I watch a lot of TV while I’m working, which is fun. One of the perks of being an artist. That, and setting your own hours, working in your pyjamas, and being able to mentally multitask. The downside being, your multitasking mind may also be prone to conjuring up mental realities which are the equivalent of shady characters in wife beaters and handlebar mustaches, chewing on match sticks and mumbling incoherently, while bombs are exploding in the background, and kittens are crying in corners. On top of the lack of a steady income. I work an ungodly amount of hours each day, which means I watch an ungodly amount of TV too. (And that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. What’s yours?)
They say this is the “golden time” of TV, and they usually refer to shows like Mad Men, Empire, this season’s WestWorld with its Auschwitz-like piles of naked bodies which I found to be deeply upsetting, and of course, Game of Thrones. You know, the so-called “gritty” shows. “Gritty” being code for graphic violence, post mortems, spilled guts, cruelty, on-screen rapes, “torture porn” and unapologetic sexism, wrapped up in the package of a glossy production. (Bless Ian McShane for saying what we were thinking all along: that Game of Thrones is nothing but “boobies and dragons!”) But there are real gems out there. Funny, creative, intelligent, artistic shows that are not necessarily obsessed with forensics, indignities, Medieval bloody acts of violence, or the weekly degradation of women (which in this day and age, it also makes them innovating). And there are also so many ways of watching TV right now - the least of which being on your TV… What with Internet and streaming, and downloads, and good old fashioned DVDs, you can keep up with all that is out there in TV land. I’m offering here a few suggestions - some current shows and some older ones - which deserve to be seen.
...Game of Thrones without the bloodshed, the incest and the misogyny...
Galavant, which only run for two seasons, is a kind of musical fairy-tale, set in some mythical medieval-like era. It’s like Once Upon a Time without the endless loops in the storylines, or Game of Thrones without the bloodshed, the incest and the misogyny... And with songs! What else do you want I ask you? It tells the story of Galavant (played by Joshua Sasse, who sings beautifully on top of looking great), a dashing knight who sets out on a heroic quest to save the love of his life Madalena, who was kidnapped by the evil King Richard - a bad idea as it turns out, as it costs him his kingdom (“never start a marriage with a kidnap” he advices us)
The stellar cast is supported by some pretty unexpected quest stars, (all of whom sing surprisingly well), such as tough guy Vinnie Jones, (known from the Guy Ritchie gangster movies) in the role of Gareth, the King’s friend and bodyguard; John Stamos as Galavander’s foe, the knight “Jean Hamm”; Ricky Gervais, as “Zanax the Magician” who due to some legal technicalities had to turn into a "spiritual guide"; Hugh Bonneville - Lord Grantham himself - as a silly, singing pirate who takes up gardening - sustainable of course - and who is having “time outs” when angry, and singalongs; and Kylie Minogue as the “Queen of the Enchanted Forest” (a kind of “Madam” in a gay bar, hidden in the woods). Nothing is what it seems at first: the once heroic knight is a broken man with a drinking problem who needs to reclaim his reputation – not to mention his abs. The young maiden-in-distress is actually a power-hungry evil bitch. Gareth, the king’s hetchman, turns out to be just a softy and King Richard himself, (played magnificently by Timothy Omundson - known for his role as the cold-fish, trigger-happy policeman of Psych), who is at first the villain of the piece, soon ends up needing hugs, exploring his softer side and having some serious existential agonies...
The series was created by screenwriter Dan Fogelman, (known for Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled, Cars, Last Vegas, as well as one of this season’s more interesting new drama series, Pitch), while the music was written by the legendary, award-winning composer Alan Irwin Menken, known for the scores of Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Enchanted, Tangled, etc. The songs which are playing homage to Greace, Les Miserables, jazz, hip-hop, and are referencing contemporary events, such as the Emmy awards and ratings, are fresh and catchy and pompous and just plain hilarious. Even though the show was cancelled in May, after just two short seasons, it is now being rediscovered by a new bunch of viewers after its release on Netflix last September, causing a lot of talk about a Broadway show and hopefully, a third Season! In any case, give it a chance. It’s funny, it’s fun, it’s star packed, and totally silly. It will make you smile, it will make you sing, it will chase your blues away. It might even make you forget that Trump is now the leader of the free World…
...funny in a sneaky, irreverent sort of manner...
Veep, which is a sort of americanized version of the critically acclaimed British series, The Thick of it, (both created by the mighty pen of Armando Iannucci) is about the senator Selina Meyer (played magnificently by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who is called to serve as a Vice President of the United States, and who is then forced to endure all kinds of political indignities while keeping her eyes firmly on the presidency. Selina Meyer navigates the murky waters of American politics armed with some killer dresses, an unbridled ambition, a complete luck of beliefs, a mean spirit and a foul mouth. Ruthless and relentless in her pursuit of power, she is surrounded by an entourage of sycophants and useless acolytes, double crossing stuff members, shady White House operatives, venal political bloggers and speech writers with secret agendas of their own, who make her life difficult and her constant state of anger frankly, quite justified. It’s clever and funny in a sneaky, irreverent sort of manner, and packed with the best swear words, the cruelest one-liners and the most scathing putdowns outside of The Thick of it:
"You're not even a man… you’re like an early draft of a man, where they just sketched out a giant mangled skeleton but they didn't have time to add details, like pigment or self-respect.”
“She’s a lesbian, Mike. She’s not a werewolf. Though either one would explain why she never shaves her legs.”
“The only thing Catherine ever finished was an entire ice cream cake.”
“Right now you are as toxic as a urinal cake in Gernobile”
“You guys, are we seriously gonna let the guy with the police sketch face of a rapist tell us what to do?”
and the classic: "You’re as welcome here as a swastika shaped shit in a Synagogue."
THE THICK OF IT:
...Think of Yes Minister with offensive language...
Speaking of the British series The Thick of it, (and the film In the Loop that followed the end of the series): It is a (part-improvised) political comedy about the inner workings of British government officials. (Think of Yes Minister with offensive language). It is particularly centered around the day-to-day mountains of shit faced by the Scottish, foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker -that grand master of swearing - (a brilliant Peter Capaldi), who seems to be always on the verge of a massive aneurism. His dealings with scandals, cabinet reshufflings, and inept politicians, bring him on a permanent state of rage which he freely expresses with the most elaborate and long rants, and devastatingly perfect putdowns ever heard on TV:
"Well, half an hour ago you were in with a shot. This is half an hour hence! We've fucking time travelled, yes? We're in a weird and wonderful world where everything is different! Maybe outside the polar ice caps have melted, maybe there's fucking robots knocking about and Davina McCall's the new pope. Maybe you can download rice!"
“This is the fucking Shawshank Redemption right, but with more tunneling through shit and no fucking redemption”
"Laurel and fucking Hardy! Glad you could join us. Did you manage to get that piano up the stairs OK?"
"The guy is an epic fuck-up. He’s so dense that light bends around him."
"It's like asking a dog if it understands the concept of Norway."
"I reserve this level of anger for when I'm flying RyanAir"
"You're so back-bench, you've actually fucking fallen off. You're out by the fucking bins where I put you."
"I’ve got a to-do list here that’s longer than a fucking Leonard Cohen song."
"Terri, when I want your advice, I’ll give you the special signal. Which is me being sectioned under the Mental Health Act."
CRAZY EX - GIRLFRIEND:
...It’s Glee for grown ups, Into the woods without the ambivalence, High School Musical with sex references and songs about venerial deceases....
A young woman, the uptight high-achiever lawyer Rebecca Bunch, (played by the series creator Rachel Bloom), abandons her job at a high end New York law firm, to move to the small town of West Covina, California, just because this is where her high school sweet heart happens to be living, secretly hoping to make him fall in love with her again.
