The cable landscape continues to widen with the permutation of new entries into the crowded landscape.
Starz With the introduction of the TV version of “Crash” the network benefits from being only the third behind HBO and Showtime to be able to take on the “no holds barred” approach.
This is motivated by Bill Hamm, president of originals at the skein, who announced new deals in terms of the ordering of the series “Failure To Fly” about people who have failed at suicide being shepherded by filmmaker Craig Sheffer (to premiere in Spring 2010), a fashion series from Chris Albrecht (formerly of HBO) and Rob Thomas (of Matchbox 20 fame) who is developing an Austin-based drama in addition to a new development deal with Matthew McCougnahey.
“Crash” meanwhile in its sophomore season, begins retaining Ira Steven Behr, formerly of “The 4400”, as a showrunner while also signing Keith Carradine (hot off “Dexter”) for a multi episode arc. Behr speaks that, within the “Crash” world, Los Angeles is a paradise but paradise comes at a price…and everybody has to pay. He relates that Eric Roberts is playing Seth Blanchard, a billionaire who is playing outside the box to situate everyone in his space. Linda Park plays his wife Maggie who has a couple secrets of her own and will be soon dragged outside her comfort space. Behr says that his LA is exciting and different and definitely not the easiest place to live but that it gives the opportuinity for everyone else to change. The stories themselves have multi character arcs and with Starz being premium cable, they can go anywhere. Respective in terms of shooting Albuerquerque for LA, he says that it is a very interesting choice and he would be interested in meeting the guy who made the decision. He respectively says that green screen does wonders and that they have found a way to get over the problem nicely. The stories, he reiterates, have an LA base to them and he is a firm believer that if the characters and stories are compelling then the viewers will come.
Dennis Hopper, in full cool form, says that with the TV series, the ultimate reality is that you don’t have as much time as film. He mentions that he has worked on many indie films over the years and that it is not all that much different. The major alteration here is how much dialogue he has in this series spread over 15 to 17 hour days. He jokes that he never hears anybody complain but him. He enjoys it but it is difficult considering they have three days off every two weeks. He likes the upside of working with Eric Roberts and they have a laugh that they both have made more than a couple bad movies over the years. Hopper also relates a great moment in a recent episode involving his old friend Dean Stockwell. His character is brought out to the desert by this character to get him off drugs which he laughs “is a ridiculous presence” because Dean “had a scorpion biting me”.
On the other end of the tether is the new “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” which takes the legendary story and places it “Gladiator” style with an R rating. Lucy Lawless, always the essence of great genre, off a hot stint with “Battlestar Galactica”, relishes her involvement. She sees her character to Spartacus as “his Lady MacBeth”. If he has to do something against the rules, she is there to “shore him up”. Undeniably though, she sees herself as the power behind the throne despite the fact that their love is “toxic”. She sees this series, tonally, as unlike anything she has ever done especially in the angle of its naturalism. The world of this Spartacus, she says, is one with a lack of empathy. There are high stakes for everybody. To everyone’s chagrin, she admits at some point, she will be (at least partially) naked because, as she says, “some people insist on taking off their pants”. But ultimately when clothes are worn, Lawless says she never thinks about the costumes. She was happy in LA content in doing little bits but she says the role is just “knock out” which made it easier for her to return to New Zealand where the show is being shot. The show has “brilliant women relationships” that are “subtle but also deadly”. She says “deadly” attracts her.
Sam Raimi, who was also involved back in the days of “Hercules” and “Xena” with Lawless serves as an exec on the show. His involvement, he says, was getting the concept moving with Rob Tappert. He admits that the new “Spiderman” films will take him away from this project but is glad he was able to be there for the first three or four episodes. Raimi is fascinated by Spartacus because he is “this legendary character” who goes from someone about to die to an unexpected hero”. It is a story for him “about the oppressed against the oppressor”.
Rob Tappert, who worked with Raimi on the earlier series, explains that the first season starts before Spartacus goes into slavery and ends with him going into gladiator school, adding that they push it a little farther placing him in the fighting. He adds that “Blood” is done with the ballet of a John Woo movie.
HBO In trying to re-estabish their dominance after a building power in the form of cable competition along with the departure of “The Sopranos”, the cabler has been forced to rethink their strategies but is coming in strong at full steam.
