Friday, July 09, 2010

Shatnerthon: Loving TJ Hooker. Without Irony.

I'm not sure I believe in loving something ironically anymore. I used to, and yesterday I saw my third Twilight film in the theater for reasons other than love, but I think that fails the irony test as well. (Don't worry, I didn't pay full price.) I've long been against the concept of a “guilty pleasure,” because pleasure without harming anyone else should be reason enough in itself not to feel guilty. But what's pushed me over the irony line is T.J. Hooker.

I once reassured a friend that I would never, ever fall so far as to watch T.J. Hooker, let alone like it. That is one step too far, I said, even for William Shatner. But you know what?

I love T.J. Hooker. I love it unashamedly, with full knowledge of its flaws and indeed a considerable amount of affection for them. Maybe that is ironic love, as it is figured for some, but I don't find the distinction useful. Or fair.

For those of you who don't know (and probably aren't reading this), T.J. Hooker was an American television program which ran from 1982-1986. It was meant to be an ensemble show about cops-in-training in the fictional Lake City (which looks—gasp!--a lot like Los Angeles) because, supposedly, Shatner wasn't looking to star in another show. (Same thing apparently happened to Boston Legal.) But as things often do with Shatner, fate took over and he became the focal point. He, and rookie cop Vince Romano, played by Adrian Zmed (of Grease 2 awesomeness).

Don't get me wrong: it's a terrible show. It's formulaic, the politics/criminal philosophy/crime-fighting are all problematic, and Shatner's “hair” is very distracting. But the truth is, you need someone like him to anchor a show this bad, because otherwise there's nothing to recommend it. The plots are stupid, the production values rather shoddy (we have a game of looking for the temporary signs the art department has made for various locations and businesses, which look totally pasted-on), and Hooker is always, invariably, right. If the crook is redeemable, he knows by looking. If he's not, he knows that too. No ambiguity. No liberal bleeding-heart crap. Nothing has any bearing on anything that will happen in another episode, crimes are always in the exactly opposite direction than they're traveling, and there's always going to be a cute tag at the end where Hooker gets the jovial jump on Romano yet again!

But see, that's what's so delightful about this show. It's not that it's realistic. It's that it's ridiculous but they're playing it straight and no one seems to think it makes no sense for Shatner to be able to leap onto the hoods of cars, catch airplanes on foot, or run down rapists half his age who work out. He wants it so badly that he always gets it. I think if it weren't Shatner driving it, I'd be bored quickly, but for whatever reason it just makes me laugh. As does the predictable veteran/rookie banter between him and Romano.

And that's the other thing: if it weren't for Adrian Zmed, as much as Shatner, the whole thing might have fallen apart. He's just adorable. He has this amazingly sculpted body, but sort of a goofy-cute face on top of it, and amazingly tall hair. And the scripts let him be both athletic and sort of hapless, so he can show off his great puppy-dog expression. He's a perfect buddy for Hooker. And—moment of even more shallowness--they both have great asses.

Part of the entertainment, for me, is in how bad it is. Is the anticipation: what vehicle will Shatner fight today? How will he get the better of both the crooks and Romano? Who will Hooker touch inappropriately? How many times have I seen the cop car race past the Safeway? By the way, cars? Always explode after flipping over, but only after Hooker's managed to get everyone out.

I started watching out of curiosity and kept watching despite Heather Locklear demonstrating the most incompetent acting I've ever seen. It's oddly charming, strangely addictive, and makes me really sad that only seasons one and two are available on DVD, and one isn't even a full season. (Romano leaves after four, so I'm not really interested in that, either.) It's likely there are hundreds of shows of like quality I'm missing out on, but for me, Shatner's charm (yes, even in his early 50's and with the... hair) makes all the difference. Shatner's having fun with the role. And I find I just can't really hold Hooker's absurdity against him. He fought a school bus, guys. And won. Read more!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Shatnerthon: For the People (1965)

1965 was a busy year for William Shatner. It was the year he starred in a television series about a brash, headstrong young idealist who takes charge and makes impassioned speeches about truth, justice, and the American way. It was the year he filmed the first feature film in Esperanto. Oh, and he also filmed the second pilot for Star Trek.

For the People ran for only thirteen episodes, from January 31st through May 9th. Filmed on location in New York City, it followed the trials of Assistant District Attorney David Koster, a “dedicated man with a single-minded zeal to defend the criminal justice system of the United States of America,” according to Shatner. This was going to be his big break: produced by Herb Brodkin, with socially-conscious scripts, and a starring role in a series after turning down Dr. Kildare and The Defenders. The series, of course, was put opposite Bonanza and died after six months, presumably so that Shatner would be desperate for work and free to do Star Trek in July. (Incubus came in May. Which, frankly, may have heightened said desperation.)

