30 January, 2007

HBO, You Aren't As Cool As You Think

Oh, HBO. I remember back when you were the It Girl at all the dances. Your original movies had pizazz and verve and daring. Your series were all cutting-edge. Lately, though, I'm questioning your judgment.

The last Original Movie I remember seeing & loving on your channel was Lackawanna Blues. I think that was more than a year ago. Of course, you also produced Something The Lord Made recently, so I'll give you some slack. Some. Not a lot.

But that's beside the point. We aren't here to talk about your original movies. We're here to talk about your Series.

I will always love you for greenlighting, producing and airing all five planned seasons of The Wire. That does give you a small amount of a pass with me. That 'pass' however, isn't going to cover the fact that you seem bound and determined to kill outright any other series of quality, while replacing them with utter krep.

This, like Babylon 5 and The Wire was a planned TeleNovel, originally designed to run for six seasons. Seasons 1&2 were Book 1. You axed seasons 3, 4, 5 & 6--leaving fans hanging without an end to their mythology. And without Michael T. Anderson's brilliant portrayal of Sampson, who has now officialy become one of my all-time favourite television characers. Right up there with Omar.

Given the success of The Sopranos, it was almost a no-brainer to dramatise the original Italian Crime Families, the birth of vendettas and the rich history of that period. So why did you limit this to two seasons? As it was, Rome could have gone on indefinitely. Sure, we can all be easily spoiled by dialling up Wikipedia and Edward Gibbon, but so what? We love Pullo and Vorenus. I would watch Pullo read the Roman Phone Book. If they had phones back then. But whatever. You're jerks for cancelling this show. In fact, if I didn't have one more season of The Wire coming, I'd cancel your channel in retaliation.

I haven't watched this yet, but I have it on good authority that I will like it if I can get past the swearing. Of course, I think I can. We'll see. Discs one and two of season one are expected in my mailbox later today. Given my luck I'll love it, now that it has officially been cancelled.

Big Love
This show inspired this rant. The first six episodes are now on OnDemand. I watched three of them. What an awful show. I hate knowing that show slots and budgets that could be going to Carnivale or Rome are instead being poured down the sewage sluice of this piece of trash. My objection has nothing to do with the "lighter side of polygyny" angle, and everything to do with the flat stories, irritating characters and complete misuse of large chunks of the Veronica Mars cast. I also don't know why the powers-that-be think it'd be a huge treat for me to see Bill Paxton's naked backside at least once every episode. Ugh. I can't stand this program.

So there you have it, HBO. Please get your act together. At least pony up some Carnivale miniserieses. What is the plural of miniseries, anyway?


At 12:13 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger K said...

I have had many similar rants about various networks/shows. The good stuff goes, much of the mediocre stuff stays. I have learned that my liking a new show will be the kiss of death for it.

At 12:22 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger Undercover Black Man said...

Hey Kat. "Deadwood" is something special. In terms of pure poetry of language (notwithstanding the unholy cussing), creator David Milch is without equal in American television. The show doesn't have the narrative tightness of "The Wire," but it explores some similarly big thematic turf -- the nature of society, the battling human impulses of selfishness and communality.

"Rome" I haven't seen. But that show, to me, marks the wrong turn in HBO's series programming. The first season cost more than $100 million to produce -- an astounding figure. It sucked up so much money that HBO almost cancelled "The Wire" after Season Three just because money was so tight. They could've paid for three seasons of "The Wire" for what it cost them to do one season of "Rome"!

At 1:14 PM, January 30, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

If I live to be 1000, I will never, ever understand the appeal of Big Love. I made it through the first three episodes. Then I realized I just didn't give a shit about Chet and his stupid polygamy gimmick. The galling fact that Paxton has scored award nominations for this show, while people like Idris Elba and Ian McShane remain unrecognized, only proves that he has incriminating photos of powerful people as the reason he has a career.

