Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Televisuology 2011

Before we begin this long-delayed list of my favorite shows of 2011, let me briefly talk about the shows that were on my 2010 list, that aired in 2011 but that didn't make the list this year.

The Daily Show/The Colbert Report - Mostly, I'm considering these shows to have retired their jerseys. Last year, I thought they were both exceptionally good, so I brought them out of retirement, and in election year 2012 I may end up doing so again, but their greatness was routine in 2011, even though they were probably better than most of the shows that did make my list.

Bored to Death - Yeah, this show's OK, not really great or anything. I'm certainly not complaining that it got cancelled.

The Green Room with Paul Provenza - There was another season of this, and it was equally great. I might be writing a little bit about it later. I just tried to make room for some newer stuff on the list.

True Blood - After going full-on crazy in 2010, this show completely lost it in 2011. The plot lines were so ridiculous, the characters stretched so thin, that it just stopped being fun. Sorry, guys, even the Vampire SWAT Team Armed With Bazookas didn't work for me.

1. Louie

No problem figuring out what show takes the #1 position this year. As great as the first season of Louis CK's half-hour sitcom was, season 2 topped it easily, and in this era of riskier, more unconventional sitcoms, somehow manages to make everything before it look old fashioned. There were so many great moments this season that it's hard to figure out what to focus on. One thing I like, in fact, is the show's refusal to just be one thing. The black and white, dialogue-free ride on the subway, for instance, had very little to do with anything else on the show, but it was one of the most captivating things I watched this year (T.V., movies, sunsets, anything else), with the scuzziness of NYC expressed through a Tati-like visual poem.

There were three episodes that stuck out to me as exceptional. One was Louie's encounter with Joan Rivers, where she gives him sound advice on navigating the world of showbiz. That doesn't sound all that funny, but Jesus, her line about Betty White slayed me. Another great episode was, of course, "Ducklings," a strange, shaggy story about performing with the U.S.O. in Afghanistan. It was touching, funny, and felt so real that I accepted even the slightly far-fetched plot elements. But the one that stuck with me the most, the one that I keep thinking about, was the episode guest-starring the famously misanthropic comic Doug Stanhope. Doug plays an old friend of Louie's, a road comic committing slow suicide through alcoholism, who functions as a devil from Louie's subconscious. Near the end, he tells Louie that he plans to kill himself, and Louie tries to talk him out of it. Stanhope turns every argument Louie makes back on him, accusing (or revealing?) Louie of being full of shit, of wanting to play the role of his savior, of basically being as rotten and unhappy as Stanhope. It's like watching someone's internal dialogue with the most destructive interior voice play out on a screen. It's actually painful to watch, and yet still one of the funniest things I saw all year.

2. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is about the corruption of Walter White, and that corruption, the way it spreads and infects everyone he comes in contact with, is the central mystery of the show. Who is this guy, who goes through his entire life as a mild mannered chemistry teacher, then suddenly becomes a ruthless, criminal mastermind? How did that happen? I'm going to invoke some voices besides my own in this, because a lot of writers who are much smarter than I am have taken on the question this year. Chuck Klosterman, for example:

This is where Breaking Bad diverges from the other three entities. Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. When the show began, that didn't seem to be the case: It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man (Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston) forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That's the elevator pitch. But that's completely unrelated to what the show has become. The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man "bad" — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. And because this is television — because we were introduced to this man in a way that made him impossible to dislike, and because we experience TV through whichever character we understand the most — the audience is placed in the curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good. And this is not a case like J.R. Ewing or Al Swearengen, where a character's over-the-top evilness immediately defined his charm; this is a series in which the main character has actively become evil, but we still want him to succeed. At this point, Walter White could do anything and I would continue to support his cause. In fact, his evolution has been so deft that I feel weird describing his persona as "evil," even though I can't justify why it would be incorrect to do so.

