TV of the Year, from the extremely limited perspective of b-roll

You know how I said that I wouldn’t be ranking my favorite shows and giving you a top whatever list? I kinda lied. I didn’t rank all of the shows, just the one that I think was not only the best show this year, but maybe even an all-time great – in my humble opinion, of course. And if you read my blog on a regular basis you will be shocked, SHOCKED, by what it is. (Shut up, it’s not Wheel of Fortune.) Anyway, scroll to the end if the suspense is killing you.

Otherwise, in no particular order other than my totally invented and nonsensical categorization, here is the Official (Really Long Form) b-roll 2011 TV Year in Review. Won’t you share your own thoughts in the comments?

SHOWS THAT I DVR AND WATCH ENTHUSIASTICALLY AND/OR CAUGHT UP TO ON NETFLIX (IN ONE SITTING)

The Good Wife – The smartest, best-written, best-acted show (that I watch) on television right now; it just never goes where you expect it to, even after two and half seasons. Kudos to Alan Cumming, whose superb Eli Gold is now the show’s MVP (and that, my friends, is a horse race).

Once Upon a TimeWe’re not far in and OUAT is still working out the kinks – primarily, that the writers haven’t quite nailed down the language and tone of the fairy tale world. In one episode, a prince cries “Fear not!” (to a fair maiden, of course); when the prince later asks Snow White if she’s all right, she replies with a nonchalant “I’m good,” which I don’t think comes directly from the Brothers Grimm. But I give the show a ton of credit for being daringly creative, and a consistently fun hour of TV every week; how many shows can you say that about? (Fun note: My roommate is really irked that the evil queen calls her apples “honeycrisps” when they’re, quote “clearly red delicious,” and she won’t be moved by the “Um, she’s an evil queen from a fairy tale universe, and you’re worried that she’s inaccurately describing fruit?” argument. This cracks me up.)

So You Think You Can DanceStill the blueprint for a high-quality reality performance show: An engaging (and not all-about-me) host, a constructive (and ditto) judging panel, and performances that almost always feel fresh rather than derivative; at least once a week you’ll see an exhilarating work of art. So, of course, it’s squeezed into a summer slot and there are about six people watching. I shake my head at you, America.

Downton Abbey – I missed this on PBS, despite the fair warning that “ignore the Masterpiece Theater thing, this is not at all boring” (no offense, Anglophiles), then crammed on Netflix like I was prepping for a final. I could watch Dame Maggie Smith spit verbal barbs all day long anyway, but holy wow, was this good – beautifully acted, well plotted, just riveting. My DVR is already pre-set for the second season (which needs to start tomorrow, please).

SHOWS THAT I WATCH SOMEWHAT ENTHUSIASTICALLY BUT OCCASIONALLY MISS AND THAT’S OKAY, FRANKLY

CommunityMost Community fans are hardcore, and seriously upset about its impending hiatus (or potential cancellation) and lack of awards recognition. I am too, somewhat; I think it’s brilliant and hilarious when it’s on, which isn’t always, and sometimes it just gets a little too precious. But the ensemble is seriously amazing.

Modern Family and 30 RockI lump these together because they used to be two of my favorites, and while they’re still quite good, neither surprises or delights me as much as it used to. That being said, I still watch every week; even at their worst, they’re always good for a few laughs. (And keep the hot movie star cameos coming, Tina Fey; you give all Liz Lemon-types hope that a (stupid version of) Jon Hamm or a (crazy version of) Matt Damon is just waiting for us, too. Well played, as usual.)

The Sing-OffI like this show a lot (as I described earlier). Here’s why it occasionally gets stuck in my DVR for a while; two hours is a long freaking time to watch acapella performances, particularly during, like, “Hip Hop Week!” (Though you haven’t lived until you’ve seen BYU’s all-male, all-white group rap.) Still my pick for the best all-around singing competition on TV, though.

Grey’s Anatomy – Speaking of “long freaking time,” eight seasons is quite a while to watch doctors learn important life lessons through the monologues of their patients. They’re really pretty doctors, though, so I’m there. Side note: In the past eight years, the doctors of Seattle Grace have dealt with a ferry accident, plane crash, bomb in an operating room, train collision, hospital shooting, and, most recently, a giant deadly sinkhole. What biblical curse did the residents of alternate-universe Seattle incite, exactly?

The Amazing RaceI really like this show, but you need to get into it early to stay abreast of the team dynamics and choose who to passionately root against; this season I missed the first couple of episodes and it was game over (though I hear the primary challenges were “make waffles,” so apparently I didn’t miss much). I do enjoy Phil Keoghan though, and his vague but charming accent.

HouseOh, House. The early seasons of this show were so good, and now it feels a bit lather, rinse, repeat. Also, I’m incredibly tired of every female character being either a gorgeous little lamb who’s secretly in love with House or socially inept (because sure, there are only two types of women). I have to say, though, my favorite moment of each episode is when something totally unexpected happens with the patient and the doctors all exchange “What the hell?!” looks. Wouldn’t that scare the crap out of you if your doctor did that? Aren’t doctors told not to do that for that very reason? I have so many questions.

GleeGlee‘s always had to walk a really fine line to avoid becoming totally campy and unrealistic, and too often over the past couple of years, it’s tumbled right into Crazytown. There are still some memorable songs and one-liners, and some humanity when you least expect it (the “first time” episode was really quite elegant), but this was bound to be a show that suffered once the novelty wore off. And it has.

The CloserI still love the characters, and I’m committed through the end since I know Kyra Sedgwick’s about to leave, but the cases seem less fresh and twisty than they used to. They also fall victim to Law & Order‘s trademarked Play at Home Game: Select which guest star is the most recognizable character actor and et voila, there’s the killer. Tell them what they’ve won!

Up All Night – Allow me to echo what many, many people have said about Up All Night: I like the Will Arnett/Christina Applegate “domestic foibles” show, I like the Maya Rudolph “crazy Oprah show within the show,” and they feel like two completely separate sitcoms. Yeah, it’s a touch disjointed, but overall, enjoyable.

SHOWS THAT I HAVE STOPPED OR WILL STOP WATCHING ALTOGETHER BECAUSE LIFE’S TOO SHORT, PEOPLE

Project RunwayI watched most of last season, forgot to watch the last few episodes, looked up who won online, and was satisfied enough to delete the unwatched episodes from my DVR. Honestly, last season felt more like it was about the workroom dynamics; the designs were really uninspiring. But I do feel like I’m betraying Tim Gunn, and that hurts my heart. Moving on.

The OfficeI didn’t watch this show in its early years; I got hooked somewhere in the middle, caught up, and now I’ve hopped right back off the bandwagon. Steve Carell has left a gaping void; that character (and the profound discomfort he provoked) maintained a much more delicate balance than we realized, and the show feels rudderless without him. A sad case of a good show hanging on too long, methinks.

Top ChefAnother show that is suffering from too much. Lots and lots of food and drama. Again. The All-Stars edition was interesting, if for nothing else than to re-connect with old contestants who were so good that they were setting the bar much higher than usual. But I probably won’t watch again; I’ve had my fill. (Ba-dum.)

American Idol Settle in, guys, this might take a while. Our first humongous red flag should have been when the show’s producers decided to blow up the judging panel and kept only the least competent judge. (Seriously, Randy Jackson’s verbal skills deteriorate further every year; if I ever hear “in it to win it” again I will strangle him with an argyle cardigan. Who would have thought that “pitchy, dawg” would have been Randy at his most eloquent?) Then Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez – who looked sorta engaging in the (endless) audition rounds – got to the live shows and crumbled under the pressure of a live audience booing even the gentlest criticism, and any potential for this new and improved Idol just completely went to hell. Everything was beautiful, just beautiful, and no one had ever hit a bum note in their short, gifted little lives; and thus a contestant who only hit the target on about 20% of his notes thought he was the second coming of Luther Vandross, and it became immediately, blindingly obvious that one of the shiny teen countrybots would two-step away with the Idol crown without doing a single thing to surprise us. And I’m bitter because there was actually a really intriguing talent there: Haley, a jazzy singer who started out in the back of the pack – hell, I didn’t like her at the beginning – who, through actually utilizing criticism from the judges, became a better and more interesting performer that got much further than anyone expected. The system works when you work it, people. Anyway, another year of this and I’ll clearly need blood pressure medication; so go with God, Seacrest. b-roll out.

