A Post In the Machine.
Thoughts on finding "Shetland," how "The Last of Us" kindles the question of humanity, Oscars, my new experiment on watching movies, long running series no one mentions; a proper place to watch TV.
A friend of mine who used to be a TV critic recently asked me about “Night Court” and I said, “I don’t know, before my time.” I could barely remember it. Then I found out why he was asking. So, there are no new ideas? Ah, I do not miss normal TV.
Switching gears, I discovered that “Shetland” is essentially normal TV, at least the two episodes that make up the first season (the second through seventh season each apparently have six episodes, so that should expand things). That first season came out in 2013 and I finally watched it a decade later. I mean, look, it’s been on the list a long time (although not a decade — I didn’t hear anything about it until, well, I can’t remember because I have a brutal headache, but the point stands).
I promised way back that I would finally get BritBox to watch “Shetland” (and countless other shows, of course), and that I would delve into the Scottish mystery series that’s darkly but lovingly shot and that all but demands a hygge-styled cold weather watching. Tons of California rain did the trick and, well, sure, I liked it. It definitely felt very 2013. The acting was recent vintage Brit styled but I’m guessing the long pauses between responses will be a little more crisp and modern as I plunge through the episodes.
Hell, I was just happy to get to that damned magical island I’d heard of so much. Is this going to be my modern “Murder, She Wrote" — because I’d really like it not to be. That fact that those two episodes were sort of dipping a toe in the water makes sense. It got great ratings back then and the push for new seasons followed. I just read that the eighth season will take place this year, with Ashley Jensen taking over the lead detective role from Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Pérez, which is quite the change. Looking forward to spending more time on “Shetland” but I doubt I’ll have caught up before the new version arrives.
Consider becoming a paid subscriber. I mean, no pressure. Just think about it. Don’t overthink it. But yeah, ponder.
Maybe I’m just in a dark islands kind of mood, since I just wrote about “The Banshees of Inisherin.” My first trip abroad — as a California boy I’m not counting Mexico as “abroad” — was to Ireland. Never made it out to the islands (my sister did) but fell in love with that moody bog. Scotland has been on the travel to-do list for a long while now. Maybe by then I’ll have watched all eight seasons and I’ll be walking the various islands late at night, a bit buzzy but happy, taking in the coastal cliffs, the brisk air and the solace of isolation. Sounds dreamy, actually.
I found a lot of the comment on “The Last of Us” interesting.
Lots of enthusiasm from those who saw the first episode last Sunday and from those looking forward to it, but what struck me was how yet another HBO post-apocalyptic series, “Station Eleven,” had left everyone feeling: they liked the optimistic approach that leavened a lot of what we (enthusiastically) sat through as viewers. Meaning, a lot of people wanted a little heart in their dystopian stories and it’s hard to disagree. I’m perfectly fine having my week (month?) ruined by something like “The Road” but if you transfer the bleakness into a TV series approaching 10-plus hours, I think that’s asking a lot of an audience.
Now, “The Last of Us” might not be that series to shine some hope on things — some people in the comments were sure it wouldn’t be — and I’ll take the pulse of readers in a bit to see if it’s all too overwhelmingly bleak or if the show finds a balance. At the very least, I think anyone who wanted to see “Station Eleven” but hasn’t found the time, now is the time. The “too soon” part of it — a flu pandemic — passes relatively quickly and as you settle in, the story is immensely creative with very few flaws to look back on. A lot of readers still hold that series in high regard — maybe higher than when we all first watched it in the Box Set format — now that so many other shows have come and gone. I miss it, too. Hell, my partner already started rewatching it on her own.
But I’m trying to think of what post apocalyptic series had glimmers of heart? I think it’s easy to have almost none in a movie because it’s so short (or to sprinkle a little bit of saccharine on top at the very end), but can anyone recall a TV series that got the balance right? It doesn’t have to be a world shattering event kind of apocalypse. Meaning, I think something like “Lost” might qualify?
Anyway, leave those ideas in the comments as usual.
Now that I don’t have to, of course, I’m not going to watch the Oscars. I used to have to review it as a TV spectacle, not as whether the “right” movie won the top awards. Very few years did I have the time as a TV critic, drowning in content, to find time to see many of the nominees. If I was lucky, two or three. I always thought movie critics had it pretty easy in that it’s just one film and done — two hours tops, some pondering, then a review. In TV, two hours got you almost nothing of relevance. Anyway, no need to look back in anger that movie critics had a much easier life — although they did, damn it — but I’ll try to stuff a couple of more nominees in before the awards on Tuesday.
But the Oscars make a fine segue to an experiment I’m going to try going forward when it comes to films (present and past): To walk in knowing nothing.
The best way to engage with any movie is to know nothing about it — but not everybody buys in or enjoys that approach. It’s certainly not for everyone. The trouble with knowing, let’s say, more than you should about what you’re about to see is that if what you find out from reading or watching the trailer that the movie is right in your wheelhouse — meaning, it reaffirms all the things you like and look forward to — that’s your mindset going in. That’s a bias.
Would you have liked the movie better — the same movie — not knowing beforehand that it was your kind of movie? Maybe knowing absolutely nothing lead to a different interpretation? Maybe that small plot detail that every review had to have — sometimes you can’t avoid everything that might be a “spoiler” to readers — was way more magically rewarding when it hit you unexpectedly than reading a flat sentence about it in a review?
I suppose the bigger issue is that most movie previews/trailers almost always give away the whole movie. It’s like the people editing together the previews don’t know where to stop — they give you a feel for what will happen and what you can expect and then, before you can turn away, the plot is essentially unspooled before your eyes.
