Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
0

Frasier: The Greatest Sitcom of All?

Posted by Jason O on Mar 3, 2018 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs

frasierIt’s funny how TV shows can be forgotten. “Murphy Brown”, a sitcom starring Candace Bergen about a tough TV journalist ran for ten seasons (1988-1998), yet is practically forgotten. When was the last time you saw it repeated? Yet this was a popular show that was well known and well watched for most of its broadcast life and is, curiously, looking at a reboot(!).

“Frasier” hasn’t quite been forgotten. It is repeated on satellite channels, and still has its fans. But it never quite received the heights of pop culture endorsement that “Friends” did.

For the benefit of those who don’t know the show well, “Frasier” ran for 11 seasons from 1993-2004. It’s a spin off from “Cheers”, which was a massive sitcom which also ran for 11 years from 1982-1993. “Cheers”, set in a Boston bar, was a huge ratings winner, very much “must see TV”. People stayed home to watch the finale, and it made the careers of many, including Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Shelley Long, and of course Kelsey Grammar who started out as a minor character, Dr Frasier Crane.

Like many, I was surprised when I first heard that the “Cheers” spin-off would be Frasier, as he was not a particularly loved character. Indeed, most “Cheers” fans would have expected if there was to be a spin-off it would be of the two greatly-loved barfly philosophers, Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin.

But the producers had been right: Norm & Cliff would have been a “Cheers” carry-on, whereas “Frasier” told a whole new story about Frasier returning home to Seattle to work as a radio psychiatrist and live with his working-class father Martin (John Mahoney) and see his prissy brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce).

As a concept, it could easily have been a one season experiment that didn’t work. Remember the “Friends” spin-off “Joey”? No? Good for you.

But “Frasier” worked, on an extraordinary level. The cast worked on an ensemble level which was not dissimilar to  “The West Wing”, where characters and actors gelled together almost perfectly. You believed this was a family. All five main characters could communicate with a single look.

The scripts were sharp, swinging from cultural zingers to almost slapstick physical West end farce comedy. Just watch David Hyde Pierce’s Mr Bean style brilliance in the episode “Three Valentines” where he nearly burns the apartment down. “The Ski Lodge” is another, almost “Noises Off” in its door slamming mania.

Whilst the scripts were very strong, what really made “Frasier” work were its cast, and the fact that for sitcom characters there was surprising depth. Frasier was a man of great charm and erudition, yet in perpetual mid-life crisis, essentially lonely. Niles was wracked with indecision between staying in a cold but socially ascendant marriage with his bullying (never seen) wife Maris and his genuine hidden love for Daphne. Martin was the old style blue collar father struggling with his own aging, his sons’ social notions and the fact that he still missed his dead wife. The two women in the main cast, Daphne and Roz, were if anything underwritten and as a result even more of a credit to the two actresses who played them, Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin.

The show was also hugely aided by a string of brilliantly cast recurring secondary characters such as Dan Butler’s boorish Bulldog Briscoe, Harriet Sansom Harris’ brilliantly amoral and coquettish agent Bebe Glazer (a running joke was that she was the devil), or Edward Hibbert’s snooty food critic Gil Chesterton.

As to the claim that “Frasier” is the greatest (English language) sit-com, I can think of a dozen sit-coms that could make a play for the title, from “Porridge” to “Father Ted” to “Only Fools and Horses” or “One Foot in the Grave”. Yes, “Seinfeld” was great.

But’s here’s why I think “Frasier wins:

1. It hasn’t really aged. Unlike “Murphy Brown”, which was so full of current political references as to destroy it in syndication. It’s about a family, and about men getting older and looking for love.

2. It maintained a consistent quality over 11 seasons and 264 episodes.

3. It’s non-comedic elements were genuinely moving, such as the relationship between Daphne and Niles and the revelation (spoiler alert!) that Frasier and Niles’s sainted mother Hester had cheated on Martin.

If I were to be trapped on an island with one boxset, “Frasier” would be it.

 
1

Great TV: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Posted by Jason O on Jan 30, 2018 in Cult TV, Great TV you have probably missed, Movies/TV/DVDs

Repost: Recently browsing through my obscene DVD collection (I mean in size, not in content) I was reminded of the fact recently that if I never bought another

Sherlock Holmes BrettDVD again I would not be too troubled. I was also reminded that I have some treasures that I have not watched in ages that are such a treat. Granada Television’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is one such gem. It’s available on DVD, and stars the late Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke and Edward Hardwicke respectively as Watson.

