Saturday, 15 August 2015

PART TWO: WHY I HATE (MOST) CONTEMPORARY TV DRAMA - An Ultra-Grumpy-Pants Film Corner Editorial Commentary by Greg Klymkiw

Part Two: Why I Hate (Most) Contemporary TV Drama

Film Corner Editorial Commentary By Greg Klymkiw

In 1977 I bore witness, along with millions upon millions of others, to the birth of event television - the mini-series that started it all, Roots. Alex Haley's fictionalized recounting of his slave ancestry was a must-see and I waited with the kind of anticipation I've seldom ever experienced for anything.

Everyone just knew you couldn't miss this event - a powerful, brutal, reality-based series of the slave trade: from the jungles of Africa, to the horrendous slave ship journey, the demeaning slave auctions and the eventual life of misery on the plantations of Southern Whitey, spanning decades and eventually ending with the freedom of the slaves after the Civil War. The mini-series hammered home what we all knew about, but had never before experienced in such stark detail in any dramatic rendering of this shameful period of American history. Night after night, millions of us returned to our TV sets faithfully as the drama unfurled with all the compulsive qualities great drama must have.

Still, even as a kid, I remember feeling my attention flagging a bit, and then a lot, from the mid-point and onwards. You still had to keep watching, though, because you were now so emotionally invested in the characters and mostly because this was the cutting edge - the first major TV event to take the perspective of the African-American slaves.

I knew, though, that something wasn't quite right with Roots anymore and damned if I could figure it out. Eventually it didn't matter because the series delivered a major wallop in the final episode that was the thing that stayed with me and millions of others.

That was the first and only time I saw Roots until about five years ago when I purchased a DVD box-set of the whole series. The first three instalments were as chilling and compelling as I remembered, but then the sag occurred and it didn't take long to figure out why I had lost all interest in the series and investment in the characters.

The narrative settled into a soap opera - a kind of General Hospital or As the World Turns on the old plantations. This certainly wasn't the horrific, mind-bending melodrama of Richard Fleischer's feature film of Mandingo, but a kind of creaky, lazy and dull piece of television that retained one's interest by the sheer weight of TV-storytelling tropes - the emotional cliff-hangers, if you will. And damn, you not only experienced a letdown, but you knew exactly what it was that kept you watching, only this time, I was able to see the stitching and believe you me, it was a mighty sloppy job in the garment factory for the remaining episodes.

At least cliffhangers in the serials of the 30s and 40s were infused with dazzling derring do and not the oodles of soap suds found in serial-styled TV series.

This, of course, is the very thing that turned me off to television's so-called "New Golden Age". Like clockwork, everything felt like a bit of hook 'em, reel 'em in and toss 'em in the nets from which it was impossible to escape. This time, though, I was having none of it. Escape I did.

Why? Because I didn't sign up for soap opera. Hell, if I want soap suds, I'm just going to slap on a Douglas Sirk movie and watch the very best - one that's rooted in the genuine post-war ennui of the very times in which the films were made.

So, this brings me to True Detective, another series that everyone and their dog - people whose tastes and opinions I respect - began the mantra I'd been experiencing for so long about this serialized form of contemporary TV drama, this so-called "novelistic" approach to visual storytelling with an accent on character, supposedly great writing and stellar performances.

Happily, I did not succumb to Season One of True Detective, but an opportunity presented itself to me with respect to Season Two. A dear friend of mine, much younger, but highly educated and intelligent, mentioned he was going to be watching an episode from the Second Season. He suggested I absolutely had to give it a whirl and for once, I didn't argue. I said, "Yeah, sounds great."

However, before the show began to unspool, my friend insisted he explain a few things about the characters and the plot thus far.

"No, please don't."

He insisted I needed this tutelage since he was sure I'd have no idea what was going to be happening.

"Don't worry," I assured him. "I'll figured it out all too quickly and easily."

And guess what? I did.

I didn't need to know any of the machine-tooled storytelling gymnastics of the previous episodes, they were all too apparent. (This kind of surprised me because it was the kind of thing I delighted in when I watched great 60s crime shows like Perry Mason, though where it seems like great writing there, here, it just seemed like sloppy writing.)

A trio of rogue undercover cops are hanging out in a seedy motel as they uncover a huge conspiracy involving the Russian mob and politicians of all stripes, including a highly influential and respected Attorney General figure. I learned in short order that Colin Farrell was used by a scumbag mob boss to bump off a bad egg in the syndicate under the ludicrous pretence that he was in fact whacking the man who raped his now-estranged wife. Colin is now under this scumbag's thumb, but he's working shit out in order to get back in the good graces with both his conscience and the police force.

