Thursday, October 12, 2006

Television Uber Alles

I watch
too much TV.

My wife is in charge of the television schedule, because I can't be bothered. I've never liked to pore over schedules and set up recordings and plan out blocks of time, juggling shows like flaming chainsaws.

Of course, she plans out seasons worth of shows, researching time-slots and when to catch repeats. Her idea of a bad day is when the DVR messes up. As a result, I watch a lot of shows, and I watch them chronologically. Were she not here, I probably wouldn't even have cable.

So I'm listing a bunch of shows coupled with throwaway critiques. Since I have no concept of seasons, some of these shows have already had their finales and some are just starting.

There will be a shitload of spoilers. You have been warned.


Blade - This was one of those rare shows that I actually suggested watching, so naturally it's been canceled. It started off weak but found its groove. Alas, too late. The end of first season set the stage for a great second season. Nuts.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - Lawyers, Guns and Money has much to say, as does James Wolcott, and while I've enjoyed the episodes thus far I also see the much-discussed flaws. It doesn't bode well when negative criticism rings true for someone who actually enjoys the show. Warren Ellis talked about the tv history revisionism on display (remember the golden age of tv? neither does anyone else) and I think that holds as well. What helps me is that Sorkin doesn't seem to write gritty expose' so much as pedantic wouldn't-it-be-nice-isms. I've only seen bits of the West Wing, but what I have seen resembles a Frank Capra version of government doing work - purposeful striding, earnest, competent employees, can-do attitudes and nobility even in the villains. Of course, I like Frank Capra's body of work, so that my be why the unreality of Sorkin's dramas don't unnerve me.

A scene that bothered me occurred in the third episode. The Christian character, Harriet, comes in to complain about a sketch mocking a town that banned The Crucible from being performed. Of course, she comes in with a great little story about how it's just a small town and they all work in a bread factory. It breaks my fucking heart, really. And of course Matthew Perry's character caves. And the thing is . . . given everything that Sorkin has set up thus far, he shouldn't have caved. I've lived in small towns, and let me tell you that people there are just as worthy of mockery as big-city folk or what-have-you. If you're running a sketch comedy show going for bite, then don't dance around your targets. So right there this show that Sorkin's writing about, this failing show that wants to be edgy and biting - drops a sketch because of a misreading of the nature of power. Harriet convinces everyone that the small-towners aren't worthy of mockery because they aren't powerful or hypocritical enough. But exercising censorship over local plays is an abuse of power, and in a free society it is hypocritical - it's not the scope, it's the act itself. Rant ended.

[Warren on Studio 60:1] [Warren on Studio 60: 3]

Heroes - Masi Oka is awesome as the space/time manipulator. Ali Larter and her evil reflection have enough menace that it's unclear whether her role will be hero or villain. Greg Grunberg plays a psychic cop with measured steps - awkward but not bumbling. The flying Petrelli brothers are boring. Even Nathan's exploitation of Peter's "suicide attempt" for political purposes didn't come off as sleazy as it should have. Hayden Panettiere as the indestructible cheerleader isn't terrible, but she's not interesting to me for this reason: Joss Whedon already covered the whole 'popular, pretty adolescent with tremendous powers attempting to just fit in while clearly called for greater things', and covered it with such tragedy and humor that Heroes doesn't have a chance to compare. So it's not that her character is poorly done, it's just that I've seen it all before, all seven seasons of it.

The drug-addled future-painter (Santiago Cabrera) isn't really a character at all, he's a plot device attached to a conflict. As for caveats, I'd like to see sub-plots over the season instead of stretching out the nuclear situation for a whole season. I also wonder how the show will change assuming that all the interconnected heroes actually make contact with one another - will it turn into a Superfriends villain-of-the-week? The show reminds me a lot of The 4400, which bored me as a miniseries and didn't draw me in first season, but got decidedly better and better. We'll see.

