this space intentionally left blank

December 19, 2013

Filed under: movies»television»elementary

The Watson Problem

The difficulty in making a Sherlock Holmes adaption for American television is that we've already got three or four of them. Hyper-observant detectives are a dime a dozen, from The Mentalist to Monk. Arguably, Psych is just Holmes and his deductive skills with an added dose of arrested development (and I say that as someone who enjoys Psych at its fluffiest). Dule Hill's Gus even serves as a Watson, but reduced to a pharmeceutical rep instead of a doctor to match his detective friend's lack of ambition. The BBC's Sherlock owes Psych a debt for the visual style illustrating the deductive process, although I doubt they'd ever admit it.

I don't envy the people who decided, after the British version aired to wide acclaim, to make another Sherlock Holmes show. That's some tough competition. But I've been watching the first season of Elementary, and I have to say I'm enjoying it. The cast is growing on me, I like the lack of romantic angst, and the infrequent references to the original stories (inasmuch as I can catch them, not being a die-hard fan) are often worth a chuckle.

The biggest problem that Elementary faces is Watson — specifically, figuring out what she's supposed to bring to the team. As played by Lucy Liu, Joan Watson is an ex-surgeon who initially serves as Sherlock's live-in addiction counselor. With the terms of that job running out, partway through the first season, Sherlock offers her a position being groomed as a detective-in-training: someone who can take on his methods and become an equal part of the sleuthing consultancy.

Unfortunately, this is where the show's writers seem to have run out of steam. They know where they want this Watson to end up, and they've told us about it repeatedly, but they don't know how to get her there. She's not shown doing much studying, as such, and Holmes mentions that she doesn't read his research. As a result, Liu's Watson ends up either solving minor b-plot mysteries, dropping medical clues, or providing a convenient anchor toward which Sherlock can toss exposition. It's possible she's learning by osmosis, but this hardly provides a reason why we should care about her character arc.

It's interesting to see how the BBC Sherlock has taken a different tack with its version of the character. The British Watson, played by Martin Freeman, leans heavily on the actor's likeability and finely-tuned air of irritation to create a companion who partners with Sherlock for the adrenaline rush of it. Freeman's Watson is muscle and heart: he humanizes Sherlock and provides support. Ultimately, the relationship between the pair on the BBC show is one of friends. They enjoy going on adventures together. They have a similar restlessness. But Sherlock doesn't need Watson to solve crimes. When the show begins, he's doing relatively fine without him, although Watson's blogging certainly helps build Sherlock's reputation as a detective.

Joan Watson, on the other hand, is interested in being Sherlock — or, at least, being a consulting detective armed with his deductive methods. And in contrast to the Cumberbatch version, Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes is not nearly as self-sufficient. He's abrasive without being charming, dependent on his father for income, and recovering from a drug problem that destroyed his ability to work. Lance Mannion has commented that this weakens Holmes, but I'm not sure that I agree. Given that the original Holmes was a bit of a Mary Sue (a great observer, master of disguise, amateur boxer and stick-fighter, chemist, polyglot, and former spy) I don't miss seeing a version of the character that's less omni-capable.

Elementary wisely forgoes flashy zoom cuts to "show" how Sherlock examines a scene. They don't seem to have developed much of a substitute, unfortunately, so too often the show falls back on simply having characters explain the mystery to us. But I think this is in part because the mysteries are honestly second priority to where Elementary actually wants to focus: on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, with two possibilities for its ultimate outcome. On the one hand, it's hinted that this version of the great detective is really the result of two people working together — that Holmes and Watson together are the equivalent of the BBC Sherlock. Alternately, we're watching the origin story for a second Sherlock embodied in Joan Watson: one that can avoid the mistakes of drug abuse and arrogance, and benefit from her richer life experience as a surgeon.

The danger in speculating about a TV show this way, I've found, is the tendency to write about the show you wish you were watching, not the one that's actually onscreen. It's an easy mistake to make. I remember being mystified by John Rogers' glowing commentary on Jericho, which does not at all resemble the mediocre show that aired under that name, until I realized that really we weren't watching the same program — that the version Rogers was watching was being filtered through all the cool stuff he could have done with its premise.

And so it may be with Elementary. I'm only three-quarters through the first season, and even I will admit that it's uneven at best. It's possible I'm just a sucker for training montages. But the idea that Watson is not just a point of view character or a sounding post, but just the latest heir to a legacy of nigh-uncanny sleuthing... I have to admit, that's like catnip to me. I've got high hopes for it in the second season, and I'd put up with a lot of flexibility around the source material to watch it happen.