I think Klosterman's point about how this is not really a show about a guy who starts manufacturing meth to pay for his cancer treatments is a key point. The initial drive for Walt to begin cooking seems more ego driven to me. Yes, he needs money to pay for his treatments. He also needs to prove that he is a "provider" to his family, not leaving nothing behind for them (Skylar could probably manage OK without him, but this would not gratify his ego). He turns down a job at a pharmaceutical firm that he feels is being offered him as charity. It's not a hand out--they're asking him to work for his money--but his pride causes him to refuse.

Last year, I argued that the decision to, as Klosterman says, become a "bad person" was simply the inevitable result of his decision to make money illegally. This is true when you look at that first murder, but as things go on, I think Walt is getting more out of this situation than money.

Amanda Marcotte has a different take on Walt:

Klosterman is just dead wrong about this. The show isn't about Walt becoming bad when he used to be good. The show is about how Walt is becoming the evil person he always was, but until now has managed to hide from everyone, including himself. The show isn't about how people can fundamentally change. It's more about the conflict between what is expected of someone versus what someone really, truly is. Walt is a fundamentally bad person who has managed to front his whole life because he lived an average, suburban life that made being good easier than being bad. Jesse, on the other hand, is a fundamentally decent person who is stuck in a criminal underworld and he's simply not emotionally cut out for it. Walt is becoming more himself. Jesse is falling apart because the choices he makes are in conflict with who he is.

The show drops frequent hints that Walt has always been an asshole, but he managed to get by without people noticing because people's mental image of an asshole doesn't encompass the nerdy professor type. But let's look at the evidence:

1) Walt's high school students dislike him strongly. It's suggested he's a bad teacher because he's imperious, disdainful and easily bored. Jesse's initial reactions to him confirm this.

2) We don't know how Walt's business dealings fell through, but we've since learned that he's a self-pitying sort, and so the self-pity he feels about how all that went down could very well be evidence that he brought it on himself.

3) As Alyssa notes, the most distressing thing that Walt does routinely on the show is he abuses Jesse. He gives Jesse just enough reason for Jesse to love him and want his approval, but he also keeps Jesse dependent and afraid, so he can control him. There are hints that this is a pattern with Walt. After all, he's married to a much-younger woman who is a bored housewife, and his first inclination when things go south for him is to withhold information from her and try to control her. I think we're supposed to imagine that Walt was initially attracted to Sklyar---maybe she was a student of his?---because he thought she was easy to control. Every time she asserts herself, he gets irrationally angry about it, and her forebearance implies that this is their pattern.

4) Walt is contemptuous of his in-laws, though there is no reason to think that they're any better or worse than he is and in fact, we discover that Hank is a pretty good guy that always has your back. No matter; Walt takes every opportunity he can to sneer at them.

There's a lot to process in that block of text, but it makes sense. When his dealings with the business world are discussed on the show, you get the impression that he had the smarts, but didn't have the balls and chose a safer course. Or something. Bryan Cranston even seemed to say as much on a talk show at one point. But that explanation doesn't really make sense, does it? The idea that he was just such an asshole that nobody else could stand him fits a lot better. My problem with all this is that it seems to equate being an asshole with being a murderer, which I'm not sure quite works. (Now that I think of it, this idea is sort of central to everything Amanda Marcotte writes: that being an asshole and being evil (and being conservative) are all basically one thing.)

Ultimately, I think Rob Sheffield, writing in Rolling Stone, comes closest to my thoughts:

The American drabness all over every scene of Breaking Bad is key to why it's become the most painfully intense drama on TV, and how Walter White has become our most frighteningly ordinary criminal. At the start of Season Four, the change feels almost complete: Walter is no longer a high school chemistry teacher who cooks meth on the side, with noble intentions. He's not trying to kid himself he's a decent man trying to take care of his family before the lung cancer takes care of him. At this point, Walter just likes the work. After feeling like a failure for most of his life, he likes being the best at something. That's the high he's addicted to — not the money, power or excitement. And it's the high he's willing to kill for.

Yet these shows also count on you (or some guilty part of you) wanting to be the Man — there's always the fantasy that if you happened to be born in a different place and time, you too would strut your shit around like Stringer Bell or Don Draper. Walter White, well, he isn't particularly into being Walter White, and neither is anyone else. One of the most amazing twists of Breaking Bad is the way Walter never thinks he's cool, never picks up any criminal-minded swagger. If The Sopranos was the Stones and The Wire was Zeppelin, Breaking Bad is Rush. Walter White is just a geek trapped in a conform-or-be-cast-out world, riding on through the friction of the day. But he chooses to exercise his free will — if only by cooking up his private recipe for insanely strong blue meth.

Yeah, I think that's exactly it. Walt's brother-in-law even nailed it a couple seasons ago (although he thought he was talking about Walt cheating on Skylar): the guy has always viewed himself as a powerless worm. If I remember correctly, the first scene of the show is Walt working at the carwash and being seen by a couple of his high school students. Walt doesn't cook meth for the money, not anymore. He cooks meth because, after all this time, it gives his life some meaning.

Come to think of it, they barely even mentioned Walt's cancer all season. Instead, BB kind of reversed the Sopranos formula. Whereas that show gave us two seasons of a great mafia show before becoming a weird, rambling character study, BB spent three seasons setting up its small-scale, internal conflicts, then made the most kick-ass gangster/spaghetti western/9th level chess season in TV history.

3. A Game of Thrones

The surprise hit of the year, A Game of Thrones is about as good as genre T.V. has ever been. Somehow it pulls off the trick of juggling dozens of unreal-yet-believable characters and complex-yet-satisfying plotlines while still being almost ridiculously entertaining. The pay-offs in the last third of the season, some gleefully cruel and others horrible and traumatic, are almost textbook examples of how to orchestrate a long-running story. By the end of the season, a pretty large number of central characters are dead, including at least two that I was looking forward to seeing more of, but I'm still twitching in anticipation for the next season.

If there's a flaw in the show, it's in Peter Dinklage--he's so good that he threatens to throw the show off balance. Now, most of the actors involved do good work playing their various character types (I have a little trouble with Carcetti from The Wire as Littlefinger, partly because he plays the rat bastard too smarmy--real life rat bastards succeed by appearing likeable and trustworthy (I guess I should be thankful that he's not named Wormtongue)--and partially because he just looks too modern for this world), but Dinklage plays this full character, utterly charming and funny, and even has a nice Shakespearian voice. Everyone else is playing their types, Dinklage just assumes you'll get everything you need to know from the script and concentrates on being the coolest motherfucker in...whatever this land is called. I'm not sure if Tyrian Lannister is really the best character on the show, or if the Station Agent is just playing him so well that he seems more interesting.

4. Treme

In The Wire, David Simon and his team of writers pulled off some amazing things, but underneath it all, they had a relatively easy job: just focus your metaphorical cameras on the procedures of police and drug dealers. Treme presents them with more of a challenge, since so much of it deals with the creative process, whether that means the process of creating music or creating food. Sure, there's a certain amount of procedural material available in the lives of musicians and chefs, but that moment of creation and collaboration is not something that can be coldly examined, and it forces them into territory that sometimes comes off as slightly corny, other times just dull. This is not their wheelhouse. But I enjoy the show immensely. In fact, my heart and my brain argued a good deal about where to place it on my list--my heart wanted it right below Louie, but my brain won out.

So you do have bits that I find annoying. For instance, Delmond's dealings with the New York crowd, and their condescending take on New Orleans. I understand the basic idea there, but in the details it gets a bit confused. I don't know much about "the Lincoln Center crowd," but it doesn't seem to me that seeing a modern jazz band break out a Jelly Roll Morton tune would cause much of an outrage, right? When we see Delmond struggling in his apartment with this craving for a more rootsy sound, it comes off as false and melodramatic, in pretty much the same way that most attempts to make a film about the creative process do. On the other hand, the final product, a fusion of Coltrane-style jazz with Mardi Gras Indian chants, sounds real fuckin' good, I don't care what you say (and I like how this storyline is echoed in Janette's struggles in the New York kitchens).

