Meanwhile, one of my former classmates won a MacArthur Grant.

Lately I find myself watching way too much TV. Maybe it’s escapism; maybe it’s exhaustion. Maybe having a DVR is just really freakin’ cool.

Without a doubt, the greatest show on the air right now is Breaking Bad. What Battlestar Galactica was to the post-9/11, Iraq War zeitgeist–namely, a wildly imagined alternate reality that turns out to have all the resonance and truth of a fable–Breaking Bad is to the current national mood of economic outrage and ethical turmoil. (The protagonist, Walter White, is a high-school chemistry teacher who learns he has terminal cancer. Haunted by the idea of leaving his wife and disabled son with nothing after they pay for his care, he starts cooking and selling meth. That’s the hook. It gets a lot more twisted from there.) I think it’s going to be a high-water mark for any televised show. Plus, Skyler White is one of the most complex and believable female characters ever to appear on TV. One of the greats. Carmela Soprano-level great. Anna Gunn should be winning Emmys all over the place.

If you came down from outer space and decided to learn about humanity by watching TV, you could be forgiven for thinking that literally all of us were doctors, lawyers, cops, or medical examiners. I understand the appeal of these types for writers. They have exciting careers that lend themselves to both episodic and serial plots. But seriously, now. Why not a show about line cooks? Plumbers? Some people who play with kittens and then go out to lunch? But no, every show has to have a dead body, car crashes, gratuitous sexual violence, or a combination of all three. God am I tired of cop shows in particular.

Still, lately I have been following with avid interest three (!) female-fronted cop shows. They all have a light touch and tweak the formula in some pretty entertaining ways.

First, a huge plug for Rizzoli & Isles. This buddy crime-fighting show (two for one! Rizzoli is the cop and Isles is the medical examiner!) has got to be the gayest thing on TV right now, a hundred times gayer than Glee. Think Cagney & Lacey with all the subtextual subtlety of Xena: Warrior Princess. This thing is a campfest. Apparently there is even a drinking game: every time the eponymous characters touch one another in an overly familiar, gratuitous manner, you have to drink. The game led Dorothy Snarker, the lesbian pop culture blogger (yes, that is a career now), to create this lovely screencap:

The fact that star Angie Harmon is a conservative activist–even speaking at the 2004 Republican National Convention and stumping for John McCain in the 2008 election–makes this delight all the weirder and better. Does she know her character is super gay? Or is she like Charleton Heston in Ben-Hur?


Next, Covert Affairs. The show is as deliciously cheesy as its title. Piper Perabo plays a CIA agent who was recruited right out of grad school for her prodigious talent in foreign languages. It just so happens that she is also canny, fearless, and immensely skilled at running really fast in Louboutin heels. Well, sure. Who among us can’t relate to that?

Perabo transcends her material, devising a deeply winsome lead out of what is, frankly, not a lot of characterization. The person who designed this cheesecake poster should be fired. (Though, to be fair, it does pretty much cover all the bases.)

Maria Bello’s lady detective in Prime Suspect is downright butch by comparison. Naming the show after Helen Mirren’s magisterial UK drama probably does it a disservice, as it is only a very loose adaptation. Still, this series has a lot going for it. Bello’s character Jane Timoney holds her own in an extremely sexist boys’ club, kicking ass at work and still enjoying a pretty rewarding personal life.

I would like to propose my own drinking game for this show. Every time Timoney wears that stupid fedora, take a drink. You will be blotto in no time at all.

A lot of the other dramas I’ve checked out aren’t up to much, so I’m not sure they’ll last more than a season. (Then again, their mediocrity might ensure that they run forever.) Consider the leading characters of A Gifted Man (neurosurgeon, sees dead people), Grimm (cop, sees demon people), Person of Interest (former CIA operative, sees crimes before they happen), and Body of Proof (medical examiner; former neurosurgeon): it’s like the developers went to a charades party where there were only five little slips of paper in the bowl.

But, hey! Sarah Michelle Gellar has a new show! And, believe it or not, it isn’t about a supernatural crime fighter! Ringer has Gellar playing twins, one of whom is rich and extremely devious; the other is a desperate former drug addict trying to stay clean and out of the hands of some organized criminals against whom she is planning to testify. In the pilot, the rich sister (Siobhan) disappears, and the druggie sister (Bridget) assumes her identity. (Yes, this is extremely high-concept.)

If you can get past the idea that a poor, druggie relation would probably have messed-up skin and teeth and therefore probably not be able to pass as a socialite, fooling even the husband, you might love this show. If you don’t mind outrageous nighttime soaps that stop just short of alien abduction in terms of trashy plot twists, you might love this show. And if you dig on the metatextual awesomeness of Gellar mining her past TV roles as a teen soap opera villainess and a badass with a secret double life, you will definitely love this show. Go watch it.

Not a lot is going on in terms of network comedies. Community and Parks & Recreation are still killing it, and until 30 Rock comes back next year, that’s pretty much all. But Showtime seems determined to create a new subgenre: the 30-minute dark comedy, shot with the production values of an hour-long drama, featuring a fortyish female protagonist dealing with some pretty intense shit. The first of these was my dearly departed The United States of Tara. Tara was a Kansas wife and mother with Divided Identity Disorder, whose other personalities were always fouling up her life in hilarious yet incredibly heavy ways. I can think of no one who could play this role so perfectly as the brilliant Toni Collette.

