"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Procedural dramas are boring. I don’t care to see another shocking, violent crime on my TV screen. I’m not interested in the victim’s jealous ex-boyfriend or domineering boss or semiviolent father or psychotic neighbor. I know the second I see a character actor with haunted, beady, deep-set eyes that he did it.
Likewise, detectives and cops and FBI agents and other crime savants are no longer intriguing to me. I don’t need to meet the hotshot who can spot subtle clues or see right through suspects or make any criminal confess. I’m not impressed by a commanding knowledge of forensics or an eye for hidden pathologies or a dismissive demeanor with newbie underlings. I don’t care if a detective’s marriage is on the rocks because she doesn’t spend enough time at home; I don’t care that he drinks too much or drives too fast.
Most of all, I’m bored by criminals, with all of their creepy fetishes and uncontrollable violent urges and obsessive behaviors and elaborate rationalizations and copycat killings. Their disturbing, scrawled notes and ripped-from-the-headlines ghoulishness put me to sleep.
Apparently I’m all alone in my boredom, though, because procedural dramas still dominate the lineup: The “Law & Order” franchise, the “CSI” franchise, “Medium,” “Numb3rs,” “Cold Case,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS,” “Monk,” “Psych,” “Without a Trace” — the number of popular, well-loved crime shows on TV right now boggles the mind. So I’m going to have to shelve my prejudices and take a long-delayed look at some of the crime shows airing this summer. It’s hard to review formulaic dramas when more exciting stuff like deadly sharks and crazy dog people are grabbing my attention, but this week it’s time to face facts: These summer cable shows are smarter, more original and more addictive than most of their regular-season counterparts.
I hate to join the chorus, because most of these shows are covered to death by the press while quality programming like “Big Brother 10″ and “Gs to Gents” languishes in obscurity.
Of course I’m joking, but honestly, do you need me to tell you that TNT’s “The Closer” (9 p.m. EDT Mondays on TNT) is a good show? I don’t think so. Besides, I can’t say that I’ve found this show all that compelling over the years. Yes, in the glutted field of procedural dramas, a cable show with an original spin and an original lead character certainly demands our attention. Police chief Brenda Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick, fits the bill with her heavy Southern accent and her hot-pink trench coat and her desk drawer full of Moon Pies. Yes, Brenda is a respectable but plucky genius who can close any case by manipulating the suspect into a confession. She’s odd but intimidating, off-kilter but formidable, and the whole package feels reasonably authentic, thanks in no small part to Sedgwick’s fine acting.
Even so, what are we offered in the way of cases? The first episode of this fourth season featured a mysterious fire and a well-known arsonist as a suspect, but as soon as we met the injured fireman who successfully dodged the fire, we knew he was our perp. The second episode was immediately recognizable as a crime that occurred in Los Angeles: Two older women were taking out life insurance policies on homeless men, then running them over in their cars and collecting the benefits. Are we supposed to be fascinated by a mystery that directly mirrors the headlines?
That said, last week’s episode was dramatically compelling from start to finish. Brenda investigates the suicide (or was it a murder?) of a high school girl who was rumored to have been raped a week earlier by a guy named Darren, the son of a commander in the LAPD. As Brenda speaks with Darren’s friends she learns that they had a “cherry picking” club to see who could sleep with the most virgins. As one friend tells Brenda that Darren used drugs on the girls as a “shortcut,” you can see her rage building. She grits her teeth and cocks her head and forces out a crooked smile, but you can see that she really wants to strangle someone with her bare hands. Yes, Darren clearly raped the girl. But did he kill her?
It all explodes in the last scene, when we learn that Brenda pursued a murder investigation merely to back Darren into a corner and get him to confess to the rape — which of course he promptly does.
