The Emmy Awards are weird for a few reasons. We know that the nomination and voting process makes any Emmy honor kind of dubious. The award exacerbates the age-old craft vs. popularity issue in mainstream media. It has always been difficult to tell the difference between the comedy and drama categories, as really good TV can straddle both. And now with the proliferation of content strategies, including once totally outrageous ideas like producing content for Netflix or Hulu-like pay-to-play platforms, the playing field is much wider than it ever has been. There is much content, for example, falling in the “Outstanding Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program” that rivals the creativity of anything populating the bigger categories (e.g. AOL’s Park Bench).
Here at Filmwell, we have been far more active in covering what seems to be good TV over the past year or two, in part because the line between cinema and TV is becoming more difficult to distinguish. The quasi-auteur trend we are currently experiencing as a norm for quality television is an intriguing cultural bellwether. Are our aesthetic tastes becoming sharper? If so, what does that mean? Are philosophers that connect beauty and virtue or truth right after all? Are we intuitively demanding more as audiences because we are growing hungry in an era of a blatantly ideological media? Or is TV just evolving again as a really clever way to sell ad space and/or corner market share?
When the latter is the case, it is obvious. With Lost and The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof is a great example of someone who has figured out how to hijack our desire for better media without having to do the heavy lifting really solid screenwriting requires. In other cases, it isn’t so clear. Something far more charitable often seems afoot in TV land, of which the following are an example. Here are a few under the radar from the Emmy defined season of June 2013 – May 2014:
- Louis – Louis has made an appearance again in this year’s Emmy list, so not exactly under the radar. But it is misleading to force it into the Comedy category. The elements of Louis that work so well are more about Louis out there being an overweight, balding everyman, during which he becomes a mirror for the concerns of middle age. Louis is about the way we are formed over time as human beings, through memory, relationships, and career. It is also about a man’s tiring search for re-formation, and being receptive to the idea that we may need to abandon our comforts if we want to be better people. The show has immense technical merit as well, which I hope to visit in more detail later this year. There is a “Gospel According to Louis” post brewing.
- The Americans – Clinical in its evocation of Reagan era fears about family, trust, and democracy, The Americans is probably the first spy thriller that pivots on an evangelical youth group subplot. The 80’s deep cut soundtrack, the vintage Frankenheimer or Friedkin action details, the wigs and high-waisted pants. Everything just clicks as a period piece slowly becoming a family drama. The mark of a good spy thriller is that it feels more important than it really is. Likewise, The Americans feels as if it is working its way toward a grand statement about the human condition. Though I think, like its frequent references to glories of the Soviet dream, the show will prove violently shallow.
- Moone Boy – Moone Boy is a comedy produced for Sky, then made available on Hulu for American audiences. IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd is the imaginary friend of a 12 year old boy growing up in Boyle, Ireland, who is just trying to figure out how to make his way through the maze of family and school and all the other gigantic stuff kids have to deal with. Moone Boy makes the best of what often is a tiresome genre.
- The Wrong Mans – This comedy was produced for BBC2 and made available on Hulu. The “wrong mans” are two Bracknell council employees who get embroiled in a cookie-cutter conspiracy that tests their mettle as men. Funny stuff happens, as is expected from this ex-Gavin & Stacey duo.
- Hannibal – This may be my favorite of the attempts at world-building based on the Thomas Harris serial-killer mythos. When his novels are good, Will Graham’s reflections on human nature come across as theology in a world bereft of grace. Hannibal goes there dialogically, but then embeds them with great care in manicured sequences of action, symbolism, and murder. This is less a TV show than a series of sharply focused Francis Bacon paintings.
- Maron – I couldn’t stop thinking of Robert Crumb while watching the first season of Marc Maron’s TV show, which apparently is not off base. He is obsessively self-focused, irritated to a fault, yet has a compelling comedic voice that translates well to the screen. Or at least it did in Season 1. The only reason I draw your attention to the existence of Season 2 is to recommend watching Season 1.
- Brooklyn Nine Nine – Thought I was going to hate this show. Turned out to be one of my few go-to TV comedy indulgences of the year. I think the case could be made that it matches the kind of cop shop banter Dragnet, Hill Street Blues, and Barney Miller perfected to the current ensemble comedy template.
- Broadchurch – This made it to BBC America after airing on ITV. David Tennant and Olivia Coleman are the centerpiece of a drama perhaps best described as an Elizabeth George whodunit without all the class strife. British crime dramas tend to get pretty paint by numbers, and Broadchurch is no exception. The show also trundles out its small town setting a bit too often. A reliance on such cliches is usually an indication that something is missing. But given the choice, Broadchurch still stands out as welcome stodge. (Note: I shudder at the prospect of its impending American remake. It is retitled, no joke: Gracepoint. Yeah.)
- Rectify – There is much to say about Rectify. I have begun collecting a few thoughts here at Filmwell, as it seems to have been written by someone who really gets the psychoses of both total alienation and evangelical Christian self-assurance. Stay tuned for more commentary on this show, as it quietly probes deeper and deeper into its Southern Gothic shadows. Its direction falters on occasion as the camerawork oddly swaps between establishing shots and handheld work. A few of the characters remain placeholders compared to its focus on Daniel. But I look forward to watching all these thin threads coalesce. It also marks the first time I have really wanted to interview a TV screenwriter.
- Jack Taylor – Ireland’s TV3 began showing film length adaptations of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels in 2010. These are all now available on Netflix, with the last two recently posted. At times, Iain Glen’s sober ex-cop cliches are as groan inducing as a Guinness hangover. But since Bruen basically invented the Irish cop genre, I can take these in stride. Anyone willing to endure a few missteps here will be well-rewarded with Glen’s spin on a classic.
- Elementary – This procedural has been on for long enough that it has started to spin its wheels every now and then. But the character arcs behind this modern Sherlock remain captivating. The finest moments of Miller’s recovering addict Sherlock occur in Narcotics Anonymous meetings or conversations with his NA sponsor. These moments of weakness and transparency contain the most thoughtful TV of the year, coordinating Sherlock’s gift for deduction with the struggle of a human spirit to overcome the corruption of pride and self-sufficiency. Enter Watson, who fetching and prescient as she is, makes all the Baker Street subtexts more complicated than prior incarnations.
About the Author