tv catchup, part 3

GLOW. It doesn't get much more surprising than this. GLOW, based on a cheesy rassling show ("Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling") from the 80s, is funny, entertaining, and works as drama, as well. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin are great as the leads, but the whole cast delivers. There is still one more season to go. This is my favorite clip from the show, even though some guys recorded it off their TV and they commentate. Brie's Zoya the Destroya demonstates a possible match, essentially wrestling with herself.

High Fidelity. From a Nick Hornby novel to a film with John Cusack, always very guy-oriented. This version benefits greatly from 1) making the main character a woman, and 2) casting Zoë Kravitz in the role. She's the best thing about it, although the supporting cast is appealing, as well. Never quite essential, but often fun to watch.

The Plot Against America. Anything David Simon does is worth your attention. Here, he and Ed Burns offer a miniseries based on the Philip Roth novel about an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 and America turns fascist. As you can imagine, it feels familiar in 2020. Great cast, great writing, great world creating.

Vida. A show that was ignored by too many people ... I'd say that was because it was on Starz, but Outlander hasn't had any problem getting our attention (and Outlander should be on this list, I can't believe I forgot it). Vida is a Latinx series created by Tanya Saracho with some impressive new-to-me leads: Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, and Ser Anzoategui. It's about Latinx culture, and family, and gentrification, with a queer core. Hopefully, it will be discovered in future years.

I'm realizing I need a Part 4, which will cover Outlander, Watchmen, and anything else I've forgotten.


tv catchup, part 2

Devs. A creation of Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), Devs is just as ambitious and unusual as those films. It looked great (some of it filmed at UC Santa Cruz), the cast was stellar (especially Nick Offerman and Stephen McKinley Henderson), and while it tended to be obscure, that seemed appropriate for a show that was about philosophical truths. It was also slow moving, if that matters to you (I am much more tolerant of slowness in television series, for some reason).

Euphoria. A show that is right up my alley. Wikipedia describes it: "Euphoria follows a group of high school students through their experiences of sex, drugs, friendships, love, identity and trauma." If that doesn't sound like something I'd like, you don't know me very well. Happily, Euphoria is also good, with a terrific Zendaya in the lead and a breakout performance by trans actor Hunter Schafer. Euphoria is a bit overboard on the brutal details of high school ... if a parent of a high-schooler watched this, they'd want to lock their kid in their bedroom until graduation. Like I say, right up my alley.

Gentleman Jack. Not a show that is clearly up my alley, Gentleman Jack is a based-on-fact historical drama set in England in the 1830s. It's created by Sally Wainwright, who also created the terrific and dark Happy Valley. The lead is played by Suranne Jones, who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of, despite her acting for 25 years. Well, I've heard of her now, and I won't be forgetting her soon.


tv catchup, part 1

For reasons unclear to me, I don't post much about television any more. TV used to be one of the Big Three, along with movies and music. Now, I'm more likely to have a post like this, where I catch up on a bunch of shows by giving them a couple of sentences when they deserve a couple of posts of their own. Here are ten shows, in alphabetical order, in three posts, that I've liked in the past season or so. Assume that if they are listed here, I think they would be worth your time for your next binge.

The 100. The final season is airing now. It has been my favorite show for awhile, although it's always been too much of a mess to be considered great. But it's made it through almost seven seasons, and it still doesn't stink. I still care about the main characters. And it still puts the post in post-apocalypse.

Agents of SHIELD. Honestly, this show has no business being as good as it is. At the beginning, it was like an afterthought in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the further away it got from the MCU, the better the show became. This final season is a delight, as they use time travel as an excuse for some great looks at the past.

Better Things. These things are in alphabetical order, but this is the best of the shows. If you only binge one series from these lists, this is the one. Pamela Adlon is a genius. And this is a great scene that also shows how far "basic cable" has come in the profanity department.


fans and the 100

The first time I remember fans convincing a TV network to change their minds about a series was the original Star Trek. NBC was ready to cancel the show after two seasons. A letter-writing campaign led to a third season.

This kind of resurrection is accomplished in different manners in the Internet Age. Fans have easier and more direct contact with networks and show producers. There are also many more outlets for series to continue. This isn't new ... there were shows when I was growing up that switched from one of the three networks to another, and more recently, Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed networks late in its run. Now, an energetic fan base can sometimes convince a streamer like Netflix to pick up a show that has been cancelled elsewhere.

Ownership of the "meaning" of a work of art is complicated, but some of us believe that once a work leaves the artist's hands, the meaning belongs as much to the audience as to the artist. Authorial intent is important, but it isn't a "case closed" situation. Artists can be surprised by how their work is interpreted, they can argue that their intent was not in line with those interpretations, but each of us, as individuals, create meaning out of the original work. If 10,000 people read a novel, there will be 10,000 interpretations of that novel.

