Showing posts with label TV. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV. Show all posts

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Frank O’Hara
in Richard Moore’s
USA Poetry (1966)
(the best TV series on poetry ever)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rae Armantrout
being interviewed
for PBS Newshour

Monday, January 23, 2012

It’s a man’s world: Austin (in bowler),Mondo, Jerell & Michael in the workroom

Project Runway: All Stars is interesting enough on the face of it.But it may be heading directly for a train wreck, insofar as reality TV shows go.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mondo Guerra & his model Eyen Chorm

It has taken me longer to decide what I think about Project Runway this summer & fall than it has in any of the show’s seven previous seasons. In part, that’s because the eighth season of Heidi Klum’s reality TV juggernaut doesn’t have the strongest set of designers in the world, nobody who is clearly going to become a Big Designer in the way Christian Siriano, winner of the fourth season, already has. But in larger part, this has been because this season of PR has been far less about the clothing & design & more about the dynamics of the people who make them. Three of the designers – Gretchen Jones, Michael Costello & Mondo Guerra (whose name, yes, translates into World War, tho he is the furthest from the image that projects perhaps of any of the 123 contestants who have at one time or another appeared on the show) – are interesting, complex, difficult characters. Between them, they have won seven of the first ten challenges & almost any other season it would be a no-brainer to conclude that these are the three who will be the finalists competing at Fashion Week. This year, tho, I’m not so sure.

For one thing, Fashion Week was quite a while ago and, as Project Runway has done in previous seasons, that meant that everyone who was then still a contestant got the opportunity to present at Lincoln Center (which has replaced the tents at Bryant Park): ten shows of ten looks each. Later, through the magic of video editing, it will appear quite different on television. I don’t believe they’ve ever had more than five designers present at Fashion Week in prior seasons, although even this has its risks, as when Austin Scarlett, who was not a true finalist one the first season, was widely perceived as having the best show in the tents. But in several previous seasons, it was pretty evident just who had brought in a show that was nowhere nearly as complete or envisioned as the true finalists.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Miles Mendenhall won Week 1,
imitating a 19th century “death portrait” of Nina Bustamante

Once Bravo lost Project Runway to Lifetime, the cable network that came closest to being a PBS for the 21st century had something of a crisis. In the Actor’s Studio & Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the two series that distinguished the network back in the days when it mostly ran the best movies on basic cable, were already fading memories. Top Chef suffered mightily from the fact that you could see, but not taste, the participant’s creations. And the series of Real Wives knock-offs seemed aimed at an entirely different audience altogether, one that could have just as easily gotten that sort of show from E! Now, two seasons after the last original Runway series on the network, Bravo has re-entered the arena for high-concept reality TV with Work of Art, a blatant Project Runway imitation with the notable difference that its contestants are trying to make it in the least equitable of all creative markets, the fine arts.

The premise of the show is identical to that of Runway. 14 contestants – two less than on PR – are given a series of challenges, with one person eliminated each week until the winner gets a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, plus $100,000. The contestants were obviously chosen for their diversity. Exactly half are women & four are “of color” and the levels of experience are just as broad. Vietnamese-born Trong Nguyen has been showing in New York & European settings for the better part of a decade, and is widely known as a curator as well. Nao Bustamante teaches at the Rensselaer Institute and has been on the art scene for over 25 years. Yet one of the other contestants is a fast food cook from Santa Maria, California, with some decent photography/Photoshop skills, but aimed perhaps more at becoming a commercial illustrator. Another fellow has been living in his truck, has never had a lesson and has never shown his art work to anyone. It shows. Still another is an outspoken Christian lady who appears to have walked over from Real Wives of Oklahoma City – yet her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago suggests that she may be one of the sleepers here.

On the first show, which aired on Wednesday and is already available for streaming on the Bravo web site, Bustamante & the fellow who had never shown his work to anyone ever were two of the three fighting against being instantly eliminated. Bustamante & the African-American woman who was sent hither basically were punished for presenting abstract work in a challenge that was to do a portrait of another artist. The winner was Miles Mendenhall, the youngest artist ever to win a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, who also has a pronounced case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Imagine Monk in the body of a teen idol – this guy is going to be a huge hit with the fans whether he wins or not.

If, that is, the show doesn’t sink from the weight of its own misconceptions. The executive producer here is no Heidi Klum. In fact, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie from the Sex & the City franchise, who makes a couple of cameos in show number one to gush at the artists, but isn’t visibly part of the judging. The mentor – the Tim Gunn role here – isn’t an older artist, but Simon de Pury, the auctioneer who started in Geneva & who appears to have bought & sold everything, including his own business. His French accent is a pale echo of Gunn’s clipped speech & pointed opinions. More importantly, he has little to really say about the works he sees in progress, since production is not his expertise, just distribution. The host, China Chow, is a collector known to be friends with a number of artists. The permanent judges consist of Chow and three curator/critics: Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who sits on the board at White Columns & the president’s council at DIA while running her Salon 94 in the art ghetto of the Upper East Side; Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York Magazine; and Bill Powers, co-owner of Half Gallery & editor at large for Purple Fashion magazine. And while neither Rohatyn nor Powers are troglodytes, nobody calls foul when two of the three works that come up for elimination include the only abstractions in the group.

All of which points to the hulking, Technicolor elephant in the room: THERE ARE NO ARTISTS HELPING THE CONTESTANTS OF THIS SHOW AT ALL. None. Nada. It’s all about the buyers. Just like Sex & the City. Imagine Project Runway if the judges consisted only of Nina Garcia, the Jerry Saltz of that posse, Melissa Rivers & Lindsay Lohan. Work of Art is not a show about making art, but rather of making collectibles, of manufacturing ready-to-sell pieces. What I’d give to see a Joseph Beuys in this crowd of contestants, especially with a hungry coyote and a good supply of rancid animal fat. I have never appreciated PR’s Michael Kors more than when watching the brazenly incompetent judging portion of Work of Art’s first show.

The result is instantly predictable. The winner of this show will be able to sell, but is unlikely to have any perceptible impact on any other artist, unless it’s repulsion, regardless of how well the work is made or how likeable the artist is as a person. This is a bizarre theory of how to find “the next great artist.” Not unlike letting Garrison Keillor or Caroline Kennedy edit your poetry anthologies on the grounds that they may once have read a book. And every bit as doomed to failure.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caprica City looks suspicuously like Vancouver on a bad hair day,
right down to the mountains in the background

While half of our household has been watching the new series of Caprica – which completed its first half-season last Friday – the other half, having abstained from six years of Battlestar Galactica, is finally starting to catch up, watching the first season of that series. So in the week since Caprica wound up, I had a chance to watch a couple of episodes of the earlier series at roughly the same point of development as the new prequel. The comparison convinced me that my son Jesse is basically right – thus far BSG is much better, even if it is being written by the same people. Over & over again throughout the first eight episodes, we are spoonfed voiceovers to remind us of where we are in an increasingly bewildering multilayer narrative. If you go back to BSG, there is almost none of that, even when certain characters are multiple instances of the same cylon template. The voiceovers for the most part are dramatic monologs & are quite different from the miniature flashbacks Amanda Graystone has of her long-dead brother who appears to have wandered in from The Sixth Sense to haunt her.

