Lunchtable TV talk: Lockdown viewing

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I’ve said it about a million times before, much like addicts promise to get better, stop destroying themselves and hurting others: I will stop watching so much television. This is not a promise I ever end up keeping.

For a while this “promise” endured because I was busy with so many others things: work, study, travel, friends. Slowly I started letting more televisual entertainment slip into my field of view, and before I knew it, I was binge-watching all six seasons of Lost in the course of about one week (seriously). (I never saw Lost during its original run and felt like it was a strange gap in my pop culture knowledge.) Was I failing to do the things I needed to do in life? No. Was I neglecting relationships? Probably not. This excessive consumption has taken hold and had the chance to expand during the enforced isolation of Covid times. I am not alone there (well, in the most literal sense I am) — most streaming platforms have seen exponential (and semi-sustained) jumps in subscribership during this time.

With this confession, then, I am going to dump a random list here of things I’ve watched in recent months with a few short words about each (in most cases). You will notice that not all of them are new (case in point: Lost). Some are comedy/sitcoms, some are dramas, some are documentaries. Some are in English, some aren’t. I haven’t made an exhaustive list of what I’ve watched – there is a whole lot I have not listed here, if you can believe it. But it’s also not a list of things that I necessarily liked. These are the things that stuck in my head for one reason or another, so I’ve included them in this list. I know I’m going to forget some good stuff because… well, I am a total addict, I don’t keep close enough track of stuff as I watch, and I consume so much that I can’t possibly call it all to mind easily. For instance, I almost forgot to list Black Monday — and I loved that.

There is not much reason for this list other than… the fact that I like to keep track of stuff I watch and read. But I do know that lots of people are running out of stuff to watch after force-feeding themselves all their streaming platforms had to offer in the early days of lockdown. We may face multiple lockdown rounds, in which case, I am sure everyone really wants to know what kind of entertainment I would recommend (or not).

So here, in no particular order at all, are some of my recent viewing vices:

Brockmire: This is by far one of my favorite shows in this entire list. It’s a shame so few people have seen and heard of it. Led by Hank Azaria, supported by Amanda Peet, the four short seasons of Brockmire traveled from a semi-redemptive story about a fast-talking, loudmouth baseball announcer who lost it and went on a multiple-year drinking and drug bender to a future in which the titular character finds meaning in family life and something approaching simplicity. I don’t do it justice… but it’s razor sharp, hilarious, sad, a cautionary tale about baseball, technology and the broader, darker future we have in store for us. But its emotional resonance comes from the soulful performance Azaria delivers throughout the character’s journey. I urge you: WATCH THIS. If you watch anything at all from this entire list, let it be Brockmire.

Mr Inbetween: I cannot recommend this Australian show enough. I am not sure why but it struck me in a big way when I watched it. Read my further thoughts on Mr Inbetween here. (There’s also a nod to a Canadian show, Mary Kills People, about a doctor who helps terminally ill patients die, in the Mr Inbetween write-up; Mary Kills People is not worth watching but is something I watched in recent months.)

Bosch: A take on the dark, semi-rogue cop story, this detective procedural offers a slightly offbeat constancy… whether it is crime, corruption or the prevalence of inscrutable grey areas. Perhaps it’s the offbeat nature of it that makes it addictive and comforting – with ten hours flying by (while other shows feel like they drag). The writing is not bad, acting decent, good cast… and there are several seasons to sink your teeth into.

Hightown: I watched all eight episodes of the first season, never quite making up my mind until the end that I thought it was okay. I am frustrated with characters who are their own worst enemies, which is the case for Monica Raymund‘s Jackie. It’s a murder story with hints of organized crime/the drug underworld with not particularly engaging characters or character development, making this one that I’d recommend skipping.

Normal People: I have not read the book on which Normal People is based, but am told that it is in most ways quite faithful to the source material (with a few notable exceptions). Perhaps I watched it in an unusually emotional state because I found it… grating, although still gripping enough that I wanted to see it through. Mostly it irritated me because the two main characters were such poor communicators and most of the problems they faced as a couple came from not talking to each other, not making their wants and needs clear, and ending up in deeply unhappy and unsatisfying situations as a result. On the other hand, we are talking about two very young people, neither of whom had exceptional communication abilities or the propensity to form open, close connections with others (given what we learn about the woman character especially). For as much as critical buzz spoke about the realistic nature of the abundant sex scenes, I found it interesting that these two people could continually find their way back to each other and share a tremendous amount of physical intimacy that never seemed to cross over into an openly emotional intimacy (which, over time, is better explained by what we learn of each person’s life and past).

Ramy: I really despised the character Ramy, a young Egyptian-American man struggling with his identity in modern America. Inclined to be tied more actively to his Muslim faith than his family, he seems to be on a constant quest for spiritual fulfillment but at the same time is succumbing to temptations ranging from sugar addiction and copious porn-assisted masturbation to ongoing sexual affairs with various women, including a married member of his community. Perhaps as viewers we are not meant to like him or his struggle. Because most of the story is told from his POV, I think we get a one-dimensional view of women in general, and more particularly of Muslim women. I found myself enjoying the rest of Ramy’s family and the imam in season two (Mahershala Ali) much more than I cared for Ramy himself, and I was glad that the show had an expansive enough approach to storytelling to include these tales as well. I did find that the, erm, creative and unusual situations Ramy got himself into made the show well worth watching, even if his foibles, mistakes, poor choices and shortcomings were often cringeworthy.

Hanna: Comprised of two quite watchable seasons of action, this is no masterpiece and doesn’t really explore some of the moral questions that the themes of the show could and should invite. I found myself drawn to the performance of Esme Creed-Miles (daughter of actors Samantha Morton and Charlie Creed-Miles — whom I’d never heard of or seen acting until recently when he turned up in about five things I’d watched in short succession). I’ve never seen the film version of this (Saoirse Ronan played the lead), and I wouldn’t say that the tv version inspires me to go back and watch the film. But the tv version is a decent distraction.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story: I am not sure when I fell in love with Amanda Peet, but it happened a few years ago (and happily two of her other vehicles are listed in this post — The Romanoffs and Brockmire). And she is the only reason I decided to watch this. If you were alive and probably American at the time this story took place, you probably heard about the dramatic double homicide perpetrated by Betty Broderick — she killed her ex-husband and his new wife. But the tabloid retellings of the time didn’t quite capture the story the way this did. Sure, this is a semi-fictional account, meaning that we see a relatively sympathetic take on Betty Broderick, who spent her youth making sacrifices for and supporting her husband, only to have him run off with his young assistant later, once he’d achieved great financial and professional success. Not a novel framework by any means, but certainly the outcome differs from most woeful “he left me for a younger woman” stories.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: I have been watching this documentary while reading the book it’s roughly taken from. Michelle McNamara was a gifted writer who humanized murder victims and seemed to really care about who they were as people, and the losses the people around them suffered once they were gone. Obsessive, driven, talented but undermined, it seems, by a kind of impostor syndrome, McNamara never quite embraced the idea (again, it seems) that she was as bright and talented as she really was. Sadly, she died before the book was completed, and before the murderer she’d relentlessly chased in her amateur detective work was identified and caught. But it’s a fitting tribute that the book has received as much attention as it has, and a documentary series is a perfect companion piece to showcase the publicity-shy, engaging McNamara in her element.

