The Naughty and Nice of 2013 TV

Welcome to my third-annual Naughty and Nice of TV list! Yes, I realize that Christmas is long over, but Starbucks still has their holidays drink menus. Your argument is invalid.

You can take a look at my 2012 Naughty and Nice list here and my list from 2011 here.

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TV on my Nice List:

Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias”

Without question, Breaking Bad sits atop the pantheon of the best television series and “Ozymandias” was the show’s finest hour. The soul-crushing and emotionally dark climax to the series left its audience reeling from devastating moment after devastating moment. Moments that built upon a rich, detailed history of the past fifty-nine hours. Moments like Hank’s final stand. Moments like Walter White kicking Jesse while he was down with the ultimate truthbomb. Moments like the knife fight between Walter and Skyler White. The episode pushed the notion of “family” to the breaking point and left me sick to my stomach and not to mention, wanting more. What an emotionally gripping hour of television.

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Survivor: Blood vs. Water

On paper, the 27th of Survivor should have been a train wreck. Devoted fans such as myself were wary of the seemingly endless parade of twists: A tribe of returning players versus their loved ones; An immediate vote-off before the game even began; The return of the controversial “Redemption Island”; Loved ones getting the decision to take the place of their partners who have been voted out. RUPERT. COLTON. But guess what? It totally worked.

What kept the twists humming were the layers upon strategic layers that no one saw coming: voting someone out as a punishment to their loved ones on the opposite tribe; voting someone out in hopes their loved ones would switch out; voting someone out to knock out players on Redemption Island. Emotions were also at an all-time high, building up to Ciera Eastin voting to eliminate her own mother, Laura Morett.

In Ciera and Big Brother champ Hayden Moss, we got two underdogs who just would not give up the fight (I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw either of them again because of their fire). With his back against the wall, Hayden proved his strategic worth and fought tooth and nail to convince Ciera to force a voting tie, something that has only been seen once before in Survivor‘s 13-year history. It was an epic and historic Tribal Council that epitomized one of the best seasons since Heroes vs. Villains.

Mad Men’s Bob Benson

In an ultimately disappointing sixth season, Mad Men set the internet ablaze with the question: Who is Bob Benson?

This charming and handsome SCDP employee played by the charmingly handsome James Wolk raised more than a few eyebrows as to what his motives were. How many secrets did this genial man hold? Why was he around every corner in the office? What was the nature of his friendship with Joan? What was with his infatuation with Pete? Was he a government informant? An undercover reporter? Pete and Peggy’s time-traveling love child?

The slow-burn of a mystery unfolded itself in his Don Draper duality and opposition to Mad Men‘s previous gay employee, Sal Romano. While Bob Benson’s homosexuality reveal may not have been as out-there a theory for some, for me, it was a perfect stroke of subtle storytelling. And of course, who could forget those shorts?!

Ok, so in all honesty, I may or may not have put Bob Benson on my list solely because I love me some James Wolk. I debated between placing Bob Benson on the Nice list or the sweet relationship between Peggy Olson and Stan Rizzo. Ultimately, thanks to Tom & Lorenzo’s mightily impressive analysis of Bob Benson and gay culture in the 1960s, I went for the short shorts.

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David Brown on Jeopardy!

My friend David Brown (@iamdavidbrown) made a killing on Jeopardy! on an entertaining three-episode run this past summer. It’s an intelligent and fabulous performance that has to been seen to be believed. Way to go, David! #FatDwarfNumberThreeFTW

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TV on my Naughty List:

Breaking Bad’s “Felina”

These are but minor quibbles on the legacy of Breaking Bad, but count me in as one of the people who felt that its finale had too neat of an ending. Granted, this is the only way the show could have ended; Breaking Bad wouldn’t have left any loose threads hanging (Huell’s Rules not withstanding). The show took a Lostian approach in its twisted nostalgia trip to find its closure, and like Lost, expectations for this finale reached perhaps unattainable levels.

Breaking Bad‘s ending was earned and effective, but it eschewed surprise and transcendence for efficiency. Of course, it could only be Walter White who could orchestrate such a risky and mechanical plan with nary a hitch, with the entirety of the series leading to the deployment of ricin and a machine gun. As Jesse Pinkman once said, Mr. White is smarter and luckier than anyone. However, I felt as though Walter White received a redemptive and almost triumphant sendoff that went against the moralist nature of the show.

And speaking of Jesse, the show could have done better by him in the final eight episodes. As the world narrowed in on Walter White, Jesse faded into the background and presence in the finale was sorely missed.

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American Horror Story’s race problems

I absolutely LOVED American Horror Story: Asylum. It was a disturbing roller-coaster of madness that surprisingly surrounded a bloody, beating heart. Coven keeps the crazy flowing, but falls short of making you actually care about its characters. In Asylum, we rooted for Lana and Kit to escape the terrifying clutches of Briarcliff. In Coven… everyone dies and is resurrected. Yay?

Coven has been able to take horrifically vile characters, like Kathy Bates’ Madame LaLaurie, and transform them into more sympathetic creatures. However, these transformations seem only applicable to its white characters. Not much screen time has been devoted to fleshing out its black characters. Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is a force to be reckoned with and is hands-down the best part of Coven, but she is nothing more than a force of vengeance and anger. The same goes for Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie who has seemingly sacrificed herself in the wake of a white male terrorist in the mid-season finale.

