By Tom Stempel.
Office Porn, Not Kitchen Porn
(2015. Written by Nancy Meyers. 121 minutes.)
You generally do not want to start a script with a pile of exposition delivered in voiceover. It shows that the writer does not know how to subtly show and tell exposition. When writers try it, readers tend not to read beyond the first couple of pages. If the writer is going to make that rookie mistake, what other stupid things will he or she do? Well, an established writer like Meyers can get away with it, IF she is also as smart a writer as Meyers is.
What we first think is just generic voiceover by Ben turns out to be part of a video he is making to get a senior intern position at an e-commerce clothing company. So we get he is selling something, in this case himself, which gives the actor (Robert De Niro in this case) something to play. By the way, companies do hire senior interns these days: they find their maturity and experience can be useful as well as educational for younger folks in the company.
Ben fits the bill. He is retired, his wife passed away, he’s tried travel and golf, and really wants to be of use somewhere in the world. So very quickly in the film he gets the job. He is assigned as an intern to Jules, the head of the company. She is a hard-charger who started the company a year and a half ago. It is going great guns. Well, if this were written by a man, the thirty-something Jules would fall madly in love with the seventy year-old Ben. But that’s not this movie, thank goodness.
After this fast start, the movie slows down. Generally, except for Romanian films, I am not that much of a fan of slow movies. It works here because we are watching the relationship between Ben and Jules develop. She is suspicious of him, at one point wanting him reassigned because “He’s too observant.” She takes that back as she begins to appreciate his wisdom, and probably also the fact he seldom disagrees with her. His advice is always good.
And here is the problem with the script: he is too perfect. He is really more a fantasy creation of Meyers than a real character. As Meyers said to the Los Angeles Times, “When somebody’s in a stressful situation, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone with some wisdom to watch your back, remind you who you are and what you’re doing well?” (See the entire interview here.)
Ben is a woman’s fantasy mentor: always listens, never gets angry or disagrees, and never hits on her sexually. Well, women are entitled to their fantasies, but it makes this film less compelling than it might otherwise be. The conception of the role does not give De Niro a lot to work with. He’s pleasant enough, but twinkling as well as Sir Ian McKellan did in Mr. Holmes is not his strong suit.
We do get nice moments along the way. After going slowly, Meyers uncorks a dandy fast-paced scene that we should call, for reasons you will have to see the film to understand, the Ocean’s 11 scene. Meyers has some nice scenes of Ben relating to the younger people in the office, and she might have been better off condensing the Ben-Jules scenes to get more of them in. There may have been more in the script that were lost in the editing.
I was delighted to see there was no kitchen porn in this film. Usually in Meyers’ films there is an elaborate kitchen. In It’s Complicated  the kitchen is being remodeled; see my discussion of that film here. I called it “home decoration porn” in that review, but usually with Meyers it involves the kitchen. In this film all the kitchens are normal size. The standout set here is the open office of Jules’ company, and at least it is beautifully used by Meyers in her director mode. That’s an encouraging sign.
The Early Live Television Appearances of James Dean
In the early days of television in the 1950s, a lot (not all as some people will tell you) of television drama was broadcast live. The actors performed the show as if it were a live stage play. Most of these shows were done, at least at first, from New York. The studio spaces available were small, and the sets were cramped. One of the reason television production moved from live television in New York to filmed television in Los Angeles was the same reason the movie business left New York in the 1910s and came to L.A.: space.
A lot of young actors at the time appeared in live television while working in the New York theatre. One of them was James Dean before he became a movie star in 1955. September 30th of this year was the 60th anniversary of Dean’s death in an automobile accident. Turner Classic Movies commemorated the event with a series of Dean’s television performances. You can order the DVD of them here; it includes 19 episodes and additional material. Looking at them tell us a lot about the writing of early television and Dean’s talent.
