2012 TV at the Half

Wow! Where 2011’s “TV at the Half” seemed like an embarrassment of riches, 2012 seems awfully thin. I actually had to put a lot of thought into last year’s list, in order to whittle it down to an appropriate number of “Good” shows. This year I struggled to come up with a measly six “Good” shows. So 2012 hasn’t been a very good year for TV so far. And so… the list, keeping in mind that this is all about new shows, not returning ones:

THE GOOD

Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – There aren’t a lot of major network sitcoms that make me laugh out loud. The Office and 30 Rock seem to be on their last legs. Modern Family is good, but always seems to end on a heartfelt note or “message”. Parks and Rec seems to be in a slump. Community is funny, but tries way too hard to be clever. So this season’s Don’t Trust the B came as a surprise. The premise is simple: June, a naive and trusting Indianan, moves to New York City after graduating college to pursue her dream career at a mortgage company. But on her first day of work the CEO is arrested for using the company as a giant Ponzi scheme. The company is shut down by the feds, who also seize the company apartment June was going to live in. Desperate, she becomes the roommate of Chloe McGruff (the lovely and funny Krysten Ritter), who is an amoral scam artist, a swindler and total party girl. Imagine Paris Hilton if Paris Hilton ran check forgery and identity theft scams on the side. Chloe is the worst person ever, and seems to only be genuinely nice to her best friend, former Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek. The first couple of episodes spend a bit too much time showing June falling for Chloe’s evil tricks and scams, and the preachy June tries to make the amoral Chloe think about her actions. But after that, the show gets it in gear. While June is still “the good one”, her desperate financial situation causes her to look at Chloe in a different light. My favorite part of the show, however, is James Van Der Beek. He plays a fictionalized version of himself who hates any mention of Dawson’s Creek… unless it can get him something free or get a woman in bed. Who knew Van Der Beek had such a sense of humor? There’s a great scene where he talks about his starring role in a Guy Ritchie film… and it’s hilarious!

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Line of Duty (BBC) – It seems like every year the BBC has to put out a really dark police drama, in which the police aren’t necessarily any better than the people they’re chasing. Be it my personal fave Luther or last year’s favorite The Shadow Line, there’s always some show about the dark side of police work. This year’s entry is Line of Duty, in which the young, idealistic Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) accidentally causes the death of an innocent man during an anti-terrorist raid. Arnott refuses to participate in a later cover-up of the incident. He’s ruthlessly ostracized by his colleagues for this, and to get away from them joins an anti-corruption division led by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Hastings’ main target is Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (the great Lennie James). Gates’ unit consistently has huge arrest numbers, and Hastings knows that this is partly because Gates only takes on cases he knows he can solve, then piles tons of charges on criminals once caught. But Hastings suspects the corruption is far worse then mere padding. Although family man Gates might not want to admit it, he has a mistress, and she just might get him in a world of trouble.

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Veep (HBO) – Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Vice President Selina Meyer in this comedy created by English comedian Armando Iannucci, which was heavily inspired by Iannucci’s earlier (and similar) British series, The Thick of It. In fact, the show started as an American remake of The Thick of It; when ABC passed on the pilot, HBO overhauled it into the show you see today. At first I was really worried that Meyer would be a cheap Sarah Palin knock-off (which would not only be lazy writing, it would quickly date the show, too). But Dreyfus plays her as middle of the road (in fact, the show has never, nor will it probably ever, discuss political parties). It’s not a “laugh out loud” show so much as it is a highly entertaining look behind the scenes at a barely competent vice-presidential administration. Dreyfus is much more like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld than Sarah Palin, and there are some laugh out loud moments, such as when Meyer (who knows nothing about baseball) is introduced to several (real-life) Baltimore Orioles pitchers. It’s all for an “Eat Healthy” event (sound familiar?) at Camden Yards. The only problem is that no one – not even Meyer – wants to eat the “cucumber nachos” or “tofu wings”. To get her away from the awful food, staffers take her to meet some Orioles players (Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer). When Meyer discreetly asks staffers what the players do, she is told that they’re pitchers… only Meyer doesn’t believe that a baseball team can have more than one pitcher because “there’s only one pitcher’s mound”. It sounds silly, and it is. And it’s worth a view!

