Wednesday, June 24, 2009

TV Year In Review, Part Four

Part One (relatively spoiler-heavy)
Part Two: LOST (very, very spoiler-heavy)
Part Three: Reality Shows (pretty spoiler-heavy, given that I openly discuss who won the bloody shows)

I tried to keep this one with as few spoilers as possible, though in some cases (coughcoughOfficecough) it's kind of hard. The rule of thumb is that if you haven't seen one of the shows and ever intend to, you might want to skip over the section. You could always come back to the post's not like my writing will get any less brilliant or anything.


At the risk of parroting my TV year-in-review from last year, this is the funniest animated show on TV. Twenty more hilarious episodes did nothing but reinforce this fact. In fact, I can't even pick a favourite episode since almost all were top-notch. If I had to pick a top moment at gunpoint --- a common scenario amongst animation-loving NRA members like myself --- I'd go with Roger and Hayley's rapid-fire costume changes to try and trick the other into staying employed and signing a work release form, respectively. If I had to nitpick, it seems like the show is getting just a wee bit too centered around Stan and Roger, but then again, there were also episodes like 'Escape From Pearl Bailey' that were almost entirely based around Steve. Another nitpick: no continuation of the golden turd storyline? Come on! On the other hand, we instead got the recurring story of Reginald, the homeless man whose mind was implanted into that of a koala and is now a CIA operative. Win-win.


Everyone knows how totally in the tank I am for LOST, but pound-for-pound, Breaking Bad was the best show on television this season. The first season, okay, it's a good show about a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher turned meth dealer, it's a dark comedy, hah hah, I get it, it's like a male version of Weeds. The second season....holy shit, son. It was about 95 percent dark, five percent comedy as Walter White continued his transformation from desperate teacher in over his head to being an increasingly sociopathic drug kingpin. Wait, the word 'transformation' is wrong. The brilliance of the show and Bryan Cranston's portrayal is that Walt isn't just breaking bad; it's just that cooking meth has given him an outlet for the cruelty (and, dare I say, actual evil) there's been there all along. Cranston needs to win, like, 15 Emmys for this role. They need to start making up new categories just to honor him further. Best Performance By A Mustached Actor, perhaps. Best Delivery Of The Line 'Fuck You' (though if Deadwood was still on the air, Ian McShane would be a strong contender). It's not just Cranston either, as Jesse Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris all elevated their games this season, Paul especially. I also can't wait to see more of the great Bob Odenkirk as Walt's sleazy lawyer and Giancarlo Esposito as the respectable, chicken restaurant-owning established druglord. If you haven't seen any of Breaking Bad, track down the DVDs post-haste. There are only 19 episodes in total over the first two seasons, so you can catch up within a week. It is as addictive as....well, actual meth, ironically enough.


I was pleased to find a picture of the Lily Tomlin/Kathryn Joosten pairing that was the unquestioned highlight of this season of 'Desperate Housewives.' They were so good together that I wanted DH to shut down production immediately and devote all of ABC's resources towards a show about these two hard-living old broads solving crimes. That would've been far more entertaining than the season's actual mystery, which was predictable by roughly the third episode and made little use of the usually reliable Neal McDonough. The five-years-forward jump from last year's finale brought a bit of new life into the show, but by season's end it had fallen back into its old habits of Susan-and-Mike drama, and domestic problems in the Scavo household. If any show is close to being cut from my viewing schedule next year, it's this one.


I think I only really laughed hard twice during this season of FG. The first was one opening act where Quagmire bought a cat and suddenly devolved into a schmoopy pet owner, which I just found hilarious for some reason. And the second was the already immortal episode where Peter spends a good half of the show singing 'Bird Is The Word.' Honestly, the whole Jesus subplot that was the 'real' story of the episode didn't need to happen. I would've been more than satisfied to see Family Guy finally take one of its elongated jokes to its natural extreme and just do a full 22-minute running gag. Other than those two moments/segments, this show is losing its fastball in a major way. Someone needs to tell Seth Macfarlane that his political-themed episodes reached an 0.8 on the Moore Scale for hitting the audience over the head without actually being funny. (Ironically, Moore was a central character in one such episode, yet another example of Family Guy being a day late and a dollar short with its pop culture references when it actually tries to be 'topical' and not just doing a cutaway joke about, say, Three's Company.)


