Picking up where we left off last week, I am continuing my run through the best that TV had to offer this past year. This week I am listing off spots ten through three from my top ten list. I tried to write out what made each of these shows special and worthwhile, though none of them got the space for consideration and praise that they truly deserve. That being said, I realized before I even wrote this that the two shows that top my list will need a ton of space just to get all my thoughts about them into coherent order. So they will get their own posts in a few days. Until then, enjoy this section and take a guess as to what my top two are.
Oh, and if you haven’t yet, check out my Honorable Mentions and Individual Citations list first. Enjoy!
10. Parks and Recreation
It’s a huge testament to how fantastic TV was this past season that Parks and Rec is all the way down at 10. After spending all of its 2nd and 3rd seasons as one of the 2 or 3 best shows on the air, Parks and Rec was due for a bit of a dip. While it was still consistently very funny, and harbors one of the deepest and most enjoyable fictional worlds on TV, there was some uncharacteristic fat on season 4. I think part of the problem was that the season-long plotline of Leslie running for Town Council had the effect of making individual episodes start to seem stale. There’s only so many times Leslie’s campaign can screw up or encounter obstacles before the inevitable triumph starts to feel unearned.
That being said, Parks and Rec is still one of the sharpest, warmest, and most enjoyable shows on television. Even if the overall plot seemed to creak at times, there were standout episodes a plenty. The most memorable to me, was “The Debate,” which pitted Leslie Knope (Amy Phoeler) against her political opponents in a half-hour that deftly skewered both real-world politics and those of this daffy small town in Indiana.
Even if the show is never again quite as good as it was a few years ago, I will always cherish it, since no other show on the air matches my idealistic political heart. Leslie Knope is an avatar for everything good and decent in American democracy. She is an indomitable go-getter who has devoted her entire life to serving the people of her hometown to the fullest. She cares not a whit for profit or vainglory, only for the chance to help make life better in the town that she loves so dearly. We should all be so lucky to have one such elected official in real life.
This is another series that didn’t quite measure up to its past successes this year. Season 2 of Justified was my favorite drama of 2011; a lean, thrilling, and thoughtful neo-Western about the price of blood, wealth, and loyalty in the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky. Since exquisite antagonist Mags Bennet (Emmy-winner Margo Martindale) died at the end of season 2, it was obvious that Justified would need to do something to up the ante. The creative team decided to do so by throwing everything up in the air, turning meth-addled Harlan into the most violent criminal landscape this side of Ciudad Juarez. Several criminal elements tried to muscle in on the territory once dominated by Mags Bennet, with Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, giving my favorite performance on TV) standing in the middle and trying to maintain some sense of stability.
Much of the chaotic violence in season 3 came from Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a lieutenant of the Detroit mafia who thinks he can shoe-horn his way into Kentucky and quickly turn it into a profitable franchise for his bosses back home. When his plans crumble and his psychosis takes hold, he becomes a loose cannon, dedicated to destroying as much as he can before the end. Such reckless violence stands in direct opposition to the legally sanctioned violence of enforcement that Raylan personifies, so their (incredibly tense) conflict plays out over the course of the season.
Underneath the shocking violence and witty dialogue, Justified is a show about the weights we carry. In season 3, the weight carried by every major element at war within Harlan was the weight of expectations, guilt, and anger that come with blood ties. The people of Harlan have been there so long, and their feuds have lasted so many generations, that men like Raylan and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) are truly born bearing the weight of generations of bad blood, and spend their whole lives wrestling with that burden. Justified‘s plot got a little too busy at times to linger on that idea in season 3, but when it came to the fore in the finale, the whole show snapped into focus and cemented itself among the best dramas on the air.
It was a very tumultuous year for the denizens of Greendale Community College. No other show currently on the air inspires as much cultish devotion as Community (no, not even Glee), and no cultishly devoted fanbase was more abused for its devotion. Community disappeared from NBC’s schedule for three months, faced down cancellation, and eventually had its showrunner and primary creative voice fired. It’s back this fall with a 13-episode order, but time may be running short for this gem of a show.
Oh, and while all that drama was going on, Community remained one of the best, most vital comedies on the air. Never a show that was content to be even remotely the same thing from week to week, season 3 saw Community flying all over popular culture with gags, one-liners, and episode-length spoofs that hit their mark with remarkable accuracy. Individual episodes could be everything from investigations into the possibilities of chance (“Remedial Chaos Theory”), merciless takedowns of certain super-popular jukebox musical programs (“Regional Holiday Music”), spot-on recreations of venerable crime procedurals (“Basic Lupine Urology”), or my particular favorite, a Ken Burns-style documentary about a pillow fight between friends (“Pillows and Blankets”).
