Archive

Monthly Archives: May 2016

better-call-saul-l3-ratings-march-21-16

Since time immemorial, a large percentage of TV shows have been set at work, but at no job site that resembles reality.  A show like “Perry Mason” convinced a generation of young viewers that being a successful lawyer was simply a matter of getting the actual murderer to crack under cross-examination, while “Dragnet” implied that cops could solve any crime in a day or two.

Not that much has changed in 65 years.   Most workplace shows continue to use the setting solely as the jumping-off point for comedy or melodrama, and the jobs themselves are essentially an excuse to get a group of disparate adults to interact on a regular basis.  Three of my favorite shows — “Veep,” the regrettably now-canceled “The Grinder,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — are workplace comedies set, respectively, in The White House, a law office and a police station, and they could not be further from the reality of those places.  But that’s OK, because in their absurdity they still manage to make amusing points about human nature.

At the same time I’ve been noticing an increase in the number of series that accurately portray real-world work.  I’m thinking particularly about “Better Call Saul,” which is set in the New Mexico legal world.  The show is practically a tutorial in how and how not to be a lawyer, with detailed explanations of civil procedures, legal ethics, new business acquisition, and client service.

What’s most remarkable about “Better Call Saul” is that the protagonist Jimmy McGill pulls a lot of stunts that in most dramas would be laughed off as comic relief and never referred to again, but which, in this show, produce actual repercussions.  In the funniest scene of the season, Jimmy convinces the cops that his client is guilty only of a (fabricated) sexual fetish involving fruit pies — and he produces a staged video to prove it.  In any other series, this would have been the end of it. But on “Saul” Jimmy’s straight-laced girlfriend yells at him for the potentially career-ending practice of fabricating evidence, which is something that real lawyers would actually think about.

Even the world of comedy occasionally delivers an accurate depiction of work.  “Silicon Valley” does a great job of illustrating what it’s like to launch a 21st century start-up.  I have no idea whether the technology being fought over on the show (which involves an algorithm to compress data for faster transfer) makes sense, but the way in which start-ups are funded, promoted, operated, subjected to legal challenges and victimized by vicious internecine battles seems on-target.

It isn’t just prestige premium channels that deliver realistic depictions of work.  Even “Modern Family,” which is usually an upper-middle-class fantasy, has found comedy gold in a running gag about how Jay and his daughter Claire take the management of their family closet business oh-so-seriously.   Their belief that good closet design is the fulcrum around which a happy family functions seem far-fetched to most, but not to anyone who’s actually owned a small business and acted like the world revolves around their own little business niche.

This mini-trend towards realism at work began with “The Office,” the successful sitcom about the travails of toiling in the regional sales office of a mediocre paper company.  Much of the outlandish behavior of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott was exaggerated for comedic effect — but underneath his antics was a real sense of what it was like to sell paper and navigate corporate office politics.

“The Office” proved that the most mundane details of office life could be funny, but what really enables realistic TV depictions of the workplace is the trend to season-long story arcs. Unlike the old days, writers are not forced to deploy far-fetched shortcuts to wrap up individual stories in an hour.  This allows a plot to unspool the way it would happen in real life. And season-long stories that play out over 10 or 13 episode leaves plenty of time to sprinkle in real workplace details for verisimilitude.

Another factor in the rise of honest depictions of the workplace is the emergence of the attentive viewer.  For decades, television was aimed at couch potatoes and viewers who just wanted to “relax” after a hard day on the job.  In a world with only a handful of networks, no one wanted to rock the boat with programming that would make viewers think too hard.

But the fragmentation of the television audience created an opening for challenging programming.  It turns out there’s an audience segment that doesn’t want to be spoon-fed its video entertainment.  Shows that provide a taste of the drudgery and unique characteristics of a particular workplace require more attention and patience than traditional shows.  They are not for everyone, but an attentive viewer is likely to appreciate them.

It’s unlikely that scripted television is about to be overrun with “how-to” series (although it’s interesting that some of reality television’s most popular shows are in-the-weeds depictions of how to fix up a house, run a restaurant or captain a fishing boat).  Still, “Saul” and “Silicon Valley” demonstrate that you don’t need to dumb down work to make a successful show.  As anyone who’s ever had a job (that’s most of us) knows, truth is sometimes stranger, and more interesting, than fiction.

Advertisements
the_americans4

THE AMERICANS — “Echo” — Episode 13 (Airs Wenesday, May 21, 10:00 PM e/p) Pictured: (L-R) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR. Patrick Harbron/FX

With “Better Call Saul” back on hiatus, FX’s “The Americans” is arguably the best TV show currently delivering new episodes.  Yet as much as I love watching this blast of Cold War nostalgia, I sometimes feel as if I’m rooting for the wrong team.

