Pretty Little Endings: Ranking the PLL Finales

Aria, Spencer, Alison, Emily and Hanna never know what they're going to find out on a PLL finale.

After 130 episodes, 10 previous finales, an untold number of secrets, and more people accused of being a stalker and/or murderer than even Spencer could keep track of, Tuesday night’s “Game Over, Charles,” the Pretty Little Liars sixth season summer sendoff, promises answers about A, Charles, Red Coat, Black Widow, and hopefully any other lingering concern that feels significant enough to warrant an answer.  Did it ever really matter who Board Shorts was?  Did Emily even apply to that college where Hanna tried to bury a gun in the woods at a sorority party?  Is it too late for Aria to get with Jake now that she’s done with Ezra?  So many questions, and only an hour to answer them all!

Part of the beauty of the Pretty Little Liars finales is that they tend to focus on the preoccupations of the season that preceded them.  Revelations that can ultimately turn out to mean nothing feel incredibly significant when you first learn them.  But do they hold up in the long run?  Action, suspense, and high drama are always on hand to make the viewing experience an enjoyable one, but whether you’ll remember every twist and unmasking when the next season rolls around is another story.  Behold, a (totally subjective) ranking of every summer and spring PLL finale, based on the strength of the episode itself and the significance of what happened therein.  Which finale just keeps reminding us, “I’m still here, bitches?”

10.  Season 3 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – The Lady Killer

Season three begins an era of unending confusion and many incorrect assumptions about who is or is not a part of the A team, which is roundly reflected in this summer finale.  The two most memorable developments of this finale were Emily having to kill Maya’s murderer Nate, which did provide some closure to the season’s most consistent storyline, and Toby being a part of the A team, which was shocking but ultimately not as it appeared.  I don’t even remember Aria, Hanna and Spencer trying to prove that Paige was A, but that happened, too.  Despite the devastating Toby reveal, most of what happens in this episode is too far removed from anything that feels important now to rank any higher than last place.

9.  Season 5 Spring Finale (Episode 26) – Welcome to the Dollhouse

While this episode feels a little light on actual information, or at least information that is particularly new or useful, it is horror-movie-level creepy.  We do find out that Mona is, in fact, alive, and being forced to pretend to be Ali for her obsessed captor.  But by then, Mona was the third character who had been thought dead but wasn’t, after Alison and Toby.  Instead of the dollhouse plot being resolved, all of Spencer’s great escape planning only leads to old home movies confirming that their captor (and likely A) is “Charles” DiLaurentis, a person they never knew existed.  The open-ended ending made this one of the least satisfying finales to date.

8.  Season 4 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

At this point in the show, shocking finale reveals had become par for the course, whether the revealed information would actually stick or not.  Despite the apparent reveal of Ezra being A, the impact was greatly mitigated by the viewer skepticism over the next few months and the explanation during the spring season that Ezra was, in fact, not A.  The episode also gets demerits for being mired in Ravenswood muck, but did feature Cece being identified as Wilden likely murderer, Ashley Marin finally being cleared of said murder, and, most importantly, Mrs. Grunwald telling the girls that Ali was alive.  Even though Ali not being dead had been a very gradual development starting back in season one, the confirmation here marked a huge shift in the dynamic among the girls and the focus of the show.

7.  Season 5 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Taking This One to the Grave

The season-long battle between Mona and Ali – for domination of the halls of Rosewood High, biggest crew of minions and being in the PLL’s good graces – comes to a head in devastating fashion when Mona is murdered just as she was uncovering some truth about A and Alison.  The girls have made Ali their newest accused in their game of pin the black hoodie on the psychopath, and their feeling of powerlessness only escalates with Mona’s murder and Spencer’s arrest for murdering Bethany Young.  The combined trauma of Spencer being arrested and Mona being killed made this finale a strong one, even if Mona did turn up alive 12 episodes later.