No show on a broadcast network is as daring as Community, and very few can match its heart. Even within all the zaniness that the series has made its stock and trade, moments of grace and emotional clarity are allowed to shine through. In the aforementioned pillow fight episode, the show’s protagonist, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), walks across campus and back to retrieve two imaginary hats in order to settle a dispute. It’s a ridiculous moment as I write it out here, but within the context of the episode, it felt something like a major emotional breakthrough for the show’s central character. It’s impossible to imagine any other show doing such a thing and pulling it off. The question for now is, with all these creative changes, will Community itself be able to do so going forward?
7. Game of Thrones
Television has never been this epic. In its first season Game of Thrones was a rich, frequently engrossing fantasy yarn, but one which spent more time building the deep and intricate world of Westeros than engaging in active storytelling. The end of season 1 was when the show blossomed, raising the emotional and physical stakes for the characters and viewers, as the apparent lead of the series was summarily executed. That level of energy, action, and daring was passed along to season 2, which kept up with a cast of dozens stretched all over a realm in the throes of a savage civil war.
As with season 1, the highlight of the show was consistently Tyrion Lannister (Emmy-winner Peter Dinklage), a shrewd and hilarious dwarf, who has been charged with taking the reins of power in a realm that would gladly see his head on the end of a pike. His efforts to assert political authority and ready the capital for defense from the Lannister’s many enemies formed the backbone of the season. Such efforts were consistently undermined by his sister, the conniving dowager Queen (Lena Headey), and nephew, the sniveling, evil boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Oh, and four other self-proclaimed kings and countless minor factions. Watching him (nearly) succeed made for great television.
Across the rest of the realm, viewers drop in on an exiled queen and her infant dragons, a band of warriors trying to defend the realm from unknown evil, rebel kings, an anonymous noble-born girl trying to escape captivity, and myriad others. It’s a vast endeavor for both the producers and viewers, but the payoff is satisfying in ways that usually eludes TV. The best example of this is the season’s penultimate episode, “Blackwater,” which focuses exclusively on the epic battle for the capital that will ultimately decide the war’s outcome. As thrilling and cinematic as the best war films, it effortlessly reduces an enormous and geographically complex battle into a character-driven battle of wills. Such ability to be both vast and intimate is a rare achievement in this medium, and one that shouldn’t be missed.
Sherlock is an anomaly on this list, the only selection that is not a full-length series. It’s some kind of hybrid between the mini-series and TV movie genres. A BBC-produced contemporary update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories, it was presented on PBS as three separate 90-minute films. Regardless of its format, Sherlock is just plain fantastic. Benedict Cumberbatch, who gave one of the best performance on TV this year, gets the role of Sherlock exactly right. He turns the famous detective into a high-functioning, tremendously observant genius who is utterly lacking in the basics of human empathy or emotional connection. As Dr. Watson, Martin Freeman plays the audience surrogate, always several steps behind Holmes’ thoughts, but willing to act as the more famous man’s bridge to the rest of the species.
Beyond nailing an incredibly difficult adaptation, Sherlock is also notable for its breathlessly entertaining visual style. TV has a strong tendency towards being a visually prosaic medium, constrained by small budgets, smaller sets, and limited risk-taking. More often than not even the best shows are made to get information with a minimum of visual fuss. Sherlock‘s odd production style frees it from these constraints, turning each episode into a forum for the creative team to show off.
Take for example, this season’s first episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” which centers on a high-priced dominatrix and her attempts to blackmail the British Royal Family. The episode’s complex plot is often disseminated not by characters speaking, but by divided frames, zoom-ins, and cutaways that reveal previously unseen details and perspectives. This complex mise-en-scene and editing is a brilliant way to portray the way that Holmes’ mind works, turning the everyday world into one rife with incriminating and illuminating details. Such invention is a hallmark of showrunner Steven Moffat, who is also up to some great fun doing much the same thing on Doctor Who. With Sherlock he has created a work that is as entertaining as anything else on television, without sacrificing quality or popularity. Quite the feat.
If I have a weakness as a serious-minded television viewer and amateur critic, it’s that I have a large appetite for less-than-serious shows. My wife always harangues me for not joining her in catching up on the many acclaimed dramas that I am far behind on. Often the reason I am so far behind on TV drama is that I spend endless hours watching and re-watching TV comedy. Such a preference is clearly seen now that I am ranking Archer, an utterly farcical animated spy spoof, over heavyweight dramas like Sherlock, Game of Thrones, and Justified. I couldn’t care less if this lessens my opinion to some, though, since Archer is too funny not rank highly on this list.
Since its inception Archer has essentially functioned as a joke-machine, spewing out puns, references, and wordplay at a stupefying pace. Showrunner Adam Reed cut his teeth as a writer and creator on Adult Swim, and that anything-for-a-joke sensibility is definitely carried over to this project.
For a joke-machine series to rank this high I need two things from it: consistency and hilarity, both of which Archer had in spades this year. By consistency, I mean that the world the show has created should not be changed on a whim to suit a joke. Essentially, no fighting giant chickens just because it’s funny. Now, “just because it’s funny” can be a decent rationale (see: Children’s Hospital), but it can often weaken the show as a whole by destroying any sense of continuity.
