Sunday, August 6, 2006

Most Oppressed People Ever, or The Other White Meat

With "The Sopranos" apparently winding down to its last season whenever, who's the media's new white ethnics--my title refers to the acronym spat at Irish claims to have suffered, say, more than those murdered in the Shoah, as well, odd juxtaposition, of the old ad campaign promoting pork consumption rather than chicken--that HBO and Showtime need? Virginia Heffernan, on July 28,2006 in the NYTimes , tells, well not all, since we Irish (and in our American varietal) don't tell all, only act like we do so. Sit with an Irishman all day and he'll talk and tell you nothing about what's really happening deep down, so they--everybody else--say/s.

Disclaimer: I actually am watching "Brotherhood," thanks to the miracle, if not cheaply granted, of HBO on Demand and the same for Showtime, thanks to Leo' s mastery of the remote and his endless stance, slouched in front of screens. Both leads are named Jason. In ten years the ranks will be filled with Dylan. Jason Clarke, from the promo clips, is evidently "really" British! Layne & I are caught up, and, unlike the Sopranos whose madcap follies I could not watch as I missed out on the beginning years when we did not have premium cable, I felt like I could not fully appreciate. "Brotherhood" is complicated enough for me, and a reminder of why I don't read mysteries, thrillers, or anything that depends on you following a convoluted plot.

I remember that my ex-brother-in-law among others commented how my dad always reminded him of Archie Bunker. Yeah, but a "G-rated" as no invective stronger than "crap" has ever passed his careful lips.

And the Award for Most Dramatic Americans of the Moment Goes to ... the Irish

Among the legacies of “The Sopranos” is a new artistic fantasy: producing the Great American Television Drama has supplanted writing the Great American Novel. Eager to replicate the achievement of David Chase’s masterpiece without presuming to compete with it, producers are casting around for narratives that are quintessentially American but don’t star the Mafia. It’s got to be possible. Certainly David Milch (“Deadwood,” on HBO), David Simon (“The Wire,” also HBO) and Aaron Sorkin (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” on NBC this fall) have ventured plausible hypotheses. Maybe television’s America will, for all time, be played by the old West, or Baltimore, or — e pluribus unum — Hollywood.

But, really, who will be our echt Americans, if not Mr. Chase’s Italian-Americans?

Enter, clamorously, the Irish. Television is suddenly filled with them. There are actors, of course — Frances Conroy, Lauren Graham, Alec Baldwin, Denis Leary, Louis C. K. and Donal Logue, to name some of the most visible — but also Irish-American characters and Irish-American dramas and Irish-American neighborhoods. In the two most captivating dramas of the summer, Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me” on FX and Blake Masters’s “Brotherhood” on Showtime, Irishness, for better or worse, is the killer app of narratives: a concept that alone sets actions in motion. “Rescue Me,” after all, resounds with a catchall explanation from Tommy Gavin (Mr. Leary) for every kind of rambunctious behavior: “We’re Irish.”

Not so long ago, on the reality programs that used to pervade prime time, American seemed to mean “all-American.” Blond, that is, low-key, good-natured and lacking a a strong ethnic identity.

But in a great American television series — a scripted show — characters cannot be low-key or good-natured. They have to have histories so they can bear grudges. And they absolutely cannot be averse to drama, as reality-show personalities often claim to be. Sex, death and money must be tightly intertwined in any hourlong series of the “Sopranos” era; punches must be thrown; opera must ensue. Unsentimental reality contestants don’t have the heart for our grand national themes, on television or in films. No reality girl could have played Laura Linney’s part in “Mystic River” or Marisa Tomei’s part in “In the Bedroom.” Roles like those must be left to actors made of rowdier stuff.

For producers trying to keep a show relevant and suspenseful, what do Irish characters have going for them? Let’s see. Well, you can always give them alcohol problems: the bipolar excitement of drunkenness and hangovers. And there’s the taut suspense of sobriety, which — as Mr. Leary’s Tommy shows — is always about to snap.

Those Irish can also brawl, as Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) does to impress Tommy’s sister (Tatum O’Neal) on “Rescue Me” and Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs) does to intimidate almost everyone on “Brotherhood.” Being Roman Catholic, they can also repent and turn abstemious; they can fall into romantic dramas that contrast virgins with whores; they can be gay or homophobic, with serious consequences; they can go to Mass and macabre funeral wakes. Being strivers, they can run for office or become police officers and firefighters; they can try to pass for Protestants; they can fall and fall and fall and try to do better.

