The new TV season is full swing, and yet here I am, still talking about last season. Of course, I’ve farted around for a couple of weeks doing very important things (not playing Halo 3: ODST, no matter what my endless tweets and Raptr updates will say), and am only now getting around to putting this up. Please forgive my tardiness.
Though I don’t want to say too much about the new season, which is just coming into shape, I will say that some shows (Fringe, House) have yet to get back to full strength, some (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Dollhouse, Lie To Me) have come back with a confident bang, and some new shows (Community, Flashforward) have really piqued my interest. One new show (Modern Family) made me think I will never trust another critic ever again. Unless something really dreadful comes along, I think I have my Worst New Pilot of the 2009-2010 Season winner already sewn up.
Anyway, here are my final thoughts on the 2008i-2009 season. There were originally going to be more YouTube clips on here, but I’ve had a dispiriting day watching them get taken down. Fox and NBC, sorry for infringing on your copyright, but all you did was get rid of some free publicity, as I was going to tell the world how awesome your shows were. Except for that clip from Heroes. That was up because Angela Petrelli’s insanely histrionic reaction to her son’s death was the funniest thing of the year. So I can understand that one. And now, on with the hyperbole…
Best New Show: Sons of Anarchy
If one were to be unduly harsh, you could compare the first episode of Sons of Anarchy with the pilot of The Shield. Considering that is easily one of the most impressive and instantly captivating pilots ever made, there was little chance that showrunner Kurt Sutter could ever compete. That he made a pilot as good as the one that kickstarted his biker epic is a testament to his skill as a writer, and his decision to get jusdhfjsh in to direct it is exactly the kind of smart move that a good showrunner should make. The first few episodes were not perfect, but the building blocks were there.
What setsSons of Anarchyapart from every other show debuting during the 2008-2009 period — even the eventually superbDollhouse– is how quickly changes were made, and how confidently they were put in place. By the time season highlight The Pull came around, it was already shaping up to be essential TV, but that episode propelled it onto a completely different level of excellence. Ramping up the pace of the show and throwing one or two of the less interesting characters into terrible danger and potentially ruinous moral compromise, the show became something that could well rival the mightyShieldfor complexity and dramatic power. It helps that it features one of the best casts on TV right now, filling out its main cast (which includes Ron Perlman, an impressive star-making turn from Charlie Hunnam, and relentless magnignificence from the ever-awesome Kim Coates, let’s not forget) with guests spots for Mitch Pileggi, Drea DeMatteo, Jay Karnes, Dayton Callie, Maggie Siff, and the incredible Ally Walker, wwho blows everyone else away with her unhinged warrior mentality and fearless sexuality. And in season two, we get Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins. Seriously, what’s not to love? From all accounts, the second season is even more unhinged than the first, which is saying something considering the incredible brutality and amoral shenanigans from the first. I can’t wait to dive in.
If one were to be unduly harsh, you could compare the first episode of Sons of Anarchy with the pilot of The Shield. Considering that is easily one of the most impressive and instantly captivating pilots ever made, there was little chance that showrunner Kurt Sutter could ever compete. That he made a pilot as good as the one that kickstarted his biker epic is a testament to his skill as a writer, and his decision to get Sopranos director/producer Allen Coulter in to co-direct it is exactly the kind of smart move that a good showrunner should make. The first few episodes were not perfect, but the building blocks were there.
What sets Sons of Anarchy apart from every other show debuting during the 2008-2009 period — even the eventually superb Dollhouse — is how quickly changes were made, and how confidently they were put in place. By the time season highlight The Pull came around, it was already shaping up to be essential TV, but that episode propelled it onto a completely different level of excellence. Ramping up the pace of the show and throwing one or two of the less interesting characters into terrible danger / potentially ruinous moral compromise, Sons of Anarchy hinted that it could become something that will rival the mighty Shield for complexity and dramatic power. It helps that it features one of the best ensembles on TV right now, filling out its main cast (which, let’s not forget, includes Ron Perlman, an impressive star-making turn from Charlie Hunnam, and relentless magnificence from Kim Coates) with guests spots for Mitch Pileggi, Drea DeMatteo, Jay Karnes, Dayton Callie, Maggie Siff, and the incredible Ally Walker, who blows everyone else away with her terrifying warrior mentality and fearless sexuality. And in season two, we get Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins. Seriously, what’s not to love? From all accounts, the second season is even more unhinged than the first, which is saying something considering the incredible brutality and amoral shenanigans from the first. I can’t wait to dive in.
Worst New Show: Parks and Recreation
Creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are not idiots, obviously, but this landed with a terrible splat and couldn’t convince me to hang around long enough to see if it would improve. Part of that was because I was mad at the dip in quality over at The Office. Was it fair to blame this show for that? Probably not. Parks and Recreation has been mooted for so long (remember when it was supposed to be a straight spin-off of The Office?) that their attention has probably been divided for a long time, and the fourth season of The Office was great. Nevertheless, the energy of one show definitely seemed to have been split between two, and the result was a listless hour of supposed comedy.
I have fought with myself over whether it would have been worth hanging around to see if it got better, but then I remember little things that irked like the way the showrunners differentiated the talking head interjections from those of The Office — using two cameras for the faux-interviews instead of one — which drove me into fits of absurd rage. The Office already has trouble keeping the faux-doc format going, and this conceit draws even more attention to the fakeness of it all. Perhaps I’m just burned out on this format. ABC’s new comedy Modern Family has been heralded as the next great sitcom after just two episodes, with across the board raves. We watched last week’s pilot in a state of shock. Flamboyant gay stereotypes? Clunking, obvious jokes about the generation gap? Appalling overacting from everyone (with Julie Bowen being the worst offender)? A character misinterpreting the accent of a Columbian woman? (I say Columbian because Sofia Vergara is from Columbia. She’s probably expected to play someone from a different country in this.) Modern Family is exactly the kind of retrograde laugh-track-enhanced sitcom that seems almost archaic now, but because it’s filmed in a single camera faux-doc style, it’s treated as a cutting-edge exploration of modern American mores. Bullshit. It’s Everybody Loves Raymond. Dressing a raccoon in baseball gear doesn’t make it a baseball player. It just makes it a raccoon covered in sport gear. (Note to self: use less raccoons in metaphors. It just complicates things.)
I also remember one potentially funny scene in Parks and Recreation — involving hapless and strangely unlovable Leslie trying to convince a bunch of ill-informed citizens that her plans are worthwhile — failing to take off, and I realise that after this summer of purposely ignorant right-wing hijacking of the health-care town hall debates, this kind of scene probably won’t ever be funny again. Democracy failing to work because of the Crazification Factor getting in the way of intelligent debate is something I just can’t laugh at right now. What makes this turn of events most sad is that the concept is so full of potential, and yet it didn’t even work before the protests. I can’t figure out how you could take an idea this promising and fail to make something that mixes madness and profundity in the same way as The Office. Compare that to Knight Rider. That was always going to be shit. This should have been a potent mix of satire and ridiculousness. That’s why I have to put it in this category. Apparently it has found its stride in the second season, from what I’ve heard on the Hinternet. Sadly, the people who are saying that also keep going on about how Modern Family is hilarious. So, you know…
Best Title Sequence of the Year: Hung
The choice of music (I’ll Be Your Man by The Black Keys), the phallic objects in the background, the pace of it…
…It’s a perfect title sequence.
Best Pilot: Kings
From what I can gather, there was very little publicity for Kings when it made its way onto the screen. Many have said this was the reason for its failure to find an audience, though to be honest a literate curio like this was unlikely to ever become a breakthrough hit. Alternate histories? Playing with Biblical stories? Unappealing main characters? It just seemed like a real long shot. It was impressive to see NBC gamble on making the show in the first place, but as with the equally intelligent Journeyman, making a show and trying to make the show available to a wide audience are two different things.
To be honest, with Journeyman the hurt is greater. That show was less ambitious, but as a result was more likely to find an audience if given a chance. It also improved as it went along. Kings started off incredibly strong and then stalled a little. That’s the problem when a show gets a pilot this impressive. Written by showrunner Michael Green and directed by the underrated Francis Lawrence, Goliath (the name of the pilot) was like no other pilot I’ve ever seen. Even though it was made on a shoestring, it looked incredible. Even more appealing, it had a weird edge of fantasy even beyond the alternate earth conceit, with God interacting with certain characters in a matter of fact way even though the show did not explicitly preach Christian values.
Perhaps this more than anything alienated audiences: atheists might rebel against a show that openly debates the wishes of God, and Christians might be irked by this God not being a recognisable version of their God. While I fall into the first category, I don’t mind God turning up in fiction as long as It’s not used as a deus ex machina or Unexplainable Puppeteer (hello Battlestar Galactica) or as an accurate version of “our” God (a sky bully who gets pissed off if we don’t play by Its crazy rules). The version of God in Kings was not a big deal, but Its mysterious behaviour, and effect on the behaviour of the main characters, was fascinating.
As was the superb character King Silas Benjamin (not to mention his allies and enemies), and the superb use of New York locations (standing in for the fictional city of Shiloh) to give a sense of epic scale to the show, and the incredible cast… As I say, the show was fascinating to watch right up until its unfortunate cancellation, but it never quite lived up to the promise of that amazing pilot, simply because the pilot made you think you were watching the most amazing show ever. We weren’t, but it was damn good nevertheless. Even the slightly disappointing finished product was better than almost everything else on TV. You could practically sense the cult following develop as you watched, not to mention hear the knives coming out for it as you realise how odd the project was. We’re lucky we saw any of it, to be honest.
Worst Pilot: The Unusuals
Seemingly rushed into production as a result of the writers’ strike, The Unusuals matched an underwhelming concept with a poorly defined set of uninteresting characters, failed to find a consistent tone, and handed off directing chores to the ever-feeble Stephen Hopkins, a man who has never made even one good film (I remember liking The Ghost and the Darkness when I first saw it, but I fear I’m being kind). There was no way I was going to enjoy this.
The main reason for my annoyance is that there were some good actors in there who just couldn’t rise above the material or the execution. Some of the most interesting actors — both promising and established — flounder within the show’s poorly thought-through format, with some characters played as broad as possible and others reining in the madness. Jeremy Renner in particular looks like he’s wandered in from another show. Harold Perrineau does okay with his skittish character, while Adam Goldberg sucks all of the energy out of his scenes with a sour and unappealing demeanour, not to mention a terrible mustache. The conceit that a hypochondriac with a fear of death is partnered with a man who wants to die and yet seems blessed is one of those ideas that sounds great on the page and fails on screen.
As for Amber Tamblyn, playing a high-society girl trying to make it as a cop in the cuh-rayzee precinct, it was a more entertaining concept when rich-boy Carter turned up in E.R. That was only one of the shows this seemed to emulate. M.A.S.H., NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, Hooperman (for crying out loud): it was an echo of greater shows, a throwback to 80s cop dramas when they started to become more confident and complex. Sad thing is, we don’t want babysteps any more. We’ve moved on. The low ratings and inevitable cancellation of this show proved that. Let’s hope those good actors turn up in better projects now.
