Archive | February, 2013

Spring 2013 Review: House of Cards

27 Feb

House of Lies as well

The show that House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, most reminds me of is the two season Starz show Boss starring Kelsey Grammar as the mayor of Chicago.  A good quick description would be a less ridiculous and extreme version of Boss, at least so far, though that’s not a very meaningful statement since it would be difficult to construct a more ridiculous version of Boss.  However, since only eight people in the world have actually seen Boss, I best elaborate further.

House of Cards, the first true Netflix original program, is all about about politics and power and comes from Beau Willimon, who is best known for writing the play Farragut North, later adapted into the movie Ides of March, which starred George Clooney and Ryan Gosling.  I don’t know how different the play is from the movie, but House of Cards seems like a more complicated version of themes touched upon in Ides of March.  Idealism is misplaced in a Washington D.C. political climate that revolves around power and sex, and while there are people who want to get good things done, even the relative good guys know that there’s a whole lot of dirty business that has to go on to make the smallest good thing happen even for just a couple of people.  Making the sausage is at its best an ugly process.

Frank Underwood is a player in a Washington world of those who are players and those who are played, and when the president, a Democrat who Underwood helped elect, turns him down for his hoped for promotion to Secretary of State, Underwood vows to reassert his power and make the president pay, politically.  Underwood knows how to work the system, and begins a working relationship with an ambitious young reporter (Kate Mara) desperate for news, feeding her leaks in exchange for her publicizing them and keeping him out of it.  Other characters include a philandering cokehead congressman from Pennsylvania and his hopelessly-in-love-with-him girlfriend employee, Underwood’s chief of staff, who gives him counsel and does occasional dirty work, and the president’s chief of staff, who so far seems to be always one step behind Underwood.

In a show like this, some of how I view the beginning will depend on how the show pays off on its set ups.  In particular, the plot revolving around Underwood’s wife  (Robin Wright), who runs a water related non-profit seems tertiary to the rest of the story, but I’m willing to give it some leeway if Willimon eventually brings us around to where this matters. It’s hard to see the connections just yet though.  Clearly, Russo, the drugged out Congressman, is going to play some critical part as well, but it’s hard to say what.  In the first episode, the pieces are laid out on the board, and we can take guesses, but it’s too far away to figure out exactly how many of them will be used and to what effect.

The other current show House of Cards reminds me vaguely is Game of Thrones, another show about struggles for power, and the gap between the players and the played, demonstrating the idea that today’s Washington politics aren’t worlds away from the feaux medieval power struggles of Game of Thrones (though hopefully without as many bodies).

It’s not a very funny show; there isn’t much humor, but it’s a relatively fun show so far, in that there’s an element of trashy sleaze that prevents it from being bogged down with the serious pretensions that sometimes drag down a show like Boardwalk Empire.  Spacey’s Underwood frequently interjects the story the talk to the camera, explaining how Washington works, and why he’s taking the action he is.  I’m not sure if these interjections are actually supposed to be funny; again, they’re not, but they keep the show relatively light for a show about these topics, compared to Boss as well, another show that seems to want to take itself so goddamn seriously.

I’d also be remiss not to notice that Kevin Spacey’s southern accent (He’s a congressman from South Carolina, already stretching reality, as a white Democratic congressman from the South), which I have no idea how authentic, is nevertheless slightly distracted; couldn’t he just be from Delaware or something?  Also, the first episode is directed by David Fincher.  I don’t have a lot to say about that right here and now, but it’s certainly worth noting.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I’m in for more.  I’m not convinced it will be a great show, but it certainly has at least the chance to be a very fun show, but let’s hope the writers planned out the plotlines.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 3-1

25 Feb

We’re finally here at the end the ranking of shows I watched in 2012 – to see what qualifies, check out the intro here – 3, 2, and 1 are below.

3.  Game of Thrones

The seven houses

I kind of knew what Game of Thrones was before the show aired, but only the vaguest basics.  My friend had been touting it for years, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and though I was excited for the show, I didn’t get around to reading the books before the show aired.  By the seventh episode, I was so obsessed with the show that I started the first book and finished them all that summer.  I would have read five more books pretty quickly if only they were available.  This is of course the TV show, and not the books, but with Game of Thrones, they’re somewhat intertwined; George R.R. Martin is involved with the show, writing an episode each year, and because the story is so complex, and is unfinished, there’s a limit to the amount the show can deviate from the books, as opposed to shows like The Walking Dead or Dexter.  While I haven’t agreed with all the changes from the books, some have been very smart, including the added screen time for Tywin Lannister, an important character in the book who does most of his work outside the main storylines, and particularly his pairing with Arya Stark.  The show, like the book, is a thought-provoking fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Instead of a stark (no pun intended) Lord of the Rings-like contrast of good versus evil, Game of Thrones is about shades of gray.  Who the heroes and antagonists are isn’t always clear, and with the exception of a couple of truly psychopathic characters, the antagonists also have believable motivations.  While at first I was disappointed by the fact that dragons actually existed in the world of Game of Thrones, I’ve now come to terms with it and have begun to appreciate George R.R. Martin’s very selective use of magic and traditional fantasy elements.  Rather than water down the book by having magic appear everywhere, its uses are uncommon and important.  Each episode is chock full of ruminations on the nature of power and justice and the right to rule, all tied up with well-crafted characters and psychological intrigue.  Characters are constantly playing each other, important characters die, and when big moments come they seem both surprising but not out of nowhere at the same time.  All of these factors make for extremely gripping television; I haven’t found someone yet who started Game of Thrones and didn’t really like it.

