It’s been quite some time since our last reader mailbag! Fargo came and melted, Parks and Recreation shut down for good, and did you hear the one about the new Daily Show host? And still you, my loyal correspondents, demand answers. Chief among them: What’s my opinion of Person of Interest? (Answer: I’ll let you know as soon as I form one!) Below you’ll find a sampling of very real questions from very real readers, ranging from the best fictional workplaces to the best fiction to read while awaiting new seasons of True Detective and Bloodline. Just as I promise to take all of your queries seriously — even you, guy whose subject line read “I WANT TO LIKE GAME OF THRONES BUT IT’S GROSS” — so, too, do I promise to be more attentive to your emails. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the fate of Tywin Lannister, it’s that the minute you stop replying to people is the minute your life ends up in the crapper. Translation: It won’t happen again. Also: Stop pointing that crossbow at me.
Of all the boss characters on TV, which would you like to work for the most?
First off, Chris, I assume that by “boss characters” you mean “characters who are also authority figures,” not these guys. If so, let’s consider your query with the calm, rational remove of an HR director, shall we? I think it’s best to break down the answer in terms of tiers.
TIER ONE: NO EFFING WAY
David Brent, from the British Office, goes here, as the only thing worse than having an unctuous, untrustworthy, egotistical lunatic in charge of your professional life is having to listen to his jokes. (And the only thing worse than that is having to listen to his music.) But so does Carrie Mathison from Homeland, who proved in her show’s (actually kind of resurgent!) fourth season that reporting to her involves accepting a steady diet of abuse, obfuscation, and getting murdered. (And she doesn’t even share her wine!) But can you imagine taking a job with House Bolton on Game of Thrones? If you play nice, they’ll stab you in the heart at your wedding. If you don’t, they’ll flay the skin off your still-breathing body and then hang you from a tower like bunting on OpeningDday. And if you really piss them off, they have no problem giving new meaning to the phrase “severance package.” Unemployment is definitely better than this.
TIER TWO: JUST HOW MUCH ARE YOU PAYING ME?
The key to beginning any new job is to walk in with your eyes open. As such, the following bosses have much to offer if you can endure their particular quirks. Selina Meyer on Veep, for example, seems like a disaster on the surface: She’s foulmouthed, short-tempered, vain, and wildly disorganized. And yet she seems to attract a coterie of impossibly witty people, all of whom will sell out their blood relatives for a chance to stay at her beck and call. Across the aisle of power (and quality), Frank Underwood has certainly proved himself to be loyal. If you exhibit no qualms about doing his dirty work — silencing critics, killing threats, and burying beloved BBQ restaurants — you’ll earn the right to … do it all again next season. These are jobs based on proximity, not recompense. But is White House parking worth giving up your soul?
And be careful when browsing the employment pages for the opportunities to work with brilliant-but-damaged TV bosses. You know who I mean — the type of people who have high IQ but zero EQ: your Backstroms, your Houses, your Holmeses. Working for them is as much a headache as it is a privilege. I’d actually throw Leslie Knope from the late, great Parks and Rec into this category too. Sure, Leslie is a waffle-fueled competence rocket whose trajectory is so glorious and assured that mere proximity to it lifts even the childlike into remarkable, mature success. But you know that person in your office who’s chipper even on Mondays and gets mad at you if you don’t sing “Happy Birthday” to Dave from accounting at full volume? Now imagine that person in charge of your every waking second and a few of your sleeping ones too. Nice idea in theory. In reality? Hard pass.
If we hop a quick flight to Albuquerque, I’d slot Better Call Saul’s Howard Hamlin into this tier. Sure, he’s a plastic gasbag who demonstrates as much personality as a cuff link. But he seems to run a successful law practice and to make his decisions for the good of the company, not just to flatter his own ego. And though his empire didn’t quite stand the test of time, Gustavo Fring always struck me as a calm, capable manager. I’ll admit he tended to deal with setbacks in slightly untraditional fashion — gutting insubordinates with box cutters rather than writing them a spirited email, for starters — but he never lost his head. Until, of course, he did.
TIER THREE: I’LL BRING THE DOUGHNUTS!
