Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Listmania: My Top Ten TV Shows of 2012

Note: this post was amended from its original order

So here's the deal: upon finishing my INCREDIBLY long "Top Ten TV of 2012" list, I found that despite the pleas of many to write about TV, that I should be a TV critic... I don't know that it was as fun. Maybe if I was tearing shows apart it'd be, but to say nice things, well - I don't feel like I said anything particularly original. AND I LIKE BEING ORIGINAL. So it was a fun diversion, but I think I'll stick with writing about life and things that BECAUSE MY EGO IS HUGE AND I MUST TALK ABOUT MYSELF CONSTANTLY OR I'LL DIE. But it took me a REALLY long time to write so I'm posting the list, okay?


So, guess what errybody? I've decided to try my hand at actually writing about my favorite topic: TV! That's right kiddos, I'm going to take a stab at writing slightly critically* about the thing I love most in the world: my family my friends food. I mean TV. But food is my other favorite, for the record.

*I mean critically as in I'm evaluating like a critic, not as in I'm going to TEAR THESE SHOWS TO SHREDS.

What were we talking about? How I'm really excited for dinner? OH - television! With the year coming to an end, I'm going to go ahead and list my top ten favorite television shows for the year 2012. This proved trickier than I thought - it would be easier to do a top ten list for the regular TV season: September through May. For example, a list of favorites from '11-'12 season would be simpler because it would mean evaluating just a a single season of any given show. Instead, going by the single year 2012 means that I have the end of one season and the beginning of the next, usually. So if a show had a great season last year but the current season's been so-so, it becomes harder to rank, doesn't it? Also it means I have all cable shows - those that air in the winter, spring, summer AND fall to deal with. Oh, seasons. Now listen - I watch a lot of TV. A LOT. So believe me - I was looking at a lot of options, and it was tough to select the shows that made my list. Many great shows are not on this list... I just went with my gut. It's also worth noting that unlike an actual TV critic, I don't actually watch everything, so if you're pissed that Mad Men isn't on the list, sorry, I don't watch it (go ahead, throw your tomatoes, I've heard it all: I'm the worst, how could I call myself a TV fan, etc). Also, everyone knows I have AMAZING TASTE, so trust me when I say these shows are where it's at, okay? Let's begin:

10. Bob's Burgers
"What's Bob's Burgers?" Well my friends, it's the best show airing right now in Fox's forever-running "Animation Domination" Sunday lineup - a lineup that more famously includes Family Guy and The Simpsons*. It's not one of the twelve-hundred - oh, another script was just sold! twelve-hundred and one - shows from Seth MacFarlane, but that's part of what makes it such a breath of fresh air. With South Park being very hit or miss as of late**, Bob's Burgers has become the bastion for animated comedies right now - primarily because of the great character work. The show - about a family and the Burger restaurant they run - did something that seems simple but has proven difficult for many a live-action show: create a cast of funny characters with original points of view, then just let them react to the weekly situation. That's where sitcom comes from: situation comedy.*** Since the characters on Bob's Burgers are so fun and unique, even the simplest premise becomes original. Nowhere else on TV will you get a character like Tina, the monotone-voiced, mild-mannered oldest daughter who secretly writes "erotic friend fiction". Every character is so specific, and voiced excellently; the show collected an array of great comedians and voice actors to fill out the cast, who often record together - most shows have each actor record separately, this show doesn't. Accordingly, the result is great improvised exchanges between characters and comic timing that can't be faked. And the show isn't afraid to get... weird. Bob's Burgers has had some of the most delightfully bizarre musical numbers in my recent memory. And, of course, the show contains one of my current favorite characters on TV: Linda, the delightfully earnest, excitable matriarch with the imitable voice. My roommate and I sing the following to the cats virtually every day:

*I don't know anyone who watches new episodes of The Simpsons. Does anyone? How has that show been running so long? Has anyone EVER said to you, "did you see this week's Simpsons? Oh, you have to!"
**I'll still love South Park forever though. The hits are still hits.
***Sitcom: a classic portmanteau.

