News Column

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel On TV/Radio column

July 15, 2013

YellowBrix

July 15--Television and summer are natural enemies.

And, for many years, summer won. Nice weather and longer days kept people outside.

But television no longer rolls over and plays dead when the weather turns warm.

Broadcast networks still churn out reruns and reality shows. But cable and streaming services, and the occasional network show like CBS' "Under the Dome," have made warm-weather viewing as refreshing as a glass of iced sun tea. And while it's my duty to watch these shows, it's also a pleasure to do so when they restore my faith in quality TV.

They are often limited-run shows, made economically feasible by fewer episodes, and those on cable and streaming services have fewer restrictions in portraying adult subject matter than broadcasters.

But their appeal is not about sex, language and violence, although these seem to be constants. It's about deviating from the tropes and formulas that make broadcast programming derivative and brain-dead on arrival.

The results are often narratively polysyllabic and morally ambiguous in ways that only few network shows -- like "House" -- aspire to be. They present puzzles whose solutions are not always obvious, and pose questions that often have more than one answer.

Here are a few that kept me on the couch this summer.

"Orange Is the New Black" Dramedy about a suburban woman who lands in prison for a crime she committed when she was in college. She is an "Alice in Wonderland"-type character making friends and enemies as she attempts to survive her harsh new reality. Not particularly compelling, but diverting enough to make you want to know what happens next, which is the key to successful serial narrative. All 13 episodes were made available last week on Netflix, which has already ordered a second season. By the creator of "Weeds."

"The Newsroom" This politically muddled HBO series set at a fictional news network is an acquired taste. While its "reporting" of actual news events from the recent past makes it appear omniscient, its characters can't see the forest for the trees. The second season is as annoying as the first. One recurring storyline deals with a report that the U.S. military used nerve gas, another is about a reporter embedded with the Romney campaign. Much time is also spent exploring the intersecting love lives of the characters, including that of the anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The news president played by Sam Waterston -- rarely without a drink in his hand -- steals every scene. Premiered Sunday night with repeats on HBO Go, iTunes.

"Orphan Black" First season of BBC America show weaves a tangled web. It's about a young woman who witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks just like her and assumes that woman's identity. She learns they are clones, stumbles across others that look like her and gets caught in a plot to kill them and her. Addictive serial drama has an "X-Files" and "Dollhouse" vibe. I've only seen two episodes, but found it enjoyable and unpredictable. Can be seen at On Demand, iTunes, Vudu and Amazon. Second season starts in the spring of 2014.

"The Bridge" If you watch "The Killing," you may enjoy the latest reworking of the mismatched-partners police procedural. A taciturn cop -- played by Oscar nominee Demian Bechir -- from the Mexican side of the border, and a cop with Asperger's syndrome -- played by Diane Krueger -- on the Texas side investigate the murder of victims whose bodies straddle both borders. The actors, including Ted Hope of "Monk," help make the well-worn serial-killer plot bearable. Based on a Swedish series. Episode one, which premiered last week, streams at fxnetworks.com; new episodes air Wednesdays on FX.

"Sharknado" was not the first SyFy channel shark movie by a long shot. It was preceded over the years by, among others, "Sharktopus" and "Dinoshark."But for some reason, last week's cheesy "Sharknado," in which tornadoes dropped sharks into affected communities, caught the fancy of Short-Attention Nation.

And though it drew a relatively modest audience of 1.3 million, it seemed like everyone was watching. According to the Hollywood Reporter, there were 5,000 tweets per minute about the movie, and it received 387,000 mentions on social media.

"This movie is such a ripoff of The Bicycle Thief," tweeted Damon Lindelof, screenwriter of "Lost," "World War Z" and "Star Trek Into Darkness."

"I usually hate Wes Anderson, but 'Sharknado's' pretty good," tweeted comic Rob Delaney. SyFy has not yet announced plans for a sequel but will repeat "Sharknado" Thursday at 6 p.m.

"As Goes Janesville," Milwaukee filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein's documentary about the budget battles in Madison and the closing of the General Motors plant in U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's home district, has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism. The film was shown at the Milwaukee Film Festival and aired on PBS.

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Keep up with TV and movies on Dudek's blog, The Dudek Abides: www.jsonline.com/dudek.

Twitter: @TheDudekAbides.

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(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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