Saturday, February 09, 2013
MOVIES MADE ME #54: Television Takeover
I am a confirmed movie addict, but in the last few years I've come to believe that episodic television -- minus commercials and the extended waiting period between episodes -- is actually a better storytelling medium. Like a novel (or series of novels), a TV series has more time and space to develop characters and themes. When the storytelling is done by people who understand the full potential of the medium, the result is sometimes a viewing experience that feels more like living a story than watching it. In other cases, it's just nice to get to spend more time with the characters.
Here are some of the shows that have hooked me. And I'm open to suggestions about where to go next...
24 (Fox, 2001 - 2010)
A friend of mine raved to me about this show during the first season. He said he never missed an episode, and his wife had jokingly begun referring to it as his "man opera." I don't know how he could stand watching it on television, with all the breaks. When I finally bought the first season on DVD, the sound of that ticking clock made me salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs. I couldn't... stop... watching. I'm not saying that the show was always brilliantly written. For me, there was a slight downhill slide in the storytelling between seasons 1 and 4. Season 5 (revolving around a Nixon-like president) blew me away, far surpassing my expectations for the series. Season 6 was embarrassingly brainless, making it difficult for Jack Bauer to fully regain his dignity in seasons 7 and 8. So things were a bit uneven... Nevertheless, this series was so reliably adrenalizing that it changed the face of television. Without 24, we might not have had The Shield and The Wire, and I'm almost certain we wouldn't have had Sleeper Cell or Homeland.
Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001 - 2005)
Everybody loved The Sopranos. I had a girlfriend in college who lived down the street from the real Bada Bing, and she was obsessed. I found the series interesting as an antithesis to the melodramatic cliffhanger-storytelling of 24, but I never really got invested in the characters. (I confess that while I will almost always sit through the entirety of any movie, I have no qualms about dismissing a TV series after a few episodes...) I did, however, get hooked on HBO's second breakthrough series, which a friend pitched to me as "American Beauty with a side of horror." I loved the dark humor, the bold treatment of sensitive subjects, and the emotional vulnerability of the characters (though I think this series had become a bit too melodramatic by the end of season three). I also tried Dead Like Me, but it didn't stick.
Firefly (Fox, 2002)
Joss Whedon's sci-fi western series lasted only one season (because Fox cursed its initial reception by airing the episodes out of order), but its legacy is overwhelming. As a Buffy fan, I was well aware of Whedon but I didn't get around to this series on DVD until the movie SERENITY was made. Since then, I have re-viewed it about a dozen times and it never gets old. When I first saw THE AVENGERS, all I could think was that it worked because it did everything SERENITY had done before it... and yet I couldn't like THE AVENGERS quite as much because I missed the intimacy of Firefly. A friend of mine once said that his favorite movies make him feel sad at the end, because he doesn't want to leave the fictional world so soon. That's how I feel about Firefly. The characters still have a place in my heart, and I'm always eager to go back and see them.
The Wire (HBO, 2002 - 2008)
I was working at a television studio in Virginia when this show was airing, and everyone was talking about it. It was shot in the D.C. / Baltimore area, and a number of the actors who passed through our studio had been featured in one or more episodes of the series. Still, for some reason, I managed to avoid the show until it was cancelled. Then I decided to binge. What amazed me was the fact that the show kept getting better, with the scope of each season widening to focus on new socio-political issues. This is a series made by showrunners who know how to craft the arc of a season -- not just for the sake of drama, but to say something meaningful. The creators also knew how to go out on top. Season five's brilliant skewering of the media is as good as TV gets.
The Shield (FX, 2002 - 2008)
After finishing The Wire I was itching for something similar, so I picked up the first season of this L.A.-based crime drama. It's a bit more of a "man opera" than The Wire, but still brilliantly written and acted. The series brings real humanity to characters who do some utterly contemptible things, and even occasionally makes us root against opposing characters who are much more decent human beings. This is a show that lives in the gray areas, and forces us to live there too, constantly questioning our motives and our loyalties. That's much more than casual entertainment, and what's really amazing is that -- with the exception of some predictable storylines in seasons five and six -- it maintains a consistently high level of storytelling for seven full seasons.
