Fans join in wife-bashing on 'Walking Dead,' other AMC series
On 'The Walking Dead,' 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,' unpopular first wives are treated cruelly, and followers of the shows apparently enjoy watching the women suffer while their antihero partners commit worse behavior.
By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times
December 6, 2012, 7:00 a.m.
Even by the gruesome standards of AMC's zombie megahit "The Walking Dead," the death of Lori Grimes, the heavily pregnant wife of protagonist Rick Grimes, was unusually brutal: a crude prison-floor C-section followed by a bullet to the head dispatched by her young son, Carl.
Yet many viewers greeted the development not with despair or horror but with a sadistic kind of glee, flocking to Twitter, Facebook and online comment threads to post heartwarming eulogies like this one: "Lori left The Walking Dead the same way she came in. With her pants off."
The incongruous reaction to Lori's demise in the Nov. 4 episode fits in with a broader trend at AMC, where unpopular first wives have become a network hallmark in the same way incest plot lines and gratuitous female nudity have at HBO. In addition to Lori, there's Betty, the long-suffering spouse (and now ex) of "Mad Men's" Don Draper, and Skyler, currently trapped in what may be the most miserable marriage in television history to Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin at the center of "Breaking Bad."
Lori's bloody end capped off a particularly rough year for AMC's first wives club. When the once-svelte Betty showed up at the beginning of "Mad Men's" fifth season carrying 50 or so pounds of extra weight, "Fat Betty" became an instant meme. Similarly, when Skyler plunged into her pool in a desperate cry for help this summer on "Breaking Bad," her detractors wondered aloud why she didn't just drown herself already.
Whether it's a problem built into the antihero drama, a reaction to haphazard character development, or just plain old-fashioned sexism, wife-bashing is for many viewers an integral part of the AMC experience. Even professional TV-watchers have joined in the hate: In her recap of Lori's farewell episode, Vulture writer Starlee Kine declared, "Take that, Fat Betty; that is how you 'correct' an unlikable character."
All three women face difficulties that by any reasonable measure ought to elicit our sympathy, from borderline psychopathic spouses to the ever-present threat of flesh-eating zombies. Yet Lori, Betty and Skyler have all committed minor sins that make them wholly unsympathetic — or at least "annoying" — to certain viewers: They've each slept with men other than their husbands, made parenting mistakes, and, perhaps worst of all, gotten in the way of their partner's bad behavior.
"There's a narrative challenge to doing stories about male criminals or men who have an exciting violence to them: It's how to handle the women in their lives," explains Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker. "You're rooting for the antiheroes in this really complicated, libidinal, charge-up, cathartic, taboo way."
Shows like "Breaking Bad" encourage viewers to relate to men who do truly unspeakable things (poisoning children) while judging their wives for much smaller transgressions (retaliatory affairs). If they stand up to the men in their lives, they're irritating obstacles; if they don't, they're hypocritical colluders. See also: Soprano, Carmela.
"These women are called upon to provide the drama, to serve as roadblocks that the male protagonist has to get around," says Anna Holmes, founder of the feminist website Jezebel.com.
And because television is still written predominantly by men, about men, even the most forward-thinking writers will resort to a certain shorthand when it comes to female characters, says Alyssa Rosenberg, a TV columnist at Slate and the Atlantic. "Skyler nags, Betty is cold and personality-less. Lori is lame and stupid enough to get pregnant during an apocalypse."
Skyler elicits what may be the most undeserved antipathy from viewers. To her critics, she is a harridan and hypocrite who keeps Walt from fully unleashing his inner badass — never mind that by now he makes Pablo Escobar look like a pussycat. "I can't root for Skyler. She was an emasculating presence, constantly treating Walt like a child to be scolded or punished," wrote a typical commenter at the A.V. Club. "She's a control freak."
Condemning a character like Skyler is a convenient way for viewers to have their antiheroic cake and eat it too, says Rosenberg.
"People want to judge somebody but they don't want to look straight at what these antiheroes have become. Blaming the wives becomes a way to deflect that: They're still exercising moral judgment, but they don't have to get away from the fantasy that it's really awesome for Walt to be [his evil alter ego] Heisenberg when actually Walt is a disgusting human being."
The phenomenon frightens and perplexes series creator Vince Gilligan. "Skyler compared to Walt is Mother Teresa. She's the hero of that duo, yet so many viewers are saying, Man, I wish she could get bumped off, killed off or otherwise get out of his way so he can really break bad," he told The Times in an interview earlier this year. "I want as many people as I can to watch the show, but wow, I hope I'm not living next door to any of them."
