Thursday, December 29, 2011

12 DOC, Day 5: 5 Great TV Shows

In the Jesuits we say, "De gustibus, non disputandum". When it comes to matters of taste, there is no point in arguing.  People like what they like.

For me, here are five shows that fill me with joy, awe and wonder.

Community (NBC Thursdays, 8pm EST/PST)
The premise: A community college study group deals with the absurdity of school and life.

This is one of those shows critics are always talking about, because it's smart in a very meta- way.  Lots of inside jokes, film references.  The last episode before Christmas was a 20 minute mockery of all things Glee.  So, it can seem to cater to an oh-so-smart clientele.

But I love it because it's a show with such a sweet heart. The main characters are a bunch of misfits -- a lawyer who's always cut corners (and consequently never got his college diploma); a middle aged black woman whose husband cheated on her; a dumb jock; a high strung overachiever; a racist old man (Chevy Chase); and my favorite of all, Abed, a skinny, autistic Muslim kid who comprehends reality by way of the millions of movies and TV shows he's watched.  

When you've got 20 minutes, check out this episode, about a couple of the main characters dealing with foosball bullies, and you'll see what I mean -- ridiculous, snarky and incredibly sweet all at the same time.

Game of Thrones (HBO in April -- 1st season soon to be released on DVD)
While I fully embrace my nerddom, I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of swords and sorcery stuff.  Probably brings back too many bad memories of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. (Three or four hours spent sitting around a board, rolling dice and saying "Here's what I'm going to do" instead of actually doing anything -- I just never got it.)

Lord of the Rings is about as close as I get, and I think I love that because it combined fantasy with such huge spiritual and human struggles.  But that's it.

Game of Thrones is not a spiritual show.  It's not exactly a fantasy-style show, either, in that it really holds off on getting its magic on.  It's in many ways more like a political statesmanship thriller, sent in medieval Europe.  Which sounds like a snoozefest to me (and its trailers did not reassure, either).  I had   to force myself to watch it, but by the end of that pilot I was hooked.   It's one of the only shows I'm watching that surprises me every week.  It has the sorts of plot twists you wish every show had, stunners that change absolutely everything.  It reminded me of Christmas as a kid, actually, that feeling of total surprise you get when you open the gifts, like anything is possible and whatever it is, it's going to be the most awesome thing ever.  A really really fun show.

Breaking Bad (AMC, Fall -- Season 1-3 on Netflix)
This is another critical darling, which unfortunately very few people have seen. The premise: a weak high school chemistry professor begins to cook meth to make money for his family after he discovers he's going to die very soon of lung cancer.

The First Season poster -- and yes, there's a very good reason why
he's in his underwear.

I know, super super dark.  (And boy howdy, it only gets darker, let me tell you.) But I love it because it's a master class in television screenwriting -- compelling characters, bold but believable choices, great twists, and best of all, lots and lots of pay offs.

Maybe you've heard the comment, if you show a gun in a film, at some point someone has to use it.  The very presence of the gun creates an expectation in the audience which has to be satisfied in some way. It's called "paying it off", and ideally as writers we're trying to do that with every character and detail we present, pay them off in ways that are unexpected and yet once revealed seem totally shocking and satisfying.  Put another way, we want every single thing we put in a script to count for something later.  Nothing is irrelevant and nothing is wasted.  

Breaking Bad does this better than any show on television. And it's an amazing show about corruption and human failing. Honestly, if you're looking for one cable show to check out, this is the one.

Louie (FX -- Season 1 on Netflix)
The Premise: Comedian Louis CK plays a schlubby version of himself, doing shows, raising two kids by himself and trying to find a girlfriend.

This show isn't for everyone. It's raunchy almost too a fault, some would definitely say it crosses lines. But it's also the most original sitcom on television, each week less one story than a bunch of little stories with a common theme.  Each week it's a little bit film school, a little bit Seinfeld and a little bit Charlie Chaplin. And for as crass as it can get, it's a show with an amazingly moral voice.

Case in point: Early this season in the opening, one of Louie's daughters comes home to find the other daughter is eating cut up mango. She wants cut up mango, too, but Louie won't give her any. And she goes on and on about it, but Louie won't budge. He tells her, you should not spend your time looking at what others have and assume you deserve the same.  You should always be looking at others and making sure they have what they need, and helping them get it if they don't.

 I can watch these episodes again and again.  There's so much great stuff to see.

Here's Louis CK on a late night show from last year, doing a great short routine about technology and happiness.

The Good Wife (CBS, Sundays at 10pm EST/PST)
This is the only show I pretty much have to watch the day it airs.  And I'm not entirely sure I understand why. At its heart it's a law show, and how many of those have you seen?  But underneath it's about Alicia Florrick, the wife of the Chicago D.A., who has had to deal with her husband not only having affairs but being arrested for using public funds to support them.  Played by Julianna Margulies (of ER fame), Alicia is this poised, tightly restrained presence, trying to protect her kids and herself in the midst of the insanity that her husband has put upon them, and withholding her own desires for her happiness from all those around her.

This is the show in a nut shell -- swirling controversy, and Alicia in the center, her feelings completely hidden. 

Margulies won the Emmy last year, and it's no wonder, because it is just an incredibly riveting performance to watch.  And she's matched by an amazing supporting cast,  filled with nuance and subtlety. And the legal cases are so much better than what we're used to, too. Week to week, a show I immediately want to talk to people about.

Have a Happy New Year!

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