The Sun Always Shines on TV Part 2 (by JJ McDermott)

‘The Golden Age of Television’ is certainly upon us and one may only subscribe to Netflix, or wherever, these days to witness this. There is a startling depth of choice when it comes to new TV shows from around the world, and within this depth, one may also observe the growing trend for TV shows based on previous popular films – Teen Wolf, Minority Report, 12 Monkeys, From Dusk Till Dawn, Wet Hot American Summer and Training Day to name but a few. With many of these shows however, the films remain triumphantly ahead on all counts. 12 Monkeys for example is just awful, while Wet Hot American Summer, although in tune with the quirky oddness of the film, just disintegrates into nonsense after the first few episodes.

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In the not-too-distant past, however, expanding on a film’s success via a television series, proved to be a fairly straight-forward and fruitful endeavor. Look at M*A*S*H (1970) for example – Robert Altman’s pivotal and landmark adult film about America’s military conscience during the Korean and Vietnam Wars was effortlessly established as a family-friendly TV sitcom by Larry Gelbert, running as a prime time show for an eternity (1972 to 1983) and breaking several ratings’ records in the process. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) as another example took the original movie of Stargate (1994), itself a fairly mundane sci-fi film, and developed the storyline of multiple inhabited galaxies into something more fun and accessible. Arguably the quality of SG-1 did peter out after a few seasons, but it is still the longest running sci-fi TV show with 10 seasons (not counting three spin-off series and two additional movies). With Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Josh Whedon took an earlier film of the same name (from 1992 and for which he wrote the screenplay) and ran it in a more exciting direction. As Whedon and co demonstrated, when TV adapts the movies in the right way, it can be great and, more importantly, it can be very successful.

It’s not where you take things from – It’s where you take them to.

Jean-Luc Godard

Fargo (2014-present, created by Noah Hawley for FX)

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A recent example of how a TV show has expanded on successful elements of an earlier film is Fargo. Prior to the first season’s premiere in 2014, an initial apprehension hung over it given that the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film had already been established as a stand-out classic of dark comedic drama. Some would say an ‘untouchable’ classic. But with the brothers themselves on board as executive producers, it was clear that creator Noah Hawley was onto something appropriate here. After watching the first few episodes, it could certainly be said that FX’s decision to commission the show was truly inspired. The basis of the series was to focus on a similar story to the one imagined in the film, the setting being the same but the year being different. The series also expands further on the themes of crime, violence, good vs evil, sexual politics and familial values. The characterisations and general vibe expressed by the Coens in their original film is also respectfully maintained throughout the series – the Minnesotan accents, the ‘True Story’ disclaimer at the beginning and the classical score are all kept intact. Indeed it helps when you have A-List actors willing to provide their considerable talents to proceedings too – Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman (aka Ron Swanson), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor and David Thewlis have all embarked on memorable roles throughout the series.

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The evolution of characters from the film is something remarkable too – Freeman (Season 1) and McGregor (Season 3) have similar roles to that of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard – a bumbling idiot who is oblivious to the danger and jeopardy he puts himself and his family in, while Allison Tolman (Season 1) and Carrie Coon (Season 3) inhabit in some way or another the heroic character of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. The dangerous criminal characters from the film (‘kinda funny looking’ Steve Buscemi and the lurking Peter Stormare) also see an evolution throughout the series – Billy Bob Thornton personifies pure calculated evil in Season 1, Jeffrey Donovan takes the idiotic ‘bad guy’ to a whole new level in Season 2, while David Thewlis offers a deep (and less physical) repulsiveness to the role in Season 3. The series is successful simply because it is written, directed and produced to a high standard. It has a purpose and it pays homage to the original without ever being overbearing or tasteless. It also introduces a series of cracking soundtracks to the mix, something which the film never had, nor ever needed. But hearing the strains of Bobby Womack’s version of ‘California Dreamin’’ in season 2 of the show, for example, is so very much in place and provides an elevation to that particular scene’s impact.

The Sopranos (1999-2007, created by David Chase for HBO)

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The mob/mafia/gangster film has seen countless reboots and various evolutions since time immemorial. Sitting alongside the popular crime film format from the pre-Code 1930s, films such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (all inspired somewhat by Al Capone) have all had, and continue to have, a major influence on the film industry. A progression of the genre can be seen from these early films through to its seismic revival in the 1970s with the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Parts 1 and 2. The impeccable visual standards of this two-part epic may not have been surpassed since but it certainly paved the way for others to make an attempt anyway. Brian de Palma and Oliver Stone offered a decent remake of Scarface in 1983, Sergio Leone examined organised crime in New York around the early and mid-20th Century in Once Upon A Time in America in 1984, while de Palma also reconstructed the Eliot Ness/Al Capone story in The Untouchables in 1987. It was, however, Martin Scorsese who provided the modern day impetus for Italian American mobster drama with his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. This was indeed the primary influence that led to the powerful and ground-breaking TV series The Sopranos, which premiered on HBO in January 1999, a moment that many will attest to changed Television forever.

