Friday, 14 August 2015

PART ONE: WHY I HATE (MOST) CONTEMPORARY TV DRAMA - Grumpy-Pants Film Corner Editorial Commentary By Greg Klymkiw

Why I Hate (Most) Contemporary TV Drama

Film Corner Editorial Commentary By Greg Klymkiw

I pretty much stopped watching television in the 1980s. There were, mind you, a few exceptions to the rule. In Canada, our public broadcaster, the CBC, used to have great news and public affairs programming on both regional and national levels. In recent years, this has not been the case. Regional coverage has plummeted and the style of presentation became so much glitzier (in that pathetic Canadian way of "glitzy").

I was also enamoured with some of the CBC's original dramatic productions.

To this day, Jerry Ciccoritti's Trudeau holds up as one of the best movies for television - ever, Canadian or otherwise. The solid writing by Wayne Grigsby and a superb cast went a long way to making it riveting viewing, but most brilliantly, the epic film was endowed with a directorial voice. Replicating the styles of filmmakers Richard Lester, Costa-Gavras, Bernardo Bertolucci and Alan J. Pakula, director Ciccoritti deftly captured four key periods in the life of Canada's superstar Prime Minister. This was not mere replication, either, but a stylistic springboard to visually capture Trudeau's personal and political life over two decades. Trudeau was imbued with the kind of stakes, scope and directorial razzle-dazzle that felt like genuine cinema - much like the phenomenal 70s run of ABC's Movies of the Week (Spielberg's Duel being a case in point).

Dramatic series at the CBC during this period also put a nail in the coffin of its horrifically folksy Canadiana like "The Beachcombers" and Kevin Sullivan's wretch-inducing L.M. Montgomery adaptations with limited series like Ken Finkleman's meta-satire The Newsroom, Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar's insane Kensington Market-set Twitch City and William D. MacGillivray's sadly short-lived comedy about Maritime cabbies, Gullages.

For a time, TV seemed cool again and shockingly, it was Canadian, and even more jaw-dropping was that it was coming from one of the most uncool broadcasting entities in the history of television, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Alas, the new millennium brought horrendous changes to the public corporation and supposed "vision" began to turn it into a pallid ratings-grabber of the lowest order (albeit politely vulgar as this was Canada).

As well, I found myself enamoured with truly cutting edge educational, documentary and kids programming at the publicly funded TV Ontario (TVO) and over at upstart Showcase came the most truly, genuinely vulgar (in all the best ways) comedy The Trailer Park Boys.

As a Canadian, it made me feel mighty good that my disdain for television continued with American programming, but that Canada was bursting at the seams with product that made everything else look as awful and unwatchable as it was. For years I proudly proclaimed I had never bothered watching even a single episode of Seinfeld, but one night in a hotel room, I succumbed to that single episode, hoping that maybe I was just being a big grumpy-pants and that maybe, just maybe, I would watch more. I didn't. I sat there agog at what had been proclaimed great television. It wasn't funny and I had no idea what the show was about. I didn't want to know.

During the 90s and 2000s, a new wave of television began to take hold. Programs like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Six Feet Under - supposedly "adult", character-driven and "novelistic" series-TV became all the rage. I refused to succumb. Then, after enough people (whom I believe in retrospect should have known better) urged me to give this stuff a whirl, so I did. The Sopranos felt like bargain-basement Scorsese, Deadwood felt like bargain-basement Sam Peckinpah (astoundingly it even felt like bargain-basement Walter Hill, the show's chief cook and bottle washer) and most egregiously Six Feet Under felt like a horrendous rip-off of a talented young Canadian filmmaker's acclaimed short film, Exhuming Tyler, an original, darkly funny little film that should have been made into a hit series, but was never taken beyond the development stages and dropped like a hot potato for being derivative of Six Feet Under. I still feel for Merlin Dervisevic, the filmmaker of that little short film.

So again, none of this acclaimed stuff did it for me. As the new millennium forged forward, programs like The Wire, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and most recently, True Detective were trotted out to me by friends and colleagues as being the kind of television I should watch, that it made mincemeat out of the new Hollywood feature film penchant for empty roller coaster rides. Aside from The Wire, it didn't happen for me. Hell, even The Wire is pissing me off because of the time-investment I need to make in order to follow its labyrinthian serial-styled drama.

Hilariously, this is the very thing people keep telling me - that I need to watch more than a handful of episodes for them to take hold. Uh, no. Life is short. Besides, I can put on an episode of Perry Mason from the 60s and know immediately who its main characters are and instead of following their story arcs, I'm able to follow their exploits with a different story and guest star every episode. The 50s and 60s delivered the ideal form of series television drama - it was anthology-styled, delivering a new story every week with new characters. And of course, there were straight-up anthology series like the long form Playhouse 90 and phenomenal genre anthology programs like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. What hooked you here was the revolving door of characters and stories, not the dull time-wasting crap which too many refer to as the "New Golden Age of TV". It might be gold-plated at best, but for the most part, it's bronze.

For me, I'm not interested in having to slog through the lugubrious, serialized, near soap-operatic nonsense puked up as "character-driven, novelistic" drama. It's nothing of the kind. It's all bargain-basement attempts to replicate feature film drama, but over a much longer period of time. Uh, who wants that? Life is short. The only way I'm going to commit to this sort of thing is when it's truly cutting edge like Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz or Edgar Reitz's Heimat or Lars von Trier's The Kingdom - work that lives beyond the notion of "great television", but is, in fact, "great drama" with strong directorial voices.

Some argue that I'm clearly not interested in character-driven drama and in fact, prefer plot-driven drama. "Hogwash!" is my response to this. The characters in this "new wave" seem like machine-tooled archetypes who overstay their welcome in properties designed solely to keep me watching as if I were some brain-dead content junkie.

Where TV is indeed excelling, especially over at HBO and CNN Films, is the stream of superb feature documentaries from the likes of Nick Broomfield (TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER) and Joe Berlinger, as well as feature length movies like Beyond the Candelabra and The Normal Heart, movies so good they should have been released theatrically first (which, thankfully, WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V. JAMES J. BULGER indeed was).

Some argue that feature films today are awful because the studios only do roller coaster rides and/or comedies which are little more than glorified television. To the latter I'll admit to hating it when I go to the movies just to watch TV, but some of the best comedies never feel that way - they have scope and strong directorial voices. As for roller coaster rides, they only bug me when they're miserably directed by clowns who have no aptitude for delivering the goods (Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes). Even here, though, the exceptions to the rule belonged to George Miller, who knocked us on our butts this summer with Mad Max: Fury Road, just as Christopher McQuarrie knocked it out of the park with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

Besides, what's with holding up studio dross as the be-all-end-all of cinema? Does anyone bother to look at independent American cinema and, God Forbid, movies in other languages that aren't English? The past few years have yielded a myriad of genuinely great feature films from all over the world (The Tribe, anyone?).

I have maintained a regimen, since early childhood of watching at least one feature film per day, often more. This is where it's at. TV ultimately can't hold a candle to the joys inherent in films which are crafted by real filmmakers and not, ugh, "show runners" (even the phrase "show runner" makes me want to gag).

TV stinks. Face it.

If you don't face up to it, you're buying into what the Man wants you to buy into. Me, I'm going to pop on an episode of Perry Mason right now!


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.