At 2:34 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

After the last 8 episodes of The Sopranos, I am canceling HBO.
With 6ft Under gone, why bother?
Deadwood is unique and well acted and written, but if you have a problem with language, this might not be the show for you. I can't recall any show or movie that had as much use of the word c***sucker and the f bomb. If I recall correctly, Ian McShane (sp?) said in one show there were 178 "C***sucker" and f bombs.

At 2:51 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger Kat Coble said...

I really don't have a problem with vulgarity, just profanity. "Jesus Christ" and "Oh my God" bug me, but I can sit through all the f-bombs and c-bombs you can throw at me, if the story behind the vulgarity is worth it.

UBM--Rome is definitely worth your time. I have no idea why it cost so much, though. I'll be honest, I don't see that money on the screen. Unless it was just the cost of filming everything in Italy. However, now that I know it jeopardised the fate of my beloved Wire, I bear it a grudge.

At 4:41 PM, January 30, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

I find "Rome" unwatchable. (Literally: my husband watches and I have to leave the room while it's on.) It's not just that it's such bad history. It's not just that it's such bad history plus a variety of soft porn/ideas about women that are both anachronistic and repulsive. It's that I can recognize the bad history as the bad history they were teaching about 35 years ago. (I mean the stuff that was outdated/refuted even then, but that was still showing up in popular histories/films/fiction.) They haven't even bothered to be wrong in an up-to-date way.

Plus no one connectied with the show seems to have the least sense of humor. That's very un-Roman in itself.

At 5:20 PM, January 30, 2007, Anonymous john h said...

you're all leaving out 'Extras' the deliciously wonderful show from Ricky Gervaise (founder of the ORIGINAL 'Office). It's kind of a 'Curb your Enthusiasm' crossed with Gervaise's own wonderful English wit.

It just started a new season last sunday night...watch it!

At 5:45 PM, January 30, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Juno's Cunt! Must everything that nm types cause this much vexation and disagreement?

nm, what specifically constitutes bad history? In the parlance of the smug academic types, do you have any examples or sources for your dismissal of the series' verisimilitude?

At 9:54 PM, January 30, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

Yes, I can see the disagreement and vexation I've caused. Why, if there were any more wailing and gnashing of teeth, it might even be noticeable.

The bad history that I mean? Well, they mostly are still using Robert Graves's ("I, Claudius") version of Suetonius, only with the jokes taken out. For a fun, readable survey of what historians these days think about the period, I would recommend Michael Grant's "Social History of Greece and Rome" or his biographies of Caesar and Cleopatra.

At 10:33 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger Kat Coble said...

John H--

I left out Extras specifically because I thought it was a BBC production merely picked up by HBO, vs an HBO only or HBO/BBC joint. I was, however, mistaken. It's a joint. So yes, I do admit that Extras is killer TV. If for no other reason than the fact that they used 'Tea For The Tillerman' as the closing theme. But it's still an excellent show, especially the interplay between Gervais and Ashley Jensen.

Of course it's historically inaccurate. It's a Milius creation and as much as I love the man and his work, he is the king of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. I imagine that for you, though, watching it is like me watching that stupid Amish storyline on last week's Grey's Anatomy.

At 6:51 AM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

The Fates have decreed that nm should provide specific examples and that I should stop using pseudo-Roman phrases.

What specifically makes the show unwatchable for you? There has to be a more substantial reason for your distaste for the show than stuff like Octavian not being in Rome when Caesar was murdered or that Caesar was already back in Rome by the time Caesarion was born.

As Kat beat me to it, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

At 10:12 AM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

KC -- I imagine that the Amish stuff must have been about the same for you as it was for me when they had an Orthodox Jewish girl as a patient a couple of seasons back. She didn't want a transplanted pig heart but she was fine with a female rabbi. Suuuuure.

Sar -- I don't think details about where Octavian was when would bother me all that incredibly much. (As I said, I don't watch the show any more, so I don't know how essential they have made any mistake of that kind to the plot. If they made it too central it would probably be a problem for me.)

