2013 was an… interesting year in TV. American networks continued to churn out complete crap by the truckload, but networks across the world put out a variety of fresh, innovative new shows… along with a bunch of crap, too. But there’s plenty of great stuff out there if you know where to look. And this year’s TV roundup contains a few surprises: two shows from New Zealand, and the first French language show to appear on my list!
First, you’ll first find the list of my favorite new shows. As always, remember that the list is only for new shows, so old favorites like Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t on the list. After that, there’s a list of “worth a watch” shows, 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 12 BEST NEW SHOWS ON TV
#12: Wonderland (Network Ten Australia) – This is my guilty pleasure of the year. It’s a light, breezy primetime soap about a group of friends who live in an oceanview building in Sydney called “Wonderland”. One of the main characters, Tom (Michael Dorman), can’t seem to commit to anything, be it a career or a woman. The only thing he seems to truly love is his 1964 Ford. In the first episode, Tom and his friend Steve bet that Tom will not sleep with a female roommate for 12 months, else Tom will have to give Steve his beloved car. But then Steve’s sister Miranda shows up needing a place to live. Tom obliges. Can Tom keep his end of the bet? And what will Miranda say when she finds out about the bet? And what happens when control freak Grace meets the handsome, easygoing Carlos from Brazil? And how will Collete and Rob survive once she admits to having a one night stand? See? It’s all soap opera, but for some reason – attractive cast members playing generally decent human beings? – I was totally sucked in to this. And I make no apologies for it!
#11: Hannibal (NBC) – I put Hannibal on the list because it fascinates me. We know “harder” swear words and casual nudity are strictly forbidden by the FCC. 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. I’m also a fan of Bryan Fuller (creator of Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies). 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 re-creates 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’ version. 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!
#10: Sleepy Hollow (Fox) – This is possibly the silliest show to come on TV in ages, yet it somehow works. In the show’s universe, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow doesn’t exist. Instead, a man named Ichabod Crane moves to New York from England in colonial times and switches his allegiance to the American patriots. He is killed on the battlefield by a mysterious Hessian fighter, who Crane manages to behead just before collapsing. Crane rises from the grave 220 years later, and has a friend in Westchester County police lieutenant Abbie Mills: on the same night Crane awakes, Mills sees her mentor. Sheriff August Corbin, killed by the same horseman that Crane had beheaded. And so begins a series which is a delightful mix of the National Treasure movies (Founding Fathers, Freemasonry, esoteric symbols) and The X-Files (mysterious, supernatural bad guys). Hey, it ain’t deep TV, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun!
#9: 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, problems with the kids, etc. The supporting cast is great: Margo Martindale plays “Claudia”, the couple’s KGB handler, and Richard Thomas (“John Boy” from The Waltons) plays a boss at the FBI. One odd thing that bothers me is the lack of historical detail. The sets and costumes look more like “generic Americana” than the early 1980s specifically. Sometimes the camera seems to focus on one particular object – like a rotary phone – as if to make up for the lack of a time-specific feel. Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, but Mad Men has really raised the bar for details like this.
#8: Wentworth (SoHo Australia) – This show, about life in an Australian women’s prison, is going to draw comparisons to Orange is the New Black. How could it not? How many women’s prison shows are there? But while Orange is mostly comedy with a little seriousness thrown in, Wentworth is all business, all the time. It’s a re-imagining of Prisoner, a groundbreaking Aussie series from the 70s (known in the US as Prisoner: Cell Block H, to avoid confusion with the British series The Prisoner). The original show dealt with issues like women’s rights, homosexuality and social reforms. These things are kind of old hat now – at least as far as “shocking” viewers goes – but there’s a… brutality to the new show that’s still shocking. And the acting is tip-top: the focus on the series is on new arrival Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack from Underbelly: Razor), who has a run-in with bad-ass Franky (Nicole da Silva of Rush; Catherine McClements, her boss in Rush, also has a small part as the governor of the prison). This series will keep you glued to the edge of your seat. I blew through the whole series in 2 sittings!
#7: Utopia (Channel 4) – In this series there’s a hugely popular graphic novel – The Utopia Experiments – which has been eerily accurate in predicting natural disasters, especially epidemic diseases. A group of devotees are chatting on a fan website one day when a mysterious stranger 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 the chatroom friends to be accused of heinous crimes. So now not only are they being chased by the 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 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.
#6: House of Cards (Netflix) – I don’t like Kevin Spacey. For some reason, he reminds me of the creepy guy in the neighborhood all the young boys stay away from. So 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.
