2013 has been an interesting year in TV so far. American network TV has been a huge disappointment… but there’s plenty of great stuff out there if you know where to look. And this year’s “best of” list contains a few surprises: two shows from New Zealand, and the first ever non-English language show!
So… let’s get it on! As always, you’ll find the list of my favorite new shows, in rough ascending order of preference (keep in mind that the list is only for new shows, so Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t on the list). Then there’s a list of shows that tried but failed, a section about miniseries, a tribute to shows that have left the air, and various odds and ends.
THE BEST NEW SHOWS ON TV
The Americans (FX) – This show has the potential to be great: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an all-American couple raising two kids in northern Virginia. However, their real names are Mischa and Nadezhda, and they’re a pair of KGB spies trained to pass as Americans. The “spy stuff” on the show is great, although it doesn’t hold up to close examination: you’ll find yourself asking “Why would they… ” or “How come they don’t…” early and often. In spite of that, it really does keep you on the edge of your seat. But where the show fails is “any time they aren’t doing spy stuff”. Philip and Elizabeth have domestic troubles like any other couple: intimacy and trust issues, trouble with the kids, etc. Others, such as neighbor (and FBI spy hunter) Stan Beeman have similar (boring) problems, too, and it drags the whole show down. Still, the supporting cast is great: Margo Martindale plays “Claudia”, Phil and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, and Richard “John Boy” Thomas plays Stan’s boss at the FBI. One odd thing about the show is the lack of historical detail. The sets and costumes look more like “generic Americana” than the early 1980s specifically. And sometimes the camera seems to focus on one particular object – like an old rotary phone – as if to make up for the lack of a time-specific feel. It’s like the show doesn’t have the budget to do the nice touches Mad Men is known for, and to make up for it they have the camera linger on a Space Invaders arcade game or Kim Carnes cassette as if to scream “SEE! IT REALLY IS 1981!!!”. Most of the suits the FBI agents wear would be perfectly acceptable in 2013 corporate America: not a single polyester jacket, wide lapel or obnoxious tie is seen. In early episodes, rotary pay phones and old cars are really the only hints that it’s 1981 and not 2013. Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, but Mad Men has really raised the bar for details like this.
Way to Go (BBC Three) – For years I’ve believed in something I call the “French Film Fallacy”: a certain type of film buff will only watch French films because they’re “so much better than American films”. Of course, in a good year only the six best French films make it to the US, so the pretentious hipster never sees the 200 crappy French films made that year. The point is, I don’t know if I’m losing my taste for British comedy, or if the easy downloadability of TV shows has “diluted the talent pool” such that I’m seeing a lot more crap comedies these days. This makes Way to Go especially interesting. Although made in the UK with British actors, it’s written by Bob Kushell, an American who has written for The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun, among others. Blake Harrison stars as Scott, a nice guy who has taken a dead-end job as a receptionist at a veterinarian’s office because he can no longer afford medical school. When his gambling addicted half-brother Joey (Ben Heathcote) gets in trouble with the Wrong People, Scott reluctantly agrees to help pay back the bookies by assisting a terminally-ill neighbor’s suicide. Scott steals euthanasia drugs from his vet’s office and asks his friend, Cozzo, who repairs machines at fast food restaurants, to build him a “suicide machine”. When the suicide is successful, Scott, Joey and Cozzo decide to go in to the assisted suicide business… and people are just dying to become customers! (Sorry, that was truly terrible). Although morbid (and more than a little controversial), the show was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on UK TV in a long time. The characters remind me a bit of a more daring Reaper. Blake Harrison (Scott) plays a similar “nice guy” character to Bret Harrison’s Reaper character (they have the same last name, too!), and Marc Wootton (Cozzo) is not only a dead ringer for Tyler Labine, he plays a similar “good friend who is a slacker, and constantly screws up” just as Lebine did in Reaper.
Hannibal (NBC) – I put Hannibal on the list because it’s one of the most interesting shows on US network TV these days. But it also made the list to show the hypocrisy of the FCC. As we all know, most of the “harder” swear words are strictly forbidden by the FCC, as is casual nudity. But Hannibal proves that while you can’t show boobies on network TV, you can certainly show boobies being chopped in to pieces, and maybe even cooked and eaten, too. That aside, the show’s not half bad. I’m a big fan of Bryan Fuller (creator of Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies). And while Hugh Dancy is officially the “star” of the show (as Special Agent Will Graham, an FBI academy lecturer and expert on serial killers who can re-create crime scenes in his mind), we all know that Mads Mikkelsen is really the star as Hannibal Lecter. Mads underplays Lecter; at least compared to Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top cartoon. In fact, if all we knew of Lector was Mad’s performance, we’d be in for a bit of a shock later on. But while the writing is pretty good (especially for a show on US network TV), it really is surprisingly graphic. I mean, I’m hardly a “prude” and have seen my share of horror films over the years.. but this show even shocked me!
