3 Reasons Why I Cried This Week

It was certainly an emotional week in television. Thanks to some genuine honesty in storytelling and well-earned emotional payoffs, I shed tears in watching no less than three shows this past week. But admit it, if you watch these shows, you probably did too. No one’s judging, least of all me!

If you haven’t yet watched the most recent episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum, 30 Rock, and the US airing of Downton Abbey, don’t read on. SPOILER ALERT!

American Horror Story: Asylum – “Madness Ends”

What words come to mind when describing American Horror Story: Asylum? Certainly “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “grotesque” pop up. But surprisingly, so do “beautiful” and “moving.” Yes, the finale to AHS’s second horrific installment brought tears to my eyes. For all of the power that the series stripped of its characters, the finale presented a moving epilogue in which power was restored. Sister Jude, played by national treasure Jessica Lange, finally found the peace she deserved, thanks to Kit Walker’s compassion. He rescued her from Briarcliff, not for her sake or even his, but for his children. This act of forgiveness, along with the help of his half-alien children (this is still American Horror Story: Asylum, mind you), rehabilitated Jude back to sanity.

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Behind all the blood and guts, the beating emotional heart behind American Horror Story: Asylum’s showed itself through its genuine empathy in concluding Sister Jude’s character arc. Jude began the season in a villainous light, stoking Briarcliff’s wretched fire by committing acts of wrongful imprisonment, electro-shock therapy, and the like. Through various twists and turns, she became the asylum’s prisoner, and took hold of the audience’s sympathies. By the end of the journey, she found redemption and grace, acting as the surrogate grandmother to Kit’s children, and reveling in her new-found purpose. Her final moments on her deathbed were deeply moving, as she parted one last piece of feminist wisdom to Kit’s daughter: “Don’t you ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you’re less than he is.” As Jude passed away, her redemptive ending turned out to be even more gratifying than any vengeful arc could have been. Jude accepting the Angel of Death’s kiss was gorgeous, heartbreaking, and just about the classiest way to close her character’s ascent from madness.

30 Rock – “A Goon’s Deed In A Weary World”

When looking back at 30 Rock‘s seven seasons, it’s easy to recall such hilarious moments as Jack Donaghy’s role-play therapy for Tracy Jordan, Liz Lemon inadvertently parading around as the Joker, or Jon Hamm in blackface. The series prides itself on its pop-culture irreverence, but underneath its layers of self-aware cynicism lies a sincere fondness for its characters. At the end of 30 Rock’s penultimate episode, when the TGS crew members quit in front of the Kabletown board members for the sake of Liz Lemon’s happiness, I reached for a Kleenex. This honest gesture of support and sacrifice was a truly earned emotional moment, seven years in the making, and I shed tears of joy.

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Many (ruth-filled) television sitcoms would end its series run with the big, happy wedding, but not 30 Rock. With Liz and Criss’ wedding occurring mid-season, the big, happy ending for 30 Rock and for Liz Lemon became motherhood. Liz has always struggled to find a balance between her personal life and her work life, wrangling her unruly, impulsive TGS crew as she might her own children. But in these final moments, her TGS crew finally stepped up to the plate, sacrificing themselves to allowing Liz to make it to the airport on-time to greet her new adopted children, an experience she would only have once in her life. Liz Lemon is finally getting everything she’s wanted, fully embracing her very own children, fittingly, a mini-Tracy and mini-Jenna (Liz: “That seems about right.”). Here’s to the final episode!

Downton Abbey – “Episode Five”

Judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone, including myself, succumbed to the ugly cry when Julian Fellowes killed off Lady Sybil. This unflinching tragedy was the hardest emotional gut punch Downton Abbey has faced in its three seasons. But why the heavy sobbing, even if we can’t personally relate to lords, valets, and early 20th century England? It’s a testament to the series’ strong writing and acting (save for this season’s Batezzz storyline) that we have such a deep emotional investment in its rich, vibrant characters. Sybil’s strong moral compass and pure heart made the loss even more devastating, as her sense of humanity brought a refreshing ease to the Crawlely household.

