Thursday, 4 October 2012

Stop Flipping! The New Rules of TV

From where to (legally) stream your favorite shows to viewing advice from the best minds in the business, here's everything you need to know about the new golden age of television
Nearly everything about how we watch television has changed. For starters, we can do it anytime we want. (Thank you, Hulu, Netflix, and stuff we've never heard of!) And yes: The shows are a whole lot sexier, more terrifying, complex, and hilarious than the ones we grew up with. It is, as people like to say, a new golden age of television. What few of the countless TV evangelists talk about, though, is that all that change means you can't watch the way you used to. For one thing, we don't care about seasons anymore; we consume in vast chunks, whenever we want, and through a mind-boggling array of content providers. For another: There's so freaking much good stuff to watch! It's a little intimidating. Which is why we've compiled this user's guide—not only to which series deserve hours of your life, but literally how to watch them. A new TV world deserves new rules. Here are ours.

Rule 1. No Channel Surfing

It used to be a respectable TV strategy: The inviolable right to surf was the sort of beer-commercial Man Law that whole episodes of Home Improvement were built around. Now it's a sucker's move, a thousand-channel rabbit hole that begins with the delusion that you're going to stumble upon that Peckinpah film you've always said you wanted to see and ends with you watching a three-hour block of Two and a Half Men. You don't have time for that anymore. There are a lot of hours of must-watch TV to be digested every week (and no, must-watch does not include anything that purports to be about reality, as addictive as Hillbilly Handfishin' can be); those hours quickly add up. If you don't move fast, the conversation has passed you by. And who wants to be the loser covering his ears three years from now to avoid Breaking Bad spoilers? (By the way, if you're finally deciding, a month before the final season begins, that you're ready to buy the hype, congratulations—you have roughly thirty-seven hours of couch time ahead before the show returns to AMC in July.)

Obviously, live sports is the one exception to this rule. You are permitted to be knocked off your Game of Thrones course by an NBA playoff. But choose your battles and set boundaries. Bulls-Heat? Yes. Raptors-Bobcats? No. (In fact, strike the sentence "I'm just gonna catch a few minutes of the first quarter" from your vocabulary entirely. Why are you watching the first quarter of a basketball game?) The point is, this rule isn't about giving up your power. It's about mastering it. Stay on target, Red Leader. Be the TV.
Rule 2. Consume in Vast Quantities

Telling people "I hooked up with thirteen women this weekend" makes you sound like a creep. It's almost an act of valor, however, to stumble out of your apartment after a weekend-long TV binge, all squinty and pale, jabbering about a season's worth of white-trash smackdowns on Justified. With the TV binge, you enter into a kind of trance state in which every character is as lovingly familiar as a college friend and every one of a hundred plot points makes sense. But like everything else, there is a proper way to binge.


DO watch with a significant other. You know how having sex by yourself is sad but having sex with another human is great? It's like that.

DON'T inhale an entire series in one day; four or five eps at a time should be your limit. (Think a robust Bordeaux, not a box of Franzia.)

DO remember basic rules of health and hygiene. Every two episodes, hydrate with water (as in drink it) and do a couple of crunches.

DON'T binge on sitcoms with laugh tracks, even if it's How I Met Your Mother. (See Rule 7.)
Rule 3: Buddy TV is the New Buddy Movie

The magnificent badinage of The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and Ed Norton (Art Carney) showed, gloriously, the ability of small-screen storytelling—via its patient episode-by-episode character spelunking—to provide friendships of novelistic depth and nuance. And as that storytelling has gotten more complex and densely packed, so have the bromances—now the most satisfying relationships on TV: to wit, Californication's profane yet passionate symbiosis of man-children, Hank Moody (David Duchovny) and Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler); the hilarious yin-yang of Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) on PBS's Sherlock; and, since she won't let Louis C.K. into her pants, Louie's bro-in-all-but-name and true platonic mate, Pamela (Pamela Adlon).

Rule 4: Do Not Waste Time on Shows That Are Just Good Enough

As in the ones that merely look like they are good, thanks to lavish productions and mood substituting for substance: AMC's The Killing; HBO's Boardwalk Empire; AMC's Hell on Wheels; Starz's Magic City; AMC's The Walking Dead. (Or just watch the first and last episode of every season, when they blow their wad on zombie extras and stuff actually happens.)

Rule 5: Do Find Time for Brilliant Shows killed in Their Prime

Supply Your Own Ending
1. David Milch's Deadwood (three seasons, HBO)
The smartest, dirtiest, most Swearengen-est Western that TV has ever produced. Yeah, ever.

2. Ted Griffin's Terriers (one season, FX)
Showcases the greatest balls-out pair of private eyes, played by Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James.

