The week in TV: Cable news eye-aches, ‘Mary’ magic, and favorites from Christmases past
Your TV GPS, Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert’s look at the week ahead in television, appears every week on BostonGlobe.com.
VISUAL ASSAULT & CABLE NEWS
I watch a ton of cable news. It’s like a hypnotist’s watch, back and forth, right and left, and it sucks me in.
Sure, it’s monotonous, ridiculous, pernicious, and banal. And the phrase “Breaking News” is meaningless at this point, since all those channels throw it up on the screen 50 times a day, alongside the rest of the visual clutter. But still I like to hear the hot takes, hate-watch the talking heads, and, sadly, bear witness to a country split in two.
I’m writing about it here and now, though, not to take it to task for the content. That would be a much longer piece (here are some). This is about the way cable news looks, which is like a really aggressive doctor’s office.
I get eye-aches watching the overly lit, cold, and steely atmosphere. The close-ups are too close, as highly verbal people like Chris Cuomo stare into our faces in HD, with their bug eyes and sprayed hair. The endless split-screens are flat and — forgive me, “Brady Bunch”-ers — unintentionally comic. I won’t even get into the urban or historical architectural imagery lurking in the backdrops, all red, white, and blue, as generic as a bank logo.
Do people who want to hear about news — fake, real, hybrid, whatever — need to be punished with what are the most offensive visuals imaginable? Are there network sadists behind the scenes yelling, “Brighten those lights MORE — I want loyal viewers to feel like they’re stuck inside a giant fluorescent light”? Or “Add extra lines to the chyron, because we need to make it look even more like an eye exam”?
There are talk shows and morning shows whose sets are relatively appealing, with mild colors and subtle lighting. I understand that cable news channels want to look professional and official, and not casual. But they also want to mesmerize us, trigger our digital addictions, drown us in dopamine, keep us from looking away. Really, please, give us an aesthetic break.
WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEK
1. Do we need another adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”? Of course we do. The satiric 1840s classic, with a meta layer that has the author (played by Michael Palin) commenting on his storytelling, is evergreen. I’ll review the new Amazon seven-parter, with Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, when it’s available on Friday.
2. Here’s another high-profile Netflix movie, like “Roma,” that got a short theatrical release before it shows up in your home on Friday. “Bird Box” is a post-apocalyptic thriller — you’ll die if you see a mysterious force, which means blindfolds must be worn — starring Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Trevante Rhodes, and John Malkovich. The reviews are mixed.
3. There will be ice, and there will be an Adam Rippon cameo. But the focus of Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal: Christmas on I.C.E.” on TBS will be the immigration crisis, of course. One of the promos has a Nativity set getting raided by dolls dressed as I.C.E. agents. The special, Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., doubles as a fundraiser to reunite families separated at the border.
4. Children MUST have a proper education. “Mary Poppins Returns” opens this week, which means you are introducing your kids — or even reintroducing your kids — to “Mary Poppins” with Julie Andrews before taking them to the theater, right? No piecrust promises, people. You can find the original on Amazon, iTunes, and other streamers, for a price.
5. Speaking of Mary’s return, one of the movie’s stars, Lin-Manuel Miranda, will be his super-cheerful self all over the talk-show promotion circuit this week: Monday on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” Tuesday on “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” and Thursday on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
6. The episodes of “Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus” are oral histories of musical greats — last season in country music, this season in funk. The thing is, the Cinemax series is animated, so that all the interviews with former bandmates and friends are in ‘toon. The season ends Friday at 10 p.m. with Betty Davis.
7. I haven’t watching CBS’s “Survivor” since, oh, that time Sue Hawk quit after accusing Richard Hatch of rubbing against her naked. But I know my editor, WHO HAS WATCHED ALL 37 SEASONS — YES, 37, will be glued to his set, as the finale of “Survivor: David vs. Goliath” runs Wednesday at 8 p.m.
8. Netflix and the BBC have coproduced a four-part animated adaptation of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel “Watership Down,” due Sunday. The voice cast is promising: Olivia Colman, Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, James McAvoy, Peter Capaldi, Daniel Kaluuya, and Nicholas Hoult. Let’s hope the CGI rabbits are not CGOy-yoy-yoy.
Filmmaker Steve Burrows looks into the health-care system, after he believes his mother is the victim of medical error. HBO, Monday, 8 p.m.
Executive produced by Dan Rather, the documentary looks at the decades of policy decisions that have enabled the predatory for-profit college industry. Starz, Monday, 9 p.m.
“The Year in Memoriam”
“Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable”
Her first stand-up special in 15 years. Neflix, Tuesday
The two-hour series finale of the time-travel drama. NBC, Thursday, 8 p.m.
“7 Days Out”
A Northern Irish sitcom about teenagers during the Troubles. Netflix, Friday
SOME FAVORITE HOLIDAY EPISODES
“The One With the Holiday Armadillo” (2000)
Ross tries to get his son, Ben, excited about Hanukkah, but the kid’s more taken with Santa Claus. When the costume store is out of Santa costumes, the Holiday Armadillo is born, with Ross telling the fascinated Ben all about the Maccabees. It’s sweet, until Chandler shows up as Santa and the Holiday Armadillo gets a demotion.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”
“Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid” (1970)
Mary’s deep into the holiday spirit, but she gets stuck working Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Cut to Mary dancing alone in the office and chatting with a stranger over a transmitter. Lonely, scared, Mary is in despair, until . . . well, surprise.
“My So-Called Life”
“So-Called Angels” (1994)
This “My So-Called Life” was sappy, but it was earned sappiness. Rickie leaves home after getting beaten up and winds up on the streets on Christmas. Angela and her mother go in search of him, and meet a mysterious woman — yup, an angel — played by Juliana Hatfield.
“Six Feet Under”
“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (2002)
The Christmas episode of this funeral-home series would have to open with the death of a Santa on a motorcycle. It’s funny, don’t worry. The episode finds the Fisher family struggling with their respective neuroses a year after Nathanial’s death, and Nate dealing with his dire diagnosis, all while hosting a biker funeral.
“All in the Family”
“Edith’s Christmas Story” (1973)
This Norman Lear sitcom was funny, sad, shocking, political, and ahead of its time, which is why it shows up on almost every TV list that spans the decades. The normally excited Edith is in an off mood in this episode, straining to be merry. Turns out she may have breast cancer.
PREVIOUSLY ON . . .
If you want to take a gander at my 2018 Top 10 list, it’s here. Tell me what you think.