No, what gets to me is that the class structure is 1930s/1940s British, not end-of-the-Republic Roman; that the people interact in ways that wouldn't really have happened, that the lives of women (both noble and common) are astoundingly misrepresented, and that they think bikini bottoms were part of the wardrobe of the period. I also heard some of the dialogue including Cleopatra this season, and I suppose it's possible that she talked like the equivalent of a Valley Girl, but given what we know about her, it seems highly unlikely. Stuff like that. It just drives me crazy.

I suppose I could enjoy the show as being so bad it's funny, but my husband gets mad when I laugh at it, so I just leave the room instead.

At 7:02 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Cleo was hitting the hash pipe pretty hard in the episode last season, but I'm pretty sure she didn't sound like a Valley Girl.

The differences between the plebes and the patricians is certainly part of the story the producers are trying to tell. However, how exactly was End of the Republic Rome different than the Brit caste system? I want to understand your criticisms. If their lives are misrepresented, how so?

Sadly, the only Bikini Bottom I have seen has been on SpongeBob.

At 10:08 AM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

Sar, to understand my criticisms you have to understand the material and social culture of the late Roman Republic. I recommended a book to help with that, but I can't read it for you. But, to pick up on two items in your latest comment:

"Cleo was hitting the hash pipe" -- hashish was unknown in the Classical Mediterranean; it was introduced there in the 8th or 9th century. Opium poppies were known, and opium was used by physicians. It's possible that Cleopatra smoked some recreationally. (Did they show her nodding out?) It doesn't fit with what was reported about her habits and character, though. (I also recommended a biography in case you'd like to know more about her.) She (and other rulers of Egypt) were stereotypically figures of great wealth (dropping pearls into wine, and other instances of conspicuous consumption) but she wasn't known for any personal decadence or even great self-indulgence. That's just the producers indulging in a little Orientalism.

"The differences between the plebes and the patricians" -- do you know what they were? The producers don't. They were grouping of clans based on social status in the 5th century BCE. But over the previous 5 centuries, things had changed. Plebeians in the late Republic were often wealthy and had access to military leadership and great political power. In fact, Julius Caesar had a cousin (Clodius Pulcher) who renounced his patrician status and became a plebeian in order to run for tribune (an office reserved to plebeians) in order to further his political career.

Now, if they mess up the obvious stuff like that, just think about the details they get wrong when you actually know a little bit.

At 8:55 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I don't expect you to read the book for me, I expect you to have a specific criticism based on something more than "I can't be bothered to go into detail. Here's a 500+ page book."

Don't expect people to complete your homework assignment if you won't make the effort to bolster your claims of "anachronistic and repulsive" storytelling with, you know, actual examples.

At 9:00 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Here, I'll make it simple:
"No, what gets to me is that the class structure is 1930s/1940s British, not end-of-the-Republic Roman;"
Really? What's the difference? I can totally dig the British class reference, but how much deviation from that are you talking about?

"that the people interact in ways that wouldn't really have happened,"
How so? In what episode do you refer?

"that the lives of women (both noble and common) are astoundingly misrepresented,"
How were they misrepresented? For instance, "noble women didn't [blank]". That would be a more than acceptable answer.

At 9:42 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

I've already pointed out that the patrician/plebeian relationship is shown in the series to be similar to the British upper/working class relationship from the earlier 20th century; it wasn't. The idea that noble Romans went around complaining about the plebeians is kinda funny. There also didn't (in the episodes I saw, from the first season) seem to be any freedmen around, although they actually made up large chunks of the households/retinues of Romans with political aspirations. But they don't fit in with the British class system, so they don't show up in the series. So: they've left out whole classes of people, and misrepresented the wealth, social status, and mutual attitudes of the ones they do include. That's a lot of deviation.

And let's see: noble women didn't rent their daughters out under form of marriage for political or financial advantage. Noble women didn't have the authority to make any decisions about their daughters. Only fathers had that right.

