Saturday, July 28, 2007

Summer TV Watch, Part One

Remember the old days, when summer television used to be good for nothing but newsmagazines and repeats? Now summer's good for newsmagazines, ridiculous prime-time game shows, and repeats. What an improvement! Thankfully, there's cable, which is serving up one great offering, one incomprehensible offering, and a lot of stuff with potential that will either rise and become classic or fall into cheesy melodrama. And Meadowlands.

Flight of the Conchords is the only summer show this far that I look forward to seeing, and it's not just because I have a huge crush on fan-slash-stalker Mel. In the recent evolution of the sitcom, where Two and a Half Men is the hunched-over neanderthal polluting the gene pool with its laugh track and The Office is the Star Child, Conchords is the cave-painting cro-Magnon, top of the food chain comedy. On paper, it's your standard icy entertainment industry conceit with Bret and Jemaine breaking into sometimes-relevant musical numbers for a change of pace, but it has a slacker vibe to it that's kept well and mercifully subdued. There are hits and misses for Conchords, but the ratio is pretty high and climbed as I got used to the quirky, off-paced, and usually small jokes, like the cameraphone Bret glued together for Jemaine ("You ruined the camera. And I don't think the phone works either.") or Murray's bureaucratic insistence on taking roll call before every three-person band meeting.

It's actually a nice breather when you think about it. Comedy, especially television comedy, gets a lot of mileage out of the Grandiose Doofus character, you the audience react along with the leading straight man to Cosmo Kramer or Dwight Schrute's antics. Kudos to Flight of the Conchords for being antics-free, to the point where it realizes (part-time) comic foil Bret can be replaced with a mannequin and a backing tape. The show is aimless, one long digression sprinkled with brain farts: "Girl tonight we're gonna make love / You know how I know? / Because it’s Wednesday / And Wednesday night is the night that we usually make love / Tuesday night is the night that we usually go to your mother’s place and I teach / her how to use the video machine again / But Wednesday night is the night that we make love..." Like that.

HBO's other new summer program, John From Cincinnati, is an impenetrable mess with a lot to live up to as the show that premiered right after The Sopranos finale and the show that got Deadwood cancelled. I can sympathize with the arguments for hating it, even aside from the fact that it makes Twin Peaks look like Friends. Rebecca De Mornay has spent pretty much the whole series with her volume on eleven, Greyson Fletcher (and to a lesser extent, Keala Kennelley) are wooden and painful to watch, the characters — save for perpetually moody Cissy Yost and her new age tool husband Mitch — are personality-challenged, and the ponderous dialogue is... well, can you tell that David Milch used to be an associate professor of literature at Yale? Yes, yes you can.

I can't really disagree. John From Cincinnati, this far at least, is no substitute for Deadwood and I think its biggest flaw is that lack of that stark character contrast dynamic, good and evil (and later anti-hero) played out between Seth Bullock and Al Swearingen. But... two things. After Deadwood — and I admit that it took me a couple of attempts to get through the first few episodes and figure out what the hell was going on — I think Milch deserves the benefit of the doubt that he's going somewhere with John. (It's not like people have this issue with the similarly semi-cohesive Lost.) The themes of divine redemption are everywhere and its clear they're sneaking up on the Yosts, and I trust that by the end of the first season, everybody in Imperial Beach will receive what they've earned, which is more than I can say for any season of Lost.

And John has its moments of sheer brilliance. Ed O'Neill's despondent widower performance, especially his one-sided conversations with Zippy, rivals anything that Ian McShane did with his Milchian soliloquies and the Indian chief head-in-a-box. John's speech on the astral plane or whatever, about his Father and the ones and zeros in Cass's camera and general hugeness, was exhilarating, even if I didn't understand ninety percent of it. Watching John From Cincinnati is like watching a static field — sometimes literally — but maybe that's an antidote to its bizarre information overload, time to process the telepathic bird, and John's magical pockets, and the haunted motel room, and why Mitch is levitating, and John's parroting speech patterns, and why does Butchie Yost need to get back in the game, and what happens on September 11, 2014?

At least all the clues point in the same direction here.

But speaking of weirdness, Showtime imported a competing freak show called Meadowlands over from England. I only watched the first episode — so somebody please let me know if the remaining seven episodes are worth watching — where some British guy, his British wife, their British daughter, and their alternately autistic and articulate British burn victim son get shepherded away to an isolated community for people in witness protection. It's seriously a rip-off of The Prisoner, only with the writers high on paranoia instead of LSD. Again, just a bunch of crazy characters revolving around a (relatively) sane family. The difference between Meadowlands and John From Cincinnati is that there's a sort of storytelling logic behind the latter. The craziness is there to affect these characters, force them to grow. In Meadowlands, it felt bizarre for the sake of being bizarre — like you couldn't just make a show about a family in witness protection. They have to be a family in witness protection with a matronly sexpot neighbor, and a creepy handyman, and an objectified obese girl, and a whole stupid town that welcomes newcomers by line dancing. Oh, I probably just spoiled Cloverfield for you. Sorry.

More tomorrow, on what basic cable's offering...