This is not an attempt to be a comprehensive “best of” list, more a few notes on some of the television shows I’ve watched this year; in alphabetical order.
The Americans – It’s a hoot for someone who lived through the Reagan era and the heightened military buildup, the hyperbolic “evil empire” rhetoric, to see a show set in that time where we are encouraged and expected to root for the Communist spies. It’s subversively brilliant on some minor level, sort of like Ron Artest changing his name to Meta World Peace (not just world peace, but freaking META…), forcing broadcasters to say those words over and over, something has to seep in over time and if it’s an implicit criticism of the Reagan years and the insane, self-righteous thuggery of that president and his ilk (or a heightened commitment to world peace), all the better.
It’s true they cook the books just a little, Noah Emmerich as the most visible FBI rival (and neighbor) is not particularly pleasant or likeable as a character and becomes less so as he gets himself entangled in a sexual affair with a woman at the Soviet embassy (a Russian who at all times seems more real and human than her American handler/lover). But the show is also an examination of a marriage that was for most of the 20 years as much assignment as marriage (despite two children), but is possibly becoming something a bit more real, something closer to real love, tapping into a wonderful metaphor about how really loving someone rather than being part of a social construction is dangerous and scary (in their cases, physically so, since with love comes new motivations that may not mesh with their Soviet handlers’ wishes). And this doesn’t come close to getting at how fun the show is, how tense and full of first-rate action (they’re particularly strong in hand to hand combat scenes) it is and how good both Matthew Rhys (as the “warmer” and seemingly more vulnerable of the two) and Keri Russell are (Russell’s emotionally cooler wife character can be terrifying in her seeming blankness). It’s going to be interesting to see if they can integrate the children into this coming season’s story (something Breaking Bad never managed to do with Junior).
Archer – For all the outlandish plots, absurdly crude double entendres and suggestions of wild and often violent sex, what really comes through are the small moments of comedy. H. Jon Benjamin can do more with a single word – “Phrasing!” – than most actors can do with an entire comic monologue.
Arrow – Slowly turning into the best superhero show on TV, which is a fairly low bar, I realize, especially since their main competition seems to be the strangely inert Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but even for someone who has very little knowledge of the DC universe, it is thrilling to watch the various creation myths surrounding superheros and supervillains in this universe coming to life (at times, it seems like almost every character on the show is going to end up being some sort of iconic DC hero/villain). The show is consistently well cast (Stephen Amell has really shaped into an actor who can handle the Oliver Queen and the Green Arrow parts of the story with equal aplomb), the physical action when it’s humming is the best on television (there’s a kind of parkour quality to the best of the action, though we can never fully forget this is a CW show with a limited budget).
Breaking Bad – I’ve got nothing to say about this series that hasn’t been said many times before. As someone who has been on the side of the final episodes of two other “water cooler” series (Seinfeld and The Sopranos), I will say, BB’s was the most satisfying overall, which isn’t the same as saying it was the best. For those of you who found how it shook out implausible or not sufficiently punitive to Walter, I’d answer that the show has never been particularly textually plausible (see the giant magnet break-in, the poisoning of Brock, and the train heist for further info) and anyone who doesn’t think Walter suffered enough wasn’t paying attention.
Elementary and Persons of Interest – CBS has a history as an older person’s channel and in many ways, this continues today. All those CSI/NCSI shows are angled towards an older crowd and comedies like Two Broke Girls (painfully, inexorably unfunny) and Mike and Molly fit this model well. And so do in many ways these two shows. In both, the moral landscape is fundamentally conservative. Person posits a world where a machine that sees everything and is able to pry into anyone’s business using a series of street cameras and taps into cell phones is fundamentally a power for the greater good; the government isn’t necessarily abusing the machine (it’s for combating “terrorism” and in this, the show shows no nuance as to what that might mean), it just isn’t interested in the non-terrorist threats, which is where our two heroes come in. And Elementary has an even simpler moral landscape where the central uber genius is a kind of bratty moral force and the cops are good and clean and just. Both shows rise above the CBS junk heap for different reasons. For Elementary, the interest essentially boils down to Jonny Lee Miller and how much patience one has for a highly mannered, tic-heavy acting style (indeed, Miller’s sour faces add to the show’s texture and I can’t think of another “hero” on television who looks so good one moment and so small and pinched the next), though in the end, it’s his precise annunciation of dialogue, even dialogue heavy on exposition, that really comes through, and much of the pleasure of the show comes from listening to him speak this dialogue, which also of course reveals a very lively mind. Lucy Liu as Watson is a good idea that mostly works, but Miller is the heart and soul of the show and he projects a depth, empathy, and moral/emotional complexity that CBS’s other Holmes-esque detective, Patrick Jane, lacks.
