In a previous post I remarked that I wouldn’t be able to write about Spartacus: Gods of the Arena as I hadn’t seen it; a terrible oversight partially explainable as discomfort following on from the tragic fate of star Andy Whitfield. Mostly it was down to altered priorities throughout the year. We had to catch up on Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife, which took up a fair amount of our allocated TV watching time. Work comes first, after all, with Twitter checking in second place, I’m ashamed to say.
Parks and Recreation was once dismissed by us at length, and The Good Wife never seemed to be something we would be interested in, but the critics urging the audience to give them a chance are 100% correct; both shows are magnificent, and well worth your time if you don’t already watch them. To be honest, I think The Good Wife could be marketed better; there’s an audience waiting out there for something this sophisticated, but they might be put off by publicity that makes it look like some kind of soapy fluff about working moms. FFS, this is the most intelligent show on network TV, a genuine marvel. It should be watched by anyone with an interest in the modern world; no other show feels as much of its time as this one.
As for our previous damning criticisms of Parks and Recreation, I’d just like to say even though that first season was pretty weak, my immediate dismissal of it — considering that even at its worst it was never even a fraction as bad as the truly odious Modern Family — still stands as the greatest mistake this blogger has ever made, at least until I decided to finish this blogpost in the KFC in Leicester Square, just because it had free wi-fi. Doesn’t anyone on this planet know how to chew with their mouths shut? I’m forming Misophonics Anonymous tomorrow. [/intolerant asshole]
Anyway, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena doesn’t feature in the 30-21 list; it’s much better than that. Which is not to denigrate the following ten shows; they’re all wonderful in their own right. #arsecovering
30: The Trip – Hipping Hall
Shades of Caruso was bound to enjoy Michael Winterbottom’s navel-gazing curio just for the scenery; a recent holiday has made us very pro-Lake District, and seeing its breathtaking beauty again was a real treat. The short series works well as a whole; the differences from one week to the next are negligible but when seen as a single entity, the growing loneliness of “Steve Coogan” and the contented obliviousness of “Rob Brydon” are obvious. The fourth week, however, gave us a new take on their tiresome games of one-upmanship, as the two comedic actors are joined for dinner by assistant Emma and photographer Yolanda. The most excruciating scene of the year sees “Rob” unleash a slew of bad impressions, while “Steve” shrinks on horror before joining in, unable to let his companion be the centre of attention. Meanwhile, Emma and Yolanda’s laughter becomes more and more forced, and the comedians’ banter becomes crueller. It also sees “Rob” step out of character and make an ill-advised, almost unwatchable move on Emma, a plot development that the real Rob Brydon asked Winterbottom to remove from the truncated movie version. Sorry Rob, that was a great scene, and your discomfort ensures this episode’s place on this list.
29: Bored to Death – I’ve Been Living Like A Demented God!
It’s easy to dismiss HBO’s light comedy about mildly disaffected middle-class New Yorkers as nothing but froth, but if it had more bite, it wouldn’t work at all. As such, it’s content to be an endearing diversion with the occasional very good joke about how useless and self-absorbed the intelligentsia of the East Coast are. It’s a slight Woody Allen-esque sitcom, back when Woody Allen was still funny and had something to say. This episode is the highlight of its second year, bringing about the return of Kristin Wiig and John Hodgman. Wiig has little to do other than play a femme fatale pick-up for Zack Galafianakis’ suddenly virile Ray, but John Hodgman gets to do all sorts of amusing things, and takes to physical comedy with gusto as he rolls around in dirt while trying to avoid a group of angry (but not too angry; this is mild comedy, after all) drug dealers. We also get to see poor George dealing with his prostate cancer diagnosis and his hilarious response to a mandatory drug test at work; his frantic but composed pantomime of panic when trying to tamper with his urine sample is a little gem. Even better, his final scene with a very enthusiastic Jonathan is incredibly sweet; a perfect encapsulation of what makes this show so lovable.
