Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The 2011 Summer TV Report Card

Unlike last summer, I didn't have the time to start up any new shows or catch up on what I am behind on, so there will only be a recap of shows that finished recently. Period dramas and slice-of-life comedies were the prizes of what I was taking in this summer, but there was other good stuff too, as you'll read.
This edition covers shows having ended after June 15th, where my last recaps (part 1 & part 2) ended, through September 12th, 2011.

The Borgias
(Season 1, Showtime)
Who doesn't like a little bloodshed and sex with their papal dynasties? Or, in the case of this show, a lot? Based on the actual exploits of the Borgia family in the late 1400s, Jeremy Irons plays patriarch Rodrigo Borgia with empiric sliminess. I know I should despise him -- you know, with all the nepotism, simony, promiscuity and torturing he engages in -- but ultimately can't. Even more impressive is Fran├žois Arnaud's performance of eldest son, Cesare, whose good intentions tend to go horribly awry, not to mention his nefarious ones. The season started off strong, and before rebounding in the final few episodes, wandered excessively amongst infidelity and familial strife a bit too often for my taste. A second season has been ordered by Showtime.

(Season 1, Starz)
What began as an interesting twist upon the standard Arthurian legend we've seen numerous times over the years on film, quickly descended into a barely watchable clusterfuck in the span of 10 episodes. Plagued by dull writing and poor casting -- particularly with Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur, who was often outright unlikable as our hero -- and those twists quickly lost their luster. Joseph Fiennes (Merlin) and Eva Green (Morgan Le Fay) could only do so much with what they were given, and usually shone above the remaining elements of the show. However, after the great James Purefoy's early exit, it was largely downhill going forward with too much emphasis on Claire Forlani as Arthur's mother (if anyone knows what the hell happened to her face since the late '90s, please let me know in the comments; botox alone can't be responsible for that mess) and the Arthur/Guinevere tryst epically failing to place two of the three involved in that love triangle in a positive light. However, Camleot's ultimate fate was likely decided when HBO's Game of Thrones, which happened to be airing at the same time, proved to garner vastly superior ratings and critical acclaim. Considering these developments, it's little wonder a second season was not ordered.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
(Season 8, HBO)
Dare I say this wass the best season yet? I really think it was. If you're not a fan of Larry David's humor, nothing here is going to change your mind about him. But for the already converted, revel in his continued brilliance. Single Larry continues to be the great driving force behind the show's resurgence, begun a few seasons ago. The year was also boosted by the mid-season relocation to New York, which gave a slight twist on typical Curb scenarios.

(Season 8, HBO)
Thank God I can finally stop watching this. Had it not been the final slew of episodes, I would've tossed it aside. There were parts of these final eight installments that were actually pretty good (the idea of Bobby Flay as Ari's nemesis was freaking hilarious while it lasted), but most of what I was prepared to applaud was negated after an extremely sloppy finale that was more interested handing out happy endings to our heroes instead of earning them (Drama's and, I suppose, Ari's were acceptable; the others were awful). Had they begun the resolution to these stories a few episodes sooner, I could've bought into them. That's how easy it would've been to get me to buy into it. But the fate of these characters were left to the genius' who didn't think something might be amiss to play Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" as their private jets took off from L.A. in the final moments of the show. *Sigh.*

Falling Skies
(Season 1, TNT)
There's a lot to like about this post-alien invasion drama produced by Steven Spielberg. Decent cast, decent writing and decent production value. Overall, it's a decent show. Nothing wrong with that. The creature work and special effects are pretty darn good actually, which was a nice touch. But I was never excited to see the next episode, probably because it generally played it safe. Battlestar Galactica it is not. It is, however, family friendly and feels like a Spielberg production, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preferences. I dug the cliffhanger at the end of the season, and it will be back next summer, so you can expect another report on the show in a year's time.

Game of Thrones
(Season 1, HBO)
Summarizing this one is a challenge. Packed with plot and unafraid to do horrible things to characters you adore, every episode of Game of Thrones was thoroughly enjoyable -- even the ones where you find yourself yelling "NO!" at the screen. This entire season was based upon the first novel in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series. (I've begun reading it because I'm dying to know what happens next. The differences between the book and show are minor, although the book predictably contains more detail. I still have about 200 more pages to go, however, so that may change.) It's a fantasy series, but not really much like Lord of the Rings and definitely not like some of the other period action/dramas cable pay channels have been broadcasting in recent years.  Curiously, much of the show probably can be boiled down to people literally sitting around talking about shit that went down 20 years ago (without the aid of flashbacks, no less). But even when Game of Thrones does this, it somehow remains riveting. I really think it has something for everyone. There's so much character depth and development for an almost exhaustive list of cast, and they're presented with suburb performances, cinematography and direction. This has quickly become a must-watch show.

