SPOILERS AHEAD (and if you're just here to see what I have to say about last night's Jon Stewart, just scroll down to the bottom).
What does it mean, that I have to put a spoiler warning on a post like this? It's Wednesday morning, and I'm writing about Tuesday-night teevee, but I figure the TiVO people out there haven't seen everything yet. (I hadn't seen everything myself until I got up this morning and turned on my retro-tivo, also known as a VCR.)
Last night was a terrific night for television. Four shows at the top of their game. Three of those shows are rather brutal, which meant it wasn't exactly enjoyable television, but it was riveting.
First, 24 returned after a break of several weeks, and immediately cranked up the tension meter to "Unendurable." 24 is a fundamentally ridiculous show that nonetheless is very effective (at least when it's at its best) at making viewers anxious. This hasn't been a great season so far ... not as flat out stupid as last year's "Perils of Kim" plot lines, but not great in the "your genitalia will shrivel if you watch this, whether you're a woman or a man" way it can be. Well, I can't speak for Robin, but my balls are disappearing rapidly after last night's episode. The killer virus is loose, the bad guys are about to take over the country (I know, who could believe that), key characters are running around with blood-filled snot pouring out of their noses ... for once, there wasn't a moment's rest for the viewer, and if they can keep that up the final eight weeks, this will once again be must-see teevee you can't bear to see.
NYPD Blue has been revitalized recently by the addition of Scott Winters. Winters, who played the brain-addled brother in Oz, is terrific as a brutal cop who can't control himself ... yes, I know, that character used to be named "Andy Sipowicz," but Andy's been a lot more mellow the last few years. This new cop is like Andy, if Andy was a sick fuck who hated women. The gradual emergence of the guy as Bad is fascinating, as is the gradual recognition by the Heroes that their new compadre is, well, is a sick fuck. The one thing you can count on with NYPD Blue is actors working at the highest levels, and the Saved by the Bell Guy has been Smits-esque with his subtle performance in this plot line. It's nice to see an aging favorite crank it up one more time, even if just for a few weeks.
Just when you're ready to congratulate the old show for being more spry than usual, here comes The Shield. This program is like NYPD Blue on 24-laced methedrine. Vic Mackey continues to be one of the most fascinating characters on television ... he's Tony Soprano fascinating, folks ... it's astonishing, but after 2 1/2 seasons, they still haven't toned Vic down, still haven't let his heart of gold overwhelm the rottenness at his core. It's been said many times, by myself and by others: with the tight teeshirts and the shaved head, Michael Chiklis looks like a walking penis, and The Shield is a primer on what the world would be like if dicks ran things (I know, who could believe that). Mackey is as brutal as Tony Soprano, with the added twist that Vic thinks he is doing good for society. He's Dirty Harry Callahan without the cool punchlines, he's not just a lovable bully who gets the job done, he's a murderer, a sadist with a badge. And the show walks an interesting line ... the tone of the program takes its lead from Vic, it's as ugly and pessimistic a show as you'll ever see, but while the tone is Mackey-inspired, the show is more condemnatory of Vic than it is celebratory. Viewers "root" for Vic the same way they "root" for Tony Soprano ... he's the central character in the show, we spend our viewing time following him around doing his job, we "want" him to succeed on some basic level, but we're also appalled by the man and his tactics.
And last night featured two other characters having one of the greatest fights in teevee history. This was Fight-Club brutal, the guys were going at it in what seemed to these never-been-in-fights eyes to be v.realistic, and for a second you thought this would be one of those macho Peckinpah scenes where after the two guys beat the shit out of each other they realized they really liked each other ... and then, before that could happen, the girl friend of one of the guys clobbered the other guy with an iron (irony ... get it? irony!), which REALLY fucked him up, and he got in his car, drove away, blacked out at the wheel, crashed into another car, went flying through the windshield, and is quite possibly dead, although I guess we won't know until next week.
And the way it played out was masterful, not just because the fight scene was so well choreographed. All through the episode, a running gag was that two competing teams of cops had a bet going about which team would catch the Bad Guy du Jour. The loser was going to have to parade nude through the station house. We were all waiting for this ... you knew it was coming, you knew it would end the episode, you knew it would be funny ... and, let's be honest, you knew you were gonna see some nekkid people.
And, in fact, it did end the episode, people were indeed nekkid ... and the whole scene was beyond bittersweet, in fact it wasn't funny or sexy, because it happened at the same time as the aforementioned fight, there was cross-cutting, there was blood and violence and perhaps death ... The Shield won't let up for even ten seconds, won't let the audience have even a few moments of pleasure, even when they set up a punchline guaranteed to elicit enjoyment they have to mess it up with crud. What a great show!
And then, this morning, a different kind of televised greatness entirely: I watched my tape of The Daily Show. Last night, Jon Stewart's guest was Richard Clarke. It's a commonly stated notion now that The Daily Show is the first place many people get their "news," and this is supposed to say something because TDS is fake news, but one thing which gets lost in the shuffle is that when he's on his game, Jon Stewart is the best interviewer in the American news business, fake or real.
And so not only did we get a solid interview with Clarke ... he wasn't quite as humorless as I'd expected, but shall we say he is very good at staying on topic ... you couldn't help noticing that it was a better interview than the hundred other interviews Clarke has done the last week, interviews done by, you know, "real" journalists. And Jon managed to throw in some jokes as well ... this is Comedy Central, after all ... I guess my fave was when Clarke said someone had the temerity to do such and such and Stewart replied "this is Comedy Central, you can't say temerity, you have to say 'balls'."
And then there was a tiny throwaway moment at the end, one which spoke volumes about the importance of The Daily Show in the American cultural-political scene today: Stewart thanked Clarke for coming on his show, and Clarke said something like "thank you for keeping this stuff out there." That's right, Richard Clarke, the hard-assed careerist who is currently doing more than anyone on the planet to help bring down George Bush, thanked Jon Stewart basically for just doing The Daily Show four times a week. That's how important The Daily Show is.
[Interesting anti-snobbery note: two of the four shows discussed above are on broadcast teevee, two are on expanded basic cable. No premium channels to be found on Tuesday nights.]