Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2013 TV Year in Review: The Bad

As much as I enjoyed the year's TV lineup, I don't want it to seem like it was all good on the small screen. Per usual, there were a number of shows that simply didn't make the cut. So let's talk about them.

The Newbies:

I don't think anything proved to be a bigger waste of time on a weekly basis than Fox's The Following. I'd be shocked if any new series in 2013 had a bigger PR push leading up to the pilot. It seemed to have everything going for it. From Kevin Bacon making his debut as a TV leading man, to James Purefoy being fun and menacing, to the always preferable 13 episode season. And yet so much was missing or just lacking. The love story was pathetic and unbelievable, the multiple disciples Carroll had, all in exactly the place he needed them to be, strained credulity so much it was
laughable, the show never really deigned to show us exactly what it was about Carroll that made him so appealing and charismatic to these people in the first place, and so many things happened on a weekly basis simply because the plot required them to. Generally, when a story has plot elements that seem to come out of no where and have no basis in reality, it's because the writers haven't thought out their characters well enough for their decisions and failings or successes to seem organic. After the 6 episodes I watched (and 6/13 hours is more than enough to gauge a series in my opinion), the writers' sheer lack of clarity on who these characters were was obvious.

But just as bad as all that was The Following's pointless and egregious use of violence. As premium and even just cable shows continue to get more and more popular and more and more critical acclaim, basic cable has found itself in a position to ask what it is that sets these series apart from their own. As opposed to looking at the confidence and crispness of these shows' storytelling, it looks like Fox has decided it's just about the lax Standards and Practices these channels are allowed to employ on their programming. So the writers of The Following decided to cram in a lot of pointless and gratuitous violence and never understood that the presence of violence alone is meaningless without some kind of stakes behind it. 

In the end, The Following is a show of almost-but-not-quite. The Poe foundation could have been nice if the series actually seemed to know anything at all about Edgar Allan Poe beyond what has been made sensationalized over the years. The love triangle between the two not-so-gay guys and the cute androgynous psychopath would have been nice if the show actually understood the complexities of human sexuality instead of wanting to deal with it like a child who thinks kissing adults are funny and mysterious. And I say all of this acknowledging that enough people seemed to continue watching The Following to warrant Fox giving it a second season which starts soon, so maybe I'm the minority here (I actually know I'm not), but everything about this show reeked of bad storytelling tropes.

The other big deal new comer that fell horribly flat was Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I've already detailed my feelings about the first 7 episodes here, so there's not much more to say on the subject;
my thoughts haven't changed as the series has rounded out the 11th hour. But more importantly, after almost a full season by certain standards, AOS hasn't gotten any better and I've finally lost all desire to watch.

Possibly the most disappointing, if not outright offensive, thing the show has done thus far was to come out of hiatus with a huge campaign about finally giving answers on the Coulson mystery only to not deliver with the episode in question. Some light was shed on the issue, the story took a miniscule step forward, but the question of what actually happened to Agent Coulson still hasn't been answered. And the scant, pseudo-answer the episode provided did nothing to inspire me to even want to find out what the real answer is. So with all of the promise in the world, with the same team that was behind Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog leading the way, and with all of the might of Marvel's cinematic universe behind it, AOS turns out to be a bust. C'est la vie.

The Favorites?:

Forever proving that a series doesn't have to be new out of the gate to be a disappointment, last year saw a couple shows that simply couldn't get their shit together long enough to prove to be worth watching any longer.

Dexter had the unenviable job of trying to wrap up a series that had long outlived its usefulness in a lot of ways. This is a point upon which I certainly think I am in the minority, but while Dexter hadn't been great in many years, I don't think it reached a point of being fully unwatchable until it's final
season. Nothing the show has done since it's fourth season (which was a solid four years ago mind you) has been "good," but I don't think anything they did forced viewers to give up on the show en masse. And then there was Hannah McKay.

