Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best TV Show You’re Not Watching!

Titles like the above irk the hell out of me. That’s the peril of PeakTV®: no matter how many hours you clock in front of your various screens, you know you’re missing something.

Unless you’re me, in which case you’re missing everything. I used to joke that watching TV was a skill set I didn’t possess. At some point in the last few years, it stopped being a gag. Television viewing became serious business—maybe the real business of America nowadays—and I lacked the chops for it. I also used to joke that when I could watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I’d wallow like a pig in a trough. Came that very day and I couldn’t be bothered to waddle over from the sty.

Game of Thrones? Haven’t seen it. The Walking Dead? Not one episode. My televisual diet consists of baseball and old movies. I have the occasional spasm of sensibility—I flew through Stranger Things this summer, the show scratching an itch I didn’t know I had—but for the most part I bluff my way through conversations about TV. It’s actually not that hard to do.

That said, allow me to tell you about the best TV show you’re not watching.

I’d never heard of Count Arthur Strong when I queued up the first episode. I simply read a description of the show on Acorn TV, a streaming service that offers British television fare, saw that it was a comedy about an aging entertainer, and figured it was worth a look. (Savvy readers may be wondering why I, as someone who professes not to watch much TV, subscribes to such a service. My accountant has raised the very same question.)

What followed was the exact opposite of a binge. What followed was me doling the episodes out incrementally, not wanting them to end. Because Count Arthur Strong is without question one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Discovering Count Arthur Strong was a rare high point in a dire year. If you have access to Acorn TV, which you might via Amazon Prime, you still have time before the bells toll the deserved demise of this annus horribilus to make the acquaintance of Count Arthur Strong yourself.

Count Arthur, honorific never explained, is the brainchild of writer/actor Steve Delaney. The Count is a bit player in his dotage now known for his “raconteuring,” a legend in his own mind whose greatest claim to fame is a brief partnership with a man who broke up the act to become a titan of English entertainment. The ex-partner dies and his hapless writer son (played by Rory Kinnear, best known to U.S. audiences as the prime minister in that episode of Black Mirror) is pressed to pen about a book about the old man, which sends him careering into the orbit of Count Arthur and his friends.

That’s it. That’s the show in its entirety, now at thirteen episodes and counting, every one of them packed with laughs. Delaney created Count Arthur in the 1980s and revived him for the Edinburgh Festival in the 1990s, where his popularity led to a radio series. He then teamed up with Graham Linehan (Father Tim) for the TV version, which combines their strong suits: Delaney’s genius at inhabiting a fully three-dimensional character, and Linehan’s flair for lampooning sitcoms while honoring their traditions. Kinnear sends the show deliriously over the top, the putative straight man every bit as mad as his partner. The six episodes of Season One form a nearly perfect whole, unified by the storyline of Kinnear’s dogged efforts to write the biography of the father he never knew and studded with moments of surprising emotional impact. Season Two is looser but frequently more hilarious, as in the episode that is a meticulously detailed send-up of Misery. I told my compadre Ray Banks about my love for Count Arthur. He welcomed me to the brotherhood and steered me toward the trove of Delaney’s radio broadcasts, which I am now again doling out gradually until Season Three crests on these shores.

It’s a few days late, but for a taste here’s Count Arthur Strong’s Christmas message.

While I’m at it, a few other lesser publicized shows I’ve enjoyed this year—

Occupied (Netflix). Created by crime novelist Jo Nesbø and brought to the screen by filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjǣrg (Insomnia), this political thriller details the slow-motion takeover of Norway by Russia in order to commandeer its energy resources. Over the summer I recommended it to people as preparation for the Trump administration, because I’m such a cut-up. Now I’d call it mandatory. Its daring structure, with each episode set in a subsequent month, means key plot business sometimes occurs offscreen and we only witness the fallout. It also makes it a potent exploration of normalization.

Difficult People (Hulu). We pay for Hulu solely to watch Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner say what we’re all thinking. The show that makes me miss living in New York City.

Red Oaks (Amazon). Of course I’m in the tank for a series set in the 1980s about a high school kid who dreams of being a filmmaker. Season One was so flawless I almost resented its return, but the sophomore year brought an abundance of pleasures beginning with a Paris-set premiere directed by Hal Hartley (who helmed the bulk of the episodes) that plays like an independent film. And every single music cue this season broke my fucking heart.

People of Earth (TBS). A comedy from Conan O’Brien and some of the Parks & Recreation team about a recovery group for alien abductees—though they prefer to be called “experiencers” because it gives them more agency—that’s funny, deeply human and astonishingly soulful.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Keenan’s Klassics: It’s a Shane Black Christmas

A blast from the past. December 2009, to be exact.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster. Editor’s note, 2016: And THE NICE GUYS. The Christmas trees are there if you look.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.