28: Luther – Episode 3
Last year Shades of Caruso took great pleasure in deriding the BBC’s hysterically overwrought serial killer drama Loofah, with its needlessly flashy compositions, poorly judged performances, incoherent plotting and modish “edginess”. This year, SoC scratches its head, staring in bemusement at the four episodes that exploded into the Beeb’s schedule like a not-terrible howitzer shell of semi-competence. Connected by one plot-thread – albeit a not-particularly great one – the two two-parters offered more fun and more purposeful storytelling than was expected. Many of the old problems remained, but with a modicum of restraint Loofah became far more compelling, with our apocalyptically glum hero now approaching iconic status as London’s tortured protector. This episode was the best of the quartet, mostly for the two main setpieces depicting the Dice Killer impassively going about his murderous business; director Sam Miller brilliantly keeps the action simple, and the effect is unforgettable. Much of that is down to the bold use of London locations; when the killer walks calmly through Liverpool Street station in the cliffhanger ending, the effect is one of absolute terror. The gloves came off this year; the flaws mean so little when they’re part of something as scary and confident as this.
27: Psychoville – Sunnyvale
Shades of Caruso foolishly missed the first season of this exceptional horror-comedy when it originally aired, meaning 2009′s awards didn’t include praise for “David and Maureen”, the “one-shot” homage to Rope that could be the best thing produced by the BBC in the last decade. It’s hard to pick a stand-out episode from Psychoville‘s second season when each episode is as good as every other, but this half-hour probably wins out, and again Hitchcock is at the heart of it. The main setpiece, a play on Strangers on a Train set in an old folks home, is a comedic delight, powered by the interplay between the delightful double-act of Mr. Jelly and Claudia Wren. On top of that we find out the dark secret behind Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital, and Mrs. Kenchington’s familial history. It also stands as one of the purest expressions of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s vision of England’s contradictory nature; that cheery surface hiding a dark core, perfectly visualised here with the image of a stash of Nazi memorabilia hidden under a collectible toy shop. (Confession: one of the main reasons this episode deserves a place on the list is for the joke about the Nazi memorabilia website NaziBay.)
26: Doctor Who – A Good Man Goes To War
Rumours of strife on set and within the show’s production staff appeared in Private Eye several weeks after this season took a break, but it could be argued that the wildly variable quality of the episodes was a sign that something was up. The previous season was patchy, but this was on a different level. Part of that was showrunner Steven Moffat’s obvious ambition; numerous plot threads had been introduced that were waiting to be tied up, meaning audience members who were not in the show’s thrall would likely end up being frustrated. Thank the Heavens for this memorable mid-season finale, which saw the show firing on all cylinders once more. With a cast of previously introduced minor characters returning to help the Doctor rescue Amy and her soon-to-be-born baby (whose identity is sadly signposted with obnoxious obviousness in the episode’s opening moments), the show’s energy returned with a vengeance. Despite budgetary restraints, Who felt epic once more, with Matt Smith on scorching form, doing justice to Moffat’s riotous inventions and crazed plotting. This is what the show should be every week; a madcap, exhilarating blast of imagination, powered by sheer force of will.
25. The Office – Garage Sale
After what feels like a million seasons of increasingly depressing shenanigans in Dundler Mifflin’s despair-pit, it was time for Steve Carell to detach the chains around his ankles and escape the show that had helped carry him to stardom. Much of the season was spent waiting for him to leave the office, with the only drama derived from speculating about how it would happen. Thankfully, while those episodes had only glimmers of the show’s previous genius, the final five minutes of this Carell-written episode provided a genuinely magical moment. Cleverly set up as an imminent disaster, Michael Scott’s marriage proposal to Holly is instead a gloriously sentimental and moving triumph that pays tribute to Scott’s relationship with the core cast, leads to a well-judged mood-puncturing joke, and ends on an out-of-the-blue declaration of our hero’s intention to leave. It’s possibly the most simultaneously surprising and unsurprising character note in the history of the show, and it worked like gangbusters. Tears flowed like the water from the Scranton branch’s sprinklers.
