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teevee 2009

A look back at some of the stuff I wrote about television this year. For what it’s worth, I think the quote below about Damages is one of my better ones.

The L Word: “We were supposed to like The L Word because it was about lesbians. If we didn't like it, we were bad people. If the show sucked, that didn't matter ... all that mattered was that the show existed in the first place. And we got the show we deserved, one that never worried about being good because being good was irrelevant. This is what happens when all you ask of art is that it reflects your own life.”

Battlestar Galactica: “I don't have to be a believer myself to appreciate the way this series showed how religion affects people's lives, and not just for the worse.”

Life on Mars: “It was all very Wizard of Oz-ish, which is fine, since the original had lots of that stuff too. Ultimately, the scenes about Sam Tyler's search for home were far more touching than I would have expected, and lifted the show above the norm.”

Damages: “[T]his is a show about shitty people doing shitty things to other shitty people. If that sounds like a bad show to you, stay away. But, if you know me, you know that I'm always up for a show that brings the shitty.”

24: “The show has such a tenuous link to reality that it's stretching to believe we honestly want to know how Jack feels about torturing people. We just want to see things blow up, and that's not because we in the audience are crass, it's because the show treats us like we're crass. And I have no problem with that. I just don't want to see whiny ‘character’ stuff. Blow shit up, put the country in danger, toss in a couple of useful guest stars, and leave it at that.”

Kings: “Mixing flamboyantly aggressive acting from Ian McShane with a bizarre mixture of alternate contemporary reality and the Biblical story of David, Kings was never going to appeal to a mass audience, but you’d think it would have had some cult success, if nothing else. But that never happened … it wasn’t a sci-fi hit, wasn’t a soap opera hit, wasn’t a religious hit, even though it had elements of all of those and more. It goes without saying that this was an ambitious show, and at times its ambitions extended beyond the show’s good qualities, i.e. it was erratic.”

Nurse Jackie: “Nurse Jackie isn’t up in the pantheon yet, but it has promise, and it has Edie Falco. You know I’m going to give every possible chance to a series where the heroine is a drug addict with a husband, two kids, and a boyfriend on the side who is the hospital pharmacist who supplies her with drugs.”

Weeds: “Weeds has gone from a comedy with serious undertones to a dark show with comic undertones to what we have now: a dark show that is rarely funny, and isn’t offering anything new. Nancy Botwin still makes terrible choices. She is still a terrible mother. She still stops every three episodes or so and realizes what a terrible mother she is. And then she continues to make terrible choices and to be a terrible mother.”

True Blood: “[Y]ou can always count on seeing some hunky guy showing off his abs, ass, or both, and little Anna Paquin’s good for half-a-dozen hot nude sex scenes a year. Basically, it’s The Tudors, only it’s on HBO instead of Showtime, and it takes place in a different century. And there are vampires.”

Mad Men: “Mad Men, which has always paid plenty of attention to the role of women in the time period of the series, finds new and heartening ways to show how women can advance, but those women are leaving the Bettys of the world behind. Being a wife and mother just doesn’t get it in the Mad Men universe, where people are largely defined by their jobs and wife/mother isn’t considered ‘real’ work. It’s entirely possible we won’t see much of January Jones in the future … Betty isn’t as necessary as she used to be … whereas Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (and the series itself) finds a way to bring Joan back into the fold.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm: “Some people seemed to think Larry went too far this season, but don’t they say that every season? Me, I thought the episode where he peed on the painting of Jesus, making it seem like Christ was crying real tears, was hilarious.”

Sons of Anarchy: “Season Two raised the show to the level of the best TV has to offer. It began with the brutal retaliatory rape of a central character, then followed the ramifications of that moment throughout the season. We saw strong characters made vulnerable, good people drawn into perilous situations, and a biker gang that was somewhere between Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey on the morality scale. Nothing happened in a vacuum … not only do these characters pay for their actions, other people pay as well.”

Glee: “I think the message of the show is supposed to be that we all have our talents that make us special, no matter where we fit on the high-school hierarchy of coolness. But the songs tell a different story: success is available to anyone with access to auto-tune. It is a rare song that isn’t produced into sterility.”

Dexter: “Dexter always teeters between letting the titular character remain what he is (an evil serial killer) and giving him growth as a human being (granted, anything human in Dexter is a step forward). This is problematic because if he remains the evil serial killer, the show goes nowhere, and it becomes just another show, but if they humanize him, the show loses the angle that makes Dexter unique.”

Lie to Me: “Tim Roth is so good as Cal Lightman, he makes Lie to Me must-see TV all by himself. … Hayley McFarland as Lightman’s daughter is a particular standout, as is the father/daughter relationship. It’s not something they touch upon every episode, but it’s nicely nuanced when McFarland shows up.”

Stargate Universe: “[T]here was never a time when I thought ‘I’ll be watching this show until it goes off the air.’ It’s not really my place to evaluate a show like this, with a built-in audience that doesn’t include me. So if you’re a Stargate person, YMMV. Me, I was bored.”

30 Rock: “I don’t think it’s past its prime, I laugh constantly at pretty much every episode, and I look forward to it each week, which isn’t always true for The Office.”

Dollhouse: “I’ve thought for awhile now that I would really miss this show when it’s gone, but I’m not so sure any more … I don’t know how much more I can take. And I mean that as a compliment. With Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy done for the year, Dollhouse may be the best show currently running on TV, and I’m as surprised about that as anyone.”


dollhouse

Not sure what to call these end of the year breaks. In the case of Dollhouse, it’s a bit silly, since there are only three episodes left anyway.

Tonight’s two episodes contained a lot of stuff where it felt like they just made things up to explain any leaps in the plot. It hardly mattered … there was one “well, fuck” moment after another, as the series rushes to a place much darker than could have been imagined during its tame beginnings. I’m convinced at this point that even if Joss Whedon had gotten his way from the start, Dollhouse would not have lasted long … the things I think make it great are not the things that lend themselves to mass popularity. Darkness, deep travels into the murk of identity loss via external control, evil corporations taking over the world, and an already-seen dystopian future (at least, seen if you own the Season One DVD … did they ever make that episode available on iTunes or anywhere?) … no, this was never going to be a popular show. But it is destined to be remembered for a long time. And while Buffy managed to concoct something resembling a happy ending, it’s very hard to see Dollhouse ending well. Maybe it will end with uncertainty. That’s the best we can hope for now.

Meanwhile, Dollhouse combines terror, heroics, and depression into an excruciating package. I’ve thought for awhile now that I would really miss this show when it’s gone, but I’m not so sure any more … I don’t know how much more I can take. And I mean that as a compliment. With Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy done for the year, Dollhouse may be the best show currently running on TV, and I’m as surprised about that as anyone.


cleaning up 2009, tv edition

There are still a few shows I haven’t finished watching yet, and a few more that I took care of in the last couple of days. So they get stuffed into one post.

Stargate Universe … well, I don’t have to watch it anymore, and that’s a relief. My wife is a Stargate fan, although, as she points out on a regular basis, she’s really a fan of SG-1 … a BIG fan, but she gets declining returns from the spinoffs. I told her I’d watch Universe for awhile because it was supposed to be the “dark” one, and I did … made it through however many episodes they showed before hiatus. It didn’t stink, but there was never a time when I thought “I’ll be watching this show until it goes off the air.” It’s not really my place to evaluate a show like this, with a built-in audience that doesn’t include me. So if you’re a Stargate person, YMMV. Me, I was bored.

Meanwhile, 30 Rock just keeps on rolling. I have nothing new to say about this show … I don’t think it’s past its prime, I laugh constantly at pretty much every episode, and I look forward to it each week, which isn’t always true for The Office. I can’t compare 30 Rock to other sitcoms because I just don’t watch them any more … people I trust say Modern Family is a great show, and they’re the same people who said Arrested Development was a great show, and they are most certainly right, but I only watched a couple of episodes of the latter and none thus far of the former. This says nothing about the shows and everything about me, so no value judgment should be assumed here. Meanwhile, 30 Rock delivers for me, which is all I ask.


my own take

One aspect of American politics that I’ve become increasingly obsessed with of late is what seems to be an ongoing separation of “liberals” from “Democrats.” I don’t quite get it, which is why it obsesses me. I’ve always been self-marginalized, but in doing this, I’ve placed myself to the left of the Democratic Party. Now I notice that within the Party itself, liberals aren’t seen as simply the left wing of the Democrats, but as an entity of their own, to the left of the Democrats. There are a couple of potential problems here … one, that I’m misreading the situation and/or exaggerating it, and two, that this has actually been true all along but I didn’t notice. Both of these possibilities are very likely, of course.

