Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Annual TV Commentary 2013

Every year I put together a brief summation of the television I enjoyed or alternatively didn't during the previous twelve months. My 2013 commentary is a little different, all confined to a single post and occasionally lacking the detail I've given previous round-ups. My television viewing has changed, though, along with my own aspirations as a writer. Anyway, television. No real spoilers this year.



American Horror Story: Asylum looked fantastic and featured a ton of memorably compelling acting (Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe in particular), but sort of fell off after a strong start. It was almost as if the show struggled to give the cast a ton of stuff to do that still connected them to the titular Briarcliff, meaning the characters kept bouncing back to the same spot over and over again. There was little narrative progress until the show actually allowed it, like the amount of episodes didn't support the season's central location and idea. Meaning stuff dragged. The writers have got a handle on their themes, however, seeming to start the season with a collection of heavier ideas before expanding them to fit genre storytelling. It was an improvement on last year, at least, where crazy shit just seemed to happen with little rhyme or reason. Asylum still had that crazy shit, naturally, but it all seemed to have more dramatic purpose this time around. B+

I probably should have paid more attention to Fringe this season, seeing as its final year was a surprising, last-minute gift for long-term fans, considering how financially-minded people would argue it should have been canceled years ago based on its numbers. But it didn't entirely grab me, which was disappointing. There was a little too much narrative weight placed upon Walter's forgotten memories, every episode seeming to revolve around the team having to recover a potential clue to defeating the Observers, or melting their way through the ambered corner of the lab, or trying to decipher that tape. This all aired months ago, if you're frustrated by how vague I'm being. Getting old, forgetting stuff. Anyway, the emotional beats were unsurprisingly strong, notably Peter and Olivia's respective reactions to a significant death mid-season, as well as a predictably moving series finale that had exactly the right amount of warmth and tenderness that such relationships deserved. I feel I should probably go back and re-watch this, to be fair. B

Hannibal was, without question, the only new network drama that didn't stumble out of the gate or alternately blow chunks this year. This is a show that digs deep into human psychology, particularly those chased or driven by the specter of death, while producing some of the most provocative and innovative serial killers to be seen on television. Parts of this show are horrific, but somewhat balanced out by incredibly naturalistic and moving character drama, burning with a very human type of internal suffering. Like Enlightened or Mad Men, there's something almost existential about this show and the universe that Bryan Fuller has created, every action layered with complexity, every murder or act of depravity linked to loftier themes. One of the best casts on TV, too, Hugh Dancy a real surprise, Mads Mikkelsen banishing prior incarnations of the Lecter character with his smooth, coiled portrayal, and beautiful supporting work from Laurence Fishburne, Gina Torres and Gillian Anderson. Thank the TV gods that this got a second season despite its horrible ratings. A

In regards to The Good Wife's fourth season, it's easier to start at the end. From around the time Jess Weixler's ambitious young flibbertigibbet arrived to steal Kalinda's thunder, this was a year that went from strength to strength, sourcing drama from its astoundingly capable central cast of characters instead of the name guest stars that distracted so much of the season's opening run. Cary's career aspirations spun an exciting new dynamic for the future, Alicia got caught between the rock and a hard place of the two men in her life, Diane sought power and respect, Kalinda wanted that cash-money. It was the writers utilizing their core ingredients for once, enough to shake up the show's foundations and ensuring actual change for next season. It's an important distinction, so much of season four involving the regulars merely reacting to the actions of others. It didn't help that so many of the heavily-promoted newbies stumbled around in directionless storylines. Whether it was Maura Tierney, Nathan Lane or most of the recurring characters brought back to cause sparkage (Wendy Scott-Carr, the hideously overplayed yet unfathomably popular Elsbeth Tascioni), stories proved flat where they should have been propulsive, cringe-making where they should have been fun. But the show ultimately got back on track. I particularly liked how the last run of episodes depicted how power-hungry and corrupt most of the cast can be, including those we generally like. Is it morally wrong? Absolutely. But also uncomfortably true to how we operate as people. I feel the political stuff has long ran out of steam, but the interplay at Lockhart Gardner consistently works, and the game-changers launched in the finale should provide the show the radical evolution that its been crying out for. B

