Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Best of TV 2013: Memorable Moments and Trends

Poet Gil Scott-Heron got it wrong: The revolution apparently will be televised. Make no mistake about it, friends. We are living in a genuine Golden Age of television where the outlets for creativity have expanded exponentially and the choices are myriad. We are witnessing a glorious insurgency in which creative revolutionaries are challenging the old and forging forward into new and uncharted television landscapes. With original programming no longer relegated to the confines of the “Big Three” major networks – having slowly expanded first into the pay cable arenas of HBO and Showtime and now flourishing on basic cable channels like AMC, A&E, FX, and seemingly countless others – originality and imagination now saturate our television viewing hours. As the limits were pushed and the boundaries expanded, the heightened quality of television programming (DUCK DYNASTY and HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO notwithstanding) attracted Hollywood’s highest caliber of actors to the small screen.

So, in honor of this artistic revolution, it’s only fitting to look back at the year in TV, bestowing some of my own honors on the shows and trends that made their mark in 2013.
13. Most Improved Show

With characters coming back from the dead, complicated revenge plots, long-lost sons, “shocking” gay reveals, and more ISPM’s (icy stares per minute) than Republicans at Obama’s last State of the Union address, REVENGE easily returned to the form that defines it and once again became the soapiest primetime…well, soap on television. High points thus far in the season have included the introduction of Victoria’s long-lost bastard son (who heated up the Hamptons with some pretty fierce abs and lusty lip locks with resident bisexual, Nolan Ross), the back-from-the-dead appearance of Lydia Davis, Conrad Grayson’s presumed-dead mistress, the French sophistication of pixie-coifed magazine editor Margaux LeMarchal, and Victoria’s iconic French script armchair (RIP!).

12. Best Use of a Comic Book Universe
Marvel may be kicking DC Comics’ ass when it comes to bringing its universe and characters to the big screen, but it could certainly use some super-schooling when it comes to television development. For everything that the much-ballyhooed AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. has missed the mark on, ARROW hits the bullseye. In the midst of the show’s second season, the creative forces behind ARROW have fully taken advantage of the DC universe, pulling in other superheroes and villains to slowly and methodically create a larger backdrop behind the immediacy of the Green Arrow landscape. Whereas AGENTS has opted for the insularity of a core group of elite Level 7 intelligence agents who investigate a strange new case of some threatening supernatural event on Earth each week in standard creature-of-the-week format, ARROW – although centering around the titular superhero, his origins, and cases – has painstakingly expanded the landscape around Green Arrow, introducing new long-term characters and a few just dropping by for single and recurring visits. In addition, whereas AGENTS’ minimal use of continuing storylines threads primarily through popular Agent Carlson, ARROW juggles multiple continuing story arcs more in line with a primetime soap opera.  The tone of ARROW is decidedly darker, with the writers not afraid to kill series regulars – so when someone in the ARROW universe runs afoul of a dangerous, unsavory baddie, the sense of tension over that character’s fate is genuine.

11. Most Premature Sendoff
Just when it was getting good…SMASH was sent to television heaven. In its retooled (and much delayed) second season, the addictive adult GLEE, centered around not one, but two, fledgling Broadway productions, gave us oodles of delicious guest stars (Jennifer Hudson, Sean Hayes, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Grace Gummer, Nikki Blonsky, Dylan Baker, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Rosie O'Donnell, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Harvey Fierstein), and a decidedly more soapy feel. It kept all the things that worked (campy moments like Anjelica Huston tossing drinks in her ex’s face and pretty much every musical number) and ditched the things that didn’t (Debra Messing’s distractingly voluminous scarves and her inconvenient family). Yet for all that, the show just couldn’t find its footing in the NBC schedule, finally relegated to the Saturday night graveyard. NBC – that great nurturer of quality television (just ask  Kathy Bates) – had one last spit-in-the-eye for SMASH fans when it decided to dim the lights and lower the curtains on the show after one final performance… with a two-hour series finale on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  

10. Most Shocking Sendoff
In the fictional apocalyptic landscape of THE WALKING DEAD in which no one is safe from the flesh-tearing jaws of the zombie hordes, it would seem unlikely that – 39 episodes in – audiences could be shocked by a character’s exit. Yet that’s exactly the jaw-dropping feat that writers pulled off during the “Indifference” episode when the beloved character of Carol (played with understated brilliance by Melissa McBride) was jettisoned from the show’s canvas. But what made the character’s exit even more dramatic than the tragic norm of becoming zombie chow was that the no-nonsense, ever-resourceful Carol wasn’t killed but rather shockingly banished by group leader Sheriff Rick. After it was revealed that Carol took matters into her own hands by murdering two fellow survivors with the (noble) intention of helping contain the sudden onset of an unsettling flu-like illness, Sheriff Rick determined that her impulsivity posed a threat to the larger group. Under the pretense of scouting for supplies, Rick lures the quietly unrepentant Carol away from their prison sanctuary, matter-of-factly confronts her, and then sends her off in a station wagon loaded with provisions.  The scene is nothing short of devastating in its emotional restraint as fan favorite Carol – domestic abuse survivor, grieving mother, and self-made zombie warrior – simply drives off into a world that feels as incalculably cold as the walking corpses that now infest it. 

9. Best Character Sendoff
Less unexpected due to the real-life passing of the actor who portrayed him, the iconic J.R. Ewing who presided over the fictional denizens of DALLAS, was also laid to rest in the grandest, most reverent TV sendoff of last year. Following Larry Hagman’s death from complications of acute myeloid leukemia at the end of 2012, producers and writers of the DALLAS reboot scrambled to fittingly bid adieu to the definitive TV villain. The task was a tall order, considering that both Hagman and his career-defining character remained beloved by millions of TV viewers. Hagman had appeared as the conniving, womanizing oil tycoon for all 357 episodes of the series’ original run between 1978 and 1991, in both reunion movies that aired in 1996 and 1998, and in the TNT reboot that bowed in 2012. To the credit of the creative forces behind the new DALLAS, J.R. was indeed given a sendoff befitting the master villain he will always be remembered as – having his own longtime private investigator kill him after discovering he had terminal cancer and then framing longtime nemesis Cliff Barnes for the crime. As an added tribute, an onscreen memorial was held for the fallen villain that was attended by a cavalcade of former DALLAS characters, giving testament to the enduring popularity of both the character and the actor who portrayed him. RIP, J.R. Ewing.

8. Best Acting Ensemble
In the genteel world of post-Edwardian era costume drama DOWNTON ABBEY, viewers are transported back to the fictional Yorkshire country estate of its title to eavesdrop in on the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their loyal staff of valets, footmen, butlers, chauffeurs, housemaids, cooks, and kitchen maids. In a class-based society of fixed hierarchies and strict formalities that demand to be observed, it’s no small feat that the perfectly cast residents of DOWNTON manage to push sizable amounts of warmth through the miniscule cracks of their stone cold, upstairs-downstairs walls. From the begrudging respect between The Dowager Countess (played to crisp English perfection by the inestimable Dame Maggie Smith) and her one-time nemesis Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) that seeps through between their innumerable quarrels and quips to the slips in maternal affection shown by the curmudgeonly cook Mrs. Patmore(Lesley Nicol) to her doe-eyed kitchen assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), the acting ensemble of DOWNTON ABBEY has mastered the balance between the conventions and compassions of the time period in their portrayals of the estate’s denizens. 

7. Best Trend, Part I: Serial Killers

The good news for television day players this year was that roles were in abundance; the bad news was that the proliferation of TV serial killers all but insured they’d play ill-fated victim to one of them. Shows like THE FOLLOWING, HANNIBAL, and BATES MOTEL gave us cultists, cannibals, killer teens, and body counts that rivaled any slasher film. Indeed, it seemed to genre fans like somebody flicked the murder and mayhem switch at almost every network. Although the result was a decidedly mixed bag, no fan of horror or thrillers could complain about their lack of choices in 2013.

6. Best Trend, Part II: Women of a Certain Age
While AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN may have become this year’s theatrical repository for women of a certain age – with Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Basset, Frances Conroy, and Patti LuPone all representing the 50+ set – television was teaming this year with mature actresses who stole more scenes than Snowden stole intelligence. From the fast-flying double-entendres, zippy one-liners, and high-energy zaniness of Jennifer Coolidge (2 BROKE GIRLS), Swoosie Kurtz (MIKE & MOLLY), and Linda Lavin (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SEAN), to the backstabbing bitchery, power plays, and general scowling of Madeline Stowe (REVENGE), Christine Baranski (THE GOOD WIFE), Judith Light (DALLAS), Dame Diana Rigg (GAME OF THRONES), and Dame Maggie Smith (DOWNTON ABBEY), to the deftly-toddled tightrope between comedy and drama as walked to perfection by Susan Lucci (DEVIOUS MAIDS), Laurie Metcalf (GETTING ON), Susan Sullivan (CASTLE), and Joan Cusack (SHAMELESS), mature actresses enhanced our viewing experience with their timeless talent and ageless beauty.

