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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

“The blessing is that anytime anybody says your show is like The Sopranos, it’s an incredible compliment because David Chase is Dostoevsky for television.  At the same time, it is a curse because we aren’t The Sopranos . . . We’re different in a million ways.” – Blake Masters, creator of Brotherhood

Brotherhood, which first aired in 2006, was Showtime’s answer to HBO’s The Sopranos (which, at the time, was about to begin its 6th and final season).  Set and filmed on-location in Providence, R.I., Brotherhood centers on the story two brothers: Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke), a member of R.I. General Assembly, and Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs), a low level mobster.  The show revolves around their personal and professional lives in the small, Irish-dominated neighborhood of “The Hill.”  When the show was first developed it was called Southie and set in Boston.  Masters moved the show to Providence because, after a wave of Boston-based feature films, he felt Providence was “less explored.”  One can assume that the show was loosely based around the real-life Bulger brothers of Boston (William and Whitey), but probably only on the most superficial level.  Masters, on whether the show is about the Bulgers, said “I didn’t want to do their story . . . The idea of telling a story through two brothers is just an interesting dynamic.”

When Masters first conceived of the Caffee brothers’ story he thought of it as a film.  After someone suggested he think about it as a TV show, Masters pitched the idea to Showtime and Brotherhood was born.  More recently, Masters was working on the AMC series Rubicon as a consulting producer before leaving to help develop and write Law and Order: Los Angeles.  Henry Bromell (writer/producer for Northern Exposure and Homicide: Life on the Street ) served as both an executive producer and writer on Brotherhood. His most recent role was that of Executive Producer for the critically acclaimed and recently canceled AMC series Rubicon

“In L.A., what they want to cast in men is boys . . . In New England, the winters are hard and the summers are hot.  You become a man.  There’s an adult masculinity (to Clarke and Isaacs).  They carry the idea they’re not boys anymore.” – Blake Masters

Clarke hails from Australia and Isaacs from England, showing us that when one needs a real leading man, it might require looking across the pond–a trend that has been happening for years.  Unless one is looking for character actors (like Boston-bred Kevin Chapman, who plays mobster Freddie Cork), the “leading man” role just might be filled by a foreigner playing an American.  Check out this NPR Morning Edition story on the phenomena.

The Brotherhood characters are neither black nor white–they are just different shades of gray.  Masters explains his goal for the show as follows: “Each week I want the audience to question; if you accomplish something good using bad means, was it justifiable?  I want to allow the audience room to decide for themselves what they liked or didn’t.  I don’t need the audience to like everything that our characters do; I need them to be compelled by what they do.”  Masters views the characters as “organic constructions of the world in which they inhabit.  Therefore, they will behave in ways that are consistent with the world in which they live.”

Although the cast is lead by strong performances from Clark and Isaacs, the show is really carried by strong cast of supporting characters.  Len Cariou plays Judd Fitzgerald who, as the head of public works, is the non-elected guy who seems to run everything.  Just as the actual public works of a city remain mostly out of sight, like the plumbing, so too does Fitzgerald’s influence–but that does not diminish the significant impact he has on just about everyone we see.  Fitzgerald’s wife is played by Helen Carey, who is her usual excellent self.   Annabeth Gish turns in a respectable performance as the politician’s wife who is struggling with her own demons.  And one would be remiss not to mention Fionnula Flanagan, who is always enjoyable as Michael and Tommy’s nitpicking, overbearing mother.  And she is all the more believable because of her authentic Irish voice.

Just as the characters reflect different shades of gray, so too does the city of Providence.  There is a certain type of reality one achieves when filming on the east coast.  Bromell observed that “Providence is all about half of what’s vanished: all those closed factories and the streets, the working-class houses.  You can’t make that stuff.”  “The Hill” is an imaginary neighborhood set in a real place.  And that realness lends itself to a truthfulness – we believe what we see.   Setting the show in R.I. allowed the show to take advantage of the state’s unique geography.  It is 60 miles long and 40 miles wide, and known locally as “the world’s biggest high school.  Everybody knows everybody.”

There are eleven episodes in Brotherhood‘s first season (there would eventually be three).  In some ways, the weakest episode in the first season was the last episode.  It had a forced feeling.  All of the characters (major and minor alike) attend the wedding reception for an unknown couple, allowing every story line to be touched on, whether we are left hanging or not.  This seemed just a little too tidy — even if it was the season finale.

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John Lurie is a man of many talents.  He has been involved with the band The Lounge Lizards since their creation in 1978.  He has written scores for many film, including Jim Jarmusch’s early works.  It was Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (which Lurie acted in as well) that brought both Jarmusch and Lurie to the attention of the world beyond those who lived below 14th Street in Manhattan.  Despite his new found acclaim, Lurie artistic life continued much as before.  He played with The Lounge Lizards, continued to score films, and even continued acting (Down by Law, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Last Temptation of Christ).  He started his own label: Strange & Beautiful Music.  And in 1991, Lurie wrote and directed a short lived television series called Fishing With John.

