lunchtable TV talk: this kind of nerd

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Many times, I have claimed that I have ‘given up’ television, and compared to what I used to inhale (night and day viewing, really), I have. I also don’t write obsessively about my thoughts on tv shows I do watch, so it looks like I’m following my own rules.

Yet, if I were to talk to almost anyone else I know, I still watch much more tv (however carefully selected it is now) than most people I know. I recently finished by the heartbreaking but often very funny, and always timely, Hap and Leonard (set in the 80s, yet with timeless and important themes, woven so tightly into the narrative that they never come across as “Important Themes”, such as those you’d see on “very special episodes of…”). It is also one of those shows that gets better with each season, which is one reason why I am pulling for renewal. (As the most recent season ends, there is no word on whether it will come back. But it really deserves to.)

I can’t really say enough about Hap and Leonard and the performances of its two leads, James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams. Both are actors I like anyway, but the humanity and depth of friendship/love for each other that they breathe into these characters puts both of them – and the show – over the top for me. I think it’s a shame that more people haven’t heard of the show. I suspect this may have something to do it with its being on the very quiet Sundance network, where many brilliant shows live quiet, critically acclaimed but often little-seen lives. This was certainly true of Rectify. Despite very few people seeing Rectify when it was on, Sundance let it continue to live – and I hope the same will be true for Hap and Leonard.

In Hap and Leonard, I also enjoy small nods to things in the show that may or may not be intentional, e.g. the sheriff in the racist town portrayed in the latest season is played by Corbin Bernsen, and as Hap and Leonard are driving through town while businesses are boarding up in anticipation of a big storm, the town cinema reader board displays the film Major League as what’s playing. If you don’t know or remember, Bernsen played a vain, aging, jack-ass baseball player in Major League (more similar to his role in LA Law than anything he has done in his later years).

Having sung the praises of Hap and Leonard and told everyone I can about it, I should also sing the praises of an Italian series, 1992 and 1993. Today I tried to moved on to watch 1993, an Italian drama that follows, logically, 1992. When I watched 1992 several years ago, I loved the storytelling and nods to that period in time (and learned a bit more about what was happening in Italy at the time). I have commented before that I am not entirely sure that there were *so many* Italians into the kinds of music that made up the 1992 soundtrack, but I can forgive that. What struck me is how the main character, an ad exec, Notte, whose savvy and forward-looking ability to see trends, leads him to politics and a bold, seemingly out-of-left-field prediction that someone like Silvio Berlusconi had a viable political future, something most others around him do not agree with. In my favorite part of the series, the Notte caused everyone around him to laugh, poking fun at his naivete in thinking that someone as ludicrous as Berlusconi could ever be a politician. One character, if I recall, argues something, through condescending laughter, like, ‘That would be like Schwarzenegger trying to be a politician.’ We all know now, of course, that both Berlusconi and Schwarzenegger went on to have dubiously successful political careers. But now, in the post-Trump era, the warnings about grotesque media figures like Berlusconi becoming politicians, and no one caring about the scandals, wrongdoing, corruption and rumors swirling around them, feel even more prescient and … sad.

I still didn’t get around to watching 1993, as it happens. I didn’t have time to pay as close attention as I would have needed to, so I turned instead to Westworld, which I tried to watch when it was new but couldn’t get into. Sometimes it just takes time, and I have managed to dive in. I don’t have anything particular to say about it because it’s not something that needs more attention or my amateurish praise. It’s far more important that less visible gems like Hap and Leonard get a polish and the chance to shine.

 

Press(ure) button: love

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Sometimes the squeeze you feel is like being in a trap, and all the mind can focus on is running – both figurative and literal. Running away, to anywhere, and literally … running there. Being unable to focus and fix oneself to one place, one destiny – to commit to one nature, one path. Jenny Erpenbeck writes in Visitation, which focuses on one single property that has changed hands over many decades:

“Someone who builds something is affixing his life to the earth. Embodying the act of staying put is his profession. Creating an interior. Digging deeper and deeper in a place where there is nothing.”

I thought about this a lot after reading the book, feeling closer to the idea that I could, rather than dig deep and plant roots, fill holes and run toward ever-greater nothingness. It could well be a case of feeling down, and thus inappropriately feeling sorry for myself. This will pass.

