Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Best of Television 2013, pt. 2: Those Continuing On

Jim Caviezel will make you hurt in "Person of Interest"

As I mentioned in my introductory post, 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.  Last week, I looked at shows either making their debuts in 2013 or that ended their runs in 2013.  Today, I’ll be looking at shows that were airing before 2013 and which are going to continue airing into the future.

The Big Bang Theory (CBS) -
In doing some research recently I came across a number of reviews for the pilot of The Big Bang Theory and the universal opinion was that it was terrible.  And the amazing thing, watching it again six years later, is that that first episode really was awful, full of lame jokes and quite a bit of laughing at rather than laughing with its characters.  But over the years The Big Bang Theory has evolved into a completely different show, largely thanks to the introduction of additional female characters in Bernadette and Amy. 

While it’s difficult to pick out many amazing moments in the past year of The Big Bang Theory, it’s impossible not to see what attracts this show to such a large audience (the largest demo audience in the country).  This year’s episodes have really highlighted the women as Howard and Bernadette settled into married life, Kate Micucci’s Lucy made a huge impact on Raj, and Amy brought Sheldon to a new level of intimacy.  The latter’s pairing is not the most conventional, granted, but it’s tough not to tear up at the idea of them simulating sex in Dungeons and Dragons.

Only the last two episodes of The Big Bang Theory are available to stream on CBS.com though reruns play several times each week on TBS.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) –
Boardwalk Empire is a show that commands attention.  By that, I don’t mean to say that it’s so much a “must-watch” show as that it requires a close watch to really understand and enjoy.  Boardwalk Empire is a show that takes its time developing a story, with everything coming together in the end.  It's also a show that's not afraid to take chances, whether that's killing the co-lead or, for example, this past season when the show sidelined its traditional Atlantic City locale and led character Nucky for prominent stories following Al Capone and Van Alden in Chicago and Chalky White and newcomer Dr. Valentin Narcisse in New York City.

The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire was a season of big plays as Capone worked to take over Chicago, heroin made its way into New York City, and the FBI took an interest in everybody.  It all wraps up, not with a tidy little bow, but with the requisite hail of gunfire, betrayals, and deaths.  This is a show that really demands multiple viewings, because it is just as fun watching the pieces fall into place while knowing the outcome as it is to see the series play out the first time.

The first four seasons of Boardwalk Empire are available on HBO Go.  The series will likely return in the fall of 2014.

Downton Abbey (PBS) –
I don’t think that Downton Abbey is a great show but, at times, it is able to merge its melodrama and soap opera elements to produce great drama, and it did so twice in 2013 with the deaths of Sybil and Michael Crawley.  While the latter’s death is more shocking, coming in a car accident after the birth of his son, it is the former that is granted an entire episode and which has the greatest emotional impact on the rest of the series. 

What surprised me most about these two momentous events on Downton this past year was how willing the show was to truly delve into their consequences.  The full cost of Michael’s death has yet to be seen (at least by American viewers), but Sybil’s death leads to her husband Tom’s full integration into the family and really casts a pall over the second half of the third season.  Additionally, while I occasionally struggle with Julian Fellowes’s obvious love for the British aristocracy, season three of Downton Abbey often delved into the problems that arise when the family tries too hard to adhere too closely to the old ways of doing things, most notably in Robert’s insistence on trusting a famous, aristocratic doctor over the local doctor with more experience.

Like I said, Downton Abbey isn’t a great show, but it knows how to create great moments, and that’s why I highlight it here.

Season three of Downton Abbey is currently re-airing on PBS and is also available to stream through Amazon Prime.  Season four airs in the United States on PBS beginning January 5th.

Girls (HBO) –
Girls is a tough show for me.  I’m not a huge fan if only because the plight of twenty-something white girls in Brooklyn just doesn’t much intrigue me.  I put off watching the first season until long after it aired and watched the first several episodes of season two pile up on my DVR before finally powering through.  And what I saw was actually really good. 

Girls is at its best when it splits up its titular characters and lets them interact with others.  Arguably the best episode of season two was “One Man’s Trash” which spends the bulk of its time with only Lena Dunham’s Hannah and Patrick Wilson’s Joshua, whom we’ve never seen before and will never seen again.  Watching Hannah get to reflect off of one relatively sane character for an entire episode gave us (and her) a lot of insight into the character and showed what the show can really do when it takes the time to really explore the depths of its characters.  Season two was full of exploration and was all the better for it.

The first two seasons of Girls are available through HBO Go.  Season three premieres on HBO on January 12th.

Justified (FX) –
I’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes trying to think of what to say about Justified.  I want to say that it’s deep and complex.  I want to see that it’s a probing look at criminal life in rural Kentucky.  I want to say that it’s an inside take on what law enforcement agents must do to keep the peace.  But it’s not any of those things.  What it is instead is a fabulously fun show done extremely well.

Season four of Justified started off a little slow as the mystery of Drew Thompson unfolded.  But once that mystery was solved and the resulting story spooled out, the show may have had its best run of episodes ever, beginning with one of the tightest, tensest hours of television in 2013, “Decoy.”  Even beyond the story, however, this last season saw Justified expand beyond its core cast and bring out bigger performances by regulars Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel as the Deputy US Marshals while also featuring its requisite amazing guest stars, most notably Patton Oswalt and Jere Burns, who’s getting upgraded to the main cast for season five.

Justified might be the most fun show on television.  I’m not sure that it’s aspiring to be anything revolutionary, but sometimes great performances in service of a good show are all you need.

The first three seasons of Justified are available to stream through Amazon Prime, with season four likely available there shortly.  Season five is set to debut on FX on January 7th.

New Girl (Fox) –
Six months ago I suggested that New Girl would be my choice to win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy.  I stand by that pick as the second season found the show really hitting its stride and figuring out how to bring Nick and Jess together as a couple without upsetting the show’s dynamics.  Unfortunately, the first half of the show’s third season has not been as strong, resulting in it falling outside of my Top Ten and dropping behind two other comedies in the process.

That’s not to say New Girl has been bad, mind you.  It’s just that the show has struggled this season to keep the characters’ relationships interesting, with many episodes devolving into a bunch of people yelling at each other for only vaguely articulated reasons.  The resolution of Schmidt’s love triangle and the reintroduction of Damon Wayans, Jr. as Coach have helped some of that, but Winston is little more than a crazy person at this point and Nick and Jess’s relationship continues to have issues.  Still, few shows’ jokes are funnier at this point and when New Girl is at the top of its game, it is the best comedy on television.

The first two seasons of New Girl are available on Netflix while the last five episodes are available on Hulu+.  New Girl returns to Fox with new episodes on January 7th.

Person of Interest (CBS) –
I wrote a few weeks ago about Person of Interest’s big turning point episode and while I thought they had made some big-picture mistakes, the execution of the episode in particular and the storyline in general were fantastic, if only because it led to this. 

What’s been most surprising is the show’s willingness to get deep into the meaning of artificial intelligence and an all-seeing, all-knowing program placed in the hands of both the good and bad guys.  Season two ends with the realization that The Machine is actually alive and capable of controlling itself while season three continues the NSA allegory with multiple groups fighting over multiple computers capable of watching and recording our every move.  Obviously this is a CBS show, so they can’t really deal with the big ideas very often.  But when they can, it makes for some really great television that’s unlike anything else currently on broadcast television.

The previous two episodes of Person of Interest are available at CBS.com.  New episodes return January 7th.

Well that rounds out my “Next Best” of 2013.  I’ll be back in a few days with my Top Ten 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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