Saturday, August 8, 2015

Marcus, Mentalist, midsummer musings and more

Some random thoughts for a stormy Saturday morning...

Ann Marcus (August 22, 1921 – December 3, 2014)

Ann Marcus, one of my favorite television writers -- the woman who created and was headwriter for the first season of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (winning herself an Emmy in the process) and who saved Knots Landing not once, but twice -- passed away on December 3. Every year or so, I would Google her name to see if any new articles about her had been posted -- she was such a pioneer for women in television, and such a brilliant plotter (her Knots co-writer Lisa Seidman said she had "the best story mind I ever worked with") that I always looked forward to seeing what people had to say about her. But last week, when I Googled her name, the only new articles that came up were obituaries, and they were disappointingly brief. Could The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or maybe The Hollywood Reporter have offered more than what amounted to a crib sheet? The woman who broke barriers throughout her career -- beginning as a "copy boy" at the New York Daily News, then a reporter for Life; moving from sitcoms to soaps before ascending to headwriter on Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, Days of Our Lives and Love of Life, introducing bold, innovative and contemporary story-lines; then turning the soap world on its ear with Mary Hartman (while demonstrating that even the best soap parodies grow out of character); and finally salvaging one of primetime's longest-running dramas -- deserved so much more. Marcus was recognized by The Paley Center in 2006 as one of the women who helped shape the history of media. She certainly shaped my viewing habits during the 20+ years I was a loyal fan, and to this day, of all the seasons of all the series I've watched in my 56 years on Planet Earth, Season 14 of Knots Landing remains the one I return to most. It's blissful.

Fiona Cumming (October 9, 1937 – January 1, 2015)

We lost another of my favorites this past year: director Fiona Cumming. Like Ann Marcus, she was most active from the '60s to the '80s, but unlike Marcus, she's remembered mostly for one series. But that series was Doctor Who, during the tenure of the great Peter Davison, and Cumming's four serials include two that are widely considered among the series' best ("Snakedance" and "Enlightenment") and another two that aren't far behind. But her importance runs deeper than that. Peter Davison was David Tennant's favorite Doctor, and Davison's era was Steven Moffat's favorite. It's hard to say what New Who would look like without Davison, but it's easy to say what the Davison era would look like without Cumming: much, much worse. Equally skilled at casting and coaching, she fills her shows with extraordinary guest artists who allow Davison to stretch and soar, and lifts his companions to heights no other director manages. But more than her talent, it's her sensibility that made Cumming a perfect fit for the Fifth Doctor. Davison was the first doctor of the "sensitive male" era. (His run began in 1982, the same year as Bruce Feirstein's tongue-in-cheek best-seller Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, satirizing stereotypes of masculinity.) No longer an alien outsider, we now had a doctor who was, as blogger HTPBDET notes at The Doctor Who Forum, "just a good guy ... the Time Lord you would invite for tea and never be afraid of his behaviour; the one you would lend money to; the one you would call when the kids needed a sitter" -- in short, "scientist, dabbler, fusspot, sex symbol and teacher." Cumming understood the Davison aesthetic better than anyone: better than the producer, better (far) than the script editor, better -- it seems, in retrospect -- than the star himself. She imbued the show with a mix of grace, subtlety and wonder that heightened everything Davison was doing with the role. Take Cumming out of the equation -- put lesser talents on her serials (and they would have been: the directing pool was abysmally shallow during Davison's run) -- and the 52-year legacy of Doctor Who becomes far less impressive.

*****

spring viewing: iZombie, Elementary, The Mentalist

Watching network TV this past spring, as the upfronts grew near, was mostly an exercise in frustration. Two and a Half Men tried to go out on a high by restoring a little warmth and purpose to the show -- until Chuck Lorre upended it all with an ill-advised, bitter finale. Madam Secretary received an early renewal and tightened its storytelling -- only to see its post-football-season ratings plummet. Big Bang Theory ran on fumes (as I predicted a year ago), while The Odd Couple ran on empty. (In the six or so episodes I watched, I don't think Matthew Perry gave a single convincing line reading.) Arrow fast-tracked a relationship that never existed simply to satisfy Olicity shippers -- who then turned on the whole storyline. (Careful what you ship for.) The Flash devolved into the kind of lazy shorthand that requires characters to act stupid in order to generate story. ("Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?") Meanwhile, Constantine and Forever continued to improve, the former with no shot at renewal, the latter with virtually no shot -- but then Forever suffered the greater humiliation come cancellation time when two lower-rated shows at the same network were picked up, just because they were in-house productions. (Ioan Gruffudd's loving Instagram to fans was the class act of the season. Until I read the comments that followed it, I had no idea how many people were as enamored of the series as I was.)

That's not to say everything this spring left me unhappy. Mom remained solid, and Mike & Molly had its strongest season yet (although the Molly-Peggy book collaboration, a sensational idea for bringing Rondi Reed directly into Melissa McCarthy's orbit, went on about four episodes too long). And I liked pretty much everything about Daredevil that didn't involve Vincent D'Onofrio. But as I recall, only three consistently satisfying things came out of the second half of the 2014-15 season: Elementary, The Mentalist, and iZombie.

I won't linger on iZombie: I don't know how much I could add to what countless welcoming reviewers have already noted. I only checked out the pilot because the promo seemed so cheeky and fun. Who knew the series itself would be so much more? It all built to such a frothy fury by season's end that the only question I was left with was: can they sustain this? I'm eager to find out.