Person of Interest is another show altogether. It is in fact one of the loopiest shows on TV and the fact that it flies under the radar as an CBS justice-is-served drama makes it even loopier. Last season when the machine moved itself (I love that this is now plausible) and developed an almost supernatural connection with Amy Acker’s Root, the show veered towards science fiction. I find humor in the notion that the machine contacted a moving company online, gave them detailed instructions where to move it, paid for it, the first few steps towards sentience apparently being the ability to employ Fed Ex. Not that the show is really interested in this direction, mostly it’s a case of the week show with the various conspiracies running side by side and spilling over from week to week, and that’s always going to be its focus.
And while this may be a show where the creation of a machine that can spy on, essentially, every American is seen as benign and for the greater good (anyone paying attention knows the truth is exactly the opposite), it’s no fan of the powers that be. No one trusts the federal government and for much of its run, a secret crime organization has been operating within the police department. Indeed, part of the fun of the show is the truth that there are usually two and sometimes three conspiracies going on at any one time. Add to that Jim Cavaziel’s stoic asskicker John (the show manages to consistently find sly humor in how laconically John can beat up a room full of thugs), Sarah Shahi’s murderous, comic foil ex spook (I’m surely not the only one who is hoping that at some point her and Root might, you know, get drunk and fool around a bit – it was thrilling in a recent episode when Root grabbed two guns and mowed down four or five guys and Shahi’s only comment was a deadpan, “That’s hot.”), and of course Michael Emerson’s semi-mysterious Harold, who is saddled with much of the expository dialogue in the show but still manages to emerge as benign version of the character he played on Lost. It’s a strange and demented mix of elements that may be the most wildly entertaining show on TV, though it’ll never get its due as such.
Game of Thrones – I was late to Game of Thrones, this past season being the first full season I’ve watched as it was being broadcast and it was thrilling. I can’t remember another series that had so many jaw-dropping final moments, from the Kingslayer losing his hand to the Red Wedding (like everyone I was shocked into disbelief that they’d just done what they did) to Daeny’s revelation that she speaks the slave-trainer’s language as she takes back her dragon, torches the baddies, and claims her slave army. And like most of us, I want to see a spinoff series about the wacky misadventures of Arya Stark (aka Cool Kid) and The Hound where much bloody mayhem and hilarity would undoubtedly abound, likely at the same time.
Girls – I watch it but I can’t say I enjoy it exactly. Or my enjoyment is more distanced and second-hand, like I’m happy the show has a presence in our culture and even that it’s getting so much attention and I can enjoy it on that level, but I don’t actually much like watching the show itself. I do it, but always on DVR and often stopping several times along the way to do something else. I admire Lena Dunham’s fearlessness physically in the role, though I can’t help but think that in season 2 it turned to schtick, with Hannah repeatedly shedding her clothing because that’s her thing (understand that as an artistic choice, this came to feel played out for me, but there’s value still as a political message about the depiction of people with normal bodies.) And while it might be stereotypically (and hopefully not offensively) heterosexual of me, I have to say I read politics in what happened to Shiri Appleby’s character near the end of last season, who was subjected to a typically unpleasant sexual experience with Adam, ending with him coming on her breasts, which Dunham and company showed in loving close-up. It felt like Dunham was reacting to critics of her nudity, saying, “Fine, you people bitching about me getting naked all the time, you want to see a beautiful woman naked (a WB/CW star no less), here’s my version, cum and all.” Which seems as valid a response to all the cultural hoo hah about the show as any other.
Still, I can’t help but believe the show’s notoriety emerges at least partly out of a perfect storm of clashing generational reaction, each group getting something different out of staking a claim for or against the show. Gen Xers feel smugly reassured they’re safely upstream from this group in the river of self-involved vacuity because there’s no way they were ever that bad, Boomers love to decry the lack of functional, pleasurable sex in the show, implicitly staking their claim as the greatest sexual generation, usually accompanied with a story about the Bacchanalian glories of the 70s, before the whole country started shoving its collective head up its collective ass and forget that fucking is supposed to be fun, the millennials…well, I have no idea what they see in the show. I can’t believe they want to see themselves in Hannah Horvath and company, but…
Justified’s flashiest pleasure is just listening to these people talk to each other; the show is full of characters who like to talk and are mostly good at it. A scene early on in this season nicely captures the spirit of the show. A new gunfighter is in town (the show flirts with these kinds of iconographic associations with westerns without ever fully committing to it, a la Firefly), looking for Raylan and he gets the drop on him, but this guy being arrogant, lays the gun in the middle of the table on a towel, the fastest to the gun wins. There’s some humorous back and forth banter before the guy makes his move and Raylan very simply pulls the towel with the gun towards him and out of the other guy’s reach, grabs it and shoots him. It’s unexpected and witty and exciting and manages to both undercut and embrace the machismo at the core of the scene.
