Welcome to The Three Strike Rule, the Popdose television column. If you’re reading this live, you must either be a really big fan of the site, or you don’t have much to do on a Sunday morning. Whatever the case, thanks for dropping in and reading me blather about TV for a couple of minutes. My hope is that with this column, we’ll be able to begin a conversation about television, both as a consumer product and as an art form. While so many people still view the television landscape as a vast wasteland, I say they’re wrong. True, there are hundreds of channels of crap out there. But there’s a reason that so many film actors are choosing HBO, FX or Showtime over starring in an empty-minded blockbuster. Moreover, the quality in production values and in the craftsmanship of good television series rivals those of many independent movies and some big budget features. My hope with The Three Strike Rule is that I’ll be able to shed a little more light on television and you, as a reader, will appreciate the finer things about it.
To start off the new year, I thought I’d introduce my likes with a list of the ten shows I think are worth watching and to look out for in the coming months.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (NBC): Don’t be misled by the show’s title — Friday Night Lights is not a series about football. The gridiron is just a backdrop to this honest and emotional series detailing life in the small town of Dillon, Texas. Unfortunately, a show called “Dillon” doesn’t sell advertising dollars. The characters on Friday Night Lights are not necessarily wealthy, nor do they suffer the typical existential angst that wealthy yuppies suffer in almost every other drama. Rather, we see portrayals of real people struggling not only to make ends meet, but how to live moral lives inside the gray areas of society. This is the best dramatic ensemble on television. This show has more rewarding writing, use of music, and small, intimate moments than anything else you may watch. That it continues to languish in the ratings is a mystery to me. I can only surmise that viewers only want escapism out of their television screens. Bravo to NBC for showing patience with this one and letting it continue to air. The highlight of every episode is the interaction of the Taylor family, portrayed by Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden as their daughter, Julie. They represent a true American family and should be held up as the example of how family dramas should be written and acted. If you have not watched Friday Night Lights, set your TiVo and begin to do so (or catch the episodes online). You will get sucked in within minutes and you will not regret tuning in.
MAD MEN (AMC): A great deal of praise has been lavished on this series about Madison Avenue ad men in the early 1960s, their mistresses, and their families. The sense of style, the pinpoint mores, the spectacular writing. But none of these features would have succeeded if the acting were not top-notch. Jon Hamm’s Don Draper has to be one of the most complex characters on television: A man with so many secrets upon secrets, you’re often left wondering â€œwhy the hell do I like this guy?â€ He cheats on his gorgeous wife with a bohemian artist, and then cheats on them both with a wealthy client (who may be the true love of his life). Additionally, he’s prone to being a real dick to most of his co-workers (who are blinded by their own worship to recognize it). Yet, there is something in Draper that we all recognize in ourselves. Much like Tony Soprano before him (appropriate, since this series was created by former Sopranos producer Mathew Weiner), Draper is tying to navigate a changing world. The conservative, post-war 1950s are on a collision course with the rock and roll 1960s, and Draper is torn between these two worlds. His anguish and confusion are handled so expertly by Hamm that despite his moral ambiguity, you can’t help but root for the guy. Mad Men is scheduled to return this summer.
THE OFFICE (NBC): 30 Rock is hailed as the greatest sitcom sinceâ€¦ well, The Office, but I still prefer this gem over the SNL parody simply because it has the pathos and humanity that I find lacking in 30 Rock. All great comedy, whether it’s Charlie Chaplin or Steve Martin, has the ability to make you laugh and cry almost simultaneously. The comedy in The Office, whether it’s Dwight’s dimwitted shenanigans (courtesy of the hilarious Rainn Wilson), or the priceless one-liners from Brian Baumgartner’s Kevin (probably my favorite supporting character on television), comes at you so fast you have to watch the show two or three times to catch it all. And just when you’re doubled over on the floor, they’ll throw something very sincere and touching into the mix. The romance between Pam (Jenna Fisher) and Jim (John Krasinski) is one example. Better yet, Steve Carrell’s Michael’s gradual descent into a tragic character has been both gratifying and heartbreaking.
LIFE ON MARS (BBC America): Although this British show has already completed its run overseas, BBC America has just begun airing the second season and will likely serve up reruns until a planned spinoff comes around later this year. If you don’t already know, the show is about a 21st century police detective who is hit by a car and wakes up in the 1970s. Did he go back in time? Is he in a coma? This season answers all of those questions and put the series to rest. Like most British shows, the creators did not feel the need to carry on the show past its prime. John Simm stars as Detective Sam Tyler, who is constantly at odds with his superior, Gene Hunt, aka “the Gov” (portrayed by Phillip Gelnister, playing the most enjoyable hard-ass cop on TV since Dennis Franz quit the force). The interaction between these two is priceless, and alone makes the show worth watching. However, there is so much more. A tribute to ’70s cop shows both good and bad, you get low angle car chases right out of Starsky and Hutch, and hardball police tactics you’d see in Baretta. And not to be outdone by the topical Streets of San Francisco, Life on Mars tackles issues that are still relevant to a modern audience. Check it out before it’s gone, and then begin writing BBC America and demand they put both seasons out on DVD already!
