Friday, December 19, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the Jon Pertwee years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top five Pertwees. Just a few words up front: things that struck me after I'd completed my list. As I've noted elsewhere, I'm not the biggest champion of writer Robert Holmes; I admire him, but I don't revere him the way many Whovians do. (Two of his best-loved serials, "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Caves of Androzani," leave me cold.) So it was a pleasant surprise to see that I'd included three Holmes scripts in my Pertwee top five. I quite like his Third Doctor contributions -- particularly his last two -- and doing this series of posts has caused me to reevaluate Holmes's output. And here's my most interesting revelation. When I published my top 25 Classic Who serials last November, only one Pertwee made the list, for which I was lightly mocked by friends and colleagues. It was "Carnival of Monsters," at #14. I'd still include it, but I've come to love one other serial more, as you'll see below. As I look back at that top 25, I'd now place my (new) top Pertwee at #10 in my list of all-time favorite Classic Whos. "Carnival" would remain where it is, and my third-place Pertwee would probably fall around #20, perhaps between "War Games" and "Image of the Fendahl." So the most illuminating thing about this latest rewatch -- which was designed to view the Third Doctor era with fresh eyes, to better understand what my friends see in it -- is how much my estimation of the era has truly grown. That's been lovely. Anyway, on to my top five:

#5. The Time Warrior
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Alan Bromly
There's some hearty laughter that goes on a beat or two too long; the scene where Sarah Jane first enters the TARDIS is oddly filmed and edited; the nods to women's lib are tiresome and misguided; and the final part feels padded. Those flaws are noticeable, but prove minor. "Time Warrior" is a pseudo-historical romp that's devilishly designed and cunningly sustained, neatly establishing a world in which a Medieval plunderer and an alien warrior would become frenemies -- and playing out that odd-couple relationship against the new, burgeoning partnership between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Holmes had to lead off Doctor Who's eleventh season by introducing its eleventh new companion; he seizes on a novel approach that energizes the serial, letting her discover the show's time-traveling premise -- which had long since become second-nature to us -- without the Doctor present. Sarah Jane snoops around a police box and finds herself in the Middle Ages, and is left to her own devices: the character there to "ask the questions" has no one to offer the answers, so she's forced -- while her life hangs in the balance -- to fill both roles. ("Now, it's not a village pageant, it's too elaborate for that... A film set! No, no lights, no cameras.") It lets Holmes establish her quick wits and intelligence, and also allows him to gently comment -- as he so often would -- on the sweet absurdity of the show's conceit. Alan Bromly keeps the tone cheeky without letting it slip into camp; the period dialogue is priceless, and performed full-on by a strong cast headed by the commanding David Daker. And Pertwee and Sladen have instant chemistry. An irony of the Pertwee era: the companion he's most remembered with is Katy Manning, but the ones who inspired his most consistent performances were Caroline John and Lis Sladen. Pertwee was at his best when he was challenged, not coddled, and the conceptions of Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith -- two no-nonsense companions who match him beat for beat -- did wonders for him.

#4. Frontier in Space
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paul Bernard

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" (Hulke had already given her new assurance, in "The Sea Devils"; now he gives her an assertiveness that will serve her well in the serials to come.) Later, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape. Her monologue has to be winning enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a tour-de-force performance. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since their first joint appearance, as she shows how far she's come: now able to beat him (twice) at his own game -- and relishing it. Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

#3. Spearhead From Space
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era (it turns up next during Liz's chase scene in "The Ambassadors of Death"), but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

#2. Carnival of Monsters
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a lovely rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

#1. The Ambassadors of Death
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then fall off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- ambushes and shoot-outs and chases -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too wonderful for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the eponymous trio to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying but mesmerizing. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke; Hulke may have crafted the dialogue, but the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the early Third Doctor era can work: for how the three leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from companion to heroine -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do.


Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years; and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years (part 2)

The second chapter of my latest Doctor Who three-parter, beginning a countdown of my top ten Pertwee serials. (You can check out the first chapter, an overview of the Pertwee years, here.) As I noted in Part 1, my enthusiasm for the Third Doctor era is tempered by some very real reservations, so I suspect my top-10 list won't resemble anyone else's. (Spoiler: two of his most beloved serials -- "The Silurians" and "The Green Death" -- are nowhere to be found.) I gravitate towards the serials that aren't quite as emblematic of the Letts-Dicks approach, but that strive for a little more novelty, even if they're rougher around the edges. And I definitely respond most to the serials that are best directed. One of the first Who reviewers I read, Finn Clark, argued that strong directors were particularly needed during the Troughton years, as a way of differentiating the numerous base-under-siege stories. I see it differently. I think solid directors were needed much more in the Pertwee era. The similarity of settings -- particularly during the earlier, Earthbound years -- cried out for directors with singular style and creative vision. I find parts of the Pertwee era visually flat (the early '70s, after all, were not a particularly flattering time, design-wise); of the serials below (#10 through #6 on my list), I see that all are anchored by directors whose work bears evidence of a deeply personal aesthetic. For me, that often made the difference between a good Pertwee and a great one. Here goes:

#10. Invasion of the Dinosaurs
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paddy Russell
Oh, of course: if you're going to do a six-parter about dinosaurs, it would be nice if the dinosaurs weren't so dismal. But after the first puppet makes its appearance, you know what you're in for, so you make the mental adjustment. "Dinosaurs" is the oddball Hulke serial where you don't root for the meek to inherit the Earth; here, the peacemakers are the nutjobs. Hulke tries to hammer home that the quest to preserve the planet remains a noble one, and that only these particular antagonists are misguided -- but still, most of the famed Hulke moralizing is happily buried beneath layers of fruitcake. You almost sense that once Robert Sloman picked up Hulke's penchant for polemics, it liberated Hulke: he could be livelier and sloppier. But other forces drive "Dinosaurs" as well. Sarah Jane is still settling in, but Lis Sladen has already proven a force to be reckoned with. You see her mind going a mile a minute, and keeping Pertwee engaged; you can tell that he's adapting to her rhythms, not vice versa. (There's a scene early on where the Doctor, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane are seated at a table, strategizing, and each is using their particular insights to solve the puzzle; it's a dynamic we haven't seen since Liz Shaw left, and it's invigorating.) Legend has it that Pertwee was fighting back pain and boredom during Season 11, and so the story has been passed down that he's muted and off his game. On the contrary: Season 11 offers some of his most ingratiating performances. The new dynamics keep him from resorting to old habits. And one other thing challenges him in "Dinosaurs" -- in a good way: the maddeningly hands-on Paddy Russell. She was a director who loved to rehearse. (Sladen would say she wrung every ounce of spontaneity out of a scene.) But her serials never seem over-rehearsed. They seem confident. They seem full of details and ambiguities too often overlooked in Classic Who. Russell feels in command of every moment of "Dinosaurs": there's not a scene in which the intent is unclear, in which the execution is muddy. And Pertwee -- with a control-freak director and an able new acting partner -- seems renewed, forced to think on his feet. Even driving through the streets silently, his face seems fairly bursting with thought. It's a look that suits him.