August 15, 2013

Filed under: movies»television

Summer Streaming

It's been a beautiful summer, even by Seattle standards, and Belle and I have gotten at least some good out of it. We've been camping, traveling, and lately we even broke out the grill. Take that, state-wide burn ban!

Indoors, of course, a lot of the broadcast TV we watch takes the summer off. We've been picking up a few shows via Netflix and Amazon instead. I'm not quite ready to write off our TiVo yet, but I'm impressed with the choices we've had.

Orange is the New Black

Surprisingly good. Shockingly good, even. There's none of the lazy writing and faux-transgressiveness that marked Jenji Kohan's previous show, Weeds. It's got a rich cast of characters without feeling contrived, it's funny without going broad, and it's comfortable mining a deep vein of dark humor from its setting. There have been a few comparisons between this and The Wire. Orange is the New Black isn't quite that good--what is?--but it's not an inapt pairing. Like its predecessor, Orange features a diverse cast filled with actors of color. Both shows also lack marquee names (but feature stellar performances from little-known actors). And of course, the subject material in both cases is fascinating in and of itself.

Beyond the confines of the show, it's interesting to see Netflix so clearly taking a page from HBO's book. Lots of networks have halo shows--it's only thanks to Mad Men that I can differentiate between AMC and A&E--but it was really HBO that realized shows were "stickier" than movies. And unlike HBO, Netflix doesn't force you to haggle with your local cable overlords. If they can put out more material at this quality level, their constant battles over licensing big film titles for streaming look a lot less troubling. I could definitely see keeping a Netflix subscription just for a couple of shows like this.


A show that never really found an audience on the SciFi channel, Alphas folded after a couple of seasons, and Amazon snagged it as one of their early exclusives. It's not groundbreaking television: the special effects are decidedly bargain-basement, the writers can't decide if they want to steal from Heroes or X-Men, and the direction ranges from competent to not terrible. It's a good summer show, though, with a more thoughtful core than either of its inspirations would lead you to believe.

Alphas has three things going for it. The first is David Strathairn, an actor who is way too good to be doing a superhero show on basic cable. The second is a genuine rapport between the actors, who really sell the workplace chemistry--especially between Gary, the autistic electro-telepath and Bill, the temperamental bruiser. Finally, Alphas does manage a single clever twist on its formula: the idea that its superpowers are basically neuroses, for which most of the cast are in therapy (if nothing else, this is a wry joke at the expense of the Xavier Academy for Gifted Youth). I'm not sure it ever really embraces that fully--there hasn't been a single hero-on-a-couch scene that I remember--but it does make me feel better about my own psychological tics.

The Fall

The Fall doesn't try to hide its villain: you'll know whodunnit by the end of the first episode. Instead, it serves as a kind of character study for its chilly detective, Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson. In many ways it reminds me of the BBC's prototypical female detective drama, Prime Suspect: Gibson spends as much time fighting a sexist bureaucracy as she does hunting the actual murderer.

When it's good, The Fall is very good, but it takes its time getting there. It's odd that, for a season that's only six episodes long, so much of it feels like padding. But I think part of that comes down to the delivery method. Streaming (and DVD, as well) makes it easy to burn through a show in a matter of hours. That's great for hook-driven puzzlers like Fringe or monster-of-the-week shows like Doctor Who, but it might not work so well for atmosphere-driven dramas.

It makes me wonder if we'll see a change in how people write narratives as streaming TV-on-demand becomes more common. Some people consider the non-Netflix Arrested Development to be designed for obsessive DVD rewatching. Is streaming different? More social? More portable?

January 20, 2010

Filed under: movies»television»bbc

Star Quality

I've been watching more than my fair share of BBC shows on DVD lately--Extras, Torchwood, and Life on Mars in particular. These range in quality from brilliant, decent enough if you ignore the first season, and thoroughly enjoyable, respectively. The 2000s were clearly a good decade for television on both sides of the Atlantic. That said, there's one crucial difference between the best shows in the US and the UK, as far as I can tell. The kinds of people who get starring roles in British television are markedly different from the people who star in American shows: they look like real people.

Watch, for example, Ashley Jensen's brilliant work as dim-witted actress Maggie Jacobs on Extras. Jensen's deft touch keeps Maggie from being the kind of stock "village idiot" sitcom character that the show itself lampoons, and adds a particular sting to the awkward humor. It's the kind of role that very few people could pull off with such charm, and really should have led to a wealth of future lead roles for Jensen. Maybe on British TV it will, but here it got her a bit part on Ugly Betty, perhaps because she's neither outrageously thin or glamour-model pretty.

