Backwards and Forwards

A Month-by-Month Look at the Best of 2012, and Expectations for the Spring

2012: From Start to Finish

Just as I was preparing to create a top ten list of my favorite shows from 2012, I thought, why not make thing a little easier on myself by picking a favorite show per month?  That way, I’d probably be considering the scope of the year a little more fairly anyway, and I get to pick 12 shows instead of 10.  Any show that aired at least one episode (that I watched, of course) in a given month was eligible to win that month, and each show could only win one month.  Let’s begin!

January: Parks and Recreation

Possibly the best comedy of 2011 (which included all of its fantastic third season and the start of a very good fourth season), Parks and Recreation continued to roll as 2012 began, with Leslie’s best buds jumping in to help her with her campaign for city council.  January’s episodes showed how woefully, hilariously unfit for campaign work the Pawnee Parks and Recreation staff was.  I now chuckle every time I hear the song Get On Your Feet.

February: Happy Endings

For me, Happy Endings could have won almost every month in which it aired, and was overall my favorite show of 2012.  The show really hit its second season stride in February with a run of episode guest starring James Wolk as Max’s too-well-liked boyfriend Grant.  Of course, there was also this.

March: Awake

The dearly departed Awake debuted in March with one of the most interesting dramatic premises for a show I’ve seen in recent years: A man unable to deal with the loss of either his son or his wife after a car accident constructs an elaborate dream in which his dead loved one is alive, but he never knows which world is the reality and which is the dream.  In addition to being enjoyable just from a procedural point of view, the ways in which Detective Briton’s two realities interacted was fascinating and thought provoking.  It’s a shame the show never caught on with audiences, and that those of us who did watch never learned the full story on what was real and what wasn’t.

April: Community

The always-clever, often-meta pop culture reference machine that is Community produced some of its best episodes yet in its fourth season.  October 2011’s Remedial Chaos Theory got all the buzz, but April’s Basic Lupine Urology, in which the study group went on a Law & Order-spoofing quest to find out who sabotaged their biology project, was also excellent.  Not content just with producing smartly referential episodes, Community also spent much of April digging deeper into the characters’ relationships to one another (Abed and Troy’s friendship, Troy’s feelings for Britta) and their quirky but not trivial mental and emotional difficulties.

May: Game of Thrones

Sweeps months are naturally more competitive than others, and Game of Thrones managed to best the competition with its season-best episode Blackwater.  This fantasy drama always boasts incredible production values and a pitch perfect ensemble, but the battle that was waged in this penultimate episode of the second season, one that had been brewing since the season before, was a spectacle among spectacles.  Both the drama and the stakes are always high on Game of Thrones, and the second season did not disappoint after the high expectations set by the first.

June: Veep

Everyone was buzzing about Girls this past spring, but I was much more taken with the other new HBO comedy this spring, Veep.  With Julia Louis-Dreyfus in possibly her best role yet, that of frustrated vice president Selina Meyer, the show would have been appointment television even if it didn’t feature sharp, biting humor and a game and talented supporting cast.  Now that JLD has an Emmy for this role, maybe the underrated gem will catch on with the Twitterverse.

July: Damages

Damages premiered its fifth and final season in July, and came back with quite a bang, setting up a season-long battle between Ellen (the increasingly fantastic Rose Byrne) and Patty (Glenn Close, who already has two Emmys for this role) that felt like it had been brewing since the very first episode.  The anticipation and intrigue started in the season premiere, and didn’t let up until the end of the last episode.  This unique show and these incredible characters will be very much missed.

August: Pretty Little Liars

Like Happy Endings, Pretty Little Liars was competitive in any month that it aired an episode, most especially in May, when (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Mona was revealed at the mysterious A who had been torturing our eponymous heroines.  Instead, the show wins the month of August for the even more sense-shattering revelation that (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Toby was working with Mona.  The show’s popularity has spread this past year beyond the females under 25 demographic, and anyone who would dismiss the show as high school fluff has clearly never watched it.  The show perfectly balances the struggles of friendship, the frustrations of high school, complex family troubles, and of course love and romance, all on the backdrop of an ever-evolving plot of murders, blackmail and revenge.  And when the show goes for chills, it gets them.  I can’t remember the last time a horror movie made me as tense and jumpy as Pretty Little Liars routinely does.

September: So You Think You Can Dance

SYTYCD wrapped its ninth season in September, and despite difficult formatting changes and some scheduling oddities with Fox, the show produced some of its most talented contestants ever doing some of the most remarkable pieces in the show’s history.  The final performance show and season finale are a feast of magnificent and evocative dance numbers that would thrill any person who enjoys the art of movement.  Plus, can one ever get enough of Mary Murphy putting people on her infamous hot tamale train?

