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WORTH WATCHING: CURRENT

Underbelly (TV3) Tuesday 11.15pm

Vince Colossimo making a point

Boston Legal (TV3) Tues 9.30pm

In good hands: Alan Shore (James Spader)
and Denny Crane (William Shatner) flank their client in court.

Bleak House (TV One) Sun 10.30pm


The Chaser's War on Everything (TV One) Fri 10pm


The Daily Show (C4) Tues - Fri 10pm

Here's host Jon Stewart, commenting on last week's Obama/Clinton debate, moderated by ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos: "The first hour of last night's debate was a 60-minute masterclass in questions that elevate out-of-context remarks and trivial, insipid mis-cues into subjects of national discourse, which is my job!  Stop doing my job!"

The cult satirical news show relies heavily on Stewart's wry delivery, timing and battery of facial expressions.  He must be doing something right, having been labelled "a self-important douche-bag" by egregious columnist Robert Novak.  Ably supported by a talented team from Comedy Central: Aasif Mandvi, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Rob Riggle and (last and least) an out-of-place John Oliver, Stewart somehow manages to coax his unwary prey to subject themselves to merciless lampooning under the guise of a serious discussion of topical issues.  Like Stewart, though, we all have to shift gear for the newsmaker interview which winds up the show.  Actor, writer, senator, soldier, statesman - whoever it is has only six minutes to make their point, and/or sell their book, before it's into the trademark "moment of zen" closer.

Outnumbered by the guys, the impish Canadian "American-in-training" Samantha Bee has delivered some classic segments of late: News I'd Like to F@#k spoofs glamorous TV anchors dealing with serious topics. "Sometimes I just like to lie back and inform the shit out of myself," she confides. Naming names, fearlessly going where others haven't, Bee delivers stinging comment on the likes of FNC's Megyn Kelly and CNN's Jennifer Eccleston and Kiran Chetry (a clip of whom shows her doing a studio interview in a skirt which "just about covered her own Sunni triangle.")  And Bee's venture into Aljazeera's Washington DC studio to help them jazz up their broadcasts was actually  a back-handed compliment to the upstart news channel.  While nonplussed staff looked on, she suggested more fancy graphics, pulsating news "theme" music, while professing amazement at  Aljazeera's desire for "a journalistically intelligent" product: "Aren't you trying to appeal to Americans?" and the length of the bulletins: "Excuse me? One hour?"

But for all The Daily Show's success, in real terms its audience is small - around 1.5 million.  To see what the locals think, here's a US view.  NY Times Columnist Maureen Dowd interviews Jon Stewart and fellow anchor Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, in Rolling Stone, here.  Aljazeera's Listening Post presenter Richard Gizbert blogging on the Huffington Post thinks Stewart gives Republican Presidential candidate John McCain too much air-time, here.

PBS NewsHour (Triangle) 10pm, Tuesday to Saturday and The McLaughlin Group (Triangle) 9.30 pm, Tues

The NewsHour (hosted by avuncular but sharp reader/editor Jim Lehrer, above) opens with a 10-minute world-wide news summary, followed by 3 or 4 in-depth stories (often running to 20 minutes per item).  The wrap-up piece is usually an interview with a topical prize-winning writer, a look at another (sometimes competitive) branch of the media, or a pithy essay from one of a gallery of possibly the best prose stylists on TV: Anne Taylor Fleming, Clarence Page or Richard Rodriguez. One-time mainstay Roger Rosenblatt has become only an occasional contributor, but guests such as the Chicago Tribune  columnist Julia Keller have kept up the high standard.  On Saturdays there's the weekly political round-up with NY Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields.  Jim Lehrer (his colleague Bob McNeil retired several years ago but has made some "anniversary" appearances) and regular reporters Margaret Warner, Judy Woodruff, Ray Suarez, Gwen Ifill & Jeffrey Brown are unfashionably thoughtful, unlike the breathless, fatuous, hyperactive types who populate US TV newsrooms and have become the target for so much ridicule from colleagues in other media.  
 
Gang of four (+ one)

"Issue one!" booms veteran compere John McLaughlin (above) as he introduces the weekly McLaughlin Group.  Now in its 26th year this half-hour political discussion program is another success story for PBS television.  With its four guest panelists (some more regular than others) it offers fast, furious and often scathing comment on US foreign and domestic policy - the last word always going to the provocatively conservative McLaughlin. The four-person panel consists of prominent journalists who seem as comfortable on television as they are in their respective print media. Most nights there's the veteran Washington insider and one-time Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan; syndicated radio commentator Monica Crowley (replacing the Washington Times' Tony Blankley), who delivers her sharply right-wing views with a dazzling smile, and Eleanor Clift (Newsweek) who gives no quarter to the guys - "Let me finish!"  The forth guest slot rotates between urbane, Los Angeles-based  Lawrence O'Donnell (MSNBC and co-producer/writer of The West Wing), conservative publisher Lawrence Kudlow, his colleague Mort Zuckerman (both US News and World Report) and the amiable and perceptive Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune).  With usually four "issues" to discuss and the panel's trademark predictions, followed by McLaughlin's sardonic closer: "Bye bye!", this is one of the quickest thirty minutes on TV.  Sometimes these "Beltway guys" (as opposed to Fox's Beltway Boys) can be too close to the action as in their assessment of last year's "defeat" suffered by incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whose preferred candidate for House Majority leader, John Murtha, was rejected by the House vote.  As I predicted from my outside-looking-in position, the American public quickly forgot about this, even if it was obsessively picked over by Washington insiders.  However, the always perceptive Lawrence O'Donnell pointed out that the new Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (which controls government spending), Charles Rangel, will become the most powerful Democrat in the country, rather than Ms Pelosi. The panel also pointed out, along with many other US political commentators - pro and anti-Bush - that the Baker/Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group recommendations "would be forgotten in two weeks," which has proved to be correct.

