Meanwhile, back on basic cable...
I don't think of HBO as TV. Indeed, their slogan is (or at least was) "It's not TV. It's HBO." They have a bigger budget in a single 13-week season of Game of Thrones than most basic cable shows have in up to FIVE seasons. It damn well BETTER be cinematic. So I'm glad that that's being considered as a separate thing. Maybe call it "movie mini-series."
I put AMC in an in-between state. They're clearly following a model more along the lines of The Sopranos or The Wire...which I'd come closer to classifying as TV, but still not. Hence the in-between state. More cinematic than not, and I think aspiring to be a movie almost by definition takes it out of the realm of what I think of as basic cable TV. I'm willing to reconsider if this phenomenon extends much past AMC.
I have two things to say about AMC programming though: on no channel is there a clearer distinction between "popular" and "respected." The Walking Dead has a bigger audience than Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined. Read that again: The Walking Dead has a bigger audience than Breaking Bad and Mad Men combined. Yet it will never ever receive the same kind of love.
At least from the Academy. Or discussions like this. LOL That's the fate of genre stuff in general, where "straight" dramas ALWAYS get more love, even though I think genre stuff is harder to pull off. Comedy is harder still, but that's another story.
It DOES receive what I'll argue is a more rabid love from fans. Indeed, the very very VERY best part of watching The Walking Dead is The Talking Dead, and hour-long, live audience show that airs after the night's last showing of TWD. Hosted by The Nerdist's Chris Hardwick, it features many of his usual suspects (Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, et al) as well as high-profile fans (notably Kevin Smith) and the shows stars, producers, directors, writers, etc. Throw in tweets, Facebook notes, live calls, short behind the scenes featurettes -- it's a real gem.
I can imagine more shows doing this. I cannot imagine that Mad Men or Breaking Bad being among them.
Okay, on to shows that aspire to be great, or at least good, TV shows.
Justified barely makes the cut because it's only 13 episodes, another thing that I think qualifies for junior TV status. If you can't be good 22 times a year, then you're just not aiming high enough...but OH MY GOD. Not only the best show on basic cable, but better than almost any show on pay cable. One of the truly great shows of all time.
If you haven't been watching, skip a couple of days of work and Netflix that thing. Holy spit, I ain't kidding. One of the best shows in the history of television, for so many reasons that they deserve their own post.
Let's jump ahead to "real" TV: 22 episodes of trying to get it right every week.
The Arrow (The CW) deserves special note because it tried to get BETTER every single week, and they totally did. Not that the producers let social media drive the changes, but they very much took it into account as they did their fine tuning. If a character was breaking out, or a show dynamic was resonating, they dialed those things up. And it really did get stronger, more compelling as the season progressed.
It's based on the comic of the same name, and is a perfect example of how these things should be handled. As Mark pointed out re: Star Trek, there's no way to pack dozens, or scores, of stories into one movie. Origin stories lend themselves to this, but after that, you're pretty well hosed.
What a gas this thing is. It gets every single thing right. Highly, highly recommended. The first season just wrapped, so look for it on Netflix, Amazon, et al soon.
A somewhat similar and altogether entertaining whose first season just wrapped is Elementary (CBS), a delightful modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes -- also a very strong example of how a retelling should be done. This was our favorite 22-ep drama this year, and we've kept the last couple of episodes on the DVR for rewatching. Stellar performance from Jonny Lee Miller (anyone remember Eli Stone?) and Lucy Liu as a sharply imagined Watson that far transcend what could have been a mess. I wouldn't call it quite great, but highly entertaining, and in the teeny handful of my favorite shows this season.
So You Think You Can Dance (Fox) is nothing short of miraculous. For the love of all things holy, please do NOT confuse this with Dancing With The Stars, a clever gimmick, but a gimmick. Nope, this is trained ballet, contemporary, and modern dancers, with a couple of stellar street dancers and tappers, and the occassional world-class ballroom dancer, competing in all those genres and many more, choreographed by some of the most iconic choreographers in the world.