9. The Good Wife
There was a time when TGW was my absolute number one favorite show on TV - while we're not quite there right now, there's no denying it's still some of the classiest, smartest-written drama around. And who would've thought that some of the most subtle, nuanced acting, character development, and storytelling would be on CBS? The network of boring old people procedurals and ONLY procedurals. Yet somehow, they also get the ONLY network television show nominated for the best drama Emmy in the last couple years?* You know the other networks must be pissed - like, "they make ONE show that's not about solving murders and it's better than all our shows? What the hell?" But TGW is probably better than any show on air at addressing morality and its grey areas; very rarely is there a right or wrong, only difficult choices that slowly weigh on you. This isn't a show where good will just triumph over evil - it's much more realistic than that, more upsetting. When gross Mike Kresteva (played by Matthew Perry - TGW uses guest stars better than any other show) tells complete fabricated lies about Alicia in the press, she demands Eli counter the lies somehow. But he tells her, rightly so, that nothing she says will matter anymore - the story is out now, and that's the way it is. TGW also features two of my personal favorite performances on television - Julianna Margulies as Alicia and Archie Panjabi as everyone's favorite superhero, Kalinda. Margulies is so good and so consistent - constantly imbuing Alicia with intelligence, strength, and vulnerability - that you can almost forget what an incredible actress she is because the performance seems so natural. She's also evolved the character over the years. And frankly, I would watch Archie Panjabi read the phone book. Kalinda is just so mysterious, so dynamic yet playful, and such a badass that it's no wonder she's already won an Emmy for the part. TGW excels at character and theme - like the end of the season three finale, which beautifully contrasts Alicia and Kalinda both dealing with their pasts. Do you run from it? Do you run back to it? Do you fight? Do you give in? And despite people not loving the way the return of Kalinda's husband story played out (with it apparently now over, it just didn't really seem to have a point or matter all that much), it can't be denied that the visual of Kalinda pulling up a chair and waiting with a loaded gun for the knock of the door was a fantastic scene and an even better cliffhanger. (Clip is queued.)

*The rest are on cable.

8. Suburgatory
Oh, Suburgatory! How you've slowly nestled your way into mi coraz√≥n. What started as a solid lead-in to Modern Family has quickly surpassed that show in both laughs and heart. For those uninitiated, the show follows a teenage girl and her father who move from New York City into suburbia, and the cartoonish inhabitants they encounter upon arriving. Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy are great and bring wonderful wry groundedness to their New York transplants. But of course, the showiest parts on the show belong to the supporting cast. The show's smartest move was assembling the best large ensemble of actors on television - tremendously funny people like Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Alan Tudyk, and Cheryl Hines, just to name a few. The world of Chatswin (the fictional town) is populated with memorable, vivid characters - right down to the smaller, recurring parts, like Carmen, the maid who learned English almost exclusively by listening to NPR's "All Things Considered". There's no weak link on the show; no boring characters. Everyone you'll meet is funny and engaging. And then, while maintaining the comedy, the show is also constantly telling wonderfully emotional stories. The characters on this show have compelling relationships that can be played for laughs, but can also be incredibly heartwarming. After all, the show is centered around a girl who's never met her mother - when she does finally meet her, it couldn't just be a slapsticky reunion. There's real emotion there, and the entire cast is filled with people who are genuinely great at comedy and at playing those more earnest moments. Cheryl Hines is a perfect example of this - her character, Dallas, is a heightened, ridiculous person, but when the moments are really important - a stolen kiss under the mistletoe, for example - she tugs at your heartstrings with the best of them. And of course, we must be thankful to Suburgatory for giving us one of TV's best creations: Dalia Royce, the spoiled, blonde queen bee of Chatswin High with a delivery so dry it would make the sahara thirsty. Take a look at a classic Dalia speech:

7. Homeland
I don't really know what I could possibly write about this show that hasn't already been said, given that the internet is always discussing it... but I'll do my best. If you haven't seen the show, you've heard of or about it, possibly that it won a bunch of Emmys this year. Well, the Emmys were deserved, kids. Homeland is the real deal. The current season may not be over, but I've seen enough to know the show belongs in my top ten list for sure. I can't say too much about the show without spoiling it for those who would like to watch it, but basically, it's Claire Danes at the CIA hunting terrorists. That incredibly simplistic explanation doesn't even begin to convey the intensity of the show, the twisty, dangerous game that it is. And while Homeland's plot is incredible at zigging where you thought it would zag, the plot isn't even the main reason the show is so captivating: it's the character work, the psychological zigging and zagging that's truly extraordinary. Everything everyone's said about Claire Danes? It's true. It isn't hyperbole: she is amazing. A raw, truly transcendent performance - it's watching a master of the craft at work. I didn't really know there was still acting like that going on in our generation, but it's there. Damian Lewis is no slouch either - a pivotal, extended scene this season just between the two of them made me go, "gees, I don't know why I ever thought I could be an actor, I could never do that". Frankly, I know that Oscars are for movies and not TV, but they should give Danes all the Oscars for this one. This year, I think they should open up the envelope for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and read, "Claire Danes, Homeland", because her work is unparalleled. (Spoilers in clip, obviously)

