Saturday, February 11, 2017

2016 in Review: Television

Let’s talk TV.

Polygamy was a major interest of mine when it came to what I watched on the small screen during 2016. Melanie and I discovered three new—and, in the case of two of them, already cancelled—cable series about the polygamous lifestyle. First up was My Five Wives, a kind of post-religious, secular cousin of TLC’s Sister Wives. My Five Wives features a family who is no longer religious but whose polygamous beginnings were rooted in religious conviction. I mentioned this family when I wrote about my adventures at the Sunstone Symposium back in the summer. Like Sister Wives, this show focused on the day-to-day practicalities of living polygamy: the husband’s efforts to balance time between the wives, tensions that arise among the wives themselves, etc. The post-religious component of the show gave it a unique bent, one that resonated with me as a person who has gone through a significant faith transition. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after just one season.

Next up is Escaping Polygamy. This quickly became my favorite “reality TV” polygamy show, even though it is far more sensationalized than the others. It can be a bit over the top in that regard, but at the heart of the show is something genuinely fascinating. The series follows the efforts of three women, all of whom defected from polygamy as teenagers, as they help others to do the same. The most beguiling aspect of the show is that it strikes so close to home, both literally and figuratively. Though I wasn’t raised in polygamy, I spent nearly 40 years in the LDS Church from which these polygamist sects sprang. There are often surprising similarities between the polygamist groups and the LDS Church, culturally speaking, which mesmerizes me as an ex-Mormon. Additionally, so much of what takes place in the show happens in or very near Salt Lake City. It’s amazing the wild things that are secretly going on all around me, masked by a fa├žade of pleasant valley suburban America. Of the three polygamy shows I discuss in this blog post, Escaping Polygamy is the only one that has not been discontinued.

The final polygamy show we watched was Polygamy, USA. It was featured on the National Geographic Channel, which means the tone was vastly different from the other polygamy shows I’ve mentioned. It was more of a legitimate documentary. I am a fan of documentaries, but this one sometimes felt like the educational videos I remember watching in school as a kid—very dry and very subdued. I was bored during some of the earlier episodes. However, I was sufficiently engrossed by the end of the season (which also marked the end of the series). Unlike any other reality TV series, Polygamy, USA focuses on those living loyally the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist lifestyle. The polygamists of Centennial Park broke away from the FLDS Church, the latter of which is what many Americans imagine when they hear the word “polygamy”—women in prairie dresses, strict obedience to church leaders, a strong sense of patriarchy, private communities, child brides, etc. Centennial Park is a slightly liberal version thereof, forbidding marriage to underage girls, placing the responsibility of choosing a spouse on the women rather than the men, and (clearly) allowing cameras into their otherwise isolated community. Want to see what it’s like for newlyweds to engage in awkward conversations where they are trying to learn some of the most basic facts about each other? This is a good show for you.

Most of the TV shows I discovered in 2016 had nothing to do with polygamy, of course. Let’s take a look at what I found.

WINNERS

Ash vs. Evil Dead
I was stoked when I learned that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy would receive a sequel in the form of a television series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, which is as ridiculously hyperviolent as you’d expect, does not disappoint.

Making a Murderer
I know, I know. Making a Murderer is so 2015. Well, Melanie and I were late for the party. So what? We can see why the show was so compelling, and we’ll definitely be on board when Season 2 finally makes its premiere—whenever that will be.

Mr. Robot
I have mixed feelings about this show. I quite liked it whenever I watched an episode, but I rarely felt eager to watch it. Even now, Season 2 remains completely unwatched despite being on our DVR for months. Although it qualifies as a thriller, there is something very slow-moving about it. I think this is a case of the show being slightly better than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.

Stranger Things
See, we’re not always late to the party. Like everyone else, we loved it. Melanie and I watched the series once on our own, and then again with our boys. They liked it, too. Win-win.

United States of Tara
We had to reach way back into the 2009 vault to watch this one. I don’t know what mental health experts or those with dissociative identity disorder would say about this dramedy, starring Toni Collette as a woman balancing DID with the typical challenges of suburbia. There’s always a risk of treating these topics poorly. Admittedly, there were outlandish aspects to the plot, especially near the end, but overall I quite enjoyed the series’ fairly brief three-season stint. That being said, it is the weakest of shows I am putting into the “Winner” category.

RUNNERS-UP: Flaked; Love; Master of None; Red Oaks.


ON THE FENCE

Casual
This is probably the least enjoyable show that I haven’t completely given up on. None of the main characters are likeable. I’ve watched this one only when I’ve somehow managed to catch up on others and don’t yet want to start something new.

Fuller House
Okay, let me explain. I wouldn’t say I like this show. But I’ve seen several episodes, and that’s just me being a forthright and honest guy. We tried it one night as a family, wondering if our kids would enjoy it. They kind of do, so we’ve had it on a few times. In all fairness, we haven’t even watched the full first season. We watched two episodes in July, and another three in November. Clearly, we’re not chomping at the bit.

The Man in the High Castle
This is a critically acclaimed show, and Melanie and I watched the first several episodes. We then lost touch with it. It’s another one of those shows that is pretty good, but just so slow and tranquil that it often puts me to sleep. Hence, I’ve never been super motivated to watch it.

Speechless
Speechless received positive press for putting a special-needs teenager—one who can’t speak, hence the name of the show—at the forefront. Unfortunately, the family around which the show revolves is not particularly likeable. The mother, played by Minnie Driver, is particularly obnoxious. Furthermore, the family as a whole hasn’t gelled in terms of who they are. Sometimes they come off as trailer trash, and sometimes they come off as domineering elitists. I honestly don’t know if we’re supposed to consider them good guys or bad guys. Sometimes such ambiguity is the strength of a show. Here, it just seems sloppy and ill-formed.


DUDS

12 Monkeys
The movie 12 Monkeys was great. I had high hopes for the TV show. I got through one episode and just didn’t want to continue with it. It wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t click with me.

Documentary Now!
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in a mockumentary television series? Sounds like heaven! And that’s what I thought, until I watched the incredibly boring and unfunny first episode. I will probably give it another go sometime, but the humor in that first episode was just way, way, way too understated for my tastes.


The end.