Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 of the Year in TV

My annual Top Ten of the Year in TV:
1. Homeland, Showtime 
The write-up for my #1 show typically has to be insightful and substantial so I'm going to wax a little poetic here and start with a quote from a forward to the book "The Manchurian Candidate" by Louis Menand:
"The secret to making a successful thriller, as Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy have demonstrated, is to slow down the action occasionally with disquisitions on Stuff It Is Interesting to Know- how airplanes are made, how nuclear submarines work, how to build an atomic bomb. Ideally, this information is also topical, food for the public's hunger of the hour."

Although Menand is not writing about "Homeland", he is saying that a great thriller should 1) tap into the zeitgeist and 2) include some content as a hook. But here's the catch: Topical films and television rarely capture the zeitgeist of the times without seeming like a rehashed newsreel. This is why so many war-related films (i.e. "Rendition", "The Kingdom", "Redacted", "Lions for Lambs") failed in 2007 when the war was in full swing. Homeland is a rare exception where I'm entirely hooked by a show about something I'm already sick to death of hearing on the news about. The acting by Lewis, Danes, and Patinkin is phenomenal, the characters are engaging, and the show keeps suspense going without seeming as though the cliffhangers are cheaply inserted. The show's "hook" is the insider look at CIA interrogations and terrorist watches but it branches into medicine, politics, and even throws in a Douglas Sirkian melodrama for good measure.

2. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX
I continue to find it astounding just how many layers this show can reveal around its five characters Clues are being dropped around us over time, but there's still room for our preconceptions to be challenged as we learn that Dennis wasn't as popular in high school as he thought or that Charlie's mom was a whore. At the same time, Sunny has such fun with dysfunction. Mac had daddy issues, Mac was fat, now Mac's a repressed gay, does it really matter? I don't know the answer to that but I'm having fun than ever trying to figure it out. The show is so comedically strong that many a scene can be lifted verbatim and, as a stand-alone sketch, it would be funnier than what you'd see on Saturday Night Live. "The Gang Dines Out", which had the makings of a stageplay, was one of the best episodes of TV I've seen all year. Ditto for "Charlie and Dee Find Love" which teased us with a rewrite of the character bible on Charlie (as someone who will never stray from the waitress) and the "Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre" which added a horror component, more of the McPoyles and a cameo by Guillermo del Toro of all people. As of late, it's getting more apparent that the characters truly love each other which has led to a few more happy endings and that puts a smile on my face more than it compromises the show.

3. Boardwalk Empire, HBO (Note: I've watched Season 2 which goes up to half of 2012 but not the latest episodes)-Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is anything but the burly man that you picture as the patriarch of a big crime organization, and that's what makes him so interesting. Starting out as more of a pencil pusher who cut corners and tried to keep the peace, Thompson has become a fascinating study in squirming your way to the top. Unlike other mob dramas, Boardwalk Empire has the added challenge of being a historic artifact. We know where Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Nucky Thompson are going to end up, but that doesn't detract from the journey. Boardwalk Empire weaves together a number of interesting storylines and more often than not, the characters- Kelly McDonald as practical Irish immigrant who's moral purity slowly wilts in a marriage to a criminal, Gretchen Mol as a randy young grandmother who knows how to  play the angles, Michael Shannon as the Fed determined to stay within tracking distance of the bootlegging operation, Jack Huston as a gentle soul of a gangster with a disfigured face, and Michael Kenneth Williams as the criminal leader of the black community who can intimidate but knows his limits- do not disappoint. Season two succeeds in creating a more tightly coiled narrative arc with tension rising as Nucky and Jimmy head towards an inevitable showdown.

4. Suburgatory, ABC-Emily Kapnek's show isn't revolutionary by any means but it is the show watching and rewatching more than practically anything else. It has a unique voice and a sharp script. More importantly, the show has a vastly underrated cast with supporting actors (Cheryl Hines, Rex Lee, Chris Parnell, Alan Tudyk, Ana Gasteyer) who do exactly what supporting actors should do and more.  The show also gets a surprising amount of milage for its visual gags and is one of the few instances of voiceover that adds something. The show posits two urban transplants into a foreign suburban world and in that mismatch, sharp satire is added.

