Summer TV and History

Remember when the TV season ran from late September through sometime in May, and the summer was populated with reruns and variety shows? These days summer TV is still full of reruns, as well as countless “reality shows,” but the cable networks have thrown the old calendar aside and put some of their best (scripted!) shows on in the summer. I often say I don’t care for violence, but apparently it’s only twenty-first century violence that bothers me. Dress the offenders up in costume and send them back in time, throw in some beautiful scenery, and I’m there for all the blood and guts.

One of my favorites, Hell on Wheels, began its 2014 season this weekend, catching us up with most of most of its established characters and adding some new ones. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon is still trapped in the Mormon fort, digging a well under the supervision of his long-time nemesis the Swede (who pointed out once again, in his assumed identity as Bishop Dutson, that the “late” Thor Gundersen was actually Norwegian). The opener saw the birth of Cullen’s son and his new determination to take Naomi and the baby with him when he leaves.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, Durant manages to sink an entire train in a frozen river, auction off his land to raise money, and get himself thrown out of the hotel by an angry Maggie Palmer. General Grant, about to be elected President, has sent a new watchdog to make Durant’s life miserable. Eva is doing laundry for the brothel, determined not to go back to whoring (“But that’s what you’re good at,” says Mickey McGinnes, now the mayor of Cheyenne—and still running the brothel), and mourning the loss of Elam.

That’s right, there was no sign of Elam, not even in the opening credits, but I’m hoping he’ll be back. Maybe he’s been hanging with Joseph Black Moon’s folks since he had that run in with the bear. It would be nice to see Joseph back again, too.

Hell on Wheels 2014

Another period show I’ve been enjoying this summer is The Musketeers, a rousing swashbuckler from BBCAmerica, featuring swords, guns, and four very attractive men. I haven’t read Dumas in several decades (my tolerance for long, involved nineteenth century epic novels is not what it once was), so I can’t even guess whether any of the story lines have been taken from the original novel. But I had no trouble recognizing the characters. Athos, the mature, responsible aristocrat, is younger than I always imagined him (he was my favorite), but carries the part well. Aramis is the devil-may-care swordsman with the heart of a romantic, and Porthos is the mixed race (as was Dumas himself) child of the streets. And D’Artagnan, of course, remains the idealistic young countryman, determined to earn a commission in the King’s Musketeers. The most recognizable actor, to Americans anyway, is Peter Capaldi, spot-on as Cardinal Richelieu. If a second season is planned, they may have to recast or eliminate the Cardinal, as Capaldi has moved on to become the new Doctor Who. The Musketeers was filmed somewhere near Prague, with scenery doing a remarkable job of passing for early seventeenth century France, from the underside of Paris to the glories of the palaces and churches.

The Musketeers

Vikings, perhaps the most violent of all, is over for 2014 but will be back in 2015. This season ended with a blood bath, leaving Ragnar, a simple farmer when the series began, as the apparent king. My favorite Viking, though, is still Lagertha, shield maiden, Ragnar’s former wife, now an earl in her own right.

Many of my friends are excited about Outlander, just starting this week. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait for the DVDs on that one, as I don’t subscribe to Showtime. That might just give me time to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. I know I have the first one, right over there on one of the To Be Read shelves . . .

Keeping Up with TV

I shouldn’t even be thinking about keeping up with TV.  I have writer friends who’ve sworn off the Box completely, and I’m sure they get a lot more writing done than I do.  I have other friends who insist that they are studying story structure and characterization when they watch.  Both approaches are valid, I’m sure.

I tend to be a loyal viewer myself.  If the promos and trailers for a new show interest me enough, I’ll watch the pilot, and if I like that, the show will probably keep me.  Not always.  I realized last year that I had more episodes of Smash on my DVR than I had actually watched, and I didn’t care about losing them when the DVR died.  I abandoned The Mentalist when I got really, really, REALLY tired of both Red John and Patrick Jane’s behavior.  There have been others.  But usually, once I start watching, I’ll stay around.  Heck, I’m still watching Glee, if only for the music.

I would tell you that I don’t care for violent shows, but I’m a history geek, big fan of Hell on Wheels, and I haven’t missed an episode of the History Channel’s Vikings, an even more violent series, but beautifully filmed and full of interesting characters (especially Lagertha, the kick-butt Shield Maiden wife of the protagonist).

I’m cautious about what I do start watching.  There are any number of light mystery shows on the air (or on the cable) that I have avoided simply because I don’t want to tie up yet another weekly hour. (I do watch Bones, Castle, White Collar and Rizzoli & Isles.).  The same goes for many of the series on SyFy, although I’ve been a science fiction fan forever, loved all the Star Trek and Stargate series (well, some more than others, but still . . .).  I watch Grimm and Once Upon a Time, both of them more fantasy than science fiction, but very entertaining.

Somehow the promos for the new SyFy series Defiance stayed under my radar until a couple of weeks before its premiere, when I noticed an ad on line.  The show promised several elements I enjoy, but I wasn’t sure.  I still feel a bit burned over Terra Nova (time travel! dinosaurs! Jason O’Meara!)–I hate falling for a show that doesn’t make it to a second season.  And I missed the initial showing of the Defiance premiere.  Couldn’t record it because I still haven’t gotten around to replacing my failed DVR.  Missed a convenient showing in favor of a really lovely dinner, and found myself tackling the two hour show at midnight on Friday.  Well, I figured, if this could keep me awake until 2 AM, it was worth a commitment.

Defiance is worth it and then some.  It is, truth be told, in large part a repositioned Western, set thirty years or so in the future of an Earth changed forever by the arrival of no less than seven alien races and their out-of-control “terraforming” (inaccurate use of the term, but we’ll overlook that for the moment).  The protagonist is the loner (although he’s accompanied by his adopted alien teen-age daughter) who wanders into the frontierish town of Defiance (formerly St. Louis, see the Arch over there?) just in time to see the old sheriff die in action.  Yep, pardner, Nolan is drafted/trapped into becoming the new “Lawkeeper.”

The show is full of Western and SF tropes, CGI effects, more or less humanoid aliens, gritty and sometimes spectacular scenery.  There’s the inexperienced (female) mayor, her sister the brothel owner, the patriarch of the mining family (played by Graham Greene, long a favorite of mine), the alien mob boss and his wife (played by Jaime Murray, formerly H. G. Wells on Warehouse 13), who spend an inordinate amount of time in their hot tub, a Romeo and Juliet sub-plot, an acerbic and funny alien female doctor, and lots of disintegrating ships tumbling out of orbit and causing ever weirder changes.

I love it, and the second episode was just as good.  Oh, dear, another commitment.

What shows keep you watching, even when you should be doing something else?