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Daily Reads: The Era of Too-Big TV, What the Comic-Book Boom Means for Auteurism, and More

Daily Reads: The Era of Too-Big TV, What the Comic-Book Boom Means for Auteurism, and More

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

1. Forget Too Much TV. It’s Too Big TV We Should Be Worried About.
In the age of Peak TV, it’s easy to get bogged down into the wide variety of choice. After all, there’s only so much time in a day, and there’s only so many shows you can watch. But there’s another problem on the rise: Too-Big TV, episodes that are bloated and too long. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik explores the Too-Big TV phenomenon.

As a critic, I’m used to championing greater options for artists. We’re lucky to live in a time when TV creators have freedom from arbitrary constraints. But more and more of my TV watching these days involves starting an episode, looking at the number of minutes on the playback bar and silently cursing. Historically, network television was like a container ship; the product had to fit standard boxes for ease of shipping. Networks needed predictable schedules and had to turn over specific time slots to affiliates. It was a process — 15-minute episodes were a presence in the early days of television — but 30 minutes generally came to mean comedy, and 60, drama. Episodes used to be longer, in that commercial breaks were shorter, but the journey from beginning to end stayed the same. And networks occasionally tinkered with length. NBC supersized its popular Thursday night sitcoms in the early aughts; Fox inflated “American Idol” like a Macy’s parade balloon. But those stunts were exceptions. Today’s great fattening, like so many trends in TV now, is in part the influence of streaming TV. The only thing limiting the length of a Netflix or Amazon binge show is your ability to sit without cramping. The menu is bigger, and so are the portions. Meanwhile, basic cable channels realized that there was no reason their “hourlong” series needed to end on the hour. If they pushed a 10 p.m. drama’s end to, say, 11:17, they could give their creators the kind of narrative real estate available on ad-free HBO and Showtime. The most dramatic early claimer of elbow room was FX’s biker-gang drama, “Sons of Anarchy,” which piled on plot and ended its plus-size episodes with music montages. Now it’s common for cable hits to plump up. The most recent season finale of “The Walking Dead” ran 90 minutes, though I have rarely seen an episode of “The Walking Dead” that needed its full 60. Like its zombies, it could be hacked down by a third and shamble along just as well. At best, extended episodes can make room for complexity. But focus and showmanship still matter. In a peak-TV era, being able to hook an audience is more important, not less. The best examples of Big TV make the most of each moment, instead of padding them out. Take Louis C. K.’s self-distributed barroom drama “Horace and Pete,” whose first episode ran almost 68 minutes and played like live theater. Its third episode — essentially a long dramatic monologue about infidelity by Laurie Metcalf — is 43 minutes of regret and catharsis, the camera holding tight to Ms. Metcalf’s face. I did not look at my watch once.

2. What the Comic-Book Boom Means for Auteurism.
Marvel Studios has taken over Hollywood and has revived “the studio style,” a consistent aesthetic from a single studio across a variety of different directors. Can auteurism or individual expression even exist in the system? Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh examines what the comic-book boom means for auteurism.