6.  Season 1 Summer Finale (Episode 10) – Keep Your Friends Close

Ah, the first finale.  Parts of this seem like a lifetime ago, like the police thinking that Toby murdered Alison, Emily being Toby’s point of entry into the group, Emily’s mom wanting to get her away from Maya, Ashley Marin stealing money from clients at the bank, Aria and Mr. Fitz feeling a degree of modesty about their relationship.  The episode ends with a bang as Hanna, after being uninvited from Mona’s birthday glamping party, is hit by a car after almost catching A.  We also get the sketchy return of Melissa’s ex Ian, who promptly becomes the frontrunner to be A and Ali’s killer, back in a simpler time when it was just assumed those were the same person.  Even though nothing here compares to some of the shock and awe of later finales, everything that happens is legitimate, and important for what came before as well as what comes after.  Hanna’s accident also signals everyone that A was about more than humiliation and exposing secrets.

5.  Season 3 Spring Finale (Episode 24) – A dAngerous gAme

In this time of great turmoil for the Liars — everyone try trusted turned out to be lying to them; people were joining the A team left and right; no one knew how or why anyone was connected to anyone else — this finale had just about everything.  Toby is alive!  The Liars catch Spencer working for Red Coat!  Melissa has secret meetings with Jenna and Shauna!  Various teams of villains!  By the end, the Liars are reunited and even have Mona, who is now also getting texts from A after the trap they tried to set ends in them nearly being burned to death in the Hastings cabin.  We also get Hanna, Mona and Spencer all claiming to have seen Ali, who was at that time not only still dead but having her supposed corpse moved from place to place.  The “What’s in the trunk?” ending was also a classic.  The episode nicely closed some of the threads of the third season, as plot points were either resolved or, more often, totally deemphasized in favor of a new set of problems.

4.  Season 2 Summer Finale (Episode 12) – Over My Dead Body

This was probably the only finale where the pretense of getting closer to solving the show’s larger mysteries is mostly dropped in favor of character drama with damaging repercussions for the girls, as A orders Aria, Hanna and Spencer commit some awful acts in order to save their shrink and confidante Dr. Sullivan.  It makes for an exciting episode that largely holds its own consequences, and then there is another instance of one of the Liars being visited by Ali, who appears to save Emily from carbon monoxide poisoning.  In the end, the girls are left holding a shovel that turns out to be the alleged weapon used to murder Ali.  This would not be the last time the girls are tricked into touching an object that later is implicated in a crime.  Like the first season’s summer finale, the action in this episode is legitimate, and rather than smoke and mirror progress in finding A, those actions have real and lasting effects on the relationships between the girls and those around them.

3.  Season 4 Spring Finale (Episode 24) – A is for Answers

The Liars seem to spend most of season four’s spring half stumbling around with bits of information that never add up to anything worth knowing, but in this finale they finally get Alison to recount what happened to her the night she disappeared when it was assumed she was murdered, including interactions with various characters that will make for some interesting dynamics upon Ali’s eventual return to Rosewood.  And while the cops questioning Cece about Wilden’s murder feels so last season, Ezra takes a bullet trying to help the girls escape from A and Mrs. DiLaurentis is murdered before she can share a reunion with her daughter.  The clarity of actual answers feels like a refreshing change of pace four seasons in, and Mrs. DiLaurentis being murdered in Rosewood while A is also after the girls in New York begs the question, can A possibly be stopped?

2.  Season 1 Spring Finale (Episode 22) – For Whom the Bell Tolls

There’s a lovely focus to this episode, as the girls spend much for their time trying to resolve the show’s central mystery, and, in what had been the main focus of the second half of the season, seek to prove that Ian is A and Ali’s killer.  Even the distractions in this episode feel more focused than the ones to which we’ve become accustomed, as they feel more like the distractions of real people rather than endless love interests and red herrings.  This has one of the strongest endings of any finale, with Ian appearing to confirm that he is A by attacking Spencer at the bell tower, being pushed to his apparent death by a hooded figure, and then disappearing just as the girls get a text to let them know they’ve been after the wrong guy.  This was thrilling, and set the show’s basic formula for finales: startling discovery, life-threatening danger, game-changing twist.