October: 30 Rock

I wanted to award 30 Rock, which aired all of its sixth season and most of its seventh in 2012, the month of November for accomplishing the perfect wedding episode, but it was impossible to deny the number of great episodes the show produced when it returned from summer hiatus in October.  What’s better than a Liz Lemon wedding?  Maybe Liz Lemon getting freaky with her Elf Prince in the stationery aisle of what I have assume is a Duane Reed.  30 Rock has quite consistently been among the best shows on television for the last seven seasons, and is the show I’ll miss most after it airs its final episode at the end of January.  October’s episodes highlight the things this show continues to do so incredibly well: hilarious guest stars, Liz and Jack standing firmly at odds over their beliefs, making relentless fun of its own network, and more jokes per minute than you can find anywhere else.

November: The Mindy Project

Comedies have had a rough go of things this fall, and especially ones on Fox.  The reemergence of the sitcom was a wonderful thing for comedy in general, but tough cookies for any new comedy competing against other new comedies for attention.  November’s champ, The Mindy Project, is holding its own in terms of content, though the ratings could use a boost.  November’s episodes really dug into capitalizing on the show’s strongest aspects: the love/hate chemistry between Mindy Kaling’s Mindy and Chris Messina’s Danny and Mindy’s potential to jump headlong into awkward situations.  Mindy and Danny’s competition to see who could endure the discomfort of Danny being Mindy’s gynecologist the longest was hilarious to watch, and Mindy going into a high school and calling a teenage boy “bangable” within earshot of a teacher was almost as good.  Mindy is still tweaking itself and trying to find its groove, but the A it gets for the month of November is not for effort but result.

December: Hart of Dixie

We cap 2012 and our list with the delightful Hart of Dixie, which only became more and more delightful as the year progressed.  The writing is clever and quippy, the situations are often dramatic and hilarious, and lead Rachel Bilson imbues Dr. Zoe Hart with a lovable klutziness that has never failed to turn good deed into small-town disaster.  Even with all this, the show’s hidden strength, and the thing that makes it so very delightful, is the growing backdrop of charming characters and places in the town of Bluebell.  I smile every time Dash DeWitt shows up in a fancy suit and hat or Tom Long freaks out about a New York food he’s never heard of.  The best thing about the bunch is that these aren’t just walking punchlines, but real characters, people I feel I know, who grow and change, surprise and disappoint.  I hope the people of Bluebell and Hart of Dixie are in my life for many years to come.

 . . . In With the New!

With 2012 in the can and the TV world already back to cranking out its 2013 offerings, there’s hardly time between remembering the shows we loved and anticipating their returns to consider all of the new shows hitting the airwaves for the spring half of the season.  What shows can look forward to joining the others in my DVR waiting room?  Here are six that have caught my interest, some of which I may even watch live:

Deception – 10 PM, Monday, January 7, NBC

Just because Deception seems to be something of a copycat of the show Revenge doesn’t mean that I don’t want to check it out.  From the promos, the only thing that’s really clear is the basic premise: a young woman goes undercover to discover the truth about her childhood best friend’s death.  Anyone having a hard time imagining what entertaining shenanigans can come from a situation like this should watch a few episodes of Revenge to find out.  More seriously, though, Deception looks steeped in soapy situations and the finer things in life, all of which should make for a fun watch.

The Carrie Diaries – 8 PM, Monday, January 14, The CW

I’m a little dubious of this Sex and the City-prequel — any fan who’s seen either of the Sex and the City movies would have to feel hesitant about revisiting that franchise — but I’m ultimately much too curious to pass it up.  The prospects of grabbing the original SATC audience seem not great, especially considering that as that audience gets older, Carrie has become a teenager.  It will be interesting to see what audience The Carrie Diaries does capture, and how that affects the series.

The Following – 9 PM, Monday, January 21, Fox

Kevin Bacon is a pretty good draw for a network television drama, and this one looks genuinely interesting from its promos.  Bacon’s FBI agent is pitted against a brilliant professor and serial killer (brilliant serial killers are the best kind, after all) played by James Purefoy, and his group of followers.  This has the potential to be quite chilling, and with Kevin Williamson, the man who gave us Scream and Dawson’s Creek, as the creator, I couldn’t possibly resist.

The Americans – 10 PM, Wednesday, January 30, FX

Despite strong interest in some of the other candidates, The Americans is at the very top of my anticipation index for the spring.  The lovely Keri Russell, who has yet to find a worthwhile post-Felicity television vehicle, stars alongside Brothers and Sisters’ Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies living in 1980s America.  Like many Americans, I find espionage instantly fascinating, and the glimpses of backstory I’ve seen, with the two main characters thrown into this fake life and fake marriage without even having known one another beforehand, just draw me in all the more.