From a television producers perspective, the problem with BSG was that its story was so complex that if you missed an episode, you were pretty much never able to get back in synch with what was happening. That meant that the audience could really only dwindle over time. Now, normally, the knee-jerk response of the network suits is to demand stories that are episodic & contained with in a single hour, so you join in anywhere, viz. CSI, NCIS or countless other TV dramas. And when a show violates that code of modularity & gets yanked back into the fold (viz., West Wing or even the second season of Twin Peaks), it’s almost invariably a disaster. But the folks at SyFy (then Sci-Fi) did something different in letting it play out, seeing the show as having a natural arc & a termination point set more by narrative than ratings. The result was the best narrative TV I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even on HBO.

So what isn’t working & why with Caprica? It’s not a sudden loss of ambition. If anything, executive producer Ronald Moore has upped the wager markedly. The problem is that he & his writers have more story arcs going than Twin Peaks ever had, just eight weeks into the first season, and it’s obviously more than they know how to keep in the air at once. That old saying about Never catch a falling knife goes for master jugglers as well, and I fear that what might get cut ultimately is this ambitious, ambiguous experiment.

Consider, by way of contrast, BSG. Midway through their first season, the 50,000 survivors of the 12 nuked colonies had figured out that cylons had evolved, had made it for the most part off of Caprica & were even being prepared by the reconstituted government to start on a quest for the mythic planet Earth. The problem of identifying cylons that no longer looked like “toasters” was a serious issue & while we sense some divisions between certain cylons, we don’t spend a lot of time with them, nor on the other ships in the hastely thrown together fleet that has gathered around the museum-grade battlestar for safety. A show might focus on Admiral Adama, on viper pilot Starbuck & on Gaius Baltar’s relationship with the hallucinatory cylon Six, plus on Boomer’s relationship with the Chief (and a second Boomer’s relationship with another Galactica officer on Caprica). Plenty for a 42-minute episode.

That is about one quarter of what one gets into a comparable episode of Caprica. William Graystone, Faust by way of Bill Gates, is struggling to keep his corporation alive and deliver the military robot – he has coined the term cylon for cybernetic life form node – while dealing with the fact that his operating system was stolen from a Tauron corporation whose head is playing hardball to expose Graystone as ultimately responsible for two scientists slain in the theft. When she’s not seeing images of her dead brother, his psychiatrically fragile wife Amanda is in a deep depression triggered by the death of their daughter Zoe by a terrorist bombing (initiated, in fact, by Zoe’s boyfriend), while being courted by Clarice, the headmistress of Zoe’s school, who just happens to be the head of a cell of Soldiers of the One (STO), an off-world gang of monotheists, your basic Christian militia, out to carry out God’s Will. Meanwhile Zoe may be dead, but it hasn’t slowed her down all that much. Her avatar or apotheosis – the show has used both terms – was downloaded from a hacked version of something akin to SecondLife that was the source of Graystone’s fortune (he invented the holodeck band, basically virtual-reality glasses that every teenager on Caprica has to have) & by accident Zoe has gotten stuck, as it were, inside the prototype cylon robot, her life dependent on its hard drive. The only creatures that know this seem to be her dog (it barks at the cylon & wants to play fetch) and her best friend Lacey. (Her father suspects she's in there, but between a child and a profit, well, he knows where his loyalty lies.) She has convinced Lacey to help her complete the mission that she, Zoe & the train bomber Ben originally had set out on, to meet up with the STO on the planet Gemenon. Since stealing a one ton, eight-foot robot & getting it to another planet is not something your average high school girl is going to be able to do inconspicuously, she has had join a separate, rogue STO cell, run by Barnabus (think Dickens’ Fagin mixed with Charlie Manson, or perhaps Cinque of the Symbionese Liberation Army). Now I have not even mentioned Joseph Adams / Yusef Adama’s quest to find the avatar of his daughter, a teen likewise killed in the train explosion, [his surviving son (who will grow up to be the Edward James Olmos character in BSG, the only link thus far to the characters of the other series),] who has likewise been set loose in the hacked-realm of the V-world, where she has become the most dangerous lady in New Cap City, a game in which getting “killed” means your character cannot come back, but which doesn’t work on her since there is no original player with a holodeck sourcing her role. She is, in her words, a "ghost." Nor have I mentioned the ongoing thread of the FBI investigation into the bombing, the attempt by the Tauron corporation to make Graystone sell his Pyramid team, Adama’s brother Sam, a hit man in the Tauron variation of the mafia, but happily married to a guy named Larry.

That is all a bit much to fit into that same 42-minute time slot, but they’re trying, while also trying to keep folks oriented as best they can with all these cringy voiceovers. There are some unexplained details – such as how did Adama’s legal secretary know how to reach the dead daughter Tara in New Cap City – and potentially important figures who have already been killed off. In the last seconds of the eighth episode, one character is being driven in a limo that has been sabotaged with a large bomb, sees another character about to jump off a bridge & steps out of the car just in time to be away from it when it explodes while the escaping robot – it has fled to avoid hard drive wiped & reinstalled sans Zoe – crashes through a military barricade while one high school girl decides to save her self & her boyfriend by willingly killing her teacher. All of this happens in less than one minute. Just as the first foot of the jumper leaves the bridge we see the bomb go off. What happens next, Buck Rodgers?

The confluence of fortunate (or un-) coincidences at the end of the eighth episode were so overdone that Jesse & I were laughing our heads off as cars crashed & bombs exploded – not, I suspect, the intended effect. And not one that BSG gave rise to, even as some of its episodes are jaw dropping in their levels of allusion – there is an ongoing underlayer of topicality to BSG that Caprica thus far has only skimmed. Mostly, I think the creators of the new series, emboldened no doubt by reconceiving & rewriting the entire end of the series during the writers strike midway through the final season(Wasn’t that verboten?) are daring themselves to see just how much narrative trouble they can get themselves into in hopes that they can get it all to fit rubik-cubelike together later on. I did note two references in one of the early BSG episodes to elements of life on Caprica (“a pickup game of pyramid,” Adama describes his father as a “civil liberties lawyer”) which are spot on to the prequel seven years later. Maybe they can pull this off when the show returns in the fall. But for now, to deliberately mash up a metaphor, their narrative chutzpah is eating them alive.

