Lunchtable TV Talk: Hap and Leonard

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There is not much that Michael K. Williams does that I don’t want to see. The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Night Of and so many more things, he makes things watchable. Where they go beyond him can vary. I am not sure I like Hap and Leonard that much, but the strangely compelling friendship between Williams as Leonard, a black, gay Vietnam vet with temper problems, and James Purefoy as Hap, a man who has spent time in prison for dodging the draft, drives the story forward.

On paper the pairing between these actors seems unusual and not at all like it would work. But it does. In episode two, when Hap tries to hug Leonard, and it’s ridiculously awkward, Leonard exclaims, “Come on, man. This is why dudes don’t hug each other.” There is something so genuine about the way Hap and Leonard try to take care of each other and care about each other that is, well, why the show is called “Hap and Leonard”. (Incidentally I also really like Purefoy with the exception of the monumental joke that was The Following, one of my all-time most hateful of hate-watch shows.)

This isn’t really a long or extensive description and certainly isn’t an analysis of any kind. It’s just to say that, thanks to Williams and Purefoy, the show is actually worth watching.

Shameless TV addiction

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I don’t know if other kinds of addicts get a rush from meeting other addicts. I suspect not because with drugs or drink, it might provide a kinship but also means there’s less of whatever substance being used to go around. This does not apply with TV. There’s plenty to go around, the more the merrier.

Being a TV addict is a relatively new identity for me to embrace. I spent many years not watching any TV (largely during my education), so there are blind spots in my TV knowledge (although not many because I read a lot of pop culture publications and still caught TV out of the corner of my eye). I suppose it has always been a bit of a hidden addiction for people of a certain type. Academics and intellectuals proudly and not without judgment in their voice announcing that they don’t watch or own a television. To some degree this high-culture anti-TV bent has been mitigated by the current golden age of television, in which serialized stories are a new form of in-depth cinematic genius and character development. It’s fine now to rattle off a handful of culturally acceptable programs, i.e. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and maybe something slightly more obscure.

But to admit that you pretty much watch a huge amount of what is offered… that’s still a bit of a mark against you. But you know what? I just turned 40… and I don’t care. I am 40, and I can do whatever the hell I want (or don’t want) with my time!

Something that makes me feel more confident about this choice is not just that I am 40, but also, meeting other fellow TV addicts who understand that you do not necessarily neglect everything else in your life in favor of vegging out in front of the telly. No, it is one thing that is going on among many.

I have a colleague who has seen all the rare and obscure and strange TV that I never thought I would be able to share or discuss with anyone. And that was not just a rush but helped make some of the more challenging work days better. It also made me feel that the lifestyle I have chosen is conducive to binge watching and not feeling badly about it.

Recently I discovered that another former colleague is almost as TV addicted and has very similar tastes to mine. Few things are socially as satisfying as being able to share the storylines and clever bits of dialogue – or to be able to discuss your own “tier” system for viewing (the can’t-miss, great shows; the stuff you don’t miss but is not quite great; the rest… or in my case, the stuff I hate but could not stop watching because it fueled the fire against stupidity, e.g. The Following, Looking, Brothers & Sisters…).

I don’t know that any other amateur TV addicts take it as seriously as I do, often writing feverish, critical blog posts (not well-thought-out or researched enough to be professional-level criticism) when inspired to, but the sense of relating to someone based on their tastes and also on their tendencies to overdose is comforting.

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.

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.

Lunchtable TV Talk – The Returned – I am not returning

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I like seeing Battlestar Galactica alums in current TV shows, but for every Grace Park kicking ass on Hawaii Five-0 or Katee Sackhoff solving crimes in an equally kick-ass fashion on Longmire (am I alone in being beyond relieved about Longmire being saved by Netflix after its merciless killing at A&E’s hands?), there’s something sort of dreadful, like Tricia Helfer (and Michael Trucco) in the rightfully short-lived Killer Women – or Aaron Douglas in The Returned. These misfires aren’t the faults of Helfer, Trucco or Douglas. The shows they’re in just aren’t good.

I am always impressed with Aaron Douglas – and his performance in The Returned is as good as any of his work. It’s just that the show doesn’t quite cut it. I have not seen the original French Les Revenants but tend to believe the original source material usually can’t be beat or recreated (with notable exception – I was quite taken with the US version of The Bridge, for example). The Returned, at its most basic, is about individuals who return suddenly from the dead and the effects this return has on the community in which these resurrections take place. Five episodes in, I don’t really know what’s going to happen but am not interested enough to care.

