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Ten Great TV Shows…Just in Time for Spring

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Ten Great TV Shows…Just in Time for Spring

The Old, The New and the Just Plain Weird

With winter coming to an end and spring almost upon us, it might be prudent to invest quality time with your Netflix account (or whatever service you might use) and discover new television shows to get us through “mud season”. Most of these shows can be found either on the hosting network’s website, hulu.com, or Netflix. Enjoy!

THE OLD

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows1. Dark Shadows (1966 – 1971)

With Twilight fever still slightly contagious and a Tim Burton adaptation of Dark Shadows on the way (expect Johnny Depp to put his own spin on the iconic character of Barnabas Collins) now might be the time to see the supernatural soap opera that started it all. The wealthy Collins family presides over the small town of Collinsport and all is well until their cousin Barnabas (Jonathan Frid) comes to town. Of course, no one seems to realize that with his sweeping black cape, propensity to only go out at night, and mysterious demeanor that he is a (SPOILER) vampire! And hiring the town vagrant to be his servant! And abducting a local young woman to be his vampire bride! And renovating the creepy old house on the Collin’s property! The surprises never end.

At first, you might find the series boring (I certainly did – you can leave the room for several minutes and come back to find you didn’t miss anything important). Television in the 60s didn’t have quite the fast-moving plotlines or quick-witted dialogue that characterizes TV today- but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an engaging show once you adjust to the unique brand of storytelling that characterizes daily “stories”. Like any good soap opera, the interest comes not from the settings, décor, or even dialogue but from the character’s actions and conflicts with each other.

The most fun might come from watching for inadvertent bloopers- watch out for microphones swinging into the shot, weird lighting, and props wobbling out of place. Dark Shadows was live-to-tape format, meaning most of the scenes were shot in one take. It is also easy to see the influence in modern television that originated with Dark Shadows- but unlike Edward Cullen, Barnabas doesn’t sparkle.

I inadvertently started watching this series from the middle (Netflix only streams from the point of the series in which Barnabas appears) but I highly recommend watching from the beginning. Obviously you’ll get the backstory, but you’ll also realize the punch of excitement that Barnabas Collins (and all his accompanying activities) provides.

2. Murder She Wrote (1984 – 1996)

Everyone laughs at me for my love of this show, (I was the only 10 year old who used to hang out with senior citizens at my mother’s place of work to watch Matlock and Murder She Wrote reruns), but if you want a cozy mystery series, this one’s for you. Starring Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist/amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, the series revolves around her solving mysteries both at home in Cabot Cove, Maine and abroad. It sounds deceptively simple, but the mysteries are engaging enough that I was hooked after the first episode- also, Angela Lansbury is fantastic in the role, and actors such as George Clooney, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Maher (not joking) have been known to guest star. A perfect show for a rainy spring day.

My Name is Earl: Jason Lee3. My Name is Earl (2005 – 2009)

In my opinion, this show should not have been canceled after only four seasons. Jason Lee is hilarious as a low-class delinquent trying to change his life. After he is struck by a car seconds after winning the lottery, he decides that he has bad karma and struggles to repair the damage he has done to other people’s lives. This is the start of “The List”, where Earl documents all his wrongdoings and seeks to make them right. In the meantime, he must cope with his conniving ex-wife Joy (Jaime Pressly), her boyfriend Darnell (Eddie Steeples), his friend Catalina (Nadine Valazquez), and his simple-minded brother Randy (Ethan Suplee). Each episode centers on a new list item, which keeps the series feeling fresh. Not only is each episode filled with amusing dialogue and unique story lines, but also there is an “inspiring message” which often catapults My Name is Earl into feel-good comedy territory.

4. Ugly Betty (2006 – 2010)

I love fashion, so I automatically loved the premise of Ugly Betty- a hard working but fashionably challenged young woman works at a fashion magazine, despite not fitting in with the other “beautiful people” who work there.  When Betty (America Ferrera) scores a job as the assistant to the editor at Mode (basically the TV version of Vogue), she has no idea what a quandary she’s in. Soon she finds her footing trying to help the clueless new editor Daniel (Eric Mabius) improve the magazine and keep his dad (the owner of the publishing house) happy.

I like Ugly Betty because, unlike so many other television shows, it is believable. America Ferrera, the actress that plays Betty Suarez, is pretty but not artificial, a trait I believe we need to reinforce in media. The story line is part The Devil Wears Prada, part Gilmore Girls, and part Glee (regarding the occasional over-the-top campiness, not the tendency to burst into song).  It’s amusing for the viewer to watch the caricaturized depiction of a fashion magazine’s inner workings, and the over the top characters that inhabit them.

LOST5. LOST (2004 – 2010)

Perhaps one of the most epic television series ever, LOST is not only mind-boggling in the tradition of science fiction shows, but a captivating character drama.

The premise is simple: a plane crashes on an apparently deserted island, leaving several of the remaining passengers to fend for themselves. Dr. Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox) immediately becomes the leader and guides the castaways, a trend that continues throughout the series. Also becoming breakout characters in the series is the strong willed Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), sarcastic James “Sawyer” Ford (Josh Holloway), and philosophical John Locke (Terry O’Quinn).

Like Downton Abbey, although Jack might be the apparent main character, each character has his or her time in the sun. Each castaway’s life is examined, either through flashbacks or discovery through the other passengers, and the audience can see what contributed to their passage on the doomed Oceanic Flight 815.

