Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Best of Television 2013, pt. 1: The Newcomers and The Dearly Departed

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in "Broadchurch

As I mentioned last week, there’s just too much good television today.  So apart from my Top Ten list, which should post next week, I figured I would highlight the other shows that, while not at the top of the medium, are nonetheless worthy of praise.  Today, I’ll be looking at shows that debuted in 2013 as well as those shows that finished their runs this past year.

The Newcomers –
Malin Akerman is great and so is "Trophy Wife"
Banshee (Cinemax) –
Cinemax has a rather lurid programming history, but in 2011 the network decided to rebrand itself as something of an R-rated Spike TV, with original programming focused on action and sex, targeting men in the 18-49 demographic.  Their first two series, Strike Back and Hunted, were British co-productions.  But last January they launched their first home-grown original series, Banshee, starring Anthony Starr as an ex-con who steals the identity of a small-town sheriff in order to hide from his former employer.

The setup sounds ridiculous, but the execution is fantastic in a ridiculous, pulpy, over the top way.  The action is brutally violent with fight scenes occasionally extending for several minutes and even over multiple acts.  And the season-long storyline, which involves a local mob, the Amish community, and a drug kingpin straddling both, is tight and twisty, putting Starr’s Lucas Hood in constant danger while creating inventive ways to get him out of trouble.  Banshee isn’t going to win many Emmys (though the pilot won for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role this year), but it’s a fun show that knows what it wants to do and does it well.

Season one of Banshee is available on Max Go, Cinemax’s streaming service.  The show has been renewed for a second season, which will debut on Cinemax on January 10, 2014.

Broadchurch (BBC America) -
I’ve been holding off on publishing my Best of 2013 articles because I wanted to get through BBC America’s Broadchurch.  Well, I’ve made it through seven of the eight first season episodes and I feel comfortable saying that, while the show is a gripping, emotional drama, it’s not quite good enough to crack my ten.  It is, however, more than good enough for me to include in a list of the best new shows of 2013. 

Imported from Britain, Broadchurch is a crime drama set in a gorgeous seaside town in south England.  David Tennant and Olivia Colman spend the series investigating the murder of a young boy, Danny.  But the actual crime is often the least interesting part of the show as Broadchurch delves into the lives of the townspeople and the wake left behind by Danny’s death.  This isn’t a whodunit mystery, so much as a complex character piece that is framed by the investigation.  The acting is phenomenal, as you would expect from leads with the pedigree of Tennant and Colman, but Jodie Whittaker is the real star here as Danny’s grieving mother.  The rest of the town is populated by a who’s who of British character actors, most prominently Arthur Darvill as the town Priest and David Bradley as a local shop owner, each with a complicated, mysterious past of their own.

Like I said, I haven’t yet seen the final episode and so I don’t know who the killer actually is.  But, really, it seems almost beside the point because the journey thus far has been so wonderful. 

Broadchurch is currently available through BBC America On Demand.  The show has been renewed for a second series which should air in 2014, though it may not air in the United States until 2015.  Additionally, Fox is developing an American version also starring David Tennant scheduled to air during the 2014-15 season.

The Bridge (FX) –
It’s possible to interpret The Bridge as an experiment in meta-textual storytelling.  Like its characters, whose lives straddle the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, The Bridge is a show living in two worlds.  The first is a police procedural focusing on a string of heinous murders that force officers from each country to collaborate.  The second is a psychological thriller in which an aggrieved father commits a string of heinous murders in an elaborate attempt to enact revenge on the police officers whom he blames for the deaths of his wife and child. 

That first show is amazing.  Diane Kruger and Demián Bichir play the mismatched detectives with great dexterity.  They could make even a standard CBS procedural interesting.  But here, given the ability to flesh out juicy back stories and family lives, Kruger and Bichir shine.  Unfortunately, the show’s season-long storyline was too over-the-top, representing perhaps the nadir of what Alyssa Rosenberg called “TV’s mastermind problem.”  Still, despite the problems that story caused, the rest of the show was amazing and I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s capable of now that it’s able to get out from under its Danish inspiration’s story.

Season one of The Bridge is currently not available to stream, though it has been renewed for a second season likely to air in the summer of 2014.

Derek (Netflix) –
Derek is by no means a perfect show.  I think it wants to be warm-hearted and feel-good television but doesn’t really know how to make us like its characters.  It also has to straddle a dangerous line to create comedic situations with a mentally handicapped lead and a background full of elderly people without making the audience laugh at those characters.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always land on the right side of that line.  Ricky Gervais is an abrasive comic known for his ability to offend and, while he manages to mostly bury his more offensive instincts here, he’s not always completely successful.

