THE RISE & FALL OF TV’S GOLDEN AGE: 1999 – 2015

Warning:  There’s nothing new about the media I’m about to feature.  However, it’s all highly intelligent.

After finally catching up with The Wire, I’m starting to believe that The Golden Age of TV is over.  Incidentally, I now understand why many consider it the greatest show of all-time .

Picasso_three_musiciansA long time ago on a continent far, far away…

…Impressionism, Cubism and a few other innovative movements sprang out of the Parisian art scene.  Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the talented artists behind The Golden Age of Art (1870 -1930).  Because of this revolution in thinking and practice, art would never be the same.

100 years later…a different kind of golden age was upon us.  Although shorter in length and far removed from the canvas, the world would become intimate with the inner and outer lives of Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White and a few other anti-heroes from 1999 to 2015.  How and what we watch on TV would never be the same.

With Netflix, Amazon and a dozen other production houses churning out high quality shows year after year, I realize I’m in the minority here.  However, after watching The Wire methodically explore the systemic rot of a handful of Baltimore’s civic institutions, I wonder if today’s audience would have the patience to sit through five seasons of this kind of intelligent “slow burn” again.  The kind of nail-biting, slow-burning storytelling built around the inner and outer struggles of its protaganists.  The same kind employed by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novels in late 19th-century Russia.

In arguably the greatest novel of all-time, Anna Karenina doesn’t show upAnna Karenina until halfway through the book.  And it’s a big one.  Do you think viewers would have minded if Walter White hadn’t showed up until season 3 of Breaking Bad?

Incidentally, when describing my experience of watching all five seasons of Six Feet Under, the only thing I could compare it to was reading a great Russian novel And I loved Tolstoy’s Karenina and War and Peace, despite and perhaps because of the meticulous attention to detail.  Don’t know if I’d do it again, though.

 

TIM’S TOP 5

Starting with the show that kicked it all off in 1999, here are my top 5 series of all-time (in the order I watched them):

  1. The Sopranos 1999-2007
  • What’s it about?

An emotionally stunted, highly explosive man-child at the top of an illicit empire tries to live a quiet suburban life.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy but facsinating relational dynamics between Tony and his mother, his sister, his wife, and most of all his therapist.

Watch him squirm in a therapy session:

 

  1. Six Feet Under 2001 – 2005
  • What’s it about?

A traumatized family tries to cope with the unexpected death of its patriarch while surrounded by death (mortuary is family business and family home).

  • What compelled me to keep watching?

The messy, fascinating relational dynamics between three very different siblings connected by a crazy-making mother (my favorite of the bunch).

Watch the Fisher brothers clash over the family business:

 

  1. Mad Men 2007-2015
  • What’s it about?

Wildly talented ad man steals dead man’s identity fooling everyone but himself.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy, fascinating relationship between larger-than-life Don Draper and his former everyman self, Dick Witman.

Watch Don sit down to dinner with wife and kids after a hard day’s work:

 

  1. Breaking Bad 2008 – 2013:
  • What’s it about?

Ostensibly mild-mannered high school teacher embraces his dark side with a last attempt to realize his true, unrealized potential.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy, fascinating relational dynamics resulting from Walter White’s blind, destructive pursuit to leave a legacy behind.

Watch Walt tell wife Skyler who she really needs to fear:

 

5. The Wire: 2002 – 2008

  • What’s it about?

A gritty, realistic portrait of an American city’s police, educational, political and print media institutions and the implications for the society for which the city serves.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The relational dynamics between a handful of flawed individuals trying, succeeding and failing to do the right thing in the highly flawed systems in which they work.

Watch police detective Jimmy McNultly express his feelings without regard to the consequences of his words:

 

THE TIE THAT BINDS

On reviewing my top 5, it’s probably no mystery what binds these series together.  You guessed it –  the family and relational dynamics.

Don’t get my wrong, I like zombies and vampires as much as the next guy.  However, they’re not real.  I can’t relate to them.  I can relate to two brothers arguing.  I know what it’s like to squirm in a therapy session.  I don’t understand the advertising industry, but I know what it’s like to play a role at work.  I’ve never cooked crystal meth, but I know what wasted potential feels like.  Their external worlds are different from mine, but their internal ones are all too familiar.  And they fascinate me.

“Golden ages contain the seeds of their own demise”, points out Ian Leslie in “Watch it while it lasts: our golden age of television.  Once the Paris art scene grew more settled, a handful of big galleries began to exert disproportionate market power.  Furthermore,  “artists were snapped up by dealers when they were young and encouraged to develop distinctive, consistent styles.  Once the dealers and the artists figured out reliable ways to make money, the art became more predictable and less interesting.”

I don’t know if has already happened in the TV industry, but market saturation and a shift from creativity to commerce are inevitable consequences of any commercially succcessul movement.  Consider that in 2016 there were 455 original series in TV, up from 182 in 2002.

I don’t know if us TV fans will ever be able to agree on a definitive golden age.  Some would argue it happened 50 years before Tony took his first therapy session.  I wasn’t around for I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners so I’m not the definite voice on this argument.  What I can definitively say, however, is that 1999 – 2015 was my Golden Age of TV.

When you look at your top 5, what patterns do you recognize?  What’s the link between them?

 

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Top 5 Winter Holiday Classics

Unlike Will in About a Boy, ‘tis the season I start getting excited about watching some of my favorite films…or at least, a few I enjoy revisting during the winter holiday season.  Even though the holidays might not play a significant role in each, I’ve listed 5 that remind me of this season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

In no order of importance, here are 5 films I like watching on my couch, Christmas tree in sight.  Warning: Hugh Grant makes 2 of my top 5.  Love Actually not one of them.

  1. The British Classic – About A Boy 2002

Hugh Grant finally gets a role he can sink his teeth into – a character very much like his true self, IMHO.

Watch how he deals with a request to be guardian of his best friend’s child:


  1. The Critics Choice – The Royal Tenenbaums 2001

Loved by critics and fans alike, this film is one of the best films of this century so far. And Gene Hackman’s last great performance.

Watch the dysfunctional tribe of (former) geniuses bounce off each other:


  1. The New Classic – Silver Linings Playbook 2012

The film that introduced the world to the charisma and chemistry of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

Watch them argue over which one is crazier:


  1. The 80’s Classic – Planes, Trains & Automobiles 1988

Steve Martin at the top of his game, John Candy as the painfully funny source of his irritation.

Watch Neal Page (Martin) snap and lay into Del “the shower-curtain ring guy” Giffith (Candy):


  1. The Y2K Classic – Bridget Jones’s Diary 2001

Blind dates, one-night stands, crazy fitness fads – this film captures what is means to be awkwardly single at the end of the 20th/start of the 21st  century.

Watch “Brenda” make one of the worst speeches of all-time:

I’d love to hear which films remind you of the holidays – and which ones you especially like watching this time of year.

Happy holiday viewing!

What does your top 5 look like?  Which films do you enjoy revisiting this time of year?

The Game

Texas. Baseball. 1980. It doesn’t matter. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some feels like watching a home movie.

In the same way that you could relate to Boyhood if you’ve ever been a child or to the Before trilogy if you’ve ever been in a relationship, you can relate to this film if you grew up with any trace of competitiveness in your bones.

 

If ever there was an American film maker moving to the beat of his own drummer, it’s Linklater.

The only other artists that remind me of his storytelling style are Henry Miller (stream of consciousness novelist) and the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Incidentally, Julie Delpy features in both Linklater’s 3 Before films and Keislowski’s moody French trilogy, Trois couleurs.

HAVE I SEEN YOU BEFORE?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t until Before Midnight and Boyhood that the mainstream started to take notice.

In the era of the blockbuster and franchise movie (Avengers, Hangover 1-3), it’s amazing that a 2 1/2 hour film without a traditional Hollywood story arc can work, i.e. a story without a big unrealistic, show-stopping end…just like in real life. How novel!

Think about it. How likely is it that you go to Vegas for a bachelor party, get roofied and survive a night of mayhem in the city’s underbelly only to make it back for the wedding without a hitch?

Or getting pregnant in high school, deciding to have an abortion but then meeting the perfect barren woman to raise the baby just in time?

Don’t get me wrong, I laughed my ass off at pre-franchise Hangover and Juno is one of my favorite films of the past 10 years. Still, none of that happened to me.

Boyhood did. Before Sunrise-Sunset-Midnight did. And Everybody Wants Some most definitely did.

Growing up in a house with an older brother and a father whose life revolved around sports and games, most everything was a competition. And it was fun.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, rain was pretty much guaranteed on Thanksgiving Day – perfect conditions for the annual “mud bowl” (two-hand touch football between the Nashes and Spiveys in our big back yard).

