Desis on TV

The Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

My Watch Has Ended

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s impossible at this time and age to keep track of every show on air, which is why recommendations on what to stop watching, are just as important as what to watch. Here’s my guide on shows to kick out of your watch list for there’s little worse than precious time (and space on our hard disks) wasted on terrible television.

Empire: I have professed to loving this show many times to many people, and the truth is I did enjoy the first season’s humour, music and the exquisite tension between the leads, Lucious (Terrence Howard), and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). There were lots of surprising turns, the music of the show was fabulous, the writing was crisp, and Cookie’s barbs in particular, were magic. Unfortunately, the second season went flying off the rails for me, with story developments that made no sense and twists that were so over the top that the show became a parody of its previous season. If you haven’t watched the show at all, I do highly, highly recommend the first season. The second season, unfortunately, is awful enough to warrant giving up on the show altogether, and is proof that in television, even the toughest Cookie is capable of crumbling.

Quantico: Quantico is another show I openly admitted to liking for it’s fast pace, and home girl Priyanka Chopra’s surprisingly (I was surprised, at any rate) effective performance. The thriller series worked well when the audience were forced to re-evaluate their predictions as to who bombed the Grand Central Station in the first half of the season, but the instead of tying the mystery together and providing some semblance of clarity to its viewers, the show just became a pointless goose chase. While I do hope that Priyanka does more mainstream American television in the future, I’ll be giving Quantico a miss from now.

The Flash: The Flash started getting tiresome for me the moment the writers stopped focusing on The Flash’s powers, the humour and the wit that the show is known for, and instead started putting out emotional plot arcs. Between Barry (Grant Gustin) refusing to commit to love because he’s a superhero, Joe West (Jesse Martin) going out of his way to be every character’s dad, and Iris West’s (Candice Patton) incapability to express feelings (not to mention the complete lack of chemistry between her and Barry), there were hardly any “that is so cool!” moments during the second season, which are so important for superhero shows. I might cling on to this series for a third season, but for a show that had a talking gorilla as a villain once, the entertainment quotient has really taken a steep dive.

The Big Bang Theory: The Big Bang Theory used to be an intelligent comedy about a bunch of physicists, but now, it’s just about a bunch of guys and their relationship problems. Even the show’s greatest character, the incorrigible Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) has relationship problems! The Raj Koothrappally (Kunal Nayyar) stereotypes have gone from bad to worse as well. The series has mutated from the interesting show about a bunch of people passionate about science, a group that is thoroughly underrepresented in mainstream television into a more boring version of Friends (whose reruns I can always watch anyway).

Two Broke Girls: To be honest, I’ve no idea how this show is even running. The acting is vapid, there’s zero humour despite the presence of the usually stellar Jennifer Coolidge, and to be honest, there really is no reason to watch this show unless you’re waiting for Masterchef to come on next.

2015 in Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s time for us to welcome the new year with family, friends, celebrations, and of course, somewhat pointless lists. So without further ado, here are my TV favourites from 2015 (in no particular order):

  • Empire – Empire is a musical soap opera about a Hip Hop mogul, and the lengths he’ll go to stay on top. It’s the television equivalent of the pizzas that have cheese stuffed in the crusts, the kind which oozes yellow, processed glory, on to your fingers. Yes it’s disgustingly over the top, and you can’t really tell people how much you enjoy it, although you know that they’d enjoy it just as much as you do when they eat it, I mean, watch it. {FX India}

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  • Better Call Saul – Better Call Saul was my favourite show this year. Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of recurring characters, but surprisingly, it has an entirely unique tone, and while one is occasionally reminded of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul stands on its own. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Wolf Hall – Wolf Hall is a literary mini series which was produced by the BBC. The cast and screenplay is splendid, and Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece comes alive over the course of 6, hour long episodes. I do hope that more show makers take the hint from Wolf Hall and make more mini series from literary classics – that way I don’t have to pretend like I’ve read them anymore.

