One of the side effects of weaning myself off live TV (mostly) is that I don’t have a good sense of what’s popular anymore. It’s been years since I hit my post-college levels of watching TV, but even then I had some vague sense of what was going on outside my peripheral vision. Lately, there’ve been whole series that qualify as pop culture phenomena, and I don’t know a thing about them — there’s apparently a lot of dancing and hospitals involved, and entire networks devoted to twenty-year-olds-playing-teenagers shows that as far as I’m concerned, might as well be interchangeable.
So the closest I can come to feeling like I’m plugged in is to tell everybody what I’m watching, and then see whether or not I’m in the popular crowd after the fact. Besides, I can’t really talk around the water cooler at work, because I only drink Coke.
This is the funniest show on television now, and I never would’ve seen that coming. What little marketing I did see made it seem like a completely predictable big network sitcom. Smarmy lawyer guy has to go to community college, falls in love with another student while making his way through wacky hijinx and jokes about how small and bad the school is. And it pains me to say it, considering that I spent much of the 80s and 90s able to quote Fletch in its entirety, but it’s been a long time since Chevy Chase has been funny in anything.
But he’s funny here, because the cast really is an ensemble. And they know exactly what you’re expecting to see at all times, which lets them start out with completely predictable sitcom setups, and then take the idea off in some weird direction. They don’t let it settle into a tired fish-out-of-water routine, because they spend at least as much time making fun of Joel McHale’s character as everybody else’s; nobody in the cast is “the normal one.” And they somehow manage to defuse the will-they-or-won’t-they? gimmick while still milking it for all it’s worth. Best of all, it’s got Ken Jeong as Señor Chang, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw the “What’s It Gonna Be?” video [probably not safe for work].
This one is so blatantly targeted at “Lost” fans, and it’s trying so hard that I’ve been trying to meet it halfway. But it’s been rough going. So far, it’s been in solid B+ territory: nothing offensive, just enough intrigue to keep you going, but none of the sudden bursts of imagination of something like, well, “Lost.” (Sorry, you can’t ride on one series’s coattails, even to the point of casting two of the stars of that series, without inviting comparisons). But I’ll keep up with it, if only because they keep doing stuff like casting Gina Torres and Gabrielle Union in the same episode.
“V” in 2009 is, well, pretty much exactly that. I’m not sure who this is targeted at, exactly — it’s not different enough to surprise fans of the old series, and it doesn’t seem novel enough to bring in newcomers. The old series, as cheesy as it was, still had these images that were completely iconic, and the closest the new version has been able to come is with the enormous image of Morena Baccarin hovering over the city: neat, but it’s not even in the same league as eating a live mouse. (I accidentally spoiled the identity of the Visitors to a co-worker today, just because I assumed that the old series was common knowledge at this point). But as I’ve said before, I’ll watch Elizabeth Mitchell in anything, because she’s awesome. I’m just going to be disappointed until they get to the half-human/half-Visitor baby.
Batman: The Brave & The Bold
Technically, this is still in its first year, so I guess it counts as “new.” I’m still not crazy about Deidrich Bader as Batman, but everything else is gold. Everything’s huge and full of Silver Age wackiness, while including all the new stuff from the DC Universe, like the new Blue Beetle. They do a pretty good job of striking a balance between comic book and comedy; although it errs on the side of the cheap gag a little too often, it’s great seeing a comic book series that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Venture Brothers
It’s all genius, and I love that they don’t give a damn how impenetrable it is, and they refuse to pander. They still include casual throwaway gags that lesser series would build entire episodes around. They started to lose me a little bit in Season 3, but so far I’ve loved everything in Season 4. Even without Brock.
How I Met Your Mother
I think I finally figured out why this show works for me: it’s because they’re not afraid to be corny, and they’re not afraid to make any of the characters look stupid. Even their gimmicks work; I’m actually eager to see Robin’s Canadian Variety Show with Alan Thicke now.
It’s still got the highest joke-per-minute ratio of any sitcom, but it does feel a little bit like they’re treading water now, or they’re getting a little too wry for their own good. Plus, Stone Mountain, Georgia isn’t a farm town; it’s a suburb of Atlanta. There’s a Best Buy and everything, and no chuckle hut.
The closer I get to being 40, the more I wonder if “Monk” has become my version of “Matlock.” But it’s the last season, and they’re doing a respectable job of tying everything up. I’d been hoping for a season-long investigation into Trudy’s murder, but instead they’re just showing Monk gradually becoming more “normal” and independent. Which is probably a better idea.
It’s always been Monk’s goofy kid brother on the USA network, but it’s grown on me. What makes it work is that they’re just completely shameless with the goofiness; it’s not a mystery show with comic relief, but a stream-of-consciousness that tosses in a mystery every once in a while.
It’s been cancelled now, which should surprise no one. And truth be told, I’m skeptical that the concept had that much life left in it anyway. The first season was sabotaged by its initial batch of really weak episodes, but around episode five or six, it picked up and turned into something pretty cool. (Still: I’ve got all of the season 2 episodes on season pass, and I haven’t felt compelled to actually watch them). I still say it would’ve made a better mini-series than an ongoing one.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
I feel the need to explain this one. It’s a shame that you can’t talk about this show without qualifying it with “It’s better than you’d think,” because it’s clear that a lot more time and attention are devoted to this series than to most television. But still, the first season had way too much Jar Jar, which is to say: some.
Almost all of my allegiance to Star Wars was beaten out of me by three years at LucasArts and the prequels, but I don’t know if you can ever get rid of it completely. And I think back to when I was around 9 or 10 and had all of the Ralph McQuarrie concept art hanging up on the walls of my bedroom, and I’d try to imagine a story based around each one, all the cool stuff the characters must do in between movies. “The Clone Wars” series is basically just that: the stories are light, the characters are kind of shallow, and the whole thing seems to pander and underestimate kids’ intelligence a little bit too much. (Plus for some reason, Obi-Wan’s voice actor makes him sound unnervingly fey and suggestive, which is off-putting). But for 25 minutes each week, you get to see spaceships and aliens flying around beautifully-realized alien planets that look like concept paintings brought to life. I also like that they picked a distinctive art style and just ran with it.