I’m not evangelical by nature. But it’s no fun—indeed, rather sad, even borderline pathetic—to enthusiastically drop the name of a show you’ve been watching. . . and have it land on the floor with a leaden thud. But people are always discussing the same damn shows. Social media seems to have dulled curiosity down to the rubbery nub, and made too many of us reluctant or indifferent to checking out a series we haven’t already heard about, read about, had jammed in our faces, or seen trending on Twitter. Then again, maybe these people are simply strangers I’ve been accosting in subway cars and such because it’s so lonesome up here in Washington Heights; poll samples, as the election results proved, may not tell “the whole story.”
But listed below are five shows that haven’t ridden as high on the cultural radar as they deserve, perhaps (in a few cases) because they’re foreign imports and have (shudder) subtitles—a distinct disadvantage in our quick-scan, semi-attentive, post-literate, forced march with the walking dead. (Yes, inaugural week has me a little “down.”)
Yet persevere we must, and these series offer plenty of action and a wealth of political echoes, cognitive enhancers, creative flourishes, and, in one case, slapstick lunacies, to reward those more adventurous viewers for whom House Hunters and Law and Order reruns aren’t enough to get them through the winter blahs.
“I do not know what you have going on,“ Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) warns F.B.I. bigwig (Ciarán Hinds) about a criminal informant at the beginning of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. “But whatever case you have him on it is it is going bad, and it sounds as if it’s going bad right now.” It goes bad, all right: undercover agents are blown to pieces by high-powered snipers.
Fauda, an Israeli political-counterinsurgency suspenser that Arab audiences also took to (for reasons that will become apparent), also opens with an operation going bad: the attempted execution of a Hamas mastermind named Abu Ahmad, a.k.a. “the Panther,” who was presumed dead after an earlier shoot-out and yet has resurfaced. Using the wedding of the Panther’s brother Bashir as the stage for a rematch, an elite undercover unit of the Israeli Defense Forces—the mista’arvim—intend to kill their nemesis all over again, this time for good. Agents posing as catering servers pass trays of sweets among the wedding revelers, their smiles waxy as their eyes scan the room for any sign of the Panther. Then, with a phone call out of the blue, their cover is blown, guns are fired, and the distress call goes out from the Israeli agents to their backup unit: “Fauda! Fauda!“—which the subtitles helpfully translate for us, within brackets, as “chaos.” Chaos is indeed unleashed, and the wedding ends with the groom dead on the floor, his bride and mother wailing, an Israeli op shot in the leg, and, alerted by the shots, the Panther retreating back into the shadows, dodging death yet again. Everything that happens in season one of Fauda springs from this FUBAR operation.
There are further fug-ups to follow. Time and again, this crack squad seems to have the Panther cornered and in their crosshairs, only to have him slip through the noose. Never mind that the Israelis have asymmetrical advantage—the Hamas fighters are outgunned, out-muscled, and blanketed by human intel/drone/cellular network surveillance, their dossiers available at a finger-snap. It isn’t that you root for the Panther or Hamas in general, but they are the underdogs here—and Arab life under the occupation is depicted with a humanity, sympathy, observational effort to give characters their due, and respect for ritual and tradition that are a credit to the series creators and keep the series from sinking into a good-vs-evil melodrama. It’s not just another War on Terror adrenaline-pumper.
The fascination for me—I don’t know how intentional it is, or if it’s a bonus irony—is how this particular elite Israeli unit is shown to be anything but a squad of steely-eyed professionals who execute their plans with cool, ruthless proficiency. They’re a bunch of hotheads and horn-dogs. Compared to Crockett-Tubbs’s squad in Miami Vice, the lack of unit cohesion and discipline is striking. Their tactical officer is having an affair with the one female in the unit. Another commando is having an affair with the wife of a fellow commando. The show’s bullet-headed protagonist, Doron Kovillio, played by Lior Raz, who is also one of the show’s co-creators, keeps going rogue and nearly gets himself and lots of others killed. Considering that Raz served in one such unit, the lack of romanticization is remarkable. At a street and gut level, the war between Doron and the Panther isn’t about religion, politics, territory, or power. Instead, it’s a clash of machismos in which the women bear the everyday brunt—such as the Palestinian doctor used and abused by both sides, played by Laëtitia Eido, whom I now worship from afar.
Fauda stretches credulity thin towards the end of its 12-episode debut season (another is forthcoming), but by then you’ll be hooked—and willing to make allowances.
THE BUREAU (SUNDANCE NOW)
In its second season, The Bureau (“Le Bureau des Legendes”) is a French espionage thriller based in the headquarters of the D.G.S.E., France’s hush-hush external security service. It’s smoothly surfaced and subtly shaded down to the last moue, side glance, and eyebrow inflection, more of a slow-burning-fuse series than a constant jolter. Its chess-master absorption in the ongoing game between opposing governments, spy agencies, ideological factions, and individual opportunistic players places it closer to the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People than to more overtly bravado exercises, which is a plus if, like me, you think that the Alec Guinness Smileys are among TV’s greatest achievements. The Bureau isn’t up to their heights—none of its characters achieve iconic status—but it’s a brilliant extended piece of spycraf. Season two is even more of a seductive grabber than its predecessor, and I can only ascribe the relative absence of buzz, chatter, and critical hootchie-cootchie to Sundance Now’s smaller subscription base compared to those of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and so on. I’m the only person I know who subscribes to Sundance Now, another reason it’s so lonesome up here in Washington Heights.
If you don’t want to subscribe to Sundance Now (I like the service a lot, myself) or avail yourself of its trial offer, you can purchase the entire second season of The Bureau on iTunes and give that a spin.
Season 1 involved the return of an undercover agent known as Malotru (Mathieu Kassovitz) to Paris from Damascus and the separate, parallel return of his lover, Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), a Syrian professor engaged in back-channel negotiations; the kidnapping of a covert agent codenamed “Cyclone,” and the efforts to extricate him from the clutches of ISIS; and the big squeeze being put on France between Russia and the CIA, throttling France’s influence and maneuverability in the Troubled Region. Wheels within wheels, betrayals within betrayals, sinister motives cloaked by bureaucratic directives, and seasoned with a large dash of French inscrutability. For all of its cerebral gamesmanship, Season 1 of The Bureau offered the payoff of exciting, satisfying set-pieces, and Season 2 is even better, focusing on a rookie undercover operative—pixie-haired Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), nicknamed “Phénomène”—who is tasked with turning the spoiled, party-boy son of a powerful Iranian minister into a DGSE asset. It would be a perilous undertaking under any circumstances, and gets even more fraught here because the son—Zamani, played by Moe Bar-El—is under the cold eye of the Iranian secret police, who look unkindly on his drinking, snorting, carousing, gold-plated ways. (They might go over fine at Mar-a-Lago or some other pagan playground of Western decadence, but they don’t fly here, infidel.) Also driving Season 2 is the hunt for an ISIS executioner who is a French national, which makes him jihadist public enemy number one. The Bureau is not a binge-watch series; each episode is an immersive experience. But I, for one, like having my pleasures Tantric-ly prolonged.
PROJECT RUNWAY JUNIOR (LIFETIME)
This peachy-keen teen version of Project Runway exists in an Archie Comics universe compared to the two drama series touted above. Still, there are times when even we tough armchair hombres tire of torture-interrogation scenes of subjects strapped to a chair in abandoned warehouses, blindfolds, and black hoods, and pistols planted against hostages’ heads. Hosted by Hannah Jeter (yes, the wife of the former New York Yankees captain), Project Runway Junior is a fashion design competition refreshingly light on the psychodrama and preening snippiness that sometimes afflicts its parent show. The judges’ comments are also less nasty, know-it-all, and agenda-ridden. What gives the show its glide is that not only are these kids talented and gung-ho, but they’re also natural comedians in their physical-facial-verbal reactions. Maybe most teenagers are, until the education system drums it out of them, and social media injects additional doses of self-consciousness and esteem issues. Although I wish the Project Runway franchise would put its catchphrase (“In fashion, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out”) out to pasture, I am happy that it has given us the Tim Gunn Save, in which America’s favorite mentor can reverse the judges’ decision to send a contestant home and give the designer a new lease on life. Gunn can only use his governor’s reprieve once a season and it is a guaranteed moment of tearful hugging. If only there were a Tim Gunn save that could be applied to politics, a do-over for the election. I bet Tim Gunn wishes that too.
