Monday, February 22, 2016

The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching

I was put on six months medical leave in September, and decided to join Twitter: my husband figured it would be a good way for me to stay "connected" while I was housebound. I found a lot of folks who shared my passion for television, but I also started to feel that -- with so many choices these days in terms of "what to watch" -- my new online friends were overlooking some of the very best series. I've spent the last few months talking them up on Twitter, but I thought, why not gather them and praise them here, where I wouldn't be limited to 140 characters? Herewith: five series that add immeasurably to my viewing pleasure, but that haven't yet reached the audiences I feel they deserve. Three are UK productions, and although they've done well there, a lot of US viewers are only now discovering them. The other two are US shows that -- splendid as they are -- have never blossomed into huge hits. But all five are so worth a look, or better, a binge.

1. Grantchester: When ITV's Grantchester first aired in 2014, I called it the year's best show. It returns next month, and there's no reason to think that Series 2 won't top my list again. Grantchester is an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- but in proportions I've never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Each episode a mere 45 minutes, each one offering up a new case as it pushes the ongoing story-lines forward -- but the continuing plots never feel slight, and the detective work never feels slighted. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, but the show's success rests largely on star James Norton's sturdy shoulders. I've seen Norton in a half-dozen roles now (most recently as Prince Andrei in War and Peace), and he's never failed to impress, but Sidney Chambers plays to all his strengths. He's 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's also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental -- except when it comes to himself, and then he's unforgiving. "I'm supposed to be setting an example," Sidney bemoans in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman have led him to another indiscretion -- and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preaches, make him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic. Crime-solving comes easy to Sidney Chambers; it's life that's hard to master. And as played by Norton, a warm and expressive actor whose features seem sculpted for the small screen, you see someone fully suited to sharing God's plan, even as he searches for his own answers. Norton makes Sidney Chambers a memorable and refreshingly complex hero, but his performance aside, the most remarkable thing about Grantchester -- remarkable for any show challenging convention and redefining the genre -- is how assured it is in its execution. There were no missteps in Series 1. Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester is a show to cherish.

2. Marvel's Agent Carter: The best of the current comic-book adaptations, and, of course, the only one in grave danger of cancellation. So if it might not be picked up, what makes its two seasons worth investing in? Because it's a "superhero show" done right: one devoid of missteps, that only continues to improve. It strands its formidable secret agent Peggy Carter in a period dedicated to the disempowerment of women: the years following World War II, when men returned from battle to reclaim their old jobs and women were once again relegated to second-rate status. In Season 1, the show plays as a bit of a polemic; by Season 2, it lets go of the anger and simply offers itself as an antidote to the pervasive chauvinism -- serving up some of the strongest female characters to grace the small screen. Agent Carter eschews the kind of plot contrivances that started to take down The Flash barely months after it got started; it avoids the dour sameness that has set in on Arrow. Admirably earnest as it carries out its season-long missions, it's also delightfully playful: amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. It's got a trio of charismatic leads -- Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj -- and with the exception of one first-season Russian scientist I wanted to chuck out a window, some of the best villains I've seen in recent years. (And I am not one who cares for the current crop of TV villains, but the two currently powering the story-line -- and I'll say no more, so if you do tune in, you can enjoy the element of surprise -- are spot-on.) And Season 2, which wisely transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, has been a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could a villain successfully hide a ghoulish scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) The show is as no-nonsense as Peggy Carter herself, yet as beguiling as Hayley Atwell in her Forties frocks. It will be missed when it exits the airwaves, but hopefully will always be there for the (re)viewing.

3. Indian Summers: One of the highlights of 2015 didn't make it into my recent year-in-review -- because I didn't get around to seeing it till 2016. So let's correct a grievous wrong. Indian Summers was the best continuing drama I saw on TV last year, except I didn't see it till this year: a glorious piece of epic showmanship, remarkable acting, and sumptuous production values -- the kind that TV so rarely engages in anymore. I put off watching it for a time: I saw some reviews describe it as "a slow-burner" that "took a while to get going." It turned out to be nothing of the kind. Sometimes I fear that if a show doesn't boast a heavily-choreographed fight scene every fifteen minutes, it'll be labeled as "slow." (For the record, I found parts of Jessica Jones painfully plodding -- mired in the same story beats and tonal cul-de-sacs for episodes at a time -- but because there was always a well-timed smackdown to break up the monotony, no one seemed to mind much.) Indian Summers didn't take "a while to get going" at all; there was merely a lot to digest: characters, relationships, history, backstory. A half-dozen plots wove through each episode, intersecting capriciously and at times colliding inexorably -- how is that slow? It's 1932, during the final years of British colonial rule in India, and as the power-players take to Simla, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to rule and revel, the locals take to the streets to evoke a call for national independence. A lot of viewers compared it (sometimes unfavorably) to 1984's Jewel in the Crown; yes, they're set in similar periods, but they couldn't be less alike in terms of approach, focus or tone. It's the kind of series that involves you in both the personal and political entanglements, and although the historical events are familiar, the way they unfold -- and how they impact the lives of the principal characters -- is never less than engaging, and often engrossing. Extraordinarily well-played by a cast headed by Julie Walters (in a career-best performance, playing a nasty piece of work without ever asking for sympathy), with powerful turns by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Fiona Glascott, and Alexander Cobb. Exceptional viewing, and happily, returning to Channel 4 in 2016.

4. Elementary: Now in its fourth season, and I still see folks dismiss it as "just another CBS procedural." It's not. It's a delicious hybrid -- part absorbing character study, part sturdy whodunnit, enlivened by the crackling chemistry between Jonny Lee Miller (as Sherlock) and Lucy Liu (as Joan Watson). Creator Rob Doherty avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he used the setting to inform the character. A superior Season 2 episode opened with Sherlock addressing his Narcotics Anonymous support group with uncharacteristic wistfulness: "I often wonder if I should have been born in another time. My senses are unusually -- what one could even say unnaturally -- keen. And ours is an era of distraction -- it's a punishing drumbeat of constant input. This cacophony which follows us into our homes and into our beds, it seeps into our souls, for want of a better word. For a long time, there was only one poultice for my raw nerve endings, and that was copious drug use. So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder: if I'd just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused, a more fully realized person?" And that's the particular genius of Doherty's Elementary. Outfitting and surrounding Doyle's late-Victorian creation with the wonders of modern technology doesn't simply make him more diabolically clever; it also makes him as tortured and stressed, as angry and isolated as eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a friendship that helps him heal. And heal he does, as the character has grown remarkably in four seasons. Elementary had one misstep in Season 2: an attempt to drive a wedge between Sherlock and Joan that failed because of casting and chemistry. But otherwise, it's a show that's gotten more confident with each passing season, and easily the best performance I saw by an actor in 2015 was Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman while he was using. As we head into the second half of its fourth season, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble, newly added as Sherlock's father, a slight cause for concern. It's a show that's never dominated the TV landscape the way it deserved to, but if you've never watched, I'm told it makes for swell binge-viewing.

5. Unforgotten: After watching BBC's masterful adaptation of War and Peace, I remarked to a friend in the UK that things like that just don't get done over here anymore: those grand historical miniseries that used to be the bread-and-butter of sweeps programming. While admitting the superiority of British television in that respect, my friend countered that we in the States have our own genre series that the UK hasn't replicated or perfected -- chief among them, the newfangled police procedural that pairs old-fashioned detective work with the latest in forensic science. And indeed, those sorts of shows aren't as ubiquitous in the UK as they are here in the States; there was a time, from roughly 2002 to 2010, when the US airwaves were cluttered with CSI spin-offs and clones. Any new series would have to have a damn good hook to re-engage this procedural-weary TV viewer -- and indeed, ITV's Unforgotten, which premiered in the fall of 2015 and has already been picked up for a second series, makes a stale genre feel fresh again. On the surface, Unforgotten is what CBS's Cold Case would have been if each murder had taken six episodes to solve, but it's buoyed by a delicious conceit at its core. Unlike the other procedurals, we don't meet the suspects only when the police come to interview them. We meet them from the start. Even as the cold case is warming up, we're introduced to clusters of friends and family members, and became engaged in their personal stories -- without knowing, as yet, who among them might be connected to the crime. It allows writer/creator Chris Lang some wonderful reveals along the way, and further, by the time the police come calling, we've become so engrossed in the suspects' lives that seeing them disrupted -- and potentially destroyed -- becomes deeply distressing. The result is a show far more affecting than the average police procedural. And its ace-in-the-hole: star Nicola Walker, one of the most versatile yet underrated English actors, able to delineate and differentiate characters without ever stooping to the theatrical tricks lesser talents rely on. The ending of Series 1 was a little pat for my tastes, but Walker's empathetic performance, ably abetted by the winning Sanjeev Bhaskar, more than made up for any deficiencies. Darkly dramatic, wildly entertaining, and at its best, unforgettable.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you prefer more detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mike & Molly: an appreciation