For a long time, my idea of running toward nothingness, or possibly emptiness, was to numb my mind with television. I mostly quit this vice, but there are still things I consume in this way – either as a process of multitasking or to disconnect briefly. Part of distancing myself from the unmemorable haze of visual opiates was the sense that I should reconnect with feeling, wherever that took me.

Perhaps, though, this sometimes makes me feel too much. Sometimes this is not a bad thing, and oddly, the ‘messages’ delivered are entirely unexpected. A show I am currently viewing, Counterpart, is a kind of sci-fi-ish thing that, while enjoyable and entertaining, has not offered a single episode that hasn’t in one way or another dealt with the concept of love and how unconditional love should be. Many characters have been playing roles with each other, hiding significant aspects of who they really are, and living lies. The recurring theme, though, is that to truly love someone, maybe you have to (learn to) love the lie.

The person you love is someone you may not truly know at all. Maybe you love the person they wanted you to love, the person they want to be, the person you want them to be. You may know the whole truth, live with some variation on that, but (choose to) love anyway.

“She’s human. She made mistakes. We worked through them. … I love her. I love her for everything she is and I love her for everything she isn’t. An in the end that capacity for love, the ability to love someone unselfishly is the only thing that will separate me from you.” (Counterpart)

This theme, weaving itself persuasively into the body of the show, is what makes me keep coming back for another episode. It’s thinking about this ability to love – and commit – to someone no matter what – and stick around for what happens, whatever unfolds, that brings me back to my first points. I do love unselfishly and unconditionally, but my own selfish desire to run, not to dig deeper and deeper into one place, that keeps me from sticking around for what happens.

 

Lunchtable TV Talk: Fleabag

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That quiet lull between the summer TV season and the standard, full-throttle autumn season gave me an opportunity to watch some stuff I might not have, such as the ITV production Victoria (don’t bother – it’s kind of crap except for Rufus Sewell, who is always good even when he is given crap material to work with; still, the series was renewed for a second season) and the dark comedy self-humiliation fest that is Fleabag. Let’s not get into the fact that I also dipped my toe (oh, who am I kidding? I jumped in the deep end) into the six seasons of Sex & the City, which I had so carefully avoided during its first incarnation. Despite there being no shortage of original summer programming that began and ended in almost staggered shifts, I still found myself, at times, with an empty queue (have watched most of what interests me so far on HBO Nordic and Amazon; can only access Swedish Netflix now so there are a lot of lovely films I cannot see in my old American queue. Kind of frustrating because I was not even trying to cheat the system: I pay for both an American and a Swedish subscription).

Maybe it’s this “empty queue” idea that also drives the nameless anti-heroine of Fleabag. She’s very funny, very awkward and a total mess – and she knows it. She breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the viewer quite often, and it works. I keep seeing lazy comparisons to Bridget Jones and Girls’s Hannah Horvath – but as I write, these are just that – lazy. Our nameless mess of a woman is so much more than both and completely confident in her lack of self-confidence. (Must be – even The Economist got in on the action of writing about Fleabag.)

It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty realistic, and in that way, it’s also heartbreaking. It somehow manages to be both the wound and the salt you pour into it yourself because you think you deserve to suffer, or like Canadian poet PK Page posits, because you believe that “suffering confers identity”. For the show’s lead, her “empty queue” is not a tv-watching list: it’s the emptiness of her life without her best friend, who has accidentally committed suicide; it’s the more distant but still fresh loss of her mother to cancer and the subsequent, if metaphorical, loss of her father to an uptight and horrible stepmother; it’s the tense but close relationship she shares with her sister. It’s mindlessly filling the emptiness with a queue of men and a, shall we say active, graphic and even rugged sex life? Sex queue as coping mechanism, and only through the six episodes do we see exactly how winding, dark and byzantine are the problems she is trying to fuck into oblivion or at least avoid.

Flea photo (c) 2014 Matt Brown.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & the City

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It will sound strange that I am ridiculously embarrassed to admit that I have been binge-watching Sex & the City this week. I readily admit my shamefully frequent hate-watching of shit like Zoo or the relentless and neverending decades-worth of cop and legal procedurals without the kind of shame and self-disappointment I feel at admitting that I’ve succumbed to watching this. I’m watching, and I cannot even call it total drivel – it’s not that bad. But it was so overhyped when it was new that it should/could not have been seriously watched during its heyday. Sure, watching it the way I’ve been watching puts too fine a point on the annoying parts – and they are many. But there are moments, when I set aside the fact that this is a show built around the pathetic idea that successful, independent, sexual, attractive women pretty much let their lives revolve around meeting someone, that elicit some kind of provocation or pique an emotional response. I think SaTC spoke to so many people at the height of its popularity because there are a lot of women in the same situation. Most of us can relate to some part of SaTC, whether it’s the elusive hunt for “the one”, thinking we’ve found “the one” only to be jerked around, or even the sad but seemingly ridiculous storylines like falling in love with the micropenis man, the out-of-control alcoholic, and god knows whatever else. Or a few pearls of Samantha Jones wisdom, i.e. in the new millennium (which was just dawning as this aired), sexual orientation will end up being more fluid and about experience and individuals over gender. We’ll see – but we’ve certainly moved in a more fluid direction in the 16 years since it aired.

As I wrote to a friend: “I am horrified at myself because I ran out of crap tv to have on in the background while I work so I have done something I swore I would never, ever do: I am watching Sex & the City. It is funny though what impressions you get of things while they are happening but you are not really watching. I had very misguided ideas on what happened in the Carrie/Big relationship, for example, based on water-cooler office talk and shit. I had during its original run seen an episode here or there … like one ep from season 1 and one ep from season 4 so it was not like I had any great continuity of plot – even though it is not hard to piece together or guess.” And being who I am (tv addict) I knew a LOT about it without ever watching it, but then actually watching it there are a lot of things I did not know.

The most fun part of the show actually has been realizing how old it is. It started almost 20 goddamn years ago. It featured loads and loads of actors who were nobodies who went on to do other things – people I barely recognized because the first season was from 19-fucking 98! What? The first two seasons included Justin Theroux in two different roles, Timothy Olyphant looking a little creepy (has he maybe had his teeth done since?), fucking Donald Trump, and even Gabriel Macht long, long before his success in Suits. There was even a 30-second scene of a silent Mireille Enos in the episode Valerie Harper was in.

Maybe when the show debuted it felt fresh – it did, after all, help to usher in an era of prestige TV that has led to this flood of vast and quality TV choices. But looking at it today is it provocative, as it clearly was meant to be? No, not so much. In fact, at certain points it feels hateful, full of all kinds of discriminatory BS, privilege and stereotypes. Can I overlook that?

Yeah, because, oh well now that I am watching it it is nowhere near as obnoxious and overblown as it was to me when it was new and everyone was obsessed with watching it. Now that we are awash in a sea of varying quality shows that are still better than network tv, it no longer feels like there is much novelty around something like SaTC.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Better Things

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I stumbled on Better Things rather by accident. I had not read anything in the lead up to its being shown, and then was happily surprised to see that Pamela Adlon stars and is a co-creator with Louis C.K. It’s only two episodes in, so, like most things I feel compelled to talk about prematurely, it’s early days. I don’t know where it will go. But I like the confident-but-vulnerable feel the show projects even from its first moments.

Adlon is Sam, a working actress and single mother of three daughters. It’s clear she struggles (as you would trying to balance all that), but it’s also clear – in almost effortless but not particularly linear – storytelling that she has a complete identity: her professional identity, her parental identity, her daughter identity, her sexual identity. And some of the best moments so far are when some of these collide. In episode two, driving in her car with her troublesome (and unlikeable) teenage daughter, she gets so angry that she pulls the car over hastily and delivers the most frustrated, honest “lecture” I’ve seen on tv. Her irritation is clear (at having to escalate things just to get her daughter’s attention, being wounded by the unfairness of her daughter’s comments while at the same time being furious about the fact that she knows the daughter is smarter than that and is just being manipulative). And she calls her daughter out on it in a real way.

But every mother has also been a daughter, and we see the strange relationship her character has with her own mother. Somehow it reminded me of a scene in the long-lost HBO show, Enlightened, starring Laura Dern. I found it to be frustrating and did not really like Dern’s character, but in her own mother-daughter relationship, Dern’s character comes to the realization that “The mother is just a child, too”. In viewing Better Things, we have a weekly window into that sentiment (along with many others). No parent, or daughter, or whatever else we define ourselves as, is going to be perfect – and as Adlon explains to an audience at the end of episode 2, we’re all just making it up as we go along.

