What I watched in January 2015

Even in the seemingly freezing wasteland of January, warmth could be found all over television. What was once a month of dull month of shows returning from winter hiatus, is now a blossoming time for premieres and finales. Here’s a look at what I watched in January 2015. Some spoilers to follow, of course.

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In streaming news, I finally joined my generation of millennials and signed up for Amazon Prime. What started out as a free trial to take advantage of the 2-day shipping for the holidays and to stream Survivor: Fiji (the last of Survivor‘s soon-to-be 30 seasons I’ve yet to watch), ended up as a thrilling deep-dive into the best show on television, The Americans.

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Source: uptownhags.tumblr.com

The Americans is a must-watch. All at once a sleek spy thriller and an unexpectedly moving examination of marriage and family. The Cold War-set character-driven drama is exhilarating, smart, extremely well-acted, and features lots and lots of fun wigs. It is the 1980s after all.

The first season explores what it means to be married. Married couple Elizabeth Jennings (a striking and determined Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are living in American suburbia, working undercover as KGB agents. This union is an arranged marriage by Mother Russia and to keep up appearances of family life, Elizabeth and Philip eventually had two children of their own, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, once familiar territory becomes dangerous when real emotions develop and the two see each other in new light. This is marriage as spycraft, marriage as a cold war. Complications ensue when Stan Beeman (the masterful Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence with marital baggage of his own, moves in right next door. Howdy, neighbor!

A Soviet mole tells an FBI agent, “You Americans think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray.” Throughout The Americans, Elizabeth and Philip encounter shifting allegiances and dodge shifting moral compasses. Relationships morph, lies are bred, and compromises abound. Double agents become triple agents. Confidants become conflicted. In a world of espionage, nothing ever has just one meaning. This is a powerful and thoughtful show that wrestles with severe emotional stakes: Can I trust you?

In the second season, the series explores what it means to believe and fight for something much larger than yourself. The Americans shows the weight of collateral damage, in particular, the toll of espionage on the family unit. Emotional costs do not go ignored. What does it mean to be a parent harboring life-changing secrets from your children and how do children cope with the realization that they’ll just become their parents? How far can you fight for what you believe in while still maintaining your humanity?

I HIGHLY recommend giving The Americans a chance. The first two 13-episode seasons are available for streaming on Amazon Prime. If I can binge-watch 26 episodes in one month, you can too.What are you waiting for? GO!

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I celebrated the season finale of American Horror Story: Freak Show, not because I praised its artistic merit or thought-provoking themes, but because of the sheer and simple relief that this languid melodrama was finally over. FX’s horror anthology has suffered diminishing returns, peaking with its second season, Asylum.

While Jessica Lange remains a national treasure, she has been given nothing but retreads of her earlier characters. What worked so perfectly with the Asylum finale is that we cared about the Lange’s Sister Jude. We were given the gift of a moving redemption arc. What worked so poorly with the Freak Show finale is that I simply did not care about Lange’s Elsa Mars at all. Neither her thirst for Hollywood stardom, nor her passion for her freak show family, nor her shame over her tragic snuff film past made me compassionate for her plight. When Wes Bentley’s supernatural carny spirit took Elsa’s life in the season’s final moments, I merely shrugged.

Color me less than excited about the next season of American Horror Story.

At the very least, American Horror Story: Freak Show gave us Finn Witrock’s devilishly handsome serial killer Dandy Mott. As Angela Bassett’s three-breasted Desiree Dupree hissed at him during the finale, “You may look like a motion picture dreamboat, but you’re the biggest freak of them all!” Farewell, Dandy and Desiree, you were the few shining stars of this dim season.

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Source: realmenteborroso.tumblr.com

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Jane the Virgin had a gigantic January, with Gina Rodriguez winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy, the first-ever Golden Globe for The CW. Rodriguez’s heartfelt and moving speech proved why she won the hearts of the HFPA voters and fans alike:

This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes. My father used to tell me to say every morning to myself it’s a great day. I can and I will. Well Dad, today’s a great day. I can and I did.

