John Walker's Electronic House

Television Round-Up Part 1: A-E

by on Jan.22, 2010, under The Rest

Because TV so strangely doesn’t understand our Earth years, the US lot beginning in September and ending in May, and the UK and AU lot starting and finishing whenever it feels like it, I couldn’t find a way to do a “Best of 2009” style thing for it. Because TV from this time last year feels like it’s from the most ancient of pasts. That’s – what – almost three seasons of Survivor ago! Imagine it. So here’s what TV is up to. Alphabetically. Oh good grief, I only got to E. So no, I don’t watch all these shows every day. Lots of them finished their runs already. I watch two or three programmes a day (which I’d say would be about average), banking up lots of shows for a day off maybe, or a way to fill a long train journey. It’s okay. It’s not as weird as it looks. The weird part is how I’ve spent so long writing about them.

Archer – FX

After an enormous post-pilot hiatus, Archer finally starts its series proper. It’s the latest from Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Space Ghost Coast To Coast), and follows the formula: fast-paced adult cartoon with little interest in coherence or human decency. On FX rather than Cartoon Network, it frees things up to be a little ruder, swearier, and more callous. And it works well. The brilliantly droll Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz’s Ben) plays Archer, a secret agent of sorts, who isn’t quite incompetent but more simply hateful. His mother is voiced by Jessica Walter (Arrested Development’s Lucille), along with Aisha Tyler (CSI, I guess), the compellingly lovely Judy Greer (I loved her in the very short-lived Miss Guided), and SNL’s Chris Parnell. Two episodes in it’s unsurprisingly great, as you’d expect from Reed, and really quite fantastically wrong too.

Being Erica – CBC / E4

There is no girlier show that I enjoy watching, and this one’s astonishingly girly, and I enjoy watching it a great deal. Premise: 30 year woman visits therapist who sends her back in time to previous parts of her life to relive them, to see if she can change regrets. It’s very hard, once that’s been said, to convince anyone that this isn’t some Quantum Leap rip-off but with more mentions of tampons. It’s not. In fact, it’s actually a very sophisticated allegory for the process of therapy. Erica does not go back to change the past. (Well, she does once, and the consequences are big enough for a finale cliffhanger.) She goes back to change her understanding of the past. This may mean she handles a situation differently, generally to find out that the consequences are much the same. But rather than putting right what once went wrong, she instead explores the elements of her past that shape who she is today, and in analysing them understands herself better. With tampons. It’s smart. If always going on about weddings and baby showers.

Series 2 seemed to have a great deal more confidence in itself. The first series seemed to be constantly apologising for its science fiction. Series 2 has no such issues, introducing emo moper Kai as another time traveller, Drs. Fred and Naadiah alongside Dr. Tom, and even saw Erica go into the future as well as the past, along with other time-bending ideas. It also gave us some background to who Dr. Tom is, if not any answers as to exactly what he is. It was still marred by her constantly weeping sister, and certainly far too much time was spent faffing around in Erica’s day job at the editors (do I really care about the office bitching when she could be going back in time?). I still have to apologise to my penis before watching, but it’s my guilty girly pleasure.

Being Human – BBC 3

(covered here)

Better Off Ted – ABC

This came out swinging, and just swings harder and harder. Halfway through the second season and it’s the best comedy writing on TV. Set in the offices of evil corporation Veridian Dynamics, the stories follow Ted, morally ambiguous but entirely loveable senior employee and respected colleague of malevolent boss Veronica, optimistic but unmotivated Linda, and research scientists Lem and Phil. The double act of Lem and Phil is the stand-out feature, but with serious competition from every other character. Linda’s meandering dreams of some semblance of morality in the company, constantly thwarted by her own complete lack of ambition and energy, always ensure the programme never descends into saccharine chipper ways, while Veronica’s inability to comprehend the need for emotion is never corny or clichéd. Ted is a rock, but never simply “the good guy”. And there’s evil mould, killer pumpkins, racist water fountains and memos enforcing insults in the workplace. Most of all, it’s the volume of beautifully written lines, and the extraordinary timing of the patter. Which, it seems, may be partly down to improvisation from the fantastic cast, as this (incredibly foul/brilliant) outtake reel reveals (NSFW).