I love some of the actors in the US version of The Returned. I’ve already cited Douglas; Jeremy Sisto is masterfully diverse; Kevin Alejandro is a pop-up-everywhere kind of guy. India Ennenga is not bad either – her role in HBO’s Treme explored (as much as that giant ensemble of loosely intersecting stories could) teenage grief and identity. Oh, and I almost forgot – the inimitable Michelle Forbes! She dominates (in a good way) everything she’s in – had nearly forgotten her Battlestar connection. She almost makes me want to keep watching The Returned… but not quite.

But I don’t have enough time to keep watching things for which I don’t feel either love or hate. Just a few actors I happen to like isn’t reason to tune in. I’ve chronicled my hate-watching and desire to give up some of the shows, like The Following, that cry out for ridicule. I’ve also written about shows I love. But the mediocre middle ground, where shows like The Returned live, isn’t a place I want to spend more time.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Following

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The Following is the best show on television! Just kidding. April Fool’s Day!

I have written many times about TV’s worst show, The Following. It makes law enforcement look like bumbling idiots (thanks, real law enforcement does that quite enough on their own). It leads viewers to believe that the diabolical cult leaders/serial killers are geniuses – but they are not particularly smart either.  They are just conscienceless and usually a step or two ahead of the law. And not even charismatic! Sometimes I ask myself if maybe I have been conditioned by too many police and legal procedurals and somehow imagine that investigations and catching bad guys is easier than it is. Maybe Kevin Bacon leading this team of FBI field operatives is exactly as murky as FBI investigations get. I don’t really know. But I know that it is not really entertainment, except for a self-torturer like myself, who watches weekly to find out what new level of stupidity and depravity the show will fall each time.

Kevin Bacon at his best…

The only remotely interesting part, which has been the case all along, is questioning how all these different people have been brainwashed to follow along with the cult of Joe Carroll – and now Carroll (the main baddie) is in prison, and the people pulling the strings … well, I don’t know where loyalty for those guys comes from. And the whole thing is scary in that you have to wonder how the world could possibly sustain this many psychopaths. The show constantly introduces new characters – hard to keep it all clear. It has taken the focus off “mastermind” Joe Carroll, who seems less crazy all the time given the cast of characters to appear since he exited the stage. (Michael Ealy is the latest, and it’s a pretty weird role for him. This is no Sleeper Cell.) There are a lot of echoes of far superior shows, such as Dexter and Hannibal, mixed in here, and even a tinge of the recent The Fall, in which Jamie Dornan is a serial murderer but also turns out to be a “normal family man”, like Ealy’s new character – but it’s like retreading old ground and treading water. Nothing remotely original here.

In light of viewing the recent HBO documentary on Scientology (Going Clear), I am not as inclined to doubt that insecurity and longing for belonging drive people into the arms of predatory cults and endow these followers with a sense of superiority (before stripping them down in the same way an abuser does with his abused). A cult around a serial killer is not really any different. Even in particularly gung-ho corporate environments, you get a lot of people who subsume their own identities and personalities and go beyond even “enthusiastic corporate cheerleader”.

I wrote earlier to a friend: “I wonder, being an antisocial non-joiner of anything myself, how people get so caught up in anything – whether it is a political party, a religious dogma, a corporation, a fraternity – whatever it is. And having this sense of self (as an antisocial, non-joiner) would I even be aware, or conscious, if I did join something? We have such powerful ideas about who we are that I wonder if we even see who we are.”

I find myself freaked out by things like crowds of people who start out applauding randomly and without any rhythm but end up clapping in a frightening group-mentality unison. It is not a big leap from there – people’s tendency toward sameness and wanting some kind of belonging and harmony – to see how people end up tethered to something insane through a combination of blind devotion and sheer lack of ability to think for themselves. Is that what compels people to watch and love The Following? That people fool themselves into thinking they are immune to brainwashing?

