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Daily Reads: How ‘Peak TV’ Is Undermining Quality Control, Ranking Quentin Tarantino’s Movie, and More

Daily Reads: How 'Peak TV' Is Undermining Quality Control, Ranking Quentin Tarantino's Movie, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Netflix, Binging, and Quality Control in the Age of Peak TV. 
Yesterday, writer Matt Singer penned an article about how although Netflix assumes the binge-watching model, many of their original programming isn’t all that binge-able. His theory is that there’s a business incentive to keep some people from consuming a whole series in a single sitting, so as to keep the subscription active. However, the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan argues that streaming services give their creators too much creative freedom and as a result the quality of the work has decreased.

But this isn’t just the case at streaming services: It’s happening a lot in the more ambitious realms of television. Maybe it’s just me, but when it comes to many shows, especially dramas, in the cable, pay-cable and streaming arenas, I see a trend toward laxness and a lack of energy and dynamic tension. There’s more ambition than in a derivative NBC or CBS procedural, sure, but there’s also often a lack of urgency within an episode and, most notably, over the course of a season. It’s also fairly common to find that the character development is not strong and vivid enough to make me want to revisit these shows while they figure out how to crank up the narrative drive, as was the case with Amazon’s “Bosch” and USA’s “Complications.” I did finally begin to enjoy AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” especially in its second season, but most people had checked out well before it kicked into high gear, and that may have doomed the show (though I hope not). Of course, it’s unfair to cherry-pick the best examples, but let’s face it, this wasn’t too often the case with with the best binge-ers the Commercial Television Machine produced. Even in a bad episode of “The X-Files” or “Lost,” the Mulder and Scully banter or the Hurley quips make up for a lot. Hence my current obsession with what I call B-movie TV: Genre fare that is smart and subversive but also energetic and not overly concerned with being Important. (The two best new shows of the year, Lifetime’s “UnREAL” and USA’s “Mr. Robot” may not neatly fit in the B-movie TV category, but both were pleasingly knotty, had great characters and were suspenseful from the jump. They’re binge-ers, for sure.) Sag and drift problems have cropped up throughout TV history, obviously. But I think it’s telling that it’s cropping up a lot lately, often at places that could and should know better (despite its great cast and terrific moments, I gave up on the rudderless “Masters of Sex” near the end of Season 2 and haven’t seen a compelling reason to jump back on board). As Todd VanDerWerff has pointed out, TV is fumbling for direction in the age of binging and stacking and all episodes of television existing simultaneously everywhere (well, not really, but it feels that way sometimes). So as TV figures out the creative implications of the nonlinear era, some sloppiness and experimentation is to be expected. But I think there’s more to it than that. The competition for talent and the huge desire lock down hot writers while also trying to create Signature Programs has led to situations where executives have let way too much bad writing slide. There’s an enormous scramble for content at the moment, so much so that multiple seasons are being ordered at an accelerated pace and it’s almost normal for shows to be renewed before they debut. That was decidedly not normal only a few years ago. But Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and any number of other new players have changed the game, just as cable did a decade or so ago. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a good thing, overall. Not every show in Ye Olde Golden Age was a keeper, but almost every network was forced to raise its game and give writers more leeway. Hooray! But there was sigh-inducing side to that revolution: There was too much imitation and a blind pursuit of uninspired dramas about tortured white guys. These days, as TV expands into what FX president John Landgraf has called peak TV, there’s a lot of great TV, but the signal-to-noise ratio is not necessarily heading in a reassuring direction. As TV competes to keep eyeballs on its ever-expanding array of content, we’re being subjected to a lot of empty spectacle and rote brand extension. And it’s worth pointing out, as Linda Holmes does in her great essay series on TV’s growing pains, that the kinds of people who get to make TV now are usually the kinds of people who always have gotten to make TV. Diversity is a buzzword executives know they should throw around these days, but their commitment to it seems tenuous at best.

2. Every Quentin Tarantino Movie Ranked. 
It’s Tarantino Week over at Vulture, and the publication has featured everything from interviews with the man himself, and other principal figures, to a comprehensive list covering Ennio Morricone’s 25 best music cues (in light of his collaboration with Tarantino in his new film “The Hateful Eight”). Now, Vulture’s David Edelstein ranks every Quentin Tarantino film and because it is so definitive, not only will no one else rank his films, there will be no more rankings period.

