TV Shows I Like

Something compels me to tell you the TV shows I really like. In no special order:

  1. The Fall. Gillian Anderson is an out-of-town detective called in to solve a string of murders. On Netflix.
  2. Mom. Humor with a sad undercurrent (this show) is  much better than less-layered humor (The Big Bang Theory, by the same people).
  3. Nashville. As good as Thelma and Louise (by the same person), but longer.
  4. Downton Abbey. No show portrays kindness better.
  5. Survivor. Current season (Blood versus Water), in which returning players playing against their loved ones, might be the best ever.
  6. The Mindy Project. The wittiest TV show. (Hello Ladies is good.)
  7. Masters of Sex. About Masters and Johnson. Early personal science — sex mystified Masters. 
  8. Homeland. The first episode makes me think this season will be even better than the first.
  9. Peaky Blinders. About a Birmingham crime family post World War I.
  10. Mad Men (between seasons).
  11. Episodes (between seasons). Matt LeBlanc plays Matt LeBlanc. Very funny.
  12. Separated at Birth (between seasons).
  13. The Fosters (between seasons). About a foster family.
  14. Veep (between seasons). My favorite show — well, either this or Downton Abbey or Nashville.


Assorted Links

  • Open Source Malaria
  • Criticism of Malcolm Gladwell by The KoreanGladwell’s persuasive rebuttal, more from The Korean, more from Gladwell. I thought the work under discussion (“ethnic theory of plane crashes”) was the best part of Outliers. Gladwell summarizes it: “That chapter in Outliers is about a series of extraordinary steps taken by Korean Air, in which an institution on the brink of collapse and disgrace turned themselves into one of the best airlines in the world. They did so by bravely confronting the fact that a legacy of their cultural heritage was frustrating open communication in the cockpit. That is not a slight on Korean culture, or any other high-power distance culture for that matter.”
  • More praise for the new TV show Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel. It really is riveting.
  • Ziploc omelette. Poor man’s sous vide.

Thanks to Nicole Harkin.

Gary Shteyngart is a Very Funny Guy

I heard Gary Shteyngart (latest book Super Sad True Love Story) at the Beijing Bookworm. No better job of authorial self-promotion have I seen. He was born in Leningrad in 1972, he grew up hearing jokes from his parents. For example: The 1980 Summer Olympics were in Moscow. At the time, Brezhnev was in charge. He was going senile. At an Olympic ceremony,  he gave a speech. His hands shook holding the text of his talk.

“Ohhhhhh…..” he read.

He paused.


He paused.


An apparatchik ran up to him. “Senior Comrade Brezhnev, those are the Olympic Rings!”

The moderator asked Shteyngart what he thought of Putin’s plan to require every Russian teenager to read a specified 100 great books by graduation. “These things never work,” said Shteyngart. “American cities have done this. Everyone’s supposed to read a certain book, usually To Kill a Mockingbird. Never tell someone what to read.” However, he said one of his favorite authors is Karen Russell. (For a New Yorker podcast, he read a story by Andrea Lee.)

I asked about his favorite TV shows. He mentioned The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. “Who would have guessed that TV would become a great art form?” He is writing a show for HBO about Brooklyn immigrants.

I learned that he was interviewed by a magazine called Modern Drunkard. The interviewer — not Shteyngart — mentions an Russian saying: “The church is near, but the road is icy. The bar is far away, but I will walk carefully.” How true.




Edward Jay Epstein on Homeland

A new series on Showtime called Homeland is about a CIA agent (played by Claire Danes) who believes that a newly-released American prisoner of war may have been “turned” during his years in Iraqi captivity. In the first episode, she tries to find evidence to support her belief. Judging by that episode, it is very good.

I told Edward Jay Epstein about it — his book on James Angleton centers on CIA infiltration by “moles”. He commented: Continue reading “Edward Jay Epstein on Homeland

Great TV: Downton Abbey, Switched At Birth, Suits

Everyone knows Mad Men, The Good Wife, and Glee — especially Mad Men — are great TV. If you read about TV, you have read about them — especially Mad Men — endlessly. Not everyone knows that Downton Abbey (second season trailer), Switched At Birth, and Suits are also great TV.

Downton Abbey is great because Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Snobs and Gosford Park, is a great writer. The plot is good, the details are good. I’d read or watch anything he does. (After I wrote this post I came across this interview with Fellowes — apparently the NY Times saw the same gap in coverage as I did.)

