I don’t believe in paying for cable (so I don’t), I don’t own a working television (that’s not quite true; it’s unplugged, and I just don’t know how to hook up the digital antenna and analog converter) and I’m at work for the duration of prime time. And yet, one of my favorite pastimes is keeping up on current TV programs, a pursuit made possible by the delightful phenomenon of TV on DVD. Sure I’m always a season behind, but I get to avoid the commercials and the nail-biting wait between mid-season cliffhangers altogether!
Since I’m even too cheap for Netflix, I get my TV fix through the Carnegie Library system. It’s an imperfect system, certainly, but it renders almost precisely the same result as Netflix. Yes, I don’t get to decide which DVD I get right now, but when I put a hold on a DVD I get it eventually, and when I have enough holds out on DVD’s, then I always have something coming in. And when it’s in, I have the whole season and don’t have to wait for the next disk after I send the old one back.
As a result, I spend a fair bit of time mining the Amazon bestseller list for TV on DVD to find new things to order. Some of them turn out to be great favorites (like Burn Notice), some turn out to be watchably middle of the road (like the Mentalist), some of them get returned after one or two episodes (like Gossip Girl).
Rather than spend a whole review on each new show or season, which I do not have the time nor the the motivation to do, I figure I will occasionally write a survey piece on recent watchings to give a broad recommendation at a glance. Below you will find my most recent summer DVD adventures. These DVD’s don’t necessarily have anything to do with summer so much as they happened to be the DVD’s that arrived and got watched during the first half of my summer.
As a result of one of the most pleasant surprises in my recent DVD watching, I can honestly say I quite like Men of a Certain Age. When it first arrived from the library, I worried at first that a show about middle aged men might not be the best fit for a young professional woman, but I found a lot to enjoy and recommend about this show.
First of all, it’s character centered and character driven. It’s all about these three guys (Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) on the verge of turning 50 facing different life situations and dealing with those situations with various degrees of success. Their conflicts are realistic, their choices understandable and their friendship believable. Many shows have tried to create a “Sex and the City” for straight men (of course, my personal favorite, Queer as Folk, is the most authentic way to do Sex and the City for men), and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Men of a Certain age accomplishes this feat–after all, sex is a sometime topic, but certainly not the controlling topic of their coffee shop conversation–but it definitely captures the dynamic of three male friends, and how that friendship helps inform the way they live their lives, in a realistic and entertaining way.
Perhaps the best part of this show is its humor. With the advent of cleverly written shows that skillfully encompass both comedic and dramatic elements, I find that I have grown weary of laugh-track comedies. Shows that exist for the sole purpose of getting laughs seem largely empty to me anymore. This program showcases more humor than the average drama, likely because Ray Romano is both producer and main actor, but it is done in an exemplary way. I never watched Everybody Loves Raymond when it was on the air, but I had enjoyed random snippets of Ray Romano’s comedy in the past (once when being interviewed at the wrap up of Everybody Loves Raymond, he was asked what he’ll do next, and replied, “Well, I am heir to the Romano cheese fortune”). The comedy in this show is witty, dry and never forced. Some jokes are so subtle that if you blink you might miss them. The comedy is clever and the show never beats you over the head with it. Even better, no laugh track in earshot!
The two times I’ve had The Good Wife out from the library, I’ve picked it up with some worry that it might be boring. It’s a show about a political wife who goes back to work in a law firm in her 40’s after her high-profile husband (a state’s attorney played by Chris Noth) goes to jail amid political scandal.
The wife is played by Julianna Margulies, and she plays a character who is admittedly kind of a cold fish. She deals with her inner struggles silently and uses an emotionless exterior to mask emotional turmoil. And yet, somehow Margulies finds a way to make this woman likable, relate-able and even morally ambiguous. She is faced with interesting problems, such as finding employment in the firm of a former law school buddy (who is now a partner, from having been in the game as long as she was out of it) as a junior associate and being pitted against another new hire, who is fresh out-of-school, in direct competition (played by Gilmore Girls alum Mark Czuchry). Instead of him being a typical nemesis, she finds she actually likes him and their relationship is realistically refreshing, characterized by shades of competitiveness, friendship and co-worker comrade-liness.
