The bottom ten episodes of the year have a few things in common, usually revolving around some pretty unevolved views on women or by treating IRL issues as some kind of ghoulish entertainment. Guess I’m becoming even more of a prude as I get older, but I really cannot stand stories about rapists or serial killers, with the exception of Hannibal Lecter, who is very refined and loves opera: the Frasier Crane of cannibals, you might say. In recent years TV has been great at exploring the human condition to a greater degree than it has ever tried to before, but even with shows like Dexter — which attempt to make darkly humorous light from an unpleasant subject — it’s too damn hard to create drama from the subject without crossing lines.
Perhaps this is why I prefer shows like The Shield or Breaking Bad: we see people who might have been good end up making the wrong decisions. Though Dexter fans will argue that the show does a good job of showing a bad man try to do good, the characterisation doesn’t really move on from that initial point. Can a serial killer be a good person, or will his urges win out? After four seasons you’d think they’d find something new to say, or give us at least some insight, but instead we just get that persistent expository voiceover. Oh man, just thinking about that show is depressing me…
The other theme here is the bad state of UK drama, as evidenced by the sad presence of so many UK shows on this list. Interesting chats on Twitter over the past few months have illuminated the current state of UK drama, that the vast amount of superfluous executives clogging the system have made it impossible to make a show that doesn’t talk down to the audience. I only managed one episode of The Deep before giving up, knowing that I would end up having to watch an hour of drama dragged out to five hours through all the exposition and pointless shots of people moving from one place to the other. I’m a fan of clear geography in an action show or film, but I can figure out that someone’s gone from one room to another without seeing them do it.
Filmmakers are coming out to complain more regularly now: Michael Caton-Jones memorably complained about script problems on Spooks just this week, complaining about interference. From a comment piece in The Herald:
“There are lots of layers of people who don’t do very much, most of whom couldn’t get arrested in film,” he said. “There are committees of people who work on scripts, to no real end. In fact, they’re known to directors as The Programme Prevention Unit.”
Mr Caton-Jones said he often finds himself shaking his head at some of the simplistic dialogue and the storylines. “Some of the set-ups are so predictable it’s like watching an episode of Charlie’s Angels,” he said.
“In Spooks, for example, one actress had all these lines to reveal what it meant for her to meet someone after years, and they were all so trite. I took a pencil through them and said, ‘Show me what you’re feeling’ and she did. And she felt a lot better for it. The actors are so good on that series they manage to make it work.”
It’s enough to make you hope things will change if enough creative folk speak up, but I doubt it. I want it too, though. I know the UK is filled with magnificent and talented writers and directors who could easily make shows to challenge the current US dominance. Unfortunately they’re blocked from doing this by ranks of people who have no idea what a creative artist needs to do his job. It’s heartbreaking.
Anyway, enough of that. On with the horror show.
10. Heroes - Thanksgiving
Congratulations, Heroes! Your third season was so utterly, unforgivably dire that SoC couldn’t pick a loser, but this year only about half of your episodes were worthy of this list, while the rest were merely forgettable. This counts as progress: not that this matters what with your cancellation, several years too late. The bad episodes were mostly just perfect examples of how the fourth season was trying hard to take a handful of story-dough and make a vast plot-pizza: perhaps if the show had only had eight episodes we might have had something more coherent. Instead we got hour after hour of ShinyWaxClaire falling out with her dad and/or audience-baiting chaste bi-sexual Gretchen, a laughably over-extended arc for “Nathan”, way too much of Gregg Grunberg looking panicky and yelling at everything in his line of sight, and Sylar, Sylar, Sylar. Though Heroes was improved by an episode-to-episode focus on single themes, it remained tedious and unintentionally funny. Thanksgiving has to be the most risible episode: it’s little more than an hour of families arguing over dinner. It’s as static as you can imagine, with a lot of bad acting being shot across the rubber turkeys and plastic pumpkin pies, and only Robert Knepper making an effort. Will Claire drop out of school? Will Noah get laid? Will “Nathan” turn back into Sylar, or is Adrian Pasdar contracted for another episode or two? Is anyone truly sad this thrill-ride got closed down for health and safety violations?
