Guilty Pleasures Update: TV Watching Ups and DownsPosted: July 26, 2013
I have previously identified watching television as a guilty pleasure in which I regularly indulge. I’m sure I watch more than is good for me, but less than I could if I followed the recommendations of the most respected TV critics. My taste is probably on the pedestrian side. I won’t defend my preferences. But then I wonder if any thinking person can really go for any length of time without questioning the willingness to restrain his or her critical faculties while following even the most artistically crafted series. It’s hard to prove this assertion since there is a considerable list of celebrated TV series that I’ve never watched. Here are some of the “great” programs that I’ve never watched: Arrested Development, Californication, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Downton Abby, Girls, Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, and The Walking Dead. I really liked True Blood and watched most of the first season. But after missing a few episodes, I found it impossible to get back into the series. True Blood has now been on for six seasons. In my opinion, when series has been on this long it has become a soap opera. There are other some shows I’ve “tried” to watch, but to no avail. This includes The Big Bang Theory and Portlandia. Both are supposed to be sophisticated in an ironic sort of way. I find them somewhat like watching a magic trick in which the “magic” is obvious to the observer. But there are some series for which I’ve developed an affinity. At least for the time being.
- Homeland. i was enthralled by the first season, and I stayed on for the second, though it strained my credibility, because of the way it illuminated the triangle of, Carrie, Brody and Abu Nazir. But now I see the fins circling and the show poised to jump.
- The International Mysteries series on MHz (the PBS affiliate of WYCC). These are excellent character studies and explorations of Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Italian culture. Often these are adaptations of popular novels, especially the Scandinavian crime novels that have become popular with Americans. However, there is an annoying predictability in the story lines. One can tolerate only so much violent crime, perversion, and corruption in the mature democracies of Western Europe.
- Orphan Black. This Canadian series on SyFy was a pleasant surprise. After an offputting lapse in continuity in the premiere episode (a New York City police car with Toronto licence plates) I was skeptical. The premise of a group of clones being systematically murdered under the surveillance of a shadowy scientific organization was attractive enough to keep me watching. The show proved fascinating. The characters are quirky and engaging and the performance by Tatiana Maslany as all of the clones is first rate. The first season recently ended, and I’m looking forward to the next.
- The Killing. The critics were fairly unrestrained in their criticism of the first two seasons. The major complaint was the two seasons it took to solve the murder mystery. I get it. It took two seasons (actually 26 episodes) to unfold the complex investigation of society’s destruction of its children. It tried – successfully, I would say – to tie together the brokenness we encounter in our society – broken families, broken promises, broken bodies, and broken dreams. The current season, which is about to end with the murder solved, further examines the societal abandonment of our children, of which one murder, and many murders, are only symptoms.
- Under The Dome. I was prepared not to like this Steven King contribution. The mysterious dome that falls around a town in Maine creates the conditions in which people confront themselves, their relationships to other, and ultimately to the universe. King’s ecological message may be lost on many viewers, but the proof of the show’s worth will be its power to engage the imagination and the intelligence of the viewer
- Person of Interest. I missed at least one season of this series because I assumed that it was an apologetic for the surveillance state created under the Patriot Act. I was wrong. It is a program with a moral focus, with heroes who use their wealth and powerful technology to protect innocent intended victims of criminal violence. The characters are engaging and complicated and the stories, although at the margins of credible fiction and relying too much on violence, are interesting. My current complaint about the series is the unavailability of previous season’s episodes.
- Elementary. The latest update of the Sherlock Holmes saga has some interesting twists. Holmes (played by Johnny Lee Miller) is a brilliant crime solving eccentric recovering from heroin addiction and living in New York City. Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson, a former physician, turned “sober companion.” There is a Lestrade stand-in in the person of a NCY police captain played by Aidan Quinn. The cases are always murders (unlike those in the Conan Doyle stories) and the solutions are, thus, somewhat contrived. But the interplay among the characters keeps the show interesting. The second season finale, unraveling the mystery of (the latest version of) Irene Adler, was very imaginative.
