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Monday, February 20, 2012

Three TV shows I'm glad I found

I don't really watch a whole lot of scripted, dramatic TV these days. Most of my tastes run toward more reality-based shows such as Whale Wars, American Pickers, Survivor, etc., though I do enjoy Doctor Who and a handful of other programs as well.

There are three easily accessible dramas on TV that I am so very glad I discovered. One is no longer airing, one is currently casting for its second season, and the other is into its second full season now.

I went on a long break from watching network TV dramas several years ago. When my wife and I got married, I think aside from a couple of Star Trek series that were playing weekly at that time, ER was the only network drama I was into. Until a coworker at Target with whom I really connected was telling me one night about Lost.

He insisted that he had the same feelings about network programming as I. He did not watch much TV at all, but this particular program was unlike anything he'd ever seen. It was very mysterious. It had an enormous, possibly unprecedentedly so, cast of main characters and was very character driven. It was refreshingly mind-bending.

So on his recommendation I illegally downloaded episode one. Bear in mind, this was before Hulu. It was also before ABC had a library of episodes actually available to watch for free as a streaming feed.

I downloaded it, watched it, and kept it thinking my wife might want to check it out too. I downloaded another couple of episodes and watched them as well. At this point I was hooked, and I had no choice but to share this incredible find with Heather too. I wrangled her into a chair and we watched those episodes at the computer desk. Then I deleted them from my computer and downloaded the rest of that season and the next. One by one, we watched and then deleted them.

Season three found us watching on TV like everyone else. John at Target was right. Lost quickly became my favorite TV show. Each week I was glued to the set, eager to find out the next twist. I began listening to the official Lost podcast each week too, hosted by the show's head writers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Lindelof co-created the show with executive producer J.J. Abrams.

Essentially, the show is about a bunch of people who get stranded on a mysterious island after their plane crashes there. They have not only the natural elements on the island to contend with as they try desperately to survive, but also the unnatural (or perhaps supernatural is a better word) elements. They soon find out they're not alone on the island, nor was their crash landing an accident in the purest sense of the word. Though strangers, they are all there for a very specific reason.

The storytelling is done in a very unorthodox manner, flashing from present day to the past, giving subtle clues along the way that help piece together the back story and make connections between the characters that they themselves don't even know exist. In later seasons the flashbacks become flash forwards to what happens after they've escaped the island. During its run we also see flashes into alternate timelines and other things that will just make your head spin with all the possibilities they unleash.

For six seasons, I loved damn near every episode. Man, that show was a trip. I can't tell you how many engrossing conversations that program was responsible for initiating. I miss it sometimes. If you have never watched Lost, do yourself a favor and immediately find somewhere to rent it on DVD. It's also available streaming on Netflix. If you don't find it the most engaging TV you've ever experienced, I'll eat my socks.

Moving forward in time now to 2011, a new horror anthology series debuted on FX network in October. Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (yes, the same guys who created Glee -- but don't forget, they also came up with Nip/Tuck), American Horror Story once again broke the mold of the television drama.

The pilot episode pushed the censorship limits of cable TV with egregious amounts of violence, sex, cursing and nudity. It was honestly a little hard to watch. I had been expecting something a bit more classy, with more substance rather than irreverence simply for the sake of irreverence. In subsequent episodes the show proved that though it was definitely deserving of its TV-MA rating, the storytelling was solid and the creep factor quite effective.

The story centers on a family of three, including a teen daughter, who move from Boston to L.A. to start over after the wife delivers a stillborn baby and the husband is caught having an affair with one of his students. The viewer knows right away there is something very unsettling about the house: its owners always seem to end up dead. Violently dead.

The first season contains 12 episodes. Like Lost, this one jumps around a little bit to give you glimpses into the back story of either the main characters or the house. I don't want to give too much away, but let me just tell you that the women cast in the show are fantastic. Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga and Jessica Lange (who won a Golden Globe and a SAG award for her work on the show) give simply stellar performances every week. If you can stomach the opener, track this one down and give the whole series a shot. It rules.

Oh, and American Horror Story should also win an award for creepiest goddamn opening credits sequence ever. It's crappin' scary.

Finally, we come to AMC's breakout hit, The Walking Dead. I know, the zombie thing is getting kind of played out these days. It's gone mainstream and seems to have lost its bite so to speak. This show is a result of that mainstream acceptance of the zombie, but as a zombie enthusiast from before they jumped the undead shark, trust me when I tell you that in this case it's led to a good thing.

It's based on a comic book which, as I understand, is quite successful in its own right. As a former comic reader, though I haven't purchased one since about 2003, I respect the aesthetic of the comic book as an art form and a graphic storytelling medium. I love the idea of basing a television show off of a comic, especially a title published by Image Comics. And, dammit, despite the zombie mania that seems to be sweeping across mainstream America, I like the idea of a TV show that takes place in a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland.

Apparently a lot of others dig it too. I talk about the series with coworkers. My older sister and her husband watch The Walking Dead too. So do my parents, who are in their 60s for crying out loud, and I've never known them to voluntarily consume any media dealing with zombies. Even vampires are a stretch for them, though we did all see Blade when it originally ran in theaters and they seemed to dig it.

The Walking Dead doesn't have a whole lot of originality in the background story. Seriously, it's your typical zombie apocalypse back story. It's the characters and their interactions that make the series what it is. The light gore and bloody effects are pretty impressive too.

The first season is out on DVD and the second is currently airing Monday nights on AMC. Do yourself a favor and check it out.