SUMMER SHOWS THAT I WATCHED BUT IF THEY WERE ON DURING SWEEPS THEN FORGET IT

Suits and Necessary Roughness – Two USA Network shows that I enjoyed quite a bit this summer, and haven’t even given a moment’s thought to since. I’ll probably resume my relationship with both in June of 2012, though. What else is on?

SHOWS THAT I’M CATCHING UP TO ON NETFLIX AND YES, IT WAS STUPID OF ME TO SKIP THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE

Parks and Recreation and Breaking BadTwo shows that I know, I should have been watching from the beginning; and also two shows that you’re probably wondering, “Why in God’s name would you put these together?” Fair enough; the sunny, peppy Parks & Rec and the deeply screwed up Breaking Bad aren’t exactly crossover material (actually, scratch that: Walt and Jesse adopt Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness. Imagine what that would do to the meth empire!). It’s just that I haven’t fully caught up with either of these shows yet, so any thoughts I have feel woefully incomplete in light of all of the thoughtful, big-picture analysis that’s out there – which, in nutshell-ish form, is that they are the best comedy and drama on television right now. So, my initial reaction: Yes, they’re both really good so far. Yes, it’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long. Yes, I look forward to being fully caught up. We’ll reconvene here shortly.

IF IT’S SATURDAY AND THERE’S A MARATHON ON I WILL WATCH THIS, LET’S MOVE ON SWIFTLY

Jersey Shore and Teen Mom 2 or 6 or whatever edition they’re on now – I don’t DVR these or anything, but yes, occasionally I’ll get sucked into an episode (or twelve) of the increasingly horrible decisions and television viewing habits of America’s youth. Whatever.

Law & Order: Original Flavor and SVU – It’s mindless entertainment that never fails to suck me into its vortex of murder and legal wrangling. Sometimes I’ll tune in for the last ten minutes of an episode and get caught up in “But did he do it?!” without even knowing what the hell “it” is. There’s a reason I’m not, like, a scientist.

SHOWS THAT I KNOW I SHOULD BE WATCHING BUT I’M BUSY AND/OR HBO AND SHOWTIME ARE EXPENSIVE, DAMMIT

Homeland, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, The Big C, Boardwalk Empire, Louie, True Blood, Dexter, Chuck, Enlightened

How do TV critics sleep/eat/shower/buy stuff? Honest question.

THE A+, #1, BEST SHOW THIS YEAR AND ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREATS

Friday Night Lights

As you may remember, I’m late to the game on the genius that is FNL. Part of me is sad about that, wishing I had the ownership of loving it from the start; but most of me isn’t, because not only was I able to skip straight through the cliffhangers, I also didn’t have to deal with the constant frustration of watching this brilliant show be marginalized, almost canceled, and overlooked – I just got to savor it. My roommate and I started watching about a year ago, caught up just as the fifth and final season was premiering last fall on Direct TV (which we don’t have – torture), then burned through the fifth season the split second it came out on DVD this April (it premiered on NBC at roughly the same time). So yes, this was the best show of 2011 (and 2010, kinda), because no matter where or how many times it aired, its final season was as searing and beautiful as the four that preceded it.

In my short-ish history of television viewing, there are two shows that I’ve watched and loved so much that I would put them in the pantheon of “This isn’t just my opinion, we can all agree that this is one of the best things that’s ever been on TV, right?”: Friday Night Lights and The West Wing. The West Wing premiered when I was in high school, and it was brilliant and lightning-fast, glossy but touching and human. Friday Night Lights is, in many ways, its polar opposite: just as smart but quietly so, more long pauses and Texas grit.

And I think I caught each at the right time, for me, at least; when I was 18, The West Wing was what I wanted life to be, all clever banter and hopeless idealism. And now that I’m almost 30 (extra emphasis on the almost), Friday Night Lights seems more like what life really is: full of moments – sweet, sad, or both – that unfold in ways or times you may not expect, but somehow, exactly as they’re supposed to.

They’re the type of shows you learn by heart, in every possible way.

So, for probably not the last time, I highly recommend that you rent, buy, or stream Friday Night Lights, because based on the numbers, you probably haven’t yet. And if you need a break from the Texas twang, mix in a couple episodes of The West Wing; during this holiday season, you won’t get much better than the superb Christmas episodes, “In Excelsis Deo” and “Noel.”

It sure as hell beats keeping up with the Kardashians.

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