music friday: jeff pike's index

“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.

I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.

Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.

As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).

And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.

Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)

It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.


underground

On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.

Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.

While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.

There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.

A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:

To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part

To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.

Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.

To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.

To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna

Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.

I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.

What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.

I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.


buffy and school

Steven Rubio's Online Life

 


downton abbey, series finale

I binge-watched the first season of Downton Abbey just before Season Two started, giving in to the good reviews. I liked it OK. By the end of Season Two, my grade had fallen to the “B” range. By the end of Season Four, it was more clear that by “B range” I meant “B-“ at best. I made it through six season kinda like I did with The L Word: habit. But I wasn’t getting much out of it by the end, and if my wife didn’t watch it, I might have given up long ago.

Julian Fellowes gave us a very careful finale that allowed everyone on the show to leave with a happy ending, or, in the words of the Dowager Countess, “happy enough”. Everyone who had feuded made up. Everyone had their health, except Carson, who still has Mrs. Hughes, and even Carson’s illness meant a triumphant return for the reformed Barrow. Babies were born or were expected, people with lives in flux found direction, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was in all likelihood exactly the kind of ending the show’s fans wanted.

I never figured out why I was a fan, and my central concerns, even when I liked it, never went away. Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikeable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

So yes, the finale was nice and tidy, and in the future, I’ll remember the better things about the show, and hopefully forget about the endless legal problems of Bates, or the pointless cattiness of Mary against her sister Edith, or any of the other plotlines that served only as digressions designed to get us through another season. Downton Abbey is not the worst show that I stuck with for six seasons, but it is far from the best.


lexa

I don’t know if I have anything original to add here, but I’ve been thinking about it for about 24 hours now, and I’m having trouble thinking about anything else, so maybe writing about it will clear my mind. I am guaranteed to ramble.

Thursday night, after watching “Thirteen”, the latest episode of The 100, I went on Facebook and posted, “That moment when what happens in fiction is so affecting you can't feel the real world for awhile.” If a TV show can conjure up such intense emotions in its audience, it is accomplishing something. The 100 is not the best show on TV ... that might be The Americans. But for all its greatness, The Americans interests me for the quality of the writing, acting, and directing. I have an emotional attachment to the characters, but it’s a shallow attachment, based as much in suspense as anything else. And the moral quandaries that arise in The Americans are more likely to waken my brain than my heart.

Among other things, The 100 is a very smart show. But the characters inspire a kind of connection that I rarely feel for TV characters. It is akin to Buffy the Vampire Slayer or, to a lesser extent, Battlestar Galactica. I commit myself to those characters, I invest time into thinking about them, and I’m sad when things don’t go right for them. (The Walking Dead tries hard to place its characters at the center of the series, and for most people they succeed, but I’ve never felt that kind of attraction to those characters.)

The closest equivalent in my experience to what happened on The 100 last night was the episode “Seeing Red” from the sixth season of Buffy. Tara Maclay, played by Amber Benson, had joined the show in Season Four, when the gang graduated from high school and went to college. Tara was excruciatingly shy, but gradually, she made a connection with Willow, a regular from the beginning. Eventually they fell in love, and they became one of my favorite TV couples. In “Seeing Red”, Tara was killed by a stray bullet. Like many others, I was ripped apart by this event. My fandom came out in odd ways ... when Amber Benson began a real-life relationship with Adam Busch, who played the character who killed Tara, I found it incomprehensible. There was also the larger cultural context ... Willow and Tara were one of the few out lesbian couples on TV, and when Tara died, it was seen by many as an example of “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”, where no lesbians can ever be allowed to live a happy life. I felt awful when Tara died, but I did not have the experience of being marginalized the way lesbians and other minorities are, so I didn’t have that same connection.

The 100 version of Willow and Tara is Clarke and Lexa. The 100 is a darker show than Buffy was, and the “Clexa” relationship was always secondary to the events surrounding them. Mostly, their relationship was a bit of a tease ... actresses Eliza Taylor and Alycia Debnam-Carey had such electricity with each other that you knew eventually they would get further than the one brief kiss we’d seen earlier. The anticipation drove some fans crazy, but the potential was always there.

And finally, in “Thirteen”, Clarke and Lexa had sex.

And almost immediately after that, Lexa was killed. By a stray bullet.

