Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Outer Limits - "Demon With a Glass Hand"

Season 2, Episode 5
Original Airdate: October 17, 1964
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Byron Haskin
Producer: Ben Brady, Leslie Stevens
Cast: Robert Culp, Arline Martel

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is a wonderful, complex science fiction story hidden underneath a beautifully shot film noir. It was “Blade Runner” long before that huge Geisha appeared on the skyscraper…and has better voice-over to boot. Writer Harlan Ellison sued the studio behind “TheTerminator” for plagiarizing his other (lesser) “Outer Limits” episode “Soldier” in a move that, to this writer, seems like quite a stretch. But though the mythology here is much different than “Blade Runner,” it’s impossible to not see all the inspirations, from the emotionless hero to the final twist.

Despite my obsession with all things “Twilight Zone” and love for anthology series in general, I’ve never before watched “The Outer Limits,” despite having the original series on DVD for a few years now. After finally digging in and watching several of the most popular episodes (“The Zanti Misfits,” “The Chameleon” and “Soldier,” among others), I was very much let down. Despite gorgeous cinematography and some good acting, the one-hour format stretched most of these science-fiction stories to their breaking point, despite very good ideas at their core. When half of your episodes feel like filler, you have a problem – the same one that “The Twilight Zone” dealt with when it expanded to an hour in its fourth season.

That’s one of the reasons why “Demon With a Glass Hand” (whose name doesn’t really make sense in retrospect) feels like such a breath of fresh air. Instead of filler scenes placed upon other filler scenes, writer Ellison provides us with an ever-changing Rubik’s cube of mythology, often so dense that the viewer is playing catch-up. It begins with a man named Trent (Robert Culp, purposely wooden) lost in modern times with a partially-constructed glass hand and several alien killers on his tail who are recognizable because they wear panty hose (not kidding) on their faces. Trent has no idea who he is, only that he supposed to be humanity’s savior, and he must retrieve the three missing fingers for the glass hand to understand entirely what has happened to him and what he must do to save the humanity of the future. And trust me, I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s more, lots more.

The first ten minutes of the episode feel like an exposition bomb has gone off. First Trent gets a boatload of information from the mysterious panty hose aliens, then more exposition from his hand, then he meets up with a woman and explains even more to her. It’s difficult to keep everything straight and would usually signal very clunky writing, but because Trent is almost as confused as we are, the exposition dump actually works to the episode’s advantage. We go along for the ride, waiting for pay-offs to mysteries we only half understood to begin with, and when those pay-offs come they are both surprising and fascinating.

Everything speeds up once Trent gets to an office building where the aliens are headquartered. Though director Byron Haskin and his fantastic cinematographer Kenneth Peach employed the shadows of noir from the first frame of the episode, the noir look goes into overdrive in this beautifully rendered building, filled with fantastic architecture and maze-like hallways. It reminds me a lot of the office in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” and I wasn’t surprised to read that Ridley Scott used the sameplace to film the third act of “Blade Runner” (there’s that movie again).

Trent runs into a woman named Consuelo (Arline Martel) who was working late and turns her into his companion, not by choice, but because the aliens have put an invisible barrier around the building. Together they move up the several floors of the building, ultimately to the roof, before Trent descends back into the danger below as Dante did into the inferno.

"Cowabunga, dude!"
Many of the more sci-fi elements of the episode are almost laughable, and this is true of the show in general. The killer ants in “Zanti Misfits” had cute teddy bear faces and were obviously horrible models swung on strings during the final siege. The aquatic monster in “Tourist Attraction” would have fit better as one of Ariel’s pets in “The Little Mermaid” than on “The Outer Limits.” Here Trent’s glass hand isn’t the most impressive prop (and, for a long period of time, is stuck in a “Cowabunga, dude!” position). The aliens all wear a big necklace that, when torn off of them kills them and sends their bodies back to the future – and yet none of them think they might be safer if they just tuck it into their shirt. And I did mention the panty-hose faces, right?

I’m willing to forgive many of these in part because of the show’s budget, time period and that, yes, “The Twilight Zone” had many shoddy effects too. But what really saves the more eye-rolling parts of the production are the film noir elements. Even the most laughable costumes look awesome when shot in shadow, and the kookiest villains look menacing when you can barely get a good look at them. It’s inspired that Trent and the aliens use guns, actual guns, to do their battle. Ellison apparently was horribly unhappy with that decision, but seriously, what adaptation of his work has he not all-but-disowned after the fact, and here the guns bring a unique level of urgency to the storytelling missing from other science fiction (the guns used here are infinitely scarier than, say, the ray gun from Ellison’s other episode “Soldier”).