3. Jonathan Ames's Bored to Death (three seasons, HBO)
People either hated it or loved it. But for the lovers, it perfectly depicts a certain kind of modern man: regressed, fearful, embarrassingly in touch with his feelings. Also gave Ted Danson the opportunity to create another transcendent cad.
Rule 6: TV-MA is Greater Than NC-17

An envelope-pushing sexy movie often equals arty, which, by extension, equals dull. If you've ever watched vampire Eric bang Sookie on HBO's True Blood, you know that doesn't apply to cable TV. For the most brazen sex, look no further than Starz's Spartacus, which is pure pulp in the grandest sense (like the great HBO series Rome without the pretensions of cultural critique). There's more omnisexual nudity than on Game of Thrones, Californication, and Girls, and that's saying something.

RULE 7: The Best Comedies Are the Ones That Are Good Even When They're Not Funny

At this point, the laugh track is an awkward relic of the past. Literally: Many laugh tracks were recorded in the '50s, meaning there are dead people guffawing at Chris D'Elia on Whitney. (Poignant, kind of!) Also, laugh tracks are to TV bingeing as too many Cheetos are to food bingeing: You feel a little nauseated after one bag. Fortunately, comedies don't have to dress up in comedy clothes anymore. Our favorites—FX's Louie and HBO's Girls—don't even have punch lines. Both feature some really cringe-inducing humiliation (much of it sexual), as well as the occasional affecting-without-being-sentimental growth moment. Who knew character development could be so hilarious?
RULE 8: This is What Pot Was Invented For

We get that reality TV is a lot more entertaining when stoned. (This is Top Chef on drugs: HOLY SHIT, DUDE, WE COULD TOTALLY MAKE THAT STEAK THINGY WITH DEVILED AIOLI AND MISO-SMOKED KIDNEY BEANS!!!) But pot enhances highbrow, too, thrusting you deeper into a milieu and highlighting nuance; subtext becomes text! Maggie Smith's Downton Abbey bons mots are even funnier with a few tokes. And Homeland is that much more suspenseful after the weed kicks your paranoia up to Threat Level Red. Yes, we just endorsed experimenting with drugs
RULE 9: Think of the Major Networks as a Garage Sale

There's lots of crap, but there are gems. Forget everything except these eight shows: CBS's The Good Wife and How I Met Your Mother; NBC's 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation (skip season one); ABC's Happy Endings and Revenge; Fox's New Girl.
Instant Literacy: A TV Auteur's Must-Watch Syllabus

Jane Espenson, Game of Thrones writer and consulting producer of Once Upon a Time, suggests:

1. "Room Service," season five, Frasier:* A sex-farce episode that turns into a genuine and bittersweet exploration of character. A master class in sitcom writing.

2. "Hush," season four, Buffy the Vampire Slayer:* Hysterically funny and genuinely creepy with nary a word spoken.

3. Twin Peaks pilot:* Looked and felt like nothing that came before it and instantly established a sense of place and character.

*See Rule 11 for how to watch these shows.
Rule: 10 British TV Is Not Always Better Than American...

...despite what your snobby friends might say (unless they're talking about the British Skins; our MTV version sucked ass—which likely happened on the UK's!). But these five are damn good and worth seeking out.

Whip-Smart Whodunit
Justified (FX) = Sherlock (PBS)
Benedict Cumberbatch's deductive reasoning is faster than Raylan Givens's trigger finger.

Drama with Smoking
Mad Men (AMC) = The Hour (BBC America)
Swap out Mad Ave. for the Suez Canal and you get this sophisticated mystery set at a '50s TV show.

Comedy Nerds
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) = The IT Crowd (Netflix)
Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd and Richard Ayoade as the put-upon brainiacs.

Undead vs. Humans
The Walking Dead (AMC) = The Fades (BBC America)
Instead of zombies chomping people, it's ghosts. Geeky, funny, scary.

Idris Elba
The Wire (HBO) = Luther (BBC America)
Elba as a detective is even weirder, crazier, and more dangerous than Stringer Bell

Instant Literacy: A TV Auteur's Must-Watch Syllabus

Damon Lindelof, executive producer of 'Lost,' suggests:

1. First four episodes of season three, Battlestar Galactica:* Proves great sci-fi can feel like it's happening now.

2. "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'" The X-Files; and "Pine Barrens," The Sopranos:* Most outside-the-box brilliant demonstrations of storytelling.

3. The Wire, season three:* Perfection.

4. "Flip," The Larry Sanders Show:* Best finale. Emotional, hysterical, nonapologetic.

*See Rule 11 for how to watch these episodes.
Rule 11: Think Outside the Box (as in Your TV Set)

TVLinks ( Highly useful European site collects tons of questionably legal destinations to your top shows.

YouTube ( Slowly emerging as a strong home for original content.

Hulu ( For limitless good stuff, you'll need to pay eight bucks a month. For fast access to awesome network shows (see Rule 9), that's peanuts.

Netflix ( The ultimate bingeing enabler launched its first series, Lilyhammer, releasing the entire season.

HBO GO ( The cleanest, easiest way to enjoy all of HBO's original shows, even old episodes of Cathouse!

Funny or Die ( Still great; still pulling big stars to do dumb shit.