The initial implementation involves the perspective of new deals and pick ups. “True Blood” will return in the summer of 2010 and has been picked up for a full season. “Hung” and “Entourage” have also been picked up for next season. “Little Britain” as a series is not coming back but they might do some specials. “Tremane” set in New Orleans will hopefully be on in early April. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s miniseries event “The Pacific” will premiere in early March and “Tremane” will be its lead out. “Boardwalk Empire”, considered the heir apparent to “The Sopranos”, about the birth of Atlantic City, just wrapped their pilot with Martin Scorsese directing. They are just awaiting a cut so they can greenlight it saying “fingers are crossed”. In terms of “Flights Of The Conchords”, he says, it is double pressure since the principals have to conceive both the music and the show. He says that they want to do a third season but that they are waiting for them.
They are also working on a new animated show with Ricky Gervais, who did well with them for “Extras”. He says that they would like to pair it with “The Life & Times Of Tim”. Gervais’ new outing is based on a series of podcasts he did which are simply “funny, irreverent and stream of consciousness conversations”.
The most instantaneous perception in the HBO arsenal is “By The People” which traces the compaign trail of Barack Obama from its inception to win.
Amy Rice, who co-directed the film, says that they started out on an idea but, as all great documentaries do, it revolves and changes as you go. She says that they met Ronnie [Cho] (one of Obama’s young staffers) about six or seven months into shooting which truly gave them a perspective to shoot through. They were always looking for different storylines and the access was always changing. Obama became a candidate during their process but Rice says “it was nothing like it was at the beginning”. They had to become practical and pick and choose the moments they captured Obama. For example, there is a great moment in the doc (which no other media cameras covered) which showed a tear running down Obama’s cheek because he was so moved during a speech. All the media cameras were on a different angle but she was shooting HD inside the photo buffers where the tear actually was visible. She was on the press bus afterwards and asked a colleague if she had seen the same thing. She hadn’t. For her it was just a process. She thought that they would just shoot and see how everyone felt in the end. She said that she came to believe in Obama which she said happened first when he gave a convention speech in 2006. She was blown away by it and bought his book the next day. She admits that he was an underdog when they first discussed the doc but says she was naive enough not to think he wouldn’t run. One of her fondest memories was on the last day of shooting on Jan 28th, 2009 when they were taping in the Oval Office. Obama had seen the movie and that he really liked the Cho story. Obama’s quote was that she “should put more of them and less of me” motivating his ideals.
Alicia Sams, Amy’s co-director on the film, says the angle was to follow Obama on the campaign trail non-stop. Debate prep, she says, was extremely important because it became more difficult for a number of reasons. In her mind, it went from “a very great time” to “a scheduled program”. However she does relate on Election Night, that she was there when Obama met Jon Favreau. It was very emotional but she forgot to press record.
Ronnie, being part of Machine Obama, says that the first time he had to exhale was when they won in November. But, he says, there was no relishing of victory although they could be glad about what they accomplished. He says, of his story, that his beginnings were very modest. His parents emigrated to the US from South Korea and, for a year of his earlier life, they lived in a car though he says he doesn’t really remember it.
Actor Ed Norton, a producer on the doc and always intellectually moving in the right direction, says that when you make a film like this you have to detach yourself from the ebbs and flows of the day-to-day swing of politics. It became clear, as this film was made, that you have no idea where it is going. It became more of a historical document of how the movement operated. He says that they didn’t set out to make a campaign film. His feeling is that, whatever Obama goes through (either with success or failures), nothing will tarnish the greatness of his election. In Norton’s words, it is “a noble and fine ambition of how a certain time transpired”.
The fact, Norton continues, is in the process of how they did it. Norton said that he entered into it because he had some other business with Obama’s office on a policy level. He met with Robert Gibbs (now White House press secretary) in the Spring of 2006. The initial presentation for the doc was that Obama represented a cultural shift in politics and that there was value in that. At the inset, they just proposed a regular check in: a political diary if you will because at the time, he wasn’t a Presidential candidate. His people weren’t trying to insulate him at that time. They were trying to elevate him and were completely open to receiving that kind of interest before it became a guarded affair. He says there were definitely waves. When the machine became an actual campaign, David Axelrod (one of Obama’s closest advisors) was vehemently opposed to them shooting. Norton says that it was Amy and Alicia’s tenaciousness that wore Axelrod down. As a producer, he was calling Axelrod on the phone to explain and rationalize why they needed to shoot. His point was that the doc was not going to affect the outcome of the campaign. There were waves of resistance but everybody knew that they were there so, at some point, “they start forgetting about you”. It then became a portrait in a pyramid of screen time, epitomized through the story of Ronnie Cho.
