Anyone who tries to tell you that this isn’t the Golden Age of Television needs to go back and watch all of those classic TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s with an objective eye. Not to say that there aren’t some gems—of course there are. But in an age where everything is an homage to something else, if not a soulless digital double, it’s easy to mistake nostalgia for quality. Which is not to say that today’s shows are any different—they can still be subdivided into the good, the bad, and the ugly—but with cable and streaming services constantly upping their game, the result is some spectacularly good TV.
Possibly too much. I’m a regular TV watcher—unrepentantly so, given the slim pickings at the multiplex these days—and even I can’t keep up with all the good stuff. And there is *so much* good stuff on TV these days: ambitious dramas, cutthroat fantasy, inspiring superheroes, auteurism at its best. If you would rather go see Furious 7 or Jurassic World than watch a season of [insert popular and critically acclaimed show here], then… you should probably go read some other blog. 😉
This quality TV glut is one of the many reasons I love the summer. Even though some channels have smartened up and started featuring original content in the summertime, mostly the powers that be might as well have a great big “Gone Fishin'” title card playing 24/7.
So once I had my fill of baking in the sun, I had time to catch up on four shows that I personally think are worthy of a few of your precious viewing hours. While they are far from perfect, each is fun, provocative, and egregiously entertaining, at least in my humble opinion.
I resisted this one for a while, even though it comes from the creator of Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas. Mostly because I am zombied out. I also don’t like gross body horror stuff. But I should have known better since a) this is on network TV, so the brains and intestines are kept to a minimum, and b) Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows of all time. The plot is about Liv, a promising med student with a hunky fiance and a great family life who goes to a party one night where there is a zombie attack. She gets infected and has to give up everything in her life to work at the morgue so she has a steady supply of brains, brains, brains. The brain she’s eating also gives her the personality of the deceased, which she uses to help solve their murder.
The procedural element is the weakest part of the show, since it’s the same case of the week structure that endless cop shows use, and it’s impossible at this point to bring anything new to that. But the serial aspects of the show won me over very quickly, mainly the stellar supporting cast. Also, the show never cuts corners in the suffering department. In the first season alone, each character is put through the ringer emotionally, and the writers always choose the most painful development for them. And all this with a ton of witty banter and just plain fun interactions. Liv taking on the personalities of the people she eats results in some side-splitting and heartbreaking interactions. Thomas, like with Veronica Mars, is committed to strong multicultural casting, and the best part of the show is her fellow mortician Ravi, who needs to be my boyfriend, like, now. Also great are David Anders as the big bad zombie Blaine and Robert Buckley as her ex-fiance Major Lilywhite (best name ever). The only character who didn’t quite hit for me is her detective partner Clive, partly because he isn’t aware that zombies exist, and therefore is kept out of a lot of the serialized aspects of the plot.
If you’re looking for a fun, fresh take on the zombie genre, or even just some witty banter, check out iZombie.
And the award for the worst title of a new television show goes to…
A lot of factors kept me away from this one when it first started airing, but, wow, was I wrong. This is easily one of the best first seasons of a show I’ve seen in a long time, a cinematic pressure-cooker that had me holding my breath when not theorizing about what exactly is going on. In the tradition of ’70s paranoid cinema but with an up-to-the-minute take on technology and societal woes, this show evokes Kubrick, Fincher, and those nightmares you can’t wake up from.
Our unreliable narrator is Elliot, a mega-introvert who works at a tech security firm but who moonlights as a hacker Robin Hood, righting the wrongs in his environment through cyber blackmail. He nemesis is Evil Corps, an Apple/Google-esque company that controls, well, everything. He and his best friend Angela both lost their parents to cancer caused by Evil Corps’ negligence, so it’s no surprise Elliot gets in bed with fSociety, a group of hackers set on eliminating everyone’s debt by destroying the corporate infrastructure. The enigmatic Mr. Robot is their fearless leader… or is he? Elliot is the Alice in this tale, and as he steps through the looking glass, he discovers a whole other world, and parts of himself that he never expected. ‘Unreliable’ is the watchword here.
