Category Archives: Television

8 Great Series for Intensely Therapeutic Viewing

The shows that we watch (and re-watch) say a lot about us – our temperaments, our tastes, but mostly, what we find enjoyable, and even soothing. After a long day of work, while sick (or nursing a hangover), amidst a bout of depression or general malaise, our favorite series can be a balm, improving mood with brutally honest humor, allowing us to reflect, or to get lost in situations with people whose problems are much worse than ours.

A great series can improve empathy, make us think, laugh, cry, and even change us. Here are eight series I’ve found great comfort in over the years.

1) Homeland (2011 – present)

Homeland, starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative with bipolar disorder, is perfect “misery viewing” – cathartic to watch, especially if you are down in the dumps. I first watched the series in its entirety a month into sobriety, and then again after leaving a particularly draining job. It levels me every time. The emotional highs are highhh and its lows are lowwww, mimicking Carrie’s own disorder in a way. When it’s hitting stride as a straight-ahead thriller (as in the fourth season, set in Pakistan), it becomes highly addictive.

There is nothing like Homeland on TV: campy melodrama and high-stakes storylines involving domestic and Middle Eastern terrorism intersect, mostly with precision. Start with the gripping first season, and if you find you’ve had enough of the “Brody era” by the end of season two, jump ahead to the stand-alone fourth and fifth seasons set in Pakistan and Berlin.

2) Veep (2012 – present)

At its core, Veep is a joyous and uplifting series. Technically, it’s a situation comedy about a US Vice President grappling for power and influence, wrangling her incompetent staff, and dealing with the endless politicking that comes with the job. It’s dark and cynical for sure, but it’s poignantly written, and, though set-and-costume designed within an inch of its life, moves with uncommon spontaneity and fluidity, thanks to a cast who makes it all look effortless. The dialogue moves at a rapid pace and the jokes, which are scatching and yield endless returns, never feel forced.

Veep is so brilliant because its characters are people who could (and probably do) exist in real life. You’ll cringe at how horrible and human these people are, and maybe fall apart with them when their tireless and futile efforts end in bitter disappointment (as in the fifth season finale “Inauguration.”) At 10 28-minute episodes a season (only 48 episodes total so far), it’s also a fast watch.

3) Buffy (1997 – 2003)

Buffy was the first show I fell in love with, and the first show I couldn’t get enough of. Watching Buffy was like inhabiting a dangerous, sexy, scary, and inimitably cool world that helped me make sense of my own confusing and at times scary experiences. I could relate to the story of a young woman coming to terms with her lot in life, having to shoulder incredible burdens, often alone and in silence, and trying to reach some level of peace with it all. I suspect most of the young people who tuned in, struggling with their sexualities and identities, thrashing about, trying to find their place in the world, felt the same.

4) Mr. Robot (2015 – present)

Mr. Robot is one of those shows that seeps into your pores, and fucks your shit up for a while. In the first season, where we meet Elliot, a young hacker planning the “largest redistribution of wealth in history”, the story functions as a red pill, forcing us to acknowledge our slavery, to institutions and corporations, to our perceptions and those of others, to our own human desires, and frailties. By season two, the writers have dosed us with a powerful hallucinogen, and maybe a tranquilizer, asking us to accept the madness  we’ve found ourselves in, to find comfort in it, if only, like our wide-eyed hero, for a brief moment.

5) Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)

Breaking Bad is more than cathartic; it’s incendiary. It challenges notions of what it means to be American, what it means to be good, and what it means to be a good American. It is the story of a man who is just fed up with everything. Fed up with being pigeonholed into a life and a role he never wanted, fed up with living life on life’s terms. To break bad is a Southern colloquialism meaning to “raise hell” – and high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White does just that, and much more.

6) Shameless (2011 – present)

The central question behind Shameless is: do the poor have any chance of getting ahead in America? Or do their destructive behaviors and addictions (often the side effects of living in poverty) threaten to keep them where they are, or destroy them? So far, the story seems to be going in an uplifting direction, implying that the Gallaghers, a hardscrabble gang of Irish-American siblings living in Southside Chicago, have a pretty good shot of making something of themselves – with myriad fuckups along the way, of course.