Slings & Arrows (Sundance, 2003 - 2006)
I don't know anyone else who has actually seen this Canadian series, and it might be that I simply have a bias toward it because I spent a summer at the Globe Theater in London and I am hopelessly, endlessly enthusiastic about Shakespeare. That said, I think this three-season series is brilliant. It manages the weave the behind-the-scenes lives of a troupe of actors together in a way that reflects the plotlines of three of Shakespeare's best known stories. There's a distinct escalation of drama over the course of the seasons, as the production company moves from a staging of the lighthearted "A Midsummer Night's Dream," to the somber "Macbeth," and finally the transcendent "King Lear." The show manages to be alternately lighthearted, somber and transcendent. Somehow the balance works. "How?" you ask. And somewhere, I hear Tom Stoppard answering: "It's a mystery."
The 4400 (USA, 2004 - 2007)
Though I am a fan of science fiction in general, I have found it surprisingly difficult to get drawn into most sci-fi TV series. This one doesn't always have the best production values -- at times, it screams "cable TV" -- but I love the concept of a supernatural event that suddenly forces everyone on the planet to re-evaluate their worldview, and I love the way this event haunts the central characters like a Zen riddle. The 4400 premiered the same year as Lost and, while the first season couldn't live up to the ABC series, I think The 4400 did a better job in the long run of sustaining the mystery without frustrating the viewer.... at least, up until USA aruptly pulled the plug at the end of season four and left us all hanging.
Boston Legal (ABC, 2004 - 2008)
I'm not a big sitcom watcher. And I generally hate lawyer shows. I'm not even a huge David E. Kelley fan. But Boston Legal is one of the smartest and funniest TV shows I've ever seen. Period. William Shatner and Candace Bergin are supposed to be the heavies on the series, but James Spader steals every episode. I'm not sure I've ever been as consistently amused by any character as I am by Alan Shore. Whether he's charming the pants off of the impossibly hot women who work in his office, embarrassing opposing counsel with his unimpeachable rhetoric, or bonding with Shatner... well... okay, I'll just say it. I want to be Alan Shore. The humor gets increasingly silly over the course of the five seasons, but the heart of the show -- a rare tribue to non-homophobic male bonding -- remains intact.
Deadwood (HBO, 2004 - 2006)
This series begins in a mythic vein, with a Walter Hill-directed pilot about the death of Wild Bill Hickock. Hill is easily one of the best western filmmakers alive today, so I wasn't surprised that I loved the pilot. I was, however, a bit surprised by how much I liked the series that followed it. Once Hickock is dead, the focus shifts to a community of accomplished character actors, and every single one of them is utterly captivating. Timothy Olyphant is likeable in the leading role (enough to warrant a similar leading role in the equally good FX series Justified) and Ian McShane is brilliant, whether he's playing a good guy or a bad guy. I'm bummed that this one only lasted for three seasons, because it still had a lot of life in it at the end of round three.
Entourage (HBO, 2004 - 2011)
I didn't expect to like this series. In fact, I didn't like the first few episodes at all. I felt like I was watching a magazine show about a bunch of rich, pampered jerkoffs. Then, much to my surprise, those rich, pampered jerkoffs started to grow on me. Their character flaws rose above the industry-insider bullshit and then they became genuinely fun to hang out with. Pampered or not, they interacted like real friends, and their loyalty to each other made them all easy to like... even Ari. Okay, especially Ari, who tried harder than all of them to conceal his humanity. In the end, my only problem with this series was the ridiculously short seasons.
Lost (ABC, 2004 - 2010)
Yes, this series became hopelessly frustrating over the course of its six seasons... but maybe that was inevitable. In my opinion, the first season was absolutely brilliant -- setting up a profound sense of mystery as well as hint toward a genuinely meaningful philosophy. It works as character drama, intelligent sci-fi, and metaphysical horror. It's on that last level that the series really drew me in. When the final episode of the first season concluded with the characters setting out on separate spiritual journeys, I couldn't wait to for more. The series remained consistently entertaining, but it was never again quite as ambitious or meaningful.