Best Pilot of the Year Not Selected For Series: Virtuality
I won’t go into how much I hated the Battlestar Galactica finale again, as I’m beginning to come across as a total crazy person who is obsessed with going on about it, but it did make me reconsider trying out Caprica, the Stoltzified spin-off. Why should I keep watching shows set in this universe, made by this team, who had so disappointed me throughout the last few seasons? Yes, Jane Espenson would be there too, and I love her work, but still, I cannot imagine being invested in this story any more. There is a good chance I’ll relent, because good SF is hard to find on TV at the best of times. Nevertheless, my annoyance remains.
You can imagine how uninterested I was in another Ronald D. Moore / Michael Taylor show (I was never fond of his BSG episodes), especially one that seemed so prosaic. Moore has stated in the past that he was interested in making BSG because he felt the urge to rebel against Star Trek‘s chirpy universe and its reliance on holodeck technology to change up the show, which made Virtuality — a show about space travellers who use virtual reality technology to relax — a curious proposition. I resisted this too, and then relented after seeing the feeble Defying Gravity, which seemed to be drawn from the same template. Thinking Virtuality would be nothing more than a space soap along the same lines as the other network drama, I gave it a spin, expecting little.
I love it when I’m proved wrong like this. As much as Fox’s other new SF show – Dollhouse – Virtuality is a fascinating and challenging exploration of ideas, dramatically filmed and featuring an excellent cast. In fact, the cast is even stronger than that of Dollhouse, with excellent turns from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sienna Guillory, Richie Coster (who needs more work, stat), and the ever-dependable Clea DuVall. All the actors are on top form, but these four really stand out. As for the comparison with Defying Gravity, the only thing they have in common is being set in space. Virtuality is about so much more: our perception of reality and how it will inevitably be twisted by the lens we observe through, how technology can affect us emotionally, how we refuse to let it go even when it is obviously not doing us any good (an idea expressed far more clearly here than in Lee Adama’s ridiculous speech in the final BSG episode). While Defying Gravity really is a soap set in space (with one character seemingly completely defined by the pregnancy she once terminated, which is as regressive a character arc as is possible), Virtuality is about ideas. It’s proper SF.
At least, it was proper SF. Even though it was obviously incredibly ambitious and beautifully made (with top direction from Shades of Caruso favourite Peter Berg), and even though were was huge potential for relatively cheap but gripping drama, it was shelved. I’m utterly depressed by this turn of events. There was only one misstep in the whole pilot, with a nasty perception-rape sequence that made me uncomfortable. Reliance on rape plots always upsets me, but here even this most unpleasant of plot threads is used to further the show’s exploration of whether there is a gap between virtual and actual reality, and what happens to us when we lose track of the difference between the two. If the show was willing to treat something potentially exploitative as cleverly as this, we would almost certainly have seen a lot of very smart SF in the rest of the series. But no. While Whedon got lucky with Dollhouse, the Virtuality team saw their show taken away before they could go any further. The best thing I can say about it? It was better than most movies I’ve seen this year. It’s a crying shame there will be no more.
Most Unfairly Cancelled Show of the Year: Reaper
Patton Oswalt is a brilliantly funny and caustic man, but recently he broke my heart. In this interview, he explained how, while filming his turn on Reaper, he saw the crew and cast crushed by their parent network, The CW.
When I did Reaper, the episode I originally did was supposed to be the beginning of this introduction to this overall mythology, because they clearly were taking the Joss Whedon playbook: You have a monster of the week for a while, and then you start linking it all up, and you create this overarching kind of world and story. And in the middle of the week, the network just came down on them and said “No, go back to monster of the week.” And you could feel this deflation amongst the actors, because they really understood that they had to start putting mythology into things. The network was just like, “Nope!”
This is the network that, when it was The WB, cancelled Angel, so I already have a big problem with them. Now I have an even bigger one. It may have not become something more ambitious, but it was endlessly lovable, and became admirably silly in the second season. The first was funny, but at times the second season was funnier than many sitcoms. The monster-of-the-week format of the show, which had seemed so restrictive, sometimes ended up shoved into the cold open, with the rest of the episode dealing with silly relationship drama, Sock shenanigans, or sly mythology expanding business with recurring characters like Nina or Tony. This might not be as involving as Buffy, but it was never as blandly diverting as something like The Mentalist. It fell right in the middle, which is apparently deadly.
That greater focus on just being daft was working for us, but the lack of a coherent arc from week to week (other than Sam’s lacklustre efforts to get out of his contract, and the hints that he is a more important player in the battle between God and The Devil) seemed to doom it. More than any other show departing this year, this is the one we’ll miss. Goodbye to one of the most entertaining casts on TV, some of the most eccentric writing of the past few years, and most of all, goodbye to the best Devil in recent pop culture history. He may be showing up in Dollhouse, but will Ray Wise be this mischievous, charming, delightful? Ray Wise fans everywhere, please come together one last time to marvel at that beautiful, beautiful grin.
