The best and worst miniseries I've ever seen, all in the same day

Each of them alone would be worth a remark or two, but the fact that I sat down and watched the beginning of last December's Sci-Fi Channel original miniseries Tin Man and then later that same day started 2005's BBC Wales serial Casanova made my brain throb a little bit as it struggled to encompass the staggering dichotomy in quality experienced when viewing these two singular productions back-to-back. A body needs some time to adjust expectations. You can't mosh at the opera, or chase your Bud with Perrier. Or you can try, but it ain't pretty.

In case you haven't yet guessed which is which, you should remember that, despite the unexpectedly warm critical reaction to the recent Rock Monster ("actually pretty decent!"), the phrase "Sci-Fi Channel Original" is still something of a bad joke, and a deserved one at that. I went into Tin Man knowing essentially no more about it than what was conveyed by the stylish posters I saw in the subway, but I hoped that a fanciful, futuristic reboot of the beloved classic might show some cleverness and imagination, or at least offer the opportunity for some appealing world-building. The ads sold me on the creative aesthetic, at least. Worth a watch, I thought.

Looks good, right?

Like its neighbor on the classic late-nineteenth-century children's literature bookshelf, Carroll's hallucinatory Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with its curious characters, out-there concepts and "stranger in a strange world" themes, offers fertile grounds for writers looking to cast new light on familiar territory. And it isn't all rainbow horses and little guys in funny hats, a lot of it (especially the stuff that didn't make it into the 1939 movie) is pretty disturbing -- all that quaint, down-home sweetness is just ripe for an edgy modern update. (And Wicked was great fun, wasn't it?) Tin Man aims not so much to adapt the work (or more accurately, the movie, since it and not the book is what informs the cultural consciousness), but to draw from its general landscape to create a broadly parallel "original" sci-fantasy world in an orgy of references and allusions. Oz becomes "O.Z.", the "Outer Zone", a mad dystopia under the totalitarian authority of Azkadellia, the Wicked Witch figure who rules with an iron thumb à la Narnia's despotic White Witch. The Emerald City is replaced by Central City, a gray clump of futuristic towers steeped in soot, clogged with the traffic of puttering 20's-era automobiles, and patrolled by a private army of black-clad, ray-gun wielding "Longcoats" who serve the evil sorceress and travel between O.Z. and the "other side" by means of domesticated cyclone. All this improvisational riffing serves to loosen up the creative palette a bit...so far, so good.

But it all goes so wrong. I place the blame squarely on the writers, the producers, the director, the actors, and the composer. Yes, even the composer. Simon Boswell's overbearing score clashes and grates. But no more than the dialog, which reads as a succession of predictable responses and B-movie cliches as it tumbles from the actors' wooden lips in clunky, measured beats. ("Look, I love you guys, I just don't feel at home here. I don't think I ever have." "Speak not of who we be! We know not of her trickery. --Trickery? My parents are missing! I'm the victim of some sort of natural disaster!" "Fear not, my child. There is one thing that can stop her." "Your light is strong. Let it guide you through your memories.") The writing in general is pedestrian and unimaginative, and even the myriad Oz references, so full of creative potential, are generally heavy-handed and overplayed as if we wouldn't get it otherwise, practically delivered with a wink and mug to the camera. I can almost hear a rimshot. The script isn't much to work with, but with the exception of Neal McDonough, a real actor who alone stands out from the forgettable cast and manages to be watchable even in his numbingly robotic role (he plays the titular "Tin Man", a soul-deadened ex-cop and straight man -- get it? HE NEEDS A HEART (ba-dum-cha!)), the actors don't do much with what little they are given, and their stilted delivery often makes the already painful dialog even worse. Star Zooey Deschanel as "DG", Tin Man's questionably-cleped stand-in for ingenue Dorothy Gale, is the worst offender. Wikipedia cites an article calling out "her deadpan, sardonic and scene-stealing performances", but no such talent is in evidence here. It can't be all her fault -- clearly the director didn't take enough time out to explain her motivation in any of the scenes, because judging by her inflections, she has sufficiently memorized her lines, but has no idea why she's saying them or what any of it is supposed to convey. When called upon to evince urgency and fear in response to O.Z.'s various menaces, that "deadpan" voice escalates to a shrill, toneless squeak, cracked and straining. And if she stole any scenes, well, I think she should bring them back. It'd be nice to have something to watch.

Stand back, folks, and let me do the acting.

I tried to find something about Tin Man that I liked, and I decided that the cinematography was quite nice. The sleek, lush imagery hinted at in those pretty posters was by and large delivered, and my eyes were generally able to find something pleasant to rest on when they were sliding nervously away from Azkadellia's vampy villainy and campy costumes or DG's blankly staring mug. And it's a good thing, too, because I needed the respite from the rest of the excruciating production.

But on to better things. I'll allow it's possible that Casanova shines most brightly to eyes glazed over after a few hours' exposure to Tin Man, but I prefer to think that its brilliance is absolute and not merely relative. It's easily the best thing I've watched on tv in a long time. A recently-won fan of the new Doctor Who, I decided to pick up this earlier production by Who helmsman Russell T. Davies, hoping at the time for little more than a fluffy period piece with a nice bit of David Tennant and some sexy fun. It turns out I had gravely underestimated the sucker. I knew Davies's script would be deft and clever, and it was, exceptionally, reaching touching emotional depths without ever losing its light touch and humorous sparkle. I knew Tennant would be dashing and charming, and he was, devastatingly, delivering an animated performance that resembled his later portrayal of the zippy Doctor far more closely than I was expecting (this was the role that led Davies to bring him on board Who as Christopher Eccleston's replacement in 2006, and now I know why). I knew composer Murray Gold's score would be bright and lively, and it was, keeping the pace quick and the mood high for some very stirring dance scenes -- the whole series is like one great perfectly-choreographed dance -- without dipping too far into the sappier orchestral overload that dogs some of his later work on Doctor Who. In short, everyone was at their best, and the payoff was immensely satisfying.

Not the Doctor.

Loads of credit must go to the director, too, Sheree Folkson, whose previous work includes mostly tv shows I'm not familiar with, but it must be good stuff because the direction in Casanova was fabulous. As I said, Casanova is like a dance, fast-paced with lots of rapid dialog, quick cuts, deft camerawork, and fanciful sequences (like the one nifty scene where young Casanova, newly arrived upon the Venetian stage, stands naked as all the finery and rich apparel of a man of the world comes flying toward him from the darkness and arranges itself on his body until he's perfectly attired) -- and if Casanova is a dance, then that would make Folkson the choreographer of it all. And it's pulled off without a hitch.

Finally, further props to the supporting cast, which was outstanding. Peter O'Toole, playing old Casanova, is a legend. I was also very pleased to see both Shaun Parkes as Casanova's manservant Rocco and Nina Sosanya as the castrato Bellino, each of whom impressed the pants off me in their respective guest appearances in the second series of Doctor Who (the latter shining even despite being consigned to a rather drab role in "Fear Her", one of the worst Who episodes to date, which gave the appearance of having been scripted on the fly and filmed just when the show's budget ran out with only enough money left to shoot the whole thing in one take on a single residential street in Splott and do the special effects in colored pencil). Davies obviously found them here first, which makes the casting all the more impressive.

Something to look at...if you can tear your eyes away from Tennant.

Not strictly historical, Casanova is a loosely-played fiction inspired by the frankly extraordinary memoirs of that infamous seducer Giacomo Casanova (here, "Jack" to his friends -- what fun it is to hear Tennant as an Italian, exclaiming "Blimey!" in his best Estuary accent). A gambler, schmoozer, scholar, innovator, and above all womanizer, Casanova bluffs and befriends and beds his way into wealth, influence, and pleasure, only to lose it all and start all over again, but his whole life is spent longing for Henriette, the one woman he can never have. The series alters or invents many of its major characters and events, but that's probably fitting for a man who seems made of myth. Casanova isn't concerned with factual or historical accuracy, which frees it to be wonderfully casual and imaginative, without ever crossing into camp. The linguistic disconnect implied by a bunch of Brits playing Italians is easily overlooked, for one, or even discreetly made light of, as in one humorous swipe where Casanova is complimented on his mastery of the French and English languages. The sets and costumes, unencumbered by the demands of authenticity, likewise are free to exhibit a colorful modern flair that enriches rather than distracts from the experience, and the same is true for the suspiciously modern beats that comprise the not-quite-period music. Since there are no pretenses here, there is no illusion to shatter when, for example, Tennant breaks the fourth wall to grin cheekily at the audience after a particularly daring escapade. Believe me, I was grinning right back.

All the world's a dance floor.

Apart from the fact that one was a gem and one was a turd, I'm trying to figure out what it is that makes Casanova different from Tin Man. Not that they're exactly comparable -- this review exists only because I happened by chance to watch them both in the same day, and I'm sure no one's thought of them together before. ("You got your reinterpreted futurepunk fantasy epic in my pseudo-historical costume dramedy...GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!") Casanova obviously had much more talent behind it. But I think Casanova also had more soul. Tin Man seems to have been devised for the exclusive purpose of making a marketable property out of familiar material from the public domain, just to entice eyeballs to the Sci-Fi Channel -- miniseries by committee. Casanova on the other hand was, if I may say it, a labor of love.

Anyway, take-home message: avoid Tin Man forever; see Casanova RIGHT NOW. Thank you, that is all.

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Blogger Melissa:

Ooh, I'll have to watch Casanova!

Blogger bluewyvern:

Ahh, good. You got the point of my review, then. ;)

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Anonymous Maktaaq:

I'll have to give Casanova a try once we're through with Supernatural and Arrested Development. Thanks for writing about this!


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