In the first new episode of Jane the Virgin that aired after the Golden Globes, The CW used the onscreen hashtag #ICanAndIDid as a celebration of Rodriguez’s achievement. On the show itself, with another onscreen hashtag, the political became personal. Jane’s grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), took a nasty fall down a flight of stairs when Petra’s devious wheelchair-bound mother pushed her (Gasp! Petra’s mother can walk?! Let’s not forget this is a telenovela send-up). While Alba recovered in the hospital, the doctors informed Jane’s mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), about medical repatriation:

Your mother is in the country illegally. She doesn’t have insurance and the hospital can’t afford to absorb the cost of her care. We will have to notify I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they will deport her to Venezuela where she can continue to receive care if he needs it.

Xiomara, not to mention most of Jane‘s viewers, was stunned by this revelation. Then, this happened:

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Source: janegifs.tumblr.com

Jane the Virgin made a bold statement about #ImmigrationReform by bringing the policy to harsh light, even when seen through the show’s playful onscreen text. Jane the Virgin‘s own Diane Guerrero herself revealed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that her parents were deported to Columbia when she was 14 years old. By using the plight of the sympathetic Villanueva family, the series brought compassion to an important issue.

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January welcomed the return of Girls and Looking, two high-profile, low-rated HBO comedies.

On Girls, Andrew Rannells’ Elijah continues to steal the entire damn show. Rannells was promoted to series regular for this season and the show has used his snark in strategic, yet mightily effective ways, as a breath of fresh, salty air to cut through all the self-pitying of Hannah and her crew. Rannells also demonstrated his biting wit and wicked sense of humor on an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, an interview so hilarious, I watched it twice in a row. (Watch parts one and two NOW.)

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Source: latenightseth.tumblr.com

Regarding Looking, I am firmly on #TeamRitchie (the beautifully grounded Raul Castillo), though Kevin (Russell Tovey) does have that unmistakable charm and that damn British accent. In the episode “Looking for Results,” Kevin and Patrick (Jonathan Groff) spend time getting to know each other intimately, outside of their affair, and share potentially embarrassing stories of their childhood crushes.

I read many episodic television reviews to enhance my viewing experience. In particular, I love Brandon Norwalk’s Looking reviews at The A.V. Club that situate the series within the larger gay experience. His thoughts on Kevin and Patrick’s date conversations, formative childhood stories as shared gay conversation, really spoke to me:

The episode is deeply rooted in history, particularly this universal gay formative experience of knowing you have to keep a secret before you even understand what it is. Gay people start out alone in a way. They start out apart from community.

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Here’s an SAT analogy for you:
Parks and Recreation : “Ron and Leslie” :: Mad Men : “The Suitcase”

In its flash-forward farewell season, Parks and Recreation slammed us with the falling-out of its two powerhouses, as the ever-optimistic liberal Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and staunch libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) fought over the development of Pawnee land. The struggle between the two titans climaxed in “Ron and Leslie,” a bottle episode that rivaled Mad Men’s stand-out episode, “The Suitcase.”

In “The Suitcase,” while barreling through a single night of stubbornness, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) shared a profound intimacy and worked out rooted issues that were keeping them apart both professionally and personally. In “Ron and Leslie,” while barreling through a single night of stubbornness, Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope shared a profound intimacy and worked out rooted issues that were keeping them apart both professionally and personally.

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Source: thatstupidache.tumblr.com

From Leslie’s first interview for the parks department, to the admission that Ron left the parks department because he missed his friends, to the fact that Ron openly admitted that he would take a job in national government to be with said friends again, their personal confessions spoke volumes about their journey together. The epic reconciliation of Ron and Leslie reached the heart-swelling emotional heights of Leslie and Ben Wyatt’s (Adam Scott) wedding and Andy (Chris Pratt) and April’s (Aubrey Plaza) wedding. With truly resonant emotional stakes and a deep-seated respect for each other, Ron and Leslie’s friendship is a love story of the ages. I just know I’ll be out of tears by the time this show wraps up in less than a month.

In the episode, “Treat Yo Self 2017,” Donna Meagle (Retta) and Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) revived their infamous tradition of pampering one’s self and took it all the way to Beverly Hills. Not only did the two witness Josh Groban ordering a roll of own sushi, but they also shared a heart-to-heart about Tom’s love life. I tweeted Donna’s sincere advice, which unsurprisingly resonated with fans all over the internet.

When Parks and Recreation leaves the airwaves, the warm and fuzzies will live on in the generous fan community. Waffles for everyone!

