Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Netflix Nuggets - TV Edition

It's time for another edition of Netflix Nuggets! This time though, I'll be reviewing a handful of television shows currently available. So let's jump right in, shall we?


If you haven't seen this show yet, you're likely familiar with it by reputation as "that show all your friends insist you watch." And if you haven't watched this show yet, I'm here to be another voice urging you to do so. Breaking Bad follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a somewhat timid and pushover high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. Without much time left and fearing he will leave his family with a financial burden they won't be able to manage, he decides to team up with an old student of his by the name of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in order to cook crystal meth. Intimately familiar with nuances of chemistry, his product is unsurpassed in the local drug market and as one thing leads to another it becomes evident that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." It's hard to fully capture how absorbing this show is, but trust me when I say you'll be hooked from episode 1. It's a high stakes type of drama that occasionally dabbles in the macabre and grisly, as Walter and Jesse are pushed further and further in order to survive the ordeals they encounter. Every season is loaded to overflowing with cliffhangers and surprising twists, making this show as engrossing as it is unnerving at times. I've genuinely caught my own mouth hanging open as I've been shocked - once again - by just how insane this show occasionally gets; and I say that in the most complimentary way possible. But Breaking Bad isn't the kind of show that hinges on a formula or conforms to its own mold; each episode cold open has a different spin that often sets the tone for the episode or just showcases the writers' ability to find innovative ways to communicate with the audience. Breaking Bad occasionally reminds me of Dexter in its commitment to forcing its characters into seemingly insurmountable situations and levels of crisis. But where Dexter - one of my favorite shows - has a pretty definite fluctuation in quality depending on which season you're watching, Breaking Bad consistently manages to hit all the right notes and steadily evolve without growing tiresome or losing steam. That has as much to do with the writing as the cinematography or the acting. Walter White's subtle but definite transformation from mild-mannered and somewhat emasculated to unflinching and occasionally vicious is as profound as it is believable, and Bryan Cranston handles the transition brilliantly. Similarly Jesse's evolution from cocky hood rat to a more world-weary and embittered character mirrors White's as the two occasionally swap places between "the rational one" and "the one who is going to get us in trouble." And as much can be said of the supporting cast who each in their own way bring another level of depth and complexity to a show that already proudly weaves an intricate but accessible narrative. The only proviso I leave with this recommendation is that if you start this show, do so during a free afternoon or evening - because you likely won't be satisfied with it one or even two episodes at a time. The chemistry must be respected...yo.


Doc Martin is a show built on a cliche, that delightfully manages to transcend it. It's another case of "big city character moves to small town and has to learn to live with their charming - if bothersome - local ways." Dr. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) is a renowned surgeon at the start of the show who has transferred from his high-paying and supposedly glamorous lifestyle in London to be the general practitioner for the fictional seaside town of Portwenn. But he's hit a bit of a professional snag - he hates blood; so much as the sight of it can induce him to vomit. On top of the that, the citizens of Portwenn are accustomed to the practitioner Dr. Ellingham replaced; a man much more given to a relaxed and easy-going mindset. It's all be done before, I'm certainly not here to tell you otherwise. But the show isn't really too concerned with upending convention or making itself out to be more than it is. Like the town of Portwenn itself, Doc Martin kinda sneaks up on the viewer slowly; nothing particularly flashy or gimmicky about it. Dr. Ellingham himself is akin to Hugh Laurie's Dr. House in the sense that he's got a gruff and impatient manner with those around him - but he's rarely, if ever, wrong about his diagnoses or recommendations. On top of that, the show exists on the convergence of a few different genres. It's comedic qualities are undeniable, and underpinning that is a sense of poignant but sincere drama. Wrapping up the whole package nicely are a few nods to the mystery and "whodunit" subgenres as well - making Doc Martin the kind of show that "has something for everyone." The vignettes of Portwenn (shot in Port Isaac, Cornwall) are truly beautiful and if nothing else provide some gorgeous backdrops in which the narrative takes place. If you enjoy somewhat slow-paced British dramas, the kind of thing you might catch on a Sunday evening with a bowl of cereal, then Doc Martin is just what the doctor ordered. And if you find the show to your liking, you will also be glad to discover it's a 5-season, multiple made-for-Tv-movies-along-the-way kind of affair - so you have loads to catch up on.


