television: a new discovery

It’s been a weird year.

Say it again: it’s been a weird year.

I made a post to this effect at about this time last year. The trend continues: I’ve been watching television. (I still don’t own a television, but technology has allowed me to become a TV-viewer on my little laptop; wonders never cease.) I still find this so strange. And I struggle somewhat with the stigma I was taught as a kid: that is, that television is tooth-rotting junk food, while books are healthy and nourishing. Well, there may be something more passive about watching, while reading requires a bit more reader participation. There’s no coincidence in this compliment to one of my favorite shows: “They required a level of attention from viewers of The Wire not normally demanded by television shows… but a level of attention a step closer to the level you might have to apply to reading a book.”* But also, as Liz points out (I paraphrase): “Television was junk when you were a kid. But in the last 15 years or so, they’ve figured out how to make some really good television. And you’ve been watching good television.” And you know what? I have been. There is some astonishingly good television out there.

It’s not normal for me to feel this involved with a television show. But on the other hand, it’s not all that unusual for me to feel really involved with a fictional world, with plot and characters invented by impressive creative minds. And it’s been really exciting to discover a whole new medium for exploring story and character. Not that I entirely had all the craft elements of writing under control! but there’s so much more to watch out for, no pun intended, on the screen. The pure writing alone, from plot construction to lines of dialog to stage direction, is a whole course of study; then there’s the acting, the sound and scenery, and the cinematography. I’m sort of reeling at all of this. I’m a little tempted to sign up for another graduate degree in how to pick apart a television show. (Not really. Maybe a little.)

I’m not sure what’s led me in this direction, toward the screen. I definitely think the pandemic and shutdown and isolation and increasingly depressive news of the world have played a role, but again, I started watching last year. The bad world out there has just pushed me further. I’ve also noticed that in my reading, I crave lightness and fiction to leaven the important but unpleasant reality I take in. But when my favorite novels of the year include Sun a Fun Age, Leave the World Behind and The Prettiest Star, maybe I don’t skew as ‘light’ as I claim to. Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally found a new-to-me medium, and I was ready for it. At any rate, there are whole worlds out there. When television is done well, those worlds are thrilling and enthralling and worthy of all the time and attention I have to offer.

Case in point is definitely The Wire, a piece of creative work I can scarcely wrap my head around after two full viewings – thanks as always to Liz, who not only told me to watch it in the first place, but then sent along a great piece of criticism. The above *quotation comes from “Why The Wire is one of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever,” which is spoiler-free, and a better review than I feel able to write. I will say that this show is not only visually appealing, extremely witty and funny, but also very very smart, and tackles the kinds of Big Issues that I like to see tackled in fiction. I’ll watch it again.

My television obsession of the year is Shameless (the US version). Early in pandemic shutdown, I started watching this show and got hooked. This scrappy, resourceful, problematic, crazy-but-real family just got inside my head and my heart, with their struggles and their relationships which are both strong and messy, and their colorful southside Chicago setting. It’s absolutely a comedy and absolutely a heart-rending drama, and it runs for ten seasons, with season 11 delayed by the pandemic but now filming, and set to be the last. I am most in love with the relationship between Ian and Mickey, but many characters’ arcs strike me as nuanced and engrossing. This is less a perfect show than The Wire; there are errors and inconsistencies, but I still find it completely compelling. And while it’s less serious, too, there is no shortage of Big Issues – mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, poverty, tolerance, love – which are here presented as simply the backdrop facts of life, rather than problems to be solved as on The Wire. This is another show I’d take a master course on.

My love for Shameless character Mickey Milkovich led me to seek more work by the actor who portrays him, Noel Fisher, which led me to other shows and movies, many of them good – The Booth at the End, The Riches, The Long Road Home – but most remarkably, The Red Line. This series of just eight episodes begins with the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white cop, and just keeps adding in the Big Issues from there. It’s jam-packed with them, in fact, which could be seen as a liability, especially in less capable hands (these are very capable hands – Ava DuVernay is a producer); but I decided it felt rather like life, in which we are indeed surrounded by Big Issues that we don’t get to fully untangle. (I was also charmed by a matter-of-fact background element: one of our protagonists has a BFF who is non-binary in their gender identity and uses the pronouns they/them. I expected this would become another Issue but no, it’s just a fact of life. Which is part of what representation means. Hat tip.) A little more time would have been great, to see these stories more deeply explored, but I’m very impressed by what is here.

Finally, Orphan Black is a mind-blowing story and set of characters, including some of those loving, messy, built-family relationships I love as in Shameless. It’s addictive in many ways, but what I can’t miss mentioning is that a whole slew of characters are played by a single actor. Some of these characters then play each other within the show, so that the completely masterful superstar Tatiana Maslany not only plays Sarah and Allison (and others) but also Allison pretending to be Sarah, etc. It’s the big bad world against our heroine, iconoclastic rebel Sarah Manning; episodes and seasons keep twisting and riffing on that basic plot structure in a way that might be tiresome, if there weren’t so much imagination in the twists and riffs, and humor and love (and completely genius secondary characters like Sarah’s sidekick Felix). I was bereft when I finished the final season.

Liz tells me there’s plenty more great television for me to catch up on. What a world. I wouldn’t say Noel Fisher’s body of work makes up for what’s going on out there in the real world, but it’s pretty thrilling to continue to discover works of creativity that change the way I think and feel. Thank goodness. Keep ’em coming.

4 Responses

  1. You should watch the original English version of Shameless as an important actor came out of it and I seem to prefer the English versions like the original office Yes I do think 🤔 you can read and also watch television Television is not evil 😈

  2. I have difficulty finding shows that hold my interest. Thanks for your post. I’ll check some of these out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: