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