Since then, Nurse Jackie and The Big C have filled the void left by Tara‘s cancellation. While I love that Edie Falco and Laura Linney, dramatic powerhourses both, are working and finding roles on TV when film no longer really wants them for leading ladies, the formula is a bit troubling. Jackie is a nurse with a prescription drug addiction. Cathy has advanced terminal melanoma. Could we please laugh at someone not so completely on the verge of falling apart?

Apparently not, now that HBO has jumped on the bandwagon with Enlightened. Laura Dern must have been sitting at home thinking, “No one does ‘damaged’ better than I do! These ladies are in my wheelhouse! And David Lynch isn’t making movies right now anyway! I had better get to work!”

Demographically, I am the target audience for these shows, so it’s probably no surprise that to me they all seem really, really good. And when the alternative is more crappy reality shows about bratty chefs/fashion designers/adventurers having tantrums at one another, I am all for excellent scripted star vehicles.

Or, you know, I could turn off the TV.


17 responses to “Meanwhile, one of my former classmates won a MacArthur Grant.”

  1. Mister Smearcase says:

    I want to watch Breaking Bad but I just can’t do it. Sounds too brutal. I suffered through every wonderful, hideous moment of The Sopranos and I don’t think I can have that kind of relationship with a tv show again.

  2. ScottyGee says:

    I started watching Breaking Bad last week, and I can’t imagine how excruciating it would be to watch without the ability to just play the next episode (I have only 1 left in the first season). If it weren’t so darned depressing, I’d recommend it to everyone, but it’s not for the lighthearted. I do, however, think that you’re right about it being a perfect show to capture the current climate; what is Mr. White if not an Occupier?

  3. ScottyGee says:

    It is brutal, Mr. Case…way more so than the Sopranos.

  4. Tim says:

    Man, I need to learn to manage my time better. I have an undemanding job and hardly a commitment in the world, but I can barely fit in a few half-hour episodes of British sitcoms on Netflix streaming (currently enjoying The IT Crowd and recommend Saxondale), let alone this array of hour-long dramas and such. Maybe I need to cut back on playing Words With Friends, reading my blogs, and obsessively tracking down recordings by obscure jazz guitarists. Thanks for keeping us updated!

  5. swells says:

    Can’t possibly comment on one single show (oh, I did watch two seasons of 30 Rock recently, years after the fact–someone welcome me to the 20th century), because I’m way too culturally ignorant despite being surrounded by hundreds of 20-year-olds every day–but this is my favorite title in quite a while.

  6. J-Man says:

    I second The IT Crowd (a sort of British Seinfeld) and Saxondale (for all you who love “Hocus Pocus” by Focus).

  7. Rachel says:

    #1-3: Yeah, but so worth it, right?

    #5: It’s funny because it’s true.

    #4 and #6: Looks like I have some new shows to check out!

  8. Missy says:

    I had to go back and read this a second time, because the first time I skimmed it, looking for the part where you dish about who won the MacArthur Grant. Argh! Gotta go Google-snoop.

    Good call on the Angie Harmon/Charlton Heston thing. Perfect.

  9. Missy says:

    My guess is the condensed matter physicist.

  10. PB says:

    I need to throw out my Bravo-Food channel addicted roommates or get my own TV. Unless it is chopped, iron best chef of cupcake wars or project runway, I am relegated to Netflix.

    And wait . . . Ben Hur had homoerotic undertones? What?!?!?!?!?! Hmm, that explains a lot.

  11. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Hey Rachel!!!

    Your post is right up my alley. I appreciate these new recommendations. I haven’t watched any of those female-fronted cop shows, except Prime Suspect. My Maria Bello thing dates way back to ER, but I haven’t been really hooked by the show yet. I’ll try again. We’ve been watching Nurse Jackie–the most recent season finally hit its stride. Also, we are wierdly fascinated by Enlightened. But I’m worried if it can sustain itself. Our new favorite show is Homeland. It’s really good. If you’re not watching it already, you should catch up. It’s only like 4 or 5 episodes in. It’s really tense at times. And the plot is like nothing else on TV. We’ve also been watching stupidly freaky American Horror story. (thanks for the review link a while back, Tim, I love love their blog.) Of course the show’s terrible. And so awesome. And only 8 episodes. Once you’re sucked in, you can’t get away. And finally, Breaking Bad. So so great. And Albuquerque! Whoo-hoo. It’s the coolest thing to happen to Burque since the Shins left town. Oh, and anyone watching this season of Next Great Artist? It’s even better than last season. Anyone want to wager on the winner?

  12. Josh K-sky says:

    2: I can’t imagine how excruciating it would be to watch more than one Breaking Bad episode in a sitting. Even when I’ve saved them all up, I can only do one a day.

  13. Rachel says:

    I have been on the fence about checking out Homeland. Looks like it’s time to commit!

  14. Rachel says:

    p.s. Yeah! Mario Bello on ER! Sexiest bone marrow donor EVER! Remember that?

  15. Rachel says:

    s/b MariA Bello. Gawd.

  16. jeremy says:

    As someone who watches way way waayyyy too much TV, I also really loved this post, particularly how comprehensive it is… And I just want to say that BB is depressing, but it’s also really darkly funny.

    Oh, btw, I totally wanna watch the show about people who play with kittens and then go to lunch. (I mean, they could make the characters all really, incredibly hungry–but how do you leave behind a roomful of super-cute kittens?! Will the characters ever make it to lunch? The tension!)

  17. LP says:

    Homeland = aces. For real. Love that Claire Danes!