TV baby blues

CN&R film critic searches for entertainment on the small screen

<i>Last Week Tonight with John Oliver</i>, one of the bright spots on TV in 2016.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, one of the bright spots on TV in 2016.

Looking back on the year in television (or at least the fraction of it that I viewed or witnessed or maybe even deeply/truly saw), I’m half inclined to paraphrase the High Plains Drifter himself: “The barn door was open, but the wrong dogs came home.”

A lot of my favored viewing had something to do with social and political commentary, comic and otherwise: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO; the late Gwen Ifil’s Washington Week on PBS; the opening monologues of Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers; Brooks and Shields on the PBS NewsHour; Samantha Bee and Rachel Maddow; Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central; Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

If that makes me sound like some kind of news junkie, I won’t deny it. But I will want to add that I look mostly to print media for actual, substantial journalism; that “fake news” of the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert sort is genuine journalism in ways that the network news shows are rarely able to match; and that commercial television tends to turn the news and everything else into entertainment, and every entertainment into some form of advertisement.

The bloated presidential election campaign of 2016, as televised, might be taken as the apotheosis of all that. Certainly a big part of the year on TV was the grotesque outgrowth and self-exposure of the whole phenomenon of election-by-TV (and now by “social media” as well). TV-centric elections, a growth industry since 1960, came into full, putrid flower in 2016, with Nielsen ratings, Trump-style number grades, the roulette-wheel bonanzas of advertising dollars, and televisual aesthetics ruling the roost at center stage.

As such, TV’s presentation of the 2016 election campaign may seem to overshadow almost everything else (news, serious drama, sports broadcasts and general entertainment) in the television year. And in my case, it doesn’t help any that scripted dramas caught very little of my attention in 2016 (there was no Justified, no Mad Men, no Breaking Bad, no Bridge; and Longmire got sent downstream to Netflix). On the plus side, though, there was the little miracle of Better Call Saul, and apparently a downstreamed Longmire really does flow uphill. Meanwhile, AMC’s Preacher awaits rediscovery and full disclosure on my DVR.

Given all the noise I’m making here about TV and current events, I should add that by far the greatest (and also the best) part of my TV-viewing time was focused on movies and sporting events. For movies, that means Turner Classic Movies in particular, but also the Fox Movie Channel, MGM-HD, and the various repertory movie channels devoted to the back catalogs of Old Hollywood’s studios and producers.

For a long time now, NFL football has been the perfect television event: epic drama, warrior ethics, symbolic warfare among specialized performer/technicians, a pagan ritual for Sundays and bad weather. But that overblown spectacle has now begun to rot from its own internal extravagances.

No matter, we’ve still got MLB’s San Francisco Giants (a steady stream of remarkable characters, a string of championships and real contenders, in one of the best ballparks ever, and cast into the brilliantly conversational terms of picaresque narrative by the Kruk & Kuip broadcast team).

And we’ve got the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. The Steph Curry show is worthy of full-time attention all by itself, but it’s also an integral part of an even bigger and equally wondrous show of team basketball. With the whole team, the fun of passing and shooting a basketball gets raised to an almost transcendent level a dozen times or more on a really good night. For my money, that’s the best show on TV these days.