Saturday January 12, 2013

Friends, I have been gone too long. Two bouts of family flu, one gastrointestinal and one respiratory, knocked us all from our creative endeavors: I didn’t write; my husband could barely rouse himself to root for the Patriots; and the 1-year-old’s strewing of loose objects across the house with the furious whimsy of a hurricane really took a holiday dive.

Also, television just wasn’t good enough to bother. Do you disagree? Have you loved the many British imports on Hulu, mostly featuring craven youth or the embodiment of death? Or did you fall in love with a reality show singing competition? (As in, Carly Rose or Tate?) Or are you possessed of greater cultural resources than a remote control and a fiber optic cable?

I took in a concert in December, but otherwise MAD magazine and Weekend Edition were the sole betterments for my mind. On the rare nights I had the energy and solitude to fold the laundry (sick 1-year-olds, I discovered, ooze mommy glue), I plugged my ears up with headphones, plugged the headphones into a kid-spittled smartphone and watched the best of the Hulu imports, a comedy called "Spy."

My husband discovered the series sometime last year. His recommendations usually involve aliens or apocalypse, so I prepared both of us for constant lowerings of the volume during explosions, decapitations, sword fights and staredowns between grizzled buff men.

"Spy" surprised us. The lead character, Tim Elliott, is a tall blonde doofus. He works in an electronics store alongside a sarcastic, floppy-haired misanthrope (is there any other kind?) named Chris, and at night he plows through books of Sudoku puzzles.


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His 10 1/2- year-old son, Marcus, is an acerbic prodigy, versed in violin concertos and the proper way to braise fennel. He loathes Tim, who is ineptly battling his ex-wife, Judith, entirely humorless, for custody of Marcus. Judith has a new man, the fawning, sexually ambiguous Philip, headmaster of Marcus’ elite school, where the kids behave more like adults than the adults, all decorum and power plays.

Tim wants his son to respect him, or despise him fractionally less, so he applies for a job with the Civil Service. He’s late to the examination, naturally, and enters the wrong room in the warren of identically wood-paneled offices. Set, game, match: Tim becomes a spy in the English intelligence agency MI5.

There is not a shred of reality in this show, but the ridiculousness is so entirely maintained and so drolly unremarked upon that it becomes delicious. Tim must keep his identity secret, and so his new coolness is undermined at every turn. Yet he soldiers on, perfecting the essentially British talent for put-upon fortitude.

What saves the silliness is the earnest heart between the characters. Tim really cares for Marcus. He really cares for his new spy colleague, Caitlin of the crooked smile. Selfish, anarchic Chris really is Tim’s best friend. And nobody is trying too hard to be wacky; they take the tomfoolery lightly.

As an extra treat, a racy, renegade Robert Lindsay plays Tim’s boss, The Examiner. Let his penchant for throwing ninja stars at his subordinates be his character note.

During the week of Christmas I watched 10 half-hour episodes while the little one slept the sleep of the acetaminophen’d and my husband coughed himself up and down the cellar stairs with loads of clean laundry from our faithful dryer. The show made me laugh, even if the second season doesn’t have the hangdog appeal of the first. I only wish that TV were truly restorative, not merely distracting; it’s rest and water and tender care that help us, not clever sitcoms.

Too bad, right? Although, if TV were a real balm, as we felt better we wouldn’t watch as much, so happy to be healthy we’d slap on cross-country skis and tool around the neighborhood yodeling like cats. My neighbors don’t appreciate ebullience in any form but fireworks, so even though I’m flu-free, I’ll be quietly watching "I Love Lucy" reruns tonight.