Little America: Having grabbed an AppleTV trial subscription solely to watch Visible: Out on Television, I felt I had to take advantage of the time on Apple before the week was up. There is almost nothing, otherwise, ON AppleTV, which is why I will be damned if I am going to shell out any money at all. You kind of have to bring the content, right? But I did quickly snack on this imperfect but charming collection about different immigrants in the US. Adapted from a number of true stories based on real people’s experiences, these semi-fictionalized accounts splashed just enough emotion (both happy and sad) to engage me even in the slower moments of the storytelling.

Flesh and Bone: Digging through Amazon content I stumbled onto this ballet-driven drama and did watch all eight episodes, but apart from depicting with a veneer of accuracy the physical torture of elite ballet (projected as the most delicate and transcendent movement experience a body can convey), the characters and stories often didn’t make sense, felt contrived and seemed needlessly dark and designed for audience shock value. It was particularly difficult to discern the motivations for many characters’ actions, and even though this problem started to resolve as the series went on, it felt as though there was not adequate time to fully resolve lingering motivational issues while still being able to hold the audience’s attention with the thin plotline(s). Nevertheless, the ballet created for the series itself and the talent of the cast – actual ballet dancers, thankfully – gave this a boost in terms of credibility.

Visible: Out on Television: I watch pretty much everything like this – documentaries on the struggle for equal rights and against violence, and of course at the core of these kinds of programs is the fight for AIDS treatment and research. I can’t emerge from watching these things without uncontrollably sobbing, thinking about all the people who were lost during that truly frightening time. You’d think we’d have learned something about compassion from the AIDS epidemic and how it was handled, but watching the way the current COVID crisis is unfolding, it seems we haven’t. The public “discourse” (it can’t even be called that) is so divisive and memories seemingly so short that I’ve pretty much lost whatever sliver of faith I had in humanity (or at least in the United States). In any case, this is so worth watching to see how LGBTQ representation has changed on TV (hint: there’s more of it at last, but there’s still some way to go).

Dead to Me: I’ve watched the two seasons of Dead to Me, and enjoyed their dark humor, but I can’t explain why. I guess I really like Linda Cardellini and also like Christina Applegate, and both play characters who make unlikely friends who have to stick together because of a few dark, shared secrets. It’s not always easy, and I suppose there is where the dramatic tension and some of the humor comes from.

Lenox Hill: I am kind of a sucker even for fictional medical drama, but this is a documentary that follows doctors in Lenox Hill hospital in New York over the course of several months. I enjoyed each story and the doctors the show followed, but I especially loved David Langer, the Chief of Neurosurgery. It’s probably weird to say that you’d fall in love with anyone from a show like this, but I suppose its emphasis on humanizing the somewhat mysterious work of physicians helps achieve this rush of feeling. After I devoured the first set of episodes, I noticed that there was a new one – they made a Covid-specific episode to chronicle how the hospital was coping with this new crisis.

Hunters: This was over-the-top and not particularly satisfying. Even though, especially in this day and age, you’d think it would be: a group of unlikely “heroes” come together to form a secret society of Nazi hunters in the 1970s. Not a bad premise, and while the show itself it not entirely bad, it’s just underbaked somehow. Still, when I watched it, I was drawn in enough to finish watching. But it seems that this could have been done differently and better. A wasted opportunity.

Sex Education: This one doesn’t need much introduction — it’s been streamed like mad, and rightfully so. It’s funny in a charming and embarrassing kind of way — both for awkward teenagers and for the adults who play it cool but are still just as confused as the rest of us. Gillian Anderson is great here as Jean Milburn, sex therapist/expert who nevertheless struggles with commitment and intimacy, and the plot of the show is driven by the intelligent but insecure Otis, Jean’s son, who delivers sex advice to his classmates to make some money. It’s often quite heartbreaking, heartfelt and reminds one of the trials of high school. Ugh. Well worth watching.

The Romanoffs: The Romanoffs, perhaps unfairly, was overlooked when it was released. Overshadowed by other content in a newly overstuffed streaming landscape, and buried under the weight of expectation. It’s not that this was flawless, but it was creative and unusual and had a great cast across each of the very loosely related vignettes. I think I saw some advertising for this around the same time The Kominsky Method came out, and the two Slavic-sounding names canceled each other out in my mind (because I watched neither until several years after they were released). Of course it was clear from the advertising about The Romanoffs that its premise was that all the characters were meant, in some way, to be descendants of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty. Whether they were or not was immaterial to, and only tangentially related, to the real stories the vignettes aimed to tell. Each of those stories was hit or miss. For example, I liked bits of the first story about an old French lady whose American nephew and his materialistic French girlfriend are just waiting for the aunt to die and leave them her apartment. They hire a housekeeper/caretaker who happens to be a Muslim woman, and the old lady is rude, racist, and incensed — but her anger seems less directed at the housekeeper and more toward being left alone and ignored in a world that is passing her by. The story gets a bit strange, but it has its rich moments. My favorite of the stories was the episode, “Expectation”, in which Amanda Peet and John Slattery are just so human that it’s hard to watch. A close second is “End of the Line” when a childless couple (Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson) travel to the Russian Far East to adopt a baby. The scene is so drab and suspect, hinting constantly that something could, and will, go wrong at any moment. The final episode is also interesting. But then several of the episodes are utterly forgettable. Like I said, hit or miss.

Modern Love: Like The Romanoffs, Modern Love is an anthology of vignettes. It’s in fact The Romanoffs without the Romanoff thread… it’s stories of people falling in and out of love — different kinds of love and care, different places in love affairs, the loss of love, and so on. It’s engaging enough that I did feel drawn in and watched it all. Also a supremely talented cast, including John Slattery (who featured in The Romanoffs), and a duo of “everywhere, in everything” people —Julia Garner and Shea Whigham.

