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Archive for the category “Television”

The television of intimate connections: True Detective, Girls, Rake, Homeland, Redfern Now

Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective

Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective

TV’s True Detective has started off a conversation, the idea that long-form television series can be compared to the ‘old novel’—most notably 19th century serialisations—offering viewers the chance to develop along with the characters on a week by week basis as the episodes screen live to air: to confront their lies and peculiarities, to see structural and psychological changes, to find compassion even when they do diabolical things.

Charles Dickens’ and Alexandre Dumas’ novels often started out as instalments in magazines or newspapers, giving readers the opportunity to see the characters gradually emerge over months or even years, before the entire series was published as a novel. Television in the US (and it’s starting to change in Australia) is giving writers the freedom to challenge conventional TV wisdom by offering philosophical meanderings and deep psychological insights, compassion for the building complexity of characters who are initially difficult to like, the chance to draw on a number of intertwining perspectives, and movement between main and minor characters as the series unfolds. Central to many of these shows—Girls, Homeland, True Detective, Rake, Redfern Now—is an argument for empathy for those stuck in a wasteland of socio-economic-moralistic ambiguity, where the rage against the machine is no longer heard, where characters—and viewers—are no longer sure where they are placed when it comes to the slippery line between good and evil.

We Are All Refugees 

Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now

Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now

In Rake, Frank the priest (Tony Barry)—who Cleaver (Richard Roxburgh) visits regularly to ‘confess’ —argues that “we’re all refugees in one way or another.” And it’s this idea that underpins most successful contemporary TV series, where we grow to care intimately about characters who are outsiders, drifting aimlessly, despite (and because of) their exposed flaws.

In Redfern Now, the residents of the inner-city suburb are shown to be displaced even on their own turf. Aaron (Wayne Blair) is ostracised within his Indigenous community, for being a copper and for letting a man die on his watch. When he walks down the street he takes his granddaughter “as a shield” against the hostility of local residents. Allie (Lisa Flanagan) tells him he’s “not a proper blackfella,” even when he has just come to the front door to help after her husband has assaulted her. Listening to karaoke at the local pub, Aaron is refused bar service and Allie stops mid-song to confront those judging her bruised face. They’re united in their exclusion: Allie asks if she can join his “leper colony.” When they go out on their first date to a ‘flash’ Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills, Aaron says to Allie as they are walking in, “We’re Brazilian, not blackfellas—remember?” to put her at ease.

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls

In Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham), an aspirational writer, doesn’t fit into the NYC ideal of heavy-hitting glamorous go-getter and stands on the outside looking in. She is often seen naked, her voluptuous, soft un-Hollywood body a revelation with its unsexualised bulges. Watching her with Dunham’s neutral gaze, we want to be exposed to her, even when she’s grating—and she can be (in that funny, neurotic way that Woody Allen and George Costanza can be). When Hannah’s editor dies, she feels nothing, only concerned about whether her e-book will still be published. Attending her editor’s funeral, she cries, “Oh my God! I think I see Zadie Smith. That is definitely her.” Just when we’ve had enough of Hannah’s solipsism, the focus pulls back and we see her in bed, counting everything in eights, contending with OCD, sticking a Q-tip in her ear so hard she ruptures an eardrum, alone, cast aside and so vulnerable it wounds us too.

 The limits of compassion

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake

The ABC’s Rake has become ever more expansive, series two taking Cleaver Green to the limits of our (and other characters’) compassion. He’s like the Aussie larrikin (the questionable stereotype that our identity is apparently based on: mischievous, rowdy, a lad) taken to the extreme, to the point where he’s completely devoid of charm, in a slow process of disintegration. When Cleaver gets out of jail he’s repeatedly punished for his casual neglect: by the young man (Dan Wylie) who stands (too close) by him in prison and then kills himself; by the son (Keegan Joyce) who accepts Rake’s failures with complete and unnerving clarity; by the wife (Caroline Brazier) who has literally moved on and sold the family home; by the woman (Jane Allsop) who refuses to sleep with him and ends up in hospital three times as victim of Cleaver’s suspected domestic violence. At one point, the show’s sleazy TV show host, Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey), asks, “I mean, what country are we living in, people? The United States of Self-Interest?” It’s only when Cleaver finds an emotional connection and empathy with his clients—one, a priest (Paul Sonkilla), who reveals his brother, also a priest, was a paedophile—that he starts to win his cases. And the wider scope of Rake, which gives the second series its pace, is that it’s always up for seeing through systemic oppression and hypocrisy, exposing upper class cruelty, the cover-ups and silent witnesses among the silks, the Gina Rineharts, the tax lawyers, the priests who look past sexual abuse, the pollies who rely on polling for their shifting morality.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland

In Homeland we are continually forced to navigate large-scale hypocrisies and cross narrative boundaries where the line between good and bad is not stretched thin, it is completely gone. Both CIA ‘case manager’ Carrie (Claire Danes) and ‘terrorist’ Brody (Damian Lewis) are shown to be worthy of respect yet deeply conflicted, and their lives are often paralleled: Carrie is forced against her will into a mental institution for bipolar disorder, Brody is strapped down in a high-rise slum in Caracas, reliant on heroin to deal with the horrors of incarceration. Carrie and Brody are seen as the heroic anti-heroes because they are guided by intuition and how they relate to others, compared with the failures of the large impersonal corporations they work for. The turning inwards and isolationism of US culture and policy at large after September 11 is exposed in Brody’s being turned over by the US to his Islamic torturers. Forced to perform his prayer rituals while cowering in a corner of his locked garage, he is seen as unforgivable: a US marine who has converted to Islam.

 The gender divide

 With True Detective, the main characters Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) come to us fully formed. Like babies seen as ‘old souls,’ they appear as if they’ve been here before, lived other lives. This is accentuated by the opening sequence with its cinematography by Australian Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom; Lore): we feel like we inhabit the landscape, and the language, of these men. The opening image arrests us. We begin in a cane field, looking at a tableau of a naked girl, her body purple-hued, huddled in prayer position, delicate antlers crowning her head. A deer in the rifle sight, she sets the detectives off into a meandering expose of Southern comfort and culture, how men relate to one another, and how they fail to communicate. As the men look longingly at the pretty, dead prostitute laid out in extreme closeup on the slab, she is, in all her glory, ‘fridged.’

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective

But when the women are alive, they get to the heart of the matter very quickly, and perhaps this is a problem for the shape of the overall narrative. It takes Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who’s not a detective, five minutes to find out what Rust has been concealing from Marty for months. Perhaps if the series let Maggie speak more, she would get past the bullshit and solve the crime, and the show would be over in an hour. The exciting thing about True Detective is that the men are deeply flawed, contrary, enigmatic and compelling characters—but portraying women as ‘whores,’ ‘crazy bitches,’ ‘teenage sluts,’ ‘corrupted innocents,’ or the open-all-hours attractive women that sagging Marty seems to seduce with ease, ultimately reduces the series’ dramatic possibilities.

 The demanding viewer

Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers' Festival on 1

Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival on 1 May

While Australian TV series writers and creators don’t yet have the lit-celeb status of those starting to tour here (like Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, and David Simon, who crossed boundaries with The Wire), shows like Rake and Redfern Now are pushing characters beyond the usual conventions of prime-time TV, blending dysfunctional family dynamics, occasional tragedy and off-the-wall humour. Like their 19th century counterparts, some people are happy to view their show at the same time each week, sometimes waiting months for the final instalment. Meanwhile the impact of iView, Apple TV and illegal downloads means more viewers are binge-watching entire series, just to keep up with social media conversations. Either way, the new-found popularity of TV series is forcing writers to keep up, to create characters that invite intimate connections, stimulate discussion and open up new narrative possibilities for increasingly demanding viewers.

This article was originally commissioned for the April-May 2014 edition of RealTime, which focuses on Art, Empathy and Action. Check out the full edition.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE CHARACTERS IN TV SERIES?

DO YOU STICK BY THEM EVEN WHEN THEY’RE ANNOYING?

If you’re into TV, you might also like to read:

Author Kirsten Krauth aka Wild Colonial Girl is now on Facebook. If you could LIKE I would really LOVE.

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Get lost, ya moll! Puberty Blues hits TV

Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues

Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues

I’m in a bedroom. I’m 10 years old (give or take). There’s a group of us girls. I’m the youngest. The others are family and friends. They’re handing around a book carefully, gingerly, as if it has germs. But they’re reading it hungrily. I’m at the end of the line, keen to see what’s inside. One of the girls (who I don’t know), says: She can’t have it, she’s too young. But I’m family (through the stepkid line). My wonderful 14-year-old rel says, Don’t worry, she’s alright. I get the nod of approval. I feel so honoured. I’m in the in-crowd. I’m handed the copy of Puberty Blues.

At the time it hits me like a tonne of bricks. The language. The brutality of the boys (and girls). The fights with fists. The relentless talk of and desire for sex (even when it seems painful and pointless). The need to conform at any cost. I am seduced and repelled by it. I want to escape this kind of world. I don’t want to go to high school. I escape in a sense (to a girls’ boarding school) for a few years. When I meet boys in their early teens, they may not be surfies but things haven’t moved on (we’re in the 80s now). They communicate with their tongues and their insults. I struggle to remain visible. I want to burst out. My brain’s in here, I want to cry. Can we talk? There’s one boy. I use the word impersonate. He looks at me, dumbstruck. He hops on his BMX and rides off. I decide to keep words to less than two syllables from then on. It’s a habit (dumbing down) that I’ve struggled to overcome ever since.

