Monday, September 15, 2014

2014 Fall TV Preview: Dean's Cable Essay

It’s been a running tradition for David to write up a Fall preview for the various broadcast shows. In the last few years, I've provided a corresponding preview for cable (and streaming, but henceforth I’ll just say cable)[1], because I watch too much TV, and want all of you out there to watch what I watch.  But this year, I must do something different.

In part because cable doesn't respect the traditional Fall/Spring release date of the broadcast networks, and in part because the Fall shows I’ve either pitched to you before look kind of terrible. So instead, I will give a general overview of the state of cable television today, which will surely go on too long and represent way more thought than anyone should give to something that appears on a glowing screen in your living room.[2]

I’ve divided my thoughts up into Drama, Comedy, and Animation, so you know, skip whatever doesn't interest you. Or skip the whole thing, it’s not my blog. I won’t be offended. I won’t even know.[3]


Cable drama is in trouble, mostly. Its critical darlings are winding down or gone (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) and those that are rising up to replace them (True Detective, Fargo, the Leftovers), I find tiring. These shows all revel in being grim and mostly humorless. This holds true for the less critically acclaimed series as well [Sons of Anarchy has mistaken shock value for solid storytelling for at least 3 seasons. It learned the wrong lessons from The Shield, which was never shy about going for shock value, but always (well, OK, mostly) in the service of a larger story. Game of Thrones, a show I unabashedly love, has never met a situation that couldn’t get worse.  There is not a single happy character on Masters of Sex. I’m told the funniest parts of The Walking Dead tend to be unintentional (but that it’s gotten better?  I don’t watch it, so take my grumbling here with at least a grain of salt.)][4]

It’s not that I need or want happy, happy, happy all the time, but there needs to be some light in the darkness. Some reason to hope things will get better, rather than progressively worse until everything breaks. I’d love to see a drama on one of the bigger cable networks with a sense of fun and humor. Something like what Leverage used to do, or Castle (if I may intrude on David’s turf for a moment[5]) does now (maybe Monk is the originator of this specific style?). Even then the creators often forget what makes their shows tick and turn down the farce and up the grim.

These episodes are always the worst. I know I could turn on TNT or USA for an episode of Suits or something, but I’m not even sure if I have that programmed into my cable box. (Someone somewhere is yelling at me that I only have myself to blame for not tuning into these shows, but I also blame the AV Club. I set my schedule by their “What’s on Tonight,” and if it’s not there I won’t remember to DVR it.)

Of course this all ignores the glorious exception to the above: Orange is the New Black. How is a show about people with the least amount of control over their lives and the fewest options  the most optimistic, the most likely to find an unexpected laugh instead of finding another way to punch you in the gut (although it’s certainly not going to pull a punch if it comes to it)? Rectify is another show that breaks this pattern to an extent. It’s not going to make you laugh…ever. But its characters at least act human, and although their circumstances aren’t pleasant, they’re all working toward making what they’ve got better instead of tearing everything around them down (except in the episode Daniel tears down his mother’s kitchen, but that is not the point and stop pointing out flaws in my arguments).[6]

Another show that is good at mixing jokes with the more serious business is Justified (Just watch it David. It’s the final season. It won’t hurt you.) If you don’t believe me, tell anyone who watches it that Dewey Crowe has four kidneys and see how they react.[7] Also it managed to make Patton Oswalt hilarious and believably badass. (There is no way to describe his character without using that word, all other synonyms are inapt.)

And no essay would be complete without a final reversal. Sometimes adding lightness can go wrong. Levity is good, silliness is not. Which is why I finish this segment of the essay with Doctor Who. Steven Moffet is a very funny man. He brought the world the sock gap and the giggle loop. But the weakest parts of these shows are when they go too broad and veer into the silly (I’m looking at you first half hour of Capaladi’s premiere).[8] I could also throw in True Blood into this, but that’s maybe not silly so much as dumb. So in summation: Lighten up cable dramas, just, you know, not too much.


Whereas I’m down on cable when it comes to the overall state of its dramas, I have no such hesitation when it comes to the comedies. In fact I’m just going to list all the comedies I can think of that I’ve watched this year (that haven’t been canceled, although for some of them there is no news about yet) and then tell you something good about them, with one (quite notable) exception.