On "Mad Men," the disconnect between writer and audience is less clear. In interviews, series creator Matthew Weiner has expressed a measure of sympathy for the emotionally stunted housewife played by January Jones, describing her as a "wasted resource" and a tragic product of her time. But in practice, Weiner seems less charitable to Betty, rarely portraying her in a flattering (or even sympathetic) light. This unforgiving attitude stands out all the more given how sensitive "Mad Men" is to the struggles of its other female characters, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson.
As a result, there was something almost cruel about the "Fat Betty" spectacle. "They've designed Betty as a character you're supposed to react against. Even if you wanted to be sympathetic, it triggered in you as a viewer this kind of 'Ha-ha!' Nelson reaction," says Nussbaum, referring to the bully from "The Simpsons."
Like Skyler and Betty, Lori is guilty of sleeping with a man other than her husband, although her dalliance with Shane hardly qualifies as infidelity: At the time it occurred, she believed Rick was dead. Nevertheless, it was enough for some fans to label her a "whore" and to interpret her death during childbirth as an act of divine justice.
Ultimately the biggest problem for the wives of AMC may also be the most intractable: "Women are socialized to identify with both male and female protagonists, but I don't think men are socialized to identify with female protagonists. When they are asked to do so, they rebel," argues Holmes.
While this may be true, women are among the most vocal AMC wife-bashers out there, especially when it comes to poor old Betty. And with the rise of troubled female leads like Carrie Mathison on "Homeland" or Hannah Horvath on "Girls," the language of television is gradually beginning to change, Nussbaum says.
"It doesn't have to be this kind of toggle switch between somebody who's empowering and somebody who's annoying. Once you open up the floodgates to bad female behavior, it's good for everyone," she adds.
Has FX's 'Sons of Anarchy' become TV's most violent show?
December 5, 2012, 2:26 p.m.
The fifth season finale of FX's outlaw motorcycle gang drama "Sons of Anarchy", which aired Tuesday night, scored one of its biggest audiences, cementing its status as one of TV's most elite and popular dramas.
The episode of the series, which is the cable network's top-rated show, drew 4.67 million viewers -- its highest rated finale ever and the third-most watched episode ever.
While longtime fans expressed enthusiasm over the numerous twists, turns and betrayals in the episode, some also noted that the level of graphic, horrific violence reached new heights this season, rivaling Martin Scorsese movies or other critically acclaimed series such as "Breaking Bad" and "Boardwalk Empire".
Rarely an episode passed without at least one person getting shot in the head. In many episodes, several characters met bloody ends.
Among the more disturbing incidents:
--The grown daughter of "Sons" sergeant-at-arms "Tig" was kidnapped, put in a large container and set on fire in an act of revenge. "Tig" watched helplessly as she was burned alive, screaming for help.
--"Opie," the most emotionally vulnerable member of the "Sons," was killed by a prison guard who bludgeoned him in the head with a lead pipe.
--Imprisoned "Sons" member "Otto" brutally stabbed a female nurse in the neck with a crucifux given to him by Tara, the surgeon wife of club leader Jackson "Jax" Teller, in an act of kindness.
--In the season finale, Otto, in an interrogation room in the prison, slammed his head down on a table, his teeth slicing into and severing his outstretched tongue. He spit out the bloody tongue.
To be sure, "The Walking Dead" is more relentlessly violent than "Sons of Anarchy. But that show is set in a post-apocalypic world and much of the gory carnage is linked to the battle with flesh-eating zombies. "Sons of Anarchy" is is set in a more realitistic violent world filled with a range of criminals.
Kurt Sutter, the creator of "Sons of Anarchy" who last year expressed some dismay at the amount of savage violence on shows such as "Boardwalk Empire," acknowledged that the violence on his show was more graphic this season.
But he said the escalation was necessary to show the effect that all the bloodshed and elevated dangers had on the various characters -- particularly "Jax", who at the end of last season took over leadership of the "Sons."
"We really wanted to turn the heat up on Jax and show the point of view of a very dangerous existence," Sutter said. "For me it was about shining a light on the very dangerous nature of the world. Nothing was done to shock, but we turned up the level of violence to expose him to all those things that I knew would influence his ability to make a decision."
FX President John Landgraf was supportive of the direction of the show and its violent elements, Sutter said. "He understood those decisions creatively, but we wanted to make sure it was handled in a way where we could tell the story without being grotesque. This isn't 'The Walking Dead.' That world is fantasy. And I'm a big believer in the belief that showing less is much more horrifying."
Sutter was intimately involved with the season's most stomach-churning scenes -- he plays Otto, the immate who stabs the prison guard and later bites off his tongue.
"I had pitched to my staff early in the planning of the season that I wanted to find a way to bite Otto's tongue off" as a demonstration not only of defiance, but of how troubled the character is.
