Mad Men -- The best way to describe Mad Men is to say that it's a lot like Deadwood, just set in New York City in 1960. The story follows the lives of employees of a Madison Avenue advertising agency at the end of the Eisenhower administration as they dress impeccably, fool around with anything that moves, and generally live lives of quiet desperation. Like Deadwood, you get the feeling of being shown the seamier side of an era that's somewhat romanticized in American history. What's more impressive is that even though it's on AMC, and features just about nothing in the way of violence, nudity, or even profanity, Mad Men feels just as adult as one of the big HBO or Showtime series.
The only thing I really dislike about this show is the commercial breaks. They have a gimmick where they present advertising factoids, then follow them up with advertisements by the companies featured in the factoid (so a note about the name of Tylenol's first product is followed by a regular, present-day Tylenol ad). It's enough of a pain to sit through commercials, I don't need someone rubbing my nose in the artificiality of TV advertising while doing it. Very highly recommended.
Burn Notice -- A few years back, Jeffrey Donovan had a starring role in a basic cable series called "Touching Evil," which I thought was brilliant, but was quickly canceled. After landing guest appearances in about a half-dozen TV series since the cancellation, he's finally gotten another shot as a leading man. In Burn Notice, Donovan plays a covert operative for the U.S. government, who finds--as they used to say on Mission:Impossible--that the Secretary has disavowed all knowledge of his actions. After getting brushed off by the government, he's stuck in Miami, where he gets bit work as a bargain-basement Equalizer while trying to figure out how he can get his job as a spook back.
"Bargain-basement Equalizer" may not sound like much of an endorsement, but Burn Notice is an action-comedy, complete an action-comedy Hall of Famer, Bruce Campbell, in a supporting role as Donovan's best friend, and forgotten 90's hottie Gabrielle Anwar as his IRA-member ex-girlfriend. You know how there are popcorn movies? This show is good popcorn television. Highly recommended.
The Bronx is Burning -- We already covered this in my review a couple of weeks back. Now more than halfway through the story, three things are evident:
- John Turturro will likely win an Emmy and/or a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Billy Martin. Erik Jensen should probably also get some recognition for his work as Thurman Munson.
- The New York City stories intercut with the Yankees' pennant chase were just window dressing. The subplots about the blackout, mayoral race, and even the hunt for the Son of Sam killer didn't even scratch the surface of those topics, and only serve to set up archival news footage of the actual events and floating newspaper headlines. What exactly caused the blackout? Why did Bella Abzug lose the Democratic primary? Why should we care about the Post's reporting of the Son of Sam case? Guess I'll have to read the book.
- Regardless of my disappointment, I'll stick with this miniseries to the bitter end. It may just be a sports movie with delusions of grandeur, but it's a Yankees movie with delusions of grandeur.
Top Chef -- Not a fan of reality TV. I hate third-rate celebrities debasing themselves for media attention by allowing camera crews to follow them around, I dislike most talent competitions, and I'm pretty cold on the genre that follows around people who are the self-declared best at [pick your occupation--cutting hair, personal training, bounty hunting, motorcycle detailing, real estate brokering, running a hotel, whatever] and whose supporting staff usually tends to be a bit too straight out of central casting to be in any way believable.
[The exception to my distaste for that last category, by the way, was Showtime's Family Business, which was about a guy who produces porn. That show avoided most of the pitfalls of the genre by featuring a very small cast that didn't seem absolutely desperate to make an impression on the viewing audience at all times. And by being about porn. I was single back when I subscribed to Showtime.]
Anyway, Top Chef is the one reality show that consistently gets my attention. It's essentially the Apprentice mixed with Iron Chef. Unlike Bravo's similar reality contests about interior design, fashion design, and hair-cutting, cooking is a venture that has a pragmatic element to it that I think relates to my life. Also, more so than most reality series, the contestants don't seem to put on outlandish personas for the sake of their 15 minutes of fame. I also kinda like how the show has the least subtle product placement in the history of products or placements, all courtesy of judge/spokesmodel Padma Lakshmi, who has the amazing talent of being able to (with a straight face) read copy absolutely festooned with product plugs, as in "you'll pack it all up in your Gladware (tm), then get in your RAV4s (tm) and bring it all back to the Kenmore (tm) kitchen, where..." It'd probably be irritating if she wasn't unbelievably gorgeous. Recommended.
The Closer -- Not proud of this one, but I had to be honest. Yes, it's yet another one of those procedurals, featuring a brilliant-but-flawed detective...in this genre I've already given up on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Monk, and there are weeks when I start to waver on House. The thing about the Closer that has kept it fresh is Kyra Sedgwick's portrayal of the main character, and the writers' restraint in making sure that character doesn't devolve into self-parody. TV's other Sherlock Holmes surrogates are psychoanalyzed to the point of sometimes being nothing more than personality disorders with riddles to solve. Unlike those tortured souls Sedgwick's Deputy Chief Johnson doesn't really need a shrink or an A.A. meeting--she's just insecure, not nuts. She also doesn't have deus ex machina-style knowledge of all things esoteric or trivial.
This show is most often discussed as a pale imitation of Helen Mirren's British police mini-series, Prime Suspect--which may be what the Closer's makers were going for at the beginning. But the show and the character has evolved in such a way that what Johnson most often resembles is the sheriff character Frances McDormand played in Fargo. In this world of brilliant, tortured, detectives that's a breath of fresh air. Recommended.
My Boys -- I generally don't do sitcoms, and this show, basically a chick-flick sitcom, would be even lower on the list. But I'll admit I got hooked on this show about a female Chicago sportswriter and her too-tidy group of male friends last season. The series started on the wrong foot last season, but for some reason I can't quite understand, I gave it a second chance and the second episode was better, and the whole thing improved throughout My Boys' first season run. Sadly, the series has stumbled out of the gate again this season, and I'm thinking of dropping it from my DVR recording list.
The problem is, the show sometimes chokes on its premise a bit. From time to time the characters' line readings about sports are as stilted and unnatural as a fake science discussion on Star Trek. Even worse, the show's writers don't really seem to understand the job that they've given the main character. She's a Cubs beat writer, but she has plenty of free evenings during the summer to host poker night at her apartment. She never seems to be on the road, or have her work get in the way of hanging out with her pals. In the second show of this season, the show's writers have her making plans, at the beginning of baseball season, to go on vacation to Europe in October. Yeah, it's not like baseball writers are ever busy...during the playoffs!
For obvious reasons, I take these issues seriously.
So why watch My Boys at all? Basically, it's for Jordanna Spiro's performance as the archetypical tomboy main character. Spiro manages to capture the sense of a woman who knows that there is a "girly" way that she should be responding to life, but she just can't bring herself to act that way--and her reaction to situations is often both touching anf funny. I wish the writing and the supporting cast around her were stronger. Very mildly recommended.
In addition to those shows, there are a couple I've sampled, and haven't made up my mind about.
Saving Grace -- Since Broadcast News, I've had a crush on Holly Hunter. So when a series starts off with Hunter naked (even though it's 20 years later, and even though she's strategically covered to keep things PG rated) it'll get my attention. But the pilot's Touched by an Angel-meets-Prime Suspect concept really didn't click with me. Maybe it was the horrible angel-wings CGI on Hunter's tobacco-chewing guardian, Earl; maybe it was the fact that shows that try to combine religion and entertainment television tend to trivialize religion and not manage to be entertaining, either. Might give this one another chance, but then again might not.
Damages -- Recorded the pilot for this one but haven't bothered to watch the whole thing. I'll report back if it happens to be worthwhile viewing.