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.

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