As horrible as it feels for a perfectionist to make mistakes, I have to agree with the cliché that I learn far more from them than I do from my successes. I learn almost as much from other people’s mistakes, and I say ‘almost’ because it’s harder to assimilate an indirect experience — still, you are experiencing the mistake when you are watching or reading it, which is why criticism of the kind I’m engaging in right now helps make you a better content creator.
Nobody sets out to make a bad film or TV show, with the notable exception of kitsch mongers like John Waters and the creators of last week’s viral sensation Sharknado. Yes, I actually watched that, or rather I skimmed over it after the first five minutes to the more hilariously sensational scenes. I’ve never been one to appreciate deliberate crap — it’s not made for people like me — but I applaud its success; whatever we think of the result, a lot of effort went into making that crap and it paid off.
Two serious dramas were launched on premium cable recently, The Bridge on FX and Ray Donovan on Showtime. Both fail in separate ways, but there are similarities that are worth examining.
An adaptation of a Danish/Swedish coproduction, The Bridge’s deepest flaw is evident within the first few minutes of viewing: The terrible miscasting of German actress Diane Kruger as a Texan homicide detective with an autistic disorder. When I say ‘terrible miscasting,’ I mean I cannot recollect when I’ve seen anything so off the mark. Then again, I don’t watch much network TV; there might be other crimes against good judgment out there I’m not aware of. But this is FX, home of a number of shows I like and follow: Archer, Sons of Anarchy, and American Horror Story. Then again, they also distribute Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management, which I haven’t seen but don’t feel I need to just to pass a summary opinion on its crapness.
Every production is allowed to fuck up, and fuck up royally if necessary; again, it’s learning from mistakes that makes the show better. Mistakes in filmed entertainment are more expensive than most, so it helps if they are more misfires — like a Coen Brothers or an Almodóvar film that doesn’t quite hit home — than the sort of what-were-they-thinking? disaster like the casting of the co-lead in The Bridge. (The other lead, Demian Bichir, is as watchable and subtle as he always is, and clearly struggles in his scenes with Kruger.)
In theory, the show had all the right elements of coolness: the adaptation of a well-loved Scandinavian crime drama, now set in the far more dangerous zone between El Paso and Juarez; the casting of an Oscar-nominated Mexican actor whose star has been rising steadily since playing Esteban Reyes in Weeds; and the casting of Kruger herself, a polyglot pan-Euro star who was made super-cool by her appearance as Bridget von Hammersmark in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. If there is any comment on how easy it is to play a cartoon character in a Tarantino flick versus how hard it is to play a truly challenging role like Detective Sonya Cross in a realistic drama, look no further than Kruger. Forget the robotic, bug-eyed movements meant to convey autism, can we talk about the likelihood of a stunning German woman, a real-life fashion plate at the major film festivals, being a homicide detective in El Paso, TX? (You’ve gotta hear this to believe it: her American accent wobbles into Lufthansa flight attendant every fifth line.) Why, it’s even more unbelievable than Christoph Waltz playing a bounty-hunting dentist in Texas in 1858.
So for all intentions of coolness, The Bridge slips up right from the start, and is unlikely to recover as long as Kruger is playing that role the same way. You never know, they may have looked at the first few episodes, understood the mistakes and brought in a fixer director to scrub her performance and reset the show. I won’t be around to find out.
Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber as the eponymous hero, strives for another type of cool: Los Angeles as a Babylon-by-the-Pacific: slick, sexy, debauched, monied, dysfunctional, rapacious, celebrity-laden. This is meant to be desirable and watchable, but as anyone who lives here and truly enjoys the city despite itself knows, those qualities are what are most repellent, which means they certainly don’t work for the tone of a TV show. The last time slick celebrity culture worked well was in HBO’s Entourage, but that didn’t attempt to make The Business cool in a serious sense. If Entourage was cool it was because it was so raw and honest. The camera and overall production style were basic, somewhat objective and unassuming. I’ve noticed that hallmark of simplicity and authenticity is common to all truly successful dramas.
In terms of production, Ray Donovan is the opposite: it attempts to be as slick and unattainable as a cantilevered modernist house with a vanishing edge pool in the Hollywood Hills. With its gliding camera and smooth-as-ice transitions into the lives of uncommon people, it’s a cliché of L.A. Maybe that’s how the creators of the show perceive themselves, but it’s not who or how they are in reality. It’s a narcissistic view and that’s unappealing.
Schreiber plays the strong, silent private eye in Armani suits and sleek cars who mops up celebrity disasters, a Clint Eastwood character as interpreted by a Jon Hamm with a weak chin. Schreiber is an eminently likable guy, but he’s too unusual looking for this role — one of the flaws in the show is he’s meant to be this ‘hot’ hunk that women keep dropping their knickers for, or getting them in a twist about.
That’s a tough sell, but that doesn’t make him as miscast as Kruger in The Bridge. The real problem is it’s so hard to connect with Ray Donovan’s story and the characters in general. Is it just the start-and-stop pacing? Is it those montages of tableau shots in which the characters don’t seem to know what to do with themselves, so awkward is the blocking and staging? Try as I might to put my finger on it, I can only say that Ray Donovan endeavors so hard to be cool that it’s not. It’s that group of trendy rich kids who are deluded into thinking they are edgy, but they’re hopelessly and eternally one beat behind because they’re followers, stragglers, never pioneers.
In an effort to pinpoint what exactly was wrong with Ray Donovan, I watched the second episode in tandem with a random episode of The Sopranos, what AFI considers the best-written show of all time. It was certainly an revealing exercise. Sopranos is by no means flawless in terms of performance — with the exception of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, who are never off their game, most of the secondary characters are caricatures, or needed a few more takes than the others to get it right but weren’t allowed. Still, the show works, consistently. Sopranos is never pretentious; in fact, it would rather be ludicrous and ridiculous in a Neapolitan commedia dell’arte way than ever veer into pretention. After a few scenes of Ray Donovan you want to throw your protein shake at the screen the next time they show some fashion-film wannabe shot of Schreiber walking through a gorgeous door in Beverly Hills or Malibu in slow motion.
It’s the same problem I have with Wong Kar-Wai’s films: they’re stunning but utterly lacking in substance or relatability. This was covered up by the exoticness of the Chinese culture and language in most of his films prior to My Blueberry Nights, which put Kar-Wai’s style in Western context and showed us what it really is: sunglasses at night. Unnecessary and annoying. Take ‘em off, dork.
This is all part of ongoing notes to self for my own approach to filmed content. Keep it simple, stupid. Keep it grounded, keep it unfussy, don’t try so hard. There’s nothing wrong with sleek, everything wrong with slick, if that’s not splitting hairs and giving the thesaurus a headache. But above all, just do the best you can, knowing that the vagaries inherent in creation are often more than your good intentions can bear.