City’s Hollywood moment and the best short film you’ll see all year…
I’ve hesitated to mention this until now, because, well, it’s nothing to do with writing, and it’s only about the little football team I’ve supported my whole life through thick and thin… mostly thin.
But there was something about what happened last Sunday that has made it more than that. Something in the astounded reactions from all over the world this week that has made me think this is bigger than it being just about my team, bigger than just being about football, bigger than ‘just a game’. (I know it is only all of those things really, but oh god, it feels like so much more now). Continue reading →
In anyone else’s hands, this could have been so bad, but with Ball, you know you’re getting quality. It’s yet another modern televisual classic from the HBO stable. They truly do spoil us.
True Bloodexists in an alternate, maybe not-too-distant-future Deep South where, following the invention of a synthetic blood product, the vampire community have come out of the closet and are trying to co-exist with their normal neighbours. They’re sort of like gays. They’ve got their own bars and their own drinks, and they dress better than the rest of us. Some straights like them (they’re called ‘fang bangers’), and some straights hate their guts (they say ‘God hates fangs’).
And at the heart of this social tinderbox is the cross-the-tracks love affair between waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).
But even the humans have their dark secrets. One of the characters is a shapeshifter, and heroine Sookie is telepathic, which is why she falls for vampire Bill: he’s the only man whose thoughts she can’t read. And that’s before we get into the whole illicit trade in vampire blood, which humans can get incredibly high on, and the lengths to which some of them will go to get it.
If all vampire stories are about ‘surrogate sexual intercourse’, then True Blood goes for it full throttle. There’s a lot of sex in this series. The scene in episode 5 where we flash back to see how Bill first became one of the children of the night is just about the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen on your telly.
Unusually for a modern TV series it opts for powerful serial-like cliffhanger endings, which just goes to show that when you think a TV drama tradition is long dead, up it pops again all alive and in your face.
I don’t normally write about TV series once I’ve already taken a look at them. But with the second season of Mad Men now airing on BBC4, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immerse myself in it again, having only scratched the glossy surface of season one. And besides, this is Mad Men, quite possibly the greatest TV drama series of all time.
It is easy to be seduced by the surface pleasures of Mad Men. It has so many surface pleasures to offer. It looks so ravishing and effortlessly cool. The women are all Hollywood screen sirens, and as for the men, oh my god, the suits, the suits! But this is part of the show’s success at concealing its message with such subtlety. A show that is all about the allure of surface deception should be alluring, shoulddeceive.
As you can tell, I loveMad Men. It practically makes me tumescent with storytelling lust. Each episode makes me feel like I’ve just been given a freebie from a high class hooker. It is that satisfying I find myself stretching and purring over the closing credits. I could almost take up smoking again, such is the heady buzz of post-coital langour.
But I’m not always certain as to why it does this to me. The conclusion to each Mad Men episode can be very much a What just happened? experience. You know it was something major and that everything has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is or how it happened.
This is a serious problem for some people. I know a few friends who gave up on the show because they can’t see the point; can’t see what it’s trying to say or where it’s trying to get to. I think the answer to this conundrum is to be found in the show’s unique structure and how it differs from the majority of TV dramas out there.
I’ve recently been teaching an undergraduate course on creative writing, mostly involving poetry and short stories, and it has got me thinking of the power of smallness, of subtlety, of elision. And then I chanced upon Lance Mannion‘s erudite deconstructions of Mad Men in his blog where he nails exactly what is so different about Mad Men and why its subtlety eludes so many people.
Whereas most series are trying to be novels, their dramatic arcs unfolding over episodic ‘chapters’, Mad Men operates more like a short story collection. Each episode is not a mere chapter in a larger narrative, but a self-contained story that stands on its own, whilst alluding to a larger scheme in the way that the taut stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners allude to the larger scheme of a nation in paralysis. ‘Mad Menmay be Matthew Weiner’s attempt to write Manhattanites,’ says Mannion.
And there it is. I suddenly remember the same feeling after reading each of Joyce’s stories; the something-big-just-happened-but-I’m-not-sure-what feeling. And the answers are there when you go back and look again, as you have to do with all short stories: the answers are there in a look, a gesture, a word that changes everything.