Mad Men – Though the scene didn’t full make textual sense (Sally Draper couldn’t have know all that happened to young Dick Whitman in the house she’s being shown by grown up Don/Dick), there was no more emotionally resonant moment in the entire run of Mad Men than the end of this season where Don takes Sally to the whorehouse where he grew up. It comes off as a desperate, long-overdue apology to Sally, and plea for grace and maybe for redemption as well. I don’t believe it will happen, I suspect Don’s arc is ultimately a tragedy, but it was the loveliest of moments, a spot where Don’s feelings for his daughter finally match ours.
New Girl – A funny thing happened in the past couple of years. Daman Wayans Jr went with Happy Endings and it seemed the smart choice at the time; Happy Endings was really pumping on all cylinders and when it was good, there was nothing quite like it on TV; the pace, the tossed off jokes, the willingness to dip deeply into the absurd. And New Girl while okay was up and down with Coach’s replacement Winston something of a problem (the show still struggles with what to do with him) and Max Greenfield’s Schmidt emerging as the show’s breakout character. Now a year later, Happy Endings is gone (all that frenetic pace was completely dependent on tone and if the tone was off, the whole thing felt forced, which is not conducive to humor) and New Girl is my favorite comedy on the air (at least until Louie reappears). Who would’ve thought that getting the “will they or won’t they” couple together would be so good for a TV show (when it’s been so disastrous for TV shows in the past – I believe Moonlighting scared off a generation of sitcom show runners) and Jake Johnson has emerged as the comic center of the crew (Schmidt is still good, but he’s been saddled with an unfortunate “dating two girls” plotline that the show has to play out, though it’s a losing game); he and Zooey D not only have genuine chemistry, their banter makes them one of the oddest, most inspired comedy couples on TV.
Revenge – As a friend once said watching this show, “I like it when she does her revenge.”
Revolution – Season two is leagues better than the first season. It feels like there’s an actual thinking person running the show rather than some sort of corporate collective mindset. The show has found a passable storyline for Giancarlo Esposito (they can’t do much with his son, who needs to follow last season’s annoying son’s lead and find a way to get himself killed off), Charlie the outrageously irritating daughter no longer makes you want to jab knitting needles into her eyes (though few would object if someone did), and while Billy Burke’s Miles still reads more as a deadpan hair dresser, he’s better with his boy Bass Monroe as his running buddy. The fat bearded dude who apparently can channel murderous nanotech fireflies is still deeply useless, though the show hasn’t caught on yet, and continues to have him do clueless shit that makes no sense beyond moving the plot forward. I’m not yet tired of the digital arterial sprays when Monroe slashes another throat but it’s coming. Hard to imagine this is going anywhere good and the parameters of this universe are still being worked out, they haven’t quite figured out a coherent explanation for either the nanotech or the evil militia who say they want to resurrect the beloved USA (really? Why?), but who are really murderous scumbags who also seem to my eye to be made up of current and future tea party members, though I may be projecting on this last bit.
Sleepy Hollow – People have written with admiration that this show has a black woman lead whose part isn’t conceived around race, which seems a low bar for a show that has a lot more than that going for it. It’s all on the surface but it’s entertaining, reliably deranged, with a jokey view of our founding fathers (except Washington, who gets the full hero treatment). What’s not to like about a show that in the first episode had a headless horseman wielding a machine gun? But ultimately it works because it’s well cast; Tom Mison as (yes) Ichabod Crane manages to project a kind of wry dignity and allows you to feel the weight of his situation (resurrected from 1776 and set loose in 2013 Tarrytown) and Nicole Beharie more than holds her own in the straight man role (the two of them manage to exude an air of flirtiness without ever overtly flirting and there’s zero sense that the show is interested in going that direction). The writers have managed to keep the fish out of water stuff to a minimum and are often surprisingly low key about it. He occasionally grumbles about something modern (paying for bottled water, how McDonald’s food isn’t at all Scottish), but the show has not yet pushed it towards schtick. It’s too bad Clancy Brown went down in the first episode but John Noble** showing up is a nice consolation, Orlando Jones has found his bearings in what is mostly a non-comic role, and John Cho sporadically appears as a…something. Dead guy still walking around who wants to do the right thing but can’t (and is tormented about it) because he’s the sock puppet of the big bad, I guess, the head demon being a horned creature named Moloch (and it is one of the show’s strengths that it plays such hokum straight while embracing the sometimes frightening absurdity of it).
**A moment of silence for Noble’s Walter Bishop (in both universes) from Fringe, one of network television’s truly original creations.
Supernatural – Angels. A lot of angels. And they’re mostly murderous douchebags. Just like in real life.
Top of the Lake and Rectify – Both Sundance original shows, I’ve seen Top of the Lake on several “best of” lists but not Rectify and the latter is the better of the two shows overall, which isn’t quite the same as saying it’s the more inspired of the two. Top of the Lake was often a mess but just as often, there was nothing else like it on TV with its magic New Zealand landscape, collection of ragers, misanthropes and wacky screwed up women. Sometimes it was simply mystifying and it felt like you were losing something in the translation as when the police detective recounted that what they did many years ago to Elizabeth Moss’s rapists was made them lick each others’ assholes. You were like, “Uh, what? What did he just say?” In the end, there was a bit too much of the Dragon Tattoo books in it, their original name “The Men Who Hate Women,” could sum up what we eventually learn about what’s going on in this small NZ community. Along the way, Holly Hunter (with Jane Campion hair) was a hoot, Peter Mullen was terrifying and such a force of nature, I found myself leaning away from the screen, and Elizabeth Moss managed to exude a kind of everyday, real-seeming sexiness unusual on regular TV. Some things it did beautifully; the realization late in the show that the central police detective surely did something sexual to Elizabeth Moss when he put her to bed at his place manages to resonate off the screen into an imagined future while the ending with that detective allowed Moss’s character some cathartic release from this and her earlier rape. But the show really has to cook the books to make it all work (Tooey, the young girl, was in the woods for a crazy long time and it turned out that anyone could pretty much find her whenever they wanted) and when we finally come to understand what’s been going on with these young kids, it reduces the power of what we’ve seen rather than expands it.
Rectify is the better, or at least the more emotionally and structurally sound, show. Aden Young is pitch perfect as the 40ish Daniel Holden out of prison because of DNA evidence after 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his 16 year old girlfriend, crimes for which most of law enforcement and a lot of the town still believes he committed. There’s something of the superhero to Daniel, a sense that he has a power that no one else in the world has, though it’s not a power anyone might want. He’s achieved some otherworldly inner peace and a lot of often arcane book knowledge while remaining in many ways a child (because he went into prison as a teenager and that’s his whole life experience as an adult). It reminded me of the late, lamented show Life with Damian Lewis as a cop who is released from prison after 12 years, sues the police, and gets his old job back as a detective. Like Daniel Holden, Lewis’ Charlie Crews had a Zen outlook that seemed to give him inner peace and strength and the ability to see things others didn’t and in both cases, their time in prison seems to have allowed them to develop some physical powers as well, though Rectify is by all accounts the stranger and more cerebral of the two shows. It manages to hang a sense of dread over the entire thing and though there is some sort of larger conspiracy that’s not particularly well developed at this point (unlike Lake, Rectify is coming back for a second season), we also understand this is the type of show where we might learn Daniel actually did do it.
The Walking Dead — Even when it’s working, it’s never exactly good. Sometimes compelling, even exciting. Sometimes…uh, not. In the first couple seasons, they had far too many problems that I would call first world problems, except of course post-apocalypse, they’re living in a fourth or fifth world country and all these moral/ethical questions were beyond tiresome. They do gore well and have occasionally (though not enough) found zombie images and ideas that are genuinely funny or inventive (Michonne’s armless, jawless zombies on a chain, the man who hung himself in the woods and became a hanging zombie for eternity), but far too often (and in keeping with my skit analogy approach) it’s the equivalent of a bad Saturday Night Live skit. Mildly interesting at first, wears out its welcome 30 seconds in, and is still going three minutes later with no end in sight.
Gunsmoke on TV Land extra –At the end of a story about Kiowa Indians kidnapping the daughter of a farmer (played by the late great Victor French, nobody could do pissed off, scary western guys quite like him – here in a different episode, French offs a Catholic priest – French’s presence alone elevated all the approximately 200 Gunsmoke episodes he appeared in as various characters); French and his two sons pursue (along with Matt Dillon of course), proving themselves along the way to be virulent Indian haters (set against Matt’s more socially progressive and pragmatically understanding marshal) so it comes as a bit of a surprise to everyone onscreen (less so to us) when French’s character confesses he was born Kiowa and he’s been passing for white for a couple of decades. So after everything shakes out and they get back home, there’s this coda as French tries, haltingly, to explain why he went full Coleman Silk on everyone all these years ago:
Victor French – A man…does things………..they’re just done.
Marshal Dillon, nodding in agreement, That about says it, Ed.
Pure economy of expression and if you strip it of its tone of patriarchal solidarity (A person…does things…), hard to argue with. It’s my new guide to living with my past, or (really) any stupid thing I might want to do.