Lunchtable TV Talk: Rizzoli and Isles

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In a transitional week – in many ways – during which I attempted to “decompress”, I decided to binge watch the TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Why this show? Perhaps because I had never seen any of it; perhaps because it would not require much attention (would allow for the thoughtless decompression I desperately needed); perhaps because there are seven near-mind-numbing seasons with which to anesthetize my brain. It could also be other, more random things like remembering with some sadness the mid-show suicide of one of its leads, Lee Thompson Young; the entertainment value of the older detective character, Vince (Bruce McGill), mostly because I have a weird obsession with the movie My Cousin Vinny, and I could play a “Hi Bob!”Bob Newhart Show-esque drinking game, downing a drink every time McGill utters one of the words or statements that were made so distinctive by his rendering of them in Vinny. (Seriously, after McGill got to repeatedly utter the phrase “Sac o’ Suds” in Vinny, I never imagined being able to hear him say “suds” again – but he did, in an R and I episode about a murder in a car wash). Really I could cite a whole list of reasons why I chose this show over anything else. But none of it much matters.

As I write this, I am heading into watching the final season, which just ended its cable run after seven series. I can’t really write a “comprehensive review” (do I ever?) but here are some of the things that struck me:

  • Lead Angie Harmon: I like her character, Detective Jane Rizzoli, and want to like her, as an actress, but it’s hard to reconcile with the Bush-supporting, religious nut conservative she seems to be in her real life. The interplay she has with her socially awkward best friend, Dr Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), helps with the objectivity.
  • I like that most of the time, when the characters are not okay and are struggling with something, they say so. When someone says, “Hey, are you okay?” most of the characters feel comfortable enough to say, “No, I’m not.” I notice this because in most shows, every character is either unhinged and obviously not at all okay or is portrayed as being tightly wound and bearing a stiff upper lip (never being able to admit to some vulnerability). Particularly in these kinds of procedurals. This made Rizzoli and Isles feel more human and real.
  • I felt that Lorraine Bracco’s presence as Rizzoli’s mother, particularly in the first season or two, was completely wasted, annoying and out of place. The character’s development has helped.
  • I felt genuinely sad when, in season 4/5, the real-life suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young, was handled on the show (as an accidental death). I remembered seeing him play a role in the ill-fated and stupid show FlashForward, in which his character kills himself.
  • The fun part of watching the seven seasons of this procedural retrospectively is seeing all the guest stars who went on to other things – Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, Taylor Kinney from Chicago Fire (and former Mr Gaga), the red-haired dude who has been Jiminy Cricket in Once Upon a Time and is now a detective on Murder in the First – and a whole bunch of others. Even Jerry from Parks & Recreation.
  • There is nothing particularly important or special about this show, but its near-blase approach to women in powerful or not traditionally female positions is a positive shift. When you consider the near radical feminism of putting Cagney & Lacey on tv in the early 80s as real women with real problems who also happen to be detectives, and the novelty of that (and much scholarly research and writing, believe it or not, has been written on the subject), it’s remarkable to see Rizzoli as an experienced detective who has not had to endure quite as much sexism as her predecessors. She undoubtedly experienced plenty – it’s just that she probably does not face it from everyone she meets, including her colleagues in the department.

Lunchtable TV Talk: American Gothic & The Family

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Watching Rupert Graves seem to struggle a bit with an American accent and even seem to fit into an American ensemble felt strange. He never really embodied this role, and maybe it’s just my brain used to his Englishness. Or maybe, The Family suffered from a complete lack of cohesion that devolved into decentralized and sloppy storytelling over the course of its one and only season.

American Gothic and The Family are remarkably similar in many ways – they have a similar tone. American Gothic does not so much rely on the use of flashback, but the story draws from past events to build suspense in the present (unlike The Family’s more frequent and ham-handed attempts to use flashbacks). We have a member of the main family running for public office with a lot at stake if the family’s secrets are unveiled (in AG, one of the adult siblings is running for mayor of Boston; in The Family, the mother runs for governor of Maine). We have a law enforcement tie-in (one of the siblings in the main family in AG is married to a detective; in The Family, detectives investigate the disappearance of the main family’s young son, and one detective has an affair with the aforementioned misplaced Graves). We have the screw-up drug addict sibling in both stories; the Justin Chatwin character in AG better embodies the realities of addiction, much more convincingly than the brother (whom I can never see as anyone other than Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights) in The Family. We get cops in AG who feel more like real cops/detectives rather than some kind of half-sketched out idea of cops (as we got in The Family). We get with AG a sense that the story knows its plot points and knows where it plans to go (unlike The Family, where the only compelling thing was Andrew McCarthy playing well against type). We get in AG a mystery that we care about finding a solution to (unlike The Family, which started strong with its first episode or two but fizzled out quickly. I am caught up to the most current American Gothic, and I am still hooked).

We have a mystery at the core of both stories and a thread of ruthlessness that runs through both in the protective siblings and family members who safeguard their secrets at all costs.

Although both were stacked with what should have been really all-star casts, The Family’s cast never really felt much like a family (the cast really did not gel for me. On paper, it looks great – acclaimed, good actors; chemistry though is a strange and rare thing that cannot be created just by having a great cast list). Despite – or perhaps because of – the dysfunction in American Gothic, you do get the idea that these people could be family. I don’t have feelings one way or the other about Virginia Madsen (for the most part), but I am thrilled to see Juliet Rylance, Justin Chatwin and Antony Starr (all of whom were co-stars in some of my favorites: The Knick, Shameless and Banshee, respectively; if you have Banshee withdrawals, Starr’s character here is a lot like Lucas Hood – mysterious, shady, reticent, volatile and with lots of secrets).

American Gothic could easily stray into the terrible territory of the now-departed soap/drama Revenge, which shared some of the same themes (but often handled them so clumsily and squandered all the suspense and goodwill built in season one, letting it trickle away in several misdirected, increasingly boring seasons). But American Gothic retains all the things that excited people about Revenge when it first began. (Virginia Madsen somehow pulls off the “trailer trash-turned-wealthy family matriarch” more effectively and believably than Madeleine Stowe ever did.)

I could be prematurely declaring success for American Gothic – but for now, I’ll cautiously say that it is definitely a better contender than The Family in terms of holding interest but… can it outlast something like Revenge and not degenerate into heightening levels nonsensical soapy dramatics. I realize that all shows of this nature rely on some soapy dramatics, and that’s not what I mean. Some shows manage to pull this off without appearing to be completely stupid and desperate. It remains to be seen whether American Gothic will be one of these.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Shameless

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In a hazy and unpleasant summer spent largely in Berlin a few years ago, I was exposed to the original UK version of Shameless, which I did not care for at all. The US version of Shameless, on the other hand, I enjoyed right away, although I found it to be both bawdy with its off-color jokes, and difficult, digging into struggles with poverty, family problems, mental illness and identity. It has always been reliably entertaining, but the third and fourth seasons really kicked it into high gear.

In the lead-up to the new season of Shameless (already season six!), I have been thinking about how it developed into the confident, moving and human show it is. Its real power surfaced through deeply compelling characters whose backgrounds, full of imperfections and flaws, have been fully fleshed out to make the characters into real people: the Gallagher family. A drunken, drug-addled patriarch, Frank, malingers and manipulates as a narcissistic leech with no concern whatsoever about his family of six kids – Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam.

It would be easy to give in to the urge to shame Fiona Gallagher, the young, accidental “matriarch” figure who has always held it together to make sure the family is cared for and bills are paid. She had to take on all the responsibilities when it was clear that Frank wouldn’t, and their mother, Monica, was mentally ill (and left them). She had a lot dumped on her and never had her own childhood. So… when Fiona lost it, she really lost it… and in doing so, let everyone in the family down. But when you consider that Fiona was thrust into her role when she was just a child herself, it’s a bit easier to understand how she would act out. And keep making mistakes. And why the consequences are so much more devastating. Her role models/examples have continued to fuck up in worse ways than she could ever do (although her criminally manipulative, ne’er-do-well father, Frank, commits crimes, misdemeanors and trespasses and always seems to get away with all of his hijinks, depravity and dereliction). But for Fiona, the stakes are higher – always higher.

Fiona’s second-in-command, Lip, is a self-destructive genius who steps up to the plate when he needs to. Ian is another story (see the next paragraph). Carl is a not-too-smart would-be criminal (any smarts he has are used for scheming). Debbie has low self-esteem as she hits puberty and falls into some of the stereotypical traps (seeking out a sex to boost self-esteem, getting pregnant purposely to feel “loved”). Liam is a baby/toddler and is only interesting in that 1. he is black and no one knows or cares why, 2. he has to be cared for, and the challenges of rearing him play into larger plot points.

I would not be exaggerating, though, to say that the show turned a corner and became great in its telling of the Ian and Mickey story. Ian is the sensitive one in the family, very caring and yet rule abiding (he wants to join the military). He is also gay, which the family knows about and supports. During the run of the show, he falls in love with a tough and totally closeted neighborhood guy, Mickey Milkovich. I could rehash the way his coming out story unfolded when he realizes he is in love with Ian, but it’s better to watch. It’s also been written about in the perfect way. The deft handling of both the coming out and the subsequent relationship, which has been tested not just by the societal constraints of who the two of them are but also by the emergence of Ian’s mental illness, is nothing short of the best TV has to offer.