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  • Game of Thrones – Dragons! Kings! Betrayals! Dragons! Death! Snow! Did I mention Dragons? The fifth season of the epic fantasy story came to an end this year, with a finale that shook the world, or at least, broke the internet. Game of Thrones is the show whose return I’m most looking forward to in 2016. {HBO}

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  • Daredevil – While I enjoyed both The Flash and Arrow, Daredevil takes the super hero genre of television to a whole new level, the way Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the game for films. Netflix has come out with a winner, yet again, and there is no doubt that Daredevil is the benchmark for super hero television shows to come.

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  • Master of None – If you’re not socialising with your family, and have plenty of time in your hands this weekend, why not cosy up with the entire first season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy for all seasons? It’s one the most relatable shows I’ve watched on international television (and not just because Ansari hails from Tamil Nadu), and the perfect candidate for marathon viewing.

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  • Quantico – This is right on top of my list of unexpected favourites. I didn’t want to like it, I watched it with great prejudice but eventually gave in to the racy screenplay and exaggerated drama. The show is addictive, and Priyanka Chopra has made an assured debut into American television and proved that she is a bonafide star. The penultimate episode before the season finale, and the season finale itself were a tad frustrating and I’m hoping (against hope) that it sorts itself out when it comes back next year. {Star World}

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  • The Affair – One often talks about “mindless television” – The Affair is the opposite. It demands your attention in a manner that is unforgiving, and if you blink, you miss. The Affair follows a story of infidelity narrated through different perspectives, none of which are objective, and leaves it to the viewer to be the judge. I’m a chronic multi-tasker, but The Affair ensured that my attention only belonged to the screen. {FX India}

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  • Mr. Robot – A terrific and well researched show that goes into the psyche and life of hackers. Given the rising coverage with respect to the hacking group “Anonymous” in the mainstream news, Mr. Robot is an excellent way to better understand hacking, and how the right information in the wrong hands could potentially break the world as we know it. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Modern Family – It’s not from 2015, technically, but I have been watching it religiously, all year. I could never tire of this show, or it’s characters, and I am yet to find an episode I haven’t guffawed out loud in. A perennial favourite to end the list! {Star World}

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Master of Some

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’ve never been impressed by Aziz Ansari’s stand up comedy routines – I watched a few before I began to watch his new show, Master of None, and it was underwhelming. My immediate reaction was that I knew stand up comedians from Chennai who could do better, which, if you know stand up comedy scene in Chennai, isn’t the greatest of compliments. However, I proceeded to watch Master of None anyway because I knew that he had written the show, and was playing a character of Tamil descent, and if there’s one thing I like more than supporting talent who I share roots with, it’s nitpicking.

Master of None lies in uncharted territory which feels familiar. Aziz Ansari plays Dev Shah, a first generation immigrant Indian, who is trying to make it as an actor in New York City. The show deals with Dev’s various life experiences which fall under a broader topic. The episode “Indians on TV”, for example isn’t just about a casting problem that Dev faces, but is also about the rampant stereotyping of Indians as cab drivers, 7-11 owners, philosophical middle aged men or IT guys. Other episodes deal with feminism, old people, parents, and so on.

Every time Dev faces a problem, or comes across something he feels strongly about, he talks it out, and it is conversation that forms the solid foundation of Master of None. Whether he’s talking about feminism with his girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells), or about what it takes to get a hot ticket date with his group of best friends Brian (Kelvin Yu), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Arnold (Eric Wareheim), or even if he’s talking about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States with his parents, Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari) and Nisha (Fatima Ansari), it is the conversation which guides the direction of the episode. All the characters, for whatever limited time they appear on screen have very vibrant, distinct, and real personalities, which shines through the dialogue, and makes for very fun viewing.

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Currently, Master of None is soaring high up on the television rankings in the US, and for good reason, but I have a bone to pick with the show, and it is with Ansari’s own character – Dev Shah. I’ll even forgive the terrible pronunciation of his own name (he calls himself “Dev”, as in development), but what I can’t wrap my head around is that for a character who identifies himself as Tamil, and whose parents are from Thirunelveli (spelled Thiranalveli in the show, another problem I had), why would he choose a last name like Shah? A Shah is as authentic to Thirunelveli as Jalebi is. For someone who not only had an entire episode dedicated to Indian stereotypes, but is also Tamil, the poor research was just glaring. It is also to be noted that Ansari’s own parents play his parents on the show which I found incredibly sweet on his part, but I have to say this – they’re terrible actors. The rest of the cast though, especially Lena Waithe as Denise, are excellent. The chemistry between Dev, and Rachel is also something that should be written about – their moments together play like parts of a romantic comedy that you’d actually be interested in watching. There are also some great special appearances in the show, with the likes of Claire Danes and Colin Salmon joining the cast.

Over all, Master of None is something I haven’t ever seen before. It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s relevant, and it proves that Aziz Ansari is in fact, a Jack of All.

{Season 1 of Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix}

Casting For Change

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 67th edition of the Emmy Awards, which recognises and honours excellence in primetime television wrapped up the previous Sunday. I watched the Emmys with more interest than I usually would primarily to see if any of the shows I’d written about in this column so far would win an award – Wolf Hall, Brooklyn 99, Better Call Saul and Empire were all nominated, but unfortunately, none of them won.

The Emmys this year had its moments, but the most important moment of them all was Viola Davis receiving the award for best lead actress in a drama, an award which she picked up for her starring role in the series, How To Get Away With Murder. Viola Davis was the first African American woman to win this award, and she quoted Harriet Tubman, one of the most important African-American humanitarians who worked tirelessly for abolitionism during the American Civil War, in her emotional acceptance speech. “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line.” Davis went on to say that the only thing separating women of colour was opportunity, and that you couldn’t win Emmy awards for roles that were “simply not there”.

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Viola Davis’ rousing speech on the lack of lead roles for coloured women comes at a time when Priyanka Chopra is poised to make a leap from Bollywood into American television as the lead in Quantico, a brand new series that premieres this weekend. Priyanka Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an FBI Agent who is half Indian and half Caucasian. Right from the time that news came out about Chopra’s new project, she raved in all her interviews about how this role was perfect because it was the kind where her “Indian-ness” didn’t matter, and that it could’ve just been played by any actress, irrespective of race. There are a number of actors in the industry, like Archie Panjabi, Mindy Kaling and Kal Penn to name a few who are doing roles that have nothing to do with them being Indian, but the fact that this role landed to an Indian actress from India, and more specifically, Bollywood, isn’t something that happens often, or at all.

The trailer for Quantico made its way out a good couple of months ago, and save for Chopra’s supposedly American accent, looked quite promising. The premise of the show is laid out entirely in the trailer itself – Alex Parrish is a patriotic young FBI recruit with a mysterious past, and when 9/11 happens, she is named a chief suspect. Earlier this week, the first eight minutes of the the first episode was “leaked”, and I managed to catch it before it was taken off the internet again. These eight minutes gives you a solid idea about the kind of person Alex Parish is – she’s strong, she’s intelligent, she keeps secrets from her mother, she’s sexually liberated and isn’t against the idea of getting it on with a random guy she sits next to on the plane – the actual sex “scene” though, is very carefully shot, there’s no nudity, there’s a flash of leg, and it’s mostly just sound, no doubt an effort made by Priyanka Chopra to keep things as Sanskaari as possible.

It’s too soon to judge if Quantico will be a hit (there’s a lot of talk comparing it to Homeland, which I find ridiculous) or if it will dramatically change the way Indians are cast in American television. From what I saw of the the show, it is not ground breaking, nor is it going to be the next big thing in American crime drama, but it was thoroughly entertaining, and that, is as good a start as any.