Here's the first part of my annual TV commentary, this time for the 2010-2011 season. It's a little smaller than usual, not only because the TV landscape flatlined a little last year, but because I end up watching a lot of shows (notably the cable series) on DVD almost a year after they first aired. Regardless, here's part one of the commentary, reviewing a couple of the shows that grabbed my attention this year, for both good and bad reasons. Each review is pretty spoiler-ific for each show's respective season. So unless you've seen every episode of, say, Glee's second season, don't read it. Enjoy!
Desperate Housewives ABC
There were several points during Desperate Housewives' seventh season that I truly believed the show had become completely tired. Susan's kidney problems, her overlong drama with the 'naughty housemaid' porn site, Bree's tedious relationship with David Silver, the glacial-paced machinations of Felicia, her daughter and Paul Young. Worst of all was that insanely ridiculous Gabrielle baby-swap story arc, exacerbated by her out-of-character actions, and the show's refusal to play her brief obsession with a china doll as anything other than 'serious drama'.
Vanessa Williams, too, was the latest in a long-line of talented actresses ill-served with a 'blah' character, this time made even more glaring with the specter of the witty, campy and beautifully-scripted Wilhelmina Slater hanging over her portrayal of Renee Perry. I don't get why the writers refuse to give her character any levels or any real storylines, Williams being one of the best comedy actresses on television right now.
With all that in mind, I was growing dissatisfied with this show. However, right around the time of Beth Young killed herself in the waiting room of Fairview Hospital, the show had a major resurgence. The entanglements between Susan, Paul and Felicia utilized the strengths of each actor, and the story flew down varying routes with a sense of urgency and dread. Then there was the resurrection of the Juanita Solis storyline, with the truth about Andrew's involvement in her death finally coming to light. Finally, there was the hilarious depiction of Lynette's insane levels of shrewish bitchery, every week the writers giving her some ridiculously irrational meltdown over Tom's high-flying new career. I hate the crone, so I was happy to see her suffer. And please show, let the two of them divorce already. She's a hateful hag of epic proportions.
Desperate Housewives is a show that, at this point, doesn't need to be on the air. Its ratings have plummeted, the show has lost all the buzz and attention it once thrived on, and most of the actors are phoning it in. But every once in a while, when the series gets back that forward momentum and grants its talented cast with some juicy material, it becomes entertaining again. It's not doing anything wonderful anymore, but you can still appreciate the relaxed level of soapiness it brings to primetime. C+
Favorite Character Susan Mayer
Favorite Episode For its strongest use of each cast member and for being the episode that convinced me the show isn't completely tired, The Lies Ill-Conceived.
This was the year that cemented Fringe as one of the most ambitious sci-fi series of all time. While I don't think season three was as consistent in quality as last year, I remain in awe at the sheer number of ideas and concepts the series regularly explores. And while we were often bombarded with stories about time travel and alternate universes and soul magnets, at the heart of Fringe is 'character', and it's the ever-evolving relationships between our protagonists (and their alt-universe doppelgangers) that pulls in your attention.
Like every season so far, it's been Walter who has been the most absorbing character. John Noble is seriously one of the most underrated actors on television, conveying so much regret and pain as 'our' Walter, genuinely convincing as a man who unknowingly set in motion the slow destruction of our entire world. But it's as Walternate that Noble truly blows you away. He's a cold, ruthless bastard, stung by the abduction of his son and the subsequent suicide of his wife; now he's an ambitious, destructive shell of his former self. He's also ridiculously evil, from his callous, un-showy murder of Olivia in the future to his kidnapping of the pregnant Fauxlivia. Noble just performs this character so well, and I think it's all in the eyes. Those are some dastardly eyes, folks.
The relationship between Olivia and Peter sometimes dragged (around mid-season it felt like every episode Olivia was moping around about her doppelganger, and you just wanted to slap her), but you have to appreciate the varying levels of trauma they've experienced. They get together, and Olivia's replaced, Peter falls for Fauxlivia, Fauxlivia is pregnant, Olivia returns and she's angsty, they get together and then she becomes a Nimoy-ish old man. Then that's over and Peter vanishes from existence all-together. Man, this show really knows how to keep them apart. Speaking of Nimoy, Anna Torv's transformation into William Bell was the most obvious of several Fringe ideas that could have so easily backfired. And while sometimes you suddenly snapped and realized that you're watching Anna Torv doing a Spock impersonation, it was genuinely played convincingly. She's a really incredible actress, too.
Fringe remains a rich and textured sci-fi series that reliably pulls out the big guns consistently through its seasons. The show's mythology is dense and deep and sometimes confusing, but always absorbing. I also love that the show has learned to make standalone episodes driven by the major story arcs, like that great episode about the elderly couple communicating via the two universes. There were a couple of 'blah' episodes, but in general Fringe is still in a league of its own on network television right now. How are more people not watching it? A-
Favorite Character Walter Bishop
Favorite Episode The Day We Died was a painful and absorbing twist on the standard 'dystopian future' theme, a finale that worked on both a sci-fi level and as a testament to how strong the show's characters are.