Set in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., “The Americans” revolves around a pair of Soviet super-spies masquerading as a normal American family.   By all rights, this series should not work as well as it does.  The plot itself is preposterous, bearing as much resemblance to actual espionage as James Bond or Jason Bourne.  The two spies – Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — can not only physically trounce any three adversaries, but are mechanical and technological geniuses, brilliant mimics, steady shots, masters of disguise, talented seducers, and ruthless killers. And they’re so attractive!

Further, if the premise of the show even began to approach reality, we would all owe Senator Joseph McCarthy a huge apology for his anti-Communist ravings.  We are expected to believe that the Washington suburbs, numerous government agencies and several defense contractors are riddled with spies who consistently manage to outwit the federal investigators who are hot on their trail.  Oh, and the FBI agent whose job it is to track down the illegals lives across the street from the Jennings.

The show works, though, because of its taut storytelling, great acting and deep dive into themes that cut across all eras and cultures.  Like all good TV shows, “The Americans” is about many things other than the actual plot that drives the action: it’s a meditation on marriage, the immutability of sex, loyalty, patriotism, child-rearing — and, ultimately, making difficult choices.

And like all good spy shows, it’s about the difficulty of knowing the truth, in big ways and small.  The Jennings lie constantly to the people they are recruiting, but also to their children and sometimes to each other.  Their lying is so pervasive that we can’t figure out when they’re lying to themselves and to us.  That’s why it’s so moving when Philip actually delivers the unvarnished truth to someone he cares about.  It’s also why he attends encounter group sessions at est.  Those sessions might be fundamentally bogus, but it’s one of the few places where he can be honest with himself.

Philip and Elizabeth keep making choices that are by any definition evil, and yet we keep hoping they succeed because we are so emotionally invested in them and their kids.  I long ago lost track of the number of deaths they caused.  Philip Jennings at least has the moral compass to regret the death of innocents and to push back against seducing 15-year-old girls, but Elizabeth is — let’s face it — a bit of a psychopath, who views the death toll as the necessary price for advancing worldwide Communism.

It’s this dichotomy between the two Jennings that has driven the dramatic tension for four seasons.  Despite flashbacks demonstrating that the system has repeatedly let her down, Elizabeth is a committed ideologue who unquestioningly follows the orders of her Soviet overlords. By contrast, Philip LIKES it in America, regrets the people he’s killed, doubts the righteousness of his cause and is adamantly opposed to letting the KGB recruit their daughter Paige into the family business.

Because the show is set in the 1980s, which we know ends with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — in other words, with America winning the Cold War — we can elide our own moral queasiness at rooting for the Jennings. We know a happy ending is coming — if not for them, at least for our side.

“The Americans” tries to recreate the climate of anxiety that gripped the nation during the Cold War, but really succeeds only during the opening credits (see below), which, with its flashing images from behind the Iron Curtain, raises my level of paranoia 500% even 30 years later.  I’m sure the producers are trying hard to depict the menace that everyone felt during that period, but they really only succeed in creating a Spy-vs-Spy atmosphere.  Except for a few clips of speeches from President Reagan, you don’t feel the absolute urgency to beat the Communists that gripped the country even as late as the 1980s.

In the 1980s, the Cold War was still a global conflict involving proxy nations like Afghanistan, Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.  Without warning, the Soviets shot down an unarmed passenger airliner that accidentally crossed into their airspace. NATO installed Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany, which many thought would trigger World War III. The U.S. started work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”), which would supposedly shoot down potential nuclear missiles before they reached the U.S. We boycotted the Russians’ Olympic games, and then they boycotted ours.

In other words, it was a dangerous time, but we only glimpse how high the stakes were during the scenes set in Russia, which feel gray and oppressive.  At least the show doesn’t fall into the trap of making the FBI and KGB morally equivalent.  The KGB is clearly more ruthless and amoral and at least the FBI never deliberately kills anyone, but they still don’t feel like the good guys.

I suspect that as we move toward the end of the series, the Jennings’ FBI neighbor friend, Stan Beeman, will emerge as the real hero of the series.  Unable to express his feelings and conflicted about what his job has done to his family, Stan is actually an honorable man.  Arresting the Jennings will probably break his heart — but with the Soviet Union hurtling to its ultimate demise, it’s hard to see how there is any other alternative awaiting these characters besides jail or a bullet to the head.  And then we’ll know that the good guys did, in fact, win.