Limitless is So Much Fun - Watch It If You Can

The Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless has been extended into a TV series. As the Executive Producer and occasional cameo, Bradley Cooper was how this show was sold to the masses and me. I stayed for lighthearted tone with the really clever and funny homages, nods, rip-offs, whatever you want to call it to popular culture.  In addition, the props master is having loads of fun with this show, with making clay dolls of characters, a mini building out of post-it notes, NZT induced videos that show you what is going on in Brian's mind, and many other things. Here are my favourite references:

No. 5 - Bob Dylan

No. 4 to 2 - The Untouchables, Outbreak, The Abyss (I stood up and clapped this one as it starred Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and others. Get the T-shirt here

At No. 1 - Bueller, Bueller......Voodoo Economics

Canada's Strange Empire - A Western from the Female Perspective

On TV, the western genre has been depicted in many forms, from the traditional heyday of Mavrick, Bonanza, Little House on The Prairie, The High Chaparral to the 1980s/90s updates of Matt Houston, Walker Texas Ranger, Lonesome Dove, Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman and Young Riders (yes that is a deep cut, but I loved it as a teenager). Deadwood is the line in the sand when it comes to modern depictions of the genre with the move towards realism with a high dash of Shakespearean-like story telling and dialogue structure. This show moved the western from the white-washed, family friendly early evening westerns to a post-watershed drama that depicts violence, sex and some of the harsh realities of the historical period that they set in.  All of this in nothing new to a TV viewer who likes the western genre. We have been spoilt for choice with shows from the gritty end of the spectrum such as Hell On Wheels, to western/crime shows such as Longmire and Justified from the USA, to some more family friendly shows from Australia and Canada such as McLeod's Daughters, Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries.  

Here is another show to add to your viewing list.  Strange Empire has just finished its first season in Canada on its public service channel, CBS. It is set on the border of Montana (USA) and Alberta (Canada) around 1869. Canada was a new nation (established 1867 when the British North American Act was passed by the British Parliament and given royal assent by Queen Victoria. The Act joined the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in one federal union.) A bit of a wild time in Canada's history with the Cree,Peigan, Gros Ventre and Blackfoot people being moved off their land across the prairie and in some cases wiped out by the growth of the fur trade, the establishment of towns, farms and the railroad. Minerals deposits were mined, fortunes built, lawlessness ensued and many traders from the USA crossed the border to offer 'whiskey' made up of dyes, poisons, alcohol and medicine for goods from the local aboriginal people. So more Deadwood than Little House on the Prairie.

Strange Empire explores this era from the perspective of three women, Kat Loving (Cara Gee) who is a mix of Cree and white heritage and is married to a Scotman, Dr Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) who is on the autism spectrum and is a doctor travelling with her much older husband (also a doctor) who adopted her as a child, and after his first wife's death, married Rebecca to protect her, and Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawana Jones) the wife of the richest and most powerful man in the area, John Slotter (Aaron Poole), and the madame of whorehouse that is owned by Slotter. There is a big cast with many women who have more than the traditional, be seen and not heard role of women in a western. The show also gives voice to the stories of the Chinese immigrants, the Indian nations and other people of colour, who are not usually focused on in westerns unless it is a plot point to be solved by the white make protagonist. 

This is a bold show told with a mixture of gritty realism and lyrical wonder. It was created by writer/producer Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, who created Durham County and has written for many Canadian shows. I don't want to go into too much detail about themes and plot points as it would spoil the joy of discovery with this show. If you like your westerns with a strong 'this is how it most probably was like' streak, give it a go. It is quite a ride.     

Just Watch The 100 and Jane The Virgin

Like young adult (YA) fiction, TV programs made by the American TV Network, The CW, focuses on storytelling aimed at teenagers and young adults. And just like young adult fiction, these shows are watched by people of all ages. Typically seen as the network that produces genre shows with love triangles such as The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl that have furvent fan bases, The CW shows are often dismissed as guilty pleasures for adult TV watchers, embarrassed to admit they know their Stefan from their Klaus. In addition they are often not included in discussions about TV dramas, prestige or not, because they are genre shows. We all know these are not 'serious' TV, I mean Buffy The Vampire Slayer had no impact on the TV landscape, right? Well I say, firstly, there is nothing guilty about watching a show you enjoy, and secondly genre is the best way to tell stories about difficult issues. See this great article by Mo Ryan from The Huffington Post on which shows do this well. Two of the best shows on at the moment are The 100, which has just started its second season, and the brand new show, Jane The Virgin. And before you ask, what about Arrow? I agree, this is another great example, but it is in its third season now and much has been written about the show. Anyway, back to The 100 and Jane The Virgin. Two completely different shows that have strong female protagonists at the centre in common, as well as great writing, a good cast and they both have you asking when is the next episode on? I want to spend more time here. In this world. 

The 100 is science fiction. Check out the trailer for Season One below. It first seems to be a straightforward mix of Lord of the Flies and another YA dystopian novel, which is understandable because it is based on a YA dystopian novel of the same name by Kass Morgan. I have no clue if the show follows the novel so I cannot speak for the novel, but the show soon proved itself to be dark and gritty with choices having real consequences. There are romances, action, male shirtlessness and other hallmarks of a show from The CW, which can only recommend it to me, but may not be your cup of tea. The second season is two episodes in and is knocking it out of the park from a storytelling perspective. Here is hoping that it remains so. Catch up with last season and jump in now.

