Wednesday, August 6, 2014

High Fives for Summer: Television

As I've spent most of my summer cooped up in my apartment, occasionally doing laundry but mostly just reading, listening, and watching, I thought I might pass along the media highlights that I've come across. To do so, in this four-part blog series, I'll list five of my favorite TV shows, books, albums, and movies that I've consumed this summer, thus creating my "High Fives" for each medium.


Television has been described as being in the "golden age" for the last decade or so and I would tend to agree. Although there's certainly more trash out there than ever before, the broadening of the television market created by cable networks and, now, internet based programming has created both quantity and quality.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but it seems as though this golden aged television has delivered dramas in waves. The Sopranos, The West Wing, and The Wire all aired relatively alongside each other in the early '00s. Mad Men and Breaking Bad dominate(d) for their runs in the following six or so years. And, now, a new slew of heavy hitters are just starting up with House of Cards, True Detective, and Fargo. Of course, this ignores a few shows like Homeland and Downton Abbey and disregards the comedy side of television programming but regardless of my wave-theory, if these next young guns are as fantastic as the last few waves, we're in for a good ride.

As for my "High Five" selections, many of my picks were decided heavily by their availability to me. Namely, whatever I could get my hands on at the local library and whatever is on Amazon Prime Instant Video, which recently added a ton of HBO shows in addition to their FX offerings. That said, here are some television highlights for the summer, old and new, funny and serious.

 Bored to Death || Season 3
HBO, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2009-11 || Comedy || Website
This three season sitcom finished it's course a few years back though I'm not sure why this little gem didn't get more attention. The premise is fairly simple and absurd: Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is an aspiring New York author who works as a P.I. in the evenings and is assisted by his two friends, George Christopher (Ted Danson) and Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), both of whom are cast brilliantly. The writing is smart, if not a little smarmy, and the actors are allowed to play off each other in ways a sitcom should allow their characters. Nothing about season three stood out as better than the rest of the series but if a Wes Anderson / Judd Apatow style HBO sitcom sounds intriguing, check it out.

Orphan Black || Season 1
BBC, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2013- || Canadian sci-fi || Website
Generally speaking, sci-fi shows aren't necessarily my cup of tea (e.g. I couldn't get into Battlestar Galactica for the life of me) but this brilliantly paced sci-fi thriller had Jorje and I flying through. Reminiscent of J.J. Abrams' Alias, this felt a bit tighter and had the added foreign-produced spunk. For those unfamiliar, the premise of the show follows orphaned, street thug Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) after she witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks identical to her. It's a fun one, perhaps specifically for a long summer afternoon.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee || Seasons 3 & 4
Viewed on the internet || 2012- || Comedy web series || Website
This internet-based interview series hosted by Jerry Seinfeld is quaint and unique and could only be successful with Seinfeld's notoriety and this day of internet programming interest. True to it's title, the episodes include Seinfeld driving some cool car, picking up a comedian friend, and going to get coffee. The episodes range in length from six to twenty minutes, rarely lagging too long or depicting a lull in the conversation. Sure, there is some over-reminiscing with the older comedians and the product placements are overwrought (intentionally, though not as tongue-in-cheek as, say 30 Rock pulled them off) making for a package of a show that might be a little too tidy at times. Still, what distinguishes this series from any late-night show is the off-handedness and strangeness of the locations and activities. Who doesn't love going for a drive in a cool car? Grabbing a cup of coffee? Somehow these household name comedians feel rather relatable. In season three, Tina Fey is herself, which is hilarious. On Patton Oswell's episode, their DeLorean breaks down. But of course they have a back-up at the ready. And Louie C.K. shares about how his favorite thing to do is get high and go to the IMAX, a story which is preceded by a heartwarming story about taking his kids out on his boat (which, by the way, is only another example of Louie showcasing what, I would contend, makes him the best entertainer able to blend the sacred and profane). Season four was recently posted. All episodes are up on the site.

The Wire || Season 1
HBO, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2002-08 || Crime drama || Website
I originally tried watching this show a few years back during my "gap year" between undergrad and grad school but I had just come off watching the entire The Sopranos series and couldn't handle another slow-paced though brilliantly constructed show. I'm glad I returned. The hour long episodes move along not slowly, like I originally felt, but at a pace true to life, taking time to allow the viewer to get to know its varied characters ranging from the Baltimore Police Department, drug addicts, the drug dealers and gang leaders, and the kids from the projects growing up among all of it. No one is overtly vilified or made to be a hero. The police slowly work to bring down the network of drugs and murders. Avon Barksdale serves as the calculating and well-reasoned leader of the network of drug distribution. I've also been watching 24: Live Another Day this summer and contrary to that show's handling of death, The Wire appropriately gives each life the respect any human life deserves, a rarity among television and movies these days, specifically for a show set in one of the roughest parts of the country and focusing on the homicide police department. I'm excited to work my way through the remaining four seasons as they focus on different areas of Baltimore.

True Detective || Season 1
HBO, viewed on Xfinity On-Demand || 2014 || Mystery crime drama || Website
I'd heard great things about this one and, I'll be honest, it catered to my faux-deep side. It's gotten some well-founded criticism for the lack of three-dimensional female characters but the acting, writing, and sepia-toned shots of deep-South Louisiana is gorgeous. The show does a marvelous job of creating mystery in the first few episodes, moving back and forth through time, using interviews of leads McConaughey and Harrelson as voice-overs, occasionally telling the truth, occasionally not. While the conclusion focused more on the inherent bro-mance and general worldview of the two leads, the lack of a mind-blowing mystery ending felt right, I suppose.

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