TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011... Number 3

This year Justified went from being a very good show to being a great one, while two of TV's most promising new series, Terriers and The Chicago Code, were gone too soon.

High Point Number 3: Justified Comes of Age

Justified, which debuted in 2010, was a good show straight out of the gate, with Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens instantly one of the most appealing lead characters on TV, and Wayne Goggins as Appalachian petty criminal Boyd Crowder one of the most compelling and complex supporting characters. But as so often happens with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Buffy, The X-Files, Farscape, and many others, it was in the second season that Justified became something extraordinary.

The American television industry has been notorious for focusing on the “haves” in American life rather than the “have nots”. Nearly every show on broadcast television deals with the lives of people who are a bit better off than the majority of Americans. And shows that focus on the lower middle class, like the recently ended Friday Night Lights or the comedy classic Freaks and Geeks, are exceptions to the rule. Justified is likewise an exception, in this case not merely focusing on the lower middle class but also on the poor in one of the most economically blighted areas of the United States, the coal mining region of Eastern Kentucky.

Graham Yost’s series, based on stories written by Elmore Leonard, focuses on the fringe of what Greil Marcus has called “The Old Weird America”. Season 1 dealt largely with Raylan’s attempts to avoid being killed in retaliation for a man he had to shoot in Miami—a shooting that led to his transfer back to eastern Kentucky where he grew up—and with a local battle over who would control crystal-meth production.

As good as the first season, Season 2 represented a considerable leap forward, with both brilliantly written standalone episodes and ongoing arcs. Raylan jostles both a romance with his ex-wife, who becomes embroiled in potential legal troubles when she lifts money out of an evidence safe, and with changes brought about by a coal company trying to buy property rights from local landowners, with an Appalachian matriarch at the center of things. The latter was played by veteran character actor Margo Martindale, in the role of a lifetime. Both Olyphant and Goggins were outstanding, each garnering well-deserved Emmy nominations, but Martindale dominated the season in one of the finest performances by any actor during the entire 2010-2011 season. If she does not win Best Supporting Actress in a Drama at the Emmys, the awards will be completely lacking in credibility.

The tone of Season 2 was established in the very first episode, in a scene in which Martindale’s Mags Bennett murders a man. Instead of telling Mags that one of her employees is threatening to molest his daughter, he calls the police, which she views as an affront to her authority. As Mags shares a drink with him, the suspicion that she has poisoned him cuts across his face. She tells him, “It was already in the glass, not in the jar” and promises to raise his daughter as her own as he eases into unconsciousness.

But as great as Olyphant, Martindale, and Goggins are, my favorite scene of the season may have been in the episode "Blaze of Glory", when Givens’s boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), chases legendary but aging bank robber Frank Reasoner (veteran character actor Scott Wilson). Art’s aging knees makes it difficult for him to run down Reasoner, who is chronically dependent on an oxygen tank. Reasoner has played a lot of computer flying games in prison that he hopes will enable him to fly a single engine airplane he is trying to reach. Art, unwilling to shoot Reasoner, grabs the oxygen tank the bandit has abandoned and hobbles after him, knowing he will collapse before reaching the plane. It's one of the most poignant, funny scenes one could ever hope to see. For neither the cop nor the thief is anything like a blaze of glory.

Justified is in the best tradition of F/X series like The Shield. Now that Olyphant and Goggins have both received the Emmy nominations they unquestionably deserved, one can only hope that the show itself will receive a similar nomination next season.

Lowpoint Number 3: The Cancellation of Terriers and The Chicago Code

Every year outstanding shows get cancelled, shows that should have been an ongoing part of our cultural landscape and whose absence makes our lives a little less rich. I’m still nursing a bit of pain and denial about losing shows like Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, and Caprica.

Apart from Caprica, the two shows this year I most hated to see end prematurely were two on which Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear served as executive producers and on which Minear served as show runner: Terriers and The Chicago Code.

Terriers was created by Ocean’s Eleven writer Ted Griffin and starred Dontal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as unlicensed private investigators. The twist is that Logue’s Hank Dolworth is an ex-cop and Raymond-James’s Britt Pollack is an ex-petty thief. The two make for one of the most delightful buddy pairings on TV, and were supported by a great cast. The show, like the teen detective series Veronica Mars, was set in the San Diego area, which gave it a somewhat different feel from most Hollywood cop shows. But it was quirky throughout. Dolworth’s ex-partner, for instance, played by Rockmond Dunbar, was a reformed chain smoker, but managed to survive only through the electric cigarette constantly dangling from his lips, thus undermining the traditional image of the tough cop. Sadly, no one watched and the show WAS not renewed.

