Archive | January, 2015

Spring 2015 Review: The Man in the High Castle

30 Jan

The Man in the High Castle

 The problem with super high-concept pilots, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is certainly one of those, is that they often get bogged down so heavily in exposition that whether you’re interested in going forward with the show is determined solely by how intrigued you are by the premise rather than by the quality of the characters or the writing. This is because there’s no time to develop either of those in the effort to build the general world and explain what’s going on in the future/past/alternate reality in an hour or less.

The Man in the High Castle clearly suffers from these issues. Based on the work of legendary sci-fi writer and movie-inspirer Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle takes place in the early ‘60s in an alternate reality where the Axis powers won World War II. Japan and Germany have split the U.S. Japan controls the western half and Germany the eastern half, with a relatively small neutral buffer zone in the middle known as the Neutral States. The Nazis seem the crueler of the two powers; they of course don’t allow non-whites to live and they burn cripples and the old, but the Japanese are no softies either. Naturally, a resistance movement has emerged, but it appears small and not particularly well-organized. A key organizer in New York entrusts a crucial mission to a young man he’s never met before without any indicator of trustworthiness other than his word, which appears to be a testament to just how desperate the resistance is.

 An elderly Hitler is on his last legs, and everyone is speculating who will take over, with Himmler, Goebbels, and Goring the key contenders, and many expect the new chancellor, whoever it is, to take on Japan in an epic clash once and for all, ensuring complete racial purity for the Aryan race.

The young new recruit alluded to earlier in the resistance is taking some top secret cargo to the Neutral States, where he’ll meet someone he doesn’t know to deliver what he doesn’t know he has. A woman, who is given a treasonous film that poses a world in which the Allies won by her sister right before her sister is caught by the Japanese authorities and killed, takes a bus to that same location in the Neutral States, where she’ll be looking for someone she doesn’t know. Her boyfriend, who didn’t even know where she had gone, is arrested due to her sister’s crimes. For all that world building, that’s about all we know about our characters going forward. Calling the back stories for the characters thin would be generous. It’s almost shocking the writers couldn’t get more plot out of the hour-long first episode – two characters are meeting, and that’s about it.

It’s hard to recommend The Man in the High Castle based on what I’ve seen because there just isn’t a lot. It’s best viewed as a draft-and-follow; if you’re into the concept check it out, otherwise sit back and see if it manages to get more interesting or less over the first episodes, with the latter the more likely scenario, just based on the odds.

Of course, as I say this, I’m always the person who gets intrigued easily by these high concept premises and watches a few episodes only to see the show start to fall apart because the more fundamental aspects a show needs to succeed – characters and writing were lost beneath the high concept premise. I get fooled again and again – Revolution and Under the Dome are two recent examples, but I continue to come back for more.

Will I watch it again? Of course I will. I’m a sucker for exactly these types of high concepts. Will it deliver though, and will I be watching through more than three or four episodes, I’m less sure.

Spring 2015 Review: Backstrom

28 Jan


If Mad Men is the direct inspiration for a generation of stuffy, somewhat humorless period dramas, House is the direct inspiration for a generation of procedurals starring a male protagonist who is savantish in his line of work while being a jerk and all-around misanthrope who can’t get his personal life into order. Backstrom falls squarely into this cadre of House successors.

Rainn Wilson plays Backstrom. An assholish cop with no friends, he is, at the start of the show, being given another chance to work homicides for the Portland police department after being demoted earlier because, of course, he’s damn good at his job. He sees what no one else sees, particularly because he makes dark and disturbing assumptions about everyone that others who are more inclined to see the good in people are unwilling to make. His life is a mess. He does it all – drinking, smoking, gambling, hookers. While on the job, he works with a crack team of oddball rejects, who for one reason or another, be it competence, personality, or sordid history, don’t fit in with the rest of the department. And damned if, for all his many, many negative traits as a human being, he doesn’t solve those hard cases.

 Backstrom is created by Hart Hanson, the man behind Bones, and the show shares Bones’ tone, feeling light and jokey with plenty of humorous asides despite an array of dead bodies and dark plots. Backstron would fit right in on USA; Backstrom is a character, and I have no doubt he’d be welcome.

