Monday, December 30, 2013

Best TV 2013

Well, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a bit of a dud.  I mean, I'm still watching it, it keeps me entertained for 60 minutes a week, but I can't see anyone really getting excited over it.  But there's plenty of stuff that we CAN get excited about.  Here are a dozen shows that I thoroughly enjoyed this year.

East Bound and Down (HBO) - Look, Breaking Bad stuck the landing perfectly, and Game of Thrones was awesome and all that, but THE most consistently entertaining show, the show that gave me more deep belly laughs than anything I've seen on TV in years, was East Bound.  Kenny Powers is one of the greatest TV characters of all time, not just because he's so over-the-top hysterical in his actions, but also because he's so horrifyingly believable.  Kenny is not just some weird goofy joke machine.  His actions, as repulsive and extreme as they are, are grounded in a sense of who he is.  If you've ever had to deal with a drug addict who hasn't gotten around to taking that first step yet, you've dealt with someone pretty much like Kenny Powers: someone who defines the world through the lens of their own narcissistic delusion, and insists that everyone else around them is wrong for not going along with it.

A Game of Thrones (HBO) - Yeah, Ye Olde Red Wedding was awesome, but that was really just one of about half a dozen awesome things that happened in this season: Daenaerys Targarian acquiring her army of unsullied, Varys' box o' conjurer, the fucking bear, and maybe best of all, Arya Stark's strange friendship with The Hound.  It's possible that A Game of Thrones is the most entertaining TV show in history.

Breaking Bad (AMC) - I didn't get around to doing one of these last year.  I was going to put Breaking Bad at the top of the list.  Beautiful follow through this year, with Walter White trying as hard as he can to avoid the redemption he finally seeks in the finale.  And it works mostly because they didn't attempt to make the redemption equal to the sin.  Walter's redemption is, first and foremost, admitting that it was never about the cancer, never about the money (as we all figured out long ago), and letting go of his ego and pride long enough to accept reality and try to so as much good as he can in the last hours of his life.Walter becomes, in his last hours, at least some shadow of the man he was telling us he was. And we end up with a show for the ages, one that I think we can safely put in the top 5 of the post-Sopranos era.

Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FX and FXX) - For much of the nerd webosphere, bemoaning cancelled shows and participating in doomed letter-writing campaigns to bring them back is pretty much a way of life.  I have to say, it's been a long, long time (Freaks & Geeks, maybe?) since I've really been that upset by a show going away. But the cancellation of Totally Biased, the best and most interesting new late night talk show since the Colbert Report debuted nearly a decade ago (!?!!?!), makes me angry, and all the more so because nobody else on earth seems to care (which, I suppose, is why the show was cancelled).  And, while some shows get to find new homes on other networks, I just don't see anywhere else where this show could really fit in.

Totally Biased was still in the process of finding its voice when it got cancelled, but it was already one of the funniest and most interesting programs on TV.  It's not as tightly focused as The Daily Show or Colbert, but that loose, woolly structure made it more fun.  Most of all, it had a perspective that was pretty much unlike anything else on TV.  While The Daily Show has done an admirable job promoting a diverse mix of correspondents over the years, there's no getting around the fact that the diversity seems like an afterthought, something being worked at, that at its core is a white male liberal perspective.  (Mind you, there's nothing really wrong with that.  When someone like Jon Stewart builds a show, he's going to hire the people that he considers the funniest people, and by nature that group is going to include mostly people who have a similar perspective to Jon Stewart.)  Kamau Bell has built a writers room (which doubles as his correspondent pool) that is diverse from the ground up, and feels naturally so.  And this paid off: the funniest bits on the show were consistently the bits (usually one per episode) where he let one of his writers have some stage time to rant about whatever topic inspired them.  These were very funny people who you just wouldn't normally see on TV, and I'm not just referring to their ethnicity (or gender, or orientation).  Just do an image search for Kevin Kataoka or Hari Kondabolu, and try to imagine either of them getting on Leno.  All of them are funny, but there is definitely a standout, the equivalent of what Colbert was when he was on the Daily Show, or what John Oliver is now, a performer with such star power that it's inevitable that she will eventually be hosting her own show: Janine Brito.  Charismatic, hyperactive and consistently hilarious, Brito upstaged Kamau Bell every time she was on (not a slight to Bell--a good host allows themselves to be upstaged).

But let me make this clear, as well: when I talk about the diversity, I'm not just talking about righting some social injustice.  There is an openness on the show that allows for real discussion from different points of view.  The "point/counterpoint" segments they held, including the discussion of rape jokes between Jim Norton and Lindy West was so different from the "conversations" you see on Chris Matthews, where two guys recite their talking points without really listening to what each other says.  And this extends to the one-on-one interviews Bell did, including a great one with Sarah Silverman, where she really seems to be wrestling with the implications of some of her meaner material.  Maybe FXX was not the ideal home for this series, aiming for that coveted 18-34 male demographic as it was.  Unfortunately, I don't really see anywhere else on the dial where something like this would do better.