Veronica Mars (UPN, 2004 - 2007)
In a way, this series came along and filled the void that was left by the cancellation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003). Certainly there are obvious similarties between the two series, which are both about a smart, tough teenage heroine who protects and observes the biting world of high school from the perspective of a reluctant outsider. Veronica Mars is brassy but loveable, independent but vulnerable, and in all situations a force to be reckoned with. Any show with this character in the lead might have worked, but the consistently great writing and solid supporting cast don't hurt either.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX, 2005 - Present)
This is the most un-PC show I have ever seen it. The humor comes from the fact that the main characters are so rude, so selfish, so desperate that they just keep topping their most embarrassing moments. The episode titles say it all: "The Gang Gets Racist," "Charlie Got Molested," "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom," "Sweet Dee's Dating a Retarded Person," "Who Pooped the Bed?" The longer the series runs, the harder the writers have to work to surprise the audience, which has resulted in more slapstick and less wit. Best to start at the beginning and work your way forward. If it's not your cup of tea, you'll probably know in the first few minutes. If it is, you'll be singing "Nightman" in your sleep.
The Office (NBC, 2005 - Present)
I think Steve Carrell is funnier than Ricky Gervais. So sue me. Actually, I think the main reason this series works for me is because it breaks the third wall. That and I fell for the whole will-they-won't-they subplot with Jim and Pam in the early seasons. Once they got together and pumped out a baby, the show lost some of its appeal for me. When Carrell left, I really wanted to believe that James Spader would reinvigorate things... Nobody was more excited about the idea of dropping Alan Shore in The Office than I was. Alas, the writers didn't know how to use him and things have fizzled. Still, this is one of the few shows that always stops me when I'm flipping channels.
Dexter (Showtime, 2006 - Present)
When I first heard about this series, I thought it sounded like American Psycho. I liked the idea of a TV series told from the perspective of a serial killer, but I couldn't imagine it lasting more than one season. Obviously I underestimated the potential of this idea -- mainly because I actually thought it was a show about a serial killer. It's not. It's a show about a vigilante. Dexter is The Dark Knight without a cape, and I have to give the writers credit for remaining more focused on the darkness than on the heroics. For me, that's what makes it work.
Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008 - Present)
This is another idea that sounded, to me, like it couldn't sustain more than a season or two. At the beginning of the series, the main character is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Can't get much more pessimistic about the future of someone's story than that. But Walt's illness quicklymtakes a distant backseat to his newfound freedom. Dostoevsky said, "If there were no God, then everything would be permissable." In a way, that's the starting point of Breaking Bad -- it dares to live life without fear or conscience. Mind you, that's just the starting point... Then things get really wild. After five seasons, this is still one of the best shows on TV.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox, 2008 - 2009)
This one is a guilty pleasure. I'm enough of a fan of James Cameron's Terminator movies that I probably would have watched this series even if it wasn't very good... but I was thrilled when it turned out to be a well-crafted drama. The storyline stood on its own, and the action and visuals were often more compelling than the later movies. Despite occasionally clunky dialogue, the acting was solid. I note that this is the third series I've named that features Summer Glau... so maybe I'm being a little bit biased. (On that note, I'll avoid naming Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, although I think it had some intriguing episodes.) I was particularly impressed with the series finale, which suggested that the best was yet to come. Unfortunately we'll never know.
Justified (FX, 2010 - Present)
When this series started, I had the feeling that somebody had crossed Deadwood with The Shield, and thrown in a dash of Harry Crews for extra kick. I'm certainly not complaining... and it seems like things are just getting warmed up.
The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010 - Present)
I'm a horror geek, so of course I have to acknowledge the zombie series that has become cable TV's highest rated show of all time. Yup, I love it. The hell with True Blood.