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Entries in eleanor morrow (43)

Tuesday
Jul022013

In Which We Murder The Green Man

Day Ronovan

by ELEANOR MORROW

Ray Donovan
creator Ann Biderman

Showtime

Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) resides in Los Angeles with his wife, his son and his daughter. It took me roughly the entire pilot episode of the show to properly describe RD, but finally I found the right word: he is unhappy. It takes the entire sixty minutes to realize this, because Ray possesses many things other people desire: financial wealth, an active sex life with a narcoleptic woman a few years older than his daughter, the ability to impose his will on absolutely anyone.

One night after his wife tells him not to come home he ends up at his downtown apartment. He starts thinking about his past - later in the episode he tells his wife, "Whatever you can imagine, it was ten times worse." His sister killed herself by leaping from a great height. His brothers are an alcoholic and a overmedicated diabetic respectively; both are completely destroyed by whatever Ray through as well, coming out somewhat better for the wear.

Ray is a fixer of sorts. It's a lopsided match to run him up against the type of people he finds in the show's premiere - the garden variety L.A. asshole who populates the corners of their own pool tables. Stalkers, egomaniacal executives with three dogs they never pet, self-obsessed movie stars. These predictable antagonists simply do not provide a fair fight, and that Ray liberally uses violence to handle these frivolous people must on some level be his addiction, since the meagreness of the individuals themselves does not require it.

Ray Donovan tries to be a comedy in the same way The Sopranos was, but even when it lends a lightheartedness to the stories - a dead coke whore! a movie star who loves transvestites! - it never actually makes you laugh. Part of this is the script, a dreary and directionless affair by show creator Ann Biderman that contrasts Day Ronovan's life with the activities of his father (Jon Voight) who has recently been paroled from a Massachusetts prison.

The problem is also in Schreiber's face. While Gandolfini wrought so much out of a litany of facial expressions, tics and sighs, Schreiber must pretend to be relatively unaffected by the lightness of the world that surrounds him - otherwise he would be made inconsequential as well.

Schreiber breaks this veneer only once in the show's pilot, when he confesses to his Jewish mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould). (The irony of an Irish Catholic confessing to a Jew is a bit too on the nose as well.) "He's the reason we have all this," Ray tells his wife in a rare moment of honesty. It is the only thing that reminds us Ray could not really exist without others, and that he can barely live without the ones who are gone.

Jon Voight tries to play the role of Ray's father with great aplomb. He snorts cocaine with his alcoholic son and an African-American prostitute; he murders members of the clergy like it's something a man his age would have the energy to enjoy. I have to admit that Voight is in fantastic shape for age, most likely due to his preemptive vasectomy.

Assembled in one gym near the end of the episode, the family feigns having some kind of relationship with each other, but the all male coterie seems to flail without women. Voight is as poor a cinematic father as he is a real life one, appraising his sons like an alligator observes a swimming child. Ray grabs his and threatens him - for the fifth time in a single hour-long episode, he has told someone that he will kill them if they come near someone that he loves.

The real issue here is that there is no place for a moral tough guy in modern day Los Angeles. If Ray is an asshole - and the show works overtime to prevent you from realizing that he is a tremendous one - then why do we care if he suffers? If Ray is a criminal, then his internal machinations are useless. But if he is moral, if he does have some kind of inner compass he is working to realign, then his penchant for violence and adultery becomes even more unforgivable. He should move to Iceland.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her friend Sheila.

"Hello" - Schuyler Fisk (mp3)

"Sunshine" - Schuyler Fisk (mp3)

Friday
Aug032012

In Which He Ate It Whenever He Could

Looking Glass

by ELEANOR MORROW

Just now, taking Coleman off the turntable, the cold sharpening my bones, I had a sudden intimation of my true character.

- Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form/of Taking/It All

Red-rimmed or opaque, Sheila manages a coil (hair-wise) with an aubergine staff. When she approaches, her stopping point is a lecturn. The right skirt ascends slightly above the waist, where it resembles a massive throat choked by a giantess.

This was before, but only moments before, each individuated object in the extramuros became the subject of a photo. A necessary preserve evolved, completely online, and the ensuing catalog became too extensive. If we did not have someone to reduce our number of choices, it would be easy to turn into Jonah Lehrer, or if not him, a fern.

Sheila was three years older than me but nowhere near as accustomed to the vagaries of urban living. She came from a troubled upbringing; her father was no longer living. She spent hours shifting things around in her immediate space. She was not shy of asking my opinion, and when I detailed my views, I found her absorbing them slowly, like a medication designed to release its contents at a nonspecific, later date.

The world outside a 12th century convent must have appeared impossibly fast to its citizens. Extrapolate: are we the ones beyond the high walls, or essentially contained in that cloister, in the original sense of the term? We elide in open air, what some call the sinful, extramuros world, where this could be referred to as a dog:

Sheila began to mirror her roommate in a number of ways I found alarming. One day she saw me wiping up the windowsill with a paper towel. Every morning thereafter she ran them clean with steel wool. When I asked her what she was doing she nearly screamed.

Sheila's vision was severely worse in one eye, and when she took out her contacts before bedtime she often got a headache. (Watching her touch an eye with the tip of a fingernail was an evening in itself.) Instead of resenting the pain, she felt she deserved it. Or maybe I just wanted to believe this because it made me feel better.

There were other things. She eliminated any visible mark. We had one marble countertop, far more "marble" than marble. She guarded this thing as if it was sunrise at Le Havre. It held something for her, like a repository. The countertop rewarded what she put into it, because I could hear her version of an orgasm through the wall, and there's an app that tells you whether it's real or not, for $2.99.

So I went out more. When I came to others as a stranger, I felt the first, most advantageous way of seeming. I myself marvel at how many people keep it together so well. They look prepared for this, cast in a certain light, turning to a partner or loved one in the vague, abstract background of my day-to-day life.

The most ubiquitous combination in the extramuros is mother-daughter. This is followed by

father/son
a senior citizen and another senior citizen
A chatterbox and someone who listens to it
five Hasidic men eating licorice
A woman, another woman, and an ugly man
Girlfriends

I never knew Sheila to drive a car, so I was mildly surprised when she brought one around. It was not a Cadillac. She mainly drove it on Saturdays to the laundromat, and I never knew where else she went. When I tried to follow her she always lost me without meaning to.

In restaurants, I'm usually into hearing other people's conversations. I like to know what they're talking about, but only in the broad outline. When it gets too serious I focus on my food.

Sheila got a boyfriend on New Year's Eve. He came up to her at a party and complimented her shoes. At first all I knew about him was that he loved Riesling. When he didn't fade after a few awkward, drunken dates, she appeared visibly relieved at this turn of events. Strange southern expressions started creeping into her day-to-day dialogue, so I made assumptions, but instead Timothy was a thirty five year old Korean obstetrician. One of his loves was origami, another was Sheila, a third and yet still essential desire was for fondue. He ate it whenever he could.

When I went home to see my parents, I was astonished at how much they'd changed. Perhaps they were a certain kind of individual, and combined, none of their specific qualities emerged from the collision. With enough distance from a mistake, the bad choice transforms into something completely unexpected.

I heard that Sheila had a baby and named it Chelsea, after nothing.

In the extramuros, a place represents something else besides itself. It is a natural inclination, I am told, to return to the sight of familiar shitholes and stuttering haunts. The abandoned meeting space of my old school reflected at night elicits anguish, but I also have to admit I feel relieved in the presence of familiar environs. I am glad to know that I am altered from what I was, for if not, everything would necessarily be the same. The lack of change would be a worse kind of horror.

In Sheila's photos (easily available online) she dresses differently now, but it is all the same notes. I have to wonder what the person she is parroting now is like, whether this particular woman salvages any of my verve or grace. There might well be a house somewhere where all its denizens are people she has iterated on. Parcel to post, a safer existence — not that I'm tarnishing hers — remains unacceptable.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Shameless. She tumbls here.

Photographs by Kara VanderBijl.

"Swanlights (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)

"Rapture (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)

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

"Around Us (acoustic)" - Jonsi (mp3)

"Animal Arithmetic" - Jonsi (mp3)

"Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)" - Jonsi (mp3)