All of this brings me to The 100. A television series based on a popular series of young adult novels, The 100 has never been the biggest hit ... ratings have gradually dropped over the course of seven seasons. On the other hand, it has lasted seven seasons, so the CW must be happy enough. My sense is that The 100 is a fairly standard cult series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never had great ratings, but it was always turning up on magazine covers, and if you didn't have access to ratings data, you'd think Buffy was a massive hit. Which it was, in its way ... witness the college courses taught about the show (I taught one myself). Again, this is just my own, uninformed, observation, but I feel like The 100 has never gotten attention beyond its fan base. Even people who didn't watch Buffy knew it existed. I don't know if the same is true about The 100.

But that fan base is intense, and their sense of ownership is interesting. If each of us has our own interpretation of a work, we don't necessarily think that we should climb in a time machine and go back to tell Melville how to fix Moby Dick. Fandom today can take surprising forms, though. The question isn't "What does The 100 mean?" Rather, it is the contemporary equivalent of giving Melville advice.

Fans of The 100 have always made their preferences clear, and thanks to social media, they can make their preferences known to the people who create the show. They like this character or that plot device, they like this couple to pair up and find another couple to be uninteresting. There is nothing new about this, beyond the access we have to the creators.

In the third season, though, events within the show caused an uproar. Lexa was a popular character, a commander of clans who was also gay. Over time, a relationship between Lexa and the female lead, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), grew, slowly, gradually, into an actual romance. Shippers gave the name "Clexa" to the pairing. Alycia Debnam-Carey, the actress who played Lexa, got a job on Fear the Walking Dead, part of a franchise that is much more popular than The 100. The logistics of her being on two shows became too complicated, and so Lexa was written out of The 100. In itself, this would disappoint Clexa shippers, but the way she was written out was a disaster. After Clarke and Lexa finally seal their bond by having sex, Lexa is accidentally killed, in a too-perfect example of "bury your gays". There was an immediate uproar, and many fans announced that they would no longer watch the show. In the final episode of the season, Lexa made a brief, triumphant return in one of the most emotionally satisfying scenes in the entire series, but for many, the damage was done.

Up to this point, part of the fandom, upset at how the series was progressing, turned their backs on it while offering pointed critiques of how Clexa was ruined. Their points were well-taken.

After that, though, things seemed to change, at least from my perspective. Clexa shippers who stuck around never quit wishing things had been different (I'm one of them). Meanwhile, over the course of the seven seasons, the relationship between Clarke and male lead Bellamy (played by Bob Morley) grew in ways that worked in a narrative and character sense. They were the two leaders who people looked up to ... being The 100, they screwed up as often as they did good, but they went from being antagonists early on to being a strong partnership. For some of us, that partnership was improved by the absence of a romantic angle. Yes, a woman and a man could bond and work together without "falling in love".

But for some fans, the absence of romance was a crucial flaw. These "Bellarke" shippers thought it obvious that the two did indeed fall in love. (It may have mattered that in the books, the two do fall in love.) When, in real life, Eliza Taylor and Bob Morley married, this became evidence that Bellarke was real. But on the series, Clarke and Bellamy remained strong partners, but platonic.

And here is where things get bizarre. When Lexa died, enraged fans let the creators of the show know their feelings. But Bellarke is ongoing. If Clexa shippers decided to quit watching, Bellarke shippers are still there. But they, too, are enraged, and every episode that the two don't consummate their relationship only ups the rage factor.

So the shippers let the creators know what they think, but it's not a case of "we're going to quit watching". Instead, it's a constant message that "you better make Bellarke happen" or "you idiots don't know what we want" or "you know what we want but won't give it to us". This isn't an attempt to revive a cancelled show, as happened with Star Trek. This isn't an after-the-fact critique of the death of Lexa. This is an attempt to force a story line that the shippers think is correct.

There was a time when people wrote "slash fiction". Fans would write entire novels about the love relationship between Kirk and Spock on Star Trek, often in explicit detail. That's not what is happening with The 100 and Bellarke shippers. They want the people running the series to write their desired relationship into the actual show. And they are very demonstrative.

Meanwhile, the Clexa fans who stuck around are still out there, hoping for one last appearance of Lexa. Clexa shippers and Bellarke shippers don't get along ... it can get brutal. Both groups are insisting that their interpretation of the meaning of the show is correct, and denying any contrasting interpretation.


the sex pistols vs. bill grundy (simon delaney, 2017)

Well, that was a surprise. I saw the title and instantly hit the record button, although I'd never heard of it. I assumed it was a documentary. I also assumed it would suck, but I couldn't resist.