Yahoo! Screen ( A Funny or Die wannabe spending on the right talent, like Mike O'Brien's 7 Minutes in Heaven.

Epix ( Has a growing library of old classics and original programs; Louis C.K.'s film Hilarious was released here.
Rule 12: You Cannot Resist Aaron Sorkin, So Don't Even Try

Admit it. When you heard about his new series on HBO, The Newsroom (debuting June 24)—the one where Jeff Daniels plays a media mash-up of Keith Olbermann and Tom Brokaw with a hint of Howard Beale— you rolled your eyes: Here come the same tricks—Sorkin's patented zippy-speechy-preachy trifecta, this time applied to news rather than sports (Sports Night) or politics (The West Wing). Same old shit. And yeah, it is the same old smart, addictive, entertaining-as-hell shit. Which is why you're going to watch it. Resistance is futile.

Rule 12a: Ditto for Julia Louis-Dreyfus

As the never-not-humiliated vice president in Armando Iannucci's HBO comedy, Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets to pair her cranky chutzpah with her snappiest dialogue since Seinfeld.
Rule 13: shut your dang mouth!

1. Never post spoilers on Twitter or Facebook.  One second you're scrolling through tweets of Ice-T's wife posting micro-thong pictures of herself. The next, some fuckhead is springing a crucial Homeland plot point on you. It's like being blindsided with a kick to your kidneys.

2. Never, ever bring up spoilers at the office without first asking, "Did you see [name of show] last night?" And please, keep your spoiler-laden watercooler gabfest to a low volume.

3. Don't spoil something and then say, "That's not really a spoiler." Critics do this all the time, especially with stuff that happens early in the episode. As if an event in the first five minutes somehow doesn't count. It all counts.

4. Don't try to talk your way around a spoiler. The worst person in the world is the one who, upon learning you haven't watched something, then tries to talk about it anyway with, "All I'll say is..."  NO! All you will say is nothing. Telling me my mind will be blown still ruins it.

5. All that said, if you've waited a decade to watch The Sopranos, then screw you. Tony kills Big Pussy.

 Rule 14: a single serving of evil is no longer enough

Whereas movie villains can do bad things for only two hours, TV creeps have whole seasons in which to worm their way into our hearts and souls as they incrementally give up their own. Consider Breaking Bad's Walter White, whose transformation from prey to predator wreaks havoc on the very idea of an antihero.

And Sometimes We're Nursing a Lifetime Crush

Claire Danes then, as Angela Chase on My So-Called Life: "Things were getting to me."

Claire Danes now, as Carrie Mathison on Homeland: "Fuck this shit."
Rule 16: Stop Talking About The Wire

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed The Wire as much as the next white person who owns a pair of J.Crew pants. I do have a heart and a Netflix account. But it's been almost five years since David Simon's critically fellated show about Baltimore's urban poor has dearly departed us, and still Wire widows won't put down the torch. Indeed, earlier this year President Obama was asked who his favorite Wire character is, for the second time in his presidency. (Yup, it's still Omar. Who is everybody's favorite character. Might as well have asked the President to name his favorite member of Adele.) Wire fans don't just love the show, they love what they think loving the show says about them—which is basically that they are smart, have good taste, and care about black people. There's now a Twitter dedicated to calling out people who use The Wire as pick-up bait in their online dating profiles. (Exhibit A: "On our first date, we can quote scenes from The Wire."—Male, 29) As a lady who has ventured to grab a drink with such males, I can tell you that a good proportion of them seem to confuse owning the DVD box set with, oh you know, fully understanding the plight of the urban poor in America.

But here's the thing: At this point, The Wire isn't a little underdog show in its first season with no one watching. And proselytizing about it now doesn't make you seem smarter, as much as it makes you sound like a cliché. You know that old expression, "If you love something, let it go, and stop wearing it around like a goddamn Boy Scout badge"? Let's apply here. Rest in peace, The Wire. Hopefully, the next time someone dredges up your memory it will be on your tenth anniversary, not next Tuesday.
Rule 17: become a connoisseur of decapitation

For originality, honors go to (spoiler alerts!) death by Uncle Tio's bell on Breaking Bad, by molten crown on Game of Thrones, and by flesh-eating ants on Sons of Anarchy. But for sheer guts and gore, Spartacus cleans up. The series seems to have an entire staff devoted to decapitation and dismemberment. The final episode of the first season is called "Kill Them All." Not to give too much away, but they do kill them all.
Instant Literacy: A TV Auteur's Must-Watch Syllabus

Graham Yost, executive producer of Justified, suggests:

1. Hill Street Blues:* Begin with episode one, then keep going. Every quality cop show since is in its debt.

2. Lost:* The first two seasons have more jaw-dropping moments than most series have in their entire run.

3. The West Wing:* Shining example of creator as auteur, with the most identifiable "writer's voice" in TV history. Just as you can tell a Mamet play after reading five lines, every scene is an Aaron Sorkin scene.

*See Rule 11 for how to watch these shows.

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