Jackie BrownThis is my personal favorite of Tarantino’s films, although I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough on first viewing. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, it feels distended by all the talk, talk, talk — until you get into its rhythm and realize the distensions are the point. It’s Tarantino’s stoner movie, the one that makes you laugh at how long and convoluted the whole thing is — until the violence comes and the trip goes bad. That violence: It’s almost all off-screen and very nearly blood-free. The elaborate ruse of Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell (convinced that he’ll be ratted out following the arrest of his courier, Jackie Brown) to get a pipsqueak (Chris Tucker) he just bailed out of jail into the trunk of his car so that he can execute the poor sap seems ridiculous…except that Tarantino loves, loves, loves it when a character begins to talk and just keeps talking, savoring the words, stretching out time. You want to laugh when Ordell finally drives in a circle, opens the trunk, and shoots the man…except the image is faraway and eerie. Not seeing the dead man makes his death more haunting. The sudden, nonsensical shooting of Ordell’s leggy stoner girlfriend, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), by an inept associate (Robert De Niro) is shocking in its swiftness — and somehow made more horrible by the fact that she falls off-screen and we never see her body. Could she really be dead? The narrative of “Jackie Brown” is nowhere near as pretzeled, but a key scene — in a mall, prior to the shooting of Melanie — is replayed from different angles, probably to underscore the idea (which you really understand when stoned) that reality is a collection of differing perspectives that rarely meet. When there is an accord — as between Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry — it’s a blessed thing, made more so by Tarantino’s obvious delight at resurrecting the careers of two ’70s B-movie stars, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. He puts Grier on a pedestal (a moving one, in her first shot) and brings out Forster’s gentle but capacious soul. I’d hate to choose between two movies as superb as “Out of Sight” (directed by Steven Soderbergh, from a great script by Scott Frank) and “Jackie Brown,” but, beat by beat, Tarantino captures the appeal of Elmore Leonard’s sometimes draggy — but magically draggy — work.

3. TV Is Not the New Film, but Festivals Are Blurring the Lines. 
The ever-too-common “Is TV Better Than Film?” or “Is TV the New Film?” debate has been raging on since someone decided to call the last twenty years of television a “Golden Age.” The debate is mostly silly as it misses the obvious fact that just because the two are visual mediums doesn’t mean that they have the same goals or production modes, but it often produces interesting discussion and it sometimes forces people in the industry to react in curious ways. Variety’s Justin Chang and Peter Debruge discuss the issue in light of film festivals adopting “episodic” programming.

Chang: As someone who makes too little time for television even outside the film-festival circuit, I confess that the addition of Toronto’s Primetime slate (which, full disclosure, was curated by our mutual friend Michael Lerman) will have little bearing on my schedule this September — or yours, Peter, given that our assignment in Toronto will be to see and review as much in the way of new cinema as we possibly can. Oh dear, I may have struck a nerve there. There are many, after all, who have argued that the traditional line separating TV and cinema has ceased to exist for some time now, and that the ongoing creative renaissance in television largely puts all but the very best new movies to shame. This is deemed especially true in the realm of serial drama, whose astonishing embarrassment of riches includes the magnificent quartet of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and is still being carried aloft by the likes of “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones” and “Justified,” to name but a few. As to the impossible question of which medium is superior, I submit that I would have to bone up on years of neglected TV watching before I could hazard a guess — as it stands, it feels like an apples-and-oranges comparison, and one where I don’t have the clearest idea what oranges taste like. (Presumably they taste like the new black.) For what it’s worth, I did recently catch up with “Breaking Bad” and found it every bit as darkly enthralling as the rest of the world did, a storytelling tour de force and a morally bracing work of art. Is it better than “The Tree of Life” or “In the Mood for Love” or “Mulholland Dr.” (originally intended to be a TV pilot, lest we forget), to name my three favorite masterworks of post-millennial cinema — honest-to-God, shot-on-35mm cinema? I think I’ll leave that judgment to someone else.