The Jewish Enquirer: Imagine a low-budget sitcom modeled on the awkward misanthropy and political incorrectness of Curb Your Enthusiasm, only set in London, focused on a mostly unsuccessful journalist at a niche newspaper, and you might dream up something like The Jewish Enquirer. As it likes to say in reference to itself, it’s the UK’s 4th most-read Jewish newspaper… which should tell you everything you need to know. Hapless protagonist, Paul, gets into scrapes and situations that are reminiscent of Larry David‘s Curb antics… meaning that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe or both.

Black Monday: I nearly forgot to include this, but when the show returned from a hiatus recently with a Halloween episode that featured Don Cheadle and Dulé Hill dressed in competing Coming to America themed costumes, challenging each other to a Bobby BrownMy Prerogative” dance-off, and Andrew Rannells dressed as George Michael from the “Faith” video, the brilliance and hilarity of this frenetic show came rushing back to me. It’s not always spot-on in terms of what it’s trying to do, but it effortlessly captures the volatility and excess of the era it’s portraying, and has us laughing while it does.

Ozark: Ozark started off by introducing us to Marty and Wendy Byrde, accidental money launderers who have to weasel their way out of trouble with a Mexican drug cartel. They both turn out to be so successful at money laundering that it takes over their lives, and changes their entire life path (the whole family is affected, but it’s Laura Linney‘s Wendy who seems to embrace this sinister lifestyle and immerse herself in it). Jason Bateman is a steady hand (as he is in everything), and Julia Garner, who has been everywhere in recent years, is superb, despite some script-related character fluctuations that didn’t feel aligned with her character, Ruth.

Unorthodox: A young woman escapes her oppressive ultra-Orthodox life, leaving her husband and only life she’s ever known in Brooklyn, and runs away to Berlin, where her mother (who has also long ago fled the Orthodox life) lives. It’s a fascinating story about claiming an individual identity when layers of some other cultural and religious identity and “tradition” have been forced on you. She finds her path, and begins to make her own decisions.

Shtisel: Following on the very popular Unorthodox, I watched the two series of Shtisel, an Israeli show that follows a fictional ultra-Orthodox family through their daily lives, particularly as they all bend and break some of the rules of the strict community they live in. (Shira Haas, who plays the lead in Unorthodox, also appears.)

Our Boys: There’s something about this Israeli-American production that both angered me and made me inconsolably sad. Perhaps it’s the hopelessness of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians as an overhanging theme. The story starts with three Israeli teens being kidnapped and killed, apparently by Hamas. In a retaliatory kidnapping a Palestinian boy is taken away and killed. While the reactions of both the Jewish and Arab communities are explored, the hardest thing to watch was the grief and pain the family feels, and how much their differing reactions lead to the fragmentation of their family.

Kalifat: A Swedish drama/thriller about a young woman, Pervin, who is married to an IS fighter in Syria. She is desperate to leave and return to Sweden and is told that she has to exchange intelligence on IS activities for an escape route for her child and herself. The urgency of each moment, and how much risk Pervin is taking to get out of her perilous situation, is keenly felt in fast-paced action and seemingly constant threats. There are secondary — and important — stories, such as a thread about a “recruiter” who is grooming/brainwashing girls in Sweden to send them off to IS-controlled Syria. But it’s Pervin’s story that makes this worth watching.

Bobby Kennedy for President: It’s possible I watched this while I was descending into a maudlin period anyway, but I couldn’t help but cry multiple times as I watched this documentary series. Not so much because of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, but for the turbulence and loss of innocence that enveloped the 1960s — and Kennedy’s death was like a bookend to a period of sweeping social change that ultimately went into self-obsessed hibernation during the stagnant and ugly 1970s. I did enjoy the evolution of Bobby Kennedy as a thinker and politician, as he moved (at least rhetorically) away from dogmatic law and order to more social-justice-oriented policy and thought. His ascendancy and moment as the incumbent Democratic nominee, snatched away in minutes, is yet another one of history’s pivotal moments in which we are left to forever wonder, “What if?”

Years and Years: I sort of stumbled onto this British miniseries, and I ended up being quite surprised by its startling parallels with the current period we live in. We’re mired in a big mess, — politically, socially, economically, environmentally — and the real future, as well as the one projected in Years and Years, is grim and dark.

Hollywood: This won’t go down in history as a classic, but it was certainly inventive. A surprising emotional at times take on “what if…?” What if Hollywood had been different in the post-war era? What if gay actors could have just been who they were and lived with who they loved? What if black actors, writers and actresses would have had equality and visibility as they deserved? The generous artistic license here both let the imagination soar momentarily while also beating it down with the realization that no, we’re actually still not in a place of such openness.

Sorry for Your Loss: I wanted to find this to be… better than it was. But the endlessly whiny and exceedingly selfish character, a young widow played by Elizabeth Olsen, made this almost unwatchable. The supporting cast shines when they have the opportunity, but Olsen’s Leigh sucks all the oxygen out of every scene, making it difficult to enjoy the other stories. Her husband appears to have killed himself, and through flashbacks, we see how deep his lifelong depression is, and how dismissive Leigh has been of his struggles. And it just makes her selfishness all the more annoying. I couldn’t force myself to watch the second season.

Stateless: Anyone in doubt of the great range of Yvonne Strahovski‘s talent should look no further. If you put together her anguished, confused portrayal here with her controlled, manipulative role as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale and her breakout performance as Hannah in Dexter — all very different roles, it’s hard to imagine why she hasn’t made a bigger mark. Stateless is the true story of an Australian woman who, after a psychotic break, ends up in an Australian detention center meant for refugees.

I Am Not Okay With This: Based on a comic book, I Am Not Okay With This straddles fantasy, sci-fi, teen coming-of-age dramedy and somehow manages to pull it off. The story focuses on angry and confused teen, Syd, who discovers she has out-of-control telekinetic powers. It’s not terribly different from many other high school angst films and tv shows, but its irreverence and a touch of the supernatural make this worthwhile entertainment.

The English Game: This isn’t exactly a masterpiece but does take a surface-level look at how football changed and became a “passing” game once Scottish players came onto the scene. Football was at the time (the 1870s) seen as a wealthy upper-class man’s pastime, but the Scots who played were working class men who felt that the game not only could be a team effort but also a vocation for which players should be paid. He was by no means the main character, but I loved Craig Parkinson as James Walsh.

Queen Sono: I had to watch this if for no other reason that it was Netflix’s first African production. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my attention and felt, for once, like something different.

Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi: I get pulled into these food and cooking shows sometimes, but most of them aren’t things I’d single out to mention. For example, I have watched most of the cooking-related shows available on Netflix (Ugly Delicious – but David Chang seems dickish enough that I can’t recommend it to anyone else; Chef’s Table, which I actually love; The Chef Show – which is fairly informative and made me have a new appreciation for Jon Favreau; Somebody Feed Phil, which is highly obnoxious and repetitive but does visit some interesting places – it in fact made me think I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time in Chicago, even though I don’t have an ounce of desire to spend even one minute in the United States). Having listed all these things, I do single out Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation because I very much enjoyed how she struck a balance between different groups of people and their food and the contradictions and adaptations of those foods and how they have been adopted and co-opted. In the first episode, for example, Lakshmi travels to Texas (the El Paso/Juarez border) and meets a second-generation Syrian immigrant who is a Trump supporter who claims to love his Mexican employees, Mexicans and Mexico — and runs a gas station/Mexican diner that employs Mexicans who have to cross the border to come to work every day. Padma, bless her, doesn’t comment on the cognitive dissonance that would allow someone to praise and vote for Trump at the same time as praising and relying on Mexicans for his livelihood… The whole show is full of these kinds of small cultural anomalies and twists, and it’s this stealth that made it enjoyable.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat: A breezy and informative British cooking show with a friendly but not annoying woman (that’s a hard balance to strike on these kinds of shows, I think), Nadiya. She sometimes made some weird stuff but overall it was just a pleasant thing to have on in the background, and to watch Nadiya as she traveled to different spots in the UK to see, for example, salmon farming, sugar processing and Marmite manufacturing in action. (I made a wee mention of this in another post on vegan candy making.)

Jett: Mostly mindless entertainment with the lovely Carla Gugino as an ex-con, high-end burglar also featuring Giancarlo Esposito. I’ve already confessed to enjoying Jett but not in a way that would make me tell you that you should watch it yourself.

Life in Pieces: I never got around to watching this sitcom when it was new, and over the course of a few weeks binge-watched the whole thing. There were moments that were funny, of course, but for the most part this always felt like it was trying too hard.

Star Trek: Picard: I will probably love anything Star Trek that you throw at me, and this was not an exception. There were some misfires (why was Alison Pill and her character even there?), but overall I loved this, and if you’re a Trek person, you probably will too. Oh, those Romulans.

The Plot Against America: I read Philip Roth‘s book in February 2018, and it seemed sufficiently terrifying and prescient. Then I watched this – the David Simon/Ed Burns adaptation – and, if possible, felt more terrified. Why? Was it because the tv version gave life to something that was once only on the page – making it closer to real? Was it the fact that by the time I saw this we were two more years into the implosion of the United States under Donald Trump? What Plot does best is expose the insidious hatred, racism and anti-Semitism that have always been living just below the surface — and when circumstances and characters enter the public stage — and gain power — permission to unleash these various forms of hatred seems to be granted and comes out into the open. Who could ignore the striking parallels to how Americans are living today?

The Kominsky Method: I’ve written a bit about Kominsky before, and continue to recommend it — apart from being funny it captures the past-middle-age, but not quite old (at least in the minds of the protagonist) ennui of life, peppered with moments of disruption, loss and the only kind of news people get at a certain point in life: bad. I’m not sure how a premise and plot points so soaked in themes of death, illness, tax and financial problems, and dealing with struggling middle-aged children can still manage to be as humorous as it is. Perhaps it’s because of these themes – we can’t shy away from them (it’s life, after all), so we make the best of them. Anyway it’s worth watching solely for Alan Arkin, but Michael Douglas isn’t bad either.

Breeders: I can never make up my mind about Martin Freeman. He’s great in most of the stuff he’s in, but there’s just something about him that makes him seem like he would be an insufferable asshole. And while I enjoyed Breeders a lot, I feel like the character he plays here is very likely not dissimilar to how he might be in his real life. Impatient, often unpleasant, prone to outbursts. Obviously I have no way of knowing this. Perhaps it’s just that he is so good in this role that it became hard to separate the role from the man/actor. I’ve written about Breeders before, so I won’t go on about it. Just know that it’s a bang-on embodiment of the duality of parenthood: when else will you be willing to die for someone that you so frequently want to kill? (I wrote in the same post about the Canadian show, Workin’ Moms, which travels some well-trodden — and some not so well-trodden — ground on parenting challenges, but I didn’t think it warranted a separate entry here.)

Giri/Haji: I kind of struggled to get through this one – it moved a little slowly and it was sometimes not entirely clear what was going on. I am not sure I found the blooming “love story” aspect believable but I liked when the Japanese protagonist tells Kelly MacDonald something like, “I know nothing about you except that you are English.” And she of course, happily, corrects, “I am not English.” As I’ve written somewhere else in this list, before a glut of things like this, I could not have told you who the hell Charlie Creed-Miles was… but then he was here, in Peaky Blinders, Five Days, Injustice, and a few other things…

Startup: I watched Startup in a fit of… I don’t know what. I couldn’t find anything to watch that didn’t require my attention, which usually sends me down a path of hitting “play” on almost anything that looks like it could be … tolerable. Now, far removed from when I originally watched it, I don’t remember everything about it except that Martin Freeman (previously mentioned) plays a crooked FBI agent in it (another convincing asshole role that lends some credence to my theory that his default is “asshole”), and a trio of mismatched strangers end up trying to launch a digital currency together. I suppose I found it interesting in large part because there aren’t that many TV shows that discuss digital currency at all, and if they do, they get it all wrong. In fact offhand the only other show I can recall mentioning cryptocurrency (in this case ETH) was Queen of the South (also not a bad time-passer as tv goes). Would I recommend this? I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s also not terrible.

After Life: I’ve got my mixed feelings on Ricky Gervais… there’s a genius in there somewhere, but at the same time, he can’t seem to help himself from letting a very petty, uncompassionate dude off the leash sometimes. Then again, people are stupid and it’s hard to always have compassion when patience is taxed at every turn. And that’s all exacerbated by grief. But I’ve enjoyed After Life — for the most part. The first series was better in that his fresh grief and pain from losing his wife made his character both relatable and insufferable, but it’s hard to watch in a second series. Sure, we all know that grief and the accompanying expanse of emotions has no timeline or limit, but in a half-hour, semi-comedic show it’s harder to justify letting it go on unchecked, despite how realistic it might be.