The Blue Rose (TV3 New Zealand) – When a temp worker named Jane (Antonia Prebble) gets a job as a secretary at Mosely & Loveridge, a prestigious law firm in Auckland, she finds out that her predecessor, Rose, isn’t away on vacation or on sick leave… she’s dead. Jane is approached by Rose’s best friend, Linda (Siobhan Marshall), who is convinced that Rose was murdered. When Linda asks Jane for her help in finding the truth, Jane reveals that she also has an ulterior motive: one of the firm’s highest-profile clients, businessman Derek Peterson, has had some sort of Ponzi scheme go bust, and thousands of people – including Jane’s parents – have lost their life savings. So Linda and Jane team up with the firm’s IT manager Ganesh and former firm accountant Sonya to form “The Blue Rose Society”. Their goal is not only to help Jane get her parent’s money back and find out how Rose died, but to help others as well, But things don’t always go the way they want. People get caught snooping. Co-workers are suspicious of their lies. And one of Sonya’s “side jobs” – to help a woman who’d been sexually harassed by her church-going boss – very nearly backfires on the group when, at the last minute, the woman is found to be a pathological liar. It’s a well-made show, but not the greatest series ever. Still, being from New Zealand it’s fun and fresh and new to my eyes. And I liked it. The “whodunnit?” bits will keep you guessing until the end.
Ripper Street (BBC One) – The great Matthew Macfadyen stars in this series as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, who has been put in charge of London’s Whitechapel district six months after the last Ripper killing. Reid’s assisted by Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) and the mysterious former US Army doctor Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). And when women start showing up dead the obvious question is: is the Ripper back? Or is this some new, unrelated crime? This show was really good, but it wasn’t without flaws. Like the “Dr Freeman” character on BBC America’s Copper, Dr Jackson seems way too advanced in his forensics knowledge for 1889. I get that forensics has become the “magic computer” storytelling shortcut of 2000s TV, but some of the stuff Jackson is able to find out pushes the limits of believability. And while the fate of Reid’s young daughter plays a pivotal role in the show, I could honestly do without any scene involving Reid’s social crusader wife. While complaints about the show take up most of this post, be assured that the show is highly entertaining and certainly worth a watch. It is everything the slightly similar Copper isn’t, and that’s a good thing! I can’t wait for season 2 to start next year!
Broadchurch (ITV) – British networks make several police dramas every year. And some of them are great. If you’ve read my past “Best of TV” lists you know that there are always one or two British police dramas on them. But most of these shows are like a good meal at Applebee’s: enjoyable, but nothing you’ll remember a year later. Broadchurch was different.This show got MASSIVE ratings, and from what I can tell the show got the whole UK talking, like a lesser “Who shot J.R.?” or “Who killed Laura Palmer?”. The show is about a small coastal town in which a young boy ends up dead. At first, it looks like an accident, but it quickly becomes clear he was murdered. But who would want to kill an 11 year-old boy? Former Doctor Who David Tennant plays the talented, aloof Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, who has only just moved to Broadchurch to get away from the Big City… and a murder trial in which the killer was set free because evidence was tampered with. The awesome Olivia Colman plays Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, a longtime Broadchurch resident and friend of the family whose son died. But who killed Danny? The list of suspects is long, and their possible motives vary. It was this that made all of Britain talk, but there’s more to the show than just the murder. Hottie Vicky McClure plays big-time London reporter Karen White. She covered Hardy’s botched murder trial, and she’s determined to not let another killer walk free due to his bungling. But her reporting on the Broadchurch murder brings a media circus to town, with dire consequences. But even without the media, the murder rips the lid off a bunch of small town secrets that were better left buried. Will the Latimer family ever be able to put their lives back together after Danny’s death? Will Hardy solve the case or die trying? You’ll just have to watch the show to find out…
Orphan Black (BBC America) – Wow… uhhhh, how to describe this show? Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah Manning, a foster child from Britain who was brought to Canada as a kid. And she’s totally lived up to the “foster child” stereotype by becoming a petty thief. She decides to break from her abusive boyfriend by stealing a kilo of his cocaine, with the intention of selling it and using the proceeds to start a new life with her biological daughter, Kira, and her beloved foster brother, Felix. However, the boyfriend is furious about losing his coke, and he tracks her down. A foot chase ensues and Sarah ends up losing him at a train station. But then the strangest thing happens: a woman who appears to be an exact duplicate of Sarah walks onto the platform, takes off her shoes, takes off her jacket and neatly folds it and places it on top of the shoes… and then commits suicide by calmly walking in front of an arriving train. Sarah steals the woman’s purse in the chaos and finds a $75,000 deposit slip inside. She decides to assume the woman’s identity so she can withdraw the $75,000 and start a new life. But then things get really complicated. Sarah finds that the woman who committed suicide wasn’t some kind of long-lost twin. Sarah has multiple twins: a German woman named Katja Obinger, Canadian soccer mom Alison Hendrix, American biology student Cosima Niehaus and the mysterious corporate executive Rachel Duncan. And there’s evidence of more twins: the French Danielle Fournier, the Italian Aryanna Giordano and the Austrian Janika Zingler. Only they’re not “twins”… they’re clones. And they’re all being assassinated by another clone, a wild-eyed Ukranian religious freak named Helena. So the obvious questions are: who cloned them and why? And how? Why are they being hunted down? And why is everyone so interested in Sarah’s daughter? As far as the story itself goes, Orphan Black is pretty good. But where the show really shines is in Maslany’s acting. She’s playing like… eight or nine roles in the show, and each one is actually unique. Sure, some of that is down to costume and hairstyles, but Maslany actually gives each one a distinct personality. There’s one really amazing scene where Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Allison (who is Canadian) who is pretending to be Sarah (who is English). I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do multiple accents at once – like, trying to sound like an Australian doing a German accent without sounding like a cartoon – but it’s damn hard. Maslany pulls it off – awkwardly on purpose – without a hitch. And I don’t know what kind of technology they use to put multiple Maslanys in a scene at once, but it’s damn convincing! So… in a nutshell: really good story, incredible acting, neat technical stuff. If you like sci-fi like at all you owe it to yourself to check out this show!