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Gordon Behind Bars (Channel 4) – A new Gordon Ramsey show, in this case one in which he goes to HM Prison Brixton and tries to teach inmates how to cook (an idea, by the way, which fictional TV personality Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) came up with as a joke back in 1997; watch this). So far, the show’s been a tad repetitive: the first 5 minutes of the second episode explained the premise all over again, in case you missed the first episode, and prisoner’s stories tend to get repeated so you won’t forget what they’re doing time for. But, compared to Ramsey’s American offerings, this show is actually pretty interesting. Ramsey only spends half his time arguing with prisoners; in what appears to be a surprise to Ramsey, he has to spend the rest of the time arguing with prison officials, who frequently shoot down Ramsey’s proposals or put a lot of roadblocks in his way. And we not only get comments from Ramsey and the prisoners, we hear from jaded prison staff who give a hundred reasons why Ramsey is wasting his time. The big downside to the show, outside of its repetitive nature, is the thick accents of the prisoners. Black prisoners seem to have especially thick West Indian\English accents that are quite hard to understand. The show isn’t a “must see”, but it’s intriguing nevertheless.

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The Newsroom (HBO) – Where do I start with Aaron Sorkin’s new show? It’s jam-packed with all the cliches you expect from Sorkin by now: the “walk and talk”, the circular camera pans, the “OhMyGodWe’reTalkingAHundredMilesAnHour” dialog, the always snappy comebacks to insults (seriously… has Sorkin never heard of L’esprit de l’escalier?), the “silly woman can’t understand something until a wise man explains it to her” tripe, and all the misplaced speeches that none of the other characters asked for. Yep, it’s all there, folks, in all of Sorkin’s smug, self-righteous glory. And, in a way, it’s even worse because many plot lines in The Newsroom are based on real-life events, so Sorkin’s bleeding heart characters can use hindsight to make them look even smarter than they actually are. For example, in the pilot episode two staffers figure out every major problem with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in mere minutes when, as best I recall, the true scope of the disaster wasn’t known for days. I could grant some leeway here… I mean it’s a TV show and all, and I don’t really want to watch staffers spending days on the phone with drilling and environmental experts. But to figure out what exactly happened, the consequences of it, and the nature of the buck passing (between BP, Halliburton, etc.) all within 5 minutes beggars belief. People as smart as this shouldn’t be working in news rooms, they should be on Wall Street, where they could make millions in minutes. And while I’m a huge fan of cute as a button Emily Mortimer, “the Internet” seems to find her character quite annoying, especially how a Brit would run patriotic circles around the rest of the staff. So… in the end, it’s Aaron Sorkin. Love or hate the guy (I’m much closer to the latter), this is still a pretty well put together show… even if it is a liberal lovefest.

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Continuum (Showcase) – This sci-fi series on Canada’s Showcase is pretty interesting. It’s initially set in 2077, where the governments of the United States and Canada have been dissolved and the continent ruled by an Evil Corporation™. The corporation catches a group of terrorists and sentences them to death. Just as they’re led into the execution chamber, one of them sets off a “time machine grenade”, which sends them back to 2012. Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is a police office who helped catch the terrorists and is there to witness their execution. She sees what’s going on, and rushes towards them to stop their escape. So she inadvertently gets sent back to 2012, too. Kiera wears a high-tech bioelectronic suit; the suit can communicate wirelessly, and her transmissions are picked up by a loner computer genius named Alec Sadler. In the original timeline, Sadler invents the wireless protocol the suit uses, and he’s able to help Kiera from afar, like Logan Cale in Dark Angel. Using Sadler’s hacking skills, Keira is able to convince the Vancouver PD that she is a secret agent, so she and VPD team up to go after the terrorists, who have gone back in time to prevent the Evil Corporate Takeover. It’s interesting to me that the show’s protagonist, Kiera, is actually on the wrong side of history. We’re supposed to cheer for her, yet she fully supports the same kind of government Orwell warned us about in 1984. And most of us would consider the “terrorists” to be freedom fighters. So there’s that. And then there’s the paradox of Sadler: does he create the time travel technology to send them back in time (meaning that there’s no way the future can be changed), or is he secretly horrified at what he’s done in 2077 and sends the terrorists\freedom fighters back in time to stop it? And when the group, known as Liber8, come to 2012, a member named Matthew Kellog is almost immediately kicked out. Liber8 conduct themselves as a paramilitary outfit, but Kellog wants to “work smarter” by investing huge amounts of money in the stock market, as he already knows which stocks will rise and which will fall. Other Liber8 members disagree, so he is shown the door. But after he gives Keira information, it becomes unclear as to who’s side he’s on. And when Liber8’s leader, Edouard Kagame, shows up, all bets are off. It’s not a great show, but its pretty entertaining, especially in the desert that is sci-fi these days.

