Summer DVDs

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.

Men of a Certain Age, Season 1MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE

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 Good Wife, Season 1THE GOOD WIFE

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.

Mad Men Season 4MAD MEN SEASON 4

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 Season 6WEEDS SEASON 6

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.

White Collar, Season 1

I didn’t know what I expected when I ordered Season One of the television show White Collar from the library, but I didn’t expect what I got. It wasn’t unwatchable, but if I’d had anything else of greater intrigue on hand last week, I probably wouldn’t have watched it.

White Collar, Season 1I found White Collar searching through the Amazon TV on DVD Bestsellers, as I often do when looking for new shows to order from the library. I guess I didn’t read the description, because I had some expectation that it would be a sort of general cutting-edge drama about high class people of dubious morals or white collar crime. Something in the vein of Burn Notice or Leverage. I was disappointed to read the back of the DVD box and discover that it was, in fact, a procedural crime drama.

Sigh… aren’t there enough procedural crime dramas already?

The premise of this one requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than a supposedly “realistic” show (i.e. not scif-fi or fantasy) ought. FBI Agent Peter Burke, working for the white collar crime division, catches notorious criminal mastermind Neal Caffrey for a second time when he breaks out of prison four months before his scheduled release (it was for a girl, of course; what else would prompt such a stupid move from a notorious criminal mastermind). Alas, he misses the girl by a day, and in a ludicrous turn of events somehow manages to convince Burke to bring him on as an FBI consultant (complete with super high-tech tracking anklet that even Caffrey can’t outsmart) rather than send him back to prison, paving the way to these two formerly mortal adversaries become partners in a “buddy” crime drama setup.

As if that weren’t a hard enough premise to swallow… Neal Caffrey is a super duper good-looking 20-something criminal mastermind. I know that people are supposed to be better looking on TV than they’d be in real life, but Caffrey’s casting (Matt Bomer) is extra preposterous. Yes, he looks awesome stylish in his retro-chic suits and narrow ties (apparently they’re all the rage), but wouldn’t it have made more sense to have the 40-something Tim McKay (Burke) play the seasoned criminal mastermind brought into advise the FBI, and maybe the role of somewhat square Agent Burke would have provided a nice contrast to Matt Bomer’s unreal good looks? I warmed up to Bomer a little bit more when I read on his Wikipedia entry that he went to Carnegie Mellon around the same time I was at Pitt (if only I had been single at the time!) and played the role of Ben Reade on the ill-fated soap Guiding Light, which Saundra and I used to follow in our younger days.

The more I watched this show, however, the more I realized that Bomer isn’t the only thing that’s “too cute” about it. The relationship that develops between Burke and Caffrey is just too friendly to be believed. If Burke is supposedly the one who tracked Caffrey down and put him in prison the first time, is he really going to become bestest friends with Caffrey now? They try to plant some seeds of doubt in their relationship mid-season, but it only lasts for about one and a half episodes, and not long after Caffrey is declaring in a drug-induced stupor that Burke is the only person he can really trust. Not even to mention the episode where they become roommates.

Adding to the list “too cute” items in this show is Tiffani-Amber Thiessen in the throw-away role of Burke’s wife. It’s not that she treats the role lightly or plays it in a way that you can’t take her seriously. She does a fine enough job with what she’s given, but the wife character just doesn’t do much. She just adds to the home-y scenery of Burke’s house, giving the boys a cozy place to go where they can talk about cases and use her for a sounding board. Otherwise she provides a marital relationship for Caffrey to admire (he’s still after the girl, remember), and sweet moments of marital support for Burke in bookend scenes. It’s a regular gig for Thiessen, I guess, but she doesn’t do much of consequence for being billed as a main character.

This show tries its darnedest to be better than a typical procedural, weaving an overarching plot of Caffrey’s search for his mysteriously estranged love (the plot thickens as we learn she is not estranged by choice) into the episodic weekly crime stories, but given the rest of my take on this show, I can’t really bring myself to care much. The effort at characterization is appreciated, but not terribly successful due to its unbelievability. If you’re looking for something light and you love crime drama, you may enjoy this series, but it was all “too cute” for me.

Moonlight, the Complete Series

MoonlightMoonlight is one of those phenomena you hear about among cult cadres of SFF fans bemoaning the cancellation of a promising show before its time. I finally got my hands on the DVDs the sole season of Moonlight a few weeks back, and while it’s no Firefly, there is some merit to the cult complaints. Still, I think this series is ultimately plagued by the question:

“Do we really need another vampire romance?”