"It was a way of writing myself out of having to learn more dialogue," he quipped. "Now Otto can only communicate by grunting and writing on paper."
‘Arrow’: John Barrowman talks archery, ‘Doctor Who’ anniversary
Dec. 12, 2012 | 12:33 p.m.
John Barrowman plays Malcolm Merlyn in “Arrow”
Fans of “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” know actor John Barrowman as the ever-cheery Capt. Jack Harkness. But for his latest role, as Malcolm Merlyn on the hit CW series “Arrow,” Barrowman is putting his famous smile to more sinister use, playing the wealthy head of the mysterious Tempest group. Of course, in “Green Arrow” comic book mythology, Malcolm Merlyn becomes archvillain Merlyn, a whiz with the bow and arrow himself. Barrowman unequivocally declined to reveal whether his character will one day evolve into that famous foe, but in an interview with Hero Complex, he did discuss what’s in store for Wednesday night’s midseason finale of the show, his own archery skills and how he might commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who.”
HC: What can we expect from “Arrow’s” midseason finale?
JB: You can expect a lot of twists and a lot of turns that you’re not expecting from the show itself and also from Malcolm Merlyn. I have to be vague, because we’re not allowed to tell you what’s going on, but the fact is that also as a fan of the show, I wouldn’t want to be told. There will be jaw-dropping moments.
HC: Were you familiar with Green Arrow before joining this series?
JB: I was not a buyer of those comic books but I know the DC world. This is going to sound really nerdy, but I have a DC encyclopedia at my bedside so when I’m watching other films with DC characters, I can reference them.What was discussed with me when they asked if I wanted the role — which I have to say, when I heard the passion everybody had about it and [executive producer] Andrew [Kreisberg] spoke to me — it almost seemed like they were apologizing to me for asking me to do what they called a small role. And I turned around and said, “Guys, I am thrilled that you’re on the phone asking me this. Because I’m a fan of this world. And the fact is that the passion in your voice reminds me of the day I was asked to play Capt. Jack in ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Torchwood.’ If you have a passion behind it, I know it’s going to be good.” As soon as they told me about it, I went and looked at all the material on the Green Arrow, and … there’s a vagueness about it. But I think that’s good for us, because it allows us a little bit of artistic license to take a left turn when we need to.
HC: Have you been practicing your archery skills at all?
JB: I have no idea what you’re trying to lead into … I did archery when I was in high school. In our gym class we had two weeks of archery and I remember taking the bow and arrow and firing it up and across the street into a car parking lot. It was Bill Jacobs Chevrolet. And the next class after the archery class we heard over the speaker, “Mr. Barrowman, John Barrowman, please come to the principal’s office, please. The arrow you fired went through a convertible.” So I have had experience with archery.
HC: “Arrow” has done surprisingly well for the CW. What was your reaction when you got word that the show had been picked up for a full season?
JB: What I can say that’s different in American television … in Britain, they wouldn’t cancel something after a couple of episodes. In the States they would. They would just decide it’s not working, take it off and put something else in on the fall schedule. It’s about turnaround and getting those audience figures. In the UK, they’ll let a show build. One thing I think is great about the CW is that we came in gangbusters for them and as per normal, the ratings taper off a little bit, but still doing well and all of a sudden there’s another gangbuster moment and the ratings go up again. The CW has stuck by it. Once I found out the numbers were good, I immediately texted Stephen [Amell] to say congratulations and job well done. Stephen was so excited, that he tweeted it before it was even announced. That gives you an idea of the feeling we have as the actors when it happens, we are happy about it and ecstatic that our story gets to be told.
HC: And now there’s an opportunity to see your character take on a more prominent role on the series.
JB: I’d love to be a regular on the show just to continue the role. I love playing him and I want to explore his world even more.
HC: You didn’t have a lot of screen time early on. How do you create a fully realized character in a very small scene?
JB: I’m not someone who says, “Ohhhh, I have to find my motivation! Blah blah blah.” You know what? Say your lines and put some personality into it. Tell a story. The main thing we’re there to do is tell a story. I believe in television the main thing you need to do is play part of your personality. You’re not really playing a character. In everything I do, I find some of myself, or a lot of myself and put it into the role. With Malcolm, I’ve tried to give him a little bit of a sense of humor. I’ve tried to make him fun. I’ve tried to make him quirky and flirtatious in a way that’s not overt. I don’t want to get too heavy about it, but I put a lot of my own personality into it.
HC: Any plans to have Capt. Jack return for “Doctor Who’s” 50th anniversary?
JB: If there is, I haven’t been asked. I would love to if they ask me and I know that Andrew has already said to me if they want me in the 50th anniversary, he will give me the time off from “Arrow” to do it. But it’s not up to me. The fans keep asking me online and on Twitter. If I had an answer I would tell you, but it’s not up to me. Personally, as a fan of the show, I would be disappointed if Capt. Jack was not involved.
