TV

Big Shots

Lesley Smith

It's as if the last half of the 20th century had achieved nothing more than television's tolerance of the word "penis" (a word repeated ad nauseam on Big Shots).


Big Shots

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Michael Vartan, Christopher Titus, Joshua Malina, Dylan McDermott, Paige Turco, Jessica Collins, Peyton List, Amy Sloan, Nia Long
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
US release date: 2007-09-27
Website
Trailer
Amazon

The success of Desperate Housewives proved that the primetime soap still had ratings zing. In its wake, Brothers and Sisters, Mad Men, and this season's Cane and Dirty Sexy Money, are mining the dramatic potential of dysfunctional intimacy, whether professional, familial or geographical. ABC has now launched Big Shots, focused on the business and sexual misadventures of four wealthy CEOs who, the show's website announces, “take refuge in their friendship, discussing business, confiding secrets, seeking advice and supporting one another through life's twists and turns.” Translated, this means ABC is trying to con viewers into watching a show about four men stalled in extended puberty, expensive suits, and, in one case, one very bad case of stubble. Never has vacuous early middle age looked so unappealing.

The premiere episode's script (one can download it from the show’s web site for further study) is a veritable primer on how to make sex, money, and voyeurism dull. The CEOs are reduced to quirky types, thus negating the primary purpose of an ensemble cast, the offering of multiple points of empathy for viewers. Each negotiates a series of hackneyed crises: the transvestite hooker, the rebellious teenaged daughter, the traitorous wife, and unexpected promotion.

With all this going on, the show may be bound to lapse into thematic inconsistency. None of these supposedly powerful men looks the least bit powerful. Cuckold James (Michael Vartan) exudes a willowy wistfulness more suited to the amateur stage than the board room, his self-righteous foot-stamping at work and at home indicating nothing so much as petulance. His incompetence is underscored by his efficient "work wife," Katie (Nia Long), who handles details. For his personal life, he has no fixer, however: after learning about James’ wife’s adultery, Duncan (Dylan McDermott) said he felt uneasy surrounded by “all this genuine emotion.” It was one of the premiere episode's few witty lines, drowned in unanticipated irony.

As cosmetics honcho Duncan, McDermott indiscriminately deploys the brooding gaze he perfected on The Practice, which could indicate soul-seeking, a brewing temper tantrum, or, as was once said of a Jeremy Irons performance, "chronic indigestion." This ambiguity undercuts what seems to be a key plotline,

Duncan's bad-boy sexual adventuring (he wears the stubble). His much-repressed misery may be signaled when he announces a new corporate strategy to his creative team while fondling and hitting golf balls on the roof of his office building.

The remaining two friends are introduced and typed, more or less deftly. Brody (Christopher Titus) is Senior Vice President of the evidently misnamed Alpha Crisis Management, whining incessantly about his termagant wife. Karl (Joshua Malina), a pharmaceutical company CEO, lies with panache, juggling a wife and a voracious mistress while resembling a startled rabbit.

In a word, no character emerges as good enough or evil enough to inspire the strong reactions that sustain successful soaps. The episode's director Charles McDougall has to share the blame here. His leads are talented actors, who have achieved some, if not equal, depth in other shows. But every scene progresses at the same pace, and conversations, especially among the foursome, have all the vivacity of slow-motion tennis, as every player laboriously takes his turn.

Based on the premise and promotional campaign, it’s easy to dismiss Big Shots as a rip-off of Desperate Housewives. But Big Shots, even more than Housewives, appears caught in a time warp, imagining itself at a 50-years-ago moment when the viewer supposedly gazed in delight at the antics of the white, rich, straight males gamboling in country clubs and board rooms.

It makes for uncomfortable watching, but Big Shots is certainly not the only current series to offer such faux nostalgia dressed up as satire. It's as if the last half of the 20th century had achieved nothing more than television's tolerance of the word "penis" (a word repeated ad nauseam on Big Shots). Taking refuge in parody or the past, such shows defuse criticism of the status quo they present, instead they naturalizing inequities of class, race and gender. Mad Men's cusp of the '60s setting, for example, allows attitudes that would be crass, and even offensive, if set in 2007. The surreal fantasy of Housewives turns the impotence of each woman into a ribald joke rather than a signal for change. Big Shots slots neatly into this jigsaw of retro-conservatism. The men's rotten loves lives don't negate the fact that they issue the orders, can pay for the restaurants and the club memberships and presume cultural, social and economic power as an intrinsic right.

3

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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