I never know what people are talking about when they discuss the TV shows they watch. I never watched The Sopranos. I have never seen an episode of Friends, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, The Wire, 24, The Simpson or Mad Men. I am sure that some of these shows might actually be worth watching (Friends not so much). I just have never seen them. Yet I do watch a lot of TV. I had to laugh when I realized that I must be one of the few people who not only watches the oddball shows I watch, but who actually records them to ensure weekly viewing.
So, in the hopes that I am not a total nerd, I am sharing some of these shows in the hope that someone will tell me ‘It’s all right! I tape Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, too!’
Here is the list of what I am watching currently:
1- Religion and Ethics Newsweekly – a news show that is usually upbeat, literate and actually engages in ethical debates in a pleasantly cordial way. Religious issues are so often presented in mainstream media as the purview of right-wing extremists. How refreshing to find a show that deals with faith news and issues in a liberal, ecumenical and balanced way. Nothing is sensationalized. The reporting is adult.
2- New Scandinavian Cooking – One of the reasons I don’t watch much popular stuff on TV is because so much of it is designed to get you riled up. Years ago, when FoodTV started on cable, there were dozens of quiet, thoughtful shows that usually featured a pleasant host on a quiet set convivially talking to you about preparing food. Not being much of a drinker, these shows would take the place of a late night cocktail for me. They were something nice to unwind with that left you with a nice buzz, in this case the thought that ‘Maybe I’ll try making that tagine tomorrow!” Alas, FoodTV went the way of much network and cable non-dramatic television, and all these lovely, quiet shows were replaced either by shows featuring loud chefs who didn’t have much to offer except or a grating personality, or ridiculous competitive cooking shows. Really? We are pinning people’s self-worth on their ability to make the fastest yet best-tasting muffin?
It seemed that my late-night cooking idylls were a thing of the past, when PBS came to the rescue. New Scandinavian Cooking is just the antidote for the hysteria that passes for cooking shows nowadays. This lovely show features a chef (most often the congenial Norwegian Andreas Viestad – see above) cooking outdoors in some beautiful location. You get a bit of local history and culture as well as stunning scenery. I will probably will never make any of the stuff they cook – it’s hard to find reindeer meat or cloud berries in Chicago. Who cares? It is about visiting Sweden or Norway once a week in the company of exceedingly pleasant people. The television version of a nice aquavit!
3- The Middle – I have reveled in this show ever since it started seven years ago. It follows the lives of the Heck family in fictional Orson, Indiana (the Middle of the title). Mike is a supervisor at a quarry. His wife Frankie is an erstwhile used car saleswoman and current dental hygienist at the local branch of the cult-like Smile Stars franchise. Their kids are: the somewhat insufferable early-20s Axl, who is very taken with his own coolness and hotness, the irrepressible Sue who could very easily have been the inspiration for the ‘There Must Be A Pony’ story, and the extremely odd, bookish Brick. The Hecks are not so much dysfunctional as malfunctional. Their rambling ranch home is filled with ghastly afghans, appliances that come in shades of avocado and orange and which don’t work. The stove is currently serving as a linen chest and the washing machine is taped together. The dining room set has a motley set of chairs, one of which seems to be a beach chair. The dining room set is an exemplar of what makes this show great. It is never mentioned explicitly, so we can just figure that either the Hecks are too poor or too disorganized (or both) to do anything about making the dining room a little more integrated. The chaos epitomized by that chair speaks volumes.
As with all great sitcoms, the Mount Everest being The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Middle has broadened and mellowed with the years. We have seen Axl go from being high school football hero (‘Go, Mud Hens!’) to being somewhat chastened by the fact that he is just another guy at college. We have seen the indomitable Sue going from being exuberant but unnoticed in high school to being exuberant and a little noticed in college. And Brick has just gotten weirder, but he does have a girlfriend – the extraordinarily odd Cindy.
I fear that every season will be the last and I panic. I need to know just how and when the world will knock some of the arrogance and stupidity out of Axl’s pretty head and turn him into somewhat of a mensch. I need to see Sue’s goodness triumph. I need to know why Brick always repeats the last word he says, in a whisper to his chest. I need to go on more trips with Frankie to the Frugal Hoosier – local purveyor of recently expired meat and dairy products. And I need to see if Rita Glossner (in a mind-bogglingly earthy turn by Brooke Shields) and her horrifying brood of sons will succeed in terrorizing the neighborhood completely or will the goodness of the Donahues be the prevailing ethos on the cul-de-sac.
I just love this show.
4- Moone Boy – This show takes place in what appears to be a very average, dare I say boring, Irish town called Boyle in the late 80s/early 90s. It centers on a 12-year old Martin Moone, his imaginary friend Sean Murphy, played by the genius Chris O’Dowd, also writer and creator of the show. Martin, his three monstrous sisters and parents live in a world that is just this side of surreal. Everything seems normal enough, but it isn’t quite – and that is where the delight of the show comes in. As an example, Martin’s father Liam is invited to join a weekly poker club. Much to his delight, when he confesses that he doesn’t know how to play, all the men laugh and confess that the ‘poker game’ is just an excuse for the men to get together and talk about how much they hate their kids.
The adult world is filtered through Martin’s and Sean’s inexperienced lens, the boy and the manboy trying to make sense of what is going on around them. The writing is so sharp and so clever and having it all wrapped up in a delightful Irish lilt just quadruples the pleasure. You’ll be calling everyone you know a feckin’ eejit and they won’t mind.
Back in 1985 the Grand Kabuki came to New York and performed at the Metropolitan Opera. It was magnificent and I was hungry for more. Alas, Kabuki is hard to come by in this country. I was happy to find Kabuki Kool on NHK World. I am not sure who the intended audience is. The sometime too-exuberant hostess Haruka Christine occasionally speaks in English, but most often in Japanese. She shares the episode with one of two Kabuki actors and they focus on one aspect of Kabuki. One episode looked at props, another talked about a comic tradition of Osaka Kabuki. The use of music, the role of the female impersonator and the representation of animals on stage have all been discussed. Christine is a little too excited sometimes, but the show really delivers on scholarship. I have learned a ton.
Somewhere Street has a concept I am amazed I have never seen on Western television. An unseen narrator walks around a city from early in the morning until dusk, stopping to ask questions of locals or pausing at some interesting site. The entire show is show from the narrator’s point of view. It is truly lovely, although sometimes they can make the cities look unappealing. I don’t think I would ever rush to visit Alice Springs as a result of this flaneur’s tour but Gordes in France looks amazing. The continuous walk through the street make this travel shows perspective unique. Most travel shows simply show the famous sites. Somewhere Street shows you how the whole city is connected. You experience the flow of the place.
Perhaps I will soon do a piece on beloved shows that are no more. Very often, when I latch onto a show it is cancelled after one season. I lament the untimely passing of Chicago Code, Frankie, Mr. and Mrs. Murder and most lamentably Bunheads.
More on these another time.