[28 July 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
High Point Number 8: IFC’s Two Great Comedies
I really had no intention to watch either of the two IFC original series Portlandia and Onion News Network. I loved the Onion newspaper and the videos they put on their website, but I didn’t imagine that it would translate well to regular cable TV. Things began to change when I saw a link to a long excerpt for Portlandia on the Internet. When I learned from watching the clip Carrie Brownstein, best known before now as the co-guitarist/singer/songwriter of the legendary band Sleater-Kinney (and let me confess right here that for me Sleater-Kinney was a band that could do no wrong… until they decided to go on permanent hiatus) was, along with Saturday Night Live vet Fred Armisen, going to headline the show, I knew I had to give it a view. And since Onion News Network followed, I decided to give it a shot, as well.
I was instantly hooked and for a brief time Friday became my favorite night of TV, with these two outstanding comedies holding the anchor position following my long-time not-so-guilty pleasure show Smallville and the newly banished-to-Friday Fringe.
Anyone familiar with the Onion newspaper (or, for those who live in areas where the paper is not distributed, the website) would know what to expect on the television series: fake news. My only concern was how things would translate onto TV. After all, several decades of SNL news reporting represented a real challenge for any fake news show, not to mention The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Onion News Network didn’t break any new ground, but it treaded over old ground so deftly to make the format seem completely fresh. The show is anchored—literally and figuratively—by Brooke Alvarez (Suzanne Sena) who as the face of the show is able to create a delightful mix of believability and absurdity in reporting the news.
Brooke is given some great fake news items to report by the writers, including ongoing stories about a string of individuals who time travel from the future in efforts to warn us about the danger to the world posed by future world dictator Suri Cruise. Other stories include coverage of America’s first openly drunk candidate and the decision to try a pretty young white girl accused of killing a classmate as a black male.
Given the excellence of the Onion newspaper and the video clips on its website, the success of Onion News Network is no great surprise. But Portlandia was another matter entirely, a sketch comedy show that spoofs the delightfully loopy progressivism associated with the city, something parodied in the first episode’s big musical production number “The Nineties Are Alive in Portland”. Given Brownstein’s background with Sleater-Kinney and Armisen’s experience as drummer for the Chicago alt-rock band Trenchmouth there are, unsurprisingly, some hilarious musical moments on the show.
The funniest may have been when a married couple (portrayed by Armisen and Brownstein) realize that their cleaning lady is actually musician Aimee Mann, who has been forced to take on an additional job due to a downturn in the music industry. The punchline in the episode comes when we learn that the person who takes care of their lawn is Sarah McLachlan. And of course any fan of Sleater-Kinney would want to know whether the band’s lead singer, Corin Tucker, appears at all. The answer is yes, though only briefly, as a member a band, Echo Echo, which checks into a hotel where Armisen and Brownstein are working as desk clerks.
One of the best skits on the show consists of Brownstein and Armisen passionately advocating that we “Put a bird on it!” by painting birds or putting bird stickers on just about anything we come across.
Portlandia consisted of only six episodes in its first season, but luckily the show found its groove rather quickly. Armisen was no surprise, since his work here was pretty much a continuation of what he had done on SNL, but Carrie Brownstein was an unexpected delight. I knew she wanted to be our Joey Ramone; I didn’t know she wanted to be our Tina Fey as well.
Both shows have been renewed and will be back for a second season.
Low Point Number 8: The New Superhero Shows All Suck
I have soft spot for superhero shows. If you love superhero comics, you tend to love the TV equivalent. Heck, I even enjoyed Birds of Prey, which will say something about my tolerance for the genre.
The 2010-2011 season saw the debut of two new superhero shows, one No Ordinary Family on ABC and The Cape on NBC. The former was a normal disappointment while the latter was a thundering disappointment. No Ordinary Family turned out to be far more of a family drama with a twist than any superhero show we’ve seen. It was, in fact, far less of a superhero show than The Incredibles, the animated film it somewhat resembled. The show dealt with a family—the ordinary family of the title—that acquired super powers after their plane crashed into a glowing South American river.
While I love family dramas, I suspect that the superhero elements put off those who had enjoyed co-creator Greg Berlanti’s earlier series Everwood and Brothers and Sisters, and even fans of his previous foray into the supernatural, Eli Stone. His bona fides are actually a tad better than that, having co-written the screenplay for the Green Lantern film, so maybe he is a geek who got sidetracked doing teen and family dramas. And perhaps the same holds true for his co-creator Jon Harmon Feldman, who had previously worked on Tru Calling. Regardless, the show was ultimately not embraced by either fans of family dramas or superhero series.
The show itself remained rather stilted throughout and seemed to lack focus. Superhero shows at their best deal with questions of moral responsibility, but while No Ordinary Family certainly had some of that, it dealt even more with the strain the powers put on family relations. I also had problems with the casting. As much as I loved Michael Chiklis in The Shield and as great as he would have seemed to have been for this part on paper, he never really embraced his role like I would have expected. In The Shield his Vic Mackey was a force of nature, but here as a man with super strength and invulnerability he seemed almost gentle and tentative. And as much as I adored Julie Benz on Buffy and Angel and then later on Dexter, I never came to accept her in this show, while the not-so-special effects of her running at super speed were a tad unsettling to watch. The show never got off the ground and the writers never seemed to have a clear conception of what the show was about.
But next to The Cape, No Ordinary Family looks like Citizen Kane. In previews The Cape looked magnificent. This is partly was due to the fact to its physical look and the outstanding execution by the art design and costume departments. Freeze any second of The Cape and it looks great. You’d swear by any few seconds of the show that it was a winner. Unfortunately, it was not. As great as the show looked, that is how poorly it was written. The Cape felt like a television series written by people who were not comic book fans for people who are, but with the added assumption that comic book fans are gullible idiots. Absolutely nothing worked on The Cape, from the eponymous hero to the circus performers who moonlight as a gang of thieves to the snake-skinned villain. Every moment of the show seemed calculated to offend intelligent viewers. And as much as I love Summer Glau, I found her character hard to like, for no other reason than her part was so horribly written.
Let me put it this way: because I write about television I try very hard to watch as many television series as possible. In 2010-2011 I followed a grand total of 67 current series. I completed every single one of these series, no matter how much I disliked them, except for two. I found it simply impossible to finish watching The Cape.
And here I might as well mention the other series that I couldn’t keep watching. While The Event was not a show about superheroes, it was a show that had the potential for heroics. But instead of finding any of the characters heroic, I was merely bored.
The Event illustrated a point that Damon Lindelof made in Entertainment Weekly during the first season of Lost. Lindelof recounted there his conception of television narrative and explained how he tried to impart this by showing his team of writers several episodes from three different television series, the first three that introduced very long narrative to American television (and Babylon 5 fans inevitably object here, so let me just state that your objections are duly noted). The first was Twin Peaks, which planned on dealing at length with the mystery of Who Killed Laura Palmer?, but imploded under the weight of introducing a host of mysteries while resolving virtually none of them.
The second series was The X-Files, which was far more successful than Twin Peaks at extending a narrative beyond a season or two, but focused far too much on plot instead of character development. A successful series, Lindelof argued, had to be grounded in character and let plot develop out of that. His example of the first show to successfully do that—and the show that he wanted Lost to emulate—was Buffy.
Now, in Lindelof’s schema, The Event was a complete regression to The X-Files, with a major additional consideration: the earlier show, while not primarily about character development, nevertheless had two great central characters, and the show increasingly came to center around them despite the focus of the show on plot. But The Event never developed compelling characters, and as a result never had anything to fall back on except plot. This can be seen in the series’ premiere, in which huge, dazzling events take place. But because we don’t know the people to whom these things are happening, we do not as a result really care what happens to them.
Again, this can be contrasted with a different show that had its debut in the fall of 2010: The Walking Dead. Instead of delving straight into plot and events regardless of character development, we see events through the eyes of Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). By the end of the first episode we are passionately concerned about what is going to happen not just to him, but in the entire show, because he has been introduced as the show’s emotional center. The Event had no such emotional center, just an assemblage of events and characters. This was, I believe, the reason the show failed to catch on with viewers.