What’s On Hbo2 Right Now – Sometimes things that have nothing to do with musical theater teach wonderful new lessons about storytelling in general, but also by extension, about musical theater. I think we forget too often how much different narrative forms have in common. First two among these particular things would be the PBS documentary series, The Power of Mythwith Joseph Campbell (now on Netflix and Amazon Prime); and also Burno Bettelheim’s brilliant book The Uses of Enchantment. These two things are my holy scripture.
I recently came across three more short TV documentary series about writing and storytelling that blew me away and might just blow your mind.
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Ridley Scott’s Science Fiction Prophets, each episode dedicated to one of the great science fiction writers: Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Heinlein, Asimov and George Lucas. It’s on Amazon Prime, but you can also watch it online for free here.
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James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction, each episode explores a subgenre of science fiction, including: aliens, space, monsters, dark futures, intelligent machines and time travel. Cmaeron talks to Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Keir Dullea, Max Brooks, John Lithgow, Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Verhoeven, DC Fontana, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and others. It’s on Amazon Prime, but it’s not free; but you can watch it for free on the AMC website.
Eli Roth’s Horror Story, each episode deals with a type of horror movie: zombies, slashers, demons, vampires, ghosts, etc. Roth (director of Hostel, Saw, etc.) talks to Rob Zombie, Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Blair, John Landis, Jack Black and others. You can watch it for free on the AMC website, or you can watch it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the Shudder spin-off channel.
But more than anything else, the work that has impacted me the most (besides the big musicals) is a bunch of cable dramas. They have almost nothing to do with each other…but there are two parallels between them. First, they all debuted on HBO, the channel that truly invented fearless television drama. Second, as someone (I forget who) pointed out, network TV shows find the extraordinary in the ordinary (like a stranger living with a family in the suburbs, or preternaturally intelligent children in an otherwise “normal” household); but HBO dramas explore the ordinary in the extraordinary (like the home life of a mob boss, a workplace drama in a maximum-security prison, and a troubled youth who finds himself in a mystical, traveling carnival).
If you are (or want to be) a director, actor, or writer, I seriously recommend you explore these shows. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all masterpieces of TV drama and taught me thousands of lessons about character development, story structure, background, motivation, focus, tension, ambiguity, subtext, and perhaps most interestingly, the relationship between an episode arc, a season arc, and a series arc. Here they are:
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I could be persuaded to add Showtime’s brilliant Dexter and, for the even more narratively adventurous, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
OZ: I remember the first time I saw an episode of Oz, it felt almost exactly like the first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, like suddenly the old rules didn’t apply anymore, like anything was possible in this art form. Can TV be that? Show creator Tom Fontana had created a whole new universe of possibilities for dialogue, plot, camera work, acting, the fourth wall, sex, violence, raw emotions, use of music, I could go on for hours. It’s not an easy show to watch, but it’s very captivating. I’ve watched the entire six-season series six times. I’m not shooting you.
THE SOPRANOS – I first got into this series sometime in the third season, but as I have with Oz, I have now watched all six seasons of The Sopranos six times. I recently started a seventh journey and I’m still finding things I hadn’t noticed before. It really is that rich. What I like most about this is that the vast majority of what’s important is in the subtext. It’s a really complicated and intricate tapestry of characters, motivations and stories. It’s like a networking drama with Scorsese movies. In the first episode of the series, creator David Chase tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. And if you’re wondering, I thought the controversial final moments of the series were absolutely perfect, the only legitimate way to end it.
CARNAVALE – Similarly, in the first episode of this series, creator Daniel Knauf tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. Of course, you don’t recognize that he did until you’ve just watched the last episode of the series. It’s like he’s a master magician, always leading us wrong, but also subtly feeding us everything we need to move the story forward. This is such a great series, but when you watch it, you have to allow yourself to go without understanding everything that’s going on. It’s just such a story, a horror mystery drama. Everything will make sense in the end. Once you get to the end of season two (it was later cancelled), literally everything that came before will make sense. It’s incredibly satisfying that way, and a master class in how to engage and hold an audience.
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DEADWOOD – Like the others, the writing, acting, directing, design, etc. all simply extraordinary, far above the quality of even the best network television series. But this brutal and brilliant series created by David Milch has two really special elements. First, much of the story comes from real-world events and real people, from newspapers, news, etc. It’s an incredibly fun history lesson. But also, the writing is a kind of Wild West Shakespeare, an incredibly complex and dense language that is both poetically sublime and also profoundly vulgar and obscene. Milch explains that the only way to make a modern audience feel the danger and lawlessness of this time and place, so foreign to us now, was to make the language itself impactful and “lawless.” It’s another true masterpiece of television, and I guarantee college students will be studying this dialogue for years to come.
THE WIRE – Like the others, every element of this show is perfect. But unlike the others, this feels like a documentary, and unlike the others, the grand narrative arc of the entire series isn’t entirely linear. It really feels like you’re in the room with these deeply flawed cops trying to fight the war on drugs. And the longer you watch it, the less clear it becomes who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It is a raw, brutal and episodic drama. And it’s great.
Now ask me why HBO has created so many masterpieces. total freedom Basically there are no rules. Who is attracted to this environment? The most feared and adventurous artists, who usually also turn out to be the best. And certainly, more than twenty years after the start of this new Golden Age of Television, HBO is no longer the only place to go for great television drama. But without HBO, and especially Ozand The Sopranos, we wouldn’t be in a new Golden Age.
I’ve often thought about the fact that the new golden age of television began right around the same time that our new golden age of American musical theater began in the mid-1990s. I’ve always wanted to find out if other art forms launched new Golden Ages in that same period, but I haven’t yet… Was it a coincidence or was there something in the air as the century ended…?
Hbo/cinemax Guide January 2016
When I was in high school and college, I devoured every book I could find on musical theater, read scripts and listened to cast albums (literally hundreds of cast albums) and played piano sheet music. I was a starving fanboy. As a particularly powerful illustration, I came into my freshman year of college owning 100 cast albums and graduated with 500. I kid you not.
And then I went back to St. Louis in college and soon started the New Line Theater. And at some point I realized that I had read all the books on musical theater, so I turned to books on non-musical theater and on stories, and they taught me a lot of things that are relevant to my work with musicals. I also learned that the best work in any narrative form can be a master class for me, and I realized that just in time Ozto debuted on HBO and changed the face of television.
An interesting note about Oz: It was made in New York, so it’s full of musical theater actors, including BD Wong, Rita Moreno, Ben Vereen, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Joel Grey, JK Simmons, et al.
Every actor, director,
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