It’s clear from the start that Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s story of sex, murder and live TV really wants to be the “L.A. Confidential” of the Golden Age of television. Taking place in 1951, it strips back the veneer of wholesomeness and civility that most of the entertainment from the time was built on to reveal its very seedy underbelly. Does this make for an entertaining story? Well, generally, yeah. If nothing else it offers more proof to my theory that Fraction does better work when he’s not shackled to a project that centers around A-list superheroes.
So as I said, the year is 1951 and the New York-based LeMonde network has found itself at a crossroads. While it has one of the most popular shows in America with the live sci-fi serial “Satellite Sam,” its star Carlyle White is planning on leaving the network and moving production to California where he’ll be able to shoot on film and bang as many of the state’s women as he wants. There’s also the fact that the show’s behind-the-scenes staff, including Carlyle’s alcoholic son Michael, is deeply unhappy about their jobs, and the network’s president “Dr.” Joseph Ginsberg is stuck in an untenable situation where he needs financing in order to take advantage of the supposedly imminent deregulation of the airwaves. Yet his financiers won’t budge until Ginsberg’s man on the FCC makes that deregulation happen.
It’s a terrible situation that even the seat-of-your-pants thrill of making live television can’t entirely mitigate and then things get even worse. During the filming of “Satellite Sam,” Carlyle White is found murdered in his apartment. Through the magic of hairstyling and makeup, Michael is groomed to take his place on the show at the last minute but now he has to deal hands-on with his father’s legacy. A legacy which includes boxes containing hundreds of photos of women in various states of undress in his apartment.
All of this is in the first issue and it also features the introduction of over half-a-dozen more characters with significant parts to play in this series. You’ve also got plenty of exposition about the state of TV in the era and the logistics of putting on a live show and the various narratives of the cast to wade through at the beginning as well. My point is that this is a lot for any reader to take in and it certainly felt overwhelming to me on my first read-through.
Not helping matters any was how Chaykin’s characters looked on the page. There’s not a whole lot of variance in his character designs so it can be hard to tell one suit-clad white man from another at times. One of the bonuses at the back of the volume is a reprinting of the cast pages from the single issues and I think that having a “master list” along those lines would’ve been helpful at the beginning. In spite of that particular issue, I thought that the artist did a fairly strong job of getting the look and tone of the era down pretty well. The general grittiness of the man’s style is also well-suited to how sordid the material can get at times. I’ll also give credit to Fraction for making just about all of the sex scenes here relevant to the narrative in some way.
In fact, once you get past the introduction and start to process all of the characters and their storylines “Satellite Sam” becomes a pretty decent read. All of the behind-the-scenes wrangling it takes to actually make the show is effectively laid out, and Ginsberg’s own efforts to make his network a success are genuinely interesting in their own right. He’s portrayed as someone who will do just about anything to achieve that dream, whether it includes letting his wife run around with a congressman, offering air time to the show’s resident tech guy, or potentially blackmailing “Sam’s” writer with evidence of his sexual indiscretions.
Ginsberg is the title’s most interesting character, even if Michael is supposed to be its ostensible protagonist. While the son of “Sam” has the death of his father and those naughty photos of women to deal with, that particular plot thread feels like a non-starter here. It falls by the wayside for a good portion of this collection’s length, only for Michael to finally put the pieces together at the end to possibly give it some traction in the second volume. Though this “noir mystery” is pitched as a key part of the narrative on the back cover, it’s not as involving as it should be.
What’s more interesting about Michael is how he’s suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the new star of “Satellite Sam.” Having the son of a TV show’s lead actor thrust into that role simply because it was the very last minute and he looks something like his dad is unthinkable these days. Yet it feeds into the whole “anything goes” spirit of live TV in the era and it’s more interesting to see Michael grapple with this sudden onset of fame and having to deal with a role he wasn’t cut out for. You do have to wonder that if his obvious inexperience will eventually be detrimental to the show, but I’m willing to wait and see how this particular thread is developed in the next volume.
In fact, vol. 2 is promoted on the last page here as having the subtitle of “Satellite Sam and the Snuff-Fuck Kinescope.” This strikes me more as Fraction trolling his audience than a proper title, so we’ll see if it actually makes it through. (For the record, this volume was subtitled “The Lonesome Death of Satellite Sam” on the inside.) So even though this series was a lot to take in at first, once you’ve processed it -- and maybe even given it a re-read like I did -- it proves to be fairly entertaining on its own terms. I’m not sure how long the central mystery of this series should be stretched out, yet as long as it doesn’t compromise the parts about making the show and the network I’ll be content to keep following it.