And that – an easy answer that is not really an easy answer at all – is why I think I am going to like this show.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Lucifer

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A few years ago, I had an ill-advised entanglement of sorts with a British guy, and the smarmy voice and overly confident, cheeky accent on the Lucifer lead reminds me so much of him and his shenanigans. He, king of “bobbing and weaving” his way through life, whether by his own wits or by manipulating and using other people, has rather turned my general views on English people from pleasant to … well, puke-inducing. Listening to them makes me feel sick – especially if they sound like this. When the lead actor says, “Previously on Lucifer…” at the start of each episode, I cringe. This was reason number one for not giving Lucifer the time of day.

But then add to it, reason two for not wanting to follow the show: the female lead, Lauren German, who is one of the worst, least believable actresses on TV today. This lack of skill could be disguised to some extent in German’s previous role in the ensemble cast of Chicago Fire. She did not have the carry half the load of the entire show… and she does not succeed in carrying half the load here either. Tom Ellis as Lucifer sucks all the oxygen out of the room and thus is the undisputed star. And the surrounding constellation of supporting actors also outshine German – from Kevin Alejandro as German’s character’s ex-husband and fellow detective to Rachael Harris (best known to this point as Louis Litt’s Harvard-obsessed former love, Sheila Sazs, in Suits) as Lucifer’s therapist.

I won’t get into the crime-of-the-week, procedural nature of the Lucifer show or the supernatural doubts of the Lucifer character. Lucifer, in the end, is the only reason to watch. Somehow, he is engaging as a classical narcissist (much like my own British “friend”). Eventually you have to break away lest you get swallowed whole.

I had not really thought much of this show in a while (it’s away on summer break), but I was driving home recently and a song came on, one of the gems that my own British Lucifer-wanna-be created, that made me think suddenly of this sneering, lascivious sounding “Previously on Lucifer” intro. Suddenly I was thinking about how my manipulative British acquaintance so readily mirrored TV’s Lucifer in his insistence and demand, in his attempts to lure innocents down his own dark paths. I shuddered, really, remembering spending time with this person – even though I never traveled down these paths, I’ve seen and heard about the people who have. I don’t think I need a TV show that echoes that experience. Nevertheless, when Lucifer returns next week (Sept 19th premiere), I will probably end up watching. God help me.

Photo (c) 2005 by Sophie.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rizzoli and Isles

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In a transitional week – in many ways – during which I attempted to “decompress”, I decided to binge watch the TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Why this show? Perhaps because I had never seen any of it; perhaps because it would not require much attention (would allow for the thoughtless decompression I desperately needed); perhaps because there are seven near-mind-numbing seasons with which to anesthetize my brain. It could also be other, more random things like remembering with some sadness the mid-show suicide of one of its leads, Lee Thompson Young; the entertainment value of the older detective character, Vince (Bruce McGill), mostly because I have a weird obsession with the movie My Cousin Vinny, and I could play a “Hi Bob!”Bob Newhart Show-esque drinking game, downing a drink every time McGill utters one of the words or statements that were made so distinctive by his rendering of them in Vinny. (Seriously, after McGill got to repeatedly utter the phrase “Sac o’ Suds” in Vinny, I never imagined being able to hear him say “suds” again – but he did, in an R and I episode about a murder in a car wash). Really I could cite a whole list of reasons why I chose this show over anything else. But none of it much matters.

As I write this, I am heading into watching the final season, which just ended its cable run after seven series. I can’t really write a “comprehensive review” (do I ever?) but here are some of the things that struck me:

  • Lead Angie Harmon: I like her character, Detective Jane Rizzoli, and want to like her, as an actress, but it’s hard to reconcile with the Bush-supporting, religious nut conservative she seems to be in her real life. The interplay she has with her socially awkward best friend, Dr Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), helps with the objectivity.
  • I like that most of the time, when the characters are not okay and are struggling with something, they say so. When someone says, “Hey, are you okay?” most of the characters feel comfortable enough to say, “No, I’m not.” I notice this because in most shows, every character is either unhinged and obviously not at all okay or is portrayed as being tightly wound and bearing a stiff upper lip (never being able to admit to some vulnerability). Particularly in these kinds of procedurals. This made Rizzoli and Isles feel more human and real.
  • I felt that Lorraine Bracco’s presence as Rizzoli’s mother, particularly in the first season or two, was completely wasted, annoying and out of place. The character’s development has helped.
  • I felt genuinely sad when, in season 4/5, the real-life suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young, was handled on the show (as an accidental death). I remembered seeing him play a role in the ill-fated and stupid show FlashForward, in which his character kills himself.
  • The fun part of watching the seven seasons of this procedural retrospectively is seeing all the guest stars who went on to other things – Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, Taylor Kinney from Chicago Fire (and former Mr Gaga), the red-haired dude who has been Jiminy Cricket in Once Upon a Time and is now a detective on Murder in the First – and a whole bunch of others. Even Jerry from Parks & Recreation.
  • There is nothing particularly important or special about this show, but its near-blase approach to women in powerful or not traditionally female positions is a positive shift. When you consider the near radical feminism of putting Cagney & Lacey on tv in the early 80s as real women with real problems who also happen to be detectives, and the novelty of that (and much scholarly research and writing, believe it or not, has been written on the subject), it’s remarkable to see Rizzoli as an experienced detective who has not had to endure quite as much sexism as her predecessors. She undoubtedly experienced plenty – it’s just that she probably does not face it from everyone she meets, including her colleagues in the department.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Tyrant

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

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

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

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

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

Lunchtable TV Talk: Baskets

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I’ve never been much of a Zach Galifianakis fan; I’ve never been much of a Louie Anderson fan. Somehow, though, when these two are put together in a mildly insane show, Baskets, about a man, Chip Baskets, hell-bent on making a living as a classically trained (in the French tradition) clown and the humiliations he endures, his crazy family and the cast of characters accompanying him on his life’s rather sad journey, it feels like a meta story within a story (that is, a sad man, desperate to be a clown, living the life of a sad clown). Quite telling about how Chip seems to approach life is that he moves to Paris to fulfill this great dream but never once seems to consider the fact that they speak French in France.

But rarely does Chip realize the absurdity of his own life and the oblivious way he wanders through it. He is self-aware enough to be completely selfish (i.e., he knows what he wants, but never considers the consequences for other people; he is pining for and romanticizing his love with a French woman who uses him while failing to see that he is perpetrating the same kind of blind – and sometimes not so blind – using and abusing of a downtrodden doormat of a Costco employee/insurance agent who gloms onto him, Martha). He actually seems to serve as a mirror for the average thoughtless person. He does things for his mother (brilliantly portrayed by Louie Anderson), not out of duty or kindness but guilt (like most of us do). He does things for himself that he cannot afford and that make no sense just because he wants to and has no self-discipline (like most of us do).

I don’t know quite how, but by the end of the first season, during which I was at a loss most of the time as to what I thought but also could not stop watching – I felt a real emotional connection to the show and its deeply imperfect characters.

Now that it has been over for ages, I don’t remember the finer details I wanted to elaborate on. But the show will be back for a second season. Perhaps then it will become clearer whether this is a masterpiece or just a weird anomaly – or better yet, maybe we will never get a clear picture, and that might be okay.

Photo (c) 2008 Hot Gossip Productions.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Animal Kingdom

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I keep wanting to call this “Animal Experimentation” for some unknown reason. I just cannot keep “Animal Kingdom” as a title in my brain for more than one second. I suppose it’s that I associate the word “animal” with the dismally bad Zoo, and it stars James Wolk (there was a time that I would watch anything just because of him; even he is not enough of a draw to maintain Zoo). Wolk starred in a good but short-lived show called Political Animals, and somehow all these animals-in-titles and animals run amok (in Zoo) has my “animals” confused.

Animal Kingdom was something I started watching almost by accident and find that it is like a combination of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sons of Anarchy or The Shield (i.e., gangs of pseudo or actual criminals pulling off nefarious “jobs” but always digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves the more they try to fix the first botch job) and the short-lived Gang Related (in which a detective must play both sides – his loyalty to his gang family and to the law).

I watched the first season and enjoyed it – I find that Ellen Barkin, like a lot of women, is a heck of a lot more interesting now than she ever was when she was young. Barkin plays the family matriarch who is nothing if not a master manipulator. Everything else essentially revolves around her and the things she sets into motion. I’d say watch it or read about it to find out about the plot, but Barkin is the real reason to watch.