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Golden Age of TV

During a rather ho-hum Emmy Awards Show (unlike many others, I was not fawning over Neil Patrick Harris) winning Mad Men writer-producer Mathew Wiener referenced the “golden age” of Television and expressed how lucky he is to be making his show. I would broaden his scope here a bit  – we are all lucky that he and others like him are making the shows they do.

In case you missed it, the last ten years have been a Renaissance in high-quality video entertainment. The rising costs of film production and the addition of new TV channels interested in producing original work to drive their brand have raised the bar on quality while breaking the stranglehold the networks held on content for decades. This infusion of quality came at time when the competition for audience attention was elevated by the internet, video games, and other hitherto unavailable entertainment choices.

The result is that some terrific programs have been produced, and seen by few. Take Mad Men for example – the average viewership last year was less than 1 million per episode. Hardly enough audience to sustain it financially.  What AMC (the network that produces Mad Men) knows is that viewership extends beyond the broadcast date (thanks to DVD and on-demand services) and these sales offer a chance to recoup the production investment (given enough time).

There now exists a significant inventory of high-quality entertainment that many have not seen. So if watching a little TV is your thing – and it should be thanks to affordable high-def home entertainment systems – there is no need to be a slave to your DVR  or “seeing what’s on” ever again. You can carefully select shows that interest you and ensure every hour spent in front of the tube is a great one.

Best of all, I have found watching serialized shows that have running plot-lines that extend through the season (think 24, Lost, and Mad Men among others) viewing back to back on DVD is a superior experience to watching them during their original broadcasts. This practice has become commonly referred to as binging. It is easier to keep track of details of plot and nuance of character allowing one to become more emotionally engaged in the material. If you haven’t tried this, you should. You too will be hooked.

In the coming weeks I will provide reviews of some of the absolute best shows television has ever produced as well as some shows with a specific appeal or charm – all available on DVD for you serialized viewing.

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Rock and Roll Videos

Music fans have plenty to watch.  There seems to be an endless supply of documentaries about music and the people behind it.

Here are four rock documentaries – all excellent.

search-sugar-300x168Top of the list is “Searching for Sugar Man” – out on DVD and streaming. This film won the 2013 Oscar for best documentary. Man tells the improbable story of Rodriguez – an unsuccessful (or so it seems)  and enigmatic singer-songwriter who despite two albums never rose above obscurity and cult status.

But wait! There is more to the story. What follows is remarkable.  More detective story than music doc – the story unfolds and is a must see for music fans.

grohl“Sound City” is the first film (of many one hopes) by Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl. Sound City is a look back at the legendary Van Nuys recording studio where hundreds of Gold records were made in the seventies and eighties. This film is a labor of love for Grohl as Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” there. Grohl’s rock star status shows in the high production values and access to music industry icons who all weigh in on the studio and what made it great.  Rick Springfield notwithstanding!

Showtime rolled out a three and a half hour “History of the Eagles” giving the band its first real close-up (with the full cooperation of the band).  It’s well done and thorough – although perhaps a little light on some of the nastier details. Still, there is enough here to know them better and give them some of the respect they feel they deserve. Not sure Henley is the “chronic malcontent” David Geffen calls him – but I am certain I wouldn’t want to mess with either Henley or Fry.

Cream drummer Ginger Baker has been chronicled before – for a good reason – he’s a fascinating loon who just might self-destruct at any moment while on camera. He’s the inspiration for Spinal Taps drummers who BEWAREOFMRBAKER702spontaneously combust. Journalist turned filmmaker Jay Bulger travels to Africa to hang out with rock and rolls “first innovator of the drum kit” to gain some perspective on his life in “Beware of Mr. Baker”.  ERic Clapton, Jack Bruce, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart (and others) chime in on the drummer (incredible) and the man (insufferable).  Baker is a man obsessed with cigarettes, the sport of Polo and his legacy as a musician.  This is a curiously fascinating film. Not sure I enjoyed it – although glad I watched it.

If Sound City isn’t enough Dave Grohl for you, do yourself a favor and find “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” – this is a fantastic documentary of one of the great rock and roll stories of all time. Whoever thought the drummer of Nirvana would go to lead a band that would become more popular than Nirvana ever was? This movie tells that story giving lots of screen time to rocks most charming spokesman since Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl. A must see.

Finally, there is “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones” from 2005.  Great band, great story, a great documentary with full access to these members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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The Wire – Greatest Show Ever?

Wire

IMDB, which I have found to be the most reliable source of movie and TV ratings, gives HB0’s The Wire an unprecedented 9.7 out of 10 rating based on over 20,000 votes. This score makes The Wire the highest-rated show on IMDB. For comparison purposes, Shawshank Redemption, the highest-rated movie, gets a 9.1. The point is, I am not blowing smoke when I say this may be the single greatest serialized television show ever.

The bad news, few have seen the show. Good news, everyone can now enjoy it anytime thanks to streaming services like HBO Go.

The Wire was the creation of ex-Baltimore detective Ed Burns and former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon. Over the course of five seasons, with the help of a truly extraordinary ensemble of actors and over 200 speaking roles, Burns and Simon – along with a stellar group of writers (some famous) – use the series to explore some of the most vexing problems in America today. Inner city crime, class warfare, drugs in the inner city, education, politics, and in the final season the decline of journalism.

What you most need to understand about this show, it is a show made by writers who explore issues in a journalistic fashion. Well researched presentations of facts, without much overt advocacy toward any conclusion. The viewer, in the end, must decide what to think of all that is presented. This is in stark contrast to most network offerings that telegraph and spoon feed perspective to the viewer. This may explain why it never really gained a wide audience. It requires the audience to think and it’s hard to watch. This lack of spoon feeding perspective may also explain why the series won the Peabody Award for journalistic excellence.

One story per season with a clear journalistic focus told across 10-13 episodes (depending on the year).  This depth of story, along with over a hundred speaking roles each seaon, makes this the ideal series to binge-watch over successive nights. Viewing this way ensures you’ll never be completely lost, while growing to appreciate the issues explored, You will also get emotionally involved with some of the great characters on the show. Omar, Bunk, Bubbles, Stringer, Barksdale, Carchetti, Daniels, Lester, and of course McNulty.  Each worth of an overlooked Emmy – but and there are many others.

Nothing on tonight? Do yourself a favor and go out and stream The Wire Season One.  Chances are you will be hooked and see the Greatest Show Ever!