2014/15 Season

I’m getting worse and worse at actually writing stuff promptly. So my end of year wrap up comes after several of the 2015/16 shows have already started. Oh well, better late than never. I’m only talking about US shows here, I think I’m going to move the UK series so that I look at them at the end of the year. Frankly that’s pretty arbitrary but I watch so little UK television that adding it to the list just looked embarrassing. Also I’m focussing more on the returning shows as all the new things got their own little article last week.

Things I’ve watched

The Affair: S1
American Horror Story: Freak Show (S4)
The Americans: S3 (in progress)
Aquarius (in progress)
The Blacklist: S2 (half)
Criminal Minds: S10 (failed to review)
CSI: S15
Defiance: S3 (in progress)
Downton Abbey: S5
Forever: S1 (half)
Game of Thrones: S5 (half)
The Good Wife: S6
Grey’s Anatomy: S11
Jane the Virgin: S1 (review pending)
Justified: S6
Mad Men: S7 Part 2
Madam Secretary: S1 (half)
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S1
Marvel’s Agents of Shield: S2
NCIS: Los Angeles: S6 (failed to review)
The Newsroom: S3
Orange is the New Black: S3 (review pending)
Orphan Black: S3 (just starting)
Penny Dreadful: S2
Perception: S3 (failed to review)
Scandal: S4
Stalker: S1 (failed to review)
Transparent: S1
The Walking Dead: S5

So that’s 27 series, although four of them I only watched part of the season before giving up and four are still in progress. I think that’s probably about 340 episodes? It felt like I watched less television this year, but actually it’s up on last year’s count of 20 series. I think though that a lot of what I watched was just less memorable so it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched as much. 20 episodes each of Criminal Minds, NCIS LA, CSI and Scandal all add up pretty quickly, yet take up remarkably little space in my brain.

I watched six new shows to completion this year, an additional two I made it half way through and actually Orange is the New Black and Justified were both new series for me too which I binge watched from the start and then caught up to the current season. So 10 shows that appear on this year’s list but weren’t on last year’s. In the other direction there were 9 series that I watched last year which didn’t return. Five I chose not to pick up again: Castle (I just got bored with it), The Big Bang Theory (I just missed the start and never felt like catching up), The Following (just too ridiculous), Extant (I don’t think I even got through the whole first season) and The Lost Ship (couldn’t be bothered) . Two I haven’t got round to yet: House of Cards: S3 (it’s in my new Netflix queue) and The Night Shift: S2 (still no UK distributer). Almost Human was cancelled and Fargo didn’t broadcast any new episodes.

The more I think about the list of shows I’ve watched, the more underwhelmed I am with the year. Did I miss something? Have I watched so much TV that I’ve over-dosed and its lost its appeal? I just don’t think anything this year was outstanding. Even the shows that I list below for plaudits are mostly ongoing series that have just continued doing what they do, well. Where were the paradigm shifts? The big evolutions? The watercooler moments? It just feels like a very flat year.

Best Shows
Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardOrange is the New Black was a show that I’d wanted to watch from the get-go, but couldn’t justify the Netflix cost for. I finally caught up on the first season on dvd and then binged the second and third over a week or so when I finally gave in and signed up to Netflix. The lightness of the humour and the positivity of the relationships is starkly contrasted with the bleakness of the characters’ situations. The acting and writing is wonderful, the slow reveals of characters’ pasts through flashbacks is particularly clever and the whole thing is fresh, original and utterly compelling.

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified was a great discovery for me, which I should thank Sky Boxsets for. I caught up with the first five seasons in just a few weeks and then got to watch the final season as it broadcast. I loved the whole series, but was particularly impressed that rather than fade away, the final season was actually one of the best. It focussed back on the main trio of characters and played out the uncertainty of “good”, “bad” and “somewehre in between” to the very end. A masterclass in how to close out a series.

americansThe Americans has been slow to reach the UK so I’m only about half way through, but it continues to be absolutely fascinating. The focus is alwasys on the emotional impact of the secrets and lies all the characters have to tell, which is good for me because I often struggle to remember the details of the various conspiracies and am far more interested in watching the phenomenal Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell acting. I feel a bit of a cheat putting something on here that’s only half way through, but it seems unlikely it will take a nosedive now!

Honourable mention: Defiance got off to a surprisingly brutal but very interesting start. There’s so little science fiction on television outside the super-hero genre that it’s a huge relief that this one doesn’t suck.

Favourite Shows
greys anatomyGrey’s Anatomy – only 4 of the original cast are left by the end of season 11. Each time someone leaves I think the show will struggle without them, that their gap will be unfillable, but each time the characters and relationships mature and evolve, not to replace the missing person, but to grow around the gap and evolve the show into something new. I love how the characters have grown, how the relationships mature and how nothing in the past is forgotten, but all makes a part of the present. Yes, it’s a daft soap opera with unbelievable stuff happening, but if you accept that key premise, everything else makes perfect sense. It’s like a comfortable blanket at the end of the day.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoMarvel’s Agent Carter – while Agents of SHIELD did improve this year it’s still got a lot of problems and the pressure of being a headline show for both ABC and Marvel isn’t helping it. Agent Carter however didn’t have any of the pressure or any of the problems and quietly came along with a phenomenal central cahracter and hugely entertaining story.

Honourable mention: Jane the Virgin was a breath of fresh, if extremely cheesy, air.

Same old, same old (in a mostly good way)
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead – The relentless pace of The Walking Dead never stops (ironic, given the increasingly shambling nature of the zombies). In the space of twenty odd episodes an incredible amount happened and it’s only through the efficiency of the writing and the talent of the actors that all the characters manage to develop and every nuance is clear. I do wish that we could catch our breath a little, and that the characters could actually find some brief respite and happiness, but I guess that wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.

pennydreadfulPenny Dreadful continues to be an under-watched and under-appreciated gem. The period detail is stunning and the interweaving of various literary characters is fascinating. It’s definitely a show that benefits from watching in chunks though as it is quite easy to lose track of the many different threads.

Mostly honourable mention: Orphan Black has got off to a strong start to season 3 (I’m about 3 episodes in) but its storyline is becoming more convoluted and I hope it’s not going to get lost.

Same old, same old (in a middling way)
CriminalMindsCriminal Minds – I didn’t even bother to review Criminal Minds this year because I honestly have nothing to say and very little recollection of what happened. I mean, I guess it’s safe and familiar (as much as that’s weird to say about a graphically brutal series about serial killers) and it’s not that I want it to be cancelled or dramatically changed, but 10 seasons later it needs some energy.

csiCSI – the final season trundled along much as the last half dozen or so had gone. Unremarkable stories, increasingly losing touch with the actual science and credibility that the show was founded on. Mind you (spoiler alert) having just yesterday watched the final feature length episode, the last season comparatively the creative highpoint of the show.

Middlingly honourable mention: NCIS: Los Angeles continues to have fun with its characters but struggle when it comes to memorable and engaging plots.

Same old, same old (in a bad way)
scandalScandal – oh good lord. It just keeps getting stupider and stupider. The core relationships are all stunningly unhealthy and I endlessly wonder why any of them (friends, colleagues or lovers) stay together when they’re clearly all phenomenally bad for each other and in fact the rest of humanity. I think I might be done.

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones – I’ve finally given up. There’s way too many characters that I really don’t care about, too many drawn out plots that aren’t going anywhere and a complete absence of any real fantasy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Dishonourable mention: not even James Spader was enough to make me stick with The Blacklist as its convoluted mess of a story left me completely confused and utterly uninterested in who was trustworthy or not.

