Saturday, October 31, 2020

Private Faces: notes on Roadkill and Life

Collateral was my favorite TV drama of 2018. With only two months remaining, I’d be surprised if Roadkill doesn’t wind up my favorite drama of 2020. Both were written by David Hare, and in tone and construction, they couldn’t be less alike. Essentially the only thing they have in common is that both are masterful. So basically, what we have here is a 73-year-old playwright and screenwriter at the peak of his powers, which, offhand, might just be the most encouraging thing I can say about 2020.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Newhart season 7

Of the sitcoms I’ve profiled at this blog, some emerged out of the gate fully formed (Murphy Brown, Bewitched). Others took a while to get their bearings: to figure out how to most successfully showcase the characters and mine the comedy. And that’s not that unusual. A whole lot of promising sitcoms don’t catch fire till Season 2; the first season is a bit of a learning curve for the writers, and come Season 2— if the show is filmed before a live audience — you get to share in the audience’s exhilaration, when it’s apparent to all that the show has been (sometimes only subtly, but nonetheless momentously) transformed, and the laughs have blissfully multiplied. And then there are the shows that don’t reach maturity till a little later. Both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Designing Women become the best versions of themselves in Season 3: the former through a soft reboot, the latter through a careful rebalancing act.

But how about a sitcom that becomes the very best version of itself in Season 7?

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Doctor Who: in praise of "The Smugglers"

The second of three lost Doctor Who serials that don’t get nearly enough praise or attention. To check out the first, “The Abominable Snowmen,” click here.

There’s only one reasonable response to “The Smugglers” — and its tale of 17-century piracy — and that’s unconditional surrender.

And still it’s the single most overlooked serial in all of Classic Who.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Criminal Minds season 8

Criminal Minds debuted in the fall of 2005, as CBS was riding a wave of popular procedurals. The first of these, of course, had been CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which had premiered five years earlier to surprisingly little fanfare. It had been slotted behind a remake of The Fugitive, which CBS was pinning its hopes on — but The Fugitive never delivered on that promise, whereas CSI, week after week, built on its lead-in. So when CBS, after debuting the reality show Survivor to gargantuan ratings in the summer of 2000, decided to launch a second season the following February, they chose CSI, their most popular new series of the season, to follow it — and the pairing proved felicitous. Within a year, CSI had risen to become the #1 show on network television. Spin-offs and similar procedurals — that combined old-fashioned detective work with newfangled forensics — quickly followed: Without a Trace and CSI: Miami in 2002, Cold Case in 2003 and CSI: NY in 2004. And hot on their heels came Criminal Minds.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Maude season 2

I had occasion to meet producer Norman Lear in the spring of 1978, when I was a freshman in college. He was coming to our university to give a brief lecture, and then a select group of students were joining him at a local restaurant for dinner. I have no memory of how those particular students were chosen, but as a lowly freshman, I was not among them. But this was at a time when my ambition was to write for television, so I was not about to miss the chance to meet Normal Lear — and having been raised on ‘60s sitcoms, I wasn’t going to let anything as trivial as the lack of an invite stop me. In true Lucy Carmichael fashion, I managed to convince the school newspaper that they needed to do a story on Lear’s visit, and even though I had never written for them before, I persuaded them that I was the one to do it. And then I made the case that part of covering his visit meant covering the dinner, so they snagged me an invite.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Unwilling Victims: notes on Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood

How do you stand up for women in this day and age — ordinary women — without being overlooked or ignored? I keep hearing — in this #MeToo era — how wonderful it is that we’re hearing so many female voices on television: authentic, passionate female voices. But I mostly see viewers cheering about empowerment when the heroine can punch a hole in the wall or toss a man across the room. In a recent New York Times article entitled "I Don't Want to Be the Strong Female Lead," OA creator and star Brit Marling argued that although the film and television industries — after decades of portraying women as victims and sex objects — have done a 180, the results haven’t been entirely satisfying. Instead of applauding women for the qualities that make them admirable and unique, they’re now imbuing them with traditionally male traits. Consider the new female lead, Marling wrote: “She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.”

And although I see Marling’s point, I think the problem lies as much with audiences as with studios. I see a whole lot of female writers and directors fighting to bring fascinating, “ordinary” women to the screen; I even see many of them focusing on the systemic victimization of women in a way that doesn’t diminish their subjects, but elevates them instead. I just don’t see viewers paying attention.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances (part 3)

Completing my alphabetical look back at the actors who’ve played companions on Doctor Who, and judging their best and worst performances. To start from the first chapter of this three-part essay, click here; to take a look at the Doctors’ best and worst performances, click here. In the previous chapter, I noted that writer David Whitaker had penned a lot of best performances: Hartnell, Padbury, O'Brien, John and -- if I hadn't eliminated "Enemy of the World" because of the dual-role aspect -- Troughton. I wondered if there were directors who, similarly, had been responsible for a lot of the actors' finest work, and a cursory look back revealed that seven of the best performances were guided by Paddy Russell or Fiona Cumming. They were, in fact, the only directors responsible for more than two. Both women: is that a coincidence? (And if we're looking at female directors, we'd need to add in Alice Troughton, who helmed Tennant in "Midnight.") I don't want to fall back on reverse sexism, but did the female Who helmers tend to devote more time to shaping performances than their male counterparts? As the kids say on social media, discuss. Meanwhile, let's finish our look back at the Doctor Who companions, below. As always, although I bold the actors’ best and worst performances, for easy scrolling, I vary the order in which I list them — so presume nothing.

Peter Purves (Steven Taylor): Purves does whatever is asked of him, diligently:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The 10 Best "Designing Women" Episodes

Was there ever a great show that peaked for as short a time as Designing Women? It’s undeniably a classic — beautifully acted, frequently well-written, and unafraid not only to tackle social issues, but to get passionate about them — but the series, at its very best, had such a short lifespan. Less than a year passed between the show maturing and it showing signs of age, and although sporadic greatness would continue for a few more seasons, that peak level of sustained brilliance never returned.

But even sporadic greatness isn’t anything to sneeze at.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances (part 2)

Continuing my alphabetical look back at the actors who’ve played companions on Doctor Who. This latest set turned out to be a bit of a love-letter to writer David Whitaker; it wasn’t intentional, but it was inescapable. Anyway, to start from the first chapter of this three-part essay, click here; to take a look at the Doctors’ best and worst performances, click here. And as you scroll through, remember: although I bold the actors’ best and worst performances, for easy viewing, I vary the order in which I list them — so presume nothing. Occasionally, some of the best-loved stories contain some of my least favorite performances.

Louise Jameson (Leela): Jameson commands the screen in "Face of Evil" like no companion before or since.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Hannah, Hanna and Hampshire: The Best of 2019

My annual year in review, following overviews of 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

2019 was a ridiculously good year for television. After 2018, when I had trouble finding ten shows I wanted to write about, 2019 left me struggling to trim down my “best of” list to a manageable size. There were too many shows I wanted to praise or — at the very least — acknowledge. (Not that there weren’t disappointments: several series that had topped my year-in-review lists in the past — Grantchester, Elementary, Mindhunter — are noticeably absent here.) So seeing how this entry is coming on the heels of my “10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes,” which gave me as much pleasure as any piece I’ve written, I’m adopting a similar approach: I’m counting down my ten favorite shows of 2019, but after each, noting another (vaguely related) show I quite liked. So you're getting twenty recommendations for the length of ten.