As with the list of best episodes, we’re operating on a strict timeline, meaning some shows that would normally appear here, won’t. Luckily, as the summer sees less non-reality shows aired, I’m exposed to less dross. Of the shows I’ve seen over the past couple of months, only one would potentially qualify for this list, i.e. ABC’s dripping wet space soap Defying Gravity. I cannot believe showrunner James Parriott not only aimed to make a show that he has described as “Grey’s Anatomy in space”, but managed to find a lead actor even less appealing than Patrick “Oily Void” Dempsey (Ron “Acting Lessons” Livingston, if you were curious). Anyway, that will have to wait until next year, as the show is still on, inexplicably. Now, I shall let my anger flow from me like sewage from a pipe. Apologies for the inevitable mean-spiritedness…
10. Battlestar Galactica – Daybreak
As was said in the previous post, ending a long-running series is a fraught proposition, almost guaranteed to disappoint some fan somewhere. The trick is to make sure that at least the core questions or dilemmas of the show are addressed and resolved, and to pay off longrunning character arcs in a way that show consideration for continuity and human behaviour. No mean feat. It’s unfair to criticise showrunners for not getting a finale 100% right, but if Shawn Ryan could get it 99.999% right with The Shield, we now know it can be done to a very high degree of viewer satisfaction. Daybreak tried to resolve all of the unanswered questions posed by four seasons ofBattlestar Galactica, but in the laziest manner possible. Attributing all kinds of mysterious happenings to a unknown force that is never named or explained or given any kind of motivation rendered the whole tale pointless. As wishy-washy as the nebulous thought processes of the worst kind of woolly-headed fantasist, Daybreak resolved barely anything, with characters making illogical and suicidal choices for no reason other than that it was the last episode, and it needed to end before the final credits. The puddle-deep enquiry into AI ethics was the killing blow (Hug A Robot Today, So They Don’t Nuke Us Tomorrow!). So why is it not higher in this list? Because the first hour was fantastic, Boomer’s redemption was beautiful, and it featured some of the best performances of the year (Callis, Olmos, McDonnell: take a bow). Shame it didn’t follow through properly. Or at all. (For more whining about how disappointing this episode was, here is my original post following the broadcast of the finale.)
9. Dollhouse – Stage Fright
It’s tempting to be forgiving of the first half of Dollhouse‘s first season. Thousands of words have been written about how Joss Whedon’s incredible new show had its wings clipped by the evil suits at Fox, who either couldn’t understand the high concept or thought no audience could, and thus tried to force the show into a poorly fitting mission-of-the-week format. Until, that is, they suddenly stopped being evil suits and let Whedon go crazy with ideas and talking and audience-alienating character arcs like Ballard’s descent into self-loathing and unpleasant hate-fucking or Adele’s surprising ethical lapses with Victor. Let’s not forget, as shaky as the first half of the season was, it also laid the groundwork for the miraculous TV that was to come. And yet, even taking that into account, Stage Fright was a desperate failure, more Bionical Woman meets Josie and the Pussycats than Alias meets Buffy, with Echo imprinted with the personality of a pompous backing singer for a superstar, and Sierra mugging for the camera as an adoring fan. The final dramatic scenes were like out-takes from Wayne’s World. It’s not so bad, though. The team responsible for this episode (David Solomon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon) also gave us the phenomenal Epitaph One. For this mis-step, they’re super-totally forgiven, and then some.
8. Dexter – Turning Biminese
As I’ve complained before, the popular and critical adoration of Dexter has baffled me for years. What strikes me as overdirected, poorly acted, clangingly obvious and desperately patronising drives millions of viewers into paroxysms of joy. Fair enough. Shades of Caruso keeps giving it chances, especially when Shield producer Charles Eglee steps in, and that patience was rewarded with the most pacey and entertaining season yet. However, it’s still overdirected, poorly acted, clangingly obvious and desperately patronising. While most episodes this year were just average (and one, Sí Se Puede, was actually very entertaining, even to this Dexter hater), some were just dire. Turning Biminese was the worst of the bunch, featuring yet more obvious metaphors, tedious sub-plots for the dreary cops in what can only be described as the world’s most inept police department, and a cringe-inducing, desperately unfunny rant from forensic photographer and obnoxious foul-mouth Matsuka, in a scene that sounded as if it had been written by an enraged adolescent Ain’t It Cool talkbacker who had just been told that the star of his favourite TV show was gay. The episode’s worst crime? After realising that Dexter is a vigilante with a murderous MO, season three Big Bad Miguel Prado (played with scenery-devouring enthusiasm by Jimmy Smits) actually says “Dexter, you and I, we’re the same!”. Instant, irrevocable FAIL.
7. Torchwood: Children of Earth – Day 2
It’s not a Worst Episode of the Year list without an appearance from the Torchwood team, ineptly going where no one should ever have gone before. Or after, for that matter. But what is this? Not the worst hour of the year? How could this be? For a start, having Russell T. Davies give his full attention to the show instantly raised the quality level, after two years of neglect from the hapless Chris Chibnall. A greater focus and a willingness to do the unthinkable to the core team of characters gave it a boost of credibility and power that even a hater such as myself cannot deny. After two years of staggering awfulness, the first episode of the mini-series Children Of Earth was a huge and pleasant surprise. Dialogue fizzed, action zoomed along with actual momentum, and drama happened without becoming instantly ridiculous. It was enough to make me tuck into a large slice of Humble Pie.
And then, almost as soon as it had promised so much, the show fell flat on its face and stayed there. While fans and critics lined up to praise the show for its bold plot twists and dark subject matter, it became apparent that the most startling dramatic moments — the horrible fate of the children taken by the 456, the various depressing deaths, the commentary about the venality of politicians — were jotted down as essential touchstones early on in the scripting process, with little idea of how to create the connective tissue necessary to make these moments work, let alone create characters who act like recognisable human beings (the ridiculous — and easily avoidable — fate of John Frobisher sticks in the craw most of all). The moral conundrum at the heart of the show fails too. The threat facing humanity is never fully explained, so every terrible choice is undermined by the suspicion that there might have been a way to avoid doing such terrible things, but those possible solutions are being rushed past in the hope that the viewer won’t notice. Plot holes and longeurs abound, and the usual failings of this most ridiculous show rear up once more (poorly executed action, terrible performances, po-faced melodrama). Day 2 makes the list for quickly ruining the promise of the opener. Easily the most over-rated TV event of the year.
6. Fringe – The Cure
By the time season one of Fringe reached episode six, the show was wobbling between two states: pointless, boring misfire, or insane, ambitious curio. We’d been given an overlong and dull pilot, several minutes of unexciting chase sequences, and oh God so much witless exposition from Peter Bishop. We had also been given mad ray-guns, Warren-Ellisian techno-telepathy, burrowing missiles, various fun Easter Eggs and, best of all, The Observer. Just as the show had begun to show promise, the tinkering of the showrunners threw a frustrating spanner in the works by revamping lead character Olivia Dunham. As she had done nothing particularly interesting for the five previous weeks, it was a necessary move, but there are ways to do it right. Thrust into an adventure featuring super-evil brain scientists and their sexy lab assistants, Olivia cast off her passive demeanour and transformed into an ill-judged avenger, stepping on toes, cracking skulls, and “flirting” with her nemesis. Anna Torv relaxed into her role by the end of the season, but here she was way out of her depth, mugging and shouting and overplaying most dramatic moments. If the episode had been better it wouldn’t have mattered, but even Walter seemed out of sorts. The fingerprints of concerned and interfering Fox executives were all over the place. It would be weeks before Fringe recaptured that exciting post-Observer momentum.