#5: 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 is really good, but it’s not without flaws. Like “Dr Freeman” 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 of a wife.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After this post was written, but before it was published, the BBC announced that it would not renew Ripper Street for a third series. Since the second season has not finished airing in the UK (and hasn’t started at all in the US), the decision was made to leave it on the list, even though it’s going off the air.
#4: 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 British crime 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?”. This show is about a small coastal town in which a young boy ends up dead. At first, it looks like a tragic accident, but it soon becomes clear he was murdered. But who would want to kill an 11 year-old boy? Former Doctor Who David Tennant plays the talented, yet 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 a 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…
#3: Orphan Black (BBC America) – Tatiana Maslany stars as Sarah Manning, a foster child from England brought to Canada as a child. And she’s totally lived up to the stereotype by becoming a petty thief. As the show opens, Sarah 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 understandably furious about losing his coke, and tries to track 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, neatly folds her jacket… and then commits suicide by calmly walking in front of an arriving train. Sarah steals the woman’s purse in the ensuing chaos and finds a deposit slip for $75,000 inside. So Sarah decides to assume the woman’s identity in order to withdraw the $75,000 and start that 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 Ukrainian 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 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!
#2: Les Revenants (Canal+ France) – Technically, this one’s cheating, as the series originally aired in France in late 2012. But it aired on Channel 4 in the UK this spring, so that’s why I’m putting 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 the moments 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……
#1: 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), 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!
WORTH A WATCH
Orange Is The New Black (Netflix) – There’s something about Jenji Kohan that rubs me the wrong way. For one thing, it seems like she’s good at creating shows, but not so good at maintaining them. Take her previous series, Weeds. The first two seasons were great! But then she seemed to run out of ideas, and everything from season 3 on was all over the map, literally. Nancy Botwin went from a sympathetic character to the worst person in the world. And I fear the same fate for Piper Chapman in Orange. Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is a WASPy woman from Connecticut who gets 15 months in prison for transporting a suitcase full of drug money for her girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon of That 70s Show). Piper is a sympathetic character at first: a scared little church mouse who’d probably never even had a parking ticket before. But she too becomes a horrible person as prison life begins to wear on her. There’s plenty of comedy and some drama (just as in Weeds), but what the show really has is an outstanding supporting cast. Netflix (rather stupidly, in my opinion) submitted the show to the Emmy Awards in the drama category rather than comedy, where it might fare better. Uzo Aduba, who plays fan favorite Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren should be a lock for a nomination, but will find it tough going against drama heavyweights like Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) , Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Christine Baranski (The Good Wife). Orange is a good show… It’s just not as good as your friends who posted so much about it on Facebook would have you believe.
The Bridge (FX) and The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic) – Both of these shows are based on a Swedish-Danish show called Broen (in Danish) and Bron (in Swedish), in which a body is found on the Øresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark.
In the American version, a woman’s body is found straddling the border on the Bridge of the Americas, which links El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. At first, there is an argument between El Paso and Juárez police over who has jurisdiction… until crime scene personnel attempt to move the body, where it is revealed that there are actually parts of two bodies: the torso of an American judge (lying in Mexico) and the lower half of a Mexican prostitute (which lies in the US, guaranteeing that the two sides will have to work together). The main investigator on the Mexican side, Detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, who played Tijuana mayor Esteban Reyes in Weeds), has to work with Asperger-afflicted Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) of the El Paso PD.
In the British version, a body is found in the Channel Tunnel connecting France and the UK. British detective Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) is called on to work with French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy).
The first two episodes of the shows are very similar, even down to a scene in which Sonya\Elise, having been at the crime scene all night, return to their stations, walk to their desks, take off their shirts in full view of everyone, and then put on deodorant and a fresh shirt. But the shows then diverge. Events that happen early on in the US version happen later in the British version, and vice versa. A few minor characters have bigger roles in the US version. Some of the plot points in the US version, like gunrunning and police corruption, are absent from the British version. And, to give a specific example, one of the recurring themes in the US version is the inequality in the value of an American life versus a Mexican life; this becomes a very minor plot point in the UK version, where at one point the value of the lives of European children are compared to the lives of the Third World children who toil in sweatshops to make the clothes European children wear.
So… if you had to choose one, which one to choose? I’m an Anglophile through and through, and I’m (slowly) starting to appreciate French culture. The style and atmosphere of the British show beats the American version hands-down, and I like that the British version doesn’t spell out every. little. thing. like the American one does. I also like that Poésy’s version of Asperger’s is manifested by simply being coldly logical; for example, when someone ends up missing, Roebuck tells a family member he’s interviewing that “the police are using every resource” to find him and that he’s “sure he’ll turn up”, to which Elise coldly says “oh no, he’s almost certainly dead” (which, of course, upsets the family member being interviewed). For some reason, when Kruger has a similar line, she always tilts her head at an odd angle, kind of like the Bride of Frankenstein; it’s annoying. But I do think the American version, while slightly over-the-top and Hollywood-ish, was more relevant to me personally. The British version has also been (lightly) criticized for following the original a bit too closely, whereas the American version was “localized” better. They’re both good, but which one you prefer kind of boils down to style.