- Sinbad. This SyFy series captured my love of the exotic and enjoyment of allusions to stories that we all should know. The multiracial cast includes a youthful Sinbad forced to sail the seas because of a curse, strong women – both good and evil – an evil ruler, magic, and beautiful scenery. Although the series draws upon the famed Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, it also throws in references to the Odyssey, The Thief of Baghdad, Bluebeard, The Golem, and other popular (or once-popular) folk-tales. It isn’t intellectually challenging, but it is great fun to watch.
- Motive. Police stories are generally about the characters, since the plot elements are fairly standard. This one is somewhat of an exception. At the outset we are given the victim and the killer. The detectives must solve the case by gaining insight into the killer’s motive. The mystery unfolds in flashbacks that reveal the personalities of the killer and victim and their relationship, however tenuous. How long this series can remain interesting is questionable.
- Newsroom. Yes, it’s over-the-top liberal chic. Yes, the characters are preachy. But the ensemble performances are always in perfect harmony, the stories are based on real political events, and the interplay of the political and personal always manages to avoid simplistic parallels. The first season was intense and watchable despite its flaws, and the second season, cloaked in mystery, got off to a good start.
- Veep. Hilarious. Irreverent. One of the best of the British transplants. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is brilliant in a brilliant ensemble of actors who lay waste any remaining vestige of respect we may have for the political players in the Washington establishment. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus has a role equal to her considerable comic talent. Her character is a neurotic, insecure, politically ambitious, profane, libidinous, vice president of the US, who dreams of becoming president and whose every scheme is met with absurd disaster. The portrayal of ambition, arrogance, back-stabbing, and incompetence among the Washington insiders is biting. This is perhaps the only genuine satire on television today.
- The Following. This program is grim. It is bloody, misanthropic, and cynical. Kevin Bacon plays a bedraggled former FBI agent with a pacemaker being pursued by the death-worshiping cult dedicated to the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. The cult is led by an imprisoned English professor turned serial killer (played by James Purefoy) who creates a literary fantasy about the psychological destruction of the agent, who not only brought him to justice, but also had an affair with his wife. The bloodshed, and manner of bloodshed, is consistently gruesome. The depravity of the cult members provides new shocks each episode. The startling, but not wholly unexpected, ending of the first season left me wondering what they could come up with next.
- Major Crimes. This program is the rare transition from one series to another, leaving intact most of the cast, the story structure, and the main characters. On The Closer, Mary McDonnell, of Battlestar Galactica fame, played the complex internal affairs officer first dogging, then advising, then supporting Kyra Sedgwick’s eponymous “Closer.” Now the head of Major Crimes, Captain Sharon Raydor is a pillar of graceful strength as boss, leader, and surrogate parent. The ensemble continues to click and benefits from a second female character. The unfolding of the main story line, carried over from The Closer and providing continuity, works well and is skillfully interwoven with each week’s murder case.
Not all of my regular shows are serious stories of crime and disaster or critiques of our political system. I have a couple of favorites that are pure family fun.
- Melissa and Joey. Cute and funny, this is a successful product of the ACB Family network, geared toward families with teenage children. Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina The Teenage Witch) has grown into a curvaceous comic actress. She plays a Toledo city councilwoman raising a teenage niece and nephew with her male nanny, played by Joey Lawrence. Shades of Who’s the Boss? Yes, but it’s contemporary, ribald, but crackling with classic sexual tension.
- The Neighbors. Surreal. Often brilliant. The premise of a New Jersey family that moves into a gated community inhabited by multiracial aliens from another planet is ludicrous. But it works. The aliens’ comic misunderstanding of earthling customs and values provides most of the laughs, at the expense of both the aliens and their human friends. The choice of the aliens to randomly adopt the physical forms of diverse racial/ethnic groups and to take the names of American sports figures is a delightful variation on the Third Rock from the Sun motif. Critics were ruthlessly negative about the show at the beginning, but after a few episodes the series become a hit with critics and fans alike. It’s coming back this fall.
It is apparent that the majority of contemporary television series are steeped in violence, with large doses of depravity, and consistent allusions to previous TV shows and movies. Many of my guilty pleasures fall into this category as well. I have no defense. I cannot claim that I subject these programs to any type of deep analysis. They’re not worth it. Taken individually, they are meaningless distractions. Taken collectively, they might yield some useful insights about our culture and the role of power figures in the media in shaping our culture. But that’s a discussion for another time.