In spite of the wayward course of recent human events, autumn is here, right on schedule. The sun will do what the sun will do; nothing stops the leaves from falling. And, delayed only a week, a new television season arrives. How could it not? Too much has been invested, too much money, too much time; too many lives and livelihoods are involved, not only those of the producers and actors, whose weekly paychecks each could feed a hundred Afghans (the good ones, I mean) for a hundred years, but the lives of all the famous little people, the key grips and best boys and the craft-services servicers, and on and on into the great chain of economic being. And our lives, too -- because the seasons of culture, and of pop culture, are as bodily ingrained as the turning of the tides. This year, especially, we greet the fall TV season with a sense of relief, as the herald of the blessedly trivial, a sign among signs that not all has been interrupted, will not forever be interrupted, by special bulletins.
It doesn’t matter much that television is largely a showplace for bad ideas and base impulses, that its worst moments are as sure a sign of the decadence of the West as its occasional best are a sign of our intellectual openness and freewheeling spirit. Sometimes even the bad ideas and base impulses can make you a little more glad to be alive, or a little less anxious about dying. Turn on, tune out, drop off. It is overall a happy place, television, reliable and familiar -- the place where you know everybody‘s name -- and essentially comedic: That is to say, by the end of nearly every episode, even of cop shows and science-fiction shows and game shows, order is restored. (Usually. More or less. Depending on what you mean by order.) So accustomed to this are we, the TV-watching people of America, that even as regards the news, the biggest and baddest news, we’re incapable of conceiving any but a happy ending.
We live in a political world, but the situation comedy, though it inevitably reflects and may satirize or comment upon its times, is not formally of that world. It exists outside time and apart from the clash of particular nations or parties. It is properly concerned with the eternal verities: You can‘t have two dates for the big dance, you can’t hide a puppy from your parents, people with Southern accents are just dang funny. All in the Family and M*A*S*H, for all that they broke ground and provoked thought, etc., have not aged as well as Andy Griffith and I Love Lucy; I have no doubt which shows will better stimulate the humor cortex of the giant floating brains of the 24th century.
“I think people want to sit at home and turn on their TV and just laugh,” says Ellen DeGeneres, who when last seen (not counting guest shots, a cable special and awards shows) was floating off into the sunset at the helm of a sitcom that made sociopoliticosexual history and lost its bearings; in striving to be important, it became less funny. Now, having done time as a poster girl and a tabloid item, DeGeneres is trying to get back to life-size in a series that the term old-fashioned might have been coined to describe, with troupers like Cloris Leachman and Martin Mull around for support, and a premise -- big-city hustlebustle traded for life among small-town eccentrics -- that was worn smooth well before Eddie Albert and Bob Newhart and a legion of other TV people went whistling down it. (“It‘s all about funny this time,” says Ellen.) Like Newhart, and like most of the comedians around whom most sitcoms are built, DeGeneres is not an actor; we take her routine to be an extension of herself, and we don’t require, or want, her to be other than who she is. (We don‘t want her to play heterosexual, for a start.) She has found her shtick -- compulsive digression, as neatly summed up in the title of her book, My Point . . . and I Do Have One -- and she is shticking to it. To the extent that The Ellen Show gives her a platform from which to babble cheerfully, it is entirely successful; and in other respects it is never less than well-cobbled and pleasant, though it needs to lose its new-car smell. The whole, you know, gay thing is got into quickly here, and played for laughs, but just for laughs; America likes funny gay people, as long as they don’t go on about it. I‘m glad if nothing else to see that liking girls has not kept DeGeneres off network television -- indeed, as the host of this Sunday’s Emmy awards, she stands for it. There is nothing new here, but if Old is the new New, which it seems to be this season, I suppose you can at least call it trendy.
Producer Judd Apatow, who with creator Paul Feig co-piloted Freaks and Geeks into the pantheon of great lost series, has gone solo with Undeclared, a college-dorm comedy -- a logical chronological next step after F&G‘s neck-deep wade into the backwater of high school. If it’s not quite as ambitious or subversive as was F&G, if it does not aim for its complexity of character or intensity of pain, well, that was then, and this is now: It is very, very funny, in any case, and though very much built on the lines of traditional modern college comedy, much smarter and, though farcical, not devoid of real feeling. For all its fantastical elements, it seems true, in a tidied-up, wish-fulfilled way, to dorm life as I lived it, and like Apatow‘s last show, it does stand up for losers. Carla Gallo and Monica Keena may be wolf-whistle hot, but they’re goofy, too. There is a tall, gangly kid (Jay Baruchel), whose F&G younger self would have been Martin Starr (the divinely geeky “Bill”), though in this friendlier setting he does get to have sex by the end of the first episode. (“Do you have a condom?” asks Gallo. “I have eight condoms,” he replies.) There‘s a handsome English guy (Charlie Hunnam), who in Monkee terms would be the Davy Jones, while Timm Sharp is the sweet, strange Peter Tork. Seth Rogen plays a cleaner-cut but no less acerbic version of Ken, his character on Freaks and Geeks (and he’s a staff writer as well). Consider him the Mickey Dolenz. (There is no Mike Nesmith.) Christina Payano is the now-familiar African-American afterthought (as her absence from original publicity photos seems to indicate), and she‘s as socially backward as the rest; it’ll be nice when she gets some more to do. F&G alumni Busy Philipps and Jason Segel drop in for major guest shots, as do David Krumholtz, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler -- Apatow is well-connected. Folksinger Loudon Wainwright III is around off and on as Baruchel‘s just-divorcing father -- more off than on, but it’s hard to see how they could use him much more without turning the show into a late-period Bing Crosby musical. Adults barely exist in this world, as they should not.
Trevor Nunn‘s brilliant Royal National Theater production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice opens this season‘s Masterpiece Theater (new night!), and it is reason enough to own a television set. (You can give it away afterwards if you like.) Nunn has set the play in 1930s, protofascist European cafe society to underline the anti-Semitism of its putative protagonists, and through some judicious textual editing, modern body language, an interpolated song and clap of thunder, and some inspired line readings -- Henry Goodman’s well-rounded Shylock and Derbhle Crotty‘s thoughtful Portia are the obvious triumphs, but there’s not a weak link in the cast -- Nunn and company turn what is officially classed as a comedy into a dark, dark drama; it is stunning, in the strict sense of the word. Given the play‘s concern with matters of hypocrisy, bigotry, revenge and mercy (the quality of which is not strained), its arrival at this geopolitical juncture feels particularly fortuitous, and we can always take a lesson or two from old Will, whose interests and understanding seem to defy the practices and prejudices of his time, and whose works, as much as any religious texts, are a useful means to explore what it means to be human. (Memo to zealots of any stripe: “In the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation.”) As recommended as can be.