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SO FAR SO GOOD

Blackout (BBC) – This three part series tells the story of a corrupt council official, Daniel Demoys (Daniel Craig lookalike Christopher Eccleston). Demoys is a pathetic drunk; throughout the first episode, he’s frequently seen chugging a pint of vodka in his car or at his desk. He was once young and idealistic, but now is caught in a web of illegal payoffs, illicit affairs, a collapsing marriage and family and lots of vodka. Lots of vodka. He drinks so much one night that he completely blacks out, waking up the next morning with a severely injured right hand. He finds out later that morning that a corrupt property developer he was in bed with (figuratively) has been assaulted and is near death. Could he be responsible for the beating? In an odd moment of clarity, Demoys sees a man with a gun, who wants to kill a witness in a drug trial. Demoys steps in front of the witness and takes a bullet for him, making him a hero in Manchester. The public love him… but is he worthy of their admiration? The first episode of this series was really good – the rainy and stylized Manchester looked really cool, and the bags under Eccleston’s eyes really made him look like a weary drunk. It’s possible that the two remaining episodes of this series could suck – after all, the Beeb has let me down before. But if it’s good, it would certainly be worth tracking down.

SWING AND A MISS…

Alcatraz (Fox) – On March 21, 1963, the prison on Alcatraz Island was supposedly closed. However, almost 50 years later prisoners slowly start returning to the area, having apparently not aged a day since, yet not unaware of the technology around them. A shadowy FBI agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) approaches SFPD homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (the insanely hot Sarah Jones) about one of the cases, and Madsen, along with Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia from Lost) assist Hauser in tracking down the former convicts. But the great question is… why are they coming back? And how? I guess we’ll never know now. This wasn’t a bad series by any means, but it just never caught on with the public. And yes, there was the occasional plot hole you could drive a truck through… but it was still fun.

Awake (NBC) – The short version: LAPD detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) gets in to a car wreck which appears to kill both his wife and son. However, after waking up in the hospital after the accident he finds that he lives in two worlds: in one, his wife survived that crash, but not his son; in the other, his son survived the crash but not his wife. He moves between the worlds in his sleep, spending one day in one world, then going to sleep and waking up in the other. He can’t tell which of the two worlds (if any) is the “real” world, despite seeing therapists in both worlds. He then starts to notice clues from one world crossing over into crimes in the other world. Names, places and dates in one world become relevant to a case in the other. We at least got some closure in this series, and it was perhaps the most critically-acclaimed bomb this season. But it was nice while it lasted.

Bent (NBC) – OK, so the only reason I watched this show is because I have a thing for Amanda Peet. But not even her hotness could save this paint-by-numbers series about an uptight attorney Alex (Peet), who hires a laid back contractor to renovate her kitchen. And guess what? The two fall in love… or at least start to fall in love. The show wasn’t around long enough to find out. And good riddance, really. Jeffrey Tambor (as the contractor’s actor father) and Margo Harshman (as Alex’s flitatious sister “Screwsie”) couldn’t save this show.

Eternal Law (ITV) – Hopes were high for this show, created by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. In the series, “Mr Mountjoy” (God) sends two angels – the 14 billion year-old Zak Gist and the newbie Tom Greening – to act as lawyers in York with one big rule: they can comfort humans and aid them in obtaining grace, but they cannot interfere with free will. They are assisted by Mrs Sherringham, a former angel who gave up her wings to marry a human and is now widowed. They are opposed by fallen angel Richard Pembroke, who frequently acts as prosecutor against the humans in court. This was actually a pretty good show, and I was tempted to actually put it on the “good” list. But it didn’t click with English audiences, and was canceled after one season. It’s good for its six episodes, but there won’t be any more.

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GCB (ABC) – ABC needed a new show to cover the departure of Desperate Housewives, and it really hoped this show would fill the void. Leslie Bibb starred as Amanda Vaughn, a recently widowed mother. She is forced to return to her native Dallas after her Ponzi scheming husband dies while receiving “road head” from his mistress and the feds seize all his assets. She’s greeted by her overbearing mother, Elizabeth “Gigi” Stopper (Annie Potts), who re-introduces her to all the people Amanda purposely (or inadvertently) stepped on during high school. The first couple of episodes were fun, but the cast was so large and the schemes and shenanigans so quick to appear that it became hard to keep up. It was like Housewives, only with a much larger cast and all the “crazy plots” that slowly appeared during the series starting from day 1.

Girls (HBO) – I guess I’m the only person who doesn’t like this show. I gave it a try, and decided that my Sunday nights were just too busy for one more show, especially one that I had to really, really try to like.