Help Me Help You - I keep hearing that Becker was good, but never heard that when it was on. Anyway, Ted Danson is funny, his deadpan delivery unchanged since forever - he's not quite as bitter as House and not quite as straight-faced over-the-top as Dr. Cox. It also has Charlie Finn from Life On A Stick, a forgettable sitcom that my wife and I loved. Thus far all of characters in the therapy group have gotten good lines and decent jokes, and while the show takes the trope of 'each person has a disorder that leads to wacky situations' it's not as slapstick as the Deuce Bigalow movies (let's have the narcoleptic fall asleep everywhere! well, yeah).

The Nine - Hated it. This was my wife's choice, I watched out of the corner of my eye. The show's trying way too hard to be high-concept. The characters all felt slotted into their reactions - okay, you're the guy who acted bravely, you're the guy who was a coward, you're the person with a secret - and never go anywhere beyond those roles. It feels like a playwriting exercise brought to life. The aforementioned heroic person was, before the siege, a nebbish dork - do you see the contrast between those two roles? Well, if not, don't worry, because they'll hammer that contrast into your brain before the episode is over. I know, I only saw the premiere, but it failed on two major counts: I don't care about any of the characters, and i don't care that they were hostages in a bank robbery. Boo.

Lost - I'm completely biased here, this is one of my favorite all-time shows. Ever. They make me care about every little look, every background character, every turn of phrase. The season premiere started off with a stunning revelation, and then downshifted, leaving some people disappointed. Not me. I like that this show plays off of expectations. the season two premiere was pretty low-key, as well. The second episode gave more Jin and Sun backstory - I like that I go from thinking Jin is an asshole to thinking he's a big softie. No revelations about Sayid, though. I'm gonna make a guess here and say that third season is going to really be all about the Others. Next week looks like it'll deal with the losties, especially Locke and Mr. Eko, my two favorite characters.

Smith - Canceled already. Good. The first episode was impossible to follow and I didn't even care. I think I asked 'what the hell is going on?' about five minutes in, and then gave up.

Standoff - Laughable, but I like Ron Livingston. I don't see this one lasting very long. It's Moonlighting, except they're hostage negotiators. Far fetched crime dramas are a dime-a-dozen, but this one has the unenviable task of coming up with a plausible hostage situation week after week. As if they're regular occurrences.

Law and Order: SVU - Finally convinced my wife to give it up. I've regularly bashed the show even as I watched for its plodding, heavy-handed moralizing and stuck-in-a-rut characters, who have now morphed into complete caricatures of their tropes. Stabler's the hot-headed anger-ball - give him another case about child molestation and watch him bug out - he has a teenage daughter, for crissakes, won't somebody think of the children! The worst of this was a recent case where a young woman who had a disorder that rendered her physical appearance forever childlike was mistaken for being actually underage. Stabler continued to be mortified by the whole thing long after the facts came out - she looks underage! the guy's only going with her because he's a pedophile, except he's not since she's of age! - but don't worry, Stabler will get him another time.

Also, with Mariska Hargitay on a leave of absence, they chose to pair Stabler with a partner more hot-headed and prone to violence than himself. What a great move, two characters I can't stand. Put that together with the secondary characters relegated to ever more background parts and the show has nothing going for it anymore. I should have quit a few seasons ago when they did their bullshit Grand Theft Auto episode, with obligatory footage making the whole point of the game out to be beating prostitutes to death (a fictional game, but we got the point). The shtick at this point is to take a story from the headlines, get the stock conservative and liberal viewpoints, have different characters defend each side and then throw up hands in frustration that it's just too hard to figure out, now let's find someone to prosecute.

Especially egregious was an episode concerning a journalist protecting her source, an obvious stand-in for Judy Miller going to the clink, and they tromped out the idea of a federal shield law, which was a big conservative talking point about that particular case even though Miller wouldn't have been protected by a shield law (and neither would've the fictional journo, so far as I could tell). I can't really explain why I stuck with this show at all except to say that I multitask while I watch, so shitty shows don't really take time away from other endeavors.

