Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: The Year TV Defeated Me

It's kind of amazing how much TV has improved over the last 20 years. When I think back to when I was in high school, and Moonlighting was on, I just couldn't believe something that creative and unconventional had made it on TV! Now, in 2010, there's a Martin Scorsese-directed period epic about prohibition era gangsters in Atlantic City starring Steve Buscemi on HBO, and I'm like "'s OK."

In another year, I probably would have stuck with Boardwalk Empire, but this year (as alluded to in the title of this post), I just had too many damn things on my TiVo (all of the good stuff came on on Sunday night, for some reason), and I was too busy to find time to watch it all, so I had to just let some things go, and frankly, Boardwalk Empire wasn't grabbing my attention. At this point, I've also stopped watching 30 Rock, which was the only prime time network show I was still watching (although it's worth mentioning that the live episode was much better than anticipated). Everything else is cable now, including AMC, which is surprisingly gaining on HBO, and has definitely surpassed Showtime. Showtime makes some good efforts, but none of their shows have really hit the bullseye so far. Weeds started out fun, but it's just such a silly show that its reality has no weight. This despite a lot of strong points (it being a show about pot isn't even the best thing about it). I like that Weeds' female protagonist is allowed to be so fucked up and have real personality problems, but the writers just can't seem to make these characters behave like real people instead of sitcom characters. I had high hopes for The Big C, but it feels a lot like Weeds, two-dimensional and sitcom-y, with the characters resembling TV characters more than actual people. I guess Nurse Jackie is the most successful of these shows. I believe the characters on Nurse Jackie. And I commend all three of these shows for having female characters that are allowed to be as mutli-dimensional as Tony Soprano or Dan Draper.

As for Dexter...well, I have to admit that this has been my favorite season, and that was maybe Peter Weller's best role ever, but I still just don't like the show. Dexter stands in contrast to shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, all of which I think face a certain reality: that you can't be a criminal and be a good person. If you are involved in a criminal enterprise, sooner or later you will have to kill someone. Dexter, from day one, lets the audience off the hook with its "he's a serial killer who only kills bad guys" premise. I guess that's fine, like a vampire with a soul, or a good guy pirate, or a hit man with a heart of gold, those are all nice fantasies, but when it's contrasted with all these shows that really challenge the viewers' sense of morality, Dexter just looks very adolescent. Look at the beginning of this season, when Dexter encounters Lumen. He's faced with a dilemna: killing this innocent victim would be against his code, but letting her live could be dangerous to him. Within a couple episodes, the two are working together to leave a trail of bloody vengeance against a cartoon cabal of evil yuppie rapists. Compare that with the arc that stretches over the first 3 episodes of Breaking Bad, where Walter and Jesse have to deal with meth dealer Krazy 8. It's resolved in what can be the only logical way to resolve it, and it challenges the audience right away: you can't be a good guy and a criminal. You have to commit to one or the other.

As for the Sopranos prequel Boardwalk Empire, it was pretty good. I liked the period details, the glimpse of what music and entertainment looked and sounded like in the early 20th Century (that scene with the weird effeminate comic wearing pancake makeup made me want to go on a research binge to find out what that was based on). The story and characters never really hooked me, but it was nicely shot and acted. And if I had had more free time, I'd have probably stuck with it. But there's just too damn much to do, and too damn much to watch.

Normally, at this time of year, I would be writing a list of my favorite movies, but I've hardly gone out to the movies at all this year (I just watched Inception for the first time on DVD, if that gives you some idea of where I am). But I made a top 10 list of my favorite TV shows. It's kind of tedious that everyone who writes a list makes the same kinds of disclaimers (I guess writing lists is tedious in itself, but it's a convenient way to organize a post like this one), but in this list, or at least the top 7, these shows are really all about equally good in different ways, so the rankings are sort of arbitrary. I was going to embed a few videos here to make it more visually interesting, but I'm sick of working on this, so I'll just assume you know how to use Google.

1. Treme (HBO) - By whatever objective standards you can come up with to judge art, Treme is probably not the "best" show of the year. The stories seem underdeveloped, some of the characters feel a bit trite, and it has the natural disadvantage of being a David Simon joint, and thus being compared at every turn to The Wire. But I can safely say that I enjoyed Treme more than any other show (or movie) I watched this year. Treme, from its opening shot, is a parade of the music, food and culture of New Orleans. As I wrote earlier this year, I've heard of the Mardis Gras Indians for years, read plenty about them, heard recordings by The Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas, seen bits of video on YouTube, but only now, after seeing Treme, do I feel like I really understand what Mardi Gras Indians actually do. And that applies to the other bits of NOLA culture we see, what Mardi Gras parades look like, what people do during the parades, all the little nooks and crannies of this incredibly rich culture, the King Cakes and begnets and midnight mass on Ash Wednesday. I've spent less than 24 hours in the city, and I'll probably never attend a Mardi Gras due to my hatred of crowd scenes, so it's a great opportunity. All this plus some incredible performances by what may be my two favorite actors currently working, Wendell Pierce and John Goodman (and they are far from the only ones giving great performances here).