Marvel Studios, which makes all those superhero movies you either can’t wait for or can’t escape, has taken an unprecedented approach to filmmaking — one that suggests the industry’s future while harkening to its past. Once, studios regularly employed reliable in-house directors to make a number of films in the style of the studio. The idea of directors-as-auteurs, with distinctive visions and styles, didn’t really rise until the 1950s — though many directors, from John Ford to Billy Wilder, were retroactively identified as auteurs. Even blockbuster franchises had their attendant auteurs, whether it was Steven Spielberg directing Indiana Jones films or Christopher Nolan directing three Batman films. Michael Bay — who, in his way, has as singular an auteuristic vision as does any director working today — will be making Transformers movies for as long as he’s alive and willing to keep cashing checks. Marvel’s approach to finding directors is different. Once, Marvel licensed its characters to existing studios, who brought in name directors, with mixed results — Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” films were hits, but two “Hulk’ films, including one by Ang Lee, a “Daredevil” film starring Ben Affleck, and several “Fantastic Four” films all withered. Then Marvel decided to start self-financing films, in conjunction with studio partners, in 2004, and the current impresario of the entire operation, Kevin Feige, became president of production for Marvel Studios in 2007. In 2008, the success of “Iron Man,” directed by Jon Favreau, bolstered Feige’s quasi-insane and entirely inspired plan for the MCU: a series of films that would — very much in the style of comic-book series — tell interconnected stories that dovetailed into huge event films like “The Avengers.” This meant that, much as with writers and artists in comic-book series, the films would require different directors to come in and create new chapters that are both artistically compelling yet stylistically consistent with what has come before and what is ahead. “We choose from a pool of filmmakers not who have done big, giant films before but who have done interesting things that made us stop and go, ‘That’s cool,'” says Feige. “That’s the criterion for a meeting. Then we need to see if they’re up to the task of working on something this collaborative and this intensive — because a very expensive, big-budget movie that has a release date is inherently intense.” Marvel’s master plan — in which multiple films, with interrelated story lines, overlapping characters, and disparate directors, are planned, shot, and released according to a multiyear schedule — has become the envy of Hollywood. Not only because it reliably produces moneymaking films every year but because it promises a series of future moneymakers for years to come. As Mark Harris said of Marvel’s slate: A movie with nothing but a title and a release date seven years in the future is really more like “a promise to stockholders.”

3. How “The Good Wife” Broke the Rules For Legal Dramas, and Then Broke Itself.
“The Good Wife” ends in just two weeks and it’s time to look back on the show’s dynamic seven seasons. The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray writes about how “The Good Wife” broke the rules for legal dramas, and then broke itself.

It’s not that unusual for a TV drama to revamp from season to season. “Angel” did it, changing its heroes’ base of operations from a detective agency to a law firm, and even altering their primary mission from year-to-year. “The Leftovers” changed locations entirely between season one and season two; series as different as “Desperate Housewives,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Lost” have leapt ahead in their timelines and/or changed their storytelling structure occasionally. But “The Good Wife” has rarely waited until a finale or a season premiere to blow everything up. It’s evolved constantly. Main characters come and go, and even switch jobs, as events warrant. If you want to know why “The Good Wife” was one of the best shows on television throughout its first five seasons, that;s one of the big reasons. And if you want to know why it’s gone off the rails some in seasons six and seven… well, same answer. The Kings haven’t been able to leave well-enough alone, because they built constant change into the very DNA of their show. And after a while, the novelty of novelty has worn off. I don’t mean to imply that “The Good Wife” has ever been bad. Even in seasons six and seven, it’s remained consistently entertaining, and often enlightening, with some of the sharpest political commentary and outright satire on network television. Alicia’s fluctuating fortunes have seen her working with and against foreign legal systems, the military, university tribunals, and — in one of the most revealing stretches of this recent season — the dregs of bond court. The Kings have taken advantage of the deep bench of New York-based actors to build an eclectic recurring cast of clients, lawyers, and judges. “The Good Wife” has used that troupe to create its own complex mythology, and to make a far-reaching study of the soul-crushing compromises we accept every day in the name of justice, security, and simple convenience. Even when the larger plot arcs sputter, on any given week “The Good Wife” has been capable of delivering provocative, timely subplots about the NSA, or local police overreach, or how we’ve conceded too much of our privacy and personal liberty to corporations.

4. “Sign o’ the Times”: In Praise of Prince’s Great ‘Lost’ Concert Film.
The world is still reeling from the death of pop legend Prince and the essential legacy he left behind. Rolling Stone’s Elias Leight looks back and praises at the “Sign o’ The Times” concert film.

Prince released his “Sign O’ the Times” double album in 1987, and the record represented the capstone of his recklessly fertile Eighties period – from the one-two punch of “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy” to the pop hits of “1999” and “Purple Rain,” the psychedelic swirl of “Around the World in a Day” and the Euro-eroto funk of “Parade.” He changed direction repeatedly; he was running out of new areas to explore. But he managed to find three more for ninth studio project. First, vocal manipulation – several tracks feature Prince singing as if he’d just inhaled a balloon full of helium, hold-overs from an entire project he’d planned from the perspective of a female alter ego named Camille. Second, horns: up to this point, Prince’s brand of funk was (mostly) boldly bereft of brass – a radical move following the horn-heavy bombast of Seventies R&B – but he incorporated these regal textures more than ever before here. Finally, Prince relied on strength in numbers. Up until this point, he had never put together such a lengthy project: “Sign O’ the Times” is a deluge designed to destroy a listener’s meager defenses. It remains a rich, vibrant record – one of the shocking things about Prince is the way his Eighties music doesn’t sound dated, despite the fact that he was using the same technology that now makes so many albums from that period sound trapped. But that’s only part of the story. The “Sign O’ the Times” movie captures performances of 11 songs from the record, and throws in a brief yet revelatory rendition of “Little Red Corvette” for good measure. There are a few acted set pieces, but it mostly plays as a straight concert film, tracking Prince and his band as they steam through the set. And the film adds invaluable depth to his work, especially if you were never fortunate enough to catch him live. Prince takes the stage in orange bell-bottom jumpsuit with matching high-heel boots and feather earrings that reach down to his shoulders. That turns out to be just one of many jumpsuit-overalls combos in his wardrobe – he riffs through several during the course of the action, many of which have holes to ventilate his pointy hip bones.

5. Critic’s Notebook: Beyonce’s “Lemonade” Is a Revolutionary Work of Black Feminism.
After Beyonce dropped her visual album “Lemonade,” the 60-minute short film on HBO along with the album on Tidal, on Saturday, many, many thinkpieces have come out since analyzing every single minute of the artist’s new work. Many of these have been superficial and lacking in real substance. This one does not: For The Hollywood Reporter, Miriam Bale examines “Lemonade” as a revolutionary work of black feminism.

Her last visual album, 2013’s “Beyonce.” was a collection of videos, one for each song on the album, some of which she also co-directed. The treat of that was seeing the variety of roles she could play, like a Greta Garbo or Elizabeth Taylor acting out many scenarios yet always maintaining her own persona. Beyonce was like an old-fashioned movie star. The imagery for “Partition” was especially classic Hollywood, and an oh-so-rare opportunity to glimpse a black woman as the lead in a film noir. “Lemonade” digs even deeper. It cuts back all the macho gristle leaving only a strong matriarchal line. Visual references are from an (unfortunately) secret canon of women, black women directors like Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) and Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”). What’s most revolutionary and cathartic about “Lemonade,” though, is that it dares to make a new canon, finding references in the un-photographed past and future simultaneously, a land of no men. “F**k you, I’ll build anew,” Beyonce seems to say with this daring and necessary work. “Lemonade” is a feature film, but one that pushes the form a few steps further than fiction/documentary “hybrid” films. Beyonce utilizes Khalik Allah (director of 2015 doc “Field Niggas”) as a 2nd unit director (credited also as cinematographer) capturing Super 8 interviews with real people that are weaved in throughout. And rather than having different directors each responsible for a video, as in “Beyonce,” here each of the seven directors’ work is edited smoothly into one whole, with spoken word by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire in between songs. The enunciation of her words in these poems, as well as silences and some naturalistic but haunting sound design, make us stop and take these images seriously. (This has the inverse effect of the recent Harmony Korine-directed Rihanna video for “Needed Me,” with its circa-2002 slow-motion booty rolls, which seemed very much “music video” in nature, and served as a reminder that “Spring Breakers” was little more than that sort of throwback.) And the form and style of “Lemonade” is also its narrative, of Beyonce moving from isolation to strength through uniting with black women, and leading them. The sections of the narrative are labeled: Intuition, Denial, Apathy, Reformation, Forgiveness, Hope, Redemption. In “Intuition,” the women she will later lead are glimpsed in fragments, the movement is underwater and the message is opaque.

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