Question of the SAG Awards noms — ‘American Horror Story’ isn’t a miniseries anymore?
By Lisa de Moraes
The biggest surprise at Wednesday’s unveiling of the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees?
No question: “American Horror Story’s” Jessica Lange nomination in the derby for best performance by a female actor in a drama series.
It’s no surprise Lange got nominated for her turn as “AHS’s” sadistic Sister Judge; scenery chewing on that scale is highly prized in Hollywood.
What’s surprising is that she’s nominated in a drama-series category. That’s because the show’s creators, and FX network, have been drilling it into our heads that “American Horror Story” is not a drama series — it’s a miniseries.
At least, it is since the producers and network decided so, around Emmy nominations time last summer; before that, the show competed as a drama series at the most recent SAG Awards, and at last January’s Golden Globe Awards. (New Golden Globe nominees will be announced Thursday morning — keep an eye out in re whether Lange gets a nom as a drama series actress or a miniseries actress).
Switching categories in the middle of trophy-show season resulted in Lange winning an Emmy for best supporting actress in a miniseries — “AHS’s” only glam-category Emmy win last September.
Ever since, the producers and FX have continued to refer to “AHS” as a miniseries.
Apparently they did not impress SAG.
“They tried to make a switch [to miniseries competitions] and we said ‘we consider it a drama series’,” SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell told the TV Column when asked about Lange’s category.
“They submitted in drama series [competition] last year,” Connell continued. “We weren’t going to turn around and move them to miniseries.” She noted Lange won the SAG Award last year for best performance by a female actor (CQ) in a drama series. SAG said it’s delighted Lange’s nominated there again.
That excitement aside, Showtime’s “Homeland,” ignored by SAG last year, got nods for leads Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, plus a nom for best drama series ensemble. Those three noms put “Homeland” in company with PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” HBO’s “Game Change” and “Boardwalk Empire,” AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and NBC’s “30 Rock.”
But ABC’s comedy “Modern Family” led the TV field with four nominations, including actors Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara, as well as an ensemble comedy nomination.
HBO scored the most nominations of any network with 10, including acting nods to Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson for 2008 presidential election movie/John McCain-Sarah Palin chronicle “Game Change,” which only seems like it aired three year ago but actually aired in 2012 which is the period of eligibility for the coming SAG Awards.
Also in HBO’s tally: Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen were each nominated for the network’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn” movie, which received less-than-favorable reviews from many critics. Steve Buscemi scored another nom for his role as a mobster on “Boardwalk Empire,” and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” snuck in just one nod, for star Jeff Daniels.
“Downton Abbey’s” Maggie Smith received the most SAG nominations Wednesday – 4. SAG singled her out for her performances in both “Downton” and the feature film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”; she’s also listed in “Downton” and “Marigold’s” ensemble-cast nominations.
Right behind Smith was Bryan Cranston with three nods, including actor and ensemble noms for “Breaking Bad,” and one as a member of the cast of feature film “Argo.”
The SAG Awards air on TBS and TNT on Sunday, Jan. 27. Here’s a complete list of TV nominees (and see the the movie nominations here.)
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin “30 Rock” (NBC)
Ty Burrell “Modern Family” (ABC)
Louis C.K. “Louie” (FX)
Jim Parsons “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS)
Eric Stonestreet “Modern Family” (ABC)
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series
Edie Falco “Nurse Jackie” (Showtime)
Tina Fey “30 Rock” (NBC)
Amy Poehler “Parks and Recreation” (NBC)
Sofia Vergara “Modern Family” (ABC)
Betty White “Hot in Cleveland” (TV Land)
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series
“30 Rock” (NBC)
“The Big Bang Theory” (CBS)
“Modern Family” (ABC)
“Nurse Jackie” (Showtime)
“The Office” (NBC)
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series
Claire Danes “Homeland” (Showtime)
Michelle Dockery “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Jessica Lange “American Horror Story: Asylum” (FX)
Julianna Margulies “The Good Wife” (CBS)
Maggie Smith “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series
Steve Buscemi “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
Bryan Cranston “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Jeff Daniels “The Newsroom” (HBO)
Jon Hamm “Mad Men” (AMC)
Damian Lewis “Homeland” (Showtime)
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series
“Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
“Downton Abbey” (PBS)
“Mad Men” (AMC)
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Kevin Costner “Hatfields & McCoys” (History)
Woody Harrelson “Game Change” (HBO)
Ed Harris “Game Change” (HBO)
Clive Owen “Hemingway & Gellhorn” (HBO)
Bill Paxton “Hatfields & McCoys” (History)
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Former ‘Storage Wars’ star sues A&E, says reality show is fake
By Lisa de Moraes
Last month, when Radar reported that A&E’s grumpy “Storage Wars” bidder David Hester was not being asked back for Season 4 — because producers got wind of fakery allegations and decided Hester was at the root of them — it was widely speculated in TV circles that this would wind up in court.