Archer passes this test with flying colors, albeit on its own terms. The world that the show occupies is undoubtedly a strange and alien one to us at home. It seems to be set in some weird mash-up of the ’60s and 2010s in which the Cold War is still active, and ridiculous scenarios are the accepted norm (thus, Pam (Amber Nash) being an underground street fighting champion). Despite this, Archer excels at creating stories and developing characters that work within the defined bounds of this fictional world. Take, for instance, the standout episode “Lo Scandalo,” which revolves around efforts to dispose of the body of a recently assassinated Italian Prime Minister. It’s played as a farce, of course, but the situation evolves from story and character points that were previously established, and no element of the episode seems unbelievable.
On the hilarity front, well, my writing here cannot do it justice and there is a stunning scarcity of clips on YouTube to demonstrate with. Suffice to say that Sterling Archer bellowing “HE REMEMBERS ME!” made me laugh so hard I fell off the couch. In my world, that’s about as high a compliment as a comedy can receive. No surprise then, that I consider this one of the best comedies on the air.
4. Happy Endings
This was the funniest show on TV. A year ago, I was barely even aware that Happy Endings existed, since it had a late-season debut around the same time as several other shows with much the same premise. The idea of yet-another Friends rehash about a bunch attractive, young people being funny in the big city was about as stale a concept as could be cooked up by a network, so I avoided it. Initially, Happy Endings seemed to vindicate my position. It’s first season is weighed down with a go-nowhere plot line about a failed marriage and striving too hard to have a breakout character. For whatever reason, ABC was pleased enough with that effort to bring it back for a second season, at which time the show promptly exploded.
I discovered the show quite on accident, since it was simply the show on after Modern Family and I could not look for something else since I was washing the dishes. But then as I scrubbed I kept finding myself laughing, and laughing hard, and then twisting around to catch the sight gags, and then I was just not doing the dishes anymore. The supremely silly plot about Eliza Coupe’s Jane trying to make her friends’ vision board dreams come true had me in stitches, and from there I was hooked.
Happy Endings actually isn’t all that different from the joke-machine style of Archer and its Adult Swim brethren. Each episode is crammed to the gills with joke upon joke upon joke, all delivered with crack timing or oddball technique by a cast that seems determined to be too weird to be as popular as their spiritual predecessors on Friends. Seemingly pedantic sitcom tropes are transformed by this squad of “criminals and sex addicts with terrible judgment” into fresh, lively humor.
It might not have the emotional heft of any of the other comedies on this list, but that didn’t matter much to me. The writing was so good, and the comic timing so precise, that I walked away from each episode feeling elated by its prodigious display of quality. Happy Endings is still a cult hit right now, but if you missed out on Arrested Development in its initial run and hate getting shit about it from your friends, then jump aboard this show. You’ll be able to rub their noses in missing out on Happy Endings in a couple of years.
I find it rather hard to write about this show. Luck is the collaboration between David Milch, the creator of Deadwood (my choice for best TV series ever), and Michael Mann, director of such films as Heat, The Insider, and Miami Vice. The central character is Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a newly paroled gangster, who is looking to take over the Santa Anita racetrack in order to exact a complicated vengeance. That racetrack is the fulcrum of the show’s universe, a miniature model of an America stumbling towards twilight. Populated by characters whose dreams, like Ace’s, seem like longshots at best, it’s a bracing and rich environment for an ambitious TV series.
In its execution, Luck was a show bursting with genius. Written with Milch’s expert pomp and virtuosity and visualized with Mann’s attention to detail and beauty in his mise-en-scene. It’s also a show that will live on in popular culture under a cloud of infamy. Three horses died during the series’ production, so Milch, Mann, and HBO pulled the plug on the series before its first season had even finished its run. My frustration with this eminently understandable decision actually lead to me not finishing the season. Hence the difficulties in writing about Luck.
Despite this, I cannot recommend what I have seen highly enough. It’s a difficult, challenging show, especially in its early goings. Like most HBO shows these days, Luck does not bother with much exposition. Instead, it throws us into the action, leaving it to the audience to suss out the motivations and connections of the many characters and factions. This abrupt style is eased by the classical conventions that underlie all of Milch’s writing on the show. Every episode begins around dawn, is anchored by a horse race in mid-day, and ends with the characters reflecting on the day’s actions in the evening. It’s not the rote plotting of Law & Order on this show, but the ageless rhythms of Greek drama or Shakespeare. This heightened, enlivened sensibility allows Luck to tread dramatic and thematic ground that few other works of art even try for. Underneath each character’s words, or each horses’ urgent footfalls, are eternal questions about chance and fate.
The series itself suffered an ill fate because of unhappy chance, which must have made Milch laugh at the sad irony. Real life illustrated his fictional theme, and the force of the series was at once amplified and extinguished.
TUNE BACK IN SOON FOR THE FINALE OF ALEX’S SEASON-IN-REVIEW