Backstrom is a show that’s supposed to be fun, only it isn’t, and that starts with the main character. The issue is that I’m so tired of this character, the limitedly brilliant jerk, and I hope that America is to.  By no means do I need all characters to be likeable.  But there are two problems in this case. First, beyond being unlikeable it feels like the show, rather than being agnostic to how we feel, actively wants us to root for him, because deep down he has some capacity for change that we need to be supporting. Second, he’s boring and not worthy of our attention. Tony Soprano is often despicable, but he’s always interesting. Backstrom isn’t. 

There’s really all there is to it. By no means is it unwatchable, but it feels derivative and stale, more out of 2008 than now. More is expected of TV in 2015 than Backstrom is ready to give.

Will I watch it again? No. I really do wish weird character actor Rainn Wilson could get a better second memorable television role, but this ain’t it. Hopefully the police department will fire Backstrom and hire a competent police officer who at least makes some pretense of being cordial to his fellow humans.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 43-40

26 Jan

Let’s kick if off – here’s a link to the introduction to our annual ranking of shows that I watched last year. This is our first batch of shows, and it contains the only couple shows I didn’t really enjoy watching last year along with a show that ended without quite living up to its potential. Here we go.

43. Helix – 2013: Ineligible


For almost every show on this list, I’m going to struggle to explain how it was ranked so low, and make sure that it comes across clearly how much I enjoy the show despite its relatively low ranking. Not here. Nearly every year, there’s one show I keep up with for far too long before it disappoints me and comes apart so much that I have trouble remembering why I kept up with it that long to begin with. In 2013, that show was Under the Dome. Last year, it was Helix. Like Under the Dome, Helix had an intriguing sci-fi premise. It was also from Ron Moore, who was behind the buzzy and worth-watching, if often overrated Battlestar Galactica remake. Helix was about a team of government scientists sent to a remote artic base outside of any government’s jurisdiction where a team of scientists and researchers work on top-secret projects. At its best, it had horror-suspense intrigue; think The Thing. Unfortunately, the characters and writing were weak and didn’t get stronger, and on top of that, the story scaled up way too quickly – so much that halfway through, it turned out the base was being run by a secret cabal of immortals. By the finale, it felt like I had been sold a bill of goods in the pilot and I left fairly disgusted, writing off any chance of my watching the second season.

42. House of Cards – 2013: 39

House of Cards

My opinion about the second season of House of Cards is similar to my opinion of the first season, but even more so. House of Cards is such an apt name for the show because it captures the plot from the viewer’s perspective – if you deign to think about any plot element for any amount of time, the entire plot of the show simply crumbles. This makes House of Cards ideal for marathon watching; the less you think about the show, the more enjoyable it is, which is generally not a great recommendation for a series. The second simply makes even less sense then the first, and Kevin Spacey’s protagonist Frank Underwood can get tiresome.  It often feels like his character has little depth or anything other than ambition and a mediocre southern accent to keep us peeled. The show is nonsensical, and lacks characters worth caring about. It’s lazy, sloppily written, and the dialogue is often silly and stupid – if I ever have to hear about “back channeling” something again, I’m not sure how I’ll react. How the president is so incompetently naïve to get manipulated by Spacey time and again makes one wonder how he ascended to the office in the first place. Admittedly, I may well watch the next season, as long as I do it in less than two days and never have to think about it again thereafter.

41. Downton Abbey – 2013: 42

Downton Abbey

Every year I forgot whether I qualify Downton Abbey season-wise by the time of its original British airing in the autumn, or its American airing in the following spring. A thorough search history tells me I chose the latter, so this blurb is for the show’s fourth season. Downton Abbey, to be frank, hasn’t been a very good show since its surprisingly enjoyable first season. It’s a melodramatic soap that sometimes acts as if it thinks it goes deeper, which it doesn’t, and the show suffers because of these pretentions. Every year I strongly consider not watching the next season. I’m currently leaning towards not watching season five, but ever year I’ve relented so far so I can’t be sure of myself. Every year, after I finish the season I wonder why I watched. Downton Abbey is less culturally relevant than it has ever been and is rightfully a show whose cultural relevance has declined at the same speed as its quality. On a positive note, for what it’s worth, the theme music is still as great as ever.