1.  Season 2 Spring Finale (Episode 25) – unmAsked

And that formula was never better than in unmAsked.  Considering this episode contains by far the most satisfying reveAl we’ve ever gotten, it’s pretty much unbeatable.  Tense, suspenseful, exciting and ultimately revealing, this finale was the last and really only time we got an answer to who did anything as A that really held up.  Despite Mona’s insistence that there was a larger conspiracy at work and the appearance of Red Coat at the end, Mona was in fact responsible for almost everything the Liars thought she did as A, and the build on Mona’s final rantings were the basis of almost all A-related plot since.  As if that wasn’t enough, this episode also had Emily learning the police found a body they thought was Maya’s, adding a devastating emotional depth to the finale.

"I'm still here, bitches. And I know everything.  -A"

“I’m still here, bitches. And I know everything. -A”

What We Watched: 2013-2014 Season

The Emmys have come and gone, and we are poised to begin the television season all over again, with new and returning shows hitting the airwaves over the next month.  What better time for a final look back on how we felt about the season that was?  Here we present a comprehensive ranking of every comedy series, drama series, reality series, variety series, miniseries, made-for-TV movie, talk show, game show and daytime drama we watched last season.  Just kidding, we didn’t watch any talk shows.  (For more on the process, see the notes below.)

 

 Top Notch!

Game of Thrones   The show has everything I love — exceptional production values, careful character development, plots with payoffs in both the short term and long term, people getting it on, moments that somehow continue to be shocking even when the audience knows to expect them to be, brilliant acting on a regular basis.  MVP: It’s impossible to pick just one, so I’ll say Lena Headey and Pedro Pascal, two opposing forces of misery and joy, wrath and vengeance, hatred and love.

Veep   So sharp and funny, I love this show even when I’m worried half the jokes are going over my head.  MVP: There’s no denying the mighty comedic prowess of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The Mindy Project   The second season found a 30 Rock-like vibe and pacing that revved up the hilarity even more, while becoming even more heartfelt and lovable.  MVP: Mindy Kaling is everything here, but honorable mention to the other half of the pair that really makes this show sizzle, Chris Messina.

The Americans   This severely underrated drama is methodically brilliant and never boring, while never resorting to histrionics or stunts.  MVP: Matthew Rhys has gotten a lot of well-deserved praise, but Keri Russell is still the most captivating performer on the show.

Hannibal   As underrated as The Americans, but that’s about where the similarities end. There is no way to expect the unexpected twists with every stunningly grotesque episode of this masterpiece.  MVP: Hugh Dancy’s work as Will Graham in this second season was exceptional.

Trophy Wife   That this endlessly charming ensemble never caught on is one of the greatest tragedies of the 2013-14 season of television. Every episode made me not only laugh, but also smile.  MVP: It’s tempting to pick the adorable Albert Tsai, but the most standout in this terrific group is Michaela Watkins, who breathed such life into wacky Jackie.

Survivor   What a thrilling season it was, which is not easy for a show that’s now had dozens of seasons and seemingly already tried every trick in the book. A triumph of casting for sure.  MVP: Perennial underdog Spencer, who everyone wanted to believe in even though there was no reason to.

Days of our Lives   I’m not even grading on a curve here. The show had a fantastic 2013-14 season, and the quality of every episode is a real marvel considering the show airs five days a week, year round.  MVP: Eileen Davidson, aka Queen Eileen, whose Kristen DiMera left a trial of destruction to entertain us for months after she was gone.

Pretty Little Liars   Season four may not have been quite the pinnacle achievement that was season three, becoming a smash hit and needing to draw out your central mystery for seasons longer than anticipated will do that, but it continued to be thrilling, exciting, frustrating, edge-of-your-seat viewing.  MVP: Ashley Benson, whose Hanna had it pretty rough from start to finish.

Looking   This under-the-radar gem about gay friends San Francisco felt like a new concept, despite not really being one, by keeping the drama toned down enough to feel honest and relatable.  MVP: Do I have to pick between Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff? Both great.

