Tuesday, 30 December 2014

HOMELAND/ BABYLON/ GOTHAM/ MARVEL AGENTS OF SHIELD (TV ADDICTIONS)

While I'd love for someone to read this blog and imagine I was constantly attending art gallery openings or standing at the front for thrilling, cutting-edge gigs, the truth is I pretty much stay home and watch the telly. Its getting so, if I spend too long in the kitchen, the sofa starts asking sarcastically if I know what the time is. So let's set the record straight with some recent small-screen highlights, presented here in random order...

HOMELAND


A fourth series of 'Homeland', taking place after Brody's fairly unamendable departure, did initially seem a shark-jumping moment. I was very much in two minds over whether to watch it at all. As things turned out, its been widely received as the best series since the first. Almost entirely relocating events to Islamabad and Kabul, it could even feel like a whole new series, which merely happened to have Carrie and some carry-over characters from 'Homeland' show up in it.

'Homeland' has often felt a bizarre, contorted and jarring beast, its main attraction simultaneously its main drawback. They were capable of delivering humdinger plot twists, curves you couldn't see coming but once they'd arrived made total sense, which made it all the more infuriating when they started making stuff up as they went along. Thankfully this most recent series been able to supply surprises while (mostly) staying the right side of credulity.

However, it continues to exemplify a general trend so perfectly its almost deserving of praise for doing it. It's now become commonplace to describe a drama as a stupid person's idea of what smart is. Whereas 'Homeland' often feels like a moral simpleton's idea of what morally complex is. It's well known that American conservative guru Leo Strauss was a fan of the TV Western 'Gunsmoke', feeling its simplistic certainties gave audiences the illusions necessary for society to function. Whereas today we want to be flattered at the same time as we're patronised. The message of 'Homeland' more or less reduces to “life gets complicated. You must know that, watching a smart show like this. But don't worry too much because ultimately we're always right.”

A classic moment is the scene where Haqqani holds Fara hostage. Given what he wants, he stabs her anyway. There's no rhyme or reason for him to do this, other than to make him so 'black' that however 'grey' the good guys get they won't be closing in on him.

And even though the ending was clearly intended to be not just feel-bad but compromising, in that watching it you realise you can't conceive of a better outcome, all the above still applies. Adal's machiavellian last-minute deal with Haqqani fits too easily with everything else to be truly jarring. The theme of the series is that some dirty jobs just need doing, so they're essentially unquittable even as they screw up those stuck with carrying them out. The shit sticks and then stays stuck. Adal's deal just shifts this from the operational to the strategic level. The point about dealing with devils is that eventually you have to make a deal with one. 

And Adal's deal must be seen in the context of Lockhart's parallel but opposite journey, where events knock the once-adversary down to everyone else's level. (To the point where he can sit drinking whisky at a table with Carrie and Quinn.) The angels may get compromised by association with the devils. But angels they stay.


BABYLON


A police-based version of the political satire 'The Thick of It' with added dramatic moments... not something that initially strikes you as a bright idea. Yet overall it worked surprisingly well. If the dialogue spats didn't quite throw up 'Thick Of It' sparks they could be memorable enough, without detracting from the more dramatic parts.

Certainly, the series was well timed. In recent years the police have frequently been propelled into the headlines through frictions between themselves and the political class, assailed as they are with cutbacks on the one side and privatisation on the other. Issues such as Plebgate played out against this disharmonious background.

Now you might not expect a popular TV show to ask penetrating questions about the police, and their precise role in class society. And indeed it doesn't. Why are they being cut now? Because the political class calculate their enemies have now been knocked back enough that they can start to scrimp on attack dogs. This puts the police in the same defensive position as other groups of workers, the ones who they once earned their overtime by attacking. The irony of this isn't something thats gone into. The series culminates in what's effectively a police strike. In other words a police strike is essentially dreamed up for dramatic purposes, while an actual series of strikes in the Fire Service rarely hit the headlines. At the same time, however, its interesting that a popular drama simply takes it as axiomatic that police privatisation is a bad idea.