The twist at the end of the episode is a genuinely surprising one that hits the viewer on both an emotional and intellectual level, and fits perfectly in the world of noir. It is also darker and self-defeating than one would expect from an anthology, a trait that seems to be repeated throughout almost every “The Outer Limits” episode I’ve seen. Humanity always sucks, things never get better, and our heroes must consistently suffer for little reward. It’s a very dire notion for stories whose imagination is supposed to reach from the inner mind to the outer limits, and perhaps that’s another reason why I haven’t become fully invested in the series. The ending worked beautifully here, that’s for sure, but in the other episodes I’ve seen it just felt tacked-on, as if it was trying to prove a point. Ah well, the show still has many great qualities and I’m looking forward to diving into the remainder of the episodes. I will say one thing about it: the opening credits are much cooler than any of those in “The Twilight Zone’s” history. So that’s, uh, something.

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is available on DVD, AmazonInstant Video, Hulu, iTunes and YouTube.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Maude - "Maude's Guilt Trip"

Season 6, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 12, 1977
Writer: Charlie Hauck
Director: Hal Cooper
Executive Producers: Hal Cooper, Rod Parker
Cast: Bea Arthur, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau, Rue McClanahan

People don’t talk much about “Maude” anymore, do they? Though well-liked throughout most of its run, in recent years its popularity has been eclipsed by the show it spun out of (“All in the Family”) and star Bea Arthur’s other iconic comedy (“The Golden Girls”). And what a shame that is, because for my money “Maude” is better * gasp! * than both of those sitcoms.

The show centers on Maude Findlay (Arthur), Liberal with a capital “L” and currently married to her fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy). While “All in the Family” mocked its bigoted hero Archie Bunker while simultaneously humanizing him through his faults, “Maude” had a more interesting trick to play: Maude considered herself one of the educated, cultural elite who was consistently faced with the foibles of everyday life, tried to rise above it, but (usually) ended up surrendering to her more base emotions. As an audience, we see parts of ourselves in Archie, sure, but I see a lot more of myself in Maude. A similar version of this would be used to huge success first with Sam in “Cheers” and later with Fraiser in his self-titled spin-off.

The show also took one hell of a lot of risks, more than probably any other in history. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ve probably heard about the infamous abortion episode, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up today. But there is so much more. At some point every major character abused prescription drugs. An entire episode focused on Maude trying to buy a bag of pot. Walter became an raging alcoholic who slapped Maude onscreen. Later he went bankrupt and attempted suicide. Maude struggled with what, in retrospect, appears to be bipolar disorder. In one episode Maude hired a black maid (Ester Rolle, who spun her Florida character off into “Good Times”) because she had white man’s guilt. And in a fantastic tour-de-force, Arthur performed a one-woman-show for an entire episode as her character quietly came apart at the seams in a therapy session. You simply can’t get away with stuff like this today, even though for my money sitcoms would be served well to be a lot more topical and risk-taking. Oh, and I should note that, even though the above events are really “heavy” in content, the show still managed to be really damn funny, even in its darkest moments.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is, for me, the high point of the entire series, and shows all its characters reacting to the “death” of a most hated relative. Everything action, reaction and line of dialogue showcases moral ambiguity taken to most hilarious extremes.

The episode begins with Maude preparing for the arrival of her loathed Aunt Tinky (“Her tea kettle doesn’t whistle, it whines”). Maude has bought her a plane ticket on a crappy puddle-jumper, but her mind is focused on wanting to take a trip to Rome. As a way to make Maude feel guilty, Tinky purchases $50,000 worth of life insurance in Maude’s name before she gets on the plane…and then the plane crashes.

Arthur’s performance throughout the episode is tremendous, a perfect balance between the meaningful words coming out of Maude’s mouth and the dollar signs spinning in her eyes. All Maude really cares about is getting the best trip to Rome possible, but she must go through the motions of seeming upset that this horrible person is dead, especially in front of her daughter (Adrienne Barbeau) and best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan. Yes, THAT RueMcClanahan. Seriously, you should be watching this show).

Here’s a little sample of how brilliantly writer Charlie Hauck toes the line between humanity and selfishness:

Maude: “We could make (the trip to Rome) a pilgrimage in Tinky’s honor.”
Vivian: “Was she Catholic?”
Maude: “What the hell is the difference?”

Just as Maude finally makes peace with her “emotional reaction” to Tinky’s death and begins to behave normally again, Hauck pulls the rug out from under the characters in a brilliantly executed twist: Vivian’s husband Arthur (Conrad Bain) arrives with the news that there is a lone survivor who has crawled out of the rubble and is fighting for survival in the woods where the plane crashed.

The thought that Tinky might be alive becomes secondary to the thought that the trip to Rome is now in question, even though Maude tries to pretend that her priorities are just the reverse. She desperately attempts to keep the moral high ground even though there is none to stand on, and even though no one around her is really judging her. Watching Arthur spiral out of emotional control is one of the great joys in all of comedic television, and her meltdown here is one for the ages.

Then there’s yet another twist, one I’ll let you discover for yourself, since I’m pretty sure you haven’t watched the episode. It’s worth noting that this is the first episode of the show’s sixth and final season, and to see the sitcom still firing on all cylinders this late in its run is wonderful. Despite the heavy writer turnover throughout “Maude’s” run (like many sitcoms of its time), the show was consistently good, often great, and allowed its characters to learn from their mistakes and stumbles – a rarity in a genre where keeping things status quo is the norm.