Sybil’s final episode proved a fitting showcase for Downton Abbey’s SAG award for Best Ensemble in a TV Drama, which it won this past Sunday. All of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs, grieved in their own personal way. Each of these moments proved to be emotionally wrenching, from Branson holding his motherless child, looking out into vast empty world, to the Dowager Countess quietly soldering forward into Downton Abbey, about to join her mourning family, to Thomas’ breakdown outside the kitchen, acknowledging the loss, “In my life, I can tell you, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.” Narratively, Sybil’s death will prove to be a rich source of conflict driving the series forward, in pushing characters apart, especially between Lord and Lady Grantham, and sisters Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Emotionally, however, Sybil’s demise brought everyone together in a standstill from which the characters and we, the audience, are still recovering.

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The Naughty and Nice of 2012 TV

Welcome to my second-annual Naughty and Nice of TV list!

In the spirit of Christmas, I have named the aspects of this year’s television that I’ve deemed gift-worthy and ones that deserve a lump of coal. To view “The Naughty and Nice of 2011 TV,” click here. And just for the record, my favorite television series of 2012 are Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men, Louie, Parks and Recreation, Survivor, Community, 30 Rock, American Horror Story: Asylum, and Billy On The Street.

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TV on my Nice List:

Parker Posey on Louie

Parker Posey breathed a thrilling and dynamic life into Louie and her turn in “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 1” and “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2” was an absolute joy to behold. At the end of a magical, haunting, whirlwind date, which included Posey’s Liz coercing Louie to try on a dress, providing a homeless man shelter for a night, and a near-orgasmic smoked fish tasting, the two end up at the top of a building. Liz is sitting on a ledge, and we, along with Louie, are thrown off-balance by her entrancing nature. What happens next, Liz’s soliloquy on the merits of living, took my breath away:

But the only way I’d fall, is if I jumped. That’s why you’re afraid to come over here. Because a tiny part of you wants to jump. Because it would be so easy. But I don’t want to jump; So I’m not afraid. I would never do that. I’m having too good of a time.

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Liz’s lust for life sharply contrasts Louie’s fearful approach to the world around him. She opens him up to the possibility of living outside one’s comfort zone and continue’s Louie’s education in empathy. Though their encounter is fleeting, the impact he has on his life is profound. As the episode ends, the camera widens to reveal the vast New York City skyline. There is a world out there beyond Louie’s own pain, waiting to be explored; there are people out there waiting to have their stories shared. It is a truly beautiful moment.

The casting of Survivor: Philippines

Survivor lives and dies by its casting and a truly successful season gives us people to root for and people to root against. Thanks to its vibrant casting, Survivor: Philippines delivered in spades with its strongest edition since Heroes vs. Villains. Denise. Malcolm. Lisa. Skupin. Abi-Maria. Penner. These were people who were, to various degrees, here to play. The combination of a savvy and likable group of survivors who made both smart and stupid moves along the way made for thrilling television.

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Malcolm Freberg, on Abi-Maria Gomes

The final four players were the strongest final four in Survivor‘s history and all four overcame the odds as underdogs in their respective tribes. In Denise Stapley, you have a strong physical and mental winner who went to every single Tribal Council (a series first!) and emerged victorious. Her partner-in-crime, Malcolm Freberg, was the golden boy of the season, an über-fan whose likability factor was off-the-charts, both with the players on the island and with viewers at home.

Lisa Welchel (Blair from The Facts of Life) had one of the most complete character arcs on any show this fall, scripted or otherwise, overcoming her struggle for approval and acceptance that haunted her in her years since her teen stardom. Lisa transformed from an outcast suffering a #SurvivorBreakdown, into a player who ultimately realized she was playing a game and needed to make cutthroat moves to do so. Her bosom buddy, Mike Skupin, retuned to the game after famously falling into a fire in Australia, and proved to be no less accident-prone today.

Abi-Maria Gomes was a fully-formed villain, hilariously and frustratingly unaware of her own obnoxiousness. Jonathan Penner made the most of his third time on the show, playing with every ounce he had and playing with the meta-ness of it all, deftly manipulating Lisa to position herself as a creator of her own narrative, asking her, “What story do you want to tell?”

And then there’s Carter Williams. What Carter lacked in loquaciousness, he made up for with the Survivor quote of the millennium:

Penner, what do you want to do – [vote for] Katie or Penner?

Survivor: Philippines struck casting gold this fall and we can only hope for more contestant treasures in the spring with Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites. See you there, Malcolm!

The music of Nashville

Upon first glance, ABC’s new primetime soap boils down to the dueling country divas: the hot, young starlet Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) and the respected veteran Rayna James (Connie Britton). However, in its first eight episodes, Nashville presented an increasingly rich landscape inhabited by numerous characters with complex relationships. While not everything has worked (every scene related to the snoozy mayoral campaign tempted me to fast-forward my DVR), the strongest thread by far, the vibrant country music, has made the trip to Nashville worth it every week.

One particular standout closes out the show’s pilot, the smoky and seductive “If I Didn’t Know Better,” performed by Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio):

The series’ addictive musical tapestry is executive produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, who weaves a taut sense of history for each of the characters through the music they sing. Add to the mix, songwriters such as Elvis Costello and The Civil Wars, and you have a soundtrack worth spinning, from the Underwood-esque “Telescope,” to the acoustic singer-songwriter ballad “No One Will Ever Love You,” to the epic kiss-off duet between Rayna and Juliette in “Wrong Song.”

Mad Men‘s visual set-pieces

Put a gun to my head (please don’t) and ask me what is the most memorable scene on television in 2012 (please do), and I will respond immediately with Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré singing “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the show’s season premiere. The hypnotic image of a sultry Megan Draper performing for her new husband in front of all of his colleagues, instantly trended for fans around the country and the catchy tune became unforgettable. This moment was a coming-out for Megan and established the generation gap dynamic between her and her new husband, setting the tone for a darker, more visceral season of Mad Men.

This season was a Mad Men filled with so many indelible images: Peggy embarking on her new journey as The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” blared; Don peering into an open elevator shaft and into a deadly void of the unknown; Joan taking out her frustrations on a model airplane; Betty sneaking a bite of an ice cream sundae; Roger’s LSD trip. These were powerful images that masterfully spoke volumes about these troubled, unsatisfied characters.

Retta on Twitter: @unfoRETTAble

One of my favorite people I follow on Twitter is Retta, the QUEEN of television tweeting. Her live-tweets amassed such a fervent following that art imitated life: her character, Donna on Parks and Recreation, live-tweeted the fictional movie, Death Canoe 4 in an episode this past fall. Here are three of Retta’s hilariously choice tweets about Smash, Mad Men, and Girls:

In fact, Girls multi-hyphenate Lena Dunham has just asked Retta to live-tweet the upcoming season two of Girls:

Seriously, Retta is one to follow.

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TV on my Naughty List:

The wasted potential of The Mindy Project

I was really looking forward to Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project. And I gave her FOX comedy a shot. I really did. But after six episodes, I deleted it off my DVR for good. The lead, Mindi Lahiri, was a wholly unlikable character, who conveniently revealed a beating heart at the end of each episode, illustrating how she’s “growing” as a character. The supporting characters were thinly veiled strings of amusing quips at best and the Danny/Mindi relationship was at times too mean-spirited to watch comfortably. The tone of the show varied wildly and its pieces never amounted to a stable whole. I checked back in at the Christmas episode only to find an unappealing Elie Kemper ruin a perfectly good gingerbread house. No thank you. Best of luck to the future of The Mindy Project, especially in the midst of all its head-scratching casting changes: Anna Camp downgraded! Stephen Toblowsky out! That Jersey secretary out! That crazy nurse from episode two promoted! In hindsight, The Mindy Project‘s original title seems way more apt: It’s Messy.

