High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Short-Attention-Span Cable Network

(NB:There are spoilers for the Season 2 finale of !Huff below)

Cable television has totally wanted me for many years, but I've played it coy. Yes, in the past I've needed cable for my Mystery Science Theatre 3000 habit. And then when Macgyver felt the need to be my TV boyfriend, and he brought his friend Maj. (now Lt. Col.) Man!Ho along, and then told me that I'd probably enjoy watching a slow-moving trainwreck involving the 50,000 surviving humans of the robot Holocaust, I'll admit that I was grateful to have cable. Cable certainly brought me hours of fashion, entertainment, the peoples' ovation, and fame forever when I had to see Iron Chef every week.

But did I really NEED cable?

I've seen about 15 seconds of Sex in the City and decided that if I need the inside of my skull scooped out, I'll go the trephination route in loyalty to my geographical area of specialization. I have never---and please have something soft nearby for when you inevitably pass out from the shock of this revelation---seen even that much of The Sopranos. (In fact, I only realized about 2 months ago that one of the A3 songs provided to me by my friend A is the theme song to The Sopranos.) Other than noting from commercials that The L Word seems to follow a standard butch/femme lesbian dichotomy, I couldn't tell you anything else about it. I've seen a handful of Six Feet Under episodes, and although there were times when it piqued my interest, I never tuned in regularly, set up a season pass, or did anyting that could be construed as committment.

Other than with Sex in the City, this hasn't been conscious too-cool-for-school avoidance. I just never felt the yen to check out most of the big shows, and when I did see some of them, they just didn't grab me and make me nervous that the satellite would go out when the next episode was scheduled.

And then things changed. I blame my spouse. I believe we got Showtime first, because it had (or was about to have) Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and pal M had made Dead Like Me sound intriguing. And it was intriguing. Not in a grab-you-by-the-balls-and-make-you-pay-attention way, but in a raised-eyebrow-tap-on-the-shoulder-jerk-of-the-thumb-in-the-general-direction-of-weirdness way. Throughout the show there were things that frustrated me about it, but there were other things that completely fascinated me and had me slack-jawed as I watched.

When Laura Harris debuted as Daisy, I'd have never predicted that a character, who seemed to be there to do nothing but talk about all the guys she blew way back when, could deliver such a subtle, layered, truly moving performance. And don't even talk to me about Callum Blue. In my mind, Mason was Angel's Doyle unleashed---darker, infinitely more fucked up (and, sadly, with a lot more of Glenn Quinn's real-life tragedy mixed in), and yet fundamentally appealing. In particular, the course of the relationship between Mason and Daisy had me glued to the set. Never seeing how low they could go and how artfully they could, from time to time, transcend their own self-destructive tendencies to be excellent to one another was my biggest heartbreak about the show's cancellation.

But let's face it: Dead Like Me was always Showtime's also-ran. When your award nominations are limited to Saturns, Image Awards, and the insult-to-injury Emmys in music and visual effects, you're not long for this world. And given the flaws in the show, its cancellation was a bittersweet break up, particularly because DLM introduced me to what I've only just learned is my rebound guy: !Huff. But I'll get back to that, because it's really the source of my intense rage of the moment.

Let's turn to HBO for a moment. If Showtime is your 90s start-up in terms of cable network addiction, HBO is supposed to be your blue-chip company. Am I right? I mean, any time someone from Showtime DOES get an Emmy nomination, the snarky scuttlebutt is that someone checked the wrong box on the ballot. Being a bit backwards, we didn't get HBO until after we had Showtime, and you can thank the Carnies for that. My spouse cannot resist Carnies.

So, slowly but surely, we get drawn into the incredibly complex dust bowl dimension of Carnivale. We marvel that we have actors ranging from the Little Man from Another Place on Twin Peaks to Jupiter, the wrestling promoter, on Nikki acting the fuck out of their roles on the same canvas. We go a little funny in our heads because casting Clancy Brown as a satanic depression-era preacher should have a very extensive warning label that emphasizes the inevitable night terrors. We come to the realization that Nick Stahl is one of the most brilliant young actors out there. We wonder if Joss Whedon kept his invisible girl alive and well and sheltered by the CIA because he KNEW about Clea Duvall. But all the while, we have a false sense of security. THIS is HBO. These characters will be around for some time to come. This storyline has years in which to get so much more fucked up than it is right now. Except not so fucking much.

And then there's Deadwood. Ok, I am so very not ready to talk about Deadwood, but you should all prepare yourselves for the wailing that will rise up from the Windy City when the last episodes air.

So that leaves this week's suckerpunch: !Huff. On paper, !Huff had an easy time of it with the denizens of Telecommuniculturey. Hank Azaria? What could not be good about the man who brings you Apu AND Moe? Paget Brewster? The cancellation of Andy Richter Controls the Universe is one of the greatest pop culture crimes of our time, and when the pop cultural revolution comes, there will be a reckoning. In short, Paget Brewster getting excellent roles is a big score for the good guys. Oliver Platt? Is it possible not to love Oliver Platt? Don't answer that. I don't have time to weep for you sad, sad people.

That said, !Huff, didn't take immediately. It took a couple of episodes to find its feet, but I can pinpoint the moment when it did: Beth finds lipstick on the crotch of her 14-year-old son's underwear. The family wackiness that ensues was just brilliantly done, from Beth's (possibly willful) maternal cluelessness to Byrd's teenage inability to see the hammer coming, to Huff's own "Ooooh, she's gonna kill you for that." At that moment, every single one of those characters became my peeps, and I came to crave the unflinching determination on the part of the writers to show me the absolute rock-bottom, scum-sucking aspects of these characters side-by-side with their ability to transcend it all from time to time.

