Lunchtable TV Talk: Baskets

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I’ve never been much of a Zach Galifianakis fan; I’ve never been much of a Louie Anderson fan. Somehow, though, when these two are put together in a mildly insane show, Baskets, about a man, Chip Baskets, hell-bent on making a living as a classically trained (in the French tradition) clown and the humiliations he endures, his crazy family and the cast of characters accompanying him on his life’s rather sad journey, it feels like a meta story within a story (that is, a sad man, desperate to be a clown, living the life of a sad clown). Quite telling about how Chip seems to approach life is that he moves to Paris to fulfill this great dream but never once seem to consider the fact that they speak French in France.

But rarely does Chip realize the absurdity of his own life and the oblivious way he wanders through it. He is self-aware enough to be completely selfish (i.e., he knows what he wants, but never considers the consequences for other people; he is pining for and romanticizing his love with a French woman who uses him while failing to see that he is perpetrating the same kind of blind – and sometimes not so blind – using and abusing of a downtrodden doormat of a Costco employee/insurance agent who gloms onto him, Martha). He actually seems to serve as a mirror for the average thoughtless person. He does things for his mother (brilliantly portrayed by Louie Anderson), not out of duty or kindness but guilt (like most of us do). He does things for himself that he cannot afford and that make no sense just because he wants to and has no self-discipline (like most of us do).

I don’t know quite how, but by the end of the first season, during which I was at a loss most of the time as to what I thought but also could not stop watching – I felt a real emotional connection to the show and its deeply imperfect characters.

Now that it has been over for ages, I don’t remember the finer details I wanted to elaborate on. But the show will be back for a second season. Perhaps then it will become clearer whether this is a masterpiece or just a weird anomaly – or better yet, maybe we will never get a clear picture, and that might be okay.

Photo (c) 2008 Hot Gossip Productions.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Animal Kingdom

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I keep wanting to call this “Animal Experimentation” for some unknown reason. I just cannot keep “Animal Kingdom” as a title in my brain for more than one second. I suppose it’s that I associate the word “animal” with the dismally bad Zoo, and it stars James Wolk (there was a time that I would watch anything just because of him; even he is not enough of a draw to maintain Zoo). Wolk starred in a good but short-lived show called Political Animals, and somehow all these animals-in-titles and animals run amok (in Zoo) has my “animals” confused.

Animal Kingdom was something I started watching almost by accident and find that it is like a combination of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sons of Anarchy or The Shield (i.e., gangs of pseudo or actual criminals pulling off nefarious “jobs” but always digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves the more they try to fix the first botch job) and the short-lived Gang Related (in which a detective must play both sides – his loyalty to his gang family and to the law).

I watched the first season and enjoyed it – I find that Ellen Barkin, like a lot of women, is a heck of a lot more interesting now than she ever was when she was young. Barkin plays the family matriarch who is nothing if not a master manipulator. Everything else essentially revolves around her and the things she sets into motion. I’d say watch it or read about it to find out about the plot, but Barkin is the real reason to watch.

Lunchtable TV Talk: American Gothic & The Family

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Watching Rupert Graves seem to struggle a bit with an American accent and even seem to fit into an American ensemble felt strange. He never really embodied this role, and maybe it’s just my brain used to his Englishness. Or maybe, The Family suffered from a complete lack of cohesion that devolved into decentralized and sloppy storytelling over the course of its one and only season.

American Gothic and The Family are remarkably similar in many ways – they have a similar tone. American Gothic does not so much rely on the use of flashback, but the story draws from past events to build suspense in the present (unlike The Family’s more frequent and ham-handed attempts to use flashbacks). We have a member of the main family running for public office with a lot at stake if the family’s secrets are unveiled (in AG, one of the adult siblings is running for mayor of Boston; in The Family, the mother runs for governor of Maine). We have a law enforcement tie-in (one of the siblings in the main family in AG is married to a detective; in The Family, detectives investigate the disappearance of the main family’s young son, and one detective has an affair with the aforementioned misplaced Graves). We have the screw-up drug addict sibling in both stories; the Justin Chatwin character in AG better embodies the realities of addiction, much more convincingly than the brother (whom I can never see as anyone other than Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights) in The Family. We get cops in AG who feel more like real cops/detectives rather than some kind of half-sketched out idea of cops (as we got in The Family). We get with AG a sense that the story knows its plot points and knows where it plans to go (unlike The Family, where the only compelling thing was Andrew McCarthy playing well against type). We get in AG a mystery that we care about finding a solution to (unlike The Family, which started strong with its first episode or two but fizzled out quickly. I am caught up to the most current American Gothic, and I am still hooked).