A friend and I like to poke fun at folks who issue hyperbolic statements about their favorite TV shows, because -- well, because we're a little mean. But you know how it is when fans post about shows they love. If a favorite character is leaving, it's "I'll never watch another episode." If the show is prematurely cancelled: "I'm boycotting the network." And heaven forbid, if a long-running show leaves of its own volition: "I no longer have a reason to own a TV." So given my aversion to over-the-top pronouncements, this is not an easy admission to make: when Mike & Molly concludes its six-season run this spring, my world will be a lot less bright.

I wouldn't have suspected that would be the case back in the fall of 2010, when Mike & Molly quietly premiered on CBS behind (a ready-to-implode) Two and a Half Men -- although I took to the characters right away. As created by Mark Roberts, the couple at the heart of the series -- schoolteacher Molly Flynn, played by Melissa McCarthy (whom I had adored from her years on Gilmore Girls) and police officer Mike Biggs, played by Billy Gardell (whose sturdy presence I remembered from Yes, Dear) -- were instantly appealing. They met at Overeaters Anonymous -- that was the "hook" -- but it wasn't "a show about overweight people," although myopic critics and rude viewers were quick to label it that way. It was simply a charming slice-of-life comedy about two characters destined, from their first date, to be together. And then, as we met the people in their lives, it developed into something a little raunchier -- because their in-laws were a cast of crazies (comprised of some of the most winning actors imaginable: Swoosie Kurtz, Katy Mixon, Rondi Reed, for starters). Roberts plotted every episode that first season, but he was still finding his way, and sometimes, it seemed like he was writing two different shows. Molly and Mike would engage in some sweet, unforced story-line -- and then, as if Roberts feared the show wasn't funny enough, he'd have the supporting characters toss off crude jokes, the kind that made for easy laughs. There was a tonal gap Roberts couldn't seem to bridge.

But all that changed in Season 2 (the episodes leading up to Mike and Molly's wedding), as Roberts and his team learned how to weave the voices into one character-based comedy, without resorting to one-liners or cheap gags. Mike & Molly Season 2 was a delight, capped by Melissa McCarthy's Emmy-reel performance late in the season in "The Dress," as Molly determined to lose the weight necessary to fit into her wedding gown. Look closely the next time you rewatch her tour-de-force performance, because it's a harbinger -- in the best sense -- of where the show was ultimately headed. Up to that point, Molly was the quiet center of the show: the grounded one, the sensible one. But as she puts her diet into overdrive, hellbent on shedding those final pounds, Molly goes a little wild -- and it reveals new facets of the character, and how much more McCarthy could do if the constraints of the role were loosened. But first we had to get through Season 3, the couple's first year of marriage, and sadly, that was a bit of a chore. If Season 1 was Mark Roberts finding his way, Season 3 seemed to be him losing it. The ongoing story-line was Mike and Molly's efforts to conceive a child; it included Molly switching to "fertility-friendly" foods, Mike switching from briefs to boxers, and ultimately, a trip to a fertility clinic -- but none of it seemed to play to the actors' strengths. After her knockout performance in "The Dress," McCarthy was relegated again to the "straight man" role, reacting to the wackos around her with a look of pained discomfort. If Molly and Mike were Roberts' "average couple," now they risked becoming too average; Roberts was holding to a vision of the show that was growing stagnant.

