Friday, April 06, 2012

TV Series Hits & Misses

"Alright then, girls: what's your favourite show?"

As soon as the kids hit that post-Arthur, pre-adolescent state of loud opining, “Family Time” around the old TV set became just a bit fraught. We've never subscribed to cable or satellite, and since bandwidth in this part of Canada is still spotty, we opt for DVD sets — occasionally rented from the town's sole video store, but usually borrowed from the library or purchased for peanuts at various outlets. Here are some series we've road-tested, in no particular order, beginning with the dud that surprised me most:

The Twilight Zone (original series): Fail. The girls were content with the widely-absorbed stand-out episodes, but have zero desire to follow that up with more. The younger (13 years old) doesn't mind this show in small doses, but the older (15) hates, hates, hates it. There are a couple of reasons for this reaction, I think. First of all, it is a product of its time which is somewhat lost in translation to ours. The writers of the time were heavily steeped in the stage work of the day, and each episode plays like a Cliff's Notes for Ibsen or O'Neil. It's all about Freud, then, and the women come off particularly badly (“Stop trying to be my mother, Jane! Can't you see you're killing me?!”). More than that, however, in the philosophical debate re: free will vs. determinism, Rod Serling falls squarely on the side of Fate. I've had to accept the unhappy truth that this television series plays best to late-adolescent beta males.

Star Trek: The Original Series: Modest Success. The girls enjoyed the melodrama, especially in the more boisterous episodes, and incorporated the catch-phrases into their everyday conversation (“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”). However, repeat viewings, which would gladden the old man's heart, are completely out of the question. I haven't yet tried TNG on them (still too expensive). My wife suspects they might like it better.

The Beverley Hillbillies: Modest Success. From a Sixties point of view, the show was hopelessly square. But is that really such a negative? From a broad yuks point of view, it's still good to go.

Gilligan's Island: Hit! If another American television series has generated as many long-standing debates as this one, I've yet to hear of it. They're all debates about the nature of gender and sexuality, mind you, but still: I don't see any discussion boards alight with observations rendered from Six Feet Under. Gilligan exceeds all expectations, because we happily lower them the moment we sing the theme-song.

Speaking of lowered expectations . . .

"Hello, ladies!"

Bonanza: Hit! Those of us who grew up on MAD Magazine recall this show as an endless horse opera about four grown boys, none of whom could hold onto a woman. Seeing it again with pre-adolescent kids was an eye-opener. Most episodes were in fact adroit morality melodramas, many which explored thorny social issues that have yet to be resolved. Also, there was something about the slender-hipped Michael Landon that kept the girls asking for more. Although a lean physique in cowboy garb was not enough to recommend:

Wanted: Dead or Alive: Fail.
The vehicle that brought Steve McQueen to the public eye failed to elicit anything but a “meh” from the girls. In fairness, although we now lionize McQueen in memory, he was frequently an on-screen dud.

"How can I get through to those girls?"

I Spy: Fail. A revolutionary series for its bi-racial co-protagonists and exotic on-location international hijinx, the plot manipulations were, alas, onerous and poorly-paced, The girls abandoned it after a single episode. I tried a few others before following suit. Both Culp and Cosby were incredibly sharp customers (the commentary tracks are worth the time), leaving me to wonder if their (quite valid) personal concerns weren't included at the expense of story momentum.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Hit! At its heart this is a series about two good-looking guys (particularly the Russian) of small stature who get ordered into trouble, then weasel their way out through charm, intelligence and the modest application of muscle. Even the much-lamented third season hit the right notes often enough to keep us hooked. One curiosity: when I asked the girls for a favourite episode, I got vague answers. U.N.C.L.E. is one of those shows best remembered as a vast collection of favourite moments.

Smallville: Modest Success. To be honest, it's a huge hit with the girls, but after four seasons I couldn't bear to watch any more. A group of clear-skinned twenty-somethings pretending to be high-schoolers, holding on to secrets that get them into trouble, especially once the snogging starts — it dawned on me that I was watching a high school fantasy. Too prurient for my tastes.