Perhaps the success of LOST can partly be attributed to its wide incorporation of different genres. There are a lot of sci-fi elements (time travel, alternate universes, smoke monsters,) but it is also a drama. As such, LOST has attracted viewers of all affiliations as regular fans. Another component of LOST is its lack of fear in addressing the big questions- why are we here? What is our purpose? Do we have free will or is everything based on fate? The series finale ended up raising more questions than it answered, but what else should we have expected from such an enigmatic, variable show? Even those who never quite understood the LOST phenomenon will agree that there has never been a show quite like it.

THE NEW

6. 30 Rock (2006-)

Ever wonder what it’s like to be the head writer on a Saturday Night Live-type sketch show? Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is the head writer of “The Girlie Show”, a sketch comedy program produced by NBC. She is joined by volatile actor Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), spotlight loving Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and Executive Producer Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), among others. Perhaps my favorite character is Kenneth the NBC Page, whose dedication to NBC and television in general is unsurpassed.

Certainly, sometimes the jokes get a little over-the-top, but Fey saves it with a refreshing dose of likeability and normalcy amid the chaos.

7. Downton Abbey (2010-)

Everyone’s been saying it- Downton Abbey is amazingly addictive, and one of the best shows on television. The historical drama follows the aristocratic Crawley Family (and those who work for them) starting the day after the Titanic sank. The chief conflict of the series is the need for a male heir to the Crawley’s Grantham estate, and Lady Mary’s attempt to find a husband. Things become complicated when the two heirs meant to inherit the estate die in the Titanic tragedy, and a distant cousin visits hoping to inherit everything.

The brilliance of Downton Abbey resides in the characters. Usually television shows have a clear-cut protagonist; in this case, Mary would be the main character. But the other members of the Crawley family, as well as the servants, all have their own story lines, conflicts, and desires. It is this inclusiveness that makes the show so captivating and unique.

Psych: James Roday & Dule Hill8. Psych (2006-)

For a while, psychics were all the rage on television. There was the fictionalized version of real-life psychic Alison Dubois (portrayed by Patricia Arquette) on Medium, and the completely fictitious Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt) as the Ghost Whisperer. But what would happen if a guy claimed to be psychic but was instead a very good observer? Meet Shawn Spencer, the protagonist of Psych.

At heart, Psych is really a buddy detective comedy-drama series (if that’s even a genre) that follows the cases of Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a man with “heightened observational skills”, and his partner Burton Guster (Dule Hill). He is forced to fake his psychic abilities because the Santa Barbara police were suspicious of his insights into local crimes. Shawn decides that his only options are to get arrested, or create a fake reason for knowing so many details about the crimes. So Shawn becomes the “psychic crime consultant”, and enlists the help of his friend Burton to solve crimes with the police.

On the surface, this sounds like any police procedural. But it is the interplay between Shawn and Burton, as well as their complete lack of proper crime-solving etiquette that makes this show amusing.  At first I thought it was painfully silly for a “grown up show”, but after watching an episode or two the brand of humor began to grow on me. Psych offers the good-natured humor and witty dialogue of a sitcom and the “who-done-it” aspect of a mystery series.

Hot in Cleveland: Wendy Malick, Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli 9. Hot in Cleveland (2010-)

Despite mixed reviews (and a few glowing ones) from critics, this show is the perfect antidote to any residual winter blahs. If The Golden Girls and Sex and the City combined, this would be the result.

Hot in Cleveland follows three middle-aged women (portrayed by Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendy Malick) and their adventures in Cleveland. Originally they were aiming to spend a “girl’s only getaway” to Paris, but were waylaid in Ohio, to their chagrin. That is, until they realize they are still “hot” in Cleveland, the men are masculine and have good manners, and they are generally more desirable than they were when living in Southern California. So they stay- despite having to put up with the quirky behavior of the senior citizen caretaker of their new home, Elka (played with hilarious sincerity by Betty White) and other traditional sitcom mishaps.

As critics have said, Hot In Cleveland is, to borrow from the Golden Girls universe, like a big slab of cheesecake- delightful comfort food that you generally aren’t analyzing while you consume it. Are some of the jokes outdated? Sure. Is the dialogue trying a bit too hard at times? Yes. But any shortcomings the show might possess are mostly glossed over by the likeability factor of the three leads and Betty White’s excellent comedic timing as a cranky, tracksuit-wearing caretaker.  If you need 20 minutes of a show that is a good old fashioned tribute to the style of 80s sitcoms, this is the show for you.

Grimm10. Grimm (2011-)

At first I thought Grimm would be a knock-off of Supernatural, another show trying to benefit from the success of “paranormal dramas”. But after a slow first few episodes, I was pleasantly surprised. Relative newcomer David Guintoli is unassumingly relatable as homicide detective Nick Burkhardt. It isn’t long before Burkhardt discovers his lineage as a “Grimm”, a fairy tale law enforcer who has the ability to see “what no one else sees”. In other words, Burkhardt sees the true identities of other seemingly normal individuals. With the help of reformed “big bad wolf” Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), his job becomes not only solving crimes in the human world, but in keeping order in the mythological monster world as well- two universes that often collide.

Unlike similar fairy-tale themed show Once Upon A Time, Grimm is less soapy and sentimental and more like Castle (an ABC mystery series) meets Supernatural. That is, there is more of an edge that crosses this from soap opera drama to a darker, suspenseful series. The fairy tales told by the Grimm brothers have always been more Stephen King than Walt Disney (despite their refinement as Disney-type cartoons) and Grimm reminds us of this with weekly cases that veer more often into the mythological universe. If you were a fan of The X Files or are a current fan of Supernatural, Grimm might be a show to put on your list.

Christie Sausa is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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