What are your TV series binge-viewing pleasures?
In the era of DVDs, DVR devices, and streaming services, binge-viewing (or binge-watching) is a guilty and comparatively affordable pleasure. The term is usually applied to marathon viewings of television shows, but movies, mini-series, and documentaries also count.
For this post I’ll stick with TV series. Here are some of my favorite binge-viewed series from over the years:
- “The Wire” — David Simon’s compelling depiction of gritty Baltimore is a cop show on the surface, but in reality much more. This places high on a lot of binge-view lists.
- “Homicide” — If “The Wire” wasn’t David Simon’s masterpiece, then “Homicide” — a more conventional cop show set in Baltimore — would be in the running for that honor.
- “Prime Suspect” — Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. This intense series excels on so many levels.
- “The West Wing” — The final season and a half, featuring the home stretch of the Bartlett Administration and the campaign to elect his successor, is terrific political drama, not to mention a sad reminder of our current real-life civic discourse.
- “Downton Abbey” — I didn’t know what all the hoopla was about until I sat down with season 1 and quickly got hooked. I am going to massively miss the upstairs and downstairs folks alike.
- “Horatio Hornblower” — Great, great seafaring tales, with superb cinematography and entertaining historical story arcs.
- “Foyle’s War” — Michael Kitchen’s Christopher Foyle is like a Sherlock Holmes with a stiff upper lip masking a soft heart, unraveling crime mysteries in the south coast of England during WWII and the Cold War.
- “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” — Superb early 20th century history lessons wrapped into colorful tales of Young Indy, with lots of documentary extras on the historical figures and events depicted in the episodes.
- “Hill Street Blues” — A cop show from the 80s that elevated the genre and network television in general. Still compulsively watchable.
- “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — The only sitcom on this list! A classic in television history, also a depiction of a much more innocent world.
I’ve never watched an episode of “Breaking Bad,” but I will someday. Friends have raved about it.
“China Beach,” set in the Vietnam War and starring the most excellent Dana Delany as nurse Colleen McMurphy, is one of my favorite shows ever, but I’ve never binge-viewed it. I will. I’m very curious to see whether it holds up.
Strange, but I’ve never watched “The Sopranos” and have no desire to give it a try.
For years I was part of a wonderful, episode-by-episode e-mail exchange with college chums about “24,” featuring Kiefer Sutherland as the seemingly indestructible Jack Bauer. Thus, I never got a chance to binge-view any portion of the series. I’ve wondered what it’s like to binge-view a season in close to real time: Does watching “24” in something resembling its 24-hour cycle changes the experience of the series?
Okay, to be honest, this is an experiment for the day when I’ve got a lot more free time on my hands…but still, I’d like to try it.
Binge-viewing does have its costs, not the least of which is that a given season or series must come to an end.
Matthew Schneier, writing for the New York Times, shared his feelings about approaching the end of a binge view of Netflix’s “Master of None” season 1:
I felt anxious, wistful, bereft in advance; I’d eaten up nine episodes in only a few days, liking them more than I’d expected to. Once finished, there’d be no more until the next season — if there was a next season, which has still not been officially announced. Unlike on network TV, where my fix would be parceled out week by week over the course a season, I had binged.
After concluding that he is not alone in lamenting the end of a binge view of an engaging television show, he put a label on it: Post-binge malaise.
In TV world, as in many instances of real life, all good things must end. And so we must deal with the final credits of a favorite series passing before our bleary, binge-viewed eyes.
Thirty-five years ago: “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, and the Iranian hostage crisis
In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:
On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”
The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:
First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.
Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.
I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.
Temporary escapism: NYC teens are discovering “Friends”
New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante reports that New York City teens have discovered the popular 1990s sitcom “Friends.” A big reason for its draw is its portrayal of the relatively carefree lives of its main characters, young Manhattanites Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey. Bellafante writes:
What’s novel about “Friends,” or what must seem so to a certain subset of New York teenagers of whom so much is expected, is the absence among the six central characters of any quality of corrosive ambition. The show refuses to take professional life or creative aspirations too seriously.
. . . The dreamscape dimension of “Friends” lies in the way schedules are freed up for fun and shenanigans and talking and rehashing, always.
Among Bellafante’s interviewees was a 17-year-old high school girl in Brooklyn who sees “Friends” as a welcomed break from the stressors of school and prepping college applications:
It did not escape her attention that the characters are almost never stressed out about their jobs. “All they do is hang out in a coffee shop or a really nice apartment,” she said. “It’s the ideal situation.”
However, the young woman asked that her name not be used, lest she appear to be frivolous in the eyes of college admissions officers!
It’s wholly understandable why these young strivers might welcome “Friends” as a break from the pressure cooker of jockeying for grades and acceptances from top colleges. But it’s sadly telling that they’re seeking such escapism in a sitcom. One senses the anticipation of an early midlife crisis, grounded in the revelation that the game of obsessive hoop jumping often leads to more of the same, while already yearning for some healthy downtime.
Why there will never be another Great Pumpkin
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is one of the most popular television specials ever made, premiering in 1966 and shown every year around Halloween time. Featuring the beloved “Peanuts” characters of Charles Schultz, it centers around young Linus’s yearly obsession with the Great Pumpkin, who supposedly promises to deliver bags of goodies to kids who wait for him in pumpkin patches. Here in the U.S., the program will be broadcast on ABC this Tuesday!
Something tells me that Charles Schultz was not crazy about dealing with legal matters. I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” just the other day (yeah, I bought the DVD a few years ago…), and I noticed how it is sprinkled with references to lawsuits, notarized documents, and other legalities, and not in a happy light!
Of course, it took a law professor’s scrutiny to pick out the legalisms, because the program is simply a lot of fun. For many of us who first watched it as kids, it brings back great memories of trick-or-treating, school Halloween parties, and scary stories of ghosts and goblins.
In any event, we won’t see anything like the Great Pumpkin anytime soon. Why? Take a look at the photo above, showing the ratings pulled in by the premiere broadcast of the program. The “share” means it attracted 49 percent — roughly half of the viewers — of the U.S. television audience during that time slot!
Such a market share would be unheard of with today’s multiplicity of cable stations, streaming services, and DVD rental/purchase options. Back in the day, we had the three networks and a handful of local stations to watch, and that was it! Less choice meant more of a shared experience. We’d watch highly anticipated kids’ specials on TV, and then go to school the next day to talk about them animatedly with our friends.
It’s obviously different nowadays. While I wouldn’t trade in the bounty of viewing choices we have today for a handful of channels and no way to record anything, we have lost a bit of the “popular” in the term “popular culture” as a result. We also have lost the seasonal anticipation of waiting for that once-a-year broadcast of favorite specials and movies. Instant gratification can be, well, instantly gratifying, but it’s not the same as watching the leaves turn and looking forward to the fall presence of the Peanuts gang.
A random observation on Snoopy, perhaps the most iconic Peanut’s character: He really should’ve been a cat! Think about it: He may be everyone’s favorite animated beagle (including mine), but he acts like a cat! He’s cheap with his affections, utterly self-absorbed, will dish out retribution on anyone who crosses him, and yet we love the little fellow.
Photos are screenshots from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and an accompanying DVD feature on the making of the television special.
New England autumn, that Halloween feeling, and scary stories
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
The awesomeness of “Hill Street Blues”
My current binge view is season 3 of “Hill Street Blues,” the gritty police drama that ran from 1981 to 1987. A four-time Emmy Award winner for outstanding drama series, it still holds up very well today. I happen to think that it’s simply awesome.