Just as every generation has its James Bond, Batman and Doctor Who, for my generation, growing up in the 1980s, Jeremy Brett WAS Sherlock Holmes, and for two words: Pure Quality.

The period details are great, including an entire life size Baker Street set. It’s mainly true to the original Conan Doyle stories, but the real meat is in the performances of Brett and his two co-stars.

Brett, who suffered terrible psychological illnesses later in life and died at a mere 61, is just stunning as Holmes, creating an eccentric, captivating character around the framework created by Conan Doyle. Every scene with him leaves you unable to take your eyes off him, with every twitch and flamboyant hand gesture and flinging of himself onto the floor of grand country houses looking for clues adding to the character’s depth.

Both Burke and Hardwicke could easily have been blown off the screen given Brett’s performance, but both instead create a calming, grounding and very human foil to Brett, leaving the viewer with a very clear understanding that Holmes could not be Holmes without Watson, who although is not his intellectual equal, brings to the table human skills that Holmes does not possess, in particular Watson’s skills with women, a fearless willingness to get physical if necessary, and simple human decency. Burke and Watson are pretty much responsible for the repairing of Watson’s reputation after Nigel Bruce’s bumbling fool during the Basil Rathbone years. Today it’s normal to see Watson as equal if differently skilled to Holmes thanks to both men. It was easy to believe Holmes and Watson were genuine friends.

The series was made over a ten year period beginning in 1984.

 
0

Time to recast “Sherlock”?

Posted by Jason O on Jan 23, 2017 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs

sherlockWith the recent finale of the fourth season of “Sherlock” looking very much like a series end, the question of the future of the show must surely be up for debate. The reality is a bizarre one. The idea that two relatively modestly known actors (Freeman being the more famous, if anything) would become globally recognized film stars is a pretty far-fetched one, and yet that was what the show did for the two of them. Both went from earning a living as working actors and being That Guy From That Thing to, well, them.

The rest is history: “Sherlock”, although a globally successful TV show, is still run on a relatively modest budget and you can’t expect two guys to turn down the opportunities now open to them in Hollywood.

That’s not to say they haven’t shown loyalty to the BBC, because they have. But the reality is that the show deserves to survive even if, for whatever reason, its two stars can’t commit to anything more than the odd TV movie.

Plenty of fans would like to see more of “Sherlock”, and that leads to the awkward question. To recast?

There are those who say that it’s impossible, but I can tell you, as someone who thinks of Jeremy Brett and David Burke or Edward Hardwicke when I hear the names Holmes & Watson, it’s not. I love “Sherlock”. I got goosebumps when I saw the first episode. But I’m not a wacko purist who thinks that somehow the thing I loved can be damaged or changed by something that comes after it. Even George Lucas didn’t managed to destroy the good “Star Wars” movies.

“Sherlock” can continue, and if you don’t like it without Cumberbatch and Freeman, then don’t watch it. But what about Julian Rhind-Tutt or David Tennant as Holmes, and Stephen Mangan as Watson? Or, and here’s one out of left field…what about Lars Mikkelsen and Toby Jones as an older pair? 

Or failing that, if a recasting is too radical, what about The Adventures of Mycroft & Irene, with cameos from our favourite inspector, landlady and pathologist?

Of course, the one thing I would ask is that they solve a few sodding mysteries this time…   

 
0

University of Chicago Institute of Politics Political TV Festival: The West Wing

Posted by Jason O on May 8, 2016 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs, US Politics

 
0

The politics of “Captain America: Civil War”

Posted by Jason O on Apr 30, 2016 in Movies, Movies/TV/DVDs, Not quite serious., Politics, Science Fiction

captain-america-civil-warSpoiler alert: I’m assuming if you are reading this you have seen the movie. If not, don’t read any further as I’m talking about key plot points.

********

The two most recent “Captain America” movies have been the most political of the Marvel Universe movies, with both “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” having, at their heart, a question about the political accountability of self-appointed groups of do-gooders with extraordinary power.

In “Civil War”, a division emerges between the superheroes over a proposed UN treaty which puts them under the control of an international oversight body.

Unlike many superhero movies, the question isn’t black and white. The treaty comes about as a result of rising casualty rates amongst civilians caused by The Avengers group fighting various bad guys. As a plot, it’s very close to the key plot of “Superman Vs. Batman: Dawn of justice” but exercised much more interestingly. Both Tony Stark (in favour of oversight) and Steve Rogers (against) make valid points in the debate.

But what’s interesting is the politics at the core of the disagreement. Stark believes (rightly, I think) that a group with such immense power must operate with public consent, and so must be accountable and even open to restraint. Rogers, guided by his own sense of morality, believes that a group of individuals with such talents as theirs should not let themselves be restrained by politics.

Interestingly, he spits out the word, and that tells us something about the at-times curiously elitist views held by Rogers, that if he believes something is right, that’s good enough, and that no government, even one elected by the people, has a right to overrule his right to intervene. It’s a fascinating insight into our modern society that such a view is portrayed in a movie as a reasonable side to a case, and not what it really is: the argument of a fascist superman. In short, if someone believes themselves to be emotionally right, as Rogers does, then that’s OK.

As it happens, Stark displays incredible hypocrisy when he discovers that Bucky Buchanan, under Hydra mind control, murdered his parents, and anoints himself the right to murder Buchanan (technically innocent)under a straight and simple desire for emotional revenge, but in doing so makes his own original point that their powers have to be held in check.

Politics aside, it’s a great entertaining movie. The fight scenes are excellent, it’s chock full of cameos and it has plenty of humour. DC take note.

 
0

Review: Batman vs. Superman

Posted by Jason O on Mar 29, 2016 in Movies/TV/DVDs

Batman supermanI’m not a huge fan of  Zach Snyder as a director. It’s not that he isn’t a competent director, because he is. But his style, all speed and shadows, can be frustrating. Put it this way: I can’t tell you what the Batmobile looks like, and I’ve seen the movie. That and his obsession with slow-motion “symbolic” shots makes the movie so much longer than it deserves.

That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. Ben Affleck gives a good performance as a grizzled world-wary Bruce Wayne, and Henry Cavill isn’t bad as Clark Kent. Gal Gadot steals every scene she’s in as Diana Prince, helped in particular by a thumping soundtrack and in particular one revealing scene from her history. But none of them are likable the way Tony Stark or Steve Rogers are.

The problem for this movie, and its position as DC’s launch vehicle to create a rival to Marvel’s Avengers, is that Marvel have set a very high bar, and this movie doesn’t reach it.

It’s joyless, dour, nearly totally devoid of humour, and even the CGI looks more like CGI than Marvel’s does. Put this movie in a league of superhero movies and it comes in way down the list, way past both Avengers movies, all the Iron Man movies and The Dark Knight trilogy. And I write this as someone who regards himself first and foremost as a Batman fan.

This isn’t a bad movie, as I said. It entertained. But, like Man of Steel before, it’s not a movie you’d be rushing back to watch a second time.

 
0

Let’s hear it for the character actors

Posted by Jason O on Mar 13, 2016 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs
Boris McGiver

Boris McGiver

Are you a Robert John Burke fan? What about Delaney Williams? Or Timothy V. Murphy? Or Reg E Cathey? Or Jayne Atkinson? Or Boris McGiver?

Never heard of them.

Yeah, you did. You just don’t know it. Every good TV show from The Wire to Sons of Anarchy to Law and Order SVU to House of Cards has been made good not just by good lead actors, but by the character actors

Jayne Atkinson

Jayne Atkinson

around them. We call them character actors, and it’s a slightly misleading title because it hints that they’re sort of limited to playing a similar type of character all the time, which isn’t true, although it feels that way.

Robert John Burke

Robert John Burke

Is there anyone who doesn’t think of the words “Internal Affairs” and automatically think of Robert John Burke? If anything, some become so good that writers actually start basing characters around them and their sheer presence on screen.

Unlike series regulars, who have time to build a character and their personality and quirks, character actors are usually turning up for a

Reg E Cathey

Reg E Cathey

once-off and yet still have to create a fully credible 3D character. That takes skill, and if you look at the various actors named here, every one of them is an equal peer to the series lead when they’re on screen with them.

In fact, we have now, rightly, reached a point where producers have realised that the really good character actors aren’t just someone to fill in scenes with the series regular but are

Timothy V. Murphy

Timothy V. Murphy

now adding value as audiences not only recognise them but know that a Reg E. Cathey or a Jayne Atkinson always bring something worth watching to a scene, and want to see more of them.

