Friday, November 18, 2011

In Treatment

A phlegmatic therapist. An agitated patient. A none-too-sunny room. Three to four cameras. And an unwavering exploration of the human mind via memories, impressions and emotions. Has television ever been so compelling?

After watching three seasons of In Treatment almost non-stop, I'm willing to swear that the Israelis know how to create drama using minimalism. And I feel grateful that the Americans adapted this Israeli television series, put an intense Irish actor at the centre of it and made the concept sing.

Throughout the week, Dr Paul Weston (portrayed by Daniel Byrne) plays the dutiful therapist, concerned with the welfare of each of his patients, struggling to understand their motivations, aching to help them find happiness. But if any of his patients try to find out who he is, he becomes obtuse. If that doesn't work, he deflects their questions. That's when the viewer realizes that not all is well in the inner world of Dr Weston. And when he visits his own therapist over the weekend, the viewer realizes that he is a veritable mess. He has neither resolved his past nor considered his future. He is completely lost, just like most of us. But that doesn't stop him from practising his profession with the utmost sincerity. And one feels for his situation. He must combat an unhappy childhood and address his pugnacious attitude towards his parents. Moreover, he must come to terms with a failed marriage, a disastrous love affair and partial alienation from his own children. Paul Weston is as lonely as a human being can be. But Dr Weston is an engaging professional. And as he helps his patients come to terms with themselves, as he helps them close their loops, one cannot but feel admiration for the man behind the mask.

It's a pity this series is being aborted by the studio. Why can't we see Paul Weston complete his journey of self-realization and evolution? Can't we leave him in a state of contentment?
Perhaps some loops are meant to be interpreted and closed by ourselves, in a proactive manner. The ultimate lesson of In Treatment is that, perhaps, we must find our own joyous resolutions.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Big Bang Theory

Since there is such a thing as antimatter, there must exist an anti-Sheldon Cooper somewhere in the universe. But what will the anti-Sheldon Cooper be like? What's the opposite of a man-child who is exasperating yet lovable, insulting yet dependent, dismissive yet obliging, brilliant yet naive? When you throw a bundle of contradictions at the universe, will it not throw another back at you?
Well, since I'm neither a theoretical physicist nor a philosopher, I don't have to ponder over this conundrum. I can simply sit back, absorb the revelry that is The Big Bang Theory and enjoy Sheldon Cooper without dissecting him. And that's exactly what I've been doing for four years. Enjoying Jim Parsons' portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper. And applauding his two Emmys (although I also feel that Steve Carell and Alec Baldwin equally deserved the honour).

Lest we forget, TBBT isn't just about SC, although it can often appear to be so. It's about four geeks with a contrarian blonde thrown into the mix. As the characters take life, we learn that geekdom isn't a land of homogeneity. Geeks come in their own distinct flavours. They can be clumsy, starry-eyed, soft-hearted and aspiring for "normalcy" (like Leonard Hofstadter, the primary protagonist played by Johnny Galecki). Or they can be habitually vulgar, clinging to their umbilical cords and intimidated (like Howard Wolowitz, as played by Simon Helberg). Or they could be terrified of women, culturally-confused and made obnoxious by alcohol (like Rajesh Koothrapalli, played by Kuldip Nayar). What's the commonality in these characters? They're all insecure and desperate for a form of love they can relate to.
Enter the blonde. A no-nonsense young woman from the Mountain Time Zone, seeking to travel the magical Hollywood journey from being a waitress to becoming an actress.
Thus we have the makings of a character-driven comedy with endless possibilities. Explaining TBBT, therefore, becomes an exercise akin to explaining how to swim. Eventually, you have to take the plunge and let the water teach you.

If you're a novice to this sitcom, just listen to the title song rendered by Barenaked Ladies. The lyrics of the song remind us that we're all humans, no matter where we come from. And we're in this cosmic adventure together. When we were Neanderthals, we built tools. We then built the pyramids and the Wall. There is no mention of Africa, Egypt and China. It's WE who moved forward. And WE are here because 14 billion years ago, there was a Big Bang.
'Nuff said.

How I met your mother

There's a Ted Mosby in all of us. Well, not so much if one's marriage takes the BharatMatrimony route instead of Even in this disconnect, the common desire to find true love unifies us. We may marry the propah caste girl/boy with wheatish complexion, but we must eventually fall in love with her/him in order to be happy.
That's the premise of How I met your mother. The narrator of the sitcom is an older Ted Mosby (voiceover rendered by Bob Saget) and he somehow finds it necessary to share gory details of his past with his adolescent children. And, no, he will not jump straight to the episode of how he met their mother. He must tell them about the thousand frogs he kissed along the way.
Focal interest in the theme is generated by the endearing optimism of Mosby (played by Josh Radnor). This guy just won't give up till he has croacked out the bitter bile off of all his frogs in Manhattan. Great support is lent by Marshall (good-natured, child-like, mid-Western, monogamous), Lily (Marshall's wife, therefore monogamous, fiesty, control freak) and Robin (Canadian, goofy, emotionally unavailable). But the breakout character is Barney Stintson, played by Neil Patrick Harris whom people of my generation will remember as the overachieving child-prodigy of a doctor in Doogie Howser MD. Barney is a messiah of superficiality and casual sex. There are no frogs in his life. Just princesses on whom he casts a spell for one night. Harris' performance is all the more commendable because he's gay in real life. Kissing all those dumb princesses on screen must take some doing, I suppose. I, for one, can't kiss a dude for all the tadpoles in the world.