I normally hate cop shows. I find room for the occasional exception, but The Shield, The Wire, Justified, Terriers and The Chicago Code pretty much exhaust all that I’ve enjoyed. What made Terriers so delightful was the weird niche in society that characters inhabited; with Hank trying to hold onto the little bit in life that he still had while Britt was trying to become more mainstream than he ever had been before, even hoping to marry his girlfriend Katie (The 4400’s Laura Allen). These were men who did not appear to have all that much to live for, yet for both, the stakes in life seemed so exceptionally high. I’ve rarely encountered characters on shows in whose lives I have become invested so completely, and the cancellation of Terriers has left a definite void.

The Chicago Code, in contrast, was not a show that pulled at me in quite the same way Terriers did, but it was engaging for other reasons. While Terriers was a great show right out of the gate, The Chicago Code felt like a show that needed more time to develop. But with Fox dedicated to talent shows that pull in gargantuan numbers of viewers, it has little patience with moderately successful scripted dramas. It would not have been especially surprising if it had been renewed. It already had a moderate viewership and it would not have been impossible for it to develop a larger fanbase in the future. In an ideal world, Fox would have cancelled the dying-before-our-eyes House M.D. and gambled on a show whose best days were ahead, but as we’ve often learned, this is not an ideal world. The ratings for Terriers were so weak that its renewal was deemed impossible even before it was cancelled, but The Chicago Code was one for which we had some hope.

What made me want the show to survive is partly that it was the only series in memory to be filmed entirely on location in Chicago, where I live. For some Chicagoans this led to an almost obsessive degree of nitpicking, as people tore into the show online when an east-west street just west of the Loop was identified as Harlem Avenue, a north-south street very far to the west, or a street in Old Town substituted for Granville. Trying to explain to people that shooting five miles further away was very expensive and therefore not something that a show on a tight budget could consider, was an exercise in futility. Weirdly, many Chicagoans refused to embrace the show that put their city on display more beautifully than any in memory.

Sure, the show took liberties. There's corruption in Chicago, but not like the corruption that occurred on the show. The series did not show the racial tensions that are at the heart of much of the city’s strife, and among the 50 aldermen in Chicago, none of the African-American members wield the kind of power Delroy Lindo’s Ronin Gibbons did on the show. That kind of power is generally reserved for aging white dudes.

Still, the characters on the show were believable, the stories involving, and the city looked great. It's a show that would, I believe, have become outstanding given time, but it turns out that the one thing it didn’t have was time.

Both series ended well, with complete resolution in the final episode. This is speculation on my part, but I believe the reason might lie with showrunner Tim Minear, who has been closely identified with Joss Whedon. He was co-creator with Whedon of Firefly and worked on both Angel (a show Shawn Ryan also worked on) and Dollhouse. Whedon had a philosophy about crafting season long arcs, and I suspect that this has rubbed off on Minear, though perhaps Ryan also shares this. Whedon’s shows have always been written as if the current season would be the last, driven by the assumption that it was unfair to viewers to be left with a season-ending cliffhanger that could leave the fans with a permanent sense of incompletion. As much as I love Thomas's work, I'd have appreciated if he had chosen to end Season 3 of Veronica Mars with the narrative more or less wrapped up, instead of it hanging there like a gaping wound.

Minear is clearly of the philosophy that each season deserves a proper ending. One of his first showrunning gigs was Wonderfalls, and it views like a 13-episode movie, and is as a result far more satisfying than many shows that last for far longer. And both Terriers and The Chicago Code both end, though prematurely, with a deep feeling of satisfaction. It would be great if all showrunners and executive producers felt this much concern for fans and would adopt the practice of treating each season finalé as if it might also be the series finalé. Caprica similarly ended with a finalé that wraps up the series, though I suspect that in its case scenes were shot with the possibility of its cancellation.

Both Ryan and Minear will be back. Shawn Ryan has really had only one successful series in terms of ratings, but that was The Shield, and one hit like that will purchase a lot of credibility. Minear has had a depressingly large number of shows fail, but rarely because they weren’t good (I even liked Drive despite the inherent silliness of the concept). He has already been signed to serve as a Consulting Producer on Awake, one of the most anticipated series of the coming season, and as a writer-producer on the new Ryan Murphy and and Brad Falchuk (the dismal duo behind Glee) series American Horror Story. But frankly, I think Minear is too intelligent for network television, and I anticipate the day when he gets a chance to be in charge of a show on HBO, Showtime, or Starz.

Hopefully a year from now, one of my 2011-2012 Lowpoints will not be the cancellation of Awake and American Horror Story.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.