24: Louie – Subway / Pamela
The first segment of this episode is almost wordless; it’s a beautifully shot, almost poetic sequence with Louie taking a trip on a subway, encountering great beauty and terrible poverty in a single moment, observing the patter of a young boy with great astonishment, and then imagining himself as the feted hero of his carriage by mopping up a noxious brown liquid. The words come later, as Louie spending an afternoon with his friend Pamela. What starts as a loose segment with our dopey hero hanging out with the ever-acidic Pamela shifts into mortifying comedy territory as Louie goes for broke and professes his undying love; it’s a long, beautiful, uncynical speech. It would be a joy to listen to if it weren’t for the knowledge that Pamela is never going to be won over. The result is a growing sense of doom; anyone who has ever harbored a crush on someone who has no interest will tear off their ears and poke out their eyes at the miserable truth presented here. It’s not all bad, though. The punchline, in the final shot, is a cracker. Good final monologue too, if depressing. But it’s the good kind of depressing; a perfect description of the show.
23. Alphas - Blind Spot
In the unexpectedly long run of NBC’s dire Heroes, there were moments of brightness that never truly removed the murk. Company Man in the first season was easily the highlight, combining spectacle and character drama in a way it never managed again. In a shorter space of time, Syfy’s Alphas reached a point where its massive ambition led to this mini-action epic; a perfectly constructed action TV classic that evoked happy memories of the first two X-Men movies. The irony that the show was co-created by Zak Penn, writer of the despised third X-Men movie, is not lost on me. Ira Steven Behr’s clever script puts the ramshackle Alpha team in the position of questioning Dr. Graham Kern (a brilliantly menacing Brent Spiner) in their base, smugly assuming they were in control. As the perfectly paced episode progresses, they come to realise they’re actually at the mercy of not one but two antagonistic forces powerful enough to kill them all. This was where Alphas began to prove it belonged in the top tier of this year’s new shows, packing in a decent amount of low-cost action, setting a light under the season-long Red Flag arc, and tying off some loose threads into the bargain. And the best thing about it? Two episodes later we were given a satisfying, exciting, and emotionally wrenching finale better than anything Heroes could ever have managed. This is how you do superhero TV.
22: 30 Rock – Double-Edged Sword
For a couple of years SoC has railed against the 30 Rock backlash, as fans complained that the show had lost its freshness and had become mired in self-referential games. We argued that it remained fresh and funny, that the post-modern games were smart enough to render the criticisms redundant, and that the show still had some life. This year, we caved. Fatigue seemed to infect what was once the wittiest show on TV, not helped by the ascendence of Community and Parks and Recreation to the position of sitcom superiority. Still, all was not lost; Double-Edged Sword was as sharp as 30 Rock‘s best, partially because there seemed to be things at stake within the show. Jack and Avery’s mad-dash out of Canada before their child is born, Tracy’s realisation that his EGOT is more a curse than a blessing, and Liz’ sad epiphany that a comfortable relationship is just as untenable as a fraught one; not only all thematically linked (the double-edged sword from the title) but present to enable the show to make a self-referential joke about thematic linking in sitcoms. Sad that the show had to make a sacrifice to regain its mojo; the loss of Matt Damon’s brilliantly realised Carol at least gives us a superb sub-plot about the petty tyranny of pilots, and a running joke that SoC is very grateful for, concerning that stupid-ass owl movie Legends of the Guardians.
21: The Venture Brothers – Assisted Suicide
Mid-season breaks are usually a great help for creative teams facing deadlines, especially when the show in question is animated, but for the audience it can often be a mixed blessing, Though the wait for the fourth season might have been unbearable without it, the break robbed the show of its momentum. It wasn’t until this triumphant episode that the fourth season lived up to previous seasons, as The Monarch invades Rusty Venture’s mind to wreak havoc. Only Doctor Orpheus can save him, leading to encounters with Rusty’s id, ego and superego; a hysterically funny adventure on first viewing, but a revealing and sad peek into Rusty’s psyche when watched again. All of his motivations are laid bare; thankfully this is a show that has no interest in curing Rusty, though there is a touching grace note in the final scene in which Rusty relates an anecdote about his awful childhood; yet more proof that this exceptional show is more humane than anything else on Adult Swim. Also great: Brock Sampson and Sergeant Hatred’s battle for the Venture Brothers’ affections, more Shore Leave excellence, and the long-awaited kiss between 21 and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch. An instant classic.
More tomorrow. I promise I won’t keep bringing up how much I hate Modern Family. Even though it’s abysmal.