Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: five things I think that I think about TV.
1) We’re on the cusp of an incredible month of premieres, and three big ones will happen before next Monday rolls around. STARZ premieres the second half of the first season of “Outlander” this Saturday, April 4, and PBS will broadcast BBC Two’s “Wolf Hall” on Sunday, April 5, the same night a little show called “Mad Men” returns on AMC. All are worth watching, although I’ll confess being mighty confused by the political machinations in “Wolf Hall,” even while already knowing the broad strokes of the Reformation. Luckily, lead actor Mark Rylance’s performance as Thomas Cromwell is refreshingly dry and surprisingly unfussy for a period piece, and the overall production favors realism over period porn. That combined lack of ornament feels intentional, and while “Wolf Hall” isn’t exactly “gritty,” it feels as if we’re eavesdropping on something that might have actually occurred, separated from the myths that have built up around it. It may not be for everyone, but I was definitely invested by the end of the second hour of this six-episode endeavor.
2) As for “Outlander,” the show successfully picks up where it left off, even if there are still problem areas derived from its source material that the show consistently dances around. Luckily, the central chemistry between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Hueghan is off-the-charts, and while nothing in the episodes tops the show’s wedding in terms of quality, there are some satisfying twists between Claire and Jamie early on, and at least one episode in which things I did not think would happen until season three or four just tumble out. This show probably won’t make my Top 10, but it sits satisfyingly on a s solid second tier of television and deserves eyeballs from those that seek complicated relationships given room to breathe in the commercial-less world of premium cable.
3) I’d say something about “Mad Men,” but I fear there are trained snipers aimed at my office. Sufficed to say it’s an excellent premiere, full of portent as well as humor. In other words, it’s a typical, and typically great, episode, and I’ll have more to say about it next week.
4) As some shows return, others depart, and that’s where we are with TBS’ “Cougar Town” which airs its season finale this Tuesday. As with “Community,” this is a show that has drifted from the popular collective consciousness: After an initial flurry of discussion surrounding its move from ABC to TBS, the show simply went about making 13-episode seasons far from the eyes of most outlets. While never quite reaching the consistent heights of its second and third season, the show could occasionally hurl a fastball right down the middle of the plate in its final three seasons (the Travis/Ellie emotional cheating episode this season was incredible, for instance). I miss the show’s deep exploration of middle-aged melancholy buried just below its wine-soaked surface, but along with “Lost,” “Spartacus,” and “Scandal,” it’s one of the four shows that I loved writing about the most. It brought something out of me that I didn’t know was even there, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
5) What I mean by that: I’ve always been a fan of using criticism as a form of biography, not to be a naval-hazing a-hole (although sure, that’s tons o’ fun as well), but as a way to provide context into a particular point of view. With “Cougar Town,” I saw a show that was dealing with the same types of pressures and anxieties I was going through, only Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel could help articulate them in a way I never could. Pretending like I’m a robot sans feelings or a life of my own never seemed like the right away to approach writing about television, and while I never made reviews an excuse to turn the outlets I wrote for into another form of LiveJournal, it always felt more honest to say why something did or did not affect me. To be sure, most shows I covered over the years didn’t offer up the opportunity for such insight (I’m looking at you, “House Of Cards”), so I always appreciated those that did.
6) I’m struggling through this season of “The Good Wife.” That sentence does not make me happy, but here we are. The State’s Attorney race has dragged the show down to near-ludicrous levels, and at this point, the beats are familiar enough that simply re-arranging the cards in the deck feels awfully close to re-arranging the decks on the Titanic. If the show is a multi-year analysis of how Alicia turns into Peter, perhaps we can skip a few steps and just jump ahead to that inauguration? That leap worked for “Parks And Recreation,” and might work here.
7) Speaking of “Parks and Recreation”: It’s been off the air for barely a month and Indiana has gone to hell in a hand basket. Coincidence? I THINK NOT. (OK, yes, probably coincidence.)
8 ) I’ve been podcasting about each episode of “Justified” this season with Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, and I can’t tell you how delightful it is to be three episodes from the finish line and have no earthly idea where it’s all headed. This feels like a feature, not a bug. But since it seems like we’re not heading towards the expected gunfighter duel between Raylan and Boyd, everything’s up for grabs. “Justified” feels like one of those shows that will only grow in power and popularity over the next decade: It’s nearly devoid of the type of pop culture references that date other programs, and it’s above all an entertaining show filled with dozens if not hundreds of interesting characters. Some shows feel like work. “Justified” feels like a reward.
9) I am keeping up with “The Voice,” although my general viewing plan is “watch a few days later and fast-forward through the fluff.” That means three hours of content generally go by in less than an hour. As a mechanism by which to watch intermittently great performances, it’s a fine way to spend my time. But I also don’t stress about hoping my favorites win, since winning in and of itself seems incredibly unimportant. Mia Z seems to have the clearest path to the winner’s circle, but if we only hear from her during padded episodes of subsequent seasons, does it matter? The answer, for NBC, is no, since people watch this show for the coaches rather than the contestants. Considering the network has no real sitcom hits, “The Adam/Blake Show” is as close as it gets to having successful ratings in the comedy department.
10) I’ve written extensively about my love of “Arrow” and “The Flash” in the past, but DC and The CW needs to worry the dilution of its comic-book based properties at this point. Everything on both shows feels like a backdoor pilot at this point, which pushes main characters into the periphery and forces them to do things for the sake of expanding the universe at the expense of long-evolving characters. I can’t tell you what Felicity Smoak wants at this point, but I do know she’s crying so often I’m worried she’s a One Direction fan wondering how the group will move on without Zayn Malik. I cover “The Flash” weekly, so there’s no danger of me falling off that bandwagon, but “Arrow” is on the shortest of leashes right now. With all the good TV about to drop, there’s simply no time for mediocre programs in my schedule.