Column: Viewing List for Summer 2011

With the passage of Memorial Day we are now completely past the endpoint of the 2010-2011 television season, which ushers in the typical summer slump for television critics. A time of year when they are mostly free of the constant network onslaught, and can spend time with either classic shows that interest them or the loose scraps of network summer offerings such as The Glades and Scoundrels. Of course, strong summer scheduling for cable networks means that there’s at least a few new and returning shows worthy of attention. From my perspective FX’s Willard looks disturbingly funny, TNT’s Falling Skies might at least be interesting (or hopefully hilariously bad), and personal favorites Louie and Breaking Bad will almost certainly warrant regular coverage.

But it’s still a fairly slim summer for current shows that I’m interested in writing about, so I’m going to take that pause to try a new feature for A Helpless Compiler. Every year on my literary blog The Lesser of Two Equals around this time of year, I like to take a few words to set up the long-held tradition of the summer reading list – this year’s installment can be found right here, and here’s the lists from 2009 and 2010. Given how much more time I’m spending with television these days, and how AHC has thankfully not petered out over the first few months (always a possibility given my attention span) I thought it might be fun to do the same thing over here.

So in that vein, here are five shows that I’m planning to watch a season or more of over this summer, all shows I missed the first time around but that are regularly discussed in critical circles or shows that friends have nagged me to check out for one reason or another. Obviously this isn’t the complete list as there’s a lot of things I might rewatch or shows I’m still in the middle of as the summer starts, but these are just the top five that I’m making a commitment to. One or more might lead to a blog post, one or more might get abandoned after a few episodes or a first season – we’ll have to see.

1. The Sacrifice For My Craft: Glee

Blurgh. You really have no idea how little I am looking forward to watching this. I’ve seen a grand total of ten minutes of Glee in the Super Bowl episode, and then only because I was drunk on the joy of my beloved Packers winning said game (video footage of which is available here) and was able to tune out a large part of it. And the parts that I couldn’t made me sad for its viewers, despite the inherent talent of Jane Lynch.

I don’t know a single show that gets lambasted to the extent Glee does, or inspires such angry Twitter rants from fellow critics. In a variety of reviews I’ve read, I’ve heard it described in terms such as maddening, hideously unlikeable, annoying, on-the-nose, scatterbrained, and ten thousand others of equally unflattering quality. Even critics who like or at least respect the show assail it for being unbelievably schizophrenic in its characterization and storytelling – typically a dealbreaker for me on shows – and one only excused by the occasional fantastic episode.

And also, Glee fans tend to identify themselves as “Gleeks.” Do you know what a Gleek is? The blue monkey that accompanied the fucking Wonder Twins on Super Friends.

Okay, bile has been spit accordingly. Despite the fact that I have these gripes about Glee, several of these critics and people whose opinions I respect have advised me on Twitter that Glee is on the same level as Community as a show worth talking about and analyzing (and one of them even said that the two are essentially the same show). And based on those recommendations, the fact that it’s on Netflix instant and the fact that I do have a personal feeling that I shouldn’t beat up on anything without first reading/watching/viewing at least a sample of, I’m going to try it out and see if it’s: a) as good/bad as people say, and b) try to understand why it’s so popular.

I hope you people appreciate what I do for you, because it ain’t always easy.

2. The Recently Renewed Cult Favorite: Fringe

Unlike Glee, this is a show I’ve actually seen at least some of, and also a show where I liked what I saw. It aired after my one-time favorite network show House in its first season so I caught a few installments, but as that season overlapped my cross-country move to Portland it quickly got lost in the shuffle of moving to new apartments and finding new jobs. I enjoyed those early episodes, but I never had a chance to dive into the show’s mythology too heavily or didn’t find anything impressive enough to stick with – and also, given my awareness of the show’s actors in other things, I was a little jarred by watching Lieutenant Daniels using Pacey to keep the mad scientist Denethor in check.

But now that the show’s been given a fourth season against all odds, it feels like it’d be worth my time and interest to finally get involved. Sci-fi’s not a genre I watch regularly on television (Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files and Lost are all noticeable gaps in my viewing field) but as a long-time Star Wars fan and fantasy reader it’s certainly not a genre I’m opposed to watching, particularly given the lively debates they inspire online. And as I said, I liked the episodes I saw, and with fewer uncertainties in the rest of my life I can finally approach it with my full interest.

