Friday, 24 April 2009

Full Hearts, Clear Minds, Can't Lose

Not quite a sports drama, not quite a teen drama, Friday Night Lights provides the perfect balance of both genres, making it one of the most watchable television dramas. Having recently discovered the show I have quickly devoured the show’s entire first season in just over a fortnight in between reading for the thesis.

In the small town of Dillon, Texas, one night matters: Friday Night. Eric Taylor has recently been hired as the head football coach for the Dillon High School Panthers, the town's pride and joy. Friday Night Lights displays the stress that the town gives the high school players to win, and the hope that the team gives to a small town, and how a team has its low points, its high points, and how they come together as a team on their way to victory. The plot is identical to the movie of the same name, but reinforces my opinion that television is a far superior medium to cinema. The first season of the television series is basically identical to that of the movie, but the series allows for 18 hours of character and plot of development over the course of 22 episodes, as opposed to the two hour self contained movie.

One story that particularly attracted me was the journey of star quarterback Jason Street. After being struck down by a ferocious tackle in the first game of the Panthers' season he is subsequently left paralysed. The show pulls no punches in addressing society’s attitudes towards disability and the issues associated with it. Matters as varied as Jason’s integration back into school, self esteem, grief associated with the loss of his abilities, and of course sex are addressed during the course of the season in a realistic manner without resorting to melodrama. After seeing similar storylines tackled in a variety of different shows I have to say that this is most credible storyline regarding disability issues that I have seen.

It is the writing that brings the show up to such a high standard, particularly in such a tight ensemble drama. The way in which the writers manage to interweave the storylines of the varied characters allows the show to adopt many different tones. It can play out as a standard high school drama akin to One Tree Hill with the shows many love triangles, a family drama following the trials and tribulations of the Taylor clan attracts the more discerning viewers, and a typical sports drama that follows an entire football year interests the sports nuts.

Apparently the show has teetered on the edge of cancellation since it premiered in the US during 2007. This is a great pity because its rare that a television series is able to maintain a high standard of quality, whilst providing a visceral response. Friday Night Lights is tender, exciting, intelligent, engrossing, thrilling and most of all entertaining.

Monday, 20 April 2009

To the Power of Two.

I’ve long been a fan of sister musical acts. Tegan and Sara is after all my favourite band in the known universe. Even The Veronicas do the three and half minute pop song very well. However, one of the most under appreciated musical duos in music today, Meg & Dia are fast becoming one of my favourite bands. With the release of their sophomore album Here, Here and Here they demonstrate that they are a talented force to be reckoned with.

Their first album Something Real was released three years ago with little fanfare. Due to my undying devotion to the aforementioned Tegan and Sara, my Last Fm was constantly recommending Meg & Dia as a band I should check out. I don’t know why, but I resisted at first, but after a few months I finally relented and listened to the album. Rather than a straight comparison to Tegan and Sara, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were an amalgam of the Quin Twins and another of my favourite bands Paramore, with the catchy and literate lyrics of the former and the rocking passion of the latter. In particular I fell in love with the track Nineteen Stars, which brought these irresistible qualities to the fore.

With the release of Here, Here and Here not only have Meg & Dia kept these qualities, but they have also matured and diversified their sound. From the soul infused grooves of Are There Giants Too, In The Dance? to the bluegrass inspired Agree to Disagree, the album wonders across many musical territories. Yet the album does not contain a weak link, as I find it impossible not to listen to the album in its entirety.

In particular, the middle third of the album is stellar. Starting with the catchy first single Black Wedding, moving through to the mournful ballad Bored of Your Love, then on to the stadium rocker, One Sail, One Sea, and finally to the compelling The Last Great Star in Hollywood these four tracks are really where the album bursts into its full stride. However my favourite track on the album has to be a tie between the modern power ballad Fighting For Nothing (which has the potential to do for Meg & Dia what Decode did for Paramore) and the title track which provides the album with a fantastic closer. Like I said the album contains no weak links.

Whilst I’ll happily admit the angst filled lyrical stylings of Meg & Dia may not suit everyone’s taste, I’d enthusiastically recommend this album to fans of Tegan and Sara, Paramore, and Jimmy Eat World. This is pop done with both grunt and polish.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Process

It’s late, I’m tired, but I just became inspired by this amazing blog that I’ve read by Dia from Meg and Dia, about the experiences she went through making the band’s latest album ‘Here, Here and Here'.

Rather than being a standard tale of how a band makes an album, a lyric here, a chord there, this blog is really about the personal journey whilst making the album. Perhaps it’s a tad too ‘emo’ for some, too earnest for others, but at least for me it symbolizes that anything worth doing is a fucking hard slog. In Dia’s case it was about losing love and then finding it again, struggling to find a creative mojo and then discovering it just as quickly as it was lost. It’s something I can easily identify with.

Two months in writing my thesis and I’m fucking tired of it already. Don’t get me wrong, I love the material, but hate the grind of reading five and six books a week. Funny thing is that I knew it was going to be like this going in, but I also knew the slog would be insignificant when compared to the final goal of getting the PhD by the time I turn 29.

I was reminded this week of the achievements of Dr Denis Murphy, the academic, historian and politician who died six months before I was born, and it inspired me all over again. Not only was Murphy a lecturer at the University of Queensland, and a former State President of the ALP, but also a distinguished biographer who chronicled the lives of four different Labor leaders both State and Federal. At the beginning of 1983, he won the seat of Stafford in the state election, but died of cancer three months later. He is renowned for reforming the Queensland Labor Party with then State Secretary and future of Premier, Peter Beattie during the party’s dark days in opposition at the height of Sir Joh’s popularity,

The point being, as I to and fro about choosing a life of academia or politics, Murphy provides me with but one example of someone who excelled in both fields. From tragedy comes triumph, from struggle comes reward, from hard work comes results, from adversity comes strength and from the journey comes the destination. These are the things that will get me through.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

ER Set the Tone

In September 1994 I was eight years old. I was living in South Australia, going to school and spending the day in my grade 4 class under the guidance of my teacher Mr Harris. At that age I was not into music, was certainly not into politics, and my favourite television show was The Smurfs. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the television show ER premiered in the United States. On Friday, its final episode was screened, leaving a total of 332 episodes over a period of fifteen television seasons.

Those kinds of statistics are remarkable for a television show, especially when matching it against ones own life journey. What were you doing 14.5 years ago? Now that ER has gone off the air, The Simpsons and the original version of Law and Order are the only prime time television shows still on air that premiered in the United States during the 20th century. That’s quite an achievement.

As always Australia was behind the eight ball when premiering quality television shows from the US before the days of the internet. It wasn’t until about 1997 that I started to watch ER on a regular basis about a year after it started airing here. I was more of a Chicago Hope fan myself, due in large part to Mandy Patinkin’s quirky sensibilities. However, the initial element that attracted me to ER was its quick and exciting pace. The show had bloody and complex operating procedures often shifting between two and three cases at one time. This was mixed in with good storylines and solid characterisation from the show’s main players, which was always compelling.

The most pleasing factor of the show was its remarkable consistency. Whilst never reaching the heights of all time classic shows such as The West Wing, the show remained solid, while the great shows surrounding it both started and finished. I’m a bit contrarian in comparison to the critics when ranking the show’s greatest seasons. Most critics regard seasons 1-4 as great, seasons 5-8 as solid and everything after that as complete time wasters. However whilst seasons 1-3 were solid, seasons 4-8 remained the best with a noticeable weak patch between seasons 9-10, with the last five seasons being above average.

I think most of it boils down to which of the main characters you prefer. Out of the first group of doctors I disliked Dr Ross (the overrated George Clooney) and Dr Lewis, but particularly enjoyed Carter, Greene and Benton. As the seasons past I became annoyed at the increasing focus of nurse turned doctor Abby Lockhart and Clooney’s supposedly hunky replacement Dr Kovac. However this period was marked by the surprising and shocking death of medical student Lucy Knight, and Dr Romano’s adventures with helicopters, with two accidents over a three year period (with the first one causing his arm to be amputated, and the second his untimely death). In later years I was particularly taken with Nurse Samantha Taggart and intern turned surgeon Neela Rasgotra. However, the loss of viewers and the show’s slight dip in quality can be traced to the death of the show’s original protagonist Dr Greene at the end of season eight. The show lost its focus with tedious Africa themed episodes as the show struggled to regain its centre.

By the time it regained its quality status the show was cast aside by Australian broadcasters midway through season ten. Thus the majority of the country did not get to witness the transformation of Dr Morris from a complete douchebag, to the show’s emotional centre. The example of the ongoing characterisation of Dr Morris throughout a five year period highlights what the show did so well over its tenure. The transformation was gradual and slow, but by the time it was complete it was hard to imagine that Dr Morris had been anything other than a competent doctor even though long time viewers knew otherwise.

The show’s two hour finale played to the show’s strengths and essentially treated it like another couple of episodes. Patients floated in and out, and due attention was played to the hospital’s past, present and future with Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel introduced as a new intern as part of the finale. The most fascinating part of the finale was having Dr Greene’s daughter Rachel return as a perspective intern after just completing medical school. This allowed the last line of the finale to be ‘You coming Dr Greene?’ an intentional reference to the very first words of the pilot fifteen years earlier where a nurse uttered those words to Rachel’s father. The show, just like the hospital, had come full circle leaving a satisfying reward for loyal viewers.

Arguably the most memorable phrase of the show’s fifteen year run was ‘You set the tone.’ This would occur when the protagonist would leave the series as he would offer advice to his successor. The phrase also provides a fitting tribute to the show itself. It set the tone with regards to its longevity and consistency. Fans of the show could view about 95% of the show’s episodes and remained entertained and enthralled. As my life has progressed across two states, with the completion of three forms of education and the progression from child to adult, the show remained a valuable institution within the televisual landscape and in my own sense of popular culture.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Kevin Rudd: The Cult of the Leader & His Teflon Coating.

I came across the following article in yesterday’s edition of Crikey.