Not to be confused with Stephen Harper's Island, where the PM sends people that don't agree with his policies, this show is actually the reason why this TV year in review is so damn late. I thought about waiting until Harper's Island was done its run so I could comment on it fully, but given now we're already in late June, I might as well get it over with. Harper's Island became a lot more enjoyable when a) the characters finally realized that a series of murders were happening on the island, since then things kicked into high gear and b) when I myself realized that this wasn't going to be the labyrinthine Agatha Christie-esque mystery I was led to believe it would be from the pre-show publicity. If anything, it's more of a slasher movie. Now don't get me wrong, it's a well-done slasher movie that has just enough plot and wide variety of characters (a cast of over 30, with at least one of them murdered every single week) to keep things interesting. But the show has enough little 'hints' to the 'solution' of who the 'killer' is that I'm worried that the final episode will try to impress us by trying to wrap this thing up and pretend it makes some coherent sense. Hey, I'll happily eat my words if the finale reveals a massively intricate LOST-esque plot, but at this point, I'll just be happy if they find Cousin Ben's severed head hanging from the bottom of the boat.


In all honesty, probably the weakest HIMYM season, given that the whole Stella storyline didn't really go anywhere and the show's terrific group dynamic missed Alyson Hannigan when she missed a few episodes due to pregnancy. That said, even a weak HIMYM season is still one of the funniest things on television. I enjoy that the writers are taking full advantage of the fact that Ted is much funnier when he's pretentious than when he's a lovesick romantic, thus leading to the very funny mini-arc of him dating his horrible ex-girlfriend from college (Laura Prepon, who it turns out isn't an entirely worthless actress). Fun fact: if you get any of your friends to watch HIMYM, they will become instantly hooked. Forget Breaking Bad, this is the show that is truly like a drug. I've had no less than a half-dozen people start watching in the last few months alone, and already they've plowed through the first three seasons.


Kind of an average season for Earl, as the show returned to the basic 'one list item per week' format of Season One. The only thing that really stood out was the hilarious episode featuring Erik Estrada hosting a challenge-reality show called Estrada Or Nada? MNIE's biggest news came at the end of the year when it was revealed that NBC is canceling the show. WTF, NBC? Got to make way for more reality shows with Spencer Pratt, I guess. Frankly, I'd rather see a real-life Estrada Or Nada. Anyway, the bright side for 'Earl' fans is that there's a chance the show will be picked up by FOX, ABC or even Peachtree TV, so we'll get to see the conclusion to the twin cliffhangers of who the two fathers of Joyce's kids are.


The best season of The Office since the legendary S2 was propped up by two major storylines --- the saga of Michael and Holly and the birth of the Michael Scott Paper Company. I'm hoping that Amy Ryan was in enough episodes to qualify for supporting actress honors under the byzantine Emmy rules, since she was perfect as a woman who could believably fall for Michael and yet still seem to function as a normal human being. Really, is there a reason she couldn't be on the show full-time? Amy Ryan wants to do movies? Pfft, she was in Changeling for about 10 minutes, she can do better than that on the small screen. Then, later in the season, the MSPC provided a great storyline for Pam as she ascended to a sales role, and also led to that astoundingly funny episode where Michael and Dwight competed against each other for customers. After five seasons, it's obvious that enough thought and care goes into these characters that I'm not in the least bit worried that Pam's pregnancy will be a shark-jump moment.