All this, and yet only the first season of “Maude” is available on DVD, and there don’t appear to be any announcements of the other seasons forthcoming. Such a shame, because this show feels perhaps even more timely and button-pressing today than it did when it first aired. Arthur remains a treasure, and fans of “The Golden Girls” would adore this sitcom because the characters are so similar. Here is a show that still has something to say to modern audiences, and yet that audience is having one hell of a time finding it.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is only available on YouTube.

Friday, November 9, 2012

'Way Out - "Death Wish"

Season 1, Episode 9
Original Airdate: June 9, 1961
Writer: Irving Gaynor Neiman
Director: Boris Sagal
Producer: Jacqueline Babbin, Roald Dahl
Cast: Don Keefer, Charlotte Rae, Heywood Hale Broun

Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room. I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend why there is an apostrophe before the word “Way” in “’Way Out.” Though when I first heard the title I assumed it was an anthology focused on folk trying to find a “way out” of their problems, horrifying situations or lives, I discovered that the real meaning is that the stories themselves are “way out.” As in, “that’s way out, dude!” Were the creators and producers trying to be hip? The psychedelic intro where host Roald Dahl (yes, THAT Roald Dahl) has three heads seems to underline this theory. But still, what the hell is up with that floating apostrophe? Ah well, like the last third of “Mulholland Drive” and where Jimmy Hoffa is hidden, there are some things we are never meant to know.

“’Way Out” is a little seen, barely-available anthology series that was paired with “The Twilight Zone” for half a season before being cancelled. I had never heard of it until recently and sought it out because I simply had to see what the author of “The Witches” and “Matilda” (two books that really screwed me up when I was younger) did as a “presenter,” writer and producer on a television series. And I’m so happy I did. I’ve genuinely seen anything quite like this before – its tone is utterly different than “Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or any other anthology I’ve ever seen. The storytelling is like a Rubik’s Cube, transitioning tonally from dark comedy to horror to mystery, all the while keeping its viewers on their toes because we genuinely don’t understand where its authors are taking us. I was never bored, always entertained and, by the end, picking my jaw up off the floor.

“Death Wish” opens with an introduction by Dahl, who rambles on for minutes in a rant that both fascinates the viewer and serves as a pretty damn good pitch for “Six Feet Under.”
“I’ve often wondered, haven’t you, what sort of man an undertaker really is. Is he a gentle, sensitive, generous person who undercharges madly because he cannot bear to profit from misfortune? Or is he a more sinister individual, who reads the obituary columns in bed at night and broods all day about the price of caskets? One doesn’t know. And none of us are in any hurry to find out either, because we all figure, quite rightly, that we are all bound to meet up with him in the end, just once.”
The episode opens in a funeral home, with George (Don Keefer) and his wife Hazel (Charlotte Rae) attending calling hours for someone or other. Hazel is blunt, brutal and addicted to the television, but not in an adorable way like I am. She seems genuinely unable to comprehend a life outside of sitting in front of the box, memorizing actors and storylines and considering the stories proof that Native Americans got what was coming to them, among other things. This woman is so dense that she can’t even fully comprehend a commercial. And so, of course, George decides to murder her.

Up until this point, “Death Wish” could fit into any anthology series easily, but that is when the really interesting stuff happens. An unseen narrator tells us that George is deciding what way to murder Hazel, but then stops at the problem of how to dispose of the body. At that moment, a wonderful twist of fate, he is passing the funeral home he was at earlier, and the Mortician (Heywood Hale Broun) is putting out a sign that reads: “Let Us Dispose of the Body.”

George can’t help himself. He goes inside to see the Mortician has a special sale on pine boxes and a “Do-It-Yourself Burial Kit.” It’s here that the audience is thrown for a loop. How serious exactly are we supposed to be taking the situation? Is this just a really dark comedy with no connection to logic? Or is writer Irving Gaynor Neiman just teasing us to throw us off balance?

The rest of the episode continues to toe that line beautifully, with the viewer unable to take any of it very seriously, but still remaining oddly invested in the goings on. The final twist is a doozy: George finally signs some forms to allow the Mortician and his assistant to “take care” of his wife, only to discover that he was literally signing his life away. His wife came in earlier and ordered the same package for him.

The dialogue has such ingenuity it almost feels like the characters are dancing around one another more than communicating. And the actors (none of which I’m familiar with) are well cast and fill their characters beautifully without turning into caricature (with the exception of Rae, who is purposely over-the-top). This is what makes the episode work, because it certainly isn’t anything else.

To call the sets cardboard would be an insult to cardboard. As far as I can see, the funeral home doesn’t even have walls. There are some creepy horror series candelabras in the funeral home that were obviously borrowed from the next set over, and the science lab is laughable. This entire production probably cost $50 in total. The camerawork makes soap operas seem creative in their storytelling.

