Sunday, March 23, 2014

The New Golden Age of TV

Numerous articles have appeared trumpeting a new golden age of TV. I have a digital subscription to the NY Times now, and one of my first stops on the website every day is the Television section, to see if there are any reviews of new shows. If I read about something that sounds interesting, I’ll make a mental note, though it’s getting to the point where quality television is beginning to eat substantively into my free time.

What follows is a list of the shows I’m watching presently, and what I think. I used to look forward to weekends because I could watch movies then, catching up on the ones that I’d missed in the theater. Lately, I’ve just been watching TV shows--watching two or three episodes of different shows every weekend. The quality is such that I get at least as much enjoyment from many of the programs as I would out of a well-written and capably directed film.

Mad Men

I started watching when it appeared in 2007, and it’s still the best show on TV. Created by Matthew Weiner, who was a producer and writer on The Sopranos, it’s depicted the journey of Don Draper in the America of the 60s, as he helps to fashion the vision of a New York advertising agency. Draper is a notorious lothario, and he finds no shortage of women willing to go along for the ride, some of whom are even aware of his marriage as they tumble into bed with him. As we watch his family battered by the storms of his infidelities, we also see the country weather a tumultuous decade, the signature events often coming through on TV news breaks with the agency employees huddled around, watching them unfold. As the series has gotten into the latter part of the decade, my sense of nostalgia has been triggered. I’ll see an object that was an integral part of the backdrop of my childhood, or hear a song that was on my very young soundtrack. Besides the satisfaction of an expertly crafted show, I get this added buzz of reliving that time in a strangely keen sense. The show is entering its last season this year, and I’m already trying to prepare for its conclusion. There was a scene in the finale of season 1, where Don gives a presentation to a couple of Kodak executives for their brand new Carousel slide projector. Don waxes poetic, as usual, on what the product can deliver for the customer, as he flips through photos of his family, the kinds of photos we all have yellowing away in albums or boxes. Images of happier times, as Don experiences personal turmoil in the many hours between when those pictures are taken. It’s an extremely powerful scene, worthy of a first-rate film. He finishes his soliloquy and the lights come on. The Kodak guys turn in their chairs, unable to utter a word, their jaws hanging. Another character tells them, “Good luck at your next meeting.” Good luck finding a show this good again for a while.

Game of Thrones

HBO has been on the cutting edge of decent TV for at least the last ten years now, and this adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy book series continues their formidable run. This is fantasy opera really, full of grand gestures in ominous minor chords. I was initially a bit frustrated because the fantasy elements seemed to be parceled out in meager helpings and sometimes only hinted at in vague allusions, but I’m gradually seeing more of them finally bloom into reality. This is storytelling for the long term, and when events happen, they occur with real weight and consequences. Characters which we grow fond of over time are dispatched with jarring force and callous disregard, which only increases our concern for the rest. The story doesn’t try to hide its debt to ancient English history, and you can see its outlines in the seven Kingdoms and the familiar contours of the map displayed in the sweeping shots of the show’s famous opening (Narrow Sea = English Channel). The show is full of shocking events that go viral shortly after airing (The Red Wedding, the birth of the dragons), and viewers can expect more to come. I love visiting Westeros and the surrounding lands for an hour every week, but I’m not sure I’d live there very long.

Louie

Quite simply the best comedy on television right now. It’s Louie CK’s subversive but still realistic take on the life of a forty-something divorced white male with two kids navigating the tortuous turns it can take in the big city. We see Louie dealing with his ex, his kids, bizarre family members, the always challenging dating scene of middle age, and his job as a comedian. Throughout each episode, he wears the flustered expression of a man who’s continually stymied by life’s riddles and insults. Despite this slow torture, the show has a sweet underlying tone, reminiscent of the early Woody Allen films. Louie often scores the episodes with the same variety of airy jazz, as if to reassure the viewer that, in the end, we all somehow muddle through it. Watching this show after watching a typical network comedy is truly to view a landscape in contrasts. It’s the choice between being railroaded toward the traditional sitcom tropes of petulant insults and sarcastic one-liners, or the comedy inherent in genuine situations that many of us have faced. Though it’s anything but, Louie makes it look easy, and makes it seem fresh.