Turns out it was an episode of the British television series Urban Myths. The Sex Pistols vs. Bill Grundy was the final episode of the second season (there have been three so far). Lo and behold, it wasn't a documentary. According to the infallible Wikipedia, "Urban Myths is a British biographical comedy drama television series ... Each episode featured a story surrounding popular culture which may or may not be true". In the episode in question, actors portrayed the various actual people who participated in the infamous Bill Grundy affair. The only real thing was the snippets of actual Sex Pistols songs on the soundtrack.

The interview, when it comes (the episode is 22 minutes long, so there is a lot of backstage stuff), looks accurate. Clearly, someone spent some time on YouTube watching the actual event. The costumes are right, and the actors look pretty right, too ... at least they resemble their real-life counterparts. But it's all very pointless. If you're dying to see this (and haven't seen it already a hundred times), here it is. Accept no substitutes:


long tales

Sometimes I wish I had gotten into Star Trek when I was a teenager. I've never had anything against the show, the various permutations that have followed, or their fans. Jealous of those fans, actually. I never watched any of the series. I saw a couple of movies. Like most people, I know who Kirk and Picard and Spock are. I just never watched.

Marvel is another example. I read a few comics back in the day, most specifically the original Dr. Strange series (I was a wannabe hippie, what can I say). And my wife watches the movies, so I've seen some of them. But I'm never quite sure who does what.

Doctor Who, Star Wars ... I know little (Doctor Who) or some (Star Wars), but I am no fanatic, and I don't get tingly when a new Star Wars movie turns up. Again, I don't hate them or their fans, I'm just not a part of that.

My jealousy comes from wishing I was a part of it. Star Trek especially ... there are so many series and movies that I could binge the rest of my life and not catch up with all of it. That sounds appealing ... not the binging, just the part where there is so much and you are part of it.

Then I realized, there is one area where I participate that is similar to what Trekkers enjoy: sports. You follow something over the years, as history builds up and each season brings a freshness you don't find anywhere else. The Giants are in Spring Training, and Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence are back, and they are "Good Giants" and I think of the past when I see them in the present. Johnny Antonelli died the other day, and he was a Giants ace pitcher the first few years after they came to San Francisco. I relate to the Giants the way Trekkers relate to Star Trek: a continuing story that I take part it, year after year, drawing enjoyment not just from the present, but from the present's connection to the past.

I've never held it against people who are "fair weather fans", who show up at Giants games when they are winning World Series but are absent the rest of the time. Why shouldn't they get in on the enjoyment? But when the Giants won the Series in 2010, it was especially sweet for those of us who remember 1958 and had been waiting our whole lives for that moment. Same thing with the Warriors ... I remember when they were NBA champs in the mid-70s, but I also remember decades of underachievement, and so their revival in recent years was particularly cool.

Maybe we all need long tales to help us survive.


music friday: high fidelity the series

High Fidelity the TV series is yet another version of Nick Hornby's creation. The trick here is that the lead character, a man in both the novel and in the 2000 movie with John Cusack, is now a woman played by Zoë Kravitz. The show is never a simple gender flip, but it still needs mentioning, since Hornby is sometimes considered the first "lad lit" writer. At least as important, though, is the updating of the story to 2020 (if nothing else, the idea of a show focused on a store that sells only vinyl records has a different feel nowadays). The casting is solid ... Kravitz is wonderful as Rob, showing all facets of her complicated and not always "nice" character, and the primary supporters, Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Cherise) and David H. Holmes (Simon), are equally fine. And Kravitz pulls off the "Fleabag" style of talking to the camera without being annoying.

Here is a Top Five Songs Featured in the TV Series list:

"Heart of Glass" turns up in a scene with Debbie Harry that matches a scene in the movie with Bruce Springsteen, right down to the dialogue being almost an exact match:

Bowie's album The Man Who Sold the World is featured in a mid-season episode where Rob fetishizes the album's original pressing (she is thinking of buying a collection from a woman played by Parker Posey who is getting revenge on her husband by selling his records). The album turns up at the end of the season, as well.

At one point, Rob puts on a Swamp Dogg record in the story, claiming "I will now sell five copies of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune". Immediately, people in story ask, "who is that?"

In a marvelous episode written by Solomon Georgio, Rob gets a suggestion as a DJ to start her night by playing "Automatic":

In that same episode, Simon offers this analysis of Sylvester and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)": "In the 70s, the only way to get a disco song on the radio was if the DJs at the gay bars played it. That was the first time we ever had any say in the record industry. Disco was the sound of liberation."


tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part three

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows you may have watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (they have all finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

The Leftovers (7). I wrote a long post after the series finale, and it's best I just direct you to that, because it was a good one: "The Leftovers Series Finale".

The Americans (5). Another time where I wrote something that works here, so I'll cut and paste.