It has wound up in court.
Hester’s camp claims that its client was axed when he complained to producers about alleged rigging, according to the suit, which was given to the TV industry publication of record, TMZ.
“A&E has committed a fraud on the public and its television audience in violation of the Communications Act of 1934, which makes it illegal for broadcasters to rig a contest of intellectual skill with the intent to deceive the viewing public,” Hester’s suit claims.
“A&E regularly plants valuable items or memorabilia,” it continues. In the lawsuit, Hester also claims that the producer has gone “so far as to stage entire storage units.”
Among Hester’s claims: A BMW was buried under a pile of trash in one locker; old newspapers announcing the death of Elvis Presley were planted in another.
“When [Hester] complained to producers that A&E’s fraudulent conduct of salting and staging the storage lockers was possibly illegal, he was fired from the series,” the suit alleged.
Hester’s wrongful-termination suit was filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles.
He also claims that the show gave less-pretty regulars money for plastic surgery to make them more appealing (which hardly seems worth mentioning).
“We do not comment on pending litigation,” a rep for A&E told The TV Column on Tuesday.
"Restless" comes on the heels of more than a few films about hidden wartime pasts, most of them about Nazis. Not so in this richly textured World War II spy-thriller based on a novel by William Boyd. Its heroine Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) is, like all her spy colleagues, devoted to the Allied cause, as the film makes amply clear from the start. It doesn't take much longer to recognize that the story she has to tell is a deeply sinister one. To know that, it's only necessary to look at Sally in the opening scenes, set in the mid-1970s, as she reveals her past to her astounded adult daughter, Ruth (Michelle Dockery). It's hard to think of another actress with as formidable a gift as Ms. Rampling's for exuding a sense of menace. A power all the more potent in characters like Sally—that is, proud, assertive women, self-possessed and, in one way or another, haunted.
It's a testament to the crackling intelligence of the script (written by Mr. Boyd) that the nature of that menace hangs elusively in the air until the end. Still, the real heart of this two-part series lies in the dazzling action scenes involving a British secret-service unit, told in flashback and set in splendidly evocative wartime (and prewartime) backgrounds—Paris, London, Washington, and there's a brief stop at 33rd Street and Third in New York. That's not to mention a long solo drive down a frightfully isolated road in New Mexico, past a prominent roadside sign announcing the way to Alamogordo—a name with a certain ring to it, Alamogordo having been the site of the first atomic-bomb test.
The driver of that car had been Sally's younger self, British agent Eva Delectorskaya, Sally's real name. As her daughter, and we, learn at the outset, the person known as Sally Gilmartin had been born of Russian parents, had been a member of a British secret-service unit during the war and an espionage agent. One taught to use her wits, go behind enemy lines, and find her way back alone in strange terrain, miles from safety—the section on the spy training school and its training exercises is itself worth tuning in for, if only for the blood chilling scenery—and to dispense with the enemy physically when necessary. Agent Eva's wartime history, revealed in those flashbacks (Hayley Atwell plays the young Eva), includes some spectacular instances in which she's shown doing just that.
Thirty years after the war, she's preparing to use her wits again, to go behind enemy lines once more, so to speak, and even to take physical action against a foe. She's in danger from certain enemies over matters related to her wartime work, people determined to kill her, whose identities she will not disclose till the very end. Fearful—and much to her daughter's dismay—this widow of a respected academic visits the local arms dealer to buy protection. She knows guns well, as she shows during that visit—an encounter eloquent in its detail, in her expertise on weaponry and bullets on casual display in her discussion with the gun dealer. A scene like numerous others in the show whose small moments deliver a large quotient of the heft and color in "Restless."
When it comes to color, and for that matter heft, none of the characters, Ms. Rampling's Sally aside, is the equal of Lucas Romer. He's played by Rufus Sewell, who brings majestic verve to the role of the dashing spymaster and unrelenting disciplinarian, and also a boss who becomes something more than a friend to young Eva—one of the few revelations allowable about this drama perilously awash in potential spoilers. There's not much, to be sure, likely to spoil the pleasures of this work, one of whose charms is a refreshingly unhurried air even as it goes ripping sharply along, suspenseful to the end.
Discovery’s new reality show deserves to be shunned
By Mark A. Perigard
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - Updated 2 days ago
Boston Herald TV Critic
Mark Perigard is the TV critic for the Boston Herald.