House of Lies (Showtime) – OK, this sounds cool: a TV series loosely based on real life management consultants. Ever wonder how a group of independent contractors could just waltz into a company and fire half the staff or get rid of half their product lines? Well keep wondering, because this show ain’t gonna tell you. It started off pretty well, but it soon devolved into showing how much main character Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) can get away with. So there’s much more emphasis on Kaan sleeping with client’s wives in restaurant bathrooms during business dinners and figuring out how to charge the client for cocaine than there is actual consultant content. As much as I love Kristen Bell, who plays Kaan’s underling Jeannie van der Hooven, there’s no way I’m sticking around for season 2 of this.

Longmire (A&E) – Boring.

True Love (BBC) – Well, it was worth a try. David Tennant’s mostly improvised drama about love – in which each 30 minute episode tells a love story from five tangentially related people in a small English coastal town – just fell a bit flat. You could certainly do worse than this series (and really, watching the entire series only wastes 2.5 hours of your life), but it just seems like so many talented people should have been able to do better.

White Heat (BBC) – This series, about a group of seven students who become roommates in the early 1960s, was dreadfully stale and boring. Like a low-rent Aaron Sorkin series, the show tried to beat its “importance” over your head, when in reality it had that same snobbish “oh wasn’t the 1960s so grand” mentality to I just… can’t… stand. It’s one thing to be pompous. It’s one thing to be dull. But to be pompous and dull is just death.

STRRRRRIIIKKKKEE THREE!

Are You There, Chelsea? (NBC) – Networks wonder why no one watches sitcoms these days, yet they keep churning out show after show of dreck like this.  I don’t care if Chelsea Handler personally wrote every episode of this show (and I’ve heard about half of the audiobook it’s based on). But this show was just awful. Good riddance!

Luck (HBO) – I don’t know a thing about horse racing, and never for one minute cared for it. So for a show like this you need characters that people care about. Sadly, it wasn’t to be with this show. I tried watching the pilot five times, and barely managed to get through it on the last try. Several horses died whilst making this series, so HBO shut it down. Bad for the horses, but good for us. You’d think a show starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte would be good. Boy, would you be wrong!

Napoleon Dynamite (Fox) – Who decided to greenlight this 8 years after the original movie came out? Hey Fox, you do know that all the 14 year-olds who loved the movie then are almost out college, right?

MINISERIES

Hit & Miss (Sky Atlantic) – Sky Atlantic is a new channel in Britain that only runs “quality” shows. They have access to almost all of HBO’s back catalog (except Eastbound & Down and True Blood, which are licensed to other networks), as well as all future HBO series, in addition to critically-acclaimed shows like ER, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Awake, House, Inside the Actor’s Studio, Mad Men, Seinfeld, The Borgias and more. Hit & Miss is their first original series, and it stars Chloë Sevigny as Mia, a transsexual hit man hit woman contract killer who finds out that an ex-girlfriend, Wendy, has died of cancer, and that s\he fathered a son, Ryan, with her. Mia is named his guardian, so she travels to the small farmhouse Ryan shares with his half siblings Leonie, Levi, and Riley. She wants to become a parental figure for the children, and quickly wins over Ryan, but the others actively resist her authority. Meanwhile, Mia continues her contract work for Eddie, a lifelong criminal who also has a grandfatherly streak. Early in the series she runs in to John, the man who owns Wendy’s farmhouse, and the two do not get along. At all. I won’t reveal more, just say that the series has a lot of “oddball charm” to it. No, it won’t rewrite your opinion about British TV or transgender people. But it’s a lot of… well, “fun” isn’t the right word, but it’s worth a watch. And oh yeah, this series will remind you that Chloë Sevigny, unlike many actresses these days, can actually act.

