What I’m Watching: Fall 2015

The fall 2015 television season is here, right as we enter the age of “Peak TV,” with seemingly too many television series out there to consume.

At the summer Television Critics Association press tour last month, John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks, stated that “there is simply too much television” in our current landscape. According to Vox, “In 2009, there were 211 primetime scripted series on television. That number steadily climbed until in 2014 there were 371, an increase of 160 shows. FX expects the number to top 400 in 2015.” That number doesn’t even included reality television, talk shows, game shows, etc. It’s downright impossible for a person to sample every show that’s out there and once you’ve dropped a show, it becomes even harder to pick it back up.

In the opening number of the 67th Emmy Awards, host Andy Samberg tackles the issue of “Peak TV” head-on by locking himself in a TV Viewing Bunker for a year to catch up on every show:

So where does that leave me? I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll probably never watch the most critically acclaimed new series from this past summer, UnREAL and Mr. Robot, or the 2015 Emmy winners for Outstanding Comedy, Veep, and Drama, Game of Thrones (but let’s be real, Mad Men should have taken the trophy for its final season, or better yet, the real best drama series, The Americans, should have been nominated in the first place). I’ll take solace in the fact that I’m enjoying what I choose to watch. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If a TV show gives you pleasure, more power to you!

Special shout-outs to the shows I watched in the past two months: CatastropheBoJack Horseman season two, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black season three. I highly recommend all of these excellent shows, especially BoJack Horseman, an uproarious, yet painfully bleak and honest, examination of depression, as filtered through the lens of an animated anthropomorphic horse. Will you get to watching these shows? “They’re on my list,” I’m sure you’ll say. #PeakTV

What I’m Watching:

Scream Queens – Premieres September 22 on FOX

Welcome to Ryan Murphy’s twisted take on campus slasher films! I’m cautiously optimistic about this show, with an emphasis on the cautiously. Ryan Murphy productions start with a bang (see: the first two seasons of Glee and American Horror Story. Ok, fine, maybe just season of Glee.) and they unfortunately get caught up in their own frenetic messes, ending with a whimper (see: the other seasons of Glee and American Horror Story).

Fortunately for viewers, Scream Queens doesn’t seem to have any higher aspirations than being a gleeful, campy, bloody bubblegum confection that offs a character each week to comically gruesome effect. Plus, I can’t help but root for a cast that includes Nasim Pedrad, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ariana Grande, and Nick Jonas. I mean, come on. There’s a fine line between bitchy, catty entertainment and outright meanness. Tread carefully, Ryan Murphy. Here’s hoping it’ll be fun to watch this sorority-set series inevitably fly off the rails!

Fresh Off the Boat – Returns September 22 on ABC

As the first network TV show to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years, expectations for Fresh Off the Boat were dangerously high. To make matters worse, in the weeks leading up to the premiere, Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir on which the show is based, trash-talked his own team members for diluting his personal experiences. Thankfully, when the first episode debuted, you could feel the collective exhale of Asian America. It was a sigh of relief that this family sitcom was extremely funny, witty, and heartwarming to boot. There were no reasons for audiences to hang their heads in shame. Fresh Off the Boat made specific cultural experiences universal and reset the television defaults of what it means to be a sitcom family.

Constance Wu, who plays the matriarch Jessica Huang, addresses the issues of representation in an insightful Buzzfeed interview:

The Asian-American experience [is something] a lot of us as Asian-Americans really haven’t explored, because they lump us all into one… It’s terrifying to say, ‘This is a thing that is complex and worthy of our time,’ but it is complex, and that’s why you’re not going to always find an easy, palatable answer. I think [the show is] trying to approach that complexity in a very traditionally simplistic form. And I think if we can do that, it’s almost its own type of activism.

I’ve jokingly shared on social media that I love that I can see myself on television, as the youngest brother, Evan Huang. The sentiment is silly, but completely true. This quirky, sweet-natured, delicate boy is definitely me and it’s a feeling that I’ve cherished. It’s progress.

Survivor – Returns September 23 on CBS

I’ve never been more excited about a season of Survivor in 31 seasons than I am about Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance. And neither have any other of Survivor’s ten million viewers. Twenty returning players were voted in by America to compete for a second chance to win the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. After All-Stars and Heroes vs. VillainsCambodia is only the third season to feature all veteran players. This past summer, I re-watched Heroes vs. Villains, arguably Survivor‘s best, for the third time and this new season has all the potential to match HvV’s soaring highs.

Some of these players, like Borneo’s OG Kelly Wigglesworth and Australian Outback’s Jeff Varner and Kimmi Kappenberg, have waited over a decade for the opportunity to play again. Every single one of these contestants is here to WIN, ready to overcome their earlier flaws, course-correct for past mistakes, over-compensate for character flaws, underestimate and overpower the competition, and outwit, outplay, and outlast to the Final Tribal Council. The hunger is real.

Each contestant has a strong storyline going into the competition: Can Stephen Fishbach shed his overwhelmingly large target of being a Survivor Know-It-All podcast host? Will Ciera Eastin be able to convince her tribemates she’s a trustworthy player after she voted out her own mother in her previous season? Will Abi-Maria Gomes be able to cool her hot temper and play nice with others? Will Spencer “Charlie Brown” Bledsoe finally be able to kick that football set up by Chaos Kass? The list goes on… What makes this season so exciting is that each person comes in with so much baggage and so much to prove. You can read some of my thoughts on the cast here.

Peih-Gee Law

Peih-Gee Law (source: EW.com)

Who am I rooting for? In addition to the aforementioned Jeff Varner (love his cheeky energy) and Stephen Fishbach (love his quick wit), I’m pulling for for my friend, Survivor China’s Peih-Gee Law, who famously was good at Sudoku and claiming victory of the last of her tribe, ultimately achieving 5th place. Will she be able to keep her emotions in check and not make waves in the early goings of the game? If so, Peih-Gee will at least make it to the merge. In pre-game interviews, Peih-Gee talked about a smart strategy she picked up from fellow China player, Amanda Kimmel:

You have to find someone really strong […] like a Woo…who will be able to win challenges, but he’ll be kind of a target after the merge, which is fine because then I won’t be a target. Then you want somebody weaker, like maybe like Kass. They’re good to have by your side because if they want to get rid of someone who’s not good at challenges, then you’re protected. And then, these people, the weaker ones and the stronger ones, they’re the targets.

Who am I picking to win? Looking at the winners of the two previous all-star seasons, Amber Brkich and Sandra Diaz-Twine, both women entered the game as unassuming characters. They laid low and watched as the bigger targets take each other out each week. I see the same characteristics in San Juan Del Sur’s Kelley Wentworth. Although we never fully saw her game in her first season (which means neither did her competitors), she seemed smart and level-headed enough to be a savvy player. Kelley enters Cambodia without a huge target on her back, but possesses great potential. If she aligns with the right players, she could fly under the radar, make smart moves to get her to the end, and emerge victorious.

How to Get Away With Murder – Returns September 24 on ABC

To be honest, I was a bit on the fence about returning to this Shondaland series. Only Viola Davis’ magnetic and emotionally fraught tornado and Jack Falahee’s voracious sexual appetite and surprising vulnerability proved to be compelling characters. The rest of How to Get Away With Murder’s ensemble was merely beautiful set dressing. I also couldn’t stand Wes and Rebecca at all, separate or together.

Ultimately, Viola Davis is worth the price of re-admission. Her extraordinary history-making Emmy acceptance speech brought me to tears. As the first African-American woman to ever win Lead Actress in a Drama Series, her words were a powerful and inspiring indictment of the decision makers of Hollywood, highlighting how few opportunities women of color have had the chance to even compete for the title.

‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

I will keep watching to support your trailblazing work, Viola Davis. Here’s to you!

The Flash – Returns October 6 on The CW

Simply put, The Flash is fun, fun, fun. The mere thought of more adventures in Central City fills me with joy. The Flash is a winning combination of celebrating the heroics of superheroes and meaningful, emotional character relationships. Of all the shows I watched last year, I’m certain I cried the most and hardest at The Flash season one finale. Damn you, Grant Gustin, and your beautifully emotive, tear-streaked face! This upcoming year spirals further down the comic book spiral, introducing a parallel universe and the original The Flash, Jay Garrick. I’m not a superhero superfan by any means, but I’m in for whatever thrilling twists are coming our way.

American Horror Story: Hotel – Returns October 7 on FX

Oh boy, American Horror Story, where to begin? Season three (Coven) was a supreme mess with inflated dramatic stakes (If characters could be resurrected willy-nilly, what did it matter that characters died?), while season four (Freak Show) was a frightful bore that suffered from warmed-over and languid pacing.

Season five, Hotel, brings AHS into the dark hallways of the Hotel Cortez. The one shining beacon of this season is that the incredible Jessica Lange is sitting this out of this chapter. Lange has portrayed massive powerhouses, stealing every scene and chewing each piece of scenery, but over time, these power-hungry matriarchs drew from the same well one too many times. It will be interesting to watch a more ensemble-driven AHS, as anchored by Lady Gaga.

Billy on the Street – Returns October 8 on TruTV

Pop culture and yelling. #selfexplanitory
I wrote about Billy on the Street’s first season here.

Jane the Virgin – Returns October 12 on The CW

The first season of Jane the Virgin skillfully balanced the hilarious with the heartfelt, and the playfully surreal with the emotionally real. Even when the telenovela-inspired narrative engine seemed to barrel through storyline after plot twist after jaw dropping moment, Jane the Virgin never lost its way, thanks to its charming and radiant lead, Gina Rodriguez.

The world was also introduced to new comic icons in Jaime Camil’s self-absorbed Rogelio De La Vega and Anthony Mendez’ cheeky narrator. Season two promises to double down on the over-the-top telenovela world, announcing guest appearances by not only pop icon Britney Spears, but my beloved darling, Kesha (#FreedomForKesha). The Flash and Jane the Virgin both had stellar first seasons (which I wrote about) and I expect no less this year.

Plus, Jane the Virgin also featured my two favorite Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaigns for Gina Rodriguez and Jaime Camil. Jane the Virgin, you are both inspiring and freaking hilarious.

Fargo – Returns October 12 on FX

My favorite scripted series from 2014 returns. Fargo’s first season was a tightly plotted morality tale, bursting at the seams with memorably quirky characters and black-hearted humor. Fargo follows in the footsteps of its fellow FX series, American Horror Story, and resets its second season in 1979, with a new murderers row of actors taking on the series’ unique voice: Patrick Wilson. Kirsten Dunst. Jessie Plemons. Ted Danson. Jean Smart. Cristin Milioti. Nick Offerman. Kirsten Dunst’s awesomely feathered coif. Just watch the trailer below and tell me you are giddy either.

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The 20 People I’m Voting In For Survivor: Second Chance

There’s no better time to be a Survivor fan! For the show’s upcoming 31st season, it’s up to America to vote for 20 returning players to return for their second shot at the game. The voting pool of is made up of 32 one-time players who have never won the game.

What’s most exciting is that each and every Survivor fan has different criteria for voting, and, as a result, a different list of people they want back on the show. Yes, there’s a gigantic recency bias (15 out of the 32 contestants are from the past 4 seasons), but I’m hoping that a nostalgia factor will give some of the old school players a boost.

Which voting bloc will win out: the millions of casual fans who’ll only vote once, or the thousands(?) of hardcore fans who will vote daily? Aside from a handful of shoo-ins (I’m looking at you, Joe Anglim), it’s honestly quite difficult to tell which combination of 20 will make the final cut.

Before I reveal my list, these are the 12 people who didn’t make my Survivor: Second Chance cut: Monica Padilla, Natalie Tenerelli, Mikayla Wingle, Troyzan Robertson, Sabrina Thompson, Brad Culpepper, Woo Hwang, Keith Nale, Joe Anglim, Mike Holloway, and Carolyn Rivera.

I initially had Worlds Apart‘s Mike Holloway in Andrew Savage’s place, as Mike has proven to be an explosive player firing on every cylinder imaginable, but I figure Mike will have more than a second chance to return to the game. Savage, not so much. Same goes for Mama C, as I put T-Bird in her place. Plus, it’s obvious either Mike or Mama C will win Worlds Apart, right?

The voting takes place daily at cbs.com/survivorsecondchance until Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 9 pm EST.

WOMEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_female_castaways

Kelly_WiglesworthKELLY WIGLESWORTH
Borneo, Season 1
Runner-Up

Look up “Second Chance” in the Survivor dictionary and there you’ll find Kelly’s headshot. This season’s theme was made for her. Kelly famously lost to Richard Hatch in front of over 50 million viewers by one vote. ONE VOTE. 30 seasons later, does she have what it takes to make it to the end again?

Kimmi_KappenbergKIMMI KAPPENBERG
The Australian Outback, Season 2
12th Place

I only caught a couple of episodes of the first season as it aired live on television, but I was completely hooked thanks to The Australian Outback. From triumphing in a gross food eating challenge (“I can eat a worm! I can eat a worm!”) to getting into an argument with a fellow hot head (Alicia Calaway: “I will always wave my finger in your face!”), Kimmi was a source of the second season’s memorable moments.