The entrant from left field on HBO is the introduction of “Bored To Death” which casts Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames, a down-on-his-luck writer in NY who moonlights as an unlicensed private investigator. With Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis (hot off “The Hangover”) as would-be confidantes, the neurotism that is in full fledge in the marketing makes itself true. The man and stories on which the tales are based on: Jonathan Ames, himself says, that “what is there not to love about the series?” The original story story he wrote had dead bodies. He simply believes there is no time for this character to be bored. Schwartzman, talking via satellite from Toronto where he is shooting a movie, simply reacts to the raw comedy of Zach and Danson in person. Zach says that he is feeling the heat from “Hangover”. He jokes that doing a Reba sitcom would be easier and if he was 36, he would buy 27 Dodge Vipers but right now it is all a big inconvenience. Danson reminds with a laugh that despite all this, he was on a little show called “Cheers”. Zach jumps back at him saying that “if it isn’t that, it’s fucking Becker”. Danson gives his thought on the transforming face of comedy on the small screen. He says that “The Office” is an amazing show on network but on cable, right now, you can be more specific. “Good writing”, he highlights, “can be found anywhere”. He speaks from experience since he is also doing “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where he says “you never know what the hell Larry is going to do”. He also says, depending on HBO, he might do some “Damages” for FX.
Zach, for his success, says that he is “really going to miss the Uncle Chuckles in Tampa”. Stand up, he says, is the world he knows. He jokes, that when he is a wash-up in a couple years, he will go back to it. He says he actually did some surprise shows a couple days ago in LA but he will not be doing anything like a tour. It will just be a spur of the moment thing. Jonathan Ames closes the lid on “Bored” saying you can get the angle just by hearing the three of these guys talk. He speaks of Danson like a “beacon” with his white hair. He hopes that they are filling a void but that he could easily be back out at night getting in trouble.
“Hung” takes the stage as middle age gigolos around the world ramp up with a perception of greatness. With Thomas Jane taking the lead as Ray and knowing that seriousness is a stage of mind, the motivation permeates out the window.
Co-Creator/Executive Producer Colette Burson says that that some shows that “Hung” is compared to are “all about the secret”. She says that they much more interested in the relationship of who Ray is in the room with. She says that initially co-exec producer Alexander Payne (of “Sideways” fame) was against offering the role of Ray to someone. She says that Thomas Jane is someone they had thought of long before. When it comes out funny in the show, it is allowed to be funny which pushes the metaphor to the edge but she says that they try to keep it “gray” in the writers’ room. For her, the show has a cool concept in that it seems accurate to the time giving it a bit of an “existential sting”.
Dmitry Lipkin, who is co-creator as well, says that it was hugely important to shoot the show in Detroit because they area is so evocative to what is going on in the country. He said that they wanted to place the story on a lake, not in conventional suburbia. He says “for each woman who interacts with ‘it’, it is like Plato’s penis: it is perfect for everyone who comes in contact with it.” Lipkin says that they were not interested in making a sex farce but instead searching to examine the true repercussions of these relationships and what these women love.
Jane Adams, who plays Tanya (Ray’s pimp), says that she really thinks that Ray and Tanya are start-up entrepreneurs. Alexander Payne, she said, shot this moment in the pilot where Ray is already doing what he is doing but Tanya is helping him. She says that the darker it gets, the more she laughs when it’s funny. She thought it was a funny idea from the start and a little left of center but, as she play acts, “it is all about a guy with a big dick who fucks people for money”.
Thomas Jane enters in with his deadpan humor saying that on set, he has to goes into the next room to disrobe so he doesn’t hit anyone in the eye. Adams come back at him repealing her earlier statement relating that “I don’t say dick, I say cock” further endorsing that she heard Monique say that “black guys call it ‘their dick’ and white guys ‘their cock'”. But for her, is this what women really want? Her response : “Those poor sullied creatures of the night? I would have to give them $300.”
In terms of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Larry David is a force of nature. The big news of the season is, of course, the would-be reunion of “Seinfeld”. David had said there would never be a reunion show but that he thought it be funny if they could pull it off on “Curb”. He called up Jerry pitching the concept of seeing the writing, the read through, the rehearsal and then the show on TV. This way you will get to see bits of the show and also what happened 10 years later. He warns that you will not see a Seinfeld show from beginning to end. The reunion bits are scattered through the season over five episodes but that season finale will be a portion of the actual reunion show. He doesn’t quite know exactly how it will turn out as he is still editing it.
In terms of returning for another season, Larry has to feel if he can do it again. The key is if he has a good arc for the season. The arc has to work for him or else it won’t be any good. For example, in the Seinfeld reunion episodes, his character might consider wrecking the good will and he very well might have done so. In terms of coming back with Jerry, he said it came very easily like “getting on a bicycle” but admits that the “true” Larry is starting to combine with the “Curb” Larry.