Further, do we need another rehashing of the vampire mythos? Another spin on vampire lore with a slightly different set of rules? Another on screen telling of the pathos of the relationship between an immortal and a human? The answer is that unless it also brings something spiffy and new to the table, then no. The genius and vision of Joss Whedon’s Buffy? Yes. The charm and irreverence of Sookie Stackhouse and Trueblood? Yes. Moonlight? Er… probably not.

It’s unfortunate, though, because this series had a lot to recommend it. The vampire mythos it creates is interesting, just not revolutionary. The writing is good, just not sparklingly fantastic. The actors are appealing, if a bit too “WB” (despite being on CBS!). If fact, this series was almost completely recast, save for leading man and apparently fast track up-and-comer Alex O’Loughlin, who seems to have been in ever new series on network television in the last three years (forgive a gal for some hyberbole?), in order to give the show that “young and cute” appeal.

Leading man O’Loughlin is probably the foremost strength of this show. Not only does he have the young and the cute, but he has gravity and complexity as well as some lighter and comedic appeal. I can see why he’s popping up everywhere in television pilots, because he has a lot of Hollywood star cred. While this show may suffer from not being “different enough” from other vampire fiction, it’s not without novelty in its storytelling. O’Loughlin’s character, Mick, has a couple of standout storylines. One is his quest as an “anti-vampire vampire” to find a cure for vampirism when the mysterious reappearance of his thought-dead vampire wife suggests that it may be possible. Vampires longing to be human, of course, are nothing new (ahem… Angel), but the way this storyline plays out with the ex-wife, the new girlfriend and his passionate resentment against being turned (in a mythos where the biggest downsides to being a vampire are not being able to eat real food and having to sleep in a freezer) makes the plot intriguing and refreshingly character-centered. Mick’s anti-vampire sentiments reach a particularly dramatic pitch when he refuses to turn a series regular in order to save his life. Another highlight is when Mick discovers he may have fathered a son (before he was turned in the 1950’s) and finds himself confronted by his missed humanity and a middle-aged son in a storyline that is peculiarly touching.

It’s not difficult to see why this show was canceled. A rather ordinary rehash of the tried and true vampire storyline wasn’t bound to survive very long on CBS. Maybe it would have had a chance on the WB or another secondary network, and maybe it would have grown into something more unique given some time. It was entertaining, well enough written and acted that there would have been plenty of room to grow, but just not enough of a seed to keep general public watching.

Sex and the City 2, a film of dubious repute

Sex and the City 2Yes, I know, it is unabashedly girly of me to be a Sex in the City fan, but this show did not initially capture my interest simply by appealing a city gal’s cosmopolitan values of glamor and singledom… though it was undeniably part of the equation (I could have watched the Sopranos, instead); Sex and the City was my first foray into TV on DVD (some might argue that Xena: Warrior Princess deserves the honor, but I don’t count it, despite pre-ordering all six seasons, because I watched it originally during its first run).

That was an age (back in 2003), where the enjoyment of TV on DVD necessitated a trip down to the Ye Olde Iggle Video, where TV Shows were displayed on shelves, disc by disc, next to feature films, and after selection of an empty box, were paid for at a cash register and delivered over a counter. The delight of watching episodes of a semi-tawdry cable TV show one after the other, without commercials of any sort, in the comfort of a non-cable subscribing home was still shiny and new. It was a special treat, a cause for celebration, and so a ritual developed, whereby I would pick up a bottle of champagne to enjoy with tasty snacks and chocolates at a particularly momentous event (say, the last disc in a season, or perhaps a splurge on more than one disc at a time).

And so, when the Sex in the City 2 movie showed up among my library holds last week, coinciding with a wealth of leftover NYE champagne in my fridge, I decided to reprise my old ritual. With a bottle of Barefoot Bubbly Sparkling Pinot Grigio (a little boring on its own, better with a twist of citrus fruit) on ice and a Lenox Tuscany Champagne flute in hand, I popped in the DVD last Friday night after work.

It was not without fore-warning, however, that I sat down to watch. Just about everyone I’d heard talk about this movie had panned it. Of course, it had been same story with the first movie. Everybody loves to trash a movie, especially when there is any measure of anticipation built up before its release… such as the hype generated by six TV seasons worth of fan base. It is a phenomenon I have observed that film-goers seem to hold movies to a higher standard than they do TV shows, to the point where they will hold a movie, such as Sex and the City, to a higher standard than they would any episode of the TV show. I saw it happen the same way with Firefly and Serenity. Somehow, because it’s a movie, it must be better, grander, more compelling, better written, better acted, etc., etc.