We will get to Dean a little later on, but first the writing. The writing on these shows tends to be very constricted, in the sense that the writers do not have much scope to play with. “Sentence of Death,” from Studio One Summer Theatre (from a story by Thomas Walsh, written for television by Adrian Spies), was broadcast on August 17, 1953. Dean plays Joe Palica, a man unjustly accused of murder. We see a very small store where the murder takes place, the police station (which would fit into a toilet on any current cop show), and a very small night club. The actors cannot move much, so the focus is on the dialogue and large close-ups of the actors.
“Something for an Empty Briefcase,” written by S. Lee Pogostin for Campbell’s Sound Stage Anthology Show, is only half an hour long (most of the drama shows were one hour), and has even fewer sets than the others in the shows on TCM. Pogostin’s writing tends to be a little flamboyant and more metaphorical than it needs to be. This was typical of Pogostin’s writing. He continued writing for film television and feature films. His 1969 feature Hard Contract has the same kind of wretched excess in the writing, and it sounds just as unnatural on the big screen as it does on the small screen.
The biggest name writer in the group of shows on TCM was Rod Serling, who wrote “A Long Time Till Dawn,” in 1953 for The Kraft Television Theatre. Kraft was the first regularly scheduled drama anthology, starting in 1947. It began with adaptations of plays, but by 1953 it was doing originals that were slightly more contemporary. “Dawn” deals with an ex-con who returns to his home town.
Serling is of course best known for his later Twilight Zone series (1959-1964), but in 1953 he was two years away from the show “Patterns,” also on Kraft, that made his reputation. The writers, as well as Dean, were apprentices. What is striking in the writing of “Dawn” is the nostalgia with which it views small town life, an element that shows up in several of his Twilight Zone scripts. While Pogostin was trying to be poetic, Serling was succeeding.
“The Dark, Dark Hours” is a 30 minute show on the General Electric Theatre, broadcast on December 13, 1954. As with “Something for an Empty Briefcase,” it is more limited in sets than the hour-long shows: the front porch of a doctor’s house, the main bedroom and the doctor’s examining room, although we do get a film montage of a car going down the highway in the beginning (this was done on several shows). The credits read “by Henry Kane, television play by Arthur Steuer,” Kane presumably having written the story. It only has a cast of four as well, and Steuer gets a lot of suspense out of the situation. A robber brings his partner, who has been shot, to a doctor late at night. The doctor is reluctant to operate, but is forced to. His wife is bothered that the doctor doesn’t face up to the robber, which he finally does.
One of Dean’s last television shows, after he had shot East of Eden (1955) but before it was released, was “The Thief,” based on a play that first appeared on Broadway in 1907 and was revived as late as 1927. The play was by Henri Bernstein and adapted for the United States Steel Hour by Arthur Arent, and was shown on January 4, 1955. The setting of the show is the Paris home of the Legarde family, and the sets are larger and more elaborate than those in previous shows. The set for “The Thief” includes the drawing room, a bedroom, and a rather large garden.
Live television was trying to expand what it could do, and a year later CBS opened their larger Television City studios in Los Angeles with a new 90-minute show drama anthology Playhouse 90. The writing is very theatrical, betraying its stage play pedigree. James Dean’s performance, as the sensitive son of the family accused of stealing money, is one of his worst, since it only uses his sensitive side and grinds it into the ground. He is also surrounded by better actors than in the other shows: Diana Lynn, Paul Lukas, and Mary Astor. Astor wrote in her autobiography that she and Lukas hated Dean because he mumbled during rehearsals and was not particularly pleasant to be around. His talent is better served in his earlier shows.
In “Sentence of Death,” he is a nice guy accused of a murder he did not commit. He spends most of his few scenes baffled at why people think he did it. Dean is easily outshown by the star of the show, Betsy Palmer, who is given much more to act. This was the start of her career that included the head nurse in Mr. Roberts (1955), several game shows, and the role later audiences know her best: Mrs. Vorhees, you know who’s mom, in the original Friday the 13th (1981).
In “Empty Briefcase” Dean is a mugger who is charmed by his victim when she tells the cops everything is O.K. Dean’s character Joe is trying to be gallant, and Dean shows a light, playful touch that only occasionally shows up in his three major films. You get bits of it in his Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In the show Dean seems to be experimenting, which is what a lot of actors as well as writers were doing in live television. After all, these were not feature films, but live television shows broadcast once and meant to be forgotten. The only reason we have them now is that many were kinescoped, i.e., filmed off a television set, which explains why the photographic quality is so bad.
Dean and Rod Serling are a good match of actor and writer in “Dawn.” This is the first in the shows being discussed where you see the combination of sensitivity, emotional volatility, and potential for violence that we see in Eden and Rebel. He longs for his ex-wife, even though he has been what we now call an abuser, and he beats up the storeowner who will not tell him where she is. It is difficult to imagine another actor working in television at the time, with the possible exception of Paul Newman, who could make the almost split personality that Serling has written convincing.
Richard Dunlap, the director of the episode, had concerns about Dean. In a handwritten note on Dunlap’s script he writes, “Jimmie—too frantic and too high a tension—psychopath schizoid.” (I came across the note while looking at the Kraft files for my 1992 book is Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. Most of the background for live television in this item is from the book.)
Unfortunately, as in many of the early live TV shows, the supporting cast is merely efficient at best, terrible at worst. His father in “Dawn” is played by Ted Osborn, a radio actor with a few film credits. He is a very surface actor, while Dean is mining all the subtext he can from Serling’s script. In both Eden and Rebel Dean is up against much stronger actors as the fathers, Raymond Massey in the former, Jim Backus in the latter.
For us today, the most interesting of the shows is The Dark, Dark Hours. Dean is a robber who is also something of a hipster, wanting jazz on the radio while the doctor operates. He is also at the end of his rope, and highly volatile. The doctor is played by the host of General Electric Theatre, Ronald Reagan. Yeah, that Ronald Reagan. He and Dean have surprising chemistry. I think Reagan is better here than in most of his films, showing the strength the doctor needs to stand up to both Dean and his wife. Reagan seems to be more at ease in front of a live TV camera than he was the film cameras, a skill that proved useful in his later career in public service.
General Electric Theatre was broadcast from Los Angeles, as Playhouse 90 would be in two years. The period of live television drama was coming to an end. It was very quickly labeled “The Golden Age of Television,” especially by East Coast critics and industry people who were appalled that television, like the movies forty years before, was moving to that cultural wasteland, Los Angeles. Most of the television writers who wrote for the live anthology series whom I interviewed for my book had fond feelings for the Golden Age, especially in comparison with writing for filmed series. In an anthology show, you did not have to deal with star demands, and if you had a good producer, like Fred Coe on Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, he could protect you from the sponsors. E. Jack Neuman had a contrary view:
The best of it was really a third-rate movie, the very best. On Playhouse 90 I was always thinking about what I could do on a movie set and how terribly limited and awkward it was. The people who were running it at the time, mostly New Yorkers, had theatrical aspirations or actual theatre background. They wanted to preserve that “spontaneous” horseshit. I had no use for them. Marty Manulis [a producer] and John Frankenheimer [a director] I thought were both assholes. I had to deal with them all the time. There were several others.
Ann Roberts Nelson, a good old pal of mine at CBS, pulled out one I’d done in ’54 or ’55. Ugh! It looked just fucking awful. It was embarrassing. And it was supposed to be huge success at the time. I mean it was something you pin together on film in one day and make it look five times as good. It was just bad.
No, it was just a boring medium in my estimation. I only did a couple of years of it before I began writing for movies again and then filmed television.
Muppets and Terrorists
The Beginning of the Fall 2015 Television Season.
I wrote several items on CSI in the first few years of this column, but I stopped after US #92. I was a bit irritated that after Gil Grissom left the show, Catherine Willows was not promoted to the head of the unit. When Catherine finally left in 2012, I pretty much stopped watching the show. It continued on, and since it and its spinoffs have made a huge bundle for CBS, the network was nice enough to give fans a two-hour movie as the series finale at the beginning of the fall season.
