Across the Pond: The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville

The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 19 episodes)
Psychoville (2009, 7 episodes)
Created by, Written by, and starring Mark Gattis, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith

“Black comedy” doesn’t begin to describe the shear depths of depravity the work of Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith reaches. There are moments in the latter seasons of League, and all throughout Psychoville, where the audience has to question if the shows are still comedies, or if they have become some other genre of television. The level of gore and perversity that occurs in the third and final season of League is extraordinary. Its as if the performers had held back for the first two years and then unleashed the show they truly wished to make: one where not a single character is without sexual or psychological damage, yet are painfully sympathetic. So too in Psychoville are characters who are even more disturbed and who you feel even sorrier for by the end of the series. These three British titans of comedy have managed to create an impressively larger fan base for the kind of shows American networks wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith came together in 1994 and began developing a collection of eccentric and disturbed characters for stage and radio. By the end of the 1990s they had garnered enough attention for their own BBC series. The television show was set in the fictional Northern England town of Royston Vasey, where every citizen seemed to have a dark secret and proclivity. The first season centers around Benjamin, a young man who is visiting his aunt and uncle in Royston while hiking with his friend. Benjamin finds that as hard as he tries he can’t seem to get out of town. Along the way we meet Hilary Briss, the town butcher with a very special selection; Barbara, a pre-op transsexual cab driver; Mr. Chinnery, the town vet who kills every animal he tries to save, and many more. The most famous of the denizens are Edward and Tubbs, a pig-nosed couple who run “a local shop, for local people”. When outsiders wander in they are typically murdered in a brutal fashion by the couple. Needless to say, crews arriving to build a highway from London to Royston are met with some resistance.

The three seasons of League go through many aesthetic changes. In the first series there are a mixture of on location and studio filmed scenes. In series two things become much more on location, but the laugh track remains. By season three, every thing is on location and the laugh track is gone. The result is that season three highlights the darkness of the show’s premise. The creators also amp up the drama and make these characters three dimensional. Psychoville is a continuation of the themes of League with new characters. This time around the five main characters are all being stalked by a masked figure whom sends them letters hinting at a transgression that links them all. British comedy legend Dawn French plays a maternity nurse obsessed with bringing her dummy baby doll to life by feeding it human blood. Pemberton and Shearsmith play multiple roles, in particular an Oedpial mother-son serial killer team. Psychoville is not as collectively strong as League, but some individual episodes really stand out, particularly the fourth which is an homage to Hitchcock’s rope. The entire episode takes place in one room and is filmed in two takes. Pretty impressive.

The entire League of Gentlemen series is available on Netflix
Season One of League of Gentlemen is available for free on YouTube

Tube Time: The Lost Room

The Lost Room (2006, 3 episodes)
Starring Peter Krause, Julianna Marguiles, Kevin Pollak, Elle Fanning

Something happened in the motel room in New Mexico back in 1961. But no one is quite sure what it was. The scientific minded believe some sort of event that bent space-time. Others say that God died in that motel room. Whatever happened the room vanished from our reality, but some how the small everyday trinkets inside made their way into the world. A ballpoint pen. A plastic comb. A wristwatch. A room key. They appear to be nothing special. But they are. This is the universe created in the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series The Lost Room. While Sci-Fi has an incredibly erratic track record for original programming, see sawing back and forth between incredibly horrible movies about giant animals killing people and thoughtful, interesting series. The Lost Room definitely belongs in the latter category, but sadly, as much as the mini-series serves as a pilot to an ongoing program Sci-Fi passed. Even though not all of its plot threads are tied up, The Lost Room is an incredibly interesting program that does exactly what great sci-fi should: throw a ton of ideas at you.

Detective Joe Miller, Pittsburgh PD, responds to the scene of homicide. The two victims are covered in horrible burns and appear to be partially phased through the walls and ceiling. Miller investigation leads him into the possession of a motel room key that, when inserted in any tumbler lock door, opens on a motel room existing outside of natural space time. Any object left in the room vanished when the door is closed, the room resetting itself. Powerful forces want this key and as a result Miller’s daughter is in the room without the key when the door closes. She vanishes into thin air and the detective abandons his career to find her again. This journey leads him to discovering the story of the room, the violent cabals that seek to possess the magical items in the room, and finally to a figure whose essence is tied to the birth of this modern legend. Parallel to Joe’s journey is his colleague and forensic scientist Dr. Martin Ruber who becomes obsessed with tracking down objects and believe he has a higher calling. These two stories intersect in some interesting ways and its Ruber’s story that appears to have been the plot line that would have fed into a regular series.

