Thank you, Philo T. Farnsworth

Cast of The Shield

In this time of the Coronapocalypse, let us pause for a moment to salute one of the greatest men of history, a man who made this stay-at-home panic bearable. That man is Philo T. Farnsworth, one of the fathers of television.

(For the record, Philo T. Farnsworth did not singlehandedly invent television. A Scot, John Logie Baird, invented and was selling a ‘televisor’ in 1929, which involved the use of a perforated, spinning disc. But Farnsworth gets most of the credit because a) he’s American, b) he invented the first electronic television, and b) the name Philo T. Farnsworth is a lot more fun than John Logie Baird.)

Imagine, for a moment, life without television today. I think a lot of us would be out shaking hands and kissing strangers in the hopes of catching the COVID-19 just to end the misery.

With quite literally nothing else to do in the world (how many times can you rearrange your bookshelf or record collection?), television is saving us from mass insanity. As a self-proclaimed expert on TV – I have six decades of obsessive TV watching – I thought I would share with you some of my favourite TV shows available for viewing today. Bear in mind that these choices are those of a 64-year-old Canadian white male, so your choices may vary. Mine, however, are correct. There is so much to go over, I’ll divide it into drama, comedy and documentary. This week, let’s get down and dirty with drama.


At the risk of being labeled a TV snob (I am, but I just hate being called a snob), most stuff on American and Canadian TV broadcast networks does not interest me at all. I suspect some of it is good – there are thousands of hours of network TV drama, so something has to be worthwhile, right? – but I haven’t found it yet. The formula of impossibly attractive, perfectly ethnically diverse cops/firefighters/lawyers doing impossibly exciting/bizarre/sexy things every week is too old school, even for an old school guy like me. (That being said, I can still recommend the new season of Cardinal on CTV, which returns Monday. It’s a Canadian show very much in the style of those bleak Nordic crime dramas popular on Netflix.) Unfortunately, all of my choices are available only on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Crave. (Speaking of streaming services, you can get the British TV service Acorn free with a library card, at least in Edmonton. And CBC Gem is also free, and has lots of good stuff.)

If you haven’t watched the two monumental TV achievements of the 2000s – Breaking Bad (Netflix) and The Wire (Crave) – do it now. The Wire, a gritty crime series set in Baltimore, is incredibly dense storytelling, and you may have to put on the closed captioning to understand what they’re saying (ghetto slang is all Greek to me). But it’s worth it. These two are the holy grail of TV crime dramas, but a less well-known series, The Shield (Amazon), is required viewing as well. The first episode begins with a shocking scene that reverberates throughout the seven seasons of the series, right through to the final, gut-wrenching episode, likely the greatest series finale in TV history. Lots of violence, drug dealing and corruption (but remarkably free of obscenities), The Shield will keep you entertained for 88 hours.

Timothy Olyphant of Justified.

Less violent, but no less entertaining, is Justified starring the effortlessly cool Timothy Olyphant as a U.S. Marshall reassigned to his native Kentucky, where he encounters the worst bunch of hillbillies this side of Deliverance. The first few episodes are just a notch above standard police shows, but after that it really takes off with the arrival of complex villain Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins (who is also great in The Shield). The stories are involving without being needlessly complex, and the dialogue crackles, particularly in the scenes between Olyphant and Goggins. It’s on Amazon, and there are 78 episodes available, so that should keep you happy.

Still on the crime beat, I’m a big fan of the Narcos series on Netflix, particularly the first two seasons based on the career of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The most recent season, Narcos Mexico, switches the action to, well, Mexico, and I think it loses steam just a bit. But it’s all good. I can also recommend Mindhunter on Netflix, based on the true story of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, whose job it was to track down serial killers. It’s well made and quite chilling, but flawed by needless romantic subplots that just get in the way. Over on Amazon, Sneaky Pete is an offbeat crime drama about a con (Giovanni Ribisi) who scams his way into a family, only to find they are not quite the law abiding folks they appear to be.

If you like your crime stories with almost impenetrable Birmingham accents and lots of violence, you can’t go wrong with Peaky Blinders (Netflix), a British crime drama set in the 1920s. This is a show that almost requires the closed captioning to figure out what is going on.

The jolly good cast of Downton Abbey

OK, these are all pretty bleak, laced with violence and crime and plenty of obscenities. If you’re looking for something more peaceful and elegant, you can’t go wrong with Downton Abbey, (Netflix) the oh-so-British series about the wealthy Crawley family and their mostly loyal servants. I shouldn’t have enjoyed this series, but I did, to my eternal shame. There are 52 episodes to indulge in, so put on the kettle (or several kettles) and enjoy.

Speaking of shows that I should NOT have watched or enjoyed, I confess to wallowing in The Crown, the lavish Netflix series based on the life of 253-year-old monarch, Queen Elizabeth. A mixture of fact and speculation, The Crown is a soap opera on a grand scale. I loathe everything about monarchies, but darned if this isn’t entertaining. For something a little less sprawling, the new Netflix series The English Game looks back on the class divide in the early days of soccer, with a healthy dose of soap opera plotting to make it palatable to non-sporting types. And it’s short, too, at just six episodes.

Well, that should do it for dramas. Feel free to drop along suggestions of your own. If you watch all of these shows, that should get you through this virus outbreak, and the next. In the next blog, some comedic suggestions.

Now, this week’s bodily oddities from the book, The Body, A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson.

  • Your stomach only holds 1 1/2 quarts. A large dog holds twice as much food as yours does.
  • The average woman in the U.S. today weighs as much as an average man weighed in 1960. The average American man today weighs 196 lbs., which makes me feel pretty good.
  • There is an extreme form of insomnia called fatal familial insomnia. Sufferers lose the ability to fall asleep and die of exhaustion and multiple organ failure. But don’t fret – it is entirely inherited, and is known to affect only three dozen families worldwide.
  • Speaking of sleep, the longest anyone has gone without sleep is a 17-year-old named Randy Gardner, who, as a school science project, stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes. When he finally slept, he was out for 14 hours, and when he awoke, he felt fine.

And finally, one word on the COVID-19 crisis. At last report, one million people have contracted the virus. But put in a glass-half-full kind of way, that means 7,599,000,000 don’t have the virus. Just a thought.