5. American Horror Story, FX-In both seasons, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy have managed to create a compelling arc using the horror story homage. The show has a no-holds-barred sense of grandiosity. Nazi doctors and devious nuns not enough? How about aliens, demon possessions, and mutated monsters for you. In Season Two, things got a little excessive but they never got predictable. In Lana (Sarah Paulson), Kit (Evan Peters), and Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), the show's given us three characters to desperately want to see get out of this mess alive. Following a star performance in 2011,
Jessica Lange manages to patch together an otherwise shoddily written part and create a more nuanced character that could otherwise just be evil with a capital "E." Lily Rabe (whose career I am now going to make it a point to watch) and Joseph Fiennes were highly compelling, and while I was highly disappointed with the direction the show took Zach Quinto's character, he was one of the high points of the show before [SPOILERS AHEAD] it was revealed he was a psychopathe. With Quinto suddenly morphing into Skylar from Heroes (counterbalanced slightly be Sister Mary Eunice now being the only good guy in authority, the show needs at least one), I'm not thrilled with where the show stands now, but it's the unpredictable nature of AHS and the interesting directions the show has taken that gives me faith that the ship will either be righted or will at least leave me surprised.

6. The Guild, YouTube-An unabashed celebration of nerd culture and the banding together of six highly diverse misfits who initially never meant anything to each other except as anymous screennames to go on gaming quests with. Each season has succeeded in raising the stakes for the characters and developing them further. This season saw Codex get a job with the game and Vork head the protest movement. Felicia Day can play the violin, work a crowd at comic con, act, and is a talented writer as well. America's next great hyphenate in the making.

7. 30 Rock, NBC-How I will miss this show and wish I was kinder to it every year on my top 10 list. The show might have lost its novelty factor somewhere in the middle but it's never failed at being funny in ways both brilliant and gut-wrenching. This season, the show took on the election with "Mayor Dunston Checks In" and a satire of the presidential debates in which Jack and Liz debate for Jenna's tweeting power. Both were topical without overdoing it. Other reasons why 30 Rock had a great year: Kenneth finally got some forward movement and was hillarious as a member of the  Standards and Practices, Hazel (although this will be debated) was a great addition, the wonderfully vain Avery Jessup returned to turn the 30 Rock universe upside down for a few episodes before unfortunately departing again, and the 30 Rock staff scored two of their biggest successes of the year in improving on two of their past experiements: Queen of Jordan and The Live Show.

8. 30 for 30, ESPN-The series of documentaries launched by ESPN, currently in its second round, is a perfect compliment to the ESPN brand. More than that, the series of documentaries made by seasoned filmmakers is just what's needed to revive a genre of storytelling (sports reporting) that has become stale through heavy repitition. I caught 9.79, Broke, and Ghosts of Ole Miss, and think they could all work as stand-alone films in wide release.

9. Alphas, SyFy-Procedurals rarely hook me but in this show, each mystery of the week helps develop the show and the characters. The special effects are top-notch and the action scenes are both physical and intellectual: The intersection of the characters' powers often play out like a game of chess. The show also works well because of the chemistry. David Strathain's Dr. Lee Rosen works well as a father figure to the group, Rachel and Nina have an intriguing budding relationship as surrogate sisters, and with Ryan Cartwright's Gary Bell, the show deserves credit for not treating autism as though it has kid gloves.

10. Lilyhammer, Netflix-The show's one big flaw is allowing it's protagonist to have become inexplicably powerful too quickly and too easily. Other than that, Lilyhammer has an excitingly well-defined sense of place. Because it's filmed by a Norweigan production company (in collaboration with Steve van Zandt), it goes without saying that watching this show transports you to another world. The cast of characters is wonderfully sharp and I get the strong sense that there's potential of better things to come in Season 2.

10 Honorable Mentions:
Mindy Project, Fox-My review of it is written somewhere else. Don't necessarily think Mindy's a star, but the show is capable of hitting a few emotional chords, and the supporting cast and infrastructure of relationships are both solid.
Little Mosque on the Prairie, CBC-Just as how the Cosby Show eased racial tension by showing how a black family wasn't that different than white middle-class Americans, Little Mosque could do the same in America if people watch it on Hulu.
Go On, NBC-An interesting show with a daring mix of sediment and character-based quirkiness. Sedimental shows run a high risk of disappointing but that's not even half the battle here.
Vegas, CBS-Of the two episodes, I've seen so far, the show definitely has potential. Las Vegas is always an exciting locale to set a drama but historical Vegas has a little something extra to it and I'm excited to see where that goes 
Portlandia, IFC-The show, which made my Top 10 last year, sticks out pretty strongly for its innovation.
Key and Peele, Comedy Central-Mad TV had a few bright spots when these two were on screen so it's a good thing these two have carved out a more specific niche for themselves in the sketch comedy world
Breaking Bad, AMC-I've only watched two or three episodes. It's inclusion on the list is only so I don't get my license revoked as a TV blogger.
Unsupervised, FX-Most underrated cartoon of the year. It's got wonderful characters, it's feel good and disgusting.
Modern Family, ABC-A still solid half-hour comedy. I am certain that out of order, these episodes will kill in syndication.
Bunheads, ABC Family-I never was a Gilmore Girls fan, so when I came at this show at a fresh angle, I was delighted by what I saw.

For reference, here is what I watched: 2 Broke Girls, 4 to 9ers, 666 Park Avenue, Alcatraz (just one ep.), American Dad, Bent, Big Bang Theory, Bob's Burgers, Brickleberry, Chelsea Lately, Comedy Bang Bang, Daily Show, Don't Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23, Eastbound and Down (one ep.), Family Guy, Futurama, Glee, Good Chrisitan Bitches, House of Lies, Last Resort, Librarians, Louie (a couple eps.) Luck (one ep.), MAD,  Merlin (although episodes date to 2008), Misfits, New Girl, The Neighbors, The New Normal, Office, Parks and Recreation, Revenge (Again, not sure what year I watched this),  Saturday Night Live, Scandal, Shameless (two episodes), Smash, Up All Night (I think? Can't remember exactly if it was 11 or 12), Vampire Diaries,  Walking Dead

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bunheads and TV History's Biggest 2nd Episode Curveball

Bunheads caught my attention because it was free on itunes. At first glance, it looked female-centered and slightly tween-oriented. I initially thought this wasn't too far off from the Gilmore Girls demographic which wasn't my cup of tea.  [Ed. update: It turns out show runner Amy Sherman also created Gilmore Girls]

But, again, it was free and the female lead was somewhat charming as Brett's love interest on Flight of the Concords. 

Good thing I jumped at the beat, because I found the show to be surprisingly interesting.  It's one of those love stories where the girl finds the boy repulsive at first but is gradually won over. Only in this case, this all happens within the first two acts and the girl already drunkenly married the guy before she got around to being convinced he was right for her.  

The girl in this case (Sutton Foster) is Michelle. She's a Vegas showgirl who once aspired to be a dancer. The guy is the wonderful Alan Ruck. It is rare to have a series where a couple falls in love after they get married and that's an interesting twist. It also helps that Alan Ruck and Sutton Foster are able leads and sold the moments.  

Following a great pilot episode, we fast-forward to Episode 2 and 



What were they thinking?? For one, I have trouble buying a coincidence of the magnitude that a woman marries someone who dies the next day. For another, the pilot introduces the premise of the show. If you get anyone on board your show enough to want to tune into week 2, how can you then destroy the entire premise and make it a different show without risking losing that audience? Lastly, this is triply bad because it was a good premise they initially had, Alan Ruck is a great actor, and his character was a good character. I could see them killing off the romantic comedy equivalent of a red-shirt ensign but Alan Ruck?? 

