This year’s crop of freshman shows were a little thin in the impressive department. I found myself reaching to extended and premium cable more than ever to get my TV ya-yas, while thanking the television gods that the sophomore seasons of my favorite network shows (Community, Modern Family, Glee) continued to perform admirably. Here I’ve assembled those few newbies that earned a permanent spot on my series recording list.
Archer – There’s nothing I can add that the briefest bits of dialogue don’t already demonstrate why this raunchy yet witty animated spy spoof series with the best comedic voice cast assembled on television (particularly lead H. Jon Benjamin and Arrested Development alums Jessica Walter and Judy Greer) should be on everyone’s Must Watch list.
Raising Hope – First to admit my status as a comedy snob, I’ve set a standard that shows must impress within three episodes or I don’t invest in a season pass. The sole new network series I’ve included in my favorites fold took exactly that long to win me over. A surprise considering the pedigree of co-starring legend Cloris Leachman, but even though the pilot had some amusing bits, the pieces of the whole didn’t click together instantaneously. That changed with the episode “Dream Hoarders,” which brilliantly combined the hapless yet heartwarming aspects of the show and its characters, and throwing in a little something wacky with the sight of Cloris Leachman’s MawMaw becoming a Jenga savant when hearing They Might Be Giant’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Justified – No, I’m in no way employed by FOX Broadcasting Company or related to Rupert Murdoch. Usually I’m the harshest critic on series coming from Uncle Rupie thanks to inane cancellations of great series (Arrested Development, Wonderfalls, Firefly…the list goes on), but this past year they’ve really impressed me thanks mostly to little brother FX which continued its commitment to out of the box programming. In Justified we’re treated with the classic archetypes of renegade cop and prodigal son wrapped up in lead character Raylan Givings, plus stories dripping in crime noir from the mind of author Elmore Leonard. I also confess that my country roots make me a sucker for shows set in the south. Plus Timothy Olyphant really pulls off that gun and cowboy hat combo (see also, Deadwood). Whatever the case, it can’t be denied that a strong lead and well-executed storytelling are at the heart of Justified and worthy of dedicated viewership.
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Honorable Mention: Terriers (RIP) – I really believed FX would give this phenomenal PI series a second season, considering it fit well with the anti-hero niche the extended cable network had started to corner. Alas, ’twas not in the cards for Terriers as it struggled all 13 episodes to gain a decent-sized audience and it’s pretty easy to put my finger on why – the head-scratching title and obscure marketing choices. I’m all for avoiding the too-obvious route in storytelling, letting viewers discover a little on their own rather than hitting them over the head with exposition, but when it comes to enticing an audience to start watching there’s got to be some explanation to a show’s premise prior to its premiere episode. Those who took a chance and did tune in to the pilot were not disappointed. Surprisingly, but thankfully, the creators were given a heads up by the network to prepare for cancellation, so there’s a good sense of closure in this neatly packaged 1-season series that I highly recommend picking up on DVD when available.
Without interesting characters there can be no compelling storytelling, and for me the most interesting characters are those with serious flaws. Some are repellent yet intriguing, some are absolutely villainous but possess such charisma that you can’t help but be enthralled and others live in a world where difficult decisions must be made and you can’t fault them for sometimes choosing the morally ambiguous action.
There were a lot of amazing characters on television this past year, but the ones below resonated the most and elevated their respective shows to a higher echelon of scripted fare.
Kenny Powers – Eastbound & Down– Played with delightful mullet-ed bravado by Danny McBride, Kenny “Fuckin'” Powers possesses the rare qualities of being boorishly self-deluded while also endearing with the ability to garner sympathy for his continued back-slide into life’s lowest points, even though his own actions are always the catalyst. Constantly inappropriate, whether in the halls of the middle school in season 1 or this past year when his tactless behavior found its way south of the border, he’s his biggest fan and is never afraid to show it with a flair all his own.
Russell Edgington – True Blood – The third season of HBO’s Southern Gothic vampire series brought in the most nuanced and entertaining villain currently on television. Kudos to Denis O’Hare for imbuing depth into such a character who could’ve been written off as more flamboyant than fierce, his vampire King of Mississippi Russell Edgington was at turns a gentleman – most notably his entrance atop a beautifully groomed horse dressed impeccably as if on his way to a dressage – who could morph into a monster in a split second as seen near the end of the season when interrupting a news broadcast to announce his evil machinations to the world.