The depiction of the riot seems similarly indicative of the contemporary groupthink. Its a protest about the police shooting of a black youth, which we see happening and know to have occurred under dodgy circumstances (as the real riots were a response to the killing of Mark Duggan). But its simultaneously an opportunistic response to the effective police strike. The ragbag array of causes attached to the riot becomes an opportunity for humour (with the sardonic comment “they haven't elected a head rioter yet” to be negotiated with), a literalisation of the widely used term 'rentamob'.

Perhaps we're better of looking at what it does. While it isn't much like 'The Wire' it performs a similar structural device of presenting the institution as seen through several levels. (Effectively high command, the Armed Response Unit and the Territorial Support Group. Even if the last group seem to become regular cops whenever the plot requires.) And it keeps these levels quite rigidly separate. While individuals might cross them from time to time, this is clearly going to be something momentary. We get more of a sense of what such an institution is, through this effective triangulation of crossfire.

Yet despite this structure and the ensuing ensemble cast, as the sole outsider fledgeling Director of Communications Liz Garvey (played by Brit Marling) becomes the protagonist by default. Which would make her the equivalent of Thick of It's' Malcolm Tucker. Which raises an important distinction. Tucker's clearly presented as the star of the show, and indeed its hard not to nurse a secret admiration for the Machiavellian bastard. Garvey's role is more ambiguous. The pilot episode (broadcast back in February) seemed built around her resolute adherence to her “flag” of openness despite all the heavy buffeting it receives. (All on her first day, even.) At times she's presented as the police's conscience, refusing to countenance slandering the name of a black lad shot by the ARU. And she's given an adversary, in the shape of the cynical, gum-chewing Finn (played by Bertie Carvel) who sees his job in terms of the more traditional burial of bad news. And, if he can manage it, hit'n'runs on rivals who've strayed onto his career path.

Yet at other points it becomes obvious her crusading zeal is really to nothing more than policing as PR, an inability to distinguish between openness and photo-ops. Rather than releasing edited footage she'd rather edit the reality before the footage is taken, and at points this fixation with Twitter streams has operationally disastrous consequences. It's at its clearest in her speech about taking down the Death Star of current practise to replace it with a “perspex Death Star, a better Death Star”. Yet not only does she seem oblivious to any of this, the series never quite gears itself up into taking her on about any of it. She's less the anti-hero of Tucker and more the hero by default seenin contemporary films such as 'The Social Network'. The underlying message seems – she may not be right, but at least she's contemporary. Which is sort of the same thing, isn't it?


GOTHAM


Like 'Babylon', 'Gotham' seems to have started from the most peculiar of scenarios – let's have the Batman universe without Batman in it. (Perhaps they're also planning 'Ma and Pa Kent – The Early Years' and 'The Rough, Tough Boyhood of Starro the Conqueror'.)

Having got rid of Batman they immediately replace him - with the young Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie), even down to the gravelly monotone voice as a signifier for the relentlessness of justice. The idea seems to be to up the stakes by giving us the supervillains (and the crooks often seem on the cusp of supervillainry), with only the very human Gordon to go against them.

To do this it has to take on a rather ludicrous conceit, that Gotham's in a kind of dark age interregnum between his parents being killed and Bruce growing up into Batman. (The credit sequence contains the quote “there's a war coming, a terrible war. There will be rivers of blood in the streets.”) Because of course the only thing that can make the world better is the well-meaning super-rich. It not only rests on the most reactionary assumption of the comics (that Batman's a kind of super-philanthropist, that if he wasn't wealthy enough to have all those Bat-gizmos crime would overrun us) with the worst 'innovation' of the films. (That the Waynes can't be killed by a common criminal leading Bruce to declare war on crime, there has to be something special about that criminal making the whole thing into one journey of personal redemption and all the rest of it.)