We are only three episodes into Jane The Virgin and it is great. It not only takes on soap opera techniques to tell the story but it also walks that fine line of mocking the tropes and making a point. And with a cast that is not white, middleclass and blonde. Start watching now. It is one for all ages.

Behind the Scenes with The Killing and Borgen

This week in Sydney, Australia, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak with Piv Bernt, Head of Drama at DK (Danish Broadcasting Corporation); Sofie Gråbøl, the lead actress ofThe Killing (Forbrydelsen); Adam Prise, creator and writer of Borgenand Sidse Babett Knudsen, lead actress for Borgen. Hosted by Australian TV personality Julia Zemiro from SBS, the talk gave us an insight into the way that TV drama is made in Denmark through the public broadcasting system and the strengths and weaknesses of having a small population on which to source the creative team.   

First off, the talk was in English, so the four people being interviewed spoke fluently in their second language and in the case of Sidse Babett Knudsen, a third language as she also speaks French.  Very impressive. Glimpsing behind the scenes on TV programs is usually the domain of US entertainment industry, and if you are lucky some very popular British programs.  To see how it is done in a European country is a rare treat.  Denmark has the population of 5.59 million.  So not many people in the grand scheme of things. DK is the public broadcasting company in Denmark and it runs in a similar way to the BBC, as it is an independent, licence-financed public institution. In the mid 1990s the Head of Drama at the time decided to focus on building quality stories with one vision. Inspired by the writing format of American shows on HBO like The Wire and Six Feet Under, that use a group of writers who work with the creator/show runner, and combining it a commitment to telling stories about contemporary Denmark, with all its strengths and weaknesses. For a writer/creator, getting a story commissioned by DK is the biggest hurdle, as there is an insistence from the broadcaster that the show is not just its three sentence description, it has a second or third layer that reflects life in Denmark.  Once the idea is commissioned, the 'one vision' approach takes over. The writer/creator is given 20 episodes to tell a story and enough pre-production time to build a team of cast and crew that contribute to the 'one vision' of the story that is being told. If you look back at the series of shows that came out of Denmark since the 1990s you could make a case for the inevitability of the success of The Killing and subsequently Borgen, The 'one vision' approach is working.  


An important point made by Piv Bernt when asked by why The Killing became an international hit when the previous shows from DK did not, was the investment made in production values. The look, the tone, the music and sound are important, and so is the acknowledgement and use of a unique location - Denmark. What a no-brainer.  No wonder tourism has increased in Denmark. It is a country I want to go to now, not so much before I watched my fill of Danish dramas.  

There are lessons in the approach taken from DK. The commitment to a story with a 20 episode commission takes the executive conversation away from ratings and the cancellation pressure off the cast and crew. The limited resources and opportunities makes the commissioning process more rigorous which means if the story is picked up, it 50% of the way there.   

The discussion also touched on the remakes - very polite, but just watch the original; the small pool of actors in a small country and the delight in offering well rounded characters of both sexes.  These stories are about human beings, no matter their gender. 


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.

Danish Crime Drama on TV

The Killing, the original Danish version and not the US remake, became a ratings hit for the BBC two years ago. British TV made European crime drama popular and started a shapeless knitted jersey fashion trend. Little did they know that European crime drama had been making a killing in Australia for a number of years.

Starting with the Danish onslaught of Unit One (Danish: Rejseholdet) and The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey (Danish: Ørnen: En krimi-odyssé) in the mid 2000s, the Australian TV channel, SBS, realised that by fulfilling its founding belief of that all Australians, regardless of geography, age, cultural background or language skills should have access to high quality, independent, culturally-relevant Australian media*, it was also getting a following for European flavoured crime. And then came The Killing, a whole year before the UK. We were glued to our TV sets week after week, stumbling across fellow viewers at dinner parties or at work. It was a throwback to the pre-internet 1990s. As it was not yet known in the US or the UK, the English-language based entertainment industry was not talking about it, and English speaking fans were in the minority. We went back to the original water cooler and the only spoilers were the previews for the next episode each week. It was fantastic.

Since then we have had The Protectors (Danish: Livvagterne) about the police bodyguard squad (PET) and most recently The Bridge (Swedish/Danish: Bron/Broen), a Danish and Swedish co-production about a murder investigation resulting from a body found on the Oresund Bridge connecting the two countries.  FX in the US have already ordered a pilot for a US remake taking place on the border between the US and Mexico.  It looks like the remake factory hasn't learnt their lesson from The Killing experience.  Getting a glimpse into Danish culture is half the fun of these series. The popularity of The Killing in the UK led to the BBC trusting the taste of its audience and importing two French crime dramas, Spiral (French: Engrenages) and Barquo (French: Barquo).

All three series of Spiral have shown on SBS, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. For some of the best commentary on The Killing, Spiral, The Bridge, and Danish political drama Borgen, go to The Guardian online. There you can find a community of viewers who know their Sofie Gråbøl from their Sofia Helin, and help you with the light fittings envy that wells up inside you once you have watched more than one European crime dramas. No one does household furnishings like the Northern Europeans.                     

* Us/Our Story