You can watch all eight episodes of Caprica on Syfy Rewind.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Esai Morales & Eric Stolz in Caprica

Something one of my sons said the other night, after having watched Caprica’s two-hour pilot, and the first two episodes of its initial season over the course of ten days, caught my attention. “A lot of Caprica depends on a view of social networking you’d expect from old people.” To which he then added, “Not old like you, Dad. Old like the writers.” By which he meant 30ish & ready for walkers, not somebody my age who gets measured in geologic time. Tonight, when I asked him about it, he added “One of the great things about Battlestar Galactica was that it didn’t depend on the technology.” Caprica, which is a prequel to Galactica (hereafter BSG), does.

This reminded me, for maybe the third time in two-plus months, of the inherent risks in any TV or cinema project that hinges or is derived from another. I’d seen Nine, which turned Fellini’s 8½, into a British musical – and then forgot to mention Fellini altogether – and the American film Brothers, based on the Danish Brødre. I’d actually preferred the American version of that, for the brilliance of Tobey Maguire’s acting, and because the culture & code of the Marines made the premise of the film infinitely more believable.

Caprica, on the other hand, has the unenviable challenge of being the prequel – set 50 years in the past – to one of the most intense & well-written shows in television history. Far from abiding by the first law of narrative TV – that all story arcs need to be resolved by the end of a single episode – BSG spun an increasingly complicated tale that was almost guaranteed to lose anyone who hadn’t seen the series from its very beginning. BSG was a show whose audience could only get smaller over time, which is inevitably fatal.

The underlying premise was this. Humans have created a culture of drones, ranging from crude robots right out of Star Wars to a set of 12 Cylons who are more or less indistinguishable from humans, except when they show up in multiple copies. The Cylons resent their servitude and, being monotheistic (unlike the humans), have an unstoppable sense of right & wrong. Right, their belief systems tell them, is a universe rid of the “vermin” that is humanity. So they nuke the planets (a.k.a. colonies) where the humans live &, when a few escape via some old decomissioned space ships, the Cylons take off after them, attempting to finish the job. The humans in turn set out to find a planet whose existence may only be a myth, called Earth. Which, when they do find it, several seasons later, is itself an uninhabitable smouldering husk of post-nuclear devastation.

But there is much more than this, including – in the final episode – an assertion that this narrative recurs over & over in the universe, humans emerging from primitive cultures only to create automated slaves that in turn rise up to devastate their “advanced civilization.” Caprica offers a critical point in one of these alternate futures, focusing at least in these early episodes, on the creation of the Cylon – cybernetic life form node – itself. The Cylon has the same basic problem as the replicants in Bladerunner, Ahnold’s Terminator, Donna Haraway’s cyborg, Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even Pinocchio: the instant you endow a machine with the ability to think, to become self-regulating, self-motivating, self-actualizing, all the questions concerning life & the soul soon follow.

Caprica’s viewers will inevitably fall into two categories: a hard core who have seen BSG (or at least have some semblance of its plotline), and a presumably broader base of those who have not, who may be interested in the series because they like Eric Stolz as an actor or remember Alessandra Torresani from her days hosting the WB Kids Club, that defunct network’s attempt at Mouseketeers. Or who may just have been snagged by SyFy’s marketing. Or who maybe never got into BSG because they showed up late to that party & hope to see this series from the beginning so that they might make sense of it all. Good luck with that!

What a viewer of BSG knows that non-viewers don’t is not a lot really. We know that in 50 years, Caprica & the other planets in “the colonies” will be annihilated by an attack from the Cylons, we know a little about Cylon motivation & Cylon religion, & that “frak” is the most popular of cuss words. For season after season, we have watched the nuclear blast from the original Cylon attack in BSG’s opening credits from the vantage point of a living room that we now recognize as belonging to technology magnate William Graystone. And by the end of the pilot episode we have met the first of the characters who will later populate the narrative of BSG, a ten-year-old boy named Willie Adams whose mother & sister have been killed by a terrorist explosion on board a train. By the end of the pilot, Willie’s dad, a top corporate lawyer with gangster connections played by Esai Morales, will have reverted to his Tauron name, Adama. Ten-year-old Willie is going to become Admiral William Adama, the lead figure in BSG, portrayed by Edward James Olmos.

This is one of several narrative arcs that are ongoing at the same time, not all of which necessarily lead to BSG. For one thing, the story of young Willie’s transformation into the admiral is not easily predicated on his apprenticeship here to his father’s brother, Sam Adama, who is a serious henchman in the Tauron gang. Taurons, it seems, come from another planet (Tauron) and are treated as tattoed hoodlums by the waspier denizens of Caprica. Because they come from a planet without agriculture, they’re commonly refered to as dirt eaters. Even Willie’s father, the lawyer, who serves the gang as a messenger to the upper reaches of Caprican society & politics, struggles with discrimination. When one top pol tells Joseph Adama to take a hike, it’s Adama’s brother who turns up in the middle of the night to kill the politician in a fairly ritualistic fashion. When Willie pals around with Sam, we’re watching Goodfellas Goes to Outer Space.

A second arc focuses on William & Amanda Graystone. He’s a tech guru so closely patterned on Bill Gates that it’s almost comical (the house is modeled on the Gates’ mansion on Lake Redmond). Their daughter Zoe was killed on the train in the terrorist explosion while she was running away from home. Zoe, it turns out, was much smarter than her dad & had taken his career-making invention of a holodeck – virtual reality glasses – to enter a hacker-designed world known as the V Club. The V Club has every vice & perversion imaginable, including a stage devoted to the sacrifice of virgins, but it also has rooms away from the main floor’s group sex, fight & kill venues, one of which belongs to The Soldiers of the One (STO), a monotheistic secret society planning the overthrow of the decadent Caprican way of life. Zoe’s boyfriend, Ben Starke, wired himself up with an explosive vest & it was his act that sets the entire series’ narrative in order.

Zoe’s parents didn’t even know she had a boyfriend, let alone that she had been “frakking” him for a year (plus who knows who else in the group sex rooms), or that Zoe was part of this secret society. But what really stuns her father is discovering that his daughter has created an avatar of herself in the V Club, and that this avatar has continued on after Zoe’s death. He tries to download it into the body of a military robot he’s been struggling with, and is unsuccessful until the Tauron’s steal him some special tech. However the transfer fails & the system crashes, or so dad thinks.

