I’m having a weird moment: There’s very little TV on my DVR right now. The net I’m throwing out and trawling just isn’t catching anything worth watching, and I’m so grateful when it does that when The Blacklist returned to my lineup Thursday night (don’t judge me, there’s nothing wrong about this completely nonsensical wish fulfillment show) I was thrilled.
This does not mean there is no TV out there worth watching, of course. I have all of Hulu and Netflix and things are On Demand (which I have found is the best way to watch the Divergent movies) and I could literally turn into a new cushion on the sofa before I would run out of things to watch. But the issue with streaming is it’s so … proactive. I’m a lazy TV viewer (aren’t we all?) in that I want to tell my TV to give me things, then walk away, then have those things ready when I return. I want TV to be my mom making me dinner.
I’m currently missing some of my favorite shows, like Mr. Robot. TV has become so cool it’s hard to remember there was a time that when there was nothing new there really was nothing new and then when stuff did come back it was something of a wasteland. Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot, is one of those old school “TV blows” guys, and that’s part of what makes his show so amazing.
“I was never really a fan of TV much growing up,” he told me as part of an interview that ultimately showed up here in the LA Times. “I watched Seinfeld and a couple other comedies but in terms of dramas it wasn’t something I was a huge fan of, mostly because TV was less about an overarching story and more about characters and there was this repetitive nature of it. And with procedurals, even if they had season long arcs they would reset the next season and do another season-long arc. There was this rinse, repeat and that style of storytelling I got bored of it very easily. I needed, like, a beginning middle and end.”
Fortunately for him (and for us), along came shows like Breaking Bad and suddenly TV could do that, it could tell an extended tale from beginning to middle to end the way a book might do it. With that possibility opened up, TV could do anything — but it also required creative minds who were willing to think like authors, as if we’re on a long careening arc toward … something. Meaning, at least.
I went on WBAI radio on Wednesday night (brace yourself; the show started at 1:30 a.m. which meant I didn’t get to bed until nearly 4 and then rose again at 5:30 for my regular day gig at 7, thanks for your support) to talk about a show that I really love … and also which fails this necessity again and again: Doctor Who.
You can hear the whole long discussion* above or here (along with a lot of other divergences, including a reading of my short story “Cant Keep a Dead Man Down”), but if you’re not up for that I’ll try to do the TL;DR version.
1. Doctor Who is a 50-year-old show with an amazing premise.
2. It also has no canonical elements that can’t be dicked around with.
3. Particularly by the current administration, who routinely bump the emotional level up to 11 while simultaneously refusing to create beams and pillars on which these emotions are supposed to rest.
4. It’s a soap opera that way: Oh! She’s dead! We’re sad, because we loved her. Oh, wait! She’s not dead! That’s good, but thanks for denying us the catharsis.
5. Or how about this: The universe! It is ending! I can’t do anything to stop it! Oh, wait, I can. (Rinse and repeat, per Esmail.) You can do that sort of thing once in a very rare while. You do it multiple times over the course of a season and the emotional resonance gets fainter and fainter.
These are all subjects that have been discussed elsewhere and with greater nuance and knowledge than I have. But it pisses me off. And here’s what I learned during the course of my chat. My co-chatter Jim Freund — the host of the show I was on, Hour of the Wolf — is a Who fan par excellance and guess what: He acknowledges it all. And says it just doesn’t matter. The show is written in the UK for kids.
I refuse to accept that. Who is gold being treated like pyrite. And we’re left feeling foolish.
On that note, here are two shows I have been seeking out and which have preoccupied my last few weeks.
The Great British Bake off (aka in the US The Great British Baking Show) (PBS/Netflix)
Watched the whole season on Netflix in the course of a week. I can’t tell you why it’s so compelling precisely: 12 amateur bakers are lined up with individual cooking stations under a tent in a field in the UK and have to complete three baking challenges over the course of a weekend. But it works, and works so beautifully. They’re supportive, not sniping, the desserts look amazing yet I wouldn’t want to eat 95 percent of them, and they’re fun and real people. Plus, you learn all kinds of cooking jargon and British slang (over here we’d let the dough rise by proofing it; there it’s proving it). Woe to us when an American version is made.
Master of None (Netflix)
Aziz Ansari has been around a while now, and while he’s always been one of those comedians on my periphery whose presence I appreciated, I don’t think I had a deep respect that’s burgeoned into fandom as of yet. That’s changing as I watch his Netflix sitcom. The pilot didn’t do much for me, but a blog recommendation suggested I try the episode “Indians on TV” and my world turned around. I binged four episodes in a row while recovering from my early-morning-radio exhaustion. There’s a whole post to be had about what makes his show so terrific, but part of it is that I find the earnest, good-hearted nature of it so bloody refreshing. We used to have sitcoms where wacky, improbable things happened at the drop of a hat. Then we had sitcoms that were so sharp and self-referential and ironic that they hurt to watch. But with Master Ansari feels like he’s tapping into that earnest millennial spirit, where you can have fun and weird things can happen and it feels both true and kind and hilarious at the same time. He has an honest, straightforward way of moving his story along that makes me envious (example: His character makes a quip at another character, who doesn’t get it. He says something like, “Well, that interaction didn’t go as planned,” and walks away.) You might have to be there to get it — but it’s so refreshing and plain-spoken and tight. Very tight. You should be there to get it, as soon as possible.
More cakes, and more Indians on TV, please.
* Jim writes: “The last 10-15 minutes of the show is on the WBAI Archive under ‘Burn Baby Burn/Clappers’ which cannot be (legally) downloaded as that’s a music show.” Go here for that, you intrepid person.