Getting up-to-date with TV, Part I: Looking Back

As I work through my blogger’s block and contemplate my blogger identity, I decided to take a moment to organize my thoughts about television: what I watch, why I watch it, and what I think about it. As I noted previously, my TV options are limited. I only get upper mid-level cable: all the basic stuff, most HD channels, and two premium channels (HBO and Showtime).  Perhaps the Federal government will soon allow us to buy our own set top boxes and with the savings from these onetime purchases, I might sign up for one or more of the streaming services that provide the most talked and written about programs.

But I can’t anticipate the difference that having a bunch of additional options will make. I don’t watch every highly-rated program that I have access to. Among the programs I’ve never watched are Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and quite a few others. I watched two episodes of Vinyl and gave up, underwhelmed by the frenetic action and overwhelmed by boredom.  I’m too old to get into all of the superhero shows. I wanted to like the new series Game of Silence, but flaws in the logic of the storyline led me to reclaim an hour each week for putting my brain to better use.

Nonetheless, my love/hate relationship with television continues unabated. I continue to indulge my guilty pleasure. Fortunately, my indulgence has often been rewarded with thought-provoking entertainment. We’re in a “seasonal” changeover period with respect to TV programming. Some shows have concluded for the season and some are over, period.  Some shows are resuming and others are making their debut. It’s a good time to take stock.

The past season (or two) featured some very good shows. Among the ones I watched several stand out. If you’ve never seen them, I offer them as candidates for binge-watching, if you indulge.

American Crime (ABC). For two seasons, this ensemble drama series created by John Singleton explored the intersection of race, class, and the American criminal justice system. At the heart of each story is the effect of the system on families. The cast was headed by Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Elvis Nolasco, Regina King, Richard Cabral, André Benjamin, and Lily Taylor in alternating roles over the two seasons. John Ridley led a diverse group of writers and directors. The first season dealt with race and fate of a black man once the system decides that he is guilty of a heinous crime. The second concerned homosexuality, the bullying and alleged sexual assault of a male student by a basketball star at an elite private high school, and, ultimately, a school shooting. Real survivors of school shootings were featured in one poignant episode. The show is heavy and emotionally exhausting. I hope we get more.

Colony (USA). The story centers on an extended family and their effort to reunite with a lost child in a future Los Angeles. It is ultimately a metaphor, a science-fictionalized treatment of a brutal occupation. (Can we think of any recent examples?) The occupiers are unseen aliens from another planet and the oppression is carried out by their human agents: the desperate, the violent psychopaths, and the power hungry. The characters are complex, as are their relationships to one another. The collaborators are not as soulless and neither are the rebels as noble as they appear at first. But the aura of futility is palpable.  It should return for at least another season.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW).  This show, which just concluded its first 18-episode season, is a jewel. The premise – a brilliant lawyer leaves her well-paying New York job to follow her summer camp boyfriend to noplace California – sets the scene for the interplay of personality disorders among the show’s collection of misfits and dreamers. And it’s a musical comedy with song and dance interludes almost as surreal as those that Busby Berkeley devised. Rachel Bloom, who plays the refreshingly zaftig main character, won a People’s Choice award for her performance. It will be back.

The Expanse (SyFy). This is one of SyFy’s best productions and possibly its best Canadian import. The show has excellent production values, including visuals, sets, costumes, and computer generated imagery. The claustrophobic ambiance of a tightly packed space station in the asteroid belt is quite believable. The cast creates engaging, complex characters following parallel, but ultimately converging, paths. It is essentially a mystery with implications of international (interplanetary) politics, class, and insurgency. I’m looking forward to a second season.

