I watched more great TV in the past season than I can ever remember doing before. This is a big, bold statement, essentially saying that the best of TV in the past 12 months stands up to the best of any other such period, ever. But, hey, I lead with it, so I stand by it. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of what is current, great, and vital to American popular culture right now, turn on your TV (or download lots of videos off the Internet, as I too often did).
So, without much ado I want to get on to the listing and such. There will be two distinct parts to this article: first, the list of my picks for the top ten programs that aired from June 2011 to June 2012. Each show will get a brief write-up arguing my case for it, and the top two will get another, longer article devoted to them soon. I will also call out what programs deserve an honorable mention, and those that I missed and should not have — you can all take me to task for that. After that I will go through and list of some of the individuals or specific episodes that deserve a special mention outside of the list. Enjoy!
Honorable Mentions: These were the shows that I kept up with this year, but fell outside the top ten for one reason or another. Rest assured they are all well worth your time
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
I’m not sure when exactly I started drifting over to The Late Late Show, but in the past two years or so it has become an essential part of my nightly routine. No other traditional talk show comes close to matching the energy or spirit of Ferguson’s delightfully strange show. Whether it’s arguing with his gay robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff, flying off to Paris and Scotland for week-long vacation episodes, or ritually tearing up his note cards before each interview so that he can just have a conversation with the guest, Ferguson is dramatically enlivening a very stale genre. Conan still has sympathy, Fallon has the best music on TV, and the duo of Letterman and Leno have audiences on lockdown, but for my money there’s no one on late night who can match Craig Ferguson.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart / The Colbert Report
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|World of Class Warfare – The Poor’s Free Ride Is Over|
Somehow, these two mainstays have been so excellent for so long that it’s become easy to forget how vital they are. No one in America speaks truth to power and calls out flagrant bullshit better than these shows and I would frankly be terrified for our democracy if they were to disappear. With the Presidential election imminent, these two will certainly be as relevant, and bitingly hilarious, as ever.
I have to admit, this is one of those shows I have seen almost none of. I caught the premiere back in April, but have yet to watch anything beyond that. So why is this on the Honorable Mentions list and not the Not Seen list? Because that pilot was fan-freaking-tastic, and this show dominated the online conversation like few other shows are capable of. I’m behind the times with Girls, but that doesn’t mean that you all should be. Go watch it!
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Folks are always surprised when I call this the most morally upstanding series on television, and I can see why. This is a series that wallows in America’s worst impulses, spending all of its time with a sextet of awful, shallow, perverse, and degenerate white trash from South Philly. It’s also darkly hilarious in a way that would surely shock many sensibilities, such as ending this past season’s premiere with a minute-long shot of the Gang abandoning a dead hooker in the hallway of a rundown apartment building while Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman plays. So why is it consistently the most moral show on TV? Because those idiots never learn, never grow, and are consistently punished for their transgressions. It would be depressing if it weren’t so hilarious, and the Gang so damn likable despite being horrible people.
Have you ever wanted to spit your lunch all over your keyboard at work from laughing? This is the show that will do it for you. Its basic concept is a just a spoof of medical TV shows, but in practice it’s a canvas for some of the funniest people in Hollywood to throw as many weird jokes at the wall as they can in 11 minutes. In one season this show juggled a backstory that spans decades and makes no damn sense, a ward of psychotic killer children, and sending part of the cast and crew to Rio for a 20-second joke. It makes no sense, but who needs sense when you are this freaking funny.
Whenever I think of Veep, HBO’s new, foul-mouthed, and deeply cynical political satire, I contrast it with Parks and Recreation. Both are about over-achieving and powerful women in the male-dominated world of government. The distinction between the shows comes from their utterly divergent views about how government, and the people doing the governing, works. Parks and Rec is a hopeful show, presenting at its core a vision of unity and good governance. Veep, from the mind of Armando Iannucci, stakes out the opposite ground. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer spends her days perpetually frustrated with her powerlessness, engaging in petty power struggles and fighting hopeless battles to make some small name for herself. Every episode has a moment where she asks her secretary if the President has called and the answer is always “…nope.” It’s the perfect moment for a show that probably gets the reality of politics better than anything else on the air.
