Things I’ve Seen on TV (4)

For some reason I had a lot more to say about these three. Sorry about that.

 

IN TREATMENT

I’ve already droned on about how good the first two series of In Treatment are. It should be no surprise that I think the third and final season is also… quite good.

I wasn’t sure at first. All three seasons take a while to get going – a while to sink into the unique pace and nature of the show, a while to become interested in the new characters, who inevitably begin each season as rather opaque, and hence potentially uninteresting (or else as hyperbolic and unmotivated, as we haven’t yet worked out what they think they’re doing, and why). There’s also potentially a complaint to be made here about repetition, as both structurally and thematically there’s a lot here that’s very familiar to someone who’s seen the first two seasons. And then there’s the problem of reduced scope – the third season has only three patients, compared to four in the first two seasons (five in the first, if you count the couple as two individuals), which is likely to decrease the chance of finding a patient you as the viewer personally connect with.

But by the end, I had no doubt. The repetition may be there, but it’s intentional – the show is very much about trapped individuals – and is not sterile. There are still surprises and novelties here, from the very small to the very large. The decision to give Paul a new therapist, in particular, prevents sterility not only by letting us see Paul in a new way, and by letting us see a new character, but also by putting the whole of Paul’s relationship with Gina in a new light, and causing us to question many things about the two previous seasons that we had taken for granted. That, I suppose, just demonstrates how true the show is to a certain idealised conception of therapy itself – it may not always ‘find the answer’, but it always finds new ways of framing and understanding the question.

I’ve never seen anything that so rewards the careful viewer – the slightest detail can carry so much import. I read some reviews of the episodes as I went along, and was always frustrated by the things that others hadn’t seen – weren’t they paying attention to his left hand? Don’t they understand the significance of the change of clothing? Of course, some of the ‘significance’ is me reading more into it than is there, but that too is intentional – we, with Paul, are given such an obscure writing to decode that both he and we will of course leap to the wrong conclusions sometime. And I don’t mean to suggest that you necessarily need to watch with a notebook to hand (though there is so much foreshadowing that could easily be missed or forgotten). The obscure here isn’t (primarily) a matter of facts and hypothesis, like in a murder mystery – it’s a matter of character and empathy. If ever anyone is running a class to teach people empathy, they need to show the students In Treatment! It’s one of the few shows that can affect your life not just through what it says but through how it says it, how it encourages you to listen.

It’s a show that grows on you – a show that you can re-watch. Some shows, enjoyable in the moment, fade in the memory; this, quite the contrary.

I don’t know what my favourite TV show is, or which TV show I think is the best ever. I haven’t seen enough TV shows to have an educated opinion on that, and even the ones I have seen, many of them I saw too long ago to be firm in my opinions on. I will say, however, that not only is In Treatment brilliant, but it’s one of the very few shows that I might, in some moods and at some times, call the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

Series 3: 4/4

 

SIX FEET UNDER

Talking of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV… Six Feet Under might merit consideration in that category. Not that it would be likely to win, but I’d feel it ought to be considered. I’ve seen all five series, and I’ve just rewatched the first two, which I remember being distinctly the best (although if we’re voting for the greatest five minutes of TV ever made, there’s no doubt in the slightest that it has to go to the end of the final episode of the fifth and final season. I didn’t know I was physically capable of crying so hard).

SFU was a massive and superlatively-acclaimed show back when it was on… but it seems increasingly to be forgotten, lost in the shadow of The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, and so on, as an also-ran in the ‘golden age’ of US television. To be honest, it’s not hard to see why. In an age of increasing sex and gore, Six Feet Under, notwithstanding the constant corpses, comical deaths, and occasional explicit scenes, was rather tame. In an age of increasingly novellistic series, Six Feet Under with its episodic themes and episodic ‘death of the week’ gimmick, for all that the underlying plot may have relied on season-long arcs, seems a little old-fashioned. With series increasingly devoted to blacker-than-grey antiheroes and pervasive cynicism (this year’s leading actor Emmy nominations include such heroes as an arsehole advertising executive, a murderously ambitious politician, a ruthless drug kingpin and an Islamic terrorist – the violent KGB agent trying to destroy America got edged out, as did one psychopathic serial killer, while the other two psychopathic serial killers narrowly lost out in the supporting category instead),  SFU’s mildly dislikeable protagonists and strong whiff of idealism perhaps seem twee and cosy. With top series increasingly portraying scenarios far larger than life, the domestic squabbles of a few entitled, uptight Californians seem prosaic and inconsequential (and more than a little depressing in places). And, as with many series, there’s the worry that the show outlived its purpose – an original taut three-season framework was extended for money-spinning reasons through the introduction of the wheel-spinning third and fourth seasons, and while there are certainly many moments and elements in those seasons that are worthy, no doubt they dragged down the reputation of the show as a whole somewhat.