For a show that has woven itself in the tapestries of historical racial divides of Salem witches versus voodoo witches, it’s unclear what Coven is saying about race relations in America, or even wants to say. There are only four episodes left in this scatter-shot season, building up into the two witch lineages teaming up to defend against the patriarchal Corporation. Here’s hoping the streamlined plot narrows the home stretch, while revealing the larger picture.

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Saturday Night Live’s race problems

SNL made headlines this fall, not for insightful and pointed political skewering or for gut-busting humor, but for its lack of diversity in its casting. Lorne Michaels hired six new featured players this season, five men and one woman. What should have been celebratory for these six turned controversial, as the hiring of six white cast members did nothing but highlight the cast’s lack of diversity.

This past fall, important questions entered the cultural conversation: Where are SNL‘s black women?! Why hasn’t there been a black woman in the cast since Maya Rudolph? How can a cultural institution such as SNL not have someone portray icons such as Oprah and Beyoncé? Unfortunately, the hosting job by the talented Kerry Washington merely winked at the problem, without making any solutions or statements at all. Comments from cast memebers Jay Pharaoh and Kenan Thompson certainly didn’t help either.

And now here we are, with an impending announcement of a single black comedienne joining the cast. Did you catch that Lorne Michaels “did not want to add too many women at this time because the cast already includes five”? Hah. But man, this actress will be under so much scrutiny while fighting an uphill battle to prove her comedic worth. Godspeed, single black comedienne! Good luck carrying the weight of every single expectation ever.

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Big Brother’s race (and homophobia and misogyny) problems

Big Brother also made headlines this year, not for its riveting gameplay, but for the bigoted and racist comments from its houseguests. Following a heated exchange when former model Aaryn Gries flipped the bed of African-American houseguest Candice Stewart, CBS began prefacing each episode with a disclaimer. And while CBS did acknowledge some of the controversy, focusing on throwing Aaryn under the bus and aired an assortment of her bigoted outbursts, other houseguests made racist, homophobic, and misogynist comments that never made the CBS telecast.

The fact that none of these comments were brought up during the live finale, especially when member of the final three made these statements, places more shame on CBS. In the end, in the midst of rampant bigotry, Big Brother crowned its first gay winner this year. Congrats, Andy Herren! I admired your gameplay and your fashion sense.

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The cancellation of Happy Endings

Simply put, I will miss my punny, fast-talking friends from Chicago. Not cool, ABC. Not cool.

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I Surrender: The Walking Dead Season 3 Finale

Here’s a joke for you: What do you call a season finale that provides neither a cliffhanger nor a satisfying conclusion? The Walking Dead season three finale!

The Walking Dead has stumbled and limped along time and time again, but the show has always managed exuberantly visceral endings to storylines that proved problematic. From the heartbreaking reveal of Zombie Sophia that put an end to an excruciatingly drawn-out search-and-rescue to the intense adrenaline-fueled destruction of Herschel’s Boring Farm, The Walking Dead’s finales have always been satisfying. Unfortunately, the third season’s final hour was a strangely paced, anti-climatic affair. What should have been a rallying declarative moment for the show, ended up as a limp disappointment.

Following a languid second season that made my TV Naughty List of 2011 and a disappointing introduction of Michonne that appeared on my TV Naughty List of 2012, The Walking Dead served up a solid run of episodes in the first half of this season, its strongest outing thus far. The shift of the threat of danger from the dead to the living was a smart and welcomed one, pulling the characters and story arcs into a tighter focus. The third season, as a result, became a slow burn, building up to the promise of an all-out war between the Governor and Rick Grimes.

Did the show fulfill this promise? Save for an explosive, yet surprisingly tactless and clumsy, assault on the prison by the Woodbury team, the war ended up as a whimper, not a bang. In fact, all the tension was eased out as we watched our heroes prepare to leave the prison before the Governor even arrived. We killed time in the second half of the season, stalling for a hotly-anticipated catastrophic climax between the Governor and Rick that never came. There were no showdowns to speak of, not even the Governor versus Michonne! Instead, we were left with the Governor versus that one guy from Tyreese’s group. RIP that guy. What a letdown.

Capital “M” morality has always been the weakest element of the show, especially with its heavy-handed soliloquies of its early episodes. By time this finale rolled around, the attempts at a complex morality were reduced to nothing more than a simplistic “us” versus “them” mentality. Any compelling character tensions with the Governor’s authoritative tactics contrasted to Rick’s methods of leadership were wiped clean, as the Governor transformed into a full-on cartoony killing machine. Various shades of gray were now a distinctly dull black and white.

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On The Walking Dead, where action is favored over character development, characters only become truly fleshed-out once they’ve reached the redemptive ends of their story arcs (See: Dale, Lori, Axel, Merle). When characters die, the show finally figures out their purpose, or in Andrea’s case, runs out of story to tell. Andrea’s death was as inevitable as it was necessary, and just as frustrating and polarizing as the character herself. I couldn’t help but protest in frustration as she wasted precious moments to save herself in order to gain audience sympathy, pleading a defense that she didn’t want anyone to die. There’s no time to justify your actions! Save yourself! Her last words (“I tried”) and Rick’s somewhat pathetic response (“Yeah, you did. You did.”) was just so fitting. And while I appreciate Michonne being there for Andrea in her final moments, the scene rang emotionally hollow, as their relationship was never fleshed-out enough to carry any real emotional heft.

On the plus side, Michonne herself has become a slightly more fully-realized character, evolving from a silent scowler outsider, to a not-as-silent-but-still-pretty-silent scowler who has softened enough to become part of the clan. What an arc! But as the size of the original crew whittles down, there are still unmemorable, thinly-sketched characters galore. Aside from Daryl Dixon, who can you point to as a consistently solid character? Carol probably comes the closest. Carol! And the introduction of new characters, Tyreese (a dynamic fan-favorite in the comics) and his sister (?), have proved to be disappointing non-entities. The two merely served as weak opposition to Rick, then as even weaker opposition to the Governor. But hey, on a show that apparently only has room for one black male character at a time, at least Tyreese has lines (Sorry, T-Dog and Oscar).

While this third season did deliver the tightest, strongest episode since the pilot (“Clear”), the second half of this season was a wash and the open-ended finale didn’t help to redeem itself. Perhaps most frustrating of all, there is no clear vision for the show going forward into its fourth season. In the final moments, I found myself scratching my head at Rick’s decision in choosing the prison rife with zombies and a gaping fence hole over the fortified, mostly secured Woodbury. You never want to enter a six-month-plus hiatus with a question mark.

Many characters won’t make it to season four, and I don’t think I will either. Aside from the cultural zeitgeistiness of it all, nothing compels me to continue watching The Walking Dead. While the show has delivered some hopeful moments for its characters this season to contrast the harsh bleakness of its world (Mazel tov, Glenn and Maggie!), I have no emotional investment in these characters who exist only to be bit. So good luck, Rick and friends! You’re now responsible for the weak and the elderly, and for now, one less viewer.

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.

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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.

My Knee-jerk 2012 Emmy Nominee Reactions!

The 2012 Emmy nominations were announced this morning, by Scandal‘s Kerry Washington and Jimmy Kimmel, filling in Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman (an egregious snub if there ever was one!). Unsurprisingly, Mad Men took with 17 nominations, while very much surprisingly, American Horror Story did the same. Oh, how shrewd of you, FX, submitting AHS as a mini-series. Downton Abbey joined the ranks of outstanding drama series this year, after being submitted as a mini-series last year, and it feels like every single cast member walked away with a nomination. Ditto for the cast of Modern Family.

In the world of drama, all outstanding drama nominees are deserving of praise (Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men), but I’d expect Mad Men to win yet again. I’m personally rooting for Breaking Bad. I’m especially thrilled to see Anna Gunn finally receive recognition for her role as Skylar White as well as the brilliantly nuanced Mark Margolis who played Tio Salamanca. DING! DING! DING!

On the comedy front, the Emmy nominations for outstanding writing for a comedy series should have been also been for outstanding comedy series: Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, and Girls (the only one of these four series to be nominated for series). These four series, ladies and gentlemen, are the four best comedies on television. But granted, this is no small consolation prize. Writing for comedy is HARD. And all hail Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham! While Louie failed to score a nod for comedy series, Louis C.K. broke the record for the most nominations for an individual (acting, directing, writing for Louie and four noms for “Louis C.K. Live At the Beacon Theatre.”). I’m beyond thrilled that Girls and Dunham (nominated for writing, directing, acting, and producing) were able to surpass any initial viewer polarization and garnered exemplary recognition for its brave and groundbreaking first season.

In reality land, Jeff Probst was not nominated for outstanding reality television host this year, the only person to ever to win the award since its creation four years ago. What a shocker! But surprise! Inexplicably it’s the unstoppable Betty White who was nominated for hosting Betty White’s Off Your Rockers and knocked down the reigning host champ. Ridiculous. THAT MEANS THAT THIS IS YOUR YEAR, CAT DEELEY! Even my own mother has lamented how you have yet to win this award. Elsewhere on the reality front, The Voice bumped out American Idol, but we all know that the increasingly stale The Amazing Race will walk away with yet another win. YAWN.

A couple more stray thoughts: Kudos to the late, great Kathryn Joosten for Desperate Housewives. And will you look at how the mighty have deservedly fallen?! There were only three nominations for Glee (makeup, cinematography, and the stalwart Dot-Marie Jones for guest actress), and a whopping zero nominations for The Office. Also, if Missing was able to be submitted as a mini-series, after effectively being canceled this summer after one season, then why not the genius that is Awake?!

Lastly, THIS:

One Year of Blogging & Two Months of Catch-Up: Mad Men, Girls, True Blood & Louie

It’s been one whole year here at jofumtv.com! Huzzah! Thanks so much for reading my ramblings and though nuggets. I’ve truly appreciated all the support for my little endeavor.

It’s also been nearly two months since my last post, wherein I predicted Eventual Winner Phillip Phillips would win American Idol. A surer bet had never been made.

