Lunchtable TV Talk: Hap and Leonard

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

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

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

Lunchtable TV Talk: Treme

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It’s hard to characterize Treme, a little-watched, slow and critically praised show that sometimes felt like it lost its way, even if it never had one. It meandered, and in many ways, that felt quite intentional. Much more like real life than the way television moves forward with unrealistic plot points and devices that are thrown in not to serve the story but to keep drama churning. But do you need non-stop drama to keep you caring?

Treme never had the slow-burning intensity or high stakes that its creator’s masterpiece predecessor, The Wire, did but it was also an entirely different story, a different kind of story. Could a collection of loosely interwoven tales of people’s lives in post-Katrina (I struggle with the fact that this was already more than ten years ago – it seems like yesterday, and I imagine it feels recent for people dealing with its ongoing aftermath) New Orleans hold together tightly enough to make people watch? Perhaps not – but Treme gave us a reminder that there still are serious after-effects of the storm as well as memorable characters from all walks of life who live with those after-effects day in and day out.

Perhaps that is the characterization: the show is about characters a lot more than it is about stories. Very gritty and real-seeming characters whose lives are in no way tidy or “decided”. Everyone is as ambiguous as real people are. There are no moral epiphanies and black-and-white rights and wrongs here (in that sense it is very much the rightful successor to The Wire, which brought us moral and legal ambiguity in a host of different shades).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Person of Interest revisited

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“You need to move fast.” “And here I was planning to move at a slothlike pace and get captured.” – season one, Person of Interest

I wrote about Person of Interest the other day – I started watching it as a filler while working, but it hit its stride early even if the first season felt a little bit more like what it appeared to be on the surface. At first, it looks and feels like a standard CBS-style procedural, but then its prescience about technology and the absence of privacy made it unusual. But the characters and actors who embody them differentiate the whole thing.

The reclusive billionaire character, Harold (Michael Emerson) who drives “The Machine” is quirky, honorable, lovable. The loner “Man in a Suit”, John (Jim Caviezel, who improbably keeps mentioning Puyallup and Sumner, Washington – not exactly household-name towns in America – perhaps to him since his family’s from there), could be a cliche – the loner/hero who loses everyone and everything repeatedly. And it would be impossible not to fall in love with Taraji P. Henson‘s Detective Jocelyn Carter in this show (and that love and respect grows throughout). This happened before her powerhouse performance as Cookie in TV’s runaway hit, Empire (she is one of the only reasons I watch that show). And the characters who join later, from the sociopath Root to the hitwoman Shaw (Sarah Shahi – someone I also love even though I have only ever seen her in a few things), or even the villain played by Clarke Peters (I love him in everything, too, particularly as Lester in The Wire, but he is very effective as a villain-in-hiding).

Everyone is in the right place, right time. It comes together almost perfectly, if slowly sometimes – which I enjoy – and I am as surprised as anyone to find the show as addictive as I do. Its fifth and likely final season is starting up soon, and if it is indeed the end, it will probably be going out on top, not having exhausted all its avenues and goodwill. I’ll never be able to explain why the show is just right, but someone (at Indiewire) took the trouble to pinpoint the details. And the article explains it exactly the way I would, even if I can’t make the time or find the words to give it all the attributes it deserves.

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.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Dicte – Not the finest hour of Danish TV

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The Danish TV show, Dicte, starring Iben Hjejle (most non-Danes will recognize her only as the girlfriend from the film High Fidelity), is not a bad show, but compared to other recent Danish television, it’s not exactly great either. While Dicte (the name of the titular character) follows the same kind of investigative bent as police procedurals, it is actually a show about a journalist returning to her hometown – Aarhus, and yes that is what Aarhus looks like – after a divorce. She investigates and finds herself in a lot of trouble at times, but she has a bristly relationship with the cops.

The very popular and well-lauded show, Borgen, crosses some of the same paths in that there are several investigative journalists and journalism at the core of the story. We don’t see many shows that treat journalism with much respect or importance – at least not that I can think of. Maybe The Wire (it figures that a former journalist was responsible for bringing that show to life). I like it when “entertainment” questions the role and place of journalism, the rights of journalists and the media in general. (One reason I will miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart so much. He called the media out all the time.) Dicte does not do much of this – quite the opposite of something like The Newsroom, which took this kind of questioning too far into ridiculously preachy territory. A balance could be struck somewhere in the middle.

Dicte, then, is a passable show with compelling enough stories, decent acting and of course the thrill of listening to the weirdness that is spoken Danish.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Borgia v The Borgias

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A rich and varied tale and time period it may be, but the late 1400s and the rise to power of the Borgia family does not seem like material that would make for two (quite different) series.