What happened there?! (in a very bad way)
goodwifeThe Good Wife – I hate seeing The Good Wife down in this section, but the more I think about it, the more frustrated I was by this season. I’d been really looking forward to seeing what would happen with Cary and Alicia’s firm, particularly with Diane joining them… and I was cheated out of it by a ‘too fast’ change of direction that saw Alicia running for State’s Attorney. The ongoing ridiculous arguments with the old firm was just pantomime and Cary’s legal problems were just contrived and frustrating. There’s still a lot of good about the show, but all the major storylines were miss-steps.

Emmy Awards 2015

Emmy AwardEmmy time is here again. Ordinarily I talk on and on about all the categories, but this year I can’t be bothered. So rather than waffle on and on about series that I haven’t seen, I’m just going to cover the drama categories, and then just a couple of other random comments

Mad MenOutstanding Drama Series

  • Better Call Saul: Haven’t seen
  • Downton Abbey: Downton Abbey is at least entertaining, but there are more entertaining shows out there that would never dream of being on the Emmy ballot.
  • Game of Thrones: I only made it a few episodes into the season before acknowledging that I was neither entertained nor challenged, the story was just too poor and meandering.
  • Homeland: Homeland had a great first season and then got disappointing fast, but I’ve heard it had a bit of a turnaround.
  • House of Cards: I haven’t seen the latest season and found season 2 a bit disappointing
  • Mad Men: Splitting Mad Men’s final season in two was manipulative and rude and to me just reinforced how poor the whole thing turned out to be.
  • Orange is the New Black: I’m only half way through season 2 at the moment, but it is absolutely brilliant. I’m also happy to see it in the drama list rather than the comedy where it has been nominated for other awards. I’ve no idea how anyone can consider it to be a comedy. I mean what was the funny bit, the suicide, the violence, the harassment or the rape?

By dropping Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey there’s easily enough space to add in Justified and The Americans, both are series chronically overlooked by the Emmys but ignoring Justified’s final masterclass of a season was particularly cruel. I’d also put in The Walking Dead and The Good Wife, both had seasons which were not their best (particularly The Good Wife which was downright disappointing) but are still a long way better than a lot out there. I didn’t see the seasons of Orphan Black or Sons of Anarchy but they’ve been consistently worthy of nomination in the past. I didn’t watch, but it’s a bit surprising Empire isn’t on the list.

americansLead Actor, Drama

  • Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) – not seen, no idea
  • Kyle Chandler (Bloodline) – I’ve not seen the show, but I will always love Kyle Chandler for Friday Night Lights
  • Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) – Not seen this season but he’s usually great
  • Jon Hamm (Mad Men) – I really don’t know. I can’t stand the character, the show was pretty poor and the writing mediocre, so how can I really tell what the acting was like?
  • Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) – no, sorry, but his performance was mostly just shouting Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, the acting required was minimal.
  • Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) – I watched the first episode and wasn’t inspired, but Live Schreiber was pretty good.

I haven’t seen this season’s Sons of Anarchy, but Charlie Hunnam is usually incredible and given the material I know the story was made up of, I’m sure he should be here. Dominic West in The Affair gave a very nuanced performance of the same character from two different points of view. Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead continues to do amazing work with material that other actors can only dream of, while Timothy Olyphant had dialogue to die for delivered with such originality that every second was enthralling. Matthew Rhys continues to be shamefully ignored for his performance on The Americans where he plays someone who’s playing so many different roles to different people that they’re all blurring. I didn’t watch much of the season but James Spader is never anything other than excellent in The Blacklist.

orphanblackLead Actress, Drama

  • Taraji P. Henson (Empire) – Haven’t seen
  • Claire Danes (Homeland) – a talented actress, but her character can rely too much on whining and mania rather than subtlety and talent
  • Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) – weirdly, I haven’t seen this Shonda Rhimes series
  • Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) – The fact that Tatiana Maslany finally made it onto this list is about the only thing that The Emmy’s actually did right this year. I haven’t seen the eligible season of Orphan Black, but unless she had some kind of stroke in the time since last season, she surely played all her many characters with depth and charisma.
  • Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) – a strong season on Mad Men, and while I’m not sure she got enough material to justify a Lead actress credit, her talent is in no doubt.
  • Robin Wright (House of Cards) – probably pretty good on House of Cards, although I have in the past found her character a bit flat, so it depends on the material she got.

This is a phenomenally good year for women on television because I can think of loads of other people who deserve nominations. Ellen Pompeo had an absolutely superb year on Grey’s Anatomy as Meredith found herself and lost her love. It’s a cheesy show, but Pompeo excels. Kerry Washington from Scandal could easily make the cut too. I was utterly blindsided by Hayley Atwell as the titular Agent Carter. The series could have been Agents of SHIELD-lite (even liter), instead it had this amazing woman at its heart, with strength, vulnerability, wit, and uncertainty. She totally blew me away. Similarly in a show that’s notionally about the relationship between two men, the lawman and the criminal, it turned out to be the woman in the middle that was the true heart of the series and Joelle Carter played that power and terror to perfection, while also delivering a lot of the laughs.

Then there’s Ruth Wilson from The Affair who played a conflicted and complicated woman and then played her from two points of view. Eva Green on Penny Dreadful threw herself so much into the role I was genuinely scared she’d hurt herself. Oh and the always superb Julianna Margulies from The Good Wife, not the best writing they’ve ever had, but she was amazing as usual. Oh, oh and I can’t imagine Katey Sagel in Sons of Anarchy suddenly became rubbish either. Oh and Taylor Schilling for Orange is the New Black

Game of ThronesSupporting Actor, Drama

  • Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul) – no idea
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline) – no idea
  • Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) – actually this may be the first nomination for Downton that I actually agree with, his storyline with Mrs Hughes was absolutely spot on.
  • Peter Dinklage (Game Of Thrones) – I only made it half way through Game of Thrones, but compared to last year Dinklage’s material wasn’t that incredible, it probably got better after I gave up.
  • Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) – I didn’t hink Alan Cumming had any particularly outstanding material this year, he was great as always, but there didn’t seem anything outstanding, in fact I think Matt Czuchry as Cary had a far more interesting and should’ve had this spot.
  • Michael Kelly (House Of Cards) – interesting. I’m not sure what he was like this year, but I’ve generally found his role focussed too much on creepiness and lacked any real subtelty.

People that are missing, Joshua Jackson was pretty good in the Affair, like the other cast getting to play two different takes on the same character, which is even more interesting when he isn’t one of the ‘narrators’ and hence both versions are in fact opinion and the self-view is never shown. Walton Goggins for Justified (although he could make an argument for joint lead). I heard good things about Mandy Patinkin finally getting some decent material to work with on Homeland

goodwifeSupporting Actress, Drama

  • Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) – her storyline wasn’t as good this year as it was last and she was just too irrititaing.
  • Lena Headey (Game Of Thrones) – I didn’t get far enough into the season of Game of Thrones to see Lena Headey’s big storyline develop, but by all accounts she was phenonmenal,
  • Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones) – she’s always good, but I don’t think she’s especially outstanding and I think of the two Headey’s got the edge.
  • Christine Baranski (The Good Wife) – excellent as always, but she was a bit in the background this year
  • Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) – great as always, a good case could be made that it’s her and Elizabeth Olson that are the only redeeming things in Mad Men’s final years.
  • Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black) – I’m not sure that playing crazy like this is necessarily the most impressive achievement. There are so many great performances in that cast I think I’d probably go for Kate Mulgrew but I haven’t quite seen the full season.