The Waltons: Modest Success. Same as Bonanza, only with girls, and fewer Colt Peacemakers. None of the fellas were quite as dishy as Little Joe, alas.

The Muppet Show: Borderline Fail. Another show of moments, the ones that work are often corny, off-puttingly nostalgic, or (best of all) just plain weird. The moments that fall flat, though, are sickly sweet and/or earnest to a fault. And then there's the Raquel Welch episode. If there's anything creepier than sexist hippie dudes drooling over a bombshell in a bikini, it's sexist hippie dudes doing the same with felt puppets on their hands.

Somewhere there's a five-year-old boy who doesn't understand why he's feeling so strangely.

Black Adder: Hit! Boy, did this surprise me. I can remember watching this show in my early 20s and thinking its acidity was almost toxic. But that was then and this is now. The entire family loves watching the vile Edmund Blackadder abuse his witless cronies (especially Baldric).

"If I know girls, and I believe I do, they're going to enjoy watching as I demean you!"

Monty Python's Flying Circus: Hit! In fact, the girls enjoy watching it more than I do. Fellas my age have committed the funniest sketches to memory. The other sketches, while still amusing (usually), are sluggishly paced. It's remarkable that something as rough around the edges as the Flying Circus became such an enormous hit. But its success with the teens indicates there is still something there there.

And the award for Startling, Unqualified, Absolute Hit Without Peer goes to . . .

. . . (would you believe?) Get Smart!

A friend who's written for television tells me this show is the bane of every writer's existence, because when pitching to producers, the moment inevitably comes when the writer hears, “You know what I'm really looking for? The next Get Smart.” It will never happen, because the next Get Smart will look nothing like the original Get Smart, which made innocent fun out of mocking just about everything The Establishment placed in high regard. These DVDs have seen, and continue to see, a great deal of use.

Runners up: Fawlty Towers, and the first four seasons of The Simpsons.

Currently watching: Lost. Another conversation-generating desert-island TV show, this one is a big hit with the girls, a modest hit with me. Sawyer and Said are the draw for the females in this family. I wish Kate had some appeal, but alas, she (really, really) grates on me. That's not the fault of the actor (Evangeline Wilson, a lovely young woman who digs deep for the desperately needed nuance) but the writing: Kate is not so much mysterious or even misunderstood as she is poorly-conceived. The writing for the other characters, though, is mostly pretty sharp.

Potential fodder for the future:

Friday Night Lights
looks very promising. In another year or two, Mad Men might also make the cut.

Stay tuned.


paul bowman said...

Have to confess to complete ignorance of both McQueen's Wanted and Atkinson's Black Adder. Happily, the latter's among things I can stream for no extra charge on Amazon, for being a Prime member. I think I'll be taking it in small doses, though.

Whisky Prajer said...

The first season of Black Adder is the weakest. The third, however, is brilliant. Everyone hits the right notes, really hard. It's also refreshing to watch a pre-House Hugh Laurie hamming it up.

paul bowman said...

Pre-House Hugh I do know a bit — first via sister-in-law with love for Wodehouse, then via YouTube and happy discovery of Fry & Laurie a couple of years ago. ("Language, Tiger, ..." — really, what in all of TV history tops that?)

Many thanks for the tip. That'll make a difference.

DarkoV said...

Blackadder? YES!
Get Smart? YES!
No Crime Stuff? Not even Homicide:Life on the Streets...the precursor to that other travelogue to the splendiferiness of Baltimore, "The Wire".

Mad Men? Not a fan...I don't get the appeal save if you're an ex-smoker and inhaling vicariously.

Whisky Prajer said...

"ex-smoker inhaling vicariously" is something a viewer can happily experience while watching Get Smart, of course. Certainly the more recommended route, I'd say.