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KICKING TELEVISION: An Ambitious DIG

KICKING TELEVISION: An Ambitious DIG

Television
is like most of my failed relationships. Much of what I desire leaves me too
soon, unfulfilled, unresolved, unloved. Tangential and peripheral lesser characters,
often caricatures, play too large a role. Expectations are high. Infidelity abound. But good television, like love, is ambitious, patient, and true to
itself. Often TV is none of these. Series are rushed to order based on a
premise and not a realization. Unappealing actors are forced into unsuitable
roles. Katherine Heigl is involved. Most often, though, TV is a victim of its
own parameters. It’s designed to live infinitely, or at least for enough episodes
to be syndicated. Narrative arcs are left open, because to close them is
suicide. In recent years, however, the mini- (or event) series has returned to
prominence. The successes of True
Detective
and American Horror Story
have revitalized the genre, giving birth to new opportunities for
storytelling and for actors. Even love has a complete cycle, and USA’s DIG (premiering March 5th) is
an example of how a mini-series can be successful by limiting its life.

DIG is particularly ambitious in its theological concerns and the international scope of its narrative. Action takes
place in Norway, New Mexico, and Jerusalem. The event series centers on an FBI
agent stationed in Jerusalem, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), who while
investigating the murder of a young American becomes embroiled in a 2000-year old
mystery. The series also stars Anne Heche as Connelly’s superior and lover, and
David Costabile as Tad Billingham, an enigmatic cult leader. The cast is
rounded out by a uniquely diverse cast including Ori Pfeffer, Regina Taylor, Alison
Sudol, and David Ambrose, which in and of itself separates DIG from what we are accustomed to on TV. It’s multiracial,
multi-generational, and multilingual. Yes, DIG
has subtitles. SUBTITLES! How will the American viewing public cope?

Frankly,
DIG doesn’t care. Nor should it. The
best TV is made with story in mind, not demographics or live plus seven numbers
or syndication. DIG comes to USA from
Homeland executive producer Gideon
Raff and Heroes creator Tim Kring. To
combine the credits of the two to make a series is a good recipe for TV
that goes beyond simple loglines and average ambition. Star Jason Isaacs was
also intrigued by the unlikely collaboration, noting “generally showrunners
like running the show” and not as a duet. But, Raff and Kring are “enormously
successful at telling stories on television. Both leapt at the chance to do
what they were born to do, which was tell a story with a beginning, middle, and
end.” And when taken through the elements of the story, it “scared the living
shit” out of him.

Isaacs
was excited to work within the mini-series medium, and it suits his tremendous
talent. He’s a leading man without wearing it on his sleeve. He found DIG “inherently satisfying, like telling
a joke with a punchline.” His last series, Awake,
was an event series trapped in the body of a planned serial. The premise, a cop
awakes in two realities, was ahead of its time (way back in ’12) and its
aesthetic was too progressive for network TV. If it had premiered today on
Netflix or Amazon or, indeed, USA, it would have had a better life and place in
the canon of great television.

But,
according to Isaacs, maybe it lived long enough: “When you make 12 hours of
complicated satisfying television, as we did with Awake, and it works, that’s a triumphant achievement. In the UK,
drama series are only six episodes long. [Awake]
was two drama series. In America [as opposed to the UK] if it doesn’t run for a
decade people look down . . . with slight embarrassment in their voice. I thought
[with Awake] we did a remarkable
thing. Not sure that we would have sustained it or done many more. Twelve hours
is as much as I want to see about most things.”

And
that perfectly illustrates the inherent flaw of the multi-year serial. It
becomes a victim of its own immortality. Awake
may have died prematurely, but DIG is
set to live the perfect life. Heche calls the event series “its own art form,
as opposed to ‘let’s see where it all goes,’ which is what we’re used to on
television. [As opposed to viewers wondering] am I still going to be hooked
after six years?”

Not
unlike Awake, what is immediately
striking about DIG is its aesthetic.
It has a grainy filter that very much suits its diversity of locals and gives
the series an unvarnished feel. It reminds the viewer of international series
more likely to come out of Canadian-Croatian co-productions, and I mean that in
the most positive way. Costabile mentions “the risk that the network was
taking… and their [USA’s] interest in going outside of what had been
successful for them. Much bigger, much more provocative, and much more
challenging to their audience.” And DIG most certainly takes, and conquers,
those risks.

Unfortunately,
as many a good TV show has discovered, simply being good and ambitious isn’t
enough. The TV graveyard is full and caskets are falling into the creek behind
the chapel. It wasn’t too long ago when a show wasn’t on one day, and the next
day it was. Now, there are multi-platform rollouts for even the smallest of
shows. From social media to YouTube to interactive websites to junkets by the
dozen. DIG had a multi-city touring installation
called DIG: Escape the Room, which allowed viewers to indulge in the spirit of the show long before they could revel in its
reality. Heche, who is excellent in what is essentially an unforgiving and
forgotten role, notes that the scope of what goes into promoting a show is
“incredible. You have to bombard the public. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to go do Letterman and I’ll do The Today Show and then I’ll be home.’”

Every
series needs its antagonist, and DIG
is very fortunate to have Costabile play Billingham, who’s somehow part of the
theological mystery at the heart of the show. A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about how Costabile was in
need of a vehicle to match his incredible talent. In DIG, he is the villainous edge the series needs. But the best
villain can’t know they’re the bad guys, and only in that can the character
succeed. The Joker doesn’t know he’s evil, Michael Corleone is a good man, he
thinks. Jason is just out for a walk with a machete and a hockey mask. Says
Costabile, “when people do things that look at and consider bad or morally
bankrupt or morally questionable it’s dangerous for me, as a performer, to villainize
them. You’ll lose out on the possibility that they could be charming or
likeable in need of something else in a loving way. [Tad Billingham] has a misguided
sense of the world, but if I played him that way he’d appear at odds with
himself.”

Costabile
is a veteran of the most interesting television of the past
decade: DamagesBreaking BadThe WireHouse, The Office, Flight of the
Conchords, United States of Tara… His
IMDB page reads like a Labor Day weekend marathon binge of the best of the
past decade. Once again, in DIG, he
is the best thing onscreen, which is a huge accomplishment, as his co-stars are
wonderful.

DIG is not quite in the pantheon of
TV’s most noted endeavors, but nor does it want to be. It wants to be
something special, if just for a moment. It wants to indulge in itself, its
aesthetic, and its contextual universe, and it does so with a delicate touch,
patient exposition despite its finite nature, and superb storytelling. And it
can stand as a sea change in how interesting and dynamic television can be fed
to a North American audience. Simply put, DIG
is great television. If television is indeed like a relationship, DIG is a lover you can spend some time
with, guilt-free, unencumbered by commitment or the future. It is a moment in
your life, a moment in your television life. And it’s worth the time.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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