And one episode in? Could they not have waited a few more episodes? Killing off a character can be a very unexpected twist, but not Episode 2. It would have made a good season finale, for example. 

The focus shifts to a sort of small-town comedy a la "Northern Exposure" or "Local Hero" and is also about a woman finding herself. The relationship shifts to Michelle and a mother-in-law played by Kelly Bishop who are strangely bonded by legal circumstances and the sharing of a loved one for 24 hours. The show also centers around four perky high school girls who are ballet students of the mother-in-law. Some of the show's most entertaining moments come from the quartet because they have such clashing personalities but they are practically glued to the hip. I'm not sure why but I think co-dependent pseudo-families of people are at the center of good TV (see It's Always Sunny, Cheers).

As is, the show still works past Episode Two but I maintain it's a bad move and would have been a better show. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Top 25 Power List of Actors: 2012

1. Leo DiCaprio-Gets his choice of projects, astounds audiences, grows in every film. Even something like J. Edgar not being seen by audiences doesn't really tarnish his exemplary filmography.

2. Matt Damon-Being prolific helps. He's been with every director, starred with nearly everybody, continues to be bold, and still well-liked even in face of bombs.

3. Brad Pitt-Nearly got double-nominated last year. His name above the marquee can probably automatically get a film in the Oscar discussion at this point and that's not saying anything for his ability to increasingly turn in a great performance or his clout to get something greenlit.

4. Daniel Day-Lewis-Being less prolific makes him hard to gauge

5. Johnny Depp-Tourist was a bust but he can still be exciting and creative like no one else. Don't forgot the success of Rango if you're looking for recent hits.

6. Christian Bale-Acknowledged as supremely talented by many in the industry. Did right by Batman and Nolan, he has won an Oscar, and is capable of winning another without a doubt. Also, challenges himself outside of Nolan with collaborations with Terrence Malick and Warner Herzog and doing the Western 3:10 to Yuma.

7. Michael Fassbender-Of five films he made in 2011, three ("Shame", "Dangerous Method", "X-Men First Class") were big critical or commercial hits. He's like Jude Law in 2004 but nearly every film he made turned into gold one way or another. His Oscar snub was highly undeserved last year. In 2012, he had a solid supporting turn in Prometheus.

8. George Clooney-Going a little bit downhill but still viable as a leading man. By downhill, how many times can he reinvent the same variation of a pretty man who becomes disheveled. Some might be shocked I'm putting him this low, but I do think that in front of the camera, he's run out of his ways with his range to produce another Oscar-nominated performance. Behind the camera, that's another story and I think he could get nominated as a director. The truth is his box office receipts don't really keep up with how often he appears in People Magazine.

9. Ryan Gosling-Is in the conversation as the next Clooney and is often in Oscar contention every year.

10. Robert Downey Jr.-Being behind Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, two of the biggest franchises of the last few years and delivering such a strong take on Sherlock Homes that it's worthy of acting buzz  says a lot on its own. He often gets talked about as if he's a comeback when, in my opinion, he should simply get talked about as one of the most talented stars in Hollywood.

11. Hugh Jackman-Les Miserables puts him near the top now. It's a temporary ridge. I think he has to follow it with something great to stay at the top of the A-list. His likability as a person is enormous. He's been a little bigger in the world of theater than film.

12. Sean Penn-Won two Oscars in the last 10 years, so he's not someone to ever count out in an Oscar race. Does not have box office appeal but that's because he doesn't choose projects with box office potential.

