Cable countermanded it. Digital subdivided it. DVD drove its late stage spin into artistic experimentation. Indeed, the micromanaged mission of post-millennial television is to find a formidable viewership and hang on for dear life. On the other end of the spectrum, new shows and the minds behind them want to remake the medium in their own, equally unique image. So what we end up with is a battle of nonconformist wills, neither side anxious to accept the triumph of the other. It’s a contest that constantly pushes TV to areas of originality heretofore unheard of. It’s not just pushing the envelope—it’s moving beyond the set-ups of a half century to redefine the realm.
Naveen Andrews, Emilie de Ravin, Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Evangeline Lilly, Dominic Monaghan, Terry O’Quinn
(ABC; US: 22 Sep 2004)
Lost has become nothing less than one of the defining works of art of our time, a complex allegory for the confusion of living in our hyper-accelerated, media-saturated culture. While on the surface it’s about a group of plane crash survivors exploring the bizarre island they’ve been stranded on, the show is really about the experience of being bombarded with sensory information at all times and the way our personal biases distort our attempts to process all of these clues, with the end result that everyone has a fragment of the truth but not the whole deal. It’s the perfect metaphor for an age of Wikipedia, Fox News vs. the “liberal media,” and the power of the internet to turn the voices of the people into a screaming cacophony. A decade ago The X-Files captured the paranoid zeitgeist of the ‘90s with the catchphrase “The Truth is Out There,” insisting that we were living in a web of lies and needed to break free. Lost posits a more complicated scenario: we’re surrounded by truth and lies all the time, but who can tell which is which?
Not surprisingly, the demanding complexity of Lost is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The show has become notorious for frustrating those who want answers to its mysteries: every question turns out to be a Chinese box that opens up to reveal yet more questions inside. It’s taken the show’s creators a while to strike just the right balance, but the third season managed to bring together a headlong narrative momentum, more compelling flashbacks, and an ever-present sense of dread from the island’s secrets.
And the season builds to a staggering finale that turns our perceptions inside-out and changes everything about where we thought this story was headed. The subtle genius of the finale is that its biggest plot twist is hidden in plain sight for anyone paying close attention, yet most of the audience was too busy following the red herrings. The real answers will come in time, but for now the greatest achievement of Lost is the confusion and terror it forces us to share with its characters.
Although the Season Three DVD set won’t be released until this December, it already looks like it should keep up the high level of quality set by the previous DVD releases. Extras will include deleted scenes, audio commentaries, additional flashbacks, and special features on “The Others” and the show’s cryptic literary references.
Third Season Finale
Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, B.J. Novak
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 8:30pm ET
(NBC; US: 17 May 2007)
Here’s an interesting fact to consider: the original UK version of The Office has already inspired four different spinoff versions for US, French, French-Canadian, and German television. It would seem that creators Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais have tapped into something sadly universal about modern life: our work forces us to spend more time with our co-workers than our friends and loved ones, even as corporate jobs are becoming more meaningless and designed to make workers easily replaceable.
It’s no wonder then that our office workplaces are breeding some pretty strange, desperate characters, and the cast of The Office are only extreme reflections of the sort of people who might be your own co-workers. The everyman role of the series is filled by Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), who passes his time as a paper salesman by playing practical jokes and pining for secretary Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis). At the other end of the spectrum is his boss David Brent (Ricky Gervais), a monstrously self-absorbed buffoon who likes to imagine that everyone in the office is his best friend in order to compensate for the loneliness of his personal life.
While the American version of The Office -– excellent in its own right –- tends to exaggerate its absurdities for comic effect, the BBC original is a bit more subdued, preferring to carefully balance itself on the knife’s edge between cringe-inducing humor and genuine pathos. Ricky Gervais does a masterful job making Brent seem just pathetic enough to inspire our pity (as when he begs not to be fired after realizing he has nothing worthwhile other than his work), and then turning around and showing that he is truly clueless and incapable of appreciating the feelings of others. Although The Office does give us an ending that provides hope for the future of all its main characters, its underlying message stings: although you can tell yourself that your job is only what you’re doing until something better comes along, you can’t live your life on hold forever.
This DVD set contains the entire run of The Office, which includes twelve episodes and a feature-length Christmas special (British shows tend to run for much shorter than their American counterparts, sacrificing quantity for consistency). Among the best of the extras are outtakes which showcase Gervais’s total inability to keep a straight face while the camera is rolling, a candid making-of documentary, and David Brent’s hilariously awful music video for “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”
I should probably admit up front that I’ve never seen an episode of the British Office—shameful, I know—even though friends have testified to its genius…and my brother very generously gave me the complete series on DVD. (I’ll watch it one day, Bri, I swear!) Approaching the U.S. version with no preconceptions or expectations, I was immediately taken with its funny, perceptive (often painfully so) depiction of office-park drudgery at Dunder-Mifflin, a midlevel paper company in Scranton, PA. The first season featured just eight half-hour installments, but the second is a full cycle and contains 22 of the most sharply written and acted sitcom episodes in recent memory. (A testament to The Office’s brilliance, the deleted scenes included among the DVD extras are just as stellar as those that made the final cut. So watch them!) As the show skewers Corporate America’s handling of hot-button issues, like sexual harassment, e-mail surveillance, and drug testing, it also keenly mines the awkward, tenuous nature of workday relationships.
Though in this season the possibility of layoffs looms overhead, the biggest threat to the employees are the bumbling antics of branch manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell), who can be hapless, self-deluded, and often cruel, especially to his right-hand man, Dwight (the hilarious Rainn Wilson). On the rare occasion when Scott’s foot isn’t in his mouth, he’s scalding it on the George Foreman grill he keeps by his bed (“I like waking up to the smell of bacon—sue me.”) In Season Two, Scott’s shortcomings were tempered by more endearing traits, like his playfulness, good intentions, and desperate need for approval. Carell is a remarkable comedian, to be sure, but he’s also a truly fine actor, seamlessly merging Scott’s strengths and flaws into a coherent, believable, and ultimately lovable character. And speaking of lovable, let’s not forget The Office’s irresistible, unconsummated romance between receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) and salesman Jim (John Krasinski). The surprising, tender finale of Season Two, “Casino Night,” will make you gasp out loud. It might even make your heart ache a little. But that won’t keep you from watching it again and again; it might even be the reason why you do.
Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
“It’s not magic, Michael. It’s an illusion!” Will Arnett says, his lips curling into his faux-pathetic grin, his emphasis placed in all the wrong places, his long thin head drawn in such a way that it should seem menacing, but occurs merely as some absurdist Dadaist painting. He is Gob (pronounced Jobe), one of a cast that is best described as a supergroup of comedy -– and though that term is generally used for music groups like Velvet Underground and the New Pornographers, it is a perfect fit for the comedic genius that was represented in the short-lived, but absolutely brilliant three seasons of Arrested Development. Just listing the principle actors of the series beckons the impossible achievement of creator Mitchell Hurwitz; Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Howard, on and on and on. Every episode was a multilayered in-joke, sending up Hollywood, the audience and themselves. Henry Winkler jumping over a shark, Liza Minelli and her fainting spells, Charlize Theron playing an MRF (Mentally Retarded Female).
Is it any surprise that the show couldn’t survive past three seasons? It eventually became too much for audiences, too many in-jokes, too much inside humor, sarcasm, self-parody. Eventually, to understand many of the jokes in the third season, you had to have watched every single episode in the first two seasons. Eventually, Arrested Development began parodying the fact that people could no longer follow the show; “Are we relatable now?” Eventually, not only did you have to watch every episode, but you had to read all the news surrounding the show as well. You had to know that HBO was passing on buying the show, but Showtime was in talks -– just to understand central premises of each episode. Rather than turn off longtime fans, though, it sent them into frenzy. The episodes became biblical, or like Dylan’s garbage: We dug through each episode, searching for each inside joke, each possible reference. There are websites dedicated to dissecting every single sentence spoken. Arrested Development was like an éclair, and we sucked the crème from it. Thus the necessity now for the DVDs –- which always sold better than the show did on Network Fox. You can watch and rewatch them, divining each and every instance of humor. And hell, maybe if enough of you buy the DVDs, the show will be revived. And I can stop pining for what is, likely, the funniest television run of all time.
Steven Bochco’s NYPD Blue broke taboos and was instantly shocking and game-changing in the television industry. The rough and honest language, herky-jerky camera movements, abrasive and compulsively rhythmic music, nudity, raw realism and gritty characters were unlike anything ever seen previously on US television. Hill Street Blues may have been the beginning point for this approach and certainly helped set the template, but NYPD Blue is the show that elevated the cop and crime show genre to it’s highest pinnacle. It certainly helped pave the way for later critical favorites like The Shield and The Wire by whetting the appetite of US audiences for a new level of televisual realism.
Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz framed the show from beginning to end. Setting the tone and intent for the series right from its opening episode, Sipowicz was boozing and smoking big-time, assaulted a mobster, slept with a prostitute, got shot, and got put on modified assignment, having to surrender his badge and gun. That’s about as low as a cop can go and that all happened in the first 45 minutes of this ground-breaking series.
As the years went on, Sipowicz ‘s bigotry and anger mellowed as he kicked the booze and got married and had a kid. But Bochco couldn’t let his complicated hero experience too much happiness. Eventually losing almost everything dear to him—his oldest son, his wife, and his partner (Jimmy Smits)—all in the line of duty, Sipowicz labored with heavy ghosts haunting him and old problems and vices constantly threatening and challenging him. Franz’s long tenure in one of the most memorable lead roles in television drama will long be remembered.
Alas, only four seasons of the multiple Emmy Award-winning NYPD Blue are currently available on DVD. That’s quite shameful given the piles of dreck one routinely encounters on the TV on DVD shelves in the world’s big box stores.