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TBTS’s Best TV Shows You’re NOT Watching (Part 2)

August 10, 2010

And here we arrive at Part 2 of our insanely popular series “Best TV Shows You’re NOT Watching,” wherein we admonish you to broaden your television horizons in search of hidden gems.

Our crack team of Tweederati have scoured the airwaves, both foreign and domestic, on pay channels and basic cable, in search of quality entertainment that is perhaps unfairly overlooked. Last week, we told you about the zany sci-fi of Warehouse 13, the stylish whodunit of White Collar, and the…well, the swingin’ cod of Hung. This week we bring you three more shows you probably aren’t watching but should.

Nurse Jackie

Starring Edie Falco, fresh from her awe-inspiring turn as mafia matriarch Carmella Soprano, Nurse Jackie is about a nurse…named Jackie. She’s tough, streetwise, and very good at her job at All Saints Hospital in Manhattan. She puts in long hours, dodging tightwad hospital administrator Mrs. Akalitus, commiserating with her close friend, the glamorous, witty, and British Dr. Eleanor O’Hara, spitting backtalk at the brash and obnoxious Dr. Cooper (played by Peter “The Fatch” Facinelli), and providing unorthodox advice to newbie nurse Zoey. Due to her work schedule, Jackie hardly sees her bartender husband and their two daughters.

Jackie is also addicted to painkillers. Faking a “bad back,” she starts an affair with the hospital’s pharmacist (Paul Schulze who, interestingly, played Carmella Soprano’s priest and one-time confidant) in order to score the drugs she depends on to make it through the day. Herein lies the crux of the show: Jackie trying to keep her affair secret from her family, and her addiction secret from…well, everybody.

The show strikes an excellent balance between its episodic storylines and the long-term development of the characters. Jackie’s compassion for her patients is matched only by her duplicity regarding her personal life and her addiction. She steals cash from sociopathic foreign dignitaries and gives it to pregnant teenagers as she lies to her friends and lover to get pills. All of the performances are top-notch (with the minor exception being Jackie’s husband Kevin, played by Dominic Fumusa, who looks too young to be believably married to Edie Falco. Sorry, I just don’t buy it.) That said, the standout is definitely Merritt Wever’s neurotic and clumsy Zoey. Spinning dizzyingly from one scene to the next, bringing wide-eyed enthusiasm and a sweet naiveté to the emergency room, Zoey is by far the most entertaining character and a solid anchor for the audience. Her development into a confident and sassy mini-Jackie in season 2 has been a joy to watch. Mondays at 10 on Showtime.

Breaking Bad

Do you like Showtime’s Weeds but think it’s a little too lighthearted? Do you prefer to kill flies with sledgehammer rather than a flyswatter? Then Breaking Bad is for you. Rocking a similar premise to the aforementioned Weeds (itself an excellent show), Breaking Bad follows suburban high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (Brian Cranston, previously known as the dad on Malcolm In the Middle). Diagnosed with advanced, terminal lung cancer, Walter is desperate for a solution to his family’s money problems. His lovely wife, Skyler, is pregnant and their son, Walter Jr., has Cerebral Palsy. Thanks to a serendipitous ride-along with his tough DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, Walter realizes that his skills as a chemist would be very valuable in the lucrative field of methamphetamine manufacture.

Walter seeks out his former student, Jesse Pinkman, now a drop-out and small-time drug dealer, and they start a business making chemically pure crystal meth. Naturally, this business venture brings with it all the problems one would expect: rival drug dealers, gangs, violence, and of course the DEA agent brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Walter is very concerned with keeping his new occupation from his family. His constant absence and emotional distance are assumed by his wife and son to be side-effects of the terminal cancer.

I dare not go into too much more plot detail here. Suffice to say this show is all over the map, in the best possible way. This is edge-of-your-seat television at its best; one of the few shows where the audience really has NO idea what’s coming next. Albuquerque, New Mexico provides some gorgeous vistas against which our stories unfold. The casting and performances are all excellent, especially Walter and Jesse. Cranston brings a quiet nebbishness to Walter that eventually changes to seething rage as complications begin to mount. His face alone is quite expressive, conveying a surprisingly complex series of emotions before he takes any action. Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman plays up the yo-dawg, urban white-boy thing to great effect, and he is clearly bewildered and frustrated by Walt’s rudderless behavior. Paul’s talents really shine towards the end of the second season, particularly in an episode where Jesse encounters a couple of meth-heads with a stolen ATM. Comic relief is provided upon the introduction of ethically challenged attorney Saul Goodman, a hilarious Bob Odenkirk. The show’s writers take great pride in spending the first few minutes of most episodes teasing some bizarre setting: a pair of pants blowing down a dusty desert road, destruction and fire engines, charred teddy bears floating in a pool. This entices the audience, leaving us guessing “how did we get here?” Make no mistake, the “how” makes for some damn compelling television. Sundays at 10 on AMC.

Justified

Now, I know what you’re saying. “Wait just a diggity-dang second! [In my mind, you talk like Yosemite Sam] Didn’t TBTS already give this show a very eloquent thumbs-down? Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!” And you’re right. Fellow Tweedster Lloyd did in fact review the first two episodes of Justified, and while he started out optimistic, he was turned off by the second episode. He wrote at length about the stereotypes of Eastern Kentuckians that appear in this show, and he’s not wrong. There have been some lazy, trite, and possibly hurtful depictions of Appalachian life in Justified‘s first season.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point refutation of Lloyd’s concerns. In fact, I think we agree more than we disagree. My purpose here is to provide an alternate view, for those willing to forgive the kind of admittedly lazy tropes that, frankly, exist in all television programming to one degree or another. For besides the occasional misstep, Justified is actually a pretty cool show. It’s based on a story by ultra-hip crime novelist Elmore Leonard who was responsible for the stories behind films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown. The show is about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, who I last saw as the scowling drug dealer in Go). Raylan is a badass in a cowboy hat; a tough, clever dude and a crack shot. After killing a suspect in Miami under questionable circumstances (well, questionable to Raylan’s superiors, but not to Raylan, hence the title of the show), he is reassigned to his home town of Harlan, Kentucky. Raylan is thrust back to his roots, to an ex-wife, a community, and a family that he’d rather forget. He’s forced to confront the people and situations that he joined the U.S. Marshals to avoid. He meets up with an old flame, and has to deal with a family of criminals that he ran with as a kid.

Mrs. theGeek was raised in a double-wide in a holler in Eastern Kentucky, but she is not offended by the stereotypes presented by this show. She and I are wholly entertained by the characters, the story arc, and, especially, all the things the show gets right about Kentucky. Sure, one has to roll their eyes at the idea that you can just “pop down” to Harlan from Lexington (a 3-hour drive in real life), and after living in Kentucky for 17 years myself I have yet to meet a single swastika-sportin’ white supremacist. But things like prescription drugs and meth are presented quite realistically. And, honestly, it’s just a hoot to watch Olyphant sass everyone and generally strut around as the soft-spoken yet deadly lawman. Bonus points given for Natalie Zea; I thoroughly enjoyed her as spoiled temptress Karen Darling in Dirty Sexy Money, and she does very well here as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona. Tuesdays at 10 on FX.

Tune in again next week. We’ll tell you about some of the great shows that you didn’t watch, that subsequently died and disappeared from the schedule, but are nonetheless worth catching on DVD, Netflix Instant, or bittorrent.

[Allow me to take moment here to point out this is the 1000th post here at The Brown Tweed Society. So, you know, yay us.]

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