20 Pilots Down: A Special Graze-Watching Weekend

Queen Sono!

Bond? Bond who? Pearl Thusi and Loyiso Madinga in the action-spy series Queen Sono, which premiered on Netflix last Friday.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: months ago my wife Anne and I had blocked out this past weekend on our calendars for attending C2E2, but ultimately bowed out due to a confluence of funding issues and insufficient guest-list temptations. We kept the weekend free anyway, determined to do something with it, even if it amounted to little more than watching lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of TV for the sake of saving on travel and leisure costs. Sometimes when your brain’s being crunched more than usual at work during a time of year that’s historically, inevitably rough, taking days off from the rat race and other responsibilities for mental health is a helpful, virtually medicinal move to recharge these flawed, fleshly vehicles of ours.

As someone who’s a bit too project-oriented when it comes to parceling out my free-time usage, naturally I spent days beforehand pondering what exactly to watch, which shows to binge or which movies to pull from various unwatched stacks, be they DVDs or streaming-media queues. Then I remembered an idea I’d had years ago: given the hundreds, potentially thousands of TV shows I’ve missed throughout my lifetime, why not have a marathon of first episodes only? Line up the pilots and premieres of various series and miniseries across the entertainment spectrum, watch them one by one, resist the urge to move on immediately to any episode 2 for the duration of the marathon, and see what happens? Create my own A/V sampler platter. A bandwidth buffet. A television Tour of Italy, for the shameless O.G. fans out there.

If “binge-watching” is sitting through several episodes of one show in a row, then sitting through one episode each of several shows might be “graze-watching”.

In between interruptions from family, church, company, mealtimes, and sleepiness, over three days I managed to cram in twenty initial episodes of varying lengths, all courtesy of Netflix, Hulu, or Comcast on Demand. Anne tagged along for several viewings, but not all of them. Her content limits are stricter than mine, and weekend naptimes are her thing, not mine. The reason we missed some of these shows the first time around is because we’re not fans of pervasive F-bombs or sexytime shenanigans. Occasionally I compromise in little ways that I perhaps shouldn’t, depending on a number of factors that may seem arbitrary and/or mean to anyone who doesn’t identify as a prude.

Content levels notwithstanding, the comparisons and contrasts among showrunners, visual designs, pacing, casting, budgets, and other criteria were fascinating to track as they varied from one production to the next. Several of these shows were written and produced under the assumption (one that was once a wise industry tradition, if not a hard executive rule) that a first episode might be their one and only shot to catch the attention of a viewing audience…or more importantly, impress the heck out of the studio executives with the power to decide whether the show lives or dies. Back in the day, that one episode had to blow minds and leave them wanting more.

A few other shows were obviously designed under a prevailing yet flawed 21st-century belief that viewers who try more than two minutes of a new show will sign a subconscious contract to watch every single episode, won’t care if the first one is a self-contained gem or not, and won’t mind if the narrative moves at a snail’s pace and doesn’t achieve real momentum or compelling drama till the fourth or fifth episode. Shows made under the latter paradigm did not fare well under the terms of this project.

A few of these series are brand new, but many are years old. Chances are you’ve watched, finished, and moved on from them by now. These therefore may not be full capsule recaps, merely glancing thoughts unless I feel compelled to tack on some extra droning, which is entirely possible because gratuitous verbosity of course happens to be my jam.

Those twenty Episode Ones in unedited watching order, each watched entirely from beginning to end:

Making a Murderer: Basic-cable true-crime shows are a frequent stop during Anne’s channel-flipping routines. The more detailed forensics, the better. The Steven Avery story seemed like a no-brainer kickoff. The ordeal he suffered is outrageous and reminded me in ways of the Sundance Channel miniseries we caught a while back, No One Saw a Thing. Episode 1 gave us the basic framework of his story from bumpkin origin to wrongful arrest to joyous freedom after 18 years. We remain skeptical that this saga lends itself to nineteen more episodes, considering our only lingering questions are ones to which we don’t want to know the answers, such as “How can someone live life without owning any underwear?” and “The entire family took breaks together to watch Divorce Court? really?”

House of Cards: Ten times creepier now than what creator Beau Willimon and director David Fincher surely intended thanks to the cancellation of Kevin Spacey. Among the most sophisticated and smartly paced of this entire list, yet with a planetary-sized asterisk orbiting overheard, much like whenever I sit through a Roman Polanski film, which isn’t often but has been known to happen. On a brighter note, we learned Kate Mara is nearly the same height as Anne, but seemed more like a teenage Lois Lane than a shrewd adult journalist. I avoided Cards the first time around because politics weren’t my thing, but now that social media jackhammers them into my skull on a daily basis, I’m more or less inoculated and intrigued by that whole “transition of power” phase that used to occur between presidencies with a bit more decorum.

Chef’s Table: Nonfiction biographies of world-famous chefs who create outstanding dishes and set trends wherever they bake or fry. We’re not nearly upscale enough to recognize a single chef who’s been profiled on the show to date, but the food photography is to die for.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: We love The Office. We love Parks and Rec. I’d bypassed co-creator Michael Schur’s next major gig because of two words: Andy Samberg. In my mind he was synonymous with Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and other SNLers whose films tend to send me fleeing in the opposite direction. Now that I know the rest of the B99 cast brings much-needed balance to his goofy excesses, maybe I wouldn’t mind if Comedy Central someday begins airing reruns six times a week. It’s still extremely jarring seeing Andre Braugher pivot from six years of Homicide to this, though.

The Haunting of Hill House: After enjoying Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep I was more amenable to sampling his lengthy adaptation of the famous horror novel. As with some of the former Marvel shows, episode 1 took its sweet time getting anywhere and tested my patience to the breaking point. It didn’t help that I had trouble telling all the various brunette women apart, and the initial scares were so low-key that I’m sure they’ve left all the best stuff for much, much later on, which did me no good in the first hour. Of that time frame, I spent a good ten minutes scrutinizing main character Steven Crane, distracted by the nagging question of where I’d seen his face. Then I remembered Michiel Huisman was the almost-love interest in Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is also on Netflix and was much more my speed.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson: On the very day of OJ’s infamous Bronco chase, I had no idea anything had happened until I clocked in at my restaurant job that evening and heard about it from everyone else. I spent the next year or two dodging related headlines as much as I could, but that spectacle was everywhere. At long last perhaps I’m ready to sit still and learn more about it…except it’s supremely bizarre seeing actors you easily recognize playing “historical” people whose real faces you also know well. Though the dialogue is occasionally clunky, Ryan Murphy makes every moment feel ripped unedited from tabloid headlines in a beguiling way and eventually I stopped expecting Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ to scream “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” or wishing for David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian to implore reporters, “Could he BE any more innocent?”

The Librarians: The creators of Leverage decided Indiana Jones and National Treasure needed more company. We Leverage fans were not opposed to such derivation, even with a new set of characters. It’s fun seeing more of Christian Kane in a different light, but I furrowed my brow at the sight of former ER and Falling Skies drama star Noah Wyle attempting wackiness on a level of, say, Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda. It’s cool when actors try to branch out and resist pigeonholing, but…maybe I’d get over it by episode 2? Everything else about this was a blast, even though neither of us had seen any of Wyle’s previous Librarian TV-movies.

Fosse/Verdon: Considering our comic-con history of jazz-hands photo-ops, it seemed remiss not to learn more about the history of jazz hands. Unfortunately the only Bob Fosse work I’ve seen is Cabaret. Luckily for me, episode 1 is almost entirely about Cabaret. I may not have strong frames of reference for the rest of the miniseries, but Sam Rockwell and Michelle Phillips are convincing and sometimes sad to watch as an older couple struggling to stay relevant to entertainment and to stay together as a couple, largely in that order.

