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The following is the first article in a three-part AlterNet series appearing on Fridays on television and culture by Vanessa Richmond.
Do you know what's wrong with the Left?” asked Michael Moore about a decade ago at The Media and Democracy Congress. “They don’t watch TV.” If anything, the number of those in the anti-TV army has grown.
Some people who have things like jobs and kids and marriages and friends (and even the luxury of hobbies or regular workouts) think they aren’t watching TV because they don’t have time. It’s gone on the list of things they might do if they were suddenly, say, retired. Along with getting a long-haired dog. Or taking up snowboarding.
But that’s not really why busy, progressive people don’t watch TV. It’s that somehow TV’s image has become associated with the Right and the average. I’ve asked anti-TV friends and they say TV is nothing but 24-hour infotainment, like Fox News, comin' atcha with flashing lights and jingles. And to those people, it doesn’t seem as rewarding -- on a personal or even civic level -- as reading a newspaper or book, or watching a good “film.” Or, even, eating ice cream, drinking wine, or catching up on sleep. They’d rather, in fact, pour lemon juice on their cuts, they tell me, than tune in.
But listen, as I tell those (sneering) friends, TV is back. Some critics are even calling it the golden age of TV. And not just because of HBO, which is even now sometimes called "HBOver" due to the new, good competition like AMC.
Whether you’re watching an hour of Mad Men on your laptop in bed, getting into a couch-coma on a Sunday with a rented series on DVD, or tuning into Letterman or Colbert at night while checking your email, TV can be a rejuvenating, stimulating, and rewarding experience. And don’t underestimate the zone out aspect -- it can be the antidote to this over-productive, perfectionistic culture.
Yes, of course, most shows are crap, featuring clichéd writing and god-awful, predictable production style. But though I’d rather tempt you with what’s breath-takingly good, it’s worth pointing out that even crap is worthwhile when it’s watched by millions. Hey, more people voted as part of Super Female Voice in China (the equivalent of American Idol) than voted in the national election, and things aren’t that far off here. When any show gets that much attention, it’s worth it, from a cultural understanding standpoint anyway, to see why.
But either way, whether you’re watching award-winning dramas or cheap reality shows, as Michael Moore suggested over a decade ago, if you’re missing out on TV, you’re missing out period. Culture includes all sorts of things, but TV is the baseline, (yes, sometimes it’s base, but that’s part of the point) which means not watching it makes you as uninformed as someone who doesn’t read the news. And I know you all do that. Watching TV means you get to learn about and have more informed conversations about politics, values, culture ... and relationships, sex, and drugs.
(And a side note, though I know I’ll get death threats over this, let me just speak to those of you who say, often loudly, that you don’t watch TV, when we know that’s a lie. Yes we do. It’s still called TV whether you’re watching it on your laptop, renting it from NetFlix, or downloading it from the moon. I know almost no one with cable anymore, so know that if you’re viewing something that has ever been on TV, it’s called TV. It’s time to come out of the closet, and stop pretending to be a hater to get social points. Second, if you really have shunned all forms of TV thinking it elevates you, just try to think back to second year university and remember that so-called “high” culture can be either great or boring, and it’s the same with “low” culture. Anything else is classist, and I know you’re not that.)
I’m not a TV critic. I’m a cultural critic. So I easily spend a couple dozen hours a week on books, movies, newspapers, blogs, and TV. You don’t have time for that. That’s why you read stuff by people like me. But I’m suggesting you make time for just a little bit of it.
Also, if you’re new (or returning) to TV, bear in mind that a good TV show is like a good book: it can take a while to get into.
So come out of the closet, or at least tune in. Watch something good. Read more about it to savor fully. Then talk about it with friends and strangers.
The following list is of shows that are on the air now that have gained critical acclaim.
Sit coms are sitting up
The genre got a bit tired and dumb, but a few current newbies are reinventing it. The New York Times calls Modern Family this season’s “standout new show.” It profiles several, fictional families including a cringe-inducing wannabe cool dad, two gay dads who’ve just adopted a daughter, and a couple several decades apart in age.
The Chicago Sun-Times says this “fast-paced mockumentary perfectly captures the experience of parenthood: chaotic and embarrassing. For all involved.”
And Salon says that while “Families are funny. Sitcoms about families are not…Instead of the usual family sitcom curse of clichés and bad Full House jokes, Modern Family captures the absurdities, quirks and freakish flaws of today's extended family in ways that feel lively, unique and just dark and mean-spirited enough to be ... well, accurate.”
Laugh till it hurts -- Curb Your Enthusiasm
Actually, sometimes it hurts so much I don’t laugh, but that strange, slightly sado-masochistic experience is what I like about it. Curb Your Enthusiasm stopped being “appointment TV” for many people a few seasons ago, but most agree it’s back.
The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley writes that “Both Bored to Death and Curb Your Enthusiasm have heroes who are hell-bent on doing the impossible and are doomed to fail. And it’s impossible not to prefer them just as they are.” The Washington Post’s Tom Shales writes, “You know you will laugh, but you know you will cringe. You know you will guffaw, but you'll also likely wince. It's hard to imagine comedy that's any edgier, without being topical, than this.”
