Tagged in: television

My Kingdom for a Rocket Launcher, or Decent Ratings

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Is anybody else out there watching Kings?

After an abortive stab at latching on to the television viewer’s consciousness in the spring, NBC declined to pick up the show and moved its remaining episodes into the graveyard of summer saturdays. The move bummed me out because I think the show is all kinds of awesome.

It’s a retelling of the Book of Kings from the Bible, set in a kind of modern day alternate reality. In the pilot episode a young farmboy-turned-soldier named David singlehandedly destroys a Goliath tank, rescuing the King’s son and setting off a chain of events that insinuates him with the royal family. I have a soft spot for anything that remixes, re-imagines, and updates a familiar story in a novel setting. MacBeth as a gangland crime saga or a dark comedy set in a fast food burger joint? I’m in. Emma, as experienced by high-fashion Beverly Hills teenager? Yes, please. I’ll even see a version of Othello that takes place on basketball team. I’m not sure why, but any kind of alternate take on a familiar story intrigues me. I once unsuccessfully tried to write a screenplay that was The Tempest set on a strange planet before losing interest the way I always do.

But even if Kings didn’t have its biblical pedigree, the show would still rock. Perennial badass and Deadwood alumni Ian McShane stars as the current King and serves up his usual dose of awesomeness. The dialogue is an odd mixture of modern-sounding plain English mixed with a grandiose and poetic style, tinged with just a hint of faux-King James Shakespearian flourish.

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The rest of the cast does an able job, even the slightly bland lead who plays David but this was the kind of dialogue McShane was born to deliver. The plot is grand and sweeping, with royal intrigues taking place alongside romantic subplots bolstered with the occasional action scene. The cinematography and set design are top-notch. Every shot is both beautiful and lived in.

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The alternate history of the world of Kings is doled out slowly. It is a modern world with skyscrapers, cell phones, tanks, and television. Most of the action takes place in Shiloh, the capital city of Gilboa and obvious stand in for New York. It is the power base for King Silas, from which he plans his war with a neighboring country called Gath. Silas is a King, and rules by divine right although he has an array of ministers and advisors to help him keep public opinion up. There is an element of the supernatural at work, as God apparently takes an active hand in affairs of state, usually by sending dreams and omens. Its understated and highlights the source material even as it adds a dimension of grand fate to the story. And I am no theologian, so many of the biblical allusions go over my head but the show still works even without them.

The characters are engaging, from the Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern like palace guards who comment on the action around them to the semi-creepy industrialist borther-in-law who makes life hard for King Silas every background character is well-drawn. The leads are pitch-perfect. Silas is conflicted but assured, while the potential upstart David is innocent, but not too innocent. He gets in a tabloid sex scandal at one point. The King’s son Jack is a closeted and power-hungry villain, while the Queen is both mysterious and capable. Dimensions, people.

But it all adds up to naught because I seem to be the only person in America who even knows this show exists. When the show first premiered people stayed away in droves and it seemed to exist just under the radar of the zeitgeist. That’s a shame. I haven’t really been upset at the loss of a show since the underappreciated Carnivale went off the air. For the last few years, the shows such as Heroes and Lost that I have liked have stuck around and I have been indifferent at best to shows like the Sarah Connor Chronicles and Journeyman that have been canceled. But Kings was different. While I am enjoying the remaining episodes, I do so with a certain melancholy, intensified by the reality show dross that encrusts our television screens while great scripted dramas go ignored. Plotlines will dangle for all time, and I will never get resolution to any of the stories. It’s no fate for a King.

Even More of Me

In a move that is sure to do wonders for my productivity here at Semantic Drift, I have decided to join the team over at Legal Geekery. You’ll never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, if by “scum and villainy” you mean “law students and writing” and by “wretched hive” you mean “awesome blog”. I’ll be inflicting my more law-related writing on the unsuspecting public over there. That should free up more of my headspace here to talk about what I ate for breakfast and which movie I saw over the weekend. Lucky you!

Anyway, my first post over there is a listing of the Most Evil Lawyers from film and television. When I found out that maybe people don’t like lawyers and there were unflattering portrayals of them in pop culture, I was shocked, shocked I say!

Go check it out.