Marcella: At the conclusion of the second series of Marcella, I couldn’t really see where they could take the show. But take it somewhere they did – to Northern Ireland. Marcella assumes a new deep undercover identity and tries to take down a crime family. Her own mental state has continued to deteriorate, and even though there is something captivating about this (the way a car wreck is), I can’t say this is a good show or a good use of time to watch. Never mind that it stretches all credibility in terms of how things would actually play out.

Deadwater Fell: I don’t know if David Tennant just enjoys these brief UK-TV miniseries in which he plays possible murderers, but this is another one not unlike others I have seen. This time Cush Jumbo is in it, but she didn’t make this any more compelling.

Westworld: My interest has fallen off completely after the intriguing season one. By the time this latest third season concluded, I couldn’t tell you why I had continued watching or even what was going on.

Devs: I actually could not finish this. It was just overwrought and filled with overacting. I really don’t care for Alison Pill for some reason, and watching her in this right after her “why are you even here?” role in Star Trek: Picard made this even less interesting. It’s also hard to take Nick Offerman seriously as anyone but Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation.

Billions: I have written about Billions more than once, and I will just say that it started off and remained exciting for a couple of seasons, but has become a weird pissing contest with tiny slivers of inspiration in what, if I recall, is its fifth (?) season. Worth watching the early bits, not so much worth following through to the end.

Mrs America: A much-needed account of the history of how the ERA and the promise of women’s equality were quashed in the 1970s and 80s, mostly through the efforts of the conservative women’s movement driven by Phyllis Schlafly. Really well done, stellar cast – I wrote more about it here, and why it’s necessary viewing.

The Good Fight: The perfect dramedy, capturing the utter absurdity of the moment we live in. An even better, freer extension of The Good Wife, this time Christine Baranski takes the lead along with a stellar supporting cast. Although I’ve liked the show from the beginning, it feels less constrained now that Rose Leslie and her Madoff-like-dad storyline is gone.

Run: I mentioned Run in a post on women’s paths on television, and although I didn’t go deeply into the story of Run, I should mention that it is something I watched during this overdose-on-tv period. I didn’t really buy into the premise – two former lovers have arranged that they will text each other the word “Run” and if the other answers with “Run”, they will both run from whatever they are doing in their lives and meet at some predetermined place. Despite never really finding footing in that backdrop, the interaction and chemistry between the show’s stars, Merritt Wever (who must also be seen in Netflix’s Unbelievable) and Domhnall Gleeson, made me come back each week for me. The secondary stories and characters, including Archie Panjabi as Gleeson’s vindictive business partner and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as someone the two main characters come across during their “run”, were interesting diversions – and they didn’t entirely “fit” in the story, kept it quirky. It was nice to see Panjabi do something after The Good Wife, for which I am sure she is typecast and best known; Panjabi also appeared in the dark, depressing but nevertheless well-executed tv adaptation of I Know This Much Is True (also on HBO).

Schitt’s Creek: When I finally got around to watching Schitt’s Creek, it grated on my nerves at first, but I heeded the warnings about how it gets better and grows on you. For the most part this is true. It’s about as quirky as you’d expect, given the cast and premise. I still haven’t seen the final season, but everything up to that point is enjoyable enough that you can lose yourself, setting aside, if only briefly, the endless thoughts of pandemic, impending national collapse and potentially destabilizing presidential election (if you’re in the US).

Pure: Apparently there were two shows called “Pure” that came out around the same time. I started a show, thinking I was watching one of them, when in fact I had accessed the other. What I ended up seeing was a program about Mennonites involved in the drug trade, but what I meant to see was a UK-based show about a young woman suffering from debilitating and disturbing impure, deviant, sexual visions that were disrupting her entire life (and her search for relief/solutions). In the end I’ve seen both, and while I would not actively recommend either of them, I preferred the Mennonite Pure, despite the fact that I’d never set out to watch it in the first place.

Killing Eve: I keep watching this even though I hate it. I really hate it. I cannot put my finger on what exactly I hate about it, but it’s just … what’s the word? I’m glad that most of the lead roles are women, even if they seem mostly unhinged, and that the show’s creator is also a woman. But this seems more a showcase for strangeness and a platform for …something. But it’s not great. I don’t understand the compulsion that draws Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) together time and again, and this is meant to be what draws the viewer into the show week after week. In fact at a certain point, it is the only story, and everything else is a distraction. Apart from short glimpses of entirely other things — such as the damaging effects poor parents have on their children and the difficulties of, in fact, parenting, the core of this show feels hollow.

The Morning Show: I somehow thought this was a half-hour comedy. Maybe because people have tried so many times (and mostly failed) to make half-hour comedies about morning shows. But no, I was quickly set straight and realized that watching this was going to take much more time than I had anticipated. This is a thinly veiled version of the Matt Lauer sexual assault story, and the NBC coverup (recounted in detail in Ronan Farrow‘s Catch and Kill) that kept Lauer out of harm’s way and damaged countless women, their self-esteem and their careers. Not bad source material. Steve Carell‘s dramatic stock-in-trade is surface-level nice guy veneer papering over a deeply flawed, self-absorbed, abusive asshole. He uses this to perfection here, probably pulling off the most believable performance among the leads. I’m not a big fan of Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston, but both are passable, and better than usual (in my opinion). The supporting cast/roles were the biggest draw, as many of the production staff characters have compelling backstories, great personalities, and convey the real damage they have suffered from the sexual abuse they’ve experienced. And the best thing about the show, which is only a secondary thread, is Néstor Carbonell‘s weatherman character. You can’t help but love him.

The Outsider: I read a few good reviews of The Outsider (not to be mistaken for the heels of bread, ootsiders, as many Scots call them), and I like Ben Mendelsohn. But I don’t like Stephen King adaptations much, and this was not an exception. The basic idea: a murder that at first seems straightforward turns out to be not at all what it seems, and the lead investigator’s winding journey to find out what really happened. It’s not to say that this was bad – it was in fact as well done as a story with supernatural elements can be (and maybe that’s what is hard to swallow for me). Performances and characters were all great — so I should just be glad there was something redeeming here.

AKA Jane Roe: Documentary on “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), who was the plaintiff in the landmark, always-under-threat case, Roe v Wade, which granted American women the right to legal abortion. McCorvey was a difficult and challenging woman — shifting from a pro-choice “icon” to a mouthpiece for the anti-abortion Christian right. Her move to the right was a blow to the movement, and even had a personal cost for McCorvey (who had to renounce her longtime partner because the religious movement to which she’d tied herself considered homosexuality a sin). If there were a living, breathing embodiment of an unreliable narrator of one’s own life – McCorvey qualified. At the very end she says she was using the religious right as much as they were using her, and she was being paid to renounce her pro-choice beliefs and be a public voice for the anti-abortion movement. But in life, as on film, McCorvey never establishes that much of what she presented was true or real, so it’s hard to know what to believe.

Showbiz Kids: It’s hard not to feel bad for the kids (now adults) who appear in this documentary about kids who have grown up on film or tv sets. Nothing has been normal about their lives, and many don’t cope well (if they make it out alive) with it when they get older, particularly those who don’t successfully make the leap into being actors as adults.

Various standups: Standup comedy is a bit hit or miss, but I’ve found that some comedians are reliable for providing something I will enjoy, namely Marc Maron, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Hannah Gadsby. All have stuff streaming on Netflix. And you need a laugh. Go for it.

*Postscript 1*

A few items I forgot to add:

Homecoming

Shrill: I found Shrill to be surprisingly cutting and forthright — I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Quiz: The backstory on a cheating scandal that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The Great: Satirical and fictional take on Russia’s Catherine the Great. Not perfect but entertaining.

Dispatches from Elsewhere: I’ve already written about this unusual and fascinating journey.

Mrs Fletcher: I love Kathryn Hahn, and I’d add this because of her anyway. But this was an interesting journey about a divorced middle-aged empty-nester coming to terms with who she is and taking a new path. It fails on some fronts and feels a bit directionless at times, but that seems to serve the character’s unsteady, unsure steps toward identifying who she is.

*Postscript 2*

I thought a bit more about things I had consumed and decided to add a few more, even though some were things I watched a long time ago. Some shows, like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire deserve much more attention and praise and viewers than they had when they originally aired. A handful of other shows are similar. And then there are the shows I just forgot watching (regardless of their quality — that’s what happens when you watch as much as I do. You are submerged by a wave of viewing.

Succession: I had forgotten about this until someone told me about a frightening documentary about the Murdochs that’s been airing in Britain of late. And while I don’t feel the urge to lavish uncommon levels of praise on Succession, I have enjoyed it.

Better Things: I will never be able to praise Pamela Adlon and Better Things enough. I’ve written about it more than once and think, despite critical acclaim, it should receive a lot more attention for the craft and creativity of its realism.

I May Destroy You: I found this to be uncomfortable to watch. Not just because of the subject matter (sexual assault in its various forms) but because the main character is deeply unlikable. She seems to drift through life mostly partying and not really showing much concern for others around her despite expecting them to show her compassion and deference. Other characters were far more compelling and sympathetic, and it’s a testament to Michaela Coel‘s (writer, director and star) talent that she makes the main character’s story ambiguous and challenging.

Never Have I Ever: Light fare — high school girl longs for popularity and a boyfriend and tries to come to terms with her father’s death, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her ambivalence about living in two cultures (as an Indian-American). It’s an interesting look at how we all see ourselves as outsiders/others, how we are all vulnerable but don’t acknowledge it, but sometimes we get a chance to see others’ vulnerability and it opens us up to revealing our selves more fully.

Better Call Saul: It’s a different show from Breaking Bad, and as it has developed – slowly – I have come to prefer it over Breaking Bad. The characters in Saul are so compelling, changing throughout, morphing into who they will eventually become. It’s fascinating to see how they get there. For a long while it was Jimmy/Saul and his struggle with his brother Chuck that kept me glued to the screen, but over time it has become Kim Wexler‘s complex inner journey and decision-making that drive this narrative forward.

Search Party: A small show that has certainly evolved from its beginnings. I guess seeing Alia Shawkat‘s Dory change from a self-absorbed young woman on a mission into a manipulative sociopath is what makes this interesting. The other characters, Dory’s group of friends, feel mostly one-dimensional and inconsequential, and in many ways detract from the show (even if it would not necessarily work without their involvement). I was happy to see Louie Anderson in a supporting role as a defense lawyer and Michaela Watkins as a prosecuting attorney in season 3. Probably the highlights for me.

Baskets: Speaking of Louie Anderson, Baskets (a vehicle for and by Zach Galifianakis) was always one of the strangest shows on tv while it lasted. Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a kind of loser who wants desperately to become a (serious) clown, is oddly poignant. Anderson plays Chip’s Costco and Arbys-obsessed mother, Christine. I don’t think it does justice to the unique nature of the show to try to describe it… but it’s one of those under-the-radar things that I feel like I’m the only person who has ever seen it.

Goliath: So… Billy Bob Thornton as a kind of washed-up lawyer. The only show I’ve ever seen that has used the word “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty“. Not that that makes for a recommendation. Me, I will watch almost anything Billy Bob makes.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: I love Tony Shalhoub, and it is for this reason that I have continued to watch this mostly insufferable show. As most critics and viewers have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that every person who meets the titular heroine, Midge Maisel, is going to fall head over heels in love with her, requiring that each scene in which this character appears be lauded by “you’re so amazing!” praise. This is the biggest complaint I have, but the secondary problem for me is the Amy Sherman-Palladino problem. Her style feels unnatural (this was nowhere more true than in the hate-watched Gilmore Girls). While I genuinely enjoyed the first season of Mrs Maisel, I found that each successive season felt more like work to get through, despite enjoying the presence of both Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce throughout the series and Sterling K Brown in a season 3 role.

Little Fires Everywhere: Save yourself the trouble. Read the book instead.

Halt and Catch Fire: Please just watch this. Stick with its slight missteps in season one and follow through. So worth it.

The Americans: I’ve never been able to understand why The Americans never made a bigger splash — it’s got so much in it. Stellar performances (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Alison Wright, Frank Langella, Margo Martindale and Costa Ronin are all outstanding), timely themes, the 1980s, spycraft. It’s just so well done. I recall being told as the 1990s were coming to an end that my interest and study of Russia and the Russian language was “useless” because “that war is over”. But even as the Soviet Union itself crumbled, the long-term view clearly depicted a different future in which enemy countries will continue to fight but things will just become more subtle, more technological. We are seeing that play out now. This show is a powerful introduction to the ways spycraft worked as the 80s came to a close and the Cold War as we knew it was ending. The ideologies that these spies defended were so far removed from how power and everyday life both played out in the Soviet Union — and to watch the two main characters struggle with this in very different ways made The Americans a must-see.

Chernobyl: Speaking of the Soviet Union crumbling, the dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the attempts to cover up and deny the scale of what was happening, and the horrifying and long-lasting effects was handled with care, without exaggeration. The disaster was perilous enough that turning it into a spectacle was unnecessary. An understated story put together by Craig Mazin is brought to life by an incomparable cast, from Jared Harris to Emily Watson, from Stellan Skarsgård to Jessie Buckley. An exceptional story that, like many historical events, gets lost with time, we luckily have storytellers who continue to bring history to life in film and literature.

