Shameless

Title: Shameless

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: William H. Macy (Actor), Emmy Rossum (Actor)

Watched: April 8-12, 2011

Status: First Season

Summary: A guilty pleasure

 

Shameless is Showtime’s latest entry in the “edgy comedy” category, a slot they’re fond of (Weeds, Dexter). In any case, Shameless is an American remake of a British show, and centers around a working class Chicago family with an extraordinarily bad and alcoholic father named Frank (William H. Macy) and a bevy of often delinquent children and associated hangers on.

While Macy is great, nicely straddling the line between likable and incorrigible, the show is anchored by oldest daughter and effective mom Fiona (Emmy Rossum). I never noticed her before (she had minor roles in a couple movies I’ve seen), but she’s fantastic in this role. She brings to the table a wining hand of tough, sexy, vulnerable, and sheer chutzpah.

Tone wise, this show is much like Weeds in that it mixes (attempted) social satire with the ridiculously scandalous and the sketchy. This blending of comedy with the truly unwholesome seems to be more and more popular, but it first knocked itself on my consciousness in the mid 90s with Reese Witherspoon‘s Freeway. I mean in Shameless we’re talking baby-napping, highly inappropriate sex, “borrowing” the elderly, all sorts of fraud, at least 4 or 5 different portrayals of male backdoor action, blow jobs under the kitchen table, some really really bad parenting, and I’m just getting started. But the show tries to wash down this heavy stuff with a big tongue in cheek and a medium dose of Guy Ritchie-style cinematography.

It’s a pretty titillating show too — like watching a sexy train-wreck with lots of nudity.

And overall I think it succeeds, and succeeds well, not so much because it’s funny — it is — but because it manages to make us care about the characters. This is a complex tonal balance, and the season finale isn’t perfect, but despite all the unrealism, and the unbelievable (and unacceptable) stuff spun with a comic touch, there remains a realistic feel to the people. I found myself glued, pounding through the season in 3-4 episode-at-a-time video-on-demand bindges. While the players’ actions may at times be comic, their emotional response is not.

Book and TV Review: Dexter


Title: Dexter Series and Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Author: Jeff Lindsay

Genre: Dark Comedic Horror Police Procedural

Read: Dec 25-31, 2010

Show: Summer 2010

Summary: Immediately watch the show unless you are a squeamish person or otherwise sensitive to gruesome fun.

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I’m going to try and stick to reviewing tothe first novel (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) and to the first season of the Showtime TV Show. I have, however, seen the whole series.

First, the show. This is one of the best shows on Television, and lots of people know it. It’s incredibly well written and engaging, without resorting to quite the level of crazy plotting that HBO usually goes for. Still, there is plenty of shock, and lots of blood. Not much sex — maybe they thought it would be WAY too creepy to mix in — but lots of blood and death. The idea of a sort of vigilante serial killer protagonist is pretty brilliant, and I’m amazed they pulled it off so well. I mean, taken in any context Dexter himself is really one sick fuck. But you do like him. And the supporting cast is great too. All of them really.

My only problem with the first season is that the Ice Truck Killer is a little too psychic about what is going to happen and what will push Dexter’s buttons. Now granted, there’s a reason for this, but I didn’t totally buy this level of prediction. Still, I had a blast, watching the whole thing in like 2-3 nights.

The show is dark, and pretty grisly. Did I mention dark? I love it. It’s also very very funny, in a perfect way which doesn’t give up on any of the realism. This is great. The writers do this with Dexter’s inner monologue, and the way in which his observations are often so in opposition to the situation. But the really telling thing about the show, and what makes it really great fiction, is that sometimes (terrifyingly often actually) we agree with him. Everyone has a bit of the serial killer inside them. Don’t get me wrong. I escort spiders outside to avoid killing them, but a dark thought or two has been known to cross my mind — or issue out of my keyboard — as my own book is pretty dark. Not to mention that my title (The Darkening Dream) is oddly similar to Darkly Dreaming Dexter. But I want to put it on record that I’d never even heard of the novel when I came up with the title. I guess Jeff Lindsay and I both adore alliteration.

Now the book.

It’s hard for me to judge it objectively because I saw the show first. The voice is really great, and the opening killer — literally. The show stays pretty tight to the novel for a while, and a lot of interior monologue and signature elements are in both. When Dexter is being naughty, particularly at the beginning, it’s totally gripping. The novel isn’t very long, 300 pages, 72,800 words. I liked the book.

But I loved the show. It’s just better. There’s more to it (and I’m just talking the first season). The plot is pretty similar, but the characters have much much more depth in the show. In the novel only Dexter, LeGuerta, and Deb (to a lesser extent) are real characters. The others from the show are mostly there, but mostly just scaffolds. In the show they really pop. Angel, Doakes, Vince, Rita etc. They have more dimensionality.

The plot too is much better developed in the show. The back story with Harry is beefed up. There are more twists and turns, and rightfully, the Ice Truck Killer is brought into the story in an active (on screen fashion) much earlier. Dexter’s kills and habits are better defined and more ritualistic, and there is a strong element of the “Cop Show.” Novel Dexter is less likable than show Dexter. Even the voice of the novel — it’s strongest element — is actually better in the show. Michael C. Hall‘s performance is awesome, and he really sharpens the edge on it.