Being one of the few people who think the scripted television series is a higher art form than the movie, I do not have these overblown expectations. As far as I’m concerned, movies are bigger budgets for less work (or, perhaps, for belaboring the same work as, say, two episodes). I don’t understand why people love movies so much. It’s a short story! People outside of university English departments hate short stories! And yet, the movie persists in its prestige and devotees.

Sex and the City 2

We could have done without Sex and Abu Dhabi

But enough about my disdain for movies… When I sit down to watch a movie like Sex and the City 2, I have no expectations higher than I would for any other episode of the series. The producers of this latest film, however, must have bought into “movies must be spectacular!” press, because they clearly spent a fortune on the Broadway Musical of a wedding scene that opens the film, and the girls’ trip to Abu Dhabi that occupies much of the rest of the film. The fundamental story of this film could have easily been told without these over-the-top sequences.

That said, the basic structure of the story is sound; it is structured the same way as an average Sex and the City episode, with Carrie facing a relationship conundrum, and all of the gals experiencing dilemmas that echo her central crisis in some way. The interpersonal issues and conflicts that the movie addresses are current and relevant and should strike a cord with the same audience that enjoyed the show. The overblown milieu of their Abu Dhabi trip may provide eye candy, but it also takes up a lot of screen time and adds a dose of unreality to the plights of these women, where the show would have dealt with the same themes in a funny and unapologetic way.

Ultimately, I found this movie to be entertaining and about as good as the average Sex and the City episode, all things told. It’s definitely worth watching if you are a Sex and the City fan; if you don’t know the show, you’d probably be better off watching it first, if you find the premise of Sex and the City at all intriguing. I may, however, be alone in my assessment. Lo and behold, when returning the disc yesterday, my friendly Sharpsburg librarian solicited my review and disagreed—she grimaced in distaste and cited Samantha’s storyline as a particular low-point. Take my review with a grain of salt, if you will, or perhaps my positive feelings were unduly influenced by the bottle of champagne.

Burn Notice, Seasons 1 & 2 on DVD

Season 1

As everyone knows, I’m something of a contradiction in terms—a huge fan of TV who doesn’t have cable and never turns on her television. Thanks to the Carnegie Library, I always have a stack of TV show seasons on DVD waiting to pop into my laptop and enjoy.

Recently, I finished watching Season 2 of Burn Notice, which has quickly become one of my favorite programs. This is a rare show that is intelligently written, well-acted, action-packed and character-centered.

Main character Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) was a US government spy… until he got fired. The titular “burn notice” is the spy’s equivalent of a pink slip. Fired spies can hardly troll Craigslist for new jobs, and so Weston finds himself dumped into his home city of Miami under the watchful eye of the Feds, forbidden to leave the city, accounts frozen, identity wiped. And so, Michael teams up with an old friend, retired Navy SEAL, Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell, who I enjoyed in his Xena days) and an ex-girlfriend/former IRA operative, Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), to run freelance operations for fast cash, acting as a souped up hybrid of a private investigator and vigilante.

The show is largely centered on the plight of Weston’s client week to week, and much of the character’s motivations are based on a golden-hearted drive to help the “little guy.” Much of the appeal of these stories lies in the clever and conniving spy tricks Weston uses the solve the cases, with a good dose of glamorous Miami nightlife and fast-paced action sequences. All the of the plots are smartly done, but what raises this show above the “job of the week” storytelling is the specific attention paid each episode to Weston’s ongoing quest to find out who issued his burn notice and to get his job back.

Season 2

Season 2 finds this story developing with quite a bit of intrigue and several guest stars from the annuals of SF television. Michael finds himself unwillingly contracted to the employ of a rogue black ops group headed by mysterious managers. Weston’s new handler, Carla, played by Tricia Helfer (best known as the notorious Caprica Six), strings him along, playing him against her foes, keeping him always on the periphery of her latest operation; he finds a worthy foil in Victor (played by Michael Shanks, a favorite of mine from his days as Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1), a fellow operative within Carla’s organization who shows dubious allegiances.

The show strikes a perfect balance between the stories of the weekly clients and Weston’s overarching plots, including not only his drive to fight the burn notice, but also his on-again-off-again relationship with Fiona and family drama with his brother and mother (Sharon Gless, who shows a much harder edge than her previous motherly role of Debbie Novotny, but we knew she had it in her after her turn as a psychopath on Nip/Tuck).

This show is a crowd pleaser that manages to be action-packed, smart and sexy in one go. No wonder there are so many holds for it at the library…