Thursday, December 12, 2013

Year End 2013: What just missed the cut, or, the 10 best shows of basically any other year

Year end caveat: I watch TV. Some shows I like. Some shows I don't. You might disagree. That's okay. Some good shows I don't watch or haven't caught up on. They won't be on my top 20 list. Some shows are too bad for me to even bother with. They won't be on my worst of list. Some shows I love ("30 Rock") didn't air long enough in the calendar year for me seriously consider giving them a spot in a very, very good year for television. I hope I'm not offending you. We cool? Cool.

I feel better knowing that actual paid critics had just as tough a time cutting down top 10 and 20 lists as I did this year, since it leads me to believe a) I didn't miss very much, and b) this was such a phenomenal year for the small screen that all the shows in today's "second ten" list would absolutely be top 10 shows in a year that lacked for more quality shows. Good thing the outstanding freshman class of 2013 was properly recognized by yesterday's Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations, right guys?

My 20 through 11 positions for 2013 after the break. For comparison's sake, here's my second ten of 2012.

20. Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous 

When I reviewed this bizarre little Bo Burnham comedy back in May (and did a pretty spectacular job at predicting its long life), I noted that nothing about “Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous” was particularly new and original. But as the critic mantra occasionally goes, what something is about is much less interesting than how it is about it. A show whose central character is this unlikeable has to be really funny to maintain my interest, and though the moments were sometimes few and far between, “Zach Stone” paid off with some screamingly funny moments in its 12 episode run last spring. And because Zach was an actual human being and not just a sketch of a jerk kid in your high school, he was usually able to show the side of himself that was damaged and vulnerable while realizing that didn’t mean he was entitled to total forgiveness every time he did something stupid and careless. And the way that effectively ramped up over the course of the entire season is perhaps my biggest disappointment that the show isn’t coming back – I could really tell that Burnham and co. were finding the show’s second gear right as MTV pulled the plug. Oh well. That’s showbiz, and thankfully we all have a brand new Bo Burnham stand up special to enjoy on Tuesday.

19. Parks and Recreation 

“Parks and Recreation” was #3 on my list last year (based primarily on the strength of the season four episodes that concluded the “Leslie runs for city council” arc), and it remains one of TV’s best comedies. It is not, however, a show I really look forward to watching anymore. For the most part, I enjoy it in the moment while never waiting for it all day Thursday in the way I did during the third and fourth seasons. I could write a whole separate piece on the determination of Mike Schur and his writers to ruin this great show by making the unbearable asshole that is Councilman Jamm (remember what I said about “Zach Stone” and comedic un-likeability?) not only the main characters’ primary antagonist but also such a central component of pretty much every government story. But in the interest of staying positive, I’ll simply close by saying that the competent auto-pilot mode “Parks and Rec” is currently in is still a far more pleasant viewing experience than watching something like “Modern Family” circle the drain.

18. Veep 

“Veep” moves down a few spots from last year, but don’t let that fool you – it’s just a tough, tough year for good TV and out of context, the numerical placement here for “Veep” does not reflect how much better it got in its second season. The show remained just as funny, knocking some episodes like “Signals” out of the comedy ballpark entirely. But one of my biggest problems with the first season that I otherwise mostly enjoyed (if, some weeks, only as a mildly amusing intermission between “Mad Men” and “Girls”) was that the show had no soul, and this year “Veep” got one. Where last year’s finale showed us how Selina used authentic emotion for evil to manipulate her image, this year we saw what real human emotions felt by Selina Meyer looked and felt like in appropriate contexts, and that the actions of her office had consequences beyond bad PR. For the first time, “Veep” had real stakes for more sympathetic characters instead of just being a show about this kinda doofy lady who was Vice President and the wackiness that ensued from that situation. By the time the show reached its “arc” of sorts at the end of the season where Selina was offered the chance to run for President and what that meant for her and the entire staff, it had become the kind of show that was able to effectively portray the wants and needs of those characters – a stark difference from the aforementioned crocodile “Tears” that closed the show’s run in 2012.