High Fidelity: I like Nick Hornby’s novel, but I love Stephen Frears’ film adaptation, which works slightly better as a scathing post-geek text, benefiting from a restructuring that escalates the main character’s rumination about his hollow pop-culture idolatry from a page-100 casual thought to a third-act epiphany. Thirty minutes into the new Hulu adaptation starring Zoe Kravitz, they’ve rapidly established her flawed mindset and central philosophy (to the effect of “What you like is more important of what you are like!”) with the expectation of sensible refutation later in the season. It’s somewhat keen to spot Jake Lacy for my first time since The Office ended, but I don’t know if I’m prepared for this extended-cut even-more-parental-advisory-stickered cover version, as the language was among the harshest of all the shows on this list. Also, I felt very called out by their mean but accurate Weezer joke.

30 Rock: You’d think I would’ve been a fan from Day One, and yet here we are. We used to run across it on occasion, but the riffs too often crossed the classy line between smart-alecky and smarmy, and felt aimed at a purely Hollywood audience, as opposed to an audience who knows of Hollywood. I still laughed plenty, but I don’t know that I need to see all the Rock. The toned-down rendition we later got from the same creative team on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt should hold me for a bit longer.

Master of None: Sometimes following actors from shows I loved to their next gigs doesn’t work out. As played by Aziz Ansari, the sweet but relentlessly shallow Tom Haverford was at his most entertaining whenever the other characters shamed his hollow ways. Ansari’s new persona Dev is not the same person, but somehow he feels even less relatable to me than Tom was. Of all twenty episodes, this one made me feel oldest, stodgiest, and non-targeted as an audience. I can accept that. Not everything in the world must be aimed squarely at me or my tastes. Judging by the one ep, this isn’t.

Altered Carbon: Joel Kinnaman was the one truly great thing about AMC’s The Killing, but I’ve had a hard time buying his attempted transition to tough-guy action star — the Robocop remake, Suicide Squad, and now this grim-and-gritty SF spectacle. Mesmerizing visuals, polished martial arts, and a few fiendishly clever ideas (love that sinister, overprotective A.I. hotel) aren’t quite enough for me to overlook dour, ultra-grim-and-gritty content levels or the fact that body-swapping premises keep coming up in my geek consumption of late and I’d rather not overdose on them.

G.L.O.W.: Joel McHale’s recent sitcoms already disabused me of my vain hopes that anyone who ever helped make Community awesome would go forth upon its cancellation and only make awesome things ever after. Much of GLOW‘s intro was hilarious and rife with unexpected curveballs (how Ruth finally gets her wrestling gig reminded me in a good way of HBO’s Barry and the acting-class clincher), but I feel compelled to impose a personal limit on how often I see Alison Brie topless so I don’t feel like a skeevy old perv like Jeff Winger.

The Crown: Some early reviews had led us to believe writer Peter Morgan’s longform follow-up to his Best Picture nominee The Queen amounted to “Royal Sexytime”. Perhaps later down the road, the sight of Queen Elizabeth II snogging Prince Philip may be lying in wait to drive us to the brink of horror, like that one Marvel miniseries that dared readers to visit Aunt May’s heyday as a horny teen. Mercifully the first chapter didn’t go there and seemed much like any other British costume drama, save a few expletives and the Eleventh Doctor’s bare butt. Bonus points for casting consummate professional Jared Harris to take over for Colin Firth as King George VI. A pity Elizabeth herself hardly figured into her own story at first. Presumably Claire Foy has more lines later?

The Umbrella Academy: Gerard Way has a knack for dreaming up unusual characters and wildly out-there ideas, but I never finished reading either of his super-team’s two fairly incoherent Dark Horse miniseries, which were shameless riffs on Grant Morrison’s bizarre rendition of DC’s Doom Patrol. The TV version necessarily, quickly, and thankfully launches in more of a traditional vein, by which I mean events and motivations make sense and follow old-fashioned cause-and-effect as opposed to “And then THIS crazy thing happened because I thought it would feel SO COOL.”