That’s plenty of action, which means plenty of chances to annoy Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston, who is incensed about what he considers cartoonish representations of Irish in the media. But Mr. Flynn might not mind the dialogue, which is less profane than “The Sopranos” and at times even Jesuitical. On “Brotherhood,” the police detective Declan Giggs (Ethan Embry) is faulted by his Italian-American partner for using “mick logic”; Giggs’s offending statement is “it’s the exception that proves the rule.” The partner says he doesn’t need to understand because “my ancestors had the good sense to invent scaloppini and cannoli while yours were happy eating potatoes and dirt.”

He makes a fair point, but for these shows, what does it matter? So we don’t get old Coppola/Scorsese scenes of tough guys with fagioli and razor-thin garlic. And if the lives of Mr. Leary’s and Mr. Masters’s Irish characters are less sensuous and sybaritic than those of Mr. Chase’s Italian-Americans — picture beer for wine, ballgames for strip clubs, and bars for restaurants — they can at least be more cerebral. They’re loquacious, even poetic. Which is not to say these shows as a whole are smarter than “The Sopranos,” just that the characters tend to make arguments, debate points and discuss current events. No one is reticent.

Which brings us to the other Irish-Americans on television: Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly. As loath as Mr. Leary and Mr. Masters might be to admit it, these mouthy cable commentators paved the way for the new style of Irish-American drama. They brandish their tempers, their volubility, their high color and their decidedly post-post-Kennedy politics. Nostalgia for the ward politics and union loyalties that inform “Rescue Me” and propel “Brotherhood” has also turned up on the talk shows, especially when the subject is immigration.

American viewers have simply built up a tolerance for the beguiling blarney of television Irishness. And, with Paul Haggis starting the uber-Irish “Black Donnellys” on NBC in the fall, no one will be going on the wagon anytime soon.


Miss Templeton said...

The moment I saw the Yahoo splash on Brotherhood, I envisioned the brainstorming meeting at Showtime's boardroom thusly:

"There's a demographic out there that wants a dysfunctional family from a colorful ethnic background and up to its neck in corruption. Gimme something. Brad. You first."

"’Sheboygan.’ Polish-Americans in a Wisconsin brewery trying to fight unionization of their factory and heavy competition from a chi-chi microbrew import. We get Bobby Vinton as the charismatic patriarch, and..."

"And it sucks. Jennifer. Your turn."

"’Tejano!’ The modern day world of an upwardly mobile conservative Mexican-American politician struggling against the legacy of his grandfather's role in Pancho Villa's revolution..."

"We need 'anglo,' Jennifer. Not Taco Bell. You. Tadd. Go."

"'Shtamen.' Yiddish for family. Affluent Jewish-Americans in Los Angeles who..."

"Who aren't going to be on MY network. Nicola! Give us some of that dot-com whizbang mojo we hired you for."

"'Gold Mountain' It's San Francisco in the new Millennium, but the Lins of Kearny Street struggle with their duel role as the City's movers and shakers and as the dutiful children of their ancient culture with its many alliances to the old country. Rosalind Chao is the seemingly wise but deviously conniving matriarch..."

"Jesus. Note to Self. Circulate memo to staff on definition of 'anglo’! Okay, you in the corner! What can you give me?"

" I'm just bringing in the lattes from Starbucks, sir."

"Yeah, well…what was your name again?"

"I'm the summer intern from UCLA. Moonbeam O'Brien, sir."

"There better be two sugars in my latte O'Brien or you'll never work...say! ‘O'Brien’ you said? My God! That's it! Give those lattes to Nicola, O'Brien, and start talking. Kids. We’ve got ourselves a show."

Miss Templeton said...

Fionnchu! I can't help thinking of you every weekend when the husband and I watch the latest episode of "Mad Men" on AMC. Who knew that the post-Sopranos race for the next big TV thing would tag the least likely American ethnic community for its exotica rituals and deeply repressed moral codes? (But then: it DID always work for Updike and John Irving.) Or is it really just about Darren and Samatha Stevens?

Have you been watching? Did you see last week's episode of "Babylon?" Do you know it got me to post up a slice of unwanted knowledge over at that AMC discussion boards that managed to combine the Melodians contribution to The Harder They Come soundtrack, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the 137th Psalm, mandolins and Bob Dylan?

And there was our old pop-culture friend Leon Uris getting buckets of free advertising!

Miss Templeton said...

Naturally, that's Samantha Stevens that I meant. Apologies.