Of the music-related storylines, my favorite is Davis'. Davis is a funny character, the kind of slacker type who sees himself as a visionary. Some of the comments I saw last year focused on Davis as a condescending white liberal--one commented on his attempt to "turn on" Lil Calliope by loaning him CD's of Public Enemy, The Clash and Woody Guthrie, that this showed a tone-deafness (in believing that a young black man would need Woodie Guthrie to tell him about rage). But the central fact about Davis is not his whiteness, but his status as a piker in a scene of motherfuckers. Davis actually has a pretty cool, if somewhat trite, vision for his band. The problem is that all the musicians he's working with have spent their life dedicated to playing music and becoming the best they can, and Davis has spent his life fucking around and trying to convince everyone he's cool. When he starts dictating how the band should sound, and wanting to front it with his half-ass guitar playing and singing, they're, uh, not feelin' it. I find that story pretty fascinating.

Then there's LaDonna's rape, which seemed to really turn off most viewers, and yeah, I can see why. It's one of those times where you feel the writer's hand working. It didn't seem to grow organically out of any of the stories. Still, it added something that I think was largely missing from the rest of the story: that feeling of the whole city suffering from PTSD. LaDonna's trauma and her attempts to deal with it (or not to deal with it) had to stand in, to a large extent, for the trauma of New Orleans. That's something she shouldn't have had to do--the writers should have been able to convey that trauma through each character without introducing a new storyline to deal with it.

At any rate, I love Treme much more than I probably should, and it's mostly as a sort of couch-tourism-porn. The culture of New Orleans, where apparently they have about 78 holidays a year, and each one has its own parades and traditions, makes for a seemingly inexhaustible backdrop of local color. My favorite episode? The Mardi Gras episode, of course, especially for the completely different Carnival celebration that takes place out in Cajun country.

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb has always been a bit hit-or-miss. It went through a phase of being more miss than hit, but it recovered a bit in 2010, mostly because the Seinfeld reunion offered so many possibilities. This year, though, it came back hard. The Palestinian Chicken episode probably ranks among the best of the series (I'm not sure whether Larry is satirizing the "ground zero mosque" or the Honeybaked Ham franchise on Beverly and LaBrea).

Larry David's best comedy is based in reality. Yes, you may look at the situations and think "no one would ever do that," but be honest...they are things you've thought about, or at least you could see yourself thinking about. Like that one from a few years ago where Larry was busted for using a handicapped stall. Don't tell me that the thought of that happening hasn't crossed your mind every time you used a handicapped stall. Episodes that are less grounded in reality, like the one about the car periscope, fall flat, but episodes about Larry being the terrible person we all believe ourselves to be are always great, like the horrifying interactions he has with Michael J. Fox. The Fox episode is a sort of encapsulation of the two motivators clashing in Larry's mind, and ours: we don't want to be seen as a jerk, certainly not the kind of guy that would be a dick to Michael J. Fox over his Parkinson's Disease, but we also fear being made into a sucker. Most of us deal with this in more mature ways than Larry does...but we understand.

*A Brief Intermission to Discuss Mad Men*

I haven't seen The Help yet (not in much of a hurry to do so), but one of the main complaints people make about that film is that it portrays all racists as openly nasty, evil people, when the reality is that racism was (is?) simply a part of everyday life in the segregation-era south. As I worked through seasons 2 and 3 of Mad Men, catching up on the bits of the show I had missed, it struck me as an antidote to this way of thinking. Mad Men fits in perfectly with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, all of which seem to be involved in this larger project of examining the banality of evil, but Mad Men really does the best job of it. On Mad Men, perfectly nice characters routinely do and say horrible things. It's easy to tell yourself that this is ancient history, but it's really not--the show so far has taken place only a few years before I was born. Your parents, as good people as they were, are probably guilty of levels of sexism and racism that you would find appalling, just because of the world they lived in. Your dad probably raped your mother at some point. Ask her about it next time you're home for Thanksgiving!

