Why haven’t any bankers been criminally prosecuted for the financial crisis? Every time that question is asked, it seems to become more and more unanswerable.
I reviewed Frontline’s “The Untouchables,” airing on PBS tonight. It tries very hard to answer the recurring question of why, four years after Wall Street helped the financial world explode, there are no Wall Street executives in jail today. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but then no one ever has.
It’s worth watching; it doesn’t break much new ground if you’re like me and have paid professional attention to the financial crisis fallout over the past four years, but it’s a devastating story well-told.
The Hour is a much better show than The Newsroom. It’s more entertaining, funnier and more sophisticated in its depiction of a team of television journalists chasing stories and Standing Up for The Truth. Its characters are more interesting and more likable than their counterparts on The Newsroom and it’s more feminist, mostly.
Which is why it was so blasted irritating to keep having Newsroom flashbacks during this season of The Hour, and to realize that I have the same problem with the main woman characters on both shows. Abi Morgan’s Bel Rowley is essentially Aaron Sorkin’s MacKenzie McHale - a news producer who’s supposedly brilliant at her job, even though we spend most of our time watching her lose arguments to her hot-headed, even more brilliant male colleague-slash-love interest. Bel has so much potential, and admittedly at times she’s allowed to show flashes of actual professional competence. But like MacKenzie, she’s a cipher in the romance that the show tells us is its all-encompassing, overriding central relationship. Like MacKenzie, she’s the misguided partner in the relationship for rejecting the hero’s love. Like MacKenzie, her reasons for doing so remain mostly hidden to the audience.
Spoilers for The Hour’s second season…
I gather from the Internet (spoilers, I assume?) that I’m likely to be disappointed with the second-season finale of Homeland, which aired last night. I’m about a season behind, so that disappointment will be waiting for me. But the general Twitter malcontent today reminded me of the second-season (and ultimate) finale of Life, that other show starring Damian Lewis as a longtime prisoner dropped back into his daily routine a lot worse for the wear.
I have such a complicated reaction, still, to “One,” Life’s final episode. It made no sense in the regular continuity of the series, especially after Life spent the second season “retooling” and throwing out most of what made the show work in the first season. Then the finale threw out most of those changes. Suddenly, bam, Charlie’s nemesis is suddenly dead! So is Dani’s dad! Charlie and Dani suddenly realize they’re soul mates! (In the series’ last shot, even though there were about three seasons’ worth of missing plot and character development needed to get them to that point.)
But if I can simultaneously ignore most of the episodes leading up to the Life finale and pretend that I saw those three missing seasons before the finale, I like it. I like seeing the sketch of where I imagine the writers wanted the characters to ultimately go, before they learned of the show’s untimely demise. I assume that they decided what the hell, if we’re cancelled, let’s show our endgame. And I’d rather have seen that finale, character continuity be damned, than the one that pretends the whole Dani-sleeping-with-her-gross-boss thing was actually a plot point that needed to be remembered or resolved.
(Also the Life soundtrack was amaaaazing and provided what are still some of the most frequently-played songs on my iTunes. IMDB tells me that most of the series’ music staff went on to work on shows like Parenthood and House, which … huh.)
Sherlock Holmes is a fundamentally boring character. Geniuses usually are. Whether it’s the Guy Ritchie movies or the Stephen Moffat-Benedict Cumberbatch orgy, the character of Sherlock Holmes in modern adaptions is pretty incapable of being wrong, and thus learning, and thus growing. When you make a character practically omniscient, he’s pretty dull.
It’s for this reason that I was excited about Elementary. Its Sherlock Holmes can be petty, childish, and fallible. Its Watson can be intelligent, is definitely more street smart, and occasionally gets the upper hand on Holmes. I love the genderswitch, though I maintain that it would have been even better to cast Lucy Liu as Sherlock; as is, her Watson falls into the expected gender role of the “genius wrangler” tradition. (See also: Teresa Lisbon in The Mentalist, Kate Beckett in Castle.)