Aljazeera English (via Triangle TV) New Zealand Schedule plus 1-year anniversary report

AJ: Live 60-min News (7.00am daily)

AJ: The Fabulous Picture Show (Every 2nd week)

Yes, that is NZ's Taika Waititi with The Fabulous Picture Show host, vivacious Aussie Amanda Palmer at a Q&A screening of his film Eagle vs Shark at the "Everyman" cinema in London.  Previous editions have featured Sione's Wedding with director Chris Matthews and writer Oscar Kightley in attendance; the fps crew do try to cover all the bases, India, Iraq, Nigeria. Reporting from Cannes, the programme managed a compact edition of Martin Scorsese's Masterclass with well-chosen clips to illustrate. They have even run the Best Short Film AA-winner West Bank Story though I found it surprisingly dull, despite the frenzied activity.  Good intentions are not enough, and I couldn't help comparing it with the fate of the superb 2002 feature Divine Intervention which was not eligible for Academy Award contention that year because the Palestinian territories were not officially recognised as a country.  Hardly a way to foster greater understanding of Middle Eastern politics through cinema.  

AJ: The Listening Post

Host Richard Gizbert

AJ: Inside Iraq


OFF SCREEN:

Love My Way (TV One)

Dan Wyllie & Asher Keddie: Love My Way

Another Aussie series - from 2004, but why the long wait, and again, no fanfare?  It's "award-winning" which is surely the main criterion for TV One.  No matter, this very Sydney drama, co-created by popular actress Claudia Karvan is a kind of Aussie thirtysomething, (a show I never liked even when I was thirty-something) but seeded with some likeably flawed characters and some recognisably ocker ones. It takes a bit of working out just who is paired up with who in the first Ep, but it's not long before it becomes clear that even the happy couples aren't happy at all.  We've all seen Karvan many times before and here she's Frankie, the classic (now) solo mother with an artistic bent, touring Sydney's Eastern suburbs in her battered Volvo, but she does live in an amazing cliff-top house; look East and it's next stop New Zealand. Oh, did I mention it's all about "relationships"?  But not the soggy McLeod's Daughters kind. These are complicated, messy, sometimes unpleasant lives, where the idyllic setting (I know because I've lived there) is used as a mocking counterpoint to the daily struggles of the alarmingly immature characters.  Best discovery, Asher Keddie as Julia, now married to Charlie, Frankie's ex (Dan Wyllie). Looking in the full bloom of motherhood, even after she's given birth - at home of course - control-freak Julia seems constantly hot and bothered, her imperious manner a kind of perverse turn-on.  But full marks too to the rest of the ensemble: Brendan Cowell (Tom), Sam Worthington (Howard) and Alex Cook (Lou).

Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery (Prime)


Six Degrees (TV2)


Bodies (TV One)

Patrick Baladi and Max Beesley

30 Rock ( TV3)

It's back!  Just when I was about to blacklist TV3 (for the umpteenth time) they brought back this brilliant series, even picking up where they left off.  It now follows the "shock-horror/disgusting/sacreligeous" - but not-bad Californication (see below).
Like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (see below), 30 Rock is set behind the scenes of a network comedy show, this one produced in the old RCA building (renamed 30 Rockefeller Plaza) in Manhattan. The difference here is that the 30 Rock's creator/writer, Tina Fey, appears in that role (as Liz Lemon) in the show-within-the-show, giving it a post-modern twist. A twist of Lemon perhaps?  Liz's nemesis is network chief, Jack Donaghy.  Alec Baldwin plays him as a corporate wolf in sheep's clothing, a numbers guy who plays his cards close to his chest; the creative team fascinates and repels him.  Fey gives Baldwin a generous slice of the comedy pie: The Ep where Jack has to tape a 30-second promo is knife-edge stuff, with Baldwin (a veteran commercial voice-over actor) playing Donaghy as so bad at the taping it takes five days!  Much of the repartee between Liz and Jack relies on his smug assumptions about her and her colleagues. He arranges a blind date for her:
Liz: I don't cook very much.
Jack: Sure...I gotcha. New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says 'healthy body image' on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for...a week.
Pete: That is dead on!
Liz: What, are you going to guess my weight now?
Jack: You don't want me to do that.

She does however buy a nice dress for her date with "Thomas", who turns out to be Gretchen Thomas, a
lesbian.

Jack: She really liked you. She said you reminded her of Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Liz: She said that?
Jack: Yes. I even had her repeat it. I thought she meant Jason Lee.

As someone who never managed to sit through an episode of Will and Grace or Friends, and no, I don't love Raymond either, I find this stuff gives me a buzz.  Maybe it's seeing TV execs portrayed as insensitive thugs determined to keep anything fresh and witty off the air.  As Jack says to Liz: "Your sketches appear between commercials for toaster ovens."  In last week's Ep, Jack is dating, it seems, Condi Rice. He confides to Liz he has trouble contacting her by cell-phone. Liz retorts, "I'm not surprised, since she's so far up Bush's ass!"  This is even funnier if you've read any of Alec Baldwin's stuff on the liberal Huffington Post blog.  Recently, Jack (Baldwin) was seen on the phone, this time thanking "Maureen" for the flowers...It was several scenes later before it was revealed that he was speaking to Maureen Dowd - the acerbic NY Times columnist.  She must have been thrilled!  And these gags are just the incidentals.
    
   First season DVD now available from Amazon.

