Fifty-third in a series….
Fifty-third in a series….
So this is now a thing I do around Emmy nomination announcement time. As usual, plenty of caveats apply, mostly around the acclaimed television series that I don’t happen to follow or haven’t yet caught up on. Still, I’m a fairly well-viewed fellow. I know the Emmys will do what they must, including continue to lavish praise on the increasingly intolerable Modern Family, but I have my own views on what constitutes the top achievements in television.
Roughly using the same span of eligibility that the Emmys adopts, here are my picks for the ten best shows of the past season:
#1 — The Americans, season 2 (FX). After a very fine but slightly uneven debut season, the series about Russian spies living in the United States circa the early nineteen-eighties stepped forward majorly in its sophomore campaign. Series creator (and former CIA officer) Joe Weisberg and his collaborators delivered the sort of thoughtful, intricate season-length spy novel that’s worthy of champions of the form like John le Carré. Where other programs could sometimes get numbing in the need to deliver big shocks at every turn, The Americans settled for sharp storytelling. And was all the better for it.
#2 — Breaking Bad, season 5 (second half) (AMC). If Breaking Bad sometimes felt a little much like the grimmest carnival ride ever, it’s hard to deny the addictive showmanship of Vince Gilligan’s victory lap, topped by the Rian Johnson-directed “Oxymandias,” as compelling an hour of television as anyone is likely to find. Adding to the accomplishment was the inkling that Gilligan and company were taking advantage of the escalating ratings to push back against viewers who were championing the anti-hero a bit too much, or, to borrow from an inspired response by Emily Nussbaum, to directly counter the fact that “some fans are watching wrong.”
#3 — Louie, season 4 (FX). Remember when there was grumbling that Louie didn’t inspire the same hand-wringing think pieces as the similarly challenging and auteur-driven Girls? Guess we don’t need to worry about that perceived double standard any more. After an extended hiatus, Louis C.K.’s television masterpiece returned with the same vintage indie flick emotional experimentalism and structural tomfoolery that characterized the first three seasons. For some reason, the same brand of confrontational, self-lacerating material caught some observers off guard this time. He’s working out his voice and his ideas more transparently than before, and it still makes for great, wildly unique television.
#4 — Rick and Morty, season 1 (Cartoon Network/Adult Swim). Dan Harmon brought Community back from the brink of disaster in his unlikely return to the series he birthed. Despite the occasional episode that ranked with the very best of a series that has amassed a lot of staggeringly good half-hours, it was a noble but only fitfully satisfying effort. His energies were far better used in his animated co-creation with Justin Roiland, a gleeful deconstruction of science fiction and horror tropes that manages, like the best of Community, to overtly comment on the genre narrative structure while simultaneously mastering it.
#5 — True Detective, season 1 (HBO). For most of its run, the collaboration between writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga was a brilliantly sick game of existential three-card monte, defined by the bitterly amusing, nihilistic worldview of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle (good as McConaughey is, Woody Harrelson gives an even better performance as his exasperated, morally floundering partner). The final episode is conventional in a dispiriting way, but the rest of the season is stellar.
#6 — Veep, season 3 (HBO). The laughs-per-episode ratio dropped a bit in the third season (series creator Armando Iannucci had the typical bounty of story credits, but no teleplay credits this year, which may be a pertinent detail). The sharpness of the satire remained in place, complete with a willingness to take the larger arc in unexpected yet totally logical directions. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to give a acidic comic performance for the ages.
#7 — Orphan Black, season 2 (BBC America). Probably the most compromised series on my list, but arguably the one that I love best. A lot of that is attributable to the ongoing tour de force performance of Tatiana Maslany as, well, approximately half the series regular characters and a few more stray roles for added spice. The show balances shifting tones (it can go from black screwball comedy to harrowing drama in the space of a single edit) with remarkable aplomb. And moments like the season-ending loft dance party show that fan service can actually be artistically rewarding.
#8 — Game of Thrones, season 4 (HBO). Prior seasons may have occasionally dawdled between big moments, but season four of the fantasy saga was a deluge of shocks. The sprawling storyline, perhaps inevitably, is beginning to show some wear, particularly anytime more magical elements invade Westeros. Still, it’s grand and striking, and this year the dialogue evolved to a wickedly clever beast.