Harry (TV3 New Zealand) – Harry Anglesea is a tough Samoan detective who moved to New Zealand years ago. He’s no Sherlock Holmes, but he does seem to understand how criminals think better than his colleagues. He’s tenacious and driven, and now he’s going after a biker gang that’s manufacturing meth in Auckland. But also he’s trying to hold his family together after his wife’s suicide. His teenager daughter, once a perfect child, has started hanging out with the wrong crowd since her mother’s death, and Harry’s personal life is spinning out of control. Will he be able to stop the gang and keep his family together? At times, it seems like he’ll have to choose one or the other. This show, hailed by critics as one of the best to come out of New Zealand in ages, is something of a mix of the “haunted cop” from the BBC’s Luther and the true-crime facade of Underbelly. In fact, Harry is something of an antipodean John Luther, only not quite as… disturbed. The great Sam Neill plays Jim Stockton, Harry’s supervisor and friend, who goes to great lengths to keep Harry out of trouble. Riveting, brutal and beautiful.
House of Cards (Netflix) – I’ll just go ahead and get this out of the way: I don’t like Kevin Spacey. Not because he’s gay, but because he’s “weird gay”, like the creepy guy in the neighborhood that all the boys instinctively stay away from. I’m not saying they guy’s a child molester… I’m just saying there’s this vibe about him that creeps me out. Ladies, ask your husbands about it. So anyway, I avoided this series – despite the raves from critics – until my friend William convinced me to give it a try… and it’s great! Spacey plays Congressman Francis Underwood, the Majority Whip from South Carolina’s 5th district. When the new administration – which Underwood helped elect – snubs him for the Secretary of State job, he plans his revenge. It starts with Underwood leaking info to a young but tough reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Zoe, a beat reporter for The Washington Herald, soon sees her career skyrocket thanks to the insider info Underwood gives her. But Underwood isn’t doing because he’s nice. There’s a plan… there’s always a plan. Underwood will use threats, intimidation, extortion and blackmail to get his revenge… and maybe worse. Although I don’t think the show was as nearly as well-written as the critics seem to think, I was totally sucked in to Underwood’s Machiavellian schemes. And it reminded me of why I don’t like politics any more: it’s a blood sport… and in Underwood’s case, it’s literally a blood sport.
Les Revenants (Canal+ France) – Technically, this one’s cheating, as the series originally aired in France in late 2012. But it’s currently airing on Channel 4 in the UK, so that’s why I’ll put it on the 2013 list. Anyway, this series is about a small town in the French mountains where the dead come back to life. But unlike the terrifying zombies from The Walking Dead, these undead look perfectly normal. If not for the fact that they never sleep and have insatiable appetites, you’d have no idea they were even zombies at all. But why have they arisen from the dead? The zombies themselves don’t know: most remember a few minutes before their death, then a bright light, then they’re back where they were just before they died. The zombies aren’t related… or are as “unrelated” as people in a small town can be. And they’re all different: a teenager who died on a school trip, a man in his early 20s who was about to get married, a little boy, a middle-aged woman who died decades ago… and someone else who’s past is much darker than the others, Various odd things start happening around the town, too. The power seems to go off randomly, and the town’s reservoir starts losing water for no obvious reason. It all seems to be leading to something… but what? I hate to say that this show is “classy, sophisticated and European”, but it really is. It’s supernatural without being unbelievable. It’s got a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe without being excessively “weird”. The cast is large, but not unwieldy and pretty, but not too pretty. The storytelling is tight and easy to keep up with, despite being in a different language. It’s tip-top all around, with only a few minor quibbles in the story. Also, the Scottish band Mogwai does the soundtrack, which is kind of cool. Get over your fear of subtitles and check this show out!