But. Yes, Six Feet Under is basically a soap opera, about a squabbling little family of funeral home owners, all very middle class, all arrogant and repressed and fundamentaly insufferable. But at its best, it’s more than that: it’s a soap opera done right. [Perhaps the show it reminds me of most is the first (back when it was good!) season of Desperate Housewives – suburban sterility, comedy and darkness, mysteries lying underneath. The style, however, is very different – SFU approaches from the direction of tragedy and highlights it with humour, whereas DH comes from the side of comedy and adds depth through hinting at tragedy]. Above all, SFU is character-driven and morally ambiguous. One of the most striking demonstrations of this comes from reading how other people reacted to these characters – unlike in almost any other show, there is violent disagreement over the characters, not just because of personal tastes but because of fundamentally different ways of reading these portrayals. My favourite character of the show is Brenda, without a doubt – but others, most others, despise her passionately (the AV Club reviews go so far as to call her a ‘diabolical bitch’ and ‘DangerSlut’). It’s not just that their tastes differ from mine – though they do – but that they seem to completely fail to understand her. What I take to be honest and accurate self-assessments, they take to be self-delusion or attempts at manipulating others – what they take as the real Brenda, I take as protective deceit or projected self-doubt. The thing is, if I try to see it from their point of view… she still makes sense. Brenda is a character who can be interpreted in at least two different ways – and I think that much the same is true (if perhaps less fiercely) of the other characters also. Like real characters, we never quite get a grip on these people, never find the simple rule that unlocks their souls – and if we do, we can still never know that we have. And in the same way, there are no easy judgements to be made about the characters. When two characters are in an argument, a good rule of thumb is that they’re both right, and both wrong – any time you come away thinking that one character is clearly in the right, or perhaps more importantly that the show wants you to think that one character is clearly in the right, you can be sure you’ll have that conviction shaken later on. [One of the most striking examples of this for me was the relationship between David and Keith in the first season, where it seemed very much as though Keith was meant to be the (albeit a little testy) voice of reason and maturity and everything was David’s fault… but later, we start to wonder (as David himself expresses) whether David’s obvious failings were just obscuring Keith’s own, and that if Keith was right perhaps it was only by chance, and not because he has all the answers. For this reason, SFU is a series that not only withstands but welcomes repeat viewings – and this is also one of the great sources of tension and growth on the show. Many shows try to keep their characters and relationships in one place; the better shows are willing to move on from one status quo to another. SFU is one of the few shows that is willing not only to change the status quo but to continually requestion what exactly the old status quo was, and whether the new status quo is really what it seems to be.

On the other hand, this determination to question is also a fault of the show. In it’s obsessive need to show that nobody has any answers, that everybody, no matter how seemingly happy or balanced is really living a horrible life and is terrified of death and is deeply psychologically wounded, it risks falling into an equally but oppositely severe form of naivity (a concern that, of course, it recognises explicitly itself, in the way it deals with the cynical romantic, Claire). It can appear too hopeless and nihilist. And yet there is hope here, not perhaps the ultimate hope of anyone ever feeling fulfilled, but at least the hope of new forms of unfulfillment. These days, many of the most succesful TV shows are premised on the idea that change is impossible, or virtually impossible – whether it’s the explicit “people never change” philosophy of House, the covert insistence of Breaking Bad (I note that the creators are starting to say publically what I thought when first watching it – Walter never breaks bad, he’s bad all along, the changing circumstances merely show the rot already in his heart), or the more structural change-is-constrained-by-institutional-rigidity critique of The Wire, we’re told that we might discover more about what’s going on but we can never, or hardly ever, actually affect change, in ourselves or in the world. Six Feet Under, however, is based on the promise that sometimes people do change, and for the better too. And that’s a powerful promise. But of course, the flip side of hope is fear – if people can change for the better, they can change for the worse too. SFU is one of the few shows that is willing to leave the viewer to judge whether its characters are becoming better or worse. The way that we tend automatically to assume that TV shows will be stories about improvement, unless explicitly told otherwise, is one reason why SFU makes such rich material for reviewing – reading online comments on the series, it’s clear that many people have entirely different impressions of some of the characters in the early seasons once they’ve seen who and where they are in the later seasons. And that, I suppose, is one of the tensions inherent in the show itself, ideologically – to what extent, it asks, can we only judge a life in retrospect, as a whole, and to what extent can we only judge each moment as it occurs, on its own merits? To what extent, indeed, can we ever know anybody, or any event, as a whole, but only in glimpses and aspects, and to what extent can we never know anything as a glimpse or an aspect save by already having knowledge of the whole – when people present differently in different circumstances, is there a coherence to their actions that we have yet to uncover, that perhaps they have yet to uncover, or are these presentations all that there is? And on, and on, the questions can be asked.

