Monday, December 31, 2012

Year End 2012: Simply the best

     You can find this screencap in a video on YouTube titled
     "Best scene in the history of television". Hard to argue.

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).

Here we are. A little more than 8,500 words and many hours of procrastination later, we've reached the fourth and final instalment of my year end series, in which I offer my list of the ten best shows on television for the year 2012. And what's more, no spoilers - everyone's a winner!

And oh, what a big year it was for the small screen.

#10. Awake

My first entry on this list is a sleeper – but as I mentioned somewhere in my list of best episodes, it was, in my humble opinion, 2012’s best one and done series. This was a great show that unfortunately had everything working against it. There was of course the unfortunateness of airing on NBC. There was the unfortunateness of airing on Thursday nights at 10 on NBC, a timeslot that’s killed every show since “ER” ended its 15-year run on the network in 2009. And there was the fact that its intriguing premise was almost impossible to convey in any sort of marketing. How were we to expect NBC to be able to tell viewers in 30 seconds that if they tuned in to “Awake” on March 1, they would see the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), an LAPD detective who, after a devastating car accident, began waking up in two different worlds – one in which his wife survived the crash, and one in which his son survived? We couldn’t expect that. And thus, after a few weeks, the show began averaging less than three million viewers an episode.

But in the end, that’s okay. I had no reason to expect success. “Terriers” on FX befell an identical fate a couple years ago, and both shows ended on a sort of metaphorical cliffhanger that was more than an ideal button to the show. Just because there won’t be any more, doesn’t mean the 13 we got aren’t an innovative use of the medium and some of my favourite TV episodes of the year. By colour coding the two “realities” (there was a red tint to everything in the world in which his wife survived – in the world where his son survived, everything was quite green), David Slade turned what could have been an endlessly confusing premise to his advantage and directed a visually stunning pilot that, while not perfectly replicated in later episodes, was imitated about as well as could have been expected. To the relief of many viewers, the show was able to cast Dylan Minnette as a teenage character who didn’t exist to just whine about non-problems like they’ve done on “V” and “Terra Nova” and “Smash,” the writers hoping to attract teenage viewers. And most importantly, “Awake” joined the ranks of shows in the 21st century (which includes "Terriers") to prove that the police procedural didn’t have to be just a show you put on while folding the laundry – if the emotions run high, the stakes are real, and the characters are worth discussion, a case of the week is not a creative death sentence for a show.

#9. Homeland

A show I likely would have placed at number 3 or 4 last year (had I written such a list) falls down to number 9, thanks to some plots that were really irritating and implausible on a level parallel to some of the worst storylines on “24”. But we don’t watch “Homeland” for action packed plots, unraveling terrorist cells, teenage hijinks, or spilled milk tantrums – when done well, those are an added bonus to the grippingly real characters whose lives we follow week in and week out, from whatever highs they can get on a show like “Homeland” to the absolute lowest of lows we’ve seen them in through 24 episodes.

After not particularly loving the second half of season two, I really did love the season finale, which was an hour primarily about strongly written character interaction that was enough for me to gloss over the episode’s one irksome plot detail, because that detail set off the chain of events that provided us with those interactions. And through good episodes and bad, I still don’t think you’re going to find better performances on TV than those from Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, who have got to be mortal locks at next year’s Emmys provided they both submit the season’s big interrogation episode “Q and A”. In the way that it only takes a handful of strong “Modern Family” episodes each year to prevail over a “Parks and Recreation” for the comedy series trophy, the highlights of “Homeland” are enough for me to place it at number 9 for the year.

#8. 30 Rock

I’ll say it for maybe the 15th time – for a comedy in its seventh season to be as funny and creatively strong as ever, if not more than it used to be, is something worth 15 mentions of. It’s not the most sincere or heartfelt show out there (although those moments do exist, see Liz Lemon’s perfectly imperfect wedding just a few weeks back), but if you’re looking for the show with highest ratio of jokes per minute and/or the best show business satire of the moment, I don’t think you’re going to find anything stronger than “30 Rock”. The cast has really only gotten better as the seasons passed, as has the writing. It’s only become weirder over the years, but who says that has to be a bad thing? “Community” proves every week that it can be a real positive. And all of that makes it quite sad for me that there are only four episodes remaining for what’s long been one of the smartest and most clever shows on TV. Hell, let’s find a sixteenth way to say it: like the finalists who survived “MILF Island,” “30 Rock” has kept it tight at an age where most other comedies would long be floundering. For that, my eternal gratitude to Tina Fey and co.

#7. Cougar Town

In a vein similar to “Happy Endings”, “Cougar Town” tops my list of comedies I watch because I just love to spend time in the company of these people. Maybe that sounds like an odd jab at the comedies I have higher on my list, or even at "Cougar Town" itself, because I don’t know if there’s any greater reason to watch TV. It isn’t – it’s just the thing I love most about the Cul-de-Sac crew. I love their creativity, their sense of humour, their wit, and their all-around passion for life. I also love to see positive comedy because it’s much more difficult to a) write and b) attract an audience that way (not to get off topic just to bag on “The Big Bang Theory” but that show attracts at least four times the audience of “Cougar Town” while making countless jokes at the expense of its characters). One other thing I love? TBS, for allowing this hilarious journey of killing time with wine to continue next Tuesday on the heels a good deal of promotion throughout the fall, particularly during the baseball playoffs. Thanks, guys!