And the best new show of the year is……
Mr Selfridge (ITV) – Hands down the New Show of the Year! Jeremy Piven plays Harry Selfridge, the real-life American retailer who was largely responsible for turning Marshall Field’s from middling Chicago wholesaler into a retail juggernaut. In 1906, Selfridge and his wife went to London on vacation, and he found London’s department stores lacking in almost every way. He opened his own store, Selfridge and Company, in a run-down part of Oxford Street. By doing so, Selfridge changed British retail forever. Instead of having goods locked up in drawers and cabinets, Selfridge put them on display where people could see and touch them. He put the perfume counter by the front door, originally to mask the smell of the street, but also because cosmetics are highly profitable. Where women’s clothing had previously been made to order, he championed prêt-à-porter. Selfridge is alleged to have coined the terms “only x shopping days until Christmas” and “the customer is always right”. Selfridge wanted to make shopping itself fun and exciting, rather than a chore to be endured. And he did it all with flash: where existing department stores had ordinary window displays, Selfridge’s windows always had a theme or playful element to it, such that the windows themselves became an attraction. This was all new and mildly shocking to Brits of the day, which is only fitting, as Selfridge always sought the new and exciting, Shortly after the store opened, Louis Blériot became the first person to cross the English Channel in an airplane. So Selfridge had the plane put on display at the store, drawing huge crowds. Much later, the very first public demonstration of TV anywhere in the world happened at Selfridges on April 1, 1925 .
Selfridge was a maverick, in the same vein as Ted Turner or Steve Jobs. But while his public persona was fascinating, his private life was even more interesting. Although he loved his family, he loved showgirls even more, lavishing them with gifts, apartments and cash. Although some folks called Piven’s role the “Edwardian Ari” (a callback to Piven’s famous role as Ari on Entourage), I think it’s interesting that Piven thinks Selfridge is actually the opposite of Ari: whilst Ari was an abrasive, unlikeable jerk at the office, he truly loved his family deep down. Selfridge, on the other hand, was a very likeable person publicly, but made life for his family incredibly difficult.
And I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the cast yet. Zoe Tapper plays “Ellen Love” the ribald actress Harry falls for. Although not based on an actual person, Love is a composite of the kind of women Selfridge loved. Katherine Kelly plays Lady Mae Loxley, an aristocratic woman who helps Selfridge with getting investors and introducing him to Britain’s high society types… for a price. The strangely attractive Aisling Loftus plays Agnes Towler, who rises from humble beginnings as a clerk to become one of the store’s artistic directors. She falls in love with Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), a long-time friend and employee of Selfridge’s who designs the shop windows people love. Amy Beth Hayes brings comic relief as worldly clerk Kitty Hawkins. And Tom Goodman-Hill plays Roger Grove, Selfridge’s second in command who is carrying on an affair with fellow employee Josie Mardle (Amanda Abbington). If it sounds a bit like “Downton Abbey in a department store”, it kind of is. But don’t worry: it’s all brilliant. It’s everything you could want in a TV show: drama, humor, romance, death… even historical figures! And THAT’S why it’s my favorite new show of the year… so far.
SWING AND A MISS
The Following (Fox) – Why does Fox ruin almost everything it touches? The premise of this show is pretty cool: a serial killer escapes from prison and uses a group of “followers” to exact his revenge on the FBI agent who caught him. But the execution… was so, so bad. It’s almost like Fox took a smart, interesting drama, decided that it was “too complicated” for American viewers, and so ran it through some kind of “TV for Dummies” algorithm that made the show so simple that even University of Georgia graduates could understand it. Or, if you will, it was as if Fox took great scripts and asked Highlights for Children magazine to do re-writes. It didn’t help that the writers were lazy, and that every. single. time. they’d written themselves into a corner they were able suddenly have a member of law enforcement become a member of “The Following”. It was like the writers had an instant reset button they could use whenever they wanted.. and boy did they ever! This show nearly accomplishes the impossible: almost making me feel sorry for Kevin Bacon. Almost.
Bates Motel (A&E) – This show, a prequel to the famous Hitchcock film Psycho, was heavily hyped. And it wasn’t all that bad. But it certainly seems aimed at the 13-21 year-old market. I have no problem with that. I realize that some shows, or MTV in general, just aren’t meant for me. And Bates Motel is one of those shows. I can just picture middle school kids talking all about it at school. And it makes me feel old.
