Lunchtable TV Talk: Tyrant

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I thought that Tyrant had a lot of promise after its first, and even second, seasons. Even if it did not seem entirely plausible – or even particularly good – there were a lot of paths and themes that could have led the show to greener pastures in its efforts. But I have not really seen the potential come to fruition. There were hints of nuance at times, but now, well into the third season, it feels like revenge has led the mild-mannered pediatrician/heir to the tyrannical first family of the fictional Abuddin, Barry/Bassam, to become just like the rest of his tyrannical predecessors. And that progression just does not feel real.

Something else that does not feel real at all – or ever – is the character played by Jennifer Finnigan (Bassam’s wife, Molly). I’ve always had a problem with Finnigan, who overacts in a way that brings high school drama to mind, and has done so in all her roles. (That is, she always feels like she is doing an acting exercise – here, in Monday Mornings, in The Dead Zone… matters not, she just is not embodying her roles in any kind of believable way). The only thing that felt slightly authentic happened when she and Bassam suffered a huge loss in the most recent season, but her behavior and reactions since then, while probably logical in abject grief, don’t feel genuine coming from Finnigan. I keep trying to see past this or look at her with fresh eyes, but it is just not happening.

I could recount the previous season and the characters and their machinations, but that isn’t really useful here. The gravitas the show could have as a kind of pseudo-commentary on current events (in the middle east or in politics in general) is squandered on a bunch of affairs and sleeping around (really soapy shit, frankly, which does not have a place in this show). You know, it does not really interest me that Bassam and Molly are no longer in love or that Leila (former first lady, Bassam’s sister-in-law and former lover) never loved her husband and now loves some US military officer (Chris Noth, following up his turn on The Good Wife with this, which does not feel particularly different… in fact, none of his roles ever feel different). I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care. These personal tales add nothing to the story and no depth to the characters, so it’s a bit like watching something that IS a soap opera. I doubt that was the original intent/vision for this show.

Overall, it feels (and has always felt) like this show should have aimed for a shorter-term view of its run, preserving limited-run storytelling to ensure quality and focus. But I’m not getting that kind of feeling from this. And any goodwill or excitement the show seems to build ends up getting killed off quickly. (And while I was excited to see The Americans’ brilliant Annet Mahendru end up here, she has been underutilized.)

At this stage I am not sure whether to recommend this or not.

Lunchtable TV Talk: BrainDead

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I was not sure what to make of the show BrainDead. But I am enjoying it immensely as it goes along. But will it be long for this world? If ratings are any indication, no. You can see the fingerprints of Robert and Michelle King (responsible for The Good Wife) all over it. Will that pedigree change anything? The Good Wife suffered from low ratings throughout its entire run. BrainDead shares some casting overlaps, stylistics, and a superb cast overall, just stuffed with talent. I hope it gets a longer chance to prove itself. It’s a timely commentary – and tonic for the times.

Aaron Tveit (from Graceland) is charming and smooth; Mary Elizabeth Winstead – I finally get it. She had been talked about a lot but I could never see the “it” that made people talk about her. Overall I did not care for the English-language remake/version of The Returned, and she was one of the central characters (no one really looked great in that near-train-wreck). Also the formidable Margo Martindale. Brandon J. Dirden, who was one of the FBI agents (Stan’s partner) in the most recent season of The Americans and so much more. And Johnny Ray Gill, the guy who was Sam in the ambitious and rewarding Underground. The great Tony Shalhoub, who needs no further introduction because he is the best. And Danny Pino, the dude who left Law & Order SVU and came to BrainDead from a role in Scandal.

The contentious nature of politics is ratcheted up a few million notches in this dark-comedy drama. A lot of crazed making up facts. Only at least there is an explanation: some bugs – literal insects – are taking over people’s brains. In our ‘real’ world, I guess we don’t have an explanation for the extremes. Politics is rough enough without erasing facts (or losing half your brain to a parasite and suddenly listening to The Cars’ “You Might Think” on repeat).

It’s a hyperbolic mirror of our current situation – Tony Shalhoub’s character wants to name a kiosk after Ronald Reagan (a WWII veteran! Only he’s not – he just feels like one because he made a movie in which he served in WWII) – and Shalhoub’s opponent wants to call the kiosk after Emma Goldman. There is no middle ground and no compromise.

Photo (c) 2009 Neil Conway.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Reign: Historical fiction

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Most women my age – and probably a fair number of men, too – watched and maybe even loved the CBC/PBS miniseries, Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows, while she has had a rich and long career since, will never quite shake her identity as Anne Shirley. And Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s academic rival, friend and eventual husband in the Anne of Green Gables series (a series of Canadian books set in Prince Edward Island, Canada that adolescent readers have devoured for the many decades since they debuted), had life breathed into him by Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie. He has appeared here and there in other things, perhaps most recently and notably in The Good Wife, but he has been tied all his life to his reputation-making role as “Gil”. Sadly, Jonathan Crombie passed away this past week at the age of 48, which plunges the hearts of “kindred spirits” of my age into “the depths of despair” – to use some of Anne Shirley’s over-the-top, verbose, well-loved language.

Ultimately, though, this was not meant to be about Crombie or his passing. (Or to question the “dying young” passing of Canadian actors who graced Canadian tv institutions. Referring here to the 2007 death of Neil Hope, who was “Wheels” on the original Degrassi Junior High.) Instead, I had just been watching this week’s episode of Reign, which sucked me in despite not being my style at all. In large part, I tune in week after week to watch Megan Follows’s regal, scheming performance as Catherine de Medici. Follows finally outshines her past, defining role as Anne Shirley and is the one reason I keep coming back to Reign.

This is not to say that Reign isn’t a decent show. I like these kinds of historical fiction programs in that they may not paint a full or accurate picture of historical events, but they breathe life into long-past history that may ignite curiosity in those non-historians among us. We might then make moves toward reading real history and finding out what in these programs (like Reign, The Tudors and Wolf Hall, to name a few recent entries) is true and not true. History brought to life, regardless of creative license employed for television audiences, can only pique interest and perhaps make history a more interesting subject for otherwise disinterested generations (each generation, at the risk of sounding like a cranky old person, seems less and less interested in history).

I am driven by my viewing of Reign to go back and read the history – and often enjoy the modern music pairings that make up the soundtrack. Occasionally an interesting person will turn up as a guest star – Amy Brenneman as Marie de Guise (a great piece of casting!), Yael Grobglas as Olivia (best known now as Petra on Jane the Virgin) and even Battlestar Galactica’s Helo (Tahmoh Penikett).

Considering all these factors, especially Megan Follows’s presence, now that I know the show has been renewed for another season, I will continue to watch (even if my mind is very much stuck now on Anne of Green Gables, Anne and Gil and Jonathan Crombie, resting in peace.)

Television is the new TV – The great disconnect

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A few years ago when I worked in the tech industry, there was a lot of noise about “cord cutting” and how internet technologies could enable consumers to bypass expensive and inflexible cable companies. The vision at the time was just that – a vision that had not quite caught up to reality. But now we’re living in a slightly-different-than-imagined version of that reality. I know a lot of people who don’t have relationships with a cable company, and all their entertainment comes in some form of streaming and they can pick and choose, smörgåsbord style, what they want to buy into (or not). Of course there are still some constraints in terms of internet connectivity – with many people held hostage by the lack of choice in ISPs. But there has never been quite as much freedom to choose content and content source as there is today.

This got me to thinking, though, that even if we are essentially looking at content that we’d traditionally refer to as “television” – the sudden lack of “programming”, the ability to watch whenever and wherever, the ability to avoid advertising (or succumb to more targeted ads), the shift toward creating truly amazing stories and the elevation of “TV” shows to high art or at least something that surpasses two-hour film format storytelling by adding richness, depth, character building and production value – all of this means that we are witnessing the birth of something quite new. (One writer calls it “complex TV” but I would go so far as to argue that it is not TV at all.)

Can we call what we are watching “TV” just because it vaguely follows the same format? When streaming and binge-watching are becoming de facto – and shows are not necessarily created with traditional advertising streams in mind, tethers to certain templates are broken. Creativity is unleashed in new ways and places. We see small-scale, independent online production and exclusively online productions to complement traditional programming. We see “networks” creating original content, which was novel enough when it was no longer the big three American networks – Fox had been in the game for some time. But when paid cable got into the game, quality and diversity (and risk taking) became important. Ratings and audience share became less important. And when ratings still posed a challenge for some shows in one channel, it has grown likelier for another outlet to pick up the production in one way or another (some examples of this include Netflix running with long-dead Arrested Development to produce new episodes and a collaboration between different, non-traditional partners to continue producing critically lauded but ratings-challenged Friday Night Lights and Damages.) Online outlets got involved to become their own kind of networks – with Netflix leading the way and disrupting the whole model of keeping viewers on the hook for months as a story played out week after week on television. Where home entertainment, like DVD boxsets, unleashed the “binge watching”/marathon phenomenon, Netflix and later Amazon Prime were able to produce and release full seasons of high quality content whenever they wanted to (not beholden to any traditional “TV season”). Kicking that up a notch more recently has been Yahoo!’s step into the ring – reviving former NBC, perpetually on-the-bubble comedy weirdness Community.

This is still called “TV content”. But is it? When Netflix or Yahoo! bring an actual TV show from a network back to life through their own channels, is it still TV just because the show came from there? This week’s episode of Black-ish has the four kids talking in horror about how, in the old days, you had to watch content when it was scheduled or miss it forever. No pause button! No choices!