I Have Decided What Area of the Law I Wish To Practice

John Adams and George Washington

Old-Timey American Revolution law, as practiced in the excellent HBO miniseries John Adams. I’m greatly looking forward to wearing breeches and a powdered wig. I’m not much of a history buff; before I started watching this I may have been able to identify Adams as the 2nd President and that he was married to a strong-willed woman but that would have exhausted my knowledge of the subject. I certainly had no idea that he actually defended the Redcoats who fired into the crowd in the Boston Massacre, much less that he was the guy behind the guy when it came to write the declaration of independence. I don’t know how accurate the mini is, but it is most certainly well-made and I find myself wanting to learn more about the founding fathers. Good thing I have Constitutional Law next fall.

Thanks, HBO. I thought I was done with you when Detective McNulty drove off into the sunset, but every time I think I’m out (ready to cancel my subscription), they pull me back in (with kick-ass original programming).

Scripters of the World, Unite!

So it looks like the the music makers and the dreamers of dreams are taking it to the streets. The WGA is striking and couch potatoes across the country are freaking the hell out. No one seems to know how long it will last, but it’s a certainty that the networks will be foisting more reality television on us.

I’m more of a movie fan (even though I do watch a a lot of TV) so it’ll take a little while before I really feel the effects because the studios have stockpiled a mountain of scripts to get themselves through the labor action. Hopefully they’ll get everything sorted out before I have to stop going to the movies because there literally isn’t anything to see.

I am a little bummed that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report will have to go into repeats, because there won’t be any writers to turn the events of the day into topical sketches. The only thing left to watch would be the interview, which is my least favorite part of the whole affair. I will also feel the pain once Heroes runs out of ready to produce scripts, but the way the season has been progressing so far, it’s a loss I think I can bare.

My first thought when I realized that the strike was a reality was “Oh well. Now I’ll have even more of a chance to catch up on old shows from Netflix.” I’ve got about a million seasons of a thousand shows in the backlog. I may even up my discs per month until the strike plays out. Which really is kind of the point of the whole strike.

Oh, What a Fool, I’ve Been: Why Wasn’t I Watching The Wire on HBO?

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For some reason, I never watched one of the best shows of all time until four years into its run. I missed out on the Wire for its first three seasons on HBO. It’s funny because until recently I’ve been an HBO addict, religiously settling in on Sunday nights. With shows like Rome, Carnivale, Deadwood, and of course the flagship Sopranos it seemed like there was always an excellent show waiting for me after the static-y opening graphic. So why didn’t I watch the Wire? I like cop shows, and by all accounts series creators David Simon and Ed Burns are masters of the form. I think it had something to do with missing the first season when it first aired on HBO. I vaguely remember watching an episode or two from the end of the phenomenal first season and being turned off by the sprawling cast of characters and intricate plotting. I know, I know. I was worried about being lost and a few feet behind the trolley because I wasn’t in on the ground floor. Remember, this was before the days when I could buy the first season on DVD, or have it shipped disc by disc to my door via netflix (as I have been doing lately). If I didn’t see the first few episodes of the Wire, I reasoned, then I would be utterly lost. That is a valid concern, but looking back I wish I would have had the will to dig right in. It would have been worth it.

But instead I held off. Every time a new season started, the critics would sing the shows praises. It seemed like you couldn’t pass a newspaper or entertainment magazine without reading an endorsement that The Wire is the finest creation in the history of the television set. “The Wire: The Best TV Show Since God Created Man” or “Can The Wire Cure Cancer With the Power of Its Greatness? Yes!” Still I held off. It wasn’t until earlier this year and the show’s fourth season that I finally came around and gave it a shot. I sat in my chair, nodding out on the awesomeness like Bubbles the hapless junky after a fix.

In the latest issue of the Believer, author Nick Hornby and Simon sat down and had a little chat. Simon said that he pitched the show “as the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit procedurals afflicting American television.” The Wire could not be further from shows like CSI or Law & Order, which is a bonus for me. HBO has a history of shows that expect more from their viewers, and the Wire is no exception.