But sometimes the right show will hit you in the right emotional spot at the right time and Derek did that to me.  I watched the season finale (in which Gervais’s Derek reunites with his estranged father) not too long after my own father’s passing and it just wrecked me.  I’ve never cried that hard at any piece of media, television or film.  Granted, most of the tears were borne of grief, but isn’t that the point of television: to reach us emotionally?  Well that’s exactly what Derek did for me, which is why it was one of my favorite new shows of the year.

Season one of Derek is available on Netflix.  The show has been renewed for a second season and will likely be available some time in 2014.

Sleepy Hollow (Fox) –
Sleepy Hollow shouldn’t be good.  The story is ludicrous.  I mean, Ichabod Crane worked for George Washington during the Revolutionary War before killing, and being killed by, the Headless Horseman, who is also Death, one of the Four Horsemen.  He then awakens in 2013, where the Headless Horseman is riding again, with myriad monsters joining him. 

Just reading that makes me laugh at the craziness at it all.  But Sleepy Hollow figured something out that more genre shows, and television shows in general, could stand to learn: if you get your characters right, viewers will forgive a lot of craziness.  And this show gets its characters right.  Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie play Crane and his police officer companion Abbie Mills.  They have amazing, platonic chemistry that allows them each to recite absolutely ridiculous dialogue but to sell it to each other in a way that helps the viewer buy in as well.

And while the overall story is crazy, the individual plot elements progress logically and the show doesn’t feel the need to hold back on plot or draw things out.  There’s no way of knowing if Sleepy Hollow will be able to keep the crazy train on track, but for now it’s a hell of a ride.

The last eight episodes of Sleepy Hollow (all but the first two) are currently available to stream on Hulu+.  A new episode will air on Fox on January 13th, prior to the two-hour season finale on January 20th.

Trophy Wife (ABC) –
I was very favorable toward Trophy Wife in my review of the pilot back in September and the show has only improved from there.  It’s no longer a Malin Ackerman star vehicle, instead falling into a nice routine of crazy family hijinks comedy, much like the first couple seasons of Modern Family.  Where the show really shines is in its ability to mix and match its cast to tell different stories.  Putting Kate and Bert together makes for comedic gold, but Warren and his mom Diane make for delightfully neurotic pairing as well.  And for as funny as the kids on Trophy Wife are, the show may have been at its best in its Christmas episode when they were largely sidelined as the adults tried to reconstruct the events of their alcohol and absinthe-fueled Christmas party.

Trophy Wife isn’t perfect by any means.  The show still struggles to integrate Natalie Morales’s character Meg.  But everything involving the extended family is just great, and it’s a shame that the show hasn’t garnered a bigger audience.  I would highly suggest you hop on board now because, unless ABC changes its tune soon and decides to air Trophy Wife after mega-hit Modern Family (the show’s seemingly natural pairing), it likely won’t be renewed for next season.

All ten episodes of Trophy Wife are currently available on Hulu+.  New episodes will air beginning January 7th.

Vikings (History) -
I wasn’t sure what to make of Vikings when it first premiered last spring.  I wasn’t extremely intrigued by the pilot or even the second episode, but one thing kept me coming back and that was the performances of Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick as the main character Ragnar and his wife Lagertha.  I even went so far as to nominate Winnick for an Emmy in my dream ballot.  It’s a difficult thing to portray a fully-developed, meaningful relationship between two characters who spend a good chunk of their time apart, but these two pull it off, while also delivering some bad-ass fight scenes to boot.

The other bit that impressed me about Vikings was that, like Sleepy Hollow, it’s not a show that hesitates to burn through plot points when the story demands it.  You’ll often see, especially on network television, shows hesitate to kill a character or introduce a story because they know they need to fill out what Christine Becker has called “the indefinite middle,” wherein a network show is forced to stall their storylines to fill out a never-ending run of 22 episode seasons.  Hell, the most prominent example is actually a cable show, Sons of Anarchy, which refused to kill off one of its main characters long after he reached the point of no return on the show, instead introducing multiple deus ex machina to keep him alive, until most viewers no longer cared when he actually did die.  Vikings suffers from no such faults.  Characters die when the story says they should die and plot points are introduced and retired as the story demands.  And the show is all the better for it.