I wanted to say a lot more about Six Feet Under, but I’m not going to. In part, that’s because any time you think you have found a theme, a question, in Six Feet Under, a second related theme or question automatically presents itself, and none can be addressed without dealing with the others first. And in part it’s because Six Feet Under is all about questions, and not at all about answers – that’s its genius and its fatal flaw. I’m not sure there has ever been such a thoroughgoing work of intellect in TV drama. Every slightest thing has significance – or, at least, once you’ve been watching and thinking about it for long enough, there’s enough hidden significance that it bluffs you into thinking it’s all significant. It’s a fascinating and infuriating show, for the way it’s accessible to so many different perspectives, susceptible to so many different interpretations, and each interpretation and perspective giving way to more questions that cannot be definitively answered. Anything you’ve thought of, the show has thought of before you – any criticism you make, it has already made and answered, every praise already countered with humility. It’s like standing in a hall of mirrors – and if that suggests something ultimately facile and pointless, that pretends at depth and importance while really being nothing but cheap entertainment, then yes, I think that Six Feet Under has already anticipated that complaint, and explicitly agrees with it. As well as agreeing with those who praise it as one of the greatest works of fiction of the newborn century and a profound meditation on the nature of life and on humanity’s struggle to comprehend both life and death. Everything and nothing – not necessarily incompatible. Or complete bullshit. Take your pick. Or both. Or neither. And so on.

Six Feet Under seems, as I say, increasingly overlooked.  Ultimately, this may be because its depth and sophistication are hidden under a mantle of mild-mannered middle-class soap opera, letting it be ignored by those seeking the purest art, while on the other hand it is too intellectual, too courageous, and too ultimately emotionally troubling and unsatisfying (whatever you want from it, it’ll be unsatisfying!) to really satisfy those looking for casual entertainment. The very fusion that made it so succesful at the time has lead it to be overlooked in our hindsight. Throw in two increasingly grim, unamusing (did I mention that the first two seasons are funny? They are. Actually, correction, no, the first two seasons are hilarious. There are a lot of succesful comedies that I laughed at less than these two grim and philosophical series about the struggle against death), seemingly motionless seasons, and a final season generally considered an improvement but not on the same level as the first two, despite the greatest finale in TV history, and SFU looks more and more as though it’ll end up a footnote.

It shouldn’t. Some shows are wonderfully emotionally engaging, some are funny, some are endlessly thought-provoking, the first two seasons of Six Feet Under were all three at once.

Seasons 1-2: 4/4.

 

FREAKS AND GEEKS

OK, I’m sorry: I don’t get it. I just don’t get why this is so fawned over.

Oh, sure, it’s good. It’s well-written, it’s interesting, and there are some really good performances. But is this one of the greatest things ever made, like people say it is? I’m really not so sure.

I think the problems start with the premise: “this is how high school was for the rest of us”. Well straight off I have a problem, since I didn’t go to an American high school, so the nostalgia doesn’t really work for me. But more broadly, the show keeps hammering home how this is meant to be a subversion of the perfect American high school portrayal that we all know and hate (the scenes between the ‘perfect’ athletes and cheerleaders that take place on the corners of the real plot make sure we never forget that this is the gimmick of the show). And the problem with that is… wait, American high schools aren’t really like that? What are you going to tell me next week, that sometimes you can’t play be the rules if you want to get things done as a troubled cop? From where I’m sitting, the cliché isn’t the perfect high school, the cliché is the subversion. Freaks and Geeks came out in 1999, but is set in 1980 – and it feels like it could really have been relevant and important, if it had actually come been made in 1980. But… it wasn’t. Instead, it was made 14 years after The Breakfast Club. About the same topic and the same people, making the same points. Now, true, F&G is more realistic than TBC, more nuanced and complex (as you’d expect from an 18-episode series, rather than a one-off film), and, yes, it lacks the film’s abomination of an ending, but on the other hand it never feels as raw and as intense and as psychologically acute as the film either.

