One of the things I’m doing in the first weeks of my MFA program is a top ten list of TV shows, based pretty much on whatever criteria I want, with notes on what makes them interesting. Here’s what I came up with.
W1A –This comedy about the bureaucratic workings of the BBC is something I return to again and again because the dialog has so much verisimilitude and I kept seeing new things within the characters until maybe the 5th or 6th viewing.
Shetland—the vast majority of my current TV viewing originates in the UK and this show, based on a series of Anne Cleeves novels, is my front-running fave. This is the one that would change as soon as I developed a new obsession, but right now Doug Henshall’s Inspector Jimmy Perez and the Shetland Islands settings loom large. The construction of the second season was brilliant.
Quantum Leap—I love time travel. Loooooove it! I came to this years after it aired, when it was in rerun on the Space Channel. Many things about it do not hold up, but Scott Bakula’s performance as Sam Beckett and the compassion he brought to every leap still get me. What’s more, I’ve seen shows that try to copy this format time and time again, only to, in my opinion, fail: Tru Callingand Journeyman are two examples that come to mind.
Farscape–What fascinates me most about Farscape(Boomtownhas this too) is that even from the second episode, the characters and situations were established with a confidence and depth that made it seem like they were already in their third season.
Hannibal—There was a time when this would have been too gory and graphic for me, and I realized afterward that my bar had shifted. I like the dark humor in this, the fact that the first season in particular is a meditation on the nature of art and art criticism, as mediated through serial killers creating installations using murdered human bodies. Grim, yes, but effective. Also, as others will no doubt note, Hannibal is slashy AF.
Parks and Recreation– I am not much for sitcoms, but numerous people insisted that if I held on through S1, I’d love this, and they were right. Brilliant casting, good ensemble storytelling, and what I liked most was the attempt to create romantic relationships that lasted rather than building unresolved sexual tension indefinitely, paying off with sex, and then staging a spurious break-up.
Battlestar Galactica—the original. Cheesy and dumb, and doesn’t hold up, but I cannot pretend this was not formative for me: I still write a lot of fiction about genocide and fleets of ships on the move.
Veronica Mars– witty, good mystery construction, compelling characters, and I liked the Nancy Drew + noir mash-up. Most high school based shows falter when their MC goes to college but some interesting things happened in Veronica’s freshman year on this series.
Boomtown– non-linear storytelling, reasonably diverse cast, play with POV, great s1 arc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer —I caught up with this a few seasons after it initially started airing, and rewatched it all again for Tor.com a couple years ago. It was one of the first shows that had online discussion groups breaking down every episode as soon as it aired, and I had to quit one such group to avoid spoilers. Because I did my rewatch in a fairly public way, it spawned after-the-fact discussion and analysis from many fans. As a side show to the actual show, there’s the ever-fascinating and still current public discussion of Joss Whedon himself. Is he a great writer or a hack? Is he a feminist or not? It’s all interesting.
Season Two of Hannibal has begun and I am so happy to have it back. It’s stylish, gory, well-cast, and, as a weird bonus, filmed around here. Kelly walks past the building that plays Hannibal’s home and office on her way to work–it tickles us every time we see it on screen.
But geography aside, the show is about things that are dear to my heart: art, arts communities, and artistic critique.
The always-interesting serial killers in Hannibal are demented and horrifying artists. Or possibly, artistes. Hannibal is, of course, making food of his victims. In S1, we see killers making use out of human remains, over and over again, either sculpting the corpses directly or staging crime scenes around them. One makes throw pillows out of leather and hair; another prepares strings for musical instruments using his victim’s guts. There are body collages and mushroom farms.
Will Graham’s oft-repeated line as he assumes their point of view: this is my design.
There is an intense aesthetic sensibility to this show that pervades Hannibal the character and spreads outward, from him, to every element of the show.
Other crime dramas, of course, have put significant effort into creating disturbingly pretty crime scenes. Even some murder-of-the-week shows, like Life, did this. But Life would have been the same show, more or less, if the set dressers hadn’t bothered to take the occasional pre-Raphaelite extra, dress her in angel wings and crumple her beautifully all over the hood of a car. In Hannibal, this improbable design sensibility is integral to nearly every murder.
There is a degree to which these people are scrapbookers on a homicidal materials-collecting spree.
Within this entirely bent community, this fantasy circle of destructive creative spirits, artistic dialogs take place. Will Graham functions as a sort of critic, trying to understand what the killers are working to achieve and communicate. Interestingly, he’s an instructor when we first see him. It’s an interesting riff on that old saw: “Those who can’t do, teach.”
Killers imitate each other on this show, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. They embroider on each other’s themes. When they get called out for plagiarism, heads can literally roll.
The process begins in the very first episode of S1. When Hannibal takes on the role of copycat killer to the Minnesota Shrike, he stages a crime scene whose explicit intent is to show Will the Shrike… by demonstrating all the things he isn’t. He creates a corpse-sculpture that is a reverse image of the Shrike’s work.
It is the beginning of Hannibal’s obsessive fascination with Will Graham. As the person who is both an expert in the field and who stands apart from its practitioners, it is Will whose understanding Hannibal craves. He wants to hear what Will thinks about his “work.” He wants to draw him into participating more actively. He wants to be seen, even though courting Will’s comprehension is an immense risk.
It is a strange and compelling portrayal of monster as aesthete, demon as artist. It’s gruesome and scary and weird, and I don’t know, yet, what the show will ultimately say about the practice of art. I am incredibly excited, though, to see where they go next.
I’m getting in a little late on this one, maybe, but Kelly and I have been watching the first year of Justified on Netflix Canada. Later seasons aren’t available yet, we’re all of one episode from the end, and I’m hooked and hoping they get S2 soon. It’s a nice feeling.
The big attraction–and don’t they know it!–is Timothy Olyphant, who plays ill-tempered U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Raylan was definitely an outsider within his family of origin, and dealt with it in the time-honored fashion of getting a job that took him far, far away from home. But a penchant for fatally shooting criminals has gotten him sent back to Lexington, Kentucky. Now he’s coping with the dad he left in the rear-view, his ex-wife, a woman who’s been nursing a crush on him since high school and an old friend who enjoys long walks in the forest, church, robbing banks, setting off bombs and homicide.
Here’s the trailer:
Justified was created by Graham Yost, the guy behind one of my favorite cop shows in the whole world, the multi-faceted and complex Boomtown. While its storytelling is more linear–which may be why it didn’t get cancelled just coming out of the gate–its characters are just as nuanced and humanly unpredictable. It’s a violent show, but not horrifyingly so. Olyphant is brilliant, as is his foil Walter Goggins. The supporting cast is engaging, and the season’s arc is tightly wound and doesn’t seem to be taking anything approaching an easy way out.