Four high-profile shows have just had their season finales – well, three did while the other (AMC’s “The Walking Dead“) instead invented the concept of a “mid-season finale,” a phenomenon that is even less necessary than the Jon Huntsman campaign. If that’s possible.
The Walking Dead, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” Showtime’s “Homeland” and Fox’s “Terra Nova” could not be more different in concept, tone or execution, but what they have in common illustrates the biggest threat to Hollywood – and the solution to Hollywood’s problems.
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The industry faces unprecedented technological challenges and dwindling audiences, but those alone won’t close down the Glitter Factory. Hackneyed plots, unquestioned political premises and disrespect for the audience will. But great storytelling, fine acting and technical work – those can save it.
This is written as a fan, as someone who wants these shows to succeed, who wants the hundreds of people who are employed by them to keep working. Please note that spoilers will run free and without restraint throughout, flowing unhindered like stupid ideas from Ron Paul’s Fed-hole.
“Boardwalk Empire” is a near-great show, adult fare not only on account of the complex themes of loyalty and greed that it explores but also in the sense that it packs more female nudity per episode than a drunken Disney teen star’s hacked cellphone camera.
“Empire” should be great, but it’s not because it falls into the same tiresome traps that we see again and again. As Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the boss of 1920s Atlantic City, Steve Buscemi is fantastic. I had my doubts at first that this slight, weird-looking guy could pull off a ruthless politico/crime boss. Interestingly, his physical weakness – he’s not a standard tough guy, and the one fight he gets into is pathetic rather than brutal – is overwhelmed by the icy ruthlessness lurking beneath his cynical, smart-ass exterior. Nothing sums it up better than when he personally pops his former protégé in the face with a .38 in the season finale – then coldly blows his brains out. I can’t say it enough; Buscemi is amazing.
There is a lot of amazing in “Empire;” the other actors are uniformly terrific (even when playing poorly conceived characters). The sets and costumes are fantastic as well; you are transported back in time. Great performances and great technical production are what set a show up for greatness. So why is Empire not quite great?
Two things, things we see again and again in modern Hollywood that act to drive away audiences that want to love the show wholeheartedly. The first is – once again, as Ben Shapiro has vividly illustrated and thoroughly documented– the creators simply cannot help but impose their own insular, anti-religious, west-of-Interstate 5 cultural vibe. And second, they’ve bought into the hackneyed conventional wisdom that what makes great drama is talky, sludgy, momentum-stalling domestic conflict.
Can we have just ONE SHOW without characters dealing with weird daddy issues?
Here’s the thing – we watch “Empire” to see how these guys weave their criminal web. But the interplay between Nucky and his mistress, or Nucky and his dad, or his mistress and her brother? No. One. Cares.
I don’t know where this comes from; I suspect they don’t think women will watch if the show focuses too much on things that are interesting. They haven’t met my Hot Wife; whenever the mistress comes on screen she gets up and goes into the kitchen until the next scene.
Does anybody remember anything about Mrs. Godfather? Case closed.
Oh, and Jimmy Darmody’s relationship with his mother – did you have to go there? Did he really have to have sex with his mom? Really? I get the Oedipus thing, but you know, just because you have the cable-TV freedom to create a plot line that mirrors Oedipus doesn’t mean that you have to do it.
And the last scene, where mistress (I keep calling her that because I forgot her name because I stop paying attention when that soul-crushingly dull character comes on screen) signs the key deed over to the church, had better lead into Nucky popping her in the noggin with a .38 in the season three premiere. The story requires it. Keeping the audience watching requires it. Guys, it’s all upside.
That brings us to the other problem – religion, as conceived by a bunch of Hollywood writers. Every religious character is either a fundamentalist lunatic/hypocrite or just a sucker and a hypocrite. The priest seems to be a money-grubbing exploiter of the mistress’s conception of God as some sort of sacred vending machine where you put some money in and get your wish granted.
The only ones who don’t get treated as utter slime are the black churchgoers, mostly because Hollywood liberals always depict African-Americans of faith as harmless, childlike believers while everyone else who professes a belief in God is insane, evil or both.
“Homeland” has similar strengths and weaknesses, but while the finale of “Empire” hefted the trend-line skyward (the character of Jimmy Darmody had pretty much gone as far as he could go when he went as far as he could go with his mother), the trend line for what seems to see itself as the “thinking man’s ’24′” cratered in the finale. It started strong and plummeted, as thoroughly documented at Big Hollywood.
We have the same strengths here, particularly acting. Claire Danes is astonishingly good as the mentally unbalanced CIA analyst who is quickly losing it. Even when her character’s actions are ridiculous, and when the screenplays let her down, she owns it. The other actors are likewise terrific, even Damian Lewis as the Marine turned terrorist. Plus, Morena Baccarin is there for those who enjoy attractive, dark-haired, vaguely Latin women who take their clothes off, a demographic otherwise known as “men.”
But once again we see the same problems – a focus on plot elements that no one cares about, and a multicultural vacuity straight out of the lib-left play book. “Homeland’s” home life is death; whenever Lewis’ TV family comes on screen the show grinds to a complete halt as feelings are shared and more feelings are shared.
Stop sharing feelings. It’s terrible. This is a show about hunting terrorists. Hunt terrorists and leave the hugging to Lifetime movies.
But the worst part is the moral relativism that manifests itself in ginning up sympathy for the terrorists by the hoariest, lamest tropes imaginable. Surprise! The Vice-President is secretly a war criminal whose evil antics brought this terrorist plot on. Gee, we’ve never seen a Hollywood product ever make out America to be the villain! What a radical new direction to take the story; never saw that coming!
Let’s keep breaking exciting new ground. How about next we have a romantic comedy where the lovers fight because of a misunderstanding then reunite for a happy ending?
Let me help out the producers and writers a bit. Americans are the unambiguous good guys in this war. The jihadis are the bad guys. There is no grey area. We did not “bring it on ourselves,” and we have not only a moral right but a moral obligation to hunt them and their scumbag buddies down anywhere they hide. An American who consorts or sympathizes with them for any reason is a traitor who deserves to be hanged and his corpse tossed in a fetid swamp. Jihadis’ views, ideas, beliefs and grievances merit no respect and have no importance except to the extent that understanding their sick, idiotic ideology allows us to more effectively destroy them.
Any questions? You guys have ten minutes into the season two premiere to “wow” me by showing that you’ve learned your lesson or I flip the channel. Dismissed.
“The Walking Dead’s” problems are well documented – once again, it focuses on boring peripheral feelingsy nonsense at the expense of zombie action, and its ideology is drawn straight from a seminar titled Hollywood Liberal Shibboleths 101. But the last, bleak, hopeless moments of the mid-season finale (whatever that means) provides some hope that TWD might reanimate when the show returns in February.
Until the last two minutes, the season had been a fiasco. The entire scenario had the survivors hunting for some stupid kid who didn’t listen and ran off into the zombie forest. Instead of letting Darwin do his job, these people spent every episode looking for her. Shane, the alleged “bad guy” who in reality is the only one who’s not a complete half-wit, became my hero. He was a bad-ass who packed heat when everyone else got wussy about guns (there’s this utterly bizarre gun control vibe running through the show), took on the dirty jobs, exhibited some rare tactical common sense and scored with all the hot women. I’m all aboard Team Shane.
When some fatbody who stupidly wounded a kid became a liability when running from zombies to bring back some medicine to save said kid, Shane’s innovative solution was to kneecap him so he could bring the stuff back while the zombies were occupied turning Mr. Chunky into a tubby smorgasbord. This was supposed to be some giant moral conundrum. Pffft. Hey, if either the kid or the dumb-ass who accidentally shot the kid has to die, I vote for the dumb-ass. And if he wasn’t man enough to choose to make the last stand so Shane could escape, then I have no problem with Shane volunteering him.