Michonne on The Walking Dead

This year, I give my “Most Improved” Award to The Walking Dead. The AMC zombie drama recovered immensely after its horrific second season doldrums. This past fall, the show found a strong footing with a string of episodes that never broke its sense of forward-moving momentum. The didactic and dreary dialogue was excised in favor of higher stakes action, and there was a welcome shift from the threat of zombie violence to the threat of fellow human survivors. The stakes in the show have never felt higher.

However, The Walking Dead dropped the ball with the new character of Michonne. A full library of scowls and looks of disapproval does count as being a fully-developed character. And a staunch refusal to talk doesn’t make someone any more intriguing either. My main problem with The Walking Dead remains: I still don’t care about the characters (save Glenn and Maggie). The show expects us to care about the relationship between Michonne and Andrea (see: the face-off between the two in the mid-season finale, post-Governor brawl), but we as viewers know next to nothing about the eight months these two spent together on their own. And since we have no sense of history between these two women, it’s extremely hard to care about them or their falling out. We also know next to nothing about Michonne’s motivations, so her actions are neither heroic nor damnable. Michonne’s shroud of mystery is a frustrating aspect in an otherwise respectably solid run of episodes. Alas, a character cannot merely skate by on badass katana wielding alone. When I being to care about the characters, I’ll start to care about the show.

TWD_Michonne_Andrea

And while we’re discussing Michonne, The Walking Dead has GOT to work on its racial character tropes. It’s greatly disconcerting that the show kills off T-Dog, its one black male character, who barely had any speaking lines to begin with, in the same episode that it introduces Oscar, another black male character. And The Walking Dead does it again in its mid-season finale: introducing a fan favorite from the graphic novels, Tyrese, while killing off Oscar in the same episode. Greatly disconcerting.

The series finales of Desperate Housewives and Weeds

Kudos to Tina Fey and 30 Rock for ending its run on an extremely high note. This final season of 30 Rock is as strong as ever and not only has brought tons of classic one-liners (“My whole LIFE is thunder!”), but has worked in resonant emotional moments as well, such as Liz’s wedding and Colleen’s funeral. It’s a shame that Desperate Housewives and Weeds limped along past their expiration dates and went out with a whimper instead of a bang.

Desperate Housewives rode off so unmemorably into the sunset that I honestly don’t recall much about the final season at all: Tom and Lynette reconciled. Susan lost Mike. Bree was tried for murder, but wasn’t convicted. Gaby… became older? In the end, there was a cheesy epilogue that showed the women living happily ever after. What a disappointing and tedious final season. As for Weeds, I went into full-detail into its awfulness here. In a nutshell, Weeds implausibly jumped seven years in the future and there were hologram cell phones. Sure, why not.

Smash in all its hate-watching glory!

Golden-Globe Nominee Smash. Just let the ridiculousness of that sentence sink in for a moment. Get all those belly-laughs out. Good.

Where to even begin with this trainwreck of a show that we can’t stop devouring? The battle for the most annoying character on television? The seemingly endless parade of vapid love triangles? The stilted and hokey dialogue (“I CAN’T! I’M IN TECH!”)? The embarrassingly bad musical numbers both fantasy (Bollywood: need I say more?) and reality (Karen singing “Shake it Out” at a bat mitzvah while the teens in the audience literally SHOOK THEIR ARMS OUT)? Or how Katharine McPhee’s Karen is heaped praise upon like she’s the second coming of Christ (COME ON. Megan Hilty’s mom is Bernadette Peters, for crying out loud!)?

There’s a new showrunner at the helm for season two, who has promised that the creative wrongs have been righted, with Ellis, Leo, Frank, and Dev kicked to the curb, along with Debra Messing’s scarves, but this fragile bombshell could implode at any minute. And I’ll be there every week with popcorn eagerly awaiting that to happen.

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Here’s to 2013!

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And because I just can’t get enough of Retta, I’ll leave you with one last tweet:

What I’m Watching/Ditching in the Fall 2012 TV Season

With the 2012 Emmy Awards behind us, the 2012/2013 television season officially begins this week. Here’s a look at what I’ll be tuning into this fall and what I have already deleted off of my DVR. (Last season, I said goodbye to The Office and The Amazing Race.)

