TV Recap: Black-ish, Madam Secretary, Person of Interest

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard about Black-ish, maybe praising it as the best new sitcom to come along in a while, maybe lamenting the fact that it’s the first new “black” sitcom to come along in a while (on network television, anyway) or maybe lauding it as the “new Cosby,” which it is, and isn’t, but is good enough to at least be considered in that sort of vein, the same way The Mindy Project is the new Mary Tyler Moore (whether Mulaney is the new Seinfeld remains to be addressed, however).

Whatever you’ve heard about it, know this:  Black-ish is laugh out loud funny, features a star (Anthony Anderson) who is not necessarily known for comedy but who is a real revelation as patriarch Dre Johnson, and offers the most positive portrayal of an African-American family since (here it comes) The Cosby Show.

The 21st century version finds upper middle class marrieds Dre & Rainbow Johnson (Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross – in a Cosby twist, she’s the doctor) one generation removed from “the struggle” represented by Dre’s cantankerous father (brilliantly and hilariously played by Laurence Fishburne).  The Johnsons are a sitcom-perfect blend of responsibly concerned for but cluelessly unconnected to their sitcom-appropriately cute kids ranging from grade school to high school age.  But the genius of Black-ish stems from its premise and incredibly sharp writing.

The Johnsons are shocked to realize that their kids are only dimly aware of their own blackness – they are the true 21st century cliche of millennials who don’t “see color.”  What ensues is a startlingly acute and funny examination of just what it means to be black in America in 2014.

Black-ish, Anthony Anderson

Father Knows Best – Dre tries to “keep it real” with his teenage son

I hesitate to use words and phrases like “important” “vital” or “urgently needed” when describing any TV show, and especially a sitcom that’s trying to make us laugh, but in an age where the news is filled with stories of both cops and just assholes with guns opening fire on unarmed black men right and left, it’s hard not to.  When The Cosby Show first aired in 1984, the media portrayal of black America was flooded with images of crack houses, welfare lines and Willie Horton.   A quarter-century later, we elected our first black President.  I know Black-ish doesn’t want or need the pressure of being the cure-all for the sum-total of American racism circa 2014, but damned if this show isn’t just funny enough and good enough to be the start of the solution.

I HAVE TO CONFESS I have been madly in love with Tea Leoni since around 1995 when she starred in The Naked Truth.  She’s a big part of the reason I love The Family Man, 2000’s over-the-top Christmas movie which is sort of It’s a Wonderful Life turned inside out.  So when I heard she’d be headlining a political drama that would be the lead-in on Sunday nights for The Good Wife, I was understandably hotly anticipating the show.

And I have to confess, so far, I’m a bit disappointed. Madam Secretary, the CBS effort in question, ought to be a lot better.  For one thing, besides Leoni at the top, it features a veritable all-star team of TV veterans in supporting roles, including Keith Carradine, Zeljko Ivanek, Bebe Neuwirth and Tim Daly.  It also has a winning and tested premise – Leoni is cast as the newly appointed Secretary of State.  So what’s missing?  What’s wrong?

Madam Secretary, Zeljko Ivanek, Tea Leoni

Leoni and Ivanek

For one thing, Madam Secretary has shown a rather annoying tendency to play it safe in its storytelling.  I can forgive this initially, since it is a new show and who knows what they have planned for the remainder of their fledgling season and beyond, but it’s a bit of a letdown along the lines of “This is all they could think of…?”  For another, Madam Secretary is copiously apolitical, which is an odd choice to make for a political drama.  Now I’m not looking for the next installment of The West Wing (although I’d surely love to see that), but even Scandal’s Fitzgerald Grant is a well-known moderate Republican, and while every episode of Scandal does not rely on a conservative vs. liberal issue, the two sides at least exist on that show in a way that they really do not on Madam Secretary.  Instead, Madam Secretary feels more like Homeland only without all the covert ops.  Think Zero Dark Thirty if told from the point of view of that room full of people including President Obama and Secretary Clinton watching the op on closed circuit.  That may have been an important moment, and it was certainly interesting, but it was not all that dramatically compelling.  So far, neither is Madam Secretary.

ANY NUMBER OF television shows have faltered a season or two into their run by trying to freshen up the story, frequently with a new character or two, and failed.  Entering its fourth season, and its first full season without the awesome Taraji P. Henson, Person of Interest seemed to be in just that category.  But I’m pleased to say that this is one show that has avoided the potholes and is still running strong.

