Current TV: The Great, the Terrible and the Hideous
Before I kick off an overview of what’s on premium cable these days, let me add a few words to the millions already out there about Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a former heroin user, I understand the drug’s appeal. I’m also amazed it never dawned on me that there was a major giveaway that Hoffman was heavily into it: His voice. I can usually always hear a junkie’s voice, and it makes my teeth grind. It’s that low, sleepy drone coming from a rusty drain pipe in the basement. And it reminds me of my own when I was in that state, reminds me of who I was in that state, and it bugs the shit out of me.
Even though it was half a lifetime ago when I stopped indulging from one day to the next without twelve stepping to a higher power, for my money a heroin overdose is the way only to go. Like many former heroin users, I fully intend to go back on it if the pain becomes too much in the final days before The End. No normal morphine for me. I want the good stuff. So, yes, we lament the tragic passing of a major talent, but we all have to go, and few of us will float out like that trailing such a powerful archive of work.
That Hoffman was on junk was a well-kept secret, I must say — I’ve known some people intimate with his household, working in it, and they never let on, and they gossiped plenty about him. No doubt he was numbing an inner pain so profound he probably couldn’t express it fully even to himself because that pain was as integral to his being as his body’s nervous system. He probably told himself that he simply enjoyed junk, that there was no pain, Don’t be such a twelve-step cliché, Killough, he’s saying with that goofy chuckle. Diving into those fantabulous junk-induced waking dreams that heroin gifts us, which turn every step made in the real world into a traipse through bliss, is so much more alluring than the real world itself, so why not traipse? There was no pain, Killough, just pleasure-seeking. I loved pizza, too. What depression?
On to television, a medium Hoffman eschewed until he didn’t and made a forthcoming show for Showtime, which now we’re all aching to see.
Let me start with the terrible and the hideous on premium cable. I’m so glad this season of American Horror Story is over. As long as we’re talking about pain, this was excruciating to watch, and I was such a fan of the previous two seasons, particularly of La Lange’s characters and performance. Season three was like watching a good friend in a bad theater production. I squirmed throughout, but I couldn’t stop watching out of loyalty to Lange, and a fascination with Angela Bassett’s skin (she’s got some anti-aging pact with the devil going on) and her equally flawless Cajun accent.
It wasn’t just the overstretched script clawing its way into being entertaining every episode. It wasn’t just the über-faggy campiness that I find embarrassing; I’ve never been a fan of Buffy and the like, which are the progenitors of this supernatural horror craze. The cancer was in the very marrow of the show, in the production details, like those never-ending, low-angle, wide-angle swooping steadicam shots, and the overhead pullback shots of people screaming; although fashionista witch Myrtle Snow howling her last word, “BALENCIAGA!!!!” in an overhead pullback shot while she’s being burned at the stake once again, this time willingly (just so dumb), was just so funny.
I don’t watch The Walking Dead any more because it’s become monotonous, and there isn’t a character on there I don’t want dead once and for all. I’ve never been good with over the top stretched over long periods. I’m making an exception for over-the-top crime drama Banshee from Cinemax, which is sort of similar to Walking Dead in its casting of glowering, mid-thirties, handsome actors and the rural setting. The storyline is about a thief (Antony Starr) who tracks down his ex-girlfriend and fellow thief (Ivana Milicevic) after he’s released from serving a fifteen-year stint in prison. Carrie has changed her name from Anna and now lives in a small town in Amish Country, PA, which is under the control of a brutal former-Amish-person named Kai (the phenomenal Ulrich Thomsen). This show has everything possible going on except for the supernatural. Most of all it has lots of fighting and fucking because it is, well, Cinemax. The fact that the hero only fucks the same kind of woman because all the female leads are similar — long, straight, light hair and bee-stung lips — doesn’t matter; he’s a pleasure to watch fucking and the women are certainly babes.
The flashback prison scenes include near-brushes with homosexuality, in the form of a homophobe’s biggest nightmare, the Albino, deliciously played by Joseph Gatt. There is another gay character, a kickass Asian transvestite named Job, who is as OTT as anything in the show, a travesty of a transvestite, all kabuki makeup and facial expressions, wooden line delivery. The two characters would be offensive to Gheys if we didn’t take into consideration the fanboy audience of this show, in which case there’s some delight that both the Albino and Job make those fanboys’ sphincters pucker in fear and disgust.
The day I posted a picture on Facebook of the Albino, with a comment that called him the most kickass gay villain in the history of entertainment and wondering what GLAAD would have to say about him, I ran into Joseph Gatt and the gym and chatted him up. This isn’t something I ordinarily do with recognizable working actors at the gym; we’re in L.A., after all. I mean, I worked out side-by-side with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for months while he was getting buff for Don Jon and assimilating the Neanderthal energy of muscleheads at Golds Gym, and he and I have a couple of friends/colleagues in common, but I never more than nodded hello. Gatt, on the other hand, I was compelled to speak to; Gordon-Levitt is kinda cute, small, rather anodyne in real life, but Gatt doesn’t disappoint. He’s super-buff and has such striking facial features, accentuated by the alopecia that has stripped him of hair and rendered his skin buttery smooth. He’s a living Carrara-marble statue.