Gemma Teller Morrow – Sons of Anarchy – As matriarch of outlaw motorcycle club the Sons of Anarchy, Gemma holds court with the kind of strength and ferocity found in a Shakespearean leading lady thanks in large part to the stellar work of Katey Sagal. As the family drama of the show is loosely based on the plot found in Hamlet, she is at heart Queen Gertrude, but time and again she demonstrates the cunning, cutthroat personality of Lady MacBeth especially when it comes to matters involving her family. In season three’s antepenultimate episode “Bainne,” Gemma digs deep into her badass repertoire and goes so far as to hold a gun to an orphan baby’s head to extract information out of the nun who knows the whereabouts of her grandson. A shocking display that further cements her as someone not to be trifled with and never underestimate.
Honorable Mention: Ensemble – Party Down (RIP) – The cancellation of this brilliant Starz comedy from Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas was heartbreaking as the exploits of this ragtag group of Los Angeles cater waiters looking for their big break in Tinseltown quickly became my favorite part of Friday night television. It was always hard to decide which character was the strongest in the bunch until I realized it was the combination of all the players that gave the show such verve. Even with the small cast change between its first and second year (losing Jane Lynch but gaining Megan Mullally!) everyone congealed in a way that made this series shoot to the top of my Brilliant But Cancelled list.
All of these selected moments made a truly lasting impression on me this past year: a show-stopping dance number directed by a personal creative hero, a shocking action sequence that takes its time building the tension before exploding, and two wonderful character-revealing comedy sequences. The shows herein are amongst my favorite currently on air, representing an eclectic taste but akin in delivering top-notch entertainment, creating some of the most indelible characters and scenes for them to play in.
And now the best pieces of a whole.
Glee – Safety Dance Flash Mob, “Dream On” – A show filled with many memorable moments, this choice is probably due to my bias of all things Joss Whedon, He Who Can Do No Wrong. However, it is a wonderful sequence that not only further demonstrates Whedon’s creative acumen (cannot gush enough about his choice to cut in shots that look like clips from the inevitable viral video this flash mob will become) it was also a beautiful piece for supporting character Artie who features mostly in the background, save for the occasional need of a little R&B flavor in some songs (see “Billionaire” or “Umbrella/Singin’ in the Rain”). Kevin McHale got to show off some serious dance skill that obviously couldn’t happen due to his character’s confinement to a wheelchair, and with the episode’s dream theme we thankfully (or heartbreakingly) get to watch Artie experience his deepest wish.
Breaking Bad – Parking Lot Shoot-Out, “Ambush” – How much praise can I heap on Breaking Bad in general? Suffering from what I call the “middle child syndrome,” this AMC drama has found much critical, and award-winning, praise but seems to consistently fall in the shadow of its big brother Mad Men. Both dramas deserve equal accolades, but what Breaking Bad has over Mad Men in spades is the ability to create tense scenes where the audience too-often questions whether the characters they’ve invested so much in will be making it out of any given episode alive. And this is the crux of what I’ve decided is the best scene from a one-hour drama in 2010. The actions of anti-hero lead, Walter White, in the previous season – killing New Mexico’s leading drug kingpin – brought in two of the scariest hitmen television has ever seen, The Cousins. It seemed no one was safe when these twin cold-blooded killers were around, and this scene with Walt’s DEA brother-in-law set in their sites was literally the most breathtaking moment I’ve witnessed on TV.
Modern Family – Song for Lily, “Dance, Dance Revelation” – It’s near-impossible to single out one definitive moment of Modern Family as being the greatest. Absolutely every character is given a chance to shine with every actor stepping up and knocking a performance out of the park, making it the definition of a stellar ensemble show. Saying this I will admit to playing favorites, and it’s that favorite character who provides the majority of my enjoyment when watching. Only because his defining episode, “Fizbo,” aired in 2009 I’ve chosen this scene from late 2010 as his best, demonstrating why Cam is both the heart and funny bone of the show.
Parks & Recreation – Ron’s Whiskey Harp, “Sweetums” – Another show that contains the best ensemble comedy group assembled on television, Parks & Recreation came into its own during the show’s sophomore year thanks in large part to how the characters’ relationships were continually made real and interesting as each episode progressed. Again, my urge to play favorites wins out as I highlight the MVP character of the show, Ron Swanson. The dynamic between Ron’s Director of the P&R department and his Deputy Director (and show lead) Leslie Knope is second only to the stellar team of 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon. This sequence demonstrates Leslie’s constant need to play by the rules coming to blows with Ron’s equally constant need to maintain an upper-hand and most importantly always be right. Both go way too far to prove their points, but ultimately we see that they want to project a strong image of themselves out of their underlying respect for each other.