Are the methods by which we watch influencing how these shows are made, when they are released? And if this is not TV any longer, what is it? It’s not programming in the traditional television sense. And when a content provider releases entire seasons at one time, they have changed the entire production process. The content is not consumed, perceived or even built in the same way.

I recently read about how “television writers” are forced to evolve and create an end-to-end story when dealing with a full-season streaming show that is released all at once, while traditional network shows can alter the trajectory of a storyline that does not perform well or is unpopular with viewers (e.g. the storyline in which Kalinda’s husband shows up on The Good Wife. It was not well-received, so the writers scrapped it at their first opportunity). But there are no U-turns or detours when Amazon gives us an entire season of Transparent. In that way, full-season, binge-bait “content dumping” is like the release of a film, only a film is maybe two hours, and a show is 12 or 13 hours (or half that, in the case of half-hour shows) – assuming that any of these content creators decide in the long run to stick with the semi-traditional “duration” lengths. This could change, too. It already has changed to some degree.

As we disconnect from traditional methods of content consumption, we are consuming new things in new ways – we are not watching television any longer, even if we are watching our content ON an actual television.

Lunchtable TV talk: The Good Wife and The Americans – When belief is the greatest rebellion

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In two of television’s best shows, The Good Wife and The Americans, the main characters’ children – teenagers – do not rebel against their parents or authority by partying, drinking, having sex, choosing inappropriate partners or dating at all, skipping school or typical teenage rebellion tropes. Instead, these teens rebel by seeking faith.

In many American families, this would not be unusual or considered as rebellion at all. But for the families at the heart of these two particular shows, faith is not central to the main characters’ lives and never has been. Many critics condemn the shows when they focus too squarely on the main characters’ children, and usually I would agree. In these shows, however, the children’s search for meaning and faith informs and deepens the viewers’ understanding of the characters we care most about.

In The Good Wife, arguably one of the most sophisticated and nuanced shows in recent years, the focal point is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). The show has always been a critical success but has always struggled in the ratings; at this point, given the way the latter half of its most recent, the sixth, season has gone, I think the show has seen better days. I highly recommend at least the first five seasons.

Alicia faces many challenges in her personal and professional life, but one story that has not been particularly well-developed but which does shine a light on Alicia’s relationship with faith (as well as challenges with mothering – you never know what to expect from your kids!) is when her daughter, Grace, becomes curious about and explores Christianity. Alicia is not religious, and Grace’s exploration creates tension. It is not always the most well-designed plotline, but we can see clearly that Grace’s curiosity, though genuine, is a form of rebellion. Not argument-filled, contentious rebellion – but given Alicia’s ambivalence toward religion (I can’t recall if she ever explicitly stated that she is an atheist, but it is clear that religion is not a part of her life and that she did not introduce religion as a part of her children’s lives), it is a form of rebellion. After all, rebellion is often a form of finding and forging one’s own identity apart from what is expected.

In the better of the two shows (both of which are exceptional), The Americans, which, if possible, is even more highly acclaimed than The Good Wife, but less watched (!), the two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), find themselves at odds when their teenage daughter, Paige, decides to pursue faith. Philip and Elizabeth, both undercover Soviet spies, are atheists – but each “welcomes” Paige’s exploration differently. Both main characters have a complex relationship with how to parent (and with America and their cause). Both love their child, but Elizabeth – less seduced by America and more deeply, ideologically committed to the Soviet cause than her husband – is first against letting Paige look into her religious curiosities but eventually joins her, as a kind of way to get closer and more easily manipulate Paige when the time comes to enlist her into the “family business”. Philip is perhaps the more emotional of the two, and feels that their children deserve independence and the right to determine their future for themselves. Regardless of whether he feels that religion is the right choice for his daughter, he does not easily conclude that he and Elizabeth should interfere – and is vehemently against recruiting her to the cause. (Interestingly, Paige is a bit of a manipulator herself – asking her parents for a simple birthday dinner rather than a party, and her only request is to ask that her pastor and his wife be invited. By having the pastor present at the dinner party, she ambushes her parents into letting her get baptized.)

Although these storylines are meant to guide and illustrate our thinking about the parents/main characters, they also underline the general tendency of people – particularly when young – not just to look toward ideas that are different from what they have always been exposed to but also to question and search for meaning, whether that comes in the form of religious faith or something else. We can see how wrapped up in and brainwashed people can become (see the recent HBO documentary Going Clear, about the cult that is Scientology for a testament about that) in their search for authenticity, identity and belonging. Some people find that in their church, some find it in a social setting or scene, some people find it in politics. We can see that Alicia Florrick, while strong herself, has a community in the legal profession, her law firm and now in politics (though she is struggling with that). We know that the Jennings couple in The Americans has a guiding belief in Communism. It is easy to forget as adults, particularly ones with that depth of community and level of ideological commitment, that young people, even one’s own children, do not necessarily share those things and values. (Obviously the case if you are secretly spies!)