Steven Bochco created this compelling drama series, set in an unknown American city. The gifted cast was largely made up of actors and actresses considered lesser knowns at the time. From the show’s Wikipedia entry, here are the main stars of the first three seasons:
- Captain Francis Xavier “Frank” Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti)
- Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel)
- Sgt. Phil Freemason Esterhaus (Michael Conrad)
- Detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz)
- Sgt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano)
- Officer Bobby Hill (Michael Warren)
- Officer Andy Renko (Charles Haid)
- Sergeant Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking)
- Officer, later Sgt. Lucille Bates (Betty Thomas)
- Detective J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin)
- Detective Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque)
- Lt. Ray Calletano (Rene Enriquez)
- Officer Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro)
- Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson)
The calms in the storm of this rough urban precinct are Capt. Furillo and public defender Davenport, who happen to be a couple. Both Travanti and Hamel were brilliant at staying within the emotional boundaries of their characters. In fact, the same could be said of the rest of the cast, whether they played straight arrows or eccentrics. It was the mix that provided the sparks.
Over time, the characters develop, and key story lines continue from week-to-week, a breaking contrast to the scripts of many of the popular one-and-done cop shows of previous decades. Personal relationships evolve, as well, but not to the point of causing us to forget that this is about an urban police precinct. The show’s treatment of issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation made for cutting-edge television during its time.
Hill Street Blues also gave us one of the best-ever themes for a television show. Click below and enjoy Mike Post’s work:
The show presses my personal nostalgia buttons. I discovered it during my first year of law school. Hayden Hall, formerly NYU’s law school residence hall on Washington Square, had a big TV room, where dozens of folks from our first-year class gathered each week to watch new episodes, before heading back to our rooms or the library to study. Now, I’d never want to repeat my first year of law school, but it produced some good memories nonetheless! Among those were study breaks to follow the lives and doings of the denizens of the Hill Street precinct.
Latest binge view: “The Knick” (season one)
Last weekend I plowed through the ten episode first season of The Knick, a Cinemax drama set in a fictitious Manhattan hospital during the early 1900s. It stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackeray, a brilliant, driven, and cocaine-addicted surgeon. It has a great ensemble cast playing various doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, ambulance drivers, and board members.
The Knickerbocker hospital serves Manhattan’s poor and working class, and its medical staff attempts to be on the vanguard of treatments, diagnostics, and surgical techniques. It makes for sometimes gruesome scenes, and for this reason some readers might want to avoid it. (Think a turn of the century version of ER and you’ll have some sense of what I mean.)
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Knick is how it portrays the evolution of health care as it moves out of the Victorian Age. Even those generally familiar with the history of medicine will appreciate the sense of drama in storylines about new and experimental approaches to health care.
The Knick also depicts treatments that by today’s standards are wrongheaded and even barbaric. Ambulance drivers are profiteers and body collectors. Issues of race are dealt with bluntly, including the presence of an African American surgeon whose knowledge and experience are completely dismissed when he joins the surgical staff.
And finally — no spoiler alert necessary — the last scene of the final season one episode is simply brilliant.
My cable subscription doesn’t include Cinemax, so I’ll have to wait for the season two DVDs to jump back into the world of the Knickerbocker Hospital. I can’t wait!
Gen Jonesers: Sally Draper is us
In a fun piece for the Boston Globe (registration may be necessary), TV critic Ty Burr ranks all of the major characters in AMC’s brilliant drama, Mad Men, which finishes its seven season run this Sunday.
Of course, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ranks high on this list, as do Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). Also, for what it’s worth, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), “the grinning office rat,” ranks at the bottom of Burr’s list.
But finishing at the top is Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), the daughter of Don and Betty Draper Francis, who grows into a wise, observant young woman while trying to cope with her very messed up parents. When Mad Men premiered in 2007, I doubt that many (if any) viewers imagined that Sally would become such a key character in the show. But thanks to compelling story lines and the emergence of Kiernan Shipka as a gifted young actress, Sally’s scenes are significant. Burr explains why he ranks Sally at the top:
Well, this one’s easy, especially if you’re the right age. Sally is us. . . . [H]er progress through seven seasons of TV and a decade of American cultural drama has coincided with her coming to adulthood.