Epiphanies, not catastrophes.
Eveline’s inability to make a decision to escape, Little Chandler realising he is trapped in a loveless marriage, Gabriel Conroy sensing his own lack of passion and seeking solace in easy meditation. These are Joyce’s trademark epiphanies.
And they are there in Mad Men: in season one in that moment when Don hands the money to Hollis, or in this week’s episode when Father Gill gives Peggy the Easter egg (‘an ironic symbol of new life’) for her abandoned child and she realises this pretend person she wants to be means excommunication from her family and church. There’s a look that Joan gives in episode 8 that sums up the experiences of an entire generation of women, and a pat on the shoulder in the final episode of this season that has all the dramatic force of a beheading.
It’s the little things that count. You just have to go back and look for them, like you do with all great short stories.
It’s that time of year when new US TV dramas sprout up all over the UK channels and I have to concentrate on keeping my mouth shut because I’ve already seen the whole series that’s just starting. Yes, I’m a committed downloader of US dramas. I download episodes a day after they air in the States. Sometimes I let an entire season run and then download the lot in one go and I still get to see the entire series before the first episode gets anywhere near a UK channel. Life may have just started on ITV3 but sorry guys, I watched the final episode of this first season last Christmas.
Bittorent sharing of TV episodes is illegal, of course, but it falls into that grey area between broadcast and DVD release in which digital distribution is possible the moment a TV show is broadcast. For me it’s a matter of keeping abreast of current trends in TV drama so I can perfect my screenwriting craft as well as write about series and preview them here when they finally do get a UK release. It’s like having a VCR that can tape foreign TV shows.
This doesn’t help UK channels like ITV3 who want advertising revenue from series like Life, though. Channels are trying to discourage downloading by having shows appear in the UK shortly after US transmission. Heroes is a great example – there’s no point in downloading it because you can see it within a week of its US release. But with other dramas there’s a long way to go. Excellent series like Mad Men, Burn Notice and Californicationare well into their second seasons in the US but don’t hold your breath waiting for them this side of the pond.
If these shows appeared here within a week of their US debuts, people like me wouldn’t bother with bittorrent. We’d wait for them to appear on our tellies and happily watch the accompanying adverts. But sorry guys, if you want that to happen you need to take a look at the broadband reality, because it’s moving way faster than you are.
There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be watching these series simultaneously with our American cousins. So why are they being shipped to us with all the speed of Victorian partworks? Why do we feel like those Americans crowding the harbour in 1840 asking ‘What news of Little Nell?’ to arriving Brits who’d read last week’s chapter of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop? It’s 2008, folks. This shouldn’t be happening.
Those who’ve already seen the first three episodes on ITV3 will know that it’s a police procedural starring Brit Damien Lewis as Charlie Crews a detective just out of clink after serving twelve years of a life sentence for triple murder. But like Ivan Dobsky, HE NEVER DONE IT. And now he’s back on the force, even though he’s got mega-ding from his compensation, and tracking down the people what put him away.
He’s also developed a few handy character quirks. Prison will do that to you. He’s into Zen, and obsessed with fruit, and is now, quite understandably, most likely to say ‘he never done it’ even when the murder suspect of the week is wearing a sandwich board with the words I DONE IT painted in the victim’s blood. Yes, Charlie Crews is a maverick, and a very entertaining one.
Thankfully, after the first few episodes, the quirks take a back seat and Charlie starts to become a much more interesting character. This is because, deep down, this is a Superhero story type (using Blake Snyder’s rather helpful genre types). Crews is special, and that makes him an outcast. This is, at its heart, about the difficulty of being an extraordinary hero in an ordinary world.
You don’t need to wear a cape to be in a Superhero story type: see those two notable Russell Crowe movies Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. These are stories about human superheroes challenged by the mediocre world around them. It is the tiny minds that surround the hero that are the real problem. All Superhero tales are about being ‘different’, are about the difficulties of being ‘special’.
Thankfully Life delivers on this promise and the rent-a-quirk fruit obsession dies a quiet death off screen well before the gripping season 1 finale… which I saw a year ago… and will leave you to enjoy for yourself.