Flight of the Conchords, Prime

Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement & Rhys Darby let loose in NYC

New Zealand's favourite losers (Jemaine Clement & Bret McKenzie) let loose in New York City as they struggle to get gigs for their "band", despite the efforts of their inept manager, Murray (Rhys Darby).  They manage to let even the willing women slip from their tentative grasp while providing a running commentary in the form of droll ditties, executed in their now-famous deadpan fashion.  This back-handed compliment is an oft-quoted favourite:
You're so beautiful / You could be a waitress / You're so beautiful you could be an air hostess in the '60s / You're so beautiful / You could be a part...time...model
But it's not only the Conchords who have struck a um... chord with the US audience.  Great to see Rhys Darby getting plaudits for his self-effacingly brilliant turn as third wheel, Murray.  He really is as good as say, Ricky Gervais in The Office and far superior to Steve Carrell in the US version of the role, where all the latter's actorly tricks are clearly on display.  Another revelation is the way the American ring-ins have adapted to the style and humour of the Conchords.  Full marks to Kristen Schaal (obsessive fan Mel), Rachel Blanchard (girlfriend Sally) and Will Forte (Ben, the actor called upon to impersonate a Sony Records exec.)  Roll on series 2. [As an unadvertised bonus, Prime screened the final Ep in 16:9.  Nice one!] Grant Smithies' interview with Rhys Darby here. For an American view check out Thomas Rogers in Salon and also Shooting Flight of the Conchords in NYC.

Californication (TV3)
Or as it appears on my screen: alifornicatio with David Duchovn and Natascha McElhon, courtesy TV3's non-16:9 presentation.
Madeline Zima sparring with David Duchovny

Forget about the trumped-up "controversy" surrounding the opening Ep. There is much more offensive stuff to come, but really this is what you get when you let the experts get to work unfettered by network, political, and religious constraints.  Of course, it could be argued that if  out-of-work writer Hank (David Duchovny) is so smart why does he keep sabotaging his career and personal life with such gusto?  Well, so we can see him rehabilitate himself, and slowly claw his way back without compromising his (admittedly few) principles, I guess.  And if it makes Hollywood and its sorry denizens appear beyond redemption in the process - via a progression of scathingly funny scenes - who's complaining?  I'm still coming to terms with seeing Madeline Zima, who plays the precocious 16yr-old Mia, (she gets to vigorously bonk Hank in Ep 1) after her last outing as the youngest of the brood tended by Fran Drescher in The Nanny.

The Sarah Silverman Program (C4)
If you didn't catch the first, six-episode season of this "day in the life of" series, you're too late.  For all those who complain about everything being "too PC" the Sarah Silverman character who is - indeed she demands to be - the centre of attention here, pretty much redresses the balance on her own.  OK it helps that she's Jewish. Think Seinfeld's Elaine but much more annoying, more ignorant, more self-obsessed.  One minute she's telling anyone who'll listen she has Aids, while selflessly running an Info Centre with what time she has left, next Ep she's decided she's a lesbian and will do anything to prove her credentials, but wait, she's unable to help out somebody because "I bruised my vagina" - oh, and she's not beyond trying to out-fart the guys either.  Even in this brief season, few sacred cows were left unslaughtered, so let's have the next batch please C4.

Eating Media Lunch (TV2)
Another short season, with the opening and closing episodes, both surveys of the current state of the media, triumphant bookends to the middle section which consisted of too much reworking old ground - haven't we had the UFO nutters before?  The cat - or was it dog? - fanciers were an easy target, and the Las Vegas celebrity impersonators' convention was pretty weak.  Dave Letterman's "Impressionists' Week" was much better.  But there's always Jeremy's "equal opportunity scepticism" and irresistable affection for alliteration which ultimately win out.  The 2007 wrap-up with its media "winners" (ie losers) was a joy, with sad sacks psychic Deb Webber and insufferable Michael Laws seemingly scooping up most of the prizes.  I did miss Charlotte, though.

The Big Picture (TV One)
I enjoyed writer/presenter Hamish Keith's idiosyncratic style, and like any good documentary, it brought me up to speed in a subject about which I know little.  (Too many docos simply reinforce my prejudices).  But Keith's cultural history of New Zealand (since its discovery by European explorers) using art as a springboard was masterly in its presentation. The use of an endless stream of artworks to advance our guide's thesis, while not original, was superbly judged. Of course, there's too much to take in at one viewing, so the companion book will come in handy.  One thing Keith didn't manage was to convince me that Colin McCahon is superior to Rita Angus, in either ideas or execution, but I'm sure he'd say that wasn't his intention.  One gripe: Why did TV One screw up the 16:9 presentation?  On my set it was more like 2:1 - ie the image was unnecessarily narrow.  A shame, considering the series was all about visuals.  Final episode screens this Sunday (Dec 30) and Rita Angus gets her own programme, Lovely Rita, on TV One, Saturday, Dec 29, 9.45pm.

The Street (TV One)
An unmissable series from writer Jimmy McGovern, which zeroes in on a particular character or characters - all residents in the same street - for each episode. The rest of the cast, even the more well-known actors, sometimes ended up playing supporting roles or not appearing at all.  Indeed, the harrowing final ep. featured brilliant performances from Christine Bottomley as a battered wife and Lee Ingleby as her appalling husband.  This was difficult to watch and while it had a dramatically satisfying ending, there was a nagging moral ambiguity.  When is it OK to take the law into your own hands?  Another Ep had Neil Dudgeon as a teacher accused of exposing himself to a young female student - variations of this incident have featured in two other British series (that I saw) this year; all three left me wondering why any men would take up teaching as a vocation any more.  Others in the cast of The Street are: Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Daniel Ryan, Lindsey Coulson & Jody Latham.
Big Love (TV One)

Jeanne Tripplehorn (Barb), Chloe Sevigny (Nicki) & Ginnifer Goodwin (Margene) as wives No 1, 2 & 3 in Big Love

I can't say exactly what makes this series so watchable, or why TV One decided they should screen it rather that TV2 (where it began). Now in its second season, the street where Mormon Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) lives with his three wives - in three adjoining houses - looks as much like a set as the one in Desperate Housewives.  Salt Lake City looks just like Los Angeles - who would have thought?  Put simply, the plot concerns the vicissitudes of  Bill's polygamous life (which has to be kept secret) and his attempts to build up his business while fending off the machinations of his nemesis, Nicki's estranged father, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) and his own scheming mother, Lois (Grace Zabriskie). These secondary characters, which include Bill's level-headed daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), neurotic sister-in-law Wanda (Melora Walters) and runaway teen Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), loom over the proceedings in a manner disproportionate to their limited screen time, such is the intensity of their performances.  Even Bill's sharp lawyer, Lee Hatcher (Lawrence O'Donnell Jr) last seen in The West Wing - where he was a writer/producer also - makes an impression.  (However, this was nothing next to his outburst against the Mormon faith on the political talk-show The McLaughlin Group last week, where he was a guest panelist.)