#9 — Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, season 1 (so far) (HBO). It’s still so clearly a work in progress, with John Oliver and his cohorts tweaking the format ever so slightly from episode to episode (and they still haven’t quite figured out how to make field pieces work). But at its core, Last Week Tonight takes the Daily Show format and becomes The New Yorker to Jon Stewart’s necessarily more hit-and-run nightly effort. The longform comedy pieces have been astoundingly strong, filled with actual hard evidence and diligent research. And it’s damn funny.
#10 — Parks and Recreation, season 6 (NBC). I very nearly gave this spot to producer Michael Schur’s other series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is moving from uneven promise to near-greatness at roughly the same speed that Parks and Recreation once did. But only Parks had The Cones of Dunshire. Much as I truly hope for the best from the unexpected seventh season, “Moving Up” would have been a wonderful series finale.
#26 — A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Elaine Stritch was talking about Marlon Brando once, and Elaine Stritch never minced words. In discussing Brando’s time in class with Stella Adler, studying the fiercely emergent acting strategy formulated by Constantin Stanislavski, Stritch noted, “Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” What it must have been like to be in attendance at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the winter of 1947 when Brando debuted the character of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. It had to rattle the senses, like a blast of smelling salts to the soul. The reviews from that time don’t necessarily bear out that notion, with Brando’s performance often something of an afterthought for critics more preoccupied with offering and immediate assessment of the play’s placement in the trajectory of Williams’s career or even dwelling more on Jessica Tandy in the admittedly attention-getting role of Blanche DuBois. Yet, even Williams credits Brando with unlocking facets of the character that were lost to him in the creative process. By his own assessment, Williams wrote Stanley as a mere brute. Brando played him as a human, carrying all the wounds endemic to that state of being.
Released four years later, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire captures a monumental shift in acting as it happens. Much of the stage cast was transplanted to the screen, with Tandy as a notable exception. The producers insisted a proven movie star was needed for the role, someone with name recognition who could counterbalance the relative unknowns in the rest of the cast. Vivien Leigh, twelve years past Scarlett O’Hara and experienced in the role thanks to a turn in the London stage production, was recruited to play Blanche. It is the contrasting styles between Leigh and Brando, with the rest of cast residing unsteadily somewhere in between them on the spectrum of acting realism, that gives the film its unnerving dynamic. Leigh maintains the theatricality of the preceding generation of film actors, an affectation ideally suited to a Southern flower raging against her own withering. Simultaneously, Brando is burrowing into the combative Stanley with a unwavering commitment to naturalism, particularly in finding the small gestures and flickers of emotion that signal an inner life. The ugly familial conflicts that take place in the rundown New Orleans home of the Kowalskis are a mirror to the seismic shifts taking place in the art and craft of acting. The drama crafted by Williams is powerful on its own terms. The interplay of artistic transformation deepens it.
Elia Kazan directs the film with an feel for the story’s downbeat energies. The gruesomeness of the emotions of display brings out a bruised knuckle fortitude to Kazan’s style that I would argue was the unmet aspiration of his earlier films. He had a clear itch to say something profound about the American experience, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, he finally found the work that could unlock that statement, or at least the foundational elements of it. There is a conflict between past and future (again, paralleled in the approach to the craft that conveys the message), as well as the sick joke at the heart of the American Dream, that any hopes of upward movement are beset by a thousand unseen manipulations to leave a life sputtering on the launching pad. Kazan would find ways to make these points again, even more effectively. There’s a different purity to them here, perhaps because of the added sense of discovery. A Streetcar Named Desire, in a way increasingly vital in American film, simply meant something. It told truths that couldn’t be reached in other ways. And with Brando, it offered the most profound introduction to one of the great acting truth-tellers in the history of the form. And the revolution dawned.
“Everyone laughs except Bix, who’s at his computer, and you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street if you fail, even at something so small.”
--Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010
“YOUR NAME IS BEVERLY GABLE, AND YOU ARE RETURNING HOME AFTER AN EVENING OF BABY-SITTING. FOR THREE AND ONE-HALF HOURS YOU WATCHED THE FLICKERING IMAGES PLAYING ON A TELEVISION SET, OBLIVIOUS TO THE DESPERATE CRIES OF THE CHILD IN THE OTHER ROOM…CRIES WHICH SUBSIDED ONCE YOUNG PETER HANCOCK THE THIRD GREW TIRED WAITING FOR YOU AND FELL ASLEEP. WHEN MR. AND MRS. HANCOCK RETURNED HOME FROM THEIR PARTY AND PAID YOU FOR YOUR SERVICES, THEY ASKED IF YOU WISHED A RIDE TO YOUR HOME. YOU SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR OFFER. BECAUSE, IF YOU HAD, YOU WOULD NOT HAVE TO DIE TONIGHT.”