Project Runway   Like Survivor, this old dog learned a few new tricks in its summer/fall 2013 season, producing an entertaining season from a talented group, with a winner the audience could get behind.  MVP: The oft-imitated but completely irreplaceable Tim Gunn.

 

Also Good!

Scandal   Almost made top notch just for being so damned entertaining, but a little too heavy on predictable melodrama and over-the-top twists. Just a little.  MVP: Sorry, Kerry, but Bellamy Young made the character who is easiest to root against the show’s most sympathetic.

So You Think You Can Dance   Another great installment in summer 2013 (and even better this past summer), but the lack of a proper results show hurt the proceedings.  MVP: Endlessly adorable winners Amy and Fik-shun.

American Horror Story: Coven   The series’ strongest installment to date, kicking girl power aside to take woman power to a whole new level.  MVP:  Angela Bassett as the deliciously wicked Marie Laveau.

The Normal Heart   Another take on the 80s AIDS crisis could easily have been boring, but this was far from it, filled with righteous indignation and glorious speechifying.  MVP: Matt Bomer spent the movie’s second hour just tugging at the heartstrings, and without his character I’m not sure I would have cared.

Sleepy Hollow   Everything old is new again, but this solid re-imagining of the legend feels more like the heir apparent to Fringe, but based in the out-and-out supernatural rather than extreme science.  MVP:  I have to give Tom Mison the slight edge, but he and Nicole Beharie absolutely sizzle together.  Both excellent.

Supernatural   It’s impressive how consistently entertaining this show continues to be, striking the perfect balance of high stakes and humor to make it perfectly addictive. Plus Sam and Dean are television’s hottest brothers.  (Sorry, Property Brothers.)  MVP: Jensen Ackles, who gets all the best lines because he delivers them perfectly.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine   Consistently funny and enjoyable, though it would probably be even more enjoyable if it strayed from making main character Det. Jake Peralta right all the time.  MVP: Andre Braugher does a remarkable job with a character who is almost completely expressionless.

Louie   Louie has one of the strongest and most distinct voices of any series on television, allowing for some extremely hilarious highs but also perhaps a little too much dwelling on some of its more morose themes.  MVP: Louie CK, clearly.

Community   After a “gas leak season” that was a shadow of its former self, the show returned to some of its former glory. Despite a good season, though, it’s hard not to feel the show hasn’t outgrown itself in many ways.  MVP: No one and everyone. The ensemble works so well together, but no one stood out in season five.

Hart of Dixie   Charming and delightful as always, Dixie did fall short of the standard set with its stellar second season, and seemed to spend much of this one wondering where most of its characters should go next or retreading plots that should be settled.  MVP: Kaitlyn Black, whose character Anna Beth is, outside of Zoe Hart herself, the show’s biggest draw for me.

Parks and Recreation   This is an example of what can happen when a sitcom doesn’t try to keep its characters static. The show is still quite good, but we feel at the point where things are changing too much or the changes feel unnatural. I miss the days of simple Pawnee park problems.  MVP: Amy Poehler still rules.

Jeopardy!   Another fun season of answers and questions! The Battle of the Decades was great, though it might have had more punch if not scattered across the season so much.  MVP: “Jeopardy Julia” Collins, the lovable champ whose winning streak is now second only to that of Ken Jennings.

The Crazy Ones   I actually loved this show, but it felt more like a light half hour drama than a proper comedy, and while the late great Robin Williams shined, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the big draw for me, was generally the straightwoman or sidelined.  MVP:  Williams is obviously great, but Amanda Setton made the somewhat aimless role of Lauren must-see.

The Killing   The first half of the season was very strong, but I never got around to watching the second half, despite my love of homeboy Det. Holder, so obviously not that strong.  MVP: Peter Sarsgaard is killer. Literally?

The Goldbergs   Another strong new offering of the past season, this frequently funny piece of 80s nostalgia was just overshadowed a little by the seasons other new shows.  MVP: Overbearing momma bear Wendi McClendon-Covey should have been an Emmy nominee for her work here.