At least one of us is smiling, I guess. [Insert sad-face emoticon here]
Best New Double Act of the Year: Ray Drecker and Tanya Skagle - Hung
When compiling the list of best and worst characters, I had certain unspoken rules in place to stop myself from focusing exclusively on certain shows. Party Down‘s cast of beautifully observed characters could have dominated the first list, and Knight Rider could have dominated the second. My biggest quandary was caused by Hung, HBO’s lovable male-prostitution-and-economic-disaster comedy that has so entertained us recently. How do I get to honour two of the funniest characters of the year without breaking that rule? As ever, inventing a new category is the perfect answer. Hung is a show that has a few tonal errors (what was going on with the horribly misconceived Jessica, played with occasional delicacy by Anne Heche?) and a very loosely defined season arc (two pimps fighting over Ray and his magical dong), not to mention some wasted actors (why hire Gregg Henry and put him in about five scenes?). At times, it felt like we were watching half a show.
Nevertheless, it became appointment viewing just because of the wonderful work of Thomas Jane and Jane Adams. Their chemistry, and their relentless bickering and grudging friendship, was the thing that made Hung exceed its limitations. It also made Shades of Caruso reconsider the talents of both actors. Thomas Jane was given moments of pathos which he has never really had a chance to play before, and he excelled, especially in the season finale. Jane Adams has always played sad-sack losers, but this time she was given a chance to give Tanya some nobility even as her plans fell apart around her. Both actors also got to show off their physical comedy skills, with Adams especially amusing during her many impotent temper tantrums.
It was their interplay that really held the show together. Even as other plot threads and arcs seemed to falter or shoot off in predictable directions, watching these two actors play off each other was more than enough to save the show. It’s notable that episodes where Ray and Tanya aren’t onscreen together were the weakest of the season, whereas the ones which explored their dependent relationship and accidental exploration of each other’s personality were the most satisfying. Hopefully the show continues to throw these polar opposites together next year.
Best New Couple of the Year: Sawyer and Juliet – Lost
Ah yes, the love triangle/quadrangle. The constant refrain of Lost doubters (and some fans) is that the show is wasting its time whenever it focuses on the relationship drama of Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Juliet. “We don’t care about that shit! Show more Faraday!” Yes yes, love drama tends to make me go to sleep as well. Many shows are hamstrung by tedious relationship dramas: House is at its dreariest when Thirteen and Foreman, or Cameron and Chase, go on and on about their coupledom; Kings ground to a halt every time David and Michelle made goo-goo eyes at each other. Hell, even the otherwise perfect Party Down was at its least interesting every time Henry and Casey got together. So there is precedent.
However, I love the relationship drama from Lost for two reasons. One: at the end of the season, we see how far Jack has fallen from grace. We thought he was the square-jawed all-American hero who would bring everyone out of the wilderness like a be-stubbled Moses, but over time we see he’s a deeply damaged, semi-psychotic loser who – as we find out in the final episode of season five – even lied about his character-defining anecdote from the very first episode. How much of a loser is he? After pushing away the woman he “loves” with his whiny attitude and various emotional breakdowns, and after years of trying to figure out what his purpose is now that his dad isn’t around to torture him, he has two choices to make a difference in his life: a) man up and seek help for his depression, all while giving up on the thought of making a go of things with Kate, or b) detonate a nuclear bomb, killing everyone on the island, in the hope that it will change history and allow Oceanic 815 to land safely in LAX so he doesn’t have to put up with the mess he made of his life. I’ve said before that one of the things I love about Lost is that it shows the psychology of its characters in minute detail, and this final touch – showing how far people will go to avoid making simple changes in their lives because of their fear of what will happen if it fails – is the perfect metaphor for how we hold onto our broken selves even when we know how to make things better.
Two: It also gave us the wonderful, tragic pairing of Sawyer and Juliet, which justifies all of the sturm and drang to get there. So far, all of the pairings that have been tried were wrong somehow. Jack and Kate didn’t work because Jack is insane. Kate and Sawyer didn’t work because Kate keeps messing with Sawyer’s head. Jack and Juliet didn’t work because Jack was not even slightly into Juliet and was just using her to get over Kate. However, as soon as the fourth season ended with a shirtless Sawyer walking out of the sea towards a drunken Juliet, I knew we would get to see something go right. And, for the most part, it did, even though it was not to be.
It’s not just that the combined hottness of Sawyer and Juliet is so great that it probably melted most of the TVs in the world. It’s also not just that selfish Kate and crazy Jack were finally out of the equation. It’s even not just because seeing Sawyer and Juliet flirting while shooting people was the most awesome thing ever. It’s that there was barely any controversy in the relationship, which probably would have even survived the forthcoming Purge, somehow. It’s only when Kate returns to the island and reignites Juliet’s psychological damage (previously caused by the break-up of her parents, the infidelity of her ex-husband, and the death of her lover Goodwin) that it all goes horribly wrong. Did Sawyer still hold a candle for Kate? Probably. Did he love Juliet? I reckon yes, and I believe he would have done anything for her if she had given him the chance. All of this made the quadrangle emotionally powerful, as we finally had something to hang on to. Would Sawyer and Juliet survive the machinations of the island/Esau and Jacob? More than any other relationship in TV history (except for Fred and Wesley in Angel), my nerves were set on fire by the possibility that those kids might not make it after all. Of course…
Most Upsetting, Most Harsh, and Most Unfair Scene of the Year: The Incident finally happens – Lost
…we all know how it turned out. Nothing else this year made me cry as much as this.
Damn you, stupid TV show! Damn you for being so fucking mean! And damn you Emmy voters for not giving nominations to Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Holloway. They were amazing all season.