If there was one mistake Dexter made over the years, (and trust me there were many) it was in not understanding who their main character really was and trying to force more traditional TV storylines onto him. Dexter isn't the type of person to need or even really want a relationship. His whole thing with Rita was invented out of necessity and convenience, but somewhere along the line the show forgot that important fact and decided they wanted Dex to be a normal guy who just sometimes kills people. As a result we get characters like Hannah who have no purpose beyond being a love interest for a character who shouldn't have any more love interests. The character never really functions or gets off the ground in any serious fashion and as such she never really works.

On top of that, the show never really figured out what it wanted to do with the presence of Dexter's son, Harrison, so they invent an excuse to pawn him off on a number of equally useless nannies and baby sitters to justify daddy going off all night to murder people. Again it's an example of the show forcing events to fit the plot instead of developing organically. And with the opportunity to make Harrison into Dexter 2.0 given his experience with Rita's death, it's impossible to look at the route the show ended up choosing as being anything other than disappointing.

I haven't officially finished watching the last season yet, I gave up on it with about 3 or 4 episodes to go, but from what I've heard the ending did nothing at all to improve the show's overall standing, so I won't be rushing to finish up. But ultimately I think Dexter is just an example of how 8 years with a series is about 3 or 4 years too many.

The other show I said goodbye to in 2013 was Glee. The last time I gave up on a series in the middle of its run after years of dedicated, though declining, loyalty was the beginning of the fourth season of Heroes. At the time, no one realized that that season would the show's last, but after three years of diminishing returns, I finally had to say I'd had enough of the series. The same can be said of Glee, though I gave up on that series seemingly a couple years before it will officially reach its end.

The sad part about this is that I don't know that I can say Glee officially hit its rock bottom in 2013. Certainly the end of its fourth season left a lot to be desired, and featured the constantly offensive and deplorable Shooting Star which honestly should be brought up on charges for criminal negligence, but its return for its fifth season wasn't horrible. The two Beatles tribute episodes to kick things off weren't the worst installments the show had ever seen, and the Finn Hudson / Cory Monteith tribute was affecting no matter what logistical complaints I had about it. But where those first three episodes failed was in giving me a reason to continue watching. None of the storylines set forth in those early weeks seemed to be worthy of the screen time they'd wind up with (with the exception of the Santana / Demi Lovato love story that I actually am sorry to be missing), and the whole Kurt / Blane getting married thing was an active turn off for me. The best episode of the fourth season was The Breakup, and Kurt and Blane getting back together and then getting engaged on top of it totally undermined a lot of the brilliance of that particular hour.

But other than that, the problem with Glee in 2013 really just boiled down to More-of-the-Same-itis and I couldn't take it any longer. I couldn't handle more of Kurt and Blane drama, more of the show's misuse of characters like Tina Chang, more of the drastic shifts in characterization, or more of the ridiculous leaps in lack of logic that the show made on a regular basis. To an extent, I think that the fact that Glee stopped making any kind of sense years ago would be fine if it had at least continued to be funny. But that wasn't the case, and as such it lost pretty much all of its appeal over the years. The sad thing about the two most recent seasons of the show is that the New York based storylines have actually been enjoyable if not good while everything back in Lima has fallen into being unwatchable / offensive. If they'd just changed the series at its fourth season to be exclusively the story of the graduating seniors trying to make it in the world, I think it might have been a better choice. But I say that acknowledging that very few high school shows have ever successfully made the transition into college, and I don't trust Ryan Murphy with anything. But if we judge based on simple comparison, the New York stuff was way better and didn't constitute enough screen time to keep me watching the whole series, so I had to say goodbye.

Honorable Mentions:

1) Some of the best news to come out of the end of 2013 had to be the cancellation of True Blood on HBO. Much like Dexter, True Blood reached a point where it should have ended many moons ago, but there's a part of me that thinks this last season was the worst one yet. I don't know if it was the ultimately pointless Billith storyline, the continued insistence on keeping the peripheral characters at the forefront of the story (who honestly cared about Andy's kids?), or the show's complete unwillingness to allow Sookie to simply be single and ok, but whatever it was, this season never once found itself capable of being enjoyable. As opposed to previous seasons that saw brief flashes of entertaining storylines before the entire thing went down the toilet, this year it was just hard to get behind any aspect of the series. I will say that a lot of what they did with Jessica as a character was interesting, but I won't be sad to see the last of this show.

2) Ray Donovan was another series that started with a lot of fanfare, as Showtime shows tend to be, and very little payoff. I watched roughly the first 6 episodes and the different elements of the series never came together for me in a manner that would justify continued watching. Ray seemed like the kind of show with glimpses of good shows locked inside of it, but its inability to decide once and for all which show it wanted to be, which storyline it wanted to give the most weight, was a detriment. I think when a show, or any kind of story for that matter, tries to be everything, it succeeds in being nothing. But the glimpses nestled within it suggests the possibility that the show could be better in the future, or for all I know the last 6 episodes were much better than the first 6, but I doubt I'll be granted that information.

So there you have it, two posts about the highs and the lows of 2013's TV landscape. Stay tuned for my thoughts, hopes, desires, and excitements for 2014's TV season.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2013 TV Year in Review: The Good

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine a couple days ago and I told her that the fact that someone in Hollywood looked at the cinema landscape and honestly thought "You know what we need? A Robocop remake!" truly horrifies me. She asked me what I thought it meant about the state of Film today and this seeming nostalgia Hollywood has for almost all things 80's, and I told her I simply think it means that Film is frightened to try anything new while TV is bursting at the seams with innovation and boundary pushing. After watching the sheer amount of TV I did over 2013, and I'm honestly almost ashamed to admit to how much TV I do watch, I must say I stand behind that outlook. A lot of people have been saying for years now that we're in the middle of a TV renaissance, and I don't think it's ever been more obviously true than it was last year.

The Newbies:

Two of my favorite things about 2013 were Orphan Black and Orange is the New Black. I came across an ad for Orphan online a couple days before the series began and was just in time to catch the pilot airing on BBC America, and I was blown away. Initially, it was due to the show's willingness to have its protagonist be kind of hate-able from the get go, but as time went on, I fell in love with pretty much every aspect of the show. But of course I couldn't love anything about it more than I do Tatiana Maslany, who honestly has to the be biggest success of the year hands down. Watching Tatiana create each of her characters from the ground up was the most fun anyone could have had each week, but the rest of the show didn't disappoint either. Orphan Black told its story with a confidence I don't
think you generally get to see in TV outside of the upper echelon of series (more of them to come). It didn't waste any time getting around to the heart of the mystery of the show and had no interest in drawing out the reveal that the characters were clones. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D should take note on this point.

But maybe even more important than all that was the huge stride forward Orphan Black took by placing its story in the hands of a relatively unknown *female* lead!!!! Finally a show (a genre show no less) with the balls confidence to see that a woman can indeed carry a series! With any luck under God the rest of the copy cats in tinsel town will take note and we can finally start to get some more gender equality on the small screen!

And leading that charge is the other breakout new series of the year: Orange is the New Black. If Orphan Black was pushing boundaries by placing one female in the lead (playing almost every main character herself no less), then Orange was clearly out to throw grenades at the boundaries by placing multiple women of multiple races and ages at the forefront of its story. The outcome is a ridiculously funny, entertaining, heartfelt, thought-provoking 13 episodes that left everyone who watched them chomping at the bit for more.

If 2013 becomes the year that all doubts or questions about Netflix's viability as a source for original programming were put to rest, then I venture to say that Orange is the New Black is the reason why.  It's a series grounded in great acting and directing that just so happens to be equally entertaining on a binge watch as it is when taken in small doses, and it's the only series Netflix has put out thus far that I feel totally comfortable saying that about.

The Favorites:

Not to be outdone by the newbies, a few of the perennial favorites also had (expected) great years, or at least great episodes as was the case for AMC's The Walking Dead. When it aired back on March 3rd, I was very quick to hail the episode Clear as the best episode of TV that 2013 was likely to see barring entries from TV's top dogs Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones which hadn't started their seasons yet.

Clear turned out to be the quietest most well contained, and overall best, episode the show had seen since its first season. Indeed, the core of the story harkened back to storylines from that first season. The Walking Dead is a show that works best with a bit of forward momentum. So long as the characters are moving forward and driving towards something, it tends to be enjoyable and worth watching, but once they become stagnant, the show lacks much of what makes it special. This was the problem with all of the second and a lot of the third season. And just when I (and a lot of others) was starting to think that the show was going to lose all coherence and watchability, the (then) future showrunner, Scott M. Gimple, penned an episode so good that all of my faith was renewed. I didn't know TWD was capable of being as good, enjoyable, and introspective as Clear turned out to be, and I'm so happy to find out that it could. The beginnings of season 4 that aired last fall were equally good, proving that Gimple is exactly the man for the job, but nothing really surpassed Clear if for no other reason than because it was just so much better from start to finish than I thought the series was capable of being any longer.

While The Walking Dead revived its storytelling ability, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones merely solidified their constant places at the top of the TV pyramid. Game of Thrones has long been a favorite of mine, but I think it truly set itself apart by taking something that a lot of people knew was coming and still succeeding in making it completely affecting and seriously entertaining.  The Rains of Castamere is great. From start to finish it's just great, and there's not much more anyone can say about it. But I'm going to try anyway. I think there are three main points to be made about the episode's greatness:

1) It teaches you how to watch the show.

In the event that there was anyone uncertain that they needed to be watching the ninth episode of each season ready for something epic to happen, The Rains of Castamere put that doubt to rest. I hadn't read the books when I watched through the first season, so if I had a knock against the show, it was that its pacing didn't make sense. To hit the penultimate episode and kill off your protagonist only to follow it up with the boringest episode the season had seen was ridiculous to me. Now that I understand the rhythms of the series, I don't feel that way anymore. I know exactly what to expect from a season of GoT. I know the first 2 episodes will play catch up with all of our characters, I know that the 9th episode will be the most epic thing we'll ever see, and the finale will just be a bit a place-setting for the next season. This should have been clear to most people after the second season, but two points make a line and not a pattern, per se, so the ability for the third season to reiterate these things was important and enjoyable. And the fact that they did it was a set piece as amazing as the Red Wedding was sheer brilliance.

2) The title!

It would have been so pathetically easy to call this episode The Red Wedding and be done with it. Everyone who'd read the books (and even just those of us who were only on tumblr) knew what was to come. The Red Wedding is one of the most iconographic moments of the series, and maybe all of Fantasy as a whole. But instead what the showrunners did was take this song which has its own sense of mystique and put it at the forefront. One of the smartest adaptation moves D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have made has been to have The Rains of Castamere orchestrated (at least I hope that was their decision) and to make sure they've had it playing on the show's score during some of the most important and shocking moments. In that sense, the song has just as much meaning to the viewers as it does to the people of Westeros. This way, when the song starts playing at the wedding, we don't even need Catelyn's reaction shot to tell us shit is about to go down. The title of the episode and the song carry all the weight and some subtlety to anyone still a bit too slow to get it.

3) The Stark-centric nature of the entire episode.

After focusing 2012's Blackwater fully on King's Landing with Sansa being the only Tully Stark on screen, it was nice to toss King's Landing aside and focus only on the stories surrounding the other Stark children. While I think the show and the series have been making it a point to ensure the cast of characters share top billing in a lot of ways, I don't think we've ever really left behind the notion that this is primarily the Stark's story. Dany and Tyrion factor in greatly to everything that's happened and will happen, but I think we're all left with the general feeling that the overall fate of Westeros is in the hands of the remaining Starks, so focusing on them as they lose 2 more members was a great way to heighten the episode. Again I say Sheer Brilliance.