Ultimately what I like about this show is that it always surprises me by being more interesting than I expect it to be. Is it one of my very favorites? A show I find compulsively entertaining? No, but it is definitely worth my time and rings true with genuine conflicts and dilemmas for its characters.
I have been following Mad Men with steady but not avid interest on DVD since the first season. It’s hard to say exactly what intrigues me to keep watching Mad Men. Upon picking up Season 4 at the library, the Sharpsburg Librarian told me that she had lost interest after Season 2. I can’t say I don’t understand why. Mad Men is a character driven drama that is slow moving compared to the television dramas at the top of my list.
Yet, Mad Men has an undeniable appeal, both as a character study and as a near-past period piece. The milieu of the early 1960’s is enough familiar and enough foreign in to be its own draw. The political and social issues surrounding the characters are novel both for their relevance and their antiquated-ness–sort of a see how far we’ve come and yet how for we still have to do. The decor and costumes are like an old photo brought to life (in HD, moreover), the backdrop of history, out-dated social mores and commercial products (they are working in a ad agency, after all) add depth, and the character conflicts still ring true to the motivations of most audiences. I, personally, find Mad Men specifically interesting for its historical setting because my parents lived through those years, and they enjoy Mad Men and share with me their experiences and commentary about living through those times as a result of what they see on the show.
Season 4 was as interesting in these respects as any other season, but it was not what I would call a banner year. I figured, after the big upset at the end of season 3 (where every interesting character quit the old firm and started a new one), there would be a new status quo on Mad Men, but aside from a more “modern” looking office building, the ins and outs of the ad agency were basically the same. Season 4 skips ahead one whole year to a time where the new agency is already established. From there it is a relatively quiet season. Characters tackle personal and professional challenges, but nothing especially spectacular. The season ends quietly, too, with not cliffhanger or shake-up. Season 4 of Mad Men will certainly please devoted fans, but it didn’t take the show to any new levels of storytelling.
Weeds is another show that, when confronted with writing a review of it, has me wondering aloud, why exactly do I watch this show? I am, in no way a marijuana enthusiast. I suppose I like that its plots are character-driven. It does offer a good bit of sophisticated humor (and some unsophisticated, as well). One perfectly arbitrary thing I like about Weeds is that the show does 30 minute episodes; sometimes it’s nice to be able to squeeze in an episode to a short time period (including the span of time between when I finish dinner and when I inevitably start nodding off on the couch).
What I think I like about Weeds is that the characters are easy to relate to, and yet they often make decisions that ordinary folks wouldn’t make. This fact results in lead character Nancy Botwin getting into more than her fair share of trouble. Another thing I like about Weeds is that she always manages to get out of trouble (though, usually, from there, she gets into different trouble) by an avenue you wouldn’t expect. So many shows that rely on “character gets in trouble” plot-lines in order to create dramatic tension solve those plots in very predictable ways. If a character does the crime (even if that crime is making his wife mad), then that character does the time. This is one reason why I was never able to get into Curb Your Enthusiasm, because the humor of the show relies primarily on Larry David “getting in trouble” with various people and institutions and then getting his inevitable comeuppance. In Weeds, the characters get into all kinds of hairy situations, but then get out of them in surprising ways (which oftentimes represent the advent of an even hairier, but altogether different situation).
In this season, the cast and show grows a bit by going on the road (fleeing the results of their previous season’s debacle). They get out of their Southern California milieu and find themselves challenged by new situations, opening up the door for new plot-lines. I enjoyed this season more than the last couples seasons, which had grown, in my opinion, a little stagnant. Still watchable but not as interesting as they had been earlier in the series. And so, Weeds re-invents itself in small ways to make for an entertaining Season 6.