Breaking Badathon

Kish and I admittedly have been derelict in our hot TV show watching.  We have never watched Mad Men, or Dexter, or the vast majority of the other shows that have dominated the national conversation and shifted the zeitgeist over the past decade or so.

That includes Breaking Bad.  And our out-of-itness meant that, for years, when one of our friends would ask what we thought of the latest episode, we could only shrug and say we don’t watch the show — a response that was typically greeted with a puzzled look and then a heartfelt “You’ve got to watch it!”  But somehow, with everything else on our plates, we just never got around to it . . . until now.

We’ve decided to do a crash course in cultural catch-up.  With AT&T U-Verse as the platform, we’ve subscribed to Netflix, installed Roku, and started our studies.  Breaking Bad is the first class on the schedule, and each night after I return home from work we’ve become immersed in the weird world of Walter White and his pal Jesse and his crooked lawyer and watched mini-marathons of episodes.  We’re now nearing the end of season 3, and things just seem to be getting worse, big picture, for the ever-rationalizing OCD cancer-battling chemistry teacher turned bad-ass meth cook.

Some people argue that Breaking Bad is the best show that has ever been broadcast on TV.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, I would say it is a superior show, although I’m not sure that it is quite at the level of The Sopranos or The Wire.  Still, it’s got all of the elements of a great show — fascinating characters that you care about, great acting, evil, unexpected violence, stone-cold criminals, difficult moral choices, and little touches that just make the show a bit more interesting, like a character who always wears purple.

But here’s my problem:  I simply can’t watch too much non-sports TV programming without dozing off.  I don’t care how good a show is, and whether Hank is in mortal peril — there’s something about sitting on a couch and watching hours of TV that makes me nod off.  Three episodes is about my limit, and that’s OK by me.  I prefer to parcel out and savor the episodes of a great show, rather than watching them all in one big gush.

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An Unabashed Rave About The True Detective Finale

The finale of HBO’s True Detective was as awesome as any fan of the show could have hoped. It was an acting, storytelling, and philosophical tour de force that left us wishing this show and cast would go on forever.

We found out who The Yellow King was, and he was every bit as creepy and appalling and deeply, fundamentally disturbed as we anticipated. As is true with everything about this fabulous series, the finale gave us only a glimpse as the life of this terrible serial killer of children and left so many questions about him unanswered that you could write whole books providing the explanation. I liked that they left things unanswered and tantalizing — it suggests the creators of the show respect their audience rather than patronizing them. Like the rest of season 1, the finale really made you think.

Spolier alert: I’m also thrilled that Hart and Cohle survived. I thought they would be killed off, and in some sense that would have taken the easy way out. When characters survive, you have to think about what they will become, which is harder.

In this case, I think we can conclude that — as terrible as their long experience was, and the many points of anguish they suffered, and inflicted on each other and Marty’s family — they ended up as better people. Marty obviously learned that his family is what is really important and that he has deep feelings for the iconoclastic Rustin Cohle. Cohle, on the other hand, reconnected with his daughter and his father, and now is allowing a dash of optimism to enter into his unique and bleak view of the world. Marty and Rust would make a formidable team going forward, but of course we don’t know whether that will happen, just as we don’t know whether there’s a glimmer of hope that Marty and Maggie get together again — which Kish is hoping for.

I thought it was great that Marty showed that, for all of Cohle’s dismissal of his skills when they ended their partnership in 2002, Marty prove to be a damn good investigator whose hard work and insight led the pair to the Yellow King. I liked that Cohle remained judgmental and inflexible about Marty’s self-destructive philandering. I especially appreciated that, at the moment of death, Cohle thought of and sensed his daughter, who had been an important start of the back story at the beginning of the series but hadn’t been mentioned recently. Reintroducing Cohle’s devastating loss of a child made the powerful closing scene even more powerful.

And what about that gripping, stunning closing scene, when both Cohle and Marty bared their souls? It showed what an epically well-acted series this was, because both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson absolutely nailed it. McConaughey gave a titanic performance as Cohle shaken and struggling and uplifted by his visions at the moment of death, and Harrelson was brilliant as he showed the layers, and changes, in a character who went from a cheating good old boy to a good man over the 17-year arc of the story.

I’ve long been a Woody Harrelson fan, and McConaughey matches him talent for talent and nuance for nuance. I loved the camaraderie of their two characters, the humor they brought to the roles, and the absolute credibility of their artistic creations. Harrelson and McOnaughey are simply two of the best actors around.

And if this posting isn’t enough of a rave already, let me end with a plug for HBO. For years, Kish and I have been saying that HBO has the best original programming on TV. From The Sopranos to Deadwood to Game of Thrones — and a bunch of other great shows in between — HBO has produced a huge collection of incredible TV programming. If you don’t subscribe to a network that produces a show like True Detective, you’re just cheating yourself.

James Gandolfini, R.I.P.

