Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
The problem with television is that it has so many good shows these days. Makes you miss the old “vast wasteland days” doesn’t it? No, me neither.
There are plenty of shows that everyone’s talking about these days: Stranger Things, Westworld, Fargo, GoT (whatever that is), American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale. Millions of people love those shows, and usually with good reason.
So instead, let’s talk about a few shows out there that were every bit as good, but which, for one reason or another, haven’t gotten immense popularity and might have been missed.
Some are ongoing series, some are new. All have something for someone. So, in no particular order:
Sneaky Pete (Amazon Original, produced by David Shore/Graham Yost and Bryan Cranston). Marius Josipovic (played by Giovanni Ribisi) is getting out of jail after three years. Cause for celebration, except he owes lots of money to bad people with good memories. So he steals the identity of his cell mate and becomes Pete Murphy, working his way into Pete’s charming and rich family in a bucolic setting. Only he quickly learns that Pete’s recollections of family life were…a bit rosier than reality.
Get Shorty (Epix) Based on the Elmore Leonard novel. Stars Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano). Two Nevada mob hitmen have an unsuccessful collection interview with a debtor/writer and end up with a blood-soaked screenplay. The more literate of the two reads it, recognizes that it is a brilliant work of art, changes the name of the author to that of his partner’s, and starts shopping it around Hollywood. The mob stands little chance against Hollywood producers and agents.
Episodes (BBC/Showtime, produced by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik). This little-noticed gem is one of the funniest shows on television. Starring Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig (as writing couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln, John Pankow (Hollywood sleaze) and Matt Leblanc (as more-or-less himself). Just concluded season five. A couple (who are both writers – British readers can think of “Yes, Headmaster”) are lured to Hollywood to do an American version of their immensely popular high-toned boarding school comedy. A few executive changes later, they are writing a sitcom (“Pucks”) about a high school hockey team with a dodgy coach, out-of-work actor, Matt Leblanc. They do better against Hollywood than the mob, with hilarious results.
The Night Of (HBO, written by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh). It’s a police procedural in the same way that Rashomon was a whodunnit. The perspective point-of-view character changes from one episode to the next, matched neatly by a shifting moral tone. Ten unreliable narrators make for a truly mystifying storyline.
Cleverman (Australian Broadcast Company, created by Ryan Griffen, produced by Waybe Blair and Leah Purcell). The “Hairies” are a different species, covered in thick mats of hair, who live longer, are much stronger, and access the Dreamtime through a special Hairy called “The Cleverman.” Based strongly on Australian aboriginal culture, the Hairies find themselves at the mercy of a xenophobic and persecutorial Australian culture that wishes to eliminate them. Hunter-Paige Lochard is the Cleverman, and Iain Glen (Ser Jorah from GoT) is the heavy.
Black Mirror (Channel Four – first two seasons; and Netflix). Produced by the incomparable Charlie Brooker of the brilliantly-named Zeppotron Studios, this bleak, humorous and sardonic anthology series is everything you liked about Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone and injected with liberal doses of Harlen Ellison and George Carlin.
Chewing Gum (E4/Netflix, produced by Michaela Coel). Tracy (played by Coel) is a 24 year old virgin in East London who desperately wants to have sex. Unfortunately, her family, and her boyfriend, consider sex to be the work of the devil. Forced to chose between Jesus and Beyoncé (as a role model), Tracy picks Beyoncé, and the boyfriend is promptly hit by a truck. Hilarity ensues. Coel has done a masterful job of giving the character depth and warmth.
Fleabag (BBC3/Amazon. Created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). The central character is a completely amoral and yet immensely likeable woman trying to navigate life in some of the tonier parts of London. Doctor Who fans might want to check this show out, since Waller-Bridge is slated to be the next Doctor. Very rude, very funny. Not for children.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC/BBC America, written and produced by Max Landis). If you start watching this series at the beginning of season two, by the third episode you will realize that you don’t have a single clue as to what is going on. Go back and watch season one in its entirety. You still won’t have a single clue as to what is going on, but now, when someone comes to you and complains about how confusing the show is, you can give them a sly, secretive, condescending smile, and say something like “The key to the show is watching Richard Schiff’s eyebrows.” This explanation won’t do either of you a bit of good, but you’ll have fun watching the other fellow lose his mind. And hell, Schiff’s eyebrows might be the answer. That or 42. It’s based on a Douglas Adams novel.
Finally, let’s wade into the Star Trek thing. There’s two shows. One of them is part of the Star Trek franchise but is nothing like the Star Trek we watched back when we didn’t need support bras and hairpieces. The other one is a parody of Star Trek and IS like The Old Show. Confused?
Star Trek: Discovery (ST: D – CBS). It’s in the Star Trek universe: you have the Federation, and Klingons, and Vulcans, and the Enterprise has just been commissioned. There are even some known characters: Ambassador Sarik (Spock’s daddy) and Harvey Mudd.
But it is a much darker and grimmer version of that Universe. The Federation and the Klingons are in a winner-take-all war to the death, and Mudd is a vicious sociopath. It’s going to provoke many howls from fans of The Old Show and its bright, primary colors of right and wrong.
The first episode of ST:D is dire, and I nearly stopped watching. I only watched the second episode to see if it could possibly be any worse. I was astonished to see that it was sharply better, and successfully addressed some of the biggest issues I had with the first episode. Not only that, but I was starting to respect the characters.
It’s nothing like the Star Treks that came before, but it has turned out to be a pretty good science fiction series. Good acting, splendid special effects, and solid writing.
The other Star Trek isn’t part of the franchise at all, but is billed as a parody of the franchise. The Orville by Seth MacFarland sounds like it would be a parody, but what it actually turns out to be is a loving pastiche, a tribute version. In tone and style it matches the old show in many ways, only with cruder jokes (this is Seth MacFarland, after all) and snazzier special effects. The characters are engaging, and the plots have surprising depth.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.