Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

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NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

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Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

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Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.

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By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.

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An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

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I’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now reads as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


Spoiler Alerts!

May 16, 2016

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you’re not yet caught up on the current sixth season of GAME OF THRONES through at least S6E3 and you care about whatever’s going to happen next. Also READ NO FURTHER if you’re a TVphobe or non-subscriber to HBO still slogging your way through the bloody but convivial George R. R. Martin source novels. In truth, the following essay is frickin JAM-PACKED with pop-culture spoilers, including the illustration below. Hear me, O reader: MULTI-SPOILER FRICKIN MEGA-ALERT!!

I was standing in line at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival behind a friend who had just seen Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE elsewhere at the fest. She was talking to somebody ahead of us, and their conversation somehow wandered to Nicole Kidman, the film’s star. (I was flitting between that vocal thread and the one behind me, which included my wife and our hostess.) Then she said something like, “Yeah: it was so odd when Nicole killed them all at the end.” She caught my eye and realized, shit: I just ruined the ending for him. You have to be a bit of a masochist to watch much of any von Trier, but no, I hadn’t seen the flick quite yet. (I have now. It was indeed ruined, but not by her.)

Since my friend’s mortified facial expression showed that she was really sorry, it had just been an accidental slip of the tongue, I decided to have a little fun with her. I acted wounded and “retaliated” to try and make her laugh. “It was his sled! He thinks he’s his own mom: he’s frickin crazy! They mash up dead people and serve em as food! They didn’t go anywhere, they landed in future New York City! He’s been a ghost this whole time!” She knew exactly what I was doing in my mock rage, and judging from the giggles, she was amused as well as relieved. That had certainly been my intent.

But damn: a decade later, it’s harder than ever to keep secrets from the popular culture, and you don’t have to stand in a festival line any more to get pre-hipped. One day it will be impossible to prevent leakage, but that day has not yet arrived, and for proof I cite both HBO and Lucasfilm.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was so eagerly awaited that the producers even released photos from the table read. Yet by sternly restricting access and keeping mouths shut, they concealed a major plot point that caused an audible reaction in the theater where I saw it, and probably everywhere else too. (I’m withholding this spoiler in case you haven’t yet seen the flick, but you’d better hurry up, because missing STAR WARS might be illegal by now.) But the equally massive GAME OF THRONES machine also kept a corker to itself, for the better part of a year.

I thought readers of Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” novels had been quite courteous in keeping mum about surprises, beginning in the series’ first season. Most of the show’s rep company have now become household names, or at least household faces. But at the beginning the only actor many viewers recognized was Sean Bean, of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The single most shocking event of the first season was “Ned Stark”’s execution at the command of sadistic young tyrant King Joffrey. Plop went the head of the character we assumed was the star of the show, establishing THRONES’s grisly dictum: on this show, nobody’s safe. Thing is, though, readers of the source novels had well known about this twist, some for as long as twenty years. They also knew in advance how and when Joffrey himself would die. They knew about the carnage to come in the notorious Red Wedding. They knew why Tyrion Lannister (as played by Peter Dinklage, he became the real star of the series) would be forced to commit patricide. And lots more. The reading public is probably a small fraction of THRONES’s worldwide viewership, but it still largely remained silent, even amidst the din of the Internet. That’s remarkable restraint: maybe readers were so pleased to see such a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that they felt protective.

George R. R. Martin is a fine writer, but he’s also relatively, and notoriously, slow. It has taken him two decades to produce the five long, intricate novels which are the basis for GAME OF THRONES. (I would say six, since he seems to be very close to finishing the latest one, but he’s left at least two deadlines unmet, so we’ll have to believe it when we see it.) As the HBO series gained popularity over five years, it became evident that neither the network nor the showrunners could wait for the author to finish the cycle (and two of the books take place simultaneously, shortening the timeline even further). Though they have already made slight changes from the printed version of Martin’s story (for example, the bodies strewn in the Red Wedding include victims new to readers as well), in the current sixth season the tv people move past the published books. This year, for the first time, loyal readers are in the dark along with the rest of the audience.

