Lunchtable TV Talk: Hell on Wheels

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I remember seeing TV ads for Hell on Wheels when it was first being introduced on AMC many years ago. I must have been in the US on holiday, and nothing about the show appealed to me except maybe the presence of Colm Meaney (I’m a Trekker, right? No one can resist Chief O’Brien!). That was not enough to induce watching. It was a couple of years later that I picked it up, more in boredom/lack of things to watch than anything else. I was not immediately captivated, but I did immediately think that Hell on Wheels was not quite like anything we had seen before.

Ostensibly about the competition around and westward expansion of the railroads in post-Civil War America, the story, without delving too deeply into any of the details, hinted at stories of war and post-war, the end of slavery, immigration (and the haves/haves-not among immigrants, including the Chinese who came to work on the railroads), manifest destiny, religious persecution, Native Americans (both from the perspective of racist white men and those who had lived among them and understood the nuance and difference among their cultures and tribes), and so much more. I found myself most deeply engaged in the show because it did touch on so many things, overlaying a light dusting of sensitivity and thought provocation to what was nevertheless a sort of… adventure tale of one man running away from his past and his grief (with every mile of track he built, the further he got from the past) and all the mistakes he made on that run.

It didn’t moralize or dig deeply into the issues it touched upon, which was probably more a strength than a weakness. However, touching on all the things it did, many people found it unsatisfying because it could seem at times to lack focus. Be that as it may, the loose storytelling and casual mention of the wide range of things one would encounter on the western frontier, for me at least, evoked the sense of boundlessness – both opportunity and danger – that seemed to fire the imagination of most people who moved west.

Populating that vast landscape, a set of vibrant and diverse characters, memorable in their imperfection, roamed and also seemed to run from checkered or unhappy pasts. The aforementioned Meaney as villain Thomas Durant; the lead, Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a Civil War veteran and former slave owner who initially sets out to seek revenge on Union soldiers who had killed his wife, but as he struggles and suffers, eventually makes new mistakes and also manages to let go of the past and his anger; the troubled whore-turned-madam, Eva, with her Indian facial markings and lost love with former slave (and one-time series regular, Elam Ferguson (Common))… and no one more entertaining, horrifying or even tragic than “The Swede”, Thor Gundersen (the incomparable Christopher Heyerdahl).

It seems strange to say that a show I never even wanted to watch is something I will most miss, even if I am absolutely sure that the show is ending at the right time and on a high note.

Weekend movie viewing: Miele and Drei

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While I did indulge in my normal TV viewing during the weekend (Danish show Dicte, all of season two of BoJack Horseman and this week’s episodes of Hell on Wheels and Rectify – how is Rectify only six episodes this season?!), I also watched a few films.

I have always loved films, particularly non-English-language films – the more obscure or difficult the better. I like getting lost in them, examining them, comparing what the characters say to what the subtitles say (when I can). That said, I don’t watch films very often now because I have too many other things to do. TV can be consumed in bite-sized morsels and is usually in English so I do not have to pay attention to subtitles (and even if it is not in English, it is episodic, so it can be turned on and off). Films demand more – more attention, more care, more time (not in the long run but upfront they do). I want to indulge but long gone are the days of watching five films per day, as I did once during a period of unemployment – it was cinema visits constantly coupled with the long-ago “innovation” of unlimited DVDs on Netflix. Yes, DVDs! This was way before streaming.

This weekend I watched Miele, an Italian film about a woman who seems dispassionately compassionate. She helps the terminally ill to die, providing veterinary drugs to help the dying take their own lives on their own terms. Her “moral code” is shaken, though, when she meets an older man who wants to die but claims he is not sick. It is through her connection to him that she seems to renew her connection to being human and feeling emotional. She seemed, through her work, to become more clinical and further and further removed from her feelings. She had things set up to keep people at bay. A married family-man boyfriend, work that requires certain boundaries for legal reasons, etc. It was a subtle film, and without being an outright debate about the morality of assisted suicide, it handled the topic with sensitivity. It presented some arguments and thinking about the subject without beating anyone over the head with it. And ended in similarly ambiguous fashion.

Then I watched a German film, Drei. It is a Tom Tykwer film, so it was very unusual in his unique way. But in many ways difficult to watch. For one, many scenes were like a collage of many different, overlapping activities that meant to convey the passage of time and activity. Like cheesy montage scenes without being cheesy. Secondly, the female lead in the film, Austrian actress Sophie Rois, is… well, not a good actress. I am sure other people may disagree, but she got so many downright weird looks on her face, none of which seemed to fit to the situation or reaction she was having – and that is when she was not just overacting. Oddly, in scenes near the end when her character had moved temporarily to London, her strong accent when speaking English coupled with this over-the-top, loud, obnoxious way of being, made it seem as though she had been plucked from the street and asked to act. She was that bad. Not just amateur or new – just bad.

The story, though, was interesting. As the two main characters reach the 20-year point in their relationship and find themselves questioning, dissatisfied and bored, but are not really talking to each other about it, they each start having an affair. The side effect, though, is that the affair reignites their passion and feeling for one another as well. Until the woman, after many years of not succeeding, becomes pregnant. At this point both she and her husband learn that they are each, separately, having an affair with the same man.

While there are many other things going on in the plot, many of which motivate these characters’ actions, it interests me that the couple realizes in the end that they want to be together but also want to be together, not separately, with the man with whom they both had an affair. I enjoy how the outcome challenges head-on what would happen in most films. (While it seems unlikely that a married couple in a big city like Berlin would somehow separately meet the same guy in very different ways and have an affair with him, I can suspend my disbelief for the sake of asking the bigger questions about relationships, fidelity, “sharing” and what really constitutes a relationship or happiness.)

The film embodies many opposites from the very standard way in which most TV and films deal with infidelity. A case in point: I watched the Danish TV show, Dicte, in which one of Dicte’s best friends has been struggling to have a baby and has had years of infertility treatments and finally gets pregnant. I think most people can guess, if they have not been through this ordeal, that the struggles to have a baby can take a real toll on a relationship. Naturally, you discover in the story that Dicte’s friend, Ida-Marie, has been so focused on her pregnancy and everything leading up to it that her husband has already gone off to have an affair. Dicte discovers the evidence when she goes to Ida-Marie’s house to pick up some clothes after Ida-Marie gives birth (and the husband is absent, missing the entire birth. He claims he was away on business in Germany. When the child is kidnapped from the hospital, of course the police get involved and discover that he was in Copenhagen with his mistress the entire time). By this stage, because it is TV, the marriage is basically over, even though Ida-Marie gives it another chance. Essentially all these people’s marriages end over infidelity. But on TV and most films it feels lazy not to at least try to work through the issues to get to their root, even if the couples involved cannot solve them (they sure as hell will not react as the characters in Drei, who decided to all be together).

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.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

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More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.

Scandinavian Man Invasion on TV

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Anyone as obsessed with TV as I am knows that Nordic TV shows have asserted a kind of quality and dominance that has garnered well-deserved praise and attention (and the inevitable English-language – and other – remakes, as with The Killing mirroring the Danish Forbrydelsen and the Swedish/Danish production Bron spawning American/Mexican offshoot, The Bridge, and UK/French offshoot, The Tunnel).

Amidst the sea of fantastic Scandinavian television show choices, one cannot overlook the strength and ubiquity of the Scandinavian actors on English-language TV shows. TV has been taken over by Scandinavian men… I will undoubtedly forget some of them (yes there are that many!) but the most notable that spring to mind right now include some pretty startling, arresting performances:

Mads Mikkelsen (Denmark) in Hannibal

Ulrich Thomsen (Denmark) in Banshee

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Denmark) in Game of Thrones

Joel Kinnaman (Sweden/USA) in The Killing

Alexander Skarsgård (Sweden) in True Blood

Bill Skarsgård (Sweden) in Hemlock Grove

Peter Stormare (Sweden) in The Blacklist

Of note, Stormare is also starring in a series of Volvo Trucks ads (not unlike Jean-Claude Van Damme!) that champions Swedish values – see below. Stormare rules – cannot help but think of him again frequently now that there is a TV version of Fargo. He was a highlight in the film version.

Better safe than sorry!

Look at him “fika” all by himself!

Might not want to try “allemansrätten” wherever you come from (especially the USA where “stand your ground” might take precedence)

Nowhere in the world will you see as many dads with prams!

Substantial Swedish food!

Lagom! The Swedish Goldilocks complex!

Darri Ingólfsson (Iceland) in Dexter

Christopher Heyerdahl (Canada) in Hell on Wheels (honorable mention since he is not really a Norwegian but beautifully plays a Norwegian who shifts like a chameleon into different identities as it suits him but is known in the beginning as “The Swede”)

Updated

Gustaf Skarsgård (Sweden) – Vikings (Yes, there are a lot of those Skarsgårds!)

Kristofer Hivju (Norway) – Game of Thrones (Finally – a real Norwegian to add to the list!)

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

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According to HuffPost the best line uttered on tv in 2013 was, “Not great, Bob!”

““Not great, Bob!” It was only three words, spoken by an angry Pete Campbell as he joined the ever-sunny Bob Benson in an elevator on Mad Men.””

As someone who loves any line that involves “Bob” (e.g. “I used to have a pretty good pen, Bob.” Or “Scarves, Bob? His life will be filled with scarves?”), I agree. Especially because I am, like most, a Mad Men fan – and possibly an even bigger fan of the work James Wolk has done on Mad Men, the entertaining and mostly underrated Political Animals and The Crazy Ones – he and Hamish Linklater are the best parts of that show.

I get roped into a lot of television shows – not just because television is improving and offers a depth and breadth that seemed unimaginable a decade ago. I live in the middle of the Swedish woods and am a workaholic multitasker. I need some noise going on in the background all the time, and when it’s not music, it’s television shows. Mostly I carefully select the shows to which I become devoted – but in the interim, I watch a lot of stuff halfheartedly (like the aforementioned The Crazy Ones, which is not very good and only offers a funny line now and then or –puke, puke – guest appearances from – PUKE – Josh Groban. I watch, I judge, I keep watching sometimes even when a show sucks or even after it loses the plot (example, Revenge) or becomes passé (case in point – Grey’s Anatomy). Some stuff is middling all the time – entertaining but nothing extraordinary (Elementary, Grimm, Revolution – stuff that does not require careful attention, enabling my half-watching notice, mostly things I will refer to as “network stuff”. As much as the major networks are trying to be edgy, they are still just middle-ground followers. Half-baked ideas relying on shock value, soapy dramatics, riding the coattails of the deserved success of edgier, deeper, different storytelling from free and premium cable channels. (Not that all non-network tries are successful. The US version of The Killing started off with promise, dragged its feet with sloppy storytelling and carried its first-season mystery into season two without resolution – never a good idea, right David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Who killed Laura Palmer? People extended the show goodwill enough to give it a third season, which was arguably much better than the second season, but it was really too late.)

Speaking of killing, I also caught a brief article on TV characters who should be killed off. I found that I agreed with the majority. The article also brought up some other random thoughts – because that is what a multitasker does – lots of different things at once, with disconnected thoughts shooting through the brain at lightning speed. Sometimes I capture them – sometimes not (but they were not likely worth capturing).

I only recently started watching Scandal – rapidly caught up on the previous seasons over holiday break. I dislike Quinn – never had a liking for her, but it has gotten worse. I agree that she can go anytime. I have trouble with Tony Goldwyn in general – he is a good actor but for me, he is Carl the bad guy from Ghost (a film I hated). I cannot do anything except make fun of Ghost. Everything about it was so cheesy, and the villains (Willie Lopez!? Carl!). I also remember ghosts of TV’s past when Tony Goldwyn was a guest star on Designing Women, asking the women to design his funeral. He played a gay man who was going to die from AIDS, and the episode ended with his funeral. Designing Women was a preachy show and brought up a lot of issues of the day (mid/late 80s issues). Not that AIDS is not an issue today – but the issue and the illness – or approach to the illness – have changed, maybe in part because of mainstream treatment of the disease?

Which then led me to think about the show Life Goes On (not least because one of its principal actors, Patti LuPone, is now in the ensemble cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Not a favorite in the US although it went on for seasons and seasons. It was probably the first show that put a family front and center that included a member with Down Syndrome and prominently featured that character in the storylines. While that was probably groundbreaking at the time, the show also gave one of its main characters an HIV-positive teenage boyfriend (played by Chad Lowe – probably one of the only things I remember him doing since his career has been overshadowed by his brother Rob and his ex-wife, Hilary Swank – who would have imagined that when she was in one of the many Karate Kid sequels?). I thought about how this character introduction was also its own kind of groundbreaking. While Life Goes On was never actually what I could call “entertaining”, it somehow tackled big issues without being over the top or preachy. It’s no wonder it was not popular (I am told that it was popular in Iceland for some reason – so everyone remembers “Corky” – I suspect if I were to ask a representative sample of Americans if they remember Corky or Becca Thatcher, they would not).

Where is this line in television between entertainment and education? At times Designing Women just felt like a mouthpiece for the creator’s political views and feminist diatribes. Life Goes On, without being too heavy handed or dramatic, still felt a bit too real, making it too depressing to be a gripping drama. Meanwhile, something like The Wire can do both – “edutainment”. But, it is also true that The Wire was not exactly popular during its first run. It has more of the slow-burn quality that comes from being able to buy whole seasons of tv on DVD or online for streaming/download. Some things just don’t catch on until well after the fact. Some fall into obscurity (Homefront, anyone?) while others live on and gather a loyal, vocal following (Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights – note that I cite TWO Kyle Chandler classics!). Thanks to the push for original programming from unorthodox sources (Netflix), we got another season of Arrested Development after years of waiting. Was it worth it? Hard to say – need to watch it more than once to assess. That was the beauty of Arrested Development all along – you almost had to watch it more than once to catch everything. The show was laced with multilayered jokes and references, and without a pretty well-stocked brain bar, getting the perfectly hilarious mixed cocktail it intended could be challenging. It was funny on its surface in many cases but even funnier if you could unpack all the layers. (The Simpsons is a lot like that, too – albeit more so in its earlier years.)

But then so much of pop culture – any culture or discipline – relies on shared references.

For example, everyone needs to see the 1980s classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I do not know how many times I have referenced it lately and heard it referenced. There was a con mentioned in the show White Collar called “The Phoebe Cates” (referring to the most memorable scene in the film). There was a reference in The Crazy Ones to the scene-stealing Jeff Spicoli (played by then-unknown Sean Penn). Most good pop culture – even the not so good – plays on these references and adds a richness

For the sake of posterity and trying to remember how, when, where and on what I flushed so much time down the toilet, I’m listing as much as I can remember of television I recently ingested and random thoughts on some of them. There are way too many other shows I have not listed (like Mad Men, actually – because they are not on now or soon).

Nashville – Not great, not terrible. I like Connie Britton (thanks to her work in Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and early Spin City) – not sure I buy this show but I actually like a lot of the music in the show.

The Crazy Ones – This show is all right but I don’t go out of my way to see it. James Wolk and Hamish Linklater make the show for me (really enjoyed both of their work in other things as well). Robin Williams is too over the top as usual and Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I keep trying to like, is just not for me. I do love Brad Garrett in his role, though. The episodes seemed to get better when he arrived.

The Good Wife – New life breathed into this (not that it needed it) when main character goes off to form her own law firm.

Justified – can’t wait for the new season, coming up soon. I love everything about this show and all its characters. Agree with the writer of article cited above – do not want ANY of these characters to die.

Once Upon a Time – I admit that I have skipped the whole current season of this show. I gave up.

Californication – Thank god we are heading into the final season of this show that should have died ages ago. Sick of this story being rehashed of some loser middle-aged dude who manages to pull his head out of his ass long enough to do something artistically rewarding only to fuck up his personal life and screw over all the people in his fucked life again and again. It’s only funny or forgivable for so long…

House of Lies – Pretty entertaining because it plays on all the stereotypical business clichés and management consultant language. Don Cheadle plays a great asshole.

House of Cards – Entertaining remake of the UK version, proof that creativity can be launched from all kinds of wombs (Netflix original programming)

Episodes – Looking forward to new season. Have been surprised by how crass but simultaneously funny this show is.

Lilyhammer – Funny but also like being hit over the head with stereotypes. But then no one outside of Norway knows anything about Norway – but this might be the sort of thing they imagine. UDI (immigration directorate) might take offense to its treatment, but I’ve never heard a happy story coming out of there.

Shameless – Looking forward to the new season

Grey’s Anatomy – End already. It’s getting petty (or pettier) and duller by the minute

Revenge – It was always soapy but now it’s just ridiculous and has lost any edge it had. Best part is the ease with which character Nolan Ross switches between male and female love interests and it’s just no big deal to anyone. Perfect.

Parks and Recreation – Losing its comedic edge unfortunately.

Community – interested in seeing how this is rebooted now that its controversial creator is back at the helm. Fingers crossed after dismal previous season.

Scandal – Outlandish but a guilty pleasure.

Hawaii Five-0 – another guilty pleasure. I like the chemistry among the cast. Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan together are pretty funny. I like some of the cheeky jokes, for example about Magnum PI – long ago and faraway Hawaii-based TV

Elementary – Big Jonny Lee Miller fan, like how Aidan Quinn is pretty much always a New York police captain in every show now, and Lucy Liu has grown on me in almost all the roles she has done since annoying Ally McBeal BS.

Downton Abbey – I could fully see where the popularity came from in the beginning but it is grating my nerves now

How I Met Your Mother – So glad this is coming to an end. It used to be quite funny at times but this last season feels like a stretch.

White Collar – Time filler. Sometimes quite entertaining. I like the characters but it’s a fairly straightforward show.

Veep – Caught up on this a few months ago and loved it. Laughed a lot at the awkwardness.

The Walking Dead – When it comes back, I wonder where the gang will go. I have always been happy that the show was not afraid to kill people off as they went – that’s realistic.

American Horror Story – Enjoying. I love the big ensemble cast and like that each season brings back the same people in different roles. I never used to like Jessica Lange but this has put a few points in her column. Angela Bassett is, for lack of a better word, amazing. She always is.

Treme – An abbreviated final season. Interested in seeing how it all turns out, even though things never quite “turn out” – I don’t expect finality.

Girls – Clever at first. Eventually just annoying as all fuck. The article above wants Marnie to die. I would not mind if they all did.

Top of the LakeJane Campion is a complicated filmmaker, and she is no different when introducing her storytelling to the small screen. Visually arresting backdrop to a complicated and ugly story, Elisabeth Moss takes center stage as a New Zealander/detective who goes home for the first time in years, dredging up some of the horrors of her own past. Excellent viewing.

Luther – The story is often really outlandish and unbelievable but we can’t help loving Idris Elba, can we? Or the troubled John Luther that he portrays.

Game of Thrones – I resisted. I tried to watch once but did not get far. I tried again and got sucked in this time. Much better. I am a Peter Dinklage fan anyway but came to appreciate the whole thing (even if I still acknowledge that he’s the best thing about the show)

Bron – Swedish/Danish original of the police show – great characters.

The Bridge – US version of Swedish/Danish police show. It took a while to accept Diane Kruger and her character, but I loved Demian Bichir’s character immediately. Also appreciated Ted Levine as the lieutenant – as I loved him in Monk – and Thomas M. Wright as Steven Linder – he also figured prominently into Top of the Lake.

Orange is the New Black – Binge watched. Mostly really enjoyed this – of course it’s not perfect but it was different from most of what else is out there. More accolades for Netflix taking a chance on its own programming.

Longmire – Just renewed for a third season. Can you argue with a show that has Lou Diamond Phillips in it? No.

Ray Donovan – Not sure about this show still. I like most of the characters, but all I can think of when I watch this is that the whole plot development is advanced almost entirely by people making phone calls on their mobiles – way too much time on the phone for everyone involved. Character development suffers a bit…

Homeland – Ok, this show went off the rails many times. I still enjoy it, largely because I have enjoyed the performances of Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham (he will always be Salieri to me). But let’s hope that the next season takes a new direction in light of some of what transpired in the end of the latest season.

Masters of Sex – One of the best things to come along in the last round of shows. Excellent and likeable cast, a sensitive subject handled with sensitivity and a deft hand. Beautifully done. A lot of accolades have gone to star Lizzy Caplan (well-deserved), but other cast members, including virtually unrecognizable Julianne Nicholson and, as the repressed housewife discovering sexual secrets about her husband, the always great Allison Janney.

The Newsroom – My opinion is tipping toward dislike. The background music playing in many scenes tells too much of the story – soaring music that somehow betrays that Jeff Daniels’s character is going to do something liberal and benevolent that no one expects. Too much of the annoying Maggie (played by Alison Pill) and a whole stupid storyline there. I know this is Aaron Sorkin and his famous fast-talking, wordy spiels for all the characters, but I don’t buy the characters here. Mac (Emily Mortimer) is especially out there – someone is unlikely to ascend to her position if this insecure and flighty. Best characters – Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Hamish Linklater (a few episodes in the most recent season). They kept the thing grounded.

True Blood – End already? The recent season was a bit more entertaining than the previous two but I could do without this one.

Boardwalk Empire – One of my all-time favorites. I don’t actually know many people who like it, but I love it. I think it becomes more engrossing each season and love the actors they bring in. Somehow the vast ensemble does not get muddled – each character is distinct, even if it does mean that one needs to pay close attention to every moment of the show. Definitely a show not afraid to kill off important characters and fan favorites, which is sad but perhaps necessary to keep it going at the same level. (Actresses I have never liked, such as Patricia Arquette and Julianne Nicholson, turn in fabulous performances here.)

Sons of Anarchy – Also look forward to this ending. It has just become ridiculous. More ridiculous than it already was.

Revolution – Time filler-killer

Grimm – Time filler – like that it is set in Portland, though, so we get references to Portland’s weirdness and Voodoo Doughnut.

Hell on Wheels – I watch this almost entirely to see the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl as “The Swede”. That alone is worth the time.