I’m a bit less overloaded with other candidates for this list. Bellamy Young on Scandal continues to play every facet of the ridiculous Mellie with originality. . Melissa McBride on The Walking Dead had a great year with some wide ranging material.

transparentComedy

  • Outstanding Comedy Series. The only comedy I actually watched was Jane the Virgin and that was absolutely ridiculously ovrerlooked in the nominations, although even if it was nominated the winner should still be the beautiful and surprisingly funny Transparent.
  • Lead Actress: Seriously Gina Rodriguez was incredible, she won the Golden Globe and she’s not even nominated? This year’s evidence that the Emmy nominators are dumb.
  • Lead Actor: Jeffrey Tambor is surely a safe bet for this. I wasn’t expecting how hilarious he was going to be, both with dialogue and the physical comedy.

Oh, hilariously there’s a nomination for Jane the Virgin under Narration, which is wonderful because Anthony Mendez absolutely makes the show with his sarcastic voiceover.

honourablewomanLimited Series or Movie:
I bet Olive Kitteridge wins I couldn’t make it through the first ten minutes it was so painful. The only thing worse would be American Horror Story winning for its entertaining, but far from incredible Freak Show season. I’d be pretty happy with the great Honourable Woman winning, or with Wolf Hall winning even though I didn’t make it more than 10 minutes into that either.
Maggie Gyllenhaal played such an interesting character in The Honourable Woman, completely selling the cold, calm exterior being just a presentation to the world. Extraordinarily good acting. I guess the point of American Horror is for over the top performances and Jessica Lange (lead) and Kathy Bates (supporting) chewed their way through some terrible material with some terrible accents. Sarah Paulson (supportin) however was really rather good playing the conjoined twins.
Television Movie: I’m sorry but Grace of Monaco is nominated here? How bad was the rest of the list because Grace of Monaco is a terrible terrible film!

2013-14 – Season Review

2013_2014Another television year is over. Or at least it is if you take the American-centric view of things which I tend to fall into, whereby the new season starts in mid September with the big pilot presentations. In the UK it’s a bit less marked, but there seems to be at least an element of September being a starting point for some new series, so I’m bundling everything together.

American Series
Almost Human S1
American Horror Story: Coven (S3)
Castle S6
Criminal Minds S9
CSI S14 (in progress)
Extant S1 (in progress)
Fargo S1
Game of Thrones S4
Grey’s Anatomy S10
House of Cards S2
Mad Men S7 Part 1
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD S1
NCIS Los Angeles S5
Orphan Black S2
Penny Dreadful S1
Scandal S3 (in progress)
The Americans S2
The Big Bang Theory S7
The Blacklist S1
The Following S2
The Good Wife S5
The Lost Ship S1 (in progress)
The Night Shift S1 (review coming soon)
The Walking Dead S4
British Series
Downton Abbey S4
Happy Valley S1
Last Tango in Halifax S2
Outnumbered S5
The Crimson Field (not reviewed)
The Honourable Woman
The Musketeers S1
The Smoke S1

Short series
Death Comes to Pemberley
Dr Who
Sherlock S3
Suspects (seems to air a couple of episodes every now and then, which is my excuse for not having reviewed it)
The 7:39

International Series
The Bridge S2
Borgen S3

Intended to watch but not got to/aired yet – Utopia S2, Chicago Fire S2 and Defiance S2. I’m also a bit behind on Perception and Nurse Jackie.

Purely by the numbers, I have watched a lot less television this year. By my count I’ve watched 20 full series of American shows (with four others in progress), 8 UK shows, 2 Scandinavian ones and about half a dozen micro-series (shows of 3 or 4 episodes – e.g. Dr Who this year, Sherlock). This year’s list looks very different to last year’s. For a start it’s considerably shorter, last year I watched 46 series (31 American, 10 UK, 3 international and 2 short series). But there’s also been a big turnover in what I watched.

I added 13 brand new shows, and three others which hadn’t aired or I didn’t watch in 2012-13. But then there were 13 series from last year which didn’t return this year, and another 9 that did air, but I chose not to watch The rest of the difference is made up of a few shows that I haven’t got to yet, or didn’t air significant numbers of episodes I that timeframe.

Best shows
orphanblackThe Good Wife – The consistently outstanding quality puts It a step above any other series on network television, and the fact that it makes more than 20 episodes per year marks its achievement as superior to anything on cable television. For the incredible writers and amazing cast to ‘churn’ out such entertaining and interesting stories and characters, it really shows up the rest of the television community. The series keeps growing and changing, never getting lazy or cheap and it is easily my favourite show of the year.

Happy Valley – a near perfect piece of television that blended serious and difficult stories with just enough humanity and humour to make it bearable. I’m not sure how I feel about there being a second series mind you, this one will be hard to top without losing the sense of reality.

Orphan Black is a fascinating series, that really should have been on my ist last year as well, but I was just slightly too slow watching it. Season 2 just got better and better, with a complex plot that never got too bogged down. The way the completely different personalities of the clones and their friends and families all came together was fascinating and it never lost sight of the ridiculousness of the idea, with plenty of humour along the way.

Honourable mentions: House of Cards was a harder watch in many ways this year, but was completely gripping from start to finish. The Honourable Woman was equally gripping, although I don’t think it quite lived up to its early potential. The Americans changed its tack a little, getting rather more serious and rather less wiggy and handled it very well; although I do miss the fun spy stuff.

Favourite shows
SherlockI’m going to put Sherlock on this list, although I hesitate to describe 3 TV movies as a ‘series’. But still, my pure delight while watching Cumberbatch and Freeman deliver Moffat’s dialogue in the beautifully directed style is unsurpassed. The series isn’t in the Best category because I did think it was a little flabby in places, and playing to the fans a little too much on a purely technical level, but as a fan, I couldn’t have loved it more.

The Walking Dead tends to swap back and forth between the ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ slots, and I’ll be honest that’s because I use it to create space in whichever category needs it. There’s a huge amount happening in this season, and yet there’s also masses of time given to the characters, and the second half the season when they’re split up into often unusual groups was particularly interesting. It never ceases to impress and thrill me that a zombie apocalypse show can be one of the most fascinating and beautiful shows on television.

I’m going to put Fargo in the ‘favourite’ category too. I think most of the quality of it actually came from the Coen brother’s film, but what the television series did was flesh it out with a really charming and engaging cast and some additional twists and turns that ultimately felt like a large diversion (the whole Oliver Platt storyline) but were entertaining enough on the way.

There are other shows that I enjoyed watching (obviously, I’m not such a masochist as to watch all of them just for the sake of completing a review), but to be honest, nothing else reached the level of “must watch” that I got from those series. If I were going to list a few honourable mentions – Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, NCIS LA and The Blacklist would appear somewhere. Oh, and Game of Thrones actually felt much improved to me and (with the exception of the last couple of episodes) I rather enjoyed the season.

Acting
goodwifeIf I think about the most impactful performances this year, the most interesting and dynamic characters, I think my top five would all be women. Maybe even top ten. Shows like The Good Wife (Julianna Margulies), The Honourable Woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Happy Valley (Sarah Lancashire), Borgen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany) and Scandal (Kerry Washington) have painfully real women in the lead. Even many of the ensemble shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Fargo, The Americans, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Smoke) the female roles have amazing depth and complexity. Shows like Castle and House of Cards may appear on paper to be a male lead, but their female partners are just as vital and vibrant.

Comparably, I’m not sure the guys are having such a strong time at the moment (I know, cry me river). There are clearly some actors having a lot of fun (James Spader in The Blacklist jumping to mind), but really meaty roles and performances seem to be more limited when it comes to the long form. to the shorter series – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Idris Elba in Luther to name a few.

One of the things that Emmy doesn’t award of course is ensemble. The Screen Actors Guild do (this year the nominees were Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Homeland with Breaking Bad taking the win). The key thing to me in a strong ensemble is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. There isn’t a single person (regular, recurring or guest) on The Good Wife that doesn’t deserve some sort of award, and yet they get even better when they’re bouncing off each other. There is no combination of characters on The Walking Dead or Grey’s Anatomy that isn’t interesting to watch with personalities subtly shifting to reflect different balances and backgrounds.

British Shows
happy_valleyAnother strong year for British shows, although I am (oddly) far more selective about the British stuff that I watch and hence have a much smaller pool for comparison. Again, the majority of these programs are driven by phenomenal female performances. They’ve also had a pretty good range, from very ‘traditional’ hard hitting dramas like Honourable Woman and Happy Valley, to more creative storytelling methods such as Suspects‘ use of documentary style, or just more fun stories such as The Musketeers and The Smoke. The miniseries model many of these shows use (or micro-series when it comes to things like Sherlock or Death Comes to Pemberley) give a high impact and very tightly constructed format that often left me wanting more.

Same old same old
castleWhile the shows I mention above have grown or refreshed themselves, there are other shows that just continue doing the same old thing, season after season. They form a sort of backbone to my television watching, they’re safe and secure and nothing alarming is going to happen. Even when Grey’s Anatomy throws giant disasters at their sweeps episodes and shuffles major cast members, it still somehow feels comfortable and familiar. Low stress. So when CSI season 14 is just like season 12, or Criminal Minds season 9 is just like season 8, I try to be content with that. It makes for boring reviewing, but comfortable watching. And at the end of the day, I’m not confident that the writers could shake things up without actually destroying the core of what I enjoyed about the show in the first place.

But those shows will always be at risk of getting bumped for something just slightly more interesting. Particularly given that many of them are deteriorating into “things to watch while I do something else” series. They’re disposable, not worth paying that much attention to. But there’s a limit to the amount of time I spend ironing and cooking and some shows run the risk of falling off into the next section of “things I just can’t be bothered with”. The Following is in the danger zone at the moment, and much as it pains me to say it, so is Castle which had an utterly tedious season of wedding planning.

Things I just couldn’t face
Supernatural - Season 5Then there were nine that I just didn’t want to watch. Nashville and Once Upon a Time were both fun, but I just didn’t feel like watching them this year. Hannibal had a short season so I stuck it out last year, but couldn’t be bothered this year. Homeland lost me and a lot of people this season, for me it was the moment that Saul, up to now the voice of calm and reason, shouted at a woman for wearing a veil because he was unable to separate extremism from religion. I dropped both Blue Bloods and Bones (after 8 seasons!) because I got fed up with the lack of growth and development, particularly frustrating in Bones where characters would just loop endlessly in circles. House of Lies I gave up on because everyone was so unremittingly nasty. Young Doctor’s Notebook and Warehouse 13 just kind of fell through the gaps. Hardest of all, I’ve stopped watching Supernatural because I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the endless misery and trauma that befell characters that I loved.

Easy access
Game of ThronesI think it’s easy to forget sometimes how lucky we are these days to be able to watch American shows so quickly. High profile shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead air within just hours of the US, and many shows air within a few weeks (often they start a long way behind but run through without interruption so by the end of the year everything’s caught up). A few years ago I had to write most of my reviews based on somewhat dodgy sources of the episodes, but now I can generally just wait a short while before being in synch with the US.

It’s also phenomenally easy to watch television however you want to watch it. Whether it’s live broadcast, via DVR, catchup service or streaming distribution on Amazon or Netflix (or, yes, various questionably legal sources too). I watched Extant on Amazon Streaming Video which I get for just a fiver a month (formally Lovefilm), I watched House of Cards on dvd, I’m catching up on Perception using Sky’s boxset service, and have Utopia stacked up on my Sky+. I can get the Sky Never Miss system to email me when new seasons of my favourite shows are starting and set them to record from my phone. It’s all SO easy!

But that does mean that when things aren’t available it feels like the end of the world. If the UK distributor decides against picking up a series you can be left in limbo. Once Upon a Time and Supernatural both lost their UK broadcasters and haven’t aired this year. Many of the new series never made it to the uk (although that wasn’t always the end of the world). Still it is hilarious when the Americans grumble about having to wait for Downton Abbey.

Overall
It’s taken me a long time to write this round-up, because quite frankly I couldn’t get very excited about it. I wasn’t overwhelmed with things I wanted to sing the praises of, or even things that I wanted to moan about (although I’d suggest going and having another look at my Mad Men review if you’re after that). The whole year just felt a bit… meh. Several of the more exciting shows (for better or worse) didn’t return this year, the established shows are just ticking along and there really didn’t seem to be anything particularly outstanding coming along to replace them. It wasn’t a terrible year by any means, but it certainly wasn’t an outstanding one.

Game of Thrones: Season 4

Game of ThronesI’m not sure whether it was lowered expectations or a genuine improvement, but for the most part I enjoyed this season of Game of Thrones a lot more than the previous couple. It felt like there was a higher proportion of time spent on the more interesting storylines, a greater focus on the more rounded characters and a more even distribution of action, comedy and intrigue.

It’s hard to make generalised statements about the show because each thread has different pace and quality, but I really can’t be bothered to write a 17 page essay looking at each one individually. Broadly though, it felt like many of the characters were actually maturing and developing, reaching milestones that were significant enough to move things along to a new phase. It’s not that there haven’t been major steps before, but often those just meant the complete ending of a thread (Ned Stark, Rob Stark, Khal Drogo). This season characters have made commitments in a more non-suicidal way, so we can look forward to seeing the fallout of that for them, and those around them .

Many of the characters, when faced with these challenges have been forced out of their whininess and into action and it very much suits them. Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, Jon, Daenerys, Jamie, Bran and even Circe have been forced to commit themselves and their spirit has made them considerably more interesting to watch. They all feel like they’re a bit more involved with the bigger picture and what is right for their families and those who follow them, not just selfishly pursuing power. This helped bring the dispirate threads together more, although the near misses between characters was still epically frustrating.

I’m less fond of the more ‘wibbly’ storylines and anything that involves mystical wifflings. I still have no understanding or interest in whatever Stannis and the red haired witchy woman are on about, and Bran and his visions of trees also sort of pass me by. Splitting the difference are the stories around Jon Snow, the dispute with the wildlings around the wall is interesting, but the stuff about the White Walkers just went straight past me and I couldn’t help but giggle every time zombies appeared. Those three storylines also felt very far removed from all the other stories, in both tone and location.

After a relatively successful season, I was rather frustrated by the final two episodes. The penultimate episode focussed exclusively on one story and sadly it was one of the ones I wasn’t fussed about and then even worse it was really just one extended battle scene. It was well directed etc, but I just didn’t care. The last episode also left me rather cold, I’m not sure whether it was just the particular stories it focussed on, but rather than feel excited for the next season, I actually felt like this could be a good point to stop watching. It felt like decisions had been made (which was satisfying) but I don’t feel any enthusiasm for seeing how it works out.

I still tend to have to either pause or store up questions to ask my housemates questions about the details (they’ve read the books and I haven’t) because the finer details are passing me by. Words that are said with clear significance by characters I have to follow up on, particularly frustrating when it’s some of the last scenes of the season and clearly I’ve missed something huge. I don’t *think* it’s me being stupid, and I’m sure there are more elegant ways of reminding people of significant previous events. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Petyr (Littlefinger) Baelish’s extremely annoying and near spontaneous development of a thick Irish accent which completely threw me every scene he was in.

I always feel out of step on Game of Thrones. I just don’t agree that it’s the amazing piece of television that critics and the mass populace seem to think it is. There are some outstanding performances and the production values are certainly incredible, but in terms of story and structure it’s a meandering mess. There are better fantasy books and writers out there, better multi-thread series, and better grown up series using the violence and sex that’s allowed on cable to better effect. Game of Thrones is ok enough, and I’m glad there is a fantasy series with this much money being spent, but it could be so much better if it had used better source material.

Game of Thrones: Season 3

Game of ThronesLots of my reviews at the moment seem to be variations on a theme of “just read the previous season(s) review because nothing’s really changed”. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that, after all for the most series the writers, producers and directors don’t change much, so why should the show they make Yet over and over I’m saddened that my criticisms of previous years haven’t been heeded and the same mistakes are being made over and over again.

So, yes, Game of Thrones season 3, much like season 2 but a little bit worse. Or maybe not worse, maybe I’m just a bit more tired by it. As I worked out last year, with the number of storylines and characters, there’s only about 2 or 3 scenes for each thread every other episode, and the number of threads I care about is steadily decreasing. In fact I’d probably be pretty happy if they got rid of all the storylines except Daenerys and her dragons raising an army over the sea and Tyrion and the assorted goings-on at King’s Landing. Those two stories could cheerfully carry the series, and every time we were taken away from them I found myself irritated and bored.

What works with both those stories was that they actually had all the elements necessary for good television – a blend of politics, drama, personal troubles, character development and humour. They are fun to watch, interesting to analyse and have characters that evoke emotional responses, whether sympathy for Sansa, revulsion at Joffrey, pride at Daenerys or pure entertainment from Bronn. Tyrian is still my favourite by far, managing to elicit all those emotions and more; leaving me laughing at his wit, sighing at his misfortune and intrigued by his plotting pretty much every scene. Somewhat surprisingly I found myself having a similar response to Jaime Lannister, whose storyline with Brienne has really opened up his character and given the actor a chance to flourish.

Outside of that though there’s an awful lot of sludge. The Stark children (legitimate and otherwise) are spread across the lands on a variety of quests. Particularly frustrating for characters and audience alike were the series of near misses as they came within spitting distance of emotional and satisfying reunions and yet missed each other every time. Instead they’d just find another in a long line of oddly poetically named grey haired men with giant chips on their shoulders. The only thing more boring was the plot with Stannis and the witch character. Oh and pretty much anything set North of the wall.

As for the much talked about surprises of the season (don’t worry I’ll stay spoiler free) I’m sorry to say that I just didn’t get the emotional punch. Maybe because I was spoiled, maybe because I was pretty bored of the plots and characters by that point, or maybe because I thought the special effects were so hilariously bad, and the smash cut to black afterwards so cheesy, that I was laughing too hard to be sad.

I think part of the problem I have with Game of Thrones is that most of the characters are so stupid, or at least so focussed on just a single goal, that they don’t realise just how catastrophically self-destructive their actions are in the long run. It seems wrong that someone like Tywin Lannister, supposedly such a good strategist, can’t see how his actions towards his own family, the Starks and, well, everyone in existence, are only going to lead to bucket loads more trouble in the future. Meanwhile the ‘things’ north of the wall and Daenerys grow in strength and I for one just want them to GET ON WITH IT. I don’t know (and don’t want to know) how many books we have to get through before the looming threats stop looming, but it can’t come soon enough for me.

Yet again though, after a poor review, I still have to admit that I’ll be tuning in for next season all the same. Tyrian and Daenerys really are enough to get me to watch and the genre is still unusual enough to have some appeal. I realise that does rather undermine my strident tone, but I never really claimed to be anything other than weak willed.

2012 Emmy Thoughts

I’d originally decided not to bother commenting on the Emmy nominations, but I’ve been so addicted watching the Olympics that I’ve barely seen anything else and hence have nothing to actually write about! So here are my thoughts on some of the major categories.

Outstanding Drama Series

  • Boardwalk Empire – The pilot was gorgeous but dull, so I didn’t watch any more
  • Breaking Bad – I still haven’t got round to catching up on this
  • Downton Abbey – I enjoyed the series, but ‘Outstanding’? No.
  • Mad Men – I’m only half way through the season, and it’s fine, but not as good as it has been.
  • Homeland – had some stumbles, but overall, superb!
  • Game of Thrones – all over the place, just too much packed in meaning a lack of depth

I think Homeland will walk it, they did overlook Fringe and The Good Wife for nominations, but I think Homeland still deserves the win.

Lead Actress in a Drama

  • Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florick, The Good Wife – Yes. Just yes.
  • Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Downton Abbey – she did admirably with terrible material
  • Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Mad Men – she’s always superb, but she hasn’t had much to do in the first half of the season.
  • Kathy Bates as Harriet Korn, Harry’s Law – no idea, but it’s Kathy Bates so I suspect she’s pretty good
  • Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, Homeland – She was given some amazing material and absolutely sold it.
  • Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, Damages – Never seen it.

Of those nominees I think it will probably come down to Marguilies or Danes and I think it should and will go to Danes. Overlooked I think was Anna Torv for Fringe who played multiple versions of her character with great subtlety. Also, although I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of the season, I’d be astonished if Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff didn’t produce their usual superb performances in Sons of Anarchy.

Lead Actor in a Drama

  • Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire – Haven’t seen it, but I expect he’s very good.
  • Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, Dexter – haven’t seen this season, but he’s always great
  • Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad – I haven’t seen any of the series, but he’s won a bazillion times already
  • Hugh Bonneville as Earl Grantham, Downton Abbey – I love him, but he shouldn’t be on this list.
  • John Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men – I don’t think this season has been his strongest
  • Damian Lewis as Nick Brody for Homeland – stunning performance, he really kept me guessing all season

I hope Lewis wins and suspect he has a good chance. Other than Lewis my list would have been completely different – Hugh Laurie for a solid final season as House, Charlie Hunnam as Jax Tellar from Sons of Anarchy, and the impressive Jason Isaacs for Awake. I would also be very happy to see Matt Smith on the list for Doctor Who.

Supporting actress in a drama

  • Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, The Good Wife – I like her a lot, but I’ve never thought her quiet mystery really gave her enough of a range to show her talents
  • Anna Gunn as Skyler White, Breaking Bad – no idea
  • Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey – hilarious, but I’m not sure a well placed one liner per episode is noteworthy enough for an Emmy
  • Joanne Froggatt as Anna, Downton Abbey – suffering from mediocre writing making her character a bit unremarkable
  • Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway Harris, Mad Men – I haven’t got as far as Joan’s story in the season of Mad Men, but I’m eagerly anticipating it as she’s always wonderful
  • Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, The Good Wife – I want to be her when I grow up, she’s fantastic, landing both the drama and the comedy, often in the same sentence

I think Hendricks will walk away with this, and although I’d like Baranski to win, I won’t be that upset if it goes that way. Overlooked – I think Megan Hilty (Ivy) from Smash was rather impressive and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones did some great work too.

Supporting Actor in a drama series

  • Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad – no idea
  • Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, Breaking Bad – ditto
  • Brendan Coyle as John Bates, Downton Abbey – as with Anna above, I felt the writing for this character didn’t give enough to do to be nominated for an Emmy.
  • Jim Carter as Mr Carson, Downton Abbey – ditto. I just don’t feel any of them were “outstanding”
  • Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, Mad Men – as for Hendricks, I’ve not seen the biggest moments for Lane, but I have loved Harris’ work over the last couple of seasons of Mad Men.
  • Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones – the best thing about the series, hitting the drama and the humour throughout, without him the show was nowhere.

I’d be happy if either Harris or Dinklage won, I suspect it will go to Dinklage. John Noble from Fringe, Robert Sean Leonard of House and Josh Charles of The Good Wife would all have been extremely worthy nominees.

