Friday, December 11, 2009

Desert Island Discs: A Celebration of 100 Posts and The Great Lost Rewatch (Pre-Season 6 Edition)

Late last week, I started once again what has become a sort of winter ritual for the past two years- something I like to call The Great Lost Rewatch. Lost is back for it’s sixth and final season starting February 2, and before then, I’m hoping to rewatch all five currently released seasons. This made me think of a fairly obvious question. If I was stuck on a crazy, messed-up Island like our Losties, what five TV on DVD sets would I most want to have there with me? Because the Dharma Initiative would totally supply the electricity to keep a DVD player running. And, yeah, I’m overlooking the pesky fact that all Dharma facilities are equipped with 1970’s technology, so I’d have to hope a DVD player survived the crash.

Because I am most definitely TV-obsessed, I couldn’t limit myself to just five picks. So here’s my list. My Top Five Desert Island Discs…and five more honorable mentions.

The Honorable Mentions

10. Futurama: Season 2

The politics junkie in me adores the episode “A Head in the Polls.” Where else would a show respect its viewers’ intelligence enough to make a passing joke about how Gerald Ford was never voted into office, not even as Vice President?

9. Lost: Season 4

Two words: The.Constant *tear*. Okay, that was actually three words, but there is no way you won’t be teary by the end of my all-time favorite episode of television that just happens to be part of Lost Season 4.

8. Firefly: The Complete Series

A show with a unique aesthetic (Space Western…literally) and skillfully developed characters (would you expect anything less from a Whedon show) that died way too soon, after just fourteen episodes.

7. True Blood: Season 1

The beautiful, high quality production values transport you to a sleepy Northern Louisiana town with a decidedly supernatural twist. Toss in some good, fun over-the-top camp, and you have quite an enjoyable way to spend your TV-watching time.

6. How I Met Your Mother: Season 1

I like to think that if my closest friends from college and I all lived in the same city, this is sort of what our lives would be like. Since we’re actually spread out all over the East Coast, from Baltimore to Boston, I live vicariously through the HIMYM crew.

The Top Five Desert Island Discs

5. Friday Night Lights: Season 1

The first season of Friday Night Lights is really a beautiful example of television as art. It tells the story of one high school football season in the small town of Dillon, Texas. The theme of the season is captured most succinctly by the song "Devil Town,' originally written and performed by Daniel Johnston and performed by Tony Lucca for the show. The song bookends the season, appearing in both the second and the final episodes, first as the town of Dillon anticipates the first Panthers game without star quarterback Jason Street, who suffered a devastating spinal injury, and last as the Panthers enjoy their State Championship parade. The song symbolizes how the town is so obsessed with football that it sucks the life out of the players. The kids on the football team are defined solely by their performance on the field, and many will have trouble finding their place in the world after high school.

There are several things that really make Season 1 of Friday Night Lights stand out. One is that it includes one of my favorite episodes of television, “Eyes Wide Open.” Matt Saracen has just become QB1 of the Dillon Panthers because of Jason Street’s injury. If Coach Taylor wants to keep his job, he needs to whip Matt into shape, both physically and mentally. The scene where Coach takes Matt for a nighttime practice is haunting and memorable. Coach asks Matt if, when he threw the winning pass to end the game where Jason was injured, his eyes were open or closed. Matt replies with a smile and a look of wonder, “My eyes were wide open.” If you don’t cry at that moment, you have no heart.

Friday Night Lights, especially in its first season, has a wonderful sense of place. It’s filmed around Austin, Texas, a few hours from where the fictional West Texas town of Dillon would be located. I spent a little time in Austin back in 2000, and I’ve been to the town of Pflugerville. The Pflugerville High School stadium was used to film the football scenes in season 1, and the Dillon Panthers’ uniforms were based off the Pflugerville Panthers’ uniforms.

I place season one of Friday Night Lights above the rest of the series because it is structured in a very satisfying story arc. The action built throughout the season until it started to reach a crescendo in “Mud Bowl” and didn’t let up until the end. The major characters each went on recognizable emotional journeys. It is possible to track the development and changes in each character as they deal with what life brings for those few months. Finally, the State win ends the whole thing on an extremely satisfying note. Because the characters are so developed and everything was plotted on an overall season arc, you really feel like you have been through it all with the Panthers. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose!

4. The West Wing: Season 2

The second season of The West Wing is widely regarded as Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. It has the snappy, rhythmic dialogue you would expect of Sorkin’s work, and it has a wonderful mixture of drama and comedy. It’s fascinating to see how each individual member of the senior staff reacts to a terrible betrayal by their boss. President Bartlett was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis long before his campaign for President, and nobody knows except his wife. For now.