Summer at the Nash house was like one long tournament – epic ping-pong matches long after dark, two-on-two (basketball) or whiffle (base)ball depending on the numbers. And when things had to be moved inside – Nerf basketball, UNO or boring Trivial Pursuit when grandpa was in town. Just like in the film, it didn’t matter.

I grew up wanting to win, no matter the game or sport (probably more a case of not wanting to lose, in retrospect).

With a brother 8 years my senior and a father who could outrun me despite our 31 year age gap, life could be hard…until I went to summer camp and held court on the ping-pong table.

Things really took off when I went away to college – I was surrounded by other guys who liked to play and didn’t like to lose either.

Ping PongYOU WANT SOME A THIS?!

And that is what the film is about – young men at the top of their game, testosterone raging in their veins, competing for the hottest chick in the bar, the longest bong hit, whatever can be made into a game. No one sitting around alone checking Twitter or Facebook.

If you’re expecting “Revenge of the Jocks” or “Texas Pie”, you’re going to be disappointed – there’s a little T & A but it takes a BIG back seat to the pre-digital, unadulterated gamification.

However, if you grew up around competition or had a strong desire to play and win, this is a must-see film.

And if you missed Boyhood or simply want to experience again a beautiful snapshot in the life of a regular, extraordinary boy named Mason, take 3 1/2 minutes and watch this:

 

So if you’re in the mood to see a film without big explosions or unexpected twists, a film about a time in the not-so-distant past when we had to think up stuff to play with EACH OTHER, not alone on our phones, this is a film for you.

Do yourself a favor and leave your phone in the car.

If and when you see it, I’d love to hear what it stirred up in you. Please leave me a comment below.

 

The Imitation Game

Sufjan Stevens Tangled Up in BlueTANGLED UP IN BLUE

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

– Charles Caleb Colton

Say what you will about Mr. Colton’s oft-used quote, but he was definitely on to something.

When Bob Dylan was starting out on the Greenwich Village coffee house circuit in the early 60’s, some critics dismissed him as a pale imitation of Woody Guthrie. As Woody was one of his heroes, I’m sure he wasn’t too bothered.

I wasn’t around for those remarks but I clearly remember ones hurled at Quentin Tarantino’s in the early 90’s – “Martin Scorsese clone”, etc.reservoir dogs

Anyone who’s heard Dylan’s pre-electric music or watched an early Tarantino film recognizes some truth in these observations.

They also recognize that both Dylan and Tarantino went on to craft their own distinct styles while building on the work of their heros.

After all, isn’t imitation a form of flattery?

Yes. And more.

I see it as a natural step to finding one’s own voice.

I’d argue that Dylan borrowed from the great Guthrie on his way to becoming even greater (I’ll let the cinephiles out there debate QT vs. Marty).

To become great in any field, i.e. an original thinker with ideas that make a real impact, you too will have to copy what you…[to continue reading, see The Path to Peak Performance]

MY TOP 3 ALBUMS OF 2015

Imitation and/or homage very much alive in the new music I heard last year, here are the 3 standouts:

1. Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood

You know how I feel about the big white Yeti from Virginia (if not, see “White Is the New Black”).

2. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

To sample the work of the Padre, check out these dance moves pre-Honeybear:

3. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Although I’ve casually followed this eccentric Brooklynite for a good 10 years, nothing prepared me for this.

sufjan-stevens-playing-guitar

Returning to ‘Greatness via Imitation’, Sufjan Stevens finds his own voice while somehow channeling the spirits of Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith on his 7th studio album.

Inspired by the death of his schizophrenic mother, Carrie is both eerie and ethereal. His sparse guitar picking is pure Smith (no stranger to sadness) while his nuanced voice evokes Buckley at his most vulnerable and intimate.

Inspired by the death of his schizophrenic mother, ‘Carrie’ is both eerie and ethereal. His sparse guitar picking is pure Smith (no stranger to sadness) while his nuanced voice evokes Buckley at his most vulnerable and intimate.

If you’re a fan of either of these 20th century originals, give this a listen:

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these 21st century anti-rock stars. And what was the best thing you heard last year?

 

Bad Lieutenant

NETWORK OF SHAME.

Ray Donovan is a fixer. When one of Hollywood’s rich and stupid makes a mess, he cleans it up. We’re not talking about dirty dishes.

Ray’s in a bind. His ex-con father owes big money to the Armenian mob. And Mrs. Minassian and her boys are losing patience fast.

