We’re still going, even though my attention has been completely taken over by the London Film Festival (one film down so far! Gillian Wearing’s Self-Made, a fascinating experimental movie that explores the lines drawn between reality and fiction, emotional truth and manipulation, and the way we create the narratives of our own lives. Proper brain food). The shows here are the ones that started this year and generated the strongest responses in me. The three good shows are almost tied for Best New Show, but I had to make a decision, and I think the right one won out. It’s made me easily as happy as my favourite new show of last year (Sons of Anarchy, which had a second season that dwarfed the first: not an easy task), and has already become the show I would most miss if it were cancelled. The bad shows, on the other hand, made me livid. The visceral response I got from my least favourite new show of this year was actually scary.
Best New Show: Community
One consequence of watching more shows this year is that I ended up seeing many more good shows. And yes, many more bad ones too, but let’s accentuate the positive for a moment. The Golden Age of TV got significantly goldener this year, and even though we lost some great shows, we got many more back. For how long, we do not know. Justified and Spartacus are popular enough that they’ll be around for a while, as is the case with BBC’s Sherlock and Channel 4′s Misfits. Caprica looks doomed, sadly, with its recent return to Syfy being a bit of a ratings disaster. It’ll be a one season show unless it magically picks up, but I don’t see how that can happen. My favourite new show of the year, the one that just pips the other fantastic new offerings, is in a pickle. Is Community going to stick around? Will its average ratings be enough for a show-starved NBC to stick with it? Or is the mainstream critical apathy (as evidenced by a sickening Emmy shut-out) a sign that we won’t even get to see the main characters graduate?
At least Community has already had a better run than the Greatest Non-Picked-Up Pilot Of All Time, Dan Harmon’s infamous Heat Vision and Jack. We can be thankful for that, but for those of us who have fallen in love with Community‘s ability to be a sitcom, a spoof of the sitcom genre, a celebratory pop-culture melting-pot and — with the addition of superb commentaries from creator Harmon — a dissection of comedy and storytelling, the attentions of the Cancellation Bear are not welcome. Nevertheless, I suspect Community‘s greatest moment is yet to come, and it will keep gathering in-show momentum the same way 30 Rock has. That show started out wacky and has now become it’s own mini-universe, with its own laws and common elements. Watching first season episodes of that show is discombobulating now: it has turned up the volume on its comedic voice so much that the first eleven episodes look positively humdrum. That’s inevitable: perfect examples include The Simpsons, The Office, etc. 30 Rock showed there was a way to make sure this escalation of boldness didn’t alienate fans: start out weird. Of course, fans did eventually rebel, but it held that traditional rattle-throwing nonsense off for three seasons before everyone turned on it, which is ironic as season four of 30 Rock is arguably the strongest yet. My theory on that rift between show and audience is a post for another day…
I remembered Community‘s pilot as being very broad and unafraid to be quirky, but rewatching it this week (thanks to Daisyhellcakes’ super-thoughtful birthday present: the first season boxset with tons of great bells and whistles, boxset fans), it seemed so placid compared to what follows. What’s most notable about the triumphant first season of Community is that even as the comedy becomes crazier and bolder, the characters hold true throughout. The final episode’s bombshells with Jeff, Britta and Annie are proper WTF shockers that have an emotional punch, enough that some fans were outraged (those complaints were brilliantly answered in the superb season two opener, but we’re focusing on season one here).
A common complaint about Community is that it is all about the hipster sneering and not about people, but I think that’s the most wrong thing ever said on the Internet. The ENTIRE Internet, which was, at last count, 99.9999999999999% wrong. It’s so wrong it very nearly negates the concept of Truth with the gravitational strength of its inaccuracy. The characters are heightened, peculiar, set in a world that doesn’t quite work in our own, but they’re still people who want the things we want, and get hurt the way we do. Their ups and downs, discoveries and resolutions still mean something, even when we’re presented by insane paintball competitions run riot, a sports mascot that is the stuff of nightmares, or a chicken-fingers racket that plays out like the plot of Goodfellas (complete with Layla-piano-moment). The characters still speak to us, no matter what is going on. They’re the framework for the show, well-drawn enough to make it an essential watch. They’re recognisable but not cliched: they couldn’t be more different from the crude stereotypes of many sitcoms (e.g. Modern Family), and manage to be unpredictable but consistently written and performed.