Sally is us. Yup, during the first season of the show, set in 1960, Sally celebrates her sixth birthday. She’s right at the older end of Generation Jones (born between 1954 and 1965). Although by 1970, the year captured in the final season, she has clearly been influenced by the 1960s counterculture, she’s a tad too young to be a classic Boomer.
Of all the Mad Men characters, it would be most interesting to see where Sally is, circa 2015, and what the past 45 years have been like for her. She’d be in her early 60s now. What kind of life has she forged? Did she manage to overcome the dysfunctional adult, umm, role models that were part of her childhood? I don’t know if Sally at Sixty would make for much of a sequel, but I’d be curious enough to tune in for it.
“The Wire” and today’s Baltimore
Baltimore has been reeling in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died from a severed spinal cord sometime during his apprehension and custody by the city’s police department. Gray’s death follows other well publicized, suspicious fatalities of black men involving police in other parts of America. In Baltimore, protests, unrest, and rioting have ensued.
This is a fast developing story, but as reported today by the Baltimore Sun, the State’s Attorney’s Office, citing evidence including the medical examiner’s report, has called Gray’s death a homicide and stated that the police acted illegally by arresting him in the first place. The State’s Attorney’s Office has warrants to arrest the six allegedly responsible police officers.
The Wire and Baltimore
How many of us, while watching this terrible situation unfold in Baltimore, have thought about David Simon’s classic HBO series The Wire (2002-2008)? Especially for those unfamiliar with the city, The Wire became our lens on its gritty underside, featuring gripping stories about Baltimore police, drug kingpins, politicians, newspaper reporters, teachers and school kids, and waterfront stevedores.
The Wire has been justly hailed as one of the best television dramas ever, so layered and authentic that many consider it an iconic depiction of the harsh realities of modern urban America, and a testament to the futility of well-intentioned efforts to reduce crime, improve schools, and clean up government.
When life meets art so tragically
Amidst the avalanche of news coverage about the situation in Baltimore, the Sun has observed how frequently references to The Wire are appearing in social media. Actor Wendell Pierce, who played Baltimore detective “Bunk” Moreland in the series, accused CNN of stirring up violence to fuel ratings. Actor Andre Royo, who played addict and informant “Bubbles” Cousins, took to Twitter to urge peace and calm. David Simon penned brief statement urging the same. (It prompted over 900 comments posted to his webpage alone.)
Sometimes life meets art in the worst of ways. It is heartbreaking that Baltimore has erupted like this, and that some of its poorest neighborhoods will be paying the price for many years. It is a 21st century phenomenon that our impressions of these events have been shaped by a cable television show lauded for its authenticity.
We’re in the Golden Age of television dramas
On Wednesday, after teaching an evening class and heating up some leftover Chinese food for a late dinner, I wanted to watch something halfway decent on television for an hour. Fortunately, I had recorded the evening’s episode of Broadchurch (BBC America), a British crime drama set in a small coastal community, full of complicated relationships and interesting, intense, edgy characters. The show co-stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives dealing with a murder case that has shaken them and the local citizenry.
Broadchurch is an excellent show, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. With all the choices available to us, I am reminded once again: We are in the Golden Age of TV dramas. There is so much good stuff on the small screen right now! Between network fare, cable offerings, public television, DVDs, and streaming services. the options seem endless. Even someone on a tight budget can squeeze a lot of good TV dramas out of a Netflix subscription and the Internet.
I especially enjoy crime and suspense dramas, so right now I’ve also got The Americans, Gotham, Scorpion, and Blue Bloods on my DVR list. I’m a big fan of Mad Men, and I’m already lamenting the series conclusion in a few weeks. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Downton Abbey has become a big favorite as well. I’ve saved the first three episodes of PBS’s Wolf Hall, and I anticipate doing a binge view when time allows.
The variety on TV is such that I’m pretty selective about what I watch. I don’t mean that in a snobby sense — there are plenty of shows that get better reviews than, say, Major Crimes, which I happen to enjoy — so it’s more about what strikes my fancy than what’s getting raves from the critics. Even a cultural Golden Age needs its middlebrow followers.