Stumptown: Amazing discovery: when males get out of Cobie Smulders’ way and let her have more than three lines, she’s brilliant. Perhaps this is common knowledge to others. I never made it past How I Met Your Mother‘s pilot. I’m doubly ignorant here because the comic book on which this is based comes from Oni Press, one of several indie publishers my local comic shop rarely orders. If it’s as good as any other Greg Rucka creation, and if this zippy action-comedy accurately captures even a fraction of what he and his artists managed on the printed page, then I need to start hunting those trades. And catching up with Cobie.

Queen Sono: Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times both recommended this recent Netflix addition, a spy drama made in South Africa with a black female lead and dealing with terrorists and threats among neighboring countries. So far there’s no evidence of US or UK interests as central concerns, because international intrigue can indeed exist between non-Western countries and still feature vehicle chases and martial arts. The fights are more edited than I’d prefer (“every single move gets its own cut” is a deeply annoying rule of thumb), but Our Heroine’s supporting-cast game is strong and the cliffhanger mystery arising from her tragic backstory is one I didn’t see coming.

Wu Assassins: Iko Uwais from The Raid but with superpowers! And sometimes he turns into Mark Dacascos from John Wick 3! And his best pal is Lewis Tan, who ruled the one engaging fight sequence in all of Iron Fist! Hearing Uwais try on English for size reminds me of when Jackie Chan once underwent the same learning curve, but yes, this will quite do for my fantasy speed-demon martial-arts needs.

Unbelievable: Nothing makes me cross a movie or show off my “watch someday” list more quickly than rape scenes. Not my thing. At all. Nope nope nope nope nope. Only after a multitude of positive reviews and a consultation with a coworker who’d watched it did I finally, trepidatiously tiptoe toward it and queue it up. There was blessedly no extended voyeurism, merely judicious use of split-second fragments to convey the violence and the terror. Nevertheless, much empathetic wincing and closing of my eyes followed. It was soon followed by fury at the thick-skulled males (and a few unhelpful women) who proceeded to make everything deeply, intensely, maddeningly worse. Neither of the two main detectives shows up till episode 2, which I know because after the weekend marathon was officially done, on Monday night I had to keep watching, because until and unless we see this through to the finale, Marie Adler won’t have received justice in our household.

Wild Wild Country: As God is my witness, for the past thirty years I’d thought Bhagwan Rajneesh was a character invented by Berke Breathed as a broad Bloom County parody of Krishna-esque cults in general. The expression on my face was probably priceless when my son recommended this docuseries to us (his exact quote: “the best I’ve ever seen”), about outlandish life and times surrounding an infamous commune in rural Oregon, and Anne had to confirm for me that yes, the Bhagwam and his followers were very real. Spending the entire first hour on their origin alone seemed like a slow setup, albeit shocking that any of the original perpetrators agreed to be interviewed, but my son swears it escalates quickly.

Random useless trivia gleaned from this three-day experience:

  • Both Hill House and Umbrella Academy have brothers who are walking liabilities with severe drug problems
  • Umbrella Academy and Stumptown are both based on comics; both also make use of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”
  • Queen Sono and Wu Assassins share martial arts and jokes about cleanses
  • House of Cards, The Haunting of Hill House, High Fidelity, Altered Carbon, Umbrella Academy, and Stumptown each feature actors who’ve also costarred in superhero movies; Stumptown has two and House of Cards has three
  • Wu Assassins is the lone entrant here to star anyone who’s ever been in a Star Wars film.
  • Making a Murderer and Unbelievable both involve rape cases in which the officers in charge bungle everything and ruin the life of an imperfect person with a five-letter last name starting with ‘A’.

If any of that comes in handy someday, then it was all worth it. Well, that plus the several series that rose much higher up my must-see list.

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