Archives for posts with tag: American TV

The problem with this time of year is that so many old staples return to TV that it is hard to make time for anything new. Yes, I know there is catch-up services and streaming, but I like to keep a balanced life and that makes it hard for me to make time to watch everything. I have a list as long as my arm of shows I want to see – The Good Place, Rick & Morty and Shit’s Creek have all come highly recommended.

So when I put off watching these, it is annoying when something I invest time in starts to not repay me. That is the problem I am currently facing with 2 Broke Girls. It has always had its critics for its base humour and stereotyping, but for me it had always just been knock-about fun, a counter-balance to the more thoughtful New Girl or The Mindy Project.

The last season has only just begun in the UK, such is our lack of interest in it – The Big Bang Theory comes out within a few weeks of the US episodes. The two episodes I have seen so far have been verging towards the dire.

Yet I can’t put my finger on why. The plot of the episodes has always been wafer-thin, so it isn’t that. They have never gone for surprising jokes – you have always seen the next line or visual gag coming. The characters haven’t changed, although admittedly over six seasons you expect to see some development.

I can therefore only put down my change in view towards it down to myself. I feel as if my taste in TV has matured over the last few years. I was never the kind of viewer to get invested in Line of Duty for example, but I now want the next series of that to come around more than anything else in the world. I’ve also grown tired of Family Guy, although I did think the episode spoofing the Emmy’s was quite clever in its own way.

The thing is, knowing this the last season makes me want to persevere with it. I want to know if we are going to see a happy ending (although the plot of the first two episodes suggests Caroline has seen too many of Max’s), both in terms of the business and the personal lives of the characters. Even so, it will be a relief when it is over. Whether I will get round to completing my wish list after all, well, that’s a different story.

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After what feels like an eternity, I have once again returned to The Middle. My pause from it was caused by my obsession with working my way through all 12 seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. My word, the contrast is huge. It feels like entering a sunny landscape after days of hiking through rough terrain and a biting wind. Not that I don’t love It’s Always Sunny, it does edgy so well after all, but watching a comedy that isn’t full of anger and with people who are at a basic level likeable feels almost a relief.

Not that there aren’t clouds in The Middle. It’s just that it is the clouds are what drives the family together. Financial hardship, the perils of adulthood, dissatisfaction with life – they are all on display. But there is a love between the characters. And that’s why you buy into them as a real family.

Also, like with any family, you find yourself siding with different people each time. I have watched episodes where Brick is almost a hero to me, fighting his social awkwardness with a charming naivety. Then, in the next episode, these very qualities become overbearing and frustratingly child-like. Likewise, Frankie can be too naggy in one episode, wanting too much from her family and life and then giving up on her dreams when a minor bump appears. But then, you suddenly feel sorry for her when you see how much she tries to support her family with little gratification in return.

I’ve said it before, but it’s true – American TV truly comes into its own when it allows over a number of seasons at twenty or so episodes at time the characters to develop. Long-running plots can develop without being rushed and even minor characters can be fleshed out.

I think, more than anything, you come away from The Middle wanting the characters to be happy. Obviously not too happy. There is no comedy or narrative tension in a smooth life. But happy enough so that you come away affirmed that life can occasionally at least go your way.

You don’t always want happy in a comedy. Life isn’t like that and humour can come from the darkest place. But sometimes fiction needs to lift you up, even if it’s not aspirational. And that’s because aspiration alone doesn’t lift. It takes people to do that. Even dysfunctional families can make things better.

TV has been dire recently. Summer is always a silly season, where the foot gets taken off the peddle. But this year feels particularly bad for some reason. No wonder people are turning to streaming services more and more, when you consider the alternatives on offer.

Because of this, I am forced to discuss a show I have written about before, namely It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To be fair, I am now on season 11, so another look at it is worthwhile. The passage of time always changes things. Some shows dip, others find their form.

I feel It’s Always Sunny is in the latter. The plotlines that are designed to shock have been done away with, like racism or drug addiction, in place of a more standard pattern of the gang gets into a scrape or come up with a ridiculous idea and either get out of trouble or fail miserably, depending on what the plot requires. There are some episodes that specifically pastiche certain genres (‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’ mocking of 80’s movies for example’) but there is still a fairly simple rhythm.

This has helped the show in many respects, as the humour is now driven by a character’s flaws directly interacting with a simple set-up and allowing things to spiral, rather than trying to satirise a specific aspect of society. There is still an outrageousness and blackness to the humour, but it is more character driven.

One of my personal favourite episodes is ‘Charlie Work’ from season 10. In it, Charlie tries to get the bar past its health inspection, but is undermined by the rest of the gang’s scam involving live chickens and contaminated steaks. There was a great use of unity of time as Charlie became ever more frantic and the eccentricities of everyone else also built (Dennis’s insistence on playing his role as barman in the style of Matthew McConaughey, Frank flushing his clothes down the toilet etc.). All this leads to a perfect denouement involving a bar stool.

When it is this good, it is hard to see why the show isn’t bigger. Having said that, there is a frustrating lack of consistency in quality of the show. Or maybe it’s just that I get uncomfortable with it at times. For example, the gang’s behaviour is fine when they are just harming themselves, but where there is a large-scale cast involved it feels like the humour is just that bit cruller.

Maybe though that is how the hard core fans like it. Maybe the episodes I love are too soft and don’t create enough awkward tension, as the gap between the character’s expectations and reality is smaller. The bigger the gap, the bigger the laughs for some people. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for the show to be more toned down. It has adapted successfully once, it can do it again.

Regular readers will know I am not averse to a bit of fluff when it comes to TV. Whether it is high-camp horror Scream Queens or OTT urban fantasy Grimm, a bit of daftness is rarely a bad thing. Of course, if you are trying to create some deep, meaningful tale of sin and redemption while musing on the existential qualities of humanity, daftness is not a quality you want. But then, I wouldn’t watch that show anyway.

Timeless is a great example though of how a bit of silliness lifts a show rather than sinking it. Now, no doubt its creators and starts would be very hurt by this thought, but, let’s face it, it is a bit silly. The premise suspends your disbelief for a start – a corporation designs a working time machine which is stolen by a terrorist who is trying to change history, and a band of plucky adventurers are tasked with preventing him.

If I was the kind of guy who flinched at plot holes, I would probably find this show unwatchable. Thankfully, I’m not. Instead, I find myself sitting back and enjoying the ride. This is helped by my love of history and the fact I often find myself asking ‘what if?’ about historical events. It’s amazing how much of our modern world is dependent on details that seem to be quite small. For example, what if a top German rocket scientist during WWII had defected to the Soviets rather than America? Could the Cold War have ended differently?

One of my tiny niggles with the show is that it is very America-centric. Of course, it is an American show, so this shouldn’t surprise me. But there are some moments in British history that could be worth the show exploring. What if Lord Halifax had been made prime minister in 1940 rather than Churchill? Would Britain have withdrawn from the war, leaving America to fight alone when Japan made its move on Pearl Harbour? What if Britain had never turned away from the Catholic faith, or if one of the founders of the Industrial Revolution not been born?

What I do love about the show is that it reminds you of the comparative stability we have now. I say comparative, obviously we have ISIS, not to mention Russia gearing up to become the Soviet Union v.2. For instance, episode 2 reminds us just how important the Civil War was to setting the tone for race relations. The right people being alive ensured the creation of important institutions.

There is a background mystery in the show, one that is only just starting to build. How much this enhances or detracts from the show remains to be seen. Even so, this is a highly enjoyable hour. One that is not as daft as it first may seem.

There are some shows you know you will go back to. They hook you in on the first episode and that’s it. I normally leave reviewing these until two or three episodes in so I can get more of a handle on who I like and who I don’t and what is working and what isn’t.

Then they are others that after the first episode you feel a return visit is unlikely. It could be that the premise of the trailers wasn’t lived up, or that the only bits that were good were used up on said trailer. Sometimes, it comes down to the fact that nothing else was on so you gave it a try, only to realise all the reasons why you don’t watch this genre.

It is the last reason that fits most neatly with This Is Us. My mother insisted on giving it a whirl, and it did seem her kind of thing. Gentle humour, family love, bonds that never break etc. She’s a sucker for them. To be fair, when they are done exceptionally well, I can invest in them as well. Brothers & Sisters was a long-term favourite of mine, the sentiment balanced by a caustic zing.

Yet This Is Us worked for neither of us. My mother found the sudden revelation of the time difference at the end off-putting. She is never one to stretch herself with TV, and two time frames was asking too much. Personally, I find the concept one of the biggest pluses of the show, opening up questions about how the paths of the children diverged and why the parents aren’t shown in the present.

What didn’t work for me was that everything was laid on thick when it came to emotions. It all felt so heavy-handed. The finding of a birth father only to discover he is dying from cancer. The ‘breakdown’ of Kevin the actor. The biggest offender was the doctor’s speech, which didn’t stir even the slightest of twinges of pain in me.

One of the bright spots is the relationship between Kate and Toby. The much needed sharpness has the strongest chance of appearing from these two, with the chemistry flowing more authentically here then it does so elsewhere. There feels something real about them and I’m already investing in their relationship.

I started by saying it was unlikely I would return to this show. Unlikely, but not impossible. Nothing else seems to be on in the timeslot as of yet, so it may yet get a second chance to win both me and my mother over. But, if not, I doubt I will regret it.

A while ago, I wrote about some of the key differences between American and British comedies. The former was always gentler, nice people doing good things but plans going awry. Britain, meanwhile, relied on comedy monsters and anti-heroes, selfish people performing cruel actions. A British version of The Big Bang Theory would make Sheldon a lot crueler, his quirks becoming massive defects.

There are, of course, situation where this is reversed. Gavin & Stacey was either very heart-warming or quite twee, depending on how you view that kind of humour. Likewise, Americans can do dark and selfish as well if they want to, it’s just rarely seen on the big networks. Louis and Maron are good examples of this.

One that I am watching now that falls into this category is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For the uninitiated, it focuses on three male friend who own an Irish bar and one of the guy’s sister working for them. Danny DeVito later appears as the brother and sister’s dad in a piece of casting that is both odd and excellent at the same time. The humour is certainly dark – the first season alone has plotlines on abortion, racism and child molesting, while the second opens with most of the cast pretending to be crippled. Family fare this is not.

It has to be said that all of the characters are hard to like. Dennis is cold and unemotional to the extreme, Charlie incompetent and temperamental and Mac is just an all-round asshole. Even Sweet Dee isn’t above being selfish and cruel, although she is more of a moral compass than the men. Between the subject matter and the characters, it has the potential of being an uncomfortable watch.

What saves it is how sharply funny it is. The molesting episode had a beautifully awkward scene where Charlie was surrounded by his family asking him where his apparent abuser had touched him, with a very creepy uncle getting a little too into it. I laughed hard and immediately felt bad about it, before laughing again.

As I’m only just starting the second season on Netflix, I can’t speak for the consistency of the show. I get the feeling that the plots are going have to get bigger in order to keep the level of crazy pitched right, although I’m not sure how many taboos it has left. Who knows? I may work through another couple of seasons and find a different tone to the whole thing. I hope it doesn’t go too safe though. A bit of darkness is a lot of fun when handled right.

Finding a pause in my Netflix viewing schedule (seriously, Netflix, when are you putting season 7 of The Good Wife up?), I decided to tackle one of those shows everyone has been telling me to watch. Yes, after four years of ‘how are you not watching this?’, I have finally capitulated and started House of Cards.

In many ways, this should be a great fit for me. There isn’t a huge gap in terms of legal and political dramas, I love a bit of plotting and scandal and I’m not averse to a streak of dark humour. When you consider how loved it is by so many, it is hard to imagine how I could not fall in love with yet.

And yet, two episodes in, I find myself feeling underwhelmed. Part of the problem is that I actually don’t have a huge love for breaking the fourth wall. If the golden rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, having the character speak directly to the audience breaks that. In some ways it helps fill in the background, but even so, it seems actually to be a distraction.

My other beef with it is that, when all said and done, I find it slightly dull. I confess to here being part of the problem. Often when I watch things on Netflix, I am doing something else at the same time. Therefore, subtleties are often lost, so any slight-of-hand by characters doesn’t register as well. The Good Wife and Orange Is the New Black don’t suffer from this as much, so I feel less lost.

Nevertheless, I intend to carry on for a while yet before I give this up as a lost cause. It seems very much the kind of show that needs to unfurl and slowly envelop you in its energy. Stakes will slowly be raised, relationships will complicate and there will be a reward for those who devote time to it.

On a side note, I do wonder if part of my discomfort is that I have started watching this during one of the most divisive American elections in decades. Even though I am separated from events by the Atlantic, the palpable anger is still being felt. I’m not going to say what side I’m taking so as not to make my blog a home for both sides to sling mud. Perhaps in a more stable time, House of Cards would just be an entertaining distraction. In the current climate though, it feels all too horribly real.