Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of the Decade: TV

Here’s the ten best TV shows of the decade. This was by far the best decade for TV in the medium’s history, and this list is pretty close to my best series all time list. There's a lot of great shows that didn't make it, these are the elite.

10. Angel
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘A Hole in the World’

The most uneven show on the list, Angel veered from the boring standalones of season one and the endless, at times nonsensical season four arc to the morally ambiguous challenging heights of the Darla arc in season two, Wesley’s arc in season three and in particular the entire final season were fantastic enough for it to merit a spot on the list. What makes the show shine above its inconsistencies were the fantastic character development work done on Angel, Cordelia and Wesley. All three of those characters were fantastic, and anchored the show in a very real way. It’s a shame the show was cancelled at the height of its powers, but at least we got one of the all time best series finales.

9. Freaks and Geeks
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘Discos and Dragons’

Like its ‘cancelled too soon’ brethren Arrested Development and Firefly, Freaks and Geeks has become a legend of TV, and the massive success of virtually all its actors and creative team only enhanced the legend. But, despite the team’s massive success, nobody involved has topped their work here. The performances were fantastic, and the show did a great job of world building as it went on, and letting you watch the people grow and change in subtle ways. It’s the best depiction of high school life ever captured on film, and, as with Angel, even though it was cancelled too soon, it went out on a fantastic high note.

8. Doctor Who
Best Season: Four
Best Episode: ‘Parting of the Ways’

Far from the most consistent show, Who had probably more weak episodes than any other show on the list, but at its best, it hit me emotionally like nothing else out there. The thing I love so much about Who is the core of optimism about humanity’s potential and our place in the world. The Doctor sees excitement and joy everywhere he goes, and even when the show got dark, as it often did to great effect, it’s about him struggling to make things better and having to deal with the fact that he can’t. I particularly like the show’s reinterpretation of the hero’s journey, as we see that just being chosen and taken to a world of adventure doesn’t make all your problems go away. The show is spectacle on a scale never before attempted on TV, and when it succeeds, it blows your mind and breaks your heart at the same time. I’m excited to see the story resolve itself in the two part finale over the course of the next week.

7. Mad Men
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: ‘The Jet Set’

Mad Men is probably the best example of the new kind of shows that became possible thanks to shifts in the perception and consumption of the TV medium. The Sopranos pushed the boundaries of art in TV, but even as it plunged into subjective artiness and de-dramatized character stories in its later years, it still was based around action stories and had violence as the dramatic hook for viewers. Mad Men has no violence or action, but it’s still riveting in its precise exploration of a set of characters trying to survive or thrive in the 1960s. Visually, the show is unparalleled in its gorgeous production design and costuming, capturing all the glamour and narrative ambiguity of 60s European art cinema. It’s great to watch something on TV that feels like Fellini or Bergman, that uses our familiarity with the characters to explore complex issues and new storytelling methods. I’d be shocked if this show isn’t here when I do the best of the decade list ten years from now.

6. The Office (UK)
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: Season 2, Episode 6

The Office is the only comedy on the list, largely because it’s so much more than just funny, it’s got a core of sadness that is shockingly overturned by the show’s joyous Christmas finale. It’s also the most influential comedy on the list, pioneering the comedy of awkwardness that was widely adopted later in the decade, and influencing the documentary aesthetic of shows like Arrested Development, as well as obvious descendents like the American Office and Parks and Recreation. But, thanks to its short running time, the series makes no compromises, and is true to its characters and world. Thanks to the overall sense of hopelessness, the final scene between Tim and Dawn is one of the most romantic and beautiful in all of film. And, on top of all that, it’s the funniest show of all time.

5. John From Cincinnati
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘His Visit, Day Five’

I’ve seen John mentioned in a lot of decade writeups, usually in the context of the erroneous idea that Milch allowed Deadwood to be cancelled in favor of doing this show. One, that’s not at all true. Two, JFC was in many ways the continuation of Deadwood that they wanted, but for me, it refined all the things that worked about Deadwood and brought the dormant themes to the fore for a fascinating exploration of the way that communities form and what spirituality and the extraordinary mean in a contemporary context. The series blend of mysticism and verite was hard for people to take, but I loved it, few series had the religious awe this one carried, and moments like John’s sermon in the parking lot or the descent from the clouds that opened the final episode are among the most profound ever captured on film. I don’t consider this a qualified success, it’s outright one of the best series of all time.