So here’s to the character actors. Some break through to lead, some do a “Stephen Toblowsky” and become a character genre in themselves, but all deliver.

To jog memories as to all those from above, you’ll have seen Boris McGiver in

Delaney Williams

Delaney Williams

House of Cards and Person of Interest, Robert John Burke in SVU and Person of Interest, Delaney Williams in SVU and The Wire, Jayne Atkinson in House of Cards and Criminal Minds, Reg E. Cathey in House of Cards and The Wire, and our own Timothy V. Murphy in Sons of Anarchy.

 
0

The Empire vs. the Federation: a comparison.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 21, 2015 in Cult TV, Movies, Movies/TV/DVDs, Not quite serious., Politics, Science Fiction

death star 2Watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and also seeing the new Star Trek trailer got me thinking recently about how society is ordered in both systems. Admittedly, the Empire existed when humans were still in dwelling in caves, and so a like-for-like comparison isn’t quite fair, but as models go they’re worth comparing.

Which works better? Depends on the question.

Economic Freedom: there’s no comparison. The Empire is a free trade Caveat Emptor kind of place, with huge discrepancies between rich and poor. Slavery is tolerated. On the negative side, private property rights don’t seem to be respected by the state as much as just tolerated. Imperial stormtroopers can burn down your farm without as much as a “by your leave.”Star Trek Enterprise Ship 1701 2

The Federation, on the other hand, is almost the opposite, in that it is in effect a Communist society where possibly all property is owned by the state. Having said that, civil rights seem to apply to a home and individual once it has been allocated. Slavery is banned in the Federation, as is discrimination based on many criteria. Many of them. The Federation seems to have more laws than the Empire has stormtroopers.

The Political System: both systems seem to devolve a lot of non-military power to local decision making, however it is chosen locally. There is a tendency in the Federation towards only permitting members to join that govern with the broad consent of their people and involves detailed negotiation and examination of a candidate. The Empire, on the other hand, just annexes planets. Think British Empire. vs EU.

The Empire is a dictatorship. The Federation Council is chosen by member states, with the Federation President being a low profile bureaucrat. Russia vs EU. Neither hold galactic elections. Only one has a leader who personally murders people.

Civil liberties: There are pretty much none in the Empire, whereas the Federation has probably the most civil liberties in any galaxy. The Empire executes people. The Federation does have the death penalty, but very rarely uses it. Instead, prisoners tend to be exiled to New Zealand. That’ll learn ’em. Finally, Imperial forces seem to be limited to humanoids and clones, whereas Starfleet is multicultural. It might explain why stormtroopers are such dreadful shots.

Military power: Although the Imperial fleet is much bigger than Starfleet, the Federation’s ships are technologically more advanced, with both cloaking (unofficially) and transport technology. Most Imperial weapons seem to be crude energy blasters, whereas Federation weapons are targeted and sustained beams. Both sides boast a superweapon. The Empire has a Death Star, the Federation the Genesis Device. The Death Star has superior range, whereas the Genesis Device would have to be delivered from orbit by a cloaked ship. Having said that the GD leaves the planet intact and devoid of life, ready to be reseeded with plant life. It is the neutron bomb of the galaxy.

The Empire has far superior ground forces, with the Federation having a very limited Military Assault Command capability. It also has better psychics who can actually do stuff aside from sense that people are stressful.

So, of the two systems, where would one choose to live? It’s a simple enough choice. If you are a swashbuckling scofflaw with a belief that you can make your own way and outrun any other ship (and do, maybe, the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, say) then the Empire is for you.

If, on the other hand, you want order, dignity, and enough money to live a nice middle-class life but no more, the Federation is the one. You can become very rich in the Empire, but also have it taken off you at a whim by the starving underclass or the shady Ayatollah who runs it. And they’ll either freeze your ass off or feed you to some sort of giant sand sphincter with teeth.

In the Federation you can work your way up through the fleet by meritocracy, or sit on your ass writing light operas. Whatever floats your boat. You won’t go hungry, and neither bounty hunters nor the military will bother you.

Unless the Empire decide they quite fancy owning the Federation, of course.