The fact that there's only one season of this phenomenal show available on Netflix shouldn't deter you from from adding it to your must-see list. Set during the early 1900's, Downton Abbey follows the lives and times of a family of aristocrats and their servants. It's a marvelously written show, not only when you consider the caliber of the characterization and dialogue, but note just how many characters this show has and how well they're all developed. The show boasts somewhere around 20 regular cast members, not including the multitudinous recurring and guest cast. If you've heard anything about this show, you've likely heard how Maggie Smith (who plays the Dowager Countess Grantham) is practically worth watching this show for alone, and that's absolutely the case. She's matronly but sharp, sophisticated but never minces words, and like every other aspect of this show brilliantly realized. But trying to pick out a favorite character or aspect of this show is incredibly challenging for me because I just love every moment of it. It's a Masterpiece Classic type of piece in the same tradition as Brideshead Revisited or Upstairs Downstairs but in my estimation superior to both of those titles. I'm keeping this snippet somewhat brief because a million thoughts come to mind as points of interest, but taking on any one of them would require more verbiage than can adequately describe this show. Suffice it to say that if you're in the mood to watch a BBC/Masterpiece Classic period piece to rival any similar title up to this point in history - consistently well-written, engaging, and completely entertaining - you can't do better than Downton Abbey.


This show isn't one you'll note for its subtlety or brilliance, but the title will tell you more than you might expect. The Inbetweeners is a half-hour British sitcom that follows the day-to-day of 4 students at the fictional Rudge Park Comprehensive school. Will (Simon Bird) is the bookish, previously private school attending, briefcase carrying (for which he earns the moniker, "briefcase wanker") straight thinking one of the bunch. His close friend Simon (Joe Thomas) is more of an everyman type of high school kid - not really fitting into any one stereotype or another. In contrast to both of them is Jay (James Cartwright), a sex-obsessed teen whose self-proclaimed exploits are always exaggerated and the the dim-witted but well meaning Neil (Blake Harrison). Over the course of 3 seasons (and a subsequent movie) The Inbetweeners chronicles the hurdles, failures, embarrassments and - occasionally - triumphs of growing up; navigating that "in between" time post-childhood but just before true adulthood. As the principle characters are all male, the perspectives are decidedly male as well. Which is to say, there's less about nostalgia and self-reflection and more about the time Will soiled his trousers during an exam, or Simon's repeated attempts and failures to lose his virginity. It's a pretty raunchy show that put me in mind of a television version of Superbad or American Pie, but if you're in the mood for uncouth jokes it's pretty entertaining. The characters are simple enough to be relateable on some level, but still nuanced enough to give the impression that you've known people just like them at various times growing up. Only the first two of the existing three seasons are available at this time on Netflix, but that's two season's worth of humorous teen exploits we've all be in or around at some point in our lives.


Here's another show you're probably at least somewhat familiar with by reputation alone. Set in the late 50's and early 60's, Mad Men follows the goings on of a handful of characters in and around early Madison Avenue - hence the title. Jon Hamm is the primary lead on the show, and much like the rest of the show's characters, is a complex mix of charm and darkness. Mad Men isn't the kind of show with "bad guys" and "good guys," rather each character is rendered in a much more human and realistic way. Certain characters have larger shortcomings than others, at least so it would seem, but the show is much more concerned with character study than character resolution. It can best be described as a novel adapted to the screen. Some episodes cover the events of a few days, others the events of a few hours; there's not a specific formula here. It's very precise, and the pacing of the show is often rather slow - but that only further serves to painstakingly explore each character depicted, weaving a narrative filled with cigarette smoke, liquor in the office, and more than a measure of infidelity. The lives of the principle characters aren't particularly romanticized, but neither are they demonized; again the aim is merely to explore and chronicle rather than pass narrative judgment. But despite the absence of a full scale endorsement, there's a great deal in the show that's just fun to look at. The first and most notable thing of course are the fashions of the era, revived and revitalized into a new kind of retro television chic. As the show is about the ad industry, a lucrative business to this day, most of the principle characters live relatively opulent lifestyles and it's fun to watch them schmooze and smoke with other sharply dressed schmoozers and smokers. Simply put, Mad Men is a surprisingly understated entry in a TV scene dominated by sound bites and flashy commercials and as such provides a nice throwback to a less in-your-face viewing experience. It's not the kind of show with lots of twists or surprises, and it's not the kind of show that's out to look back at bygone eras through rose-colored glasses. Personally, that's reason enough. But layer on top of that some wonderfully nuanced writing and acting, some top notch production design, and a cast of surprisingly engrossing characters and Mad Men is near the top of my list of all-time favorites.