What I’m Watching:

Survivor: Philippines – Returned 9/19
Survivor is unabashedly one of my favorite television series of all time. I love the intense competition, the high drama, and the sheer chaos of it all. After the premiere episode of its 25th(!) season, this fall proves to be no exception. Survivor: Philippines features a solid cast of big personalities (including The Facts of Life‘s Lisa “Blair” Whelchel and baseball MVP Jeff Kent) and an interesting twist. The contestants are split into three tribes and each tribe features a returning player who were medically evacuated in their previous seasons. It’s fascinating to see how well or how poorly these men have integrated into the tribes. I’m keeping my eye out for Mike Skupin, who famously fell into a fire in Survivor: The Australian Outback. I’m also a fan of Denise, the sex therapist, who brings a leveled-head to the game and formed an unlikely alliance with Malcolm, the hunky bartender.

Parks and Recreation – Returned 9/20
All hail network television’s best comedy! And while we’re at it, all hail Amy Poehler, who has been robbed the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress two years running! There simply is no show on television with a greater love for its characters and the world they inhabit, and in today’s television landscape, this love is a breath of fresh air. This season promises great opportunities for transformative moments true to these characters (Ben in Washington D.C.! April as his intern! Andy as a policeman?!) and I look forward to taking the journey with all of them.

The Mindy Project – Debuted 9/25
Mindy Kaling stars as Mindy Lahiri, a thirtysomething OB/GYN, a woman obsessed with romantic comedies, wrapped up in a romantic comedy of her own. “I’m basically Sandra Bullock!” Mindy proclaims in the absurdly charming pilot. This FOX comedy has great potential with its zippy writing and refreshing characters, especially in the winningly abrasive Chris Messina as her foil and fellow doctor (Will they? Won’t they? Cliché?) And seriously, who doesn’t love Mindy Kaling?! Hers is a distinct voice sorely needed in today’s television environment.

30 Rock – Returning 10/4
30 Rock’s sixth season was one of its strongest to date, fully redeeming itself from the staleness that had pervaded the show in the couple of seasons prior. As Liz Lemon grows older, she even begins to grow wiser. The show’s narrative focus became sharper last season (even giving Kenneth a worthy storyline), as did the levels of absurdity. And now we’re now primed to enter the final season with grand sendoff. Plus, JONATHAN’S BACK!

Nashville – Debuting 10/10
I’m really looking forward to this country music drama. Connie Britton as a struggling country legend versus Hayden Panettiere as a feisty up-and-comer? I am so there for this battle of the divas.

The Walking Dead – Returning 10/14
The Walking Dead made my naughty list at the end of last year thanks to its spinning narrative wheels and lifeless, bloated dialogue. But as with 30 Rock, the last couple episodes of the season showed some promises of a return to form, raising the stakes immensely and excising dead character weight. Now with the upcoming introductions of the characters of The Governor and Michonne, I’m back on the zombiewagon.

American Horror Story: Asylum – Debuting 10/17
I can’t handle scary stuff for the life of me, but I’m inexplicably excited for the second iteration of FX’s scarefest. Nazis, and nuns, and aliens. Oh, my! As with any Ryan Murphy creation, there is bound to be a whole universe of crazy to explore, especially one that deals with Murphy’s favorite thematic touchstone of religion. American Horror Story: Asylum also heralds the acting debut of Adam Levine, which alone could be worth the price of a season pass.

Community – Returning 10/19
This summer saw Community undergo a fundamental and life-altering change: the firing of its creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon. Whether or not Community will survive the shakeup with its comedic integrity intact in this truncated (and possibly final) season remains to be seen, but there is no doubt I’ll be tuning in to support the Greendale students, and of course, Dean Pelton.

Top Chef: Seattle – Returning 11/7
Top Chef: Texas was the reality show’s weakest season, so I’m a bit hesitant to put it on my to-watch list. The most recent season featured too many formulaic episodes with challenges emphasizing unnecessary twists that got in the way of actual cooking. Top Chef: Seattle promises to reverse this trend and go “back to the basics.” I sure hope so, or I might have to tell the series to pack its knives and go.

What I’m Ditching:

Glee
At the end of last season, my co-workers and I made a pact to never return to the world of Glee. Thankfully, we are all still honoring this pact. There is no more need to complain about the extremely whiplashed nature of its storylines the next morning. No more need to eyeroll at characters whose wildly inconsistent behavior serve only plot function, not character development. No more need to suffer through moments of alternating overbearing meanness and saccharine sermons. No more.

Modern Family
Yes, Modern Family walked away from the Emmys with its third straight award for Outstanding Comedy Series, but I have simply had enough of this show. The first season was uniformly excellent: the acting was sharp, and the writing even sharper. But now after its uneven third season, it’s the writing that I have the most problems with. I simply don’t feel like I’m watching characters anymore, but rather mouthpieces for the Modern Family writers, who constantly shout for attention, “Look at how clever we are!” The wittiness of the show is now tiresome and has become too on-the-nose by half. In addition, the writers have seemingly written the same character beats over and over again. I feel like I know the extent of what the characters can say or do. It’s been a hilarious time well spent, but it’s time spent enough with the Pritchett-Dunphy clan.

30 Rock: So You Think You Can ‘Dance Like Nobody’s Watching’

I had completely forgotten about 30 Rock‘s season six premiere. It never even crossed my mind to set my DVR for the series’s 2012 return. For me, 30 Rock‘s absuridst charm had worn its welcome. Although the show had come off a fairly strong fifth season, I felt like I had seen it all: the searing witty banter, the wickedly brutal takedowns of NBCUniversal, the out-of-left field cameos. 30 Rock’s insistent familiarity simply didn’t thrill me as it once had in its early seasons.

Much to my surprise, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the sixth season premiere, “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”

The relationship between Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon is the beating heart of 30 Rock, grounding the series when all the other characters are spinning off into their own orbits. It was a nice twist to the Jack/Liz relationship, that for once, Jack couldn’t predict his mentee’s every move and motivation. Liz’s mystery man is not a game-changer, but it’s a plotline that provides a lot of potential for the season. It was refreshing to see 30 Rock take Liz Lemon in a different direction and show audiences that, yes, in spite of Liz’s self-sabotaging efforts, she can simply be happy (though this probably won’t last long, knowing Lemon). So like Jack, just when I thought I had everything figured out, I was thrown a satisfying curveball, peppered with a little dose of sentimentality.

Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), John McEnroe & D'Fwan (Tituss Burgess)

I was also happy to find Jenna Maroney at the center of a storyline that  made good use of her self-absorption and wasn’t simply another attempt at exploiting her craziness. Jenna’s constant craving for attention dovetailed perfectly with America’s Kidz Got Singing, a dead-on spoof of overblown singing competitions. John “Big Music Fan” McEnroe and Queen of Jordan‘s “style” “expert” D’Fwan were a delight as the other two archetypal judges and the “Songs from the Public Domain” theme climaxed with a montage-appropriate stripped-down rendition of “Camptown Races” were icing on the parody cake. I can’t think of a more enjoyable 30 Rock reality tv show parody since MILF Island.

As for the rest of the players, the proceedings felt a little old-hat. We’re treated to yet another naive backwoods Kenneth Parcell storyline, which felt especially stale. Even though we’re only less than a month into 2012, end of the world Mayan Apocalypse jokes have overstayed their welcome. I did, however, enjoy Tracy’s attempts to rile Liz up with seemingly familiar “Tracy Jordan problems.” Leaving under-privileged kids at a summer camp for a year or changing his name to The Gentleman Formerly Known as Rectum do fit in the same vein as Tracy’s past 30 Rock snafus. This self-knowing scene amused me more than it probably should have.

While I impatiently await the return of Community later this season, I am pleased, if not overjoyed, to have Tina Fey and company back on Thursday nights.