Anyone else remember the 1989 CBS comedy “What’s Alan Watching?”
The offbeat show revolved around a 17-year-old boy, Alan Hoffstetter (Corin Nemec), who retreated to his television set to escape his bizarre family life.
It won a Television Critics Association award as the best special of the year. In my review, I called it “innovative, irreverent and laugh out-loud funny.”
Kim LeMasters, the CBS Entertainment president at the time, said research showed the audience just didn’t get it.
“Alan” had a short life despite a cast that included Fran Drescher as Alan’s sister, Buffalo native Peter Michael Goetz as Alan’s father and appearances by the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin and Alex Trebek.
But it lived on in the columns about my viewing using the title, “What’s Alan Watching?” (Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall has used it, too.)
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In the pilot, Alan turned to his audience and deadpanned: “My parents say I watch television as an escape. What would I possibly want to escape from?”
Much of my recent viewing has been to escape the drumbeat of negative headlines about inflation, controversial Supreme Court hearings, an insurrection and the war in Ukraine.
“Gaslit”: This Starz series stars an unrecognizable Sean Penn as Attorney General John Mitchell, Julia Roberts as his loose cannon wife, Martha, and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey”) as John Dean during the Watergate coverup that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation . Penn is so incredible that it is hard to fathom why he didn’t get an Emmy nomination. Roberts’ performance as a misunderstood Martha is also top-notch. Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”) chews the scenery as an out-of-control G. Gordon Liddy that illustrates how crazy Nixon’s aides were to propose the break-in. The lasting impression of the series is that Watergate was child’s play compared to the 2020 insurrection.
“The Gray Man”: It reportedly costs Netflix $200 million to produce this cartoonish, two-hour spy thriller co-written by St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute graduate Christopher Markus. A good deal of the money was spent on the salaries of stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana deArmas. But probably not as much as the millions spent on the fireworks and ammunition involved as their characters roamed Europe. Gosling essentially played a morally conflicted former CIA operative and contract killer holding a key bit of evidence that the cartoonish bad guy contract killer played by Evans was after by any disastrous means necessary. There is plenty of action and some dry comedy to make for some escapist, brain-dead, critic-proof, ridiculously enjoyable entertainment. Only 24 hours after watching it, its content already escaped my brain.
The Jan. 6 hearings: The House Select Committee hearings were ridiculed before they began, but they became riveting as Republican after Republican tested about President Trump’s behavior before and after the insurrection. Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was the highlight, but the best this made-for TV show has going for it has been how understated the committee members have been in allowing Trump’s former employees to explain how they no longer could accept the actions of their boss. I can’t wait for the next season of hearings – and the inevitable docudrama.
Gilmore Girls: Rewatching the series on Netflix starring Lauren Graham as Lorelai and Alexis Bledel as her teenage daughter Rory that ran for seven seasons starting in 2000 serves as an antidote to world events. It is comfort food for the soul, with snappy dialogue too clever for any mother or daughter to possibly come up with instantly. Rewatching it has made me appreciate Milo Ventimiglia’s performance as fabulous husband and father Jack Pearson in “This Is Us” even more. Jack couldn’t be further from Milo’s teenage role as jerky Jess, the nephew of coffee shop owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) who stole Rory from first boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki before “Supernatural”). It also was amusing to see future animation star producer Seth MacFarlane in a bit role. And who would have thought that Melissa McCarthy (Sookie) would become the movie star she became. Almost every episode makes me smile, except for those in the fourth season.
“Virgin River”: Another bit of comfort food partially in a restaurant setting, its latest season premiered on Netflix. Alexandra Breckenridge, who played Kevin Pearson’s (Justin Hartley) wife on “This Is Us,” stars as Mel Monroe, a nurse practitioner and widow dating restaurant owner and former soldier Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson). Based on the book series by Robyn Carr, the scenery is the biggest attraction. I also find it amusing seeing Tim Matheson, who played Eric “Otter” Stratton in the 1978 film classic “Animal House,” co-starring as a country doctor in love with a difficult wife (played annoyingly by Annette O’Toole.) Admittedly , it is slow moving and just about all the drama is telegraphed, even if you haven’t read the books. But as in “Gilmore Girls,” there is just something soothing about watching a series set in small-town life even if it has violence, drug dealing and kidnapping to spice up things.
“Severance”: It took a long time to get through this critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series in which people’s nonwork memories are severed from their work memories. It received 14 Emmy nominations, including ones for outstanding drama, writing, casting and directing and for actors Patricia Arquette, Adam Scott, John Turturro and Christopher Walken. I am on a critical island alone here. Like the audience for “What’s Alan Watching?” I just didn’t get the fuss. The series moved much too slowly, but I stuck it out because so many people told me how great the final episode was in explaining the mystery behind the show. As riveting as the finale was, the bigger mystery to me was why so many actors essentially playing one-note robotic roles earned Emmy nominations. I understand the writing and directing nominations because voters like innovative ideas. But I’ve already erased the acting from my work memories.
“trying”: The third season of this Apple TV+ comedy is as charming, moving and funny as the first two seasons. Spoiler alert: It started being about an adorable British couple trying to have a baby. Then they tried to adopt. Now they continue to deal with their dysfunctional family and friends while raising a sweet brother and sister who were in foster care. The series leads, Esther Smith as Nikki and Rafe Spall as Jason, are as likable as almost all the characters in “Gilmore Girls” and the dysfunctional secondary characters are amusing. Try it, you’ll like it.