"You need to come clean," Mark Brumley told me, "and admit that you watch television." Although he said it with a smile, I sensed a threatening tone in Mark's voice. I understood. He had been running me around the Bay area for a couple of days and was tiring of my endless quips, rants, and loud renditions of Blue Oyster Cult songs ("Don't fear the reaaaaaaper..."). Still, his directive unnerved me. After all, as Mark pointed out, I have carefully crafted a persona based on the facts (yes, real facts!) that I am a bookworm, a jazz aficionado, a lover of fine (but cheap) wines and expensive (but cheap) espresso, and a tennis player. Admit that I watch television? And that I watch too much of it? And that there are television shows — far, far too many of them — that I watch nearly every week? Clearly he was testing the bounds of our friendship, not to mention our cordial working relationship.
"Do it," he said. There was no smile now, his eyes unflinching as weaved through heavy traffic at a very high rate of speed. Yes, I was being sent to my doom. The emperor's stuffy clothes were being torn from the body of the carefully crafted figure of "Cultured Carl." Alas, I stand before you in sweats and t-shirt, holding a remote bandaged with duck tape, a beer in one hand and a worn copy of TV Guide in the other. And I do confess, however grudgingly: I watch television (sigh). And here, I further confess, are the top shows I watch nearly every week, offered without further ado with comments both apologetic and rueful.
1. The battle for my favorite show is a tight and tense one, the victory narrowly going to "Lost," which is watched by me and 300 billion other people on Wednesday nights on ABC. "Lost" is unique in many ways, including the fact that much of it takes place on a sunny, beautiful beach and yet there are no bikinis, muscular lifeguards (as in this guy), or surf boards to be found. Thank goodness!. It is a cross between Swiss Family Robinson and "The X-Files", with brief, twisted bursts of The Lord of the Flies, "E.R.", and "Survivor" thrown into the mix. Unlike most shows, it features a large ensemble cast, led by Matthew Fox as Jack the Responsible but Tortured Doctor, Josh Holloway as Sawyer the Dangerous But Charismatic and Rakish Con Man, Dominic Monaghan as Charlie the Annoying Washed-up Rock Star and Coke Addict, Terry O'Quinn as Locke the Knife-Loving Tough, Bald Guy, and Evangeline Lilly as Kate the Cute-As-A-Button, I'm-Not-Who-You-Think-I-Am Girl from the Midwest. The writing and acting are excellent, the pacing and directing equally good, and the over-arching story line (if it holds together) has the potential to rival the great and never-to-be-outdone "X-Files." While survival on the not-so-deserted island is a top priority, there are plenty of intriguing questions revolving around bad fathers, good fathers, dead fathers, love, friendship, guns, ethics, mysterious fathers, missing fathers, chance, fate, destiny, free will, and the best way to build rafts. There is much speculation among viewers about the plane crash that placed the survivors on the island (government experiment? virtual reality? actual crash?), the mysterious numbers that connect many in the group, the mysterious hatch, the mysterious Others, the mysterious creatures, and the mysterious way that Kate always looks so fresh and shiny after forty days of living in the jungle. Yep, I'm hooked.
2. The runner-up, "House," also features an emotionally tortured (if not altogether sympathetic) doctor, Dr. Greg House (played by the excellent Hugh Laurie), surrounded by a group of people (his staff) trying to make the best of a trying situation (working with House). At first blush this doesn't seem to be a show that would appeal to me, especially since it is, on one level, a medical drama. And I do hate medical dramas, able to only stomach about eight minutes of "E.R." (years ago) before clicking back to "Sports Center." But "House" works on a couple of other levels. First, Dr. House is something like a socially dysfunctional Sherlock Holmes who cannot stand people but lives to find out what is ailing them — but prefers to do so without ever seeing or touching them, if at all possible. So there is the appeal of eccentric genius, which I'm a sucker for. That plays into the second appeal, which is the dramatic tension between House and, well, everyone else, supported by some of the finest, wittiest, and funniest dialogue in TV Land today. (Interesting fact: Lead actor Laurie was educated at Eton and Cambridge University, where he took a degree in Anthropology, and is a published novelist. What does that mean? I have no idea.) I do occasionally fear for "House" since it is on FOX, which often takes good shows and destroys them in Season 3 by interjecting sex, sex, and more sex into every scene, line, and shot. But, so far, so very good.