2. Louie (F/X) - I am of the opinion that Louis CK is the best standup comic working right now. I'm also of the opinion that his new show, Louie, is the best sitcom since Arrested Development. Louie is a shaggy, unpredictable beast. You never quite know what you're going to get when you tune in. Sometimes it's surreal and absurdist. Sometimes it feels like the most honest thing you've ever seen on TV. Often, it's both at the same time.

Louis has the good luck of getting his (second) sitcom in this new golden age of TV, when he can really shape it into whatever kind of show he wants. While Roseanne and Seinfeld were excellent shows that embodied the peronae of their respective stars, they were still boxed in by the traditional limits of the sitcom form. Louis CK, on the 245th-ranked F/X network, is pretty much free to fill up his allotted 30 minutes with whatever idea pops into his balding head, and what you get is as raw and individualist as a standup working shit out at an open mic.

3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart/The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) - Remember when Obama got elected, and a lot of people asked the stupid question of whether comics like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher would be able to get as much material out of the new administration as they did out of Bush? Well, in the case of Bill Maher, it turned out to not be such a stupid question. Throughout the Bush years, Real Time with Bill Maher provided a vent for my spleen. But there was a strange phenomenon during those years, an illusion that everyone slightly left of center all saw the world the same way. We were all united in that sense that we could not fucking believe how horrible that administration was. Now that we've had a year or two of the new guy, we're all starting to look at each other and think, "oh, you're a sexist douchebag who thinks vaccines cause autism and all diseases are caused by eating junk food."

Don't get me wrong, I still watch Bill Maher, because when you have Christopher Hitchens, Patton Oswalt, Barney Frank, P.J. O'Rourke, Andrew Sullivan, Sarah Silverman, Salman Rushdie and Reihan Salam on an uncensored panel together, you're going to hear some interesting conversation, but Bill's comedy just doesn't make the transition to this new world, and it's aggravating as hell to listen to him say incredibly racist shit about Muslims, or to nod along while Michael Moore and Sean Penn say astoundingly stupid things.

Which makes it all the more impressive how well both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and their respective crews) have adapted. In fact, both shows are probably funnier now than they've ever been. Bill may have a point here, but generally speaking, the Comedy Central hosts have, throughout the year, managed to mine a rich vein of comedy from our exasperating political climate. I'm not even thinking about the big rally event in Washington, although it was a good example of how the two shows compliment each other, often coming at the same joke from two different angles, and their early-late-night scheduling fits perfectly into one's day. They've reinvented late night TV, and created a new focus of comedy, and maybe even changed the way people look at the world of politics.

4. Mad Men (AMC) - Mad Men is, simply, the state of the art of television right now. The show is so well written, acted and directed that it makes everything else look amateurish. They use all the tricks: multiple storylines that comment on each other, lines of dialogue and images that carry deep meaning while still being lively and fun to watch, a wide ensemble of fully living, breathing characters, and an ongoing arc reflecting on the changing world of the mid-20th century. Plus, Mad Men has inspired so many writers more talented than me to explicate every episode that reading the reactions to each episode the next day is as entertaining as watching the episode.

5. East Bound and Down (HBO) - You remember that scene in Animal House, the "Mind if we dance with your dates?" scene? Remember that weird moment when Flounder, or Otter, or one of those guys, asks his date what she's studying, and she says "Primitive cultures," and then they cut to a shot of Otis Day and the Knights singing "Shama Lama Ding Dong," and you're like "uh, what the fuck?" Or maybe you just sat there quietly and pretended you didn't catch it? You could never get that joke into a movie today, and really, that's not a bad thing, you know?