In reality, the avatar Zoe (think slight teenage girl) is now trapped inside the 8-foot-tall, one ton ‘bot, which Graystone takes home to work on in his personal lab there. This puts her in the position of getting to watch her parents frak since they don’t know that there’s a ghost in the toaster, so to speak. The girl-in-the-robot, it is clear, will be one of Caprica’s main themes. One minute we see the ‘bot, which BSG vets will recognize as a Centurion (the simplest of the Cylons), the next minute we see Zoe.

On top of all this is another narrative involving one of the teacher’s at Zoe’s school, “Sister Clarice, and Zoe’s best bud, Lacey – played by Magda Apanowicz, the best actor in the whole show. Clarice was the organizer of the STO at the school, their handler, though she denies it & basically comes across as your typical school nun when being interrogated. In fact, “sisters” on Caprica have more personal lattitude than they do here on earth. Clarice is part of a group marriage, and sics one of her husbands to seduce Lacey. This is just one of the other alternate realities the show likes to present, another being that Sam Adama, gangster & ritual killer, happens also to be gay & in a committed relationship. (“How come you don’t have kids?” asks Willie, noting that lots of same sex couples do.) Consider, for example, how The Sopranos handled this same issue.

There’s more going on than just this (e.g., Joseph Adama, who has generally tried to stay arm’s length from his gangster connections, has just put a contract out on Amanda Graystone, to “even things up” between him & the tech magnate; plus the robot is trying to get Lacey to take it to the planet of Gemenon, where Zoe & Ben had been planning to escape before the explosion). But essentially you can take the underlying story arc of BSG & add layers of Goodfellas, Dallas & Buffy the Cylon into the mix. And that’s just the pilot & two episodes. What Caprica, using most of the same writers & producers as BSG, may lack in its hokey variant of Second Life, it certainly is making up for in ambition.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I have noted on occasion that, in the Middle East, one can watch poetry contests conducted in the fashion of an American Idol (or, in the UK, Pop Idol, Simon Cowell’s original show in this format). I have seen the show called both Million’s Poet & Prince of Poets & am not certain if in fact that is one show or two. But if one hunts around on YouTube for a bit, you can find some examples. Not knowing the language transforms it into a mode of sound poetry, but even in those terms one can get a sense of the verbal devices & tone of the poems. It’s a fascinating mode of music.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In episode 8, designers made new dresses
from the wedding gowns of recent divorcees.
This neo-punk creation by Gordana Gelhausen,
owner of the Goga boutiques in Charleston
& San Diego, won the challenge,
worn here by her divorcee.

In each of the five previous seasons of Project Runway, I have already known by episode nine which three designers should be in the “top three” and make it to Fashion Week in Bryant Park. In some instances, I’ve already known who I thought should win. I haven’t always been right – I’ve guessed wrong twice – but the most talented designers¹ haven’t always won either, and some of the most talented (e.g. Austin Scarlett in season one) haven’t even made it into the top three. The sixth season of PR, its first on Lifetime cable TV, has been a curious, not entirely satisfying affair. The reason isn’t the switch from Bravo or the move to Los Angeles (tho neither has helped), it’s just that the contestants this time don’t seem as strong as in previous seasons.

It’s not just personalities. We don’t have any infuriating badass contestants like Santino Rice or Wendy Pepper, but at the same time you can feel the lack of a brilliant designer a la Vosovic or Christian Soriano, who was crowned the pint-sized champion of season four after winning three of the individual weeks’ competitions. His all purpose adjective Fierce became nearly as much a byword of the show as Tim Gunn’s Make it work. And his ego could have humbled the likes of a Santino Rice.

And it’s not that there isn’t, or won’t be, a “top three,” that’s just grading on a curve. Rather, it’s that the top three this year won’t be nearly as strong as in previous seasons. If I had to guess today (and that’s why I’m writing this), I would project an all-female finals consisting of Althea Harper, Carol Hannah Whitfield & – most likely to win – Irina Shabayeva. If a man gets into the finals, it would have to be the wildly inconsistent Nicolas Putvinski.

In years past, PR has always shown a fourth (and in at least one case a fifth) collection at Bryant Park since they don’t want to telegraph ahead of time just who has been eliminated in the episode that airs after the event but before the PR showing of it. But this year the legal wrangling between Bravo & Lifetime over who owned which rights to Heidi Klum’s apotheosis of the reality contest form delayed the airing of this season by nearly a year. Did these designers conclude this thing last fall, last spring, or just in the most recent Fashion Week? I’m certain that the gap must be coming as quite a dislocating phenomenon in their lives right now given the degree to which to Project Runway propels the careers of its contestants.

Runway’s secret has always been that it’s the one true reality contest that focuses on the creativity of creative people, and that in fashion at least (as distinct, say, from shows like Top Chef), you can see the result without having to actually taste or wear it. While the show hasn’t been adverse to some reality TV clichés, such as the presence of a villain (Pepper, Rice, and season three winner Jeffrey Sebelia), it’s also generally discovered that it didn’t need them either.

Two or three things have been different this year, however. One is that the move to Los Angeles (to make life easier for executive producer as well as host Heidi Klum) has limited the presence of two of the judges, the ever dour Michael Kors & Nina Garcia. Their replacements have generally lacked the predictability (and the absolute skepticism) of Kors & Garcia. The second is that the show has, at least in the early weeks, almost consciously not eliminated the very worst designer. Mitchell Hall had to make the worst design three straight weeks to finally get the heave-ho, while first eliminated Ari Fish was simply a delightful eccentric not especially concerned with the demands of the market. She had a shot of being this season’s Jay McCarroll, the first season’s winner, equally disinterested in the marketing side of design & someone who never once won an individual week’s challenge before taking the entire shebang. When Ra’mone Lawrence Coleman was eliminated three weeks ago, the show lost its strongest male designer.

The last has been the addition of a follow-on 30-minute show, Models of the Runway, that focuses on the models paired with PR’s designers. As the winning designer stands to take $100,000 and several plums to jump start their career (none of which seem equal to the impact of being on Runway itself), the model paired with the winner goes away with $25,000 and a spread in Marie Clare. While it’s interesting to see the model’s insights into the designers, the show is a serious deflation from the headiness of Runway in that it’s not about creative people being creative and most of your stereotypes about models seem borne out here. Plus, if you have any complaints about the elimination of designers in the PR process, it’s nothing compared to the arbitrariness of what befalls the models. This season in some ways has been worse for them, since Runway has increased the number of times designers have to switch models just to add to the suspense for this new show. There is virtually no way for a model to determine which designer she is going to end up with, so that winning this contest amounts to little more than the luck of the draw. The model eliminated last week, Tara Egan, was actually paired with the week’s winning designer but got caught in a communications snafu between designers. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her career one bit.


