TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 2

Highpoint Number 2: Film Directors Invade Television

Three television series and one mini-series debuted in the 2010-2011 season with executive producers who were also notable film directors: The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont), Boardwalk Empire (Martin Scorsese), The Borgias (Neil Jordan), and Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes). Important directors working in television is not without precedent. Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, and James Cameron have all worked in television, but never before have four such important directors all invaded the medium at the same time.

The degree to which Scorsese is involved with the actual production of Boardwalk Empire is not clear. He did direct the all-important first episode, perhaps the only episode of any series in which the director plays a role as important as the writers. The director of the initial episode of any series is responsible for creating its shooting bible, which establishes the look and feel of a show. TV directors like David Nutter and Jeffrey Reiner are sought out to direct series’ pilots because they excel at creating the look of a show.

In the case of Boardwalk Empire, the driving creative force on the show is almost certainly creator Terence Winter (The Sopranos). But never before has a director of Scorsese’s stature lent his name to television in the English-speaking world (though in Europe many major directors have worked in television: in Germany Rainer Werner Fassbinder made Berlin Alexanderplatz, while Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini worked in television in Sweden and Italy respectively). Scorsese ranks high among the top American-born directors in film history, and well ahead of any of the any director to work on TV. That someone of Scorsese’s stature would take time to work in the medium says a great deal about how the barrier that formerly existed between TV and film has gradually eroded.

Scorsese’s name in the opening credits led critics and viewers to see more virtues in Boardwalk Empire than actually exist. It was clearly one of the best new series of the 2010-2011 season, but as of the end of its first season the overall narrative is a tad thin and it isn’t clear how much substance there is beneath its stunning physical design and the superb acting. I could change my opinion, however, at the drop of a Homburg, and it’s good to keep in mind that Terence Winter’s earlier show, The Sopranos, was not particularly impressive in its first season. In fact, many of the greatest shows in the history of TV have flourished not in their first but second seasons.

Visually, Boardwalk Empire is above criticism. Along with HBO’s Game of Thrones, the show has redefined what is possible on television with set and art design. The combination of exquisite CGI and an enormous recreation of the Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920 gives this show a sense of veracity unmatched by any previous series. Only in movies was it previously possible so convincingly to reproduce another historical epoch. The show continues a new trend on TV: a willingness to set Quality TV in earlier periods in history.

Deadwood and Rome (and also the dreadful series, The Tudors) first showed what was possible on TV when combining CGI and ambitious sets. Mad Men unquestionably was crucial in making studios and networks aware of the potential of mining other historical periods for material, and if the Spartacus series of shows owes a great deal to Rome, Boardwalk Empire follows in the path established by Mad Men, just as the latter made possible the two new shows that will debut in the fall of 2011, Pan Am and Playboy. But none of these shows has been as outrageously ambitious as Boardwalk Empire, with the obvious exception of Game of Thrones, even if it is set in a fantasy world. But the lesson to be learned is clear: anything is possible now on TV.

Neil Jordan’s The Borgias continues this trend, by detailing the story of Rodrigo Borgia—who became Pope Alexander VI, often regarded as the most corrupt pope in history—and his children, Cesare, Juan, and the notorious Lucrezia. The show is a delightful exploration of corruption and political intrigue, enhanced by filming on location in Hungary, with wonderfully preserved castles and estates and other buildings. Like Boardwalk Empire, it features a marvelous cast, headed by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons along with a combination of veteran character actors (Colm Feore, Derek Jacobi) and talented newcomers. In particular, François Arnaud (as Cesare Borgia), Lotte Verbeek (as the Pope’s mistress Giulia Farnese), and Holliday Grainger (as Lucrezia) all excel in their respective roles. Grainger dominates every scene she is in through her physical beauty and power as an actress. She could well be the next Kate Winslet and should be in great demand following this series.

This trend towards period drama is continued in Todd Hayne’s Mildred Pierce. A former art director, Hayne’s films and now this miniseries always pay meticulous attention to visual detail. In his work he has frequently focused on those on those who don’t fit in easily with the mainstream, as in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, the latter his examination of Bob Dylan by having several actors, including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, portray aspects of Dylan’s persona. In Haynes’s work, women often serve as a metaphor for all individuals who become marginalized in society or who struggle against the limitations of the social roles imposed upon them, as in Far from Heaven.

This miniseries is not a remake of the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford—which provided her with her most famous role—so much as a full adaptation of James Cain’s novel. The series tells the story of the struggles of a mother during the depression. Given the critical success of this and the other series, it’s probable that Hollywood will continue to turn out television productions detailing one or another historical period.

Of this new rash of new shows, only The Walking Dead is not set in the past, although it is also displaced in time, dealing with a possible future history. A plague has hit humanity, one that destroys people’s brains, rendering them raw unthinking appetites set on eating anything they can get their mouths on. The infection is spread by biting, so that the few surviving humans’ lives are dominated by the demand that they avoid contact with the zombies.