The Big Bang Theory – CBS

Okay, right, so I’m saying Better Off Ted is the best written, below Community is credited with being the funniest. TBBT’s award is: makes me laugh the most. It’s an odd distinction I realise, but it would be completely false to claim that the writing here is as smart as either of those two other shows. But I laugh so much harder at this one. It’s perhaps down to the performance of Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper, whose physical comedy is as funny as any of the dialogue. And it’s such lovely dialogue. The show is still true to its original theme – four genius geeks having the absurdity of their lives highlighted through the perspective of their regular-girl neighbour. It’s interesting that it hasn’t tried to make Penny a genius, or the four guys into more mundane normals. It shows confidence.

The other stand-out feature of TBBT is that there’s an audience. How I Met Your Mother technically has an audience, but one it doesn’t seem to want – it’s so quiet and uninvolved you tend to forget it’s there. But here they’re part of the show, and it’s much better for it. They’re there, not dubbed on, not watching it on tape later (which I have to assume is how Mother does it), and so the cast are performing to them. I love moments where someone has to give up on their next line because the laugh is much bigger than expected. It’s an all but dead art, and it’s so fun to see it still working so well here.

Bones – FOX

Oh, Bones. Bonesybones. You great big silly puddle of a show. The previous season appeared to be an attempt to break the world record for number of sharks jumped by a clumsy exploding clown car, leaving season 5 with almost nowhere to go. Expert forensic scientist Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Agent Seeley Booth continue to solve crimes by getting their friends to reconstruct faces from a piece of burned ash and a left toe, use computers from outerspace, and spend every non-work minute having coffee together. Meanwhile the rest of the cast take it in turns to snog each other. But after season 4 had Booth see ghosts, talk to cartoon characters and eventually dream an entire episode set in a nightclub, well, I can’t even end this senten

So with all glimmers of sense removed, there’s barely any pretence that they could care less about solving any crimes. Continuity was never exactly a strong point for the show (it seemed like the writers played an elaborate game of consequences, where one would show the next episode’s scribe only the last scene, and they’d have to guess everything else that happened), but now it really has nothing to offer but the “will they/won’t they” of Booth and Bones. And hell, that turns out to be enough. So long as Stephen Fry keeps showing up every few episodes, and Sweets keeps counselling Booth and Bones, I’ll keep watching. It’s beyond idiotic, and I love it.

The Border – CBC

It shouldn’t be able to get away with it. The self-assured pomposity of The Border is remarkable. A programme about Canadian border police, that’s somehow about fighting international terrorism, drug cartels, and prostitution rings. For a nation with so little gun crime, they sure have a lot of gun fights. And explosions. And brutal deaths. The sheer volume of peril faced by this group of special agents with seemingly unlimited power (the number of times they’ve defied the Canadian government I’m surprised they haven’t personally overthrown it) is terrifying. I’m scared to go there. The decision not to write Gray out of the show after his actions at the end of the last series has made most of this run seem a little peculiar. But now Grace Park is a regular cast member it’s hard to complain about anything else. Jonas Chernick’s Slade is still the best thing about it, and in series 3 it seems they’ve realised that too, giving him a much more major role, and allowing some phenomenally geeky jokes to get in. Ludicrous, but great fun.

Bored To Death – HBO

This was the best show of 2009. I forgot to mention it. Sorry about that.

The extraordinary Jonathan Ames takes his flesh-exposed confessional writing to television, writing himself as the lead role (played by Jason Schwartzman, no less) in a semi-fictional version of his life. In the show Ames has written his first novel but cannot get started on his ill-advised second, while writing articles for Edition (edited by a best-role-of-his-career Ted Danson) and recovering from the break-up of his relationship. After reading some Chandler and consuming much white wine he decides to place an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as “an unlicensed private detective.”

But rather than descending into a crime procedural, or anything so obvious, it’s always a programme about the robustness of Ames’ vibrant denial and peculiar desire for fun in the face of mundane reality. In fact, it’s so relaxed about itself that some weeks there’s no mention of the PI theme at all. It comes up, he tries to find missing people, or recover lost objects. But more often he’s attempting to rescue the pathetic Danson from what appears to be a life-long mid-life crisis, or prodding his friendship with Ray, played by (one of the greatest stand-ups) Zach Galifianakis.

Ames merits comparison with a 1970s Woody Allen, and each episode contains at least one line that is greater than many writers will come up with in their careers. (“I’ve always been intrigued by Stockholm Syndrome. It makes me think of my childhood.”) Schwartzman is as brilliant as ever, Galifianakis gets to use all his strengths and is used so sparingly that you crave each of his scenes, and like I said, Danson is better than he’s ever been. The guest casting is equally precise, with John Hodgman as a snivelly, spiteful critic, Oliver Platt as the editor of GQ, and Sarah Vowell in a tiny, perfect role as an interviewer.