Kevin Rudd: the PM who can do no wrong

Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane writes:_

Given the way he works his staff and his perfectionism, it’s no surprise the Prime Minister behaved objectionably toward a flight attendant who somehow failed to provide what he wanted. Rudd sets notoriously high standards not just for himself but everyone around him. However, that doesn’t excuse rudeness. That he apologised at the time becomes him. That it happened in the first place, though, is revealing of what sort of person he is. On the other hand, those of us who have managed staff less than perfectly ourselves, or have ever treated someone in the service industry shabbily, are probably in no position to pass judgement.

But that this is a leading story in the aftermath of one of the most important meetings in recent history, to the extent of being the subject of questions to Rudd after the G20 meeting, is indicative of the Australian media’s capacity to focus on the trivial. Kudos to The Australian, for giving the story appropriate weight online -- reporting it, but not obsessing over it or seeing it as a higher priority than what’s going on in the real world.

And if the Prime Minister’s chief spinner Lachlan Harris denied the story when initially put to him by Steve Lewis, it’s a remarkable act of self-directed stupidity.

What’s fascinating, however, has been the public reaction. A politician -- especially a senior one -- abusing a subordinate, especially a low-ranking one, could ordinarily expect no sympathy whatsoever. It’s one step short of the ultimate sin of declaring "don’t you know who I am". When I discussed it with 2HD’s Luke Grant this morning, he immediately noted that people on talkback had been making excuses for Rudd or emphasising that he had apologised, as if Rudd can do no wrong at the moment.

We got Media Monitors to sample the reaction and, while there was considerable criticism, there were a lot of defenders of Rudd on talkback. Some said Rudd’s behaviour was understandable -- some even applauded him -- and complained about service levels in general, or said he shouldn’t have apologised. Others suggested the abused woman should get over it, or get a different job, should be able to take abuse and would have heard worse things in training, or that any CEO would have hit the roof if they’d been treated the way Rudd was treated. Others had a go at the media.

Empathy for politicians from the public is invariably scarce, and yet here are talkback callers -- older and more conservative than most voters -- putting themselves in Rudd’s position and supporting his behaviour. The reaction of many to the story was to think of times when they’ve got poor service and wish they could have reacted in the same way as he did. This is Rudd’s scarily effective communication and image-shaping skills paying off.

Even John Howard at his most popular -- and he never reached the Hawkeian heights that Rudd has attained -- wouldn’t have got away with abusing a hostie. But voters feel they know, trust and understand Rudd, that even if he isn’t an ordinary bloke, he shares the values of ordinary Australians and views the world in the same way as they do.

It will fade, over time; voters will wise up to how he does it, and grow bored with him, as they did with Howard, and more quickly, too. But at the moment Kevin Rudd is a scarily popular man.

Studying the many different styles political leadership for my thesis this article intrigues me on several levels. Firstly, why is Kevin Rudd the man ‘who can do no wrong?’ (Particularly with regards to the general public) His public support with regards to his preferred Prime Minister levels are unparalleled when comparing them to other Newspoll figures over the past 25 years. Lots of commentators have explored these figures in party political terms with the same styles of thinking. The Government is using their incumbency to their advantage and focusing their message on the current Global Economic Crisis (GFC) they say. The Opposition is hopeless they say, constantly undermining the only decent leader they have in their parliamentary ranks. All of this is true, but to my way of thinking they are missing the central issue. What is it in particular that draws the voters to Kevin Rudd?

Even as a Labor Party stalwart I acknowledge that Rudd is about as benign of a leader as the public can get. He does not have the ability to capture the public imagination like a Whitlam, the ability to mix with the public like a Hawke, or the turn of phrase of a Keating. What may propel him into stratosphere of popular opinion is his ordinariness. Except every time he is on television trying to look like a ‘man of the people’ I cringe because (at least to me) he comes across as pathetic try hard. The one thing that he has going for him is the Howardesque ability to read the public mood, something at which Turnbull and his Liberal colleagues have no clue how to do at the moment

However all of this doesn’t explain why the public feels sympathy for Rudd after he acted like a complete dickhead. Yes, he’s human and is entitled to make mistakes, but such luxuries are not normally afforded to your average politician. Take the example of Obama referring to his bowling skills as something straight out of ‘the Special Olympics’. Potentially offensive yes, and probably in poor taste, but it’s the political equivalent of yelling at a lowly flight attendant: a minor political gaffe, which is likely to cause substantial public outrage. In Obama’s case that was certainly so, in Rudd’s case it brushed off him like teflon coating. In another case Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has caused the Rudd Government’s only political storm thus far, by not declaring a few trips to China when he was in opposition. Yes, it was a very bad political mistake and one that good ministers do not make, but it certainly does not warrant a fortnight’s worth of intense public and media scrutiny.

The point of highlighting these somewhat unrelated examples is to demonstrate that the general public treats political mistakes small and large with harshness, but Rudd’s mistakes seem to avoid this scrutiny. Why? Is the public finally tired of the Australian media covering seemingly trivial issues in favour of substantive policy issues? Is the public so concerned with the GFC that as long as the Rudd Government are seen to be managing the crisis they don’t care about much else? Do they just really like Kevin Rudd? Whatever the answers to these questions, I would sure hate to be a Liberal Party parliamentarian at the moment.