Saturday, December 17, 2011
Guess what I forgot to do last year. I was probably too busy watching "The Suitcase" on a loop to go ahead and confirm your suspicions that I kinda sorta like that show about drunk guys hoisting themselves into history's dumpster. Lucky for absolutely no one, I've been ranking things like crazy lately, so before we reveal the AV Club's best TV of 2011 (along with my ballot, which I'll update and defend here) this week, I'll serve up this very hinty appetizer, the best television of 2010.
Best is such an ugly word, but I've gone ahead and ranked them anyway, less out of confidence than carefreeness. It's just a list some guy wrote. He probably hasn't even seen your favorite show (you're right if it's Fringe, Men of a Certain Age, Parenthood, The Vampire Diaries, The Simpsons, Futurama, or Dance Moms). First up are my honorable mentions, whose rankings are more approximate than the top ten. I mean, you could stand Danny Boyle and David O. Russell back to back and never know who's taller. But don't worry. These are all way better than 127 Hours and The Fighter.
20. The Sarah Silverman Program
At least it went out on a high note with the series finale taking Sarah's spry idiocy into the realm of Holocaust enthusiasm, the most incisive description of that industry since Kate Winslet satirized Future Kate Winslet on Extras. The program followed its childlike heroine blithely into hermaphroditism, retardation, domestic abuse, pedophilia, and even jam bands in a Candyland-colored season 3, achieving a singular last-stand consistency in both shit-yourself-funny and taboo-gawking-integrity.
19. In Treatment
Now we'll never get to find out why laughter is the worst medicine. I have been railing against seriousness in cinema for at least a few months now—this despite loving Bela Tarr like an old prof—but In Treatment is such a thorough stage piece you're riveted by the sheer humanity even when it gets a little far-fetched (just look at Irrfan Khan's stormy immigration story). But despite Amy Ryan's blank slate and Debra Winger's has-been, it was Dane DeHaan's adopted teen who captured my sympathies like a good soap, the latest—and last—of the kids who brought out the best in both Gabriel Byrne's Dr. Paul and the most cathartic portrait of people trying to cope with the 21st century since Alicia Florrick discovered the blue screen of death.
18. The Good Wife
Speaking of whom, The Good Wife is the first of a few series on this list that peaked in the second half of Season 1 and first half of Season 2. When everything about the style is equally fine, from Julianna Margulies' anchor performance to the glossy two-shots that define a network drama, distinction comes from The Good Wife's tenacity, the pit bull way it sinks its teeth into the shortcomings of what we call justice (as in the military court episode or the death row case). It hooked you with its freight train soap in the first two thirds of Season 2 (with the election, corporate intrigue, and Alicia's inner life screwing an unsustainably tense guitar string) but the biggest insight—and thrill—of The Good Wife is its portrait of a universe with zero privacy.
17. Bored to Death
Slacker noir makes for great comfort food, or perhaps munchie food considering Bored to Death, which found its voice in Season 2 as a kind of light, physical Paul Auster. Ted Danson naturally mined powerful pathos from the screwy hand his magazine editor was dealt, but the joy is in how Danson, Jason Schwartzman, and Zach Galifianakis bounce their witty, literate dialogue off each other, whether on detective cases or just hanging out, in their wacky, loving Brooklyn short stories.
16. Better Off Ted
Victor Fresco's latest brilliant-but-canceled is this satirical assault on a world governed by runaway corporations couched in goofy hijinks and weird charm. Andrea Anders' drone Linda received backbone reassignment surgery or something and stole the back half of Season 2, not coincidentally around the time she started having stories with Portia de Rossi's breakout Veronica. But everyone was the machine Veridian Dynamics required, and the show had even been slowly developing more background players right through to the gallows.
15. Party Down
I recently read a piece about the stasis of American culture over the past two decades, but if you haven't noticed the reaction against the fearful '90s distancing trifecta of irony, not caring and slackerdom, you haven't been paying attention to the sincere striving going on in pop culture. With a toned down Ken Marino and parallel arcs for each of its fame-chasing cater-waiters, Party Down had a nearly faultless sophomore season peaking in the breathless "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday" and a positively rejuvenating final scene.
Inconsistent, feckless, and most aggravatingly trying to have it both ways with an irony/sincerity dichotomy that must define a new quantum state, Community is the best show I don't get. Part structuralism run amuck, part joke machine, part satire, sometimes the most resonant show on television, occasionally the funniest, often developing a nice flop sweat tap-dancing for mommy. But my favorite year in the show's life so far is the back half of Season 1 and the front half of Season 2, despite excluding my favorite episode and including a fair amount of pointless nonsense (though what comedy doesn't dip here and there?), because I see the growth, the purpose, the developing worldview and personality of a show that could go Goodfellas over chicken fingers and still have a searingly wistful birthday party. That's the strongest argument I can make for Community, which seems just right.
13. Cougar Town
Hangout comedy extraordinaire, Cougar Town earned the Scrubs torch of sentimental situation comedy in the back half of Season 1 and beginning of Season 2 with the abandonment of a funnier-than-it-gets-credit-for opening arc. Sure, there's something of a backbone, the relationships (not to say romances but friendships and coworkers and marriages and parents) constantly being stressed and strengthened, but really Cougar Town is about accepting your weirdness. It's the best coming-of-age drama on television.
12. United States of Tara
Time travel and/or hindsight affords me this rare opportunity to say United States of Tara never got better than its second season, which found room for everyone in her family to explore their own identities, not least Toni Collette's brilliant Tara, dealing with her multiple personalities and the collective identity of being the crazy woman in the house down the street. It's impossible to single anyone in the cast out, including supporting players Patton Oswalt and Michael Hitchcock, but Keir Gilchrist was peerless in 2010 and Rosemarie DeWitt once again showed why she should be in everything.
11. 30 Rock
Television's reigning media commentary had a love-hate Season 4 that finally had me acquiescing to the haters, and I'm the guy that still likes Glee. Even that season, though, delivered Michael Sheen's uniquely annoying Wesley Snipes, Jan Hooks' outsized stage mom, James Franco's pillow-loving self-portrait, and wordplay for days. And come on: killing off Rip Torn after his publicized crazy is pretty hilarious. But right from the start Season 5 aimed to right the ship with pointed course corrections (less romance, more writers room, more media satire, and a sequence of episodes just to rehabilitate a Liz Lemon grown sour and unbelievably frumpy) that would tie all the funny back onto its lattice. It took Jack Donaghy reaganing to do it, but I'm happy to have the old Liz Lemon back.
And now, empirically studied and ranked against each other in a lab, I present my:
Top 10 TV Series of 2010
10. The Middle
Modern Family has no business calling itself that as long as The Middle is on the air, but then, Modern Family holds a lot of titles its relentless mediocrity undercuts. The Middle isn't as snappy or glossy, but what it lacks in money, it makes up for in rich, funny characterization, expressionistic visual style, and the unmistakable tension of a harried, paycheck-to-paycheck existence. The show finally cohered in "Valentines Day" (in which Sons and Daughters standout Eden Sher became one of the great modern television actresses) and ever since it's been a joyous surprise to see just how deep this broad, surfacey comedy can get. No show on television feels more like it's an accident away from losing what little it already has. Sorry, Hung. This is the face of the Great Recession.
9. Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights is always such a pain on these lists, because it's the only cable-style drama that airs right through the winter holidays, which means this spot is on the basis of six episodes from Season 4 and seven from Season 5. Lucky for the show, that run includes Becky's abortion, the Riggins' breakup, and the quietest of the show's masterpieces, "Thanksgiving," which unites all the Dillonites under various roofs so they can make even more obvious the cascading compassion that emanates forth from Connie Britton's Tami Taylor and flows through her community. Season 5 has its troubles, but the showcase for Stacey Oristano's ever-present flibbertigibbet alone sets it apart as Mindy Riggins of all people steps into the Tami role and lifts up her family. I've said it a hundred times, but Steinbeck would be proud.
And Whitman would be proud of Treme, once he picked his jaw up off the floor about this devil box. The show is so pluralistic it refuses to give up on even Sonny, played exactly right by Michiel Huisman. Speaking of which, the entire cast should be nomination locks, from Khandi Alexander's lioness Ladonna to Kim Dickens' beaten down chef. It's a snowball of connections and near-misses, natives and immigrants, New Orleans and its neighbors, and it builds—so subtly you don't notice the gathering winds until its too late—to an overwhelming flashback montage that confirms the excellence of this imperfect panorama.
More slacker noir, this one a shaggy street pup sticking up for the drunks and the druggies and the runaway transvestites and the kids who made mistakes. Like Veronica Mars, it's a banter-filled case-of-the-week PI series in sunny California, and like Veronica, it has a sharp edge when it comes to class. The central performances of Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James couldn't have been more lovable if they were literally puppies, and Jamie Denbo steals every scene (aka pulling a Shauna from Entourage) in her role as their lawyer. Top it off with history's greatest theme song, and it's a travesty on par with human trafficking that we don't have this on DVD.
