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December 1994, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 13 Dec 1994 17:05:58 CST
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Author:  [log in to unmask]
Date:    12/13/94 3:40 PM
[Editor's note:  This message was submitted to SCREEN-L by the "Author" noted
above, and not by Jeremy Butler ([log in to unmask]).]
Some thoughts re: the recent the discussions of HOMICIDE, MY SO-CALLED LIFE
and other TV:
1. HOMICIDE raises a number of conflicting feelings for me.  First, it's
opposite PICKET FENCES, which makes me thankful for my VCR and my son's
early bedtime.  Both shows are well worth watching, though quite different
in many ways. (BTW, the silence on my question about the handling of race
in this season's PICKET FENCES has been deafening.  I'd still like to hear
people's thoughts if they've been following the show.)
 HOMICIDE falls into the category of My Favorite Fascists, since cop
shows have become a dominant genre in our crime-fearing era, but it's
extraordinarily well-done.  Last week's episode, as Kecken pointed out,
went beyond the standard urban/rural cliches *and* illustrated some of the
feelings of rage and frustration which, the analysts say, help to explain
the recent election results.  The woman cop in question marks one of the
show's qualities--the deliberate exploration of issues in the lives of
these characters.  Consider her relationship with her male partner, who is
going through a divorce (maybe).  She becomes a go-between for wife and
partner, but *not* part of a romantice triangle as such.  The relationship is
a working one, between partners.
 Similarly, we have a show that has *three* main characters of color,
each of whom is distinctly individual.  The character of Pembleton, with
his Jesuitical intelligence, somewhat arrogant individualism and tortured
existential questioning of faith, may be the most complex and fascinating
character on a tv series today.  Ned Beatty manages to curb his sometimes
cuteness and Richard Belzer may have found a perfect outlet for his unique
 The show's deliberate non-continuity and editing style also make it
an interesting departure from the norm, though it probably is offputting for
viewers.  There's also a reasonable amount of humor, but it is sometimes so
edgy that viewers may miss it without a laughtrack.  Belzer's aggressive
style is very funny--and central to his character.  It was delightful to
find out a couple of weeks ago that his character's brother is a mortician--
quite appropriate.
 Aside from NBC's apparent desire to destroy the show by continually
cancelling and rescheduling it, then placing it in bad time slots,  HOMICIDE's
difficulties may be due in part by a reluctance to go for the too obvious and
a willingness to explore some of the darker questions without resolution.
Compare NYPD BLUE, for example.  Although I watch and usually enjoy the show
well enough, it seems typical of Bochcoland--a mix of "gritty" urban crime
and lowbrow humor (with an obligatory guest appearance by Barbara Bosson--
It's *good* to be married to Bochco).  Look at the women characters or
Lt. Fancy and how the series has consistently failed to develop them in any
meaningful way (another typical Bochco mark--his shows can be counted on to
make a few murmurs about race or gender and then back away or rely on cliches).
 HOMICIDE, on the other hand, doesn't proudly proclaim its "break-
through" status in new levels of nakedness or language.  It is far more
unsettling and far more dangerous.  The murderer of a child is caught and
has to walk for lack of evidence.  A detective who is unsettled by the S&M
underground finally begins to acknowledge his own "dark side" (though that
thread seems to have been dropped).  A cop's suicide has to be acknowledged
after the fact.  Bochco would usually find some way to resolve these
questions--or at least let Franz and his girlfriend lapse into an
 Arnoldian "Ah, Love, let us be true to one another" reverie.
 In contrast, MY SO-CALLED LIFE is far more mundane but it is still
more complex than recent detractors here allow, and much of that is due to
the ways in which the characters slowly change and evolve over the course
of weeks.  It takes more than a few episodes to see how things will turn out.
For example, several people here have disparaged the show in which Rayanne
nearly dies from overdosing on alcohol and pills and is "saved" by Angela's
mother.  Taken by itself, the show can deserve those criticisms.  But two
weeks later, the very attitudes that that episode seemed to convey were
taken to the cleaners.  When Rayanne overreaches by trying to sing with
an unrehearsed rock band, everyond overreacts in an almost hysterical
fashion--only to get their comeuppance from Rayanne's mother, who puts
Angela's mom in her place.  But then the carpet is yanked out from under us
again as Rayanne returns to a bottle at the very end of the show.  I don't
know *where* her character will from there but I'm curious to find out.
 The parents are almost too good to be true, but there are tensions
there that may erupt again.  More important is the disjunction between
adult and teen perceptions that several people have pointed out.  The adults
sometimes understand but more often misinterpret the clues around them.
A case in point was the episode in which a gun was fired in the school, leading
to all kinds of moralizing and counselling (and bullying) by the adults,
while most of the kids shrugged off the event and Angela was far more
concerned with the rumors about her sex life (started by the "good" boy
next door).
 If some people find a disjuncture between SO-CALLED LIFE and their
reality, so be it.  But I grew up with (and perhaps was one of) people like
Angela, Rayanne, Brian, Jordan, and Ricky and I see kids like them every
year in my classes.  In whitebread Minnesota, at least, these types still
 I'm sorry to have gone on for so long.  If you want to respond
privately, please do so, but I think this has been an interesting thread.
--Don Larsson, Mankato State U., MN
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"Nobody thought it was peculiar anymore, no more than the routine violations
of constitutional rights these characters performed week after week, now
absorbed into the venacular of American expectations."
 --Thomas Pynchon, VINELAND