So to celebrate, I played a bit of cultural catch-up, briefly acknowledging two shows that completed their seasons in these past two months, AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Girls, and discussing two shows currently on the air, HBO’s True Blood and FX’s Louie. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead…

Mad Men

As a whole, this past season of Mad Men never quite rose to the soaring heights of season four’s Don Draper spiraling descent into depravity (case in point, the best hour of television ever: “The Suitcase”), but the series is still head and shoulders about the rest, even in its fifth year. While we were treated to indelible water-cooler moments this season, Megan performing “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Joan ending her relationship with her rapist husband. Peggy leaving SCDP. Pete getting punching the face. Twice!, I can’t help but think there was so much potential from the premiere episode that was never fully explored. These somewhat missed opportunities included more discussions of race, we only very briefly met Dawn, the new African-American secretary, and the explosion of youth culture, aside from our visit with the teens at the Rolling Stones concert. But that’s Mad Men, a slow-burning atmospheric buildup of character history that zigs when you expect it to zag.

Another small quibble I had with this past season was with the broader storytelling strokes. Perhaps as a nod to the ever-loosening societal standards of the latter 1960s, the visual symbolism has more overt than ever this season (Don has a rotten tooth that needs to be extracted! Don looks down into an empty elevator shaft!) and the dialogue more on the nose (“Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap,” whined Creepy Glen). Granted, this sense of overbearing gloom and grime was well-suited for the characters’ disappointments and frustrations.

The natural climax of the season, Lane’s untimely demise, was heartbreaking to a fault, but felt a tad bit unearned. Dare I say, the introduction of Chekhov’s forged check felt forced and contrived? Are we really to believe that Lane felt so much shame about his financial difficulties that he wouldn’t ask any of his fellow partners for help? Had this storyline been introduced more subtly, rather than abruptly in episode ten, I would have felt the whole proceedings would have been less hamfisted. Still, Lane’s suicide gave the final two episodes an emotional and propelling drive forward.

Mad Men is still a television series at the head of the class, and if anything, this season gave to the world my favorite quote of the entire series: “SURPRISE! THERE’S AN AIRPLANE HERE TO SEE YOU!” I love you, Joan Holloway.

Girls

Plain and simple, Girls is my favorite television show of 2012 so far. Chief writer, director, and star of Girls Lena Dunham’s voice is so confident and so distinct that the television landscape will never be the same again. Dunham has created a fully realized world inhabited by characters both fearless and flawed, selfish and vulnerable, witty and more witty. These women, Hannah Horwath, Marnie Michaels, Jessa Johansson, and Shoshanna Shapiro, are disarmingly complicated, making their lives all the more relatable. Not only that, but Dunham has written one of the most compelling male characters in recent television history, Adam Sackler, who is all at once magnetic and disarming.

To be sure, Dunham’s character, Hannah, is high on opium tea when she spouts the enduring line of series: “I may be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of generation,” but, boy, does she ever make a statement for herself. One that both Hannah and Dunham certainly live up to by the end of the season.

And did I mention the soundtrack? The impeccable soundtrack selection for Girls tapped into the raw and vibrant attitude of this generation: from Marnie and Hannah cementing their friendship and dancing out their frustrations to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” to Marnie Facebook stalking Charlie while listening to Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper,” to the whole gang rocking out to Lady’s “Yankin” in the season finale wedding. The music cues in Girls are priceless.

True Blood

Save for the always fabulous and ever bitchy Pam de Beaufort, played to perfection by cast MVP Kristin Bauer, and her misgivings as a new maker, True Blood has been so listless, anemic, and downright difficult to sit through this season. What has been lacking so far is a true sense of cohesion stemming from a compelling big bad. The early season tight-knit pulpy charm of Bon Temps with a small core of characters has now sprawled out of control into an ever-expanding universe of supernaturals. When it’s been revealed that every character has an exhaustive supernatural background, does that make anyone special?

Even worse, is that for the majority of this fifth season, True Blood‘s characters have been spinning their narrative wheels and running around in boring circles. As the storylines multiply by the minute, my care for the characters decreases proportionally. Do I care about Sam and Luna, the little weregirl? No. Do I care about Terry and the second-rate smoke monster from Lost? No. Do I care about the misadventures of Sheriff Bellefleur’s butt? No. I hope that now that Russell Edgington is a true force to be reckoned with, we can finally witness the raw chaos that we’ve been promised this season. Peace is for pussies, Russell? Bring it on.

Louie

If there appears to be any thematic exploration in these first three brilliant episodes of Louie, it’s that we seldom say what we mean; but if we did, wouldn’t it be wonderful? Of course, any guess at a theme could prove to be futile by the time the next episode rolls around, as Louie is just as unpredictable than ever in its third season. Nevertheless, the thread of not fully expressing what one means is woven throughout the first few half-hours.

In the premiere episode, Louis C.K.’s girlfriend, April, played by Gaby Hoffmann, reads Louis’ uncomfortable body language and subtle grimaced facial expressions like a book and comes to the conclusion that Louis wants to end their relationship, so she does the dirty work for her. Louis need not speak a word.  Through deft acting, Louis speaks volumes with his silences. In the following episode, Louis C.K.’s youngest daughter tells a simple joke: “Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?” and gives the simplest punchline: “Just the people who were in charge of that decision.” Louis explains to his audience in his stand-up routine that he loved this joke, that the seeing the absurd logic of it all through the eyes of a child imbued the joke with profound hilarity.

I was simply floored by Louie‘s third episode of the season, “Miami,” my favorite episode of the series thus far. I was struck by its honest depiction of Louis’ genuine and confounding feelings for another guy: a lifeguard, Ramon, who rescues him from ocean and takes him on a freeing and whirlwind journey through the “real Miami.” Every complexity of male-male heterosexual relationships is on naked display, leading up to a brutally uncomfortable conversation between the two men. Louis simply cannot admit what he is feeling, that he enjoys spending time with Ramon, or even say in the simplest of terms, that he isn’t gay. Instead, he stammers out to Ramon, “First of all, I have zero anything…” unable to verbally admit that Ramon’s assumptions about Louis’ feelings are true. Thus both men tiptoe gingerly around their words, neither one wanting to offend the other. Their capper conversation is both amusing and bittersweet in its sincerity.

Louis C.K. closes out “Miami” with his astutely observed stand-up material:

Heterosexual men have a big burden that we put on ourselves which is that we want to be identified as heterosexual men. We’re the only ones that care […] And, it’s a drag for us, because there’s a lot of things that we maybe could do that might be nice, but we can’t ’cause someone will think we’re gay. We can’t even throw some words around. You can’t really throw ‘wonderful’ around so much. You can’t say ‘wonderful,’ unless you say it in like a gay voice to be funny: ‘Oh, it was wonderful. Ha ha ha. Like I would ever really say that.’ ‘No, but it was wonderful. It was.’ I can’t just say that about anything. ‘No, that strip club was wonderful. It was wonderful.’

— — —

And as an added bonus, I just have to end this post with a GIF of what I’ve been looking forward to the most this summer season:

The triumphant return of Breaking Bad and Jesse Pinkman’s exuberant enthusiasm for science.

Jofum’s TV Week in Review: A Couple of Goodbyes

In the past week, a couple of television series said goodbye to notable faces. So please take note of this SPOILER ALERT!, as I take a brief look back on three of the week’s television offerings…

The Walking Dead

Goodbye Shane! – This season, The Walking Dead has seriously tried my patience. Hershel’s claustrophobic farm sucked all the energy and tension from the series. Without a clear antagonist, the show has simply meandered along at a glacial pace. Rick Grimes and the rest of the thinly characterized company have fought to survive the zombie apocalypse, without really accomplishing anything other than stay alive. Sure, zombies are still out and about, but they have just acted as mere roadblocks for the characters to fight through rather than against. But recently, Shane (as brash and annoying as his character can be at times) stepped up to the plate to become the villain that the show so desperately needed.

Shane’s transformation from jealous best friend and lover to vengeful would-be-and-has-been-one killer has been one of the series’ most successful character arcs, though granted, there haven’t been that many to begin with. His clashes with Rick about the nature of leadership have been more compelling than any of the repetitive and heavy-handed philosophical musings on life and death. The climactic standoff between Rick and Shane, though inevitable, proved to be quite suspenseful and engaging. And even more interesting, is the reveal that anyone who dies can turn into a walker, not just someone who comes into contact with a zombie. As the series heads off into its final episode of the season, Shane’s death brings a clearer focus to Rick and the gang, who now have to fight off the oncoming herd of zombies and deal with the nearby human survivors. It’s sure to be a bloody finale with a high body count.

Desperate Housewives

Miek Delfino (James Denton)

Goodbye Mike Delfino! – When it was announced that this year would be the end of Desperate Housewives, I looked forward to the possibility that the series would with a bang. Unfortunately, this final season has been an overall disappointment, fizzing out over the course of the year. The major through-line for the season, the Wisteria Lane gang dealing with the fallout of the murder of Gabrielle’s step-father, has gived the housewives ample opportunities to clash against each other and strengthen their bonds, but has been sullen and dour as a whole.

The whole loan shark storyline, which ultimately became the demise of Mike Delfino, has been tedious at best. Past Desperate Housewives villains have at least been interesting, if not flamboyantly devious (see: Edie Britt’s psycho husband, Katharine Mayfair’s psycho ex-husband), but this loan shark is downright cartoony. As for Mike’s death itself, the shooting in broad daylight was certainly unexpected, but it didn’t carry much emotional impact for me. As Wisteria Lane pays respect to Mike Delfino in the episodes to come, I hope the series doesn’t wallow too much in despair. In the past, Desperate Housewives has been the most successful when deftly blended a sense of whimsy with the threat of violence. Here’s hoping the final hours can rekindle some of that excitement that endeared America to these housewives in the first place.

American Idol

Goodbye Gentle Giant Jermaine Jones and Shannon Magrane! – I must say, I could not be happier with this Top 10, who have earned a spot on the summer tour. This is a really well-rounded crop of finalists, quite possibly the most evenly matched group the show’s seen. In these past two weeks, the three clearly weakest and least versatile singers in the competition were thankfully sent home: syrupy balladeer Jeremy Rosado and the aforementioned disqualified felon GGJJ and the in-over-her-head, tries-too-hard, “I only missed one note” Shannon.