5. Most Consistently Audacious Show
Who would have thought that abject poverty, runaway addiction, and dildo-wielding housewives would be the ingredients in (easily) the best family drama on television today? Yet that’s exactly what SHAMELESS, the continuing chronicles of the whitest trash TV family you’re ever likely to meet, is at its drug-addled heart. The show’s energy is frenetic, its characters flamboyant, its plotlines scandalously audacious. If you haven’t watched it, to give away any of the delicious insanity that ensues would be a disservice. Suffice to say, nothing is taboo within the dilapidated houses of its gritty suburban setting on the South Side of Chicago. Now in its fourth season, the Gallagher clan has proved resilient against the unlikeliest of odds, somehow managing to always find hope within the despair, stability within the instability, and function within all the dysfunction.

4. Best New Show You’re Likely Not Watching
Face it: An exploration of aging and one’s own mortality in our youth-obsessed culture doesn’t exactly scream “Must-See TV!” Lack of thematic appeal aside, GETTING ON is easily the season’s best new show – and one I’ll wager a bet you’re not watching. Equal parts heartbreaking and hysterical, this gentle portrait of the daily operations of a geriatric extended care wing of a beleaguered California hospital packs more insight and humanity into its 30-minute episodes than most hour-long dramas. Shot against an unwashed, unglamorous fluorescent backdrop, the show’s visual drabness is counterpunched by the multihued performances its three leads – Laurie Metcalf (as the wing’s medical director), Niecy Nash (as a newly recruited nurse), and Alex Borstein (as the wing’s head nurse). Metcalf, in particular, is brilliant in her portrayal of Dr. Jenna James, wearing her pained reluctance to be assigned to the career-killing microcosm of the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit like battle-worn armor. While the comedy runs black and the humor is decidedly gallows, the essence of the show is about the care and compassion we, as humans, deliver and receive. In its woefully short , six-episode first season, GETTING ON has only skimmed the surface of the rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the show’s scribes. If HBO wisely decides to give this unlikely comedy a second season, you owe it to yourself to tune in.

3. Best Guest Gig for Character Actors

If you’re as big a fan of THE GOOD WIFE as I am, then it’s important that you remember this name: Mark Saks. Mr. Saks is the (deservedly) three-time Artios Award-winning and four-time Emmy-nominated casting director for the show and the man responsible for parading across our screens a veritable who’s who of veteran character actors and up-and-comers as guest stars who’ve – collectively – made THE GOOD WIFE more watchable five seasons in. What’s even more impressive – and a credit to the show’s casting department – is that the actors are matched perfectly to roles in which they are believable and complement, rather than detract from, the series regulars. Among Mr. Saks’ casting coups: Nathan Lane, Carrie Preston, Audra McDonald, Stockard Channing, Dallas Roberts, Matthew Lillard, Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Dylan Baker, Matthew Perry, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Camp, Mamie Gummer, Gary Cole, Rita Wilson, John Benjamin Hickey, RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry, Denis O’Hare, David Paymer, Michael Boatman, America Ferrara, Parker Posey, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer, Edward Herrmann, Bebe Neuwirth, F. Murray Abraham, Jane Alexander, Joanna Gleason, Miriam Shor, Maura Tierney, T. R. Knight, and Lisa Edelstein.

2. Biggest Jaw-Dropper/WTF Moment of 2013
While I’ll endlessly debate most things political and pop culture, there is no arguing that the GAME OF THRONES episode "The Rains of Castamere" (aka “Red Wedding” episode) was hands-down the most jaw-dropping, brutally shocking scene on TV last year – at least for those of us who have not read the George R.R. Martin series of books. It was visceral punch after punch to the gut as character after character met an abrupt and grisly end in a merciless massacre that seemingly came out of nowhere and left viewers wrung out in a heap on the floor in front of the carnage on the screen.

1. Best TV Moment of 2013
Arguably, the most memorable television moment of 2013 took place just as the New Year began. In the tenth episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, which aired on January 2nd, Jessica Lange – veteran Academy Award-winning actress – did this…

…and the world sang along for nearly two and a half inescapably delirious minutes of collective happiness and utter pop culture insanity.

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