It’s remarkably calm for a programme about man-children incapable of maturity. The Ames of Bored To Death is not quite as sexually ambiguous and confessional as the Ames of real life – the irony being it would seem less realistic if he were – leaving you sure that there’s no want for ideas and source material as it continues. The first series was only eight episodes, but a second series was immediately commissioned due to its deserved ratings.

Castle – ABC

I’m glad I stuck with this one. Obviously Nathan Fillion is a great reason to watch a show, but the first 13 episode run never really found its niche. Too similar to, well, every other crime procedural, it was the mismatched cop-and-X formula done with little more imagination than Fillion’s charisma to carry it. Season 2 is a complete change. Now there’s a sense of glee about the programme that’s intentionally inappropriate for solving murders. Castle literally jumps for joy at the discovery of a new dead body, and therefore more mystery solving fun. His stoic, glum cop buddy has significantly lightened up, her mopiness given motive (the unsolved murder of her mother) but her character embellished with mischief and an admission of fondness for Castle.

Castle’s an odd character for such a show. The Mentalist works because Patrick Jane is smug and untrustworthy. Bones works because Bones is (mostly – see above) incapable of empathy and inhuman in her mannerisms. But Castle has almost no unpleasant side to him. He’s grounded by living with his aspiring actress mother and calm, friendly teenage daughter. He gets one well with both, which is frankly astonishing for television – a dad who gets on with his daughter?! (And one of the best changes made in season 2 has been to tone down his mother, make her more supportive and less ludicrous.) His gleeful response to murder is distasteful, but infectious. His passion for solving crimes is adorable. And of course the will they/won’t they is a joy, with the pair now exchanging compliments as well as sarcasm. It’s sarcasm with a smile – it’s a lot easier to root for them. And with the most recent episode, it demonstrated an ability to be serious too, without being slipping into being boring. It’s a remarkably cheerful programme.

The only thing left to fix is the supporting police cast. The Mentalist made this mistake in its first season, leaving them anonymously in the background. Now all three are known and fun. You could change all the actors playing the cops in Castle and I’d never notice. It would perhaps be nice to give them some personalities.

Chuck – NBC

It lived! Oh thank goodness it lived. That we live in a world where Heroes gets recommissioned without thought, and Chuck requires a massive campaign for fans: well, something’s wrong. Also, it’s good to be right.

A lot of wrong people declared that Chuck’s Intersect v2.0 at the end of season 2 was a bad idea, as it would make him too powerful. Me, being a genius, I worked out they’d do exactly what they did. It only kicks in at certain moments, meaning Chuck is still a regular guy, but now he’s one who occasionally turns into a kick-ass superhero spy, but not on purpose. It’s lovely that it’s worry that prevents it from working. It forces Casey and Sarah to treat him differently. The humanity of this show is its greatest strength, and it still pulses with it. The constant theme is Chuck’s humanising those around him, more obviously with Sarah, and to some extent to Casey. The most recent episode demonstrated this really beautifully with Superman lookalike Shaw putting on his wedding ring. The Intersect v2.0 has proven to be a ton of fun, and the stories seem bigger, with more action, and despite the comical methods of putting all the players back where they were before they moved them all at the end of the last season, there does seem to have been development in a lot of the characters. And of course there’s the required WTWT? here too, and that’s being handled cutely, if without much originality. I’d like to see a bit more geekiness coming back into the main plots, but otherwise it’s a real joy that it survived for another run.

Community – NBC

Better Off Ted has the best writing, but Community is the funniest. My expectations were low – I didn’t think that McHale had the chops. I was spectacularly wrong. I adored the pilot so much I started it again the second it finished, and it’s barely dipped since then. The only disappointment is the lack of regular appearances by John Oliver, and the enormous over-use of Ken Jeong as Señor Chang. (He’s great, but he’s not as great as the show seems to think.)

Even though the sitcom nailed the characters from the first episode, it’s also allowed a lot of room for their best features and most effective stories to develop and evolve. The highlight of all of these is the friendship between jock Troy and Asperger’s nerd Abed. So strong has their double-act become that they generally get the credits to themselves for some deeply peculiar performances. (That’s until this week’s astonishing cameos, and a MASH joke that made me cough with laughter, took the glory.) Abed’s awareness that they exist within a sitcom could be handled really clumsily, but so far it’s been perhaps the finest part of the show. It’s not quite It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, but it adds a really interesting dynamic, and gives them an excuse to plunder some loved clichés without the need to be oh-so-desperately ironic about it. It seems so good that it would surely be cancelled after only six episodes, but it’s back after Christmas and going strong.

Cougar Town – ABC

Bill Lawrence’s decision to finish Scrubs and move on was the right one. Scrubs had managed to still be lovely after eight years, but was definitely on the wane. He so enjoyed working with Courtney Cox at the beginning of that eighth season that he created a new sitcom for her, and Scrubs was put to rest. Then Scrubs was recommissioned.

Bill Lawrence’s decision to carry on Scrubs was the right one. Enough changed (well, almost everything changed) that the show is reinvigorated, but more on that later. Cougar Town, meanwhile, seemed at first to be an unfortunate use of a lot of his attention. When it began it was very awkward, his need to have a group of friends who regularly interacted so contrived that it felt like watching a series of stage instructions rather than a script. But it’s improved every single week, and now at the mid-point of the season has become something quite lovely. Quickly abandoning the nonsense story of Cox being a “cougar”, wasting her time on men too young for her (something Lawrence stated he would be changing from the start, as it happens, despite the name), and removing the antagonism between most of the characters, it allowed for the six or seven regulars to naturally hang out in a variety of locations, and then the comedy can flow. Every character has had their extremely rough edges smoothed down, letting Lawrence’s best skills shine: affectionate banter between likeable people. It’s not as good as Spin City, and it’s leagues behind Scrubs (but then Scrubs was leagues ahead of most sitcomedy), but it’s become rather lovely.

Dollhouse – FOX

I’m not sure there’s room to list how dreadful this programme was. Room on the internet. A surprising number of people enjoyed the second series more. I put this down to Stockholm syndrome. (I’d like to stress that I thought of that joke before rewatching Bored To Death, so there. Which means I’d like to further stress that I don’t think my joke is one hundredth of Ames’ gag.) It doesn’t seem worth picking over the mess, but beyond the discovery of a wonderful actor and mimic in Enver Gjokaj, there’s nothing I remember fondly. Oh, apart from fancying Mellie. A bad idea from the beginning, and one that never found a reason to exist. The ending was so beyond idiotic that my eyes and ears fell off trying to endure it, and now it’s gone. I’m not sure which is more sad: Firefly’s cancellation, or Whedon making a programme I wish had been cancelled sooner.

Eastwick – ABC

Cancellations are always sad, unless it’s Dollhouse. None was sadder than Defying Gravity (which I’m leaving out since it vanished so long ago, but I still miss that awesome programme), but Eastwick was a pretty huge shame too. Being Erica was my girliest show, but this one came close. Rather than starting the Witches Of Eastwick over again, it took the smarter route of setting it 30 years after the known story from the film/book. A new group of three women make a wish at the fountain in Eastwick, and call forth Darryl Van Horne to bring out their natural witch powers. So in what form will he appear? How can he be anything other than Nicholson? And no, Christian Slater would not do. So when it turned out to be Paul Gross, star of the Best Programme Ever, Slings & Arrows, I squealed out loud like the pathetic man-girl I truly am.

Gross’s Horne was magnificent (snigger), pure evil yet silky smooth and endearing. The three witches were fun, the murderous storylines nice and dark, and I assumed it had enough soapy content that it would keep a broad audience happy. Maybe it was too long after the phenomenon of Wicked. Maybe its tone was too dark for the la-la-la crowds. Maybe I’m mad and it was rubbish. Still, I’m sad that it’s no more. And I’m especially sad that the final episode suddenly jumped weeks after a series of cliffhangers from the penultimate episode that it never resolved, and then ended with even more unfinished stories.


16 Comments for this entry

  • devlocke

    I adore ‘Better Off Ted’ and I’m also loving ‘Community’, for which I thank your post about it a while ago, the last time you did a TV roundup.

    You have great taste in television. And thanks to this post, I remember that ‘Bored To Death’ exists (I heard an interview with the writer on NPR, I think, before it premiered; it sounded interesting but I promptly forgot it existed) and also now know that ‘Castle’ is worth checking out. So that’s two more time-wasters I look forward to consuming.

  • devlocke

    Oh, I forgot to mention – am I the only person that thinks ‘Better Off Ted’ is exactly what a sitcom about Aperture Science would be?

  • Thants

    I agree completely with you on all of these shows (that I’ve seen). Get out of my head man!

  • Patrick

    Better Off Ted is the only televised depiction of science that doesn’t grate with me as a scientist. Eureka? Enjoyable rubbish, but often cringy. CSI? Can’t watch. Even 24 had it’s moments of appalling fake tension derived from the bastardisation of Chemistry.

