Lunchtable TV Talk: iZombie

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It’s no secret that I keep track of and write about a lot of my gluttonous overconsumption of television. I don’t write about everything I watch because some of it is not worth writing about, and some of it, like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, have been written about and analyzed to death. I’m not really interested in picking at the bones that remain of the overconsumed shows. I love them, anxiously wait for them, but I don’t have much to add to the discussion.

It’s the shows that people don’t watch and pick apart, those under-the-radar entertainment bits, that I sometimes feel an urge to write about. Often when I am surprised that I find myself watching a certain show (and liking it), it makes sense.

Recently I ran out of things to watch (summer is tv doldrums – with some highlights, but largely not as robust as other times), and scrolled through a number of “best things you aren’t watching” lists, many of which listed iZombie as a good choice. I had misconceptions about the show, much as I would about any show focused on zombies (a concept I am not fond of), and was pleasantly entertained when I finally did dig in and watch all of it. I don’t find the performances that compelling (they’re normal) but the inside jokes and references – and the Seattle setting – which too was part of the joke, as it is sometimes very obviously Vancouver, which they take no pains to hide (at least the cars have Washington plates) – kept me pushing “play” on episode after episode.

But that’s it – it’s mildly clever, pleasant … and not something I can summarize or from which I can pick out some unique aspect. (OH! Except that they mentioned Celtic FC of Glasgow, and what other American tv show would ever do that?) And, that, my friends, is probably the point. The show holds up a mirror: are we not all zombies, overfeeding on mindless tv and other vacuous entertainment (while the rest of the world burns down), despite not being “hungry”?

Photo (c) 2013 Mike Mozart.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Falling Skies

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I am combing through a long list of TV I have watched … a lot of it. It should not have, but it did stun me when I realized I had seen 30 of 35 of the best shows of 2015 (according to Vox). The Vox list was a longer version of other recently published 2015 reviews, most of which cite similar lists. I think it’s easy to forget some of the really good stuff that happened earlier in the year (like Better Call Saul – it was not perfect but it was so much better than a lot of stuff on TV) because we are so spoiled by a constant stream of high quality programming. It is easy to leave out stuff that felt new and exciting, felt groundbreaking, or really just felt like something powerful. Because there is just too much of the stuff.

With that in mind, I wanted to say just one or two words about Falling Skies, which ended this year without much fanfare. It was never going to make anyone’s top-ten or even top-35 shows. It was over the top and too much for most of its run – but it had its moments. It went too far and squandered its potential most of the time. Some of the storylines about infighting among humans were just… overwrought and took away from the bigger stories, which might have been explored with better handling had there not been so much wasted time. After all, we are sometimes brought down by the enemy within or near – pettiness, power struggles, etc. – and external enemies can just stand on the sidelines and watch us tear ourselves and each other apart.

I can’t say, even at the end, that things became particularly clear. What was the point of this show? It was a less well-executed version of The Walking Dead – a group of people running, hiding and fighting an enemy greater than itself. Sure, in The Walking Dead, it’s an enemy that is greater only in number. In Falling Skies, the enemy is extraterrestrial invaders with exponentially superior firepower who destroy almost everything except some kind of fighting spirit in the humans who remain. (There was way too much thinly veiled American-style patriotism here, with the protagonist being a former history professor who cites tales of Revolutionary War “heroes” and battles while backed up by a few actual military personnel, who have together formed a new militia, making the whole show feel a bit like a post-apocalyptic Revolutionary War re-enactment. I suppose this was by design, but it felt heavy-handed at best and inauthentic at worst.)

What did the show get right? Questions of suspicion and trust. Who do you trust when your back is against the wall, when survival is at stake? In this case, aliens invade. But when a different group of aliens arrives and offers to help, claiming that the original invaders are a shared enemy, do you cautiously accept their help and choose to trust them or reject all outsiders, anyone not like you, because it is more likely to be a trap? These kinds of themes are timely in an era where American presidential candidates want to do things like create databases of Muslims in America and shut out all new Muslim entrants?! Fundamentally, who is the outsider, and by what definition or authority is it okay to suspect everyone for the heinous actions of a few?

The show, improbably, shows the power of the collective. When a group of people band together in solidarity for a single purpose, they can achieve the impossible. The odds were against them. But the group, for the most part, survived. But the show also reveals (much as we have seen in The Walking Dead) that survival is only part of the equation. It’s not going to happen without losses, and no one gets out unchanged.

Maybe they were able to pick it back up again, but in this case at least, the sky really was falling.

Lunchtable TV Talk: AMC outliers – Low Winter Sun and Rubicon

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What do you do when you’re a network like AMC, which has commanded cultural giants of creative, prestige programming like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and smaller-scale but still edgy or unusual stuff like Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels and Humans, when you have clear outliers on your hands? You are not going to have a hit that viewers lap up, à la The Walking Dead, or a critical darling, à la Mad Men, every time. You can hope for quiet wins now and again, or the slow build of an audience that lets you tell a complete story. But sometimes, you strike out. AMC, despite its clout – or perhaps because of the weight of expectation – cannot hit it out of the park every time. Or even get a base hit.

This was true of both the mediocre Low Winter Sun and the challenging but worthwhile Rubicon.

Netflix can enable addicts like me. I am addicted to watching series, and even though I had read all the bad reviews of Low Winter Sun and its plodding pace, I watched it anyway. I needed to work on something through the night, and I thought, “Why not?” After all, I wanted to see if it was as bad as I’d read/heard and also wanted something that could serve as English-language background noise without forcing any concentration from me.

