The idiot box

I’ve never watched a lot of television. If you rattle off ten good shows, you’ll get a bunch of times where you’ll stare at me, shocked, and say, “You haven’t watched *name of show*?” It’s how I work: I pick a show or two I like, I run with it for a while. Part of that was my experience growing up- I played video games and some sports, and didn’t have a lot of stuff I watched on TV that wasn’t Star Trek or disposable cartoons/sitcoms.

The landscape of television had changed quite a bit the last several years. I’m not going to get into a ton of detail on that here: the move from single “bottle” episodes to story arcs (even in comedies), and the incredible variety of channels have given birth to a wider range of shows to fit more tastes than ever before. Some of that’s been a good development: we have more choice and quality than ever before.

There are other discussions to have here, but I’m not having them. I just wanted an excuse to talk about what I think about what I watch.  This’ll tend towards more recent stuff, so I hope we get some discussion. I’ll definitely miss some shows, but this is what’s in my head right now.

Past obsessions

As mentioned in the opening, I watched a ton of Star Trek growing up. Next Generation was in my wheelhouse, and I came to appreciate Deep Space Nine once it found it’s footing, and I think that one holds up the best now. Had I grown up on the original, I could probably appreciate it more. My pecking order is Next Gen/Deep Space Nine/original/Voyager/Enterprise, while acknowledging that Deep Space Nine probably had the best single episodes- watch “In the Pale Moonlight” and tell me that isn’t an incredible episode. But Next Generation holds a place in my heart because I grew up with it.

I can’t remember how exactly I got into Chuck, which finished this year after a five year run. It was a guilty pleasure for me- a show with some originality in the concept (a retail worker gets a spy computer in his brain, and has to work with real spies), but often cheesy in the execution. It was not a great show, but a fun one, and there’s always room for that. It was the characters that were the strength of this show, and how they played off each other and developed. Watching Zachary Levi’s Chuck go from awkward to confident is a journey people can relate to, even if most of us don’t have cool guns and the hot blonde watching over us.

I was late to the party on Firefly, and regretted it immensely. I maintain that this sci-fi/western blend is probably my favourite show ever. I’m almost incapable of having a rational conversation on it. As with a lot of shows I like, it was the characters that drew me here- the tortured, grey morality of Malcolm Reynolds amidst a sea of shipmates who were never black and white is what drove this on (That’s one of my gripes about more recent Trek iterations- the characters were all bland and likable, and the plots had been done). Even as I love it, I admit that its greatness is assisted by it’s short span of just one season- I don’t know if the “rogues in space” concept would have held up over a longer term. It’s a discussion I’ve had with a lot of people.

24 was formulaic action bottled in an interesting shtick: everything happened over the course of one day. This was obviously stretched to make things work, but it added both an urgency and a slowness to it: If someone said they’d be meeting in a half hour, we knew we’d have to wait for that half hour to be done before that would continue. Later seasons got more unbelievable, but it was still a fun romp, and gave Kiefer Sutherland some relevancy again. Which ain’t nothin’.

I don’t watch Family Guy any more, but I have to acknowledge the wit and genius involved in the show, especially earlier in it’s run. My issues with it now is that they appear to be going more for shock value than actual wit- which may actually have been happening the whole time, and I just hit a point where the shock outweighed the funny.

After missing on Joss Whedon’s Firefly, I was determined to support his next show Dollhouse from it’s inception. It got a whopping two seasons, despite being a worse show that Firefly, taking a good five episodes to hook me. The concept was sci-fi, but still almost relatable, being set in modern times: There exists a “dollhouse” where people can be programmed with different personalities. People who volunteer to be dolls have a contract, and are paid immensely and get their personalities back when they’re done. Rich people “rent” dolls for their own purposes. What brought it down was the characters, and to a point, the concept: When some of your leads have new personalities every episode, it’s hard to establish that continuity, and Eliza Dushku, who played the main character “Echo”, didn’t quite pull it off.

If you can get past the idea that you’re watching a cartoon about kids (with appropriately over-the-top Japanese styling), you’ll find a surprising amount of depth in Avatar: the Last Airbender, which has an underlying story arc and character depth that’ll keep you watching. Aang’s journey starts off slow, but builds steam, and the different characters and factions involved in the overall story add layers that will surprise you.

