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Roll Up for the Magical Mystery Show

22 Jun

mysteryshow-1030x1030

Hey, have you heard about this new mystery podcast? You like mystery podcasts, right? I mean, don’t we all want to know who killed Hae?

This mystery podcast, conveniently titled Mystery Show, probably is not going to tell us what the deal is with Jay and Adnan (though it would be a hell of an episode if it did). Instead, This American Life alum Starlee Kine solves a mystery in each hour of air time. To date, four episodes in, the mysteries aren’t that big. What kind of person would get a vanity license plate that reads ILUV911? How did Britney Spears come to be photographed with a particular author’s second book, which nobody else seemed to read? (Sub-question: Britney, Secret Bookworm?) What’s the story with an engraved belt buckle found in a Phoenix arroyo twenty-five years ago? They’re the kinds of mysteries that don’t warrant a call to the police, can’t be Googled, and make you want to drum up all the unsolved questions of your own life for Kine to chew on.

Mystery Show is essentially a light procedural. Kine’s working the phones and knocking on doors, she’s running license plates, she’s befriending chefs in Phoenix, she’s going to Vegas in hopes of asking Britney about the book thing. (I don’t know how many cases she’s working on at a time, but it sounds like a pretty fun job.) She has contacts who can help, or she doesn’t; lines of questioning work out, or they don’t. It makes you wonder about your own resourcefulness: how far would you go for the answer to somebody else’s minor mystery, and how would you go about it, anyway?

If all this were the best part of Mystery Show, it would still be entertaining. Kine is funny, the stories veer off in unexpected directions, and it’s sometimes affecting without feeling heavy. But in most cases, the solving of the mystery is not even remotely the best part. The best part is when Kine gets people—total strangers—talking, nudging them into conversation and then stepping aside as the recorder runs. And they tell her the most incredible things. These people usually aren’t central to the case; they’re customer service reps and people hanging out at the local bar, and we never hear from them again. But they tell her about their lives, about what they love, about why they are where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This is where Kine’s decade-plus of radio experience is the most evident: she knows how to strike up a friendly conversation, how to follow the scent of something interesting even if it’s mostly irrelevant to the case, and the value of letting people talk things out. She’s patient. And it’s these moments that are the real gems of Mystery Show, the parts that make you think, “well, that was amazing.”

And that’s why, though it’s early to make pronouncements, Mystery Show could be one of the greats of its genre. With the exception of This American Life, where “stories about people” is the entire stated goal, storytelling shows are never about what they’re about. (Not everybody can be This American Life; we already have one of those, plus many, many imitators.) They all have structures—murder mysteries or found media or “storytelling with a beat”—and then they have something they’re about: generally, stories the audience might not have heard otherwise. Mystery Show is young, but it’s already got this down: it’s about solving the small mysteries of life, but it’s about radio as a way of life and an excuse to listen to people. It’s about the people Kine meets along the way and the stories they tell her—and she’s really good at getting and curating those stories.

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You’ll thank me later

27 Oct

I am what you’d call a TV imperialist. Like any good empire-builder, it’s my mission to spread the glory of my riches to those who have no desire to receive them (or, you see, to those who don’t know what they’re missing! We will be greeted as liberators!)—I’m forever recommending shows to people, trying to coax them onto my favorite sections of Hulu and threatening to buy them whole seasons of my favorite shows, hoping they’ll want to talk about it. I pretend it’s for their benefit, but mostly it’s because I like creating new fans. I like watching people enjoy something they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I like sharing stories.

Today, in the spirit of spreading democracy the joy of good TV, I present two of my favorite television shows—shows that you would love, whoever you are, but probably are not already watching. Don’t make me send you my DVDs (Hey, man, shipping is expensive).

Bones

Thursdays, 8 p.m., FOX; perpetual reruns on TNT

Bones

Premise: A socially awkward forensic anthropologist and her hottie FBI partner solve murders using the victims’ skeletons. Grossness, hilarity, and crazy sexual tension ensue.

Warning: Statistically, if you begin to watch this show, you will not stop. You will tell yourself that it is nonsensical, or inconsistent, or that you don’t really care about these characters, or that you’re going to do something else after just one more, but it will not matter. You will have discovered that murder and forensic anthropology are, in fact, made of puppies and rainbows and light, and you will be sucked in for good. And it will be a happy, happy day.

The thing is, you will not be wrong about those first things—Bones has been, on various occasions, nonsensical and inconsistent and a variety of other unpleasant things. Sometimes it still is, but it doesn’t matter: in its fifth season, this show may actually be the happiest show on television, and it’s still getting better. It’s funnier and gutsier and weirder and sweeter and maybe a bit smarter than it’s ever been, and how many shows can say that?

The secret of Bones is all in the cast—the story revolves around Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (the grossly underrated Emily Deschanel), and they are delightful together, but the concentric circles of well-cast supporting characters, from the lab crew to Brennan’s family of (mostly) well-meaning convicts, are what make every episode feel like all of your favorite people are coming together for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the power of a great ensemble: you will love these people, and they will make bad TV ideas seem like good TV ideas just by showing up.  Crazy, apparently ill-advised plot points will arise (Remember the time Booth and Brennan went undercover with the circus as a Russian knife-throwing act? Remember the time Booth shot the head off an animatronic clown, and Stephen Fry became his therapist? Remember the time they did an alternate-universe episode where Booth and Brennan were married and owned a bar where a murder took place? I do!), and you will just think to yourself, “I did not know how incomplete my life was without that moment.”

How to watch it: Bones is currently in its fifth season; all previous seasons are available on DVD. TNT also runs constant reruns, and rumor has it that FOX will be rerunning it on Fridays this winter, as well. Finally, this isn’t a heavily serialized show—watching it in order is helpful, but not necessary. Cherry-pick at will.

Parks and Recreation

Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., NBC; Hulu

parks and rec

Premise: An ambitious and sometimes oblivious public servant (Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler) attempts to do good works (among other things, turn a huge dirt pit into a city park) in Pawnee, Indiana.

This show got off on the wrong foot in so many ways. The first few episodes were a mess—the characters were vague, the dialogue was clearly Office dialogue that didn’t make the cut, and nobody seemed to take Poehler’s comic voice into account. Disaster seemed imminent.

It’s infinitely, unspeakably better now—one of my favorite shows, and WAY funnier than the current season of The Office, if you must know. Summer was obviously kind to Greg Daniels and Friends; they’ve gotten a handle on their characters, Leslie Knope (best government worker name ever, yes?) no longer speaks with Michael Scott’s cast-off dialogue, and they’ve figured out what to do with Rashida Jones as Ann, the “normal” girl in this story. Even better, they made Chris Pratt a regular as Ann’s freeloader ex-boyfriend, who sometimes lives under a tarp in the pit (“Yeah, the hardest part is keeping my suit pressed”)—he’s completely hilarious. It’s light, it’s quick, and it’s really, really funny; if you like awkward humor but find The Office painful, try Parks and Recreation instead.

How to watch it: P&R had one previous season of six episodes; it’s on DVD, but doesn’t seem to exist anywhere (legally) online. In any case, only the last two or three episodes are worth really watching (the one where Leslie takes Ann as her date to an awards ceremony is, however, pretty priceless). The most recent episodes of the current season are on Hulu and NBC.com.