Where both shows have an opportunity with the stories about their children is that they can show how their parenting and relationships with their children can encourage healthy questioning and exploration and be supportive without smothering or undermining reason (i.e., opposing the children’s curiosity to the degree that they become even more determined to pursue a path just to spite the parents). In both shows, eventually, regardless of whether the end aims had impure motives (as in Elizabeth’s case with her daughter – even if it is considerably more complicated than that), the “rebellion” is nurtured with discussion and showing increasing trust in the children, even if the belief/faith is not ultimately shared.

Why I Changed My Mind: Amy Schumer

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My change of heart in this case was not so much changing my mind about Amy Schumer herself or her comedy because, frankly, I had never really heard of her or her work. My instant dislike stemmed from the endless advertisements for her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, which appeared constantly in every single commercial break while streaming The Daily Show and The Colbert Report online. Is it Ms Schumer’s fault that 1. the ad nauseam ad campaign was overkill and turned people (namely me) off before they could even give her show a chance and 2. the ads Comedy Central makes for its stable of shows feature the most obnoxious bits and bobs, making the shows appear annoying and unwatchable, also before potential viewers could give them a chance? No. I had the same problem with another of the overkill ad campaigns propelled like an enemy sortie at the unsuspecting target when Comedy Central promoted the brilliant Broad City in exactly the same fashion. Granted ads are ads – they are so short that they can’t reflect a whole lot of the intelligent humor and depth that give these shows their cachet. But can’t the ads and those who make them dream up some way to make their shows seem less one-dimensional?

I thought Broad City looked dumb but gave it a chance – but Inside Amy Schumer got the shortest straw. I saw the ads, which made her look like a self-absorbed, vapid, sex-obsessed idiot playing stereotypes for laughs, and I immediately thought she and the show were anything but groundbreaking and inventive. Turns out, though, that while Schumer has written some skits in which she plays a self-absorbed, vapid, sex-obsessed (to a mad degree) character, her comedy swims in thrashingly funny but incisive commentary – deeply feminist, hypocrisy-poking/exposing, hyperbolic, sarcastic. I’ve been gasping and then laughing my way through both seasons of the show. It’s sometimes shocking in its sudden lack of political correctness (as most of the best comedy is), painful in its mix of humor – swinging between self-absorption and self-deprecation, much of it quite topical (see the skit about the combat video game in which the female video game character suffers and reports an assault and is faced by a screen reading “Character Assassination Complete”; not only is the idea behind the video game reminiscent of the recent controversies about sexual assault in the military with the reaction of the guy friend with whom Amy’s character is playing video games, telling her, “You obviously did something wrong – maybe you just shouldn’t play” a further level of commentary ) and most of it universal (see the “Stolen Years” jewelry collection ad, the ISP customer service freakout session skit, the superfluous nature of enormous penises bit in her standup act, all the skits about groups of female friends being competitively self-deprecating … and pretty much every skit and standup bit in the show)…

A handful of things were extra fabulous: Josh Charles’s appearance on an episode just after his shocking departure from The Good Wife – Schumer and Charles make glorious fun of the pomposity of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which was absolutely necessary.

An offhand reference to the Operation Smile charity (which my company works with and sends volunteers to). Mentioning jokingly that TMZ maybe thought she was Paula Deen (which might not have made me spit my coffee out – in laughter – if I had not been lambasting Paula Deen a whole lot lately with my Firewall – check out Paula Deen “oiling up a bird” and deep-frying it with her Aunt Peggy, who has a very “Derek-esque“, vacant smile going on here).

Some of the over-the-top, possibly over-the-line humor – the “We’ve all been a little raped”/”grey area of rape” bit, the “AIDS/dealbreaker/gluten allergy” date – a bit gasp-worthy, then laugh-worthy and then thought-provoking. How many times have we all been on a date or in a situation where someone tells us something really uncomfortable and offered us an “out” but we still sit there, awkward, convincing ourselves that we’re okay with something that is really not okay with us or that makes us tongue-tied to the extent that, as Schumer blurts out, “I don’t know what I’m saying.” You might be able to say something eloquent and articulate and thoughtful if you’re not blindsided – but unprepared, how do you not stumble? “Is that a dealbreaker for you?”

“No, it’s great!”

Amy Schumer is a smart woman holding a mirror up to herself, to all of us, to society – willing to (like most good comedians) be vulnerable, embarrassed and embarrassing.

Pleased to have made her acquaintance.

Why I Changed My Mind: Julie Delpy

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Julie Delpy is, for lack of a better term, a real woman. A woman of many talents, not afraid to be herself, not afraid to be quirky. And not even afraid to be a bitch. When she was younger, it was hard to see things like Europa Europa, her guest arc on the TV hit ER or Trois Couleurs: Blanc and see her as anything but bitchy – her roles were sort of icy or manipulative in ways that made it hard to see her in any other light. And things like Before Sunrise with the generally overrated Ethan Hawke did not lend any charm – a favorite “romance” flick for Gen Xers, Before Sunrise, never appealed to me (like most Gen X pop-culture goalposts and anthems, such as Reality Bites – also with Hawke or Singles, which still does not make sense to me).

The subsequent nine-year intervals between sequels to Before Sunrise, though, have made the films Before Sunset and Before Midnight quite compelling – and I think this is all down to Delpy. Since I don’t get and have never gotten the Ethan Hawke thing (somehow he was the one in Dead Poet’s Society who was singled out for attention, when it was Robert Sean Leonard‘s passionate and tragic turn as Neil that got my attention. Or the passionate, do-anything-for-the-girl classic guy-with-crush performance of Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet. What did Ethan Hawke do in that movie that was so remarkable except defy authority and be the first to jump up on a desk at the end? Yet Ethan Hawke has been the movie star and these others have been “television actors” in popular and well-respected shows, such as House and The Good Wife (and no, I don’t mean that in the snide way Warden Gentles did in Arrested Development), I can only imagine that the load is carried in large part by Delpy.

After the aforementioned “cold” roles in her early career, followed by some missteps like Killing Zoe and An American Werewolf in Paris, I think I could be forgiven my rush to harsh judgment. None of this is to say that her talents went unrecognized – I never watched these films and believed she lacked talent or was just playing variations of herself. I just wondered how it was that she always played this aloof or sometimes misguided character (thinking here of her “Leni” in Europa Europa – she was passionate all right, but the passion was wholly devoted to producing children for Hitler’s “pure Germany”. Perhaps in hindsight I can applaud Delpy’s believability because that role had to have been hard to pull off).

My re-evaluation of Delpy began when I saw Before Sunset. Yeah, I know – I hated Before Sunrise but still had enough curiosity to see where Jesse and Celine (the characters) ended up. I like to torture myself this way, watching things I don’t like, listening to music I don’t like – perhaps just to remind me that there are other, much more beautiful things to watch and hear in the world. But Before Sunset surprised me. Later I saw Delpy in other roles but really decided I liked her after seeing Two Days in Paris (and later, the even funnier Two Days in New York). (I also enjoyed the on-screen keying of cars that Delpy’s father engages in – dismissing it as “normal French behavior” – exactly what I have been trying to tell everyone who isn’t French!) Her performances were subdued and grounded in reality – and that transformed the way I saw her and interpreted her roles.

The change in my opinion also came about because I liked learning that Delpy is so active behind the camera as a writer and director – I love the idea that someone creates the stories they want to see, or they want to appear in. I have read a few interviews where Delpy has kind of downplayed the uniqueness of being a female director, particularly because France actually has quite a number of well-respected, well-known women directors. But this is rather an anomaly in the cinematic world. Not every country has a Claire Denis, an Agnès Jaoui, a Catherine Breillat, a Josiane Balasko, a Mia Hansen-Løve and the countless other women who direct films in France. Delpy can, I hope, forgive the rest of the cinema-loving world for admiring the rarity of her multitasking, multitalented jack-of-all-trades approach to her artistic career.

My feelings should not be overly influenced by what I read or the person Delpy is or appears to be – but the truth is, reading about her own feelings of insecurity or feeling like “a cow” after her child was born – and seeing how she actually looks like a real woman – a stunningly beautiful and stunningly natural woman – imbues her performances with a kind of earthy reality that is not easily found, felt or seen elsewhere. I don’t often have commentary on how actors and actresses look. They are resoundingly “perfect” and put together most of the time, and the especially beautiful and polished are slathered in accolades if they do anything that might make them seem anything less than perfect. It’s like becoming a regular or slightly unattractive person makes a beautiful person an automatic consideration for acting awards. Is that really the measure of how well someone acts? How much vanity they are willing to give up – temporarily, note – to alter their appearance?