But it's a shame, really, that the show was canceled. I've managed to see about half the episodes, and it makes me wish there were more. I should offer a caveat that I often give a lot of leeway to “things that mean well” which were produced before I was born, even when they sometimes get preachy or cheesy or narratively cop out in favor of the message. No doubt For the People suffers on all these counts, but there's something about its earnestness I appreciate. Judging by the first review on IMDB, it's also what turns some people off, but that makes it even more interesting to me that a show that was produced in 1965 is still irritating people with its liberal politics. To our modern eyes, it feels heavy-handed and probably not as original, but it must have been one of the first programs to deal with these issues.

Each episode's title, it seems, is drawn from actual court cases. “Guilt Shall Not Escape Nor Innocence Suffer” is somewhat unwieldy, and frankly though I've seen it I can't recall which story is. But it gives you some idea. Each week, Koster and his fellow DAs are presented with some sort of conundrum. Whether it's conflict over suspected police brutality and the unlawful procuring of confessions, or the unfairness of the legal system for those who cannot pay, Koster throws himself into his work. Sometimes to a degree which seems either unrealistic or just really obsessive, depending on how forgiving you're feeling. And at times, the narrative leaves him and his office entirely alone, in order to follow criminals (or suspected criminals) through the vagaries of the legal system who are far less compelling or sympathetic than I think the writers intended. It's not difficult to understand why it wasn't a hit, though critics reportedly liked it: It wants to teach you something about the legal system, and it's not necessarily how it works. It's more interested in the ethical and moral conundrums that come with slotting everyone into the same system, and politically, it tends to lean left.

But what I love about the show—and I do love it—is that it feels unusual for something with that sort of intent to even get to that stage of the game. And on top of that, the performances are solid. Shatner is great. He's young, arrogant, well-intentioned, and at 34 (okay, I'm shallow) really gorgeous. And my absolute favorite thing about this show is that it has, I think, one of my favorite married couples in all of fiction. David and Phyllis seem to have been married a few years, so like Nick and Nora Charles you're popping in to a story when most romances have long since ended. It's so unusual to see happily married couples who are both sexy and have problems that I find myself waiting for the scenes at home. Such as David's enthusiastic photography session with a patient but bemused Phyllis, or an entire episode which centers on some poor judgments on David's part which threaten to expose his wife's dark secret. The sort of secret that could ruin his career, despite it being, to our modern eyes, a fairly tame skeleton. David and Phyllis are very much in love, but the tension of his work being all-consuming and hers (she's a concert violinist) being not-quite comprehensible to him is definitely there. I've rarely seen a relationship on tv which feels this fresh and real, not to mention established. And incidentally, Phyllis is played by the gorgeous Jessica Walter, best known now as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development.

I've never been a big fan of procedurals, whether legal/police/medical, but there are always exceptions. And the focus of For the People, while sometimes dragging the narrative and pacing down, makes it unusual, as do the relationships it portrays. As much as I love Denny Crane, it's refreshing to watching something with something to say. And for those with limited experience with Shatner-the-actor, it's nice to watch something with limited potential for mockery. Of course, since it was never released on DVD, it's incredibly difficult to find—but if you do, it's worth taking a look.

Next up: Shatner stars again, only this time, I really should feel guilty about that pleasure.

Read more!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Le Concert (2009)

Le Concert is a warmhearted film for music lovers, and judging by the audience reaction at last night’s Seattle International Film Festival screening, I am neither.

The French-Romanian co-production, marketed as a bittersweet east-meets-west comedy and directed by Radu Mihaileanu, concerns a disgraced conductor who thirty years ago made a moral decision which cost him his career. Working as a janitor for the Bolshoi Orchestra, reliving his glory days and fixated on an aborted performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, he intercepts an invitation from the Châtelet Theater in Paris. Determined to finish what he started thirty years ago, he rounds up a rag-tag bunch of Jewish and Gypsy musicians and cons his way to Paris with the help of his endearingly eccentric friends and frenemies.

My problem with the film, was that it asked both too much and too little. It wanted to sell me hard on the humor and heartache, and both the comedy and pathos were, to my sensibilities anyway, unearned. Despite many decent performances, I was turned off by the tone of the film, which wanted me to find them endearing before I had a chance to know them or feel it myself. I also thought the competing comedy/drama elements sat uneasily together, making both feel forced when the story might have gone over better with a more consistent tone. Perhaps a darker comedy, or a drama with light touches, would have worked better than alternating low-brow, clichéd humor with strained melodrama. Further, the “east-meets-west” comedy seemed entirely based on the idea that Russians (or Jews or Gypsies, I’m not sure) are opportunistic, unsophisticated folksy types. My biggest problem, however, was that I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief that a group of players who has not worked together in thirty years and has not rehearsed can triumph on the strength of one man’s dream. And we know that’s where it’s going from the very beginning.

It’s obvious that the film is intended, fully, to appeal on the basis of triumphing on the strength of one man’s dream. So perhaps the fault is not really with the film, but with my watching it. I related far too much to the woman who tells the conductor that it’s a concert, not a therapy session, and he needs to get help. The movie doesn’t think so, and I think the film should appeal to classical music lovers who will appreciate the importance placed on performance and the fact that the concerto is played all the way through. In the end, that wasn’t enough for me. Read more!