Lunchtable TV Talk: Survivor’s Remorse

Standard

While I never heard of it and find the title a bit strange (survivor’s guilt? buyer’s remorse? I can sort of see the strains of this… but somehow it seems like its title would be better for the underrated and already canceled Getting On, while this show could easily be called Getting On…) for a basketball drama, I decided to dig in and watch after Survivor’s Remorse appeared on a few 2015 best-of lists. I would not go so far as to put it atop any best lists, but it’s rather entertaining.

The show riffs a bit on the family drama – a gifted young athlete becomes an almost overnight millionaire and his family tags along when he moves to the Atlanta team. We’ve seen stuff like this, but most dramas explore the exploitative aspects of the family (the family milks the athlete for all he is worth). You get a taste of that here, but mostly the family is close and the strength of that keeps it all together.

Nice to see the actress, Teyonah Parris, who played Mad Men’s first black secretary, Dawn, land here in a big supporting role. The show is ostensibly a comedy but quite handily deals with some serious issues, making light of divisive matters. Comedy flows, sometimes from the strangest places, but nowhere is it more consistent and hilarious than with the family uncle, Julius. Julius is a bit of a loser/hanger-on but always tells it like it is (usually in a way that’s comical). I won’t cite examples – it’s worth you watching yourself to see him ride with local police to chase down a ne’er-do-well bicycle thief, to watch him using his nephew’s new fame to score with a bunch of women or to see him go to a store to find a “dog repellent” and find one called “K Nein”.

I can’t say that the main character inspires much interest at all – but everyone around him is worth viewing, from the aforementioned uncle to the main character’s sister, Mary Charles, from crazy DeShauwn to the Chinese shoe “captain of industry” Da Chen Bao. They are worth watching.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Jane the Virgin

Standard

I cannot count the times I nearly gave up on Jane the Virgin. When I get annoyed, somehow it reels itself back in. I can’t explain why – it’s not really my style. The overly theatrical craziness of the telenovela style doesn’t do much for me, which I suppose is why these kinds of shows (Jane the Virgin now and Ugly Betty a few years ago) bind themselves tightly with down-to-earth family stories that keep them from going completely off the rails. (Although all of the stories are crazy.)

The show routinely makes it onto a lot of year-end-best lists, and I can’t quite give it that level of approval. I keep watching, improbably, because most of the characters are likeable and when the show decides to ground certain things in reality (and there are remarkably few of these things), it goes all out. Jane’s struggles with new motherhood, for example, are pretty realistic. Her tiredness, her going days without taking a shower, the complete and exclusive concentration on her baby (to the detriment of her friendships) feel very real and well-timed (that is, her baby did not grow into a giant two-year-old boy in the course of half a season, and her struggles in each week’s episode feel well-paced enough to coincide with real milestones in her baby’s development and her development as a mother). Perhaps these are not reasons to keep watching a show, but there is definitely something compelling enough that I keep watching it while letting several other shows (such as, Empire) drift off my watch list.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Review

Standard

Forrest MacNeil rivals my own knowledge of zip codes! He proudly declares sometime in season two that he knows all the zip codes, which makes his co-host roll her eyes (as she often does), and mutter, “That’s weird.” And yeah, it is. But sometimes it is moments like these that flip the switch for me – I like something but really decide I like it in small moments like that. Our zip code kinship sealed the deal.

I had been hearing about Review with Forrest MacNeil for a good while and could never find it to watch online (until now). Taunted by its presence in a list of TV’s 35 best shows (and my inability to see it), I sought it out and have now finally, greedily, watched it all. It’s been a trip into really committed absurdity. I’ve had a few laughs. More importantly, I’ve seen something here that I have not quite seen before. It is full of, as a recent article in The Atlantic describes, “cringe-inducing” humor, always imbuing the viewer with that dreaded sense that all best and earnest intentions are bound to go wrong coupled with a few visual gags that provide a juvenile chuckle or two. As the same article in The Atlantic points out as well, it is a show about a very average, milquetoast man who believes his opinions are important and in this belief transcends the limitations of his suburbanite timidity and dullness: “Like so many average men, Forrest thinks his opinions are important, a seemingly harmless belief the show carries to extreme conclusions.”

Forrest MacNeil is fictional tv show host who reviews life rather than tv shows or movies, and with considerable earnestness of his own and manipulative coaxing from his producer, pushes absurd viewer questions into insane territory… and ridiculous, insane consequences result. In fact, tragic results, if they weren’t so completely ridiculous. From taking an ultimately tragic space flight to leading a cult, Forrest MacNeil’s explorations on behalf of other people’s curiosity are preposterous (and seem to adversely affect those he loves most of all – from ruining his marriage and his ex’s future happiness to destroying all his father’s homes) – and his own complete obliviousness, disregard for anyone else’s feelings or for what is appropriate (in the name of his “mission”) lead to disaster.

I do wonder: is Forrest MacNeil a psychopath? Hard to tell – he’s an insecure guy who does love and wants to be loved. But constantly putting his show ahead of his own well-being and the well-being of those he loves has made him blind to consequences. He nearly dies a dozen times and descends into lunacy. And just as he decides to delve into what it’s like to believe in a conspiracy theory, he decides the show’s producer, Grant, is the villain who has conspired to kill him through his show’s review process. Until Grant slyly shoots down the theories with:

“People are constantly asking you to review dangerous things because they already know what the easy stuff is like. They can do that themselves. Living on the edge like this, things will go wrong and people get hurt.”

In some ways this feels a bit like a meditation/commentary on reality TV and how as a society, our craving for more – both living vicariously through others and demanding the most extreme actions through them – has pushed the edges of normalcy and decency to … abnormal and indecent territory.

All in the name of entertainment… the show must go on, right?

Lunchtable TV Talk: Falling Skies

Standard

I am combing through a long list of TV I have watched … a lot of it. It should not have, but it did stun me when I realized I had seen 30 of 35 of the best shows of 2015 (according to Vox). The Vox list was a longer version of other recently published 2015 reviews, most of which cite similar lists. I think it’s easy to forget some of the really good stuff that happened earlier in the year (like Better Call Saul – it was not perfect but it was so much better than a lot of stuff on TV) because we are so spoiled by a constant stream of high quality programming. It is easy to leave out stuff that felt new and exciting, felt groundbreaking, or really just felt like something powerful. Because there is just too much of the stuff.

With that in mind, I wanted to say just one or two words about Falling Skies, which ended this year without much fanfare. It was never going to make anyone’s top-ten or even top-35 shows. It was over the top and too much for most of its run – but it had its moments. It went too far and squandered its potential most of the time. Some of the storylines about infighting among humans were just… overwrought and took away from the bigger stories, which might have been explored with better handling had there not been so much wasted time. After all, we are sometimes brought down by the enemy within or near – pettiness, power struggles, etc. – and external enemies can just stand on the sidelines and watch us tear ourselves and each other apart.

I can’t say, even at the end, that things became particularly clear. What was the point of this show? It was a less well-executed version of The Walking Dead – a group of people running, hiding and fighting an enemy greater than itself. Sure, in The Walking Dead, it’s an enemy that is greater only in number. In Falling Skies, the enemy is extraterrestrial invaders with exponentially superior firepower who destroy almost everything except some kind of fighting spirit in the humans who remain. (There was way too much thinly veiled American-style patriotism here, with the protagonist being a former history professor who cites tales of Revolutionary War “heroes” and battles while backed up by a few actual military personnel, who have together formed a new militia, making the whole show feel a bit like a post-apocalyptic Revolutionary War re-enactment. I suppose this was by design, but it felt heavy-handed at best and inauthentic at worst.)

What did the show get right? Questions of suspicion and trust. Who do you trust when your back is against the wall, when survival is at stake? In this case, aliens invade. But when a different group of aliens arrives and offers to help, claiming that the original invaders are a shared enemy, do you cautiously accept their help and choose to trust them or reject all outsiders, anyone not like you, because it is more likely to be a trap? These kinds of themes are timely in an era where American presidential candidates want to do things like create databases of Muslims in America and shut out all new Muslim entrants?! Fundamentally, who is the outsider, and by what definition or authority is it okay to suspect everyone for the heinous actions of a few?

The show, improbably, shows the power of the collective. When a group of people band together in solidarity for a single purpose, they can achieve the impossible. The odds were against them. But the group, for the most part, survived. But the show also reveals (much as we have seen in The Walking Dead) that survival is only part of the equation. It’s not going to happen without losses, and no one gets out unchanged.

Maybe they were able to pick it back up again, but in this case at least, the sky really was falling.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Treme

Standard

It’s hard to characterize Treme, a little-watched, slow and critically praised show that sometimes felt like it lost its way, even if it never had one. It meandered, and in many ways, that felt quite intentional. Much more like real life than the way television moves forward with unrealistic plot points and devices that are thrown in not to serve the story but to keep drama churning. But do you need non-stop drama to keep you caring?

Treme never had the slow-burning intensity or high stakes that its creator’s masterpiece predecessor, The Wire, did but it was also an entirely different story, a different kind of story. Could a collection of loosely interwoven tales of people’s lives in post-Katrina (I struggle with the fact that this was already more than ten years ago – it seems like yesterday, and I imagine it feels recent for people dealing with its ongoing aftermath) New Orleans hold together tightly enough to make people watch? Perhaps not – but Treme gave us a reminder that there still are serious after-effects of the storm as well as memorable characters from all walks of life who live with those after-effects day in and day out.

Perhaps that is the characterization: the show is about characters a lot more than it is about stories. Very gritty and real-seeming characters whose lives are in no way tidy or “decided”. Everyone is as ambiguous as real people are. There are no moral epiphanies and black-and-white rights and wrongs here (in that sense it is very much the rightful successor to The Wire, which brought us moral and legal ambiguity in a host of different shades).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Wilfred

Standard

A long time ago I saw the first season of Wilfred and although I liked it, I forgot all about it. Recently I binged my way through the subsequent seasons during an equally all-encompassing baking binge and was surprised by how poignant a show it turned out to be. Questioning our sometimes tenuous links with reality, the quality of our relationships and the very meaning of existence at times, Wilfred never delivers answers and seems only to pose more questions. Its absurdity drives its stories and is its engine while its heart is as cruel, as manipulative, as misleading, as deceptive, as multilayered but ultimately as soft as … humanity. And that seems to be the point.Humanity and our relationships with other humans (or humanized canines!) is cruel and manipulative, among other things. And perhaps worst of all, our own minds can be playing tricks on us – and as Wilfred asks more than once, how can you tell the difference?

Given that answers are all left open to interpretation, Wilfred leaves you with a few laughs, some frustration and a lot of triggers for emotional response and analysis.

The premise – depressive and suicidal young man begins having conversations with his neighbor’s anthropomorphized dog, Wilfred. No one else can see the dog in this form. And from this basic and frankly silly idea, there is a lot more under the surface – and continuing the awkward and ill-formed analogy – a lot of bones to dig up and chew on.

It’s no masterpiece, but Wilfred felt like a quiet but powerful wave. I was easily sucked in, never once felt taxed or bored and was left with a lot to think about.

¡Felix navidad!

pinata
Standard

Thanks to the best-gift-ever of a piñata and a strange hankering for Mexican food, I will have a pseudo Mexican Christmas.

I hope everyone’s holidays are grand. And let’s sincerely hope that 2016 is a better – a much better – year than 2015.

Lunchtable TV Talk – The Best at Year End

Standard

Call me crazy, call me lazy, call me ambitious… but whatever you call me, I have seriously seen all of 30 of 35 of the shows in this best-of-2015 rundown. And the writer is right on the money about everything in the list – at least of the things I have seen. I’m not big on animation, which is ultimately why I haven’t seen stuff like Bob’s Burgers (it is in my Netflix queue) or Rick and Morty. I tried to watch Review but could never find it to see. And I had never really thought of The 100. I admit that I don’t even know what it’s about.

Unfortunately I am too tired to dream up a list of what else is out there that didn’t make the list … nothing likely tops the Vox list – it includes some of my favorites, even the almost-never-watched stuff like Manhattan (which came into its own in a big way in the second season), The Knick, You’re the Worst, The Leftovers, and Rectify. Even Justified made the list.

What strikes me as weird is that I somehow managed to watch all 30 shows, and that is not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of the things I have watched this year. It’s usually on in the background, but still… so.much.tv.

The tentative language of healthcare marketing

Standard

We are taught over and over throughout our educations that “helping” verbs (auxiliaries) and other crutches weaken and dilute our writing and our message. But then, because of invasive regulatory and legal constraints on making claims about healthcare or medical devices, writing (in marketing) about solutions in these areas becomes virtually meaningless.

“Device X can contribute to helping reduce infections.”

Not a single definitive statement in there, and that’s how it is. Definitively.