Wednesday, May 07, 2014

[TV] Going on a Binge

I've finally got around to that new national pastime, binge TV watching. Now mind you, for me binge watching is not a hammer-through-an-entire-season-in-one-sitting-until-your-eyes-shrivel sort of activity. I'm talking 5 or 6 episodes a week. Maybe 2 in one sitting now and then.

Terriers -- A cult favorite. A pair of low-end private eyes -- a disgraced ex-cop and a two-bit burglar he arrested at one point -- cracking wise and solving crimes. Exceptionally well executed with sort of a crime of the week along with a season long build up of a larger mystery. The writing is terrific, just crackles with wit at times. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James had great chemistry as the leads solving crimes in their beat up little pickup truck. So there's no mistake, this is not pantheon level stuff, but it is absolutely state of the art police procedural with minimal contrivance.

Everybody who watched it loved it, but nobody watched it. It's a shame that building an audience through catch-up binge watchers wasn't on anybody's radar back then because I have no doubt it would have picked up a whole lot of steam over the seasons had it been allowed to. I really hope networks are beyond abandoning an obviously high quality show for poor first season ratings. (Case in point, had they done that Big Bang Theory would never have become the huge money machine that it is for them.) Here's a good gauge of what the cancellation of Terriers cost: imagine if nobody watched the first season of Justified and it got cancelled. That would have been a big loss. I think that's effectively the level of loss by cancelling Terriers. We lost a great show and FX lost the eyeballs of a future audience for years to come -- people like me.

Veronica Mars -- Another cult favorite although a much more successful one. So much so that they have basically done a 10 year anniversary reunion theatrical movie a couple of years early.

Veronica Mars has two obvious precedents. 1) Nancy Drew. Veronica is a high school girl who helps out her Dad in his investigation business, but spends plenty of time branching out on her own. 2) Buffy. Veronica is a little blonde girl who is actually a bad ass. No vampires, but there is a seasonal Big Bad. Action in pursuit of justice and right is intertwined with her circle of schoolmates and their shifting positions as friends, enemies, rivals, and loves.

In fact, Veronica Mars is just laden with cliches. The motivating force behind most of the episodic conflict is class warfare; Neptune High School has rich and poor factions, and the rich kids are all mean and spoiled and crush people through peer pressure, and the poor kids are good-hearted and oppressed and do bad things out of desperation. The big bads are authority figures who hurt kids. The Mars' have no qualms about any violation of privacy or criminal activity in the name of justice for their clients or friends.

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it isn't. It's actually terrific. I credit the writing to some extent. There's not a lot of fat in these scripts. They are well-honed, sharp, and witty with little exposition. 22 episodes a year is tough, but Veronica Mars seems to keep things fresh by angling off into new subplots rather than getting overly detailed. They seem to be quite comfortable opening and resolving minor character development points in the course of a couple of scenes. Also the core relationship of the series is the relationship of Veronica to her father, and Kristen Bell (Veronica) and Enrico Colantoni (her father Keith) have this wonderful, easy-going, good humored, delivery. The side characters vary from annoying to enjoyable, but again, there is no dwelling on the rough edges, no wasted sequences. The overall effect makes it very engaging. I have not reached season three (the last) yet and I've read the quality drops off. But at least through season two Veronica Mars is very worth the binge.

Deadwood - Yes, I have waxed on about the beauty of Deadwood before, but HBO Signature started running them one episode a day and it still puts all other TV writing to shame. Every other word is f***ing or c***sucker and it is still the most poetic dialogue ever heard on TV and would compare well with the best of any drama (David Mamet, for example, who is great and honored in this respect, doesn't approach it).

Despite that, I can't recommend it universally. Having to pay attention to think about dialogue is not a part ot TV watching for most people. Others would never get past the frankness and coarseness to catch the beauty of the meter and pacing and plot structure. To a lot of folks it would just be just a ugly, dirty Western with cruelty and swearing. Compound that with the driving concept which is a dramatization of how a place moves from Barbarism to Civilization, and you end with something so far from the mainstream that it can't be watched casually. Still, if you're one of the ones who gets it, you know it has no peer.

The Future - When TV cools off this summer, after Mad Men and Game of Thrones close up for their respective seasons, I plan on going through a couple more series, probably The Americans and Silicon Valley and maybe something else, suggestions welcome.