    I can’t remember how I got into “Better Off Ted”, but I think it might have been this blog. Bravo!

    The ending of dollhouse was idiotic, yes, but it had 6 seasons worth of plot crammed into 6 episodes. Whedon could have taken a bigger paring knife to it and rounded it up a lot more sensibly. Or just learned his lesson and not written a forward-looking show for Fox.

    No thoughts on the latest season of Dexter? Obviously, it’ll be spoilerey, but what I can say is, what a magnificent performance by the lead antagonist.

  • Patrick

    I’m not normally a fan of pointless obscenity, but that outtake reel sent coffee everywhere. In the words of a hairy man, “a good swear is a joy.”

  • Geejay

    Dollhouse isn’t that bad – it is still better than most other Sci Fi, it just lacked a sense of humour – slightly too po faced.

  • innokenti

    Isn’t Being Erica just so… oooh. I really don’t understand how the show and the premise can be enjoyed so much! Great stuff, and clever, free, open and always pleasantly (rather than dumbly) cheery.

    Better Off Ted I really can’t get enough of.

    Castle I thought was quite genius in Season 1 and only improved more in S2. There was always something in the interaction between Fillion and Kotic that just worked, and it wasn’t just Fillion carrying the show. I must say that I disagree regarding the rest of the cast – I do think that they are very characterful and work. But there we go.

    Chuck – yeah… I still dislike the Buy More side of the show, but the spy-side and in S3 Captain Awesome, is just too good to give up on the show as a whole. Also… Casey loves guns.

    Dollhouse – can’t but disagree with you. Well, a little bit. Dollhouse really isn’t bad, it’s got bad bits, but on the whole, they have a set of great characters and actors, there is some great writing and… well, Whedon was just being unrealistic when he went back to Fox with this and a plan for several seasons. Having to cram half the seasons into the end of S1 and then the other half into S2 hasn’t helped the show, but all the really great stuff about it is still in there. Still part of the show. And I have to say, I genuinely loved and laughed at a great deal of the show (but perhaps stared open-mouthed and dumb-founded at the rest of it). And Helo, sorry, Ballard, could really have been better.

  • Simon J. James

    Hello again John.

    Totally agree on Better Off Ted and Community, they are fine shows. I have also began to evaluate Bored to Death on your recommendation.

    Have you previously looked at It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Lie to Me and the new version of Scrubs?

    Great post by the way.


  • Dante

    You’ve got good taste John, I started watching Better off Ted after you mentioned it last and I think it’s terrific, you’re right in that although Phil and Lem or Veronica appear to be the more outrageous characters, Ted and Linda are every bit as funny. I’ll have to check out Community if you think it’s as good.

    I’m also a fan of Chuck, and I’ve really enjoyed how they brought the new ‘action Chuck’ aspect in. From another show it might seem like a cheap rating grab but they really pulled it off.

    I’ll be interested to see if any more shows I like turn up later in your list, I suspect they might. Although it was sad to see Burn Notice missing from this one. It’s well worth a watch.

  • Dean

    Wow, I thought I watched a lot of US TV but I’ve only seen two of those.

    Agreed about Defying Gravity though. Finally got around to watching it the other week and there’s so much potential in it. And no-one has a done a near-future space show in years.

    If you’ve not seen it, somewhere online there’s an interview with the show runner that gives a decent idea where it was heading.

    Shall have to try this Bored To Death.

  • Xercies

    When will we see Paul Gross again…

  • James Campbell

    Thank you very much for the ‘Bored to Death’ recommendation. I was feeling really sick yesterday and watched the entire series in one sitting and now I feel much better.

    On the other hand the Big Bang Theory is no good at all.

  • Juliet

    I really miss defying gravity.

  • Oddtwang

    Have started watching The Big Bang Theory lately – I’d been avoiding it, I think because E4 made it look like a big pile of stereotype-filled, unfunny wank when they trailed it. As they are wont to.
    There are a lot of stereotypes in there, to be sure, but they’re not overdone and there’s some solid writing to go with them. John’s point about it being a very traditional (almost old-fashioned, these days) setup is right – I watched an episode from the first season last night which featured a simple hook (a perfectly adequate lie is rejected by Sheldon, who then goes on to construct an increasingly elaborate one to replace it), 4 characters (one of them a one-off) and about 3 locations, and left it to the writing and performances to deliver it.

  • Dante

    So how’s part two coming along John?

  • I love TBBT

    i love shelly! i super love this show!