TV Catch-up no.2: Rectify

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Rectify (Sundance TV, 2013-16) is one of those series I encountered through my service on the Peabody Board of Jurors and I supported its 2014 award on the basis of a handful of impactful episodes, while at the same time making a mental note that I should try to catch up with the entire thing at some stage, just as I did with Breaking Bad, The Leftovers and others. So, now that retirement is affording me the time, I have done just that. Unlike those others, it is not a series which is particularly well known in Britain, though it certainly deserves to be. This was brought home to me when I ordered blu-ray sets of the four seasons from Amazon and they turned out to be versions for the Dutch market.

 

Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, jailed as an 18-year-old for rape and murder, but released after almost 20 years on death row, when new DNA evidence casts doubt on his conviction. It concentrates mostly on the effects of his time in prison on him, and on theimages effects of his release on his family (including his new step-family) and on the small Georgia community he returns to. The question of his guilt or otherwise, and who else may have committed the crime, is a secondary concern – indeed, the suicide of another suspect at the very start of the first season sets up the possibility of a new investigation, but his body is not discovered until the very end of the second season, at which point that angle of the plot can be advanced. In the meantime, Daniel’s presence is a cause of great discomfort and divisiveness to many. The fourth season is about coming to terms with misfortune and injustice, not just for Daniel, but for many of the characters, as well as being about solving the case – and in the end it is more important for it to be established that Daniel didn’t commit the crime than to find out who did.

 

What makes Rectify so remarkable, though, is its pace and reflectivity. It unfolds very slowly, as Daniel’s faltering rehabilitation proceeds. He is only really starting to learn to images-1live and is more at ease in the flashbacks to his time on death row, to which he retreats as an escape from the stresses of freedom. Aden Young’s performance is very low key and understated – he speaks quietly and chooses his words carefully, but you can sense the inner turmoil at all times. At the same time, his brooding presence forces the other characters to reassess their own lives and problems. This extends eventually also to the legal and political authorities, gradually coming to terms with the nature of their mistakes, and to the family of the victim in terms of their misapprehensions.

 

As always with my TV catch-ups, I spot connections with other shows, past, contemporary and current. The blu-ray covers proclaim Rectify as “from the producers of Breaking Bad” (Gran Via Productions), but the only thematic thing it really has in common with that series is its small-town setting in a part of US which is rarely represented on TV (and my fellow Peabody jurors were full of praise for how well it captured the essence of life in Georgia). However, the series I was constantly reminded of while watching Rectify is not even a drama. It has a number of striking connections with Making a Murderer (Netflix, 2015, 2018): the small town setting and a community Unknowndivided over a shocking crime; a miscarriage of justice involving an imprisonment of almost 20 years; the release of a convicted man on new DNA evidence, but continuing doubts about his guilt; unreliable confessions; the iniquity of the plea bargaining process; machinations between police, legal and political authorities; the slowness of the legal system to provide redress; above all, the focus on who didn’t commit the crime rather than who did. It is not surprising that the overturning of convictions through new DNA evidence should give rise to both dramatic and documentary treatment. However, the two pieces have many stylistic as well as thematic connections – just look at the similarities, both visual and musical, in the opening title sequences. Drama and documentary now feed off each other in the era of cinematic television.

 

And, just as Making a Murderer fed off Rectifyso it has in turn provided one of the starting points for the most impressive new US drama of the year so far: HBO’s third season of True Detective (Sky Atlantic). After a very disappointing second season, True Detective is not only back to form, but provides its best season yet. As in the first season, a crime investigation is being reconsidered after a lengthy period of time, but in this case images-2there are references back to two time periods, 15 and 25 years previously, when a case of child murder and abduction seemed to have been solved and then re-solved by the same two detectives, though it turns out they were taking the easy option to close the case on each occasion. The new investigation is prompted by a present-day documentary team making a series on the case (in the style of Making a Murderer, of course), which was both a local trauma and the subject of a sensational book by the wife of the lead detective. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that the detective in question (played by Mahershala Ali) is suffering from the early stages of dementia, so that his memories may not all be reliable. Time is frequently folded in clever scene changes.

 

As with both Rectify and Making a Murderer, the resolution of the case is of much less importance than the process and the effects. Indeed, the final explanation, when it arrives (and if it can be believed) is very unsensational. As the ending makes clear, the real drama has been what’s been going on in the head of Ali’s character, much as Rectify is mostly about the psychological state of Daniel Holden.

