Thursday, January 15, 2015

Vicar-ious Thrills: the year in review

Last spring, CBS and I had an ugly break-up. You probably read about it; it made all the tabloids. First I grew disillusioned with Survivor, and quit watching after 14 years; at Entertainment Weekly, Dalton Ross called it the best cast of all-new players since the first season, but I found most of them clueless and/or odious, and where's the fun in that? (If it's clueless and odious I'm after, I'll turn on truTV.) Then Jeanne Tripplehorn was written off Criminal Minds, only to be replaced by the less talented -- but younger-skewing -- Jennifer Love Hewitt; no reason was given for Tripplehorn's departure, but her air time been shrinking for months, so you had to figure it was a network decision, dictated by the almighty demo dollar. And finally, CBS announced they were again holding Mike & Molly till midseason. You know, a loyal viewer can only take so much.

So I said to my husband, defiantly, "OK, I'm giving up on CBS. We'll continue to watch the CBS shows we absolutely love, but I'm going to try shows on other networks, too -- I'm going to start watching what I like and what appeals to me, no matter who's airing it!" And he said, "You mean, like the rest of the world does?" And I said, "Fair enough." And thus ended 44 years of brand loyalty: that summer, I subscribed us to Showtime and HBO so we could watch Penny Dreadful, Ray Donovan and The Leftovers, and come fall, I checked out the pilots of Gotham (Fox), Forever (ABC) and The Flash (CW).

binging: Stephen Poliakoff, Richard Armitage

But let's back it up a bit. In January came my foray into Stephen Poliakoff. I had seen (and enjoyed) Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge on Starz, but knew nothing else of the man and his work. Scouring the internet, I quickly learned that a) he is apparently a genius, and b) I am an idiot for never having heard of him. And so, in quick succession, I purchased The Lost Prince and Friends and Crocodiles and Strangers on a Train and Shooting the Past -- although I had to be careful not to fall into the British-TV trap. The British-TV trap? Well, if you were lived in America during the '70s, here is what you learned: British television is better than American television -- or to be more specific, British dramas are better than anything on American television. Because this is what we knew of British drama: The Forsyte Saga, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R and Upstairs Downstairs -- and they were pretty much better than anything on American television. We just didn't realize that the rest of British television was as much of a mixed bag as the shows we were being fed here. But that ingrained notion of the superiority of British television permeates our viewing to this day, to the point where even the best US critics frequently overpraise UK imports. (I was amused to see the TV critic I admire most characterize ITV's perfunctory Broadchurch as "shattering" and "elevating the whodunit with profound sensitivity." Chris Chibnall's writing style calls to mind all kinds of adjectives, but "profound" and "sensitive" are not among them.)

Keeping in mind that tendency for Americans to overrate British drama, I had to keep my wits about me, but my takeaway from my January Poliakoff binge was: OK, he is a genius. In fact I would venture to say that of artists largely unknown to American audiences, he's the greatest thing to come out of Britain since Cilla Black.

But good as the aforementioned shows were, and they were all varying shades of excellent, none came close to his Perfect Strangers (renamed Almost Strangers over here, apparently so American audiences wouldn't think Poliakoff had fashioned a four-hour drama around the adventures of Balki and Larry), a masterpiece. I confess him I can be a real softie when it comes to television; I rarely, if ever, cry at manipulative bits, but give me an honest, earned tearjerker, and I'm a mess. (I've probably returned to Touched by an Angel's "Shallow Water" three dozen times in the last 15 years, and I ball like a baby every time the final montage begins.) But Perfect Strangers inspired something deeper. In its tale of a lavish family reunion, where painful histories and simmering resentments were both laid bare (some peeled back in layers, others cut straight to the core), it told stories I'd never imagined, in ways I'd never seen presented; the tears didn't flow during the viewing, they came after, when I started to fully digest what I'd just seen -- and I can only think of one other experience that compares to it. In the early 1990's, I was living in Los Angeles when Angels in America played the Mark Taper, prior to its Broadway run. I knew as I was watching it that I was overwhelmed, but I had no idea how much. After the show, in the parking lot, on the way to the car, I stopped suddenly and began to cry. (I was with the perfect person -- he couldn't have been sweeter about my very public meltdown.) Perfect Strangers got to me in the same way; it got under my skin.

That was January of 2014; the year began very well.

