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 howstuffworks.com-type 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