Or compare the casts of the UK and US versions of The Office. The remake features a lot more variety in casting than most American television (and kudos for that), but the leads have still been assigned to thin, conventionally-attractive people. John Krasinski is a great, funny actor, but it's still hard sometimes not to see him as a bizarro-world Martin Freeman, and just as difficult to picture someone who looks like John Krasinski being stuck in a dead-end paper company job. Slate's Seth Stevenson gets to the heart of this when reviewing the remake of Life on Mars, noting that the cast in general is better-looking and better-known than the original--and that the new casting completely undermines the show's interpersonal dynamic. Even within genres, this holds true: there's not a single person on the entire cast of Torchwood who's as sexy as the least-attractive Galactica crew member, and while the latter is a better show, it's still kind of hard to understand how the ragtag fleet maintains such flawless fitness and perfect skin on a diet of algae and moonshine.

Why the difference? Is it that the larger pool of American talent makes it easier to find people who are both talented and blandly good-looking? Is it some kind of institutional mandate brought on by publicly-funded media? Ultimately, who cares? Diverse casting isn't a magic bullet, and there are still plenty of BBC programs I find unwatchable (confession: The IT Crowd bores the crap out of me). But there are certainly a lot of cases where it makes a show better (including many American shows: The Office, The Wire, and 30 Rock come to mind), and it's got to be healthier for the viewing audience.

March 20, 2009

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Nothing but the Rain

Tonight the very last episode of Battlestar Galactica will run its course, closing out what may have been one of the greatest science fiction shows ever to run on television--dark, unpredictable, and surprisingly well-acted. I'll miss it, but I'm glad it's going out on its own terms.

BSG has always been driven by twin engines of character and crisis. It is, as I wrote once, a show about constantly ratcheting up the pressure on its protagonists in new and interesting ways. Eventually, everyone either cracks or is compressed into their core, like Saul Tigh standing up to declare that "Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that's the man I want to be. And if I die today, that's the man I'll be." The writers have not always been successful at this dynamic--Lee Adama's fat suit period, for example--but they've hit the mark more often than not, with devastating results.

Along the way, they've also managed some impressive social commentary. The show has addressed both sides of insurgency, talked about waterboarding and torture, discussed abortion, been called chauvinist and defended as feminist. There have been episodes about vengeance, abuse of power, and reconciliation. And surprisingly, few of them have tried to wrap the issues up in a bow for the viewer. BSG is comfortable with moral ambiguity in a way that most television sci-fi has never achieved. The UN even held a panel this week about the show, albeit using it as a way to introduce the students in attendance to the important issues that international government faces.

I have to note one of my favorite parts of that panel, when Eddie Olmos channels Admiral Adama for a passionate rant on racism and human rights:

...I detest what we've done to ourselves. Out of a need to make ourselves different from one another, we've made the word 'race' a way of expressing culture. There's no such thing--and all you high school students, bless your heart for being here. You're a hundred champions right now that are gonna go out understanding this. The adults in the room will never understand it. Even though they'll nod their heads and say 'you're right,' they'll never be able to stop using the word 'race' as a cultural determinant.

I just heard one of the most prolific statements, done by one of the great humanitarians [gestures to Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], he's really trying to organize and bring us together, and he used the word race as if there is ... an Asian race, an indigenous race, a caucasian race, or a Latino race. There's no such thing as a Latino race. There never has been. There never will be. There's only one race, and that's what the show brought out. That is the human race. Period.

Now, the pressure comes, why did we start to use the word race as a cultural determinant? The truth is that over 600 years ago, the caucasian 'race' decided to use it as a cultural determinant so it'd be easier for them to kill another culture. That was the total understanding. To kill one culture from another culture. You couldn't kill your own race, so you had to make them the Other. And to this day, I spent 37 years of my adult life trying to get this word out, and now I end up well-prepared, as the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica, to say it to all of you:

There is but one race, and that is it. So say we all!

At that point, the gallery literally erupts with people shouting "So say we all!" It's a tremendous moment. And it is impressive that any television show, much less a show on the (temporarily) Sci Fi channel, could inspire that kind of discussion and passion for social justice.

Leading up to this final episode, the pace may have lagged a little. Personally, I've always enjoyed BSG's willingness to mess with its audience by killing off characters or radically rearranging the setting. There was talk at one point, during the writing strike, that the show might have ended with the episode that became the middle of this season: humans and cylons landing on Earth together, only to find an uninhabitable, radioactive wasteland. I still kind of wish they'd done that.