Somebody has been binging on “Sopranos” reruns.
Don’t accuse the stars of “Amish Mafia.”
Most of them don’t have electricity and probably haven’t ever watched a TV, much less the award-winning HBO mob drama.
Blame the Discovery Channel and the producers of this overheated “reality” show (getting a sneak peek tonight at 10:30 and moving into its regular Wednesday 9 p.m. time slot tomorrow).
The title is a grabber, but how authentic is this show?
Let’s jump right to the scrawl at the closing credits: “Re-creations are based on eye-witness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.”
So there’s still hope then that the Loch Ness Monster might get its own reality show, I suppose.
Judging from the premiere, most of the hour seems staged. So many faces are blurred out, those coming in late to the hour are going to think their TVs are on the fritz. (Much of the show is subtitled, because the stars are more comfortable speaking Dutch.)
Filmed in Lancaster County, Pa., where a large community of Amish reside, the show follows a group of young men who provide a sort of rough justice for their community, deliberately isolated from the rest of the “English world.”
The leader, “Lebanon Levi,” denies the existence of a mafia.
“I’m just a guy who’s willing to do things for people,” he says amiably.
The editing would have you believe he’s the Amish Tony Soprano, though he looks more like his flunky, Bobby Baccalieri.
Levi collects assessments on property, gives cash to those unable to work and keeps his neighbors in line.
“Amish Safety Net” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?
He and his boys, despite their gruff posturing, behave more like the Busybody Police.
In vignettes tonight, they stake out a married woman who might be receiving a gentleman caller and confront a prominent figure who has been visiting a prostitute.
In this world, Esther might be Levi’s Carmela. She’s a member of the Old Order Amish, so conservative in lifestyle that she relies on propane lights and must be careful about the color of her window blinds lest they offend the community.
She uses Levi’s attraction to her benefit, to advance her brother John, who might be the Christopher of the group — the henchman with ambitions that outstrip his intelligence.
Jolin is Levi’s enforcer. As the sole Mennonite in the group, he can drive — and carry a firearm, which he uses to shoot out the back of a car that allegedly crashed into a horse-and-buggy.
The editing suggests Levi blackmails an elder over his transgressions to take over his businesses. That’s something that would make Tony Soprano proud.
How much of this is true?
Impossible to know. Trust none of it.
There’s more truth in 10 minutes of Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot.”
If you run a documentary-oriented television channel, apparently you are periodically overcome with an irresistible urge to go for the everything program: a program, usually a mini-series, that tries to capture the totality of an impossibly big subject. The BBC and the Discovery Channel had the acclaimed “Planet Earth,” followed a few years later by “Life.” The National Geographic Channel has had projects like the sumptuous “Great Migrations.”
In 2010 History checked in with the 12-hour “America: The Story of Us,” and on Tuesday night it applies the formulas used in that mini-series to the even more all-encompassing “Mankind: The Story of All of Us.” That preposterously grandiose title really needed to be strung out a bit to give an accurate picture of the program. Something like, “Mankind: The Story of All of Us, Delivered Somewhat Superficially by People You Know and Love, Because We Don’t Want to Bore You.”
The series, at least judging from the first two hours, feels as if its broadcast incarnation is a secondary concern. What it is really aiming for is the high school market. It’s a quick survey of our species’ high points — walking upright, cultivating seeds, learning more efficient ways to kill one another — delivered in student-friendly fashion with a stay-awake soundtrack and a narrator (Josh Brolin) who intones the important points in imposing, write-this-down fashion.
Nothing wrong with that. As a teaching tool, the series has much to recommend it, especially the way it emphasizes how one historical development influences another, a cause and effect often missed in the dry dates-and-places method of some classrooms.
The mastering of agriculture led to a sense of territory that led to wars. Domestication of livestock led to living in proximity to animals, which led to more diseases.
That last point is made by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the television personality, one of many well-known faces who turn up here. As did the “America” series, this gallop through history relies only partly on academic talking heads. (Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, is one.) It also draws on a sort of pop-culture cast to underscore important developments — the newscaster Brian Williams, for instance, and the chef Anthony Bourdain.
This isn’t as gimmicky as it sounds. The observations from these folks are just as trenchant as those from the college professors, and they help make the series feel less like a lecture.
It falls not to a professional historian, but to Richard Machowicz, a former member of the Navy SEALs and a television personality, to summarize how iron weaponry, military strategy and budding democracy came together in ancient Athens, as its men voted not to submit to the invading army of the Persian Empire.
“The ability to express yourself freely is so uniquely tied to the ability to defend yourself freely,” Mr. Machowicz says. “The Athenians appreciate and value freedom, their ability to be self-expressed, their ability to have a say in their government. And they’re willing to fight for that.”
