Happiness is a warm something, something.
The anthology series has become a rarity on TV. Logistical and financial problems are the primary reasons for this. Behind the scenes, every single episode of an anthology requires all new actors, sets, costumes, and so on. But it is also difficult for creators to lure viewers back for each new episode without the promise of recurring characters or plotlines. Sure, we all love The Twilight Zone, but at least that one had Rod Serling’s enigmatic narration and his endlessly charismatic eyebrows.
In 1997, producer James Sadwith and renowned filmmaker Robert Altman (Short Cuts) gave the anthology format a shot. And we do mean a “shot.” During its brief lifespan, Gun told a new story every week, featuring characters from all walks of life. The one common denominator that tied every episode together was a unique grayish-silver handgun, which had a habit of finding its way into people’s lives and changing them forever.
The titular gun weaves its way through six stories of debauchery and excess:
• “Columbus Day”
James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) plays a security guard who sneaks the gun home after it’s recovered from a failed terrorist assassin. This just adds to the tension between him and his wife (Rosanna Arquette, Silverado), who is bored and frustrated with the lack of excitement in her life. It’s not long before she starts walking on the wild side by catching the attention of a hunky, Peeping Tom writer (Peter Horton, The Dust Factory). Meanwhile, the gun’s original owner is on the loose, and he’ll do anything to get it back.
• “All The President’s Women”
Directed by Robert Altman! Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation) is a womanizing country club president, willing to do whatever—or whomever—it takes to get to the top. But when the gun shows up in a surprise package, he knows someone is after him. The suspects include the various women in his life, played by Daryl Hannah (Kill Bill Vol. 2), Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway) and Sean Young (Blade Runner).
• “The Hole”
Directed by Ted Demme (The Ref)! In a small town in the middle of nowhere, the local hoodlum (Johnny Whitworth, Empire Records) has just gotten out of jail. The townspeople are watching him like hawks, in case he returns to the ways of his violent past. But their fears don’t matter to Sondra (Kirsten Dunst, Get Over It), an idealistic young girl who catches his eye. While visiting the swimming hole outside of town, our two anti-heroes try to swim deep enough to recover a shiny object the local kids think is a treasure—but we the audience know it’s really the gun.
• “The Shot”
After spending years toiling as an extra, failed actor Harry Hochfelder (Daniel Stern, Home Alone) packs up his family and prepares to move to Virginia. But after a sudden act of violence involving the gun, Harry becomes an overnight celebrity. As he tries to turn his newfound heroism into the acting career he’s always dreamed of, Harry distances himself from his family, not knowing that another violent confrontation is headed his way.
One man’s gun-related murder links together a homeless man (Bud Cort, Dogma), a cop on the verge of retirement (Martin Sheen, Spawn), and a wealthy couple with a scheme to rip off the state lottery. Lies, coincidences, plots, and schemes are everywhere, and no one can trust anyone.
• “Father John”
We’re deep in film noir territory when controversial a newspaper columnist (Fred Ward, Tremors) looks into the mysterious death of his uncle, a Catholic priest. The clues lead him through a maze of greed, corruption and prostitution. By the time it’s all over, secrets will be revealed, and several people will be dead.
Appropriately enough for a series about a gun, the six episodes are hit and miss. “Columbus Day” is riddled with clichés, from Gandolfini’s over-the-top Italian machismo, to the lonely writer in search of his “muse” in the form of a sexy woman, to the terrorist painting the symbol of Islam onto bullets and then kissing them. The episode is so set on tantalizing the audience with sex, violence, and sleazy behavior that any genuine storytelling gets lost in the process. Fortunately, the scripts and acting improve as the series progresses. “All The President’s Women” features Altman’s trademark emphasis on dialogue and sly camera work. Fans of the legendary director will surely enjoy this outing. Bear in mind this was 1997, and the episode serves up a fine satire of the Clinton presidency.
Continuing on to the second disc, “The Hole” is possibly the darkest and dreariest episode in the set. But it’s a good kind of darkness and dreariness; the kind that soaks up the viewer and carriers him or her through the story. There is some shock value for shock value’s sake here, but overall it’s a solid piece of drama from everyone involved. From there, the series ventures into comedy territory with the Hollywood spoof “The Shot,” a nice little bit of silliness that pokes fun at the nature of fame.
Kicking off the third disc is “Ricochet,” which has several plotlines running at once, requiring some mental gymnastics on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. The lottery scam is an interesting one, but probably not mathematically possible if you think about it. Also, a few subplots seem to go unresolved. The performances are slightly over the top on this one, but they fit the overall style of the episode. And like the first episode, the final one, “Father John,” is something of a misstep. With the creators trying so hard to evoke the mood and sensibilities of classic film noir, the actual story gets left by the wayside.
Despite the failure of some episodes to reach the heights of gritty sleaze the creators were no doubt hoping for, the acting is generally good throughout. Even when they are over-the-top, the actors know their roles and fill them nicely. But this is not surprising, thanks to the stable of reliable character actors filling even the smallest roles. Along with those listed above, there are brief but good performances from Carrie Fisher (Star Wars), Sally Kellerman (Back to School), Nancy Travis (Rose Red), Christopher McDonald (Requiem for a Dream), Ed Begley, Jr. (Transylvania 6-5000), Maria Conchita Alonzo (The Running Man), and Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica). Also, Star Trek bonus points go to anyone who can spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Wil “Wesley Crusher” Wheaton.
And then there’s the title character. The creators really go the extra mile to give the gun as much personality as possible, leaving viewers with the sense that it’s just as much of an individual as everyone else on screen. The camera likes to linger over the gun, whether it’s in a drawer, hiding in a safe, or lurking at the bottom of a swimming hole. Like the One Ring, the gun influences the characters around it by its presence alone. On the negative side, though, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to how the gun travels from one episode to the other. In “The Hole” and “Father John” the gun has a history that’s several years old; in “All The President’s Women” it shows up in the bushes of a golf course, with no explanation as to how it got there. This could mean that the gun is a supernatural or mystical object, magically arriving from out of nowhere whenever it senses great change is coming in a person’s life. But more likely, the creators are less interested in continuity, and more interested in setting the stage for all sorts of gritty crime and sleaze.
As mentioned above, there are attempts throughout the series to wow the audience with lewdness. That might have generated some press in 1997, but today’s viewers have been spoiled by the likes of The Sopranos, Deadwood, Oz, and The Wire. As a result, Gun is an “in between” series; one that pushes the envelope more than most network programs, but still doesn’t break all the rules like the premium channels’ darlings.
Like the series itself, the picture quality varies. Scenes in daylight or those that are brightly lit are fairly sharp, but during darker scenes, the blacks become more grayish, and the visuals overall have a lot of softness. Specks and grain, on the other hand, are nowhere to be seen. Audio at first seems to be merely adequate, but upon closer inspection, there are a lot of subtle touches coming from the back speakers that are not initially apparent. It’s subtle, and not noticeable unless you’ve got your ear right up against the rear speakers, but it’s there.
Considering the amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s unfortunate that there are so few bonus features here. Along with a trailer, there’s a photo gallery of shots from each episode. The most notable extra, however, is an astounding 28 trailers for other Tango Entertainment releases, some of which are quite charming in how dated they are.
The marketing for Gun proclaims it “an anthology of six one-hour films.” Funny, I thought it was a “cancelled TV show.” Tomato, tomahto. But seriously, just imagine where the series could have gone if it had continued. We can speculate that it would have attracted more varied writers and directors, as well as more great character actors. Also, it might have shown more variety in the types of stories it told, both in setting and tone. The series as it is now is good, but it could have been truly great. We recommend a rental before you buy.