Monday, December 29, 2014

What I Watched In 2014: TV

Another year is wrapping up, and I have a blog, so let's talk about what I watched this year.  I'm careful with how I phrase this, because I didn't watch that much.  I'm a busy guy, you know?  For me, this year has almost been more notable for what I didn't watch.  I finally gave up on Walking Dead, for example.  Sorry, life's just too short for that shit!  I watched the pilot of Turn, the series about George Washington's spy ring, and loved the hell out of it, but the episodes just kept stacking up unwatched on my TiVo until I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't gonna watch the thing.  I started on The Leftovers, a very interesting show with a unique tone and perspective, but just couldn't keep up with watching all the episodes.  And there were some I watched, but don't plan to return to next year.  I see the promos for the 2015 season of Girls, and there are a lot of good lines in there, but I keep thinking "do I really want to spend any more time with these people?"  And Veep...I mean, I LOVE Armando Ianucci's dialogue, but now that the dazzle is wearing off, I'm realizing that there's really nothing else about the show that's any good.  All the characters are the same, and as satire, it's just giving us one message over and over: that the people in power are concerned with staying in power, with enforcing petty grudges, with anything other than the welfare of the people they're supposed to be serving.  And anyway, Orange is the New Black does a much better job of getting the same message across (mostly because it looks at it from the POV of the powerless rather than the powerful).  And while I get some trashy entertainment out of American Horror Story, I just can't imagine making the effort to finish this run out when it returns in January.  On the other hand, I'm still watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that seems about 20 years behind the time in terms of genre storytelling.  So who can plumb the mysteries of the mind?

Another quick thing: I've decided to retire A Game of Thrones and Mad Men from this list.  It's understood that GoT is the most thoroughly entertaining genre show ever put on TV, and that Mad Men remains the absolute state-of-the-art for quality TV-making.  You don't really need to read me say the same thing every year.  (Although I thought Mad Men had a really good season, especially with the recurring Kubrick riffs.)  Anyway, my favorite shows:

Broad City (Comedy Central) - This is just the funniest goddamn show on TV.  Manic anarchist Ilana and sad sack loser Abbi make one of the greatest comedy duos I've ever seen, and the scripts are as raunchy as they are hilarious.  It also has a very specific, scuzzy NYC feel that really enhances the sense of a world where this lunacy could take place.

Black Mirror (BBC) - Both seasons (a total of six episodes!) of this sci fi anthology show are on Netflix Instant right now.  Each episode paints a technological dystopian near-future that seems, as all great scifi futures do, very similar to our present, each a unique nightmare.  An episode about a world powered by wage-slaves on exercise bikes who are constantly fed commercials and distractions haunted me for days, but then I found myself laughing silly at the next episode, where people are able to store photographic video of their memories and drive themselves crazy looking for evidence of infidelity and other slights, because it seemed such a plausible future based on human nature.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Fox/National Geographic) - When you look at how much Cosmos sets out to do--explain on a basic level what the universe is, what it looks like and how it works, in a way that viewers can easily understand; give some background on the scientists who made these discoveries; orient viewers to the scientific method; get young people excited about science and (hopefully) STEM careers; express the urgency of our environmental predicament--it's kind of mind-boggling that Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his crew were able to accomplish all that in less than 13 hours of TV, all while being thoroughly entertaining.

Louie (FX) - This wasn't my favorite season of Louie (with far too much time devoted to Louie's annoying relationship with Pamela), but even when the show is off, it's remarkable for being so unpredictable, idiosyncratic and just unlike anything else on TV.  But mostly, I'm including it for two great episodes: "So Did The Fat Lady," which is almost painfully honest in addressing sexism and body issues, and the 90-minute "In the Woods," which could just as easily have been a great little indie film.

Olive Kittridge (HBO) - Well, I only watched the first half of this 4-hour drama, but it was enough to make me include it on the list.  The second hour climaxes with the title character acting horribly at her son's wedding, and as repulsive as it is, you understand it.  But not in the shallow, pop-psychology way we're used to these days, where they go back and show you the childhood trauma that lead to someone becoming Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch.  Just a portrait of a nearly-unknowable peson.  You know, like all of us.

Adult Swim Informercials (Cartoon Network) - Yeah, everyone loves "Too Many Cooks," and they should cuz it's great, but I would like to make the case for the nightmarish horror of "Unedited Footage of a Bear."

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) - What a great case of cultural smuggling: OitNB was sold to Netflix as the story of Piper, the upper class blond woman who provides us white yuppies with a POV character to enter the world of a women's prison, but by the second season, Piper subtly became just one of the many characters floating around this ensemble drama, allowing the spotlight to drift among the women of diverse color, age and class that fill out the world.

Orphan Black (BBC) - The first season is on Netflix Instant, I had to go get the second season DVD off of Amazon, but this is a really good scifi show (even with a few missteps in the second season).  Tatiana Maslany plays a young woman who discovers she is one of several clones.  She also plays all the clones, and it's an amazing performance.  Maybe there are many other actors who could do just as well--this is what actors do, after all--but the way Maslany creates the illusion that these are eight distinct individuals is quite a feat.

Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) - I was surprised last year by how much I liked the first season of Amy Schumer's sketch show.  I'd always liked her stand up, but never really thought of her as a comic genius or anything.  That first season really changed the way I looked at her, but she went all in on this second season and really wowed me.  The centerpiece, of course, is the sketch she did on the subject of rape in the military.  Inspired by the documentary Invisible War, Amy plays a Call of Duty-style videogame in which her playable female character gets raped and finds it extremely difficult to get any kind of justice in the military bureaucracy.  It's the knid of sharp satire that we need more of, and that outlets like SNL just aren't equipped to give us.  Comedy Central in general is really beginning to live up to its potential, with Schumer, Broad City, Key & Peele...even Nathan For You cracks me up.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) - For the first half of its maiden season, this show struggled to distinguish itself as something other than an extension of the Daily Show brand.  The breakthrough came in episode 11, with a long segment dedicated to the subject of America's incarceration state.  Half satire, half...journalismtainment?...and as funny as it was disturbing, it was one of the most important comedy segments on TV this year, and Oliver's team repeated the trick several times throughout the rest of the season.

David Bradley in The Strain (FX) - Guillermo Del Toro's vampire story is pretty decent genre TV, but man, David Bradley's performance is a fucking revelation!  Bradley has become familiar in recent years playing cranky old men in fantasy properties: the caretaker in the Harry Potter films, the wedding planner in A Game of Thrones.  But seeing him in full-on Van Helsing mode here, he could give Peter Cushing a run for his money!

Louis CK, Sara Silverman and Chris Rock opening monologues on Saturday Night Live (NBC) - Having marquee-name stand up comics host the show is a great idea, and ensures that, if nothing else, the opening monologue will be worthwhile.  And each of these comics brought it hard.  I want to point out that, while Louis didn't do an hour special this year so he could concentrate on his show, he did almost the same set of feminist material that he opened SNL with in a standup segment of Louie, so clearly that material was important to him.

An interview with a climate scientist on The Newsroom (HBO) - I've been fascinated by Aaron Sorkin's shows lately, despite the fact that I deeply hate them.  With all the great TV on, why can't I stop watching a show I hate?  I dunno, but this one segment may have made the whole thing worth it.

Fargo (F/X) - I liked this show so much that when it was over, I went back and rewatched the Coen Bros. movie on which it was based.  Let's just say that the comparison does the show no favors.  But it remains a pretty fun show, with Billy Bob Thornton really stealing the show as a Satanic figure that leads weaker souls into temptation and sews chaos just by implanting vague ideas in people's heads.  Probably the most fun I've ever had watching ol' Billy Bob.

Finn Wittrock on American Horror Story: Freak Show (F/X) - I got a lot of trashy pleasure out of American Horror Story: Coven, so when I heard that the next season was going to try to play even more to my fetishes by being set in a carnival freak show, I got excited.  Freak Show, as it turns out, is not very good, and certainly not good enough to overcome its icky, outdated ideas about "freaks," but Finn Wittrock's performance as Dandy Mott, a demented young man who acts exactly like a spoiled child, is one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen.  It's a classic sitcom character, in that Dandy has just one dimension regardless of the situation he's put in, and Wittrock sells it for all it's worth.

Shaw Bros. films on The El Rey Network - Feels like they're about 50% commercials (remember when people just used to accept this as a way to watch movies?), but hey, it's a lot cheaper than buying 200 titles on DVD.  Great way to expand your kung fu knowledge.

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