4. The Wire
Best Season: Three
Best Episode: ‘Final Grades’

One of the most important and ambitious series of all time, The Wire has been praised extensively, and virtually no compliment about the series is hyperbole. It really is as good as people claim, both in terms of social relevance and in simple story construction. The show built an elaborate world and by the end of the series had nearly 50 regular characters floating through at any given time. And, it’s the characters who linger for me, particularly moments like the apocalyptic fourth season finale, or the operatic Avon and Stringer stuff at the end of season three. People will watch and analyze this series for years to come, it’s one of the most important documents of the aspects of our society that no one else is talking about. You need look no further than the fact that Crash won a best picture Oscar the same year as The Wire aired on TV to see where the real cultural dialogue was taking place this decade.

3. Six Feet Under
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘I’m Sorry, I’m Lost’

Six Feet Under is a show that on the surface lacks the ambition of something like The Sopranos or The Wire, but it’s so brilliant in its character work, and its exploration of the search for meaning in everyday middle class life in the 2000s. All the characters were looking for definition, for a way to give their lives purpose and to find love and fulfillment in a world that often makes it hard to believe in anything. In a decade of irony and distance, this show forced its characters to confront their true selves, and the performances and writing crafted some of the most well rounded characters in literary history, Nate and Brenda in particular. By the end of the series, the accumulated experiences of all the characters led to a devastating series of events, and ultimately transcendence in the final montage that took us outside time to show that everything ends, but we all have to live first.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Best Season: Six
Best Episode: ‘Restless’

The 00s featured the series’ best episodes, the two season arc that spanned seasons five and six, as well as my personal favorite season of any show all time, season six. But, it also featured some shakier stuff in season four and season seven. Still, take everything I said about Six Feet Under above and add it an epic hero’s journey and you’ve got what makes Buffy so special. The character work was phenomenal, and I’ve never been as completely addicted to a series as I was watching the later seasons of the show. New characters like Tara and Anya, as well as Spike’s rise to prominence kept the series fresh, and Whedon’s auteurial experiments pushed the show to new heights of visual greatness, particularly in ‘Restless’ and the dazzling ‘Once More With Feeling,’ which managed to simultaneously be a great original musical, and forward the overall season plot. I still love the show so much.

1. The Sopranos
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘Long Term Parking’

The show that redefined what a TV series can be, The Sopranos is the greatest sustained examination of a single character in cinema history, and is also a fascinating look at the priorities and concerns of everyday people in a post WWII, post 9/11 world. While the show drew attention for its mob storylines, what jumped out to me was how much the characters’ world reminded me of my life, and how the relatability of what was happening. It was an intellectually riveting series, full of internal patterns and long reaching character arcs and symbol tracks, but it was also intensely addictive. Watching the last couple of seasons, I was desperate to see the next episodes, and upon rewatch, the series reveals more and more layers. If The Wire functions as a portrait of the poor and downtrodden in society, The Sopranos explores the troubles of people struggling to maintain their hold on the middle class, to continue living their lives in a world where the country slips into financial ruin and loses its status in the world. Tony Soprano is America, and his dream is ours. The instantly iconic finale only adds to the series status as fascinating, endlessly debatable entertainment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Six - "The Spiral Path"

In this week's episode, Holly and Zinone catch up, while Jerrod meets some new friends. This episode is one of my favorites we've done so far, so give it a look, and let me know what you think of how things are developing.

And, if you haven't heard, The Third Age is a webseries I created and produce. It's been called "A combination of mad mythology and gritty verite," and takes a magical realist approach to classic mythological themes. If you like the kind of stuff I write about on here, you'll probably like the series. If you want to catch up on previous episodes, go here for an index.

Next week, the show is off, but it'll be back January 5th. In the meantime, prepare for the rest of the Best of the Decade posts, and some best of 2009 lists too!

And, if you've got a chance throw the show some support in the Streamys. We're targeting Best New Series or Best Experimental Series, but any votes would be appreciated!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Avatar was discussed before its release primarily in the context of it being a ‘game changer’ for 3-D and CG world construction, with very little discussion of the story itself. As I walked into the theater, I’d read some advance reviews, but wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. Leaving the theater, I knew I’d seen a film that was at times extremely powerful, but also didn’t quite work on all fronts. Let me address briefly first the technology outside of the context of the story itself, then delve into a more thorough discussion of the film as a whole.