It also began with Richard Armitage, when I happened on BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. For some reason, my Poliakoff festival was followed by a succession of British period dramas: Bleak House (my introduction to Anna Maxwell Martin, which led to The Bletchley Circle: splendid first season, rotten second), Cromwell (heavenly), Return to Cromwell (not so much), Little Dorrit, Wives and Daughters and North and South. Bleak House was gripping but North and South had Richard Armitage: like Poliakoff, unknown to me, and like Poliakoff, a head-smacking "how did I not know about this man" moment. (I wasn't alone in my infatuation: It seems when BBC first aired North and South in 2004, to little fanfare, the message boards lit up with calls: who is this man?) His commanding performance in North and South prompted me to rejoin MI-5 for Season 9. I had quit midway through Season 5, shortly after Hermione Norris joined the cast. The show was already threatening to derail following the departure of Rupert Penry-Jones' onscreen wife, but then they added Ms. Norris: riotously miscast in a role that called for not merely a no-nonsense demeanor (which Ms. Norris could pull off) but an unbridled sexuality (which she couldn't). But IMDB assured me that she'd be gone by Season 9, and that Armitage (who came aboard in Season 7) would be joined by another of my favorites, Sophia Myles, so I dug in, and adored it: a superb ensemble cast, great stories mostly by a new writing team, Vincent and Brackley, to whom I took an instant liking, and a season-long exit strategy for Armitage that meshed well with the show's standalone format. Then watched Armitage in The Golden Hour and The Impressionists, and in the first season of Strike Back -- all highly recommended -- and in the first episode of George Gently.

And that led me to the rest of Inspector George Gently.

But backing up one more time, because before George Gently we watched Foyle's War. Both British detective dramas: the difference being that George Gently is consistent and masterful, and Foyle's War is an uneven work at best. The title refers not only to the World War II setting, but to the fact that Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle wages his own personal battles with every fatuous bureaucrat and self-entitled aristocrat with whom he comes in contact. But it's no David-and-Goliath underdog story: as Anthony Horowitz conceives him, and as Michael Kitchen plays him, Foyle is as boorish, pig-headed and smugly superior as any of the people he enjoins in battle, and he's humanized only by the two lovingly drawn and winning played underlings who put up with him. By the time you're a mere twenty episodes in, he even turns on them – a major miscalculation -- and instantly becomes irredeemable. Foyle's War becomes the kind of show I see more and more these days -- I saw a lot of them in 2014: shows that overestimate the appeal of their leading men. Shows that underwrite that one key role because they think the lead actor is bringing more charm -- even smarmy charm -- than he actually is. I only got one season into Michael Sheen in Masters of Sex -- and not even that far into Kevin Spacey in House of Cards and James Spader in The Blacklist -- before I had to stop, because there seemed such a disconnect between what was intended and what was onscreen. It's telling that all three actors are listed as producers on their shows, because you can sense them egging the writers on: "Make my character as awful as possible. I can still make him irresistible to viewers." They're mistaken. (The one anti-hero show that works, and works wonders: Ray Donovan -- but let's face it: Liev Schreiber is so charismatic, he could kill puppies and you'd give him a pass.)

Stephen Poliakoff and British period dramas, and Richard Armitage and British detective series, got me through the first half of 2014. I don't know that there's much to say about those six months in terms of TV I actually watched "live" -- I liked a Good Wife episode called "All Tapped Out" ("By going down on him?"), and a lot of Mike and Molly and Mom, and to my astonishment, they paired Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon so convincingly on The Mentalist that now, eight months later, I remain a staunch Jisbon shipper -- but then, I suppose if my memory of the spring of 2014 is sketchy, it's my brain trying desperately to block out the finale of How I Met Your Mother. The worst series finale ever? Probably: can you imagine one worse? So misguided, so myopic. So coarse and crass and smugly indifferent to its audience's needs. Was anyone really surprised that CBS passed on How I Met Your Dad? After that fiasco of a finale, Bays and Thomas deserve a little time as Hollywood pariahs.

catching up: The Walking Dead

July 4th weekend brought a Walking Dead marathon to AMC. We had seen the pilot, years ago. Never thought to continue watching. But I DVR'ed the entire marathon, and watched all four seasons in a matter of months. It's hard to wrap your mind around something like Walking Dead being as popular as it is, so I won't even bother to draft a coherent response. Here are Random Thoughts about The Walking Dead.

I remember very little of Season 1.

We found Season 2 very slow. We actually stopped watching halfway through for about a month, because we were only on episode 6 but it felt like episode 46. I thought Season 2 got all the "big moments" right, but it was a long haul. That's why when Season 3 came along, and they divided their time between the prison setting and Woodbury, and my husband said, "I don't like Woodbury," I said, "Well, otherwise you'd get them spending a whole season in one claustrophobic setting, and every episode would reduce to 'look! more walkers!', which was season 2." I liked Season 3 very much, and thought it was probably the best you could do with a very limiting premise.

