Static: Glee Hate, Dexter Love, and I Dream of Aaron Sorkin
In the aftermath of Mad Men, I've been drowning my sorrows in Dexter, which is having a fantastic fourth season, in large part because of Lithgow's perky/fragile, alarmingly naked, and genuinely chilling performance as Trinity, the serial killer from Habitat for Humanity.
I'm particularly fascinated by the way in which Dexter's relationship with Trinity has changed with each episode. Earlier, this new father figure triggered Dexter's fears about his home life: Is Dexter's family just his cover story, or worse, a burden he wishes he could dump in the river? But in the most recent episodes, the theme has shifted toward the question of Dexter's mortality and the limits of growth. If Dexter becomes a "real boy," capable of remorse and human intimacy, will that heal him — or lead him to suicide, exposure, a total breakdown of control?
The show has never been strictly realistic about serial killers, but they've taken a leap to an unnerving new place, exploring the psyche of someone very much like the BTK Killer who terrorized Wichita for seventeen years while living in a seemingly normal family. Like Trinity, he was a Boy Scout leader and the lay president of a Wichita Lutheran church. Will having a family make Dexter better than his adoptive father ever thought he could be, or much, much worse, with a new set of victims living with him?
I enjoy the show in large part because of these icy existential themes (and because of Michael C. Hall's excellent performance), but this season, the plot itself has also been refreshingly unpredictable. For one thing, who shot Deb? It's not the Vacation Killers; it's not Trinity. It seems like it might be that slutty reporter, but if so, why? Is she protecting Trinity? Does she have some previous relationship with him? Is she just trying to get a story? (I know things are rough in journalism, but that's a bit extreme.) Also: What's with that dude next door? Personally, I think his aim is not to seduce Rita, but to molest sulky tween Astor, an unnerving possibility that would be just about the one thing to make Dexter lose control and risk exposing himself. I'm hoping Rita dies in the crossfire, but that's because I'm a cruel narrative jerk and it would certainly make for a dramatic scenario, with Dexter and his sister raising three traumatized children.
Or it could go differently. Either way, great, great season, and the best thing on pay cable, now that Mad Men's in hiatus.
Glee, I know I should love you. The series is practically a rebus of my guilty-pleasure tastes: camp plus Broadway musical, in a teen-show package. Plus, I was a drama geek myself, so I should get some nostalgic kickbacks.
And yet the series is working my last nerve. It has its charms, Matthew Morrison and Chris Colfer chief among them. But though this week's episode seems to have pleased fans (including our lovely recapper), this installation bugged me. Okay, the "Defying Gravity" duet was, to quote my college friend, Seth Rudetsky, instigator of my campiest tastes, "am-ahhhhzing!" But everything else gave me a headache, especially the two deeply phony plot twists: Tina faking her stutter and Sue's relationship with her Down's syndrome sister. Come on, people! I can't be the only one grinding her teeth at this whiplash between sentiment and cynicism, the corniest identity politics stitched together with just-kidding snark. It all feels very 1989, and not in a good way.
But I'm loving Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has been as sick as ever, and managed to cleverly fold Michael Richards's racist comedy breakdown into the last episode. I'm sure people thought the "rash on her pussy" child-abuse plot was over the line, but it's what keeps me watching the show: the ability to make me cringe so hard I'm thrown off-kilter, almost afraid to laugh. This tactic doesn't work on every show (like Californication, which is now just fungal with ugliness), and Curb doesn't reach quite the heights of the British The Office, but it's an approach I respect. Sort of. Fear/respect.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, as this insightful recap pointed out, Ugly Betty is doing a fantastic job of reinventing itself (and Betty.) I'm particularly fascinated by the whole Justin-in-a-rough-high-school plot: It would have been so easy for them to send him to the High School of Performing Arts for a Glee-ish spell of "Hot Lunch" wish fulfillment, but instead they're moving deeper into Queens. It's not something people talk about a lot with the series, but it's unprecedented to have a hit network comedy explore a working-class outer-borough Latino family, a breakthrough the series owes to executive-producer Salma Hayek and Silvio Horta (who, Wikipedia informs me, is a gay Cuban-American screenwriter who was working as a perfume spritzer before he broke into screenwriting).
On How I Met Your Mother, I'm happy Barney is single again, but I also loved the fact that every previous episode built toward what finally felt like a genuine failed romance, not just a fan-fic gimmick. It managed (as the show does at its best) to somehow both celebrate and critique the whole notion of a "healthy relationship." (I particularly loved seeing Barney get fat and Robin look haggard, the two dropping their standards so much they almost got engaged just out of ennui.)
I'm not talking about dramas because there are so few network entries that look interesting (other than the wonderful The Good Wife, which I'll write about later), but sitcoms are kicking on all gears, not just the much-praised 30 Rock, The Office, and HIMYM, but new series like The Middle, Community, and the revitalized Parks and Recreation, which has hit the potential for their very original heroine that was only hinted at last season.
And you are watching The Middle, right? I know I'm being a nag, but while it won't get the buzz of more po-mo series like Community and the deservedly raved-about Modern Family, it's terrific. Bonus praise for the performance of Eden Sher, who plays a fantastically ordinary dork of a teenage girl, a very refreshing thing in a universe that far more frequently emphasizes the Chosen (Buffy, Joan of Arcadia, Rory Gilmore) and the Catfighty (Glee, Gossip Girl).
In other news, I'm downright giddy that Aaron Sorkin will be back with another TV show about a TV show. Not because I liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, mind you: I thought the series was fascinating and I watched every single episode, but I was also simply flabbergasted by the solipsistic lunacy of the thing, which amounted to the most grandiose, fancily produced, payback-laden public tantrum thrown in the history of the medium. But Sorkin is clearly fascinated by television itself, as well as social networking, as well as Aaron Sorkin, and these are all obsessions I share, so I look forward to whatever auteurist fantasia is coming our way — and devoutly wish I could walk very fast down the hall with him in pointy heels, debating the matter.