Television! The very name is an anagram of “letnivolies”. TV programs fall into one of two categories, which are aptly summed up by Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap”. TV pushes into that final 10% with vigour. Nevertheless there are always nuggets among the chunks.
I tend to eschew terrestrial television in favor of imports from the great continent over the water. With the exception of Doctor Who, Grand Designs and CBeebies, British TV is a wasteland of yoof-oriented shows which I’m too old for (Misfits, Skins, Hollyoaks et al), period dramas about proles being thrashed for not licking the silverware clean (Downton Abbey) or identikit soaps which bear as much similarity to the real world as the surreal dreams of a flu patient who’s had too much Night Nurse. The truly great shows of the last year have, regrettably, come from across the pond. For all of my above carping, it’s worth noting that we’re living through television’s second Renaissance – there are more good shows now than it seems there have ever been.
Single Most Awful Final Season
Nominees: 30 Rock, Dexter
Dexter‘s writers were always facing an uphill struggle. The curiously ingenious premise of a sympathetic serial killer – a guy who wants a normal life, yet is compelled to kill by an unseen force – was always a limiting factor. Having watched from the very beginning, I always assumed that Dexter wasn’t going to end well for the titular character. It seemed predestined from the very outset that things weren’t going to work out. The decline in quality that marked earlier seasons and seemed especially pronounced with Colin “hello, whore” Hanks playing a schizophrenic zealot in Season 7 was a symbol of how Dexter, limited by its premise and facing mounting odds of implausibility, was always flirting with the shark but never jumping. Season 8 finally dismissed any such qualms, and it would be hard to stress just how thoroughly it leapt over the aquatic carnivore. Character arcs were started and left unfinished, dialog was bizarrely expository and pointless, and characters degenerated into crudely-drawn caricatures waggled about on the ends of lolly sticks. Dexter Morgan, in the end, gets away with everything and starts a new life in Oregon.
Spare a thought for the writers, who were under intense pressure by studio bosses to give AMC’s flagship show a happy ending. Yet even the most die-hard of Dexter fans would have to admit that the casual murder of hundreds, if not thousands of “bad guys” is an untenable moral position for a hero. Dexter deserved a better ending than it got.
Standout Worst New Drama
Nominees: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Winner: Agents Of you know what I’m not even typing that out again, for Christs sake.
A TV spin-off of the Marvel universe, created by one of the Whedons and populated by attractive actors sounds like exactly the sort of winner that could pull in millions of viewers and create an entire new genre of TV. So what happened? Let me explain it simply. Agents is about a gang of mismatched, winsome characters who travel around in a special vehicle, besting the villain-of-the-week with gadgets and peppy dialog. Does that sound familiar? Correct. You’re watching Scooby Doo.
Worse than that is that Agents falls into the trap well-explored by UK show Torchwood, itself a spin-off of a more successful and long-established universe. The trap is this: not knowing what niche you want to fill. Much as Torchwood wiggled its tongue suggestively at adult themes, like aliens that killed with sex, bisexual and gay characters, and flirty banter without actually going balls-to-the-wall and having the show degenerate into humping and murder, Agents does much the same thing. Torchwood never knew whether it was aimed at children or adults, mixing silly aliens and sexual tension, Agents doesn’t know if it’s trying to be a hardcore spy show, a science-fiction epic or a peppy kids show. As a result it’s not satisfying to any audience, save for die-hard fans of Marvel or people prepared to forgive the show a multitude of sins for the occasional decent moment. What’s even stranger about Agents is that it’s clearly being made on a massive budget, yet every episode feels like what TV fans call a “bottle episode”, where the characters do very little and there are few scene-changes. Bottle episodes were used by shows to save their budgets for more spectacular stories, but Agents doesn’t need to save budget. Instead of a major arc or a legitimate villain, the show has so far restricted itself to one-shot villains, making it achingly boring to watch. Also, Agent Coulson has a flying car. What is this – Flubber? Pull your fucking finger out.
Best Continuing Animated Series
Nominees: Archer, Bob’s Burgers, South Park
Winner: Bob’s Burgers
I want to say that Archer is the best animated show on television but that’s not true. Bob’s Burgers, which concluded its third season in May, stands out as the best, freshest and most original show in a field otherwise dominated by painfully-unfunny The Simpsons, Family “hey, let’s do an episode on domestic abuse, that’s funny” Guy and oh-for-fuck’s-sake-turn-it-off American Dad. Bob’s Burgers has a simple premise and delivers some of the freshest writing, not to mention the best songs, of any show since the early seasons of South Park. It’s hard to explain the humour being deployed in any particular episode, so non-fans might want to skip it. The first episode I saw revolved around a cow in a wig, which I only thought was funny because at this point I was drinking Amaretto out of a teacup. The next episode I saw made me laugh for twenty-two straight minutes. As opposed to other funny cartoons, like South Park, which relies on F-bombs, political awareness and satire, Bob’s Burgers is an altogether gentler ride, suitable even for your grandmother, yet never being anything less than teeth-clenchingly funny and occasionally scathing. So well-written is it that each of the characters has room to breathe and evolve as the series progresses, and the vocal talents displayed by the cast make you forget that a nine-year-old girl is played by a forty-year-old veteran comic and that two of the three main female characters are played by men. The show also attracts its share of star turns, from Sarah Silverman, Megan Mullally and – gasp!- Kevin Kline. Satisfying on nearly every level, Bob’s Burgers is maybe the best animated show since Ren & Stimpy. No other show could feature a song about Thomas Edison killing an elephant that’s catchier than anything in the Top 100.
