What I Learned From “Under The Dome”

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Since beginning my Catching Up With King project after moving to Maine a few years back, I’ve become a fan of his writing style, stubbornly ragged as it is. At his best, he builds stories like monster trucks. They flatten all the inelegant dialogue and on-the-nose metaphors in its path. It can be incredibly fun to be behind that wheel. But it’s this very quality that makes it nearly impossible to adapt King’s work for TV or film. The natural inclination of a director is to trim the fat, streamline plot threads, give the action a proper cadence. So they strip the monster truck for parts. Usually, all they’re left with is the wreckage.

It would be an understatement to say that the CBS series Under the Dome has this problem. This is the story of the town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes sealed off from the world when a mysterious dome falls from the sky. It’s clear and permeable; impenetrable and soundproof; reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie and directly ripped off from The Simpsons MovieYet derivation is the least of Under the Dome‘s problems. I’ve never read the novel, but there’s just no way that it could be as sluggish, painfully unrealistic, and emotionally barren as this TV show. Unless the dome is a metaphor for writer’s block, and the thinning ranks of the townspeople represent weak thoughts fading from a suffocated brain, I cannot explain why it exists.

Showrunner Brian K. Vaughan is no slouch, having written the popular graphic novel series Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. No matter. He fucked with the truck, and got crushed.

So, after watching a season and a half of Under the Dome, what have I learned?

 

1. Chester’s Mill is on Ritalin.

The dome comes down, and people seem rather chill about it. I mean, they basically don’t even try to get out. Various car wrecks show that you can’t drive a hole in it, but what about bullets? Or fire? Or acid? Or a pointy stick? Nope! They’re cool just hangin’. Take a look at the press photo of Mike Vogel, who plays our main character Dale “Barbie” Barbera:

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So yeah, this is our main character at his most concerned. He looks like a constipated window washer.

 

2. Actually, maybe they’re on heroin too.

When the government is about to drop a massive bomb on the dome, the town hides in the basement of an old building, where the vibe is pretty laid-back – the local DJ plays a Beethoven sonata, and it’s fitting. A few episodes later, the scorched-earth destruction the bomb caused outside the dome just sorta disappears. The power of disinterested thinking?

When main characters are brutally murdered, people wince for a second and move on.

When people learn that Junior Rennie is a violent psychopath who locked his ex-girlfriend in a bomb shelter, they take it like it’s a fairly normal thing to hear about someone. This extends to the writers, who now seem to think that we can accept Junior as some kind of hero, which, NO. If Alexander Koch wasn’t the kind of actor who only can make one face, and that face wasn’t the face of a dazed pony, then the show would not be getting away with this socially irresponsible character arc.

 

3. Snow globes are a metaphor for thinking your audience is brain dead.

 

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4. If you can’t decide who you are, then you’ve decided to be nothing at all.

For the first several episodes, Under the Dome wants to be a problem-of-the-week procedural. And it’s not the worst idea. We find out how the town responds to fire, drought, and an epidemic. People are still behaving like automatons, but at least there’s some structure.

But then Under the Dome decides it wants to be an allegory about men playing God. Dean Norris, who brought such deep, grizzled insecurity to his role as Hank on Breaking Bad, plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a local politician/car salesman whose hobbies are being powerful and making serious faces. The show tries to get us to hate Big Jim, who murders in cold blood to hold onto his meager power, and who starts acting like the town reverend at memorial services. It kind of achieves this goal, despite Norris’s performance being too broad and stare-y to really inspire us to feel much. The real issue is the flip side of this hashed-together allegory: The show needs us to root for the Wonder (Bread) Twins at the story’s center, Barbie (Vogel, who wears t-shirts) and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, who has a hairstyle). Sure, it succeeds in getting us to hate Big Jim, but we already hated him. We hate every goddamn person for being so boring.

Then, Under the Dome wants to be a MacGuffin-heavy sci-fi mystery, complete with chosen-one narratives, screaming eggs, and amateur psychic paintings. This is where the show officially becomes nothing at all, a void, a blackness in our lives.

 

5. I love the severed cow. I blame the severed cow.

When the dome comes down in the pilot, it cuts a cow in half. The show handles it perfectly, using the bargain-basement CGI that fans of Stephen King miniseries know and love. I watched 187 minutes of It so I could see that stop-motion spider. I sat through all three hours of The Langoliers just so I could see those toothy clam screensavers descend on Balki. Under the Dome gave me my fix before the first commercial break. Like a drug dealer would.

 

 

6. I have spent 16 hours of my life watching this show. I feel you, Dean.

 

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“Deadly Women” is a bad show. So why does it kill me every time?

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A new study by a German forensic scientist claims that female murderers are “more creative” than their male counterparts – and that they pretty much have to be, because they usually kill people close to them, and those people are often men who are physically stronger. One would think that this theory would be fodder for a great documentary-style TV show, one that transports us to a different, disturbingly clever world each week. But Deadly Womenwhile being a true crime program about female killers, is most definitely not the show I just described. It’s lazy, formulaic and depressingly exploitative, and does its best to blunt the impact of its endlessly interesting subject matter. So why oh why do I love it so much? Here is my attempt to explain, in list form.

1. It’s camp gold.

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Take re-enactments that make Rescue 911 look like Shakespeare (and are often in period settings, like the screen cap I’ve so lovingly shared here). Combine them with talking head commentary that would seem obvious to a fifth grader. Add clunky, melodramatic writing of highest order – e.g. “Nicki Reynolds saw her mother as an obstacle, on the road … to murder.” Top it off with a penchant for graphic throat-slitting that’s bound to make you wince at least once an episode. And you’ve got a viewing experience like no other – a hysterically queasy formula for a brand new genre of entertainment. We’ll call it “True Crime-edy.”

2. The lengthening shadow of Robert Stack

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One source of my DW fandom is the debt it – and the entire Investigation Discovery network, for that matter – owes to Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll never forget when that show went from being a fun way to get spooked on a school night to something genuinely terrifying. It was an episode that took a break from all the hauntings and alien abductions to focus on a real-life murderer who had never been caught. During the reenactment, the show revealed the killer by having a woman glance in her medicine cabinet mirror to find the psychopath standing behind her. It’s a clichéd trick, but it worked on me like a charm. I immediately looked outside the sliding glass door in our living room, half-expecting to see the frothing maniac standing there, knife in hand. Because this wasn’t just a TV show. This was a true story. And even the husky lullabye of Mr. Stack’s voiceover couldn’t soothe my jangled nerves.

Twenty years later, I think I’m still looking for something to terrify me in a similarly cozy way – and although DW cuts every conceivable corner while turning gruesome true stories into cornball melodramas, it still has the potential to freak me out in spite of itself. It’s a watered-down cocktail at best, but I keep bellying up to the bar.

3. Bad actresses staring at the camera

Every episode of DW is structured exactly the same – three stories loosely grouped under an amazing title, opening with an over-the-top voiceover segment that teases the carnage to come. At the end of this intro, when the title is announced (in a truly horrifying font), one of the reenactment actresses is asked to stare maniacally at the camera for an uncomfortably long period of time. It’s a ridiculous moment that also acts as a threat – “What are you grinning at, shithead?” the deadly woman seems to ask, as those snarky comments dry up in your throat. I’m gonna write captions to some of these classic stares, yet I admit, I’m kinda scared to …

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When my Harold proposed to me, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. We were on a sailboat at twilight; the ring was classically beautiful, not too ostentatious; the wine left a hint of pear on my tongue; the moonlight formed a silver border around his raven hair. “A million times yes!” I exclaimed. “I adore you, Harold Murder!!!” … I should’ve seen this coming.

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You could say I’m a big fan of keeping secrets. But let’s keep it a secret how much I love secrets, because it’s those very secrets that make being secretive so fun! That being said, I’ll tell anybody who wants to listen about my secret to happiness – wearing my best blazer and standing by a lake on a foggy morn in 1987.

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Even though his salad days were decades in the rearview, Nikki Sixx took the stage more determined than ever.

4. Candice DeLong

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DW has some exceptionally bad reenactments – but that’s pretty much par for the course for a show like this. It’s when the show gives the spotlight to its commentators that it really hits its sweet spot. Most prominent, and thoroughly fabulous, of all is Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler with a storied resume that includes hunting down the Unabomber in 1995. On paper, DeLong is perfect for this gig – the expert who can get into the heads of these violent protagonists, both from a criminologist’s and a woman’s perspective. But on camera, her commentary is profoundly uninsightful, yet delivered so smugly, you have to wonder if it’s some kind of performance art stunt. My wife and I have had long discussions on how this could be – Is DeLong just nervous? Is the DW editor a disgruntled ex who wants to make her look as bad as possible? Did she experience some kind of trauma in the field that makes her afraid to say anything beyond the most Perd Hapley-esque observations? DeLong is surely much smarter in real life than she appears to be on DW. But whatever the reason, statements like the following are a crucial component of good True Crime-edy (the italics properly reflect DeLong’s delivery):

Candice on women who marry men for money and then kill them:
“They use sex, and seduction, to get the wedding ring of the person that has the money.”
(“Fortune Hunters,” Season 4)

Candice on a woman who kept asphyxiating her babies:
“She was actually one of the worst people that could ever raise children.”
(“Bad Medicine,” Season 2)

Candice on a police officer who was also a sadistic killer:
“Antoinette Frank was the last person any police department should have ever hired.”
(“Born Bad,” Season 3)

Candace on a serial killer who poisoned her entire family:
“She enjoyed wielding the power of life or death, over another person.”
(“Hearts of Stone,” Season 5)

Candace on some more mothers who kill their children:
“It’s very hard to understand why someone would kill their children. They’re not thinking clearly.”
(“The Sacred Bond,” Season 4)

Candice DeLong Gun

Deadly Women is currently in the middle of its seventh season on the Investigation Discovery network; seasons 2-5 are streaming on Netflix.

Sam & Don

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If you read my post yesterday, you massive global audience you, you know I’ve had the season premiere of Mad Men on my mind. The show’s exploration of mid-life crises is reaching new peaks of symbolic grandeur, and new depths of self-absorbed nihilism (e.g. an ad executive, wealthy from birth, complaining that life is nothing but a string of disappointments). With every new wincing cigarette pull from Don Draper, he’s seemingly one step closer to oblivion.

So when the Sam Cooke song “Smoke Rings” came on during my drive to work this morning, it felt like a cosmic pop culture connection – over a crooner-friendly, French horn-happy blues, Cooke ruminates about the product of his exhalations, like Draper staring into space on his Hawaiian vacation. “Please take me above with you,” Cooke pleads in the final refrain. It’s a gorgeously depressing idea, one that begs to play under the closing credits of this season of Mad Men. Start practicing that wince, and check it out here:

Mad Men’s season premiere is obsessed with one thing that is certain (and it’s not taxes).

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Don Draper stands silently by his office window, freshly tanned from a Hawaiian vacation, his desk moved by a photographer to a spot he doesn’t like. All he hears, and all we hear, are waves, gently crashing in his mind. Of all the memorable moments from Mad Men’s two-hour season six premiere – which run the gamut from harrowing to hilarious – this is the one that’s sure to stick with me for a long time.

Don has always been a character on the brink, a man with weighty secrets who nonetheless behaves recklessly, someone who treats women like garbage and then complains about how bad it makes him feel. But over the course of five seasons, we never got a good idea of what rock bottom might look like for our dashing anti-hero. “The Doorway” gives us our first glimpse, and it ain’t pretty – after embarrassing himself at a funeral (in a thoroughly entertaining way), Don demands that his doorman share details of a recent near death experience. “You must have seen something,” he pleads, with a lost, childlike daze in his eyes that he can’t entirely blame on booze.

While Don’s psychic breakdown is its main focus, the episode takes its title from a rant Roger Sterling gives to his psychiatrist, about how life is just a series of passageways that “all open the same way, and they all close behind you.” Roger’s the one dealing the most directly with mortality here; the death of a loved one and acquaintance bookend the episode. And while his incomparable wit and panache can’t keep his sadness at bay forever, Roger’s soliloquies on the couch provide clear-headed counterpoints to Don’s odd obsession with his physician neighbor – not to mention Betty’s fairly frightening obsession with one of Sally’s friends (not Glen this time).

All of these intertwined moments of existential crisis would be enough for a great episode of a lesser show, but “The Doorway” takes a moment to balance the scales a bit, showing Peggy Olson on the phone with her old art director Stan Rizzo, each making the other’s late night at work more bearable. When Peggy’s new boss compliments her on her crisis management skills, Stan’s listening in. It’s a sweet and funny moment in a blossoming friendship – the kind of thing that makes a good argument against Roger’s doorway theory.

As Mad Men has progressed, it’s revealed itself as a show that’s less about advertising, and more about the hard truths of existence that advertising was invented to distract us from. “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,” Dr. Rosen imparts to Don, before whisking off on his urban skis to save lives on a snowy New Year’s Eve. For two more seasons, it looks like we’re in for a whole new level of “anything.”

Easy Targets: Liz & Dick

Easy Targets is an idea for a blog series that I just made up, which I imagine will cover moments in pop culture that are of such obvious heinousness that making fun of them is unnecessary. And then, you know, I’ll make fun of them. Our first entry? Liz & Dick, the glorious tire fire of a Lifetime Original Movie that debuted this past Sunday, pissing all over the freshly turned soil of Elizabeth Taylor’s grave.

Let me take a moment to thank god for made-for-TV movies. Thank you for giving us easy access to hysterical trash-drama and thickly slathered camp, saving us from the depths of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin and The Films of Sandra Bullock. Thank you for being a community theater for actors whose dreams would’ve otherwise died. Thank you for paying Dean Cain’s heating bill. Thank you for helping Joanna Kerns avoid having to go back to school and get that hotel management degree. And thank you for lowering all of our standards to allow something as lazy and absurd as Liz & Dick to become an actual viewing event.

What separates Liz & Dick from your typical made-for-TV movie is that it’s not a bad idea for a movie. The tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is one of the most compelling love stories in Hollywood history, full of ferocity and tenderness in equal amounts – a production devoted to exploring their one-of-a-kind dynamic, with the height of 1960s Hollywood ostentation as a backdrop, could be biopic gold. So, just by holding to the typical, low-rent Lifetime Original Movie template, Liz & Dick is already committing a sin. And lucky for us, it doesn’t stop there.

Lo, Liz & Dick wallows in its own unworthiness, with Lindsay Lohan delivering an “I couldn’t give a shit” performance for the ages. Faced with playing one of the 20th century’s most iconic and recognizable figures, Lohan doesn’t bother with the details, barely attempting to alter her own pack-a-day rasp of a voice, and generally behaving like a sleepwalker. (I know Liz loved her mood-altering substances, but to my knowledge, she never had a lobotomy.) In a cringeworthy scene where her and Grant Bowler (who actually attempts to make us believe he’s Burton, which is bo-ring) meet Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman at a party, we’re supposed to believe Taylor is talking Lehman into letting her and Burton star in it by staging a argument. But in real life, the dazed woman droning “What was he, some Roman homosexual that you buggered?” would be asked to leave the premises. (The decision to reprise scenes of Woolf, the movie that best illustrated the battered genius of both actors, was just cruel – even for this.)

Lohan’s presence is, of course, what made Liz & Dick must-see trainwreck TV, and yes, our cups filleth over with delicious schadenfreude thanks to her performance. But to paraphrase the movie’s painfully overused line of dialogue, its flaws are more like an ocean. As far as the filmmakers would have us believe, Richard Burton was a bitchy guy who drank on occasion and died all pretty-like, and Liz Taylor was a drugged out zombie who could barely tip over a table when angry. These were two brilliant, gruesomely spoiled alcoholics who subsisted on brutally barbed exchanges, but the most the script provides is the occasional fat joke. Yes, Lohan trying would’ve helped, but there’s a bigger problem – this movie is only interested in its own existence, in the fact that it would get people to exclaim “She’s playing Elizabeth Taylor?!?!” Shining any kind of light on what these fascinating people were like behind closed doors? Fuck that. Taylor herself, in her prime, couldn’t salvage this.

By which I mean to say it was everything I’d hoped for. Less, even. Thank you, Lifetime, for understanding that funding, promoting and airing an insult to a legend a year after her death makes for the perfect kind of classless mess – a transcendently horrible made-for-TV movie.

What I Learned From “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction”

Having just watched every episode of The Wire in a marathon session, I’m more familiar than ever with the devastating failure that was the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” The jury’s out on whether or not the people who crafted this policy ever cared about stemming the tide of American drug use, or just wanted to give law enforcement an excuse to lock up as many black people as their heart desired. This I do know for a fact, though – the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No,” was hilariously ignorant, and offensive to any person who turned to drugs to numb their pain. The same kind of shortsightedness that birthed “Just Say No” is what inspires Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, a fantastically campy  TV movie broadcast in 1983, one year into Reagan’s first term. Starring Dennis Weaver (the voice of Buck McCoy!) as an aging California real estate agent struggling to compete with a flashy youngster who’s starting to outsell him, Cocaine paints everything in hysterically broad strokes, as Weaver’s character goes from a respectable blue-collar guy to a bloody-nosed psychopath over what feels like a couple of weeks. It’s just the kind of movie that will make a young person want to try cocaine, if only to prove that what he just saw was a load of shit. Anyways, what did I learn?

1. Dennis Weaver has some nostrils on him.

I know that cocaine will make you act like an asshole and ruin your life and all that, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a logical explanation for just how quickly Weaver’s character hits bottom in this movie – his cavernous nostrils. There’s no doubt that he’s consuming 10 times more coke per snort than his fellow addict friend (played with suicidal glee by Jeffrey Tambor). It makes you think, if Jimmy Durante was a cokehead, how long would he have lasted?

2. Cocaine will make your midlife crisis even crisis-ier.

In the early stages of Weaver’s “seduction,” he suddenly becomes better at his job, his newfound drug use loosening him up around clients and making him ready to make the jump to selling the big-time listings. It’s at this point that he decides to look the part too, cruising the SoCal freeways looking like a dad having a nervous breakdown, a wreck of leather, black shades and wide-collars.

