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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Glorious Television From 2006
In my various anorak confessions yesterday, I didn’t mention what is undoubtedly my favorite medium: television. Yes, when I was planning our London vacation for February 2006, I spent quite a bit of time studying theatrical offerings, but the timing of the trip was determined by TV: I wanted to watch the BBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. (I also happened to find myself in Britain in August 2004 for the two weeks of the Athens Olympics!)

Once again, in no particular order, some of my favorite shows from 2006:

The Wire. I have a bit of a prejudice against the Sunday night offerings of the premium channels—for some reason, people who don’t normally watch television tune into HBO (and very occasionally Showtime) on the Christian sabbath, deem what they see worthy of their attention, and immediately declare the shows they choose to watch to be superior television—even though they don’t watch any other television, and thus have nothing against which to compare them. Me? I usually watch three hours of telly each weeknight, and probably a little more on weekends, so, believe me, I have something to compare these shows with, and The Wire is definitely superior television.

I don’t understand why The Wire isn’t more popular—its writing is superb, which should win over intellectuals; it’s about gritty situations, which should appeal to fans of “urban” culture (yes, I know, that’s a lazy euphemism, but it’s New Year’s Eve); and the acting is fantastic, which should appeal to, well, everyone. Whatever. I kind of resent the Johnny- and Junie-Come-Latelies who got into the show by watching previous seasons on DVD (we TV hard-core-ists are terrible snobs about folks who watch television on DVD), but that bit of personal nonsense aside, I recommend The Wire to everyone and anyone.

I’ll add just two things: 1) For a show that at least appears to be written entirely by straight white men, it does an amazing job of presenting credible, complicated, and attractive gay, black characters—Omar, Kima, and Snoop (and remember we also once saw Rawls in a gay bar—I wonder if that will be the center of the next series, which will focus on the Baltimore media; you heard it here first, folks). 2) A lot is made of HBO’s ability to use profanity giving its shows an unfair advantage, but Wire writer David Mills made a great point in this Slate dialogue: What’s different about HBO is that writers don’t have to chop their stories into seven pieces. As he put it, “The ability to tell a tale from start to finish without interruption allows for much denser, much more nuanced writing.” He also mentions multiplays—I do appreciate that cable shows rerun new episodes several times over the course of a week—but I was fascinated by HBO’s decision to make episodes of The Wire available on demand six days before the episode went out over the air. I don’t think I ever actually watched a show on Sunday night. I could’ve, but I didn’t want to wait that long for my Wire fix. (By contrast, Showtime’s weird scheduling of the second series of Sleeper Cell, one episode per night over the course of eight days, with all episodes available on demand the day after the premier, just made me think that Showtime didn’t believe that it was compelling enough to bring viewers back week after week.)

The Closer. TNT did something really brave with the first episodes of The Closer—they introduced the character of Brenda Leigh to viewers just as she would’ve appeared to the LA detectives she’d been brought from Atlanta to supervise: like a twitchy, unconvincingly polite, sugar-scoffing weirdo. As she won over the cops during course of the first season, she also won the confidence of viewers—that Southern charm wasn’t entirely fake, but it was a way of disarming people. The second season was even better. Every good long-running TV show follows a pattern, and if it’s well-written and directed, viewers don’t necessarily realize there’s a template. In The Closer, the who/howdunnit of the case she’s working on comes to Brenda when she’s doing something in her messed-up private life. I also loved the two-hour special that aired a month or so ago—well, the plot was a bit silly, and the two hours were out of balance (I guess they were cut up that way so they could be re-run as two separate episodes)—but I loved the beginning when the veterans of Brenda’s squad were so frustrated by Commander Taylor’s lazy, take-the-solution-that’s-available attitude. That had been their attitude before Brenda came along, but she’d changed the way they thought.

Pilot season is my favorite time of the year, but this year I was in a terrible funk about the misogynist, homophobic, and just not funny sitcoms that the networks rolled out. Then came 30 Rock, which has me laughing out loud and nodding in appreciation of the intelligence of the humor (there are often sight gags that you have to freeze the frame to even see). (I did a Slate "Spoiler Special" podcast with TV critic Troy Patterson about the show back in October.) Speaking of superior sitcoms, I’m loving the sophomore season of How I Met Your Mother, which improved by leaps and bounds from the first series. At first, the writers were too stuck on the gimmick of a dad telling his kids about … how he met their mother. They still lean on that crutch from time to time, but it’s now comfortable being a smart series about couples and singles, which is pretty much all of modern life, isn’t it?