Worst New Couple of the Year: Luke and Bess - In Treatment
In Treatment‘s second season deviated dramatically from its source material — the Israeli drama Be’Tipul — when it moved main character Paul Weston from Maryland to Brooklyn, allowing the show to dramatise his dislocation from his family, as well as to provide a reason for why he suddenly has so many new patients. This meant that we lost the chance to see season one patients Amy and Jake return, this time as a divorced couple fighting over their son, leading to the creation of two new patients, Luke and Bess. With their marriage in tatters and resentment flying between them, their son Oliver suffers terribly, putting on weight and falling into depression as his parents either fight for custody of him or, amazingly, against custody.
None of the characters in this show are particularly nice to Paul, but the games Luke and Bess play with him, using his advice as justification for a serious of awful, selfish choices, were worse than the usual antagonism people show their therapist. Many times during the season I was horrified by their behaviour, and by the time the season finished they were openly talking about how their lives had been ruined by their marriage and how they wanted another chance at what they had with barely any regard for Oliver’s well-being. When Paul finally loses his temper with them in episode 28, it elicited a round of applause from us. Figuratively speaking. And to be honest, he should have been even angrier with them.
Of course, this being In Treatment, these two horribly selfish people are written so well that we can see their point of view — and their humanity — clearly enough that even at their worst we cannot completely write them off. Their eventual remorse is a relief, but it’s still not enough considering how completely both parents are oblivious to the young boy’s needs. Thankfully, Paul is there to prove to Oliver that he will still be there for him, in some respect. His final scene with Oliver, talking to him via “phone” in his office, started a deluge of tears from this admittedly weepy viewer. If Oliver escapes this miserable situation with his psyche intact, it will have nothing to do with his parents.
Most Underused Character of the Year: Boyd Langton - Dollhouse
Whedon has a talent for peppering his casts with older character actors playing the “parents” to the younger crew. With Buffy we had Giles, in Angel there was Wesley (though his efficacy is doubtful; he’s arguably more flawed than any of his compatriots), and Firefly had Shepherd Book. These stern characters with hearts of gold gave their respective shows some kind of grounding when things got wacky, though Whedon wasn’t averse to making them run through some ridiculous hoops (Book’s mad hair, Wesley’s various pratfalls, Giles’ guitar playing). Sadly, while Langton got a chance to be silly in the disappointing comedy episode Echoes, he rarely got a chance to do anything interesting either. Many characters got to have interesting arcs and secrets, but Langton seemed to be getting less and less screentime as the series wore on. Making him head of security broke the student-mentor relationship between him and Echo, but then this might be Whedon trying to throw his own archetypes out, confounding our expectations. That he would give handler-duties to someone who appears to have an unhealthy sexual attraction to Echo (I’m talking about the plasticine-man known as Ballard) shows there might be something to that.
Nevertheless, it is a shame to cast someone like Harry Lennix — who has intense onscreen presence and then some — and then not give him as much to do as possible. His new role means he will interact more with Olivia Williams, meaning the two best actors on the show get to bang heads together: joy! That promotion, along with his new connection to Whiskey/Dr. Saunders, suggests he will be given more to do in the second season, but nevertheless, his relative inaction in later episodes was one of the few things I didn’t like about the improved half of the first season.
Most Entertaining Villain of the Year: Gemma Teller Morrow – Sons of Anarchy
One of the great pleasures of Sons of Anarchy is how it mixes up its Shakespeare. The debt it owes to Hamlet has been acknowledged by creator Kurt Sutter, but less attention has been paid to his shameless steal from Macbeth. Gemma Teller Morrow — former wife of SAMCRO leader John Teller — at first seems like a strong biker chick, but by the end of the pilot episode has revealed herself to be a conniving, power-hungry Queen whose sense of morality has been twisted until she will do anything to protect her family and the direction of the gang, a fact proved by her attempt at driving Jax’s junkie wife Wendy to an overdose. Later in the season she apologises to Wendy for this act, but even then she’s only doing it because she’d rather her son stay with a recovering junkie than return to his longtime sweetheart Tara. Plus, she does seem to be implicated in John’s death, possibly committed by her current husband Clay Morrow, which appears to have been done to prevent a change of direction towards legitimacy for the biker gang.
The most miraculous thing about this character is that she has dispelled my previous reservations about the talents of Katey Sagal. I’ve complained about her terrible voicework on Futurama before, where she leaves no joke intact, but I had suspected her dramatic work was not as shaky. She was great as John Locke’s departed love Helen in Lost, for example. In Sons of Anarchy, she’s even better, outacting even Ron Perlman when she’s in full flow. This display of Macchiavellian sneakiness got even more entertaining as the season progressed. There was a certain amount of character modulation during the latter half of the season, with some of her excesses toned down, and the horribly stagy confrontations between her and Tara tweaked until they sounded like actual human conversations, but even so, her Lady-Macbeth-esque manipulations of all around her were a source of delight even when she misfired a little. Gemma, as Journey almost said once, don’t stop conniving.
Least Entertaining Villain of the Year: Miguel Prado - Dexter
Dexter sure does have some crappy nemeses. In the first season, he goes up against his own brother, played with ridiculous camp evilness by Christian Camargo. In the second season, he is forced to conquer his evil girlfriend, manifested by Jaime Murray with a bag of absurd tics even more annoying than those of Dexter’s sister Debs, who is played by the equally dreadful Jennifer Carpenter. In the fourth season we’re getting John Lithgow. My memories of his madness from De Palma’s Raising Cain do not bode well for any Over-Act-O-Meters used to track the progress of this show, though I reckon he will be infinitely more entertaining than Dexter’s other “villains”.