6. Mildred Pierce

I'll say it: Todd Haynes' miniseries is better than the 1945 Warner Bros. movie. That's not a knock on Michael Curtiz or Joan Crawford, more like an acknowledgement of the strengths of the miniseries format. There's room for so much more detail, so that, over the course of this story you get a real idea of the specifics of the life of a single mother during the Depression, or the workings of a fried chicken restaurant. Mildred's daughter Veda, here played by Evan Rachael Wood, is still a horrible cunt, but she's not the cartoonish demon seed that Ann Blythe portrays in the movie. And, needless to say, Kate Winslet gives one hell of a great performance in the title role.

7. Parks & Recreation

I was excited when this show premiered, mildly disappointed in it, quit watching at some point, but kept my season pass. And last summer, those reruns sitting on my TiVo ended up being the perfect thing to watch whenever I had a half-hour to kill, and by the time the current season began, I found myself hooked.

Parks & Rec is actually a pretty modern show, spinning off the faux-documentary style of the U.S. version of The Office, but among the edgier sitcoms out there like Louie and It's Always Sunny, it feels like a throwback to a different time. You could see this show existing, in a slightly different form, in the 80's, as a peer of shows like Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati and Newhart. Like those old-fashioned sitcoms, Parks' strength is in having the perfect combination of wacky characters interacting and moving their stories along. Each interaction between Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, Tom Haverford and the rest of the gang is exactly what you'd expect it to be, which I suppose gives the show a bit of the comfy, familiar feel that traditional sitcoms thrive on. And Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate is so great! How does she manage to communicate so much in her deadpan camera takes? But hooking her up with Andy was a great move, as their relationship adds a new dimension to April's character, and when she lets a sly grin escape past that stone face, it's OH MY GOD SHE'S SO ADORABLE...ahem...excuse me. Andy's a great character too. It's difficult to write a good dumb character, so easy to fall into laziness, but the writers approach Andy with such an off-the-wall sensibility that he never seems hack. He's always dumb in a way that you weren't quite expecting.

8. Walking Dead

I went easy on Walking Dead last year, putting it on my list even though I didn't think it was really living up to its potential. It was scary as fuck, and plenty gory too, but the characters all felt phony, the stories seemed stock. It basically was getting by on having a great concept. In the half-season that ran in late 2011, the show really started working, though, and its terrible climax might end up being one of the great "Oh shit" moments of T.V. Characters are now being asked to make some real moral choices, and you can see a split between Rick, who believes that their dire situation demands the strictest adherence to a moral code and a no-man-left-behind strategy, and Shane who sees the need for survival painting the rest of the world grey. They still all feel like one-dimensional types, but at least they're functioning well as those types.

9. Prohibition

Another fine Ken Burns documentary, on one of my favorite subjects. I'm fascinated by things like Prohibition, the HUAC hearings and the Japanese internment camps. That ideas so horrible could have been committed by the United States so recently...I mean, you look at the slave trade, that was an idea that started 400 years ago, and once it got started was extremely difficult to undo from an economic standpoint. But how does a country just decide one day to make alcohol illegal? Well, finding the answer doesn't make it any less frustrating, but maybe it's a little encouraging: prohibition ends because of The Great Depression. when it begins to seem insane to rule out an entire industry. Maybe our li'l depression will force us to free some things up as well. I also read the book this was based on (Last Call by Daniel Orkent), so I'll have more to say about this soon.