I’m not a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock — no offense to the much-beloved Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, but the icy infallibility of the main character is fundamentally uninteresting to me, not to mention the gender issues and whatever the hell was going on with naked-dominatrix-cum-terrorist-victim Irene Adler. But so far, Elementary hasn’t quite lived up to my hopes of being an equally ambitious television adaptation. It keeps on flirting with the main character’s backstory, dropping an “Irene” mention every few episodes, without committing or wanting to engage the audience’s attention that much. I’ve spent episodes waiting for some sign that the writers have a greater arc in mind, to no avail. I was thrilled when Roger Rees showed up, and I spent the entire episode expecting some hint that secretly, he’s Moriarty — but nope. Apparently this Sherlock can have the junkie backstory and a companion named Watson, but his main function is to solve crimes slightly ahead of the NYPD.
To make the logical fanfic comparison — because fundamentally, these series are televised fanfic — Sherlock is a highly-regarded slash fic. It may be written in the second person. Its sentences are short, spare, Raymond Carver-esque (if Raymond Carver dabbled in the incredibly angsty adventures of two men in love). It is all about feelings and delicate interpersonal slights and slight facial expressions, even if words as mundane as “feelings” are never explicitly stated. Women are firmly removed to supporting-character roles, either written off with the underlying assumption that they can never really understand the tortured hero as well as his male best friend and partner can, or reduced to playing the wry, wise yenta in the background. The author has written between three to five such fics on her livejournal, which is otherwise friends-locked. You may come away from reading it with the impression that the writer was a fairly successful contributor to her college poetry journal.
Elementary, meanwhile, is one of the better-written 26-chapter gen fics on fanfiction.net. The author tries as faithfully as possible to give the heroes a fully-developed case to solve in the course of the story, complete with red herrings and witnesses and suspects, not aware that no one really reads these stories for the procedurals. The main characters are competently-written, pleasanter versions of themselves. Most friction is gentle, and most of their interactions with each other are neutered, never threatening to develop into either romantic passion or irreconcilable tension. The author may add some fictional backstory for Watson or, sparingly, Holmes. She may also brush against canonical characters or events, dropping a name or a reference to a cocaine addiction, but will ultimately be too reverent towards the source material to really engage with it. Getting through this fic is the reading equivalent of watching a Law & Order rerun - your attention will be held until the resolution, at which point you will promptly forget the entire plot and all associated details.
I’d like to see Elementary develop more of a storytelling edge. I’d love to see it attack the rest of the Sherlock Holmes cannon with the same lack of reverence that it showed in casting Liu and Jonny Lee Miller as a modern Watson and Holmes plopped into a Brooklyn brownstone. I want to see it use its plum post-Superbowl spot to launch a more ambitious story arc, for those of us who know that Liu and Miller can do much more with these characters than the writers are allowing them. Of course, it’s the current formula that got it that post-Superbowl spot, so I won’t be holding my breath. But it wouldn’t take much tweaking for Elementary to find the happy medium of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
I was bitterly disappointed with the first season of The Hour, otherwise known as the British Newsroom by way of Mad Men, plus spies. (And oh, those halcyon days of last October, before I knew how acute “Aaron Sorkin’s massive inability to write consistently intelligent women and/or romances” would become.) The show seems to have gotten a lot more buzz for its second season on BBC America; some of the attention is of the wary, “please don’t bring back the spies” variety, but much of it applauds The Hour’s glamorous atmosphere, pedigreed cast and seeming feminist bona fides.
I was less convinced, especially after this season’s first episode. It featured nominal heroine Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) once again passively reacting to events, having lost her “spark” along with her spurned platonic soul mate (Ben Whishaw playing Ben Whishaw, eerily pubescent face not improved by a breakup beard). “She’s an excellent producer, you know,” was said of Bel late in that episode, in a throw-the-remote example of “tell, don’t show” characterization.
