Garry Shandling: Where Does TV End and Where Does Reality Start

Garry Shandling is probably the most hidden major player in the history of TV. No other person could claim equal amounts of influence on both Seinfeld and The Sopranos. The (post)modern age of TV begins when Showtime debuted It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1985.

The time was very different. IGSS was only the second original sitcom ever produced by a premium cable network after Showtime’s Brothers, a show that’s currently impossible to find but was the first sitcom centered around a gay protagonist. Both shows need to be pressed in decent numbers on DVD but haven’t (an amazing looking complete series box set of IGSS was released several years ago, but unless someone with $400 lying around wants to buy me a copy, I’m hanging onto my off-the-air copies from the original airings.) The effect on future shows of IGSS is incalculable-the only analogy I can think of is the impact of the 80s British invasion on superhero comics.

The central conceit of IGSS is that it’s about a guy named Garry Shandling. He’s a comedian. He has a sitcom on TV. He knows he has a sitcom on TV. He even talks directly to the studio audience. When he leaves his “apartment” sometimes he invites them up to hang out in his living room while he’s “gone” (re: walked over to the next set on the soundstage while we see the soundstage.) In a series of elaborate parodies, Shandling takes us through the history of scripted TV up to that point, with a short but hilarious detour into a parody of The Graduate. Nothing is sacred. There are no rules. Characters frequently discuss their own shortcomings or expectations as sitcom characters, not with any pretense they’re real people.

The direct addresses to the audience are the obvious precedent to the standup comedy bits peppered throughout Seinfeld. The anarchic tone and kid-who-just-got-a-bunch-of-toys-and-is-having-the-time-of-his-life feel is second only to Ernie Kovacs. The tone is generally cheerful and light. You get that infectious feeling of a person who doesn’t think they’ll necessarily get another chance to make something on TV-we’re just sort of following whatever thing Shandling thinks they might not let him do later.

The strongest seasons are the first two, predominantly because of this kid in a candy store vibe. The third season is the weakest as it indulges Shandling’s love of pre-Lenny Bruce comedians for a dire 3 episode sprawl toward the end, but the 4th makes a decent comeback and marries Garry off. Fascinatingly this is the only really or fake wedding ceremony Shandling would ever be a groom at. His true love was television and even that marriage was a rocky one.

Shandling is best known now for the HBO sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted pretty soon after IGSS ended. The two sitcoms seem about as unlike in construction as one can imagine, at least at first glance. The complete embrace of artifice in IGSS gives way to realism in the acting and cinematography. There’s no laugh track. The stationary 3 camera set up gives way to possibly the first ever single camera sitcom ever made. The cameraman is frequently going backwards on roller skates so as to capture people conversing up and down a hallway in a more naturalistic manner-in fact, any “walk and talk” shot you’ve ever seen on a workplace sitcom owes its genesis to Larry Sanders. The acting strives for realism. There’s a comedy of awkwardness, characters and moments that rejects the “we’re going to shove jokes into a chamber play” style of sitcoms that were…all the sitcoms until then. Give or take.

Shandling reveals himself to be a triple threat-he can write, he can direct, and he can act well enough to hold his own with Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, no easy feat. Yet his romance with TV seems to sour over the show’s run. We start seeing moments of drama and discomfort as Shandling realizes he’s one of the few comedy writers who can convincingly write those sorts of moments. He follows characters and trusts they will be funny; he never sacrifices the truth of the character for a laugh. All of this is unheard of in a US sitcom to that point.

Yet, in the construction of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s clear Shandling’s preoccupations didn’t change, just his methods. The show, which follows the behind the scenes drama of a fictional late night talk show called The Larry Sanders Show, uses a combination of low quality broadcast tape and grainy 16mm film, making the scenes when Larry is on TV look vastly more polished than any of the shots of Larry in the office or outside world. In some sense, Larry Sanders is the closest thing you could have to a real life version of the Garry Shandling of IGSS-a man who lives on and for TV, whose life bleeds in and out of TV, a man who knows he’s on TV. Larry can’t seem to have sex without watching himself on TV during the proceedings. Strangely fictionalized versions of celebrities make frequent guest appearances for the first time on a sitcom even though this has since become a trope and was used by shows all the way from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Bojack Horseman.

Yet over the course of 6 seasons, the tone of the show sours and becomes increasingly dark and cynical. Shandling was probably getting worn down. Starring on, writing, and running a TV program for 10 years straight would get to anybody. He broke up with his real life girlfriend, the woman playing Hank’s secretary, around season 3. I’m imagining it wasn’t a smooth break up given that she’s replaced in the next season as Hank’s secretary with Scott Thompson from Kids In the Hall. The show nonetheless barrels on.

