All About Style

It is a time for celebration.  The new season of Mad Man started this week with a cracking feature length opening episode.  And with that, we are all over analysing and weighing every gesture and word for the next two or so months.  the conversation around this program is just as much fun as watching.  One of my favourite recaps of the show is my Tom & Lorenzo, who usually talk fashion on a daily basis with a smattering of TV recaps of shows they are interested in. And one of those shows is Mad Men.  In addition to their recap they offer an look at the style of Mad Men.  This is one show where what is worn and how the scene is dressed is just as important as what is being said or done.  Tom & Lorenzo offer up great insight and context to Mad Men and I recommend reading their posts after watching the episode.  

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Most TV programs give a nod to style and you can't read much into what the characters wear, especially as 80% of them are about cops, lawyers, doctors and in recent years criminals and really rich people betraying each other.  This may be because these shows are set present day, but it is also because it is not required by the story telling as they are mainly plot driven.  But even the other big cable shows that are more than plot, do not use clothes and set in the same way.  There is only so much you can do with a zombie and Game Of Thrones is set in a different world entirely and is a different type of storytelling.   What we are left with is a variation of theme, as can be seen from the many pant and skirt suits worn by female characters who are in a profession or a casual jeans, boots and leather jacket look, and the skin tight glamour dresses worn by female characters who play rich women not being nice to each other.  The men just seem to wear suits or jeans no matter what they are doing. So welcome back Mad Men and the many many recappers of the internet.  Put some time aside and watch a program with a bit of style.  

A Great Second Hour

The second season of the BBC’s six-part drama, The Hour is a perfect example of how to make a good thing even better.  Creator and writer Abi Morgan has built on what worked in the first season, the relationship and chemistry between the three leads, the behind the scenes of broadcast journalism and a comment on 1950s Britain, and has added a more realistic overarching political story that connects better with the creation of The Hour, the most important 60 minutes of the week. 

As the show is set in the 1950s, The Hour keeps getting compared to Mad Men.  This is a trite and lightweight comparison based on the window dressing of men and women in a media industry smoking and drinking in a decade from the mid 20th century.  The structures of the shows are vastly different.  The Hour is s traditionally structured six part drama that is made every year in Britain. For example, White Heat, Case Histories, Call The Midwife, Misfits... the list goes on.  Mad Men just happens to be set in the 1960s in New York but it is about the creation and delusion of identity.  Each season is quite different to the one before and there is no guarantee the next episode is going to be structured like the one you just watched.    These comparisons should be left behind. 

The second season of The Hour continues the quality from the first season.  It is a well written, acted and directed.  The best way to watch this show is in one setting as it is great to sink into this world and become witness to what is happening.  This season centres around the ongoing investigation into corruption and vice in Soho, London, which gives us an insight into some of the very real social problems in the United Kingdom at the time.  Britain had spent 10 years rebuilding after the Second World War, there is a shift in working class London with the influx of immigrants from post-colonial countries, the nuclear arms race has started and the US begins to flex its new superpower status on the world stage. 

As in the first series, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is the producer, Hector Madden (Dominic West) is the face of the program, and Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) comes back from his travels around the world to be the co-presenter and chasers of stories.   I wondered how Abi Morgan was going to keep this trio’s interwoven relationship interesting and real, without dropping off into the soap opera abyss.  But she manages it with the help of three great actors.   However, the show is nearly stolen from beneath them by Peter Capaldi, joins the series as Randall Brown, the new Head of News and Current Affairs, and Anna Chancellor as veteran journalist Lix Storm.  Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor are two of the finest British actors and they prove it in these six episodes.  Their story is beautifully done.   

The only niggle I have with regards to character development is that Bel seems to overruled at every turn by either her new boss, Randall or told what to do by her best friend and subordinate, Freddie.  It is a bit undermining to try and say that this woman is a very good TV news producer, when she is not solving some of the problems or making some of the decisions for herself.  But don’t let that niggle stop you.  Put some time aside to watch the six episodes in one sitting and enjoy great drama made well.

Top 10 Favourite TV Programs for 2012

This is the time for those pesky Top 10 lists for the year.  I am not going to do the ‘best’ as I don’t watch everything – I have never gotten into Breaking Bad, I am on a break from Sons of Anarchy (the 4th season was just too violent)  and I think Homeland is good but not great.  So here are my top 10 favourite programs for 2012:

10. Justified (USA) Season 3
How could that they top that awesome second season? Well they did. The big bads for the season were Detroit mobster, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) trying to get in on the local Oxy action, and local ‘mayor’ of Noble’s Holler in the segregated part of Harlan County, Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson).  However, the season was all about family, their betrayal and loyality, both Raylan’s and Boyd’s.

9. Archer (USA) Season 3
This is the funniest and sharpest spy adult cartoon on the planet.  There is great voice work by H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash and Jessica Walter and you actually start to care for these crazy characters and their insane lives. 

8. Fringe (USA) Season 5
Fringe is one of the best shows on at the moment.  It is an ode to creativity and strength of conviction.  As soon as the series creators realised the show was not going to get ratings that make it a ‘hit’, but they did have an avid fan base and support from Fox Network, they had the licence to tell the stories they want.  Fringe’s final season is proving to be completely different from what came before and simultaneously true to previous seasons.  The trio of Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Walter (John Noble) are fantastic actors and they anchor you through the incrediable leaps of faith required in good science fiction.  I suspect that this shows legacy will be ‘All You Need Is Love’.

7. Being Human (UK) Season 4
What do you do when one of your lead actors decides to leave the show to go to New Zealand to make The Hobbit? You give him the best send off in the final of the previous season, start to close the story arcs of the remaining lead characters in the beginning episodes of the latest season and seamlessly introduce and reboot the series.  Beautifully done.

