27 December 2008

My Year in Review, TV

I don't talk a lot about TV on this page -- it's just not a focus of mine, and I don't consider myself really able to talk about TV in the same way that I talk about movies or books. Oh, sure, I enjoy sitting down and watching a few hours of the tube to relax as much as the next guy, but in general TV is entertaining and stimulating in a very different way than movies or books. TV, in general, is a "long-form" entertainment offering, in which the entertainment value of a given hour is largely based on how much the viewer is involved in the long-term drama of the hours immediately preceding it, and on anticipation of future hours. The best TV is often stoked by anticipation of "what-comes-next," and in this 21st century world usually egged on by web-based or (if you're lucky enough) in-person discussions of "what will happen" or "what it all means." Isn't that really what keeps people tuning in to Heroes or (a couple of years ago) Lost in such an obsessive way?

Sure, plenty of TV is meant to be self-contained or simply amusing or diverting in a short-form format, but you can't sit and analyze a single half-hour of, say, Arrested Development or even Law & Order in the same way that you can analyze a feature film. Films (with very few exceptions) are designed to be self-contained entertainment vehicles in their own right.

This is in no way meant to disparage TV, to be sure. A great TV show can give a character, setting, or storyline the kind of depth that no movie and very few books can, simply because of the amount of time and depth of characterization that is possible with so many hours to fill. It's just that I, personally, don't spend a huge amount of time trying to analyze TV and other long-form entertainment options (like, say, comic books) when my preferred media are available. It's purely a personality thing.

That said, through the power of Netflix I have absorbed or begun to absorb several serial dramas that deserve mention, and I thought I'd take a few minutes to talk about them. In no particular order:

Homicide: Life on the Streets: While I've been a fan of Law & Order for several years now, I hadn't caught an episode of H:LOTS until earlier this year. (I also haven't yet seen any of The Wire). But I'm glad I stuck the first and second seasons into my Netflix queue earlier this year -- Homicide may be set in a police precinct in Baltimore, but it focuses more on the character dramas and conflicts than on proper police procedure. Some of the social issues the series tackles are a bit dated a decade-and-a-half later, but Homicide's mix of younger and older actors, from Kyle Secor as the rookie Homicide detective to Ned Beatty's curmudgeonly old-timer gives the series an authenticity rarely achieved by later, glossier efforts. Of particular note is Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton, a brilliant African-American detective who hides his social insecurities under a veneer of arrogance.

Deadwood: I've only seen the first four episodes of the series so far, but David Milch's Western drama seems to deserve every bit of the critical acclaim it accumulated over the three seasons it ran on HBO. The TV format allows its characters room to breathe, to live and grow, and while I'm not sure which direction this series is moving in, I know that I'm endlessly fascinated by the tale of an aging Wild Bill Hickock and the ex Federal Marshall who befriends him in this mining town in South Dakota. Special note also goes to Ian McShane as the violent saloon-owner Al Swearengen, who seems to have his fingers in every pie.

Mad Men: Again, I've only seen the first six episodes of season one at the time of this writing, and I'm not sure how some of the subplots are really going to play out, but this dramatization of the birth of modern society during the Civil Rights era played out against the world of advertising seems pitch-perfect in the way it develops characters with sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-conflicting motives. The show is rarely sentimental, but it contains some of the best-drawn characters I've ever seen on television, realistic and full of the kinds of moral conflict normally reserved for Shakespeare.

Paranoia Agent: This is an animated series from Japan that starts out as the story of a city stricken with panic over a series of brutal crimes committed by a child, but by the end becomes something far stranger. Personally, I like the first half of this twelve-part series better than the second half, but it's hard to deny that this series' attempts to weave muddy realism with spiritual lyrical fantasy are fascinating entertainment.

The Office: I've been watching this show almost since day one, but I missed about half of season two and almost all of season four, catching them only out-of-order in repeats. Through Netflix I watched seasons two, three, and four in their original order and fell in love with the series all over again. Casual viewers will catch the wonderful chemistry between the luminous Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) and the inspired lunacy of Steve Carell (a favorite of mine since his work on The Daily Show), but they will miss some of the quieter brilliance of the show's smaller players, like the quiet dignity of Oscar, the injured humanity of Toby, and the grumpy professionalism and sneering dislike that Stanley has for his crazy boss.

Veronica Mars: I've only watched Season One so far, but this series literally hooked me from the very first minutes of the first episode. An engaging heroine who uses her brain rather than her brawn to solve problems and catch the bad guys, witty and relevant pop-culture references that illuminate rather than grate, and a wonderful supporting cast all the way around make this show a winner. And that's even before you get to the two season-long mysteries of the first season and the cleverly-convoluted smaller ones that Veronica works in between. Add in the amazing humanity shown by the main characters and the lessons learned by the titular heroine that somehow are devoid of any hint of saccharine and you have what may be my favorite show that I saw for the first time this year.

All in all, it was a great year for TV for me (in particular TV-on-DVD), and I can't wait to complete the series I began here and start trying out new ones that I haven't seen. I hear there's some about mobsters that's worth seeing....

No comments: