Background TV

One thing that doesn’t slow down when I’m in a stressed-out funk is my TV addiction — if anything, it speeds up. The other day I realized I’ve polished off a bunch of TV seasons over the past couple of months, without even noticing. These shows have been bubbling along like pop-culture background radiation for me here in early 2012.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 1.  I had very high expectations for this show, maybe too high. With Martin Scorsese producing, Sopranos scribe Terence Winter writing, and Steve Buscemi in the lead, what could go wrong? The answer: not much, really. Yet I found Boardwalk Empire’s first season curiously flat and uninvolving. Set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, this period crime drama starring Buscemi as a string-pulling politician nestled snugly at the intersection of local government and organized crime just isn’t nearly as enthralling as I’d hoped. It’s certainly attractive, lavishly produced, highly polished, and moderately interesting historically. There’s fine work from a cast that includes Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, and Michael Shannon. But in spite of these attributes, it fails to compel, a slow and deliberate show that doesn’t really break any new ground. The Sopranos and Mad Men and Deadwood have already mined similar territory more effectively, leaving Boardwalk Empire’s fusion of crime family ethics, period gender politics, and gritty community-building feeling a bit shopworn and late to the gate. I doubt I’ll continue.

Downton Abbey, Season 2. After a surprisingly positive reaction to the first season of  Downton Abbey, I went into the second with considerable enthusiasm. By and large I wasn’t disappointed, although there’s at least one severe story misstep this season. (If you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about!) For all its stately PBS-ishness, I almost wish this show would slow down; the episodes race through history at breakneck speed, weeks and months vanishing in the blink of a jump-cut. So yes, my enthusiasm has waned slightly, but I’m still interested and thoroughly engaged by Downton, thanks primarily to its well developed characters and its elaborate recreation of a bygone era. This one’s still close to “appointment television” for me.

The River, Season 1. After an extremely promising pilot, The River ultimately failed to blow me away. But I still found it worth watching, a Lostesque found-footage horror series about a reality TV crew’s search for a missing nature show host who’s vanished somewhere along a mysterious stretch of the Amazon. Tonally, The River ricochets from genuinely creepy to ineffectively silly and back again. While well cast, its characters are underdeveloped, rescued mainly by likable performances. (Best, perhaps, is Bruce Greenwood, who’s particularly convincing as the missing Dr. Emmet Cole.) The found footage conceit definitely strains credibility at times, but it makes for a distinctly different feel, which is very welcome. I’ll certainly continue watching, if it’s renewed: it’s unique, and just intriguing enough to keep me interested. Certainly worth more support than most network fare, garnering bonus points for novelty value.

MI-5, Season 10. I’ve already sung the praises of this, one of the best spy shows of all time. Alas, the tenth season is a far cry from its glory years, a six-episode wind-down for a show that stayed on the shelf well past its sell-by date. Ultimately MI-5’s unpredictability grew a bit too predictable, and the wholesale roster changes rather mitigated the emotional impact of later-season episodes, with more and more pressure placed on series stalwarts Peter Firth and Nicola Walker to maintain any continuity with the series’ far more memorable origins. That said, even at its worst MI-5 was a class act, an attractively produced and very well performed spy show with intrigue, politics, and derring-do to burn. It was definitely high time to wrap things up, but at the same time, I’m sad to see it go.

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