Outstanding Miniseries

  • Hemingway & Gellhorn which I’ve neither seen, nor actually heard of
  • Game Change – which I’ve at least heard of but not seen
  • American Horror Story – which was rather fun and original
  • Sherlock – which was superb
  • Luther – I missed this season, but enjoyed the previous one

I think American Horror Story will win, although my vote would go to Sherlock. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else that would count as a miniseries.

Acting in a Miniseries

Having seen so few miniseries, I can’t really comment much other than to say that the ones I’ve actually seen would all be tough to beat. Connie Britton as Vivien Harmon in American Horror Story for lead actress, the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock for lead actor and his costar Martin Freeman for supporting actress. Jessica Lange as Constance in American Horror Story is a sure bet for supporting actress, edging out her co-star Frances Conroy (Moira).

Game of Thrones: Season 2

It’s always good to start off a review with a disclaimer but I wanted to make clear upfront that this review is entirely of the television series. I think any work has to stand by itself, not relying on other versions to fill in gaps, or use problems in the original work as excuses for flaws. Fortunately I don’t have to trip over myself trying to separate the two, because I’ve not actually read the books, but friends who have reliably inform me that many of the problems of the series are actually authentic to the books. If you’re making an adaptation of source material in a new format, the keyword is adaptation – unless you’re just repeating every line of dialogue from the book exactly, you’re making changes and therefore you can also change the stuff that’s a bit rubbish. Maybe these ‘features’ work in a book, but they don’t translate to television and the work has to be appropriate for the media that it’s in.

So what’s my problem with Game of Thrones season 2? Too much stuff! By my rough estimate there were about a dozen story lines running through the season, with fairly minimal overlapping between them. So let’s do some maths – there are 10 episodes of an hour each, so 12 story lines will get roughly 50 minutes each. Not every thread appears in each episode, so each story thread gets about 10 minutes every other episode. That’s 2, maybe 3 scenes, and many of the story lines don’t even get that many. For the new characters and stories, there was never enough time to properly understand or care about the characters, and there was no momentum to their stories. But meanwhile for the characters that you did care about you were endlessly frustrated to only be with them in tiny flashes before being dragged away somewhere else. I spent a good chunk of each episode sounding like my grandmother – “Who’s that?, What’s he doing? Why is he doing that then?”

Some of the stories got a distinctly lacklustre showing, poor Daenerys spent the first half of the season just stuck in a desert, when all we really want to know about is her dragons. She did eventually get an interesting story to work with and a bit more time, but it was still a very long frustrating time until the dragons that had been revealed with such excitement at the end of season 1 actually got to do anything. Somehow Rob Stark, despite leading a massive war had barely anything to do, his only big storyline involved the old love-at-first-amputation trick. There were tiny scenes and characters that seemed a lot more interesting, but they never got a chance – Renly Baratheon’s weird threesome and the younger Stark boys and their advisor in Winterfell for example. I will divert from relentless criticism though to mention that I did find the development of Sanza’s character and situation surprisingly interesting and it actually had just the right amount of screentime.

Back to the criticisms – the slightly relentless stupidity and whining of character also got pretty grating. Circe drinking herself into a mope because it turns out her son is a sociopath (she hadn’t noticed?), Stannis being endlessly horrified at his own allegiance with the demented religious woman and then getting seduced by her over and over, Theon and Rob brooding about their poor lots in life, everyone obsessed with increasingly random quests, rivalries and feuds… I’m definitely on the side of the dragons burning everything down.

Plot wise there were plenty of frustrations, mostly built around my inability to keep track of who anyone was, just as I caught up they tended to get killed. There was a massive plot hole in the final episode which was just plain shoddy (where did all the soldiers go) and by the time the zombies arrived I’d just about had enough – really, zombies? That’s where we’re going? Oh and don’t get me started again on the utterly unnecessary nudity and violence.

I very nearly gave up on the season after the first couple of episodes and only one thing stopped me doing that – the absolutely superb Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. It almost feels like he’s in a completely different show to everyone else. It feels like he actually exists in, understands and impacts the world around him, while everyone else feels like a flat character in a book. He’s hilarious, he’s smart, he’s terrified… he’s actually a person! I adore him.

Fortunately the last few episodes of the season pick up the pace a bit and indeed, focus more on the story lines that Tyrion touches, so I have a warmer feeling for the season at the end than I did in the middle. Game of Thrones got through the first season based on its originality (in the sense that there’s no fantasy on TV, not that the fantasy itself is original). It got through the second season on a couple of isolated performances that rise above the writing. If it wants me to get through the third it’s going to have to do something more again, and that doesn’t mean introducing more characters, it means giving the ones they’ve got a chance to thrive.

2010-2011 – New Shows

I watched 30ish pilots this year, most of which I gave full reviews of. Last year I did 27 and this year most of the extra ones come from some random British series that I watched but didn’t pick up. Even with giving up on comedy pilots for the most part it was still a bit of a slog frankly with an awful lot of mediocrity out there.

Things I watched:

  • Blue Bloods – Frankly not very good – an interesting concept, but badly written. Just saved by the wonderful Tom Selleck
  • Downton Abbey – excellent fun, perfect for Sunday evening family viewing
  • Game of Thrones – Very entertaining and an impressive production
  • Mad Dogs – A great cast in a relatively mediocre production, thankfully very short
  • Outcasts – Entertaining, but massively flawed writing and plot holes. Not massively disappointed that it was cancelled.
  • Terriers – Charming, hilarious, interesting, entertaining and criminally cancelled
  • The Big C – hilarious and moving
  • The Walking Dead – The novelty made me watch it, but it was horribly cliché and flat

Two things jump out at me from that list. The fist thing is that genre shows get a bit of a free pass from me in that they only have to be not awful to get me to watch them. The second thing is there’s only one network show on the list, and even that one wasn’t very good. Other than that everything is either British, or on cable in the US; and they’re all short seasons. That’s not good, not good at all.

Might watch

  • Harry’s Law – the worrying preachiness of the pilot put me off, but given it survived a season, Kathy Bates might lure me back again
  • Hawaii Five-O – bright and entertaining popcorn action, I meant to watch it but I failed to catch it as it went past. I do intend to catch up though
  • Falling Skies – I enjoyed the pilot, but haven’t actually got around to watching the rest of it yet
  • Bedlam – Terrible Sky drama where Will Young was the best thing about it. I still have the last two episodes on the Sky box but haven’t quite got desperate enough to watch them.

Might’ve watched if they hadn’t been cancelled, might pick them up on dvd at some point

  • Chicago Code – OK, unremarkable, and then cancelled
  • Detroit 1-8-7 – solidly entertaining police procedural in a sea of mediocrity. Cancelled anyway
  • Hellcats – The pilot at least was entertaining in an awful Glee kind of way, it aired on MTV over here which was deeply annoying. Then it was cancelled.
  • Off the Map – It wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, but I enjoyed the pilot. It never seemed to make it to the UK at all due to its early cancellation I guess.

Not my thing

  • Being Human – not as good as the UK version, and I’m already 2 years behind on that
  • Boardwalk Empire – beautifully shot and acted and all that, but too slow
  • Exile – well acted and intriguing, I meant to watch the rest of the series but it disappeared from iplayer too fast and I wasn’t devastated
  • Nikita – felt like it was trying very hard (and maybe even succeeding) at being the next Alias, but given I never got round to watching that series I didn’t feel like committing to this one.

Just not very good

Body of Proof
Criminal Minds: Suspect Behaviour
Law & Order: Los Angeles
Lone Star
My Generation
No Ordinary Family
Outlaw
The Cape
The Event
The Shadowline
The Whole Truth
Vera

Not a great year
I just don’t think this was a very good year for new television. Looking back at last year’s freshman there are a lot of stand-outs, both critical successes like Justified, The Good Wife and Treme and ratings hits like Glee, NCIS: LA and The Vampire Diaries. There are a few direct comparisons this year (Boardwalk Empire is this year’s Treme, Hawaii Five-O this year’s NCIS:LA), but overall there’s an awful lot of mediocre going on.

Where’s the creativity? Even things that television executives hail as new and exciting aren’t really. The Walking Dead is a remake of just about every zombie film out there, Game of Thrones is a bog standard fantasy epic – Lord of the Rings for the smaller screen with less pointy ears. Next year’s most hotly anticipated show seems set to follow the trend with Terra Nova bringing Jurassic Park to the TV.

Superheroes are out – there was a flurry of superhero shows and none of them were any good. People keep trying to find the magic of the early season of Heroes and the massive success that’s being found by Marvel and DC Comics at the cinema, but no one’s managed it yet. Here’s an idea, stop pissing off Joss Whedon and get him to do one, after he’s done making millions with The Avengers that is.

Procedurals ain’t doing so well either. I enjoy procedurals but it’s been a while since a good one came along. Maybe the market is still too saturated, because even the ones that had potential and critical praise couldn’t find enough viewers to make a go of it.

Finally, they’re still all desperately trying to find the next Lost – people keep trying, but the high concept stuff just doesn’t seem to catch. High concept is something that can be explained in a sentence (“Lost: a plane crashes on island”, “Inception: you can enter and control people’s dreams”). This year’s main attempt, The Event, was a little too high concept I think “Something happens” really is a bit too high, I gave up after about four episodes – for a show called The Event – something should bloody well happen.

The 2010-2011 Season

As always my definitions of what counts for a season are a bit variable, pretty much anything that aired somewhere between the beginning of September 2010 and the end of August 2011 are fair game for this.

Blue Bloods: S1
Bones: S6
Brothers & Sisters: S5
Castle: S3
Criminal Minds: S6
CSI: S11
CSI:NY S7
Doctor Who 2011
Downton Abbey: S1
Friday Night Lights: S5
Fringe: S3
Game of Thrones – S1
Glee: S2
The Good Wife: S2
Grey’s Anatomy: S7
House: S7
Leverage: S3
Lie to Me: S3
Mad Men: S4
Merlin: S3
NCIS: S8
NCIS: Los Angeles – S2
Sons of Anarchy: S3
Stargate Universe: S2
Supernatural: S6
Terriers: S1
The Big C: S1
The Walking Dead: S1

There’s a few bits and bobs that don’t make the list – Outcasts (meh), Mad Dogs (ok), Warehouse 13 (fun but poor), Bedlam (awful), Falling Skies (still haven’t got round to finishing) more documentaries than I might expect (I remember being impressed by a lot of them but the only one I really remember is the superb Inside Nature’s Giants).

Between everything listed above and the pilots I reviewed that’s getting on for 600 episodes of television, probably about 500 hours, which given the national average is somewhere between 20 and 30 hours a week, actually is still way below ‘average’. Of course most normal people don’t watch television in the ridiculous concentrated way that I do, so I guess I shouldn’t jump up and down and declare myself well adjusted just yet.

All in all, I’ve not been massively impressed with this year. Although I found it hard to narrow down most of the categories below there were relatively few things that I’d label as outstanding. I don’t know whether this is because I’m getting increasingly hard to please in my old age or because television writers and networks are getting more willing to settle for mediocre in the tough financial times. Either way, given that several of the shows I mention below have come to an end or are looking at likely final seasons, it doesn’t bode particularly well.

Best Shows
These are the shows that are superb – with amazing writing, beautiful direction, compelling acting and thought provoking stories. The ones that the Emmy’s and Golden Globes *should* be nominating.

  • Friday Night Lights – I don’t think season 5 was the best season of the show, I never fell in love with the Lions as much as I did the original Panthers, but even with that in mind it was still one of the absolute highlights of the year and I will miss it.
    Mad Men – this show can appear very slow and dull to a casual viewer, but if you invest in it and pay attention there is such incredible depth that with a little bit of analysis and discussion you have a real sense of satisfaction fitting everything together.
  • Fringe – I rewatched a few episodes of the first season recently and who knew that the ok but unspectacular X-Files wannabe would turn out to be such a fascinating and creative story about alternate worlds literally colliding.
  • The Big C – A comedy about terminal illness, really? But it manages to combine being hilariously funny with being beautifully moving without becoming cloying or preachy. It’s one of the most uplifting things I’ve seen in a long time.
  • Stargate Universe – as far as I’m concerned season 2 was as near to my idea of perfect science fiction as is likely to be seen for a long time. It had interesting stories and ideas, but more importantly was all done with a fascinating group of characters and a lot of humour.

Favourite Shows
These are the shows that I adore. They’re the ones that I desperately wait for new episodes of, the ones that I follow on blogs, the shows that make me smile, cry, and forget that the characters aren’t actually real. Comparing these to Mad Men is like comparing apples and oil rigs, but they still deserve recognition.

  • Glee – this is far and away my favourite show of the year. It has massive consistency problems when it comes to writing and storylines, but every single episode makes me laugh, and simply hearing one of the songs on my ipod can make me forget all about my troubles and grin like a fool.
  • Grey’s Anatomy – with the exception of a questionable couple of storylines towards the end of the season Grey’s has been right back on the sort of form that got me addicted to the early seasons of the show. Even my frustrations with what I describe as poor writing choices are only because I’m so unhealthily emotionally tied to these characters.
  • Doctor Who – I’m not sure whether I’m referring to the previous season that ended at Christmas or the one that’s currently half way through (which is likely why I’m missing the season review), but it really doesn’t matter because each has been superb, somehow managing to be hugely entertaining Saturday evening family viewing, but also superb quality drama with delicate and beautiful writing. This one really could have gone in either category.
  • Terriers – This may be a partial pity vote, if it hadn’t been cancelled would I have been so passionate about it? Don’t know and never will, so it’s on this list because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • Downton Abbey – I’d been looking forward to the remake of Upstairs Downstairs and probably to the BBC’s consternation, this ITV almost-rip-off blew it out of the water. A great cast, hilarious writing and a lovely Sunday evening vibe to the whole thing made this a lovely piece of television to watch with friends and family.

Male actors

  • Tim Roth, (Cal Lightman, Lie to Me) –Roth’s performance was so entertaining and unpredictable that it took me three seasons to notice that the rest of the show around him was actually not very good at all.
  • Jared Padelecki (Sam Winchester, Supernatural) – I’m a Dean girl through and through, but even I have to acknowledge this season that Sam got the better material and Padelecki acted his way through Sam’s splintering personalities impressively.
  • Matt Smith (The Doctor, Doctor Who) – who knew that I’d start forgetting David Tennant. The energy and charm of Smith’s doctor is just infectious.
  • John Noble (Walter Bishop, Fringe) – Noble made it on to my list last for playing the wonderfully bonkers character of Walter – sometimes brilliant scientist, sometimes emotionally unstable child. Given that in addition to that performance he adds on the character of Walternate, an alternate universe version where he’s a terrifying politician, there was no way he wouldn’t make the list this year too.
  • Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – poor coach had a miserable couple of years struggling with having to chose between the lesser of two evils over and over, nothing ever seemed to quite go his way. Chandler’s understated performances just broke my heart.

Female actors
I still find myself struggling to find 5 decent nominees for this category, I hope that it’s just a coincidence of the shows I watch, but I fear that it’s representative and that’s very troubling.

  • Laura Linney (Cathy Jamison, The Big C) – I imagine this is the kind of role that actors dream of. Linney is simply phenomenal.
  • Julianna Marguiles (Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife) – I think this season of The Good Wife lost its way a little, but that doesn’t change that this continues to be a wonderfully rounded character and a lovely performance.
  • Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham, Fringe) – I’ve found her character a bit bland in previous seasons, but this season thanks to playing multiple different characters, Torv proved that it’s the character that’s bland, not the performance. The subtle differences with her alternate universe version were fascinating, and as for her performance of being possessed by Leonard Nimmoy…
  • Connie Britton (Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – like her husband, nothing ever seems to go Tami’s way, every piece of good news is balanced with a difficult decision. She’s got more stoic and resigned to this as the years have gone by, but watching her wrestle with the potential break up of her family at the end of the season felt like the world was ending.
  • Katey Segal (Gemma Teller-Morrow, Sons of Anarchy) – I very nearly put her into the group category alongside Maggie Siff’s Tara because these two women at the heart of the male oriented motorcycle club are incredible. But Segal’s performance is the more nuanced one, the balance between confidence and insecurity, cold blooded scariness and utter devotion to her family.

Casts
In cases like Tom Sellek there’s one actor holding together an otherwise mediocre group, in cases like Laura Linney, she’s clearly carrying the weight of the series and standing out from an already very good supporting team. But for these guys and gals it’s the pairings and groupings that are the standout, if I commented on one of them, I’d have to comment on them all or I’d have the guilt.

  • Grey’s Anatomy – this show has always been the gold standard of ensemble acting and character development and this season has been no different. Everyone has interesting relationships that grow and mature (if you overlook some terrible backwards steps) and all are equally capable whether dealing with melodramatic emotions, intense medical scenes or hilarious comedy.
  • NCIS LA – the season has been an exploration of what it means to be partners and each of the pairings has delivered fascinating and entertaining performances, ably supported by the centre point of Hetty, NCIS could learn a lot from its offspring.
  • Glee – although Chris Colfer is clearly my (and the writers) favourite this is a spectacularly talented bunch of kids. The movie proves that they can perform just as well live in front of thousands of people, while the tv series shows that they can also deliver even the most ridiculous of storylines compellingly. All this on a ridiculously intensive schedule, imagine what they could do with decent material and a bit of sleep.
  • Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James (Terriers) – My new favourite partnership sadly gone too soon, but I loved the easy camaraderie and open friendship of two people who came from entirely different backgrounds and ended up exactly the same.
  • Stargate Universe – it took a while, but eventually I came to love these characters and performances, right from the flamboyant ones at the front, through to the ‘supporting’ array of scientists and soldiers who could steal an entire scene with a throw away reference to Star Wars or a perfectly timed eye-roll. A dysfunctional family, just like lies at the heart of every great science fiction show.

Notable absences
Not listing Supernatural as one of my favourite shows of the year actually hurt, but it came down to a choice between it and Terriers and Supernatural was edged out just because my abiding memory of the season is one of sadness. It all just got a bit much this season for the show to be as enjoyable as before, but while it was all done really well it doesn’t quite make it into the other category of top shows because it wasn’t quite even enough to stand alongside the other shows.

Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – being a genre fan I also find it sad that I can’t comment on these more favourably, but just being about a different subject doesn’t give you a free pass, you still need to be good. Game of Thrones was good, it only narrowly missed out in the favourite category, but The Walking Dead just wasn’t good enough, yes it’s great to see zombies on television but it still needed to just be better – better writing, better characters, better acting – just better. My feelings on BBC’s Outcasts meanwhile were so confused that apparently I never even got round to writing a review of it… it tried hard, but it really wasn’t very good.

British TV – there are a few British series that I watched all the way through this year, and a few that were so short they didn’t make it to proper reviews, but generally I find that I really have to force myself to watch them. Partly it’s self-fulfilling, I watch mostly US stuff, so I mostly read US blogs etc and therefore mostly find out about US stuff. I often find out about British stuff a couple of episodes in and then never get round to catching up. iPlayer et al help, but it’s one of the areas that I’d like to watch more of this year.

Game of Thrones – Season 1

Game of Thrones really does feel like a book on screen, and not one of those slow painful “let me describe how green the forest is” affairs, but a rich and detailed world with a vast array of characters and politics barrelling along at a mile a minute. With only ten episodes in the season everything flew by, there was no time or space for filler content, the amount of plot condensed into the short space of time was more the density of a film than television. Compare it to something like Mad Men or The Good Wife and the season long arcs they have would have been covered in probably half an episode of Game of Thrones, or utterly discarded as not nearly epic enough.

For anyone familiar with this genre, there isn’t really much going on here that’s massively original – the family issues and political manoeuvring are fairly standard fair. In fact if anything made this stand out in the genre of epic fantasy, it was actually the lack of fantasy. I mentioned in my pilot review that a couple of dragon eggs and being set in a different/alternate world didn’t really feel like true fantasy to me. By the end of the season there was a little more of the magic about, and at least they followed the rule that if you see dragon eggs in the first act, by the final act they must hatch, but I kept hoping for something altogether more fantastical. Interesting ideas like the wolves who supposedly act as companions and protectors to the Stark family are horribly underused, only appearing on screen when they are convenient to the plot.

Character development is a bit like that too. The problem with the large array of characters and density of plots is that you never really get to see characters just going about their day to day lives. They’re always dashing from one melodramatic moment to the next. Characters that I hadn’t paid attention to, assuming they were background fillers suddenly developed into key roles, while the people who seemed important had a tendency of disappearing. You do have to kind of just accept these things and go with what you’re given, and the extremely charismatic cast certainly helps with that, but it can be a bit unsettling.

In many ways the biggest problem that I have with the show is the very thing that enabled it to be made in the first place – it’s on cable. The great thing about being on HBO, Showtime or the other subscription based channels in the US is that the executives don’t care about reaching millions of casual viewers, they want to draw in a loyal few hundred thousand viewers who will pay $15 a month or so to watch their shows. Cable shows want critical praise and buzz and will spend a lot of money on their shows to get it. However Game of Thrones fell into the trap of “can show nudity and violence, so must”. I don’t want to sound prudish but there was generally at least one scene per episode that was… unnecessary. Having character biography explained while two prostitutes are having a lesson in how to be convincing lesbians was kind of… bizarre. It just felt a little bit like everyone was trying too hard to appear grownup, which actually made it feel childish and silly. For the sake of these few scenes it becomes a show that you can’t watch with your parents, which seems a real shame to me

Generally I think this is a show that’s struggling with what it actually is, conflicts between fantasy and mainstream, entertainment and drama. Some of the stories it was dealing with were powerful and heartbreaking, others were over the top and cheesy. I enjoyed watching Game of Thrones – its production values were phenomenal, its plots interesting, dialogue entertaining and acting engaging; but sometimes it felt like it was trying to be all things to all people, and therefore failing to completely satisfy any of them.

Other reviews:
Slouching Towards Thatcham has a much more detailed review – “Like the book, this first season has been complex, layered medieval fantasy for the intelligent viewer, that makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like a simple children’s story. It’s not for the prudish or the squeamish – or for those who prefer their drama spoon-fed in easy, bite-size portions – but it has been a hugely rewarding ten hours of television.”

The Guardian’s review is painfully similar to mine (I only read it after I’d finished my review, I promise!) – “This has largely proved to be a sensitive, clever and, above all, compelling adaptation. Yes, there are flaws: Benioff and Weiss can get a little over-excited about the freedom offered by US cable TV and the number of sexposition scenes became ridiculous long before the end.”