Now that the EMMY NOMINATIONS are out, I can give my awards for the best CONVERSATIONAL TV shows. My standard, of course, finds its peaks of excellence in conversational films such as DINER and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO:
1. MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE is about three long-time friends about 50. They don’t act old and are charmingly and appropriately both ironic and serious about being stuck with not being so young. Each of them is working nobly to reinvent himself as what he was always meant to be (but failed to achieve earlier)–a golf pro (now on the senior tour), a film director, and a genuinely responsible leader of men (at an auto dealership). They meet now and again at something like a diner (and on hikes) to talk things through. And darn if the show doesn’t capture perfectly the candid, casual manliness of talk among real friends. Their conversations with women are also quite memorable; they are guys who really like women as “whole persons,” but they remain shy, confused, and vaguely guilt-ridden in their presence. It’s one happily married guy, one divorced guy with kids, and one who has not grown up enough to have gotten married–that about covers it. (There’s no gay guy, but one show can only do so much!)
2. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is, of course, about the community of friends that is the rural Texas high school football team. The touching thing is that the guys usually half-way know that life will never again give them a challenge as noble and real as working to win “state,” and that this life-transforming experience somehow has to last them their whole lives. Sadly but predictably, the heroes usually don’t do so well after high school. (There are some striking exceptions–such as the talent-challenged but big-hearted replacement quarterback who listens to Dylan and goes to art school etc.) As befitting a show mainly (but not exclusively) about fierce men of action, their conversations are usually short on words and long on intensity of meaning. (The chatterbox male character–fan-in-chief Buddy Garrity–is not a player.) The only job worthy of a man in this town is COACH. The coach is a natural aristocrat of talent and virtue who’s not from the town, and who could, everyone knows, distinguish himself anywhere. Maybe the most eloquent conversationalist in town is the coach’s wife, also a natural aristocrat who could flourish anywhere. She, a teacher in love with book-learning, has her own ambitions for herself and the kids. An important lesson of the show: The natural aristocrats who come to a small town to elevate the place remain aliens or insufficiently appreciated for who they are. The players sometimes properly appreciate the coach, but the evildoing oligarchs who run the town not so much. Both the coach and his wife get one raw deal after another, and they are short on real friends beyond their students. But they really do talk like friends to each other.
3. THE BIG BANG THEORY manages to capture the great and misery, the arrogance and the anxiety, of high-level nerd friendship in conversation that’s urnealistically filled with unwitting one-liners. We learn the difference between the genuinely THEORETICAL PHYSICIST, who to an extraordinary extent gets away with thinking of himself as pure mind and so is relentlessly self-obsessed yet rarely lonely, and the merely EXPERIMENTAL PHYSICIST, who is dragged down by his constant awareness of his not-so-good body and its needs and seems always to be lonely.
Honorable mention: COMMUNITY and PARENTHOOD (which is much better than MODERN FAMILY).