Justice - The first episode was so boisterous and noisy and filled with MTV quick-cuts that I very nearly got vertigo. They've pulled back on that, though it's still Bruckheimer sound-and-fury, signifying nothing. I like the lead lawyer, he's a complete dick and never pulls back from that, but I don't see him as a villain - a fine line to walk. The Nancy Grace-styled "reporter" character had an atrocious, nasally accent that has all-but-disappeared, making her overbearing but bearable. The other lawyers lack any emotions other than competent and strident, but there have been small attempts at development. The big reveal at the end (what really happened?) has worked so far, but how can they keep it fresh? Haven't yet seen one where the 'good guys' got it wrong, which will be inevitable. But then what?

America's Next Top Model - Guilty, guilty pleasure. I can't stop watching this show, cracking snarky commentary along with my wife the whole time (unless Nigel's on, in which case my wife becomes speechless). I mean, the season opened with a nude shoot - how could I not watch? Tyra is completely ridiculous, which makes her a great representative for the fashion industry. Jay Manuel is great as the perky no-bullshit slavedriver. Twiggy (looking good now that she weighs something) is a voice of moderation. J. Alexander is, well, J - his personality defies description.

Everything hinges on whim and a bevy of unwritten rules (I've opened a text file with ideas for an ANTM board game). The girl who cries during judging always goes home. The girl with short hair will hate her hair, no matter how many times she is admonished to get over it and focus on modeling, until she goes home. There will always be a trash-talking loudmouth who stays in long past her due. The only time I dislike the show is when Janice Dickinson is on, since the sound of her voice physically grates on me. I get it, Janice, you're a bitch and you don't care what people say. You weren't even relevant when people thought you were relevant.

I just discovered, during the writing of this post, that the episodes follow the naming convention 'The Girl Who . . . '. Sounds like great fodder for a series of card-based challenges.

Eureka - Season's over. Coming back next season. It's extremely light fare, fluff even, but the characters are rock-solid and the plots are basically modeled after the funny episodes of the X-Files. Warren Ellis labeled this a 'tween' show, and he's probably right, but I like it anyway. I mean, Miles Dyson from Terminator 2 and Max Headroom in the same show? More fluff, please.

Gilmore Girls - Do I get to have a second guilty pleasure show? With the creator gone, people were worried about this one. The season premiere rubbed me the wrong way (none of the dialogue popped) but it's gotten better. I'm still not happy about Lorelai and Luke being over, mostly because it felt oh-so-forced - that, and I liked them together (word is the whole plot was trashed by Amy Palladino before leaving because of a contract dispute). Lorelai getting back together with Chris is blah territory. Rory remains a judgmental idiot. Lorelai's parents are still fantastic, they manage to be sympathetic characters even though their uber-rich classism is repugnant. Really, this show shines with its quirky/lovable side-characters - Lane, Sookie, Michel, Paris, Miss Patty, Babette. Even Kirk, straight out of A Confederacy of Dunces, is amusing. This will be the last season, so even if it gets worse at least it doesn't have a long decline.

Bones - An all-around great show, and this comes from a person with an intense dislike for David Boreanaz (hated him as Angel, until around Angel third season). This is one of the first shows I've seen that actually fleshes out its geeks. Their social dysfunction comes off as a tone-deafness to social niceties, not a goofy Jerry Lewis routine. The science isn't as fast-and-loose as CSI (though the artist's holographic 3d projector is a little science-fantasy), possibly because the show's concept is based on a book about a real-life forensic anthropologist. I'm a little mad that they got rid of the old museum director - he was, loosely, an opponent in the bureaucratic sense, but his poetic archaeological musings (which infuriated the facts-only team) were a good reminder that research of the past based on remains is in large part an act of imagination as well as detailed scientific rigor. Even the superhero cosplay episode a few seasons ago was well-presented.