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The Syndicate (BBC) – Five employees of a grocery store form a “syndicate” to buy lottery tickets every week. Sadly, they find out that their store is closing and that they’ll all be laid off. But then, a couple of days later, they win an £18m ($28m) lottery. And they all live happily ever after, right? Well no. After he finds out about the layoffs, but before they win the lottery, syndicate member Jamie, who owes a lot of money to the Wrong People, convinces his brother and fellow syndicate member Stuart to stage a robbery of the store. Stuart is a nice guy who wouldn’t normally do something like that, but he’s being hounded by his pushy, materialistic (and pregnant) fiancee Amy (my current TV crush Amy Beth Hayes) to move them out of his mother’s house. The night they win the lottery (but before they find out they’ve won) they stage the “robbery”. Unfortunately, their beloved boss and fellow syndicate member Bob (the great Timothy Spall) leaves his cell phone at work, and when he comes back for it he interrupts the “robbery”. Jamie knocks Bob in the head with a liquor bottle, causing him great harm. But it just gets worse for poor Bob: he’s given a CAT scan at the emergency room, and he finds out that the reason he’s been so forgetful lately is because he has an inoperable brain tumor. And the other members of the syndicate have their own problems, too. Will everything work out for everyone in the end? Will money change everything? Technically this is no longer a “miniseries”, as the BBC has ordered a second season of the show, which will be a similar story of a completely different syndicate. But I’ll leave it here anyway.

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SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH!

The Killing (AMC) – This year we said goodbye to AMC’s The Killing, one of the most overly-criticized shows in recent history. No, it wasn’t a great show, especially compared to the Danish original. Yes, the writers seemed to enjoy repeatedly throwing out red herrings just to taunt the viewers. But there was a lot to love about the show, especially the partnership of Linden and Holder. I won’t be sad to see this show go, but I think it got a really bad rap for no good reason (seriously, this show was pilloried on TV message boards, and I could never figure out quite why).

MOST IMPROVED SHOW AWARD

The Borgias (Showtime) – You may recall that I called this show “The Bore-gias” in last year’s recap. But my how things have changed! It seems as if they spent almost all of the first season introducing characters and setting up relationships, hence, my “boring” crack. But this season they really got it in gear. Almost every episode had me on the edge of my seat, and (aside from Mad Men), this has really been the only “appointment show” of the season for me. Yes, it plays fast and loose with history… but it’s a far sight better than The Tudors, and this season seemed to move at a much faster pace than even that series. Good job at improving the series, Showtime!

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LEAST IMPROVED SHOW AWARD

As much as it pains me to say it, I’m going to have to go with season 5 of Mad Men. Part of the reason isn’t really anyone’s fault: the show had been off the air for 18 months, and few shows (if any) would be able to overcome the mountain of hype surrounding the season 5 premiere. And then there are the cost-cutting measures AMC insisted. Did they affect some of the story decisions? Did we see so little of Betty because Matthew Weiner wanted it that way, or because he couldn’t afford to pay January Jones for the full season? Did we see less of the main characters like Peggy and Betty and more of the minor ones like Stan and Ginz because they’re cheaper? Is Peggy gone for real?

But wait, there’s more. Don Draper is aging, and thanks to the corner Matthew Weiner has written him into he can no longer really be the “star” of the show. Look back at season 1: Don Draper was, by far, the hippest guy in the room, no matter what room he was in. Now he’s starting to look like the old fuddy duddy, only slightly less out of touch than Roger. There’s still a lot to love about the show, especially the beautiful camera work, Pete’s transition into “Don Lite” and Sally’s transformation into “Mini Betty” (I’m no fan of child actors, but it’s no joke: Kiernan Shipka can act; it’s amazing at how well she mimics January Jones). Still this season had a lot of gimmicks – Lane’s suicide and the eye-rolling LSD episode. It’s still the best show on TV… just not by a mile any more.

WORST TV MOMENT (SO FAR)

30 Rock’s “Queen of Jordan 2: Mystery of the Phantom Pooper” episode. I love me some Tina Fey, and I’ve been an apologist for 30 Rock even though the show has obviously slipped in quality (a lot) in the past couple of years. But this episode was just… awful. In fact, I think it might be the worst episode of a TV show (I actually like) that I’ve seen in a long, long time. The “Queen of Jordan” reality show conceit was amusing once, but digging it up again was just unthinkable. If season 7 is going to be more like this, then I’m glad it’ll be the show’s last.

BEST TV MOMENT (SO FAR)

This entire video – highlights from “Harlan Roulette” episode from season 3 of Justified – is worth a watch. But if you can only spare a couple of minutes, skip ahead to the 5:55 mark:

Raylan Givens punches Duffy twice. Duffy falls to the floor, and Raylan puts his boot on Duffy’s neck. Duffy squirms in obvious pain.

“Remember that conversation we weren’t gonna have? This is it. Your pawnshop owner’s dead, along with his flunkie. I found another one in a shallow resting spot. I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a shit ‘cos I know it was you that called the shot on me, Duffy. I know… I know, just like I know it’s no accident that Emmitt Arnett and his assistant are missing. Look a here… [ejects a round from his gun and drops it on Duffy's chest] Next one’s coming faster.”