6. Call The Midwife (UK) Season 1
Midwifery in London’s East End in the 1950s.  Not your typical topic for great Sunday night TV.  But this charming BBC series based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth is a winning combination of comedy and drama.  Showing us the true worth of the British National Health Service and introducing the comedian Miranda Heart to a great dramatic role.

5.  The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) Season 1
The Bridge was the first joint creative and financial set up between Denmark and Sweden.  The story is driven by a criminal investigation instigated by the dumping of a body on the Oresund Bridge joining Sweden and Denmark.  One investigator from each country, this detective double act is a winning combination of verging on Aspergers Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), the lead homicide detective in Malmö and friendly Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), the lead homicide detective in Copenhagen.  The first season is a compelling crime story with great twists and turns and loads of adrenalin.

4. Game of Thrones (USA) Season 2
This adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels, this second season is bigger, better and with more characters.  It builds up to the Battle of Blackwater, with all its magic, betrayal, love and scheming, however it is the character duets that stand out in this season.    The wonderful work between Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, head of the Lannister family and Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, the younger daughter of Stark family of Winterfell who is disguised as an orphan boy and in his service as she tries to get back to Winterfell from King’s Landing ; Rose Leslie as Ygritte, a Wildling and Kit Harrington as a new member of the Night Watch and Ned Stark bastard,  Jon Snow; Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth, a female warrior and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her prisoner of war, Jaime Lannister; and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister trading barbs with Lena Heady his elder sister and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Cersei Baratheon.

3. Mad Men (USA) Season 5
There was some backlash over the amount of time spent on Megan (Jessica Pare), Don’s second wife this season, but to me it was logical that she was seen in stark contrast to Betty (January Jones) and her icy coldness of previous seasons.  Although their screen time was not as much as Megan, it was decisions made by Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) that had the greatest impact.  Season 6 will be very interesting indeed.

2. The Killing (Denmark) Season 3 or 4 depending who you ask
Technically it is Season 4, but as 1 and 2 were shown at once in the UK, the Brits call it Season 3.  Now coming to an end next week in the UK, this season and this series is great television.  It will go down in the TV Annals as one of the best crime dramas made with a mesmerising central performance by Sofie Grabol as Detective Inspector Sarah Lund.

1.  Sherlock (UK) Season 2
Just four words – A Scandal In Belgravia.  Enough said.  Best 90 minutes of TV for 2012.

Carrying a Show

A 15 minute scene in episode 5 of the second season of Homeland pushes the show from good into flashes of greatness.  There were elements there is season 1 (that episode at the cabin the woods) and I think the show writers have realised that and are starting to thread the connection between to two main characters, Carrie and Brody, through a twisty and turny season 2.  This scene in episode 5 is a master class in acting and I am sure will be on Claire Danes and Damien Lewis’ Emmy show reels, but if I were them, I would not start counting the acting honours just yet, because similar things were said of that season 4 episode of Man Men, The Suitcase.   It did not just have 15 minutes of greatness; it was a brilliant hour of television.  Centred on the relationship between series leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss), it focuses on a deadline for an advertising pitch for the latest suitcase from Samsonite.  The push and pull between the mentor/mentee dynamic at work and the deep, complicated, very realistic friendship between Peggy and Don underlines the whole episode, but not in a broad, talky, can’t you see you are watching art, way, but in that, I recognise that awkward silence and conversations that segue into resentful confrontations or unexpected declarations, way.  Great writing, great acting, great show. 

It made me start to think of other great, standout episodes in the last four years from US television. I have cut it off at four years, because if it was anymore, that would include all five seasons of The Wire, and that is a whole other post.  So back to the last four years:

Big Love – Season 3, episode 6:  Come, ye saints

The entire family goes on a road trip/pilgrimage to Cumorah, New York the location of an Joseph Smith shrine.  It is epic.  The show may seem to be about patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) but it is really about the sister-wives, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicky (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Gennifer Goodwin).  Revelations abound in the episode from the kids, the sister-wives and Bill himself.  We get to the end and although it all seems like it is going to be ok, the pilgrimage changed the family forever.

Friday Night Lights – Season 5, episode 12: Texas Whatever

Choosing one episode from Friday Night Lights was hard, but I picked the penultimate episode of the last season because it has the most heartbreaking scenes between Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) as they argue, discuss and struggle through the decision they need to make about whose job offer their family is going to take.  It all comes down to one line “I’m gonna say to you what you haven’t had the grace to say to me. Congratulations, Eric.” You feel that a hammer is being taken to one of the best TV marriages.  Ever.  But this is not your typical TV program, and this momentous decision and the impact on the family is done without a trace of soap suds.

Game of Thrones –Season 1, episode 9: Baelor

Yes, that one.  Look away now if you don’t want to be spoiled. Now that is one way to end an episode.  You do not really expect that sort of storytelling decision making.  You do not typically fell your main character in the penultimate episode of your first season, it certainly makes you think about which character it could happen to next.  NO ONE IS SAFE.  And no, I haven’t read the books, so I am following the story as they are made for television.  The lazy way. 

Community – Season 1, episode 23: Modern Warfare

You have to love a sitcom that pays homage to Hollywood action movies through a paintball competition on a community college campus.  Pure genius.  It is hilarious.  You can feel the cast and crew having fun making this episode.

Fringe – Season 2, episode 16: Peter

From the retro title sequence to the brilliant de-aging of Walter (John Noble), the episode takes you back to 1985 and gives you some of the origins of the series.  What happened to Peter (Joshua Jackson), Walter's son and how Walter tried to save him by crossing over to an alternate universe and the impact this has on the world and their families   It is a monumental performance by John Noble and guest star Orla Brady as Peter's mother Elizabeth.