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Entries in eleanor morrow (41)

Friday
Jan072011

In Which We Were Born In The Mud

Don't Look So Affected

by ELEANOR MORROW

Shameless

creator John Wells

premieres Sunday, January 9th

The glorification of American poverty is at an all-time high during periods of recession, the glorification of American wealth is always at an all-time high. In case you don't remember how Roseanne began, the female Jackie Gleason worked at a plastics company with her sister Jackie, who was dating her supervisor. The foreman was named Booker Brooks, and he was played by George Clooney. The subtext was obvious: how bad exactly was American poverty when your sister was dating George Clooney?

Ronald Reagan spent the 1980s broadcasting optimism after a period of economic struggle, an attitude that disgusted Roseanne Barr. By 1989, in only its second season, Roseanne shot to the top of the Nielsen ratings and remained there until most of the cast was replaced by Sarah Chalke, who would go on to be the only actress in Hollywood other than Rachel Bilson willing to kiss Zach Braff with tongue. The current number one comedy on television takes place in a beach house in Santa Monica: Roseanne tried to make us really feel the pain of Lanford, Illinois.

Perhaps unsure about whether the public wanted a show about incredibly rich people or incredibly poor people, Fox placed its only two new comedies on its fall schedule back-to-back. First came My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia's series Raising Hope about the poorest people on the block, followed by Mitchell Hurwitz' return to collaboration with Will Arnett in Running Wilde, about the richest people on it.

Garcia's previous effort may have been more boring and preachy than a Sunday sermon, but the real core of situation comedies depends on whether the audience has an ongoing connection to the plight of these characters. Initially titled Keep Hope Alive, Raising Hope concerns Jimmy (Lucas Neff), who becomes a father after his one-night stand is revealed to be a serial killer who is executed after giving birth to his daughter Hope. Despite featuring more messages than an after-school special, the plot and situations are never phony or unbelievable, and Martha Plimpton plays the best female character in television outside of the late Lucille Bluth as Jimmy's mother.

In contrast, it should surprise no one that a series about the rich son of an oil magnate (Arnett) who wants to copulate with a woman (Keri Russell) who lives for free in his treehouse and was the daughter of his family's maid has not exactly struck home with American audiences. Even though the aforementioned Two and a Half Men takes place in brightly appointed haunts, everything from the dialogue to the characterization of a man-whore and his poor chiropractor brother (Jon Cryer) screams otherwise.

It was really a plague of unfunny scripts that doomed Running Wilde with critics (the show is already deader than Keri Russell's sex appeal). From the beginning the Will Arnett vehicle had no chance with audiences, who ran from Arrested Development, the series that originally ruined puns for the world. Development proved that no matter how funny a show is, if you don't create sympathetic characters, audiences will never attach themselves to the serial plot. How exactly are Roseanne and Dan Conner supposed to sit down and enjoy an episode on whether it's harder to care for a child or attend a high society gala, or about a misunderstanding between Will Arnett and Andy Richter over whether or not each is gay? The show's writers had so much trouble thinking up storylines for Keri's daughter Puddle that she made a diorama in three straight December episodes.

Despite being presented to the identical audience, Raising Hope got a full season order and there are already $ signs in the eyes of Fox executives, while Mitchell Hurwitz has to sit through his 4,058th meeting about a movie of a show no one watched. The message is clear — if you want ratings, pity, not envy, is the right emotion to tap into in the hearts of mainstream Americans.

Would it surprise you to know that none of the shows I have mentioned so far has a single black character? (The joke on Running Wilde's ethnic butler is that he steals from his employer. Funny!) Raising Hope's Jimmy has friends of color, but they get 1/4058th of the screen time of Cloris Leachman, whose portrayal of Hope's great-grandmother deserves some kind of commemoration from the Obama administration. My point is that shows about how hard the world is end up making poverty appear heartwarming and fun.

You will not have this problem during the opening moments of the new Showtime series Shameless, translated from the popular British show of the same name. The only possible thing you will be thinking about is the exposed carapace of Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum), whose constant contortions and pervasive near-nudity constitute a more stimulating way of saying the show is on premium cable than the dull and profane narration of her single father, Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy). The five other children are distinguishable by their abilities: Ian Gallagher (gay), Phillip Gallagher (smart), Debbie Gallagher (female), Carl Gallagher (cat murderer) and a baby (African-American).

It must have been extremely tempting to just transport the entire cast of Juno to the show's Chicago setting, and indeed Allison Janney was the first choice for Frank's love interest. In the ensuing pilot, she has been replaced by Joan Cusack. Cusack is only 48, but her best option is an alcoholic father of eight hundred? Maybe she can go back in time and beat out Laurie Metcalf for the role of Jackie. Normally, this would only be a small subplot among a greater array of complications, but it turns out that being extremely poor on television is really not that bad in comparison to being poor in real life.