9. The Prisoner – Darling
Much as I love Lost, the terrible legacy it has given us is a rash of TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS sci-fi shows that do their best to hide their secrets behind a veil of unusual events and cryptic clues. Almost all of these shows are at least comprehensible on a surface level, but not AMC/ITV’s remake of Patrick McGoohan’s classic 60s paranoia series. On every level the show is visual, aural, and narrative gibberish, but then the secret at the heart of the show is that it’s technically all a kind of dream anyway. The showrunners take this as a cue to throw out the rulebook and just film whatever they feel like, which means non-sequitur editing, ciphers instead of characters, a soundscape that makes it impossible to follow what is going on, etc. In this disastrous episode, we see Hayley “Rather Pretty” Atwell pass out for no reason in the real world, then appear as a blind woman in the Village because why not? She’s in love with 6 and he’s in love with her, which puts Ruth “Eyebrows” Wilson’s 313 right out. But in the end these ciphers are only in love with each other because dastardly Number 2 (who is dastardly because of Reason X, it turns out) has made them fall in love using some scientific potion involving DNA. Brilliant! Except they’re in a dreamworld and therefore technically have no DNA. Is it a metaphor? A satire on modern dating techniques? Or is it another mildly interesting idea thrown at the screen with no exploration or insight or reason, just to add more TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIOUSNESS to the proceedings? One thing’s for sure: these non-characters are suddenly robbed of even that little bit of personality, reducing them to game pieces in a game with no rulebook. The atmospherics might be interesting, but with no real narrative, who cares?
8. Glee - Theatricality
Yes, this was featured in the Best of the Year poll. No, this is not a typing error. While Theatricality shows the best of Glee, it is also heavily encumbered with the worst as well. Much as I loved the confrontation scene with Kurt’s father and Finn, to get to that point we had to put up with yet more of the excruciating plot with Kurt pining for the lunk-headed football player and trying everything he can to seduce him. In trying to dramatise the confused feelings of a young gay man, they also made him look semi-psychotic: almost certainly unintentional, but still hard to swallow, especially when the showrunners pull their usual trick of selectively forgetting this aspect of Kurt’s personality whenever the “plot” requires. Nevertheless, this was nothing compared to the episode’s most egregious sins: removing Sue Sylvester from the episode in order to fit in a bunch of guff about Lady Gaga; closing the episode with a PSA-style speech from Will that bangs the audience over the head with this week’s themes in a way that is even less subtle than usual, and bringing the hastily-introduced Rachel/Shelby plot to a close with a catastrophically ill-considered piano version of Gaga’s Poker Face. It’s not the first time Glee ruins a moment by using a song that only matches the onscreen events because of a single line in a chorus, but this goes beyond even that. Lea Michele and Idina Menzel are both fine performers and incredible singers, but are here suddenly rendered robotic by overuse of Autotune, and then forced to bring some kind of emotional truth to this moment using a song that simply does not fit with what is going on, and has only been chosen because this episode is meant to pay tribute to a ubiquitous Europop mannequin. Truly the lowpoint of the series.
7. Paradox - Episode 3
As this post progresses, you’ll see a trend developing regarding thriller plots involving super-creepy male predators chasing women. The difference is that while an American show like Dexter will give us nuanced performances from heavy hitters like Michael C. Hall or John Lithgow (who deserved all the praise he got over the last year), we get creepy creepy men in creepy creepy clothes being as obviously evil as possible. We also get no insight into their pathology. While this means at least we don’t hover over the grisly details, it also means there is no context or reason to tell the story. It’s just women-in-peril nonsense, trying to make a too-real concern into the stuff of frivolous entertainment. Not that Paradox counts as entertainment. The BBC’s “homage” to Quantum Leap, Early Edition and Deja Vu shows a bunch of ill-defined and very tense cops who team up with some needlessly bureaucratic government types and a dour and eccentric scientist to decode images from God’s brain (or another universe) and stop catastrophes hours before they occur. The ever-so-slightly more bearable hours of this show play with that format a bit: this one tries to con the audience by introducing three potential rapists (and one handsy “nice guy”) and then having our “heroes” bicker about which is the one to arrest. Cue lots of shouting and running back and forth across Manchester in a desperate attempt to make it seem like something is going on. The director of this abomination — Simon Cellan-Jones — has directed many great hours of TV, including Treme‘s Smoke My Peace Pipe, which was one of my favourites of the year. The existence of this bullshit can be used as proof that right now the BBC doesn’t even know how to utilise its talent anymore. Stay in the States, Simon!
6. Outnumbered - Episode 7
As with many shows, the moment a secret keeper – ignored by critics and audiences – is finally recognised as something worth watching is when the wheels come off. The third season had wonderful moments, but the seventh episode was unforgivable. Angela returns to pester her sister Sue once more, this time with a boorish American husband, improbably named Brick and played with galumphing broad strokes by the usually dependable Douglas Hodge. Poking fun at Angela’s New Age dribblings had provided some amusing moments in the past, especially when her original middle-class programming comes crashing unexpectedly to the forefront, but all we have here are tired “jokes” about how Americans are all so confident and brash and stupid. With the kids sidelined, much of the show’s trademark improvisation is removed in favour of unconvincing histrionics and the snobbery of this offensive stereotypical depiction sucking the energy from everything around it, and when we do get some input from the kids, it’s awfully vanilla. Only the bleak final scene with Sue and Pete lying to their son Jake about the state of their marriage saves it from being a total failure, and even that achievement is dimmed by the fact that the main arc of the season (Pete’s “infidelity”) is so trivial compared to previous ones (domestic violence, Alzheimers) that the torrent of drama it unleashes stretches credibility.
5. V – John May
Mid-season fixes are a normal consequence of showrunners realising there are elements in their new shows that just don’t work. Vampire Diaries got rid of a cast member in memorable style after only a few episodes, killing one of the leads off and then wiping the memory of the one person who cared about her so it wouldn’t get in the way until later. FlashForward tinkered with tone and made slight improvements, but nothing too drastic. If you had hoped that V, which had opened with one of the worst and stupidest pilots in recent years, would make big changes, you were mistaken. The only real differences between early and late episodes were the removal of GeorgiePorgy, who had seemed terribly out of place from the first time he had burst onto set like a slightly more butch Bert Viola, and the introduction of action man and anti-hero Kyle Hobbes, who is approximately 0.0003523% as cool as Michael Ironside’s iconic Übermensch Ham Tyler from the original series. Neither change mattered: it was, from beginning to end, a truly catastrophic show, the worst sci-fi TV series since the Sci-Fi Channel’s Flash Gordon, except even more unimaginative. This episode saw the death of GeorgiePorgy after being tortured with robot insects or something equally complicated (just shut his hand in a door! God!), and the first sighting of resistance leader John May, who was, years before, hunted by Ryan Nichols, member of the elite cadre of badass resistance fighters whose fighting tactic is to stand in a circle and yell at each other. We also see Ryan’s conversion to the Fifth Column by John May, who seems to win him over by boring him into submission. Luckily, the viewer is made of stronger stuff, and can utilise the option of rebelling against the stupidity with the use of channel-changing technology.
4. Defying Gravity – Threshold
I’ll be honest. One of the main reasons I took against Defying Gravity was that even if it ended up cancelled after one short season, it at least managed to hang on longer than potential classic Virtuality, which wasn’t even picked up for a second episode. Even with that bitterness in mind, the third episode of ABC’s cross between Mission To Mars and Grey’s Anatomy was excruciating to watch. With a soundtrack of plinky-plonky “It’s Comedy!” music setting the tone, we flashback to the Antares crew’s training years at the time they are given their “HALO” libido-suppressing tech. This leads to a reverse of Seinfeld’s “Master-of-my-Domain” plot, with the stupid men betting against the giggling women who reckon they can’t get an erection despite all the boner-killing juice flowing through their bodies. This leads them to a stripclub where there is much chatter about gender equality, exploitation of women, manipulation of potential partners, etc. That’s on the female astronauts’ side of the room. The men are, of course, whooping and hollering about the boob-parade. Throughout this we also get to hear lots of agonising from Zoe about the abortion she had to have in order to qualify as an astronaut, because of course she’s just a baby-crazy woman and choosing her career couldn’t possibly fulfill her like that baby could have. What else can you expect from a show that introduces a happy promiscuous woman with the intention of revealing she was born intersexed, was male-dominant but made female by her parents, and would have been turned into a man by an alien deus-ex-machina in later episodes? Get in those gender boxes, ladies and gents, that’s what they’re there for!
3. Luther - Episode Three
Oh how I laughed at Luther. Oh how I obsessed about Luther! I’ll happily admit that once it revealed that it was actually one big crazy story in five parts instead of an episodic tale of combustible Loofah catchin’ crims an’ killahs on the mean streets of Lahhndan, I fell in love with it a little bit more. The last two episodes of this short season weren’t good TV, but by Jove they were fun. The finale out-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO’d Revenge of the Sith ten times over. No mean feat. Nevertheless, as I stressed in this post earlier this year, it doesn’t excuse this unpalatable hour. The usual showy but ugly compositions were in full effect, as was Ruth “Yes, She Still Has Amazing Eyebrows” Wilson hamming it up as the anti-Loofah, the introduction of DSU Martin Schenk (who appears to have been possessed by the ghost of late-career Donald Pleasance), and the great man himself, DJ Big Driis, goin’ all maverick in order to collah the hysterically overwrought and demonic serial killah — Paul Rhys, showing off all of the tricks he learned at the Sir Anthony Hopkins School of Serial Killer Tics. All very amusing, except that it also featured a victim who is generously given one or two lines of normal dialogue right at the start of the episode before spending the next 40 minutes whimpering in terror and then dying offscreen. After that? Her corpse just a prop for Loofah to nail ‘is man by bendin’ the law. So I suppose her last few hours, filmed in extreme lascivious close-up, served some purpose, other than to be very gritty indeed. A thoroughly nasty episode, one that does the BBC’s drama department no favours. Being edgy only really works when it serves a purpose other than titillation, and the feeble, surface-level exploration of “morality” here is not reason enough.
2: Dexter - Blinded By The Light
Speaking of “edgy” shows “exploring” humanity’s darker nature, four seasons in, Dexter is still asking the same questions about its protagonist: can an emotionally compromised “good” serial killer find a way to reconcile his urge to kill and his growing need to connect with society? Whether this internal battle is worth dramatising at such length is something only the viewer can answer. Fans are transfixed as Michael C. Hall does his usual great work in making a murderer seem charming, while skeptics writhe in eternal agony as the show crawls towards a point over what feels like a million episodes loaded with clunky voiceovers, time-filling sub-plots involving ineptly sketched and poorly performed characters, and lascivious “adult” content including gratuitous boob shots or gore. Of course, we mustn’t forget the moral quandaries that don’t make any sense — either emotionally or logically — but are provided to give the illusion of depth to the tawdry proceedings. It’s CSI: Miami with a light dusting of faux-complexity and dollops of “adult content”. Whenever the Caruso Awards has to pick a worst episode, the problem is that the show exists as a continuum of overrated fail, so which one to choose? Blinded By The Light wins out for the sub-plot with a guy, recently laid-off and grieving for his dead wife, going around Dexter’s neighbourhood vandalising the property of the rich folk. Because that’s what people do when they’re unemployed: go off the rails and spout angry speeches about “making them pay”. That extra layer of insulting “topical” ignorance pushes this episode below the rest. God, I really hate serial killer stories.
1. Modern Family – Come Fly With Me
As mentioned before, Shades of Caruso will stick with shows long after they have annoyed, and so it was that we ignored our instant dislike of the pilot and watched this excruciating half-hour of weak punchlines and oleaginous sentimentality. Buffoonish omega-male Phil attempts to bond with macho father-in-law Jay, who is obsessing over the model plane he bought for his step-son Manny. The accident that occurs is sign-posted so heavily it goes past obviousness, past comedically-obvious obviousness, into anti-comedic clanging predictability. Even worse, the upshot of it all is the resolution — a difference-healing group hug between the dopey guys while the sensible ladies look on with simpering grins. Even worse than that is the sub-plot with Cameron teaching Mitchell the joys of Costco’s low prices and wide range of products. A bit of product placement is one thing: e.g. 30 Rock has skated close to the fire but makes sure to wink at the camera: it doesn’t excuse it, but it makes it palatable, at least. Here we get a laugh-free series of shots of Mitchell expressing shock at the INCREDIBLE BARGAINS. If it were a smarter show I’d think it was satirising product placement, but there’s no flip to the joke. We find out that Costco has a lot of bargains, and Mitchell loves it. End of sub-plot.
EVEN WORSE THAN EVEN THAT EVEN is Alex’s plot. She’s a young brainy girl who resists wearing dresses — a conflict that looks like it might be resolved in an interesting manner — before her hot and sexy step-aunt convinces her to love dresses because that’s how you make the boys like you. Somewhere Betty Friedan — who gets name-checked at one point, seemingly only to make a point that this show is post-stupid-old-feminism — is spinning in her grave. The difference in awfulness between this episode and the episode of Dexter at number two is an exponential curve on top of another exponential curve on top of a turd souffle. Nth power awfulness. No earthly measurement system can chart its evil. Someone drive a stake through its bastard heart and save our souls!
I intend to hand out more awards — both good and bad — though my initial plans to be done by the end of the week might not happen now. It’s taken longer to get done than I had feared, as you can tell from the gargantuan nature of all this ranting. Bear with me: I’ll shout for regular readers on Twitter and Facebook, and brace myself for accidental pagehits from Dexter and Modern Family fans, who may want to stab me for my heresy.