The Borgias on Showtime went for a bigger name at the head – Jeremy Irons – and aimed for more salacious and sexual (although Borgia is not far behind). Not unlike the other period pieces Showtime has pushed. Like history won’t be interesting unless it’s presented with boobs.

Borgia is something different – it actually takes a bit more time to explain the context in which the story fits into the world. No huge names here – and it is hard to buy John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia. He’s really such a … cop or corrupt cop or bad guy, you know. He was central to The Wire, and in general is just so American that it is not easy to see past. He shows up everywhere and in a lot of different roles, but as a cardinal/pope in this particular time period? No. Jeremy Irons pulls this off, and while Doman’s a talented guy, he is a man out of place here. The rest of the acting is terrible – an international cast that speaks questionable English even though it’s an English-language production… heavens, please.

I cannot say, even though I sat through both series, that I would recommend either.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Dead TV We Never Heard Of – The Divide

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The Divide only lasted for eight intense episodes. It never had a chance. I never even heard of it until it had already long been cancelled, finding it in a list of “shows you should binge watch now”. The Divide came well before the much-praised American Crime – but it tackles many of the same issues of race, injustice, capital punishment, small compromises that lead to bigger corruption, a broken justice system and handles these issues with similar deft subtlety. But no one ever heard of The Divide, while American Crime (not much watched but certainly a critical darling) at least enjoyed its share of media attention. Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was the network each show debuted on (The Divide played on WE TV – have you ever heard of it or watched anything on that channel? American Crime is on a major network – ABC.)

I enjoyed the cast of The Divide (a whole bunch of actors from The Wire), and the story, had the show known it was going to be cancelled, could have been wrapped up in its eight-episode run. Instead, I guess they held out hope that the show would continue and the last episode opened a whole bunch of new threads and left most of the existing ones unresolved… meaning that there was no satisfaction at all. The final episode, in fact, felt really “off” after a relatively tight seven episodes leading up to it. The episode introduced a bunch of seemingly nonsensical and out-of-character activities, particularly a scene where two guys (one a cop and one a guy helping his brother-in-law, the DA, investigate something surreptitiously) hatch an unclear plan to entrap someone – but the plan is not at all clear and the situation goes terribly awry. Maybe it could have been explained had a second season happened. Disappointingly, we’ll never know.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.

The Latest TV Ticking Time Bombs: Bunheads & Lone Star

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Recently I decided to spend some time watching TV shows that did not last.

First up – Bunheads. The title alone put me off, and then the fact that the creator is one and the same guilty party responsible for The Gilmore Girls. I know Gilmore was a really popular, beloved show – but for all the chances I gave it, I could not get into it. I realized eventually that it’s just Lauren Graham I don’t like (at all), not the show. (Graham seems to play a version – without much variation – of the same kind of ditzy, neurotic, irresponsible and not-put-together person in everything she is in.) I enjoyed the first few episodes of Bunheads, but eventually it grated on my nerves. I enjoyed some of the pop-culture references (they’re everywhere! Notably, I enjoyed a nice reference to Stringer Bell from The Wire and a couple of references to the worst movie ever, Footloose, which seems to be an uncontrolled phenomenon on TV these days, most recently on Modern Family). and some of the rapid-fire dialogue, although this trademark rapid-fire talk is part of what eventually grates. No one talks this way in reality, and if they did, I would be tempted to commit some kind of assault.

Alas, Bunheads lasted for just one season, so I only needed to plow through a limited assortment… relief. On the whole, even though I was relieved when the end came, I think it was an entertaining show while it lasted. It’s hard to tell whether the show was gone too soon or was around just long enough.

Another show that had an almost criminally limited run was Lone Star. It lasted for only two episodes (yes – two episodes!), so it is not possible to assess whether it was good or not. It had promise, though, and it only started to show. I decided to watch the two existing episodes because of James Wolk since it’s hard not to love the guy after watching his roles in Mad Men, Political Animals and more recently The Crazy Ones (by far the best aspects of that mediocre show). Wolk’s role in Lone Star seems to have been training ground for his role as Bob on Mad Men. (His character’s name in Lone Star, coincidentally enough, was “Bob” also.) Wolk’s role in Lone Star as the ultimate con man was not quite believable yet, especially for a guy who had supposedly been pulling cons all his life. Actually, maybe his performance was spot-on because no matter how long his character had been living his lifelong con, he was never comfortable with it. Lone Star’s Bob fooled a lot of people – the too-cute smile and slightly awkward charm – would not have been enough to carry him through the kinds of cons he was successfully running – not slick enough to mask his reality. By the time Wolk walked into the role of Bob Benson in Mad Men, he had mastered the cool, easy veneer and milquetoast cover that made Benson seem non-threatening and ultimately outstanding. But we only got two episodes of Lone Star. I am tempted to call it a gem – but we did not get enough of it to really find out.

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.