17. The Middle 

“The Middle” stays exactly where I had it last year, which probably also does not rightfully reflect that this has been another strong year for one of TV’s best comedies, probably the best one on the air right now about a family that isn’t a cartoon (more on this in my top 10 list). But such is the life “The Middle” chose – goofy, charming, and ultimately life-affirming, all fairly noiseless traits in such an oversaturated TV landscape. Did you know this show aired its 100th episode back in October? Were you aware this show existed at all? There are critics who say “The Middle” is the best show of 1997 and they’re not wrong, nor is that a slight against it – it is at face value, after all, one half of the first single camera comedy about a semi-dysfunctional family to really find success, Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” back in 2000. In a time of fewer network comedies that share its DNA and without an enormous slew of original comedies on cable to chip away small percentages of the public’s attention (TBS’ “Ground Floor,” which I’ve been enjoying these last few weeks and also feels like the best new show of 1997, is in a similar boat), this probably would catapult from “solid if not spectacular 8pm anchor for ABC’s comedy night” to “fairly sizeable hit”. Oh well. I always enjoy watching this show, even if the capacity in which I watch it often feels like “my own little secret”.

16. New Girl 

One more time, “New Girl” drops a few spots from last year and that is a reflection only of the fact that I watched a lot more stuff this year, and that 2013 will be remembered as a great year for drama and not comedy. Still, it must be acknowledged that while I don’t think “New Girl” necessarily made “the leap” that we talk about in terms of decent comedies finding their footing in a second or third season (which some critics feel did happen), 2013 was a much more consistent year for the show overall. Funnier, richer, and with deeper exploration of character, the second season of “New Girl” was able to take Nick Miller, a guy I really didn’t like or understand, and turn him into one of my favourite characters on TV (and possibly also a glimpse at my future self). That’s enough to make it one of my favourite comedies of the year, even discounting the show getting a much better handle on who Jess Day is and what makes her funny, and what Schmidt looks like in a semi-functioning relationship. The fall episodes have been rockier in terms of plotting, but I’ve still loved the 5-10 minutes every Tuesday when I get to watch Nick and Jess having a dumb argument. Seriously, have I mentioned enough how little I wanted to see those two together and how well the show has developed their relationship?

15. Top of the Lake 
(Sundance Channel)

So first of all, Sundance Channel – where’d you come from? This miniseries you co-produced with the BBC was your first major step into the scripted programming game and while emotionally powerful and beautifully shot, it’s probably still not as good as the two shows you aired next (more on those later). But calling “Top of the Lake” my least favourite Sundance original this year is whatever the opposite of damning with faint praise is (“praising with loud scorn”?) because holy crap, of all the shows this year that my eyeballs looked forward to seeing every week, this one is right at the very top. As a boring and woefully uncurious person about the world around me, “Top of the Lake” makes for one hell of a New Zealand tourism ad, with the on-location production making use of enormous mountain ranges, wide-open natural spaces, and of course the sprawling bodies of water referenced in the show’s title. But what happens in front of them is just as good, as Elisabeth Moss (still Emmy-less, because the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is a joke and I don’t know why I still expect good things from them as often as I do) plays a detective who returns to her hometown to locate a missing girl and discovers so much more. With fantastic supporting performances from Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan, among others, “Top of the Lake” was a hell of a good way for Sundance to not only put their foot in a very crowded doorway, but to shove everyone else aside as well.

14. Orphan Black 

Again – quirky, weird, dark Canadian mystery/sci-fi (but also not sci-fi) show with the greatest performance I’ve ever seen from an actor I, nor anyone else, had never heard of before it premiered – where’d this come from? And really, this one’s all about Tatiana Maslany, baby. Sure, this is a fairly interesting premise with some cool twists and wacky stuff, and that’s certainly a notable writing achievement. But “Orphan Black” needed a Tatiana Maslany to make it this watchable and compelling rather than just another...let’s say “Nikita,” which I’m hoping for my sake is a logical comparison even though I don’t watch it. Maslany could do this show alone and make it great – and she kind of already does that after all, playing at least seven identical clones all with distinct styles, personalities, and drives (and never taking the easy way out of having one of the clones just be a version of herself – Sarah, the most “normal” clone and our entry point as an audience, has Maslany putting on a rather impeccable English accent). Her co-stars, though, like Jordan Gavaris and Maria Doyle Kennedy offer great support to an actress who, again, really doesn’t even need it. Without Maslany, “Orphan Black” certainly doesn’t hold my interest in any way – so it’s an added bonus that everyone else is working so hard in, and succeeding fairly well at, trying to reach her level. Now if you’ll excuse me, all these proud feelings about such a good Canadian series has gotten something in both my eyes.