What makes The Lost Room work is that it is unafraid to be science fiction in that it worldbuilds with expertise and presents ideas that you would never think of, but that make complete sense when you think about them. I was reminded by classic sci-fi writers: Bradbury, Ellison as well as a heavy dose of Stephen King as well. The writers cleverly worked to not overpower the Objects, an example being The Comb. The plastic comb can stop time, but only for 10 seconds, and if used in succession too frequently induces vertigo in the user. To use the Objects successfully a person must be able to think outside of typical thought. There’s also the added twist of what happens with objects are used in conjunction, having properties that are unpredictable. The mini-series really left me wanting to know more about this world and what clever Object combinations could be.

Acting wise you have Peter Krause doing an excellent job. Julianna Marguiles has never been an actress I cared for and her character just doesn’t fit in this story very well. Kevin Pollak is one of those solid character actors who, despite or because of his strong comedy background, can play a character as walking the tenuous line between good and evil. Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), a wonderful character actor was the standout for me. His role of the obsessed Dr. Ruber really hooked me and wanted me to learn where that character would go in the regular series. This is a a great overlooked science fiction story that has begun to find its audience on DVD. The creators recently announced at the San Diego Comic Con that a comic book continuing the story of The Lost Room is in the works so we may very well get a continuation of Dr. Gruber’s story.

Across the Pond: Snuff Box

Berry. Fulcher.

Odd words on their own, but when you know them in the context of Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher they mean “absurdist comedy”. In the great tradition of Monty Python and Cook & Moore comes this duo of such obscene and pointless humor. The two came to the public’s attention through other projects where they played supporting roles. For Matt Berry it was work on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and Fulcher was an American out of the UCB comedy culture. They met while working on The Mighty Boosh and went on to make a single season of Snuff Box together. The result is some of the best, and often times completely confusing comedy out of Britain. It is definitely unlike anything you would ever see presented on American television, including the most obscure cable channels.

What is the premise of this series? Good question. At the surface level you have Berry and Fulcher, professional hangmen. Throughout the six episodes they will occasionally hang someone, but for the most part they hang out in a wood paneled gentleman’s club, sipping brandy. There’s a hallway they use to get from the club to the execution room that contains doors to other dimensions (?). There’s also skits that feature the actors but as one off characters. It’s a hard show to describe because it actively works to be difficult. And that’s part of the fun. There is really no way for a viewer to predict where a scene will lead. It’s definitely not a series for anyone who’s sensitive about language or sex. Snuff Box pushes boundaries and presents a beautifully dark parallel universe.

It’s hard to say which performer I enjoy best, I believe Matt Berry just barely edges out Fulcher. Berry plays himself as a suave and arrogant ladies’ man, and some of his best scenes are when he tries to woo a woman, discovers she is already taken, and has an incredibly harsh reaction to the news. There’s also a recurring series of skits with Berry entering a clothes shop to inquire about silver cowboy boots on order. Each visit a new, yet equally unhelpful employee calls Berry a name under his breath, Berry lashes out, and the whole thing ends with Berry bloodied in the fight. Fulcher is the dimwit to Berry’s pompous ass, he is constantly duped by Berry, and their is an ongoing mystery as to whom Fulcher’s deceased mother is that he receives a check from her estate every month. Fulcher also discovers a door that sends him back in time, allowing him to meet Berry’s ancestors. Each episode is a total surprise and, because of the amount of jokes packed into each one. Below I’ve posted a couple clips to give you a flavor for the show, because of Berry’s musical leanings the show has a lot of songs.

Across the Pond: Misfits

In across the pond I look at television from the U.K. that stands out as amazing programming.

Misfits Series 1 (6 episodes)

One American television series that completely disappointed me was Heroes. The first season was a slow burn, but once it got where it was going it was incredibly good. After its first season though it started a downward spiral that ended with NBC put a bullet in its head halfway through the fourth season. The idea of a television series that works with the superhero concept is one I can get behind completely. When this BBC drama came around I heard about it, but didn’t really rush to watch it. Recently though, I sat down and tore through the six episodes in two days and it has jumped to being one of my favorite shows. It’s a bit teen drama (and British teen dramas are infinitely more racey than American ones) and a bit super hero series. The mix is a wonderful series that can be deathly serious and absolutely hilarious.

Five juvenile delinquents gather at a community center to perform their court-required service hours. While cleaning up trash along the Thames, they see a strange storm quickly gather over the city and begin to rain down massive chunks of ice. A bolt of energy strikes and moments later they appear to be fine. However, they have each gained a special ability they is tied to an aspect of their personality. Kelly, a chav girl from the estates, can read people’s minds (she’s concerned about what people say about her). Simon, a introverted and awkward boy, turns invisible as long as no one is looking at him. Curtis, a former high school track star caught with cocaine, can send his consciousness back in time. Alisha, a coquettish minx, drives any man who touches her bare skin into becoming compelled to have sex with her. And poor Nathan, the mouth of the group appears to have no powers.

