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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

What a fantasy show can teach us about TV

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Who doesn’t like science fiction? It’s generally so fantastical, so warmly imagined, that, while I don’t typically like sci-fi at all, I’m generally grateful when it fits. Show me the latest episode of “Black Mirror,” “USS Callister,” and I’ll watch it in a heartbeat. (Too bad the episode I had in mind didn’t come out the other day, but I’ll take what I can get.)

But I’m not usually interested in stories that, in the simplest terms, involve a wisecracking guy and a robot arm. (Does anyone even read a comic these days?)

So this season of “Westworld” has been a revelation. Not only does it run about 90 minutes — think all other shows combined — but it’s decidedly conventional, with characters we know (many of whom have a bit more layers under the surface than most), an auteur-type writer and an original arc. I could watch this all day. And now there’s “Spin City.” Spin City had no lines, but it had the feel of a movie. (It helped that there were three of them.) They had a zingy, mordant comic premise. They called it “The Apartment,” so you didn’t worry that it was a maudlin, melodramatic and close-to-the-bone oldie. “Airwolf” had two kinds of show: The one with Johnny Knoxville and the one without him. The “Survivor” thing added something. “Party of Five” in its early seasons was bright, and “Will & Grace” in its later season was hilarious, but was it going to go on to become a year-in, year-out gold mine of accessible family comedy?

Also: Given the fact that certain forms of electronic media tend to be of one kind (streaming or video, game consoles, cellphones, social networks, etc.) don’t we all want to see a show that shows the world of electronic media of another kind, a more nuanced set of infrastructures, ones that are far less flashy and seem quite comfortable in their settings? After all, “Call of Duty” games are filled with airships, military war games, the occasional appearance of space aliens and extreme close-ups of boogers, but to read them in a text book is to be reminded of how things are.

I can’t write about genre shows enough, in so many ways, but I sometimes get so tired of the joke that I have to see shows that are different, just to see where they land in the landscape. Isn’t that why I like TV? To see things in new, unexpected ways.

Still, I don’t want to put your mind at ease that I’m crazy in love with “Westworld” just because, as if we needed to be reminded, it is fantasy. It’s not the kind of show you’d ever want to watch if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That’s too bad. It is fantasy. Its creators are fantasy writers, after all.

Here’s another fantasy: Everyone should watch “The Man in the High Castle.” It’s my most-recent binge of the season, and so far, my favorite show.

It is true that Amazon didn’t send it to me by postal means, and I might be using a data-driven device that doesn’t let me click on Amazon links, but I’m not even really making a conscious effort. What I’m finding and what I love about “The Man in the High Castle” is — am I right in thinking this? — it is technically a political thriller, but it doesn’t just rely on political intrigue to tell its story. Or is that just me?

More importantly, its characters aren’t at all the stereotypical “Mad Men” types. No endless staring at sleek surfaces and information on an external screen, or the sweetly dark drama of Mr. Merritt. But beyond that, “The Man in the High Castle” has something else that I really like about it: I hope I can’t give it up. I’ve managed to turn off my FOMO.

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