The cliffhanging development at the end of last season was the assassination of fan heartthrob Jon Snow, played by Kit Harington. Dashing leading men have been dropping like flies on this series and there are precious few left. (Nobody is safe, sure, but if they ever decided to kill off Dinklage’s Tyrion, they might as well just pack up and close the store.) The last shot of the season finale showed Jon’s multiple stab wounds staining the white snow. Cut to black.

AAAUGH! screamed anguished viewers. He can’t be dead! Message boards and chat rooms erupted with resuscitative theories. But for the rest of the summer, for the rest of the off-season, up until about two weeks ago, the producers assiduously misled everybody and maintained a real-life fiction to rival their elaborate medieval melodrama. For it had been their plan to bring Jon Snow back from the dead all along. The magical Melisandre — who revealed her own surprise in the previous episode — incanted away in a scene so languid that it was parodied on the following week’s SNL. Some ritual smoke, a sexy sponge bath, and Jon Snow was good to re-go. In this day and age, though, it took a titanic effort to keep the secret until air time.

First, there was no mention of Jon Snow whatsoever within the production: his name was as taboo as Voldemort’s. Harington’s lines in typed Season 6 scripts were given only to “LC,” or “Lord Commander,” Jon’s rank in the Night’s Watch (don’t ask). As the questions arose immediately after last season’s murder, Harington asserted, “Jon Snow is dead.” Same message from anybody associated with the show. (It’s not really a lie, is it? He was dead.) Then somebody spotted Harington in Belfast, where his scenes are shot, wearing the Snow character’s hair and beard. “I have to play him as a dead body,” he demurred. The conspiracy was so vast that Entertainment Weekly, allowed in on the ruse, was on the stands with a “He’s Alive!” cover story less than a week after air. And now Jon Snow is roaming the land of Westeros again. Mission accomplished.

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The EW cover. I put it down here “below the swipe” so people wouldn’t stumble onto it.

All that trouble just to surprise people? It was easier back in the day. To preserve the jolt of a lead character’s murder midway through PSYCHO (shaking up its audience just as Ned Stark’s beheading does), Alfred Hitchcock simply forced exhibitors to close their doors after the film began. Nobody admitted during the performance, as opposed to the come-in-any-time policy for most other movies. Theater managers were indignant at first, fearing the loss of casual walk-in business, but patrons waiting for the next show formed lines nearly everywhere, making PSYCHO look like a hit and then becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as others got curious. All because Hitch was concerned that late arrivers wouldn’t understand why they weren’t seeing the star.

Is there a statue of limitations on revealing a plot twist? When I was working on the PSYCHO entry for GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, my editor objected to the line, “Because a key character does not survive PSYCHO’s halfway point…” He thought I was being too coy and wanted me to spell it out. But I strongly objected: even though most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about — the scene in question has entered general mass culture and is constantly lampooned — there are others who don’t, people who have never seen PSYCHO. It would be a disservice to Hitch to obviate his chance to startle. (P.S.: I won.) I hated so many reviews of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake because the critics assumed familiarity with the story. Why would you ruin a thriller that way? I already spoiled PSYCHO’s big reveal up there in the Sundance line, but this is different: I warned you fair and square. A pox on anybody who sneaks a spoiler in, and that goes double for online comments. Follow the lead of SIGHT & SOUND, the best film magazine there is, and warn people away from TMI.

Sometimes the secret is so sublime that journalists just naturally give it a wide berth. I never saw any mention of the big surprises in THE CRYING GAME or THE SIXTH SENSE before I saw them. Others seem to be fair game. The stunning development in MILLION DOLLAR BABY was all over the press, even in feature stories; a non-entertainment headline in a plane passenger’s newspaper spoiled it for me from across the aisle.

The horror writer Clive Barker remembers seeing PSYCHO one afternoon back in England. Blown away, he stuck around for a second showing. Two schoolgirls came in and sat in front of him. As Barker tells it, the second time he was paying more attention to their reactions than to the film itself. He says he couldn’t wait until one character went snooping in a creepy place toward the end — and the resulting shrieks from the girls didn’t disappoint. He appreciated Hitch’s unspoiled surprises on a different level. He knew what was coming — and that was the suspense.


Late And Later

January 12, 2016

With the current round of Late-Night Musical Chairs nearly complete (THE DAILY SHOW’s Samantha Bee will finish it next month), it’s a pretty good time to survey the landscape. They say it takes about six months for long-term tv viewing patterns to set in, and Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Trevor Noah haven’t gotten there yet. The seats of Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers and John Oliver are barely warm, and it still feels a little funny to remember that the current host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is Jimmy Fallon.

378777_origThe most burning question in this real-life game of thrones was, what kind of show would Colbert conjure after dropping the faux right-wing persona he’d been playing for nine years? It turns out the “real” Colbert is a bouncy, brainy fanboy who can fawn over Robert De Niro one moment and joust with Bill Maher the next. One can’t stray too far from the venerable band-and-desk format, but now the band is the versatile, multiethnic Jon Batiste & Stay Human, which plays what its 29-year-old bandleader calls “social music,” meaning the musicians will more than likely parade into the crowd in the best New Orleans tradition. And Colbert’s writing team hasn’t lost its sly sense of just how far to push a bit of mockery.

The switch from David Letterman to Colbert was immediately visual: the band is now to the hosts’s left in the newly digitized Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert claims that was Letterman’s suggestion, one thing Dave said he regretted from the old show. And remember, the current setup was how the stage looked for Johnny Carson. (My brother’s going to see it live later this month: I’m jealous.) But the more general shift is toward a different avenue. Old-school stand-ups like Dave, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart are gone; only Trevor Noah, who is packed with a world’s worth of characters and dialects, made his living on stand-up. The new hosts come from sketch comedy (Fallon, Meyers), improv (Colbert, Bee, Oliver), theater (Corden) and the writers’ room (Wilmore, Conan O’Brien holding forth on a new network). They can do stand-up, they just aren’t from stand-up.

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The new hosts are starting to imprint their shows. After the new year and several weeks’ worth of viewer reassurance, THE DAILY SHOW changed its theme music and Noah began billboarding each episode by walking into the studio, far from the desk. He occasionally performs the entire first segment (what they call “Act I”), uh, standing up. Colbert bounds on stage at the top of his show and the billboard comes later. After the new year, the funky bass-based lead-in to Colbert’s theme music subtly yielded to Batiste’s piano; I’d imagine it was becoming too familiar.

Two years ago, late night was pretty easily compartmentalized. Leno was the popular one, winning in the ratings; Dave was the smart one, dripping with irony; and Jimmy Kimmel was the funky one, experimenting with the format to provide food for the emerging social media (remember the “music videos” for “I’m F—-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck”?). Now everybody wants on YouTube. Fallon may well be the king of the viral video, but his competitors are also dicing their shows to produce five-minute fodder, and Colbert is no exception. On most nights, his headline guest appears in two segments: first comes the expected interview, and then a bit of silly participation, such as three DOWNTON ABBEY stars reading their lines with American accents, or John Krasinski having a fake-vomit-off against Colbert, as his wife Emily Blunt had done the week before. The aim of these goofy stunts is to entertain not only the television audience, but also web surfers for days to come.

Then there are prerecorded “field pieces,” bits shot outside the studio, at which Colbert has always excelled, even back when he and Steve Carell pretended to be news correspondents on THE DAILY SHOW. The only others in his league are Conan and the master, Dave Letterman (who used to screen historic field pieces to entertain his studio audience before the show). Colbert’s format keeps things unexpected: a juicy field interview could roll even after the first guest is gone, well into the show. Purpose: no flipping, as Larry Sanders used to say.