Dallas   While Dallas hardly even aspires to be more than just your average primetime soap, the intricate and well-planned plotting makes it feel totally worth watching.  MVP: Linda Gray runs the emotional gamut as the boozy former Miss Texas whose family is constantly falling apart.

 

Eh . . .

Cougar Town   Like Community and Parks and Rec, this show, despite still being enjoyable to watch, feels like it should be finished by now, which is probably why half the season is still sitting on my DVR.  MVP: Josh Hopkins, whose Grayson feels like the only character that still has all of his original zing.

Camp   Did anyone else even watch this show that felt like a camp movie extended into a series? I love it because I love camp movies, but it had its issues.  MVP: As Kip, Tom Green was the show’s most relatable character.

Girls   Girls always has its moments — Beach House was a stellar episode — but the show and the characters largely went off the rails in season three.  MVP: Alison Williams as Marnie is my guilty pleasure, but Andrew Rannells really stole the show.

Nashville   After playing out what seemed like every plot imaginable during the first season, I was pleasantly surprised the show paced itself in the second season rather than just going completely insane. That said, some of the stories and characters were as dull as dishwater.  MVP: Hayden Panettiere is the reason to watch this show.

Revolution   Revolution was a mess from the get-go, but found an identity that kind of worked during its second season. Too bad it continued to be obsessed with the scifi artificial intelligence aspect of the storyline.  MVP: To my surprise, David Lyons, as Monroe somehow became the writers’ favorite character in season two.

The Sound of Music Live!  This wasn’t so bad!  MVP: Audra MacDonald.

The Soup   Sure, it’s a production mess, but it’s always funny and a great way to get the gist of all the even worse shows on air the previous week.  MVP: Who wouldn’t happily spend a half hour watching Joel McHale grin devilishly?

Super Fun Night   This wasn’t so bad, either!  It was disappointing, for sure, but the show started to find a groove that worked for itself and its characters by the time it ended.  MVP: Even not as funny as she could be, Rebel Wilson is still really funny.

White Collar   Maybe it’s that the show ran out of cool tricks to show or that the Neil/Peter bromance can only go so far without nullifying the show’s premise, but the season was less fun than usual and a little frustrating.  MVP: Matt Bomer, especially since the show’s whole selling point is that we love Neil no matter what he does.

New Girl   Talk about disappointing. The return of Coach should have helped the season soar higher than before, but the Jess/Nick pairing and the characters’ intensely selfish behavior tanked it.  MVP: Lamorne Morris, as Winston was surprisingly the season’s best character.

The Carrie Diaries   It’s hard for any show to live in the shadow of a television legend, and the more time Carrie spent in New York, the more this felt like a Sex and the City knockoff. The high school drama that made me like the show in the first place was replaced by teens having real world drama, way less fun.  MVP: Donna LaDonna (Chloe Bridges), who should have her own show.

The Millers   Not terrible, but it’s hard not to resent the show when a better comedy airing after it languished in terms of viewership.  MVP: Margo Martindale’s character is just okay, but she really makes the most of it.

Saturday Night Live   Some of the past season’s changes worked, while many did not, but at least they kept trying things, and keep trying things.  MVP: Overall, probably deserving Emmy nominee Kate McKinnon, but it is impossible to forget Cecily Strong’s epic performance in that Blue River Dog Food commercial parody.

Mom   Halfway through the season, I couldn’t see the appeal and just stopped watching.  MVP: No offense to the performers, but none of them had any draw for me.

Glee   A frustrating season of a frustrating show. Just when they seemed on the verge of making it work by moving the show to New York, those storylines either went off the rails and into snoozeville.  MVP: Lea Michele totally owned the season, and stepped up her comedy game.

 

The Dregs

True Blood   The summer 2013 season of the show did some good things, but not enough to make up for just general attrition of interest in the show’s central plot or some of its character blunders.  MVP: Making her triumphant return as Sarah Newlin, the lovely and talented Anna Camp.

2 Broke Girls   This show almost didn’t make the list at all, because I completely forgot I watched it, which means I won’t miss it when I stop.  MVP: Jennifer Coolidge is at least reliably amusing no matter what stupidity she’s being made to say.