¹ Daniel Vosovic, season two, or Mychael Knight, season three. Prior to the start of this season, PR had an “all star” contest composed of previous contestants that Vosovic easily won, which seemed one way of acknowledging his role as perhaps the finest designer to emerge from the entire five-season Bravo run.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

As my links list noted a week ago Monday, there were some sharply divided opinions as to the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica. I anticipate that what will follow may have spoilers galore, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, I’d advise you to stop reading here.

The reactions were divided even on Orchard Road. I really enjoyed the final episode, but my one son who’s watched the entire series with me (and sucked me into it in the first place) hollered “What the frak!” in exasperation.

Battlestar was a show that, as a rule, took no prisoners. Whereas virtually every other television series with an overarching narrative structure has been forced into episodic structures of self-contained plots that enabled the show to build its audience from scratch regardless of where in the overall story line one came in – something that had a disastrous effect on West Wing post Aaron SorkinBSG took the opposite route, choosing to come to a conclusion after four seasons, more or less. This permitted the show’s creators, led by Ronald Moore, to follow their original vision to its conclusion. Or at least a conclusion. And therein lies the tale.

Because shows with overarching narratives become increasingly difficult to newbies to follow, television discourages them. A series whose audience can only grow smaller is antithetical to the entire idea of television, even in its cable & web-augmented days. Yet this adherence to an encompassing vision was a large part of what made BSG unique. It enabled genuinely complex characters to develop & generated some of the best writing in television history. In one episode, the Chief, in charge of the maintenance of the Battlestar’s fleet of viper attack fighters, organizes a work action using the same words Mario Savio once used during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. In another, on the planet New Caprica, imprisoned by the invading army of Cylons – cyborgs to you civilians – and their human compradors, the resistance, led by Battlestar’s executive officer, Saul Tigh, set up a series of suicide bombings – right at the same moment when the U.S. military was responding to a wave of such in Iraq. One season ended with a handful of “humans” discovering that they had been Cylons all along – the switch that toggled them on to their android other selves being a version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which Dylan himself adapted from the Book of Isaiah. That song becomes a recurring theme – one might even say major plotline – in the show’s final episodes. The final words in the series’ last episode belong to Dylan, albeit sung by Jimi Hendrix.

If the project of bringing a major narrative that was, like all television series, open-ended to a close were not enough of a challenge as it is, BSG was bedeviled by its own inclination to throw a major plot turn roughly every ten to fifteen minutes in each show – miss one episode and you are at least four major developments behind. Plus, BSG was not virgin territory, even as a re-imagined telling of an already-existing TV series that ran for one season in 1978-79 & which was then picked again for another under the name Galactica. There were multiple movies pastiched together from footage of these shows and it became a cult phenomenon, a campy space opera opposed to the earnestness of Star Trek. At one point, there were multiple attempts ongoing, more or less at the same time, to resurrect the series. Richard Hatch, the original Lee Adama, who plays the ill-fated Tom Zarek in the present version, was behind one of these; the 1978 show’s original producer, Gary Larson, behind another. As recently as last month, Larson was said to be shopping around a motion picture based on the earlier version of the show. Hatch has also written several novels & comic books based on the original series, and has hosted Galacticon conventions.

When the Sci-Fi channel bypassed all of the earlier revival attempts in favor of Moore’s projected three-hour miniseries, it had a hot property around which there were a lot of competing allegiances, but no definitive master narrative. When people realized that it was a re-imaging altogether of the series and its premise, there were a lot of unhappy cultists shouting “Frak!” – the series’ all-purpose expletive. But when people saw it, something else happened altogether. Somehow the creators had stumbled across a diamond-field: Battlestar Galactica was not only the best sci-fi program ever on television, one could argue that it was the most well-conceived, written & acted series in U.S. tv history. Using the hokey old premise of robots-turn-on-man & the idea of a displaced civilization in search of a home, they’d produced the TV equivalent of King Lear. Or Moby Dick. The new version quickly picked up its own adherents. Some of whom are very unhappy at the light, ironic twists at the end, of which there are least 3 if not 13 in the final show.

But while there was a lot of howling about the show’s ending and its relationship to our own present, it may be worth noting that it dovetails with the opening narration of each episode of the 1978 version as intoned by British actor Patrick Macnee. Indeed, the ending scene of Gaius Baltar and Six strolling into the city throng strongly echoes the end of each episode of Macnee’s own signature series, The Avengers, in which John Steed and his female partner (in the US, principally Diana Rigg as Emma Peel) trade some witty repartee that wraps the plot. It would not shock me to discover that Baltar’s final line, “Silly, silly me,” was verbatim from an episode of The Avengers.

I wasn’t bothered by the curlicue ending(s), in part because – hey – this is television. And because I’d felt that the entire fourth season had been weighed down by the need to Reach A Conclusion. There was the arrival on earth, then once that smoldering orb was abandoned a multiple-episode mutiny that seemed mostly to buy time before the final jump (a verb with special connotations in the vocabulary of the show) to a new planet, also called Earth, where the space travelers abandon their technology and look forward to mating with the pre-verbal homo sapiens they see wandering their new home’s verdant fields. The Centurions -  your basic space toaster robot warrior – are given their freedom to wander off toward new galaxies while the dying hulk of the Battlestar is sent literally falling into the sun. 150,000 years later Gaius Baltar & Six are reading a magazine article on the busy streets of a major city and we realize that this was a series not about our future, but our past.

I’d often wished that Edward Said had looked instead not at Beginnings, but rather at how works of narrative conclude. More films & novels stumble at this very moment, regardless of how well conceived they may have been right up to the final page. It’s no wonder that Joyce tried to evade the question altogether, throwing one of his two major novels into the hands of a different character altogether (Yes!) for the end of Ulysses & coming back round all Ourobourous-like in Finnegans Wake, the last sentence flowing right into the first.

One serious alternative in recent television history to BSG’s decidedly ironic bow, of course, was the cut-to-black of The Sopranos. This had multiple advantages – it could be read as “more lifelike,” with any number of possible implicit endings – Tony gets whacked, Tony has a stroke, and of course the most important, Tony has a sequel. Two years later, though, so far no Tony & a quick check of James Gandolfini’s page at IMDB reveals nothing Soprano-like in pre-production.

One of the problems that viewers overinvested in the believability factor of the ending – or not – have to confront are the curious origins of this entire tale, parts of which may have been modeled after the Book of Mormon. Thus complaining suddenly about the presence of angels when Baltar has been seeing versions of Six visible only to himself for the entire series seems just a little, well, odd.

