March 6, 2015 / Filmwell
In a recent review of the excellent FX cold war era spy thriller, The Americans, …
I resist the urge to kill my television for several reasons. First, it was really expensive. Second, since I am selective about the time I allot to the television universe, I very often see things worthy of said time. Third, every rationale I have seen for the “kill your television” bluster is some variation on the idea that the television will ruin your brain and/or is something for people without anything more interesting to do. Both of those things are true, of course, except in the many cases where they are not. Such as in these kinds of moments in encountered in TV-land this year:
I really enjoy watching Moffat and co-conspirators fiddling with the Sherlock myth and all it entails: testing the adequacy of rationalism, bohemian abandon, and sheer dramaturgical excess – all part of the drama of paying attention to things. It stuns me that the critique of our seduction by science, paradigms, and the objective sure thing by Doyle’s Holmes is still relevant today. Otherwise, this version of Sherlock holds in the button of one Barbour jacket what most detective procedurals chart on whiteboards of plot devices. The Baskervilles Sherlock breakdown was hard to watch. Rat, Wedding, Bow.
The Michael Mann pilot drew me in, the next several episodes brought Milch’s ear for complexity to the arcana of horse-racing and the shallow underworld it supports. Everything gets pretty complicated in a hurry, which is hard to notice beneath the slow and exacting scripting of each episode. And then there is the thunder and sweat of the horses on the track, until the death of several led to the abrupt cancellation of the show. Think Dick Francis meets Heat. It was one Dustin Hoffman better than that.
I have watched the 8-bit episode “Digital Estate Planning” several times since it aired in May, largely ignorant of the impending cancellation news and exit of creator Dan Harmon. The creative explosion in the middle of Season 3 generated a series of improbably watchable spoofs on Law & Order, the Incredible Hulk, Blade, and all kinds of crazy millennial nostalgic stuff. As in “Digital Estate Planning,” this season jumped headlong into the show’s messy emotional nuances by treating them as the substance of TV-land grammar. A wonderful swan song.
What with the Doctor rolling through space and time with River, Rory, and Amy, there has never been a better time to be – like my daughter – six years old and digging Dr. Who. That is, until there became no more Rory and Amy. I am sure the TARDIS will right itself after this blow, which was preceded by several impeccable Dr. Who episodes. The Impossible Astronaut may have been the greatest Dr. Who gambit of all time, and I look forward to any attempt at matching that scripted madness.
Train heists, le Carré-worthy double-crosses, exquisite lab and office set pieces. Breaking Bad continues to do all those things ascribed to the “golden era of TV” from a sheer technical perspective. The most memorable bit of this season to date is not the “say my name” madness or Mike’s excruciating park scene, but the scene in “Gliding Over It All” when Walt visits Jesse to cash him out of the business. The jittery tension Aaron Paul brings to the moment, which ends with the clatter of his concealed gun to the floor, channels the real dramatic impulse of the show – a certain kind of madness that is the necessary by-product of Walt’s pride?, arrogance?, hubris?… we aren’t quite sure what the right word is yet.
Game of Thrones
The opening credits for this show is a pitch perfect representation of the way I learned the basic principles of history through Risk, Axis and Allies, Shogun, and all those cardboard dice game maps across which game pieces shifted, accumulated, and vanished. Except without all the consorts and dragons.
Freaks and Geeks Oral History
“Teachers want us to work, and I say, ‘Fine, I’ll work. But you’ve gotta let me do the kind of work that I wanna do.’ And for me, it’s my drum kit, man. This is my passion. This is the essence of who I am now. But before I had this, I was lost, too. You see what I’m saying? You need to find your reason for living. You’ve gotta find your big, gigantic drum kit.”
It is nice to know that Nick found his big, gigantic drum kit. As did everyone else. The Freaks and Geeks oral history at Vanity Fair is one of this year’s finest TV moments.
“There’s a lot of painful things that had happened in real life that we used on the show, like I just happened to be home sick from school one day and watching a Donahue on ‘How do you know your husband’s cheating.’ And they had a list of warning signs, and I just remember going, ‘Ohhhh.’ That was the basis of ‘The Garage Door’ [where Neal realizes his father is cheating on his mother].”
Some of the twists this season were downright silly. But that is okay. Soap has its privileges, and Downton Abbey politely earns our indulgence. I have nothing clever to say about the show – which is part of its sadly dependable charm.
Gene: It’s the documentarian who hates Dad and puts wigs on cows!
Tina: Werner Herzog?
I accidentally found the first season of this on Netflix, which kind of filled a decade-old Simpsons-shaped hole in my heart. Then the second season kicked off with a hysterical riff on Dog Day Afternoon, which is followed by all kinds of loopy bits that revolve around Back Hair, Burgerboss, Beefsquatch, and special menu items like The Final Kraut Down Burger (comes with sauerkraut). Bob’s deadpan kind of binds the whole thing together, which hit its stride this season as a tipsy family comedy.
Mark Cuban on ESPN
Mark Cuban does what every sports fan has always wanted to do when Skip Bayless says stuff. Why do you play a zone, Skip?
The Adventures of Pete and Pete Extravaganza
“Let’s just make one gigantic 60-second-long story, and expand it into 30 minutes.”
I was entranced by the labor of love for this great show over at A.V. Club this year. All four parts are worth visiting. It does not take much pressing to make me admit that this is my favorite TV show of all time, and prepared me directly for both Herzog and Wenders.
“We always talk about how one of our goals in the show was to put mystery back into kids’ lives, because everything is so over-explained. That situation’s far worse now than it was back then, because there isn’t anything a kid doesn’t know about how things are actually done. And it just has a way of demystifying everything, and we were trying to mystify things more. So that idea that you saw a band, and for 10 seconds they changed your life, and then they just disappeared, never to be seen again, maybe they weren’t even real to begin with. I think that was one of our attempts to really create some suburban mystery; that just took that idea to the furthest degree. And also the idea of a garage band actually playing in a garage just felt like a way to get back to what we always thought was so romantic about the idea of a garage band in the first place.”
My wife and I have been devotees of this show ever since we encountered its predecessor, Dragon’s Den, in our little flat years ago. This has always struck me as a show that David Foster Wallace would have written about, because among the reality shows – this one really is about what it means to be a human being. Ostensibly, it is about being a rich one. The show pulls no punches about this, as the Sharks revel in the sheer capitalist vigor that made them mostly multi-billionaire success stories that started in garages and on the backs of $10,000 checks. And they are also dream destroyers. Few things on TV are as vicious as Mr. Wonderful telling someone they will not succeed because mere ideas don’t entitle one to success. But then, there are the moments in which the Sharks collude and conspire to turn the flicker of someone’s ingenuity and hard work into bankable reality. This is the show America, that currently flailing and desperate idea, needs to watch.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
I sometimes have a hard time believing that PBS Independent Lens stuff is actually on TV. This is largely 16 mm footage from Swedish journalists that talked to Black Panthers and others in the late 60s and early 70s. Then all that film sat in cans somewhere in Sweden until this guy put it all together recently. Difficult material. Also on Netflix at the moment.