Nevertheless, its the events that are placed on the character-frame that make me love Community as if it had been on the air for years. The joy of it is that you never know what is going to come next. The confidence of the showrunners is incredible. Most other sitcoms on TV either play it safe (e.g. Modern Family), or misjudge their own tone and stretch the credibility they have previously set up (e.g. The Office), but Community is perfectly constructed to allow for any oddness to come along. With such a diverse set of main characters you’re already able to spin out situations that you would never normally get on TV (e.g. a young Muslim man with Aspergers reconnecting with his father by manipulating two of his friends into acting like two uncaring parents and then making a terrible movie which turns out to be about his parents’ divorce), but even better there are a growing set of secondary characters to enjoy. The best example of that might be nervy, enthusiastic Dean Pelton, with his fear of being seen as politically incorrect. He’s one of the most enjoyable comic creations on TV in years: kudos to Jim Rash, who is magnificent in the role.
It’s obvious it isn’t for everyone: the weird war between Community‘s fans and Modern Family‘s fans shows that. But whereas Modern Family‘s fans might see their favoured show as a well-constructed gag machine based on a very specific sitcom template that has been a staple since the beginning of the form, Community takes that as a starting point and runs off in a completely different direction. It has the same sentimentality as Modern Family, but is not as cloying, and those moments are earned instead of introduced at the format-mandated moment because of Reason X. It manages to comment on who we are as a culture with a confidence and playfulness that Modern Family often cannot due to format and tonal restrictions. It looks fresh, going for cinematic confidence over the increasingly tired faux-documentary format. It speaks to those who revel in popular culture, instead of those who don’t have time for it.
It’s vibrant, imaginative, unpredictable, and buzzes with the sense that it is new, all while picking apart the format it has grown out of, adhering to its rules just enough to be able to break them where necessary. It’s the best new sitcom of the season, the best show of the season, and one of the cultural events of the past 12 months. I urge you all to watch it so my obsession doesn’t isolate me completely from polite society.
Best Pilot: Justified – Fire in the Hole
It’s almost a shame when a show has a really great pilot. Last year Kings started off so well that it could only disappoint after: the showrunners deserve praise for keeping that disappointment to a minimum, and delivering a show that was still superior to almost every other show on network TV. Justified landed with such a satisfying thump — with the mesmerising short story adaptation Fire in the Hole: have the short story on me and Harper Collins — that it was tempting to not bother watching the rest of the season just in case it ended up becoming a disappointment. Much of the Internet chatter following its broadcast became a debate about whether it would be a procedural or a serialised long-form narrative, as if this was the difference between good and bad.
As I’ve mentioned before, if it had become a procedural it would still have been great, as its main asset was the fealty to the sassy, laidback tone of Elmore Leonard’s best work, and its fascination both with the protagonist and his various nemeses. The pilot set up the show with impressive skill. Within three minutes of it starting, we’d seen Raylan Givens meet his arch-enemy, shoot him to death, and get transferred back home against his will in order to avoid retaliation from his enemy’ employers. That’s the set-up of the entire series right there: after that thrilling download of information — as elegant and exciting a burst of exposition as you’ll ever see — the rest of the pilot is about establishing the supporting cast (some of whom disappear a few episodes later) and giving you a sense of who this attractive gunslinger really is.