Breathless (ITV) – If, like me, you were heartbroken that the BBC cancelled The Hour, you might find some solace in the similar Breathless. Set the early 1960s, the series features Jack Davenport (of Coupling) as Otto Powell, a surgeon at a London hospital. His friend and army buddy Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) works with him as an anesthesiologist. But the two of them have a secret: they sometimes provide off-the-clock abortions to certain women in need. And that’s not even the half of it! A creepy police officer, Inspector Ronald Mulligan (Iain Glen), begins stalking Otto’s wife, Elizabeth. He claims to have some dark secret about Otto, but she might have more secrets than he does! It’s not the best show ever, but it’s really entertaining and well done. Absolutely worth a watch!
Serangoon Road (Australian Broadcasting Corporation and HBO Asia) – This show, the first co-production between ABC and HBO Asia, is set in Singapore in the early 1960s, in the final days of British rule of the city-state. Sam Callaghan (Don Hany) is an Australian who has spent most of his life in Singapore. As a foreigner, he spent much of his childhood in Changi Prison during the Japanese occupation. He later joined the military, and now runs an import-export business with his friend Kang (Alaric Tay). When one of Sam’s good friends, a private detective named Winston Cheng, is killed, Sam steps up and helps his widow, Patricia (Joan Chen from Twin Peaks) keep the agency going. There is intrigue between the CIA and MI6 and the Soviets. There are powerful legitimate businessmen and gangsters to deal with. And Sam is having an affair with Claire Simpson, wife of an Aussie expat businessman. It’s all very noir, but while the setting is new and exciting, the show isn’t as good as I’d hoped. For one thing, one of the characters, Patricia’s assistant and niece Su Ling (Pamelyn Chee) always tells the audience what the characters are thinking or what their next move is, like Velma from Scooby Doo. And the first job Sam takes – to find a US sailor who is black, 6’4, and 250 lbs. – doesn’t exactly require Sherlock Holmes. I mean, how hard could it have been to find Forest Whitaker in a white sailor uniform in Singapore in 1964? Still, this is worth a watch, even if HBO Asia apparently isn’t up to the same standard as HBO America.
Way to Go (BBC Three) – Ever since it became easy to download TV shows off the Internet, I’ve been wondering if I’m losing my taste for British comedy, or if I’m just exposed to lot more crappy shows than used to. This makes Way to Go 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 job as a receptionist at a veterinarian’s office because he can no longer afford medical school. When his gambling addict 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 equipment at fast food restaurants, to build 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.
Toast of London (Channel 4) – Matt Berry (who you may know as Dixon Bainbridge from The Mighty Boosh or as Douglas Reynholm from The IT Crowd) plays Steven Toast, a once-mighty actor who has fallen from grace and now spends more of his time dealing with off-stage problems than acting. This show is hilarious, and requires a level of detail reserved for shows like Arrested Development. For example, there’s a scene where we see Toast typing on his laptop at the kitchen table, His roommate, Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst) walks in and notes that Toast is “up very early” that day. Toast then talks about what he’s working on, but complains that he’s being distracted by his wallpaper, which he accidentally set to a picture of Brooklyn Beckham. Ed offers to fix it, and we get a brief glimpse of the desktop, which shows that it’s 11:34AM… which is what passes for “very early” in Toast’s world. Another example: Toast has been reduced to doing voice-over work to make ends meet, and nearly every episode begins with Toast in a recording studio. Only thing is, in every episode Toast gets something majorly wrong: either by having the wrong mood, wrong pronunciation, the wrong cadence, etc. And, at some point, the engineer will ask Toast to do it again, and he will fail again. So the producer, Clem Fandango, will get on the microphone and try to coach Toast. He will introduce himself and ask if Steven can hear him, leading Toast to say “yes, I can hear you Clem Fandango”, which became something of an “Internet thing” for a while, Anyway, this show is very surreal and very British; if that’s your thing, run, don’t walk, to see this show!
SWING AND A MISS
The Following (Fox) – Why does Fox ruin almost everything it touches? The premise of the 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 and decided that it was “too complicated” for American viewers. So they hired the staff of Highlights for Children magazine to dumb it down for average folk. 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 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 bad. But it certainly seems aimed at the 13-21 year-old market. I have no problem with that. I realize that some shows, especially those on the CW network, just aren’t meant for me.