Perry Mason: A strange TV revival, a rather dark remake of Perry Mason — but nothing like the old 1950s-1960s tv show of Raymond Burr (see more about Burr in Visible: Out on Television) fame. No, Matthew Rhys is Mason here, and although ostensibly the lead, many other characters play at least as important a role in unraveling the mystery central to the story. Like much of the prestige TV listed and discussed, the plausibility and watchability comes down to casting. I continue to watch for Rhys, everywhere-man Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany (who else misses Orphan Black?), Chris Chalk and Juliet Rylance… but everyone here is great, even in the smallest of roles (Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, for example).

Trust Me: There was nothing groundbreaking about this medical drama. Over the course of two disconnected series, two characters are at the center of mysteries and lies within a hospital setting.

Taboo: I’m still not sure what to make of this series. It wasn’t enjoyable, but somehow felt… gripping anyway. Conceived of by its star (Tom Hardy) and his father, this story follows James Delaney (Hardy) as he returns to 1814 London when his father dies. Delaney has been absent for years, presumed dead. His return upends the order of things, including entitlement to his father’s estate. Some plot points are a bit complex, so more useful to watch than read about. (And the lovely Jessie Buckley turns up here too.)

Barry: I’ve mentioned Barry before in writing about hit men. It’s an entertaining take on murder-for-hire.

Casual: It’s been over for a while, and even though it wasn’t perfect, I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the center of the story. Michaela Watkins is fantastic as the co-lead of the sibling duo… and Tommy Dewey, as the other part of the sibling duo, plays a shallow character who begins to evolve as a person. In fact all the characters evolve, and it’s nice to see characters change in subtle ways — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Most shows aim for character change, but the evolution feels too much like a plot path. Here it feels more organic and realistic.

Catastrophe: Imperfect marriage; very flawed people. Often very funny, sometimes heartbreaking. That’s kind of the whole plot.

Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?: One weekend I was out of things to watch that wouldn’t require my attention or thought, so I turned this on. It was interesting to see some of these real-life tales that I’d seen in the news (the wife of the Green River Killer, or Mary Jo Buttafuoco) depicted from the point of view of the unsuspecting partner. Mostly this felt like a lot of naive, gullible, lonely people who were so desperate to be with someone that they did no due diligence to find out if anything about their partner was true. But oddly addictive if you got sucked in.

Underground: This harrowing show only lasted for two seasons, and while it was not perfect, it dealt with a subject matter that America should reckon with frequently and in great depth. Sure, a fictional account of slaves making their way to freedom isn’t going to fix anything, but it too is a form of representation and making sure that parts of history are not just swept away or softened.

City on a Hill: Kevin Bacon as a corrupt FBI agent and Aldis Hodge (who was fantastic in the aforementioned Underground as well as in TURN: Washington’s Spies) as a District Attorney in 1990s Boston. It took me a while to get through this, but I think by the end of the first season I hoped for renewal.

Pose: Failed to include this in the list originally… but quite a show. Even if the show itself weren’t fabulous, the cast and concept are. Nevertheless it’s so watchable and sometimes so sad.

Liar: I’m kind of a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd, so I watched Liar mostly for him — even though he definitely isn’t a good guy. The problem here is that I really do not care for Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey fame) — her voice grates on me, and then this character feels more histrionic than necessary. Sure, she is a victim of sexual assault and later accused of murder. This would make most anyone histrionic. I think it’s a lot of her behaviors — often overly defensive and not doing her any favors — that make her hard to believe and watch. At the same time, if she didn’t behave in these ways, her character, who was being railroaded, would likely have been convicted of murder.

The Valhalla Murders (Brot): It’s Icelandic, and even though it captures (or reminds me of) how small and insular the place is, it made me feel desperately homesick.

Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent): A French comedy-drama about professional entertainment agents. Entertaining, satisfying and lovely to listen to French.

Frayed: An Australian semi-dramatic comedy. A woman, living it up in London, with riches beyond imagination, loses everything when her wealthy husband dies in rather questionable circumstances, and their house-of-cards life falls apart; with nothing, she is forced to go home to Newcastle, Australia. I quite enjoyed its six episodes… I like reflecting on the idea of trying to “go home” again to a place you never felt at home in, especially after you’ve worked hard to erase the person you were. But you cannot completely escape that person. The “Simone” we meet in the beginning in London has been a hard-won, long-con fabrication of an identity, but it’s so hard-wired by the time she returns with her tail between her legs to Australia, that it’s hard to imagine that she will return to the “Sammy” she was growing up (but slowly, almost inevitably, she does).

*Postscript 3*

What We Do in the Shadows: I started watching this because I had read so many times about how great it is. It took a while to get into it because at first it just seemed stupid. But I was won over in the end. Mostly by the vampires’ familiar, Guillermo, but its sly cleverness, pop culture references, and total randomness (Matt Berry‘s Laszlo going into hiding in Pennsylvania and becoming passionate about volleyball, for example) eventually made this addictive.

Fauda: An incredibly violent Israeli show about an undercover Israeli IDF unit. I’ve read reviews that make this sound like it’s two-sided, but it mostly doesn’t offer the most sympathetic viewpoint on Palestinians (apart from the occasional character we’re meant to sympathize with, i.e. someone who gets in over their head or is driven to terrorism or something similar). Mostly we see a completely off-the-handle team lead, Doron, constantly disobeying orders and doing stupid shit that puts his entire team at risk (when they are already doing risky stuff). He reminded me of a discount version of Vic Mackey from The Shield. Completely unreasonable, and worse — despite all the things he did that were insane, the unit kept welcoming him back in for more ill-fated missions. Nevertheless it was action-packed and suspenseful.

When Heroes Fly: Another Israeli show with a ridiculous title. I wouldn’t say I liked this show at all, but I like listening to Hebrew. And Michael Aloni from Shtisel is in this as an entirely different kind of character. The overall plot was a bit off, acting a bit stiff, and a fair few things that don’t fit together, fair enough. The first episode was pretty interesting, but that was its peak other than a facet the show only just began to touch on: the lasting effects of combat PTSD and what happens when you don’t acknowledge or deal with it. That could have been a lot more rewarding to explore.