The series, though, seems too eager to focus on warfare, perhaps because that allows for lots of imagery of men swinging swords and taking an arrow to the heart. It’s true, as the series notes, that war has often driven technological innovation. But as this series goes along, the test of its ambition will be whether it lets other strands of history that are harder to illustrate — religious thought, scientific inquiry — have an equal place.
The story behind "Blackwater," Game of Thrones's brutal season two masterpiece
By Brian Raftery
Two decades ago, when the author and screenwriter George R. R. Martin began work on A Song of Ice and Fire—the best-selling fantasy series that would become the HBO hit Game of Thrones—he didn't think anyone in Hollywood would be crazy enough to adapt it. "The reaction to many of my television scripts had been, 'George, this is great, but it would take five times our budget. You have to cut it down,' says Martin, who spent the '80s writing for TV shows like Beauty and the Beast. "A Song of Ice and Fire was a reaction to that. I said, 'I'm going write something as big as my imagination, and not worry about budget.'."
Case in point: The Battle of the Blackwater, a six-chapter-long land-and-sea war in book two, A Clash of Kings, in which disparate fiefdoms converge on King's Landing, the capital of Martin's imaginary world. With its teeming warships and castle-wall clashes, the battle is the sort of sprawling epic that would seem to be impossible to capture on screen. But Game of Thrones co-creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff were determined to make it all work in 55 minutes. "Everyone knew this was the episode that was going to make or break the season," says Benioff.
The resulting episode, titled "Blackwater," with a script by Martin himself, was the year's most glorious hour of TV. But getting it right required a war-room mentality all its own. Here's the story of how Martin, Benioff, and Weiss did it. Spoilers abound, obviously, but come on: At this point, how are you not watching this show?
George R.R. Martin (author, screenwriter): Dave and Dan gave me the hardest episode of the season. I think it was their subtle revenge for creating such a difficult-to-produce show. If you did everything as it was in the book, you'd have a budget approaching one of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. There's a sea battle, a land battle, a bridge of ships that the army pours across, a chain that Tyrion builds to keep the boats on the river, many sequences on horseback...all of this would be gigantically expensive. But my philosophy as a screenwriter has always been, "Put it in. You can always take it out later if you can't afford to do it. But if you don't put it in to begin with, then it'll never be in."
Dan Weiss (co-creator): After you get the script, you get a sense of the reality of what you're going to be able to get on-screen. There was a call a month after he gave us the script, where we said, "George, we hate to tell you this, but the chain's not going to be in it." And then we had to call and say, "George, we just don't have time for so many horses. They slow things down."
Martin: I wouldn't say I get frustrated. But it's a loss. It would be harder, if not for my previous experience in TV. I love the show, but I wish we had a couple more episodes every season.
Weiss: The battle specifics were constantly evolving to meet our budget. We wanted as much as we could possibly get, but obviously not more than we could afford so it was all about tailoring the budget. [Note: Though HBO won't divulge specifics, the show's budget is estimated at between $60-$70 million per season]
David Benioff (co-creator): We had one really intense conference call with the HBO brass. It was awkward: They said, "So, what are you guys talking about, an extra $500,000?" We said, "Noooo...." "You guys need a million dollars?" "Ummmm...."
Weiss: I think we asked for $2.5 million. We got $2 million-something. That's a lot of money in TV. It was a big ask for them, and they understood it was really important. Our point was that the entire season was pointing toward this confrontation. To do what's normally done on television—the Shakespearean model of talking about battles off-screen—would completely kill the season.
Benioff: We'd known for about a year that the ninth episode was going to be "Blackwater," and a disproportionate amount of our resources were saved for this episode in terms of time and schedule. It was by far the biggest episode that we've ever done. Then, [before filming], we lost our director. His father got sick, so he had to be home. And we got into panic mode.
Weiss: We were looking at a list of directors who happened to be available because they were in between projects. At any given time that's going to be a pretty small list. And it's a special skill-set to be able to do a convincing battle, even on a generous budget. But this one name popped out, almost in neon: Neil Marshall.
Benioff: I can't actually mention [Marshall's 2007 low-budget thriller] The Descent in front of my wife. That movie freaked her out so much, she can't talk about it, even years after we saw it.
Weiss: So we knew how far Neil could stretch limited resources, and how great he could make them look.
Neil Marshall (director): I got a phone call on a Saturday morning from one of the producers: "Would you like to do an episode?" And I said, "Absolutely. When is it—in the next month or something?" And they said, "Oh, no. We need you Monday morning." I hadn't seen the series, so I had to watch the first season back-to-back on a Sunday, get a flight [from London] to Belfast, and be in the office on Monday morning. I was given a week and a half to prep before shooting, but having come from a low-budget-feature background, I know what it's like to work fast.
