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.
[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]
In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.
When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.
This year's winner actually started in November of 2016, but it finished in January of 2017, so I think it counts. I'm talking about Sweet/Vicious, about which I wrote:
Sweet/Vicious is easy to summarize, for anyone who is thinking of checking it out. The problem is, the summary tells you nothing about the execution. (This can be said of many works, of course.) I haven’t recommended it to anyone, even though it just finished its first season, if for no other reason than it is built around the kinds of triggers that many people will understandably avoid. For the set-up of Sweet/Vicious is that a rape survivor and her friend become vigilantes, fighting against those who assault women.
And it’s not always a serious drama....
Sweet/Vicious is an audacious show about a topic that is hidden far too often. It is never exploitative. And while it always returns to the story of survivors, it isn’t particularly preachy.
It got terrible ratings, and was cancelled by MTV (which is where it aired). So one season is all we'll get. And Sweet/Vicious was just finding its voice. The great Mo Ryan had a lot to say about the cancellation, and I'm going to quote her a bit here.
“Sweet/Vicious” set itself apart in a very crowded TV landscape, and though it was barely promoted, it found a small but loyal audience. I grind my teeth at the thought of what kind of impression it could have made, and what kind of audience could have been built up, had MTV allocated even a little more money and promotional resources to it.
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. You start watching a pilot, and a delightful feeling creeps over you: “Oh, this is good! Who made this? What is this? I want more!”
“Sweet/Vicious” was one of those shows. It wasn’t just smart, funny and able to craft engaging stories on a very low budget. It wasn’t just an excellent vehicle for its talented stars, Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden. It was about something....
And, perhaps to the point of the Karen Sisco Award:
“Sweet/Vicious,” handled in the right way, could have become a steady performer for the network, not to mention a media darling....
Regardless of whether you agree about the flood of questionable renewals, the fact is, it’s all too easy for shows, new or old, to get lost in the shuffle. But some shows that already made their mark deserve more life. Especially if they were just getting started.
“Sweet/Vicious” was a gem. Some savvy executive should recognize that, and do something sweet — and smart.
Like many of the previous winners of this award, Sweet/Vicious was barely recognized during its run. Terriers still has fans, and it turns up on streaming services on occasion, and while Lights Out remains little-known, star Holt McCallany is on people's minds after his co-starring role in Mindhunter. And, of course, Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell still make cameo appearances in the Marvel world.
But I don't think Sweet/Vicious will be remembered, even as much as something like Lights Out. And that is especially sad because, as much as anything, Sweet/Vicious was a victim of bad timing. If it started in November of this year, it would be talked about all over social media. There would be arguments about whether its approach to vigilante justice was the right message for the #MeToo movement. But it would not be ignored. And I wouldn't be writing about it now as the winner of an award no one wants: a good show that was cancelled too soon.
The idea behind the Karen Sisco Award is to draw attention to these shows, so that you'll know they are worthy if you come across them down the road on streaming services.
Again, the winners:
2011: Lights Out
2016: Agent Carter
Here are a few clips from Sweet/Vicious. Trigger warnings may apply.
In his review of Physical Graffiti for Rolling Stone back in 1975, Jim Miller spent a lot of time on Jimmy Page, both his guitar playing and his producing/arranging:
The album's — and the band's — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire....
His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument's sonic vocabulary.
He has always exhibited a studio musician's knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record ...
A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects ... But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding "clean" timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant's contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum....
Thanks to Page's production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds.... Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound.....
Physical Graffiti testifies to Page's taste and Led Zeppelin's versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page.
Hey, I'm not here to argue ... all of the members of Led Zeppelin made important contributions, but as a listener who wasn't in the studio to see exactly how their records were made, I've always given extra credit to Page, for the reasons Miller mentions and more.
Miller didn't think "In the Light" quite worked.
"In the Light," one of the album's most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.
Even here, the only band member he mentions is Page, although John Paul Jones was the person most responsible for the sound ... his synthesizer dominates. Led Zeppelin never played "In the Light" in concert, supposedly because Jones didn't feel he could properly match the synth playing on stage. (Both Page and Plant performed the song in concerts outside of Led Zeppelin.)
