Latest from the Idiot Box

Recently I looked back over my blog and realized I haven’t reviewed much television lately, a casualty of being busy. I think my golden age of marathoning TV seasons may be over: I’ve caught up with most of what I need to catch up with, and frankly, until independent wealth strikes (heh!), I just don’t have the same kind of time these days. But, upon further reflection, I realized I have been watching TV over the past several months, just without my usual focus and obsessiveness – and without writing it up!

I’ll start with The Legend of Korra, the long-awaited sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which takes place many years later. If you haven’t watched Avatar yet, go do it. It’s wonderful adventure fantasy, funny, beautiful, and epic. The Legend of Korra advances the world into a more technological age, and also shifts its sensibility from middle-grade to young adult, as it tells the story Korra, the new avatar. This series recently concluded its first “book” (technically, a half-season), and I found it perfectly watchable, with some gorgeous animation and funny moments. But the characters haven’t quite won me over to the same degree, and so far I’m not quite as charmed as I was by its predecessor. Still, totally worth watching.

My latest foray into spy TV is the curious old British program Callan, which has two US DVD sets. (I recently learned these are actually seasons 3 and 4 of the original series; us Americans just can’t handle black and white, evidently.) I scooped this up hoping it might be an early precursor to The Sandbaggers, but while the set-up and style is similar, it’s not nearly as accomplished. David Callan (Edward Woodward, pre-The Equalizer) is the top operative of a department of British intelligence known only as The Section. Callan is a righteous, angry spy in the true British espionage tradition — made more likable by the even worse ruthlessness of his co-workers, especially his boss, Hunter (William Squire). The most peculiar aspect of the show is Callan’s relationship with a petty criminal named Lonely (Russell Hunter), a seedy lowlife whom Callan inexplicably includes in his top-secret work. A dingy, stagy, low-budget affair, Callan is a slow and highly uneven series. At best, it manages enough snarky dialogue and plot twists to be interesting, but more frequently I find it uninvolving. Callan’s abusively loving relationship with Lonely is a weirdly dominant thread throughout, not justified by Hunter’s amusing but one-note characterization. Woodward elevates the material to watchability, but overall this one fails to compel, and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to The Sandbaggers.

This year I’ve been following a trio of HBO series in real time, and so far have been enjoying all three to varying degrees. Game of Thrones is definitely one of the best series going right now, and I found its second season much more impressive and memorable than the first. (This, from someone unfamiliar with George R.R. Martin’s novels and therefore judging it strictly on its own merits.) It’s a gorgeously produced high fantasy with satisfying world-building, complicated plots, clever dialogue, and a sprawling army of perfectly cast characters. I’m finding it utterly engrossing, and even moreso in season two as magic gradually begins to take a larger role in the proceedings. The second-to-last episode of season two was, I think, a masterpiece. Eagerly awaiting the new season.

Then there’s Veep, the latest TV comedy in the mockumentary genre, and it’s pretty great: clever, biting political satire that’s quite well executed. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Vice President Selina Meyer, and she delivers an award-worthy performance as the neurotic, superficial second fiddle. It’s a cynical show — it’s about American politics, so it has to be — but it’s quite diverting and funny, bolstered by a great ensemble. In particular, I like Tony Hale as Selina’s obsequious aide Gary, and Timothy Simons as Jonah, the towering, cocky White House liaison.

The third HBO show is The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest venture into episodic television. This one stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a popular cable news anchor (and the world’s least believable Republican). McAvoy has a Network moment during a college appearance (“I’m mad as hell and I’m just not going to take it any more!”), and with the help of his inspirational ex Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) and his crusty old boss Charlie (Sam Waterston), rebrands his primetime show as a throwback, truly objective news program in an era of corporate cronyism and partisan bullshit. During the course of Sorkin’s TV work, his vision has gotten more unmitigated and less charming, and The Newsroom continues this trend. I find the show highly problematic, particularly in terms of gender politics; Sorkin’s ideas are increasingly old-fashioned in this area. His female characters are always dysfunctionally neurotic, while his male characters always rise above their assholery to do the right thing. Politically, the show claims even-handedness, but more often comes across quite shrill and sanctimonious. (Even to me, aligned with Sorkin’s obvious liberal viewpoint, it seems a bit much at times.) That said, The Newsroom is very well cast and full of clever, funny dialogue, and when it lets its hair down, it’s quite entertaining. I’m particularly fond of Alison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr., despite their tiresome romantic subplot, and weirdly intrigued by Olivia Munn, who delivers a curiously expressionless performance as an egghead supermodel economist, that somehow almost works. There’s enough to like here that I’ll continue to watch, but I expect I will also continue to roll my eyes.

If there’s one show on this list that I can recommend unequivocally, it’s this one: Burning Love, the 14-episode web series that perfectly mocks the inherently mockable Bachelor-style reality series. The brilliant Ken Marino stars as hunky fireman Mark Orlando, the handsome and superficial bachelor of Burning Love. Sixteen lovely ladies are vying for Mark’s hand in marriage, and most of them are hilarious. Burning Love satirizes the style and content of these types of shows superbly, and it’s a fantastic showcase for comedy talent: particularly good are Beth Dover, Ken Jeong, June Diane Raphael, Abigail Spencer, Janet Varney, and Michael Ian Black, who is perfectly cast as the smooth-talking, faux-sincere host of the show. The episodes are less than ten minutes each, so it’s well worth the time investment, especially if you, like me, are still pining for the sad, lost days of Party Down.

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