Banshee (Cinemax) – Set in Pennsylvania Amish country, a thief recently released from a 15 year prison stint goes looking for the love of his life… and the millions in diamonds she’s holding for him. He stops at a bar on the way to the small town where she’s now living. And it just so happens that the town’s newly hired sheriff has stopped for a drink, too. A fight breaks out, and the sheriff is accidentally killed. So the convict (as far as I know, we don’t know his real name) takes over Sheriff Lucas Hood’s identity. He tries to keep the peace in the small town while continuing to look for the woman and the diamonds. Look, I get what this show’s trying to do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Much of the show’s basis strains credulity. For example, somehow, no one in the town of Banshee knows what their new sheriff is supposed to look like? In 2013? Oh sure, Hood has an “Asian transvestite hacker” friend (yes, really) who’s able to almost instantly create a fake online persona. Of course, “instant online personas” are old hat in spy and heist TV shows… but no one explains how, exactly, the hacker was able to create a believable online persona for a man who has been in prison for 15 years. If the hacker used a cache of old pictures, why didn’t anyone ask why Hood is much older than any of his online pictures? Or was the hacker somehow able to do a photo session in prison in anticipation of such a scenario? And after Hood becomes sheriff, he has to deal with Brock Lotus, a hard-ass, by-the-books deputy who had hoped to get the sheriff job. Lotus is jealous and resentful of Hood, and really wants the job.. yet he somehow never notices that Hood knows nothing about police procedure? This show has some awesome fight scenes – really, some of the best I’ve ever seen on TV. But that doesn’t make up for how much every time else sucks. And again, I’m no prude, but the sex scenes really seem tacked on, as if the producers filmed an episode, realized that they’re on Cinemax instead of CBS, then shot a sex scene and spliced in it… just because they could.
Rogue (Audience Network) – I like Thandie Newton, but I just couldn’t sit through this show. It’s like they spent so much time and effort in making it look cool that they forgot to write interesting, compelling characters or non-cliched stories. Blech.
Zero Hour (ABC) – This show was pretty much all around awful, but I put it on this list because I think it highlights a problem for American TV networks. First, I think viewers are growing tired of conspiracy theory shows, or at least the current versions of them. Yes, Lost generated a million websites where viewers could argue about the meaning of this or that, but it grows exhausting after a while. More importantly, the show perfectly demonstrates the Catch-22 that networks are in: savvy viewers just aren’t bothering to watching shows that might get cancelled, so those shows get poor ratings and end up getting cancelled. No one wants to invest time and effort to solve a puzzle only to have the puzzle taken away from them before they’re finished. And so the future of shows like this… is murky to say the least.
What a strange year for miniseries! Several of the shows on this year’s “best of” list started off as miniseries, but ended up being renewed… and thus, are no longer a “miniseries”. So Ripper Street, House of Cards, Broadchurch, Les Revenants and Mr Selfridge could have easily ended up here. I’ve heard nothing about renewals of The Blue Rose and Harry, so they might belong here instead of the regular shows list. The funny thing is that the one miniseries on this list was also renewed, so it technically doesn’t belong here, either.
But why is there only one miniseries on the list? Well because, quite frankly, it’s been a bad year for British miniseries. Dancing on the Edge featured lush sets and two of my favorite British hotties – Janet Montgomery and Joanna Vanderham – but just couldn’t hold my attention. Mayday was yet another BBC crime series in which everyone can be a suspect in a murder, even the FedEx driver who drove through town once 10 years ago (hyperbole). And I tried watching Lightfields, sequel to the popular Marchlands, several times but fell asleep during the first episode.
Utopia (Channel 4) – So… in this series there’s a graphic novel – The Utopia Experiments – which has been eerily accurate in predicting natural disasters, especially when it comes to diseases. The novel has a huge following, including many websites which try to figure out what’s coming next. On one such site, a group of fans are chatting when someone logs on claiming to be in possession of the novel’s mythical sequel, a book as legendary and argued over as the Necronomicon. The group agree to meet… and suddenly their lives to go hell. They’re pursued by agents from a group called “The Network”. At first, we don’t know who “The Network” is, but it’s clear that they have a lot of power: they kill without giving it a second thought and set up some of the “chatroom friends” to be accused of heinous crimes. So now not only are they being chased by some shadowy group, police forces from all over the UK are looking for them, too. What’s so special about the sequel that someone would go to all this trouble? You’ll just have to watch and find out. I will say that this show was incredibly well-done. The Evil Plan™ the Bad Guys think up isn’t some cockamamie pie in the sky thing from a James Bond movie… it’s something a sizable number of people might actually agree with. And the cinematography is excellent: unusual camera angles, over-saturated colors, playing with textures… It all looks like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. And the minimalist electronica soundtrack might seem dated in ten years, but it’s really cool for now. Don’t expect to see this in the US any time soon, however. There’s one really brutal scene in particular that will surely scare off American networks (OK, it’s a school shooting). But if you can find this on DVD or Netflix, it really is worth checking out!
POUR SOME OF YOUR 40 ON THE GROUND FOR…
The Office (NBC) – The Office so often made me think of Waldorf and Stadler from The Muppet Show. Those old coots sat in the balcony and constantly complained about how awful the show was… yet they never missed a performance. That’s how I think of The Office. Yes, the show probably should have ended several years ago. Or, at the very least, they should have skipped the post-Carell stuntcasting of Will Farrell and James Spader and gone straight to making Dwight the boss. Seriously: the last episodes with Dwight as the boss and Jim as his #2 were awesome, almost as good as The Office in its prime. Had they not wasted so much time on the “who’s the boss” issue the show might have been great to the end. But, despite all my bitching, I’ll still miss this show greatly. The Office, even the awful episodes, occupies a special place in my comedy heart, and I’m so sad to see it go.
