TV, in hindsight
Instead of doing some big TV top 10 thing to mark the end of 2006, I'll just do a quick bit of opining about my favourite shows. Keep in mind that I watch, like, every show, so it's basically a year in review. And this sucker will be a long one --- I don't write a TV column anymore, so I had to blow my proverbial load somewhere. Editor's note: Ewwww.
* The Amazing Race. I watched the season premiere with some friends, and we clicked over just in time to see a father tearfully talk about how he felt as if he loved his daughter less for being a lesbian --- and his daughter, his Race partner, was sitting right there with a thousand-yard stare on her face. This was followed by another team profile of a pair of good buddies who were recovering drug addicts and (ohbytheway) male models. This was followed by a pair of Muslim friends, and about five minutes into the show, my friend Matt said in a voice filled with dawning comprehension, "These guys aren't going to be able to get on planes."
From that moment on, you just knew it was going to be a great season of the Amazing Race. The only disappointment was that the model-addicts won, thus making yet another season of the all-athletic male duo winning the game. I have high hopes for the spring season, however, which will be the first All-Star edition of the Race. Past teams like Uchenna and Joyce, Rob and Amber, the beauty queen team from this season will be back at it again. Goddammit, does anyone want to team with me for Amazing Race? I just need someone who can speak, oh, about five languages and can drive a stick-shift. And also maybe is a cyborg, so we can access Google Earth within their brain.
* American Dad. How did this become the best animated show on TV? I'm floored. The first half-season of this show was, to be blunt, god-awful. Between this and last season's indifferent Family Guy, I thought Seth Macfarlane was suffering from David E. Kelleyitis and hurting all of his shows by spreading himself too thin.
Anyway, AD has clearly hit its stride. It manages to combine the randomness of Family Guy with the more layered plots of early Simpsons episodes. The show has, oddly enough, already seemed to have moved away from its "Dad is a hardcore conservative CIA agent" premise and become a series of extended, but subtle, movie takeoffs. For example, an episode where Francine and Roger (Go Padres!) disguise themselves to go to an art show and create fake backgrounds for themselves eventually morphs into a spoof of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It also featured a scene where Stan, the dad, is washed away in a river of semen, while yelling "I feel like Tara Reid on any given Tuesday night!" God bless humour.
* Big Day. Ok, so they're not all going to be my 'favourite' shows. In fact, this one kind of sucks. It's the ABC sitcom that is set in a real-time format (like 24) on the day of a couple's wedding. The show follows how the bridge, groom, families and loved ones prepare for the big ceremony, and everyone is going a little bit crazy. So yeah, anyway, sucks. The situations are pretty contrived and the writing already seems tired and they're only four episodes in. Jack Bauer should rush in and break some necks for daring to rip off his real-time gimmick. In spite of some funny people involved (Wendie Malick, Stephnie Weir, the guy who played Russell in Wayne's World), it just isn't going anywhere. Feel free to skip it until it is cancelled in, oh, about a month. Fun fact: watching the pilot, the lead actress (Marla Sokoloff) looked really familiar and it was bugging me that I couldn't remember where I saw her from. Then I happened to flip over to TBS for a Friends rerun, and there she was, in a guest role as Joey's youngest sister who was pregnant. My ability to recall trivial things is truly amazing. And yet, not attractive at all to women.
* Desperate Housewives. Yeah that's right, I'm the one guy in the world who watches this show. And it's good, dammit. This season has been terrific, in fact, with a good mixture of comedy, mystery and soap operaishness that is more funny ridiculous, rather than "that's retarded" ridiculous. It all peaked with the episode "Bang," which (truth) had as much suspense as any of the best 24 episodes. Fun fact: Teri Hatcher was recently voted one of the TV stars that looks the worst in HDTV. After years of Botox, she is apparently no longer real, nor spectacular. And just how friggin' disturbing is this photo?
* Family Guy. While American Dad is thriving, FG just kind of goes on its own, varying greatly from episode to episode. The recent ep where Brian takes Meg to the prom was one of the funniest in the show's history, but a lot of recent shows have been meh. The constant cutaways and dated references are as tired as me when I tried to follow along with Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod on Body Break.
