Few things in life are so easy and pleasurable as television. In particular, arc-oriented dramatic television. Where a movie can offer a transient two and a half hours at most experience, and generally by two hours has hit the boredom button, dramatic television with an arc-orientation can provide up to 15 and a half hours of entertainment over a typical 22 episode, 42 minute (less commercials) season.
And because a TV show can cost “only” $3-4 million to produce per episode, or “only” $66-88 million, with significant amounts (generally about $2 million or so per episode) paid by networks to production houses in licensing fees, which amounts to a net cost of $22-44 million), production teams can take risks that movies just can’t.
Oh not risks in special effects, gorgeous scenery, great cinematography, “brand name” actors, and the like. You won’t see Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., or Brad Pitt on series TV as a regular any time soon. Nor the special effects of Thor, the Avengers, or the Lone Ranger remake. No, I’m talking story content and character, together. Over 22 episodes and 15 and a half hours. That is where TV shines. And beats movies every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
The best new series in recent memory is NBC’s “the Blacklist.” With a masterful performance by James Spader, in full deep voiced villain and hero mode. The premise is silly, simple, but pretty compelling nevertheless. A famous criminal fixer and go-between and arranger, the Spader character (“Reddington”) was a former Naval Intelligence officer and proto-Jack-Ryan/Tom Clancy figure tapped for being promoted Admiral until he mysteriously disappeared 25 years ago. And turned up as a criminal fixer.
Now he shows up at the FBI HQ and offers his services to find and arrest his “Blacklist,” criminals so secret the FBI does not even know they exist. His only demand is to be fitted with a tracking chip, and to work with rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen, who may or may not be his daughter and whom Reddington will kill and even be prepared to be tortured and killed to protect. Agent Keen’s husband may be a neutered beta male to the max, or may be a stone cold hit man posing as a beta male elementary school teacher. Yes, soap opera elements, but well done ones. And the series rises with its villains of the week.
The major theme of the show is corruption. In the “Fall Finale” (the last show before the New Year) it is revealed that the top of the US government is incredibly corrupt, in the person of Alan Alda, who plays the villain like Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H* with about fifty years of extra cynicism and world weariness. One of the better episodes had Reddington revealing a hit on a campaigner against Child Prostitution. The kicker? It was Reddington who hired the hitman, and the campaigner was a cynical master-trafficker herself (guest star Isabella Rosselini) who used the campaign to get rid of her rivals.
No show I can think of has shown how utterly corrupt and cynical the world is, not just foreign governments, but do-good NGOs and the very top of the US government. And how utterly clueless and at sea the ordinary bureaucrats of the FBI are at even thinking like the top criminals, let alone being aware enough to spot their existence and catch them.
Spader is masterful as a guy who has seen entirely too much, and whose only baseline is simple humanity and protection of his friends and family. Will he semi-mercy kill an old friend dying of cancer to prevent him from spilling secrets? Yes. He’ll be crying about it, but he’ll do it. He’s capable of dragging a wounded FBI agent to safety and performing heroic measures to save him. And credibly threaten to kill him to save his possible-daughter Keen.
Its definitely worth your while.
Also up there is the third season of “Person of Interest,” which got more interesting with the addition of Sarah Shahi and Amy Acker, and the subtraction of Taraji P. Henson, who underperformed in the role of Detective Carter and was recently killed off. Privacy activists, shadowy government agents, a Hillary Clinton-like government villain who demands to be called “Ma’am?” You got it. Plus MASTERFUL acting by veteran character Michael Emerson. A voice like a gift from God, his performance is quiet, a direct contrast to Spader in the “Blacklist” but nevertheless mesmerizing.
Unexpected twists and turns, the omnipresent surveillance cameras and distinctive cinematography, the “character” of the all-watching AI “Machine” and decent acting chops by Jim Caveziel, make this a good candidate for live viewing or certainly taping/recording. The musical score is good too. Chris Nolan’s brother Jonathon is the creator and Executive Producer. At this point it would be fair to say he’s the more talented Nolan brother, and that’s because this show is so great. Shot on location in and around NYC, the show looks different and more “real” than any other show out there. If corruption in all its forms making the bureaucracy incapable of dealing with crime is the theme of “the Blacklist,” then technology erasing privacy for both good and bad is the theme of “Person of Interest.” Given Ed Snowden’s revelations of the NSA global wiretap scheme, to collect data on everyone on the planet, the theme is timely.
This show is highly recommended.
