Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Dollhouse "Man on the Street" Is Just Plain Good TV

Last night, over a bad, illegal download connection on my laptop (because I missed it live and couldn't wait for Hulu) I watched the "game-changing" episode of Dollhouse. I will admit, I wasn't expecting much. The eps so far have been alright, and that's giving it a bit too much credit. I've been hanging on to this show because I believe in The Joss Man and his vision, but slowly loosing hope. All doubt, though, left, when at three in the morning I ghasped my way through "Man on the Street."

Here's why: first of all, The Joss Man knows what viewers are thinking. He isn't trying to lead them along or hope they keep watching until the juicy scene or gimmicking his way through the show in order to keep viewers. He writes as if he is watching the show himself, and knows what we are thinking when we see it. This "third eye" enables him to play on our emotions at exactly the right moment. Ballard and Nellie are having another one of their "neighbor" conversations, as "just friends." He has his shirt off and I'm thinking, "He should just kiss her! That would be so cool!" and then SMACK he pulls her in and lays one on her. My jaw dropped! How often does television give you what you want, no build up, no explaination, just going for it? This is just one example of me, the viewer, having an urge to see something happen, knowing the writer woulnd never allow it, but I still want it, and The Joss Man being right there with me and going for it.

Another brutually amazing tactic The Joss Man uses is his dead-on ability to do exactly the opposite of what the viewer is thinking. He'll kindly lead me on in one direction, then crash everything to the point I am saying, "How are we going to get out of this? We can't fix this!" The Joss Man knows what the viewer is thinking and capitalizes on it by doing the exact opposite of what is expected. Nellie's about to be killed. I'm thinking, "They just had sex, therefore admitting they really do like each other, and there's no way she's going to survive this episode." I started tearing up. I LOVE Nellie! I'm thinking she's my favorite character, and now she's going to DIE! But at the last minute, when Ballard is running back to the house, calling on his cell phone, the message machine in the back of the struggle picks up and BOOM Nellie becomes a ninja. She's an ACTIVE? WHAAA? Brilliant. BRILLIANT. Of course, I say. Deus ex machina, without the cop out and confusion. It makes perfect sense. The Joss Man knows this. The Joss Man sees us coming, innocent and comfortable. The Joss Man isn't afraid to throw things at us, because he knows we can handle them. And we know he hasn't breached the Realm of Possibility. This is when really great writing happens. This is when a viewer can be shocked shocked SHOCKED! without being confused, dissapointed or blamful that the writer used "save yourself" writing.

The final note I will make on The Joss Man's writing is that he says things plainly. He doesn't go for flowery language. He doesn't attempt to say things in an elevated fashion or make characters sound more intelligent than they are. He writes the first words, the words people think before rephrasing them better. The truthfull words. This is why Buffy is fun to listen to. Even the quirky made-up words fit, because they are completely within the character's Realm of Speech. You can't see a writer feeding them words. Father Hesburgh once said something (in an article my grandfather read to my mother when she was little, so I don't have the exactly quote) about using the plainest words possible, because there's no need to use a word just because it is bigger. The Joss Man gets this. He says what needs to be said, not what "should be said on TV." The beauty of the quotes that come from his shows is in their cleanliness their precision. Its the principle of Shakespeare. It's funny because of how the words are said, how they have been moved around and how they have been joined together or ripped apart. In Shakespeare, everything is appropriate to the speaker, and nothing is ever our of place.

"You played a good hand."
"No, I played a very bad hand very well. There is a distinction."

Is The Joss Man Shakespeare? Not yet. But damn, it's good TV.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Taste Variation: Bluegrass

I love music from many genres. They are vast and varied. Today I would like to explain my attachment to bluegrass/banjo-based folk music.

There is something distinctly American about bluegrass music. It manages to weave the memory of folk songs with a balance of syncopated rhythms, appealing yet unpredictable melodies and expressive, particular voices. There is always an air of warning in a bluegrass song, a love that's wary of its own truth or a commitment that knows it won't last. It's also very rooted in immigration and the identity of a culture, another very American theme. It's hard to hear a bluegrass song and not hear the irish "jig" influence.

Bluegrass is simple. It came out of a tradition of community music. It had to be understandable by everyone. The lyrics are straightforward, but that doesn't mean boring. They're often witty or reveal deeper irony. This much is true: no song's story can be understood unless you wait until the last stanza.

The musical structure is very simple, with basic song construction (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, ornamented verse, etc.). But within that structure is the chance for unlimited variation. Bluegrass musicians are like jazz musicians. They understand their craft so well that they are able to reach around it, through it, and within it in order to vary the emotion experience by the listener. It is the true musicians who create the best music (Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss). It's the people who know what they're doing that make it look so simple. Someone once described jazz music as "extreme creativity within extreme discipline." I think that's pretty true for bluegrass.

I also like it because my dad does, and it reminds me of him. What can I say, the man has taste.

Representative (and Darn Good) Songs:
Anything by Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet
"Notes from the Banjo Underground" Old Man Luekecke
"Oh, Agamemnon" Crooked Still
"Half Acre" Hem
Alison Krauss (preferably nothing done with Robert Plant) I appreciate the genre bending, but this was not so great.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My Brain Went on Spring Break on Monday

And it is Tuesday, and I still have things to do. God bless a week of relaxation, free of the torment of routinized living, but not at the expense of this week.

I officially started season 5 of Angel last night, howling aloud in the early hours of the morning after the lines, "Spike?" "Spike?" "BLONDIE BEAR!" It's the little things The Joss Man does that make my day.

The stressful days leading up to spring break and spring break itself seem to merit a section of music all its own. These are the changing times, the visible switching seasons, that change our listening habits. I've been pretty straight indie-mellow since the year's dawn, but yesterday I broke out the Euro metal. Nightwish a'blaring in me ears. Quality, I must say.

That is the beauty of the best. It's the music you can go back to time after time and still feel something. No matter how many times I listen to "Nemo," I always hear something new (a bass line, a string section, a hocket in the drums, etc). And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the real test of music. Like all things, it is the test of time. Will I like it in a year? Will I like it in three years? Will it mean the same thing it meant to me in high school? Is it strong enough to grow with me, or will it only be the music of memories? Some music has stayed with me because of association (Avril Lavigne - can't clean my room without her) and some music has grown to something completely new with time (Vanessa Carlton). Some music I have grown to like (Rush, Death cab) and some I still can't stand (Pink Floyd).

If you like a song, like it today. If you love a song, you won't know it until it's blossomed and evolved, months or years from now.