Rather than try to replace Henson with a clone, Person of Interest has smartly left the remaining characters trying to fill the moral void left by her above-reproach Detective Carter with varying results.  Jim Caviezel’s Reese wants to honor the memory of his lost friend, but finds his more convenient modus operandi hard to give up.  Kevin Chapman’s Fusco is still in redemption mode for his own past misdeeds and Sarah’s Shahi’s sociopath Shaw (say that three times fast) just doesn’t have it in her.  This leaves these three characters with a new challenge to meet in Carter’s absence, in addition to the ones the weekly plotline presents.

But for me, the real key to Person of Interest’s continued success has been an expanded role for Amy Acker as the gloriously deranged Root, and her continued pairing with Michael Emerson’s similarly skilled Harold Finch.  Usually the phrase odd couple refers to a mismatched pairing and these two are certainly that, but more than that, this is genuinely a couple of odd characters to have wandering around.  Emerson has always conveyed an underlying sort of fastidious malevolence, and he still carries a hint of that here even as one of the show’s nominal heroes.   And Acker has a ball playing an anti anti-hero in Root, the hacker victim turned villain turned loose cannon who steals scenes and generally serves as both the angel and devil on Finch’s respective shoulders.  She’s a blast.

Amy Acker, Michael Emerson, Person of Interest

Brain Trust: Acker & Emerson

Person of Interest has always done a good job balancing its weekly stories with its long stories, and this season, so far, is no exception.  The team and its uber-computer mentor are facing their stiffest competition yet, an even more uber computer that has them in hiding and operating incognito.  Good storytelling plus chemistry can take a series pretty far, and Person of Interest doesn’t look done yet.

QUICK TAKES

Good news for fans of The Strain.  In the wake of pretty cool cliffhanger of a season finale, know that the series has already been picked up for a season 2.  While there’s been no dearth of vampire stories in movies and on TV, The Strain really is the horror movie-est of the lot, and has been both well crafted and very well cast.  I’ll be thrilled to see it come back.

Educational TV.  Things we learned from watching TV this week: 1) Tuberculosis is also known as “Lung Hitler.” (The Colbert Report); 2) In the old days if you wanted to see tits online you had to make ‘em out of commas (@Midnight); 3) Lorde is a 45 year old male geologist (South Park).

Chalk up another returning drama that has lost its fastball in Revenge, but the absence of Henry Czerny’s Conrad has neutered the show’s ability to make conflict entertaining, which makes Madeline Stowe’s awesome Victoria quite a bit less awesome, and to be honest it’s kind of hard to root for Emily Thorne these days.  That leaves only the ridiculous storyline of having David Clark still be alive, which means the whole point of the first three season was moot.  Thanks for wasting my time, but no thanks to more.

Reality Check:  CBS Sports has debuted We Need To Talk, a typical sports roundtable show like ESPN’s The Sports Reporters except We Need To Talk features an all-female panel.  While the show definitely offers something different and something new, watching it I couldn’t help but think that some of my favorite sportstalk genre moments came from a blending of the old and the new, like watching Jemele Hill on the aforementioned Reporters or Sarah Spain’s frequent appearances on Olbermann.  We Need to Talk is a good show that offers a new and uniquely female point of view, but it also suffers from the singlemindedness that an all-male panel would have or, for that matter, a panel made up of exclusively former athletes or exclusively journalists.

It’s totally ironic, but I was recently lamenting to a friend that TV theme songs today, even the good ones, are nothing like they were in the past. You never hear songs about the story or the characters – hell most of them don’t even have words.  The only one that kind of comes to mind is The Big Bang Theory and let’s face it, that song isn’t about the show, it’s about the actual big bang.

Well hold everything.

The much anticipated Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul released a teaser over the weekend including this completely awesome theme song which is not only more addictive than a syringe full of blue meth, it’s 100% about the character of Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer who will basically break laws or rules to make a buck.  I love it!

Looking Ahead

The Walking Dead is back on AMC, followed by Talking Dead and Comic Book Men on October 12.

The Affair debuts on October 12 on Showtime.

The series premiere of Jane The Virgin airs on The CW on October 13.

The season premiere of About A Boy airs on NBC on October 14.

Marry Me debuts on NBC on October 14.

The season premiere of Top Chef airs on Bravo on October 15.

The season finale of The Knick airs on Cinemax on October 17.

Comedy Bang Bang and The Birthday Boys return to IFC on October 17.

 

TV’s a big place and I haven’t been to all of it yet.  Got a favorite show you’d like me to comment on?  Post a comment below, contact me on twitter @RobLazlo or shoot me an email:  [email protected]  I welcome your input!

 

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