Monday, March 14, 2011

Characters With Character

Now that Charlie Sheen is fired, I don't see how the sitcom Two and a Half Men can possibly continue. They'll probably try it, but the circle is broken. That perfect set of characteristic characters can't be rearranged.

The production company has a few choices, equally bad. They can try One and a Half Men, maybe by adding a permanent leading lady beside Alan, the remaining brother, making it One and a Half Men and a Woman. Or they could make a spinoff based on Alan, which would probably be pretty much the same.

But really, this sitcom has reached its end. It would have, anyway, even with Charlie Sheen still on the boat. Sitcoms have their limited time span. No matter how much fun they are at first, a joke can just be repeated so many times. A setting can't be explored forever. Repetition is the certain killer of any work of art.

Enhance and Exaggerate
Two and a Half Men was a brilliant piece of work, though. Very character driven, with very enhanced characters. That's a basic principle of drama – enhance and exaggerate. Find the extremes. It was done excellently in this sitcom.

Charlie is the completely irresponsible playboy, not to say sociopath, surviving by his bad boy charm only. His brother is his absolute opposite – neurotically responsible, terribly boring, and yet struggling to somehow be a kind of Charlie. The boy Jake is the pestilence version of a kid, with no forgiving features, endured only because of his young age.

The women are just as twisted. Evelyn, the mother of the two men, is a terrifying combination of Lady Macbeth and Snow White's stepmother, surviving on her Machiavellian skills alone. The housekeeper Bertha is sort of the same, in a bigger version, ruthlessly using her ability to keep the men dependent on her. Another Machiavellian woman is Judith, the ex wife of Alan, making her own needs the axis of her world. Charlie's one night stand Rose is stepping lightly on the border to psychopathy.

Actually, these women in the show are all the same, but in different perspectives.

No one of those main characters is the least bit normal, or for that matter sane. They form extremes that must collide with noise and absurdity ensuing. They would do that on their own, since each character contains an inner conflict with no foreseeable solution.

Charlie in his freedom suffers from the lack of commitment, and secretly longs for the orderly life that Alan repeatedly tries and fails with. Alan is stuck in the conflict of doing the right thing, but still trying to get ahead, wondering why he is the only one regarding himself as commendable.

Jake Is the Key
Jake is sort of the key. He wants to be Charlie, but is most likely to grow up to Alan, although without his manners. The two men compete about his admiration, in spite of the fact that none of them has much respect for him. That way, he is a symbol of the futility of their lives. The most they can get is admiration from someone they are unable to admire.

The core of the structure of this drama – and every comedy has to be a drama at heart, preferably a tragedy – is the continuous struggle of Charlie and Alan to reach self-respect, which can only happen if Jake transforms into the ideal version of them. A Charlie type ladies' man but with sincere compassion, and an Alan type do-gooder but without self-righteousness. Thereby, the boy would show the men how they need to transform. C. G. Jung would approve.

That makes this sitcom character driven to a rarely seen extent.

They Do What They Have To
This is a good ideal for a sitcom, but hardly for drama in general, which should be driven by actions and events – so that people do what they have to and their characters evolve from that. In a well-written drama, the fates of the characters could be exchanged, and the outcome would still be the same.

For example, it's not that Romeo is Romeo and Juliet is Juliet leading to the disaster, but the fact that they happen to belong to families in a bitter feud. Any other couple would experience the same fate in the same situation. That's the premise, and that's what makes the tragedy relevant to us all.

Aristotle expressed it so that the characters of the play should do what the have to, what they can't avoid doing. Their actions should be ruled by circumstance, and not by their characters.

In a way, this is what takes place in Two and a Half Men. Charlie and Alan are explained by their past and the situation they are presently in. If Alan would have been the older brother, everything would be different. Also if they were not stuck under the same roof, and so on.

Their characters are explained by their background, and so are their actions. Otherwise it would be hard to make them at all believable, and we would be unable to relate to them.

