Thursday, June 17, 2004

TV Guide

I like TV. I know a lot of people have plenty to say about how television is going to lead to the collapse of Western civilization, but I really find it an excellent diversion. I'm not really a junky, rare is the day when I manage to watch more than an hour or two. I like a variety of programs, the differing lures appealing to disperate fractions of my personality. My favorites tend to be comedies, so it is with particular displeasure that I witnessed the degeneration of the sit-com. Situational Comedies have really taken a nose dive in recent years. I know many of you are fans, but the sit-coms of the late nineties were, with the exception of The Simpsons, Fraiser and possibly Seinfeld, pretty terrible. Friends was, during its tenure, the stupidest non-reality television program anywhere in the Free World.

I like dramatic programs too, but I tend to shy away from cop shows. NYPD Blue never seemed to deserve the praise it got in its heyday, and I think the CSI shows are just absurd. Watching them, you'd think there isn't a need for any of the other cops. Cops itself is amusing at times, but after a while you just tend to get depressed when you realize it isn't supposed to be a comedy. Lawyer shows aren't bad, but since starting law school I've watched them less and less.

Anyway, I think television has much to recommed as a form of recreation. I'll list below some of my favorites. I will mention only US (and, in the case of Kung Fu, Canadian produced) TV shows. Foriegn programs will have to wait for another day.

Sit-Coms and other Comedies
Coach: This sit-com was centered around the coaching staff for the fictional Minnesota State University football team. Hayden Fox was an arrogant, self-centered, and narrow-minded man's man whose greatest desire was simply to watch his tv in peace. Of course, he never gets to. The show is very amusing, and when it broaches moral issues, it does so with a kind of witty discretion rarely seen today. The cast is good all around, but Jerry van Dyke really steals the show as Hayden's best friend, Luther.

Fraiser: This program really raised the double-entedre to new levels, and even more importantly, saved it for posterity from a generation whose only previous exposure had been from Beevis and Butthead. While the Crane's refinement was the source of much of their misery, it also helped show that the finer things in life could be appreciated by people from all its walks. The show may have dragged near the end, but even so it ranks among my favorite sit-coms.

Perfect Strangers: Okay, this show was stupid. Fine, I admit it. Balky's accent, cultural ignorance, and primitive origins were just cheap tricks aimed at cheaper laughs. But it's when you look past that, to move beyond the gimmick, that the show reveals its treasure. Larry Appleton's constant schemes are a source of unparalleled amusement. Everytime he tries to get rich, score on a date, or even just get a date, he cannot proceed but under the aegis of a bizarre and outlandish plan. These machinations, usually invented to cover a previous transgression, inevitably explode into problems far larger than those they had originally been drafted to obfuscate. Watching him get into trouble, and especially watching him try to weasel out of it, are my most cherished memories of the TGiF line up.

Sports Night: If you haven't seen this show, stop reading and rent (or buy) the DVD's. Sports Night is a show of such profound promise that its cancellation has to rank among the greatest tragedies of all time (among television program cancellations, that is). Though Dan's mental breakdown in the second season was a little abrupt, the show nonetheless was excellent across the board. Writing, acting, even things normally relegated to secondary status such as music, all shone through magnificently in this comedy centered around an upstart network and it's lead sports program.

The Simpsons: I can't say enough about this show. For many people my age, Simpsons is THE defining program of our adolescence. Never before have social commentary and comedy blended together so well, and in a format as acceptable as an animated television show. The Simpsons, aside from all it offers on the surface, is a satirical onion. You can peel away layer after layer to reach new depths of appreciation, exceeding even that which was originally intended. Countless expressions, including the immortal D'oh have found their way into our everyday vocabulary, and the stereotypical characters form the basis for many a comparison to participants of our own lives. Of the show, I have really only two complaints, and both of them are recent. Lately, whether the result of intellectual exhaustion or simple laziness, the show has been flagging. The last few seasons were largely forgettable, and though FOX seems content to buy seasons until the heat death of the Universe, I think it would be better if it took its final bow. My other problem with the show is that, ever since the 2000 election, it has been increasingly partisan. The Simpsons always took aim at people from both sides, though the conservative position took more flak (deservedly so too, in my opinion), at least the left got its share of whacks. Aside from the fact that cutting out the left abandons a lot of good material, in some sense the Simpsons are an institution, one that cheapens its legacy by becoming increasingly antagonistic with a particular world view.

Brimstone: The best single season of television ever produced in the English speaking world. Or at least, it's up there. Brimstone is an excellent show with an entertaining premise, good cast, and thoughtful writing. The show would have been better had it been made today, in the era of cable dramas, and with the increased freedom a network like HBO or Showtime can offer. Additionally, the episodes that were made did not air in a chronological order, meaning certain events (like Stone's move from New York to Los Angeles) aren't really clear at the time they're shown. Still, the program is an incomparable story with an admirable, but flawed hero, an entertaining "villian" in the form of Lucifer, and dynamic opponents who are rarelly all they seem to be. The show raises moral, cultural, societal, and religious issues, all wrapped within a flashy but not ostentatious redemptive cop show. Simply put, a must see.

