Lunchtable TV talk: Lockdown viewing

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I’ve said it about a million times before, much like addicts promise to get better, stop destroying themselves and hurting others: I will stop watching so much television. This is not a promise I ever end up keeping.

For a while this “promise” endured because I was busy with so many others things: work, study, travel, friends. Slowly I started letting more televisual entertainment slip into my field of view, and before I knew it, I was binge-watching all six seasons of Lost in the course of about one week (seriously). (I never saw Lost during its original run and felt like it was a strange gap in my pop culture knowledge.) Was I failing to do the things I needed to do in life? No. Was I neglecting relationships? Probably not. This excessive consumption has taken hold and had the chance to expand during the enforced isolation of Covid times. I am not alone there (well, in the most literal sense I am) — most streaming platforms have seen exponential (and semi-sustained) jumps in subscribership during this time.

With this confession, then, I am going to dump a random list here of things I’ve watched in recent months with a few short words about each (in most cases). You will notice that not all of them are new (case in point: Lost). Some are comedy/sitcoms, some are dramas, some are documentaries. Some are in English, some aren’t. I haven’t made an exhaustive list of what I’ve watched – there is a whole lot I have not listed here, if you can believe it. But it’s also not a list of things that I necessarily liked. These are the things that stuck in my head for one reason or another, so I’ve included them in this list. I know I’m going to forget some good stuff because… well, I am a total addict, I don’t keep close enough track of stuff as I watch, and I consume so much that I can’t possibly call it all to mind easily. For instance, I almost forgot to list Black Monday — and I loved that.

There is not much reason for this list other than… the fact that I like to keep track of stuff I watch and read. But I do know that lots of people are running out of stuff to watch after force-feeding themselves all their streaming platforms had to offer in the early days of lockdown. We may face multiple lockdown rounds, in which case, I am sure everyone really wants to know what kind of entertainment I would recommend (or not).

So here, in no particular order at all, are some of my recent viewing vices:

Brockmire: This is by far one of my favorite shows in this entire list. It’s a shame so few people have seen and heard of it. Led by Hank Azaria, supported by Amanda Peet, the four short seasons of Brockmire traveled from a semi-redemptive story about a fast-talking, loudmouth baseball announcer who lost it and went on a multiple-year drinking and drug bender to a future in which the titular character finds meaning in family life and something approaching simplicity. I don’t do it justice… but it’s razor sharp, hilarious, sad, a cautionary tale about baseball, technology and the broader, darker future we have in store for us. But its emotional resonance comes from the soulful performance Azaria delivers throughout the character’s journey. I urge you: WATCH THIS. If you watch anything at all from this entire list, let it be Brockmire.

Mr Inbetween: I cannot recommend this Australian show enough. I am not sure why but it struck me in a big way when I watched it. Read my further thoughts on Mr Inbetween here. (There’s also a nod to a Canadian show, Mary Kills People, about a doctor who helps terminally ill patients die, in the Mr Inbetween write-up; Mary Kills People is not worth watching but is something I watched in recent months.)

Bosch: A take on the dark, semi-rogue cop story, this detective procedural offers a slightly offbeat constancy… whether it is crime, corruption or the prevalence of inscrutable grey areas. Perhaps it’s the offbeat nature of it that makes it addictive and comforting – with ten hours flying by (while other shows feel like they drag). The writing is not bad, acting decent, good cast… and there are several seasons to sink your teeth into.

Hightown: I watched all eight episodes of the first season, never quite making up my mind until the end that I thought it was okay. I am frustrated with characters who are their own worst enemies, which is the case for Monica Raymund‘s Jackie. It’s a murder story with hints of organized crime/the drug underworld with not particularly engaging characters or character development, making this one that I’d recommend skipping.

Normal People: I have not read the book on which Normal People is based, but am told that it is in most ways quite faithful to the source material (with a few notable exceptions). Perhaps I watched it in an unusually emotional state because I found it… grating, although still gripping enough that I wanted to see it through. Mostly it irritated me because the two main characters were such poor communicators and most of the problems they faced as a couple came from not talking to each other, not making their wants and needs clear, and ending up in deeply unhappy and unsatisfying situations as a result. On the other hand, we are talking about two very young people, neither of whom had exceptional communication abilities or the propensity to form open, close connections with others (given what we learn about the woman character especially). For as much as critical buzz spoke about the realistic nature of the abundant sex scenes, I found it interesting that these two people could continually find their way back to each other and share a tremendous amount of physical intimacy that never seemed to cross over into an openly emotional intimacy (which, over time, is better explained by what we learn of each person’s life and past).

Ramy: I really despised the character Ramy, a young Egyptian-American man struggling with his identity in modern America. Inclined to be tied more actively to his Muslim faith than his family, he seems to be on a constant quest for spiritual fulfillment but at the same time is succumbing to temptations ranging from sugar addiction and copious porn-assisted masturbation to ongoing sexual affairs with various women, including a married member of his community. Perhaps as viewers we are not meant to like him or his struggle. Because most of the story is told from his POV, I think we get a one-dimensional view of women in general, and more particularly of Muslim women. I found myself enjoying the rest of Ramy’s family and the imam in season two (Mahershala Ali) much more than I cared for Ramy himself, and I was glad that the show had an expansive enough approach to storytelling to include these tales as well. I did find that the, erm, creative and unusual situations Ramy got himself into made the show well worth watching, even if his foibles, mistakes, poor choices and shortcomings were often cringeworthy.

Hanna: Comprised of two quite watchable seasons of action, this is no masterpiece and doesn’t really explore some of the moral questions that the themes of the show could and should invite. I found myself drawn to the performance of Esme Creed-Miles (daughter of actors Samantha Morton and Charlie Creed-Miles — whom I’d never heard of or seen acting until recently when he turned up in about five things I’d watched in short succession). I’ve never seen the film version of this (Saoirse Ronan played the lead), and I wouldn’t say that the tv version inspires me to go back and watch the film. But the tv version is a decent distraction.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story: I am not sure when I fell in love with Amanda Peet, but it happened a few years ago (and happily two of her other vehicles are listed in this post — The Romanoffs and Brockmire). And she is the only reason I decided to watch this. If you were alive and probably American at the time this story took place, you probably heard about the dramatic double homicide perpetrated by Betty Broderick — she killed her ex-husband and his new wife. But the tabloid retellings of the time didn’t quite capture the story the way this did. Sure, this is a semi-fictional account, meaning that we see a relatively sympathetic take on Betty Broderick, who spent her youth making sacrifices for and supporting her husband, only to have him run off with his young assistant later, once he’d achieved great financial and professional success. Not a novel framework by any means, but certainly the outcome differs from most woeful “he left me for a younger woman” stories.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: I have been watching this documentary while reading the book it’s roughly taken from. Michelle McNamara was a gifted writer who humanized murder victims and seemed to really care about who they were as people, and the losses the people around them suffered once they were gone. Obsessive, driven, talented but undermined, it seems, by a kind of impostor syndrome, McNamara never quite embraced the idea (again, it seems) that she was as bright and talented as she really was. Sadly, she died before the book was completed, and before the murderer she’d relentlessly chased in her amateur detective work was identified and caught. But it’s a fitting tribute that the book has received as much attention as it has, and a documentary series is a perfect companion piece to showcase the publicity-shy, engaging McNamara in her element.

Little America: Having grabbed an AppleTV trial subscription solely to watch Visible: Out on Television, I felt I had to take advantage of the time on Apple before the week was up. There is almost nothing, otherwise, ON AppleTV, which is why I will be damned if I am going to shell out any money at all. You kind of have to bring the content, right? But I did quickly snack on this imperfect but charming collection about different immigrants in the US. Adapted from a number of true stories based on real people’s experiences, these semi-fictionalized accounts splashed just enough emotion (both happy and sad) to engage me even in the slower moments of the storytelling.

Flesh and Bone: Digging through Amazon content I stumbled onto this ballet-driven drama and did watch all eight episodes, but apart from depicting with a veneer of accuracy the physical torture of elite ballet (projected as the most delicate and transcendent movement experience a body can convey), the characters and stories often didn’t make sense, felt contrived and seemed needlessly dark and designed for audience shock value. It was particularly difficult to discern the motivations for many characters’ actions, and even though this problem started to resolve as the series went on, it felt as though there was not adequate time to fully resolve lingering motivational issues while still being able to hold the audience’s attention with the thin plotline(s). Nevertheless, the ballet created for the series itself and the talent of the cast – actual ballet dancers, thankfully – gave this a boost in terms of credibility.

Visible: Out on Television: I watch pretty much everything like this – documentaries on the struggle for equal rights and against violence, and of course at the core of these kinds of programs is the fight for AIDS treatment and research. I can’t emerge from watching these things without uncontrollably sobbing, thinking about all the people who were lost during that truly frightening time. You’d think we’d have learned something about compassion from the AIDS epidemic and how it was handled, but watching the way the current COVID crisis is unfolding, it seems we haven’t. The public “discourse” (it can’t even be called that) is so divisive and memories seemingly so short that I’ve pretty much lost whatever sliver of faith I had in humanity (or at least in the United States). In any case, this is so worth watching to see how LGBTQ representation has changed on TV (hint: there’s more of it at last, but there’s still some way to go).

Dead to Me: I’ve watched the two seasons of Dead to Me, and enjoyed their dark humor, but I can’t explain why. I guess I really like Linda Cardellini and also like Christina Applegate, and both play characters who make unlikely friends who have to stick together because of a few dark, shared secrets. It’s not always easy, and I suppose there is where the dramatic tension and some of the humor comes from.

Lenox Hill: I am kind of a sucker even for fictional medical drama, but this is a documentary that follows doctors in Lenox Hill hospital in New York over the course of several months. I enjoyed each story and the doctors the show followed, but I especially loved David Langer, the Chief of Neurosurgery. It’s probably weird to say that you’d fall in love with anyone from a show like this, but I suppose its emphasis on humanizing the somewhat mysterious work of physicians helps achieve this rush of feeling. After I devoured the first set of episodes, I noticed that there was a new one – they made a Covid-specific episode to chronicle how the hospital was coping with this new crisis.

Hunters: This was over-the-top and not particularly satisfying. Even though, especially in this day and age, you’d think it would be: a group of unlikely “heroes” come together to form a secret society of Nazi hunters in the 1970s. Not a bad premise, and while the show itself it not entirely bad, it’s just underbaked somehow. Still, when I watched it, I was drawn in enough to finish watching. But it seems that this could have been done differently and better. A wasted opportunity.

Sex Education: This one doesn’t need much introduction — it’s been streamed like mad, and rightfully so. It’s funny in a charming and embarrassing kind of way — both for awkward teenagers and for the adults who play it cool but are still just as confused as the rest of us. Gillian Anderson is great here as Jean Milburn, sex therapist/expert who nevertheless struggles with commitment and intimacy, and the plot of the show is driven by the intelligent but insecure Otis, Jean’s son, who delivers sex advice to his classmates to make some money. It’s often quite heartbreaking, heartfelt and reminds one of the trials of high school. Ugh. Well worth watching.

The Romanoffs: The Romanoffs, perhaps unfairly, was overlooked when it was released. Overshadowed by other content in a newly overstuffed streaming landscape, and buried under the weight of expectation. It’s not that this was flawless, but it was creative and unusual and had a great cast across each of the very loosely related vignettes. I think I saw some advertising for this around the same time The Kominsky Method came out, and the two Slavic-sounding names canceled each other out in my mind (because I watched neither until several years after they were released). Of course it was clear from the advertising about The Romanoffs that its premise was that all the characters were meant, in some way, to be descendants of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty. Whether they were or not was immaterial to, and only tangentially related, to the real stories the vignettes aimed to tell. Each of those stories was hit or miss. For example, I liked bits of the first story about an old French lady whose American nephew and his materialistic French girlfriend are just waiting for the aunt to die and leave them her apartment. They hire a housekeeper/caretaker who happens to be a Muslim woman, and the old lady is rude, racist, and incensed — but her anger seems less directed at the housekeeper and more toward being left alone and ignored in a world that is passing her by. The story gets a bit strange, but it has its rich moments. My favorite of the stories was the episode, “Expectation”, in which Amanda Peet and John Slattery are just so human that it’s hard to watch. A close second is “End of the Line” when a childless couple (Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson) travel to the Russian Far East to adopt a baby. The scene is so drab and suspect, hinting constantly that something could, and will, go wrong at any moment. The final episode is also interesting. But then several of the episodes are utterly forgettable. Like I said, hit or miss.

Modern Love: Like The Romanoffs, Modern Love is an anthology of vignettes. It’s in fact The Romanoffs without the Romanoff thread… it’s stories of people falling in and out of love — different kinds of love and care, different places in love affairs, the loss of love, and so on. It’s engaging enough that I did feel drawn in and watched it all. Also a supremely talented cast, including John Slattery (who featured in The Romanoffs), and a duo of “everywhere, in everything” people —Julia Garner and Shea Whigham.

The Jewish Enquirer: Imagine a low-budget sitcom modeled on the awkward misanthropy and political incorrectness of Curb Your Enthusiasm, only set in London, focused on a mostly unsuccessful journalist at a niche newspaper, and you might dream up something like The Jewish Enquirer. As it likes to say in reference to itself, it’s the UK’s 4th most-read Jewish newspaper… which should tell you everything you need to know. Hapless protagonist, Paul, gets into scrapes and situations that are reminiscent of Larry David‘s Curb antics… meaning that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe or both.

Black Monday: I nearly forgot to include this, but when the show returned from a hiatus recently with a Halloween episode that featured Don Cheadle and Dulé Hill dressed in competing Coming to America themed costumes, challenging each other to a Bobby BrownMy Prerogative” dance-off, and Andrew Rannells dressed as George Michael from the “Faith” video, the brilliance and hilarity of this frenetic show came rushing back to me. It’s not always spot-on in terms of what it’s trying to do, but it effortlessly captures the volatility and excess of the era it’s portraying, and has us laughing while it does.

Ozark: Ozark started off by introducing us to Marty and Wendy Byrde, accidental money launderers who have to weasel their way out of trouble with a Mexican drug cartel. They both turn out to be so successful at money laundering that it takes over their lives, and changes their entire life path (the whole family is affected, but it’s Laura Linney‘s Wendy who seems to embrace this sinister lifestyle and immerse herself in it). Jason Bateman is a steady hand (as he is in everything), and Julia Garner, who has been everywhere in recent years, is superb, despite some script-related character fluctuations that didn’t feel aligned with her character, Ruth.

Unorthodox: A young woman escapes her oppressive ultra-Orthodox life, leaving her husband and only life she’s ever known in Brooklyn, and runs away to Berlin, where her mother (who has also long ago fled the Orthodox life) lives. It’s a fascinating story about claiming an individual identity when layers of some other cultural and religious identity and “tradition” have been forced on you. She finds her path, and begins to make her own decisions.

Shtisel: Following on the very popular Unorthodox, I watched the two series of Shtisel, an Israeli show that follows a fictional ultra-Orthodox family through their daily lives, particularly as they all bend and break some of the rules of the strict community they live in. (Shira Haas, who plays the lead in Unorthodox, also appears.)

Our Boys: There’s something about this Israeli-American production that both angered me and made me inconsolably sad. Perhaps it’s the hopelessness of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians as an overhanging theme. The story starts with three Israeli teens being kidnapped and killed, apparently by Hamas. In a retaliatory kidnapping a Palestinian boy is taken away and killed. While the reactions of both the Jewish and Arab communities are explored, the hardest thing to watch was the grief and pain the family feels, and how much their differing reactions lead to the fragmentation of their family.

Kalifat: A Swedish drama/thriller about a young woman, Pervin, who is married to an IS fighter in Syria. She is desperate to leave and return to Sweden and is told that she has to exchange intelligence on IS activities for an escape route for her child and herself. The urgency of each moment, and how much risk Pervin is taking to get out of her perilous situation, is keenly felt in fast-paced action and seemingly constant threats. There are secondary — and important — stories, such as a thread about a “recruiter” who is grooming/brainwashing girls in Sweden to send them off to IS-controlled Syria. But it’s Pervin’s story that makes this worth watching.

Bobby Kennedy for President: It’s possible I watched this while I was descending into a maudlin period anyway, but I couldn’t help but cry multiple times as I watched this documentary series. Not so much because of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, but for the turbulence and loss of innocence that enveloped the 1960s — and Kennedy’s death was like a bookend to a period of sweeping social change that ultimately went into self-obsessed hibernation during the stagnant and ugly 1970s. I did enjoy the evolution of Bobby Kennedy as a thinker and politician, as he moved (at least rhetorically) away from dogmatic law and order to more social-justice-oriented policy and thought. His ascendancy and moment as the incumbent Democratic nominee, snatched away in minutes, is yet another one of history’s pivotal moments in which we are left to forever wonder, “What if?”

Years and Years: I sort of stumbled onto this British miniseries, and I ended up being quite surprised by its startling parallels with the current period we live in. We’re mired in a big mess, — politically, socially, economically, environmentally — and the real future, as well as the one projected in Years and Years, is grim and dark.

Hollywood: This won’t go down in history as a classic, but it was certainly inventive. A surprising emotional at times take on “what if…?” What if Hollywood had been different in the post-war era? What if gay actors could have just been who they were and lived with who they loved? What if black actors, writers and actresses would have had equality and visibility as they deserved? The generous artistic license here both let the imagination soar momentarily while also beating it down with the realization that no, we’re actually still not in a place of such openness.

Sorry for Your Loss: I wanted to find this to be… better than it was. But the endlessly whiny and exceedingly selfish character, a young widow played by Elizabeth Olsen, made this almost unwatchable. The supporting cast shines when they have the opportunity, but Olsen’s Leigh sucks all the oxygen out of every scene, making it difficult to enjoy the other stories. Her husband appears to have killed himself, and through flashbacks, we see how deep his lifelong depression is, and how dismissive Leigh has been of his struggles. And it just makes her selfishness all the more annoying. I couldn’t force myself to watch the second season.

Stateless: Anyone in doubt of the great range of Yvonne Strahovski‘s talent should look no further. If you put together her anguished, confused portrayal here with her controlled, manipulative role as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale and her breakout performance as Hannah in Dexter — all very different roles, it’s hard to imagine why she hasn’t made a bigger mark. Stateless is the true story of an Australian woman who, after a psychotic break, ends up in an Australian detention center meant for refugees.

I Am Not Okay With This: Based on a comic book, I Am Not Okay With This straddles fantasy, sci-fi, teen coming-of-age dramedy and somehow manages to pull it off. The story focuses on angry and confused teen, Syd, who discovers she has out-of-control telekinetic powers. It’s not terribly different from many other high school angst films and tv shows, but its irreverence and a touch of the supernatural make this worthwhile entertainment.

The English Game: This isn’t exactly a masterpiece but does take a surface-level look at how football changed and became a “passing” game once Scottish players came onto the scene. Football was at the time (the 1870s) seen as a wealthy upper-class man’s pastime, but the Scots who played were working class men who felt that the game not only could be a team effort but also a vocation for which players should be paid. He was by no means the main character, but I loved Craig Parkinson as James Walsh.

Queen Sono: I had to watch this if for no other reason that it was Netflix’s first African production. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my attention and felt, for once, like something different.

Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi: I get pulled into these food and cooking shows sometimes, but most of them aren’t things I’d single out to mention. For example, I have watched most of the cooking-related shows available on Netflix (Ugly Delicious – but David Chang seems dickish enough that I can’t recommend it to anyone else; Chef’s Table, which I actually love; The Chef Show – which is fairly informative and made me have a new appreciation for Jon Favreau; Somebody Feed Phil, which is highly obnoxious and repetitive but does visit some interesting places – it in fact made me think I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time in Chicago, even though I don’t have an ounce of desire to spend even one minute in the United States). Having listed all these things, I do single out Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation because I very much enjoyed how she struck a balance between different groups of people and their food and the contradictions and adaptations of those foods and how they have been adopted and co-opted. In the first episode, for example, Lakshmi travels to Texas (the El Paso/Juarez border) and meets a second-generation Syrian immigrant who is a Trump supporter who claims to love his Mexican employees, Mexicans and Mexico — and runs a gas station/Mexican diner that employs Mexicans who have to cross the border to come to work every day. Padma, bless her, doesn’t comment on the cognitive dissonance that would allow someone to praise and vote for Trump at the same time as praising and relying on Mexicans for his livelihood… The whole show is full of these kinds of small cultural anomalies and twists, and it’s this stealth that made it enjoyable.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat: A breezy and informative British cooking show with a friendly but not annoying woman (that’s a hard balance to strike on these kinds of shows, I think), Nadiya. She sometimes made some weird stuff but overall it was just a pleasant thing to have on in the background, and to watch Nadiya as she traveled to different spots in the UK to see, for example, salmon farming, sugar processing and Marmite manufacturing in action. (I made a wee mention of this in another post on vegan candy making.)

Jett: Mostly mindless entertainment with the lovely Carla Gugino as an ex-con, high-end burglar also featuring Giancarlo Esposito. I’ve already confessed to enjoying Jett but not in a way that would make me tell you that you should watch it yourself.

Life in Pieces: I never got around to watching this sitcom when it was new, and over the course of a few weeks binge-watched the whole thing. There were moments that were funny, of course, but for the most part this always felt like it was trying too hard.

Star Trek: Picard: I will probably love anything Star Trek that you throw at me, and this was not an exception. There were some misfires (why was Alison Pill and her character even there?), but overall I loved this, and if you’re a Trek person, you probably will too. Oh, those Romulans.

The Plot Against America: I read Philip Roth‘s book in February 2018, and it seemed sufficiently terrifying and prescient. Then I watched this – the David Simon/Ed Burns adaptation – and, if possible, felt more terrified. Why? Was it because the tv version gave life to something that was once only on the page – making it closer to real? Was it the fact that by the time I saw this we were two more years into the implosion of the United States under Donald Trump? What Plot does best is expose the insidious hatred, racism and anti-Semitism that have always been living just below the surface — and when circumstances and characters enter the public stage — and gain power — permission to unleash these various forms of hatred seems to be granted and comes out into the open. Who could ignore the striking parallels to how Americans are living today?

The Kominsky Method: I’ve written a bit about Kominsky before, and continue to recommend it — apart from being funny it captures the past-middle-age, but not quite old (at least in the minds of the protagonist) ennui of life, peppered with moments of disruption, loss and the only kind of news people get at a certain point in life: bad. I’m not sure how a premise and plot points so soaked in themes of death, illness, tax and financial problems, and dealing with struggling middle-aged children can still manage to be as humorous as it is. Perhaps it’s because of these themes – we can’t shy away from them (it’s life, after all), so we make the best of them. Anyway it’s worth watching solely for Alan Arkin, but Michael Douglas isn’t bad either.

Breeders: I can never make up my mind about Martin Freeman. He’s great in most of the stuff he’s in, but there’s just something about him that makes him seem like he would be an insufferable asshole. And while I enjoyed Breeders a lot, I feel like the character he plays here is very likely not dissimilar to how he might be in his real life. Impatient, often unpleasant, prone to outbursts. Obviously I have no way of knowing this. Perhaps it’s just that he is so good in this role that it became hard to separate the role from the man/actor. I’ve written about Breeders before, so I won’t go on about it. Just know that it’s a bang-on embodiment of the duality of parenthood: when else will you be willing to die for someone that you so frequently want to kill? (I wrote in the same post about the Canadian show, Workin’ Moms, which travels some well-trodden — and some not so well-trodden — ground on parenting challenges, but I didn’t think it warranted a separate entry here.)

Giri/Haji: I kind of struggled to get through this one – it moved a little slowly and it was sometimes not entirely clear what was going on. I am not sure I found the blooming “love story” aspect believable but I liked when the Japanese protagonist tells Kelly MacDonald something like, “I know nothing about you except that you are English.” And she of course, happily, corrects, “I am not English.” As I’ve written somewhere else in this list, before a glut of things like this, I could not have told you who the hell Charlie Creed-Miles was… but then he was here, in Peaky Blinders, Five Days, Injustice, and a few other things…

Startup: I watched Startup in a fit of… I don’t know what. I couldn’t find anything to watch that didn’t require my attention, which usually sends me down a path of hitting “play” on almost anything that looks like it could be … tolerable. Now, far removed from when I originally watched it, I don’t remember everything about it except that Martin Freeman (previously mentioned) plays a crooked FBI agent in it (another convincing asshole role that lends some credence to my theory that his default is “asshole”), and a trio of mismatched strangers end up trying to launch a digital currency together. I suppose I found it interesting in large part because there aren’t that many TV shows that discuss digital currency at all, and if they do, they get it all wrong. In fact offhand the only other show I can recall mentioning cryptocurrency (in this case ETH) was Queen of the South (also not a bad time-passer as tv goes). Would I recommend this? I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s also not terrible.

After Life: I’ve got my mixed feelings on Ricky Gervais… there’s a genius in there somewhere, but at the same time, he can’t seem to help himself from letting a very petty, uncompassionate dude off the leash sometimes. Then again, people are stupid and it’s hard to always have compassion when patience is taxed at every turn. And that’s all exacerbated by grief. But I’ve enjoyed After Life — for the most part. The first series was better in that his fresh grief and pain from losing his wife made his character both relatable and insufferable, but it’s hard to watch in a second series. Sure, we all know that grief and the accompanying expanse of emotions has no timeline or limit, but in a half-hour, semi-comedic show it’s harder to justify letting it go on unchecked, despite how realistic it might be.

Marcella: At the conclusion of the second series of Marcella, I couldn’t really see where they could take the show. But take it somewhere they did – to Northern Ireland. Marcella assumes a new deep undercover identity and tries to take down a crime family. Her own mental state has continued to deteriorate, and even though there is something captivating about this (the way a car wreck is), I can’t say this is a good show or a good use of time to watch. Never mind that it stretches all credibility in terms of how things would actually play out.

Deadwater Fell: I don’t know if David Tennant just enjoys these brief UK-TV miniseries in which he plays possible murderers, but this is another one not unlike others I have seen. This time Cush Jumbo is in it, but she didn’t make this any more compelling.

Westworld: My interest has fallen off completely after the intriguing season one. By the time this latest third season concluded, I couldn’t tell you why I had continued watching or even what was going on.

Devs: I actually could not finish this. It was just overwrought and filled with overacting. I really don’t care for Alison Pill for some reason, and watching her in this right after her “why are you even here?” role in Star Trek: Picard made this even less interesting. It’s also hard to take Nick Offerman seriously as anyone but Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation.

Billions: I have written about Billions more than once, and I will just say that it started off and remained exciting for a couple of seasons, but has become a weird pissing contest with tiny slivers of inspiration in what, if I recall, is its fifth (?) season. Worth watching the early bits, not so much worth following through to the end.

Mrs America: A much-needed account of the history of how the ERA and the promise of women’s equality were quashed in the 1970s and 80s, mostly through the efforts of the conservative women’s movement driven by Phyllis Schlafly. Really well done, stellar cast – I wrote more about it here, and why it’s necessary viewing.

The Good Fight: The perfect dramedy, capturing the utter absurdity of the moment we live in. An even better, freer extension of The Good Wife, this time Christine Baranski takes the lead along with a stellar supporting cast. Although I’ve liked the show from the beginning, it feels less constrained now that Rose Leslie and her Madoff-like-dad storyline is gone.

Run: I mentioned Run in a post on women’s paths on television, and although I didn’t go deeply into the story of Run, I should mention that it is something I watched during this overdose-on-tv period. I didn’t really buy into the premise – two former lovers have arranged that they will text each other the word “Run” and if the other answers with “Run”, they will both run from whatever they are doing in their lives and meet at some predetermined place. Despite never really finding footing in that backdrop, the interaction and chemistry between the show’s stars, Merritt Wever (who must also be seen in Netflix’s Unbelievable) and Domhnall Gleeson, made me come back each week for me. The secondary stories and characters, including Archie Panjabi as Gleeson’s vindictive business partner and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as someone the two main characters come across during their “run”, were interesting diversions – and they didn’t entirely “fit” in the story, kept it quirky. It was nice to see Panjabi do something after The Good Wife, for which I am sure she is typecast and best known; Panjabi also appeared in the dark, depressing but nevertheless well-executed tv adaptation of I Know This Much Is True (also on HBO).

Schitt’s Creek: When I finally got around to watching Schitt’s Creek, it grated on my nerves at first, but I heeded the warnings about how it gets better and grows on you. For the most part this is true. It’s about as quirky as you’d expect, given the cast and premise. I still haven’t seen the final season, but everything up to that point is enjoyable enough that you can lose yourself, setting aside, if only briefly, the endless thoughts of pandemic, impending national collapse and potentially destabilizing presidential election (if you’re in the US).

Pure: Apparently there were two shows called “Pure” that came out around the same time. I started a show, thinking I was watching one of them, when in fact I had accessed the other. What I ended up seeing was a program about Mennonites involved in the drug trade, but what I meant to see was a UK-based show about a young woman suffering from debilitating and disturbing impure, deviant, sexual visions that were disrupting her entire life (and her search for relief/solutions). In the end I’ve seen both, and while I would not actively recommend either of them, I preferred the Mennonite Pure, despite the fact that I’d never set out to watch it in the first place.

Killing Eve: I keep watching this even though I hate it. I really hate it. I cannot put my finger on what exactly I hate about it, but it’s just … what’s the word? I’m glad that most of the lead roles are women, even if they seem mostly unhinged, and that the show’s creator is also a woman. But this seems more a showcase for strangeness and a platform for …something. But it’s not great. I don’t understand the compulsion that draws Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) together time and again, and this is meant to be what draws the viewer into the show week after week. In fact at a certain point, it is the only story, and everything else is a distraction. Apart from short glimpses of entirely other things — such as the damaging effects poor parents have on their children and the difficulties of, in fact, parenting, the core of this show feels hollow.

The Morning Show: I somehow thought this was a half-hour comedy. Maybe because people have tried so many times (and mostly failed) to make half-hour comedies about morning shows. But no, I was quickly set straight and realized that watching this was going to take much more time than I had anticipated. This is a thinly veiled version of the Matt Lauer sexual assault story, and the NBC coverup (recounted in detail in Ronan Farrow‘s Catch and Kill) that kept Lauer out of harm’s way and damaged countless women, their self-esteem and their careers. Not bad source material. Steve Carell‘s dramatic stock-in-trade is surface-level nice guy veneer papering over a deeply flawed, self-absorbed, abusive asshole. He uses this to perfection here, probably pulling off the most believable performance among the leads. I’m not a big fan of Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston, but both are passable, and better than usual (in my opinion). The supporting cast/roles were the biggest draw, as many of the production staff characters have compelling backstories, great personalities, and convey the real damage they have suffered from the sexual abuse they’ve experienced. And the best thing about the show, which is only a secondary thread, is Néstor Carbonell‘s weatherman character. You can’t help but love him.

The Outsider: I read a few good reviews of The Outsider (not to be mistaken for the heels of bread, ootsiders, as many Scots call them), and I like Ben Mendelsohn. But I don’t like Stephen King adaptations much, and this was not an exception. The basic idea: a murder that at first seems straightforward turns out to be not at all what it seems, and the lead investigator’s winding journey to find out what really happened. It’s not to say that this was bad – it was in fact as well done as a story with supernatural elements can be (and maybe that’s what is hard to swallow for me). Performances and characters were all great — so I should just be glad there was something redeeming here.

AKA Jane Roe: Documentary on “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), who was the plaintiff in the landmark, always-under-threat case, Roe v Wade, which granted American women the right to legal abortion. McCorvey was a difficult and challenging woman — shifting from a pro-choice “icon” to a mouthpiece for the anti-abortion Christian right. Her move to the right was a blow to the movement, and even had a personal cost for McCorvey (who had to renounce her longtime partner because the religious movement to which she’d tied herself considered homosexuality a sin). If there were a living, breathing embodiment of an unreliable narrator of one’s own life – McCorvey qualified. At the very end she says she was using the religious right as much as they were using her, and she was being paid to renounce her pro-choice beliefs and be a public voice for the anti-abortion movement. But in life, as on film, McCorvey never establishes that much of what she presented was true or real, so it’s hard to know what to believe.

Showbiz Kids: It’s hard not to feel bad for the kids (now adults) who appear in this documentary about kids who have grown up on film or tv sets. Nothing has been normal about their lives, and many don’t cope well (if they make it out alive) with it when they get older, particularly those who don’t successfully make the leap into being actors as adults.

Various standups: Standup comedy is a bit hit or miss, but I’ve found that some comedians are reliable for providing something I will enjoy, namely Marc Maron, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Hannah Gadsby. All have stuff streaming on Netflix. And you need a laugh. Go for it.

*Postscript 1*

A few items I forgot to add:

Homecoming

Shrill: I found Shrill to be surprisingly cutting and forthright — I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Quiz: The backstory on a cheating scandal that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The Great: Satirical and fictional take on Russia’s Catherine the Great. Not perfect but entertaining.

Dispatches from Elsewhere: I’ve already written about this unusual and fascinating journey.

Mrs Fletcher: I love Kathryn Hahn, and I’d add this because of her anyway. But this was an interesting journey about a divorced middle-aged empty-nester coming to terms with who she is and taking a new path. It fails on some fronts and feels a bit directionless at times, but that seems to serve the character’s unsteady, unsure steps toward identifying who she is.

*Postscript 2*

I thought a bit more about things I had consumed and decided to add a few more, even though some were things I watched a long time ago. Some shows, like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire deserve much more attention and praise and viewers than they had when they originally aired. A handful of other shows are similar. And then there are the shows I just forgot watching (regardless of their quality — that’s what happens when you watch as much as I do. You are submerged by a wave of viewing.

Succession: I had forgotten about this until someone told me about a frightening documentary about the Murdochs that’s been airing in Britain of late. And while I don’t feel the urge to lavish uncommon levels of praise on Succession, I have enjoyed it.

Better Things: I will never be able to praise Pamela Adlon and Better Things enough. I’ve written about it more than once and think, despite critical acclaim, it should receive a lot more attention for the craft and creativity of its realism.

I May Destroy You: I found this to be uncomfortable to watch. Not just because of the subject matter (sexual assault in its various forms) but because the main character is deeply unlikable. She seems to drift through life mostly partying and not really showing much concern for others around her despite expecting them to show her compassion and deference. Other characters were far more compelling and sympathetic, and it’s a testament to Michaela Coel‘s (writer, director and star) talent that she makes the main character’s story ambiguous and challenging.

Never Have I Ever: Light fare — high school girl longs for popularity and a boyfriend and tries to come to terms with her father’s death, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her ambivalence about living in two cultures (as an Indian-American). It’s an interesting look at how we all see ourselves as outsiders/others, how we are all vulnerable but don’t acknowledge it, but sometimes we get a chance to see others’ vulnerability and it opens us up to revealing our selves more fully.

Better Call Saul: It’s a different show from Breaking Bad, and as it has developed – slowly – I have come to prefer it over Breaking Bad. The characters in Saul are so compelling, changing throughout, morphing into who they will eventually become. It’s fascinating to see how they get there. For a long while it was Jimmy/Saul and his struggle with his brother Chuck that kept me glued to the screen, but over time it has become Kim Wexler‘s complex inner journey and decision-making that drive this narrative forward.

Search Party: A small show that has certainly evolved from its beginnings. I guess seeing Alia Shawkat‘s Dory change from a self-absorbed young woman on a mission into a manipulative sociopath is what makes this interesting. The other characters, Dory’s group of friends, feel mostly one-dimensional and inconsequential, and in many ways detract from the show (even if it would not necessarily work without their involvement). I was happy to see Louie Anderson in a supporting role as a defense lawyer and Michaela Watkins as a prosecuting attorney in season 3. Probably the highlights for me.

Baskets: Speaking of Louie Anderson, Baskets (a vehicle for and by Zach Galifianakis) was always one of the strangest shows on tv while it lasted. Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a kind of loser who wants desperately to become a (serious) clown, is oddly poignant. Anderson plays Chip’s Costco and Arbys-obsessed mother, Christine. I don’t think it does justice to the unique nature of the show to try to describe it… but it’s one of those under-the-radar things that I feel like I’m the only person who has ever seen it.

Goliath: So… Billy Bob Thornton as a kind of washed-up lawyer. The only show I’ve ever seen that has used the word “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty“. Not that that makes for a recommendation. Me, I will watch almost anything Billy Bob makes.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: I love Tony Shalhoub, and it is for this reason that I have continued to watch this mostly insufferable show. As most critics and viewers have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that every person who meets the titular heroine, Midge Maisel, is going to fall head over heels in love with her, requiring that each scene in which this character appears be lauded by “you’re so amazing!” praise. This is the biggest complaint I have, but the secondary problem for me is the Amy Sherman-Palladino problem. Her style feels unnatural (this was nowhere more true than in the hate-watched Gilmore Girls). While I genuinely enjoyed the first season of Mrs Maisel, I found that each successive season felt more like work to get through, despite enjoying the presence of both Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce throughout the series and Sterling K Brown in a season 3 role.

Little Fires Everywhere: Save yourself the trouble. Read the book instead.

Halt and Catch Fire: Please just watch this. Stick with its slight missteps in season one and follow through. So worth it.

The Americans: I’ve never been able to understand why The Americans never made a bigger splash — it’s got so much in it. Stellar performances (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Alison Wright, Frank Langella, Margo Martindale and Costa Ronin are all outstanding), timely themes, the 1980s, spycraft. It’s just so well done. I recall being told as the 1990s were coming to an end that my interest and study of Russia and the Russian language was “useless” because “that war is over”. But even as the Soviet Union itself crumbled, the long-term view clearly depicted a different future in which enemy countries will continue to fight but things will just become more subtle, more technological. We are seeing that play out now. This show is a powerful introduction to the ways spycraft worked as the 80s came to a close and the Cold War as we knew it was ending. The ideologies that these spies defended were so far removed from how power and everyday life both played out in the Soviet Union — and to watch the two main characters struggle with this in very different ways made The Americans a must-see.