The Family Guy (C4) Thurs 7.30pm

The New Shock of the New (Prime) Saturday 10th, 2.00pm

Robert Hughes in 1979 - The Shock of the New

The 2004 recap of Australian critic Robert Hughes' landmark 8-part series about modernism, The Shock of the New (1979). I still have most episodes on VHS from its repeat screening in Australia, about 15 years ago.  It has never been released on tape or DVD.  Note, despite the endless blather about documentaries, there has been zero publicity or promotion about The New Shock of the New - even from the channel concerned, and how about the time-slot?  In my view: unmissable; No Damien Hirst, but surprisingly Jeff Koons made himself available again, even after the hammering Hughes gave him in the US series from the '90s, American Visions.
Hughes in 2004, The New Shock of the New

4 Little Girls (Maori) Saturday 10th, 9.30pm
Another unheralded gem, this feature-length documentary from Spike Lee, depicting a watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement, the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which "4 little girls," all African-American Sunday school students died. Lee's film has been described as "thoughtful, graceful, quietly devastating," in which his "lean, straightforward style loses none of his usual clarity and fire."  One to watch while we're waiting for Prime to screen the more recent When the Levees Broke which they've been sitting on for some months now.

Skins (C4) Mon 9.30pm
Skins: truly-talented enemble

This brilliant UK series has just finished its first season.  Probably picked up the maximum possible audience on C4 which means you saw diddly-squat about it in the various TV columns, presumably because nobody sent a promo DVD to the major outlets, and they sure weren't going to venture into uncharted waters voluntarily.  Those of us who did catch the gaggle of Bristol adolescents behaving badly were treated to a truly-talented ensemble pulling all stops out.  It would be unfair to single out anyone in a cast which includes Nicholas Hoult (Tony), Mike Bailey (Sid), April Pearson (Michelle), Joseph Dempsie (Chris), Mitch Hewer (Maxxie), Larissa Wilson (Jal), Dev Patel (Anwar) and Abigail Stock (Georgina), but I'm going to: Bristol-based newcomer Hannah Murray (Cassie).  An ethereally zonked-out anorexic, Cassie is smart enough to play the system and check herself in and out of rehab and her demo (to a mightily impressed Sid) of how to appear to eat a huge breakfast without actually ingesting anything is a show-stopper.  This in a parade of drug-use, teacher-student sex (and every other kind), parents oblivious to whatever nefarious deeds their kids are up to, and did I mention drugs?  Roll on series 2.

  
The "Widescreen" Debacle.  
Free-to-air viewers pay dearly for 16:9 conversion.
The weekend TVNZ switched to "Freeview" transmission, a digital signal for TV One and TV2 with programmes screened in 16:9 format where appropriate (finally!), there was joy throughout the land. But wait...somebody forgot to tell the rest of us, still on regular VHF "free-to-air" channels that the transmission would now be full-frame (13:9 actually, but who's counting) just as TV was when it began in the 1950s.  That's right, no more series letterboxed in 14:9 - not ideal, but better than nothing, no more 15:9 movies (whatever happened to 16:9?)  The reason, I was told on Monday morning - the earliest I was able to get hold of anyone at TVNZ, was that "we wanted to be the same as TV3."  Eh?  TV3 are the worst offenders, with a pathological dislike of 16:9 letterbox transmission.  But apparently TVNZ had surveyed viewers (but not me) and the word was that they wanted to see "all of the picture" - actually part of the picture, but filling the frame.  Oh dear.  So this is where we are at 23 years(!) after the creation of a universal standard aspect ratio for TV of 16:9, sometimes incorrectly dubbed "widescreen".  You hear a lot about the intermediate ratios being "a compromise".  But that is what 16:9 was established as - a compromise between the many different aspect ratios already in use.  To read the channels' info pages [TVNZ] and [TV3/C4] you would think that they are at the forefront of change, and viewers and programme producers are lagging behind.  But that's not all.  Not long after I had been told, via e-mail, that this was the way it was going to be for the next few years, suddenly TV One switched, without fanfare, to all 14:9 transmission (except for commercials, which are letterboxed in the format provided).  I still haven't discovered why, but I suspect the very people who wanted the full-frame broadcasts discovered they were actually missing the edges of the picture...Things were looking up.  It would not be long before TV2 followed suit, I thought, for the same reasons.  Not likely!  I'm still waiting, but meantime I've seen, quite by accident, regular format screw-ups with a variety of programmes on both TVNZ and TV3: The NZ movie Fracture (on TV3) suddenly appeared in 2:1, a good approximation of its original AR and they did the same with a re-run of Mission Impossible and Raiders of the Lost Ark - but why not advertise it? On Oct 20, an entire V8 Supercar race from the Gold Coast was shown on TV One "squeezed" ie not de-anamorphed, with all the cars appearing to have oval wheels.  Same thing with the final Ep of TV2's Sensing Murder - although I saw only the last few minutes.  And the same with various episodes of Blue Heelers and The Wire (both late-night so I guess nobody's monitoring), but Master Chef  screened prior to the 6pm News on TV One!  Presumably the audience for these do not worry about such details.  Again, TV3's "festival movie," The House of Flying Daggers, originally 2.35:1 was brutally cropped to 4X3, as was TV2's Cursed, though mysteriously, Rocky looked to be 14:9. Over on TV3, the same night/morning it was deemed essential to screen the Kylie Showgirl Tour in 16:9LB.  TV One's prestigious local documentary series, The Big Picture, has inexplicably been squeezed to about 1.9:1 - instead of the intended 16:9 with TV2's Westlife live at Wembley given the same treatment. What's the problem? The return season of Big Love, moved from TV2 to One, is presented with 16:9 credits before switching to 14:9 for the actual programme.  Other series which cry out for 16:9, Skins (C4), The Closer (TV One), Nip/Tuck, What About Brian and Studio 60 (TV2), Medium, CSI: Miami, 24, Heroes, NCIS, Outrageous Fortune (TV3) were/are all cropped to 4X3. TV2's new series, True CSI, (yes, another one) which follows Studio 60, duly screened in 16:9. Not to be outdone, Prime runs the cheap and nasty reality show Caesars 24/7 in 16:9. Guys, it's amateur hour!  Time to join the rest of the world.  This has surely gone on long enough, as my sorry saga of The Sopranos demonstrates:

TVNZ in their wisdom screened the entire series of The Sopranos in the full-frame (4X3) version, instead of HBO's production format, 16:9.  Sometimes called widescreen, this is misleading: the image is the same width on say, a 32" regular or 32" "widescreen" receiver. The difference is that the regular (4X3) set will have black bars masking the correct shape - ie "letterboxed" - but nothing is "lost" in this manner. Where we do lose out is when TV channels screen the "centre-cut" 4X3 version. ie: the same amount is cut from each side of the frame with no regard for the content.  A "pan-and-scan" 4X3 version selects a new re-framed composition for each scene, but this is time-consuming, and is rarely done today.  The examples below show the appalling result of the centre-cut method.  In practice your set will show even less that indicated in the right-hand frames. I have used theoretical illustrations. Adding insult to injury, the opening credits sequence is exempt from this vandalism; every week I kid myself that this time, they'll let it run through the entire Ep. and every week I'm disappointed. So why would any TV professional worth his/her salt let this kind of thing happen?  I don't know, and I have asked TVNZ many times from the start (7 years' ago!) why they didn't switch to the letterboxed version, and have never received a satisfactory explanation - the weakest being: "That's what they (HBO) send us." Letter to TVNZ here

                                                                                                
16:9   HBO/DVD version                                                                            Full-frame 4:3 centre-cut TVNZ version

The Late Show (Prime) Currently in recess

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (TV2)
Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford: ratbag writers
Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme

It is both pleasing and surprising to see writer Aaron Sorkin and producer/director Tommy Schlamme's follow-up  to The West Wing eventually make its way here.  Hey, this is for a niche audience even in its home territory, never mind New Zealand, and they don't come more niche than this: behind the scenes of a SNL-type sketch show.  Just how interested are viewers in another "industry" series?  I've a horrible feeling that Sorkin's not-so-subtle skewering of TV executives and corporate culture, Hollywood hypocrisy, red-state conservatism and blue-state smugness is seen as too clever by half.  Still, you have to be a determined viewer to find it: TV2 scheduled it so that it overlapped The Sopranos (on TV One) by 10 minutes. (That's OK, tape it and skip the commercials).  First few eps were letterboxed 16:9 (see above). Bliss!  But no, just when I thought it was safely quarantined from executive meddling, somebody decided this wouldn't do, and suddenly the trademark visuals (a la West Wing) were brutally cropped to 14:9 - almost full frame. Bad move guys. (Including this quaintly post-modern touch shows they obviously have too much time on their hands).
What about the show itself?  Two ratbag writers Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) are reluctantly re-hired by slimy network exec Jack Rudolph (Peter Weller) who's in a bind, and ambitious incoming president Jordan McDeere ( Amanda Peet).  The boys had been trying to go upmarket with a movie, in pre-production, a biopic of Nikola Tesla (the electrical engineer and inventor).  This is stymied when Danny doesn't pass his drug test and can't get the required insurance. They look for ways around this which leads to rapid-fire dialogue which is a hallmark of the series:
Matt: So we'll make some budget cuts, we'll shoot in Vancouver.
Danny: No, we're not shooting in Vancouver. I'm drawing the line on the insanity. Vancouver doesn't look like anything, it doesn't even look like Vancouver. It looks like Boston, California.
That's only one instance of the preoccupation with geography, but it's well down the track before Matt - or is it Danny - decides the centre of LA is not the Hollywood sign or Downtown but "on Sunset between Doheny and Highland."  Sorkin even contrives (in the best sense of the word) to set a two-part ep. in Nevada, featuring John Goodman, slyly stealing the show as a wily small-town judge. When two of the show's sponsors want to flex their corporate muscle, Jordan retorts: "Sony and Samsung are not credible critics of American culture and politics."  I've never been a fan of Amanda Peet, but she has started to win me over, especially when (as Jordan) she is able to take Danny's urging her to "Be bold!" completing the quote (from Goethe) "...and mighty forces will come to your aid."  Throw in Timothy Busfield (another West Wing alumnus) as the sharp, witty director of the sketch show and the director of several Studio 60 Eps, a wild bunch of fellow writers and hungry actors (including Matt's ex, Harriet (Sarah Paulson) and Simon (D L Hughley) and you've got a show which may have had its problems, but these guys are doing a high-wire act, and I don't want them to fall off.