 
1

Cult TV: The Death of Ross and Rachel.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 20, 2015 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs

Ross RachelRepost: The American chatshow host Conan O’Brien remarked last year that he had noticed a significant change in audiences who attended the recording of his show on TBS. He pointed out that in the 1990s a guest who was the star of a successful show could assume that the great majority of the studio audience not only knew who he/she actually was, but would get references to their character and the plotline of their show. Everybody knew who Ross and Rachel were.

O’Brien pointed out that now, going by audience reaction, it is now possible to be the star of what is deemed a successful show and yet still have a large proportion of the audience have only a vague if any knowledge of the actor or their show.

Consider two numbers: “Game of Thrones”, arguably the most popular TV show on the planet, gets around 7m viewers in the US for new episodes. Now consider that “Only Fools and Horses” used to get up to 14m viewers in the UK alone. Sure, don’t go all mad: I know, I’m not comparing like-with-like. GoT appears on a cable network, OFaH was free to view. But the fact is, the huge choice we have now has completely fragmented TV viewing. There are exceptions: in the US the Superbowl gets over 100m viewers, but even that has to be taken in the context of the time. Why? Well, here’s another wild figure. The finale of “MASH” in 1983 got nearly 106m viewers, in a country with nearly 100m less people than the Superbowl broadcasts to now.

The media lock onto shows like “The West Wing” or “The Sopranos” or “Madmen” or “The Wire” but the reality is that relatively small numbers of people actually watch these shows, in whatever format they watch (Cable, download, etc). The finale of “Friends” 10 years ago got stateside 52m viewers. Seinfeld got 76m. Today, the biggest drama show on American TV (both cable and terrestrial) is “NCIS”, which gets, in a country of 320m people, an audience of between 16 and 20 million. True, they were finale shows, with huge amounts of publicity surrounding them, but the figures are still stark.

So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that we now live in a “television” (I use the word loosely, given the impact of Netflix and downloads) age where a huge increase in quality and choice has almost shattered the shared experience. It’s true that people now watch “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” with one eye on Twitter, and that is a shared community, but the reality is that most people are not watching the show you are watching. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But we all (of a certain vintage) remember Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. On the other hand, I’m afraid to write about Ned Stark out of fear that some of my readers don’t know who he is, or his destiny, because they haven’t experienced it yet.

 
0

A possible Xmas stocking filler: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 16, 2015 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs

I was in New York just before “Studio 60” debuted in 2006, and it was a big deal. The major US TV networks had gotten into a major bidding war to secure Aaron Sorkin’s new show, based around a late night “Saturday Night Live” comedy show, and when NBC won the rights, they pumped huge money into advertising it, with billboards, magazines and bus stop ads. This was to be the biggest show on TV that season.

It bombed. In fact, it bombed so badly that hardly anybody saw the final few episodes as its viewing numbers dropped from 14 million to 4 million, and it was quietly cancelled after 22 episodes.

When I first saw it, I was quite underwhelmed. It had all the Sorkin stuff, and was jammers full of ex-West Wing alumni like Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry and Timothy Busfield, but overall, it was all a bit, well, “meh”.

Yet, watching it now, having bought it cheap on DVD, I ask myself: would I watch a second season? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes I would. With the benefit of hindsight I think I know what went wrong with the show. Firstly, it came after “The West Wing”, which reinvented political drama. There were huge expectations on this extremely expensive ($3m an episode cost to NBC) to produce show, which could never be met. After all, people discovered “The West Wing”, whereas they were waiting for this.

Secondly, it’s about a subject (effectively SNL) which is revered by comedians, writers and The New Yorker crowd but is just a funny TV show to everybody else. It is hard to make drama out of something that people do not regard as important. It’s like setting a show in the competitive world of show jumping. A big deal to some people, but…

Funnily enough, I could see it working as an HBO show now, especially with it’s angle about the politics of television. Wait, isn’t there a show on HBO about a TV show written by Aaron Sorkin? Oh well.

Give it a go, all the same. Whitford and Perry have genuine onscreen chemistry, and I’d like to see them in something together again. It’s also set during the paranoid days of the Bush administration, before that nice well-spoken young man from Hawaii rescued us all, and you can notice it.

One other thing: it was this show that finally made me try to write stuff professionally, and watching it reminded me of the very first cheque I ever got for writing, and thinking “Really, people are going to pay me for this?”

Copyright © 2019 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.