These kids wouldn’t ever hang out with each other so the conceit of the community service hours is a perfect way to have a makeshift team. They even have uniforms, bright orange jumpsuits, which they change into when they meet up. Villains come in the form of other Londoners affected by the mysterious storm. Their first enemy is their probation officer, who is transformed into a Hulk-like agent of rage. From there they run into a man who believes he is a dog during a full moon, a girl who cause others’ hair to fall out, and a former nymphet turned svengali of purity. The show definitely mixes humor in, and is able to joke about what is going while still keeping a sense of urgency. The highlight of the season by far was the episode spotlighting Curtis, the time traveler. He is able to go back to the night the police caught him with drugs and tries to change things. Of course he is forced to deal with the large reaching ramifications of his trip back and is forced to make subsequent trips. The way backstory about all the characters is relayed in this episode is amazing, and puts a lot of the time travel storytelling in Heroes to shame.

My favorite character of them all is Nathan, the seemingly powerless member of the bunch. Every episode he attempts to manifest a different power but ultimately fails. There’s even clues early on as to what it will be and its not till the final episode of the season that we discover what that is. Also, in that final episode, Nathan delivers what is possibly one of the funniest rallying speeches I’ve ever heard. In his effort to convince his friends to shake off the mind controlling influences they are under, he champions teenage irresponsibility, claiming that they’re supposed to be getting drunk and shagging all the time. He plans to do so throughout his twenties, and possibly his early thirties. Its a interesting mix of that aforementioned urgency and comedy. If you have the chance, and this sounds even the smallest bit interesting to you, seek it out. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas I’ve seen on television in a long time. Series two is scheduled for the end of 2010, with a Christmas special to precede it.

Tube Review: Mad Men and True Blood

Mad Men – S04E01 – “Public Relations”

Mad Men is back and in a big way. It’s been almost a year since Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was started thanks to Don’s midnight revolt against the British conglomerate. Since the, the agency has gotten some buzz around its challenging ad campaigns and relocated to offices in the Time-Life Building. Joan Holloway is not the queen bee, with her own office from which she runs the machine. Harry Crane is now a seasoned salesman to television companies, just returning from a trip to L.A. around Thanksgiving. Pete Campbell seems to have discarded his conniving ways and treats Don and his coworkers with respect. Peggy is one of the most drastic changes, appearing to be Head of Creative, with at least one male employee under her whom she makes no bones about showing she is in charge of.

Don is giving an interview to Ad Age magazine in the opening in which he is asked “Who is Don Draper?”, a question that works as the theme of the entire series. Don’s reply is defensive and awkward, and after the article comes out the picture of the agency’s figurehead causes them to lose the Jai Alai account, leaving Phillip Morris as 71% of their accounts. As Don deals with his partners irritation over this he is also handling the rather bitter aftermath of his divorce with Betty. Betty and the kids are still living in the old house, now with her new husband Henry. Don’s lawyer advises him to pressure Betty to finally find a new place and he does at the end of the episode. It’s pretty apparent Betty wants her “pound of flesh” for putting up with Don’s philandering and concealment of his true identity. She’s also the dominate one in her new marriage and is incredibly harsh on the now pre-teen Sally.

All in all, I felt things don’t bode well for Don Draper. There is a freshness and life in the new agency, but Don’s Manhattan apartment is a dark and cold den. He’s unable to bed what ever woman he wants anymore, and ends up calling over a prostitute who knows him well. In bed he shows an affinity for rough play, something we haven’t seen this full blown in the character before. In the end, his interview with a different reporter feels partially forced. Roger Sterling in particular really beat Don for fumbling the spot with Ad Age. We end with Don forcing a smile and telling a story that frames Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a rebellious company that is willing to let a client leave, rather than compromise their fresh and edgy ideas.

True Blood – S03E06 – “I Got A Right To Sing The Blues”

This season of True Blood has been the one that really clicked with me. I think its because a lot of what is happening is pay off from the set up of the previous two season, in particular the conflict between the vampire kingdoms of Louisiana and Mississippi. At the end of the last episode, Russell Edgington, the vampire of king of Mississippi, seemed delighted to discovery Sookie’s powers. This episode though, he doesn’t really know what she is or what they are, only that its a great source of power. Bill’s cover is finally blown and his creator, Marlena is tasked with draining his blood resulting in complete death. Eric, discovering that Russell was the man who killed his father centuries ago, is playing like he has complete allegiance to the man until he gets a chance to kill him. On the subplot side, Tara finds a way to escape Franklin and apparently bashes his brains out, Jessica feeds on a patron at Merlotte’s, Jason learns the girl who he was developing feelings for is engaged, and Sam learns his brother has been forced into using his shifting to participate in dogfights.