Forgive me in advance; this will be a sweepingly generalized observation. And it is a bit off topic, but I did think about the fact that the adults I knew as an adolescent – people like my parents and others their age (40ish middle-aged people) – always seemed to be on some kind of spiritual search. Some discovered religion, some New Age guru stuff (which hit a peak in the late 80s), some Scientology – but whatever they did or did not discover, I wonder if people of my own generation are as inclined to the midlife crisis and this hunt for greater meaning. All humans, I think, hunt for greater meaning, but I also feel there are generational components at work. The Baby Boomers seem to have invented the midlife crisis (maybe life in the western world was actually too difficult for these kinds of “identity crises” prior to the post-war generation – people were just busy with the business of surviving). My generation, the so-called Generation X, has never enjoyed a long period of success and prosperity (economically, societally), so we kind of just expect to make back-up plans for our real plans and just ride out whatever the outcome is. In that sense, as we are all in the throes of or entering middle age, we might yearn for some kind of connection, but I don’t see people en masse (and it might just be because there are fewer of us) looking for answers in an organized way.

Back to the point, though. I don’t know why The Following is popular or why it keeps being renewed. Was I poisoned by misguided expectations? My mother had been watching the first season and told me she found it “disturbing” and “chilling”. I expected to be somehow spellbound by this show, but it’s just stupid. By extension, I am stupid for continuing to watch.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Helix – “Do you know the way to San Jose?”

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What does it say that I rolled my eyes and felt real dread when I realized this week that I had forgotten to watch last week’s episode of Helix? Meaning… this week, I would have to watch two episodes to catch up. Um, I can’t explain why I feel I have to keep watching something I have not liked at all from the get-go. But if we understand that this is my nature, and that I persevere, and move beyond it – let’s try to understand what the purpose of this show is.

Nearing the end of its sophomore season, Helix is incomprehensible. I found it hard to follow the first season, and when I try to explain what it’s about to other people, I find that I can’t. I found the characters and premise impenetrable during the first season – I won’t even try to explain what the plot was because I am not totally sure I get it. It’s… a bunch of CDC researchers at a facility in the Arctic investigating an outbreak of some sort. The outbreak seems to turn people into violent zombie-monsters afflicted by something that looks a lot like the bubonic plague. Or maybe that is what this year’s virus makes people look like – last year I think it was something else but either way – viruses are a-flying.

A bunch of mysterious characters come into and out of the scene with hidden motives and agenda. There’s a massive, shady corporation (Ilaria) involved somehow, and eventually it becomes apparent that there have been scientific experiments on local native people and then the emergence of immortal people. It was a confusing mess and did not become clearer with time.

Almost a year ago, I included this muddy first season in a roundup of shows I could not fathom why I was watching and included Helix in this, although Helix was not and still isn’t the worst offender of the bunch (that title is taken by The Following – and no, a year later, I still have not stopped watching). There were reasons why I kept trying with Helix – I thought it was not sure what it was trying to be and might sort itself out. Scifi? Horror? Thriller? Drama? All of the above?

The second season is not a whole lot better, but the change of scenery made it a bit more palatable. The stories that have been unfolding over the course of the season are all starting to come together a with a bit greater clarity, and some of the obnoxious characters from the first season are starting to feel at least more familiar, if not likeable, compared to the cult-follower tribe of island dwellers who became the antagonists in this story in the second season. The cult leader, played by Steven Weber (who has of late shown up almost everywhere), is compellingly egomaniacal – maybe only because it is Weber behind the character. He is an immortal and has some freaky stuff going on on the isolated island he runs.

There is a clear story emerging pitting the immortals against mortals, i.e., the immortals intend to deploy some kind of mechanism that will render mortals as infertile in order to stem population growth. They believe they know best and can reverse this mass infertility once the planet’s resources are restored to sustainable levels. Essentially, they play God and think they are entitled to do so because it is certainly in their best interests as immortals. Somehow amidst all of this, there is another virus on the loose – maybe the same virus or strain of the same virus. I honestly can’t tell you because for one thing there is so much going on at once that I don’t pay attention or watch closely and for another the storytelling does not hold my interest strongly enough.

It is very possible that if I sat down and started watching it all again from the beginning and paid closer attention and had all the episodes to binge on, it would be a more satisfying experience.

On balance, I will keep watching (I’m not a quitter, even though I need to learn when to quit – for real!), but I don’t recommend that anyone else do so.

I will say that the show’s quirks – I assume they are intentional – are what keep me coming back. Rather funny dialogue and a wacked-out and extremely eclectic soundtrack are unusual but effective hooks (for me, anyway). Many shows feature stellar soundtracks to the degree that the music choices are one of the only things I love about them. Helix’s music choices – ranging from the strangely and incomprehensibly poppy theme song to some of the songs woven into the episodes. It makes me wonder how these incongruous choices are made.