Boardwalk Empire

Another HBO offering, starring Steve Buscemi as an actual, historical Atlantic City gangster named Enoch Thompson. Thompson (in real life, Enoch Johnson) lived there in the 1920s, as prohibition took hold and bootlegging became a lucrative but dangerous illegal business. He starts out in a position of local power, and we’re privy to the first faltering efforts of the federal government to get a handle on the situation (the FBI wasn’t formed until 1924, so the agency that initiates the efforts to investigate is the Bureau of Prohibition). After a pilot episode beautifully directed by Martin Scorsese (he remains a producer on the show), we’re immersed in the world of ‘20s Atlantic City, with its famous boardwalk and the bizarre attractions located there, such as the storefront that alerts passersby to babies being kept alive on incubators. Nucky’s fortunes rise and fall and rise again, with competition coming from local upstarts, as well as other gangsters based in New York City and Chicago. It is, as you would expect, a hyperviolent and seedy world. We tend to think of the country as being very innocent before the depression, but this program tells a different and fascinating story.

The Americans

I’m a bit late to the party on this one. Just about midway through season 1. The show about Russian spies in the US in the early 80s, and their efforts to gather intelligence while trying to evade the FBI and the threats from their own group of agents. It’s another decent period piece, and the show was created by a person who actually served in the CIA, so it feels very authentic. It seems that sometimes the Russians take risks that are not terribly realistic. They often come very close to blowing their cover and exposing their whole operation. It’s a small concern, however, and for the most part, it’s a voyeuristic glimpse into a world few of us get to see up close.

Vikings

Yeah, there seems to be a common theme among these favorites. I’ve always been a history buff. One of my favorite eras is the dark ages, and with this show, we have a story about the years when Norsemen began venturing out from the rocky coasts of Scandinavia and raiding the British Isles. They were called Vikings, and for a couple of centuries they were the scourge of Europe. This show concerns Ragnar Lothbrok, who apparently
was an actual figure at the time, and his idea to pursue these raids. We see the discovery of a new method to navigate open water, and the particular battle tactics that were used at the time. The lead of the piece is a former model, and has a very limited range. They should’ve cast a more charismatic actor in that role, but the cast is also very big, so the focus is never on him for too long, which is a good thing. One review I read in the Guardian described it as “the most metal show on TV”, which is a good way to put it. I check my brain at the door and appreciate the simplicity of life decided by the slash of the sword and the effectiveness of a shield wall. Skol!

MI-5

This is a show that in England was called “Spooks”, but was titled MI-5 here and in Canada. Probably something
to do with the racial connotations of that word in this country. It’s another espionage thriller, about a group of agents in MI-5, which is the English equivalent of our FBI. Specifically, this is the counter-intelligence unit, fighting threats inside the country from foreign perpetrators, or even home-grown radicals as well. It’s a fast-paced, tautly written program, with a similar air of authenticity to it as The Americans. I first caught a few episodes on A&E when they were running it in the mid-noughties, but when I bought my house, I got rid of most of my cable.  They stopped running it anyway at about that time, and now I can watch all 10 seasons on Hulu. I’ve just ended season 3, and they’ve completely replaced the three principal actors, the former leads having either disappeared or been killed off. I’m waiting to see if their replacements will have the same appeal as the originals. If they keep the same showrunners throughout, then I don’t think there will be any worries.

Spiral (Engrenages)

Essentially a French police procedural, set in Paris. It revolves around an attractive female detective, the cases she encounters, as well as her team and her romantic adventures. She’s interested in a prosecutor she works with, but is not above suddenly sleeping with a young informant on a case after it is resolved successfully. There is government corruption to deal with, and a CSI-like focus on autopsies at times. I’m not a big fan of procedurals, but it helps that it’s set in a different country and system. French movies have caused me to believe that the country is full of beautiful people, and this show does nothing to disavow that perception. It’s been a hit in other countries, but I can see the subtitles handicapping it in impatient America. You’d be missing out on a show that’s psychologically and narratively rich and complex.



Those are the TV shows I currently have on heavy rotation. I’m trying to temper my eagerness to find more of them. All of these are 45 minute or hour long episodes, time spent in front of the screen adds up quickly. I may have room for one or two more though. After such a harsh winter, my need for sunshine shouldn’t be that overwhelming.

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