Fishing With John had humble origins.  Elizabeth LeCompte of The Wooster Group videotaped a fishing trip that John Lurie took with Willem Dafoe.  Mix that with Lurie’s late night encounters with fishing shows on his television.  Add Japanese funding and stir… and a show is born. 

The premise of the show is simple.  John Lurie and one of his friends go fishing.  That’s it.  So it’s ice fishing in upper Maine for Lurie and Dafoe and shark fishing with Jim Jarmusch off Montauk (“Jim, I figured, owed me a favor for all the stuff I’ve done for him.”).  Other guests included Tom Waits (“I figured he would be good for this kinda thing.”) and Dennis Hopper whom Laurie met when they were both modelling for Rei Kawakubo – Comme des Garcons in Japan (“I asked him where he wanted to go.”).  And how did Matt Dillon end up on the show?  He was requested by the Japanese producers.  Lurie had hoped  to do the Dillon episode with his friend Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  The show lasted all of six episodes (the Dennis Hopper trip to Thailand is two episodes long).

Lurie scores all the episodes himself (and the soundtrack is great).  Robb Webb provides the dead pan voiceovers and they are perfect for the show.  From “Every fisherman has his story” to “I’d love a bite of your sandwich.”  Each one adds to the overall picture.  They are the perfect frame for the show.  It is just the right amount of serious and silly.  As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”

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“While everyone deserves a voice, not everyone deserves a microphone.” – Aaron Sorkin

 

“I do believe we’ve seen an enormous rise in amateurism.” Sorkin said. “One thing I find troubling about the Internet, as great a resource tool as it is, and as nice as it is that we can all communicate with each other, and that everyone has a voice – the thing is, everybody’s voice oughtn’t be equal.”

Welcome to the first posting of An Encounter. Today marks the opening of the film The Social Network – what better day to start an internet venture…

So to gear up I decided to revisit Aaron Sorkin’s (screenwriter of The Social Network) series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  I did not watch the show when it premiered but do remember reading about it during its turbulent season of existence (2006/2007). The show was highly anticipated –the jewel of NBC’s fall line-up.  It was hard to miss the press run-up to the premiere.

The show had many of the trappings of Sorkin’s successful The West Wing – it had an ensemble cast (many from the Sorkin Rep Company of actors), employed the walk’n’talk™ style of filming and even used the same font and look for the title cards that introduced each episode.

When asked about going from writing a show set in the White House to a show set backstage of the sketch-comedy television show (also titled Studio 60), Sorkin said “it seemed like a good place for conflict in terms of the culture wars…TV is important because we all watch it.  It has the ability to do damage and it has the ability to lift us up.”

But that anticipation was short lived. The show’s ratings dropped each of the first five weeks (down a total of 43% from the premiere).  The show was picked up for an entire year because it delivered upscale homes (rich and educated viewers), but that did not stop the media buzz – a number of articles still called the show a “bust” and “underperforming.” 

“Stop reading the internet” in Episode 2 & “Why are budgets and grosses printed like sports scores?” in Episode 10

From the very beginning, the series was fighting an uphill battle against both online-media critics and the reporters who listened to them.  Interviews with Sorkin make it clear, however, that he had no interest in the man-on-the-street.

The characters of Studio 60 were used to voice Sorkin’s frustration with everything from negative reviews to poor Nielsen ratings.  As the ratings dropped for the real life Studio 60, the show’s characters became obsessed with their ratings.

Sorkin claimed that Studio 60 viewership was at least 10% higher than the Nielsen ratings suggested.  The show, according to Sorkin was TIVOed more often than any other show on TV.  TIVOed shows are considered “time-shifted” and therefore not included in the ratings.  Nielsen assumes viewers of time-shifted shows are fast forwarding through commercials and thus are of no use to advertisers.  Sorkin knew his audience and he spells it out for us in episode 4 when he discusses the “Alpha-Consumer”

“The lion’s share of the press about the show…was simply about the ratings and it was very difficult to get anyone past that.”  Sorkin continued: “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, when the pieces are all about the ratings.”  The show preached to the converted (I would love to know if anyone had their opinions changed ABOUT ANY ISSUE based on an episode of this show) and ultimately that audience was not enough to keep the network’s investment in the show going.  Remember that 30 Rock also premiered the same year (and was produced by NBC while Studio 60 was produced by Warner Brothers – and had a much higher price tag).

In the end, as we all know, the show was not picked up.  Sorkin blamed the show’s failure on “triviality-obsessed media” who were “no longer willing to separate gossip and idle speculation from reporting and criticism.”  Later Sorkin claimed he was just “too angry when we wrote the show.”  He then retreated to film writing.

So, do you buy that this show was brought down by the Web?  Was the climate just too chilly in a Post 9/11, Bush occupied West Wing for Mr. Sorkin’s Soap Box?  Was Tina Fey just a better (and cheaper) date for NBC?

As I finish this, bloggers all over the country are lining up (or does everyone buy their tickets on-line now?) to see The Social Network.  Today I add to the noise.

 CLICK HERE to buy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on DVD from Amazon.com.®

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is available on DVD and Instant from Netflix.®

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