5. Ugly Betty – Ugly Berry
Once a vibrant and lovable diversion with hidden brains and a commendable commitment to showing racial and sexual diversity, Ugly Betty is now a shadow of its former crazy self. After some of the best writers and directors on the show were sacked midway through the second season, the quality dropped noticeably, and Shades of Caruso’s interest dropped even further. Early struggles to keep up with the lacklustre third season faltered with the stunt casting of Lindsay Lohan as Betty’s nemesis Kimmie Keegan, but it was the appalling Ugly Berry that killed our interest altogether. Jokes fell flat, potentially long-running arcs were cut short (Lohan’s departure has been blamed on her dreadful behaviour, but who knows — or cares — what the real reason was), and new arcs came and fizzled with distressing regularity. That crazy energy had turned to depressing inertia. Even though it features three of the most entertaining actors on TV (America Ferrera, Michael Urie, and the amazing Becky Newton), enough was enough. So sad to see a once great show go the way of last season’s fashions.
4. Eleventh Hour – Agro
ITV’s failed Doctor-Who-killer, Eleventh Hour, was improbably picked up by Jerry Bruckheimer, possibly while the writers’ strike kept his brain-trust out of commission for months. Good for the UK, I guess, especially with Brit actor Rufus Sewell taking over from previous star Patrick Stewart and heading up this expensive show. Avoiding the crazy superscience of Fox’s Fringe, Eleventh Hour seemed to want to explore actual moral questions about modern advances, soberly showing exaggerations of real world dangers and asking whether the men and women of science were capable of reining in their worst impulses in order to help mankind. Well, if you can call portraying most of the scientists on the show as demented, power-crazed idiots “sober”. The show was arguably more ridiculous than Fringe by pretending to be more responsible with its plots, while throwing logic, reason, and recognisable scientific theory out of the window on a week to week basis. To make things worse, at least Fringe was fun. Eleventh Hour was the dreariest show on TV, a seemingly never-ending chain of cliches, moodily-lit close-ups of slightly worried faces, and undramatic soap operatics staged with all the half-arsed energy of a commercial for boil-in-the-bag rice. Of those eighteen tedious hours, the most exasperating might have been Agro, during which Dr. Jacob Hood matches a DNA sequence to that of a dangerous fungus by looking at twelve base pairs on a blackboard. Obviously they were the most distinctive twelve pairs out of the possible 12,495,682 that could have been on the board (and that’s if it was merely yeast). That kind of stupidity kills shows dead, you know.
3. The Mentalist – Russet Potatoes
When describing The Mentalist, Shades of Caruso has found itself using words like “pleasant”, “diverting”, “watchable”. Even in the grip of an absinthe hallucination, it would be an impossibility to make a claim that The Mentalist is great TV. Nevertheless, it did approach an unexpected intensity in its very entertaining season closer Red John’s Footsteps, and its genial tone was often a nice contrast to the humourlessness of a lot of TV procedurals. Sadly, when it went wrong, it went memorably wrong. Russet Potatoes introduced hypnotism into the mix, pitting Patrick Jane against mesmerists of such great power that they can create murderous minions at the drop of a hat. One of the CBI team — the gloriously named Rigsby — is turned into little more than a dopey puppet, macking on his colleagues and trying to kill our be-vested hero. Hypnotism could never achieve the results seen here, which wouldn’t be a problem if the rest of the series hadn’t shown such an admirable commitment to portraying the acts of flim-flam artists and fake spiritualists in a realistic light. The show’s IQ level dropped precipitously early in the episode as every character seemed to be hypnotising someone else, and that level kept plummeting, culminating in a rooftop showdown that looked like something out of a Wayans Brothers movie. One of their really bad ones. One without Anna Faris in it.
2. Knight Rider – A Knight in Shining Armor
Glen A. Larson is a TV legend. He made almost all of my favourite TV shows back when I was a discerning pre-teen. The original Battlestar Galactica, BJ and the Bear, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Galactica 1980, Magnum P.I. (co-created with fellow TV legend Donald P. Bellisario, creator of numerous shows with titles that are just assortments of letters), Manimal, Automan… What an exciting time it was. Riding high above them all in a leather jacket and white man’s afro was David Hasselhoff, playing the heroic archetype Michael Knight (the inspiration for Joseph Campell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, though the show was cancelled before Michael got to progress any further than his second face). Knight Rider. One man, one car, an infinite number of exciting challenges that can be resolved with little more than a bit of talking-car sass and a Turbo-Boost. It was a show so complex, so daring, so groundbreaking, that even the shows that ripped it off (such as Streethawk, featuring a very fast motorbike that, sadly, didn’t talk) were incredible just by borrowing a little of its brilliance.
Perhaps the new Knight Rider can’t be blamed for not living up to that original, but when it actually manages to be worse than last year’s pathetic reboot of Bionical Woman, the show is pretty much the same as an asteroid made of fossilised alien-shit caught in the gravity well of the nearest sun. Actually, that doesn’t even cover the extent to which this was bad. It was like a cross between a Sci Fi original movie and a Girls Gone Wild video. In many episodes, Michael “Le” Traceur (who becomes Michael Knight early on in the season) is required to find information from a pool-side bikini party, during which he uses KITT’s space-age satellite hacking technology to zoom in on some poor lady’s bosoms. Rowr rowr! Often, he is also required to meet an old friend who is now a terrorist of some kind because of Reason X. Once or twice he is sexually harassed by his female colleagues. The majority of his enemies, when they’re not former friends who have gone insane, are either young, blonde females in leather catsuits, or young, brunette females in leather catsuits. His colleagues are either angry bureaucrats or lust-addled twenty-somethings who make nerdy references. In one episode Billy — played by Paul “Billy from Battlestar Galactica” Campbell — dresses up as Captain Jack Harkness and goes on about how much he loves Torchwood. The convergent awfulness of the moment was like having a bucket of boxer’s spit emptied over my head.
Most of the time KITT does little other than sit there like a big piece of talking product placement, with Val Kilmer mistakenly portraying the formerly lovable car as a relative of HAL, instead of a fussy, pedantic middle-class nerd, which is what the wonderful William Daniels did in the original series. The rest of the time, it’s a plot-resolution device, with what amounts to a Star Trek replicator in the glove compartment which is used to solve every problem that comes their way. Handy. Later in the series the show turns into Transformers for five minutes, with one main character becoming super-evil before being eaten by a giant robot, which is then defeated with a Turbo-Boost. Even the most undemanding teenager would have been affronted by the cynicism of the enterprise. So why pick this episode? Because it managed to be even stupider than any of the other episodes, as well as for setting up a template so ill-conceived that the show had to jettison most of the characters in a mid-season revamp of hilarious ruthlessness. For its gratuitous semi-nudity, illogical science, and shoddy production values, it is a prime example of how unforgivably ill-conceived the whole thing was. It will not be missed.
1. Heroes – The Entire Third Season
I tried. I really really tried so hard to pare this down to a single episode. Before watching the second half of the season, with the “Heroes” on the run from Nathan — who has gone from thinking everyone should have powers to thinking no one should have powers because of some mental conversion moment that has skipped out of my memory — I was certain the woeful Knight Rider episode was bound to top this list. After three very depressing days watching the last eleven episodes of Heroes season three back to back, it was obvious that not only was this show a more catastrophic failure than the now-cancelled swimsuit-and-car showcase, there was no way one episode could ever be singled out. The things that make Heroes the stupidest, most broken and ill-conceived show on network TV are now systemic. It’s like the opposite of a synecdoche. The whole must speak for the part.
The perfect example of a rudderless ship, Heroes has ceased to make any sense from scene to scene, let alone week to week. Early attempts to explore some kind of moral complexity — by having some of the “Heroes” flirt with doing bad things and the one true villain do good things — never disappeared, but instead became the raison d’être of the entire show. With no fresh ideas coming out of the writers’ room, each season sees the same things happening: the world is revealed to be facing a cataclysm, Sylar will try to become the President of the United States (who needs what amounts to omnipotence when you can waste years trying to pass legislation to regulate hazardous emissions from small businesses?), and all of the characters change alignments at the drop of a hat.
By now, we’ve seen all of the main characters in both hero and villain format, either with a time travel or premonition cop-out or with an insta-retcon plot-knot dropped into an episode with no warning or reason. Heroes have had evil scars (Peter), evil long coats (Hiro), or evil black hair (Claire). Villains have worn Spectacles of Virtue (Sylar) or Sensible Bobs of Benevolence (Daphne). This is what passes for character growth in the Heroes universe. In one episode I’m sure Noah Bennett started out evil, became good, turned evil again, and then by the end was double-crossing Nathan, triple-crossing Danko, and quadruple-crossing himself. Do the actors realise what a joke their characters have become? Why did we spend the first half of the season watching Sylar become good just for him to become evil again one episode later? How can we be expected to find any of this meaningful? And do we really need to have entire episodes taken up with Claire tearfully betraying or leaving her father, just for them to be reunited a week later? And why, part of the way through Chapter Four, did Tracy Strauss kill an innocent person, thus wrecking her chance to escape from Danko? Just to have a cool visual? This isn’t any kind of human (or even metahuman) behaviour I know. Frankly, the whole farrago is insulting.
Ah, but the writers’ room has been cleansed! Goodbye Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander! Hello Bryan Fuller! Surely this is good news. Well, yes, the single Fuller-written episode of the season, Cold Snap, featured the most natural dialogue Heroes has had for a while, had a pleasing structure, and a coherence lacking anywhere else in the seemingly endless twenty-five episode run. It was poetic, and kinda moving, if you look past some shaky performances. Swoozie Kurtz was in it too, for bonus YAY points. However, it not only showed up the surrounding episodes for the epic disasters they were, it failed on its own terms too. Parkman’s weird obsession with Daphne, based on a premonition that obviously was never going to come true (like most of them, as plotlines are abandoned willy-nilly), made a mockery of his previous infatuation with his suspicious wife. Fair enough. A lot of screentime was used up explaining how they had fallen out really badly, meaning he left his child just to go hang out with Suresh, because there ain’t no party like a Mohinder party (it involves a lot of intense teeth-gritting and nonsensical voiceovers about destiny and heroism and how up can be down if you squint really hard).
So, fair enough, Matt saves a gravely ill Daphne, and uses his Amazing Powers of the Brain to bamboozle the mortally wounded speedster into thinking he can fly her to the moon. So romantic. Compared to her previous death scene — which lasted three seconds and almost turned Matt temporarily evil for an episode before he thought better of it — it was a nice finale for possibly the only entertaining character introduced since season one. What happens as soon as Fuller hands over scripting duties to the rest of the team? Matt turns temporarily evil for an episode, thinks better of it upon confronting Danko, is reunited with his wife and son, and decides to stay with them. For ten minutes. Then he decides (with no prompting) that he has to fight the good fight against Danko. For Daphne? For justice? Because he can’t stand the sight of a full diaper? Who knows? The showrunners can’t have him written out, though. Who was he upset about earlier? Fucked if I know. Some woman. Denise? Can’t have been important. Quickly! Onto the next scene! Hiro is walking into a wall or something while Ando pouts about not being taken seriously. Everyone loves Hiro!
Fuller left not long after, and though I’m sure there were numerous logical reasons for his departure, part of me likes to think he realised how impossible it will be to sort out this Briar-Patch continuity. It can’t have helped that his good work trying to nail down even just one character (Matt) was undone almost immediately, and for no apparent benefit, nor that getting rid of Loeb and Alexander means much when you have Joe Pokaski and Aron Eli Coliete around. Maybe it was the jawdropping awfulness of the season finale, with Nathan killed and Sylar tricked into turning into him and having his memories replaced, just so that Angela doesn’t lose the son she never even seemed to like that much even though that means she’s hanging around with the man who actually killed the loved one he is now impersonating. Of all the rank stupidity and poor storytelling I have seen this year, nothing approaches the staggering wrongness of that moment. If I were Fuller and Tim Kring came to me with that idea, I’d walk out of the door and never look back. Who knows? Maybe Fuller came up with that idea? Maybe he was responsible for all of Matt’s behaviour and dialogue, even the really really stupid stuff that contradicts everything that happened in Cold Snap. Unless someone is willing to spill the beans, we’ll just have to hope it’s not the man who once made me think this show could be something truly special by writing something as wonderful as Company Man.
This post could go on forever. This piss-poor excuse for a show, which is — never forget — NBC’s most watched dramatic series, has become a joke. Every episode features nine or ten moments of laughable error, poor storytelling, inconsistent continuity, unbelievable behaviour, or ungrammatical dialogue. The crux of the matter, the killing blow to the credibility of this haphazard, chaotic mess is that it is now, after three years, less coherent than either the Marvel or DC comic universes. Yes, the DC universe, which has been rebooted numerous times and features 52 divergent universes with a multitude of characters, is more coherent and digestible and — most importantly of all — far more entertaining. If Lost‘s continuity could be seen as a series of lines linked together to make a starkly beautiful web of meaningful interconnections, Heroes would look more like a box of toothpicks dropped onto the ground in the middle of a sandstorm. As the talking fox from Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist says, “Chaos reigns”. This is not something to be proud of. NBC, a network that cancelled Journeyman just as it was beginning to attract plaudits, and shunted its most promising new show — Kings — into a summer season with a two month gap wrecking all storytelling momentum, has kept this on the air. The network recently gave up the ghost and stuck Leno on every night instead of commissioning new shows. That was the actual surrender. Keeping this on the air was the white flag that preceded it. Something tells me it won’t get another reprieve after this year, from NBC or from the viewers. There’s only so much patience in the world.
The Unusuals – Boorland Day: Great character actors are not enough to save a misconceived project, and this formless bag of quirky tics disguised as character traits, bolted onto the most formulaic of cop plots, was as misconceived and unimaginative as anything shown on network TV this year. As the pilot was directed by Stephen Hopkins, the show could only improve. This second episode showed it couldn’t improve enough. Sometimes, a flawed premise is just a flawed premise.
House – Last Resort: Other than his brief appearance in Big Love, Željko Ivanek has had a really bad year. Looking lost as a gun-toting villain in Heroes was one thing, but he also played a gun-toting villain in House, harassing our hero and a bunch of annoying patients for an hour, which is no way to use someone who just won an Emmy. If there’s a plot I would happily remove from modern TV, it would be the hostage situation…
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – No Way Out: …because with Last Resort and this feeble effort from the usually dependable CSI team, it’s gone beyond played-out. The hostage situation here seems to have been used as a clumsy way to force two new characters (the excellent Dr. Raymond Langston and the practically invisible Riley Adams) into the limelight, but we find out nothing new about them other than that they cope well under pressure. Well, duh.
Parks and Recreation – Canvassing: Humour is a subjective thing, obviously, but sometimes a show comes along that seems to actually completely lack jokes. It’s not like Family Guy, where there are lots of jokes but they’re all really stupid and poorly timed. Parks and Recreation just doesn’t seem to be a comedy, except that Amy Poehler is in it. This was a particularly annoying episode, with some unlikeable people doing boring things. It can only improve.
The Office – Employee Transfer: Perhaps I’m mad at Parks and Recreation for distracting the showrunners of The Office. A generally underwhelming fifth season still had a few big laughs and upsetting drama, but one episode was a perplexing laugh-free half-hour, misjudging the balance between comedy and tragedy in a way that was shocking coming from a show that gave us last year’s brilliant Dinner Party. Plus, Amy Ryan left the show. Fuck that shit.
It feels better getting that all off my chest. Tomorrow, or the day after that, my ten favourite new characters of the year. There is no one from Heroes in that list.