What I’ve Been Watching (Summer and Fall 2020)

Like so many of you, the current health care crisis upended aspects of my personal and professional life back in March, with lingering effects continuing to the present weeks. Gratefully, however, I managed to spend more time reading, reviewing books, and working on my research on television and television music. In addition to my concentrated study of a number of programs from the 1970s, which form the core of my current research, I worked my way through the following really strong current and recent series:

Star Trek: Lower Decks (season 1) — This is well executed, with good voice acting by a talented cast. It serves up plentiful inside jokes on the established franchise, but at the same time, it’s a fun way into the contemporary Star Trek franchise that does not require as much background knowledge as Picard, for example, needs from its viewers. Several episodes, including the season finale, are surprisingly action-oriented with fairly high stakes.

The Tudors (all four seasons) — I’d wanted to watch this entire series after seeing an episode now and then during the past decade. Its strengths include good acting, excellent designs and costumes, and some very interesting use of music (both original and authentic and fabricated period material). I was fascinated to see a number of Showtime actors from other series in rather different roles, as well as Natalie Dormer prior to Game of Thrones playing a similar kind of character to that of her GoT persona. I was also intrigued by the series’ approach to telescoping historical situations and characters after recently watching the 1966 film, A Man for All Seasons, which also features Henry VIII and Thomas More, among others.

Outlander (seasons 1-3) — I really like this series, and there’s so much I want to discuss about the music. Again, the acting is strong and the designs and costumes are excellent. I prefer Outlander to The Tudors, but both to Vikings, which I am trying to finish up this fall. Where Outlander shines is reconfiguring its approach season-by-season while maintaining its underlying premise. New historical contexts and an ever-expanding cast of characters keeps things fresher than The Tudors seemed to manage. By season three of the latter, it felt like the series was becoming a victim of the cyclical nature of its own historical source material. That said, Outlander‘s twenty-year jump mid-narrative stretches credibility, as it requires us to age-down characters in our minds whose ages are implicitly lowered mid-stream so that they do not becoming unbelievably aged for later seasons.

Schitt’s Creek (seasons 1-5) — My daughter introduced this series to me while she was home when her college went to remote learning in the late spring. I am so pleased the series did so well at the 2020 Prime Time Emmy Awards. Despite its joke name, the series is a surprisingly insightful and, at times, tender comedy about a family used to wealth, opulence, and connection suddenly down on their luck. In its more recent seasons, episodes are in turn hilarious in their treatment of the oddities of contemporary social and culture systems, but also brutal, tender, and redemptive (all at once) with its primary (and frequently self-absorbed) lead characters. And then, on top of everything, the series confronts some of our most critical corporate concerns about identity, love, justice, and belonging in very powerful ways.

The writing is great, the acting superb: we’ve met these characters, or people like them, in real life before, which is why they resonate with viewers. As a middle-aged father, for example, I feel so much empathy for so many characters – certainly, for Johnny and Moira, as they try to launch their children into the world, but also for Alexis and David as they face the truly daunting task of making adult relationships actually work in their thirties.

But some of the characters have, in my opinion, connections to past television comedic characters, though in new contexts. Moira, for example, reminds me of Mrs. Howell in dress and manner at times, but she is also another in a series of embodiments of the critique of fame and the diminishing media presence of older female actresses in film and television history. And there are elements in the series and its premise that are reminiscent of another favorite comedy of mine: “Are You Being Served, Again!” Both implicitly engage with the now-centuries-old trope of “city versus country” that has shaped political and social discourse and policy in English-speaking societies since the early modern era. What’s instructive in comparing Schitt’s Creek and Are You Being Served, Again! is to see how much television (and television comedy) have changed between the 1990s and 2020, even when dealing with similar ideas, situations, and characters.

The Clone Wars: Season Seven — This may be some of the best Star Wars available and provides a hint of where the franchise may be heading in terms of introducing more voices, more ways of “being” Star Wars. It completes the role of the series as a whole of providing a better bridge between the second and third chapters in the prequel movies and, indeed, in this season, takes us toward Rogue One and Rebels. But it also rounds out Ahsoka Tano’s story prior to its expansion in the subsequent Rebels series (which had been completed by the time Clone Wars: Season Seven premiered). Throughout the many episodes in which she is actually the dominant character of the season, rather than Anakin Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, the writers and animators show once again why she is, truly, the Last and Best Jedi. Star Wars has come a long way in forty years when we compare Ahsoka’s stories in this season, and that of other female characters, with the dearth of female characters in the original trilogy.