Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & the City

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It will sound strange that I am ridiculously embarrassed to admit that I have been binge-watching Sex & the City this week. I readily admit my shamefully frequent hate-watching of shit like Zoo or the relentless and neverending decades-worth of cop and legal procedurals without the kind of shame and self-disappointment I feel at admitting that I’ve succumbed to watching this. I’m watching, and I cannot even call it total drivel – it’s not that bad. But it was so overhyped when it was new that it should/could not have been seriously watched during its heyday. Sure, watching it the way I’ve been watching puts too fine a point on the annoying parts – and they are many. But there are moments, when I set aside the fact that this is a show built around the pathetic idea that successful, independent, sexual, attractive women pretty much let their lives revolve around meeting someone, that elicit some kind of provocation or pique an emotional response. I think SaTC spoke to so many people at the height of its popularity because there are a lot of women in the same situation. Most of us can relate to some part of SaTC, whether it’s the elusive hunt for “the one”, thinking we’ve found “the one” only to be jerked around, or even the sad but seemingly ridiculous storylines like falling in love with the micropenis man, the out-of-control alcoholic, and god knows whatever else. Or a few pearls of Samantha Jones wisdom, i.e. in the new millennium (which was just dawning as this aired), sexual orientation will end up being more fluid and about experience and individuals over gender. We’ll see – but we’ve certainly moved in a more fluid direction in the 16 years since it aired.

As I wrote to a friend: “I am horrified at myself because I ran out of crap tv to have on in the background while I work so I have done something I swore I would never, ever do: I am watching Sex & the City. It is funny though what impressions you get of things while they are happening but you are not really watching. I had very misguided ideas on what happened in the Carrie/Big relationship, for example, based on water-cooler office talk and shit. I had during its original run seen an episode here or there … like one ep from season 1 and one ep from season 4 so it was not like I had any great continuity of plot – even though it is not hard to piece together or guess.” And being who I am (tv addict) I knew a LOT about it without ever watching it, but then actually watching it there are a lot of things I did not know.

The most fun part of the show actually has been realizing how old it is. It started almost 20 goddamn years ago. It featured loads and loads of actors who were nobodies who went on to do other things – people I barely recognized because the first season was from 19-fucking 98! What? The first two seasons included Justin Theroux in two different roles, Timothy Olyphant looking a little creepy (has he maybe had his teeth done since?), fucking Donald Trump, and even Gabriel Macht long, long before his success in Suits. There was even a 30-second scene of a silent Mireille Enos in the episode Valerie Harper was in.

Maybe when the show debuted it felt fresh – it did, after all, help to usher in an era of prestige TV that has led to this flood of vast and quality TV choices. But looking at it today is it provocative, as it clearly was meant to be? No, not so much. In fact, at certain points it feels hateful, full of all kinds of discriminatory BS, privilege and stereotypes. Can I overlook that?

Yeah, because, oh well now that I am watching it it is nowhere near as obnoxious and overblown as it was to me when it was new and everyone was obsessed with watching it. Now that we are awash in a sea of varying quality shows that are still better than network tv, it no longer feels like there is much novelty around something like SaTC.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Lucifer

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A few years ago, I had an ill-advised entanglement of sorts with a British guy, and the smarmy voice and overly confident, cheeky accent on the Lucifer lead reminds me so much of him and his shenanigans. He, king of “bobbing and weaving” his way through life, whether by his own wits or by manipulating and using other people, has rather turned my general views on English people from pleasant to … well, puke-inducing. Listening to them makes me feel sick – especially if they sound like this. When the lead actor says, “Previously on Lucifer…” at the start of each episode, I cringe. This was reason number one for not giving Lucifer the time of day.

But then add to it, reason two for not wanting to follow the show: the female lead, Lauren German, who is one of the worst, least believable actresses on TV today. This lack of skill could be disguised to some extent in German’s previous role in the ensemble cast of Chicago Fire. She did not have the carry half the load of the entire show… and she does not succeed in carrying half the load here either. Tom Ellis as Lucifer sucks all the oxygen out of the room and thus is the undisputed star. And the surrounding constellation of supporting actors also outshine German – from Kevin Alejandro as German’s character’s ex-husband and fellow detective to Rachael Harris (best known to this point as Louis Litt’s Harvard-obsessed former love, Sheila Sazs, in Suits) as Lucifer’s therapist.

I won’t get into the crime-of-the-week, procedural nature of the Lucifer show or the supernatural doubts of the Lucifer character. Lucifer, in the end, is the only reason to watch. Somehow, he is engaging as a classical narcissist (much like my own British “friend”). Eventually you have to break away lest you get swallowed whole.

I had not really thought much of this show in a while (it’s away on summer break), but I was driving home recently and a song came on, one of the gems that my own British Lucifer-wanna-be created, that made me think suddenly of this sneering, lascivious sounding “Previously on Lucifer” intro. Suddenly I was thinking about how my manipulative British acquaintance so readily mirrored TV’s Lucifer in his insistence and demand, in his attempts to lure innocents down his own dark paths. I shuddered, really, remembering spending time with this person – even though I never traveled down these paths, I’ve seen and heard about the people who have. I don’t think I need a TV show that echoes that experience. Nevertheless, when Lucifer returns next week (Sept 19th premiere), I will probably end up watching. God help me.