Let's say Miller is right that "In the Light" is fragmentary. In that case, it might be perfect as accompaniment for a movie or TV scene. And in fact, that's what made me think of it for this post, because it plays during the final scene of Season One of David Fincher's Mindhunter, the interesting Netflix series with Jonathan Groff, the great Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv. Here is part of that scene (spoilers, for those who care). The song had begun at the beginning, with Jones' synth a perfect background for the action. It picked up again at the end of the scene, as you see here. Most of the time, I get frustrated when a song is hacked up to fit what is happening on the screen. But the missing middle of "In the Light" here disposes of Miller's complaint that the song is fragmentary. The editing makes it more fragmentary, of course, but it makes sense, because it's not just a track on an album, it's the soundtrack for what we're watching.
Here is the complete "In the Light":
A sampling of the comments on YouTube:
Devon Palmer: The editing and use of this song made mindhunters ending so disturbing it was amazing.
Brian Merriman: I don't generally applaud when watching tv, but couldn't help myself on this one. Ten minutes of brilliance the equal of anything on a small or large screen in recent memory.
TwisTr71: Best execution of music fitting a scene I have ever experienced
Better Things. Season One: "Adlon is the perfect center of a show like this, and all three of the actresses who play her daughters are strong (casting of kids is often the downfall of shows with families). Definitely looking forward to Season Two." So far, so good. Season Two is getting raves for being even better than last year. I can't say I notice the difference ... it's still the same show, with the same strengths. Adlon directs every episode this season, and if it wasn't already clear, Better Things is her show. The show's family feels real, no matter if the events of a particular episode are a bit outrageous. And despite Adlon being the perfect center, she is very generous with the actresses who play her daughters. An excellent show. The most recent episode as I type, "Eulogy", was outstanding, called the season's best by many, and the show has been renewed for a third season.
Broad City. Abbi and Ilana are actually showing signs of growing up a bit, best personified by Ilana's new job, which she is actually good at. Having said that, it's still Broad City. Last year I said, "Comedies like this are never 100% perfect, but when Broad City hits, nothing compares." That still holds true. And the episode where they do mushrooms is an all-time classic. The follow up, where we meet Abbi's mom, was also wonderful.
Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nothing seems different, a few episodes into the first new season in six years. This is not where you start if you've decided to dive in, nor is it the place to give it another try if you've seen it before and found it wanting. But fans are happy, I imagine. Perhaps it's just a matter of degree, but at times Larry seems even more cruel than ever.
The Deuce. Some typical David Simon tics: lots of characters, most of whom get plenty of screen time, and a slow, gradual movement into the milieu of the show. Also some great acting and writing. Another winner from Simon.
Mr. Robot. The Season Three premiere featured a monologue by Elliot that will be watched long after the series has died. A sample:
I can stand here and blame Evil Corp and every conglomerate out there for taking advantage of us, and I can blame the FBI, NSA and CIA for letting them get away with it, blame all the world leaders for aiding and abetting them, and blame Adam Smith for inventing modern day capitalism in the first fucking place, and blame money for dividing us, and blame us for letting it — but none of that's true. The truth is, I'm the one to blame. I'm the problem. This was my fault. All of it. I did this. Fuck me.
Outlander. The first several episodes kept Claire and Jamie apart, and the show is always better when they are together. But the wait was worth it ... their reunion episode, "A. Malcolm", made up for lost time while reminding us once again of how much the male gaze is absent on this show.
The Strain. Done after 4 seasons and 46 episodes. Four seasons may be just right ... The Strain never got too crappy, although I'd argue it also never got great. But it was good enough for four seasons, thanks in part to a cast that was generally solid (although Zach was always irritating, I think he was written that way).
Supergirl. I bring this up because the new season has just begun. I don't know why I still watch, which isn't to say it's a bad series, just that it's nothing special and there are other things to watch. They have done a good job with the lesbian relationship.
The Tick. Half a dozen episodes in what is either a truncated first season, or the first half of a longer season. Every version of The Tick has its moments, and this one is a bit darker as it deals with Arthur's semi-traumatic real life. It's OK, but my wife likes it more than I do, as she always has.
If you are looking for a show to binge, I'd go with Better Things, since there is still a reasonable number of episodes. Besides that, the best shows on the above list include Broad City, Mr. Robot, and Outlander, with The Deuce likely to join them.