Season 4, under new showrunner Scott Gimple, mystified me. Five episodes of everyone-gets-the-flu. The Governor detour. And then two-and-three-character standalones that played like sitcom episodes: The One Where Tyreese Suddenly Finds Himself the Father of Three Girls. The One Where Rick Gets Stuck Under the Bed. The One Where Daryl and Beth Play a Drinking Game. And every episode ending with some Bluegrass/Country Music montage. I actually liked the Daryl-Beth episode a lot, but when they burned down the shack at the end, and some plaintive song was playing, my husband said, it's a Dawson's Creek episode. I said, if they'd only been playing "Daydream Believer," it would have been perfect. It would have been "Stolen Kisses."

And about Season 5: well, what's to say? The show has grown so stale. There was a nice "preview of the second half of season 5," and it was refreshing to hear Andrew Lincoln speak with his English accent. (I was suddenly aware how long it had been since the show surprised me.) All I could think is: maybe Rick can get hit on the head in the second half of the season and wake up British. And then they grow afraid that if they tell him he's in America, he'll have a complete mental collapse, so Maggie pretends to be British too, and then Lauren Cohan can speak in her real accent. (There was a similar plot on Gilligan's Island, when Mary Ann thought she was Ginger, and it worked really well.) Maybe there can be a meta-plot where Rick gets hit on the head and becomes convinced he's TV star Andrew Lincoln. The show desperately needs a shot in the arm right now; I remain unconvinced of Gimple's showrunning skills. "Remain unconvinced" -- what's with me and the euphemisms? The guy stinks. (In some ways, the trajectory of The Walking Dead is much like that of Haven, which I also binged this past summer. Three seasons that steadily improve, then a new showrunner comes aboard and mucks it all up.)

the fall crop: Forever, Constantine, Selfie

The first few weeks of fall were about The Flash, which I like, and about Forever, which I adore. Forever is a great example of a show that can get everything right and still not attract an audience. The cast is superb, the premise is inviting, the writing is breezy -- and it sits weekly around a 1.0, awaiting cancellation. Once it's gone, I will cherish that one season the way I still cherish Glenn Gordon Caron's Now and Again.

A lot of my best TV viewing this past year involved DVD purchases or binge-watching. By fall, aside from Flash, Arrow and Forever, there was so little TV I cared to watch live. I lasted through two episodes of Gotham until Jada Pinkett Smith's hamming drove me away, and through two episodes of Sleepy Hollow's second season. (It had lost its way around episode 11 of Season 1, and couldn't find its way back.) Mom didn't return till late October, Mike and Molly till early December. Constantine, a promising series that slowly began to live up to that promise, was done in repeatedly by network interference. (It's always fascinating to watch a show sabotaged by its own network -- ah, to be a fly on that wall -- just as Three Rivers was by CBS and Don't Trust the B was by ABC.) When it returns this Friday, NBC is moving it up to an ill-suited 8 PM timeslot, almost daring it to succeed. I know we're decades past networks giving slow starters a chance -- but in another day and age, Constantine would've been given a full season order to show what it could do; Forever would have been saved by the Viewers for Quality Television; and the funniest new comedy I saw this year, the much-maligned, short-lived Selfie, would've gotten a little network support once the same critics who had belittled the pilot started noticing -- and writing columns about -- how much it improved through the fall months. A couple of decades ago, Murphy Brown didn't take off till its third season; Designing Women didn't become a runaway hit till late in Season 4. Nowadays, they both would have been axed after 22 episodes, and we'd be left with some executive at the TCA press tour droning, "We believed in the series, but the audience just wasn't there."

the year's best: Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who, James Norton in Grantchester

So little I cared to watch live, so thank goodness, when fall rolled around, there was one superb series worth viewing in real time: the venerable Doctor Who, enjoying its best season since the reboot. Showrunner Steven Moffat played us all for saps: promising a darker season, one with mostly standalones. Instead, we got a season as funny as any that had come before it, and one of the show's most effective arcs: Clara's efforts to travel with the Doctor and enjoy a normal life. Who was at its most winning in Season 8, but almost as entertaining as the show itself were the comments by disenfranchised viewers not enjoying new Doctor Peter Capaldi. The comments were often so obtuse, you realized that folks knew exactly why they weren't digging the new doc, but were too embarrassed to admit it. When Russell T. Davies brought the Doctor back to television in 2005, he brought him back as a fantasy-boyfriend. And every Doctor since Eccleston has played that -- until Capaldi. And some viewers can't deal with that, but they can't say that -- "But...but...the Doctor is supposed to be a romantic superhero who'll sweep me off my feet. That's why I watch" -- so they're spouting nonsense instead: "I keep seeing Malcolm Tucker [Capaldi's signature role in the British comedy The Thick of It (2005-2012]." "He seems like an evil doppelganger." "I can't understand his accent." "Maybe it's because I'm American."