6. Childrens Hospital
This is my Community, a quick, hilarious, experimental television omnivore with a killer ensemble and sharklike invention. Starting as a web series, Seasons 1 and 2 aired on Adult Swim in 2010, the first a delicious absurdist parody of hospital shows and the second a daring expansion that grew funnier with each new formal surprise. Halfway through came faux talkshow Newsreaders which launched the show into the big leagues by pulling back the curtain on the cast and crew of the forty year-old series with a staggering array of episode clips, from the pictured pilot to a grungy, yellower '70s episode to more recent ventures in stunt-casting and spinoff, all with the ageless faces of Megan Mullally, Rob Huebel, Erinn Hayes, and the rest. Two weeks later, Childrens Hospital mounted an extended Do the Right Thing homage in service of parodying the heat wave trope (used in earnest that season by such shows as The Chicago Code), and I never looked back.
From its opening scene, culminating in the image of Mallory Archer's reflection towering over her nearly naked son, Archer announces itself as not just a spy comedy but a sex farce with some serious psychosexual issues. That commitment to characterization only deepens the laughs as we gradually learn more about, say, Archer's paddle fetish or Cheryl/Carol/Crystal's S&M. As I've written elsewhere, H. Jon Benjamin's performance is so full that he practically climbs out of your television and gropes you. Personally, Archer is all the Arrested Development reunion I need.
Rubicon is so much more than the muted, slow-burn conspiracy thriller homage with a bad ending it got pegged as before AMC smiled and said, "Can you send The Killing in?" That conspiracy opened up so many doors that Rubicon turned into a postmodern examination of its own narrative, trying to make sense of all these pieces of storytelling while connecting the dots in-universe and delivering a weary take on American politics. The mood is as gray as the clothes and sets, and the visuals even more expressionistic, especially as the action heats up, but what's most searing about Rubicon is its exhaustion. No television drama comes closer to capturing a certain strain of America's political atmosphere, tired of feeling like we have any agency in a country that's just gonna drone strike the shit out of the Middle East whether we study up or not. Just thinking about "Wayward Sons" gives me goosebumps. In so many ways, Rubicon is the drama of the year. And just think: Rubicon told us exactly as much about who killed Rosie Larsen as The Killing.
3. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation has never been as consistent (which isn't to say as great) as it was in Season 2, juggling political satire, romantic comedy, office politics, and the long-term Ikiru story of a civil servant trying to squeeze one god-damn public good out of the world's most delightfully hellish bureaucracy. The funniest show this side of Archer, Parks is also affably topical, less confrontational than suggestive. Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope is a classic American icon, the product of optimism and hard work, picking up where Liz Lemon left off. While a fervor of extremist austerity swept certain swaths of the politically active (or at least politically lawn-chair-equipped), Parks stood—and stands—unflappably for the incalculable benefit of public services.
Show of the year if not for my mainstay marvel of multivalence Mad Men (nailed it!), Louie is exactly what staying up late is like, when anything can happen (and sometimes it does), and mood overwhelms subject, and everything is introspective. A string of vignettes revolving around a middle-aged divorced New York dad and every demographic component thereof, Louie is auteurist television at its absolute fucking pinnacle: constant creative ambition, thematic digging, genuine perspective, expressionism, batshit moments, and shocking honesty. Because the goofiness is expected from the half-hour brainchild of a comedian, what sears is the fine-tuned pathos—"Poker," "Bully," "God"—but nothing wrecks me like that gorgeous final shot. There's literally nothing else on television like Louie.
1. Mad Men
Surprise! Considering Matthew Weiner wants seven seasons, "The Suitcase" is literally the central episode of Mad Men, which makes worlds of sense. It evenly splits this colorful, freewheeling season into Don's death throes and Don's rebirth, it finally grants us mutual respect/torch-passing between Don and Peggy—good thing because I hadn't taken a breath in four years—and it finally showed us an old drunk guy trying to take a dump in an office chair. Season 4 is such a liberation, not least because of the glass cubicles and color blocking, the ever-increasing vulgarity and looseness, the postmodern cannibalism of its own history and growing self-consciousness, the social era causing collisions of people from all walks of life as America and the Drapers give up on particular pretenses and try to find new ways to live honestly. And every step of the way Jon Hamm was matched by Elisabeth Moss in her best season, full of turkey stunts and bike-riding and calling bullshit on Joan. And did I mention Duck trying to take a dump in Roger's chair? Sometimes this show just gets me.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 7:43 AM