Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chanson d'Automne de TV (or The Autumn of My Discontent)*

On the night table: Ransom River (Meg Gardiner); In the BluRay: Homeland, Season 2

Every autumn, I succumb to the lure of the new network TV season. It’s TV Season(al) Affect Disorder, a flashback to my childhood when there was nothing but network TV, and the new season filled me with Christmas-like excitement. Everything on TV was magical to me then. Yes, I was an undemanding child. I could play for hours with one box of plastic bricks, never complaining that there weren't enough to finish building anything. (Can I blame Legos for all my unfinished home projects?)

But this TV season, I was temporarily diverted — like a bird is diverted by a big pane of glass — by the government shutdown and members of Congress whose idea of responsible rule is apparently “I’ll hold my breath till the country passes out.”

A sign outside Sapore in Washington DC (credit: Outside the Beltway). 
Finally, even the most finance-training-lite members of Congress seemed to realize that Federal borrowing and the home budget do have one thing in common: If you don’t pay your bills on time, it can be very, very bad for your credit rating and the interest rate you’ll have to pay, which increases the money you spend with nothing to show for it.

All this made me late this year in sampling the new network TV season (via the DVR). I blame Congress for that, and for getting me so riled up that my sampling turned into a venting. 

You might recall that last spring I was searching for a replacement for Smash on my list of mindless-pleasure diversions after a hard day at the computer. In addition to losing Smash, this past summer, Burn Notice ended its run, and I've tired of Covert Affairs. They just kept putting the heroine into tight red dresses and sending her out undercover to blend in.

So I thought I’d give a try to two new network shows that sounded like fun. The Blacklist and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

I chose The Blacklist because I have an abiding affection for James Spader and a weakness for criminal-helps-catch-the-criminal stories (Hall of Fame: Silence of the Lambs & To Catch a Thief).

I’m not sure how I feel now that The Blacklist is apparently the #1 new drama on network TV (okay, it has a short list of competitors). On the one hand, I’m always glad when James Spader is getting steady work, and he's making a fine meal of the role. On the other, the pilot and episodes since have been, well, disappointing. I have some standards, even for my mindless-pleasure diversions. Ten minutes into the pilot, I knew the ‘twist’ that would eventually reveal itself in a later episode. The situations were preposterous yet predictable, and the violence gratuitous and gruesome. 

Now, understand that I have been known to enjoy preposterous — I watched Burn Notice, for heaven’s sake, in which no matter what manner of explosions and gunfire occurred, Miami police never showed up, and Fiona always had a nice chunk of C-4 in her handbag. But that show lived in a well established alternative universe, and had a large dose of tongue-in-cheek.

The Blacklist will have a way to go to earn that license. In its pilot, for example, terrorists kidnapped a little girl (this is how you knew they were really bad men). She was being transported under protection, and the FBI had been warned to watch for a diversion. But when coverall-clad workmen suddenly step out to stop only their cars on a bridge, no one gets suspicious and so, while any viewer who isn't comatose knows what’s about to happen, the FBI is startled by a hail of bullets. The bad guys snatch the girl and rappel down with her to speedboats for escape. Yes, they proceed downriver in the open. Lucky for the bad guys, it doesn't occur to the FBI survivors to summon, uh, helicopters that could, well, fly over the river and maybe find out where they’re going or, you know, intercept them.

But mostly my vent is about the heroine. The creators and writers have given her two of the most relentlessly recurring and annoying features of TV law enforcement females. One, she's too young for her resume, part of which was leading an FBI profile team; and two, she seems to have never dealt with a dangerous criminal before, despite her pedigree, because she's completely flustered just talking to Spader’s character. This is how TV (and movies) like to show women are 'vulnerable': they make them look incompetent.

But what really set me off was that the character self-describes as a b***h, then never shows one hint of it, not in the pilot, nor in the two successive episodes I watched. No biting sarcasm to a colleague, no unprovoked temper flare-up, not even a good story from her past about her having been impossible to deal with. When did just being a woman with a job become synonymous with b***h? I could go on (and on) about what the writers/director did to the Helen Hunt character in What Women Want, who is billed as legendarily tough, and turns out to be, well, the kind of boss I’d run through a wall for. And then there’s the Julie of Julie & Julia, who’s described by herself and a friend as a b***h, and yet is so sweet, my insulin balance tipped.

