Monday, December 17, 2012

Year End 2012: Missed it by that much

Caveat for my year-end lists: the non-existence of my readership should render this moot, but I feel compelled to clarify a few things. First off, while these lists are referred to as "best of," "worst of," and everything in between, they are of course a reflection of solely my opinion. Some people might think that "Work It" is the crown jewel of the comedia dell'arte; those same people might think that "Parks and Recreation" isn't funny at all - I mean, nobody even falls down in it or makes sexual puns. That's fine. We'll agree to disagree. In addition, there are a lot of shows that I don't watch. As much as I've heard nothing but good things about "Parenthood" and "The Good Wife," I don't watch them and therefore as much as they might be deserving of being on such a list, they're not on this one. My "worst of" list is also a representation of shows that were not only bad, but specifically a disappointment. "Honey Boo Boo" was not intended as profound commentary on Southern life and the harsh realities of childhood fame whose execution completed failed. That's why it won't be on my "worst of" list, and a mediocre, inoffensive sitcom with such a stellar cast like "Up All Night" is (although really, the tipping point for that one was its hilariously misguided decision to convert to multi-cam).

Part two of my year end series takes a look at the shows I placed just outside my top ten, in positions twenty through eleven. I should note an additional caveat that with some of these shows, rather than I explaining why I particularly like them, I focused much of the writeup on what was keeping it out of the top 10. Don't misinterpret that as severe condemnation or dislike in any way, but rather as constructive criticism for how to fix the parts I'm not crazy about within shows I otherwise really do like. Hence, just missing my top 10.


#20. Key and Peele
(Comedy Central)

I could probably go off on a tangent about non-white comedians who only make really unfunny jokes about ethnic stereotypes (looking at you, George Lopez and Wanda Sykes). Very few of these comics have anything else to say – the ones that do are usually the good ones. Did you know Louis C.K. is actually Mexican? You might not have, since I don’t think he talks about it much. He definitely doesn’t build the entirety (or any) of his act around that fact.

Though never a regular viewer of MADtv, I always found Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele were really dynamic comedic performers when paired together in the right circumstances. On their new Comedy Central sketch show, the duo found a better, audience-free venue for their style of comedy, which occasionally addresses race in very nuanced, poignant ways. One of their big breakout sketches featured Peele as President Obama and Key as Luther, Obama’s “anger translator” – a sketch that both satirized Obama’s mild-mannered nature and the ramifications of that behaviour, but said so much more about how he would be perceived if he was portrayed in the media as the angry black man president. It also isn’t a show where every last damn sketch is about the fact that these guys are mixed race, in the way that George Lopez apparently has hours of material on his Chicano heritage, the basis of which is unfunny ethnic stereotypes and nothing else.

While not perfect, “Key and Peele” addressed a wide range of issues, including race, with humour, satire, and most importantly, the kind of subtle bite not seen since “Chappelle’s Show”.

#19. Go On

“Go On” is here for a couple reasons. Mainly, it’s funny – it makes me laugh more times a week than some other comedies that are higher on this list, strangely enough. And I give it credit for not letting themes of loss blanket the show with an unshakeable sadness, like a mute to a trombone of comedy. I still love that third episode – if they continue to figure things out, maybe this could even be on my top ten next year.    

#18. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

2011 was a pretty damn good year for “It’s Always Sunny,” so naturally it’s been hard to follow that up this season. Still, they’ve managed to pull off things in their eighth season, including the classic sitcom “this all feels very similar” story, that shows should be so lucky to accomplish in their first. As cruel and twisted a world as it is, it’s always fun to pop in on The Gang. Keep in mind though that the finale hasn’t aired yet and if I don’t get what I feel is the appropriate amount of answers about the mythology of the Reynolds family and what’s located inside the hatch under Paddy’s Pub, I might have to move this later.

#17. The Middle

Poor, poor “The Middle”. It premiered just a week after “Modern Family” and as a fellow family comedy on ABC has never gotten the attention it deserved. Which is a shame, because while it isn’t a laugh a minute, I do think I get more chuckles out of it every week than I do from “Modern Family”. “The Middle” is the exact opposite in terms of flash – set in the middle of the country chronicling a family struggling to make ends meet, attracting modest ratings. At the end of the day though, it’s a much more genuine and honest look at the modern family. Its compassionate endings, effective but never going so far that they’re unearned, are much better executed than the attempts by “Modern Family” to pull off ironic happy endings that usually just come off as disingenuous. And Frankie and Mike Heck join the ranks of Eric and Tami Taylor and a few select other couples on TV that prove wedded bliss (with the occasional bump, of course) isn’t boring. “The Middle” isn’t a show you’ll hear much buzz about, which seems fitting – but the people who like it like it a lot, and even the critics who don’t watch it will admit to having a great deal of respect for it. And finally, as the great Claire Danes would say, "Eden Sher - holla."

