Archive for December 1st, 2009

Quality time with my secret lover: eight seasons of “intensive viewing” in the 2000s

Creative television has flourished in the past ten years. No wait, that’s not quite true. Let’s tell the story a different way. In the past decade, many surprisingly inventive shows actually made it all the way on the air. Of course, many of them struggled to stay there. For a brief while, though, you had the chance to turn on the set and become transfixed by weirdness.

Faster internet connections and dvd box sets made it possible to catch up on shows that we’ve missed. Now we can all be like that guy watching M.A.S.H. in Infinite Jest, but instead of analyzing a syndicated smash hit, our obsession could be just about anything.

I have no idea what my top ten shows of the decade would look like. Serious lists might include The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Chapelle’s Show, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and versions of The Office from around the world.  Instead, I’d like to highlight eight television seasons that I watched compulsively, seasons where the experience of viewing and re-viewing is forever wedded to my estimation of the shows.

Again, the internet & DVDs, plus early syndication and constant reruns, have made it easy to do “intensive” viewing even in today’s attention-deficit, media-saturated environment. Some of this intensive viewing was necessary; there’s still stuff I’m picking up from The Wire my fourth time around (hidden relationships between characters,  hauntingly unresolved plot points). Some of it was based on a need for fun, or for virtual company. Sometimes it opened up new horizons of speculation: Lost is a classic example not on my list. Every week viewers debated both the direction of the show and the direction of the show’s production, entering theoretical labyrinths.

Here are eight seasons that did it right, and why they matter to me.

The Wire–Season 4

Screened on my computer, the day after each episode aired. repeat later in the week.

Season 4 aired during my first semester of graduate school, when my loneliness was most acute. I remember seeing an ad for the season in the newspaper that read, “No Corner Left Behind.” A colleague came upon the ad and asked how HBO could possibly get away with something that sounded so racist and nonsensical. I said something along the lines of, “It’s not what you think. They’re pointing out how standardized test prep in public schools leads to institutional neglect of children. In that situation, the corner seems more seductive than it would otherwise.” A mouthful. But that’s actually one of the things that the show was about! When you start at that level of ambition–that is, representing the concrete effects of policy in narrative fiction–you’re committing yourself to an ever-expanding cast of dozens, risking preachiness, unnecessary exposition, obtuseness, and other sins. The Wire cleared these hurdles easily. They made their complicated storylines captivating. I still don’t know how they did it.

Arrested Development–Season 1

I caught one stray episode, “My Mother, the Car,” while home from college for the holidays. As I watched I marveled at the structure. The episode, building upon its foundations, kept getting funnier and funnier. The last minute was approx. 10x funnier than the first. And it managed to tie together disparate storylines with sterling precision, something that’s marked the hallmark episodes of great comedies from the past.

Later, when I got the DVDs for season 1, I discovered that every single episode was built like this. What’s more, each episode built upon the previous one. Arrested Development‘s use of “callbacks”, jokes from earlier episodes placed in fresh contexts, was one of many qualities that torpedoed any hope of  success. But it’s also the backbone of the show, since the show’s main theme is that our mistakes, bad habits, and lesser urges will follow us for the rest of our lives. Imagine a tv series where every episode was as good as, to choose one example, Seinfeld’s “The Contest”. That’s what we had in Arrested Development.

Why the first season? It has the most episodes. Plus, it’s probably my most-watched tv season of all time, thanks to multiple re-viewings with friends. I’ve never created so much pier peer pressure. “C’mon, let’s try Arrested Development. You know you want to . . .”

Veronica Mars–Season 1

I watched this first on my computer, days before the Season 2 premiere, desperately rushing to make that deadline. Before then, Veronica Mars was just an online rumor. It sounded exactly like something I would hate: a series about a teen private eye, solving each mystery-of-the-week as she slowly pieces together the solution to a much larger crime. As it turned out, the big mystery was gripping and nasty, and our heroine would not be denied. Veronica Mars performed double duty as a character I could identify with, and as a potential role model. I know what’s it’s like to fall out with an entire group of friends, have a parent check out: you cop a new attitude to protect yourself, get a new haircut, and quietly seethe. But I can’t match Ms. Mars’ grit.

Creator Rob Thomas held up his end of the bargain. Veronica got in over her head, but she didn’t “break just like a little girl,” even when everything seemed set up to go that way. I still turn to the first season to tap into hidden reservoirs of strength. That might strike you as silly, unless you’ve actually seen the first season.