We discussed the character, and Gatt said that his personal take is the Albino is only gay in prison. I was taken aback by this: As a masculine, predatory top, the Albino is someone I can identify with, much like the animated ex-con character Chozen, whom I wrote about last week. This view also flies in the face of what other characters on the show say about the Albino, and could easily be seen as a homophobic viewpoint on the part of a straight actor who needs to justify playing such a voraciously gay character. As I say about myself, I am gayer than many Gheys because, like the Albino, I like real men, not girly twinks, not boys, not drag queens, nothing that reminds me of anything feminine. As a drag queen I rebuffed once snarked, “You’re too gay for me, cos you only like masculine men. The men I get with are straight.”
In Gatt’s defense, he is saying that the Albino is what sexual-behavior therapists call a ‘situational bisexual,’ someone who is driven to man-on-man sex by his circumstances, in this case maximum-security prison. This is entirely possible, and one has to allow it rather than take exception; after all, Gatt is the character’s co-creator. Who am I to argue? But if I played the part, and I would love to play a role like that, believe me the Albino would be as much a true man-lover as his less-outrageous predecessor, the badass gangster Omar Little from The Wire, who was anything but a situational bisexual, although he might have acquired the taste for sex with men in prison. (In my limited experience, once that taste is acquired it carries on after they are released.)
Banshee began its second season a few weeks ago. It’s not engaging me as much as the first, but it is still wild fun. There are so many original, refreshing touches, not least of which are the Amish.
I’ve already voiced my complaints about this season’s Girls. Again, I feel Lena Dunham should have opened it up, taken it beyond the insularity of Brooklyn. But I’m not sure that would have helped. This week’s episode is being described as ‘meta’ because they discuss a character being unsympathetic, a general problem with the show that is grinding it down, an alopecia stripping it of all appeal. (And then that annoying Mamet girl…) It isn’t properly speaking ‘meta,’ it’s merely self-referential, and that relentless, whining solipsism is another factor grinding the show to a nub of its former self.
I’ve looked in on HBO’s Looking and can confirm that it is Tales of the City meets Girls, not a new observation because that is what absolutely everyone is saying, because that’s what it is. Esquire went further in a piece by Mark Stingley entitled “A Straight Man’s Guide to HBO’s Looking,” which called it “a show about three boring gay men.” Stingley attracted some unwarranted criticism, of course, from myriad hysterical queens for his perfectly reasonable critique, to the extent Esquire saw fit to publish this in front of the article:
UPDATE: We apologize to anyone offended by our attempt at humor in this piece. It reflects one man’s viewing experience. He does not think all gay people are boring. Just this show, a little.
I stand by Stingley’s piece. While Looking might pick up if something jolts the plot, which is likely, it is incredibly boring so far, although I missed last night’s episode and will miss all future episodes, unless I hear stirrings on the grapevine that it has suddenly kicked into high gear.
It is so boring, in fact, that I’m not sure the comparison to Girls is fair to Lena Dunham and company. The essential problem is the main lead, played by Jonathan Groff. I like Groff, I think he’s talented, he’s cute (I would hit that — he’s my type of all-American young man with whom I end up having an ill-fitting, ill-fated relationship), but he’s not a leading man on screen, for some reason (he really kicks it in musical theater). He’s just not compelling. You can’t stop watching Lena Dunham, but Groff isn’t her male equivalent. I would spend all night laughing and getting drunk with Dunham’s character Hannah at a party, whereas I would nod politely to Groff’s Patrick, determine he’s cute but too square and has nothing to talk about, and make a beeline back to Hannah.
I’ve seen all of this season of Downton Abbey and can confirm that it ambles along like a well-intentioned, well-heeled soap opera until it reaches the season’s denouement and finale, which comes off as an ornate, deflated hot-air balloon, not a little ridiculous. I think Julian Fellowes has run out of inspiration. Shirley MacLaine makes an appearance again, her character slightly dialed back and more in line with what a real New York socialite of her stature might have been; i.e., like Elizabeth McGovern’s character, not a vulgar, aged showgirl, even if she had really been a vulgar showgirl before becoming a socialite, which is certainly possible. If anything, as a former vulgar showgirl, the real character would have bent over backwards to be more refined. MacLaine plays her as positively Texan, and that is so annoying and insulting. However, Paul Giamatti is, as always, a delight — he plays MacLaine’s son, McGovern’s brother.
Finally, we reach the great that is airing so far on this premium-cable ‘season,’ and I have to say that True Detective has become sublime. It reached that status in the middle of episode three, when Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rusty, delivers a existential monologue that is split between two locations: the police headquarters where he is being interrogated about a murder case he was involved with as a homicide detective in ’95, and a Christian revival-meeting tent in the flashback to that investigation. I stand by my tweet immediately after watching that sequence, before the episode even finished: “It’s official: True Detective is the one to beat. Script already kicks the shit out of Breaking Bad. I weep with admiration.”
There were some good monologues in Breaking Bad. There were some memorable catchphrases. There were some great episodes that were worthy of quality live theater of the kind Philip Seymour Hoffman might have performed and directed. But in my professional opinion, they do not touch the phrasing, the intellectual depth, the nuanced might of Nic Pizzolatto’s words. When I say I felt like weeping, it’s that sort of whimpering a weaker kid emits when he’s got his arm twisted behind his back and he’s surrendering to a more powerful schoolmate, “Uncle!” Emotionally, I was left awash in sympathy for Rusty: I agree with his point of view about purposelessness of life, about the idiocy of religion and the intellectual paucity of its adherents, but that makes me happy, sets me free, whereas it has driven him to drink and misery.
There are a few other shows coming up. I’ll no doubt have a follow-up piece to this in a couple of months. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen True Detective, get on that soon.
I leave you with T-Bone Burnett’s fantastic opening song for the show, which I play at least once a day: