The Many Saints of Newark, damp squib of the year

The Many Saints of Newark.

Like so many oth­ers, David Chase only ever end­ed up in tele­vi­sion because he’d been unable to get any of his fea­ture films off the ground. So after the stratos­pher­ic suc­cess of The Sopra­nos, it was inevitable that his next move would be to make a feature. 

Which he duly did, with the blink and you’ll miss it Not Fade Away, from 2012. So for many peo­ple, this year’s Sopra­nos’ pre­quel feels like his real move from the small to the sil­ver screen.

So it’s iron­ic, if, again, inevitable, that The Many Saints of Newark should end up being so demon­stra­bly a work of television.

To begin with, it’s not even a David Chase film. He got Alan Tay­lor to direct it. Which is fine, Taylor’s a tal­ent­ed direc­tor, as his gen­uine­ly charm­ing fea­ture Palookav­ille (’95) demon­strates. But why, when you final­ly get to call the shots, would you let some­body else direct your baby?


Chase has clear­ly become so insti­tu­tion­alised after decades in tele­vi­sion, that that’s the only way he now knows how to work. So instead of direct­ing it, he’s its showrunner.

And tele­vi­sion is what he gives us. It’s basi­cal­ly a slight­ly bloat­ed, 2 hour, extend­ed pilot episode. And it needs all that time to intro­duce us to the many char­ac­ters we’re going to be meet­ing over the course of what are pre­sum­ably the next 10 or 11 episodes. 

But it does have what appears to be an all-impor­tant spine. The meat of the dra­ma cen­tres around the rival­ry between Dick­ie and Harold, over who gets to rule the turf. Which is fur­ther height­ened by the fact that the for­mer is white and the lat­ter black, and it all takes place in the midst of the race riots of 1967. 

And, for the first hour or so, that ten­sion threat­ens to build. But then it stalls. And then it’s left casu­al­ly hang­ing. To be resolved come the sea­son finale, in who knows how many future episodes’ time. 

The Sopra­nos.

The real prob­lem here is that this kind of incon­se­quen­tial, flab­by sec­ond hour would nev­er have been allowed sit at one of the sto­ry meet­ings, had this been put for­ward as an episode dur­ing the actu­al Sopra­nos

It’s only because it’s so con­fi­dent­ly direct­ed and slick­ly pack­aged, and because so many of us watched it through pairs of impres­sive­ly rose-tint­ed spec­ta­cles, that nobody’s plucked up the courage to call the film out on its almost com­plete lack of actu­al drama.

Nev­er mind. It looks fab­u­lous. And we’ll always have the tele­vi­sion series to fall back on.

You can see the trail­er for The Many Saints of Newark here

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Masters Of Sex” and the death of the Soap Opera.

Masters Of Sex.

Mas­ters Of Sex.

The Sopra­nos, Break­ing Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Home­land, The Shield, The Killing, The Returned reviewed here, Top Boy reviewed here, our own Love/Hate, 24, Board­walk Empire, Dead­wood, House Of Cards, Six Feet Under, Lost, Game Of Thrones, Glee, Buffy, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviewed here.

They all give us believ­able char­ac­ters in a rec­og­niz­able world that you real­ly want to invest your time in. Because what they are all about is the rela­tion­ships that are forged between the indi­vid­u­als who live there, and the bril­liant­ly told sto­ries that con­nect them and bring them all into conflict.

In oth­er words, they all do what soaps used to do in days gone by. Except they’re much, much bet­ter writ­ten, act­ed, direct­ed and produced.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

Which isn’t mere­ly because they all have far more mon­ey to spend than a con­ven­tion­al soap ever did. Rather, it’s a reflec­tion of the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that tele­vi­sion had under­gone over the last decade or so. It’s part of what’s come to be called box set cul­ture.

Tele­vi­sion pro­grammes have to be so good today, that they demand to be seen on our ever larg­er and loud­er tele­vi­sion sets. So that down­load­ing them or stream­ing them onto your phone just isn’t going to be enough.

Not only that, they have to be so good, so remark­able, and to gen­er­ate so much talk and inter­est, so much noise,  that you’re going to feel an uncon­trol­lable urge to buy the box set and watch them all again. So good in fact, that when then they’re all repeat­ed, repeat­ed­ly on cable and satel­lite, you’ll hap­pi­ly watch them all again.

On the job.

On the job.

The lat­est in the cur­rent line of Olympian tele­vi­sion is Mas­ters of Sex. Based on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary study into sex­u­al mores and mechan­ics in the late 50s and 60s, it revolves around Michael Sheen as the sex­u­al­ly prud­ish but sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly dri­ven doc­tor, and the part­ner­ship he strikes up with the sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed but com­plete­ly unqual­i­fied Lizzy Caplan, who he takes on as his assistant.

He by the way is called Mas­ters, and she Vir­ginia. Which could eas­i­ly have been an exam­ple of how clev­er­ly yet sim­ply the dif­fer­ent dynam­ics of sex­u­al pol­i­tics are delved into and invert­ed on the show. But that real­ly was what they were called.

In many ways, it’s lit­tle more than Mad Men lite. But it’s so well act­ed and writ­ten, and the sto­ries and their arcs are so care­ful­ly and clev­er­ly plot­ted, and it and they all look so fan­tas­tic – soft porn has rarely looked as plush, lush and refined – that you hap­pi­ly sit back, relax and let it all wash over you.

One more rea­son to stay in of an eve. And one more nail in the Soap Opera cof­fin.  You can see the Mas­ters of Sex trail­er here.

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Spiritualized’s “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” Soars.

