Vida. A new series on Starz that was one of the most welcome debuts in a while. Vida doesn't just pay lip-service to diversity. It's about two Mexican-American sisters in East LA. It's about class and about gentrification. It's about gender, it's about grief ... it is all of these things and more, but they are all in service to the story, rather than the other way around. One impressive aspect of Vida that points to its newness is that most of the people responsible for the show are new to me. Series creator Tanya Saracho is a Mexican-born playwright who has done some writing for television. One of the leads, Melissa Barrera, has starred in some telenovelas. Michel Prada, who plays her sister, was in a web-series spinoff of Fear the Walking Dead. She doesn't even have a Wikipedia page (based on her work in Vida, that won't last long). Ser Anzoategui is an actor, writer, and activist who had a regular role in East Los High. She's another without a Wikipedia page. There are many other actors with significant parts who deliver fine performances ... Chelsea Rendon, Maria-Elena Laas, and more. Vida hits its dramatic arcs with power, and is one of the half-hour dramas that are popping up now. (Most half-hour shows were and are comedies, or, to use that dreadful word, dramedies. Vida is a drama.) There are only six episodes in Season One, which means you can binge the whole things in three hours. And a second season is set.
Westworld. Only here because I quit watching, and felt I should acknowledge that fact. It has that in common with Legion, another show I gave up on, and for a similar reason: who knows what the fuck is going on? Westworld is apparently a puzzle of sorts, and I know some people like trying to figure these kinds of shows out. I'm tired of them.
Killing Eve. In a post about TV actors, I wrote, "[Jodie] Comer has made Villanelle into the most fascinating character on TV. (Meanwhile, Sandra Oh is killing it as Eve.)" I stand by both parts of that comment. But I may have been a bit too much taken with Comer's work in the flashier of the two roles. Matt Zoller Seitz thinks so: "The Best Actress on TV Is Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh".
Oh’s entire career has been leading to this. The role of Eve asks her to blend the star charisma she exhibited on Grey’s Anatomy and the daffy sex appeal that she brought to a supporting role in Sideways (stealing scenes from Thomas Haden Church, which is about as easy as stealing gold from Fort Knox). Oh is not just up to the challenge, she piles on details until they become emblematic of the series as well as the character. This is the performance of the year so far, in any medium. For all the reasons mentioned in this piece, and for many more reasons we won’t even discover until we watch the whole thing a few more times, this is quietly revolutionary acting on a quietly revolutionary series. There’s before Killing Eve, and there’s after. Phoebe Waller-Bridge made that happen, and Sandra Oh made it real.
The mention of Phoebe Waller-Bridge is important ... she developed the series and wrote four of the eight episodes. Fleabag wasn't a fluke ... and Waller-Bridge clearly handles more than one genre.
Legion. I only mention this program because I quit watching it. The Purposely Obscure Genre is not my favorite. Legion is so stylish, so unique, that I gave it a chance. Heck, I gave Season One an A-. But I only watched a couple of Season Two episodes before I realized I didn't enjoy it, didn't understand it, and was angered by that purposeful obscurity. So I quit. Your mileage may vary.
The Looming Tower. This miniseries from Hulu told the fact-based story of the buildup to 9/11, emphasizing the feud between the FBI and CIA and how that feud affected America's ability (or inability) to see what was right before various eyes. It stuck close enough to the facts to feel real, it was fairly clear in presenting the byzantine plot, and it mostly avoided kissing the ass of the FBI or CIA. It's the kind of show my wife likes, but one that I enjoyed as well, if not as much as she did. There was some interesting casting ... Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as a Muslim FBI agent, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire's Arnold Rothstein) as Richard Clarke, Alec Baldwin as CIA Director George Tenet, and others. Jeff Daniels played John O'Neill, the FBI head of counterterrorism, and he was good, although for some reason he often bugged the shit out of me. (Whether than was Daniel or O'Neill, I don't know.) If it sounds good to you, you'll probably like it ... it delivers. I wouldn't say it was great, though.
Counterpart. I wrote a bit about J.K. Simmons and this show last month ("TV Actors"), and he is the best reason to watch. It's surprising that I like it ... honestly, I'm not sure how much I like it, because the plot (involving parallel worlds) is hard for me to follow, and my patience with such things is weakening. Besides Simmons, there's a fine cast ... of the ones I recognize, there's Olivia Williams, Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek, Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, and Jacqueline Bisset, and I was quite taken with a new-to-me actress, Sara Serraiocco. Time will tell if I keep watching, but you shouldn't let me keep you away from the show, which is highly regarded in many places.
