Friday, December 25, 2020

Trials & Tribulations: The Best of 2020

My write-up of 2020, following 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. As always, I don't claim to have seen everything. I watch what I can, when I can, and of what I saw in 2020, these were my thoughts.

Unexpectedly, despite the pandemic curtailing output, 2020 was an awfully good year for television. It started strong, with a half-dozen fine dramas launched in January and February, and by the time the industry shut down, enough shows were in the can that they could be sprinkled through the spring and summer months. Not that there weren’t disappointments, particularly among series I’ve hailed in the past. In my first draft of this essay, I devoted four paragraphs to making my way through all the returning shows that I felt missed the mark in 2020 — Schitt’s Creek, Grantchester, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Star Trek: Discovery, What We Do in the Shadows, The A Word — plus one highly-praised miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, that I didn’t take to. But 2020 was too brutal a year to dwell on the negative. If you’re curious to know why those series didn’t send me, leave a note in the comments, and I’ll happily oblige. But for now, I’m going to focus on the good that came out of 2020, with the sort of old-fashioned “10 Best” list that’s a first for me. Although I caution you: it was tough to separate my feelings about the shows that aired in 2020 from my feelings about 2020 itself. And really: why should I? At any rate, the highlights began the second week of January, with:

Monday, December 14, 2020

The 10 Best "Kate & Allie" Episodes

Let’s presume you’re familiar with the premise of Kate & Allie (two divorced mothers — best friends since high school — decide to share an apartment in Greenwich Village) and jump right to the part where we dispel a few myths. At the advent of the internet, it felt as if the history of television was being chronicled by people who had watched the shows as they aired, and developed opinions and theories in real time. Now that we’re two decades into the 21st century, it’s come to seem as if all shows that predate Friends are being documented by second-hand sources: viewers who came to them decades after the fact, who get their information and often their assertions from the likes of Wikipedia. You see the same false presumptions and annoying inaccuracies crop up in article after article — articles that have clearly been cribbed from one another — and you’re left thinking, “That wasn’t how it happened.”

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.