We have a mystery at the core of both stories and a thread of ruthlessness that runs through both in the protective siblings and family members who safeguard their secrets at all costs.

Although both were stacked with what should have been really all-star casts, The Family’s cast never really felt much like a family (the cast really did not gel for me. On paper, it looks great – acclaimed, good actors; chemistry though is a strange and rare thing that cannot be created just by having a great cast list). Despite – or perhaps because of – the dysfunction in American Gothic, you do get the idea that these people could be family. I don’t have feelings one way or the other about Virginia Madsen (for the most part), but I am thrilled to see Juliet Rylance, Justin Chatwin and Antony Starr (all of whom were co-stars in some of my favorites: The Knick, Shameless and Banshee, respectively; if you have Banshee withdrawals, Starr’s character here is a lot like Lucas Hood – mysterious, shady, reticent, volatile and with lots of secrets).

American Gothic could easily stray into the terrible territory of the now-departed soap/drama Revenge, which shared some of the same themes (but often handled them so clumsily and squandered all the suspense and goodwill built in season one, letting it trickle away in several misdirected, increasingly boring seasons). But American Gothic retains all the things that excited people about Revenge when it first began. (Virginia Madsen somehow pulls off the “trailer trash-turned-wealthy family matriarch” more effectively and believably than Madeleine Stowe ever did.)

I could be prematurely declaring success for American Gothic – but for now, I’ll cautiously say that it is definitely a better contender than The Family in terms of holding interest but… can it outlast something like Revenge and not degenerate into heightening levels nonsensical soapy dramatics. I realize that all shows of this nature rely on some soapy dramatics, and that’s not what I mean. Some shows manage to pull this off without appearing to be completely stupid and desperate. It remains to be seen whether American Gothic will be one of these.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Hap and Leonard

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There is not much that Michael K. Williams does that I don’t want to see. The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Night Of and so many more things, he makes things watchable. Where they go beyond him can vary. I am not sure I like Hap and Leonard that much, but the strangely compelling friendship between Williams as Leonard, a black, gay Vietnam vet with temper problems, and James Purefoy as Hap, a man who has spent time in prison for dodging the draft, drives the story forward.

On paper the pairing between these actors seems unusual and not at all like it would work. But it does. In episode two, when Hap tries to hug Leonard, and it’s ridiculously awkward, Leonard exclaims, “Come on, man. This is why dudes don’t hug each other.” There is something so genuine about the way Hap and Leonard try to take care of each other and care about each other that is, well, why the show is called “Hap and Leonard”. (Incidentally I also really like Purefoy with the exception of the monumental joke that was The Following, one of my all-time most hateful of hate-watch shows.)

This isn’t really a long or extensive description and certainly isn’t an analysis of any kind. It’s just to say that, thanks to Williams and Purefoy, the show is actually worth watching.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rosewood

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Rosewood is one of those shows. It’s one I could take or leave. My mom really liked it and encouraged me to watch. We don’t usually align on our favorite tv shows – this was no exception. But I like Morris Chestnut and decided to give it a go. (Sure, I preferred Morris in Nurse Jackie and even in the reboot of V… but I will take what I can get.)

This was a slow starter for me. I found the premise tired, the setting rather unbelievable, a lot of details thrown in just for the sake of drama, tension or diversity (i.e., nothing wrong with those things but they did not seem to flow naturally, which ended up being distracting). Characters felt artificial, showing up at strange times and just not fitting into the flow. I don’t know if this jarring effect was intentional (maybe it is more like real life to throw a group of unlikely random people together than other shows that cast for specific types of chemistry?), but for me, it did not work at all. I found myself annoyed most of the time by the female lead/detective, Annalise Villa, with whom Rosewood was constantly pairing up. Eventually, though, I warmed up to her and think she started filling the role more believably (that often happens on tv shows – actors and writers find their footing). I am still not mad about most of the rest of the cast and its characters, but Rosewood and Villa are a compelling pair.