--Marv Wolfman, TOM OF DRACULA, Vol. 1, No. 29, "'Vengeance is Mine,' Sayeth the Vampire!" 1975
5. Heart, Dog & Butterfly
Dog & Butterfly was the second Heart album released in 1978. Sort of.
The band that famously features the Wilson sisters, lead singer Ann and lead guitarist Nancy, released their debut album on Mushroom Records in 1976. In short order, the group decided that they wanted to leave the label, in large part because they were angered by the salacious approach being taken in the marketing of their music. Heart made the move to Portrait, a new subsidiary of Columbia Records, but the folks at Mushroom didn’t actually feel like the band had the right to instigate the change. At roughly the same time Heart released their Portrait debut, Little Queen, in 1977, Mushroom cobbled together incomplete recordings the band left behind and dropped an album called Magazine on the market, even acknowledging the mess on the back cover with a disclaimer that read, “Mushroom Records regrets that a contractual dispute has made it necessary to complete this record without the cooperation or endorsement of the group Heart, who have expressly disclaimed artistic involvement in completing this record. We did not feel that a contractual dispute should prevent the public from hearing and enjoying these incredible tunes and recordings.”
Both labels argued that the other had no right to release music from Heart. The dispute made it all the way into the courtroom, where it was ordered that Mushroom had to recall the album, but that Heart also owed the label another record. They chose to go back and finish Magazine, remixing the recordings and adding some new material. The Heart-approved version of the album was officially released in April of 1978.
Six months later, Heart was out with another album, this their first for Portrait with no background business wrangling going on. Entitled Dog & Butterfly, it was intended to show different sides of the band, with the first side, “Dog,” containing hard rock songs, and the flip, “Butterfly,” mostly comprised of ballads (or power ballads anyway). Like their previous releases, Dog & Butterfly was a major success, yielding two Top 40 singles and earning a double platinum certification. It is a record deeply of its time, perfectly suited for all the album rock radio cropping up on the FM dial. It also sounds really dated now, with even the title cut, one of the band’s standards, unmistakably a product of the decade in which it was spawned.
Dog & Butterfly represented the beginning of the end of the early success of Heart. Although their next album, the unfortunately-titled Bebe le Strange, actually charted higher than any of its predecessors, it was also the first release from the sisters that didn’t make it to platinum sales. It was even more dire as the pushed into the eighties, at least until they reinvented themselves for the MTV era with their 1986 self-titled LP. Ridiculously glammed-up in videos that took great care to showcase Nancy Wilson’s frizzed up hair and bustiers, Heart had hits that well exceeded anything they’d experienced before. The older music lived on, though, giving them a foundation of familiar favorites to break out for audiences, and even recycle in the most unlikely places.
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
This is the kind of good kid I was in preparation for the review below. Knowing that we’d be covering Other People’s Money on our radio program, The Reel Thing, I went to one of the upper floors of the UW-SP library and checked out a copy of Jerry Sterner’s play to read in advance of seeing the film. Part of the reason, then, this is a slightly longer review than the norm for our weekly show is I had all this deep background knowledge to share.
The nineteen-eighties will be forever typified as the time when greed came to the forefront of American business. Money became the favorite fixation of all those businessmen wastin’ away down in Reaganville, and the battle cry became the oft-quoted line from Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET…”Greed is good.” That general mindset was exactly what playwright Jerry Sterner was taking shots at in 1989 when he created the play OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY, the tale of a New York City takeover artist who sets his sights on a modest Rhode Island wire and cable manufacturing company. For director Norman Jewison’s big screen adaptation of the play, the takeover artist in question is played by Danny DeVito. DeVito is perfectly cast as Lawrence Garfield, otherwise known as “Larry the Liquidator”…a donut-loving, vulgar, egotistical investment master who treats his business computer like a generous lover and whose greatest desire is acquiring other people’s money as quickly as possible. There are few other actors who can play this sort of nastiness with such vigor and delight.