Mad Men builds like no other series on the air, from scattered beginnings through to a gradual forming of deeper narrative intentions. Season six was probably its clearest in that regard, the way it used the escalating violence of the political and social landscape of the time as a parallel to its key protagonists -- the way the year opened lacking a real center, before stories built piece by piece and formed something unsurprisingly spectacular. Glimpsing a clip from season one during a "Previously on..." this year only punctuated the devolution of Don Draper over the course of the series, his face weathered and pained, his hair sweaty and wet, the weight of age and pain having left a significant dent. We've seen his inner torment before, but here he seemed even more stranded between what he literally possesses and the life he longs to have; while the cruel, masochistic streak always within him became even more pronounced, so much that he grew ever-ostracized and disowned by those around him, most significantly Peggy.

Other characters mirrored that trajectory, too. Pete outcast at work, his marriage left in pieces, his mentally-unraveling mother working like an ulcer in his mouth. Peggy's reversal of fortunes were heartbreaking, from burgeoning pioneer to ill-treated mistress and back again. Sally being nastily confronted with the true face of the father she always idolized. This wasn't an easy season, the show experimenting with form more often than before (the manipulation of time as seen in the season premiere, or the hallucinatory freak-outs throughout The Crash) and many of the show's characters confronted over and over again with unparalleled pain. It was also a year in which the show's fandom sort of ate itself, the whole "Is she Sharon Tate?/Has Megan been dead all along?" conspiracies being more annoying than intriguing, but the on-screen material all built to make this one of the series' very best seasons, capped by a final scene that ached with emotional resonance. I'm frantically excited for next season, but quietly devastated that it'll all soon be over. A


Ben & Kate

Arrested Development's Netflix return was one of the most speculated-upon, attention-grabbing stories of the past season -- but ultimately the answer to why some canceled shows just shouldn't be brought back. Cancellation is horrible, particularly when it happens to something you really adore, but sometimes it's better to just let something die with dignity than have it exhumed years later, its cast scattered to the winds, forcing the comeback season to exist like a series of short films, the Bluths dripping in and out of the narrative depending on their availability. It says something that the funniest moments this year came from the guest characters (Mary Lynn Rajskub was a real standout), while the Bluth family themselves only got saddled with self-indulgent arc plots instead of actual jokes. To be fair, though, I hear the season works far better on second viewing. And maybe one day I'll give the season another shot and it'll be wonderful. But I'm not sure great TV should work that way... C

Ben & Kate was an example of a sitcom in progress. The long-term arcs were never hugely absorbing, and most of the self-contained stories were derivative, but it featured one of the most delightful ensemble casts I've seen in a while, as well as a theme song hard not to sing along to. The crux of any good sitcom is a team of players that you look forward to hanging out with every week, and the chemistry between Dakota Johnson's apprehensive Kate and the makeshift family around her singularly made this show one of the biggest surprises of last season. It also featured Lucy Punch, a disturbingly talented British comedienne who's bounced around in features for the last couple of years, as Kate's awful-human-being-but-relentlessly-hilarious-best-friend B.J., the spiritual heir to Karen Walker and somebody I genuinely miss seeing on my TV set. I resent the fact that FOX canceled a show burning with comedic potential in favor of something like The Mindy Project, a chaotic misfire with the good fortune of having a name actress in the lead role. And that's coming from somebody who adores Mindy Kaling. But it's still unjust. B

ABC did more than just kill Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 as an actual show. By randomly scheduling unaired season one episodes in between those written for season two, the season one episodes deemed the weakest and therefore unessential for the abbreviated first season schedule, it not only made the show difficult to watch (hey, JVDB is on Dancing with the Stars again -- now he's not, etc.), but creatively schizophrenic. This was a show that was sometimes wildly funny, but frequently had episodes either so mean-spirited that it became uncomfortable (growing pains, yet aired in amongst the good ones), or episodes filled with jokes that just didn't land. Most of the episodes originally intended for season two were a lot of fun (Love and Monsters... was this show at its very best), but the scheduling just made things unbearable. Again it's an example of a network doing a major disservice to such an insanely talented ensemble cast, Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker being two of the most consistently funny and interesting actors to come out of sitcoms in years. C