However, only Shannon was eliminated by receiving America’s vote. Based on this week’s bottom three of Shannon, Elise Testone, and Erika Van Pelt, I highly doubt Jeremy (who was sent home by the judges) received the lowest amount of votes over Elise. This now-familiar voting trend of sending women home before the men is highly disappointing. Here’s hoping the self-proclaimed “old ladies” can connect with the voting public. So Elise, that means that you cannot not be happy when your competition makes it though! We know you’re disappointed and bitter, but America wants to see lightheartedness and support from its contestant! Enough with the sour faces! Onward to Billy Joel week we go!

The Naughty and Nice of 2011 TV

‘Tis the season for year-end “best of” lists. In honor of Santa Claus coming to town tonight, I’ve put myself in his boots and compiled a list of television shows I’ve found to be “Naughty” and “Nice” this year.

— — —

5 TV Shows on my Naughty List:

The Walking Dead

The first season of AMC’s zombie-fest was a fascinating, if not flawed, six-episode affair. The series was a ratings boon and enjoyed its fair share of critical and media attention. Unfortunately, all the good will and momentum The Walking Dead had accumulated was squandered in a sluggish return this fall. Simply put, there just wasn’t seven hours worth of material to stretch over the first part of the second season. What should have only taken at most two or three episodes, the search for Sophia became tiresome and repetitive. And as riveting as the final act in the barn standoff was, it felt wholly unearned.

The budget-saving decision of the series to stay in one location should have given plenty of opportunities for nuanced character development and growth, deepening our understanding of the characters we were already familiar with and introducing us to compelling new ones. Instead, we were treated with archetypes spouting off repetitive dialogue alternating between dour shouting matches and heavy-handed sanctimonious discussions. The more time spent with Rick and the survivors, the more I wanted a zombie to gobble them up, and there weren’t even that many zombies this season to begin with.

The cast of "The Walking Dead"

The Amazing Race

I have been a steadfast fan of The Amazing Race since its first season in 2001, but its most recent 19th season is my final outing for this globetrotting reality series. Shoot, I didn’t even complete watching the entire race. I gave up after a couple episodes after Survivor‘s Ethan and Jenna were eliminated for not reading one sentence on a display that wasn’t even clearly marked in typical The Amazing Race fashion. This type of blatant “twist” is pure manipulation, grasping at straws to create drama, and has become more and more prevalent in the game. The challenges themselves have become simpler and more straight-forward (read: waaaaaaay lamer). Fill and deliver bags of grass? Make cocktails? Really?! On top of these simplifications, the over-reliance of non-elimination legs and equalizers suck the tension and suspense dry from every episode. The diminishing returns of The Amazing Race have disappointed me one too many times and I let this show go from my weekly viewing roster.

Weeds

Despite all of the flack Weeds had received in the seasons following the Botwin’s flight from Agrestic/Majestic, last summer’s season six was a refreshing return to form. With Nancy’s family (plus Doug) on the run and especially with Nancy’s Michigan homecoming, the series’ focus tightened on the familial relationships, gaining in the process a strong sense of pathos never before seen on the show. Nancy Botwin was finally forced to accept that her actions held consequences and the season six finale left the possibilities for the next season wide open.

However, this year’s seventh season become yet another sadly squandered opportunity. Instead of a revitalization, it was almost as if the reset button had been pushed on the Botwins. The season’s storylines were too broad and never added up to anything significant or even that dramatic. What depth did Heylia’s return really add? Or the polyamorous relationship Andy became involved in? While Shane’s police internship became a showcase of poor acting choices, the one saving grace of the season was Hunter Parrish’s Silas. His competition against his mother showcased a solid performance, but even so, his character was effectively neutered in the final episode.

Silas Botwin (Hunter Parrish)

Entourage

While Jeremy Piven’s gave his strongest and most compelling portrayal of Ari Gold in Entourage‘s final season, as a broken man trying to save his marriage, it wasn’t enough to make up for the blah storylines ranging from E’s snoozy relationship drama to Turtle’s baffling ascendance into millionairedom. And each and every member of the Entourage gang gets a happy ending? I guess that’s to be expected in this Hollywood fairytale. Yawn.

The Killing

WHO KILLED ROSIE LARSON? After spending the entirety of a soggy season in Seattle, we still have no idea. The Killing was an exercise in mismanaged expectations. We expected a game-changing police procedural, but instead were given a slow burn of red herrings, maudlin scene after maudlin scene, and barely-there character development. Sure, The Killing provided a couple of arresting cliffhanger endings to its episodes, but storytelling patterns soon arose and the “shocking” developments would be wiped clean at the top of the next episode. If any good came from the series, it was that American audiences were introduced to the riveting Joel Kinnaman (the Swedish-American actor who plays Stephen Holder), whose all-too-brief cameo in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gave me more joy than the entire first season of The Killing.

Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos)

Dishonorable Mention: Glee

A hot mess of a show, Glee is a flurry of convoluted, nonsensical storylines and inconsistent characterizations. And just when it offers a glimmer of entertaining logic and coherence, it pulls the rug from under you and leaves you banging your head against a wall. What a tease. So why do I keep watching a show that provides more frustration than joy? I’m holding out for the extremely rare radiance that only a show like Glee can muster. There’s a good show buried somewhere deep inside.

