I'll come back to notes from LA next week but there's been a few media goings on that have been interesting so I thought I'd throw my tuppence worth in.
First off. X Factor. As despicable as some people find it (and in some ways I do too), I also love it. Which is really annoying. It's like the Daily Mail. I hate everything it stands for but I still read the celebrity goss in the side bar of shame. Ah, well. I can't be saintly all the time.
With X Factor, more specifically, I love watching and tweeting it and my ambivalence leads to some very acerbic tweets. That's my thing. It makes the experience fun and you almost forget the shameless manipulation of desperate, naive teenagers but this year, they took the cruelty of the show to a new level (or depth) with their kind of, lethal musical chairs but it's compelling television. There are only three chairs (or places in the final show) but ten contestants in each group so when the chairs are full they start booting out people moments after experiencing the euphoria of thinking they're in the live shows! (Though I've argued these kids know what they're getting into when they signed up for X Factor, it's probably not true. I bet they have no idea what a tiny component they are in this enormous machine. Even though they're on the show week in week out if they're lucky, they are far from the stars of the show. Even if they get handed their CD in the Christmas show, they're still not the winners. That crown sits firmly on the heads of the judges and Simon Cowell. X Factor isn't even really a competition. It's a show about a competition which acts as a facilitating device delivering big audiences to advertisers and super star guests with new singles to tout. Let's face it, if it's really a competition how come foreign contestants need visas? That's like asking to see your passport to buy a lottery ticket... anyway).
Regardless of the kids knowing what they're letting themselves in for or not, if these kids get as far as the live shows, they've probably been through more emotional turmoil in those few weeks than most musicians go through in a year. However, what they haven't been through is the sheer hard graft. The lugging amps and drum kits into dingy basements to perform, the playing to audience who are waiting for you to finish and the bingo to start, the paying for travel and accommodation to get a gig only to be be paid a quarter of what you spent, or to find the gig cancelled and no one bothered to tell you, the watching your peers get record deals and airplay, while you, through gritted teeth must remain magnanimous and tell them how happy you are for them.
Most X Factor contestants haven't even had a hint of that life. They don't know how much effort most people put in to making it as music artist. A TV competition is, without doubt, the easy route so I'm always bemused by sobbing teens, blubbing into Scherzinger's lap, wailing about how this is their last chance. Man up. You're 16. They don't have you killed if you don't make it to judges' houses. You go home and if you really want to work in the music industry you learn an instrument, put a band together and dare I say it, get out and gig on the live circuit.
Following Sunday's installment of X Factor, we had the opening episode of this series of Downton Abbey. As I was at my mum's I figured she'd prefer watching Dame Mags listening to Puccini than Carrie Matheson have a shouty breakdown so I watched Homeland on the iPad while the Downton cast R.P.ed their way through the next 60 minutes.
In the ad break of Homeland I looked up to see something I didn't not expect to see. A rape scene... in Downton Abbey. Now, I stuck with this show through the first series but soon bored of it realising that it was pretty much observing the shame chicanes and story lines that any soap does. They just had pretty accents and even prettier frocks. The storylines seem to all gravitate around people wanting people they're not supposed to have, the stuff of Eastenders and Corrie for many a year. But a rape story line... I know they want to make a splash with a series premiere but using a brutal attack on a woman, is that really the way to do it? In lieu of decent plot and character development, is this what the audience must endure? You can see the rest of the series orientating around Bates finding out and the inevitable confrontation with the perpetrator, and Joanne Frogatt's character Anna trying to keep it all a secret. Furtive glances, inexplicable evasive behaviour - oh please. What I'm not anticipating is a useful and responsible discourse on the subject.
Not only that but the attack, though suggested rather than shown in details was still violent and gratuitous and all before 10pm. While I was worrying about my mum being subjected to Homeland depicting Carrie and Brody in a hot mess, who knew Downton would be the one I'd want to shield her from.
If you want skillful storylining, might I instead recommend, Scandal, which is another show that has me completely in the palm of its hands. This show has the juiciest TV affair in a long while, the president and his former political fixer. It's so well crafted, with fantastic characterisations and is jam-packed with twists and turns. Quivery-lipped Kerry Washington is fantastic as Olivia Pope, a character who is rapidly becoming a classic. Not, quite in the league as say, Walter White, the chemistry teacher cum crystal meth cook and drug lord of Breaking Bad brilliantly depicted by Bryan Cranston but she's getting there.