Benioff: Most directors, looking at what Neil had to look at, would have absolutely shat their pants.
Marshall: I'm a keen reader of military battles, and I apply a lot of that thinking when I'm trying to choreograph a movie battle. How would it logically take place? What's the target? What am I trying to achieve with my strategies here?
Benioff: [Still], we were worried. We certainly admired his past work, but coming onto the show is a very different kind of thing. When you're directing a movie, you're the boss of everything, and you're looking at months of prep-time. He was coming into someone else's show with no prep time. He didn't know the characters' names, he didn't know anything ...I'd say we were nervous.
(Though it starts at sea, on the invading ships of Stannis Baratheon [Stephen Dillane], much of "Blackwater" takes place on land, in and around the castle at King's Landing, now ruled by the shifty Lannister clan, including psychopathic teenage king, Joffrey Baratheon, and his mother, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). The war begins when a single flaming arrow ignites a green-hued, napalm-like explosive called Wildfire, which destroys much of Baratheon's fleet. When the smoke clears, Baratheon and his surviving men storm the shore with battering rams.]
Marshall: One of the main things I watched [before filming] was The Vikings, the 1958 Kirk Douglas movie. At the end, there's this big battle, and the perception is that there's hundreds of extras, but I rewatched the scene over and over and you never see more than maybe thirty or forty in a shot. That reassured me that, since we were going to have only 200 extras, I could make it look bigger than it actually was.
Benioff: We decided to change it [from the book] and make the whole battle at night, because our FX guys said it'd be much easier. You can hide a lot in darkness.
Weiss: It's also just so much moodier. It's easier to be hopeless at night.
Marshall: We had two weeks of night shoots in October in Belfast [the indoor scenes were shot in Croatia]. It was cold and windy, and during segments of the battle, it rained solidly for three or four nights. But they're hardy people over there.
Benioff: The extras in Northern Ireland are tough fuckin' dudes, and they're into it. These guys grow out their beard and their hair to be extras.
Weiss: [They're] getting better at sword-fighting. They're going to be a full-fledged medieval army by the time this show's finished.
Marshall: I designed a large rowing boat that held a battering ram in it, and when it got to the shore, the people inside flipped the boat over and used the boat as a sort of tortoise-shell. The battering ram kind of hung from a chain underneath it, so the soldiers were protected as they smashed the door down. I don't know if anything like that ever existed, but they built it in a week or two, and it worked. That was fun.
Weiss: The moment I relaxed was when I saw the dailies from the first couple of days, and saw the sheer quantity and quality of footage Neil was getting. That's when I realized things were probably going to be okay. And there was a very good feeling on set, even though 36-degree rain was falling down on you for eight hours.
Benioff: We script every scene so that it has a shape and a small story to tell, even the battle scenes. Neil shot so much amazing footage that we had an embarrassment of riches, and many different options for telling each story.
(Midway through battle, King Joffrey Lannister cowardly retreats from the frontlines, forcing Peter Dinklage's Tyrion to make a desperate, rain-splattered, troop-rousing speech. "Those are brave man knocking at our door," he says. "Let's go kill them!"]
Weiss: At the pace we were shooting, we didn't really have that much time for dramatic scenes. For this monologue, if Peter didn't get it right in two or three takes, he had to move on. And he nailed it.
Benioff: Initially, we didn't know if anyone would watch Game of Thrones, but if they did, we knew they'd be drawn to Tyrion because he's such a great character, and Peter's so perfect to play him. When we were courting him, we said, "You will win an Emmy for this." I'm sure he thought we were bullshitting. (Dinklage won the Emmy in 2011.)
Weiss: There's something heroic about Tyrion, but he's not heroic through violence. And he's getting dragged into these situations against his will, and still coming out alive at least with some form of triumph.
Benioff: In some ways, he's the most modern character. Tyrion's view of the world might be closest to ours. It's almost like he's reached the Enlightenment a bit before everyone else. He has a skepticism about things, he has a sense of humor, and he has a disproportionate share of the best lines.
("Blackwater" isn't short on digital-effects shots—including several awesome Wildfire explosions—but many of the episode's grisly decapitations and sternum-slices were completed using traditional man-made models.]
Benioff: In planning the battle scenes, we were influenced by Saving Private Ryan, but we also watched a lot of older films—Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, El Cid, Zulu—because in many ways those films cleaved closest to the aesthetic of the show. They didn't have access to visual effects to achieve their aims. We did, but our budget was limited and we used VFX on things we couldn't possible achieve without them, like the naval elements and the Wildfire explosion. That said, they did create approximately ten million flaming arrows.