Tag Archives: performance

Investigating Criminal Intent: Law and Order Outlier

Before Law and Order: Criminal Intent moved from NBC to USA Network in 2007, I had written off the variation, choosing instead Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as my version of choice.  I took notice of Criminal Intent as it shifted to cable, interested in seeing if it would change at all to fit the USA Network original programming brand.  With the abundance of Law and Order: CI reruns that still pervade cable’s daytime schedules, it was (and still is) surprisingly easy to get sucked into Groren and Eames’s investigations. However, as Criminal Intent prepares to return to USA for its tenth and final season this Sunday with the ballyhooed return of the original detective partnership of Goren and Eames, I find myself drawn to the show as an outlier of the Law and Order franchise.  It’s more “Law” than “Order,” going so far as to strike the lone Assistant District Attorney character after the fifth season to focus solely on the investigations and the (alternating) detective teams.  The removal of the courtroom element imbues the detectives with an almost preternatural ability to get confessions from their suspects, aligning the lead detectives, particularly Det. Bobby Goren, with exceptional (male) investigator brethren like Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, or Adrian Monk.

Columbo informs Law and Order: Criminal Intent‘s format and characterization.  The initial “twist” on the Law and Order formula that Criminal Intent advertised was the focus on the criminal in the opening scenes.  Early episodes hewed closer to the inverted detective story that Columbo popularized on television, some going as far as showing the criminal committing the murder, providing all the information the viewer needed to establish dramatic irony (see: season one, episode five, “Jones”).  The format connection between Columbo and Criminal Intent is “common knowledge” enough to be present in LO:CI‘s IMDb trivia page.  Most later episodes show only a few scenes establishing the victim and general circumstances of the murder, keeping the culprit hidden to maintain the tension of a “whodunit” narrative.

A byproduct of this later obfuscation of the murderer is that the skills of the investigating detectives appear heightened, making deductive and inductive leaps based solely on their skills and the information shared by viewer and detective.  This appears most often and explicitly regarding Det. Goren, a character who others repeatedly discuss as a genius.  Jeff Goldblum’s Det. Nichols similarly gained the mantle of “genius” during his tenure as a CI lead detective but less emphatically than Goren and more as code for “successful eccentric.”  The other alternating lead detective, Logan, was an import from the original Law and Order series and was characterized more as a stubborn but street-smart bruiser.  Goren’s shadow fell over both detectives because of his “genius” and ability to wrench confessions from his suspects.  Goren’s cerebral approach to detective work and D’Onofrio‘s performance of his awkward and lean-prone physicality also recall Columbo, particularly Peter Falk‘s portrayal of the eponymous detective as bumbling and physically askance. (Goran’s proclivity for leaning has even garnered a fan-made music video montage to “Lean Back.”)  Goren even occasionally drops the famous “Just one more thing . . .” Columbo catchphrase when questioning his suspects.

I have thus far only discussed the male detectives; this is because only the male detectives are positioned as the lead detectives (and thus lead characters) on Criminal Intent.  Though the characterization of the female detectives is strong–particularly with Eames’s multidimensionality–they are almost always primarily characterized in relation to their male partners.  Logan, Nichols, and Goren often take the active role in the investigation with their female partner forced into a reactive role.  Gender dynamics in the Law and Order franchise is deserving of much more attention than I can give here.  I point out this focus on male lead detectives and their exceptional skills to highlight the perhaps closer connection Criminal Intent has with that mode of detective storytelling than the bi-valent Law and Order formula.  Goren’s antecedents include Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, and Adrian Monk.  I have argued previously that this exceptional individual take on Law and Order helps Criminal Intent fit with USA Network’s brand, a brand based explicitly on characters and heavily influenced by Monk‘s success.  None of these detectives face the scrutiny of the courts within their narratives; their confessions only have to imply that they would lead to legal conviction.  This format allows for the detectives to be exceptional without facing the realism of paperwork, technicalities, and courtroom arguments.

Though Law and Order: Special Victims Unit also focuses on the detectives, their partnerships are part of a team unit that also includes a clear connection to the legal system though their prominent ADA characters.  Criminal Intent has been allowed to be an outlier to the formula–doing away with “Order” and focusing on an exceptional individual male detective– in part because it has been a network-outlier since its 2007 move from NBC and actually fits nicely into USA Network’s brand identity.

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“Magnicifent!”: Verisimilitude and Theatricality on Party Down 

Last week, Starz dropped the axe that many of us knew was coming when they canceled Party Down, a brilliant comedy that reached most of its audience through Netflix Instant Watch, which streamed new episodes the day after they aired on Starz.  I consoled myself that Party Down could at least live on and gain admirers through it’s presence on Netflix’s streaming service.  Then, it was reported today that all 20 episodes of the show will be removed from Netflix tomorrow.  Someone who knows more about distribution and business models featuring streaming content will perhaps ask and answer the questions many fans of the show have: What metrics are used to mark viewership on third-party sites like Netflix?  Did Starz or Netflix make money off of the deal?  Why would Netflix be taking it down only a week after the series cancellation?  And what does Martin Starr need to do to make it to 22 episodes on a series?

Are We Having Fun Yet?: Martin Starr, Ryan Hansen, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Ken Marino, and Jane Lynch

I can’t offer answers to those questions, but I can highlight one of the show’s most intelligent thematic motifs: the use of theater tropes.  The first scene of the first episode is of Ron Donald (Ken Marino) directly addressing the camera, making his pitch as Party Down team leader, ostensibly to the audience but in reality to that week’s party host.  It’s a monologue disguised as a soliloquy, laying out the exposition of both the situation and of Ron as a character.  Moreover, it establishes an unstable relationship with reality.  Though Ron is the only caterer of the crew without Hollywood aspirations, his monologue underlines the “All the world’s a stage” theme of Party Down. While he is putting on a show for his client, the series begins down a path that will develop just how many “shows” are being put on in the world of Party Down. The show doesn’t occur in a “real” world, but instead it’s characters are constantly performing themselves and their Hollywood dreams in the world of theatricality.

In “Investors Dinner,” Constance (Jane Lynch) brings in Baretta‘s prop gun to settle a bet, then right before the act break, the scene from the above clip happens followed by Casey (Lizzy Caplan) saying, “Well you know what they say about a gun in the first act, Ron.”  While Casey understands the absurd world she’s living in enough to make a reference to Chekhov’s gun, Kyle response, “What act?”  There are varying degrees of self-awareness of the theatrical elements of Party Down, but even Casey doesn’t expect the gun to actually play a dramatic role in the final act of the episode.  The party is revealed to be an investment scam, with two con men/actors playing their roles in the presentation and Ron pretending to be a tough action hero because he knows the gun is fake.  All of the masks the actors wear are eventually broken in a fittingly theatrical reveal, as if the show suddenly became a dinner-theater whodunit, but with the shyster getting away with it and the “hero” cleaning his own pee off the carpet.

Ron tries so hard to be the star of his own life

Even formally, there’s a bit of theatrical echoing, as each episode ends with a bonus clip embedded in the closing credits, an encore of sorts.  Nowhere is this better used than in the most “theatrical” of all the Party Down episodes: “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.”  Geneveive Koski at the A.V. Club mines well how the episode uses the framing device of a community theater after-party to play its own farce, complete with mistaken identities, semi-happy endings, and more couplings (and a mild bacchanalia behind the bar) than comedy superstars in the episode.  Throughout the episode, failed screenwriter/scifi novelist Roman (Martin Starr) is plied with wine and praise by pretentious community theater actors.  What begins with the actors proclaiming, “In the theater, the writer is God,” proceeds to their creation of him in the form of the God of the Theater, where everything is “magnificent,” complete with laurel leaf and orgy.  In the final moments, the credits role, then they cut to the declaration of the theater being saved, to which he declares:

Roman, briefly, buys into the theatricality of his life, taking the reigns as a caterer-turned-Bacchus and declaring, just as his actor-acolytes did, the theater to be “magnificent.”

In Party Down, this level of theatricality does not break nor bend the show’s verisimilitude, fitting well into a world where the absurd expectations of a theatrical world have become normalized.  Baretta’s gun has become Chekhov’s gun, and Roman has become Bacchus for a night.  These metamorphoses work because the show’s foundation is the stage, one that has been built stronger with each episode.  Monologues, acting–conscious for work, schemes, pranks or unconscious for self-preservation in a sad life–mistaken identities, reversals of fortune, and discovery abound with each new party the group caters.  “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party” turns into a melodramatic farce with secrets revealed and a reversal of a reversal of fortunes, and “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party” revolves around a script workshop and read-through, with Steve Guttenberg playing a version of himself amped up enough to be read in the fifth (or fiftieth) row.

And like some theater, Party Down will only be accessed and loved by few people.  But perhaps that’s part of their struggle.

The Problem of Gerry Grgich: Pity and Comedy on Parks and Recreation 

In the fictional Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN, Jerry Gergich [misspelled Gerry Grgich in “Telethon”] is THE object of ridicule, but Jerry differs from his kin in other NBC Thursday night comedies.  His closest cousin in sad-sackery might be Toby Flenderson from The Office, but Toby only had to face unsubstantiated derision from Michael, not the entire office.  He may be the “Pierce” of the Parks and Rec workers, but unlike the title-holder on Community, Jerry seems almost preternaturally kind and considerate instead of meriting derision as the group scapegoat.  And yet the characters surrounding him have created the idea of Jerry as “the worst”  that far outstrips his actual bouts of bad luck, which admittedly can be pretty epic.

While Jerry’s use as a comedic character is almost entirely comprised of the slapstick performances of his bad luck, much of the comedy surrounding Jerry emanates from his role as a somewhat tragic character within a comedy show.  Jerry invokes pity in us because of the almost pathological lack of empathy shown him by his fellow characters.  In the most recent episode, “Telethon,” Jerry beautifully and emotionally plays the piano:

You know he's playing well because his eyes are closed.

But his friends and colleagues react as if they just witnessed and alternate reality where Jerry’s piano-playing was aurally offensive:

"Okay. Alright. Enough of that racket."

His every achievement–from artistic pursuits to his off-camera happy and loving family–is completely undermined by every other character in the show.  Whatever little happiness he finds is taken from him almost immediately, but more than that, he understands his piteous position and only reaches for appropriate goals: he has a time-share vacation home, but it’s in Muncie, IN; he makes up a story about being mugged to cover up a more embarrassing tale of falling into a creek in an attempt to retrieve a soggy breakfast burrito; and he looks forward to an all-male hunting weekend because it means he can pee standing up (presumably unlike his female-crowded home), a joy crushed when the other Parks and Rec workers join the trip.  But Jerry never languishes in self-pity.

Somehow, Jerry continues to put himself out there for his coworkers despite their cruel treatment of him.  He offers to play the piano for the telethon even after he is stymied in his offer to perform magic when Leslie breaks his only prop, an egg.  Jerry’s mild tenacity is the heart of the character.  No matter what happens to him, he still tries, still reaches for the little happiness he can.

Even after a busted arm and humiliation, Jerry can raise a glass to himself.

In another setting, in another genre, Jerry could be the workaday everyman character that the audience is supposed to identify with.  There’s a certain nobility in his willingness to take his emotional punishment and not let it change him.  He continually treats others as he would want to be treated: offering help unsolicited, treating his coworkers with respect, politely asking them not to tease him, and appreciating their work.  In “Telethon,” he is the only character who wears the Pawnee Cares t-shirt Lesley spent eight hours making for her staff (I don’t count the two extras working the phones).

So is it okay to laugh at him?  More specifically, is it okay to laugh at everyone else’s cruel treatment of him?  This blog post was inspired by a twitter exchange between @memles and @crsbecker regarding how much cruelty they could handle seeing Jerry withstand.  I aside more with Myles McNutt in that as long as the show itself is not especially cruel to Jerry (making the viewers complicit in mocking him), I think the dynamic works.  Then, the question is why and how does it work?

Full disclosure: I haven’t done much research into comedy and am mostly terrified of it as an object of study.  Having said that, I want to try to understand why I find the mockery of Jerry so effective and how it differs from other cringe-inducing cruel comedy like in The Office.

Let’s begin with some analysis through difference.  I’ve already touched on the difference between Jerry’s treatment and Toby’s and Pierce’s on their respective sitcoms, but I think it will be useful to expand on that.  Toby Flenderson is an Eeyore character: the object of undue ridicule and bad luck who internalizes that negativity and accepts the sad-sack role as his lot in life.  We pity him for bearing the brunt of Michael’s hatred, but his complete pessimism makes it difficult to empathize with him.  At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Pierce, a racist, bigoted, sexist,  privileged old man who seemingly deserves any and all mocking he gets. He is to be laughed at by both characters and viewers alike.  He is not to be pitied, but you can sometimes empathize with him because he at least owns his agency in life, unlike Toby, for whom life is perpetually occurring in passive voice.

I'm not the only one who thinks of Toby as Eeyore; this composite was the first google image result.

Between the two, there is Jerry.  He warrants both pity and empathy because he is a victim without being helpless.  The drive to do more, be more, and be seen as more–even if it’s just a little bit–keeps Jerry from Toby’s internalized pessimism and abdicated agency, and his consideration of others keeps him from Pierce’s overbearing offensiveness.  Jerry may be a sad sack character, but he avoids the extremes of these other characters, making him more accessible emotionally.

But if I both pity and empathize with Jerry, why do I laugh when others taunt him?  The key point–at it is hinted at by McNutt in the above twitter conversation–is that I am laughing at the characters mocking Jerry, not really at Jerry.  Though I may laugh at a good Jerry pratfall or an inopportunely timed fart, the true deep mine of comedy is the increasingly ludicrous levels the staff goes to justify Jerry’s awfulness.  The funniest parts of the following clip are not Jerry’s mishaps but instead the reaction shots, especially Donna’s unbridled joy at Jerry’s split pants.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The comedy, in my mind, truly lies in the delusions of the other characters, their stubborn blindness to any of Jerry’s actual achievements in favor of maintaining Jerry as the butt of all jokes.  They choose to focus on Jerry as the guy who said “murinal” instead of the guy who created a beautiful–in both sentiment and execution–mural idea.  But far funnier than a slip of the tongue is the other characters’ refusal to let such a minimal joke die.  They are the joke.  Jerry’s just the poor schlemiel/schlemazl who instigates the joke.

Jerry's "murinal" idea: a collage of all the faces of Pawnee. You're beautiful, Jerry, no matter what they say!

Together Again: Onscreen Actor Reunions and Viewer Pleasure

Watching last night’s  Justified (“Blind Spot”), I exclaimed aloud when I realized that Ray McKinnon was playing the week’s shady character.  Anybody reading this blog knows that I’m perhaps more attuned to character actors than I should be, but that’s not what caused me to clap my hands like a child who just got her first glimpse at birthday cake.  Ray McKinnon played Rev. H.W. Smith on Deadwood with Justified‘s star, Timothy Olyphant.  The two, sadly, never shared the screen on Justified, but I still felt the trill of happiness when I thought that the two actors were inhabiting the same universe again.  But why?  Why do I find pleasure in a casting happenstance?

Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Intrigued?

Certainly part of it is the pleasure of recognition–and in this example, a particular recognition that leads to intertextual cultural capital transference– and of insider knowledge.  Knowing that these two actors previously shared credits in a little-seen but much-lauded other television text lends cultural capital not only to me, the viewer, for recognizing the connection, but also the text itself through intertextual linkages.  Deadwood fans who recognize McKinnon on Justified are instantly reminded of the other brilliant-but-canceled program, and some of the nostalgia and pleasure related to Deadwood overlays onto Justified.  Moreover, the appearance has no “wink” at the audience or acknowledgment of the intertextuality so the pleasure in the moment of recognition also gains from the pleasure of solving a puzzle, but a puzzle that much of the audience–one assumes–can’t even see let alone solve.

I think the latter explanation for the sense of pleasure lies at the heart of what I felt.  It resembles the kind of pleasure surrounding cult fandom as a way to exceptionalize the self in regard to vast swaths of apparent sameness.  Part of the pleasure of being a fan of a cult text is the sense of distinction (generally without being elitist) from the masses through knowing and appreciating a text that few know.  This is perhaps easiest seen in an example of two cult texts meeting through actors: Kristen Bell guest starring on Party Down, which stars various former Veronica Mars actors.

Veronica Mars, still able to own Dick Casablancas

Though the characters are far removed from those they played on Veronica Mars, the relationship between Uda and Kyle on Party Down partially resembles the relationship between Veronica and Dick on Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell’s character is smarter, more powerful, and utterly competent at her job than Kyle and can therefore dictate with authority Ryan Hansen’s shallow, dumb, arrogant character.  It’s as if Veronica and Dick somehow entered an alternate universe where they’re caterers.  On such stuff is AU fanfic made on.

Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper, Alias stars (friends?) on Kitchen Confidential

But there’s at least one more level of pleasure these actor reunions elicit: the extra-textual idea that the actors themselves derive pleasure from being able to work together again.  With certain series, especially those constantly on the brink of cancellation and/or with cult status, the actor narratives that persist are those that position the cast as a family.  Group interviews, appearances at fan conventions, and the occasional candid shot of the stars outside the context of the show create the narrative that these actors actually really like each other and enjoy working together.  This serves a few purposes: 1) It undermines the construction of actors (through connection with a common construct of “stars”) as selfish narcissists; 2)It adds an affective layer to the emotions and connections portrayed within the text between the actors (drawing on the “realism” of the emotions); and 3) for canceled cult shows, it comforts fans and can keep hope of one more iterations of the text alive (see: Arrested Development movie rumors).

Victor Garber is Jennifer Garner's Spydaddy even after the end of Alias

Some combination of all of the above elicited the admittedly girlish giggle of delight and aforementioned hand-clapping in me when I see actors reunited in a different television universe.  Am I alone in this feeling?  Perhaps in my explanations of them, but a cursory look at fan reaction to last night’s Justified proves that others similarly take pleasure in seeing actors reunited onscreen.  These slanted reunions represent an interesting intersection of text, intertext, and extra-text that certainly bears more investigation (and at least from me, more giggling outbursts in my living room).

The TV Character Actor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Garret Dillahunt and the Deconstruction of Aura

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not very well versed in star studies.  For someone who knows about that, check out Annie Peterson’s blog.  What I will be arguing is not so much about star studies, anyway, because in the acting hierarchy “character actor” is not the same as “star.”  Instead, I want to analyze one television character actor, Garret Dillahunt, and the trend of his recent appearances in deconstructing through inversion the idea of “aura.”

The unflappable Garret Dillahunt on White Collar

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aura of a work of art becomes degraded through reproduction.  Moreover, he extends his argument to film actors, writing, “The aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays. [. . .] The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Benjamin).  Though Benjamin argues regarding film, certainly the reproduction central to television distribution fits his argument as well.

Character actors share the “star” characteristic of being bringing a “personality” to their roles, for often character actors make their living by being typecast.  This plays not only on the intertextuality of their roles but also on the illusion of “aura” the actor can give a character.  The idea behind casting a character actor is for the audience to be able to instantly know what type of person he or she is supposed to be.  Go to That Guy! and you can sketch a general character for each actor.

Hey, it's that guy! (on Life)

With Garret Dillahunt, you can still read him as a “bad guy” through his cold stare and austere look, but there is something else.  Over the last few years, Dillahunt has played more ciphers than characters, or to be more accurate, he’s the character actor of choice when your character IS a cipher.  His characters are always more a flexible reflection of the plot or other characters (or his character’s own play-acting) than a set individual.  He’s played robot terminators, slippery mafia dons, killers, con men, and spies, but his characters are always a bit of a closed circuit.  This is done purposefully.  The “aura” that he brings to his character roles is precisely a lack of “aura.”  He could be anyone because he plays lack of specific character so well.

The following clip illustrates this inversion of “aura” nicely.  From Dillahunt’s appearance on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, he plays “John Henry” with the body of a Terminator from the future and the first Terminator programming as his mind.

There’s a blankness to Dillahunt in almost all of his roles, a deliberate separation from both a connection with the viewer and a connection with the characters with whom he shares the screen.  It’s not that he’s a static actor, unable to connect.  His film roles tend to take him more in that direction (see especially his comedic performance as wide-eyed Wendell in No Country for Old Men), but on television, his blankness has become his “aura.”  His lack of “aura” intentionally draws attention to Benjamin’s articulation of the modern withering of “aura” in filmic media and actors.  However, Garret Dillahunt serves as a counterexample, a deconstruction of the idea of “aura” based around original/copy or character/cipher, for his recent roles reverse and displace these binaries–and their implied hierarchies–by making the cipher the character and the copy the original.  The idea of difference in undermined through inversion.  Dillahunt can play machine because he embraces the mechanical reproduction of character.  His blankness is valued in his villain characters because it captures the terrifying ramifications of the destruction of personal “aura” in the age of mechanical (and now more-widespread digital) reproduction.

Sometimes even the chyron doesn't know what to make of him.

Image credits:

1. Unflappable

2. Hey, it’s that guy!

3. Chyron