The Good But Not Great
In this category we have the Fox show “Almost Human,” which stars “Dredd” and “Star Trek” and “Lord of the Rings” veteran Karl Urban. As Detective Kennex, partnered with a “crazy” robot/AI in Los Angeles, 2048. Sci-fi elements abound, artificial organs with programmed to fail chips (unless the recipients pay up), sex bots, hacking, old technology (lasers to communicate when radio waves are jammed), and more.
What makes this show merely good and not great is the lack of a great actor and good writing. Urban carried along with Olivia Thirlby, “Dredd.” With only his jaw visible. He was outstanding. But his character here is blah, one more angsty TV detective in over 80 years of angsty detectives. His partner is competent and plays ironically, “warmer” than the angsty/flinty Kennex, but the chemistry is not really there. The show lacks the hook and emotional set up of “the Blacklist” (wounded idealist plays back the corrupt nature of criminals to extract vengeance and carry some complex scheme using the corruption against them) and Person of Interest (guilty computer genius and secret agents find meaning to stop murders from happening).
Watch for the Sci-Fi elements, it is one of the few true sci-fi shows in recent memory. But it may not hold you for long.
Also in this category is NBC’s “Grimm,” which thankfully dropped the stupid love-triangle storyline from last season and has returned to Monster of the Week, with decent action scenes and various monsters. Its completely stupid and kills brain cells, but sometimes that’s what the doctor ordered on Fridays. The lead, David Giuntoli, is notable for being both charismatic and one of the few reality show stars who worked at becoming a real actor (MTV’s Road Rules and Real World). Giuntoli and Silas Weir Mitchell as the vegetarian, clock-fixing werewolf, are the heart of the show and provide the most fun. TV is a character-based medium and these two when given a halfway decent script provide fun.
Its silly sure. Stupid? No doubt. But fun as a big wad of bubble gum. Which is all it is.
The Truly Dreadful
There are some truly dreadful shows out there this fall. You’ll want to avoid these at all costs.
First up, is Fox’s awful “Sleepy Hollow.” A major disappointment (the Tim Burton movie from the 1990’s was actually good AND scary and fit in his wheelhouse). Filled with a Black female police detective who “axes” questions and is the romantic lead, and pompous British version of Ichabod Crane as a poor man’s 18th Century Sherlock Holmes. Filled with gore, and pc-gone-amok (who knew Ichabod Crane was an avid abolitionist and endorser of Black Presidents?) the show is filled with inconsistent magic mumbo-jumbo, demons, and the like. But no God.
I find it passing strange that Liberals in Hollywood have no problem depicting demons, evil black magic, and the like. Including in this turkey, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But never, well God. Nothing of Jesus. It seems like the only thing Hollywood believes in regarding the Bible is the Devil. Not the protagonist. Funny, that.
Next up is “Mork and Buffy.” Aka “the Crazy Ones.” You’d think a half hour sitcom would be a laugh riot, with Robin William’s proven ability to be absolutely hilarious when improv-mode. Someone must have dosed him with un-funny pills, however. Because here he’s in full, maudlin, “Patch Adams” era lack of funny. Gellar is pretty but has nothing to do but act as a straight woman to the ghost of Williams comedy. Watch any old episode of “WKRP In Cinncinati” on Hulu to see how funny is done. Or “Cheers,” or “Taxi,” or “Night Court,” or even “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
This show is about as funny as “King of Queens.” Enough said.
And that sums up this TV season. As always, there are innumerable acceptable reality shows: Pawn Stars, Flipping Vegas, Counting Cars, Futurescape with James Woods, Mythbusters, etc. to fill any boredom gap. There are even more stupid singing and dancing contest shows, night time soap operas, and the like. But you have two great shows, two good ones, and the rest horrid or blah. [I have not seen "Breaking Bad" or "Orange is the New Black" so can't comment on them.]
Which is disappointing. You’d expect more risks given the lower costs and thus, executive pressure with TV. Particularly given that more and more, tv revenue even that of broadcast networks depend on carriage fees from cable and satellite companies not ratings and ad revenues.
But perhaps we will see more risk if the reward is greater. We can only hope that ala carte pricing for cable/satellite channels comes quickly. My hope is that if it comes, the reward for shows people actually like and watch will become apparent, and we get less dreadful fluff designed to cater to the same 18-34 female audience like “Sleepy Hollow” and advance the pc/multicultural agenda of the tired old nepotistic creative class.