What to Read, Inspired by 7 Great TV Shows
Perhaps this week’s column should be called On My TiVo. I love TV. It’s up there with my cat and my bookshelves as things I would never be willing to part with. (Of course, I mean after my family. Sigh.)
And it’s a glorious time for television—maybe the best ever. So this week, I decided to share shows that I love and the books they remind me of. From funny to smart to soul-crushing, there’s something for every TV—and book—fan.
This very, very funny series about the antics in the Office of the Vice President (played by Julia Louis Dreyfus) is back April 14, and if you haven’t tuned in yet, you must. This isn’t a show about heart or loving America, it’s about scheming, cursing, conniving staffers, and their seeming inability to get anything done properly.
If you want a look at a more successful staffer, check out All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos, which examines his five years with President Clinton, or Renegade by Richard Wolffe, which closely describes the making of Senator Obama into President Obama.
2. Mad Men
Mad Men, the top of the TV food chain is back April 7 (finally), and I can’t wait. The transition from the conservative man’s world of post-WWII America to the 1960s has so expertly held pace with the unraveling of Don’s own image and the artifice it relied on. Nothing is what it seems and it never was. (I’m anxious to find out how Peggy is faring at her new firm—that kiss on the hand from Don last year was the best TV moment of the season.) Bring on the Brylcreem and brown liquor already.
For a step back into Don’s universe, there’s always Cheever or Updike, but I think Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique deserves a nice comfy spot at the table. It's been described as “the book that pulled the trigger,” and nothing was the same again after Friedan’s 1963 barn-burner about women seeking self-determination and reexamining their lives, their marriages, and their roles as mothers and leaders. These issues are incredibly timely right now—Betty Draper Francis isn’t the only one who could benefit from a copy.
3. Top of the Lake
Speaking of Peggy, Elizabeth Moss is doing double duty this year with a wonderful spin as Kiwi detective Robin Griffin in Jane Campion’s new mini-series Top of the Lake, which is airing on the Sundance Channel. This strange mix of Twin Peaks and The Killing will confuse you, and not just because of the accents. Griffin is investigating the murder of a young, pregnant girl, whose disappearance stirs up all manner of dark feelings from the detective herself, the girl’s sociopathic family, and the entire town. Meanwhile, Holly Hunter plays GJ, the totally bizarre leader of an outpost for women who are looking for salvation from their miserable lives, and the last person who saw the missing girl. It all makes for very compelling, strange storytelling.
New Zealand’s literary presence has taken time to grow, but there are gems to be found. A romance and a mystery, The Bone People by Keri Hulme won the Booker Prize in 1984 for its mix of magical realism and Maori-European reckoning in the South Island beaches of New Zealand, garnering comparisons to James Joyce. The Whale Rider, a lovely movie that makes me weep hysterically, was a novel first. Witi Ihimaera’s story of 8-year old Kahu’s fight for relevance in her struggling culture weaves together the folk tales of the Maori and the very real dangers that lurk in the downtrodden existence of her family.
4. Breaking Bad
Oh, Walt, the end is near. I won’t spoil, because I know people are still catching up, but Breaking Bad is heading into its final season this summer. I watched the whole series marathon-style, and what a treat it’s been. (I feel less bitter about Bryan Cranston and the brilliant Aaron Paul winning all the Emmys now.) This sad, tense, at times hilarious story of what creator Vince Gilligan describes as the transition from Mr. Chips to Scarface for our once mild-mannered Mr. White, chemistry teacher and hen-pecked father turned meth emperor, has been a great trip.
Meth is a nasty business, in every sense of the phrase. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding chronicles the rise of meth in the heartland and the destruction this “contemporary tragedy” has wrought on once sleepy rural towns and the real-life characters that move and cook meth. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell fictionalizes the meth universe through a girl’s search for her father, a meth cook, and the very dangerous circle he orbits. (Also a fantastic movie starring the inimitable Jennifer Lawrence.)
5. True Blood
I said once before that I don’t do vampires, but Sookie and Bill (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer) won me over. Their dreamy romance and crackling humor made most of the supernatural wackiness irrelevant. Alas, True Blood, returning in June, isn’t quite what it used to be.
The original Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, however, is perfect beach reading. (I wouldn’t be spotted anywhere but a beach reading them, because they are deeply trashy.) True Blood creator Alan Ball is a much better writer than Charlaine Harris (usually), so you may be disoriented at first, but once you start reading, you may not be able to stop. There’s 12 in all, so take a long vacation. Just please don’t become one of those people on message boards that cry and complain that the series isn’t exactly like the books. They’re different. It’s OK.
6. The Americans
This new show—starring Felicity! Squee!—is a real firecracker. It’s the story of a seemingly all-American couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who are secretly ass-kicking KGB spies, and the mix of steamy sex, tense action, and love story is a great addition to the TV landscape. It’s like Homeland with bad guys. Sort of.
Spy novels have a long and storied shelf life, from John LeCarré’s famous The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, to Americans producer and writer Joseph Weisberg’s own spy novel An Ordinary Spy, which follows the lives of two newbie CIA agents on foreign assignments. If it’s the real stuff you’re looking for, check out Into the Mirror: The Life of Robert P. Hanssen, by Lawrence Schiller and Norman Mailer. Famously, Hanssen worked in plain sight for the U.S. government while passing thousands of pages of intel to the Russians. Whoops.
7. The Wire
I know it’s a bit of a cheat, because The Wire isn’t on anymore, and the love of The Wire (all earned) has become fodder for The Family Guy (all true), but please, if you love TV, watch The Wire, and read David Simon’s books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (co-written by Edward Burns), about life and hard times on the streets of Charm City. You’ll understand why we’re all so obsessed. Plus, seriously, has there ever been a character that broke you in two more than Bubbles?
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