The Sopranos (Final Season) TV One
It's unsurprising that creator David Chase, as the heart, hands and brains of The Sopranos, summed it up best when he claimed: "I didn't want it to be a TV show.  I wanted to make a little movie every week."  He delivered on this credo - and then some.  Many of the episodes were, at every level, superior to most of the American movies I saw in any given year.  That he achieved this with self-contained episodes connected by a common thread - an American family inside "The Family" -  is all the more astonishing.  Part of this success is due to Chase sharing the creativity with expert collaborators.  He established the characters and kick-started the story (he wrote and directed only the first and last [86th] episode).  In between, he wrote other eps, oversaw the writing of others and the casting, even selecting the music which closed each episode in a recurring motif.
Heart, hands and brains: creator David Chase

Casting, of course, means not only actors, but the half-a-dozen writers and the same number of directors (see below), with a few one-offs (including series actor Peter Bogdanovich and NZ's Lee Tamahori.)  There is a buzz in watching how Chase distances the series from the seminal mob movie: the Godfather trilogy - though it's possible to imagine Tony Soprano uttering the famous opening line: "I believe in America..."  But this very contemporary take on the mafia required a matching style, so there is no trace of Coppola's elegiac, even operatic treatment here, nor (mercifully) any of the current vogue for voice-over.  Again, Chase's masterstroke was having Tony work through his existential crises in his sessions with psychiatrist Dr Melfi. This thread links the entire series until their explosive confrontation in the penultimate episode.  Overlaying the Freudian drama comes as naturally as the haunting episode closers.  The conventional house style for US TV drama is impressionism, exemplified by say, The West Wing or Boston Legal. The narrative is fast-paced and embraces mutliple story-lines. But The Sopranos veers towards expressionism: exaggerated visual effects are preferred to documentary realism and there are regular tangential excursions to territory which is never revisited.  

I have not read about or seen exactly what occurs in the controversial finale (but I have seen Hillary Clinton campaign commercial which quickly cashed in on its notoriety, even including from The Sopranos cast, actor Vince Curatola). And by coincidence the feature-length last Ep of the compulsively watchable UK medical drama Bodies had a similar "blackout" closer. Those "Sopranos" aficionados who claim that it's a cop-out ending have not been soothed by Chase's own "last interview" where he stated: "I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting or adding to what is there."  Nor should he.  Haven't the carping critics been paying attention?  Virtually every episode ended on a note of irony, ambiguity or contemplation - sometimes all three. As the final episodes unspool, I've been recalling some of the previous, standout "little movies" which have stuck in my mind:

College Dir: Allen Coulter. Tony and Meadow visit prospective schools up-state, Tony spots an old adversary and summarily whacks him during one of Meadow's interviews. The ever-perceptive Meadow puts it to Tony directly: "Daddy, are you in the mafia?" Meanwhile at home, Carmela invites her priest to make a house call which turns into an unofficial confessional where they end up watching The Remains of the Day.  Ends with Tony waiting in a college foyer, reflecting on his own lack of formal education as he ponders a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote etched on a wall-sized plaque.
Commendatori  Dir: Tim Van Patten. The New World barbarians visit Naples, Italy on a business trip, where their European hosts, including the ageing Capo's glamorous daughter (now in charge herself) are fascinated and repelled by the American crew's uncivilised behaviour. Heavily ironic in tone, thanks to parallel cross-cutting between Tony's adventures in Naples and Carmela's minding the store.  No prizes for spotting David Chase making up the numbers in a waterside cafe.

Employee of the Month : Johnny Sack moves to NJ, too close for Tony's liking; Dr Melfi is raped by a local thug as she leaves her building, later deciding against calling on Tony to dispense summary justice when the culprit is identified. plus:
Whitecaps :Tony & Carmela separate. Most of this season's preceding episodes have examined their relationship in unflinching detail, recalling, (such is the standard of writing and acting) both Edward Albee and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage. plus:
All Due Respect : All 3 Eps directed by John Patterson, who died 2005; The beginning of the end for Johnny Sack who is sprung in an FBI raid on his house.  Tony, who's visiting, escapes out the back, running across a snow-covered field, ditching his hand-gun as he goes.  (Yes, the gun comes back to bite him later).  Bedraggled and exhausted, he surfaces on the doorstep of his old home, reminiscent of a similar scene with Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer.

Join the Club : Dir: David Nutter. Tony is in a coma, after being shot by Uncle Junior.  Two disturbing episodes depict Tony deliriously living a parallel life which (again) recalls Bergman's Wild Strawberries and even John Frankenheimer's Seconds. Ends on a chilling, surreal note when Tony's doppelgänger (legit businessman Kevin Finnerty) is urged by his associates to come inside and join what appears to be a lively party.

Mr & Mrs John Sacramoni request : Dir: Steve Buscemi. Demonstrates what can be achieved in one hour. Incarcerated Johnny Sack is given leave to attend his daughter's wedding, (in the company of Federal agents).  He still manages to conduct business with Tony (in code) at the reception but ruins his hard-man image when he sobs as he's uncerimoniously led back to prison. But we are spared nothing: Tony, still convalescing, decides he has to re-assert his authority.  At his Bada Bing office, in front of the assembled gang, he picks a fight with his young, fit driver, brutally punching him out - before rushing to the toilet to throw up.

Cold Stones : Like Tony's trip to Naples, Carmela's Paris visit (with Rosalie Aprile) is cross-cut with business-as-usual events at home. While the two nouveau-riche women enjoy Paris' cultural life, studiously examining the site of the execution of a WW2 resistance leader, back in a dingy NJ motel-room, Phil Leotardo steps up, without consulting Tony, to mete out similar treatment to the wayward Vito. plus:
Soprano Home Movies : Both Dir: Tim Van Patten. Tony and Carmela join Janice and husband Bobby at their up-state lake-house for a break. For all the fishing, eating, drinking and initial bonhomie, the inevitable petty squabbles, arguments, recriminations and disappointments which ensue make this stand-alone episode nothing less than Checkhovian drama for our time.

