The first season of American Horror Story was just about the most fun thing on TV last year. Rent the DVD if you missed it. Jessica Lange’s disturbed Southern matriarch alone is worth the price. This season has a completely new story set in an asylum run by nuns in the early Sixties. Lange and Zachary Quinto are back in brand new roles. Along for the ride are some other great actors—James Cromwell (as a mad scientist) and Chloe Sevigny (as a nymphomanic.) Nuns, nymphos, and ne’er-do-wells, oh my!
Lange and Cromwell battle it out for influence in the asylum, sucking up to the monsenior priest played by Joseph Fiennes, who’s obviously got some disturbing secrets of his own. Whether science or religion wins the battle, it’s bad news for the inmates–would you rather have a caning or a medical experiment done on you? Don’t answer until you see those experiments. I pick the spanking.
A few episodes into season two and it’s hard to say if they’re going to completely pull it off. There may be one too many story-lines (back stories for all the inmates and the staff, aliens, monsters, ghosts, serial killers, and baking.) But they’ve got time. If it all pulls together, it may top the first season, just by risking more. Even if it stays a bit of a mess, plot-wise, it has tons of great acting (this time out, Lange does a Boston accent and a whole new flavor of human villainy) and a truly creepy atmosphere.
As well, there are some deeply evocative social themes. In case we are undervaluing the social changes the late sixties brought about, this show’ll remind us of the kind of unchecked power fuelled by repression that damaged so many lives. A religious mental institution is the perfect metaphor for the social order of the first half of the twentieth century. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia—choose your poison—it’s all here in full bloom. Don’t let the current crop of frightened conservatives glorify the Fifties. The old days sucked.
For laughs, two mockumentaries: Modern Family just keeps on going and going. It’s Anne Romney’s favorite show, for goodness sakes! It does a couple of things really well. The laughs come steadily from odd angles and the picture of contemporary America includes gays and Hispanics woven into the fabric. From a gay perspective, it’s nice to see we’ve arrived solidly enough to be poked fun at just like everybody else. Eric Stonestreet’s flamboyant gay househusband might have seemed too much of a scary caricature half a decade earlier, but there are enough boring gay accountants on TV who are perfectly masculine (aren’t there?) that the Cam’s of the world can grab a chunk of airtime without implying that all gays are self-absorbed swishy drama queens (aren’t they?) In many ways, this show, and Will & Grace before it, have probably done more for queer acceptance in the mainstream than a hoard of earnest advocates and outraged protestors. Luckily, we can have it all.
Despite its post-modern get-up, the show has extremely traditional sitcom bones–there’s nothing radical about making fun of Spanish accents, grumpy codgers, and bickering couples, whether they are gay, straight, or intergenerational. If it wasn’t so damn funny, and such a stealth vehicle for diversity rights, it’d be junk. But, nope, well be laughing at it while it changes Americans minds about gay people.
Much more worthy from a purely aesthetic point of view is Parks and Recreation. Amy Poehler plays a gung-ho municipal civil servant. She’s surrounded by a cast of quirky colleagues. Again, despite the mockumentary freshness, it’s not too far from The Mary Tyler Moore Show or other quirky workplace comedies. What makes it so good is the character acting and writing. It’s brilliantly done. And they don’t shy away from celebrating friendship and good hard work. So much TV comedy is sour, people bitching, whining, and insulting one another to a robotic laugh track. This one is about something – civic engagement as an extension of friendship and community – and it’s good hearted.
For something a little less “studio” you might want to check out the British series Threesome. It’s getting a little paler in the second season, but the first year had a loving portrait of a group of friends—a straight couple and their gay roommate—that didn’t attempt to airbrush out the darker aspects of contemporary life (drugs, sex, apathy) while celebrating the construction of an alternative family. Unfortunately, it appears to be getting too safe now that the baby’s arrived. Although, that might just be realism. I’ve seen enough parents cease being interesting in real life.
Speaking of the truth: Reality shows are scooping up an increasing amount of the TV universe and most of them are utterly revolting. Their cinematic cousin, the documentary film, is exemplary, subtle, and inspiring, for the most part. But on the small screen, it’s all dumbnuts and storage lockers. The only one I like is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Yeah, I’m shocked, too. I was dragged to watch it and I thought the only fun would be the giggly sense of superiority I’d feel watching redneck toddler pageant families do nothing much of anything worthwhile. Yeah, it’s all that. But Mama’s a folk-philosopher of the stoic Marcus Aurelius school and the family is all kinds of love.
They don’t mean anybody any harm and they cook along trying to make life better for one another and their community. I fell in love with them and I bet you might too. The Kardashians however, will make you long for Dante’s underworld. It’ll be interesting to see the difference in the upcoming season. After a year of mega-fame, will the family be different? And will TLC pay their most lucrative reals more than four grand an episode? Have yourself a redneck party and soak up season one before the clan descends for round two.
For period drama nothing beats Downton Abbey. The nobles and their servants in the great old house get up to serious mischief. The great fun is who’s the biggest bitch, Maggie Smith’s Dowager snob or O’Brien the Machiavellian lady’s maid? Class is one thing, psychology another. The show is as much about the upstairs/downstairs parallels as it is about the distinctions. There’s some juicy gayness too! Put on your ascots and have a marathon viewing party. Three seasons of domestic intrigue, class warfare, sex and betrayal; add World War One for pathos, and Maggie Smith’s glorious zingers for comedy.
While we wait eagerly for the return and finale to Breaking Bad and to see if Doctor Who will keep up its giddy-twilight-zone creativity (these two shows being the most worthy things on television and better than most of what’s on the big screen too these days), these series (AHS, ModFam, P’n’R, BooBoo, Downton and 3-some) should tide you over with their many delights and surprises. Stay tuned.