Lunchtable TV Talk: Billions

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We got rid of Nicholas Brody in Homeland, which could not have come sooner. It saved Homeland, and in exchange, we got Damian Lewis as self-made billionaire and financial wizard/criminal Bobby Axelrod in Billions. (FYI: Lewis is okay, but he is the least interesting thing about the show.) Is Billions great, on par with lauded fare like Mad Men or Breaking Bad? No. But is it interesting? Yeah, more than marginally. We get Malin Åkerman, who was so mercilessly set adrift after Trophy Wife was canceled, and she is unexpectedly fantastic as Lara, the bitchy, cutthroat, scheming, fiercely loyal wife of Bobby. We also get doses of Maggie Siff, who is always great (Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy), as Wendy Rhoades, the person who is actually closest to Bobby, who has worked for him for an eternity and kept him “sane”, and who happens to be (improbably) married to the man who has made it his life’s mission to destroy Bobby. That man is US Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, who is also always great, especially because he does fundamentally unlikable and complicated so well. His role here is no different, even if his character’s more stubborn than a dog with a bone – so hellbent on some kind of twisted sense of justice that he will let it destroy his marriage, his peace of mind, possibly his career and sanity, taking along with it his entire life and everything he values (taking a page from Les Misérables’s Inspector Javert, chasing this “villain” for his entire life – villain or no, the moral of the story – since there always is one – is that he only hurts himself in his dogged and endless pursuit).

There are other stories, characters, actors here, but there four form the real core of the show, what drives it forward and what keeps me watching. The rivalry between Bobby and Chuck – the stupid bravado driving both forward with what seem petty motivations in many cases, and the damage this does to everyone around them – from colleagues and employees to their families and loved ones – is the real driving force of the show. Also why I will continue to consume another season when it returns.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Motive

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TV is a lot richer in summer these days than it used to be – we got a few seasons of some exciting new stuff, whole seasons of Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman on Netflix and quite a lot of “off-season” (if you can really even call it that any more) filler to carry us through until fall. In fact, you could almost argue that spring and summer bring some of the best stuff now. There are no boundaries to prime release time for TV shows (and, as I have argued, can you even call them “tv shows” any more, seeing as how they may fit the format but aren’t broadcast on any network and can be inhaled one full season at a time?

Because of that, addicts like me are spoiled – and never have to go through the withdrawals that generally accompanied the dry season of summer. Still, though, nothing is so abundant that I don’t end up seeking out filler beyond the filler I was already watching.

That’s how I ended up watching Motive. My mom told me about it, and apparently had been telling me about it for some time since I still claimed never to have heard of it when it was heading into its fourth season. Maybe because it’s Canadian and didn’t last in its big US network broadcast slot (and was eventually moved to USA), it was not a big title. Nevertheless, just before the fourth season kicked off, I watched all three of the preceding seasons. Why? Reason one: nothing much else to watch that weekend while I was busy with other things; reason two: Louis Ferreira. Who is he, you ask? Well, the only reasons I know and like him: he was Colonel Young in Stargate Universe (the only one in that franchise I cared for, largely because of Robert Carlyle) and was in Breaking Bad. There are worse reasons for watching a show. Reason three: I liked the idea of already knowing the crime and finding out the motive.

Oddly, for a Canadian police mostly-procedural, I have been pretty entertained. I raced through and didn’t pay rapt attention, so I can’t cite plot points or anything particularly notable. But I saw a lot of standard Canadian-actor extras and Battlestar Galactica alums, which is also fun. I didn’t remember at first that the lead, Kristin Lehman, had been a key supporting player in The Killing, which was also good – I like her a lot better in Motive as detective Angie Flynn. In fact, I came to like her a lot, and it’s the easy chemistry between Lehman’s and Ferreira’s characters that make the show as watchable as it has been. That is, chemistry based on deep friendship and respect between colleagues, not sexual tension or something similar. You don’t see that much on TV. In very subtle ways, stuff about Motive is different, and is why I keep watching.

Photo (c) 2014 Michalis Famelis.

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

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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: Major Crimes – In the wide TV universe

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Lately I have been watching Major Crimes, which is neither a good nor bad show. I never watched its predecessor, The Closer, and I am not totally sure why Major Crimes is on my viewing docket now. In any case, the only thing I have to say about it, other than poking fun at the weird pacing of Mary McDonnell’s speaking voice, is that Jonathan Del Arco, the medical examiner character in the show is one of those guys who has turned up in a lot of places … surprisingly many. I remember of course that he was in Nip/Tuck a number of times – obviously memorably so.

But the strangest realization (and I had to find this by looking him up) was that he was “Hugh” in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “I, Borg” – one of the episodes in which an individual Borg begins to show individual thought and behavior. It should not be a “strange realization”, I guess, but it is just one of those things that seems really surprising once you make the connection.

