Thursday, August 30, 2012

Playhouse 90 - "Requiem For a Heavyweight"

Season 1, Episode 2
Original Airdate: October 11, 1956
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Ralph Nelson
Producer: David J. Eagle, Martin Manulis, Alvin Rakoff
Cast: Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn, Kim Hunter

This was my first experience watching one of the hundreds of live television broadcasts from the ‘50s, and I must admit I did not have the highest of expectations going in. I thought I was going to see a low-quality version of a soap opera—a filmed play with the actors talking and monologuing instead of communicating while reading off unseen cue cards. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

“Requiem For a Heavyweight” vibrates with energy, has better direction and camerawork than any other television program I’ve seen from the period and features a trio of performances with incredible depth and nuance. This was all done live, and that just adds to my admiration for the episode.

Writer Rod Serling and director Ralph Nelson present us with a fascinating opening: in the aftermath of an especially brutal boxing match, we first see the triumphant fighter exit the ring, surrounded by his adoring fans. Moments later, Maish (Keenan Wynn) and Army (Ed Wynn) drag the barely conscious Harlan “Mountain” McClintock (Jack Palance) out and into an empty changing room. A doc comes in to investigate the damage, and the truth becomes clear immediately: Mountain cannot continue to fight without doing permanent injury to his already-damaged body.

“Just like that?” Mountain’s manager Maish asks. But of course it wasn’t “just like that.” Mountain has two cauliflower ears and Palance’s face looks more like a patchwork of broken bones pieced together oddly than a human being. This is the tipping point of Mountain’s life. He’s a heavyweight fighter who was once very good (he placed fifth in the country a few years back), recently fair and now done with fighting whether he is ready or not. He’s not.

Mountain dropped out of school in the ninth grade to become a boxer and has only known this life. For over a decade he’s depended completely on Maish and Army, his trainer, for literally everything in his life, from his bed to his next bout to his next meal. Now that is all gone. Serling implies, but does not underline, that Mountain has probably sustained brain damage during his career, another impediment for a man already stuck behind the eight-ball. I know little to nothing about boxing and the life of these fighters (beyond the fact that Rocky Balboa is the coolest one ever), but that doesn’t matter. My heart immediately and totally goes out to him. I can’t fathom someone ever taking my voice as a writer away from me, and to think that Mountain has lost everything he’s ever known (at only 33 years old!) is like an emotional sucker punch, and I’m dreadfully sorry about that accidental pun.

The show doesn’t offer up a whole lot of hope for Mountain as he tries to start over. He goes to 35 employment firms with nothing, and when a pretty young employee named Grace (Kim Hunter) at lucky number 36 calls him back for a meeting, Mountain almost begs Army to go back with him…simply because he does not know how to function without him in the room. Grace hypothesizes that Mountain might do well in teaching children, but is accidentally (and realistically) harsh when she compares Mountain’s plight with that of returning veterans who have sustained horrible injuries during the war.

We also follow Maish and learn that he had bet against Mountain in that final fight (specifically that Mountain wouldn’t last three rounds when he went seven) and has lost $3000 as a result. Instead of owning up to it, he handles the situation like the snake he is—using Mountain’s loyalty to try to get him to become a “wrestler” and play in fixed games. Army is sickened by this and tells Maish as much on multiple occasions, but in a realistic twist, when the chips fall and Mountain learns the truth, it’s Army who gets the uppercut to the jaw and not Maish. Then there’s a beautiful, quiet moment where Mountain cradles Army as his surrogate father begs him to leave and move on with his life.

Serling introduces Grace as the necessary love interest for such programs, but has a different, more interesting agenda for her. She’s curious about Mountain more than she is attracted to him. She tracks him to a boxer’s bar, where Mountain seems destined to join the other dozen former boxers who can do nothing more than get drunk and recount the glory days, and they have something like a date together. But the scene isn’t about the characters and their chemistry—Serling uses Grace as our eyes into understanding Mountain. They don’t end up together, and by treating the relationship more realistically than so many other similar shows, it is all the more impactful.

The tape used to film the show has faded somewhat, but certainly not enough to hurt your enjoyment. It’s about the equivalent of watching a movie from one of those 50-films-for-2.99 sets. I was shocked by the atmosphere Nelson was able to build on just a few sets. The way he shoots the street set in relation to the ring and the bar is especially moody and memorable. And where I expected the actors, particularly Palance, to overact because of the live television format, I was so pleasantly surprised to see them giving subtle, multi-layered performances. I’d actually dare to rank Palance’s work here equal to Marlon Brando’s washed-up fighter in “On TheWaterfront.”

And while there are long sections where you genuinely forget that this was a live television program, it is still fun to watch every inch of the frame to look for things that might not have gone according to plan. At one point Keenan Wynn seems to have misplaced a book of matches, and Ed Wynn points them out to him. In another, Palance tries to pour an empty bottle of beer. But really, isn’t that how life is? Sometimes you really do lose the damn matches, after all, and while it gives this viewer a little smile to see it, the tiny mess-ups work as a reflection of real life more than anything else.

Here and with other such live teleplays, Serling proved he was one of the greatest writers in the history of television, reinforced that statement with “The Twilight Zone” and then put an exclamation point on it with “Night Gallery.” The most shocking thing is that he worked so well in so many different genres and could write with such speed and power. Like David E.Kelley or Paddy Chayefsky, Serling has so many crowning moments it’s impossible to point a single one out as his definitive work. That must be an amazing problem to have.

Like several of these live broadcasts (including “Days ofWine and Roses” and “Marty”), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was turned into a feature film written by Serling and directed by Nelson. The roles in that version were filled by Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris, respectively. I have not seen the film version, and don’t know if I want to. In a way, the live version says just about everything that can be said about the story in only an hour and twelve minutes. You really feel as if you are seeing four souls onscreen trying to make sense out of this unfair life.

“Requiem for a Heavyweight” is available on as part of the Criterion Collection’s “The Golden Age of Television” DVD set.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Twin Peaks - "Pilot"

Season One, Episode One
Original Airdate: April 8, 1990
Writer: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Director: David Lynch
Executive Producers: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Star: Kyle MacLachlan, Piper Laurie, Michael Ontkean, Lara Flynn Boyle

The pilot of “Twin Peaks” is one of those rare episodes that refuses to define itself. Do we latch onto the mystery elements? Should we invest ourselves in the out-there characters? Is this all a parody of a police procedural? The answer to all the above is “yes, of course,” and as a result co-writers David Lynch (who also directed) and Mark Frost created a surprisingly multi-layered show that engaged viewers on several levels, not just the most shallow and viewer-friendly.

The series opens with the iconic discovery of the body of teenager Laura Palmer, her body wrapped in plastic lying on the banks of river. From there, we watch the ripple effects of the murder as they echo through the town of Twin Peaks. Like most of his work, Lynch seems eager to exploit the beauty of nature and the town while undermining it in the same beat by exposing the just-out-of-view rot. In a way, the pilot becomes a series of fascinating, entertaining vignettes connected by those investigating the case more than a real narrative. I write this not as a criticism, but with a lot of respect that Lynch and Frost were able to so easily keep the viewers’ interest through it.

The investigators are Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean), both straight men in a town of kooks but both eccentric enough to fit right in. Cooper in particular is memorable, with his very straightforward style of speech and his insistence on taping everything he finds on a recorder. The rest of the town seems legitimately insane to one level or another. And by “insane” I mean “Lynch-ian.”

The teenagers in “Twin Peaks” seem created to be caricatures of awful teen movies, and I mean that in the best way possible. In particular, the character of Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) appears to be a human incarnation of Satan, plain and simple. If you think I’m overstating, his final scene in the pilot shows him in prison reduced to gutteral screaming like an animal. The scenes in the high school seem like they are from the 1940s and the music (by Angelo Badalamenti) suddenly segues into something that you can’t help but identify as the successor to the finger-snapping opening of “West Side Story.” While Lynch really embraces his quirky side in these passages (cutting to a random student dancing who is never seen again), it also yields the most emotionally resonant moment in the series. While roll is being taken in a classroom, Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) notes that her friend isn’t there. A deputy enters and asks for Bobby (wrong class), and Donna notes that something is wrong. The deputy takes the teacher aside, and then Donna notices a girl outside screaming and crying. Donna realizes what has happened and begins to break down. The scene is done with such beautiful subtlety, all without using any of the clichĂ©s we see so often in these types of scenes.

This beat, 25 minutes into the pilot, could not have come at a better time. Up until this point the murder really hasn’t hit home for us. The moment where Laura’s parents find out is handled oddly by Lynch (surprise, surprise), with Laura’s mother going so over-the-top with her screaming that it becomes comic.

Frost and Lynch present us with several fascinating clues as to what happened to Laura, ones that I daresay would make Agatha Christie envious. From “Fire walk with me” to the girl found walking on the train tracks to the $10,000 in the safety deposit box, the case seems to exponentially deepen with each revelation (good girl Laura was on cocaine!). Best of all is the fantastic sequence where Cooper finds a tiny letter imbedded under Laura’s middle fingernail, lit ominously with a flickering overhead lamp (something that has been imitated hundreds of times since).

The entire affair is filled with somewhat restrained variations on Lynch’s signature weirdness. When a fight breaks out at a biker bar, the completely-out-of-place singer keeps on going. There are 50 doughnuts stacked in twos. There’s a random deer head sitting on a table. The kitschy Native-American paintings all over the lodge. The show isn’t afraid to paint around the edges of every scene, encouraging the viewer to look closer and to watch again to see what he missed the first time.

The pilot finds a great balance between the crazy and relatable and the results are, in their own way, perfect. The world that Frost and Lynch created here is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen on television before or since, despite numerous others having tried to recreate its eccentricities (the most recent was “Happy Town,” which was cancelled before even airing all of its eight-episode first season). For a little while, that balance continued. And then it didn’t. Early on in the show’s run the scales were tipped toward the weird. Viewers stopped watching in droves and, as a result, Frost and Lynch decided to make the show even more weird and incomprehensible. Whether this was because the duo were being pressured to cater to what made the show stand out in the beginning or because they just didn’t care about coherent narrative is unclear. The disappearing viewers also made the network put intense pressure on the duo to solve Laura’s murder when the second season was barely underway, and the resulting revelation (“er…uh…it was evil Bob!”) wasn’t exactly fulfilling (and most of those tantalizing clues I mentioned earlier didn’t end up making sense). Many Lynch fans adore these later episodes and consider them superior to even the pilot, but there’s no question that the show lost its narrative drive after the uncovering of Laura’s murderer.

Lynch has said that Laura’s murder should never have been solved and, as if to prove his point, got a Best Director Oscar nomination for the great “Mulholland Drive,” a pilot that wasn’t picked up that he turned into a feature by adding a series of perplexing, beautiful sequences that added up to absolutely nothing and answered none of the mysteries posed by the first two acts. But I respectfully disagree with him about “Twin Peaks.” To me, the show didn’t die because he answered the question, it died because they stuck the landing and then didn’t immediately begin another great mystery arc to drive the show forward. Time and again, we’ve seen audiences get hostile about creators toying with their time and emotional investment—the most recent example being the huge hullabaloo over the lack of closure in the first season finale of “The Killing,” a PR disaster that scared viewers away en masse and resulted in an eventual cancellation at the end of the show’s second season. Shows like “Lost” and “The X-Files” have their detractors, but they held viewers’ interest for six and nine seasons, respectively, by handing out answers along with new questions.

But what happened next doesn’t really matter. The pilot of “Twin Peaks” marked a creative high for network television that it rarely achieves, engaging the viewers on an emotional and cerebral level. The sight of Laura’s lifeless face in the plastic, small stones stuck on her cheeks and in her hair, is one of the most memorable images ever broadcast. You find yourself humming the music at work and can’t imagine why. The show challenges you, gets in your head and then haunts it, seeming more dream than reality…and that’s pretty much the definition of a masterpiece, wouldn’t you say?

The “Twin Peaks” pilot is available on DVD, on iTunes and on Amazon Instant Video.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Alias - "Phase One"

Season Two, Episode 13
Original Airdate: January 26, 2003
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Director: Jack Bender
Executive Producer: J.J. Abrams, Ken Olin
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, Victor Garber, Carl Lumbly

When television shows reinvent themselves, it is usually because producers or the network think that the storytelling has gone off course or stagnated…or because a popular actor is leaving his or her role. You rarely see it done on a “healthy” show. Sure, shows like “24” claim to hit the reset button every season, but then a mole always shows up in CTU and Jack ends up in handcuffs again. Off the top of my head I can think of the “Two Fathers/One Son” episodes of “The X-Files” that brought to a head six years of complex mythology, Roseanne’s family winning the lottery and the complete creative makeover of “The Practice” in its final season before it transformed into “Boston Legal.” And then there is “Phase One,” which feels for most of its running time like a series finale before upending our expectations and setting the stage for a completely revamped version of “Alias.” The show would pull a similar change-up at the end of this season and several other times during its five-season run, but “Phase One” remains the best of the bunch and one of the most engaging episodes of adventure television ever produced.

Up until this point, the series focused on secret agent Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), who believed she was working for the CIA until they killed her fiancĂ©. She then realized she was working for a terrorist cell called SD-6 and became a double agent, working with the real CIA to take down SD-6 with her father Jack (Victor Garber), who was also a double agent. Also, Sidney’s mom had shown up and there was all this stuff about a dude named Rambaldi and a floating red ball filled with water and Francie (Merrin Dungey) had just opened a restaurant. Phew.

When you consider the circumstances surrounding the production of this episode, it’s a miracle it’s even comprehensible—let alone awesome. You see, “Alias” was chosen to be the show that immediately followed the Super Bowl. This was an opportunity for showrunner J.J. Abrams (who also wrote the episode) to attract a lot of new eyeballs, but getting those viewers up to speed on the complex mythology (see above) and who is who was not exactly an easy task. Instead of just making the episode a jumping-on point, which was the logical thing to do, Abrams instead decided to get viewers up to speed on the mythology…and then blow it up by the end. All in a 42 minute running time.

Shockingly, Abrams pulled it off with a lot of style and still manages to insert several beautiful character moments that had become a hallmark of the series. Turns out the guy is pretty good at this kind of thing—think of his reboot/sequel “Star Trek,” (which was co-written by “Alias” writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci), which boiled down decades of “Star Trek” mythology to its essentials while still telling a coherent, enjoyable story that could attract new viewers.

The black one.
Apparently eager to ensure male viewers would stick around, the episode opens with Sidney on a private plane strutting her stuff in black underwear…then re-strutting it in red underwear. The camera lingers on her assets in an almost exploitative manner (while AC/DC plays in the background, no less!), but Abrams and his director Jack Bender almost immediately upend this male-fantasy by having Sidney kicking the ass of the guy oogling her (“What was wrong with the black one!?” she hisses as she strangles him, before continuing, “You think it’s comfortable wearing clothes like this?”). There’s a fight scene that leaves Sidney in mortal jeopardy and then we flash back one day earlier.

The red one.
Even though series supervillain Arvin Sloan (Ron Rifkin) is mostly M.I.A. here, Abrams introduces a new, wonderful baddie named Geiger, played by Rutger Hauer, who has been inserted as acting director of Sidney’s branch of SD-6. As if having The Hitcher in the episode wasn’t enough, there’s also a cameo by The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as a computer expert. “Alias” was a show unafraid to showcase its geek roots, and also had small roles for such greats as Quentin Tarantino and David Chronenberg.

Admittedly, the plot centers on a deus ex machina. All of the information needed to take down SD-6 just happens to be aboard the plane we see Sidney fighting in during the opening sequence. But Abrams does a fantastic job of dressing up the deus ex machina so well you barely even notice. First there is the aforementioned playing with time, then the ticking-time-bomb aspect to the information that can only be solved by Sidney admitting everything to her best friend in SD-6, Dixon (Carl Lumbly), because he has to send a confirmation code to the CIA in order for them to take down the enemy. Got all that?

The scene where Sidney tells Dixon that his entire life is a lie hits you like a punch to the gut, and rightfully so. In the pilot, we weren’t as emotionally invested in Sidney’s realization because we barely knew her as a character, but here the weight of the revelation is given time to sink in. Abrams even allows time for Dixon, convinced he may die that day, to call his wife to tell her he loves her. The emotional stakes are much higher than just Dixon’s arc, though: Jack is discovered to be a double agent, kidnapped and tortured at length by Hauer’s character to see who he is working for. There’s another beautifully written small scene where, in the midst of the torture, Jack tells Geiger that they actually had dinner together one night, and they laugh as they share memories of the moment. It’s completely throwaway but humanizes Geiger (who until this point has come off as oily as Lex Luthor) and makes us root for Jack all the more.

And then there’s the action. The episode’s centerpiece is indeed the plane sequence, and when it’s revisited halfway through, the tension escalates until Sidney is forced to blow out the side of the plane, cause it to crash and manages to jump out of it with a parachute at the last moment. The set-piece looks and feels very expensive (the CGI work is feature-worthy), and seems like a sly tip-of-the-hat to the climax of “Goldfinger.”

Oh, and Sidney also makes out with Vaughan (Michael Vartan).

Oh, and Francie is killed and replaced with an evil identical version.

That’s one hell of a lot for one episode, and most of what Abrams does is directly against everything television writers are taught. You are never supposed to change the premise of the show so much that it becomes unrecognizable. You are never supposed to get your will-they-won’t-they couple together before the series finale. And this especially should not happen only halfway through the season. But if all this is so wrong, then why does it feel so right?