But because the story is there, “Death Wish” works beautifully. There are only four episodes available on YouTube for view, and I can’t wait to try the others. I can fully understand why the series was cancelled after so few episodes – the humor is too adult for kids but the series was too much of a farce for adults. I’m pretty shocked that it has not gained the same cult reputation that shows like “Thriller” have managed to, because if this episode is any indication of the writing quality, it deserves to be.

The “Death Wish” episode of “’Way Out” is only available on YouTube.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My So-Called Life - "Pilot"

Season One, Episode One
Original Airdate: August 26, 1994
Writer: Winnie Holzman
Director: Scott Winant
Executive Producers: Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick
Cast: Claire Danes, Bess Armstrong, A.J. Langer, Wilson Cruz
“You agree to be a certain personality or something for no reason. Just to make things easier for someone. But when you think bout it, how do you know it’s even you?”
This is the same question just about every teenager asks him or herself, and here it’s articulated by Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in a voice that helped to define an entire generation of teenagers. I remember in high school when we did a special edition of our newspaper focusing on our generation, the cover featured Danes’ unreadable face staring out at us. Angela is the person we all see part of ourselves in, pretty or not. We fall deeply, madly, fully in love with her over the course of the pilot of “My So-Called Life,” which is a huge accomplishment because, at times, we don’t like her very much at all.

At first glance, Angela is your “average” high school student in just about every way. She’s not too popular but not unpopular. She’s pretty but isn’t getting too many glances from the boys. She is part of a few clubs but not the head of any. She doesn’t make fashion statements. She has had the same best friend since who-know-when. Sickened by this life and this world she has created for herself, Angela begins to change. She tries new things, like a haircut and red dye job. She drops her best friend in favor of two edgier, crazier cats named Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz). She quits yearbook. She alienates her parents, in particular her mother (Bess Armstrong). And yet it doesn’t make her any happier. So who is she, really? The question is left beautifully and brilliantly up in the air as the pilot fades to black.

Winnie Holzman wrote the episode, and was unafraid to show us all the dark, shallow, stupid sides to Angela’s personality as well. She doesn’t think “The Diary of Anne Frank” is so tragic – after all, the girl is stuck in an attic with a cute boy for a few years. And when Holzman cuts from Angela’s point-of-view, we get some real insight into how her mid-quarter-life-crisis is affecting those around her. Her mom is depressed by Angela’s actions and demeanor, finally admitting to her husband, “She loves you more and I accept it,” even though what mother ever could? Angela’s immaturity is even more underlined in a fight she has with her former best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa). You see, Angela never had a conversation with Sharon to explain her newfound rebel status – she simply stopped talking to her, which hurt Sharon deeply. When Sharon confronts her and begs to know what she did wrong, Angela can only respond, “It’s not like that! It’s not just one thing!” as her excuse, which infuriates Sharon even more, and rightfully so.

And yet, we continue to love Angela. Because who among us doesn’t wonder what would happen if we just changed our life one day, out of the blue? Because many of her thoughts, while shallow, are also surprisingly sharp and insightful. Like this one:

“My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’ You don’t care how it was. You’re lucky to get out alive.”

She speaks for us in ways we can’t quite articulate. She pays attention and notes the small stuff that sounds silly but takes up so many of our thoughts. You have a feeling that she will, indeed, discover who she is and turn out more than alright in the end, even if her taste in men at the present time leaves a lot to be desired.

Holzman’s writing is consistently excellent throughout the episode…hell, throughout the entire series. Because Angela is so quiet with most of the people in her world, Holzman provides us with ample voiceover, but not the overwritten, faux-insightful dialogue you’d see on most other television shows. This voiceover sounds exactly how Angela sounds when she speaks, full of stutter-steps and silly observations that perfectly reflect her personality. In addition, Holzman gives us amazing voiceover descriptions of the supporting cast of characters. For example, here’s her summation of her first true “love” Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto):
“He’s always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things.”
And here’s how Angela describes Rayanne:
“Rayanne always knows who is going to be there.”
She doesn’t tick off personality traits or types. Instead, Holzman provides viewers with the smallest of details and lets the viewer fill in the rest of the information himself. And, in many ways, isn’t that better than being spoon-fed how to feel about a character? What can you read into “He’s a brooding, soulful ne’er-do-well” anyway? What does that really tell you about the object of Angela’s affection?

It’s extremely rare for a television show to have a “perfect” season. By that I don’t mean flawless, I mean a season in which every episode is indispensible, beautifully rendered and emotional resonant. I think of the second season of “Gilmore Girls,” the third season of “Friday Night Lights,” the first season of “The Good Wife,” and the entirety of “My So-Called Life.” The show lasted for only a single season of nineteen episodes, and each is like a master class in writing, acting and direction, even the silly Halloween and Christmas episodes that involved ghosts and guardian angels. Each one deserves a column on this blog (and I’m sure a few others will), and in some ways I’m happy that there isn’t a whole bunch of closure at the end of the show, because that wouldn’t be honest. In life, so few things get the nice little bow on it, and there’s often rarely a defining moment where a person realizes who he or she “really” is. Instead, we are left with the question posed by the pilot still unanswered. Who is Angela Chase? Every time I sit down to view the series, I think I know, but then she always manages to surprise me.