There were reasons why Lexa was killed off, reasons related to the direction the story is going. But in all honesty, the main reason was that Debnam-Carey was also a regular on Fear the Walking Dead, which is far more popular than The 100 will ever be. Also, that show moved production from Vancouver to Mexico, making it impossible for Debnam-Carey to keep working both shows. Basically, she was always on loan to The 100.

Everyone knew this. We all figured Lexa would die, even if we didn’t know how or when. We hoped that Clexa would find each other before that happened. But to have Lexa die in a seemingly random manner brought out the feelings of Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

Many fans were so pissed off, they have said they will no longer watch the program. And it’s here that I want to move sideways, into what is really fascinating to me about this.

For The 100 has a very strong presence on Twitter. Fans make frequent use of the “#the100” hashtag as they discuss the show. There is fan art, lots of guessing about future episodes, and plenty of interaction with the artists behind the show. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg is always tweeting, and each new episode is accompanied by live tweeting (both East Coast and West Coast showings) with Rothenberg, the writers, and often actors. Adina Porter, who plays the warrior Indra, is almost like a mother to the fans, answering question after question with more patience than I could muster.

So you have the Twitter presence. You have fans with a strong connection to the show and to the characters. You have Lexa, a fan favorite, and Clexa, for many the most important relationship on the show. This all came to a head when Lexa died.

I’m sure this happens all the time, but I don’t usually watch the kind of shows that are so entwined in social media. So I was overwhelmed with the responses of the fans. Everyone was crushed. Some came online searching for solace. Adina Porter received many, many tweets asking her for advice, or just reaching out as a way to have some contact with the show they loved. And many were understandably upset at the renewal of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

As usual, Mo Ryan had a well-written commentary:

I will certainly never sit in judgment of anyone who feels that a development on a show fits into part of a larger pattern that is painful to not just them but a group they are part of. The Clarke-Lexa story line was one that engaged many gay, lesbian and bisexual viewers on a number of deep levels. For people to say last night or today, “Just get over it, they had to kill her off, the actress had another job” — please don’t rush to minimize others’ objections (as long as those objections are stated in ways that do not wish violence on other human beings, of course).

The point is, these angry and disappointed reactions are rooted in reality. The way a character leaves a show is important. If you choose not to see the larger context of how gay and lesbian characters are treated on TV — just be aware that your lack of awareness is a choice. Not all of us have the luxury of being able to ignore or wave away a larger context. This is one of those cases in which it’s helpful to listen to others extensively and not start in immediately with recommendations on how they should think and feel. That rarely helps in general, and it certainly won’t help viewers of this show now.

Lexa is gone. And as I said on Twitter, I’d feel better if I liked Fear the Walking Dead more.

I’ll give the last word to Alycia Debnam-Carey, who wrote the following:

Thank you to those who banded together to create an incredible and inspiring character. She could have never burst into fruition without such a flux of creativity, passion and collaboration that extends greater than a singular autonomy of my own. To the writers, directors, crew - hair, makeup, costumes, stunts, actors and Jason who helped me capture her essence. Thank you to all the fans for bringing her further to life, your passion is everything. It has been an honour to portray her. To envelop myself in her skin. To be given the freedom to represent a moment in our cultural and social zeitgeist - she has left a great imprint on me. I will miss her. May we meet again.
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spoiling perfectly good shows

Supergirl is a perfectly good show. The cast is perfectly pleasant, a mixture of veterans and youngsters, most of whom you’ll remember from other shows ... Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character, was on Glee, Mehcad Brooks, who plays “James” Olson, was on so many shows you’re sure to say “hey, it’s that guy!” (for me, it was his role as “Eggs” on True Blood), then there’s David Harewood (Homeland) and Calista Flockhart, and Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) and, in stunt casting, Helen Shaver (Supergirl in the movie of that name) and Dean Cain (Superman on Lois and Clark). It has a perfectly good overarching theme about family and belonging, and perfectly good action scenes whenever Supergirl is needed. Perhaps most importantly, I’m still watching after 13 episodes.

But Supergirl is spoiled by a couple of other shows that couldn’t be more different. Angie Tribeca is a hit-and-miss comedy that brings back the Police Squad/Naked Gun approach to television. Some of us have missed that kind of humor, and Angie Tribeca is OK ... the nice thing about a show like that is if one joke falls flat, another four jokes will follow immediately.