When Ugly Betty first started, I was skeptical. Oh, it was fine—likable enough, but inessential somehow. Then I realized that not only was I pretty much always watching it the night it aired (something I do less than half the time), I was also quoting the show to friends who hadn’t seen it. It’s the TV equivalent of an earworm, in other words. Two moments from the show stand out—when camp assistant Marc asked Betty’s fashion- and musical-theater-loving cousin Justin if he got picked on at school, and the outraged tone in which Wilhemina (played by Vanessa Williams) asked Daniel if he'd been looking at her when he suggested a Kwanzaa-themed issue of Mode. Both would’ve been easy to overplay (and, let’s face it, the show might get bigger numbers if they laid things on with a trowel), but they kept things relatively light and subtle.

South of Nowhere. Kids today don’t know they’re born. When I was growing up, there were no homos on television—except that one Sunday when ITV played The Killing of Sister George and the papers were full of outrage. Today’s youth can tune into their own tween channel, the N, and live in a fantasy world where two haut young teens can have a lesbian relationship where the biggest problem is that now Spencer is out to her parents, they never really have time alone together. Their friends all treat their relationship with respect, they get to go to the prom together with nary a raised eyebrow, and when Spencer’s mother freaks out when she finds the girls making out, it’s clear that her response is irrational, ergo homophobia is irrational. (Honorable mention: Noah’s Arc, Logo’s soap opera about a tight-knit group of gay black men in Los Angeles. Also a fantasy, but also a lovely one.)

I avoided the reality-TV trend. Knowing that I’m basically powerless over television, I just didn’t watch them, and when I did catch an episode, hopelessly out of context, the shows always seemed, well, dumb. Then I started to watch Project Runway. I guess the appeal is that even the most hopeless contestants demonstrate vision and practical skills, and the best of them have moments of mind-blowing creativity. I know that the shows are edited for maximum drama, and that they’ll always keep a bitch, a crazy person, and a regular person in the final stages (even if the crazy person’s skillz aren’t that mad), but it’s GOOD! The challenges are usually smart, the catwalk is an awesome climax (much better than the always rather anticlimactic tasting on Top Chef, which I also like), the judges are likable even when they’re bitchy, and Tim Gunn rocks the show.

After the disappointing penultimate season of The Sopranos, I was down on HBO and had low expectations for Big Love, but it won me over. Although the show didn’t ignore the big questions of polygamy (fear of discovery, the rights of the “wives” whose marriages aren’t registered with the state, the abuse of young women bonded to old men, the driving off of the young men of the communities to keep the young women for the old bucks, etc.), its strength was in the psychological portrayal of the characters—especially Bill and the three sister wives—and the representation of faith.

I guess I should also find a place on this list for the shows that I watch every single week, even if I think they’re kind of dumb. Pride of place goes to ESPN’s The Sports Reporters—the guests are often cliché-spouting blowhards, some of whom are so sure that they’re right about everything that you fear for their health (cf John Feinstein’s red-faced rant about the ridiculousness of the World Cup being decided by penalty kicks)—but I stick around for Mitch Albom’s ears, the opportunity to count how many lines from his Sunday Daily News column Mike Lupica can recite on the show, and John Saunders’ Canadianity. Also in this category: On Stage and Theater Talk.

I’ll give the last slot to British detective shows—those short-run series that show up out of the blue on that unfathomable mystery that is the BBC America schedule or on the sickly beast known as PBS. The standout from the last year was, of course, the final Prime Suspect, but the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Waking the Dead, The Night Detective, and even Rosemary and Thyme get rapt attention in our house. At least a couple of those shows are products of commercial television, but the BBC programs do have that advantage of uninterrupted narrative—that is, no false “now we go to commercial” climaxes to reach every 12 minutes—and rather more robust language than I can imagine hearing on U.S. network shows.

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