I spend a fair bit of my copious free time exploring Ottawa, making photographs, using Skype to talk to the family, and studying Urdu for the next post. The fact is, however, I’ve got a lot of free time these days. Even with volunteering for non-consular duties, my work days are pretty much limited to eight hours. This will certainly change in Lahore, but until March, I’ve got a lot hours during the evening and week-ends with no pressing responsibilities. I read some, but I also watch TV.
I’ve got just about as many channels to watch in Ottawa as I had back home, including both East Coast and West Coast US network feeds. I find myself, however, spending most of my TV time catching up on old series that I completely missed when they were first broadcast. This appears to be a common pastime for foreign service folks living abroad, particularly those living without the plethora of other options. For me, it’s a way to turn the brain on neutral after the day’s stress (yes, doing visa interviews can be very stressful). It also provides a welcome distraction from missing the family.
Watching a series has been much more fun than a movie. I’m particularly drawn to a series if: (a) there’s a running plot, (b) it’s character driven, and (c) I haven’t seen it before. I’ve also found that it’s actually better if the show ended up being canceled after a couple of seasons. It’s far better to be left wanting more than to experience the “Jumping the Shark” moment which forever spoils the positive impression (I was 12 years old when the Fonz donned water skis to signal the beginning of the end for “Happy Days,” a TV moment forever responsible for the now ubiquitous phrase).
The key to determining whether the show works is that moment when an episode ends and I find myself doing the math to figure out if I can watch one more and still get enough sleep to be cogent the next morning. There is also the engrossing factor. I am a compulsive multi-tasker, particularly living alone for the first time in 25 years. It is not uncommon to find me with the TV on, the Giants game on (either a small window on the computer, streaming radio, or the GameCast silently updating), editing photographs, surfing the Internet, and playing Words With Friends on the iPad. A good show precludes most of that activity and requires me to watch (ok, maybe with the iPad on the couch).
Netflix provides a seemingly endless number of these shows. As a long-time TV addict, there were a number of shows that I followed when they first ran, but if you haven’t seen them, must see candidates in my book include The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights. That’s over a year’s worth of TV right there. The following list are those nuggets I’ve found and enjoyed since last October:
Jericho. Two seasons. Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney provide strong characters and an unfolding plot that is far from predictable. Starting with the nuclear detonation of 23 U.S. cities, the show is focused on the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, one of the few places far enough from the blast radius to still function. Definitely a show that made me want to watch just one more before ending the day.
Kings. One season. I’ll now watch anything with Ian McShane (Deadwood is on the short list for the future). He’s amazing in this short-lived but well-written one-season wonder. The production costs must have been too high for the low ratings as each episode looks like a well-done movie. The premise centers on the internal machinations of a modern-day absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Gelboa. Using a long series of clever modern parallels, the unfolding plot is very loosely based on the biblical story of King David. The central character, David, for example, gains initial notoriety in the opening episode by single-handedly facing down the enemy’s indestructible “Goliath” tank. When this one ended, I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a second season.
Veronica Mars. Three Seasons. Very stylized father/daughter detective show set in the fictional upscale town of Neptune, California. Each season has a big plot (e.g., who killed Veronica’s best friend or who’s responsible for the bus-load of students flying off a cliff) and many smaller complex cases that resolve each episode. Once again, the common themes of good writing and solid acting make for an easy-to-watch distraction. Not sure why we haven’t seen more of Kristin Bell. Unlike most shows, they make the transition from high school to college without completely losing the show’s focus (as they did in two of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, the original Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). They were smart to pull the plug after Season 3.
Prison Break. Four Seasons. Watching the first episode, I was thinking this would not be a keeper. It really sucks you in, however, to a core story involving two brothers: one on death row and the other a structural engineer. The engineer spends six months creating an intricate plan to break his innocent brother out, tattoos the encoded plan over his entire upper body, and holds up a bank to get get thrown into the same prison. It’s not quite Oz, but the mix of sadistic inmates and guards throws wrench after wrench into the well-oiled escape plan. I’m currently on Season 4 which I’m still watching mostly because of the strength of the characters, but this one might have been better served by shutting down after the third season.
So what’s next after Prison Break? I haven’t decided yet. Let me know if you have any suggestions.