But the redemptive highlight was the final scene where the survivors are clearing out a barn full of zombies belonging to a religious nut (because, again, if you are religious you have to be a nut). After they smoke all the zombies, one more stumbles out, the little girl they had been hunting all half-season. Awesome. Then the hero pops her in the forehead. Nice.
You gotta have some guts to spend weeks having your characters hunt for a cute little girl then have her turn out to be a zombie and then have the hero cap her. That’s quality storytelling. So I’m moderately psyched about the rest of the season. Keep up the momentum.
Finally, “Terra Nova,” the time travel dinosaur show on regular TV, started weak with a lot of feelings and way too few dinosaurs. However, it’s gotten better, though the limitations of free TV take away any kind of edge. Older kids can certainly watch it, which is not really a selling point in my book. It is what it is. But there still aren’t enough dinosaurs.
There is lots of running around, explosions, and a lot less talk of feelings – though there’s at least a hug or two per show. The actors are finding their characters; Stephen Lang as the commander is awesome. The (as usual) daddy issues-centric mythology storyline makes little sense, but there are some intriguing hints about the show’s future direction.
Here’s the problem – once again, the same old Hollywood cultural premises and assumptions seem to prevail. Like “Star Trek” (many of the creative types worked on past “Trek” programs), the society in “Terra Nova” is militarized with a clear rank hierarchy. The thing is, such a structure (when applied to a society as a whole instead of just the military itself) is known as “fascism.” Sure, it’s a smiley face fascism, but it’s fascism – just a more militaristic socialism with spiffy uniforms.
The major means of production are all owned collectively and controlled by the government. Sure, there are a few small businesses – a bar, a trader – but those are on the fringe and treated as at least disreputable if not corrupt. Note also that the human villains are all puppets of – wait for it – a giant corporation from the future. The commander tosses people into jail at will; his whim is all the “due process” anyone is allowed. It’s a dictatorship – a benevolent one, but a dictatorship nonetheless.
And the show seems to think this is all okay. It’s kind of a liberal’s perfect world – no power bases outside government control, businesses marginalized (or, if outside their control, evil enemies) and no inconvenient dissent allowed. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman probably eats it up.
Also, as with “Star Trek,” there is no religion – none at all. It never comes up. Clearly, the producers don’t seem to see this as a bug – in fact, in their minds it’s probably a feature. But the scene where the military buries a dead soldier in a non-religious ritual uncomfortably evokes the Nazis’ neo-pagan rites. When leftists (of which Nazis are merely a better dressed subspecies – yeah, I know you leftists hate to hear the ugly truth) succeed in driving out God, they try to fill the people’s spiritual void with the State. Let me be clear; I am not saying “Terra Nova” is some kind of a Nazi show. What I am saying is that the show has a lot of room to explore some of the issues that the show’s scenario raises about democracy, capitalism and religion.
And that it could use more dinosaurs.
These four shows all have weaknesses, mostly stemming from taking their eyes off of what makes them interesting and focusing on hackneyed domestic drama that someone somehow decided was necessary to appeal to women. If I were a woman, I’d be insulted. As a man, I’m just annoyed. Further, they all, to some extent, embrace cultural and political premises that many if not most Americans reject – especially with regard to religion.
But there’s good news too. All of the shows are entertaining. All of them have good production values, and all offer fine performances. Hollywood has the talent to do great work. A little focus on the story, a little open-mindedness toward the views and ideas of others (by which I mean Americans who don’t live in the 310 area code) and it can consistently do so.
Again, we conservatives don’t want Hollywood to fall short. We want it to succeed. And if it chooses to do so, it can. So, less talking about feelings and more stuff about the mob, more killing terrorists, more zombies and more Tyrannosaurus Rexes.