Before we get to all that, though, there’s the fall-out from the shooting that happened in the Season 1 finale. We begin the season with flashbacks to how each of the major characters became part of the Bartlett for America campaign, and it’s really fun to see who they were before they got sucked into the crazy, hectic world of the White House. It turns out that Josh was the member of the staff who was injured in the shooting, and in the early parts of the season, we see him struggle to recover both physically and mentally. This arc culminates in “Noel” as Josh meets with a therapist in an effort to recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another notable early episode is “Shibboleth,” my mother’s favorite episode, where the “Thanksgiving Pardon” turkeys are at the White House and wacky hijinx ensue.

My personal favorite episode of West Wing Season 2 is “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” The use of Don Henley’s song “New York Minute” as a framing device definitely sets a unique tone for the episode that is hard to describe. Somehow it gives everything more gravity, maybe because it’s so different. The episode takes place during one of the Bartlett Administration’s infamous “Big Block of Cheese” days. Staffers are meeting with groups like “Cartographers for Social Equality” and a Sea Turtle society. Several members of the staff are forced to confront personal demons or ideas they thought were fundamental truths. On the lighter side, CJ learns that the projection we usually think of when we think of a world map is horribly distorted. On the heavier side, Sam recently learned that his father had an affair that lasted 28 years. When he’s asked to recommend a suspected Cold War spy for a pardon, someone whose probable innocence was the subject of his college thesis, Sam finds out that the man was actually a spy and betrayed his country. It hits a little too close to home considering he’s dealing with his father’s betrayal of his family. It’s compelling character drama with plenty of the Aaron Sorkin brand of wordplay humor sprinkled throughout.

The drama builds in the last third of the season as the President, now considering reelection, must share his diagnosis with his staff, and his staff are left to figure out how to personally deal with this betrayal and clean up the mess caused by it. “Two Cathedrals,” the season finale, is widely considered one of Sorkin’s greatest triumphs, and the image of President Bartlett in the National Cathedral yelling (and probably cursing at) God in Latin is iconic. The season ends with the cliffhanger of whether or not President Bartlett will seek reelection, but if you pay close enough attention to his quirks, especially quirks that are explained in “Two Cathedrals,” you’ll know his answer before you pop the first Season 3 disc in your DVD player.

3. Lost: Season 3

Probably the most controversial of my choices, the third season of Lost, when looked at overall, really is an exceptional season of television. Most of the ire people express over Season 3 comes from the six episode “mini-season” that was aired in the fall. It featured Sawyer, Kate, and Jack imprisoned on Hydra Island by the Others. I enjoyed the Hydra plot. It was really Ben at his peak, and Evil Ben is always entertaining. Sure there was a bit of a narrative hiccup caused by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s desire to leave the show (why have Locke go on the seemingly super-important “we must save Eko!” mission in “Further Instructions” only to kill Eko off two episodes later in “The Cost of Living”), but there are some pretty iconic episodes in the mini-season, too. “Every Man For Himself” has Ben and his numbered bunnies and Sawyer and Ben trying to out-book nerd each other. “I Do” ends on a wonderful cliffhanger, the infamous line “Kate, damnit, run!”

Season 3 offers a master class in how to, and how not to, introduce new characters. On the one hand, we have Ben and Juliet of the Others. Ben was introduced in Season 2, where he was plenty creepy and intriguing (somehow he manages to make asking for milk sinister), but he really came into his own in Season 3 through his mission first to save himself from a spinal tumor and second to protect the island from the incoming freighter ship and her crew of mercenaries. Ben is devious and in charge, and starting to go a bit nuts. Juliet is a completely new character to the series in Season 3, and we see from the beginning that she’s no push over. It’s hard to tell what side she’s on- sometimes she seems to want to help Ben, and sometimes she seems like she wants to help Jack. She’s become a strong woman during her time on the Island, though, and you’ve got to respect that. At the other end of the spectrum is Nikki and Paulo, the writers’ failed attempt to provide the perspective of the “redshirt.” Fans just generally found Nikki and Paulo to be irritating. We weren’t subjected to them for long, though. They got a most satisfying death- burial alive while paralyzed by spider venom.

After the mini-season, the show is really firing on all cylinders. We learn more about new characters, such as once meek, now ruthless Juliet in “Not in Portland.” There’s wonderful, mind-bending time travel and exploration of Desmond and Penny’s backstory in “Flashes Before Your Eyes.” The Losties get one last, light-hearted respite in “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” before the season, and the show overall, delves deep into the mythology and doesn’t look back. “Enter 77” and “The Man Behind the Curtain” give us glimpses of what the Dharma Initiative was like. On a less serious note, I love the camaraderie between the B-Team guys, Hurley, Desmond, Jin, and Charlie, in “Catch-22.”

Season 3 really benefited from showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse negotiating a definite end-date to the series part-way through Season 3’s run. With an end in sight, they knew they could start hitting certain marks, and hit them they did, none more so than the final moments of Season 3’s finale, “Through the Looking Glass.” “We have to go back!” is a line that will be associated with Lost for a long, long time.

