Monday, January 07, 2013

Top 5 Discoveries of 2012: Television

This is the second official list in my “Top 5 Discoveries of 2012” series. To see my music list, click here. To better appreciate my approach to making these lists, please read the brief introduction to this series (posted here).

While we rarely watch television over the air, Melanie and I are fans of watching TV shows on DVD and via streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. We both love movies, but television shows offer greater flexibility. You can watch a full episode in as little as 22 minutes, and you can catch up on an entire series in a matter of two or three days if you’re so inclined. Because television commercials drive us absolutely batty and we prefer not to wait a week between episodes of any TV show we might be inclined to watch, Melanie and I generally wait until a series is on DVD before we bother checking it out. This means there are always plenty of popular shows that Melanie and I have yet to see. Over the course of a year, we might check out a dozen or two of them. We did so in 2012, and we happened upon several recommendable titles. I now present to you (in no particular order) what I consider to be my top five television discoveries of 2012:

1. The Mindy Project
Most people know Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor, the high-energy, high-maintenance, not-so-high-intelligence customer service rep at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company on NBC’s The Office. What you may not know is that Kaling was also an executive producer, co-writer, and occasional director of the show. After eight seasons on The Office, Kaling took her talent to FOX, where she now stars in (and co-writes) The Mindy Project. Compared to Kelly Kapoor, Kaling’s latest character, an OB/GYN named Mindy Lahiri, is smarter, slightly less energetic, equally high-maintenance, and a pinch more neurotic. The show centers on Mindy’s life as a single professional woman in her early 30’s, employing all the usual fodder. There’s nothing revolutionary about the show, but it’s consistently funny. With The Office having gone drastically downhill over the last few seasons, The Mindy Project now trumps Kaling’s former project in the number of laughs it provides.

2. The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret
Melanie and I stumbled upon this relatively unheard of sitcom on Netflix, where its first (and only) two seasons—each a pithy six episodes—are available for instant viewing. Like The Mindy Project, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is the follow-up television project created and written by a former cast member of another much acclaimed show—in this case, David Cross, who played Tobias Fünke on FOX’s Arrested Development. But if you thought Arrested Development was raunchy and politically incorrect, it is mere child’s play in comparison to Todd Margaret. Appearing on cable, Todd Margaret is chock full of expletives that would make your grandmother (and perhaps even the construction worker down the street) blush. Most of the profanity comes courtesy of another Arrested Development alum, Will Arnett, who stars as Todd’s boss, Brent Wilts. Mistaking Todd for a no-nonsense go-getter, Brent spontaneously enlists Todd to spearhead the promotion of Thunder Muscle, a new energy drink being unveiled in the United Kingdom. Todd—a perpetual loser, liar, and pushover—moves to England, where his affections for café owner Alice (played by Sharon Hogan) distract him from promoting the questionable beverage.

Todd Margaret is not for everybody. Even I am sometimes bothered by what seems to be rampant profanity for the sake of profanity. All the same, I have laughed harder at Todd Margaret than just about anything else I’ve seen in the past year (and then some). I’m talking the kind of laughing where you cannot physically laugh as hard as your body is trying to and you nearly pass out from the lack of oxygen that reaches your brain. (The season one finale of Todd Margaret is a testament to this.) If you’re not easily offended, this show is a must-see.

3. The Killing
Over the last few years, cable channel AMC has become synonymous with great television. Among the outstanding series original to AMC are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the latter of which is the best television series I have ever seen, period. Adding to AMC’s repertoire of excellence is The Killing, a drama that follows Seattle detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Billy Campbell) as they investigate the murder of high school student Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay). Less sensationalistic that your standard crime drama fare, The Killing is persistently somber, relentlessly gripping, and never quite as disturbing as you’d expect given its darker tone. It is a pensive series, reveling less in forensics and more in the psychology of its characters, from the morose Linden and sketchy Holder to the grieving Larsen family—father Stan (Brent Sexton), mother Mitch (Michelle Forbes), and brothers Tom (Evan Bird) and Denny (Seth Isaac Johnson). But this is only the beginning of the intricate cast of characters, almost all of whom are portrayed by exceptional actors. If you have Netflix, season one is available for instant viewing and may just hook you enough that you’ll be willing to shell out some money to watch season two via Amazon Instant Video. While The Killing was originally cancelled after two seasons, a third season is now expected to premier on AMC this May. Now is the time to start watching!

4. Portlandia
What is Portlandia? It’s Saturday Night Live, only more intellectual and more random. How fitting that Fred Armisen stars in both? Contrary to what you’ll find on SNL, however, Armisen is joined here by only one other main star, Carrie Brownstein. Because this is a sketch comedy show—I can’t say for certain, but I strongly suspect the show contains a heavy dose of improvisation—it’s hard to say much about it in the way of description. Armisen and Brownstein both play an arsenal of characters, only a few of whom are recurring (most notably, the dual feminist owners of Women & Women First Bookstore). Almost everything that happens on Portlandia is satirical in nature, probably even the totally random bits that make virtually no sense to me whatsoever. All in all, there’s just a lot of awkwardness and weirdness, much of it incredibly hilarious. With the first two seasons available on Netflix and the first episode of season three (which debuted in December) available for free on Hulu, I encourage all who are able to give this show a try. To give you a small sampling of what to expect, I’m including a video of the recurring Women & Women First Bookstore skit below. This is the first video I found, so I’m not even trying to give you the best sketch. Still, it should serve as a good comedic barometer; how you react to this sketch is probably exactly how you’ll react to everything else you see on Portlandia.

5. Suburgatory
Suburgatory is currently in its second season on ABC. I’m not sure how I heard about it, but I was under the impression it was one of the more critically acclaimed sitcoms of recent years. So, Melanie and I tried it. While there are definitely things that are unbalanced about the show, I find that I frequently quite enjoy it. It’s especially refreshing that the show’s main character, a teenage girl named Tessa (Jane Levy), is intelligent and decidedly non-skanky. Like any sitcom, Suburgatory panders to sexual humor more often than I wish it did (mostly because it’s so clichéd and unfunny), but in comparison to almost everything else on TV, the show displays a high level of moral integrity. Of course, you have to get past the pilot episode to realize this. As the series begins, Tessa is being moved from downtown New York City to the suburbs, in part because her divorced father, George (Jeremy Sisto), caught her with her boyfriend and now wants to protect what’s left of her moral character. Naturally, George and Tessa find themselves at odds with the superficial and largely dimwitted populous that surrounds them in the ‘burbs. Hilarity ensues … at least sometimes.

1 comment:

  1. My absolute favorite Portlandia sketch:

    Check it out!!!!

    I think Todd Margaret can sometimes seem as funny-less as it is funny, but I kind of wish everyone would watch the first season just to get to the final episode for this scene:

    It's hilarious, but I think it would be more funny to you if you had seen the whole season.

    Ben, I felt like "retarded" scene in the Todd Margaret season 2 episode we watched last night was an homage to this-slightly less funny, but still very good.