TV, Writing

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

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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.
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TV, Writing

First Impressions and Here Be Monsters – LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some are already declaring Lovecraft Country as ‘this years Watchmen‘, but this feels hyperbolic to a degree. Watchmen was an immediate shock to the system. Lovecraft Country will, hopefully, slow build its way to a piece of cathartic theatre.
Based on a 2016 pulp novel by Matt Ruff, the show adapted by Misha Green begins with a statement of intent – here be monsters. This differs from the novel, which introduces us to our protagonist Atticus Freeman (played here by Jonathan Majors) as he ventures back home to Chicago after the disappearance of his father, Montrose. All this will follow in Green’s show, as the first episode Sundown is particularly slavish to Ruff’s first fifty pages or so, but the opening moment indulges by landing Atticus in the wildest of dreams involving Lovecraftian monsters, UFO’s, beautiful women from space and cosmic wars. Pure blood pulp science-fiction which front loads, thematically, what Lovecraft Country concerns – black legacy and heroism within a nation populated by the worst of monsters. The shoggoths and weird places inside H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction are just to whet the appetite. The meal itself stands to be far chewier.

The pedigree behind Lovecraft Country is, of course, pretty damn impressive, and speaks to the confluence of black and white voices who have united to bring Ruff’s vivid yet recognisable world to life. Green, as showrunner, was lauded for her previous work Underground, an apt title given it didn’t break out into the mainstream as Lovecraft Country stands a chance of doing. Jordan Peele, as an executive producer, lends his satirical, ironic horror perspective (indeed the next episode, if it stays close to the novel, could feel very Get Out). J. J. Abrams, super producer du jour, is likely the man who got this on its feet with the prestigious HBO, who are consistently looking for both their next Game of Thrones and now Watchmen, given that show is unlikely to get a second series (immediately – it’ll reappear eventually). HBO have certainly thrown enough money at Lovecraft Country to suggest they have lofty ambitions for it, and it could well be a series that has fallen at precisely the right time.
The difference is that Watchmen felt almost prophetic at the end of 2019 with hindsight, as focused on police brutality and corruption in racial terms as it was, whereas Lovecraft Country simply serves to externalise and metamorphose the hate coursing right now through America into literal, unknowable horror.
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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?
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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×08: ‘The Pointy End’ (TV Review)

One of the interesting aspects of You Win or You Die, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones.

The Pointy End redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×07: ‘You Win or You Die’ (TV Review)

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of Winter Is Coming, you could do worse than point to You Win or You Die. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, You Win or You Die can be seen as a clearer successor to The Wolf and the Lion than A Golden Crown was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season.

Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×05: ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ (TV Review)

Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. The Wolf and the Lion may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.

That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones which lead directly to his next book, A Clash of Kings, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.

At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones – (Series Overview + Reviews)

Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke the mould.

George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.

Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter A Song of Ice and Fire novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing A Song of Ice and Fire as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than The Lord of the Rings, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.

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