It is not necessarily fair to focus only on the core cast of characters because some of the supporting characters are essential – the neighbors/friends, Kevin and Veronica, are rich, viable stories of their own. Sheila, the agoraphobic mother of Lip’s disturbed girlfriend Karen and eventual paramour for Frank, is unassailably… weird. Some supporting parts are less effective (Frank’s daughter Sammi and her son Chuckie) even if they were important to the plot. But all the supporting parts hold the viewer’s attention and get the story where it needs to go.

But no supporting role(s) have been as key as the Milkovich family. Partly the sister Mandy, who is pivotal in Lip’s life – demanding that he live up to his potential (since he seems to be the only one in the neighborhood who has any). But most crucially, Mickey, because he and his relationship with and love for Ian form the real heart of the entire show. Others are the body and hold things together, Ian and Mickey are the heart.

I could ramble – clearly I already am. Some shows are good, and I write about them because I pick out one or two remarkable parts that strike me particularly deeply. In this case, though, it’s the whole package.

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.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Salem: Burn the witch, the witch is dead

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I don’t always love the show Salem but somehow its cast makes a lot of decisions for me. This is probably the case for a lot of TV. I watch things solely because a specific actor or actress is in it. I have written before about how I will watch anything with Kyle Chandler in it (although I admit that there was no way in hell I could watch the ill-fated and ridiculous What About Joan?, a show that is so bland I can barely remember it – thankfully Joan Cusack has gone on to do fantastic comedic drama work in Shameless). And while I don’t, as a rule, go out of my way to watch everything that stars Lucy Lawless (I have never seen Xena Warrior Princess – the role that made her famous), her smaller roles in favorites like Battlestar Galactica, Top of the Lake and Parks and Recreation do make me want to see more of her), seeing that she has turned up in Salem make me more inclined to keep watching.

I am not sure why, but I also like Seth Gabel and Shane West well enough that they draw me back, too.

When you watch as much TV as I do, it’s hard to remember the details season to season and pinpoint why I should continue watching anything. When Salem started up again a couple of weeks ago, I almost felt like I was watching something I had not already seen, although I had already watched a complete season. Which does not say a lot for the show, even if its more horror-inspired, witchcraft-related scenes are vivid. It has an inexplicable draw, which pulled me back in. But at the same time, it does not incite hatred or love, so Salem stands somewhere in the middle ground, in territory about which I have no opinion. The show provides moderate entertainment, but I would not care if it were canceled. I don’t tune in waiting to see what stupid things will happen – it’s not The Following – or to see overwrought pretension play out – it’s not The Slap. It’s also not Mad Men or Shameless or The Americans or some other show I don’t want to live without.

That’s Entertainment – Binge Viewing

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Funny thing about going on TV and movie-viewing binges – there are so many threads that connect so many things together. This past two weeks, for example, I have not seen a single TV show that did not use a reference to someone being another person’s “wing man”. It started when I went on a Suits-watching marathon, and there was an entire episode in which the characters were excessively quoting Top Gun (which is not even a film with dialogue – just a long series of annoying one-liners). After that, every show has referenced the ubiquitous “wing man” and in some other show (unfortunately I have half-watched so much TV that I don’t remember which show), the characters argued about who was Maverick and who was Goose.

Smaller connections can be seen if paying attention – binge watching allows for sewing together disconnected threads in specific series – but it also allows for small connections and thematic linking between things where there really is no reason to believe there are connection. For example, the obsession with Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street pops up again in HBO’s True Detective, where Matthew McConaughey’s character wants to get some Quaaludes. Not to mention that McConaughey turns up briefly in The Wolf as a drug-obsessed Wall Street guy schooling Leonardo DiCaprio in how to behave (that is, take drugs, more drugs and only care about making money for yourself). And frankly, how often do you hear about Quaaludes in everyday life? Never. Now it’s twice in one day – thanks to entertainment.

TV

In the midst of other things, I have done a lot of wasteful TV and movie viewing lately. It’s on in the background while I do a million other things. There are plenty of other things I have been watching and love (not listed here, such as Shameless, House of Lies, Episodes, Justified, etc.), but I am only listing things that I have not really written much about elsewhere – new shows or things that I have something to say about them.

Among the dumbest or most infuriating shows:

The Following: This show just makes law enforcement look like it is all bumbling idiots, always ten steps behind. But the bad guy never quite seems like he could be smart enough to pull it off. In general the show just makes no sense to me because it is just not believable.