Like another one-season-and-gone AMC program, Rubicon, it never found its place or time. The only difference is that Low Winter Sun was a remake of a UK miniseries; Rubicon was an original in every sense of the word “original”. Come on, recounting the premise even now (a story about government data system analysts) won’t start any fires, right?

I don’t sit around and actively miss or think about Rubicon but believe it was a show with a story to tell. Low Winter Sun, though, was just awkward. Nice to see some actors who turn up in other AMC stuff, like Breaking Bad’s David Costabile (he was the ill-fated Gale Boetticher) and The Walking Dead’s Lennie James (he’s Morgan, who has just reappeared in the last season of Dead…). I almost wanted to like Low Winter Sun just because I want to attribute some kind of trust to the AMC pedigree or wanted to be some sort of rebel and like something no one else liked, but the dialogue really hurt. It was not bad acting, not a terrible story … but somehow the pieces did not all come together and nothing people said felt very natural. And that’s where it suffered. Mad Men did not always have the more natural dialogue either, but it had other legs to stand on, bigger themes to dig into, deeper stylistics to display. Low Winter Sun had nothing else going for it, and delivered exactly what you’d expect accordingly.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Walking Dead

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I never wanted to watch The Walking Dead – a “zombie show” hardly sounded on the surface like my thing. The Walking Dead has been talked and written about to such an extent that there is no reason on earth that I need to write more. I never imagined I would be someone who became addicted to the show, but I succumbed.

I got hooked like everyone else, but I suppose the real draw, apart from the idea of how people move forward after something catastrophic (whatever it is), is how individuals change and break out of the roles they play in life, continuing to evolve and toughen. Extraordinary circumstances bring out the extraordinary in people. This is the clearest “lesson” of The Walking Dead… all of the characters change to adapt to the new hardships, but some people become all new people in what is essentially an all new world. This is truest of Carol. It is probably also true of Michonne, the woman with the sword. We meet her when she is a fierce warrior, silent, all walls up and defensive. She becomes a caretaker for Andrea but our view into her past and the more sensitive woman she had been only comes into view later. In the latest season, we see her soften and move further in that direction. Everyone in The Walking Dead goes on a journey that changes them. It is inevitable.

But Carol… she has evolved completely throughout the course of the show. In the beginning, her meek and weak demeanor, and beaten-down, helpless woman persona drove me nuts. Every week I wished the zombies would get their hands on her. In a field full of other characters it seemed like Carol was just dead weight… an abused woman who embodies the worst traits of the abused woman. Not that you blame an abused person for “following the script” – and in that, Melissa McBride was outstanding. You pity her but hate her at the same time because, in light of the changed world, she seemed weaker, more helpless and more pathetic than ever. How can you whine and seem THAT petty when nothing around you is about you or your individual life any longer? Carol was still under her husband’s thumb when things started, and even once he was gone, she was still bound by the fear instilled in her through all the years of abuse. She also loses her daughter, and this is probably the last straw that turns Carol into the force she comes to be reckoned with. She ends up being one of the toughest, most ruthless, most calculating, most logical parts of the group – her earlier weakness filtered into a resilience that surpasses everyone else’s in the entire group. You end up respecting Carol more deeply than almost anyone else – in large part because of the journey she has taken, the growth she’s displayed (while letting go of some of the humanity that made her as sensitive as she once was).

Carol really came into her own in the most recent season of The Walking Dead, hiding in plain sight by “impersonating” her former self. Carol, as independent and tough as she has become, is fiercely protective and even maternal in her drive to take care of her own. Seeing her personal journey, along with the journeys of other cast favorites (such as Daryl), has been one of the most rewarding parts of sticking with the show.

Lunchtable TV talk – Allegiance

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One of the latest in network TV’s scrambling to copycat critical hits, Allegiance, exactly as one article says, is a dumbed-down version of The Americans – which is, conversely, one of the smartest shows on TV.

Luckily Allegiance has been cancelled:

“NBC said “nyet” to Allegiance late last week, pulling the dumbed-down version of The Americans from its lineup and effectively canceling the Thursday-night drama. It was a tough blow for the show’s producers and its roughly 6 million viewers, but at least their suffering is over.”

I cannot really even explain how unappealing this show has been. Hope Davis is a better actress than this show can allow. The eldest daughter in the family, Margarita Levieva, is likewise better. She keeps turning up in roles and on shows that seem beneath her. She needs to land somewhere that will let her be more than a supporting player to see if she can hack it. Giancarlo Esposito has appeared in the last couple of episodes as the ultimate villain – and he’s always fun to see, but even he can’t save this urgent mess.

The only other point I wanted to make about this show is that it is nice to see an Asian man in a semi-leading role that is not in any way a stereotype. Kenneth Choi, who has also been seen recently in Sons of Anarchy as a more stereotypical Asian-man character, the leader of a Chinese gang – plays Sam Luttrell, the New York CIA station chief. He’s no-nonsense and like any other character. Race does not really come into question – and maybe in a show like this it doesn’t. It’s more in shows like The Walking Dead or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that stereotypes come up and people begin questioning the roles. Glenn, one of the long-time survivors in The Walking Dead, ends up not only as a badass fighter but also is in love with Maggie, a fairly religious southern (white) woman. Plenty of discussion has swirled around his role, especially early on. But these days, a lot more talk focuses on Dong, the GED student with whom Kimmy Schmidt gets involved on the Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It pokes fun at some of the awkward racial issues – sometimes in juvenile ways. But it also features an Asian immigrant male as a romantic lead rather than as the butt of every tired joke or at the heart of every stereotypical role. For this reason, I can appreciate Allegiance’s use of Choi.

Otherwise, glad to see that Allegiance is not coming back.

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.