Kidding: Jim Carrey as a beloved Mr Rogers-like children’s tv host, going through a crisis of sorts after the death of his son. I wanted to like this more than I did, but it felt more depressing than anything else. Not that real life isn’t depressing. There are moments of levity – that can’t be discounted. Interactions between Carrey and Justin Kirk make this worth watching, and I enjoyed Catherine Keener and the Japanese puppeteer guy’s storyline. But as a whole, somehow this did not really come together the way I hoped it would.

*Postscript 4*

I probably watched other things in the interim since updating last, but there were a handful of things I decided to add/mention.

Patriot Act: I’ve been watching this since its start, and it’s fantastic. I’m disappointed in Netflix for cancelling it at all, let alone during fraught times like this. Hasan Minhaj has been a comedic voice of reason, and it will be sorely missed.

Immigration Nation: I knew the US immigration system was completely fucked up, but this illustrated just how badly. This was a horror show.

Good Girls: I don’t know why I find this show about three women who get deeper into criminal activities as compelling as I do, but the combination of Mae Whitman, Retta and Christina Hendricks just seems to work. Oddly I watched season 1 a long  time ago, enjoyed it and mistakenly thought I’d seen season 2. Imagine my surprise, then, when I had seasons 2 and 3 to watch to catch up.

Øljefondet (Oil Fund): A rather silly Norwegian comedy about the Norwegian Pension Fund and the American-style, ethics-free head of investments and how he’s bought back down to earth when the agency brings an ethics officer on board. It’s entertaining and always fun to see places you recognize on film.

The Bureau (Le Bureau des Légendes): A French political/spy thriller, which I will admit that I’ve only begun to watch right now. I am not sure if I will continue but wanted to highlight an Amazon Prime problem/bait-and-switch kind of issue. Scrolling through Amazon, I saw The Bureau available but through some subsidiary subscription service (meaning I’d have to shell out extra to watch), but then I kept scrolling, and the same content was available for free as part of the regular Amazon Prime subscription (albeit for a limited time). I’ve come across this more than once where content is duplicated — and if you find it in one part of Amazon, it’s free, but if you happen to find it elsewhere first, it’s part of a subscription package. Ugh.

Srugim: Another Israeli show… looks like it was kind of done on the cheap (some repeated stock footage used in nearly every episode), but an interesting look at a group of young, religious friends (Religious Zionists) who obey the Sabbath solemnly and, at times, struggle with the different levels of observance among their friend group and outside of it as well as their own beliefs. It brings up a lot of interesting and controversial issues, and I’m always game to learn more Hebrew.

Lunchtable TV talk: The woman’s hidden path: Transformation by need or desire

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In the same way as Crime and Punishment is ostensibly about Raskolnikov, its women are the compelling draw of that make me continue to think about the story, years after last reading it. What influence do they have, what sacrifices have they made — and why?

In many of modern television’s biggest draws, women characters embody and drive the growth, change, multidimensional development and complexity of the story, sometimes even within stories in which the men’s experience is the story. The women’s transformative journey isn’t given the same fanfare as men’s… but it’s arguably a more dramatic, if understated, journey. Not unlike everyday life.

The show that got me thinking about this transformation was Better Call Saul. We know — both from Breaking Bad and from the development of the lead, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — that Jimmy/Saul is going to go through professional and familial upheaval, and given what we learn about his early life, return to his “Slippin’ Jimmy” origins on a grander scale. The quieter transformation, though, happens more slowly, with Jimmy’s counterpart, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Built incrementally over the entire series, Kim’s transformation has been hinted at, as she occasionally joins Jimmy in some of his minor pranks and cons and seems to enjoy it. But her conscientious, driven, all-business demeanor imply that Kim is always going to be on the right side of the law. Yet time after time, when most would expect Kim to be the voice of reason, she retorted with something unexpected. Despite these surprises, it was never as though Kim acted completely out of character, jarring a viewer into finding the journey unrealistic or unearned. Instead she became more multilayered and complex as a character, which is not what I anticipated when the show began. In fact when Better Call Saul premiered I dismissed Kim as a secondary, possibly temporary, on/off love interest kind of character (I should really have known better, considering the creators of the show).

With Kim, as with all things in her life, she is controlling her transformation and choices, never letting the out-of-her-control circumstances make the decisions (or so it seems). Some of television’s latest and greatest shows offer glimpses of women at crossroads and turning points, as well as points of vulnerability, projecting creative and unexpected evolution for their characters. (Some of these transformations are the best — and only engaging — parts of the programs they appeared in.) A few of my picks include the transformation of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, in Mrs America; Merritt Wever‘s spontaneous grab for a life that almost-was in Run; Kathryn Hahn‘s role as Eve Fletcher, as Eve moves from single mother to empty nester trying to figure out who she is, particularly sexually, in Mrs Fletcher; Shira Haas embodying a young Hasidic woman running from everything she knew to discover an entirely different kind of life in Unorthodox; almost all of the women in The Deuce experience transformation – some quite involuntarily but others, in particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Eileen/Candy, Dominique Fishback‘s Darlene, and Emily Meade‘s Lori, look to find voice and agency in a changing city in tumultuous times. Similarly, all the of the women in the underrated show Queen Sugar (Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Tina Lifford and Bianca Lawson), have transformed completely — many times — and continue to evolve — as the show continues. It probably goes without saying but needs to be said that the women of Pose are television’s most transformative and inspiring group of all.

This is what women are uniquely good at doing — not just transforming, but adapting to changing realities. An unfortunate example from real life is Norma McCorvey, remembered best as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. After the precedent-setting ruling, McCorvey became an anti-abortion activist, but nearing death, she confessed that she’d never actually changed her mind — but instead had been paid for her anti-abortion activism. This is chronicled in a new documentary called AKA Jane Roe. Sometimes the journey involves inconsistency that benefits the individual — never mind the social impact or ethical position.

As in real life, television’s transformations often come about less willingly, driven by circumstance and need. In the Canadian Pure, a Mennonite pastor and his stubborn rigidity and black-and-white view of the world continue to cause trouble and harm to his family, but his wife Anna (Alex Paxton-Beesley) adapts to the situation at hand with greater skill, being able to operate in greyer territory. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking Bad represents a slow but sly turn to “the dark side” as it becomes clear what she is being forced to do. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife is forced to return to work after being humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and malfeasance. He goes to prison, and she begins to practice law. Somewhere along the line, her naivete and sense of being overwhelmed are supplanted by wily dealing and shrewd calculations about her future. Ozark‘s Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) follows a similar path, reviving her past as a political operative/adviser and applying it to altogether more nefarious enterprises. In many of these cases, it appears as though these ambitions have always lay dormant and get triggered unexpectedly.

 

Photo by Chandra Oh on Unsplash

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.