Looking back rather prematurely on 2014, I feel the urge to chronicle some of my impressions on screen culture, within which I regularly immerse myself. This first instalment will be mainly about the small screen, and will be concerned largely with overseas productions. I do intend to do a follow-up Australian TV episode as well as of course a blog episode totally devoted to Films.
I have a pleasant enough viewing set-up at home (see accompanying picture) – not ideal, technologically speaking, but it suits me OK for now. I even tape programs still on VHS, a rather embarrassing fact I find hard to admit as a film academic – but it is now out there in blog confession-land. One day I will simply have to upgrade my systems, hopefully getting ‘by with a little help from my friends’. Meanwhile I am mainly ‘watching the detectives’ parading on the small screen as much as possible, with some light relief thrown in. (Apologies to Meatloaf and Elvis Costello).
WATCHING THE DETECTIVES…USA style
The international TV highlight of the year for me was the taut, terrific US series True Detective. Even though the script sometimes was over the top and the plot resolution rather far-fetched and loose-ended – who cares, all is forgiven, when the two magnificently talented actors, Matthew McConnaughy and Woody Harrelson, played up a superb storm. Like many others, I am looking forward eagerly to the next instalment, even though those two actors won’t star in it and the setting will also be different in place, if not in mood. I gather from the internet that the three male leads in Season 2 will be Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch, with the female lead as yet undecided. One aspect I am very proud of in relation to the multi-awardwinning first season of True Detective is that a former star QUT Film and TV student, Patrick Clair won the Emmy award for designing the Best Opening Titles Design in a TV Series. His industry work is haunting and unforgettable, and this is a fabulous artistic achievement!
Another excellent offering from the US on the small screen this year was, of course, Fargo – not quite as good as the film, in my opinion, which is a masterpiece by the Coen Brothers; but probably I shouldn’t compare the two mediums. It is great to hear there is another season in the pipeline. Will the extraordinarily menacing Billy Bob Thornton be raised from the dead? I will certainly miss him in the new series.
Of course, Breaking Bad just seemed to get better and better in so many unexpected ways, that this series has become lauded as a masterpiece alongside such all-time stand-out masterpiece series as The Sopranos and The Wire. Who can ever forget the finale? What more accolades can I hand this series? It is extraordinary in every way.
And I have to mention the less well-recognised, gritty series Justified, which I discovered to my delight in the USA a couple of years ago, and have followed faithfully, season by season, ever since. Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (played by the delicious actor Timothy Olyphant) and his nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) struggle with their own personal demons, as well as good and evil in Harlan County, Kentucky, where they both grew up together, and then followed separate paths. The final season is due to premiere in the New Year – what another summer feast to savour then.
SAVOURING BRITISH, IRISH AND EUROPEAN TV PRODUCTIONS
British television show highlights for me this year have been a few gems discovered, almost by chance, via Foxtel channels such as BBC1. I had to install Foxtel 20 years ago because of reception issues in New Farm, particularly regarding ABC and SBS, neither of which I could live without, both professionally and personally. Then, and even more so now, these national channels are under threat. Need I say more?
Aside: I know I should renegotiate my deal with Foxtel as I seem to be one of the lost souls in their marketing strategies – some person I spoke to a while ago couldn’t quite believe the deal I had, which was so out of date it wasn’t funny at all. He probably hadn’t even been born when I had Foxtel installed. This company does forget their loyal longstanding customers, that is for sure.
Two series off the beaten track that I have enjoyed this past year have been Shetland and Vera, both originally from novels by Ann Cleeves. There is a dark, northern atmosphere, a tustling within and between the protagonists, their respective pasts and the challenges of a dangerous present, and the leading actors are topnotch — award-winning Brenda Blethyn (Vera) and Douglas Henshall as Jimmy in Shetland (with his sexy Scottish accent). Vera had a very short run a while ago on Nine – it was pulled typically and unceremoniously, before it could even get a following… so it is good to see the show now on the crime channel Thirteenth Street.
Similarly haunted by demons (which homicide detective isn’t?) is the main protagonist Tom of Hinterland, a crime series set in Aberwystwyth, Wales. This series has been called by The Guardian ‘nordic noir done the Welsh way’. While this isn’t up to the high standard of such superlative Nordic noir series as The Bridge, The Killing and Wallander, the stories are fresh and quite compelling, with many windswept, moody shots of an introverted hero on the edge.
QUIRKY IN THE BEST SENSE
One special favourite of mine in the latest mix has been Quirke, another superb, very dark series (Irish/British) which I stumbled on by fortunate happenstance, while searching for something else. Set in 1950s Dublin, the marvellous Gabriel Byrne brilliantly inhabits the main character, a troubled pathologist, and the three-part series is so much better than the often fatuous CSI-type programs on commercial TV. Over the past couple of years, I have read and enjoyed the novels on which the series is based, and this added an extra dimension of pleasure, rather than being a distraction. Sometimes one can get caught up too much in a vortex of comparison, where the adaptation is found wanting. However, this series is so well produced that this never happened for me. The amazingly versatile author is Booker Prize winner John Banville, who writes the Quirke books under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.