It’s in the classic in-studio interview segments where Colbert outdoes Fallon. His guests in his first few months have not only included the obligatory presidential candidates (Jeb Bush inaugurated the interview seat, which is probably as close as he’ll ever come to an inaugural), but Cabinet members, serious authors including Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders (who played the guitar), and interesting notables such as Michelle Dorrance, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her tap dancing skills. One of our great improvisers, Colbert is able to pull real emotion from his guests while entertaining. Things seem less scripted and more in the moment. As he told John Dickerson on FACE THE NATION, Colbert is aiming for “discovery, not invention.” His interview with Joe Biden, in which the two men bonded on-air over wrenching family losses, was an instant classic. He shushed a few audience members who were booing Ted Cruz: “he’s my guest.” If the bad vibes between Colbert and Bill Maher — who seemed rigid and out of place — weren’t genuine, then their interview was a master class in performance art. I’m betting they honestly don’t like each other.

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Colbert and Trevor Noah still look like the new kids, but so did Conan, Jon, Jay and the Jimmys when they first started. In time their presence will feel normal. Nobody has yet deconstructed late-night like Dave did (John Oliver has added real journalism to the satirical news format, completing the circle for young viewers who actually get information that way), but it’s interesting to see the various personalities peeking out from a format that has survived since the days of Jack Paar. Meanwhile, the busiest guy in New York has to be Lorne Michaels, who produces Fallon, Meyers and SNL, all in the same building. Thus, come to think of it, saving NBC a fortune in cab fare.

8/15/16: Comedy Central said today it is pulling the plug on THE NIGHTLY SHOW as of this Thursday, making Larry Wilmore the first-late night casualty.


Reality Distortion

November 30, 2015

51LNqvt+3oL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve just read Neal Gabler’s definitive biography of Walt Disney, only a few weeks after seeing Danny Boyle’s movie STEVE JOBS, itself loosely based on the magnificent bio by Walter Isaacson. The confluence is striking: before the Gabler, I knew more about Jobs than about Disney, but there are so many similarities between these two pioneers that it’s actually amazing.

It has taken me nine years to get to WALT DISNEY. I bought it at pub in 2006 and knew I would eventually read it, but the hefty spine width kept dissuading me. I’ll bet you have books like that on your own shelf. Then a nice one on Bob Hope came out, and after that I was hungry to learn about another American institution. That’s the beauty of definitive biographies: they remain relevant no matter how much time has passed. I’m now going to dive into one about Charles Schulz, because I’m kind of revved on pop culture icons at the moment. But back to Jobs and Disney.

Both men were visionaries. Both could see where others couldn’t. Both were disruptors, game-changers, rebels, utter enemies of The Man. But Steve Jobs will always be remembered as the kid in the turtleneck, and Disney as the avuncular mustachioed host of a tv show, the harmless guy your parents felt safe leaving you with in the afternoon. Jobs died a “young man” at 56. While Disney lived only nine years longer, he came from two generations prior, when 65-year-old men had really earned their senior citizenship. We remember Walt older and Jobs younger, frozen in time like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, James Dean, John F. Kennedy, David Foster Wallace and Edgar Allan Poe. Imagine all those people living into their sixties and beyond. Think about Keith Richards while you imagine.

“Disney” has become a word of scorn in some circles, denoting a family-friendly worldview, vaguely sinister in its insistence on order, punctuality, and wholesomeness. (For a funny, creepy depiction of this point of view, see the ingenious “guerrilla indie” ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, which was surreptitiously shot at Disney parks.) Times Square has, thus, been “Disneyfied,” though Walt’s company’s only genuine footprints are one retail store and some popular and lucrative Broadway musicals. But this reputation was scratched out over decades by dint of vision and hard work, and in case you think Walt was some kind of Organization Man pansy, allow me to re-hip thee. Once he decided animation would be his vocation, Walt Disney was actually a major-league badass, and he had a real problem with authority. In a sleepy industry that fed movie theaters cheap filler, he pioneered dozens of innovations including sound, color, realistic rotoscoping and, most impressively, full feature length. With the arrival of the majestic SNOW WHITE in 1937, a “cartoon” didn’t introduce the feature; a cartoon could be the feature.

