JOHN OSTRANDER: That’s A TV Wrap, Part 2
A couple of weeks ago I did a wrap-up of my opinions of some of the TV I watched this past season. I held back on two shows because they hadn’t yet ended their seasons or their runs and others were cut because the column was getting too blamed long. So I’m going to try to finish up and include some shows that finished their “seasons” a while back but are about to start new seasons this summer. Looking back is a way of looking forward. First, however, a quick look at two shows among my faves and that are linked.
The Daily Show/The Colbert Report. These two almost have to be discussed together. The “fake news show” and the fake news commentary show. I have to admit I watch the Daily Show more often than The Colbert Report. While I admire the latter, Colbert’s persona – a terrific send-up of right wing on air demagogues – gets a little hard for me to watch at times. It’s right on the money.
What I love about The Daily Show is there is a sense of moral outrage and while a lot of it is aimed at the Bush Administration – justifiably – a lot also goes right at the media itself. It’s a serious show that makes use of comedy and makes me laugh out loud more often than not. Jon Stewart is brilliant on a consistent basis and his gang of reporters – while not overall the best the series has had – has some truly shameless members like Samantha Bee.
Stephen Colbert was the “star reporter” for a long time on The Daily Show until they launched his spin-off show, The Colbert Report, a send-up of Bill O’Reilly and all the other right-wing, self-important blowhards doing commentary on TV and radio. I admire the show tremendously; so much of it falls on Colbert. Given the nature of the show, there isn’t a cast of “reporters” that he can fall back on. And there are truly gonzo moments that pop up, such as Colbert’s guitar showdown or the green screen challenge that featured Stephen with a lightsaber and invited viewers to finish it and submit their offerings. George Lucas himself came on the show as one of the two finalists – and lost. It’s just that some nights I’m just not in the mood. It’s me, Stephen, not you.
Doctor Who. This is no-brainer for me. I’m a long time fan and the new series brought me right in again. Christopher Eccleston did a fabulous job in Season One and now David Tennant is just as good in a different way as the latest incarnation of our time/space traveling hero. It’s not that every episode is brilliant or that every concept is the best; that was never the attraction. But for all the fact that the Doctor is a Time Lord from an alien planet, the show remains one of the most human of S/F shows and consistently celebrates humanity. I love it.
Eureka. I also love this show. The concept is that there is this small town in the Pacific Northwest which is the home for some of the most brilliant scientific minds in the country who live and work in a safe, supportive, small town environment. Rural weirdness ensues. Think The X-Files meets Mayberry RFD. The local garage mechanic also happens to be a genius-grade engineer. The new town sheriff is a regular guy, a U.S. Marshall who happened to come on the town and helped with one of their problems. The fact that he is just a normal Joe with no more scientific background than the rest of us makes him the perfect alter-ego for the audience who are also new to the place and, probably, not world class brains (I’m not). Colin Ferguson plays Sheriff Jack Carter; he has a deft comedic timing, along with being a good looking guy, that makes him not only a great lead but a solid anchor for the weirdness that goes on around him. The show combines humor, well thought out science fiction ideas, characterizations that take surprising twists and is, overall, terrifically well written. It attracted more viewers than anything other series on SciFi and the new season starts in July.
The Shield/The Sopranos. Another two shows that I feel I need to discuss together. The former is FX’s crime drama focusing on a corrupt cop named Vic Mackey; the other is the esteemed HBO gangster series. The Shield has completed its current season and probably has another season to go, while The Sopranos has just aired its final episode. Both feature a lot of violence and have, at their center, two actors doing some of the finest work of their careers – in the case of The Shield, it’s Michael Chiklis while The Sopranos has the much (and justly) lauded work of James Gandolfini as mob boss Tony Soprano.
Both series have at their center men who are brutal, corrupt, and profoundly flawed. The Shield introduced us to Vic Mackey by having him shoot and kill a fellow cop in the first episode; Tony Soprano has killed (or caused to be killed) a lot of people over the run of this series but nothing marked him more as a monster than his killing of his surrogate son Christopher late in the series.