Jason Pearce formed Spir­i­tu­al­ized in 1990, but it was their third album that sent their rock ’n’ roll stock soar­ing into the stratos­phere in 1997. Ladies And Gen­tle­men, We Are Float­ing In Space seemed to flat­ly con­tra­dict every­thing we’d been told about what hap­pens when you live a life of heed­less hedonism.

Pearce seemed to be spend­ing his every wak­ing hour imbib­ing and ingest­ing any­thing and every­thing he could get his hands on. The result, shock­ing­ly, was an album of majes­tic cohe­sion and soar­ing, unfor­giv­ing grace.

As ever though, the Gods had mere­ly been toy­ing with him. After two decid­ed­ly under­whelm­ing fol­low-up albums, in 2005 he was felled with a par­tic­u­lar­ly vir­u­lent case of pneu­mo­nia. He very near­ly died and was hos­pi­tal­ized for the guts of a year. The next album Songs In A&E had, unsur­pris­ing­ly, some­thing of a ten­ta­tive feel to it.

But a year lat­er in ’09 he start­ed tour­ing Ladies And Gen­tle­men in its entire­ty, as was the fash­ion of the day. And the expe­ri­ence seems to have reju­ve­nat­ed him. The result is this, their 7th stu­dio album.

Once again Pearce has defied the odds by pro­duc­ing an impres­sive­ly coher­ent album, despite being felled yet again by serous ill­ness. This time it was his liv­er, and the cock­tail of, irony of ironies, drugs he was pre­scribed meant that it took him eight months to fin­ish mix­ing it. Hence the sub­ti­tle, Huh? which he explains here on Pitch­fork, and the boys from Prav­da gave it an impressed 8.8 here.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is both a crys­tal­liza­tion and a sum­ma­tion of every­thing he and Spir­i­tu­al­ized have been work­ing on to date. It has every­thing they do best, and some of the best exam­ples of what they do.

From the open­ing track prop­er, the even-more-Reed-than-Reed Hey Jane (more V U returned with thanks) to the Dr John col­lab­o­ra­tion, I Am What I Am, which is what David Chase would have used for The Sopra­nos if they’d been mak­ing it today. And the whole thing is giv­en son­ic depth and poise by the Ice­landic string quar­tet Ami­ina, long-time col­lab­o­ra­tors with com­pa­tri­ots Sig­ur Ros.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it has slight­ly less of the grandeur that Ladies And Gen­tle­men boasts. And instead of the defi­ance and tri­umphant despair of the for­mer, you’re being gen­tly invit­ed in here to break bread and per­chance for a sup of wine.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

Breaking Bad” – AMC.

The gold­en age of Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion con­tin­ues, and an august lin­eage that began with The Sopra­nos, The Wire and Mad Men con­tin­ues apace with Break­ing Bad. Series 4 of the AMC show went out in the US last autumn, and the fifth and final sea­son is due to be aired there lat­er on this year. But it’s yet to sur­face on ter­res­tri­al tele­vi­sion here, and many peo­ple on this side of the Atlantic will only be com­ing to it now.

All the best tele­vi­sion depends on a series build­ing a care­ful­ly con­struct­ed micro-world that you com­plete­ly trust in because they know every square inch of it, and into which you’re invit­ed for an hour once a week. What’s unusu­al about each of the above, is that they each focus on two com­plete­ly dis­parate worlds, both of which you believe in and cru­cial­ly, both of which are giv­en equal weight when they inevitably come into collision.

The con­flict cre­at­ed in The Sopra­nos aris­es when the mun­dane domes­tic­i­ty of fam­i­ly life comes into con­tact with the world of orga­nized crime. But both worlds are giv­en equal impor­tance, and each of their char­ac­ters are equal­ly deserv­ing of our sympathies.

Sim­i­lar­ly The Wire has the good guys – the cops, the unions, a school and a news­pa­per – and the bad guys – the street gangs – but refus­es to take sides. Instead, both sides are shown to be equal­ly taint­ed by pet­ty per­son­al pol­i­tics and con­flict­ed loy­al­ties which makes both sets of char­ac­ters all the more fascinating.

Mad Men is a bit more com­pli­cat­ed. The two worlds that come into con­flict here are, on the one hand the black and white cer­tain­ties of the late 1950s, which is what the show looks and sounds like, and on the oth­er the pitch black and oh so con­tem­po­rary cyn­i­cism of the show’s sto­ry­lines and its char­ac­ters, which is what the show feels like.

Break­ing Bad takes this tem­plate and reduces it to its purest form. The two worlds here are the whiter than white col­lar world of an ele­men­tary school teacher and the bleached blond vanil­la world that he and his fam­i­ly live in, and the dank and dark, grim and grimy realm of under­world drugs. When the school teacher (Bryan Cranston) is diag­nosed with ter­mi­nal lung can­cer, he decides to pro­vide for his fam­i­ly by man­u­fac­tur­ing crys­tal meth, and two worlds that ought nev­er to have come into con­tact collide.

What’s so cap­ti­vat­ing about the show is that once that deci­sion has been made, they treat every­thing he has to do, drug wise, as seri­ous­ly as they do fam­i­ly wise. So for instance, when he has to dis­pose of a dead body, they real­ly take you through, step by step, exact­ly what you’d have to do if you real­ly were faced with hav­ing to get rid of a corpse.

Sim­i­lar­ly, when he and his side­kick decide to offer their pristine­ly pro­duced crys­tal meth (he is after all a Chem­istry teacher) to one of the under­world’s main dis­trib­u­tors, and sug­gest that per­haps he might con­sid­er using them instead of his usu­al pro­duc­er to sup­ply him with all his chem­i­cal needs, all Hell breaks loose, just as you’d have expect­ed it to, should such an unlike­ly event have ever occurred in the real world.

All the advance reports on Break­ing Bad were wor­ry­ing­ly rev­er­en­tial. For once, they were entire­ly justified.