The cancellation of Enlightened was one of the sadder moments of the last season, especially in light of all the critical support that seemed to flourish just as the show came to an end. I've written a lot about this show already, but it really is the closest thing to art that I've ever seen on TV. The moments of silence, of mesmerizing emotional weight and depth of feeling; it could easily be considered one of the greatest achievements of cable television and exactly the type of experimental, character-driven masterpiece that HBO should regularly encourage. Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe experienced so much loss and anguish this year, fighting for what she believes to be right while constantly wondering if she was actually doing the right thing, finally building to a fantastic finale that left her under attack and threatened, yet proud, resilient and strong. More incredible ensemble work this year, too, from the almost hypnotic Levi-centric episode Higher Power, to the beautiful guest performances by Molly Shannon, Dermot Mulroney and series creator Mike White. Enlightened won't live to see another day, but it's the kind of short-lived genius that will hopefully be accidentally stumbled upon for years to come. A+

Parks and Recreation has reached that point in its existence where it's become a little long in the tooth, surviving more on the sheer adorableness of its main cast, and less because the writing is particularly funny anymore. Season five saw a lot of drifting around, the promising arcs at the start of the year (Ben and April working together, Ron and Lucy Lawless, Andy's job aspirations) being quietly dropped or phased out over time, leading to a lot of the same type of thing -- Leslie facing a problem, struggling to fix the problem, before finally making some kind of compromise. I also get that shows need to grow and develop, but I miss some of the relationships explored in the past that haven't been utilized as much of late. April and Andy don't share many scenes together anymore, for example. Or Ben interacting with people who aren't Leslie. Councilman Jamm has also been used way too much, a narrative crutch relied upon to an insane degree. There are still fantastic episodes (Ron and Diane, Leslie and Ben, Animal Control), but it's no longer the kind of show guaranteed to be spectacular. The finale was strong, though, and indicates a possible turnaround in quality next year. Hopefully, at least. B

Anne Heche is an astoundingly talented actress with an unparalleled ability to make you believe every action and every flicker of emotion that her characters convey. Her comedy drama Save Me, about a drunken, obnoxious woman who believes she can communicate with God following a near-death experience, has the kind of premise built for Emmys and grand critical acclaim. But it never really clicked together, in spite of how great it should have been. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes issues, leading to NBC burning the show off over a couple of weeks in June, and many were obvious on-screen. Despite the show crying out for a darker edge, an exploration into what it means to be a good person in modern society, along the lines of Enlightened or Nurse Jackie or something similarly cable-ish, there was this hokey network-sitcom vibe that crept in all over the shop, not helped by everything being played so manic and broad. Heche sold it all, but she deserved better writers, ones able to truly exploit the show's intriguing central idea. And casting Betty White in some winking, ironic fashion has become so incredibly passé at this point, seriously. D+


Hemlock Grove

My life has changed a lot of the last year, in terms of my education and real-life opportunities that far outweigh what amounts to a silly TV blog, and television itself is no longer this essential component of my existence... which is actually pretty great, on a social/emotional level. So shows that I liked-but-didn't-love became easy to just stop watching. So I did. Those included Nikita, a show that, post-first season, I never enjoyed as much as I guess I was 'supposed' to. But watching the first two episodes of season three, I realized that I never liked the self-serious quality it's always had in spite of its inherent goofiness, nor the lightness shoehorned in at junctures, like the Nikita/Michael marital jokes. It was just an unsteady mix of tones, none of which really worked for me. Meh. There was also Revenge, which I suddenly realized around May that I hadn't watched since the boat flash-forward thing was wrapped up. I didn't violently dislike the creative direction of its second season like so many others did, but I never found the show hugely compelling, and it's full of too many inconsequential, annoying characters to make it anything more than a casual distraction. Most of those have actually been fired or killed off in the time that I tuned out, and the creative changes behind-the-scenes could result in a better show, but right now I'm not interested enough to watch anymore.

In spite of my Connie Britton love, I phased in and out of Nashville before leaving it completely. It has a great central premise, beautiful locations, fantastic music and performers with real conviction, but the show never seemed confident about what type of show it wanted to be. Either this earnest, salt-of-the-earth drama, or hysterical soap opera. I would have ordinarily given it a couple more months, and I hear it's gotten better, but it didn't entirely work for me at the time.

