About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Candidates on TV

With both 24 and Friday Night Lights going off the air the past couple of years, two shows that were appointment viewing for me, I've been willing to cautiously explore finding replacements.

Glee never quite cut it, too inconsistent.

I've been trying Smash. The first three episodes were enh. The 4th episode the show seemed to have found its footing. The next two were OK, the 7th episode that aired this past Sunday was the best so far. I'm willing to keep going with it a bit, I'm a NYer and a theatregoer.

But the show I've taken to wholeheartedly after watching a few episodes tonight is The Good Wife.

I've heard a lot over the years about how good this is, and they are frequently filming at the courthouse across the street from my apartment (yes, New York City doubles for Chicago in The Good Wife).

And a few minutes in to an episode I still had on the DVR from the end of January, I was totally hooked.

What's not to like?

The writing is excellent. Sharp characters, sharp conflicts, ongoing character arcs but each episode also provides some resolution to a case. In essence, it's all the things that TV people like to say they're doing but which they rarely execute on or often say they want but don't actually do.

The cast is excellent. Smash might be about the New York theatre, but The Good Wife brings the best of NY theatre into your living room every week. One episode, there's David Pittu who was just playing in CQ/CX, the next week there's Josh Hamilton whom you've seen multiple times in the judge's robes, and then another week it's Bebe Neuwirth. If it's a delight, at least for someone like me who goes to the theatre and can appreciate the guest stars, the rest of the world gets to enjoy the regulars. They all seem just right. Christina Baranski and Josh Charles and Juliette Margulies and everyone else, and they all just work.

The best film and TV manage to tow the line of the exaggeratedly real, a little over the top and a little Hollywood and a little manipulative and a little of everything but without ever going completely over the top. Shows like Glee today or Ally McBeal a decade ago can cast a brief bright flame by actually going over the top in some different or fresh way, but they flame out. The gimmick can't be fresh forever, or they fall in love with the gimmick and go over the top, and over time you lose the connection with the audience. It seems horribly unlikely in one episode that the prosecutor would start to ask our lead character in a grand jury investigation about whether she was sleeping with the guy they're trying to indict, but then you can think about how Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about sex. It seems even less likely that the person being questioned would then walk out of the courtroom in the middle of the questioning and dear the prosecutor to have her arrested, and even less likely that the grand jury would start asking questions and rebel against the prosecutor. But the characters are strong enough that you suspend disbelief, you enter the world of the exaggeratedly real where you can recognize the implausibility but believe. No dancing babies, no teaching the world to sing.

The show keeps things fresh with some tonal variety. One episode was pretty serious, the main case is about the father of a college student who committed suicide suing a filmmaker who documented it. This is serious stuff, and it's handled reasonably seriously within the realm of the exaggeratedly real. The next episode is a laugh riot. Dylan Baker is hilarious as a corporate executive specializing in peccadilloes, caught up in a paternity and harassment case in the middle of a proxy fight. It's laugh out loud stuff.

So this show is as good as everyone's been saying it is. I doubt I have the hours in the day to catch up on previous seasons, but it is so tempting to go and buy season passes on iTunes.

I don't want to rush to judgment on Smash when the show is giving signs of finding its footing as it goes along, but it's also the case that you don't get a second chance at a first impression and Smash's has been inconsistent.

Writing: If you are doing a show that's about a Broadway musical, is it a great idea to have a major subplot about the co-composer's attempts to adopt a Chinese baby? Not in my book, it's too off-center, it's a subplot that could be thrown into pretty much any hourlong drama if you wanted to, it's not why I'd decide to sample this particular show. And then there's the live-in boyfriend of the Marilyn who works in the Mayor's office as the Press Secretary, and that's another character that just seems like something you could have everyplace. The Good Wife is gloriously incestuous, within minutes I'm picking up on all of these connections between the district attorney's office and the law firm and the good wife and her husband, and they're not afraid to just make everything about the lawyers and the politicians. Smash is a TV show about a Broadway show that constantly seems to look over its shoulder, fearing that the outside world is gaining on it because who really wants to watch a show that's just about Broadway. It's commercially logical and entirely mistaken. The show is about what it's about, if you don't think people want to watch what your shows about, then make a different show, don't bring in lots of extraneous elements in order to appeal to people who don't care about what you care about.

Casting: It's not bad, but it's just the slightest bit off. If you've just come off seeing Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, it's harder to buy into Megan Hilty's performance here. Katharine McPhee is good but generic, when she's put into the ensemble instead of being given the lead role, you don't automatically think it's a bad decision. There's nothing wrong with having personality, the faces of the people in The Good Wife radiate all kinds of personality, all of it the right kind for the role. Smash is just that little bit off, that fine line between that person in high school with some weird ambition that everyone respects because it's so true and real for that person, and the person with some weird ambition that everyone thinks is just weird.

As always, these things run into one another. The role of an assistant to the composers is underwritten. This character could be the audience's surrogate, by seeing what makes him tick we could find ourselves with an interest in the Broadway stage that we didn't know we had until this character started voicing it for us. The way Lloyd's desire to be Ari Gold on Entourage makes us envy Ari at the same time we despise him. In Smash, we get a lot about the adaptation, a little less about this potentially pivotal character, who ends up being defined by his weirdrobe.

I'm being a little too hard on Smash, there are a lot of smart people involved with it. There's this sense that they've slowly gotten more confident over seven episodes to be about the musical instead of the adoption. The original musical numbers are solid. But comparing and contrasting, it's hard to see this grow to be The Good Wife, to be better definitely, but not to be one of the best dramas on TV.

1 comment:

Joseph L. Selby said...

I have not watched, yet, but Jason Isaac's new show, "Awake" I thought had a really interesting premise. Cop dealing with the death of his wife or son. He's awake with his wife, grieving for the loss of their son, but when he goes to sleep, he wakes up to his son alive as they grieve for the loss of his wife.

Two realities, both as realistic and plausible as the other, with information bleeding over into each other as he's capable of remembering both. The first three episodes are on Hulu. I'm just trying to find the time to watch them.