Now playing

Any discussion of what I’m watching starts and ends with Community, easily my favourite show on television right now (and up there with Firefly in being a blind spot for me). Seven different people at a community college makes for a lot of fun in a sitcom. It’s clever and hilarious and cutting and cynical and layered and meta (VERY meta). Watching the show, you can see it’s evolution from being centred around Joel McHale’s “Jeff” character early on to using the strength of it’s ensemble and characters in every episode. What impresses me is the variety of things they try, and how many they suceed at. They’ve done at least two fake documentary episodes. They’ve done paintball episodes. They’ve done a claymation homage Christmas episode (and then a Glee spoof next year). They did an episode with MULTIPLE TIMELINES. They put an incredible amount of work into thirty second tags at the end- look up “Troy and Abed in the Morning” and tell me that’s not great. And it all works.

If there’s a gripe I have, it’s that Community often gets caught up in being meta or smart, and isn’t easily accessible. You can’t always turn on a random episode of Community and be immediately entertained. They do some very obscure references. I’ll maintain that there’s something for everyone here, it just might take a while to find it. And that’s part of the reason it might be cancelled this year.

Castle is my current guilty pleasure show: A simpler procedural, where a writer and a cop work together to solve mysteries.  It’s not deep- I often find myself shaking my head at what the cops do, and most episodes have a familiar line they follow from “crime” to “crime solving”. The dynamic between Castle and Beckett- Castle and ALL the characters, really- is what makes it work. Cop shows can be derivative, but if you give me a reason to follow the characters/story, you’ll have me for a while. This one’s on the PVR list.

I’m only two episodes into Awake (as it’s only two episodes old), and I’m definitely in. Another show about a cop, but with a twist: We start with the main character having gotten into a car accident, with his wife and son. Initially, we believe his son died. But when the cop goes to sleep, he wakes up in a world where his son survived the crash, and his wife dies. So he goes back and forth between the two worlds when he sleeps, each of which seems equally real to him, but diverged on that one key point.

There’s potential for this show to get confusing, but thus far, it’s been easy to follow- the writers draw easy distinctions between the worlds, and the characters in them: beyond the wife and son, he has a different partner and psychologist in each of them. I worry that the concept is very ambitious, and will be hard to sustain, but so far, so good.

The Office is clearly nearing the end of it’s run, though some of the recent episodes have brought some life. This was a show that was as good as any with Steve Carrell’s scenery-chewing Michael Scott, and they miss his charisma this year. Dwight, Andy, Jim, and new addition Robert California are great supporting parts, but haven’t done as well in the spotlight.

New arrivals (kinda)

Continuing in the theme of being late to the party on great shows, Arrested Development immediately vaulted into “very good” territory from the first ten minutes I saw. The cast in strong, the plots frantic, and the characters and situations hilarious. I wouldn’t want to be IN the Bluth family, but I’m glad I get to watch them.

Farscape was definitely an inspiration for Firefly, with it’s “crew on the edge of the frontier in space” setting, and Ben Browder’s cynical John Crichton as the lead. This didn’t hook me as quick as Firefly, but had a few more seasons to keep people. It suffers from being hard to crack as well, though it probaby does “alien” concepts as well as any science fiction series I’ve seen. If you like Trek and Firefly, there’s a good chance you’d like this. It just might take a while.

I didn’t particularly care for the IT Crowd, which focuses on a few awkward people who do a tech support type job in Britain. The biggest reason is I don’t find most of it funny. My taste for British humour has waned in the last few years. I used to love Mr. Bean, but it turns out I don’t laugh at that much any more either.  Some funny, but very “meh” overall.

(I may also have an aversion to laugh tracks, since ultimately I’d lump IT Crowd in with Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, as shows I occasionally laugh at, but don’t go out of my way to watch.)

One episode in (for me), I think The Walking Dead is a very well made drama. As someone who doesn’t particularly go for the “zombie/post-apocalyptic” genre, I can confidently say that you can enjoy it without being an afficianado of either of those. I was worried watching the premiere that the bleakness of the premise and how it was going would overwhelm me, but they make it about (all together now) the characters, and how they react to the horrible situation they’re placed in. At this point, you’re probably watching already, but I recommend giving it a go.

I watched a lot of 30 Rock yesterday, enough to get a better feel for it than I had. It’s a comedy about people who work on a TV show, and very over-the-top in it’s execution. It walks a good line, though: it’s a show you can watch without knowing the characters and enjoy, but still has some underlying arcs that you can appreciate if you’re there every week. I worried that a show where Tina Fey was the producer AND the lead would have her and a bunch of prop characters around her- and there’s a little of that- but her Liz Lemon is just as flawed and neurotic as everyone else there, which makes for a funny half-hour most episodes.

Undetermined, but on the list

Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family

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