But I'm glad they're getting a chance to wrap things up, and also that they're quitting while they're ahead, relatively speaking. With a show like this, the worst thing that could happen would be to drag it on for another four or five seasons. It's definitely better to go out with some kind of plan, instead of a whimper and a cancellation notice. So grab your gun and bring in the cat.

Boom boom boom.

December 4, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_wire

The Bribe

Every season (or every chapter, more like) of The Wire has its own theme. The first covers "the street," the second "the supply," while the third chapter turns to "reform." Those three, taken together, also form one of the show's most compelling arcs: the tragedy of Stringer Bell, and it's tempting to call them the greatest achievement of the show. But it's the fourth season, purportedly centered on education, where The Wire begins to tip its hand, slyly hinting at a more ambitious goal than simply masterfully-written entertainment. It's there, in other words, that we start to see the emergence of a new theme for the show beyond each yearly installment.

What makes season four so different? Essentially, it downplays the procedural, cat-and-mouse aspects of the first three seasons. There are still cases being worked by the police--Herc's missing camera, Bunk's intervention in Omar's wrongful arrest--but the narrative arc of cops vs. dealers takes a back seat to Michael, Duquan, Randy, and Namond (the four corner kids introduced in this season). Unsurprisingly, the writers have a hard time keeping the level of tension up without a caper to solve, and so the show takes a more leisurely pace.

But in a lot of ways, the slowdown suits The Wire a great deal. At the heart of creator David Simon's critique of the police institution in Baltimore, there's always been the belief that the lack of support for smart, high-level casework in the department not only allows the drug trade to flourish, but actually encourages it by swamping the legal system in corner arrests that it can't possibly handle. The fourth season is his chance to show how that happens without the distractions of "better" cops, like McNulty and Freamon.

From a wider view, however, The Wire has never been a typical procedural show. It can't be: it's rooted in the realities of Baltimore, not the fantasy crimelabs of CSI. Above all, it refuses to treat either side of the drug trade as inhuman or irredeemable--in this, The Wire stays far from the caricatured authoritarianism of Law and Order. Simon and the show's other writers don't want scapegoats, they want to show that the corner gangs are actual human beings--ones that have grown up in experiences that shape them differently from most viewers, but not so much that we can't feel a kinship with them.

In the book that he co-authored with his Wire collaborator Ed Burns, The Corner, they write (on the topic of welfare):

... To do more than tender the bribe would require empathy, charity, and connectedness, and in thirty years we have summoned up nothing close.

Empathy demands that we recognize ourselves in the faces at Mount and Fayette, that we acknowledge the addictive impuse as something more than simple lawlessness, that we begin to see the corner as the last refuge of the truly disowned. Charity asks that we no longer begrudge the treasure already lost. And connectedness admits that between their world and ours, the distance, in human terms at least, is never as great as we make it seem.

It becomes clear, when even the limited amount of separation between citizen and criminal allowed on The Wire is minimized, that this is part of Simon's point: to give viewers a perspective that forces their empathy, charity, and connectedness to emerge. Gangsters like Slim Charles, Stringer, or Bodie are shown richly and warmly, but without dismissing the destructive actions they often take (Slim Charles, especially, is so enjoyable to watch that it's sickening to be reminded of his work as a hired killer). Even the show's most unrepentantly villainous characters, Chris and Snoop, have an inner life and a complicated relationship with the world around them.

They aren't so different from us, Simon is saying. As with Stringer Bell, they could very well be us, if it weren't for the warping effects of the drug world. That's the perspective that gets lost when the battle against drugs becomes a "war," and the opposing sides are reduced to soldiers. It could be a genuinely transformative viewpoint for many people. Which is why it's such a shame that The Wire is the greatest show that nobody ever watched.

September 23, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»eureka

Drain the Tub

When the SciFi Channel started a Twitter feed for a character on Eureka that automatically follows anyone who mentions the show, I thought that was creepy, but also a little clever.

When they started doing cross-promotions for the show involving Degree brand deoderant, using the commercials that spoof home shopping channels, I thought that was kind of blatant, but I have TiVo, so I never had to watch them.

When they started having fictional characters on the show pitch for Degree during commercial breaks, I thought that was really blatant--but again, TiVo.

When Degree started to show up prominently in placement positions around the show, to the point that it started to look like a parody of product placement, I thought that was getting close to the line of what I could comfortably watch, but I still kind of liked the show, so I put up with it.

But when they wrote an episode about an artificial second sun, and one character walks into a lab and says "So, I understand you're working on a compound that could keep someone cool under the most extreme conditions," and then Degree is sitting right there on the desk in a close-up shot...