I don't care if you read the books I suggested, though I think you might enjoy them. I absolutely have no interest in you sharing my opinion about the series. I was expressing my own reaction, which as I explained, is based on knowing something about the period. You say that's smug of me, and that I'm not entitled to have that reaction unless I instantly convey to you all the informaiton I've got. I call bull shit on that. I've given you bunches of examples of things that bother me about it. They have no reason to bother you, because you haven't spent lots of time studying and teaching about them. So more power to you. Enjoy the show, or Juno's cunt, or whatever you like. And stop trying to browbeat people who don't agree with you.

At 7:34 AM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...


I'm interested in how the show deviates from historical fact. The historical advisor, Jonathan Stamp, seems to not be a light-weight in his field. He's probably even read the works of Michael Grant.

I'm not expecting to agree with you. What I expect is that if you have an interesting critique, that you provide some example of what you find objectionable. Even a freshman poli-sci major knows how to do that. Instead, you retreat to the "if you had only read the books I've read" position. Yep, that's not smug at all.

Claiming that you are not entitled to your own opinion "unless I instantly convey to you all the informaiton [sic] I've got" sure is a nice way to don the mantle of victimhood. No wonder your husband gets pissed when you sit down on the couch and harumph while he's trying to watch TV.

Just curious, when you are teaching the subject and a student asks a question, are they also browbeating you? Or are you just expressing your own reaction and have no interest in them sharing your opinion?

I asked you about the "bad history" because I was interested in the topic and your answer. That is no longer the case.

At 8:25 AM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

Yet, Sar, when I give you specific examples (bikini underpants, hashish, no freedmen, women arranging and then disarranging marriages for their daughters, plebeians being poor, powerless objects of patrician manipulation, etc.) you say that those aren't examples. If one of my students asked for examples of whatever I was talking about, was given some, asked for more, was given more, and asked for yet more, I would certainly at that point suggest that s/he was especially interested in the topic and might want to do some additional reading. But, presumably, the student wouldn't start out by calling me smug and saying that the examples I was giving didn't count.

I'm sorry that I can't give you a scene-by-scene breakdown. I haven't seen the show, except for brief glimpses, since halfway through the first season, as I thought I had made clear. I just remember that there was a little thing wrong, then another little thing wrong, then another -- unil I just had to start laughing.

I do remember that it was the bikini bottoms that put it over the top for me. If you don't remember them, they were worn by the terrified girl being undressed by her lecherous elderly fiance. Since even the producers realized that the Romans wouldn't have had elastic, they were tied at each side with a little bow, which two slave girls untied in unison. Would you like me to list the problems with that scene? Because it will run loooooong.

At 9:21 PM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Having not seen but a few brief glimpses of the show, your view of it may be incomplete. Your hypothetical student would be wasting his time asking his instructor about material s/he was barely familiar with.

I've seen freedmen and wealthy plebes on the show. The hash reference was mine. It wasn't made clear what she was smoking. Sorry, no, those aren't valid examples.

I'll give you the bikini panties. Although, her undies weren't really what the point of her scene with Pompey was all about. As for the arranged marriages, are you going to tell me that in Roman society there weren't arranged marriages for political alliances or economic gain? Yes, Octavia's father would have been the one to do the arrangin', but as he was dead, that would have been tough.

For the purposes of the show, her mother Atia had not remarried. Atia acts in Caesar's interest, and by his proxy in offering up Octavia to Pompey in order replace his recently dead wife, Julia, who happened to also be Caesar's daughter. How is this different than what actually happened?

Again, don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

You are entitled to your opinion. However, it reminds me of people who say, "I can't watch that 'Star Trek'show. It is laughable. Any educated person knows that warp drive doesn't work in an anti-matter containment!"

But, yeah, you are so right about the bikini bottoms. I can see why that would make you turn it off.

At 10:30 AM, February 05, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

One more comment and then I'll leave this alone. I think that watching half a season of a series is plenty for a person to decide that there's something wrong with it, even if it was a few years ago and the details are fading.