Nothing is better on this show than Brenda’s little nanny-nanny-boo-boo moment with the victim. “You’re under arrest for the sexual assault of Michelle Clark,” she tells Darren, practically hissing at him. “And if you think that being the son of a sheriff’s commander made you popular at school, just wait until you get to prison. [Shifting to a playful tone] Convicts play some of the same games as you and your best buds! I imagine you’ll end up in their cherry-picking club in no time at all.” The little jerk’s lower lip quivers in raw fear. Ah yes, this is why we watch procedural dramas: to see scumbags get trapped, tagged and tortured by the right hand of the law!
I also love Brenda’s home life with her fiancé, FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney), which is a nice mix of playful, dismissive, quarrelsome and sexy. Fritz plays more of the wifey role — wrangling Brenda’s cat, throwing his back out and lying around alone at home, giving Brenda feedback on her cases. Yes, behind every strong woman, there’s a sensitive, errand-running man.
Without a doubt, “The Closer” is one of the best procedural dramas on TV right now. But even the smart touches and Sedgwick’s wonderful performances may not be enough to keep those of us who are allergic to the genre coming back for more.
Plain and simple
It may be this prejudice that’s kept me from writing about an obvious gem like “In Plain Sight” (10 p.m. Sundays on USA) for so long. I kept thinking that the show would devolve into some predictable, annoying pattern and become just another procedural with a great lead character.
But “In Plain Sight” transcends the genre on a few different levels. First of all, because the show centers on Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack), a U.S. marshal who works for the Witness Protection Program, the focus of the show varies wildly from episode to episode. This isn’t just another whodunit. Mary is charged with making sure members of the Witness Protection Program are safe from harm, which involves everything from handling custody disputes to moving witnesses out of dangerous situations to investigating mysterious disappearances.
On top of that, “In Plain Sight” concerns itself with the lives of its main characters, sometimes at the risk of losing plot momentum. And Mary is not your everyday female lead character, even among such worthy cohorts as Sedgwick, Holly Hunter (“Saving Grace”) and Glenn Close (“Damages”). More than Hunter’s or Sedgwick’s characters, Mary Shannon represents a total departure from the unbearable adorableness of female leads. Yes, of course she’s tough and doesn’t take any crap, but she also dares to be downright awkward and unlovable as well. She’s into sex but she’s not hopelessly sexy. We’re not supposed to be amazed and awed by her tremendous personal and sexual power. She has a tendency to squint, hunch and walk out in the middle of heavy conversations. Take this exchange between Mary and her partner, Marshall (Frederick Weller):
Marshall: Aw, aren’t you done with the juice fast? Aren’t you crabby enough without adding spirulina to the mix?
Mary: Bite me. I’m trying to do something healthy for a change.
Mary: Why? How about because being healthy is better than not being healthy.
Marshall: It doesn’t suit you. Seems oddly out of character. Kind of unsettling.
Mary: Did you ever stop to think that what’s in character for me isn’t working for me? I’m 35ish. I don’t have a boyfriend. I live by myself. I go to work, come home, go to work. Is it so beyond the realm of reason that I might want just a little bit more from my life, or is that just too much for you to wrap your little pea brain around?
Marshall: I gotta believe this is the spirulina talking.
Even Mary’s on-again off-again lover Raphael (Cristian de la Fuente) lately seems more interested in Mary’s more sex-kittenish younger sister (Nichole Hiltz). Now what kind of TV writers would dare to give their ball-buster lead a cuter (albeit sort of shallow, empty-headed and less classically beautiful) younger sister? It’s the perfect hellish scenario for Mary, who sometimes wonders if her essential way of moving through the world — bossy, slouching, busy, annoyed — is dooming her to the life of an old, lonely cat lady.
“In Plain Sight” has just enough crime drama plotting to keep things interesting, but not so much that the show devolves into predictable formulaic territory. Above all, its writers know how to get to the heart of the forces that are working on their characters, which makes this an unpredictable, funny and consistently entertaining drama.
But “Burn Notice” (10 p.m. Thursdays on USA) may be my favorite crime-related drama (outside of “The Shield,” of course), in no small part because instead of solving crimes, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is often hired to save regular people from criminal entanglements of all stripes. Aided by his ex-girlfriend, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and his best buddy, Sam (Bruce Campbell), ex-spy Mike pulls off outrageous heists, gets clients out of semi-illegal jams, and generally lives the life of the sophisticated, high-end con artist, interrupted occasionally by angry phone calls from his mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless).
Michael was once a spy, but he got fired (see also: burned) and it threw his life into turmoil. Now he does odd jobs to support himself while he tries to get to the bottom of why he was blacklisted, who did it and what he can do to clear his name. He came a little closer to solving that mystery at the start of the second season, when he finally met Carla (played by “Battlestar Galactica’s” Tricia Helfer), who is somehow involved in Michael’s downfall. Lately, Michael has discovered that Carla may have been an operative in Pakistan (which he first determined because she spoke Arabic with a Kurdish accent — oh, the expertise of this guy!). But forget Carla’s identity, I just can’t wait until she and gun-toting Fiona meet. What could be better than a tough-lady catfight? On a show that delights in flashy, dynamic stories and general-purpose silliness like this one, it wouldn’t be surprising.
Like a smarter, funnier, modern-day version of “The A Team,” “Burn Notice” is closer to comedy than drama. Although the stakes are always high, even the heaviest scenes end on a comic note. Take this exchange between Michael and his mother, who was shocked to discover what her son did for a living at the end of last season:
Madeline: What about me, Michael? All these years, and finally I see what you do. You tell me I have to leave town at a minute’s notice, I can’t talk on the phone, we’re being chased by men with guns! How am I supposed to deal with this?
Michael: All these years you wondered why I didn’t come home, why I didn’t call. This is why, Mom. I never wanted this for you.
Madeline is rendered uncharacteristically speechless.
Michael: I’m sorry.
Madeline: [Pauses] Well, it still doesn’t explain why you didn’t write!
Later, Madeline and Michael go to counseling together, leading to one of the funniest dramatic scenes I’ve seen in months. When asked by the counselor to explain her frustration with their lack of communication, Madeline begins by demanding to know why Michael forgot to call her on her birthday eight years ago. Michael answers with a polite but ironic tone: “At the time I was stationed overseas, transporting a colleague to a locked facility. There were some individuals who were trying very hard to prevent me from doing my job. I was injured, and in a field hospital for six weeks. They didn’t have a phone, so I could not … communicate.”
Then it’s Michael’s turn to discuss communication, so he sweetly asks his mother about the time he was forced to steal groceries to feed the family because his ne’er-do-well father had blown his paycheck again. Michael came home with the groceries and a black eye from the grocery store clerk, and his mother took the food but never mentioned the black eye. When Michael’s done talking, Madeline looks stricken, and as they’re walking out of the office later, she declares that the therapist isn’t a good one and that they shouldn’t go back.
Like “In Plain Sight,” “Burn Notice” rambles far from the typical crime drama plot, and each scene is buoyed by Michael’s always casual, always confident demeanor in the most dangerous of circumstances. Jeffrey Donovan brings such charisma and swagger to this role, it’s impossible to imagine the show having half its appeal without him.
Best of all are his crime how-to voice-overs: “Check fraud is more about technique than high-tech equipment. Some old checks, a roll of Scotch tape, some nail polish remover, and you’re in business!” Or more memorably, “In a fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone’s face.” Or “Blackmail is a little like owning a pit bull. It might protect you, or it might bite your hand off.”
“Burn Notice” is that rare drama that’s more entertaining and funnier than most comedies. This show is like a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the criminal underground of Miami, but with none of the depressing, human-beings-are-messed-up hangover of heavier crime dramas. The tone takes a little while to warm up to, but once you get on board, you’ll never get off again.
Next week: A sneak look at Alan Ball’s new vampire series, “True Blood”!
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)