Normal Women
Anyway, if Charlie Sheen had not been fired, the sitcom would still fade out soon. Repetition is a killer, although sometimes slow about it. Also, the producers tend to give any sitcom its coup de grâce, unknowingly, by changing it in order to keep it popular. That tempts them to deviate from its dramatic base and premises, so the audience deserts it.

There have been such tendencies already. For example, whenever Charlie has a serious love interest spanning several episodes, it's with a character without significant characteristics. They are “normal” women, who therefore seem alien in this setting. It doesn't work.

Any love interest of Charlie's must be as absurd as he is, or we see no connection. The women he adores are boring visits from drab reality. In a comedy, we couldn't care less.

Another threat to the survival of the sitcom, recognizable from many others with a family theme – and that's just about all of them – is the unavoidable continued growth of Angus T. Jones, who plays the boy Jake. He will not be a boy forever.

Jake is an essential part of this sitcom drama, perfectly played by Jones, without whom the two men would forever be at each other's throat. As he grows up, it will be more and more difficult for Charlie and Alan to keep him as a sort of common ground, and the main motor of the drama will be lost. It will turn into Grumpy Old Men.

So, let's not weep the sudden end of this sitcom. Better this than a slow decline ending in tedium.

Here are the first eight seasons on DVD at Amazon

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Skateboard Shadow

I had the idea of taking photos of shadows. I took some, but then other things got in between. But here is one of them – a skateboarder nice enough to jump for me. He had to do it over and over, before I got it right.

Sometimes I pull out my camera and stroll around town with a certain theme in mind. One was closeups, one was autumn leaves, a recurring theme has been water, and so on.

Shadows can be intriguing, so I decided to make a theme of it, a couple of years ago. I took a few photos, but then life got in the way. I have taken an occasional shot or two on that theme since, but I still don't have enough of them to make a gallery on my website.

So, here's a peak preview of what might become a gallery of shadow photos. On a local skateboard park, one of the young skaters was gracious enough to do his jumps until I got a photo I was pleased with. We had to do it twenty times or so. He had patience.

Here's the photo I like the most in that series. Click on it to see an enlarged version.

Bland Leads Dull Glee

The TV world has its own natural laws, some of them more difficult to understand than those of Einstein's relativity and string theory. I often wonder about casting. Especially those who get to play the lead roles are frequently chosen as if failure is the goal. Glee is a typical example of this.

Glee contains some colorful characters, such as the coach Sue, played by Jane Lynch, and the gay student Kurt, played by Chris Colfer. But the leads – quarterback Finn, played by Cory Monteith, and his love interest Rachel, played by Lea Michele – are as bland as American coffee was before Starbucks.

Their love story is too G-rated to be at all believable. It is little else than advertisement for teen celibacy. Their singing and dancing lack any originality or even distinction. Most of the time, they just walk around looking sad and confused.

Of course, Glee is nothing but karaoke with a slight spicing of drama, just like American Idol. But even so, one would expect the production company to find leads with more charisma and musical talent. There are several others in the show who have more of it – such as the wheelchair boy Artie, played by Kevin McHale, and the black power-voice Mercedes, played by Amber Riley.

The two leads are chosen from a middle-of-the-road perspective, in an effort to find a couple that most of the viewers can identify with – but who wants to? And since they also get to sing leads on most of the songs, what's left to enjoy in the show? I bet that its popularity stems from the glimpses given of the other characters, and the few moments when they get to sing.

Producers believe that they know what people want, but that's just an excuse for their nurturing their own prejudice about culture and mankind. They refuse to see that in the real world of music, deviation from the norm is king. Artists that attract huge audiences again and again are anything but bland.

Show business is messed up, because it's controlled by businessmen instead of artists. It's quite possible to do business with art, but art is not primarily a business. TV company executives want their shows to keep top ratings without provoking anyone. That's not possible. Record companies want their pop stars to be virginal and still keep an audience going through puberty. Not likely.