13. Broadchurch 
(BBC America)

To continue the trend of “where’d (he/she/that) come from,” I present “Olivia Colman, dramatic actress”. As I wrote in my review back in August (it’s not very good, please don’t look for it) my familiarity with Colman was only as a comedian working with Britain’s famous Mitchell and Webb comedy duo: a sketch player for TV’s “That Mitchell and Webb Look” and radio’s “That Mitchell and Webb Sound,” and playing Mitchell’s love interest in their sitcom “Peep Show”. And in watching ITV’s “Broadchurch,” screened this side of the Atlantic on BBC America and Showcase and also featuring a woman investigating a crime in a beautiful looking place (now seaside England) like “Top of the Lake,” I kept being blown away by what a different side I was seeing of her. Watching all eight episodes in one sitting only exacerbated the devastation she feels, in the best work of Colman’s career, when she learns the truth about the murder of young Danny Latimer. Focusing less on whodunnit and more on why whodunnit mattered to the people of Broadchurch, the series it was named for was one of a handful of shows in 2013 that proved the serialized mystery drama not only still had gas in the tank, but was ready to haul ass from Nome to Cape Canaveral without a bathroom break. Between this and her 2011 film “Tyrannosaur” with David Bradley, playing a character not totally dissimilar to DS Miller, it was “Olivia Colman Week” in my house. And folks, I wish every week was “Olivia Colman Week”.

12. Moone Boy 

Hey, why the hell not: Hulu – where’d you come from? Okay, that’s actually not fair. Hulu had nothing to do with the production of this fantastic comedy from Chris O’Dowd that, as AV Club writer Phil Dyess-Nugent succinctly put it, “makes you nostalgic for the small town Irish childhood you never had”. But credit to Hulu that apparently all of the actual television networks and channels in the Americas, even ones like BBC America dedicating themselves to giving us the best in British broadcasting, either saw no value in airing this hidden gem or let it slip between their fingers. With O’Dowd starring as Sean Murphy, the slickly dressed imaginary friend of 12-year old Martin Moone, “Moone Boy” carried a hilarious innocence the likes of which I can’t recall seeing in any other recent show. The Moones remind me a lot of the Hecks, and “Moone Boy’s” relatable and inviting dreariness certainly reminds me of “The Middle”. But its charming naivety is really the only thing stopping me from calling “Moone Boy” “basically the Irish version of ‘The Middle’ with a much purer core,” and it’s why it finishes a few spots higher. I’ve been waiting a while on a second season, and I can’t wait to have this one back next year.

11. Game of Thrones 

The HBO epic is coming off a third season that was wildly popular and easily their best to date. I expected big things for it at Emmy time, and was partially right even if they didn’t end up with the big win I thought they deserved (no disrespect to “Breaking Bad”). Thing is though, I think this is as high as I can go for “Game of Thrones”. Epic, medieval fantasy with slight tinges of romance and other-worldliness are great in the ten hours a year I watch them. But with my own personal biases against the genre, it’s just never a show I’m going to be able to stir up much passion for. It’s not “Game of Thrones,” it’s me. And I hope placing the show this high on the list in an attempt to recognize how well it pulls off such a grand endeavor for television, shooting on location in multiple European countries with a huge, talented cast and a sizeable amount of special effects, properly acknowledges how good I think this show is despite the fact that I will probably never like it enough to be able to put it in my top 10. But that’s okay. If you are more taken with “Game of Thrones” than I am, I encourage you to cheer it on as if it were your child playing in a non-competitive youth soccer league. I’ll be right beside you, only sitting in a collapsible chair while on my phone and occasionally looking up when my kid says, “Look at me!” so I can say “Yes, I see you, that’s very nice!”

Tomorrow: Time to dwell on the negative with the year's worst shows.