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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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!

— — —

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

Advertisements

Smash to America: “Let Me Be Your Star!”

In the sweeping climax of Smash‘s premiere episode, Katharine McPhee’s Karen Cartwright and Megan Hilty’s Ivy Lynn duel in their callbacks for a Broadway musicalization of the life of Marilyn Monroe. “Let me be your star,” the two women belt out to show’s creative team. It’s not difficult to imagine NBC pleading these same lyrics to the American public. As a perpetual fourth-place finisher, NBC is desperate for distinction and a bona fide hit, and their marketing department certainly has been operating in overdrive, promoting Smash ad nauseum. But while this new series may not strike out for all audiences, broadcast network NBC deserves massive credit for taking on a creatively solid series with cable network ambitions.

Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) & Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty)

Way more than just a Glee for grown-ups, Smash delivers higher stakes and a tighter focus than its messy auto-tuned relative of a series, bringing to life the ego-embattled and dramatically charged world of Broadway theatre. To be sure, Smash is still a network show executive produced by Mr. Steven Spielberg himself. This portrayal of the musical theatre world for the masses is light on its feet and serves up a heaping helping of showbiz polish, sanding off any rough edges and cutting corners on the real workings of the creative process, leaving that process off-screen or even making it a non-entity. So while the show may be a tad disappointing in its implausibility to those too into the theatre world, Smash can still commended for bringing these sudsy and entertaining stories to life in an accessible way.

If Smash comes off as trying too hard with its insider speak and musical theatre lingo, the emotionally rich and resonant characters give audiences a solid anchoring point. These are characters with a driving passion and motivation, with easily identifiable hopes and dreams of success and stardom. The well-crafted world of Smash follows the lives of the aforementioned leading lady hopeful Karen Cartwright (the dewy McPhee of American Idol fame), and the musical theatre veteran with a case of ensemble ennui, Ivy Lynn (the vivacious Broadway vet Hilty). The other colorful characters rounding out the talented ensemble, include Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston in deliciously fine form as a powerful producer attempting to stabilize her world, British actor Jack Davenport as the show’s director dripping with smarm and charm, and the buoyant songwriting duo of Emmy-winner Debra Messing and Broadway’s Christian Borle. The less said about the annoyingly plucky assistant, the better.

The theatrical pedigree of Smash‘s creative team positively sings, breathing new life into the well-worn nature of this backstage drama. The pilot’s director, Michael Mayer (American Idiot) integrates the compositions of the award-winning writing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (Hairspray) with a deft hand, spotlighting both the talent and the inner life of its performers. Series creator, screenwriter and playwright Theresa Rebeck (Seminar), also penned the well-written pilot episode.

The premiere outing is briskly paced and creatively strong, if not a tad over-reliant on showbiz tropes. But while we’ve seen it all before: the manipulative director, the small town ingenue vs. the hard-working chorus girl, the overprotective conservative parents, the All About Eve undertones, Smash is refreshing in its almost retro-like earnestness, all maudlin and cliched lines aside (“Sometimes, dreams are hard!“). A slight drawback is that Smash shoehorns in perhaps one too many plotlines in the premiere, barreling through exposition and character introduction with an Aaron Sorkin-like clip. Hopefully, future episodes will let storylines to breathe at a more established pace and allow for character development to happen more organically. Less telling, more showing.

The sheer creative ambition both on-screen and off-screen makes Smash a show worth watching and rooting for. While not a sure thing that the series will strike a chord with mainstream audiences, one thing is for certain: Smash gives hope for our television landscape littered with tired doctor/lawyer/cop procedurals.