Lunchtable TV Talk: Madam Secretary

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Sometimes this show is attempting to be like something else… something self-important or something like The West Wing but it isn’t.

It’s not the greatest show, but I like it. I realized that it’s cast chemistry that makes it work even though it is not the best show on tv. And other shows – more starkly this season than any other in recent memory – may have a decent premise but fail largely because they seemed to cast in a vacuum. Like, “Oh, John Stamos is available. We’ll get him for Grandfathered.” But then the rest of the cast was assembled, one by one, in the same way, with no actual testing to see if chemistry existed – or just in a calculated but ad hoc way, i.e. trying to come up with racial equations to make the show look diverse or something similar. And the result is annoying and disruptive to storytelling.

Madam Secretary is fairly formulaic in its storytelling, but the cast gels well. Téa Leoni seems like someone who could have been a CIA officer who ends up in cabinet-level government service quite by accident. Željko Ivanek – well, he fits in everywhere. And Tim Daly – well, I love him. Well, you know, Wings.

Binge fatigue

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After mainlining seven seasons of The West Wing in less than a week, I did not experience “binge fatigue” because, despite the length of the show, almost every episode was of the kind of quality that I never felt a lag. Each season had its arc and pace, and the scope was limited to one full, two-term presidency and a couple of election cycles.

Despite being pleasantly surprised by the content of other shows, like Person of Interest, I find (now nearing the end of season 4) that I am feeling the fatigue. Some episodes of POI are better than others, and since Taraji P. Henson’s character was killed off, there is a definite void.

I wonder what it is that makes the fatigue set in in some shows and not others? Or is the fatigue endemic to the binge-watching process?

Lunchtable TV Talk: Mom

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Mom is not at all something I would normally watch but it is hard to resist Allison Janney. Despite her small role in Masters of Sex, she was one of the enduring reasons that kept me watching because of her nuanced and often heartbreaking depiction. She was a force to be reckoned with in The West Wing in a character who evolved throughout and showed strength and vulnerability at every turn. I loved her smaller, earlier roles in films like Big Night and Primary Colors. And so, so many others. It does not matter what film it is – even the crappiest film is made better with her presence.

Mom is punctuated by bawdy, vulgar humor that is only funny half the time, and imagining Janney in this kind of role seemed difficult. But I watched, and I stuck around for her (and Mimi Kennedy).

The worst part is the ostensible “star” of the show: Anna Faris, who is beyond annoying as she overacts the shit out of every scene. A few times, mostly in the quieter moments of despair she feels, something good shines through. But mostly she is too much, and if the show were only her, it would be completely unwatchable.

That is about all there is to say about this show. Once in awhile someone says something uproarious. And once in awhile the show hits an emotional, almost touching note as it tries to navigate the storytelling challenges posed by portraying people in recovery – how do you make addiction funny? Or, then again, how can you not try to make addiction funny? In reality it’s as complicated as people are. And surprisingly, in many cases, Mom handles this balance well, in large part because of Janney and Kennedy.

How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality

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When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!

Lunchtable TV Talk: Girlfriends Guide to Divorce

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The only things this show gets right are: 1. divorce is hard, 2. even seasoned, beautiful women, perhaps especially the experienced, who should feel accomplished and professional, feel vulnerable and unsure – especially when their footing is pulled out from under them. Those are important themes. Otherwise, nothing about this show rings true.

I like series creator, Marti Noxon, and wrote a love letter about her surprising series, UnREAL. I have always loved Janeane Garofalo, but Garofalo’s character was a psychotic caricature (and probably why she exited the show almost as soon as she started). Lisa Edelstein is someone I can’t make up my mind about at all. I caught her call-girl/law student role in the first season of The West Wing (my recent binge indulgence), and it didn’t do anything to tip the scales either way.

But bottom line, regardless of whether everyone in this show is wealthy and privileged, having had some kind of high-powered position (or being the recipient of major divorce settlements), it is not realistically presented. Edelstein’s character complains about money and how she doesn’t understand how she will make ends meet after she loses her writing contract and her husband (who was never earning money anyway, I guess)… but then everything seems to work out without any explanation or real struggle. And Edelstein’s character has two children – they are mostly invisible. Rearing children is hard with regard to time and money, and assuming there is not a nanny (I have not seen one – and supposed they could not afford one any longer), this is not a big enough part of the story to be realistic. Sure, it’s a fictional show – what does it matter?

Another gripe I have with show and most shows on television is the fluidity and ease with which people hit on each other, as if all of life is this smorgasbord. Maybe it is just that people don’t hit on me every time I go to the grocery store, my kids’ school, the cafe, at work, a casino, every party, etc. but somehow I don’t think things sail quite this smoothly in reality. Why else would people complain in reality about how hard it is to meet people? But we’ve got to flatter these actresses, I guess, or make up storylines.

I do not think I will be back for the second season unless I need something to roll my eyes at.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.

The Netflix foreign language queue

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For the first time in forever – in the entire history of my Netflix subscription (which dates back to the DVD-by-mail-only subscription of the pre-streaming days) – my queue is under 50 objects. It’s astounding to have whittled down the list by so much (two-thirds).

The problem now is that the only remaining items are mostly films in languages I don’t understand at all (Romanian, for example, such as the one I’m watching now – Tuesday, After Christmas) or languages I understand to varying degrees but still need to glance at subtitles now and again (the Spanish language, French language, etc.). Either way, almost none of what remains in the queue is mindless enough that I can just multitask the way I normally do with half-brain-dead English-language fare, such as the seven mind-numbing seasons of Gilmore Girls or the next hurdle, The West Wing, of which I had previously seen quite a lot but not all. Upon second viewing, I’m finding it annoying. It’s great that there are loads of interesting things to see, but they will require my near-full attention, and I am just not sure I am ready to commit (as is the case in so many aspects of my life).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Bradley Whitford, TV’s Everywhere Man

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Thanks to my curiosity and love for connecting the dots, I discovered a recurring column on The AV Club website that features interviews with actors and pops questions to them about random roles they have played. I stumbled first onto the Bradley Whitford column because, while I had seen a steady Whitford presence on TV for years, lately he suddenly appeared everywhere in almost everything I was watching: the canceled-too-early Trophy Wife, the delightful and poignant Transparent, the acerbic and churlish HAPPYish, the hilarious Brooklyn Nine-Nine and satirical Alpha House. I don’t much need to highlight his presence in The West Wing or its short-lived Aaron Sorkin follow-up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

A number of other actors turn up in these random role articles – some favorites, like Allison Janney – and others who turn up positively everywhere but whose real names elude me but whose faces show up everywhere. Bradley Whitford is not exactly one of those name-on-tip-of-tongue guys, especially because his roles, however small, hold such sway. His cynical realist role in HAPPYish, in particular, has been a perfect foil for Steve Coogan and exactly the counterbalance needed. Even in a guest role, such as playing Jake Peralta’s absent asshole father in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is winning. Same applies for Whitford’s role in Transparent. It’s not big, but he makes the memorable most of it. This is why I love Mr Whitford and hope he keeps popping up everywhere. (News flash: while I was writing this I happened to be watching the film CBGB – and who appears out of nowhere? Bradley Fucking Whitford! Was not expecting that. Or his Trophy Wife trophy wife, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry…)