Well, that would be when I stop watching. If anyone from NBC is paying attention--say they've got some poor intern whose job is to track the zeitgeist across unread corners of the Internet like this one--you might want to consider ending that particular promotional experiment. Or at least hire better writers to do the shilling.

September 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»twin_peaks

Great Moments in Nonviolence

Miguel Ferrer is a national treasure.

April 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_office

Office Training Again

Microsoft's spoof video of their own marketing, formatted as "Bruce ServicePack and the Vista Street Band," has been making the rounds, giving people an excuse once again to mock the company (John Gruber: "It epitomizes Microsoft's culture and institutional bad taste") by entirely missing the point. But the best Microsoft internal videos are still these British Office spinoffs, which make Gervais' David Brent a "management consultant" after his disastrous Wernham-Hogg career.

There's two more clips here and here.

January 10, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_wire

What other words do you need?

This morning I finished season one of The Wire, HBO's long-running cop show. And if I didn't love it for its pragmatic worldview, its left-leaning sociological outlook, and its flawed protagonists, I would almost certainly love it just for this scene of McNulty and Bunk investigating an old murder scene.

I guess it's not explicitly clear from that scene, but the writing is superb, and usually not composed entirely of profanity.

October 1, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»macgyver


I lost my first Leatherman on the way back from France--forgot to pack it in my checked luggage, and didn't realize it until I was almost to the gate. I forget how many times I had flown with that little orange tool while I was on the forensics team at GMU, which made it all the more galling to lose it to airport security.

I bought the Leatherman in the first place to replace the pocketknife I carried. I had a knife because it's a handy thing to have, and because I wanted to be Macgyver when I grew up. But the knife kind of freaked people out--it was a four-inch flick blade, and I enjoyed the snap of the wrist required to open it maybe a bit too much. It made people think I was some sort of psycho cannibal survival fetishist, when in real life I could no more survive in the open wild than I could flap my arms and fly.

The Leatherman was a lot less threatening, since it's basically a pair of pliers mated with a Swiss army knife. No-one is threatened by a Swiss army knife or a pair of pliers. Besides, I was sick of trying to use the pocketknife as an impromptu screwdriver. It's possible, and it feels very resourceful the first time, and then after that you just feel like an idiot.

When I lost the first tool to the Charles de Gaulle security team, I went to Price Club and bought one of their bubble-wrapped packages with one of the original Super Tools. The Super Tool is basically the worst of both worlds between a pocketknife and the smaller Leatherman I'd been using before. It is a hefty chunk of stamped stainless steel, which immediately began tearing holes in the pockets of every pair of pants I own. The knife on it is large enough to scare passersby again, but it's located inside the handle of the pliers, which means that it takes five minutes just to get it (or any of the other blades/files/screwdrivers) out. And then once you have any of the blades/files/screwdrivers out, they're locked into place with a hellishly-resilient leaf-spring release, so it won't close on you (which is nice) but it'll flay the skin off your thumb while you try to put it back.

So I'd finally had enough, and this weekend Amazon shipped me another Leatherman Juice like I'd had before, relegating the larger version to my messenger bag, where I will hopefully never need it again. Some people might wonder if I needed either one in the first place. But I tend to find that the moment I don't have a pocketknife of some kind handy, I tend to need one. Even just here at the office, there's always packages that need to be opened, or equipment that someone would like to have rackmounted, or a tape that's broken and needs to be rewound. Yeah, I'm sure I could find a screwdriver or improvise something eventually, but why bother? Besides, coworkers appreciate having someone handy around.

Also, I still have dreams that I'll be trapped in the hold of a falling airplane, or need to defuse a bomb using only toothpicks and a bag of M&Ms. I never actually watched a lot of Macgyver as a kid, but the idea of it really stuck with me--plus, I was reading a lot of Heinlein at the time, and the creepy libertarianism didn't take but the jack-of-all-trades competency worship did. Nobody likes to be in a situation where they feel helpless. Maybe carrying a Leatherman or a pocketknife is just a psychological tool for maintaining some kind of control. Maybe it's a symbol of wanting to be able to fix things and solve problems. Or maybe I've just gotten used to it after so many years, and it's force of habit.

In any case, if you're like me, you may enjoy Wikipedia's List of Macgyverisms, including icons showing whether a problem was chemical, optical, physical, or explosives-related. I'm not really threatened by violence in the media, but it is nice to read a set of plot synopses for a show that explicitly rejected violence and guns in favor of invention and loosely-sourced scientific knowledge.

Future - Present