Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

Continue reading “We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS”
TV, Writing

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.
Continue reading “Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN”

Star Trek: Discovery, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd. Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)”

Star Wars, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)

In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.

On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.

In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.

Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.
Continue reading “TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)”

TV, Writing

The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.
Continue reading “The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS”

TV, Writing

Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty

Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.

In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?
Continue reading “Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty”

TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20)

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – Review)”

2000 in Film

ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

Continue reading “ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘The Enemy Walks In’ (2×01 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The second season of Alias is, let me preface this right out of the gate, one the most impressive twenty-two episodes of television made on an American network. 

It is by degrees thrilling, dramatic, filled with stunning twists and turns, and is absolutely JJ Abrams spy-fi series at the top of its game. It is however, also, extremely knotty and complicated, and season premiere The Enemy Walks In immediately sets the tone of what’s to come. For one thing, the episode begins with a change to the stylistic choice entirely unique to Alias in the annals of television – the weekly series recap. By 2001, the ‘previously on…’ segment at the top of an episode, certainly a two-parter, had become a recognised trope but Alias might have been the first show to deliver one that prefaced the entire concept of the show every week so viewers didn’t become lost. Throughout Season One this was voiced by Jennifer Garner. Season Two switches it to Greg Grunberg.

This in itself is a curious decision. Could it be because Grunberg’s character, the somewhat hapless Eric Weiss, takes a bullet during The Enemy Walks In and spends half of the season recovering off screen? From that perspective, Weiss almost becomes the omnipresent narrator of the series, reminding audiences through to the game-changing mid-season episode Phase One—when the recap is finally ditched for good—of the complexities behind the CIA, SD-6, Syd’s mission and now both of her parents. There is also the strong possibility Abrams wanted to nod once again to some of the spy-fi inspirations from the 60’s and 70’s, with Weiss as a veritable Charlie from Charlie’s Angels or the voice on the tape recorder from Mission: Impossible, delivering exposition with a deeper masculine lilt.

Either way, The Enemy Walks In needs such a recap to remind audiences of not just the series premise, but what happened in the final three episodes of Season One, given the episode picks up directly after Almost Thirty Years while employing yet another favoured narrative trope of JJ Abrams – the flashback framing device.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘The Enemy Walks In’ (2×01 – Review)”