GLOW. I wrote about Season One a year ago, and don't have anything to add, except that Season Two will be released on Netflix tomorrow, and I am really looking forward to it. That earlier piece was one of my better ones regarding writing about Peak TV, and I don't mind if you read it again (or for the first time).
I’m not trying to damn Humans with faint praise. I like the show quite a bit. But it’s just another show about humans and machines that can’t quite live up to the greatness that was Battlestar Galactica. And while the straightforward presentation is helpful to clods like me who have trouble keeping up, it comes across as rather mundane compared to shows like Sense8 and Legion.
Well, I'm three episodes into the third season, and I like it at least as much as ever, perhaps more. For one thing, I have to get over comparing things to Battlestar Galactica. It's like saying "Nice movie, but it's not Citizen Kane". Plus, the longer the show runs, the deeper its take on humans and machines and society gets, the more I can accept that it is its own show. And while I love Sense8 probably more than I should, I've given up on Legion, so perhaps I like mundane. Truth is, Humans is not mundane, and if it deals in standard concepts, it does well with them. And there's only 8 episodes per season, so you can binge it all fairly quickly.
I watch as much TV as ever, but I continue to find it difficult to write about television as it exists today, with too much good stuff to keep up with, and a sense that any audience that might read what I write will be at different points in the process of watching a show ("I'm only through Season 2, no spoilers!"). So here is a quick look at some shows I am watching (or, in a couple of cases, not watching), that I recommend if you're looking for something new.
The 100. I love watching this show, and while it is far from perfect, it has mostly recovered from the big mistake in Season 3 Episode 7. It remains relentlessly dystopian, and it serves most of its large cast well.
The Americans. This is an example of the "problem" with writing about current TV. 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.
Atlanta. Another show that is so much more than a basic description would suggest. It seems to be about a young black man in Atlanta, trying to make his way, his cousin who deals weed and raps, and their odd friend. It is that, but it is also simultaneously a comedy and a gripping drama. Calling it a "dramedy" would insult what Donald Glover is doing. Atlanta oftens feels quite real, but it slides effortlessly into the surreal. One episode was so unique, I actually did get around to writing about it: "Teddy Perkins".
Overwhelmed by the amount of Peak TV, unable to keep up, don't write about it as much as I'd like. I'll try something different: five actors doing great work in current series. First, Keri Russell as Elizabeth in The Americans. She left Felicity behind a long time ago. She walks a fine line with Elizabeth, a deep-cover KGB agent who often role-plays as part of her job. She is a true believer in the Soviet cause, one who never cracks, so when Russell gives a hint of possible doubt, it's subtle. (Lois Smith is also great here.)
Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred ("Paper Boi") in Atlanta. Henry is the king of reactions ... some of the best fun on the series comes from just watching his face as others do their thing.
J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk, and Howard Silk, in Counterpart. We've come a long way since Patty Duke played identical cousins. Simmons is given little things to help the viewer differentiate between the two versions of Howard, but most of the heavy lifting is done by the actor, who manages to convey which one we're seeing while making it seem effortless.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the title character in Fleabag. The first season was almost two years ago, and there will be a long wait for Season Two. But I had to include it, anyway. You could say Waller-Bridge ought to have her character down ... she created Fleabag from a one-woman show she wrote and starred in. For some reason, I can't get to the very first scene of the first episode, which is what really belongs here, so instead I offer this, which shows the frequent breaking of the fourth wall:
Jodie Comer as the assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve. Waller-Bridge is everywhere ... she developed this series, and has written three of the five episodes we've seen thus far. Jodie Comer is remarkable. She doesn't fall back on easy representations of a psychopath ... she reminds me of Sydney Greenstreet's Gutman describing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: "By Gad, sir, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing." Comer has made Villanelle into the most fascinating character on TV. (Meanwhile, Sandra Oh is killing it as Eve.)
Looking back at a post from 14 years ago, titled "An Abundance of Pleasures". The first line resonates with the current state of television:
"I don't suppose I've ever said this before, but there's too much teevee on tonight!"
We take it for granted now that there is too much TV. It even has a name, "Peak TV". Right now (and by "right now" I mean things that are either on now or about to start), there's The Americans, and Legion, and Killing Eve, and Westworld, and The Looming Tower, and Atlanta, and The 100, and that only touches the surface.
