Sunday, September 30, 2012

Countdown to the season premieres of "The Good Wife," "Homeland," and "Dexter"


Homeland's sensational Damien Lewis

"The advantage that English people have and that I have is that we grow up with so much American television. We're all used to hearing it all the time. And the other advantage is Americans are not used to growing up with television from anywhere else or hearing any other accent, so they assume, they are much more forgiving of someone's bad accent."
-- Dominic West, The Wire's Jimmy McNulty

by Ken

Of course my pleasure in anticipating the premiere of the show in the above group I really love, The Good Wife, is tempered by the traditional CBS Sunday-night scheduling debacle, which as I suggested a few weeks ago all but dares viewers to try to watch its best show in the aftermath of NFL game pushback.

I think I've got it under control for tonight, since as of 8pm ET the schedule seems to be pushed back only a few minutes, and that's without the half-hour network-wide pushback that was supposed to be in effect at least on Sundays when CBS has a late football game, as I think it did today. I guess it's not important that I understand; it just matters that I had time to extend my scheduled Good Wife recording enough to cover the estimated overage and then some.

Of course that means I had to cancel the scheduled Homeland and reschedule that for the later broadcast. And the whole thing has left me drained before the evening even starts. It's just a lucky thing this damned football season is almost over.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I cherish The Good Wife because it has a raft of characters -- within lawyer Alicia's family, at her law firm, and at the states attorney's office overseen by her estranged husband Peter (the one she stood loyally by when he was enmeshed in a sex scandal and forced to step down) -- I not only find believable but am able to care about, quite a lot, in fact.

I came late to the first season of Homeland, via On Demand, for which I am once again profoundly grateful. I had bad feelings about the show's terrorist-plot-or-not thriller formula, which smacked of tapping into the cheesy free-floating paranoia that seems (as best I can tell) to fuel a pile of insulting crap like 24. In fact, though, I found the show pretty involving -- quite credibly written within the credibility-stretching boundaries of its spy vs. spy format, and perhaps more importantly blessed with a terrific cast doing lots of fine, believable, involving work.

It was a stroke of genius to cast the amazing Damien Lewis in the central role of the U.S. marine who, in Season 1, might or might not have been "turned" during his long captivity by an Iraqi terrorist chief. Could any actor be more "English" than the Damien Lewis we've seen do such splendid work as his Soames Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga remake? Of course he already showed in Band of Brothers how credible he could be as a true-blue American, and as Homeland's inscrutable Brody, he has been just fantastic.

The trickle has become a flood: British actors enacting more interesting and credible American characters than an awful lot of American actors. Think of Hugh Laurie as House MD, The Wire's Dominic West and Idris Elba, Brothers & Sisters' Matthew Rhys -- all just terrific. West has some seriously interesting things to say about the success his countrymen are achieving on American TV in the BBC News Magazine interview from which I snatched the quote at the top of this post. Not just that the Brits have the obvious advantage to parsimonious U.S. producers of coming cheap, given the limited star power they bring to the negotiating table.
There's a possibility that we are possibly better in an ensemble or less geared to being a huge star or more resigned to not being a huge star. Because in America, it seems to me that everything is "you've got your one shot at the top and you've got to make it there, you've got to get there." In England, I think we're more philosophical about that because there's less chance of it here.

In The Wire, there was no star actor. It was an ensemble serving the writing and maybe in America agents have become more involved in trying to make a star in whoever was acting in it.

There's maybe a readiness to be part of an ensemble which goes slightly against the grain of how the Americans view celebrity and show business.
Interesting. Is it just a coincidence that for a serious discussion of the subject we have to turn to a British source?

I'm not going to say more about Dexter. The idea of involving myself in the doings of a conscienceless serial killer continues to surprise me, but each season I find myself watching again. Maybe it has something to do with Dexter's struggle against his sociopath's lack of normal human emotion and response, and the confusion, bordering on turmoil, he's thrown into as he begins to experience some of the above. The writers do seem to have some serious thoughts about these basic paramaters of humanity, and once again they've got a really terrific regular cast with which to explore it, and a history of bringing in terrific people for each season's weirdos and victims. I don't know that I've seen John Lithgow do anything better than his really chilling super-"straight disciplinarian" serial-killer wacko.

Boardwalk Empire seems to me off to a solid start in its third season -- a noticeably bloody one, with Bobby Canavale doing his increasingly predictably splendid character work as a terrifying thug the viewer can really believe could kill anyone he meets at any time.

As it happens, I've just been watching Cannavale's brilliant turn as Dr. Mike Cruz, the new hospital honcho in last season's Nurse Jackie episodes. Rewatching the complete season via On Demand confirmed just how splendid it was. Via On Demand I've also rewatched the first three seasons of The Sopranos (after which they stopped, alas), and am reworking my way through The Wire, with still-growing amazement and delight.

I suppose it's unrealistic to expect all TV producers to aspire to that standard. (I can't think of a broadcast network show other than The Good Wife aiming that high, but I'll certainly credit AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad teams with trying.) But it seems to me that it doesn't get much better than that.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I shouldn't have made it sound like a criticism, pointing out how bloody a start the new Boardwalk Empire season is off to. After all, these Prohibition-era mobsters are a ruthless, bloodthirsty lot, and if the show sugarcoated this, I hope I'd be bitching about that.

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