I think it’s important because there are people like me who vote for Democrats when the difference between them and their Republican opponents is clear, but who “waste” our votes on marginal left-wing candidates otherwise. As I’ve noted many times in the last few years, Bush II’s accomplishment was to make the difference clear on an essential basis: he was so bad, the worst Democrat was an improvement that even I could see. If, though, liberals are outsiders in their own party, if the Democratic mainstream marginalizes their liberal wing, they make their differences with the Republicans less clear.

If the Republican Party has remade itself, however temporarily, as one where its most radical right-wing members are in charge, so, too, the Democratic Party is remaking itself, with the same rightward drift as the Republicans. The most radical Republicans would apparently purge the party of all moderates in the name of purity. The Democrats use different language, and it isn’t the radicals in charge but the moderates, but the same actions are in effect: separating “true” Democrats from those who just don’t get how things work. Ed Kilgore is right to call us on the increasing tendency to demonize each other; we most certainly do, as he says, need to “take seriously other people's ideological and strategic underpinnings.” But the longer mainstream Democrats dismiss their more liberal colleagues, the more likely it is that those colleagues will cease to think of themselves as colleagues, and that wouldn’t seem to be a good thing for the Democratic Party.

Whether we ascribe this growing separation to petulance on the part of liberals or arrogance on the part of centrists, I suspect that we’re on the verge of finding out just how “necessary” liberals are to the Democratic Party. Liberals and progressives may just be whiny babies, but that doesn’t matter … if they take their collective balls and go home for the 2010 elections (assuming they still have balls … sorry, I couldn’t resist) and Democrats maintain a healthy advantage over Republicans, the liberals will indeed seem irrelevant, while if the Democrats suffer significant losses, they will rue the day they pushed the liberals to the margins.

I should finish by noting that I feel very shaky about this. I have little confidence in my ability to read the American political scene … I’m much better at figuring out how Battlestar Galactica examines the intersection of government, the military, and religion. There’s a reason I tend to just quote others instead of presenting my own comments when it comes to current affairs. More than usual, I hope someone will come along and show the flaws in my discussion here. But one thing does seem clear to me: liberals and progressives are extremely pissed off right now, rightly or wrongly, and their anger is going to play out in next year’s elections.


i read the news today, oh boy

Glenn Greenwald points us to an interesting piece by Ed Kilgore … both are worth quoting. (I have my own thoughts, but this post is long enough, so I’ll give myself a separate post after this one.) Kilgore:

To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, "New Democrat" movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as "the Third Way," which often defended the use of private means for public ends.

Greenwald:

I've honestly never understood how anyone could think that Obama was going to bring about some sort of "new" political approach or governing method when, as Kilgore notes, what he practices -- politically and substantively -- is the Third Way, DLC, triangulating corporatism of the Clinton era, just re-packaged with some sleeker and more updated marketing.  At its core, it seeks to use government power not to regulate, but to benefit and even merge with, large corporate interests, both for political power (those corporate interests, in return, then fund the Party and its campaigns) and for policy ends.  It's devoted to empowering large corporations, letting them always get what they want from government, and extracting, at best, some very modest concessions in return.

Kilgore:

[O]n a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.

Greenwald:

Whether you call it "a government takeover of the private sector" or a "private sector takeover of government," it's the same thing:  a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense.

Kilgore:

"Progressive pragmatists"--the camp with which I most often personally identify, as it happens--often treat "the Left" condescendingly as immature and impractical people who don't understand how things get done. Meanwhile, people on "the Left" often treat "pragmatists" as either politically gutless or personally corrupt. This is what happens when you don't take seriously other people's ideological and strategic underpinnings; whatever you gain in ignoring or minimizing differences in perspective or point of view is lost in mutual respect.


end of an era?

Yesterday was the deadline to renew my Giants season tickets and get "early bird" extras, including a chance to buy more tix for Opening Day. I let it pass. The final deadline to renew isn't for awhile yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll let that pass, too. Had full season tix since the new park opened, partial packages going back to 1984. Can't really justify spending thousands of dollars any longer.

lie to me half-season finale

So many shows do this now … take a break in the middle of the season, for I’m not sure what reason. Lie to Me will return to finish its second season, so it’s not going anywhere yet, it just won’t have any (new?) episodes for awhile.