30 Rock (NBC) – On the other hand, I’m not sad to see 30 Rock go. I loved the first few seasons so much I wanted to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant. But the last few seasons were downright painful to watch. It’s as if the writers stopped caring completely, and whatever shit stuck to the whiteboard became that week’s episode. I’ll miss Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, but I won’t miss the show. At all.
Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – I’m going to guess that network meddling killed this show. The first few episodes were hilarious, but it almost seems like ABC executives called the writers and said something like “hey, love your show, but it’s a bit too risque… can you tone it down a bit?” And thus the show went from being a raunchy, edgy series about having the worst roommate in the entire world to a modern day version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: “June’s gonna makkkee it after alllllll!” It didn’t help that ABC totally messed up the episode order. In the show’s universe, June was unemployed, then got a job at a coffee shop, then got an office job. But the way the show aired, she was unemployed, worked at the coffee shop, worked at the office, was unemployed, worked at the office, worked at the coffee shop, was unemployed, etc. Some characters (Robin, one of Chloe’s former roommates) mysteriously disappeared, while others (Peeping Tom neighbor Eli) disappeared then reappeared. The show was fun at first, but turned into a continuity mess.
Vegas (CBS) – Eh, it was just another CBS crime procedural, made more interesting than most by being set in early 60s Vegas. I liked it, but will miss seeing Carrie Anne Moss and Sarah Jones on a weekly basis the most.
Fringe (Fox) – I miss Olivia, Peter, Walter and
Asgard, Asterisk, Astro, Asteroid, Astringent, Aspirin, Astricks, Ashram Astrid already. It’s odd that the show lasted as long as it did (or not: as you may know, Anna Torv’s paternal aunt was married to Rupert Murdoch for 31 years). But I’m glad the show was allowed to end on its own terms. I wasn’t sure about the way the story went there in the last season, but I’d rather live with a bad version of the show than none at all.
Futurama (Comedy Central) – I was a fan of the show when it originally aired on Fox, but never bothered to reconnect once new episodes began airing on Comedy Central. The finale is set to air on September 4, and while I won’t be there, I feel for the people who will.
The Borgias (Showtime) – Well, this one shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The series was really good – almost great at times. But it was expensive as hell, and as soon as Showtime greenlit Ridley Scott’s new series about the modern day Vatican, the writing was most assuredly on the wall for this. Because what network would have two shows about the papacy airing simultaneously? It’s a shame… it was like The Tudors, just, ya know, for grown-ups.
The Hour (BBC) – Ah, the one show on the list whose cancellation truly makes me sad. If you’ve never heard of it, think of it as “the BBC’s version of Mad Men, only set in a 1950s TV show”. Fans will moan that the analogy isn’t accurate at all (and it isn’t), but it’s close enough. Audiences and critics is the UK were bitterly divided over The Hour, with half saying it was the best thing to come on British TV in ages, and the other half attacking the show’s eagerness to place 2012 values on a 1950s setting. Which is a fair cop, no doubt. It’s also safe to say that the show was probably insanely expensive for the BBC: I’m sure the Beeb has tons of Edwardian costumes and locations it can use for next to nothing, but the 1950s was probably too recent for it to have a huge stock of props. And, once again, thanks to Mad Men, viewers are expecting more in terms of historical accuracy from TV shows. The truly sad thing is that, if anything, the second series was even better than the first. It seems the writers took the “moving in too many directions at once” and “the show doesn’t need a conspiracy theory angle” criticisms to heart. Both of these were greatly pulled back in season 2, and instead of the Bad Guys being an unknowable “them”, the writers cleverly made it about one person. I won’t mourn for this show for years – the way I still do for Veronica Mars – but I will miss it all the same.
THE MOST IMPROVED SHOW AWARD
Well, the current season is still airing, so it’s possible that it could still go off the rails. But I’m going to tentatively award this to The Killing (AMC). A big part of what made the first two seasons of this show so frustrating is that the two main characters – Linden and Holder – were so likeable, and (improbably) worked so well together. It was just the stupid Larsen family dragging down the story, as well as all those red herrings, and the lack of resolution at the end of season 1. It’s like AMC forced Veena Sud to go to a Robert McKee boot camp, and the end results are great: much tighter storytelling, without everything that ruined the first two seasons. If this keeps up, I’m almost expecting AMC to give The Killing another season.
