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.

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