Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Good Wife and A Dog Year

I just got online and checked the family e-mail account. The Practice: Vol. 1, disc 1 was received by Netflix, and my association with them is now over. Of course, a lot has changed between the time I watched the second episode of that disc and now. For one, though I like the writing of David E. Kelley, I find it sometimes too wacky. The breaking of the fourth wall on Boston Legal is entertaining (such as a judge incredulously asking, "The same firm for both sides?" upon seeing Denny Crane announce that he'll be counsel for the defendant in a case about Vermont (was it Vermont?) wanting to secede from the United States, and Crane replying, "Saves on guest cast."), but beyond the eminently entertaining James Spader (who I intend to watch on The Office even though I've only seen a scant few episodes of the show), it's not my type of legal drama. I like underlying tension, not all of it brought to the fore right away.

In short, I became addicted to The Good Wife last Sunday night. It may have been in the works for some time. Maybe reading that many West Wing fans had gravitated to the show stuck in my mind, but I don't recall it affecting my decision. I'd heard that Parker Posey will be playing Eli Gold's (Alan Cumming, thereby reuniting them) ex-wife in the new season, but even though Posey is one of my favorite actresses, that didn't do it either. They had a half-hour catch-up special first, defining the characters, showing clips of the major storylines of the past two seasons, with interviews with the cast and creators Robert and Michelle King. I'd seen a bit of the pilot episode, but it didn't do anything for me then.

And yet, even though I'm fiercely devoted to The Big Bang Theory, which I consider my replacement for my passion for The West Wing (I still have it, as well as season 1-4 and 7 on DVD, but I mean passion for an ongoing TV show), I was looking for an hour-long show of which I could have the same passion as I did for the seven years that The West Wing aired, even through the horrifyingly bad 5th season (until "The Supremes"), and the slowgoing 6th season, before the 7th season which almost brought it back to Sorkinese glory. I wanted to feel that again for a TV show.

Since I've rediscovered that my life's passion is reading, I don't devote as much time to watching TV, but I wanted something that I know I could tune in to each week, just like I did with The West Wing. After the half-hour Good Wife special, I was intrigued, and decided to watch the episode that followed, which involved, partly, Fred Dalton Thompson, playing himself, defending the oil interests of Venezuela. It was an episode that included a body double for Hugo Chavez on a satellite linkup on a video screen, walking back and forth, in front of a table of his advisors, his head never seen, and with Thompson clearly having some fun in the episode, it veered very nearly into David E. Kelley territory without the soapbox Kelley usually stands so tall on. I thought that part of the episode to be very unusual for the series, even though I was entirely new to it, but I sensed the mature drama inherent in it, the humor that comes organically from the characters, and not lines forced on them. Therefore, this is my new show. Well into last night, I watched on the CBS website that episode that came before the one I saw, and I'll be watching the new season. One day I'll catch up with the DVDs, but I'm ready for this. I'm excited. I feel like this could be my new West Wing. And the cast is just as prestigious and masterful as The West Wing cast was.

Getting back to Netflix, over the past week, I've been thinking about what movie has affected me most out of the hundreds I saw in five years from the discs I received and the occasional movie I streamed on the site. I first thought of Unstrung Heroes, about a young boy (Nathan Watt) confused about the changing world around him (His mother (Andie MacDowell) has cancer, and his inventor father (John Turturro) is deeply distracted by this), who goes to live with his two eccentric, hoarder uncles, one who is paranoid that he's being followed (Michael Richards) and the other (Maury Chaykin) who collects balls that have been washed down the sewers. When the boy asks the uncle about it, he replies, "You know how seashells hold the sounds of the ocean? I think balls hold the sounds of the children who bounce them." I hadn't even seen the movie yet and I fell for it right away from that line just from seeing the trailer on the Netflix website. Not long after, I bought it from Amazon and I'm proud to have it in my collection.

But no, not Unstrung Heroes, not to the extent of really getting into my head, pressing it up against my life and seeing what relates to me as a person and as a writer. The movie that I know has been on my mind for a long time now, even though I hadn't thought about it up until last week, is A Dog Year, starring Jeff Bridges, originally airing on HBO. Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors and one of my heroes, so that was a natural attraction to this one. What impressed me most was how quiet this movie is. It never gets melodramatic in the story of writer Jon Katz (Bridges) in the midst of a mid-life crisis, who adopts a problematic border collie, which eventually leads to training by a dog whisperer (Lois Smith), who also provides Katz with greater understanding of his life and the kind of person he needs to be. Writer/director George LaVoo never pushes anything, never tries to ramp things up. This is Katz's life and he has to work through it, even while he's trying to get the dog to come to him at an airport, surrounded by people, explaning the current state of his existence to all of them. I am a dog lover, so that's part of it, but what's amazing is how LaVoo finds drama in the quietest moments, in Katz simply making another bologna sandwich. Where is his life going? Who is he? Can he still be the same man that he was? Change can happen gradually. That's what this movie shows, and it's most effective as well because of its 80-minute running time. That's all. That's all it needs. Utter simplicity in storytelling. It's a rare quality, and A Dog Year has it, which is also why I bought it from Amazon, and received it today. I want to use it as a model for my own storytelling, be it in a novel I may write one day or some kind of literary journalism. I'm happy to own it now.