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Saturday Night Live is enjoying a particularly robust season, with the additions of Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che, resident Young Person Pete Davidson, and soon-to-be-Ghostbuster Leslie Jones. After last season’s too-bloated-to-function cast, this year’s cast members have found a steady comedy groove, with stronger sketch comedy and less reliance on pop culture. Alas, if only the WU team of Che and Head Writer Colin Jost clicked.

J.K. Simmons failed to make an impression as a host despite being a strong actor, with the show most likely focusing all its attention on its upcoming star-studded 40th Anniversary Special. While Blake Shelton couldn’t break out of his country persona, rendering him an inept and inert host, Kevin Hart’s fully committed and manic energy made him quite an impressive host his second time around.

I dare you to not be charmed by Kevin Hart in this frenzied “Listening Party” sketch.

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And in other shows…

Shondaland reopened its gates and How to Get Away with Murder attempted to steal the spotlight from buzzy newcomer Empire. Unfortunately, the return of the Viola Davis Show was nothing more than a glorified recap episode. Yes, the HTGAWM winter finale happened nine weeks ago, but did we really have to relive every bloody moment? And least the spinning cheerleader was gone.

American Idol also returned to little fanfare, with last year’s judging panel of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., and Keith Urban left intact. Thankfully, my prayers have finally been answered: Randy “The Dawg” Jackson has left the fading juggernaut once and for all.

And last, but certainly not least, The Flash heralded in the first-ever openly gay supervillain in Andy Mientus’ Pied Piper and boy was his introduction a doozy.

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Source: lrisallens.tumblr.com

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The Universal Specificity of HBO’s Looking

HBO’s new series, Looking, isn’t groundbreaking material and perhaps that’s what is most striking about it. This nonchalant attitude just makes the show all the more charming. Looking follows three gay men in San Francisco, romantically in flux Patrick (Jonathan Groff), his best friend Augustín (Frankie J. Álvarez) who moves in with his boyfriend in Oakland, and their friend Dom (Murray Bartlett) who is nearing 40, but still has dreams to open up his own restaurant.

The show doesn’t set out to represent “the gay experience,” or even “the San Francisco gay experience.” Not that there is a “gay experience,” but popular culture narratives can over-generalize more often than not. More mellow than drama, Looking simply presents their lives as they are. The characters are gay men, but their lives are not dictated by being gay. Sexuality isn’t presented as revolutionary or high-concept. After watching the first two episodes, it’s clear that this a diverse slice-of-life series that is worth examining.

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Frankie J. Álvarez, Jonathan Groff, & Murray Bartlett

Looking‘s strongest feature is its great sense of character, both in the city of San Francisco and of the three central characters. The stories benefit from their specificity, but they also tell a broader story of relationships, which in turn, makes the show relatable to all viewers. The characters feel like real people and this comfortable nature eases right out of the gate. From Patrick checking himself out in a restaurant window before a promising first date, unbeknownst to the customer on the other side, to Augustín and his boyfriend snuggling on their living room couch debating on whether to go out or stay in, the show is universal in its specificity.

The dialogue is carefully observed and the scenes are well-inhabited. There is so much history presented in such little dialogue, one might feel that they might have missed an episode. And perhaps that’s part of the problem, if there is one, with Looking. The show is not as confrontational as other series, say HBO’s Girls, but rather, it operates at a deliberate pace. Is the show almost too lived-in? Are the situations almost too ephemeral to take hold?

For me, the answer is no. I can see how the cultural weight of Looking‘s expectations may overpower what the series is actually trying to do: present meaningful stories about these three characters who have reached a point of reflection in their lives. The show is concerned with how these characters assess their lives upon reaching transition and in its searching, there’s a wonderfully understated intimacy wrapped up within the heart of Looking. This warm intimacy eschews flashy explicitness (be it sexual, confrontational, provocative, or otherwise), but that doesn’t mean Looking doesn’t have anything to say. By embracing the specificity of its characters’ world as it is, Looking gives voice to stories worth telling.

My Knee-jerk 2012 Emmy Nominee Reactions!

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, THIS:

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

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

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

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

Mad Men

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

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

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

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

Girls

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

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

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

True Blood

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

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

Louie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.