Debruge: I’m even more handicapped in my ability to discourse intelligently about television, considering I grew up in a household that didn’t have one. That said, I had tuned in by the time David Chase rewrote the landscape with “The Sopranos,” in which he not only applied cinematic language to the small screen, but spun a complex, nuanced saga over the course of five seasons, going deeper than any film — or franchise (including “The Godfather”) — ever has in exploring its characters. In the interim, as you suggest, Justin, the line has all but blurred. Once penned into their respective formats, talent now moves back and forth between the two. Season one of “The Sopranos” and “American Beauty” share virtually the same aesthetic, and after the latter went on to win a best picture Oscar, Alan Ball turned his attention to the small screen with his serialized black dramedy “Six Feet Under.” Last year, director Cary Fukunaga effectively treated “True Detective” as a long (albeit preposterous) eight-hour feature, and the fourth episode featured a stunning drug bust more cinematic than anything I witnessed on the big screen. For me, the most revealing illustration of TV’s long form potential versus the limitations of squeezing an entire narrative into a two-hour feature can be found in contrasting any given season of “24” with the one-off political thriller “The Sentinel.” In both, Kiefer Sutherland plays a special agent dealing with ticking-clock threats to national security, but “The Sentinel” must resort to spy-movie cliches and genre shorthand to set up its characters and situation in the allotted time, while Jack Bauer emerged from the series a more nuanced and three-dimensional human being even than James Bond (who has had 23 features to work with), thanks to TV’s ability to burrow in and develop the world and characters it depicts.

4. Josh Lucas on “American Psycho,” Russell Crowe, and the Disastrous “Poseidon” Set.
The A.V. Club’s Random Roles isn’t like every other interview column on the web. The column structures interviews around an actor’s various roles over their career, facilitating discussion through many aspects of their work. AVC’s Sam Fragoso sits down with actor Josh Lucas, star of the film “The Mend,” about his winding career.

AVC: Then you hop to “Poseidon.” Good experience?

JL: 
You know, “Poseidon” was difficult… When I first accepted it, I had serious reservations because I felt the script wasn’t ready after I already said yes. I had a very bad feeling about the movie after I had said yes, so I tried to back out of it. And I was unsuccessful at backing out of it. The pressure came from all sorts of levels, from Warner Bros. to my friend at the time, Akiva Goldsman, who had written the script, to my agents. They were telling me it was going to be a big, huge movie. And I had this bad premonition, not necessarily about the quality of the movie, but about the fact that I was going to get hurt making it. It was a relentlessly difficult movie to make. Everyone involved in that movie was hospitalized, if not once, multiple times. In the end I took a gnarly fall, was hit by a water cannon, and I ripped by thumb almost off of my hand, and had to have very serious reconstructive surgery the day after the movie finished.

AVC: So the premonition came true.

JL: 
It did, and whether the premonition was a premonition, or my subconscious created it, it was a bad injury. The movie was a very dark spot in my career, and I think the movie is actually pretty damn good, but it didn’t perform well in the U.S. That movie, combined with the lack of performance of “Stealth,” was a real one-two punch to my career. It really shut my career down, from a Hollywood standpoint. It kicked my ass and took me out of the game for awhile, which after something like “Glory Road,” was extraordinarily heartbreaking to me. Honestly, from a box office or commercial filmmaking standpoint, I’ve never recovered from it. And I’m totally okay with that… [Laughs.] It took me awhile, though. That level of movie stardom and movie pressure was overwhelming me. I wasn’t very happy in that period of my life, and I was working too much on projects were maybe rushed. I know why I did “Poseidon”… because “Das Boot” is one of the great action movies of all time and Wolfgang [Petersen, “Poseidon’s” director] said to me, “I’m going to remake ‘Das Boot.'” And to an extent, he did, although a somewhat Hollywood version of that. But we just didn’t have a script.

AVC: That is the main problem with the movie. As a spectacle, it dazzles, but the narrative is really disappointing.

JL: 
Dude, Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, and myself would walk on set every single day and try to figure out what the script should be. I mean, there was no script. They had spent $100 million making locations that they didn’t have a script for. So we would arrive and look at the script, and look at an old script, that had no relationship to the location we were looking at. So we would say, “All right, what do we have to do to get from point A to point B? The less we say the better.”