Switched At Birth is great because to a perfectly good idea for a TV show (two girls are switched at birth, a fact discovered when they are teenagers) was added — by management, not the originators of the show — an excellent idea: one of the girls is deaf. This adds an attractive layer of complexity and novelty (deaf teenage life).

Suits appears formulaic: lawyer show, buddy show, cartoon villain, romantic plot connecting the episodes, every episode, the good guys win cleverly. But perhaps the formula, whatever it is, is really well-executed because I enjoy every episode and don’t feel dirty afterwards.




The Kennedys (TV mini-series)

This reviewer hated it, this reviewer panned it (“trivializes history”), but I loved it. Never has “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” (here, a great criminal, Joe Kennedy) been so well dramatized. Yet I came away from this series executive-produced by a Republican with a higher opinion of JFK and Bobby.

When I was in sixth grade, I did a survey in which I phoned random strangers and asked them history questions. To my chagrin, one of my “correct” answers (to the question “what year was the Bay of Pigs?”) was wrong. Until I watched this series, I didn’t really know what the Bay of Pigs was. Until I watched this series, I didn’t know important details of several other big events of the time, such as the struggle to admit James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. Supposedly JFK threatened the Governor of Mississippi with loss of all future NCAA Bowl invitations. “You can’t do that!” said the Governor. Surely fictional, but a nice touch.

What I’m Watching

  1. The Killing (the American version on AMC). The best TV is getting smarter and smarter and this is an example. It seems formulaic (combine good acting, good writing, good visuals, suspense . . . ) but the formula is so effective and well-executed I am drawn in.
  2. The Good Wife. The last drama standing.
  3. The Spice Trails. The global and historical origins of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, saffron and vanilla.
  4. Civilization: Is the West History? Pleasantly conceptual. Why did China decline, while Europe rose? Why did democracy do so much better in North America than South America?
  5. A History of Ancient Britain. Through the eyes of an archeologist.


TV Recommendations

TV is getting better and better.

1. Temple Grandin (HBO). I’d read Oliver Sacks’s story about her and seen a BBC documentary about her. This was far more moving.

2. Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Bravo). A competition. Each week the contestants are given a task (make a portrait, make art from junk). The person who does the worst job is eliminated. Bravo’s great The It Factor followed actors in New York and Los Angeles and made you feel the constant rejection. This has the same vibe in the sense that much of what the contestants make is heavily criticized (“a middle-school art project”).

3. Undercover Boss (CBS). A head of a big company works at a low-level job in his company. Week after week, it has some of the most touching moments I’ve ever seen. When this or that employee learns that someone noticed their hard work or talent, they start crying. Because it relied on deception (“we’re making a documentary about entry-level jobs”), I wonder if there will be another season.

Best TV Season Ever

Here are my favorites (better to worse):

  1. Mad Men.
  2. Glee.
  3. Lie to Me.
  4. The Good Wife.
  5. Survivor.
  6. Amazing Race.
  7. Ugly Betty.

Most seasons I might like three shows as much or more than I like Ugly Betty this season. In most seasons Amazing Race would be in the top three. And 60 Minutes, Frontline, 30 Rock, and Modern Family are watchable. Lie to Me and The Good Wife have both managed to make a case-of-the-week show seem fresh, new, and complex.

Deliberate Anachronism in Mad Men?

In the latest episode of Mad Men, one of Betty Draper’s friends wants to know who someone is. She consults a book. Oh, he’s a bigshot, she says.

Was this deliberate? A not-very-in-joke? In the 1960s — even in the 1980s! — there was no Google-like book that said who living people are. You had to go to the library. It used to be fun to read the New Yorker Christmas poem (“Greetings, friends!”) and try to learn about the people you couldn’t identify. It was hard.

More In light of the first seven comments below I reviewed the scene. The mystery man, an advisor to Governor Rockefeller (not in advertising), is listed in a thin spiral-bound notebook. Who’s Who was much thicker and never spiral-bound. Here is the 1962 New York Social Register — much thicker and not spiral-bound. A later comment suggested the notebook contained “a copy” of the Register. No way — there were no Xerox machines back then. The woman who looks the mystery man up in the notebook tears his page out of the notebook and hands it to Betty — just like sending someone a link.