Best Comedy Overall
Nominees: Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks & Recreation, Derek
Winner: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Andy Samberg plays a detective. It sounds cringe-worthy, right? It sounds like failed pilot material. It’s not. Brooklyn Nine-Nine manages the seemingly-impossible, balancing believable plot-lines with smart-as-hell dialog and spot-on characterization. The premise of this show sounded difficult to me – as much of a fan as I am of Andy Samberg’s character in Cuckoo and The Lonely Island, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that his wheelhouse consists of being an insufferable nob-end who embarrasses himself. Observe Brooklyn Nine-Nine then, weary watcher, as Samberg manages to stand firmly on the right side of “insufferable idiot”, never once straying into the cringe-comedy popularized by The Office. His character is a streetwise detective with a penchant for sight-gags and witty one-liners. The rest of the cast are similarly excellent: modelled just closely enough on the characters of Parks & Recreation to seem familiar, but never overly-familiar, and enough fresh comedy for the episodes to pretty much carry themselves forward. Witness, too, Terry Crews, former NFL player, who is both burly-as-all-hell (his arms are thicker than my body) yet strangely sensitive, providing many of the laughs. A scene in which this human mountain fails to build a dollhouse, smashes it to bits and bursts into tears stands out as one of the finest moments of the year.
Plus, it has a hell of an opening theme. The theme is actually my alarm tone.
Single Finest Drama
Nominees: Elementary, Mad Men, Hannibal, The Newsroom
No surprises here. Hannibal captured my heart as only a show about gruesome murders can. Functionally identical in many ways to Dexter, Hannibal strides ahead as a consequence of a) not being set in Miama, b) having better dialogue, c) having Hannibal Lecter in it d) having more inventive serial killers than you can shake an excised spinal cord at. So good is Hannibal in almost every sense – characters, plots, set design, lighting, casting, soundtrack and themes – that you have to forgive it the occasional thumpingly clumsy dialogue. There’s a bizarre predilection in this show for referring to wanted serial killers by their full names and titles, such as “Garret Jacob Hobbs” when just “Hobbs” would do, or “The Chesapeake Ripper” where “The Ripper” would suffice. See the following dialogue:
Bloom: “Where is Abel Gideon going?”
Graham: “He’s going to find The Chesapeake Ripper.”
Bloom: “What do you think The Chesapeake Ripper will do if Abel Gideon finds him?”
Graham: “…The Chesapeake Ripper will kill Abel Gideon.”
Come on, guys. Just use nicknames.
Regardless of these occasional blips, Hannibal remains consistently brilliant, even under critical rewatching. Mads Mikkelsen, in particular, erases all memory of Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, managing to chew all of the scenery without moving a muscle. The soundtrack is grating and eerie, keeping you perpetually on edge, and setting it in desolate Virginia and Baltimore only serves to keep you gripping your armrests for forty exhausting minutes. Recommended. Watch. Buy DVD. Repeat until broke.
Nominees: The Newsroom, The Americans
Two shows that didn’t fit into any of the above categories. First up, The Newsroom, a partisan Sorkin show that stumbled over its own Republican rhetoric in the first series before unexpectedly growing legs and moving forward at speed. The Newsroom is largely indistinguishable from other Sorkin shows – fast-paced dialogue, occasional moments of satire, humor and silliness (in this case a junior researcher obsessed with Bigfoot), and a political agenda – and it sometimes disappears up its own ass. Standout characters include Olivia Munn, one of the most beautiful women to draw breath, playing an economics editor called Sloan Sabbith (no, I’m not making this up) and Alison Pill (Kim from Scott Pilgrim VS The World) as an associate producer whose life falling apart by degrees is a schadenfreudian joy to behold.
Secondly, The Americans, which plays on the classic case of the Rosenbergs to fill in the spy-and-terrorist gap left in the schedule since Homeland veered into madness. I’ve only seen one episode, so can’t comment on the series as a whole, but from what I’ve seen it is a) tightly plotted b) revealing and c) strangely moving. The Americans isn’t,as it might seem, a spy thriller about sleeper cells. It’s a romance. For me to recommend it for that is very strange territory indeed. plus, it has the best soundtrack of any show, with the exception of Mad Men.