Part of the joy of the pilot is revelling in the perfect casting. Timothy Olyphant’s emergence as possibly the most charming man on TV — as opposed to one of the scariest, as seen in Deadwood – is one of the biggest factors in Justified‘s success, but we shouldn’t forget that he shares screentime with terrific character actors such as Nick Searcy and Natalie Zea, not to mention SoC favourite Walton “Shane from The Shield” Goggins, cementing his reputation as an acting colossus. Later episodes would feature performances from Alan Ruck, Rick Gomez, Jere Burns, M.C. Gainey, W. Earl Brown, and Raymond J. Barry, but the core cast was already strong. I’d like to add fellow “main” characters Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooks (Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel), but they have almost nothing to do after the pilot. Goes to show how drastically a show can change in mid-stream, though that fact doesn’t ruin the pilot: they’re introduced with the same deftness as everyone else, so it’s not as if any time was wasted.
The key to its success, though, was the effortless pacing. For much of its running time Fire In The Hole seems to be going nowhere, as Raylan catches up with figures from his past, getting into theological debates with Boyd Crowder and emitting TV-scorching sexual chemistry with childhood sweetheart Ava Crowder. Nevertheless, there is a constant stream of relevant information in every moment, but you don’t even notice it because of the snappy dialogue and mastery of tone. It’s shocking when these seemingly lackadaisical events coalesce into the last-act shoot-outs, but when they arrive they’re exciting, well-shot by director Michael Dinner, and cleverly reveal that these seemingly dopey Southern law enforcers are actually a band of badass warriors. Our preconceptions are brilliantly scuttled in a tense ambush in the final act, as Mullen and Brooks take down some neo-Nazis, giving Raylan a chance to save the girl who, of course, does a very good job of looking after herself most of the time.
The one big flaw of the pilot is that it looks like the denouement takes Goggins out of the show, but thankfully no. Biblical doofus Boyd Crowder, one of the most entertaining and ambiguous characters on TV right now, isn’t going anywhere. If only I’d known that when watching this exceptional pilot.
Most Surprising New Show: Spartacus: Blood and Sand
When I saw the first episode of S:B&S I thought I had found my new Torchwood. It was unhinged, silly, and unabashedly derivative. It seems disingenuous to refer to the 300-esque filming style as a “nod” to Snyder and Miller’s movie: the action scenes are a straight rip, along with the elements from Gladiator and any number of other sword-and-sandals epics. Its hilariously florid dialogue draws far too much attention to itself. It’s also so violent and pornographic (for a TV show) that it becomes self-parodic almost immediately, meaning it will either be your favourite thing about the show or the factor that turns you off it for good. The lead character is forced to become passive for a long time, which seems like an odd choice on a week-to-week basis. Some of the casting is questionable: I wonder how many viewers were shocked by the incredibly broad performance from Viva Bianca in the pilot, and then silenced by the subsequent full-frontal shot. Gotta give it up for Bianca: she makes one hell of an initial impact.
Going forth from this point I expected to be making fun of the show at length on this blog. Instead my new Torchwood turned out to be the BBC’s murder-melodrama Luther, while Spartacus gradually became my new obsession, a show often derided by those who dropped out early, before it became one of the best examples of long / short arc pacing in this golden age of TV. Spartacus is a machine, with plot elements fitting together like cogs and characters set up to deliver pleasing arc resolutions when the time is right. Too many shows this year got that timing wrong, waiting for their finales to show off their results of their calculations, with some shows — Heroes and FlashForward spring to mind — being nothing more than a long series of delaying tactics in order to get to the fireworks at the end. Spartacus eclipses them by hiding its workings so well that when the arcs and set-ups pay off, almost every time it features some surprise element that you hadn’t realised was there, though it makes perfect sense that it would. Characters are written well enough that they can spring out of the boxes you think they are in, with Illythia’s hidden madness and staggering ruthlessness being a perfect example.