Not the point. The point is that Delpy actually looks and sounds the part (“the part” being a woman in her 30s/early 40s). Contributing to the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the conversation – content and pace – throughout feels almost dull at times but in a refreshing and good way. Why? Because that’s how real conversation is. Sometimes it digs into emotion, sometimes it digs into feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, sometimes it is witty, sometimes it is just the kind of petty shit that people hurl at each other in moments of weakness, despair, anger. It’s not perfect – but in that way, it’s perfect. A perfect reflection of everyday life. In Before Midnight, Delpy especially – but really the whole cast (which is mostly Delpy and Hawke) – captures, with almost no action – the up-and-down nature of a relationship. Before Sunrise was lauded for supposedly capturing this, but it’s easy to have two young, idealistic adults meet and talk all night and have it be the most romantic night of their lives. Before Midnight, though, is entirely another level of “romantic” because it had to capture two people who had actually idealized each other when they were young – it showed the reality of what happens if someone pursues the “what might have been” or “the one who got away”. It isn’t going to be ideal. If anything, the dialogue and performances convey perfectly the fragility of relationships. All the things unsaid, the resentment, the misinterpretations – and the question of whether love is ever really enough.

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

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According to HuffPost the best line uttered on tv in 2013 was, “Not great, Bob!”

““Not great, Bob!” It was only three words, spoken by an angry Pete Campbell as he joined the ever-sunny Bob Benson in an elevator on Mad Men.””

As someone who loves any line that involves “Bob” (e.g. “I used to have a pretty good pen, Bob.” Or “Scarves, Bob? His life will be filled with scarves?”), I agree. Especially because I am, like most, a Mad Men fan – and possibly an even bigger fan of the work James Wolk has done on Mad Men, the entertaining and mostly underrated Political Animals and The Crazy Ones – he and Hamish Linklater are the best parts of that show.

I get roped into a lot of television shows – not just because television is improving and offers a depth and breadth that seemed unimaginable a decade ago. I live in the middle of the Swedish woods and am a workaholic multitasker. I need some noise going on in the background all the time, and when it’s not music, it’s television shows. Mostly I carefully select the shows to which I become devoted – but in the interim, I watch a lot of stuff halfheartedly (like the aforementioned The Crazy Ones, which is not very good and only offers a funny line now and then or –puke, puke – guest appearances from – PUKE – Josh Groban. I watch, I judge, I keep watching sometimes even when a show sucks or even after it loses the plot (example, Revenge) or becomes passé (case in point – Grey’s Anatomy). Some stuff is middling all the time – entertaining but nothing extraordinary (Elementary, Grimm, Revolution – stuff that does not require careful attention, enabling my half-watching notice, mostly things I will refer to as “network stuff”. As much as the major networks are trying to be edgy, they are still just middle-ground followers. Half-baked ideas relying on shock value, soapy dramatics, riding the coattails of the deserved success of edgier, deeper, different storytelling from free and premium cable channels. (Not that all non-network tries are successful. The US version of The Killing started off with promise, dragged its feet with sloppy storytelling and carried its first-season mystery into season two without resolution – never a good idea, right David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Who killed Laura Palmer? People extended the show goodwill enough to give it a third season, which was arguably much better than the second season, but it was really too late.)

Speaking of killing, I also caught a brief article on TV characters who should be killed off. I found that I agreed with the majority. The article also brought up some other random thoughts – because that is what a multitasker does – lots of different things at once, with disconnected thoughts shooting through the brain at lightning speed. Sometimes I capture them – sometimes not (but they were not likely worth capturing).

I only recently started watching Scandal – rapidly caught up on the previous seasons over holiday break. I dislike Quinn – never had a liking for her, but it has gotten worse. I agree that she can go anytime. I have trouble with Tony Goldwyn in general – he is a good actor but for me, he is Carl the bad guy from Ghost (a film I hated). I cannot do anything except make fun of Ghost. Everything about it was so cheesy, and the villains (Willie Lopez!? Carl!). I also remember ghosts of TV’s past when Tony Goldwyn was a guest star on Designing Women, asking the women to design his funeral. He played a gay man who was going to die from AIDS, and the episode ended with his funeral. Designing Women was a preachy show and brought up a lot of issues of the day (mid/late 80s issues). Not that AIDS is not an issue today – but the issue and the illness – or approach to the illness – have changed, maybe in part because of mainstream treatment of the disease?

Which then led me to think about the show Life Goes On (not least because one of its principal actors, Patti LuPone, is now in the ensemble cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Not a favorite in the US although it went on for seasons and seasons. It was probably the first show that put a family front and center that included a member with Down Syndrome and prominently featured that character in the storylines. While that was probably groundbreaking at the time, the show also gave one of its main characters an HIV-positive teenage boyfriend (played by Chad Lowe – probably one of the only things I remember him doing since his career has been overshadowed by his brother Rob and his ex-wife, Hilary Swank – who would have imagined that when she was in one of the many Karate Kid sequels?). I thought about how this character introduction was also its own kind of groundbreaking. While Life Goes On was never actually what I could call “entertaining”, it somehow tackled big issues without being over the top or preachy. It’s no wonder it was not popular (I am told that it was popular in Iceland for some reason – so everyone remembers “Corky” – I suspect if I were to ask a representative sample of Americans if they remember Corky or Becca Thatcher, they would not).