2.  Mad Men

Mad Men

For some reason, between the third and the fourth season of Mad Men, I had convinced myself that Mad Men was solid enough but that maybe it wasn’t so great.  Then, the fourth season came out, and I realized the show was fantastic and I was crazy to have ever thought that.  I did not make that mistake again in the long wait between the fourth and fifth seasons, and was rewarded with another excellent set of episodes.  I haven’t seen the other seasons again since finishing, but the fifth season might have been the best ever.  There was no one obvious best episode of the season like there was with the fourth season’s “The Suitcase” but that spoke to the strength of the season as there were several stand outs, including “Far Away Places,” “The Other Woman,” and “Commissions and Fees.”  Roger on LSD was a real treat and Roger has over the past couple of seasons become my favorite characters (I tend to love sharp tongued nihilists (see Jaime in Game of Thrones)).  I was extremely skeptical about Megan as a character from her relatively small role in the fourth season, but the dynamic between Megan and Don was one of the more interesting plotlines of the season.  Although new character Dawn was underused, other new character Michael  Ginsberg was a real winner, challenging Don in ways that Peggy never did.  We’ve seen Don challenged at his job by his own lack of interest, but we’ve never seen him challenged before now because he’s losing his touch generationally, a point driven home by the first ever use of a Beatles song, Tomorrow Never Knows, in a TV show, which famously cost a quarter million dollars but was fantastic. My minor qualm with this season was that I don’t see the point of including Betty plots that showcase how awful Betty is; to me Betty a couple of seasons ago became a cartoonish villain, and kind of let Don off the hook for all his cheating because she was so irritating.  I would have just cut Betty largely out of the show.  Still, every other character from Don to Megan to Roger to Peggy to Pete to Lane to Joan (Christina Hendricks work is masterful in “The Other Woman”) are firing on all cylinders.  I look forward to watching it again some day, and I can’t wait for the new season.

1.  Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t like the first half of season five as much as I did season four, and I seriously considered moving Breaking Bad down. It was essentially a tie, and I let Breaking Bad keep its place, much like Supreme Court decisions are upheld with a tie.  However, while it’s absolutely worth saying that I didn’t like this half season as much as the last, it’s still phenomenal TV.  Even minor decisions I disagree with are imbued with serious thought and care, and I appreciate that.  The brilliant filming technique was on display in episodes like “Dead Freight”, a heist episode which was far more action movie than I’d like Breaking Bad to be, but was still enjoyable due to the skillful cinematography.  If season 4 turned recurring character Gus into a break out main character, season 5 did the same for Mike.  Jonathan Banks perfected Mike’s blend of an incredible level of competence, been-there-seen-that skepticism and eternal calm.  Walt was interesting too, figuring out how to proceed as the winner, rather than under the gun, and though he certainly became in some ways more evil, I actually didn’t entirely hate him, compared to many other viewers.  No show keeps as many possible scenarios going forward, all of which are plausible, leading to the best form of unpredictability. Breaking Bad does as good a job as any show on tv of leaving lots of different strands in the air, only a few of which actually need to be answered to avoid the feeling of pulling a Lost (leaving important questions unanswered) (ie. the ricin cigarette; not coming back to that again would be unacceptable).  Little scenes which may not be entirely central to the plot work as brilliant vignettes in and of themselves, such as the opening to “Madrical” in which a German executive kills himself with a defibrilator is a fantastically nifty bit of filmmaking.  Like any show, of course, I have minor qualms; I thought the resolution to the situation at the end of “Dead Freight” was a bit of a cop out, and new character Lydia has some issues.  Still, this is compelling TV at its best every week, with wonderful characters and beautiful scenes, and though I’m often scared to watch what will happen in each episode, once it finishes I often want to go back and watch again.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 6-4

22 Feb

We’re nearing the end of my ranking of shows that I watched in 2012 – the intro explaining what qualifies is here and 6, 5, and 4 are below.

6.  Parks and Recreation

The cast of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation isn’t revelatory or mind-exploding; it’s merely a workmanlike comedy which is funny and great nearly every single week, almost never putting out a weak episode.  Like just about every show on TV that has lasted more than a couple of seasons, Parks and Recreation has threatened to tire and run out of ideas over time.  In its case, the biggest concerns have been the potential hammering into the ground of the single dimensionness of some of the characters, including Tom, Ron, April, Andy, and Chris.  However, the show has somewhat recognized this and begun handling this issue in a better way by fleshing out at least some of these characters; Tom and Ron have had their single-minded ridicouslessness mellowed out by Tom’s new store and business ploy and Ron’s new girlfriend, which make both of them seem at least ever so slightly more like real people.  I oft complain about unearned emotion on television; I hate when shows use songs to rev up emotional feeling towards characters that you wouldn’t care about otherwise.  Contrary to this, Parks and Recreation has earned the right to emotional moments through character building over the years; it was hard not to be moved when Ben proposed to Leslie.  Leslie and Ben are both extremely well built characters, and the show reached its peak period when Ben and Rob Lowe’s Chris Traegar joined the cast and the bland Mark Brendanawicz left at the end of the second season.  Ann is multi-dimensional as well, but sometimes has trouble finding anything to do in the midst of the Parks and Recreation employees who have a tighter bond.  Every one of the characters is  capable of delivering laughs, and many of the recurring bits, like the Eagleton-Pawnee rivalry, and the idiocy of the Pawnee residents at town meetings could easily wear out, but are used just sparingly enough, and are written well enough, that they continue work.  All of these elements add up to a show that while not groundbreaking will be considered a classic for years ago to come and hopefully has a couple more seasons left.