#9. The Sea Devils
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Michael E. Briant
In one well-remembered scene, the Master sits in a prison cell watching children's programming -- and that's apt, because "The Sea Devils" is very much like a recruitment ad that you'd see on a Saturday morning kiddie show. Join the Navy: you'll get to ride in a submarine, and there'll be sword fights and boat races, and you can navigate a mine field, and blow things up -- and there'll still be plenty of time to practice your golf putting, to fight over finger sandwiches, and to indulge in the kind of hoary gags ("after you" "no, after you") that your parents learned from their parents. "Sea Devils" is not so much a follow-up to "The Silurians" as a topsy-turvy remake: glib where that one was glum, snappy where that one was slow. It's almost the early serial's undoing -- forget about "Silurians," it tells us: you know, the one that exposed human beings at their most paranoid, ruthless and unforgivable. Now even the Doctor will blow up alien reptiles without batting an eyelash. There are a lot of devilishly good performances -- not just the regulars, but also Edwin Richfield, June Murphy and Donald Sumpter. There's almost no forward motion, it's just a string of set-pieces, but forward motion was never Michael Briant's strong suit. Derek Martinus and David Maloney propelled you from one scene to the next; Briant, at his best, simply encourages you to bask. And every ten minutes or so, he reaches into the candy box and pulls out another goodie -- and no confection is as sweet as Katy Manning, finally elevated (after a season and a half) from assistant to colleague. Hulke imbues her with new assurance and astuteness; Manning seems exhilarated by the redefinition of her role, and her empowerment fuels the fun. "Sea Devils" has its oddities -- including the fact that the eponymous aliens are draped in foam-blue fish-net mumus -- but none of that detracts from the viewing pleasure. It's the most ebullient Pertwee serial.

#8. Inferno
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation on Earth is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the catastrophic impact the drilling could have on our own world. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade our chief scientist, upon his return, to stop the drilling, but that's not where Houghton goes. He doesn't go anywhere. By the time Episode 5 hits, and the parallel Earth starts to crumble, Houghton -- after a sensational start -- runs out of ideas, so he resorts to the cliches of the horror genre to see him through, as werewolf-like beasts burst through doors and break through windows -- all while characters shout, over the crude hum of machinery, unfortunate lines like "it's about time you learned that some problems just can't be solved by brute force and terror." Eventually, the Doctor returns home, but no one believes his predictions of doom, until the chief scientist himself is changed into a werewolf -- and then everyone goes, "Omigod, he's a werewolf: we must stop the drilling," as if that's a logical conclusion to draw. What sustains "Inferno" through the bad, late stretches are the three leads, all of them at their most winning. Caroline John is particularly good. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz Shaw we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two characters. She's masterful. Right up there with the dimwitted decision to axe Ian Marter after his first season of Who is Barry Letts's decision to can Caroline John after hers. Not to denigrate Katy Manning, who grows wonderful as Jo, but John hits the ground running and only grows more assured -- and she inspires Pertwee to heights he only sporadically hits again in the serials to come. Fittingly, Pertwee's first season ends not with the Doctor, not with the Brigadier, but with a close-up of Liz: a strong woman who made the Doctor even stronger. And then, in a feat of chauvinism that will come to haunt the era, she's gone.

#7. Death to the Daleks
written by Terry Nation
directed by Michael E. Briant
The closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" six years earlier. A lot of "Death" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era; it's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best the Pertwee era had to offer, and perhaps because -- by his own admission -- he disliked the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green (whose only other Who contribution was the sumptuous "Enlightenment"); Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (e.g., "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually arresting. And Carey Blyton upends all expectations of what Who should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition. And if that's not enough to engage you, "Death" comes with a secret weapon: Bellal. This native of the planet Exxilon, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: a triumph of conception and casting. Actor Arnold Yarrow manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. At a mere 5'3", he's nearly a foot shorter than Pertwee, and he proves a delightfully meek foil, showing Pertwee off at his most protective and endearing. "Death to the Daleks" is the quietest Third Doctor serial, and for an era steeped in squabbling, that's cause for celebration. (I discuss "Death to the Daleks" in detail here.)

#6. The Claws of Axos
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Ferguson
It's like Doctor Who on LSD: a trip you don't soon forget. There's a hallucinogenic aspect to all of Ferguson's Who serials: here he goes full throttle. "Axos" has long been dismissed as a walking-joke serial, and like most of Baker and Martin's efforts, it tosses around way more ideas than it knows what to do with. But it's visually arresting in a season that often looks flat and forgettable; the gaffes are easily forgiven, because the images stay with you, The interior of the ship is a psychedelic synthesis of textures and colors and shapes. (In its own way, it's as other-worldly as Hartnell's "Web Planet.") And "Axos" itself is full of memorable moments: the aliens materializing out of walls, then merging back into them; the Doctor and Jo escaping an exploding ship while golden faces block their path; Jo being hyper-aged, as the Doctor stares, horrified and helpless. "Axos" features one of Pertwee's best performances -- his reactions sharp, his timing impeccable, and his character deliciously ambiguous; it also has one of the era's best bureaucrats. The Pertwee years are strewn with self-serving businessmen and fatuous government officials -- after a while, it's hard to remember one from another -- and they constantly prompt Pertwee to go on the attack, a dynamic that quickly grows stale. But "Axos," to its credit, manages to eat its cake and have it too. It offers up a government official who's so loathsome that he provokes not merely testiness in the Third Doctor, but genuine rage (he lights a fire under Pertwee, rare for Season 8). And at the same time, the script takes the piss out of him by giving him a commanding officer who sees right through him. When the unctuous government official calls in his report, asking the head of the Ministry if they should scramble the call, and the Minister responds, "Just your report. I'm sure that will be scrambled enough," it's a welcome relief. Someone else can take care of cutting the bureaucrats down to size; Pertwee can just get on with the plot.

Next: continuing the countdown, #5 through #1.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years

When my husband and I started watching the classic era of Doctor Who in December of 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, we had no idea what to expect. We knew nothing of the show's history: which Doctors and companions were revered, and which reviled; which periods were most beloved, and which most belittled. All we knew was that we had binged on New Who Series 2 through 6 the previous year, and now looked forward to seeing the show in its earlier incarnation. We watched in fairly random order. I remember we started with "Genesis of the Daleks" and for some reason reached the Fifth Doctor last. Somewhere around the middle, we got to the Third Doctor, and the two stories of his my friend had recommended: his first two serials, "Spearhead From Space" and "The Silurians." "Spearhead" we found enjoyable, but "Silurians" felt endless, and although we'd been giving each other quizzical looks all the way through, it wasn't till it was done that we turned to each other and spoke, with essentially the same request: "Can we move on to another Doctor?" The Jon Pertwee era, or at least what promised to be a "Doctor stranded on Earth" set of stories, was not the Who we wanted to view. We had been weaned on Tennant and Smith, with big adventures through time and space; seeing the Doctor trapped in Earthbound settings wasn't what drew us to the series. It wasn't what fired our imaginations. And having already watched the Fourth, Second and First Doctors, Pertwee was our least favorite incarnation to date: we gravitated towards the less imposing Doctors -- and his air of withering authority and exasperated superiority wasn't much to our liking.

When I published my 25 favorite Classic Whos in November of 2013 (having by then seen all the serials all at least twice and some a dozen times), the comments I received were largely kind and gracious. My opinions were obviously my own, and (maybe) no one else's, but the Who community was big enough to permit all opinions. The only place I received much flak was in how little Pertwee I included: just one serial in my top 25. (One Twitter follower said it didn't make him respect my opinions any less, just doubt my sanity.) I've come to realize that although fan consensus will tell you that the Tom Baker era was the most beloved, it's the Pertwee era that has the most passionate defenders. It's an era -- unlike Tom Baker's, which divides neatly by producer: "the Hinchcliffe years," "the Williams years," etc., each with its own supporters and detractors -- with one team supervising it all: producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, whose consistency, confidence, and unwavering belief in "what works" and "what doesn't" inspires the most ardent fans. I have heard Whovians I respect say things like, "There's not one bad episode in the whole Pertwee era," and I personally can't say that about any season of Who, let alone a whole era. But the uniformity of intent is persuasive: if you buy into the premise, if you buy into Pertwee and the Third Doctor, and the Earthbound stories that gradually give way to more out-of-this-world adventures, there's nothing to deter you from your affection. There are no sudden shifts in style, no wild reinventions or wholesale reboots. There's one long, continuous flow.

But if you don't buy into the premise, if you don't find yourself cottoning to the Third Doctor, or the men behind the scenes, how do you make peace with Pertwee? An assignment for myself. Some of the Who fans and friends I cherish most are Pertwee devotees: where do we find some common ground? It's easier perhaps to see where we differ. Aside from my disinterest in largely Earthbound adventures (although I adore Nicholas Courtney, his warm, continued presence doesn't compensate for my thirst for other worlds and other times), my reservations stack up quickly. I find the overuse of CSO distracting. It doesn't seem to me as merely "evocative of the period": the sort of thing you simply have to overlook if you watch Classic Who. It seems arbitrary and mystifying, as when the outdoor scenes in "The Green Death" flip-flop from location shooting to CSO and back again. Other complaints: I don't like the frank moralizing that was a passion of Letts and his cohorts (I'd rather my Whos be subtly allegorical than overtly polemic), and I don't know which bothers me more: the chauvinism that permeates the era once Letts takes over fully in Season 8, or the flat-footed attempts to pay lip-service to the women's movement.

I miss the audacious directors of the Troughton era. For me, one of the sad ironies of the Pertwee era is that the director most responsible for establishing the "house style" -- the brilliant Doug Camfield, who directed "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldened the producers into mounting a reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, locked horns with the star, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. The three great regular directors of the series' first six years -- Camfield, David Maloney and Derek Martinus -- were mostly absent during the Pertwee era, helming just one serial apiece. And their replacements -- Lennie Mayne, Paul Bernard and Michael E. Briant -- were notably inferior, with Mayne and Bernard rarely able to offer anything in the way of visual distinctiveness or flair.

But my biggest problem with the era lies with Pertwee himself. I'm not a Pertwee detractor: far from it. I think he's quite talented; I simply find him less interesting in Doctor Who than in other roles. The decision for Pertwee to play the Third Doctor as "himself" is certainly a sound one; his dapper demeanor nicely balances the UNIT settings. But for me, it doesn't seem to unleash his imagination the way other vehicles do, from Will Any Gentlemen? to Carry On, Cowboy to Worzel Gummidge. I find Pertwee uneven throughout much of his run on Doctor Who. At his best, I'm taken with his warmth, his sincerity, and the way he physicalizes the Doctor's thirst for knowledge. At his worst, I see him settling into a distressing complacency. When I wrote my four-part essay on Peter Davison, I noted that he seemed to have "an endless bag of tricks at his disposal"; I feel that way about Troughton as well. Playing a role far removed from their own personality keeps them sharp and focused; you're aware of the wheels ever spinning, gracefully. On Who, I find Pertwee mostly gets fired up by outside forces: actors whose rhythms counter his own, story-lines that stretch his comfort zone. But he doesn't do as well on his own; because he doesn't have to "find" the role, he doesn't always look for the variations, the grace notes, the buttons. He hits his marks, but shortly after Season 8 starts, I can pinpoint where those marks are, and sometimes I get there ahead of him. Ironically, as Pertwee begins to dictate more of what he wants, and to make himself more dominant and more comfortable, he robs himself of what sparks him as an actor: the tension. Tension between actor and role. Tension between actor and co-stars. Tension between actor and script. The things that, from what I've seen (and heard, in his delightful, dextrous work in The Navy Lark), make Pertwee a more compelling actor. Pertwee needed challenges; by playing the Doctor so close to home ("this dashing Pied Piper image," as he put it), he denied himself those.

And as an aside, I'm never going to take to "The Silurians." I've watched three times now, to the same mounting sense of irritation. I understand what folks see in it, but for me, it's undermined by the familiar Malcolm Hulke tropes. The characters who are obstructive either due to attitude or agenda (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The moment someone rushes in, prepared to make a confession -- and therefore bring all the misunderstandings to an end -- and is cut off before they can do so (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The steady stream of captures and escapes. And in "Silurians," I never buy in to the intended moral ambiguity; the Doctor's umbrage at the end doesn't ring true to me, as the Silurians never seem how he describes them. Because the Silurian costume obscures their faces, they're forced to identify themselves by gesticulating wildly; the young Silurian is so animated, I have trouble taking him seriously. And once all the rational Silurians have been wiped out by the young rebels, the Doctor's peace-making arguments don't seem to hold water. They infect the citizens of Earth with a plague, but UNIT shouldn't retaliate? I find "The Silurians" terribly earnest, but crying out for variety, pacing and logic.

So what do I like about the Pertwee era? Quite a few things, as my latest rewatch reminded me.

I've stated my affection for Nicholas Courtney, but someone else inspires even greater delight: Caroline John. I love Liz Shaw. I love how quickly the actress settles in; I love how sharp her reactions are. I love Liz's smart retorts, and I love her sideways glances. I love how she assumes the role not of an assistant, but a colleague: one whose scientific prowess and insights the Doctor respects and relishes. The dynamic feels fresh, and a natural extension of all the strong female guest characters who distinguish the Troughton era. And John does wonders for Pertwee: she keeps him on his toes. (Pertwee, tellingly: "In my opinion, Caroline John didn't fit into Doctor Who. I couldn't really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn't want a know-it-all by his side, he wanted someone who was busy learning about the world." What he means, of course, is that Pertwee himself didn't want "a know-it-all by his side": the Second Doctor had no trouble traveling with Zoe, the astrophysicist. But it was precisely because of that tension that Pertwee's scenes with John are so absorbing, and that he goes limp for a while after she leaves. Even the shrewdest actors don't always know what showcases them best.)

What else? I adore the chemistry that develops between Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. Although I find Katy Manning does everything asked of her brilliantly, I don't care for the way Jo is written in her earliest serials; after the novelty of Liz Shaw, I find it distressing to return to an assistant who's there mostly to be a sounding-board, and her bouts of timidity really annoy me (e.g., her terror at stepping outside the TARDIS in "Colony in Space" -- you can't help but feel Liz Shaw would have leapt out of the police box -- or her haunted-house jitters in "Day of the Daleks"). There's a chauvinism in the conception of Jo Grant that's unmistakable, and because the Third Doctor spends much of Seasons 8 and 9 talking at Jo rather than to her, it doesn't do anything for Pertwee either: a certain smug self-satisfaction starts to set into the role once Jo comes on board. But as Jo is allowed to blossom, the dynamic becomes more appealing, and by Season 10, I find the Third Doctor and Jo Grant equally matched, and it's my favorite Manning season.

I find Roger Delgado consistently entertaining, even in serials that make me shudder (e.g., "Mind of Evil," which I think might boast his most commanding performance). I've seen comments that he's at his best early in his run, that he eventually becomes too broad and hammy, but I don't see it; to me, he's eminently watchable throughout. I have no complaints with John Levene's charming Sergeant Benton, and although Richard Franklin's character proves more elusive, when the writers settle on a formula (e.g., the aforementioned "Mind of Evil," where Captain Yates is quick-witted and resourceful), Franklin responds beautifully -- and he makes his final-season arc, in which Yates's youthful idealism proves his undoing, extremely touching. (It's a nice touch that, for all the era's macho posturing, one of its most lasting images is of Mike Yates's fragility in the final serial, as he attempts to jumpstart his own regeneration.) And I'm a huge Lis Sladen fan; the writers have her initially come on too strong -- she was, after all, their "answer" to complaints of chauvinism -- but she's never less than winning, and often wonderful.

