Thursday, June 24, 2010
Annual TV Commentary: 2009-2010 (Part 1)
Here's the first part of my annual TV commentary, this time for the 2009-2010 season. This is a tradition that I started a couple of years ago over at TV.com, with my own feelings about the just-wrapped seasons of some of the major shows that I watch. And remember that each review features spoilers for each show's respective season.
Damages FX (Jan-Apr '10)
After a messy second season, it was gratifying that the writers managed to pull together a wildly convoluted but consistently engaging third year. While Damages' future is still up in the air right now (but with renewal unlikely), season three served as a fitting end to all three years, bringing its main cast to a satisfying close. Unlike season two, there was a direction to the many, many subplots this year. While the show frequently explored abrupt new storylines and characters floated in and out, it didn't actually derail itself like it did last year. In the end, everything merged together and made sense, which is more than I ever could have asked for. At the center of Damages has been Patty and Ellen's dysfunctional relationship, and it was through their individual subplots that they realized they were both pretty necessary in each other's lives. Patty's dreams of Keith Carradine and her first child, as well as Ellen's loneliness and her vitriolic, junkie family both converged, giving them both a new found appreciation for each other. They are a mother and daughter, in a lot of ways, both deeply flawed. The final scene of the season, with Ellen asking Patty the eventually unanswered question of "Was it worth it?", reflected so much about the journeys both women have taken, and whether all the blood and violence and deceit they have endured and deployed over the last three years really had a positive result in the end. A harsh, but almost beautiful ending. Elsewhere, the Tobin family were absolutely worthless. Campbell Scott and Lily Tomlin were stunning as the equally deep and equally abysmal rich cohorts, Tomlin in particular ridiculously tragic in the finale, while Martin Short, out of nowhere, blew me away as the ultimately relatable Lenny Winstone. Tate Donovan completely sold Tom's crumbling private life, while the clueless Alex Benjamin and doomed Tessa Marchetti subplots were engrossing in wildly different ways. In the end, the various story arcs throughout the season all reached genius conclusions, and surprisingly it all made sense. It's so often that TV mysteries unravel with a few dozen plot holes appearing along the way, but nothing like that happened here. A flawlessly acted and epic thriller of a season, which was by turns amusing, badass and frequently tragic. If this is indeed the end for Damages, at least it went out on a major high.
Favorite Scene The final scene of the season, as discussed above. "Was it worth it?"
Favorite Character Patty Hewes
Favorite Episode The Next One's Gonna Go in Your Throat (3.13)
Desperate Housewives ABC (Sep '09-May '10)
As always, the general likeability of Desperate Housewives helps overshadow a lot of the show's flaws. For its sixth season, the show continued to stick to its well-worn formula. Most episodes featured some kind of dumb-shtick-of-the-week subplot (usually reserved for Susan or Gabrielle); along with a couple of vague clues about the over-arching mysteries the show always throws at us. It did feel as if some re-writing occurred mid-way through the season, due to the casual dropping of the Fairview Strangler arc (which resurfaced months later) and hasty departures or screentime-dropping for such dead-weight characters as Ana and the entire Bolen family. Speaking of the Bolan's, I blame the writers for their failure. I initially enjoyed Drea De Matteo's presence on the show, but the rash decision to have the family thrown to the periphery of the series only helped in making their entire storyline pretty redundant. Storylines introduced in the second half of the season were a lot better. I enjoyed the re-appearance of the Strangler arc, strengthened by great performances from Felicity Huffman and Josh Zuckerman, while Bree's involvement with Joan's Creepy Husband from Mad Men (his full name) felt like something straight out of original recipe Melrose Place (and that's a good thing, believe me). For her bon voyage season, I actually really enjoyed the show's use of Katherine. I've never found her particularly fascinating, and her presence on the show seemed contrived ever since her mystery ended back in season four, but the writers gave her two interesting story arcs this year. Her breakdown was treated with just the right amount of crazy trashiness and earnest drama, with Dana Delany genuinely convincing. And her lesbian arc, too, was treated with an unusual amount of respect, for this show anyway. Sure, it was rushed beyond all measure, but it helped that Robin was such a great character played with a lot of charisma by Julie Benz, and Delany's performances helped the storyline to avoid mere ratings-bait. She's never been a great comedic actress, so it was great to see the show finally rewarding her with some juicy dramatic material. For the other housewives, Susan's story arcs continue to drag the show down, while Gabrielle is stuck in standalone-comedic-situation-of-the-week mode, which is unfortunate, but I'm excited for the direction the show is taking next season. A stagnant character like Orson has finally packed his bags, while the introduction of Vanessa Williams promises sparks. The whole baby-swap thing is a little weird, and I don't know what to think about Paul's return just yet, but I'm still pretty involved in this show, despite its age and lack of anything truly fresh anymore.