Even if Davies didn't intend for the Doctor to cut a romantic figure, the very first episode of the reboot is all about poor Rose Tyler, with her drab job, and drab boyfriend, and drab mom, and how she escapes it all by running off with the Doctor. And even when the Doctor isn't presented romantically, that notion of escape is part of the mythology of New Who. (It's still there when Amy runs off with the Doctor on the eve of her wedding, and again when Amy and Rory run off with the Doctor on their wedding night.) It's so different from Classic Who, where companions typically got stranded on the TARDIS by accident, and the first time they got back to their own time period, they bailed. Now you have to be wrested away from the TARDIS: you end up in another dimension, or have your memories wiped, or the Weeping Angels send you away. Neither Davies nor Moffat can imagine a companion preferring the life they had before they met the Doctor -- but that was the very premise of Classic Who: other than Sarah Jane, the companions were typically stuck and couldn't wait to get home or were traveling with the Doctor until they found their true calling. I think the moment Capaldi said, in the first episode of the new season, "I'm not your boyfriend, Clara," and the minute Clara was shown to have a promising life away from the TARDIS, a bunch of viewers weaned on New Who didn't recognize the show anymore.

But those of us who stuck around were treated to the best that New Who has to offer. (From best season to worst season, the order would go 8, 5, 1, 4, 6, 7, 2 and 3.) Doctor Who also featured one of the two best performances I saw this year on television, and it was not by Peter Capaldi, although he was outstanding. (He showed the value of experience in elevating "mere" talent and enthusiasm.) But Jenna Coleman was more than that: she was a revelation. In her small role in Dancing on the Edge, and in Season 7 of Doctor Who, she hadn't made much of an impression: admittedly, the roles weren't well-developed, but Jenna also seemed to be still learning her craft. But in Death Comes to Pemberley and Who Season 8, the roles were meatier and she sunk her teeth in -- in Pemberley, in fact, she blew into the Darcy country estate with a comic turn that left everyone from Anna Maxwell Martin to Matthew Rhys to Matthew Goode in her wake. (As an aside, the performance all the critics talked about this year was Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder. To me, she too often seemed to be overcompensating for the thin material and barely serviceable supporting cast. But the critics fastened on one scene where she took off her makeup and hailed her for her "discipline" and "courage" and "lack of vanity," as if it was the epitome of great acting. I'm sorry: I saw my grandmother take off her makeup many times, to roughly the same effect. It's like when actresses lose weight for a role, or actors bulk up or shave their head, and they're commended for their "dedication." The only time I was ever mesmerized by a transformation like that was Tyne Daly cutting her hair in her Emmy-winning turn in the Judging Amy episode "Requiem." Once you've seen that, I don't care if they cut their head off, it ain't gonna impress me.)

The other small screen performance that dazzled me this year was James Norton in ITV's Grantchester. Grantchester was an original, and it was magnificent. Part mystery, part character drama -- but in proportions I've never seen before, exquisitely balanced. Each episode a mere 43 minutes, but the mysteries never felt slight, and the continuing storylines never felt slighted. The supporting cast was uniformly strong, but the show's success rested largely on Norton's sturdy shoulders. And how marvelous was Norton's Sidney Chambers, a vicar in 1953 England, still mired in memories of the war: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. Yet he was also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental -- except when it came to himself, and then he was unforgiving. "I'm supposed to be setting an example," he bemoaned in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman had led to another indiscretion -- and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preached, made him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic. Crime-solving came easy to Sidney Chambers; it was life that was hard to master. (And it certainly didn't hurt that Norton has a face that seems sculpted for the small screen -- as Jennifer Salway called him in the Daily Express, "a dreamboat in a dog collar." A lot has changed in television over the last half century, but one thing hasn't: if the camera loves an actor, we're likely to love him too.)

Sidney Chambers was a refreshingly complex hero, but Norton's performance aside, the most remarkable thing about Grantchester -- remarkable for any show challenging convention and redefining the genre -- is how assured it was in its execution. There were no missteps. Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester, the best show I saw in 2014, is a series to cherish.

Thank heavens it's been picked up for a second season.

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