THE LEAST IMPROVED SHOW AWARD
I think I’m going to have to give this one to the BBC’s The Syndicate. You may recall that I put the first series of the show on my “best of” list last year as a miniseries. But the BBC renewed it for a second series and this one was… a big disappointment. I didn’t expect much, and “not much” is what I got. It’s like writer Kay Mellor ran out of ideas and either resurrected plots ditched from series 1, or came up with the most outlandish plotlines imaginable. It wasn’t awful TV, but it didn’t build on its predecessor in any way…. like “here’s a gimmick, and here’s the exact same gimmick all over again”. For some reason, the second season reminds me of the scene in Entourage when the twin agents tell Ari that they’re feuding because one of them slept with the other’s wife. Ari can’t understand why the wife would cheat on her husband… with an exact duplicate:
“If I were to cheat on my wife it would be with, like, a busty blonde or an Asian with pointy nipples… but an exact fuckin’ replica?”
THE MAD MEN REPORT
Season 6 is in the books… so how was it? Not bad: better than season 5, but not nearly as good as seasons 1-4. Part of it is the anticipation of Don Draper’s fall. We all know it coming, but where and when? And how long can Weiner stretch this out? I know this isn’t the sole point of Mad Men, but until Don’s breakdown in the finale, one got the feeling that Don’s fall from grace would simply go on and on. Which is fine if you’re investigating the death of Laura Palmer, but it’s getting a bit tedious for this show.
I’m going to put my faith in Weiner for now, but want to go on record saying that I’m very uneasy with the way the show is going. I think Weiner is getting fat and happy, and AMC is (apparently) willing to let him indulge himself. He needs someone (or something) to tell him to get to the point, or that he’s being too artsy-farsty. And please, no more “drug scenes”, Matt. I don’t care if you show people using drugs, just no more interpretations of the drug experience, OK? Once was enough – last season’s LSD episode was an amusing, if not entirely effective gimmick – but twice this season is two times too much!
But anyway… there’s a story about the band R.E.M. that has been going around the Internet. And the story says that Bill Berry, while perhaps not the best drummer of all time – was the “ear” of the band, that whenever the band was working on a song it was Berry who wasn’t afraid to say “guys, this is crap”. And this is, supposedly, the “real” reason why R.E.M.’s music went downhill after Berry left. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but even if it’s all made up, Berry serves as an great example. Matt Weiner needs a Bill Berry in his life. Mad Men is still the best show on TV… but it’s becoming more like Around the Sun than Fables of the Reconstruction.
Having said all that, the last scene of the season, when Don takes his children to see the whorehouse he grew up in, was perfect. The look Sally gives Don – the new understanding she has about her father and why he is like his is – was perfect in every way.
Oh, and Matt Weiner’s son seems to have taken some (much needed) acting classes, too! :)
WORST TV MOMENT (SO FAR)
There are two.
The first (which has already happened) was ABC’s The Taste. It wasn’t a bad show, really. It was slightly better than Hell’s Kitchen but not quite as good as foodie-favorite Top Chef. And it seems like the producers were at least smart enough to look at other shows and not repeat their mistakes: The personal backgrounds of the chefs were discussed, but largely kept to a minimum. Inter-chef conflicts existed, but weren’t the basis of the show. And the concept of the show itself was moderately interesting: one spoon of food, one taste, would be all that the would-be chefs would be judged on.
So what was wrong with it? That Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain were on it. I love them both – in different ways, thankfully – and to see the beautiful and regal Lawson and the maverick Bourdain braying like donkeys was just… so disappointing. Lawson isn’t necessarily “above” appearing on US network TV, but it was just soooooo conventional and staged. It was like seeing Vince Lombardi as a guest judge on a show about pee wee football players. And I love Bourdain, but seeing the “I’m not selling out, ever” guy appear in this show… Sheez, what’s next? Iggy Pop in car commercials?
Oh… right. I hope Bourdain and Lawson got giant, Scrooge McDuck piles of money to make this show. Else it won’t be worth it. And they can replace Ludo “I lost to Mario Batali on Iron Chef” Lefebvre and Brian “Not Even Notable Enough to Have His Own Wikipedia Page” Malarkey any old time.
* * *
The second worst moment (which hasn’t actually happened yet) was the announcement that Fox would be making an American version of Rake, my “New Show of the Year” in 2010 (cite) and one of my all-time favorite shows. First, as I mentioned earlier, everything Fox touches turns to crap. It happens so often that I’m actually surprised when a show like Fringe somehow manages to stay on the network for five seasons. But really, no broadcast network can do Rake justice. There’s entirely too much drinking, drugging, gambling and whoring in the original series, and that’s just the main character. The “case of the week” plots, which variously involved cannibals, zoophiles, bigamists, terrorists and spies, are a bit too risque for broadcast TV, too. A premium channel like HBO or Showtime might have been able to pull it off, but if it has to go to a premium channel.. why bother?
Oh yes, money. A million people have asked Internet message boards why US networks “have” to remake foreign shows instead of just airing the originals. A part of it is that American audiences might indeed be prejudiced against anything with foreign accents. Or maybe “shifting demographics” means that a significant percentage of the population (read: immigrants) would have a hard time understanding the dialogue. Or perhaps some (or many) of the jokes would get lost in translation. But whatever touchy-feely reasons people might come up with, the real reason is, as always, money.