CSI: Immortality was written by the show’s creator Anthony E. Zuiker, and he brought back Grissom and Willows for the big finish, as well as the wonderful character Lady Heather. The case was the usual gore-fest, but Zuiker seemed more interested in getting Grissom and his ex-wife Sara, one of the investigators, back together. Zuiker seemed out of practice at writing and William Petersen out of practice at acting Grissom. At the end Sara is going to head the unit, even though Willows wanted the job, but Sara leaves to sail off on the ocean with Grissom. Oh, that’s cute, but in the show’s tradition of under-serving Willows, we never see if she ends up with the job.
NCIS started off with the best inside joke of the season so far. In the first episode of the season, “Stop the Bleeding,” written by Gary Glassberg and Scott Williams, the head of the unit Gibbs is on the operating table on an aircraft carrier after being shot at the end of last season. The rest of the unit, back in D.C., is hoping the doctor is as good as their medical examiner Dr. Donald Mallard, nicknamed for obvious reasons “Ducky.” One of the crew says that he hopes Gibbs has his very own Ducky on the ship. The ship’s surgeon is played by Jon Cryer, who played Duckie in the 1986 film Pretty in Pink.
The writers at Castle have once again tried to break up Castle and Beckett. It did not work the last time and it does not look like it will this time. A letter in TV Guide complained about it. At least the writers on a show like NCIS understand and stick to the franchise, which makes it both simple and satisfying. It’s not as easy as it looks.
I though the first season of Madam Secretary was rather uneven in its writing. “The Show Must Go On,” the season opener, was written by Barbara Hall, the show’s creator, and it holds together better than last year’s shows, in spite of some of the contrived plotting. The president’s plane is not communicating with anybody, the vice president takes sick, and in the best touch, the next in line, the Speaker of the House, turns out to be senile and thinks Ronald Reagan is still president. This played on October 4th, which was followed in the next few days by Rep Kevin McCarthy declining to run for speaker of the House. Anyway, so our Elizabeth, as Secretary of State, takes over reluctantly as acting president. Hall’s writing of the reactions of everybody to this is first rate. The second episode ,“The Doability Doctrine,” also by Hall, also seemed to find the range. Hey, it takes some shows a while to nail it.
The Good Wife
The Good Wife also got off to a rousing start in “Bond,” written by showrunners Robert and Michelle King. Alicia is starting up her own law firm and has to work in bond court, trying to get bond for clients she’s barely met. She meets an African American lawyer Lucca Quinn, who shows her the ropes and then shows up in the second episode to worm her way into one of Alicia’s cases… and ends up winning the case for Alicia. It’s nice to have an African American on the show who is not a drug dealer. After all, the show is set in Chicago.
Lucca is not the only interesting new character. Peter is making a run for the vice presidency and fires his longtime chief Eli Gold, since he needs a campaign manager with national (read: Iowa) experience. She is Ruth Eastman. Eli is not happy and is determined to undercut her. But she is played by Margo Martindale, late as Mags Bennett on Justified. My mouth waters at the great scenes we are going to get between Alan Cumming as Eli and Martindale as Ruth. That may be the undercard, but like a lot of undercards in the fight game, it may be better than the top of the bill. No, wait a minute. Better than the other actors working at the top of their form? Well, maybe. I certainly intend to stick around to see how the writers deal with them.
Black-ish, which I loved last season, has gotten off to a terrible start. The first episode, “The Word,” written by the show’s creator Kenya Barris, deals with the “N” word, but does it in a literal, plodding way, making sure every point of view is hit squarely on the head. And it’s not that funny. See the similar but funny discussion in this summer’s movie Dope (which I wrote about here). The black-ish episode was highly promoted, which may be why it had a rating twenty places below its lead-in, Modern Family. The third episode, “Dr. Hell No,” written by Gail Lerner, started out just as preachy, with a montage explaining why African Americans don’t necessarily trust the white medical establishment. I hate to think the show has gotten so self-important that it has forgotten how to be funny.
