Category Archives: Television

Doctor Who and the Impossible Collaboration

This is something I have been meaning to post for some time. With the exception of the inaugural episode “Deep Breath” (dinosaurs, cyborgs, Victorian London), I have been quite taken with this season of Doctor Who. Peter Capaldi has made quite an impression as The Doctor, and that has caused me to ponder. My train of thought follows.

Up until now, I had been disappointed with Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner for the series. I was out-and-out hostile as some on the Internet seemed to be. But there was always something missing. But I couldn’t put it together. I like Matt Smith’s Doctor. I had liked Moffat-penned episodes from the Russell T. Davies era; “Blink”, of course, stands out in particular. I liked Amy, I liked Rory, and I liked Amy & Rory. I wasn’t sure how Clara fit in with the #11 emotionally, but that wasn’t surprising. But other than “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor” — with “The Doctor’s Wife” as a possible runner-up — none of the episodes from the first three years stood out as classic and necessary episodes that needed to added to pantheon of the canon.

And then comes “Robot of Sherwood” and “Time Heist”, which are definitely a couple of outings that can hold their heads high on the fun end of the spectrum, and “Into the Dalek” and especially “Listen” which are some of the darker and more disturbing pieces from the whole of the program’s run. “Listen” has some startling twists and turns that genuinely surprised this writer.

So what changed? Yes, they brought on some new directors, including Ben Wheatley (one of the great directors of the British indie scene). And, of course, the elephant in the room: Capaldi.

Is that all it takes to make a good show great? Change your lead?


There is something very special and wonderful and impossible to define about the collaboration between writer and actor. You can have skilled and talented actors and writers, but if the magic, the alchemy, the shared sixth sense is not there, the work while still good will lack that ability to create something transcendent in its audience. Maybe Moffat, a Scot, can only write for Scottish doctors (David Tennant and Capaldi) — I kid, but only a little. With Capaldi, he found an outlet for his voice that clicked. And perhaps Capaldi too found new levels of meaning and emotional intricacy that Smith could not. Even Jenna Coleman, who was a character with too many plot devices last year, really shines this year and is on fire in her two-handers with Capaldi.

There is a reason that Martin Scorcese always used to work with Robert de Niro and now Leonardo DiCaprio. Or John Ford with John Wayne. Or Woody Allen with Diane Keaton. At its best, the successful actor/writer/director collaboration creates a language all its own. Despite the presence of a Tardis, dinosaurs on a spaceship, Daleks, and Cybermen, Doctor Who, like all great science fiction, works best when the humanity of its key players is front and center. And now that is what Moffat has found in the 8th year of The Doctor Who reboot. Miracles more often that not happen in the writers’ room, not a time machine.

Some Quick Thoughts on HBO’s The Normal Heart

After much trepidation, I finally got around to seeing HBO’s The Normal Heart. I started working in NYC theatre in the early 1990’s, at the end of the great wave of the epidemic the play explores. At that time, there were many ghosts, and there were some still suffering, still dying. I remember my supervisor at my Broadway internship. He was HIV-positive which later developed into AIDS. He died a little while later. His family — strict Irish Catholics from Boston — did not attend, would not attend his funeral. So it goes.

I’m going to get into trouble for this, but here goes. The Normal Heart is not a good play, at least not in the traditional sense. It is half screed, half narrative. It is angry, and it is right in its anger. It has all of the power of the theatre, not in the aesthetic sense but in the political one. It lacks the eloquence, the poetry, the imagination of Angels in America, but it is necessary nonetheless. Mark Ruffalo is quite the fine actor, but, perhaps counter-intuitively, he brought too much talent to the role, too much nuance. Ned Weeks is more a figure of agitprop than a fully rounded character. He needs to be angry. He needs to be always angry. He needs to be a very hot knife cutting through a butter of apathy, hypocrisy, and cruelty. Ruffalo was…too nice. Much attention has (rightly) been paid to Matt Bomer’s performance. I would also point out the excellent work Jim Parsons in a not very flashy role did. A flawed adaption of a tough play. Still glad HBO committed to it. It’s important.

Goodbye Treme

We just completed the blink-and-you-missed fourth and final episode of the HBO series of Treme. I haven’t had a chance to post my thoughts until now, but it is a show that I will greatly miss. Created by David Simon of The Wire fame, Treme never reached a die-hard audience the way its older sibling did. The Wire was ostensibly about the drug wars in Baltimore, and, as such, had a fairly heavy plot. An episode of Treme, though, could be about one of the character’s trying to get a gig at a local club in New Orleans and thus had a greater focus on character.