3. The stalwart. The consistent performer. The top dog. The #1 show of everyone who watches the boob tube: "CSI" (CBS). No, not the annoying Miami spin-off, which features David Caruso, playing the ultra-irritating Horatio Caine, who is unable to utter a line without 1) staring into space for ten seconds, 2) taking off/putting on his sunglasses, 3) cocking his head at 45 degrees, 4) squinting his eyes, 5) pursing his lips, and 6) saying, "Well, Bob, [pause] let me tell you what we're going to do [pause]..." (Auuuuuugh!), nor the passable but mostly flat New York version. No, I'm talking about the original "CSI," starring the superb William Petersen as Gil Grissom, whose nuanced performances keep the show as real and grounded as such far-fetched shows can be (which varies wildly, depending on the episode, the amount of gore, etc.). The best episodes are like character studies — of the good or bad guys, sometimes both. They also address, without too much heavy-handedness (or great depth, really), matters of morality, especially free will, and even, on occasion, metaphysics (chance and coincidence make many appearances). The show reinforces my belief that the inside of the Las Vegas airport is all I ever need to see of the town — and I really didn't need to see that much of it. But the bizarre and amoral/immoral character of the city is an inspired location for a show about catching every sort of evil, nasty, twisted, and depraved crook. The gross-out factor is sometimes overbearing and the choice of music is occasionally lousy (rap!). But "CSI," now in its sixth season, consistently brings the goods.
4-6. Here matters become more difficult. So, without making excuses, I'll list my next three shows, essentially equal in my eyes, even though each has different strengths and weaknesses. First (alphabetically) is "NCIS," (CBS) starring the under appreciated and engaging Mark Harmon as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, who leads a whacky, wise-cracking, completely unbelievable group of misfits/field agents. The chemistry and banter is the main draw (along with moments of dark humor), although some of the episodes features decent stories. Again, about as believable as Pat Boone singing heavy metal, but far, far better — and easier on the ears.
Next up is "24," (FOX) which is also utterly unbelievable, but moves so rapidly and with such earnest commitment (have you ever seen Jack Bauer smile? Ever? Me neither.) that you don't have time to notice. "24" offers tension, twists, turns, good vs. evil, and the sort of "one man against all odds" story that is rather compelling in an age of committee-think, group-think, and a "hurry up and wait" approach to matters big, small, and difficult. Bauer is played by the limited but likeable Kiefer Sutherland, who mixes a "Die Hard" tough guy quality with a "I Just Want a Good Woman, Ten Acres of Land, and a New Identity" approach that is economical — a big plus when you have the sort of days he does. Another bonus this season (the fifth), is that Bauer's annoying daughter, Kim, has yet to appear. If she does (no! no!), my fair weather fanhood will be sorely tested.
Finally, there is "Without A
Trace," a show (CBS) about FBI agents who find people who go missing
and who, in the meantime, try to figure out what's missing in their messed up lives.
Sure, it sounds depressing, but it isn't always all bad — sometimes they
find people still alive and sometimes they find love, even if for only
half a season. Once again, the key is the main character; in this case
(pun intended) it's senior agent Jack Malone, played by the
versatile Anthony LaPaglia, described on the show's site as "a tough but
compassionate, seasoned and astute professional." Yes, he's all that,
but he's really interesting because he's such a mess, despite pretending
that he isn't (hey, that sounds like many people at different time in
their lives). One of the best episodes ("Revelations") was about a
priest, played by Hector Elizondo, trying to make up for a past mistake;
not only was it believable and moving, it was quite accurate in the
details. A solid hour of television drama.
Okay — some concluding comments. You may
wonder, "Why no comedies?" Because I'm not aware of any that are good,
or good enough to watch. "Malcolm in the Middle" used to be excellent,
but has gone the way of many FOX shows (sex, sex, sex). I cannot even
think of any others. The world of sit-coms is an arid wasteland
characterized by no will (to be funny) and even less grace (in the "humor").
"What about 'American Idol'?" Good question. There was a time when "Idol" was more about music (however light and fluffy and cheesy) than it was about "reality television." Those days are over, based on some of what I've seen this year, which isn't much. I stopped watching regularly last year, which was like giving up fast food and realizing, "Hey, I feel so much better! Why didn't I do that sooner?" Yes, I once wrote a fascinating and insightful piece (stop laughing!) about the show in its first season. No need to write anymore about "American Idle." RIP.
Also, I don't have HBO (or any other movie channels), so I've never watched "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Beneath the Dirt" or whatever it's called. Sorry. I'm told those shows are brilliant, "must see," and so forth. I can neither confirm nor deny at this juncture.
Finally, I'm struck by the superficial but still strange fact that three of the above shows ("Lost," "24", and "Without A Trace") feature main characters named "Jack." Why? Why not "Bob" or "Rick" or "Englebert"?
Well, there you are, Mark. My already fragile reputation is surely destroyed now. I appeared on "Geraldo at Large" a while back and now I blather on about television shows that our sophisticated and cultured readers care not one bit about. What next? Starring on a reality TV show? Making balloon animals at the local rodeo? Singing Blue Oyster Cult songs at the local pub on karaoke night? I'm doomed. I'm depressed. I think I'll crack a cold one and see if there's another "Dukes of Hazard" re-run on CMT. Yeah.... watching the General Lee fly through the air while Waylon Jenning sings. That'll lift my spirits...