Is Angie Tribeca a “better” show than Supergirl? I don’t know. I prefer watching it, but it’s mostly a toss-up. But Angie Tribeca, like its spiritual father Police Squad, is so relentless is its destruction of clichés that it’s hard to watch an ordinary show after seeing an episode of Angie. Things that aren’t supposed to be funny on Supergirl remind you of something similar on Angie Tribeca that was supposed to be funny, and you end up laughing inappropriately.

Which is unfair to Supergirl, because that show isn’t trying to be funny, or to remind us of Angie Tribeca. But the latter makes it harder to sit through the former.

Coming from the other direction is The 100. This is a show that spoils you for other shows that are perfectly good, because The 100 sets a higher standard. A show like Supergirl offers interesting extensions of the usual, but with the emphasis on “usual”. The title character is marginally different from other superheroes, Jimmy Olson is a grown-up black guy named “James”, Calista Flockhart is a catty Perry White. Over time we get to care about the characters, at least the primary ones. The occasional death of one of those characters can hit us emotionally. But ultimately, Supergirl is comfort food, with just enough changes from what came before to keep our attention.

There is nothing comfortable about The 100. In almost every episode, one or more characters must make life-or-death decisions that can affect hundreds, and the writers make sure that we understand all aspects of what brings the character to the moment of decision. Maureen Ryan, who has written smart pieces on The 100 (and in fact is the one who convinced me to give the series a try), writes:

When a person on “The 100” is given an array of bad options, a viewer will understand why a character picked a certain path, even if the viewer doesn’t necessarily agree with that choice. Hand-waving away concerns about set-up and follow-through doesn’t work with this show, because half the appeal of “The 100” centers on our ability to empathize with people who often do terrible things. We need to know why they do those things, and we need to care even if they make choices that ends up working out very badly for them and for others.

Consequences ... that word pops up constantly when thinking about the actions of the characters on The 100. Thus far, at least, there are no happy endings ... we’re a few episodes into Season 3, and there has been maybe one brief scene in all that time that conveyed a sense of joy. (When one character, Indra, smiled on a recent episode, Twitter went wild ... who could have believed she had it in her?) The 100 takes place a hundred years in the future, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where everyone must make daily choices the likes of which most of us could never imagine. Yet the characters on The 100 are recognizably human, with all the depth and complexity that suggests. There are no superheroes on The 100, just people doing their best.

After that, Supergirl comes up a bit short.

 


music friday: the violent femmes, "add it up"

Around here, it’s been pretty much All The 100, All the Time. Last night was the Season 3 premiere, and it was an encouraging beginning.

During one scene, a group of young people are driving to explore an area outside of their compound. One of them has a personal stereo of some kind, and as he sings to himself, the others want in, so they pull the headphone jack and hook the player up to an in-car audio system. The song they hear is “Add It Up” by The Violent Femmes.

We’ll ignore the part where the show takes place 100 years in the future ... let’s just pretend that after a nuclear holocaust, the Femmes somehow manage to retain their place in the cultural arena. Everyone in the Jeep starts singing along ... showrunner Jason Rothenberg called it “The 100’s version of the ‘Tiny Dancer’ sequence from Almost Famous.”

Later in the episode, Shawn Mendes turns up ... well, he’s playing a character, but he’s only there because he’s a 17-year-old Canadian pop star ... he sits at a piano and plays his own version of “Add It Up”, which The CW has kindly posted for our entertainment:

(I can’t resist ... the scene reminded me a bit in Ski Party, when James Brown and the Famous Flames just happened to show up at a ski lodge to sing “I Feel Good”.)

Anyway, the video of Mendes you see above isn’t exactly how it appeared in the episode. That was more like this scene of John Belushi in Animal House:

You see, as Mendes is playing his gentle version of “Add It Up”, one of the characters who is really stressing right now (well, they all are), runs over to him, knocks him down, and starts pummeling him. I wish I had video for it.

