Dear Summer: Get Bent.Featured, Television, The Idiot Box — By Jordan Green on September 21, 2010 at 8:00 am
Despite the obvious appeal of fall — the colors, the crisp cool air and football — I’m guessing most of you are sad summer is over. There’s a melancholy to fall, the knowing there are months and months of rain ahead before the sun shines again and everyone’s out in shorts. For Oregonians, autumn is lovely, but there’s nothing like a Willamette Valley summer.
But I live in Phoenix right now. Summer can get bent. Everyone across this country is tan and toned from outdoorsy activity like beach volleyball, and I’ve been stuck inside with the shades drawn, AC belching cool, regurgitated air throughout our dark home. You live like a hermit in Phoenix in the summer. It’s the worst.
Which made the lack of summer programming that much harder. By my count, there were three television shows worth watching this summer, and I gobbled them up as quickly as they aired. By the end of this week, I won’t know what to do with myself. TOO…MUCH…TV…
To handle the overload, I’ve developed a tiered system of show quality.
TIER I: Genius television. Shows like The Wire (though, really, The Wire is on its own level…Tier I Plus or something), Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos.
TIER II: Excellent dramas and comedy. Most of NBC’s Thursday night lineup fits here, and hour-long dramas that are either not quite there (HBO’s Rome and Treme) or fading after their most recent seasons (Big Love). I’d also include House on this list, but that might just be me, and the whole House/Cuddy abomination will probably drive that show straight into the ground.
TIER III: HBO hour-long drama knock-offs. I’d include True Blood here, along with almost every show on Showtime and every hour-long drama on FX.
TIER IV: Everything else that’s not worth spending your time on.
Hopefully, I’ll get around to an analysis of the fall TV season soon, but right now I want to talk about those three shows I watched this summer.
I like Rubicon, and I’ve watched every episode so far, but I can’t shake that it may be AMC’s first misstep. Where Mad Men and Breaking Bad feature intricate character studies and nuanced performance, Rubicon’s intelligence professionals are often just a jumble of quirks. Attempts to flesh them out by showing failing family lives or the hair-tearing lament of how their decisions affect lives across the world usually seem hollow and supercilious.
But Rubicon has moments where the great television shines through, though, like the train crash that killed protagonist Will Travers’ father-in-law in the show’s premier, a scene so expertly filmed that it’s jarring even after multiple viewings. I’m sticking with Rubicon for now, but the show waffles between Tiers II and III.
Not since The Sopranos has a show so expertly made a despicable character so likable. I realize this is an obvious comparison considering Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s role as writer and producer for The Sopranos. By the series finale, Tony Soprano’s lack of redemption and progressively sociopathic behavior seemed like a cruel trick on a rapt, rooting audience, but there’s something about Don Draper that is more thoroughly realized and deep. Season 4 of Mad Men has played this well, whiplashing between Don’s horrifying, seemingly irredeemable actions to his desire to be a man worthy of his stolen identity.
Four seasons in, and Mad Men just seems to get better. Every season, I find myself thinking, “That was the best episode so far.” This season, is was Episode 3, which featured the series’ most crushing and touching moments halfway through the episode, following the pathos with madcap antics and one of the show’s most hilarious lines (“You know what’s going on here, don’t you? Handjobs.“). It was the kind of episode, along with most of the last season of Breaking Bad, that indicates a passing of the torch from HBO to AMC as hosts to television’s best art.
And then there’s Louie.
AMC and HBO may have the drama, but between the charmingly low-brow Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the brilliantly low-brow Louie, FX may have cornered the market on comedy.
(HBO still has Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I’m not nearly so bullish on Eastbound and Down, a show which wasn’t consistently funny until the last few episodes of Season 1, and which has benefited more from its legendary filth and retrospection than any show I’ve ever seen.)
Without a trace of hyperbole, Louie is comedic genius.
Louis C.K., the comedian’s comedian who’s worked in the shadows of stand-up and screenwriting for years, was given a modest budget and free reign. What he’s come up with is the most insightful, innovative and hilarious 30-minute show to come along in years.
For sure, Louie is not for everyone. If your familiarity of C.K.’s work is limited to his savvy take on technology, the rest of his ouevre might be a shock. Take, for instance, the opening to the show’s 11th episode, “God”, which revolved entirely around faith. (This might be offensive, but I assure you it is not the most offensive scene Louie has to offer. Seriously, don’t watch if you’re easily offended.)
That’s Louie‘s style: unflinchingly honest. “God” features flashbacks of Louis C.K.’s Catholic school upbringing, interspersed with his stand-up routine. There’s brutal stuff here: a severe, judgmental nun; a sadistic and mysterious man who describes in detail the death Jesus suffered on the cross. There’s this bit, where Louis calls God an asshole.
Throughout, Louis avoids the easy cliches about questioning faith. He doesn’t lament how bad things happen. He doesn’t point out the absurdity of communicating with a burning bush. He doesn’t even bring up Job. He tells the story of Abraham and Isaac, and he says it’s jacked up, and it’s hard to argue his point when you think about it.
Still, none of these scenes would be nearly as powerful without “God”‘s most devastating moment, when a grade-school-aged Louis, wracked by guilt over a nun’s claims that it was he who killed Jesus by sinning, breaks into church, pulls a life-sized Christ down off the crucifix, and cradles him in his arms as he weeps.
It’s the sobering pain of that scene, along with a dozen others, that takes Louie to a new level. It’s funny, too (the episode where Louis spirals into self-destruction, beginning with an ice-cream binge, is particularly hilarious), but Louis C.K. manages to blend pathos and scalpel-sharp insight with laugh-out-loud gags. “God” is an amazing episode, but Louie is just as good when exploring other themes, like bullying or the cruel onset of middle age.
Right now, and I know this sounds crazy, I would consider Louie up there with the greatest comedies of all-time. After almost every episode, I was left slackjawed. Unlike Arrested Development or Seinfeld, though, Louie is about something. It is about big things, the sort of things most comedians falter miserably trying to touch.
That said, I understand trepidation over watching this show. Louis C.K. pushes boundaries, and while that’s good from an artistic standpoint, there are some moments where cringing is a completely reasonable response. (C.K.’s bit on bestiality comes to mind.)
So, onward into autumn. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing HBO’s newest attempt great drama, new seasons of Bored to Death and In Treatment, and the return of Parks and Recreation, Community, 30 Rock and The Office. And Modern Family. But not Glee. Bite me, Glee.
Just watched Boardwalk Empire’s first episode. HBO is back. I was blown away.