I knew that "Which Lip Is the Cervical Lip?" was the finale of season 2, because, well, it had been advertised as the finale of season 2. It was brutal, and it was wonderful. Over and over again, I was struck by the performances in the episode. Everyone was ON. Everything was clicking.

Although the entire show is (and has been from episode 1) fundamentally about point of view, this episode really showcased that take and technique. Throughout, the camera literally tricks us into jumping between perspectives as, for example, !Huff walking down the hallway of the Four Seasons ends as he passes a curtained window and the perspective cuts over to Russell being marched to a holding cell.

But lest those kinds of techniques seem like "look what I can do" tricks, they're really working the metaphor to a purpose in the finale. Over the last few episodes, Rachel Style has been playing Kate, a young patient of Huff's who is going blind from retinitis pigmentosa. She's a tremendous actress who doesn't seem to have all the extensive a resume. In the opening shot of the episode, we see !Huff from her perspective (a startlingly realistic representation of what someone at her stage of the disease would see). Huff, who is probably at his most narcissistic in this episode, gives into her desire for a bit of personal information about him, more out of boredom than because he is moved by her plea. (And I've got to tell you, it's a testament to Hank Azaria as an actor that he was able to maintain the bored, distracted facade throughout, because this young woman was riveting.)

I have a son, he says. And out of this scrap of information, Kate spins a tale of his perfect life, one that couldn't be farther from the truth. As she finishes, Huff looks like he might give into the temptation to make the session into his own by correcting her, and she orders him not to, because that's "How she wants to see it."

On the flip side of the narratives that demand cogency and linearity (no matter how wrong those turn out to be), we have the dynamic, fractured, piecemeal, perspective of Teddy, Huff's schizophrenic brother. All season long, Teddy has grasped little bits of success and normalcy for himself while the audience waited for it all to come crashing down in a spectacular, hideous way. Only because I know that the writers of this show are complete and utter bastards with some kind of sick need to actually challenge the audience did the tension creep up several notches just when Teddy made a move that could have defused the situation, coming clean with his girlfriend about his illness and the lie he'd been living since he met her.

Rather than the relationship resolving itself in network television, absolutist, flowchart, choose-your-own-adventure fashion (To break up with Teddy, turn to page 87; To prove yourself to be the good-hearted woman who will cure him of his schizophrenia with the mighty healing power of your vagina and self-destructive nature, turn to page 113), things linger and fester. Alyssa doesn't leave Teddy, and yet Teddy's condition quite realistically continues to deteriorate. When he hatches a plan for them to run off to Mexico, she stands him up. And until the last horrible moment before his complete break, the audience has no way of anticipating what his reaction will be (or of preparing for its naked brutality) when she shows up out of guilt later that night.

If I had to pick my "weak link" in the cast, it would have been Anton Yechin as Byrd, Beth's and Huff's son. (And, shit, how fair is that? The kid was actually 15 when the show started.) Until the finale, that is. His breakdown and palpable connection with his father---its obvious parallels to Huff's hopelessness in his relationship with Teddy---great googly moogly, that's excellent, no matter what the medium. And, well, it goes on and on. I haven't even talked about Blythe Danner as Izzy, which is an essay all on its own.

So I emerged from the finale, exhausted, tantalized, and filled with the mixture of gloom and anticipation that comes with the end of a season I've really loved. And M drops the bomb: It's not the end of the season, it's the end of the series.

I can't really blame the writers, I guess, because the season finale was well in the can when the network announced cancellation two days before it aired. However, given this incredibly unpleasant reality, I can't say strongly enough what a complete disservice it is to the series to have ended it that way. I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ! Russell starts the episode with a dead hooker in his apartment (a black hooker, and a recurring character, dead of a coke overdose), and ends by delivering his own son. Just an episode or so ago, Huff spent a squid-juice-fueled night with a Korean hooker, and he ends looking like the good guy as he deals with Byrd when Beth can't, then tries to do the "right thing" by asking to come home and gets shut down by Beth, who isn't ready. Izzy, after 20 years of ignoring Teddy, is suddenly the one to bring him out of his break.

On the one hand, there are a million maddening loose ends and roads not taken. On the other, as a series finale, "Which Lip Is the Cervical Lip?" makes the entire run seem shallow and pat, complete with a number of unsavory racist, misogynist, motherhood-is-ultimately-magical-by-default overtones. I've got no doubt whatever that all of those pretenses of closure were intended as all-too-temporary respite before the world got blowed up real good again. And yet . . . goddamn, it's frustrating. It's almost enough to make me mention 7th Heaven, if I didn't know that it would make my bud C cry.

Dude. Seriously. W. T. F? Isn't this cable? Isn't this where we're supposed to be freed from the whims of advertisers and the Parents Television Council? Aren't we supposed to focus less on ratings and more on quality? Guess not. I am SO going to have to choke a bitch.



Blogger tigtog said...

OK - never even heard of Huff yet in the antipodes, but definitely going to watch it when it comes.

Never got into Dead Like Me, but enjoyed the bits here and there that I caught. Deadwood I adore.

1:58 AM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Huff is well worth it. Even the awkward adjustment period. And even knowing that they have unceremoniously ended it in an awkward position. It's the relationship gone wrong that you still wouldn't trade for anything. It's the "Jesus, Grandpa, why did you even read me this story?!!?" of cable television as far as I'm concerned.

11:33 PM  

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