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TV in the time of coronavirus

CoronaTime offers the opportunity to appreciate the best of the great work our actors and writers and directors and editors and all the vital members of the crew bring to life.

One thing coronavirus has forced upon me is a reckoning. He probably won’t be happy, but folks have been stealing from Hawthorne since they put him in the ground. And, God bless him, he put up with Melville. So allow me to suggest that rather than a Scarlet A, I’ve been wearing a Black D for a decade. D for Divorce. Though we’ve come to regard divorce as business as usual in America, it is, even if we’re prone to pretend, a mark of failure.

I’m Italian, and we choose perpetual guilt over atonement. But with these endless hours of solitary contemplation, I’ve been less successful at my usually accomplished deflection. I take more responsibility for the death of our marriage than my ex-wife, who still retains greater humanity, generosity of spirit and willingness to forgive than I, which is why I’m in Louise’s home in the Berkshires and not treacherous New York, New York, trying to avoid the asymptomatic in the supermarket or in the street. By a simple act of well-deserved fate, she’s found herself in a bungalow in Hawaii owned by a lifetime girlfriend and offered me refuge.

For a while these last six months, everything seemed perfect. Using some of my old contacts from stand-up, I had secured a development deal for a TV series I had pitched in one of those crazed journeys to Hollywood, turning into my main character, rushing from production company to company. Set in these very Berkshire Hills, “Both Sides Now” would be a funny but tender look at a mismatched marriage: Greta, a 50-year-old small-scale organic farmer, quiet, contemplative, rooted in spirit and the earth; and her husband, Gabe, five years her senior, a driven movie producer, always pitching and often driving to the city or flying to L.A. to bring his projects to life. Their love was steady, though none of their friends quite understood how it worked.

Like many projects others had scored before me, I had done a better job selling the concept than actually making it work. Though I had gotten paid a pretty penny, I was slogging through the first draft of the third episode when Hollywood was slayed by coronavirus and my deal was first quarantined, then disappeared into nothingness. And so I’ve ended up not making television, but watching it.

I’ve learned with an appreciable amount of embarrassment the love/hate relationship many of you have with New Yorkers, the generic version denoting those from elsewhere, which include all parts of Connecticut excepting Canaan, because some of you like Stop and Shop and used to go there for pizza; New Jersey; Boston, excepting maybe Yaz and Mark what’shisname, the shortstop who came from Pittsfield; and most of all, the real New Yawkers who can’t help but push ahead of you at Guido’s. And so I’m a bit hesitant to share some of what I’ve learned, but what the heck.

One of the first things I had to learn was to pretend I did something else. Between you and me, I had somehow managed to avoid running into the kill-your-television folks in my previous life. The stand-up community would just die to make it to the screen, big or small. And in New York, New York, when talk turns to TV, it’s more a matter of which TV provider you hate. Because if you love the Mets or you love the Yankees or the Knicks or the Nets or the Liberty or you’re crazy about Man City or Barcelona, you need TV. I mean really need it, and whatever it takes, you need to find the company that carries your favorite team, the company determined in turn to steal your firstborn’s college fund to give it to you.

Up here, there are a whole bunch of people who prefer to watch cucumbers grow than allow Netflix into their homes — lots of folks who think TV is a crime against humanity, the reason why stupidity and sloth have flourished, a demon akin to WalMart and Amazon. So it doesn’t really end well to admit at a potluck that you’re working to destroy the imaginations of their friends and neighbors with a 13-episode season. It’s a bit like arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness, suggesting that there must be a better place to headquarter all of God’s wisdom than in Brooklyn.

I’ve told you before that I’m an overwatcher, but the truth is, with the new coronavirus reality, I’ve only deepened my appreciation for television and those who make it happen. In the last few weeks, I’ve been all over the world thanks to streaming and too much time on my hands. Most recently I’ve been in Wales, where it turns out they speak a language all their own, spending time with a policeman, DCI Tom Mathias, tortured but smart as a whip.

‘Hinterland.’ Image courtesy BBC4

Maybe it’s because I miss my New York Knicks, but I’ve come to convince myself that great television is a lot like great basketball. The ball has to move from one to another, everyone aware and committed to each other. The thing about great television is that whether it’s the writer, the cinematographer, the set designer and especially the cast, they create a world. If done right, it’s a world that lives and breathes. Having fallen into “Hinterland,” I’ve left my world for theirs.

And for the moment, let me quarrel with the odd habit of separating out the designated lead from all the others who make that world three-dimensional: the bizarre category of character actor. Each and every actor in “Hinterland” is an absolutely essential character, making it possible for me to leave behind me and join them. Maybe it’s my version of self-hypnosis, but because of all they’ve, done I’m in Wales with the sea and the many shades of gray, with those who murder and those murdered, with the men and women tasked with living and breathing crime.