Do No Harm – 10 PM, Thursday, January 31, NBC

I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes me want to see Do No Harm, the Jekyll and Hyde revamp about a doctor with a dark side.  It’s a little difficult to imagine the premise even being pulled off in a way that works and makes sense.  I can much more easily see the show becoming the worst parts of Ringer, without even Sarah Michelle Gellar to mitigate them.  Still, I am . . . curious.  And could it be that after Awake last spring and a sweeps win in the fall, I’ve developed a degree of good faith with NBC?  We’ll see how long that lasts.

Monday Mornings – 10 PM, Monday, February 4, TNT

Hospital shows are not my usual cup of tea, but there’s an undeniable appeal to Monday Mornings, David E. Kelley’s foray into medical drama.  The dynamite cast certainly doesn’t hurt, but what first caught my attention was buzz comparing Monday Mornings to early seasons of The Practice, a show I absolutely loved.  I find Kelley’s record to be iffy these days — I enjoyed Ally McBeal for a while but couldn’t stand to watch Boston Legal — so I’m excited to see him return to a place of exciting and compelling drama that I can actually enjoy.

Happy 2013 and happy viewing!

Case of the Mondays

When the season began, I was dubious going into CBS’s Monday night comedy block.  After wrestling with the decision, I decided to stick with both How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls.  (I never tried Mike & Molly, and never enjoyed Two and a Half Men.)  A few weeks into the season, things were looking somewhat grim.  I was still watching HIMYM and 2 Broke Girls, as well as Partners sandwiched between them.  No one show seemed worth watching on its own, but in my mind, they were all or nothing.  Each week, one and only one show would be funny while the other two were a mildly amusing waste of time.  The shows began to find their rhythms: 2 Broke Girls relied more and more heavily on offensive stereotypes and obvious jokes, Partners was developing beyond its basic Louis-screws-up plot for every episode, and How I Met Your Mother was collapsing further in on itself and its own stalling tactics.  Then CBS cancelled Partners, and I was shocked to find myself thinking that somehow Partners had been the glue holding that stretch of programming together.  Suddenly, what had been a so-so 90-minute length of sitcom became two half-hour shows on their own, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch either of them.

Empty Promises

How I Met Your Mother began the season in a not-so-great place.  The show had been slip sliding in quality since reaching the height of its critical and popular success a couple of seasons before.  What once seemed like clever callbacks and inventive storytelling had been reduced to stalling tactics and teases about the mother we were eventually going to meet.  We’d spent the entire previous season waiting to learn who Barney’s bride was going to (eventually) be, and discovered in last season’s finale that it was Robin.  Lily and Marshall had just had a baby.  Ted was maybe getting back together with his ex Victoria, on her wedding day.

This fall’s episodes of HIMYM continued the trends of the previous two seasons — the laughless opening episode featured Ted sitting on the same train platform as, but not meeting, the ever-elusive Mother — with the show visibly struggling to produce plots for the gang that prolong their predetermined endgames.  The worst example of this was the spat of episodes focusing on three relationships we already knew were doomed: Barney and stripper fiancee Quinn; Robin and himbo Nick; and Ted and Victoria.  As if already knowing these relationships would fail wasn’t enough, one episode actually announced that all three couples would break up by the end of the month, and then spent the next four episodes making it happen.  It is incredibly hard for the audience to care about what’s happening on the show when we know it isn’t going to matter in a couple of months.  This points to the larger problem with HIMYM relationships.  There is no way to invest in any of Ted’s relationships going forward because with everything we’ve been told about the Mother, we can always be pretty sure it isn’t her.  (Though, to Victoria’s credit, she is at least likeable, unlike Jennifer Morrison’s Zoey a couple of seasons ago.)

But the bigger problem with HIMYM is the show’s inability to give its characters any progress or growth, or to actually be funny.  After all, if the show was still funny and clever, it wouldn’t matter whether we thought Ted’s relationships would last or not.  No one ever thought any of Jerry’s relationships would last on Seinfeld, but that didn’t make them any less fun to watch.  On paper, the characters are maturing and growing, having children, buying houses, Barney’s gotten engaged twice in half a season.  Despite these supposed changes, though, the characters are still all written as if they’re in their mid-20s.  Ted will spend an episode moaning about how at 30-something he’s no closer to finding his one true love than he was seven years ago, but then he goes back to doing the same uncouth schtick he’s always done.  Barney has found the joy of the serious and loving relationship three times now (Robin, Nora and Quinn), but jumps back into womanizing and dirty jokes each time he’s single.  Robin was weighed down last season with the news that she couldn’t have kids and fear of how that would affect her future, but spent much of this season acting like a girl in high school.  Both Ted and Lily and Marshall have come to own suburban houses but still live in the city.  Lily and Marshall have been through the motions of being new parents and all the typical sitcom hijinks that can entail, but all of it is done in a way that’s so obvious and expected that it’s barely worth a laugh.