Unfortunately, way more often than not, Glee churns out absurd obnoxious “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” lumps of coal than it does brilliant showcases for its strongest performers, Naya Rivera and Heather Morris. My wish this Christmas? Less Sue Sylvester and Mr. Schue. Notice that Glee’s strongest efforts of “Duets,” “Silly Little Love Songs,” and even “Asian F” have been when the glee kids are the sole focus. None of this messy adult drama or cartoonish villainy. Glee triumphs when the teenagers are left to their own devices and are simply being teenagers, dealing with their own crazy hormones. The teen cast, as large enough as it is, should be enough to carry the show.  And for the love of God, NO MORE WILL RAPPING.

— — —

5 TV Shows on my Nice List:

Breaking Bad

A weekly master class on superb acting, nuanced character study, artful cinematography, tightly-plotted storytelling, and plain ‘ol bad-assery. This season elevated the brilliant seasons that had preceded it with striking moments seared into our collective memory. Jesse Pinkman’s decent into numbness via Roomba-cam. Walter White’s bone-chilling cackling in “Crawl Space.” “Face-Off.” Breaking Bad is simply the best show of the year and is a series worthy of every damn accolade bestowed upon it.

[Click here for more of my thoughts on Breaking Bad’s fourth season premiere, “Box Cutter.”]

Parks and Recreation

The award for Most Endearingest and Heartwarmingly Hilarious Series goes to Parks and Recreation.

Treat. Yo. Self.

And while you’re at it, pass me some tissues, I think there’s something in my eye…

Parks and Recreation just gets better and better with every season. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope is a comic tour de force and the ensemble backing her up is bar none, from Adam Scott’s nerd du jour Ben Wyatt to Nick Offerman’s RON EFFING SWANSON. The world of Pawnee is so richly developed, spending time with any of the supporting players is time well spent.

The cast of "Parks and Recreation"

Community

While not every episode of Community this season has been a home run, this third season has been a deft blend of the first season’s small-scale focus with last season’s high-concept absurdist outings. Witness “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism’s” blend of poignant character study with an amazing foosball tourney done all in ANIME. Community is a rarity of a series, one that juggles a pop culture-soaked bite and wit with a beating, emotional heart.

On top of that, Community had one of my favorite lines of television this year:

“You’re the AT&T of people!!!” – Troy the Obtuse, to Britta the Needlessly Defiant

[For a more in-depth look at two Parks and Recreation and Community episodes from this fall, click here.]

The Sing-Off

Hands-down, The Sing-Off is the best showcase of vocal talent on television. Welcome to a modest little reality competition where the judges (Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, and Shawn Stockman) are charming and knowledgeable, the host (Nick Lachey) is delightfully cheesy, and the talent (Pentatonix, Delilah, Afro Blue, Vocal Point, et al) is palpable and off-the-charts. To be fair, I was a collegiate a cappella performer myself, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Sing-Off was sheer entertainment no matter the level of familiarity.

Pentatonix, the winners of this third season of The Sing-Off are all at once gifted vocal powerhouses and masterfully inventive musical arrangers. Just watch their breathtaking performance of Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” Pentatonix for the freakin’ win.

On a side note, I cannot stress enough how thankful I am that Nicole Scherzinger was removed from The Sing-Off judging panel and almost single-handedly destroyed The X-Factor and hopefully her own career.

Louie

You never know what you’ll get with a given episode of FX’s Louie. A raunchy musing on masturbation perhaps. Or a startling trip to a racist relative’s house. Or maybe a sincere dedication to our troops overseas. Whatever it is, one thing is for certain: Louis C.K. will not only get you laughing, but thinking as well. What is so brilliant about Louie is that as the writer, director, and lead performer of the series, Louis C.K. does whatever the f*ck he wants to and he does so with an openness unlike anything else on television. We are privileged to be let into his genius.

Honorable Mention: Ty Burrell at the Emmys

Ty Burrell raised the bar for acceptance speeches with his Emmy win for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family. Funny. Heartfelt. Classy. I was moved to tears.

— — —

Naughty and Nice (with a dash of spice):

The Top Chef Franchise

Top Chef: All-Stars was a pure delight to watch. The challenges were memorable: Sesame Street judges! Jimmy Fallon! Overnight at the American Museum of Natural History! The drama and rivalries between the cheftestants were present, but not overpowering. The returning chefs were at the top of the game and as charming as ever (I myself was rooting for my girl, Carla “Hootie Hoo” Hall. Honestly though, who wasn’t?). The entire season made me grin from ear to ear.

Unfortunately, Top Chef: Texas has messed with the winning formula so much that the series has almost become unrecognizable. While I admire the producers for attempting to shake things up, the results have been a mixed bag. Just because you’re in Texas doesn’t mean everything needs to bigger. The first two semi-final episodes were a complete waste. The judging was hurried and there was little to no point in getting invested in cheftestants we saw for five minutes. As a result, I’ve been unable to distinguish the cheftestants’s cooking talents from one another, let alone their personalities. The initial challenges were imbalanced, as there were one too many team challenges and not enough opportunities for the chefs to cook their own food. The constant changing in locales has left the show feeling untethered and vagrant. I especially miss the Judge’s Table setting, sitting around a restaurant table just doesn’t carry the same weight as an imposing judging room. As the competition narrows down the chef roster, I hope the series finds its footing.

The third season of Top Chef Masters was a wholly bland affair, severely lacking in any drama or charisma, while the second outing of Top Chef: Just Desserts proved to be a sweetly satisfying affair.

Chekhov’s Box Cutter: Breaking Bad Season Four Premiere

We all know about “Chekhov’s Gun”: that literary device wherein Anton Chekhov argues that you shouldn’t introduce a loaded rifle into the narrative without having it have gone of by the story’s conclusion. Breaking Bad, arguably the best television show on the air, has used this device to great aplomb in the past. The hollow-point bullet from “One Minute” comes immediately to mind, or even the omniscient teddy bear eye introduced in the opening moments of season two. Naturally, you don’t title a season premiere “Box Cutter,” without making daring use of that eponymous tool.

This will be my first season watching Breaking Bad in real-time. I watched the first three on Blu-Ray over the course of the past three months. While it was quite a grueling marathon at times, the upside was that while most viewers had to wait over a year to witness the fallout from season three’s final moment, I only had to wait a day. “Box Cutter,” subsequently, was my first experience with commercials on AMC. Halfway through the episode, the audience is greeted with this potentially spoilery disclaimer:

The following segment contains intense violence which may be unsuitable for some viewers.

Viewer discretion is advised.

Immediately, we are brought out of the context of the scene. Our expectations are set. Something extreme is about to go down. Time to grab a pillow. (I now have a Pavlovian instinct to reach for whatever’s handy, whenever the aural tone shifts and silence fills the scene. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was sent to the ER due to a box cutter accident, so this segment was particularly intense.)

As a television audience with knowledge of the basic inner workings of television production, we know that Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will survive whatever ordeal comes their way. So will Mike, played by series regular Jonathan Banks. All three will make it out alive. Shook to the core perhaps, but alive. Through this simple deduction, we can surmise that Victor is doomed. But fitting together the puzzle pieces of the scene’s tv logic doesn’t lessen the impact one bit. Quite the opposite, as the suspense becomes even greater in anticipation of an impending showdown.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Our senses our heightened and the proceedings are intensified, as our attention is placed squarely on Gus Fring. Seemingly nothing escapes Gus’ steely gaze from behind his delicate frames. And as Gus takes off these spectacles in order to change his wardrobe, our eyes become fixated on Giancarlo Esposito’s masterful performance. His silent command and composed savagery is unsettling to say the least. Gus says no more than five words in the entire lengthy scene, but his actions speak volumes. Every deliberate step he takes sends a message.

Breaking Bad is a series which thrives on its cast delivering meaty monologues, weaving compelling and intricate yarns with emotional prowess. Aaron Paul, whose Jesse has long been the seemingly moral center in this ever-shifting cat-and-mouse game, serves as the storytelling king. His spellbinding delivery leaves us hanging on his every word. However in “Box Cutter,” it’s Jesse’s reactions that communicate the most powerfully: his instability and anguish after shooting Gale, his fierce indignant stare-down with Gus. In fact, it isn’t until Walt and Jesse’s disposal methods are challenged that we Jesse hear speak for the first time. Fifty minutes or so into the episode and Jesse utters two words, “Trust us,” a grim callback to the first season.

My have our former chemistry teacher and his surrogate son have transformed these past three seasons. It has been an engrossing journey to witness, from the two squeamishly dealing with the fallout of Krazy-8 and leaving it to fate with a coin flip, to wordlessly cleaning Victor’s murder as if it were daily routine. (Side note: That cut from spilled blood to ketchup and fries? Quintessential and delicious Breaking Bad bleakness.)

With Vince Gilligan at the helm, Breaking Bad demonstrates just how effective storytelling can be through the lack of spoken dialogue. Through Jesse’s numb demeanor, contrasting his usual turbulence… Through the amplified sounds of Gus’ footsteps down the metal staircase… Through the time spent watching Gus’s dressing and undressing with a chilling control and calculation… Through the stunning breakdown of primary hues: the fluorescent laboratory lamps, the deep blood-red floor, the icy blue shadows cast on Walt and Jesse… Breaking Bad succeeds in showing its story, rather than telling.

As for setting up groundwork for the season, “Box Cutter” hints at themes of building and rebuilding. In the opening sequence, we see the late Gale building the future Walt-Cave. Hank cultivates his new-found collection of minerals, while Marie is left to slowly rebuild her husband’s broken spirit. As Skylar crafts her own web of lies and fabrications to deceive a locksmith, she builds up her capacity for breaking bad herself. Will we journey into Jesse’s attempts to rebuild his damaged soul, or will he go deeper down the rabbit hole with his possibly false sense of security?

Whatever Breaking Bad has in store for us this summer, it surely won’t go the way of The Walking Dead‘s first look at season two, hitting us over the head with blunt force. Chekhov’s Lab Notes, anyone?