The fairy tales of old contain both joy and cruelty, success and disaster, as does life. That's why new generations of children keep discovering them. The arts can't disarm reality. That wouldn't be art. They must concentrate and enhance it. Thereby, the patterns of life as we really experience it are revealed, and that which Aristotle called catharsis is accomplished. Good fiction gives us release, so we can bear the thorns of real life.

Boring lead roles counter the process of catharsis, by muffling the drama and slowing down the development of the plot – not to mention that nobody cares about the outcome. Learn from the best drama of them all, Hamlet, where everything evolves around a raving madman.

Here's the first season on DVD at Amazon

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Ratatouille of the Heart

Last night, I watched Ratatouille again. It's a charming animated film. For me, it's particularly amusing to see the devilish portrayal of Ego, the restaurant critic, since I was one for twelve years. Not like him, I hope, but that's for others to decide.

The story about the rat who is a master chef, and the boy who becomes his kitchen tool, is more convincing with its art work and atmosphere of the Paris culinary world than with the plot, which is fragmentary in a way so common among contemporary movies. But who cares, when there's so much to enjoy in how the story is told?

Ego is the dark and devilish restaurant critic, making any kitchen staff panic, and enjoying it. He is reformed at the end of the movie, when he finally gets a taste of his dearest childhood culinary memory, though. His viciousness was the despair of never finding that joy before.

I can relate to that. I was a restaurant critic for twelve years, secretly tasting meals that span from orgiastic top to repulsive bottom. Nothing made me happier than finding an unexpected gem, and nothing was as disappointing as finding the dishes of a fine restaurant bland.

One can't be a critic without being emotionally involved in the art form examined. I wanted to be overwhelmed, and several times I was. Other times, I was fed up already after the starter – actually, in a few cases I lost hope already at the amuse-bouche, the little taster that exclusive restaurants begin with as a kind of welcoming gesture.

But the critic who seeks disappointment, in order to feast on vicious writing afterward, has little compassion for the art in question. Still, it's far too common. Ego (his name hardly chosen by chance) mentions it in the movie, explaining that it's a kind of writing equally enjoyed by the writers and many of their readers. But it's the easy way out and it has nothing to do with taking the job seriously. It's hardly more than a bad joke.

In the movie, Ego is well-known and announces his arrivals to restaurants as if he were a monarch visiting his subjects. That's rarely the case among restaurant critics. I was as secret as a spy. Even at my newspaper, my identity was known only to a few. The hardest thing about the job was to guard that secret.

It was necessary. You are treated so differently when the restaurant regards you as important, for one or other reason. The former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote a book about her efforts to remain anonymous by putting on disguises – and how much better she was treated when she did not. Here's that book on Amazon: Garlic and Sapphires.

I also wrote a book about my experiences as a restaurant critic, but unfortunately it's only published in Swedish: Bong – tolv år som hemlig krogrecensent.

It's a fascinating job, although I wasn't always happy about it during my twelve years. The delights are many, but still in a minority compared to the disappointments. Well, after a number of dinners, you're bound to increase your demands – especially when you go to restaurants that are supposed to deliver fine dining.

I made sure to cover the whole spectrum, contrary to how most critics pick. Usually, they focus only on exclusive and fancy restaurants, but I also made many visits to simpler places. I even reviewed the Ikea restaurant and McDonalds. That was fun to do.

These two didn't make my tongue dance, but I was often pleasantly surprised by what budget restaurants could do, in spite of their humble circumstances. What they lacked in knowledge and resources, they compensated with passion. And the finest restaurants often suffered from the opposite – a lack of genuine care, with technology instead of passion as the driving force in the kitchen.

That's also Ego's revelation at the end of the movie. He finds the meal emotional instead of technical, so his experience is subjective instead of objective, involved instead of distanced. That's the kind of experience a critic should always search for, and try to put into writing.

Here's the film on DVD at Amazon