The scumbag mob boss is played by Vince Vaughn. Even though he's saddled with a whole lot of terrible dialogue, he strikes an imposing figure nonetheless. His performance might be the best and only watchable element of this whole series. At least he gets a genuinely great scene where he interrogates a scumbag who's betrayed him, smashes a whiskey glass into his face, pounds the shit out of him, shoots him in the gut and then watches him die in agony while he pours himself a fresh tumbler of booze. Alas, this isn't a kickass feature length crime picture from a real director like David Ayer and starring Vince Vaughn as the main character, a sleazy, reptilian, but kind of sexy killer.

This is just another TV show.

Taylor Kitsch is along for the ride as a cop being blackmailed for his penchant for homosexual dalliances. His wifey doesn't know, of course, and he doesn't want her to find out. Worse yet, Taylor's in so deep on this idiotically convoluted situation with Colin, that he fears for his wife's safety and needs to place her in hiding. Wifey whines about it and just keeps up with the pressures being placed on their marriage by hubby's activities.

And then, we get the most ridiculous character of all played by Rachel McAdams. Oh boy, does she get herself an opportunity to act up a storm here. She's not only a rogue undercover cop, but she's trying to come down from a drug-induced high when she attended some weird-ass Russian Mob orgy as a "prostitute". She keeps going on about all the weird things she saw and participated in, but we figure out that nothing really happened to her at all. Even though she was pumped full of drugs and booze, she was still able to escape being porked by some slimy old man and is now feeling guilty about killing a scumbag lower-drawer thug.

Worse yet, she has "intimacy" issues. Oh Christ, help me! At one point she tries to get some Colin Farrell schwance twixt her thighs, but it dissipates into nothing. We get the brilliant dialogue in which she blames the drugs and Colin justifying not boning her because she's out of his league.

Fuck, this was getting stupid.

I finally had to laugh uproariously when the tough, but sensitive McAdams goes to visit her weak-ass father played by David Morse. We find out how he was kind of responsible for her being abducted and raped as a kid and Morse, with considerable sorrow, self-pityingly blames himself for everything. Morse also seems to be adorned with the stupidest looking hippy tresses I've ever seen, adding, no doubt, to the hilarity of every dreadful line he must utter.

In fact, some of the dreadful dialogue in this scene has been seared into my brain with a branding iron.

"God damn everything,” Daddy laments.

McAdams brilliantly-scribed retort is, "That’s what I say."

Give these writers an Emmy!

Jesus H. Christ! That's what I say? Did a monkey write this dialogue?

And then comes the pièce de résistance. Morse asks his daughter if she'll turn herself in for the killing, but he makes the stupid gaffe of not even querying her if she really did it. This kind of pisses her off and she wonders why he wouldn't ask. Guess what his brilliantly written reply is.

"I don't have to," he says with more than a touch of regret, guilt and paternal love in his voice. He looks at her soulfully before uttering the next knee-slapper which is, "You’re the most innocent person I know."


You’re the most innocent person I know?????????

This is beyond the pale. Not even the worst poverty-row noir picture, not even the most abominable 70s crime picture, not even the most godawful TV cop procedural has ever stooped to such hackneyed, soapy dialogue.

At this point, I got up and announced to my friend that I needed to take a crap. He kindly offered to pause the program. "No need," I said, perhaps a bit too smugly. "I know where all this is going."

I stumbled into the water closet, plopped myself down on the throne and enjoyed a healthy expunging of putrid faecal matter whilst I enjoyed a few games of Scrabble on my iPhone.

Once again, I am agog at what constitutes great television and convinced even more that great television these days might well be one of the biggest oxymorons in the history of oxymora.

Ah well, I'm still happily ploughing through The Wire. And yeah, I'm still pissed off at how long it's taking to slog through, but at least I'm enjoying every second of it and have at least one example of contemporary TV drama I like so I'm not totally accused of being a big, fat, grumpy pants.

For further elaboration on my "history" with TV and a review of the Criterion Collection GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN TELEVISION, please visit the super-cool online UK-based film mag: "Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema" and read my in-depth article in my very first COLONIAL REPORT (ON CINEMA) FROM THE DOMINION OF CANADA column from 2010, pictured left, by clicking HERE.