2. Grey’s Anatomy: Season 1

This is the season of television that made me the diehard TV fan I am today. It was, at one point, the only one-hour drama DVD set I owned (I had all four seasons of Futurama, too). During senior year in college, I’d marathon it on weekends when my roommate was off looking at grad schools, and I kept up the tradition when I moved to a new city for law school and didn’t quite know anybody yet. I loved the characters and the close bonds they formed with each other.

The patients in Season 1 were generally pretty closely tied to things their doctors were going through in their personal lives, which isn’t something that can always be said about more recent seasons. Sometimes the connection is obvious like in “The First Cut is the Deepest,” where a rape victim was wearing the same shoes Meredith wore to work that day. Sometimes, the connection is a little more subtle (although never really that subtle), like in “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” where a patient comes into the hospital with a massive tumor because she kept avoiding seeing the doctor when the tumor first started. Many of the doctors are in full avoidance mode at that point, and it’s a bit of a wake up call to stop putting things off.

The small group of interns under Dr. Bailey’s supervision becomes a little family, and I do love shows that center around a “found family.” I especially love the moments when the interns, especially Meredith, Izzie, and George are just hanging around Meredith’s house. One particular scene comes to mind, I believe it’s from “Winning the Battle, Losing the War,” where Meredith comes home to find Izzie, George, and Cristina watching tapes of Meredith’s mom performing surgery. Meredith is at first a little perturbed, because she has a rocky relationship with her mother and specifically told Izzie and George earlier in the episode not to touch those tapes. She ends up sitting down with the rest of the gang, though, and joining in the play-by-play.

My favorite episode of Season 1, and the episode that really cemented me as a Grey’s fan, was the season finale, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” It has a nice blend of comedy and drama. The “George has syphilis” plot is absolutely hilarious, even though it doesn’t seem like it would be. T.R. Knight’s portrayal of George’s humiliation has me laughing every time I watch the episode. There’s also the more serious plot of Dr. Burke discovering that his best friend’s wife has been cheating and is pregnant with a baby that isn’t her husband’s. The final scene of the episode is absolutely iconic. Addison Montgomery-Shepherd walks into Seattle Grace just as Derek and Meredith are about to go out to dinner. She waltzes right up to Meredith and, after telling Meredith her name, says, “And you must be the woman who’s been screwing my husband.”

1. Pushing Daisies: Season 1

Pushing Daisies is my all-time favorite television show, and I fell in love with it right from the beginning. I’d choose Season 1 over Season 2 mostly because the long break between seasons due to the writers’ strike resulted in me watching Season 1 many more times than I have Season 2. I can name each of the nine episodes and tell you, in detail, what happens in each. And I can probably tell you a few choice quotes from each, too.

I fell in love with Pushing Daisies right from the “Pie-lette.” I loved the bright colors, the bizarre premise (a characteristic I would later come to associate with all Bryan Fuller shows), and the adorable romance between childhood, star-crossed sweethearts Ned and Chuck. Every episode, with the possible exception of the season finale “Corpsicle,” left me with a big, stupid grin on my face. There’s just something about the world of the show that warms your heart, even as the themes of the show can get quite morbid. Considering the story is about a piemaker whose touch can raise the dead, including his murdered childhood sweetheart, it can definitely get morbid.

As for favorite episode, it’s a toss-up between the “Pie-lette” which manages to tell a beautiful story with cinema-quality visuals in just 45 minutes and “Pigeon,” where I love the sheer joy of Olive and Aunt Vivian singing along to the song “Birdhouse in Your Soul” as they drive down the road on a beautiful day. “Pigeon” also features the adorably ridiculous story of Lefty Lem and Elsita (Glee’s Jayma Mays) whose love blossomed via carrier pigeon correspondence while Lem was in prison.

With just nine episodes, thanks to the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to really build much of an arc for the season, but Bryan Fuller and his talented team of writers did manage to keep the plot twists coming. Chuck found out that her dad died when Ned tried to save his own mother without realizing the full implications of his powers, and Aunt Lily was revealed to Olive to actually be Chuck’s mom. These were two pretty big developments, and they were thrown out there for us to enjoy pretty quickly.

Ned and Chuck are a shining example that a couple that is absolutely going to stay together can indeed make for compelling television. Chuck says it best in “Pigeon” when she happily tells Ned, “See? Isn’t this neat? Here we were thinking all we had is one big problem, when in actual fact we have hundreds of little problems that we gotta sort out before we even get to the big problem! Which means, we’re like everybody else in the world!” It’s apparent that while Ned and Chuck won’t always see eye to eye, and there’s that pesky fact that they can’t touch (one of the rules of Ned’s power is “first touch life, second touch dead again…forever"), they’re always going to do their best to work out their differences and talk things through. Usually their talks happen while they’re working on an investigation with PI Emerson Cod, much to Emerson’s chagrin.

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