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In itself, The Sopranos is an evident progression of the gangster film, but with a minor difference – it’s a TV show. The sublime drama followed a modern Italian American family and their associations with organised crime over a momentous six seasons where quality of product never truly waned and the likes of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco rose to prominence in their acting careers. Goodfellas literally sowed the seeds for The Sopranos, not only in its portrayal of extrajudicial violence, male bravado and doomed marriages but also in the many actors who appeared in both creations (27 actors in total). Chase also provided many homages to the film in the first few seasons, most famous of which is when Michael Imperioli’s character Chris Moltisanti starts firing his gun at the feet of a bakery clerk because he had disrespected him (this is a reversal of a scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci starts shooting at the young Imperioli’s feet, telling him to ‘dance’, because he has failed to bring him a drink). By the time The Sopranos was released, the movies had morphed Italian Americans and gangsters into one big farcical cliché (see Analyze This from 1999) but Chase wanted to rip those clichés up, make them more meaningful and provide a powerful punch to audiences like no other film had ever done before. He certainly succeeded. The Sopranos has a marvelous and influential power in its relentless and entertaining drama. It showcased previously low-key or unknown Italian American actors who could brilliantly portray realistic and sometimes comical characters who were helplessly adrift in a world full of violence, misogyny, corruption and hypocrisy.

In the words of Big T: ‘what are you gonna do?’…well, watch it if you have not watched it yet! Here’s my favourite scene:

Deadwood (2004-2006, created by David Milch for HBO)

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TV Westerns were all the rage in the 1950s and 60s. They existed mainly to cash in on the wildly popular movie genre, which had been firmly established by the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann in the decades previous. Without the influence of early films such as Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident and Red River coupled with the rise of no-nonsense superstars in John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, Hollywood would not have formed into the same beast it is today. Even as the Golden Age of Hollywood began to splutter in the 1950s with mainstream studio Westerns looking tawdry and backward, the genre maintained a high level of viewership on the big and small screen. New stars appeared in TV shows such as Rawhide (see picture above), Bonanza and The Virginian, while in cinema, the violent ‘spaghetti western’ (so called because they were set in the Wild West but made in Europe) breathed a new air of life into the genre. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, along with their masters in Sergio Leone, Don Siegal and Sam Peckinpah, now became the lead protagonists in portraying frontier adventure and drama, with unforgettable films such as the Dollars trilogy, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garratt and Billy the Kid, The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter. The Western persisted right into the mainstream of the 1980s, 1990s and even beyond, mainly due to the influence of Eastwood himself (Pale Rider and Unforgiven). In HBO’s Deadwood from the last decade for example, Clint’s fatalistic manner is existent one way or another in many of the show’s memorable characters.

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Like The Sopranos and The Wire around the same time, Deadwood arrived as a result of HBO’s exploitation of relaxed censorship and increased revenue for big blockbuster television productions. With this so-called ‘movement’, there was an inevitability that the Western was going to see a reappraisal on the small screen and David Milch was the man for the job, having had previous TV experience with shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. The show resulted from Milch’s diligent research on the historical Gold Rush town of Deadwood in South Dakota. It was a clever variation on the American Western epic. Every episode had the standards and drama equivalent to a cinematic production but as all the events are centred within a single town setting, there is an almost soap-opera feel to it – a violent, expletive-laden soap opera! The characters on the surface appeared to be emboldened to the traditional Western format – the sheriff, his deputy, the saloon owner, the doctor, the priest and so on, but there is so much more depth to tap into here. With dialogue scripted to sound like Shakespeare crossed with a Roddy Doyle novel and an eclectic cast of legendary Hollywood actors (Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe and Brad Dourif), British thespians (Ian McShane and Brian Cox) and unforgettable newcomers (Robin Weigert, Kim Dickens and Paula Malcomson), Deadwood elevated the concept of the Western to new heights. Unlike many efforts before it, the show introduced its audience to a raw and realistic world of early American capitalism and greed, and impressively incorporated actual historical figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, Al Swearengen and Calamity Jane, and events such as Custer’s Last Stand, into an intelligent, taut and entertaining storyline.

…The Future…

With so much variety in television available currently and no prospect of production slowing down anytime soon, there is much to look forward to on the small screen. The recent series Legion (2017 – present) has shown what can be done with the X-Men universe if allowed free rein – it also has Fargo‘s Noah Hawley at the helm so quality can only be expected! Hannibal (2013 – 2015) too took a terrifyingly surreal and visually stunning new look at the novels of Thomas Harris. The series included elements familiar from the movies of Manhunter (Micheal Mann, 1986), Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) and Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) and mixed them into a sleek new animal. Worth viewing but not for the faint of heart. Up and coming Netflix TV series Mindhunter is produced by David Fincher and will be based on the same source material which inspired Harris’s original novels so this is quite exciting. I have also started to watch the Italian series Gomorrah (2014 – present) from Sky Italia. It is based on the same novel by Roberto Saviano that Matteo Garron’s superb and acclaimed 2008 film was based on. It explores the sordid criminal dens of Naples in a very stylish and entertaining way that is not unlike The Sopranos. The future for TV is certainly bright. A-ha must have had a crystal ball back in 1985!

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