Jane the Virgin
On the other hand, Jane the Virgin is still its freewheeling self, although it did have to do a little tapdancing in the opening episode, “Chapter Twenty-Three,” written by the showrunner, Jennie Snyder Urman. At the end of the first season Jane’s baby was kidnapped. Rather than continue to play with that, Urman had her get the baby back in the first fifteen minutes of the episode, although the “ransom’ paid will undoubtedly pop up again during the season.
Fargo, as I suggested at the end of last season in US #121, is not going the easy route of bringing back the great characters it gave us in the first season. So this season we are still in Fargo-land, but some thirty years before the first season, and with a new set of characters. However, in the season opener “Waiting for Dutch,” written by showrunner Noah Hawley, we not only get a younger Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine last season, Patrick Wilson this season), but see him reading a bedtime story to his daughter Molly, who grew up to appear in the first season. “Waiting for Dutch” does start out with a multiple murder, but in the episode there is no character as immediately compelling as Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo in season one. I am assuming Hawley and this team will eventually satisfy us with one or more great characters, but this first episode seems more imitation Fargo than real Fargo.
I am not sure whether to consider The Muppets a returning show or a new show. In the old Muppet Show (1976-1981) Kermit and the gang were trying to put on a show in a theatre. Here they are putting on a late night talk show starring Miss Piggy. The new show is done in that pseudo-documentary style that has been worked to death. It does not seem as fresh and funny and as sharp as the original. I have fond memories of the original show, but if I were to look at it today, it might not seem that much better than this version. I do know that the earlier show used its guest stars a lot better than the current version, which seems to drag people in just for the sake of having them there. The easy explanation for the difference between the two versions is that Jim Hensen, the creator of the Muppets died in 1990, and obviously provided a spark to the original that is just not here. This version is made by people who love the Muppets and they may get it right eventually.
Life in Pieces
Life in Pieces is an attempt to do another Modern Family, and it doesn’t work. Family follows three branches of one family, and the stories are intercut and connected in the writing. Pieces is about four branches of the same family, but the stories of each branch is told as a single, separate story. It means the writers have to concentrate on getting all the story in in six or seven minutes, which either does not leave them enough time for the comedy, or squeezes the comedy out all together. The writing is not sharp enough to work under those limitations. By stretching out the storylines, the writers of Family don’t have to show us every little detail of the story, which is a much more imaginative way of doing, because it provokes our imagination to tie together the story and thematic elements, which the Family writers are great at balancing.
Grandfathered has a possibly interesting setup: a 50ish bachelor playboy finds out he not only has a son, but the son has a child. In both episodes I have seen, the dialogue is mostly about how Jimmy wants to still be a playboy while he connects with his new “family.” They need a little more variation.
The Grinder has developed its story and characters better. Dean is not a lawyer but played one on TV. His show has been cancelled and he has come back to his home town. His brother Stewart is a lawyer, but not as slick and charismatic as Dean. Dean sort of wants to be Stewart and Stewart sort of wants to be Dean.
In the first episode I saw, “A Hero Has Fallen,” written by the show’s creators Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel, there is nice tension between the brothers as Dean goes to work for the law firm. In the next episode, “The Curious Disappearance of Mr. Donavan,” by Dominic Dierkes, gets even more out of the Dean-Stewart relation, and has a great dialogue scene between Stewart and the office idiot. How long the show can keep Dean involved without a law degree or him passing the bar will have to involve some interesting writing. But Paul & Mogel seem to be sharp writers, and I liked that they gave the best line in their episode to a secondary character, Debbie, Stewart’s wife. When Stewart, trying to be loose like Dean, allows their daughter to have her boy friend over to the house Debbie describes the boy friend as a “free-range douchebag.” You gotta love minds that come up with a line like that.
