Lunchtable TV Talk: Places and Things – Ray Donovan & Suits

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On the surface, and in pretty much all ways, Ray Donovan and Suits are two shows that have absolutely nothing in common. Except in my mind. I find that both suffer from devices – places and things – that distract the viewer. Every single thing seems plotted in an artificial way – or at least it feels artificial.

In Ray Donovan, particularly in season one and to some extent in season two (maybe understandable as the writers and characters find their footing), I felt like the entire show was a series of mobile phone calls between the wide character list. Sure, some action took place, but the phone calls were constant – either setting the action into motion, stopping some action before it happened or adding information that would have been unavailable (in reality or as a storytelling device) in the grand old pre-mobile-phone era. I wondered while watching what they would have done with a story like this minus the phones. Could Ray Donovan even have done his job without mobiles? (And in some cases, would his job – the way he does it – even be needed?) What did films and TV shows do before cell phones saved the day or could act as a device to up the suspense (i.e., girl goes home with murderer; her sleuth-like friend figures it out and tries to call her, but the phone is downstairs, and she’s already upstairs tied to the bed about to be slaughtered; camera pans to phone ringing away on the kitchen counter)?

The show might have been better titled “Cell” or something (a double meaning: endless mobile phone use coupled with jail time and/or threat of jail) because every scene involved some phone call that was sending Ray rushing off to another crisis or phoning one of his… can we call them henchmen? and sending them off to do his bidding or keeping someone out of a jail cell. This has not changed that much – it is still prominent, but it has lessened to the degree that I don’t find that it has washed away my enjoyment of the show. (After all, in this season, I got to see Ray sing Bob Seger karaoke with a former nemesis. This did not involve a phone.)

I have grown to appreciate Ray Donovan, even when story lines languish and things that feel promising (last season’s arc with Ian McShane – under- and misused) don’t go anywhere satisfying, there is still enough here to bring me back, season after season. In fact, it keeps improving.

What is not improving and has stretched its premise thin is USA Network’s Suits. Yeah, I am still watching, yeah, it still draws me (and apparently a lot of others, as it has been renewed for season 7) and yeah, we do see more places than the well-trodden hallway between Harvey Specter and Louis Litt’s offices, but not much. We get glimpses of New York, of the principal characters’ apartments, a few shots of courtrooms, and this season a glance inside prison. But for the most part, this show is all Specter, Litt or Jessica Pearson (and occasionally Donna, Rachel and Mike) charging down this main hallway between each other’s offices to give the other crucial news, a verbal lashing or some-other-who-knows-what. But this back and forth is starting to feel tired (along with the sap and nonsense of the Mike and Rachel story, which is really starting to, as someone jokingly said to me, miscombining two phrases, “burn my goat”.

What to do about over-reliance on the same things?

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.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

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On the surface, I don’t think Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll would appeal much to me. But then, when have I limited my TV viewing to things that appeal to me?

The show is ostensibly about trying to keep the washed-up drug addict former lead singer of a band called The Heathens (Denis Leary) off drugs long enough to write a few new songs. It turns out he has a daughter he never knew about, and she turns up with money and the intention of putting the band back together – with her as the lead singer. Leary created the show, and more than anything, it showcases his fast-paced, smart-ass, sharp humor better than anything I’ve seen him do lately.

Leary as Johnny Rock: “Bowie had this haircut in 1973, this is an iconic look.”

John Corbett, as Flash, one of Johnny Rock’s old bandmates: “Bowie’s been drug-free since 78.”

Johnny: “Talent-free, too, bro. Let’s dance… let’s not, David….”

Johnny: “Name one great band or rock star that doesn’t get high.”

Rehab, former bandmate: “Coldplay.*”

Johnny’s daughter, Gigi: “Morrissey.”

Bam Bam, another former bandmate: “Radiohead.”

Johnny: “I rest my case. Every time I hear a Radiohead song, I feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again.”

This coupled with a few zingers about Pat Benatar and her husband, Mr. Pat Benatar had me chuckling through the first two episodes. Sadly that’s all that’s been broadcast so far.

Of note, the band manager, Ira, is the actor Josh Pais… who is one of those unafraid to be non-descript guys who shows up everywhere. He is the quietest, pent up and most unassuming dentist in the indie film Touchy Feely but then is this angry, volatile, perv, Stu Feldman, in Ray Donovan. I love actors who blend in but deliver wildly and widely varied performances, and Pais is great at this even if he is upstaged here by Denis Leary and John Corbett. He may always be upstaged because he blends in well and does exactly what his character is there to do.

Overall, it may be that you have to have a soft spot for Denis Leary to like this in the first place, but I suppose I qualify even if I have no fondness for the kind of selfish, ne’er-do-well character he represents.

*I would argue that Coldplay is NOT a great band, whatever their reach and popularity. Agree there with Leary’s resting the case.

Why I Changed My Mind: Paula Malcomson

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I won’t say that I ever disliked Paula Malcomson’s work, per se. She suddenly turned up all over the place, wielding different accents and playing roles representing different social strata across several time periods. I cannot go so far as to say that she is chameleonic – she does not completely disappear into all her roles (notably, her role as Abby Donovan in the recent Ray Donovan, is a bit too over-the-top with the put-upon Boston accent that it stretches believability). That said, she almost disappears into all her roles and imbues each role, even the villainous and suspicious ones, with a vulnerability and humanity that is unusual.

Why I thought of her suddenly, I am not sure. I suppose it’s because I was talking to someone about Battlestar Galactica – laying on thick praise – but cautioning them against its prequel, Caprica, in which Paula Malcomson plays a pivotal role. It is not that her portrayal of Amanda Graystone was anything less than great – she fully embodied and embraced the role and gave it the complexity it needed. It is more that the show never came together. The cast was never the problem.

I guess then that I did not change my mind about Malcomson so much as I decided to afford her work a more serious look. It would almost be easy to overlook her presence because she does slide into all kinds of different roles with such apparent ease. She would be easy to ignore – except that when you are really watching her, you can’t ignore her. In particular, her very human and heartbreaking role as Trixie in the late, great HBO series Deadwood was riveting. But in a show packed with a great cast and often overshadowed by the show’s main character – excessive profanity – it was easy to watch Malcomson be absorbed by Trixie, transfixed, but easily move on to the next thing, the next  Al Swearengen tirade for example.

Malcomson may not stick around on some shows for long but her roles – and what she brings to them – create repercussions in the twists and turns of a story. A case in point – Sons of Anarchy, in which her character, Maureen Ashby, delivered information that infused the story with new life. Her portrayal of Ashby was not only sympathetic but helped to shed light on a character whose specter has hung over the show’s entire run – John Teller – a character who has never actually existed on-screen (alive) in the show but whose history, legacy and legend informed the story and motivations of the characters (particularly John Teller’s widow, son and former best friend). Malcomson was able to subtly bring John Teller – and another aspect of his personality and aims – to life.

Considered, reconsidered – for now, we can enjoy Malcomson’s presence in Ray Donovan – hoping she tones it down just a little bit, becomes slightly less shrill (although she does have her searing moments) – and her return to the Hunger Games film series to reprise her role as Katniss Everdeen’s mother.

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.