30 Rock/Modern Family/How I Met Your Mother
This is where I get lazy and just throw all the other sitcoms that I still like into a pile together. I’ve written before on the Recorder about this past season of HIMYM, so probably no need to rehash that here. 30 Rock and Modern Family together are the last 5 Emmy winners for Best Comedy Series, so they have quite the pedigree, even if I don’t think they belong on top of the pile these days. While I don’t think either show ever truly made me laugh out loud this season, they were pleasant enough, and, well, that’s fine.
I’ve heard Downton Abbey described as being the UK’s equivalent to Mad Men, and I think I can understand the comparison. Both are sumptuous period shows that feature large casts, ‘civilized’ power struggles, and interactions with historical events and societal changes. So why is Downton Abbey here while Mad Men makes the main list? Part of it may be distance, since I am much closer, in both time and culture, to the characters and events on Mad Men. Beyond that, though, I think I find Downton too… simple. It is gorgeous to look at, and features excellent writing and acting, but it never makes me think like Mad Men or other great American dramas do. It seems like a doll house play, rather than a vital drama. Still well worth the watching, but perhaps not essential.
Not Seen: Despite the best efforts of my wife and my own inherent laziness, there were prominent TV series that I did not see this year. All the shows mentioned here are wildly acclaimed by TV critics, so check ’em out:
The Good Wife
INDIVIDUAL AWARDS: Where I talk about the best individual acting, episodes, and moments from the TV season. A note about the acting mentions — I’m not going to do ‘lead’ or ‘supporting’ distinctions. Instead, I will just talk about my favorite performances as defined by gender and genre. Also, I find writing about acting to be rather boring in general, so… hopefully that won’t show.
Comedy Actor: Jim Rash – Community
This is a category of ridiculous riches this year, as it seems to be almost every year. So it may seem sort of odd that I am picking Rash as my favorite, a fringe performance by an actor who was only promoted to series regular this past year. Thing is, I don’t know that there is anyone who does more work with the little, strange bits he is given. Jim Rash has turned Greendale Community College’s Dean Pelton into a character that is both a ridiculous comedy type and a believable character. He is odd, yet innocent; sexually curious, yet somehow chaste; striving to be better, even as he is chased by fears of failure. Honestly though, I think I give Rash this award because it’s become impossible to imagine Community without him.
Comedy Actress: Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation
Honestly, this award is all but automatic for me at this point. This is the third year in a row that Amy Poehler was my favorite in this category, and she shows no signs of slacking off. Before Parks and Recreation hit its stride in the fall of 2009 I had been sort of cool towards Poehler. Her aggressive comedy style on SNL had never quite caught my attention, and none of her other work seemed to match her sterling reputation. All of that changed when Parks and Rec changed her Leslie Knope from a female Michael Scott (i.e., a bumbling incompetent savant), to an effortlessly effective civil servant.
Poehler still manages to find and hit all the weird little grace notes in Leslie, but in my estimation she is the most admirable character on TV. She can be very, very funny, but so much of my affection for this performance comes from the fact that Poehler (as Knope) is the selfless, civic-minded, endlessly generous, and deeply caring person that every American should want in government.
Drama Actor: Timothy Olyphant – Justified
Timothy Olyphant’s performance as Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens on Justified feels like it is carving out a new archetype in American popular culture. The lawman in Westerns and cop shows (Justified is some of both) has often been a simple role at its most basic level. They are there to dispense justice, and must do so righteously or selfishly. It’s been white hat or black hat, regardless of the badge, essentially. On Justified, Olyphant’s Givens has been a different type of protagonist from the very start. He is a crack shot, a good detective, and deeply committed to being righteous in meting out justice — which makes him a good Marshall. He is also sardonic, willing to shirk responsibility, cavalier in his sexual relationships, inexorably immersed in the criminal culture of Kentucky due to his blood ties — which makes him something of a questionable person.
What mixes all of that together and drives him in every moment was succinctly described in the series pilot by his ex-wife, when she called him “the angriest man I know.” Raylan is exactly that. A man possessed by a rage that spans decades, and which he only usually has under control. His efforts as a lawman are an effort to work out all of that anger, use it as a weapon against the criminals that seep out of the hills in coal country. Even with such efforts being for the cause of law and order, Raylan is still the most dangerous man in Kentucky. Much of the show’s pleasure derives from Olyphant’s expert performance, which plays all of that just below the surface. It is a performance of exacting cool and control, but which always seems just a moment away from slipping over the brink.
Drama Actress: Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Christina Hendricks has become something of a minor media sensation the past few years. She has seemingly parlayed her role as office do-it-all Joan Harris on Mad Men into being the new image of the old bombshell type. She graces magazine covers, pops up in acclaimed films, and generally seems to remind the world of how gorgeous a curvy woman can be.
What had been overshadowed in the midst of all that attention is that Hendricks consistently gives an outstanding performance on Mad Men. Not at all a vacuous and manipulating bimbo, as her character was first conceived, she instead imbibes Joan with the cunning wit and deep ambition that combine to make Joan into a model for successful femininity in the boys’ club world of Mad Men. Despite this accomplishment and success, Joan cannot escape her sex, or sexual power, in such a world of masculine prerogative.
In season five, Joan was asked to give up both her home’s stability and her moral virtue in order to continue climbing towards the glass ceiling. She ends the season a full partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but the cost that is exacted from her in the episode The Other Woman, is as daunting and deadening as anything within the show’s universe. Mad Men is a show about what we are willing to do as a society and individuals in order to achieve happiness. Joan’s arc this past season played out that scenario in explicit terms, and Hendricks proved herself utterly capable of carrying that hefty thematic weight.
Comedy Episode: “Eddie” – Louie
Louie is bigger than a TV comedy. It has never been an easily categorized show, but in season two it seemed determined to leave all categorization behind. Given utter freedom over a low-budget series’ form and content, Louis C.K. has cranked out his treatise on life itself.
No episode better represents that mix of formal freedom and revelatory content better than “Eddie.” It centers on an unexpected reunion between Louie and a friend from his first days on the comedy circuit. Said friend, the titular Eddie, was always more bitter and caustic than Louie, and his career tanked into an endless series of roadshows in slum bars, while Louie’s soared into something like notoriety. In the episode Eddie spends some time reconnecting with Louie, taking him out drinking and visiting painfully bad amateur stand-up shows in Brooklyn. As they stumble drunkenly from that show, Eddie informs Louie that he plans to commit suicide via overdose the next day. On a dark sidestreet in the middle of the New York night, with the city lights twinkling in the distance, Louie excoriates his former friend for both this determination to destroy himself and his apparent desire to lay some measure of guilt about it on Louie’s conscience.
A description doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a scene as honest and unvarnished as anything I have ever seen. Louis C.K.’s comedy arises from an acerbic sort of truth-telling, giving voice to ideas that are universal but too disgusting, selfish, or petty to ever be spoken of. In his series, and this episode in particular, he has amplified that truth-telling into a vision of life as it is lived. Not as an easily digested story or repeatable maxim, but as a daily struggle for happiness, connection, meaning, and understanding. Most days are a miss, and the nights can seem endless and disorienting, but dawn comes again and here we are.
Best Drama Episode: “Far Away Places” – Mad Men
If Louie has any competition when it comes to formal daring on television it is Mad Men, and the best evidence of that from this past season was the stellar “Far Away Places.” Plopped in the middle of the season, it is an episode that manages to take audiences to wholly unexpected destinations while still utterly nailing the central theme of the series.
“Far Away Places” is a fragmentary episode, showing the events of a single day and night from the perspective of three of Mad Men‘s leads: Peggy Olsen, Roger Sterling, and Don Draper. What sets the episode apart is that it does not intercut between these events simultaneously as would be expected. Instead, we see each character’s arc in turn, first Peggy, then Roger, and finally Don. All three start their day at the same time and place in the SCDP offices, so the audience gets to know the rhythms of those shared moments before being utterly disoriented by the wildly disparate directions that the three characters head in. Instead of spending hundreds of words detailing the character’s specific actions I will just refer you here.
What struck me so deeply about this episode was its ability to use difficult, self-conscious storytelling devices as a method to elucidate the underlying themes of the episode and series. One of Mad Men‘s fundamental concerns is the pursuit of happiness that is built into the very fabric of American society, and how we go about that pursuit. The fifth season as a whole, and this episode in particular, asked the audience to consider the role that the passage of time plays in that pursuit.
In “Far Away Places” Peggy, Roger, and Don begin their day with no conception of where it will go or what they will ultimately do, but all of them are motivated in some regard by a desire for greater happiness in their lives. Peggy acts out because she is unhappy with her boyfriend and wants the pleasure of freedom. Roger goes to the acid party because he knows his marriage is failing and wants to engender some more happiness between himself and his wife. Don drags Megan along on a long road trip against her wishes because he wants to maintain the bubble of happiness that comes from being in the first blushes of a relationship. All three of them wind up in surprising, and darker, places by pursuing their own idea of happiness; destinations far different than those they set out for. Even over the course of a single day, all three saw time pass by, and with it chances at unknown joys or unexpected pleasures in places far away from what they found. By the next dawn they were still only passengers on a trip they could not control, but with a destination known. Time pressed on, death moved closer, and happiness was eternally out of their control.
BEST SCENES: Yup, I still have more to say about TV before I even get to an actual list. To close out this article I want to leave you with the individual moments or scenes that I thought were most exemplary on TV this year. I will have a winner and runner-up for comedy and drama, with some slight explanation of each. After that, I will just get out your way and let you enjoy some fine TV.
Comedy Scene Mention: “HE REMEMBERS ME!” – Archer
There’s not a clip of this on YouTube?! Really!? Internet, you have failed me!
Comedy Scene Runner-up: Brad Visits the Dentist – Happy Endings
Happy Endings is a delightfully, deliriously silly show that exploded in its second season into being the most purely funny show on the air. Most of its hilarity comes from the absolutely packed scripts, which drop more great jokes per minute than any other live action show I’m aware of. Once in a while though, ABC would free up some money and the show would go straight over the top. This was the king of such moments, a wonderfully hilarious dance number where Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.) visits the dentist. Why is he dancing when he enters? Because he has an impeccable dental record, so good that the office gave him a plaque for never having plaque. When this first aired I laugh so hard I lost my breath.
Comedy Scene of the Year: The Gang’s Dance at their High School Reunion – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Ugh, that clip doesn’t even come close to doing this scene justice. Sunny is a vehicle built for humiliating ‘the gang’ at the show’s center, it’s just that the gang is too dumb or self-involved to actually feel embarrassed. This just makes their awful humiliations even funnier, somehow, and they really topped themselves with the seventh season finale. In the episode, the gang is at their high school reunion and have reverted to form, which is to say they are again being treated like low-life social pariahs. Their final, desperate attempt to win their classmates respect and affection is a gigantic dance number (am I sensing a pattern here?) performed at the end of the night. It all seems to be going amazingly well, the lights are cool, the crowd is into it, and the dance is kicking. Until Fat Mac rips his shirt open and reality re-enters the picture. Again, I laughed so hard at this that I had a sore throat the next day. Consider yourself warned.
Drama Scene Runner-up: Bobby Quarles Disarmed – Justified
There is no clip of this, either. FX must keep everything locked up very tight.
In any case, Justified is a show that knows its way around finales. Season one ended with an apocalyptic episode that culminated in an Old West-style shootout. Season two’s finale was an absolute gut-punch, with Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett saying she was, “Gettin to see my boys again. Get to know the mystery.” So Graham Yost and company had their work cut out for them with the third finale, and lived up to their reputation.
The episode climaxes in a rural slaughterhouse, where Detroit mob psychopath Bobby Quarles is trying to extract cash from a leader of Harlan’s black enclave and Deputy Marshall Givens is trying to keep his hide on. Things go awry, as they often do in Harlan, shots are fired, cleaver brandished, and then… Quarles is literally disarmed. The sight is as shocking and electrifying as anything I saw on TV last year, and helps the finale bring home a sometimes muddled third season.
Drama Scene of the Year: Horse Race from Episode Four – Luck
David Milch has had some pretty terrible luck in the past half-decade. Despite being arguably the best writer in TV history, he has had trouble getting his work to the screen. First Deadwood was cancelled over a budget dispute, then John from Cincinnati was… whatever it was. Luck, his collaboration with film auteur Michael Mann seemed destined for great things before numerous fatal accidents involving the show’s equine performers resulted in Milch and Mann pulling the plug before the first season had even finished airing.
Despite all these setbacks, Milch created some amazing stuff in the ten short episodes of Luck, and for my money nothing was better than the race sequence that anchored Episode Four. As directed by Philip Noyce, it’s a bravura expression of the ecstatic, transcendent, miraculous, transfixing magnificence of life itself. I showed it to one of my classes this past semester, and we spent the next hour discussing the relationship between sports and religious-style ecstasy. Such a relationship is very real to me (I live it every autumn with the Michigan Wolverines), and nothing has ever nailed it as beautifully as this scene. Milch and Mann won’t get to make any more episode of Luck, but we should all be grateful that they produced what they did. No moment on TV was better this past year.
PART TWO OF ALEX’S SEASON-IN-REVIEW