40. Wilfred – 2013: 34


Wiflred was the little show that could, an adaptation of an Australian show that pushed on towards four seasons even though it could never quite become the cult favorite it wanted to and very occasionally deserved to be. The fourth and final season was largely less than satisfying, particularly the ending, and the show was as up and down and inconsistent as ever. At its heights, Wilfred, the story of a man and his best friend, a dog who looks like a human in a dog suit to him and only him, was warm, funny, irreverent, and weird. In its lesser moments, Wilfred was flat, somewhat boring, and repetitive, especially because most episodes followed a very similar pattern in which the man doesn’t listen to Wilfred, before coming around to his advice. The show, unwisely I always thought, decided to take on the big question of whether Wilfred was real or whether Ryan was simply crazy, and while those mythology episodes worked surprisingly well in earlier seasons, in the fourth season, they didn’t. The disappointing ending was only a small part of the last season, but it was emblematic of the season’s failure to convert of its potential. I’m glad I watched Wilfred, but redone with a number of edits, it could have been a lot better.

Spring 2015 Review: Hindsight

23 Jan


Hindsight’s premise is so achingly obvious and attractive that it’s kind of stunning it hasn’t been done before. The protagonist, Becca, in what I would guess is her early 40s, is about to get married for a second time. She’s having a momentary freak out. She likes her fiancé, who is a long-time family friend and a super nice guy, but she’s not sure that she really loves him in the way that she should to be marrying him. While she’s having a moment, she reflects upon her first marriage. She felt a burning hot passion for him, but it dissipated and they drifted apart over the years. She also sorely regrets the missing presence of her best friend of many years, Lolly, with whom she had a falling out a decade before her second wedding day. On top of this, she’s frustrated by her boss, who takes advantage of her and works her to death without giving her a promotion or raise.

As she returns from the rehearsal dinner, nervous, stressed, nostalgic, and reminiscing, she’s magically transported back two decades earlier, to 1995, on the night before her first wedding day. She reunites with her best friend and sets about on a plan to correct the errors she made in her life the first time around.

There’s plenty of media out there that touches on the same subject matter – regret, midlife crises, and the desire to take stock at a moment in time and change your life into what you wanted it to be, but none that I recall using time travel to this end. Most time travel is existential, life or death. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly is in danger of being erased from existence, while in Terminator 2, the fate of the entire human world is on the line.  In Hindsight, the stakes are lower; time travel is just a vehicle to help Becca change her life. The details of the time travel and whatever science fiction chaos theory-like repercussions about going back and forth in time and changing the future are not talked about and are not important. The tone is unlike just about any other time travel media out there – there’s no action or suspense, nor is it a silly comedy (e.g. Hot Tub Time Machine). Instead, Hindsight is a warm, personal dramedy, where time travel is only the gimmick to get it started.

On that level, Hindsight, at least from the pilot, works. It’s cute, it’s light, and it’s fun. The main character is likeable; I was rooting for her to get it right. The premise is universal – it’s not hard to relate to wanting to have redone certain decisions from the past, and there’s a sense of wish fulfillment from seeing someone get to do what we all want to but can’t.

Sure, Hindsight is not transcendent, but it doesn’t have to be. Not every hour long show has to be a prestige drama or a crime procedural. In fact, shows likes Hindsight might be a great reaction to the wanna-be-prestige shows that try too hard and end up stuffy and unenjoyable,  where watching them feels like a necessary weekly chore rather than an hour to be savored and eagerly anticipated. Hindsight doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is, which is a surprisingly rare trait on television in a post-Sopranos/Mad Men world.

Of course, being on VH1, there’s some nod to the fact that VH1 used to be a music network, with a pretty fun and varied period soundtrack, containing plenty of monster hits and some little less well known tracks.

Will I watch it again? I’m going to try to make time and watch a second episode, because it deserves it. It’s hard to make solid mid-tier TV fare, and Hindsight may have done it.

Spring 2015 Previews and Predictions: NBC

21 Jan


(In order to meld the spirit of futile sports predictions with the high stakes world of the who-will-be-cancelled-first fall (edit: spring, now) television season, I’ve set up a very simple system of predictions for how long new shows will last.  Each day, I’ll (I’m aware I switched between we and I) lay out a network’s new shows scheduled to debut in the fall (spring, again)(reality shows not included – I’m already going to fail miserably on scripted shows, I don’t need to tackle a whole other animal) with my prediction of which of three categories it will fall into.

These categories are:

  1. Renewal – show gets renewed
  2. 13+ – the show gets thirteen or more episodes, but not renewed
  3. 12- – the show is cancelled before 13

Additional note: Since more and more series on network TV are following cable models with set orders for shorter seasons, and mid-season replacements tend to have shorter seasons in particular, I’ll note any planned limited runs in my prediction section for each show)

Allegiance – 2/5/2015


The first thing I wondered while watching this trailer was whether this show was made due to the success of The Americans, or whether it was made incidentally and someone watched The Americans later, only to realize that The Americans was vastly superior to their show. The protagonist is a super brilliant CIA agent who has some personal problems as a side effect of his brilliance, one of which is that it turns out, unbeknownst to him, that his parents are actually spies for Russia, the very nation who he’s working to dig up intel on day after day at his job. His parents’ superiors want them to turn their son into a Russian spy, while they’re afraid of what their son would do if he ever found out what they are. Uh oh! Family drama mixed with CIA espionage action. There’s no better quick way of describing Allegiance than that it looks like a shitty network version of The Americans that thinks it gets what makes The Americans works, but doesn’t quite. Could I be wrong about Allegiance? Maybe. Is it likely? No.

Prediction: 12- The Americans barely survives on cable television, and it’s great. If this was on CBS, I’d have a more favorable view, because almost any show can survive on CBS, but while this actually seems sensibly placed next to NBC hit The Blacklist, I’ll err on the default guess for all midseason shows, which is failure.

The Slap – 2/12/2015

The Slap

The titular event happens at a family and friends get together consisting primarily of a bunch of hip thirty-something parents. After one incredibly annoying child continues to instigate, an adult, who is not the child’s parent, slaps the child. The singular slap sparks a series of events that turns the previously friendly couples against one another, as everyone reacts differently. Some want to see the slapper punished severely for his actions, while others think his behavior was, if not justified, at least less egregious in the heat of the moment. High drama ensues. The Slap, which is a ridiculous title, and almost makes the show difficult to take seriously by itself, is based on an Australian series of the same name.

Prediction: It’s a limited eight-episode event, which wouldn’t obviously lead itself to a sequel, so it seems likely to be one and done.

One Big Happy – 3/17/2015

One Big Happy

One Big Family, produced by Ellen DeGeneres, is a comedy in the Modern Family mode of unorthodox-yet-functional families. This time, here’s the high concept. Relationship-phobic straight man and lesbian best friend decide to raise a baby together. All of a sudden, he, out of nowhere, meets the perfect woman and gets married on a whim in Vegas. Now, his best friend is pregnant with his child, while he’s now married to someone else. Hijinks ensue, and yet the three, despite constant tricky situations, seem to mostly make the unorthodox arrangement work. I doubt it will be particularly good, and it’s from a writer for 2 Broke Girls, which is definitely not a good sign.

Prediction: 12- Midseason comedies that get picked up are a rare breed indeed. Ellen’s name behind it certainly will help, but it’s just tough to break in in March when no one knows that you’re on.

A.D. – 4/5/15

A.D. A.D.

A.D. is subtitled “The Bible Continues.” That’s right. NBC is quite literally making a sequel to The Bible. To be fair, the bible in question is the History Channel miniseries produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett that produced mega-ratings for the network. A.D. starts with the crucifixion of Jesus, moves through his resurrection, and then on to early church leaders who fight for the survival and eventual triumph of Christianity against the pagan Romans. It’s a religious epic, and I have confidence it will be rapturously received by the Christian masses who watched every episode of the first Bible miniseries. At the same time, I sincerely question its value to just about anyone else. While religion offers plenty of interesting angles for storytelling, everything I know about the original Bible miniseries makes me imagine this will not offer any of those.

Prediction: Another mini-series, so there’s no renewal to be had, though since it has a huge built in audience, I’d imagine it will do well enough to earn another sequel if someone can put together an A.D. II.

Odyssey – 4/5/15


I cannot find a trailer for Odyssey. This may be a testament to my Google skills, or lack thereof, but searching the usual keywords on Google and on YouTube didn’t produce a trailer at the least. Here’s what I gather about the show. A troop of soldiers fighting Islamic extremists in northern Africa stumbles upon some super top secret info that an American company is actually funding the jihadists. Before they can return with this valuable information, all but one of the soldiers is killed by private contractors. There’s a massive conspiracy and it goes pretty far up. The story is, so says, told Traffic-like, from many different perspectives, including that of a corporate litigator, a political activist, and a hacker. It sounds rather ambitious, like a cable show, maybe on Showtime, although it’s hard to get a great sense of its scale and production value without a trailer. Maybe less is more, because this sounds far and away like the most promising of the NBC midseason shows.

Prediction: Renewal – honestly, I wouldn’t place money on this, but these midseason shows are so impossible to pick anyway, much more so than fall shows, that I figured I’d have hope that the most interesting-seeming show might be good and succeed, which is probably too much to ask.