East Bound and Down is a riff on that sort of pre-PC school of comedy, and I can't quite figure out how we're supposed to feel about it. Jody Hill clearly loves this kind of comedy. He's the kind of guy who loves pushing people's buttons. And Danny McBride is uniquely suited to be the voice of Hill's misanthropic humor. McBride has the same sort of over-the-top presence as John Belushi. In East Bound and Down, McBride is like a volcano spewing an endless flow of profanity and abuse, a larger than life character who nonetheless believes he is even larger than he is. As Kenny Powers, McBride is wide open about being racist, misogynist and homophobic, and indulging in endless drug abuse (which is never portrayed as tragic, only as fun). So it's difficult to get a handle on how exactly you're supposed to feel about Kenny. He's an unrelentingly terrible person, but you get the uncomfortable feeling that Hill thinks he's an honest portrayal of the American Dream.

This second season has a little difficulty living up to the greatness of the first season, just because the shock has worn off a little. But McBride's portrayal of Kenny's bottomless obnoxiousness, his oblivious narcissism, his unquenchable appetites, is a thing of beauty (however uneasy) to watch, and the supporting cast rises up all around him. In this world, either Kenny's obnoxiousness is not all that unusual, or it's contagious, and infects just about everyone he comes in contact with.

6. Breaking Bad (AMC) - Breaking Bad is what Weeds would be if it took its subject seriously. The characters generally survive in BB, but the consequences for their actions are always real. The drug trade takes real tolls from everyone it touches, even if they had no desire to be touched by it. BB has a lot razor's edge tension, and manages to put Walt and Jesse in some life and death situation every other week, but we accept it because the show is honest about the stakes. Now, full disclosure, I'm talking about seasons one and two here (just finished two, in fact!). I haven't seen the season that actually aired this year yet. Maybe it will be even better, maybe it will jump the shark. The characters are slowly starting to emerge, with only the in-laws still feeling a bit like written characters.

7. The Green Room with Paul Provenza (Showtime) - The Green Room is a talk show, with Provenza hosting a round table discussion with 3 or 4 other comics. The whole season seems to have been filmed in one day, and the audience is also populated with comics, so you get this rolling party atmosphere. As the title implies, this is as close as you will get to hanging out in the green room after a show, with all the comics riffing and trading war stories. If you haven't watched it, some of the highlights you've missed include a rousing anti-censorship rant from Penn Jillette, Bobby Slayton race baiting Paul Mooney, Larry Miller recounting the worst hell gig of his life, Eddie Izzard explaining the traditions of British music hall comedy (and I honestly can't figure out whether he was bullshitting or not), and Penn, Martin Mull and Tommy Smothers trading very long, very filthy shaggy dog jokes. Actually, my favorite moment was an argument between Jillette and Smothers over Jillette's appearances on Glenn Beck's show. Penn was right, Tommy was being an asshole, but in the end, Tommy kind of won the argument, just because he was funnier. As far as I can tell, this has not made it to DVD, but God, I hope it does.

8. Bored to Death (HBO) - Pairing this show with East Bound and Down was a good move. The two shows, with such different senses of humor, make for an extremely pleasant hour of comedy. I don't quite like Bored to Death as much as East Bound, but it has it's own charms. I wish they were able to make Zach Galifinakis' character work a bit better--the writers seem to have a cloudy understanding of what makes this character tic, or what kind of comics become popular even in the underground comix world--but this is balanced out by Ted Danson's great performance as an aging boomer playboy, and in the second season Danson has been given a more interesting storyline and a bit more to do. In the middle, star Jason Schwartzman does the Jason Schwartzman thing (I really did not expect this guy to still be around 10 years after Rushmore), with a fair portrayal of early 30's lifepath angst.

9. The Walking Dead (AMC) - Shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Mad Men have great hooks that get you watching, but then turn out to give you much more than promised. This has set a new standard for TV, and Walking Dead's low placement on this list is a result of its failure to rise above its own hook. Walking Dead is exactly what it says it is: a show about a zombie apocalypse. Still, that's a pretty great idea for a show. As zombies have become mainstream over the last decade, this show is probably inevitable. The concept of surviving in a zombie apocalypse lends itself well to long form exploration. It's actually kind of surprising that this has never been done before. Walking Dead gives you all the gore you expect from zombie stories, but in 2010, the novelty of seeing someone disemboweled by zombies has mostly worn off. What we're interested in now is the mechanics of how you survive day to day in a world overrun by the living dead. And I'd say that Walking Dead does a good job of portraying that agonizing life. It's a heavily plot-centric show, and so far it has failed to bring its cast of characters to life, or to give us any real surprises, but the concept is so rich that I'm enjoying watching it play out.