Another compelling Irish-British crime drama is The Fall, starring the super-cool Gillian Anderson as the DCI, and the standout actor Jamie Dornan, playing the villain. I am currently re-watching the gripping Season 1 on SBS, and I am looking forward very much to Season 2. I am not quite sure if that will play on Foxtel or on SBS first. Another quite enthralling detective thriller screening unheralded on SBS currently, is called Salamander, a Belgian noir production about corruption and murder cover-ups at the highest level of society, and the establishment’s attempts to silence a top detective who is compulsively trying to unravel the mystery. This one has its flaws, but is still worth a look.
Another top crime series for me is the French production Braquo (slang for heist). I have loved most of the episodes, although the latest season this year was very brutal and quite difficult for me to watch at times, hardened old crime viewer that I am. The line between the gangsters and the police often blur in gut-wrenching ways in this whole series. But who can resist watching the magnificent,obsessed Jean-Hugues Anglade (Caplan) or the gorgeous, impulsive Nicolas Duvauchelle (Theo)? Season 4 is in the pipeline – this will be an explosive finale.
THE CHERISHED TOP DRAWER
As with Breaking Bad, I think enough has been said by me and by so many already about The Bridge, and The Killing. I am totally devoted to these series as well as to the Danish top-drawer series Borgen, which of course is not a crime drama, but an intelligent political drama. With the Scandinavian noir productions, I feel that the US and British remakes have not really worked for me, and I tuned out after only a couple of episodes of remakes of The Bridge and The Killing. On the other hand, the superior, award-winning British production Broadchurch was a highlight indeed, and ironically, the US remake, Gracepoint, is also very good, no doubt helped by the fact that the extraordinary actor David Tennant unusually plays the same cop character in both productions. I haven’t seen the final episodes of Gracepoint yet, but hope to catch them soon. It appears also that Broadchurch has a sequel in the pipeline, which is good news.
COMPULSORY ADDICTIVE COMEDY
On a lighter note, my absolute unmissable highlights every week, whenever possible, are as follows: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (I hope to be in the audience for this gritty, astute satire when I go to New York next May); The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert – sadly this is finishing in December when Stephen takes over from David Letterman on the Late Show; and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, also a sizzling satirical program. While Sean Micallef’s Mad as Hell emulates these three shows, as do many of the Chaser efforts, these three are the anointed masters of the genre. In a different comic sub-genre, I have also thoroughly enjoyed Lena Dunham’s audacious show Girls – tender, funny, crazy, groundbreaking – what a wonderful new voice and towering talent. I will not hear a word against her. The trolls are jealous morons, trying to bring down yet another soaring young woman. And last but not least, I simply love Louie with the unrivalled talent of Louis C.K. It is hilarious, sad, with so many poignant, discomforting, achingly humorous insights into family, relationships, urban living, growing old…
As a postscript I did want to mention another discovery on the web, rather than on TV. If you haven’t already done so, immediately click on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, with Jerry Seinfeld – like coffee, it is very addictive and glorious at the same time. Each little episode has its own delights – don’t skip over any of them. http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com
POSTSCRIPT ON FILM VIEWING CONTEXTS – A TASTER FOR NEXT TIME
When it comes to film culture, I often leave my indoor world and go to the Palace Centro or Barracks, GOMA cinematheque, and, at times, out of loyalty, to the New Farm Cinema around the corner, where hopefully they will soon start screening more art house films. I also occasionally drive across town to the good old Regal at Graceville – well worth supporting – and to the Schonell which seems to still be hanging in there by a thread. Regrettably, I have dropped off in my attendance at the Dendy – distance and inconvenience are the catchwords there, and often their programming seems a bit limp these days compared with the fierce independence of yesteryear.
AND A SPECIAL PLUG…
Please also support another greatly talented QUT Film and TV graduate’s first feature film. The wonderful Stephen Lance has directed and co-written a very brave, beautifully shot film called My Mistress. The cast and the editing are brilliant, and the lush locations are particularly well chosen and fascinating. My Mistress is screening currently at the Palace Barracks in Brisbane and no doubt in other States as well at the Palace. Don’t hold off – go now, go often, as edgy Australian films such as this need every support very early in the exhibition and marketing calendar. As a mother and daughter said to me after the Q & A at a special opening night screening on Thursday night, they had chosen the film at random, and were very happy with their choice – they both loved it. Happy viewing!
But more of this in the next Blogisode…