Favorite Scene Lynette's cluelessness over the dead body of Eddie's mom was vintage Housewives, with just enough horror for it to be real black comedy. "Dead drunk", indeed.
Favorite Character Katherine Mayfair
Favorite Episode Lovely (6.15)
Dollhouse FOX (Sep '09-Jan '10)
In general, Dollhouse season two was an undeniable improvement on the show's shaky first year. Said improvement was mostly down to (and I feel kinda bad for saying it) the reduction in Eliza Dushku's screen time and the greater emphasis put onto the show's supporting cast. Olivia Williams and Enver Gjokaj knocked it out of the park every week, while Fran Kranz made a character I originally disliked suddenly become sympathetic, moving and ultimately heroic. Of the many story arcs this year, I loved Summer Glau's recurring role as Bennett (having never seen her in anything other than Firefly and that little Angel cameo, she really surprised me here), got completely spooked by Priya's back-story with the rapist dude, while Adelle's entanglement with the Rossum heads created a lot of juicy office politics moments. Of course, the show's cancellation brought with it a complete head-f*ck of information, some awesome (Alpha's turnaround, The Attic, Whisky's double-cross), some ridiculously lazy (Boyd as Big Bad), but you have to give the writers credit for managing to wrap up a lot of stuff in just three or four episodes. And even though I was never emotionally involved in the Echo/Ballard relationship, that final scene really packed an emotional punch for me. The over-arching problem with the show was both Echo/Caroline and Eliza herself. Eliza never had the range to give such a character justice, while Echo/Caroline never intrigued me the way Claire/Whisky or Sierra/Priya did. When you see what Amy Acker could do in just a couple of episodes, Eliza's talent just collapsed in comparison. Still, she tried her best, despite having an underwhelming character to deal with. While I don't think I ever really loved the show, or even got particularly sad over its cancellation, you have to admire the attempts to make the show a little deeper than it probably has any right to be. It didn't always work, but some of the more sombre moments dealing with identity and modern-day slavery were pretty cool.
Favorite Scene Claire's near breakdown in Vows, where she explains that she doesn't want her current persona to die. Amy Acker blew me away there.
Favorite Character Claire/Whisky
Favorite Episode Belonging (2.4)
FlashForward ABC (Sep '09-May '10)
I don't think anybody can deny that FlashForward had a great premise. And I don't think anybody can say the pilot wasn't pretty damn nifty. The problem was the writers had no clue how to follow up on both, resulting in the biggest car crash of the 2009-2010 season. I gave up on Heroes this past year, finally over the nonsensical and annoying characters and story arcs and eager to tune into other things. Unfortunately, FlashForward practically became Heroes 2.0, the show plagued by tiresome storylines, confused and frequently moronic plot twists, and needlessly convoluted methods of telling a thin plot. I got to thinking that the show could have worked as more of a soap opera. I was always greater invested in the less fantastical storylines throughout this show's first and only season, like the whole Bryce/Keiko romance, or the questions raised when you witness your own future, and the individual reactions provoked from seeing something so shocking and at times devastating. The premise lends itself to those existentialist questions, and the show would likely have lasted longer if the writers explored all of that a lot more, instead of the constant double-double-agents or the mathematics hoodoo we had to endure so often. It also didn't help that so much screentime was given to such awful characters, from Joseph Fiennes' Tin Man protagonist Mark Benford, his equally robotic wife and her equally monotone future lover, and the ultimately useless sponsor-and-his-war-vet-daughter saga. Also frustrating was the sadness created when you saw talented actors like Shohreh Aghdashloo, Peyton List, Dominic Monaghan, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy, John Cho and Courtney B. Vance stuck in this mess. In the end, the twenty episodes in between the pilot and the finale merely staggered out the time between the flash forward and the results of the flash forward, leaving a lot of it pretty redundant. Janis was a fun character (and ridiculously badass), but it felt that the writers were making her storylines up as they went along, especially the "mole/not a mole" twist, and the same happened with Simon. And whatever happened to the subplot about Gina Torres and her adopted son? FlashForward was a pretty big mess, spoiled by a complete lack of direction, few sympathetic characters and so many behind-the-scenes changes. The show could have been great, and it should have been great with such a great premise. But it wasn't, and its cancellation was probably a blessing in disguise. No good could have come from this.
Favorite Scene The bus rolling into the water during the flash forward, Bjork's It's All So Quiet playing in the background. One of the few striking moments this show ever produced.