iZombie (The CW).  I shouldn’t like this show. It’s based on a comic book and it’s aimed at millennials.  But the show is charming and humorous, with its share of bloodshed.  The premise is that a young medical resident named Liv with friends and a fiancé and a future  is turned into a zombie with an insatiable taste for human brains.  Her secret is known only to her boss who supervises the morgue, where she has taken a job (with the added benefit of a steady source of brains).  She now helps a homicide detective  by eating the brains of murder victims and taking on their personalities and using the flashes of insight the brains provide to get clues (“psychic insights”) that help to solve their murders.  The show is populated with weird characters: police investigators, zombies, drug pushers, a megalomaniac energy drink mogul, a crime boss, and assorted criminals and denizens of exotic worlds. The plots of the various episodes  fit nicely into the bigger storylines:  finding a cure for zombieism, bringing down the evil crime boss, and resolving Liv’s love life.  I’m waiting for the third season.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC). OK. This is the cream of the crop. I’ve been hooked since the first episode of the first season and I haven’t been disappointed yet. The show continues to amaze me with the way it intertwines the big mystery of each season with the smaller mysteries inside of individual episodes. Everything about the show is crafted to generate intensity, even at the risk of coming perilously close to melodrama. The cast, brilliantly led by Viola Davis, portray characters whose lives are fascinating and whose relationships to each other are driving forces in the unfolding of the series. The use of flashback is clever:  it both reminds the audience of the foreshadowing we missed and explains how we got to where we are in the series. Most importantly, as each season reveals another important secret, its conclusion opens up new  mystery that draws us into the next series of episodes. There’s always more story to be told. The past season’s violent conclusion left me predictably wondering how next season will begin.

The Leftovers (HBO.  This is a great show. It’s too complex to try to summarize coherently. Put simply, it’s about a family and those around them struggling to cope with a world in which 2% of the world’s population has simply disappeared. Since almost everyone has been affected, the means by which they (try to) stay sane are varied, flawed, and tragic. The show has a surreal feeling as it raises question about life, death, the supernatural, and what it all means. I’m ready for season three.

Major Crimes (TNT). This police procedural is the successor to The Closer. The ensemble cast led by Mary McDonnell is the heart of the series. The show tackles sensitive issues as a matter of routine, sometimes carrying a story over into several episodes. It’s not great art, but it is very enjoyable television. And it’s my choice for an American cop show that I can enjoy without feeling that I’ve had to leave the Constitution in another room.

Scream Queens (Fox). This show is a delight. It’s a satire of generations of horror movies that involve young people, sex, serial killers, brutal murders,  going alone into the absolutely worst place to be going alone, and lots of screams. The college campus setting allows for nonstop mocking of the culture of sororities and fraternities, mean girls, and big men on campus. The cast includes veteran stars Jamie Leigh Curtis and Niecy Nash as well as young stars Emma Roberts, Lea Michele, Keke Palmer, and Ariana Grande. It also features well-known and up-and-coming actors in supporting roles and cameos. I think it will be back.

True Detective (HBO). I share the general opinion that the first season was excellent. Matthew  McConaughey transcended his cool and handsome persona, becoming a convincing off-beat  character, exuding sadness and mystical fatalism.  And Woody Harrelson gave a surprisingly nuanced performance as a man trying to reconcile the  good and evil within himself.  The series relied heavily on the power of place and the eerie gothic Louisiana landscape played its part to perfection.

On the other hand, I strongly disagree with the detractors who found everything wrong with the second season. The California story was complex, peopled with a lot of characters, and had a storyline that was tragic in a way that few American shows are allowed to be. And just as the first season opted for the Louisiana backwoods rather than the built-in mystique of New Orleans, the second season explored the industrial backside of California and (recalling Chinatown) the corruption of government, law enforcement, and businesses by the desire to make obscene profits from land speculation.  The nonstop violence was perhaps over the top. But it rendered literal the ruthlessness and destructiveness of the insatiable greed at the base of our political system.

There are questions about whether the network will take a chance on another run of the series. There are some encouraging indications that it will.

You, Me, and The Apocalypse (NBC).  This one of two shows about the end of life on Earth (the other is The Last Man on Earth).  It’s a neat little show about a group of characters who may or may not survive the crash of an asteroid into the Earth. A Vatican-based priest played by Rob Lowe is one of a collection of characters on various missions as the end of the world approaches. The intertwined stories form an absurdist mosaic of prison breaks, chases, escapes, plots, and deceptions, while the countdown to apocalypse moves apace. It doesn’t provide any existential insights, but the show is engaging. The finale left an opening for a second season.

I have a few “Honorable Mentions” for shows that were good but not worth summarizing: The Affair (HBO), Togetherness (HBO), Episodes (Showtime), and Minority Report (Fox) fall into this category. If they return for another season, I’ll probably watch them.

In the next installment, I’ll share what I’m currently watching and a little later I’ll look ahead to the return of some of my favorites.

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