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True Detective season 3 goes onto my shortlist for the best of 2019 so far but, as I have not posted any blogs about that yet (and apologies for the long gap between this effort and my previous one), I will follow this up with more of my thoughts on some recent highlights very soon.

Too Much Information

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I’ve just hacked my way through all ten hours plus of Making a Murderer season 2 on Netflix and, a few revelations in the closing episodes apart, it was pretty tough going. There is nothing at all wrong (and plenty that is right) about making a programme or series about an injustice which is not corrected, or of exploring its effects on the families involved – such things can make for compelling documentary making, but there is a craft involved and simply throwing everything you can onto the screen isn’t it. Perhaps the makers were stung by criticisms of having left a few key elements out of the original and were determined not to be caught out again, but, if so, they go way, way too far. The main subject of the series is the law’s delay (remembering that “the law’s delay” was one of Hamlet’s favourite reasons “not to be”) and we are certainly made to experience it first-hand.

 

But how did we get to this situation? I think there have been a number of developments in documentary making which have made the excessive nature of Making a Murderer 2 pretty much inevitable. The 1970s and 80s saw a fundamental shift, traceable in the two previous decades, away from the cinematic documentary and towards television, which became the production powerhouse for the form and the place where innovative work was made. The standard length for a TV documentary, exemplified in Britain by strands like Tuesday’s Documentary, Omnibus or Horizon, was 50 minutes, but the BBC’s influential series 40 Minutes (1981-94) was based on the notion that the titular imagestimeframe was the ideal length for the sort of observational pieces it featured. At the same time, subjects requiring lengthier treatment, such as the history of western civilisation or World War II, were organised into series, while investigative work was the province of current affairs programming or special strands like Pilger (ITV). Lengthier single documentaries tended to remain the province of the cinema, and of master film makers like Fred Wiseman or Marcel Ophuls, but they were rare, while Werner Herzog and his American protégé Errol Morris kept the shorter cinematic non-fiction form alive.

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The craft of documentary making included the conveying of complex realities in as economic a way as possible and of choosing illustrative shots to express inner emotions or states of mind (the idea of “a picture telling a thousand words”). The good documentary maker was the one who managed to interpret the real world on our behalf by filming key moments and editing them together to make an effective story, whether a point of view was being expressed or not. As it happened, economy of scale was also what the companies who employed the documentary makers were looking for – film stock was expensive (and most documentaries were made on film until the 1990s), so the best film makers from the broadcaster’s financial viewpoint were those whose shooting ratios were low.

 

Several factors then changed the documentary landscape. The turn of the century saw a revival in the feature length documentary for the cinema, coinciding with the introduction of widescreen televisions, and the convergence of these two strands led to the production of a large number of prestige feature-length documentaries, many of them international co-productions, which premiered theatrically at festivals and then screened on TV in strands like HBO Documentaries, Independent Lens on PBS, Storyville on the BBC and True Stories on Channel 4. Though 90 minutes was the standard length, some ran to two hours or sometimes (much) more and, while many justified extended durations through the quality of their material and their construction (Spike Lee’s documentaries on the Katrina disaster spring to mind), too many overstayed Unknown-1their welcome and stretched their material beyond its optimum timeframe. Far too few displayed the kind of economy which had previously been seen as a virtue – one of my favourite documentaries of recent years was Kyoko Miyake’s 2014 production Brakeless, which considered all aspects of a disastrous Japanese train crash, investigated its causes, explained it in historical and industrial contexts, explored its impact on survivors and relatives and confronted those responsible: every angle being given due and adequate attention and the whole thing being wrapped up in under an hour.

 

In the meantime, the main development in factual television from the late 1990s was the introduction of what became known as the “docusoap”, in which an observational style was used to present the ongoing lives of a group of individuals. One of the first was Unknown-2Driving School (BBC, 1997), but the style was not completely new – Paul Watson’s The Family (BBC, 1974), one of the most famous “fly on the wall” documentaries, anticipated it by a quarter of a century. But the big difference was that The Family was made on film. The introduction of lightweight video cameras in the 1980s, which had such a massive impact on news and current affairs, did not immediately impact documentary, which, as prestige authored production, continued mostly to use film, but when video became the norm for documentary, firstly in the era of docusoap and then for the so-called “fixed rig” programmes, the impact was massive.

 

And here we come to the most important change: videotape was much cheaper than film and the tapes could be re-cycled after the programme was edited, so the shooting ratio equation mattered less, while the greater length of the tapes themselves (compared to a reel of film) meant that longer stretches of incident or interaction could be recorded. When digital recording superseded videotape, the cost of recording material ceased to have any impact at all. In these circumstances, the amount of material recorded was theoretically limitless and the temptation to use more of it than was necessary in the final edit was unavoidable. The “fixed rig” style, beginning in Britain with 24 Hours in A&E (Channel 4), pushed things even further by eliminating the contribution of the director in the shooting process and leaving the creative process to the editing stage. Nobody was saying “cut” any more.

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Equally important were changes in the production process, most notably the commissioning of independent productions for television broadcast. Whereas investigative documentaries had previously been undertaken mainly by broadcasters, who had the capacity to absorb any financial losses caused by the possibility of the investigation failing to produce any worthwhile results, the move towards such work being commissioned for broadcast meant that it was more difficult to abandon a failing images-2project. If something had been paid for, something had to be delivered and broadcast. Too many times I have sat through documentaries which have set out to investigate an individual or a situation but have become about the failure of the film makers to do so. Only Nick Broomfield, who invented the style, or Michael Moore can really get away with this, because their documentaries are more about themselves than their subjects.

 

The dangers of commissioning investigative documentary series are, of course, even greater and, as the number of channels, platforms and other services has increased, so has the demand for inexpensive, time-filling reality programmes, which brings us back to Making a Murderer. Actually, season two is as much a docusoap as it is an investigation, even though it was all shot before being transmitted – it is certainly highly observational, of both the legal teams at work and the families of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, getting on with their lives as far as possible while waiting for developments in their cases. Having transmitted 10 hour-long episodes in the first series, Netflix presumably felt that the same was in order when it came to ordering the second season. Actually, I found even season one unbalanced and overlong: the first four episodes were sensational – a great investigation with stunning developments – but after that it relied far too heavily on courtroom footage and local news broadcasts to tell its story, which remained, nevertheless, sufficiently riveting to make the series a success. The availability of so much courtroom material causes particular problems – it is too important to leave out, but it has not been shot by the documentary makers and being selective in its use brings potential accusations of bias.

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There is little courtroom material in Making a Murderer season two (and much of what there is is audio only) but there are ten hours to fill and ultimately the story is about the failure to advance the cases any further. There is plenty of local news footage, though, and it used to fill time. You know when the film makers include a montage of local news reporters explaining that court proceedings had not begun, as expected, on a certain day, that they are desperate to fill their hour with anything that comes to hand. And the families’ quiet dismay at the lack of progress, which previously may have been conveyed with a few well-chosen shots, can only be expressed by repeating what amount to the same interviews again and again, while the forensic investigations are forensically detailed.

 

Nevertheless, Making a Murderer is still one of the most significant documentary series of our times and has already spawned a number of imitators and been parodied by American Vandal. There will surely be more to come, especially if the efforts to free Avery and Dassey ultimately succeed (though, please, not another 10 parts!). We saw with Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which I blogged about this time last year, that a documentary series can be even greater when longer time is given to it. That series was so good throughout that the original PBS version, at 18 hours, was literally twice as good as the abridged “international version” (shown on the BBC) at half that length. Obviously, the subject matter, the material shot for it and available from archives, and the skill of the film makers were all crucial factors in making this possible. However, the opposite is true for Making a Murderer – it would be far better in a severely abridged version. Maybe we will get one someday and maybe it will be a really great documentary.