Which means it keeps the movies' fixation with origins, as if that's what the superhero is all about. Imagine making a film about the Apollo mission and keeping cutting back to the astronaut's training, like all the stuff about landing on the moon is just after the fact. There's less emphasis on Batman's own origin, which is (at least so far) kept incipient. They're more Gotham's and his future adversaries. The results sometimes feel like a set of Just So stories, how the Penguin got his waddling walk and so on.

But much like 'Babylon' it takes this unpromising premise and works it. Batman is after all merely the straight man of his world, there so the more colourful criminals have someone to play off against. Perhaps more than any other superhero, Batman is his rogue's gallery. And replacing one straight man with another, even as cliched a character as Gordon, doesn't really lose us much.

So if all hangs on the rogue's gallery, the good news is that this is great! The star of the show isn't the tedious Gordon, but Robin Lord Taylor's deliciously creepy Penguin, duplicitously fawning and backstabbing his way through and up the criminal underworld. The Penguin is a character often seen as inhabiting the cartoony world of the Sixties TV show, now banished by the shadow of the all-growed-up-now Dark Knight. But here he's already managed to create two cliff-hangers merely by showing up. And as befits the title Gotham itself becomes a character in the show, an (as the name might suggest) gothic temple to sin like something out of Brecht and Weill.

The main weakness is the insistence on each episode having its own storyline. While everyone's attention is on the ongoing criminal war, these feel not only inferior and derivative but often half-hearted. They don't seem likely to draw in the casual viewers they're presumably intended for. 'Gotham' is a long-haul novel-structure show, not especially adept at disguising itself as weekly TV.


MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.


In its first series, this often felt like an inferior warm-up for the Marvel Universe films. It's essentially a cop buddy show with science fictional bolt-ons. Which is, you know, fine. Except that scenario places a sitcom-like emphasis on the rapport between the lead actors, and I wasn't at all sure there was one. Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) worked in the 'Iron Man' and 'Avengers' films precisely because everybody expected the suit to be a straight man rather than a character (hence Stark's incredulous line “I thought his first name was Agent”), so even a little went a long way. Taking him out of that context felt as if you were to take Niles out of 'Frasier'. Lose the context and you lose the environment, and with it the character's purpose.

Chloe Bennett (playing Sky) looked a classic case of having been hired for her pretty face rather than any acting ability, while Fitz and Simmons were an American's rather annoying idea of what twee British people are like. Take away all the heroes, take away Nick Fury, and what were you left with was a daft acronym and a supporting cast hanging around without a lead?

But the new characters work better. It seems unlikely anybody would fail to guess where Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) and Bobbi Morse's (Adrianne Palicki) will-they-won't-they act would end up, but it was more about the journey than the destination. Also, the plotlines have by now gained their own traction, rather than relying on hand-me-downs from the films. It's like a Shield universe, rather than the mere reflection of a Marvel universe, has had time to coalesce. The way the alien markings led to the underground city did feel like a gradually unfolding mystery, rather than one stock secret getting lined up behind another.

There remains, alas, Marvel's proprietary habit of sticking the name Marvel in front every other Marvel word which pretty quickly gets Marvelling annoying, and mostly reminds me of that 'Simpsons' episode where Bart went around writing “property of Bart Simpson” everywhere. (The word 'Marvel' should probably be in that sentence a couple more Marvel times.)


In other news... Here in the Old World, we still know how to do a ghost story. 'Hinterland' was essentially a detective story presented as a ghost story, while 'Remember Me' was unashamedly the full phantoms-in-the-attic caboodle. They both work through evoking such a strong sense of locale, in North Wales and Yorkshire respectively. This lends proceedings a double virtue, locating the tale in our world while providing a liminal space, where the incursion of the supernatural seems only a matter of time. Like a lightning rod for the spectral.

Mostly, though, I just watch documentaries on BBC4. I suppose I could write about those. It would mostly consist of me saying things like “it was all about an ancient Andean civilsation I'd not heard of before. I learnt lots of new and interesting things. Forgotten them all now, though. But maybe they'll repeat it.”

No comments:

Post a Comment