Firefly: The interplay of the characters is what drove this western-themed sci-fi show. It's cancellation left a lot of issues up in the air, and if all the movie whispers are true, then hopefully it'll mean a new lease on life for the show as well. Sci-fi that isn't afraid to get dirty, the crew of the Serenity scrape a living out on the frontier, pursuing the Big Score, but motivated by a desire to make a difference.

Farscape: Another sci-fi show cut down before it's time, Farscape covered four seasons and still had plenty more to offer. The best Farscape episodes were the comedies, and anytime the camera panned to Rigel you were in for a treat. The disperate interests of Moya's crew provided the basis of more than one story, and watching them hash out their differences provided people with the evidence that acting acumen and science-fiction characters weren't mutually exclusive.

Babylon 5: Good show. Up through the first three seasons, it represents everything sci-fi should be. The fourth season wasn't bad either, but the fifth season shouldn't have been made. Although the program tends to be overly simplistic, an indictment all the more severe as it so often deals with moral issues, it is nonetheless an excellent viewing experience.

The Shield: If you've got the stomach for it, The Shield will remake your image of the cop drama. The show is edgy, dark, and raw without being pretentious or self-congratulatory. Vik Mackey is an excellent anti-hero, and watching the strike team crack under the weight of their illegal activities is not only entertainment, it's a message without the sermon. This show is not for everybody, but if you can handle it, then I highly recommend it.

Law and Order: This antideluvian program chronicalling the efforts of the police, who investigate crime, and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders, is an excellent way to waste life an hour at a time. Though recently in the grip of NBC's escalating dramaticism (to be seen in the commercials of any other premium NBC show, such as ER, where every single episode promises dramatic change - and typically fails to deliver) and beginning to show signs of age, Law and Order is an engaging spin on the crime drama that takes you all the way through a case in an hour. One of the most interesting things about the show is the fluidity of the characters; none of the current cast were on the show at its inception, and character replacements have little effect on the program as a whole. My personal preference are for earlier episodes, where (and because) a young Jill Hennessey plays ADA Claire Kincaid.

Playmakers: Essentially The Shield for football, Playmakers is a no-holds-barred look at the lives of professional athletes. Although no doubt sensationalized, it's an off-field of violence and excess borne of the kinds of money and freedom fame brings sports stars in America. Just about all the characters suffer extreme physical, psychological, or emotional issues, and constrained by a culture of mindless machismo that offers no escape. It's an engaging program, though it is decidedly negative. So much so that the NFL strong armed ESPN into cancelling the highly successful program before a second season could be made. Oh well.

Iron Chef: When I first started watching Iron Chef, it was only shown on the local Asian channel, and it didn't have subtitles. Now it's come quite a ways, but it's still good for a laugh. The show is especially endearing to me because it displays the sheer irrelevancy of sports by raising cooking to the same level. Now, I have nothing against sports. But the obsessive devotion to what are essentially faceless corporations is a development I observe with equal parts amusement and apprehension. People riot after "their" team wins a sporting championship, and threaten people who adversely affect "their" team's fortunes. Iron Chef, aside from an entertaining program in its own right, shows that anything can be raised to the level of a spectacle, if only you're willing to be taken along for the ride.

Kung Fu: The Legend Continues: Okay, this show blows chunks. I fully agree that the show is undeniably terrible, but I guess that's why I like it. Apparently, in order to turn any White guy Chinese, all you have to do is make him talk slowly, be polite, and teach him Kung Fu. Additionally, Kane's various challengers become increasingly ridiculous, including a bout with Genghis Khan in the mystical realm of Shambala. There's more laughs in one episode of this show than a whole season of your average sit-com, and for that reason, if no other, you shouldn't miss Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

Anyway, that's how I've wasted a good portion of my life. I've never really had access to HBO and stuff, so I haven't seen The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or Sex in the City. However, with the increasing availability of TiVOs, digital distribution, and DVD's, I'll be able to rectify that. I also stayed away from the Whedon shows Buffy and Angel out of superficial prejudice. I assumed Buffy would be a waste of time. However, I've since heard from reliable sources that it actually isn't bad. I figure I'll give it a try. Even if it's lousy, Sarah Michelle Geller and the girl who plays Willow will keep my attention through a season or two. If you have any TV recommendations, let me know.

1 comment:

Kok Bi said...

i hate "FRIENDS" and i cant even begin to comprehend how the lives of some friends evolve around it. i would rather watch six feet under over and over and over again. sex and the city is fine until cartoon network started airing "sheep in the big city" with its catchy line "am i too woolly for love?"...i guess i have to agree with u on the rest of the shows.