Walt could mesmerize (some would say manipulate) his colleagues by the force of his personality. He matched Jobs’s “reality distortion field” with what longtime animator Ken Anderson described similarly: when Walt was pitching an idea, Anderson said he exuded a “magnetic field.” He knew the entire picture in such detail that it took him three hours to tell the story of SNOW WHITE, and his audience was not only rapt, it was insanely motivated to create something transcendent, something that would change the world. I heard echoes of Jobs while reading about this. For his adaptation of Felix Salten’s BAMBI, Walt insisted on the tragic early death of the title character’s mother against all advice, thus raising the power of animated drama to another vaulting (and child-traumatizing) level.

In the movie, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak confronts Jobs and asks him just what it is that he does. “You’re not a coder,” says Woz, you’re not this or that, what exactly do you contribute? In response, Jobs likens himself to a musical conductor, and that’s what Walt was too. “He’s a genius at using someone else’s genius,” griped an animator, complaining that Walt was sucking up too much personal credit. But without him, there would have been no credit to apportion. Like Jobs, Walt saw what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it. To deliver, he invented a method of labor distribution that is still used in animation today, even when it’s being realized on a computer.

Steve Jobs lost his company and was hired back as a returning hero; Walt Disney slogged through one existential crisis after another. It is excruciatingly difficult and expensive to produce an animated feature (just ask the folks at Jobs’s Pixar), and one or two so-so box-office returns could threaten Walt’s leadership and make bankers so sour that the studio was reduced to making propaganda films during World War II just to stay afloat. Walt’s brother Roy was the money man and tried his best to rein in his sibling, but the dreamer always asked for forgiveness rather than permission. It’s heart-rending to read that such gems as FANTASIA and PINOCCHIO almost cost Walt his business, since the fullness of time has revealed them to be masterpieces. But he lived on the brink of insolvency, time and again.

Like Jobs, Walt was self-absorbed and had few real friends. He was a doting and loving father to his two daughters, but he was married to his studio, and was paternalistic even there. He became a notorious union-buster after “my boys” broke his heart by striking, and as the company inevitably got bigger, so did the distance from his staff. Ever prescient, Walt realized that he needed to find an easier, quicker method of production, and nature documentaries became “True-Life Adventures.” Before he knew it, live-action was at the helm, culminating in the mega-smash MARY POPPINS. But Walt’s mind was already off in the distance.

Disneyland wasn’t just an amusement park to Walt, any more than the iPhone was just a telephone to Steve Jobs. Walt’s “Happiest Place On Earth” was a callback to the town of Marceline, Missouri, where he briefly lived as a young boy and which he lionized for his entire life. In homage to Marceline, Walt willed Disneyland into being (and Walt Disney World some years later). He played his tv network, the lowest-rated ABC, like a violin, and the resulting cross-promotion was so intense that by the time the park officially opened on July 17, 1955 (the best day of his life, said his family), with Walt riding a horse alongside Fess Parker in his “Davy Crockett” coonskin cap, a capacity crowd already awaited at Minute One. Ray Kroc, then just getting started, had wanted in on Disneyland; Walt palmed him off on a minion, and Kroc went away to build McDonalds.

The book is full of examples of Walt’s exceptionalism. People frequently thought he was crazy. People frequently resented him for pushing them too hard. He was not a perfect man, or even a perfect boss. But when the Chiat/Day ad agency created a series for Steve Jobs called “Think Different” (in the movie, I was delighted to see Jobs’s daughter correct the grammar in a fit of pique), it honored such Different Thinkers as Einstein, Dylan, Branson, King, Edison, Ali, Gandhi, Hitchcock, Picasso — and Jim Henson. Dude, Henson wouldn’t even be there without Walt Disney, and chances are, given the ubiquity of Walt’s creations, neither would you. Walt Disney should have been up there in your pantheon too, and if you couldn’t recognize that, Steve, then he wins the vision thing.

12/18/15: The organization that Walt built just opened its latest flick. They’ve still got that cross-promotion thing down, man.


The Trump Card

August 17, 2015

UnknownDonald Trump has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder by several non-M.D.s recently, in the scholarly land of blog posts and Facebook. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan even alluded to that the other day, himself quoting a blogger. But what if the root cause of the Republican presidential front-runner’s incredible blather is more prosaic? What if Trump has simply been paying attention?