Breaking Bad finished last week in glorious fashion. It was one of the most complete, intelligent and powerful TV dramas of recent years and has gone a long way to place TV above film in terms of which is the creatively dominant media, a trend that has been happening gradually for a number of years. Nowdays, the networks are attracting big name movie stars such as Robin Williams, Tom Hardy and Meg Ryan and turning small screen stars into bankable film actors - such as Aaron Paul also of Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston is obviously fantastic as this conflicted man, Walter White which I'm sure his groaning mantelpiece full of awards would demonstrate. Equally, Vince Gilligan, the creator has brilliantly crafted the tapestry of this show so that every characters' motivation is so complete and plausible that he is able to generate audience empathy for his character's actions which, in the real word would be considered despicable. Another element that put the show head and shoulders above its peers was its strong symbolism. For example, the final episode was called Felina - an anagram of Finale. Felina also refers to one of the tracks playing in the background in this ep, but most crazy of all, if you break down the word it makes three chemical element symbols. Fe (Iron), Li (Lithium) Na (Sodium). Iron is in blood, Lithium is used in the meth cooking process and Sodium is in tears. Which gives you Blood, Meth and Tears. Genius.
It was one of the first dramas where there were very few explicitly good and explicitly bad people. It took a much braver look at the human condition and how there may actually be no such thing as evil people. In Gilligan's world, there are people simply doing things they think are right... even if they hurt others, they can always justified their actions as being for a greater cause. Even when Walter kills, it is to protect someone or something else.
If you haven't yet indulged in Breaking Bad, I implore you to, just to see a piece of classic TV making. It's interesting that two of agueably the best TV shows of the last 10 years have both had drugs as central to the story telling, Breaking Bad and The Wire.
Like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead which premiers in the US this Sunday, places its characters in extreme conditions to show the true nature of human beings.
I've waiting months for Rick Grimes and the crew to carry on slaying those sluggish undeads and finally they're back this week. It's a great show and what I love about it is not just the action, but the morality. It is a well-drawn morality tale and in almost ever episode, they face poignant choices. The fact that the situation is so extreme facilitates that. It's almost like the zombies are an agent of delivery for the morality message. Clever stuff.
Finally, on the plane over to LA I decided to catch up with some movies I've missed but to be honest couldn't be arsed to schlep to the cinema to see. Alan Patridge, Marley and Me and World War Z. I'm a huge Partirdge fan and did enjoy the movie but it wasn't hilarious. Not because their weren't enough jokes but interestingly, because the story wasn't strong enough. In a comedy film, the thing that makes it funny, is not just jokes, but a story line you want to invest in. Nonetheless it was fun enough and one you'll be glad to unwrap at Christmas.
Marley and Me was surprisingly good. It was quite bleak at times, showing how difficult life can be raising a young family. The dog was completely out of control and I'm surprised they put up with it as long as they did (from when he was a pup it should have been the knackers yard or lose gthe knackers) but mainly, it was a good inflight movie.
The one that was a real surprise was World War Z. This is the Brad Pitt zombie flick which ran into trouble and had to be rewritten and edited. I heard mixed reviews about it and assumed it was going to be another studio casualty from 2013 when we got inundated with high budget, low quality pictures but it was actually very good. As may be apparent, I like a good zombie tale and World War Z has fared well as a result of the reworking. Aside from Brad being a little too handsome for his family unit to be entirely believable, it was a quality film, a mature take on the well worn zombie scenario. It was stacked with thrill and spills, it was tense, you cared about the characters and the outcome and it was enjoyable.
And so the Miley Machine rumbles on. Following her VMA appearance, commentary came from all quarters on her behaviour, open letters, foam fingers, wrecking balls, nude bikinis and a whole lot more and I can't help but think, Miley is playing us for mugs. I saw an interview with her on an American morning show and she seemed like a business-smart, intelligent young woman. She knows what she's doing and Sinead O'Connor's open letter was entirely off the mark. What would have been more appropriate was if Doc Brown had snatched the letter from her, popped into the Delorian and handed it to the 22 year old O'Connor. It sounds like she's the one who needed it. Far from being a puppet, Miley is the master of her destiny. The issue of female acts becoming over sexualised is a separate matter but as to whether Ms Cyrus is on a road to destruction, I doubt it. She's playing this media circus brilliantly and just as it seems to subside, she tantalise it with some other measured gesture, provocative quote or racy cover shoot. It's a lesson in media manipulation is what it is. Perhaps she should work with the X Factor contestants. Might give them longevity beyond the 5 months of fame they currently enjoy?