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

That is an approach to storytelling that I can get behind. In the Baltimore of The Wire, Simon gives us an extended gray area. The show centers on the drug trade and the cops who fight the losing war against them, but both sides seem equally likable and despicable. The cops aren’t above brutal acts of brutality, like Officer Prez pistol-whipping and blinding a fourteen year old bystander. For most of the season, I found myself resenting the character and the act and feeling sympathy for his victim. Then, Simon reintroduces the boy who had lost and eye and reveals that he is a heavily involved in the drug game and a pretty despicable character. Nothing is ever easy on The Wire.

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The backstage maneuvering that hamstrings the police department and the increasingly baroque machinations of the drug dealers make for a first rate drama. The show never strays from its bleak realism, foregoing many of the stylistic flourishes of other cop shows in favor of focused, solid storytelling. There are no flashbacks or montages, just a straight-ahead narrative that commands you to pay attention. But The Wire never sacrifices characterization to the purposes of tedious procedural particulars. Whether it is Jimmy McNulty drunkenly assembling an Ikea bed before his estranged sons come visit him or the young drug dealer Wallace taking care of a number of young boys in an abandoned building. And don’t even get me started on Omar.

At the same time, the Wire moves from issue to issue. Over the seasons, the show has explored not only different facets of the war on drugs, but the role of power politics and local corruption, unions, the breakdown of industrial labor, and the different aspects of capitalism. In the next season, I understand that he will be taking on journalism and the role the media plays in creating, reporting, and perpetuating social ills. It’s like the world’s coolest civics class.

I’ve been tearing through the seasons so far, and while I regret taking as long as I did to get onboard, I’m glad I finally did. The Wire has one more season to come, and I for one can’t wait the re-up.

The Cranky Old Man’s TV Nitpicking Corner

I’ll tell you something. Back in my day, commercials made sense. Unlike the moronic horseshit that passes for television advertisements these days. Case in point:

This commercial is not only irritating and contrived, but fails to make any kind of logical sense and every time it comes on I am filled with vile, venomous rage that I must release. Okay. The commercial starts with the two idiots downloading the song “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash and transferring it to their Cingular phone. Then they proceed to hilariously mispronounce the lyrics. Now I will grant you that the song is difficult to understand. The combination of Joe Strummer’s British accent and occasional punk screaming make certain lyrical passages nearly incomprehensible. But the chorus of “Rock the Casbah,” which these knuckleheads mangle into “Stop the Catbox” is also the title of the song. Which means that they must have seen it during the process of ripping/downloading the song or transferring it to their phones. If nothing else, I contend that unless their parents were brother and sister, they should have gotten the chorus right.

Now if only advertisers would check with me before putting something on the air, I think the level of sophomoric crap that choke our airwaves would greatly reduce.

On the Politics of 24

I’m just starting to get into 24. I’ve always been leery of jumping on board because I’ve never been able to consistently watch it, and I figured it had to be too intricately plotted for the casual viewer. But the advent of DVR in the household has made it possible to get on board for the new season even though I won’t always be home at 9:00 on Mondays. My old friend Netflix is helping me catch up on the previous five worst days in Jack Bauer’s life.

I’m enjoying it immensely. From the rapid-fire plot to the well-shot (if ludicrous) action scenes, 24 is good TV. I can’t get over the sheer Bad-Ass-itude of Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. I don’t know everything the character has ever done, but within the first few hours of season six, he goes from being a horrifically scarred and fragile prisoner of war to actually killing a man with both hands tied behind his back. That’s right. Jack Bauer is so determined and hardcore that he will RIP OUT A DUDE’S THROAT!

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WITH HIS TEETH!

Yowzah. But as impressive and awesome as I think the show is, I can’t help but feel a little queasy about its politics. As some would have it, 24 is a conservative version of The West Wing. Both shows operate as a kind of mythical fantasy world where everything is taken to extremes, and Straw Men abound. Except in 24, instead of a liberal dream of idealistic social justice we find a world where torture is often necessary, racial profiling is encouraged, and intensive government surveillance is the only thing standing between the civilized world and the viscous dogs that want to bring it all down.

I like both shows, even if I can’t fully get behind the politics of either one. But there is something about 24 that makes me a little uneasy. It does border on propaganda. Whether a recently (and apparently extensively) tortured Jack Bauer can get over his squeamish inability to Interrogate with Extreme Prejudice in time to save us all is a key plot point. (He does.) It seems to be taking its toll on the old man, and only time will tell if this is a completely one-dimensional story, or of we will get even an echo of the moral and ethical questions Jack has to face in the course of his job as a Counter Terrorist Unit agent.