Saddled with all these flaws, in addition the escalating expectations for what the Mother will be when she is finally introduced and how her presence in so many previous episodes will be explained, HIMYM is failing to stay afloat.  There are some bright spots on the show, though, and even signs of possibly moving in a better direction going forward.  Barney and Robin are engaged, which hopefully means that any and all hints of the Ted/Robin relationship (which hasn’t held water since Barney and Robin were paired and especially hasn’t since we learned Barney and Robin eventually have a wedding) will fade from existence.  Barney has now burned his playbook, so here’s hoping that’s a sign of actual character growth.  With the other four characters having become so much staler than they once were, Robin and Cobie Smulders have begun to shine much more.  I once thought of her as easily the least important or enjoyable part of the group, but now she’s the best and funniest part of every episode.  Robin screaming at Patrice is, at least for me, the show’s one reliable joke.

Now that HIMYM has been renewed for a ninth season, it seems more imperative than ever that the show work on conquering its deathly fear of change and let us see these characters start to move into their lives beyond this phase we’ve been seeing for the last seven and a half seasons.  Maybe Ted won’t meet the fabled Mother until the very last episode of the series.  That’s not the worst thing, as long as Ted and the gang are doing more than just running in place waiting for that day to come.

Cupcake Dreams

The start of the 2 Broke Girls season may have been the most disappointing of any I saw this fall.  I’m not sure that any show’s problems were more obvious or more fixable.  The odd couple/buddy cop setup of terminally poor Max becoming BFFs (my term, certainly not hers) with recently-impoverished Caroline works because leads Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs play well off each other and the writers don’t skimp on making the girls really poor and really desperate.  While watching Max teach Caroline how to be poor in hipster Brooklyn constituted the funny part of the show, the diner where both girls work, the setting for a seemingly endless stream of obvious dirty jokes and potentially offensive race-based humor, nearly all of which fell flat, accounted for the definitively unfunny.  The addition of Jennifer Coolidge as building neighbor and frequent diner customer Sophie helped — how could Jennifer Coolidge not be an improvement? — the fact that most of her dialogue revolved around saying “come” or “sausage” did not.

The first season ended with a promising encounter, where Max and Caroline attended a fancy party, stalked Martha Stewart, and convinced her to try one of their cupcakes in the ladies’ room.  The off season seemed the perfect time to assess what was working and what wasn’t and return with a stronger focus.  Surely Michael Patrick King had gotten over the defensive meltdown he’d had months earlier when press tour attendees criticized the show’s diner scenes, right?  Perhaps not.  The second season premiered with what seemed like an even heavier focus on the diner and the same flat, predictable humor it carried.  The diner characters seemed to be getting even more screen time, not in order to become fuller, more three-dimensional characters, but just to execute more of the same unsuccessful jokes.  There were still funny parts to the show, but for every joke that was funny, there were three or four attempts at humor that weren’t.

A couple of months into the season, though, the show took a turn for the better, as if someone had suddenly realized the autopilot on the plane wasn’t working properly.  Max and Caroline began to focus more intently on the cupcake business, even securing (at sitcom-fast pace) the funds to open a storefront.  The show was still telling the same kinds of jokes, but the setting was more pleasant, the material felt fresher, and the punchlines weren’t as predictable.  (The joke, for example, about the girl who booked a cupcake party for her joint quincinera/baby shower may have been offensive, but I laughed out loud.)  Caroline started dating the likeable and normalish Andy, adding an aspect to the girls’ lives that hadn’t really existed before.  Sophie began to be used as more than just a delivery system for dirty innuendo.  Besides Andy, the show brought through a parade of man-candy guest stars (my favorite of which were the hot Amish boys who came to Brooklyn for Rumspringa).  The diner and its characters are still a part of the show, but a degree of balance seems to have been instituted.  By not focusing too heavily on the “broke,” the downtrodden, dirty, and dejected, and incorporating more of the “girls,” making Max, Caroline and even Sophie more human, with hopes and fears, foibles and vulnerabilities, 2 Broke Girls has gotten onto a promising path.  I look forward to seeing what the show does when it returns after the holiday break.

Top Ten Shows

  • 30 Rock
  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Fringe
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • The Mindy Project
  • Nashville
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Pretty Little Liars
  • Revenge

Current (or Nearly Current)

Revenge, 666 Park Avenue, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Revolution, Go On, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, Ben and Kate, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Hart of Dixie, Nashville, American Horror Story, Survivor, Suburgatory, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Fringe, Saturday Night Live, The Soup

On The Backburner

Last Resort

Red Carpet Uniforms: Critical Ire and The Golden Globes

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago, the general run of television critics launched into what I would consider the usual response to the Golden Globes’ television nominations, most landing somewhere in the realm of mild irritation greatly mitigated by not taking the awards seriously.  “Look at these silly Golden Globe nominations.  Silly as always!”  Sure, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t do much to help the case for their own credibility when they do things like nominating action drama The Tourist in comedy categories on the justification that the plot was farcical.  But I’ve always loved the Golden Globes television nominations because of their willingness to buck trends and expectations and take chances.

