Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A quick, if belated, recommendation and filling in the gaps

If you've read this blog for a while (or hell, even for a couple of weeks), you know about my obsession with television. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy other forms of entertainment. Sports, movies, books, music, theater and so on. But for me, TV is where it's at, because I love finding characters that I like (or dislike, or more importantly, find compelling), and spending considerable time with them and their travails. To me, creating a set of characters and giving them a storytelling tableau, and then paying off those characters and their stories in an honest, intellectually and emotionally satisfying way is among the more difficult challenges any "artist" can undertake. For a sublime take on the elevated perception of television of art, check out this essay by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine. So suffice to say, I think I have an appreciation for television when it takes advantage of the medium for long form storytelling, character evolution, crisp writing and delivery of an involving and rewarding entertainment experience.

That's not to say I'm not without bias, though. Everyone has it. For example, when it comes to food, I'm admittedly a picky eater. However, I've tried just about everything, and eventually come to realize some things aren't for me (I'm looking at you, vegetables). Same goes for politics, relationships and religion. I've kept an open mind, explored the milieu as fully as I can, engaged my brain and curiosity, and determined what works for me and what doesn't. Yet I still have my preconceptions and mental roadblocks when I decide if I should watch a television show or not. For example:
  1. I'm a geek, so I'll always give anything science fictiony or supernatural a break.
  2. I hate - HATE - reality television.
  3. I don't like kids, and I'm just not interested in any shows about families.
  4. As an extension of 3, I really don't care about teen angst or shows with too many characters who aren't adults.
  5. Procedurals are fine ways to pass the time, or watch as you're falling asleep, but they're not exactly on my "must watch" list since there's very little story and character evolution over time.
But for every one of those notions, I've made an exception and been pleasantly surprised:
  1. Syfy has tried a number of shows that I've sampled, which have been eye-gougingly awful (Painkiller Jane, Flash Gordon, etc.). Along those same lines, Buffy and Supernatural appeared on the surface to be worthwhile, but violated notion #3. However, after catching on to them shortly after they premiered, at the urging of friends and/or critics, I was elated to discover shows that would enter my pantheon of quality and DVD collection.
  2. Odin knows that I've tried. I just can't stand them. If I want unpredictable "real life" events, well, then that's why I watch sports. And I can't stand all the "packaged" human interest bullshit. Yet I've tried all the major reality shows (competitive, celebreality, lifestyle, etc.) and only added one -- Idol -- to the TiVo. (Unless you count Mythbusters. Does that count as "reality TV?"). Probably because I can fast forward through all the dross and just watch people sing songs I've heard before and offer snap couch criticism and chat about it with other folks.
  3. I usually don't even give "family shows" a second thought (my idea of a "family show" most likely starts and stops with the Bluths), but I kept hearing wonderful things about Gilmore Girls. So I gave it a chance, and lo and behold, I absolutely adored that show. For someone who revels in the adventures of misanthropes, serial killers, aliens, criminals, cyborgs, detective and vampires, I was stunned how much I appreciated this superbly written (for most of its run) and acted program.
  4. Gilmores fits here, too. So does Glee. And Buffy. And Veronica Mars. And a show I'll mention in a moment.
  5. Who hasn't spent an afternoon on the couch with a Law & Order marathon and a bag of Doritos? But when it comes to top-shelf programming and Emmy-worthy performances, procedurals rarely come into the conversation. However, if you think about House, or Lie To Me, or even The Mentalist, even though the "case" usually gets wrapped up at the end of the hour, you can't say that there's not some very fine character work going on within the constraints of the formula.
So everyone has some type of bias or preconception about what shows they want to spend time with. I'm sure (based on the ratings) that many people didn't give Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica a chance just because the titles sounded so fucking ludicrous.

All this is to say that I've decided to "fill in the gaps" with some of my TV watching. Just about every TV critic is coming out with their "best of the decade" lists now, and I'm pleased that I've been on board with almost all the selections that regularly pepper these appreciations (Deadwood, Sopranos, Arrested Development, BSG, Lost, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Buffy, Dexter, 24, Veronica Mars, etc.). But for the reasons noted above, and a few others, there are some critically praised programs I never got around to watching. So I'm going to correct that.

First up was Freaks and Geeks. I finished the series last night, and all I can say is "wow." I didn't think I would enjoy a show focused almost entirely on kids, without the infusion of some other storytelling element (noir detective work, like on Veronica Mars, or the supernatural, like on Buffy). But damn if I wasn't awed by the raw honesty of the characters, the realism of the situations, the poignancy of the performances and the caliber of the scripting. And lest that sound too cloyingly heartwarming, the show is fucking funny. So if you, like me, somehow missed out on Freaks and Geeks during its brief lifespan, I wholeheartedly recommend you go find it and watch it right now.

Next up on "filling in the gaps," will be two series I'm going to catch up with via the kindness of friends with DVD collections: The Wire and Friday Night Lights.

And Coming Soon: The winner of the TNRLM Character Contest. (Note: There's still time to enter -- deadline is midnight on x-mas).

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