In making Larry vain and not particularly likeable and being powerful enough to be a dick, by having him get addicted to pain pills, etc etc etc, Shandling lays the groundwork for the HBO anti-hero 9 years before The Sopranos aired. And more importantly, Shandling lays out clearly the potential inherent in subscription TV-one has to remember the bulk of HBO programming at that point was stuff like Taxicab Confessions, boxing matches, 3rd run movies, and softcore porn. The idea that it was the place to make “prestige” TV would’ve been considered insane before then.

But when Larry Sanders ended, Shandling went into semi-retirement. He’d make talk show appearances occasionally, wrote and appeared in a middling movie about an extra terrestrial who starts dating, but didn’t do any TV writing for the rest of his life that I’m aware of. His last filmed project was a series of lengthy face to face interviews with the cast of The Larry Sanders Show for its DVD release.

In most peoples’ bodies of work, I wouldn’t bother talking about DVD bonus features, but these interviews resemble the DVD bonus feature genre in general as much as any of Shandling’s shows represented TV up to that point. There’s a lot of crying. There’s a lot of awkwardness. It gets deep. We see Shandling’s John Cassavetes streak that was hidden in plain sight all along. And he got to show the value only he could see in a seemingly disposable form one last time.

The Sopranos Finale Now

Note: if you’ve never watched through The Sopranos, I’m gonna be majorly spoiling the ending here, as per the title of the article. So go do that then come back.

There were two creators who essentially put HBO on the map as a place to get things besides boxing matches, second run movies and softcore porn. They’re Garry Shandling and David Chase. Both brought wholly new things to the TV medium but couldn’t have come from more different perspectives on it. Shandling took TV seriously as a place to create deep intricate work long before anybody else did and he did so out of a reverence for the medium, even if that reverence seemed to curdle over time.

Chase created great TV in order to spite the medium. Chase was getting even for not being afforded the opportunity to work in film. Ironically, in doing so he set the stage for TV to rise in social prominence beyond the feature film. He showed where TV was actually a more dynamic medium that had distinct formal strengths feature film didn’t. And in the time since The Sopranos aired, I can’t think of a year where more interesting things were going on in the feature film world than on TV.

The Sopranos, for being the supposed original epicenter of “binge TV”, isn’t actually that bingeable. This is one of its strengths. It meanders. It’s savoring the freedom afforded by premium cable because that freedom wasn’t a given at the time. Even though there’s a decent amount of “action”, it moves more slowly than any major show in the US TV canon besides maybe the original run of Star Trek. The “grand themes” that arise feel natural because they arose, like the “grand themes” in any work, as a continuity in the preoccupations of its creator.

I don’t envy him and his writer’s room however when it came time to wrap things up.

There’s a certain joy that comes in seeing a grand plan executed with intent and intricacy. But at the same time, this can lead to a show that feels like examining the insides of a watch-you’re impressed by how many purposeful little things can harmoniously share a small space, but whatever emotional impact is going to be blunted by the image of the perfect distancing you from the impacts of the real. A loose end makes a world seem larger and more mysterious, a Chekhov’s gun reminds me I’m in a theater.

The Sopranos is not an intricately designed show, just an emotionally honest one. Like a therapy session, it confronts things because they’re unresolved. It doesn’t force resolution as an orgasm substitute. If something doesn’t seem to want to resolve, they just…don’t resolve it. Where’s the Czech guy in the woods at the end of the episode “Pine Barrens”? Who knows. Who cares.

This comfort with a lack of resolution led to what I’m here to talk about today-the finale. It’s probably the most iconic TV finale ever aired. But it’s confusing. It doesn’t give you what you’ve been trained to want from an ending, and seems ambivalent about the idea of endings in general.

I’ll try to summarize it here. After a bloody turf war that seems poised to bring down the Soprano crime organization, we cut ahead to some unspecified time in the future. We watch the Soprano family members gather to meet in a cheesy diner. This takes quite a while. We’re watching Meadow attempt to park her car for longer than I’ve seen anyone park a car on TV without it crashing into something or exploding. Once they’re in the restaurant, an interior set we’ve never seen before, Tony tells us the onion rings there are great. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey comes on. In perhaps the single most Godardian moment ever shown on US TV, Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop–” and the show stops. Literally. There’s just black leader and silence.

Many people watching at home reported thinking their TV had died. Most presumed the ending was a bluff or a petering out-an admission that tying the whole thing up in a neat little bow was in fact impossible. Maybe it was.

I don’t think it was though. I think if we analyze the Sopranos ending the way we’d analyze a European art movie from the 70s, it all comes together pretty neatly for something as sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies as The Sopranos.

As Stan mentioned in his piece on the show, the primary conflict/theme is inter-generational differences. Tony can’t escape the overbearing shadow of his mother and father, his children can’t escape the fact their prosperous childhood was built on blood money. The thing that allows them all to continue on as they have forever is simultaneously what keeps them from breaking through to some sort of happiness.

In the final season we are repeatedly faced with changes of the guard; things moving forward regardless of characters’ wishes. In some sense, overcoming trauma is an act of positive forgetting. You don’t have memories, you clutch them. At a certain point that little voice in your head that sounds like Marie Kondo is telling you to let them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem; your identity is often tied up in your resentments. Sometimes you need a push.

In the case of Tony Soprano, the memory of his trauma is one and the same as his identity and personal code; in spite of his performances of power, he is entirely a product of his environment. As it is for many of us, his “big other” in Lacanian terms, the invisible imagined voice pestering him about what is and isn’t acceptable, are his dead father and mother. They’re the memory of the old country, heritage, the extent to which we are disallowed from self-invention from the outset.

Artie the chef, Tony’s comic foil, is allowed to come to actual peace with this-the last time we see him, even with his bandaged hand, he seems fine and is perusing the book of recipes he inherited. He’s allowed to take from the old world while living in the new one.

When Tony’s mother dies, Tony’s resentment is passed to his sister and Uncle Junior. When times get lean, Tony realizes on some level his commitment to the old ways is holding him back. When Tony sees Uncle Junior has lost all his memories and doesn’t remember who Tony even is, Tony suddenly feels fine selling the old egg store to Jambha Juice. Seeing Uncle Junior has gone completely senile is Tony cutting his ties to the past, killing Christopher is him cutting ties to its continuance-the past’s future if you will. And the meetings with Jambha Juice underscore just how little relevance the way of life we’ve followed throughout the entire series had. A new set of kingpins, with vastly more money and the power to just take more money legally, will make the Italian mob irrelevant. The new lieutenants and capos are lawyers and executives. The new world will reign regardless of what Tony does. The criminal syndicates to beat now aren’t a bunch of elderly Italian guys in New Jersey, but the politicians waging an illegal war in Iraq-the irony of AJ being gung ho to join the military. He’d still be killing people so crooks could collect money, he’d just be doing it outside the family, for an organization that values snitches.

Throughout the show, we see all the horrific ways the sausage gets made so that this family can sit in average-ness at a generic diner. The mob family is no longer around, only the immediate nuclear family. The cycle of horror will continue, but the way of life of the old country is dead.

Maybe on some level Tony even realizes that if his kids succeed in the way he wants them to, the old country will be lost anyway. Meadow’s taking about as whitebread a third generation immigrant path as you can take in the finale. They were Italians but they’re Italian-Americans now.

Might as well enjoy some onion rings…

 

 

 

 

Oz: The Actual Prison is Your TV

One of my favorite TV series of all time is the short lived Canadian sitcom Twitch City. The show follows the life of a man named Curtis, who literally never leaves his apartment and watches TV all day. We’re confronted with the infinity mirror of us sitting on a couch watching TV where a guy on a couch watches TV of another guy on a couch watching TV in the starkest terms imaginable.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Curtis discusses an episode of Gilligan’s Island. I’ve never actually seen the Gilligan episode, but apparently it involves a very fake looking octopus monster attacking the cast. Curtis points out that the thing trapping them all on the island isn’t the fake looking monster. The reason they’re acting afraid of the monster isn’t the monster. The thing trapping them on the island is us. They act afraid for our benefit. So long as we keep watching, Gilligan can’t leave the island.

And so it is with jumping the shark. Shark jumping can be accounted for in many ways-a change of writing staff, a budget cut, etc. But what we’re ultimately looking at are fictional things a la Meseeks that have passed the point of wanting to please us, have no meaning to their existence, and want to disappear but can’t because we won’t let them.

No show ever jumped the shark as dramatically as Oz, which started out as one of the best and boldest things ever shown on TV and ends with the worst series finale I’ve ever seen after 2 1/2 seasons of the worst scripted TV I’ve ever seen.

But let’s talk about the good stuff first.

Oz is noteworthy for many many reasons. It was the first hour long scripted drama that HBO ever aired and the first show to truly push the outer limits of what was allowed on premium cable vis a vis violence and sexual content. It was one of the only shows on TV at the time that spent a lot of time considering LGBTQ and black issues. It presented the most harshly critical indictment of US society seen on TV up to that point. Episodes have bizarre meandering structures uninhibited by advertisement-induced act breaks. All the innovations present in 90s cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street are explored in a new sandbox without rules. No Oz means no Sopranos, no Wire, no Deadwood, basically TV in the 00s is an entirely different beast without Oz.

My interest in Oz is primarily due to this transitional status. The premium scripted cable drama didn’t really come into its own until a year or two later with The Sopranos, so there are many points in Oz that stand as fascinating roads not taken-what 00s TV could’ve become in some alternate universe.

Foremost among these is the strangely stage-like monologing to the camera that bookends each episode. Prisoner Augustus Hill, confined to a wheelchair, talks about something that seems random but integrates itself into the themes of a given episode. These work, but its hard to imagine them becoming a trope of prestige TV at large even though Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions often serve a similar function on The Sopranos. But even that trope was largely discarded, and the number of scenes of people talking to therapists even in shows that ostensibly about mental health are minimal. For example, Bojack Horseman is almost entirely about depression, but the only two times we see an actual therapy session are both just winking jokes about The Sopranos.

But back to Oz. Oz is an incredibly difficult show to talk about I guess because it does sit between so many contradictions and transitional points. It’s stagey where the future of prestige TV was overwhelmingly cinematic, it’s good for a while then its terrible, it makes bolder political points than any of the shows that followed it but often does so artlessly.

While the initial draw is its place in the HBO canon, the show it most reminds me of is Degrassi. Like Degrassi, the show thrives when showing long term changes in personality and character. Like Degrassi, it takes place in an institution where a wide cross section of society interacts directly because they have no choice but to be there. Like Degrassi, it loves controversial subjects-it goes there. Like Degrassi, the protagonist is a building, not a person. Like Degrassi, the cast shifts in and out all the time and there’s no person you can presume is a permanent cast member.

It’s what I guess you could call “an institution show”. While many many shows take place in institutions, few of them are so fully confined to them. In Oz, this is exaggerated to the point that we never see the prisoners do any kind of outdoor recreation-it was a conscious choice at the outset. While Degrassi was never structured to have a star or primary protagonist, it didn’t start placing 95% of the action in the high school until later on. However, like Oz leaving the prison, when Degrassi leaves the high school it suffers a drop in quality (the college storylines in season 5-6 of Degrassi: TNG are godawful.) Unlike Degrassi, which peaked early but has generally been very good in spurts for ~40 years now, when Oz jumps the shark in the middle of season 4, it never comes back.

Unlike somewhat more balanced shows that came later, pretty much everyone is awful except for the prison psychologist(played by the miraculously ageless EGOT-er Rita Moreno, who’s 88 now and still regularly doing TV.) At a certain point, the lack of a foil mixed with the showrunner’s stunned disbelief HBO would let him show (insert literally anything that ever happened on Oz here) create a perfect storm of awfulness. By the end, the characters may as well all be named Itchy or Scratchy-they exist in a pointless cycle of stabbing and/or maiming each other, but with soap opera elements Itchy and Scratchy smartly avoided.

I don’t really blame writer/creator Tom Fontana (who wrote every single episode, a rarity for US TV) for that. He was handed a blank slate, and for 4 years his boundary pushing yielded results. He made a lot of the mistakes first, at least in this context. And they can be kinda fascinating for that reason-a mistake can carry a certain fascination in its freshness. Bad is bad, but most shows don’t give us one year of great TV, much less four.

The characters show a less than hopeful view of US society. Sex-addicted, well meaning but ineffectual warden Tim McManus is both sympathetic (for the most part) but also an indictment of incremental reform, of running an inherently rotten system in a slightly more humane way. The enormous and imposing Simon Adebisi is pure ambition with seemingly nothing under it-he takes what he wants; he seems to have no god beyond his own sensory desires. Political activist Kareem Said, the only prisoner where we’re never given a flashback to the crime he committed, exists as a foil to McManus-like McManus, he sees the way to make change as being through the inside, unlike McManus he’s not stuck in a sea of bureaucracy and can’t be distracted whatever female guards the prison hires. Said is as close as we get to an outright admirable character.

If it ended after the 8th episode of season 4, Oz would’ve been just the slightest step below the HBO trinity (Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos) in the TV canon. Its inherent structural deficiencies would’ve been less noticeable. But since they are, I’m just gonna end here with my number one complaint:

Whenever we see the correctional officers at their perch looking down on the prisoners, we see rows upon rows of Sony Trinitron monitors for a CCTV surveillance system. We see picture on these TVs. Yet somehow, somebody gets murdered almost every episode, sometimes multiple people, and there’s never any video evidence or suggestion video evidence might exist.

Maybe the Trinitrons represent us?