Well, I do, kind of. You can watch the entire episode on Hulu:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/892809

The Mendes version comes at the 37 minute mark. The Violent Femmes version is at 12:50.


the 100

I’ve made a habit over the years of catching on to very good television shows after everyone else has already gotten there. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much I taught a course on it at Cal, but despite my wife and daughter watching faithfully and constantly telling me I would like it, I didn’t begin until Season 3. (Once I made the decision, I binge-watched the first two seasons as quickly as I could download them, not the legal way but this was pre-On Demand.) The Wire is my favorite show ever, and I jumped in at Season 2, although in that case, it was because we didn’t get HBO until then. And Battlestar Galactica, after which I named our three cats (Starbuck, Boomer, and Six), was not on my radar until critics started talking it up ... don’t remember when I began watching, maybe between the first two seasons.

The 100 has gotten through two seasons, and it’s hard to imagine a show that would appeal less to me on first glance. It’s on the CW, and while it’s true I watch Jane the Virgin, until now, that show was the only CW program I ever watched. When I thought of the CW, I fell on the stereotypes: shows meant for the 18-34 market, featuring boatloads of young, very attractive actors. The 100 certainly has this ... I hadn’t heard of a single one of the young actors on the show, but a lot of them were eye candy in the extreme. And the basic setup is tailor-made for the desired market ... the one hundred teenagers of the title are sent by grownups down to a post-apocalyptic Earth, where for all anyone knows they will die instantly of radiation, thus establishing a primary location for the action that is populated solely by those good-looking young actors. Among the grownups were a few actors I actually recognized ... Paige Turco, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick ... and, perhaps more telling, three Battlestar Galactica alumni, Alessandro Juliani, Kate Vernon, and Rekha Sharma (who joined in Season 2).

So, to summarize so far: show for young adults (based, in fact, on a trilogy of YA novels), with a bunch of young actors I never heard of, on a network I rarely watch, with a premise designed to grab that young adult audience from the get-go.

I didn’t watch it. For two seasons, I didn’t watch it. Even when it finally crossed my mind to give it a try, I was put off by the general opinion that it started slow, and didn’t really pick up steam until Episode 5 or so. Still, this helped when at last I decided to play catch-up ... I wasn’t grabbed at first, but I held on, hoping for what was coming. (The primary driver of my intentions was Maureen Ryan, who is probably the show’s top advocate amongst the major critics.)

Here comes spoilers ... I generally try to avoid them, but it’s impossible when trying to explain how The 100 snuck up on me. In Episode 3, one of the main teenage characters is killed. In Episode 4, a 13-year-old commits suicide.

And then came Episode 5, called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (calling to mind the BSG episode “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”), in which, due to a lack of oxygen on the space station that has housed the humans for 97 years after the nuclear holocaust that started the events of the series, the powers that be decide that a “culling” is needed. They need to kill off 300 of their people in order to maximize what oxygen remains. Now, maybe if I was watching Game of Thrones on HBO, I’d be thinking “I wonder if they’ll really kill off all of those characters?” But this is a CW show for “kids”. The kids on Earth are trying to contact the adults in The Ark (as they call the space station), and it’s easy to see that they will make contact in the nick of time, the powers that be will see that the Earth is now habitable, they won’t have to kill the 300, and all will be well.

Except the contact isn’t made. And the culling takes place. And 300 people die on a show that doesn’t have a very large cast of characters to begin with. And their deaths were demanded by good leaders who see no other option.

On the CW.

OK, I was convinced. Over the course of the next season-and-a-half, we get scenes of torture, we get “reapers” who are savage cannibals, we get living humans being “harvested” for their blood (and later their bone marrow), we see signs of war (and eventually more than signs), we see large numbers of people left to die, we see political intrigue as the various factions get a series of new leaders.

All of this works to confound the viewer ... what will they do next? Thoughts of the CW are long gone ... the show has made the network irrelevant.

You may wonder why I’ve mentioned Battlestar Galactica more than once. Outside of a connection to sci-fi, the shows are not the same. But Battlestar Galactica was a great show because it used genre to investigate big questions. Politics, identity, religion, ethics and morals ... these were all part of BSG, and they made the show more than generic. The 100 has a sci-fi basis, and it gets your attention by confounding expectations. But where it really shines is by showing the ramifications for every action. No one is spared, particularly leaders who must constantly make decisions based on the conflict between the good of the many and the good of the individuals. Some of those decisions are horrific ... lots and lots of people die, usually people who don’t deserve it, always in the name of something “greater”. Everyone is touched. The 100 makes clichés into something real. “Maybe there are no good guys” is facile, except by the time that line is delivered (at the end of Season 2), we’ve seen evidence to suggest facile is not the best word to describe what we’ve seen. The person who says that is the same person who helped put her husband in an airlock ... the person she is talking to, her daughter, has saved her world but lost her soul.