One of the most common complaints about the Emmys is the inability, or unwillingness, of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to look forward rather than backward.  The Emmys’ devotion to their own previous nominees make breaking into certain categories all but impossible for newcomers, or even not-so-newcomers.  In spite of this and the other problems critics have with the Emmys, they remain a respected institution and are still generally considered at least an indicator of quality television.  The Golden Globes have the reverse of the Emmy problem.  Rather than seeking to reward the established, the tried and true, the Globes are much more likely to look outside the agreed-upon set of candidates and try to find greatness where others aren’t looking all that hard.  Where the Emmys prefer to be not wrong in their awarding, the Globes take their chances at being either gloriously right or spectacularly wrong.  There’s something very appealing about that.

I think for most critics, what it really comes down to is having a few key nominees in certain categories that indicate whether or not a list of nominees is good.  Was Mad Men included?  Was Parks and Recreation included?  To me, this points to a degree of standardization for what makes good television and what doesn’t.  A show can be shamed out of the room nowadays for being a police or medical procedural, and forget about being a comedy that features recorded laughter.  The critical attitude toward incorporating a little variety into these categories seems to be rather parochial.  I wouldn’t find it unreasonable if the HFPA felt that one serialized AMC drama series being nominated was enough, and opted to bump Mad Men in favor of Breaking Bad.  Some would complain that that led to the nomination of The Newsroom, a mess of a show that I myself did not enjoy enough to watch past the first couple of episodes, but The Newsroom is unlike any other show in the category.  That has to count for something.  Parks and Recreation was excluded, but maybe the HFPA felt that one show where the characters break the fourth wall (Modern Family) was enough, and instead wanted to round out the Comedy or Musical category with something more musical than comedy, going for the critically lampooned Smash.  I’d argue there’s some merit to that line of thinking.

At the end of the day, the television awards given out by the Golden Globes, months removed from the industry-standard Emmys and not even working with the same eligibility period, are almost as inconsequential as the critics’ opinions of them.  I just wish that the Globes could be viewed with a more open-minded and less dismissive attitude by the majority of smart people who write about television.  Even these brilliant minds might find themselves learning something from the Globes nominees when they aren’t too busy knowing more than the nominating committee.

For reference, the full list of Golden Globes television nominations is below:

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA

  • “Breaking Bad”
  • “Boardwalk Empire”
  • “Downton Abbey: Season 2″
  • “Homeland”
  • “The Newsroom”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA

  • Connie Britton in “Nashville”
  • Glenn Close in “Damages”
  • Claire Danes in “Homeland”
  • Michelle Dockery in “Downton Abbey: Season 2″
  • Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA

  • Steve Buscemi in “Boardwalk Empire”
  • Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad”
  • Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom”
  • Jon Hamm in “Mad Men”
  • Damian Lewis in “Homeland”

 

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL

  • “The Big Bang Theory”
  • “Episodes”
  • “Girls”
  • “Modern Family”
  • “Smash”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES -COMEDY OR MUSICAL

  • Zooey Deschanel in “New Girl”
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep”
  • Lena Dunham in “Girls”
  • Tina Fey in “30 Rock”
  • Amy Poehler in “Parks and Recreation”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL

  • Alec Baldwin in “30 Rock”
  • Don Cheadle in “House of Lies”
  • Louis C.K. in “Louie”
  • Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes”
  • Jim Parsons in “The Big Bang Theory”

 

BEST MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

  • “Game Change”
  • “The Girl”
  • “Hatfields & McCoy”
  • “The Hour”
  • “Political Animals”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

  • Nicole Kidman in “Hemingway & Gellhorn”
  • Jessica Lange in “American Horror Story: Asylum”
  • Sienna Miller in “The Girl”
  • Julianne Moore in “Game Change”
  • Sigourney Weaver in “Political Animals”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

  • Kevin Costner in “Hatfields & McCoys”
  • Benedict Cumberbatch in “Sherlock”
  • Woody Harrelson in “Game Change”
  • Toby Jones in “The Girl”
  • Clive Owen in “Hemingway & Gellhorn”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

  • Hayden Panettiere in “Nashville”
  • Archie Panjabi in “The Good Wife”
  • Sarah Paulson in “Game Change”
  • Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey: Season 2″
  • Sofia Vergara in “Modern Family”

 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

  • Max Greenfield in “New Girl”
  • Ed Harris in “Game Change”
  • Danny Huston in “Magic City”
  • Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland”
  • Eric Stonestreet in “Modern Family”

 

On The Bubble: The Sophomore Search for Self

Being an avid watcher several dozen television shows, I find that I’m never quite settled on my DVR’s playlist.  While many shows feel like must haves, there are always a few that I’m considering getting rid of to make more time for reading, writing, or watching the other shows that people are always talking about that I don’t currently watch (here’s looking at you, Homeland).  Like the emcee at a karaoke bar, I’ve found that some of these only come by once or twice, but the majority of them are regulars.  As we reach the winter break of this current season, I find myself reflecting on two shows with promising starts last season: Up All Night and Suburgatory.