To clarify: yes, I am fully aware that the first season is considered the weakest and that it introduces a lot of mythology that the show would abandon as time went on, but I’ve always been a completionist and I like seeing where a show goes from its rockier starts.

3. The Unwatched Follow-Along: Veronica Mars

As I alluded to in my introduction, one of the best things about the summer is that it gives television critics a chance to relax and look back on shows that are either personal favorites or they didn’t have a chance to cover during initial release. I’ve got my own to add to the list (more on that next week) but this year I want to take the time to follow along with one or two of the critics who are covering a show that I’ve never seen on a weekly basis. There’s a lot of those floating around, the largest of which is over at The A.V. Club, at which no show is too obscure or too old to warrant attention.

Out of their impressive summer list, I’ve selected Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ neo-noir series about a stubborn young private investigator, the first season of which will be covered at The A.V. Club by friend of the blog and battle-scarred The Cape reviewer Rowan Kaiser. Veronica Mars has been praised by both friends and critics alike, and having been burned by the disappointments of The Killing I’m eager to invest in a murder mystery that apparently conducts itself in satisfying fashion. Plus, Rowan’s a great critic and also the person who got me to start watching Bob’s Burgers, so I’m looking forward to his take on things – especially considering he also hadn’t seen the show prior to starting coverage.

(Honorable mention for this slot as The Watched Follow-Along will be Deadwood, season 1, which is the summer project for HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall. I’ll be watching it as well, but I’ve seen the first season of Deadwood so many times I could probably follow along with any blog post cold. And honestly, it’s not like I ever need an excuse for a rewatch.)

4. The Unexpected Netflix Arrival: Band of Brothers

The advent of Netflix streaming to the Xbox 360, coupled with the ever-widening variety of television shows and movies that are added to its catalogue, means that I’ve almost completely forgotten that they send you one disc at a time. After originally using the service to clear out the queue of films I’ve been meaning to see, or take my time with a dramatic series and build anticipation waiting for the next disc to arrive, the discs are now an afterthought – which I’m pretty sure was Netflix’s original intention. The last disc that arrived sat on my television for a couple of months, and once I realized I really didn’t want to see “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” it very quickly went back.

But upon sending it back I realized I hadn’t taken the time to check my queue for what was coming next, and it turned out to be a pleasant surprise: the first disc of Band of Brothers. Maybe it has to do with Memorial Day and the innate patriotism that inspires, maybe it’s the still fresh memories of the critical acclaim The Pacific obtained last year, or maybe it’s the fact that Band of Brothers still hasn’t arrived on Netflix instant, but either way it feels like a natural inclusion to the viewing list. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have an unimpeachable pedigree in the field of war films in terms of research and production, and everything I’ve heard about the miniseries implies they do it justice.

5. The Inexplicable Classic Void: Cheers

For the last member of the list, time for a critical confession: I have never seen an episode of Cheers. Seriously. I literally do not know how this has happened – I was born only a couple years after it premiered and grew up at a time where literally hundreds of episodes were produced, but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of it ever being on television when I was watching for more than five minutes. I’m obviously aware of some things about the show (“NORM!” comes to mind, as does the famous Buffalo Theory of drinking), but when I say the first thing I ever saw Ted Danson in was Bored to Death you understand what I’m talking about. (Apologies to Becker.)

So this needs to be remedied – Cheers occupies a high place in the pantheon of great American sitcoms, and a special place in the hearts of millions of TV viewers, and if I want to consider myself at all versed in the history of television I owe it to myself to commit to the show for at least an episode. And even beyond that, sometimes you just want something on you can tune into after a long day and watch for less than half an hour, enjoying a television show that just feels like television as opposed to shows you dissect to death or wrap yourself in the mythology of. Based on what I’ve heard about this show, it seems like it’s the perfect example of that and that’s what people love about it.

This concludes my list of viewing plans for the summer. Again, I don’t know how much of any of these I’ll be watching, but I intend to watch the pilot at the very least and keep going as long as I want to for each of them. It’s possible there’ll be at least one blog post about the shows depending on how involving I find them or what I’m looking for content-wise over the season, but even if there aren’t I’ll revisit each show in the fall around Labor Day much as I do with the reading list at TLOTE.

Well, that’s how I’ll spend my time. What’s everyone else watching?

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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