Share this article

print logo

Too much IS a good thing

Too much television, you say – along with the much-quoted honcho of the marvelous FX network?

Or, on the other hand, is there too much viewer hubris?

It’s an interesting question in our new millennium, the 21st century media variation on “Is the glass half empty or half full?”

Is there too much quality and fascinating television for anyone to possibly keep up? Or – in my view – is this an astounding new Golden Age of Television wherein television has become like the book and record business where it is axiomatic that you’ll never begin to keep up with everything worth watching out there?

Can you read every new wonderful book published in America in one year? Of course not. Can you listen to every new piece of amazing music? Be serious.

We’ve been so coddled by TV’s traditional economy of scarcity that the truly radical changes in our time are making everyone nervous. It was so much easier for American intelligentsia when that 400-hp anti-intellectual and TV thinker Paul Klein convinced everyone that “people don’t watch programs, they watch television.” Back then, phrases like “vast wasteland” denoted one’s smarts. In the post-cable and post-Internet era, people really do watch “programs” – even when they’re not on TV.

So the new refrain is “I can’t keep up.”

I’m tempted to ask, “What makes you think you ever could?” Only a history of scarcity that made gigantic profits possible, that’s what. That is why the CEO of a terrific cable network has gotten downright peevish and from his point of view, he’s absolutely right. How can he make his accustomed profit when the amount of competition in the Internet era explodes?

If, on the other hand, you’ve known for many years that you can’t keep up, why not rejoice that the world of TV production is so gloriously full of great things?

That’s what I did last week. Here we are with the new fall TV season bearing down on us (see, for sure, “Blindspot” on Monday, even though you’ve practically seen everything good about the pilot from NBC’s promo ads), but let me simply suggest that as soon as possible this week, before the deluge, you take the time to catch up with the great summer TV you probably missed.

That’s what I’ve been doing. That’s why it’s a kind of paradise to live in the world of On Demand TV where you can do that very thing. No one has to miss anything anymore if you want to spend a little dough and take the time.

For instance:

“Mr. Robot”

Best of all, by far, was Sam Esmail’s series about a terminally alienated computer hacker with no social skills whatsoever who has to decide whether or not to hang out with a secret organization determined to wipe out universal debt.

You read that right. No more debt anymore. Just get all the right keystrokes going and hack it into nonexistence.

That’s not even what’s so spectacular about the show. Writer/creator Esmail has filled it all with so much smart alienation from current pop culture that it’s as joyously paranoid as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.

Best of all is the star of the series who is like no other TV series star you’ve ever seen – huge-eyed Rami Malek, whose sing-song mumbling delivery of constant voice-overs and disgusted half-smiles at a world full of cyber-illiterates make him simultaneously sinister and sympathetic. Watching Malek’s performance is as much like watching a new human species in action as it used to be watching the latest 7ø-foot basketball player in the NBA from China or Eastern Europe.

Against Malek’s genuinely disturbing lack of human affect, you have Christian Slater doing a quintessential Christian Slater role – the smug, smiling, glib genius who created the secret “Mr. Robot” conclave devoted to overturning debt as the basis of world economics.

John Maynard Keynes would have hated “Mr. Robot.” If you like truly and wildly adventurous television, you need to catch up to it On Demand pronto.

“Public Morals”

Or how Ed Burns got Steven Spielberg on board for a mediocre vintage cop show with an amazing cast. In the first episode, Tim Hutton was knocked off in a way that got his camel’s hair coat very bloody. Not long after that, the incredible Brian Dennehy returned to prime time in an ensuing episode.

Brian Dennehy.

It is, in my house, an axiom that you’re nuts if you miss anything that offers airtime to Dennehy, even if it doesn’t begin to be worthy of him.

Which describes this TNT series about corrupt mid-’60s cops to a T.


On the other hand, if you want to use On Demand to catch up to a lapsed NBC summer series about cops in the ’60s that kept on sneakily improving every week, try the David Duchovny series wherein Duchovny played a good cop in a corrupt police force and Gethin Anthony played Charles Manson before the Tate-LaBianca blowout.

If you’re starting from scratch On Demand with “Aquarius,” keep plugging. The beginning wasn’t all that impressive.

Midway in, it started getting awfully good and kept on getting better – far better, in my view, than the second season of HBO’s “True Detective.”

“Ray Donovan”

Showtime’s series about the most dour thug and fixer in Hollywood is two episodes away from wrapping up its best season ever. If you’ve never seen it at all, it will be admittedly difficult to catch up. You won’t know, for instance, the backstory that accompanies the return of actor Hank Azaria as the ultimate slime ball investigator, but how can you resist a series that weekly gives plot juice to Ian McShane and Katie Holmes, no less, who looks ultra-chic while wearing braces on her teeth.

The show has always been decent. It came into its own, though, this summer. When Ray (Liev Schrieber) manages to keep his father (Jon Voight) alive by engineering a major variety show appearance by an Aremnian-American singer singing – in Armenian – her newest lament for victims of the Armenian holocaust, you’re in Hollywood surrealism so rich that it makes everything else on the subject on TV look sick.

“Masters of Sex”

The show that follows “Ray Donovan” on the Showtime Network on Sundays remains, I think, the best show on television. It is also a post-modern TV milestone wherein a couple of very real cultural revolutionaries in America are re-created with fictional lives while still sticking close to all sorts of biographical facts.

What’s next? A weekly Showtime series about Steve Jobs?

Don’t laugh. After the new biopic hits theaters with Michael Fassbender playing Jobs, anything might happen