Gary Final Collage

Many think because I’m a work-at-home freelancer — or on the dole for three years, depending on how you look at it — that I watch a lot of television.

They easily conjure that, what with all that time on my hands being a laid off, underemployed or unemployed writer, I most certainly must be sitting in front of the television, or perhaps trolling the Internet all day

And while I do my share of ‘net time-wasting, I’ve never, at least in the last decade, sat and watched television for extended periods. I should note that we’re not even on basic cable now — though we do get the networks and a few oddball stations like ‘Antennae TV.’

Yet even in “better days,” with my kids regularly visiting and rich media throughout the house, I still didn’t like to watch TV, and I especially didn’t like to do it alone. (I could watch iCarly, for example, with the kids all day though).

Still, this limited and sporadic access to television has given me an appreciation for the very best of the genre, especially as it pertains to public affairs programming, and a few bits and pieces of comedy and entertainment. For if it’s true that you want what you don’t have, or can’t appreciate what’s really good till’ it’s gone, then I do have perspective on the things I missed most about the genre.

  •  Major League Baseball: Especially, but not entirely limited to Chicago Cubs broadcasts, though hearing them on the AM radio takes me to a nostalgic place that TV can’t. Still, television takes you to a place that radio can’t: The Game.
  • Frontline: If each episode of this show were an investigative newspaper report, PBS would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. There’s no better journalism on television. Its editors have a knack for knowing what’s next — and what’s coming around again, and begin work on hitting the documentary ‘long ball’ way before the pitch.
  • The BBC: I especially like to see how the Brits see America, and the rest of the planet, for that matter, as reflected through the sprawling network’s lens. Also found some fine nuggets in the entertainment genre, which brings me to my next entry…
  • Shameless: Forget the American attempt to capture the raw intensity, character development, bravado and sensitivity of this now classic British show. This at once hilarious and at times melancholy romp is about working class people, a touch on the shady shide, grinding it out on the streets of a dingy city like the one in which I live. They have stories to tell and tell them well….but they are not for the meek. If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you’d start at the beginning and hang on for the fucking ride.
  • The Newsroom: The underrated Canadian Broadcasting System’s no- laugh-track-takedown of 24-hour news. It’s filmed in the handheld documentary style — brilliant in the right hands, all kinds of wrong in others — with no laugh track. Both in subject matter and execution, it’s way ahead of its time … for real, they did ‘The Office’ schtick way before Jim Halpert ever looked sheepishly at a camera. It’s riven with well-developed but highly flawed characters that at once despise and crave The American Myth.
  • Eastbound and Down: You’ll have to rent it now but the show, over its x seasons, also deconstructs The American Myth on an entirely different — and very funny — level. I wasn’t attracted to the sports angle, but come to find out sports is just a foil for what happens when a man becomes down and out and is the last to believe it.
  • The First 48: Every time I watch this true-crime documentary styed show, I can’t believe anyone would ever waste another minute any of the CSI “franchise” dreck; or any other cop show on television — and they are legion — for that matter. (My two favorites among the fictional are recalled here and here). This, however, is a real whodunit, with fly-on-the-wall camera work, real cops, real thugs, real dirt, and real life. Odd fact, in the aforementioned ‘Newsroom’ they pine for the kind of ‘verisimilitude’ this show delivers like clock-work. Just take a look at perhaps my favorite interrogation scene, in which a Mephis breaks the shooter responsible for the mass homicide of a family with gang ties, including children who bludgeoned and stabbed with sharp sticks when the killers broke all the kitchen knives they could locate. The Episode is Lester Street, and I shall never forget it.

Gary Mays is a veteran freelance writer, editor and investigative reporter who has worked for The Chicago Tribune, The Wisconsin (Madison) State Journal, and other, smaller but no-less- important publications.

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