5.  New Girl

Jess and the gang

New Girl is also of the Parks and Recreation school of comedy; there’s no dynamite crazy ambitious episode where everything comes together like in Community (or maybe Louie) but rather sheer episode to episode consistency and hilarity.  After taking a few episodes to find its voice, New Girl has really come into its own over the last season or so, emerging to the point that I found myself talking with several other people who agreed that all of a sudden New Girl had to be considered in the top tier of TV comedies.  There are small kinks; mainly that they’re still slowly figuring out how to use Winston and Cece.  The handling of the other three characters, however, is superb.  Jess turned down the quirk just enough after the first few episodes of the first season and has been incredibly entertaining since.  Schmidt has been the break out character, and has certainly earned the acclaim, expertly playing a lovable pretentious douche with just the right amount of obnoxiousness to love.  Nick is the most underrated of the three, but my personal favorite; his smallest lines and movements I find hilarious and worth repeating over and over again; recently I quoted the short vaguely throwaway line, “I’m not a dad guy” constantly around my brothers who quickly grew tired of it, but I never did.  A Nick b-plot earlier in the season in which a homeless guy came into his bar and told Nick that he was him from the future was fantastic, and perfected walked the line of is-this-real-this-can’t-be-real for both the audience and Nick.  Another small flaw is that the writers haven’t quite properly figured out how to use cutaways – too often they get nothing from the flashback that wasn’t already gotten from the description.  Still, this is great TV just emerging, and if you’re not on the bandwagon yet, it’s time to get on.

4.  Community


As noted in my Parks and Recreation entry, Community, due in part to its ambition and risk taking,  is more inconsistent compared to New Girl or Parks and Recreation but that’s a trade off for the occasional incredible episode in which everything comes together to produce 22 minutes of unforgettable TV.  Gimmick episodes, which work for some shows and don’t for others, have become the stock-in-trade of Community, probably more so than any other show ever. Several shows have attempted the fake clip show, but no one has done it better than Community, in the episode “Curriculum Unavailable”, in which John Hodgman plays a psychologist trying to convince the Greendale crew that they’re in a mental institution rather than a community college. An entire Law & Order homage episode would have been an insane idea for just about any non-Community show and was cat nip to longtime fans of the program including myself, and featured an appearance by real Law & Order medical examiner Leslie Hendrix and spoke to casual and hard core fans of Law & Order.  Virtual Systems Analysis may have been the best episode last spring, in which Annie and Abed take a tour through the Dreamatorium and explore Abed’s unusual psyche. Though that episode and others, Dan Harmon has shown he is the best since Joss Whedon at packing powerful emotional punches in gimmick episodes.  In any given week, Community is more likely to have a couple of attempts fall flat than the two shows listed before it on this list, and John Goodman’s role as head of the air conditioning repair school was an example of something that never quite worked for me as well as it could have (the plotline had its moments, but often felt like it was just off).   Community is also more likely though to produce that brilliant episode, and while I look forward every week to New Girl and Parks and Recreation because I know they’ll be good, I looked forward to Community because there was a shot at brilliance.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 9-7

20 Feb

We’re on the top 10 of my ranking of the shows I watched in 2012 – the rules to be included are here, and 9, 8, and 7 follow.

9.  Childrens Hospital

Blake Downs, MD

The last of the three Adult Swim shows on this list, Childrens is also the most accessible, as it balances a healthy level of absurdism with a brand of silly, feel good hijinks.  Parks and Recreation got a lot of credit when it was first getting popular for being a truly nice comedy; it was made up of characters that were largely civil to one another (April aside), and the humor was built on the back of a startling lack of cynicism. Childrens Hospital, while a far zanier show, filled with characters who are alternately nice or mean depending on the needs of any particular episode, also operates with a startling lack of cynicism.  There’s occasional continuity between episodes, but only when the creators feel like making a reference, and otherwise every episode stands completely one its own, and every character has a different personality in every episode.  The characters are more a company meant to pull together whatever plot and string of jokes the writers can think of. Childrens Hospital features frequent parodies, of which some are specific, and some are of general tropes, but rather than being cutting and deep, they’re light-hearted and in good fun.  While some episodes stand strongly above others, gimmick episodes frequently work, including last season’s ingenious “British Hospital”, which was simply an episode of Childrens, except with an all British cast, using slightly different names and making a number of British references, but played completely seriously.  The short run time of episodes make them ideal for rewatching, and the cast’s comic skills make the jokes work.  A legal parody is episode “Childrens Lawspital” funny less because it hits on exact legal tropes than because of how ridiculous and outlandish it is.  Childrens Hospital is not for everyone, but I think many people who wouldn’t appreciate the far out absurdism of Eagleheart would chuckle at Childrens.

8.  Treme

Down in the Treme

Treme and Eagleheart are probably the two least watched shows on this list.  Eagleheart most people don’t know about, but also many people wouldn’t like, and it probably makes sense that it couldn’t be anything more than simply a bigger cult hit.  Treme, sure, most people don’t know about it also, but is far more well-known than Eagleheart, and has somehow developed a reputation of being boring and uninteresting.  I’ve seen at last three separate TV shows over the past year name check Treme, in both positive and negative ways, but generally around the idea of how it either is or seems boring.  And I do get that; I thought it seemed boring and uninteresting for a while based simply on the concept and that’s why I didn’t watch it.  And then I watched it, and it’s not that at all.  Unfortunately it’s going away after a shortened fourth season, because nobody watches, but honestly we should be thankful to get four seasons at all for a show that might not have lasted 10 episodes on a network.  David Simon, as sanctimonious as always, has talked about how people shouldn’t watch and judge Treme episode by episode, and should instead take it as a whole season.  I don’t necessarily agree with many of Simon’s opinions, including often those about his own show, but I do believe if more people really gave Treme a full season’s chance, they would be surprised with how much they enjoyed the show as well.  The characters are as deep, detailed, and real as any show on TV, and no show currently airing feels more like the real world.  The only dramas above this on the list are excellent, but either fantasy, set in the past, or heavily stylized; Treme deals with contemporary reality and does an extraordinary job.