I’ve lost track of the movies where I’ve seen a preview and then discover, as the film begins its story, that the writer and director have placed, let’s say, Character B in some dangerous turmoil. You have no idea if this character you’ve taken a liking to will survive — except that, oh, right, you saw the preview and it contained a scene that clearly took place later in the film and Character B is doing just swell. Goodbye tension and intrigue.
I don’t know. I’m of two minds on this issue and flip-flop a lot. I like to read about some movies (and sure, even some TV series if it’s from someone I trust). Reading reviews is one way to get excited about art. I mean, that was part of my career — and still is — so I’m not going to shoot myself in the face and say nobody should read reviews. Reading reviews saves precious time. It focuses your interests. And yeah, it’s kind of the backbone of this Substack, right? I mean, there’s other stuff, but still. And I'm human — it’s hard to turn away when a big flashy preview comes out. But whereas reviews will sometimes “spoil” something minor, a full-blown preview-teaser invariably ruins what you’re about to watch.
I remember watching “Parasite” on the big screen with almost no advanced knowledge of what was about to happen and I can tell you that the experience was undoubtedly so much weirder and better and more unexpected. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. So much was spoiled about that movie prior. Going in cold — that’s my new jam. Whenever possible.
Another reader-comment driven detour came about when Steven Rubio mentioned the FX series “The Strain,” from Guillermo del Toro (and Chuck Hogan) in the comments about “The Last of Us.” His point: He’d never heard anyone talk about it. My head: revelatory explosion. He’s right! I loved “The Strain,” at least the first two seasons, but it ran FOUR FULL SEASONS and I also don’t remember anyone ever talking about it. In fairness, I jumped in and so did others to say, wait, hey, we loved it! But I think Rubio was spot on. Few series go 46 EPISODES OVER FOUR YEARS and get forgotten so quickly. I mean, I can’t remember exactly why I stopped watching but I’m assuming it was for the usual reasons — I had already reviewed it and praised it here and there and there’s no stopping Peak TV, the treadmill keeps churning. So I was on to other stuff.
If you can come up with a better example than “The Strain,” of a series that was popular enough to last three or four seasons but it seems no one ever mentions it, we can debate it out in the comments.
Lastly, I know so many of you were excitedly and probably impatiently awaiting more compelling news about me moving. I get it. It’s thrilling. Let’s just say the rains put a real damper on things. But they are progressing.
What’s really important is this: I’m trying to decide what the perfect “viewing area” is. Over the years I’ve had some pretty great set-ups, but I got nowhere near perfection. Something sweet always ended up giving me a neck ache after a while, or the bed was too soft (or alluring) or the chairs were all wrong. I now have the perfect opportunity to get it right, as I move (yet again). For the record, I think the Portland set up is pretty sweet. But if we ever have guests, there goes the watching TV option as it’s in the guest room. So I’m determined to make the new Oakland rental set-up close to perfect.
And yet, following today’s theme, I think I’d rather ask you instead. (I’ll let you know what I come up with when it happens, but right now that space is yet to be built). So, what’s either your current dream set-up, or something from the past that was perfect or what are you dreaming of constructing in the future?
I realize not everybody fantasizes about furniture, design and the use of space as much as I do, but I’m sure you’ve thought about your viewing situation. Tell me what you’ve got now (I think the worst ones will be perversely more interesting?) and what you’d create if you could (within reason; I’m assuming not many of us have, say, fancy preview rooms like you see in the movies or on TV. Or, wait, do you?). What’s the layout and the seating situation? Is it a chair, a couch, a bed, the exact replica of a theater chair (ugh)? How big is the TV? How far are you from it? Do you need a foot stool? Are you enclosed? How’s the lighting? Dark and moody? Is there a ton of blankets nearby? How close to the refrigerator? Tell me where the wine goes. OK, yeah, that kind of thing. Let me know your experiences in the comments.
I’m off to the islands of my mind.
It appears I may have oversold Shetland. ;-) For future reference, all recommendations from me are likely to be Normal TV, since the shows that push boundaries or try something new most likely involve subjects or settings that aren't my bag -- hence all the British mystery shows. What drew me to Shetland (besides the novelty of a show not filmed in NYC, LA, Atlanta, or Vancouver) was the exploration of experiencing or investigating crime in a small place where lots of people affected already know the other people involved. Like an incredibly dark version of Mayberry. FYI, Season 2 is actually three two-episode arcs, adapted from Ann Cleeves's books; the six-episode arcs start with Season 3, which features Ciaran Hinds. I actually prefer the shorter arcs, which satisfy my need to see the mystery solved without an inordinate number of red herrings.
My practice for movies varies by title and by what I think may be in them -- Barbie? I'm going to go in cold. EO? You bet I went to Does the Dog Die to find out if anything bad happens to the donkey.
Great post, Tim. I will just answer a few questions.
1. I feel like there was some hope in the Leftovers once you got past that first grim season. But I don’t think that show is for the faint hearted.
2. As I commented above my TV setup only works at night, other than bright things like Bundesliga soccer or network sitcoms. But fine I will admit a TV setup I love: my iPad with headphones and my reading glasses on. It’s a newish iPad Air so an excellent screen. I catch a lot more dialogue this way. But it’s maybe a bit shameful to admit this!
3. I am late getting to post here so maybe we’ll talk more about The Last of Us, but ... I am beginning to think it’s too scary for me. I actually wish someone could tell me precisely when scary parts happen and the result in advance. That or watch during the day where I can barely see the screen! So while I think you’re onto something about knowing nothing about movies I need an amendment for scary shows.films.