Rounding out the best of the best of 2013 TV are the two best installments the medium has ever seen, or might ever see in future: Breaking Bad's Ozymandias and Felina. I swear I don't think it's even remotely possible to say anything about these episodes that hasn't already been said, and said far more eloquently than I could ever imagine. While the greatness of an episode of The Walking Dead could be found in the series reaching heights it didn't seem to possess any longer, and the greatness of Game of Thrones could be seen as a relatively young show simply continuing to solidify itself at the top, the genius of these two episodes of Breaking Bad is all about the final and inevitable death of a king finding a way to go out on top. BB doesn't simply end its run on a note that continues its stance as a great show, it burns the house down behind it and challenges everyone to even try and achieve what it's achieved in its six years on air.

If the main question surrounding the pending end of the most addictive show on television was whether or not it would be able to live up to the series' storied run, Ozymandias and Felina put all those questions to rest. Two hours of amazing storytelling, great visuals, pulse pounding action, wrapped up lose threads, and questions finally answered. Vince Gilligan and company finally took a firm stance on the long-standing question of Walter White's sympathy or morality and told all Walter White apologist to STFU once and for all with the series' most riveting moment: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really....I was alive." It's all of a minute long, and it's some of the best acting and one of the most jaw dropping moments in all of TV history in my not so humble opinion.

But that's to say nothing about the other great moments of those two outstanding episodes. Everything from Hank's death, to Skylar standing up to Walter (and if the way the camera holds on the shot of the knife and the phone while she makes her decision isn't just the most amazing thing you've ever seen, then I don't know what), to the final fracture and eventual heal (band-aid at least?) of the Walter--Jesse relationship was handled with the utmost skill, respect, and appreciation. I think that there will always be people who refuse to watch Breaking Bad for one reason or another, but in the end, the reason all of us and all of your friends have been harping on you about this show is simple: It's the best thing that the small screen has seen in many many decades. It's a show that pushed the medium forward and definitively showed what long-form storytelling was truly capable of, and I just don't know that anything will surpass it.

Honorable Mentions:

1) Scandal is a show that it can be tough to admit to loving, and recommending to others, but when a season premier features a scene like this one, how can you not throw yourself behind it? Very few shows have as many "Oh Shit!" moments as Scandal does on a weekly basis, and the third season opened with one that perfectly encapsulated a lot of what the show is about, what it stands for, and what the rest of the season was really going to be. It also might be the single most perfect foundation laying scene ever as we're finally introduced to Eli Pope not as just the strong shadowy figure getting shit done, but as Olivia's father. It was great!

2) Hannibal was an early surprise for the 2013 season because I didn't think anything on NBC would be capable of being that enjoyable, but I honestly should have known better than to bet against a genius like Bryan Fuller. Great performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen center this show, a great balance between being serialized and episodic elevate it, and a visual beauty that's unprecedented on network TV truly marked it as one of the greats of 2013. Small audience numbers will probably doom it and the other NBC break out Dracula to being cancelled before their time, but I'd strongly suggest enjoying them while they last.

3) On the Comedy tip, I think attention has to be paid to Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I honestly don't watch very much comedy (when you've got Archer, I don't think you really need much more), but Brooklyn turned out to not only be effortlessly funny, it's also astonishingly diverse. It's characters are fully realized and unique, and its comedy is derived from those characters being placed in great situations not the typical racist, sexist, homophobic humor that got old back in the early 2000s. With any luck this could be the future of network comedy, but so long as Seth MacFarlane is being contacted to make TV, I wouldn't bet on it.

4) The Americans had a very quiet opening season, and while I don't know that it'll be one of the shows 2013 is truly known for, I do think it was a great start to what will hopefully be a long run. It perfectly integrated its marital troubles story into its spy craft in a way that I didn't expect heading in. It was interesting each week, and there were always funny wigs, so there's that.

So I know I droned on for awhile, but this is something I'm passionate about and I felt I needed to make up for a month's worth of not posting. I'm going to spend the next couple days working on a post focused on The Bad aspects of 2013 TV, and maybe a separate post dedicated to where I hope TV is and isn't going in the future based on these findings, so keep an eye out for that. And here's to the year to come in Storytelling!