Teresa_CooperTERESA “T-BIRD” COOPER
Africa, Season 3
5th Place

I can’t say that I remember much of T-Bird’s game, or much of Africa (other than the drinking cow’s blood challenge and Silas “Colby 2.0” Gaither), so this is purely a vote for the nostalgia of old school players.

Peih-Gee_LawPEIH-GEE LAW
China, Season 15
5th Place

Peih-Gee was a fighter, pure and simple. As the last of her Zhan Hu tribe, she fought a scrappy uphill battle against a powerful, and ultimately, winning, alliance. Armed with a fierce personality, Peih-Gee wasn’t afraid to mix things up (see: throwing an immunity challenge to knock out a strong competitor) and confront others on their BS. Out of all the women on the list, she’s the one I’d like to see return the most. Peih-Gee will certainly make for entertaining TV.

Abi-Maria_GomesABI-MARIA GOMES
Philippines, Season 25
5th Place

Oh, Abi-Maria, you were blissfully unaware of own obnoxiousness and the viewers were all the more better for it. Has Abi-Maria learned from her previous game? Does it matter? Abi-Maria was as an entertaining a villainess as they come. Unlike past disasters like Hurricane NaOnka, who just brought a deluge of frustration onto viewers, Abi-Maria at least has spirit.

Ciera_EastinCIERA EASTIN
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
5th Place

Sure, Ciera didn’t come alive until the last third of the game, but when she did, she lit up the screen like no other. She voted her own mother out of the game, y’all. No one else in two seasons of Blood vs. Water can claim that. She forced a tie and drew rocks, and was only the second group in 30 seasons to do so. Just imagine what her gameplay could be like with her mom. It could be epic.

Tasha_FoxTASHA FOX
Cagayan, Season 28
6th Place

Tasha was a challenge beast and really came through when it mattered most, winning three individual immunities in a row. She’s a strong competitor, which is exactly what an All-Star season needs. Let’s hope she plays an even better social game and doesn’t get #StoodUp again.

Kass_McQuillenKASS McQUILLEN
Cagayan, Season 28
3rd Place

Kass is an intelligent player with a snarky sense of humor. She not only gave herself a nickname (#ChaosKass for life), but she lived up to her moniker. While Chaos Kass’ strategic moves may or may not have best the soundest, they sure were interesting and unpredictable moves and gave Survivor fans a lot to discuss and debated.

Kelley_WentworthKELLEY WENTWORTH
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
14th Place

I’m thrilled, and frankly really surprised, to see Kelley on this list. Thanks to the Blood vs. Water twist, her game was mostly straddled to cleaning up the messes made by her father, Dale. Add to that lameness, Resident (Basically a) Badass Drew got Kelley out of the game because she had seen every episode of Survivor, unlike most of the dolts her season. Let’s give her a chance to show off her skills in a better arena.

Shirin_OskooiSHIRIN OSKOOI
Worlds Apart, Season 30
8th Place

Shirin just needed to get her Survivor superfandom jitters out during her first season. With that over-the-top enthusiasm out of the way, she can work on her social game. During Worlds Apart, she was never in the driver’s seat of an alliance, so it’ll be fun to watch if she can pull off strategic maneuvers of her own.

MEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_male_castaways

Jeff_VarnerJEFF VARNER
The Australian Outback, Season 2
10th Place

Jeff Varner was my favorite player on The Australian Outback. In the midst of all the surviving, it appeared that he was the only one out there playing the strategic game. And he was there to PLAY. Undid by a defunct rule and Kimmi’s big mouth (she told Tina that Jeff had votes cast for him previously), he was taken from us way too soon. Of all the old school players, Jeff seems to be the best equipped to navigate the extremely fast-paced game of today.

Andrew_SavageANDREW SAVAGE
Pearl Islands, Season 7
10th Place

Andrew Savage is another player who deserves a second chance, in the purest sense of the word. He was screwed out of the game by the infamous Outcasts twist, when Lil flipped upon returning to the game. Savage fit the mold of Jeff Probst’s dream alpha male, receiving the last name only treatment. I’m not certain if the nostalgia factor is as strong with him, but it’s surprising it’s taken so long to get him back.

Shane_PowersSHANE POWERS
Panama, Season 12
5th Place

Shane Powers is a larger-than-life character who needs to return. He was recklessly erratic, shockingly unpredictable, and wildly entertaining. I mean, he quit smoking cold turkey when he went on the show! He talked on a piece of wood that he called his BlackBerry (remember those?)! He asked Cirie nursing advice and showed her his junk! He fell apart at the sight of his son during the loved ones visit! We need more Shane on our televisions.

Terry_DeitzTERRY DIETZ
Panama, Season 12
3rd Place

Terry was an unstoppable Panamanian force, winning five consecutive immunity challenges. Terry will need to improve his social game the second time around, as he came off as smug father-type, and I’m willing to give him the opportunity to do so.

Stephen_FishbachSTEPHEN FISHBACH
Tocantins, Season 18
Runner-Up

I’m most excited to watch Stephen play again. He’s made a name for himself in the years following his stint on the show as a Survivor pundit, writing a blog for People.com since 2009 and as a Survivor Know-It-All, co-hosting a weekly podcast with former player Rob Cesternino for the past six seasons. As a Know-It-All, he’s claimed to be one of “the guys who know everything about Survivor except how to win the game.” I’ve also purchased and listened to Stephen and Rob’s 9+ hour audiobook, The 49 Laws of Survivor. I’m ready to see Stephen put his money where his mouth is. #BringFishBack

Jim_RiceJIM RICE
South Pacific, Season 23
12th Place

Jim Rice is a player. He’s outspoken, quick on his feet, and smart as a whip. And he was royally screwed when Cochran flinched on drawing rocks and bailed on his alliance. Jim can bring some grade-A strategy to Survivor once more.

Vytas_BaskauskasVYTAS BASKAUSKAS
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
10th Place

Blood vs. Water introduced us to the brother of Aras Baskauskas, winner of Panama. Vytas was the self-proclaimed “reformed bad boy” of Survivor and managed to charm his way out of being voted out when he was outnumbered by women after the tribe swap. Vytas has so much strategic and social potential going into the game and I look forward to him possibly playing outside of his younger brother’s golden boy shadow.

Spencer_BledsoeSPENCER BLEDSOE
Cagayan, Season 28
4th Place

Spencer, Spencer, Spencer. There is no way that this charming Charlie Brown underdog who won the hearts of millions during Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty won’t return for his second chance. Having always played with his back against the wall, it will be exciting to watch him play again, with the possibility of reversed fortunes and an upper hand.