It’s a musical full of songs that don’t often rhyme but are a ton of fun. It’s Glee for grown ups, Into the woods without the ambivalence, High School Musical with sex references and songs about venereal deceases. Plus Rachel Bloom is a revelation! A star who shines with her singing and her vulnerability and the madness gleaming in her eyes, though it often becomes difficult to root for her character. Yet, even though she very quickly turns from a lovable, quirky, neurotic woman who is a little bit pathetic in her desperation to relive her past into a full blown stalker, you still want to return to the show, just for the songs and for her unmistakable star quality: she is not afraid to be vulnerable and funny at the expense of looking silly, or less than glamorous and just goes for the joke unapologetically, wholeheartedly, like all the great women comedians (from Carol Burnett and Lucy Ball, to Melissa MacCarthy) have done. The fact that she is not borderline anorexic, or has the abs of an Olympian, but is a woman of normal proportions, (which in TV and cinema, is code for being about six kilos fatter than the average actress), the kind that lives in the real world, but almost never on the screen, or who is obviously not constantly, painfully conscious of her body image (in manner of Amy Schumer for example) makes her even more lovable to our eyes. It also makes her, along with Mindy Kaling (of The Mindy Project), Melissa McCarthy (of the Mike and Molly show which wrapped up last year) and Katy Mixon of the new series American Housewife just one of four women of non anorexic proportions who were cast as the main characters in TV series in the last few years (you know, instead of as the sassy, loud, and sex-craze best friends of the protagonist, who are usually dressed in whimsical red-and-white polka dots, or in bold animal prints, and who on top of being fat also belong in some kind of minority, so the producers of the show hit two politically correct stones at once) She sings with no sense of shame, and with tons of irony, lyrics such as these: “you are not that disgustingly fat” or “don’t mind me, I eat bagels after 8.p.m.” She also dedicates a whole song to her big boobs. Not as in how sexy they are, but as in how it feels to have them: they are “just sacks of yellow fat” that make her unable to “run real far”…
“disfuctional family / fish-out of water”
Speaking of Katy Mixon’s American Housewife: it is a new sitcom that premiered in October, and which is centered around the life of stay-home mum Katie Otto, a loud, confident woman of “real” proportions (again, code for not being super thin) who loves her body but hates how she is being treated by the high maintenance, trophy wives of her suburban town, who are obsessed with their juice fasts and their exercise regimes and who attempt to fat shame her on a daily basis (Hint: the series was originally titled The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport) We may have seen it all before, but the tired “disfuctional family / fish-out of water” form is saved by the charm and charisma of Katy Mixon who steals every scene.
...that open trench coat permanently flapping in the wind...
Luther, is a BBC police procedural drama about an impulsive homicide detective from London, who deals with the kind of highly intelligent serial killers and psychopaths who seem to fascinate crime writers lately. John Luther is a man with a nasty temper himself, who has difficulty dealing with authority, and who is still painfully in love with his ex wife and forced to deal with loss again and again, and who occasionally feels an affinity with the psychopaths he goes after. (Speaking of whom, this show has an array of psychos who are directed in a manner that is so dark, so disturbing, so horrifyingly creepy, that even when they appear for a few seconds, and even when you don’t see the murders they commit on screen, it will still make you want to look under the bed with a flashlight, or at the very least, think twice before going to the dog park after hours…)
Idris Elba, who went on to become a Hollywood star after this (and possibly because of this), has managed to create a classic anti-hero here: his Luther is a cult figure, a true force of Nature: his charisma, his physicality, as well as his thoughtful, tortured silences; his old-fashioned code of ethics; his gentleness and his broken heart; his blacker-than-coal eyes, and that famous, graceful, panther-like walk of his, with that open trench coat permanently flapping in the wind, are quite effective, let me tell you…
...weird and socially impaired, nerdy software developers...
The critically acclaimed Silicon Valley was created by Mike Judge (creator of the animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and writer / director of the now legendary cult film Office Space, and is loosely based on his experiences as a Silicon Valley engineer. Remember how good The Big Bang Theory was in that first season before it became yet another tired show about relationships? It is that good. Only better.
It is a sly, subtle comedy that follows the life of a group of weird and socially impaired Silicon Valley, nerdy software developers: the serious and adorably goofy – and as it turns out exceptionally unlucky - genious Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch); the obnoxious Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) who has delusions of grandeur, and who owns the house (or in his words “innovation incubator”) in which they all live; the accidental millionaire Nelson 'Big Head' Bighetti (Josh Brener); the deadpan Satanist (yes, Satanist…) Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), who is in constant war with the insecure Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani); and the empathetic Donald 'Jared' Dunn (Zach Woods), who believes in them enough to give up his job in order to act as their business advisor, and who ultimately ends up being a kind of corporate refugee living in their garage. We watch them as they try to develop and market their innovating software, having all kinds of difficulties as they are forced to work with some very weird and narcistic tech CEOs.
Even though it is hilarious, this is a sitcom that’s more of a slow burner and follows an arc from the first episode of each season to the last: it’s more concerned with substance, rather than with nonstop zingers and one-liners, and stories that wrap up nicely by the end of each episode. It also seems to reflect the real world of tech in more ways than one: like in the case of those first episodes of The Big Bang Theory, the science and the jargo are actually real - flipped on their head for the sake of comedy. Plus, there is heart here, and thoughtfulness, and sly social observations and some of the most likable characters on TV, and you can’t help but root for them as they struggle against the odds again, and again, and again.
HORACE AND PETE:
..Think of Cheers on antidepressants...