#16. South Park
(Comedy Central)

I have the utmost respect for shows whose best seasons are later in their run (i.e. Sunny season 7, 30 Rock season 6), and the sixteenth season of “South Park” proved it’s as strong as ever as an always bizarre but tremendous takedown of pop culture, current events, and general societal mirror. Particular highlights included “Butterballs” which parodied the Kony 2012 movement, “Cartman Finds Love” in which Cartman is blind to the racist motives driving him to pair up Token and the new black girl in school, and “Insecurity,” an all time classic “South Park”-style skewering of a commercial premise that I probably hadn’t thought about it years. It’s weird that of all the things “South Park” does so well, suburban satire might be the thing it does the best. It’s also been really marvelous to watch the animation progression through the years culminate in this year’s brilliant Dr. Seuss sequence in “A Scause for Applause”.

#15. Game of Thrones

I don’t love “Game of Thrones”. Sometimes I don’t even like it. I just know that it really impresses me. Which is different than saying, “it’s impressive”; if that were the case, I think that would be a bullshit reason to put this on here. Even if I don’t love this show, I am astounded by how well it executes its very high aspirations, dissimilar to my admiration/respect for “Boardwalk Empire” despite not enjoying or caring about anything on that show and why I don’t watch it with any regularity. When I think “Game of Thrones” has too many characters or its plots are too convoluted, they’re able to present an episode like “Baelor” or “Blackwater” where they really nail the characters, and in the case of “Blackwater” offer an amazing visual spectacle that’s impressive even by the standards of HBO. I still wish some parts of this show were excised entirely, but the parts I like work quite well, and the series as a whole can really smack me in the face sometimes and dare me to not be enthralled with what’s happening on screen.

#14. Veep

“Veep” could easily have made my top ten list, but there are a few critical mistakes that hold it back. Emotionally, there’s nothing to latch on to as a viewer. Like “Sunny,” it’s really damn funny but I’m never going to not be able to wait to spend more time in their universe. Also, through eight episodes, it was kinda the same show every week. No real efforts to add new dimensions to these characters or expand our understanding of the series’ purpose. I hope that’s something they work on for season two - it’s preventing a very funny half-hour from making the leap.

#13. New Girl

I forget I like Zooey and friends until I’m actually sitting down watching an episode. But oh, do I really, really like “New Girl” once I remember that I do. There were a few episodes last spring in which the ensemble seemed underdeveloped, but this fall it’s so strong that, get this, even Winston seems a more fully formed character (he’s still problematic, but come on guys, it only just occurred to you now that maybe he should have storylines with Jess, let alone any other main character, sometimes?) Special mention goes to season 2’s most valuable player Jake Johnson, who in less than a dozen episodes has shaken the shrill that sometimes plagued season 1 Nick and turned him into a quirky, loveable, and most importantly much more interesting character than he ever was before. Perhaps that’s the contagious adorkability of Zooey rubbing off on him.

#12. Suburgatory

I wrote a full review of the first season of “Suburgatory” and I’m not sure if I have anything much new to say. At times clunky in its satire and overly cartoonish, “Suburgatory” is more often both emotionally engaging and well written comedy. Ignoring any bizarre alt narratives in your head, Tessa and George are portrayed in a way that I wouldn’t say “other shows are afraid to,” but certainly in a way that is usually whitewashed in other series, especially comedy. And its cast of young characters, played by Jane Levy, Allie Grant, Maestro Harrell, and Parker Young, are probably the best you’re gonna find on TV (it’s fine if you like Nolan Gould; personally I think he’s not yet a great actor and quite overrated).

#11. Happy Endings

This was hard to leave off the top 10. But there just wasn’t room. I never just “like” “Happy Endings” – when the planets align, it’s twenty minutes of gold from start to finish and I’m just deliriously happy to be in the company of these people. What still separates it from the comedies on my top 10 (and again, I wrote a full review of the first two seasons) is how often it can get caught up in a dull and/or unfunny plot line just for the sake of a reference. I understand why shows do that – I’ve seen the ratings for “Happy Endings”; they’re, how do you say...bad. You need to get viewers in any way you can. Unfortunately, those are disappointing weeks for me as a regular viewer because I’ve seen how much more they’re capable of when their televisual tree falls in a forest that no one’s paying any attention to. In any case, still excellent work all around from one of the best comedic ensembles on TV – they’ve actually managed to make Elisha Cuthbert and sometimes even Zachary Knighton kinda funny! The title is certainly appropriate, because it just makes me happy to spend time with these people each week.

Next week: The worst shows of the year face the naughty list.