More than anything, this kerfuffle feels more like the tempest over the third Godfather film, another theatrical classic with decidedly pulpy origins. Frances Ford Coppola took a lot of grief in 1990 because the conclusion of that trilogy really was a different kind of film than the first pair of features – it was far more interested in surfaces, from the use of Cavalleria Rusticana to Sofia Coppola’s valley girl presentation as the ill-fated Mary Corleone. Rather than seeing the film on its own terms, many of the critics simply tore into it for the ways in which it was not Godfather I or II. I’ve always thought that the shift in G III was as brave – and very nearly as successful – as the decision to tell Michael Corleone’s backstory entirely in Italian in G II.

But closure is the hardest move to make in any major aesthetic project. One might fault Coppola for having been drawn back into the vortex of the Godfather just as one might fault Ronald Moore and his collaborators for never fully escaping that of the original Battlestar Galactica. For myself, I’m just thankful that I was able as a viewer to come along for the ride.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Joe Faris & his  collection at Fashion Week

In the double narrative that is Project Runway, Joe was eliminated last week and will not be going on to show his work as one of the final three clothing designers in the show’s competition at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. In reality, Fashion Week was two weeks ago and Joe has already shown his collection at Bryant Park, as have some other designers whom we will be asked to think of as “losers” and whose collections we won’t see on the air. The show’s producers do this, of course, so as not to give away just who has been eliminated in advance of the final broadcast. But it’s  a practice that has some risks. In the show’s first season, many of the attendees at Fashion Week liked the collection of Austin Scarlett best, tho he’d already been eliminated. Scarlett has subsequently gone on to become the most successful of former Runway participant and is currently the creative director of the Kenneth Pool bridal collection.

This season, the timing of the show was such that six – count ‘em, 6 – designers actually got to show. Whether they will pretend it was really just three on the air or give us more – they gave the audience three and a half, last year, with two contestants showing collections to get to the final three (in reality, five were at Bryant Park). At least this year, you can see the Bryant Park collections of all six on the show’s website.

Scarlett was eliminated in season one of the show so that the series’ “villain” – a stock role that has evolved in reality TV fare – Wendy Pepper, a much weaker designer, could be presented as having a shot at winning. Over its seasons, tho, Runway has shown that it doesn’t need the artificial drama of a villain to make the program fascinating. It’s the one reality show that presents genuinely creative people being creative, albeit with some curious constraints. But it hasn’t yet dropped the pretense of the Final 3.

This season, the show’s fifth, has been the hardest to anticipate – it’s the show’s last on Bravo before it relocates to Lifetime (and moves from New York to LA) next year. For one thing, this has been the weakest group of designers the show has had. None of the current contestants would have made the final three in more than one other season. For example, I was able to identify who the final three would be by week four last season, simply because there were some standout talents in that group. At one point this year, I thought that just maybe the final three would involve Kelli Martin, Terri Stevens and Korto Momolu, an all-gal finale. Kelli won the very first challenge, making a dress of items found in a supermarket, winning that challenge by staining her materials to create some tremendous textures, making a halter top of sorts out of coffee filters. Terri is a hip urban black whose designs always present attitude. Yet Kelli was an early elimination, guilty of having been uneven in her work on the wrong challenge. Terri flamed out in a “team challenge” – all the designers hate working collaboratively – when her “assistant,” a contestant who had already been eliminated, simply walked out on her.

It was only last week, when Joe’s design of a hideous suit for a woman heading out onto the job market got him tossed, that if finally dawned on me that the final three will be Korto Momolu – a Liberian-American woman who often brings in fabulous colors & textures into her work (and who has been at risk of elimination when her designs have gone over the top); Leanne Marshall, a Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandise grad from Portland whose styles tend to be sophisticated (too much so for TV, which favors the use of loud colors over the visual presentation of subtle detail) & Jerell Scott, a Houston native with an off-again / on-again Jamaican accent who, like Marshall, does things that look too subtle for TV, tho they look as if they would be fabulous in person. This means that the next two to be eliminated would be Kenley Collins, a young designer who is into everything retro, talented in her way but aesthetically a one-trick pony, and Steven “Suede” Baum, the oldest of the remaining designers, but also the sloppiest & least consistent. “Suede” has been on the brink of elimination so many times that it has to be effecting him emotionally. He talks of himself in the third person and is one of several designers who actively resists any coaching from mentor (and Liz Claiborne creative director) Tim Gunn.

If it’s been difficult to find contestants to root for on the basis of sheer talent, it’s been equally hard to do so in terms of who the contestants are also. Christian Soriano, last season’s wunderkind champion, may have been the most egotistical & obnoxious of that bunch, but he had the chops to back it up. Week after week he offered up breath-taking designs. Conversely, nobody’s been a true villain this year either. Joe Faris may have made a few homophobic jokes, but he’s also clueless in so many other ways. Blayne Walsh may have been obnoxious enough for several seasons, always adding the suffix –licious to every third noun – but any 23-year-old who’s never heard of Sgt. Pepper has been living in a cocoon. And the women all trash talk one another to a degree that I’ve not seen so widespread on previous seasons. There’s no solidarity here.

So who ought to win? Who do I want to win? I’ve been successful at identifying the winner twice in the previous four seasons, usually much earlier than this. This time I think it’s a crapshoot. No, that’s not really true. But if I say that I think this time it will be Leanne, it’s because I’ve already seen the final collections. That in itself undercuts the narrative of what’s on the air, tho frankly I appreciate Bravo putting the photos up on its website. But this rather lackluster group makes me hope that the move to LA can breathe some fresh air into the show, and that it will finally drop the pretense of the double narrative. If not, I fear it won’t be that long before the one decent reality show on TV itself gets auf’ed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

”Carrie” has the arms of a weightlifter in Sex and the City

My guess is that – just speculatin’ here – I’m not exactly whom writer/director Michael Patrick King had in mind when he created the movie version of Sex and the City. But when a key member of my wife’s girl gang ended up seeing the film with her husband – which led to interesting discussions (the word “traitor” was used) – I ended up taking Krishna to see the surprisingly long version of what feels for all the world like an episode of the HBO show stretched to fit a Holiday-special time slot. As such, it’s a diverting two-and-one-half hours, but not so diverting that it kept my mind from morphing into something akin to a film anthropologist. What really is going on here?

The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen even a few of the shows – the gang of four (Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, a freelance writer whose topics are sex & love, Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, the ultimate cougar [a women whose preference is for younger men] and a longtime marketing exec, Cynthia Nixon as lawyer Miranda Hobbes & Kristin Davis as Charlotte York, a bubbly airhead whose money is strictly inherited) are all roughly ten years older than we saw them last. Two are married – Charlotte & Miranda – while the other two are in what have become longtime committed relationships, Samantha to a hunky young TV star who is shockingly nice & considerate to the partner who also serves as his manager, having moved with him to LA, and Carrie to financier Mr. Big (Law & Order’s Chris Noth). Over the course of the next 150 minutes all four women will be tested – Charlotte will get pregnant, Samantha will wonder if monogamy is all that great, Miranda leaves her marriage after her husband admits cheating (“just once”), and Carrie & Big decide to get married, then split after he gets cold feet literally at the steps to the event after Carrie has let their “little” wedding spiral out of control – full spread in Vogue, the wedding itself at the New York Public Library, the “no name” dress transforming into a Vivienne Westwood gown.

