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Saturday, Jan 9, 2010
Thoughts on Big Love as its fourth season kicks off on HBO.

The fourth season of Big Love began on Sunday, January 10, and, as I sat down to watch the season premiere, I realized, unexpectedly, that I was very excited.  Perhaps it is because of the brutally cold weather outside, or because nothing “real” has aired since mid-December, but I was really, really excited.  The surprise I felt was due to my ambivalence toward the first two seasons of the show; however, after a strike-lengthened hiatus, last year’s third season was easily the best.


From the first episode, Big Love’s cast immediately stands out as a major reason to give it a chance.  Bill Paxton gives a career-best performance as Bill Henrickson, and his wives – played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin – are even more compelling actors.  I found the plotting of the first two seasons often ponderous, and I really doubted the ability of showrunners Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to tell a coherent story.  The third season, though, found the show cohering in a way that it never had before and upping the stakes considerably, tackling topics such as abortion, ex-communication, divorce, and murder in ways that had noticeable consequences on the characters.  By finally allowing things to happen – rather than showing how all the characters remained the same despite the turmoil surrounding them – the show took important steps forward and, significantly, allowed its characters to start to grow and change in realistic ways.


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Thursday, Jan 7, 2010
Before Xena, before Buffy, even before Emma Peel, there was Annie Oakley, TV's first female action hero.

Long before Xena, long before Buffy, there was Annie Oakley. In 81 episodes made between 1954 to 1957, the TV series starring Gail Davis stood in stark contrast both all other contemporary Westerns, all of which starred men, while all other shows with female leads had none who were especially heroic. The show’s Annie Oakley was based only very loosely on the real life Annie Oakley, an Easterner who grew up outside of Cincinnati whose prowess with a rifle gained her a spot as the star performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.


The show was actually fairly pedestrian, with stories that never rose above standard Western fare, though in fairness they were no worse than the vast majority of B Westerns. Set in the town of Diablo, the only major recurring characters were Annie, her little brother Tagg, and deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig. Tagg’s main purpose was comic relief and as a catalyst for advancing the plot of most episodes, his mischievousness creating situations where Annie had to save him (think of the famous line from Buffy: "Dawn’s in trouble, it must be Tuesday). The plots invariably consisted of some problem that Annie had to resolve, either a mystery to resolve, or a villain to apprehend, or an innocent to absolve of guilt. The show was targeted at kids so the good guys always won and there was no such thing as moral ambiguity. The series is memorable exclusively for Annie. Without her there would simply be no reason to remember or watch the show.


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Monday, Jan 4, 2010
TNA's live broadcast against WWE on January 4 could be a turning point for American TV wrestling. One shot alone won't make it through the WWE's bovine skull, but at least someone's started firing.

It’s finally here! All over the place in the mainstream media, fawning fans of various shows have finally declared television to have officially achieved the status of capital-A Art, with a new era of greatness spilling out of our screens and ushering in a future of digital, LCD, 16:9-enhanced cultural prestige. Phew, that’s a relief. Now I can happily expand my cultural horizons every gosh-dern day without actually having to do anything (except maybe buy a set-top box).


Really, it all sounds a little more like the epoch of an obsessive cultural need for narcissistic self-validation (look Ma, watching TV makes me feel important!)—even a quick look back through history will see modern television repeating many of the high-points, and replicating many of the sins, of its past. Yes, The Wire really is great; but Art is discussed, not declared, and television’s been art for as long as it’s also been trash.


So, while some will still be patting themselves on the back for having watched The Sopranos all by themselves and without any help at all from the big kids, I’m still just as interested in trash and what’s going to happen on Mondays nights in wrestling. Yup, rasslin’. In fact, in the spirit of this great new media dawn we’re facing, I’m going to declare it a cultural turning point: TNA vs WWE on January 4, 2010.


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Monday, Jan 4, 2010
Today I am going to look ahead, and make my wish list for what I am hoping to see on television in 2010.

10. Continued improvement of this year’s new shows: FlashForward, Modern Family, Community, and V are solid new additions to my TV lineup, and I look forward to their continued growth. Some of them need a little work, particularly FlashForward and V, but four new shows in a season is something to be thankful for.


9. Double seasons of reality stalwarts: Shows like Top Chef, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and Survivorare the biggest reality-series that we get double-doses of most years. American Idol and all those horrible dancing shows get usually one season per year, but these stalwarts typically get a Spring and then a Fall run, and I am thrilled at having them around all year long.


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Wednesday, Dec 30, 2009
Suffering from December doldrums on the tube? Fear not. There is a light on the horizon beyond all the holiday specials and reruns. Here are five shows returning in 2010 that will help fill up your DVR.

Increasingly, TV programmers are behaving like movie schedulers, using the full calendar strategically to open new seasons of their best shows. It is becoming common for networks to hold back some of their successful properties until the New Year, protecting them from the Wild West of the Fall. About a decade after the broadcast and cable networks realized that there was no good reason to premiere everything in September, there are now no set guidelines on when to put a show on the air.


Waiting until January and beyond has some advantages. Shows with a fan base can build anticipation by withholding new episodes. Serialized dramas and reality shows that do not rerun well can maintain momentum by giving viewers an entire season in four months instead of nine. Plus, by the time the New Year rolls around, it is clear which new shows are hits and which are duds – nothing is worse that exposing an old (and maybe even successful) show to a newbie in September and having it get run down by an unexpected monster hit.


For viewers, the staggered seasons are a bit of a relief. There is, after all, only so much TV you can watch in a week. Here are five shows coming back over the next few months that are worth putting on your DVR: 


Big Love
Returns January 10

I’m not sure how it happened, but a show about polygamy has turned into the best show about family on TV. Credit the writers and producers for avoiding what could have been a soap opera about three wives fighting over one man. Instead, we are treated to a nuanced exploration of what it means to be part of family that also happens to be a felony.


American Idol
Premieres January 12

Love it or hate it, you probably watch it. Expect more bad auditions, triumphant performances and odd comments from the judges this year. But the real change is the departure of Paula Abdul, who has grown increasingly incoherent over time. She will not be missed. After the audition rounds with guest judges (Hello Neil Patrick Harris!), Ellen Degeneres will join the panel to provide an interesting counterbalance to Simon Cowell.


24
Premieres January 17

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is back, which is a bit surprising given that he spent most of last season dying from exposure to a bioweapon. The season ended with some nonsense about an experimental bone marrow treatment. So one reason to watch is to see how they explain that one away. But really the reason to tune in is that 24 continues to be the best high-wire act on TV. It’s not always pretty or smooth, but it is usually fun. Also, the amazing Cherry Jones is back as President Allison Taylor.


Lost
Premieres February 2

This is going to be the single most unfriendly season for new viewers of any show in the history of television. There is just no way to join Lost in progress. If you’re one of those who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ride this wave from the beginning, it is definitely worth starting with season one on DVD and watching the whole run. For those of us who crashed on the island with the survivors and haven’t missed an episode since, buckle up for a fun ride. 


United States of Tara
Premieres March 22

Unlike Lost, it is relatively easy to catch up on United States of Tara before season two begins in March. The premise is simple – a family struggles with a mom who has multiple personalities. But the movie-of-the-week description does not do justice to this funny and heart-wrenching show. Toni Collette shines as Tara and all her other selves. John Corbett and Rosemarie DeWitt are also stellar as Tara’s long-suffering husband and sister. Going into the show, I was not sure it would be able to sustain for a full season, but after 12 episodes it is just starting to dig deeper into the psychology and family dynamics.


So there you have it. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, pass the remote – I think ABC is rerunning Prep and Landing again.


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