British humor can be a bit of an acquired taste; especially when it comes to the subtleties of their self-deprecating and dry bits. But arguably the best place to get acquainted with that comedic tradition is Peep Show; a BritCom steeped in cynicism and black humor. The show has a couple of rules in terms of format that further lend themselves to the overall feel it achieves. First off, with the exception of establishing shots of building or locations, everything else is POV. That is, the camera only shows what the characters in the scene are seeing - through their eyes. This can be a little strange to get used to, as conversations involve the characters involved looking directly at the camera according to the "POV rule" the show employs. Second, and just as important, the inner monologue of the two main characters - Mark and Jeremy (David Mitchell and Robert Webb, respectively) - is audible whenever their POV is being used. This not only gives us further insight into what makes these characters tick - comedically and otherwise - but further allows for the exploration of innovative narrative techniques. So where two characters talking back and forth might be missing each other's point, we as the audience are clued into the little thoughts that precede their spoken sentences. Again, it takes a little getting used to. But once you're familiarized with the characters and their various habits and foibles it's a brilliantly hilarious show. David Mitchell's take on Mark is one of the stereotypical tight-wad - he's a hopeless cynic with some pretty severe self-esteem issues and as such offers up some of the most humorous moments the show contains. Jeremy, on the other hand, is a care free musician whose scruples are sketchy at best. The two contrast each other - one austere, the other puerile - to pitch perfection and have fantastic comedic chemistry. If you're not a fan of darkly comedic and dry British wit, you might find Peep Show a bit too odd for your tastes. But if you enjoy that kind of humor, Peep Show is one of the best examples available in which to experience it.


The stars of Peep Show get another mention in this entry, but this time for their sketch comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look. Where Peep Show follows a fairly linear narrative of its two protagonists, That Mitchell and Webb Look is your run-of-the-mill sketch comedy show with an audience laugh track. A number of recurring sketches abound here like "Numberwang," a zany and mile-a-minute gameshow with a set of completely unintelligible rules. "Get Me, Hennimore!" is a spoof on 70s sitcoms in which a bumbling employee (Webb) tries not to confuse the understandably difficult instructions his boss (Mitchell) gives him. For example, he's told to ensure that a group of Korean chefs in room "Room 1" do not get mixed up with a group of dog lovers in "Room I." Another of my favorite sketches from this show is "The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar" which follows a homeless drunk Sir Digby (Webb) and his equally street-weary sidekick Ginger (Mitchell) - both of whom are under the delusion that Digby is a brilliant detective. It's a sketch comedy show, so by its very nature it's a hit-and-miss affair. In fact, one sketch has Mitchell and Webb "behind the scenes" mapping out the order of "hits" and "misses" to be used in the next episode. Despite abandoning some brilliantly realized characterizations in Peep Show, the duo continue to prove they're a fantastic pair when it comes to comedy and a number of faces from Peep Show you'll recognize here - or vice versa. As the comedy is more decidedly geared to British culture and pop culture, you may find there are a decent handful of jokes or sketches that aren't particularly understandable. But even with those, That Mitchell and Webb Look has a fantastic array of various sketches and bits and you're bound to find at least a few morsels to give you a good laugh.


When this show was added to Netflix, I was surprised to discover how many of my friends weren't familiar with it. I practically grew up on this show and it's been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid. The Wonder Years is set in the late 60s and early 70s, a time when America was going through some significant changes. Those changes are mirrored in the life of its principle character, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he navigates the wonder of his growin' up years. (Ha! See?) The show is narrated by an adult Kevin (voiced by Daniel Stern) as he reflects back on the times depicted in each episode with varying emotional tone. Danica McKeller plays Winnie Cooper - Kevin's lady love, and the girl with whom Kevin has a relationship that runs the gamut from girlfriend to friend to estranged and back again. Josh Saviano is Kevin's best friend Paul Pfeiffer - a skinny bespectacled lad with a number of allergies. Kevin's family is equally colorful; his father Jack (Dan Lauria) is an old fashioned man who only occasionally shows his less abrasive side while his mother Norma (Alley Mills) provides a more nurturing counterpoint to her husband's rough exterior. Wayne, (Jason Hervey) is a somewhat stereotypically thick-headed older brother, who lovingly referes to Kevin as "butthead." Rounding out the Arnold family is the rebel daughter Karen (Olivia d'Abo), whose various forays into the counterculture of the time offers up some of the show's meatier moments. The Wonder Years is largely episodic, jumping from vignette to vignette as Kevin makes his way through middle school, high school, graduation, and everything that lay between. It's a profoundly nostalgic show that often goes right for the heartstrings. This is accomplished through Stern's pensive and well-articulated narration, the show's brilliant soundtrack (a mix of the popular music of the era and some gentle acoustic guitar original score), and occasional stock footage of historical events. The show isn't wholly a comedy, though there are some genuine laughs peppered throughout. And it's not completely a drama either, though more than a few episodes will give you cause to mist up. It simply romanticizes the bittersweet experience of adolescence in a way I've not yet seen another show accomplish, and it's hardly lost its acuity over the course of the 20 years or so since it aired. Even if you're not a child of the 60s and 70s, The Wonder Years explores universal experiences with a sincerity unparalleled.

Thanks for tuning in!

1 comment:

  1. If I might add one more addition to this extensive list: "Dinosaurs" has also recently appeared on Netflix. You had "The Wonder Years" growing up, I had "Dinosaurs". It's fantastic.