Archer: “This is how you get ants. “
Broad City: [Ed. note: Click this link to learn whatever it is Dean wants you to learn. And no, I haven't previewed it.]
Children’s Hospital: Clowns are a race on this show. So if you find them unsettling that makes you a racist.
Community: It’s on cable now! It’s been fixed from season 4! Donald Glover is gone! (Wait, that last one is bad. Come back Donald Glover, we love you!)
Cougar Town: RIP Big Carl
Girls: The latest season of Girls fixed some of the issues of the previous season, and also made me laugh.
Ground Floor: I think this one might be dead, but Briga Heelan is an absolute delight and John C. McGinley is an absolute pro when it comes to yelling at people.
Inside Amy Schumer: I find Amy’s willingness to make herself the butt of every joke endearing, especially since the jokes are so funny.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Dee looks like a bird.
Key and Peele: I hope they don’t bring back Luther the Anger Translator. I do hope they bring back A-a-ron.
Kroll Show: Nick Kroll specializes in parodying the exact type of show I do not watch. I still find his parodies to be hilarious.
Louie: I might be done with Louie. As it’s gone on it’s gone from side splitting comedy with occasional dramatic moments to a drama with all too fleeting comedic moments. I might quit this show and it makes me sad.[9]
The League: Batman Chalupa
Nathan For You: Dumb Starbucks: it’s exactly like Starbucks, but everything has dumb in front of it so parody law protects it.
NTSF:SD:SUV: I love that we got to see under Kove’s eye patch.   
Portlandia: Portland is a city ripe for gentle, loving, skewering and this show delivers. They need to fluoridate their water though. Also, they probably don’t vaccinate their kids as much as they should there. Get your vaccinations folks. Herd immunity is important.
Red Oaks: Technically this is not a show yet, it’s only an Amazon pilot. You should watch it and rate it on Amazon. I thought it was hilarious. It’s kind of Caddyshack the TV show (plus it’s got Paul Reiser who is making a welcome comeback to our TVs. )
Review: Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes was the funniest single episode of TV I’ve seen all year.
Rick and Morty: “Look at me, I’m Mr. Meseeks!”
Silicon Valley: While Review had my favorite overall episode, this show had the single funniest set piece I’ve seen all year. I would describe it, but it’s a) incredibly profane and b) half of the joy in it comes from the visuals. I will say a scientific paper by actual scientists was published on this scene. (Warning: Both math and profane topics at this link.)
Sirens: I couldn’t tell you why this show made me as consistently happy as it did, but I was always excited to watch an episode. It has a special sort of charm to it.
South Park: You know what you’re going to get with South Park, so I’m not going to waste my time thinking of something clever to say about it.
Veep: In Dean-runs-the-Emmy’s world, Veep won Best Comedy (Orange is the New Black was runner-up for Best Drama after Breaking Bad because it’s a dramedy, and dramadies go in the drama category under my iron-fisted rule).
You’re the Worst: “They’re everyone’s stars.” This line made me tear up a little. It was the saddest line. This show will probably not come back--no one is watching even though it’s by far the funniest thing on TV right now and it’s not even close--but its last episode is Thursday so there’s still time to catch up. It’s hilarious and also somehow makes you care about some awful people. Also there was a really emotional moment involving a food processor of all things. Really this show is the best.

ANIMATION (or rather kid-focused animation)
Cable is a gold mine for quality animation. Between The Legend of Korra, Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Gravity Falls there are four cartoons adults can watch with their kids and still be entertained. (Be forewarned all the shows contain scenes that may be too scary for younger viewers.)  These shows are all great and I recommend each without reservation. The only issue with cable animation is that the people who schedule these shows are some sort of madmen who schedule these shows on some sort of time table known only to them. Gravity Falls just began its season and has taken a random break after only three episodes. Nick stopped airing The Legend of Korra halfway through the season and began placing them online only.[10] You’d have to be a haruspex[11] to keep track of when new episodes air (or trust your DVR to sort new from old, which is beyond my DVR’s capabilities and wouldn’t work for Korra either way).

So, to sum up for those who saw a wall of text and just skipped to the bottom: Dramas: too dark, not enough light; Comedies: a cornucopia of riches. If you’re not watching any, pick one from my list and give it a shot; Animation: Great, but frustrating in its own right.

No comments: