Tuesday, June 01, 2010

so now what do I watch?

During my eight years in South Korea (1994-96, 2002-2008), I largely did without TV, watching it only when I was visiting my folks in the US or hanging with Korean relatives in Seoul. All things considered, I was fine without the boob tube. Dr. McCoy noted in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" that the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in an ever-changing universe, but I'd say that "TV is 99% shit" is the second constant. I didn't really miss it.

Every once in a while, however, something will come along that compels my interest. "Battlestar Galactica" was the first such show in a long while; I happened to be vacationing in the States in 2003 when I caught the miniseries on the then-SciFi Channel (now known, bizarrely, as "SyFy"). I was floored by how good this reboot of the old 1978 series was. Then in 2005 or so, while working at Sookmyung Women's University, I made the acquaintance of a series that had taken the US by storm in 2001: "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as a very, very angry counterterrorism expert. Other series came and went, barely registering on my radar, but these two stuck with me, and I've followed their story arcs to the bitter end.

Alas, this is indeed the bitter end. As of May 24, 2010, my two favorite TV shows, "Battlestar Galactica" and "24," are now both done. BSG left the airwaves last year, to be replaced by the nearly unwatchable teen-angst cyberpunk drama "Caprica," and "24" bowed out a few days ago, giving Jack Bauer-- now on the run from both the US and Russian governments-- an ending that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of Chris Nolan's "The Dark Knight":

"You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me, set the dogs on me. Because that's what needs to happen. Because sometimes truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Jack Bauer: the hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now.

Nothing else really compared to these two dramas, "24" and BSG-- not for me, anyway. Both were compelling, albeit for different reasons, but both shared some interesting commonalities. They weren't afraid of Big Issues, and weren't afraid of sacrificing beloved principal cast members to advance their plots and make their points. Both shows featured armament and ordnance ranging from knives to nukes. Both evinced a great deal of sympathy for folks in the military-- people who put their lives on the line to keep everyone safe. Both eagerly explored the darkness of the human spirit (torture and various forms of abuse were recurrent tropes), as well as the nature of redemption. Both took place in universes that were cold, cruel, and often devoid of any hope, but their central characters showed us a stubborn optimism in the face of ultimate ruin. The one metaphysical conviction that both shows agreed on was that you can't make an omelette without breaking many, many eggs. An army of good people routinely died on "24" so that millions more could live; on BSG, humanity was whittled down to a final few thousand, and it was only when mankind was reduced to this tattered, debased state that God's plan could move forward.

"24" was probably more of a right-winger's show, while BSG skewed more to the left. BSG placed great stock in feminine wisdom and intuition: Bill Adama's decisions almost always panned out after he took counsel from Laura Roslin and Kara Thrace. In "24," strong female characters were often hard to find, because in this show's universe, the only intuition that mattered belonged to Jack Bauer. And this was one of the major differences between "24" and BSG: Bauer had personal flaws, but his reading of each crisis was always spot-on, as if the man were incapable of error. In BSG, even the characters most trusted by Bill Adama proved capable of making bad decisions: Laura Roslin made several blunders as president, and Kara Thrace was a walking disaster both in her personal life and as an officer uneasy with command. No one on BSG possessed the infallible moral compass of Jack Bauer; no one on BSG was a superhero.

In a move that would have been impossible on "24," BSG went the theistic route in its finale; many disgruntled fans saw this as both a surprise and a major disappointment. I tend to think that the show's deus ex machina ending wasn't nearly as positive as some make it out to be, just as I feel that poor Jack Bauer, despite having survived his final season, doesn't have a pleasant future ahead of him. (Perhaps Donald Sutherland should play an old, beleaguered Jack Bauer in an upcoming TV movie...?)

Of the two finales, I thought that BSG's was better. The "24" finale was, more than anything else, merely the culmination of the day's events. As some commentators pointed out, it felt more like a season finale than a series finale. Even Jack's final speech to Chloe felt rushed, though I suppose the scriptwriters had little choice but to play it that way. BSG, meanwhile, followed its characters' arcs faithfully to their conclusion, and although the finale contained some major storytelling missteps, it was emotionally satisfying. Hats off, in particular, to both Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell as Bill Adama and Laura Roslin, respectively: they were our mom and dad for the length of the series, and it was fitting that the finale's emotional crescendo should involve Adama on that hillside, talking to his departed Laura, facing the direction of the dawn.*

So now I'm left without much in the way of compelling TV. Shows like "V" and "Flash Forward" have been unable to fill the void; "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" are returning, but I consider these shows light entertainment, unconcerned with Big Questions. I enjoyed the fight choreography on "Human Target," but didn't get into the story arc or the characters (well, not until Lee Majors had his all-too-brief turn as Chance's mentor). So now what do I watch?