Revenge   The show fortunately cast aside its nonsensically convoluted conspiracy plot, but replaced it with pure nonsense and WTF character choices.  MVP: Madeleine Stowe is still the best thing about the show’s ridiculous storylines.

How I Met Your Mother   Never again will I stick it out with a show I’m not enjoying just to see how it ends. I wanted to punch myself for not stopping this two seasons ago.  MVP: Cristin Milioti’s addition might have been the only good thing about the season.

America’s Next Top Model   And somehow this was even worse.  Adding men into the mix should have made the season of Top Model fun and exciting, even if messy and a bit of a trainwreck, but unlikable contestants and ridiculous eliminations helped render the season rather joyless.  MVP: Johnny Wujek (sorely missed on the current season) and contestant Phil were by far the season’s most enjoyable aspects.

 

Notes:

This is merely a completely subjective ranking of shows I watched for all or a significant part of the 2013-2014 season. A show qualified if I saw at least half of its airing, which means half the episodes of a series, or for a movie or special, at least half of that movie or special. Shows which I’ve enjoyed in the past but of which I have not yet seen the most current season, like Breaking Bad or Homeland, could not be ranked. The rankings do take into account expectation and standing in the public arena. For example, if hypothetically an acclaimed series like Girls was, in my opinion, equally enjoyable as its less-buzzed-about lead-out Looking, Looking would be ranked higher. You know, hypothetically. Also, when selecting MVPs, a performer’s standing within the show was taken into account. For example, Scandal revolves around Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, so she’s obviously going to have a big impact. If someone in the supporting cast were to make anywhere near that impact, that person would likely steal the MVP prize from the main star. This is not to diminish the contributions of the main star, but rather to put the acknowledgement of each performer’s contribution into perspective. Feel free to voice any strong agreements, disagreements, additions, etc. in the comments!

A Question Most Pressing

Peek-a-boo! Is anyone watching you?

It’s been forever since last we posted content here at Live Plus Seven!  A look at the last post will show us that some things change while others remain dependable constants.  Happy Endings, Damages, Awake and 30 Rock have all gone to that syndication factory in the sky (also actual syndication in some cases), while struggling gems like The Mindy Project, So You Think You Can Dance, Parks and Recreation, and Hart of Dixie soldier on bravely despite ratings far less stellar than those of their competitors.  Community is on what effectively seems to be its fourth life, soon to be calling Yahoo! home.  Game of Thrones and Veep continue to be creative and critical darlings, and those poor, tortured Pretty Little Liars have already been granted another two seasons of torment at the hands of anyone capable of sending mass texts and blocking their number.  We had high hopes for new shows, some of which we don’t even remember — which one was Do No Harm? — and others of which are making their mark on the television landscape, for better (The Americans, one of television’s best and least flashy dramas) or worse (The Following, yikes).

But this post isn’t about any of that, but rather a very, very pressing question that, in the current climate of television entertainment, must be asked:

Is anyone watching Mystery Girls on ABC Family?  I can at once say the show is terrible and also that I think I love it.  The dialogue and scenarios feel as dated as the episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 it references for laughs, and yet my love of said episodes makes it almost impossible to resist the re-teaming of Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling (not quite as irresistible as swapping out Tori Spelling for Tiffani Theissen or Kathleen Robertson, but Tori is the one with the D-list cache to get a show like this off the ground).  You have to admire that Tori is self-aware enough to totally lean into playing a character who is almost a caricature of a caricature.  Jennie Garth is a treasure as the straight-woman to Tori’s antics.  Sometimes I wish the show was about identical twins, and Jennie was playing both roles, no offense to Tori.  The show’s only other character, the girls’ gay assistant Nick, feels like a perpetual missed opportunity for the show to be just a little bit better than it is.

So the show is really not very good, and yet I keep wanting to watch it, which almost makes it good by default.  No one I know seems to have anything to say about it, more maybe they don’t want to admit they’ve seen it.  What say you, Internet?  Is there maybe something more to this mystery than meets the eye?

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