Scandinavian Women on English-Language TV?

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I wrote up a whole list of Scandinavian male actors who dominate English-language TV but am having trouble thinking of any Scandinavian women on TV at all. And the two who do spring to mind are far

Connie NielsenThe Following / Boss / Law & Order: SVU

Malin Akerman – Trophy Wife / Suburgatory (both RIP)

Connie is Danish but her acting career seems to have been mostly English-language – and Malin was born in Sweden but grew up in Canada.

Who am I missing?

Dreams, Divorce and Geography

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I dreamt the other night that I was spending a lot of time with actor Kevin Bacon. Probably this infected my brain because I am still, somehow, inexplicably, watching the dismal, horrible, stupid, frustrating and badly written tv show The Following, of which Bacon is one of the stars. I have never been much of a Bacon fan at all – and shows like The Following don’t change that. In my dream, Bacon and I had a number of conversations, but where my brain finally let go of the thread was when I told him that I did not want to offend him but that my mom had only recently seen the film that launched his career, Footloose, and she complained that it was so stupid, she regretted that she could not get that two hours back.

Sudden Marriage – Sudden Divorce

I have observed from afar the strange tendency of people I am vaguely acquainted with people who meet up with someone and very suddenly get married. Because I know these people only in the sense that I went to the same high school – and did not really know them then either – and now know them only via Facebook posts – I don’t know what leads them to these impetuous marriages. Likewise I don’t know what leads them as impetuously out of these marriages. It would be one thing if I saw it happen once, like something anomalous, but it seems to happen often.

Geography Woes

I don’t really understand the tendency to marry and divorce quickly and frequently, as though it is as casual and easy as brushing one’s teeth. It seems awfully complicated when a couple could just… I don’t know – move in together? But it does seem Americans of all ages are more interested in marrying (and divorcing) than learning anything about the world.

I know and knew this. I recall the year I was graduating from high school and we had to try out to be graduation speakers. My speech had a lot to do with framing our little place within a global framework – that is, look at all the things that had happened in the world since we started school. But how would that context make sense or mean anything if people did not even know where to locate the Soviet Union on a map?

Americans really don’t know, understand or care about geography. I knew this, but Stephen Colbert provided a good reminder on his Monday, April 8 show. Ukraine, according to Americans, is pretty much everywhere. (Oh, Stephen Colbert, you are loved and will be missed on The Colbert Report when you take over the Late Show from David Letterman.)

Ukraine is wherever America says it is!

 

Television – Someone Shoot Me

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Someone shoot me – there is a handful of TV shows that are just too stupid to keep watching, and they keep getting dumber and worse… but I cannot stop watching them.

The worst of the bunch is The Following. I cannot even describe how this descends into ever-greater stupidity. I never liked Kevin Bacon much, and this does not help. The FBI in the show is made up of bumbling idiots who are always about ten steps behind the criminal mastermind of the show. But the criminal mastermind/cult leader is actually just as stupid. Everyone is stupid. And totally unlikeable. And the only remotely interesting part (but not enough to keep watching) is questioning how it is that all these people are brainwashed (or something?) enough to follow along with this cult leader. The words that signal stupidity, more than anything else, are some variation of, “Let’s not do anything stupid.” Or “We need to be smart here.” This always signals that they are already knee-deep in the boiling shit of stupidity. No show is better at sending this signal than The Following.

But right up there on the list – Helix. I wanted to like it and kept trying to – but I hate the show. Nothing changes that.

Likewise, I am none too impressed with the repetitive crap inflicted by shows like Grimm but I keep watching.

I did at least finally cross The Crazy Ones off my list of weekly viewing, but I need to force myself to mark these other crappy shows off the list, too. I need to refer to the “Fuck, yes” rule when watching tv as much as I do about every other aspect of life. Lukewarm reception – don’t waste any more damn time!

Meanwhile I have been enjoying the crass and mullet-filled nonsense that is Eastbound & Down. It is rather funny in this politically incorrect, some other section of society way. But then I realize I have actually known people who are not too terribly different from Kenny Powers, the dubious anti-hero of the show. The show has a varied and quite stunning soundtrack.

Not including or to be confused with the Jerry Reed song that shares the same name as the show.

Loads of other TV viewing but don’t really feel like chronicling the stuff that was actually decent.