In our polarized, attention-spanless culture, you don’t have to make sense to make noise. Fox News has proven that for the last twenty years. And the ability to grasp nuance, or even entertain an opposing viewpoint, is either lacking or lies hopelessly fallow in a significant portion of the electorate. At least the Republican primary electorate, the zealots, the Tea Baggers. To them, Trump is spouting a simple (some would say simplistic) message: your country has been co-opted by incompetents, moochers, and big donors who don’t care about you. I, and only I, can tell you the truth because I’m so rich I don’t have to kiss their asses.

He connects in a visceral way because he doesn’t use wishy-washy “dog-whistle” code words for immigrants or minorities like all the others do. Mexico is deliberately sending us its rapists. China and Russia are at war with us. All the grabbers and takers and lazy bums are wrenching America out of your control, and I’m the only one with the guts to tell it like it is.

Details don’t matter when you’ve got vision. How else to explain the knee-jerk opposition to our nuclear deal with Iran — without bothering to provide any alternative? Approving the deal delays an Iranian nuke by 15 years at least, and if they cheat, all our other options are still on the table, including bombing them back to the Stone Age. Doing nothing accelerates the process, probably erodes economic sanctions by other budget-busted countries that are aching to resume doing business, and brings us closer to a nuked Mideast. As Bill Maher put it the other night, this should be a no-brainer, and Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, agreed, as has a raft of former officers. But even talking to the enemy amounts to surrender, or, in Mike Huckabee’s inflamed world, genocide. (Trump’s rivals are starting to catch on to the concept of bombast.)

Trump has also noticed something about reality television, of which he is a veteran. It’s very much like pro wrestling: the obnoxious villain gets all the oxygen, and it is he — almost always a man — who keeps them tuning in. So he can call Mexican immigrants rapists. He can disparage John McCain’s military service. He can hand out Lindsey Graham’s phone number and wonder out loud whether Megyn Kelly was mean to him at the first Pub debate because she was menstruating. Each time the punditocracy said, this is the last straw, and each time Trump’s numbers held. He only got in trouble when he messed with one of Roger Ailes’s beauty queens, but Ailes — who counted the record number of eyeballs tuned in to The Donald Trump Show — made do with a back-off-just-a-schoche phone call and they’re still best buds.

We also had a very entertaining Republican clown car four years ago: at one point Herman Cain was the front-runner. Michele Bachmann, for God’s sake. This is the unintended consequence of the ludicrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision: now all you need is one billionaire who thinks you’re jake and you can stick around like a bad penny without a scintilla of popular support. Rick Santorum!

Well, Donald Trump is his own billionaire who thinks he’s jake. The only thing I can’t find is Trump’s upside. He lost his NBC show and several business relationships (though when this all blows over, don’t be surprised to see some fences mended: 24 million people watched that debate, making it the highest-rated non-sports cable program of all time — that means it set a new viewer record for Fox News — and they tuned in to see Citizen Trump). What’s in it for him? NPD adherents say it’s simple: he really thinks he can win. And every time he breaks another piece of china yet remains atop the Pub heap, it may well fortify that belief. Me, I don’t think Trump even wants to be president. I think he’s carrying this reality show as far as he can so he’ll emerge on the other side with an even better brand. The downside is that he’s making goons like Chris Christie and Scott Walker look reasonable in comparison, but in the meantime it’s delicious watching all these bully wannabes get stomped on by a professional.

11/9/16: Holy shit.


Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015
This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.

8/31/15: I knew it. UNDER THE DOME is no more.

10/22/15: And today we learned that ABC is sending THE WHISPERS to the tv graveyard after one season. It started strongly, but then the writers slowly went nuts. By season’s end, the only thing left from Bradbury’s story was the name Drill.

6/2/16: WAYWARD PINES, now ensconced in its Season One-ending setting and minus most of its Season One cast, has devolved into the Rebels against the Empire. I quit watching forever after about :20. Everything that was fresh in S1 has been leached out. Ugh.


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