Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Absolutely Bestest Show on TV (As of This Fleeting Moment in Time)

A few weeks ago, while hurriedly passing through on our way to some larger point, we made the not-so-novel observation that HBO’s The Wire was the best show on television. We’re afraid, however, that this grand pronouncement proved to be just another of our transitory enthusiasms, because at the time we had not seen Last Dance, which we stumbled across on one of those cable stations that’s way, way up there on the digital dial.

You’ve seen Last Dance, haven’t you? The show about the geriatric dance troupe that travels from town to town, chasing the Terpsichorean muse and searching for late-life adventure? And by “dance” we don’t mean Arthur Murray or Lawrence Welk-style hoofery or even square-dancing or boot-scootin’. Nope, Last Dance shows America’s elders in all their butt-twitchin’, arm-thrusting, synchronized hip-hopping glory. It’s a brilliant idea (apparently no one has taken credit for Last Dance’s creation, although we detect the subtle hands of both The Sopranos’ David Chase and Deadwood’s David Milch, as well as some other guy named “David”), because if there’s one thing that Americans love even more than Joel Osteen, Internet porn and salty snacks, it’s watching old people dance like teenagers. And with the first of the nation’s Baby Boomers now eligible to draw Social Security, Last Dance is demographically right on time.

You can tell that Last Dance is something different from the opening credits, when a phalanx of Harley-riding geezers comes roaring out of the darkness, into the sunshine and toward the camera, their turkey wattles flappin’ in the breeze while Psychotic Reaction rises on the soundtrack (not the Count Five original, either---the Brenton Wood cover, which as scholars long ago confirmed is simply the backing track of the Count Five version with the Oogum Boogum Man’s vocal dubbed on top; Last Dance is too hip for the room---any room!). We can’t get enough of the dance routines, especially the weekly show-closing to Super Freak, but it’s the finely drawn characters and their stories that have kept us coming back week after week. The conceit, of course, is that all the dancers are over 70 and thus when off-stage susceptible to the insults of old age---tight bowels, loose dentures, dowager’s hump, debilitating arthritis, permanent erectile dysfunction, unexplained grumpiness, etc. When the lights go up they come alive as “one organism,” as the troupe’s director, a finicky 73-year-old gay man with a heart of gold, always says, but during their off-hours the characters fuss and fight, pair up for furtive sex (this is cable, so if you’d be offended by the sight of two fully unclothed 80 year olds going wham-jam on the queen-size of $79-a-night hotel room you’d best steer clear of Last Dance), commit gross infidelities, become addicted to gambling (slots, mostly) and various drugs (prescription and non-prescription), and are occasionally stalked by homicidal maniacs. It’s just like ER or Grey’s Anatomy (neither of which we’ve ever watched, so we’re just guessing here), except with an older cast and a grouchy female lead whose signature expression is “Suck my c—k, c---sucker.” (Again, the subtle hand of Milch?)

In an early episode that has “Emmy” written all over it, one of the troupe’s two black males decides he’s gay and “comes out” at age 83. His fellow dancers are accepting, except for one---the remaining straight black male of the troupe, who derides his former friend as a “butt-wheedlin’ sissy” (again, it’s cable). Of course, the bigot sees the error of his way after the newly gay character rescues him while the troupe is out ice fishing between Wisconsin engagements. The episode ended with a massive group hug, and if it doesn’t bring tears to your tired eyes have someone call the coroner, ’cause you ain’t got a pulse, Chester.

There’s a little somebody for everybody on Last Dance---a WASPy incontinent former corporate lawyer whose last divorce, from a 17-year-old Guatemalan mail-order bride, left him bankrupt and in need of work (“All my life, I’ve wanted to dance---to just get down,” he confides to another character). There’s a remarkably well-preserved Indo-American female named “Shiva,” as well as real-live American Indian (played by a real-live Indian) who often sits out the dance routines because they “shame” his ancestors. Our favorite, though, is the crotchety old Jewish guy, who is casually revealed in an early episode to be Israeli, which explains why he’s rude to everyone, including his 101-year-old mother, who travels with the troupe doing their laundry and whose frequent lapses into “dementia” provide some of the series’ more poignant plot twists. There’s even an elderly Italian-American, an ex-Mafioso with no 401(k) who looks suspiciously like the guy who played “Paulie Walnuts” on The Sopranos (it couldn’t be him, could it?).

Well, anyway, check it out: Last Dance is much, much better than John from Cincinnati.

Wait, scratch this posting: We just saw Drinking with the Stars.

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