Saturday, October 8, 2011

Iain Glenn: An Axiom of Premium Cable

Two observations about the aesthetics of TV drama, both prompted by the work of an excellent British actor named Iain Glenn.

The two episode storyline on "Strike Back" in which Glenn plays an international arms dealer is a perfect example of the way this psychologically astute series attempts to braid almost non-stop action adventure heroics together with drama -- though the emotionally squeamish would probably call it melodrama.

Glenn's character, an arms dealer named Crawford, has diverted his latest shipment of lethal weapons to Darfur, to meet the ransom demand of the militia leader who kidnapped his daughter, a UN aide worker whose do-gooding career was a repudiation of her father's greed and amorality -- the fruits of which may now end up saving her life. Glenn plays Crawford as a wise monster suddenly hamstrung by love, and he gets off a zinger in a conversation with one of our sinewy Section 20 heroes, the married one who is increasingly conflicted shuttling back and forth between hearth and home and various death-stinking war zones: "I know self-loathing when I see it."

On "Game of Thrones" Glenn plays Ser Jorah Mormont, a man who is almost wholly admirable, a paragon of loyalty. His section of the story, the Daenerys Targaryen/Khal Drogo subplot, is the one that works best on TV by a wide margin -- in part because here we occasionally get to see things happening, rather than listening in as characters describe them to each other. (Entire episodes of this widely praised series are devoted to expository conversations. Screenwriting students have been flunked for less.) Most often we see these things because Iain Glenn shows them to us through the eyes of Ser Jorah -- the eyes of a knight in exile, hungry for a cause, watching with dawning recognition as the young woman he was hired to protect transforms herself into a queen. It's a love story, in other words, not so much about a man smitten with a woman (thought there are hints of that) as about a knight smitten with a lord, one of the few on earth who may deserve the fealty of a person of his pride.

I think all premium cable shows from now on should be required by law to offer a role to Ser Iain Glenn. If he considered them worthy they would be better for it.


Tulkinghorn said...

Agree completely with your praise of Iain Glenn. (Check out a mini-series of Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters... Also he did a very Ser Jorah role in last season's Doctor Who.)

Couldn't disagree more with your notion that a good movie CANT contain a great deal of exposition.

One of the growing list of reasons why so many Hollywood movies are so boring -- either they are simple-minded (requiring no exposition) or incoherent (lacking exposition). There are very very few creators who can make the difficult visually compelling -- the Wire guys did it, Christopher Nolan in his youth (but there was a lot of exposition in Inception), Innaritu -- and if you only let people with their talent make movies with complicated plots, flunking the rest, you get stuff in a pretty narrow range.

There are lots of great movies that break rules..... And I wouldn't banish a single one.

Tulkinghorn said...

By the way, it appears that the creators of "Game" knew that they were in hot water with regard to exposition..... Which is the only reason I can find to explain the fact that much of the exposition takes place while naked women writhe around in the foreground or background. (or in one case, while someone skins a deer, which not to be too obvious is the emblematic animal of their enemies)

If you're stuck breaking the rules, in other words, might well have some fun while you're doing it....

David Chute said...

Apparently the term they coined for it was "sexposition." IOW, they even have a word for it.

There's a scene in a late episode that sums up a lot of this, for me, because it first tells, then shows. First, the old Stark retainer Grand Master Pycelle explains something or other to a naked wench. Then, when he's alone, there's a startling revelation that's pulled off entirely with body language, when Pycelle drops his pretense of being infirm: he straightens up, squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath and strides off. There's an entire subplot implicit in that moment. Would you really have preferred a scene in which Pycelle took a friend aside and said, "You know, this is really all an act..."?

Not entirely fair. Yours is a variation on the "better than the last fantasy series you wrote" response, but nonetheless true. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. What pushed me over the top on "Game" was an episode that consisted entirely of scenes of two people standing around in castles explaining things to each other -- none of which were in the novel. (Which I had finished reading less than a week before.) The novelist, of course, has direct narration to fall back on.

Of course exposition is necessary. The trick is making the characters appear to have their own reasons for saying what needs to be said. This I think the writers of "Game" only intermittently succeed in doing.

Tulkinghorn said...

Almost certainly true. I had the (dis)advantage of watching the series more than 10 years after reading the books, and I needed all the help I could get -- and still had to use the on-line materials (excellent, by the way) to make sure I'd gotten it all.

I've been reading so much sf recently that I've become immune to being irritated at the infodump necessary to the genre. "But weren't the Martian colonies originally controlled by the Russians?" kind of thing.

Christian Lindke said...

I think that anyone with any sense of empathy/sympathy or the actual ability to experience emotions like suspense, anxiety, or excitement, would just say that "Strike Back" constantly feels like it's trying too hard.

I swear that the show contains every line from the Golan/Globus action dialogue playbook -- with a touch of softcore action that in the first episode wasn't so soft.

I'm still waiting for a show that comes close to "Generation Kill" with regard to its presentation of soldiers.