Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Eighteen episodes into the first season.
Heroes lacks many of the markers of good TV. The writing is often stilted, the acting is often wooden, and the plot deals with superheroes, if you’re going to be snobby about that sort of thing.
Yet despite all that (and something because of it—awkward delivery of melodramatic dialogue can be oddly charming), Heroes is a compelling, endearing show, using cliffhangers to great effect and ably juggling more than a dozen main characters, even making some of them worth caring about.
All three seasons on DVD.
My brother, Michael, and I both own all three seasons of Arrested Development on DVD. We’ve seen most of the episodes numerous times. We know much of the dialogue by heart and often start giggling before the show actually reaches the punch line. So when my father and he visited for a few days, Michael, Sean, and I decided to introduce Dad to our dear departed sitcom.
It wasn’t a careless decision because offering TV or movie recommendations is risky in our family. My Aunt Mary Sue and Uncle George still give my parents a hard time for suggesting they see Annie Hall, which my aunt and uncle did not enjoy as much as Mom and Dad did, to put it mildly. (Annie Hall came out in 1977, by the way, which ought to give you some idea of the longevity of cheerfully held grudges in our clan.)
Fortunately for us, Dad was soon bawling with laughter at the bizarre, ribald, perverse antics of the Bluth family. Too little, too late, but Arrested Development has won another devoted fan.
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Nine episodes into the first season.
Where to start with Ugly Betty? The Americanized telanovela about an unglamorous assistant at a hyperglamorous magazine is a tangle of contradictions. It’s both frivolous and sincere, farcically broad one moment and surprisingly delicate the next, cheerfully divorced from reality and then ready to examine issues of class, for example, that most purportedly “serious” dramas don’t touch. To focus solely on Ugly Betty’s charming silliness would belie its depth, but to concentrate on its heavier, more provocative elements would also misrepresent the show.
That weird, contradictory chemistry of goofy camp and earnest thoughtfulness is what makes Ugly Betty so interesting. It doesn’t always work—sometimes a scene tilts too far in one direction or the other—but when it does work, Ugly Betty contradicts its own name.
Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Eight episodes into the first season.
I don’t like Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the most overrated writer working on television. I don’t like his self-conscious banter. I don’t like the condescension with which he writes women. I don’t like the way most of his male characters are obvious stand-ins for Sorkin himself. I don’t like his idealization of political naiveté or his self-righteous Luddism or his shameless grandstanding.
That pomposity was more tolerable (and Sorkin’s other weaknesses somewhat less pronounced) on The West Wing, where the presidential subject matter made grandiosity excusable, even appropriate on occasion. I’m not immune, for example, to the power of the second season’s Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes, which earn their emotional punch with truly thoughtful, beautiful writing. More often, however, Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue (not to mention the fine actors delivering it) disguises shallow reasoning and inconsistently drawn characters. Is it more interesting that much of the drivel on TV? Well, yes, but that doesn’t make Sorkin the screenwriting god that some make him out to be.
Sorkin’s triumphant return to television (after being fired from The West Wing for—apparently—one too many tardy scripts) is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an embarrassingly masturbatory, self-congratulatory show about just how Challenging and Consequential and Socially Significant writing for television is. Sorkin has become so arrogant, so lacking in self-awareness, that in the pilot, when the Heroic Writer sweeps in to revive a sketch comedy show that has lapsed into mediocrity, a tremulous little production assistant actually asks, “Are you coming to save us?” How can you not roll your eyes at that? Sorkin thinks he’s single-handedly saving us from cultural decay, and he’s doing so by giving us this ham-handed excuse for a drama.
Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS. Season four in progress.
People who don’t like police procedurals often point out that they’re formulaic, one episode interchangeable with the next. As one who rather likes police procedurals, I respond, “Well … yeah.” It is, in fact, the formula that keeps me coming back. As simple and familiar as comfort food, the police procedural formula is the small-screen equivalent of macaroni and cheese after a long day at work. After all, it isn’t just any formula; it’s a primal one. Someone commits a great moral transgression, and someone else uncovers it. Watching that happen is a kind of ritual: entry into an illusory world in which wrongs are righted and the truth is revealed.
The creators of Cold Case understand that ritual. The CBS procedural, now in its fourth season, follows not only a narrative formula but also an aesthetic one. Using the same distinctive visual and auditory techniques each week, Cold Case serves as a lovely example of the genre, artfully singing each episode’s new stanza before returning to the show’s familiar refrain.
Seasons one and two on DVD. Season three debuts Thursday, September 21, at 8:30 on NBC.
I should acknowledge up front that, though I have great respect for Ricky Gervais’ The Office, on which the American version is based, I have never been able to sit through an entire episode. The painfully awkward humor and the merciless probing of embarrassment, folly, and ennui makes me so uncomfortable that eventually, inevitably, I give up and flee from the television. I appreciate the show’s insights and perfectly drawn characters, but I’ve always been too susceptible to vicarious humiliation, and the British Office is more than I can bear.