Along the way there were mesmerizing scenes like the hapless compulsive gambler (Robert Patrick), out of his depth in Tony's high-rollers' poker game - guys like Frank Sinatra Jr and Paul Mazursky are around the table.  Ignoring Tony's modest extension of credit our man is soon so far gone he loses his business (a sporting goods store) when Tony finally pulls the plug.  Or the ruthless murder of the whining, wretched Adrianna (Drea De Matteo), when it's discovered she's an FBI mole. Her execution in a forest has a terrifying beauty reminiscent of Bertolucci's The Conformist.  When Tony is arrested at home by the FBI on a firearms rap, the always pragmatic Janice (Aida Turturro in the role of her career) takes the news calmly, warning (second) husband Bobby to "get rid of any hollow-point ammo in the house."

Controversial closing scene - waiting for Meadow...

The final 2 episodes were full of bravura scenes, with Chase's own finale directed with startling panache: a stream of heavily attenuated sequences juxtaposed with the amusing (Paulie views the cat staring at Christopher's picture as an ominous sign) and the bittersweet: Carmela's flicker of disappointment when learning a high school dropout friend of Meadow is now a second year Med student, or Uncle Junior so far gone he no longer recognises Tony - even to deliberately antagonise him.  Two brutal terminations: Phil Leotardo's still comes as a shock after an agonisingly slow track-down, and of course Tony is deeply wounded at being uncerimoniously dumped by Dr Melfi after she is rounded on by her shrink, Dr Kupferberg at his most supercilious. Note that Tony yet again misinterprets Jennifer Melfi - assuming it was his tearing out a magazine page in the waiting room which was the final staw.  Then there was the problematic closer: as the family meet at the diner (photo), there is undoubted suspense, but why?  Is the guy entering the toilet going to come out with a gun or "just with his dick in his hand"?  We'll never know.

   The Sopranos Slideshow with commentary on the unique visual style by cinematographer Alik Sakharov

Weeds (Prime)
The eyes have it...especially when they belong to Mary-Louise Parker, back for a second season as recently-widowed Nancy Botwin.  Opens with her discovery that not only is her nice-guy boyfriend a DEA officer, but he knows she's a drug-dealer.  I've raved about the first season here, and we know it must be a great programme because Prime bumped it twice in the last month, first "due to the Dr Who special running longer", and then to allow live rugby league coverage."These (programming) decisions will please some viewers and frustrate others!" Prime's Jill Houghton cheerfully told me in reply to my e-mailed complaint. And I haven't figured out why this half-hour cable drama with enough witty one-liners per episode for a season of most series loses out to the lumpen network show Ugly Betty in the Emmy Awards.
Best just to sit back and see if Nancy and her nefarious cohorts can outwit the DEA, the neighbours, her wayward kids, the Armenian competition, curb the wilder excesses of brother-in-law Andy, help Celia get elected town councillor and run her household "Supermom" style in between.  The good news: Prime (at my urging?) have gone back to letting the playout music and end credits play without any tampering. (But they still won't play the 16:9 version).

2006 REVIEWS:

Weapons of Mass Deception is a 98 min documentary from US filmmaker and "network refugee" Danny Schechter.  It demonstrates, using clips from American TV networks and interviews with journalists, including Peter Arnett, the compliant nature of American media in its coverage of the Iraq war, from the invasion in 2003.  The LA Weekly's Doug Ireland called it, "much more meticulously documented than Fahrenheit 9/11, and therefore infinitely more devastating." Why did it screen in the Darpan (Indian news) program on Triangle TV in weekly installments, from Oct 13 '06?  Simply because Darpan TV's Syed Akbar Kamal could not find any other media outlet which would form a partnership to help out with the screening rights and even enable it to run on a commercial channel with wider coverage than a low-power UHF channel such as Triangle. It comes as no surprise that nobody showed any interest, but Kamal rightly thought the program so important he decided to go it alone.  It's also no surprise that none of the local TV writers mentioned it, apparently they're more interested in the heavily-promoted, prime time, staple diet of cosmetic surgery, monstrously behaved kids (or animals!), obnoxious chefs and overweight adults, the stream of programmes on these topics having increased to the extent that there is enough now for all channels to have their own.  Remember the good old days (not long ago) when Prime would screen the BBC weekly current affairs program Horizon, and even TV One would show John Pilger's docos or segments from the ABC's Foreign Correspondent, one of which (however accidentally) contained a large slice of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism? What Prime does screen now, early AM, is a direct feed of FOX News. Update: Weapons of Mass Deception will screen (in its entirety) in a future Darpan programme.
 
Eating Media Lunch (TV2) 9.30pm Friday  It's back, the madcap take on local media madness with its own brand of insanity - the good kind. Thanks to the impish delivery of deadpan Jeremy Wells, who dispenses wit and wisdom with such aplomb, EML is the only programme in which I can tolerate appearances of the appalling Charlotte Dawson, not to mention her co-defendants - an ever-increasing number of media "celebs" with no discernable talent.  Wells, on the other hand seems as multi-talented as his famous namesake: no, not HG, the other one - Orson. A cynic might say that there is so much raw material in NZ media ready - indeed, begging - for this kind of merciless lampooning that they are easy targets.  So what?  Like Australian TV's Media Watch, EML has a disproportionate but well-deserved power thanks to the very people it targets and "offended viewers" - who are outraged, disgusted, sickened, insulted or appalled.  The rest of us just find it hilarious. Since newsreader Judy Bailey is back in the spotlight again, with the release of her auto-biography, it reminds me of one of the best lines from the last series of EML.  During the "salary scandal" I slyly suggested that Bailey deserved the cash grab since she had to suffer the indignity of those wacky promos which showed her whipping the troops into shape in the newsroom, while confiding that "the (news) bulletin has to have a structure..."  Was she trying to convince us or her colleagues?  Anyway, Wells trumped my smart-arse riposte when he reasoned Bailey deserved the huge salary for "putting up with Tony Veitch."  Ouch, but I'd want more than 800 grand for that.  Really, the only problem EML has is keeping up the stream of brilliant items like (from previous series) the notorious report on the "Anal Mana" documentary or the "Tepid Journey" through Remuera.
  
