Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Must CTV

As I wrote a few years ago,
"Television has been so transformed that those trapped in outdated prejudices have been caught out. In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants. Right now, the zeitgeist is in television. Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's."
The impressive transformation of what we used to call the idiot-box was spurred by a business quirk. The economics of cable TV allowed series creators to require diligent weekly viewing. For decades, network TV writers had been compelled to make each episode more or less comprehensible as a stand-alone. With that constraint removed, TV series could tell fully serialized stories with enormously long arcs. Gunsmoke or Maude, by contrast, never offered much in the way of overarching plot or deep character development. They were unnaturally static entities where nothing much developed. The formulaic bell was rung every week, making for tediously boring viewing aimed at audiences expected to drop in and out.

But the best of the current television crop is superior to film. The two hour constraint of cinema makes for its own set of formulae and tedium, but the many hours of a TV season (or multi-season run) offers unprecedented freedom. Nuances of plot and character development that could only be hinted at within cinema's limits can be lovingly applied ad infinitum. The ultra long storytelling arc is like nothing the world has ever seen, and creative folks have been energized by this new freedom - as creative people invariably are whenever an avenue opens up.

It's generally agreed upon that the venerable pillars of all this are The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Mad Men, all HBO series (for detailed episode-by-episode reviews, don't miss Alan Sepinwall's blog, which I wrote about here). But there are other very worthy big arc shows...plus terrific shows with more conventional structures (a zeitgeist floats all boats).

Here are current shows (plus two recently deceased) I'd respect you just a little bit less for not knowing about:

Louie: you know (or should) that Louis C.K. is one of the most brilliant, insightful, and just plain funny comics out there. That's good enough. But his show, which is an absolute gem, is so much more than comedy. If you still consider TV inferior to film, I dare you to maintain that opinion after a few episodes of this. On FX.

Sherlock: Alas, not all episodes are up to snuff. But this contemporary updating of Sherlock Holmes makes any question of faithful rendering moot, because, at its best, it's even better than Conan Doyle.
As with most BBC series, do NOT watch on PBS, which makes cuts. View on BBC America or on DVD (or Netflix).

Game of Thrones: You've surely heard about this, and may have held out on viewing, figuring you're not a big fantasy fiction fan. Neither am I, and I doubt that many of my ten million fellow viewers are, either. This is just extremely engrossing, transportive, thoughtful film-making, and so much more generous than what a two hour film could ever offer you. Great acting, great cinematography, great costumes and music. Huge sprawling scope. Just amazing. On HBO.

Breaking Bad: You've heard about it - the tale of a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher's transformation into a drug kingpin. Sounds contrived, I know. But played out over 46 painstakings episodes (thus far; the final season starts next month), every nuanced step of this unveils in the most truthful, thoughtful, believable way...making you wonder what you might be capable of! You could never pull this off with a movie - not even Godfather 2. Acting and writing are mesmerizingly good. On AMC.

Veep: Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, from "Seinfeld", in the darkest, archest, funniest treatment of power and politics you could ever ask for. So subtle, and so masterfully constructed (and acted). It's from the creators of The Thick of It, which is just as good, if not better, though a bit hard to follow because of the English accents at fast pace and lots of crosstalk. On HBO.

The Colbert Report: Compelled to cough up four shows a week, formula is inevitable, and I'm growing a little tired of it. And the one minute standing ovation is wearying for all but Colbert. And the awkward timing issues involved in delivering the "Word" feature make me squirm. But despite all that, at least once or twice per show, something so fiendishly clever dependably comes up (often thrown away, hardly noticed by the studio audience) that my faith in humanity is restored. On Comedy Central.

Up with Chris Hayes: I previously called this the best political show on TV, and I stand by that, though, like all wonderful things, the imperfections annoy me a lot more than they would in something less near-perfect. I have innumerable quibbles with the political opinions, but how could I not? I dare you to watch any TV news politics - even The Newshour - after this and not find it unbearably lightweight. But the depth comes at a price; I need to really focus to follow the discussion, which is staunchly undiluted for television audiences. It's how pundits talk when the cameras are off.On MSNBC.

Two tragic recent cancellations:
Men of a Certain Age: Ray Romano's short, sweet series where very little ever seemed to happen, and yet so many rich, deeply evocative themes were so heartfully struck that there are those who deeply, deeply mourn its cancellation. On TNT.

Party Down: I worship this show. I have refused to view the second, final, season DVD because I want to always feel like there's more to watch. The ratings were jaw-droppingly low (if I recall correctly, something like 35,000 viewers by the end) for this hilarious, brilliant series that looked at marginal Hollywood types waitering at catering events (each show a different event, e.g. "Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party", "Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar", and "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night"). I rewatch religiously. Please, please, somebody, bring it back.On Starz.

Honorable Mentions: Battlestar Galactica, TV Funhouse (my take), the rebooted Doctor Who, Doc Martin (my take), and The IT Crowd (my take)....and anything listed under "RECOMMENDED READING" in the right hand margin on Alan Sepinwall's old blog

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