The Americans had its series finale ... it isn't on anymore. Except, of course, hardly anyone watches TV when it's "on", so The Americans sits out there, waiting to be discovered by bingers. On its face, it's a story about cold war Russian undercover spies. But more than anything, it's about family. The family on The Americans is on the wrong side of history, and we know that (it takes place during the Reagan years, and the spies, as true believers, don't know that they are going to lose). We care about them ... they are the center of the show. They are the "bad guys", yet we root for them. And they do despicable things in the name of Mother Russia. It is one of the handful of best TV series of all time. You should watch it.

It also makes great use of music. Every show nowadays has a montage set to music. Usually the music is crap, and the montage is a cliche. The Americans does it right.

Mad Men (2). Finally, a show everyone watched. Or at least talked about. Is it a better show than The Americans, or The Leftovers? At this level, comparisons are pointless. It will take you longer to binge ... there are 28 episodes of The Leftovers, 75 of The Americans, 92 of Mad Men. Mad Men is the one show of these three most likely to appear on college syllabi in the future, the most likely to be talked about when the history of television of the early 21st century comes up. I probably preferred The Leftovers, I think my wife preferred The Americans, both of us loved all three. Watch 'em all, then you decide.


tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part two

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows you may not have watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (they have all finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

Mr. Robot (56). I read on more than one occasion that Mr. Robot lost its buzz after the first season. As far as I can tell, this is based on a reveal about the nature of the title character, as if once you know who Mr. Robot is, there is nothing left to watch. That's just silly. Yes, it matters than Elliot, the lead character played by Rami Malek, has dissociative identity disorder ... in fact, at the end of four seasons, you realize Elliot and his relations with others is the core of the entire series. (Malek received an Emmy for his performance, three years before he won an Oscar playing Freddie Mercury.) But Mr. Robot was also a complicated, if fictional, study of the possibilities of anti-capitalism, and the stylistic quirks of creator Sam Esmail were usually fascinating and rarely self-indulgent. (This clip, from late in the final season, needs a spoiler alert if you're into that.)

Rectify (26). One of the great TV shows of all time, Rectify somehow ran for four seasons even though no one watched. It's impossible to sell ... Death Row prisoner is released on DNA evidence and tries to make his way back into society, in one of the slowest-moving shows I've ever seen. Rectify was created by actor Ray McKinnon, known for Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Ford v. Ferrari. It was truly remarkable, and the only way you'll ever find out is if you set aside the time to watch it. It would be a star-making performance for Aden Young, if anyone had seen it.

Justified (21). The best-ever representation of Elmore Leonard on television. It ran for six seasons and featured a terrific extended cast, including Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies, who both won Emmys for their work here. But even with all the talent on screen, the essence of the show was the relationship between Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder. And don't forget the shout out to Karen Sisco.


tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part one

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows I don't think you watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (all but one have finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

Penny Dreadful (76). Three seasons, 27 episodes. Interesting, off-the-wall premise: bring together figures from classic Gothic fiction, like Dorian Gray, characters from Dracula and Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and the like. Nominated for a handful of Emmys in categories like makeup and hairstyling, which missed the point entirely. Despite the often ludicrous plots, Penny Dreadful was made more than watchable by its actors. Rory Kinnear was the best Frankenstein's monster since Bela Lugosi, but the show was carried by its star, Eva Green, whose fearless performance was both grounded and over the top. Green was a highlight of TV in the 2010s. Apparently a sequel is coming, but without Green, it is unlikely to match the original.

Terriers (54). The winner of my first-ever Karen Sisco Award for series that were cancelled too soon. Terriers only lasted one season, and no one watched (I wrote about the series finale, "Seriously, how many of you have even heard of this show?"). I wrote, "The acting was strong across the board, and the chemistry between leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James was perfect. Though it was a buddy show, the female characters had depth … they were more than just time-killers, and the show didn’t just take the guy’s side, the buddies were flawed and the show didn’t try to apologize for their behaviors. The ending was very satisfying, and worked whether or not the show is renewed."

GLOW (45). There is a running theme with these shows, which all sound like they might suck. GLOW is the fond tale of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an actual series from the 80s. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, and it is a complex study of women's empowerment. It's the one show here that is still running (there's one more season to come). A great ensemble of characters and acting, with special mention to Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, who play former best friends who are enemies in the ring (Brie's wrestling character is the Russian "Zoya the Destroyer" while Gilpin's is the American "Liberty Belle"). I love this scene, and wish there was a better video that didn't include people at home watching. Brie describes a match between Zoya and Belle by acting out the wrestling by herself.

Halt and Catch Fire (29). Good enough to deserve a separate post. Since I wrote one in September, I'll just link to it here. A show that got better every season, especially once they figured out the main focus needed to be on the female leads.