The beginning of another year brings the inevitable, innumerable “Best of…” lists, highlighing every topic imaginable found in the previous year – from tweets to fleeting celebrities. So with that gentlereaders, I present my own contribution to the interwebospheres with the Best TV of 2010. More than just a simple compilation of series names, I’ve divided my choices into categories that delve a little further into why praise is so deserved and with hopes to bring those uninitiated into the dedicated viewer fold for any or all of these fine examples of television. First up, the overall best episodes.
These are 30 or 60 minutes that encapsulated everything that makes these shows great – acting, writing, et al. Of course it’s easy to place Mad Men and 30 Rock in this category and they both can do no wrong (usually), but even these stellar shows will rise above the high bar they’ve set for the rest of television.
Mad Men, “The Suitcase” – Coming in at the mid-point of a so-so fourth season, this episode is, I dare say, the drama’s finest as it showcased the amazing dynamic of its two strongest characters. Giving the bulk of time to just Don and Peggy as they try to tackle a new campaign for their client Samsonite, which was really just a device by writers to setup an all-nighter of cocktails, confessions and a chaste “sleepover,” allowed the acting prowess of Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss to shine most brilliantly and should guarantee them both their first Emmy wins.
Community, “Modern Warfare” – “Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.” One of countless amazing lines found in this late-freshman year episode, the premise – campus-wide last-man-standing paintball game – seemed on the surface only a gimmick to pile on as many action movie cliches as possible. It ended up not only giving us a lot of clever “Oh that’s from…” moments (Spanish teacher Senor Chang as a John Woo movie-type villain is mind-blowingly brilliant), it was able to further develop and be true to the characters at the heart of the show – keeping an edge, being honest about relationships, without getting too schmaltzy – which makes Community one of my favorite new obsessions.
30 Rock, “Gentlemen’s Intermission” – From Liz’s father Dick Lemon in search of an extra-marital dalliance to Jack’s need for someone’s DIHC (that’s Drive, Intelligence, Humility and Chaos) in order to be fulfilled as a mentor and Tracey’s decision to make sure he leaves an obituary that doesn’t include a submarine DUI, this episode contained everything that makes 30 Rock stellar: quotable lines (“Albino ninja!”), absurdity (Tracey’s all-giraffe basketball team the New York Necks), a little low-brow humor (“She’s got just the right amount of DIHC for me. I hear it and I don’t care.”) and a perfect storyline for Jack & Liz, the greatest on-screen couple that will never fall victim to “will-they-or-won’t-they” sexual tension syndrome. Plus we get to see Liz completely fail at “seducing” her father dressed as Tootsie.
Not being one for cops & robbers TV – yes, I’ll admit with it being on the air 2/3 of my life I have been guilty of catching an episode or two of Law & Order and its many iterations, no one can completely resist the strange yet awesome combo of Ice-T, Richard Belzer AND Chris Meloni – the one spin on the crime genre that’s always intriguing is the focus on down and out, possibly shady but ultimately good guy PI stories. This very kind of series has recently surfaced on FX, the network that has truly cornered the market on anti-hero tales (see Sons of Anarchy, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Justified), and its name is Terriers.
Huh? Isn’t that the TLC show about a kennel for designer dogs? Obscure title aside, after viewing the pilot I immediately wanted more and every episode of this SoCal detective series that’s followed has delivered on its fine first hour.
Coming from the mind who created The Shield, Shawn Ryan, and the wordsmith of the Ocean’s 11 remake, Ted Griffin, Terriers is such a perfect mixture of self-contained cases and over-arching mystery that this fan sees strong resemblances to gone-before-its-time fave Veronica Mars since it includes conspiracies and corrupt, wealthy locals in a seemingly idyllic beachside community (sans the high school setting). While not starring a spunky, pixieish blonde it does have an excellent lead pairing in stars Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as the two intrepid private investigator heroes who, despite not being officially licensed, take cases that continually put them in harm’s way (or police custody), don’t always pay off big and usually involve beefier men highly trained in the art of pummeling. Basically the kind of situations that create great drama, action and quite a lot of comedy.
With a rather lackluster crop of new shows on the big five networks’ fall schedule, Terriers is a welcome breath of fresh air, another noteworthy notch in FX’s impressive belt of series and has the privilege of receiving a coveted “series recording” space on this TV aficionado’s overtaxed DVR queue. In other words, it’s one to watch – FX, Wednesdays at 10/9c.
Being only half-way through the 13-episode run, it’s easy to play catch-up thanks to the interwebs. Let this excellent promo whet your viewing appetite.