Rossum's Fiona is the show's protagonist, although we only see her in the role of sex object or mother. The point of her existence on the show is to make us ask, "Should someone that beautiful be working concessions at a hockey game?" (The correct answer is maybe.) The point of her multiple brothers and sisters on the show is to create a jovial, Brady Bunch-esque atmosphere in order to address Real Issues. It should come as no surprise to anyone that not only are the Gallaghers poor, they're also homophobic, multiracial, homosexual racist animal-torturers. Their house alone should horrify anyone who knows how to operate a vacuum cleaner, and it is supposed to.

Above all, the Gallaghers are wonderfully happy, like clowns in Shakespeare. They may all have to crowd around one table at breakfast, but the important thing is that they have breakfast together, not the size of the table. Prepaid cellphones are available in every neighborhood in America for the price of a hamburger, but the Gallaghers share minutes on one cell phone, because poverty is a transient thing that can be passed around or ignored when feasible.

After her purse gets snatched at a Chicago club, Fiona meets her knight in shining armor, Steve (Justin Chatwin). In the show's least believable moment, he parks his Jaguar on her street. After having condomless intercourse with Fiona on her kitchen counter while her father is returned to the house by the police, he convinces her to be photographed for the above modeling portfolio, and ten years later she is accepting a check for $20 million to star in The Tourist. Well, they do have unprotected sex, that much is true.

Since Showtime mostly reaches upscale homes, the audience is turned into the good witch Glenda, hoping against hope that Dorothy will be plucked out of some depraved existence. I don't know whether it is sadder that whiny TV critics think Shameless is an approximation of lower-class Chicago, or that TV writers think residents of upper class Chicago are more worried about how hard "they party" — in the words of Frank Gallagher — than caring for their children.

Ronald Reagan suggested the Gallaghers should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. George Bush wondered if a bootstrap was what he used to ride horses at Kennebunkport, Bill Clinton felt their pain and appeared in every Southern Baptist Church in the country. George W. Bush barely left Crawford, Texas except in an ATV or Air Force One and Barack Obama took a million dollar Christmas vacation in his home state. The point of Roseanne was that poor people in Lanford were just like us. The point of Shameless is that they aren't.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the ITV series Downton Abbey

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Wednesday
Nov102010

In Which We Find The Ideal Mad Men Replacement

Maids, Gays, and the Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo

by ELEANOR MORROW

Downton Abbey

creator Julian Fellowes

It was long overdue for Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to be given the tools to a castle of his own. His place is Downton Abbey in 1912, where he reimagines the world of Jane Austen a century later as a far more realistic and wonderful place than those who wrote during the time of its existence could possibly understand.

The result is the complicated partitions of Downton Abbey, an hour-long serial that has more characters than any show ever done in prime time. Even a decade ago it would have taken an act of God to bring the soapy pleasures to our TV screens. Happily, the series that just completed its first season on England's ITV is already out on DVD, and plans are in the works for it to eventually come to NBC as a miniseries. (You can also download the second episode here.)

Much as Avatar ruined the budding romance between James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, so too did the actual sinking of the Titanic shake things up at this ancient estate. Gifted with three lovely daughters, Robert Crawley (the magnetic Hugh Bonneville) sees the first two male heirs of his family perish in that maudlin disaster, and his distant relation, civil lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), becomes the inheritor of a massive fortune he never asked for.

John CrawleyThis lighthearted premise has adorned novels since Ms. Austen was in diapers, but the way it plays out is unlike any in British fiction. The real source of Downton's immense wealth is the Earl's monied American wife Cora (Elisabeth McGovern). Since the purpose of the Earl's marriage in the first place was to solidify the financial standing of the estate, it's now subject to English laws, which means that the Earl's first born daughter Mary (the weird-looking Michelle Crockery in star-making role) is shit out of luck when it comes to her future now that her fiance is holding hands with Kate Winslet in the deep.

Matthew and Mary CrawleyWhen we read novels that take place at the end of the English empire, we feel an affection for the customs of the period. The servants of Downton by and large don't share this optimistic view of the cosmos. The inclusion of the trials of the servant class was what make Gosford Park one of Robert Altman's most touching and vital films, and there are really no better protagonists than maidservants, butlers, and footmen.

As in Downton Abbey's literary opposite numbers, the real protagonist of the show is a heroine — Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Most of the experienced servants are given perilously complex portraits, and Anna is no different. Her love story with the estate's new arrival, former soldier turned manservant John Bates (Brendan Coyle) constitutes a breakthrough performance for both of them, and with record audiences, the show has already been renewed for a second eight episode season.