Hal: With just a few miles of walking a day, your body will get all the exercise it needs.
Me: A few MILES?! I have a Toyota Echo! Walking is for suckers! I get exhausted running up the stairs to the fridge.
Joanne: Who let you on the set?
Me: Gotta run!...or, drive.
See, that cutaway wasn't funny at all. My point is proven.
* Lost. Sigh....ok, here's the thing. I love Lost. It's my favourite show. I'm one of those people who is totally hooked, who goes on message boards immediately after the episode, and will get into a discussion about theories and characters at the drop of the hat. This summer, in fact, when I was subletting my room, the girl who rented to me had a Lost screensaver on her computer, thus sparking a seemingly innocent 'Oh, do you like Lost?' conversation. I'm pretty sure we talked about the show more than we actually talked about the room I would stay in for the next three months.
That said, the 'fall season' of Lost has been kind of disappointing. What used to be the best ensemble drama on TV has been whittled down to the Jack-Kate-Sawyer and the Others show, with occasional guest appearances by the other 12 members of the cast. They really need to reunite the main three with the rest of the castaways, and quickly. It's frustrating that, six episodes in, we still don't know virtually anything new about the Others, besides the fact that they have a suburban village on the main island and they have their main base on a second island. I'm not one of those 'I need to know every answer NOW' people, but man, throw us a frickin' bone here. I'd like to see at least one of the central mysteries of the show (the numbers, the smoke monsters, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, how the castaways are all connected, the giant foot statue, who would win a bikini showdown between Yunjin Kim and Evangeline Lilly) answered before the season is out.
* My Name Is Earl. It's very possible that Earl will end up being the live-action equivalent of King of the Hill. Both shows move at their own laid-back pace, nobody pays too much attention to them, are consistently funny, and before you know it, they've been on the air for a decade. The trouble with live-action is, Jaime Pressly's face is going to look....well, Teri Hatcher-esque in a few years, so unless they write in a storyline where Joy gains that rapid aging disease from the movie Jack, you might want to turn your HD off for the 2011 season.
* The Office. Jim's back, and everything is all right. The Jim-in-Stanford episodes were good, but clearly missing that special Office chemistry. With Jim back, however, the show is once again running at full throttle. The hour-long Xmas episode was one of the funniest in the show's history. Adding Ed Helms to the cast was a great move, and his influence is already felt. My pal Matt tried to order "nagasakis" at the bar tonight (one part egg nog, three parts sake), and was firmly denied. Of course, this isn't as funny as trying to order a Nagasaki in a Japanese restaurant, but Matt is no Ed Helms. Sorry, Matt. You'll have to settle for being the next Bobby Knight.
* Saturday Night Live. Like a baby bird poking its beak out of its shell, I think SNL is on the verge of entering another strong period. Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler have more chemistry on Weekend Update than the Poehler/Fey team. The cast is free of dead weight like Horatio Sanz and Jimmy Fallon, and some of the new people (Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader) have been hilarious with an increase in screen time. The recent shows hosted by Alec Baldwin and Justin Timberlake have been two of the best SNLs in the last decade. The one thing that could put SNL over the top is the hiring of one new writer. His name? Me. My idea for a sketch about a rapping detective (I call it Sherlock Homeboy) has Emmy written all over it.
* The Simpsons. There's an old anecdote about Lou Gehrig that goes like this. The legendary ballplayer was nearing the end of his career, and his skills were clearly starting to leave him. One game, Gehrig made a decent but unspectacular fielding play to get a runner at first, and his teammates all made special effort to congratulate him in the dugout after the inning. After getting all that praise for making a routine play, Gehrig said, it was time to retire from the game. Well, that and the fatal disease that bore his name, but I digress.
Aged Gehrig is basically the Simpsons by this point. Nobody seems to even have the passion to argue that the show has lost its juice anymore since the point is so obvious. It just trundles onward, entirely buzzless, pumping out mediocre episode after mediocre episode until Matt Groening finally decides he's had enough. Even the good Simpsons episodes now are just good, and hardly great. Man, this was a depressing show to discuss. Let's move on.
* Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Oh good, more depression. I'll give Aaron Sorkin this. He has one aspect of Saturday Night Live mastered -- the inconsistency. SNL can go from wildly funny to mind-numbingly bad literally from one minute to the next, and Sorkin has brought that over to his behind-the-scenes look at a sketch comedy show. Studio 60 goes from brilliant to suck at the drop of a hat. This was never more apparent than in a recent two-part episode ("Nevada Day"), where part one was as good as classic West Wing episodes, and part two was like watching your puppy get punched in the face.
A wish list for what I'd like to see in the second half of the season...
1. For the love of GOD, stop making every plotline about Sarah Paulson's character revolve around the fact that she is a devout Christian. It's not just boring, it's also kind of creepy given the fact that the character is basically a total take-off of Kristen Chenoweth, Sorkin's ex-girlfriend. There have already been way too many episodes wasted with Harriet serving as some vehicle for Sorkin to vent about his beef with the religious right.
2. Let the female characters win an argument. This is a long-standing problem of Sorkin's, stretching back to Sports Night, where whenever Jeremy and Natalie had an argument, Jeremy was always right but only apologized when one of the other male characters gave him the eye-rollingly sexist "just apologize because even though it's not your fault, it's your fault" speech. For example, whenever Harriet and Matt (the Sorkin character, played by Matt Perry) get into a debate about their ex-relationship, or religion or whatever, he always ends up having the last word.
3. Give the good actors (Tim Busfield, Steven Weber) more to do. Give the bad ones (Amanda Peet, who isn't really 'bad' but just not right for the role) less to do.
4. Explain how, since SNL exists in the show's world, the 'Studio 60' show is a complete and total ripoff of Lorne Michaels' concept. They establish that 'Studio 60' is a cutting-edge late-night sketch show, but....how cutting-edge could it be if it seems exactly like SNL, just set in Los Angeles? It might have been better to just pretend SNL never existed, like 30 Rock seems to be doing.
5. Make the actual skits on the show-within-a-show funny. Perry's character is supposed to be this genius comedy writer who writes basically every skit, but 90 percent of the actual skits we see are capital-L lame. It's like watching one of those sports movies when the actor playing the sports hero clearly can't skate/throw a ball/run to save his or her life. Mark McKinney has been brought on as a consultant, so that can help things.
6. Get the show renewed, since I still think it could be one of the best shows on TV, given time.
* Survivor. For a season that started with an unnecessarily controversial premise (divide the tribes by ethnicity) and a more subtly-lame casting call (most of the players were from New York or LA and had never seen Survivor before), it ended up being pretty good. I seem to be the only person who still gives a damn about Survivor, and dammit, it's still interesting! I think the show seems to be evolving closer to the social experiment that Mark Burnett originally had in mind, except that it's an experiment not in social structure but in game theory.
* 30 Rock. For all of the publicity that Studio 60 got, 30 Rock ended up being a much better take-off of late-night sketch comedy because Tina Fey actually knows what she's talking about. Except for Office, this is already the funniest sitcom on TV. This is also probably the best Alec Baldwin has ever been in his career. God bless you, Tina Fey. After a couple sub-par years of SNL, my longstanding crush on you has been renewed.
* Veronica Mars. Given the amount of network crap that the VM creators have to put up with due to the show's inexplicably low ratings, I keep worring that Veronica Mars will start to suck. Thankfully, the crap guillotine has yet to fall. This season's network edict was to put an end to the season-long mysteries that defined the show, and thus (provided VM gets a full season without cancellation), the 22 episodes will be divided into three mini-mystery arcs. This actually ended up being an okay move, since the first arc was very well put-together and has already tied into the second one. Given that last season's season-long mystery was pretty unsatisfactory and seemed to go all over the place, the shorter storylines may be a better long-term move.
So yeah, start watching the show. What more do you want? If you're a Buffy fan, it's basically a better-written, better-acted version of Buffy except instead of killing vampires, she solves mysteries. And Kristen Bell is gorgeous. What more do you want?