But what are the shows from April of 2004 that prompted me to say there was too much teevee? That blog post mentions:
State of Play, a BBC drama with a stellar cast (David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy), that was later made into a movie with Russell Crowe.
Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, which would have been in its sixth season of seven.
24 (the episode where Jack had to kill Ryan Chappelle, a death that actually had some resonance).
The Sopranos, with Polly Bergen as the mistress of Tony's father.
Deadwood, early in the first season, featuring the trial of the man who killed Wild Bill Hickok.
Queer as Folk, with the Season 4 premiere. At the time, I wrote, "With all of the above, the thing I find myself most anticipating is the return of Queer As Folk and one of my v.favorite characters, Brian Kinney."
Apparently, all of these shows were on the same night, which prompted that long-ago blog post.
Fourteen years later, many of those shows remain canonical. State of Play, a miniseries, seems to have been largely forgotten. And people who remember the U.S. version of Queer as Folk probably think it was kinda dumb. I feel like it was never taken as seriously as The L Word, although I liked it quite a bit more.
It occurs to me that when I made that post in 2004, I had yet to see any of the above scenes.
I have nothing special to say here, but last week's episode of Atlanta deserves mention. As I said on Facebook, I've seen some weird episodes ... heck, I watch Legion. But this was one of the weirdest.
Legion's weirdness is built in to the show. Here's Wikipedia's description of the basic scenario:
Dan Stevens stars as Haller, a mutant diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. [Noah] Hawley signed on to write and direct the pilot. He wanted to show Haller as an "unreliable narrator", including mixing 1960s design with modern-day elements, and filming the series through the title character's distorted view of reality....
Haller ... has been a patient in various psychiatric hospitals since.... Haller eventually discovers that his mind is infected by the parasitic mutant Amahl Farouk / Shadow King, and is able to force the villain from his mind. In the second season, Haller is trapped by a mysterious orb ...
You get the idea.
Everything is surprising and confusing on Legion, which to some extent diminishes the surprise ... we never know what's next, but we always know it will be weird and largely inscrutable.
Atlanta is not like that. Back to Wikipedia, which tells us "Atlanta is about two cousins navigating their way in the Atlanta rap scene in an effort to improve their lives and the lives of their families." It seems to fit into a popular type of series today that offers up the lives of people who aren't a part of the televised mainstream ... think Master of None or Insecure. Atlanta allows room for all the main characters to have their episodes, and we get to know them in depth. The show has taken some odd turns ... there was one episode that featured Justin Bieber played by black actor. And Donald Glover called his show "Twin Peaks with rappers", which is both too easy and quite accurate. But more often than not, Atlanta gives us slices of life with an odd tinge.
Not the most recent episode, though. In "Teddy Perkins", we're introduced to an extremely eccentric man who looks like ... well, I don't know, like a man who used too much bleach on his skin. At one point, reference is made to Sammy Sosa (Vulture had a piece devoted specifically to all the pop-culture references in the episode). When Darius, who has met Teddy Perkins, tries to describe Teddy's face, he tells his friends to Google "Sammy Sosa hat". This is what I got when I did the search, although I knew what to expect:
It helps to understand that Sosa is a dark-skinned Dominican who uses bleaching cream.
Anyway, this is what Teddy Perkins looked like:
The story unfolded in such a way that you were never quite sure if we were seeing Darius having a dream. But the conclusion, with two dead bodies and a freaked-out Darius, seemed to suggest this all really happened. It will be interesting if next week makes any reference to this.
Oh, and the person playing Teddy Perkins? The show's star and creator, Donald Glover, who also appeared in his regular role as Earn.
One other thing ... the show ran over by five or so minutes (not all that unusual for an FX series), and had no commercial breaks. The latter added to the overall weirdness.
Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:
Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system."
I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.
Finally got started on Electric Dreams, an anthology series co-developed by Ronald D. Moore and based on stories by Philip K. Dick. Shouldn't have taken me so long, given my love for both RDM and PKD. Wasn't going to write about it, at least not yet, but a couple of people asked what I thought, and by the time I was done responding, I'd written enough for a blog post. So here goes, with the caveat that as I write this, I've only seen the first episode.
Diana Keng made a good comparison of this episode to Total Recall. I have said many times that the scene in that movie where they are trying to convince Arnold that he's really having a dream is, for me, the most Dickian moment in movies until A Scanner Darkly. It's not just that Dick creates worlds where characters question reality ... his particular skill as a writer in sucking the reader into those questions, so, like the characters, we are never quite sure what is real. I often find that when I am reading him and I put down my book, I have to take a moment to adjust to "real life" because I have become a part of the confusion of the book. Ron Moore did good.