Or, you know, forget the fact that an entire generation had passed since The Breakfast Club, yet Freaks and Geeks still has nothing new to add – this was aired two years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer began! Another high school subversion show, at least to begin with, but there the tribalist elements (in the unaired pilot, Xander goes through the halls pointing out the freaks, geeks, jocks, etc) were actually toned down, at least in part probably because they were already passé. Of course, the existence of Buffy doesn’t mean you can’t make high school subversions any more (I’m on record as saying that Veronica Mars was better, for instance), and, yes, F&G is a lot deeper and more sociologically interesting than Buffy. But, again, don’t pretend you’re saying anything new here. And… well, could you please say something new? Because as it is, I knew everything in this show before I saw it, and far too well, and not in a good way.

The familiarity, the dedication to cliché in every element, from setting to character to plot to dialogue, takes out most of the opportunity for tension. Once you work out that this is a big ferocious growling dog that’s had all its teeth pulled out, that no matter how grimy and gritty it hints at being, it’s wedded to the happy flowery notion that everybody is ultimately a good person and will redeem themselves and everything will work out great in the end… well, that’s the rest of the adrenaline gone out of it at once.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. But then again, this isn’t really an insightful sociological or psychological study, either. The characters are all pretty straightforward, larger-than-life, and disappointingly unchallenging. The two central characters, Lindsay and Sam, are to a considerable extent voids for viewer insertion, and Lindsay in particular fails to attain any real agency or motiveful behaviour, just drifting around and backward and forward as the plot demands. There are also some troubling simplicities in how that plot is conceived: in particular, the heavy-handed, dichotomous choices that are offered do the characters no service, and feel demeaning to the viewer, denying as they do the possibilities of individual life-choices that are not simply picked from an array of pre-set mass-produced identities – in particular, the way that nobody is able to suggest that Lindsay might be able to accept some part of her former, ‘mathlete’ identity (such as, you know, winning maths competitions, which she clearly enjoys), without having to accept all parts of that identity (such as, for instance, wearing pink cardigans and never touching beer), is just infuriating. Sure, you could argue that in the end (trying to avoid spoilers here) she finds a third way out from the dichotomy between freak and geek (or, as the show itself states through a heavy-handed Dostoevsky analogy, between nihilist and moralist), but this is still only by discovering a third pre-offered identity, not by actually developing a personality of her own. And it could be that a show could say some interesting things about the social construction of identity, of course – I just didn’t feel that this one did. It just took it for granted.

I also have to point out: while the ‘freaks’ all turn out far less troubled and troublesome than many real teenage delinquents, the ‘geeks’ are unhelpful caricatures. I don’t think they’re hostile caricatures – I do think that the authors want us to sympathise with them. But having known a whole lot of geeks – we’re really not all that bad. Again, this portrayal feels like it could have been positive and groundbreaking – if it had been produced two decades earlier. By 1999, it feels as though it’s not really moved with the times. I wasn’t watching too much American TV in the 1990s, but this show was contemporaneous with Buffy and The West Wing – and it doesn’t feel like the people who wrote Freaks and Geeks were really writing for a world falling in love with geeks like Willow Rosenberg and Josiah Bartlett.

Of course, part of this is that it is set in 1980. Within the show, then, we can’t expect much geek pride (although since I’ve already mentioned The Breakfast Club (1985), I should also maybe mention Revenge of the Nerds (1984) – Freaks and Geeks really would have been at the forefront of the reassessment of high school culture, if only it had come out no later than about 1987). But the date was itself troublesome to me – despite the odd pleasing reference, it never really felt genuinely as though it were 1980, just as though it were 1995 with slightly different music. In this regard, for instance, I need to mention the excellent The Americans (set in 1981), which nails the period far more robustly. Indeed, during Freaks and Geeks, entire episodes went by with me forgetting that this was meant to be 1980, until suddenly a period reference would be made and I’d think “oh, yes, that’s right, this is 1980, isn’t it?”.

One brief thing that was bugging me: I know the word ‘geek’ has been around a long time, but in 1980 high schools, sandwiched chronologically between Happy Days and Revenge of the Nerds, wouldn’t the word ‘nerd’ be far more likely than ‘geek’? ‘Geek’ sounds so… 1999.

Two final complaints. First, the structure – Freaks and Geeks rejects the general moves being made at the time toward serialised narrative structures, and instead the episodes are almost entirely independent of one another. A few plot strands do imply a proper order to the episodes, but these are very minimal, as evidenced by the lack of ‘previously on’ segments in all but one or two episodes – what happened previously on just isn’t going to be important. Indeed, I accidentally watched two episodes in the wrong order, and didn’t realise at the time that I had – I had no reason to suspect it, even. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong in a highly episodic format – in fact, I think that TV’s relentless move toward uninterrupted season-long narratives with little episodic independence is causing something to be lost. There’s great pleasure to be had in episodic drama – which is why, perhaps, while more and more awards and critical attention are going to serialised dramas, many of the most popular shows remain episodic. There’s nothing wrong with episodic drama – it’s just a terrible fit for this show. This show is all about learning and growth and adolescence – themes that cry out for serialisation! It’s hard to grow much or learn much if you have to remain recognisable for the beginning of each episode. At the same time, while the episodic plots are often clever, sometimes they feel too procedural and constrained by the demands of the larger structure, in a way that clashes with the open-ended setting.

And, second, the comedy. No, wait, don’t misunderstand me: Freaks and Geeks is funny. It’s reliably funny, very enjoyably funny. It just isn’t funny enough for this to be a great comedy. I hardly ever laughed out loud. Which is fine – except that there’s often nothing here except the comedy, so the fact it doesn’t work as an out-right comedy show is a bit of a problem.

But there are good things here as well. I can see why people liked it. The dialogue is amusing, endearing, occasionally insightful. The acting performances are great – you can take your pick as to the stand-out, from at least half a dozen candidates, several of whom (particular the Freak trio of James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen) have gone on to greater (or at least more famous) things (and incidentally, only now in retrospect do I understand how overwhelmed with fannish joy high school show enthusiasts must have been when How I Met Your Mother arrived, pairing F&G’s Nick and Buffy’s Willow as a romantic couple (actually, now I’m thinking HIMYM was a missed opportunity – I would so watch a show that was really about Willow and Nick, rather than just having the same actors…)). Personally, my favourite is probably Rogen’s laconic, over-compensating awkwardness, but for dramatic achievement I’d have to go for Martin Starr’s brilliant Bill, investing what could have been a one-note caricature with surprising emotional depth and complexity, particularly later on in the series. [Wait, what’s that you say? Martin Starr is in the Veronica Mars movie!? Just one more reason to watch it, I guess, as if any more were needed…] The plotting, while conventional and largely predictable, seems to be that way intentionally, rather than through laziness, and even if it doesn’t produce many twists it does provide us with plenty of moments that show that the writers were dedicated to trying to make this good.

And it is good. It’s an impeccably-put-together piece of feel-good entertainment – the sort that makes viewers feel sophisticated by being just slightly smarter and slicker than their usual fair, but still gives them what they came for. Provided they came for nostalgia and to warm the cockles of their hearts. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s cute. It’s endearing. It’s likeable.

What I don’t understand is why people list it as one of the greatest shows of all time. There’s nothing unusually deep, unusually clever, unusually beautiful, unusually funny, unusually insightful or true, nothing really unusual about it at all except for its general quality and well-roundedness. That makes it a show I’ll happily endorse if people ask if they’d like it, and a show I probably will watch again at some point – but it takes more than that to make a show that I’ll rave about, a show I’ll tell people they have to watch.

I suspect a lot of this may ultimately just come down to nostalgia. I wasn’t there, man, I don’t know what it was like. I guess that if you were a child in an American high school in the 1970s or 1980s (or even to a lesser extent the 1990s, since, as I say, it doesn’t feel particularly date-specific), particularly if you liked to see yourself as kind of an outsider, and if what you really want from TV is an idealised recreation of your schooldays in an unthreatening and reaffirming manner, this show may well be THE show for you.

[But even then, and even though I normally want good shows to last, I can’t see the cancellation of this show after just one season as a great shame. It feels… done. When your show is about scratching just slightly beneath the surface of the characters, and you’ve scratched just slightly beneath the surface of all your characters… you’ve finished. In particular, it’s hard to keep the drama going in a show that has no external sources of drama, but that at the same time keeps its characters in a constrained and limited environment. I have to feel that – unless the creators had radically altered direction – a second season would just have been the same as the first season but rapidly running out of new jokes. Either you give serious character development – which neither the spirit of the show nor its format seem geared to – or you change the cast and give us totally new characters, or you force the existing characters into increasingly pointless and forced circumstances to try to continue to generate drama… or it becomes stale. I really do think this was a show destined for just one season.]

Anyway:

Freaks and Geeks: 3/4. Very enjoyable if you like this sort of thing, and a must-see for anyone planning on writing a show set in an American highschool in the 1980s. For everyone else, worth picking up if you come across it and you have the time (the episodic format and generally upbeat nature probably make it good relaxation viewing if your life is stressed) but I don’t think you need to rush out this minute and buy it.

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