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By Adam Nayman
First things first: the funniest and probably finest episode of television produced in 2010—on par with much the Americans produced last year for the cinema—was “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” the highlight of the second (and final) season of Party Down. Of all the great things about this series following a Hollywood catering company whose employees labour beneath a painfully transparent social/professional glass ceiling— serving free hors d’ouerves and hard liquor to the callow, monied douchebags they privately yearn to usurp—the best was the way it consistently tweaked its one-party-per-episode format. Written by co-creator John Enborn, and directed by series regular Bryan Gordon, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” once again utilized the backdrop of an L.A. McMansion housing a crazed celebrity (that’d be Mr. Guttenberg, playing a deliriously plausible and virile version of himself), but took the crew officially off duty, leaving them bumping up painfully against the limits of their own potential.
Gently encouraged by their host, stifled actor Henry (Adam Scott) and aspiring Judd Apatow bit player Casey (Lizzy Caplan) transform from bored service-industry drones to protean performers. The occasion is a living-room reading of colleague Roman’s (Martin Starr) ridiculous hard-sci-fi script. Charged with bringing rank clichés to life, the pair channel their mutual frustrations (professional, romantic) into a brilliantly funny performance; fit, generous, and obliging, Guttenberg similarly inspires Roman and his writing partner Kent Gerbels (guest star Christopher Mintz-Plasse, assuring us that his last name is not pronounced like Joseph’s) to allow human emotion into their work. In addition to being an expert on the creative process, Guttenberg is also an aesthete: glimpsing one lavish canvas, Party Down’s token himbo Kyle (Ryan Hansen) offers a succinct appreciation: “It’s of a dude fucking a porcupine.”
Party Down wasn’t supposed to last only two seasons, but the final image of series finale “Constance Carmell Wedding” was nevertheless perfectly apposite, readable as either the inspiring culmination of Henry’s arc towards self-empowerment or else a sojourn in the waiting room of the damned. Party Down’s noticeably chintzy budget (chez Starz) didn’t deter directors Gordon (like Enborn and fellow co-creator Rob Thomas, ex of Veronica Mars), and Fred Savage from doing precise, detailed work. For a show set at parties to succeed, the background activity has to be vividly realized, and it was, never more so than in “Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night,” with its mock-echoes of Eyes Wide Shut (“and this is the ‘Fuck Room’”). Their high standard was maintained by special guest helmer David Wain on the backstage farcical “Not On Your Wife Opening Night,” a fast-paced roundelay of mistaken identities that said more about the blinkered aspirations of community theatre than Waiting for Guffman (1999) while also finding time to stage a mini-wine-drenched bacchanalia.
Reading about the history of Party Down, it’s interesting to note that co-creator Paul Rudd was originally slated to play Henry. Having a genuine star playing an aspiring one could have possibly tipped the show’s balance in a more boringly Apatowian direction (as in the wholly disingenuous scenes of Seth Rogen slinging potato salad in Funny People ). But Adam Scott, with his great, pinched matinee-idol face—he’s like a smudged Tom Cruise—and Lizzy Caplan, Ryan Hansen, and Martin Starr, who are all almost-famous for worthy shows that got cancelled as they were peaking (Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars), gave the characters’ underlying desperation some edge. Starr in particular is a revelation here, turning the tender-nerd act of Freaks and Geeks and Adventureland (2009) on its head to give us perhaps the most un-relatable geek in TV history: unlike 30 Rock, which backed off from the delirious highs of its second season by turning each member of its ensemble into a secret sweetheart (most disappointingly in the case of Tracy Morgan/Jordan), Party Down rarely fell into the trap of equating “funny” with “likeable.” The relative anonymity of the actors helped a lot in this regard: when Season One standout Jane Lynch departed to go ape Madonna and win Emmys for Glee it was a weird case of addition by subtraction. By that point, she had become too visible to be plausible as an industry outsider.
This question of casting for TV—or for “Not TV,” in the case of the ever-modest HBO—is central to analyzing the year’s two most highly touted dramas, each of which is a kind of shadow show to a genuine pop-cultural phenomenon. Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire obviously borrows liberally from its creator’s previous gig as a writer on The Sopranos, while Treme transplants David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s brand of American municipal ethnography from Baltimore (in Homicide: Life on the Street and, more obviously, The Wire) to post-Katrina New Orleans. The latter is, like The Wire, an ensemble piece, while the former follows The Sopranos by organizing its underworld intrigue around a single figure: “Nucky” Thompson, the quietly saturnine and thoroughly corrupt Atlantic City treasurer/bootlegger modelled on real-life Republican racketeer Enoch Johnson and played by Steve Buscemi.
On The Sopranos—and in pretty much everything else he’s ever appeared in—Buscemi was a peripheral player, introduced in the show’s uneven fifth season as The Other Tony: Tony Blundetto, cousin to Tony Soprano and heir to Big Pussy in the role of trusted associate/brother figure who must be whacked. It was a tired plot-line before it even started, but Buscemi invested his end with an expert supporting-player finesse: he understands how to recede interestingly in a cast of flamboyant cartoons. He’s recessive in Boardwalk Empire, too, and it’s a problem: lacking James Gandolfini’s gravitas, Buscemi fades into the background of his own star turn, out-shined by baroque co-star Michael Shannon as a bug-eyed proto-G-man and the art direction. The conspicuously high-budget Boardwalk Empire is simultaneously trying to live up to The Sopranos (borrowing most of its gangland picaresque tropes) and also Mad Men, emphasizing period luxe and flattering its audience’s intelligence by having its characters bear witness to key 20th-century events without benefit of hindsight. The Martin Scorsese-directed pilot was the most ostentatious example of the show’s visual fetishism (shades of Gangs of New York ), but it was also dynamic in a way that subsequent episodes mostly haven’t managed. If the characters and situations of Boardwalk Empire are often strenuously baroque (Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden is a one-man highlight reel of ludicrous actions and dialogues, from self-flagellation to murder-by-riverside-baptism), the filmmaking—or rather, Not-TV-making—is disappointingly conventional.
There are good things, too, mostly from lesser-known actors, like Michael Stuhlbarg’s positively Buscemi-ian supporting-actor shtick as the reptilian gambler Arnold Rothstein (another Serious Man) and Jack Huston’s surprisingly affecting work as wounded World War I vet/ambulatory metaphor Richard Harrow, whose last name is actually the subtlest thing about him. On a show where the traumas of the Great War figure prominently into several character arcs (including Michael Pitt’s neurasthenic Jimmy Darmody), Huston stalks around behind a Phantom of the Opera mask disguising Harvey Dent-level scars. If you think I’m hitting the pop culture allusions too hard, note that the show’s writers have already made explicit visual or verbal references to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939) (and as Huston will apparently be a series regular next year, expect more of the same). The jury is still out on Kelly McDonald’s comely Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeter, whose transformation from a shy advocate for temperance to a gangster’s complicit concubine is too much of a fait accompli: each step in her moral erosion has been neatly telegraphed well in advance.
By contrast, the most common complaint about Treme was that it was short on plot: that, as lazy critics like to say, “Nothing happened.” Certainly in comparison to Boardwalk Empire, which showed its cards early and often, Treme opted to slow-play its hand; as on The Wire, Simon, Overmeyer, and the late David Mills (who wrote the excellent episodes “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe”) were as content to introduce and then drop potentially major narrative threads—like the shocking moment when Clarke Peters’ brooding “Big Chief” Lambreaux savagely beat a young thief (to death?) in an abandoned housing project—as they were to develop and provide payoffs. If Boardwalk Empire leans heavily on plot to prop up its painstakingly contrived local “atmosphere”—when in doubt, cut to a CGI-assisted boardwalk exterior—Treme inhabits its locality from the inside out, emphasizing a sense of place over narrative development.
If that sense of place is accompanied by a sense of inertia, it makes sense. Treme is, after all, set in the aftermath of a disaster that wracked and paralyzed a community: not a location in sinister ascent, like Boardwalk Empire, but a place attempting to rebuild. At its best, the show gave the impression of a large paralyzed organism regaining feeling in its extremities and taking its first tentative steps. The major catalyst for these tingles is music, the métier for most of the major characters (and also the source of relentless cameos by local musicians from Kermit Ruffin to Galactic, most of which feel justified by the series’ subject, and, the objections of many critics aside, are largely fun to watch and especially to listen to). Wendell Pierce’s feckless trombone player Antoine Baptiste (introduced in the midst of shortchanging a cab driver and scarcely more solvent afterwards) lives gig to gig; slacker DJ turned snarky political aspirant Davis McAlary (the great Steve Zahn) pins his highly public identity on his encyclopedic musical knowledge; comely violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli), whose difficult relationship with junkie busking partner/lover Sonny is probably the show’s weakest link, tries to improve her playing while working with new collaborators; conflicted trumpet player Delmond (Rob Brown) is alternately drawn to and away from his washed-out birthplace and his father, the aforementioned “Big Chief.”
Those characters without a direct connection to music probably had a harder time of it overall, especially John Goodman’s doomed English professor Creighton Burnette, whose apoplectic YouTube rampages about the rest of the country’s relationship to his (crucially, adopted) hometown (“Fuck you you fucking fucks”) were loosely based on the late political blogger (and Wire fan) Ashley Morris. To return to the idea of casting, the use of Goodman—at once the most affable and apoplectic of actors, not to mention a former substitute Blues Brother—is ingenious, especially in respect to the role’s overall arc. Creighton’s suicide may have been telegraphed when he started talking to his students about Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but the decision to frame it as a selfish rather than transcendent act (not to mention the choice to divest the series of its most famous and appealing star) strikes me as admirably unsentimental. And it also set things up beautifully for the final scene of season finale “I’ll Fly Away,” describing, as did the very first scene of the series, a Second Line ceremony (sort of a mobile wake, with brass instruments and dancing) in which Khandi Alexander’s grieving LaDonna exhorts herself towards catharsis over the loss of her brother Daymo in the storm while her friend and tireless legal advocate Toni (Melissa Leo)—who had engineered the search and battled the bureaucracy behind it—was left alone at the edges of the parade.
Rather than a glib bit of comeuppance for this well-meaning, civic-boosting white liberal crusader, this contrast struck me as a fair illustration of the flip side of community pride: if you’re in, you’re in for life, but if you’re not, don’t hold your breath. And did I mention that her husband then commits suicide? (The subplot about the visiting Japanese jazz fanatic who ends up buying a trombone for down-and-out Antoine expressed this in a gentler way). The New Orleans depicted in Treme is tight-knit to the point of being insular, and far from merely celebrating this ornery self-possession, Simon and his collaborators patiently interrogate it, one stubborn local at a time. Stubbornness and its discontents is probably Treme’s great theme, with Lambreaux’s unflagging, even dangerous desire to reunite his dispersed Mardi Gras Indian tribe and ruined chef Janette’s (Kim Dickens) attempt to maintain her water-damaged restaurant as the most explicit examples.
So it’s not so much that “nothing happens” on Treme as that the most extreme shifts are interior. I’ve already gotten into some pretty nasty arguments over the suggestion that the reason many Wire fans find themselves bored by its successor is that the (mostly black) characters aren’t involved in criminal activities, and so there’s no real suspense about who’s going to get killed and how/by whom. Such an assessment is probably unfair to The Wire, which didn’t exploit the fresh-corpses-as-story-development thing as baldly as The Sopranos, but when even a serious, political film like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans uses its locale’s degraded status as carte blanche for gunplay, Treme’s restraint scans as miraculous. And in a year when Lost (mercifully) ended its run, the judiciously deployed flashbacks in “I’ll Fly Away,” taking the principals back to the moments before the hurricane hit (we hear a TV reporter predicting that it will “swerve” around the city), was an exhilarating formal device, inscribing the show’s elegantly wrought anguish and grief all the more powerfully for showing it briefly—and of course impossibly—undone.