TV Picks: ‘The Good Wife,’ ‘The Carmichael Show,’ ‘Night Class’
“The Good Wife” (CBS, Sundays). After seven seasons, the most grown-up drama on broadcast television will end its run May 8, of its creators’ own plug-pulling accord. Seven years seems long enough for any series to me, even one as consistently good as this; if we just made that cap a rule I think we’d all be a lot better off, TV show makers and viewers alike. (I am not thinking of the money; I never think of the money.) Even Proust wrapped up "À la recherche du temps perdu” after seven volumes.
There have been peaks and valleys in the years since the show premiered, its creation inspired by a spate of political scandals in which betrayed wives were asked to stand by their errant husbands, literally, while cameras clicked and questions flew; but it has gone down many roads since then, as Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) has become the best lawyer in Chicago and husband Peter (Chris Noth) has returned from prison to become the governor and run for president; now he’s in the cross hairs of a semi-mysterious grand jury investigation that may send him back to jail.
The series’ particular mix of elements – of romance and intrigue, soap and satire -- differentiates it not just from others on its home network, which invests mostly in ensemble procedurals, eccentric super-sleuths and three-camera sitcoms, but from heavily serial cable dramas more devoted to mood than to talk. The long-arc concerns -- the shifting alliances, the threats and removal of threats -- have become a kind of white noise for me by now. There have been too many to take them seriously anymore. I do care in a small way what happens to Alicia and her friends: I don’t want anybody to die, ever. (And hasn’t death become as much of a cliché in the age of golden TV as almost nobody ever dying was before it?)
There was a time when I rooted for Alicia to work it out with her husband, which seemed the more radical move than putting her together with undoused old flame Will (Josh Charles), but it barely matters to me whether Peter winds up back in jail or Alicia and tattooed hot investigator Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) keep on keeping on, or whether Alicia and Diane and hopefully Lucca (Cush Jumbo) turn their firm female. (I would like everybody’s advisor Eli Gold to come out of this all right, if only for the sake of Alan Cumming, who plays him.)
What counts is less the story, wherever it is heading, than the life of any given scene, the deeply pleasurable performances, the highly speakable dialogue -- not the dense, theatrical speeches of Aaron Sorkin, full of ideas for you to think as if they were your own, but crisp-yet-casual lines proceeding perfectly from character. This has made the series a festival of great guest appearances -- judges, lawyers, clients, family, friends, enemies, frenemies. (It’s been as much about the actors as the people they play.) But what keeps it fresh above all for me is that, notwithstanding death and betrayal and moral failures among even favorite characters, it is at heart a comedy, and sometimes a farce, with people popping in and out of doors, behind some of which sex is happening. It makes me laugh.
“Night Class” (History Channel, Thursdays). Something’s up at the network that, for its high concentration of World War II documentaries, has been called the Hitler Channel -- a new streak of comedy, spearheaded by Craig Ferguson’s historical panel show “Join or Die” and now joined by the weekly half-hour, after-hours omnibus “Night Class.” I imagine a Big Boss (mutton chops, watch chain) waving an article on Comedy Channel’s “Drunk History” at his subordinates, demanding, “Why wasn’t this on our network? Get me one of these!”
They have instead got two of those, gathered together as “Night Class” (it airs at 11:30 p.m.): Elizabeth Shapiro’s “Crossroads of History,” which elaborates upon real moments that changed the world for the worse, and “Great Minds With Dan Harmon,” in which the creator of “Community” and “Rick & Morty” summons famous people temporarily back from the dead. Possibly as a nod to that network nickname, “Crossroads” began with Hitler (Josh Fadem) being turned down for a place in art school (Paul Scheer and Shapiro herself are the examiners who make him imitate Charlie Chaplin, then reject him, in terms suggestive of a new path: “I think you need some work on your execution skills.”) In another episode, policeman John Parker (Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on “The Office”), assigned to guard Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford Theater, deserts his post to get a drink across the street -- it really happened. In Shapiro’s version he also finds a depressed John Wilkes Booth (Keir O’Donnell) at the bar and unwittingly delivers the pep talk (“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”) that convinces Booth to go ahead and kill the president. (Baumgartner’s old castmate Angela Kinsey is tending bar.)
In “Great Minds,” Harmon, playing the difficult, dissolute version of himself you may know from his “Harmontown” podcasts, among other self-revealing, -lacerating or -referential appearances, has built himself a kind of time machine that lets the spiritual energy of figures from the past briefly inhabit a “simulacrum” of themselves. (They arrive naked, like the Terminator.) Beethoven (Jack Black) wonders why no one sings the lyrics to the Fifth Symphony or “Für Elise.” Ernest Hemingway (Scott Adsit) brings out the insecure competitive side in Harmon, who, asked about himself, goes on at un-Papa-like length: “I’m 43, I’m a Capricorn, I created two really good shows, I’m a workaholic but it doesn’t mean I’m effective… I have codependent tendencies… I have mild to extreme face blindness.” (“I like you, and you like me,” he tells a poker-faced Hemingway. “All right, I like you.”)
“The Carmichael Show” (NBC, Sundays). NBC’s summer 2015 experiment in diversity produced two sitcoms, burned through back to back: the tepid “Mr. Robinson,” which has gone to live on a farm with all the other canceled sitcoms, and the noisily delightful “The Carmichael Show,” a multi-camera live-audience extended-family sitcom with a topical bent, which garnered enough critical love to earn itself a renewal and a quick midseason turnaround.
Though named for its lanky, laconic centerpiece Jerrod Carmichael, elsewhere a dry and penetrating stand-up comic, the show – which also stars David Alan Grier and the divine Loretta Devine as his parents, Amber Stevens West as his live-in girlfriend, Lil Rel Howery as his brother and Tiffany Haddish as his brother’s ex-wife -- is very much an ensemble piece, in which ideas are batted around in long scenes, and plot is secondary to talk. (“Damn it’s lonely when you’re alone,” Jerrod’s brother says, when he is left by himself onstage for a dozen seconds with no one to talk to.) It knows you know that these people are going to be all right with one another by the episode’s end, whatever they say – it’s like a less hostile “All in the Family” – and doesn’t mess with phony expectations of disaster.
Sunday’s second-season premiere finds Jerrod with a pair of tickets to see Bill Cosby – “Let’s be honest, this is kind of his farewell tour” – which leads to discussions of separating life from art and whether “talent is more important than morals.” It doesn’t try to answer these questions – it stands up for the art even as it doubts the character -- so much as to light them up with jokes. (“The best thing our heroes can do is die before they disappoint us,” Grier says, imagining the late life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I had a dream, and you can too on a new Tempur-Pedic queen size memory foam mattress.”) It doesn’t want to make up your mind for you, knowing that a mind, in any case, is a hopelessly fluid thing; the space between what we believe, or believe we believe, and how we act on it, or don’t, is where much of the series’ comedy sits.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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