Major Crimes is full of people who have past near-iconic performances, from Major Crimes’s Raymond Cruz, who might be more memorable as Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul)’s Tuco Salamanca, and from Mary McDonnell and her long acting history – and memorable role as Laura Roslin in cult favorite Battlestar Galactica. But these are more present, more visible than Del Arco. I am happy to see that he is in the midst of a long and interesting career.

Lunchtable TV Talk: AMC outliers – Low Winter Sun and Rubicon

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What do you do when you’re a network like AMC, which has commanded cultural giants of creative, prestige programming like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and smaller-scale but still edgy or unusual stuff like Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels and Humans, when you have clear outliers on your hands? You are not going to have a hit that viewers lap up, à la The Walking Dead, or a critical darling, à la Mad Men, every time. You can hope for quiet wins now and again, or the slow build of an audience that lets you tell a complete story. But sometimes, you strike out. AMC, despite its clout – or perhaps because of the weight of expectation – cannot hit it out of the park every time. Or even get a base hit.

This was true of both the mediocre Low Winter Sun and the challenging but worthwhile Rubicon.

Netflix can enable addicts like me. I am addicted to watching series, and even though I had read all the bad reviews of Low Winter Sun and its plodding pace, I watched it anyway. I needed to work on something through the night, and I thought, “Why not?” After all, I wanted to see if it was as bad as I’d read/heard and also wanted something that could serve as English-language background noise without forcing any concentration from me.

Like another one-season-and-gone AMC program, Rubicon, it never found its place or time. The only difference is that Low Winter Sun was a remake of a UK miniseries; Rubicon was an original in every sense of the word “original”. Come on, recounting the premise even now (a story about government data system analysts) won’t start any fires, right?

I don’t sit around and actively miss or think about Rubicon but believe it was a show with a story to tell. Low Winter Sun, though, was just awkward. Nice to see some actors who turn up in other AMC stuff, like Breaking Bad’s David Costabile (he was the ill-fated Gale Boetticher) and The Walking Dead’s Lennie James (he’s Morgan, who has just reappeared in the last season of Dead…). I almost wanted to like Low Winter Sun just because I want to attribute some kind of trust to the AMC pedigree or wanted to be some sort of rebel and like something no one else liked, but the dialogue really hurt. It was not bad acting, not a terrible story … but somehow the pieces did not all come together and nothing people said felt very natural. And that’s where it suffered. Mad Men did not always have the more natural dialogue either, but it had other legs to stand on, bigger themes to dig into, deeper stylistics to display. Low Winter Sun had nothing else going for it, and delivered exactly what you’d expect accordingly.

Too-late telly: Kampen om Tungtvannet, or The Saboteurs

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Norway does not understand angst well enough to make good films or television. At least this has always been my contention. If they have ever produced a decent film, it is usually because it hits on the one area many Norwegians seem to understand and some struggle with: mental illness (see Elling or Buddy).

I have, however, been surprised by The Saboteurs. I only got around to watching it now (it’s being shown on British tv now as The Saboteurs. It was shown originally in January on NRK under an original title, Kampen om Tungtvannet, or “The Heavy-Water War”).

Only funny part is that someone seriously asked me if Werner Heisenberg was a real guy. I explained that not only was he real, another tv show (Breaking Bad) had a character who adopted “Heisenberg” as his alias/alter ego because of Werner Heisenberg.

Shameless TV addiction

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I don’t know if other kinds of addicts get a rush from meeting other addicts. I suspect not because with drugs or drink, it might provide a kinship but also means there’s less of whatever substance being used to go around. This does not apply with TV. There’s plenty to go around, the more the merrier.

Being a TV addict is a relatively new identity for me to embrace. I spent many years not watching any TV (largely during my education), so there are blind spots in my TV knowledge (although not many because I read a lot of pop culture publications and still caught TV out of the corner of my eye). I suppose it has always been a bit of a hidden addiction for people of a certain type. Academics and intellectuals proudly and not without judgment in their voice announcing that they don’t watch or own a television. To some degree this high-culture anti-TV bent has been mitigated by the current golden age of television, in which serialized stories are a new form of in-depth cinematic genius and character development. It’s fine now to rattle off a handful of culturally acceptable programs, i.e. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and maybe something slightly more obscure.

But to admit that you pretty much watch a huge amount of what is offered… that’s still a bit of a mark against you. But you know what? I just turned 40… and I don’t care. I am 40, and I can do whatever the hell I want (or don’t want) with my time!

Something that makes me feel more confident about this choice is not just that I am 40, but also, meeting other fellow TV addicts who understand that you do not necessarily neglect everything else in your life in favor of vegging out in front of the telly. No, it is one thing that is going on among many.

I have a colleague who has seen all the rare and obscure and strange TV that I never thought I would be able to share or discuss with anyone. And that was not just a rush but helped make some of the more challenging work days better. It also made me feel that the lifestyle I have chosen is conducive to binge watching and not feeling badly about it.