Project Runway–Season 2

I watched this piecemeal while working in a bagel shop full time. It was always on at my old home in Price Avenue.This season will always remind me of living with David, Phil, and Lauren. Me and the housemates were probably drawn in by the entertaining Santino Rice, but stayed for the acid judges and the thrill of the editing. This show was edited as if it was written in italics. Always leaning forward. It seemed utterly unique at the time, as it was a reality show in which people actually created something. It wasn’t enough to be somebody interesting. You had to produce to survive. All of which made Santino even more fascinating, as we wondered what would win out: designer or “tv personality”?

When Chloe Dao won I wrote a 1500 word screed on LiveJournal about how the victory was poorly sold by the show’s editorial decisions throughout the season. At no point was Chloe presented as a credible focus of our attention. By not handing it over to Daniel Vosovic or Santino, the show had denied me closure. I was angry. Television makes you do strange things.

The Venture Bros.–Season 3

I once read somewhere–It was probably in Todd Alcott’s blog–that the Venture Bros. is primarily a show about failure. It’s a comedy about a boy adventurer who’s grown up, with two boys of his own, and is running around in circles trying to live up to his father’s achievements. In the third season, each episode is densely layered with allusions to a patchy past. Somehow, everything gets all serious. Arch-villain The Monarch finds himself unable to settle down and be a normal, Guild-sanctioned bad guy. He’s got punk attitude but nowhere to stick it. Dr. Venture comes tantalizingly close to re-imagining himself as a villain, to fighting his father’s legacy instead of trying to outgrow it. Bodyguard Brock Samson is forced to choose between his ersatz-family and his job. And we worry about how all this will warp young Hank and Dean, or whether they’ll ever reach adulthood in the first place. It’s a fantasy opera that betters the shows it parodies.

24–Season 2

I watched this during college spring break, the year after it aired, over three days. I did it while sitting in a dorm lounge, in pajamas, eating out of a 5-pound box of Goldfish. I am not ashamed.

24 upped the threat level in its second season. We’re no longer talking about killing off a would-be President; how about loose nukes? We also got to see a little more of Jack Bauer’s cohorts at CTU, and their legend grew. At this early stage, 24 was still able to be a little unpredictable, and go places we hadn’t dared it would. Consider how Jack infiltrates the gang at the end of the first episode. Remember the surprise reappearance of someone from season 1. It rode the zeitgeist hard and put it away wet.

Sure, the show is implausible, in terms of its 24-hour setup. But that implausibility provides lift to some amazing flights of fancy for the viewer. When does Jack use the restroom? How does he avoid all the L.A. traffic? These are not just complaints; they’re windows into the viewer’s own task of worldbuilding. Just as interesting, to me, is how 24 produced the modern TV marathon. Watching 18 hours of tv, with a bunch of friends and a well-stocked fridge, is my idea of heaven, and apparently I’m not alone. This may be my memory playing tricks on me, but I’ll always associate the rise of that practice with 24.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer–Season 5

My first semester of college, when I didn’t have any friends, FX would air Buffy repeats at 6 and 7 PM. On tuesdays, the new episode aired at 8. So for a while I averaged 11 Buffy episodes a week. I think a lot of my ideals regarding friendship and responsibility took root thanks to, yes, a TV show about a young woman who is destined to kill vampires.

So season 5 is one hard lesson after another. How do you protect someone from the evils of the world? How do you avoid stifling that person’s freedom? How much are you willing to give up? And what do you do when you lose someone anyway? How do we know when a friend is pulling away? When do we step in when a friend is making a mistake? What do you do when you’re up against something you can’t kill? These questions run throughout the show, but Season 5 sets them up at a new level of sophistication. Sure, there’s the same combination of goofy character comedy and dread, but the dark stuff seems to stick with me long after the monster of the week has been eradicated.

The Daily Show–2004 Election Year

In 2004, I was taking a course on peace movements, writing for an alt-weekly, and reading political blogs obsessively. It was a bad year to do those things. The Daily Show was a balm, even as it reminded me of how frustrating and unethical the big wide world actually was. Sometimes people dismiss art as “mere” consolation, but consolation is a pretty huge accomplishment. Jon Stewart demonstrated that it was possible to stay sane during Bush’s re-election.


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