The Fosters: This is classic-style ABC network family programming with a “clever” (or not) title (the titular Foster family are also foster parents) and lots of hot-button topics (lesbian, biracial couple with a bunch of kids – one biological and the others adopted fosters). The good part is that this backdrop is not overdone or made to seem unusual. This is just the way it is. But the storytelling is one step away from overdramatic soap opera with too much shit going on to be real. So I don’t like the show, and both the leads (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) lack the personal warmth to make them seem like loving parents – they try to oversell it to the detriment of the end effect.

Helix: I keep waiting for it to get better and it isn’t. I felt the same way about Caprica. And is it just me or is Billy Campbell becoming a worse and more false actor as he gets older? The only good thing is the actress who was Kat in Battlestar Galactica. I did not like her that much in BSG, but here she’s tough without the immature, annoying, extreme edge she had as Kat. Oh, and Jeri Ryan is going to show up any minute now, so that’s a good thing, right?

Looking: I don’t know – a show about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Would be fine as a premise, but it just feels so pointless every week.

The Crazy Ones: I keep trying to watch this and this is not funny. The end.

How I Met Your Mother: I started watching this only around the time that the show was in its sixth season on TV. It could be quite funny for network comedy, but this last season is dragging out in the worst way. Boring and unfunny to an unmanageable degree.

Not bad but not good:

Nashville: This gets worse all the time. I want to like it because I really like Connie Britton. But every storyline is annoying and over-the-top. While all are annoying, the worst one is Rayna’s determination to start her own record label. It belies the whole direction of the music industry – and I refuse to believe that a huge star that this character is supposed to be would be that blind to the trends of the industry. Or that she would be so naive as to not realize the intricacies of the business and getting out of her contract. There is something naive about the whole story – her former label maneuvers against her by making a couple of phone calls (as if it is as easy as that) after we have just heard from another businessman that deals are made and cemented months or years in advance for retail shelf space. And the whole thing comes down to – who the hell needs retail shelf space any more? That’s the thing – why not try to move forward with your new, innovative, fresh label using the new, innovative, fresh tools that the modern music industry is built on? Most people are downloading and streaming. Getting distribution at Wal-mart or wherever is still part of the strategy for a huge star – but a huge, veteran star starting up a label would not be so completely blind to the business end of the business. And if she were, she would have lined up a lot more industry-specific advisers (rather than her sketchy sister?!) to help her plan and get the whole thing off the ground. She would not just mouth off at her music label and leave and decide to fly by the seat of her pants and suddenly find that she is stuck.

If they stuck with the music, this would be a better show.

Trophy Wife: Surprisingly funnier than I expected but still not something I cannot live without. I find myself questioning the man in the story – how is it that he just keeps getting married – and is he so lacking in discernment or so desperate not to be alone or just so open-minded that he married these three massively different women? I can’t figure that out. I mean really – who would marry that second wife? He seems too normal and put together to marry someone like that unless it was a whimsical rebellion after the uptight, driven and mean first wife? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Almost good, but not totally sure:

Orphan Black: I never planned to watch this but recently watched the whole thing – I was entertained, surprised and impressed with Tatiana Maslany’s performance in multiple, quite different roles in the same show. I will give the second series a whirl. I am interested in the ethics of cloning and identity, and this show has started to explore some of the issues that come to light as a result of this kind of scientific experimentation.

Suits: As a kind of entertaining filler, I am enjoying Suits. It can be a laugh, but it’s not classic television or anything. I enjoy the constant movie quoting and references the characters make to other things (Top Gun, Mississippi Burning as examples), but that’s the best it gets for me.

The best shows:

True Detective: By far the best new show I have seen. Understated, great cinematography, great soundtrack, great dialogue and superb performances. The tense relationship between the two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and their outstanding verbal exchanges, makes the show worth watching. I never imagined in my life that I would claim McConaughey had done something great, but in truth, he has actually built a fairly impressive resume without my paying attention. (His role in Dallas Buyers Club was pretty powerful, but I have not seen him do something as inspired as his role in True Detective.)

Movies

I watched a bunch of movies in recent weeks – but I have not really kept track of them. I saw Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, the recent Mandela movie starring Idris Elba… but there is not much to say about these films. It’s difficult to distill a film into just key points. And films like these – well, they’re kind of Oscar bait, meaning that everyone writes about them.

I saw the film The Wolf of Wall Street, and hated it. Frankly I don’t like stuff like this. Movies in which people behave stupidly, get all fucked-up on drugs and live and die by their own greed and excesses don’t do anything for me. I am only interested in the fact that Kyle Chandler is in a small role as a tenacious FBI agent. He’s just so bloody cute! Happily he will be in a new Netflix series soon.

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

Standard

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.