13 (tie). Philip Seymour Hoffman-Once a character actor, now a capable lead. When you think about it, he was the main star of "Doubt", "Before the Devil Knows Youre Dead", "Synechdone, New York" and if I'm not mistaken "Pirate Radio." That's pretty unique because the roles he had for the first ten years weren't even supporting roles. In terms of amount of screentime among cast members, he likely ranked 7th for Scent of a Woman, 7th for Big Lebowski, 6th for Talented Mr. Ripley, and 8th for Almost Famous.
13. (tie) Joaquin Phoenix-I think his stunt circa 2009/2010 where he decided to be crazy in character has likely helped him be seen as a badass Daniel Day-Lewis type who can take method acting to new insane levels. In short, it's likely boosted his credibility.
15. Bradley Cooper-I can make his case in four words and a comma: Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook

16. Daniel Craig-The credibility of doing justice to the franchise of James Bond combined with the classic training and ability to knock out supporting parts out of the park ("Road to Perdition" "Infamous" "Munich). I can't see any course of action for Craig other than getting bigger and bigger every year.

17. Joseph Gordon Leavitt-Being in Christoper Nolan's last two hits certainly helped make his case as an A-lister and allowed him to give great performances, but his contributions to 500 Days of Summer and raising that movie to Best Picture Oscar contention helped a lot too. He's clearly artistic in his aims and earning credibility with his blockbusters. Looper got an AFI award for top ten films of the year.

18. Denzel Washington-Up for Oscar #6 and while he hasn't branched out as much as DiCaprio or Damon (he's done most of his work with Spike Lee and the late Tony Scott), he's a surprisingly durable brand. I was thinking he's a relic of the 90's, but double-checked and Unstoppable, Safe House, Inside Man, the Book of Eli and American Gangster were all successful either critically or commercially.

19. Andrew Garfield-I don't know if I like him personally and I don't know why they made a new Spiderman Movie five years after the last one ended, BUT if he is Spiderman, then he will be a big attraction for the next few years.

20. Jamie Foxx-He hasn't quit his string of good performances since Ray. In some cases, he was my favorite part of "The Soloist", "Jarhead" "Dreamgirls" "Horrible Bosses" and while those performances are underacknowledged, in my opinion, I think he easily has the potential to score another Oscar nod at will (kind of like how Will Smith only really tried acting twice and got nominated each time). Hopefully, Djanho Unchained will help rise him to the core

21. Jeremy Renner-He was in the Avengers, on Saturday Night Live, got two Oscar nods in quick succession and took over the Bourne role.

22. Liam Neeson-A talented actor who was cast in the lead in Battleship, The Grey and starred in Wrath of the Titans. While none of these movies had any cultural impact whatsoever and will likely be forgotten in a year's time, they show that Neeson is still being cast in lead roles. He hasn't been the lead of an Oscar-caliber film since Kinsey and it was really around Schindler's List when he was at the peak of his stardom, but one good franchise or one good Oscar winning film could land him back on top and I'm convinced that Hollywood is willing to cast him in it.

23. Tom Cruise-For better or worse, Tom Cruise has survived Oprahgate. He's no longer one of the top stars in the world but he's still being given enormous amounts of money ($75 million for a musical and $60 million for Jack Reacher, although Jack Reacher looks like it cost well over $100 million) to be making action movies and they're not being seen as frequently, but I think the fact that he's still able to do what he's always been doing merits a place on the top 25. I also think he's still showing the shrewdness in movie selection that he did before his fall from grace, especially with Tropic Thunder but I even see the small stuff like how "Knight and Day" does cast him in a slightly different light than his other films and was a good move for him in his career.

24. Ben Kingsley-I don't think this guy is in "old grandfather role" territory just yet and he did strike up a collaboration with Scorsese for his last two films. He's also damn talented as everyone knows, so I can see him being a pretty good asset to any movie, a viable Oscar contender given the right role, and a name on a marquee that could sell a film.

25. Ben Affleck-He likes directing more than acting but that doesn't mean he won't act, and he especially gives it his all when acting in his own projects. He demonstrates with Hollywoodland that he can act very well, so I see no reason why other directors wouldn't want to gobble him up like Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson did in the years after they won directing Oscars.