Lunchtable TV Talk: Person of Interest revisited


“You need to move fast.” “And here I was planning to move at a slothlike pace and get captured.” – season one, Person of Interest

I wrote about Person of Interest the other day – I started watching it as a filler while working, but it hit its stride early even if the first season felt a little bit more like what it appeared to be on the surface. At first, it looks and feels like a standard CBS-style procedural, but then its prescience about technology and the absence of privacy made it unusual. But the characters and actors who embody them differentiate the whole thing.

The reclusive billionaire character, Harold (Michael Emerson) who drives “The Machine” is quirky, honorable, lovable. The loner “Man in a Suit”, John (Jim Caviezel, who improbably keeps mentioning Puyallup and Sumner, Washington – not exactly household-name towns in America – perhaps to him since his family’s from there), could be a cliche – the loner/hero who loses everyone and everything repeatedly. And it would be impossible not to fall in love with Taraji P. Henson‘s Detective Jocelyn Carter in this show (and that love and respect grows throughout). This happened before her powerhouse performance as Cookie in TV’s runaway hit, Empire (she is one of the only reasons I watch that show). And the characters who join later, from the sociopath Root to the hitwoman Shaw (Sarah Shahi – someone I also love even though I have only ever seen her in a few things), or even the villain played by Clarke Peters (I love him in everything, too, particularly as Lester in The Wire, but he is very effective as a villain-in-hiding).

Everyone is in the right place, right time. It comes together almost perfectly, if slowly sometimes – which I enjoy – and I am as surprised as anyone to find the show as addictive as I do. Its fifth and likely final season is starting up soon, and if it is indeed the end, it will probably be going out on top, not having exhausted all its avenues and goodwill. I’ll never be able to explain why the show is just right, but someone (at Indiewire) took the trouble to pinpoint the details. And the article explains it exactly the way I would, even if I can’t make the time or find the words to give it all the attributes it deserves.

How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality


When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!

Lunchtable TV Talk: How to Get Away with Murder is Damages


As I tuned in for the much-anticipated start to the sophomore season of How to Get Away with Murder, hot on the heels of a deserved Viola Davis Emmy win, I was struck by how a lot of TV is about placement and timing. See, How to Get Away with Murder is basically Damages with much more diverse cast and much better promotion.

Damages had a worthy rival to HtGAwM’s Annalise Keating in a strong, ruthless and tightly wound Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. Both women are conniving, bright, cutthroat and lethal in their own often twisted pursuit of their own definitions of justice. Both have done insane and questionable things. And most of all, both women have very little control over – and are practically unhinged in – their personal lives. It’s in their personal lives that things come apart. The story comes from those cracks in the power-hungry, driven veneer they project. And both stories are compelling and revealed key pieces of information in fragments, so you might think you knew – sort of – what was going to happen later in the season based on glimpses of things you had seen earlier – but not until the final episode would the entire story have unfolded.

The difference… Damages got short shrift, at least from viewers. Damages was intense and critically praised, but never found an audience. It was technically cancelled, in fact, after FX decided to get rid of it after three poorly performing seasons. It was given a two-season reprieve via a deal with DirecTV (which also revived the loved and lauded Friday Night Lights after NBC wanted to cut it short). With the way it moved around, it certainly never found its footing, and was gone too soon despite stellar casting and tight stories for all five of its seasons. In addition to the formidable Glenn Close, Damages featured Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant (the one and only from both Deadwood and Justified), David Costabile (increasingly visible all the time in all manner of shows, from Flight of the Conchords to Breaking Bad, from Suits to the rather irritating and cancelled Dig, from Ripper Street to Low Winter Sun), Janet McTeer (love her and sad her recent show, Battle Creek, was cancelled so soon), Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, John Goodman, William Hurt, the ubiquitous
Željko Ivanek, Ryan Phillippe and the leader of the John Hannah School of English Elocution, John Hannah.

When I binge-watched the compelling first seasons of HtGAwM, it felt familiar in many ways because it covered a lot of the ground Damages had already tread. It was still fresh because it has its own story and feel, but it made me feel regret that Damages was so little seen during its original broadcast (hopefully people are picking it up on Netflix). None of this takes anything away from the magnetic nature of How to Get Away with Murder, but instead, it’s worth stating that if you like it, maybe you will also like Damages.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Person of Interest


I love how technology in a show from a year ago, five years ago or ten years ago looks hilariously outdated (if any of the tech they showed ever became possible or real at all). Things like Quantum Leap always showed an iridescent future (loads of “future” shows in the 80s and 90s did the same). And that is just about all you could say about them: iridescent and full of laser beams. Watching something like Person of Interest and all its surveillance does not look futuristic, even if it does not always feel totally realistic – it just looks like more 1984/Brave New World in origin. We’re being surveilled all the time, so why not make use of all that data? In Person of Interest, it’s in the interest of helping people. But in the real world it’s more likely to be companies building dubious business models around the use of so-called Big Data.

I really only just started watching a couple of episodes of Person of Interest. It’s a filler, not something I have ever had a burning desire to watch. I just need some noise in the background while I write white papers. I have nothing to say about it except that it prompted these thoughts about technology on TV.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Girlfriends Guide to Divorce


The only things this show gets right are: 1. divorce is hard, 2. even seasoned, beautiful women, perhaps especially the experienced, who should feel accomplished and professional, feel vulnerable and unsure – especially when their footing is pulled out from under them. Those are important themes. Otherwise, nothing about this show rings true.

I like series creator, Marti Noxon, and wrote a love letter about her surprising series, UnREAL. I have always loved Janeane Garofalo, but Garofalo’s character was a psychotic caricature (and probably why she exited the show almost as soon as she started). Lisa Edelstein is someone I can’t make up my mind about at all. I caught her call-girl/law student role in the first season of The West Wing (my recent binge indulgence), and it didn’t do anything to tip the scales either way.

But bottom line, regardless of whether everyone in this show is wealthy and privileged, having had some kind of high-powered position (or being the recipient of major divorce settlements), it is not realistically presented. Edelstein’s character complains about money and how she doesn’t understand how she will make ends meet after she loses her writing contract and her husband (who was never earning money anyway, I guess)… but then everything seems to work out without any explanation or real struggle. And Edelstein’s character has two children – they are mostly invisible. Rearing children is hard with regard to time and money, and assuming there is not a nanny (I have not seen one – and supposed they could not afford one any longer), this is not a big enough part of the story to be realistic. Sure, it’s a fictional show – what does it matter?

Another gripe I have with show and most shows on television is the fluidity and ease with which people hit on each other, as if all of life is this smorgasbord. Maybe it is just that people don’t hit on me every time I go to the grocery store, my kids’ school, the cafe, at work, a casino, every party, etc. but somehow I don’t think things sail quite this smoothly in reality. Why else would people complain in reality about how hard it is to meet people? But we’ve got to flatter these actresses, I guess, or make up storylines.

I do not think I will be back for the second season unless I need something to roll my eyes at.

Lunchtable TV Talk: What are Public Morals?


Public Morals has only been on for a few weeks, and I can’t say that I have feelings about it one way or another. It has not grabbed me in the way a lot of things do, but it is not utter nonsense either.

What did strike me is Michael Rapaport’s centrality to the show – how actors like Rapaport and Edward Burns are the serious, older guys now. Rapaport has turned up everywhere in the last couple of years – in an appearance in Louie that feels closely aligned to how I usually perceive his characters (i.e., annoying, irritating), in a brief appearance in the surprisingly funny and engaging Black-ish, and in the gone, overlooked but brilliant Justified.

In the penultimate season of Justified, which was the formidable show’s weakest, Rapaport’s villain (the mastermind of the addle-minded Crowe clan) and his family could not live up to the level of Harlan’s previous, superb villains. Not Rapaport’s fault, but he was not a worthy match for Raylan Givens, even if the character lived up to what we had come to expect from the Crowe crew – incompetence.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Black Mirror


It was not that long ago that I finally got wrapped up in the existing episodes of the genius, twisty, unsettling Black Mirror. And then it was announced that it would be back as a Netflix production. I won’t ramble about what made Black Mirror genius – it entertained at the same time as being terrifying, thinking about how we’re probably only a step away from the kinds of invasive technology that disrupted, destroyed and in many case ruined the characters’ lives in the effectively standalone vignettes presented in the few episodes that exist. All the “conveniences” that we embrace without thinking how they expose us and monitor us 24/7, not at all unlike the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales that is 1984. But in a world where people volunteer to put every minute detail of their lives on (reality) TV in the name of some kind of misguided fame, can I be surprised?

The other thing that surprised me was learning that Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator/writer, also co-wrote the Sky1 police-drama spoof, A Touch of Cloth, starring the dazzlingly clear-spoken Scot John Hannah, actor and would-be proprietor of the John Hannah School of English. Who would have guessed?

Lunchtable TV Talk: Doll & Em


Doll & Em is back for a second season. I tried to like the first season – there were some genuinely funny and sometimes sad moments. But mostly I found both of the leads to be shrill, unlikable and over-the-top in ways that can’t be overlooked in a way that would inspire me to watch the second season.

For me, the jury is out on Emily Mortimer. In some things, I really like her (in films, mostly, and in her guest role in 30 Rock; in others, such as Doll & Em and especially The Newsroom, there’s no ambivalence at all – I can’t stand her). As for Dolly Wells, what can I say? She is like the walking embodiment of the most annoying British people I have ever met, all smashed into one. She’s pretty much the same sort of thing in the Patrick Stewart vehicle, Blunt Talk. But then again, she has her moments. And they are both just people with feelings (and they are great at putting this on display in Doll & Em… hence my ambivalence about the show).

The only strong thread holding the show together for me is the equal pull of strength and pain in the friendship between the two leads. Both are blinded by their own egos within the friendship, feeling somehow entitled or ignored in turn, causing a giant rift in their near-lifelong friendship. Having endured these kinds of troubles in friendship, I related to this and thought the show represented it well. Just not sure I can get past the rest of the nonsense…

Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing


I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.