The thing is, every chump thinks they can sing. That's actually one of the most compelling aspects of the singing competitions, especially The X Factor, which I think is the only consistently watchable one: vicarious identification of something you wish you had a shot at. Unless you suck as a singer...but everybody can RELATE to those shows.
Dancing? No freaking way. There's only a small handful of people in the country, a couple of hundred tops, who even have a shot at being this good. The show's contestants this season include the principal soloist for the Miami Ballet (admittedly a minor company, but still), a world championship-winning ballroom dancers, and dancers who've been training in real studios for real careers for a dozen years and more.
One of the most compelling stories this year is of a kid who grew up in family-run dance studio in Austin, TX. The family ran into some hard times, and had to decide between giving up their house or giving up their studio -- and they chose to keep the studio. The family is sleeping on mats, washing in the sink, and cooking on a hot plate because they want to dance. The son in his early 20s is the one on the show, but they brought the father on stage during the auditions, and he was breathtakingly good, albeit too old to compete.
That's the thing. These are people who have committed their lives to being GREAT, and have often paid dear prices to get where they are. It's a (I'll use the word again) miraculous tribute to what the human body can do when driven by insane passion in the service of a commitment to CRAFT. You're never going to see that on a singing show, ever. You see it even in the street dancers, some of whom are considered at the top of the game, even genre innovators, on even national levels.
Yeah, there's a goofball or oddity here and there, but by NO means in every episode of the auditions (which by itself separates itself from the singing competitions), but even these people often have interesting stories -- the autistic kid, or the former gang members who are teaching after-school hip hop dancing to keep other kids out of trouble. The truly goofy ones tend to be entertaining clowns anyway...again unlike the true wretches littering singing shows.
One of the show's long suits is also the pre-packaged background story sequences. They tend to be exceptionally well-produced features. Another great thing -- no filler-packed results shows. They give the results right at the end, with no folderol from the judges or hosts -- BANG, spit it out.
Not that there isn't judgy creepiness now and then, and no show on any network, including HBO, is entirely filler-free. But the percentage of greatness and near-greatness to slop is so much higher than anything I regularly watch -- besides Justified and The Arrow.
It's in season 10, and we've been watching avidly since season 4. (There were a couple of years with 2 seasons, so that's not quite as long as it sounds.) It's on now (tonight in fact) and definitely worth tuning in once or twice.
There are a couple of nifty USA Network shows I'm a fan of, even though they've gotten their share of smack in this forum. White Collar , has a strong pair of leads (we've nicknamed the show "Freakishly Handsome," because one of them, Matt Bomer, is in fact THAT) and the best part of the show is when the two of them lean in over a table and talk through the episode's mystery. It's also a great LOOKING show. The DP did a great article for us about the ways they intentionally use New York as a character -- amazing architectural shots, and views of the city you've never seen before.
Also terrific use of natural light. They light almost nothing, and certainly no treatment to outdoor light. Shooters in particular will be rewarded with a closer look. At the very least, read the engaging conversation with the COW's Debra Kaufman with the show's DP (and occasional director) Russell Lee Fine, here.
The other is Covert Affairs, aka in our household as "Alias, Jr." The lead looks like she could be Jennifer Garner's little sister, and the spy stuff is definitely a notch down, but some really fun use of locations, more than any show I've ever seen.
The past season was a bit of a disappointment, which in some ways is the story with a lot of my favorite shows.
Chief among these is The Vampire Diaries (The CW), which I have repeatedly repped as the best show on TV, especially for its craft (cinematography, editing and scoring in particular). I considered it absolutely essential viewing for anybody who cared about visual storytelling, in its most nearly perfect form, certainly at the consistently highest level on either basic or pay cable.
One of my deepest regrets in my dozen plus years in the COW, and my nearly 20 years of online communities, is that I wasn't able to convince any of you to take me seriously about this. Massive, massive disappointment in a life that has been full of them. LOL
Even Roger Ebert agreed with me on this, and regularly tweeted about his strong feelings for it -- the only TV show I can remember him tweeting about at all.
The fact that it was about teenage vampires in love was merely a plus...for me as a teenage girl LOL...although, unfortunately for people who care about visual storytelling on TV at the absolute pinnacle of artistic achievement...a minus.
However this past season SUCKED. Not just imo, but all over the web. The finale entirely redeemed itself...but otherwise, we only kept watching because we'd put a couple of seasons in already.
Another great article at the COW, one of the most-read in the past couple of years, by one of the show's editors, Nancy Forner, whose Twitter feed is very much following. So, editors, don't be babies and not read this because it's a show with vampires. The story is about managing massive amounts of footage (40 hours of dailies into 42 minutes of show), cutting for dialog, and the use of music, among other very cool stuff. She also talks about the differences between editing this and Law & Order: SVU, where she was the senior editor for 8 years.
One of the scenes Nancy cut was named by Entertainment Weekly as the sexiest ever, and I'm inclined to agree. Maybe that's a minus for you too, but still, one of the best articles about editing that we've ever run. Exceptional reading.
I've been a bigger fan of Modern Family than maybe the rest of you put together LOL, but this hasn't been a good season at all. We're within a hairsbreadth of ending our relationship with it.
I can't even remember why we're watching True Blood. Frankly, it ran off the rails with the Marianne storyline in season 2 (and I LOVE Michelle Forbes, who will always be Ensign Ro to me), and only barely righted itself with the Fellowship of the Sun storyline 2 seasons later (featuring the remarkable Anna Camp)...and then has pretty much been both crashing and burning ever since. After a couple of conversations about it, we'll be giving it a try.
A last little tidbit to throw in is a new BBC America show called Orphan Black, a mystery kind of thing that features a woman who's a petty thief that falls into the life of a woman who looks exactly like her, and discovers more and more dopplegangers as she dives further into crime, law (one of the people who looks exactly her is a cop), and other things that she just can't figure out. The first clump of episodes is available on demand, and you should definitely give at least the first one a try. I've only watched a couple, but I think it has potential.
While this is (surprise) too long already, I've left a couple out, but in general, my feeling is that if you're not doing 22 episodes, you're not aiming high enough. It's an almost impossible thing to pull off, which is why I think it deserves higher praise than shows who are barely trying to accomplish half as much, or trying to do something much different than what TV has been.
Not that I don't enjoy some of those two, especially Homeland, but I respect people who swing for ALL the fences, at least generally, just a little more than people who try to swing for just over half of them.
Kinda feel bad I don't watch any of these besides Justified. Like I'm betraying my fellow content creators.
Honestly, I've sort of fallen out of love with network TV in the last couple of years, mostly because it starts to suck so quickly. A mini-series feels like it has more attention (and like you said, it SHOULD feel that way). They have some amazing seasons and then overstay their welcome (like The Office or Community) and I have to watch them crash and burn. "Easier to have loved and lost" is totes bullshit for my stories, man.
As far as the inbetweenland of AMC, this season of Mad Men has been one of the best in a long time.
But for 22 episode things...um...uuuummm...OH WAIT!
Parks and Recreation on NBC. The rare network comedy that actually had a mediocre first season, got renewed, then became AWESOME. The first season is nothing like what it became. The characters are bizarre and unlikeable mostly. But they threw it all aside and figured out what the show was and it's been pretty strong ever since.
Oh, and the one reality show I watch: Top Chef, on Bravo. Cooking is so hard and the knowledge these people have that they can make gourmet dishes in 20 minutes or whatever ridiculous circumstance they are handed astounds me. I've also learned a lot about cooking from watching the show. They aren't trying to educate, but you obviously pick up on patterns and stuff. It's pretty interesting and fairly minimal on made-up-reality-drama anymore. It gets really formulaic and totally irritating since it's so subjective. Occasionally things feel super rigged for more tension, but whatever. In recent years, they've added a second screen online experience where chefs who are kicked off get to compete against each other for another chance at the main Top Chef prize. So that's nice.
I also went to Tom Colicchio's restaurant in Vegas and the lobster bisque was AWESOME. Doesn't really relate, but I like remembering that bisque.
If we're including BBC, I still love Doctor Who. Last season was kind of iffy because I didn't care about the companion at all, but the finale was so great it made me retroactively like the season. Orphan Black is on my list. I'm thinking Sherlock doesn't count since it's basically a movie, but I don't see how I can like that AND enjoy Elementary. I'm not that good of a person.
That's it. Two-ish shows. Everything else got terrible (Modern Family) or ended (30 Rock).
[Tim Wilson] "One of my deepest regrets in my dozen plus years in the COW, and my nearly 20 years of online communities, is that I wasn't able to convince any of you to take me seriously about this."
Dude, is it on Netflix? I'll take one for the team and give it a go. LOL.
I'm sorry to have left out Falling Skies (TNT), exec produced by Steven Spielberg. And unlike Lost, where you can absolutely tell that Abrams bailed after the first season, you can feel Steve all over everything about this one.
I recently saw the next season's first hour as the opening act for a double feature at a film festival, where it was followed immediately by Escape From New York, and it completely held its own.
(BTW, what jumped out at me about Escape was its economy: only 1:40 long!!! 100 minutes! Unbelievable. I guarantee that a remake would be 2:15 at least. And Kurt Russell afterward was incredibly entertaining. Another story of course....)
Think of Falling Skies as War of the Worlds if the aliens had been winning for the last 7 years, but a pocket of human resistance is finally picking up steam. Noah Wyle dramatically steps up his game in this. Again falling short of great TV, but I don't get the feeling its aiming for. One of my favorite things about Spielberg is that he paints with every color: personal dramedy with United States of Tara, acres of different cartoons, the incredible range of his movies... Here, I think he's aiming for the TV equivalent of a popcorn movie, and succeeding quite nicely. I'm really, really looking forward to season 3, starting in June.
The wife and I loved Justified but stopped watching after the season finale with the old lady who poisons her foes with tainted moonshine. We felt it was just too perfect an arc, with masterful performances, and we wanted to end our relationship with the show on that very high note. The episode wrapped up the season and the series for us so well, we didn't care for whatever came next.
My teen son loves White Collar and Suits, I find them too interchangeable in look and style, myself. But we all love Burn Notice, still, after all this time, the show these other ones used for a template.
I'm also really enjoying Doctor Who, especially Neil Gaiman's contributions, but Moffatt's work is good too.
We're freaks for Downton Abbey because the execution is so damn good. My wife and I will often pause the show for a minute just to admire a shot:
"That looks just a like an effing Renoir there" "That's pure vermeer, LOOK at that composition and LIGHTING!!!!"
I can't wait for june and the return of The Venture Bros. if you're unfamiliar, check out the season one episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso".
Mad Men and Breaking Bad and a few more, are ones I rather watch in marathons off DVD or streaming video than as "appointment television".
Justified is next on my list of things to finally get through (after the new Arrested Development season)
[Tim Wilson] "I can't even remember why we're watching True Blood."
It was a great concept initially, simply about the integration of vampires into human society. Then it became a show where EVERYONE had to have powers just to keep their characters relevant. It's the perfect show to just kill people off and have no one complain about it, but instead irrelevant characters are turning into Mexican super demons, and werepanthers. WEREPANTHERS. One more time... WEREPANTHERS. (I don't think I can put a dismissive wanking motion description in this parenthesis that justifies how dismissive I'm trying to be)
[Kylee Wall] "Parks and Recreation on NBC. The rare network comedy that actually had a mediocre first season, got renewed, then became AWESOME."
Parks and Rec has quickly become the best comedy on network TV. Like, by A LOT. They treat their characters with respect and admiration, and it pays off to the audience. I'm so happy that it didn't become an Office knock off like it appeared to be trying to become in the beginning.
One favorite show on the same network and same night that's fallen out of grace: Community. It just feels like a shell of the show it used to be. And I loved the first three seasons of that show. Now it's just nothing but callbacks to Inspector Spacetime and paintball and "the darkest timeline". COME UP WITH SOMETHING NEW. It still gets a steady stream of chuckles from me, but it's not what it used to be.
On a third note about NBC comedy Thursday... I thought the last season of The Office was terrible overall, BUT, I thought the final two episodes were pretty great. And other than Erin's reuniting with her parents (what? Who cares?) and Andy's musical aspirations (I hate Andy), the final episode was a brilliant send off to a show that was one of the best comedies on television for its 2nd through maybe 5th seasons. It reversed some of the harm done by the later years.
I've never watched a second of Modern Family outside of a commercial, and I don't plan to. I'd rather just rewatch Arrested Development, which is something I encourage everyone to do three or four times.
I have to get back to work, but here's a sloppy list of the network TV and basic cable shows I watch that are awesome that no one has mentioned yet:
It's Always Sunny in Philidelphia
The Daily Show
Key & Peele
And the most underrated show on TV: America's Funniest Home Videos. Dead serious.
Also, Palladia Network is a great channel to leave on for hours and have live concert background noise while you do other things.
Watched about five episodes of face-off: the project: Runway clone with a monster makeup and costume-creation special effects theme. Very formulaic but without the charm that "Runway" has, and I quickly got bored with it's sameness. We were big fans of the first three or so seasons of Runway. Two reasons for that were Tim Gunn and the uniqueness at the time of a reality show where you saw talented people actually MAKING something cool before your eyes. You also felt like you learned something or got an insiht into design from that show...
Most of the shows following this pattern keep re-balancing towards the fake generated interpersonal dramas and fights and that leaves me cold.
Over on IFC, I ADORE watching Portlandia, and have also gotten to enjoy "Maron", which you might like, if you liked "Curb Your Enthusiasm".
IFC movies also take up a large part of my DVR hard drive space.
[Scott Roberts] "(I don't think I can put a dismissive wanking motion description in this parenthesis that justifies how dismissive I'm trying to be)"
I was kidding a little. We used to really love that thing. But wow, completely out of control. I didn't even mind the werepanthers, but the Mexican god or whatever -- nononononooooooooo. Also, that whole season with the possessed witch or whatever: complete waste of time.
Confession: I read the first 12 of Charlaine Harris's Sookie novels, and a couple of short stories too, but haven't been able to psych up for #13, the finale. I'm fatigued of all of it and catching my breath for a bit.
I just saw an interview with Harris btw, and she stopped short of calling the TV series a pile of poo...but not THAT far short. LOL
[Scott Roberts] "Community...feels like a shell of the show it used to be. "
I should have included that on my list of disappointments. I agree, I had it at the top of my list for season one.
Another disappointing season of a show I loved season one of: Bunheads on ABC Family. None of you watched it, none of you will, but my thread, so I'll say it anyway. LOL Again, a season redeemed by the last episode....but anyway...
No love for The Office? I mention this because of Mindy Kaling. She played Kelly Kapoor, and also produced and wrote a TON of episodes. Her success there led to her own show, The Mindy Project -- another weekly highlight. It took maybe half the season to find its feet, but once it did, well well well. Also just ended its season, and totally worth checking out.
[Scott Roberts] "And the most underrated show on TV: America's Funniest Home Videos. Dead serious."
No argument from me.
South Park and The Daily Show are great additions. I'll add Good Eats (Food).
Same here with Community. I came into this season completely ready to embrace it without Harmon. It's like watching Community fanfic now. That's too bad because it was an awesome original show and still has some of my favorite episodes of TV in its first 3 seasons. I'm hearing now that Harmon may come back for the next season. I wonder if his leadership is really what it takes to make it a good show or not.
[Tim Wilson] "No love for The Office?"
Man, The Office just got terrible. Great example of a show overstaying its welcome. Jim and Pam together ended up being one of the worst parts of the show. They had some great stuff, especially when Pam was in New York. But then Michael left and they compensated by turning everyone into a caricature.
The range of best episodes of The Office goes from Diversity Day (about an office with some people) to Dinner Party (about people who work together in an office). Going back and forth between these two extremes of workplace dynamics and coworkers-outside-the-office dynamics was the show to me. It was always hovering the just-too-ridiculous line. Sometimes when it jumped the line it worked, sometimes not. But after Michael left, it was firmly planted way beyond ridiculous.
I guess The Office is my primary example of why I've abandoned most network TV. I love 22 episodes, but when 20 of them are crap it's sad.