The Hour
(Series 1, BBC)
For some reason this was billed as a British Mad Men by mainstream reviewers. Aside from being set in a comparable time period (in this case a few years earlier, in the mid-1950s), being well written and produced, and everyone smoking all the time, there is really nothing the two have in common. A better comparison would probably be to look at it against some of Aaron Sorkin's work. While not at that level, what The Hour excelled at was driving and peppering the narrative with (usually) strong and eloquent dialogue, although not necessarily realistic. But there's a elements of murder mystery and espionage genres mixing in with the forefront subjects of television journalism ingratiating itself with global and national politics of the time. And, since it's a British production, social class is an ever-present theme as well. It was great to see Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty from The Wire) do good work again as on-air anchor Hector Madden. But, for me, Romola Garai stole the show as Bel Rowley. With the Mad Men set up, I immediately identified her as this show's Peggy Olsen, which is an apt correlation, but I found her character to be far more interesting (and you know I love me some Peggy Olsen). Most of the rest of the cast was fantastic as well, and the next installment of the show is high on my watchlist.

(Season 2, FX)
As much as I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, the formula Larry David utilizes for each episode is highly transparent, which is why I can't give it a higher rating. Not so with Louie, which is always unpredictable and constantly hilarious, even in the most gut-wrenching moments of Louie CK's blackest humor. This second season has solidified this show amongst the elite comedies on the air now, and it looks like it'll remain there for the foreseeable future. There's really no need to re-watch previous episodes if you're coming around late to the show, as there's no continuing plot to be concerned with. That is, of course, if you're okay with denying yourself awesome television.

(Season 4, BBC/Starz)
After two mixed bag seasons and a third brilliant one, the Doctor Who spinoff returned with a slew of changes. Unfortunately, the American version of this show really just didn't work for me. It wasn't until I sat down to write this that I realized how much I didn't care about anything that happened on Torchwood: Miracle Day this season, and kinda hated most of the new characters I was supposed to root for. The season's plot -- suddenly no one in the world is able to die and mass chaos ensues, hence the "Miracle Day" subtitle -- was initially an intriguing one, but as the source of that disaster was revealed in such cartoony fashion, it was hard to take any of the real-world implications presented seriously. That said, there was one amazing episode (written by the always great Jane Epenson) shoe-horned into the middle of the season that sorta made watching the others worth it. But it was a flashback episode that ultimately only gave us the first kernel of what the big bad reveal ended up being, as well as a giant red herring that cost another episode, and little else. If Torchwood is to return, could Russell Davies please embrace the time-traveling, tri-sexual adventures of Captain Jack Harkness? I can't imagine I'm the only one who would rather see those than the haphazard yet dull exploits of the new Torchwood team. Hell, let them travel with him if you want to keep it a team show; just make it more interesting. The peices are already there for you. Stop merely alluding to them and make use of what you've created. Whoops. How'd I get onto this soapbox?

(Season 2, HBO)
This is not a show for everyone. While season 2 improved upon stabilizing the narrative structure presented last year, it's still a bit scattered, mainly because there are so many characters covering just about every major walk of life in New Orleans and a few in New York City as well. You could make the argument that David Simon intended to make the show's scrambled nature in season 1 slowly come together mirror life in post-Katrina NOLA, but I think you're giving him a little too much credit. There is no villain. There are just clusters of loosely connected people trying to live their lives in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies to strike our nation in recent memory.

True Blood
(Season 4, HBO)
As much as The Walking Dead tried to make zombies the new vampires last year, those bloodsuckers aren't about to be dethroned just yet, especially if they continue to give us gratuitous action and sex scenes as True Blood is so fond of doing. (And have we really gotten to the point where we want to see nekkid zombies? I think not.) Following last year's expansion of supernatural creatures with werewolves, the addition of witches and magic to the forefront was an excellent decision. There were still usual missteps, most notably spending an insane amount of time with that baby all just to explain that Lafayette had lots of magic mojo, which was obvious before this season anyhow. But to my complete surprise, the show actually wrapped up most of its storylines in satisfactory fashion and set up some of next year's as well (it finally looks like some good Terry and Andy stuff is on the horizon in season 5). All in all, this was the strongest season of True Blood yet, and there's still plenty of things they could improve upon.
I'll be checking back in at the close of the year with what should be another great collection of returning fall shows, including Boardwalk Empire, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and, of course, Breaking Bad.
There are some new ones that seem interesting and I'll be checking those out as well (but who knows if they will stick in my rotation), namely Person of Interest, Terra Nova and the American version of Prime Suspect.

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