Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2013: The Year in... Television!

Andy Greenwald wrote a great article at Grantland a while ago about how Breaking Bad's final few episodes may well have been the last gasp of the monoculture, and that television, despite its universality and ubiquity, is even smaller than it ever has been. Gone are the days of a few shows entirely dominating the dialogue, and there are arguably more options for television viewing than there ever have been, and thanks to services like Netflix, they are increasingly dissociated from any sense of time. Indeed, it seems odd to even think of television on a yearly calendar at this point, given that the running dates of programs are now themselves fractured and de-regulated.But, for now, I will endeavour to review the year that was for me in television.

Comedy


2013 wasn't a great year for comedy on TV for me - or maybe it's just far more difficult for a new show to work its way into my already crowded repertoire. I spent a decent portion of the first part of the year rewatching Arrested Development (one of my favourites), but there also was not a lot of really great new funny stuff to enjoy. I actually find that I rarely follow a comedy week-to-week, and that I am much more likely to watch several episodes in short succession. Here are some brief thoughts on the comedies I watched in 2013 (in alphabetical order).

Arrested Development (Season 4) - I was excited though apprehensive about the return of Arrested Development after so long, but it turned out that I had nothing to be concerned about; in fact, Season 4 was the best comedy of the year, and it may have (like the first three seasons did in their time) again changed the way in which I view comedy. The only drawback was the occasionally distracting nature in which it was necessarily filmed without everyone together, but boy did it crackle when they were actually in scenes with their co-stars. It took a few episodes for it to really start coming together, but by the time Tobias' episode came around, AD was back in full form. I can't wait for the inevitable follow-up, whether it's Season 5 or a movie.

Community (Season 4) - It was actually slightly better than I thought it would be, given that series creator Dan Harmon was not present for this season. There were two or three good to very good episodes, five or six middling episodes, and four or five kinda not great episodes, but definitely not the level of ineptitude I had expected. It was serviceable as a placeholder for Harmon's return in Season 5, which has already provided a pantheon episode in "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" and a fantastic bottle episode the week after, and I've already enjoyed the first few episodes more than all of Season 4.

Family Tree (Season 1) - Christopher Guest's mockumentary about a man (Chris O'Dowd) systematically unraveling his family's past is everything you'd expect from Guest and his usual suspects: dry, witty, awkward, subtle, and often hilarious. This was easily my favourite new comedy of the year, as I had to pause every episode at least once because I was laughing too hard to hear the next line. Unfortunately, it will be the series' only season, as HBO canceled it yesterday. I can't even count on the cable networks anymore.

Futurama (Season 7.5) - The (supposedly) final season of Futurama was among the series' best. (I say "supposedly" because I fully expect Netflix to foot the bill to create more episodes, particularly since all of the principals writers, artists, and actors involved with the show state that they have more to do in that universe.) There were a couple of uproariously funny episodes (particularly "Assie Come Home"), and at least two episodes, including the "finale" "Meanwhile..." that rival some of the best heartfelt episodes of Season 4. Each cast member was featured prominently in the whole of Season 7 (ie. these 13 episodes and the previous 13 aired in 2012), and the show just never felt done (save for the unfortunate degradation of the

Go On (second half of Season 1) - I was really starting to enjoy Go On, and then it got cancelled and replaced with much worse sitcoms. Good call, NBC: let's get rid of a show with a great concept with two established stars, a showrunner with street cred, a well-seasoned supporting cast, adn the possibility of guest stars almost every episode (including a surprisingly hilarious Terrell Owens) to put on Sean Saves The World. Matthew Perry and John Cho had great chemistry, there were some funny supporting characters, and it seemed like it could have worked long term, if not for NBC's stupidity in cancelling it. Maybe NBC felt that it was too much like Community, and that they couldn't fit it in the schedule with Community returning. I'd probably pick this one up for cheap and rewatch it, especially over Season 4 of Community.

New Girl (Season 2/3) - New Girl took up the mantle of "funniest show on TV" in 2013, and it earned its stripes. Week after week, it was the zaniest, most entertaining sitcom, and it continued to hit new highs as it entered its third season. But, just like any sitcom that hits its peak, it needs to find ways to keep it fresh as it continues in Season 3 - especially grounding Winston as a character.

Comedies to catch up on sometime: As always, I have a few shows that slipped through the cracks this year. I'm still deciding if I want to try to catch up on Modern Family and whether I really want to invest in The Mindy Project. Sometime soon, I'll watch the Joe Schmo Show's most recent incarnation, The Full Bounty, and I will catch up on both seasons of Veep and the last two seasons (!) of Parks and Recreation.

Other comedies I want to try out sometime: And of course, there were a few new shows that I waited to see how they would do before investing in them. The new comedies from 2013 that are waiting in the queue for my attention are Golden Globe winner (?!) Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Drunk History; Hello Ladies; Moone Boy; Save Me; and Super Fun Night. I expect that most of them won't have much staying power, but I'm willing to try them out anyway.