The show's second offering deals with how uncomfortable the country solicitor who will inherit Downton feels upon the ubiquitous presence of his manservant. Matthew Crawley is a spirited capitalist, and surely the idea of having a servant of one's own should feel strange to most of us. Downton Abbey's servants learn of this truth and others as they intuit the unfolding of events far better than their masters. But there Fellowes does an exciting dance, where he proves that the idea of the wise yet lowly individual's sagacity is purely an illusion of the masters themselves.

Mistakes were made. Downtown Abbey looks back at this period with something like the careful ministrations of Trey Parker's Captain Hindsight.

How silly the death of one duke and his wife seems a hundred years or so later, where we can see it for what it wasn't rather than what it was! Something the European Union took from us is the ability to imagine these places making war on another again, as if it were the first time we had observed it from across the Atlantic.

The show's first season ends with the onslaught of the War to End All Wars, the most significant event in history about which most Americans know almost nothing about. Men in the movies are always returning from war, so it is somewhat exciting and macabre to see a young man, in this case the wonderfully manipulative homosexual footman, go to one.

Americans dispense with their history when it is irrevelant to the present; the men and women of England have an empire to look back on and sigh appreciatively. What if we were watching the fall of the primacy of our civilization, dressed up in colorful attire and made fragnant by the mere passage of time? It is impossible for an American to truly understand these attitudes, because when she walks into a church she can be sure it is no more than four hundred or so years old.

Mary's aunt, called the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is played by the very familiar Maggie Smith. When she learns that her niece has been divested of the Downton fortune, she quickly springs into action to wed Mary to the new heir. Unlike the girl's overbearing Earl of a father, the Dowager Countess accomplishes her aims indirectly, and even while painting her as something of an antagonist to Matthew Crawley's equally headstrong mother, the show can't resist pointing out that she is the one in control. It is a mastery of the disappearing world.

Comparisons to Mad Men are inevitable and complimentary; but Julian Fellowes is no Matthew Weiner. (Almost everything has to be compared to Don Draper, or else how would we know what it is?) The 61-year old screenwriter penned romance novels in the 1970s under female pen names, and he desperately wants us to love the men and women in this milieu. In fact, the show is so redemptive that when one of the characters fails us, we might make excuses for them as we would with our own child.

In a way, of course, that is what is comforting about classics like Emma and Pride and Prejudice besides the gainful employment they offer to Colin Firth. The love affair between classically acted and styled hopefuls cannot really compare to a truer love between an audience and its wayward heroine, who is stranded on a dangerous road, lacking the proper footing for her horse. To talk your way out of such challenges represents the exact reason young people get in them in the first place.

To us, Downton Abbey is an even more foreign conglomeration than for the country that originated it. The dialogue is the best on television; the garish sets are unlike anything done outside of pay cable. In their arms we are transported: the dancing, the hunting, the endless meals might as well be taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, or on the moon. Here is a place where no secret remains for long, where we can go and escape into a life more sheltered than our own.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the show Skins. She tumbls here.

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"Seven Sons" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

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Monday
Jul262010

In Which We Get You When You're Vulnerable

All We Want To Do Is Please You

by ELEANOR MORROW

Mad Men

creator Matthew Weiner

The idea that life itself is best treated as an artistic canvas is nothing new. Byron was the most syphilitic of artists who embraced this idea, but it has Christian beginnings, too, the concept of acting like someone else, someone who's not you, for the benefit of others and for the pleasure of God. The most recent example of this phenomenon is Don Draper, and we are just along for the ride.

Don learns different lessons from his experiences than the public at large. He heads out on a date with Roger's wife's friend Bethany (True Blood's Anna Camp) and envies her backstage work in the theatre; he even tells her it's exciting! Don harbors a secret weird jealousy for what most of us laugh at, and this is the key to understanding this most loathsome of men. And Don is horrible. They have toned it down a lot by making him seem nice to his kids and whores, but he's about as pleasant as a burned roast.

Don's belief is that he can step into the role of the consumer like no other. He regularly sews and gets out his shinebox like he's nostalgic for the Depression. Romanticizing the past is a common American problem, and since Don hates his past, all he has are the gestures and the skills of poverty. What was the good life for him? When he forever ruined his kids' elementary school teacher for other men?


Draper is unique in that he really has no golden time to look back on. We've never seen the halcyon days after the Drapers were first married (although NB Weiner that'd be a good way to get January Jones a scene where she's not on her back). Years in Korea weren't exactly full of self-empowerment for the young Dick Whitman. Don has nothing to go back to, so he gets his magnetism from living continuously in the present. This modern impulse was first noticed in primitive Neanderthal tribes, once they figured out how to pay for sex.

