Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 in Television

Warning: spoilers ahead.

2013 was a rocky year for the (not so) small screen. Cory Monteith's death knocked Glee fans for a loop. The all-but-exhausted American Idol continued its slide, despite the addition of such high-powered judges as Nicki Minaj (sarcasm).

A&E gave us the marvelous Bates Motel but then pissed off everyone possessing a shred of human dignity with its Duck Dynasty debacle.

At least NBC tried to get into the swing of things with a bloody, sex-laden Dracula, starring  Jonathan Rhys-Myers, but — alas — it's a mostly silly mash-up of Matrix-style action, Steampunk and gore. It's also hard to keep track of the characters. Still, it's coming back tomorrow, so I guess I'll see how it turns out.

Fortunately, basic and pay cable continued to be the fount at which we at Weird Movie Village drank heartily, eschewing the idiotic sitcoms and reality trash for some boundary-stretching and — dare I say it? — literate offerings. Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) for 2013:

Breaking Bad. Considered by many to be the best show television has ever offered, I'd be hard-pressed to name one better. Although it was sad to see it go, it went out with a bang and not a whimper. I'll never be able to listen to Badfinger's "Baby Blue" the same way again.

There will always be those who complain that everything fell into place too conveniently for Walter (Bryan Cranston) in the finale, but hell — that was the whole show! Here was a mousy high-school chemistry teacher who, after receiving a fatal cancer diagnosis, mans up to become the best damn meth cooker in the criminal underworld. And he does, taking on some really nasty gangsters in the process.

And poor Jesse (Aaron Paul)...all the terrible things that happened to him throughout the five seasons, including the deaths of not one but two girlfriends; his descent into addiction; and the co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship he carried on with Walt that careened somewhere between father-son and torturer-captive. The disintegration of his soul over the seasons was raw and palpable, earning Paul his well-deserved Emmy® Awards.

Walt's agony at the assassination of brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) was another unforgettable moment. You could really feel that he'd finally stepped completely over the edge — and there was nothing left to live for but the protection of his family — which is how it all began. I also loved his final confession to wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he didn't regret a minute of any of his criminal life because it made him feel so...alive.

Breaking will sort-of continue with Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk's sleazy lawyer, but the jury is out on that one right now.

Pam in True BloodOh, True Blood. You looked so chic and naughty just a few years ago. But how many decent seasons have you really given us? Alas, like all the vamps in Bon Temps, you've just continued to suck harder every year and we've ended up with the same watered down, bottled crap.

Despite all the battles between all the various creatures and political factions, it's really still  soap. Fairies, vamps, werewolves, shifters — yawn. The big problem is that we've lost interest in the principal characters — and are actually becoming annoyed with them. Only the sharp-toothed, smart-assed Pam (Kristin Bauer Van Straten) remains any fun.

Another show that varied between the sublime (the John Lithgow season) and the ridiculous (the Edward James Olmos season) and rose to the occasion for its finale was Dexter. Charlotte Rampling was elegantly perverse as Evelyn  Vogel, the doctor who designed Dexter's "code," with Harry (James Remar), and who gave birth to a wild-eyed, serial-killer offspring of her own, Daniel (Darri Ingolfsson).

This plotline gave Dexter (and us) the opportunity to see how he'd been created, even as he was attempting to try to assemble a family of his own with Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) and son Harrison. Of course, it couldn't possibly work. Everyone Dexter touches is corrupted...or dies. That point is made quite clear with Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), who continued to suffer for her adopted brother's sins. She killed LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) to protect him. She survived numerous attempts on her life over the years by Dexter's various targets, and finally succumbs in the finale.

The fate of up-and-coming preppy killer Zach Hamilton (Sam Underwood) was a total surprise. Just when we thought Dexter's eager young trainee was going to get a spinoff of his own, he was brutally dispatched by busy Oliver, aka the Brain Surgeon.

Viewers like me, disappointed with 2012's sluggish season of Boardwalk Empire, were rewarded with a rip-roaring 2013. Featuring lots of well-choreographed twists and some outrageously violent fights and killings, it introduced some fun new characters, including Patricia Arquette as Sally Wheet, a hardassed Florida speakeasy proprieter for whom Nucky (Steve Buscemi) seems to be developing feelings.

There's also Jeffrey Wright's sinister Dr. Narcisse making life miserable for Chalky (Michael K. Williams). And we said goodbye for now to troubled Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), in jail for murder. And poor Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the  wounded soldier-turned-assassin we developed a strange sympathy for, finally found peace, dying alone under the boardwalk after a botched attempt to kill Narcisse.

With many of the characters' lives in flux and some power roles exchanged, the show has set itself up for a nice Season Five.

Speaking of crime, the limited TNT series Mob City proved to be a lot of fun and a triumphant return for erstwhile Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont. Taking along other former Deadheads Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn,  he created an action-packed, good-looking show that plays like a big-budget feature. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, it chronicles the bloody, decades-long battle between the LAPD and mobster Mickey Cohen.

The milieu is nicely realized, all neon lights on rain-slicked streets. Nighttime shooting and digital effects helped to bring out the vintage in contemporary L.A., and smaller production equipment allowed them to shoot in classic locations like Micelli's, the narrow-aisled Hollywood landmark that would have been impossible to use just a few years ago.

And the finale featured one of the best gangster killings ever:

Turning from shootouts to sexuality, another nice surprise this year was Showtime's Masters of Sex, featuring the hard-working Michael Sheen as sex research pioneer William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, who had no formal training but lots of natural instinct.

The groundbreaking studies Masters and Johnson undertook make for pretty compelling drama. America in the postwar '50s was still pretty repressed when it came to sexuality. "Deviant lifestyles" were never spoken of; it was a wife's duty to take care of her man and certainly never have any pleasure of her own. What M&J discovered set the stage for the sexual revolution.

The versatile Sheen is great as Masters, who faces intimacy issues of his own, and Caplan is wonderful as the resourceful Johnson, who's got a streak of humanity a mile wide and comes complete with her own strong sense of sexuality.

The ancillary characters in the show are also good. Allison Janney is solid as Margaret, the wife of Washington University provost Barton Scully. She has never experienced a climax of her own and can't pinpoint why their marriage is unfulfilling — until she discovers the truth about her husband (an equally fine Beau Bridges). Then there's Bill's wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who wants nothing more than to have a child, even though her husband is basically sterile. Throw in young turk Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto), who starts as Bill's student but becomes his rival, and you've got a plotline that could descend into soapiness in the wrong hands, but creator Michelle Ashford and team keep it honest and poignant.

Among other ongoing series, The Walking Dead really lived up to its name last year with the first half of Season Four shambling along without really going anywhere. The producers promise some real shocks coming in the second half, so I'll wait for its February return. Happily, we don't have as long to wait for Shameless and Episodes, coming up in just a couple of weeks. Also of interest is True Detective, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and Looking, with Jonathan Groff, coming up January 19th.

But no more Borgias? Say it ain't so!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis! You picked all my favorites, while accurately skewering the disappointments. I agree that the only quality shows are on cable.


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