In the show’s final years, we’ve seen the Gallaghers become business owners, (failed) college students, and civil servants despite obstacles such as criminal records and mental disorders. With the show’s upcoming and likely final eighth season, hopefully these kids get a collective break, and if they can’t get out of the ghetto, at least end up stable enough to weather the wave of gentrification heading their way.

7) Everybody Hates Chris (2005 – 2009)

I remember watching this show every day in the afternoon and it had such an earthy and charming vibe. Chris’ family was lower middle-class; his father worked as a delivery truck driver, his mother was a wise, no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold, his younger brother and sister were equal parts annoying and adorable. This was my childhood (if it had been halfway decent), complete with ass whuppings and maternal death stares.

Everybody Hates Chris was the only “black show” on TV made with any restraint and inventiveness, and that’s likely because it wasn’t a “black show”, but a sitcom about a young black boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1985, who, as we know, goes on to become one of the most famous comedians ever. The set design and period details were perfect, and you could tell every episode was made by a cast and crew that genuinely loved working together, such as in the finale, which paid homage to The Sopranos’ final episode, “Made in America”.

8) Nurse Jackie (2009 – 2015)

Poor Jackie Peyton, the beleaguered and drug-addicted nurse played so deftly and movingly by Edie Falco (The Sopranos). Did she die in the final episode? Or was she merely enjoying the high and wishing everyone would fuck off and let her enjoy it? I’d like to think it was the latter. Three lines of heroin couldn’t have been enough to take out our beloved Jackie, the tough-as-nails, (re)lapsed Catholic who said to herself once, “Make me good Lord, just not yet.”

To anyone who has craved the thrill, for whom everyday mundane life was not enough, who has used drugs or alcohol as a means to not just cope, but to get the full feel of life – this show hits where it hurts, but it’s also painfully funny and true.

Honorable MentionsHow to Get Away With Murder, Atlanta,  The X-FilesAbsolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, The Wire, Dead Like Me.

Why We Love Antiheroes

Selina Unsure
Selina Meyer (Veep), TV’s latest bane.

On the fifth season finale of HBO’s lauded series Veep, Selina Meyer, fictional 45th President of the United States, was dealt a crushing blow. After the tied election that closed season four, votes were held in Congress to elect the next POTUS. With deadlocks in both the House and Senate, the Vice President cast the tiebreaker, electing Laura Montez, a younger, “prettier”, more beloved (and questionably Latina) senator from New Mexico, the next President of the United States. Realizing her reign is (abruptly) over, Selina turns to her press secretary, Mike, and says…

Selina Hates You All
We know, Selina, we know…

Selina Meyer’s supposed hatred of the American People and the American Way has been a recurring theme throughout the series. In the fourth season finale, “Election Night”, she goes on a rant of such withering contempt and unbridled rage it’s both endlessly funny and more than a little cringe worthy. “I’ll tell you what’s unprecedented, a tie is unprecedented! So’s me becoming the first Lady President!” Meyer growls. “So’s that jack-off becoming President through the backdoor! The rulebook’s been torn up now, and America’s wiping its nasty ass with it!”

Earlier in the episode, Selina has another outburst as the election results roll in and she loses yet another state. “Jesus Christ, you know? You do your best, you try to serve the people, and they just fuck you over,” she cries indignantly. “You know why? Because they’re ignorant, and they’re dumb as shit, and that’s democracy!”

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ turn as the deeply angry, ineffectual, venal politician Selina Meyer is one of the most awarded performances in TV history, with four consecutive Emmy wins (and she’ll likely win a fifth). Selina isn’t particularly sympathetic; in fact, she is arguably a terrible person. But she does inspire pity and even empathy within us. And there lies the paradox of the antihero: they are defined by objectively unlikable qualities and traits, but we still root for them. They are the ultimate underdogs, the people who wouldn’t have made it if not for their sheer will to survive, to excel, or to become who they were truly meant to be. These are the people society fucked over, forgot, or otherwise pushed aside.

