Sunday, December 23, 2012

Best TV of 2012

Another topic I know not much about, but I'm gonna throw my hat into the ring. Here are my favorite TV shows of the past year. Much has been written in the past few years about how the locus of good writing has moved from cinema to television, and this I cannot disagree with. The quality of TV in the past ten years has been pretty incredible. Critics seem to date it to The Sopranos and then The Wire (for pay cable) and Lost (for network TV) but I have not seen any of those shows. For me, the first indication that TV might be amazing was Six Feet Under which ran from 2001 to 2005 on HBO. Of course, I didn't watch it when it originally aired but caught up on DVD sometime in its twilight years, but what a ride that was. And unlike 90% of TV, it ended on the highest possible note with a hugely emotional but not saccharine series finale.

My favorite shows of the past year were:

10. The Walking Dead (AMC, Season 3, Part 1): OK, stop right here. Let me be clear right up front: Season 2, which aired in 2011-2012 was execrable, just hideous, one of the worst imaginable runs of television created in recent memory. There was nothing redeeming about it. So the bar was set extremely low when Season 3 began in October of this year. And it wasn't half bad. In fact, it was actually pretty good and I looked forward to the show every week. In many important ways, the TV show has clearly diverged from its source novel, The Walking Dead graphic novel series (which began in 2003 and has gone 105+ issues so far). For starters, the TV version is not quite as dark or nihilistic. But without that darkness, the creators of the TV show resorted to blathering navel-gazing for much of Season 2. Thankfully, they finally chucked all the existential bullshit and went for taut action-filled episodes with lots of plot movement. And the results have been surprisingly good. Or maybe because the bar had been set so low that I'm willing to cut the show some slack. Hard to tell. But I will be watching when the final episodes of Season 3 air early next year.

9. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz, Season 2): Let me be clear once again: We do not look to Spartacus as the erudite sequel to I, Claudius or some other upper crust British TV serial. No, we look to it for gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence. Who knew that violence could be so artfully displayed in slow motion CGI? The slo mo trajectory of splattered blood is a thing of beauty, or so it seems. That being said, the writers of the show know how to tell a compelling story of betrayal, betrayal, and much more betrayal. What is loyalty, after all, if it can never be betrayed? Liam McIntyre has replaced the late Andy Whitfield, but since I was never attached to Whitfield's portrayal, it didn't make much difference to me. We all know how this story ends, but it's hard to avert our eyes away from the glorious debauchery of this series.

8. 30 Rock (NBC, Season 6): How can this show still be funny? I don't know. I only have the following clip:

7. Parks and Recreation (NBC, Season 4): Parks and Recreation was always the mirror image of The Office. Both enjoy the conceit that they are basically documentaries about work. But where The Office was a show about intra-office dysfunction in the private sector, P and R focused on the public sector, and this makes the show a biting critique about the slow collapse of public funding and support in small town America. But really, that's beside the point. You don't have to give a shit about politics to see the funny here. The irony (or the genius, if you will) of the show is that the principal ideological conscience of the show is one Ron Swanson, who is basically to the right of Ayn Rand in the economic conservatism spectrum. Ron Swanson is also the funniest sitcom character since Col. Henry Blake on M.A.S.H.

6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 2): A slow burner of a show but definitely worth the investment. This is America in the post-Great War period--a show in the grand tradition of Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, one of the first and greatest TV min-series', broadcast in the 1970s. Every episode of Boardwalk Empire was pretty much a shocker and none no more than the Season 2 finale in which one of the central characters meets a bloody end. One wonders whether life on coastal New Jersey in the early 1920s was really this violent, but that's not really the point. Powerful people have always equated justice with violence, and often conflated the two. When you add greed into it--it was the Prohibition era after all--you get characters who were literally building Henry Luce's "American Century" with their bare hands (and sometimes with guns and crowbars).