Ray DonovanIncidentally, Ray hates his father. However, a couple of his brothers are now involved. Mickey “Mick” Donovan has a bad habit of mixing clean family with dirty business – one reason Ray hates him.

The only Armenian Ray knows is Hasmik – a pop star famous for her curves and a spicy hot “Thighs Go Boom” (think JLo + Kim Kardashian).

Hasmik is currently promoting “One Night in Yerevan”, a ballad about the early 20th century genocide of her ancestors.

Sung in her native Armenian, it’s not getting a lot of airtime (or interest).

He’s obviously done a bit of “work” for Hasmik in the past, although we don’t know specifics.

When Ray approaches her at an after concert party, she’s happy to see him but offended by his assumption.

“You think all Armenians know each other – especially ones like these?!”

“Why should I help your family when your government refuses to recognize the genocide of my great-grandfather, my family!”

“Fair Enough. Sorry about your great grandparents,” he offers as he quietly slips away.

Ray proceeds to track down Flip, another former client who owes him a favor.

It just so happens that the former weatherman has a new prime-time talk show. The big premiere is the next day.

With a bit of strong-armed persuasion involving damning S & M photos, Flip reluctantly (“career suicide”) agrees to put Hasmik on the show, knocking off his big musical act. “Yeven”, not “Thighs”.

Here’s the in-your-face video summary of the Case of the Armenian Diva.

Later that day, Ray accompanies Mick to an over-due “sit down” with the Minassians.

He offers to pay off his father’s debts. Preferring LA without Sr. and Jr., they refuse and draw their weapons.

With a gun pointed at Ray’s head, Hasmik bursts into the room. Action stops. Hugs and kisses are dispersed. Near execution becomes silly misunderstanding.

Click here to continue reading “Good End, Bad Means: A Hollywood Case Study” from my other blog – “The Path to Peak Performance”.


REALITY BITES.

Yes, when I’m not waxing poetic about music, books or films I’m helping people and organizations achieve positive change. But I digress.

Back to the best TV I’ve seen in 2015. In addition to Showtime’s Ray Donovan (1 part Departed-2 parts Sopranos-1 part Californiacation), I’d highly recommend:

The Americans Season 3 (John le Carre writes The Ice Storm part 2)

Fargo Season 2 (“You Betcha” meets No Country for Old Men)

Mr. RobotMr. Robot Season 1 (Social Network meets Girl with Dragon Tattoo)

As a fan of Heathers and a few other classic films from the late 80’s/early 90’s, it was good to see Christian Slater pop up in Robot  – I thought he might have gone the way of the dodo.

 

What shows turned you on in 2015? If not TV, what movies, books or music lit a fire under you this past year?

Gotta Keep It New to Keep It True

The Ghost of Rock & Roll Past (Part Deux)

Dear friends,

Here are your cumulative answers to the Matthew E. White Tribute Challenge along with my 3 top (strongest influence) choices with corresponding links:

Song #1:  Steady Pace

Your artists-songs:

  • Mungo Jerry – In the Summertime
  • Stealer’s Wheel – Stuck in the Middle with You
  • Earth, Wind & Fire
  • J.J. Cale mixed with Jamiroquai
  • The Band – The Weight
  • Michael Jackson/Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
  • Van Morrison (match)

Your average score:  8

My artist-song:  Van Morrison – Crazy Love (live w Ray Charles)

My score:  7.5

Song #2:  Rock & Roll is Cold

Your artists – songs:

  • Derek & The Dominos (E. Clapton)
  • Eric Clapton – Lay Down Sally/Promises & Jack Johnson
  • The Faces/Small Faces
  • Terence Trent D’arby – Wishing Well + Jack Johnson, ZZ Top & Sonia Dada
  • Van Morrison, Jack Johnson & Warren Zevon (match)

Your average score:  8

My artist/song:  Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London

My score:  10

Song #3:  Feeling Good is Good Enough

Your artists – songs:

  • The Beatles – Hey Jude
  • Eric Clapton – Slowhand
  • Ben Harper
  • Hall & Oates (early)
  • Marvin Gaye meets The Band arranged by Becker and Fagan (Steely Dan) + The Beatles – Hey Jude
  • Hall and Oates – Sarah Smile + Elton John (match)
  • The Rolling Stones

Your average score:  6.8

My artist – song:  Elton John-Tiny Dancer (from Almost Famous)

My score:  8

Thanks for playing and have a great summer!