Favorite Character Janis Hawk
Favorite Episode Pilot (1.1)
Fringe FOX (Sep '09-May '10)
Fringe is pretty much a modern-day X-Files, I don't think anybody can deny the spiritual similarities. The X-Files, in its prime, was best known for its insanely creative and terrifying monster-of-the-week stories, bite-sized nuggets of genre awesomeness. On the other hand, their mythology episodes frequently bored and eventually spun out of control. With Fringe's second season, it's been the mythology episodes that have totally eclipsed the monster episodes. In creating the alternate universe and the familial ties between both sides, Fringe has suddenly become a dynamic, mind-blowing sci-fi series and one of the best shows on TV. The entire alt universe saga has been at the center of the season, and I adored the Walter-centric episode detailing his abduction of the "other" Peter, as well as the two-part finale (Olivia/Fauxlivia catfight!). Joshua Jackson finally impressed as Peter discovered his past, while John Noble continues to be the heart of the series. One major improvement this year has been with the cast. While I was initially bummed that Charlie was written out at the start of the season, the main cast itself has been strengthened as a result, each character serving their individual purpose on the show and all of them working as a cohesive unit. Even Astrid has a real purpose now! And I haven't even begun talking about the great guest stars, from Leonard Nimoy's doomed William Bell to the wonderful use of character actors like Martha Plimpton and Peter Weller. Fringe is also great at plain, simple "ideas". Who didn't love the buildings melting together from both universes? Or the hillbilly-inbreds that can only be seen in certain lights and angles? Or all the exploding faces?? It's rare to find an episode of Fringe that doesn't surprise me with its wonderment and general ingeniousness. Sure, there were blips along the way, especially in some of the weaker standalone episodes (and we don't need to talk about the musical), but Fringe generally is going from strength to strength, balancing increasingly evolving characters with a stunning myth arc. And with the possibilities of a Alias-esque "evil clone mole chick" arc for next season, you pretty much need to tune in if you're not already. This show needs and deserves a way bigger audience!
Favorite Scene Walter crossing over to the other side, the portal slicing off Nina Sharp's hand in the process.
Favorite Character Walter Bishop
Favorite Episode Northwest Passage (2.21)
Glee FOX (May '09-May '10)
I pride myself on being into this show from the very beginning. And by very beginning I mean the very first Variety article about Fox picking up the script. Of course, I'm a huge Ryan Murphy fan, and the general concept of the show intrigued me, especially with my affinity for his first show Popular, another high-school comedy which combined various genres to manic, disorientating affect. For me, Glee taps into that part of me that kind of misses high school. Not so much the singing, as I was never a singer, but I did a lot of high school theatre, and Glee always reminded me of those days, with performances and bonding and using expression and art as a way of improving yourself and a way to enhance personal growth. In that respect, Glee is an unprecedented success. It's in equal parts moving, hilarious and down-right infectious in its charm. It has a wonderful ensemble of memorable characters, from Puck's charming bastard, to adorable Quinn, Rachel's Tracy Flick-insanity, Kurt's queeny glam, Brittany and her ridiculously vapid and deadpan one-liners, and the high priestess of awesomeness Sue Sylvester (the Zoot Suit still ranks up there as one of the best reveals ever). However, it's pretty undeniable that the actual quality of the storytelling has been all over the place, especially in the second half of the season. I'm partially used to Ryan Murphy's schizophrenic writing techniques from years of Nip/Tuck, but Glee's consistent shifting in tone even rattled me at certain points. As a show, it has the bizarre ability to make complete 180° changes, from ridiculous, campy insanity like Rachel's brief romantic infatuation with Will, to moving drama such as Emma's intimacy issues, to corny after-school special junk like Mercedes and her thirty-second-long battle with bulimia or whatever. The changing in tone sometimes works for this show (as a viewer you have to pretty much "go with it", seriously), but the second half of the season really didn't work for me at certain points: people acting out of character; corny "message" pieces. In terms of actual stories, I personally really liked the "fake-baby" arc in part one, and a lot of the supporting characters along the way had some great subplots, like Kurt and his dad, Artie's wheelchair insecurities, the Kristen Chenoweth guest spot (even if I choose to block the entire Home episode out of my memory), all of Sue's shenanigans (Vogue, her dating woes, "sexual blackmail", even the stuff with her sister was saved from Lifetime-tude by Jane Lynch's talents). But a lot of the greatness feels like it has come from "moments", not actual story arcs. And a lot of the cast are routinely shuffled to center stage and then dropped for weeks, such as Terri. While there are a lot of issues that need to be worked through, the show itself is uniformly fun and perky, and that's majorly lacking on TV. It's also refreshing to see pretty ordinary kids on TV, instead of rich bitches or gossiping idiots or people who look like models. The only flaw in the cast, for me, is Matthew Morrison, who just radiates arrogance. His rapping makes me cringe, and I can't be the only one who thinks Mr. Schu is a tool. Ugh. As a footnote, my favorite routines are undoubtedly Like a Virgin (which was gorgeous), Safety Dance (heartbreaking), Vogue, Jump and Total Eclipse of the Heart. All were stunning.
Favorite Scene "I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And on a cold dark night, I will steal away into your home and punch you in the face."
Favorite Character Sue Sylvester
Favorite Episode Bad Reputation (1.17)