The hysterical energy of the show is bound to turn off folks, and the shakier performances and insane declarations about Jupiter’s cock thrusting into poor Batiatus’ ass whenever he has a bit of bad luck are inevitably going to strike more delicate viewers as a bunch of silliness, but beneath the crazed visuals and high-pitched tone is some beautiful pacing. The result is a beautifully constructed narrative engine, something that has a satisfying purr when idling and a thrilling roar when pushed to its limits. Almost every episode could exist on its own with just a cursory “Previously” at the start and still provide an excellent hour of entertainment, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Former Mutant Enemy writer and show creator Steven S. DeKnight and his band of writers (which includes, at the start of the season, Andrew Chambliss and Tracy Bellomo of Dollhouse, and at the end of the season Daniel Knaupf of Carnivale) have taken great care to populate the central setting of Batiatus’ ludus with a cast of appealing characters whose close proximity allows for a web of interpersonal connections, both positive and negative, that are all doomed to go sour at exactly the right time.
The result is a series of plot twists, character revelations, and breathtaking action set-pieces that drove me screaming and cheering to the edge of my seat every week. It’s simultaneously sophisticated and low-brow, filled with fighting, fucking, and political intrigue — a perfect combination. From the fifth episode on — which ends with the stunning fight in which Spartacus and Crixus are forced to team up against the terrifying Theokoles — I became horribly obsessed. This paid off well, as the actors found their feet, the dialogue became a bit more restrained, and the ambition of the showrunners became apparent. By the time the blood-drenched and obscenely satisfying finale came around, I felt like declaring my love from the rooftops. Beyond that berserker madness, it’s the extreme effort to give the viewer a great time every week that gives me a sense of satisfaction I haven’t felt since Buffy or Angel in their heyday. I can think of no higher praise.
Worst New Show: Modern Family
Shades of Caruso tries to be as honest about its reactions to shows as possible, to approach things from a perspective of openness and acceptance, and not let other opinions get in the way. Sometimes this backfires: we’re finally getting around to watching The Wire after the rest of the TV-watching world did, and the fanaticism of its fans has inevitably had an influence on our experience. How we wish we could’ve seen it before being bombarded with the relentless cries of its fans. Try as we might, we are judging the show not on its own merits, but against the praise we’ve been exposed to for the past few years. Don’t get me wrong: it’s plainly obvious that it is a remarkable and ambitious show lovingly created by smart people, and we’re enjoying it immensely.
Regrettably, the endless praise may have had the unfortunate side-effect of making The Wire something we will admire but never really love. Still, we’re only one season in and that could change. Time will tell. The praise for Modern Family was not as intense as for The Wire, but it was just as one-note. By the time it had aired we’d had weeks of positive reviews from just about every critic around, and though I was sceptical about the showrunners’ previous work, the word on the street gave me hope. So what happened? Is my visceral reaction to the programme just a consequence of the notion that humour is subjective, and no one joke can make everyone laugh? It’s almost certainly a factor, but it’s more than thinking it’s not as funny as its fans maintain. I mean, I fucking hate this show. Real, actual HATE.
We haven’t experienced such a vast gulf between our opinion and that of critics since Studio 60 appeared, and that was a show that eventually alienated almost everyone. Even Dexter fans are a little weary of the show’s lack of emotional range after five seasons that are almost identical to each other, meaning I feel a little less alone in thinking it’s overrated trash. Modern Family appears to be the exception. It receives tongue-baths from seemingly everyone on a regular basis, as well as gaining viewers and winning awards that should be lavished upon shows like 30 Rock, Party Down, and my beloved Community. It’s on its way to becoming an institution, something as adored as Cheers or Friends. And yet, it is just unbearable. Who could’ve known that my Kryptonite would be an ostensibly modern, progressive sitcom featuring Ed O’Neill and Ty Burrell, two actors I’ve been fond of in the past?
And yet here we are. What is it about this farrago that makes my skin crawl? Not the progressive aspects of the show, or rather the progressive politics it pretends to honour. The loving gay couple of Cameron and Mitchell certainly do a lot of the things TV gay men do, such as mince, fret about furniture, and not kiss for a long long time (a situation that has finally been rectified and treated like an event when what we need to see on TV is a gay kiss that ISN’T an event). It also features a marriage between an old white patriarch and an immigrant, though luckily for the writers the wife is a hot and spicy Colombian who is just so sexy, what with her boobs and fiery demeanour and her hilarious mispronunciations. Oh how my soul withered when, during the pilot, she repeats Phil’s name as “Feel” and he thinks she is inviting him to grab her ample bosoms. This is the most celebrated sitcom of the year?