7.  Archer


Archer’s first season I liked, but didn’t love.  The show improved greatly even from the first to second half of the first season, and over the course of the next two, I was entirely sold.  Archer, the second animated program on this list, features a great group of characters, but relies most on the dickish charisma of main character and super spy Sterling Archer, voiced by the great H. Jon Benjamin (also the voice of the main character of the other animated show on this list, Bob’s Burgers), who consistently brings the laughs.  Archer is a perfect combination of competent and reckless, and you don’t mind that he’s an asshole; in fact, if he wasn’t, much of the humor of the show would be eliminated.  Archer, about a private often incompetent organization of intelligence agents and super spies, run by Archer’s mother, Mallory (voiced by Jessica Walter, Arrested  Development’s Lucille, playing a very similar character) opened the most recent third season with a fantastic three parter about Archer being caught by pirates and later becoming a pirate king, and ended the season with a two parter featuring the crew in space caught in the web of a rebel astronaut voiced by Bryan Cranston.  Recurring jokes and humor play a significant role in Archer.  There are more than a handful of hilarious catch phrases and repeated bits, and everyone has their favorites, but mine include Archer’s shout of “Phrasing” whenever his mother, who heads the intelligence agency, uses sexually suggestive wording, and his “Read a book” when he makes a random historical reference. Archer isn’t for everyone, but I think if you like other FX comedies (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in particular), there’s a good chance you’d like Archer.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 12-10

18 Feb

Moving on through the rankings of shows I watched regularly in 2012 – this intro will explain what qualifies one for the list – 12, 11, and 10 follow.

12.  Workaholics

Anders, Adam, and Blake

Much to my shock but not dismay (what’s the exact opposite of dismay?) it seems like Workaholics is catching on for real, moving into its fourth season, which is incredibly impressive for a scripted Comedy Central show not called South Park.  Making it past a dreaded Comedy Central first season is already an achievement in and of itself, but four is a true rarity.  Unlike Bob’s Burgers, I’ve been along for the entire ride this time, though it’s as much luck that I have been watching since the beginning as anything else; one humorous commercial convinced my friend and I to watch, and we were as surprised as anyone that it was actually pretty good.  The show picked up from there, and it’s the type of show where repeated interactions with the characters improves your appreciation as you get into the chemistry between their three personalities.  When Adam does something that’s so Adam, it’s funnier the more episodes you’ve seen.  Adam is clearly the star of the show and provides many of the funniest scenes, but Blake and Anders are hardly just along for the ride.  Perhaps the best episode of the most recent season involved a contrived plot in which the three characters had to stay drunk for the entire episode, to prevent becoming hungover.  Played like Speed, but less like a parody than a loose plot to work around, the episode was hilarious throughout and contains a combination of physical comedy, pop culture references, silliness, and absurdism.

11.  Justified


I’ve said it before, but Raylan Givens, the main character in Justified, is the role Timothy Olyphant was born to play.  It’s his vehicle, and everyone else is somewhat secondary, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have chances to shine.  Still, he’s a strong enough character to carry the show largely on his own.  Justified is what a USA show could be if it didn’t have the shackles imposed on it simply by being a USA show.  Justified is limited in scope; it could never be The Wire or The Sopranos, in terms of the sheer breadth, but it does what it does very well and there’s something to be said for knowing what you’re good at and sticking to your strengths. The third season came off of the second season high with a weaker overall serial plot, particularly the primary antagonist, Robert Quarles, who was terrifying but less interesting than Mags Bennett and her largely incompetent clan.  Still it may actually say more about the resilience of the show that it was able to chug right along with an overall weaker villain and feature a season that was damn near almost as good.  The show has struggled at times to find a role for Walten Goggins, who plays sometimes villain, sometimes anti-hero Boyd Fowler, especially when he’s not working with or against Raylan, and while I’ve sometimes thought they should just not feel inclined to include Goggins in every episode, they’ve done a fairly good job of keeping his plots interesting and relevant considering.  I like the secondary characters that work with Givens at the Marshals Office, and I like that they don’t shy away from pointing out Givens’ ridiculous behavior. I expected solid but not spectacular from Justified, and while the show may not reach the breathtaking heights of Mad Man, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, it certainly exceeded my initial expectations.

10.  Eagleheart


All three of the Adult Swim 11 minute shows on this list are absurd live action shows of a type found nowhere else on TV, but none are as truly absurdist as the least known and talked about, Eagleheart, which stars Chris Elliot as a Marshal, along with his sidekicks, Maria Thayer and Brett Gelman.  Episodes sometimes change plots twice an episode, invent things as they go along, and, in one episode, the entire plot turns out to have been an amusement park ride.  It’s ridiculous, and how ridiculous it is makes it wonderful; there is no non-aminated show more out there on television.  The best episode of the season may have been the opener in which it’s postulated that the chief, played by Mad Men’s Michael Gladis, inspired Chris Elliot’s character to become a US Marshal by impregnating his wife, and then having his son, which he made seem like Chris’s son, hiring the son to fake his death 10 years later, which caused Chris to become a marshal.  The son also pretended to be various important characters in Chris’ deputies’ lives, then faked dying, to persuade them to become marshals (Thayer’s old college boyfriend, and Gelman’s favorite restaurant waiter).  Later in the same 11 minute episode, it’s revealed that there’s a baker who makes a cake to celebrate every bloodbath caused by Chris, but all the cakes have already been made, thus predicting the future bloodbaths.  If this sounds convoluted and insane, that’s because it is, but it’s a lot funnier when watched than when explained, and if you actually expect it to make any sense, you’re watching the wrong show.  I would guess this is by far the least watched show on this list (though it may have competition with one of the next few) and I don’t know why more people haven’t found out about it, but if anyone likes absurdism, this is the place to go, and it takes just a couple of hours to watch all the 11 minute episodes of the entire series.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 Edition: 15-13

15 Feb

Here’s one piece of my ranking of all the shows that I watch in 2012 – the rules are here, and 15, 14, and 13 follow.

15.  Sherlock

Sherlock and Watson

Sherlock is the show with the most unusual airing schedule, as it only airs three episodes a season, but those three episodes are virtually movies, at an hour and a half each.  I seriously considered whether or not Sherlock should be considered, but it is a television show now with multiple seasons, and the length of the combined episodes is just about the length of a ten episode season of an HBO comedy, let alone a standard British comedy season.  It’s the second of two British shows on the list; as mentioned in the intro, I look forward to catching up on Peep Show and The Thick of It (and a couple of other British shows I’m far farther back on) but I’m not there yet.  There’s something about the Sherlock Holmes character the world has always loved and this new adaptation showcases that while smartly updating the show for modern times.  It takes enough from the actual stories for originalists to appreciate it, while adding enough to keep it fresh and current.  At the heart of any adaptation has to be the actors behind Sherlock and his assistant, John Watson, and their interactions, and Sherlock shines here as the work from Benedict Cumberpatch and Martin Freeman is exemplary.  Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as aloof and insensitive enough for some to despise but slightly caring and fascinating enough for Watson to look up to and care for.  The episodes are not even in quality, and the first and last has tended to be better in each season than the middle episodes, but overall it’s compelling television.

14.  Louie


I’ll admit to having a change of heart on Louie.  I was way behind the curve initially (and many will say I still am, ranking the show a lowly 14), but I’ve come around, slowly but surely.  I think I was initially put off by some combination of not understanding what the show was trying to be, in particular not being a big fan of the first couple of episodes I saw, and being a little bit turned off by the amount of stand up in the show (while I’m not immune to good stand up, it’s not my favorite form of comedy).  I’ll admit that it was my personal hang up for trying to put Louie in a box, and I struggled initially to figure out whether the show was trying to funny or serious or important or dry.  Eventually I just came to the conclusion that, well, Louie is a different show in different episodes, and that’s okay.  Some veer on uproarious, while some are deadly serious and not funny at all.  The first couple that I saw, I felt were a little bit too outlandish for the look and feel of the show, and seemed like they were unsuccessfully trying to be a less funny, more real Curb Your Enthusiasm.  However, after seeing some really winning episodes, particularly in the second season, I’m a full fledged fan, if not a fanatic.  Because of its nature, some episodes are vastly superior to others, but when it hits all the right notes, there’s some seriously poignant television that is definitely like nothing else on the air.  Louie specializes in a reality based awkwardness; unlike Larry David in Curb or David Brent in The Office, Louie is generally the reasonable character in his situations.  My favorite segments are less the ridiculously awkward ones than some of the amusing vignettes, such as the last season episodes where he and Robin Williams attend a funeral together, and when he apologizes to Marc Maron.

13.  Bob’s Burgers

Bob and Family

If you told me a year ago that I’d be ranking Bob’s Burgers here, I’d have told you you were crazy.  In fact, I’d have told you, I hadn’t even ever seen Bob’s Burgers, because, well, it looked pretty dumb, I didn’t have a lot of people I knew or respected telling me to watch, and it was buried in a network slot in a way that I largely forgot about its existence after the first wave of commercials that came with its debut.  I’m not sure why though; when I looked even a little deeper, I realized it’s by Home Movies co-creator Loren Bouchard and features voice actors H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman, and Kristen Schaal, all of whom I’m fans.  After some prodding, I took the plunge with some friends, and while the first one I saw wasn’t great, it had enough to get me on to a second episode.  From there I just couldn’t believe how much I liked the show for a show I had, until then, not even seriously considered watching; it wasn’t merely that I just hadn’t gotten to it but had meant to.  It’s a pure joy to watch.  Many of my favorite shows are heavy or awkward or serious but Bob’s Burgers is none of those things and that makes it a great show to put right before you go to sleep to leave you with a smile on your face.  It’s constantly funny, and every single character gets a moment to shine.  While I probably prefer Bob, Louise and Gene, they’re all great, and I think, like in great shows like Arrested Development, any given person could have a different favorite character order.  When I recommend this show, I have found other people equally surprised by how much they like it, and I plan on keep spreading the wealth, pleased by the fact that when many of my favorites shows are getting cancelled, Bob’s has been renewed for a fourth season.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 18-16

13 Feb

Three more on my list of the best shows I watched in 2012 – the rules to be included are here, and 18, 17,  and 16 are below.

