I haven’t watched network TV in many years. I can’t stand pretty much any contemporary music act. I enjoy professional sports, but do not follow them, and always embarrass myself when I pretend that I do. However, I do faithfully watch a handful of cable television programs. Here they are, with some thoughts on each:
As President Obama would say, let me be clear. This show is as dumb as a bag of hammers. I am dumber after I watch it. All of us are. The pilot episode offered the worst dialogue I had ever heard on a television show. The performances as a rule are unbelievably repetitive. A handful of the characters—including THE LEAD—are unusually annoying. When did Anna Paquin decide that every line should be served with three extra helpings of sass? And Tara, thanks, but if I wanted to be yelled at for an hour, I’d time travel back to Mrs. Phillips’ seventh grade math class.
This scene alone invoked three separate articles of the Geneva Conventions.
OK, I confess. The damn show is entertaining. As dumb as it is, dumb also means I get to turn my brain off for an hour and watch vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, witches, whoknowswhathehellelse go at it. In bad Cajun accents. Usually, sans clothing. There are worse ways to spend an evening.
This series appeared at first to be a conventional medieval fantasy epic, told in the style of The Lord Of The Rings, pitting good against evil. It slowly revealed itself to be a far more complex piece of storytelling. The “good” guys in this tale often behave stupidly and are far too trusting of their enemies, not to mention the “neutral” parties of whom they assume good faith. The “bad” guys are regularly more successful because they do not slow themselves down with quaint notions of “honor”. They also may have more legitimate grievances than we are initially led to believe. The history of the world in which these people reside is slowly revealed to the audience. It is a world nowhere as simple as that depicted in The Lord Of The Rings, a world much more like our own, where nothing good is accomplished easily–if at all–and what “good” actually is becomes harder to define at each turn.
Exemplifying this outlook is the performance of Peter Dinklage, who has created the most fascinating supporting character on television since…Omar. He is The Imp, a little person living in a chaotic world ruled by “might is right”, and yet The Imp manages to slip through incredible dangers using his mental ingenuity alone. He is neither good nor bad, possessing no innate hostility towards perceived enemies, nor any frivolous notions of “honor” that would too firmly entrench him. The Imp has no problem helping strangers, and bets they’ll never realize how much more he needs them. He has only his wits, and his mouth. In a land where most have lost sight of what matters save some ancient moral code, the man with none may be the most moral of them all.
I generally detest reality television. I believe 99.9% of it is useless, vapid exhibitionism of the lowest order. I think anyone who would put themselves on a reality television program is very likely to have either some kind of severe personality disorder, or simply be un-hirable in any other occupation.
Teen Mom is one of the most gripping and educational shows ever put on the screen. The show is pretty straightforward: let’s film the repercussions of some teenagers who got themselves pregnant. Let’s show what it’s like to be an 18 year-old girl with a 2 year-old boy. What happens when that girl wants to go out with her friends, but doesn’t have any time, because she has a 2 year-old boy, and doesn’t have any money, because she doesn’t have a job, because she can’t get a job, because she has to stay home to take care of the 2 year-old boy. And if she gets a job, it won’t be a good job, because she didn’t finish high school, and even if she did, she didn’t go to college, because she has a 2 year-old boy. And if she tries to go to college, then she’s being a bad mom, because she’s not devoting herself entirely to the 2 year-old boy, and eventually one of her parents will step in and fight for ownership of the 2 year-old boy. And God forbid she go and try to do what got her into this mess in the first place: fall in love. On Teen Mom, nothing is more dangerous than trying to have a life of your own. And that is what makes it truly compelling television, as well as essential life education. I wish it was shown in every middle and high school in America.
The second best show on television. Or, should I say, was on television and will be on television again soon. Hopefully. Really guys, are you trying to outdo Mad Men in the fan-punishment game?
The show takes place in Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties, just after Prohibition has passed. Steve Buscemi stars as “Nucky” Thompson, a thinly veiled take on the real-life Enoch Johnson, who ruled Atlantic City for most of that decade through patronage, political machinations, bribery, and mob warfare. In addition to Nucky, we meet other notorious figures of the era: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein. The show is as prolific with its historical name-dropping as it is with its powerhouse casting: Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams (yes, that’s four Michaels), the list goes on. Even a barely recognizable Dabney Coleman commands a supporting role.
While all the Michaels give strong performances in Boardwalk (particularly Stuhlbarg as the silky smooth, brilliantly calculating Rothstein), the casting also serves to introduce the audience to actors they should catch in other recent, less conventional roles. Anyone who likes Michael Pitt here needs to see “Last Days”, “Bully”, and “Funny Games”. Michael Stuhlbarg came out of nowhere in 2009 to snag an Oscar nomination for his brilliant (and completely un-Rothstein) turn in “A Serious Man”. “Revolutionary Road” was a disappointing and depressing film, save for Michael Shannon walking in and stealing it away from DiCaprio and Winslet in one landslide of a scene. As for Michael Kenneth Williams, I need only offer a name: Omar.
When discussing the Best Show On Planet Earth, there’s not much left to say that everyone else hasn’t already. It is an exquisitely executed tour of early 1960’s New York City. The writing is amazing. The love the creators have for these characters and their journeys is rivaled only by the audience’s. The clothing is inspiring. I want to smoke cigarettes afterward like it’s my job. Drinking at work suddenly looks not only appealing, but downright necessary. Everyone in it is the coolest person you will never get to be. They’re also tragically pathetic. The main character, Don Draper, is a complete wreck of a man, and yet, every man wants to be him. Jon Hamm’s performance is the finest work on television, bar none. The show has brought us Joan, Peggy, Betty, Pete, and Sal, and if that’s all it ever did, Mad Men would still be legendary. If all it ever did was a 60’s nostalgia trip, it would be a fun romp worth watching through the finale. But, of course, it does a lot more than that.
Mad Men is about the lies in our culture that permeate through the souls of people like Don Draper. People who literally become someone else in order to achieve the American Dream. This is, of course, the reason the show centers around an ad agency. As Don explains in the pilot episode, Americans don’t buy products. They buy a fantasy. The ad man’s job is to sell them the fantasy. Don’s eternal dilemma is that he too, is not selling himself, the actual product, to the outside world. He is selling the fantasy version. Aren’t we all?