It can’t be said that there aren’t enough plot threads this season. I personally enjoy how packed every episode is, in comparison to last season which felt like it drug by painfully slowly. Now every episode seems to give a a lot of information and move along at a brisk pace. The cast has definitely grown and even characters that used to grate on me (I’m looking at you Tara) are actually enjoyable now. I am hoping that she didn’t kill Franklin though, as he has been the new addition to the series that I have enjoyed the most. His schizophrenic personality added some interesting dark humor to the show. I also have really liked the werewolves portrayal as trailer trash, juxtaposed against the vampires as Southern aristocracy.

The plots that aren’t keep me interested are Jason’s pursuit to become a cop and Sam’s trashy family. The Jason/Andy side plot has a lot of potential but it seems to be going aimless now and is simply filler. I hope that it gets tied into one of the larger main plots in a cleverly unexpected way. I’m think Lafayette’s local V dealing could lead he and Jason into an intersection. Sam’s family’s story seems like it could be wrapped up next week. He arrives at the dogfight ring and rescues his brother, telling his parents he never wants to seem them again. Unless there is a really interesting twist added to that story its going feel like they are stretching it out for as long as they can. Despite these weak spots, the season has been great fun so far. We just hit the halfway point and I am excited to see where the characters end up because it seems like a big shake up is about to happen in the vampire community.

Tube Time: Mad Men Primer

It’s the eve of the Mad Men Season 4 premiere and fans of the show are definitely curious to find out what has happened to Don Draper and crew since last we saw them. If you’ve never seen the show (and are one of those people who starts watching a few season in, shame on you!) or are fan and just want to geek out with me, here’s a concise guide to everything you need to know about Mad Men.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – Don is the core character of the series. A charismatic, suave, yet incredibly cold figure. Draper is a mystery to his co-workers and even his family. He’s a man without friends, he makes acquaintances. His place of business in season one is Sterling-Cooper, a successful advertising agency in the heart of Manhattan. It’s here that Draper is the creative director, wrangling a group of frat boys into producing print ad campaigns for clients like Phillip-Morris, Kodak, and Goodyear, among others. At home, Draper does the minimal duties of a husband and doesn’t seem to have any sort of connection with his children. He often sneaks away to visit which ever mistress he has at the time, women who all seem to be the kind of female he prevents his wife from becoming. In season one, we learn that Draper’s real name is Dick Whitman, and that he served along the real Don Draper in the Korean War. Draper is killed as a result of Whitman’s error, and seeing a chance to shake off the life he hated, Draper takes the dead man’s dog tags. In season two, Draper goes to California for a business trip and ends up MIA, lost in a malaise of empty sex and booze with a young girl and her bohemian family, eventually reconciling with the real Draper’s widow. Season three was a major turning point, with all of his secrets coming out and his wife beginning an affair with another man as a result. By the end of that most recent season, Draper is on his way to a divorce and has broken off from Sterling Cooper to form a new upstart agency.

Betty Draper (January Jones) – Don’s wife, Betty, is an incredibly polarizing figure. You either love her, hate her, or see saw violently back and forth between the two. Betty was born into a fairly well to do family in Philadelphia. She ended up working as a model in Italy as a teen which is where she met Don. They moved to Long Island, had two kids and Betty did what every wife was expected to do at the time; be a stay at home mom. Shortly before the start of Season One, Betty’s mother dies and, much to her chagrin, her father begins dating another woman. Betty also seems to have a real issue with the mundanity of suburban life, and convinces to Don to let her see a psychiatrist. She is unaware that Don makes calls in the evenings after every one of her sessions, where the psych reads off his notes from the session. She is also unaware, but suspicious of, the philandering her husband is up to. In season two, Betty begins to transform, becoming fully aware that Don has slept with at least on other woman. They end up growing distant, until Betty’s father suffers a stroke. They both travel to Pennsylvania to see him and his growing senility frightens Betty. At the end of the second season, Betty learns she is pregnant and has sex with a stranger in the backroom of a bar. In the third season, the marriage is strained even further starting with Betty meeting Henry Francis, an advisor to Governor Rockefeller. She gives birth and also has to deal with her father coming to live with them. The family’s housekeeper ends up saddled with the responsibilities as Betty seems to reject all of it. She and Henry meet in secret, and she breaks into Don’s locked desk where she learns about his life as Dick Whitman. Using fraud as grounds, she files for divorce, and season three ends up with Betty on her way to marry Henry.

Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) – The opening of season one was Peggy’s first day in the typing pool of Sterling Cooper. She ends up as Don Draper’s secretary and she seems to be the first woman he doesn’t want to bed, not out of a lack of attraction, but from an unspoken respect they have between each other. Peggy grew up Brooklyn, raised in a strict Catholic family. She visits her mother frequently, but is straying away from the traditional upbringing. In her first year at Sterling Cooper, Betty ends up sleeping with sleazy accounts man Pete Campbell, is impregnated by him, and secretly gives the child up for adoption. We learn in season two, that Don was the only person at work she let know about this, and much like his own secrets, he guards it with the utmost privacy. Betty also gets promoted to writing copy after giving some surprising feedback during a focus testing of lipstick. In season two, Peggy continues her move towards independence when she begins spending time with a her mother’s parish priest. The priest urges Peggy to go to confession to relieve any guilts she might have but Peggy realizes she doesn’t need him to do that. In confrontation with Pete, Peggy reveals the existence of her child, something that hits him hard as his newlywed wife Trudy has just learned she is infertile. In season three, Peggy leaves Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan and realizes her ideas in Don’s daily meetings are being ignored by the boys’ club. She takes a certain satisfaction when one idea for Pepsi’s new diet soda, which she felt was dumb, gets shot down during the presentation. Peggy also begins an affair with a much older former employee of Sterling Cooper and she is brought in Don’s new ad agency when he leaves the company.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – This is the new agency founded by Don and company. In season two Sterling Cooper is taken over by a British corporation, and over the course of season three the employees find themselves increasingly on the chopping block. As a final revolt, Don organizes a raid of the office accounts films in the middle of the night and steals away some of the top money making contracts. He also brings some of his fellow employees he respects the most. These include: Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper (his former bosses, now partners), Lane Pryce (a British executive who is tired of being a whipping boy), Peggy Olsen, Harry Crane (Sterling Cooper’s former television creative director), Pete Campbell (often a nemesis for Don), and Joan Holloway (the head secretary and the one who made the machine run at Sterling Cooper). Together they appear to be set up to unleash new dynamic advertising campaigns and provide a great antagonist for their former company.

The Boys at Sterling Cooper – Left behind are two figures: Ken Cosgrove and Paul Kinsey. Cosgrove started out as a dopey accounts man who would forever frustrate Kinsey. Kinsey was an aspiring writer, inspired by the Beats, who grew irate when Cosgrove got a story printed in The Atlantic Monthly. What made it even worse was that the story was good. In season three, Cosgrove began to shine was promoted to Senior Vice President of Accounts, over Pete Campbell who became another enemy of Cosgrove’s. When Draper’s revolt took place, they grabbed Campbell over Cosgrove. Paul Kinsey worked closely with Peggy, writing copy in season three. He ends up despising her, but the two get wasted together during a late night session. It’s still remains to be seen how Kinsey will react when he learns he was left behind.

So get yourselves ready as we find out what they’ve all been up since last season. As per usual a few months to a year will have passed, so I think that puts us at the start of 1965. Tune in tomorrow night, AMC at 10/9c.

Cinematic Television – Science Fiction & Fantasy

One of the television genres to really rise to the level of cinematic programming are those based around science fiction and fantasy. Television is full of shows that either go the hard sci-fi route (Stargate, Battlestar Galactica) or incorporate their elements more subtly (Lost).

Twin Peaks (1990 -1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost)
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Sheryl Lee, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jack Nance, Grace Zabriskie, Ray Wise

There had never been a show like, and probably never will be another show like, Twin Peaks. The series was a perfect combination of the avant-garde sensibilities of filmmaker David Lynch and primetime soap producer Mark Frost. The show is at moment high camp and melodrama, then switching to tense neo-noir thriller, and over to creep-infused cinematic horror. The premise is incredibly simple: Young girl’s body washes up on the shores of her small Washington state town, FBI eventually called in to investigate. Out of this premise rises one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled on the small screen. Kyle MacLachlan plays Special Agent Dale Cooper, an investigator the likes of which you have never seen. He doesn’t put much stock in typical detective work, but rather relies on Eastern philosophy and his enigmatic dreams to guide the case. The series will introduce you to the wonders of the Log Lady, the Backwards Talking and Dancing Midget, The One-Armed Shoe Salesman, and a coffee percolator with a trout inside. You’ll never have coffee and pie the same way again. Though the series lacks horribly in the middle of its second season (Lynch was away from the series to work on a film), it is still light years better than anything you’ve ever seen on TV.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009, created by Glen A. Larson, Ronald Moore, and David Eick)
Starring James Edward Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katie Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Tamoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas

When I first heard they were doing a remake of the cheesy Star Wars knock-off Battlestar Galactica I was a bit suspect. It wasn’t till 2006 that I actually sat down and began to work my way through the first two seasons of the series and was amazingly surprised. The names were the same, and original premise was fairly intact (Cylons destroy the Twelve Colonies, forcing a small fleet of ships to begin searching for a new home), but the themes and tone of the remake was startlingly fresh. What was done so well in BSG was that is stayed true to the great science fiction trope of being more about our present society and context, much more than any future environs. The series manages to capture a lot of tension in post-9/11 America, with characters finding it easy to dehumanize their enemies, debating if authority has the right to seize power in the midst of crisis, and approaching issues of religious conflict. Despite the first half of the third season being one of the most brilliant things ever, the show begins to crumble in the second half and never recovers during the final season. The show’s focus began to get tied up in trying to explain its overly dense mythology and characters behaved in erratic ways. The series is definitely one of the best science fiction series ever aired and spawned a spin-off prequel series, Caprica.