I have very little to say about the show, but it warrants at least a brief note here, because Tim Roth is so good as Cal Lightman, he makes Lie to Me must-see TV all by himself. It’s very much like House in that way, with Roth as the Hugh Laurie of the series. One place where Lie to Me is better than House is that the supporting cast is reasonably interesting, which can’t always be said for House. Not to dismiss the adult support, but Hayley McFarland as Lightman’s daughter is a particular standout, as is the father/daughter relationship. It’s not something they touch upon every episode, but it’s nicely nuanced when McFarland shows up.

Nonetheless, without Roth, there’s no show worth watching. You can start in on Lie to Me at any place … hunt down old episodes, wait for new ones, it’s not a series that relies on the continuing narrative, and most episodes are fine as standalones. So you might check it out if you see it during channel surfing … Roth will make it worth your while.


bored now

I’m trying to put together a proposal for an essay on True Blood, and decided to watch some old Buffy episodes. Some time ago … been years, now that I think of it … Robin and I started watching Buffy again from the beginning. We made it most of the way through Season Six, but then Tara died, and I didn’t have the heart to continue. I pulled Season Six off the shelf and figured I’d watch the final episodes of that season, picking up where we’d left off so long ago.

The episode I started with is “Villains.” It’s unbearable to watch, even after all of these years. Tara’s presence is still felt as the characters deal with her death … Amber Benson is briefly in a couple of shots, Tara’s body lying on the floor … that turned out to be the last time Benson would ever appear in Buffy. Willow goes over the edge at the loss of her girlfriend. Season Six featured the unfortunate plot device whereby witchcraft is equated to drugs, and Willow becomes addicted to her powers. Unfortunate, but the payoff was huge, starting with “Villains,” where we learn just what an angry, powerful witch can do when her lover is killed. “Villains” ends with arguably the most disturbing image in the long history of the show, when she skins Tara’s killer alive … apparently this scene is edited when it shows up on reruns.

I was miserable as I watched. Oh, it was great to revisit the show … even if Season Six was less than the best, it’s good to be reminded of just how good the show was overall. But as I watched, I realized something … I’m not even sure my memory was correct, the entire series of events got to me when it was first on, and it still resonates in my mind to this day.

I started watching with the episode after Tara was killed. But, thinking back, I think the place we stopped watching was just before the previous episode … when we left the show, Tara was still alive, and I didn’t want to relive the awfulness of her death, and so I didn’t watch any longer. And now, when I decide to pick up where I left off, I skipped that episode again, telling myself I’d already watched it.

Honestly, I no longer remember where we stopped in that last trip through the seasons. But I’m pretty certain my recollections are correct: I didn’t want to watch Tara die again.

That’s a big emotional burden to carry, 6 1/2 years after the show went off the air. It also explains why a perfectly reasonable, even lovable, real-life happening bothers me. For, some years after the show had ended, Amber Benson and Adam Busch started a relationship which, judging by Benson’s tweets, is going quite well. I can’t wrap my mind around this. You see, Busch played Warren, the character who killed Tara. Benson and Busch have moved on, and they are, of course, always themselves and not their characters. Me, I think of Tara and Warren together, and … well, it’s enough to make me put my Buffy discs on the shelf for another few years.


acting!

We miss our friend Arthur, whose acting exploits in the Bay Area were a regular feature on this blog for a few years. Arthur has moved to Los Angeles, where he is in the USC MFA in Acting program. He has begun blogging again after a long absence, and it’s good to read his voice as he describes what it’s like in the program. His life is full enough that I don’t suppose we can count on him being as obsessive with his blog posts as I am with mine, but while they are there, I recommend them: Artfan’s Lair. Here’s a sample:

[I]n the last few months I've experienced moments when I've acted in a way that I've never acted before in my life. In those moments I felt I wasn't standing there saying the words, I was needing to say the words, there was something I was desperate to say and I was saying it. And that something was my text. It was thrilling, bewildering, and exhausting. And watching the ten other people in my class go through the same process? It was the most engaging theatre I've ever been a part of.

(Since I am far more starstruck than Arthur will ever be, I’ll just add that the “Andy” he refers to later in the above post is Andrew Robinson, who is the current director of the program. I’ve been told that for many people, Robinson is best-known for his continuing role in Deep Space Nine, but for people like me, he’ll always be the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.)