REMEMBER when TV demanded nothing from us except a submissive wish to be entertained?
There’s still plenty of that sort of television around – lowbrow fare like Two and a Half Men, TMZ, and any soap or reality show we can name. Depending on our tastes, we regularly pull up a sofa and barrel through some mental popcorn. Escapist trash has its pleasures.
The great thing is that there’s so much more on TV now. We don’t have to subsist on a brain-starving diet of ludicrous romance, sleazy gossip, or jokes about hookers. Fresher shows challenge our intelligence, our understanding of the world, and even our sense of morality.
Have you watched The Big C, for example? In it, Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) discovers she has terminal cancer, which prompts her to turf her childish husband, crack down on her surly teenaged son, and warm to her obnoxious brother. This frequently comic series (W Network, Netflix) steers away from sentimentality and schlock, demonstrating that despite a dire diagnosis, joy and hope are possible.
On TV’s best shows, the writing sings. While I sometimes get pettily distracted during AMC’s fabulous Mad Men by phrases people didn’t use in the 1960s -- like "Are you kidding me?" rather than "Are you kidding?" -- more often the dialogue bowls us viewers over. On a recent episode, the constantly droll ad firm partner Roger Sterling grills a colleague about some new Jewish clients who may hire the firm to promote Manischewitz wine. Jews are seen as weirdly “other” by the cynical wasps running Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- the series’ depiction of the period’s casual anti-Semitism is one of its more believable elements. “How Jewish are they?” Sterling asks his co-worker. “Fiddler on the Roof: audience or cast?”
Ignorance of all kinds, from racism to sexism, comes as naturally to the partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as knocking back highballs on the job. But the show was surely set during this period because it was such a time of transition in the U.S. In the ambitious copywriter Peggy Olson, the unhappy housewife Betty Francis, the aspiring actor Megan Draper, the jaded secretary Joan Harris, and the assertive Hari Krishna devotee Mother Lakshmi we can readily see the seeds of anger and frustration that allowed the feminist movement to take root.
Many of us are as transfixed by the look of this series, with its retro costumes and design and its attractive actors, as we are by what it says about advertising and how post-war America wanted to see itself. How wonderful that there’s so much meat here to devour.
I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of the popular Downton Abbey (Vision TV), although I’m sure I’d love it. There’s been too much else to chew on, some of it quite al dente. You can’t watch a show like Girls (HBO) – where a homely would-be writer and her equally clumsy friends muddle through various unfortunate relationships – and remain unmoved, at least, not if you’ve ever been a 20-something female.
This is surely what it’s really like to be young and single in New York, as opposed to the idiotic fairyland of Sex and the City. These young women make the kinds of moves we made ourselves – failing to read the signs of doomed entanglements, pretending to be the sorts of people we most definitely were not – all without the aid of designer shoes or smarmy voiceovers. We cringe as we recognize the inappropriate would-be seducers – flirtatious dads for whom the characters babysit, paunchy bosses with roamin’ fingers, pretentious lechers of every age – as the “girls” navigate through a modern world where raunchy casual sex is expected, whether they like it or not. This ain’t for the faint of heart.
Likewise, TV’s funnier shows no longer bash away at the obvious sitcom buttons but hone in on what prickles us acutely. On the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant show Life’s Too Short (HBO), a little person (Warwick Davis) who fancies himself a film star constantly embarrasses himself by over-reaching -- sometimes literally, considering he’s 3’6” tall. Luckily, the project was Davis’s idea; otherwise, the humiliating situations in which his eponymous character’s arrogance lands him would come across as sheer bullying by his co-creators, Gervais and Merchant. As it is, one often gasps in horror as Davis is embarrassed by such luminaries as Helena Bonham Carter, playing herself with relish.
Meanwhile, the sharp-edged show Veep is like watching The West Wing on nitrous oxide. Sleek but inept U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer (an outstanding Julia Louis Dreyfus) terrorizes the toadies and wretches who assist her and get in her way. She’s not stupid outright – this is no Sarah Palin imitation – but her brash ego clearly supersedes her ability. She’s constantly putting her foot in it, and although we never see the President (called POTUS, short for President of the United States), he’s a constant thorn in her side. In every episode the Veep asks, “Did the President call?” The answer is always “No.”
Whether you find it amusing or agonizing, TV like this won’t bore you. If you’ve given it up for YouTube, maybe it’s time to tune back in.