Tag TV

What makes me hate the TV shows I hate

Unlikeable characters

Rescue Me was a perfect example: after watching more than a season (on the strong recommendation of a friend), and hating the Denis Leary character in ever increasing amounts, always thinking he couldn’t possibly get any worse until he did, I eventually decided I’ve got better things to do than watch shows about assholes. Since then, that has been a prevailing sentiment. This is the reason I won’t watch Sons of Anarchy.

Implausibility

I can put up with only so much. But what really blows my mind is how stupid details that could so easily be fixed without any impact whatsoever on the plot get overlooked. Science gobbledygook is a common one (often used in the CSI franchise), as are simple things like the continued use of “enhance” where people zoom into fuzzy photographs or videos and see impossible details. Also, the guessing of computer passwords. In a scene in the otherwise potentially promising Mr. Robot, one of the characters, a supposedly excellent hacker, needing to get into someone’s computer apparently looks up at something above the desk, finds a “clue” and viola! that is actually the password! The absurdity of  this makes me irate. Why not just have her use a USB stick that runs a password-cracking program and then when it finds it in an implausibly short time, she could comment on the inadvisability of a 4-letter all lowercase password or something? And while these little details are not enough to make me hate an entire show, the more of them there are, and the more heavily the show relies on them (CSI), the less patience I have with said show.

Invincible villains

I can name three off the top of my head: The Danish show The Bridge, in which the villain starts off by mysteriously killing the power to a bridge connecting 2 countries (Denmark and Sweden) and somehow, during some period of no traffic, taking a body which has been cut perfectly in half to the exact centre of the bridge and placing one half on the Danish side and  the other half on the Swedish side, without the slightest trace of blood or (of course) clues of any kind, and then vanishes without a trace. I forget, but I think other impossible acts carry on from there. In one of the later seasons of Dexter—a show that throws all plausibility to the wind as a matter of course—the city is tormented by a killer who manages to create a series of complex tableaux in public spaces of murdered victims decked out with wings and other set pieces without ever leaving a trace of himself. Where ARE these places where everyone sleeps solidly from midnight to 7am and surveillance cameras don’t exist? True Detective (Season 1) is another one with a killer that builds complicated ritualistic sets and leaves ridiculous clues hanging around, seemingly moments before without leaving a trace of himself.

Episodic overextension

Some shows stick to their premise so doggedly, week to week, that they create super-unbelievability over the course of the show. Take, for instance, Dexter. What if there were this character who is a controlled serial killer by night and blood-spatter specialist by day, but instead of murdering another killer per episode (resulting in a simply ludicrous number of murders and serial killers), he took an entire season to plot, stalk and kill his victim. It would probably be more interesting, more nuanced and certainly less absurd. The Americans (one of my favourite shows for other reasons) suffers from the same problem: every week, more assignments, more disguises, more missions … these people wouldn’t have time to sleep, let alone raise kids, pretend to run a business and retain a semblance of normalcy. I know, it’s only TV, and the shows are there to entertain. I’m not suggesting they be broken into pedantic slavery to veracity, but I think that they suffer from overextension, and that slowing the pace wouldn’t hurt them at all. On a slightly related note, how much better would the X-files have been if half the time, or even part of the time, Scully turned out to be right and the hoax was revealed? Much better, in my opinion.

Unnatural dialogue

This is strictly an American thing. The whiz-bang, rapidfire dialogue of certain shows is something I simply cannot tolerate. The actors speak quickly back-and-forth in perfectly constructed sentences and sometimes witty repartee. There is no thought, reflection or error. This is what caused me to dislike The Newsroom and Scandal among others. Related to this is precocious children: children who say things only an adult would say or in a way that only an adult would say it (and who do this regularly as part of their character).

The Tough Guy

I am convinced that there is no easier role for an actor to play than a tough guy, and TV and movies are riddled with them. They show no emotion other than lust and anger, maybe a bit of drunken camaraderie with the boys, or maybe a little bit of hurt (from whatever tragic thing it was in their past that made them so closed off). They are distanced from their lovers (who inexplicably love them nonetheless), they are never actually happy, they don’t laugh except to intimidate, they are ultimately boring beyond belief. They glower, clench their teeth, lower their eyelids and barely talk. The vast majority of cop/detective shows harbour at least one tough guy. A perfect example is Ray Donovan: a show I’ve been trying to watch, but simply can’t because I desperately want Ray’s wife to murder her tedious, boring, absent husband and go have some fun with his money.

Strippers and gratuitous sex

The Sopranos started  the stripper thing with the BadaBing, and it seems like every American drama since then has picked up on this “great idea” to have their men hanging out having conversations in strip clubs so they can get some naked women in there just for the fun of it. Similarly, I’m pretty sure that nearly every sex scene is a gratuitous sex scene. Ray Donovan has one or two per episode, and often starts with one. I was starting to worry about myself: am I turning into a prude that I find these scenes boring and moderately offensive? Was I wrong to feel that they are basically pornography, where the focus is clearly on the man fucking and  the woman receiving? That the shot is often absent the woman’s head, especially when fucked from behind? That there is little actual enjoyment going on other than perfunctory orgasm? But I’m pleased to report that I saw a show recently that completely vindicated these thoughts: that I am not having a prudish reaction, but that these observations are true in the overwhelming number of cases. The show I saw was Catastrophe: a British comedy about an American man who has a short affair with an Irish woman and … well, nevermind, but there’s sex: there’s realistic, mutually gratifying, believable sex that is necessary to the plot and not male-centric pornography (nor is it the silly, fast-motion, hopping up and down, legs akimbo, shapes under blankets “funny sex” that some shows resort to). They’re both having a good time, there are moments of awkwardness (but not all-awkward Girls-style sex), and of happiness. So I’m not a prude, I’m simply bored out of my mind and fed up with the incessant man-fucks-woman scenes in most TV shows.

The role of women

This last one should have been my first reason for hating TV shows because it has become a real issue for me with anything I watch. I’ve become very aware of the roles that women have in TV and very critical. This was a huge reason why I couldn’t get into True Detective: that the only women in the show were victims, strippers, and a wife who became an adjunct and mere plot device to both characters. This relegation of women to minor and often abused roles is outrageously common. I’m fucking sick of it, and I’m going to write an entire post about it.

The best TV I’ve ever seen

Why do The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and The Slap make my top list for the Best TV I’ve ever seen?

What I have come to value in cinematic watching experiences above all else are nuance, and believability (which does not exclude genres such as Science Fiction). I’m a huge fan of character study, but not without story arc. Character studies without an overall arc run the risk of turning into soap operas, and many recent shows have fallen into this trap.

I almost don’t need to talk about The Wire, as it is widely acclaimed as the best show ever made. What I love about it is that there is little difference in the “goodness” or “badness” of the characters, no matter which side of the law they are on. The people are complex. McNulty, the ostensible “star” of the first season becomes so disgusting at some point that I felt I could smell the stale liquor and vomit on him. Many of the drug dealing characters are heartbreakingly endearing. And what makes the show most remarkable is the barely connected plots from season to season: from drug dealing to human trafficking to the education system to politics and finally the media, with characters evolving and reccuring from one season to the next.

Deadwood comes a very close second, partly for dialogue that is so fantastic it’s a pure delight to parse. The characters are intense and the plot is brutal. Al Swearengen is the role and performance of a lifetime for Ian McShane, as a man so basely human and yet surprising in the revelation that he is not, in fact, a psychopath (his delivery of the raving minister from his misery being one of the great scenes of this show). E. B. Farnam, that mewling little sycophant, gets the richest dialogue, serving as king’s fool to Swearengen. In fact every nearly character is rich beyond the degree of any other show I’ve ever seen, with the exception of poor, wooden, humourless Seth Bullock played by Timothy Olyphant. Presumably the intended hero of the show, he is easily overshadowed by the other players, as he skulks around with a rictus of bared teeth and little else to show for himself. Initially I was concerned by the depiction of women in the show, but they quickly came into focus with some terrific roles: The resourceful and tough-as-nails Trixie, tragic Joanie Stubbs, beleaguered yet oddly comical Jewel, and of course the fantastic force of nature that was Calamity Jane, played beyond belief by Robin Weigert. Three seasons was not nearly enough for me: at that calibre I could have watched it for ten.

The Sopranos earns its place by being the first to delve deeply into the psyche of its characters, notably Tony, through the device of speaking to his psychotherapist. It is particularly in the first two or three seasons as he reveals his ordinary vulnerability, and middle class concerns, contrasted with the brutality of his business, that made this such a surprising delight. The death of Nancy Marchand as his mother was a huge loss for the show, as it took with it Tony’s third side (as child), as well as the only comic element of the show. Without his mother, and for a while without his therapist, Tony and the show became one-dimensional: a show about the mob. Which is not to say that there weren’t brilliant episodes in subsequent seasons, but at the beginning of the 5th season I realized that I despised each and every character in the show and I stopped watching (though caught up later, a few years after the series ended.) The second strongest character in The Sopranos was Tony’s wife, Carmela, played by the wonderful Edie Falco. She twists and turns throughout the series, at times disingenuous about her part in the Soprano family business, at times every bit the mobster’s wife, with full advantage of the position. Her morality escapes her even as she genuflects and prays.

Breaking Bad makes most people’s Top TV lists, but for me it ended up there mostly on the strength of the final season. Don’t get me wrong, this show had me from the opening scene of the first episode, but it wobbled at times, and nearly lost me in the 4th season. However, Bryan Cranston’s lauded portrayal of an ordinary man who transforms into a megalomaniacal killer pushes through what flaws the show has. One of the other strengths of this show is Walter White’s wife, Skylar, who wobbles on the edge of her husband’s insanity. At turns horrified, frightened, and conciliatory she both abets her husband’s schemes and plots her escape. She is the metaphor for every woman trapped in an abusive relationship without ever succumbing to stereotype. Walter’s Jekyll and Hyde transformation into Heisenberg, particularly over the first few seasons when the Jekyll in him was still occasionally apparent, was a delightful and fascinating transformation, but it wasn’t until the fifth season when you see everything he worked for falling apart, and the man comes out of the monster in the realization that he has lost absolutely everything, including the love of his family, that the story arc brilliantly completes.

The presence of Friday Night Lights on this list may be baffling to some. But what could be written off as wholesome American schmaltz is in fact one of the best acted, most loving portrayals of a group of people that I’ve ever seen. This show is a standout in this arena because unlike the vast majority of good shows on TV, it’s about good people. No cops or killers or psychopaths, no crime or mystery or incest or rape. It sounds deathly dull. In fact, the subject of  the show contains three words that fill me with profound disinterest: Texas Highschool Football. So how does it do it? By portraying, in believable, gorgeously acted detail, the lives and concerns of very ordinary people. With one or two small exceptions, I loved every single character in the show. I cared about them. I marvelled at their tangibility. Kyle Chandler may have just been playing himself, but his ability to express himself in the slightest look was like watching someone you intimately know. I loved these characters so much I forgave them their Christianity, and that’s not something I forgive easily. The show has a major flaw, and that is the second season, where it lost its way so badly in implausible plots and dead ends that at the beginning of season three they wiped half of them from the slate, like it had all been a dream. From there on it marches firmly forward to a strong fifth and final season. I can genuinely say I miss these characters, and remember them fondly.

The last show in this list, The Slap, is a slight cheat, because it’s a miniseries, and as such benefits from the lack of pitfalls of multiple seasons. However, it is an utterly brilliant show from beginning to end. Based on the book of the same name by Christos Tsiolkas, it follows the aftermath of a party where the parent of one family slaps the child of another. As in the other shows, it is a study of characters, but driven by plot in which your allegiances change as the show progresses. Contempt turns to pity, sympathy turns to disgust. Your support of one character disintegrates while another one builds and then falls again. A situation that seems simple gets complicated and your opinion changes as each character takes their turn, episode by episode. I was positively riveted throughout, and have recommended this show with urgency to everyone I’ve met. The version I saw was Australian, though I understand an American version has been made—I can’t imagine why, as the Australian version is brilliantly and perfectly acted and staged throughout.

TV Addict

When I was a teenager in the 1970s I watched lot of TV. A lot. I once counted that I watched approximately 5 hrs/day (all in the evening). Starsky & Hutch, The Bionic Woman, Six Million Dollar Man (is that all?), Charlie’s Angels, Kojak, The Rockford Files, The Streets of San Francisco, Dallas, Dynasty, All in the Family, Police Woman, Columbo, Happy Days, The Partridge Family, Switch, Hart to Hart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Rhoda, Maude, The Jeffersons, M*A*S*H, Mork & Mindy, Taxi, Welcome Back Kotter, the Waltons … and many others; variety shows such as Sonny & Cher, and Carol Burnett; and of course reruns of Get Smart, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie, The Twilight Zone and more.

And then, I stopped. For most of my adult life I lived without a TV in the house. I have, for instance, never seen a single episode of Friends. A couple of decades of TV pretty much passed me by, and I’m glad to have missed it.

And then came The Sopranos. At the turn of the century, my boyfriend had a TV that I disdained and generally refused to watch, but somehow The Sopranos came to my attention, and not since I was 14 had I been so completely riveted by a show. Obsessed to the point of agony is more like it. We didn’t get HBO in Canada and so I had to wait (after the first season aired, second-run, on CTV) for it to come out on DVD. And thus, binge-watching was born.

I still don’t have a TV in the house, but I do have a computer hooked up to a video projector and a 7-foot screen in my living room. And via DVDs, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” I once again watch a lot of TV shows. Not, I’m happy to say, 5 hours a day, but probably half that.

Much has been made of the current “Golden Age of TV,” that we are currently in. I can’t speak for the majority of what’s on regular TV these days, but most of the shows I’ve watched have been good to excellent. Great TV is my medium of choice over movies. And happily, in the past few years, I’ve been keeping a list. Following is my list to date. It’s short on the “hate” side partly because I’m selective in what I watch, and partly because I’ve forgotten to include many shows that I briefly started and didn’t continue with. Some of this list requires explanation. I will explain later.

Best TV I’ve ever seen

The Wire (5 seasons)
Deadwood (3 seasons)
Friday Night Lights (except Season 2)
The Sopranos – esp. Season 1
Breaking Bad (as an overall arc of all seasons)
The Slap (miniseries)

All-time-greats

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Freaks & Geeks
Nurse Jackie
Curb Your Enthusiasm
DaVinci’s Inquest
The Office
– British

Excellent shows I’ve seen recently

(not as far back as The Sopranos)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell (miniseries)
The Legacy – Danish (a contender for the top list after the first season, but 2nd season flirts with soap opera)
Bloodline (A stellar first season, but maybe it should have been a 1 season miniseries?)
Dicte – Danish
Peaky Blinders
Borgen – Danish (3 seasons)
Rectify (brilliant? or depressing?)
The Good Wife
Top of the Lake
Intelligence (Canadian)
The Americans (3 seasons)
The Hour (2 seasons only)
Silk – British (3 seasons)
Salamander – Belgian (12 episodes)
Broadchurch
The Fall (but the second season was a disappointing repetition of the first season)
The Killing – Danish “Forbrydelsen” (3 seasons)
Wallander – British version
Wallander – Swedish version with Krister Henriksson, esp Season 2

Very good shows

Witnesses (French)
The Jinx (6 part miniseries documentary)
The Missing
Scott & Bailey
Happy Valley – fairly standard cop stuff, but with strong female lead and support
Call the Midwife
Orange is the New Black
House of Cards – British
Hit and Miss (1 season only)
Louie
Life on Mars

Shows I thoroughly enjoy/ed

Game of Thrones (until some point in the 4th season when i became excessively bored and remained bored throughout the 5th)
Rome
Mad Men
Key & Peele
(I have only ever seen isolated skits on YouTube, but I love them)
Portlandia – (I have only seen clips on youtube – almost all funny)

Good shows

The Affair
Rita (Danish)
Survivor’s Remorse (has its moments)
Justified – mostly because Timothy Olyphant is incredibly sexy
The Office – American
The Long Way ‘Round

Shows that were great for 1 or 2 seasons, but …

Love/Hate – Season 1&2
The killing – US version (3.5 seasons)
Homeland – first season only (Seasons 3 & 4 are abysmal)
House of Cards – American – first season
Misfits- 1&2
True Blood– 1 season

Shows of potential

Sense8
Black Mirror – 21st C Twilight zone
Fresh Meat

Shows I like/d pretty much or with reservations

True Detective (I have reservations even about Season 1)
Episodes (I don’t think this is very good, and I was slow getting into it, but then I obsessively binge-watched 4 seasons)
Real Humans (Danish Sci Fi)
Ripper Street
Secrets & Lies (miniseries?)
Getting On
Southcliffe (was really good but no real ending)
The Shadow Line (good despite omnipotent antagonists)
Girls
Luther
The Bletchley Circle
[Broen] The Bridge (Swedish/Danish) (WAY too omnipotent antagonist)
The Thick of It
Shameless (US version)
Firefly
Sherlock
Damages
Utopia

Guilty pleasures

Dexter – truly an awful show; couldn’t stop watching it (until i did)
Battlestar Galactica – dreadful military dreck: totally addictive
Downton Abbey – utter schmaltz: highly satisfying

Shows that were OK

Wentworth – Australian women’s prison series
The Honourable Woman – well done but Israel vs. Palestine
Rake
Last Tango in Halifax
Mad Dogs – very strange. Is it a comedy?
the Riches
the new Dr. Who
Weeds

Shows I couldn’t get into or didn’t like

Better Call Saul
Schitt’s Creek
Ambassadors
Hjordis (Danish: sequel to Rita)
The unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Olive Kitteridge – depressing but well done
Hinterland / Y gwyll
Ashes to Ashes
The Walking Dead
Boardwalk Empire
Treme
American Horror Story
Rescue Me
Extras
An Idiot Abroad
Spiral
Spooks (MI-5)
Mr. Selfridge
Parks & Recreation
Veep
Arrested Development
Community
30 Rock
Les revenants – the returned
The Newsroom
The Shield
West Wing (I’ve given it only a cursory trial. the reason I’m resistant to this show is an expectation of too-pat liberal utopia)
Veronica Mars
Orphan Black
It’s always sunny in philadelphia

Shows I hated

(not incl. shows I would probably hate but have never bothered to watch)

House – is one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen in my life. Totally reprehensible misrepresentation of medicine & utterly unbelievable.
Scandal – I watched about 15 minutes of idiotic rapid-fire dialogue up to the point of someone going through a file folder of information and flinging photos to the floor, and couldn’t take another awful second.

Shows I don’t want to see despite recommendations

Sons of Anarchy

Shows I’ve been recommended but haven’t yet seen

Maison Close (French)
Elementary
Mercy
Lewis
In the flesh
Gogglebox
The Staircase (Sundance)
Restless (Sundance)
Pulling
Kings