“Phase One” is available on the second season DVD of “Alias” and on Youtube. Sorry, no Hulu or iTunes this time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Seinfeld : "The Contest"

Season 4, Episode 11
Original Airdate: November 18, 1992
Writer: Larry David
Director: Tom Cherones
Executive Producers: Larry David, Andrew Scheinman, George Shapiro, Howard West
Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander 

“The Contest” is famously about it, and also famous because the word is never spoken during its 23-minute running time. The episode is smart enough to be subtle about the subject and its writer, Larry David, understands that the lack of overt references is often funnier than screaming obscenities at the top of your lungs. We live in an era where it’s in vogue to blatantly state everything about our lives in detail with no filter, but the very best comedy remains the type which is subtle and has a slow build. In an era where so much is being made of cable’s apparent overthrow of network television and the freedom creators now feel without Standards and Practices breathing down their necks, it’s important to note that the majority of quality comedy shows are still being produced for networks, not cable. Yes, “Girls” is getting a bunch of buzz and “Louie” is breaking all the conventional rules of television storytelling, but on the networks you can find shows like “Community,” “NewGirl,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23,” “Happy Endings,” and new classics like “Parks & Recreation,” “30 Rock” and “Modern Family.” Part of this is certainly that subtlety goes hand-in-hand with the very best comedy, and always will, and network comedies can more easily embrace that than cable, which comes with the pressure of being edgy and cutting edge.

But I digress, and digressing in your first paragraph is never a good thing. Back to “Seinfeld,” which by its fourth season was expert on turning the everyday machinations of human nature into fodder for humor, probably never more so than in this episode. It begins with a gut-bustingly funny story related by George (Jason Alexander) where he is walked in on by his mother while masturbating to Glamour Magazine (yes, you read that right) and inadvertently caused her to throw her back out and be hospitalized. The story is funny because it’s relatable and yet taken to an extreme, and this segues perfectly into a bet between the friends to see who can abstain from masturbation the longest. Everyone throws in a hundred bucks, except for Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who must bet $150 because it will be more difficult for the guys.

How will they ensure that the contest is honest? The honor system, of course, though considering how well these dirtbags knew one another it probably wasn’t the best version of checks-and-balances. In fact George, the eventual winner of the contest, reveals later in the series that he cheated, which renders some of the comedy in the episode less funny because George isn’t really suffering as much as we assume, but you just have to put that revelation out of your head for now.

The lowbrow version of this lowbrow storyline (and I mean that in the best way possible) would involve jokes about the penis and bodily fluids, but David is more interested in bypassing the potty humor and turning the bet into a psychological torture session for our characters, which was exactly the right decision. Kramer (Michael Richards) doesn’t last past seeing a hot naked woman wandering through her apartment across the street from Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld). Jerry is dealing with the fact that his current girlfriend, the Virgin (Jane Leeves), will stop proceedings before it gets too hot and heavy.

Both those are funny, but the trials for Elaine and George are brilliantly over-the-top. George goes to visit his mother (Estelle Harris) in the hospital and finds that the gorgeous female in the next bed is getting a sponge-bath from an even-hotter nurse. It’s one of the ultimate male fantasies come true only inches away from George, and he has to watch it while unable to release his frustrations and while sitting next to his mother, who is lying in what appears to be a butt sling.
THAT John F. Kennedy Jr.
And then there’s Elaine. She finds herself in an exercise class directly behind John F. Kennedy Jr. and his assets. Yes, THAT John F. Kennedy Jr. More than that, he actually is interested in her (!), hits on her (!!) and they share a cab ride home together (!!!). Because masturbation is essentially about fantasy, David gleefully takes the episode over the top and parodies some of our most fantastical daydreams.

Because of the subject matter and nature of the episode, the humor can’t help but be very frontloaded (no pun intended). And while the teaser and first act of the episode are damn near perfect because we are quickly amused by the storyline and the introductions to the various character trials, the sense of discovery ebbs away by the second act. A small misstep is a second scene where George returns to the hospital to watch the sponge-bath again that covers the same territory. Luckily, David gives the viewers a genuinely funny pay-off by having the virgin break up with Jerry and fall into the arms of JFK Jr., who just happens to be outside Jerry’s apartment to meet Elaine.

And as for the winner of the contest? David never blatantly states it in the episode, but doesn’t have to. Jerry walks over to the window, defeated after losing the Virgin, and spies the naked neighbor strutting her stuff. Enough said, and sometimes the best climaxes (only a little pun intended) come without being underlined and given a huge punchline.

“The Contest” is available in the fourth season DVD of “Seinfeld” and is probably being rerun right now on television.