We’re nearing the end of the year, so it feels like time to look back at the just-completed fall TV season. My blogging has lagged of late — working on the dead-tree edition of the newspaper, a vacation and a car accident all helped divert my attention elsewhere — but hopefully this extra-long post will help make up for that, in some a small way. What I have here isn’t so much a “best of” list as it is a collection of TV series and subjects that grabbed my attention over the past few months — the shows I watched and loved, the ones I watched and wondered why I just wasted an hour, and all the ones in between.
“Terriers” (FX) & “Rubicon” (AMC). The two best new series of the fall will have to be remembered as, more or less, miniseries. Both were canceled after their runs. The throwback conspiracy non-thriller “Rubicon” was absorbing at times, maddeningly frustrating at others. But at the very least, it showed potential and strove to be something different. “Terriers” succeeded in being something different, a nuanced buddy comedy/drama/mystery about two private eyes that was my favorite series — new or old — of the fall. Too bad no one tuned in. Look for them on DVD in the spring and kick yourself for not watching in the first place.
The quality of new network shows. This fall, the major networks gave us exactly two good new series: “Lone Star,” which Fox canceled after two episodes, and “Raising Hope” (Fox) which is a good but not great sitcom. Pretty much every other new show stuck to tired formulas that inspired no one. It felt like every show I tuned into — from “Hawaii Five-O” (CBS) to “Blue Bloods” (CBS) to “Detroit 1-8-7” (ABC) — was a copy of something we’ve all seen before, only done better the first time. At while those shows bored me, at least they were well made. Other series were complete messes, like the hugely disappointing “Running Wilde” (Fox) and the overly complicated “The Event” (NBC).
“Fringe” (Fox). It’s so rare to see a series just go for it, to take a risky, complicated storyline, plot out a clear course of action, say “damn the ratings” and completely change its game. “The X-Files” never did it. “Alias” tried a few times with varying degrees of success. But “Fringe” has pulled it off this season, becoming one of the most gripping, thrilling shows on TV while telling parallel stories taking place on an alternate Earth, with each actor doing double duty as their slightly skewed alt-self. This fall, “Fringe” left behind its gross-out mysteries of the week, connected most of the dots it set up over its first two seasons and jumped head-first into a cinematic-scale sci-fi spectacular. Lots of shows lazily promise that “after this episode, nothing will ever be the same,” but “Fringe” delivered on that, and made the jump from decent to great. “Terriers” aside, it was the one show I eagerly looked forward to week after week.
The Giants’ postseason run. For four weeks, this was the best reality show around. The franchise that hadn’t won a World Series in more than half a century put together a fantastically exciting, dramatic stretch of games and gave their long-suffering fans a championship. Even if you weren’t a baseball fan, it was a pop culture moment that bonded the Bay Area in a way unseen for decades, and a shining example of the power of TV as a social medium.
“Sons of Anarchy” (FX). Season 3 didn’t rise to the level of the tremendous Season 2. In fact, the entire season was kind of a throwaway, considering we ended up pretty much where we left off at the end of Season 2. Long on convoluted plot and short on character development, it wasn’t entirely satisfying (I still don’t understand what was really going on with Jimmy and the IRA and SAMBEL). But with a slam-bang finale, “SOA” positioned itself well for an intriguing Season 4, and I liked the season despite its flaws. The outlaw biker drama is so good that even when it stumbles, it’s still above almost everything else on TV. And there were some classic moments: the soundtrack-pumping montages of the bikers driving across the Northern Ireland countryside, Tara officially becoming Old Lady by getting her hands bloody, and the satisfying revenge Opie took on a certain scheming character who had turned ridiculously out of control.
“The Walking Dead” (AMC). The six-episode zombie-thriller miniseries wasn’t perfect, but managed to entertain. There wasn’t much plot beyond “stay alive,” and the finale felt rushed and was capped by embarrassingly cheap-looking special effects. Still, the series delivered on gory thrills, and managed to achieve a bit of depth as the characters coped in their own ways to a horrific, hopeless situation. As we’ve come to expect in an AMC series, it looked fantastic and elevated its material above the typical mindless horror story. I’m really curious to see what happens next season, when they’ll have a full 13 episodes to work with and will be able to flesh out (no pun intended) the story. Unfortunately, it’ll be a loooong wait (probably next October).
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” & “The League” (FX). These two partners in raunch were the funniest things on TV this fall. “Sunny” had one of its most consistently hilarious seasons, as the gang at Philly’s diviest dive bar, Paddy’s Pub, dealt with everything from “alley almonds” to rat-bashing to Dee’s mysterious pregnancy. Not one minute of it was politically correct in any way, and thank the lord for that. Meanwhile, the best friends and fantasy football competitors in “The League” plumbed new depths in filthy, mean-spirited humor. But the biting dialogue rang true to fantasy leagues I’ve been in (never underestimate the potty mouth of a bored 20- or 30-something guy on the Internet) and the cast’s chemistry made it work. I laughed — a lot, and loudly — watching these two shows.
The Big 3 network comedies. The best comedy wasn’t all on cable. “30 Rock” (NBC) regained its creative mojo and reclaimed the title of funniest network sitcom. While over on ABC, “Modern Family” and “Cougar Town” contributed strong second seasons. Gotta love any series where a 44-oz. wine glass is a supporting character.
