With Labor Day approaching, it’s time for a summer television recap. I don’t go much for reality programs like Survivor or Big Brother. Neither do the dancing shows or the contests like Project Runway hold any appeal. That said I do like Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List, though others don’t find her funny at all. This season wasn’t as good as previous ones, although there were some emotional moments such as her building of a school library in Mexico and her visit to Walter Reed Hospital and Rehab Center outside Washington, DC. The best part of the show is seeing the unusual gigs she accepts: being MC at a Furry convention (big, hairy gay men), or being the entertainment on a plane to Australia or for a group on a private island. Life as a comedian, especially hers, is just weird. It’s also interesting to see the effort she puts into creating her show, how she tries to learn about her audience beforehand to tailor her material accordingly, how she struggles at times to make the elusive connection between her sense of humor and the collective room’s funny bone, and how personally she takes it when she fails. The behind-the-scenes look at her personal life, her elderly mom, and her assistants is also fascinating.
USA network is still the place for summer scripted programming. On the Emmy-winning show Monk, Tony Shaloub and Traylor Howard continue to be an intriguing pair and the show’s writers perfectly blend humor and complex mysteries while putting the former police detective in uncomfortable situations which amplify his long list of neuroses, though they could make better use of the San Francisco setting. The death of Stanley Kamel, who played Monk’s therapist, could have been a devastating blow, but Hector Elizondo has stepped in quite well and will only get better with time.
The other USA show worth noting is Burn Notice with fellow UMass alumnus Jeffrey Donovan in the lead role as a spy abandoned by his covert agency (given a burn notice) and stranded in Miami. As he attempts to discover the reasons for and the people behind his change of status, he uses his spy skills to rescue people in trouble (imagine a combination of McGyver and the 1985-89 CBS series The Equalizer) with the assistance of an ex-girlfriend, played by one of my favorites, Gabrielle Anwar, and an ex-Navy Seal colleague, played by Bruce Campbell. Last year’s surprise hit, The Starter Wife, starring another favorite, Debra Messing, returns in October, probably delayed due to last year’s writer’s strike.
But the best show on television this summer was Carrier on PBS. This ten-part series documents life on board the USS Nimitz air craft carrier during its 2005 deployment from San Diego to Iraq and back. The film crew was given unbelievable access throughout the ship and interviewed hundreds of Navy and Marine personnel, from the Strike Group commander, Rear Admiral Peter H. Daly, to the guys who dispose of the trash. This is definitely not a propaganda piece for recruiters as many of the negative aspects of life in the armed forces were presented: the frustration with the daily monotony, the agony of the harsh discipline, the sadness and anger at being separated from family and loved ones, the uncertainty of the value of orders from superiors and the mission in general. But these are balanced by the descriptions of the respect everyone shows for hard work, the camaraderie felt between crew members, and the acknowledgement by many, especially the young men and women new to the service, that if they had stayed in civilian life, they would be in dead-end jobs, in prison, or worse. Religion on board ship, the presence of women on a predominantly-male combat vessel, shore leaves in Muslim countries, differences between officer’s privileges and responsibilities and those of lower ranked crew members and the difficulties of returning home after the isolation and separation from families are all dealt with over the course of the ten hours. The show has finished airing, but the equally impressive web site has lots of additional information about the ship and how the show was produced. Definitely check out the scout diary in which the directors describe their first visits to the ship in order to prepare bringing 17 filmmakers on board for six months of shooting.