Ostensibly this film is about the choices these women make & how they resolve their issues. Yet given that three of the women are having major relationship difficulties, it’s curious that the one woman in a happy marriage, Charlotte, is the character least on view here, her husband, played by Evan Handler (whom West Wing fans will recognize as the acerbic campaign consultant with the shaved head), has almost no dialogue outside of one hospital scene after Charlotte delivers. Both Cynthia’s marriage & Carrie’s wedding collapse after the husband makes a critical mistake & Samantha finds her goody-two-shoes telly star isn’t enough to keep her from longing after her neighbor, Dante, who is wont to have trysts with different women every day (the curtains are always open) and who likes to shower on his back porch. Particularly after her beau has to work late on Valentine’s Day while Cattrall lies waiting for him dressed in nothing but homemade sushi (“places where wasabi has no right to go”).

So the men give the women an excuse to opt out, which three of them do, and they’re all there for each other (save for a curious subplot regarding Miranda and Carrie’s betrothed), then two of them learn little lessons about forgiveness & all’s well that end’s well. There’s another little tale-within-the-tale involving a personal assistant to Carrie, portrayed by Jennifer Hudson, who does seem to handle these film cameos with great élan. But that’s basically it for two-and-a-half hours.

So what takes so much time? First, it seems to be harder to introduce characters whom 98 percent of the audience already knows than it would have been on their own – the first 30 minutes of this film are really awkward & slow, so that it’s all uphill from there. Second, the main narrative arc – Big & Carrie finding “the perfect apartment” (it’s a penthouse) gives them time to contemplate making over the shell of a unit (the object of desire here is a closet) & Carrie has to decide what to take & what to pitch after 20 years in her previous place, which occasions much trying on of vintage wear. Then the run up to the wedding takes a great deal of time as every little item suddenly gets bigger, from the dress (from a “no name” dress to high art couture), to the location (the aforementioned NYPL), to the guest list – 75 to over 200. Somewhere in there is a trip to Fashion Week – I’m not kidding – and we get to see one collection its entirety. Not to mention the Vogue shoot. Finally there is the item that drew the loudest and most awed gasps from the audience I saw the film with in Plymouth Meeting, PA, the closest thing in this film to pure porn the redesigned walk-in closet, larger than a lot of New York apartments.

This is a film all about surfaces & labels – indeed, it admits as much in the very first sentence of Carrie’s voiceover at the start of the film – “young women come to New York in search of the two Ls, labels & love.” And it’s intriguing, actually, that the quartet are all (save maybe for Charlotte) allowed to show their age. There are moments here when Carrie, Miranda & Samantha all look quite tired, even haggard & scenes in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s neck, her arms & her knees may well make her cringe, in spite of the fact that she obviously puts a lot of time in at the gym. In fact, each is much more interesting when they're not being beautiful and that may be the point (also why it’s the airhead who’s not included in this). There are several scenes later in the film that are nothing but shots of Carrie, her hair dyed a darker brown, looking pensive, like any woman in her forties contemplating the question of age in a society that is so heavily marketed to the young.

Which is why, I suspect, that only one of the couples thinks about therapy – Miranda & her philandering ex-. If you have to choose between psychology & shoes, the Sex and the City franchise will opt always for the latter, even as it knows, in the pit of its guilty stomach, that the former really is more important. In a film that is all about surfaces, it’s difficult to create a tale of insight. Perhaps this is why the decision of Miranda & Steve to meet midway on the Brooklyn Bridge if they’ve decided to put his affair & her rigid punishing ways behind them seems so terribly hokey. Not to mention Carrie & Big’s romantic reunion in the closet. Or why the decision of Samantha to move back to New York & return to her role as constant sexual predator isn’t commented on at all, even as they celebrate her 50th birthday.

It would be interesting actually – I mean this in a completely serious way – to revisit this quartet again in ten years & just maybe another time ten years after that, not unlike Michael Apted’s Up film series (the last episode of which was 49 Up after following the same real people since they were seven). At what moment, do you think, does life become about something more than shoes given who these people are? Will Samantha ever contract a serious STD? Or figure out that her lifestyle, the female equivalent of Joe Namath or Wilt Chamberlain, is itself terribly lonely? At what moment will 25-year-old men stop responding? Will Miranda ever get beyond being uptight? Perhaps as a judge? Will parenting turn Charlotte into an adult? The whole text of age would be interesting to explore with this set of characters, but it’s not clear to me that the makers – its primary writers have always been men, Darren Star on the TV series & King here – have the intellectual perspective to make it work.

Seeing Sex and the City the same weekend that Hillary Clinton finally withdrew from the presidential race gave this film’s overlaps with feminist subtexts a sharper edge than they might have had some other time. This is, after all, a franchise that shows women as successful and superficial all at once, a contradiction it never fully owns or explores, tho it does seem from time to time to be conscious of its presence. Clinton’s candidacy was sunk more by her vote on Iraq & poor planning – ignoring the caucus states will live in infamy as Mark Penn’s dumbest move – than it was by the continual misogyny of cable news & others (try to imagine a black stereotype piece of merchandise equivalent to the Hillary Clinton nutcracker!) but that misogyny was a constant irritant & has, I think, rubbed a lot of people quite raw over the past several months. I’m not convinced, frankly, that Sex and the City itself is free of such misogyny, even as it markets itself as the ultimate female guilty pleasure.

You’re always aware that the hierarchies here are in place. Not just as in label versus no-label, but even among the actresses. Parker never disrobes (to the degree that in the final love-in-a-closet climax, the two are lying on the shag rug fully clothed afterwards, their hair perfectly in place), while it is Nixon who has the hot sex scene with everything out there for the audience to see. It’s Cattrall under all those California rolls & we even catch a glimpse of a Kristin Davis nipple in a brief love scene. It all reinforces the hierarchies that are in place elsewhere not just in this movie, but in society with regards to women. There is a scene in which personal assistant Hudson is given a Louis Vutton purse by Carrie, so that she can return to St. Louis a success because she got a name purse! Is that what African American women want? Somehow I have my doubts.