#6. Community

In a twist both ironic and sad, only 12 episodes of NBC’s cult comedy ended up airing in the calendar year of 2012. We expected to get close to another dozen in the fall; until the peacock yanked the rug out from under us by pushing the season four premiere back from October to February. Regardless of that decision, the 12 episodes we did get were a perfect encapsulation of “Community” – an episode here and there that overplayed its hand (“The First Chang Dynasty”), but mostly a weekly half-hour of the weirdness, the hysterics, and commitment to homage that was more than just reference for reference’s sake. It was the world according to Dan Harmon, as twisted, chaotic, and occasionally dark as it might be, that will be sadly missed when “Community” returns in a little over five weeks without him. Here’s hoping NBC sucks bad enough this spring that they’d miraculously order a fifth season of this criminally under-watched series.

#5. Breaking Bad

The fourth season of “Breaking Bad” – aired entirely in 2011 – was a season for the ages in the long history of dramatic television series. And it was a hard act to follow up. While the season opened with Jesse Pinkman yelling “YEAH, BITCH! MAGNETS!” which will never not be awesome, the first eight episodes of season five started out oddly paced for my taste, no doubt a result of the longer, broken up season. But by the time we got to the fourth and fifth episodes (“Fifty-One” and “Dead Freight” respectively, two all time great episodes for the show), we had returned to the show I knew and loved, a show that kicked ass and took the names of any other series that attempted anything as tense, daring, heart-pounding, or as visually spectacular. And with the big cliffhanger at the end of the 2012 run, I think we’re in store for one hell of a conclusion to an all-time great show. In short, what would have been my #1 show last year falls four places simply because it showed its cracks and I liked four shows better this year. It doesn’t mean I hate it.

#4. Girls

2012’s best new show was one that I really disliked at first. Within minutes, we were thrust into the world of Hannah Horvath, an unlikeable young woman with almost no self-awareness, stuck in a terrible relationship with shirtless creep Adam. But through the course of the season, we saw what made these characters think and behave the way they do. It was never pretty, but it shouldn’t have been. It was one of the most deep and original explorations of what happens when the world comes crashing down on young people who don’t view themselves in any way similar to the way the rest of the world sees them. It was real, it was at times ugly (the show, not its cast or characters), and most importantly, it was funny and likeable portraying situations and people that were anything but. It’s the delicate, and so far very well balanced worldview of Lena Dunham, and it’s a world I’m very much looking forward to returning to.

#3. Parks and Recreation

The continually hysterical adventures of the parks department took only a slight step down this year from 2011, but as with “Breaking Bad”, it’s only because season three of “Parks and Recreation” is about as perfect a season of television as you can get. At the moment, you will not find a show with a funnier group of characters and a better sense of its universe, fully developed and delicately well established, akin to Springfield at the peak of “The Simpsons”. TV comedy this year didn’t get much better than episodes like “The Comeback Kid”, “The Debate”, “Win, Lose, or Draw”, or “Halloween Surprise”, all of which perfectly blended hilarity, heart, and optimism (on a show satirizing politics and local government, no less). It of course featured knockout, career best performances from Amy Poehler, and continues to give us TV’s funniest character in Ron Swanson. Really, it’s just hard not to feel good when watching “Parks and Recreation”. For the last time in 2012, I’ll bemoan the fact that the stupid Emmys didn’t seem to care about any of those things.

#2. Louie

“Louie” is what TV should be, and it’s where TV is headed. It’s one guy, a couple of cameras, and a laptop on which to write and edit his own TV show. FX gives him a little bit of money, and they stay out of his way and just release it to the masses. And it’s just jaw dropping and format destroying and relentlessly thought-provoking and so meticulously crafted by not only an excellent comedian, but also a fascinatingly unique storyteller. It’s weekly tales of just this one guy living in a world full of many guys, who bucks the cliché that “being ordinary makes him extraordinary” and flips it on its head to “being fearful makes him fearless” – there is no situation that Louis C.K. won’t drop TV Louie into whenever the story calls for it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Nothing is too edgy, too dark, or too untouchable in any way – and there’s no better or more accurate poster child for the FX slogan that claims “there is no box”. “Louie” is what happens when the right person with a singular, immovable vision is given a forum to create works of art. And at the time of this writing, it’s your go-to evidence that television is better than movies as both a medium for artists and as a reliable source of quality entertainment.

#1. Mad Men

Speaking of TV being better than movies at the moment, and what happens when one guy is given the forum to create art...well okay, this is a little different. “Mad Men” is far from a solo effort creatively, but it’s another situation in which a fringe cable network decided they wanted in on the original programming game and opted to trust Matthew Weiner, who can be as nutty and difficult as great TV showrunners get, with their first big project. Another situation in which the artist was given the pallet he needed to paint on when the heavy hitters (in this case, HBO and Showtime) turned him down. And while a lot of people work very hard to assemble the best show on TV, from brain to page to screen and everything in between, it’s the brainchild of Matthew Weiner.

I hold seasons four and five pretty close together qualitatively, and would give the edge to season four really only because it accomplished what it set out to accomplish without necessitating as much “flash”. Which sounds like a much, much harsher criticism than I intend (I don’t really intend any criticism at all) – “flash” in this case would be the “for lack of a better word” term I would use to refer to the sort of events featured in episodes like “At the Codfish Ball” and “Commissions and Fees” that while played excellently, are much more obviously gut punching than the quiet, subtle brilliance of an episode like “The Suitcase”.

Speaking of those gut punching things in season five? Those were excellently written and incredibly performed by some of the most talented people in the business. It’s the right actors, the right characters, the right circumstances, the right voice and viewpoint, and the right TV landscape for “Mad Men”. And when the stars align and everything just clicks in such a perfect and natural way, it’s hard not to be the best show on television.

Whattaya got, 2013?