Shades of Caruso apologises in advance for the following posts. They’re filled with complaints and bitching and all sorts of unpleasant negativity, but they’re something that needed to be written even if just to exorcise some very complicated feelings that arose during this past year of watching a lot of TV. Just as watching good TV allows you to appreciate the craft and intelligence of numerous talented people, watching bad TV… well, it allows you to do exactly the same thing. The difference is that you get to see this effort compromised by factors as big as the interference of executives who want to be “creative” but don’t understand anything about the process, or as small as one bad decision made and then followed through to unavoidable disaster (e.g. Evil Sandy in the third season of The O.C.).
Some of the shows here are shows I love, but went momentarily bad, either with ambition that ran away from them, or by adding some awful element that derails the narrative or tone. Some of the shows are probably just not my bag anyway, but were not distinct enough to convince me of their charms (e.g. Friday Night Lights is not a show I would normally watch, but it is exceptional on every level, and is therefore one of my all-time favourites). Some of them are just bone-headed and half-arsed and need a kicking. Unless specified, I’m not bitching at anyone in particular: it’s a collaborative process, and sometimes these things go awry without anyone realising. It’s just the way it is.
Except for my number one pick. That fucking bullshit needs to be called out. (Warning: There will be impotent rage.)
That’s for tomorrow. Today, bad episodes 20-11. In the interest of seeming 33% less bitter and mean-spirited than I could, I’m not listing 30 episodes, though I easily could have. Lucky for The Vampire Diaries, I guess. Normal rules about complete seasons and one candidate per season apply. If you see a show you love on this list, bear in mind I might only be complaining about one episode, not the whole thing. Even my favourite show ever — Lost — had a couple of clunkers this year, and there was even one episode of critical darling Mad Men that nearly made the fail grade. It’s nothing personal (though neither ended up on the list after I got rid of the 30-21 candidates). But if you wanna flame me, I understand. Go ahead. If you make good enough points, I’ll be gentle. And now, un-joy.
20. Dollhouse - The Hollow Men
Many of the episodes listed here are included for crimes against plotting, against pace, against acting. Some represent the moment a show made a transition from mostly-good episodes to mostly-bad, while others were the final proof that a show was broken from conception and would never be any good. This episode – the penultimate one in Joss Whedon’s cancelled SF series – is here for being awesome and terrible at the same time. Yes, it contained as many great ideas as previous episodes, some terrific performances, thrilling plot twists and shocking character deaths. It was also shakily shot and edited, sketchily written, and laden with bad effects and incongruities. A final shot of Echo running from an explosion that does zero damage to the building it happens in — followed by a shot of our heroes aimlessly wandering off into the “sunset” — might stand as the worst moment in all of Mutant Enemy history. Let me be VERY CLEAR: I’m not saying that this is the fault of anyone who worked on the show, and it would be cruel to suggest otherwise. In fact, everyone who worked on it has my eternal gratitude for going the extra mile to take the few episodes and dollars they had left and finish the story that Whedon started. Nevertheless, The Hollow Men stands as a monument to the show’s failure to catch on, either because of lacklustre promotion by Fox or by the unwillingness of the public to give a chance to a show as cerebral as this one. Gratitude is due to all concerned, but the frustration of seeing a potentially incredible story get short-changed remains.
19. Big Love – Blood Atonement
While watching the fourth season of Big Love (several months after its initial airing), the many complaints of fans and former fans rang through my ears, most of them revolving around the Jumping of the Shark. For six episodes I scoffed. From where I was sitting the show was its normal funny and unpredictable self. In fact, it was arguably even more macabre and eccentric than previous years. Other than complaints about the central arc with Bill attempting to become a senator in order to reveal his polygamy to the world, it was still superb, underrated TV. And then this episode leapt out from hiding, like some inept monster in the closet, stumbling towards us with coathangers around its feet and a bandanna over its eyes. With only three episodes left in the series, the showrunners and writing team appeared to be up against the wall in terms of not having time to pay things off in time for the finale, and thus began packing absurd amounts of plot into the show, overburdening it with event, rushing things to silly conclusions, and fatally misjudging the tone. The last three episodes of the season featured numerous terrible choices — the bizarre mad scientist plot featuring Zeljko Ivanek was particularly irritating, as he had been an interesting antagonist before turning into an insane eugenicist — but the booby prize goes to Blood Atonement for ushering in the miserable trilogy, and for including a lumpen hostage rescue plot of such boneheadedness that it boggles the mind. Let’s hope season five gets this gem of a show back on track.
18. FlashForward - Believe
It’s a great premise — everyone on the planet blacks out and sees four minutes of their future — but a great idea is doomed if you go in the wrong direction. The novel FlashForward wisely focused on the scientists who were investigating the worldwide phenomenon, while the show follows a bunch of FBI agents and their friends and family. The show might seem more dramatic, but it’s also liable to fall into tedious action cliche — which it does — and all other sub-plots are likely to seem trivial in comparison to the conspiracies, gunfights, explosions, and shots of Joseph Fiennes emoting with all the force of a billion Olivier-strength Thespian-Bombs. The show’s low-point is probably the least fighty, oddly enough. Believe features two sub-plots about recovering alcoholics (as if one wasn’t boring enough), one of which is solely about Agent Benford asking people if they texted some bad news to his wife. Not exactly riveting, but made accidentally amusing when the two people he asks (his be-whiskered sponsor Aaron and velvet-voiced boss Stanford Wedeck) react as if he accused them of molesting his daughter (chairs thrown, growls of “Get. Out. Of. My. Office!”, etc.). However the main focus of the show is the deathly tedium that is Bryce Varley’s search for his Japanese future-lover. It’s feather-light, leads to hours of pointless soul-searching in later episodes, and relies on horrible cliches about Japanese corporate culture. Imagine a Kate-centric episode of Lost mixed with the worst cultural drama of the Sun/Jin episodes, but without the sensitivity. It’s enough to make you pine for Hiro’s appearances in the first season of Heroes.
17. Fringe - Brown Betty
Glee was everywhere this year, like a virulent strain of some terribly overrated plague. It infected everything, including Fringe. As Fox brought its breakout hit back from slumber with a patience-sapping back-nine, it figured it would be a great idea to celebrate with a Glee-themed week of programming, including a musical episode of the mostly humourless and dry sci-fi show. Not that you could really tell. Though we got a minor moment of song from Lance “Intensity” Reddick, and a nicely underplayed rendition of “For Once In My Life” by Anna Torv — both of whom have lovely voices, especially Ms. Torv — it still seems like a stretch to call it a musical. Shockingly, Broadway star Michael Cerveris — The Watcher known as September — is featured in the episode but doesn’t sing a note. Imagine if Hinton Battle had not sung or danced in Buffy‘s Once More With Feeling: it’s a horrible, horrible waste of an opportunity. There have been arguments that it’s unfair to criticise it for being a musical when it obviously has no real interest in being one, but the episode has plenty of other damaging flaws: the clangingly obvious metaphors in Walter’s drug-induced hallucination; the look of discomfort on most of the cast’s faces as they struggled with the dopey film noir theme and the dreadful jokes (even John Noble looks lost); the complete lack of new or pertinent information, meaning this episode can be happily excised from the show’s run. The worst crime, however, is that it disrupts one of the most impressive late-season runs in recent TV history. At this point Fringe had finally become essential viewing: Brown Betty was a miserable, ill-judged mood-reset button that came at the worst moment. The season rallied and ended on a memorable high, but nevertheless this car-crash still irks.
16. The Mentalist – His Red Right Hand
SoC was quite happy to stick with this average-but-entertaining procedural last year simply because Simon Baker was so lovable as trickster Patrick Jane that even the most humdrum of episodes was lifted by his mischievous smile and funny mind-games. This year the show’s level of quality dipped ever-so-slightly, enough to make us question our decision. Our attentions wandered while airtime was wasted on the Rigsby-Van Pelt flirtation (which turned into a romance much quicker than expected, so kudos for that, at least), and Jane’s playfulness seemed a little less interesting, maybe a little more sour. Only the introduction of Bosco — Lisbon’s former partner and antagonist for our mentalist hero — brightened the show, mostly because it was nice to see that the horrors of The Unusuals didn’t put dependable Terry Kinney off being on TV. His Red Right Hand promised to bring the show out of its rut, as it heralded the return of Jane’s arch-enemy Red John in a sweeps-tastic display of drama. Sadly the episode rested on the innocence of new character Rebecca, whose ultimate evil was signposted by a bunch of distracting swivel-eyed tics introduced early on. The suspense and twist was wrecked by this out-of-place performance, and suddenly the episode was in trouble. Then Bosco died, and Minelli (Gregory Itzin) quit, meaning the two best supporting characters left within minutes of each other. If a Red John episode could be so poor, what’s was the point in sticking with it? With that, SoC dropped the show, albeit with a heavy heart.
15. Persons Unknown – The Truth
Cracks began to form in Persons Unknown‘s veneer at a shockingly early stage, but the intriguing central premise and atmospheric direction of the season opener lulled the viewer into a false sense of security. The sixth episode was where the wheels flew off. The introduction of Erika the week before was bad enough, but this episode showed everyone’s least favourite crazed lesbian gangbanger poisoning duplicitous Joe with anti-freeze. We know this because the episode ends with a shot of her pouring the contents of an enormous can into a sink — a can that has the words “ANTI-FREEZE” written on the side (presumably in much larger letters than the brand name, Acme). As if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, the season’s most superfluous B-plot (with obnoxiously hairy journalist Mark Renbe and his underwritten fuck-buddy Kat Damatto in search of something something in Rome) went into madness overdrive. It should be written in stone that no one can disguise themselves as clergy without the tone of the story immediately becoming comedic. Watching them dress as priest and nun to find some ultimately pointless MacGuffin was the mortal blow. The show limped on for several episodes after this, but the game was up: it became obvious that those early promising episodes were a fluke, and Persons Unknown was actually a brain-dead failure, as well as a source of much derisory fun — the hysterical deaths in the penultimate episode, the personality flip-flops, and poor, inexplicably blind Robert Picardo wearing David Bowie’s cast-off wig from Labyrinth.
14. Human Target - Victoria
When a show pulls a plot from the headlines, it’s usually something fairly recent. In Victoria Human Target went back to the 90s, and retold the story of Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles as a sub-direct-to-DVD actioner, complete with hissable villains and stiff-upper-lipped British princesses turned into real humans by the love of a good Yank. Our hero Christopher Chance is called in to protect Victoria, Princess of Wales, after the men responsible for protecting the Crown attempt to assassinate her and the New York EMT guy she falls for on a blood drive. Wait, wait! It gets better! Chance is forced to call in a favour from a former IRA enforcer, one who once put a bounty on Victoria’s head. For the benefit of US readers, imagine a British show featuring an English cop helping the First Lady elope with a British ambulance driver and getting assistance from a member of al Qaida. After much “Top of the morning!” humour, Chance reunites the Princess with the Queen, and the EMT guy punches feckless bastard Prince Walter in the chops for being such a girly worm or something. It could only have been more insulting to the British people if Chance had decided to protect her by staging her death in a car accident. So yeah, it was a very bad hour of TV, but it’s on here because the usual humour and pace of the series are absent, replaced by cliche and bone-headed predictability. The unbelievable insults to our Royal Family? Hilarious! It’s worth watching just for that. Whoever signed off on this wrongheadedness should stay away from the UK forever, but if I ever meet this person in the US, the drinks are on me.
13. The Office – New Leads
Perhaps it was residual annoyance at the shoddy use of the faux-documentary format in ABC’s monstrous Modern Family that tipped me over the edge, but suddenly the shenanigans at Dunder Mifflin didn’t seem so funny anymore. Much of this was an unavoidable (and — at times — forgivable) problem with the amount of time the show has been on the air. Jim and Pam are obviously growing up and away from the rest of the gang, and Michael has had the first stirrings of depression trigger some fight or flight reflex. Nevertheless, while they grow, the rest of the office have nowhere to go but sideways. This episode represented the lowpoint of the show to date, the moment a Fonz lookalike leapt over a pile of toner in the warehouse in my head. For no reason except plot convenience, the episode starts with the sales staff of the Scranton office siddenly transformed into a bunch of thoughtless jerks that boss everyone else around, instantly rendering them unlikeable. When new owners Sabre hand down some Mitch-&-Murray-esque sales leads, Michael rebels, rendering him unlikeable too. Then the non-sales staff join in, bitching about their colleagues and turning the room into a vortex of hatred. If anything was going to save this episode it would be the blooming love of Erin and Andy, but if you cannot stand them (::points thumb at self::), their cutesy flirting and eventual kiss in front of a crappy green screen effect is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The camel in this metaphor being my previous love of the show.
12. Happy Town – Questions and Antlers
For a start, that title is unforgivable, even though a reindeer features in the episode in bookending scenes. Worse than even that is that for once, there is an actual point to an episode of Happy Town (after five episodes featuring almost no progression in any of its dreary plots), but the denouement is so overbaked as to be merely unintentionally funny instead of tragic. Sheriff Tommy Conroy is forced to finally apprehend his murderous best friend Big Dave, but as Abraham Benrubi appears to have been cast as an unhinged and unsympathetic simpleton, the face-off between him and the inept lawmaker turns into an interminable screaming contest. A bad end to a bad episode, but the reason for its inclusion in this list is not a single moment, but a flaw that runs through every scene like the word “terrible” through a stick of Brighton rock. Indulgent dialogue taints every scene, desperately trying to add a layer of quirk to what was already dreadfully self-conscious. None of the characters speaks like a human being, or even as individuals. All you can hear is the same pretentious voice coming out of everyone, with references to Chinese proverbs, crepes (in the longest and most obnoxious scene of the year), and Bon Jovi songs littering their speech with all the distracting insistence of a sugar-loaded child pointing at the crayon graffiti on your new wallpaper and screaming, “Look at me! I done made the clever words!” Simply unbearable.
11. Doctor Who – The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood
The arrival of Steven Moffat on Doctor Who was a relief after Russell T. Davies’ run on the show began to offer up more rough episodes per season than highlights, not to mention the back-patting Cringemas special with its Return-of-the-King-esque finale. Nevertheless, even though Moffat’s first season had some very strong episodes, its ratio of good to bad was about 50:50, and it was Moffat himself who wrote most of the best ones. The other half of the equation had aquatic space vampires, Churchill and Daleks, and this dispiriting two-parter from SoC arch-nemesis Chris Chibnall. Never able to let escapist sci-fi just be escapist sci-fi, he uses the return of new, humanised Silurians to beat us about the head and body with the same faux-profound Statements of Great Importance about humanity’s flaws that make the worst of Who and Torchwood (e.g. Countrycide) such a joyless bore. The Silurians and the humans — sworn enemies for decades now — almost reach a detente (three minutes after new hostilities begin), but our suspicions get the better of us and the peace talks fail oh foolish hubristic humans and their hubristic foolishness! So yeah, pretty much the same plot as in their other appearances. On top of that, we see Amy sulking like a bored teenager during the peace talks (she’s useless throughout), much lifeless and overlong speechifying by the Doctor, Rory being absorbed by the mysterious crack in the universe just as he was proving to be a more entertaining companion than his fiancee, and a hilarious 15-minute sequence with the Doctor breathlessly helping the humans prepare traps and surveillance prior to a fight with Silurian soldiers that never happens. Still, at least that running around padded the episode out to the right length. That’s something, I guess.
More mean-spirited carping from me tomorrow, fingers crossed.