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 outskirts of 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 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. 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… you know, a fake Facebook page, fake news articles about him, that sort of thing. Of course, “instant online personas” are old hat in spy and heist shows… but no one explains how 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 thing else sucks. And again, I’m no prude, but the sex scenes really seem tacked on, and of course, the religious people have to be creepy, pedophile nutcases, right?
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.
Low Winter Sun (AMC) – See above. The show tried SO HARD to be grim and gritty and humorless that it just fell flat. In the case of Low Winter Sun, it had to do so with Lennie James and his accent. Look, I love Lennie James in British TV, but his American accent just plain sucks. I managed to make it through three episodes of this, and constantly wondered if James was supposed to be from Alabama… no wait, St. Louis? Memphis? Brooklyn? East London? You couldn’t tell, ‘cos it was all over the damn place.
Zero Hour (ABC) – This show was awful, but I put it on this list because it highlights the Catch-22 that US 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 halfway. And I think there some fatigue with conspiracy theory shows in general.
Ray Donovan (Showtime) – The show is about people from people from Boston who now live in LA, which is, like, my Sacred Duo of Cities That Suck. The show is about unlikeable people in unlikeable situations. It gets better as it goes on, but it’s mostly a miss from the get-go. When the best thing you can say abut a show is “Ambyr Childers gets kind of naked”, you know it’s bad.
Family Tree (HBO) – I love me some Christopher Guest. This Is Spinal Tap is one of my favorite all-time comedies, and I also loved Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. But this show was pretty bad. Chris O’Dowd (of The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids and Girls) stars as Tom Chadwick, a young Englishman who is given a box of trinkets in his late aunt’s will. Tom begins investigating the origin of the trinkets, and learns about his family in the process. The show is pretty good when it’s in London, but quality deteriorates quickly once Tom goes to visit relatives in California. I hate California as much as the next guy, but when Tom arrives and meets his uncle Al (Ed. Begley Jr.) and his wife, Kitty (Carrie Aizley), the show becomes a series of “dumb Californians” jokes using the same characters Guest has written a dozen times before. For example, Guest himself plays David Chadwick, an oddball relative from North Carolina, who is almost exactly the same character as “Harlan Pepper” from Best in Show. And Fred Willard plays Al’s next door neighbor… as himself, really. Michael McKean plays Tom’s father, and I just couldn’t stand his fake English accent (surprising, given that I thought his wasn’t half bad in Spinal Tap). I wonder if McKean just couldn’t do an Irish accent: it’s made explicit that Tom’s parents divorced when he was a small child, and Tom has an Irish accent because he lived with his mom, who moved back to Ireland after the divorce. Anyway… It’s not that this show is bad… it’s just not very good. And Tom’s sister, who also “really” talks through a hand puppet she wears constantly, is just a bit too much.
What a strange year for miniseries! Several of this year’s “best of” shows were probably intended to be such, but were renewed… and thus, are no longer a “miniseries”. So Ripper Street, House of Cards, Broadchurch, Les Revenants and Mr Selfridge should have ended up here.
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 it just couldn’t hold my attention. Mayday was yet another BBC crime miniseries in which everyone in a small town can be a suspect in a murder, even a tourist who drove through once 10 years ago. I tried watching Lightfields, sequel to the popular Marchlands, several times but fell asleep during the first episode. As I also did for The Guilty and What Remains. And even miniseries which were watchable weren’t especially good: David Tennant, coming off his critically acclaimed role in Broadchurch, couldn’t make a three-part miniseries, The Escape Artist, interesting.
But it’s not just the British who swung and missed this year. I’m sure I missed a few, but the only American miniseries from this year I can name off the top of my head is Mob City, and so far that one’s all style and no substance. And then there’s Jane Campion and her Top of the Lake… WE GET IT, ALREADY, JANE… YOU DON’T LIKE MEN! And Top of the Lake should have been 3 episodes, or 4 at most… not drawn out to 7 loooonnng, pointless episodes.
So, just so I can have a “miniseries” category this year, here are two great shows from New Zealand. I would have thought they’d be returning shows, but both aired early this spring, and so far there’s still no word a to whether they’ve been renewed or not:
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 Auckland law firm, she finds 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 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, 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 parents’ 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 the gang’s “side jobs” very nearly backfires on them. Badly. It’s a well-made show, a lot of fun, and the “whodunnit?” bits will keep you guessing until the end. And come on… how much New Zealand TV have YOU seen?