Where is this line in television between entertainment and education? At times Designing Women just felt like a mouthpiece for the creator’s political views and feminist diatribes. Life Goes On, without being too heavy handed or dramatic, still felt a bit too real, making it too depressing to be a gripping drama. Meanwhile, something like The Wire can do both – “edutainment”. But, it is also true that The Wire was not exactly popular during its first run. It has more of the slow-burn quality that comes from being able to buy whole seasons of tv on DVD or online for streaming/download. Some things just don’t catch on until well after the fact. Some fall into obscurity (Homefront, anyone?) while others live on and gather a loyal, vocal following (Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights – note that I cite TWO Kyle Chandler classics!). Thanks to the push for original programming from unorthodox sources (Netflix), we got another season of Arrested Development after years of waiting. Was it worth it? Hard to say – need to watch it more than once to assess. That was the beauty of Arrested Development all along – you almost had to watch it more than once to catch everything. The show was laced with multilayered jokes and references, and without a pretty well-stocked brain bar, getting the perfectly hilarious mixed cocktail it intended could be challenging. It was funny on its surface in many cases but even funnier if you could unpack all the layers. (The Simpsons is a lot like that, too – albeit more so in its earlier years.)

But then so much of pop culture – any culture or discipline – relies on shared references.

For example, everyone needs to see the 1980s classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I do not know how many times I have referenced it lately and heard it referenced. There was a con mentioned in the show White Collar called “The Phoebe Cates” (referring to the most memorable scene in the film). There was a reference in The Crazy Ones to the scene-stealing Jeff Spicoli (played by then-unknown Sean Penn). Most good pop culture – even the not so good – plays on these references and adds a richness

For the sake of posterity and trying to remember how, when, where and on what I flushed so much time down the toilet, I’m listing as much as I can remember of television I recently ingested and random thoughts on some of them. There are way too many other shows I have not listed (like Mad Men, actually – because they are not on now or soon).

Nashville – Not great, not terrible. I like Connie Britton (thanks to her work in Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and early Spin City) – not sure I buy this show but I actually like a lot of the music in the show.

The Crazy Ones – This show is all right but I don’t go out of my way to see it. James Wolk and Hamish Linklater make the show for me (really enjoyed both of their work in other things as well). Robin Williams is too over the top as usual and Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I keep trying to like, is just not for me. I do love Brad Garrett in his role, though. The episodes seemed to get better when he arrived.

The Good Wife – New life breathed into this (not that it needed it) when main character goes off to form her own law firm.

Justified – can’t wait for the new season, coming up soon. I love everything about this show and all its characters. Agree with the writer of article cited above – do not want ANY of these characters to die.

Once Upon a Time – I admit that I have skipped the whole current season of this show. I gave up.

Californication – Thank god we are heading into the final season of this show that should have died ages ago. Sick of this story being rehashed of some loser middle-aged dude who manages to pull his head out of his ass long enough to do something artistically rewarding only to fuck up his personal life and screw over all the people in his fucked life again and again. It’s only funny or forgivable for so long…

House of Lies – Pretty entertaining because it plays on all the stereotypical business clichés and management consultant language. Don Cheadle plays a great asshole.

House of Cards – Entertaining remake of the UK version, proof that creativity can be launched from all kinds of wombs (Netflix original programming)

Episodes – Looking forward to new season. Have been surprised by how crass but simultaneously funny this show is.

Lilyhammer – Funny but also like being hit over the head with stereotypes. But then no one outside of Norway knows anything about Norway – but this might be the sort of thing they imagine. UDI (immigration directorate) might take offense to its treatment, but I’ve never heard a happy story coming out of there.

Shameless – Looking forward to the new season

Grey’s Anatomy – End already. It’s getting petty (or pettier) and duller by the minute

Revenge – It was always soapy but now it’s just ridiculous and has lost any edge it had. Best part is the ease with which character Nolan Ross switches between male and female love interests and it’s just no big deal to anyone. Perfect.

Parks and Recreation – Losing its comedic edge unfortunately.

Community – interested in seeing how this is rebooted now that its controversial creator is back at the helm. Fingers crossed after dismal previous season.

Scandal – Outlandish but a guilty pleasure.

Hawaii Five-0 – another guilty pleasure. I like the chemistry among the cast. Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan together are pretty funny. I like some of the cheeky jokes, for example about Magnum PI – long ago and faraway Hawaii-based TV

Elementary – Big Jonny Lee Miller fan, like how Aidan Quinn is pretty much always a New York police captain in every show now, and Lucy Liu has grown on me in almost all the roles she has done since annoying Ally McBeal BS.