18.  Homeland

Brody and Carrie

I never thought I’d see the day when The Walking Dead would be a mere one slot below Homeland, and if we’re just using the last few weeks of 2012, Homeland would be behind.  Homeland is somewhat the victim of bad timing; the show aired too late to be considered in my first ranking the summer of 2011, and if I had conducted a ranking this time last year, I was prepared to select Homeland #4 overall.  The first season really was that good; I can remember very few first seasons which have knocked my socks off like Homeland’s did, just about stem to stern.  In fact the most serious problem with the season was just that the writers had, due to events towards the end of the first season, put themselves in a potentially very difficult place to go out and write a second season as strong.  That’s pretty much what happened; the second season had some great parts and great episodes but was seriously flawed, especially in the second half, enough so for the show to continue to be worth watching, but no longer a member of the elite.  I ranted and raved some thoughts about the second season in a longer entry, but suffice to say by the second half the show runners had dug themselves into a hole which they could never quite figure a way out of, leaving the main plot threads of the second season to end in disappointingly unsatisfying ways.  The show changed its focus and veered way too far into 24 action hero territory.  The second half of the season seriously made me question whether the first season was merely incidentally stumbled upon by everything going right, making it unrepeatable.  Homeland at least put itself in a place where the slate is much cleaner than it was starting the second season, and hopefully, at least behind the scenes, the writers realize the predicament they put themselves in last year, and plan better now to avoid it, especially now that they know they’re likely to get a fourth and a fifth season.

17.  The Walking Dead

Rick and Crew

As Homeland goes one way, The Walking Dead goes the other.  No show has improved its fortunes more in the past calendar year, or, really, in the last four months of 2012, than The Walking Dead, which moved from an incredibly problematic second season into a much-improved third season.  This was accomplished largely by much better pacing but also by adding new characters and subtracting old ones who were running out of material.  The second half of the second season which aired in the spring of 2012 featured a lot of the problems of the first half; absolutely terrible pacing and too much time spent on less interesting characters.  Even the second season had moments which made it seem like the show could be a lot better, such as a tense situation in which Rick and a couple of other characters are looting an abandoned bar and run into some other strangers who may be either friend or foe. Rick is forced to make a quick decision about how to deal with them, and these interesting situations about how to deal with issues of trust and the value of humanity in the post-zombie world are gripping.  There were a handful of these powerful scenes but they’d couldn’t obscure the wasted episodes that came in between them.  The third scenes basically scrapped this formula and moved much quicker. It also killed off characters without abandon, leading to a situation in which it feels like no one but Rick is truly safe and the same interactions amongst the same personalities were less stale.  The addition of a second location, the Governor’s town, was interesting in and of itself and likely improved the pacing because of the back and forth.  The Walking Dead hasn’t always had character compelling enough, Rick aside, to get by on mere constant personality squabbles, working much better when those squabbles are forced by external circumstances, and there were simply more of those circumstances in the third season.

16.  30 Rock


I’ve occupied a strange position in regards to 30 Rock over the last few years, but really ever since the show started.  Once I caught up, while the show was in its second season, I was an ardent supporter but always felt it was wrongly cited as the best comedy on TV, especially while The Office was having some of its best seasons, and then later on, when Parks and Recreation and Community emerged as gems.  Particularly, I had been down on 30 Rock more recently, calling the show out not for being terrible by any means, but for seeming to make a bit of a slip from its peak years.  I’ve had a change in attitude.  I could chalk this down to some combination of this season making a marked comeback in quality, but maybe also to the fact it’s the show’s last and I’m appreciating it in light of its impending end.  As much as I have liked 30 Rock over the years, and I have, I thought I was ready for the show to end, but only now, after really enjoying the final episodes did I realize that I’m actually going to miss it when it’s gone.  While The Office, a great show over the run of its life, bumbles its way to the finish line, 30 Rock goes out in high style, and there’s something to be said for that, but also for giving 30 Rock its due in the canon, where, while maybe never the best comedy at any given time, was always worth watching, and that’s worth a lot.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2012 edition: 21-19

11 Feb

The 2012 ranking of the shows I watched (well, 2013 ranking of the shows I watched in 2012) is on – check out the intro here for the rules, 21, 20, and 19 below.

21.  Wilfred

Which one is Wilfred?

With two main characters who are a man and a man in a dog suit, this is a show whose set up could easily get tired. A couple of times it seemed like it was about to, before the writers pulled a trick or an episode out of their bag that again reveals there’s plenty more material to work through.  The premise relies on a little bit of possible mental instability, or possible magic realism, as Elijah Wood’s main character Ryan sees  his attractive neighbor’s dog, Wilfred, as a living and talking human.  Is Ryan crazy, or hallucinating, or is that just how it goes?  Wilfred the show occasionally tries to explore the origin of Wilfred the character, something I”m less interested in; I’m generally content to not care why Ryan sees Wilfred as a human in a dog suit, and just go along for the ride.  That said, some of the best episodes tend to be the strangest which actually delve into the Wilfred situation, without actually providing so far any real answers, which I’m thankful about.  After a couple of episodes at the beginning of the series which didn’t thrill me, I caught on to one which featured the idea that Wilfred potentially had the power to kill suffering elderly patients at a nursing home.  It was weird, and in this case, weird meant good.  The show can get a bit repetitive at its worst, with Ryan slavishly following Wilfred’s terrible advice after objecting time after time, and it’s insistence on opening with a quote which attempts to focus the episode is misguided, but the show has smartly evolved and changed up the procedure and the outcomes.  I like it more than I thought I would from the beginning, and while it could use work, it always seems like right after a lackluster episode, the show delivers a winner.