Weeds (Prime)
The best drama series (despite the Golden Globe Awards classifying it a comedy) on the box has finished its first season, but Prime repeated it giving late starters another chance to catch it.  Wide-eyed Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, a recently widowed, desperate housewife is a knockout. Embarking on a new career as a dope dealer to the local "soccer Dads" is a matter of necessity if she is to keep herself and  family in a manner to which they've become accustomed.  In this she is not so much helped, as tutored, by no-bullshit, wholesale supplier, African-American Heylia (Tonye Patano), someone with a nice sense of irony, so being an "underprivileged white lady" cuts no ice.  Parker, however, is given plenty of great lines which she drawls with practised ease; her character is the very antithesis of the simpering women from Cold Case or McLeod's Daughters and unencumbered by the declamatory delivery favoured by the cast of Sex and the City and yes, Desperate Housewives.  As she cruises the mean streets of Agrestic, CA in her beloved Range Rover we enter a suburban world once described by Hemingway as having "...wide lawns and narrow minds."  Confronted by the competition in "her" territory, a Hispanic heavy, she deals with him by shagging him on the bonnet of his car, then threatening to shoot off his dick with her son's BB gun, "which would be a pity, because it does such great work."  She reprimands her ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, Andy (Justin Kirk), complaining that when she asked him to look after her son's new school friend, that didn't mean "...fuck his Mother!" As she wakes from a wet dream - women do have them don't they? -  featuring her late husband, she grabs a handy vibrator which - of course - has a flat battery.  The scene of her urgent scramble for fresh ones closes with her eyeing the ceiling fire alarm...Weeds is similar in tone to the underrated Huff and has equally high production values. The interior design (Nancy's sprawling, untidy house with its industrial-size kitchen) is important here in defining character just as it does for the Soprano family's New Jersey abode which is cold-bloodedly nouveau riche, devoid of personality.  Amazingly, Weeds plays in half-hour chunks, normally allotted to sitcoms - indeed, the format in which writer/creator Jenji Kohan was previously working. There is no room for a laugh track here though, and dramatic sparks fly as hypocrisy meets pragmatism, with the throw-away one-liners from everyone coming non-stop; the closing scene of each ep.having the ironic twist of a good short story.  Parker gets great support from potential scene-stealers Elizabeth Perkins, playing best buddy Celia, and Andy Milder (Celia's philandering hubby). Even the kids are liable to upstage their elders. Check out Nancy's 10-year-old son Shane (Alexander Gould), who on examining his medication label muses, "Hmmm, I hope I don't lose my sex drive."  There are visual gags, too: In the season closer, Nancy and her male buddies, including the appalling Doug (Kevin Nealon), meet to discuss their business plan.  As the kids look on, the maid closes the double-doors, effectively closing them off from the nefarious plans.  It echoes of course, the final, similar scene in The Godfather where Diane Keaton is locked out of the Corleone "family planning."

The West Wing (TV One)  There is no doubt the tension slackened when the Presidential campaign began in earnest.  Good as Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are as the candidates, and Teri Polo as Smits' brittle wife, this is the kind of thing I would rather see in Robert Altman's Tanner 88 and its follow-up.  The "live" TV debate episode was an interesting experiment, but taking characters like Josh (Bradley Whitford), now campaign manager, out of their preferred White House environment is to deprive them of the dramatic oxygen supplied by the heady atmosphere of executive power.  The baton of ironic repartee is passed to undeniably clever actors like Oliver Platt (White House counsel) and Mary McCormack (Deputy Nat Security Advisor), able sparring partners for old hands like Toby (Richard Schiff) and CJ (Allison Janney) but in an episode like The Wedding the only suspense is wondering whether the Prez is going to make it to the ceremony on time.  No match for the almost concurrently-screened  wedding episode in the new season's The Sopranos, Mr and Mrs John Sacrimoni Request, which is packed with enough incident and explosive drama to rival its famous movie prototype. Toby's brutal termination does come as a shock, but it took Internal Displacement, sharply written by Bradley Whitford, to remind viewers just how good the series can be. Ostensibly dealing with the crisis in Darfur, Whitford was keen to illustrate "how the Government rationalises inaction" but the witty dialogue is so generously spread around the core cast members there is a tendency for everyone to sound much like Josh.  Incorporating a plot strand where the current National Security crisis is a possible confrontation between Russia and China over Kazakhstan, ("one of the Stans," as CJ might say) a discussion with the Chinese Ambassador ends with the urbane envoy wrily telling CJ: "Now I'll disappear into our enormous bureauracy and see what I can do."  Later, CJ confides to Kate Harper that the President's son-in-law, running for Congress in Bartlet's home state (New Hampshire) has been diddling the family's Nanny.  Her astonished response is: "Get out!  Is she cute?"  Whatever the political outcome it so good to see this series back - and in the correct 16:9 format.  Like so much American TV drama, The West Wing is superior to most American mainstream cinema, with similar production values.  Make the most of it. Suddenly, it's all over.  And the winner is: you'll already know, unless you happen to be watching in Australia, where they're well behind even NZ.  However, even the final ep. was ahead of the curve - when the new President was sworn in, the oath was administered by a woman.  Yes, in The West Wing's ideal world, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is female. (I later recalled that this had already been established in a 2004 Ep, "The Supremes" with Glenn Close as Chief Justice.) See also: Hollywood's New "It" Couple in a Perfect World.

Commander in Chief (TV2)

We Can Be Heroes

Curb Your Enthusiasm (TV2)

Absolute Power (TV One)

In Search of Shakespeare (TV One)

Henry VIII + Charles II (TV One)

Trust (TV One)

Cutting It (TV One)

Any Time Now (TV One)

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