The show’s premise is nothing particularly fresh – Rosewood is a private pathologist/medical examiner with whom the city of Miami consults on tough cases. And like all police procedurals that bring in medical examiners or psychics or writers or what have you, the non-police characters are still somehow woven directly into the daily investigative work of the police, which strikes me as pretty unrealistic. But how much would we watch otherwise? How much smoldering chemistry would you get between a detective and a pathologist if they each spent the entire show working in their own spheres? Yeah, exactly.

The show tries a few “hooks” – Rosewood is flashy, slick, arrogant (and with reason – he seems to be the best at what he does) and stubbornly unable to drop something once he has a hunch. But he is also riddled with a history of health problems and a stopwatch on his life – how much time does he have left? He imagines it might be as little as ten years. So… pack as much as possible – including crime solving?! – into the time that’s left?! I don’t know. That angle felt pretty weak to me from the beginning, and is often used as a convenient reason to introduce different characters and storylines that don’t always feel well reasoned otherwise.

For the first eight or so episodes, I watched but was disengaged, and would wander off to get coffee or something for minutes at a time. I am sure I missed something useful but it never really seemed to matter. Every episode felt like it was definitely much longer than 45 minutes. By the end of the first season, I was not hooked and could easily forget to watch the next season, but at least I was not leaving the room periodically while an episode was running.

Photo (c) 2010 Sergio Monsalve

Lunchtable TV Talk: Continuum

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Again I ran out of things to watch and decided to watch sci-fi, time-travel cop show, Continuum. I did not expect much but have been fairly entertained (just more than halfway through the series now). All sci-fi isn’t good, and shows with time travel at the heart of their premise rarely capitalize on the good idea.

But Continuum isn’t too bad – and doesn’t suffer at all from what I lovingly refer to as “Canadian production values”. Older Canadian tv used to feel like it was a decade behind the United States in how it was produced, what it looked like – even in what the characters wore. I don’t really know why this was the case. Despite living for a good chunk of my life near the Canadian border (British Columbia rules!), and watching a lot of CBC, I could never quite wrap my head around why those kids from Degrassi Junior High (the original, which my junior high science teacher made us watch?!) looked like they were striving or 1983 while the rest of us were firmly in 1988. Haha. (And some Canadian classics, such as The Littlest Hobo, which apparently was a great hit in Scotland, never made it to us in the States at all.)

This is not really about Continuum but instead about the progress and quality of Canadian tv shows. We know American shows have been filming in BC for years and years, but perhaps this industry influence has rubbed off on the quality of the tv they make for themselves. (Motive and Continuum are a good bit better than The Bridge (and would anyone even remember that, considering our Bron/The Bridge/The Tunnel series that came later?), and even if it was something of a contemporary of these shows, it felt more like an older Canadian show with a lot less idea of what it hoped to do with itself). The boom in Canadian productions also, of course, means that we get to see a lot of familiar faces – often. BSG’s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani have already made appearances in Continuum (and in Motive for that matter). And there will probably be other BSG alums. Ian Tracey is a staple of Canadian tv guest arcs (have not seen him be a regular since I happened to catch DaVinci’s Inquest on late-night Icelandic tv; another Canadian cop show that featured loads of people who would, at that time, go on to BSG stardom).

All of this to say that Continuum is good enough for me. I will continue watching and enjoying – and most of all, supporting Canada’s original programming. In part because I love Canada.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Banshee

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Banshee was a pretty crazy show: violence, mystery, unreal (but fantastic) characters. Despite what reads in a synopsis as a lunatic-filled bloodbath, Banshee was one of those can’t-miss indulgences. I was looking forward to watching the final season early in 2016, but then the final season was pushed back to April. It felt like an interminably long time to find out the fates of the Banshee crew. When it arrived, it seemed to end so fast.

The premise always stretched capacity to believe. An ex-con arrives in Banshee, Pennsylvania, Amish country, and assumes the identity of the town’s new (recently murdered) sheriff. He doesn’t seem like a run-of-the-mill lawman, but for years he manages to never quite be caught impersonating a dead man. The story evolves but really isn’t anything special without its cast, the colorful characters who make up the Banshee world and the killer action/fight sequences. It’s not deep, meaningful entertainment, but it’s well done.

Most of all, I think, I will miss Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen as Kai Proctor, the town villain and Amish outcast. He was not long missing from the small screen, though, as even before Banshee’s final episodes had aired, he turned up in NBC’s The Blacklist, which feels like an ideal role for him, even if it’s in an increasingly irritating show.

Photo (c) 2007 Mattias Weinberger under Creative Commons license.