This has been an interminably bad summer for movies. Not one of the blockbusters has been interesting or diverting: X-Men 3 was a lackluster addition to the franchise; MI3 was, well, too Tom Cruisey to get me in the theater; and Superman Returns just seems dull. And so in a reversal of the normal order of things, my attention has been drawn lately to the small screen, where the action has indeed been heating up. Back when original programming was limited to the major networks, summer was the worst of all times for television—the season of reruns and never aired pilots. Now that we are fully in the post-Sopranos era, and original programming is a permanent feature of the premium channels and extended tier (HBO, Showtime, FX, and the like), we do not have to wait for the fall for new shows or episodes to appear. While Jack Bauer takes time off to recover from yet another bad day or the team at CSI or House goes on hiatus, we can change channels to catch up with Vinny Chase and his Entourage, or see how the suburban soccer mom-cum-pot dealer is doing on Weeds, or (on my newest favorite) look in on the Irish politico-mobster Road Islanders on Brotherhood.
Of the three I’ve mentioned, Entourage (HBO, Sunday, 9:00 pm) has the largest claim on the zeitgeist. The trick of the series is to blur what is on the show and what is outside the show. Nominally about the exploits of a freshly minted celebrity and his cronies from back-in-the-day, Entourage is “about” the very industry that makes the show itself. And so the real world subject matter of the show is constantly intruding into the fictional world it creates: “real” celebrities play themselves mixing with the “fake” celebrities on the sets of made-up movies shot by real directors. We’ve seen this before, of course, in movies by Robert Altman for example. The difference here is the complete absence of satire. Entourage takes as a given our love of celebrity culture and its industry of images; it just finds nothing in that love to criticize. Rather, it makes celebrity culture all the more alluring for being turned into an aesthetic artifact. After all, what we watch on Entourage is not the tedium of reality itself. Even the “real” celebrities are playing themselves as characters in delicately crafted narratives. Rather, we watch artfully done 24-minute nuggets that serve us our favorite object of interest.
Like many others, I’m sure, I’ve been waiting anxiously for the return of Weeds (Showtime, Sunday, 9:00 pm) for a second season on August 15th. The premise is simple: a recently widowed mother of two from the wealthy “community” of Agrestic California, Nancy Botwin has turned to selling pot in order to maintain the lifestyle to which she and her family have grown accustomed. According to Showtime’s inevitable “behind the scenes” documentary, the creative minds who brought us this series seem to think their insight is to expose the “dark underbelly” of the American suburbs, as if that underbelly hasn’t been exposed time and again (even before the much over-rated and overwrought film American Beauty). What is brilliant about Weeds, in fact, is precisely the opposite. The show takes all the threatening or counter-cultural implications out of dealing and smoking pot. Marijuana blends seamlessly into the give and take of suburban life, with its failing marriages, anxious parents, over-achieving children, and slacker adolescents. The ostensibly outré activity of being a drug dealer is not so much a contrast to the staid and conformist culture of Agrestic as something easy to assimilate to that culture. The result is a very nicely turned comedy of manners, in which selling pot looks a lot like running the PTA.
I was happy to discover last week that Showtime’s new crime drama, Brotherhood (Sunday, 10:00 pm), is as good as suggested by its advance hype and previews. Here setting is everything. Few places seem more provincial on TV than medium-sized American cities: large enough for anomie and crime, small enough for gossip and tradition. Brotherhood is set in a white working class neighborhood of Providence RI, the kind of moldering, forgotten place that is littered with exposed tar paper roofs and detached lonely bars, where everyone knows not only you but your grandfather, where “mom-n-pop” stores are run by consumptive alcoholics, etc. etc. The show has as its backdrop, in other words, the melodrama of Irish New-England culture on the skids, in Boston’s smaller and less storied neighbor. It would be unfair to call the show an Irish Sopranos, though the comparison is inevitable. To the ordinary stuff of mobster theatrics Brotherhood adds the interesting element of local politics. The show follows the parallel and overlapping stories of two brothers, one an ambitious state assemblyman, the other a ruthless gangster. The point is not just to show that local politics is bound up with the mob (a theme explored to a lesser degree by the Sopranos); it is also to show that local politics is not so far from a gangland activity itself, with deals made through force and money, lives threatened and ruined, coffers plundered. Providence is of course a notoriously corrupt city whose notoriously corrupt mayor now lies in Federal custody. But that only serves to underscore what seems so perfect about the setting. Larger cities and more cosmopolitan locales tend to swallow crime narratives of this type— the vastness of the canvas dwarfs what are ultimately small minds. The not so big city on the decline, however, provides in Brotherhood both an image and context of organized crime and organized politics in the petty provincialism of their sleaze.