The Walking Dead is, however, ultimately not about zombies, just as Friday Night Lights is not primarily about football or Battlestar Galactica about spaceships. The series is about what it means to be a human being, about what it means to be humane, about what makes life most worth living. While the series’ first season contained many moments of intense excitement—like the scene where Sheriff Rich Grimes is trapped underneath a tank by hundreds of zombies in downtown Atlanta—its best moments focused on the heart-wringing beauty of human existence.

Watching a man in the first episode struggle, unsuccessfully, to pull the trigger of his rifle and put a bullet in the head of what used to be his wife was as raw and as tortured as anything I have ever seen on television. It was one of those moments that represent television at its best. Even though The Walking Dead lasted only six episodes in its first season—an abbreviated schedule based on AMC’s uncertainty about the show’s viability—it received an unprecedented degree of mainstream critical acclaim for a horror series. Some have speculated that had it run for 13 instead of six episodes, it might have received an Emmy nomination for Best Drama. Its future has, however, come into question due to some staggering developments.

Series creator and executive producer Frank Darabont is not going to be a part of The Walking Dead in the future. I’ll have more to say about this in the final installment of the High and Lowpoints of 2010-2011 (hint: I don’t discuss his firing—and yes, it was a firing—in the Highpoint half of the final essay), but AMC decided that Darabont was too much of an impediment to their intent to produce the show at a lower cost. This is merely the latest—if the most distressing—series of stories about AMC that may indicate that it may not ready to be a long-term player in the production of Quality TV. The little network that could might turn out simply be too cheap for ongoing success.

It would, however, be premature to be completely pessimistic about the future of The Walking Dead. Television is a writer’s medium, not a director’s. I suspect that Darabont’s leaving the series will have less of an effect than would Neil Jordan leaving The Borgias. Jordan is more of a writer who directs films, and on his TV series he has worked primarily as a writer. A director, as noted above, has his greatest impact on a series at the beginning, in creating the look and style of a show. Once that is established, future directors work within the limits of the style initially laid down. Shows do not shift from hand-held to mounted cameras, from film to high-def video or vice versa, from single-camera set ups to three, from a certain lighting scheme to another. When they do—and The X-Files excelled at this—they do so in a deliberate attempt to alter the look of a show for a specific episode.

And the writing staff for the show is a good one, while Glen Mazzara is a veteran of many shows; though most of them were not terribly successful, he did serve as executive producer on The Shield. Robert Kirkman, on whose long-running comic book the series is based, remains firmly attached to the show. My gut tells me that despite the loss of someone of Darabont’s stature, the show will remain as strong, though I worry about the budget cuts that AMC has demanded and the possibility of morale problems. They clearly fired Darabont because they felt he was too strong of a personality to order about, so they have brought in someone competent to run a quality show, but more pliable about budget cuts. Darabont was unwilling to cut the size of his crew; perhaps Mazzar will accede to AMC’s demands to cut corners.

Mention should be made of two new series in which Steven Spielberg is involved, though one belongs to the upcoming season. He is one of the producers on the alien invasion series Falling Skies, which debuted this June on TNT, and is also a major creative force in arguably the most anticipated show of the 2011-2012 season, the dinosaur SF series Terra Nova.

Lowpoint Number 2: Charlie Sheen

The entire Charlie Sheen affair was one of the more unsavory moments in recent memory involving a TV personality. A man has an extreme manic moment in front of the nation and millions egg him on, laughing as he engages in more and more extreme behavior. While ultimately the responsibility for his public degradation lies with Sheen himself, the public has to take a portion of the blame as his enablers.

Sheen had, of course, for several years headlined the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men, which was critically reviled but a ratings success that helped anchor the network’s set of Monday night comedies. The show always reminded me of my daughter when she was six asking me to show her a scary movie. I showed her one of the later Godzilla movies and when it was over she asked, “What was the scary part?” Similarly, whenever I have watched the show I’ve wondered what was supposed to be the funny part. So perhaps my dislike of the show colored my attempt to ignore Sheen’s public meltdown. I’d like to think that I wanted to grant Sheen a nanobyte of dignity by ignoring his antics, even if he wasn’t going to grant that dignity to himself.

Why didn’t we just turn our heads? Why did we fuel his public humiliation by refusing to notice his breakdown until he came to his senses?

Some of the enablers were not the usual suspects. I daily visit The Hollywood Reporter website for the latest news on casting and newly ordered pilots and the entire range of TV news. One day at the height of obsession over Sheen’s breakdown the entire front page of THR’s TV stories dealt with Sheen, and for several days over half of all their stories were Sheen-related. And The Hollywood Reporter was hardly alone. Even though I was determined to ignore his implosion, no one else appeared to be willing to.

I’m not so naïve to think that Sheen’s ongoing emotional breakdown and the public obsession with it will be the last incident of its kind. A certain segment of the population is always going to delight over seeing celebrities crash and burn. But it’s equally important for another segment of the population to refuse to go along and instead point out that delighting over someone’s public demise is more vice than virtue — its got its own kind of madness.