And there is something wrong with a series that claims to show us Rome but shows us Dynasty instead. If you're Robert Graves and write I, Claudius you can knowingly make the characters just like your friends and neighbors and play it for laughs and sensation, and if you're the BBC you can make a TV series based on I, Claudius which is again played deliberately for laughs and sensation, and update the friends and neighbors just a bit, to keep it current. But to create a series decades later that says "we're going to base Roman characters on Robert Graves's friends and neighbors back when" but doesn't realize that it was a joke, that's pretty dumb.

Take Atia, for instance. Does it matter to the plot whether or not she's married? In the Dynasty sense, no: she's a powerful woman who both forces and manipulates her family members into furthering her own political ambitions. In terms of creating a fascinating and real character, though, it matters tremendously: this is a person who was always legally a minor, who could not live in a household without a husband or male relation to be its titular head (and her own titular legal guardian), who could not further her own political ambitions without working through men. And who, by the way, might think to herself that the specific men she had to deal with were weak or obstructive or whatever, but who was also not a proto-feminist resenting the fact that she could never make a legal decision on her own, who accepted that status as part of who she was. It doesn't take much exposition to set that up, you know--the scriptwriters don't have to include lectures on the Roman legal and social systems, they just have to have her complain about some guy and have one of her friends say, "well, better that than dealing with my husband, and if not for that guy then you wouldn't have any public power at all, would you?"

The same way that instead of complaining about the plebeians all the time they could have had her complaining about jumped-up nouveaux riches surrounding themselves with coteries of freedmen. The same with presenting the way poor households worked. It's changing a word or two in the script, that's all, and reminding the actors that these aren't 20th or 21st century people. It's really very easy (and usually much more fascinating to watch) to root characters in their own reality than in previous television shows.

At 11:50 AM, February 05, 2007, Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Atia has complained this season about jumped up nouveau riches. Twice.

As for the rest, no one has yet claimed it to be a documentary.

Jonathan Stamp, the historian/consultant/producer put it in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph,

Robert Harris attacked the BBC's television series Rome saying that it fictionalised many aspects of the final years of the ancient Roman Republic while claiming that it was historically accurate (News Review, November 6).

As the drama's historical consultant I have never claimed the programme is completely "historically accurate'', despite Mr Harris's allegation that this is a line I have "peddled endlessly''. Of course Rome took dramatic licence with the historical record. It is after all a drama. I did claim that we had done everything we could to make the world we had recreated historically authentic, but that is a very different thing. From the costumes, to the set, to the battle-sequences, to the gestures used by the public crier in Rome's Forum, or the rituals practised in its temples, we took the greatest pains to present the city as it really was. Of this Mr Harris is either dismissive or sceptical. One example he gave, of a ritual in which a character is showered in the blood of a sacrificial bull, is a well-documented part of the worship of the goddess Cybele, whose cult was officially introduced to Rome in 204BC.

He is also outraged that some characters are presented in ways that differ from what we know of them from history. Even worse, some scenes are included that "simply never happened''. The fact that such a charge comes from a man who makes a living writing historical fiction means that its hypocrisy could blind you to its essential absurdity.

The purpose of Rome, as most dramas, was to engage and to entertain, and in this aim, Mr Harris concedes in a grudging postscript, it succeeds.

Rome is not a documentary record of late Republican Rome - and has never purported to be.

Jonathan Stamp

London SW13

At 3:44 PM, February 05, 2007, Anonymous nm said...

OK, I guess I find things more entertaining as they feel more real (in light of which, Rome is not in the least entertaining for me), and you, Sar, find things less entertaining as they veer from what you already are familiar with. Fair enough.

I'm not asking for a documentary, and as I'm sure you will recall I haven't complained about fabricating scenes or making characters take actions they didn't take. I complain about making characters take actions that no one in their circumstances would have taken. I consider those two very different types of complaints. YMMV, and clearly does.


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