Jeremy_CollinsJEREMY COLLINS
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
10th Place

One of the few bright spots in his season, known for his “surround and drown” strategy. Many Survivor fans, including myself, were envisioning an epic Josh vs. Jeremy showdown, and were floored when the two were cut down in 11th and 12th place, respectively. What will Jeremy’s game look like without his wife, Val, and with players with an actual keen sense of the game?

Max_DawsonMAX DAWSON
Worlds Apart, Season 30
14th Place

The Survivor professor needs redemption! After a fairly dismal social game cost him the game pre-jury, I’m willing to give him a second shot. I’m sure he’ll know exactly how to adjust his social strategy after having seen himself flame out on television.

What I’m Watching/Ditching in the Fall 2014 TV Season

Ah, fall. As with pumpkin spiced everything, this glorious season ushers in a whole new crop of television shows. Here are the television shows I will be tuning into in the coming months and the ones I’ll be tossing out the window. Click to see my previous lists of fall 2012, 2007, and 2006. #consistency.

What I’m Watching:

Play It Again, Dick – New series debuted 9/16 on CW Seed

The first of the series I’ll be watching this fall won’t even air on television. Play It Again, Dick, the latest chapter in the Veronica Mars saga, debuted on CW Seed, The CW’s home of original digital series. The webseries is a meta-explosion, starring Ryan Hansen playing a heightened version of himself, attempting to make a Veronica Mars spinoff based on his character, the lovable douche Dick Casablanca. Ryan Hansen as Ryan Hansen attempts to wrangle in the ‘ol gang of Veronica Mars actors that will be playing themselves and/or their characters. Or both. Even though the movie was ultimately disappointing in its extreme fan service, the tone of this meta-romp is perfectly pleasurable.

Survivor: San Juan del SurBlood vs. Water – Returning 9/24 on CBS

Survivor brings back the successful Blood vs. Water twist in its 29th installment. Expectations were low when the twistreturning players competing with their loved oneswas introduced last fall, but the season surpassed fan concern when it delivered new dynamic layers of gameplay infused with powerful raw emotion. But can lightning strike twice with a cast of all-new players? By all accounts, Survivor is an individual game, so the casting of brand new pairs will be crucial for the season’s success. Unfortunately, we’ll have to deal with the disgusting and despicable John Rocker, the racist and homophobic former MLB player. There are a few bright spots in this cast, however, and I’m rooting for the married couple of Val and Jeremy, the police officer and firefighter.

How to Get Away with Murder – New series debuting 9/25 on ABC

I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t watch the white-hot Scandal. I know. I KNOW. I aim to rectify this lack of Shondaland in my life by tuning in to How to Get Away with Murder, executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes and helmed by Viola Davis as a merciless criminal-law professor. The show promises to be sexy, suspenseful, and full of vengeful and attractive young co-eds. Sign me up for this crash-course in pulpy primetime soapiness!

The Legend of Korra – Returning 10/4 on Nick.com

Poor, poor Korra. The titular character of The Legend of Korra spent this past summer watching her third season be wildly mistreated by Nickelodeon. Book Three: Change was originally planned to air this fall, but for whatever reason, the channel hastily released it during the summer instead. Nickelodeon began promotion only one week prior to the season premiere and subsequently burned off two episodes every Friday night. Ratings were understandably weak, and Nickelodeon pulled the final five episodes from the airwaves and released them exclusively online.

What a damn shame. Change was nothing short of REMARKABLE: a near-perfect blend of breathtaking action, intelligent social consciousness, and nuanced character development. (You can stream Book Three online here.) Among the many praiseworthy aspects of the season include the deepening friendship between Asami and Korra outside of their relationships to their former boyfriend, Mako (Alison Bechdel would be beaming), the masterful character work and backstory of Lin Beifong and her sister Suyin, and a quartet of baddies who were all at once terrifying and awe-inspiring.

Thankfully, we don’t need to wait very long for Book Four: Balance, the series’ final season, to witness how Korra’s world will achieve a rightful balance in the aftermath of Zaheer’s destruction.

The Flash – New series debuting 10/7 on The CW

In a television season stuffed with comic book shows (the returning Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the new Gotham and Constantine), what makes The Flash stand out? This superhero series knows it’s here to have fun. I couldn’t help being won over by the exceedingly charming Grant Gustin as Barry Allen. With a strong identity claimed in its appealing earnestness and sincerity, I’m willing to give The Flash a shot.

American Horror Story: Freak Show – Debuting 10/8 on FX

How can you watch this trailer and NOT be overwhelmingly giddy with excitement and anticipation? Kathy Bates as a bearded lady. Angela Bassett as a three-breasted woman. Sarah Paulson as conjoined twins. Patti LaBelle as who cares, she’s Patti LaBelle. All this, PLUS a killer clown?! I mean, come on.

Creator Ryan Murphy has stated that the tone of American Horror Story: Freak Show, set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952, will be closer to that of the troubling darkness of Asylum, rather than the campy gloss of Coven. This direction is particularly promising, as Coven was a hot mess (not in the fun way). And we mustn’t forget that Freak Show will be Jessica Lange’s swan song with American Horror Story. As with every clusterf*ck season of this anthology series, I can’t wait to have my every expectation turned on its twisty head.

The Affair – New series debuting 10/12 on Showtime

The story of an illicit love affair told from the dueling perspectives of the man (Dominic West) and woman (Ruth Wilson). This intriguing examination also explores their respective arduous marriages to Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson. This Rashomon-esque storytelling structure is especially intriguing. Layers upon layers upon rich character drama. Life, and narrative, is all about perspective.

What I’m Ditching:

Utopia – New series debuted 9/7 on FOX

Utopia has lost more than half of its viewers since its first airing. And I am one of those viewers. While the concept of this reality series is fascinating (What happens when 15 people attempt to create a functioning society in isolation?), Utopia‘s execution has been simply atrocious, thanks to some poor casting decisions.

With no competitions to offer inherent drama, it seems the producers cast extremely volatile personalities to more than make up for conflict. Each and every conflict blew up into uncomfortable shouting matches. In just the first three days, we were privy to medical evacuations due to alcohol poisoning, threats of physical violence, and several instances of misogyny (offhanded sexist remarks, unwanted passes, a man yelling at a woman to “shut the f*ck up”). While the final moments of the premiere episode offered up a glimmer of hope, I vowed never to returned to the unpleasant and unwatchable Utopia.

How Survivor is Outwitting, Outplaying, and Outlasting American Idol

“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”

Survivor’s motto has been part of our pop culture lexicon for nearly 14 years. The long-running reality competition is now in its 28th iteration, with at least two more on the way. Survivor airs head-to-head on Wednesdays at 8pm with another reality TV titan, American Idol, now in its 13th year.