3. Cocaine will make you betray James Spader.

When Weaver’s wife discovers cocaine in the house, it’s not his – it’s his son’s (played with extreme blondness by James Spader). Of course, Spader actually stole his from Weaver’s shaving kit stash, which makes for some wonderful “I learned it by watching you!” moments. Throwing his own son under the bus marks the low-point for Weaver, who begins the long road to recovery soon after. Which you’d never make a movie about, because bo-ring.

4. Cocaine is highly addictive, but ’80s movies about drugs are even more so.

I know that we’re supposed to be devastated by how far Weaver has fallen in this movie – from a rock-solid family man who topped the sales chart at the office for a decade (“10 years!”) to a jittery douche who would sell out everybody he loves for another fix. But Weaver is just so brilliantly hammy, he turns this message movie into one hell of a good time. Watching him get progressively sweatier, more paranoid and bug-eyed, sneaking hits during showings, hornily grabbing his wife by the sink, it’s like manna from heaven for camp lovers. I’ve since watched several more movies like Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, none of them matching its intoxicating blend of hyper-melodrama, over-the-top acting and low-ball budget. Netflix offered this one to Watch Instantly; when they take it off, I’m going to have to buy it. That’s how the pushers get you hooked. That, and VHS packaging like this:


The Wire: A Lesson In Pop Culture Perseverance

A friend of mine was recently plowing through the Harry Potter books, something I’ll likely do at some point, if only to cleanse my palate of the depressing flash-forward ending to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Vol. 2. I know great children’s lit has its share of melancholy, but the only thing I could glean from this, the final scene of an eight-movie opus, was that if you’re not a kid anymore, you might as well kill yourself.

But I digress. When I expressed this same sentiment to my friend, he insisted that the books were great, and I should read them right away. With one caveat, however – “The first couple books are just OK, but then they really get good.” Well, screw that, I thought. How could it possibly be worth my time to read two books I don’t like? Why don’t I just pick up a good one right now instead?

I’ve since come to learn that this kind of thinking is wrong-headed. Not because I’ve read Potter; I’ll get to it one of these days. It’s another long-overdue pop culture rite of passage that’s making me recalibrate my expectations of art – watching The Wire. My wife and I both had never seen an episode of this show that’s had critics and fans hyperventilating for the last decade. We just finished season two, and are hopelessly hooked. There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about David Simon’s gritty, novelistic depiction of corruption and struggle on the streets of Baltimore, but it lays waste to the concept of heroes and villains with more skill than any cop show I’ve ever seen. The police department is a mess of career ambitions and personal vendettas, a place where doing the right thing will get you excommunicated to the pawn shop unit or the evidence division – Avon Barksdale’s drug empire runs like a well-oiled machine in context. Both operations have good soldiers who follow the code, and shabby ones who use violence as a crutch. Both are comprised of people trying to make something of themselves in the midst of a dying city. The main difference is best summed up by Lt. Carver: “They fuck up, they get beat. We fuck up, they give us pensions.”

This show has me by the short hairs, to an immersive, dominating-my-daydreams level that only Deadwood and Breaking Bad have reached in recent years. But a short while ago, it wasn’t that way. Even midway through the first season, I wasn’t sold on The Wire. I knew the dialogue was great, the plotting ambitious, the visuals stark and uncompromising, but with so many characters and nicknames flying around, I could barely understand the DVD episode descriptions. After nine episodes, I thought the show was like some of its characters – too ambitious for its own good. Then came episode 10, “The Cost,” and the dramatic peak of the season, when officer Kima Greggs is shot by two of Avon’s bagmen. And everything clicked. The homicide detectives started working in concert with the wire detail, with everybody’s roles clearly outlined. The shockwaves of the shooting ran through Avon’s operation in a way that spotlighted the personalities of its members – Stringer the steely mastermind, D’Angelo the doomed philosopher, Wee-Bey the loyal muscle. Add in the effect Kima’s shooting has on her informant Bubbles’ fragile, newfound sobriety, and the emotional impact of the episode is staggering.

Seeing all of these story threads come together at once, to form a compelling, interlocking whole, it made me feel like Professor Xavier using Cerebro for the first time, seeing this once-formidable mass of humanity and understanding every component of it. And this experience couldn’t have been possible without those confusing episodes of television that led up to it. I don’t know if I’ll get the same feeling when I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which I’m fairly certain doesn’t have a subplot about a strip club owner getting killed after double-crossing his drug kingpin boss). But if it’s anywhere close to the enlightenment I received from The Wire, I shall bow to J.K. Rowling’s wizardry.