Spring 2015 Review: Man Seeking Woman

19 Jan

Man Seeking Woman

Man Seeking Woman is legitimately different, which is no small feat. This is most notably due to its seriously surrealist touch which is welcome and lacking on live action television outside of Adult Swim. I’ll speak to that surrealist touch a little bit later on. Whether the show is enjoyable or not, however, depends on which side of a thin line Jay Baruchel and his character Josh, walk.

Baruchel has strengths as an actor, but chameleon isn’t one of them; he plays a version of the same character in nearly every role, and while there’s certainly significant differences in his characters, there are enough similarities to make it difficult not to somewhat conflate Man Seeking Women’s Josh with every Baruchel character. That’s not necessarily a problem of course, and many successful, talented actors face similar restraints (not everyone can be Gary Oldman) but it does mean enjoyment of the character rests as much on one’s opinion of Baruchel in general as on his character.

As for that character, well, Man Seeking Woman begins with Baruchel’s Josh saying his goodbyes to his ex-long term girlfriend after completing what was clearly a painful breakup. He’s devastated, crushed, and chooses to remain outside of the world, hiding away in his apartment, until he’s prodded by his best friend Mike (Eric Andre), doing like any good TV friend would, encouraging Josh to get back out there and dating.

Josh, glass half-full, is a charmingly awkward, warm-hearted everyman, who deals with unusual, befuddling situations with relative restraint, especially considering their utter absurdity. Glass half empty, he can come off as something of a whiny emo schmuck, a sad sack, who can’t or is clearly uninterested in moving on despite the clear message from his ex. Those are the extreme angles of his character, and most people will view him somewhere in the middle. On which side of that middle, however, one views him, may determine whether one enjoys the show.

The other calling card of Man Seeking Woman is its sheer surrealism, a quality rarely seen in such a pivotal role in live action television. Early in the episode, Josh goes on a blind date set up by his has-it-totally-together sister. She insists she’s set him up with a smart, successful woman, willing to go out him, an unemployed loser. It turns the blind date is a hideous, literally dumpster diving troll, green and scaly. Within the Man Seeking Woman universe, everyone treats this as normal, except for Josh, who tries to be gentlemanly and conversational to prove that he’s not shallow, but eventually can’t take any more and gets into a physical altercation with the troll, ending the date. Everyone else in the restaurant, his sister included, views him as the villain.

Later in the episode, Josh goes to a party hosted by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, an elderly Adolph Hitler. The situation is similar as the date; everyone else at the party, his friend Mike included, acts as if this is normal. Hitler’s reformed, he’s cool, he’s chill; hating jews is so seven decades ago. Josh is the only alarmed guest, and he initially acts as if this as insane and bizarre as we know it to be, before somewhat deciding it’s better to fit in.

Lastly, on the way back home, Josh talks to a random girl on the train platform and follows her the wrong way onto the train for the chance to talk to her further. Although their conversation is fairly stunted and awkward, he gets her number before she leaves, to great fanfare. As he gets off the train and walks towards home, fans are cheering him on, asking for autographs, and the president calls him with congratulations.

Was it perhaps a tad overboard to be getting calls from the president for merely getting a girl’s number on the train? Probably, but although I wasn’t sure where I stood before that moment, I found I was in the at least slightly pro-Barcuhel camp when I rooted for his success on that subway, and was pleased when he pulled it off. Surrealism is hard to use properly and requires some level of acceptance by the characters that what obviously can’t make sense in the real world is, for whatever reason, real. The few surreal live shows on Adult Swim use surrealism for absurd, silly humor, while Man Seeking Woman uses surrealism in an attempt to get at humorous, but extremely human, non-surreal situations and emotions. Man Seeking Woman may not hit the ball out of the park, but it delivers a genuinely interesting idea.

Will I watch it again? I’m going to give it another try. I seem to like the main character well enough, and it’s definitely a little bit different than anything on TV, which is to its credit. Good ideas should be rewarded with some leeway, even if they end up not panning out.

Spring 2015 Review: Togetherness

16 Jan


Judd Apatow is the Christopher Columbus of the modern manchild paradigm; he didn’t invent it, but he popularized it so that other movies and shows and trend pieces could be written about the concept. Boy becomes man physically, but refuses to grow up mentally; Knocked Up and The 40-year Old Virgin are both about men pushing through a delayed adolescence to reach a late maturity.

