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Netflix-BloodlineNetflix’s new original series Bloodline begins with one of those familiar tropes of fiction, film, and television alike: the return of the prodigal son. In Bloodline, the prodigal son is Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest of four, who returns to his family’s hotel for a 45th anniversary celebration. Back home, his two brothers and sister await, seeming to dread his arrival and the chaos they expect to come along with him. His younger brother, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), believes he will only hurt their elderly parents, while his sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) just wants to placate. His brother John (Kyle Chandler), is the only sibling excited to see Danny come home. Behind the siblings looms their father Robert (Sam Shepard) and mother Sally (Sissy Spacek), who are big fish in the little pond of their small Florida Keys town. Something happened, long ago, that haunts them all and centers around Danny, who has become the family scapegoat. It takes several episodes to get a hint of what this central event is: the death of a sister, Sarah, which happened during a boat trip with Danny thirty years before.

Wrapped in Plastic coverTelevision in the new millennium can be a glorious place, where boundaries are pushed regularly, often by Hollywood heavyweights. It’s where directors such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese come to experiment with long-form storytelling, and where renowned actors like Kevin Spacey, Jessica Lange, Steve Buscemi, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, and many others are willing to commit their time and talents. Sometimes there’s the allure of a great story that can be told in one season (an enticement that drew bona fide movie stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey to HBO’s True Detective). Other times, there’s the appeal of both creativity and freedom (Kevin Bacon only has to shoot 15 episodes a season of Fox’s The Following, allowing him to pursue big screen roles while also enjoying a steady paycheck). With the advent of edgy original programming across networks like AMC, Showtime, FX, Netflix, and HBO, the appeal of working in television has never been higher.

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My husband works at a treatment facility for youth with emotional and behavioral issues. He reports that his students love films and novels about the end of the world. They fully believe the world as they know it probably will end, whether it be by war, climate change, or economic collapse. They aren’t afraid of this, though. What they love about these narratives is the idea of being a survivor, of seeing the structures of the existing world crumble, of creating a society full of fellow survivors who will create a new world the right way. Who can blame them? They’ve already been failed by family, school, and social services. For them, and many disenfranchised people, the idea of collapse comes as a kind of relief. The world is bad. Perhaps destroying it and starting over is the only way to create a better future. Apparently, my husband’s students are not alone.  Apocalyptic narratives are all over current popular culture, from films like World War Z to Noah to the wildly popular series The Walking Dead on the small screen.

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Evil Abe was the nickname I gave to the man on the screen who squeezed the cherry-red tip of his black beard until it sharpened into a downward point. In his stovetop hat and long black jacket, he looked like a cross between Satan and Lincoln. The other three contestants clenched their inked-up biceps and stared into the camera. Only one of them would win the $10,000 prize for cutting the face of a dead baby into a stranger’s skin. The theme of today’s show was “in memoriam,” and the challenge was to ink portraits of lost loved ones. Babies as floating heads or sleeping dolls with eyes closed and flowered headbands. This is reality TV in America. This is reality. This is TV. This is America.

This didn’t use to be me.

I grew up on true crime television. While I was never allowed to watch horror films, which my mother was sure would influence my malleable mind, she never seemed to think that a steady diet of real-life murder could affect me negatively. I vividly remember watching America’s Most Wanted as a kid and having her lecture me afterward about all of the terrible things that could happen to me simply because I was a child, kidnapping being the most obvious, though murder was always there in the background, a constant possibility, post-kidnapping. She knew about the Adam Walsh murder, which happened the year I was born. She told me the gruesome details, emphasizing how easy it would be for me to be taken, just like him, if I drifted away from her in a grocery store.

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Breaking Bad’s five-year run coincides with the emergence of a populist brio that sings the sanctity of American ambition: Everyone who works hard enough deserves to be his own boss, deserves to break ground on his dream home—a mansion with skylights bigger than his 2014 Cherokee Diesel. Only people who’ve rolled up their sleeves (or donned their Hazmat suits) and “built that” are considered extraordinary, and anything less than extraordinary isn’t worth anything at all.

