The Walking Dead

Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Four episodes into the first season.

As monsters go, zombies aren’t particularly interesting. Zombies don’t reason; they don’t remember; they don’t have any kind of motivation beyond a mindless drive to eat your brains. Exceptions abound, of course—one classic deviation immediately leaps to mind—but in general, zombies are simply ravenous monsters pointlessly and inexorably overwhelming the human race.

The interesting thing about zombie apocalypse stories (if there is an interesting thing, which there sometimes isn’t) is the way the non-zombies react, how they handle the collapse of society, the formation of small, fragile cells of survivors. Zombie stories tend to be depressing, but zombies aren’t the half of it. The depressing thing—the riveting, dramatic thing—is how quickly civilization disintegrates, how rapidly the surviving humans lose their humanity.

The Walking Dead, AMC’s new TV adaptation of the intensely dark comic book series, is consistently good at dramatizing zombies. The depiction of living people is a little more scattered—sometimes heartrendingly powerful, sometimes downright obtuse—which is a problem because the survivors, the actual characters, have to be the legs of the show. There are definitely more right notes than wrong here, and the production values are incredible, but the wrong notes are still discordant enough to give me pause.

Sherlock

Series I finale aired Sunday, November 7, on PBS.

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without John Watson. It’s easy to forget that, what with all the attention-grabbing deductive shenanigans and outrageous displays of arrogance, but stalwart Watson is not only the frame by which the stories are told (the conceit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction is that Watson is recounting his friend’s adventures); he also, more important, is practically the only story element that humanizes the iconic detective. Without Watson, Holmes would be unbearable and incomprehensible; even with Watson at his side, he’s a pill.

So Watson is key. He can’t just be a dumb loyal dog trotting after his master—that gets old fast—but there still has to be a reason that he puts up Holmes’s abuse. Holmes only has to make sense in relation to Watson, but Watson, as our portal into the story, has to make sense in himself.

What I love most about Sherlock, the BBC’s clever modern-day take on the detective (recently broadcast in the United States on PBS), is that it seems to understand that: the odd, prickly relationship between Holmes and Watson is central to the show and vividly dramatized. Watson might not be able to keep up with Holmes’s mental gymnastics, but he’s not a passive sounding board. He talks back, and he learns, and in his own way, he’s just as alienated from society as the great detective—an interesting, provocative take of the familiar Holmes-Watson dynamic. The show has its weaknesses in other areas, but with this pair at its center, it can’t help but be a smashing success.

Community

Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five episodes into the second season.

The standard knock on metafiction (storytelling that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, never letting its audience forget the essential fictionness—the falsehood—of the tale) is that it’s empty and insincere, refusing to commit to the emotion or the characters of its story and instead indulging in arch, self-congratulatory naval-gazing, cleverness for its own meaningless sake. That can be true, no doubt—to understand a work as fiction, you always have to take a step or two back, and it’s easy to reach too far a remove—but it’s not necessarily so. The best metafiction finds meaning in the idea that stories are true even in their falsehood, and to me, at least, that’s a tremendously powerful, affirming idea. (I’m the sort of person who cries through much of Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction.) Good metafiction also provides rich ground for humor, mining the nonsense of storytelling even as it embraces the story. (Arrested Development was brilliant at that.) The balancing act is precarious, and it will never be to everyone’s taste, but done well, metafiction can be startling and provocative and downright hilarious.

Community, an under-performing tongue-in-cheek sitcom in its sophomore year, is still fine-tuning its balancing act. It has its glib moments, its cheap gags, but as it discovers who precisely its characters are and refines its voice, it gets funnier and funnier and, at times, surprisingly affecting. I know Modern Family has its partisans, Glee its passionate fans, but Community is the sole comedy now airing guaranteed to set me in a good mood. Its satiric bite is delicious, its sense of the absurd is unrivaled, and its sentiment well leavened with honesty and wit. This is metahumor done right.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is definitely a children’s show. Unlike the Pixar movies or some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which seem to have an adult sensibility and adult rhythms underlying the animation, Avatar follows the familiar contours of kids’ programming: a single strongly expressed theme in each episode; straightforward plotting; goofy, broad humor. And yet, as the show progresses, complexities reveal themselves beneath the simplicities. The morals of the story, though transparently conveyed, are more challenging, sometimes more unsettling, than typical kids’ fare. It took most of the first season for me to settle into the guileless storytelling, even longer for the boisterous child hero Aang to endear himself to me, but the vivid Japanese-style animation held my attention in the meantime. Eventually, I could see why so many people love this show so deeply—and why M. Night Shyamalan’s widely reviled live-action adaptation of the first season is such a travesty.

Slings and Arrows

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

The creators of Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV series that ran from 2003 to 2006, clearly weren’t worried about reaching a mass audience. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the show aired on a premium channel, not because it features network-unfriendly sex and violence (it doesn’t) but because it’s unrepentantly snobby about theater, which is, in its way, even more network-unfriendly. Set at a troubled Shakespeare festival (the show’s title alludes to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy), Slings and Arrows knows the Bard’s plays very well and operates under the assumption that viewers do too. (In one emotionally climactic scene, a character quotes from King John without attribution!)

What’s more, much of the drama derives from the ongoing struggle to produce those plays with integrity, worrying not about marketing or ticket sales but about how best to breathe life into the still-vibrant Elizabethan-era text. Slings can be deprecating and satiric toward its theaterfolk, sometimes cuttingly so, but it’s premised on the idea that a bad production of Hamlet is a genuine tragedy—even, perhaps especially, if it’s well received. Those who don’t share that belief probably find that the series become very exasperating very quickly, but for those who do care about the finer points of interpreting the great plays, Slings is charming and funny and poignant.

Party Down

Fridays at 10 p.m. on Starz, plus streaming on Netflix (which is how Sean and I watch it). Six episodes into the second season.

So that summer cold I had ended up turning into a brutal, unforgiving case of acute tracheal bronchitis (I love having an official diagnosis) that ran me into the ground this past week. Going out was out of the question, but Sean and I got caught up on the increasingly obnoxious Glee, which we haven’t quite abandoned yet, though we’re getting close. We also rewatched The Prestige, and I reaffirmed my conviction that it’s sorely underrated—a dark but beautifully polished gem. Best of all, though, I got Sean into Party Down, which was easy because, one, Netflix subscribers can stream every single episode of the sitcom on demand (it’s convenient!) and, two, it has a great cast, energetic pacing, and fabulously sharp writing (it’s hilarious!). If I had to be laid low by a nasty little virus, holding a private Party Down marathon made it all somewhat tolerable.

Parks and Recreation

Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. Twenty episodes into the second season.

So The Office has gone downhill. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really, but after nearly six full seasons, the show seems to have run its course. The characters aren’t surprising anymore (or when they are, it’s because they’re acting out of character), and some have calcified into one-dimensional creatures. The comedy simply isn’t as sharp or as funny as it used to be.

So it’s great that Parks and Recreation has risen in quality to take its place (at least in my affections—I’m just about over The Office). When the Office creators started Parks last year, it was little more than a cheap knock-off of The Office (which, of course, was itself adapted from Ricky Gervais’s UK original). But since those first tentative episodes, the Parks writers and actors have come into their own. The established mockumentary structure is still there, but Parks now has its own rhythms, its own themes, and its own oddball running gags. It might not surpass the American Office at that show’s height, but it certainly surpasses it now.

Caprica

Fridays at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Five episodes into the first season.

Only novels rival TV shows in terms of the depth and breadth of the worlds they can create. That’s what makes the classic luddite sneer “I don’t even own a TV” so profoundly stupid: It betrays the fact that the sneering luddites are just as blind to the medium’s potential as the TV hacks at which they direct their derision. Because sure, most TV is disposable (just as most books and music and movies are ultimately disposable), but the shows that understand the possibilities in literally hours of story time can become epics, not necessarily in style (I’m thinking of shows like Arrested Development in addition to such obvious examples as The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but in scope.

Time will tell whether Caprica can ascend to that echelon—it’s still early, and it’s walking a staggeringly high tightrope—but it has the potential because it has the ambition, with an enormous cast of complex characters, intricate plotting, and truly intriguing ideas about technology and religion and terrorism and the nature of humanity and a host of other weighty themes. The tone is a bit uneven, wobbling from humor to melodrama to genuine tragedy, and then there’s the fact that as a prequel to the revamped Battlestar Galactica (which ended its four-season run last spring), it is, by definition, heading toward apocalypse: the vast majority of the characters (not to mention their entire civilization) are doomed, which is, you know, kind of depressing. And yet Caprica is too interesting and immersive to be a downer. I haven’t gotten over my fears that it’s going to collapse into an incoherent mess (always a danger when you aim high), and I don’t have much idea where it’s going with the many narrative threads, but my bewilderment isn’t a strike against it. That, in fact, is what make it so fascinating.

Dollhouse — revisited

Second season and series finale aired Friday, January 29, on Fox.

Looking back at what I wrote about Dollhouse after its first few episodes, I’m stunned by how far the show came in its two brief seasons. Maybe it just took a while for creator Joss Whedon’s team of writers to figure out how to make their high concept work. Maybe the meddling Fox executives finally backed off enough to let them tell the story the way they had always wanted. Maybe it just took me a while to get past the problematic elements and appreciate how brilliantly the show was handling them. I suspect, in fact, that it might be a little of all three. But now that the show has ended with a taut, thrilling, poignant finale, it’s worth reassessing. Back then, with my first post, I considered Dollhouse worth appreciating more for its ambitions than its achievements, but now, having seen the whole thing, I think the series ended up realizing those high ambitions and even expanding upon them in ways I hadn’t expected or thought possible.

Glee

Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Eight episodes into the first season.

Warning: Glee causes whiplash. The high school show choir dramedy will be clever and witty and sensitive and fresh, and then, a moment later, it will be stupid and unfunny and cruel and clichéd. Then it will launch into a musical number so energetic and charming that you forgive the bad stuff, and then the bad will take a truly ugly turn, and you wonder how you ever thought it was good enough to make up for that. The choir’s hyperspeed cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo” mashed against “Walking on Sunshine”—yay! The choir teacher’s deeply uncomfortable cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song”—boo! Awesome, bizarre humor involving Jane Lynch advocating caning and prancing around in a zoot suit—yay! Stupid, bizarre humor involving the football team being coached to dance, literally dance, in the middle of a play—boo! A poignant, beautifully acted scene in which a gay teenage boy comes out to his father—yay! Yet another nasty, misogynistic scene in which an impossibly shrewish woman browbeats her impossibly saintly husband—boo!

Assessing Glee means weighing the good against the bad, and I, at least, have yet to get the scale to stay still long enough to take its measure. The show bewilders me, delights me, and disgusts me—and even when I stop hating it long enough to love it, I feel a little bit dirty about doing so. But I keep watching. It has me hooked. That has to count for something, I guess.