Togetherness focuses on Apotow-style manchildren’s topsy-turvy cousin. Rather than adults who refuse to grow up, Togetherness features adults beaten down by the responsibilities and realities of real life (capital R, capital L), who need to recapture a youthful point of view, let their hair down, and enjoy life for a change. (Togetherness is not alone in this “growing down” movement – FX’s recent Married trods on the exact same ground).

Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey play married couple Brett and Michelle. They clearly love each other very much but appear to be stuck in a rut. They’ve got two very young kids and they’re going through the motions, the same familiar rhythms every day, not always necessarily in a bad way, but not in a great way either.

They’re not dysfunctional; they seem to get along easily and well, but there are issues; real life in a relationship with kids is hard. Mainly, as one could guess from a description without having even watched the show, their sex life is stagnant – towards the episode’s conclusion, Brett confronts Michelle straight out, and asks why she’s uninterested in sex with him. She doesn’t know, she replies. These problems are difficult and deep, but not malicious. Again: real married adult life.

Fortunately, just in time to shake up this very stale adult state of affairs, come a couple of interlopers who will be staying with Brett and Michelle. Michelle’s sister Tina, portrayed by Amanda Peet, is far more aimless and less settled than Michelle despite being older, and she decides on a whim, after a week-long trip to visit her sister from Houston, that she wants to stay for good. Brett’s best friend Alex, a struggling middle-aged actor, is evicted from his house at the start of the pilot. He is initially determined to drive back to his parents’ house in Detroit until Brett convinces him to stay with him and Michelle for a spell. Alex and Tina both, while older, have some of the youthful immaturity and sense of fun that Brett and Michelle have lost, and might help shake the couple out of its doldrums.

Alex and Tina join the couple on date night, which is emblematic of the staid status of their relationship. They eat out at a nice but nondescript restaurant and are about to go home. Everyone looks bored out of their minds, chewing and staring at one another as conversation has stalled. Tina and Alex, though, convince the crew to chug some cheap wine, drive over to the house of the guy who just dumped Tina earlier in the episode (played by Ken Marino), and toilet paper his house. By the end of the night, Brett and Michelle have bigger smiles across their faces than they’ve probably had in some time.

The show isn’t a masterpiece by any means, and the middle-class-married-people-having-trouble-with-their-sex-lives has been done enough that it needs more to it to keep it more interesting than the boring lives of the middle aged parents themselves.

The Duplass brothers, star Mark, and Jay, who created the show, along with Steve Zissis, who plays Alex, are foremost contributors to the mumblecore movement, which focuses on naturalistic dialogue. It’s s a strong fit for this type of show, which focuses on a very real and human, rather than sensationalized and epic, series of problems and minor crises. The mumblecore aesthetic is appealing because if nothing else, it’s different; I love the stylized dialogue of Joss Whedon or Rob Thomas, but there’s a place for real life as well, with pauses that are awkward without being British comedy awkward. My biggest concern is that the humdrumness of the generic problems of white middle class married people overwhelms the strength of the characters and the writing, and the show could easily fall on either side of that line going forward.

Will I watch it again? Probably. It wasn’t astounding, but it was halfway decent, short, and on HBO, which buys it some instant credibility.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2014 Edition: The Outcasts

14 Jan

Breaking Bad

It’s time for an annual beginning-of-the-year tradition over here at Drug of the Nation, the ranking of the shows I’ve watched during the previous year. This is my fourth annual ranking, and I’ll repeat the caveat I placed atop last year’s ranking introduction:

Because the TV season is no longer the fall-to-spring trajectory that it used to be, I arbitrarily rank things on a calendar basis, and that leads to strange situations where I’m occasionally ranking the end of one season and the beginning of the next season in the same ranking. It’s strange, and not ideal, but I have to pick some point in the year to do the rankings, so I’ll roll with the punches and mention within the article if there was a significant change in quality one way or the other between the end and beginning of seasons covered in the same year.

I’m only ranking shows I watched all of or just about all of the episodes that aired last year; if I’m just two or three behind I’ll rank it, but if I’ve only seen two or three, I won’t. I’m ranking three episode mini-British seasons but not shows with one-off specials (Black Mirror’s Christmas special is the most notable example this year) . These rules are arbitrary, admittedly, but any rules would be. No daily variety programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are eligible either.

The rankings this year were incredibly difficult, and a generally weak fall slate of TV shows had me forgetting just what an utterly strong year on the whole 2014 had been for television. I was forced to put shows I liked a lot towards the bottom of these rankings, and unlike previous years, there are just about no shows on this list that I’m one bad episode away from stopping, or that I’m just stringing out due to past loyalty until they finish. It’s absolutely brutal, and although I was forced to make tough choices, that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely enjoy just about every show on this list. TV is that good, folks.

We start, as last year, with the shows that made last year’s list but didn’t make this year’s for one reason of another. This year these are almost entirely because they ended or didn’t air in the calendar year, so I’ll just run through them quickly, with some additional notes about the few that didn’t fall off due to simply not airing last year. This year I’m going to additionally throw in where a show ranked last year for context.

Here’s a quick link to last year’s final ranking as well. Now, on to the outcasts…

Breaking Bad – 2013: 1

Treme – 2013: 4

Eagleheart – Last year: 6

30 Rock – Last year: 10

Venture Bros. – 2013: 12

Top of the Lake – 2013: 15

Arrested Development – 2013: 17

Childrens Hospital – 2013: 21

Broadchurch – 2013: 23

Happy Endings – 2013: 24

NTSF: SD: SUV – 2013: 31

Black Mirror – 2013: 36

Family Tree  2013: 37

Siberia – 2013: 38

Luther – 2013: 45

The Office – 2013: 46

Dexter – 2013: 48

Enlightened – 2013: 6.5 (Initially, an embarrassingly mistaken omission)

Ben and Kate – 2013: 23.5 (Initially, an embarrassingly mistaken omission)

Take a deep breath. All of these shows did not air in 2014, so that’s the simple explanation why they’re not on the list. Many of these shows ended, Top of the Lake was a miniseries, several have extended offseasons and will be back in 2015 or later, and a couple are in extended hiatus, waiting to see whether they will return or not (looking at you, NTSF: SD: SUV). Easy enough.

Homeland – 2013: 41


After a season and a half of utter frustration with the show’s inconsistency at best, and downright lousy and lazy writing at worst, I cut the cord, deciding not to watch the fourth season after a third season that really was not a very good season of television. People have told me the fourth season is better, and if a critical consensus emerges I’ll consider coming back, but I’m not that close to it. I got so sick of the show and Carrie and Brody in particular; if I had cut out earlier, I might have been more easily convinced to come back. It’ll always have an absolutely all-time first season, and is worthy fo remembering just for that, reminiscent of an athlete like Mark Fidrych who blows away the league in his first season only to never do anywhere close to the same again.

Under the Dome – 2013: 47


Under the Dome

Oof. Under the Dome’s first season makes the third season of Homeland look like the fourth season of Breaking Bad. It’s still stunning to me that I made it almost to the end of the first season (I never actually watched the season finale; either with only one left, I couldn’t bring myself to). The plot was incredibly stupid, the acting was generally pretty bad, and the characters were horrible. It’s hard to imagine a time when it could have been decent, but alas, a sneakily bad show is bound to end up getting watched sometimes when you watch so many shows.

Spring 2015 Review: Empire

12 Jan


There’s a lot of riding on Empire for Fox, which is placing the show in the plum post-American Idol spot and promoting it everywhere, including during their high-rated NFL playoff games. Empire, to its credit, is at least partially up to the task.

Empire is the story of a family entrenched in the big-time music business. Terrence Howard plays patriarch Lucious Lyon. Lyon, in his twenties, was a small-time gangster making music in what spare time he had, hoping to earn enough from his criminal activities to release an album and go legit. He did eventually, but the price is paid by his wife, Cookie, who takes the hit for him, serving almost 20 years in prison for dealing drugs while Lucious’s music career becomes everything they thought it could be and more. He rises in that time from mere artist to label founder and mogul. While he spends his days in the world of boardrooms and stock prices now, we learn, over the course of the episode that the gangster still lies deep inside.

A couple of major premise events occur within the pilot of Empire to really get the story moving. First, Cookie gets out of prison after 17 years and wants what’s hers. While she was locked up, Lucious divorced and forgot about her, and her sons stopped visiting. She wants remuneration for the 17 years she spent locked up while the beneficiaries of her sacrifice racked up millions and millions and she wants a piece of the action at the label. Around the same time, after Lucious has already decided to take the company public, he finds out he has ALS, and his days are numbered – the doctor gives him three years, maybe more, maybe less.

Lucious thus decides he must anoint one of his sons as his sole successor, fueling competition among his children. His oldest, Andre, is an executive for Empire. He seems to be the most qualified to succeed business-wise, but Lucious believes the post should go to a musician. Middle son Jamal and youngest Hakim both qualify, but Jamal, a piano-playing R&B type, is gay, which rules him out in his homophobic father’s eyes. Hakeem, a rapper, is clearly his dad’s favorite, but equally clearly the least able, at present, to take over. He’s irresponsible, immature, and doesn’t take his craft particularly seriously, coming in to record hungover.

Empire is part family power struggle, part music performance show. There are three and four minute music video-esque concert scenes that are reminiscent of fellow music-centric show Nashville. They fit within context, taking place at either a recording studio or a venue, but still, they feel outside of the show, and they took me out of the action for longer than they should have.

Empire isn’t quite engrossing but it sets up enough nice foundational building blocks to construct a decent show on top of. The family power struggle story is a classic one (one of the sons smartly namechecks King Lear when his father tells him only one of them can have the company) but the music world is a fairly fresh, relevant, and interesting choice of setting (Nashville, again, is the closest recent subject matter overlap, but not certainly more than different enough). The five primary family members on whom the first episode focuses are all solid bases for potentially complex characters; the challenge will be for the show to flesh them out as it goes further.

It doesn’t have the transcendent feeling of a great pilot (most recent example: Transparent) but it’s competent and has potential, which is quite promising by network standards.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I appreciate a network actually trying to make a really good, big show, even if it’s not there yet. It might get boring and repetitive fairly quickly, like Nashville did.  In fact, I’d say the odds on me making it through the first season aren’t very high. But I’ll try another episode. I owe a network series that tries at least that.

Spring 2015 Review: Agent Carter

9 Jan

Agent CarterIn short, Agent Carter is a Marvel product through and through, consistent with every film and television property Marvel has put out since Iron Man. Not all Marvel products are equal by any means, but they generally occupy a sector as good, solid action movies, that don’t take enough risks or aren’t quite interesting enough to be truly great, yet compensate for it by being consistently above average for the genre. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, I don’t mean it as such; just plain good superhero movies and TV shows seem to be shockingly difficult to make, and DC has muffed more than a few (as have other studios with Marvel products – see the Fantastic Four movies). Unlike Gotham, which is ambitious but struggles with its identity, Agent Carter knows what it wants to be straight out of the box, what Marvel specializes in; good old action suspense fare that takes advantage of tie ins with an ever expanding universe of familiar characters and concepts.

Agent Carter, for the uninitiated, was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America, where she was Cap’s confidant and handler, and she was devastated by his apparent death. In the years following the war, she’s been reduced to a copy girl and secretary in the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence agency, where the of-their-time misogynistic agents disregard her war service and credentials due to her gender. Frustrated, she is granted a rare opportunity to get back in action when Howard Stark, Tony’s father, recruits her to clear his name – he’s been framed as a traitor due to some of his most deadly technology ending up on the black market. She, believing in Stark and looking to participate in something meaningful again, jumps at the chance. With the assistance of Stark’s butler Jarvis, the namesake of Tony’s robotic assistant, she sets out to find the stolen tech and exonerate Howard Stark.


This show isn’t by any means a must watch; it’s not one of those rare brilliant pilots that draws you in, makes you think, or immediately makes you want to put on the next episode. Marvel is good at what it does though, and if you like Marvel’s movies, you’ll probably want to at least give Agent Carter a shot, especially considering it’s a measly eight episode commitment. Star Hayley Atwell is more than capable as Carter and while the show isn’t particularly original or brilliantly written or directed, it’s competent enough, and again, if you like superheroes and comic-book action, like I do, that might be enough, at least until there are so many competent superhero shows out there that we have to start choosing amongst them (that day may not be too long in coming – Netflix has four Marvel shows on the way, and there are three DC shows airing).

I wish I had a more interesting review to write, and more dynamic points to make, but that’s not what Agent Carter gives me. There’s action and adventure, but they follow the usual patterns. You know what this is from the first few minutes, and if that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll enjoy it well enough, and if it isn’t, there’s really no reason to stick around.

Will I watch it again? Yes, I probably will. Marvel has ensnared with me with their tie-ins and tempted me with their limited runs; I’m not sure I’d sign up for a season of this, but eight episodes I can do in my sleep. It’s not highest priority though, so it could get away from me without me knowing.