Years later, and I’m writing my first novel. It has a strong and lively character in the name of Layla. Hers is a voice I inhabit easily. She’s 14 years old. She struts across the page and, as she swans, I remember this earlier, unforgettable voice, from Puberty Blues, and how it has formed and shaped me. Layla goes to school in Western Sydney. She is obsessed with boys. She is desperate to please. She inhabits Facebook and watches video on her mobile, but she’s essentially the same as those girls, the ‘molls’ living on Sydney’s shire fringe.

Puberty Blues, the film

Puberty Blues, the film

I remember the first film version as being true to the book, but perhaps too much so, a flat narrative that failed to penetrate the landscape. The new version, now screening on TEN, is a series, offering time for some character development and in particular a deeper analysis of the parents and where they fit in. I don’t remember the parents in the book. Perhaps I tossed those pages aside at the time, eager just to get to the good bits. But like all great narratives, Puberty Blues charts more than the lives of the teenagers (and the series explores this beautifully). It inhabits a decade where everything seems possible, where society is undergoing rapid change, where immigration is starting to have an impact (on the ‘white’ cultural values in Cronulla) and where feminism is starting to mean changes for some women (see Susie Porter and Dan Wyllie let it all hang out as The Knights) while leaving others behind.

Glendyn Ivin directed one of the most evocative short films I’ve seen, Cracker Bag (which went on to win the top prize for shorts at Cannes), and his first feature, Last Ride, was a wonderful exploration of childhood in peril (see my RealTime review). He seems to have been the perfect choice as director to launch this ripe mix of teen angst and 70s culture. And unlike Channel 9’s Howzat, this isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, a chance to wear funny moustaches and parade around in harry high pants, but a serious take on where we’ve come from and where we’re at.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU READ PUBERTY BLUES OR SEEN THE RECENT SERIES? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Vulnerability in the digital age

Don Draper, Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men

One of the talks I like to watch again and again on the net is Brené Brown’s lively and moving dissection of vulnerability at the wonderful TED site. She speaks of the importance of embracing vulnerability, how difficult this can be in a world where happiness is often equated with success, and how admitting you’re vulnerable is often a first step to making a real connection with someone.

There are many situations where vulnerability is required, or even demanded: labour pains at birth; attending a funeral; giving a speech in front of strangers; going for a job interview for a position you really want; moving to a new place and trying to make friends (as we will be, soon).

And I think, for writers, it’s a constant theme in our work. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words (and your persona) are being examined closely: what do they reveal about you as a person, your past relationships, your current state of mind? When new fiction writers face audiences at festivals, or talk to people about their book at parties, they are invariably asked, ‘Is the book autobiographical?’ or ‘Is that character based on you?’

It can be a difficult question to answer. I see it as like making a jug of cordial. You add a bit of the sweet syrupy stuff (the essence, from your life) but then you mix in water and it dilutes, becomes a different substance, more tart, a new texture to swallow.

Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Vulnerability is on my mind as I was offered a book deal this week, to publish my first novel. My first reaction (obviously) was to sing the most irritating song on earth, ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, for the entire week and open the bubbles. But then I started to get nervous. Would I feel exposed? What if my grandmother read it? Would readers start to think the central character was based on me? Would my friends and family feel betrayed?

Many of the most exciting narratives of our time are based around the central issue of vulnerability. What would The Sopranos be without Tony Soprano’s regular visit to his therapist and unexpected panic attacks (when he’s cooking sausages) — his central core fear of his weaknesses being revealed. And then there’s Mad Men, where all characters hide various shameful acts (or at least labelled shameful at the time) under a veneer of glamour and rigorous work ethic (helped by generous alcohol consumption during work hours). Don Draper is particularly vulnerable because it is his true identity he tries so desperately to hide, the shame of being a deserter; by creating a new character to hide behind, his links with reality are tenuous, and his decision-making is flawed. In Nurse Jackie, Jackie copes by having a double life: prescription drug addiction and an affair with the man who doles them out. In Breaking Bad, a man is so frightened of revealing his life-threatening cancer to his wife, he starts cooking amphetamines and becomes embroiled in murdering mayhem.

You’d think in today’s age, where revelation is all (Oprah style), that admitting you’re vulnerable may be easier. But I think the technologies that surround us — the way we can now text, FB, msg or email when something is too difficult to say face to face, or even on the phone — means we are protected (wrapped up in our techno-turtle-shells) from disappointing others, from revealing ourselves.

When my grandfather died, I got a text message. In six words a beautiful, humble, loving man was reduced (for me). The person on the other end of the phone was too vulnerable to speak, to tell others, in grief. But those moments can be the most important ones in day to day life, the ones we always remember, for what they reveal (and don’t) about the person on the other end of the line.

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