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As a precocious pre-teen and teen, I was obsessed with adulthood; I couldn’t wait for the responsibility of rent checks and retirement plans. I watched serious drama as a way to prepare myself for this adult life I so wanted, and since we didn’t have cable I spent a lot of time watching PBS to figure out exactly how adults lived. I loved Masterpiece Theater, Mystery!, and particularly Prime Suspect, the dark and emotionally complex BBC crime series starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson, a lone female detective in a boys’ club of often outright hostile fellow officers. I wanted to be like Jane Tennyson when I grew up. I dreamed of living a solitary but important existence, of having a job that was so central to me that I would forget meals and drink black coffee, a job that included meetings and orders and sleepless nights in which I would struggle to find the key to understanding a fragmented picture and solving the case. Jane Tennyson’s life always had an air of romance to it despite its gritty realism.

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Within thirty-six hours of the release of the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development, reviews—not just of the first episode, but of the entire season—started appearing online. Reviewers watched the full eight-hour season in one or two sleep-deprived binges, then spent the remaining twenty-eight hours spewing out essay-like things, some in excess of 3,000 words, purporting to offer an authoritative viewpoint on the show. One gets the sense that many of these writers would proudly refer to their essay-like things as thinkpieces, which is internet shorthand for unfocused, poorly edited conglomerations of words designed to project the appearance of depth without actually providing any.

Somewhere between showings of the indie films Trojan Eddie and Teeth today on IFC you’ll find the premiere of Bunk, a series IFC describes as “a new breed of comedy game show,” created by Ethan T. Berlin, comedy writer, performer, and one-time TNB 21 Questions interviewee.  If you’ve seen Da’ Ali G Show, Crank Yankers, or Lopez Tonight, you’re already familiar with Berlin’s work.  And now you can tune in to watch Berlin and other comedians (tonight’s episode also features Ben Garant and Kumail Nanjiani) compete in challenges like live puppy shaming and adding arms to the Venus de Milo.  Mark my words – puppy shaming will be the new Plinko.  Berlin was kind enough to answer a few questions about Bunk ahead of tonight’s debut:               

NBC announced this week that Mads Mikkelsen has been cast as Hannibal Lecter in a television series set prior to Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the first in Harris’ Lecter novels. And with that casting news I’m suddenly interested in something I would otherwise dismiss as yet another mediocre attempt to coax magic from the empty hat Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs left behind. Why might Mikkelsen make a difference? Because, for one thing, if you squint he looks just like Viggo Mortensen. For another, he recently won Best Actor at Cannes for his role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. More importantly, he became Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) original silent and stoic badass after the two got their start in movies together in Refn’s Pusher trilogy. Here’s Mikkelsen as a one-eyed Viking in Refn’s Valhalla Rising (gore warning):

This week, Girls’ writer/director/actress Lena Dunham went on NPR’s Fresh Air to address criticisms that the show is a particularly whitewashed view of entitled twenty-something women emotionally adrift in New York City.  Even before the show aired on HBO, Girls had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz as a series helmed, for a change, by a woman.  Just a few episodes in, the buzz erupted in debate on Girls’ representations of gender, class, and race as well as its worthiness of being the focus of so much debate to begin with.

 

Flipping around network television on a weekend is the mental equivalent of rummaging around at a flea market. My husband and I have found wonderfully trashy gems, like the short-lived Antiques Roadshow spinoff Buried Treasure, starring adorable pixie twins Leigh and Leslie Keno, and Shark Tank, a program that airs on Friday nights at 8 p.m., and probably our greatest find.

On Monday, my friend Polly informed me, via Facebook wall post, that Sarah Palin would be co-hosting the Today Show the following morning.

I am looking through lists of links on the Internet. It is Sunday night, but it is almost Monday morning. It is 11:30 p.m. The new Boardwalk Empire episode ended at 10 p.m., which means it should now be available to watch for free on a video streaming website.

As the election results came in last November, I found myself empathizing with the hero of The Walking Dead; small town sheriff Rick Grimes had newly awakened into a world where large swathes of the populace have been zombified, all mindless hunger and gnashing teeth. At the end of the pilot episode, which aired just two days before election day, Grimes found himself cowering in an abandoned tank that was about to be swarmed by the invading undead. Watching the television maps of the House of Representatives become as red as a tenderloin on the butcher’s table, I couldn’t help but think of the expression on Grimes’ face before the closing credits came on: helpless indignation. I mourned the sense of hope I (and many of my fellow voters) had experienced only two years before.