Unfortunately, his chief sparring partner is not cast nearly as well. Penelope Ann Miller plays Kate Sullivan, the pretty, young lawyer that the New England Wire and Cable Company drafts to fight off the hostile takeover. Kate is supposed to be Garfield’s equal in rigid determination and forthright strength. But, as played by Miller, every statement that should be a fiery demand becomes a tentative suggestion. She should be a predator like Garfield, but she can’t muster up the power to be anything more than a guppy trapped in the shark tank. It’s hard to believe that she could effectively take on Garfield, much less win his heart. Her performance could use more solid conviction. something the entire film is sorely lacking.
Too often, the performances turn into perfunctory recitations of the script. Everyone stops acting and starts reading lines. This makes it difficult to become really invested in the values clash going on between DeVito’s Garfield and Gregory Peck’s Jorgy, the chairman of the wire and cable company. DeVito believes in the quick profit that would accompany dismantling the Rhode Island company…Peck is more concerns with maintaining the company as it’s been for nearly 75 years and preserving jobs for his hundred of employees. Their conflict lacks the proper punch, so when they face off near the end of the film, each pleading their case before an annual stockholders’ meeting, their individual speeches seem forced…sermons delivered by a pair of non-believers.
Jewison also makes a major mistake by trying to soften up Larry the Liquidator. Rather than keeping him nasty throughout the film, as Sterner did with his original play, DeVito’s character eventually develops a conscious and a big, caring heart. He opens up to true love, feels guilty about his business practices, and is redeemed in full Hollywood style. In making him more likable for the screen, Jewison has betrayed Sterner’s wonderfully cynical creation. OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY can occasionally be funny and makes some important judgments about the mindless cruelty of corporate greed. But before its point can be completely made, the film gets lost in sloppy happiness and artificial sunshine. The film version of OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY amounts to little more than a wasted opportunity. (2 stars, out of 4)
I’m going to break a rule. It’s one of my own rules, so I guess it’s okay if I decide to break it. The song shared today is in print and presumably available at your favorite local, independently-owned record store. In fact, there’s a whole mess of Dave Alvin albums that can be purchased, including the recently-released collaboration with his brother that’s drawn laudatory reviews. So I’ll begin by urging you to contact the proprietor of that favorite store and discuss making a purchase. Not necessarily today, though. It’s a holiday. Let them have a break.
“4th of July” is best known as a song by the band X, issued as a single from their 1987 album, See How We Are. It probably wouldn’t have been their song without a recent personnel change. Founding guitarist Billy Zoom had left the band the previous year, making good on a promise to throw in the towel in X didn’t achieve greater commercial success. He was replaced by Alvin, then fresh off the Blasters. Along with skills and talent, Alvin brought with him a song about feeling forlorn on America’s birthday, smoking cigarettes along on the stairs while “Mexican kids are shootin’ fireworks below.” It became the only track on the album not written by John Doe and Exene Cervenka. It also became one of Alvin’s few contributions to the group. Though her toured with them a bit, Alvin was clearly tired being a sideman. He parted X in short order, which probably helped signal the end of the band as a going concern. (1993′s hey Zeus!, their final studio album, was generally considered a reunion album.)
I love the song, but it wasn’t X’s album that I reached for when I found myself deejaying on the 4th of July, which happened most summers I was in college. Instead, I went for Alvin’s solo debut, Romeo’s Escape, released the same year as the X album. There again is “4th of July,” kicking off the whole record. It’s not that Alvin’s solo version is better. Truthfully, there’s not all that much difference between the two recordings. I simply liked playing the version that was fully and solely credited to the guy who wrote it. Sure, there was that music geek pride of playing the lesser-known version, but it was mostly being able to name Alvin when I backsold the track. It was his song, after all. He just loaned it to X, an extremely generous act. The song is so good that it’s like sharing a jackpot.
Listen or download –> Dave Alvin, “4th of July”
(Disclaimer: Most of the usual disclaimer material is covered above, though perhaps not as sheepishly and apologetically as it could or should be. So imagine it repeated down here with more of that tone. I will note that it looks to me like Romeo’s Escape is indeed out of print. However, the song has shown up on at least one collection that still seems to be in print: Best of the Hightone Years. So get that. Or some other Dave Alvin record. You can’t really go wrong.)