I’ve never actually seen a regular 3-D film in the theater before this one, so I’m probably not the best to assess this film as a jump beyond what’s come before. What I will say is that the 3-D functions differently than in something like Disneyland’s Muppets 3-D, which is obviously not typical, but featured a 3-D that was largely about stuff sticking out the screen, but not really a use of 3-D as a storytelling device. In this film, the 3-D is used in a way analogous to depth of field in 2-D films, drawing your attention to certain elements within the frame by popping them out towards the audience.

For the first 15 minutes or so of the film, I was in awe of the way that the 3-D worked to subtly direct your attention to elements within the frame, and worked to build the world of the film. The spaceship environments seemed much more expansive and fully realized than anything I’ve seen before, specifically because of that use of 3-D. The subtlely of the effects work was most notable during simple shots like Jake waking up in zero gravity with several crew members floating around him.

As the film went on, you start to just accept the 3-D elements. I’m not sure if it was used less dynamically or if I just became accustomed to it, but as the film went on, the 3-D became less key to my understanding of the film. Perhaps that’s a sign that I became wrapped up in the story and stopped caring about the technical aspects, or it might be more that I started to focus on different technical aspects.

I’ve spoken recently about the idea that CG that is used to depict things that can never exist in real life is going to be inherently unbelievable because our minds aren’t awed by the impossibility, they instantly assume that it’s CG and write it off in that respect. But, at the same time, there are things that just can’t be realized by current technology, and some of the coolest aspects of this film were the fact that the Na’Vi weren’t just blue people, they were on a totally different scale than humans, and the shots where Na’Vi and humans interacted were some of the most surprising and exciting in the film.

Who’s to say that aliens are going to be 5-6 feet tall, aliens might have already landed and been so small we can’t even detect them, or an alien race could be so big, we can’t even comprehend it as a lifeform. Either way, it was very cool to see Jake wake up and find himself in a body that doesn’t just look different, but seems out of scale with the world around him. The Na’Vi are some of the most convincing alien creatures rendered via CGI yet.

But, the question is, are they convincing enough? In the best moments of the film, I got wrapped up in the story and didn’t worry that I was watching CG stuff, but I’m not sure that the CG was good enough to be timeless and enduring.

While the Na’Vi are pretty solid throughout, the environments are the real photorealistic spectacle. The planet feels fully realized and logical in a way that most constructed worlds don’t. And on a purely aesthetic level, I love the bioluminescent feel of the life on the planet.

But, what of the film in general? It’s clear from the start that this is very much a James Cameron film. Cameron is almost totally unique among major filmmakers in that he’s been able to develop a very specific set of thematic concerns and character archetypes within blockbuster big budget films, and has been consistently rewarded at the box office as well as critically for his work. Cameron is analogous to a Spielberg who never “grew out of” blockbusters, or a Lucas who continued to make new and different kinds of films.

This film has echoes of a lot of past Cameron films, and expands on the humanist warrior character types seen in Aliens and Terminator 2 in interesting ways. Both Aliens and Terminator 2 position strong mother types fighting to protect their children from an all encompassing, consuming inhuman threat. It was that disparity between the innocent spirit of the children they’re defending and the coldness of the threat that made it so emotionally affecting.

Here, Cameron flips the dynamic by making the Na’vi the most ‘human’ characters in the film, and stripping the human characters of virtually all sympathy. It creates a very binary morality, one that’s sharply critical of the military industrial complex and a populace that’s complicit in the sins of its leaders. It’s by no means a subtle critique of the Iraq war or American imperialism, but it’s effective precisely because it’s cased in such simple fairy tale terms. You could argue that the military characters are not at all subtle in their approach to the war, but was Bush nuanced in his fight to invade Iraq? Does Dick Cheney have a sympathetic side? Maybe, but it’s not in what you’d see on the job.

So, the film is essentially about a marine recognizing the failure of the military industrial complex and deciding to forsake it for a different approach to the world, to try and protect an unclaimed world from people out to exploit and destroy its paradisial environments. In that sense, it’s a very Malick film, connecting to elements from both The Thin Red Line and particularly The New World. You could argue that the entire film is Cameron’s riff on The New World, substituting the dreamy meanderings of that film for a variety of action feats, befitting Cameron’s own means of personal expression in his films. In a Cameron film, characters fight together as a means of showing their love, and it’s appropriate that Jake and Neytiri would find love as she shows him how to fight like a man.

