Friday, February 18, 2011

Good News: Four Promising New Sitcoms of 2011

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 18, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

While the 2010-2011 television season has given us some extraordinary new dramas, comedy lovers haven’t been as lucky. In 2009-2010, the US networks gave us a number of critical and popular successes, most notably Modern Family, Cougar Town, and Community. But this past fall, the only comedy standout has been NBC’s Outsourced. And Outsourced, despite doing consistently well in the ratings, has generated an almost unanimously poor critical reception – one which, in my opinion, is wholly undeserved. Considering the largely disappointing crop from the first half of the season, I awaited this new batch of sitcoms with a mixture of both eagerness and trepidation. Fortunately, it would seem that the networks were saving the best for last!  Below, I review some of the sitcoms that have debuted in 2011 that I believe are worth checking out: Bob’s Burgers (Fox), Traffic Light (Fox), Mr. Sunshine (ABC), and (for our Canadian readers) CBC’s new spy spoof, Insecurity.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Israeli TV’s Arab Labor: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Checkpoint

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 7, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The cast of Arab Labor (Season 1)
Watching great foreign television is often a multilayered pleasure. It gives the viewer access to a whole new world of talent – writers, actors, and directors – and the stories and themes that other cultures choose to explore are often surprising in themselves. Television is too often a generic art form, and even its innovations sometimes seem to be confined to variations on familiar, well-trodden situations. Not only can the best of foreign television be refreshingly unique in its execution, but watching these shows can also reveal heretofore unknown or unobserved aspects of our own domestic television. Our most basic assumptions about character, plot, and human interaction (presuppositions that can function as a kind of storytelling shorthand, and therefore often pass without being perceived) can become visible, precisely in their absence, in these new programs. This is a fact that cinephiles have known for decades, which is why foreign language films are watched with such dedication and enthusiasm by movie lovers. But foreign television – especially foreign language television – has never been as accessible as foreign film. While cinephiles have long been able to enjoy movies from all over the world, telephiles (why isn’t this word in the OED yet?) haven’t been quite so lucky.  

For decades, networks like PBS and the CBC have been bringing us the best of British television, but the TV powers-that-be rarely, if ever, broadcast non-English programs in North America. More often than not the North American TV viewer’s sole access to foreign television is indirect, by way of domestic adaptations of the original shows. I’m sure there are some well-intended reasons behind this practice: the very nature of TV storytelling, be it drama or comedy, often relies on cultural cues and references which can be obstacles to new audiences, even when language isn’t an issue. In the past month alone, US cable networks have launched three high profile remakes of British series, all of which are still in production in the UK: Being Human, Shameless, and Skins. And, as touch-and-go as remakes notoriously are, that is not to say that US networks haven’t had some stunning successes in the past: often as much can be gained as is lost in translation. Still, for every All in the Family (based on the BBC’s working-class comedy, Till Death Us Do Part) and The Office, there are tone-deaf failures like NBC’s Coupling and ABC’s recent Life on Mars. An avid TV viewer has more than enough reason to approach these new efforts with some caution. But if you want to watch original non-English TV, even in our current 200-channel universe, you’ve got to program them for yourself. Fortunately for us, each of us individually has access to more television than ever before, and even if the shows aren’t airing with any regularity, Internet streaming (from services like Netflix and from international websites) and DVDs from Amazon can more than make up for it. Today I want to talk about Arab Labor, a series running on Israeli television which recently completed its second season.