The second episode was much better. We actually got to see Bel working on her own, protecting her reporters and digging up information from cagey sources. It was the first time in several episodes that the show bothered to show us the professional competence of our main woman character, rather than assuring us that really, she is professionally competent, trust us, and wouldn’t you rather see her make another disastrously bad romantic decision? (Of course, the episode couldn’t help teeing up a bit of the latter. Someday I’d love to see a female journalist on television whose characterization doesn’t boil down to “professionally brilliant, personal screwup.” But at least Bel’s personal foibles this season seem like they will pale next to the implosion of her co-worker and ex-lover, Hector “Jimmy McNulty” Madden.)
And there were other promising developments. Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is still a little too perfectly saintly and Gary Stu for me, but the second episode showed a few interestingly ugly cracks in that identity. Notably: his new wife is attacked in a hate crime, and he leaves her side to catch her attacker — not to punish him, but to convince him to come appear on Freddie’s TV program. Freddie’s crusading morality and drive to get the story at any cost was already a big part of his character and the plot in season one, but I found it interesting that we’re now shown how extreme he can be even when the stakes are relatively minor. He’s not trying to crack open a super-secret Soviet conspiracy (spies!), he’s trying to book a guest for what amounts to a talk show. This choice, the privileging of professional over personal, is one he will always make, and his wife Camille is understandably upset when she becomes the “personal” in this episode. Freddie later tells Bel that eventually, “she’ll love me for it,” but whether that’s truth or foolish optimism remains to be seen. Camille would be a more interesting character if it’s the former, but given her romantic-spoiler status in the core Freddie-Bel-Hector triangle, I suspect it will eventually turn out to be the latter.
And then there’s the marvelous Anna Chancellor, whose Lix Storm seems to be getting a bit more background and screen time with a new love interest. (Yes, Lix also invited Freddie into her bed, for reasons that probably had to do with her role as a partial Abi Morgan stand-in, allowing the showrunner to consummate her crush on her favorite character. Let us never speak of it again.) Lix spent much of last season fondly mocking the shenanigans of the kids around her, which made it all the more unsettling when she decided to partake in them. But with Peter Capaldi’s Randall Brown, she sparks against an equal. Brown is a strangely compelling character, somehow managing to balance quirk with gravitas, and Capaldi and Chancellor show how chemistry is done. In the second episode of this season, they exchange glances - just a look, just fleeting expressions — and it’s like an entire relationship in a few seconds.
I haven’t even mentioned how much I like what Morgan is doing with Hector’s neglected wife Marnie, a onetime Betty Draper who just staged a coup in her marriage. I loved how Marnie mentioned Bel when she told Hector that she was done with all but appearances, that by then Bel was not The Other Woman but another example of Hector’s mistreatment of “two smart, beautiful women.”
So yeah, I’m hooked again. Here’s hoping the next four episodes don’t implode quite as much last year’s did.
There’s a special art to ending a season of a television show, especially if that show’s future is uncertain. A season finale has to leave the viewer hooked, willing to wait a summer or a year or more for the future adventures of the characters — but also satisfied to some extent, in the case of cancellation or other catastrophe. I’ve never been a fan of the big cliffhanger ending: “Tune in next year to see what’s in the hatch, who was shot, if the main character lives or dies!” I like the milder cliffhangers, the ones that provide a certain amount of closure while opening the door to new questions.
Unfortunately, The Newsroom’s first season finale failed as any kind of cliffhanger. “The Greater Fool” was the opposite of enticing - nothing and nobody changed from their season-long stasis, no questions were raised that demand answers or even invite speculation while the show is off the air.
Will McAvoy’s news program is pretty much back where it was at the beginning of the season - tilting at windmills, making little difference, with a reprieve from the network ratings mandate that wasn’t even a known threat when the series began. Will McAvoy’s romance is pretty much where it was at the beginning of the season, and even more frustratingly, Will McAvoy’s staff’s romances are pretty much where they were at the beginning of the season. Yes, Sloan has been invited to join the least plausible office incest pool ever, but her conversations with Don were maddeningly emblematic of how this show treats romances - Aaron Sorkin finds any excuse not to move any relationship away from its season-long holding pattern, even after a big splashy kiss in front of a painful Sex and the City reference. (I could have found some excuses for that scene if it had actually led to some sort of change in the characters, but no - Maggie and Jim have now made explicit what they’ve both known, and what the audience has known, for ten episodes, but please let’s not do anything hasty, like actually act on that knowledge.)