“Boardwalk Empire.” I wanted to love this latest offering from HBO. But the Prohibition-era gangster drama put me to sleep. I got halfway through the season and stopped after realizing I just didn’t care anymore. The show looked great and the actors were fine, but I didn’t feel any urgency watching. At no point did I think, “I need to know what happens next.” That’s a problem. It probably suffered from unreasonably high expectations (at least from me), but I wanted something more compelling. I heard it ended strongly, so I’ll catch up on DVD or On Demand at some point.
“Bored to Death” (HBO). Understated and under the radar, the second season of this subtle and hilarious sitcom really hit its stride after an uneven first season. With a surprising amount of emotional depth, the great cast of Jason Schwartzman, Zack Galifianakis and Ted Danson (in the midst of a late-career renaissance) clicked on every level. Ostensibly about a hipster, pseudo-intellectual private eye, the series is really a melancholy slapstick comedy, with its three chronic underachievers trying desperately to make a mark on their otherwise empty lives. And yeah, it’s funnier than that sounds.
NaOnka & Nick. And the Award for Worst Person on a Reality Show goes to . . . . it’s a tie! “Survivor’s” NaOnka and “The Amazing Race’s” Nick were painful to watch. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they may not actually be such horrible people in real life, but their TV personas were flat-out despicable. NaOnka lacked any sense of self-awareness, and was so unapolagetically self-absorbed that I just wanted to reach into my TV and slap her. She’s my pick for greatest villain in “Survivor” history (at least Russell was awful in an entertaining way). Meanwhile, over on “The Amazing Race,” the heavily tattooed, mohawked Nick showed he was nowhere near as tough as he pretended to be, as he whined, moaned and broke into temper tantrums whenever things didn’t go his way. His constant berating of his girlfriend, Vicki, was shameful and tough to watch. He yelled at her when her asthma kicked in and she couldn’t breathe, for goodness sake. He joined Jonathan and Flo as the worst castmembers ever to run the race.
The inconsistency of “Community.” I want to like this NBC sitcom set in a community college, I really do. Sometimes it’s jaw-droppingly funny (the paintball war) and sometimes it’s fantastically creative (the Claymation Christmas episode). But too often it falls flat. It’s at its best when it’s at its most surreal and absurd. The run-of-the-mill episodes lack depth. It needs to find some consistency.
“Mad Men” (AMC). It’s won three straight Emmys for outstanding drama for a reason, and those reasons — deep characters and intelligent writing — shone again in Season 4. “The Suitcase,” a captivating episode that was pretty much an acting showcase by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, might have been the best hour of television this year. This season saw Betty sink to cartoonish levels of bad parenting, while little Sally grew into a fully developed character to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Don took a dark dive into depression and alcoholism, emerging (we think) at the end with a new outlook on life. Oh, and a new wife. Great stuff.
“Luther” & “Law & Order UK” (BBC America). Man, the Brits like their crime shows to be dark. These two imports hit America like a crisp transatlantic breeze, a fresh look at cop shows that have become way too predictable on U.S. networks. “Luther,” starring Idris Elba (of “The Wire”) showed us a detective who was deeply troubled, who carried a violent temper, obsessed over his ex-wife and flirted with a sociopathic murderess. At times the raw violence was disturbing to watch (that ritualistic blood-drinking killer still gives me the creeps), but every episode (there were only six) was compelling. The pulse-pounding final two episodes delivered one shocking twist and turn after another, yet managed to stay on the tracks without spilling into ridiculousness. “Law & Order UK” was slightly less dark, but still delved into what seemed like an inordinate amount of child murders and sex crimes. An outstanding cast and foreign legal-system twists succeeded where “Law & Order: Los Angeles” didn’t, making a familiar formula feel fresh.
Disappointments: A few formerly fun series have dropped off noticeably from last season. What happened to “Glee”? The Fox musical that used to be one big cheesy ball of fun has become preachy, disjointed and lost any semblance of a storyline. It can still hit the high notes — the surprisingly entertaining Britney Spears episode, for instance — but too often feels off key. The show’s gotten as lazy as my musical puns in that last sentence. The NBC spy comedy “Chuck” ended last season strongly, with its best episodes to date. This season, though, has seen a huge step backward. The comedy is still there, but the dramatic tension is lacking. Last year was darker and there was a real sense that the stakes were high — people’s lives were on the line, and characters could (and did) die. This season, not so much. And the storyline about Chuck’s mom being a double-triple-quadruple deep-cover agent — she’s a bad guy! No, she’s a good guy! No, she really is a good guy! No! . . . — has been so confusing and manipulative that I just don’t care anymore. And then there’s “Gossip Girl” (The CW). It seems crazy to say now, but this show used to be smart. Or at least smarter. Sure, it was never going to win an Emmy, but it was fun in a post-“The OC” way. The dialogue was sharp, the scandals were juicy and the characters had some self awareness. Now, stupidity reigns. The plots are preposterous (not in a fun way, but in a “What?-You-expect-me-to-believe-that?” way) and characters keep making the same stupid mistakes again and again (how many times will Dan and Serena — his step-sister! — make up and break up?). There are only two legitimate reasons to keep watching these days: To see just how ridiculously inappropriate Serena can dress, and to read the next day’s hilarious episode recap by New York Magazine.
What did you think of the fall TV season? Did it make you realize how much you miss “Lost”? Leave a comment and tell us what was your favorite — or least favorite — show.
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