Watching Now . . .

by wjw on April 18, 2015

Someone— Connie Willis, I think— was saying just the other day that when writers want to talk about writing, they rely on movies or TV, because people have these in common much more than books.

I think I’m about to prove her right.

TV series are treading water right now, because they’re saving all their energy for the Massive Season Finale which will come in May and which will be totally unlike any Massive Season Finale ever seen ever in the history of the medium.  Because a protagonist has never been kidnaped at the end of the season, or shot by an unknown hand, or compelled by the rush of events to confess love for the person who’s been his or her co-star for the last four or five years.

But none of that’s happening right now, so it’s kind of dull, and we’re seeing some pretty weak episodic stuff out there. And I’m talking to youAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Otherwise I’ve been watching Quality TV, which has been pretty spotty as well.  The big disappointment is Season Two of Broadchurch.  Season One was a massively intricate whodunit with a cast of, well, many.  But Season Two can’t break away from the intricate coils of the first season, and as a result it’s a TV series with a bad hangover.

It’s like Season Two of Damages or Veronica Mars, both of which had brilliant opening seasons but then couldn’t quite break free of their debut stories to develop equally satisfying new plot lines.

Season Two of Broadchurch features the trial of the suspect from Season One, which just keeps dragging on, and also re-opens an investigation from deep in the past of the David Tennant character.  Which violates one of the critical rules of television: Never Tell the Backstory.  (Do you really want to know what happened to JJ Gittes in Chinatown?  No, you don’t . . . because it won’t be nearly as interesting as what you’ve already imagined.)

In addition, the series keeps giving us soap opera interludes, I suspect to fill up the episodes.  (What— we’re ten minutes short?  Quick, let’s generate a completely unnecessary romance between the prosecuting barrister and her old friend.)

Less disappointing is Wolf Hall, which would be a lot more fun if it weren’t so freaking glacial.  It’s like a visit from the Ghost of BBC Past, where the serials just dragged on forever, with static camera setups and cheesy sets.  (Except the sets here aren’t cheesy, but are gorgeous and perfectly genuine palaces and gardens from the Tudor period.)

I’ve enjoyed the Hillary Mantel novels on which the series is based, but even the books move faster than the TV series, and are funnier.  The series features endless shots of protagonist Cromwell walking over the landscape— I’m guessing the director wanted to make the most of all those gorgeous palaces and gardens— but that slows things down to a walk, and I wish they’d pick up the pace at least to a jog.  It’s not as if we don’t know how the story of Anne Boleyn turns out.

The story also moves about in time, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it.  It slows things down as we work out where in the timeline we are in this particular scene.

Thomas Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance, who is currently England’s Most Distinguished Stage Actor, and he rather underplays the role.  I think it’s absolutely correct to play Cromwell as someone who sees everything, misses nothing, and thinks carefully before he speaks, but again it slows things down.  He’s so measured that when he says something cheeky, as he does now and again, it comes as a surprise.

Thomas_Cromwell,_portrait_miniature_wearing_garter_collar,_after_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerJust look at Cromwell’s portrait.  This is not the picture of someone who wants to sit down to a portrait— he clearly wants to be off and doing something else: making money, stage-managing the king, bringing about the English Reformation, plotting to behead his enemies.  While it’s right to play Cromwell as thoughtful, it’s also correct to play him as someone hustling from one scheme to the next.  He was a restless man, so let us be restless when he’s on camera.

In the novels, Mantel keeps us entertained with Cromwell’s interior monologues.  On television, that can’t happen.

Fortunately there’s Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.  The whole series jerks into life whenever he’s on camera, and he can’t be onstage enough for me.

So, after all these complaints, what am I actually enjoying?  Surprisingly, Battle Creek, a cop show from Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and David Shore (House M.D.).  Those two shows had a propensity for black humor and a bleak view of human nature, and that’s exactly the mental space in which Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) finds himself.  Cynical, angry, distrustful, and stuck policing a post-industrial Midwestern town that can’t afford to charge the batteries in his taser, Agnew is the sort of person who not only looks a gift horse in the mouth, but drags the horse downtown for a lineup with all the other gift horses in his life.

Which is why he’s exactly the wrong person to partner with Agent Milt Chamberlain of the FBI (Josh Duhamel), who is, well, Perfect.  He’s perfectly handsome, perfectly groomed, perfectly well-spoken, and perfectly equipped with the massive technical resources of the federal government, all of which is enough to drive Agnew completely crazy.  If this gift horse is so perfect, what’s it doing exiled to a one-man office in a small Michigan town?

The most recent episode featured a guest appearance by Candice Bergen as Agnew’s mother Constance, serving time for conning some douche out of a million bucks, and who pretty much lit up the screen whenever she appeared.  (Another outstanding recent guest was Patton Oswalt, as the hard-partying Mayor ‘Scooter’ Hardy.)

It’s an episodic cop show, okay, and maybe my standards are low in this genre, but I think I’m going to keep watching.

Tim Simoulis April 19, 2015 at 1:07 pm

I don’t watch a heck of a lot of t.v. I agree that the shows leading up to the “never see before on television” (of course, the episode hasn’t aired) leave a lot to be desired. I watch Scandal and it did keep up some suspense and the end was rather out of left field but. it wasn’t up to par.

The t.v. season used to start in end in May or June with summer reruns. Is the short season due to the lack of creative writers or the short attention span and dumbing down of the television watching public? “Firefly” had only 9 episodes and was cancelled. This in spite of it being one of the most fun series and the strong demand for it to come back. It seems that a show that needs some thought behind it also doesn’t make it.

Is this a purposeful sheep creating conspiracy? When the”Bachelor”,
“Bachelorette” and “Dancing with the Stars” are top rated shows what does this say about the mind set of the American people? My grandfather (a student of Tesla) didn’t get a t.v. until the Mercury program because there was finally something worth watching on “the boob tube”. Unfortunately I see only a downward trend in broadcast t.v. and cable is barely holding its own.

wjw April 20, 2015 at 4:55 am

Tim, I think that this really is the Golden Age of TV. (That it’s also the Golden Age of Reality Television is unfortunate, but a coincidence.)

Just look at what we’ve seen in the last few years: The Sopranos, The Wire, Weeds, Treme, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Rake, Generation Kill, Game of Thrones. Sex and the City wasn’t really to my taste, but it was well done and revolutionary.

TV can tell the truth now about what people say and do. They can say “fuck” on television. How wonderful is that?

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