Good bosses are actually a rarity on TV these days, mainly because “good” is one of those soft, drama-killing modifiers like “happy,” “content,” or “costarring Christian Slater.” Friction is the fuel of scripted television, and it’s hard to wring much out of calm, reasonable leaders. Still, there are a few exceptions. The foundational joke of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that Andre Braugher’s Captain Ray Holt is almost too fair-minded and capable. Since I don’t like squeaky wheels and have no problem wearing a tie over my artfully distressed button-down, I’d be happy saluting to him every morning. I haven’t spent much time with him yet — and he has only one employee — but Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson seems swell, assuming you can look past a tendency to sing show tunes and get a little handsy. Ron Swanson, late of Parks and Rec, ran an admirably tight ship, and though he disdained office friendships — what he called “workplace proximity association” — he was happy as long as the bare minimum was getting done. And I’m no commie, but I’ve had plenty of bosses worse than The Americans’s Arkady Zotov. Yes, he’s on the wrong side of history, but he stands by his operatives and has a heavy wrist with the vodka pours.
But speaking of vodka pours, there can be only one best boss on TV, and, come on, is there even a debate? Mad Men’s Roger Sterling has it all: the wit, the attitude, the swagger, and, now, the mustache. Across seven seasons, Roger has been a steady hand on the rudder of a show buffeted by change — and considering how much he drinks, that steadiness is nothing short of a miracle. Sure, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth — one he removes only occasionally to insert his foot — but I appreciate how he continually sees the world through rose-colored glasses. (Or at least he does when he’s not looking at it through the bottom of a bottle of Stoli.) What is it that we value in a workplace, anyway? It’s certainly not “work,” which puts us right in line with Roger. Remember, this is a guy who last season sold the company his father built just so he wouldn’t have to fire his best drinking buddy. You can take your productivity and shove it. I’ll take a second martini with lunch. By the time we get to the fourth, we can just call it dinner, and Roger, bless him, will expense the whole thing.
If you had time, which five shows would you rewatch from start to finish? No cheating by leaning on the classics here: Lost, The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are all ineligible.
— Mark L., Los Angeles, CA
I love the way this question assumes I would use this rare gem called “time” to watch more television shows rather than, I don’t know, emerge from my dystopian, Black Mirror–esque screen prison and attempt to feel the warm rays of the sun on my face just once before the East Coast is plunged yet again into winter’s dark embrace. But OK, “Mark,” whoever you are, I’ll go with it. Five shows I’d watch again:
1. Twin Peaks
I’ve written at length about my deep love for this show and once even devoted an entire mailbag to it. Even though the Showtime reboot is now looking shakier than Leland Palmer on the dance floor, I’d still put this at no. 1. That’s partly so I can reconnect with a work of art that helped shape my tastes and expand my imagination as to what television was capable of accomplishing, but also to see if my unabashed love of the maligned second season has been bashed at all over time. I think 13-year-old me had pretty good taste, considering, but I also think it maybe hadn’t occurred to me yet that something could be both really good and, maybe, really not so good. I’d like to think the Windom Earle plotline has aged well. But I’m old enough now to accept it either way.
2. Friday Night Lights
The first season of FNL is essentially perfect. The second is decidedly not. I’d be especially curious to rewatch Seasons 3 to 5 with the knowledge that the show ended draped in the same glory it had in the beginning. Do second-generation characters like Vince and Luke hold up? Does Mrs. Coach really drink that much wine? And how hard is it to believe that we once collectively obsessed over a show in which no one was violently murdered? (Shut up, Killer Landry from Season 2. I still don’t acknowledge your existence.)
3. The Rockford Files
I often point to this culty ’70s drama — about a wonderfully cynical private eye living down and out in Malibu — as the exemplar of the kind of TV I both love and miss. It was serious without being heavy and funny without being slight, and it carried itself, even through lean periods, with impeccable swagger and style. The only problem with my constant citing of Rockford is that I barely remember it — my appreciation of the show is spliced together from late-night reruns when I was a kid and occasional Netflix indulgences as a critic. There’s no pressure to revisit Rockford, so I almost never do. With your magical gift of time, Mark, I’d love to change that.
But if I can’t, there’s always my favorite Rockford-inspired hour and, as longtime readers know, my unshakable, canceled-too-soon obsession. Here’s the thing: I don’t just dish out advice, I also take it. And when I tell you for the umpteenth time to invest in this brilliant FX detective show, I do it because I want to experience it all again, too. The more TV I watch professionally, the more I’m amazed at the crazy roulette wheel of writing, casting, timing, and luck that has to spin just so for a series to click. Yes, Terriers crapped out in the long run — but its one perfect season is a sterling example of what it can look like when everything comes together.
5. Party Down
Because sometimes I need to be reminded that TV, above all else, can make you as happy as a well-directed jet of Jacuzzi water.
And though it wasn’t part of the question, here are five series that I’ve never properly watched but would love to make time for:
- Justified (FX, 2010-15)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC, 1979)
- Suits (USA, 2011-present)
- Lonesome Dove (CBS, 1989)
- Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi, 2004-09)
No one likes a spinoff like AMC. Hypothetically, if AMC created a Mad Men spinoff and you were forced to watch it, what would you most want that show to be about?
— Matt, Nashville,TN
I think Chris Ryan, Bill Simmons, and I nailed this in our podcast the other week. The best possible show would be Sally Draper, after a few lost semesters bumming around in the Bay Area, returning to New York just in time for the No Wave years of 1979 to 1982. Maybe she gets a job as a secretary at a SoHo gallery or Peggy Olson — now firmly ensconced as the creative director for McCann Erickson — takes pity on her former boss’s wayward kid and hooks her up as a hostess at a favorite hipster boîte. Either way, the show focuses on 25-year-old Sally as she navigates between the uptown her father haunted and the downtown that always beguiled him. Will she choose art — think Debbie Harry, Basquiat, a snot-and-coke-nosed Jay McInerney — or commerce? Call it Mad World and book it for at least three seasons.
Still Mad: The story of Ken Cosgrove’s increasingly petty attempts to get revenge on Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling. After firing the agency, Ken begins his smear campaign in earnest. First by egging Pete’s (unused!) car, then by hanging a “Kick Me” sign on Roger’s royal blue blazer. Spoiler: Everyone survives. Their dignity does not.
Men: The story of Sal Romano’s quest to express his true self and also maybe escape Central Park, where he’s been trapped for most of the decade.
Olde Men: The story of Pete Campbell’s nasty and violent Scottish ancestors who roamed the Highlands exacting justice for the crown, fondling au pairs, and never learning to drive.
Mad Boy: The story of Gene Draper, a little kid who may or may not exist. Kind of like Casper but blond and less interesting.
If Rust Cohle and Marty Hart were dropped into the world of The Walking Dead, who would survive the longest?
— Dan F, Cincinnati, OH
Dan, didn’t you watch the finale of True Detective? Rust Cohle is immortal! Nothing, not bullets, not a sixer in the middle of the workday, can stop his magical mind from churning.
That said, I would love to see middle-aged Hart and Cohle airlifted into the middle of Rick’s group. Can’t you just picture it? Marty would hitch up his pleated pants and immediately start hitting on Maggie, while ol’ Rust would set about trying to apply “m-brane theory” to a world in which actual brains are considered delicious. Actually, a better test would be to drop every True Detective regular not named Marty or Rust into The Walking Dead and discover, once and for all, how long zombies could survive on such undernourished characters.
What is currently the WORST show on TV that continues to get praise from critics and fans?
— Marc, Edmonton
See previous question/answer.
Do you have any book pairings to go with upcoming TV series, particularly True Detective?
— Brett, Roseville, MN
OK, OK. You got me. Despite my dislike of True Detective Season 1, I am plenty curious about Season 2 — mostly due to my irrepressible love of Colin Farrell and California noir. I have no idea if the new iteration of True D will live up to the mighty precedent set by numerous generations of Cali crime writers — let alone the high critical and cultural ceiling established by the first season. (I could, however, wager a guess: I expect that True D 2: Truer, More D will be less cerebral and ambitious than the first installment and thus, in a perverse way, more satisfying. I wouldn’t be surprised if fewer people love it but I find a way to like it. We’ll know more in June!)
But here’s the beautiful thing: We don’t have to wait two months to float away in a haze of noir. Any excuse to check out the books that likely inspired True Detective Season 2 is one worth relishing. My top picks? The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler, L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy, Dreamland by Newton Thornburg, The Black Echo by Michael Connelly, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, and Metzger’s Dog by Thomas Perry. There’s no Carcosa in any of these novels, but, in the filthy beauty of the Golden State, there doesn’t need to be. Trying to build Babylon on the edge of the American desert is strange enough.