Supernatural - Middling spookfest with two actors who do a convincing job of being brothers. Also, this has the greatest tv soundtrack ever (though Reunion would probably take that honor had it not been canceled). You get Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult and AC/DC and a lot of other gutchurning footstomping rock and/or roll. The first season of the show didn't impress me, but it didn't repulse me, either. Usually I was mad because I'd already read the folk tales from which they draw their plots, said tales typically unchanged in the slightest.

Still, last season ended in grand style, and this season opened with perfect tragedy. The father which the boys spent most of first season tailing is now dead, having made some deal with the demon he'd been tracking his whole life. I assume the new carrot will be the demon, the boys leaving a trail of solved mysteries and tragically-killed allies in their wake as they go to confront their father's killer (and that of their mother/younger bro's college girlfriend, so far as we know).

Nip/Tuck - There's almost no way to compare this show with any other. It's melodramatic and cheesy and the main characters oscillate between do-gooders and sleazoids, often in the same episode. The plots are admixtures of Jerry Springer reruns, urban legends, soap opera schlock and sexual peccadilloes. But I don't think I've ever rooted for a more ambiguously gay/bi couple to finally get over themselves and shack up than I have for Sean and Christian. Matt's sponge personality went from an Oedipal relationship with a life coach to attraction to transsexuals (after the life coach's gender switch was revealed) to white supremacy to, naturally maybe, Scientology. This show should probably have been called people behaving like absolute shits to each other, but that wouldn't look good in the TV guide.


I want to be watching/have watched The Wire, but it's impossible to wring any more viewing time from the week.

I'd also like to recommend Veronica Mars, even though I don't watch it (though I'm well-versed, owing to the wife's insatiable love for the program and everything surrounding it) and don't like it at all. That doesn't make sense, you think? I thought the show was put together well, but Veronica grates on me personally. She's an insufferable know-it-all, and the perilous situations never really felt particularly perilous. I remember seeing the first few episodes, and while they talked often about how Veronica's date rape was awful and terrible, it never really conveyed that she felt that way about it. I never saw that it had damaged her at all - maybe it had soured friendships and disconnected her socially, but that's tangential. There were times when it almost drew me into the compelling mystery of the season, but I was immediately turned away by its cloying snark. Veronica's father, however, is brilliant. Steve Guttenberg's great, too, but wholly unrelated to the show itself. Anyway, take a look, see if you like it, and if you don't like it immediately, I doubt it'll grow on you.

Simpsons, of course, is on the menu. That almost goes without saying. I will continue to watch long after they do the 'bumble-bee man runs for mayor' episode (h/t William). Daily Show and Colbert Report are required viewing.

The wife also crams in scores of soap operas, which I catch out of the corner of my eye. As a result, I've merged them all into one single Vast Opera Of Soap (VOOS). I've managed to pick up on some of the character names, but can't spare any brainspace to divide them up by show.

I will say this: there are a lot of attractive women on soap operas. This is the main draw for me.

'Honey, who's that?'
'That's Kendall.'
'She's fuckin hot. Who's that?'
'That's Susan Lucci. She's like 60.'
'And smokin. Damn. I'd do her.'
'How nice to know.'

I first started paying attention to soaps when I was told that two gorgeous women were lesbians.

'Lesbians? On daytime TV?'
'Yeah, it's pretty raunchy.'

Yes, I am that shallow. [see: "Bianca Montgomery" played by Eden Riegel]


Patrick Dugan said...

Weeds on Showtime is one of the best shows of TV, really. Torrent it if you must.

Duncan said...

Wow... I don't have nearly the time or conviction to watch that much TV. The complete lack of cable probably helps.

Good thing I have a Canadian version of Netflix. So many TV shows on DVD... and movies to catch up on.

Anonymous said...

You opted out of the only show that matters. The Wire is an epic for our time. The rest of that stuff is television.