I must say, my second year in Washington is really showing me what a different climate I have moved into from California. The first four-season cycle I went through was pretty mild, but this year we’ve lurched from record snowfall to record heat. All this has added up to a lot of time indoors on my part, and — since reading about fascism all the time can get a girl down — an inordinate amount of TV watching. Here are some things I’ve been tuned into lately:
The Good Wife. This drama series is basically two shows in one: a legal drama that deals with one case per week, a la Law & Order, and a longer-form story about one of the lawyers, whose husband was the attorney general of Illinois before being thrown in prison for soliciting prostitutes, as well as the office politics inside her law firm. Recently I stumbled across the Onion AV Club’s write-up of this show, and was surprised at how exactly the author’s reaction lined up with my own. “I watch every episode, and I enjoy every episode, and I am impressed by just how much the show is able to squeeze out of the old workplace drama model. And then every week, I have to force myself to watch the new episode. Once I’m done, and I’m still in love, I say, “Man, why didn’t I want to watch that?” But the next week rolls around, and I’m not interested, and it takes me a moment to remember just how much I liked the last episode. It’s a never-ending cycle, and I don’t know why I’m stuck in it.”
It’s an interesting example-by-inverse of something I’ve wondered about as a fiction reader: what makes a novel a “page-turner,” even when you know it’s not very good? Books like that tend to be “comfort food,” of a sort: they take place in a world that has moral structure and direction and you expect things to be neatly wrapped up in the end. The legal half of The Good Wife is actually like that. Although the lawyers engage in a lot more skulduggery than Perry Mason did, the show is basically optimistic that the courts can be a vehicle for justice. The other half of the show is exactly the opposite. It takes place in the world of Chicago politics, after all, and everyone swims in moral murk. The characters are rarely perfectly honest with each other, to the point that the audience can also feel left out of what’s really going on. Moral ambiguity can make for great drama, of course, but it is harder to fit into the needs of storytelling. There needs to be some kind of arc — a fall, a redemption, a learning experience, etc. — and right now, I don’t know where these characters are heading but sort of dread it. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to go back and watch.
Man vs. Wild/Survivorman. This is not really the sort of thing I would have thought I’d like. Each of these two shows follows a man dropped into some remote wilderness location with minimal gear, who then survives off the land for a number of days, explaining his methods as he goes. This is the sort of vocation that seems a little bit nuts, and the fact that they kill animals onscreen makes me wince (though we are talking mainly about insects here). But I guess the appeal of the wilderness locations to my apartment-bound self is obvious, and I find that following a man going through them on foot gives me a more ground-level, you-are-there sense of them than the more panoramic nature documentaries I’ve watched all my life. The Sahara desert seems like a far more interesting place now that I’ve tracked Bear Grylls through it on Man vs. Wild; there are sand dunes and oases, yes, but there are also trees popping up in the middle of nowhere, clusters of bushes with huge poisonous gourds, and the odd Bedouin offering you a goat testicle out of hospitality.
Though the two shows have a very similar format, they have somewhat different attitudes. Survivorman, the older show (it ended in 2008), features stoic Canadian survivalist Les Stroud filming himself in complete solitude for seven days. Although he is usually within hiking distance of a support crew, he understands the peril of his situation and plays things pretty conservatively, avoiding most hazards, fasting rather than eating something that might make him sick, and occasionally bailing out early if things are just not working out. Grylls, a flamboyant Englishman, takes his camera crew along with him and plunges into practically every danger he comes across; if the natural environment doesn’t bring enough excitement, they’ll stage a challenge for him. This sometimes makes Man vs. Wild seem less like survivalism than like a wilderness-based circus act. And if you’re impressed by sword swallowers, you should see the stuff that Bear eats. I sometimes wonder if he’s being a bad influence on younger viewers; watching him could take those playground games of “I dare you to eat that!” to a whole new level.
Still, I have a hard time holding it against Bear because he always seems to be having so much fun. As scripted TV seems to keep getting darker and more cynical, I often find myself turning to reality shows if I want to be put in a good mood. Such as…
Clean House. This is a variation on the home-makeover show, focusing on people with insane amounts of clutter. The crew swoops in on homeowners who are getting buried in their own junk, persuades them to part with many of their beloved objects, holds a yard sale, and uses the money to refurbish what’s left. I wouldn’t have been interested in this show a few years ago, but going through the long, arduous process of clearing out my grandparents’ house really made me a fan. As a “reality” show it’s at the Man vs. Wild level of stageyness, but it still captures the mixture of comedy and horror in such an enterprise. And the conversations with the homeowners, with their conflicted attitudes (“Save me from all this crap! No wait, don’t take that!”) make me feel a bit like I’m finally hearing the other half of the conversation I kept having with my grandfather in my head: “What on earth were you thinking? What the heck is this thing?” And of course, it all ends happily.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This is another show that I’m kind of surprised to find myself liking. While I don’t feel that George Lucas raped my childhood, I did feel things were going downhill with the prequels, so watching the weekly cartoon version seemed like eating something way past its expiration date.
When I finally did see an episode though, I remembered the line from some Internet critic to the effect of, “Finally, Star Wars has become the Saturday matinee serial it always was in its heart.” Since the show takes place within an already finished story (specifically, between Episodes II and III), it does not have the burden of trying to move forward an epic narrative, and can go back to just having fun. You get the tone right off from the narrator who gets us rolling on each episode, who I could swear is the same guy who narrated Superfriends back in the ’70s. It’s just that pulpy. The computer animation, to my untrained eye, looks really good, and shows that ILM hasn’t exhausted its imagination yet. Like the movies, the series borrows plot elements from all over the place, but it isn’t even bothering to hide it anymore. One set of adventures featured a giant prehistoric animal awakened from its long slumber who goes on a rampage, called (naturally) the Zillo Beast.
Amidst all the lighthearted fun, though, I think the series does honor one element of the original film that the prequels didn’t. When Obi-Wan first tells Luke about his father, he says, “He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior. … And he was a good friend.” Anakin seems like such a mess throughout the prequels that you don’t really see that, but the series, unencumbered by the Darth Vader plotline, is essentially a buddy show about the Republic’s top two enforcers. It makes me feel even more strongly that Lucas is best at telling heroic tales of adventure, not morally ambiguous tragedies.