Staring at the Conclude, in Numerous Senses

December 13th, 2013

Discovery Channel

“Naked and Afraid” put two folks without clothes in the jungle.

It was a year dominated by the naked and the dead.

Not that someone made a television mini-series out of the 1948 Norman Mailer novel, though that would have been an improvement over a number of shows offered in 2013. It was a naked-and-dead year because actual nakedness and actual deadness seemed to be in unusually abundant supply, at least in certain parts of the TV spectrum. Let’s take a look back:

THE NAKED It doesn’t take much to start a stampede in the world of reality shows — put one pawnshop owner or gator wrangler or tattoo artist on TV, and suddenly they’re everywhere. And so it was with nudes. In 2013, several basic-cable channels tried to exploit the unquenchable human desire to look at other people’s private parts with shows featuring nude bodies and the word “naked” in the title.

In April the Discovery Channel unveiled, as it were, “Naked Castaway,” a survival show about a guy deposited on a deserted island with a camera but no clothes. Inevitably, “Naked and Afraid” came along two months later on the same channel, starring a naked man, a naked woman and a jungle.

TLC checked in with “Buying Naked,” about a Florida real estate agent who specializes in selling homes to nudists. It was a two-part special, but with TLC, whose other shows include “Say Yes to the Dress” and several involving cake-baking, clothing-optional television could be a whole new universe: “Say Yes to the Lack of a Dress” or “Naked Cupcake Boss.”

Syfy, meanwhile, hatched “Naked Vegas,” about a business that specializes in full-body painting. In a recent episode, the Las Vegas company was hired to provide human art for an event involving Joe Benitez, the steampunk comic-book artist. The featured artwork consisted of three nude women whose backsides were painted so that, if they stood just so, they looked vaguely like an onrushing locomotive. Or such was the intent. A belching smokestack helped the illusion along, sort of.

All of these “naked” shows have been a disappointment for anyone tuning in to see the most enticing parts of a naked body. Apparently they were created primarily to provide full employment for crew members whose job it is to strategically place potted plants or to digitally blur out nipples and genitals. Yet buttocks, which once appeared on basic cable less often than Bigfoot, have been allowed to see the light of day routinely. We will not here debate whether that constitutes progress or another reason not to watch television, because that would leave us no room to discuss the other collective star of the year:

THE DEAD Death has always been a prominent feature of television — crime shows, melodramas, the evening news — but it asserted itself in new, attention-getting ways in 2013, some frivolous, some serious.

For instance, there was a bit of animated death-related one-upmanship in the fall. The brains behind “The Simpsons” announced that a major character would be killed off next season, generating a considerable amount of chatter and guesswork among critics and fans. But in November, “Family Guy,” another long-running animated hit, hijacked the subject by having Brian, that show’s popular talking dog, struck and killed by a car. The Internet went crazy, a petition drive demanding that the character be brought back was begun, and in general “Family Guy” received a level of attention that good but established shows rarely enjoy. It might have been a stunt — indications in the last week have been that Brian is coming back — but if so, it was a successful one.

Brian was not alone in migrating to or at least visiting the Great Television Beyond in 2013. Walt from “Breaking Bad” is there, thanks to a much-talked-about series finale in September, as are numerous other characters from that show. So is Detective Carter from “Person of Interest.” Declan from “Revenge” too, and Matthew from “Downton Abbey.” High-body-count series like “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” added their share to the rolls, too.

But a more serious kind of death — the nonfiction kind — also received TV’s attention. Showtime, for instance, has just concluded a sobering six-episode documentary called “Time of Death” that chronicled the deaths of eight people with terminal illnesses. Mike Hale, reviewing the series in The New York Times, called it an argument against binge viewing. “Some recovery time between episodes is probably a good idea,” he said.

And one particular death overshadowed pretty much everything else in 2013 even though it occurred long ago. In November television went into overdrive to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There were general remembrances like PBS’s four-hour “American Experience” and, on the Smithsonian Channel, “The Day Kennedy Died.” There were programs that examined a particular aspect of the event, like “Capturing Oswald” on the Military Channel and “JFK: One P.M. Central Standard Time,” about news coverage of the assassination, on PBS.

There were dubious offerings, like the History channel’s “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide,” which was not about what happened, but about what people think happened. There were conspiracy-theory programs like “JFK: The Smoking Gun” on Reelz. “Killing Kennedy,” the best seller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, got a feature treatment from the National Geographic Channel.

In short, everybody felt a need to note the anniversary, even TLC, a channel not known for restraint or depth. It broadcast the relatively upstanding “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy,” a tribute that drew on some of the thousands of letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy.

That same channel had a less somber way of looking at death: “Best Funeral Ever,” which had its premiere 10 days after the assassination anniversary. It’s about unusual funerals. One episode showed the send-off for a woman who had loved bowling. Her family shoved her coffin down a lane at a bowling alley, so she could record one final strike.

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