Most Cameron females have a strange mix of mother and warrior attributes, and Neytiri is no exception. In educating Jake in the Na’vi ways, she is acting like a mother and teaching him how to walk in the world and be a man. But, there’s also the sexual component of their relationship, which is equally valid. In Cameron’s worldview, the role of nurturer and warrior are one and the same. To teach someone to fight is to teach them to live.

And yet, this film comes down decidedly against war. I suppose his idea here is that you need to be able to fight to maintain peace. Only by showing the warriors that you can beat them on their own terms can you succeed in gaining a lasting peace.

Where the film falters for me is the fact that a lot of the story beats within the tribe feel like things we’ve seen before. Cameron is great at making all the sequences pop and flow in dynamic ways, but the core story of the film contains few surprises, and is definitely something we’re all familiar with. While the world of the Na’vi is decidedly alien, the way they behave feels very typical of the way native people are depicted in films.

What I did find really interesting was the notion of the planet itself as a means of transferring information, the idea that our existence echoes in the Earth long after we’re gone. It’s not that far removed from Grant Morrison’s idea that because all life comes from the same source, it’s all connected and we’ve just forgotten that. If we could become connected in dynamic ways, we could potentially look back in time up the life tree to our ancestors, or transfer our consciousness through other life forms. And, in general I really like the religious feel the work had at times, it was a very spiritual film, and even though all those elements didn’t work, enough did to make an emotional impact.

The finale of the film was extremely effective. Thanks to the time spent within the society, the destruction of Hometree has a very real impact, and provides the emotional catalyst for our engagement in the final battle. People knock this film for drawing on classic story telling archetypes, but so many blockbusters today just pile action sequence on top of action sequence, it’s refreshing to have a buildup and impetus for emotional engagement with what’s happening.

And, the payoff was fantastic, on both a narrative and thematic level. It’s cool to see birds fighting helicopters, or to look at the giant blue guys throwing people around. Similarly, the final Jake/Neytiri vs. Quaritch fight was extremely satisfying. I also love small touches like the way that Trudy’s helicopter and face are painted with the tribal markings, giving her a Bat For Lashes look as she goes into battle.

But, the thing I loved most about the ending battle was the uncompromised nature of the fight. Rarely have I seen humans, particularly those clearly identified as analogues of Americans get killed as we cheer. Virtually every film about the Iraq war or 9/11 to date has been so neutered and apolitical that it becomes amoral. The Iraq war was a terrible violation of human rights, and this film treats it that way. It takes the remove of genre to allow someone to finally vent the rage about what our nation has become. People can say that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is a cartoon villain, but if that’s the case, why are people like him controlling the health care debate? Why are banks getting all the money they want with no regulation? The individuals may not be as obnoxious as he is, but as an analogue of the military industrial complex, he’s spot on.

It’s cathartic to see the adventuresome, greedy American military get its comeuppance, and I think there’s something very subversive about putting that message in a blockbuster film designed to target the widest audience. Kids will see this film, and the morality will help shape their perception of what’s right and wrong, and instill a spirit of defiance against the terrible things our government has done, and continues to do. This isn’t just a Bush/Cheney problem, it’s a problem that persists today as we prepare to send more troops to Afghanistan in the hopes that will make them love us and not want to attack us anymore.

This is one of the few socially responsible films that really addresses the issues of post 9/11 America. Some of the comments might have been a bit on the nose, but with issues like this, maybe it’s best to remind people that this isn’t just a movie, we’re doing this in reality. That the most expensive movie ever made is an attack on corporate largesse may be ironic, but it’s an example of what Cameron is able to do as an auteur.

It’s also interesting to consider the film in light of what Lucas did with Revenge of the Sith. Both films struggle with some basic competency issues and could have used another script pass, but I also like that they’re both Trojan Horse critiques of the Bush administration. Sith in particular is underappreciated as a film that attacked the grievous sins our government committed. With filmmakers so scared of making a film that’s ‘anti-military’ or ‘un-American,’ the sci-fi blockbuster has become a place to voice those feelings in a way that’s not as loaded as setting them in the present day.

So, ultimately one’s point of view on the film comes down to what you focus on. I could just as easily savage the film for its very real flaws and ignore what worked, or praise it unjustly for what did work. The truth of the film is somewhere in the middle, but in general I’m very positive about it. It was a great viewing experience, and though I don’t know that it’s totally cohesive or timeless, I was wowed and emotionally engaged throughout, and left with plenty to think about. That’s what a film should do.