The Sopranos has the better over-all supporting cast – they’re better actors, starting with Edie Falco as Tony’s wife, Carmella. On The Shield, only CCH Pounder among the regular cast really matches up to Chiklis although all the cast has steadily improved since the first season. And guest stars such as Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker have put in season long turns that as fine as anything on television.
The Sopranos has won more awards and, in general, is the more highly esteemed show yet, I have to confess, I was playing out the string in watching the episodes rather than from genuine excitement. I’ve invested a lot of time in the series and I wanted – I wanted – to see how they ended it. I didn’t really much like it anymore. I’m watching The Shield, on the other hand because I find it more narratively riveting. I want to see what happens next. The Sopranos became more of a habit with me and, as Samuel Beckett said in Waiting For Godot, “Habit is a great deadener.” Nothing killed it deader for me than the final episode.
You may have heard about the ending. EDITOR’S SPOILER ALERT, assuming you’ve been hiding out on Earth 53. In a final scene, the Soprano family is gathered together in an ice cream parlor/restaurant. The daughter arrives late and we get long scenes of her trying to park the car. The director – who, in this episode, is also the writer as well as the series’ creator – David Chase focuses in on different strangers also in the restaurant. There is a suggestion of menace, of something impending, in the air. We go to a CU of Tony Soprano’s face, he glances at something off screen and then, suddenly, the screen goes black for several seconds before the credits start to roll.
My first reaction, like most of the other viewers, was that my cable has suddenly gone out. Nope. It’s what David Chase gave you as an ending. I had been worried that we would get a “life goes on” ending – nothing resolved, nothing changes, we simply aren’t there anymore. This was worse. It was a “pick your own ending” ending. Did Tony get shot? Could be. Does he get indicted and go to jail. Could be. Is he just looking at his daughter coming in late and life just goes on? Could be.
It was narratively bankrupt. All along, this has been Chase’s tale but now, at the end, it gets to be whatever we want? I don’t buy it. Chase is the storyteller; he needed to complete the story.
Chase appears to be addicted to “confounding expectations” – almost perversely so – and this felt like another one his, “You think I’m going to do this? I’m going to do that. Fuck you.” It seems to me that he’s become so addicted to confounding narrative expectations that he’s forgotten how to tell a story.
The entirety of The Sopranos’ mystique rests on their first season. Yeah, there have brilliant episodes here and there since but none of the seasons since have matched the first one where Chase did have a story to tell and the show was genuinely “must see” viewing. If their rep had to rest on any of the later seasons, it would have been considered a fine series but it wouldn’t have had the cachet it acquired.
As narrative, and this will seem like heresy to some, The Shield is superior to The Sopranos. It re-integrates what has happened before; the past has an influence on the present. Vic Mackey keeps scrambling but the consequences to his actions keep adding up. Some people might consider The Shield more pulp-ish (not that being “pulp-ish” would strike most people here as a bad thing, I think) and The Sopranos more literary. I think that The Shield is under-rated and The Sopranos is over-rated. A lot, of course, will depend on how The Shield’s creator, Shaun Ryan, chooses to wind up his show but I’ll tell you right now, I’d be willing to look at whatever he does next. Anything with David Chase’s name on it, I’ll give a pass.
There were other shows that I watched and enjoyed this season including long time faves such as The Simpsons and South Park, as well as new favorites like Robot Chicken, but maybe I’ll comment on them some other time. Right now I’m behind in my movie watching. And there’s a book or two that needs reading.
What? Get out in the sun and fresh air? That stuff can kill you! Besides, I have to start figuring what I’m going to watch in the fall. It’s never too soon to get your new rants ready.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/
In the interest of full disclosure, like Stephen Colbert, Mr. Ostrander is a member of The Legion of Del . Furthermore, Mr. Ostrander has penned a BBC-sanctioned Doctor Who stage play, and he just might get around to finishing a Doctor Who script for Big Finish Productions if ComicMix‘s editor-in-chief would just stop throwing work his way.