later he gets blown up. Who was talking about cocaine that way in the eighties? The filmmaking in the pilot is impeccable— the building of tension toward Leon’s assassination with the tight shots of volleyball hits, beach scenery, and Leon’s anxious face. Not to mention that “In the Air Tonight” scene. I love Michael Mann.

My original plan was to watch just the pilot, going into it with the hypothesis that Miami Vice was the 1980s captured in television: glitzy, ironically funny, ultimately disposable. I was wrong. The pilot was so good that I found myself sticking around for more, eventually watching about half of the first season before I petered off. Sure you get distracted by the fashion with a snicker, but then suddenly, inevitably, the show turns dark. Real dark. And that happens about every episode at least once.

I also found a pretty strong personal connection. Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) lives on a sailboat moored in a Miami marina with a pet alligator named Elvis. He emerges from below deck to go to work in the mornings, he lays out under the stars in the cockpit, he has cookouts with a grill on the dock. This is basically my life from age 6 to age 10. After a year of cruising in the Bahamas, my parents and I settled in a series of marinas on the Florida coast, even living in one in Miami for a short time. (I should also mention we one time kept an alligator as a pet; but that was when I was an infant and in Louisiana.) I would wake up for school in my bunk at the bow, climb out into the cockpit with my bookbag, and then hop over onto the dock to walk to the schoolbus.

I was basically a seven year old Sonny Crockett. No wonder I loved this damn show so much.

Watch the whole damn thing on Netflix. Or buy it on Amazon: Miami Vice: Season One