James Gandolini has died.  Only 51, he passed away on a trip to Italy, of an apparent heart attack.  It is tough news for those of us who admired Gandolfini’s acting and held out hope that, at some point, we might see a bit more of The Sopranos.

Many people consider The Sopranos to be one of the best — and maybe the best — TV shows ever made, and James Gandolfini was its spiritual core.  His Tony Soprano was one of the most fully realized TV characters ever to grace the small screen.  Viewers understood his angst and sympathized with his crises, cringed at his extraordinary episodes of hyperviolence and serial philandering, celebrated his successful schemes, marveled at his generosity and quick turns of mood.  The character was the product of great writing, but also of Gandolfini’s brilliant acting.

My favorite Sopranos scenes were from the early years, between Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and Nancy Marchand as his formidable, emotionally brutal mother.  It was naked, powerful, astonishing stuff.  Their convincing portrayals of a devoted son and a caustic mother in a devastating family relationship — and the flashbacks to Soprano’s boyhood — made the notion of a mob boss going to a therapist seem very plausible, indeed.

The Sopranos was TV lightning in a bottle, with the perfect combination of concept, cast, and writing.  It will be enjoyed by TV viewers for so long as people appreciate talent.  Fifty-one is much too young for a talent like Gandolfini’s to exit the stage, and his death is an enormous loss for his family, his friends, and his fans.

Will You Binge On Arrested Development?

I never watched Arrested Development when it was on network TV.  Richard recommended it highly, and said it was one of the greatest sitcoms ever, but for whatever reason I never found time to watch it.

Now, seven years have gone by, and long-deprived Arrested Development fans are overjoyed.  Netflix is offering the resurrected series, and has posted all 15 new episodes at once.  It’s how Netflix — which is trying to break the stranglehold of broadcast TV, and get Americans to think differently about how their home entertainment should be delivered — does things.  And the release of a block of 15 new episodes raises a crucial question for the dedicated fan:  do you consume, in gluttonous fashion, all 15 new episodes in one gorging, eating-Cheetos-and-guzzling-caffeinated-beverages-sitting, or do you, in refined fashion, carefully limit yourself to one episode per day, or per week, to string out the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with a show and its characters that have become like an old friend?

Call me hopelessly undisciplined, but I’d be tempted to watch as many episodes as I could in the shortest period of time.  If someone told me that there was an entirely new season of Deadwood or The Sopranos with their original casts I’d plop myself down in front of the tube and have at it for as long as I could bear.

So if you know someone who loved Arrested Development, don’t be troubled if you can’t get ahold of them this weekend.  They may just be indulging their gluttonous side, and we shouldn’t get in the way of their pleasure.

We All Could Use A Lesula

They’ve just discovered a new species of monkey, called a lesula.  According to scientists, it looks like an “owl-faced monkey,” but it has a bright blue butt — a color unknown elsewhere in monkeydom, which otherwise seems to specialize in vividly hued behinds.

I’m not particularly interested in the lesula’s keister, unusual though it may be.  I’m much more intrigued by the lesula’s very human-looking face.  Look at those large, intensely accepting eyes!  Look at that placid expression, that calm demeanor!  The lesula looks like a strange combination of your Mom when you were about six, a stolid priest hearing confession, and Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist.

With a face like that, who wouldn’t want a lesula around the house?  It looks like you could tell the lesula just about anything — no matter how boring or bizarre — and it would pause for a moment, nod in a kindly fashion, and then say gravely, yet sympathetically:  “Go on.”  Can’t you imagine going to a bar with the lesula after a long week of work, buying it a beer, and starting a conversation by saying: “You wouldn’t believe the week I had . . . . “?

When Darkness Season Falls

Some people celebrate the extra hour of sleep we gain when we “fall back” every autumn.  Other people dread that day, because the simple act of turning back the clocks ushers in a season of seemingly constant darkness.

It’s dark when we get up in the morning, dark when we drive to work, and dark when we sit at our desks and turn to our work.  It’s dark when we we leave at night, dark as we drive home, and dark when we walk into our front doors.  When you couple the shroud of darkness with the unrelentingly overcast, wet, and cold weather that characterizes a Midwestern winter, you have concocted a powerfully grim brew that many people find difficult to handle.  There’s a reason why seasonal affective disorder has been defined by health care professionals.

I think there are two keys to successfully handling the darkness season.  First, maximize your exposure to daylight.  Get out of the building and into the open air for lunch and on weekend days, and if the skies are clear turn your face sunward.  Even the shriveled intensity of the winter sun is better than no sun at all.

Second, during the dark hours at home, always have a project to work on.  It might be reading a collection by a favorite author, or baking Christmas cookies, or updating your iPod.  One winter Kish and I decided to watch The Sopranos from beginning to end, and it was a very enjoyable exercise that helped to make the days go faster.  The projects will help to occupy the idle hours and leave you with a feeling of accomplishment — and perhaps even an appreciation for the darkness season and the opportunities it offers.