Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Review: Television

Last year (well, technically, in January of 2013), I did a multi-post series on my top discoveries of 2012. I touched on books, movies, television, and more. With this post, I now kick off a similar series of posts to review 2013. Unlike my 2012 lists, I’m not sticking to my “top” discoveries of the past year. My review will be a bit looser this time around, hitting the highs and lows and anything noteworthy that falls in between. Similar to what I did with 2012, anything that was new to me during 2013 is eligible to be included on one of these lists. Not every book, movie, etc. that I discuss will be from 2013, but my initial experience of it (for the most part) will be. With that being said, let’s turn to television.

False Starts
Including singular episodes that Melanie and I watched out of curiosity, I was introduced to approximately 20 television shows during 2013. Some of those shows failed to grip me and quickly fell by the wayside. The most notable of these is probably Firefly, Joss Whedon’s short-lived “space western” from 2002. I’ve quite enjoyed many of Whedon’s projects, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for the 14-episode Firefly. People I consider intelligent and whose opinions I largely respect have long assured me that Firefly is a must-see. And so, thanks to Netflix instant viewing, Melanie and I gave it a try. The result? We were bored. I realize we only watched the pilot episode, but nothing about it compelled us to return to the show. It’s hard for me to believe my feelings could change dramatically over another episode or two, but I admit I may return to this someday and give it another shot. I can’t believe so many people could be wrong about it. But maybe they are.

Sherlock is another popular show that failed to resonate with Melanie and me. Actually, that’s only partially true. After watching the first episode, I thought Sherlock was quite good. I was eager to watch more. But after watching two additional episodes, I found myself thinking, “Been there, done that.” I tend to shy away from TV shows that don’t have a storyline that carries over and plays strongly into each episode. If a series’ narrative arch is peripheral (or even non-existent), watching TV feels like a big waste of time to me. I’m just not interested in seeing a new mystery get solved every week that has nothing to do with the previous week’s mystery. But Sherlock was quickly heading in that direction. So, without consciously deciding not to return to it, Melanie and I gave up on Sherlock. It’s not something I would never consider watching again, but for now, it’s on indefinite hiatus.

As fans of many irreverent comedies offered by the cable network FX, Melanie and I were hopeful about The League. The premise—a group of friends obsessing over fantasy football—sounded like a terrible fit for Melanie and me, but we kept seeing the show advertised alongside other comedies of which we were a fan. Because I’m also a modest fan of the show’s lead star, Mark Duplass, I thought The League might prove a pleasant surprise. Boy, was I wrong. While it had its funny moments, each of the seven episodes I watched left me feeling angry and intellectually offended. The characters are unlikeable, the humor is often dull and immature, and yes, the premise of the show is both flimsy and unappealing. My dislike of the show has only increased since I stopped watching it, which is a pretty bad sign. I’m done.

It may not be appropriate for me to include Raising Hope in this category, since Melanie and I actually watched the entire first two seasons. However, we’ve now officially abandoned this one, which despite some promising moments, is consistently mediocre. Anything that comes anywhere near redneck humor is a turn off for me, so the mere fact that Raising Hope is centered on a family of dimwitted hicks is an automatic strike against it in my book. I don’t know why it took me two full seasons to bail, but better late than never.

Jury’s Still Out
There are several series that I have been diligently watching, even though I’m not 100% sold on them. Most of these debuted on network TV in the fall and only have a dozen or so episodes under their belt. Those episodes have pleased me enough to keep me watching, but I’m not yet certain whether I’ll become a permanent viewer. Among these are the sitcoms Trophy Wife and The Michael J. Fox Show, and another Joss Whedon sci-fi drama, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is arguably the highest quality of the three shows just mentioned). There are also a couple of acclaimed shows that have been around for several years but that Melanie and I have started watching only in the last couple of weeks. Shameless is a promising dramedy from Showtime about a large, low-income Chicago family whose single-parent father Frank (played by William H. Macy) is an alcoholic. As a result, Frank’s oldest child, Fiona (Emmy Rossum), is the primary caretaker in the home. I haven’t watched a lot of Showtime series, but in every case, there has been an edginess that feels a bit forced to me. It’s obvious that Showtime wants to be taken as seriously as HBO, which is a problem only because that effort sometimes becomes apparent to the viewer. Still, Melanie and I have now watched the entire first season of Shameless, and we’re both ready for more. We’re likely to stick with it. And finally, there is Justified, a modern-day cop show with a western flare. Melanie and I were given this for Christmas by some very good friends, and we’re quickly working our way through the first season. On paper, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d get hooked on, but so far, I’ve been an eager and appreciative viewer. Something about it draws me in and keeps me entertained, despite the fact that (so far) there isn’t much in the way of a continuing storyline. We’ll see what comes of it.

Promising Potential
Two new sitcoms have pretty much won me over, although I’m not madly in love with either of them. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Andy Samberg’s follow-up TV gig after spending seven seasons at Saturday Night Live. Samberg, as the incorrigible and immature (but ultimately impressive) police detective Jake Peralta, carries the show well. It’s a perfect role for Samberg, who has always straddled the line between being funny and being obnoxious. Also promising is the Rebel Wilson vehicle Super Fun Night. Wilson created, writes for, and stars in the show as the unapologetically awkward Kimmie Boubier, a successful career woman who is nevertheless a romantic and social misfit. Before watching the show, I feared it would be just another “fat is funny” rehash from lazy Hollywood TV execs. But Wilson imbues Boubier with a sense of dignity and confidence that prevents the physical humor from coming off trite, exploitative, and cheap. Not that every episode is a slam dunk. Even at its best, it feels as if the show is never quite living up to its potential—a sad fact not because the resultant show is bad (it’s often rather good, in fact), but because the show could probably be great.

The Gold Stars
There are some shows I discovered in 2013 that I’m very excited about. One of those is the original Netflix series Orange is the New Black, based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a fairly typical, middle-class American woman who wound up in prison after a girl-on-girl love affair entangled her to a drug dealer. I guess I didn’t expect a Netflix original series to be of such high quality, but Orange has surprised me. It’s funny, it’s engaging, and the acting is superb. It’s also refreshing to see a “tough” show that revolves around women. It’s nothing like Sex and the City or Vampire Diaries. It feels like something that hasn’t been done before (because it hasn’t), and I’m hooked.

In the world of sitcoms, 2013 was the year Melanie and I fell in love with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I’m cheating slightly, because Melanie and I actually discovered this show a few years back, but we only watched a handful of episodes before revisiting it (and starting from scratch) earlier this year. Sunny is your quintessential NSFW type of comedy, with despicable, arrogant, self-serving characters who consistently get themselves into trouble as a result of stupidity, hubris, or more often, both. One television critic (whom I can’t remember) described Sunny as “Seinfeld on crack,” which is an apt description. Almost everything about this show is morally suspect—no topic is immune to their wicked sense of humor—but it’s relentlessly and riotously funny. I can’t help myself. It’s my favorite television discovery of 2013, without question.

Another winner is Childrens Hospital, a web-based series whose episodes are a brief 10 minutes each. Childrens (no apostrophe included, since the hospital was named after someone with the surname Childrens) is a parody of doctor dramas such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy, only set in a hospital for children. (So, Childrens Hospital is indeed a children’s hospital.) The doctors at Childrens face all of the trials and tribulations that TV doctors normally face—workplace love affairs, dying patients, etc.—but sometimes must encounter these challenges while wearing clown makeup. You get the idea. Childrens is most definitely not a family-friendly show, but it is hilarious.

As for full-on dramas, Melanie and I found a couple of horror-based shows that have piqued our interest. American Horror Story is an interesting series from the AMC network. Each of its three seasons (thus far) have featured isolated storylines that have nothing to do with each other, although much of the cast is recurring. Melanie and I have watched only the first two seasons, the first dealing with a haunted house and the second with a Catholic-run insane asylum in the 1960s. Jessica Lange offered knockout performances in both seasons, first as a callous mother who lives next door to the haunted house and second as the head nun (with a less than charitable heart) at the asylum. The horror genre isn’t really Melanie’s and my thing, but we tried this show around Halloween and got hooked. About the same time, we tried Bates Motel, a television-based prequel to Psycho (although re-set in the present day). Bates Motel follows Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) during his time as a high school student, shortly after moving into the house made famous in Hitchcock’s film. Norman’s mother (Vera Farmiga) is there, of course, and is the first owner and operator of the Bates Motel. At first, I wasn’t much taken in by Bates Motel and found it inferior to American Horror Story. It took some time for the mother character to develop, but by the final few episodes of the first season, I was really digging the show. If it continues to improve, I think it could bypass American Horror Story as the superior show. Of course, I’m not as partial to the supernatural style of horror that American Horry Story offers, so it might be easy for Bates to sway me.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas 2013

And like that, Christmas is over. Here’s how we spent the days leading up to and including Christmas:

Monday, December 23rd
We received a gift package from a friend that moved several months ago to Wisconsin. This woman used to live in the apartment complex directly behind our own, and Melanie and the boys used to go over and hang out with her and her son quite frequently. The Christmas package was chock full of fun and was a shocking and generous surprise. Despite Christmas being two days away, we let the boys open the gifts, figuring they’d have plenty to open on Christmas Day itself.