Vandals, Maniacs and Murderers

 

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While the large number of new broadcast drama series noted in my last blog have continued to occupy my evenings, my daytime viewing of late (on my iMac, in my attic/office) has been enlivened by some of the latest offerings from Netflix, including some productions of true excellence. And, while I continue to watch the things on traditional TV on a weekly basis (out of habit rather than opportunity), I prefer to consume Netflix productions on an episode-per-day basis, usually accompanied by morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

I greatly enjoyed last year’s American Vandal, which won a Peabody Award and which I blogged about when I discovered it that way earlier this year, but I was uncertain whether a second season would work – after all, it was the perfect parody, but that is not something that can be easily repeated. However, two things make American Vandal 2 asimages-1 good, if not even better than season one (though you can never replicate that first feeing of excitement about something truly original). Firstly, it is, as before, very much more than just a parody – once again you get involved with the characters as if it was a straight drama, and this time round there are many more of them, all brilliantly written and portrayed. Secondly, there are more issues being explored, particularly around class and race, and more documentary styles being invoked than just the crime investigation genre, which remains the basis – I could find echoes of such pieces as Mea Maxima Culpa, O.J.: Made in America and Catfish, as well as numerous pieces investigating the background to school shootings. The series even reaches a somewhat sobering and entirely serious conclusion about the lives of adolescents in the era of social media.

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Above all, though, it made me laugh out loud even more than season one and effortlessly maintained the joke over 8 episodes – I do enjoy scatological humour and it doesn’t come purer than this. Indeed, the grossness of much of the humour provides the perfect counterpoint to the growing seriousness of the issues being confronted. Whether the trick can be repeated again is a moot point, but something tells me it is going to be fun finding out. In the meantime, American Vandal 2 is a very strong addition to my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

 

If American Vandal packs itself full of references to prominent documentaries, then Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Maniac does much the same for dramas – unfortunately, though, it is not a parody (as such) and to be constantly thinking about references and influences means this viewer was not really fully engaged by the drama being presented. OK, the bulk of the piece was exploring the psychological state of the characters undergoing experiments with drugs designed to reveal and counteract their deepest problems, and this was conveyed in dream sequences featuring other characters from their lives (shades of The Singing Detective there) but Fukunaga was clearly having too much self-images-3indulgent fun with this. And, while the genres used – gangsters, sci-fi, medieval fantasy and so on – were clearly signposted, I was also aware of too many other styles and tropes employed in recent series: a bit of Mr Robot here, a bit of Fargo there and a bit of The Leftovers everywhere (the series was created by Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville, which was one of the main things that drew me to it in the first place). The main problem was one of balance: while episode one provided an intriguing and involving opening and episode 10 gave us a moving and satisfying conclusion, everything in between was devoted to the drugs trials and fantasy sequences. It was entertaining enough to keep me watching to the end, but I finished up wondering why.

 

No such problem with 22 July (released on Netflix a few days ago): a single drama of just under two and a half hours duration, which gripped from beginning to end – one of those things that is so good, despite its grim subject matter, that you simply give yourself over to it for however long it takes. The subject is the terrorist massacres in Norway committed in 2011 by the right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, in which he used a bomb and guns to kill 77 people, most of them youngsters at a Labour Party summer camp. It is written and directed by Paul Greengrass, who, despite not being Norwegian, was possibly the only person who could do justice to the subject. Following Bloody images-5Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), he has now completed a trilogy of drama-documentaries about horrific events of such magnitude that they are known by the day or date on which they occurred. His cast of Norwegian actors, all speaking English, is quite remarkable – I don’t know how it has gone down in Norway, but it is testament to the power of the direction that this anomaly simply does not register.

 

Greengrass documents the dreadful events of the day in the first half hour of the film. After that, his twin focus is Breivik himself and Viljar Hanssen, a survivor of the attack whose painful rehabilitation after being shot five times and testimony at Breivik’s trial represents the story of all the victims and stands as a metaphor for Norway’s own recovery and defence of its standards and democracy, as do the portrayals of Breivik’s defence lawyer and Viljar’s mother, who is elected mayor of their small town. And, of course, at a time of growing nationalist populism in Europe and beyond, it is very much a tale for our times. Breivik may be behind a locked door, while Viljar stands in a snowy fjord in the final two shots of the film, but the former has a chilling certainty about the cause for which he committed mass murder, while the latter looks troubled and uncertain.

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Once again Greengrass has brought the sensibility he learned in his days of making current affairs television (for Granada’s World in Action), including his trademark use of hand-held cameras, to a drama documentary which convinces as though it were a piece of reportage. Another one for the 2018 shortlist!

 

And, while still on Netflix, next week sees the release of the long-awaited follow up to Making a Murderer. I am looking forward to re-engaging with how the story of Steven Avery has developed in the years since the original series came out, but I do worry that it may prove difficult to take it as seriously as it deserves, so soon after seeing American Vandal 2.

 

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