Wednesday, June 27, 2012

TV Year In Review, Part III

 We've covered the blah and the good thus far in the TV Year In Review series, and now we're at the last and best instalment --- the shows that were very good to capital-g Great in 2011-2012.  It's been said before, but we are truly living in a golden age of television.  All 13 of these shows are awesome, and if you're looking for some summer DVDs/Netflix action to get caught up on, you could do a lot worse than watching any of these programs in their entirety.  

13. Curb Your Enthusiasm
For starters, look at this placement.  Curb had a terrific season and it's only thirteenth?!  The vaunted 'New York season' only spent about half the episodes in the Big Apple but man, this was still vintage Curb, with instant classic episodes like the Bill Buckner meeting, Larry's feud with Michael J. Fox and Larry's love of chicken (and sex) almost setting off an international incident.  Perhaps the best part was that unlike most Curb seasons, this one didn't end on a 'could be a series finale' note, which indicates that Larry David is game for at least one more season.

12. Homeland
Most descriptions of Homeland just refer to it as "a thinking man's 24," which isn't quite right; the British series MI5 is the real thinking man's 24 since it has the action but is only half as ludicrous.  There's relatively little action in Homeland which is what makes it so interesting -- the tension came from not really understanding what plot was really afoot, and the feeling of foreboding dread (you knew an attack was coming, but when and from where) added extra importance to everything.  I also have no idea where the series will go for Season 2 or if this premise is really suited to a longer-form series, but if nothing else, Homeland can rest on having at least one superb year.  Great performances from Mandy Patinkin, Damian Lewis (a dead ringer for my friend Greg, btw) and especially Claire Danes in a career-high performance.  Danes deserves every plaudit in the world for her work and should be the hands-down Emmy winner… watch this, it'll probably go to Mariska Hargitay or some shit. 

11. Eastbound & Down
The saga of Kenny Powers came to a very satisfying end.  I'm going to miss this ridiculous show and it went out with guns blazing in its last year.  There may not have been a single funnier extended segment on any show this year than Kenny's trek to Ashley Schaffer's estate in the second episode.  (As one writer on Grantland put it, "I'm not ready to discuss [that episode] since I think you'd have to invent a new language to do so.") 

10. Sherlock
Gah, this show is TENTH.  How great was TV this year?!  I continue to be in awe of the BBC's modern Sherlock Holmes series, as this year's three episodes (each ep is 90 minutes long) were even better than the last, as this season's "standalone" ep (the revamped Hound Of The Baskervilles) was markedly better than last year's instalment about the Chinese smugglers.  The only downsides are that S3 probably won't happen until late 2013 at the earliest, and that CBS is making its own "modern Sherlock Holmes" series starring….Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and "Joan Watson."  Jesus Christ.

9. Parks & Recreation
A shockingly low placement in the eyes of many, but I just felt this season of P&R got a little too bogged down by the campaign storyline, as funny as the twists of turns were of Leslie's city council run.  Add that to just total non-starter subplots like the Ann-Tom relationship and yeah, it just seemed like a rare misstep for this great show.  I freely admit that I may be a bit harder on P&R given its massively high standard in the previous two years since I already feel like it should be a couple of spots higher on the list after reading this great episode-by-episode breakdown with personal hero Michael Schur.  To make up for it, my annual Alterna-Emmy column will be a P&R lovefest, don't you worry.

8. Happy Endings
Being 'a TV guy,' I'm sometimes asked to recommend shows for friends.  I've had reasonable success at this, with certain shows having a near-100% conversion rate of new viewers falling instantly in love with the series.  The first two How I Met Your Mother seasons are probably the champions of this category, with Breaking Bad, The Wire and (of late) Portlandia also having high success rates. 

My guess is that Happy Endings will soon join this category as well, as it's a very easy show to leap into, it appeals to all demographics and, most importantly, it's very funny.  I myself was converted to it by my friend Joanne, and it just took one episode for me to become hooked, which led to my devouring both seasons in, oh, about a week's time.  It was an even quicker conversion than the time Jo introduced me to crack.  HE is a great fast-paced comedy that really found its leg in its second year, led by a fantastic cast.  Casey Wilson -- so forgettable on SNL but so perfect here.  Damon Wayans Jr. -- a virtual clone of his father and such a funny guy that it took 'New Girl' almost a full year to recover from his departure after he was in just the pilot episode.  Eliza Coupe -- hilariously uptight and the winner of the coveted "Mark's Imaginary TV Girlfriend" award for 2012.  Adam Pally -- originator of the "Max turns into a bear" storyline, one of the funnier subplots of the year on any show.  Zach Knighton -- uh, he's also there!  And finally, there's the much-maligned Elisha Cuthbert, who has taken 10 years of flak for being a terrible actress, but it turns out she was just in need of a comic role, as she is legitimately hilarious on HE.  Let's hope the pattern continues onto her boyfriend Dion Phaneuf and he's just waiting until his 10th season to win the Stanley Cup.  It could happen!

7. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Went into detail last December about IASIP's great year, so click that link.  Pageviews!

6. Community
Man, this show has been through so much turmoil over the last year that the last season feels like two or three.  (Mentally bringing us closer to #sixseasonsandamovie)  Between all the behind-the-scenes stuff, the midseason hiatus, the Dan Harmon/Chevy Chase feud and Harmon's ouster as showrunner, it's almost a footnote that the actual show was as creative as funny as ever in its third season.  If anything, this might've been Community's best season, as they had a perfect run of making their 'special' episodes (the 8-bit video game ep, the Glee spoof, the Ken Burns spoof, the Law & Order spoof, the alternate timelines trip, the second 'fake clip show' episode) work both as specialty concepts and still funny at the same time.  It's anyone's guess as to how S4 will go without Harmon and about half of the creative team, but I have faith that we'll still see a funny show, if not the pre-Crisis Community we've all come to know and love over the previous three years. 

5. Archer
It was a very, very close call between Archer and my next entry for the title of "best comedy of the year."  Archer is an amazingly funny show --- nothing but great episodes this season and literally every ep features at least 20 eminently quotable lines.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys dry wit and spy movies, and if you don't enjoy either, then why are we friends?

4. 30 Rock
I touched on 30 Rock's great resurgence last month so without repeating myself too much, I'll just reiterate that it's a rare feat for a show in its sixth season (and coming off a couple of weaker-than-usual years) to suddenly regain its mojo and deliver arguably its best year yet.  Tina Fey had a baby about a year ago so maybe that's the key: Fey's reproducing = quality comedy.   

3. Mad Men
I feel like Matthew Weiner approaches Mad Men in the sense that film director Howard Hawks approached his movies.  Hawks famously said that the key to making a great movie was simply to have "three great scenes and no bad ones," and to wit, every Mad Men episode seems to feature at least one iconic sequence or moment that more than makes up weaker (if not actually bad) scenes elsewhere in an episode.  Just this season alone we had Roger on LSD, "Zou Bizou Bizou," Joan finally dumping her dirtbag husband, Peggy telling Don she's leaving SCDP, Lane's last hours, the Lane/Pete brawl and most notably, the whole scene of Don and Joan flirting at the bar.  Holy god, as much as I enjoy Mad Men, if the show wanted to just drop everything and change the premise to The Hamm and Hendricks Sexual Chemistry Hour, I would be all for it.

Great performances abounded as usual, with particular note to Elisabeth Moss, Jared Harris and Jessica Pare as the greatness that is Megan Draper, but I'd like to single out John Slattery for hitting a new peak as Roger Sterling.  Roger is a seemingly simple character to play on paper, but Slattery drills the point home with his ability to have chemistry -- and, importantly, different kinds of chemistry -- with everyone.  The show gave Slattery at least one great scene with everyone in the cast and he hit it out of the park each time, perhaps with the best evolution being Roger suddenly turning into a cool uncle when escorting Sally Draper to the ball.  (This also led to maybe the best line of the year, coming from, of all people, This Season's Bobby Draper, with his half-stunned, half-disgusted "YOU'RE our babysitter?!" when he answers the door and finds Roger.)  Combine this with how Roger seems to be one of the few in the office who's actually changing with the times as they get deeper into the 60's and Slattery comes outta nowhere to win the S5 Mad Men MVP Awards.

2. Louie
Every episode of Louie features the opening credits and at least one bumper of Louis CK performing standup.  After that, all bets are off.  Whereas a show like Community is original because it can drastically change shape from episode to episode, "Louie" takes it to the next level since it virtually is a different show from episode to episode.  It can go from screamingly funny to intensely dramatic to subtle social commentary to even adapted-from-real-life moments like Louie's confrontation with Dane Cook.  Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Louie's format is that under normal circumstances, it would be irritating to see a show starring Louis CK (arguably the funniest comedian in the world today) only be sporadically funny.  It seems like a waste of resources on paper but CK's dramatic musings are so powerful and interesting that when he gives you a bit of standup at the end as a relief, it's almost a surprise.  It's like, "oh yeah, he's a world-class comedian, too."  The third season begins this Thursday night and I could not be more fired up to see what Louis CK has in store for the latest trip through his brain.

1. Breaking Bad
Back to defend its title as the best show on television, it's Walter White and company.  Since I knocked P&R way further down the list for having one or two elements I didn't like, it's only fair that I note that I wasn't *crazy* about how the season-ending twist.  It felt like a bit too much was left off-screen in putting together exactly how Walt pulled that all off, especially for a show that is always up-front about noting how difficult every little step is for Walt and Jesse in their criminal adventures.  I can hopefully revoke this criticism if BB explains it in an episode next season, since otherwise S4 was about as perfect as it gets.  Superbly acted, superbly written and (other than that concern about the ending) featuring nothing but airtight-plotting, Breaking Bad is still firing on all cylinders.  Beyond the two leads, you have Anna Gunn setting a great showcase with the Ted Beneke subplot, Hank slowly becoming the hero of the show, Marie even getting something to do with her kleptomania relapse and finally, the great Giancarlo Esposito.  There's no other way to talk up Esposito other than to say that he's created one of the most memorable villains of all time.  Gustavo Frings is a phenomenal character and perhaps the only villain that could top him could be (spoiler alert) Walt himself.    

I'll just throw this out there right now --- if Breaking Bad can keep up this peak over its final two seasons, then it has a case as the very best show of all time.  This is easier said than done.  I said this same thing about LOST going into its last year and we saw how that turned out.  It's extremely difficult to end a series on a high point; even The Wire, while it wrapped up very satisfactorily, couldn't quite stick the landing since its fifth season was inarguably its weakest.  Seinfeld's finale was a good ending from a narrative standpoint but was famously not a good episode of the show.  The Simpsons haven't gotten to their finale yet but even if it's great, you can't ignore the fact that over half the show's run has been hit-and-miss.  BB has a chance to do something really unique in TV history, which is why I'm hoping S4's ending was just a minor blip and not a hint that things are about to get sloppy.  Take a hint from Walt and keep the chemistry as premise as possible, Breaking Bad.

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