More problematic is plot thread with a character who is the head of an Islamic advocacy group. He was rounded up with several other American Muslims and sent to a detention facility. Initially, it seemed as though the show might be looking at the problems associated with racial profiling, and the difficulties of respecting civil liberties while safeguarding against threats. As far as we know, Walid is innocent of any crime. But some of the detainees aren’t, and Walid is able to eavesdrop on their plans. The moral of the story: Its okay to round up “dangerous” ethnic groups into detention camps, because chances are some of them will be guilty.

Granted, the season has only just begun. I don’t know how the rest of the day is going to play out. And I’m not condemning the show either. I like it and will continue to watch. I just wish the writers would pay more attention to the moral ambiguities inherent in the situations in the show. As it stands, 24 doesn’t ignore these ambiguities exactly. It just portrays them as less than ambiguous.

And just a side note: 24 airs on Fox. All the anti-terrorist heroes of CTU watch Fox News. The nuclear terrorists watch CNN. Huh.

Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, apparently

Let me just start by saying Dr. Phil will always have a special place in my heart. Whether he is spouting obvious advice to mothers of spoiled children, or making obvious comments about cheating husbands, that loveable blowhard always makes for good TV. I try to make him the guiding center of my life whenever possible, but I am forced to disagree with him here.


If Dr. Phil was as disgusted as he seemed, we never would have seen the segment because it never would have made to the airwaves. I do not endorse bumfights, but the guy had a point. I think what probably happened was that Dr. Phil got peeved at his guest’s hilarious (oh, how hilarious) imitation of his look. He probably realized he wasn’t getting the serious debate he wanted, and his delightfully homespun wisdom would fall on deaf ears. If the bumfight impressario wouldn’t take his words seriously, then he wouldn’t come across as the paternalistic loudmout we know and love. So, he aborted.

Goin down to

I think South Park is wonderful. My feelings for the show run deep and whenever it lets me I make sweet, sweet love to it. Usually from behind.

I am something of an aficionado of animated television. I have gone on the record as being a proponent of Simpsonian social satire. The Simpsons is still one of my all time favorite shows, despite the cyclical nature of its quality. Without the wacky misadventures of the yellow, four-fingered Everyfamily there would be no South Park. What I loved about The Simpsons was the way it could balance social satire, surreal lunacy, and heartfelt storytelling. At its best the show managed to blend these three elements into a cohesive whole. Yet, in many ways I think South Park is the better show. This pains me to admit, as middle era Simspons is what I grew up with and will always hold a special place in my heart. But I have to speak the truth, and from where I sit, South Park is the best cartoon of all time.

South Park is cruder, exponentially so. This can occasionally be a turnoff for me, as crudity for crudity’s sake is just plain lazy. While dealing with aborted fetuses, ten year olds giving celebrity handjobs, and magical excrement that spreads Christmas cheer the vulgarity of the show never seems gratuitous. Well, almost never.

South Park is bizarre. The boys often embark on surreal adventures, and entire episodes have been devoted to things like a hamster’s quest to escape from a gay man’s ass. Aliens, monsters, time-travellers, and crab people are regular residents to the itular mountain town. The inspired lunacy of the plots make the show stand out even from the more outlandish Simpsons storylines.

South Park is also adept at walking the fine line between lowbrow gross-out humor and insightful political/social satire. The willfully bizarre and grotesque in many episodes counterbalances the cultural commentary. But both elements are integrated seamlessly in the best episodes, and the story is brought home with at least some level of heart. The fact that it is a group of kids saying, doing, and encountering these very adult things enables the creators to approach them with a level of common-sense innocence, more or less free of the schmaltzy sentimentality or self-righteous moralizing that occasionally tripped up the Simpsons.

The show is both ridiculous and sublime. It is both tasteless and insightful. But it straddles the line. Thats what makes the show better than its animated peers. Its a tough call, but what kind of cultural critic would I be if I was unwilling to examine the sticky issues.

But don’t even get me started on Family Guy…