What else are we treated to? Clueless men and competent, disapproving women from the worst and most reductive dishwasher ads, hyper-smart and confident kids making fools of their parents, and a dad who thinks he’s hip and with it. It’s a standard, unimaginative and predictable multi-camera sitcom with one camera, no laugh-track, and a documentary format that never makes any sense. What’s worse than even the cobweb-coated jokes from the 90s is the acting: all of the jokes are telegraphed and accentuated by pauses that hint the show is being paced as if making room for audience laughter. Cue lots of mugging at the camera. Almost all of the cast — especially the kids — are so pleased with themselves that the air of smugness pouring out of them smothers any laughs that Burrell and O’Neill might muster. Each week it’s like watching 5 episodes of Scrubs simultaneously. That much mugging would set off a Geiger counter.
Worst of all, it is swamped in the most unconvincing sentimentality, robotically ending on group hugs, reconciliations and reassurances that only belong in snarky spoofs of the sitcom genre, yet played here as if its brand of laboratory-engineered Warmth™ is an insulation against criticism. Unfortunately the tone of obnoxious satisfaction makes every last-act burst of feel-good vibes feel as phony as the most cynical of churned-out mid-afternoon sitcom flotsam. Modern Family is treated like the future of comedy, but it feels like a slightly more ambitious version of According To Jim. For all its artificiality, it’s tempting to argue that Glee is more successful at creating an honest emotion onscreen. At least that can fall back on the occasional well-performed song (usually by the amazing Lea Michele). What does Modern Family have? Ty Burrell saying “What up, my homey?”, causing Julie Bowen to roll her eyes while Sofia Vergara natters on in the background, because you know those South Americans sure do talk fast!
Modern Family is the first programme I’ve had to stop watching so I can protect my health. I tried to stick it out, but once I got to the eleventh episode I could take it no more. Sitting through an entire episode made my stomach churn and my heart race. There was a strong possibility I would strain a muscle in my eyes from rolling them every time a lazily set-up gag would pay off in exactly the way you would expect. By the time I got to the end of that episode, I began to wonder if the show was made up of all the first draft jokes that had been deleted from the laptops of sitcom writers for the last fifteen years. Instead of being erased for good these comedy scraps found themselves beamed via delete-button into a humour-tesseract, an empty and endless and terrifying place. These jokes huddled together for warmth and companionship, and after a time realised the only way they could survive was to form themselves into a new sitcom. Filling out this miserable void, Modern Family became the most mundane universe imaginable, one in which the only effort you need to expend to fill the joke quota is to have a child act wise beyond their years, or make a dopey husband turn into a lascivious buffoon every time a vaguely attractive woman walks past him.
It’s obvious that a large proportion of the viewing public would love to live in that uninspiring world, but let’s be honest: these sitcom scraps have actually formed into a sentient blob of cloying death, a mediocre monster whose rictus grin of smug satisfaction generates pure anti-comedy. If only it could have stayed where it was, everything would be okay, but some cruel bastard cast a spell of awful Eldritch sorcery, creating a bridge between our world and the squirming black pit where lazy comedy goes to die, giving the Bastard Spawn of a Million Failed Jokes a way out of the Hell it should have stayed in. Now it squats on the highest peaks of the TV landscape, fat and tentacled like Lovecraft’s Ghatanothoa, driving anyone who sees it insane: an unusual form of insanity that manifests as a compulsion to babble incoherent streams of exaggerated praise.
The only way to kill it is to stop looking at it, to deny it the “eyeballs” that sustain it. Quick, everyone! Delete it from your TiVo or Sky+ machine! Turn over! Buy a Community boxset! Watch your old Arrested Development DVDs! Buy some 30 Rock merchandise, before it’s too late and its Elder God brethren infest the Earth!
