Damn You, Television!

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Now we’re hooked on American Crime Story, AND we have a new series of Better Call Saul to contend with.

Sensibly diverging from the American Horror Story format, ACS benefits from a tighter focus — nothing is permitted which doesn’t further the basic story of the OJ Simpson trial, though as judge and jury discovered to their cost, that means that almost anything happening in twentieth century America can be ruled relevant. Even the future is included, since head writers Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander manage to shoehorn the Kardashian family in on the pretext that their dad was OJ’s friends and one of his lawyers. The kids’ glee at their fathers’ meaningless and distressing fame is either the Secret Origin of the Kardashian Family — how they learned the wrong lessons at a damagingly early age, or else it’s proof that the tendency to regard celebrity as equivalent to sainthood was already engendered. O.J.’s acquittal for murdering their mother’s friend would thus seem like ultimate proof of this value system, so that Kim K. can this week dismiss a thoughtful comment by Chloe Grace Moretz with the devastating rejoinder “nobody has heard of you.”

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It’s interesting to me how the show has seamlessly maintained a high standard of writing even when the head writers hand over duties to the B-team (The Knick was also good at this), though I do find the direction slightly more variable. Ryan Murphy favours propulsion, his vigorous camera movements rushing the story onwards. Anthony Hemingway, known for The Wire and whose RED TAILS I thought was really terrible, has a tendency towards slightly meaningless show-off shots, but I found by his second episode I was even enjoying these, The contrast in style between this and his feature film suggests he was really being heavily sat on by George Lucas and his cohorts. And then John Singleton contributes one episode executed in a slick, almost classical manner that looks admirably restrained by comparison.

The idea of cinematic TV is interesting — I wonder if any of these guys would find a natural home on the big screen. Singleton has had the most distinguished career, but it’s been very erratic. The tighter discipline of TV, where the director is more like a studio employee in the old days, choices confined to guiding the actors and placing the camera, may suit such filmmakers better than a medium where they’d be responsible for everything. Although not having George Lucas sitting on you must help too.

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The ensemble here is too good to pick favourites. John Travolta has taken some flack for his expressionist perf, and for looking “like haunted spam,” but I find his choices both bold and amusing. It’s true, he doesn’t quite look human anymore, and maybe he’s adapted to looking like an artfully-chewed pencil eraser by developing a manner of acting — all precise, prissy gestures and words bitten off delicately like umbilici — to suit his new, biomechanical instrument. We will see more of such post-human performances as the twenty-first century nears its apocalyptic climax, an event which will no doubt be documented by American Crime Story around about season 5.

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10 Responses to “Damn You, Television!”

  1. The Sopranos and Mad Men invented “cinematic TV”
    As nearly everyone has said they were better that 75 percent of theatrically release films.

    I’ll be binge-watching O.J. saga. I was in “Camp O.J.” (the parking lot across from the courthouse) when the verdict came down. I was broadcasting for Canadian TV. Quite a spectacle. Ace in the Hole crossed with the false miracle scene from La Dolce Vita

  2. Gill Fraser Lee Says:

    I’m laughing so much at the ‘haunted spam’ and ‘chewed eraser’ … Why must these actors turn themselves into gurning gargoyles? So distracting

  3. Poor Travolta has struggled with his weight — he likes his career but he likes his meatballs too. Now his features look liposculpted and he seems on the verge of exploding wetly like Edward Gorey’s Beastly Baby. I’m almost sure he could get more work as a fat actor than as an alien, but that’s his choice.

    The real event was a perfect storm of an open-and-shut case in a racially charged climate exacerbated by rolling news coverage. If only he had been innocent, or white, or not a celebrity, people could still have responsed rationally.

  4. If only he had been tried where the crime took place (Santa Monica) by a jury of his peers (white men) O.J. would have been found guilty.

  5. Hahaha! Of course, then there may have been riots. In bending over backwards to be seen to be fair in this exceptionally high-profile case, the DA’s office underestimated the extent to which many black Americans wanted to believe him innocent.

    As a friend put it, “Not guilty by reason of celebrity.”

  6. You guys are so cynical. You’ll see. In the season finale, OJ captures the real killer.

  7. Probably the last time Doonsbury was funny was when they showed OJ making house-to-house inquiries.

  8. There wouldn’t have been riots. “I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m O.J” he famously said. The trial made him black.

  9. But leave us not forget he’s been in prison for many years for a subsequent crime and is highly likely to die there. “Instant Karma gonna get ya” as John Lennon would say.

  10. Not-quite-instant karma in this case — the boomerang took a while to strike home, but got there in the end.

    O.J. as played by Cuba Gooding is probably the most deeply stupid black character seen on any screen for some time, which feels oddly progressive. We have at least come some way since every black person was a clown, after which they had to be noble. Now they can just be all kinds of human. Balanced of course by the Machiavellian Johnny Cochran played so suavely by Courtney B Vance.

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