And all the plot changes are big improvements. I had my one little plot beef with the first season, but the novel has several gaping holes. Not that it isn’t still a fun book. But the end for example. Why doesn’t Deb have him locked up? He really didn’t act in a terribly human manner. Also the element of coincidence and near mind reading on the killer’s part is way more pronounced in the book. This always bugs me. Also, Lindsay didn’t do a great job pre-selling Dexter’s origin. He just pops it out of the woodwork at the end (having seen the show I knew it was coming). The show sets it up really nicely.

He did however do a brilliant job with the little bit about “Mommy hiding the rest of her body in the little hole.” Oh so dark and nasty!

Thoughts on TV: Lost vs The Love Boat

I’ve had a funny relationship with TV as a storytelling medium. During the 80′s and much of the 90′s I used to mock it as generally inferior and for numbskulls. But let it be said that I watch TV for stories. I pretty much detest the medium for information transfer (like news) and I despise reality TV and other non story based programming. The article title makes light of the difference between what I call “episodic” and “continuous” television. The Love Boat is episodic, you could scramble the order of many episodes, and everything resets back to neutral between shows. This is pretty much a constant. You KNOW when watching the show that any changes that occur during the course of the episode will get resolved and unwound by the end. Almost all sitcoms fall into this category. Although in more recent years, even some of these are hybrids, like Friends, where major changes do slowly occur.

Lost is an extreme example of continuous television. The story runs continuously — I hesitate to say linearly — from episode to episode. In the most extreme shows of this sort, like Lost and HBO/Showtime dramas, the episodes and seasons are merely chunks of delivery, much as Dickens novels were originally sold in chapters.

I was never much for episodic TV. During the dark years of the 80′s I watched little TV, and the few programs I did watch were either hybrids or had extreme appeal (like the original Battlestar Galactica which is both). I did find myself attracted to some early ventures into the continuous arena: Hill Street Blues, Saint Elsewhere, Miami Vice (my REVIEW HERE), Wiseguy, etc. One might classify these as adult soaps — and they are — but at least they allowed for character development. That’s the thing about episodic television. There isn’t much development, and very little risk. If you know that everything will get back to where it started by the end of the hour, why worry, why invest?

A number of factors have contributed to the rise of continuous television. These 80′s trendsetters can take some credit, as can the miniseries, but probably it is the rise of cable that was the next big step. On cable, freed of some of the childish conventions of traditional network programming and more importantly of the albatross of mid-show advertising, television has become a medium where it is possible to deliver “books” of 10-17 hours of solid programming. This is radically different than film’s 1.5-4 hours (and 4 is a Gone with the Wind length movie) scope. Sure film often has a bigger budget to work with, but that’s not what really makes a story. Writing fulfills that responsibility. DVD packaged television provided the second huge step, allowing even interrupted network programs to be viewed in a continuous manner.

With this in motion the 90′s saw the rise of more hybrid continuous shows: My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my DISCUSSION ON BUFFY HERE), the X-Files, to name a few. These straddled the line, retaining a roughly episodic format, but allowing characters, relationships, and big conflicts to arc from episode to episode. In the late 90′s, with the rise of the big HBO dramas this all changed. Some network shows like Buffy that started episodic became largely continuous. In the 2000′s we experienced a golden age of fully continuous television. Network shows are still mixed, with most being largely episodic or hybrid. It’s rare on the networks to have a fully continuous show like Lost, but few are wholly episodic like most 80′s fare. The big cable dramas: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Carnivale, The Tudors, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Dexter (my REVIEW HERE), Weeds, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Trueblood, Entourage, etc. are pretty much all continuous.

This new medium, the continuous or strongly hybrid series, allows for a depth of character development and intrigue not possible in the traditional visual mediums. Although, I guess technically soap operas have done this for decades, but the narrow demographic focus, slow pace, and extended melodrama makes these a unique species of their own. I myself am basically drawn to television on a basis of how continuous it is, and the quality of the writing, not so much the particular genre or subject. Often I sense  the progressive modulation of quality in a show is based on where it falls in the spectrum. For example, Roswell, which began with a hybrid first season that leaned toward continuous was forced into a more episodic form in the second season, much to the detriment of the show’s quality. Likewise, Buffy, my all time favorite show, picks up strength in seasons 2-6 as the show sheds itself of the early episodic quality and becomes a more continuous narrative.

Another interesting phenomenon is that continuous shows are much better when watched in bulk on DVD without the breaks in time or advertising. I’ve discussed this with many friends and all agree that when you start a show like Lost on DVD, bingeing through episodes back to back it has a continuity and emotional intensity that is lost when one is forced to skim through ads and wait a week between episodes — and we won’t even mention the endless inter-season breaks. Catching up to “realtime viewers” can feel like driving into a brick wall. This exists for book series as well. Pounding through a huge series of fantasy novels back to back is much more satisfying than when one catches up with the author and has to wait years.

In any case I’m all for this, as I like longer more substantial storytelling where characters are free to change. Anything else is just repetitive.