The process structure of creating a “Curb” episode at this stage, Larry says is that the outlines are a little longer now with a little more detail. He still shows up and “I literally don’t know what I am doing that day”. “Seinfeld”, he says, by comparison, was very scripted.
In terms of real life TV viewing, he mostly watches shows with his daughters like “Gossip Girl” (which is undeniably ironic). He thinks the characters are totally uninteresting and sound “breathy”. His daughters love it though.
Bringing up the rear with the big artillery is Robin Williams, doing his first stand up special for HBO since his heart surgery. Robin begins by talking about the new essence of finding material. He says when you start in small clubs, you see what you can find. You never know if a Shakespearean reference is going to work. You have to do your homework, he says.
After seeing some clips which trace his comic performances for HBO starting from 1979 until now, he says that it is pretty interesting to see the transition. He jokes that “after seeing the sizzle reel, I think I need more therapy”. He says that HBO should brace themselves since they are in for “a long run” since he has run out of the merchandising dollars from “Bicentennial Man”. He recollects the advent of the first Comic Relief when George Carlin walked out with the now-passed comic stating: “Anorexia. Why would I give a shit if the cunt won’t eat?”. And the phone lines are open. In looking at his last specials, Robin has a good perception of their pertinence, saying, with “Night At The Met”, he started talking about his kids. With “Live On Broadway”, it was very political since it was after Afghanistan happened and Cheney made his big entrance. Back on his first special in the late 70s, “technologically, mom and dad weren’t online”, “they were doing lines”.
He says that this special is an all new show. He makes reference saying that it like “Lou Dobbs saying Rachel Maddow is the queen of teabaggers” or that “Anderson Cooper is the king of the strap-ons”. He does motivate on his stay at the Cleveland Clinic where he had his surgery. He likens it to “having sex with a cowbell where it is like a duel to the death”. He relates that worphin is like this rat poison they give you. The big side effect is “rectal ventriloquism”. He says that they give you a little device to regulate pain and medication after the surgery. He says he now realizes that “my doctor is my dealer…and he is a little harder to get ahold of” and jokes that this is why the performance will be in three months time.
Seriously, I ask the question about modulating his energy, especially with his heart condition. Robin says solemnly that he really hasn’t tested it out yet. Hopefully they won’t have to shock him on stage but that he appreciates the concern. In terms of what interests him in terms of comedy, he makes the analogy that he feels “like a leper getting a facial” with the new young acts. He likes Sasha Baron Cohen and that he saw some good new stuff in London, specifically “A Mighty Boosh”.
In terms of structure he says that there is alot of bad news in the economy. He says though that when things are bad, people are going to laugh more. He gives his first perception of Obama saying that the new President is a combination of Walter Cronkite and Paul Robinson. The only thing that people have given him real trouble about was in regards to his jeans. Bush though has been very quiet and hasn’t gone on a “misspeaking tour”. Williams jokes that when Obama got elected “the white guilt went way down”. But there is that uncomfortability, he says on a global level, because the world is looking at us “like we just came out of rehab”.
And the beat goes on…
“Crash”. based on the Oscar winning film of the same name, revolves in a structure of redemption and perceptions of honor. As the second season opens, Dennis Hopper’s character returns to LA focused on maintaining his sobriety but also longing to track down the person responsible for his daughter’s death.
The inherent dichotomy of the series, especially in the first two advance episodes, is built to interact the structure of several interweaving experiences meant to serve one major storyline. While this is admirable, the stories involved do not come across as overtly dramatic or if, in irony, any way stylized. A hustler runs a trick, because of his own shortcomings, on his girlfriend. A billionaire has a born again moment feeling as if he was touched by God. A man who had utterly destroyed his wife emotionally asks for a second chance. These all form into a caricature that if placed well can be inherently visceral and mythic but, as is, doesn’t really excite. Maybe the restart of this season is meant to burn slowly (and having not seen the first season, that might be the case). However with a no-holds-barred angle within Starz, the boundary even in these first two episodes (“You Set The Scene” & “Always See Your Face”) always needs to be pushed. “Sons Of Anarchy” is pushing the levels further and further while still being on basic cable. The ante seems like it needs to upped.
The intro of the second season is twirled with The Doors’ “Turn Out The Lights” that gave the show rhythm. It needs to find more of that, either with a confrontation of some sort (which may be coming) or simply an inherent conflict. Eric Roberts joins the cast here as a billionaire who has a new relationship with life but the angle is overplayed without showing a true chicanery behind this thought or a real acting challenge. A man like this thinks the same despite any falsehoods. The key is to create the paradox of that. “Crash” inherently needs to rip its heart open and show its intensity leading through the second season. Out of 5. I give it a 2.