5. Downton Abbey (PBS, Series 2): Julian Fellowes, of Gosford Park fame, continues to maintain the high level of Season 1 as the series moved on into the tail end of the Great War and into 1920. I had this momentary idea that the producers of Boardwalk Empire (see my no. 6) and Downton Abbey would do a crossover season, since they're both around 1920, but alas that was too much to hope for. Historical fiction can be done extremely poorly because presentiment always colors any kind of plot. (Teleology for all you historians.) In Downton Abbey, you know of course, that the Great War was awful and you know that it will end some day (1919, to be precise) but Fellowes manages to transcend these "historical moments" to illuminate the daily lives of the rich and the poor and those in between. Regardless of our station in life, we all love and hurt, apparently. No, but seriously, this is an extremely well-written show about the English upper class and their servants that is neither gratuitous nor boring. Sure, it skirts being a soap opera but that's not a bad thing here. Can't wait for Season 3.

4. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Stephen Colbert continues to be a comedic genius. I don't even know how to write anything meaningful about him. He has created a meta universe. I find it both funny and incredibly scary that Wikipedia has entries not only on Stephen Colbert (the real person) but also an entirely separate page for Stephen Colbert (the character).

3. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 2): A bit like Lord of the Rings in its ambition to create an entire fictional universe, Game of Thrones (the TV show) continues to maintain its superlative standards. It's not just the high production values, but that the characters are all fleshed out, the acting is generally superb, and the pacing is never lacking. (Take note: Walking Dead, another TV show drawn from the written word). The second season upped the ante significantly with several parallel stories, some that explicitly intersect and some (the whole narrative with Jon Snow as part of the Night's Watch as they venture beyond the Wall) that don't. But for me, the joy of watching Game of Thrones is less about the political intrigues and shifting alliances (which in itself are fascinating) than really, to see..... just what happens next! And that, I think is really the best reason to watch anything on TV. For those who are still on the fence about Game of Thrones because it's "fantasy," yes, it is! Think of it as high political intrigue---a game of royal chess---invested with emotion at the very smallest, personal levels, with the occasional detour into "Where are my dragons???!!"

2. Mad Men (AMC, Season 5): I was one of those who thought Season 3 and 4 of Mad Men didn't measure up to the halcyon heights of the first two seasons. But Season 5, the one that they showed in 2012, was unbelievable. It may have been the best season of the show so far. Every episode of this show is written like a mini movie, something so artful that you forget you're watching a TV show. One of the defining aspects of the show has always been how the writers balance the 'real' history of the 1960s with what they show every episode. We know, after all, all the obvious cliched touchstones of the mid-1960s, but where hack writers would have invoked every single 1960s milestone in heavy-handed tones, Mad Men writers have expertly negotiated this minefield in subtle and unexpected ways. The 'real' 1960s was like any other decade, intensely personal struggles amid immense changes. And as the show reminds us, the dirty secret of the 1960s was that the 1950s survived for a very long time well into the 1960s. Don Draper is an (im)perfect epitomy of that. We know the 'future' is coming, and the premonition of that was shown artfully in the following clip from the episode "Lady Lazarus," one of the best of an incredible season. I have never ever heard a Beatles song in any TV show or movie so it was every bit as jarring as one might expect (and expensive):

1. Breaking Bad (AMC, Season 5, Part 1): This was over the top brilliant. One of my favorite TV shows of all time, for sure. The first 8 episodes of Season 5 set up the denouement of the entire series, as Walter White, our erstwhile protagonist, moved ever so slow further and further into the dark recesses of the human condition. Where he began the series as a befuddled middle-aged man incapable of asserting himself in even the most banal of circumstances, we see now a man who defines his own morality, one who is willing to kill to maintain what he sees as his tenuous sense of order. I think that's been one of my favorite aspects of the show, the evolution of a central character on a TV show from its moral center to one who is unmoored from any sense of conventional moral obligations. He will do anything to preserve his life. The question, it seems, for the remaining episodes of the series (to air in the summer of 2013) is how that will affect his family, his wife, his son, and his sometime associate Jesse Pinkman. Undoubtedly, one or some of them will not make it out of the show alive, but the question is not who, but how. This show is like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment brought down to disposable pop culture levels; soon we will see how our New Mexico-based Raskolnikov will fare in this minefield of blurred moral choices.


Anonymous said...

Great list! I'll be using this one as the foundation for my own list when I do a write up in the next couple of weeks.

Patrick McCray said...

Asif - No "Homeland"??? For shame...

spaceman said...

True, I missed Homeland, but I'm one of of those who somehow missed watching it. But I am told, it's great writing.

Anonymous said... great and great tele.