Chernobyl: Speaking of the Soviet Union crumbling, the dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the attempts to cover up and deny the scale of what was happening, and the horrifying and long-lasting effects was handled with care, without exaggeration. The disaster was perilous enough that turning it into a spectacle was unnecessary. An understated story put together by Craig Mazin is brought to life by an incomparable cast, from Jared Harris to Emily Watson, from Stellan Skarsgård to Jessie Buckley. An exceptional story that, like many historical events, gets lost with time, we luckily have storytellers who continue to bring history to life in film and literature.

Perry Mason: A strange TV revival, a rather dark remake of Perry Mason — but nothing like the old 1950s-1960s tv show of Raymond Burr (see more about Burr in Visible: Out on Television) fame. No, Matthew Rhys is Mason here, and although ostensibly the lead, many other characters play at least as important a role in unraveling the mystery central to the story. Like much of the prestige TV listed and discussed, the plausibility and watchability comes down to casting. I continue to watch for Rhys, everywhere-man Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany (who else misses Orphan Black?), Chris Chalk and Juliet Rylance… but everyone here is great, even in the smallest of roles (Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, for example).

Trust Me: There was nothing groundbreaking about this medical drama. Over the course of two disconnected series, two characters are at the center of mysteries and lies within a hospital setting.

Taboo: I’m still not sure what to make of this series. It wasn’t enjoyable, but somehow felt… gripping anyway. Conceived of by its star (Tom Hardy) and his father, this story follows James Delaney (Hardy) as he returns to 1814 London when his father dies. Delaney has been absent for years, presumed dead. His return upends the order of things, including entitlement to his father’s estate. Some plot points are a bit complex, so more useful to watch than read about. (And the lovely Jessie Buckley turns up here too.)

Barry: I’ve mentioned Barry before in writing about hit men. It’s an entertaining take on murder-for-hire.

Casual: It’s been over for a while, and even though it wasn’t perfect, I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the center of the story. Michaela Watkins is fantastic as the co-lead of the sibling duo… and Tommy Dewey, as the other part of the sibling duo, plays a shallow character who begins to evolve as a person. In fact all the characters evolve, and it’s nice to see characters change in subtle ways — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Most shows aim for character change, but the evolution feels too much like a plot path. Here it feels more organic and realistic.

Catastrophe: Imperfect marriage; very flawed people. Often very funny, sometimes heartbreaking. That’s kind of the whole plot.

Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?: One weekend I was out of things to watch that wouldn’t require my attention or thought, so I turned this on. It was interesting to see some of these real-life tales that I’d seen in the news (the wife of the Green River Killer, or Mary Jo Buttafuoco) depicted from the point of view of the unsuspecting partner. Mostly this felt like a lot of naive, gullible, lonely people who were so desperate to be with someone that they did no due diligence to find out if anything about their partner was true. But oddly addictive if you got sucked in.

Underground: This harrowing show only lasted for two seasons, and while it was not perfect, it dealt with a subject matter that America should reckon with frequently and in great depth. Sure, a fictional account of slaves making their way to freedom isn’t going to fix anything, but it too is a form of representation and making sure that parts of history are not just swept away or softened.

City on a Hill: Kevin Bacon as a corrupt FBI agent and Aldis Hodge (who was fantastic in the aforementioned Underground as well as in TURN: Washington’s Spies) as a District Attorney in 1990s Boston. It took me a while to get through this, but I think by the end of the first season I hoped for renewal.

Pose: Failed to include this in the list originally… but quite a show. Even if the show itself weren’t fabulous, the cast and concept are. Nevertheless it’s so watchable and sometimes so sad.

Liar: I’m kind of a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd, so I watched Liar mostly for him — even though he definitely isn’t a good guy. The problem here is that I really do not care for Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey fame) — her voice grates on me, and then this character feels more histrionic than necessary. Sure, she is a victim of sexual assault and later accused of murder. This would make most anyone histrionic. I think it’s a lot of her behaviors — often overly defensive and not doing her any favors — that make her hard to believe and watch. At the same time, if she didn’t behave in these ways, her character, who was being railroaded, would likely have been convicted of murder.

The Valhalla Murders (Brot): It’s Icelandic, and even though it captures (or reminds me of) how small and insular the place is, it made me feel desperately homesick.

Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent): A French comedy-drama about professional entertainment agents. Entertaining, satisfying and lovely to listen to French.

Frayed: An Australian semi-dramatic comedy. A woman, living it up in London, with riches beyond imagination, loses everything when her wealthy husband dies in rather questionable circumstances, and their house-of-cards life falls apart; with nothing, she is forced to go home to Newcastle, Australia. I quite enjoyed its six episodes… I like reflecting on the idea of trying to “go home” again to a place you never felt at home in, especially after you’ve worked hard to erase the person you were. But you cannot completely escape that person. The “Simone” we meet in the beginning in London has been a hard-won, long-con fabrication of an identity, but it’s so hard-wired by the time she returns with her tail between her legs to Australia, that it’s hard to imagine that she will return to the “Sammy” she was growing up (but slowly, almost inevitably, she does).

*Postscript 3*

What We Do in the Shadows: I started watching this because I had read so many times about how great it is. It took a while to get into it because at first it just seemed stupid. But I was won over in the end. Mostly by the vampires’ familiar, Guillermo, but its sly cleverness, pop culture references, and total randomness (Matt Berry‘s Laszlo going into hiding in Pennsylvania and becoming passionate about volleyball, for example) eventually made this addictive.

Fauda: An incredibly violent Israeli show about an undercover Israeli IDF unit. I’ve read reviews that make this sound like it’s two-sided, but it mostly doesn’t offer the most sympathetic viewpoint on Palestinians (apart from the occasional character we’re meant to sympathize with, i.e. someone who gets in over their head or is driven to terrorism or something similar). Mostly we see a completely off-the-handle team lead, Doron, constantly disobeying orders and doing stupid shit that puts his entire team at risk (when they are already doing risky stuff). He reminded me of a discount version of Vic Mackey from The Shield. Completely unreasonable, and worse — despite all the things he did that were insane, the unit kept welcoming him back in for more ill-fated missions. Nevertheless it was action-packed and suspenseful.

When Heroes Fly: Another Israeli show with a ridiculous title. I wouldn’t say I liked this show at all, but I like listening to Hebrew. And Michael Aloni from Shtisel is in this as an entirely different kind of character. The overall plot was a bit off, acting a bit stiff, and a fair few things that don’t fit together, fair enough. The first episode was pretty interesting, but that was its peak other than a facet the show only just began to touch on: the lasting effects of combat PTSD and what happens when you don’t acknowledge or deal with it. That could have been a lot more rewarding to explore.

Kidding: Jim Carrey as a beloved Mr Rogers-like children’s tv host, going through a crisis of sorts after the death of his son. I wanted to like this more than I did, but it felt more depressing than anything else. Not that real life isn’t depressing. There are moments of levity – that can’t be discounted. Interactions between Carrey and Justin Kirk make this worth watching, and I enjoyed Catherine Keener and the Japanese puppeteer guy’s storyline. But as a whole, somehow this did not really come together the way I hoped it would.

*Postscript 4*

I probably watched other things in the interim since updating last, but there were a handful of things I decided to add/mention.

Patriot Act: I’ve been watching this since its start, and it’s fantastic. I’m disappointed in Netflix for cancelling it at all, let alone during fraught times like this. Hasan Minhaj has been a comedic voice of reason, and it will be sorely missed.

Immigration Nation: I knew the US immigration system was completely fucked up, but this illustrated just how badly. This was a horror show.

Good Girls: I don’t know why I find this show about three women who get deeper into criminal activities as compelling as I do, but the combination of Mae Whitman, Retta and Christina Hendricks just seems to work. Oddly I watched season 1 a long  time ago, enjoyed it and mistakenly thought I’d seen season 2. Imagine my surprise, then, when I had seasons 2 and 3 to watch to catch up.

Øljefondet (Oil Fund): A rather silly Norwegian comedy about the Norwegian Pension Fund and the American-style, ethics-free head of investments and how he’s bought back down to earth when the agency brings an ethics officer on board. It’s entertaining and always fun to see places you recognize on film.

The Bureau (Le Bureau des Légendes): A French political/spy thriller, which I will admit that I’ve only begun to watch right now. I am not sure if I will continue but wanted to highlight an Amazon Prime problem/bait-and-switch kind of issue. Scrolling through Amazon, I saw The Bureau available but through some subsidiary subscription service (meaning I’d have to shell out extra to watch), but then I kept scrolling, and the same content was available for free as part of the regular Amazon Prime subscription (albeit for a limited time). I’ve come across this more than once where content is duplicated — and if you find it in one part of Amazon, it’s free, but if you happen to find it elsewhere first, it’s part of a subscription package. Ugh.

Srugim: Another Israeli show… looks like it was kind of done on the cheap (some repeated stock footage used in nearly every episode), but an interesting look at a group of young, religious friends (Religious Zionists) who obey the Sabbath solemnly and, at times, struggle with the different levels of observance among their friend group and outside of it as well as their own beliefs. It brings up a lot of interesting and controversial issues, and I’m always game to learn more Hebrew.

said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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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.

The Netflix foreign language queue

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For the first time in forever – in the entire history of my Netflix subscription (which dates back to the DVD-by-mail-only subscription of the pre-streaming days) – my queue is under 50 objects. It’s astounding to have whittled down the list by so much (two-thirds).

The problem now is that the only remaining items are mostly films in languages I don’t understand at all (Romanian, for example, such as the one I’m watching now – Tuesday, After Christmas) or languages I understand to varying degrees but still need to glance at subtitles now and again (the Spanish language, French language, etc.). Either way, almost none of what remains in the queue is mindless enough that I can just multitask the way I normally do with half-brain-dead English-language fare, such as the seven mind-numbing seasons of Gilmore Girls or the next hurdle, The West Wing, of which I had previously seen quite a lot but not all. Upon second viewing, I’m finding it annoying. It’s great that there are loads of interesting things to see, but they will require my near-full attention, and I am just not sure I am ready to commit (as is the case in so many aspects of my life).

Jumping screens: Gilmore Girls and Southcliffe

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In no logical world would any person put the gratingly annoying but occasionally clever Gilmore Girls into the same sentence as the raw, four-part UK drama, Southcliffe. But after I force fed myself seven seasons (excruciating 22-episode seasons!) of Gilmore, I had to watch something else – something with more depth. I turned to Southcliffe, and impressive though its performances are (a whole host of good actors, such as Shirley Henderson; Rory Kinnear of Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror; Eddie Marsan of loads of good stuff, although lately he’s been in the constantly improving Ray Donovan; Anatol Yusef, who was great as Meyer Lansky in the late, great Boardwalk Empire…) its central story (told in non-linear fashion) is too dark and too close to the reality of our world, filled as it is with random gun massacres.

I’ll never be able to explain what propelled me forward with the Gilmore viewing. It was one of those “I started and can’t stop til I finish” things. I can think of no other word than “grating” to describe it. The fast-moving conversational virtues and onslaught of often rare cultural references aside, dialogue was stilted, people’s reactions over the top, behaviors usually aspirational rather than what would happen in reality and… well, it’s just annoying. A full “town” of weirdos (they were supposed to be, I guess)… but if you lived in a town as sleepy yet quirky as Stars Hollow, would you be as close knit as this? Sally Struthers and her grating, horrifying voice – that alone is enough to smash your TV! And that is just for starters. Right? Lauren Graham is someone I’ve really tried to like, but after forcing myself to watch this and Parenthood, I’m pained to say that she still annoys me. And as Rory, Alexis Bledel comes in a close second. And Melissa McCarthy… I’ve never seen the appeal because I don’t find her funny or entertaining in anything she has done, and Gilmore was no exception. My favorite part was seeing weird stuff like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach show up as a guitarist who wants to join a little high school band in the show. Or seeing a young Rami Malek, surprise star of surprise summer hit, Mr Robot, in one episode. In fact, when you go back and watch virtually any tv show from years past, especially ones that lasted as long as Gilmore did, you will be surprised by familiar faces.

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks lately, and I have focused on work and sucking these shows up obsessively. I started looking at real estate and found a place I want to buy because I feel like having a fresh start with a fresh view. But in the absence of being able to swing that, I go on… just finishing up the final episode of Southcliffe now.