My opinion from two months ago hasn't really changed, except I'll say this: the finale was by far the best episode of the series and it gives me hope that the show can evolve upward next year. Two key character shifts may prove to be the trick. First, Paul Schneider's character went from being a poor man's Jim Halpert to actually being kind of a dick, which makes his role as Leslie's apparent love interest more complicated. And secondly, Amy Poehler's Leslie character took a step back from being the poor man's Michael Scott to sort of wide-eyed optimist type. I hate to keep using Office comparisons since it's not really fair to P&R, but if the new angle on Leslie is that she combines Pam's desire for small victories with naked political ambition, then that's an interesting character that would conceivably headline a sitcom. It also helps that Roy Swanson (the Libertarian city hall supervisor) is well on his way to becoming a breakout character. Between showing up on a date with his ex-wife's more attractive half-sister and delivering a banquet awards speech comprised only of factually accurate statements ("You are receiving an award tonight," etc.), I want to see a lot more Ron in the second season. "I enjoy government functions like I enjoy getting kicked in the nuggets with a steel-toed boot. But this hotel always served bacon wrapped shrimp. I’d go to a banquet in honor of those Somali pirates if they served bacon wrapped shrimp."


Probably the winner of the 'best show you've never heard of' award for the year, given that it airs on the virtually unwatched Starz channel and ran just 10 episodes in its first season. Basically you've got a collection of "hey, it's that hilarious supporting player in that comedy I liked" actors like Adam Scott, Jane Lynch and Ken Marino, combined with half the cast and crew of Veronica Mars for a show about struggling/wannabe actors who work for a catering company and basically just laze and bullshit their way through the various functions they're called upon to cater. I'd compare it to the British version of the Office in terms of overall tone, if not quite there yet in quality, given that the show doesn't hold any illusion that its characters are anything but varying degrees of delusional about their career prospects. A second season is apparently in the cards, albeit minus Jane Lynch.


It was an election year, so it was once again time for the media to trot out its usual "Saturday Night Live's election spoofs have breathed new life into the show!" meme. It's never true --- the election just gave SNL a sharper focus for a few political sketches, which they by and large deliver on every four years. The other 80 minutes of the show was the same up-and-down level of quality that SNL has been for, with a few exceptions, its entire 34-year run. Now, this season was a bit of an outlier given that it's not every election cycle that a major party nominates a VP candidate who a) is a dead ringer for one of SNL's most famous stars and b) is such a living joke that she is a perfect candidate for satire. Three of the show's best sketches of the season were the VP debate ("I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers"), McCain trying to avoid a Bush endorsement and the whole SNL take on the Palin-Katie Couric interview, which was 50 percent word-for-word the actual crazy bullshit that Palin actually said on '60 Minutes.'

The best episode of the season, imo, was probably the Jon Hamm-hosted edition in October, with Hamm, Anne Hathaway, Neil Patrick Harris and Anna Faris standing out amongst the first-time hosts, whereas hosting veterans Will Ferrell, Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson also had great shows. The best musical guests were probably Phoenix, an unknown band who were so amazing in rehearsals during the week that they ended up getting the rare 'third song' honor that is usually saved for heavyweights like U2 or Paul Simon. Best skit? Either the return of Celebrity Jeopardy or (here's an odd choice) the one from the Rock's episode about the sports talk show co-hosted by an alien. Best recurring skit? At the risk of saying 'every Digital Short,' I still crack up at the sketch about the buddies who get nostalgic listening to a song, and then reveal horrific events from their past.


So for years, Simpsons writers and producers attributed (such a nicer word than 'blamed') the show's decline in quality over the fact that they were all dealing with the extra burden of making The Simpsons Movie. I laughed at this feeble excuse given that roughly five thousand people write for the show, and surely that's enough people to manage both a show and a film at the same time. But, sure enough, since The Simpsons Movie came and went, the show has had a sharp upturn in quality. It seemed to kick into another gear after the switch to HD animation, which also looked beautiful by the way. The highlights were "Gone Maggie Gone" and its labyrinthine plot and great spoof of the 'get these items across the river' riddle, and "In The Name Of The Grandfather," which was probably the best of the "The Simpsons Are Going To ____!" after the legendary Australian one.


So, am I the only person in the world that actually liked it? Critics fell all over themselves slamming the show for not being the next Arrested Development just because Hurwitz, Bateman and Arnett were involved, but c'mon, did you really expect lightning to strike twice? You have to love a show where the characters try to have a 'hey, remember when we....?' style clip show in the opening minutes of the third episode.


Ok, so, that five funniest shows on TV list I promised way back in the 'American Dad' section.