Friday, May 23, 2008

If you aren’t already a passionate addict of the Sci-Fi series, Battlestar Galactica, now in the midst of its fourth – and final – season, I wouldn’t recommend that you start now, for reasons that will become evident shortly. If you are, however, you are being treated to some of the very best theater in the history of the medium. The drop-off in quality between Battlestar and, say, The Sopranos, is enough to give one a nose bleed.

Readers of this blog will know that I respond strongly to the quality of writing both in film and television. If, as I’ve argued before, the finest single hour in fiction television history is the “Two Cathedrals” episode of West Wing – the Mrs. Landingham’s funeral / National Cathedral / swearing at God in Latin / rain-drenched president being asked if he will run for a second term, having hidden his MS for much of the first (not to mention the flashbacks to Bartlett’s prep school days) season-ending episode that concludes with the late John Spencer’s words “Watch this” – every episode of Battlestar seems to be at least in that range. This puts it up there with some of the very best extended television ever – the first season, say, of Twin Peaks or the miniseries version of Angels in America.

I know I’m not alone in this impression. The gazillions of users of give Battlestar a rating of 9.1 on a scale of ten. While IMDB doesn’t rank TV shows, it’s worth noting that only two motion pictures in history rate that high – The Godfather and Shawshank Redemption – and none rank higher. The Sopranos does score higher overall, with a 9.5, and Band of Brothers ranks higher yet, at 9.6, in the mini-series category, which IMDB for some reason does track. Still, these are all rarified heights. Let’s just say that there’s a consensus as to the quality of Battlestar G.

This is not to confuse this series with its 1970s antecedent by the same name, which starred Lorne Greene in the role of Commander Adama, Richard Hatch¹ as Captain Apollo & Dirk Benedict as Lieutenant Starbuck. That series lasted just 21 episodes, tho it does score a respectable 7.1 rating from IMDB users. But it’s little more than a springboard from which the current series’ producers & writers took flight. In the current version, Starbuck is a woman (Katee Sackhoff in the most macho role on TV), Apollo is now Admiral Adama’s son. Edward James Olmos, long a terrific character actor (viz. Bladerunner) who heretofore has gotten leading roles primarily when the character was supposed to be Hispanic, plays Adama, Mary McDonnell is the other big name star (she was nominated for Oscars for Dances with Wolves and Passion Fish), playing a Secretary of Education who is the lone surviving member of the political administration on the planet Caprica when it is nuked out of existence by rebel androids called Cylons. With roughly 40,000 survivors – whoever was off-world on a space ship at the moment of attack – the humans anoint her president and decide to make a run for the mythical planet of their ancestors, earth.

That’s as much of the plot as I can give for the simple reason that the show has roughly one major plot twist every fifteen minutes. Over four seasons, that’s a lot. But even over one show, that’s extraordinary. Miss an episode and you’re hopelessly confused one week later. Why are we in an alliance with Cylons? Why is the president working with the traitorous Gaius Baltar? Why is the president talking to The Hybrid?

The secret of Battlestar Galactica, however, is neither its acting – tho it’s been first-rate throughout, nor its direction (like The Sopranos, there have been a lot of directors, even including Olmos) – but the writing of Ronald Moore, a Cornell poli-sci grad who cut his teeth as a television writer/producer on Star-Trek: The Next Generation & Deep Space Nine, and who is the chief writer here. Like West Wing when Aaron Sorkin was writing all of its shows, Galactica works because of the incredible density of its plotting & the sharpness of its dialog, with a coherence that is possible only when one person is responsible for guiding the vision. Thus, as I’ve noted here before, one episode found Chief, the head mechanic for Galactica’s fleet of one-person attack vessels (Vipers), organizing a work stoppage over issues of justice & put the exact words of Mario Savio’s famous “shoulder against the wheel” speech right into the character’s mouth. Toward the end of last season, four of the 12 models of Cylons discovered for the first time that they were, in fact, androids living among the humans when they began to hear what sounded like music reverberating from ship’s electronics. The song that was audible only to them turned out to be “All Along the Watchtower.”

A lot of the very best television, anything with a serious or complex story arc (think West Wing, Twin Peaks or even Max Headroom back in the day), tends to run into the network suits after a season or two, demanding stories that are more self-contained. That’s what allows a series to build an audience, because viewers can come & go at will. But the really best TV does just the opposite – it starts with its maximum possible audience and gradually loses those who can’t keep up. Invariably the suits win. The network, after all, is their toy. Declining revenue is never their idea of a good time. But when forced to live with permanent modularity, these shows all sag & dissipate very quickly.

You could tell almost the exact moment with Sorkin abandoned West Wing – it ramped downward to an entropic close, even as it projected what could have been an exciting presidential race being won by a post-racial ethnic patterned after none other than the junior senator from Illinois. Or remember when David Lynch checked out of Twin Peaks – the second season was a sad shadow of the first and its final episode ended up being directed by the attorney who put together the financing for Elephant Man. In its most recent episode, Battlestar had a major plot element driven by a dream sequence that occurred a season ago. How many viewers can be expected to get that? How many members of the audience are going to catch the words of Mario Savio? Or consider the period on the planet New Caprica when Saul Tigh, Admiral Adama’s right-hand man, put together a group of suicide bombers, right at the moment when suicide bombings were daily occurrences in Baghdad? With those sorts of demands on the attention & allegiance on an audience, there is almost no direction for Battlestar’s audience to go but down. You can’t start in the middle and hope to make sense of anything. You just need to hie thee over to Blockbuster (or Netflix) and get what’s available on DVD, trusting that eventually you will get it all.

Which is why ending the series after the fourth season makes a lot of sense – tho there will be spin-offs, such as the prequel Caprica, due next season. The decision requires the show’s creators to finish this story arc before they lose any of their powers or their control. It will be fascinating watch them try to bring this rodeo to a grand finale. In the plot as it now stands, the Cylons have devolved into a civil war of their own. The humans on Galactica know seven of the twelve models of Cylon (all the rest are copies of these twelve). Viewers know four of the remaining five. And everybody is guessing about the fifth. Who will it be? (My vote all season has been the president – I still think it’s her.) Will the humans get to earth? Will Cylon & human be able to co-exist? What will become of the hybrid baby, Hera? What of the four Cylons living underground as human? Are they even on the same side as one another? The questions are rather endless.

As best I can tell, the series has 12 remaining episodes and is scheduled to end early in 2009. That means that there will be a hiatus, not necessarily a bad thing – the word on the street is that Moore & Co. reworked the entire fourth season during the writers’ strike. A hiatus now would just give them more opportunity to infuse even more subplots as this rollercoaster barrels toward its conclusion. This promises to be one hell of a ride.


¹ Hatch plays a minor role, that of Tom Zarek, in the current Battlestar, the only actor in both versions.