Photo (c) 2005 by Sophie.

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?

Lunchtable TV Talk: How to Get Away with Murder is Damages

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As I tuned in for the much-anticipated start to the sophomore season of How to Get Away with Murder, hot on the heels of a deserved Viola Davis Emmy win, I was struck by how a lot of TV is about placement and timing. See, How to Get Away with Murder is basically Damages with much more diverse cast and much better promotion.

Damages had a worthy rival to HtGAwM’s Annalise Keating in a strong, ruthless and tightly wound Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. Both women are conniving, bright, cutthroat and lethal in their own often twisted pursuit of their own definitions of justice. Both have done insane and questionable things. And most of all, both women have very little control over – and are practically unhinged in – their personal lives. It’s in their personal lives that things come apart. The story comes from those cracks in the power-hungry, driven veneer they project. And both stories are compelling and revealed key pieces of information in fragments, so you might think you knew – sort of – what was going to happen later in the season based on glimpses of things you had seen earlier – but not until the final episode would the entire story have unfolded.

The difference… Damages got short shrift, at least from viewers. Damages was intense and critically praised, but never found an audience. It was technically cancelled, in fact, after FX decided to get rid of it after three poorly performing seasons. It was given a two-season reprieve via a deal with DirecTV (which also revived the loved and lauded Friday Night Lights after NBC wanted to cut it short). With the way it moved around, it certainly never found its footing, and was gone too soon despite stellar casting and tight stories for all five of its seasons. In addition to the formidable Glenn Close, Damages featured Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant (the one and only from both Deadwood and Justified), David Costabile (increasingly visible all the time in all manner of shows, from Flight of the Conchords to Breaking Bad, from Suits to the rather irritating and cancelled Dig, from Ripper Street to Low Winter Sun), Janet McTeer (love her and sad her recent show, Battle Creek, was cancelled so soon), Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, John Goodman, William Hurt, the ubiquitous
Željko Ivanek, Ryan Phillippe and the leader of the John Hannah School of English Elocution, John Hannah.

When I binge-watched the compelling first seasons of HtGAwM, it felt familiar in many ways because it covered a lot of the ground Damages had already tread. It was still fresh because it has its own story and feel, but it made me feel regret that Damages was so little seen during its original broadcast (hopefully people are picking it up on Netflix). None of this takes anything away from the magnetic nature of How to Get Away with Murder, but instead, it’s worth stating that if you like it, maybe you will also like Damages.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rectify – When you don’t do yourself any favors

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The quiet, weird calm on Daniel Holden’s surface occasionally erupts in blind rage – leading to events he does not remember. And he never does himself any favors – either in committing these impulsive and violent acts nor in how he goes about handling them. It’s frustrating as hell as a viewer but makes for very unusual storytelling – especially for episodic tv. Things Holden did sometime in the first season of the show are only coming back to light in the third season.

This is how Rectify operates. Very slow-moving drama, following Holden and his family and the other people in the town into which he is released after 20 years in prison. It is never clear that Holden is innocent. DNA more or less exonerates him, but the town (especially its power structure) remains suspicious of him. His odd behavior, speech and mannerisms make people uncomfortable enough that they are never sure he is innocent either. In fact, neither is he.

The show is deliberately slow and often so poetic and thoughtful in its dark and quiet explorations on different themes. As such, it does not surprise me that it is not widely watched – and not just because it lives on Sundance, not the most visible network. Cited many times by many media outlets as a hidden gem, too slow for many but worth the effort, it’s hard not to feel for and be frustrated by everyone involved – peculiar Daniel Holden, his impassioned sister, Amantha (one of many TV roles nailed by Abigail Spencer – see also the latest season of True Detective, previous seasons of Suits), his mother and stepfather and step-siblings (who have their own issues), and even his long-suffering and frustrated lawyer.

The frustration is a part of the beauty of the show and its character development. It moves more at the pace of real life, does not offer neat or happy endings and is as challenging to draw conclusions from as everyday life is. Thanks to Netflix, you don’t have to rely on reruns to see the previous seasons.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Dig: More subtitled entertainment

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I have been a fan of A Fine Frenzy for years. I had no idea when I started watching Dig – a show that is not (so far) great by any means, but which has enough twists and turns and depth to keep me watching – that A Fine Frenzy’s Alison Sudol is one of its standout characters.

While it does not seem to be a great show yet, it fits squarely into the category of shows I have been considering and writing about lately – those shows that use languages other than English extensively (and thus a liberal use of subtitles). With Dig, it’s Hebrew.

Jason Isaacs often shows up in programs that are a bit too obscure and conceptual – and thus do not seem like they will be long for this world. Awake is a good example. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring exceptional insight to his roles. He plays grief and confusion quite well. This large cast, in addition to Isaacs and Sudol, includes some great talent; notably, Regina Taylor (also seen in The Unit and the great, long-gone but not-forgotten I’ll Fly Away), Anne Heche (also seen in Hung and Men in Trees), Lauren Ambrose (also seen in Six Feet Under and Torchwood), Richard E. Grant (also seen most recently in Downton Abbey and Girls – among a million other things) and David Costabile (also seen in Suits, Ripper Street, Breaking Bad, Flight of the Conchords, Damages and many others).

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

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.