As a contrast, rival summer TV series Bunheads and Political Animals knocked their season finales out of the park. For Bunheads, renewal was confirmed by the time I watched it; for Political Animals, it seems much less certain. But for both shows, I could almost be satisfied if their first season finales were their last.
Political Animals ended its season on an upbeat note, Bunheads on a relative downer, but both left me wondering about the characters’ futures, without leaving them in mortal peril. Michelle will crawl back to Vegas, waiting for a call from Fanny that may or may not come. Elaine Barrish will run for president, and may or may not succeed. Both finales showed the main characters making decisions and changing course, reaching some resolutions while opening up new avenues of conflict.
But not at The Newsroom. Sorkin basically pushed a big reset button on his characters and his setup, assuming a (granted) renewal, assuming that we want to see the same stories over again next season. Why should we bother? Sorkin did a major disservice to his characters and his stories by giving The Newsroom one of the most forgettable television season finales I’ve ever seen.
Bunheads got renewed, hurrah! I finally caught up on last week’s episode, which unfortunately was as disappointing as advertised. All of the characters were written to be the cartoonish parody versions of themselves, acting more like escapees from a painful Saturday Night Live sketch than actual human beings. (Fanny injuring students — really? All of the girls losing their brains and/or voices when faced with boys who maybe liked them — really? Michelle and the interminable saga of the coffee shop… I mean, there were literally at least four pratfalls in this episode, with the falling student, the falling Ginny, and Michelle’s double coffee-shop knockout, which is at least three pratfalls too many for any television series that isn’t an improv comedy show.)
Michelle and Sasha’s talk near the end was great and perfectly in line with the show’s failure-and-regret strengths, but that was one minute of good versus 44 of bad. But let’s focus on the positive — a surprise renewal, which hopefully will mean a much better balance of good-to-bad in tomorrow’s finale and future episodes.
I’m hoping for a similar ratings reprieve for Political Animals, the other summer show I’m watching and mostly enjoying. The good:
-Sigourney Weaver plays Hillary Clinton as the badass she’s so publicly become these days. Some of the best parts of the show are watching Weaver’s Secretary of State character handle international crises while navigating internal White House politics and personalities.
-Carla Gugino plays an actually believable veteran journalist who manages to be both professionally competent and an occasional screwup in her personal life without ever “slipping on a banana peel” or forgetting how email works (take notes, Aaron Sorkin). I don’t buy her massive, massive lapse of judgment in last week’s episode, but — focusing on the positive here!
-The newsroom of Gugino’s paper actually somewhat resembles an actual newsroom, complete with at least a token nod to the importance of blogging and online publication in the 2012 media universe.
-The relationships, especially the non-romantic professional ones, are wonderfully complex. I’m not enthralled by the Gugino-editor-blogger triangle, but I really enjoy Gugino’s interactions with the younger blogger. She’s a personal and a professional threat, but also an inexperienced journalist who needs Gugino’s mentoring, and also a colleague who has some information Gugino needs and who will withhold it unless she gets to share the byline. Like the wary relationship between Gugino’s character and Weaver’s character, there are a lot of nuances and the show takes the time to at least nod to most of them. (I wish the show would focus on them and drop some of the tedious gay-suicidal-addict son shame-spiral, but again - focusing on the positive.)
Political Animals has its finale tonight at 10. It has yet to be renewed, so my fingers are crossed for another Bunheads miracle, if only so I don’t spend all of next summer only inside Sorkin’s newsroom.
Loose Seal! Les Cousins Dangereux! Analrapists! I had a lot of fun writing for Movieline about the long-anticipated next installment of Arrested Development, filming now and coming soon to a Netflix near you.