I think it's generally acceptable to say that most of the cast of Glee perform their parts well. For example, no matter how maligned Lea Michele is as a person, she's pretty good as Rachel. Most of the cast can sing and dance and look pretty. The musical moments are generally well-choreographed and shot agreeably. What did turn Glee into a monster clusterfuck of epic proportions is the shitty, obnoxious, illogical and patronizing junk that Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk call 'writing'. There were times when season two got so bad that I literally wanted to rip my face off. The reasons? This may take a while...
Let's talk structure. Season two suffered from the fact that it was essentially a remake of season one. When you open a new season and fail to immediately introduce new agendas or new routes to go down, the only thing you can do is regress. So much of the year was devoted to the exact same stories and concepts that made season one so memorable. But, the second time around, everything became ridiculously tired. It was one dramatic dead-end after another.
Let's talk character, one of the biggest problems with Glee. Like Ryan Murphy's previous show Nip/Tuck, characters frequently experience complete personality switches depending on the episode, the writers always changing a character to suit the criteria of a storyline, and never the other way around. Characters like Quinn and Puck are two obvious examples of this. Then there is the fact that so much of the huge ensemble is frequently ill-serviced. For some reason, directionless characters like Finn and Mr. Schue are given major stories, while folks like Mercedes, Tina and Artie are kept in the background. When they are given some random standalone story, it's either offensive or so ridiculous that it's never mentioned again. Like Mercedes craving for tater tots, or Artie's robot legs. Then there are one-joke new characters, like Lauren and Sam, who are so 'blah' that they never appear to be anything other than a collection of quips, regardless of character consistency. Why did Puck suddenly fall for Lauren? Was this believable? No. Was this treated as anything but ridiculous comedy? No. It was just another dumb story that the writers thought would be somehow amusing, despite being entirely nonsensical. Then there's Sue, a character who has become so badly-written and one-note that she's nothing more than a ridiculous cartoon. She's finally given something juicy (her sister's death), but it's such an awkwardly written exit for an interesting supporting character that all you're left thinking is that Jane Lynch wanted another Emmy, and here was her episode to submit.
Let's talk moralizing, which has created some of the most asinine moments this season. Glee really has a problem with making these grand, sweeping 'moments' that are supposed to be somehow endearing and cute, when they're usually just creepy and wrong. Mr. Schue giving Coach Beiste her first kiss isn't cute. He gave her a pity kiss, it's not like he was actually romantically interested in her. No matter how the show tried to play it, that wasn't nice. Same with Blaine talking behind Kurt's back to Kurt's father, telling him to open up about gay sexuality with his son. That isn't cool. It's sleazy and something of a betrayal of trust, something that Blaine should at least talk to Kurt about instead of bypassing him entirely. Then there's the perpetual victimization of Kurt, such a holier-than-thou monster that the show decided to make the entire fucking school a bunch of homophobes and 'secret' assholes who elect him prom queen purely to give Chris Colfer some grand speech about being 'strong'. How about just acknowledging that there are sometimes assholes out there, especially in high school, instead of ridiculously implying that being a gay teen somehow means that literally everybody who isn't into arty extracurricular activities hates you. And let's not even start on the fact that Karofsky couldn't just have been a huge dick, he had to be a huge closet case, too. And let's not bring up the fact that few kids can afford to join some magical private school of acceptance and singing gay boyfriends, a huge illogical luxury that somehow real-life gay teens are supposed to be empowered by. Ugh.
There's also a major problem I have that I'm not sure just reflects on me as a person or is a reflection of the show itself: I'm kind of over teenage relationship junk. I really don't care all about Finn and Quinn and Finn and Rachel and Quinn and Sam. It's ridiculously tedious to me. But, then again, I still secretly enjoy my Dawson's Creek DVDs, with all their angst and teenage melodrama. It's probably the fact that the relationships depicted on this show are so superficial and vacuous that I honestly don't understand how anybody could give two shits about them. How the hell do 'Finchel' have shippers? Yeesh.
Yes. I just took a huge, epic dump on this show. But I honestly believe the writers have been extremely disrespectful to the fans by offering up this garbage. It's like they really don't care about putting on a decent show, they just care about getting a quick buck from the shitty cover of the shitty Katy Perry song they're singing this week. Don't get me wrong, there were obviously some bright sparks this season. I enjoyed (as rapid it was) Santana's discovery of her sexuality, a coming-out story that has been played far more believably than the patronizing Kurt saga. Gwyneth Paltrow was surprisingly brilliant, even if her role was quickly run into the ground. I liked Terri whenever she was around, and Brittany's one-liners were still pretty consistent in their hilarity. But the far, far majority of season two was a complete trainwreck, the most rapid crumbling of a decent show since... god, Heroes! But even Heroes didn't become so insane so quickly.
However, I'm gonna keep watching. The fact that they're hiring an actual team of writers next season is promising, and I'm relieved that Ryan Murphy has addressed some of the more problematic characters (notably Sue) and is changing up their stories for next year. And, admittedly, I enjoy the post-show discussion of Glee, the rapid dissections of just how bananas and poorly-written each episode was. Glee has become an epic car wreck, but one that you can't help but watch. D-
Favorite Character Santana Lopez
Favorite Episode No episode was perfect, but because of Gwyneth's guest spot, The Substitute was probably the most fun and absorbing.
Next... The Good Wife, Mad Men and Nikita.