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 manufacturing meth in Auckland. But he’s also 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 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” of 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. 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.
POUR SOME OF YOUR 40 ON THE GROUND FOR…
The Office (NBC) – The Office often made me think of Waldorf and Stadler, the old coots from The Muppet Show. Those guys 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. At the very least, they should have skipped the post-Carell stuntcasting and gone straight to making Dwight the boss. 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.
Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – I mention this show because I’m almost certain it was killed by network meddling. The first episodes were hilarious, but I’d bet my left nut that some ABC executive called producers and asked if they could “tone it down a bit”. Thus, the show went from being a edgy series about having the worst roommate in the world to a (bad) modern day version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Copper (BBC America) – BBC America’s first original series wasn’t bad. Many complained about its glacial pace (seriously, Mad Men is a bullet train in comparison) and the thick dialogue. But this was a rewarding show for those who stuck around, and Donal Logue made a really great good guy\villain in season 2.
Vegas (CBS) – Just another CBS crime procedural, made more interesting than most by being set in early 60s Las 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. I do feel pangs of kinship for those who will miss it, though.
The Borgias (Showtime) – This one is no surprise. The Borgias was really good, and almost great at times. But it was extremely expensive, and as soon as Showtime announced Ridley Scott’s new series about the modern day Vatican, the writing was on the wall. It’s a shame… it was like The Tudors, just, ya know, for grown-ups.
Dexter (Showtime) – Well, no big loss. The show had been going downhill for quite some time now, and the finale was just… terrible. But I think Yvonne Strahovski is drop dead gorgeous, and I must confess I thought there was something… quite hot about Dexter and Hannah McKay getting it on. You know the scene I’m talking about.
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 in the UK were bitterly divided over The Hour, with half saying it was the best thing to come on British TV in years, 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. 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
This year it’s a straight-up tie between two shows, both on the same network: AMC’s The Killing and Hell on Wheels.
I liked the idea behind The Killing, but the pace was slow, some plot points were pointless, red herrings were thrown out constantly, and the Larsen family was generally unlikeable. The only reason I really stuck around was for Holder and Linden, as they had some great chemistry together. With the third season, it’s as if 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. Despite all the upgrades, AMC axed the show anyway, but Netlix picked it up for a 6-episode final season next year.
Hell on Wheels suffered from trying to be too epic. There were way too many characters and subplots going on at once. The season 2 finale fixed much of this by killing off all but a handful of characters, and in season 3 it seemed like the remaining supporting characters were there to add to the main story, not create their own. Better yet, it seemed almost as if each episode of season 3 could stand on its own, as if it were a self-contained chapter in a book. The series is MUCH tighter than before, and improved immensely in the third 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:
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… it’s said that Bill Berry, the longtime drummer for R.E.M., 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 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
There are three.
The first 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 interesting: one spoon of food, one taste, would be all that the would-be chefs were 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 for network TV was just… so heartbreaking. It was like seeing Vince Lombardi as a guest judge on a show about pee wee football players. 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.
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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. It’s no joke to say that the difference between NBC airing the original British The Office and making their own was a billion dollars.
Incidentally, the “long tail” of money provided by in-house production is why some marginal shows 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.
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Finally, we have the first 10 minutes of The Millers, a new sitcom on CBS. It was created by Greg Garcia, who created Yes, Dear and My Name Is Earl. It stars Will Arnett, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale. Sounds great, right? I watched the first 10 minutes and turned it off in disgust. The same old sitcom jokes. The laugh track. Blech. It represents everything I hate about network television.
BEST TV MOMENT
There are two, both courtesy of AMC.
The first is Don’s pitch to the Hershey representatives from “In Care Of”, the season 6 finale of Mad Men. It begins as 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.”
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!
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You didn’t think I was going to forget Breaking Bad, did you? The series finale of, well, one of the best shows ever, finally happened, and it didn’t disappoint. “Felina” was a perfect example of how to end a show properly. I’m not going to spoil anything for anyone, but let’s just say everything worked out in the end, in its own twisted way. And the very end, in which Walt has one last moment with his One True Love, was just perfect:
In case you missed it, the song playing in the background is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger:
Guess I got what I deserve
Kept you waiting there, too long my love
All that time, without a word
Didn’t know you’d think, that I’d forget, or I’d regret
The special love I have for you
My baby blue
Total and absolute perfection all around. Hats off to Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and especially Vince Gilligan for creating one of the best shows to ever air on TV anywhere. And special thanks for bringing back Badger and Skinny Pete for the finale! Here I was, a grown man, cheering at the screen when they made their appearance!
Damn, I’m going to miss that show!