Sunday, January 3, 2010

The decade in television

While I was writing my decade-end movie list, three thoughts occurred to me: First, I was seriously considering adding the Emma Thompson film "Wit" to the list, but then I remembered it was actually an HBO special, not a theatrical release, and I waffled. Second, I made a comment in the article about the lack of outright comedies in my top faves, and that most of my laughter came from television over the past ten years. Third: I never really write about television out of force of habit, because back when I started writing about art, once a television program had aired, your chances of seeing an exact episode again were slim. This past decade has seen an explosion of TV shows available on DVD, so most of the stuff below I value from this decade is easily accessible. So, without further ado, 17 projects from TV and/or short-length entertainment I loved (and 4 runners-up):

Best HBO specials:
"Wit" — An adaptation of an off-Broadway play, this film follows the conversations and inner monologues of a professor of literature as battles ovarian cancer in a hospital ward. The typical sympathies aroused by this scenario are turned on their head, as the suffering patient refuses pity or kindness, but approaches death with the same level of rigor and scrutiny as she does her favorite texts. She prepares for a fight, not just with death, but with hospital staff and caregivers who well-meaningly want her to quake and blubber at death, by sharpening her skills of wit. Even as we come to see the cantankerous woman eventually as a full person who does have an emotional side, she has asked us to face the questions of death ourselves, and has shown us that fear in the face of death is hardly the only appropriate response.

"Naked States" — Artist Spencer Tunick was a nobody when this documentary was being filmed, but he had a germ of an idea for what he wanted to create with his art. His interest in photographing the human shape was hardly novel, but he added a new element of daring to it: nude photography outdoors. He decided to take nudity out of the art museum, where it was perfectly acceptable, and combine it with nudity in public, which was decidedly not acceptable, and let the sparks fly. Today he is best known for assembling thousands of people in cities across the world for nude photo shoots, where the colors and shapes of bodies filling streets and parks and waterways make for extraordinary landscapes. In this film, he mostly starts small, photographing one or two or twelve people at a time, running from cops, trying to convince people on the street one at a time to take their clothes off. What's most amazing about the film is not Tunick's story necessarily, but the comments of the models who agree to pose. It is such an act of liberation, restoration, and healing to a great number of them, especially to several women who had been through painful or humiliating experiences and become ready to accept their bodies and their selves again as valuable, worthy, beautiful beings. It ends up a portaiture of courage.

Best BBC series:
"Coupling" — I've written before about my love for this sitcom, which is so much more than just a sitcom. It's a clever foray into the use of narrative structure to sell a point. The series employs a set of gimmicks to great effect: split-screen stories, stories told backward, re-translated conversations, flashbacks and dream sequences, which seem random and confusing until it all ties together at the end in a perfect bow. The series also employs one of my favorite comedy bits: the run-on-talking-because-you're-nervous monologue, leading to a great number of unbelievably over-the-top lies or confessions, including the keeping of ears in a bucket. On top of all that it's a sweet love story of two people (and then another two people) finding out they belong together. I never get tired of re-watching it.

"The Office" — This is a comedy of embarrassments, both embarrassments on behalf of those who have no shame reflex, on behalf of those who are picked on, and on behalf of those who take a risk and get shot down. It should be extraordinarily uncomfortable to watch, and the laughs should be nothing more than mere schadenfreude, and yet the show has a big heart, big enough to bless all the characters with small moments of breaking through and moving on.

Best explore-the-world documentary shows:
"Mythbusters" — I never tire of watching Adam, Jamie, Kari, Tory, and Grant ask questions about how the world works, challenge everyday assumptions, and discover surprising results. Even more than the fun of watching stuff blow up is the training of the mind toward curiosity.

"30 Days" — Morgan Spurlock's follow-up to his documentary "Super-Size Me" is this show, which has Spurlock or a suitable substitute taking a walk in someone else's shoes for a full month. Spurlock goes to jail for a month, lives on minimum wage for a month, lives on a Native American reservation for a month and more in his quest to understand the lives of people so dissimilar to him. Other shows find a devout Christian living among Muslims for a month, a couple lives in an electricity-free commune for a month, a pro-choice advocate lives with pro-life activits, and an outsourced American worker goes to India to work his old job. The guinea pig nearly always comes through the experience with a better understanding of other people, and with more compassion, even if their personal opinions and beliefs remain the same. The show points to how insular we have a society has become in only talking and relating to people who make us comfortable in their similarity, and how much we miss out on.

Best short films (that I've seen, which is admittedly not many, but of the 30 or 40 these are ones I could watch forever in a loop):
"Rent-a-Person" — The conceit of this film is a young entrepreneur who starts a business renting out homeless people to drivers who want to travel in the HOV lanes. It's also a musical. And a love story about two bathroom attendants who finally meet and fall in love. And it's about picture-frame models. All in just 12 minutes — twelve funny, sweet, twisted, lyrical, and perfect minutes.

"Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death" — This one I actually have watched forever on a loop: I rented it from the library and Corin loves it to death, literally playing it 20 times in a week. And I find I'm still not bored of it. The Wallace and Gromit shorts of the '90s were some of my favorite comedy, and while I was a little disappointed with the feature film "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," in that it went on too long, and the mini-shorts "Cracking Contraptions," which went on too short, finally the two inventors are back at their proper 30-minute length after ten years. The structure, plotting, animation, jokes, whimsy, pauses, absurdity, liveliness and tenderness have never been better.

Best American sitcoms:
"My Name is Earl" — In the history of art, stories of forgiveness and reconciliation have been in short supply. It is much easier to write grittily or cynically or observationally than to write aspirationally — in particular because noble aspirations are always so sweet and treacly. "My Name is Earl" is not a sweet show by any means, amping up the bad-boy outrageousness to balance out the central tenet of the show: a ne'er-do-well visiting the people he harmed in his life to ask for their forgiveness and try to make up for the wrongs he did. It's simply stunning to me that this show made it on TV at all, let alone for four years. I wrote in more detail about my favorite episode, which centers on the theme of grace, here.

"30 Rock" — When I saw the first episode of this show, I had an impression of Tina Fey as being smart, strong, sexy, and devastatingly funny, and to see her play Liz Lemon, the exact opposite of that (mild, mothering, awkward, and unintentionally funny) initially turned me off the show. Then I began to see clips, and commercials, and a few episodes here and there, and began to get the show: absurdism at its finest. The humor builds layer upon layer, starting out merely absurd, then becomes self-referentially absurd, and then is popped by a cold dose of sensibility. This isn't setup-setup-gag of old-school comedy, it's gag-gag-did-you-see-that-gag modus operandi of the 2000s.

Runners up (only by a hair, and probably mostly because they're on everyone else's best lists): "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development"

Best American dramas:
"House" — This show has gone through so many different phases: a procedural drama about disease and medicine, a character study about the poor social life of a genius, a reality-show-style competition between doctors to land a dream job, a buddy comedy about best friends razzing each other with pranks, stories of love and broken love, meditations of faith and lack thereof — what could have been a repetitive formula (and occasionally, I'll admit, it has dragged for a few episodes until they've switched gears) has found new life over and over again, in large part thanks to Hugh Laurie's impeccable comic timing, with covers a multitude of errors. This current season, the sixth, started with a feature-length episode titled "Broken" that just might have made my top list of the decade for movies had it been theatrical, it was that good.

"Joan of Arcadia" — This one kind of surprised me by ending up on my list, but the story of a teenage girl who hears instructions from God through a series of seeming strangers was always so full of hope and enthusiasm that it has remained strong in my mind. It's kind of "Quantum Leap"-ish (another favorite) in its approach, in that Joan will have to try to help somebody out in each episode, only she doesn't know who or how; she can only follow seemingly odd instructions from God that puts her in the right time or place or frame of mind in order to help when it's needed. It also reminds me a lot of that "wax on, wax off" stuff from "The Karate Kid," in which mundane and repetitive motions are used to train for a larger purpose. The show was just so full of the message that there is a purpose behind things that you can't understand, even if the show was a little gimmicky and not exactly reflective of ordinary religious experience, that I miss it quite a bit.

Runners up: "Nero Wolfe," "Firefly" (which partly includes the potential of what "Firefly" should have become with two or three extra seasons)

Best animated show:
"Futurama" — (This actually premiered in 1999, but 3/4 of the episodes were in this decade, plus 4 DVD full-length films, so I'm counting it.) Set in the year 3000, this show had license to comment on any trend, issue, subculture, or dramatic staple by magnifying it to the nth degree. In a world where bureaucracy, callousness, adventure, invention, and hedonism have all multiplied to complete excess, the show finds laugh after laugh in the extremism but is nevertheless grounded by the familial affections that the rag-tag spaceship crew/package delivery service has for one another. It's as if "The Twilight Zone" (another "what if" science fiction show tackling the zeitgeist of the day) had a recurring cast that you grew to know and love.

Best fake shows:
"Da Ali G Show" — Before Borat hit the big screen, he was one of three characters on "Da Ali G Show," which Sasha Baron Cohen used to prank unsuspecting authority figures. He's slightly less offensive, though, on TV, and that's the version I enjoy rewatching most, interspersed with faux-rapper Ali G and faux-fashionista Bruno in equal measures. You get a sense of just how talented Cohen is, using every angle and trick in the book to try to point out follies of the self-styled gatekeepers of propriety. It's my favorite of many of the Candid-Camera-style shows this decade, the one with the most intelligence and subversiveness.

"The Daily Show" — A show with a similar purpose, but pulling it off in real time on a day-to-day basis: pointing out all the contradictions, posturing, disingenuousness, and bravado of the country's politicians (yes, both right and left, although the right gave them a lot to work with this decade). This is such a necessary part of political discourse, the ability to call out professional liars on their lies, and the mainstream media only rarely does it, treating all spouting by politicians to be opinion to be debated even when the facts are wrong. It's been reported that watchers of "The Daily Show" are better informed about actual policy, issues, and the content of bills than watchers of most any other news show, which is kind of sad.

Best online exclusive:
"Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" — Not every short-form entertainment has to hit the tube or the festival circuit anymore: it goes straight to the masses via the internet. This 43-minute wonder hit the internet for free in three installments, was then taken down, then made its way to Hulu, and now can be purchased on DVD-on-demand via Amazon. A stunningly well-executed musical about superheroes and supervillains (with virtually no effects budget) that takes the rare tack of making the hero a blowhard and the villain a lovelorn loser, it is alternately sad, funny, heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Best comedy special:
"Jim Gaffigan: King Baby" — I have to admit that I'm not all that plugged into the comedy scene anymore, so my pickings are slim, but Jim Gaffigan's stuff ranks among my favorite stand-up of all time, so it's worth mentioning. (I also first encountered Eddie Izzard this decade, but in looking up YouTube clips of some of my favorite bits I discovered they were almost all from his '90s specials.) Gaffigan celebrates the slovenly American persona with such relish and pride that you almost feel noble to be a white-bread, bacon-eating, terminally lazy, ketchup-hoarding everyman. But his real brilliance is in his high-pitched audience-member critic voice with which he comments on the stupidity of his own observations, making you laugh at yourself for ever considering his idea for a split second that all food should be wrapped in bacon. Gaffigan sums up the modern sensibility so well: He's not just a lazy slob, he's a self-aware lazy slob.

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