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.

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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.

Top Chef: Just Desserts is sweetly satisfying

Could Bravo and Magical Elves Productions strike gold twice and whip up a second winning season of Top Chef: Just Desserts?

The first season of this Top Chef spin-off was a madcap and unpredictable journey. The inaugural outing was a flurry of high and lows, featuring chef Seth Caro’s wildly unpredictable mood swings, medical evacuation, and the now immortal line “The Red Hots are for my mommy!,” as well as catty rivalry between Team Go Diva and Morgan Wilson (in related and shocking news, are recent reports that Wilson was indicted for possession of child pornography).

I’m happy to report that this second season of Top Chef: Just Desserts, airing its season finale next week, has proven to be a sweetly satisfying affair.

Top Chef: Just Desserts - Season 2

While the season has been short on shockers and has erred on the side of predictability, in both episode structure and eliminations, some of the challenges, like the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory landscaping, were simply inspired. Plus, this season’s cheftestants (a downright ridiculous term, by the way) have all displayed great skill and creativity and, most refreshingly, even camaraderie and respect for one another. This convivial spirit was in full force in the penultimate episode, “Dessert in Disguise.”

Going into this episode, the final four cheftestants: Orlando Santos, Sally Camacho, Chris Hanmer, and Matthew Petersen, seemed to be on an even talent playing field. It’s common in other Top Chef finales to find an obvious head-scratcher, whose lack of talent sticks out like a sore thumb (I’m looking at you, Top Chef: Chicago’s Lisa!), but certainly not here. Add on top of the evenly matched skills, the fact all four appear to all genuinely like each other and want to see each other succeed, and you’ve got a delicious viewing experience.

A Closer Look at the Final Four Cheftestants

Bromances have become a mainstay of pop culture and an increasingly common occurrence on reality tv (Brody Jenner’s Bromance, anyone?). Top Chef is no stranger to the bromance, featuring such past pairings as Spike & Andrew, Angelo & Mike Isabella, and Stefan & Fabio, aka Team Euro. Top Chef: Just Desserts has found its own bromance with Matthew & Chris, two talented, like-minded, family men. Not an episode goes by without Matthew and Chris expressing their respect for each other, or a lending of a helping hand in the kitchen. Now that both are in the finale, it will be interesting to see whether the friendly competition will heat up. Remember boys, only one can win!

The lone female chef, Sally, stands in their way of victory. Throughout the season, Sally has been portrayed as very focused and determined contestant, taking somewhat of a no-nonsense approach, as seen through her relationships with Craig, her former student, or Katzie, a younger, seemingly naive chef. However, in this episode, we saw a different side to Sally, a more emotionally open side. Witness this exchange between Sally and Orlando before the elimination challenge:

Sally: I know one thing, I didn’t come here to make friends, but friends is a bonus that we get.

Orlando: That’s the truth.

Sally: ‘Cuz I was looking at first season and I’m like, “Man, they just hated each other” and I’m like, “Oh gosh, is there gonna be somebody in here that, like, I’m totally gonna, like, dislike?” But there really wasn’t. Not for me.

[Side Note: Savvy reality television contestants are now familiar with the cliched line: “I’m not here to make friends.” This trope of a reality tv contestant simply out for his or herself has been rampant throughout all reality series, regardless of subject matter.

If you haven’t checked out the video compilations of reality tv contestants, from Flavor of Love to America’s Next Top Model to The Amazing Race, do so NOW! The following video, created by Rich at FourFour is the 2008 edition. The 2009 supercut can be found here.]

In “Desserts in Disguise,” the four remaining cheftestants were humanzied, as their backstories and personal history with the art of desserts were revealed through talking head interviews, past photographs, and calls to home. This week’s eliminated cheftestant, Orlando, experienced the greatest transformation of all the chefs this season.

In the earlier episodes, Orlando was painted with the villain edit. He came off as arrogant and judgmental, badmouthed his competition, thrived on cutthroat competition, and was unwilling to take criticisms at Judges’ Table. However, as the series progressed, Orlando softened and became more of a team player, learning from this experience and “journey.”

In this episode, through his phone call home, we learn of Orlando’s coming out as a gay man to his family. While he was initially ostracized from his family, he has since taken steps to become closer to his mother. As he found and embraced his humility as a chef, Orlando completed his character arc on Top Chef: Just Desserts, not unlike a character would on a scripted series.

In his final moments on the show, Orlando tells us:

When I came here, I felt as if I was the best at everything. Top Chef has shown me that other opinions matter. It’s humbled me. It’s different when you actually have to look at someone and say that what you’ve done is better than what I have thought of. And I think I can finally do that.

He left the competition as a better person and a better chef. We can all feel better for Orlando not reaching the finish line, since he seemingly received the prize of a positive character transformation.

As for the winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts, I think it’s anyone’s game. Chris, Matthew, and Sally have all proven themselves worthy to be Yigit Pura’s successor. Though if I were a betting man, I’d predict Chris to take home the title.