And then Mike & Molly was saved by a tornado. The day of its Season 3 finale, deadly tornados touched down in the midwest. The season finale was about a tornado sweeping through Chicago; CBS decided to pull the episode. But the finale was also when Molly was to give Mike the good news that she was pregnant. And the episode being postponed enabled Executive Producer Chuck Lorre and Melissa McCarthy to have a conversation: is this really where we want the show to be heading? A season of Molly pregnant? Then a season of Molly caring for a newborn? Mark Roberts left at the end of Season 3 -- I'm not going to speculate why, but by that point it was a change I applauded -- and Al Higgins, who'd been with the show since the start, was promoted to showrunner. And when the Season 3 finale finally aired, weeks later, Molly's big announcement had been quietly edited out. And Season 4 began with Molly decidedly not pregnant -- instead, quitting her staid teaching job to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

And the show charted a new course, as it featured a brasher Molly, one more in line with the character we had glimpsed in "The Dress," and one closer to the film roles that had been garnering McCarthy huge audiences and acclaim. The early episodes of Season 4 are uneven, but they're instantly funnier than anything that came before them. (I have never been one to laugh out loud at the TV screen, but I do when Mike & Molly is on -- and particularly when it's on its game.) It takes a few episodes for the writers to iron out the new format, but once they do, everything clicks. Suddenly, Molly is no longer the still point of the storm; she's more a force of nature. And playing opposite a newly unleashed Melissa McCarthy (an actress who can do more with a line than just about anyone out there), everyone else is able to up their game. Not to get bigger, mind you; the other actors -- particularly the ones with the more strident characters -- can now bring it down a notch. She's playing stronger, so they don't have to hit the laughs as hard. The show gets better balanced, and in particular, Billy Gardell is placed more into a Jackie Gleason, slow-burn role, and he fills it beautifully. And making Molly and Mike's marriage more combustible allows Mike and his fellow police officer Carl (the sensational Reno Wilson) to relax their relationship, and what develops is a double-act bromance that stacks up to the best in TV history.

Since early in Season 4, there hasn't been a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse -- and nine times out of ten, the laughter has come in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show has dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. And occasionally the plots have managed to shock as well, as they explored the challenges of making a new marriage work. In one episode, we learn that Molly has gone back on the pill, and hasn't told Mike. In another, as her writing career takes off, she gets invited to a swank cocktail party and tries to keep Mike from attending, for fear he'll embarrass her. In the wrong hands, those episodes could have been awful: uncomfortable and unforgivable -- but the brilliant McCarthy invites your empathy and understanding. And beyond McCarthy, everyone has been served splendidly. Carl seeking out his mother, who abandoned him as a child, and trying to forge a relationship with Molly's sister Victoria; Victoria, in turn, confronting her fear of commitment; Mike's mother Peggy facing the challenges of old age and the demons of her childhood: all sensitively scripted -- and the actors have responded with glorious performances. (And as Molly's oversexed mother, Swoozie Kurtz, in episodes like "Checkpoint Joyce," has been Emmy-worthy, pure and simple.) Paradoxically, by making Molly more dominant, the writers turned Mike & Molly into more of an ensemble comedy. She was no longer the outsider looking in; she became one of them -- and they, in turn, became more rounded and appealing.

I couldn't possibly pick a "favorite" Mike & Molly -- let's just take a closer look at the one that aired last Wednesday, because it was emblematic of everything the show does right. It was about death: that topic that seemingly every sitcom takes on, and that few handle well. This one did. Molly, Victoria and Joyce's yoga instructor -- a woman barely Joyce's age -- has dropped dead during class, and the shock of it sparks discussions and decisions, all carefully rooted in character. The episode is anchored by three brief scenes between Mike and Joyce's current husband Vince (Louis Mustillo, always hilarious) -- the two characters least inclined to explore their feelings, and therefore, you'd think, least likely to ponder life's mysteries, but indeed they do: they consider the possibility of an afterlife, and ultimately vow to reincarnate, so that whoever goes first can come back and let the other know if there's a heaven. (Vince tells Mike he'll appear as "a yellow butterfly landin' on your nose.") Mike and Carl share a scene at Samuel's diner in which Mike questions the value of keeping to his diet; if a healthy yoga instructor can keel over and die, isn't death ultimately random? The scene boils down to whether Mike should eat the apple fritter he's ordered: "a deep-fried death warrant," as Carl calls it. Carl is so insistent that Mike stick to his regimen -- if not for himself, then for Molly -- that when Samuel brings them their food ("One apple fritter: served without judgment or liability," he announces, in Nyambi Nyambi's driest delivery), Mike dutifully pushes the fritter away -- inspiring Carl to gobble it down instead. (And Billy Gardell does his best double take...)