10. Ebert Presents At the Movies

Yeah, like every other nerd of my generation, I loved watching At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert when I was a kid in the 70's and 80's (probably just the 80's, actually). You mean these guys get paid just to hang out and argue about movies? Where do I sign up for that? The show franchise has been through some serious ups and downs in the decade-plus since Siskel died, but now Ebert, established in a new phase of his life as both internet hero and elder statesman of film criticism, has taken the reigns and brought it back to it's public TV roots. I enjoy the regular show, anchored by Christy Lemiere and Ignatiy Vishnavetsky with Ebert providing additional reviews voiced by various actors and speakers, but it wouldn't have made my top 10 list. This is for the summer reruns.

Over the summer, they reran some old episodes from the 70's and 80's, and it was a fascinating time machine. For instance, Siskel and Ebert reviewing the best of 1978. They begin by talking about the year's top grossers: Grease, Animal House, Jaws 2 and Heaven Can Wait (they both like the first two, hate Jaws 2 and feel rather tepid about Heaven Can Wait, the popularity of which has always baffled me). It's a year after Star Wars. After nearly a decade of Taxi Drivers, Chinatowns, McCabes and Mrs. Millerses, suddenly audiences are turning toward crowd-pleasing popcorn fare. Roger and Gene don't know if this is a trend that will blow over or the new normal. Then they list their own picks, all low-key neorealist stuff, and all (to the best of my knowledge) completely forgotten today.

Then there's a 1982 show about the sudden trend toward gay characters in films like Victor Victoria and La Cage aux Foiles (I actually remember this one), with multiple references to The Celluloid Closet. It's fascinating to see this from the perspective of the other side of history (both critics were, of course, very progressive on the issue), and to hear an amazing factoid: at one point they mention that there has NEVER been an openly homosexual movie star. It's 1982. Rock Hudson (who only came out in death) is still a paragon of heterosexuality. Even if there is an example or two that they may have forgotten (I don't really think there is), the difference is dizzying. There's also a fascinating episode from about 1980 where they examine the slasher film phenomenon, and, a decade before Susan Falludi, correctly identify the genre's subtext as anti-feminist backlash, while still doing an admirable (if imperfect) job of avoiding moral panic.

One last show:

Pan Am - I started watching this little guilty pleasure, then let it go when things got a bit hectic last October. I have a lot of warm feelings toward the Pan-American Airlines brand--my grandpa used to work for them (building radar stations in the Bahamas)--so I gave it a try. Fun little show. In the brief time I watched it, there was even one pretty good episode, the one with JFK. It takes place in Berlin, when he gave that "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. Now, I've always heard about that speech, and the gaffe he made of calling himself a donut, but I never really thought or heard about the significance of that particular speech. See, it was just, what, 15 years or so after the end of WWII? Feelings were still a bit raw. Now, I grew up with WWII as mythology, but there was never, in my lifetime, any real animosity toward Germany, at least in America. But Collette, the French stewardess, she grew up in Nazi-occupied France. And she ain't over it. Not a great insight or anything, I just never really thought about that. In fact, it's not the kind of story we hear about now--I really think this might be the first story of it's kind I've ever seen portrayed where the character wasn't Jewish, or otherwise a victim of the Holocaust. She just lived through her country's occupation. And so it ends up with her at a cocktail party for rich, German businessmen, and she ends up singing this acidic, mournful version of "Deutschland Uber Alles." (It's almost a reference to the scene in Casablanca, but maybe not quite). She knows the words, she says, because she was "forced to sing it in school."

The pilot of Pan Am ends with a little girl gazing at the squadron of hot stewardesses boarding a Pan Am flight, with a dreamy look in her eye. I know I read at least one review that found that scene borderline-offensive in its timid take on budding feminism--"Really, being a hot stewardess is the salvation of women?"--but for its time and place, that did have to be an exciting, new possibility compared with the Disney princess, right? So Pan Am ain't exactly Mad Men, but as a cheesy prime time soap, it's enjoyable enough.


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