That night, we went to Dorothy B. Oven (pronounced “OH-ven”) park, which offers the premier Christmas light display in Tallahassee. It had been raining almost right up until we went to the park, so the ground was a bit saturated. They also didn’t have any music playing at the park, which is unusual and which gratefully affected the atmosphere. It felt much less celebratory, which was kind of a bummer. Nevertheless, our kids had fun and, perhaps due to the soppy climate, the park was not the least bit crowded.

Melanie gets in on singing with the carolers.

I couldn't resist that open mouth.

Christmas Eve
Time to make gingerbread cookies—some for us, and some for Santa.

This was quite fancy for me.

We continued our Christmas Eve tradition of having homemade soup in bread bowls. This year, we had to improvise on the bread bowls because our original plan for acquiring them failed. Melanie found some crusty buns that we used as mini- bread bowls for the kids. She also bought a loaf of Italian bread (or something) that we cut in half and turned into makeshift bread bowls for the adults. As far as soup selection is concerned, Melanie made two kinds: chicken noodle soup and a creamy soup made from eggplant, sweet potato, curry, and more. Just a warning, the eggplant soup looks rather unappetizing in the bread bowl. There’s something very rectal about it, but it tasted good. (I officially nominate the previous sentence for quote of the year.)

Eggplant soup in makeshift bread bowl.

A less flattering view.

After dinner, we read the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke, and then Melanie and I let the kids each open up a select present from us. Spoiler alert: they were Sonic the Hedgehog pajamas.

Continuing our Christmas Eve traditions, we then went on a drive to see Christmas lights and let the kids grow weary. Creegan successfully fell asleep. Eddie and Peter didn’t, but we didn’t expect them to. Eddie did continually express his concern that he would be unable to sleep at all that night. Spoiler alert: he did.

This house we lovingly refer to as the “Christmas barf” house. It looks like Christmas vomited all over the place. Seriously, this guy’s lawn is absolutely smothered with inflatable Christmas decorations, and this photo is a mere teaser. There’s plenty you can’t see in this photograph alone, especially considering that it’s a corner house and the decorations wrap all the way around. It’s absurd, but it’s tradition to behold this spectacle at some point every year.

Christmas Day
With the generosity of Melanie’s parents and some others, there was plenty to enjoy on Christmas Day. I’ll let the photos do most of the talking. Here you go:

The laptop isn't new, but it was loaded with the PC version of Minecraft, which Edison was hoping for above all else.  He was pleased.

Creegan was quite excited by the movie collection and has since watched several of the films.  Wreck-It Ralph has been the most requested of the bunch.  We've watched it numerous times already.

Sliver, a VTech Switch & Go Dino, has been Peter's favorite gift this year.  Thanks, Grandma!

For Eddie, it was pretty much all about Minecraft.  Here he holds a replica of the torches you can get in the game, complete with pixelated appearance.

Peter refers to his art set as "a toolbox with pencils and crayons and stuff inside."

All three of our boys received ninja jackets.

Creegan is finicky about having his photo taken, as evidenced here.

Eddie and Peter each received a magic set.

A crapload of cars for Beegy.

Time to play Minecraft!  And we haven't seen Eddie since.

Creegan shows off Melanie's new necklace.

Inside my stocking, I also received a pen, some more goodies (a Whatchamaclit, a bottle of Dew, cashews), a Christmas ornament that looks like a synthesizer, a pack of awesome guitar picks, a tie, and Terminator 2 on Blu-ray.


The majority of my non-stocking Christmas haul.  Not pictured is another book, an mp3 player, and a couple of games (a Deluxe Edition version of Scrabble and the Tetris version of Jenga). 

Santa gave Melanie and me some new bedding, which is great because our old one had pretty much been destroyed by the kids.  They would crawl under the fitted sheet for fun, which led to a small hole, which eventually led to a huge hole.  The new bedding feels luxurious.  The gray sheets underneath the comforter here are especially swanky and sophisticated.  They're lovely.

And that’s that. I’ve really enjoyed this holiday season, but I’m surprised how little I get done even in the way of relaxation. I thought to myself, “Surely Christmas will be the one day of the year when I can spend 30 minutes reading for pleasure, watch a movie, and even play a little guitar.” Did I? Nope. I didn’t have time for that. I don’t think I did a single one of those things. I’ve tried to make up for it over the last few days, though. I probably shouldn’t, of course. But I’ve tried.

The end!