I like the gravity of Season 7, and even though I am not a Barry Letts fan, and find most of the tonal shifts that he initiates in "Terror of the Autons" not to my liking (they impede my enjoyment of Seasons 8 and 9), I like the celebratory feel of Season 10 and the go-for-broke feel of Season 11. As for writers, I'm not fond of Robert Sloman or Baker & Martin, but the Pertwee era has my favorite set of Robert Holmes scripts, and I enjoy Malcolm Hulke when he lightens up: when he stifles his penchant for didacticism and just lets rip with a good yarn, or a warm scene, or a hoary gag. And oddly, I admire many of the things about the era that we learn -- in the DVD extras -- made its creators cringe. Over the years, "Claws of Axos" has become a Doctor Who punchline,"Death to the Daleks" dismissed as one of the nadirs of the series. I like them both. I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. My overall feeling about the Pertwee era is that, in trying to avoid the woeful lows that plagued the final Troughton season, they aimed for something more stable and grounded. But in avoiding the lows, they also trimmed the highs. You don't get a lot of out-and-out turkeys in the Pertwee era, but to my mind, you also don't get many blissful flights of fancy. It's a confident era, not -- by and large -- a daring one. And "daring" is one of my favorite things about Doctor Who.

But that said, there are ten serials I like very much, that -- for various reasons -- I take delight in rewatching. And I'll go into them, in detail, next.

Next up: counting down my top ten Pertwees, #10 to #6.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gilmore Girls season 7

We all turned on Gilmore Girls, didn't we? Creators Daniel and Amy Sherman Palladino departed at the end of Season 6, and despite their leaving the show in tatters (some have speculated they were determined to sabotage it before they went), we were suspicious that anyone could replace them. And we didn't give new showrunner David S. Rosenthal a chance. He told us he wasn't going for fast fixes: he was going to let the mess that ended Season 6 play out, and promised the characters would emerge better and stronger for their journey. And we didn't believe him -- in fact, we hated him before he ever got started.

I remember the impact Gilmore Girls had when it debuted in October of 2000. Within a few weeks, it seemed like mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and the denizens of Stars Hollow had captured the hearts of everyone I knew. Family members. Friends. Professional acquaintances. I was doing odd jobs a few weeks after the series premiere and met up with someone who programmed piano rolls for a living. I couldn't imagine that we'd have anything to talk about, but we got on the subject of television, and he said, "But the best show on TV right now is something called Gilmore Girls." And in retrospect, I think he was right: certainly, there was nothing else like it on the air, and the first half of the first season -- the assuredness with which the Palladinos forged a family and a community -- was dazzling.

The Palladinos were sensational storytellers, but they weren't infallible; even their best seasons suffered from the occasional curious choice or error in judgment. And when a season missed the mark, it really missed the mark. Their first bad season -- Season 4 -- didn't recover until two-thirds of the way through; their worst season -- Season 6, by far -- started ghastly and never recovered. During those troubling times, they would hold firm to terrible ideas that weren't working; they would defend them till season's end and argue that they needed those plotlines to get where they wanted to go. They needed Rory to accomplish almost nothing in Season 4 so that her feelings of isolation would lead her to sleep with (her married ex-boyfriend) Dean in the season closer -- but they didn't get that we, the viewer, had to sit through those event-free episodes. (Who can forget the debacle of Rory searching for a "study tree"?) As writers, they could justify their bad plots, provided they paid off, but could we forgive them as viewers? Apparently we could, because even when all of Season 6 turned into a shambles (the first half hijacked by Rory and Lorelai's endless estrangement, the second half by the most hackneyed plotting the show had ever witnessed: Lorelai's fiancé Luke suddenly finding himself the father of a teenage girl he never knew he had); even when the wildly out-of-character writing for both Luke and Lorelai (him: distant; her: spineless) led to an unconvincing season-end break-up; even when nothing in Season 6 ultimately paid off -- still we mourned the Palladinos' departure from the show, moaning "no one can replace them."

On a clearer day, I can reassess; to my surprise, I now find that Season 7 -- the David S. Rosenthal season -- is the one of the two I most enjoy rewatching. The first five episodes are solid if unspectacular; the next four are uniformly uneven. But the back thirteen are as good as the series got, and the best run of episodes since early in Season 1.

The Palladinos invented marvelous characters. Forward motion was not always their friend. Every year, Lorelai and her mother Emily would start to grow closer, then something increasingly pointless would happen to drive a wedge between the two and reset the relationship. Lorelai and Emily's inability to let go of the past made for a complex mother-daughter dynamic, but it also made for a static one. Rosenthal gets that these two women, with decades of baggage, are never going to let go of all the pain and mistrust, but that doesn't mean they can't move forward. In the first great episode of Season 7, the tenth, Emily, seeing her daughter sabotaging her new marriage, offers her advice; at first, it's as caustic as we'd expect from Emily ("Marriage is not about always being happy, and often it's about not being happy at all. It's about compromise, which is not your strong suit. Marriage is not about winning an argument, which may make you sad, because that's what you love."), but curtness quickly yields to caring ("But I don't want to see you ruin this. Marriage is serious business, Lorelai, and if you don't take this very seriously, then this whole thing could fall apart faster than you could possibly imagine. And he'll be gone, and you'll be alone again. A ring is no guarantee.") -- and Lorelai finds herself strangely calmed by her mother's concern. That's the beginning of a wonderful late-series arc for Lorelai and Emily. Five episodes later, with Lorelai's marriage at an end, she and Emily -- over a computer lesson and a few drinks -- share their most tender exchange in the show's seven-year history; seven episodes after that, Lorelai has grown so comfortable with her mother's presence in her life that she offers to continue weekly dinners with her parents (that tradition she'd been dreading and lamenting for years) even though Rory -- who's always been the impetus for the dinners -- is going off on her own. The evolution of Lorelai and Emily's relationship is one of the marvels of Season 7.

Similarly, Rosenthal reinvents Rory's high-school foil and sometimes-nemesis Paris; as original conceived by the Palladinos, she'd pretty much outlived her usefulness -- her histrionics had grown tiresome and repetitive. Rosenthal drops the arbitrary battles that the Palladinos put Rory and Paris through every year -- he knew he could let them develop as friends and still mine the humor and the friction. Midway through the season, Paris unexpectedly defends Rory to a classmate who's been freezing her out ("In case you don't know it, Rory is a great person, and she does not deserve to be treated this way. Anyone should feel lucky to call her a friend; I know I do"), and from that point, the two forge a bond that had never been explored. By graduation day, when Paris gives Rory an emotional hug and predicts, "You're going to do great things, Rory Gilmore" (and Rory, for her part, promises, "We're going to be friends for a long time"), we suddenly understand why Rory has put up with Paris since high school -- why she chose to room with her in college, which always seemed motivated more by plot than by character. Paris is the kind of driven person you want in your life; she expects as much of you as she demands of herself, and that's not such a bad thing.

Rosenthal gets so much right, it's alarming to look back and see how mistrustful we were in 2006. But we wanted Luke and Lorelai back together, and we didn't know where Rosenthal stood. So when he paired Lorelai with Rory's father Christopher instead (marginalizing Luke into stories with his new daughter April), then went so far as to marry off Lorelai and Christopher, we figured that was his endgame -- and loathed him for it. But that was Lorelai's endgame, not Rosenthal's -- how embarrassing that, despite a lifetime of TV viewing, we couldn't distinguish the character's motives from the writer's? Christopher, as Robert Bianco once noted in USA Today, was always Lorelai's Ashley Wilkes -- that romantic fantasy that she couldn't quite get past. Rosenthal realized that Lorelai couldn't move forward with Luke until she got Christopher out of her system: until she committed to him and it failed. And so he fast-tracked that relationship, and dummies that we were, we couldn't see that failure was the endgame. (Rosenthal's biggest mistake that season: overestimating his audience. Lorelai and Christopher elope in Paris: we hear "Paris" and presume it's supposed to be romantic. But Lauren Graham is careful not to play it as romance: she seems grateful for the proposal, relieved, uncertain, anxious to let go of the past, and occasionally like a deer caught in headlights -- anything but romantic. But still I know some bloggers who despise the season precisely because of how they continue to misread that episode.) As for Luke, Rosenthal realized that he had some life-lessons of his own to learn, and what better way to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood than to take on the raising of a child? He transformed April from a lamentable plot-device into an endearing teenager who could teach her father about sharing, commitment, taking risks, moving forward.