10. True Blood (HBO) - True Blood has a problem: its central characters are boring. It's a common problem for genre shows, actually. Think of Joss Whedon's slayerverse, where Buffy, Angel and Spike are by far the least interesting characters (played by the least interesting actors). Worse yet, think of Jack on Lost. (It's tempting to put Mad Men in this category--Peggy Olsen's story is much more interesting than Don Draper's--but I will spare that show, because (a) the writers seem to understand this, and despite her limited screentime they manage to make Peggy feel like a second lead character, and (b) nobody could argue that Don is not an interesting character, or that Jon Hamm doesn't do an amazing job with him.) So it is with True Blood, a show where these fascinating characters like Lafeyette, Jessica, Jason Stackhouse and Arlene keep getting rushed off the stage to make way for the tedious love triangle between Sookie, Bill and Eric, who seem to be competing to see who can be the most boring. But in their third season, just as I was ready to give up, the folks behind this show found a solution: go big. And they did, filling every episode with ridiculous amounts of gore and pure batshit insanity. Come on, Russell Edgington killing the anchor woman on TV? Or rolling in his dead lover's gore goo? Or Bill twisting Lorena's neck 180 degrees in the midst of hitting that booty? Hey, if this is pandering, by all means pander to me. You have preserved my viewership for at least another season.

But wait! There's more!

I guess I can't really talk about this year of TV without bringing up Conan and Jay. I like Conan O'Brian, but I've never really had much attachment to his talk show. The period of time in which Conan had a late night show on NBC basically lined up exactly with the period of time when I was working 9 to 5 and thus not watching late night talk shows. This is, in fact, the first year since I graduated college that I've been able to watch them with any regularity. So I think I'd seen Conan's show maybe a half a dozen times by the time the last episode aired.

Of the current hosts, I think Craig Ferguson has the best show. He's got a completely looney sense of humor, and a robot sidekick, and one of the best theme songs in TV history. Most of all, he's got the best monologue on late night. For one thing, he's the only one that does something different with the monologue. All the others just do what Johnny did (and for all I know, what Steve Allen and Jack Paar did), tell a bunch of lame one-liners about the day's headlines. Craig basically does a thematic, stream-of-consciousness standup routine every night. As for the interviews, I don't think any of them are half as good as Johnny was, because they don't know how to just shut the fuck up. I know that's an rotten old wanker kind of opinion, but it's true. Anyway, it hardly matters, because the interviews aren't "real" interviews, they're just celebrities hanging out, which is what you want to watch while you're flossing. I might even say that for the interview segments, Jimmy Fallon is my favorite, because he seems like he's just having fun with the guests. He also seems to genuinely love hip hop (obviously, he's got The Roots as his house band). I was kind of outraged when they gave Fallon a show, because I've always thought the guy was completely unfunny, but in the context of a late night talk show, he's alright. And of course, I still have a soft spot for Letterman.

Hey, wait, let's talk about one more show! Parenthood. Now, this isn't one of the best shows on TV or anything, but my wife's been watching it, and I have to say, I enjoy it. It's a sweet show. it's got Lauren Graham, and she's good with the rapid, overlapping dialogue, and her daughter is played by Mae Whitman. You remember Mae Whitman, right? She played Ann on Arrested Development, and the lesbian girlfriend in Scott Pilgrim. This is the first role where she's got a little space to move around, and she has great comic delivery. I think I like her interactions with Lauren Graham even more than Alexis Bledel. And it has stuff like the patriarch giving his maybe 12-year-old grandson his first beer after Thanksgiving dinner, a really sweet moment that's also more real than what you're usually presented with on holiday episodes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Chris-

I just finished reading your blog. You may be a jack off all trades, HOWEVER, with one exception. Proof reading!

PETER Weller is the actor who portrayed the corrupt cop/Private Eye Stan Liddy on DEXTER. Paul Weller was in The Jam/The Style Council!

I am elated that you also chose to comment on THE GREEN ROOM WITH PAUL PROVENZA. This truly is a comedy orgy. If you are a comedy fan, not easily offended (see THE ARISTOCRATS film which Paul Provenza Directed and Co-Produced with Penn Jillette!) or just have a great sense of humor, this show is for you.

The shows are not taped in one evening nor are they rehearsed, or formualted. It is more like being a part of an interesting and hilarious conversation at a party or friend's house!

Having been a member of the exclusive/invitation only audience, I can't even begin to tell you what the energy in the room felt like. AMAZING! Not to mention, Paul Provenza, was incredibly warm and welcoming to everyone. He took the time to speak to all. I'm looking forward to attending the tapings for Season 2 next week.

1/04/2011 3:01 PM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

Peter Weller--good catch! But I still like my alternate universe where The Jam are fronted by Robocop.

Seriously, though, thanks for the comment.

1/05/2011 10:56 PM  

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