DETECTORISTS (NETFLIX/AMAZON PRIME)
Reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s shaggy-dog comedies (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Comfort and Joy), this is a deceptively bucolic tale of two chums who, when not having a pint at the pub and gently wheedling-needling each other over everyday trifles, strap on metal detectors and sweep the meadows and plowed fields in search of ancient Saxon artifacts and Roman riches. So far, they’ve mostly turned up buttons, loose change, and the flip tops off of beer and soda cans—but they live in the hope and faith that a fabulous find lies literally beneath their feet somewhere nearby. Anyway, it beats sitting glassy-eyed in front of the telly. The chums—lean, laconic Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and fussy, uneasily smug Lance (Toby Jones, the perfect candidate to play the poet Alexander Pope, not that there’s much call for that)—have the droll, mordant rapport of a pair of freelance gravediggers given to pithy observations and a retrospective air. Some of their dialogue is reminiscent of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Pete ’n’ Dud. Andy and Lance, however, are more than a double act. They belong to a local club of detectorists, a motley collection of hobbyists and duffers like themselves into whose ranks an ingenuous, fresh-faced college student enters (Sophie, played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards), her mere presence as a sprig of youth awakening everyone from their napping torpor. The detectorists’ rivals are a crew of Antiquisearchers who dress in camo—as if each dig is a commando raid—led by a smirky duo bearing a mockable resemblance to Simon & Garfunkel, which gives Lance no end of heckling opportunities.
It would be very easy for a series of this sort to slide into twee,. But in the episodes I’ve seen so far—I take breaks between episodes, then drop in as if making a spa visit—it hasn’t gotten too snug in its cardigans. The storylines seem slack at first, lollygaggy, and then slowly tighten around the characters and pull.
The first season of Detectorists is available on Netflix; Seasons 1 and 2 are on Amazon Prime through an Acorn TV subscription
TEACHERS (TV LAND)
It is with a sigh of relief that I am able to include this last entry. Created, written, and performed by the comedy ensemble The Katydids, this sitcom about five utterly wacko female elementary school teachers (a sisterhood of the scatterbrained), reached Arrested Development highs of slapstick hilarity in its debut season; one episode, concerning the death of the school’s iguana mascot and a class visit from the district’s elderly grief counselor (who keels over in front of the kids before she can offer a single comforting word), was the funniest half hour of TV I saw last year. Subsequent episodes, including one in which the most strait-laced teacher got looped on alcohol and ran wild and naked through the halls like a demented leprechaun, maintained the madcap standard. The question was, could the Katydids sustain the imagination and execution in Season 2? Fox’s Brooklyn Nine Nine, for example, seemed to fall off a cliff between seasons, bending its characters completely out of shape.
Tuesday was the Season 2 premiere as the gang returned from summer vacation—all except Cate Freedman’s Feldman, who taught class via iPhone FaceTime as she drove a weenie wagon home from Mount Rushmore (just go with it)—to confront a fresh crop of little monsters, and whatever mite-sized apprehensions about the show’s ability to keep this pinball machine going went up in a dandelion puff about five minutes in. The comedy highlight: how quickly a trailer classroom degenerated into a patch of Tobacco Road, with Mrs. Adler (Kathryn Renee Thomas) sitting on the steps drinking out of a paper bag and yelling at her students as if they were her barefoot young’uns while stray dogs roam around. Very Seinfeld-esque with a dash of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this episode, with a spoof of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds added as a bonus.
Anyway: it’s my favorite TV comedy right now, unpredictably funny and buoyed by a refreshing lack of social relevance, an area plenty of other sitcoms have covered. Even I, a troubled liberal much like yourself, needs a break now and then.
Image source TV Land, Netflix