By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2016)
Years ago, in days of old (when magic filled the air)…before the interwebs (or cable, even), we ancient folk suffered a kind of post-holiday, affective disorder called “mid-season blues”. Granted, one could say the very concept of television “seasons” has become moot, with a growing wave of cable subscribers (350,000 in Q3 of last year), who have “cut the cord” and opted for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, etc. etc.
But there remain some of us who still subscribe (literally) to the Old Ways. I don’t know, perhaps it’s that tactile sensation of brandishing a remote. Or maybe it’s the warm, special feeling I get when I receive my monthly Xfinity “Triple Play” bill of $244, which not only gives me access to the interwebs and 200 channels (out of which I only watch about 15 with any regularity), but provides me with a good ol’ reliable land line, which keeps me up-to-date on all the latest phone scams (“Hello! I’m calling from Microsoft.”).
If you dig around enough, you can still find some worthwhile teevee for your viewing pleasure. It does take some work, because you have to be willing to hold your nose and sift through a load of offal (read: reality TV programming) to unearth the odd gem. So for anyone who cares, here is my current top 10 list of “must see TV”, in alphabetical order:
Decades (Decades) – Now that the “History” Channel (home to the likes of Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, and erm, Swamp People) appears hell bent on covering anything but, history buffs have to do a little detective work in order to get their fix. This daily news magazine, the flagship show for the Decades channel, is right in the wheelhouse. Hosted by Bill Curtis, the show employs the venerable “this day in history” formula, utilizing clips from the news vaults of parent company CBS. “And that’s the way it is…”
The Director’s Chair (El Rey Network) – Robert Rodriguez goes one-on-one with fellow directors, Charlie Rose style. Not unlike David Steinberg’s excellent Showtime series Inside Comedy, the peer-to-peer shop talk approach yields conversations that are candid, insightful, and enlightening. Guests have included John Carpenter, Michael Mann, Francis Ford Coppola, George Miller, and some buddy of his named Quentin something.
Fargo (FX) – I confess being late to this party; I passed on Season 1 because I have a block against shows spun from films (personal problem). I had so many friends lobbying me to check out Season 2 that I finally binge-watched all 13 hours, to get them off my back. Imagine my surprise once I discovered how extraordinarily good the show is. The Coen’s involvement is minimal, but their thumbprints are all over it: arch, darkly funny heartland noir, smartly written, marvelously acted and tightly directed. Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson are both up for possible Golden Globes tomorrow night, and rightfully so.
Humans (AMC) – What this UK-produced sci-fi drama series may lack in originality (it’s the umpteenth riff on Ray Bradbury’s short story, I Sing the Body Electric and/or Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is more than made up for by its dynamic execution. Currently on hiatus (AMC has confirmed a second season for 2016), the narrative centers on how the addition of a servile “synth” (your basic drop-dead gorgeous android) to the household affects the dynamics of an already dysfunctional upper middle-class family. While the android is allegedly factory fresh, there are hints that “she” may have a complicated past, which introduces conspiracy thriller elements to the tale. Uniformly well-acted, but the most compelling performance is by Gemma Chan as the family’s synth. The series was adapted from the Swedish TV drama Real Humans.
Independent Lens / P.O.V. (PBS) – I’m consolidating this pair of curated series because they are, in a fashion, two parts of a whole. Both provide a fabulous showcase for indie nonfiction films (representing a truly democratic diversity of voices and topics) that may not be otherwise accessible to a broad audience (on “free” TV, no less!). I’ve noticed that many of the better documentaries I’ve covered at the Seattle International Film Festival find their way to PBS (getting distribution for a documentary can be a tough row to hoe).
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) – With no disrespect to Trevor Noah, who is doing a bang-up job with The Daily Show, what with Jon Stewart’s retirement and Stephen Colbert’s defection to the straight world, I’ve been going through satirical withdrawal. But thank the gods for HBO, and their wise decision to give John Oliver a platform for his pointed, gloriously demented take downs of hypocrisy in all of its guises.
Live from Daryl’s House (Palladia) – Daryl Hall has had an eclectic career, stretching himself as an artist in ways that may surprise casual music fans who only think of him as one-half of one of the most successful pop music duos in chart history. His musical flexibility comes in handy in this multiple platform cable show (since 2011) and webcast (since 2007). It’s a simple concept; a guest artist joins Hall and his band at his rustic home/private studio in upstate New York for food, conversation and (of course) lots of jamming. What makes it fun is the vibe of intimacy and spontaneity (although you can tell from the incredible tightness of the arrangements that they’ve rehearsed all the numbers). Still, it gives you an enjoyable illusion of being a “fly on the wall” at the session. The guest roster has been quite varied, ranging from established classic rockers, soul, R&B, blues and pop artists to up and coming acts. Some personal favorite sessions: Todd Rundgren, Joe Walsh, Nick Lowe, Ben Folds, Rumer, Allen Stone, Grace Potter, Dave Stewart, Smokey Robinson, Toots & the Maytals…hell-(as they say) it’s all good!
Maron (IFC) – Following in the footsteps of Seinfeld and Louis, comedian/podcast host Marc Maron plays a theatrically embroidered version of “himself” in this acerbically amusing look at what comedians “do” those remaining 23 hours a day when they are not on stage. Yes, it’s another show about “nothing”…but darker and more angst-ridden than the aforementioned, with a Saul Bellow vibe. But still funny. Very, very funny. Trust me.
Ray Donovan (Showtime) – If you miss The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Sons of Anarchy, this series should more than adequately fill that void in your life that cries out for a weekly “criminal thug as harried family guy” drama to really sink your teeth into. The Donovans are a clan of Boston Southies who have transplanted to sunny L.A. Liev Schreiber leads a fine cast as Ray, a Hollywood “fixer” (think George Clooney’s eponymous character in Michael Clayton, or Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolf” in Pulp Fiction). Ray’s methods for making his wealthy clients’ problems “disappear” are discreet, but hardly legal. Of course, he does it all to support his family, who are dysfunctional at best. In fact, he spends just as much time making his own family’s problems disappear; especially those of his two brothers, and his father (Jon Voight, rarely better, as one of the most odious “bad dads” of all time). Can’t wait for Season 4.
Star Talk (National Geographic Channel) – Astrophysicist/head cheerleader for science Neil deGrasse Tyson continues his crusade against ignorance and superstition in America (yes, it’s still rampant…have you been following this election cycle?) with this lively, brain-stimulating talk show, which just wrapped up its second season. Far from a dry science lecture, Tyson infuses pop culture and humor into the mix; inviting a scientist and a standup comic to share the stage with him each week. In turn, this panel parses and adds color to Tyson’s in-depth, pre-taped interview with whoever that week’s special guest is. The guests hail from a wide spectrum of professions: actors, musicians, authors, entrepreneurs, politicians, film directors, astronauts. What I love about the show is how the conversation expands into all directions (art, music, religion, politics, history, philosophy, economics, etc.) yet always loops back to science, and the joy of discovery.