6. 30 Rock
30 Rock has always been one of my favorite shows, and after a couple of wayward seasons (wayward for this show still means solid episodes and hilarious one-liners, just maybe not as consistently many as before) the show is ending on a high. Liz Lemon is my hero, and Tina Fey is a genius, original, weird woman who has stolen my heart. Hyperbole? Nah. I identify with Liz, I root for Liz... not to mention that week in and week out she does something that is scarily close to home - from seeing all the dark colors in her closet and wondering if she's depressed (which I wrote about) to "Why are my arms so weak? It's like I did that push-up last year for nothing!" - I find myself Lizzing with solidarity. Not only is the show back to being hilarious line-by-line, but the way this final season and a half has really come back to what Liz wants from life and her happiness is really lovely. From the episode last season where Liz rediscovered her desire to have kids to the wonderful wedding episode this year, I keep watching 30 Rock and being genuinely moved and happy for Liz. And that's happening in the same year as the episode where Liz became The Joker and tried to destroy New York City. The show is still as bizarre and oddball and has it's uniquely wacky worldview while also bringing some warm fuzzies for this final season. What more could you want? Liz's wedding is really a perfect manifestation of what the show is - a genuinely happy, emotional moment (Tina Fey's performance as she panics in the courthouse really got me) and then bride is dressed as Princess Leia with bling for a wedding ring and surrounded by homeless people. I will miss this show when it's gone, and I will miss Liz Lemon most of a all - but I've got a feeling she's gonna be just fine as she goes off into the sunset.

5. Happy Endings
If Happy Endings gets cancelled because you jerks aren't watching it, I'm going to be very upset with all of you. I mean it. Anyway, this comedy - about six friends living in Chicago - quickly became my favorite sitcom of the '11-'12 season. Why? IT BRINGS ME JOY. Why else? The writing is pretty on point. The dialogue and the jokes come lightning quick, with brilliantly weird, funny lines tossed away constantly - this makes the episodes great for re-watching, to pick up the things you missed the first go-around. And there's lots of wonderful, off-kilter pop culture references, which - shocker! - I love.*
The cast is great, particularly Adam Pally as Max - with his odd Chicagoish accent and comically intense commitment - and Casey Wilson as the perpetually unlucky Penny. I barely noticed her on SNL, but she's amahzing here. Seriously, her line deliveries are unbelievable. It's that thing of when** great writing meets an incredible performer and they're just a perfect fit for each other. Genuinely, there were moments during season two where I was like, "she's our new Lucy". She makes the tiniest moments exponentially funnier. While season three hasn't been as great so far - pairing Dave and Alex isn't quite leading to comedy gold - but I remember how in the middle of the second season, I couldn't wait for each new episode because each one was a total gem, just hilarious week after week. There was a long stretch of episodes where the show could do no wrong. Remembering my own excitement for each new installment is enough to buoy the show pretty high on my list. Please enjoy one of Penny's choicest lines below.

Penny: "It was 2002, it was such a crazy time - we were all still reeling from the events surrounding the film Vanilla Sky." 
Alex: "I'm tired of people using Vanilla Sky as an excuse for everything!"
**Insert your favorite Stefon quote here.

4. Southland
I always describe Southland as "the best show you're not watching". It's true - it's deftly written and filmed and has some of the best slow-burn acting of any series in my memory. If I could describe the show in one word, it would be raw. Here's the backstory on Southland: the show - about the police force in Los Angeles - started on NBC with a really short season of seven episodes. Then NBC ordered the disaster that was The Jay Leno Show for primetime and cancelled everything that aired in the 10 PM hour. Poor Southland didn't stand a chance... until TNT picked up the show, airing season one and the unaired NBC-made season two. Without NBC breathing down their necks, the show blossomed from being a very good, solid cop drama into a tour-de-force. Gritty, dark, and made with a realism that no other show possesses, the show seems to really accurately reflect the life of a patrol cop. It's in the way it's filmed - as if you're on the ground with the LAPD. And it's not just shootouts and high drama - stories aren't wrapped up with a pretty bow. The show captures the little moments for a beat cop - like the dark humor of like an assholey guy flagging you down for an emergency and saying he needs a ride to work. From a domestic battery to a disturbing the peace call, these cops deal with it all. But it's not a procedural - there aren't cases of the week, and these characters are incredibly deep. Week after the week, the show examines the compromises made on the job, how it wears on the soul. These people are wounded. John Cooper, played with deep weariness and unwavering intensity by Michael Cudlitz, is one of the most complicated people on television. It's Emmy-level work - not that the Emmys notice shows like this. And Regina King is excellent. She's able to convey so much with just her eyes, which is on this show is key; the show doesn't have characters delivering exposition about feelings - what you get instead is great actors and subtext. And this season featured a searing performance from Lucy Liu - so incredible in her arc that she won the Television Critic's Award for best guest star. Of course, the Emmys didn't even nominate her - but Emmys or no Emmys, Southland is still one of the best shows on television.