To me, all of them are stars in the “Hinterland” sky: Richard Harrington as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Mathias; Mali Harries as Detective Inspector Mared Rhys; Alex Harries as Detective Constable Lloyd Elis; Hannah Daniel as Detective Sergeant Siân Owen; and Aneirin Hughes as Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser. I don’t know them, will probably never know them, and if I ran across them, I wouldn’t impose upon them or bother them. Because I only know who they’ve been for work during those moments in time, I’m pretty sure they have moved on to other work. But I am so very grateful for what they have done for me in this time of cholera. And I’m sad and sorry for those compelled to kill their Sony and have missed out on “Hinterland.”

This is a particularly hard time for those who make and those like me who love TV. It’s the time others, I imagine the high mucky-mucks with the checkbooks, decide which shows they’ll kill or which they’ll keep. I hate this time because I’m forced to say goodbye to worlds I’ve come to appreciate.

Maybe Wales is too far for you. How about Memphis, Tennessee? One of the Berkshire’s own, Jayne Atkinson, has been involved in a terrific new show, “Bluff City Law,” that I’ve grown to appreciate so much, which I’ve learned I have to say goodbye to. There was a while when television was considered the illegitimate stepson of film. But over the years, the writing, the acting has flourished. Now it turns out that, more than most American institutions, television has brought the issues of diversity to the forefront, humanizing men and women we’ve been taught to regard with suspicion — race, gender, income, sexual preference, the so-called “disabled.” It’s a tribute to their craft that the diverse cast of “Bluff City Law,” from everywhere besides Memphis, made their small law firm so very real.

‘Bluff City Law.’ Photo courtesy NBC

And that’s been so very true of Jayne Atkinson, this time Delia Bedford, but she has convinced me of the so many others she’s been over the years, especially Karen Hayes is “24.” As Delia, we’re with her, learning to appreciate the complexities of self-discovery, and the added ramifications for friends and families. “Bluff City Law” tackles complicated realities like infidelity, sexual preference, racism, and the difficulties of marriage with sensitivity and without simplifying them. I’m sad I won’t be spending time this fall with the talented cast of Jimmy Smits, Caitlin McGee, Barry Sloane, Michael Luwoye, MaameYaa Boafo and Stony Blyden, which means for me that I have to both say goodbye to new friends at the same time I mourn the loss of my old friends at “Hawaii Five-0.”

There’s another series I fear for, “Stumptown,” which brought the many talents of Cobie Smulders to the fore. This time it’s Portland, Oregon. What Cobie Smulders and the talented cast make real is the devastatingly real torments of PTSD, and the cost borne by those we sent to Afghanistan, and the struggle of those to move beyond those wounds. “Stumptown” is also about crime told from several different perspectives.

‘Stumptown’ cast. Image courtesy ABC TV

Smulders’ Dex Perrios has become a private detective; Michael Ealy is Detective Mike Hoffman; Camryn Manheim is Lieutenant Cosgrove; Fiona Rene is Detective Kara Lee; and Dex’s best friend, Grey McConnell, a former/present criminal, is played by Jake Johnson. Like “Bluff City Law,” the universe of “Stumptown” is multi-faceted and inclusive. Dex’s younger brother, Ansel, the very talented Cole Sibus, brings Downs to life with sensitivity and great depth. Tantoo Cardinal is Sue Lynn Blackbird, the head of the tribal casino, and issues of Native American life run through the heart of “Stumptown.”

Those who advocate for the assassination of TV probably aren’t aware that some of their neighbors make some terrific television. Michel Gill has been featured in “House of Cards” and was in “Mr. Robot” and “Chicago Med.” New York state neighbor Scott Cohen helped to bring “Billions” to life; made an appearance in “Bluff City Law”; was terrific in “Necessary Roughness”; and starred in one of my favorite series, “Street Time.”

If you haven’t seen “Succession,” perhaps watching someone who lives only miles away will provide the impetus. David Rasche is always pitch perfect, and while he’s not onscreen enough for my tastes, he always adds to the story of a megalomaniacal media mogul and his dysfunctional family. “Succession” is a tribute to the ability of so many actors to meld their abilities for the common good.

David Rasche and J. Smith-Cameron on ‘Succession.’ Photo courtesy HBO

CoronaTime offers the opportunity to appreciate the best of the great work our actors and writers and directors and editors and all the vital members of the crew bring to life. For me, the kill-your-TV folks have it all wrong: Television is a remarkable gift, telling stories that reveal the wondrous diversity of the human experience, transporting us to other worlds, and so I comfort myself with the hope that those who made “Bluff City Law” will soon reincarnate to tell another story.

Meanwhile, as one coronavirus week mutates into another, and before it’s cucumber time, you might check out “Giri Haji,” “Le Bureau,” “Star Trek: Picard,” “The Mandalorian,” “The Split,” “River,” “The Morning Show,” “Yellowstone” — different worlds, exceptional actors.

Time has provided the opportunity to do something about that dark D. I’ve taken my Open America check and hedged my bets, buying Louise a 48-inch Sony and a community-supported agriculture share for this coming’s harvest — ome cucumber, broccoli, and some Baby Yoda.