If a US broadcast network wanted to air the original British version of The Office, the only revenue they would get would come from running commercials during the broadcast. If, however, a network used their in-house production company to remake the series (like NBC’s Universal Television), then the network would also make money from foreign and domestic syndication sales, licensing to third-parties like airlines and cruise ships, licensing to OnDemand and streaming services, DVD sales and merchandise sales (t-shirts and novelties). Also, obtaining the rights to air a foreign show are expensive, but getting the rights to remake a foreign show are relatively cheap. So if the remake fails, the network doesn’t lose that much money, and if it’s a success - like The Office – the network makes a giant pile of money. Incidentally, the “long tail” of money provided by in-house production is why some marginal shows – like Community – keep getting renewed, and why some shows get cancelled: when NBC moved Leno to 10 PM, it needed to get rid of one of its Thursday night comedies. It predictably kept Parks and Recreation (an NBC Universal production) and axed My Name Is Earl (a 20th Century Fox Television production) even though both shows had similar ratings.
Unfortunately, I can tell you right now that the Rake remake will suck. I’m one of the 19 people in the United States who actually likes Greg Kinnear, but he’s no Cleaver Greene. And I can just see Fox pimping the titillating bits of the show, emphasizing how OUTRAGEOUS the show is. It’s all so sad. It reminds me of being a teenager and liking some band that was slightly risque, but somehow your parents discovered the band and really liked them. Nothing would turn me away from a band faster that my mother running out and buying a bunch of Bloodhound Gang albums and gushing about how “edgy” they were. And Fox’s Rake remake gives me that exact same feeling. Yuck.
BEST TV MOMENT (SO FAR)
Again, there are two.
[WARNING: Spoilers for the current season of Mad Dogs and Mad Men follow!]
The first is whimsical. The British series Mad Dogs is about four friends from high school (now in their mid to late 30s) who travel to Majorca to celebrate the retirement of a fifth friend, who has allegedly made a bunch of money in real estate. However, shortly after their arrival, the friend is shot and killed by a midget in a Tony Blair mask (“Tiny Blair”). The friends discover that their friend might (or might not) be involved with drug running for the Serbian mafia, and that the mafia might (or might not) have paid off local police to kill them. In season two, the friends inadvertently flee to Ibiza (they were headed to Barcelona but got on the wrong ferry). There they become even more entangled with drug dealers, and eventually end up inside a container being shipped back to Spain. But the current season begins with the container being opened… in Morocco. The friends are taken to a military prison of some sort. They have no idea who is operating the prison – the Moroccans? The CIA? Terrorists? But then one of the friends, Woody, notices something about one of his interrogators:
“He was wearing a shirt, with a Marks and Spencer’s label on. I saw it sticking out. My interrogator. I mean, extremists… They don’t shop at M&S, do they?”
OK, it’s not nearly as funny printed out as it is on screen. But it’s hilarious in context.
* * *
But the real moment of the year (so far) was Don’s pitch to the Hershey representatives from “In Care Of”, the season 6 finale of Mad Men. At first, it’s vintage Don Draper at his very best, something that’s been so lacking from the show the past two seasons:
“Every agency you’re going to meet with feels qualified to advertise the Hershey bar because the product itself is one of the most successful billboards of all time. And its relationship with America is so overwhelmingly positive that everyone in this room has their own story to tell. It could be rations in the heat of battle or in the movie theater on a first date. But most of them are from childhood. Mine was my father taking me to the drugstore after I’d mowed the lawn and telling me I could have anything I wanted. Anything at all. And there was a lot. But I picked a Hershey bar. The wrapper looked like what was inside. And as I ripped it open, my father tousled my hair and forever his love and the chocolate were tied together. That’s the story we’re going to tell. Hershey’s is the currency of affection. It’s the childhood symbol of love.”
But then Don takes a seat and looks around the table. The Hershey reps and the partners engage in some some small talk while Don looks at the uncomfortably. Perhaps it’s just at that moment that Don decides that he can’t be “Don Draper” any more. He gets the attention of the Hershey reps:
“I’m sorry, I have to say this ’cause I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania… in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school in ‘Coronet’ magazine or some other crap the girls left by the toilet. And I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamt of it, of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. Closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john’s pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she’d buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony… feeling like a normal kid. It said ‘Sweet’ on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
Here’s the scene, in crappy “cell phone camera pointed at the TV screen” format. Watch it quick, before it gets taken down:
This scene was, in so many ways, what we’ve been waiting for this whole time, for the facade of “Don Draper” to crumble completely and for Dick Whitman to reveal himself. But I guess few were anticipating it would happen exactly like this. If Jon Hamm doesn’t win an Emmy this year, there truly is no justice in the world!