3. Game of Thrones
Is there a show more epic or on a grander scale than Game of Thrones right now? Lordy, methinks not. The show has so many fascinating characters, so many exotic locales, and so much story left to tell. If you think I'm not down for the ride, you'd be mistaken. It's definitely the most sumptuous show on TV with its exquisite locations and sets. For several weeks I got to watch new episodes in a friend's home theater, and damn me if the show didn't look even more magnificent and expansive on a massive screen. The characters are dynamic, the actors incredibly versatile and game... and the plot is a roller coaster. This show deals with the highest of stakes, and waiting in between episodes is incredibly painful. Not to mention that there's only ten episodes in a season - so every single immaculately-produced episode is like a rare find, a treat to be savored before they're all gone. Getting a new episode of Game of Thrones is more exciting than running downstairs to open presents on Hanukkah morning. The joy of having a universe so large is that with that many characters, everyone can have so many favorites - the downside, of course, being that sometimes episodes don't deal with your favorites.* But it's the deal you make when you agree to immerse yourself in Game of Thrones, and it's well worth it. How many shows on TV are this electrically exciting? It's like nothing else out there. In this clip, my homegirl Khaleesi lays down the law.** (Clip is queued.)

*Is Jon Snow the most boring, dour drag on an otherwise amazing show or what? What am I missing?
**Could someone make a TV shirt that says 'Khaleesi is my Homegirl'? Thanks.

2. Girls
Girls emerged last season with so much hype and scrutiny, I wasn't sure I could form my own opinion on it without shutting out the deluge of comments, praise, and criticism lobbed at the show at every turn. I watched the first episode - I thought it was fine, an occasional funny moment. Then came the second episode - when I started thinking intellectually, "wow, this is really smart and funny". Finally, episode three. My brain started to click with the show, but with that episode, my heart did. I fell in love with it. So funny, so brutally honest, and with such a distinctly original voice, Girls hooked me. Lena Dunham has so much hatred directed towards her, but I judge her on her work alone - and the show is excellent. Her writing is funny, but is always revealing something or saying something more at the same time as it's making you laugh (or as is often the case in the show, making you CRINGE). Not to mention she also happens to be an excellent actress - boy, some people get all the luck, huh? People say the show is about selfish people as if the show isn't aware of that fact - it clearly knows how flawed its protagonists are. And Dunham's voice is just ever so left-of-center - relatable enough that everyone watching is going, "Oh my god, [character] is JUST like [real-life person]! This situation is exactly like what happened to me!" but weird enough that the show is usually also pointing out something new or hilarious. I haven't had this much anticipation for a second season of any show since Veronica Mars. For the clip, I thought about finding something shorter - but instead simply decided to go with hilarious story in episode three that made me a believer. In them, Hannah meets her ex-boyfriend for a drink, and things do not go as planned, to say the least. The hysterical left-turns in this conversation could give you whiplash...

  1. Parenthood
I'm not crying. I'm not crying. I'm not crying. If you watch Parenthood, these words might be familiar to you. They are a mantra that we who watch Parenthood need to practice and live with... because every single week the show hits you right in the heart. The show is about small stories, day-to-day life, which is maybe why it isn't exactly a monster in the ratings... but I assure you, if you're passing on Parenthood, you're missing out. There's something to be said for looking at life's little moments. It's a show that benefits from watching episode after episode, because the more you know the characters, the more meaningful all the little things become. Parenthood is incredibly consistent - top to bottom, the acting, writing, and directing are always impeccable and tonally sound. Everyone in the cast is excellent. If I can take a moment and single one person out (I can!), I must say that Monica Potter is exceptional. Incredible. Remarkable in every way (and I was saying that she was the one to watch way back in season two before she had her big storyline this year). All the characters are familiar yet distinct; the Bravermans are so real that they're often frustrating - they make bad decisions and have personality traits that irritate you - just like your actual family, just like real life. It makes the show such a fertile topic for discussion, because you feel like you're talking about people you know - "Sarah is DRIVING ME NUTS". And just like real life, you like some family members better than others. That's why it's great that the show has a large ensemble of characters to follow. And I know I often see my family and moments similar to my life in the show... I remember one specific scene, where Kristina, longingly desperate for Haddie to not be upset with her, insists they paint her room together - and I thought, "that's my mother". The show feels like home. And that's why it's my number one. And oh yeah, did I mention I cry pretty much every week?

And now, a scene that made me cry. SPOILERS ahead.

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