I had an interesting discussion recently with a Hollywood writer-producer of crime dramas, regarding a Hollywood Reporter essay by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, in which the veteran director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon laments the violence and vulgarity of the contemporary cinema. Stopping just short of sounding like an old fogy — or, for many readers no doubt, going well into that territory — Bogdanovich complains that the most popular, big-budget movies of the current day “are all violent comic book movies,” and he says that “doesn’t speak well for our society.”
Bogdanovich does well to observe that the industry no longer has room for movies like How Green Was My Valley and From Here to Eternity, but his concern here is clearly about style rather than substance, a desire that films engage the mind a good deal more, rather than relying strictly on appeal to the sensations. Any sensible person can agree with that.
His specific complaint about the current cinema is rather more debatable:
Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.
My producer friend observed that although Bogdanovich is correct to state that not showing graphic violence is typically more effective in dramatic terms than is the kind of mayhem frequently depicted in films today, the meaning of the violence is far more important than Bogdanovich seems to realize. In the comic-book films against which Bogdanovich directs his complaint, the violence is seldom without consequences, and the characters depicted positively in such films are fighting against random violence and against the use of violence to exploit other people. As the producer pointed out, the meaning of violence in contemporary big-budget films is pretty much the same as it was in days past, from Intolerance through The Adventures of Robin Hood and on to Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars.
Summer is the time for cable channels to move to the fore with original programming as the broadcast networks fill their schedules with reruns and cheap “reality” shows. And it has become a truism that the major free cable channels are rather more adventurous in their programming than the broadcast networks. This willingness to take chances has led to some very good shows such as Monk, The Closer, Mad Men, Nero Wolfe, and the like.
However, as the cable channels seek to fill their schedules with more and more shows, the ingenuity and originality factors have necessarily suffered in the past couple of years. That appears to be the case with the new TNT crime drama Perception.
By giving it the time slot just after the network’s most widely admired show, The Closer, TNT is clearly placing high expectations on Perception, and viewers can be expected to do likewise. Alas, it appears both may end up disappointed. Having The Closer as a lead-in should give the show some time to develop viewer loyalty. As should be expected, Perception did well in the ratings for its premiere Monday night, drawing 5.6 million viewers (live plus same-day). That’s an 8 percent drop from the 6.1 million people watching The Closer, not a bad first-night audience at all.
What the first-night viewers of Perception saw was what TV producers and distributors typically try to do: create something that’s the same as previously successful shows but just a little different.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that — it’s what makes shows such as Psych and The Mentalist follow the success of Monk. Here’s how it works in Perception: An eccentric genius neuroscience professor, Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack), teams up with one of his former students, Chicago-based FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), to solve mysteries. Pierce’s credibility is undermined, however, by his susceptibility to schizophrenic hallucinations. That’s his designated quirk, a necessity for modern-day TV detectives. Pierce, for her part, has a history of testy relationships with her superiors in the FBI.
The AMC-TV drama series Hell on Wheels (Sundays, 10 p.m. EST) takes a rather cynical view of the building of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it because of that. The points the show makes about the gigantic infrastructure project are quite defensible, and the picture Hell on Wheels draws of American society in the post-Civil War era, though exaggerated for dramatic purposes, has useful parallels to contemporary issues.
To be sure, in some ways the show pays obeisance to modern political and cultural clichés about the nation’s past. Predictably, the United States in 1865 is shown as dirty and corrupt, and life for many is depicted as short, brutal, ugly, dirty, and meaningless. The railroad encampment is a cesspool rife with drunkenness, violence, and sexual license. Although no longer slaves, all the blacks we see are impoverished manual laborers.
Similarly, the businessman leading the building of the railroad is no Gary Cooper. Expertly played by Colm Meaney, Thomas “Doc” Durant is physically unattractive, corrupt, greedy, cynical, and selfish, with no nuances in the early episodes and few enough as the series progresses.
The Christian church is largely portrayed as sinister and weird: a pastor in a debate with a prostitute (which he loses, of course) is shown from a strange, disorienting camera angle. A murder in a confessional opens the first episode. A baptism in a river is shown in an intensely disturbing way, as the individual being baptized is held under water for what seems an inordinately long and in fact life-threatening amount of time. This all too obviously emphasizes the power of the preacher who is holding him under water while the dirty, ragtag congregation sings in ugly disharmony. These film tricks all tend to make the Christian church highly unattractive.
The baptism scene in particular seems more than a little insensitive, portraying one of the Christian sacraments as if it were a brutal assertion of power — one cannot imagine the producers doing the same with Muslim or Hindu rituals. All of the aforementioned fits with a view of America’s history as a long string of perfidy, fanaticism, greed, and injustice.
Fortunately, Hell on Wheels producers Joe and Tony Gayton don’t leave it at that. Instead, they convey numerous story elements that contradict the cynical contemporary view of the nation’s history in very interesting and important ways. In the very first episode, for example, common views of the history of American race relations and the origins of the War Between the States are subverted. A northerner is cruel to the former slaves who are working on the railroad, whereas the protagonist, a southerner and former slaveholder, is sympathetic to them and treats them fairly. Later we find out that even though he fought for the Confederacy, the Southerner had already freed his own slaves and suffered privation in order to pay them wages for their services.
Similarly, Sherman’s March and the Union’s conduct of the war in general are depicted as vicious and unconscionable, whereas the Southern cause is characterized as a matter of honor, which the characters — who would know, of course — clearly accept as true. This, in fact, drives protagonist Cullen Bohannon’s story and hence is further emphasized in the narrative: his wife was murdered by marauding Union soldiers while he was off at war. A further irony is that she was a transplanted Northerner who had, as mentioned, persuaded him to free his slaves and take them on as hired laborers.