Suburban Wastelands

Suburgatory was never a must-see show, but benefited from airing just before Modern Family, a show I was already committed to watching.  (Why this would matter with a DVR is sort of a mystery to me, but it still for some reason makes a huge difference to me.)  For me, there have always been parts of the show that work and parts that don’t.  With the changes going into this season, like the additions of Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell as regulars and what seemed like an expanded role for Lisa’s boyfriend Malik, I thought the show was doubling down on the things that work best, much of which involves the Shay family.  Instead, Suburgatory has found new ways to highlight its less interesting and funny elements.  I was excited for the relationship between George and Dallas to finally start to progress, for example, but the show wasted several episodes having over-the-top Dallas be over the top even by Dallas standards, while grounded George became even more resistant to these shenanigans than usual.  The fun of watching opposites attract with these two was zapped by overplaying to the extremes.  Fortunately, with the relationship having reached stable ground, the two are back to their dissimilar but complementary dynamic that works really well in limited quantities.

This leads to a larger point overall about something where the show excelled during the first season, playing the tensions between George and Tessa’s city ways and the bizarre and conservative pace of life in Chatswin.  It’s natural to have both characters adapt to some degree to their new surroundings, but the show seems to have lost its voice where this juxtaposition is concerned.  Where George once rejected the suburban way of life as much out of disdain for it as his inability to conform to it, he’s now become the town’s voice of reason in many ways, neither bothered nor befuddled by the neighbors around him, even if many of them still view him as a lesser man.

The biggest detraction from my enjoyment of the show, though, has been Tessa’s direction during this first part of the season.  The story with her wanting to get to know her mother is a logical step emotionally, and were Suburgatory a drama, I think it would work much better.  As comedy, though, there’s not much to be reaped in terms of humor from a daughter’s struggle to make a relationship with the mother who has been within reach but simply out of touch for 15 years.  Even Tessa’s eagerness to spend time with her mother feels like something of a betrayal to me, not because I don’t want them to spend time together, but because Tessa seems to have difficulty making room in her heart for her mother without pushing her father out of it to some degree.  Tessa is portrayed as a mature teenager, and sure, she is, but the character really works best when she is part of teenage storylines, whether involving Lisa, Dahlia, Malik, Ryan, etc. or just interacting with the adults in her life in a way that makes her seem like a teen rather than someone who thinks she’s an equal.  The urge to make Tessa come across as more mature is making her irritating.

The outlook for Suburgatory is still fairly bright, even if it is at the bottom of my DVR list this month.  More recent episodes have returned to some of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the show — the weird family dynamic of the Shays, Lisa’s relationship with Malik, Tessa’s relationship with the other teens on the show, families having outlandish fights over lawns and housekeepers — and are hopefully transitioning out of some of the rough waters of the fall.

Up All Night’s Identity Crisis

The problems of Up All Night are much less straightforward than those of Suburgatory.  Up All Night is a show that I usually enjoy when I watch it, but rarely do I feel compelled to watch.  Up All Night’s cozy timeslot within NBC’s Thursday night comedy block is the primary reason the show is still on my list (though, again, I know that doesn’t make sense for a person who watches everything on DVR).  Up has had a hard time getting into a good rhythm of what the show is about, mostly because it can’t decide what the show is about.

I read numerous complaints during Up’s first season that the show felt like two separate shows, the one people seemed to enjoy about the difficulties of a hip, ambitious couple with a newborn, and the one people seemed less enthusiastic about following the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a talk show diva.  This dichotomy never bothered me much, and actually I was relieved that neither element seemed terribly slapped together, considering that Ava wasn’t even written as a famous talk show host in the original pilot.  While the show did seem on sturdier ground where the home life was concerned — and frankly there are probably many more viewers interested in seeing a professional couple struggle with an adorable baby than an overblown diva walking all over her mousy assistant — the stories surrounding Ava and the talk show did start to pick up focus and depth in the second half of the season.

All of that is a moot point, though, since the Ava Show was completely dropped at the start of this season.  While getting rid of the show within the show may have helped solve the problem of the split identity, it created the larger problem of what do with Maya Rudolph’s Ava, whose plots are seeming like more and more of a stretch each week.  The repeat use of Sean Hayes’s recurring character Walter, not particularly funny in his first appearance, is a clear sign of the writers grasping for ideas for Ava.  Things at home have begun to flourish somewhat, with the addition of Reagan’s brother and the swapping of Chris for Reagan as the at-home parent.  Unlike Ava’s stories, these feel like they are real and have heart.  Background characters like Gene and Terry (or is it Jean and Terry???) have begun to come to life, and the show feels like it knows exactly who it is.  Until it has to cut back to the scenes with Ava.