5. Gallows Humor: “The Carmichael Show” Takes On Police Brutality and Racism. 
Jerrod Carmichael’s new NBC family sitcom “The Carmichael Show” has garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim for using a throwback television model (the classic Family Sitcom with all the implied tropes and archetypes) and using it to discuss prevalent issues today, especially within the African American community. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet explores gallows humor in the second episode of “The Carmichael Show” as they take on police brutality and racism.

In “Protest,” “The Carmichael Show” pulls a bait-and-switch by beginning with a seemingly tired plot about Jerrod celebrating his birthday, but quickly seguing into something very different. In the midst of joking about birthday plans, Jerrod’s brother and ex-wife show up and share the news that the cops killed an unarmed black teenager in Charlotte, North Carolina. The inclusion of this storyline is jolting, and creates a dissonance between the plot and the live studio audience trained to uproariously laugh at the punchlines — even when the punchlines revolves around systematic racism and trigger-happy police officers. There’s also a dissonance between the plot and the expected tone of a multi-camera sitcom on NBC, a network that loved trotting out sitcoms that featured one token, sassy black person to snap out truths in a white world. (It’s worth mentioning that NBC is pushing diversity this coming season — a strategic business move — with “The Wiz” and projects starring Wesley Snipes, America Ferrera, and Jennifer Lopez.) Despite this disconnect, the episode remains successfully balanced throughout, telling a modern, complicated story with a old-fashioned sitcom feel. Perhaps the closest spiritual predecessor to “The Carmichael Show” is Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.” The vast majority of “Protest” takes place in Joe and Cynthia’s living room. (The other featured set is the living room of Jerrod’s own apartment. These two stock sitcom sets immediately conjure up memories of past multi-camera sitcoms, especially “Everybody Loves Raymond,” luring viewers into a familiar world and inviting us to watch these couches from our couches, before disrupting that comfort by getting real). The characters — all family members, either by blood or through romance and cohabitation — hem and haw, discussing the pros and cons of protesting, and interjecting bleak jokes into a bleaker situation. When Maxine waxes poetic about how great it is to see young people out there fighting and how she wants to be part of that moment, Joe snaps back, ‘Do you always get this giddy when someone gets shot?” If protests work, Jerrod later jokes, “then why did I see George Zimmerman at a Dave & Buster’s?” After Maxine calls Jerrod out on lying, he mumbles, “I could’ve. [Zimmerman]’s free enough.” As mentioned, these jokes do seem a little jarring — but maybe that’s only because it seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a multi-cam sitcom, and especially a black multi-cam sitcom, willing to tackle incredibly dark subjects. This kind of humor is nothing new, especially on cable. Comedies thrive on dark humor; look at “Review’s” death toll or “Inside Amy Schumer’s” football rape sketch or, closer to this particular subject, recent “Key & Peele” and “Why? With Hannibal Buress” police brutality sketches that aired during back-to-back episodes. But how often do you see this on an NBC sitcom? And how often is it the topic of an entire episode, rather than just a quick scene or throwaway line?

6. Five Shows That They Will Never Stop Making. 
NPR has been running a series for the past couple weeks about the state of television in 2015. Many of these essays have been trenchant explorations into how and why TV works the way it does, how it will change in the future, and how it affects the viewing public. But yesterday, NPR’s Linda Holmes listed the five shows TV will never stop making, and it succinctly illustrates the point that despite the Golden Age, TV still churns out plenty of repetitive, derivative work.

The Adventures of 
Mr. Superabilities and Detective Ladyskeptic. This is a drama series in which a sometimes mysterious, often super-confident but emotionally messy man who is oddly gifted in some way teams up with a more intellectual, buttoned-up, unconvinced woman who has had to prove her toughness and competence and is not prepared to take any guff from this guy or be impressed by his derring-do. She is not always a detective. She is very good at what she does also, but what she does is way more boring. “This isn’t a game, Superabilities!” she says at some point, right before he pulls a rose out from behind her ear. She tears up and says, “My dad used to do that.” Eventually, they will become allies. They may or may not kiss. At some point, they will have to go undercover and she will have to wear a fancy dress.

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