Recently I discovered that another former colleague is almost as TV addicted and has very similar tastes to mine. Few things are socially as satisfying as being able to share the storylines and clever bits of dialogue – or to be able to discuss your own “tier” system for viewing (the can’t-miss, great shows; the stuff you don’t miss but is not quite great; the rest… or in my case, the stuff I hate but could not stop watching because it fueled the fire against stupidity, e.g. The Following, Looking, Brothers & Sisters…).

I don’t know that any other amateur TV addicts take it as seriously as I do, often writing feverish, critical blog posts (not well-thought-out or researched enough to be professional-level criticism) when inspired to, but the sense of relating to someone based on their tastes and also on their tendencies to overdose is comforting.

TV: Timing is everything

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TV shows appeal to people in different ways – just like everything else (you know how you love, say, Chinese food, and I hate it and want to gorge myself on Indian food, which you hate… well, that’s what I mean. We’ve all got different tastes, no doubt).

With TV, also as with many things that just reach a saturation point, I have noticed, depending on when you jump onboard a specific show, you will feel differently about it. Early adopters of Breaking Bad, for example, sung its praises and loved it. Then mainstream adoption made the show highly visible and much talked about – talked to death, really. People who might have been the sort to adopt early or at least enjoy the show had it not been overblown end up not really liking it – but would they have had they seen it earlier, had they seen it before it became overblown and expectations heightened? If they waited a few years, and all the hype died down, and they just turned it on and watched… what would the experience have been then? I wonder this sometimes because there are shows like that for me – that I joined late (The Sopranos comes to mind here).

If you have the whole show to watch at one time, perhaps long after the show has ended, do you have a different experience and gain a different perspective or take away, than someone who watched episodically, week after week and season by season?

TV: The understated villain

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Does anyone remember the TV sitcom Dear John? Newly divorced John Lacey (Judd Hirsch, appearing these days in Forever) joins a support group, which is full of its own oddball characters. But the most memorable character is the slimy, would-be “ladies man” “Kirk” played by Jere Burns. Back then, who would have thought that Burns would show up just about everywhere as shady, menacing villains who appear so unassuming that they just slip under the radar? In the last decade, Burns has turned up in these kinds of roles so many times I can’t count. When I caught his turn in Bates Motel, I had to think, of course, of his long-running role in Justified playing exactly the same kind of criminal and his equally surreptitious bad guy role in Burn Notice. (He has also turned up in roles, such as in Breaking Bad, as Jesse’s rehab group leader, but these roles are not the ones in which Burns shines.)

I love this guy.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Battle Creek: Embattled

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Even if Battle Creek gets the axe (which seems pretty likely right now), the first half of its one and probably only season has been entertaining. I recognize that I pull out the “entertaining” word an awful lot. It suffices often enough for these shows that don’t knock it out of the park but pass the time reasonably and pleasantly. But average adjectives are just about all that distinguish TV shows that fail to distinguish themselves.

Battle Creek’s cast should have done half the work by virtue of its experience and talent. The cast, anchored by comeback kid of sorts Dean Winters (best known for playing “Dennis”, Tina Fey’s on-off, loser boyfriend in 30 Rock, “Mayhem” in a long-running series of ads for Allstate Insurance, Ryan O’Reilly in the disturbing HBO prison drama, Oz as well as Rescue Me and Law & Order SVU) as Detective Russ Agnew, comes together within the beleaguered Battle Creek, Michigan police department. They’re led by the multitalented Janet McTeer as their commander, and the police department has basically no resources with which to work. In comes Josh Duhamel as dapper, charming FBI agent, Milt Chamberlain.

The story, with this group of actors, should gel better. The premise pits two very different detectives with two different perspectives on investigative work and on life against each other, but forces them to partner up. Agnew is cynical and distrustful (and his reasons for being this way become clear in the course of the show); Chamberlain, at least from what we have seen in the few episodes we’ve seen, is cheerful and trusting (but we don’t get a very good look at what motivates him or is behind his actions). They work together, improbably, to solve crimes, and the acting should complement the story – but I don’t feel like the show has unfolded a compelling enough story for us to care or to make people watch.

It’s unfortunate because there is potential. Its DNA has a little bit of Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul); guest casting has been clever and fun (a superb and hilarious as well as topical guest appearance from the great Patton Oswalt as Battle Creek’s mayor – a terrific comedic send-up of Toronto’s former mayor Rob Ford; Candice Bergen as Detective Agnew’s con-woman mother).

The actors – both regulars and guest stars – have done their part with the material they have, but the show itself, so far, has not been tight enough, has not been more than middling. If given a chance, I imagine that the show could hit its stride (many shows have surprised us after slow starts in their first seasons). Now it’s just a matter of Battle Creek getting that chance.