Once Up All Night wraps for the winter, it will take an extended hiatus before coming back in a new format, as a multi-camera show filmed before a live studio audience.  It is very hard to imagine the show working in this format, and I fear it will only be another instance of taking something and making it work less well than it did before.  The format seemed to be working fine, though perhaps the people in charge think that making the show look like a CBS sitcom will help achieve CBS ratings.  As Guys With Kids can attest, that is not always the case.  No, the real outlier that the show needs to address, if it’s looking to make changes, is Ava.  I really enjoy this character, and love Maya Rudolph, but Up All Night has bucked the ways in which she naturally connected to the rest of the show.  She is no longer working with Reagan, and the show rightly has opted not to have Ava simply hang around the Brinkley home in a way that doesn’t make sense.  The easiest connection to foster without perpetuating the problems with The Ava Show would have been to nurture Ava’s relationship with Jason Lee’s Kevin.  Perhaps Lee was unavailable, though I would think that an offer to be a regular on a network comedy would have been a decent offer for him.  With Kevin as a good friend and neighbor of the Brinkleys, involving him and Ava in Chris and Reagan’s lives would have been easy and natural, and the courting of the talk show queen by a contractor and single dad would have provided tons of potential plots.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the Brinkley’s now seem as far from Ava as ever and all are now heading into a format that seems completely incongruous with the show.  I hope the showrunners can get things together and pull the show into a cohesive, successful unit.  But I fear that this latest retool will be the show’s last before NBC puts it out to pasture at the end of the season.

Top Ten Shows

  • 30 Rock
  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • The Mindy Project
  • Nashville
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Pretty Little Liars
  • Revenge
  • Survivor

Current (or Nearly Current)

Revenge, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Revolution, Go On, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Hart of Dixie, Nashville, American Horror Story, Survivor, Suburgatory, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Saturday Night Live, The Soup

On The Backburner

666 Park Avenue, Ben and Kate, Guys With Kids, Last Resort, Fringe

Winding Down and Catching Up

My two main preoccupations for the post-Thanksgiving week of television were the latest episode of Revolution, and the show’s evolution (or not?) over the season, and getting caught up on the Fox sitcoms.

The Evolution of Revolution

This week Revolution aired its final episode before going off to hibernate for the winter. (The show will be off air until late March.) As other shows start their winter breaks in the coming weeks, the so-called fall/winter/mid-season finales of these shows mark a good time to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going. I’m not sure I have a harder time thinking about any show than I do about Revolution.

When I watched the pilot for Revolution, I thought it was terrible. I couldn’t imagine it would survive more than a few weeks, and I didn’t even think I’d watch a second episode. The plotting was all over the place, with six or eight or maybe even 12 episodes’ worth of action crammed into a single hour, after we’d already been jolted 15 year ahead of what would have been the most interesting aspect of the show. Rather than getting the story of people like ourselves coming with the sudden loss of man-made power sources, we were ultimately handed a rescue mission in a world that had already coped so well with what they’d lost that it hardly seemed to matter that they’d lost it. It became just another story about people who we weren’t given the chance to know before we were asked to care about them. Much of the acting was laughable, and the flashbacks only served to illuminate that apparently, in a world without power, all the visible signs of aging in adults cease to progress.

How then have I come to be so invested in the continuing dramas of Miles, Rachel, Nora, Aaron and, yes, even Charlie, as they go about their various missions? There are moments I watch of the show in the most recent episodes and think how much its grown, that character development has become important and the pacing makes sense and the flashback information we’re getting is interesting rather than obligatory or filler. But I can’t help but wonder if many of these improvements were even intentional, whether getting to know the characters is for its own sake, or simply as a means to stretch the plot because so much of it was expended so quickly in the early episodes? In the episode where we learned Maggie’s backstory, it is casually mentioned that she walked, alone, in a world where people were looting their neighbors’ homes and holding children hostage for a wagon of food, from Seattle to Buffalo. A couple of weeks ago, Neville’s wife Julia went to great lengths to make sure that their son wasn’t send to California from Philadelphia, because of how dangerous a trek it would be, even in a military troop. I see these kinds of discrepancies, and it’s hard to know whether the writers have gained a better sense of this world they’ve created or it’s all just to serve the greater plot.

