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I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

05 December 2016

Guest Blogger: TV Recommendations

Today I (belatedly--he got this to me days ago, and then I went out of town without posting it) welcome recurring guest blogger and good friend Bill Hill for some great TV reviews/recommendations. Bill blogs at Bill's Universe II.

From grz3gorz on freeimages.com.
TV shows are, to my mind, very interesting creatures. First off, a TV show is one of the highest-volume mediums that we have any familiarity with – or at least, it has the potential to be. Imagine a movie, for instance. How long does it take to watch a movie? Somewhere between an hour and two hours? Three hours, if it’s very long? But what if you were to watch every single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The time expended would far exceed three hours. How about a novel? If you read a really thick novel without taking many breaks, you might have it finished in a handful of days. But if you’d like to see every episode of Law and Order, it’s probably going to take a number of weeks. This phenomenon depends on how many episodes and/or seasons a show contains, of course, but the potential is there. When you think about how high-volume a TV show can become, it’s mind-boggling.

I also think that TV shows are the most conducive medium for ownership and loyalty. Sure, there’s something nice about saying ‘my favorite movie,’ or ‘my favorite book.’ But with a TV show – likely due to the concept of a fan-base that adjusts its schedule accordingly – there’s a greater sense that you belong to a club. Saying ‘my show’ assigns not merely a product, but practically a lifestyle to your weekly routine. And for that reason, discovering a new show (whether it’s currently airing or not) can provide a truly magical sense of ownership and belonging.

So, here are some of the TV shows that I like (and that I would recommend). Most of these programs are old and off-the-air by now, so they might require some sort of DVD-shopping or Netflix-combing if you would like to see them. Or maybe you’ve seen them already, in which case I hope it is fun to read about shows that you already know. But mainly, thanks to Su for giving me an opportunity to write about stuff I like. That’s the big thing, right? (Ed: Awww, how sweet. You're very welcome!)


The Dick Van Dyke Show
I’m always open to classic sitcoms, but repetitiveness is one of their major flaws. The Dick Van Dyke Show is a shining exception, however, in that its five seasons never fail to expand the mythos of the Petrie family. Among the many shrewd decisions that define the set-up for this program, the bifurcation of professional versus domestic spheres gives the show a healthy dose of variety. On the one hand, there’s Rob Petrie’s frenetic workplace – never short of memorable sidekicks and clever banter – and on the other hand, there’s his household: increasingly hilarious and relatable depending on where you are in the process of starting a family. I’ve always preferred the workplace episodes myself, but the interplay of these two spheres practically offers two sitcoms for the price of one.

Those worlds, however, by no means comprise the entirety of the series. Some episodes place emphasis on new characters and guest-stars, and thereby transcend either of the two most frequent settings. Likewise, several sequences manage to combine the separate coteries in Rob’s life, which affords lifelike enjoyment for anyone who’s grown to know the characters. Combine these perks with the show’s penchant for creative storytelling – including flashbacks, alternate perspectives, and dream sequences – and you’ve got a black-and-white sitcom which feels significantly more fresh and re-watchable than its counterparts.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast
If you aren’t familiar with its premise, you might regard this show as an uncanny experiment in animation. Here, Space Ghost (once the hero of an outdated Hanna-Barbera cartoon) is the host for his very own talk show, while his old nemeses serve as co-hosts. Real celebrities join the show via satellite feed, and some surreal development or other usually derails the interview. If nothing else, Space Ghost Coast to Coast represents an important turning point in the history of Cartoon Network, as it aided the transition toward the ‘adultification’ of animated shows and precipitated the development of Adult Swim.

Especially in later seasons, the program was less of a bizarre interview platform and more of an acid sequence that just happened to occur on a talk-show stage. Personally, I think that the surrealism went a little too far in later seasons, and that episodes began to rely too heavily on ‘random’ humor. What I love about the show, however, is its unique atmosphere – the talk-show set (suspended in the midst of outer space!) was accompanied by richly ambient white noise which would alternate from shot to shot. Moreover, the motley crew of characters (such as Moltar the masked lava-denizen, and Zorak the wise-cracking mantis, to name a couple) create a distinctive vibe of alien high-jinks, especially when paired with the very human and pedestrian content of the interviews. Overall, the first few seasons provide an unmistakable blend of adult angst and tasteful cartoonism – arguably one of Cartoon Network’s most inimitable undertakings.


Mission Impossible
Sadly, the dignity of this franchise was maimed beyond repair following the advent of the Tom Cruise adaptation. If you want a reminder on the stylish substance that once defined Mission Impossible, though, simply revisit the series that started it all. The show wasn’t about explosions, chase sequences, or mindless action; it was about clever planning, deceptive performances, and psychological warfare. Sure, Barney Collier’s technological know-how added a flavor of scientific panache, but at its core, Mission Impossible was about a team of specialists who knew the villains better than the villains knew themselves – and was, in that sense, a dose of Colombo mixed with James Bond.

However silly the show could be, the crew of regulars was memorable beyond belief. Peter Graves played the sophisticated Jim Phelps (and that, if nothing else, is a better role to remember him for than ‘Do you like movies about gladiators?’), while Barbara Bain injected the role of Cinnamon Carter with a smooth, seductive flair. Both Martin Landau (always enjoyable) and Leonard Nimoy (always recognizable!) found eventual spots in the regular cast, while Greg Morris and Peter Lupus gave great embodiment to the brains and brawn of the team, respectively. My greatest complaint is that the show became too reliant on perfectly deceptive ‘masks’ – changing your face also changes your height? – but on that subject, the cheese-bad episodes of this show are still barrels worth of fun. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to check out this series and find out how much classier the franchise used to be.

Star Trek: The Original Series
It’s hard to say anything fresh about Star Trek, because really, what hasn’t been said? But if there’s anything to note, it’s possibly that Star Trek has become buried beneath its more recent incarnations. Our associations with the show, at this point, probably involve nerdy technology, a diverse and verisimilar culture of co-existing species, and a number of sociopolitical soapboxes predicated on some supposed scientific principle or other. It would be incorrect to say that The Original Series lacked any relation to those associations, but they were nicely veiled by character-driven amusement. At least by today’s standards, the show is campy enough that it seems to value entertainment over purported innovation, and watching it is a great reminder that the franchise can be fun rather than boring.

You’ve probably heard about ‘The Trouble with Tribbles,’ of which the merit is quite well-earned. What doesn’t it have? It’s got Shatner at his hammiest, Spock at his Spockiest, Klingons, gimmick aliens, and arguably the finest hour for both Lieutenant Uhura and Mr. Scott. I’ll also recommend ‘The Doomsday Machine,’ which pelts us with a charming rhythm of surprises from start to finish, and ‘Spectre of the Gun,’ which offers one of the most practical life-lessons I have ever encountered in a TV show. With Star Trek, it’s usually not a case of ‘Have you seen it?’ Rather, it’s ‘How many episodes have you seen?’ – so if you haven’t already, be sure to watch as many as you can.


Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
This is a show about costumed superheroes, techno-babbling androids and giant dinosaur mechas – all pitted against dastardly aliens and farcical monsters, B-movie super-villains and intergalactic wizardry. If that doesn’t hook you, then you and I are probably pretty different, because Mighty Morphin Power Rangers shows flashes of mastery over TV archetypes. In short, I don’t want to watch a show about a lawyer navigating the grey areas of the legal system, nor do I enjoy dramas about tormented, booze-addled authors – you need only give me an archetypal premise of cartoonish proportions, and you’ll undoubtedly renew my faith in the power of storytelling.

With these Power Rangers, we’ve got archetypes out the wazoo. The premises are seldom more complex than Destroy the Kaiju, and the characters’ blatant moral allegiances are outdone only by the crisp, sparkling colors of their outfits. The production quality, meanwhile, is low enough that you can practically reproduce the stories with your action figures, and yet high enough that you’ll keep returning for inspiration. In that regard, the original broadcast was an ingenious, toy-selling trap for kids, and the show remains captivating for those who are young at heart. The fact that a teen-sitcom was somehow sandwiched between these monster showdowns creates a pastiche that is both endearing, and peculiar to the glorious 90s.

Dexter’s Laboratory
Even if you’ve never watched this series, it’s likely you’re familiar with Dexter himself – a preternaturally intelligent child, best known for the machine-ridden facility behind his bookcase. True, the main character is a self-proclaimed boy genius, but don’t let that fool you – being merely ten years old, or thereabouts, Dexter is a hilariously relatable entity whose misadventures are characteristic of childhood. The show is much less focused on science and technology than it is on the brutal vicissitudes of youth and/or adolescence, and Dexter’s inventions merely provide the engine for those twisted and comical themes.

The show can boast a variety of positives, but most of them stem from its perfect balance between innocence and cynicism – that is to say, despite the aforementioned naiveté of the protagonist, the animators seize every opportunity to paint a world of surreal cruelty. In the episode ‘Dexter vs. Santa’s Claws,’ for instance, the creators were not content to expiate Dexter’s wrongdoings with a conventional Christmas lesson. Rather, Santa Claus himself concludes the episode by claiming that the true meaning of Christmas is – wait for it – the presents. The show is rife with other instances of absurdity, catastrophe, futility, non-graphic deaths, and unhappy endings. There are too many to list, but the final result is a truly rare (and endlessly refreshing) equilibrium between idealism and skepticism. Side note: Go for the first two seasons only. The show was rebooted after that, and one hundred percent of the charm was lost.

Daytime Television

Judge Judy
I’m tempted to say that this show is a guilty pleasure. Like, aren’t you only supposed to watch Judge Judy if you’re unemployed and living on a couch? But honestly, there’s very little that’s ‘guilty’ about it – Judge Judy herself is a deliberately, hilariously, shamelessly, delightfully cantankerous model of the legal process, and the entire program orbits seamlessly around her. It’s quite possible to ignore the litigants – ignore the details, ignore the evidence, and ignore the testimonies – and still have a perfectly ducky half-hour from Judge Judy’s mannerisms alone. Certain rustic, dinner-table phrases (such as put your hand down, I don’t care, you’re an idiot, and please don’t have children) make their way into an actual replica of a lawsuit, and thereby make it a little easier to laugh at everything than to cry.

Questioning the show is just as fun as watching it. Oftentimes, Judge Judy will point to her watch and claim that she has other places to be. Like, where? Recording another show? And why does everyone stand up when Judge Judy enters the courtroom? Are we all rising for the honorable daytime television star? You can watch the show for ten years straight and still have new oddities, such as those, to ponder. Sheindlin’s court reads like an I’ll be the judge, you be the lawyer game played by six-year-olds, and to see it executed with such gravity and emotion is about as funny as watching a pie fight.

If contemporary game shows are rock music and teen pop, then Jeopardy! is the lone sample of sweet, classical music. There are no glitzy wheels, meretricious light-bulbs, or hostesses in feather headdresses – merely three staid podiums marked by the contestants’ names, and a cool, reflective floor beneath the clue-laden display board. A curmudgeon or two might claim that Jeopardy! is easier than it once was – and perhaps they’re right. But at least it is a quiz show, and not a glorified guessing game (my favorite alternate title for Deal or No Deal is Guess What’s In The Box?).

The main perk of the show, of course, is that you – right there on your sofa! – get to be one of the players. If you can blurt out a correct answer before any of the contestants do, then score one for you! If you’re a huge trivia nerd, then you can keep tabs on yourself. You can follow your own score, and even notate your all-time record. You can also say to yourself (while you’re waiting anxiously for the boring local news to end, so that Jeopardy! can start) that you’ll actually learn something, rather than watch some cathartic drivel. On top of that, it’s easy to pick somebody to root for. Don’t like that guy with the bad bow-tie and the glasses? Then suddenly you’ve got a dog in the race! And when all is said and done, a simple quiz show generates a lot more investment than it has any right to.

Some Quick Mentions

Arrested Development, for its hilarious entanglement of madcap stories, and Impractical Jokers for its ability to make you laugh so hard that you cry. The Perils of Penelope Pitstop if you can tolerate so-stupid-it’s-funny animation, but I doubt it. Mr. Bean and Monty Python’s Flying Circus for anyone who enjoys British humo(u)r. Little Einsteins if you want your pre-schoolers to watch something and be quiet. Now it’s probably time for me to be quiet.

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