20.  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia


It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been going on from a damn long time now, and while maybe it’s still a cult show in some sense, the cult has gotten a whole lot bigger over the years, with green men showing up at sporting events as the best outside manifestation of Sunny’s popularity.  Every year I think the show has run out of material, and while every new season is hardly constructed of 10 consecutive all time classics, by now I’m come to expect a few absolutely excellent episodes and the rest to be at least pretty decent, with a fair amount of laugh lines.  I largely thought they would run out of material because many early episodes seemed to rely on the gang’s zany take on contemporary issues – how would the gang deal with abortion, or homosexuality, or any number of different drugs.  The show smartly now relies less on specific issues than on finding fun ways to butt the characters’ personalities against one another.  The best episodes of the show, like one of the best last season, in which the gang in separate groups visits a nice Italian restaurant, rely on exploiting the different characteristics of each member of the gang which have been built up over so many seasons, and playing them against one another.  The super high concept episodes aren’t my favorite – the flashback episode, or the revolutionary war one, but I can appreciate that they’re trying.  Either way, after slightly souring on the show after the third or fourth season, the show has nicely plateaued into reliable laughs, and I’m pretty pleased about that.

19.  NTSF: SD: SUV


It’s important to note as I go further, and I should have already, and will again, that the rankings are more useful in tiers, than they are in regard to exact placement.  For example, I’m pretty confident in picking my #10 show above my #22 show, but the distinction between #19 and #20 is pretty useless.  NTSF is the first of three eleven minute live action Adult Swim shows to appear on this list, and was the last one I got into.  I watched the first episode long before I watched any others, and it didn’t thrill me; I didn’t expect to keep watching.  However, as the show featured a number of actors I like (Paul Scheer, Martin Starr, and Party Down and New Girl veteran June Dianne Raphael), and appeared right after personal favorite Childrens Hospital, I decided, wisely, it turns out, to give it another chance.  NTSF: SD: SUV is a perfect fit with Childrens Hospital and with Adult Swim in terms of sheer absurdism of the type not often seen in live action television.  Nothing, wonderfully, has to make sense.  Each episode has a plot featuring the members of NSTF: SD: SUV trying to prevent some sort of scheme to destroy their beloved San Diego, but beyond that, everything’s fair game.  My likely favorite episode of the most recent second season featured time travel, as the agents, guided by the Time Angels, take a time slide back and forth to prevent a nuclear explosion and capture evil time slide-creator Leonardo Da Vinci.  It is ludicrous, filled with nonsensical time paradoxes, and wonderful.  When I first watched, I viewed NTSF as a poor man’s Childrens Hospital, and while I still regard Childrens higher, I now believe NTSF can be in its class.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2012 edition: 24-22

8 Feb

Ranking the shows I watch, from 2012 – for the rules, see the intro here; 24, 23, and 22 below.

24.  Downton Abbey

Downtown Abbey

I thought the show was titled Downtown Abbey for a good year, like many.  The first season captivated me a lot more than I thought it would, and I’d like to make a shout out here to the wonderful theme music.  The second season, with more episodes, struggled a little bit (we’re using American air dates, so second season aired in 2012, rather than British air dates, where the third season was shown last fall).  While some people were stunned to realize they were watching an overblown primetime soap, albeit with interesting social issues at play, that much was obvious to me.  The problem rather was that some of the twists in the second season were pure daytime, most notably the absolutely ridiculous plot in which an injured soldier cons Edith into believing he’s a family member the Granthams thought dead on the Titanic in the first episode of the series (by the way, starting your show with a succession issue caused by the Titanic’s sinking? that’s high drama).  Matthew miraculously gaining the use of his penis (yes, penis) and legs back after having them paralyzed was a little much, though mostly inevitable; they could at least have had him suffer some kind of permanent damage to make the whole injury meaningful.  The show was also constrained by having to figure out how to get Matthew and Mary together and then apart and then together and then apart within the rules of high English society. By the end of the season, while I was certainly rooting for them, I just wanted something to be done and final.  The Bates murder trial never worked for me either.  Anyway, the moral is that the second season paled in comparison to the first, but still had some wonderful moments and the always excellent sniping of Maggie Smith’s dowager countess.  These problems are also easily correctable, so I’m looking forward to the third season.  Also, Downton is unusual in just how much time is spread out over a single season.  Years happen between episodes sometimes.  That’s neither here nor there, but I thought it bore mentioning.

23.  Boardwalk Empire

Boredwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire, like Sons of Anarchy earlier on this list, aspires to be a BIG series full of deep and meaningful themes, like The Sopranos, in particular, in this case, a show on which Boardwalk series creator Terrence Winter worked. It almost feels like the show was put together with The Sopranos as the ideal model, trying mathematically to adhere to the recipe that made the Sopranos so great, and hoping that after putting it all in the oven for 15 minutes, it would lead to a brilliant show.  The care put into the show is clear; the sheer filming technique is impressive and definitely significantly adds to the enjoyment.  That said, the formula doesn’t always click.  Main character Nucky Thompson is generally a strong one, packed with charisma and complexity, but few of the secondary characters can equal him, and those who could often don’t get the amount of screen time they need.  This problem was clearer in the third season than in the first two.  While there were several serious issues that made the season all right instead of very good, the biggest might have been that the creators chose the wrong secondary characters to get the bulk of screen time after Nucky gets his.  Whatever greatness is, I think it’s unlikely Boardwalk Empire is going to get there in more than glimpses and moments, but there is definitely plenty to enjoy in the craft if less so in some of the characters, and that alone makes it worth watching.

22.  Happy Endings

Happy Endings

The volume shooter of TV sitcoms, Happy Endings fires away jokes at breakneck speed, not even worrying about whether they hit or miss, because by the time they’ve thought about it, ten more jokes have been recited.  Like NBA volume shooters J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford, this leads to serious consistency problems, but also periods of time where it seems like every joke (or shot) goes in.  There are six friends, they’re all grouped together differently for A, B, and sometimes C plots in various episodes, and they’ve got lots of inside jokes and pop culture references are often flying. Sometimes after time goes by without watching an episode, I’ll remember the show as mediocre, and then watch a good episode and recall what I liked about it.  Because of the way the show works, it’s never going to be an absolutely transcendent show the way, say, Community or personal favorite Party Down can be.  Sometimes an episode will work a lot better than others, and even in an episode where a lot works, some won’t.  The flip side is that the show has a high floor; even when everything’s not clicking on all cylinders, there’s an excellent chance of at least a couple of solid chuckles coming through.  I have a hard time being extremely passionate about this show; it’s not great and it took me a while to get into enjoying it at all.  That said, the more I’ve watched over the years, the more I’ve become to appreciate its quirks, and like the best shows of its type, the excellent chemistry enjoyed by the cast, which turns some percentage of those jokes from misfires to winners.  I originally had the show lower and moved it up because for the first time, this season, I realized I’d very much miss it if it was cancelled, and sometimes that emotional connection tells you something that your brain doesn’t; while this will never be a favorite, I genuinely like the show.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 27-25

6 Feb

Ranking the shows, check out the intro page here for what qualifies for the list – 27, 26, and 25 follow.

27.  Sons of Anarchy

Redwood Original

I had never watched this show at all until I powered through it in the spring of 2012, getting really into it through season three, and then beginning to already tire of it in season four, when Clay’s position in the show became too outlandish even by the show’s own standards.  After finally making it through all four seasons, even though I enjoyed the overall experience and am glad I watched it all, I found myself hardly excited when the fifth season began.  I ended up storing episodes on my DV-R and not catching up until a couple weeks after the entire season had finished.  But, catch up eventually I did, and though I think I’m glad I watched it, my interest levels were a lot lower than when I was marathonning it.  The disappointing, and moreover, materially different fourth season, had caused me to check out a little bit from the show.  It’s still worth watching in its slightly lesser form, but I don’t think I’ll ever care as much as I did during a two week period where I was watching an episode or two a night.  At its best, it’s still a joy to watch, and the characters are generally fairly well drawn, particularly main character Jax.  Sons of Anarchy aspires to be a big show like The Sopranos and it doesn’t quite reach those heights for many reasons, but often you can see around the edges where they’re trying.  I’m not sure if this makes me admire the show more for trying or frustrated more because it’s not getting there, but I imagine I’ll keep watching future seasons like I watched this one.

26.  Revenge

A dish best served cold

I frequently vouched for Revenge during its first season, and I wasn’t the only one; within the bounds of a twisted primetime soap – conspiracy drama, it handled itself just about as well as it could be done.  The main character was likeable and the show had just the right amount of intrigue and trashiness which left the viewer waiting to see the next episode.  Unfortunately, Revenge is suffering from a classic second season (and sometimes later) problem with televisions shows that have an explicit or implicit goal bound up in their premise – where do you go from here?  Emily ne Amanda managed to solve her primary initial question of getting to the bottom of what happened to her dad in the first season, and more or less had her finger on the button to deal with the people responsible.  Kudos to the creators for pacing the show in a way that meaningful events actually happened in the first season, but as a reward for their smart pacing, they get to deal with the problem of why and how to keep the show going.  Revenge’s solution was a classic – increase the scope of the show, and in particular, to level up; the people she thought was behind the act were mere pawns working at the hands of a more powerful force which she can currently barely comprehend.  Unfortunately, in Revenge’s case, that takes the show from a fairly tight conspiracy organized around a number of rich socialites, and the drama that involves, to dealing with giant and complex para-governmental organizations with names like “the initiative” which seem to belong in Alias and feel completely out of place in Revenge.  It must make show creators jealous of the Mad Mens and Six Feet Unders and Parenthoods of the world, where  writers can pretty much set up their seasons however they want without a big final mystery to solve or put off.  It’s possible Revenge will get back on it’s game, but I think it’s less likely than not.

25.  Girls


The most controversial show of 2012 worms its way into the rankings at 25.  What this should tell you is that I stand squarely in between the two major Girls camps.  I find the show watchable and enjoy it, but don’t think of it as some amazing breakthrough television program that portrays life in a much realer way than most TV.  I think, and this is important to note, the show got significantly stronger as it went on, and the later episodes seemed to be sharper and tighter.  I don’t really understand the hype over the “realness” of the show; at least in a superficial way, I think the characters are fairly ridiculous, with maybe the exception being Alison Williams’ Marnie, and though I can probably understand the argument a little more as it pertains to some of the subject matter beyond the superficial level, I still don’t think that’s the main selling point of Girls.  I understand the argument against the show that the characters are unlikable, but many a great show has been built on the back of unlikable characters; it’s hard to find a character to unambiguously root for in prior HBO giants The Sopranos or Six Feet Under.  That said, I can enjoy, with the protagonist bias, removing ourselves one step (ie we root for Tony Soprano, because he’s the protagonist, even though in many ways he’s a terrible person), everyone except for Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, who I absolutely can’t stand.  I’m not sure why so many people make a big deal about having to relate to characters to enjoy a show; while it’s certainly a plus, I think there are significantly more shows I watch where I can’t relate to anyone.  Anyway, I pretty much enjoy watching it without thinking it’s the best thing under the sun.  More than anything, I don’t think it’s nearly worthy of the press it receives one way or the other.  We’ll see if Season 2 changes my opinion up or down.