Meanwhile, Elementary, after mucking up the end of its second season, came roaring back in Season 3, reestablishing itself as the best drama network television has to offer. The addition of Sherlock's new protege Kitty -- whom, shrewdly, we got to know not through Sherlock's eyes, but through Joan's -- went off without a hitch, and the miracle of the season is that once she left, and we feared the show no longer had a serialized hook to hang itself on, the plotting remained strong, and more important, the characters continue to evolve -- and with nothing like the Mycroft misfire of Season 2 that was designed to keep the characters moving forward, but didn't. Elementary was so grounded in its own mythology this season, it didn't need a "big bad" popping up three or four episodes before season's end to shake things up; maybe that was its biggest accomplishment. The leads were too busy generating their own story-line; the season finale -- which reasserted the premise of the show, then took it to one logical conclusion -- was no less stupendous for being so straightforward.

Elementary ended on a brilliant low; The Mentalist went out on a buoyant high. Some weeks, I sat stunned at how good the show had become again. Creator Bruno Heller had intended to relinquish his showrunner duties to focus on his new show Gotham, but ultimately decided (was convinced?) he could do both. Ironically, Gotham suffered while The Mentalist soared. Heller and his longstanding writing team nailed every moment: every character introduction and re-introduction, every development and departure. And as I noted in an earlier blog, the pairing of Jane and Lisbon -- which I never expected to work (forgetting, I see now in syndication, the flirtatious chemistry that was apparent in Season 1 episodes like Ashley Gable's "Flame Red") -- was handled with such charm and ease that you bought into it completely. The Mentalist went out on a high not only artistically, but emotionally. I'm not a fan of series getting contrived "happy endings" (I still cringe thinking about how some of the "realistic" Lear sitcoms -- e.g., One Day at a Time, Good Times -- wrapped things up in the '70s and '80s), but as several bloggers noted (e.g. Connor Davey, beautifully), The Mentalist was never a story about Patrick Jane getting his revenge on Red John, it was about Patrick Jane getting his life back, and in the show's final season, and particularly in its final moments, he did just that. It was the series finale that got everything right. The one that gave us everything we wanted, even the things we don't know we wanted -- and let's face it: how often does that happen? It's like Bruno Heller was reading our minds--- except, well, you know, there's no such thing as psychics…

*****

summer viewing: Poldark, Humans, Zoo and more

Scouring the TV landscape for something decent to watch this past spring was like searching for posies in Death Valley; on the flip side, has there ever been a summer with so many good offerings? It was like the best summer clearance sale ever: if you're looking for it, we've got it. Just in the last month, Poldark, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Robot, Humans, Ray Donovan -- not to mention the guiltier pleasures like Zoo, Dark Matter and Wayward Pines.

And amazing talent on display. In the first four episodes of Poldark, director Ed Bazalgette turned out some of the best work I've ever seen in a period drama; there were plenty of moments I'd hoped never to see again onscreen -- "returns from war to find things have changed" and "finds love in an unexpected place" and even a variation on that old chestnut, "take off your glasses: why, you're beautiful" -- but Bazalgette cut through the treacle with a brash, brisk style that seemed at one with Ross Poldark's own temperament. (If the second half of the season -- directed by his AD, William McGregor -- felt flabbier, it was mostly because McGregor fell back on the traditional establishing shots: the ocean waves crashing, and the full moon behind a sea of clouds, and the butterfly perched on the window that the maiden opens, releasing it, as if to say "She, too, is like that butterfly, trapped in her surroundings, waiting to be delivered into the light." And intuitively you were thinking, Ross Poldark would rather die than watch this shit.) If Bazalgette can do that much for Poldark, I can't wait to see what he does unleashed on Doctor Who this season. (Poldark honorable mention: Ruby Bentall's modest and endearing turn as Verity. Aiden Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson were at the heart of the series, but Bentall gave it its soul.)

So many writers I admire did exemplary work: Vincent and Brackley on Humans, Peter Harness -- who wrote the best episode of Doctor Who's eighth season, "Kill the Moon" -- on Jonathan Strange. But let's focus in on Carla Kettner, who wrote last Tuesday's episode of Zoo. Zoo, I suppose, is indefensible by any reasonable standards, but if you can't put reason and standards aside for at least 60 minutes every week, then you're missing part of the fun of summer television. Yes, the lead actors are mostly of the B-grade variety, but the animals are superb -- "The Emmy for Best Casting of Animals in a Dramatic Series goes to..." Watching those magnificent lions and dogs and bats on the attack these past six weeks, I kept thinking, "If the kids in The Whispers had been this talented, that show would have been a hit, too." And this week: the bear. Best. Bear. Ever. Through all the muck and mire of the A plots came this simple but wildly entertaining subplot about a brown bear making its way through a Parisian kitchen. That was it. The owner of the flat saw the bear and recoiled into the closet, arming herself with a broom and a muffin tin (you're thinking, "Yah, that'll do the trick") while the bear checked out her cuisine: trying to drink wine out of a glass, ultimately toppling the fridge. A viewer posted at Entertainment Weekly, "The bear following the lady in her house was too hilarious, some writer is on the ball on this show." Yes: Carla Kettner. For weeks, I had seen her name attached to the show as co-Executive Producer, but her writing credit hadn't cropped up yet. Then this episode started, and after the cold open, I muttered "Carla Kettner wrote this" -- and I was right. And mind you, I haven't seen anything Kettner's written since Early Edition in the late '90s, but her style remains as recognizable and ingratiating as ever. Good to see you again, Carla, and thanks for the best episode of the season. Even the B-listers in the cast seemed better actors than in weeks past, no doubt because they had better material to work with, so I guess the rule, going forward, is that every show needs a Carla Kettner in its talent pool, and if she's unavailable, just get a bear.