For any regular readers out there, you may have noticed I did weekly reviews of The Following for a hot minute, before abruptly pulling them off the site. Can't have half-done projects on here. Otherwise what's the point? And I tried with this show, but it honestly ranks up there as one of the ugliest series I've seen in a long time. Kevin Bacon, this incredibly talented movie star, is just held hostage on this show, shackled to Kevin Williamson's terrible words like a dancing bear in some Eastern European circus. The Edgar Allan Poe hooey was hilariously over-earnest and lame, the show's casual depiction of brutal violence (particularly towards women) shameful, and the sheer stupidity of practically every character sunk whatever trashy appeal the series may have initially had. There were moments in which this show looked and felt like the spiritual heir to 24, but it's stories were so wildly inane that it made Kim Bauer seem like the work of Dickens or something. Unfollow.

Of the many horror shows that premiered this year that I actually watched, two were sort of a drag. 666 Park Avenue never seemed confident about its own identity, of whether it was a soap that happened to have limp scares, or a mythology-driven horror mystery sunk by bland leads and soapy boredom. I kept watching, though, so I guess it was doing something right. Hemlock Grove, on the other hand, was another Netflix disappointment, one driven by a murder mystery that went nowhere and a plague of directionless non-sequiters disguised as storylines. It was pretty funny, though, whether it was Bill Skarsgard's pouty, bug-eyed non-acting, Famke Janssen's 'Katharine Hepburn-on-horse-tranquilizers' accent, or the time that girl made out with a corpse. Silly show.

End Notes

Here I just wanted to write a huge thanks to those of you who have read my stuff this past year. I've found that the fun of blogging has enormously dissipated lately, primarily because readership is way down. And it sort of sucks. And it sucks, too, that I even care about numbers and readership. It didn't use to be that way, but I feel like I need to mark my territory in a way. Because otherwise it's just appropriated and you're left with no stake in anything. This section ended a different way than it began, I think. But it should explain all the absences, and it's good to just express stuff, too. It helps. Anyway, those of you that do read, thank you. You're like the one shining beacon left.


  1. Well as you know it's always a joy to read your stuff. You're one of the reasons I started blogging and I compulsively check your site for updates several times a day so I hope that conveys how much I love reading your work and counts for something :)

    I do hope you'll keep writing on here whenever you have time and best of luck in all your life stuff (since our blogging activities seems to exist in a realm separate from the real world).

    Just some general TV thoughts, I haven't watched Hannibal but I now feel intrigued to sample it. Same for Enlightened.

    We don't care agree about Nikita but I thought this season was superb. Agree with you about Revenge and 666 as I stuck with both. Hoping the former regains what it lost next year.
    Naturally, I still love The Good Wife, and was somewhat disappointed Don't Trust got cancelled. Although it was mean-spirited a lot of the times.

    ANYWAYS, this was a pleasure to read as always. Glad I have the rest of your Alias reviews to look forward to! All the best always.

  2. I've been a fan of your reviews for awhile, best thing I can say is, even when numbers are low, don't get discouraged. Keep on "fighting the good fight" whenever real life lends you some time.

    Agree with your thoughts on The Following. Only new show I watched this year and I gave up after 6 episodes, it was just an ugly, ugly show.

  3. I like Nikita a lot, but you're right that seasons 2 and 3 were never as great as the first.

    I really liked Fringe's last season. It was very set-up, with the tapes and all that, but I never felt myself getting distracted by that. It's probably one of the few shows that got the perfect run. 4 major seasons, then the final season to tie everything up nicely. It was never stretched out too far, or rushed.

    I feel the same way about blogging these days, too. All I've been posting are my Teen Wolf and Once Upon a Time reviews, just because they're my on-air ones. I'm gonna try and wrap up the shows I started for now. I don't know, I have my stuff written but some of it is 2 years old by now so I feel like I have to change a lot around because my style has changed since then. It's a lot of work, but I'd like to get it all done.

    Anyway, just wanted to say how great you're stuff has always been, so don't stop posting even if you can only manage stuff every now and again. Hope everything's good.