“Larry David, the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, posits a universe in which people respond to friends and strangers without manners or inhibition. It isn’t just that Mr. David gives offense; offense is always taken, instantly and loudly, by blind dates, receptionists, store clerks, doctors, old friends and new acquaintances. In real life, people usually respond to a verbal affront by ignoring it or smoothing it over with nervous laughter. In Larry Davidland, even ladies snarl and snap at his faux pas like unchained Rottweilers.
And The Chicago Tribune writes that “the David of Curb is so scathingly direct that he’s also quite funny; half the time he’s just saying things that the rest of us are too polite or repressed to say. And what redeems Curb is that David’s despair over the stupidity of the world is balanced by a healthy amount of self-loathing ? he may think everyone else is a moron, but quite often thinks he’s an idiot too .... Right out of the box, David is absolutely pushing the limits of TV comedy on issues of race, gender, coarse language, mental illness and physical disease.”
Talk isn’t cheap -- Late night talk shows
It’s not every night that something culturally or politically significant happens on Letterman, The Daily Show, or the Colbert Report, but it’s most nights. And how about this week, no? Just pick one, any one, and try it out once in a while.
Only boring people are bored -- Bored to Death
The premise is this: novelist Jonathan Ames loses his girlfriend, and unable to complete his second book, decides to list himself as a private detective. His needy and self-indulgent editor is Ted Danson. It’s a ridiculous premise that put me off until I read, for example, that it was about a self-hating, almost nihilistic writer, and that the show “peels back the layers of vanity and self-delusion that clog up overly precious creative circles to reveal a bunch of hapless children, trying (and often failing) to keep themselves productively occupied,” for example. Or that,“there is a fey, slacker lovability to Schwartzman’s character, Jonathan Ames.”
Or even that it features yet “another man old enough to know better who nevertheless does whatever he wants. In this arch, mannered comedy, Ted Danson plays George Christopher, a magazine editor who never met a trend, a party or a drug he didn't want to try.” In fact, it could even be called a stoner comedy, there is so much pot about.
And while it seems ridiculous, it works because it “never abandons the world the rest of us can recognize.”
Keep it “real” -- Project Runway, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model
Look, millions of people can’t be wrong. Well, they can. But it’s interesting to see what the appeal is of reality shows. Neither realistic, nor useful in helping you learn to win anything other than a reality contest, these shows are nonetheless compelling, mostly because they reveal the tattered and debased yet hopeful state of the American Dream. No need to watch all of them, or watch every week. This is just a sampling suggestion.
Stay below the law -- Sons of Anarchy
The New York Daily News writes that “Like the Sopranos before them, the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club has little use for the basic covenants that keep society civil .... To say we actually like any of these characters would be stretching it. But we're drawn into their lives, and as it starts its second season, Sons of Anarchy can't be left out of any conversation about the golden age of cable drama.”
“Sons of Anarchy roars into its second season with screenwriting so good it makes you care about characters you don't even want to look at.”
Sons of Anarchy is not gentle. It “caters to mature audiences with plenty of violence, sex and language issues at hand. But there's a can't-look-away element to Sutter's portrayal of this subculture (and there's a lot of humor in the show as well),” according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tim Goodman.
Cheer up -- Glee
It’s not for everyone, but if you like musicals, awkward high school misfits, and happy stories, you might want to catch one episode to see if it hooks you. The kids sing, the football coach smokes pot sold to him by the former music teacher, the dominiatrix-style cheerleading coach is a media darling who bullies the other teachers.
Most musicals haven’t done well on TV, but this one has so far. A few TV-watching friends of mine rave about this, as do many critics, so I’m including it. To me, the quirkiness seems almost formulaic. But I’m happy to be told I’m missing something. And I can’t argue with Tim Goodman’s assessment that “Americans need a little emotional lift, yes? The whole pursuit-of-happiness thing? Glee, one of the season's best and most anticipated new series, delivers on both counts -- and more. It's a quirky, sweet, humorous, nonpartisan funfest.”
He writes that the “series is an irreverent, upbeat, non-cynical take on the cliche-ridden trope of high school life, as seen through the eyes of cheerleaders, jocks, quirky and underpaid teachers and - now that the geeks have inherited the hip tech world - the lowest of the low: the Glee Club.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Storm calls it “this season’s best new TV show.”
Seems a little cliché. But I’d rather have clichéd misfits than prom queens.
And of course -- Mad Men
It’s the best show on TV now, and maybe so far in the history of TV. Its main rivals are The Sopranos and The Wire and I think it surpasses both in terms of subtlety, consistency, and range of socio-politico-cultural issues.
But trying to express what’s good about Mad Men succinctly is as difficult as making a good TV show itself. The New York Daily News’ David Hinckley writes, “It's not comfortable. Just compelling…For all the first-rate drama on television these days, no one tells a story with more poetry and passion than the writers and cast of Mad Men.”
“There are no heroes or villains here, only people working out or being carried toward their individual destinies. And in who we root for and in what we root for them to choose, we also define ourselves,” writes Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd.
"Mad Men's tendency to lean in to the almost surreal inhumanity of modern times, its thirst for savagery in mundane settings, are exactly what make it worth watching,” writes Salon.
If you’re going to watch just one show, to test the water so to speak, I think you know what to do.
Got a show that’s on now that you think is good? That you think was missed here? Why not discuss in the comments section.
Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.