Electric Dreams has been compared, perhaps inevitably, to Black Mirror. Virtually every episode of Black Mirror revolves around technology, recognizable today but "advanced" in the future, and how what is becoming ordinary to us will eventually expose a dark side. Based on the "Real Life" episode, Electric Dreams won't necessarily go that way, but it's interesting to compare it to Dick's original story, "Exhibit Piece", where technology isn't really the kicker. A guy in the future has a job creating exhibits of the past, and he's really good at it and his exhibit is quite detailed. He enters the exhibit, and something unexplained puts him into the reality of the exhibit, as if he's living in the mid-1950s. (The story was published in 1954, and Dick had a habit of making the future seem much like the present, even though all sorts of bizarre alien creatures are wandering around.) The question becomes whether the "real" world is 1954, or the world he "came from", which also allows an interpretation where he is from 1954 and time-travels to the future when he is, well, in the future. Anyway, a common thread in his work is that reality is fluid, and his characters often aren't sure which reality is "real". This works in "Real Life", but partly because we're used to Black Mirror now, we gravitate towards the technological vacation creator on the forehead and think it's a show about technology.
This is like a show made for Steven Rubio: based on Philip K. Dick, with Ronald D. Moore one of the creators. Moore is confident enough that he can mess with the story while still getting the essence. He wrote, "Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly, the brains behind the episode originate in this tale". Looking forward to more.
The Leftovers. Perhaps some people quit watching before the end of Season Three. They'll catch up eventually, because The Leftovers entered the pantheon of great television series in its final season. Asks the big questions, but doesn't explain the answers. Focuses on the lives of the people doing the asking. Unafraid of taking creative risks (Mark-Linn Baker and Perfect Strangers?) Excellent acting across the board, with Carrie Coon besting anyone else on television, even herself (she turned up on Fargo this season).
A (never missed them, in real time):
The Americans. Still making us care deeply about two Soviet spies, even as they kill in the name of Mother Russia, even as they turn their own daughter into one of them.
Better Things. "Despite Adlon being the perfect center, she is very generous with the actresses who play her daughters." One of the best shows about mothers and daughters.
A- (Flawed, but favorites, esp. The 100 and Sense8):
The 100. It is so much more than what we expected back in the beginning, that I, at least, forgive its trespasses.
Broad City. "Abbi and Ilana are actually showing signs of growing up a bit."
The Deuce. Another winner from David Simon. Each episode is better than the previous one, because everything builds, and all the pieces matter.
Mr. Robot. Frightening in its real-world parallels, with one tour de force episode and consistently intriguing visuals. The finale, with its return to the show's beginnings, was disappointing. Trivia note: Mr. Robot proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's OK to say "fuck" on the USA Network. Many times.
Outlander. Gorgeous, romantic, and a paean to the female gaze. I miss Battlestar Galactica, but Ron Moore lives on. Headline in Variety: "Apple Gives Straight-to-Series Order to Drama From ‘Outlander’ Showrunner".
Sense8. I may have looked forward to this show more than any other this year.
Guerrilla. Great show, except I forgot I watched it, so maybe it was just good.
GLOW. Whatever you thought this show might be, it's better than that. (Video includes a couple of viewers commenting on the action. I'd pick a different scene, but Alison Brie deserves an Emmy just for this. Her character has chosen a bad-guy Russian, "Stoya the Destroya", for her wrestling character ... it takes place in 1985 ... and here she demonstrates her array of moves: The Hammer & Sickle, The Rough Toilet Paper, The Bread Line, Potato Soup, Vodka for Breakfast. Here is a great walk-through of the scene.)
Humans."I’m not trying to damn Humans with faint praise. I like the show quite a bit. But it’s just another show about humans and machines that can’t quite live up to the greatness that was Battlestar Galactica."
Insecure. "Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecure, said. 'In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."
Legion. The oddest show I watched all year. (No, I didn't watch Twin Peaks.) A must for fans of Aubrey Plaza.
Master of None. Took many chances along the way, both in representations of characters and stylistically.
Mindhunter. About the people who profile serial killers, which is the kind of show my wife watches, not me. But I was sucked in ... hey, I like Holt McCallany ... and it was worth it to see a story about serial killers before they were called serial killers.
Shameless. A few weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked people to name a show that had been consistently good for a long time without ever having a great season. I chose Shameless.