By the end of ten riveting episodes, every one of your expectations will be met while subverting all character tropes. Angela, Elliot’s friend, is a tigress in disguise. Sweet Shayla at first seems one-note, then turns into an aria. Menacing businessman Tyrell Wellick and his snobby wife at first seem like stereotypes of the up-and-coming business class, but prove far shiftier, and more human, than first expected. Then there’s Darlene, who just plain rocks. I can’t say more for fear of ruining the many, many surprises to come, but trust me, this is one roller-coaster you want to ride.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception, I had resisted watching this show because of the conflicting opinions within the transgendered community about whether the way it represents that community is a good thing or not. To read more about their criticisms and concerns, click here. (Like any community, there are a variety of opinions, but from what I could tell, the common consensus leaned towards the negative.) I personally cannot speak to whether the show accurately or positively depicts the experience of transitioning, so I’m going to focus on the show as a show.
It’s an exceptional show. These are flawed human characters—some might say they are characters defined by their flaws—that you will recognize and cringe over. You will panic and think, “Is that me? Please don’t let that be me.” Nominally, it’s a show about a 67-year-old father of three’s transition, but it’s actually a show about a family, the Pfeffermans. There’s Maura, trying to navigate this major change in her life with dignity and grace (her family does not make it easy). There’s lackadaisical Sarah, the oldest, who reconnects with her long-lost girlfriend, leaves her husband pretty much on a whim, and spends the rest of the series white-knuckling it through that decision. There’s petty Josh, the commitment-phobic middle brother who has an ongoing affair with his former babysitter. There’s self-centered Ali, still on the gravy train, who will try anything once and can’t seem to make any solid decisions for herself. And there’s Shelly, the distant mother more worried about trivialities than whether her current husband is missing.
Watching them battle through their respective life challenges could seem like torture, except that creator Jill Soloway and her team of writers imbue the show with whimsy, emotionality, and an honesty that is beyond affecting. There’s definitely an Office UK version of this show to be played for squirm-inducing laughs, but they go the more fulfilling route. It’s also nice to see a show that depicts a religion other than Christianity (they are Jewish), and isn’t afraid to engage with it on a critical level. That said, the writers’ interests quite obviously evolved away from Maura and towards the children, with her barely appearing in the last episode. Irritating Ali, who I believe is the character that stands in for Soloway herself (the show is semi-autobiographical), is given showcase after showcase, as if the narrative is somehow as narcissistic as she is. But that is a small criticism in what is really a beautiful and heart-rending depiction of family life.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to say I loved this show to bits and pieces. It is daring, it is passionate, it is avant garde, it is maddening in all the best ways. It’s about a cluster of eight people who can feel and communicate with each other even though they are spread across the globe, but this sci-fi premise plays a backdrop (a deep backdrop) to an exploration of other cultures and life experiences. The creators tip their thematic hand pretty early with the idea of the universality of human experience, but you never really mind because the message is a strong and resonant one.
Structurally, there are some very slow and navel-gazing parts, but you forgive these because the phenomenal cast gives it their all and then some. My personal favorites were Sun, the badass corporate dragonslayer; Lito, the melisma-loving Mexican soap actor; and Nomi, the former hacker and current LGBTQ blogger. And so many others. The show was shot in the eight different countries the lead actors represent, and it works if you turn the sound off and just gape at the beauty of each place.
Still, I would be remiss in not mentioning that I had some serious issues with the representation of all these diverse cultures. Specifically, the inability of the creators to escape privileging the white characters. Though Sun does get a few good fight sequences, overwhelmingly it is the white male cis-gendered American who jumps in to save the day for the male, female, and trans characters. He’s also the one who has all the agency in terms of learning about them being sensates and the hazards of that new world. Not to mention that the narrative for every character of color is resolved in the penultimate episode, so that the last episode can concentrate on the romance between the two white straight characters, and how the white American dude rushes to save his love interest. To top it all off, the series ends in a Pieta-style tableau of the characters around the white male savior.
Whether consciously or not, the creators really struggled to subvert these common narrative tropes and get away from archetypes. I also think they should re-evaluate the need for gratuitous action and violence in a show that purports to be about authentic human experience and multiculturalism. I’m not saying they should turn it into some kind of We Are The World sing-along, but several of the characters drop a lot of bodies with little to no consequences. That Wachowski-style, “Guns, lots of guns,” approach to the action doesn’t quite mesh with the show’s themes. For the second season, I hope they work harder on the plot structure, so that every act, violent or no, is character-motivated and realistic. But is it worth your time? Hell yes.
Have you watched any of these shows? Share your thoughts in the comments!