As always, I feel that the guest female actors are better looking than the heroines. Barring that, it's a wonderfully inventive comedy that refuses to follow a linear notion of time during most episodes. Situations are revisited multiple times with new insights and/or variations. The drama in each moment is therefore squeezed dry, much like the way our vendors treat sugarcane.
The only reason How I met your mother should remind one of Friends is that both sitcoms depict a dysfunctional, co-dependent group of friends. Otherwise, the genders are treated equally and the characters are allowed to enact some scenes in the open air, allowing for a more free-flowing narrative structure.

And for God's sakes, I'd like to know how Mosby eventually meets his children's mother. We already know so many things about this mysterious lady that I feel the desire to recreate her in my own imagination. I just hope she isn't the Slutty Pumpkin.

Two and a Half Men

Have you heard about the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper? No, not the version in Aesop's Fables fed to children in order to scare them into a mould. I mean the version written by William Somerset Maugham. Using the same metaphorical characters and reversing their destinies, Maugham asks a simple question: do sincerity and hard work really deliver an agreeable winter? Paraphrasing, the question becomes: is the carefree grasshopper privy to a secret of the universe that has eluded the industrious ant?
It's a powerful question that challenges our pre-conceived notions about the nature of Life. Chuck Lorre - the Executive Producer of this and other sitcoms I've come to love - takes this reversed fable and delivers it with panache in Two and a Half Men.

At first glance, the format of the sitcom seems self-limiting. After all, it has only three primary characters. The first is Alan Harper - the hardworking chiropractor - representing the Ant. Secondly, there's Alan's dim-witted, gluttonous son Jake Harper who seems destined to remain half a man. And finally, we have the central character - Charlie Harper, Alan's elder brother - representing the Grasshopper.
And what a fabulous grasshopper he is. Charlie goes through life smelling of conditioner and bourbon. He barely does an ounce of work but owns a beach-house in Malibu, California. Gorgeous women fall on his lap like his birthright. And it never occurs to him that it's sinful to follow-up a 14-hour snooze with a liquor-soaked nap. Charlie is vain and shallow, and given the influence of his equally vain and shallow mother, too afraid to contemplate lasting happiness. To his credit, he redeems himself with his generosity and honesty.
Alan, on the other hand, has the irresistible urge to do the right thing. But when his wife kicks him out of his own home, he has no option but to seek refuge with Charlie. Alan both loves and resents his older brother, which provides plenty of comic fodder over the years. He blunders along as he watches Charlie saunter through a meadow of artificial tranquillity.
Neither brother is emotionally equipped to, when required, confront a woman, be it the alpha female housekeeper (Berta) or Charlie's stalker (Rose) or even Alan's vengeful first wife (Judith). Alan cowers into submission while Charlie escapes wherever he can. In this recurring theme, one discovers a hidden dimension of the sitcom: the evolving gender equation. The genders, it appears, have no meeting point. And Charlie must determine why this is so. He must navigate a labyrinth of neural landmines in order to find true love.

As always, drama in the real word accentuates the make-believe world. Despite the fact that Charlie Harper is played by the real-life brat Charlie Sheen, one finds the character alluring. Perhaps even more so.

I myself was disgusted by my first viewing of this sitcom. I couldn't understand why such a frivolous program was garnering top ratings in the Western world. And then I went through a phase of life wherein I began identifying with very many aspects of Charlie Harper's existence. For instance, an Indian writer-freelancer's routine can be remarkably similar to that of a Malibu grasshopper. As other parallels made themselves evident, I found within me a veritable dark-skinned facsimile of Charlie Harper. Along with that discovery came the desire to be released from the archetype.
Like Charlie, I wanted to escape an abyss of my own creation. And like him, I'm inching towards that goal.

A sitcom round-up

Apologies for the prolonged hiatus, especially to my mysterious readers from Russia, Latvia, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Nigeria and Belize. You hit my blog on a regular basis, but I have no idea who you are. I wish I did. Anyway, thanks for your interest and silent support.
Why have I been away? Well, I've been on a journey of self-discovery. If that isn't enough of a cliche, I must add that I took one small step this weekend and found my soul taking a giant leap towards sanity. I've looked long and hard at myself and have arrived at some rather unflattering conclusions. Remedial steps are being taken as of now and a better world seems within grasp. With that deliberately cryptic assertion, let me get to the point.

The makeover I'm attempting will require me to cut down on my indulgence in American sitcoms. I'll still sniff in the occasional episode of jest, especially when I need a lighter moment to survive the seemingly choppy sea of Life, but I think I'm done being a worshipper of this modern-age art form.

However, before I call it quits, I feel compelled to document my reflections on each sitcom that has moved me in the past 4.5 years. I will swerve away from this obsession with sitcoms just once, in order to explore a dramatic series called In Treatment.

So the next few posts may not be to the liking of all my readers. Sorry about that. All I can say is that I wouldn't have survived the previous phase of my Life without sitcoms and I want my blog to acknowledge that. And since I'll be reverting to my usual fare of politics, society etc, I hope my regular readers will find it in their hearts to forgive this detour.

Stay tuned please.