Lost (2004 – 2010, created by Jeffery Lieber, JJ Abrams, Damon Lindeloff, and Carleton Cuse)
Starring Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Josh Holloway, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Daniel Dae-Kim, Yunjin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Henry Ian Cusick

I must admit my bias. Lost is one of my favorite things ever. EVER! I was less than interested when I watched the premiere during its original airing, but returned to the series when my roommate ‘s obsession pulled me back in at the start of the 2nd season. I have been hooked ever since. What makes Lost great is that it took its time to get to its big mysteries. The entire first season is all character based, with slight touches of mystery sprinkled throughout. Because we have an emotional investment in these people when the trouble goes down, we feel it more. The production values of the series are astonishing. Every episode features beautiful cinematography, gorgeous music, and writing that is very clever and knows how to dole out pieces of a mystery perfectly. The show has a dragging point in the first half of season three, but quickly recovers and hasn’t let up since. The current and final season has been carefully pulling the layers of the onion back before the full reveal is made. The creators of the series have an apparent love of classic crazy sci-fi TV, particularly the shows of Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel). That is mixed with some fascinating spiritual themes and literary references, that make the show enjoyable if you want to simply watch for fun or mine it for all its thematic richness.

True Blood (2008 – present, created by Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball)
Starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammel, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Chris Bauer, Nelsan Ellis, Todd Lowe, Carrie Preston

If Tennessee Williams wrote a vampire novel, this would be what was produced. The accents are garish, the acting sickeningly melodramatic, and the plots are over the top. But I can’t stop watching it! Set in the fictional hamlet of Bon Temps, Lousiana, True Blood focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a dive bar waitress with psychic powers and in love with a Civil War era vampire, Bill. In the world of the series, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are attempting to become integrated into modern society. The impetus behind this is that scientists have managed to synthesize blood, meaning vampires can crack open a cold one rather than gnawing on a warm one. However, there are certain vampires who see this as selling out to the establishment, and there are humans who have fetishized being the playthings of the living dead. The heart of the show are not the leading romantic pair, but all the supporting citizens of Bon Temps. The short order cook is secretly dealing “V”, vampire blood used to trip like acid but better. His replacement is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The bar’s owner vanishes on certain nights, showing up naked in the middle of nowhere. A voodoo priestess lives in a trailer just outside of town performing exorcisms. This is not for people looking for Mad Men, though you can enjoy both shows. If you like some supernatural insanity then definitely check this one out.

I’d like to know what dramas, comedies, and sci-fi/fantasy series YOU are watching that I haven’t included and you believe should be. Reply to the comments here or e-mail me at

Cinematic Television – The Dramas

While I have not yet seen The Wire, I know that so many people view it as the epitome of great television drama. I plan on watching it one day, and I see it as one of those great works of literature that I want to find the perfect time for fully absorbing it. That said, these are some other great dramas on the tube right now.

Mad Men (2007 – present, created by Matthew Weiner)
Starring Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Mitchell, January Jones, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser, Bryan Batt, Aaron Staton, Michael Gladis, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, Kiernan Shipka

Mad Men is a series that hinges completely on a contemporary audiences knowledge of their society, so that they may contrast it with irony of early 1960s American culture. The focal point of the show is Madison Avenue ad exec Don Draper, played with calm and cool ease by Jon Hamm. Draper is man with a very distinct set of personal moral beliefs. Sleeping around on his wife isn’t a huge deal, and when she seeks psychiatric help, making regular calls to the shrink for a report on what his wife has said is never a violation of her privacy, its his right as a husband. The male-dominated culture around him doesn’t work to convince him otherwise though. But Draper is an imposter in this world, through out all of the three seasons which have aired he comes up against a fear of his past being exposed.

As foils to Don, we’re given three other characters: Peggy Olson, Betty Draper, and Pete Campbell. Each is in a place where they are unsure of their identity. Peggy is girl from Brooklyn who starts out as Don’s secretary, but finds herself moving up the ladder of power in the office incredibly quickly. Betty, Don’s wife, is not content at playing house after living as a model in Europe before she met Don. Her transformation over the three season has been the most dramatic and it is hard to predict where her character will go.

