Lunchtable TV Talk – The Best at Year End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Code – You are only coming through in waves

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Watching TV and films is often like riding a wave. One show or film appears, and you are carried along to the next, even if by seemingly random choice, and somehow there are always connections. Many connections between the shows, many connections to other things I have watched, whether its the appearance of various actors popping up or thematic links.

The other night in sleeplessness, I stumbled on the six-part Australian TV show The Code… I’m hit immediately by recognizable visual cues. First, the appearance of Aden Young. This is the only other place I have seen Aden Young, apart from his leading role in the underwatched Rectify. I have often wondered how he acts in other things. As the startlingly weird Daniel Holden, it is hard to imagine him in any other way. I keep expecting his actual Australian accent to come out slower and more southern, like Holden’s unmistakably deliberate drawl.

Next, I stared and stared at the actor who plays the mentally unstable hacker brother, certain that I know him from somewhere. He very vaguely reminded me of the dude who was George in Grey’s Anatomy but I KNEW it was not him. But then it hit me – Manhattan! Yes, Manhattan, which will be back soon for its second season (which ties in like a gentle wave with my recent viewing of the Norwegian production, Kampen om tungtvannet, or The Saboteurs – both deal with the race toward building a nuclear bomb).

Figures that I would accidentally select something Australian immediately after seeing the Australian film Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska. It made me think of things I had not considered in years, such as reading one of Bruce Chatwin’s final books, The Songlines, during university. Without knowing of his appearance beforehand, there in the Australian Outback as an American National Geographic photographer is Adam Driver, from Girls.

And just the night before, I had seen Driver in While We’re Young, which is the latest output from Noah Baumbach. Fine-tuned Baumbach is great. Some of his stuff can be pretentious – not bad, per se, but makes you wonder what for. Nothing quite so true in that department than his widely praised The Squid and The Whale, which I had not thought of in years. I liked it but it’s definitely a “type” of movie. But I mention it now more because of this continuing wave of connection. The film was mentioned in Thursday’s episode of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, when Denis Leary’s character confuses the story of Jonah and the whale with The Squid and The Whale, which is exactly the kind of thing he’d take the piss out of (and does).

In many ways, The Code was a microcosm of the point I am trying to make – lots of disconnected threads eventually cross. The story in The Code is actually three separate threads of the same story. They cross but do not quite interweave until all the threads come together. This is a lot like what television (and film) are like – a small world full of people who inhabit many imaginary worlds. We the viewers piece them all together each time.

Peter Stormare

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I wrote about the Scandinavian man invasion on TV. But no one is as ubiquitous these days as Peter Stormare. I had written about his presence in The Blacklist, but in the time since, he has turned up as a lunatic or criminal or some potent combination thereof in Manhattan and Longmire. I just read that he has also been added to the cast of Arrow (one of the few contemporary shows I don’t actually watch – I swear – you’d be shocked to learn the breadth and depth of crap I half-watch).