MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #8: Pirate Radio)

Pirate Radio (2010)
Director: Richard Curtis

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Pirate Radio is about two things: Pirate Radio and Coming of Age.

Thanks mostly to a well-chosen, if historically challenged, soundtrack, the Pirate Radio part works well, sometimes beautifully. The Coming of Age part works less than well, never rising above the mundane and occasionally sinking below it. Like a couple of more famous movies, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which I wrote about here), it’s a sort of semi-autobiographical tale of boyhood which doesn’t capture any of the significant qualities of an actual boyhood (It’s interesting, for instance, that, in these films, a boy’s first sexual experience is always a dewy, Hallmark-style experience, bereft of guilt, angst, fumbling around, or even basic horniness…how so many talented filmmakers have managed, over and over, to leave all of that out, says something about what the audience is primed to expect, but also about the unwillingness of the director/auteurs involved to challenge those, or any other, exepectations).

That leaves this movie, like those others, to stand and fall with the grownups.

On that level, it’s about as good as Almost Famous (to which it is also linked by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his curmudgeon mode–let’s just say the mode was fresher the first time around, playing Lester Bangs, than it is here) . Certainly there is no one as compelling as Patricia Arquette was in Boyhood. But given its essential lightheartedness, not to mention light-headedness, the movie probably benefits. The presence of anyone playing a real grown-up, as opposed to someone who has merely attained legal age, would sink this movie much faster than the stuffed shirts from the BBC manage to sink the ship on which most of it is set.

With that much of a wormhole in its heart, how good can a movie be?

Pretty good, actually, and that’s a testament to how great its subject is,and how much fun a few of the actors have chewing the scenery.

First and foremost among the latter is Kenneth Branagh, as the censorious fussbudget from hell. He plays it balls the wall, complete farce, and it works. He’s the closest thing to an actual human in the whole show and if it’s not a very attractive sort of human, you still might not mind being in a foxhole with him, as long as it was the foxhole at the end of the world.

The best single scene, though–one that nearly redeems the whole movie–is shared by Hoffman (at his best) and Rhys Ifans. They are playing the two coolest, most gifted DJs. Hoffman’s a super brash American (what Lester Bangs might have been, if he’d been a DJ). Ifan’s the super cool Brit (returned from exile, with all the additional cool that accrues to the prodigal). The tension between them is what the movie really should have been about. In any case, its value as a subplot is at least fully exploited in a scene where they start out one-upping each other in a series of trivialities that rings very true to life and end up balancing at the top of ship’s mast, their lives finally in real danger, each still determined not to be outdone–to be the big dog on this small, secluded island.

That scene, and its wonderful payoff, makes up for a lot: the cliches, the tired in-jokes, the broad overplaying balanced by the bland underplaying which each actor (except Branagh) dares not take over the top or under the floor, lest life break in, the fact that Curtis lets several other promising scenes play either way too long or just a little too short, unable to find a rhythm to match all that wonderful music or the confidence to simply bring it forward.

I’m not sure if these small but real virtues are enough to get me to watch it again some time.

Might get the soundtrack though.

And, hey, if you think this scene is as funny as it wants to be, you’ll probably like the movie better than I did.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Days)

Boyhood (2014)

BOYHOOD2

I suspect if you sent a hundred people who had never heard a thing about this movie (which, admittedly, would take some doing) to a blind screening and asked them afterwards what the “key” scene was, you might very well get a hundred different answers.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is….well….who knows?

I certainly don’t. I sort of suspect that director Richard Linklater likes it that way–us not knowing.

I haven’t seen his other work, not even Dazed and Confused, but I gather he’s a laid back kind of dude.

Very nonjudgmental.

And, judging (oops, there I go, backsliding already) by the film’s near universal acclaim–not to mention the profoundly, even obsessively, realized non-message of the film itself–this has become the highest state to which humans can possibly aspire.

Everything’s cool. Or, at least the only thing that keeps everything from being totally cool is an occasional “asshole” (to borrow the film’s most common epithet), and the fact that “We’re all just winging it!” because, hey, given the universe’s faulty basic design, what else can you do?

And, wouldn’t ya know, all the cool kids at all the cool magazines and newspapers and websites are flipping for it.

So, at last, the new, superior brand of non-judgmentalism has arrived.

Funny thing though. When you get past the surface, it looks a lot like old wine in a new bottle.

I guess since the old wine was really just nihilism wearing one of its friendlier masks, this is sort of like a kinder, gentler nihilism (to adapt a phrase from one of our former presidents who certainly knew a thing or two about nihilism).

Let me venture to say that one can admire the skill with which this film is made and still be frightened to death by it.

Yes, it’s wonderfully acted (especially by the unimpeachable Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and the director’s daughter, Lorelei, who unfortunately gets kind of written off and shunted to the sidelines about half-way through). Linklater definitely has a strong, identifiable style. And there are certainly moments of genuine warmth and humor in it.

But it’s finally empty.

If I was one of those hundred people I just mentioned, the scene I would nominate as an expression of the film’s raison d’etre would be one that takes place by a lake owned by the step-parents of the titular “boy’s” father (I believe that would make them his step-grandparents but don’t hold me to it).

The father (Hawke) is basically thanking his kids, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater), and Mason Jr., (Ellar Coltrane), for playing along, making nice to the old couple (his second wife’s aforementioned parents) who give Mason Jr. a bible with his name engraved on it (big laugh in the theaters) and a shotgun (no reaction here, but I’ve heard there have been both titters and audible anger expressed elsewhere) for his fifteenth birthday.

Somewhere in this sequence (I don’t recall if it was just before or just after the bestowing of the gifts–both nonsensical in the given context by the way**), Samantha looks at Mason Sr. and says:

“Dad, you’re not becoming one of those ‘God people’ are you?”

Not to fear.

Even though the brief scene inside the step-grandparents’ church, with a piece of a legitimate New Testament sermon being delivered, is by far the most authentic bit in this supposedly hyper-realistic movie, nobody’s in danger of getting religion.

Or anything else.

That would soil the concept, which is that life is devoid of any real happiness or unhappiness, it’s all real temporary, and, you know, “We’re all just winging it,” while time flows by like a river.

So just go with that flow and, in the words of another character, “You find your people.” (In Linklater’s Texas, this apparently happens in college–preferably at the really cool one in Austin.)

I’m not sure quite what Linklater set out to achieve here. The movie runs nearly three hours. It was very famously shot over twelve years, with the actors literally coming back a few days each year to film the next set of scenes as they aged, etc.

That made it a tricky concept. It’s supposed to represent life–and, after seeing both the movie and the intelligentsia’s incongruously Pavlovian reaction to it, my haunting fear is that it probably does.

So the work–plus the sheer audacity of the thing–really could have been its own reward. Gifted filmmaker pursuing his singular vision and all that.

Fine and dandy. That’s a journey anyone can respect.

But Boyhood has a philosophy, too, and that philosophy–which amounts to “nothing matters and what if it did” and has been wholly embraced by the crit-illuminati in a manner so unprecedented that one of the country’s preeminent film critics (Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times) felt compelled to assign his review slot to someone else because he couldn’t give the film a positive review (a development that, in it’s very different way, is at least as chilling as anything that happened in Ferguson or Mosul this week)–is deadly.

It’s a funny thing for me to be saying that, too, I guess, because I write a lot here about our collapsed culture (and about the likelihood that such a collapse makes the body politic unsustainable as anything but a leviathan-style security state resting on a feudal style of economic “security” which is itself illusory).

But I don’t embrace the collapse. I don’t think it’s “cool.” (The word that counterpoints “asshole” in Boyhood’s world view.) However weary I may sound at a given moment, I’m still here to carry a fight, marginal though it may be.

Because I think it’s not only not cool, but a shame.

A crying shame.

Our shame.

Boyhood wants us to lay back and enjoy the decline….or at least admit resistance is futile. So it’s fundamentally a critique, not so much of the decline itself (which, I really wish I could have made it out to be), but of people like me, who think resistance is vital and necessary and, in this time like any other, “winging it” is not an option.

Makes it all kinda personal I guess.

One thing I’ll bet though.

Nobody who was involved in making Boyhood–or in making it the crit-fave of the year–will ever admit to their own embrace of this film’s inherent dude-style nihilism.

Too judgmental.

[**–Take it from one who has received such things and holds them every bit as dear as the very cool record collection which I acquired all on my own. Neither an engraved bible or a family heirloom shotgun (or, in my case, a hunting knife) is something folks like those depicted in Boyhood would ever be likely to bestow on a kid they hardly know just because their daughter married the kid’s not-quite-deadbeat dad. Why would they, or anyone, bestow such permanent things on what are very likely to be impermanent relations?]

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (A Brief History of White Boy Stomp….From Garage Bands to Quentin Tarantino)

Mojo Workout Paul Revere and the Raiders (Recorded 1964, Released 2000)

MOJOWORKOUT

This two-disc set was released by Sundazed in 2000. Basically, it sets out to demonstrate that, before they were the Ultimate Garage Band Made Good, Paul Revere and the Raiders (who came out of the Ultimate Garage Band Scene in the Pacific Northwest) were, well, the Ultimate Garage Band.

Most of Disc 2 is studio material from their early days on Columbia Records (where they were the first rock and roll band signed to the high-falutin’ home of folk, blues, jazz and other “adult” forms). I’d heard most of it before, and the repackaging is just fine–especially nice hearing all the gutbucket stuff in one handy, hard-hitting place.

But the real ear-opener is Disc 1, which captures a show the label arranged for the band to perform in front of a teenage audience in Columbia’s own studio.

According to the liner notes, this came about because, after an initial dry run–made dry in part because famous ass-dragger Mitch Miller (whose sing-a-longs were, of course, the contemporary standard of “maturity”) had scotched proper promotion of the band’s version of “Louie, Louie” which was subsequently stomped by the Kingsmen–some of the honchos were having a hard time remembering exactly why they had signed the band in the first place.

I don’t know if the resulting explosion of atomic level noise and energy made the suits any happier. I can bet it didn’t make Miller any happier and, certainly, little of the show saw the light of day at the time (though the band did soon thereafter proceed with its glorious near-decade run of hit singles).

But, however it came to pass, it now stands as a true signifier of the garage-band ethos as it has come down to us in the present day. It’s a kind of pure (or impure) reminder that “garage” bands–so called because there was a perception, which, to my knowledge has never been proved or dispoved, rather like the existence of the Deity, that many of them had formed in garages–were a phenomenon that could only have been produced by a Land of Garages, i.e., a culture that was just beginning to glimpse the possible end of its five hundred year winning streak.

To that end, it’s a joyful noise, reveling in its complete and utter abandon (to steal a phrase and turn it into a paraphrase) to an extent that can only be achieved by not giving a rip about winning streaks, cultural or otherwise. The Raiders came from a place that epitomized an attitude that wasn’t so much committed to either stealing or honoring black music as stomping all over it. Whether the object was to replace one America with another (and whether the new America would be whiter or blacker), or simply level it all into a great fruited plain shared by all is unknowable. There may have been some up-and-comers in the scenes the Raiders both participated in and inspired who contemplated such questions, but this particular band became Ultimate by leaving all of that to one side most of the time and most especially here.

Heck, by the time they break into “Crisco Party” (all the boys on one side, all the girls on the other side, now everybody….disrobe) they even manage to make orgies sound like something they are inherently not.

Namely, democratic.

Baby that was one version of Rock and Roll that has gone the way of the dodo and taken democratic America right along with it.

And, while, they may or may not have been honoring the spirit that made the streak possible (stomping on things was certainly part of that spirit), I doubt they were threatening its continuance nearly as much as the purely cynical decisions being taken concurrently in the Corridors of Power regarding troop movements in South Viet Nam (to be announced immediately after the forthcoming election…still a few months hence when this was recorded!)

True Romance, 1993

TRUEROMANCE

Tony Scott (Ridley’s hackier brother) directed. That he did so with a little more distinction than usual was probably due to Quentin Tarantino’s script, which has plenty wrong with it, but also has some promising, non-nihilistic aspects which, aside from the anomalous Jackie Brown, (based on an Elmore Leonard story that, like this one, has a likable and unlikely couple emerging from the mayhem) his own directing career has never come close to realizing.

Too bad.

Yeah, the I’m-so-racist-I-can’t-possibly-be-an-actual-racist-because-no-actual-racist-would-think-he-could-get-away-with-this-hee-hee attitude is there, as is the cartoon violence masquerading as some kind of arty “statement” (or, more likely, the dread non-statement statement which is such a close cousin of the political world’s style of non-apology apology that emerged around the same time) and the mind-numbing ethnic/racial/regional stereotypes.

But there was still a lot to like. Yeah, Patricia Arquette is playing a Hollywood Southerner, and, because the script has her being from Tallahassee–a place I know something about–it was more than usually annoying to note that she did not remotely remind me of anyone I’ve ever known in my forty years of hanging about the place. That plus she’s called Alabama. Which, believe me, she wouldn’t be. Not if she was from around here. The only place you would be less likely to find somebody called Alabama than Tallahassee is Alabama.

Then again, she’s Patricia Arquette, so after a few minutes I didn’t care. Whatever comes in that package, I’ll gladly buy.

That, plus Christian Slater in his all-to-brief likeable phase, a few pretty good sub-Donald-Westlake plot twists and a handful of effective music interludes (something Tarantino became famous for elsewhere, though, except for Nancy Sinatra at the beginning of one of the Kill Bill movies, I’ve never for the life of me understood why–good Lord, the man muffed Santa Esmerelda’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which, until I saw/heard it with my own eyes/ears, I would have deemed beyond mere human capacity–I mean, with that playing, ten minutes of black screen should have been mesmerizing) kept the whole thing chugging along pretty well until the ending, which has a couple of genuinely clever and touching moments.

I’m not making any claims for it being a great movie or anything, but, if I’d seen it when it came out, I would have tagged the writer as having some genuine promise (I think I would have known Tony Scott wasn’t responsible for very much). And genuine promise he had, even after Pulp Fiction.

Shame he squandered it.

Bigger shame we rewarded him for not living up to his potential.

But you know what they say. All winning streaks–large and small–gotta end some time.