Recent TV Shows

I hate TV. Shooting and explosions. Does he listen? No. Scottish assholes never listen.

I hate TV. Shooting and explosions. Does he listen? No. Scottish assholes never listen.

I’ve inveighed against TV series that deliberately inject politics into entertainment, like every part of the Law & Order franchise. Today I’m interested in something else. Shows that may be subtly subversive in terms of politics and philosophy, for good and ill. I’ll offer just three examples, but maybe you can identify others we should talk about.

Revolution. My wife and I have been watching this in its first season, albeit skeptically and critically, but wanting to see where it’s going. Some 14 episodes in, we can finally understand the mechanics of the premise, which is that quite suddenly all the lights went out on civilization. No more electrical power, meaning nothing works, not even internal combustion engines. Civil order disintegrates, and what’s left of the United States descends into a state of barbarism, brutal military regimes, torture, murder, and the massive loss of life associated with the loss of healthcare, heating, running water, technology, and education. Now we learn that the culprit is nanotechnology, a computer creation known as Nanites, which are programmed to replicate endlessly, suck up power, and become their own form of life. We’ve learned the motive, however implausible. Nanites also have the power if implanted within individual bodies to delay or cancel the effects of long-term physical illnesses, even terminal ones. So, apparently, scientists involved in developing the technology were willing to place the life of a family member or loved one above the survival of civilization itself and agree to the immolation of millions of fellow citizens. This is presented as some sort of genuine moral dilemma. One of the female heroines is specifically implicated and confessedly guilty of having made this trade consciously.

I had to explain this plot turn to my wife, who could not believe what she had heard. It was so unspeakable she couldn’t even comprehend it.

You get the feeling, though, that we’re supposed to understand and somehow sympathize with the most thoroughly self-centered monsters that ever dared to call themselves human beings.

But maybe the show is asking us to think bigger. Who knows? Maybe it’s supposed to be an argument for the collective. But maybe it’s supposed to be an argument instead for an individual sense of morality larger than that. Who knows? Or maybe who cares? It’s just a show. My secret nightmare about all the people in charge of network programming.

The Americans. A show about KGB spies actively working to destroy the United States as sleeper agents during the height of the Cold War. I couldn’t believe all the glowing reviews. Even the Breitbart reviewer seemed to like it for its close calls, action, and complex plots. All I could think was, who is it exactly who wants to watch a show like this? What’s next? Nazi Abwehr spies penetrating the FDR administration during World War II? Go, Nazis, go! The Americans has been renewed for a second season. Granted, it only takes a couple million viewers to get a show renewed, but for whom is it entertaining to root for Soviet spies who are living a middle-class American life as fake spouses and forced parents via military order yet still determined to replace that window on free life with the Gulag oppression of the failed Soviet experiment in shared poverty through terror, imprisonment, torture, and murder? We really have those people here? And an American entertainment network thinks it’s a valid exercise of their first amendment rights? Really? If the point of the show is that they’re fools, it should be a miniseries, not an open-ended let’s-root-for-them-to-the-gates-of-hell-and-beyond network dynast, even unto syndication. Somebody please explain this to me.

The Following. Watched this one too for a few (too many) episodes. Had a lot of problems with the premise. A serial killer whose charismatic personality builds a cult even while he’s behind bars. We watched initially because we liked Kyra Sedgwick, who is Kevin Bacon’s wife. Give him a chance. Maybe lightning will strike. I immediately objected to the perversion of Edgar Allan Poe’s work the series entails. But Poe is bigger than a TV series. He’ll survive the bad company. Then I got a glimmer of a subversive element. All these youngsters who buy a threadbare nihilist interpretation of a writer who is simply beyond their limited ability to comprehend. Are they not somehow a stand-in for the monster generation we are in the process of raising? Some superficial symbolism seemed to reinforce that notion. As the flawed hero, Kevin Bacon has literally broken his heart chasing down the evil of the antagonist. He remains alive only because of a pacemaker.

Then it turned into a millennial generation version of 24. Sigh. The pacemaker was just a plot device, used to put Bacon in peril almost every episode. Poe was also only a device, with no attempt of any kind made to differentiate his tragic loves from the sick twisting of his poetry into contempt for life and the elevation of death as a noble ideal to be inflicted as a sociopathic personality wills. I hung on for a couple more weeks, I admit, because I wanted to see the most malignant female personality killed as cold-bloodedly as she had killed her mother and others. Then I gave up.As far as I know, she’s a fixture signed up for a second season.

Watching no longer. But maybe my early hopes are still valid. Are we being asked to decide how nihilism as a secular presumption might be affecting our beloved kids? Don’t know. You tell me. Because I’ve stopped watching.