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) - I put this one off for a while because I was so put off by the later seasons of creator Jenji Kohan's WeedsOrange, as it turns out, doesn't have the cutesy silliness that infects not only Weeds but so much of Showtime's lineup.  I could stand for it to be about 40% drier than it is, but taken on its own terms, it's a satisfying show.  I know there have been a few who criticized it for being a show about prison based around a white yuppy, using the tired fish-out-of-water motif, which is fair, but look at what they managed to smuggle in: a show with an overwhelmingly female cast, with characters who are women of color, queer, trans, and of every age and ethnic background, that gives each of these women a voice, while also highlighting the horrors of prison life.  Not to say that I'm watching the show because it's politically correct to do so, but I do think that structure, where each character gets their own backstory explored, makes for a hugely absorbing show.  It also does a great job of juggling comedy, tragedy and intrigue.  Also, Laura Preppon is, like, super hot.

Top of the Lake (IFC) - It's hard to even know what to write about this show, co-created by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss as a hard-nosed detective investigating the disappearance of a young, pregnant girl in a small New Zealand town that keeps its secrets close.  There is the expected stuff, of course: the female detective not being taken seriously by the local cops and whatnot.  But nothing plays out quite the way you expect it to.  This is maybe the overlooked gem of 2013 TV.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (TCM) - This 15-part series was originally made for BBC, but TCM aired it through the Fall of 2013, and I really think it's as useful a history of cinema as has ever been made, one that covers films from the entire planet, including brilliant filmmakers from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East that most people have never heard of, while still being able to give Robocop its due.  Watching this could pretty much substitute for your first semester of film school.

Arrested Development (Netflix) - OK, let me start by admitting that the actual laughs are far less frequent in this season than they were in the original run.  No comparison there.  But this wild formal experiment, filming a 13-episode run from a series of overlapping points of view in a Faulkner-meets-Tarantino style is one of the most audacious and witty things that has ever been done in episodic television.  Put another way: we know these characters now, we understand them, and we'll accept a lot more from them without going for a joke every 30 seconds.

Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) - I've always liked Schumer, but I have to say that my opinion of her has gone way up in the past year, both due to her stand up act and her hilarious sketch show, which mines the dark, vulnerable and sexual in exactly the way I like it.

American Horror Story: Coven (AMC) - I gave up on the original AHS after a few episodes, not so much because it was bad, but because I just had a lot going on at that point.  My TiVo didn't catch the Asylum season, since it had a different title.  But Coven, with it's girl's boarding school for witches in New Orleans setting hitting all my buttons at once, is SO AWESOME!  Coven achieves what True Blood keeps failing at: delivering a fun, trashy southern gothic soap opera with lots of kinky sex, gory violence and bizarre twists. It's completely ludicrous and nonsensical, and about 100 times more entertaining than The Walking Dead.

Treme (HBO) - I was going to stop at 10, but then these new episodes of Treme, little promoted and dumped into the holiday graveyard, started turning up on my TiVo.  And, as I discovered when the last episode began last night, this is the end of the show.  And since I didn't write about it last year, I'll write about the last two seasons here.

Anyone that gave up on the show after the second season should really go back and give it another chance, because it's been so much more on point through seasons 3 and 4.  The first season dealt with the immediate impact of the storm, the second season with the sort of city-wide PTSD left in its wake.  As I wrote after that second season, David Simon and his team are a little out of their element when they try to depict something as ethereal as the creative process among musicians.  But in the third season, the city is on the slow road to recovery, and the rot of corruption has set in, the grifters have descended on the city like vultures, and Simon and company are right in their wheelhouse.  And as chef Jannette and fiddler/singer Annie both get entangled with corporate entities, the temptation and corruption makes for some great drama.  Plus, you have what's always been the major strength of the show: great actors doing great work, and a backdrop of amazing music.  Even when the show doesn't work, the music makes it worth tuning in.  I can't really be too sad it's over.  It probably only lasted this long because of HBO's desire to contnue working with David Simon.  But I really enjoyed it while it lasted.

The Jeselnik Offensive (Comedy Central) - Since I've gone past 10, I might as well make it an even dozen, right?  I can't really decide what I think of Anthony Jeselnik.  I'm not sure why, out of all the possibilities, you'd want to dedicate your life to being a "shock comic" in an age where nobody can really be shocked any more, to doing shallow one-liners about horrible tragedies and human suffering.  But having said that, Jeselnik does it well.  I mean, his nasty little jokes are at least well-structured and thought out, and I find myself laughing more often than not.  His show, like his act, can be tiring, but with a strong roster of big-name comics participating, he managed to produce some pretty good late night entertainment.

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