I guess there's always the Food Network...


*Mary McDonnell's portrayal of a cancer victim in final decline was about as searingly authentic as I could have wanted. I can no longer watch her performance without crying. When Laura Roslin limped into the hangar bay to stand with Adama as the crew divided itself into volunteers and those who would remain with the main fleet, I saw my own mother, who walked in much the same way toward the end of her life. And when Adama picked Laura up from her blanket-wrapped resting spot on the African savannah, I saw my father lifting my mother off the living room couch, hugging her, and leading her to bed for the night. No other show has spoken in such potent visual language to me.



  1. Consider Dexter. It might not get into the Big Questions, but it does deal with what it means to be a normal human.

  2. I only watch TV when I am on the road, and the only things I watch are Food Network and Discovery, and the only things I like on Discovery are Mythbusters (highly entertaining with a lot of genuine ingenuity), Dirty Jobs (doing thinks you don't realize need doing), and How It is Made (satisfies the engineer in me). I am also fairly picky on FN, watching Alton Brown (real how to do it, complete with principles of why) the Iron Chef series (sheer entertainment, with occasional ideas for technique, and I have a crush on Cat Cora), and Dinner Impossible (a lot of ingenuity and organization). I can't stand most of the celebrity chef shows.

  3. I'd like to second Mythbusters. Awesome, awesome show. Nothing else on the Discovery Channel comes close.

  4. Current TV: "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" are two of the best. Recent Greats: With your love of the BSG revamp you might want to give Farscape
    a shot (follow the link to free videos of the series on google) or Deadwood
    for a well-written and well-acted David Milch masterpiece that had its own unique way with language and violence that you would probably appreciate (watch the link for proof).

  5. I should have mentioned "Mythbusters" in my main post, since that's a show I always enjoy.


  6. I forgot all about Moore's previous work that also dealt with religion, Carnivale. It was a great show about god's forgotten sons and daughters—the odds and ends of humanity that made up a collection of Carnies working during the Depression/Dust Bowl era.

    I guess you can see part of its inspiration in the great Tod Browning film, Freaks. It’s impossible to believe in any god/higher power after viewing this movie and coming to the realization that there is no rhyme or reason to this world especially when you remember the tortured existences that so many on this rock go (went) through. It’s a travesty that a good chunk of the original movie was lost because it disturbed “normal” folk so and the studio decided to take a butcher knife to it by taking out nearly 30 minutes of its 90 minute run time.

    The film is not easy to watch and the Gooble gooble One of Us We Accept Her scene is particularly difficult to stomach.

  7. Including shows that ended during the span of 24 as well as airing ones, I recommend The Wire, Dexter, Generation Kill, Rome, Breaking Bad, Spartacus (Blood & Sand), Firefly, and also Freaks & Geeks even though it's not even remotely related, just because it kicked so much ass.

  8. "Dexter" is on Showtime, ja? We have no movie channels at the house; any other way to access it?

    I saw quite a few episodes of "Generation Kill" while on the road. Good series. The actor who played the journalist also guested on "House" as a rich guy who sold his riches to save his son, thanks to a goofy belief in instant karma.

    Saw all of "Firefly" on Hulu before Hulu stopped hosting the entire series. Excellent series. Too bad it died a quick death. Its cancellation reminded me of the sudden demise of "Police Squad" way back when.

    Have heard many good things about "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad." I'd need to watch both series from the beginning. Time to subscribe to Netflix and start ordering DVDs!


  9. Streaming Dexter links:

    You can use that site for other series as well. of course. There are popups there and some antivirus apps give warnings about it being an attack site; I never had problems when I was using it.

    I know this is repetitive, but you have to see Freaks and Geeks. It's so good it'll give you a karmic enema without even having to sit cross legged and hum to the universe.

  10. This is also an okay site for watching streaming shows according to friends who use it:

  11. the wire is excellent. recommend without reservations.

    i also like mad men but its a bit fluffier than the wire.

    def watch the wire.

    oh and freaks and geeks is also a lot of fun (kind of like the wonder years)

  12. Dexter is available on Netflix. The first couple of seasons are available to watch instantly.



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