Given the nature of my personality I’m starting with the “takes.”
Like it or not, we live in a capitalistic society where viewership rules commercial television. (That is, stations whose programs are interrupted by commercials as opposed to those that are not.) Hell, you can’t sell four-hour erections if no one is watching. I also understand, maybe better than most, that sometimes the best thing to do is to let a program die. Writers or actors can “burn out.” Or, their shows can–as character arcs or plots are plumbed past the point of authenticity. It’s not for nothing that our standard phrase for artistic burnout, “jumping the shark,” was named and defined by a specific episode of a long running show. (Curious? http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=jump%20the%20shark.)
The above factors also play into corporate decisions made by “non-commercial” television as well–a prime example, The Sopranos on HBO, which didn’t depend upon specific sponsors. Truth is, I was fine with the way they ended the show—it was time and rather than milk their cash cow, they gave viewers plenty of warning and resolved many of the ongoing subplots. Although I wasn’t particularly jacked by the last shows, I felt the station handled the conclusion in a timely and fair manner.
Not so with a couple other HBO programs, which I believe also had significant artistic merit.
About two weeks ago HBO announced that In Treatment was going to be cancelled. No explanation, no viewership numbers, no warning, no tying up of loose ends, no nothing. In a statement, the network said: “It’s true that we have no plans to continue with ‘In Treatment’ as previously formatted. However, we are in continued conversations with the executive producers to find another way to continue telling these rich stories.” I hope they do, but given their bullshit about Deadwood, I frankly don’t believe them.
For those unfamiliar with the show, In Treatment was based on an Israeli series about a psychiatrist and his work with clients,Bi Tipul, which copped every possible drama series award at the Israeli Academy Awards. The American version didn’t do too shabby either, scoring an Emmy, Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild during its three year run. The show starred Gabriel Byrne as a psychologist who worked with four different clients (one a night the first season then his own therapist, Diane Wiest, on the fifth.) Later HBO changed tinkered with the nightly set-up, but the format (four clients then his shrink, Amy Ryan, who took over when he moved to Brooklyn) remained the same. As a former therapist, I was impressed with the interactions Byrnes had with his clients and especially those with his own therapist in season three when his life was dissembling. His ability to both succeed—especially with adolescents–and fail despite his best efforts, reflected a reality with which every counselor must deal. The show also presented the difficulty of keeping ‘clinical distance’ from people with whom a therapist has an intimate relationship—one sided as it may be. The presentation of Byrnes’s interactions with his own shrink was often brilliantly written with undercurrents of his clients’ issues permeating his own.
Then In Treatment was gone–as if you were in the middle of a fine book, movie, or play that was simply snatched away. This is not only lousy television business, but a psychologically damaging situation that any decent therapist would find extraordinarily painful. It is as if the cancellation spit upon the very nature of the show itself.
The other series HBO taketh away much too soon was Deadwood, a sprawling western that, season by season, tracked the establishment of the Dakota Territories—from wilderness to outposts, to towns, then states–along with the beginning of western capitalism. Not for the faint-hearted, Deadwood had no qualms mixing Shakespearian language and drama with over-the-top profanity and violence that actually occurred in the settling of the West. Through the three twelve episode seasons, Deadwood, with the use of historical characters like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and George Hearst told the story of an evolving country and economic system. This was no “shoot ’em up,” but the depiction of actual American history delivered in a unique and incredibly interesting manner. Not for nothing was it awarded eight Emmys and a Golden Globe. But no matter, the show was simply shut down mid story.
This time though, HBO promised a consolation prize—finishing the series with two full length movies. Seduced and abandoned, I’ve been waiting since 2008. My popcorn is stale. Time to stop holding my breath.
Bottom line: Viewers deserve better from both network and cable television. There needs to be room in this medium to carry critically acclaimed shows whether they attract enough subscribers and dog food buyers or not. And why stop at television? Artistic merit needs to be a commitment that every publisher, producer, and studio adhere to. It simply cannot just be “show me the money.” Yes, commerce is all—we live in America—we get it. But perhaps our entertainment media should tithe—devoting a percentage of their budget to artistic books or programming that deserve to be out there just because they’re worthwhile or make their audience richer, better people. And if they can’t do it “for art’s sake,” producers and publishers can think of them in commercial terms—loss leaders.
And now for the “Giveth.”
Two shows immediately spring to mind. Since I just slammed HBO it’s only fair I give it its due for carrying Tremé, a program named after a New Orleans neighborhood. The action begins three months after Katrina’s devastation of the Black community. We follow musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians and regular New Orleans citizens as they try to rebuild their lives.
Again, the interpersonal relationships seem spot on and the horror of the storm’s damage and our government’s indifference is immensely moving. Although there are multiple plot lines carried by Melissa Leo, (Academy Award winner for Best Actress from the movie The Fighter), Wendell Pierce (from The Wire), Khandi Alexander (CSI Miami), and more, for me, and many people I know, the show is really about the redemptive quality of music in the face of tragedy. An intangible phenomena but one that wails loud and clear from Tremé’s constant foreground and background musical notes. Even the opening credits’ song and dance brings a smile despite the depiction of the ravages of people’s lives. From where I sit (which is often in front of my TV), the show wraps its arms around the healing quality of music, food, and people’s refusal to give up. As an aside, the show uses actual New Orleans residents and professional musicians to create this healing process.
The Killing, shown on American Movie Classics, (AMC), concerns a Seattle-based murder investigation of a young girl with each episode lasting one complete day. The lead detective is Mirelle Enos (a Tony nominee [Honey] for the Broadway playWhose Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the twin sisters, Kathy and Jodeen Marquart, in Big Love.). The New Yorker has trouble with her low key acting, but my take has her playing off the surrounding characters except during her personal life scenes when Mirelle’s inner intensity and conflict are clearly apparent. Her partner is a strange young man who seems more criminal than cop—someone who Enos has a great deal of trouble trusting. Nonetheless, they manage to work together well enough to move the investigation forward, if not always in the correct direction.
The other aspect of the show worth noting is what Ms. May from The New Yorker calls “atmospherics.” That is, the constant, unending drizzle Ms. May decries as rain making machines. I beg to differ. We celebrate “atmospherics” (lighting) in film noir. In The Killing, like in Blade Runner, the rain becomes another character that underscores the loss and pain of losing a child and control of one’s life. Tears.
For me, the primary draw is the dead girl’s parents. The Killing follows their slowly devolving emotional spiral rather than presenting one note grief, anger or an accelerated 5-stage Kubler Ross demo. The show takes its time and pulls no punches when it comes to their pain, rage, impotence, and demands to the police. There are suspects, but as the days pass, the plot twists and turns in some pretty complicated and surprising ways.
The Killing is an adaptation of a Danish series called Forbrydelsen, (The Crime) but the AMC producers, directors. writers, and actors have managed to create an original, unique procedural detective show. Bravo, AMC.
My concern, however, is whether the station will actually allow the show to continue since it’s not your garden variety Law & Order or CSI.
A fear for all that I find special on television.
“When you re-read a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.” Clifton Fadiman