Pete is the most direct parallel to Don, a salesman at the Sterling/Cooper ad agency, he is from a family that expected more “respectable” work out of him and are completely opposed to supporting his life. Pete is newly married and seems at times disinterested in his bride, and other completely devoted to her. While Don seems representative of the Old Way, Pete is our manifestation of new ideas coming into society. Pete is confused when, after crunching the numbers and discovering the black community is buying a client’s brand of television more than the white, the client rejects his ideas to directly market to that minority. He sees it as both socially and economically ignorant.

The series is respectful of its adult audience. There’s little chance adolescents will enjoy the series, and the writers believe that the grown ups watching don’t need every emotion and thought telegraphed through blunt dialogue. There are long moments of silence in the series, where the only information we receive is through a simple look of Don’s, or the frustrated body language of Betty. This complete rejection of dumbed down television is an oasis in the desert. It makes each and every episode come across as highly cinematic and important.

Breaking Bad (2007 – present, created by Vince Gilligan)
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk

If you are only familiar with Bryan Cranston through his work as the befuddled father on Malcolm in the Middle you will be in for a shock. The same frenetic energy that informed Hal on the Fox sitcom, if filtered through a simmering boil in Breaking Bad. Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who works part-time at a car wash to pay the bills. He has a teenaged son with cerebral palsy and a baby daughter on the way. One day, he collapses at work and learns he has terminal lung cancer. Walter keeps this a secret from his family and decides on a whim to join his DEA brother in law as a ride along on a meth lab raid. One of his students ends up being the meth cook who escapes from the raid and Walter tracks him down with a proposition: they work together to make and sell as much meth as possible. Walter reasons this will get him enough money for some experimental cancer treatment and, if he does die, provide his wife with a major financial cushion. Thus begins Walter White’s descent into Hell.

For the first half of the first season, Walter is unsure of himself. He is confident in the lab and he knows how to cook meth of a quality his partner, Jesse, and the DEA have never seen before. It’s not till the second half of the first season that Walter explodes. A mix of chemo therapy and the impending concept of his own death pounding in his skull forces the meek man to become a force of violence. This doesn’t come without a cost though, as strong as his newly found fury may be, he is also ignorant of the inner workings of the big money trade. Walter inevitably draws the attention of the wrong people and ends up in multiple circumstances where he is close to being murdered.

While Walter is descending, his young partner, Jesse is trying to emerge from the drug fueled mire he has sunken into. At one point, he tries to reconnect with his family, whom roundly reject him. Jesse has a brief foray into a rehabilitated life, but is pulled back down by Walter. A palpable sense of tragedy surrounds the young man and its becoming apparent the weight that won’t let him live his life is our protagonist. The place the second season ends leaves both characters in an unknown place. They are burdened by a massive loss of life that is the result of their actions; Walter has come out on top though, and Jesse, once again is left with the bloodied hands. Where these characters go to next is going to be a fascinating journey.

Damages (2007 – present, created by Daniel Zelman, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler)
Starring Rose Byrne, Glenn Close, Tate Donovan
Featuring Ted Danson, Zeljko Ivanek, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Timothy Olyphant, Campbell Scott, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine

Damages starts with the typical prime time drama setting, a law office. But that is where the similarities with your typical law drama end. Borrowing a device from Lost, flash-forwards, Damages allows us to glimpse pieces of the end of season while going back to the beginning and moving forward from there. The series follows law school graduate Ellen Parsons, who is hired at Hewes & Associates, to work underneath infamous lawyer Patty Hewes. Hewes’ focus is primarily in cases against large corporations, on the part of citizens harmed by them. While her goals are admirable, Patty has a “by any means necessary” approaching to getting her way. She lies, cheats, steals, and even hires people to kill those who are getting in her way.

Each season focuses on a single case, allowing it to be played out in great detail and devoting an equal amount of time to the defense. Much like Law & Order, the cases draw on real life events, but because they are for such larger stakes it only makes sense that it take 13 episodes for them to play out. Season One featured an Enron type case, wherein billionaire Arthur Frobisher convinced his employees to invest in company stock, only to defraud them and abscond with their life savings. Season Two is a more generic environmental case, where an energy company is knowingly withholding data that proves their practices have caused harm to the population. And in the current season, the series is tackling a Bernie Madoff parallel with an incredibly stellar guest cast. If you enjoy typical law dramas, but want something with more continuity and depth then definitely give Damages a shot.

Next: Science Fiction & Fantasy

Cinematic Television – The Comedies

In the last decade the ante has been upped on both network and cable television. While channels go the cheap route of “reality” tv, they have also worked to develop higher quality scripted series. These higher quality series have a lot more in common with film, than previous television programs. They employ complex cinematography, a higher caliber of acting, and a devotion on the part of viewers to following longform story arcs, not “done in one” stand alone episodes. We’ll be looking at some of these series that have really stood out for me, starting with

The Comedies

Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000, created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig)
Starring Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Martin Starr, Joe Flaherty, Becky Ann Baker

This can be marked as the beginning of the Apatow movement in contemporary comedy. The series was broadcast by a less than enthused NBC, who seemed to go out of their way to air episodes out of order and move the series around the schedule without letting viewers know. The series gained a following when it was reran on Fox Family and then when it was released on DVD in the last few years. The premise follows the Weir sibling, Lindsay (the Freak) and Sam (the Geek) as they go through a year of changes in 1980. Lindsay, a straight-A student and member of the Math-letes, starts hanging out with a group of classic rock loving stoners, and Sam deals with his desire to lose his childish geek image and win the heart of his long time crush. Unlike other nostalgia based programming, there is no maudlin sentiment here. The emotions and resolutions to stories feel honest and real. Characters have parents who are incredibly flawed, and those flaws don’t go away at the end of the episode. One episode in particular deals with a cheating parent, the episode ends on a very ambiguous note. If you haven’t discovered this gem, I highly recommend you hunt it down.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present, created by Larry David)
Starring Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Featuring Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Einstein, Shelly Berman, Vivica A. Fox, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, Paul Dooley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Kaitlin Olsen, Paul Mazursky, Richard Kind, Ben Stiller, Mel Brooks

If you enjoyed Seinfeld, then Curb Your Enthusiasm will blow your mind. The neurotic basis of George Costanza, Larry David, has created a series in which he plays himself as a buffoon constantly getting into awkward situations based on the misunderstanding of other or, more often than not, David’s own hang ups about minutiae. The series is one of the few to really capture improv comedy working right. A lot of comedies have followed since and don’t seem to have actors of the high level working in them that Curb does. A typical episode of Curb might involve Larry getting into an argument with a wheelchair bound man about using the handicapped toilet stall, followed by him inadvertently insulting a lesbian receptionist about she and her partner’s desire to adopt a Chinese baby. The jokes are never played as mocking these people, but rather comes from David’s desire to see all characters, regardless of their specificities, shown as jerks. He sees that people are more or less jerks when it comes down to it, and how he plays this out is hilarious.

Arrested Development (2003-2006, created by Mitchell Hurwitz)
Starring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Ron Howard
Featuring Liza Minelli, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Winkler, Mae Whitman, Judy Greer

There has never been a more complex, layered, and enjoyable comedy on network television than Arrested Development. From the moment it debuted, Fox seemed to have little interest in it, while viewers and critics loved the hell out of this show. The premise is that George Bluth, owner of the Bluth Corporation is arrested for violating trading laws and his son, Michael finds he’s now in charge of the company and the self-absorbed and moronic family around him. Every actor is bringing their A game here, and the casting is spot on. There are no other actors who could play this character so over the top and still be endearing. The series also incorporates a large number of cameos and employs many of the players from HBO’s Mr. Show (Cross was one of the creators of that skit comedy series). Since the cancellation of series, network television comedy has never seemed as promising to me. A featuring film continuing the adventures of the Bluth family is in the works and set to be released next year, here’s hoping it can live up to the series.

Eastbound and Down (2009 – present, created by Jody Hill)
Starring Danny McBride, Andrew Daly, John Hawkes, Katy Mixon, Ben Best, Jennifer Irwin
Featuring Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson

From the minds behind The Foot Fist Way and Observe & Report, comes this amazing HBO comedy series. Kenny Powers, a blatant parody of ignorant, racist Atlanta Brave John Rocker, is thrown out of Major League Baseball after being caught using steroids. He returns to his hometown in North Carolina where he becomes a substitute PE teacher at the same middle school his high school sweetheart works at. Kenny goes about abusing the hospitality of his brother and family, treating the middle school principal like a jerk, and ingesting an unhealthy amount of drugs. The highlight of the series comes when Kenny deals with local car dealer Ashley Schaeffer (Ferrell) which culminates in an insane pitching demonstration. The entire first season plays out like an extended movie, with a series finale that could serve as a perfect ending.

Bored to Death (2009 – present, created by Jonathan Ames)
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson
Featuring Olivia Thirlby, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, Bebe Neuwirth, Jenny Slate

This HBO series is a sort of comedic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel. Schwartzman playing a writer named Jonathan Ames (meta, eh?), loses his girlfriend and out of boredom posts a craiglist ad as an unlicensed private eye. He begins to get cases and finds himself getting caught up in the fun of it. He typically incorporates his indie comic book artist friend (Galifiankis) and pot smoking boss (Danson) on the cases as well. The series has a much more muted sense of comedy than Eastbound and Down, one of the best aspects of HBO’s comedy programming. They do a very good job of balancing multiple styles, yet never lose their quality.