The pilot of “My So-Called Life” is available on DVD, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - "Pilot"

Season 1, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 18, 2006
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Executive Producers: Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet

The teaser of the first episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” feels like a sledgehammer to the chest. It’s one of the most powerful, impactful openings of any series, and possibly the best. Writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme were obviously inspired by the classic film “Network” (and say as much later in the show), but for my money this sequence transcends the movie. It’s so awesome, in fact, that the good will it builds allows Sorkin to take some major chances with structure and character development throughout the remainder of the episode.

The show focuses on the Los Angeles equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” a live sketch-comedy show called “Studio 60.” Exposition is set up beautifully in the first few seconds as show cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) informs the studio audience (and, by proxy, the viewers) about the history of “Studio 60,” the studio and how live television works. But then we begin to realize that the show is past its heyday, and the thousands of small stresses and sacrifices creator/head writer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) has made finally cause him to have a nervous breakdown. By walking out on set. Live on air. And going into a rant about the slow disintegration and bastardization of the television industry.

That is all great, but what takes the sequence to another level is that we cut between the rant and the show’s director, Cal (Timothy Busfield) making the decision to keep Wes on air as long as possible, despite network executives screaming at him some variation on “you’ll never work in this town again!” Both threads are equally gripping, but the back-and-forth editing perfectly showcases the escalating chaos, climaxing with a smash to the show’s intertitle at the moment Cal finally gives in and cuts away from Wes, leaving the viewer gasping for air. Now that’s how you cut to commercial.

From here on in, Sorkin begins to play with the structure of most television pilots. The two main characters, Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) don’t even appear until 20 minutes in. Instead, Sorkin uses the time immediately following “the event” to focus on new network executive Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) as she deals with the fallout on her first day of work (technically she doesn’t even have to start work until the following Monday, but decides “what the hell?”) and butts heads with another executive, wonderfully played by Steven Weber.

Jordan, along with Peet’s interpretation of the character, is one of the most fascinating, refreshing parts of the series. Peet was attacked by many critics for her “romantic-comedy” take on the roll, but I think that criticism is woefully misguided. The easy route would have been for Sorkin and Schlamme to cast an uptight “bitch” type for the role, but instead they did something much more interesting: They cast Peet against type and had her just act like a smart, normal woman doing her best in a bad situation. Instead of dealing with the dozens of lesser executives all looking at the mess on a micro level she sees the macro version of the problem. She doesn’t want to keep plugging the dam, she wants to build an entirely new one, and goes out of her way to accomplish that by being honest and forthright, two values none of the other characters seem to believe or, hell, can even comprehend in the television industry. When she tells Danny she knows he had cocaine in his system, he immediately believes she’s trying to blackmail him when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Whoops. Because she’s so forthcoming and honest, I’m guessing that’s why critics’ gut was that Jordan was underwritten, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sorkin’s writing throughout is sharp, and his script never talks down to the audience. When there might be exposition that goes over our heads, he finds ingenious ways to make it come through without seeming like exposition, like Simon’s aforementioned introduction to the audience. His now-famous Walk-and-Talks conversations remain a thing of beauty, and many of his recurring storytelling tics pop up again here and are used well.

Many of his storytelling techniques bleed freely from one series to another. Turn on any Sorkin show and you’ll be likely to find two soul mates working in the same place who just can’t quite admit to themselves that they love one another (Casey and Dana on “Sports Night,” Will and Mac in “The Newsroom,” Matt and Harriet here). There’s usually an evil boss character who we later learn isn’t all that bad (Weber here, Jane Fonda on “The Newsroom,” William H. Macy on “Sports Night”) and loads of conservative characters (Will on “The Newsroom,” Harriet here) who serve as soapboxes to preach or be preached to. Oh, and he borrowed the opening nervous breakdown from “Studio 60” for the opening of “The Newsroom.” I mention these not as criticisms, but as observations. He goes back to these watering holes because they usually work well and he manages to find fun variations each time he does it.

Another thing Sorkin often gets criticized for is the lack of realism in his shows, which I find ridiculous. Just because his shows use real-life news events and politics as the backdrop for the storytelling does not mean that they must be gritty and real. Look at the pilot to “Studio 60,” where anchors on every cable news channel not only mention that the rant came from “Network,” but name check its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. As a screenwriter, it’s nice to think that might happen, but seriously? In what world? And his characters, despite speaking eloquently about politics, owe much more to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s (“Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday”) than reality. And, no offense to the gritty/shaky-cam/dark/topical/whatever shows, that’s the way I like it. If I’m being preached to, I want some escapism and I want some hope.

Over the course of its 45 minute pilot, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” manages to create an entire world, populate it with a diverse, multi-dimensional cast and then topped it all off with a Queen song for good measure. It remains one of the most literate, engaging hours of television I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Screw what the critics say.

The pilot of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is available on the Complete Series DVD, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Lucy Show – “Lucy and Viv Put in a Shower”

Season 1, Episode 18
Original Airdate: January 28, 1963
Writers: Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Martin, Bob Weiskoph, Bob Schiller
Director: Jack Donohue
Producer: Elliot Lewis
Cast: Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Jimmy Garrett, Ralph Hart

“The Lucy Show” had the unfortunate job of being Lucille Ball’s follow-up to her wildly popular, groundbreaking, classic, best-sitcom-of-all-time “I Love Lucy.” Although the show was usually good, sometimes very good, it never reached the creative heights of its predecessor, and as a result its writers and producers retooled the show numerous times over the course of its run, to the point where I’d wager that the final season is almost unrecognizable when compared to the first.

Though Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Viv (Vivian Vance) were ostensibly different characters than “Lucy” and “Ethel,” their relationship was unchanged, as was how they interacted with one another. Lucy is widowed and Viv is divorced, and the show’s writing team (including several from “I Love Lucy”) decided to give the friends constant money troubles as they try to care for their children. The inherent problem with this is that audiences have expectations of Lucy causing expensive mayhem and anarchy (buying a thousand ranch dressing bottles, destroying a Laundromat, getting three hundred eggs crushed while doing the tango), and because of the character’s limited budget things could never get really out of control. During the first season in particular, you could tell the writers were grasping to be different from “I Love Lucy” before finally just giving in and giving audiences the set-pieces they wanted, household budgets be damned. Many of these were directly pulled from “I Love Lucy,” with the bulk of “Lucy and Viv are Volunteer Firemen” taken from “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” with the women practicing getting ready for a fire alarm and then totally panicking when an actual alarm comes. The first season finale, “Lucy Buys a Boat,” payed homage to (ripped off) Ball’s salad dance in “The Long Long Trailer” by having a boat cut loose in the middle of a storm.

And yet.

“Lucy and Viv Put In a Shower” still stands as a wonderful half-hour of television. Shockingly, the storyline centers on Lucy and Viv deciding to…wait for it…install a shower. While they first try to rope in their gentlemen-in-waiting, Lucy soon tries to finish the job herself, and somehow gets stuck in the flooding shower with Viv, to the point where the water is seven feet deep.

This set-piece is equal to anything Ball did in her career, from “Vitametavegamin” to the grape stomping to setting her nose on fire. Hell, it’s probably equal to any major set-piece from any comedy series. It’s the perfect example of sustaining tension and laughter consistently over the course of ten minutes of screen time. The women are always trapped, and the water is always rising.

But I get ahead of myself. So the girls decide to have a shower installed in their boys’ closet so that they can get some time in the bathroom, and from there the writers slowly-but-surely begin to lay groundwork for the set-piece. The door to the standing shower was installed backwards, so it would hold the water in instead of opening under pressure. Lucy had to be the one to install the faucets, and of course has no idea what a washer is. The plug in the bottom of the shower has yet to be removed. Viv breaks off the water main so the water won’t stop coming. Yes, it seems as if the writers are bending over backward to make the implausible seem plausible, but in this case it works because the payoff is so perfect.

So Lucy (wearing a shirt with a huge “LC” sewed onto it, something that had to inspire Laverne’s wardrobe years later) and Viv begin to get literally waterlogged. Another amazing thing about this sequence is that it, by its very nature, cannot be as perfectly rehearsed as the candy factory or the fashion show. That water is going to spray where it wants and you can’t help but have a few mishaps when trying to swim in what is essentially a very small seven-foot-deep pool of water. Rumors persist that Ball almost drowned during the filming and it made it on screen, but we only see Ball go under once where she didn’t mean to. She immediately resurfaces and says, “I didn’t know it was that deep,” and that’s that. It’s amazing to see Vivian Vance, not Viv, react to water spraying in her face and up her nose by screaming, “Oh, wait a minute!”

It’s also interesting to note that the writers, oddly, give Viv the best jokes and gags (pun intended) here instead of Lucy, instead deciding to let Ball just go for it with the physicality. First we get this one:
Viv: Lucy, did you pay this month’s water bill?Lucy: Sure, I did.Viv: That was a dumb thing to do!

Later, when Lucy tells Viv to try to kick through the glass so they can escape, Viv refused, stating:
“It’s not that I’m afraid of cutting myself, but the blood might draw sharks.”
The rest of the episode is cute fluff, with the girls’ interactions with their suitors before the mess sweet if forgettable. And the idea of teenage girls spending far too much time in the bathroom is something that has been recycled thousands of times since, which makes the gags at the beginning lose their power. But that scene in the shower…wow. The biggest compliment I can give it is that it felt like the very best deleted scene from “I Love Lucy” ever. It’s not that “The Lucy Show” was ever bad; it’s simply that it seemed more like a watered-down (pun intended) imitation of “I Love Lucy” than its own entity.

“Lucy and Viv Put In a Shower” is available on the first season DVD of “The Lucy Show” and on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Popular - "Two Weddings and a Funeral"

Season 1, Episode 22
Original Airdate: May 18. 2000
Writer: Ryan Murphy
Director: Lev L. Spiro
Executive Producers: Ryan Murphy, Gina Matthews, Michael M. Robin, Greer Shepard
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Carly Pope, Leslie Grossman, Tammy Lynn Michaels

“Popular” was a teen drama on The WB that quickly morphed into a send-up of teen dramas on The WB. At first it seems to present viewers with all the storylines one would expect from such a show (pregnancy, addiction, losing your virginity etc.), but then twisted the telling while consistently winking and nudging the audience that the creators were in on the joke. By the time the show reached its first season finale, “Two Weddings and a Funeral,” the creators didn’t even try to be subtle about it anymore.

The episode opens with a character musing: “I love the merry month of May, except for those ridiculous sweep cliffhanger stunts they always pull on my favorite teen dramas.” She then lists every possible sweep stunt, including the wildly silly ones:
  • A Wedding
  • Pregnancy
  • Death
  • Natural Disaster
  • Appearance by a Cheesy Boy Band
  • Pretty Boy Nudie Shot
  • When Pets Attack
  • Gratuitous Musical Number

The episode then goes out of its way to include all of the above. The episode’s writer, Ryan Murphy, went out of his way to string together a seriously cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs series of events for his cast to deal with in one episode, not just making the show meta, but then piling meta on top of the meta. For weeks leading up to the finale, The WB was advertising the “Popular Purge,” which was the killing off of a major character on the show. During the finale, viewers could post on the show’s message board and their opinions on who should die and why were blipped across the bottom of the screen. Of course today, with everyone tweeting and twatting their every thought, talk show hosts regularly pretending viewers’ tweets are just as valuable as experts, and networks helpfully putting some variation on “#posthowawesomeweare” at the bottom of their screen at all times, the stunt seems less impressive…but during its initial broadcast I remember giggling (yes, giggling) with delight.

The storyline…well…is a clusterfuck, and by that I mean absolutely brilliant. Let’s see if I can keep it straight. On Sophomore Skip Day, wicked chemistry teacher Bobbi Glass (Diane Delano) sends her class’ photos to every hangout in the city so they will be arrested for truancy if they show up. To get her back, they lace her milkshake with e. coli. She doesn’t drink it, but seconds later becomes paralyzed by her twin sister, Nurse Jessie Glass (Delano again), who wants to kill her after making her suffer through being eaten alive by her cats, then frame the kids. All the while, Brooke (Leslie Bibb) and Sam (Carly Pope) frantically try to keep everything under control while they prepare for the wedding of their parents. Oh, and Mary Cherry’s (Leslie Grossman) mother Cherry Cherry (Delta Burke) will be marrying Erik Estrada (not kidding) at the same ceremony. Oh, and because of eating too much dirt, Mae Tuna (Mandy Freund) needs a heart valve transplant or she’ll die. Oh, and there is a voodoo witch doctor. Oh, and Brooke and Josh (Bryce Johnson) might be getting back together. At one point Sam tells Brooke:
“You guys are hilarious. You’re like the typical TV show couple who breaks up, gets back together, breaks up and gets back together one last time on the last show simply for promotional sweets purposes.”
The amazing thing is, during all this madness, Ryan never loses track of his ensemble. More than that, he uses them quite well. In an age when most network shows are populated by interchangeable babes and hunks saying interchangeable dialogue on interchangeable sets, every main character her has a point-of-view. There are several big sequences that involve the almost the entire ensemble arguing and babbling over one another, and I couldn’t help but grin because, in each scene, each character comes to the situation from his or her own perspective. Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) just wants to get out of the situation, even if it means framing Sam. Sweet Lily (Tamara Mello) immediately feels horrible about the group’s actions and turns the murder plot into a moment to preach about teachers being underappreciated in our society. And lunkhead Josh is just thinking about what to write in Brooke’s yearbook.

And then there’s Mary Cherry. Introduced as a popular Southern belle supporting character, Mary Cherry (she’s never called just Mary) proceeded to take over the “Popular,” with Grossman’s incredible humor and comedic timing something Murphy and his writers seemed to love tapping into. She had webbed hands and feet. She had a surprise twin sister named B. Ho. She carries around a vial of e. coli virus in her purse because, “A girl never knows when she’ll have to lose the odd fifty pounds.”

And then there’s the dialogue. This episode has more one-liners that actually land than any given episode of your traditional sitcom. When Nicole Julian arrives at Brooke’s home carrying Ms. Glass’ stray finger, she says:
“Mary Cherry, put the finger in the fridge. Bring me a Diet Coke.”
When Ms. Glass is threatening her students she boasts that:
“After a nuclear apocalypse, I’ll be the only thing standing other than the cockroaches and Cher.”
Though the second season of the show had many sterling episodes (most notably “The Brain Game” and “Baby, Don’t Do It”) it was obvious that The WB heads didn’t like being poked fun at and put pressure on the writers to normalize with traditional teen soap storylines sans the added twists. Harrison got cancer. Lily and Josh got married and cried way too much. The balance felt…off.

And yet “Popular” was still better than almost every other teen drama on television, and certainly better than most of the sitcoms. It remains a touchtone for me and is one of the reasons I wanted to become a television writer. The balance of humanity, humor and meta-commentary on the television industry found in this episode has never been equaled or surpassed by any show before or since. Plus, did I mention Mary Cherry rocks?

“Two Weddings and a Funeral” is available on the first season DVD of “Popular” and on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dick Van Dyke Show - "The Curious Thing About Women"

Season 1, Episode 16
Original Airdate: January 10, 1962
Writer: David Adler
Director: John Rich
Executive Producers: Ronald Jacobs, Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner, Danny Thomas
Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam

The wonderful thing about “The Dick Van Dyke” show is that it never seems to push its audience. Almost every other sitcom seems to shove into its punchlines and gags, but this show operates at an even pace. The characters say funny things to one another, but there never seems to be an exclamation point at the end of their sentences to lead into audience laughter. The characters have big personalities but never go over the top like every other sitcom from that era, from “I Love Lucy” to “Leave it to Beaver.” It all feels…well…real. Like we are actually watching an American family going through their trials and tribulations, which makes the climax to “The Curious Thing About Women” one of the definitive moments in all of television comedy.

 The episode concerns a quick marital spat between Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) after she keeps opening his mail without his permission. Rob turns the spat into a sketch for “The Alan Brady Show” where a caricature of Laura (who shares her name) receives a box addressed to her husband and can’t stop herself from opening it…only to discover there is an inflatable raft inside. Laura is teased by all her friends about the sketch and yells at Rob, only to discover a suspicious box in the mail the next day addressed to him.

It’s interesting to note that most sitcoms follow the classic two-act structure. Lucy wants to be on television (1) and then she gets drunk while practicing the commercial she has been cast in (2). Mary admonishes people for laughing about Chuckles’ death (1) and then laughs at his funeral (2). Michael is encouraged to set up a “diversity day” at the office (1) and ends up being extremely racist (2). But “The Dick Van Dyke” show is different. In almost every episode, it follows a three-act structure instead. Here, you have Rob writing the sketch as Act One, Laura melting down as Act Two and the mysterious package as Act Three. This structure allows the show to have a faster pace than most sitcoms and, as a result, throw in some twists and turns on the way to the climax…

…which, of course, is Laura verses the box. The episode’s writer, David Adler, is brilliant in the way he sets this moment up because we have already heard a variation on this routine twice. Incredibly, the moment is much funnier because of its long set-up, not watered-down because of its repetition. When we first heard Rob pitching out the story he talks about how the box is almost magnetic to the wife -- a bit we see come to life with Laura when she exits the living room and then we see the swinging door swing fully just once before Laura reenters to stare at the box again. When Laura is actually watching the skit with her neighbors, they mention that the female is using her teeth to desperately pull open the box, and later that’s exactly what Laura does. The familiarity of the details make it so much more funny, especially considering the high horse Laura put herself on only moments before.

Also of note is the fact that Adler has made us wait almost twenty minutes for this moment, circling back to it and, in some ways, pounding us over the head that it’s coming, but only to underline how much we’ll enjoy it when it actually gets here. A lesser writer (and most modern sitcoms) would try to put some kind of twist on Mary opening the box, but Adler was smart to just give us the payoff we were expecting in the way we were expecting it. It makes the laughter more genuine because it doesn’t feel like a cheat.

Aside from the three-act structure, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was quick and eager to embrace (at the time) daring storytelling techniques. It was quick to use frame stories, or create stories within stories if it served the characters and humor well. This was a much more adult show than most other comedies on television and the writers trusted that the viewers would be able to follow along when they tried something a little different or took the story in a surprising direction. It was also very successful at being both a work sitcom and a family sitcom. Other shows, most notably “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” tried the same juggling act before finally giving in and becoming one or the other. “The Dick Van Dyke” show, on the other hand, always kept the balance and, as a result, some of its best comedy came when the two world collided in twisted, uncomfortable ways. Look at this episode or when Laura accidentally lets it slip that Rob’s boss is actually bald.

Anchoring everything is Van Dyke and Moore, who share an easy, charming chemistry with one another that is never more evident than when they are arguing. Their speaking patterns and delivery allows them to deliver long mouthfuls of sentences from the script, and the fact that they are both tall and lanky results in some create physical comedy throughout the episode, first with Rob pretending to be Laura and later when Laura is fighting with the box. More than that, they never seem like anything less than smart, intelligent people, a trap so many great sitcoms fall into regularly by dumbing down their characters.

Though I only laughed once during “The Curious Thing About Women,” it was a long and fulfilling belly laugh that had been building the entire episode. And the rest of the time I was smiling widely. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” isn’t classic television because of its punchlines, but because it’s smart enough to know that punchlines are only part of what makes a great comedy.

“The Curious Thing About Women” is available on the first season DVD of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon Prime.