Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Praise Of The Idiot Box

It's garbage day! Two mammoth posts. I've been catching up on some TV lately:

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

This surprised me, as I was predisposed to hate this show. I once saw a commercial for the episode "Charlie Gets Cancer" and found the ad supremely unfunny. (Perhaps it was during the baseball playoffs on FX, when I was presumably pissed off about the Yankees or some such nonsense.) I rarely jump into shows about assholes, and this is definitely a show about assholes. The show should be called It's Always Assholes In Philadelphia. (Or maybe just Philadelphia would suffice?)

But my God, is this a really, really good show or what? Not great, but 2x really good. As social satire, it's right up there with Curb and Seinfeld, but with a serious gonzo/stupid streak. Seinfeld meets The Three Stooges. A really simple premise that has been dipped in some seriously off-the-wall shit. It's as if they made a list of the very worst things in the world, and cross off two or three with each episode.

Oh, yes. I'm not entirely sure why these clowns are so endearing, not just to us but to each other, but they are. (Probably a result of their inner Stooge-ness.) I got the good lord goin down on meeeeeee...

Battlestar Galactica

As someone who is generally skeptical of television sci-fi, this is really fantastic. I haven't gotten far enough into it to encounter what I understand is some seriously stupid shit, what I've seen through half of Season One is really excellent.

They pull few punches, and constantly wreak havoc upon their characters, burying them in disaster and giving them a mere toothpick with which to dig themselves out. Dread lies around every corner, ready ruin the entire human race if someone makes just one simple error. The first proper episode of the series establishes this so memorably that they can skate on things further down the road without losing credit. They make you imagine what it would be like to live in fear of the human race dying in the next few minutes.

This show about androids and space flight feels so real because it works on a personal, human level to a greater extent than any other sci-fi show I've seen. The drama doesn't come from imagining some weird alien universe, it comes from allegory and transplanted human feelings. On the show, it's Cylons attacking every 33 minutes; in real life, it's "terrorists" and 9/11.

Either way, highly recommended.

Mad Men

I can't say this is as great a show as it's been built up to be. But it's awfully great. It oozes cool and style and charisma in every frame, serving, as The Sopranos did, as a proxy through which the viewer behaves irresponsibly. You cannot agree with the show's subjects, who have probably done more damage to America than the Mafia, on any count, but Jon Hamm and his off-the-charts likability makes you like and even root for this amoral person nonetheless. He's just barely decent enough to grab you and keep hold as he navigates the slimy waters of his universe.


Yes, it's flawed. It's camp, it's derivative, it has awful dialogue, its characters are stupid and frequently act in service of the plot instead of themselves, and it hand-holds you through every step of its labyrinthine plot, unwilling to let even the most fundamental truth go unspoken. But I like it all the same. Because it's fun.

But I'm beginning to lose my patience.

Ever since the first season, they've been flailing around, trying to make this show work. The second season was in many senses a do-over of the first. More new storylines, more unrevealed mysteries, just more, not unlike how The Wire handled its sophomore season... except Heroes was awful.

This season, they've tried to delve more deeply into the same characters, but in reality have done more to invalidate past truths than build upon them. It's been a litany of "remember that? Well that wasn't REALLY how it went" revelations. Why they would want to tell us that what we LIKED was fake, and what we do NOT like is the real deal, I don't know. It's a delicate dance that even when done supremely well can be loathed or rejected (ahem, Matrix Reloaded). This show's writing staff has failed to pull it off.

And while it's nice that they've heard our calls for fewer new characters, they have answered those calls in the most perfunctory manner possible: by simply teaming up odd pairs of heroes and having them do something benign. The effect is the same as, say, the effect satirized so well in the brilliant film Last Action Hero: the movies will always pair up cops in the craziest ways, like the lady cop with the cartoon cat, or (as with the stars) Arnold Schwarzenegger with an eleven-year-old kid. (Gosh, I wish I had video of this.) On the good side, you have something like Lethal Weapon. On the bad side, you have some of the more ridiculous Tom & Jerry cartoons out there, those in which Tom and Jerry have to team up to defeat some third entity, like the dog... it's thrilling because Tom and Jerry are enemies who have teamed up, but after a while, so what? And doesn't it totally undermine the premise (cats and mice) to team them up? Heroes, if you couldn't guess, leans heavily towards Tom & Jerry. Oddness for its own sake sucks after long enough.

So why do I keep watching? I honestly have no idea why this show has the distinction of being the only one I try to watch live. And yet it is. But if this crap keeps up, it won't be for long.

But let's end this on a high note:

30 Rock

Is awesome. I was stunned to discover that 30 Rock isn't a gigantic hit. This show is hilarious, madcap, and entirely accessible. There's no weird Arrested Development-esque barrier to watching... devoid of inside jokes and winks, you can jump in pretty much anywhere without missing a beat. And it killed Studio 60, and justifiably so. Why is this show stuck in the low-rated-Emmy-winners ghetto? It's no longer the mix of trail-blazing and quality that kills ratings... now it's strictly quality! Totally, totally bizarre.

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