These questions will start to be answered, I’m sure, as the second half of the season presents itself in the spring. The fall finale left us at an interesting place, and how the show handles things going forward will be very telling. For me, though, nothing is more important than the backstory of how the power was lost. We’ve gotten the beginnings of it, and I was pleasantly surprised that the story so far seems neither lame nor idiotic. But it is much easier to throw out a glimpse of something and make it seem interesting than to craft something that is actually interesting and makes sense. So the jury is still out on whether Revolution is transforming itself into a respectable drama actually worthy of being one of the season’s biggest hits. We’ll have to wait another three months to see if Revolution becomes something more than the show that’s good to make fun of around the water cooler.

Funny Like A Fox

Tuesday has become a wonderfully conflicted night of television for those of us who enjoy “smart” sitcoms, with a DVR-busting lineup that includes Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, Go On, The New Normal, New Girl, and The Mindy Project all airing within the span of an hour.  I’m an old-fashioned viewer who lives to rely on just recording two things at once on the DVR, but Tuesdays has forced me to explore other options to watch all these shows.  This past weekend, I found myself signed up to Hulu Plus to catch up on the episodes of New Girl, Mindy, and Ben and Kate (I’d also missed a few episodes because of power outages and inclement weather) and had a few of those realizations that only come from watching several episodes of things in close proximity.

For one thing, while I like the show well enough to catch one episode per week, i don’t enjoy Ben and Kate enough to watch more than one episode of the show in a row.  I got to the end of the Emergency Kit episode and felt like I’d had enough for a month.  I’m going to have to reconsider giving the time I spend watching this show to something else, like reading or taking a nap.

I more enjoyed watching and contrasting New Girl and The Mindy Project.  My favorite revelation of the weekend was that I’ve actually met Tommy Dewey, the dashingly handsome and charming actor playing Mindy’s love interest Josh on The Mindy Project.  (We went to college together, though I can only claim to have met him during my unsuccessful audition to join the improv troupe of which he was the star.  The saying holds true: Those who can do; those who can’t blog.)  Aside from that, I like the fact that Mindy Project isn’t just doubling down on ensemble hijinks but digging a little deeper into the supporting players.  I didn’t need a reason to invest in Chris Messina’s Danny other than Chris Messina, but I left my mini-marathon caring more about Betsy, Jeremy and even the underutilized Gwen.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Shauna, played by the talented Amanda Setton, of whom I’ve been a fan since Gossip Girl.  I guess the show is going with what works, but I’m sad that she’ll soon be departing.

New Girl continues to march along at its New Girl pace, with its awkward and funny dynamics in the main cast with that hint of the show being not quite as cool as they think they are.  For all Jess’s flaws, I will say it seems uncharacteristically juvenile for her to be pulling the so-called Parent Trap-type shenanigans to reunite her parents who have been divorced since forever.  This by no means ruins the episode, it just detracts from the show’s credibility, which it needs to sell some of the more ambitious episodes it puts out.  But no, what most stands out to me is that almost halfway through the second season, New Girl still seems not to have recovered from having replaced the pilot character Coach with Winston (because of Damon Wayans, Jr.’s unavailability when Happy Endings was picked up).  I can only imagine what the character and the subsequent dynamics would have been like had Coach stuck around, either with Wayans or maybe with Lamorne Morris as a recast instead of a new character, but it is impossible to get past the idea that Winston is just a placeholder or a foil, someone who exists almost exclusively to take a side when two of the other roommates are arguing or act as a foil to Nick’s or Schmidt’s peculiarities.  Toward the end of last season, New Girl really seemed to make an effort to develop Winston, building up his relationship with Shelby and having him search for a career.  But through all of that, and despite a few shining moments (working with Jess’s bell choir kids and singing along to Wicked while driving Schmidt’s van come to mind), Winston has failed to register as an actual person in the New Girl world.  I don’t even mean that he’s just less developed that Jess, Schmidt, Nick and Cece.  Characters have come on for an episode or two and existed more on their own than he does.  I like New Girl a lot, but the show would be much better off if they could find a way to use Winston beyond just filling whatever space the other characters leave for him in every episode and start considering him with somewhat comparable importance to the other characters.  If not, they should get rid of him and replace him with a character who the powers that be do feel is real and worthy of existing beyond propping up the other four.

Top Ten Shows

  • 30 Rock
  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • The Mindy Project
  • Nashville
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Pretty Little Liars
  • Revenge
  • Survivor

Current (or Nearly Current)

Revenge, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Revolution, Go On, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Hart of Dixie, Nashville, American Horror Story, Survivor, Suburgatory, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Saturday Night Live, The Soup

On The Backburner

666 Park Avenue, Ben and Kate, Guys With Kids, Last Resort, Fringe

Welcome to Live Plus Seven!

I love quite a few great shows, and more than a few shows that are considered terrible.  Here I will chronicle my weekly thoughts on the shows I’ve watched for the week, those I’m letting pile up on my DVR, and most importantly, those that I’m considering dropping out of irritation/frustration/boredom, but almost definitely will not.  Enjoy!