But the bulk of the episode belongs to the Flynn women. Determined to get her affairs in order, Joyce hands each of her daughters a page of color-coded stickers, so they can mark what they want when she dies. (Molly objects, "Victoria and I are not picking through your things like a couple of vultures" -- but when Victoria reaches in to sticker her mother's earrings, asking, "Are earrings one sticker or two?," Molly's quick to set the ground-rules: "Two. They should be two.") Later, Molly joins Joyce in the basement, where Joyce is trying to pry open a strongbox that's been stored away: "I was completely blindsided when your father died -- I had to plan a funeral, figure out bank accounts, bills -- all while bawling my eyes out. I don't want you girls to have to go through all that." (She presumes the box contains savings bonds and insurance papers, but as it turns out, it's just X-rated Polaroids. Joyce, admiringly: "Boy, your father sure knew how to frame a shot.") And the episode gains traction with the discovery that Joyce is planning on leaving the house to Victoria. Molly, who considers herself the "good daughter," takes it badly, leading to a marvelous drinking scene, and an even better drunk scene -- in which she informs Victoria that the reason she's getting the house is because she's a screw-up, because Joyce knows she'll need a home. But Victoria, the air-head and pothead, counters that she, in fact, is the responsible one: unlike Molly, she has no credit card debt, no outstanding bills; she has enough money put aside to buy any house in the neighborhood. It's a wonderful turnaround: a savvy side of Victoria that's rarely been explored.

So why is Joyce leaving Victoria the house? We wind up back in the basement, where Molly has dragged out Joyce's old Underwood typewriter. They recall that when Joyce worked as a stewardess for Pan Am, she used to type her daughters tales of her adventures. Molly reflects, "I think those letters are part of the reason I wanted to become a writer" -- a lovely way of drawing on one character's backstory as a way of explaining another's passions. Molly wonders, in a moment of quiet insecurity, is Joyce leaving Victoria the house because, in fact, Molly is the screw-up: the one who quit her teaching job, and has a shopping addiction, and is at that moment working off a hangover? Not at all, Joyce assures her: "I'm givin' it to her so you'll have no choice but to get the hell out." Molly is baffled: "You want me to leave?" And Joyce insists: "Of course I do -- I want you to spread your wings, see the world, live your life -- but not until mine is over. 'Cause I can't imagine this house without you." It's a touching moment that elicits a wave of "aw's" from the studio audience, but before the scene can get too soppy, Molly's clear-headed response ("That is the sweetest, most dysfunctional thing you've ever said to me") sets things right. And that's the particular genius of Mike & Molly: that fine line it walks between tough and tender. Every episode is funny and boisterous when it wants to be, and warm and moving when it needs to be -- with actors who can make those transitions seamless, who can go from raucous to reflective and back again.

There are only eight episodes left of Mike & Molly. I don't know if there's a formal "series finale" planned; I presume not, because its cancellation came as such a shock to cast and crew -- and in fact, I hope not, because even the best shows frequently screw up their series finales. But even if the ending stinks, I'll be the first to forgive it, because how do you hold a grudge against a show that's given you so much pleasure, that's brightened your spirits on the days you've needed it most? A show where the actors have convinced you, week after week, that the joy emanating from the soundstage was real: that these people loved being together as much as you loved watching them. I'm sad that Mike & Molly was canceled after only six seasons, but I'm not boycotting CBS, or selling my TV in defiance. Instead, I'm simply going to be grateful for the time spent with this amazing cast, and for writers who seemed to respect and adore the characters as much as I did.

May 2016 post-finale post-mortem: I needn't have worried; Mike & Molly went out on a perfect note. I can't imagine a more satisfying conclusion. Its final season may well have been its finest season; how often does that happen?

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.