The American Office, on the other hand, is comparatively gentle. I might view some scenes through my fingers—(Yes, really. I’ll watch grotesque violence with no more than a wince, but show me a shame-faced person surrounded by a laughing crowd, and I run for cover. I have issues.)—but the American show is more generous about relieving the tension, perhaps more forgiving toward the characters, no matter how foolish or weak they might be. Some might argue that its relatively gentle nature indicates that it is more conventional and timid than the groundbreaking British version, but I think that would be unfair. Rather, it indicates that the American version has found its own path and its own sensibility—not better or worse but different.
Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Three episodes into the third season.
Project Runway is the best reality program on television.
I hate it when people make statements like that. I mean, I could no more watch all the reality shows on TV than I could all the sitcoms or all the cop shows, so making a definitive statement about Project Runway’s universal superiority is rather silly, and I know it. But I don’t care. I will become what I hate. Project Runway is the best reality program on television. Period.
On Project Runway, 15 designers at various stages in the careers compete for a chance to show a collection at New York’s Fashion Week. In each episode, host Heidi Klum presents them with a challenge, and they have a limited time and budget to create a garment to meet that challenge. Many reality shows present competitions, of course, but behind all the reality conventions, underneath the sometimes manufactured conflict, Project Runway isn’t about competition; it’s about the creative process, and as such, it’s inherently engrossing.
Twelve episodes into the sixth season, with the final eight episodes scheduled to air in 2007. (Seasons one through five on DVD.)
I met the Sopranos nearly six years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Neither my brother nor I could make it home to Florida, so he came to visit me for the holiday. We had gotten hold of the first season of The Sopranos on DVD, and we watched all 13 episodes back to back while I made pasta for dinner and chocolate-chip cookies for dessert.
The marathon took more than 13 hours (we paused in between episodes — and sometimes during them — to discuss), but our attention never wavered, and we never considered breaking off and watching the remaining episodes the next day. As the season progressed, the subplots wove together, and the tension ratcheted higher and higher. We couldn't possibly stop when we wanted so desperately to see what unfolded next.
If we had spent that Thanksgiving watching the sixth season instead of the first, however, we might have set a few episodes aside for Friday or maybe even the weekend. It's not that season six has been bad, but creator David Chase and his team of writers seem to have decided that plot momentum and climax are too plebian for The Sopranos.
Season one on DVD. (Season two in progress on UPN, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.)
For a teen drama — hell, for any kind of network TV show — the premise of Veronica Mars is brutal. As Veronica, the protagonist, explains in the pilot, the past year of her life has been an unhappy one. Her boyfriend, Duncan Kane, dumped her without warning or explanation — painful, certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary. But then Lilly Kane, her best friend and Duncan's sister, was murdered; her father, Sheriff Keith Mars, made the politically reckless move of accusing the Kanes' powerful, wealthy father of the crime; Veronica's former friends and fellow students cut her dead for supporting her father; the outraged town voted Sheriff Mars out of office in a special election; with Keith unemployed and scrounging for work as a detective, the Marses lost their house and moved to a dingy apartment; unable to cope with the changes, Lianne, Veronica's alcoholic mother, abandoned the struggling family without leaving a forwarding address; and just to make the year complete, Veronica woke from a party she had crashed to find that she had been drugged and raped. So as the show opens, Veronica is the high school pariah, helping her father make ends meet by assisting him in detective work and secretly investigating Lilly's murder in her spare time. She's a lonely, angry girl, but she has goals.
Going through that list, I'm once again shocked by how dark the show's backstory is. When Veronica Mars first premiered in 2004, I chose not to watch it because I thought the drama would either be unrelentingly bleak or, more likely, would betray the weight of its subject matter. But Veronica Mars received great reviews, and its small but devoted group of fans included a few of my friends, so when the first season came out on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.
Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. Six episodes into the first season.
People who worried that HBO’s twisted new family drama, Big Love, would create support for the legalization of plural marriage probably needn’t have bothered. Although the show is sympathetic to the polygamous Hendricksons, it certainly doesn’t make their family structure — one husband, three wives and seven children — look desirable. None of the children see enough of their father, who is spread thin between three households. The patriarch of the family, Bill Hendrickson, is constantly overwhelmed by the needs, both emotional and financial, of his large, segmented family. The sister-wives, unable to completely suppress their natural jealousy, feel neglected and isolated and develop awful passive-aggressive tendencies. But what makes a family dysfunctional and unstable makes a television show dramatic and entertaining. If polygamy created a healthy, secure family unit, Big Love wouldn’t be nearly so intriguing.