Perhaps the most commonplace idea here that works better than you’d think is the good old generation gap. On The Ark, the teenagers are prisoners. On Earth, they are responsible for themselves and everything they confront. When the adults finally get to Earth, the interaction between the two groups is fascinating, because the adults want to reassert command, and we’ve seen the kids make plenty of mistakes and we might even side with the grownups, except the grownups have no idea what life on Earth has become, while the kids (they really aren’t kids any longer) have seen it for the dangerous place it really is. The show actually goes a bit too many times at this ... a grownup will give a command, a young adult will contest them, the grownup will note that they know best, the young person will do what they want anyway, because they actually do know best. It’s an interesting inversion that surely plays well with a CW audience. Gradually, you notice that leaders from other factions bypass the grownups on a regular basis ... for instance, when the “grounders” (people who survived the holocaust) want to communicate with the “Sky People”, they don’t go to Mom, they go to the daughter, because they know who is really in charge.

I don’t know if I can single out any particular actor ... the entire cast is very good. It is a female-centric show without preening ... a majority of the main characters are females, the most important leaders are women, and the matter-of-fact way this is addressed actually makes it more powerful. You just gradually realize that the women are more likely to know what’s what. Of course, this also puts them in positions where they can fuck up, and as I noted, everyone on The 100 fucks up, often with the most dire consequences. And no one gets away with anything. The people who fuck up are changed by their actions ... even if they did “what had to be done”, something inside them is destroyed. To the extent this is believable, I’d give great credit to that unknown-to-me cast of young actors. In some ways, Eliza Taylor, who plays Clarke, the leader of the teenagers, has the biggest challenge. A typically pretty blonde, she looks like someone who gets cast as the dumb friend. Taylor has spoken to the value in being able to play a complex character who exists as something beyond pretty and dumb. It’s a bit of a running joke, but Clarke, and many of the other characters, are generally completely covered in dust and dirt and mud, deflecting any desire to see them only as sex objects. This makes interviews with the cast rather fun, because we’re not used to seeing them after they’ve had a shower. (It’s even more fun that Taylor and Bob Morley, the male lead, are from Australia and don’t sound anything like their characters.)

I can’t tell if I’ve properly conveyed how good The 100 is. If nothing else, I hope I’ve disabused people of the notion, which I once shared, that it can’t be any good. The first several episodes are only OK, the rest of Season 1 is much better, and Season 2 moves it into the highest levels of current TV.

Season 3 begins on January 21. The first two seasons can be streamed on Netflix.

Here’s a sort of Mo Ryan manifesto:

 


tv 2015: s through z, plus the 100, plus a best-of

Sense8. One of the oddest series of the year, from the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski. I can’t say I got it immediately ... I’ve seen all of Season One and I’m not sure of that. But where Sense8 succeeds is in creating an atmosphere that feels real in a psychic way, so the actual “plot” is pretty much irrelevant. I wrote about it here. On Netflix.

Shameless. A perennial favorite of mine that starts Season Six next week (the first episode of the season is already On Demand). Everyone still offers great performances, and if I don’t talk as much about Emmy Rossum these days, it’s only because I’ve given up ... she is as good as ever. On Showtime.

Spiral. I want to say I love this French procedural, and I’ve made it almost all the way through several seasons (although I am more than a season behind). But I’m likely never going to catch up ... I don’t usually watch procedurals, and just because this one comes with subtitles doesn’t mean it’s any better than the American versions. Except this one has Caroline Proust, as the Jane Tennison of her generation. I wrote about Season One at the beginning of 2015. On Hulu.

The Strain. Between this and Crimson Peak, it was a good year for B-level Guillermo del Toro. I summed up Season Two here. Short version: Fun, but not as good as Walking Dead, and definitely not as good as Penny Dreadful. On FX.

Supergirl. Pleasant enough, but I don’t know that I will stay with it after it returns from break.

Togetherness. Lost in the shuffle a bit, this is HBO’s contribution to the now-common genre of quirky takes on rom-coms. Melanie Lynskey gets a chance to show her stuff, which makes this watchable all on its own. I gave it a B+. Season Two starts next month.

Transparent. I’ve only watched a couple of the Season Two episodes, but this show is as good as you’ve heard. Since I’m only just into the new season, I have nothing new to add, except to note that I find it more obvious now that almost every character in this show is self-absorbed to an amazing degree.

The Walking Dead. There is nothing left to say. It’s the most-watched series in cable television history. It is such a part of our TV landscape that when a mediocre prequel aired this year, it got the highest ratings for any first season in cable history, apparently because the words “walking dead” were in the title. On AMC.

Finally, to jump out of my alphabetical silliness, Maureen Ryan convinced me to give The 100 a chance, and boy, was she right. There would seem to be no reason for me to watch this series. It’s on the CW (which does have Jane the Virgin, but which is otherwise outside of my interest zone). It’s a “Land of the Lost/Lord of the Flies” story about 100 teenagers stranded on Earth. I don’t know any of the young actors. But I trust Mo Ryan, who among other things was a great champion of Battlestar Galactica. All I can say for now is that The 100 completely defies your expectations. It is very hard-edged, and it doesn’t shy away from events that might seem a bit much for a Young Adult audience. Almost every episode ends with me looking at my wife, mouth agape, as if to say “I can’t believe what just happened.” It’s not that they pull plot switches out solely for the purpose of creating cliffhangers. No, The 100 gives us characters in flux, makes us care about them, and then constantly reminds us that the world these characters live in is dark and treacherous beyond belief. And most of that darkness comes from humans. I’ve got 11 episodes to go in Season Two before Season Three starts on January 21, and I join Ryan in saying, get on this, anyone looking for a new show.

Maybe, since I’m so far behind, I’ll end this with a list of the shows I’d place above the other good shows. These are the series that, as I type this, seem like the best of the best of 2015 (I’m sure I’m forgetting something):

  • The Americans
  • Fargo
  • The Leftovers
  • Penny Dreadful
  • Sense8
  • Broad City
  • The Jinx
  • Rectify
  • The 100
  • The Knick

Honorable Mention: Shameless, Jane the Virgin, Outlander.


tv 2015: m's through r's

Man in the High Castle. We’re about halfway through Season One (not sure if there will be more). They do a good job of world building, and there are some interesting performances from the supporting cast. But it’s rather slow, the leads don’t have a lot of charisma, and while High Castle is arguably Philip K. Dick’s most honored novel, it’s not my favorite (I like the drug books), so I’m respecting the series without loving it. Available on Amazon Prime.

Master of None. Only watched three so far, which is too soon to evaluate, but I can see why it’s getting good reviews. On Netflix.

Masters of Sex. A favorite, but I guess it’s lost its charm, because the season ended some time ago and we still have a few episodes to watch. Showtime Syndrome.

Mozart in the Jungle. I very much liked Season One, and just watched the first episode of Season Two. Looks to be more of the same, with the addition of Gretchen “It Girl” Mol. I like all of the actors on this one. Amazon Prime.

Mr. Robot. Intriguing, with a great performance in the lead by Rami Malek. I got through about half of the episodes, and then stalled, but I intend to finish the season.

Orange Is the New Black. Some say last season was a bit of a comedown, but I can’t tell the difference between the seasons, except I’m glad Jason Biggs is gone. Netflix.

Orphan Black. I’ve mostly lost interest in the plot, but Tatiana Maslany is so good, I’ll keep watching.

Outlander. One of the surprises of the year, at least for me. A bodice-ripping historical romance novel is turned into a TV series under the watchful eye of Ronald D. Moore. I put great faith in Moore ... otherwise I would have missed this series. It’s very good, and, as many have pointed out, it sees the bodies of men and women in a different way than we’re used to (i.e. much less male gaze).

Penny Dreadful. Still going strong through two seasons ... I gave the series so far an A-. Eva Green is terrific.

Rectify. I guess this is still My Favorite Show No One Else Watches. Moves at a snail’s pace, but is excruciatingly honest, and Aden Young in the lead is My Favorite Actor No One Else Watches.

The Returned. I often get lost in plots ... I don’t know what’s going on half the time. After two seasons of The Returned, I’m ready to say in this case, it’s not my fault. Atmospheric, but obstinately obscure.