Enough of that. On to the next.

I picked S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was created by Joss Whedon (cue the Firefly theme) and stars the always reliable Clark Gregg, reprising his role in The Avengers film (yeah, I know he got killed in that, but he’s, well, back). Alas, in its pilot, S.H.I.E.L.D. was going for snappy chatter, and no one but Gregg could deliver it. Though, to be fair, the chatter wasn't all that snappy to begin with. The pilot’s plot revolved around a man who’d been given super strength by villains and was about to (literally) explode from rage-inducing side effects. A bunch of white people saved a black man from his fury. Too much accidental (God, I hope it was accidental) subtext there for me.

Successive episodes, however, have shown improvement. They seem to have given up on expecting the whole cast to deliver clever chat, relying mostly on a couple of tech geeks to talk fast with British accents, with uneven but promising results. And the writers have begun to acknowledge with robot jokes that the actor cast as the young hero is a bit stiff. And they ramped up Ming-Na Wen's role, a big plus. So, despite my vent, I'm sticking awhile with S.H.I.E.L.D. 

But before I finish today, can I have a general vent about those promos that run across the bottom, and sometimes way up into, the screen while I'm immersed in a story? (The worst is BBC America!) Are TV marketers congratulating themselves on being ‘hip’ with young people while they’re giving viewers more reason to stampede away from broadcast TV?

And while I’m at it — I swear I’m almost done — let me slip in an October grammar vent. Major League Baseball & baseball TV: Could you please use part of the off-season to teach the boys in the booth to conjugate the verbs “to go” and “to come”. It is not “He should have went home with that throw” nor is it “He should have came in on that fly ball.”

That’s it. Thanks. I feel better now. I’m done with my mauvais vent.**

I’m going out to breathe some autumn air. Deeply. 

Then go watch an episode of Person of Interest. Though I’m wondering why Mr. Finch, Mr. Reese and The Machine didn't see a lethal Congress coming and do something about it.

* Two classical references. This makes me feel educated (rather than, say, pretentious). Chanson d'Automne is a moving poem about painful memory by Paul Verlaine, which defies English translation, in my humble but perfectly correct opinion, because you can't replicate the repetition of the vowel sounds, which suggest moaning. The opening line in Shakespeare's Richard III is "Now is the winter of our discontent..."
** Bonus. An opportunity to quote Verlaine and make a questionable pun.

Copyright 2013 Sheila York


  1. This is fascinating. I'm on the Hispanic list( which is the el cheapo on Time Warner ) so I don't get all the regular popular programs!!! BUT, I DO get my cherished C-Spans - so where I never can get popular programs, I am in heaven with all the meetings ,etc in DC etc. tjs

  2. Basic cable doesn't give you network TV?? Well, at least you're getting your daily adult requirement of 'vent' by yelling at our lawmakers.

  3. The cheapest cable TV for NYC Time Warner turns out to be Spanish. I can get 300 Spanish programs!! I get the regular, a,2,4,5,7, 13, 21 - but you've got my number, Sheila! I do sit and yell at all the Cruzes et co!!! tjs

  4. I was in a Mexican restaurant during vacation last month, and they were playing Corazón indomable, a telenovela from Mexico. I highly recommend for those who love to comment on TV while watching it! Bonus: the men take their shirts off A LOT!

  5. Sheila, I love your comments and adore the voice in which they are packaged. I cannot compare notes with you, however, since I never watch television (except for Masterpiece Theater and Mystery). I wait until someone I trust, usually my daughter, tells me that is series is worth my attention. Then I order it on Netflix and have been known to binge on years worth of something with in a few weeks' time. You will tell me, I hope, if there is something a absolutely need to view. I can however say, without reservation, that I agree with your assessment of James Spader. BTW, I get fewer channels on my cable service than Thelma. The only channel I ever watch in broadcast is Thirteen.

  6. I have been on a THE GOOD WIFE binge for a while. Four seasons in about as many months. My friend Kathy and I are in a heated discussion about Chris Noth vs. Josh Charles.