It’s a shame, really. Treme was one of the most original and innovative pieces ever created for television. And since as a culture we tend to eschew innovation the wonder is not that HBO cancelled the show but that it waited as long as it did to do so. The closest work I can think of to Treme is the Robert Altman film Nashville. Both use their respective cities and music worlds to comment on the state of this nation at a critical point of its history.

The first season of Treme followed immediately on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. It focused on the government incompetence in responding to the disaster. Simon placed his New Orleans in opposition to other cities in America. And, for season one, the bogey man was Washington D.C. The hurricane created a diaspora of the poor and non-white populations to places like Houston, and the government of George W. Bush as portrayed here is in nor hurry to get them back. New Orleans is traditionally a blue city in a red state, so a political agenda seems clear. But here is the problem: New Orleans has an unique and distinct culture. Think of New York with its Dutch and English foundations and then overlaid with wave after successive waves of cultures and peoples from around the world. Now consider the same for New Orleans with its French and Spanish foundations. Add to that a rich tradition of African culture transmitted orally at places like Congo Square. In New Orleans, the population, the neighborhoods, the communities are the libraries…are the archives. Remove the people from the place and you destroy the culture.

In the second season and for the rest of the series’ run, the mantle of bogeyman city was taken up by New York. New York stands in for corporate interests who are looking to take over New Orleans and turn it into a Cajun Disney World. A character like Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) arrives to gentrify and therefore transform New Orleans to conform with how the rest of the country appears, works, exists. Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) loses control of her own name when entering a business arrangement with a large corporation that wants to sell New Orleans-style food but rob it of its uniqueness. Yet Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), a New York-based jazz musician, returns home and finds synthesis between his New York world and New Orleans one. Throughout, Simon dramatizes the struggle between specific New Orleans characters as they encounter a larger and aggressive national culture.

Sometimes this can lead to despair. In the third season, a number of characters attend an outdoor production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot staged against abandoned buildings; such a production did occur historically. On stage, the characters wonder if Godot will arrive tomorrow. An elderly man in the audience mutters, “He ain’t comin’. He ain’t comin’.”

And sometimes this can lead to joy. In the latest season, DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) intones on the radio, “We live in a Creole nation. Get used to it.” That last statement thrilled my heart.

But now Treme is over, but thanks to modern viewing methods, you can still watch it. So during these cold and dark winter days, I can think of no better way of spending time then taking a trip to New Orleans.

Papists, Prostitutes, and Publicans — Or Another Day at Downton Abbey

My thoughts on Downton Abbey’s Season 3 Episode 6 (or, for those of us Stateside, Episode 5). And it was yet another round of everyone’s favorite game: guessing what bad decision will Robert (Lord Crawley, 7th Lord of Grantham) make next? There was no end of them, especially following (SPOILERS AHEAD) after the expiration of his youngest daughter, Sybil, who died so she could pursue film roles with less ensemble-y casts. As the rather forced alliteration of the title indicates, Robert was getting it on all fronts. First, Tom, the chauffeur/Irish republican/son-in-law had the temerity to insist that his now motherless daughter be baptized a Catholic (a “left-footer”). Next, Cousin Isobel hired a former prostitute as a housekeeper/cook, and then invited all the Crawley women for a light lunch of salad and salmon mousse. Robert stormed over and insisted that they all leave immediately because they were all in danger, perhaps, of catching prostitute cooties from the salmon mousse??? A bit unclear what he hoped to gain. And, finally, Matthew continued his campaign to bring modern business methods — like balancing the books — to keep Downton from being in danger of going down a third time.

There was an excellent conversation toward the end of the episode between Mary and Robert that really crystallized where we are in Season 3. As I watched, I thought, “Wow, these two have really changed since The Titanic sank and the Turkish diplomat’s son died in Mary’s bed.” Change is built into this series. It’s its DNA. And, I think this is what gets people’s knickers into a twist. On the surface, it does look like it’s all about the dresses, the hats, the tea services, and the fancy-schmancy dinners. And in a sense it is. But it is about the loss of those things. The change. And Fellowes builds that into every aspect of the show, into the sometimes into the too-on-point lines. And it causes some unfortunate missteps. The less said about the con man/burn victim or Matthew’s miracle cure the better.

But I come back to that scene between Robert and Mary. Mary, who started this program as a spoiled willful and often cruel young woman. And Robert, the wise and benevolent paterfamilias who was the font of virtue and compassion. It was Mary in the first season who frequently directed her spite at sad sake Edith. It was Robert who hired poor injured Bates as his personal valet. How a little world war, a little Spanish flu, and a little Irish revolution change things around.

Now Mary has taken on many of his better qualities: the compassion, the benevolence. She supports the Catholic baptism and the prostitute in the kitchen. She is starting to serve as a peacemaker between Robert and Matthew. And time and time again Robert (along with uptight Carson) is on the wrong side of history. And that is an interesting evolution.

One of the more interesting lines from The Dark Knight (hey, I’m nothing if not eclectic) is, “You either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Basically, it picks up on a plot line from Coriolanus. By standing still, he is moving away from what the world, Britain, his estate, and his family need. And, indeed, isn’t this the arc the British upper classes as a whole took? Once, they were the very foundation of empire. The heroes. The good guys. And then there was a pivot. And suddenly, at best they were useless. Or they were an impediment to progress, change, modernization. The bad guys.

Fellowes is taking a chance here, but as the world of the series changes so must the internal mechanics of the series as well. He gives a Robert an out, at least in Cora’s eyes, when Dr. Clarkson “confesses” that there was no way to save Sybil. But I wonder what we in the audience are to make of that. Can we ever go back to respecting Lord Crawley as someone higher on the divine chain being — as somehow closer to Grace — and thus as someone worthy of our admiration and devotion? Or is the title “lord” just as much an antique as the others cluttering his office, nothing more than a cudgel to maintain his position over property gained during the Reformation? Or, how else do we think the Crawleys took possession of magnificent house that was once an abbey?

Bourgeois Virtue and Downton Abbey

I just finished watching Episode #5 (Episode #4 for those of us watching in the States) of Downton Abbey. I have to admit it — this show is my guilty pleasure. Usually my tastes run more to the works where the force of the narrative is in rejecting rather than accepting rigid social hierarchies, more Tolstoy and less Waugh. Yes, sure, we have Branson and his good old-fashioned Irish republicanism, but the character often comes across as simply churlish rather than truly revolutionary; as if the worst thing a freedom fighter can do is cause discord at high tea rather than sow dissent in the public square. I have too often thought that the critics of the show have gotten it wrong. It is not simply a museum celebrating the glories of a now-faded imperium. And I think tonight the program showed its true colors. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD. Julian Fellowes, an aristo himself, has shown where his true loyalties lie. In the contest between barbarians, philistines, and populace, it is the philistines (the middle class) that wins out. Tonight’s episode had three particularly striking moments where view this.

First, there is Isobel’s determination to “save” ex-prostitute Ethel, even to the extent of offering her a position in her house. As a result, Mrs. Byrd, the cook/housekeeper, resigns. The senior staff at the big house, especially the men, are shocked. Here, the middle-class virtue of Isobel is seen as demonstrably superior to the narrow and traditional morality of several working class characters.

Second, Matthew, Isobel’s son, has been investigating Downton’s books. He finds that the estate has been mismanaged for decades, and he is determined to put it back on the right course. He says to Mary that one of the most important middle-class values is husbandry (as in the controlled and judicious use of resources). The bourgeois methods will prove far more effective in saving Downton than those of the aristocracy. Murray, the middle class family solicitor, agrees with Matthew. And thus again we have that idea of saving, of providing salvation.

Third, and most importantly, we have the conflict between the two doctors over the proper treatment for Lady Sybil for the last days of her pregnancy. Dr. Clarkson, the middle-class family doctor, diagnoses her with eclampsia and wants to take her to hospital. Lord Grantham’s chosen physician, the aristocratic Sir Phillip, thinks that she is doing just fine and that they do not need to rely on institutions like hospitals! to bring a child into this world. Guess who is proven right? And so we bid farewell to Lady Sybil. Clarkson’s hard work and experience trumps Sir Phillip’s pedigree.

Matthew Arnold wrote, “Our guides who are chosen by the Philistines and who have to look to their favour, tell the Philistines how ‘all the world knows that the great middle-class of this country supplies the mind, the will, and the power requisite for all the great and good things that have to be done,’ and congratulate them on their ‘earnest good sense, which penetrates through sophisms, ignores commonplaces, and gives to conventional illusions their true value’.” Arnold would have found tonight’s episode especially fascinating.