In this battle of the time slot, the two shows occupy opposite sides of the entertainment spectrum. Survivor is firing on all cylinders, delivering what could be its best season with Survivor: Cagayan, while American Idol is a train-wreck and a snooze-fest all at once.

How has Survivor managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast American Idol? Let’s break it down.

OUTWIT:
Survivor has dynamic characters…

This season, the Survivor producers divided its 18 castaways into three tribes, each tribe embodying an aspect of the game used to win: Brains, Brawn, and Beauty. But it doesn’t matter how many twists producers can throw out there, if there isn’t an engaging cast of characters maneuvering those obstacles, the show suffers (I’m looking at you, One World cast!).

Survivor_Tony_Vlachos

Tony Vlachos

Luckily, the Survivor gods have bestowed upon us a casting bounty with Cagayan. We have everything from larger-than-life personalities, to sympathetic underdogs to root for, to hotheads, to boneheaded decision-makers.

Cagayan‘s standout character is Tony Vlachos. Tony. Tony. Tony. He is a mad scientist, constantly scheming new ways to best his opponents, and even his allies. He is a shark. He needs to keep making big moves or else he’ll die. “I like big moves, bro,” he admits. Tony’s gameplay compares to the infamous Russell Hantz, but unlike that Survivor troll, Tony’s gameplay never devolves into spiteful personal attacks. Tony is a master of deception and his childish glee exudes from every pore. While he’s far from the perfect player (see: the “Top five, baby!” slip that came back to haunt him), Tony is above all, damn entertaining to watch.

It wouldn’t be Survivor without underdogs, and Cagayan has them in spades with Spencer Bledsoe and Tasha Fox. These two survived a near-decimation of the Brains tribe and survived their former Brains ally, the emotionally charged Kass #ChaosKass McQuillen, flipping on them and their majority alliance.

Spencer is making the right measured moves at the right measured times. He maximizes his opportunities and shows a great deal of patience in his execution. Who didn’t cheer when he found the hidden immunity idol during the #MadTreasureHunt? Tasha’s social connections and physical prowess makes her a threat to win, even if she does get #StoodUp by the charming and rugged LJ McKanas. Their strategic wheels are always turning and make it easy to root for them.

Are you ready for an #UnpopularOpinion? My favorite castaway this season is Trish Hegarty. Let’s be real. Trish is playing a cunning game. She finds her targets and she executes accordingly. She engineered Cliff Robinson’s ouster behind her fellow Brawns’ backs and she slyly convinced #ChaosKass to flip, even after Tony patronized her and told her not to. You could even argue that she pushed Lindsey Ogle out of the game. As an astute social observer, Trish is silent (endearing laugh aside), and deadly. The best part, she’s not making any real enemies. However, she’ll need to pull out an amazingly articulate jury speech to convince her peers of her strategic acumen. It’ll be an uphill battle for her, but I trust Trish is up for the challenge.

These are all memorable Survivor characters, and I haven’t even mentioned the #NinjaStealthMode master Yung “Woo” Hwang, the fierce police officer Sarah Lacina, and Boobs McGee herself, Morgan McLeod.

American Idol doesn’t.

Perhaps I’m just a crotchety old man now (at the ripe ‘ol age of 26), but boy are this year’s American Idol contestants young. The oldest singers, CJ Harris and Jessica Meuse are 23 years old. When you have a theme of 80’s music and not a single singer was born during that decade, that’s saying something.

Idol_Alex_Preston_Sam_Woolf

Alex Preston & Sam Woolf

Quite honestly, all this youth and inexperience shows. Aside from the piano pop-rocker Jena Irene (see: “Decode”) and the retro-rocker Caleb Johnson (see: “Dazed and Confused”), none of this year’s finalists have been ready for the big stage. Yes, they’re talented. Yes, they can sing. But their passion doesn’t fill the television screen, let alone reach through and grab us the throats. It’s as if they don’t understand or even care that this is a competition. Listen up, kids, you need to IMPRESS us! You need to fight for our votes.

Flanked by Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez has become an astute judge this year. Last week, after one of the many country performers Dexter Roberts phoned in one of the many country performances, Lopez warned him, “These performances need to be spectacular… The room’s got to RATTLE. It’s got to SHAKE… You need to PUSH yourselves.” Really, this critique was an impassioned plea for all the contestants. And just like that, America eliminated Dexter the next night. Nothing distinguished him from any other country dude performing in bars across the country. He failed to stand out and make us remember him.

That’s the story with nearly all the singers this year: adequate, but not remarkable in the slightest.

OUTPLAY:
Survivor has unpredictability…

Survivor_Cagayan_Tribal_CouncilNever has there been a more unpredictable season of Surivor than this one. Just look at the picture above. Look at those seven players with seven different facial expressions.

In the first post-merge Tribal Council, Tony surprises the tribe by giving LJ a hidden immunity idol before the votes were cast, causing the other alliance to scramble. LJ dropped another bombshell when he whipped his out immunity idol and gave it to Tony. Let’s look at the picture again. Observing left to right, we see Jefra’s joyous relief, LJ’s smooth confidence, Sarah’s stony bitterness, Tony’s beaming pride, #ChaosKass’ smug glee, Spencer’s sheer disbelief, and Tasha’s simple appreciation for the daring move.

But that’s not all the crazy! After all the idol dust settles, #ChaosKass blindsided her alliance and flips to the other side. Sarah goes home in a shocking elimination. #ChaosKass’ controversial move of flipping from presumably the top of a majority alliance to the bottom of a minority alliance sparked much debating among fans: Did #ChaosKass make the right move?

Now, two weeks later, we’re discussing a new power move: Did Tony make the right move? Was turning on his loyal alliance partner, LJ, brilliant gameplay or deranged? Both? Did Tony get one step closer to becoming a millionaire or did he fall prey to unnecessary paranoia? By blowing up his own alliance, he creates many possibilities for everyone to make it to the end, including himself. He’s down (under Spencer and Tasha, if the two of them get to the finals) but he’s not out (mend that relationship with Trish, stat!).

Speaking of unpredictability, who could have foreseen these once odds-on favorites to win the game fall from grace? Sarah’s tantrum-throwing and abuse of her swing vote power took her down. LJ’s false sense of security and slow-moving strategy allowed his fellow players to get the best of him.

Survivor players have evolved into savvy gamers who make their bold and brassy moves at Tribal Council, keeping viewers on their toes for the entire hour. Typical protocol once saw players enter into Tribal Council with their minds already made up, but now we watch big power plays unfold at Tribal Council. Following a one-two-three-four punch of PhilippinesCaramoan, Blood vs. Water, and now Cagayan, we are living in a time where risky moves and blindsides are the spectacular norm. What an embarrassment of riches.

American Idol doesn’t.

This year’s American Idol contestants are sorely lacking a drive to push the creative envelope. For the most part, the contestants are content with songs from their coffeehouse and bar show set-lists. Sure, it’s simpler to do songs already in your repertoire, but that doesn’t make them entertaining to watch. No matter how much constructive criticism the judges give, there’s still not much charisma onstage. All this indifference is wearing thin. (Could you look anymore dead behind the eyes, Jessica Meuse?! Do you even want to be here?)

I favorably reviewed the contestants after their Rush Week performances. Where did all that promise go? Where are the #moments?

Idol_CJ_Harris

CJ Harris

Contestants were first allowed to play musical instruments back in 2008 during the show’s seventh season. The first couple seasons following that introduction heralded a musical reinvention renaissance. The guitar was a sign of fresh-sounding departures. Think Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or Phillip Phillips’ “Volcano.” This year, however, the guitar is a crutch. Six out of the top ten have played a guitar at some point this season. The bland guitaryness of each contestant’s songs blend together, a little acoustic jam there, a little country twang there.

I’ll go ahead and say it: guitars are ruining Idol. Not only have the guitars stifled the musicality, it’s also kept the performances physically stationary and stagnant. No amount of lightbulbs, floor lamps, or living room couches can inject excitement into a Sam Woolf performance.

So props to the aforementioned guitar-less Jena and Caleb who bring a breath of fresh air when they work the stage. Their performance of “Gimme Shelter” was KILLER, with nary a guitar in sight. It was one of the scarce highlights this season.

That vital surprise factor is gone. No one is taking risks and turning songs on their head, à la David Cook’s “Billie Jean.” We are no longer shocked or awed by a Jason Mraz-lite performance by Alex Preston. We can predict CJ Harris’ Ray Lamontagne-lite sound. So what’s the point of tuning in anymore, especially if those performances are simply okay? When 80’s week revealed, I jokingly predicted we’d see an “Islands in the Stream” duet between Jessica and Dexter. And guess what? They did! YAWN.

Challenge our expectations. Do something different. We need to be SURPRISED. I’m beginning to sound a lot like J.Lo (sans auto-tune, naturally).

What’s worse is that I honestly can’t recall any of the country songs CJ or Dexter have sung, save one or two. They’re obscure (“Keep Your Hands To Yourself”) and forgettable (“Boondocks”). And in CJ’s case they’re obscure (“Radio”and forgettable (“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”and off-key (“Invisible”). This is a huge problem. Look, if you pick a song the audience isn’t familiar with, make it count. Rattle that room. Shake that room. Make us remember you. Paging Candice Glover’s “Lovesong”!

The broad themes aren’t helping. It’s been a long-standing complaint that we’ve been force-fed the same tired themes year after year (disco, big band, etc.), so this year, the producers dismissed specific themes and aimed more broadly with ones like “Home,” “This Is Me,” and “I’m With the Band.” But these themes have failed as well, by allowing the contestants to stay squarely in their wheelhouse. Specific themes challenged contestants to think outside-the-box, rearrange songs to their own musical styles, and most importantly, to develop their sense of personal artistry. All the producers have done is breed complacency.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the generic themes aren’t stopping any time soon. The next one is “A Little Bit Country, And A Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll.” What a cop-out, Idol producers. Let’s give country and rock genres to the mostly country and rock performers. That’ll shakes things up dramatically…

OUTLAST:
Survivor has steady viewership…

Let this tweet from Vulture’s West Coast editor Joe Adalian sink in for a second. The once-mighty ratings juggernaut came in second place to Survivor. And this wasn’t the first time either; Survivor has bested Idol every week for the past four weeks.

These ratings are just more bragging rights for the four-time Outstanding Host for a Reality Program Emmy Award-winner Jeff Probst. Ryan Seacrest, however: six nominations, zero wins. Still, Survivor: Cagayan is hitting all-time series lows. Unsurprisingly, ratings have declined across the board for nearly every broadcast show.

American Idol doesn’t.

Idol_Ratings_ChartThis sobering graphic courtesy of The Wrap shows that downhill slide that is American Idol‘s ratings. The simple fact of the matter is that the tired and overstuffed reality singing competition genre is past its prime, and this particular brand has been around for 13 years. Idol‘s main rival, The Voice, most recently averaged a 2.7 A 18-49 (2.7% of all homes with viewers ages 18 to 49 tuned in).

Idol‘s highest ratings for viewers ages 18 to 49 was in the show’s fifth season in 2005, with an average rating of 12.6. Now here we are, eight years later, and Idol scored a 2.2 the week of April 16th. YIKES. The Death Star is dead, but its admirable reign was long and mighty.

As long as Survivor keeps introducing vibrant new characters ready to make huge moves, it will continue to keep its fans happy and its head above water. Are you taking notes, American Idol? A blindside this late in the game would be a shame.

Is there anything that would draw viewers back to Idol? My two cents: a farewell season with the triumphant return of Simon Cowell. Those were the good ‘ol days.

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.

— — —

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.

Breaking_Bad_OzySkyler

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.

Mad_Men_Bob_Benson

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

— — —

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.

Breaking_Bad_Felina

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.

AHS_Coven_Angela_Bassett

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.

SNL_Kerry_Washington

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.

BB15_Disclaimer

The cancellation of Happy Endings

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

Why I Freaking Love Survivor: Backstabbing, Blindsides & Brenda

“Whatever happens tonight, this is why I freaking love Survivor and have for thirteen years.”

The Tribal Council where Phillip “The Specialist” Sheppard was voted out of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans v. Favorites, was a welcomed strategic doozy and a half, prompting Cochran’s words of incredulity as he cast his vote which echoed the hearts of millions of us fans. Survivor fans live for the strategy talk. The alliances. The social maneuverings. The blindsides. This Survivor fandom is centered around the watercooler, be it physical or virtual.

Coming off the strategic finesse and dynamic casting of Survivor: Philippines, the first half of Caramoan was a downright slog to get through. We suffered through episodes that were light on gameplay and heavy on character drama nonsense: Phillip’s Stealth-R-Us antics, Shamar Thomas’ laziness and tirades, and Brandon Hantz’s instability, whose meltdown was intensely uncomfortable and sad to watch, for both his tribemates and for us as an audience.

This isn’t why we watch Survivor. All this character buffoonery is not watercooler talk. There’s only so much about Shamar’s unpleasantness that people can talk about before throwing up their hands in frustration. Thank goodness then, for Golden Boy Malcolm Freberg, who spearheaded the Tribal Council charge of The Three Amigos and effectively blindsided a majority alliance. His bold move is indeed worthy of the watercooler.

Survivor_Hantz

Not why I freaking love SURVIVOR.

The Survivor gods rewarded for our patience with three excellent strategic episodes of gameplay in a row: the blindside of Corinne, Malcolm commanding Reynold’s idol (the ballsiest power move since South Pacific’s Sophie Clarke commanded Albert Destrade to “drop his stack”), and now, the brolliances’ idol power play. Thanks to Malcolm’s most recent move in keeping himself, Reynold Toepfer, and Eddie Fox immune, there have been vibrant and heated discussions in the Survivor community.

Was this really a great move by The Three Amigos or did it just buy them one week? Should Malcolm have announced that they were voting for Phillip? Could Phillip have saved his hide by targeting Sherri instead of staying the course? Should Malcolm just have kept his immunity idol for himself? Will Stealth-R-Us fall apart without Phillip or grow even stronger? These strategic questions and more fuel the fanbase fire.

I personally think Malcolm’s shouldn’t have announced they were voting for Phillip and instead, just sit back and watch as Stealth-R-Us self-destructed in a blaze of paranoia. Malcolm’s purely bravado move works only for the short-term. But regardless of how smart his move actually was, there is no doubt that Malcolm, a devout student of the game, is a great showman. He knows how to make great television and get über-fans like us, and Cochran, riled up. His performances at the past few Tribal Councils, however cocky and self-centered they may be, have kept me off my couch and on my feet, stress-pacing my living room floor and cheering like a madman. There’s simply no other show that elicits more visceral reactions out of me than Survivor.

Survivor_Three_Amigos

Why I freaking love SURVIVOR.

I’m currently in the middle of a re-watch of Survivor: Borneo, the inaugural season, and it’s utterly fascinating to watch the show in its infancy, still finding its sea legs. Can you even imagine a world where Richard Hatch didn’t introduce the word “alliance” into reality television vernacular? The Tagi alliance of Richard, Sue Hawk, Rudy Boesch, and Kelly Wigglesworth slowly but surely taking down the naive Pagong tribe one by one, all but cemented the strategic cornerstone that keeps the Survivor house intact.

The finale of Borneo was seen by 51.69 million viewers and the season overall averaged 28.30 million viewers. Survivor: The Australian Outback was the number one television show of the 2000-2001 season, seen by an average of 29.80 million viewers. During this time, Survivor dominated pop culture talk around the watercooler. I still have that Entertainment Weekly magazine from 2001 with the cover story that gave the odds of winning for The Australian Outback‘s final seven (Colby Donaldson: 3-2; Tina Wesson: 3-1).

Cut to 2013, and Survivor‘s cultural capital has certainly diminished in scope, but the passion of its core fans is no less vibrant, nor the viewing experience any less exciting. One of my co-workers just binged-watched Survivor: Philippines over the course of a week. Every morning, I would head over to her cubicle and she would sort out her feelings with me on Mike Skupin and Lisa Welchel’s alliance, discuss why it would be smart to bring Abi-Maria Gomez to the end, and how she feared for Malcolm’s standing as a physical and strategic threat. Even as Survivor‘s viewership dwindles (the April 10th episode of Caramoan was seen by only 9.4 million viewers), the core fan community has continued to thrive online and around office watercoolers, thanks to continued strategic gameplay.

When comparing Borneo to present-day Caramoan, I’ve noticed that we are spoon-fed our narratives more today. In the early seasons, when the survival aspect was of greater intrigue, we spent the time to get to know every survivor and their motivations. Thirteen years later, the narratives have become more tightly focused, existing within codes and shorthands (When a survivor says something won’t happen, you know it’ll happen! How’s that rock taste, Francesca?!). We no longer have the time to focus on sixteen different stories. Survivors who are not important to the narrative are silenced and excised. Yes, I’m looking at you, Brett Clouser, Rick Nelson, and Purple Kelly!

Also why I love SURVIVOR.

Also why I freaking love SURVIVOR.

This season, we’ve heard nary a peep from the alternately adorable and drop-dead gorgeous Brenda Lowe. The former Nicaragua black widow became Stealth-R-Us’ Serenity, with the editors reducing her persona to only the cutest of reaction shots. In a secret scene only available online, Brenda revealed that her strategy is to be on no one’s side but her own: “Keeping to myself, being available when I can be available, and strengthening relationships when I can.”

Now, Survivor editors, would it hurt to make room for one minute of Brenda’s strategic gameplay of keeping the target off her back, and leave yet another mention of Stealth-R-Us on the cutting room floor instead? Why leave us viewers in the dark for weeks on end? And why not illuminate us on her visibly apparent knee injury?

We were finally thrown a bone this week when Brenda triumphantly rescued Dawn’s retainer from the bottom of the lagoon, endearing her forever to Dawn. Let’s not forget that Brenda is most at ease in the water, seen in an online-only confessional after her submerged individual immunity win. Sigh. Regardless of her minimal screen time, I love me some Brenda.

So who will win Survivor: Caramoan? In my pre-season analysis, I pegged my top three picks to win as Brenda, Andrea Boelhke, and Erik Reichenbach, with Andrea as the winner. All three of these survivors have made it at least to the jury. If only Andrea weren’t so paranoid every time her name came up, her chances would be better. With each passing Tribal Council, things are looking better and better for our nerdy fan surrogate, Cochran.

And who better than Cochran to represent the Survivor fans as the king of Fans vs. Favorites? Us fans are a small, but fiercely devoted bunch. Seriously though, what other fanbase would awesomely recreate and musicalize a moment OUT OF LEGOS?!

My Pick to Win Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites

Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites premieres tonight and I honestly cannot contain my excitement! Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites from 2008 is in my top five Survivor seasons, pitting all-star returning castaways against hardcore fans, and served up episode after episode of delicious drama. For this season, however, the returning Favorites seemed to be picked more for their big personalities than their strategic gameplay (and for some of these castaways, their strategy was next to none), which could lead to some explosive television.

New players tend to look to the returning players for guidance, but it appears we’ll have a much more even-playing field: the “Favorites” are just a bunch of misfits, but the Fans don’t appear to be much to write home about (I doubt some of the “Fans” have even watched the show at all, outside of the screeners they’re given by CBS). Heck, you see bigger fans in Cochran, Dawn, and Malcolm than anyone on the actual Fan tribe. Oh well. Regardless, Jeff Probst promises a wild season. Let’s break down the Survivor: Caramoan Favorites in no particular order, shall we?

Survivor_BrandonBrandon Hantz – We really, really did not need to see Brandon again. Oh boy. What a wildcard. No one will want to form an alliance with Brandon. Not after the stunts he pulled on Survivor: South Pacific – his creepy obsession with Mikayla, giving away his Immunity necklace at Tribal Council, his emotional implosions and tattletales. Brandon just doesn’t have it all up there. In order to make it far, you want people to see you as a stable asset, not an unpredictable ticking time bomb. He has no chance of winning this game.

Survivor_PhillipPhillip Sheppard – Here is yet another wildcard. The thing is, though, unlike the crazy and unstable Brandon, Phillip appears to be an intelligent man, with just a larger-than-life calculated personality. This Special Agent (?) made it all 39 days on Survivor: Redemption Island under Rob Mariano’s wing. Boston Rob took one look at this kooky character and took him right to the final Tribal Council, knowing that no one in their right mind would ever vote for the annoying Phillip. Sure, Phillip will make for entertaining television (see: mispronouncing Francesca Hogi’s name at Tribal Council), but he’ll never win Survivor. He simply rubs his tribemates the wrong way. Yes, he could make it past the merge, and maybe even to the Finals, but with his lack of strategic gameplay, he’ll never win.

Survivor_CochranJohn Cochran – Now here’s a true fan: Good ‘ol self-deprecating Cochran. Here’s hoping that out of the shadow of players like Ozzy Lusth, Cochran will be able to take care of his unfinished business. Cochran is the biggest Survivor geek out here, and fierce student of the game. On Survivor: South Pacific, it was his own rationality and intellect, coupled with fear, that slowly did him in. For his second outing, we’ll see if Cochran has learned to loosen up and not get stuck inside his own head.

Survivor_ErikErik Reichenbach – History has bestowed Erik with the distinction of making one of the dumbest moves on Survivor, thanks to giving away his Immunity necklace on the original Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites only to be vote out in that same Tribal Council. But Immunity blunder aside, Erik had a very likable personality and was a physically strong player, having won three Individual Immunities. He has a lot to prove in with his return, and I think Erik’s chances of survival redemption in this Fans vs. Favorites are very good.

Survivor_MalcolmMalcolm FrebergSurvivor’s golden boy returns merely two weeks after his stint on Survivor: Philippines. In playing back-to-back seasons, the tribemates on his second go-round know absolutely nothing about him. It’s the classic “Devil you know versus the devil you don’t” situation. Unfortunately for Malcolm, he’s the devil they don’t know and thanks to his back-to-back predecessor, Russell Hantz, he will have to work overtime to get his tribemates to trust him. Malcolm’s the most well-rounded member of this tribe, so perhaps his strength, ability to adapt, and his extremely winning personality will help him overcome any unknown factors his tribemates may see in him. Could Malcolm wrangle in Dawn Meehan as his Denise Stapley 2.0? Will he succumb to Andrea Boehlke’s charms and fall for another showmance? There’s just so much in doubt here…

Survivor_CorinneCorinne Kaplan – On Survivor: Gabon, Corinne was a bitch in her confessionals, but loyal to her alliance. And having her on this tribe, with this many personalities? There are bound to be some fireworks. However, her aggressively honest attitude may serve her well in the eyes of the right alliance. On the downside, Gabon was Survivor‘s seventeenth season (Caramoan will be the twenty-sixth). In Survivor years, that season is downright prehistoric when compared to her fellow tribemates’ seasons. Will Corinne be able to find a place in her new tribe?

Survivor_DawnDawn Meehan – Mark my words: If Dawn makes it to the final Tribal Council, she WILL win. She’s just that likable. If you remember, during the reunion of Survivor: South Pacific, winner Sophie Clarke stated that she wants to grow up to be Dawn! Not only is she just so gosh darn likable, but she is a physical beast. This powerful combination will attract many alliance options and there’s just no way she doesn’t make it to the merge. Dawn has grown so much since she experienced an emotional breakdown during her first days on South Pacific, and she will only come back stronger.

Survivor_AndreaAndrea Boehlke – I’m hoping Andrea will prove to be more than just the casting department looking for another blonde in a bikini. Honestly, I don’t remember much of her from Survivor: Redemption Island. She was pleasant enough, strong enough, and capable enough socially. But while she didn’t make a great first impression, she may make it far by gliding under the radar (think winners Natalie White or Amber Brkich). Andrea is likable and inoffensive, which is worth a lot in Survivor currency and without the overshadowing Boston Rob around, she could get her very far in the game. I’m not underestimating Andrea.

Survivor_FrancescaFrancesca Hogi – Even though Francesqua was the first person voted out of Survivor: Redemption Island, she made a lasting impression. She was one of the few bright spots for me (see: her Tribal Council with Phillip) from her rather lackluster season. Francesqua made the unfortunate move of calling out Boston Rob at the outset of Redemption Island and her big mouth got her in trouble. Will she be the anti-Sandra Diaz-Twine and be the first person voted out first twice? I don’t think so. We don’t really know how Francesqua would have fared in the game had she lasted longer, but we do know that she is seeking redemption and she is here to play.

Survivor_BrendaBrenda Lowe – I’ve always wanted Brenda to return to Survivor. She’s smart, athletic, and strategic. In short, she is a PLAYER. Brenda was the only player on Survivor: Nicaragua in a season full of non-players. Oh, and she’s gorgeous. Her downfall? A too-confident attitude which kept her from scrambling once her top-dog position was in turmoil. Here is her chance to learn from her (easily correctable) past mistakes. Brenda’s dynamic charisma and hard-hitting strategic mind may prove to be a detriment this time around, as other players may put a target on her back early on, but I have faith that Brenda will be able to navigate these testy waters.

I’ve never been able to pick a Survivor winner pre-debut, although after the first Survivor: Philippines episode, I dubbed Malcolm and Denise my Survivor heroes. For Survivor: Caramoan, I think it’s fairly certain that a Favorite will win the game, besting the Fans at every aspect of the game. My top three picks to win are Brenda, Andrea, and Erik.

But who will take it all? My virtual money is on the unassuming Andrea “I’m No Longer A Follower” Boelhke.

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.

Louie_Parker_Posey

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.

Surivor_Malcolm

Malcolm Freberg, on Abi-Maria Gomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music of Nashville

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

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

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

Mad Men‘s visual set-pieces

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

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

Retta on Twitter: @unfoRETTAble

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

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

Seriously, Retta is one to follow.

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TV on my Naughty List:

The wasted potential of The Mindy Project

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

Michonne on The Walking Dead

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

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

TWD_Michonne_Andrea

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

The series finales of Desperate Housewives and Weeds

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

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

Smash in all its hate-watching glory!

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

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

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

Smash_Times_Square

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:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.