Horace and Pete is a webepisode series written, directed, produced and even distributed (through his personal website and through emails) by Louis C.K. On the surface, it follows the path of a sitcom but it’s more of an anti-sitcom really, which ends up going to some very disturbing places. But there is humor aplenty. Of the pitch black variety.
Louis C.K., is starring as Horace, and Steve Buscemi as his cousin, the schizophrenic Pete, doing his brilliant, understated-every-man routine. Jessica Lang, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, along with a butch of other comedians in smaller roles, make up the cast. Alan Alda in particular, in a role that would have “normally” gone to Alan Arkin (actually it was originally created for John Pesi who was not interested, before it was rejected also by Christopher Walker and Jack Nickolson) is a revelation here, as the grumpy, offensive, misanthrope, swearing-machine of an uncle. Horace and Pete, tells the story of a family bar that has been owned by generations of Horaces and Petes who pass it on to their sons, whom they also name Horace and Pete keeping the tradition in each generation. It has a Eugene O’ Neel-play kind of bleakness to it. (If only Eugene O’ Neel-plays were a bit grimmer…) Think of Cheers on antidepressants: day-drinkers (which is code for alcoholics) talking about politics and wasting their life in bars, dysfunctional families, dark shameful secrets, suicides, abuse, regrets, loss, cancer and mental illness, are some of the fun topics with which it deals, but there is a quality in it that transforms the darkness into something shinning and artistic and heart-wrenchingly real. Not to mention, also quite funny.
The integrity of the show was saved by its creator’s decision to not sell it to a Network or Cable Channel (each episode was posted on his website, from where it could be bought and downloaded at a low price: https://louisck.net/show/horace-and-pete) By doing that, he was not forced to pander to advertisers, channel executives or even audiences, or follow a fixed and therefore marketable format (some episodes are 45 minutes, some 65 for example), and it shows! It is in fact the kind of series that you would expect to see on british TV, with its lack of laughing tracks, the slow pace, the still cameras, its mostly one-scene episodes, and the artistic choices that belong more on a theatrical stage than the small screen.
There is of course the usual and Oh-so-common storyline favored by over 45 male writers (and found in every single Woody Allen movie) of the young girl who not only falls in love with an older (make it much, MUCH older) man, but insists that she prefers an older man to any younger guy. Really? To ANY younger guy?? Like it is impossible to ever imagine it? Given the choice? Even when the older man is a heavily medicated mental patient who turns dangerous or suicidal when off his meds, and who sweeps the floor for a living, lives in a tiny room above a bar, AND looks like Buchemi? (a great actor, but bless him, not exactly an Adonis). Even then? I’m not saying it’s not possible mind you, I’m saying is considerably less likely than all the men writers / comedians / directors / celebrities of any kind would have us believe. I’m saying enough with them constantly spoon-feeding audiences their personal fantasies as plausible realities already. They should at least have a shred of self-awareness so as to recognize that if it happens to them in real life, it only happens because they are famous and rich, and because certain girls are just desperate. (Or have some serious father complexes and a dangerously low self-esteem). Just sayin… This one goes even further mind you, and announces how she would hate to see a woman president and would rather be “governed” by a man. Ah well…
Despite its faults, Horace and Pete is quite an artistic achievement. Each episode is like a different play, or rather the whole 10 episodes read like a 10-act play. Episode 3 in particular, starring a devastatingly good Laurie Metcalf), feels like theatre the most. The kind where you are watching people having long monologues about deeply embarrassing stuff, and you want to shout to them from your seat: “OK, enough! Please don’t say anything else. I can’t bare to hear this. Someone better stop it now!” In that scene where we watch her share her most shameful secret with Louis C.K.’s character, his own genuine wonder as he is becoming a witness to the unfolding of the tremendous talent of this actress, is quite palpable. He is visibly mesmerized (one feels as a human being, not as an actor playing his role, or even as a writer who has written the words she is uttering) by the intensity and vulnerability and honesty of her performance, as much as we are, and watching him watch her in wonder, adds something quite rare to the realness of the piece.
Louis C.K.’s comedy anyway, is rooted in something melancholic. Even in his highly successful and hilarious stand up routines, filled with sly - and often, let us face it - crass social observations (as well as endless masturbation simulations which he honestly needs to rethink), you can sense the sadness of a thoughtful individual, and you can see the serious writer creeping in… (as much as you can sense the creepiness doing the same as well....)
Give it a chance. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will disturb you. It will upset you. But in a good way...
In the meantime, I’m watching my Gilmore Girls DVDs (again!) counting down days ‘till the revival… (There is nothing like a good “will they? won’t they?”, right?)