Indian Summers is the big new miniseries on Masterpiece on PBS. And yes, of course it is being compared to Downton Abbey, as nearly every drama on PBS is these days. That does not do Indian Summers any favors. You may remember how the first episode of DA started way back in 2011: word comes of the sinking of the Titanic, and we quickly learn what it means to all the members of the household, both above and below stairs. Indian Summers, written by Paul Rutman, starts out like a very slow, very long novel. We get the arrival of a number of characters in Simia, the town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the British ruling class in India (it’s 1932 and independence is in the air, but not yet here) decamp for the summer to get away from the hotter parts of the country.
We are introduced to several of the Brits and several of the Indians. Unfortunately, none of them are particularly interesting. The one sort of star part is Cynthia Coffin, the Brit who rules the roost in Simia. She is played by Julie Walters, one of the only name actors in the show. She is obviously the dowager countess of this show, but Rutman has not given her the kind of witty lines that Juilian Fellowes gives to Dame Maggie. Most of the Brits are prejudiced against the Indians, which makes them not particularly likeable. The cast is also not Her Majesty’s first team, but more like Her Majesty’s Junior Varsity. O.K., none of us knew who Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Joanne Frogatt, et al. were before DA, but we sure learned quickly enough. I doubt if any of the characters or actors are going to break out with this show.
So far Quantico is one of my favorite new shows. In the opener “Run,” written by the show’s creator Joshua Safran, after a bomb goes off at Grand Central Terminal, we flashback to Alex, an Indian (subcontinent not Great Plains)-American, who is on her way to start training at FBI headquarters at Quantico. She meets a hunk named Booth on the plane, then has a quickie with him in a car, and then he turns up as one of the trainees. Hmm. Then we get a lot of cutting back and forth from the after-effects of the bomb the FBI (Alex is the prime suspect) and the training as we meet the other members of the class, nearly all of whom appear to have secrets, as in a LOT of secrets. Hmm.
You might reasonably suspect, given that the opening is reminiscent of the opening of the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy and the back and forth storytelling is reminiscent of the first season of How to Get Away With Murder that this is a Shonda Rhimes show, but Quantico is only Shondaland-adjacent. It is borrowing elements from her style, but so far there is not the sloppiness in plotting that bothers me in her shows. The training scenes are a nice counterpoint to the non-stop action of the rest of the FBI trying to capture Alex. I assume that by the end of the first season we will find out who the traitor is, but I am not sure where they can go for a second season. And unlike Indian Summers, Quantico has a real breakout star as Alex. She is Priyanka Chopra, she’s been a star in Indian films for years, and boy, does she pop off the screen.
I did not expect to like the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as much as I did. Rebecca Bunch is a New York lawyer who decides on the spur of the moment to move to West Covina, California to follow a boy she had a summer romance ten years ago at summer camp. She is convinced they are meant to be together. Isn’t the legal term for this stalking? And don’t they throw people in jail for that? O.K., they didn’t with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), so maybe women get a pass, at least in movies written by women. But notice the show has the word “crazy” in the title. It is very up front about admitting that Rebecca is more than a little flakey.
The show is created and written by Rachel Bloom, who has a following from the Internet and who plays Rebecca, and Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplays for 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada (good) and 2008’s 27 Dresses (bad). They are working in a post-Girls and post-Amy Schumer world, and they are very good at making Rebecca both crazy and funny. You make not like or respect her, but you can’t not watch. They also throw in some musical numbers, including a welcome to West Covina number and a terrific satirical number showing Rebecca getting ready for a date with Greg, a bartender who knows Josh, the man of her dreams. Rebecca gets sexy backup singers, who sport hair removal cream on their upper lips, and a dressing down by a rap star who is appalled by all the cosmetics.
The writers also create a great partner in comedy for Rebecca. She is Paula, a paralegal at the new firm Rebecca gets hired at. Paula is determined to find out why Rebecca has come to West Covina. By the end of the first episode, “Josh Just Happens to Live Here!,” she does and tells Rebecca how much she admires her for going for broke. That scene helps us get over the hump of Rebecca’s craziness. Look at that episode to see how making a potentially off-putting character someone we want to follow.