REAPER (CW): I was ready to write off the CW when the network cancelled Everwood and allowed Veronica Mars to sink into mediocrity, but then I watched the pilot of this whacked-out series and I immediately added it to my TiVo season pass. The premise is high concept: Parents sell their son’s soul to the devil before the kid is born, and Satan comes a-calling on the kid’s 21st birthday. Blending the supernatural comedy of Ghostbusters with the slacker attitude of Clerks (Kevin Smith is a creative consultant), Reaper could have been a one-note comedy show were it not for the commitment of the actors and the witty writing. The highlight of each episode is always the interplay between Bret Harrison as the hapless Sam and Ray Wise as the Devil. Wise is having so much fun with this role, you wish he were used more in each episode. The producers are smart to keep us wanting more.
WEEDS (Showtime): If you’re like me, and you’ve been a fan of Mary Louise-Parker since you saw Grand Canyon, then you must love this series. What’s not to love about a show that centers on a suburban widow mother who sells pot to make ends meet? Parker is the sticky residue that holds a brilliant ensemble together, a cast that may well be one of the tightest comedy teams in all of television. It’s great to see Kevin Nealon and the underrated Elizabeth Perkins dig their teeth into roles that could have been very one-note; these two veterans bring depth and humanity to their really fucked-up characters. And then there is Justin Kirk, perhaps my favorite actor on television. You never know what this guy’s is going to do. Whenever he’s on screen, you expect him to either knock you on your ass laughing or make you bow your head in tears. And of course, there is Mary Louise Parker. Her Nancy Botwin is sexy, smart, abrasive and arrogant. Ultimately, Nancy is just a mother who loves her kids so much, she’ll do anything for themâ€¦ even if it means becoming a suburban drug kingpin. Weeds just completed its 3rd season. Look for Season 4 at the end of summer.
UGLY BETTY (ABC): While several sophomore seasons of popular shows hit a creative wall and struggled to find their way back (I’m talking to you, Heroes), Ugly Betty has taken everything that made its first season work and broadened it. In the first season, we watched as Betty struggled to prove herself both in the workplace and her personal life. In addition to expanding this theme to most of the characters in the series (making all of them more human and less like caricatures), the supporting characters are now developed enough that that the writers do not need to focus entirely on Betty every single hour. This has allowed the show to open up and seem fresh all over again. Additional kudos for bringing Freddy Rodriguez into the fold and also John Cho (in a, to date, minor role), who steals each moment he’s given. Finally, Ugly Betty would be on this list just for the brilliant, heartbreaking season 2 premiere. I won’t give it away. Watch for it in reruns or online.
HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (CBS) : Seemingly picking up the mantle that Friends and Seinfeld laid down, this smart, very funny series may not be as brainy as, say, Arrested Development, but the writers employ some of the same circular writing techniques in each episode, always pulling each subplot back together by show’s end. For three seasons, the five main characters on this show have grown closer, and with 2Â½ years behind them, there is a history to each of them that allows us viewers to feel like we’re one of the gang. Like Friends, these characters all have their own screwed up neuroses that make them ludicrous, but in a sense, real. And like Seinfeld, each episode seems to begin about the most random plot point. Still, How I Met Your Mother can no longer be called a knockoff. It has become its own show and one worth watching every week (if only to see when Barney gets slapped again).
BURN NOTICE (USA) : What began as a herky-jerky Bourne Identity meets The Equalizer meets Rockford Files show quickly evolved into a tightly written adventure set in Miami. Jeffrey Donavan is sleek and in control as Michael Westen, an ex CIA operative who has been “burned,” his license revoked and his days seemingly numbered. As Michael tries to uncover the conspiracy against him, he acts as a pseudo private eye to make ends meet and avoid contact with his biter, chain-smoking mother (Sharon Glass). Along to help Michael are Gabrielle Anwar as his tough, on again/off again love interest, Fiona, and the great Bruce Campbell as Sam, an ex-Fed who somehow has a way with the ladies despite the fact that he’s an alcoholic mooch. These three have become such a great trio to watch, it has allowed the writers to gradually reduce the number of storylines pertaining to Michael’s messed-up family and keep the action moving forward. Mindless and fun, it’s the perfect summer series.
YO GABBA BAGGA (Nick Jr.): If you’re like me and you have two young kids, you’re bound to wind up watching plenty of children’s entertainment. Trust me, there is a lot of sappy crap out there. But Yo Gabba Gabba is different. It has to be the trippiest kids show since Sid and Marty Kroft’s heyday — combining bright colors with catchy music is nothing new, but the execution of this show is so appealing that I’m often sucked into it whenever my kids are watching. Hip, but gentle, any show that regularly features the Aqua Bats is okay in my book, and the Aggrolites performing the song â€œBananaâ€ with the cast and crew of the show was one of my favorite moments in television last year.
There you have it. Ten shows to check out for 2008. For the weekly column, I’ll be a little more focused, as I spotlight these and other shows (past and present). Thanks for checking out The Three Strike Rule; I hope you don’t change the channel anytime soon.