Season one of Vikings is available to stream through Amazon Prime.  Season two debuts in February 2014.

The Dearly Departed –
Elisha Cuthbert was amazing in "Happy Endings"
30 Rock (NBC) –
I spent a great deal of time debating whether or not 30 Rock would earn a spot on my overall Top Ten.  After all, every episode the show aired in 2013 was a legitimately great episode and it culminated in what was, to me, perhaps the most satisfying series finale in recent history.  Yes, Breaking Bad included.  But, ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t include it because 30 Rock only aired five episodes this year out of its 13 episode final season.  Maybe that’s not fair, especially given that two of the shows on my final list aired eight and seven episodes respectively, but I felt that I couldn’t properly evaluate the 2013 portions of 30 Rock apart from the episodes that aired in 2012.

But that doesn’t mean the final season, final episodes, and even the entirety of 30 Rock weren’t great television.  They were.  For seven years the show was a joke machine, cranking out punch line after punch line.  They may have had an occasional down period now and then, especially during the fifth and sixth seasons, but it’s no accident that the show was nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Emmy for each of its seven seasons and walked away with three of them.  I don’t know that 30 Rock ever infiltrated the cultural consciousness the way The Office or The Big Bang Theory did, but it stayed far funnier for far longer than either and, had it aired more than five episodes in 2013, would easily have ended up in my Top Ten.

All seven seasons of 30 Rock are available on Netflix.

Bunheads (ABC Family) –
On paper, I shouldn’t have like Bunheads.  I’m not a fan of ballet.  I don’t particularly care for stories focused on teenaged girls.  And while the show had a fine pedigree (creator and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino), I hadn’t really watched her best-known work, Gilmore Girls.  I also thought the title was stupid.  But my wife wanted to see it and it got a reasonable recommendation from a handful of television critics whom I trust, so I gave it a shot. 

And here’s the thing: I loved it.  Bunheads was a legitimately good family comedy.  It was funny when it needed to be funny.  It was dramatic when it needed to be dramatic.  It was heartfelt and touching when it needed to be heartfelt and touching.  It was a versatile show that could really do everything well, accompanied by the characteristic patter that Sherman-Palladino has made her trademark.  What surprised me, given that the show aired on ABC Family, was how little it focused on the girls, instead making Sutton Foster’s Michelle the focus of the story with recurring star Kelly Bishop’s fanny as her regular antagonist.

But when Bunheads came back in January to air the second half of its first and only season, the girls came into focus and really began to establish themselves as the co-leads of the show.  Sasha had to work through her parents’ divorce while Boo and Ginny explored the world of dating and presented one of the most honest looks at virginity that I’ve seen on television recently.  Bunheads only got better throughout its first season as it found its feet and its characters.  Unfortunately, it never found an audience, so these 16 episodes are all we’ll ever get.

Bunheads is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Happy Endings (ABC) –
I want to say that ABC’s scheduling killed Happy Endings.  I really do.  In the fall of 2012, the network delayed the show’s premiere into October and aired two episodes before taking a week off for the Election Night.  They then aired two more episodes before taking a week off for Thanksgiving.  Then, after airing three episodes in December, the show took off two weeks for the holidays.  Not satisfied with those scheduling shenanigans, ABC decided to start doubling up by airing episodes at 9:00 on Sunday nights during January before finally shuffling the show off to die on Fridays.

The fact is, though, that Happy Endings got to spend a year airing after ABC’s top show, Modern Family, and for whatever reason, just never caught on.  And it’s really a shame because Happy Endings was one of the funniest comedies on television during its three year run.  It managed to perfectly blend the joke-a-minute pace of shows like 30 Rock with the sitcom setups of a Modern Family while still showing a little heart like Parks and Recreation.  This show also introduced us to the delightful comedic timing of Elisha Cuthbert, who I wouldhave nominated for an Emmy in 2013. 

While Happy Endings’s final season may not have been as funny as its second, the back-loaded schedule still gave us 16 great episodes in 2013 including a food truck war, “Black Plague: A Love Story,” and Max blowing up his limo in the glorious climax of a prank war.  Like Bunheads, Happy Endings was taken from us too soon.

Happy Endings is not currently available for streaming, but expect it to pop up somewhere soon.

So those are my picks for the best new shows of 2013 (to not make my Top Ten) and the best shows to end their runs.  Coming soon, the (almost) best returning shows of 2013.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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