Last year we got to see Jimmy Smits contend with the usual quota of ineptitude, improbable motivation, and mustache-twirling obviousness that comprises the Dexter Big Bad, and he made a meal of it. Amping up his intensity to sky-high levels, Miguel Prado went from saint to madman in the blink of an eye, all pretense at showing him as a morally complex human thrown out of the window with a haste even this most feeble of shows has never exhibited before. His cluelessness meant his occasional victories against Dexter relied upon our “hero”‘s IQ dropping 100 points, which is a flaw that has run through the show from the beginning. Prado would then, naturally, make a bunch of mistakes, all the while chewing scenery like a murderous Donald Sinden. I say he was the least entertaining villain of the year because watching his character arc was deeply unsatisfying, with him changing his personality from moment to moment in order to move the plot, and not vice versa, but I did get a lot of pleasure from his reaction after he finally kills a bad guy.
Nastiest Villain of the Year: Nolan – Dollhouse
I can’t make any glib observations about this. Whedon is an avowed feminist, and this new show seemed to be a peculiar expression of that worldview, drawing both perplexed condemnation and optimistic readings. The fact that the show didn’t immediately say that the Dollhouse was a bad place threw a lot of viewers (including myself), but I’m sure a lot of Whedon’s fans (again, including myself) hoped that things would be clearer in the long run.
By the end of the season it was obvious that the Dollhouse tech was meant to be The Worst Thing That Has Happened To Humanity Ever, and not just because it brings about the end of the world (or at least, the end of Humanity). The most graphic and upsetting example of this comes in the excellent episode Needs, where the Actives come to and “escape” their prison (but only because they are allowed to). Drawn to the terrible things that have made them volunteer for Activeness, we see November visiting the grave of her child, and Echo deciding to stay behind to rescue her fellow Actives (surely this should worry the Dollhouse executives a bit more). Sierra, who I’d never found to be particularly compelling, goes to see the man who has paid the Dollhouse to make her an Active. Any doubt that the Dollhouse is a force for evil is removed once we find out that Nolan (played with oily menace by Vincent Ventresca) has paid the Dollhouse to turn her — a woman who once refused him — into an Active just so that he can violate a woman her whenever he feels like it. As Couch Baron says here, there truly are no words that can describe how awful this is. It was the most potent way to show how dreadful this technology is, and upset me deeply. The bad taste remained for the rest of the season. How rare for a network show to explore this kind of moral depravity without shying away from it.
Best Cast of the Year: Party Down
Just as with this year’s Best New Double Act category, I created this category last year to give shout-out to Reaper‘s wonderful cast, which featured a host of great actors, especially Ray Wise, Tyler Labine, and Ken Marino. This year, Party Down gets a nod for featuring so many great actors, including Ken Marino. If I’d been blogging when Veronica Mars started, I probably would have highlighted the terrific cast of that show too, which would have meant discussing Ken Marino’s turn as sleazy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe. Basically, Ken Marino seems to be my weakness. If he’s around, I am helpless.
Which is not to say Party Down worked solely because of him. As I’ve mentioned at length in my Best New Characters award list, Jane Lynch is breathtakingly good as Constance Carmell, and her replacement (Jennifer Coolidge) was just as good. Of the core cast, I’d highlight Ryan Hansen too, playing the adorably clueless Kyle Bradway — basically Dick Casablancas with a heart of gold. His vapid interactions with Jane Lynch are the highlight of many episodes, and he even manages to make tolerable the time spent with Martin Starr, here doing worryingly convincing work as the deeply unpleasant Roman DeBeers. He’s probably the weak link in the cast, though I would also become annoyed by the endless hipsterish emotional evasions of Casey Klein, played by Lizzy Caplan. (Side note: I think it’s fair to say that, thanks to real-world annoyances too numerous to count, I automatically take against any character on TV who spends all of their time on the phone instead of doing their job, or while other people are trying to talk to them. Those caveats are meant to signify that Jack Bauer is not to be considered one of these people. When he’s on the phone, he’s actually saving the world).
At the heart of this amazing ensemble is Adam Scott, formerly playing Palek the Vulcan Inseminatron from Tell Me You Love Me, and now utterly rehabilitated from that indie-movie-aping earnestness after his incredibly bold turn in Step Brothers. Here he is required to be in enormous emotional pain for the majority of the time, and it’s a credit to him that playing a completely shut-down shell of a man doesn’t mean he isn’t funny. His ability to mix up this world-weariness and emotional vulnerability with deadpan wit is essential to the success of the show. He’s Tim-from-The-Office, but even more pathetic. You weep for him in every episode.
So, they’re a fantastic core group, but they’re not the only reason Party Down wins this award. Just as with 30 Rock and Arrested Development before them, this show manages to get some of the best character actors around to populate the secondary cast. In the first season we saw Ken Jeong, J.K. Simmons, Steven Weber, Marilu Henner, Joe Lo Truglio, Mather Zickel, Joey Lauren Adams, Molly Parker, Breckin Meyer, Rob Corddry, Rick Fox (as himself), George Takei (also as himself), not to mention — for the Veronica Mars fans out there — Kristin Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Daran “Cliff McCormack” Norris, Ed Begley Jr., Alona Tal and Jason Dohring. Matched up to the best sitcom scripts of the year, there was no way this show was going to fail. Even though I’m agnostic on the appeal of Megan Mullally (drafted in to replace Jane Lynch in season two), I have a strong feeling she will be magically transformed by this most glorious of shows.
Worst Cast of the Year: Parks and Recreation
I feel a little ill, because I’m about to criticise the casting of a show that has Amy Poehler in the lead role. Amy Poehler, who was the best thing about last year’s Baby Mama. Amy Poehler, who was one of the best things about SNL for the past few years. Amy Poehler, who was one of the three things in Southland Tales that was actually great and entertaining instead of desperately bad and misery-inducing (the other two things being The Rock and Wood Harris, with whom she shared her scenes). She makes me laugh pretty much every time I see her, but not here. In that case, I’m willing to assume she was just dealt a bad hand, and given a character who is unworkable. The only times Leslie Knope comes alive and becomes more than a badly formed lump of unrealistic character flaws is when she pines over Mark Brendanawicz, her selfish and unappealing colleague played by the talented Paul Schneider. Again, another talented actor playing an unlikeable and uninteresting character. Maybe I should rethink this category. Is it the cast, or the show, that I don’t like?
Well, Aziz Ansari is in it. I’ll admit, I have not seen much of his work. He was in Funny People for a couple of minutes, and the effect he had on me was akin to having my soul Maced. Perhaps I’m wrong. This show seems to be underwritten and poorly thought through, which could account for it, but his turn as Tom Haverford is almost unwatchable. I’d say that’s more than just a glitch in the writing. The same goes for Nick Offerman as the Dwight-Schrute-esque Ron Swanson, a character that screams desperation from the writers but is not at all helped by Offerman’s flat performance. Both Haverford and Swanson seem like the kernel of a joke expanded to character-size without much thought given to whether these characters will work. As it is, they’re just belligerent. The less said about Aubrey Plaza and her pointless teenage character April Ludgate, the better. (See above for comments about affectless, oblivious characters like Ludgate and Casey from Party Down.)
Perhaps the thing I resent most is putting someone as funny as Chris Pratt opposite a comedy void like Rashida Jones. She was charming enough in The Office but wasn’t expected to be particularly funny. Here she is either a dope being manipulated by Pratt’s Andy, or she berates him, making her seem churlish and him seem like a victim, which he isn’t. Crappy couples on TV are not often fun to watch (ask any Lost fan who despairs whenever Jack and Kate get together). I’m more than willing to accept that a lot of these actors are far better in other roles. Hell, I’ve seen them be better. Pratt was hilarious in The O.C. as Che, and Paul Schneider was riveting in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Perhaps I’m being way too harsh on these actors. Sadly, the bottom line is that, unlike The Office that came with only a couple of good characters, already based on archetypes from the UK series, and then built the supporting cast as they went along, Parks and Recreation started from scratch and got none of the characters right. Even a good cast would have trouble making this bunch of half-formed comedic scribbles come to life. In time, if it doesn’t get cancelled, perhaps this will change. Let me know when it does. Until then, I’ll stick with Community, Dan Harmon’s brilliant new sitcom, which recently started almost fully-formed and will hopefully keep getting better.
Best Guest Star of the Year: Jon Hamm - 30 Rock
For a little while, we were non-converts to the Cult of Hamm. He entertained us enough in Mad Men, but we had enough reservations about the first season that he didn’t really register in our consciousness, even after the Dick Whitman revelation gave Hamm the best acting opportunities. Perhaps we thought he was just a pretty face, and couldn’t imagine there was anything else in there. Canyon was also offended by his Brylcreemed hair. She deemed it unappealing. I wasn’t about to argue.
Then came the far superior second season, and sightings of his normal hair (adorably floppy), and then a turn on Saturday Night Live that was so confident and charming that I fully expect Hamm to eventually challenge the hosting records fought over by Christopher Walken, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Dramatic excellence, perfect comic timing, a willingness to play off his image, and seriously, one of the handsomest faces on Earth; if he can sing and dance, he’s got it all. We are now members of the Cult. Wearing robes and everything. It’s proper infatuation.
His three episode run as Dr. Drew Baird on 30 Rock was joyous. It was so good that the plot of his final episode, with him coming to realise that having everyone fawn over him all the time is something that doesn’t happen to anyone else, was even alluded to in the third season of Mad Men (reacting with bemusement when Sal points out that he doesn’t get hit on by flight attendants on every flight he takes, unlike Don, who is obviously spoilt for choice). Once Mad Men is over, Hamm can pretty much pick a direction. Not many actors get to achieve stardom and show both comedic and dramatic chops. Maybe he’s more like Dr. Drew than he realises.
Most Resurrected Character of the Year: Captain Jack Harkness - Torchwood: Children of Earth
I thought I always wanted Captain Jack’s immortality to be used more, as it’s a nifty little gimmick. I don’t think that any more.
Most Surprising Directorial Work of the Year: Akiva Goldsman on Kings and Fringe
Akiva Goldsman has done some awful things. His script for Batman and Robin is rightly reviled. He’s great at simplifying complex narratives and turning them into multiplex fodder (A Beautiful Mind, I, Robot). He’s the go-to guy for big movies based on crappy thrillers by bad writers (he’s adapted John Grisham and Dan Brown). When nerds hear his name, they sob with misery. “Why is this man so beloved of Hollywood?”, they shout. “It must be proof of its awfulness, along with the career of Michael Bay!” Of course, my own feelings about Bay are not so straight-down-the-line, and now, Goldsman has begun to win me over.
All he had to do was build up his experience as a director by making two of the strongest hours of TV of the 2008-2009 season. His debut, on Kings‘ The Sabbath Queen, showed a talent for atmospherics and interesting visuals, pacing the episode beautifully and getting some good performances from even the weaker actors on the show. After that he wrote and directed Bad Dreams, one of the highlights of Fringe‘s first season. Again, the creepy atmosphere was beautifully judged, and the opening few minutes were hypnotically staged. Even better, the big finale was disturbing and tense, even as it played with some less than fresh ideas, and then we got a video clip of a young Olivia that wouldn’t have looked amiss in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. If you’ll forgive me for cheating and ignoring my own rules, we’ve also seen his work on the first episode of the second season of Fringe, and again, it was very impressive. In time it’s obvious that he will be directing films too. I hope he finds some interesting material to work with, but even if not, I look forward to seeing what he will come up with.
Least Surprising Directorial Work of the Year: Greg Yaitanes on House and Lost
Shades of Caruso took against the TV (and occasional film) director Greg Yaitanes after some hilariously overwrought and showy work on shows such as Heroes and Drive, and we’ve yet to be convinced he deserves reappraisal. Last year he won an Emmy for his work on the first part of the House season finale, which would have been understandable when you take the logistics of the shoot into account, but is frustrating when Katie Jacobs’ work on the far more affecting final episode wasn’t even considered (and she’s listed as co-director of the Yaitanes episode too, but didn’t get a nomination). Since then, Yaitanes has been given a co-producer credit on House, and contributed numerous episodes to this season, including the shocking Simple Explanation, in which Kutner (Kal Penn) commits suicide offscreen.
I will say this: the scene where Foreman and Thirteen discover the body was brilliantly done. Unfortunately, Yaitanes had a vision for this episode and went ahead with it. Everyone at Princeton Plainsboro is obviously very depressed about Kutner’s death, so Yaitanes lights the entire episode as if all the colour has been drained from the hospital. It’s an entirely grey hour of TV, just in case you didn’t get it from the performances or dialogue or sad music all over the place. To be honest, the episode Joy, directed by an unexpectedly off-colour Deran Serafian, featured the worst direction of the season, but Yaitanes was consistently bad here, and worse elsewhere.
You see, he also managed to infect my beloved Lost with his ridiculous film-cooties. I could talk about the flashy work he did on Heroes, but to be honest he’s the least of that show’s problems, so I don’t really mind if he stays on it. Lost, however, is a totally different matter. He had worked on the show before, in the first season, and as we started rewatching the show recently, I noticed he was kinda bad then too. That was when the show was in its infancy, and was still trying to find its tone, so his attention-seeking excesses were less obvious. By now, we all know what works and what doesn’t work within the very specific Lost world, which made Yaitanes’ excesses even more noticeable than usual. We know that Ben is creepy and Sayid is scary and intimidating, which are characteristics stressed by their very specific line-readings. In He’s Our You, we see a flashback to a face-off between the two characters, and both Michael Emerson and Naveen Andrews draw out their sentences to absurd lengths, with poorly edited pauses between each shot emphasising that they are both very methodical people who hate each other.
Lost usually treats these big moments with a sense of grandeur that works well, considering the unapologetically grandiose nature of the narrative, but this scene stepped over the line between epic and ridiculous. It made my favourite show seem like a parody of itself. I don’t even want to get into the awful “interrogation” scene later (included above), which was poorly written but even more poorly directed. What was Andrews doing here? It’s all over the place. The final scene with Sayid shooting young Ben was brilliant, but it was the only bright spot in a very disappointing hour of Lost. When you compare this horrible misinterpretation of the tone of the show to the consistently impressive work of star directors Jack Bender and Stephen Williams, it just looks amateurish. I keep hoping he’ll settle down, but the latest episode of House was directed by him, and as it was about a games programmer, most shots seemed to feature arms coming out of the side of the frame towards the person being observed, just like an FPS, so it might be a while before he realises less is more.
Best Shout-Out of the Year: House
Stephen Colbert is a huge fan of House, and it seems the feeling is mutual. (It’s the photo above his shoulder, obviously.)
This is the only way Colbert is ever going to get on a Fox channel without being mischaracterised as a baby-eating Trotsky clone.
Intensity of the Year: Lance “Intensity” Reddick – Fringe
While Parks and Recreation fans, or Dexterites, or people with Unusual taste, might be mad at me for being a big meanie and saying such terrible things about their favourite shows, surely there can be no controversy here. No one else this year was so stern and scary and just fucking in charge.
I suspect Lance “Intensity” Reddick can atomise titanium just by looking at it. As with Harry Lennix on Dollhouse, Reddick is pretty under-used on Fringe. Most of the time he is onscreen he’s taking the Fringe team to various crime scenes, or giving Olivia either a bollocking or a pep talk. This is not a good use of this man’s talents. He also showed up in Lost, as the sinister Matthew Abaddon, where he stopped being sinister just before getting shot and killed. Which sucked. I hope season two of Fringe sees him doing more entertaining stuff. I’d like him to shoot one of their ridiculous monsters (a part squid, part mushroom teenager hiding under carpets, for instance), or have more screen time with Blair Brown and Her Metallic Arm. If the Fringe showrunners don’t hurry up, he could well get very bored very soon. In this AV Club interview, he says he wants to try his hand at comedy. (For the record, though he is seemingly never required to show it on TV, Mr. Reddick is fully capable of expressing amusement, and isn’t just a scarily intense man.)
If he left Fringe to do that, you know I’d be checking it out.
And that’s it for this year. In the next few weeks, some new polls or something. Maybe some chatter about the London Film Festival (I got really carried away buying tickets the other week). Stay tuned, new readers. As you can see, I may not post as often as I would like, but when I do, I tend to post big.