If the first nine episodes are scrappy and a little ham-fisted: well, the Palladinos had left debris in their wake. It takes Rosenthal nine episodes just to clean up the mess, then you see his vision for the season come to life, in a remarkably assured and satisfying pre-Christmas episode called "Merry Fisticuffs." It's the first episode to make it clear that Lorelai and Christopher's marriage won't last, so at that point we relax, and it's a good thing, too, because from there, every episode is a winner: in fact, a lot of them pay homage to episodes from earlier seasons, and reinvent them -- or top them. In Season 1, Lorelai's father Richard suffered a bout of angina, which prompted an underwhelming standalone episode; in Season 7, he undergoes heart surgery, and it's momentous: it's the catalyst that drives Lorelai and Christopher apart and, as Richard recuperates over a half-dozen episodes, draws Lorelai and Emily together. Late in Season 3, Rory's mailbox was flooded with college acceptance letters, but Paris's dreams of attending Harvard were dashed; four years later, on the eve of college graduation, Rosenthal flips the script -- he lets Rory pin all her hopes on one prospect, an internship at The New York Times, then pulls the rug out from under her -- and it's heartrending. (And Rory's meltdown, which lasts a weekend, seems reasonable, as opposed to her downward spiral in Seasons 5 and 6 that dragged on for six endless months.) Meanwhile, Emily's brief meeting in Season 2 with Mia, the woman who took in Lorelai when she was pregnant with Rory, becomes a whole (wonderful) road trip for Mia's wedding ("Gilmore Girls Only"), during which Lorelai finally understands the impact her running off at age 16 had on her mother -- it allows Lorelai and Emily to bond over the effect Rory's graduation will have on them both. The final thirteen episodes of Season 7 are mostly written by Rosenthal, co-executive producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner, co-producer Jennie Snyder and consulting producer David Babcock; they write these characters like they'd been writing them forever.

Need a reminder of how solid Sookie and Jackson's relationship is? You get it in "It's Just Like Riding a Bike." Need a reminder of how sweet and supportive Lane and Zack's relationship has become? You get it in "Lorelai? Lorelai?" (The latter episode also contains probably the show's single most memorable scene: Lorelai's tipsy karaoke valentine to Luke.) Rosenthal makes you care again for characters who'd been making you cringe for years (Taylor, Luke's sister Liz, her husband T.J.). He gives them purpose. The ones who are irredeemable -- like Colin and Finn -- he simply omits (thank God), but he pretty much finds the value in everyone else.

With one key exception. The Palladinos had introduced Rory's boyfriend Logan back in Season 5, but they'd never really defined him. Was he a heartthrob or a heart-breaker? A snake or a charmer? He wasn't multi-dimensional; he was convenient -- episode by episode, he behaved however the Palladinos needed him to for the purposes of the plot. Rosenthal has the final word on Logan Huntzberger, and it's not a kind one -- but it is consistent with everything we'd seen. Every time Logan screwed Rory over, he'd sweep her off her feet with his wealth and privileged background and make it right. Rory begs him to stop with the grand gestures in "Gilmore Girls Only," but still he comes back, just four episodes later, with the ultimate in grand gestures: at her graduation party, in front of friends and family, that's when he chooses to propose -- with a horse and carriage, no less, waiting outside. Logan comes from a world of entitlement; he expects to get his way. When Rory turns down his proposal, he bolts -- that's pure Logan, and that's the last we see of him. Matt Czuchry is such a handsome and charismatic actor, of course you want to like the character -- you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Logan fans cried foul at seeing their favorite written off in such a cavalier fashion -- they scoured through three years' worth of episodes for all the signs that Logan had matured, changed, become a person worthy of Rory -- but Rosenthal knew that the Huntzbergers of the world don't change. He was never going to be Rory's knight in shining armor -- and besides, why did Rory need one?

There are so many highlights in the last thirteen episodes of Season 7 that I haven't even listed some of my favorites. There's the long master shot of Lorelai and Sookie trekking through Stars Hollow in "To Whom It May Concern," when Sookie discovers she's pregnant and, through the course of the walk, her anger and terror turn to giddy anticipation. There's Stars Hollow's magical "Hay Bale Maze," during which, surrounded by hundreds of revelers, Luke and Lorelai make their overdue apologies to each other. (As an aside, I've seen some odd readings of "Hay Bale Maze" that propose the maze represents some season-long confusion on Lorelai's part. For me, what "Hay Bale Maze" is "about" -- what it understands -- is that the most private confessions often happen in the most public places.) And there's every moment of that glorious finale, "Bon Voyage," in which Rosenthal ties up his story-lines delicately, yet leaves open dozens of wonderful possibilities. It's not one of those "everyone-gets-a-happy-ending" finales that started flooding the airwaves in the early '80s and continues gratingly to this day. It's just another sublimely understated chapter in the lives of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and I don't see how it could be better. I don't see how much of Season 7 could be better, but still the myth persists that the season's a bummer. Of all the online posts I've seen, only the passionate, insightful John Bierly seems to understand and defend the Rosenthal master plan.

There was some talk in the media a while back about a potential Gilmore Girls movie, and I saw several fans cheering, "Yes, yes, at last we'll get the final season done right." The final season was done right -- but even the press can't seem to accept that. They're still dangling before us four little words Amy Sherman-Palladino intended to end the series with. If a movie happens, I'll be the first one cheering it on, but if not, I'm OK never knowing Amy's Four Little Words. The series ended, and it ended perfectly. Let's move on; Rosenthal, happily, did so. Following his year as showrunner on Gilmore Girls, a year in which he was roundly roasted by critics and viewers alike, Rosenthal wound up as producer-writer on The Middle, one of TV's best sitcoms, and he's now ensconced on the Golden Globe-nominated Jane the Virgin. There is some justice in the world of entertainment after all.


December 2016 update: Well, we didn't get a Gilmore Girls movie, but we did get a Netflix miniseries. I wrote it up at length -- in an essay that's part pop culture, part politics -- here. And if you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, delve into WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, take a look back at Bewitched Season 2, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Tudors & The Culpepper Conundrum

I finally had a chance to binge-watch The Tudors. I remember seeing the first episode on Showtime back in 2007, but nothing about it compelled me to tune in the following week. If only someone had told me that Michael Hirst was, by his own admission, writing a soap opera and not a historical narrative, I probably would have pushed past the ponderous pilot. (Oh, Lord: "pushed past the ponderous pilot." I've watched so much Newhart, I'm starting to talk in alliteration, like Michael Harris -- although I suppose he would have "pushed past the pale pageantry of the ponderous pilot.") As soaps go, The Tudors isn't a bad one: it's almost always watchable even when it isn't very good. That said, I was never convinced that Hirst was writing the show he thought he was writing; in the interviews I've read, he describes characters much more rounded than the ones we see on the screen. At one point, after Henry VIII has rejected papal supremacy and initiated the English Reformation simply so he can marry Anne Boleyn, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell describes him as, in fact, "a true Catholic, except this one thing: he would have neither Pope, nor Luther, nor any other man set above him" -- and although that's the character's observation, it's pretty much how we see Henry as well: as a man of no real convictions, a narcissist who'll rewrite, ignore or subvert any laws of church or state to meet his needs. As for Anne Boleyn, Hirst was apparently struck when critics called her a "manipulative bitch," because he intended something more fully realized, but it's hard to see how, since from the moment she appears on the scene, pimped out by her bastard of a father, she has her eyes firmly set on the crown. (Hirst gives her a few sympathetic scenes right before she gets axed, but that's Soap Writing 101, and we see right through it -- it humanizes her, but it certainly doesn't "redeem" her.)