5. How I Met Your Mother
4. The Office
3. American Dad
2. Flight Of The Conchords

....and number one, somewhat predictably, is 30 Rock, since otherwise the top five list would really just be out of place in this paragraph. '30 Rock' has now gotten to the point where I'm seriously considering doing a 30 Rock vs. Arrested Development post in order to determine the best sitcom of the decade. Amongst all of the legendary moments of this season (Baldwin as the Generalissimo, Baldwin saying the words 'Jackie Jormp-Jomp,' Liz trying to get out of jury duty, WORD PLAY!, Kenneth's view of the world as Muppets, Liz actually walking like a muppet, anything involving Dr. Spaceman, Jon Hamm's impossibly bitchy daughter, Steve Martin's allegedly agoraphobic businessman, Tracy reuniting the cast of Night Court for Kenneth, Tracy's illegitimate son, Liz's phone sex ad, the shocking sight of Frank cleaned up and looking respectable), I think the line that actually cracked me up the most was Kenneth cheering Jenna up by telling her that she is what he pictures the Virgin Mary as looking like, and then cheerfully turning to Pete and telling him that he is his picture of Judas.


The season more or less followed through on my cautious optimism after the first four episodes, though Day Seven kind of ran out of steam with maybe four hours left. It's hard to top Jon Voight when it comes to raving mad man villains, and even the last-minute heel turn from Tony didn't really shake things up all that much. I also didn't care for the weird attempt at making Alan Wilson into The Big Bad Villain Behind Everything Bad That Ever Happened On 24, given that we had known the guy for, like, three episodes and hadn't seen him do anything more threatening than talk on the phone. And most of the White House drama with the president's daughter was kind of stupid. And, let's be honest, sidelining Jack for most of the last half of the season didn't really work either, since he all knew he wasn't going to die and all of his time spent recuperating at FBI headquarters was time that he could've spent kicking ass. So yeah, it wasn't a perfect 24 season by any stretch, but on the other hand, they also added an ass-kicking hot redhead. Call it a push. I did appreciate the attempts at fleshing Jack out a bit more, probably as a response to criticisms of the show that describe it as right-wing torture porn. The scene between Jack and Senator Blaine (played by the always-great Kurtwood Smith) in the senator's house was probably the best character scene Kiefer Sutherland has had in at least five years. Given the introduction of the Muslim religious leader at Jack's ostensible deathbed, I would crack up if Day Eight began with Jack changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Bauer and converting to Islam. That would explode so many heads at Fox News that you'd think it was a scene from Scanners.


The R.O.B. said...

Second the recommendation for Party Down... disappointing that Jane Lynch isn't coming back since she's hilarious... I've re-watched a bunch of episodes with a couple of different people and they get better with each viewing...

Chad Nevett said...

Am I the only one who's getting a little annoyed that Ted has yet to meet his future wife? As you know, I've been a fan since the show began (and wrote a column in the Gazette to prove it), but, Christ, it's getting tedious -- the endless fake-outs and delays. Are we to believe that this father has been telling this story for THIS long without getting to the point or the kids just going and asking their mom who, at first, was on board with her husband wanting to tell the tale, but, by now, is all "Okay, you've been telling this story for far too long and I'm going to just tell the kids what went down"? I don't know why exactly, but this bugs me more and more with each passing episode.

sarah said...

You are a prolific writer and critic!!

You also like the word "labyrinthine" since you used it twice in this post when I believe that it would be tough to use it even once.

Seriously though, great post. :)

Question Mark said...

It would be kind of funny if the last HIMYM episode ends with the kids asking the mother how she and Ted met, and she manages to summarize the whole thing in 20 seconds. But really, HIMYM ultimately has as much to do about Ted actually meeting his future wife as LOST did about the castaways actually getting off of the Island, or about as much as Night Court did about Harry Stone fairly prosecuting criminals.

Chad Nevett said...

Agreed. But, I think that the further it gets dragged out, the greater the pressure to deliver big time whereas the show could easily keep on going after Ted meets her. Every episode where it seems like that plot is moving forward and it doesn't is a bit more frustrating than the last.