MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]

WHEN THE MUSIC IN MY HEAD STARTED FILLING THE AIR AROUND ME (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #101)

The Americans: Season 4, Episode 5 (“Clark’s Place”)

I always binge-watch The Americans. It’s hard enough to wait between seasons. I can’t imagine watching it one…episode…at….a…time.

The springs inside Season 4 coiledso tightly and quickly that a particular song started playing in my head from the first moments of the first episode.

When it finally started bleeding out of the soundtrack near the end of the fifth episode, it wasn’t so much a surprise as a relief to find myself, for once, in tune with the Cosmos. At last!

And it felt like the perfect moment. It probably was the perfect moment. I’m not sure any moment in the remaining eight episodes would have been quite as perfect…But then again, we’ll never know….who knows how many additional almost perfect moments would have been pushed over the edge if the producers had just gone ahead and made it the soundtrack of everything the Soviet Union, for whom the principal characters provide sex, murder and bad parenting on demand, ever dreamed of being and could never come close to achieving?

…And the real kicker was this: the line that resonated strongest–and would have in whatever moment it dropped–was “why can’t we give ourselves one more chance.”

For that you needed the eighties, when the West collapsed, not merely without a shot being fired but without anyone even noticing.

Take that Commies!

THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.