Probably because Henry and Anne come off like blustering supervillains -- the Megalomaniac and the Minx -- our sympathies fall to the more devout and restrained characters: Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine of Aragon and Jeremy Northam's Sir Thomas More. They're written like saints (as opposed to the clergy, who are written like thugs), and at times, their faces are lit as if they're touched by God. In soap terms, they're the "good guys" and Henry and Anne are the "bad guys" (you spend most of Season 2 waiting for Anne to get her comeuppance -- it's like a good Booth Tarkington read, only longer -- and then you spend Season 3 waiting for Cromwell to get his). The first season is undermined by too much faux political intrigue, the second season by a surfeit of failed or imagined assassinations. Sometime around the middle of Season 2, both Jonathan Rhys Meyer (as Henry) and Natalie Dormer (as Anne), whose performances to that point have been beyond reproach, start to badly overact, and you sense they're as frustrated with the series' lack of forward motion as we are, and maybe a bit over all the shouting matches and bodice ripping. (Dormer seems relieved when she finally gets to her execution scene.)

And then something unexpected happens to The Tudors as it lurches into Season 3: it gets much better. For a magical four episodes, the story-telling becomes cogent. The Pilgrimage of Grace is admirably dramatized in both bold and short strokes (Gerard McSorley cuts a striking and sympathetic figure as Robert Aske; the Pilgrimage also gives Henry Cavill's Charles Brandon something to do, after two seasons of bed-hopping), and back at court, Jane Seymour (as portrayed by a warm and underrated Annabelle Wallis) seems to have a calming influence not only on Henry but on Hirst as well. (Rhys Meyer's performance at her deathbed is nothing short of magnificent.) For the first four episodes of Season 3, The Tudors attains an equilibrium rare for the series -- and then it all goes to pot. But for a while, The Tudors is rewarding entertainment. Watching it was a nice way to start the year.

Another British period soap returned to the air while I was binging The Tudors: Downton Abbey -- and after four episodes, I really don't know if I'll make it to the end of the season, let alone the end of the series. A lot of soaps suffer because as the characters grow, they get away from what made you love them in the first place; Julian Fellowes is writing the first soap I've ever seen where the characters don't evolve at all. Lord Grantham, Mary, Edith, Thomas, Carson, that ghastly kitchen quadrangle -- it's like they're all stuck in time, like characters in a bad sitcom. Violet is still sniping at Isobel, Thomas at Bates, Mary at Edith; every year, Fellowes resets the relationships to zero -- he seems terrified to let them develop. ("What will Downton Abbey become if the same characters can't keep hurling zingers at each other?" The answer: fresher.) And the few characters who have evolved -- like Tom Branson -- have been left worse off than when Fellowes found them. And that dialogue! This week, Mary got handed her first marriage proposal since her husband's death. I'd like to say that her suitor basically made the pitch "He's dead and I'm alive," but he didn't say something like that -- that's exactly what he said: "He's dead and I'm alive." There were a half-dozen moments like that on Downton this week -- lines when I didn't know whether to be more stunned that someone wrote them, or sorry that someone had to say them. Anna justified keeping her rape from her husband with this nugget: "Better a broken heart than a broken neck." Thomas told off Edna with "You're a manipulative little witch, and if your schemes have come to nothing, I'm delighted." That's the kind of line Jane Wyman would have skewered Ana-Alicia with on Falcon Crest.

And let's talk about Tom Branson for a moment, shall we? Whatever happened to that proud, opinionated, wickedly charming chauffeur? Does he really have to be reduced to a Mopey Minnie who sits around Downton Abbey feeling sorry for himself? If we're going to have suffer through years of this fish-out-of-water nonsense, couldn't he at least show the family a little of the old Tom: some fire in his belly, a hint of his old revolutionary streak, a trace of anger or self-righteousness or spirit that might actually impress them? Does a man with this much to offer really have to spend his time feeling he's not good enough for the gargoyles and Gorgons of Downton Abbey? Well, of course he does. Julian Fellowes is in love with the Granthams. He loves them so much he can't write for them anymore.

The self-pitying Tom doesn't play to any of Allen Leech's strengths; I was reminded watching him in his short stint on The Tudors -- where he comes roaring on the screen with a sexy swagger -- how charismatic he can be. I mean, his character on The Tudors makes no sense; he's introduced as Francis Dereham, an old acquaintance of Queen Catherine, and within moments, he's boasting to the court of their indiscretions, like he thinks they're all going to say "way to go, man," pat him on the back, and buy him a brewski. (They don't: they behead him.) But Leech has so much charm even playing a rotter (and a demented rotter at that) that you're happy to go along for the ride. Season 4 of The Tudors is full of characters who don't seem to have any reason for their actions, but they're so full of life -- like the characters in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette -- that while they're on the screen (not just Leech, but Tamzin Merchant's Catherine Howard and Torrance Coomb's Thomas Culpepper), you find yourself swept up in their kinky self-absorption. I think I'd choose any of them over the calcified clucks on Downton Abbey.

One last thought about The Tudors. You're aware all through the series that it's messing with history for the sake of drama, but you don't really care. Until Season 4. And that's when they try to tell us that Thomas Culpepper, the Queen's lover, was executed and his head put on public display, and that's when you just have to cry foul, because any real TV viewer knows that Thomas Culpepper died in Pusan, in shallow water. I mean, you can mess with history all you want, but don't try messing with Season 3 of Dawson's Creek:

Grams: You know, when I was just a few years older than you I was working at Brunswick Naval Hospital and I met a boy who had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. He was leaving for Pusan in the morning but we had an entire glorious day on the beach. And at the end of that day, he leaned in close to me and whispered, "Will you wait for me?"

Andie: So what did you do?

Grams: I froze. I knew if I leaned just two inches closer the world as I knew it would be changed forever.

Pacey: So you did nothing? You didn't kiss him, you didn't try to speak to him, you just did nothing?

Grams: Nothing.

Jack: Did you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you had kissed him?

Grams: That is just the point. I don't have to wonder. The very next day, I got my best friend Sally to cover the shift for me. And after seven turbulent hours in the cargo hold of a C130, I arrived in San Diego, went straight to the dock, and in front of the entire crew of the USS Missouri, I kissed him.

Jen: That's funny, I had no idea Gramps was in the Korean war.

Grams: He wasn't. Thomas Culpepper, the boy with the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen, died in Pusan, in shallow water, before he ever made it off the boat. (pauses) And two years later, I married your grandfather. So I’ve had 46 wonderful years with one man, and one perfect kiss with another, and I have no regrets. I wonder how many of you will be able to say that about your lives?

Now that I think about it, Grams' gentle recollection of her "one perfect kiss" with Thomas Culpepper in the Season 3 finale of Dawson's Creek is more affecting and effective than any of the stultifying speeches in the whole of The Tudors. Sometimes on a good soap, people don't need to raise their voices or bare their tits to get your attention.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

No Place Like Holmes: the year in review

FX reran my favorite Buffy episode the other morning, "No Place Like Home," and I had one of those "boy, remember when TV was good?" moments. And I suppose TV still is good, or I wouldn't be bothering with this blog, and perhaps as some say, it's better than ever, but man, there's so much about the current TV landscape that I don't understand.

the CBS implosion: The Good Wife, The Mentalist

2013 marks the year that I stopped watching The Good Wife -- just when it was garnering the most attention and acclaim. "Hitting the Fan" aired, and over the next few episodes, I found my interest waning and my frustration growing, and I bailed sometime during the first ten minutes of -- well, I'm not sure: was it "The Next Month," or the episode after it? At some point, I'm sure I'll start watching again, and I've saved the episodes I missed, but the fact that I don't even know where I left off is a mark of how much I soured on the series. And I'm hard-pressed to say why. I stuck with it when Alicia and Will's affair threatened to derail Season 3. I stuck with it when Kalinda's husband (or ex-husband?: I've worked hard to block it) did in fact derail the first half of Season 4. So why now, when it's by all accounts enjoying a creative resurgence, have I grown disenchanted? Maybe the constant barrage of dirty tricks and reversals of fortune wore me down. I found myself muttering "again?!" with every plot twist; it started to feel like the Kings were less interested in spinning a yarn than in setting traps for the viewer. As I watched Season 5, I could feel the show growing enamored of itself, indulging in a steady stream of "surprises" that seemed forced, predictable and occasionally juvenile -- I began to trust nothing, invest in nothing, because it was evident the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. I became nostalgic for the days when you were expected to commit to the narrative, not merely marvel at the sleights of hand.