Hey, what about some Florida noir for parrotheads still flying off of Bloodline?
— I’m Not Going to Pretend I Didn’t Ask This Question Myself, Brooklyn, NY
Great! Florida just might be my favorite setting for crime novels — there’s nothing quite like the juxtaposition of pink flamingos with the dark red ooze of blood. There are plenty of good options out there, but I’d stick with the masters: John D. MacDonald (The Deep Blue Good-by, A Tan and Sandy Silence), Elmore Leonard (Split Images, LaBrava) and Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, The Shark-Infested Custard). Read these books and see if you still disagree with me about Bloodline’s strange focus on the white-collar dopes who should really be the marks for some guayabera-collared striving heroes.
Peaky Blinders: First off, is this the best show with the worst name? I skipped it for months before finally giving in to Cillian Murphy’s deep blue eyes and taking the plunge. I try to spread the word of how awesome it is, and I’m not sure one person has taken me seriously when I tell them what it’s called.
So, any other horrible-name, awesome-show candidates? And also, have you gotten a chance to catch up with the show?
— Nate, Holderness, NH
Nate, I agree with you about the quality of Peaky Blinders: I can think of no better show about post-WWI British hooligans with razor blades hidden in their caps. (And I wrote as much here.) Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough time to return to the series after my initial enjoyment, not even to sample the uniqueness of Tom Hardy’s beard and accent. That shouldn’t stop you, however. Both seasons of the show (a third is on the way) are now on Netflix, and when I refer to them as an English Boardwalk Empire, I mean it with real praise. Both are exacting in their period detail, delightful in their performances, and absolutely indulgent when it comes to the most violent tropes of gangster fiction.
But your question was about the name, which I have to admit I kind of like. Sure, it tells you nothing about the show — which is admittedly a problem. But it’s also ineffably cool, which sets it apart from other quality shows with a vague name, like the aforementioned Terriers. Nearly every good comedy on ABC since Modern Family has been saddled with a ridiculous title, from Cougar Town and Trophy Wife all the way through Black-ish.
But what really chaps my saddle are the dodos at AMC who consistently fail at what should be one of the simplest tasks on their agenda. You know their drama Turn? I mean, I know you don’t KNOW IT-know it — its ratings are exceedingly poor. But I bet you’ve at least fast-forwarded through the ads for it while watching Mad Men. Here’s the thing: Turn isn’t half-bad! It’s a diverting adaptation of a well-received book called Washington’s Spies about America’s first espionage ring during the Revolutionary War. Except some genius with a corner office he likely doesn’t deserve decided to call the resulting drama Turn, which may as well be about a guy directing traffic or a deep dive into the songwriting process of the Byrds. Realizing its mistake too late, AMC is now advertising Season 2 of Turn as Turn: Washington’s Spies. But come on! This was an unforced error! I can only assume that the equally dodgily named Halt and Catch Fire will return as Halt and Catch Fire: America’s Sexiest Programmers, and the upcoming spinoff of The Walking Dead will be called something ridiculously easy like Fear the Walking Dead.
What’s that? It’s actually called Fear the Walking Dead? Huh. I guess they’re learning.
Michiel Huisman simultaneously plays(ed) the love interests of Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones (Daario Naharis), Tatiana Maslaney on Orphan Black (Cal Morrison), and Connie Britton on Nashville (Liam McGuinnis). Does Michiel Huisman have the best agent in the business?
— Michael R.
Wait. Is this true? And you’re leaving out the time he played the love interest of jazz on Treme! Jokes aside, this is truly astonishing. We’ve had small-screen lotharios before, but this is something else entirely. Two years ago in a mailbag, I wrote that only Jerry Seinfeld in his “Mulva” heyday could compete with the unprecedented run of romance pulled off by Jake Johnson on New Girl, which featured the following actresses as plausible love interests: Lizzy Caplan, Lake Bell, Olivia Munn, Odette Annable, Brooklyn Decker, and, of course, Zooey Deschanel. I thought the title belt was secure. But now you’re telling me that the head of the Second Sons is bedding the first name on the call sheets of three blue-chip shows? I stand corrected – and in awe. A 33-year-old Dutch guy is now our leading leading man. Dating Connie Britton, even in character, is the television equivalent of White House Down. I, for one, welcome our new artfully disheveled overlord. I suggest you all do the same.