I welcome your thoughts. As you may understand, I’m thinking a lot right now about nihilism in all its flavors and camouflages. They are legion.

20 thoughts on “Recent TV Shows

  1. We watched Revolution from the beginning, then dropped off about halfway through the season when life got very busy. A couple of weeks ago, we caught a new episode and were amazed at some of the plot turns they’d done. Is the season over? Please let us know if it’s worth finishing out, it would make a good summer marathon.

    We saw the first episode of The Americans, and while the drama was certainly there, we realized we’d never be able to watch a show where we’d be rooting for the bad guys to keep escaping. Never watched it again.

    Ever see Jim Caviezel in Person of Interest? Now there’s a show that was unexpectedly uncompromising! We put it off for a marathon viewing as well, perhaps when the whole series is over.

  2. The lousy thing about nihilism — well, one of the many lousy things — is that it’s so hard (for me at least) to tell whether a given treatment of it is approving or satiric. Years ago I had an epinions.com account under which I wrote a broadside against Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles.” At the time it seemed to be a festival of nihilism. I’ve watched it again since and now I think it might be a repudiation of it. The fact that the few surviving characters are “good guys” might support that point, as might the fact that Jackson later made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But honestly I’m still not quite sure one way or another.

  3. Also — hadn’t heard of The Americans, but even knowing the dominant ideology of the entertainment industry I would’ve found it hard to believe someone would make a show with Soviet spies as the protagonists, if you and Lake hadn’t testified to it. Then again, if they can make us tense up when Tony Soprano is running from the FBI, what can’t they do?

    I’m actually rereading Witness right now. Whittaker Chambers makes a fair case that most of those spies and moles and apparatchiks probably did mean well — but also that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  4. One final thought for the night — if you have Netflix you might enjoy Burn Notice. It’s about an American spy whose cover is blown and whose dossier gets filled with evil deeds he didn’t commit. He wants to regain the CIA’s trust because he wants to continue to be one of the good guys. It’s always possible that in some later season he might discover he’s been fighting for a lie all along, or something similarly politically correct, but I’ve watched the five seasons available on Netflix and found very little to offend my sensibilities.

  5. Trying to respond to all comments and suggestions so far. Though nobody seems inclined to address my questions.

    I think Revolution is silly. If “watching” and “laughing at” are synonyms, I guess watching is an option. But what does anybody think about the premise as described?

    I’ve seen Person of Interest, but it doesn’t grip me. It’s all too clockwork. My wife had the best question. If this database captures everything going on everywhere, why do we only care about saving New Yorkers?

    Watched Burn Notice for a couple seasons. Enjoyable till they jumped the shark with some dumb update of Fistful of Dollars with the hero playing Clint Eastwood in a black suit. But basically it’s the Fugitive, and you know he’s never going to get out from under until the two hour finale in Year 9 or whatever. Losing patience with series like this. I get burned out pretty early on most series anyway. They get successful and then repeat, repeat, repeat ad nauseam.
    Used to watch NCIS. No longer. Growing tired of Justified too. The central conflict between Raylen and Boyd Crowder can’t be resolved — until the two hour finale in Year Whatever.

    Maybe I should do a post about the limited series, mostly Brit, that do justice to their premises without insulting the audience by running in place for years and years.

  6. Never had any desire to watch a single episode of any these shows. Sounds like I made the right call.

    One I will recommend, however, is the Mentalist. Law & Order got to the point where you could guess the resolution before the episode started. The Mentalist has some clever stories and most importantly, NO POLITICS. There was only one that was the obligatory gay rights episode. Other than that, nothing. I’m a little disappointed they haven’t done more with it, but it’s still entertaining.

    And there’s always Downton Abbey, of course…

  7. Lost in an antihistamine fog, so erudition in an even shorter supply than usual.

    I don’t watch much TV. These days the only running shows I intentionally grab are “Castle” and “Doctor Who”, both sheer guilty pleasures. I tuned into Castle because I like Nathan Fillion’s past work. Standard police procedural stuff, but the cast has really good chemistry, and dialog can be quite clever at times. As for “Doctor Who”… well… I haven’t yet made my peace with the loss of the Ponds.

    I did allow my wife to suck me into the vortex which is “Downton Abbey”. What can I say… it’s like a crack-powered time machine. And those Maggie Smith one-liners… (BTW, if you’re a DA fan you must watch this. Yes, that’s Colin Mochrie from “Whose Line”.)

    I have a strong affinity for shows with story arcs well-defined in advance. A plot that is intentionally going somewhere, not wandering aimlessly about knocking things off shelves like an out-of-control toddler at Wal-Mart (J. J. Abrams, I’m looking at you). My first love in this regard was “Babylon 5”. Joss Whedon does this well also (“Firefly”, “Dollhouse”). I really enjoyed “Rubicon”, per RL’s suggestion way back when. I was sorry it didn’t survive.

    Major pet peeve: flipping the characters’ orientation. Y’know… the major baddie in season 1 becomes the best hope in season 2, and back and forth. (Oh, look, it’s Mr. Abrams again…). You need a running scorecard to keep the protagonists and antagonists straight. Note: this is not the same as the evolution of a character during the course of a series, as was the case with the magnificently-crossing arcs of Londo and G’Kar in B5. I’m talking about gratuitously-flipping characters just for shock value. Perhaps this is connected to the nihilism you mention? “Good”, “evil”… bah… just whatever moves the plot along, eh?

    Currently watching “House” season 7 from Netflix. Hugh Laurie fantastically portraying one of the most complicated characters ever on TV. (And holding the distinction of also playing one of the stupidest.)

  8. I haven’t seen any of the shows. Don’t have cable or an antenna. But I’ll take a stab at your questions.

    “You get the feeling, though, that we’re supposed to understand and somehow sympathize with the most thoroughly self-centered monsters that ever dared to call themselves human beings. But maybe the show is asking us to think bigger. Who knows? Maybe it’s supposed to be an argument for the collective. But maybe it’s supposed to be an argument instead for an individual sense of morality larger than that. Who knows? Or maybe who cares?”

    Maybe it’s an attempt to depict the “banality of evil”–to show that not everyone who does great evil is a charming/terrifying/brilliant supervillain. Granted that’s a charitable way of looking at it, and not having seen the show, I can’t guess whether it’s right.

    As it happens, the idea of the lights going out on civilization plays a part in that file I sent you recently; all I can say for now is, if it comes across as an endorsement of self-centered monsters, it needs a rewrite.

    “All I could think was, who is it exactly who wants to watch a show like this? What’s next? Nazi Abwehr spies penetrating the FDR administration during World War II?….Granted, it only takes a couple million viewers to get a show renewed, but for whom is it entertaining to root for Soviet spies who are living a middle-class American life as fake spouses and forced parents via military order yet still determined to replace that window on free life with the Gulag oppression of the failed Soviet experiment in shared poverty through terror, imprisonment, torture, and murder? We really have those people here? And an American entertainment network thinks it’s a valid exercise of their first amendment rights? Really?”

    You may be too optimistic about how many Americans perceive the Soviets’ evil as tantamount to the Nazis’. That would require either personal study, an informed friend or family member who took the time to point it out, or an educational and media establishment with an interest in making it known.

    There’s an interesting bit of received “wisdom” that has been implanted in the minds of many, many Americans over the years. At one time (long, long ago) I even spouted it myself. The exact phrasing differs from person to person, but the gist of it is: “Communism is a good idea, but people aren’t good enough for it.” Which is of course a wagonload of bullshit, but it sounds clever. It may answer the question of The Americans. If America is truly exceptional, then surely it’s the place where communism can work at last!

    “All these youngsters who buy a threadbare nihilist interpretation of a writer who is simply beyond their limited ability to comprehend. Are they not somehow a stand-in for the monster generation we are in the process of raising?….But maybe my early hopes are still valid. Are we being asked to decide how nihilism as a secular presumption might be affecting our beloved kids?”

    I don’t have a clue about that one.

    To finish on a lighter note, you might get a kick out of Nick Searcy’s Acting School: http://www.nicksearcy.com/acting-school/ Or you might think it’s silly. I like it.

  9. Have to admit, PBS tried so hard to conscript us into Downton Abbey that I resisted like a balky boy. Haven’t seen it. Maybe I should.

    If you liked Rubicon, read my new post. Might be something there for you.

    The Mentalist and Castle. Haven’t watched either for the same reason. The promos are so obvious and leaden. I HATE shows based on sexual tension between the brilliant male and the fiery macho female. Actually, I hate all series based on unending sexual tension. Never watched Bones for exactly that reason.

    House. I’m surprised to hear you’re watching Season 7. Better man than I am. Actually, I don’t see him as a complex character. I see him as an impossible contrivance, endlessly, endlessly recirculated through fairly basic existential crises. After the second season I pulled the plug. Asshole, plain and simple. Brains are no excuse for being a total prick. And the woman doctor’s suits are way too tight. Breasts shouldn’t look like squeezed strawberries about to pop.

    But I’m beginning to think I suffer from ADD. Can’t watch much of anything for more than two seasons. Can’t watch most movies a second time. Except On the Waterfront.

    Apologies. Don’t mean to pan your favorites. Just being honest. Which, I suspect, you prefer to the other options.

  10. Re: Downton Abbey

    To: Anyone

    I watched the original black and white Masterpiece Theater version of the Forsyte Saga. Probably the greatest television experience of my life. My wife watched FS and Upstairs Downstairs. We also both watched the 13 episode version of Brideshead Revisited with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. AND Anthony Andrews in Danger UXB.

    Is Downton Abbey really anything new and worth watching? Sincere question.

    • “I HATE shows based on sexual tension between the brilliant male and the fiery macho female.”

      I feel the same way, but trust me when I say that, first of all, the sexual tension is a side dish of the show and not the main course. Secondly, there is an actual reason for it that makes sense, which I can’t go into much w/out spoiling the plot. Since it comes on CBS and every season is about 24 episodes long, however, the show is not vital, engaging drama as much as it is simple entertainment. Just better than most regular network fare, of which I haven’t been able to watch any of in quite a while.

      1. “Is Downton Abbey really anything new and worth watching? Sincere question.”
      Now, now, don’t do that. We’ve discussed far more lowbrow stuff than D.A. here and there. Your quality of life will not be lessened if you don’t watch it, but it is a good, entertaining show and I have to think it would fit well in your pantheon of knowledge about Brits. And, selfishly, I have a feeling I know what your take on it would be and I’m curious to find out.

    • Is Downton Abbey worth watching?

      First season was entertaining enough. The longer the show continued, the more improbable events became until when *** rose from *** following his **** in the ***, I’d had enough. English soap opera. Superior form (no one’s kid grows from infant to adult in five years or fewer), but it’s still soap.

  11. Would you like Downton Abbey? Hmm. I suspect not. My wife’s really into it, so it’s an exception I make to get me out of watching things like “Once Upon a Time”. Visually, it’s a fantastic period piece. There’s no end of beautiful shots, both inside and out (those massive trees!). Maggie Smith as the old Dowager-Countess with the rapier wit is very entertaining. And it’s set in a period of interesting upheaval in British society, straddling WW1 as it does. It’s pretty well-acted, all the way ’round. That said, the soap opera gets to be a bit much after a while. And Lord Grantham is pretty well whipped by his wife and daughters… I would have preferred a stronger male role there. It’s definitely a female-driven show (hence the demographic). I wouldn’t have started watching it on my own, but it’s an acceptable “married people” activity.

    As for “House”… Yes, he’s a jerk. And yet, I cannot look away. For one thing, Hugh Laurie is a fantastic actor and I love watching him work. And House is so… Nietzschean. He knows no values other than his own. Respects no one other than himself. And the show depicts how this does not — cannot — work. In reality, House is something of a reductio of the characters around him. The things they despise in House are attributes they all have, just not as distilled or acute (though some are destroying themselves in an effort to become House). For season seven, the show has introduced a twist: a new member of the diagnostic team (a young med student) who doesn’t lie. She has principles. She won’t cheat, deceive, or connive. And yet, to House’s chagrin, she’s turning out to be successful in cracking cases.

    He may be a contrivance, but it is something of a morality play after all. With sharp dialog.

  12. You Downton Abbey folks. Achtung!

    Have any of you seen the original Masterpiece Theater version of the Forsyte Saga?

    Yes or no.

  13. My point being, if you haven’t seen it, you can’t tell me Downton Abbey isn’t just an imitation.

    But if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.

  14. Sounds to me like Downton Abbey is a retread of Upstairs Downstairs.

    Ron has identified the right version of the Forsyte Saga, 1967, on disc from Netflix. Black and white. Long. Soap opera. BUT…

    The best soap opera you ever saw. It’s like life itself. Timeframe is the height of the Victorian era and beyond. Victoria’s funeral is a huge and moving transition in the story. The stiff cold bastard who’s the villain in the beginning is Soames Forsyte, played by Eric Porter. You fall in love with Irenie, played by Nyree Dawn Porter. She’s who women should be. By the end, 40 years later, the one you most admire is Soames Forsyte, for reasons you probably have to live through forty years of adulthood to understand.

    It’s all worth it. The length. The black and white. (This from me, who can’t stand to watch a BBC production from before the mid 1990s because of the technical defects.)

    It’s definitely not just a chick flick experience. It’s not Terms of Endearment with a British accent. Much more stern than that. But if you have a wife and you bring this into her ken, she will look at you with new eyes. And by the end you may look at her with new eyes too. Something about love and lifetimes.

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