Season to date, I've enjoyed The Mentalist more than The Good Wife -- where else will you see anyone assert that? But by focusing the first part of the season on wrapping up the Red John story-line, and by narrowing the list of suspects, the show successfully morphed from a whodunnit into a hunt. And although the ultimate reveal was a disappointment (not the identity of Red John -- I was fine with that -- but the Big Episode itself, which felt lackluster compared to what preceded it), it's continued to remake itself with its two-year time-leap, and it's more buoyant than it's been in ages. Shocking that CBS didn't decide to flip Hostages and The Mentalist once the former show stumbled so badly out of the gate, but who can explain anything CBS is doing this season?

(Alas, poor CBS. Down -- what? -- some 4 or 5 or 6% from last season, and without the Super Bowl to shore up its ratings this year, it's sure to tumble even further. Who could have predicted Hostages would tank the way it did? I mean, I tuned out after episode three, because it was preposterous, but isn't it odd that no one tuned it to start? That no one wanted to sample Mom despite all the pre-season buzz? That Elementary would tumble so badly in Season 2? That Person of Interest would shed so many viewers moving from a 9 PM to a 10 PM slot? I mean, some of CBS's woes were predictable. Whoever thought 2 Broke Girls strong enough to be a 9 PM tentpole, especially with Michael Patrick King obviously resistant to the supporting-cast overhaul it so desperately needs? Whoever thought placing the filmed Crazy Ones between the multi-cam Millers and Two and a Half Men made for a good flow? But CBS has had a lousy season across the board: from first place last season to -- what can we hope for? -- third place this season?)

drama round-up: Breaking Bad, The Killing, Elementary

But let's get back to the shows themselves, and not just the ones on CBS, although God knows, I still (as I've been doing since the early '70s) watch more on CBS than on any other network. I liked a lot of television I saw this past year, especially the imports: The Fall and The Returned and Dancing on the Edge. But I guess, first, I need to devote a little space to Breaking Bad. You know Breaking Bad: "the best show ever on television." It's not bloggers who said that: professional critics said it, credible media and news personalities said it. Does no one get that in order to call something "the best TV show ever," you actually have to have watched every TV show ever?

But quite aside from that, Breaking Bad the "best ever" -- really? Breaking Bad was a very good show -- almost always diverting, and sometimes riveting -- but let's not pretend it was perfect. I found large chunks of Season 3 slow and frustrating until they started the wind-up to the season finale -- and it seemed clear the writers were aware of those issues, since they made so many course corrections in Season 4. And Season 5 often felt like it was treading water till the midseason cliffhanger. (Season 5 also suffered from too many writer-producers making their directorial debuts; I couldn't believe how many times we were subjected to shots from inside a safety deposit box looking out, or inside a chemical vat looking out -- what Reverse Shot, in its Twenty Shots to Be Henceforth Retired from Film Vocabulary, rightly tags "bush league My First Creative Camerawork shit.") The hype over Breaking Bad extended to a discussion of its ratings, which people seemed to forget were middling-to-moderate until they exploded during the final season because of all the new viewers who had binge-watched on Netflix. But you read articles now about Breaking Bad, and it's astounding how many assert that it was a runaway hit from the start; I suspect it's a lot of the same people who think it's the "best" blah blah blah "ever on television." If I'm looking for a gripping blend of high art and popular art, I'll take Buffy Season 5 over Breaking Bad Season 5. If I'm looking for a heady brew of boardroom and bedroom trash, I'll take Knots Landing Season 5 over The Good Wife Season 5. Maybe, as I've gotten older, I've grown immune or resistant to shows that parade their aspirations and acclaim like medals.

The best hour of TV I saw this past year was The Killing episode entitled "Six Minutes," essentially a two-hander (Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard: both shattering) about the hours leading up to an execution. From the viewer comments I saw online, I know lots of folks were left as shaken as I was; I checked out all the major TV columns after it aired, thinking everyone would review it, or at least acknowledge it, but reviews were shockingly scarce. I mean, you had to go to the reliable Phil Dyess-Nugent at The A.V. Club or Matt LeMaire at The MacGuffin for a reasoned response and some thoughtful prose. Sure, it was the week of the CBS Summer Press Tour, but I was still flabbergasted that some critics I deeply admire couldn't take ten minutes to write it up.

But of course The Killing is no longer "buzz-worthy." Neither, for that matter, is my favorite show currently on the air, Elementary. Kudos to Robert Bianco for regularly plugging it at USA Today, but this wonderful series -- far better, to my mind, than its over-hyped, smug UK counterpart -- gets so much less praise than it deserves (whereas the news that Sherlock was starting up again was greeted like news of the Second Coming). I'm as shocked as the next person how good I find Elementary; like many, I expected a shameless Sherlock rip-off, and had my doubts about Lucy Liu. (She had endured in my mind mostly as a Mad TV punchline.) But I should have trusted Rob Doherty, who never let me down through his years on Medium. After a solid if unimpressive start, it steadily improved and deepened through Season 1. Part absorbing character study, part sturdy procedural, it's further enlivened by the crackling chemistry between its two leads. Doherty has avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he's used the setting to inform the character. A superior November episode, "The Marchioness," opened with Sherlock addressing his Narcotics Anonymous support group with uncharacteristic wistfulness:

"I often wonder if I should have been born in another time. My senses are unusually -- what one could even say unnaturally -- keen. And ours is an era of distraction -- it's a punishing drumbeat of constant input. This cacophony which follows us into our homes and into our beds, it seeps into our -- into our souls, for want of a better word. For a long time, there was only one poultice for my raw nerve endings, and that was copious drug use. So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder: if I'd just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused, a more fully realized person?"

And that's the particular genius of Doherty's Elementary -- it is in fact the anti-Sherlock. Outfitting and surrounding Doyle's late-Victorian creation with the wonders of modern technology doesn't simply make him more diabolically clever -- it also makes him as tortured and stressed, as angry and isolated and overwhelmed as those eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a new friendship that helps him heal. Articles like Ian Grey's Elementary and the Holmes Tradition and this splendid review from Myles McNutt at the A.V. Club about last Thursday's season highlight (scripted by Doherty and his old writing crony Craig Sweeny) have reminded me that I'm not alone in my infatuation. (Actually, I think my favorite online article was Sabienna Bowman's Why I Want to Life Swap with Joan Watson. ) But of course, while Sherlock garnered all-time high ratings for its recent UK premiere, what did Elementary manage last Thursday night in the fast nationals?: a mere 1.8. I don't get viewers at all.

sitcom round-up: The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly

As Elementary continues to soar, The Big Bang Theory has returned, this past fall, to where it was in Season 5: coasting on good will and momentum. Is it only a matter of time until it's running on fumes? There's hardly been an episode this past fall that impressed me, whereas there was hardly an episode last spring that didn't. But last spring, it was evident how new showrunner Steve Molaro was energizing the show, the same way the show felt invigorated throughout Season 2, as the writers figured out what they had in Jim Parsons, and reinvigorated in the second half of Season 4, when the addition of Mayim Bialik, Melissa Rauch and Aarti Mann to the cast shuffled the dynamics. And Two and a Half Men, which I praised last May, has become nearly unwatchable. Ashton Kutcher was used so well during his second season; now it's like they've forgotten how to write for him. Whole episodes pass while he sits on the sidelines. (But then, it's not as bad as Conchata Ferrell, who's reduced to one-line crossovers; it's like poor Adrienne Barbeau during the final seasons of Maude, when you'd only see her coming down the stairs or heading out the door.) Yah, yah, they wanted to restore some of that Charlie Harper energy to Two and a Half Men, so they gave us Charlie's long-lost daughter and her nonstop womanizing. But the show had moved beyond Sheen, and successfully reinvented itself. Now invention is, once again, sorely lacking.