Downton Abbey – I could fully see where the popularity came from in the beginning but it is grating my nerves now

How I Met Your Mother – So glad this is coming to an end. It used to be quite funny at times but this last season feels like a stretch.

White Collar – Time filler. Sometimes quite entertaining. I like the characters but it’s a fairly straightforward show.

Veep – Caught up on this a few months ago and loved it. Laughed a lot at the awkwardness.

The Walking Dead – When it comes back, I wonder where the gang will go. I have always been happy that the show was not afraid to kill people off as they went – that’s realistic.

American Horror Story – Enjoying. I love the big ensemble cast and like that each season brings back the same people in different roles. I never used to like Jessica Lange but this has put a few points in her column. Angela Bassett is, for lack of a better word, amazing. She always is.

Treme – An abbreviated final season. Interested in seeing how it all turns out, even though things never quite “turn out” – I don’t expect finality.

Girls – Clever at first. Eventually just annoying as all fuck. The article above wants Marnie to die. I would not mind if they all did.

Top of the LakeJane Campion is a complicated filmmaker, and she is no different when introducing her storytelling to the small screen. Visually arresting backdrop to a complicated and ugly story, Elisabeth Moss takes center stage as a New Zealander/detective who goes home for the first time in years, dredging up some of the horrors of her own past. Excellent viewing.

Luther – The story is often really outlandish and unbelievable but we can’t help loving Idris Elba, can we? Or the troubled John Luther that he portrays.

Game of Thrones – I resisted. I tried to watch once but did not get far. I tried again and got sucked in this time. Much better. I am a Peter Dinklage fan anyway but came to appreciate the whole thing (even if I still acknowledge that he’s the best thing about the show)

Bron – Swedish/Danish original of the police show – great characters.

The Bridge – US version of Swedish/Danish police show. It took a while to accept Diane Kruger and her character, but I loved Demian Bichir’s character immediately. Also appreciated Ted Levine as the lieutenant – as I loved him in Monk – and Thomas M. Wright as Steven Linder – he also figured prominently into Top of the Lake.

Orange is the New Black – Binge watched. Mostly really enjoyed this – of course it’s not perfect but it was different from most of what else is out there. More accolades for Netflix taking a chance on its own programming.

Longmire – Just renewed for a third season. Can you argue with a show that has Lou Diamond Phillips in it? No.

Ray Donovan – Not sure about this show still. I like most of the characters, but all I can think of when I watch this is that the whole plot development is advanced almost entirely by people making phone calls on their mobiles – way too much time on the phone for everyone involved. Character development suffers a bit…

Homeland – Ok, this show went off the rails many times. I still enjoy it, largely because I have enjoyed the performances of Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham (he will always be Salieri to me). But let’s hope that the next season takes a new direction in light of some of what transpired in the end of the latest season.

Masters of Sex – One of the best things to come along in the last round of shows. Excellent and likeable cast, a sensitive subject handled with sensitivity and a deft hand. Beautifully done. A lot of accolades have gone to star Lizzy Caplan (well-deserved), but other cast members, including virtually unrecognizable Julianne Nicholson and, as the repressed housewife discovering sexual secrets about her husband, the always great Allison Janney.

The Newsroom – My opinion is tipping toward dislike. The background music playing in many scenes tells too much of the story – soaring music that somehow betrays that Jeff Daniels’s character is going to do something liberal and benevolent that no one expects. Too much of the annoying Maggie (played by Alison Pill) and a whole stupid storyline there. I know this is Aaron Sorkin and his famous fast-talking, wordy spiels for all the characters, but I don’t buy the characters here. Mac (Emily Mortimer) is especially out there – someone is unlikely to ascend to her position if this insecure and flighty. Best characters – Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Hamish Linklater (a few episodes in the most recent season). They kept the thing grounded.

True Blood – End already? The recent season was a bit more entertaining than the previous two but I could do without this one.

Boardwalk Empire – One of my all-time favorites. I don’t actually know many people who like it, but I love it. I think it becomes more engrossing each season and love the actors they bring in. Somehow the vast ensemble does not get muddled – each character is distinct, even if it does mean that one needs to pay close attention to every moment of the show. Definitely a show not afraid to kill off important characters and fan favorites, which is sad but perhaps necessary to keep it going at the same level. (Actresses I have never liked, such as Patricia Arquette and Julianne Nicholson, turn in fabulous performances here.)

Sons of Anarchy – Also look forward to this ending. It has just become ridiculous. More ridiculous than it already was.

Revolution – Time filler-killer

Grimm – Time filler – like that it is set in Portland, though, so we get references to Portland’s weirdness and Voodoo Doughnut.

Hell on Wheels – I watch this almost entirely to see the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl as “The Swede”. That alone is worth the time.

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