Worst Pilot: V – “Pilot”
Yes, the pilot of V is called “Pilot”, and not “The Arrival” or “When The Big Ships Came” or “Someone Save Elizabeth Mitchell From This Farrago Because She So Fine”. V is so half-arsed that no aspect of it appears to have been thought through with any care. Every character, line, situation has been seen somewhere else, not just in the original series. It’s the worst kind of committee-written show, formulaic and unimaginative and built only to soothe the audience instead of challenging them. The entire show is like that, but it’s not like we weren’t warned. The pilot contained no energy, no sense that there would be any surprises down the road. It mechanically introduced a main cast of ciphers, added a quick plane crash so that the trailers would look a bit more exciting, and that was that. Cue 45 minutes of entirely predictable drama. It’s no wonder it was developed during the writers’ strike: the sense you get is that the showrunners just chopped up a bunch of other average scripts, threw them on the floor, and made the show out of that.
Nevertheless, there were two things about this pilot that made it just a little bit more hateful just to separate it from the many other ill-conceived first episodes broadcast last year. Firstly, it blatantly panders to the nerd demographic by casting Lost‘s Elizabeth Mitchell, The 4400‘s Joel Gretsch, and Firefly‘s Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk in major roles. Fair enough if you’re trying to attract those nerd eyeballs to your show, but they get very little to do. All of them (except maybe super-earnest Gretsch) are better than the material — one of the few surprises of the season was seeing the often bland Baccarin bring so much wacky energy to her part — which is more likely to annoy the nerds than please them. It merely serves to remind us of how much better those other shows were than this lowest-common denominator tripe.
Even worse is the Tea Party politics seen early on in the series, and at its worst here. Evil alien Anna gives Obama-lite speeches about change and inclusiveness, hiding her true lizard nature behind a messianic and benign face. Her message is so persuasive that even the clergy are converted to the V’s cause, and the pilot tries so hard to make the point that stupid gullible people are falling for a false prophet (just like the Dummycraps!) that it doesn’t even bother with the slowburn of the original mini-series. We go from alien arrival to global acceptance to Tea-Party resistance in the space of a single episode. Because that’s what happened with all the politics in America! You stupid bastards, don’t you understand? While you drink the Soma Juice this country is going to hell in a handcart. Only Sarah Palin and her Big Fucking Gun can save us from the Arcturan Reptiloids laying their eggs in the United Nations prayer rooms! Etc.
It’s a David Icke wet dream, and even worse than that appalling right-wing message and the insane pandering to the most unhinged of conspiracy theorists is that the show eventually ejects that aspect of it, and becomes nothing more than a tedious slog. Yes, I found the politics of the pilot to be objectionable, but there’s room to work with those ideas, perhaps even satirise them. After four episodes the show was taken off the air and tinkered with: how much funnier and more relevant could it have been if the show were used to satirise the wingnut side of American politics, or even make fun of the Obama administration from a position of sly knowingness, rather than that initial knee-jerk hostility? Instead we got a nasty pilot and a boring show, one that should have been cancelled in order to save the daft but marginally superior FlashForward.
It’s a decision that ABC must assume is pretty innocuous (or maybe lucrative), but the toll it will take on our cultural history is immeasurable. It’s as if ABC — the network that gave us Modern Family, Happy Town, and this debacle — is trying to ruin popular culture for all of us. Our collective unconscious has been irreparably tainted by this network. It would’ve been better if they’d put Leno on every night. If I were a more arrogant man I’d think they were single-handedly trying to make me give up TV by hurling so much shit at me, but little do they realise how stubborn I am. Even when I’m coated from head-to-toe in network-poop, I’ll still be watching their crummy shows. Except Modern Family. That show gave my soul a hernia.
And there’s still more to come. What! I watched 30-odd goddamn shows! I had a lot of thoughts while watching them and nowhere to put them except here! Even Twitter wasn’t interested.