Ashton Kutcher now seems trapped where Melissa McCarthy was during Season 3 of Mike and Molly: on the sidelines, reacting to all the crazies, without a plotline in sight. Look, I liked the first season of Mike and Molly, despite the cheap laughs, and thought the second season, more character-focused, was a huge improvement. But there's no doubt that (now-defunct) showrunner Mark Roberts ran it off the rails in Season 3. After hitting a creative high late in Season 2 (with "The Dress," rightly McCarthy's Emmy reel that year), the show didn't produce one keeper during Season 3. And poor McCarthy, so versatile and so appealing, was reduced to a season-long look of pained discomfort. So good for Chuck Lorre for shaking things up with (as CBS so-subtly put it) The New Mike and Molly, and although I'm not convinced they've fully found their way yet (I like Molly the free spirit; I don't like Molly the dunce), this new season has yielded more genuine belly-laughs than the previous three combined. It's also very well paired with Lorre's new show Mom, which, like The New Mike and Molly, is still finding its footing, although when the comedy lands (mostly when Anna Faris and Allison Janney are going at it), it's a hoot. Best sitcom episode I saw in 2013? Well, I thought it was Bob Newhart's first appearance on The Big Bang Theory, "The Proton Resurgence," but when I resaw it recently on TBS, it fell flatter than I expected. So I'm going with Mom's "Six Thousand Bootleg T-Shirts and a Prada Handbag," guest starring Octavia Spencer.

Then again, the funniest episode of TV I saw this past year wasn't a sitcom at all: it was the NCIS: Los Angeles "The Livelong Day," with Kensi and Deeks undercover as FRA agents, and Eric Christian Olsen doing a spot-on impression of Matthew Gray Gubler in Criminal Minds. And second place probably goes to a small-screen spoof that never even made it to TV: the uproarious Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, Peter Davison's deft companion piece to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special. When your best laughs of the year are found in a one-hour procedural and a web-only one-off, you know you're not witnessing a Golden Age of television comedy.

nostalgia viewing: WKRP in Cincinnati, Newhart

We have five TVs in our home, and one has TiVo, four have DVR's and two have Apple TV, so there was a lot of television viewing going on this past year. Among the highlights: the Swedish Wallander (highly recommended, particularly, the first series: the second series was a little bleak for my tastes) and Series 3 and 4 of MI-5. I had occasion to watch a lot of vintage TV as well, and was reminded -- to my surprise -- how uneven WKRP was, but how much I love writer Blake Hunter. (Put Hunter on a Loni Anderson episode, like "Jennifer and the Will," and he'll make magic. Heck, just give him a few moments with Anderson, like this quick bit when the station is unionizing, and Johnny Fever invites her to join them: "Johnny, I already belong to a union. It's a quasi-religious group called the International Sisterhood of Blond Receptionists. There are only twelve members in the world. We meet once every two years in Switzerland. If I told you our minimum salary, you'd have a heart attack and die. Bye.") And then there's Newhart, that fabulous fruitcake of a series that stalled on DVD with Season 1. (It's the videotaped season with Jennifer Holmes and Steven Kampmann that no one wants to see: I get that the studios want to release series in order, but when you have a show that was overhauled after Season 1, and didn't find its groove till Season 4, were you really expecting huge sales for the first-season release? It's like the dimwits who decided to put out Knots Landing Seasons 1 and 2, and when they didn't sell, pulled the plug; the show didn't start to pick up steam till Season 3 -- that's the season everyone wanted on DVD, and it's now the season no one's getting.)

Watching Newhart this past year on the Christian-based Family Network (they're also the ones showing WKRP; if they think WKRP is peddling traditional family values, the joke's on them), I was reminded again how much I love Season 7, under new showrunners Mark Egan and Mark Solomon. How often does a show hit its creative peak in Season 7? It's the Michael-Harris-breakdown season, and as brilliant as Peter Scolari is that year (and Newhart, Tom Poston and Julia Duffy are also at the top of their game), it's the re-emergence of Mary Frann that's the most fun to watch. The previous showrunners must have hated her; reduced to set-dressing, she'd go whole episodes without a decent line, or they'd do "special episodes" spotlighting the regular cast (e.g., "A Midseason Night's Dream") and ignore her. Egan and Solomon get Joanna Loudon: they see that she's, in her own way, as much of a loon as everyone else in that small Vermont town -- the innkeeper is running the asylum. Frann was the only Newhart regular never to receive an Emmy nomination (her co-stars all had multiple nods), so it's a little daring where Egan and Solomon turn for laughs: they play up Joanna's need for attention and acceptance. It could have come off as cruel -- us not knowing where Joanna began and Frann left off -- but instead, it's inspired: it taps into Frann's comedic strengths, and gives Newhart another crazy to play off of. And Frann looks so pleased to be trading quips with the rest of the cast that her pleasure is contagious. (You can hear it in the audience response, which is not only amused but surprised: they don't expect her to be funny.) Here's Dick and Joanna after a society snob who's looking to acquire property (Joanna moonlights as a real estate agent) has offered them a million-five for their own inn:

Dick: "I know it's a lot of money, but I don't know if I can bring myself to sell this place."
Joanna: "If we did, we'd be set for life. And do you have any idea what my commission would be?"
Dick: "Joanna, the seller pays the commission. You'd be paying yourself."
Joanna: "Who cares? The important thing is, it'll put me in the million-dollar bracket at the office. I'll get a pin!"
Dick: "Oh well, let's dump this place if it means your getting a pin..."

Suddenly they're Burns and Allen.

Season 7 of Newhart has many highlights -- among them, "Hi, Society" (in which Dick and Stephanie attend a swanky New York party, and Dick -- introduced as "Sir Richard Loudon" -- becomes an instant snob), "The Nice Man Cometh" (with Don Rickles as a new talk-show host hired by WPIV, who seizes upon Dick as his stooge), and "The One and a Half Million Dollar Man" (a jobless, penniless Michael tries to find work as a mime, leading to a showdown with Stephanie at their favorite restaurant) -- but I think my favorite episode may be "Homes and Jo-Jo," in which the new station owner of WPIV offers Joanna her own real estate show, "Your House Is My House," but, in the quest for ratings, turns it into the salacious "Hot Houses." (Stephanie commenting on Joanna's first episode: "After Joanna's flesh act, I had to take a ritual purification bath." Joanna: "I was selling real estate." George: "It was hard to say what you were selling.") It was so common -- and too easy -- for critics in the '80s to reduce Frann to "she's no Suzanne Pleshette." No, she wasn't: did she have to be? Forget recasts from Dick Sargent on, I think Mary Frann had the toughest shoes to fill, and she could never catch a break. Until Season 7. And although it's said that the famous series ender (with Pleshette returning for a now-classic cameo) irked her, the late, underrated Frann -- that "beautiful blonde" -- really had the last laugh, with the last line of the last show ("You know, you really ought to wear more sweaters") being all about her.

The Newhart finale aired in 1990: that season, CBS ran a three-hour Monday night comedy block consisting of Major Dad, The Famous Teddy Z, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Newhart and Doctor Doctor. Three classics, and not a rotten egg in the bunch. This fall, before Mike and Molly came back in November to shore up its Monday night line-up, and before Mom started to find its way, CBS's biggest Monday night laughs came during Hostages, and those were presumably unintentional. It's been an odd season to date.