This week’s Friday High Five focuses on the small screen. It’s old news that television has entered something of a golden age, with the advent of DVD box-sets enabling ongoing narratives with the feel and complexity of novels. But television writing is also pretty good these days. We share five favourites. And yes, spoiler alerts ahead (in the links) if you haven’t watched the shows.
Once upon a time, it was kind of embarassing for an actor to make the move from film to TV. But these days, everyone’s doing it (think Steve Buscemi and Kelly McDonald in Boardwalk Empire; Angelica Huston and Uma Thurman in Smash). A recently Vanity Fair article strongly argues the case that TV is, in fact, the better place to be these days:
TV is where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. As I write this, the Academy Awards are a few days away, with The Artist the odds-on best-picture winner. Does anyone think The Artist is better than Mad Men?
The latest HBO show to become a cult favourite is Girls. It’s also the most written-about show of the moment. In the pilot, 25-year-old star Lena Dunham (also the show’s writer and creator) tells her parents, who have just financially cut her off, ‘I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.’
As a show about four female friends in New York City (more specifically: Brooklyn), all of them articulate hipsters, it lends itself to Sex in the City comparisons, musings on what it says about Dunham’s generation and even what the sex scenes say about the sexual mores of young women today.
And yesterday James Franco weighed in, writing that ‘The guys in the show are the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen’ and weirdly calling its portrayal of men ‘fair payback … for Entourage’, which he sees as payback, in turn, for the ‘male dorks’ on Sex in the City.
Aaron ‘West Wing’ Sorkin makes his return to television with a typically talky new workplace-based HBO show, Newsroom, with a cast that includes Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. Vanity Fair interviewed him about the show and his working method for their television issue. ‘I really like workplace shows,’ he told the magazine. ‘I like creating workplace families, and writing about people who are very good at what they do, and less good at everything else.’ He says:
‘I can only write the way I write. I’m not altering my writing style at all because it’s on HBO. Yes, I am able to – when I want to – use the language of adulthood when people get a little hot under the collar, which wasn’t something that I was able to do, say, on The West Wing. Frankly, I would have loved to be able to do it there.’
If you’d told us five years ago that a whole genre of television writing would be devoted to retelling the plot of shows that had already aired, we would have thought you were nuts. But recap culture is huge on the internet – and can be kinda addictive. The best recaps are like chatting about a show with someone far more articulate, witty and insightful than you.
Australia is a few episodes behind the US in Mad Men (on Pay TV and iTunes; free-to-air TV is far, far more behind). If you can’t resist peeking ahead, Nelle Engoron’s recaps on Salon are terrific reading, with astute analysis of the themes of the show. Locally, the Age runs tongue-in-cheek, gently satirical recaps of every episode of Masterchef, with a revolving cast that includes their Saturday TV columnist Ben Pobjie, author of the Superchef: A Parody.
The era of television-as-art is also the era of the TV auteur; many of the most-loved shows are as associated with their writer/creators as with their lead actors. (Just a few: Joss Whedon and Buffy, David Simon and The Wire, Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing, Matthew Weiner and Mad Men.) This week, the internet is buzzing with the firing of Dan Harmon, creator of quirky episodic comedy Community. The show follows the comic misadventures of a mismatched study group at an LA community college; but the setting and wacky characters are really just the props for Harmon to play with, as he combines killer one-liners and canny social observation with mad riffing on the construct of television itself.
Central character Abed, a TV addict with (never-quite-diagnosed) Asperger’s Syndrome, enables rapid-fire references that range from The Breakfast Club to Mad Men, Doctor Who and Goodfellas. A Wired profile of Harmon from last year revealed that Harmon, too, probably has Asperger’s Syndrome. The article is also a terrific look at how he crafts and creates the show, including a unique approach to narrative:
He wanted to codify the storytelling process – to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. ‘I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,’ he says of how stories are told. ‘Some simplicity.’ So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps.
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