It used to be the characters that captured our imaginations and our hearts were pure, upstanding, and heroic. But now even our heroes and superheroes are dark, complex, and morally ambiguous. The last few years have seen an increase of big budget flicks about villainous figures, such as the upcoming Suicide Squad. The proliferation of the antihero in pop culture has had a correlation to the rise of real “antiheroic figures”. A decade ago, Donald Trump was a smarmy reality-TV star that no one took seriously. Today, he’s the Republican Nominee for President. Has the acceptance of radical, polarizing figures in our media made us more receptive to these individuals in real life? In any case, an undeniable cynicism has seeped into our culture, televisual and real.

So what is an antihero anyway? If a hero is one who risks everything for the good of others, and a superhero is one who risks everything for the good of all, maybe an antihero is one willing to sacrifice everything, including other people, for self-gain. If the qualities of courage, empathy, morality and idealism are heralded in the hero’s journey, then the vice qualities – insecurity, greed, callousness, apathy or the lack of empathy – are front and center in the antihero’s. Antiheroes, however, are not usually inherently bad people. They’re usually between a rock and a cold, hard place, and this galvanizes them to such a degree that their own needs, desires, and aspirations become more important than those of others.

The first antihero on television – inarguably Mr. Tony Soprano – exemplified this to the nth degree.  With The Sopranos, David Chase created a blueprint for the male antihero, which would be expanded upon in series such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  Earlier in the series, it was easier to root for Tony, the beset-upon family man and mob boss, grasping for power at “work”, and struggling to meet the demands of family life. When he suffers a panic attack in the first episode and starts psychotherapy, we’re compelled. But as the series progresses, we’re repulsed by his increasing brutality. As he shoots kids dead for trivial betrayals, and in the final season, murders his own nephew, we realize that his heinous acts are committed not for survival; he’s merely become a casual murderer, a casual adulterer, and a casual liar. Soprano starts out an antihero and ends up a straight-up villain. And in that iconic final moment of the series, we assume that Tony has finally paid for it all with his life… but he’s never redeemed before he “dies.”

Without Tony Soprano, you don’t have Don Draper, and you don’t have Walter White. Breaking Bad marked the end of the era of “Problem Men” on TV, but the beginning of a shift in characterization. Throughout the series, every horrible thing White does is in the name of survival. In many ways, Walter White is the first TV antihero to garner real sympathy from an audience. He was more relatable than Soprano or Draper because he was a “regular”, middle-aged, middle-class American man who doesn’t start out as callous, self-serving, or dangerous, quite the opposite actually – and surely the story of a “good man” who becomes bad (i.e. breaking bad) is more compelling than the story of a lout who devolves even further (The Sopranos). Walter White is a character we love and root for from the get-go. He’s a high school chemistry teacher raising a family of four on just $43,000, struggling so much to pay the bills that he has to moonlight as a car washer after-school. We then find out that he missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime: he helped start a company, Gray Matter, worth billions, but sold his shares for a pittance. So when Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we understand his decision to team up with a former student, druggie burnout Jesse Pinkman, to cook meth in a beat-up Winnebago. This first major decision sets in motion a series of catastrophic and unfortunate events that don’t reach a real conclusion until Walter dies on the floor in the final episode. As series creator Vince Gilligan said, “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences…”

Walter White

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So why do we love antiheroes? Is it because they are willing to do whatever it takes? Or is there more to it than that? Maybe we love these characters because they magnify our own rage, the tragedy of our own lives. They push past boundaries we wish we could breach. No, most of us don’t want to dissolve bodies in a tub of lye, or put a hit out on eight people, or rig an election, but we do wish we could shake off the shackles of convention and live life truly on our own terms.

On the last night of the Republication Convention, Donald Trump spoke about America’s neglected masses. “[There are] forgotten men and women in this country,” he boomed, “People who work hard but no longer have a voice… I am your voice!” And the crowd roared.

But unlike Mr. Donald J. Trump, the TV antihero doesn’t claim to speak for anyone but him or herself, but their declarations, outbursts, strident, split-minute decisions, and excoriations are vicarious living. At a time in America in which we all feel like victims, exploited or scapegoated by corrupt and self-serving politicians, trampled on and suffocated by legal and other hegemonic systems, the anti-hero, complete in his and her autonomy, speaks for us all.