Sunday, September 08, 2013

[TV] Summer Toobage

Summer Toobage: At the moment any discussion of TV has to start and end with Breaking Bad. The final season has been a tour-de-force. I think everyone who enjoyed the show had this fear in the back of their mind that it might end suckily -- like the The Wire. Nope. I thought it would end sharply but uninspiringly. I assumed that since the elevating underlying tension -- whether it is better to be harmless and forgettable or harmful and remembered -- had been resolved it would be pretty a standard closure-fest. Walt was already deemed evil in the narrative. Case closed. From there, I reasoned it was just a matter of concluding the character arc either with comeuppance or injustice. I had no doubt it would be done with great skill, but the big question was already answered.

Well I just completely underestimated how much skill was going to be brought to bear. No attempt was made to re-ignite the possibility of Walt’s redemption. Each scene seems to push him further and further from sympathy. He’s reached the point where every word out of his mouth is suspect. He claims his cancer has returned, but is that just a ploy for sympathy? He wants his brother-in-law to back off for the sake of the kids, but is that just an angle to buy time? His wife is backed into a corner because of her own secrets. His last act of guilt -- his generosity toward Hank’s injury -- is now sullied when he turns it to his advantage. Jesse, symbolically the first person he manipulated, seems to see through him finally. Every act is calculated to assure his continued survival while maintaining the plausibility of his nobility. He has become, in short, a textbook sociopath. There’s the new conflict: How do you deal with someone who simply can't be believed when he is inescapably entwined with your life and those that you love?

Again, there is no moral resolution left here (unless Gilligan has some sort of monster sized rabbit in his hat), but the rivet factor is through the roof. All down the line -- writing, direction, acting -- everything is getting nailed cold. I’ll hate to see it all end, but I’m already looking forward to binge rewatching the entire series on NetFlix in a year or so.

Other things I’ve been watching on my summer vacation:
  • The Bridge -- from FX, which is probably the best network right now. Based in El Paso/Juarez -- a cross-border/cross-culture hunt for a serial killer. Lots of twists and turns. Interesting, if somewhat unlikely, characters. Needs to be careful not to get a) too tied up in the procedural or b) too tied up in cultural observations about the border. So far it’s done pretty well. Another quality drama that appears to have no larger goal. We’ll see. It has tremendous potential for someone with the right vision, but smart money is always against that. This is worth watching, which is more than you can say for most of these shows.
  • Wilfred -- FX again. Occasionally inspired, occasionally stupid, occasionally disgusting, almost always good for a laugh. The heartwarming story of a suicidal loser and his id manifestation in the form a dog, or rather an Australian guy dressed in a dog costume. Often at it’s funniest when parodying real dog behavior. Wilfred has won me over, although it is now four seasons on and getting to the point where an end game needs to kick in. Still, after watching this, you can never see Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo slumped on a couch next to a guy in a dog suit, doing bong hits until catatonic. A fun and weird curiosity. Farce and comedy aside, there is actually a continuing Lost-like mystery going on about the nature of Wilfred. If you want to take it up, I suggest starting at the beginning.
  • Dexter -- I find I watch this mostly out of habit now. It’s not very good. It hasn't been since season 2. Normally if I keep watching in those circumstances it’s because I feel invested in the characters, but don't really give a rip about any of the characters on this show. Inertia is a powerful thing in the face of some terrible summer TV. This show can be thought of as an ill-conceived version of Breaking Bad: man does terrible things for what might be the greater good and, at least for a while, gets away with it. Unfortunately, since the man in this case is a psychopath there is no question of remorse and/or redemption when things go bad. In these later seasons, the writers have had to imbue Dexter with some emotion to try to get him a character arc beyond the next bad guy he needs to carve up. They’ve failed. What’s left is occasional dollops of lurid entertainment and...inertia.
  • Magic City -- Gone, and soon to be forgotten. Magic City was a middling crime drama/period piece that was originally marketed as Mad Men meets the Sopranos. It couldn't hold a candle to either of those shows, but it was not without certain charms. Though most of the storylines were misguided and meh, the main plot -- a good son, a bad son, and a man whose ambition will cause the loss of both -- had at least a little potential. But really, it was not a show I could recommend to anyone. It inspired no passion, although it was on an upswing and may have hit its stride if given another season. The unlikely, but possible, upside would have been something along the lines of Boardwalk Empire: a high end 2nd tier drama. Starz could do worse and they probably will.
  • Burn Notice -- Was there ever a time when this show was fun and hip, or is my memory failing? Another show that had a good couple of seasons then fell off a cliff. A clever little caper show that decided it needed to have STAKES. I keep DVRing it to see if they find any of the fun and glamour from the early episodes but they never do and I end up FF’ding through the entire show in fifteen minutes. It’s ending about three seasons too late and there will be no redemption no matter how it ends. Luckily only a couple of episodes left and I get an extra fifteen minutes in my week.
  • True Blood -- Yet another one that is lost. HBO has in its pocket the best of so many story genres it’s not even funny. Mob (Sopranos), Western (Deadwood), Cop/Crime (The Wire, although I may have to displace this with Breaking Bad) -- in the entire history of the movies nothing outshines these. Early on in True Blood there was the potential for them to take the Vampire crown also, but that still sits with Buffy. What True Blood was back then was the best Roger Corman sexploitation film ever made, but it has even sacrificed that title to American Horror Story, or it would if AHS was on premium cable and could get R rated. With each successive season it has gotten increasingly shallow, absurd, and non sequitur. As if the the writer’s room consisted of a bunch of giggling adolescents crying, “wouldn’t it be cool if…,” lobbing the idea against a whiteboard, then randomly assigning them to scripts. I’m sure it has been renewed but it needs to die now.
Man has summer TV been epically sucktastic. Glad that’s over. I’m looking forward to decent viewing coming back -- Justified, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Archer, Psych, probably some other stuff I am forgetting. Good stuff, but not great. Of course next year also sees the last of Mad Men and the end of TVs heroic age.

Still there are points of hope. Milch has new pilot coming -- the Money -- which is self-recommending and may even last longer than one season. At least it won’t be like everything else on TV. Also potentially original is a new show called Masters of Sex about early research into sex which judging from the promos, could be something that is new and different -- or it could be an excuse for lurid shock. It’ll be nice to see dramas that don't revolve around crime or historical/fantasy fiction.

Although I am looking forward to some new stuff, I can’t help but feel we’ve peaked, and more and more I will be rewatching the greats rather than watching new stuff. The bright side is that reality TV is drifting away from front and center. Still, peak TV may have passed.