Drama


It was a year of endings, new beginnings, and great satisfaction and disappointment. I was happy to clear out a couple of shows, including one that I will never watch again. I was surprised that most of my dramatic watching was more of the "guilty pleasure" variety; maybe I just did not have the ability to handle any more intensity while Walter White was still out there doing his thing. At any rate, here are my thoughts on the dramas I watched this year (in mostly alphabetical order):

Breaking Bad (Season 5.2) - What else is there to say about this show? The final eight episodes were, as a whole, one of the most thrilling sequences of any narrative ever. Although it seemed to drag in episode 4 ("Rabid Dog"), the next two episodes were among the best of the series. BB was incredibly satisfying, which is more than I can say for...

Dexter (Season 8) - Wow. I knew it was not going to be great, but there was no way to expect this level of ineptitude. The season started out interesting enough with a few intriguing character developments and yet another serial killer foe for Dexter, but took a turn for the insipid after the fourth episode. It became a woefully underplanned mishmash of reason-less events and ridiculously conceived plot changes, and the finale was not only ridiculous in its execution, but it insulted fans of the series who had stuck with it to the bitter end. The fact that the finale aired a week before Breaking Bad's only further solidified just how bad it was. The show should have stopped after Season 4 or 5, when the concept really had run out and before Dexter battles yet another serial killer and his inner demons. (Wouldn't it have been amazing if the show had announced the renewals for Season 6 but then shocked viewers by having it end suddenly, revealing that the Season 6 pick up was all a ruse to lure us into a false sense of security?) Just a terrible, terrible conclusion to a show that should have been better; of course, it's funny that it wasn't the moral content, but the quality of the final season that finally made me ashamed to watch the show.

Justified (Season 4) - The producers deliberately moved away from the "Big Bad" model of the previous two seasons to a central mystery inspired by D.B. Cooper, and the show was better for it. This was the season that really expanded the world of Harlan and the entire cast of characters really settled into their roles. This season was exciting, funny, dark, and twisted: everything I want to see in a show like this. Now that BB is done, this is my favourite drama on TV.

Homeland (Season 3), House of Cards (Season 1), The Newsroom (Season 2) - I grouped these three together for a few reasons: they are all guilty pleasures to a degree; they share a similar style and could even exist in the same universe; and I still have not finished two of the three (Homeland and The Newsroom). I can't really say that they're "good", even though they are of high quality, and I enjoy them; they each have significant flaws and oversights and little foibles along the way. I'm not sure if I will pick up the last half-season of Homeland, just because I'm not sure that I want to watch it as a campier version of what it could have been (although knowing the events of the finale have helped revive my waning interest). I'll probably watch Cards Season 2 to start, just to see where it goes, though I'm prepared to drop it if it goes too far over that campy edge on which it teetered in the last third of Season 1. And I know I will watch the rest of The Newsroom and perhaps enjoy it more with the knowledge that it will end with Season 3.

Dramas from 2013 I plan to watch sometime: And, of course, there are a few dramas I need to catch up on, some of which have been in the queue for the better part of a year. The really interesting thing to me is that most of these were first seasons, which means that it could be the start of a new generation of shows for me. The four new shows I'd like to watch are The Americans; Broadchurch; Orphan Black; Top of the Lake; and I still need to watch all of Mad Men, including this year's Season 6, sometime.

Other (Reality shows, science fiction, etc.)


There are a couple of shows I watched that defy the basic comedy/drama division, so here are the other shows I watched in 2013:

Doctor Who - My wife and I started watching it once it hit Netflix, and we made it through four and a half seasons in a few months. I know a lot of people who watch it, so I have a strong social pull toward the Doctor, even though there are episodes that I find interminably tedious and/or poorly-executed. Overall, I'm enjoying my ride in the TARDIS, and we'll keep on going until we catch up. Then we'll probably go back to finishing up Star Trek: The Next Generation (My wife is kind of a nerd, apparently) before moving on to our next Netflix project: Friday Night Lights.

King of the Nerds - This was easily my guilty pleasure reality show of the year. Take nine nerds in their twenties, put them in a house together, and make them compete in nerdy activities to determine who can sit on the "Throne of Games." It was completely silly, fun, and awesome. Where do I sign up?

Survivor - The two editions aired this year (Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites 2 and Blood vs. Water) demonstrated that there's a lot of life left in this show, even after 27 seasons. Both shows relied heavily on returning players, both incorporated new twists, and both were won by wily returnees (Cochrane and Tyson). Survivor is nowhere near done, and I'm excited to see where it goes next.

Looking back and looking ahead


So, that was my year of TV in 2013. There were 15 shows I watched, with another 5-10 on my catch up list, which seems to be my current watching rate given the past couple of years. If I had to make a top 5 list for 2013 right now, it would include, in order from fifth to first: Family Tree; Survivor (Caramoan and Blood vs. Water; Arrested Development; Justified; and Breaking Bad. Only two of those are returning in 2014, so my list will likely look a lot different in 2014, which has already started off very well.

Sherlock Season 3 was enjoyable, though nowhere near as good as its predecessors. Community's first five episodes of Season 5 have all but entirely erased the bland flavour of Season 4. And Justified looks to be back in prime form only a few episodes in. Add to that the number of dramas entering their second seasons, the return of Louie in May, the premiere of FX's Fargo in April, and the return of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad in prequel spin-off Better Call Saul in November, and 2014 looks to be a possibly better year overall.

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