Three thousand years later (give or take), the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is riding in miniature on the dark side of Don Draper's testicles. Where are all the bright shining lights in this company? What about that dude who got his story published in The New Yorker? If they debut Fred Armisen as a love interest for his real life wife, or if Maya Rudolph appears on this show in any fashion, I will call the police.

On the plus side, it's amazing Christina Hendricks found the time to act between photoshoots and interviews and Wal-Mart openings and making her homely husband eat cat food. When Mad Men's characters stop changing and become static, they lose their significance in the drama. In the case of Pete Campbell, that's not nice, that's just a nice sweater. Hopefully now that Pete's wife is a regular on Community, he can start a fledging romance with Draper's housekeeper Celia, who is amazingly the only non-white character on the show.


In better news, Peggy will finally get the love triangle we're all waiting for. Yes, the Church of Scientology has permitted the first male-female-male fictional love triangle in thetan history since Keeping the Faith, and Peggy's inability to decide between two foppish nerds beginning to carry her purse will likely result in her putting them both before Don and letting Satan sort it all out. Gosh bail for fighting over a ham was high in those days!

It would entertain me to no end if Peggy went through the entire plotline of Goodfellas, including hiding her cross in front of her in-laws and leaving Pete Campbell to die in the desert. Four seasons of watching her toady to Don are enough. If you can sell jai alai, you can sell anything. Don is about to have a new level of clientele; let's just hope he's done with Conrad Hilton because Lost already answered the question, "Who is Paris Hilton's father?" (Daniel Faraday.) 

Mad Men unwittingly has taken on a new protagonist, which indicates he's probably two short episodes away from stepping in front of a bus. After undermining Don last season, Henry is ostensibly in love with Betty Draper, and he shows it by only permitting sex when his anus can casually rest on the car's gearshift. You can tell where his affection for Mrs. Draper is headed by the look in his eyes. He resembles Jack Nicholson about to flee the scene of an accident.

Henry's decision about whether to keep Betty Draper around takes on a new significance. It is a test of Don's world view. If Henry can't back up his big talk about wanting to be with Betty, then it doesn't matter whether anyone else can. Betty left the biggest bullshitter in the world, but he's not so bad if she left him for a bigger one.

Like Don's bizarre date with Bethany Van Nuys, advertising started being condescending rather than airy and pleasant at some point, and the industry met with better results because of it. "It's not even an advertisement until the last thirty seconds," Don tells the charming vet who couldn't think of a better headline than 'A Man From a Town With No Name.'

I have a list of people he could have called for that story, and it begins and ends with the guy his wife had sex with in a restaurant bathroom last season. Don was shocked that all he had to do was treat an Advertising Age reporter with one leg like he does the rest of the people in his life: as if they were something he had to wipe off his shoe.

Since the beginning of time, people have secretly loved to be talked down to. Have you ever read the Ten Commandments? They sit at approximately the same artistic standard as Jeff Koons and John Slattery's acting: utterly insulting to anyone who knows about art or portraying a powerful advertising executive as he was forty years ago.

The client becomes the child because it is the client on who the advertising must succeed for the agency to get paid. A bit of random publicity for two Jewish woman fighting over the last ham isn't exactly a Super Bowl commercial — the intended effect was on the client, who told Peggy that "it's a shame someone had to get hurt, but if it means people are buying more of our wonderful hams..." Yet the idea of pleasing the client first is woefully inefficient. Why spend time seeing whether you can convince the person already predisposed to the product?

This is akin to a revelation for Don. He becomes violently angry at his swimsuit clients because they live in the past. Don Draper of course hates their aversion to convince others to buy their products, and he calls them "prudes" as if he was on his way to Point Pleasant in a one piece. Don's advertisement has no chance of pleasing the client, but he's a more artistic manipulator than that. When sales don't rise, they'll know where to turn. And if they slap him a little on the cheek during sex, he'll charge half-price.

Don is changing the game by treating the client, and the man who married his wife, and his protege, and his prostitute, and a Broadway extra/Steve Newlin's wife, and Roger Sterling himself as children. His own children he already made into accessories. And why should you expect a child to turn into an adult if you haven't taught her how?

That would require thinking ahead, and Don is more like his daughter Sally than anyone else on Mad Men. When he kisses the girl hello at the beginning of the most boring weekend of anyone's life, Sally flinches. His kiss is the acknowledgment of what's happened to all of them, and she brushes it off as quickly as her father.  The reality of the past is no more than an imposition on the freedom of the present.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her work here. She last wrote in these pages about the UK show Skins. She tumbls here.

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